If anyone had asked Clint Barton, otherwise known as Hawkeye, otherwise known as Clint Fucking Barton That's Who, what he thought he'd be doing with his Wednesday evening, it wouldn't have been this.
No, it would have involved beer, and a pizza (because damnit, for once Natasha could just suck it up and eat some American food, one week without sesame chicken wouldn't actually kill her no matter what she claimed) and maybe skunking Thor at a game of pool. Or showing Thor and Steve another classic action movie1 if he was feeling generous and didn't need the beer money2.
There would not have been smoke. Or if there had, it would have been good old bar smoke, the kind that stained your skin yellow with nicotine on contact because damnit, that was how real men played pool. It wouldn't have smelled faintly of electricity and burning hair and something green and smoldering.
There wouldn't have been a jungle. After the great Foot Funk Incident of '94, Clint Barton had sworn off jungles for life. There certainly wouldn't have been mist creeping between the tall, dark trees, or suspicious, alien animal noises emanating from between said trees.
And there definitely wouldn't have been aliens dressed like something out of Xena: Warrior Princess3 and trying to stab each other with swords. There would not have been battle cries either, definitely. Outside of the occasional fist pump accompanied by a manly, "Fuck yeah!" battle cries were a thing Clint Barton simply Did Not Do. At least not without a dose of irony so hefty that it would contribute to the overall World Irony Shortage4.
And most of all, had his Wednesday evening by necessity included the requisite shooting of things and possibly blowing them up – both activities that Clint really had no objection to, so long as his acquisition of pizza was not permanently interrupted – he would have been an active and enthusiastic participant in said perforating and creation of explosions. Because he was Clint Fucking Barton, and he believed he'd been put on Earth to kick ass and chew bubblegum, and for that precise reason he made certain he never had a pack of gum in his pocket.
Smoke wafted toward him; the change in the air currents warned him to raise his bow, angled to be parallel to the ground this time, smoothly draw, and shoot. Something or someone in the fog shrieked. The sound was followed immediately by a satisfying, meaty thud.
Okay, so maybe there was some fun to be had, except it wasn't that fun, trying to draw while kneeling. It was a challenge, he told himself for the hundredth time, but it was difficult to enjoy because it wasn't just a little game he was playing with himself. There was a body weighing down his legs, and that was the exact kind of nightmare he'd been trying to forget since that little thing in Yemen, reborn and a thousand times worse because this wasn't just some nameless kid in a uniform that he'd decided would be the place where he'd take his stand.
This was someone that he knew. And hated, he reminded himself, only that was a lie because it was just a bizarre holiday wreathe of circular dislike–annoyance–weird fascination that sometimes felt creepily similar to friendship or something else until one of them forgot the key to a good relationship was just shutting the fuck up.
He looked down at Loki. The man's face was pale to the point of a yellow-green tinge, like a bruise almost healed, cheekbones sharp enough to cut.
"I'm sorry," Clint said. His voice sounded weird and rough to his own ears. Maybe because he'd been repeating himself a lot over the last hour – when he wasn't just shouting to try to locate the rest of the team because he wanted relief. He was a man of action, and while this waiting game wasn't Hell, exactly, it definitely qualified as Heck.
Loki cracked his eyes open, which had really been the point of Clint speaking. He didn't want to take his hands from his bow long enough to check for a pulse, and there was something about touching Loki that just seemed wrong anyway. It always went the other way, Loki reaching out to him, and it was annoying and creepy and other things Clint refused to consider, but that was the way the world worked and he'd managed to find a certain amount of comfort with it.
And how fucked was it to begin with, that Loki had become a point of stability in his life?
Loki stared at him, the green of his eyes almost swallowed by blown-out pupils. He expected something; he knew what came next, because it was always what Clint said to make him react and show life, as routine as a prayer.
Clint gritted his teeth and looked back up, scanning the area, what little he could see of it "I'm sorry," he repeated. "I didn't mean for this to happen."
"I know," Loki whispered. "I didn't either." Blood showed on Loki's lips, vivid as cherries. Clint tried not to look, but it was like every one of Loki's train wrecks, you couldn't help but stare in horrified fascination and wonder just how much worse this could get. Only this wasn't Loki's train wreck. It was Clint's, and it was Steve's.
In the distance, he heard a faint bong, which hopefully translated to a vibranium shield inverting some nasty thing's face. "It'll be over soon," Clint said. Loki shuddered against his legs, as if he was trying to escape some creeping chill.
Loki closed his eyes. "That's what I'm afraid of," he murmured.
Clint didn't quite know what he meant, but whatever it was, he knew he wasn't going to like it. Because for whatever fucked up reason in a fucked up world that wasn't even pretending to be logical any more, he actually cared to begin with.
And that was the real bitch about Loki, Clint thought as he half drew the bow, then relaxed as the sense of movement turned out to be only a roil in the billowing smoke and fog. Even by bleeding out in a man's lap like a wounded bird, he had a way of taking one's world view and fucking it gently in the ear.
Out in the mist, another faint bong, but Clint told himself it was coming closer. "I didn't mean for any of this to happen," he told the man in his lap.
Only this time, Loki didn't open his eyes.
1 – Since they were approaching this alphabetically because Tony was lazy as opposed to systematically like Clint had wanted (because really, what was the point in watching anything until you'd covered Rambo and Predator) they were only at Die Harder.
2 – He actually never did; SHIELD paid more than well enough to keep him swimming in beer and the occasional double shot of tequila for the rest of his natural life. It was just the lie Clint told himself so he could feel like slightly less of a bastard.
3 – Clint still claimed that he had watched the show for Lucy Lawless being smoking hot and there was absolutely no other reason and he was sticking by his story, damnit.
4 – Initiated by Tony Stark shortly after he hit puberty and discovered that glib douchebaggery wasn't so much a hobby as a calling.
It was a Wednesday, which meant it should have been movie night and more of Natasha's damn Chinese food, though Clint secretly had to admit that some crab rangoon sounded pretty tasty. Only it wasn't, because Thor had some kind of Asgardian thing he had to do. He'd tried to explain it, but to Clint it had sounded like every other Asgardian thing ever, in that there would be feasting and quaffing and quite likely fist fights and pliant, enthusiastic maidens with bosoms the likes of which weren't often seen outside of opera.
Which had made Clint (and Tony) wonder just why the hell he never got invited to these kind of awesome parties, because weren't they all friends by now?
Only everyone was invited, up until the point that Director Fury put his foot down and said no, because it was too dangerous. And no, they couldn't have just a little danger. If Thor was going to be off partying like it was 700 AD, the other team assets needed to be on Earth and ready to go.
At which point someone5 had offered to let Director Fury kiss his assets, and...
Steve Rogers, bless his apple pie-flavored heart, had seen the forlorn (hangdog even) expressions displayed by Tony and Clint. They looked as if Fury had not just eaten their ice cream, he had eaten all ice cream past, present, and future, and had laughed while he did so. And Steve had suggested, well maybe they shouldn't watch a movie without Thor, so how about something else. Maybe dancing.
Or pool, Clint had decided, before Tony could really sink his claws into that idea. Because Clint thought it was hilarious when Steve got his blush on, sure, but he still liked the guy6 and he didn't want to lose Steve to something as mundane as an aneurism when there were so many more interesting ways to die in the modern world.
So pool it was, at one of Clint's favorite dives. Tony seemed oddly charmed by the peeling wallpaper and disturbingly sticky floor because say what you liked about Tony Stark, he still had an appreciation for the classics. Tony was in the process of lining up his shot, peering down the cue over the rims of his custom made rich asshole glasses7 and Clint was just starting to realize that skunking Tony at pool was not going to be the same fish in a barrel prospect as it was with Steve and Thor. Mostly because Tony didn't so much understand physics as get regular blow jobs from it in his lab.
And then the blonde walked up.
It was not unusual for random women to introduce themselves into Clint's games of pool. Clint wasn't a bad looking guy himself, and he looked like the ugly step sister when you put him next to Thor or Steve. And of course, there was Tony, who just oozed charm in the same way hag fish oozed slime, not to mention the way he just stank of money.
But this one, she was a perfect ten. Or, as if Nigel Tufnel had suddenly moved from making ear-shatteringly loud noise to creating mind-blowingly hot women, she went up to eleven. Perfect skin, bright green eyes, hair that had to be sculpted to get the right kind of careless fall, and all sorts of curves that were so impossibly curvy they probably made their own impression in the fabric of space and time.
That really should have been Clint's first hint. No one looked that perfect. Clint was friends with one god (and not-quite-enemies-but-sort-of with another) and he knew even they got hat hair and morning breath on occasion. But not this woman. Even thinking about it was impossible if you made eye contact.
And there was the way she moved, fluid and almost boneless on a set of shoes that screamed stripper except for the fact that the heels were titanium and seemed designed for the express purpose of putting holes in vital things8.
Except all these thoughts occurred to him later because she put one slender, perfectly tanned arm around his shoulders and another around Tony's and it drove pretty much every thought of of his head other than Gee, when did my pants get this tight and quite possibly Man I hope I don't have to fight Tony for my half of the sandwich.
The blonde leaned forward, which earned Clint a good shot at her cleavage. Her breast brushed lightly against his arm. She smiled, which had a predatory cast to it that Clint might have found worrying had his brain been engaged.
"You are Tony Stark?" she asked, turning her head toward the man in question.
"And you must be lucky," Tony said, grinning. Because of course, that's how it always went, Clint thought with resignation.
Except then she was turning her head the other way, her hair brushing past Clint's ear. "And you are Clint Barton?"
He grinned, though it seemed weird that she knew who he was. Hopefully she wasn't some kind of old school circus groupie, because that could get awkward fast. "Lady, I'll be whoever you want."
"But you are Clint Barton."
"Yeah. Planning to check my ID or something?"
But she was already looking away, her eyes turning to Steve, who had the advantage of a pool table between the two of them and an impenetrable shell of pig-headed golly gee whiz niceness. And even he looked a bit wide-eyed, like someone had whanged him on the back of the head with a pool cue.
"And you are Steve Rogers, called Captain America."
That got everyone's attention. Tony might be out and proud as Iron Man, but the Steve Rogers as Captain America thing was – as far as Clint knew – a cleverly guarded secret, an had been since the 1940s when all the secret government program stuff had been happening.
Steve's wide-eyed stare developed a little spasm of suspicion, though he seemed to be struggling to maintain even that hint. He didn't have a flinty chip of paranoid badass at his core like Clint. You could practically hear his superhuman DNA screaming, she's a lady, you have to be nice!
Tony, for reasons of his own, seemed to be directing his own suspicion at the blonde woman's cleavage.
And since he had that so thoroughly covered, Clint decided to keep an eye on her legs, just in case they tried something. Which wasn't bad exactly, but he'd always been more of a breast man and it would have been nice if just once Tony could share the guard duty.
"Sorry, but who are you?" Steve asked. He couldn't bring himself to even approach annoyed, but he could always manage stern with a side of uncompromising. If that had been an available major in school, he would have graduated with honors.
And since Clint and Tony seemed to be too busy staring at – no, he was not going to get sucked into the hormonal vortex, he was better than that damnit – it was once again left to Steve Rogers to save the day. Or at least interact with a pretty woman like he was over the age of fifteen.
"My name is Sharla." She gave him a smile that he would have classified as vapid, had he been a less kind person (like Tony) but with determination he forced himself to think of it as sort of cheerleader-esque, the kind of smile that had never been directed anywhere near him until he'd gotten injected with glowing blue stuff and grown biceps via science.
"Okay, well, it's nice to meet you, Sharla." Steve wasn't actually sure of this fact, but he was nothing if not polite. "So, any reason you're looking for us?" He pointedly ignored Clint's muttered 'Who cares?'
"We need your help," she said.9
All three men asked, "What kind off help?" with the sort of simultaneous timing that would make a director of music on Broadway proud.
"I am a representative from the Consortium of Kaytrel. We need you help apprehending a criminal."
"Oh." Though just as simultaneous, there was a distinct note of disappointment from the two thirds of the group that weren't Steve Rogers. Steve, in a way proving once and for all without question that he was something beyond human, actually brightened at the prospect.
"Well, that's what we're good at," Steve said.
Tony interjected, "The Consortium of Kaytrel... doesn't ring a bell. Have I crushed your stockholders recently?" He was drawing a blank, but that really could mean anything.
"We are not from your planet," Sharla added helpfully.
Steve carefully set his pool cue down. "I think you'd better come with us... ma'am."
--5 – Tony. Did you ever doubt?
6 – He was starting to think it was actually physically impossible to dislike Steve Rogers when you came down to it. And it did, in fact, violate something deep within the recesses of quantum laws. Because even electrons like Steve Rogers.
7 – What Tony called them, for the record. Clint preferred to think of them as rich douchebag glasses.
8 – A small corner of Clint's mind, where he kept his extremely tiny survival instinct, wondered if he should find out where she shopped, because it would be right up Natasha's alley. And if he was the one that told her about the amazing Stripper Of Death Shoe Shop, then she wouldn't use the results of her shoe purchasing spree on him. Maybe.
9 - It says a lot about the character of the three Avengers present, that they each understood her statement quite differently:
Steve: She must have friends, and they're all in trouble!
Clint: Her breasts need help? Not from where I'm standing.
Tony: Oh good, she has friends and I bet they're just as hot. God I love being me.
It started as an itch. But not the sort of niggling itch that demands to be scratched, or the burning ache that signals something may be seriously wrong – and depending upon the location suggests that one might want to consider a course of antibiotics and a rethinking of general dating strategy.
No, it was the sort of creeping itch that builds, the one you don't even realize is there until it's three in the morning and you've woken yourself up by enthusiastically itching your own foot half off in your sleep.
Not that Loki would ever stoop to giving in to that sort of petty harassment from his own body. He considered the body alternately a damn inconvenience and a marvelous plaything depending on his mood, but either way the only section of Loki's meaty bits that was ever in charge was his brain, and nothing else was allowed to make even minor decisions or suggestions, thank you very much.
And that allowed him to ignore the itch far longer than he should have, because he was simply unwilling to acknowledge its existence. He had books to read, a mathematician to troll over Fermat's last theorem, and all those papers about the Higgs boson were simply not going to laugh at themselves10. Beyond that, there was research to be done, plans to be plotted, waffles to be made, and he'd promised himself that this year he was finally going to do a watercolor for Doom's birthday, only he still kept putting it off.
In any process, whether directly related to world domination or no, going from the drawing board to actually getting started was always the hardest part. This did not change in the slightest when you happened to be a god. If anything, the problem only got worse because you had infinitely more fascinating avenues of procrastination available and eager for use.
This principle also applied when it came to acknowledging that there just might happen to be a problem. Because for a god, or at least something god-shaped when put side to side with the adorable evolved monkeys of Earth, it becomes increasingly difficult to peep around one's ego and admit that there might be the need for other people. Particularly people in a capacity other than chew toy.
Thus Loki was doctoring his morning coffee with a few drops of cream as the Brave Little Waffle Iron saw to his breakfast, and he found himself rubbing at the inside of his left forearm with his thumb, the sort of circular motion that denotes a desperate desire to itch without the necessary bravery to actually do so.
Loki put down his coffee cup with exaggerated care. Now that he'd actually acknowledged the existence of the sensation, the itch was undeniable, transforming quickly from a vague prickle to a steady, uncomfortable burn the more he allowed himself to notice it.
He frowned, which cased the waffle iron to let out a nervous beep, wondering if it had taken just a few seconds too long to crisp the waffle appropriately. But Loki waved a hand vaguely at the little device, like some sort of inappropriately handsome pope providing absolution. It disgorged the waffle and then hunkered down as much as an inanimate device was capable of huddling, dimming its power light in an attempt to not be noticed.
Loki did not pay attention to the nervous plight of his favorite kitchen appliance, however. He instead carefully rolled up the sleeve of his deep green sweater, revealing skin of the sort of extra pale hue normally not seen outside of systems administrators11. Only his skin was now marred by a red mark like a fading burn made up of unnatural, curling lines. And the sensation prickling at his nerves indicated that whatever the mark was doing, it certainly wasn't fading.
"No," he said, "it's far too soon."
Only he knew that was a useless denial, since it plainly wasn't too soon at all. If anything, it indicated that he might have underestimated the danger of his situation. And this was a Problem with a capital P, since Loki normally prided himself in giving opponents just the right sort of estimation, the kind that involved slotting them into appropriate place at the appropriate time for a train to run them over.
Except calling them opponents made the deal seem far more two sided than it had been, and he could admit that to himself so long as it didn't involve actually speaking out loud.
He caught himself scratching at the mark with blunt fingernails. Hastily he rolled his sleeve back down, mind working furiously.
The situation was different now, he told himself. It had to be. Things had changed. He had changed. But he still felt the press of panic at the back of his throat, gently urging him that Alfheim was lovely this time of year, and wasn't it about time he had a vacation, the sort that involved changing his name, face, gender, or combination of the three and leaving no forwarding address.
But if it had gotten to the point that the brand was materializing, it was too late for him. And quite possibly too late for Midgard. Which was a shame, really, since he'd just found a dry cleaner that pressed his suits the way he liked them.
Loki hesitated for a long moment, staring into his coffee cup, at the pale ribbons of cream he still hadn't stirred into smoothness. There were possibilities. No situation was truly hopeless, not even the sort that involved a black hole and spaghettification, though that was a bit to the more problematic side. He just had to find a solution, and marshal all of the pieces so that they were in the right place at the right time.
A small, often ignored corner of his mind offered that just maybe, he ought to contact his brother, or the Avengers in general, since this was just the sort of thing that was up their alley.
Yes, of course, because they'd happily believe any wild story he cared to tell them. Because he had no intention of telling the true wild story, since he'd found long ago that he couldn't do so without adding in a good deal of hysterical screaming and inserting a pointy object into the soft parts of some innocent bystander. This was the sort of thing that normally ruined an otherwise interesting story for everyone involved.
But, that voice of reason reminded him, smart men had backup plans, whether they ended up needing them or not.
Loki contemplated if it was feasible, perhaps with the aid of a screwdriver, to remove that annoying little part of his brain. But he also wasn't willing to dismiss it entirely. He'd seen far too often what happened to mad geniuses when they stopped even pretending to be reasonable. He'd just had new carpeting put in; a mob of angry, torch-bearing peasants would track in more dirt than even an expensive stainmaster could handle.
Loki went to his study and searched through the empty leather-bound journals stacked next to his desk – for some reason, that seemed to be the gift that everyone defaulted to when he was involved – until he found one that seemed suitable. Then he sat and wrote, filling it halfway up with diagrams and calculations, as well as long swaths of text. His coffee went stone cold, unnoticed on his desk.
When he was done, he rolled up the sleeve of his sweater again and inspected the mark. It was darker, more well defined.
Hands shaking a little, he pulled out his iPad and started typing out an e-mail.
10 – Loki found it both charming and endearing that the humans were stuck on sub-atomic particles as the answer to everything, when any magician worth his salt knew that the important part was the magic that told it all what it should or shouldn't be doing at any given moment. It wasn't so much about particles as sheer bloody-minded will, and as soon as the humans figured that out, they'd at last realize that physics wasn't so much a set of laws as a series of helpful suggestions that came with a little escape hatch labeled 'in case of boredom turn glass into toffee.'
11 – One might say that magicians are the systems administrators of the cosmos, what with the beards and knowing smirks and telling everyone else that a thing is impossible while blithely doing that very same thing three times before breakfast if the mood strikes them. Loki didn't have the beard, of course, but he'd certainly proven himself time and again in the field of tormenting hapless users, or as they were more commonly known, everyone else.
Bringing a tall, stacked blonde back to Stark Tower caused a surprising stir, even though you'd think that everyone would be used to that kind of thing by now. It should probably have been a much bigger deal that Tony was involved and there was only one blonde. And she still had most of her clothes on.
Then again, it might have had more to do with the fact that Steve Rogers, bless his ten little patriotic toes, had announced that the blonde was an alien the instant they stepped into the lobby.
It had gone down like this: Steve had stepped up to the security desk and given the nice, heavily armed lady there a stunning, All-American smile and said, "Hi, Mary? Is there a protocol for first contact? Because this nice lady here, Sharla, isn't actually from Earth."
Of course he knew the security agent's first name. Steve knew everyone's first name. Even the garbage collectors and the guy whose job seemed exclusively to be spraying doorknobs with disinfectant before Tony touched them.
Mary the security agent had stared at him, but there wasn't even a hint of disbelief in her expression. Steve tended to have that effect on people. He had a smile of +3 Earnestness12. Then, wordlessly, she'd reached across the desk and pushed a bright green button.
And then things had happened, fast. Things like an armed escort appearing as if by magic. And them all being cordially invited in a way that was most definitely not an invitation so much as a 'Jesus Christ what you have you special little snowflakes gotten up to this time?' with a side of 'If you keep making my life interesting, I'm going to have no choice but to make yours even more interesting' up to Director Fury's office.
Crammed into the glass-sided elevator with a bunch of assault-rifle-carrying yet suit-wearing no-necks, plus his two fellow Avengers, plus the hot alien, Clint was pathetically stuck on the fact that there was apparently a special button on the security desk just for aliens. How often did this actually come up? Was there a giant pile of fascinating off-planet hanky-panky that Agent Coulson had been holding out on him all this time?
The Director waited for them in his office, which Clint was prepared to swear actually became more intimidatingly expansive the more pissed off the man was. Right now, the office appeared to be larger than the actual building, because the annoyance of Director Fury had more important concerns than obeying physical laws.
The man himself stood just outside the elevator doors, waiting with his hands clasped loosely behind his back. Despite being indoors, he wore his trademark black leather trench, the sort ideal for concealing just about any weapon known to man. "Gentlemen."
Oh shit, Clint thought. The Director had an entire vocabulary made of nothing but that word. It was all inflection and tone, like Chinese but ten times as bad ass and with a one-hundred percent chance of being at the mercy of someone who could not only dock your pay, but decide that Antarctica was lovely this time of year and he had a few errands that you needed to run. And the tone he'd used said that frost bite and twenty-four hours of darkness would be a kind memory if this turned out to be anything but the real deal.
"Sir," Steve said. He didn't actually salute – the Director had finally broken him of that habit – but everything in his tone and posture said he was doing it in spirit. And if you were Steve Rogers, that was the part that counted anyway. "This is Miss Sharla. She's from the... Consortium of Kaytrel. Which isn't on Earth," he added helpfully, after a pause and a disbelieving look from the Director.
"You are Nick Fury," Sharla said, giving him a perky smile. "This is excellent. We are in need of your assistance."
The Director favored Clint with a look that said, 'You ass clowns had better not be yanking my chain,' because of course, out of the available culprits, he would be able to make Clint's life the most difficult. Mentally, Clint cursed Tony and his ability to just take his suit and flame out like a giant drama queen.
"Well, we can talk about it if you want to have a seat," the Director said, waving her over to a conference table that had apparently been constructed from plate glass and pure menace. He seemed entirely unaffected as she brushed by him, probably because he was made of sterner stuff than normal men, pure badassedness strong enough to rival even the General Niceness Field of Steve Rogers.
They all sat. There was coffee and water. Clint grabbed a cup of coffee and nursed it along, deciding his best bet was to let the people above his pay grade do the talking.
"Now, Miss... Sharla, where did you say you were from again?" Nick Fury asked, simultaneously being utterly serious and projecting the feeling that he was humoring this shit just long enough for Clint, Steve, and Tony to play out sufficient rope for a good hanging.
"I am with the Consortium of Kaytrel. It is an organization of our government, not actually a place where we live. I am from Abaddon, which you probably have not heard of. It's outside of your dimension."
Clint shot a look at Tony and got a nod coupled with a shrug. So he wasn't imagining things. That was some awesome name for Hell in a different culture. He sank a little lower in his seat. Because of course something that blonde and good looking couldn't be true. Or might just be there to drag them all to Hell. Either way, it was another symptom of the basic unfairness of life.
Nick Fury oozed non-plussedness. "You're right, we haven't heard of it. Not really up on our dimensional travel yet. So what kind of help are you after?"
"I am from the enforcement arm of our organization. I'm in pursuit of a criminal and we have reason to think he has taken refuge in this dimension, on your world."
The Director leaned back a little in his chair. "Go on."
"He most often goes by the name of Loki, or Loki Odinsson. Though he has many other aliases that we've been made aware of in the course of our investigation. I can list them for you if you like."
Suddenly, she had the attention of everyone in the room.
This, Clint realized, was the sound of the other shoe dropping. Of course it sounded like Loki. "Wait, you know him?"
"Not personally. Just because of his crimes. Do you?"
It kind of depended what she meant by that, and suddenly all Clint could think of was the man grabbing him by the hair and the strange, terrifying-but-not feeling of someone that dangerous not so much invading his personal space as building a summer vacation home there.
He was thankfully saved from having to answer by the Director. "You could say that we're acquainted with that particular gentleman." A snort from Tony, and the Director cranked his eyebrow up to a notch that had Clint studying the table top with the sort of intensity he normally reserved for the Victoria's Secret catalog. "Gentleman in the Tony Stark sense, of course."
"I don't know if that's really fair to Loki," Clint informed the tabletop.
"Ouch," Tony muttered.
The blonde just looked confused. "I don't understand. Tony Stark is well-respected in the realm of justice, is he not?"
Tony grinned. "I met Justice a couple days ago. Her friend was named Destiny."
Nick Fury ignored him with practiced ease. "You could say something like that, Miss. Stark isn't really the topic of conversation here, however, no matter how desperately he'd like to be. So let's return to the subject at hand: Loki. You're after him. Now, we have a fine tradition of extradition in this country, but we'd still like to know what you're after him for.. He's been a major pain in my ass since he made a crater in the middle of Montana, and he's got a fine array of crimes to answer for on Earth."
Sharla frowned, and there was a predatory edge to the expression that Clint didn't really like. It made him wonder just how much of the floaty smiling had been an act. Then the expression was wiped away like it had never been, but he knew better than to doubt himself on this one. Clint had learned to read expressions on Loki out of a desire to not get a shank run through one of his kidneys. That kind of survival skill, he trusted. "Our claim is prior," she said.
"Sure is. But if he's been shoplifting, I don't give a crap. He's blown a lot of things up around here, and hasn't been too concerned if warm bodies have been in the way."
Again, that flash of something that was vapid and attractive in the same sense that a great white shark was either of those things. "When Loki first came to Abaddon, we welcomed him and cared for him. He was grievously wounded from his time in non-dimensional space. As soon as he had recovered, he repaid us by destroying the hospital and one of our research facilities. Over a thousand died, and several more were unlucky enough to be in the swathe of destruction he cut as he made his escape. He slit the throats of our researchers and stole a dimensional rift generator, the prototype. That was how he escaped. And that is why it has taken us so long to pursue. The research had to be rediscovered and the technology reproduced."
In the realm of poker faces, Nick Fury lived somewhere between God and Loki. He didn't so much as bat an eyelash, though he did give Clint a look, one that clearly demanded a second opinion, make it snappy.
Clint could only answer with a shrug. He was a man that cataloged shrugs the way others treasured their collection of grunts. His shrug in all its careful nuance indicated: Fuck, I don't know. Loki's sure a giant space cock, but there's something fishy about the blonde lady and have you checked out her legs by the way?
It was plainly not the level of certainty the Director was looking for – his eye narrowed slightly. Clint could only offer another shrug, a philosophical little number that he used far more than he liked to think about since joining SHIELD: No such thing as certainty in an uncertain world, boss.
"We'll have to discuss this, if you don't mind. Miss," the Director said in a tone that plainly stated if she did mind, well, tough shit. "If you'd like, you an be our guest while we chat. The facilities are somewhere between opulent and ridiculous."
Sharla didn't look happy, but she nodded, setting her hair bouncing in a series of strange waves. "I have a colleague that came through the rift with me. May I contact her?"
"She as pretty as you?" Tony asked, shit-eating grin in full force.
Nick Fury, who had long since banished Tony from his universe for the purposes of the meeting, simply said, "Please do. She's welcome to stay here with you. Any other colleagues of yours wandering around that could use some... hospitality?"
"No, just us. Our capabilities for moving between dimensions are still shaky thanks to the criminal's escape. We were counting on your assistance." She gave the Director a sweet smile, accompanied by eyelash batting. He appeared unimpressed.
A couple of impeccably suited agents took her away after that. The Director leaned back in his chair, hands clasped loosely over his belly. "You get all of that, Agent Romanoff?"
"Yes, sir." Natasha stepped out from behind a hidden panel in the wall near the elevator. Clint squirmed slowly in his chair, trying to remember if he'd said anything particularly piggish, of if he'd left that all up to Tony.
"Do you have any more useful insights than what Agent Barton could come up with?"
Natasha shook her head. "We can't really expect an alien to be easy to read."
"But I think her story is entirely plausible, from what we've seen of Loki. He's going to be a... royal pain in the ass no matter what dimension he's in." Her lips twitched like she was fighting off a smile.
"I don't know," Steve said. He cleared his throat, looking a little sheepish when all eyes turned to him. "Explosions... that I can believe. As well as general mayhem. But I'm not so sure about the throat slitting."
He was treated to an array of disbelieving looks, except Clint found himself nodding. At which point that focused the attention back on him and he wished he'd just kept giving the stink eye to the table top. Because suddenly he was in the unthinkable position of defending Loki, and wasn't that just the sort of bitchy situation that asshole excelled at creating. But too late to back down now. "I agree with Steve. Loki's not the sort to get his hands dirty. And... I don't know. About the hospital. Just doesn't seem like him. Up 'til now there's been a reason behind everything he's done, and I can't see where blowing up a bunch of sick people fits in."
Natasha cleared her throat. "This is the guy that filled the inside of seventeen office towers with chocolate pudding. Because he was bored."
"But that's the thing. Boredom equals chocolate pudding or... fuck, I don't know, sentient toasters that have angel wings, with this guy. Not exactly mass murder."
"Clint, have you started doing drugs recently?"
Nick Fury let out a short bark of a laugh. "Eloquently put, Agent Romanoff."
"It's still a valid point," Steve said.
Stop helping me, Steve, Clint thought so hard that it made his head ache.
"Really, Captain Rogers. What other brilliance do you have to add to this discussion?"
A sane man with a modicum of self-preservative instinct would have taken that invitation to shut up up with gratitude. Steve Rogers was a man that had once thrown himself on top of a grenade without even an instant of wondering if his intestines would really look better decorating the grass than safely inside his abdomen. It was safe to say that Steve and self-preservation were not even on speaking terms these days.
"Maybe I do. Loki's always... played nice with us. He's had ever opportunity to kill us all about a hundred times over, and he never has. So what did these people do to make him... uh... not play nice?"
"They didn't have Goldilocks with them?" Tony suggested.
Which seemed like a valid point on its face, only Clint had seen Loki and Thor really go at it, once, and Steve had been there too. And Clint didn't know how Steve felt about the whole thing, but it still gave him the cold sweats if he thought about it too hard. Not because either one of the Asgardians had gotten all that banged up, but because it was a reminder of just how, well, fragile human beings (like, say, Clint Fucking Barton) were in comparison. He knew that he wouldn't be able to just shake off getting hit full in the face with a steel I-beam, not even at a much slower speed.
And the fact that Loki seemed to get that, and calculate for it so that everything was scary and unpleasant without actually hitting a deadly point was simultaneously comforting and terrifying.
"Look, Steve... I don't get why this is even a thing," Tony said, pushing his douchebag glasses up on his nose with his middle finger, a signature Tony Stark gesture of utter maturity.
"Yeah, well, maybe that's because you weren't here for the fun and games last year," Steve said.
"Through no fault of my own." Tony held up a finger. "So back on the subject. He's a bad guy. He did some bad things here, and some worse things somewhere else. So it's simple. We help the legion of the hot blondes catch him, justice is served, party at my house."
"Yes, but why--"
Tony grinned, leaning forward. "No one bothers asking me why I do half the shit I do--"
"Because it's pretty obvious the why is located in your pants," Natasha muttered.
The finger – at least it wasn't the middle one – got wagged at Natasha. "Not necessarily. Sometimes the why is located in my bank account. But the point is, no one cares about why, even when it's something as innocent as buying a hotel so I can have it knocked down. You just call me an asshole and move on. So if you're giving Loki some benefit of the doubt you won't even give your dear friend and coworker... well, Steve, I've got to say I'm hurt. Real hurt. Right in the mechanical bits."
Steve shut his mouth with an audible snap.
Director Fury snorted. "So are there any actual drawbacks to this plan as so eloquently laid out by Tony? Anyone? And... what the hell is all that noise?"
The noise in question was two ring tones - Killing in the Name Of (not because Clint liked Rage Against the Machine particularly, but he'd be damned if he was going to go with anything less balls to the wall where other people could hear) and Star Spangled Man - trying to play simultaneously. It was not a happy musical marriage.
Clint hauled out his phone, as did Steve. And while Clint unlocked his screen and got down to business with a muttered, "Could've sworn I had this on vibrate..." Steve stared at the device with something akin to horror and handed it to Tony.
"You are a neanderthal. Are you sure you were only frozen in that ice block for 60 years?" Tony peered at the phone. "Oh look, a priority e-mail."
"I have e-mail?" Steve repeated, his tone suggesting that he might need a refresher on what that was before even getting to the scarier revelation that it came in 'priority' flavor.
"So do I," Clint said.
"Oh look, from... Loki? I must need to tighten the spam filters. And he wants to meet with us. I mean you. Wow, what were you guys up to last year? I didn't think there was actually something to the whole Loki Fan Club act, but now... was there an ice cream social I didn't get invited to?" Tony offered the phone back to Steve, who seemed very reluctant to take it.
"Care to explain this, Agent Barton? You in the habit of giving known hostiles your personal contact information?" Director Fury swiveled his chair to put Clint squarely in the kill zone of his displeasure.
Suddenly, any sympathy Clint might have been feeling for this particular devil dried up. "No, sir."
"Care to hazard a guess?"
"It's Loki, sir. If I even could guess, you'd probably need to have me committed."
"Good point." Nick Fury stood. "Well, far be it from me to ignore the happy gifts of chance." He smiled, the sort of expression commonly accompanied by the phrase, 'what big teeth you have, grandmother.' "Sounds like he's got a trap for us. Let's get the tables turned. I'm sure our guests will be happy to help."
Then he swept from the room, Natasha in tow and Tony following along after mutter something about aliens sure as hell being easier on the eyes than a couple of sad sacks.
Clint looked across the conference table at Steve. The super soldier didn't look unhappy, exactly. The expression was more thoughtful, with a faint hint of worry. Like you'd expect on a guy, standing in a middle of a forest, who also smelled smoke. Clint met his eyes and thought: Troubled. Troubled is the word I'm looking for.
"I don't like this," Steve said.
"I don't either. Do you know why?"
"Me neither. And that's what I like the least."
12 – There was a good reason that Clint knew this kind of expression, though not one he'd ever admit out loud even under threat of torture. There had been a summer, you see, when he was a teenager and had broken his shoulder while skateboarding, so couldn't really do his normal running around and causing general mayhem. And D&D was better than watching television, at least that's what he told himself every time he got e-mail from his old friends, jokingly addressed to Legolas13 the Elven Ranger.
13 – Okay, yes, he'd also read The Lord of the Rings, but it had been in the eighties14, damnit, and he'd done it before it was cool. That counted for something.
14 – And you can stop thinking about the giant hair15 and awful neon colors, wise guy.
15 – IT WAS A MULLET, OKAY? ARE YOU HAPPY NOW? 16
16 – Let the record reflect that at this point in time, Clint Barton hates everyone. Particularly you.
Paranoia was a constant in Loki's life, a combination of old friend, favorite pet, and necessary survival mechanism. That was, unfortunately, the price of being both fabulously intelligent and incredibly ambitious while simultaneously being the universal champion of Pissing People Off Because the Faces They Make Are Just So Funny.
He knew better than to just accept the replies he received from Clint Barton and Steve Rogers at face value. It wasn't that he assumed they were anything close to as smart as him - no one was - but he'd learned long ago that stupidity was not an invitation to underestimate people. One universal truth, right up there with neutrinos being lazy little bastards that didn't like talking to other particles unless you made them, was the fact that stupid people showed utterly distressing flashes of brilliance at the least convenient times imaginable.
Looking at the curling lines seared into his skin, the sight of which still made his stomach turn, Loki knew this was the most inconvenient of moments he'd suffered since settling on Midgard. Which dictated the carefully cautious replies from the two men had to conceal some sort of trap.
A backup plan was necessary, and he set the pieces up carefully, ready to fall into place via simple inertia if he was somehow unavailable to stop them. If nothing else, the unfortunate incident with the robot had taught him he couldn't always count on his magic to be there as an all purpose sonic-screwdriver sort of solution. No matter how badly he needed to put up some shelves.
The unfortunate fact of the matter, however, was that at this point he'd exhausted all of his other choices. If he'd had another option he liked at all, it had been abandoned in the face of the Itch's increasing urgency.
Steve Rogers proposed meeting on neutral ground. The hell of it was, the man probably even believed the words. Loki countered with the proposal of a coffee shop he frequented, just to make life marginally more difficult for the man he knew as holding Rogers' leash. Getting the area cleared would be an inconvenience for SHIELD, and in a city the size and population density of New York, "clearing the area" was a very relative term to begin with. But he knew what was expected from him as a so-called villain, and anything less than a complete dick move would just make things more difficult than necessary when it came to actually trying to have a useful conversation with the mortals.
The later e-mail he received from Clint Barton calling the coffee shop "a total fucking dick move" just confirmed the rightness of his choice. Though he couldn't help but laugh at the immediate follow-up question: How are their muffins? And by the way, you're an asshole.
Loki quickly replied: The carrot are sweet like the tears of angelic little mortal children. I would recommend you consider the bran muffins, however, since you're sounding a bit more stopped up than normal. Unnecessary, yes, but it was a way to pass the time that didn't involve long meditations on Not Scratching. He'd already spent far too much time recently making rather experimental waffles since he couldn't seem to focus enough to read.
And really, since when had unnecessary been a consideration when it came to anything he did? Amusing was always far more important.
At the appointed hour, dressed in a stylish suit and a rather natty scarf, he arrived at the coffee shop by the simple expedient of making a bit of space near the counter equivalent to another bit of space in his apartment and then stepping into it. The number of weapons that were immediately pointed in his direction was rather gratifying. Apparently he'd been able to make enough trouble since the unfortunate matter of the robot that his short, uncharacteristic period of cooperation had been forgotten.
Loki regarded Clint's bow with a hint of wary respect - being on the receiving end of one of those arrows had served as a strong reminder of why he didn't want to be mortal, ever - but he was prepared and in no actual danger. He gave the gathered humans a smile, well-practiced to be as infuriating as possible. "I see that I'm precisely on time." He turned to the man behind the counter, Steve Rogers of all people, and said, "I'll take a mocha, no cream on it."
The even better part was that Steve Rogers did, indeed, give him a mocha, all the while scowling to indicate that he'd much prefer to pitch the cup at Loki's head.
Loki passed a hand over the paper cup - he trusted Rogers to a certain extent but not his masters - then nodded, taking a sip. "Lovely. Thank you." He took a seat at one of the ludicrously tiny tables, crossing his legs neatly, then waited.
He was a god, and practically immortal. Waiting was the sort of game he always won.
Something wasn't right, however. There was an air of expectation to the humans that felt off, smug rather than worried. Loki was used to being the smug one that worried people, and didn't care for this reversal at all.
And there was something in the air, a hint of a scent that put his teeth on edge...
The front door of the coffee shop opened, revealing a man he immediately recognized as Director Fury, and with him -
Loki surged to his feet, the table flipping in front of him, mocha spraying out in a wide arc across the floor. One hand snatched Hawkeye's arrow from the air - apparently the man still believed in shoot first and ask questions later - while the other twisted a dagger into being. He dropped the arrow on the floor as he lunged for the woman next to Director Fury.
Loki rarely operated on something so base as instinct; when he did it was an impressive sight. Teeth bared, eyes wild, he sent the first dagger spinning at the woman-shaped thing even as he tore another from the air.
The dagger embedded itself in the woman's throat with a nauseating, meaty thunk. She staggered back a step, bringing her other wrist to her mouth, lips moving over the silver bracelet she wore, words forming as she squeezed the barest thread of air past the dagger.
Pain. It went straight from the sigil branded into his arm to his brain without stopping at any of his other nerves, then instantly streamed out from there, through every pathway in his body. It was like lightning but impossibly worse; Loki could deal with a little high voltage, after all. He'd grown up with Thor.
The dagger dropped from his hand as he fell to his knees, tearing at his face and hair with unsteady fingers. Loki had the presence of mind to not scream, though it was a close thing, his entire body voting for a mindless shriek of utter agony and only a last minute veto by his dignity salvaging the situation.
Worse, the pain was familiar, the thing of nightmares. And the nightmares of a god were a dark thing indeed.
Also familiar with the more subtle pain of betrayal. Slowly, Loki straightened enough to meet the eyes of Clint, then Steve. In his peripheral vision, he saw the thing approach him, knew already what was in her hands, but it was too late for that. It had been too late since he'd flipped the instinctual coin and landed on fight instead of flight.
"You don't know what you've done," he hissed from between teeth that seemed glued together with pain.
Clint smirked. "Sure we do. Got you off our asses, finally."
Loki had long ago decided reactions such as crying and screaming were basically useless. If nothing else, they let whoever had brought you to those pathetic straits think they'd won. Always, he preferred to laugh. It allowed the same safe outlet for overwhelming emotion, while simultaneously making on appear - as he'd heard Clint Barton put it before - "creepy as fuck."
There was nothing else he could do. He laughed, head tipping back to release dry chuckles.
Apparently, it was still whatever level of creepy 'fuck' denoted. Loki was rewarded by seeing Clint take a step back.
Then something cold and metal slid around Loki's throat, locking on with a familiar snick. It wasn't tight enough to interfere with his breathing. It didn't have to, because the effect was far worse, a physical thing that restrained the familiar internal strains of his magic, locked him into himself.
He laughed harder, because there was nothing else he could do.
Loki laughed as the alien creature pulled his dagger from her throat and dropped it on the floor, wiping blood the color of burnt oranges away with the back of her hand. He laughed when her compatriot, also currently woman shaped but a red-head rather than a blonde, showed up, and when they hauled him to his feet.
As they marched him toward the door so they'd have a clear shot at the sky, he turned to look at Steve Rogers, trailing along behind them like some sort of faithful puppy in blue pajamas. "You realize the saddest bit of this misadventure?" Loki asked.
Steve Rogers, who had never excelled at being stoic when the opportunity to banter was presented, said, "You spilled the mocha?"
"Well, that is a bit sad. It was nicely done. But no." Loki shook his head. The aliens bracketing him didn't so much as twitch. Their people were very good at ignoring words as inconvenient, useless things. It was one of Loki's favorite weaknesses to exploit. "In the end, I'm only going to be tortured until they find a way to actually kill me."
Steve had the good grace to look a bit pale at that, though Loki could tell that he also didn't really want to believe the words. Steve wasn't the sort of man to be comfortable with the idea of torture, of being an unwitting accomplice. "That's pretty sad."
It was amusing, Loki thought, when you knew your supposed opponents so well that you felt they were truly your best friends, far more than the collection of poorly-dressed megalomaniacs you did your Saturday night clubbing with. Sadder still, when they were the most dependable people in your life. "Oh no. The sad part is that I'll be getting off lucky. You'll love what they do to you once they're done with me."
"Lying isn't going to get you out of this one, Loki."
Loki grinned. "Actually, I think you're quite correct in that." The aliens drew to a halt, holding Loki firmly between them. The soles of his feet started to itch, an odd citrus scent filling his nostrils. That, too, was familiar. He turned to glance at Steve one last time. "Be a darling and feed my cat, please."
Steve stared at him open-mouthed. "You have a--"
The rest of his question was lost in the rush of particles and energy, the shriek of physics throwing a tantrum as Loki was dragged across the border between dimensions.
"Do you think he actually has a cat?"
Clint gave Steve a sideways glance, not sure if he was grateful or annoyed that the man had chosen to break the uncomfortable not quite silence of the overly long elevator ride17. "Ten to one he was just fucking with us."
"Only ten to one?"
"I'm feeling really generous today." Only that wasn't it, at all. Clint knew it, and he knew that Steve knew it as well. If Loki had mentioned having a cat, there was a definite reason for it. And it could be something as simple as wanting to make certain Fluffy didn't starve, or as baroque and malicious as trying to get them to a location where they could be taken out with a stuffed toy that had been filled with explosives.
"But what if he does have a cat? An actual earthling feline that depends on him?"
Clint scrubbed at his face with one hand. He did not want to be having this conversation for more reasons than he could count and damnit why weren't the elevator doors opening yet? "Then maybe his neighbors will take care of it, right? Cats get noisy when no one's been feeding them. They're worse than kids."
Clint could feel Steve staring at him now, the man's gaze and disapproval a palpable red and white striped weight. "Worse than kids, huh?"
"Look, you only have to do it once and then no one ever asks you to babysit again." Clint inspected his fingernails. "Plus the bit where you teach them how to shoot."
Silence stretched like censure-flavored taffy.
"You're not kidding, are you," said Steve, his tone one of horrified wonder.
"I hate babysitting, man. There's snot everywhere. It's gross. I have a...thing." Clint cleared his throat. "Okay, maybe I was kidding about the not feeding them bit."
"But you weren't kidding about the teaching them how to shoot bit."
"I'm Clint Fucking Barton, what do you expect?" He grinned, the expression quickly vanishing under the weight of Steve's thorough and hefty disapproval. It was as if the super soldier serum had even increased the ferocity with which he could clutch at his non-existent pearls. "Look, it was just bow and arrow, all right? Except for the oldest. She was thirteen, about to go into high school, so I figured I'd show her some tricks on a nine mil and no one would fuck with her."
"Thirteen? Well, that makes it okay then."
"You know what, Clint? I'm going to pretend the last five minutes of conversation just... didn't happen. So do you think Loki actually has a cat?"
Clint inspect the toes of his combat boots, which were now suitably scuffed. "Yeah."
"Yeah? Then why didn't you say that the first time?"
"Hey, I thought we were pretending the last five minutes didn't happen. Stop breaking your own rules, Steve."
"Clint..." There was a quality Steve had to his voice, one that said he was not so much annoyed as severely disappointed, and that was exponentially worse. Because that was like disappointing Santa Claus, if Santa could punch holes through a brick wall and then unironically help little old ladies across the street.
Clint inspected his fingernails. Was the elevator even still moving? How could one ride possibly be this long? It had to be physically impossible. Stark Tower might be the size of Tony's ego, but it wasn't a freaking skyhook.
No, he knew what the problem was. The entire goddamn elevator was weighed down by a leaden wedge of guilt that had settled in the pit of his stomach like a fourth, poorly thought out slice of Chicago deep dish. Why should he feel guilty? He had no reason to feel guilty.
He thought about the look in Loki's eyes, in the coffee shop. Or Loki's eyes again, much longer ago when the guy had somehow grabbed him by the hair. And a half-remembered dream, the most absurd thing ever, Loki telling him to go back to sleep.
He felt guilty.
For that reason alone, Clint could gear himself back up to hating Loki. Clint Fucking Barton didn't feel guilty for any man, let alone any crackpot Norse God who thought tearing holes in space and time that caused all of a guy's underpants to scream when put on was the height of humor.
Fuck you, Loki. In the ear.
Clint cleared his throat. "How about you do a little thought experiment with me."
He didn't have to look up to know Steve's eyebrows had relocated to the vicinity of his hairline. "A thought experiment?"
"Let's pretend, for just a moment, that Loki has a guy's phone number." Clint tilted one foot to inspect the treads of his boot. Something appeared to be lodged in there, gum or quite possibly the remains of his own pride.
"And let's pretend that maybe one night Loki got really fucking wasted on mai tais at Dr. Doom's place."
"Just stay with me on this one." Clint stared at his boot with such ferocity he could almost see a new scuff developing in the leather. "And let's say, just for the sake of argument, Loki--drunk, remember--took pictures of his cat, and sent them to the aforementioned guy."
"And would this guy," Steve said dryly, "happen to have the initials 'CB'?"
Steve sighed. "'CFB?'"
"Yeah. Maybe. For the sake of argument."
"So what you're trying to tell me, Clint, is that Loki does have a cat. And you've seen pictures of it." Steve thumped his fist lightly against the wall of the elevator. It made a discomfiting hollow metallic boom. "Darn it, Clint. It's a black cat, isn't it."
"Nope," Clint said in a small voice. "Marmalade tabby."
"Darn it, Clint."
They didn't even have to do any investigation or hover in a vaguely threatening manner behind some uniformed peon in a room full of television monitors18. Instead, Steve had taken one step into the room--Clint hadn't even managed to squeak through the door behind him, since the sheer patriotism of Steve's shoulders just didn't leave room for anyone else--and someone in a dark blue jumpsuit had thrust a printout at him.
It was almost like they'd been expected. And almost like someone had sent out a memo about Clint and his hobby of aggressively breathing down jumpsuit collars because he thought being an asshole was hilarious. And almost like someone had suggested they get Clint and Steve out of there as quickly as humanly possible, before they19 could have any fun.
Clint made a mental note to find something really squashy and mildly poisonous to stick in Coulson's bed the next time he got sent out of the country.
But whatever impeccably tailored suit-wearing bastard bastard was to blame, Clint and Steve found themselves outside the door of a penthouse apartment in a disturbingly swanky building, the kind where there seemed to be people whose entire job it was to just open doors while deferentially touching their hats. It was the sort of thing Tony Stark probably wouldn't even blink at, which meant that it was a decidedly unnatural environment.
Steve hadn't been at all comfortable about it either. This had resulted in a minor--but squirm-inducingly polite--confrontation between him and a tiny woman who insisted that no one could push the buttons in the elevator but her. Sir.
"Should've expected this," Clint commented to the closed door. "This is a total asshole building."
"Pretty sure a building is just a building, Clint."
"That's just what they want you to think."
Steve rubbed his chin and frowned at the door. Somewhere, a bald eagle soared through a clear blue sky. "Think if we ask the superintendent nicely, they'll let us in?"
"Yeah, but who has the time for that?" Clint reached out and tried the knob.
...it was unlocked.
He and Steve stared at each other. Clint gave the door a little push open. It didn't creak or groan like it rightfully should have. "Well. That's not creepy at all."
"Cover my back." And Steve went in first. Because of course he would, being all Steve Rogers and such.
And of course Clint let him, because he was Clint Fucking Barton. He unzipped his jacket to make it that much easier to get to the holstered pistols he had at his sides, then followed Steve in.
The real insult was how fucking normal the apartment look, he decided almost immediately. He'd been expected something gold plated and decorated in Late Medieval Torture or maybe Crazy-Ass Viking Long House. Instead, the furniture was shockingly comfortable-looking, dark wood and pale leather. There were paintings on the walls, mostly abstract art prints. And bookshelves everywhere--well, at least they'd kind of expected that.
There was a vase on the coffee table for Chrissakes. With a bamboo in it. Real live actual bamboo. And it wasn't wearing a little helmet with horns or anything.
Steve gave the plant an uncertain look. "Are you sure this is the right place?"
Clint pulled the paper from his pocket and checked it. "Unless the wonks gave us the wrong address..."
"Not what I expected."
"You can say that again."
"Kind of creepy."
Clint picked up little wooden box off of one of the bookshelves. It didn't open. He shook it. Still didn't open. "Kind of creepy."
Steve took the box from him. "I've seen those before. It's a puzzle box. If you open it, who knows what might come out."
"The way this apartment looks, probably the soul of June Cleaver." But Clint set the box down very carefully, as if it might explode. Knowing Loki, it probably could.
Steve led to the next room, which turned out to be a dining room and kitchen. A half-empty cup of tea sat on the dining room table, next to an open book.
"Half-full," Steve commented, glancing at the book. "And I don't know what language that's in. Bet the boys in the lab would have a field day in here."
"Or open a portal to another dimension," Clint muttered. He poked at the espresso machine and jumped when it turned on. His hand made contact with a waffle iron, shoving it halfway across the counter. The little machine beeped too, in a way that sounded strangely... disgruntled. "What is with all this fancy shit?" Clint asked. He didn't really believe in having anything more advanced in the kitchen than a toaster and a drip coffee maker.
"Maybe he just likes his waffles."
"I don't want to live in a world where you can even say something like that about an asshole like Loki."
Steve opened his mouth to say something else, but was interrupted by a loud clatter from another room. Instantly, Clint had a pistol in each hand.
"Are you sure this is the right apartment?" Steve asked again.
"No, Steve, this is great. It's creepy. That's more like it. Get moving."
Steve shot him an unreadable look and moved back out into the apartment. "I don't know where that came from."
"Wasn't this room. Maybe the bedroom?"
"Sounds like a place I sure want to go," Steve said dryly.
There was another crash, and they both froze.
"Yeah, definitely the bedroom."
"Great." Steve eased down the hall, then stood to one side of the door as he turned the knob and pushed it open. Clint slid around him pistols at the ready.
Shining golden eyes in the dark. Clint almost squeezed the triggers at the sight, but it was also accompanied by a faint, plaintive Mew? And for all Loki was a giant space asshole, Clint didn't feel good about the thought of liquifying the guy's cat with a couple of hollow-point rounds.
Steve flipped the lights on. And to Clint's ever lasting relief, the eyes really did belong to the cat. A marmalade tabby, to be precise. He sagged against the door frame.
"Wow. I know you said he had one, but..." Steve peered around the other side of the frame. It definitely wasn't big enough for all four of their biceps at the same time, let alone the rest of them. "What's it sitting on?"
The cat was perched on a leather-bound journal. A slip of paper stuck out of it, drooping down enough that the writing on it was visible--and readable: Barton and Rogers.
"Shit," Clint muttered.
"You ever hear the thing about if you hear a noise and it's just the cat...?"
"No." Steve gave him another of those looks, the one that politely accused him of trying to have fun with the old man. "They didn't cover that in basic, back in my day."
Clint laughed. "Well, they fucking should've."
The cat, perhaps annoyed that they were ignoring it, let out a much firmer meow and tipped the journal onto the floor.
17 - Seriously, where had Tony Stark managed to find muzak versions of every AC/DC song? Clint couldn't help but wonder if it was a sign of genius, madness, or a sort of cheerful sadism knitting the two together.
18 - A real disappointment if you asked Clint. That was one of his favorite parts.
19 - "They" of course meaning Clint, while Steve stood there and looked distinctly uncomfortable or even tried ineffectually to apologize.