Chapter 15: Four and Twenty Blackbirds
Sing a song of sixpence
A pocket full of rye
Four and twenty blackbirds
Baked in a pie
When the pie was opened
The birds began to sing
Now wasn't that a dainty dish
To set before the King.
Of all the renovations that Pepper had undertaken, the master bath had probably been the most work. The floors were a mosaic of tiles: dark brown to brilliant teal and flashes of red and gold and all worked into a faintly Aztec theme. This intricate pattern continued about halfway up most of the walls until the bathing area, where it reached and in places, covered the ceiling. The toilet was set in an alcove to the right, and a wide counter with two sinks on the left. It was at the far end of the room where things really got interesting.
A Jacuzzi bathtub was deep enough that one could soak both one's knees and one's breasts at the same time, and was adequate to the comfort of two persons simultaneously. It was surrounded by a wide mosaic ledge that curved gently into the wall. Alongside the tub was the shower alcove. A rainfall shower was set into the ceiling in a little nook at the back corner and along the wall was a mobile showerhead for more conventional bathing. There were various pockets and cubbies for bathing supplies, and the inset lights in the ceiling could be lowered or brightened by various water proof electronic in concealed panels in various walls. No need to leave the comfort and warmth of the bath to turn the lights down. It was a marvelous blend of luxury and functionality.
After arranging her clothes on the lip of the tub and putting a towel in easy reach, Jane stepped into the steaming spray of the main shower, enjoying the pulsing waterfall. By the time she heard the bathroom door click open she had already completed her bathing ritual and was just rinsing conditioner out of her hair. She glanced back when he didn't join her beneath the spray as he usually did, found him sitting on the edge of the tub dressed in the pants and boots and sleeveless armor that had taken up residence in the bottom of their closet since his home coming. His hair was damp, he'd probably showered downstairs.
Alarm rising, Jane turned off the water and wrapped the towel around her body as she stepped toward him. Something about his body language was making her more than uneasy. She couldn't even speak, couldn't ask, couldn't think.
"I have been called away," he said slowly, "I leave… very shortly."
For a horrible second, she thought that he meant Asgard. That his father had called him home, but that fear lasted no more than the span of a heartbeat. "Avenger business?"
"Indeed." Thor nodded distractedly, reaching for her hand and pulling her onto his lap. He didn't seem to notice the relieved sigh that escaped at his response. "There has been some kind of incident in a remote area of Norway. I do not believe it to be anything of importance, but Fury requires that I join the Captain and Dr. Banner there immediately."
"Only the three of you" Jane asked, leaning into his bulk and stalwartly trying to fight off the growing anxiety in her belly. He wasn't going to another galaxy, so what was there to worry about? "What… happened there exactly, and don't tell me it's classified."
Thor laughed, rubbed her arm tenderly. "I do not yet know the details. I am to be debriefed on the journey. It is unlikely that I will be gone for more than a few days."
The scientist nodded, leaned in happily when he angled for a kiss and then broke it to swat his chest semi-playfully. "When you get home we're going to talk about how you break this kind of news to me in the future. Starting," she tugged on a damp strand of blond hair and then tucked it behind his ear, "with showering downstairs. "
Her lover laughed "Were I to have joined you, Elskling, I believe I would have missed my transport."
And that was probably true, though Jane couldn't see the negative, and they'd both known this would happen eventually. "I protest Fury calling you out for anything less than world domination." It was silly, Jane told herself, to feel this way. It wasn't like it was the first separation since he'd been back, and it certainly wasn't the last. She wasn't the type of women who needed her man around all the time, and despite her opinion of S.H.I.E.L.D., she actually didn't think that Fury would call Thor out if he didn't feel that it was significant in some way. But that knowledge didn't quell the anxiety that was slowly unfurling in her breast.
Thor would be back in a few days, she told herself firmly when her lover nestled her into his body. He would be back in a few days, a week at the most, and everything would be fine. They talked quietly about nothing in particular as she dressed and ran a brush through her wet hair, tied it back. Then the pair lounged on their bed together. Not speculating over what awaited Thor in Norway, mostly they talked about the house, the fence and Darcy's apartment.
The mundane never seemed to bore Thor and it surprised Jane sometimes when she would see him researching home repair tips on her laptop. In Asgard such things were not the concern of princes, he told her. If he wanted something changed or fixed in his chambers he would summon a servant who would relay the order to the appropriate person. This home, though, was his to take care of and he wanted to do it well. It was a sweet thing to say, but Jane suspected that he also didn't care to have some strange man tromping through his home to fix the dishwasher.
Eventually the phone at his side beeped. The signal to depart, Thor was flying himself to the base and then taking a S.H.I.E.L.D. transport to Norway. She walked him outside, his large hand encasing hers. Darcy wasn't up yet and Jane was a little glad they had this to themselves, not that her assistant ever intruded. "I will contact you as soon as I am able," he assured her, "You will be cautious in my absence?" It wasn't really a question.
"We'll be fine." Jane assured him again, caressing his arms, leaning in for a searing kiss. Thor sighed, caressed her cheek again and finally stepped back, his reluctance evident as he began to whirl Mjolnir by its strap. He shot into the air so fast her stomach lurched just watching him, and was gone. Jane sighed, folding her arms and wishing that the anxious feeling in her stomach would go away, and turned back to the house.
A day and a night passed without word. He called the third day but his news was not encouraging. There had been discovered in the mountains of Norway, a containing Asgardian artifacts carefully arranged, displayed, almost like an exhibit. Mostly, as far as Thor could tell, it was weapons and armor likely collected and stored there in the wake of the war between Asgard and Jotunheim. There was some jewelry and other trinkets as well, all carefully and almost lovingly set out on makeshift pedestals. There was extensive carving in the cavern walls, which Thor had identified as a kind of formal script that was extremely rare in present day Asgard.
The alien prince was able to translate it, though, into stories of the war his people had fought against the Frost Giants on earth hundreds of centuries before. Thor actually recognized several of the stories, although these were told by another perspective, as battles his father had spoken of. The detail was astounding and the author was a complete mystery. They were photographing the etchings thoroughly for Thor to some day deliver to the scribes on Asgard for a full transcription and, hopefully, some clue as to the author.
"Any soldier mistakenly left behind after the war would have only needed to call upon the portal's guardian to be returned home" Thor had said. And then there was the bad news, and the reason why he would not be returning as soon as he had hoped. As far as Dr. Banner and the S.H.I.E.L.D. archaeologist could tell, none of the displays had been touched in centuries. The entrance had, in fact, been sealed by layers and layers of ice and snow. Yet there were signs that at least two unidentified persons had managed to break through the ice and snow covering a very narrow shaft in one of the outer caverns, and then find and remove something out of the central cave. The display stand remained, a boulder that had been carved and whittled down intricately to have exhibited… whatever had been there.
Unfortunately they had no idea what had been taken because the thieves had been smart enough to use his prize to destroy the carving that had ringed the top of the display. They'd pieced together some of it from the few Shards that remained, but it hadn't helped. Bruce was, however, picking up the Asgardian script at an unprecedented rate, and was determined to try to piece together the message. The thieves had then exited through the centuries of ice blocking the main entrance of the cavern, creating a scene large enough to attract the notice of the town at the base of the mountain as well as cause a minor avalanche.
The bottom line of it all being that there was an unknown Asgardian artifact wandering around earth in equally unknown hands: wonderful. Thor, the Captain and Dr. Banner were remaining in Norway for the time being as there was every possibility that whoever had located the cave was possibly a local of the area, or still close by, and would inadvertently or otherwise identify themselves soon.
Looking back later, Jane would say that it seemed as though a curious silence blanketed the days following that call. They were normal, almost eerily so. She and Darcy worked mostly from town, as Coulson still had them barred from the base. Their evenings they spent mostly separate, Darcy in her apartment and Jane in her office. There was little outside disruption. The days passed slowly counting upwards until a full seven had passed since Thor's departure to Norway and finally the peace was disrupted, but not the way Jane had hoped.
After a frustrating day of dropped webcam conferences, mislaid research, missed deadlines, excuses, and a whole team of scientists who were getting more and more fed up with being cooped up on the base, Jane had decided to take the energy analysis she'd finally received and pack it in early. Not that she was done working. In fact, work was all she had really done since Thor's departure. It was a comforting distraction.
They made an odd pair, Jane thought, setting a mug of steaming tea by her assistant's hand. Darcy on her laptop, looking into classes she was considering for her next term, though it was still months before she could even register. She and Pepper had been talking extensively lately about Darcy's current major and the possibility of changing it. The bride-to-be wanted, eventually, to steal Darcy away for an internship in the company and eventually take her on as an assistant and possible (possible) eventual partner. Darcy did not know any of this, of course. Pepper hoped to guide Darcy gently toward the right course to start.
It would be a long road for the young woman, years of school and then years of working her way up the ranks. She'd have to earn the spot, even with Pepper's approval and guidance. For now, though, she was just Jane's intern, and Jane was happy to have her services and her company. The scientist turned her focus back to the papers scattered around the kitchen bar, took a long sip of tea, reviewed the notes she had taken, compared them with others. There was something about these results that was nagging at her, but she couldn't put her finger on it.
Thumbing through the files, the scientist frowned. "Darcy," she asked, leafing through the pages again. "Where is the data from the Portal's early tests? No, not those, I mean from before the explosion, before Stark hit on the breakthrough. The earliest tests we did. The numbers I have here are funny— I need the documents with the notes I made about those first tests… and all the subsequent tests. Why can't I find those documents?"
"That's the right file, they should be in there," Darcy replied, eyeing the label; flipping through a few of the others. "I know we made copies of everything in, like, triplicate because I made the copies, so they should be in here."
"I know they should be here," the astrophysicist complained. "They should have been in this box, in this file, but they aren't. This shouldn't have been missed. I need those papers."
"Wait…" Darcy held her hands up, eyes narrowing with thought. "The results from… you want the papers with the swirly doodles on them, right? From back when I first started the Hanging File system."
"If you mean my complex diagram, then yes, those are the ones I'm looking for." In the early testing of the initial portal Jane had— trying to piece together the information from the early results with the fragmented images they started to get with the gate was opened—turned over a number of research documents and had used them as scratch paper, sketching out what would likely appear to most, as it did Darcy, swirly doodles and notes. Sometimes Jane put her equations into images rather than a series of numbers, because she could and because sometimes it just made more sense, so the sketches were actual research.
Seeing how the pages fit together, Darcy had started the Hanging Files which had turned into a collection of research that specifically featured Jane's shorthand notes. It was a good quick reference, but unfortunately had proven difficult to create two identical sets so the one in her office at the base and the one in the Garage had minor differences depending on what was happening at the time.
"Okay, the network went down that day. I remember. The network went down before I could make all the copies. The originals are hanging in your office on the base, and right after that we started the Hanging Files at the garage. That's why they didn't make it into the folders. I never got back to make extra copies of those early pages."
"Damn it. I need those notes. There's something about these results bugging me." She sighed, tapping the blue file folder on Thor's crossing. "Okay, do you know where those pages are, in the hanging files?"
"Of course I do," Darcy replied with an annoyed look. "I created the system."
"Okay, would you mind going—"
"Yeah, I'll go get them." Darcy rolled her eyes, "But you so owe me."
Jane laughed, tuning out her assistant's half-joking mutters as she clumped around getting her purse and keys. The results had been bugging her for a while, but she just hadn't quite seen it until today. The numbers weren't right. She couldn't explain why or how, but they weren't what they should be, and it didn't make sense. Well, no more sense than why no one had noticed until now. No, she thought, Ryo had said something about the numbers before, but she'd been on vacation. He'd thought it was important, he'd been so excited, but she'd brushed him off. They'd get to it after she returned, but obviously that hadn't happened. Why not? Add that to the list of things that didn't make sense.
"Jane… Jane." Darcy's insistent tugging on her sleeve brought her back. "Do you need me to pick up anything else while I'm in town? Anything from the Garage?
"Um… yeah, I need everything we have on every single test fire we've done on the portal since it was completed, both of the portals. I want everything I've made notes on and I need you to call Ryo up and have him photograph my boards. I was working my way into something the day Thor came home but… well, I figured I'd come back to it after vacation..." Jane trailed off. "Have Ryo send a copy of the pictures to Stark too, I want him to look at it."
When Darcy had left, moved her work from the kitchen to her office and settled in to work. Her noisy if useful and, admittedly, brilliant assistant would be gone for several hours and Jane was determined to make use of the quiet. By the time her phone rang Jane had switched from tea to coffee and had documents scattered all across her workspace, intermixed with pages of notes. She was sitting cross legged on her desk when a loud old-fashioned ring split the air, disrupting her concentration. Darcy had been messing with her phone again.
"Hello" she answered distractedly,
"They aren't here" Darcy's voice emanated from the speaker.
"What isn't there?" Jane scowled,
"The copies you wanted, they aren't here. Would we have taken them down for anything?"
The anxiety that Jane had become really good at ignoring pushed at her senses and the scientist very nearly ordered her assistant to get the hell out of there and get home as fast as she could, but that was ridiculous. "Maybe," she ventured. "Maybe we took them down after we rebuilt everything." But she didn't remember doing that.
"They still should be here," Darcy muttered over the speaker. "This is a little weird, Jane. I'm sure I'd remember taking them down. Okay, you need those files. I'll call Ryo, again, he's pretty good with the Hanging Files, he can get the originals and send us copies."
They hung up, but it was only a few minutes later when Darcy texted to let Jane know that there was some sort of blip in the network, again, and they'd had to shut almost everything down to fix it. Ryo couldn't send the files, at least not tonight. However, he could bring the originals to Darcy at the Garage. Maybe. She was trying to work it out with Coulson and would keep Jane appraised. Fourty-five minutes and several messages later, the Agent had agreed to let Ryo and an escort make the delivery. Jane's young protégé was then allowed to remain off base at Jane's convenience.
Considering that the base had been on lockdown, with none of the researchers allowed off for more than a month, Jane wondered at the sudden change. Again she thought about calling Darcy home. Let Ryo and the agent travel a little longer and come all the way to the house. Again she chided herself. Darcy was already down there. It was best to use the time to work, separating the figures, calculating, mapping out her theory.
With the time it was going to take for Ryo and his escort to get here, Darcy busied herself by gathering up all the things Jane needed that she could actually find, then tearing the garage apart looking for the missing files. It just didn't make sense. But a thorough search of the garage, which included the bathroom, camp trailer, kitchen cupboards and roof, yielded dismal results. A simple mistake, Darcy wondered, or a… prank? A few missing files didn't really seem to be on caliber with contaminated food a mysteriously exploding door, or… the most recent gruesome event but, if it was, it meant that the prankster had struck outside the base for the first time.
Suddenly chilled, Darcy grabbed her purse and keys and abandoned the Garage at a run, not even bothering to lock the door behind her. She tossed her purse in the car, pausing only to hit the dome light and check the back seat and trunk bed, then leapt in and locked the doors. And sat, cursing with increasing volume as she turned the key over and over, but could not get the engine to start. Thoroughly frightened now, Darcy snatched up her cell and called her boss.
"Hello," Jane answered, "Are you on your way back yet?"
"Well, I would be, but the car won't start."
"What!" Jane asked, voice sharpening.
Rapidly and almost without taking a breath, the anxious young woman explained the situation, including her theory on the missing files. She concluded with, "I was going to just call Ryo from the car, you know, tell him to just have the escort take him all the way to the house. I mean, I figured what's a couple more hours on the road, right, but the car won't start and it was working fine, like, an hour ago. I've never had problems with this car, not after Stark tricked it out." She took a ragged breath, finding that stating her fears aloud had made them worse instead of better. "What should I do, Jane?"
On the line she could hear Jane moving around, papers shuffling, the jingle of metal— keys? "Okay, I'm getting in the van now, I'm on my way. You just stay in the car, make sure all the doors are locked, and don't go back into the Garage unless the agent gets there and cleans it— or whatever they do. Call them," Jane added, "The agent should have a heads up; I'm going to call Coulson."
Unfortunately that was the last time that Darcy would speak with anyone for the next hour. The calls she made to Ryo, Coulson, Jane and then, in desperation, Stark were unable to connect. She kept trying though, over and over, trapped in the silent car. More than once she thought about popping the hood and trying to figure out her engine. It might be just a little, easily spotted problem. But she knew nothing about cars, and wouldn't know what she was looking at, let alone what to look for. The streets of Puente Antiguo were nearly empty at this hour, though she could see a light on in the local bar. She could make a run for it; safety in numbers.
The time seemed to tick by with an aggravating slowness and the entire felt unnaturally still. The calls continued to fail, even those made to Thor and every emergency number that came to mind. Stark had given them company phones, the intern thought, phones that he had altered, adapted and, possibly, built. Nothing should be able to block service to these phones. Though Thor did say something about magic, about his brother concealing himself from the cameras when he'd been detained by S.H.I.E.L.D, maybe it could mess with the phone connection too? If so, why? No, she didn't want to think about why. It made her sick to her stomach to be trapped like this, or that she'd left Jane all alone. If something happened, Darcy thought, she'd never be able to face Thor. Not ever.
And who was doing this, and why, and freaking how? S.H.I.E.L.D. had vetted everyone that worked on the base thoroughly. She should know considering the teeny, tiny little joyriding incident from way back when they'd managed to drudge up (and whatever happened to sealed records, anyway?) It was a little scary when the big, bad sorta-secret agency seemed to be spinning their wheels. It didn't make sense. Why, though, that was another big issue. The Garage remained still and empty; no betrayal of movement to signify danger. No way to know if it was safe or not.
Despite the danger, Darcy was just starting to doze when twin headlight beams blasted into her passenger window. She squinted, staring at the dark, unmarked vehicle suspiciously, keys gripped tightly in her hands. An unremarkable man in a dark suit departed the driver's side, staring speculatively at her. The passenger side door opened and Ryo emerged. There was no more welcome a sight, Darcy thought, and stumbled from the car. The Agent listened patiently, insisting that both she and Ryo wait in his vehicle while he took a look around.
Ryo explained that they had lost communication about the same time she had. There was supposed to have been a two-agent escort, but for some reason the second agent had sent them ahead with the intention of catching up at Jane's house later. Agent Kyle had had little to say over the situation beyond that it was his job to protect Dr. Foster, Darcy and Ryo until he received further instructions.
"Did the other agent say why he was staying?"
"I did not hear the conversation. I believe the action was irregular, although the change of plans did not seem to distress Agent Kyle."
Considering that agent Kyle had almost no facial expression, Darcy wondered how he could tell. Within about ten minutes the agent was back, waving them toward the building. The coast was clear, no sign of intruder. Not inside the building or on the roof, at least. He'd bolted all doors and now the plan seemed to be to wait until Jane arrived and use her car to leave Puante Antiguo and drive until he could contact S.H.I.E.L.D. command. As nothing unusual had happened at the Foster property and as Jane now kept the van inside the garage, it seemed less likely that it had been tampered with.
"When Dr. Foster arrives we leave by the front entrance, I will step out first then Miss Lewis. Both of you head straight for her van, do not stop for anything. I'll take up the rear." He fell silent again. Darcy felt a chill creeping up her spine and a feeling of incredible wrongness.
"We should leave." She told the agent urgently, "Let's use your car and meet Jane on the road."
"My car may be compromised, it's safer to—" he paused, lifting a hand to forestall the jumble of protests that were bubbling up, but everything she wanted to stay was effectively silenced when Agent Kyle unholstered his weapon with practiced ease. He indicated silently for them to wait. Darcy held her breath as the agent disappeared into the back of the garage. There was a sound like grinding metal and then utter silence.
The second device had malfunctioned. It was a small thing, a glitch in the trigger mechanism. It was a small mistake that had spared the life of Phillip Coulson and ten of the agents that had swarmed on the Portal Hangar with him. Now the thing lay in pieces, the explosives secured. As to their maker, well, unfortunately he was dead.
The Prankster, no— Coulson corrected himself— Sammy Talbot, was dead. The medical examiner would rule asphyxiation due to strangulation, but Coulson considered it death by stupidity. Stupidity— and something else, something he couldn't put his finger on. The boy's eyes had been strange, not right. A tox screen would be run of course, that would tell them what he'd been taking. Because he had been taking something— those eye… so bloodshot it was like the capillaries had already burst even before he'd jumped.
He'd seen men die before— and women, children. He'd seen the young die, the elderly, the good and the bad. He'd killed, oh, he had killed. This death would stay with him for some time. The image of the body hanging suspended in the eye of the portal, feet kicking wildly, hands clawing desperately at the noose. They'd tried to save him— and not just to get to the devise, but he'd gone quickly— violently— but quickly.
Well, it was done now. They were doing a sweep through the base to look for more explosives, the body was on its way to the infirmary. Talbot's personal effects were already being examined, and all too soon they would find that they had just as many questions as they did before. Nothing about this made sense. Absolutely nothing.
"Agent Deryn sent me— Agent Freemont is down, sir, he was found by the garage. Sir, one of the vehicles is missing and no one can locate Agent Kyle or Doctor Akado—"
Coulson swore, wheeling around and charging for the garages shouting at the agent to gather whoever could be spared and follow. Communications were still down and Jane Foster was in terrible danger.
In the garage Coulson found Deryn with his head inside one of the vehicles. "Sabotage," his colleague spat, "Fortunately for us, really bad sabotage. There— that should do it. Kyle must have been in some hurry— I'd have cut fuel lines or, I don't know, sugared the gas tank. "
"How much of a head start does he have?"
"More than an hour, give or take. As far as I can tell he left just before we lost communication and everything went to shit."
Coulson shifted pointed at the cluster of agents spilling into the garage. "Get a few of these fixed and follow us. Two cars go straight to the Foster residence and secure it, one follows me. Deryn, you drive."
As the black SUV hurdled down the dimming desert road, Coulson was already certain of two things, one: that Jane Foster would not be at home. Two: that one of those three lives he was supposed to be protecting was already lost.
One of them was already dead.
Big thank you to Lcsaf for beta'ing this chapter. Chapter fifteen finally done. I've started on sixteen, which will be a very different sort of chapter than I've ever written. There's a quality I'm trying to capture. We'll see if I succeed.