"Okay, so satellite readings said the portal opened up somewhere around here," Bruce was saying over the radio, "but within a half mile radius is the best the scanners do. I don't know how long it's going to take you to—"
"Found it," said Clint.
Everyone on the hillside paused to stare at him. He just pointed downhill, to where the slope evened out into a small, snow-covered meadow.
"Tracks come out of nowhere, like they stepped through a doorway. You can practically see the line in the snow." He squinted. "Some kind of scuffle further down, then they veer off into the woods."
The jet flew by low overhead and the commlink crackled again, this time with Natasha's voice on the other end. "Confirmed. Bruce and I can see the tracks you're talking about; I'm going to back us off so we don't obscure the scene while you boys get a closer look."
Clint started picking his way down, with Steve behind him and Tony hovering along a few feet off the ground. "You know, you resemble Legolas a little more every day," Tony said.
"No, that's Hunger Games, keep your fandoms straight."
"Guys, do you mind?" Steve slid a little, caught his balance against a boulder. "We're far enough away from that farm village that we should be able take care of this without any civilians getting involved, as long as we don't waste any time."
They reached the start of the tracks, and Clint hunkered down. "Huh. That's unexpected."
"JARVIS, you recording?… Okay, lay it on us."
"I only see three people walking through this portal… from the stride patterns, all about the same size as us. But they didn't come through as a unit. This guy in the middle was walking… scratch that, he was limping… but these other two, you see the difference in the stride lengths? They were running."
"Doesn't sound like much of an invasion force."
"No… they didn't come through at the same time. Limping guy was first, then the two runners." He stood, and followed the tracks with his gaze to an area of churned-up snow, about fifty paces out. "Looks like they caught up to him, too."
They trudged down a little faster, the hill becoming less steep but still hiding boulders under the thick blanket of white.
"Well, I'd say they definitely weren't on the same side," said Tony.
"What is it?" asked Natasha.
Clint picked up the thread. "The three of them fought… you'll need to call in the contamination crew or whatever, and the science guys will definitely want to come and take samples, 'cause we have one patch of red blood over there, and two alien bodies over here, only their blood is… purple, maybe?" He turned one corpse over with his heel. "Dressed alike. Matching weapons. The one closest to me has manacles hanging off his belt."
"So, less 'invasion' and more 'escape'," said Steve.
"Looks like. The one they were after was the guy with the red blood. It was in his tracks farther up, where he was limping. He won the fight, though."
If he won the fight," asked Iron Man, "why is there another scuffle over there?" He hovered, pointing to an area just past a row of boulders.
"One set of footprints here…" Clint walked over to the boulders and climbed up on the nearest. "Huh. Stay back a second, would you, guys?" He stood there squinting at the snow, tipping his head this way and that, then hopped across to another boulder and studied the scene a little more. "Well, things definitely just got weirder."
"The suspense is killing me," said Tony.
"Well, there's only one set of tracks in, and one set of tracks out, but… you know, if I didn't know better, I'd say it looks like he Hulked out." He slid down off the boulder. "No, he definitely Hulked out. Here's what's left of a pair of pants. And yep, there's some scraps of shoe leather here too. Over there's where he first fell over."
Bruce's voice came over the airwaves. "Does it look like I need to, uh, suit up?"
"Eh, I don't hear any rampaging going on, and it's a three-hour flight from the tower to here. According to your readings, that portal opened, what, maybe four hours ago? Might be he's calmed back down by now."
"Whatever he did wasn't as smooth as your transitions," put in Steve. "He was here long enough to make a pretty good mess. The ground is torn up in a couple places."
"I tear up the ground," Bruce pointed out.
"Not with claws," said Clint.
"Do what now?" Tony hovered a little closer.
Clint scratched the back of his head and shrugged. "He came in here on two legs, but he left on four. And those look like some fuckin' huge bear tracks." He took another couple of steps. "Still bleeding though, and one of his feet is dragging."
"Why would he change after the fight?" asked Steve.
Bruce hummed. "Adrenaline rush after the fact? Pain from his injuries?"
"Well, we still gotta find him, either way," said Tony, "and can I just say, the suit's not exactly built to maneuver in the woods? I'll still have weapons if we need 'em, but if he's got any kind of speed to him I'm going to make a great chew toy."
"Understood." Steve blew out a breath, fogging the air. "We, uh, probably shouldn't make any assumptions about how intelligent he is in this shape. I mean—we've all gotten used to the Hulk, and he's gotten used to us, so it's not usually too bad. I don't want us to… react out of habit, I guess."
"Bear claws," said Clint.
"It's a good point," said Bruce. "Although, on the bright side, he could be a little easier to reason with than my other half…"
"But there's no guarantee, and chances are just as good that he'd be worse," finished Natasha.
"He's an alien, odds are good he doesn't speak English anyway." Tony launched himself farther up into the sky. "JARVIS, give me infrared… well, would you look at that."
"Not too far off, I take it?" asked Steve.
"Eh, I don't know for positive that it's him, but these tracks out here are aimed almost straight at a really big heat signature, maybe a quarter-mile in."
"Question," said Bruce. "Since we've more or less decided that this isn't an attacker so much as a refugee, what's our approach going to be? I'd rather we not go in guns blazing on someone who might not have even planned to come to Earth."
"No, you're right," said Steve. "Let's assume our visitor is non-hostile until he or she proves otherwise. If they need help, maybe we can offer it. If nothing else, Thor can probably help them get to where they belong."
"I'm going to land," said Natasha. "Bruce can stay with the jet on standby."
"Got a visual," murmured Clint, a little while later, lying flat on his stomach on a frozen rock outcropping. The clouds had rolled in while they searched, and even under bare trees the light was getting pretty dim. "Definitely not a bear."
"I've been watching you close in on him," said Tony. "He hasn't moved the whole time."
"He ain't sleeping," said Clint, "but at least he isn't tearing things apart." As if on cue, the alien monster gave a guttural, bellowing cry and pawed at its neck. "Since I got outvoted on the tranqs, which one of us gets to go up and say hello?"
"Well, Nat, now that you're here—"
"If you make even one 'Beauty and the Beast' reference, Stark, I will convince JARVIS to replace your entire workshop playlist with nothing but Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. For a month."
"You are a cruel, cruel woman, Natasha."
"I'll go," said Steve. "Stark has the armor but not the maneuverability. I've at least got the shield, and of the rest of us, I'm…" he sighed. "I'm the one who can handle taking a hit."
There was a round of mumbled agreement, none of it too happy.
"Come at him from the east," said Clint. "It'll give you both a clear line of sight on each other. If he's smart enough to figure out you're not attacking, that should give you a head start on talking him down."
"And if he's not?" said Tony.
"If he's not, I've got a clear line of sight too."
The creature saw him coming and roared again, but didn't move to attack. "Hey. Hi. It's okay," said Steve. "It's okay. I don't know if you can understand me or not, but I'm not going to hurt you. You're all right."
Steve kept up the running commentary as he approached cautiously, figuring he'd seem like less of a threat if the alien could hear as well as see him coming. He got within about ten paces before the creature heaved itself to its feet, or tried to, and shoved itself back until it was pressed up against a large tree trunk. Steve bit back a wince; it was definitely wounded, he could see its blood staining the snow where it had been lying. Its panting breath sent steam billowing into the air.
"It's all right. It's all right. I won't come any closer, okay?" Steve held up his hands and took an exaggerated step backward. Found a convenient boulder and sat down. The creature watched him with wary golden eyes.
"Hey, Cap? Give us a description, would you?"
"Well, uh, he's pretty huge… I'd say maybe six, seven feet high at the shoulder if he were standing up? But he's… If this is what happens to aliens when they go Hulk, then Bruce could count himself lucky. He's not… he seems like he's built wrong, if that makes sense."
"How so?" came Natasha's voice.
Steve took a deep breath and watched the creature's ears swivel forward. "He's kind of a mishmash. Kind of… okay, specifics. Sort of rusty orange for the most part. Huge, like a bison, but you know how bulldogs are proportioned, really broad and heavy in the front and a lot smaller in the back? And bowlegged like they are. But like Hawkeye said, the feet are like a bear's, with some seriously intimidating claws on them." Steve stood slowly, watching the creature tense up. "Let's see… The head is mostly like a bison, too, large and heavy. Tusks—uh, like a wild boar, not a walrus—nose looks like a lion's, maybe, but the eyes have sideways pupils."
"What, like a horse?" asked Clint.
"Yeah, only I think the ears are from a rabbit. Um… I said he was mostly orange, but there are black accents, and they don't make much sense either. Kind of a sparse mane, sticks up—maybe like a hyena or something. Only that gives way at the shoulders to… okay, you know how alligators have the heavy ridges on their back, those really thick scales? He's got those, all the way down his spine. Really short tail, or maybe no tail. But then on the backs of his front legs he has black feathers sticking up."
"Yeah, that's a mishmash, all right," said Bruce. "I'll stick to just being an oversized person, thanks."
The animal roared, and Steve stumbled back a step as it thrashed. "Hold your fire, I'm fine, I'm fine!" It jerked its head wildly back and forth, then clawed at its neck furiously. "Huh," said Steve when it settled again, panting and groaning in the still air. "Now it has antlers."
"It didn't before?"
"Nope. Ridged, sort of spiky. His head is bleeding where they broke the skin."
"So it's still transforming," said Bruce, and Steve could hear the frown in its voice.
"It's in pain, too," said Clint. "And that's not the first time I've seen it go for its neck like that. Can you see anything from your angle, Cap?"
"I can try." Steve stepped forward cautiously, keeping his hands in sight, and the creature bellowed and glared balefully at him. "Easy does it, okay? I don't want to hurt you. You look like you're hurting enough," he added under his breath.
The animal grunted in what sounded like agreement, and Steve stopped in his tracks.
"Wait. Can you understand me? Or is that wishful thinking?"
Another grunt, followed by a groan as the creature shuddered. One of its hind legs kicked involuntarily, claws gouging into the frozen ground as its eyes shut for a second.
"Well, if you really can understand me and I'm not just imagining it… can you—would you let me get closer, please? I wanted to see what was bothering you on your neck."
Those oddball rabbit ears laid back and the alien monster bared its teeth, but then to Steve's surprise it lowered its head: slowly, every muscle tense, glaring at him the whole time with one golden eye.
It only allowed Steve to take another couple of steps before grunting at him again, but that was enough. "He's wearing something like a cross between a collar and a manacle, around his neck," he reported. "Solid metal, tight to his skin. Looks like the edges are sharp, they're cutting into him a little in places. And he's clawed himself pretty good, trying to get at it. And then there's fabric underneath it, too, but that might be leftover clothes from before he changed."
"I've got a hunch," said Tony. "Wonder what'll happen if you can get that off of him."
"You think it's causing his transformation?" asked Bruce.
"Okay, then." Steve took another step, and the creature snapped its teeth, baring them at his shield. "What, this? I'm not going to hurt you. Here, let me prove it." Still moving slowly, he worked the shield around to hang off his back; the creature watched him, but didn't grow aggressive. "I wanted to see if I could get that collar off of you," he said, and the ears swiveled forward in response. "We, uh, we know a little bit about involuntary transformations like this. Well. Not quite like this."
The alien snorted, creating another cloud of steaming breath.
"Will you let me try, at least?"
That golden eye stared at Steve for a long moment, before the creature shuddered again, its muscles rippling as it groaned. Finally, it lumbered up from its slouch against the tree and shifted its weight a little closer to Steve.
"Watch yourself, Cap," said Clint softly. "And try not to block my shot."
To pretty much everyone's worry, the alien swiveled his head around and looked directly at the outcropping where Clint lay, still stretched out on his stomach. His nostrils flared, but otherwise he didn't react, and after a moment it turned back toward Steve, who hadn't moved.
"You, uh, you ready?"
The creature huffed, and Steve stepped closer. It took a bit of searching, but Steve relaxed by degrees as the animal shifted its head down, then up to give Steve better access, and apart from another round of shuddering in pain, did not otherwise move. It even let him step between its front legs, under its throat, and around to the other side, wedging himself between the alien's body and the trunk of the tree.
"Found a clasp."
"Finally," said Tony, still hovering somewhere overhead. "This is like watching someone defuse a bomb, it's nerve-wracking."
"Good to know you care," Steve said absently. He leaned back a little to catch the creature's eye. "Okay, to unhook this I have to pull the ends toward each other, so it's going to get a little tighter at first. But just for a second, and then I'll have it off, okay? We'll get you out of this thing."
The creature tensed, curling and uncurling its wicked claws reflexively as its breathing picked up. Finally it turned its head away, froze, and held its breath, and Steve took that as his cue. With a swift pull and slide, the ends came undone and the collar slipped free.
The creature went berserk.
Its roaring screams echoed through the woods as Steve leaped out of the way. "Hold your fire, hold your fire, hold your fire!" he panted, even as he swung his shield around into position. But the monster only writhed in obvious agony, twisting and rolling as its claws gouged the trees and tore up the frozen ground. "He's not attacking. Hold your fire."
The pitch of the animal's cries changed as it curled in on itself, then arched back. "Is it me, or is it shrinking?" asked Clint, standing up from his position. "Looks like you were right, Stark."
The creature's—the alien's—ordeal seemed to go on forever, though it was probably no more than a few minutes. Still, they were minutes full of nothing but screams and torment, as the bestial shape withered, its limbs cracking and reshaping, the flesh creeping across the skeleton in new configurations, the skin changing color. The beast's roars and bellows gave way to the alien's screams, and its—his—voice grew hoarser and more rasping until it finally gave out entirely.
Finally it was over, and in place of an orange, misshapen beast, there was a naked, blue-skinned humanoid lying huddled on the ground, trembling and jolting with the aftershocks of intense pain.
The skin was smooth, with single and double lines of raised tissue following the contours of its body and limbs, and the beast's sparse mane had turned into a head of tangled black hair. There were scars across the alien's back, a bloody cut on his upper arm, and a gash on his calf muscle that was bleeding freely, dripping down his leg. The fabric Steve had spotted earlier turned out to be a simple messenger's bag with a shoulder strap, made of grubby, stained fabric that originally might have been white or cream-colored. Fresh blood was staining the bag's strap from the gouges on the alien's neck, where he'd scratched in an attempt to remove the collar.
The alien dragged one arm under him and struggled to push himself up, but his limbs were still quivering and weak and he slipped on the snow and ice. Steve leaped forward to help, but when he touched the alien's shoulder, he (he?) jerked away, looking up at them with deep red eyes.
He was wet with melting snow, filthy with smeared mud and blood, and clearly caught between fear and exhaustion. There were deep circles under his eyes, purple against the blue skin, and dried blood around the base of the short, curving horns on his forehead.
Steve knelt in front of him carefully. "It's okay. You're safe. Let us help you."
After everything he'd been through, all the risks he'd taken, the number of times he'd nearly been killed, he had finally made his escape. Made it to Midgard. Now, all he had to do was get his cargo to the right people, and he could finally rest.
Of course, now that his goal was in sight, that would be the time he would slip up, wouldn't it? He'd been spotted, as he prepared to open the portal to Midgard, and hadn't realized it. In his exhaustion and haste to finally finish his task, he'd staggered out onto the pristine snow, breathing in clean air for the first time in far too long, and had forgotten to close the portal behind him. He remembered, of course, as soon as he heard the shouts of his pursuers, and closed it before more could come through after him, but it was still nearly too late.
To have come so close, only to fail now, was insupportable.
Desperation had fueled his strength during the fight, but he had been hampered, both by prior injuries and by trying to keep his cargo safe, and one of them had snapped a prisoner's collar on him before he could steal the bastard's weapon and put it to good use.
The forced shapeshift, as his magic twisted away from the collar and inward through his body, had been agonizing.
In his new form, the form he was trapped in, he'd dragged himself to shelter and tried to force his weary mind to think, but it was no use. His bestial cries in the forest were as much from despair as they were from pain. He'd come so close. He'd even sent up a flare as soon as he'd arrived, so that Thor and his mortal allies would find him more quickly. Now, when they came, they would only see a beast that needed killing for the protection of their people.
Of course, even in his old form they'd likely have tried to kill him anyway, but at least then he might have been able to get them to listen to him first. Now he couldn't even speak.
He'd come so close.
Then they had arrived, and the best he'd thought he could hope for was that Thor would see the bag he carried, after he was dead, and his package might still fall into the right hands. But they'd surprised him, approached cautiously, with words of reassurance on their lips rather than battle cries and drawn weapons.
The change had felt even worse the second time.
Now he was defenseless, naked and weak as a kitten. Now they would recognize him, and he hadn't even seen Thor, so there was nothing to stop them from killing him anyway, and they'd be even less likely to do anything other than destroy the contents of his bag. Contents that they absolutely required if the Nine Realms were to survive, and they didn't even know it.
So it was a mixture of horror and dawning hope that washed over him, when he tried to push himself upright, and saw that his skin was blue. The soldier was kneeling beside him without a trace of recognition on his face, and even as exhausted as he was, Loki's hope only grew.
He was so close. He couldn't fail now.
I was getting bogged down on the next chapter of Fate's Guardian, and got this idea into my head so I decided to give it a try. Usually for me "bogged down" means I start getting trapped in the need to write tons and tons of useless detail and pointless action, so for this I tried to cut as much of that out as possible and still be able to have a recognizable setting and plot. I'm not sure how well I succeeded past the beginning, but I hope you enjoy it.