sam_storyteller: (Alternate Universe)
sam_storyteller ([personal profile] sam_storyteller) wrote2012-10-04 05:26 am

Better to Reign in Hell 3/4

Title: Better To Reign In Hell 3/4
Summary: Loki has been lied to.
See Chapter 1 Header for Warnings and Notes

Chapter Two

***

"So, funny story," Hawkeye said the following morning, when Coulson called him.

Coulson pinched the bridge of his nose. "I've had two hours sleep and I'm considering shooting caffeine intravenously. Do not prevaricate."

"Loki got the drop on me, threatened my life and my eyesight, and gave me a message to give to you."

"How did he manage that?"

"Hell if I know, sir. How did he escape using holograms? This was definitely not a hologram, by the way."

Coulson sighed. "And the message?"

"He said, and I quote, When your master calls, to tell you to kill me or capture me, you tell him I will have my helm. If he pleases he may come to me and barter for it."

"He mention what he's going to offer us in exchange?"

"No, sir," Hawkeye answered. "But I think I should include some context. Again, I'm quoting: Know this. My hosts are under my protection. Harm them and neither you nor your master will live to see what I am capable of when angered. There are politics at play you do not understand."

"You missed your calling as a Shakespearean actor, Hawkeye."

"It's a very vivid memory in my mind, sir. He had a knife more or less held to my eyeball at the time."

"Where is he now?"

"In town. He seemed cool with knowing I was watching him. What politics do you think he meant?"

"If this were the sixties, I'd blame Russia."

"Terrorists, you think?"

"Terrorists don't talk politics, they talk missions and ideals. What's he up to?"

"At the moment?" Hawkeye snorted. "Having breakfast in the diner and flirting with Foster's hottie assistant."

"Down, boy," Coulson said, amused.

"I've got eyes. Still. Thankfully."

"Do you need medical?"

"No sir, just bruises and a little road rash. Wouldn't mind some relief, though, or a cup of coffee."

"We've got relief on the way to your location. You can bring my car back," Coulson said.

"And then?" Hawkeye asked. They both knew it usually wasn't that simple.

"We'll reassess. If he is potentially offering knowledge about the artifact in return for custody of it...well, knowing is better than having sometimes," Coulson said. Fury was really going to hate that answer if he gave it as a reason he lost the artifact.

"Fury's really going to hate that," Hawkeye said.

"I'm aware, agent. You all right to drive?"

"Sure. What the hell am I going to hit out here, anyway?"

"Hawkeye."

"Yes sir, I'm competent to drive."

"Come back to the the compound and get some rest. I want you in the strategy briefing for where we go from here."

"Why?" Hawkeye asked. Coulson sighed again, softly. Hawkeye never did seem to understand why Coulson wanted him in on these things; he'd sit there for twenty minutes of a thirty minute meeting, silent, sometimes visibly not paying attention, and then twenty-one minutes in he'd quietly say something to resolve a deadlock or turn their plan a hundred and eighty degrees. Hawkeye still thought of himself as a dumb hick from Iowa who was special only because he could shoot. It was one of his few flaws.

"Just be in the briefing room at thirteen hundred," Coulson said.

"Yes, sir."

***

Loki hadn't really, seriously considered raising an army.

Well, not until it still seemed like a decent idea in the cold light of morning.

Jane and Erik were at work recovering what they could of her research from the little notebook Loki had stolen back for her, but Darcy was apparently unnecessary as of yet, and so they went down to the tiny feasting hall to eat breakfast. He watched the people of the village come and go, particularly the weatherbeaten men in hardwearing boots, with hands that looked like they'd known the weight of tools or weapons. He'd spoken blithely, more to get a reaction from Darcy than anything, but these men were not fond of intruders so close to the village, that much was clear.

Yes, he could raise an army here. Not much of one, but then the guardhouse of Coul's son was hardly a fortress.

"You look like you're plotting something," Darcy said, as Loki sipped his coffee absently.

"Why does it come in such small cups?" he asked, pointing at the coffee. "Surely a brew such as this would best be presented in a flagon. Possibly a tankard."

"There's free refills," Darcy said. Loki watched another man enter the hall, seating himself and ordering the usual.

Darcy was capable of holding a conversation more or less by herself, so Loki let her; after breakfast, when she was on her way back with cartons of food for Jane and Erikselvig, he drifted slowly down the single main street of the village. The man who'd been bested by Coul's son, the one called Benny that the others had been teasing in the hall the day before, was standing just inside a shop labeled HARDWARE. Loki ambled inside to stand next to him, studying a rack of primitive tools.

"Don't look at me, and don't speak too loudly," he said, by way of opening. He tried, as far as he was able, to sound like one of them; he couldn't quite lower himself to their grammar, but perhaps some of their diction... "We're being watched."

The man stiffened, but he didn't turn. "Yeah? Who're you?"

"Someone with an interest in what's going on outside of town. You're the man the Fed bested, aren't you? Benny?"

"Aw man, if you're gonna fuck around with -- "

"Indeed not. I came to you as one enemy of the Fed to another."

Benny's posture relaxed slightly. "Oh yeah?"

"Surely you of all people know that he has something which doesn't belong to him."

"I knew it! How'd you know?"

"I know many things," Loki said, and caught Benny's arm sharply as he moved to turn. "Eyes forward, friend."

"So is it a satellite? It's not, right?"

"No."

"What is it?"

"Oh, I don't know if I should tell you that," Loki said, smiling. "But allow me to ask you a question -- when was the last time you saw con trails in the sky?"

It was the right thing to say. Darcy had pointed it out earlier in the morning -- there hadn't been any "planes", whatever those were, leaving "con trails" in the sky, since the men in black arrived. She'd mentioned it as something strange, and Loki had made a note to work it to his advantage. Benny had a half-shocked expression on his face.

"Is it some kinda weapon?"

"In a sense."

Benny didn't turn, but he did lean in close. Loki sighed. "Are you ex-government?"

Loki bit his lip. "I certainly am."

"It's just like the X-Files," the man said, awed.

Loki wasn't sure how to respond to that, so he ignored it. "I have a plan to recover the object."

"So you can go public with it, right?"

"Something like that."

"You know it can't be moved?"

"It can if you know its secrets."

"I knew those government motherfuckers were up to something shady." Benny shook his head. "Why you tellin' me all this?" he added, suddenly suspicious.

"I want your help, and the help of your friends. With enough men, we could overpower their headquarters, take them by surprise."

"I dunno. That's assault on a federal installation. We ain't no militia."

"Do you think they'd let their shame be known, if we succeed?"

"And you're sure we can?"

"Certain of it," Loki said.

"What do you want from us?"

"For now, nothing. I have other things to attend to. Tell your friends, and tell them to tell their friends -- discreetly. Only men who can be trusted. I'll be in touch again when I know more."

"Just tell me one thing, okay," Benny said. "Is it a UFO?"

"I can't say," Loki replied. "But all will be revealed in time. Can I trust you, friend?"

"Yes, I s'pose so. I'll pitch it to the boys, anyhow."

"Very good. Meet me here tomorrow, and I'll have more news."

"Sure thing. What do I call you, hey?"

"Just call me Lucky," Loki said. Benny nodded and strolled off, with the kind of casual walk that screamed I have a secret!

Well, it was a start.

He was conscious of the fact that he was providing little to his hosts in the way of payment for his lodging. The notebook would keep them satisfied for a while, as would the little music box, but it was best to keep out from underfoot as much as possible, and to learn as much as he could about Midgard in the meantime.

To his delight, the village had a library, packed with cheap-looking books and nearly empty in the daytime. He browsed among the books for a little while, feeling more at home than he had since the day of Thor's would-be coronation, and watched two youngsters working diligently at archival consoles.

He wasn't unfamiliar with those. Asgard kept its most sacred, secret knowledge locked tightly in such things, volumes too dangerous to be placed on shelves as books. These were clunky and inelegant compared to the archival consoles of Asgard, but it was clear that therein lay the knowledge he needed. He watched and waited until one of the young women had left the seat in front of it, then slid quietly into his place. There was a search box on the screen; he looked down at the keyboard in brief apprehension, then picked out a question.

Who is king of Midgard?

Just curious who is the king of Midgard? My cousin and I had a ...
answers.yahoo.com
Top answer: Midgard refers to the entire Earth. It's our world, and so there have been many kings....


It didn't take a terribly long time for him to discern that unlike in Asgard, apparently any idiot could enter information into the Midgardian archives. Sifting the wheat from the chaff took longer, but eventually he had the information he wanted.

New York (he supposed compared to Asgard most places in Midgard were new) was apparently where he should go, once he recovered his helm. According to the great bard Frank Sinatra, if you could make it there, you could make it anywhere.

And as for where he should go once he arrived...well, he'd found a familiar name, from his conversation with Coul's son.

TONY STARK: THE NEW KING OF NEW YORK?

With Stark Tower well underway and an experimental new power source only months from completion, is Tony Stark poised for a transcontinental move?

Sources close to Stark Industries say that while the company may not have plans to leave California, Stark himself has been quietly packing up his Malibu mansion, preparing to move into the penthouse of New York's Stark Tower upon its completion. Plans for the penthouse, leaked to the public, show a two-level luxury apartment fit for royalty, with a private workshop space and office, as well as a helicopter landing pad and a second, private landing pad, presumably for parking Iron Man.

Does Tony Stark, known trendsetter and fashion icon, mean to become the newest billionaire to dominate New York society? And if so, what does this mean for Virginia "Pepper" Potts, CEO of Stark Industries and rumored power behind the throne?


There was an image of Stark in bright red armor, helmet under one arm. There was also an image of his queen, Virginia of the Pots, a beautiful red-headed woman with a regal bearing. He even had a tower.

Now that, in Loki's view, was a proper king.

***

When Clint got back to SOHQ 112 -- SHIELD Operational Headquarters #112, though a lot of the men were calling it "Stuck 112" because of the artifact -- he ate about three breakfasts' worth of food and then went to bed. He'd learned early that you got your meals and sleep when you could, on an op.

He managed to wake up and make himself presentable in time for the 1300 meeting in the claustrophobic little briefing room, and was surprised when it turned out to be just him, Coulson, and Sitwell. He sat back in the chair and propped his boots on the table, relaxing. Coulson and Sitwell didn't stand overmuch on manners when the grunts weren't looking.

"So," he said, as Coulson switched on the video screen on one wall. "Are you debriefing me, or am I debriefing you? I just want to know if I should have paid for dinner first."

"You're all class, Hawkeye," said a voice, and Clint slammed his boots to the ground, sitting up straight. Nick Fury, Director Fury, was glaring at him over the video uplink. "Let's preface what I'm sure is about to be a fascinating meeting with the announcement that this never happened. Agent Coulson has requested an off-book consult. There is no clearance level on what we say here; you do not tell anyone outside of the room you're sitting in."

"Understood, sir," Clint replied, as Coulson and Sitwell murmured agreement.

"Coulson, you want to take the floor?"

"Thank you, Director," Coulson replied. "You've had our incident report from last night. We're still uncertain how the visual illusions were accomplished, but research brought in some data this morning which shows increased electromagnetic activity not only around the artifact but within the entire compound..." he pressed a button on the remote, and Fury's face slid to one side. The other half of the screen filled with a map of the compound, red lines zigging and zagging through it. Clint leaned closer.

"These red lines are, for lack of a better word, trails left behind by the illusions," Coulson said. "That cloud you see in the center is the artifact. From patchy security footage we're pretty sure -- " click " -- that the blue line you're seeing now is the route our hostile took out of the compound."

"What would account for this?" Fury asked.

"Nothing we're aware of, sir," Coulson said. "The reason for taking this meeting outside the lines is that I'd like to make a somewhat radical proposition."

"Which is?"

"He's obviously not from around here. I don't believe -- anymore -- that he's an agent of a foreign government or any business interest," Coulson said, and a picture of their hostile replaced the map. "What he was capable of, his connection to the artifact, and the name he gave...well, I've done some reading, sir. I believe he's not from this planet."

"An alien?" Fury asked incredulously.

"No sir. A god."

Clint watched as Fury rubbed his face, then the top of his head. "If it were any other agent saying this to me..."

"I'm aware I'm asking you to take a leap of faith, but we have larger concerns than classifying the hostile. According to Dr. Foster's data, the night of the crashdown there was an unusual atmospheric disturbance. Her readings on this disturbance show a very clear buildup in the day preceding it. We're reading the same buildup now. In my conversation with the hostile he indicated there was a political situation of some sort of which we were unaware. He said the same thing to Agent Barton."

"We think there's another one coming," Sitwell added.

"Two gods," Fury said, disbelieving.

"Earth makes a pretty fine battleground," Clint put in. All three of them looked at him. "I read a lot of science fiction."

"I don't believe SHIELD has contingency plans in place for a battle of the gods in rural New Mexico."

"We're working on some now," Coulson replied. Clint shot him an incredulous look. "I need diplomatic authorization, Director."

"To do what?" Fury asked.

"Loki's not unreasonable. Morally questionable, self-interested, but willing to deal. He has a vested interest in self-preservation and frankly I think he'd think picking a fight with us around would be...rude," Coulson said. "We may be able to mediate some kind of nonaggression pact. Or at least mitigate whatever's coming."

"And if you can't?"

"Well, sir, some backup would be nice. Possibly we should call in the Consultant."

"Last thing we need are two gods being chased around by someone who just thinks he's one," Fury replied. "Barton, what's your take on this?"

"I can't explain how he got out," Clint said. "Or how he snuck up on me, or where he got the weapon he had when he did. Guy talks like he's been reading too much Chaucer. Coulson's theory is actually the least crazy I'm coming up with, because the rest sound like bad action flick ripoffs. Yeah, I back Coulson."

"Color me surprised," the Director said. "All right. Agent Coulson, you are authorized to represent the interests of the United States in any intergalactic peace negotiations being held on American soil. Start setting up paperwork. I want to see copies of those contingency plans on my private server in the next four hours. Barton, you're dismissed."

"Sir," Clint said, standing. As he left, he heard Fury say, Now that's out of the way, we need to talk about continuing the search in the arctic.

***

When Loki returned to the hut that night, Jane and Darcy were both on the roof, aiming small dish-shaped objects at the sky. Erikselvig was below, looking at readings from a machine that hadn't been there that morning.

"Say what you like about Jane's equipment, she builds it fast and it always works," Erik said cheerfully, when Loki approached. "Where've you been, eh, Trouble?"

"The library," Loki said, leaning over the machine. "What does it do?"

"Well. We looked over the readings Jane had in her notebook and worked out exactly four things we'd need to monitor in order to track disturbances like the one you got caught out in."

"May I ask," Loki said delicately. "Why are you so interested? What purpose does this study serve?"

"What purpose does any study serve? A greater understanding of the universe. See, look," he said, pointing at the readouts on the machine, and then to a large white sign-board covered in writing. "From this we can pretty much extrapolate that something like what happened a few nights ago is going to happen again. Can't say where, but we can say when, which is all Heisenberg expects of anyone most of the time -- "

"Again?" Loki asked sharply. Behind them, Darcy and Jane were climbing down from the roof.

"Yep. We're borrowing a truck and taking it out tomorrow night," Jane said.

"Come along if you want," Darcy added.

"No, we need that room for the sensors. Unless you want to sit in the flatbed," Jane added. "We could use someone to make sure nothing blows away."

Loki looked back and forth between them. On the one hand, going towards the kind of disturbance that had sent him here was unwise. On the other, he who struck first would probably strike hardest.

"Tomorrow night?" he asked.

"Pretty likely," Jane said, already distracted, going to the big board to add notations. "Might even be bigger than the last one."

"Party time. I'll bring snacks," Darcy said. "You in, Lucky?"

"Ah," Loki said. "Yes, certainly. Any hand I can lend."

"Cool. Jane, Lucky and I are going to go over there to avoid further science."

"Mmhm," Jane answered absently. Erik gave Loki a warning look, but didn't say anything as Darcy dragged him outside, into the slight chill of the desert night.

"I didn't tell Jane or Erik what you did," she said, leaning against the wall of the hut. "With the fire and everything, I mean."

"My thanks, but I doubt they'd have believed you," Loki replied. "Don't pretend it was all in defense of me, Lady Darcy."

"Okay, maybe not," she said, grinning. "But I hope you appreciate the thought. So if there's another storm coming, does that mean you've got like, a pal on the way?"

"Not a pal, I think," Loki answered.

"You're not really coming with us tomorrow, are you?"

"That depends on many things. But were I you..." Loki looked up at the stars. "I should be far away from this place by nightfall tomorrow."

"Boring," Darcy replied. Loki lowered his face and smiled at her.

"Your decision, I suppose. I shan't waste energy trying to save those who don't wish to be saved. Soon enough I shall be gone, anyway."

"Gone?" Darcy asked.

"Depending on tomorrow night. I have great hopes. After that I shall depart."

"Where will you go?"

"Here and there," he said. Darcy took one of his hands in startlingly warm fingers.

"We could have some fun before you ship out," she said, the posture of her body a clear invitation. He'd seen women look at Thor like that, on Asgard, but never him. He wasn't inexperienced by any stretch, however the Warriors Three teased him, but he was used to being the pursuer, not the pursued. And who knew what strange sexual habits Midgardians had?

He kissed her anyway, because new experiences were always good things to have, but then leaned back and shook his head.

"Better not," he said.

"Shame," she answered, tucking her fingers in the hem of his (at this point, somewhat abused) shirt. "I've always wanted to have awkward sex on a lawn chair with a mysterious stranger."

"I wish you luck in that quest," he said, and she laughed, letting go of his shirt.

"Thanks. Night, Lucky. See you in the morning?" she asked, pushing off the wall and heading towards the large van.

"Undoubtedly," he replied. She ducked inside and he watched the door close, the light fading as it shut.

He considered the ladder running up the side of the hut, then grabbed hold of the rails and began to climb. He could sleep on the roof as well as anywhere, and it would let him watch the distant stars.

If someone was coming, it wasn't likely to be Thor himself. With the Allfather in Odinsleep, Thor should remain on the throne in Asgard. Should, of course, not being something Thor had ever listened to closely, but still. Surely it wouldn't be him. Probably Sif, to drag him back by the hair, or perhaps one of the Warriors Three.

He wouldn't mind so much if it were Frigga. He could remember, as a child, burying himself in the warm comfort of her skirts, the way she would tell them stories gentler than their father's, where the magician was always the hero, not the warrior.

But Frigga had known, must have known -- must have lied to him that he was a beloved son. For years, she had known, and even if he could countenance a lie to a child, he was well past the age of discretion. And she had not acted to stop Odin either.

No. Sif and the others were Thor's allies, and his mother was not his mother, and none of the rest of the court could be trusted. No matter who came for him, they were an enemy. And they were forcing him to be an enemy of Asgard.

Well, he would simply have to move swiftly. Assault the guardhouse that held his helm tomorrow, before whoever it was arrived from Asgard. Strike his enemy hard, kill them perhaps, and abandon whatever would remain of this little town for New York. With his helm he could get into the good graces of any lord or king, and between his own magic and their protection, he could rebuff other attacks if he must.

He lay on his back, looking up at the stars.

"Heimdall, I know you can see me," he said softly. "Tell whoever is coming to turn back. If you will not, be prepared to draw a corpse home across the bridge, and not mine. This is your warning."

Silence from the stars. Perhaps he should have taken Darcy up on her offer.

***

Coulson knew, better than most SHIELD agents, that scientists were like kittens. Curious, clever, into everything, and never to be left to their own devices for too long. Some were more dangerous than others -- Tony Stark was a lion cub with unlimited access to fragile china -- but all of them needed supervision.

The scientists weren't allowed out of Stuck 112, because given a drink or two and a friendly ear, some of them would pour out not only their life story but the details of whatever they were working on as well. Most of the security force wasn't let out either, because they'd stomp into the one bar in this friendly little town, wearing their SHIELD boots and their uniforms, get drunk, and start fights. An unfair view of the country's finest, perhaps, but Coulson had spent a long time around the country's finest, and all it took was one fine indiscretion to spoil an entire operation.

There were exceptions, of course. Which was why, when Hawkeye asked to go into town and get some food that didn't come stamped MRE, Coulson agreed a hot meal and a beer wouldn't go amiss.

"So you get everything filed?" Hawkeye asked, in between bites of meatloaf in the "fancy" restaurant in town (the one that wasn't the diner).

"More or less," Coulson answered. "If we ever do require an ambassador to another planet, apparently I'll be getting a call."

"Well, I guess you're pretty diplomatic," Hawkeye said with a grin. "You get to talk to Hill after Fury was done?"

"Just for a moment."

"She get those tickets you wanted?"

Coulson nodded. "Apparently I owe her forever for making her act like a concierge."

"Man, she shouldn't have said she's dating a dude who works at the orchestra."

"Fourth-row seat to see Yo-Yo Ma, I'm happy to owe her."

"Seat?" Hawkeye asked, raising an eyebrow.

"When I meet someone capable of attending a classical performance without snoring, you'll be the first person I alert," Coulson said.

"I can sleep with my eyes open, you know."

"Or I can save the two hundred dollars and -- "

"Two hundred dollars?" Hawkeye asked, choking on his beer. "Does cello music cause spontaneous orgasm?"

"Only if you do it right," Coulson deadpanned. Hawkeye wiped his mouth, still looking shocked. "Why, what do you do to come down after a mission?"

Hawkeye gave him a sharp grin.

"You are, as ever, the epitome of class," Coulson said.

"Hey, at least I get it for free. What's your point?"

"I've spent more time than I care to think about recently babysitting Tony Stark, and here I am in a little town with very poor phone reception and slow internet when you can get it at all, in a high-pressure situation where I recently interrogated what one might refer to as a god. And all I ask in return is that one night, sometime in the near future, I have a few hours of music to look forward to. The anticipation alone is worth the money."

"Huh. And here I thought you loved your job."

"I do. I just don't love New Mexico."

"Snob," Hawkeye said, around a mouthful of food.

"Probably. Finish up, we should get back."

As they left, Coulson glanced up the street, to where Dr. Foster's lab was. He didn't have Hawkeye's eyesight, but he could see a single figure on the roof, outlined against the stars.

***

In the morning, Darcy chivvied Jane and Erikselvig into coming with them to breakfast. Jane was full of talk of what needed to be done that day, so Loki was mostly silent as the other three plotted how to find the disturbance when it manifested. It occurred to Loki that time must play differently on Midgard than on Asgard; the Bifrost took only a few seconds to open, but on Midgard the signs of it opening were clear a day in advance. Or perhaps everything was predestined. There were certain mystics Loki had studied with briefly who believed firmly that every action was preordained, but he'd never been able to countenance the idea. What was the point of anything, if everything was laid out like a book?

He slipped away while the others were paying for their food and getting one last fill-up of coffee to go, heading down to the hardware store where his new friend was waiting for him.

"The boys are for it," Benny said, when Loki joined him in front of a rack of what looked like large, coiled green whips. "But they're worried 'bout the guards and guns."

"Shan't be a problem," Loki replied. "Can you gather them to meet? Early this evening, if possible. We must act tonight."

"Yeah? Why's that?"

"Reinforcements arrive at their base late this evening. We won't have another opportunity."

"How do you know so much?"

Loki grinned. "I have eyes everywhere. Can the men assemble in so short a time?"

"Oh sure. Everyone gets off work round five, we can meet at six. Where at?"

"Wherever is most secret."

"Hmm. That'll be the school, probably; Mitch is the vice-principal, he can let us in. You know where that is?"

"I'll find it. Thank you, my friend. You won't go unrewarded."

He spent most of the rest of the day in the little latrine in the large van, with a face-mirror he'd found in Jane's belongings and the mirror over the sink. They didn't disturb him, far too busy with preparations for that evening. In a way, so was he.

In Asgard he could have made ten, even twelve of himself before it was too much of a strain. With such limited power at his disposal, the best he could do was one sustained illusion. It was always difficult, being split between himself and his illusions. All he really needed was one, but it had to be a strong one.

He sat between the mirrors for hours, doing not much more than breathing, ignoring the fear that gnawed his spine. Someone was coming for him.

He did at least do his hosts this favour: when he stepped out of the van it was him, and when he went to say goodbye to them, that was him too. Of course, the other one of him snuck out while he was distracting his hosts, but that was just necessity.

"I'm afraid I won't be able to go with you tonight," he said to Jane, as his double ducked out onto the road and hurried towards the obvious gathering of men at the far end of town. "I'm needed elsewhere."

"Guess I'm riding bitch in the back," Darcy said.

"Where are you going?" Erik asked.

"It's best if I don't say. I'm very grateful -- for the clothes, for the food and shelter. I'll make sure you're repaid," Loki added. "You'll hear from me again." I hope.

"Well, thanks for the notebook," Jane said. "You don't owe us anything after that."

"The least I could do," Loki replied with a humble shrug, and let Darcy drag him out of the hut.

"Hey, whatever you're up to, try not to get into trouble, okay?" she said, when they were outside, her hand still twined in his.

"No trouble at all," he assured her, and let her see he was lying, just the once. "Be safe in the storm tonight."

"No worries," Darcy replied with a grin. "So. G'bye, huh?"

"I'm afraid so," he answered, kissing her hand.

"If you ever make it out to the east coast, look me up. I'm in Cambridge for another two years," she said.

"I certainly shall," he replied, and let go of her hand. "Thank you, Darcy Looooo'is."

His double was heading towards the school where the men were waiting, but Loki had other business. He walked until he was out of view of the town, and then broke into an easy run. Rested and fed, and with the last of the power from the mirrors, he could run like this for hours -- at least long enough to get out into the desert where his helm still lay. True, he couldn't take the road the whole way, but once he'd turned off into the empty plain, heading for the rocky outcrops behind the guardhouse, it left his mind even more free to control the other.

His double was telling the men what they wanted to hear: not in so many words, but that the Son of Coul had emasculated them, was an intruder on their land, and should be driven out. Glory could be theirs if they could claim the helm. Under cover of night, the trucks could get close on the road, and then pull off to drive behind it on the far side, using it as cover. When he gave the signal, while the guards were changing shift (who knew if the guards even changed shifts? But it was a good lie) they could charge the stronghold and meet little resistance. He would show them how to go.

Loki settled himself in a crevice in the rock, to the north of the guardhouse, and waited for his other to lead a failure of an attack from the south.

***

Once, back when Clint was just starting out with SHIELD, he came off a mission whining, the way you sometimes do. He hadn't meant anything by it; it was just a way to take the stress off.

"Fifteen hours in the rain and I didn't even get to take a shot," he'd complained, slinging his bow and quiver into the car, climbing in behind it.

"They also serve who only stand and wait," Coulson had replied, without turning around.

Clint had googled it when he got back to base. Turned out to be some old poetry, but he thought it was all right. And that one Talent which is death to hide was pretty good stuff. Some of the chuckleheads he worked with laughed at him for reading Milton, but once you got the hang of the language it was entertaining. And the line about waiting had got him through some twitchy moments in the nest before.

He was in a nest now, not the crane platform he favored but a corner of the base itself, a floor up, gazing down on the artifact. Coulson had told him to go up but stay close, get hidden and sit tight, no matter what else happened, until he gave the order to move or fire.

The wind had picked up that afternoon, and by early evening everyone could feel something about to happen. The monitors were going crazy. Cellphones suddenly had reception they hadn't before, but calls got crossed if you tried to make one. Coulson had everyone on a single public channel on the radios, so Clint could hear him giving orders, hear people talking back and forth. He didn't close his eyes, but he narrowed his focus down and tuned it out, background-scanning for the single voice.

O Prince, O chief of many throned powers,
That led th'imbattled Seraphim to war
Under thy conduct, and in dreadful deeds
Fearless, endanger'd Heav'ns perpetual King...

Night had well and truly fallen, and there was trouble on the ground; security at the guard posts said there was a dust cloud rising on the far side of the raised ridge where the road passed them. Behind them, in the background, scientists were shouting out orders to each other, calling numbers and words he couldn't identify.

Then with expanded wings he steers his flight
Aloft, incumbent on the dusky air
That felt unusual weight, till on dry land
He lights, if it were Land that ever burn'd
With solid, as the Lake with liquid fire...

There were men up on the ridge now, the men from town; the guards were calling out counts of heads and rifles. The hostile had been spotted with them, and Coulson was ordering all hands to the southern edge of the compound. Warning shots only, and only if the men left the ridge. If that didn't scatter them, nonlethal fire only: bean bag guns, and tasers for close range. No casualties.

Some of the men on the radios were old enough to mutter "Ruby Ridge" and "Waco."

"That's not going to happen here," Coulson said sharply. "We're not the FBI."

"Don't fuck this up," one of the security heads barked.

"All hands ready at the south," Sitwell reported.

"Stay on location, Sitwell, I'm going off radio," Coulson replied.

"Yes sir."

There was a crackle as a private channel opened on his headset. "Hawkeye."

"Sir," Clint said, calm and even.

A mind not to be chang'd by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n...

"I'm on the ground under your location. Stay put until my mark. If you have to shoot through me, you shoot through me, you understand?"

"If I have to shoot through you, sir, I should be fired for incompetence."

"That's the spirit," Coulson said, and Clint saw him, suit jacket whipping in the wind that funneled down the center of the compound like a tornado. Rain was starting to fall, and the sky above, what Clint could see in the corner of his eye, was swirling grey and black.

We shall be free; th' Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell...

And then he understood the game Coulson was playing, because the entire security force was clustered at the southern edge -- and Loki was coming through the dark and rain from the northern edge of the compound.

"I have eyes on the hostile," he said.

"Hold, Hawkeye."

"Sir."

Loki ducked into a tunnel.

"Lost eyes," Clint called.

"You'll get them back soon enough."

Clint counted heartbeats, ignored the water running into his eyes, and watched as Loki stepped out into the little quadrangle, staring at the artifact as if it were a prize.

Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav'n.

Chapter Four

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