Nexus of Redemption
An 'Avengers' story.
Written by Maven Alysse
Rating: PG13 [for violence]
Summary: Nexus (n): a center or focus; a connection, tie, or link; a connected group or series
Doors aren't the only things that can be opened from both ways.
Post-Avengers movie, "fix-it," and redemption story involving de-aging. No pairings.
A/N: Warning – this story contains references to prior torture, injuries due to said torture, mentions of child abuse and implied sexual assault of a minor, reference to prior mind control, and injuries consistent with battle and attempted escape.
A/N 2: I combined information I read in the comics for most of Hawkeye's background, but recombined some of it to make it fit a timeline that allowed him to be a member of SHIELD – so there are inconsistencies.
A/N 3: Not that it will make any difference in this story – I just wanted it mentioned that according to Norse mythology, Loki's mother's name was Laufey (Tree Island), and his father was called Farbauti (Cruel Striker). So, Loki should be named Loki Farbautison. But, since they stated in 'Thor' that Loki's father was Laufey, I have stuck to that for this story.
A/N 4: Thank you Aislinn for being the best beta reader and sounding board an author could ever hope for! Thanks to Curtis for editing for me.
Nexus of Redemption
Loki Laufeyson no longer stood in his cell on Asgard. They had thought him weak and helpless; that the special properties within the very stones of the room would block and drain his magic. He admitted, at first, it had done just that, but he'd never been one to limit his education and understanding of magic to just one branch. It had not taken long to reroute the flow of his magic and block even Heimdell's phenomenal sight – letting him see only that which Loki wished. Only a handful of weeks had passed before Loki found a way to travel beyond the walls of his cell. A hollowed tree within a grove outside the city proper became his special place when he needed to escape the cloying stone walls.
While gathering his strength and biding his time, the trickster had directed his own gaze upon Midgard. He found that he could still whisper into the ears of the weak-minded, allowing him to suggest things that let him smirk at the chaos and mischief he'd fostered. If his schemes were much milder than previously, reduced to nearly childish pranks as opposed to malicious destruction, he didn't note it. Day by day, his eyes shifted through shades of blue back to that of green.
A month later, he traveled to Midgard on his own power; taking for himself a modest dwelling where he could continue his manipulations in person and 'under the radar'. A small spell let him know if he had visitors to his prison cell so he could make the appearance of repentance to whoever arrived to harangue him over his sins. They always seemed so happy at whatever progress they thought he was making.
He mentally rolled his eyes and turned his gaze upon a translucent sphere held in his hands. Though he could, at times, lightly touch upon a few of the Avengers while they slept, he refrained from attempting to manipulate them in any way, for fear his brother or one of his friends would discover that he was not as helpless as originally believed. It wouldn't do to have his fun stopped so soon. That didn't keep him from watching them, though. Especially his Hawk. The man had captured the mage's attention. Even struggling though the aftermath of what he'd done under Loki's control, Hawkeye still had a strength about him that Loki envied. He had not been facetious when he'd proclaimed that Barton had heart. He'd spotted it the moment he'd laid eyes on the mortal – a fierceness, a fey wildness that danced around him, close to the skin, but held under tight control. The tesseract had both released that fierceness and suppressed it. It was too bad there had been no legitimate way at the time to hold the man's loyalty. If Hawkeye had been on his side of his own volition, Loki sensed things would have ended much differently than they had.
Though it took a few months before SHIELD trusted his Hawk enough to let him venture out on his own again, Loki was pleased to see Barton return to the world and work he loved. Competent and intelligent, his skills had been wasted while they had him languishing at SHIELD headquarters while the psychiatrists ran him through test after test to ensure no remnant of mind control had remained and that Barton wouldn't succumb to grief or guilt over what he'd done. Loki knew well the character of his Hawk, knew he'd overcome much in his past; if the boy hadn't broken long ago, the man wouldn't break now.
True, the man mourned the loss of his handler, the mortal Loki had stabbed, who had accurately noted that Loki lacked conviction. Loki's mouth twisted in a contemplative frown. How had he known? He shook the thought off, refocusing on his previous thought. Barton mourned over Coulson's death, which was understandable. They were warrior-brothers, a bond of trust and reliance upon the other that spanned nearly a decade of time; and Coulson had died before knowing that Barton was free of Loki's control – it was that point that truly struck Hawkeye hard. The 'head shrinks' fretted over the obvious signs of depression as Barton struggled to wrap his mind around the insurmountable dilemma; Loki would have been worried if his Hawk had shrugged the matter off as nothing. The other Avengers had rallied around the archer and the Widow, giving them the support they both needed to get back onto even footing; but Loki saw the pall that hung over his Hawk at times, keeping the man from truly healing.
That all of the suffering was unnecessary caused Loki to alternately snarl and smirk in pride. Fury had a manipulative streak within him that nearly rivaled that of the God of Lies; though whether the comparison would horrify him was a question to ask later – it'd be amusing to see the man's facial expression.
Loki pursed his lips, staring at the agent in question. Coulson lay in a coma, his survival originally hanging on a thread as doctors attempted to repair the damage the scepter cause. Loki had deliberately missed the heart, hoping to turn the man to his side later, though he had done considerable damage. At the time he'd just wanted to torment his brother by harming one of his precious humans while Thor stood helplessly by. It had been fun, though the blast from the weapon had been an unexpected complication.
Ten months later, the agent was completely healed, but he would not wake. The doctors were at a loss as to why. Loki smirked as he studied the man's aura. The tesseract's energies still flooding the man's system kept him under while his body tried to either absorb it, or remove it. It couldn't do either since Coulson wasn't a magic user, and thus he languished on the borders. Loki tapped a long finger against his bottom lip in thought, a smirk crooking the corners of his mouth. His Hawk needed a reward, and Fury needed to be punished for his audacity. Reaching deep within, Loki touched upon the magics that linked him to those he'd interacted with. He connected with Coulson, and absorbed most of the energies into himself while mentally commanding, 'Wake.'
He chuckled at the scrambling going on as Coulson opened his eyes.
Cold. He felt bone-chilling cold, like the time he'd fallen through the ice when Barney dared him to cross Old Man Hitlen's pond. He shivered and shook for what felt like days, thinking he'd never feel warm again. With a convulsive shudder, he blinked open his eyes, taking in his surroundings. The gray stones of the small room didn't look familiar, but that didn't necessarily mean anything – in the past four years he'd frequently woken to find himself somewhere other than where he'd fallen asleep. It was a hazard you had to accept when you lived the life he did. He wore a pair of dark blue sweats a few sizes too big, and no shoes or socks adorned his feet. His brows drew down in a frown, unhappy that someone had undressed him. Nothing felt odd, so... He shrugged, mentally setting it aside. The door looked solid, with the hinges not visible. He pushed himself upright, leaning against the wall as the room spun and danced dizzily. A few minutes later, he felt steady enough to examine the room in more detail. He started with the door, even knowing he wouldn't find an exit that way. He pressed an ear against the heavy wood, waiting, listening. Faint vibrations rewarded his patience, two people walking down the hall past his room. A moment later, he made out the faint 'ding' of an elevator and all went silent. He stood there, motionless, mentally repeating a song he'd learned in the circus. After six repetitions, he heard nothing. If there was a patrol, it had a route longer than half an hour.
Blue-green gray eyes scanned the room for anything that could be useful. A blanket and pillow lay crumpled in a corner as if tossed in as an afterthought. Two buckets stood in another corner; one empty, the other filled with what appeared to be water. He dipped a finger and cautiously tasted it. Warm. Flat. But it didn't taste like anything had been added. He slaked his thirst. Beside the buckets lay a loaf of bread, a wedge of cheese, and several strips of jerky. No windows broke the blankness of the walls; the room lit by a bare bulb in the center of the ceiling. An air vent secured by four screws was high on the wall opposite the door. He didn't notice any cameras or other monitoring devices. He snorted in disdain.
Clint carefully thought through his options. He'd been in this installation five days already, mostly in a small doctor's office-type room, strapped to the cot. The staff examined him on a daily basis, but no one would tell him anything useful; they'd just asked him stupid questions and hit him when he smarted off. He had a feeling he was to spend quite some time in this new room. So, he could wait until someone showed up again to shout more nonsensical questions at him and continue to smack him around. Or he could attempt to escape his cell and find answers on his own.
His gaze went back up to the vent as one hand unconsciously prodded at the bruise that threatened to close his left eye and he nodded decisively.
Buckled straps dug into his wrists as he struggled and strained against his bonds. One moment, he'd been watching some of his favorite mortals while enjoying a rare steak; the next he found himself strapped to a gurney, his head spinning and a frightening hollowness resounding from his core.
Blank faced men in their sterile white lab coats gazed upon him like an insect under glass, poking and prodding with needle and scalpel; men in red and black uniforms shouted question after question at him almost too fast to understand. They wanted the tesseract; knew he once possessed it; demanded its location. They promised freedom for his cooperation. Promised riches. Promised pain. He ignored them all, focusing inward, inward; wanting – needing – to escape as a stirring of panic welled. What should be as effortless as breathing now felt like straining to lift an elephant with one hand. They had blocked him from his magic! Even more completely than his so-called 'family' had managed.
He cursed and raved, his thoughts still scattered, his memory in pieces. After four days, he'd felt the sting of a needle, the rush of cold liquid that soon set his entire body on fire. His skin had tightened, shrunk in upon itself, feeling like a vice as muscle, bone, and organs gave in to the pressure. He remembered screaming; with even his time with the Chitauri no comparison for the pain coursing through him now. He shrieked himself hoarse, but not before puncturing eardrums and causing nosebleeds in those closest to him.
Each day, a new set of scientists examined and questioned him; injecting him with things that continued to make his magic slip out of his grasp. He rode the wave of pain to a manageable level; slowly, slowly coming back to himself. He calmed using mediation exercises, settling his mind. He might not be able to use his magic, but that didn't mean he was completely helpless – he could slip out of his bonds as long as he kept his head and didn't panic. He planned his escape and plotted their demise. They continued to question him; for the next three days he allowed his initial delirium to set the tone of his babble; knowing nothing he said would be of any use. At least to them. He wasn't called Silver Tongue for nothing; one scientist and a soldier had been convinced that shuffling off their mortal coil would be for the best. The last two days he'd been gagged.
He was alone now, the scientists all dealing with some other project for the moment. A soft scraping noise caught his attention and he went still, eyes focusing on the curtain that separated his gurney from the rest of the room. He heard the thud of something lightly landing on the tile, quiet footsteps, cabinets easing open, the slight clink of metal, the shush of drawers pulled open and items removed. The curtain rippled as the person stepped closer. Suddenly, he found himself gazing upon a young boy of about thirteen. Dusty blond hair hung in blue-green gray eyes that gazed calculatingly upon him. The piercing look made Loki cock his head feeling a sudden rush of familiarity. He didn't know why, it wasn't as if he spent a lot of time around children. He quickly dismissed the thought as the boy darted forward and unbuckled the straps with nimble fingers.
By the time Loki had slid off the gurney, tossing the gag into a corner, the boy had disappeared back behind the curtain. Following, the mage felt his brow crease in confusion. Where had he gone? The room appeared empty. A hum had him looking upward. That first scraping noise he'd heard was the air vent cover being removed. A slender arm reached out, motioning toward a nearby chair. Loki stood on it and raised his hand to grab hold, then froze, seeing his hand for the first time. Whatever these men had done to him, it had brought out his Jotun heritage. His skin was blue, and he had no doubt that his eyes shone a blood red. Startled, he looked up only to find the boy staring calmly back at him. "Grab hold. I'll pull you up," a bit raspy, the whispered comment held nothing but encouragement.
As Loki grasped the boy's hand, the young mortal surprised him with his strength. There was a moment when he thought he wouldn't fit through the opening, having to angle one shoulder in before the other while he dangled eight feet above the floor, but soon he knelt beside his savior as the boy replaced the vent cover. The boy gestured with his chin and started crawling down the shaft, hardly making a sound. Loki prided himself on being able to move without being heard, but winced at the looks shot his way each time he banged against one of the sides, his equilibrium still off.
He had several questions, but considering how quiet his guide was attempting to be, he figured he'd hold off until they were in a safer locale.
They traveled for what felt like hours, but was probably only fifteen minutes, taking random seeming turns and climbing upwards at least two floors, before they reached a widening in the ductwork. His guide slid over to the far wall and gently tapped a rhythm on the metal. A panel slid open revealing a small boy of about eleven years in age with wheat blond hair and sky blue eyes sitting in the tiny space with his arms wrapped about his knees. "You came back!"
Blue-green gray eyes narrowed, and a hand gestured for quiet. "I told you I would, didn't I, squirt?" He handed a bundled towel to the kid.
The younger boy nodded earnestly, his gaze falling on Loki, his eyes widening and his mouth falling open into a surprised 'o'. "Why are you blue? Are you cold? Will you change colors if you warm up?" Thankfully, he whispered.
Loki hadn't spent much time with children, so he wasn't sure how to reply. "I don't know. They did something and I turned blue. I don't normally look like this."
From beside him he thought he caught a murmured, "So, does that mean, sometimes you do?"
Before he could respond to the shrewd question, the younger boy had scooted out of his hiding place, swimming in a sweat suit at least five sizes too big. Duct tape had been wrapped around his wrists, ankles, and waist to keep them from falling off or hindering his movement. "I'm Steve. That's Frank. He pulled me out of a locked room and up into the ceiling. Whoosh!" He grinned. Unrolling the towel, he reached inside. "What's your name? Want an apple?" Steve pushed the fruit under his nose.
Startled, Loki took the offered fruit. "Um. Thanks. My name is Loki." As neither boy gave their last names, neither would he – the normal formality felt wrong. He bit into the apple, his stomach growling in hunger.
"Like in the stories?" Steve chirped.
"Yes. Like in the stories." Conceptually, he knew that the mortals of Midgard knew of the deeds done by the Asgardians, but it surprised him to learn that one so young had heard of them.
"My mom used to read those to me when I was little. Thor was always my favorite, defeating enemies with his mighty hammer." The blatant hero worship in the boy's eyes made something twist in his stomach, the apple tasting like ash in his mouth.
Lip curling, he turned away from Steve. "I suppose Thor was your favorite, too?" Frank had moved off a bit, opened another panel and systematically started pulling all the wiring out, part of his sleeve pulled down to protect his hand.
"Humn?" he replied, distracted. "No. Not really. Thor was my brother's favorite." He grunted as he yanked a particularly stubborn wire from its housing. "Of the two, I preferred Loki."
Loki blinked, then tilted his head in curiosity. "Why?"
"Well, Loki wasn't always very nice. According to the stories I could find, he tended to get others into trouble in order to save his own skin, and later on, he actually killed people he was jealous about. But, all in all, I thought he was pretty cool." Frank bundled the wires up and stuffed them into a pocket. "Loki was smart, clever, and determined. He proved that cunning, stealth, and trickery can win out over brute strength most of the time."
"Trickery is wrong," Steve solemnly replied in the tones of one who'd never needed to resort to it.
Before Loki could let loose a scathing comment, Frank spoke. "Well, get over it., 'cause it's trickery that's gonna save our hides. Those adults won't think twice about hurting kids, and I don't plan to give them that chance."
Steve blinked, but nodded, settling back on his haunches and eating one of the apples. Loki felt himself warm to the older boy and he bit viciously into his own apple, his appetite returning. He grabbed the last apple from the towel and shifted closer, handing over the apple. "What do you think is going on?"
Frank shook his head, lowering his voice even further. "Damned if I know. Got some jerks hitting me, asking a bunch of stuff I got no idea about, then knocking me out. I woke up in a locked room." He shoved the uneaten fruit into his pocket and pried open another panel, yanking wires out of it, too. "I got up into the vents and was just gonna book it, when I found Steve. He's too little to just left behind. No telling what those sickos would do."
"Sickos?" Loki hadn't heard the term before.
"Grown men snatching orphans? What do you think is gonna happen? It's not like they can hold us for ransom." Frank hadn't met his eyes and his motions were jerky with tension.
Loki's lips thinned. Even in the height of his madness to rule Midgard, he had never willingly injured children and what Frank suggested disgusted him. "What should we do?"
Frank scrubbed a hand through his hair, making it stand on end. "I've been up here most of the day. I don't know if or when the guards are going to check on us and find us missing. My guess, you'd be the one they'd notice first." Loki nodded at that assessment. "I almost have the entire place mapped out," he tapped his head. "There's a couple of spots I need to check. Then I gotta figure a way out for the adults."
"There's like three other guys being held in cells like mine and Steve's. They're all wearing blue sweats, too. I figure they're also prisoners." He shrugged, an awkward movement at odds with his previously gracefulness, screaming his unease. "None of them would have fit up into the air vent. Hell, you almost didn't and they're a lot bigger than you. Since no one was hurting them, I figured it was safer to leave them be until I could either direct them to a defensible spot, or get them some weapons, or something." He sighed, rubbing the side of his head.
It was obvious that Frank was struggling with self-preservation by leaving the adults to their fate and a budding sense of responsibility that wouldn't allow him to abandon the others. As for himself, Loki would normally let the adults handle themselves, but since they were all brought together for some purpose, Loki wanted to discover what that purpose truly was. He tried to distract the other boy from his thoughts. "Why did you do that?" He indicated the pulled wires.
A wan smile crossed thin features at the change in conversation, the first Loki had seen on the young teen. "You never know when a bit of string, or in this case, wire, can come in handy. Besides, if it wasn't important to something, it wouldn't be here. I'm kinda hoping that if I cause enough damage to stuff, then it'll make it harder for them to come after us."
"Good point." Loki drew Steve closer and they went around opening every panel they could find and yanking out all the wires.
"We should leave. If they figure out what's going on, this'll probably be the first place they check."
"Down a floor and to the other side of the building. There's a place we can hole up. Steve, pick up that apple core. No sense in letting them know who's up here."
Steve obeyed, but asked. "How would they know who's up here from an apple core?"
"You got small teeth, small fry. Who else around here would have teeth as small as yours?"
"Oh. Right." He tucked the apple core into his shirt and crawled after the older boys.
Once there, Frank gave the place a once over, nodding to himself. "This should work for a while." He studied the two boys, a faint frown forming between his eyes. "Hey, I need to check out those other spots and I can do it easier if I go alone. Okay if I leave the two of you here?"
"How long do you think it will take?"
"Half an hour to forty five minutes if things go well."
Loki nodded and watched with a frown of his own as the boy gave a salute and silently scooted away through the ventilation shaft.
Steve looked up, eyes frightened. "Do you think he'll be okay?"
"I'm sure he will." He caught the yawn Steve tried to suppress. "You should get some sleep. You look tired."
"I'm not a baby! I don't need a nap." The indignant look might have amused him at another time, but now it just annoyed him.
"Whatever. But if you fall asleep when we're trying to escape I'll leave you behind." The glare he sent caused Steve's face to fall and he huffed in exasperation at the hangdog look. "Just, lay down for a while. Okay?" He leaned up against one of the walls, and blinked in confusion when instead of curling up away from him, Steve crept closer, his head cushioned upon Loki's thigh. And if he softly recited a few adventures his brother had gone through while stroking the boy's hair, well, he'd deny it to his last breath.
Time passed. Long enough that Loki began to worry. Then a whisper of sound and Frank came to a rest beside them. He looked out of breath, but strangely exhilarated, and a new scrape adorned his cheek. "Found an access hatch to the outside. Didn't see any guards, though they might have cameras I couldn't see. Loki, could you take Steve and find a place to hide topside?"
"Why can't you take him?" "Why can't I stay?" came the twin responses.
Frank shot them both a bland look. "Steve can't stay. You're too little and I don't want ta worry about you on top of everything else. You can't go alone for the same reason so don't even try to argue about it." Steve pouted, but didn't protest. Loki raised a brow, impressed, though he quickly schooled his features when those blue-green gray eyes landed on him again. "You're too distinctive looking. If the grownups see you and freak out, it'll take that much longer ta get them to listen an' follow us out. They might even try to hurt you."
Loki gazed upon Frank with admiration. "My coloration truly does not disturb you, does it?"
Frank shrugged. "So your skin is blue. So, what? I met one dude who not only had blue skin, but fur all over his body, yellow eyes, pointy ears, and a prehensile tail. Best damned trapeze artist in the business." This was stated calmly and as a matter of fact. Loki merely blinked and accepted that he ... was accepted. It made a strange sensation glow warmly in his chest. "Besides, a couple of the passageways I plan to take to get to the adults are too narrow for you."
Loki had to concede that point; though slender, he still towered over Frank by several inches and his shoulders were wider. The younger boy had already proven his agility and flexibility while they'd traversed the vents and broken into a few empty offices for supplies. "I don't like the idea of you staying behind. What if you're caught?"
"I'll deal with it." Loki frowned at the tone – it indicated a set of experiences one that young should never have. But he could do nothing to change the situation.
They followed Frank to the hatchway. "Your exit, gentlemen." They spent a moment dividing the supplies they'd scrounged, Loki pocketing a set of knives and scalpels as well as some of the wire, snack food, and bottled water. "Head straight ahead for as long as you can. I'll try to catch up to you later. If you find a town, hide in the outskirts to the east of it. I'll find you there."
Loki put a hand on Frank's shoulder, desperately wishing he had access to his magic. Even a small monitoring spell would be helpful about now. He needed to know that his ... friend? ... Yes, friend; would be all right. A shudder went through him, his skin cooling, and a dull ache took residence behind his eyes as the small spell clicked into place. It took entirely too much energy to complete and didn't give him nearly as much information as it was wont to do, but it was there and he'd have to remain content with that. At the connection, the younger boy shuddered, too; Loki could see through the gaping collar goosebumps rise along his neck. As eyes more blue than green or gray met his, the mage once again felt that shock of familiarity. Why was that?
"You will find us, right?" Steve asked timidly.
The question broke them from their staring and Frank ruffled the boy's hair. "Sure I will, kiddo. Listen to Loki, okay?" Steve nodded and trustingly clasped the older boy's hand. "Now, go."
The two slipped out, and Loki concentrated on getting as far away from the exit as quickly and quietly as possible, trying to ignore the ominous click as the hatch shut behind them.
Captain Phil Coulson of the 27th Battalion Rangers prowled around his small cell, his mind furiously trying to process information. His command had been en route to a remote location in East Germany to stomp out a fire, their plane somewhere over the Atlantic. No radio chatter indicated they'd been discovered, no engine trouble or sudden explosion from sabotage had occurred. So, where was he? How did he get here? Where were his other squad members? For five days the scientists made notations on their clipboards while the soldiers in their red and black uniforms took turns burying their fists in his abdomen. None of the questions they asked made any sense; most about nothing he had any knowledge or access to. It confused him, and he hated being confused.
He'd been in this room for hours now, with no other attempts at communication from his captors. On the one hand, he appreciated the chance to catch his breath, but it let his mind come up with different scenarios of what they planned for him next. Each more brutal than the last. The door's hinges were impossible to get to and he reluctantly dismissed the air vent as an escape route as his shoulders would never fit through the narrow opening. His captors had made one major error, though. He could pry off the lip of the buckets they'd provided to make a handy shiv or even a makeshift screwdriver. He didn't know what he would do with the four screws from the vent cover, but he figured he'd think of something, eventually. For now, all he could do was wait for someone to enter and try to subdue them before they overcame him.
"Hey! Soldier boy! Head's up!"
Phil snapped around, eyes wide as the near-forgotten air vent lifted and a pair of eyes stared warily down upon him. In the dim recesses of the vent, Phil couldn't quite make out who addressed him, just a small form – could it be a midget? But then the quality of the voice registered: a bit raspy, but higher pitched. Young sounding. A child?
A wave of rage washed over him: they had captured children?
The boy drew back and Phil knew he must have let his shock and anger show on his face, something that didn't usually happen, but these were hardly usual circumstances. He reigned in his emotions, not wanting to send the boy fleeing. "Hey," he tried for soothing. "Hey, it's okay. I was just surprised. Are you okay? Are you injured?"
Phil smirked at himself, he should have expected that. Why would the kid reveal a weakness?
"I could get you guys out."
"Guys?" He blinked, startled. Were some of his squad members here, too? Or had others been captured?
The boy hummed. "The two rooms to your left are occupied. Looks like blue sweats and no shoes are the prisoner uniforms of choice." He crept nearer the opening and Phil could make out thin features, one eye turning a spectacular rainbow of colors, a scrape down one cheek, disheveled dusty blond hair, and blue-green gray eyes that held intelligence, wariness, and hope in equal measure. "There aren't even any locks on the doors. They've got one of those push bars you see on fire exits. I can pop them open easily."
Phil nodded slowly, "But can you do it safely?"
"Here." The boy tossed an object; a pistol. Its weight felt comfortable in his grasp, the full clip a blessing, though how the boy got a hold of it, he was almost afraid to ask.
"It's amazing what people will leave just lying about," came a wry chuckle. Before Phil could respond, the boy replaced the vent cover and ducked away back down the shaft. Several nerve-wracking moments passed while ever increasingly morbid thoughts of the boy being found and killed flashed through his mind. His body jerked slightly when he heard the soft 'click' of the door disengaging. Phil caught the edge with his fingertips and eased out into the corridor beyond his cell. He stood at the end of a short hallway, but the boy was nowhere to be seen. "Hello?" he softly called, worried he somehow hallucinated the whole thing, but the tile felt cold beneath his feet and the pistol was a reassuring weight in his hand.
"I'm here." The whisper from the ceiling should have creeped him out, but Phil felt reassured to hear the boy's voice.
"I'm Phil. What can I call you?"
A long pause and he thought he heard a sigh. "Frank." Then in a rushed, clipped tone, he continued. "You're on the lowest level. The two rooms to your left have prisoners. There's an elevator at the end of the hall. Beside it is a storage closet of some sort with a service ladder. I think that would be your best bet. You'd get stuck in an elevator."
Another pause. "I got them out already. Too bad you're so big or you could have gone out our way."
His gut wrenched at the implication that other children had been held here and he again had to wrestle with his emotions.
"Better get moving, no telling when someone will come by."
Phil nodded and padded down the hall, pistol ready. He hoped Frank would stay nearby; not only did the boy know more about the area and situation than he did, but he didn't feel comfortable about having the child away from where he could protect him.
"I'll let them know you're coming. It'd kind of suck if they tried to take you out with a bucket." The snicker was barely hidden. "Give me a minute, then tap, okay?"
"Yes." He stood against the wall to reduce his profile in case the elevator doors opened and guards came shooting. Counting to himself, trusting Frank had the situation in hand, he slid over to the first door and tapped twice with a finger. At the answering tap, he popped the door open. A young man, somewhere around his own age, slid out into the hallway, hair in a tangled mass of dark curls, equally dark eyes alert and wary, a small scalpel held tightly in one hand. "Interesting way to coordinate a rescue," the slight smile softened any implied criticism.
Phil quirked a brow as if to say, "It worked, didn't it?" and motioned for the other to follow him. Tapping on the second door, he soon had another man in the corridor with them, this one nearly a decade older, sporting salt and pepper hair and washed out blue eyes. This one had a scowl on his face and he waved his own scalpel through the air in his agitation. "Children? You sent a child into the vents? Are you completely mad?"
Phil opened his mouth but was cut off by an annoyed hiss from the vent. "I sent myself. You wouldn't even be out if it weren't for me. Stop gabbing and get into the damn storage closet."
Amusement colored Phil's tone at the other's reaction of a dropped jaw and widening eyes. "You heard the man. Let's get moving." He couldn't decide if he was disappointed or glad that none of his squad appeared to be here. Things were definitely feeling off-center, but now wasn't the time to try to puzzle things out. "I'm Captain Phillip Coulson. You can call me Phil. Our guardian angel is Frank."
"Bruce Banner," the younger of the two men murmured.
"Banner? Doctor Banner?" the second asked incredulously. "I read your paper on nuclear physics in Science Monthly Journal. Brilliant work."
A small pleased smile flashed over Banner's face as they continued down the corridor. "Thank you, Mr. …?" He trailed off, suggestively.
"Oh. Eric. Doctor Eric Selvig. Astrophysics."
Recognition flashed in his eyes. "I attended one of your seminars last summer."
"Were either of you working on anything that could have drawn this kind of attention to you?" Phil tried to figure out a logical reason for the two scientists to be here.
Both men shook their heads. "I'm working on some calculations for NASA on space travel, but nothing is anywhere near completion," Dr. Selvig's gaze darted about, his hands clenching and unclenching in nervousness.
A graceful shrug, "I've started researching gamma radiation and their effects."
Steps away from the storage closet, the elevator doors slid open, the car containing five men in uniform, each with a holstered pistol at his hip. The two groups stood stunned for one brief moment in surprise and horror. Phil reacted first, raising his pistol and shooting the man who had brought a walkie-talkie to his lips, trying to keep him from sounding an alarm. He fell with a cry, goading the others into action. Phil shoved the two scientists to the floor, a bullet shredding the air above their heads. Phil returned the favor, catching a second soldier high in the chest; the elevator car a killing box as the guards had no place to go. The man fell back onto one of his comrades, hindering his movements. Phil shot a third, but the man had already fired. Phil hissed in pain as the bullet carved a furrow along his upper right bicep, sending his pistol clattering to the floor. He clutched at the wound, taking a couple of steps towards his fallen weapon, eyes locked on the others. From the corner of his eye, he caught a streak of silver flash past him as Banner sent his scalpel into the fourth man's neck. He fell with a gurgled scream, clawing at his throat. The last soldier shoved his companion's body off and lunged towards the now defenseless Banner. Crossing the threshold, he inexplicably tripped, landing on his hands and knees. Selvig stepped forward and slammed his fist down on the back of the soldier's neck, knocking him out.
For a long moment, no one moved, the actions of the last few minutes so fast and furious it left them stunned.
"How bad is it?" The scientists startled at the voice from the ceiling, but Phil felt a knot in his chest relax. "Not bad. The bleeding has almost stopped on its own. I still have full range of movement, there's no muscle damage. It won't hinder me." If he thought it strange to give a child a sit rep he never let it show. The vent cover shifted and Frank wiggled out to land in a silent crouch, gazing at the bodies with his head cocked. Phil felt his heart lurch, wishing the boy hadn't needed to see that.
The boy fished around within his baggy shirt. Phil noted with interest that Frank had snagged some duct tape and zip ties from somewhere and had gathered the extra material in the sweats to create pocket folds. He handed over a bottle of water, a half-filled bottle of generic over the counter painkillers, and half a roll of tape to Dr. Selvig who had knelt down beside Phil to examine the wound.
Selvig took the offered items with a distracted smile and ripped fabric from one of the guards' uniforms to create a bandage. "Hold still. Let me bind it. Are any of them alive?"
Banner gently moved Frank away from the doorway to check on the bodies. "Just the one you knocked out." He collected the weapons and the walkie-talkies and leaned back on his haunches. "Well, at least we have someone we can question, but what are we going to do with them? We can't just leave them in the elevator; someone will find them. But I don't relish trying to cart them down the hall."
"Jam the door open." They stared at Frank who looked back at them expectantly.
Phil blinked. "Right. The car won't move if the door is still open. If we keep one of the bodies in the way of the door, the car will stay here and keep others from using it, too." He frowned slightly, "Even if we move the bodies, it's obvious something happened and we don't have the time for cleaning it." He indicated the blood and dents made by the bullets.
Frank slipped over to the storage closet, holding the door open and waving impatiently. Banner and Selvig manhandled the downed guard into the room while Phil dragged one of the bodies to lie half in, half out of the elevator and pocketed the equipment.
Banner and Selvig stood awkwardly beside the unconscious guard, while Frank stared at the man with a fierce expression that sent shivers down Phil's spine. No child should look like that. Just who was this kid, anyway? "I'm going to question him – I'd rather you not be here when I do so." Phil meant Frank, but directed the statement to the scientists, understanding that though young, the boy wouldn't appreciate any attempts at 'protecting' him. A flat gaze and a reluctant nod from the boy told him that Frank hadn't been fooled, but wouldn't call him on it.
A panel in the wall led to the elevator's service ladder. Glancing up, Phil could see that there would be plenty of room to climb even if the elevator was in working order. "I can take them to a room I found – it's three floors up, second door on the left. Another storage room, but doesn't look like many people use it. It was real dusty. But it might have stuff we can use." 'Don't take long,' went unspoken. The boy didn't trust them, he had no real reason to do so. He only revealed himself to help fellow prisoners, and would run if things went south. Phil nodded his understanding.
Frank jerked his head for the two men to follow and started climbing. Once the three are out of sight, Phil turns to the man just now groaning back into consciousness. "Let's see how much you know, shall we?"
Loki cursed as Steve stumbled for the fifth time in the past fifteen minutes. The little boy couldn't keep up with Loki's longer stride, but to his credit, he'd gamely struggled on and made no complaints. They'd been running, in more or less a straight line, for nearly an hour. The dark circles and drawn face told him that the younger boy was at the end of his endurance.
With a sigh, Loki swept Steve up onto his back. "Hang on, but don't choke me." Thin legs wrapped themselves around his waist, and thin fingers grasped his shoulders leaving his hands free. Frank had offered him one of the extra pistols he'd found, but the Jotun had refused. He didn't know how to use one and had no time to learn. With his magic on the fritz, he only had stealth, speed, a pair of knives and his wits to depend on. Sadly, he feared they'd made little actual headway and all of Steve's crashing about would have alerted even the deaf.
It came as no surprise when ten minutes later he rounded a copse of trees and came face to face with a squad of soldiers. Loki hoped Frank wouldn't be too disappointed when they weren't around to meet him.
Phil walked the man out to the elevator and swiftly broke his neck, not wanting to waste a bullet on him, letting the body fall amidst his comrades. Lips pressed in a thin line, his mind worked feverishly to process the information he'd gleaned. HYDRA had a device that located and transported anything that resonated with the same energy as the tesseract. Phil knew what the tesseract was – he was a Captain America fan, after all – but he had no idea that it had been found. Supposedly, HYDRA's device had brought several crates of experimental weaponry and six people. When normal interrogation techniques had failed to give them the answers they'd wanted, HYDRA's scientists, in their infinite wisdom, decided to use an experimental serum – a concoction of magic and science – that would, conceivably, make the subjects less resistant. Less than successful, what it had done was to de-age each of them by twenty years, including all their skills, abilities, and memories. Phil hovered on the edge of skepticism on the validity of that claim, but figured, if true, the tesseract energy was to blame for the screw-up. Useless as sources of relevant information, HYDRA planned to hold on to them for further experimentation, though Selvig and Banner might be of use to them; they were both brilliant scientists in their specific fields. One of the "boys" had demonstrated some type of abnormality and had been taken for study, while the other two had recently been placed in cells and ignored. Phil couldn't help the snarl that curled his lip. They would be used as leverage to get the others to do as ordered. The guard's idea of appropriate 'punishment' should they prove recalcitrant turned Phil's stomach.
He started climbing the service ladder, a bit awkward with a pistol in hand, but with the elevator out of service, he wanted to be prepared in case anyone arrived. He wondered how he would explain that they should be twenty years older and if he believed it himself. He didn't feel any different (admittedly, he wouldn't if the guard was telling the truth), and he hadn't actually seen anything to indicate that he missed twenty years. As a psychological ploy, though, it was weak. He decided to shelve it until he could get some actual confirmation one way or another.
He sidled down the hall and to the storage closet, giving a quick tap so as not to startle the others. Sliding into the room, he felt his heart drop, finding only the signs of a struggle. The others were gone, but his eye caught on the odd arrangement of items on the ground.
Once at the storage room, Clint felt antsy, and barely spared the contents of the closet a glance before climbing up into the vent. He shuffled himself a bit further from the vent; he needed a bit of breathing room, a way to get a hold of himself. That the adults were too large to follow him in here was an added bonus. His nerves thrummed just as they would before a performance; panic clawed at the back of his throat, threatening to make him start screaming, screaming, screaming. To make him curl up in a ball, and shake, and never move again. He didn't know what he was doing – didn't know what compelled him to help these adults when adults had never done anything for him. When he'd found Steve, it had been an automatic reaction to tell him his name was Frank. None of the kids in the circus would tell their real names to the townies – it caused too much trouble, was easier to state with complete truth 'No, officer, we don't have any kids here by that name, must have been one of the town kids.' Trust didn't come easily for Clint, not anymore, maybe not ever, but he also couldn't just sit there while there might be something he could do to help.
With Loki, he almost told him his real name at the end, when he saw them out the hatch, but he didn't want to have to waste time explaining the trick. Not that he thought Loki would be upset, he seemed a lot like his namesake in that manner, but Steve would have had questions and it wasn't something he was prepared to deal with at the time. As for the adults, well, lying to adults was second nature to him by now.
He knew Coulson had been upset over his presence wherever they were, and he'd seen the look of horror and pity sent his way after the guards had died. Clint didn't want to have to explain that this wasn't the first time he'd seen a dead body.
He idly watched Banner and Selvig search the shelves, pulling two large containers of cleaning solutions out. Banner found a few smaller bottles and jars and Clint could hear parts of their hushed conversation, catching short phrases like: hydrochloric acid, toxic vapors, and hydrazine. One of them overreached and knocked a bottle over, which in turn sent several items clattering off a shelf and onto the floor. All three held their breath; Clint clenched his fists tightly; Banner and Selvig clutched their scalpels.
For a moment, for a brief moment, it looked like the noise had gone unheard. Just as the two scientists began to relax and continue their search, the door slammed open, catching Selvig in the shoulder and spinning him around. Men swarmed into the small room, crowding Banner and Selvig up against the shelves. One shelf collapsed under the combined weight, sending items to scatter across the room. Banner struck with his scalpel, earning a ragged hiss of pain and being clubbed with a pistol butt in reply. Selvig managed to knock down two before also been rendered unconscious. Clint watched, wide-eyed, as the guards continued beating and kicking the two men. One toggled a handset and only his proximity to the vent allowed Clint to hear, "We found two in the storage closet on four."
~ Bring them to lab eight. We'll question them all. ~
"Yes, sir." He snapped to the others. "Lab 8. We're going to have a conversation." The smirks told Clint all he wanted to know about how that conversation would be conducted. He waited, motionless and silent, while the guards manhandled Banner and Selvig out of the closet and down the hall. Once out of earshot, he tilted his head considering his options.
He could rabbit. No one would blame him. He was just a kid and these were insane adults with weapons. Coulson was still loose and he looked like he could handle anything thrown his way. On the other hand, the man had said 'all'. What did that mean? Had Coulson been caught? Or, and his heart caught in his throat at the thought, had Loki and Steve been found? Even if Coulson was still free, he was just one guy. Clint worried his bottom lip with his teeth, tasting blood as he warred with himself.
Dropping down into the room, he glanced at the two canisters Banner and Selvig had been studying. A slow, wicked little smile crossed his face at the possibilities. Quickly gathering what he needed and storing it in his pockets, he rearranged some of the items on the floor, hoping if Coulson showed he'd get the message. He darted back up into the vent and headed up one floor to Lab 8.
Loki absently sucked the blood off his bottom lip and studied the men around him with a jaundiced eye. He'd had bloody lips before – one could not grow up with Thor as an enthusiastic older brother and not end up nursing scrapes and bruises on a regular basis. He wasn't even overly surprised at the backhanded slap he'd received when he'd mouthed off to the soldier in charge of bringing them back to the compound. No, what bothered him was the callous way Steve had also been treated. The boy now sported a black eye, but had made no sound after the first startled cry and had quickly dashed away any tears. Loki had to admire him for that – the kid definitely had a backbone. The small ember of rage had grown, it wouldn't take much to send it blossoming into a towering inferno; even when subjugated by the Chitauri, Loki had never targeted children. These 'people' were no better than insects and he would take great pleasure in stomping upon them.
As they were frog-marched through the front gates and down a few levels, Loki tried to keep a mental tally of the number of people they encountered. For it's size, there weren't as many people as Loki was expecting; his own secret lair had been only a fraction of the size and he'd had many people doing his bidding – all due to his Hawk's excellent recruiting skills. The soldiers would be difficult to get around in his current condition – there had to be some way to negate the magic suppressor that was on him – but the scientists appeared too out of shape and inwardly-turned to be of much resistance.
The soldiers manhandled them into a lab: computers lined two walls, equipment panels and low tables lined the other two. Six gurneys with straps stood in a double line in the center of the room; towels covered instrument trays, hiding the contents from sight but not from the imagination. The ceiling had beams criss-crossing it's length and width, and dead center hung a large fan, probably in case of any chemical accidents.
They forced the two 'kids' onto the gurneys, strapping them down. Steve struggled instinctively, almost bordering on panic, another slap to the face stunned him long enough for them to restrain his hands and feet. Loki didn't struggle, but he did clench his fists tight, making the muscles in his wrists stand out. Relaxing once the scientist turned away, Loki had enough wiggle room to slip out of the cuffs. Then they were ignored. Loki huffed, somewhat annoyed. The HYDRA agents didn't even ask them how they'd escaped.
Loki attempted to listen in to the conversation around him, but he couldn't understand the terms being used. He scowled again, but his annoyance was curtailed when a squad of men entered the lab. Two had bodies draped over their shoulders. Too large to be Frank, the sight never the less unnerved the Jotun. He heaved a sigh of relief as the guards strapped the bodies onto gurneys. You didn't tie down corpses. He studied the two men across from him and blinked in surprise, then blinked again. He knew these men. The one on the right was Banner, the man he'd goaded into becoming the Hulk, the one who had slammed him repeatedly into the floor of Stark's penthouse, waking him. The other was Selvig, his pet scientist, the one who'd studied the tesseract and opened a portal that allowed the Chitaurian army to invade.
They looked different somehow. Fewer lines marred their faces. No gray in Banner's hair, and more black in Selvig's. They were … younger looking. His eyes narrowed. Craning his head, he managed to catch a glimpse of himself in a reflective surface. Trying to deal with the fact his Jotun heritage had surfaced, it hadn't registered that he was shorter than usual. Thor and his Asgardian friends had always loomed over him and he'd been taller than both Frank and Steve. It should have registered that the Midgardian soldiers looked taller than he remembered most mortals to be in comparison to himself. He studied his reflection, ignoring the blue skin and red eyes. Yes, he looked younger as well. About fifteen annuls rather that the dignified thirty-five annuls he'd aged himself to.
He pursed his lips, and concentrating on the image, brought forth his aura in his mind's eye. A dark spot surrounded his throat, centered at the nape of his neck. Whatever they had done to suppress his magic had to have its origin at that point. If he could remove it, he'd show these men that Loki Laufeyson was no one to trifle with.
Leaving the storage closet, Phil broke into an empty office and used the log-in and password the owner had thoughtfully taped to the monitor. He shook his head at the incompetence, but couldn't complain since it benefited him. He felt himself grow cold as he scanned the files. There was information about the tesseract and the machine created to locate and transport anything that held similar energies. Nine days ago, six individuals had arrived at the complex, each attuned to one degree or another to the energy that was the tesseract, along with several crates of experimental weaponry. Despite four days of intense questioning (torture – his mind supplied, reading between the lines) all they got for their trouble was name, rank, and serial number. There had been a few notations of what else the others had done or said during their 'interrogations', as well as a little about what the agents could discover about each individual through outside sources.
Phil was pleased to see that he'd only 'smiled blandly' to everything. He was labeled as an agent of SHIELD, though no one seemed to know what he did there.
Doctor Eric Selvig had a doctorate in astrophysics, had worked with NASA as a younger man, and now worked out of New Mexico on something called the Einstein-Rosen Bridge or Bi-frost. There was a notation that the Bridge led to a place called 'Asgard'. When questioned, Selvig merely rattled off scientific formulas and star names.
Loki had an interesting dossier: there was some confusion whether he was a human magic-user who had the ability to shape-shift, or an Asgardian himself. If the latter, Loki had used the tesseract to open a portal in space and allow aliens to invade the earth – only defeated by a small team of superheroes called 'the Avengers'. After injecting him with a magical suppressor, they'd removed the gag to get more information. They failed, but not before Loki convinced two agents to commit suicide before they replaced the gag.
Rogers kept reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. (And wasn't that a shock? Steve Rogers – The Captain America – was alive, well, and here!) It seemed the super soldier serum was trying to return Rogers to 'fighting trim' – he'd de-aged like the rest of them, but had begun aging again at an accelerated rate of a year a day. Phil quickly made the calculation in his head. Rogers had disappeared at the age of 26. If he'd been de-aged by twenty years, and they'd been like this for five days, that would make him eleven now.
Dr. Bruce Banner was the leading scientist in nuclear physics and gamma radiation. According to the notes he, like Loki, received some sort of suppressor injection on a daily basis. Phil didn't understand most of the medical jargon, but it looked like it had to do with the adrenal gland. For some reason, they didn't want the doctor getting angry. Banner had remained mostly silent, reciting scientific formulas as well, but in ancient Greek.
The last man, Clint Barton, also an agent of SHIELD, either answered a question with a question or sang fragments of songs.
As a group, they'd frustrated the HYDRA agents to the point where they'd resorted to an experimental serum to break their resistance. The plan was to weaken them both physically and mentally. Instead, it had de-aged them. Without their current knowledge, they were useless as forms of information. The scientists spent five days examining them, trying to see if they could reverse the de-aging. Unable to find the tesseract, the scientists placed them in their cells. Perhaps some experimentation could draw whatever tesseract energies remained within them.
Phil wondered if 'Frank' was Loki or Barton. No pictures accompanied the files and other than the mention of de-aging, no age estimates were given (an oversight Phil would never have made). He'd already met Banner and Selvig, and he knew Rogers had blond hair and blue eyes, whereas 'Frank' had dusty blond hair and odd hazel tri-colored eyes. He guessed he'd have to ask when (if) he saw the boy again.
Phil used his access to download what he could onto a disk he found in a drawer, then typed in a code a hacker-friend once taught him. He didn't know if it would work – after all, he was apparently twenty years behind the times – but he had to try something. He quickly tossed the rest of the office, finding a spare set of clothes and another clip for his pistol.
Phil Coulson calmly walked through the door of Lab 8, clad in stolen clothing, the ill-fit hidden by the lab coat – carrying a clipboard and wearing a polite, if slightly vague and preoccupied smile upon his face. He'd already long established a basic human tenant – act calmly, like you belong, and as if you know exactly what you are doing and people would take that as fact until you exhibited behavior contrary to expectations. He wandered about the room, going from station to station, hiding the mounting horror at the information he gleaned. The HYDRA agent's attempts at combining magic with science had not gone well thus far, but with the addition of an actual magic-user – Loki – they had a new avenue of research to explore. He and the others were now mere guinea pigs to whatever the scientists dreamed up, with the two youngest mostly expendable as the current theory held that their smaller bodies would not handle the experimentation as well.
Four gurneys lay occupied. Banner and Selvig appeared unconscious, the visible bruising a momentary cause of concern. Both men were hooked up to various monitors, but Banner had an extra one that connected to something at the nape of his neck. A boy of perhaps eleven lay across from them; sky blue eyes nearly concealed by a fringe of wheat blond hair darted about. Small face creased in determination, one thin wrist twisting surreptitiously within its cuff. He might be able to slip out if no one paid undue attention. Phil paused mentally as his inner geek tried to rise to the surface – that little boy was Captain America. THE Captain America. Found and rescued from the ice, the man who nearly single-handedly took down most of the HYDRA bases in Germany as well as defeated the Red Skull. The look of determination on his face proved to Phil it wasn't the serum that made Rogers special.
The last gurney held a slight figure with blue skin and red eyes. Phil blinked and blinked again, not letting his astonishment show on his face. This must be Loki, the magic-user who connected them all with the energy of the tesseract. He looked like a teenager – bored and angry – but Phil was used to seeing through masks. The magic-user was furious and if given the opportunity, would wreck havoc on the HYDRA agents. HYDRA had Loki listed as hostile and extremely dangerous. He didn't know if the magic-user would help his fellow captives, but Phil planned to let him have that opportunity.
That meant that the child he knew as Frank was Agent Clint Barton of SHIELD. He kept a smirk off his face by sheer dint of will as he listened to the increasingly frustrated reports sent back and forth by walkie-talkie. No one had seen hide or hair of the boy, and though a few electrical problems had been discovered, none of the soldiers appeared overly worried. They should be. Phil recognized many of the mannerisms 'Frank' had exhibited from street kids he'd met in his youth. The boy was smart, quick, and canny. If he hadn't hared off, and he didn't seem the type to just leave people to their fate, Phil had a feeling HYDRA wouldn't know what hit them. The boy was the one to break everyone out in the first place and had done so undetected. Phil kept an eye out, wondering when the boy would show.
Clint found Lab 8 and eased out of the smaller than usual vent with some difficulty and onto one of the crossbeams. Lying on his stomach, he spent a few minutes watching the activity below and chewing his bottom lip in thought. There were too many people to just slip down to floor level and unbuckle straps unnoticed. No one would be leaving through that vent in a hurry – they'd have to find an alternate exit. He'd need a diversion, and even then, there were no guarantees that he would be successful. He shuddered, berating himself as seven types of fool, but he didn't return to the vents, cataloging all of the adults below. Eight men in uniform, and ten men and women in lab coats. Not good odds.
Banner and Selvig were still unconscious. Panic threatened again, and he seriously considered making a run for it, himself. Let the adults look after themselves, he didn't owe them anything. Hadn't he already risked himself enough getting them out of their cells? The two smaller forms strapped to cots curtailed his desire to flee. Loki and Steve were just kids. Like him. The only ones he'd ever been able to depend upon (even if it was to depend on them being little shits) were the other kids in the circus. They warned each other of potential trouble, would be distractions for the others, and were practically the only family most of them had since the parents tended to ignore the 'lot lice' unless Mr. Carson got complaints. Yes, he could try to save his own skin, and no one would truly blame him, but he knew he had to try to free them. The questions was: How?
He lay out his supplies on the beam, taking stock of what he had that he could use. On his way here, he'd raided a few more empty rooms. He had several rags, three bottles of water, five glass vials of ammonia and six of bleach, a handful of office supplies and knick-knacks good for throwing, and two full clips for the pistol he'd stolen.
He examined the weapon, glad to see it was clean and in good working order. His daddy had taught him how to hunt with both pistol and rifle, a few of his foster homes had encouraged the skill – it meant less money spent on food -, and the circus had improved his aim phenomenally adding the bow and knife throwing to his repertoire. He really didn't want to kill anyone, but these people had already demonstrated their lack of humanity and he would be damned if he allowed them to hurt him or the others without retaliation.
He studied the room below once again as he carefully soaked six rags with water; with a faint grin, he spotted Coulson in his lab coat. He smirked at the man's audacity and the stupidity of the other adults. How did that even work as a disguise? Steve nearly had one hand free of the cuff – the boy smart enough to stop for now – all he had to do was relax his fist and his hand would slide right out. Both Banner and Selvig were groggily waking, but none of the scientists had gone to check on them, yet. He caught Loki's eye, glad to see the older boy also had one hand nearly free of the cuff. He tied one of the rags about his nose and mouth and hefted a pair of vials in one hand, indicating a far wall. A pause and then a quick bob of the chin was his response. Clint counted to three, bobbing his head in time for Loki's benefit. One. Two. Three!
In quick succession, pairs of vials flew through the air, aimed for the exact center of each corner of the room as well as the entranceway. Ammonia and bleach mixed to form a dense cloud of toxic vapor, sending those around it into fits of gagging and coughing. As the confusion and panic spread, Clint dated across the beams, a water soaked rag landing with pinpoint accuracy across each prone prisoner's mouth and nose. The other adults were coughing and wheezing too much to notice, trying to head for the exit in a massive rush. One rag draped itself over Coulson's shoulder and the man accepted it with a nod in his direction. Five scientists and three guards made it out of the room before the containment procedures kicked in, sealing the lab. Three others had collapsed, clawing at their throats for air, while the rest continued running around like chickens without their heads.
Loki might not have had access to his magic, but that didn't mean he was totally helpless or bereft of skills. Escaping from bonds was nearly second nature to him. He quickly freed one hand – he merely needed a moment or two to free himself completely. Any type of distraction would do.
He gazed about, his eyes landing on one particular scientist standing over to the left. There was something off about the man, but Loki couldn't put his finger on just what bothered him. He tilted his head, gazing past the man, but keeping him in his peripheral vision so as not to draw attention. The man looked familiar. The bland smile. The steady gaze in blue eyes. The ability to blend in to his surroundings. With a jolt, it came to him. Wasn't he the one he'd stabbed with the scepter on the helicarrier? Amazing. He lived. Humans sure were unpredictable creatures. Some were positively entertaining. Perhaps the distraction would come from that direction?
A flicker of movement above him caught his eye. There, in the crossbeams … yes, someone was up there! Frank! He'd found them! Deliberately making eye contact, the younger boy wrapped a cloth about his lower face, hefted two bottles of clear liquid in one hand, and pointed to the wall with the other. Then he raised an eyebrow as if waiting for a response. Loki had an idea that whatever happened next would give him the distraction he'd wanted. He nodded once, a quick, careful motion.
In a movement almost too fast to see, Frank threw two sets of vials at each corner and the doorway. The liquid combined to create a foul smelling gas. The boy danced across the beams and a wet cloth fell over his nose and mouth, filtering the fumes; out of the corner of his eye, he saw rags land on the other prisoners as well. Loki quickly yanked his hand out of the cuff and started on the other buckles, his mind slotting a few things into order. Banner, Selvig, and Coulson had all been affected by the tesseract and his staff. Although he didn't know how Steve fit in all of this, considering the presence of the first three men, and the display of startling accuracy, the intense gaze, Frank had to be his Hawk!
That Clint had not given his true name bothered Loki not in the slightest - names have power, and Loki knew himself well enough to realize he would have reacted much differently had he known of his Hawk's true identity when they first met. It was obvious that his Hawk had no memory of what had occurred less than a year ago.
Perhaps, whatever friendship was created now would carry over to when (if) those memories were restored.
It surprised Loki how much he truly wanted that to be the case.
Dropping to the floor, he crawled to the nearest gurney, blindly fumbling with a wrist strap. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Steve doing the same for the other man. Coulson was "stumbling" into people and "accidentally" knocking them out. Loki smirked; he could appreciate a man like that – too bad he'd tried to kill him. That might not be something the other man could overlook.
A guard landed heavily beside him, temple bleeding and a stapler on the ground nearby; he flashed a feral grin up at Clint.
If Phil hadn't been studying the magic-user, he would have missed the tiny bob of Loki's chin, as if in signal. Crashing glass came from all over the room, sounding loud amid the quiet voices of the scientists. People began to panic as thick white fumes poured from the corners. His eyes watered and he coughed and gagged as the scent hit his nose, his mind instantly recognizing the combination of ammonia and bleach. Something landed on his shoulder and he took the soaked rag gratefully, barely able to make out the small form darting back and forth across the beams. He clamped the rag over his mouth and nose, filtering out the fumes. Over-exaggerating his coughing, he "blindly" moved about and knocked into people, rendering them unconscious, as he "stumbled" around. Some heavy projectile whizzed past his ear, taking out a scientist behind him. He peered at the downed man and grinned, what an interesting use for a snowglobe. The large fan set in the ceiling turned on, thinning the toxic fumes as the doors locked. A guard pulled his weapon, aiming towards Dr. Selvig who had just climbed off his gurney, a cloth clamped to his face. Phil aimed his own pistol and fired on the man, dropping him before he could shoot the doctor. Having shown his hand, Phil ducked behind a computer array, dodging fire from three other guards. He didn't dare shoot back; if he missed he might hit one of the others. He could only hope to lure them closer.
A shot and a scream caught his attention, doubly so as the last two guards started shooting upward. 'Clint!' He lunged from his hiding space, angling for a better line of sight. One of the guards caught his movement and turned to fire. Phil felt a fierce surge of satisfaction as his bullet hit its mark. He aimed for the last guard, too late. Duel shots rang out along with duel cries. The guard collapsed, a hole in the center of his throat. A horrified silence filled the room.
"FRANK!" Steve's voice was high with fear. "Frank, are you okay?" They waited for a reply.
Steve relaxed, a tentative smile on his face. Selvig took the comment at face value, removing weapons from the downed guards. Banner said nothing, but looked less than convinced, exchanging glances with Phil. Loki had moved, actively searching for a way up to the boy, his brow creased in worry. Convinced he'd heard a whimper of pain in the reply, Phil followed Loki to where the equipment made a rough staircase of sorts that would bring someone only a few feet below the crossbeams.
Loki snapped his fingers at him. "Give me a boost, then I'll pull you up."
Phil hesitated; he couldn't help but remember the information HYDRA had on Loki. A powerful magic-user and a manipulator, he'd tried to bring the entire world under his own rule. Could he trust him?
Loki turned to him, his crimson gaze holding his own, a trace of trepidation within. "I can't get up there on my own, and we're wasting time he might not have. We will not escape this place in one piece if we do not cooperate and trust one another."
Phil realized two things: one, Loki had not lost any of his memories and there was some history between him and the others, and two, though known as the God of Lies, Loki was telling the truth. He laced his fingers together, creating a stirrup. Loki grasped his shoulder and set his bare foot into the cradle. Phil shuddered at the cold flesh and quickly lobbed the younger-seeming man upward. Loki scrambled onto the beam, turned and offered a hand. Grasping it, Phil used it as leverage to hoist himself up. They crab-walked along the beam – both all too aware of how far below lay the ground.
They reached the younger boy's half-crumpled figure. "Frank?" an odd tone entered Loki's voice.
The boy looked up from where he sat pressing a rag to his side, the cloth turning crimson as quickly as his face paled. Tri-colored eyes, more green than blue or gray, flickered upward, and a breath of laughter escaped. "Clint. Might as well call me Clint." He coughed, lips staining with blood. The boy whimpered, panting for breath, tears slipping free and down ashen cheeks. "Hurts." He shifted, lips going bloodless, and swayed, pupils swiftly engulfing the irises. They both reached for Clint at the same time, terrified he'd plunge to his death.
Loki got there first, dropping to his knees, one hand grasping Clint's shoulder to steady him, the other instinctively clamping over the wound in his side. The bullet had entered just below the rib, lodging in the lung, causing the boy to slowly drown in his own blood. At the contact, both gasped and stiffened as if they'd touched a live wire. Phil felt the air around them go cold as a faint blue glow surrounded them. Loki's eyes rolled back into his head, the glow faltering, and Phil grabbed onto both, determined not to lose either boy. Loki's skin felt so cold it nearly burned his hand even through the sweatshirt. The connection strengthened between the three of them; Phil could feel his energy being used to help save Clint as the boy hovered close to death. The blood flow slowed, then stopped.
The world tilted on its axis, and Phil slammed his eyes shut.
Loki stood, hands on his hips, staring at the blue-washed empty landscape around him. "Well, this is new." He frowned, absently tapping his foot. How long had he stood here? Seconds? Minutes? Months? The real world had disappeared, but he didn't recognize this place. Or did he?
"Wha... what's going on?" He turned to see Clint sitting nearby, eyes wide, fear evident in his expression, gunshot wound no longer in evidence.
"I'm not sure," Coulson knelt beside the boy, one hand on his shoulder, the other gingerly touching where the wound had been, staring in awe.
"I think..." Loki tested the words has they fell from his lips, finding them to be True. "I think this belongs to the tesseract."
"Loki?" Clint's voice sounded so very young and unsure. The thirteen year old had stayed strong under such confusing and adverse conditions, but Loki realized the boy stood on the brink of breaking down entirely, that this new situation could push him over his limits.
The Jotun sat down beside the boy, slinging an arm over his shoulders, drawing him close to his side. He felt something warm in his chest as Clint pressed closer, arms wrapping about his waist, absorbing the given comfort like a sponge.
"The tesseract is an ancient artifact that holds unlimited energy and power. In the right hands it can bring peace and prosperity. In the wrong, death and destruction." Loki's voice took on the singsong cadence used when storytelling, trying to distance himself from the pain the memories still held for him. "A corrupt, evil creature searched for it in order to hold the very universe under its thrall, but it could not go to where the tesseract rested. This creature found a being – one hurt, alone, confused, and easily turned through pretty lies and horrible agony – to locate this artifact and open a portal between worlds." He swallowed, eyes turned inward in memory, unaware of the minute shaking in his limbs. "The creature gave the being a scepter, one intimately connected with the tesseract, a sister artifact, if you will. The creature bound the being to the tesseract, forcing him to do its will. Though he fought, the being could not free himself of the tesseract's energy, and through the scepter, bound others to his will just as he had been bound. A few had only been lightly touched, some completely, one run through." Loki found his gaze focused on Coulson, inwardly horrified by the dawning understanding within light blue eyes, confused that no condemnation followed. "The portal opened, and the creature's army spewed forth. The world would have been utterly destroyed if not for a group of heroes who defeated the army and closed the portal, nearly at the expense of their own lives. The being was captured and sent to face his punishment."
"And the creature?" Coulson quietly asked.
Loki blinked, losing the cadence, falling out of the storytelling trance. "I do not know. His chosen army was utterly destroyed, but of the creature itself...?" He trailed off with a shake of his head.
"How did you break free of the creature's control?" This came from Clint, who had only tightened his grip around Loki as the story progressed, returning the comfort provided.
Loki stared down in shock, Clint's calm eyes stared back, his face questioning, but not accusatory. "I... One of the heroes ended up slamming me into the floor a few times. When I'd recovered my breath, I found I no longer felt compelled to do what I had been bidden to do, but was captured and gagged before I could gather the wits to explain myself. How...?"
"Your eyes went far away and sad, like you were remembering something that actually happened, not just a story you'd heard." The boy shrugged. "I do the same thing, sometimes."
"Oh, how I wish I could have known you like this beforehand," Loki murmured as he carded his fingers through Clint's hair. "How different things might have been." He shook off the thought. "The full extent of the tesseract's abilities is unknown. As I said, its energy is unlimited. Once touched by the tesseract, a connection is forged, perhaps for all time. This," he waved his hand at their surroundings, "is the manifestation of that connection."
"Why are we here?" Clint asked. "Is it because we were all touching when you healed me?"
"Somewhat." Loki found he didn't want to lie; part of that was due to the tesseract – it showed truth – but part was that he truly wanted the others to trust him, and if he lied that would never happen. He just didn't know how to explain the truth of the situation – it was all too unbelievable.
"How are we connected to the tesseract?" Coulson's tone brooked no argument or deception.
He gave a long drawn-out sigh. "Dr. Selvig was taken over by the scepter. He studied the tesseract and discovered the way to open a steady portal." Loki smirked, "He also built in a fail-safe, using the scepter itself as the key. It's how the portal was closed." He shifted, unconsciously tightening his half embrace of the smaller boy. "The scepter itself exudes gamma radiation. I used that to trigger a transformation within Dr. Banner in order to help destroy the ship I was being held on."
"Is he the one who ended up 'slamming you into the floor a few times'?" Clint asked.
Loki smiled. "Yes. Probably the only one who could have done it, in fact. It would have killed a mortal, but just put me out of commission for a short time."
"What triggers this transformation?" Phil leaned forward, eyes intent.
"I wonder what keeps him from transforming now? He has had plenty to get angry about."
"Some type of suppressor, I'd guess. Similar to whatever they're using on me to keep me from using my magic. It must have been injected, for there was nothing to remove. I only pray that it will wear off, and soon." Loki felt his face pull in a frown. He hated being handicapped, and without his magic, he felt less than capable of defending himself and the others.
He tilted his head in thought, tapping his lower lip with one finger. "I don't know how Steve fits in to all of this. His connection is less than Selvig's but stronger than Banner's."
A curious smile crossed Coulson's face. "Steve is Steve Rogers. Also known as Captain America."
"I thought Captain America was a comic book character?" Clint interjected.
"Yes, but those comic were based on a real person. Captain America helped defeat the Red Skull during WWII in Germany." Light blue eyes locked onto Loki's meaningfully. "He recovered the tesseract from HYDRA and Nazi control. It was in his possession when he had to crash land his plane into the Arctic Ocean to keep the missiles on board from taking out civilian or military targets."
Loki nodded, that actually made a lot of sense. "It is possible the tesseract could have combined with, altered, or in some way enhanced the super soldier serum, allowing him to survive decades encased in ice."
Clint looked skeptical. "But... how can Steve be Captain America? He's, like, eleven years old. The Captain is an adult."
Loki sighed, not sure how to explain this part.
Coulson cleared his throat., "I went nosing around. Found some files about what's going on here. Seems these HYDRA agents used an experimental potion they'd created in order to weaken us. Instead, it de-aged us. Each of us should be twenty years older."
"Wouldn't we know we should be older?" blue-green gray eyes narrowed as Clint tried to process the information, but sounding less skeptical.
"It either removed or blocked our memories so we only know what we would have at our current age." Coulson's steady voice further convinced the boy.
Clint studied the two older people, a shrewd expression upon his face; the mage could practically see the gears in his mind turning. "That's not the case for you, Loki. Why not?"
Loki couldn't hold back the flinch at the perceptive question, covering his unease with sarcasm. "In case it passed you by, I'm not exactly human." He gestured to his blue skin.
A hum. "Oh. I thought you were a mutant." Clint's gaze didn't waver, nor did he move away. "So, what? You're an alien?"
"I am a God," came the automatic, arrogant reply.
"Loki: God of Lies, Chaos, Mischief, and Fire," Clint fired back, and the Jotun stared in mild wonderment at the small human.
The boy blinked. "Okay."
The simple statement floored him, having expecting something more. "Okay?"
He gave a single decisive nod in reply. "Yup. Now finish the story."
"I'm sorry?" Not getting the reactions he'd expected and dreaded, Loki was confused.
"Tell us how Coulson and I fit in to all of this. I can tell it's gonna be bad – or you would have started with us. So, just do it quick – like ripping off a band-aid."
Loki shuddered and tried to shrink away, but Clint held firm. Amazing how even as a child the boy missed nothing. "I..." he licked his lips nervously, straightened, and started again, his voice a near monotone. "I tricked Coulson and stabbed him through the chest with the scepter. I left him to die. He told me I would lose, said I lacked conviction, and then blasted me through several bulkheads with an experimental weapon based on one of my father's defenses."
"Was this before or after Banner tossed you around?" Coulson asked in a calm voice of polite interest.
"Before. I thought I had killed you." He locked gazes with the other man. "I'm glad I was wrong. You're a worthy opponent, Phil Coulson. But you make a more formidable ally." Coulson nodded in response, his expression serene.
"And me?" There was curiosity there and a hint of fear in the soft voice.
Loki took a deep breath, steeling himself. This would be the most difficult of confessions. "Yours was the first voice I heard while in transit. 'Doors open both ways,' you'd warned. Alert and ready, you kept your Director from harm, firing upon me without fear. You were the first I turned with the scepter. I decided that you had to be the commander of my army. You had such heart, my Hawk." Clint's eyes, though filled with trepidation, gazed steadily back at him. "It's that heart that saved you. That loyalty and devotion you hold towards those you call your own."
"How so?" Loki had to smile at the image the boy made. Clint had his head cocked, birdlike, eye focused intently upon the magic user, trembling, but refusing to back down. Every inch the fierce hawk that had drawn him in to begin with.
"I didn't realize at first exactly who I had captured. Clint Barton, Agent of SHIELD. Hawkeye, marksman extraordinaire. A man who never missed and whose underground connections your superiors could only dream about. You struggled beneath my control and because I struggled as well, the control was … flawed. You had to obey my commands, but as I could not specify every detail, you found yourself free to make certain choices."
The trembling had increased, but Clint had not pulled away as Loki had feared. "How do you know this?"
"The tesseract?" Coulson guessed.
Loki nodded, not taking his gaze from Clint. "It formed a bond between myself and those taken over by the scepter. The strongest with you, Clint, as you were the first. Not quite mind reading, I could, however, sense your intentions."
"I hurt a lot of people. Didn't I?" The tone so forlorn, Loki felt his chest constrict.
He turned, grasping the boy by the upper arms, his expression earnest, trying by sheer will to remove the devastation within his eyes. "You are not at fault, my Hawk. With any other person, it would have been a bloodbath." Clint looked unconvinced. Loki tightened his grasp, choking down the urge to shake the boy to make him see, not wanting to frighten him any further. "The soldiers you recruited for me, though dangerous, were not the worst of those you could have brought in. The scientists, though competent, were not the most brilliant you had access to. From the very beginning, you aimed for non-lethal takedowns and pot shots when you could afford to. Swift and merciful deaths when you could not. The attack on the helicarrier could have been so much worse had a lesser man been in charge. Only one engine went down, and in such a way where it could be repaired. The explosion on the bridge deliberately aimed in the one spot where it did the least amount of damage. When confronted by your partner, you held back, allowing her to knock you out, which freed you from my control." He brushed hair from Clint's overly bright eyes. "Even reeling from what had happened, you still had the strength to help stop the invading army and close the portal." He gave a self-depreciating smile. "You even shot an exploding arrow at me that tossed me onto the building where Dr. Banner soon met with me." Loki needed Clint to believe him. "It. Was. Not. Your. Fault."
He loosened his grip and Clint slumped, half leaning on the two of them – eyes hooded, drawing his knees up to his chest, his arms wrapped around his legs, chin on his knees. Loki wondered, too late, whether this would be too much for the child – the final push over already stretched limits. He shot a nervous glance over at Coulson, easily reading the concern there.
Coulson raised a brow. "How much were you holding back?"
Loki met Coulson's eyes with a dead stare, causing the man to shiver faintly. "Had the desire been truly my own – Midgard would be mine. I assure you, had circumstances been different, we never would have been in that situation."
"Extraordinary situations require extraordinary reactions." Clint's murmur drew their attention.
"You're right," Coulson's voice was soothing. "Where did you hear that from?"
Clint straightened up a bit. "Mommy Fortuna, the Fortune Teller at the circus." He didn't go into any further explanation, but Loki could feel most of the tension drain out of the small form. "I really did everything I could?"
Loki nodded, expression serious. "You did more to resist than expected."
Clint looked over at Coulson. "Not my fault?"
Coulson shook his head, "You can't be held responsible for your actions when magically brainwashed."
Another pause, then Clint drew in a deep breath, eyes raised to meet Loki's. "Well, if it's not my fault – then it can't be your fault, either."
He wanted to protest, his situation wasn't the same at all. Loki had agreed to help the Chitauri destroy Midgard in a misguided attempt at getting back at Thor before he even had possession of the scepter. But denying himself absolution would keep Clint from absolving himself.
"Besides," Coulson added, as if reading his mind. "You said it yourself; you were coerced through pretty lies and horrible agony. Left to your own devices, would you have done the same?"
Loki shook his head slowly. No, he would not. His way was the subtle art of barbed tongue, illusion, and trickery, not brute force. He would have slid like a shadow behind the scenes, only being bright and flashy when it meant the opposition confronted an illusion. He had no need of ruling Midgard – not when he could have been the power behind the throne back on Asgard as Thor's advisor. He may envy his brother, at times even hate him, but he had no true desire to harm the people of Midgard. Perhaps … perhaps he could forgive himself for what had occurred ... even if none of his family forgave him.
The world shifted on its axis, and Loki shut his eyes at the dizzying display.
Clint blinked open his eyes. He found himself back on the crossbeam, Coulson grasping right shoulder, one of Loki's hands on his left shoulder with the other practically stapled to his side. He could hear the others moving about below, dealing with the people who'd either been killed or knocked out, it was like no time had passed at all while they had been in that blue landscape.
He twisted slightly, bracing himself for an influx of pain. It never happened. He felt a deep ache, as he did when he'd overworked himself during training, but the sharp burning sensation had disappeared. He took a breath to speak, "Did..." he couldn't finish his statement. The wound might have healed, but the blood remained within his lungs. He choked and coughed, vaguely hearing Loki's cry of alarm as he helped him lean forward. Coulson wrapped an arm around his shoulders and back, supporting him as the coughing turned into violent bouts of vomiting. The muscles in his stomach and chest clenched, and he couldn't catch his breath. To his embarrassment, tears dripped down his cheeks, mixing with snot from his nose; his body felt like it was trying to flip itself inside out. The amount of blood spewing onto the crossbeam terrified him. Was he going to die after all?
A hand cupped the back of his neck, carding through the hair at the nape of his neck, distracting him from the pain. Another hand rubbed small circles along his back, soothing the muscles, calming the pain-inducing vomiting. Two voices spoke in his ear, each giving reassurances: It's okay. You're going to be fine. This will be over soon. Calm down. Take deep breaths. He thought he heard Coulson ask for Banner to bring up a clean set of clothes, but to not let Steve up just yet. Someone held a water bottle to his lips, urging him to rinse his mouth out before taking small sips. Clint let the two support him for a long moment, then his natural resiliency stepped forward. Recovering some, Clint ripped off the sleeve of his sweatshirt, poured water over it, and mopped his face, blowing his nose and trying to get rid of the coppery taste of blood on his tongue. "Shit."
He was tired. Physically and emotionally. He'd always prided himself on being able to roll with the punches, but so much had happened in such a short amount of time. All he really wanted to do was curl up somewhere and sleep for a week. He grimaced and plucked fretfully at his ruined shirt, the soaked material stuck to his skin and he cringed at the feeling. Vibrations beneath his knees let him know of Banner's approach along the crossbeams. Eyes at half-mast, he didn't protest as the others manhandled him out of his shirt. Using the ruined material, he swiped half-heartedly at the blood, nose wrinkling at the smell. A semi-stifled gasp brought his attention outward from himself.
Banner knelt before him, his gaze one of horrified sympathy. Clint fancied he saw a green shimmer within the doctor's dark orbs. He knew he didn't invent the anger that flared. He could easily imagine the picture he made kneeling upon the narrow beam; thin, blood-soaked, parchment pale, fist sized bruises standing out starkly along his torso and arms. Banner's hands hovered uncertainly over his skin. "I have some medical training. May I?"
Head tilted to one side, Clint nodded in bemusement. Few adults had ever noticed his injuries in the past, and few still had been willing to do something about it. None had asked if he felt comfortable under their care, so this was a novelty. With gentle, but sure motions, Banner skimmed over the bruises, tested the ribs, and inspected the bullet wound which had reduced itself from a gaping hole to a circular scar still red and tender. "How's your breathing? How do your lungs feel?"
"Like I'm trying to breath underwater." He couldn't lie, everyone could hear the rasp each time he inhaled.
"If you feel the need to cough, don't suppress it. You need to get as much gunk out of you lungs as you can. Your ribs, your arms?"
He answered the unspoken question. "Guards weren't too happy with me. Everything else is just a dull ache, now. I can keep up."
A gentle smile. "I have no doubt about that. I just don't want anything to deteriorate to the point that we can't help you." He lightly traced over a few scars along his arms and torso. "And these?"
He could feel the surprise from the three adults. "Sword practice?" Coulson repeated.
Clint nodded, shrugging with one shoulder. "I'm part of the sword act in the circus, though I got my own show doing archery. That's what I'm the best at." He couldn't help the hint of pride that colored his words.
He stiffened slightly as he felt Loki ghost over a few scars along his lower back. "And these?" Loki's voice sounded cold and clipped, almost disinterested, but Clint could feel the anger that radiated off him. He shifted away from the contact, turning to look at him over his shoulder. "Not all foster homes are very nice. There's a reason I live at the circus now." Green eyes grew even colder and Clint sighed, not wanting to deal with overprotective urges. "It's not like it's that big of a deal. They can't ever do anything to anyone anymore." He shuffled on his knees and grabbed the clothes Banner provided, ignoring the others through long practice. He felt better once the shirt hid his scars from view, though the material engulfed him. The shirt came down to his thighs, allowing him to shuck off the pants and exchange them without flashing everyone. He'd just finished dressing as Selvig and Steve arrived. "Any ideas how we're getting out of here? I don't know how long that door's going to last."
A steady thudding could be heard from the direction of the sealed doors as those outside tried to batter their way inside.
"How'd you get in? Can we leave the same way?" Selvig asked.
Clint tore a strip of tape and wrapped it around a cuff, keeping the fabric from falling over his hand. He pointed toward a vent even smaller than the others found in the installation. Selvig narrowed his eyes, glancing between the opening and Clint's form. "How? That's so small, I'm not even sure Steve could easily fit in there."
"Contortionist, too?" Coulson queried.
Clint shrugged, a faint smile on his face. "A bit. Wasn't too hard. Had to dislocate my shoulder. But, yeah, other than Steve, no one else will make it that way."
"Can we lift a panel or something? Get into the ceiling, maybe?" Banner winced as a gun fired into the door. A muffled yelp as it ricocheted produced feral grins among the fugitives.
Clint shook his head, "First thing I checked. It's all metal."
"What about that?" Steve pointed at the large fan in the center of the ceiling.
Coulson peered at the cover. "We need to get those screws out."
Looking over from where he sat transferring supplies from his ruined clothing to the ones Banner provided, Clint tossed an object. "Head's up."
Coulson caught it in mid-air, a grin on his face as he brandished the screwdriver and attacked the cover with a vengeance.
Coughing, Clint closed his eyes, wincing as the motion sparked stars behind his lids. Opening them, he found Loki had moved closer to help him sort through the supplies. Green eyes appraised him, Clint quirked a smile, too tired to do much more. He had a feeling things would get worse before they got better, and he'd learned to listen to those feelings.
Phil popped the vent, dancing out of the way as it swung out on hinges. The blades spun dangerously fast and he frowned as he examined the casing. "I can't get to the wires while it's spinning. Damn it, we have to shut it down at the controls."
"Where's the control panel?" Banner shifted closer in order to look for himself.
Phil furrowed his brow, trying to remember if he'd seen the controls earlier. "It's part of the console near the door."
Automatically, several pairs of eyes swung in that direction, wincing in unison as the door shuddered, shook, and slid open about an inch. Through the gap, they could see a soldier angrily trying to jam the barrel of his pistol in through the opening.
Selvig dropped to hug the beam, peering cautiously over the edge at the console in question. "Do you know what type? Was it a dial, push button, switch? Did it need a code or a key?"
A bullet winged through the air, coming nowhere close, but still causing everyone to mimic the doctor. "Push button." He mind whirled, trying to come up with a plan.
"Someone's going to have to climb down. We won't be able to get out, otherwise." Phil hated to admit it, but Selvig had a point. Unless someone turned off the fan and they escaped through the ductwork, they were going to be killed. Another bullet rang out. "I'm closest. I'll do it." Phil could read the determination in the older man's eyes and nodded. Selvig started to army crawl along the beam.
Clint grabbed his sleeve, halting his progress. "Wait. Which button is it?"
Phil glared at the boy. "Forget it. You're not going. You can barely stand."
The look of utter disdain on the boy's face set him back. "Do I look stupid to you? I'm trying to make sure no one has to go down. Now, just answer the question."
"Third in from the left. What are you going to do?"
The door slid open another half inch and the soldier crammed his hand through the gap; his angle much improved, his next shot hit the underside of the beam they clung to. Clint hefted the last glass vial in his hand, rose to his knees, and sent the vial hurtling through the air. It hit the very edge of the gap, shattering and sending glass and bleach into the soldier's eyes. The man screamed, dropping the pistol, but in his panic, his hand remained stuck in the gap. Phil watched in amazement as, face set in a grim expression, Clint grabbed a paperweight, pivoted smoothly, and sent it flying toward the control panel. A loud crack sounded, the fan's engine whined to a stop, and the blades began to slow.
Clint dropped back on his haunches, one arm wrapped around his ribs, the other covering his mouth as he coughed in harsh, biting barks. Between coughs, a muttered litany of swearing fell from his lips. Loki held him close, to keep him from losing his balance, his expression closed off, but Phil recognized masked panic and anger when he saw it; he felt it himself.
His own expression set in harsh, angry lines, he covered his hands with his sleeves, determined to stop the fan, wanting to get everyone out of there as quickly as possible. He jumped back in shock, windmilling his arms to keep his balance, when with a growl, Banner surged forward and punched the center of the fan, crumpling the metal up and inward like it was cardboard, stopping the fan and causing one of the blades to detach.
Banner's eyes, a bright, bright green, widened almost comically before swiftly fading back into brown as the man stared at his hand in shock and some fear. "What...? What did they do to me?"
"What do you mean?" Phil's stood still, looking as non-threatening as possible.
"They … they kept injecting me with something. Every day, around the same time. It's how I kept track of the days. They wouldn't tell me what it was for – would just smirk and take readings." His hands shook and he tucked them beneath his arms.
"Did you get an injection today?"
The doctor shook his head, looking lost and bewildered. "The men in the elevator we encountered were the ones who'd bring me up to one of the labs for the injections." He ran a hand over his face. "What did they do?"
"It's a long story, Doctor Banner. I promise to explain it all in detail once we're someplace a bit safer. Just … try not to get angry." He winced at the awkward response as well as the look of betrayal in Banner's expression.
"You knew? You know what they did?" His eyes flashed green and Phil very carefully let none of his panic show.
"Only what I found in the files I managed to get a hold of. Please, Dr. Banner. We need to get out of here. The boys won't survive if we're caught." That caught the man's attention and Banner glanced guiltily at the others.
Loki had a calculating expression, tempered with hidden fear. Phil figured if Banner's suppressor was failing, then the one on the magic-user might soon, as well; Loki was probably remembering his last encounter with Banner. Phil saw that Clint had his head resting on Loki's shoulder, eyes half-lidded in exhaustion, but he didn't seem shocked or alarmed. Phil guessed the boy had seen similar feats of strength in the circus. Selvig looked wary, but he didn't look like he planned to run screaming, especially while still in hostile hands. Steve's mouth had dropped open, his eyes wide with awe. "Wow! Are you like Superman? Can you fly, too?"
"Um, I don't know." Banner sounded uncomfortable. "I've never done anything like that before."
A swift glance at the door showed several sets of fingers grasping the door to force it open. They didn't have any more time. "Let's get moving. Climb on up and head to the right. I figure it will either lead to a central location where we can regroup, or to an external exhaust port." If Banner lost control, it would be nearly impossible for him to turn around within the narrow confines of the air duct and attack them. "I'll go up second. Dr. Selvig, if you'll boost up the others and take rear guard?"
Selvig nodded and the six quickly scrambled up into the air duct.
Loki hated how dark the ventilation shaft was – it reminded him too much of his fall from the Bi-frost. As they traveled, he ignored the way each frequently banged into the sides of the narrow tunnel, the space only just large enough for the adults to comfortably crawl in their hands and knees, and focused inward. In his mind's eye, he could see the center of his magic, a bright glowing flame; the suppressor like a slick glass wall keeping him from accessing it.
Metaphorically slamming himself up against it did nothing but garner a headache. Brute force would not suffice; he would have to find another way. He knew it could be done. After all, Banner had found a chink in the armor, and he hadn't even known there was something to struggle against.
Maybe that was the key. He let his consciousness flow across the barrier like water, surrounding it, probing at every square inch, searching for a seam or even the tiniest of openings. There, near the base, nearly invisible; a pinprick where all the edges met. Carefully, carefully, he seeped his consciousness in, smirking as he connected to his magic. A tenuous connection, but one he could feel strengthen the longer he held on. The pinprick opening widened.
To test things, Loki started with a small spell – foxfire. The most basic of spells, it was only good for low lever illumination. The area around him began to glow and he gave a please smile. It was a start. The others turned their heads at the light. "Thank you," Steve chirped.
"Maybe now we can make better time? Humn?" He kept the tone just this side of snide and caught the smirk Clint shot him.
"Oh, I'm sorry. Are we slowing you down?"
Loki would have said yes, only he was well aware of the younger boy's growing exhaustion. He tried to lighten the mood. "You know me, nothing I like more than a leisurely stroll through the ceiling of a hostile base."
"Must feel right at home, then." Clint's bark of laughter turned into a cough. He had to pause, head dangling below his shoulders as he tried to catch his breath. His breathing still rattled in his chest, but sounded better than when they began. Loki grasped the boy's ankle, giving him emotional support at least, carefully sending healing energy through the skin contact. He wished he could do more, but until the barrier fell, he could only do these small things. They'd have to be enough.
"Damn it," Banner's voice echoed harshly against the metal walls of the air duct and the line came to a sudden, abrupt halt.
The group was already on edge; they'd heard no indications of pursuit through the ducts from the HYDRA agents and they didn't know if that meant they were being tracked and would wind up in a trap, if there was a plan to cut through the duct in order to get to them, or if things were in preparation to send some kind of incapacitating gas through the ductwork to take them all down or out. The claustrophobic conditions and the way everyone tensed each time Clint had to cough didn't help matters any, either.
"What's wrong?" Phil couldn't help the strain in his voice. As time passed without anything overt occurring, he'd found himself becoming more tense and uncomfortable.
"There's a grate blocking the way. I can tell that it leads to some sort of maintenance junction. There's a hatch near the center for someone to come up, and a lever of some sort that probably opens the grate, but I can't reach it."
"Any openings in the grate itself?"
"Yes, but I don't think any of us can get through it."
"Can you slide over so I can see?" Banner turned onto his side, pushing his back against the wall while Phil squeezed past, ignoring how his heart sped up and his skin grew clammy at the proximity. If Banner should lose control... He assessed the opening, thinking quickly. "Steve, could you come up here, please?"
The skinny eleven year old squirmed past the two adults; Phil caught the question in bright blue eyes. "Think you can squeeze through there and pull the lever on the other side?"
Steve stared at the tiny opening, "I can try."
"That's the spirit." Phil couldn't resist ruffling the blond hair.
While Steve set about the slow task of easing himself through the grate, Phil glanced over his shoulder at the others. From the soft blue glow of Loki's spell, he could see that Clint had chosen to use the time to rest. Loki had the younger boy half on his lap, arm wrapped securely around thin shoulders, a hand carding through dusty blond hair. The coughing had eased, and the pain-pinched look had faded, but Phil had a feeling they weren't out of the woods, just yet. Selvig glanced up, giving a nod of acknowledgment, "Everything still sounds quiet back here. How are we doing?"
Phil shot a look at the grate; Steve had managed to get his other shoulder through. He inched forward, getting stuck at chest level. Phil noted that the boy held his breath. "Exhale, Steve. Let the air out." Steve did so and the rest of him soon slipped through with ease. "We're almost there," he called back over his shoulder at the others.
Steve made it to the other side and crawled over to the lever. Pushing upon it, he easily shoved it over and the grate slid upward.
Phil put his hands in front of him and pushed himself backwards, giving Banner room to crawl forward. "Listen at the hatch to see if you can hear anyone. If it sounds clear, we'll try going down that way."
Banner nodded and moved to join Steve. Phil turned to call to the others when he heard the horrible shriek of stressed metal, followed by a crash and startled yelps. Banging his head on the top of the duct, Phil scrambled toward the large hole in the flooring. "Steve? Banner?" A few screams from below told Phil that the situation had gone critical. A few gunshots sounded, then a loud roar of rage turned Phil's blood to ice. A scream of terror was followed by the sound of a large object being repeatedly slammed against the wall. "STEVE!"
"Um... I'm okay." He almost couldn't hear the boy over the crashing and banging going on. Peering over the jagged edge, Phil saw that the two had fallen into what looked like a monitoring station. Monitors lined one wall; a few showed hallways and labs while the rest had been smashed. Two guards lay like rag dolls, limbs twisted at odd angles. Phil felt his stomach roll at the sight.
His vision filled with green and his breath caught in his throat when the creature Banner had transformed into stared him right in the face, a growl upon his lips, and rage dancing in green eyes. One hand rose and Phil stifled a flinch, though he thought he heard a gasp from one of the others behind him at the sight of the large green appendage. Inches from his head, the hand paused, large nostrils flared as Banner ~sniffed~ him.
Confusion now warred with rage. "Suit-man?" He shook his head. "Not be Suit-man. Suit-man dead. Hulk confused." He sniffed again. "Smell like Suit-man."
He raised a hand and tapped his chest. "Phil. Phil Coulson."
A careful, slow nod, and the rage dimmed. "Suit-man," he stated with acceptance. Then, in a tone of urgency, "Come. Why Flag-man so small?" Before he could respond, Phil found himself lifted out of the air duct and set on the floor of the monitoring station room facing a wide-eyed Steve.
"You alright, Steve?"
A shaky nod. "Flag-man?" he asked, gaze flickering between Phil and the Hulk.
"It's a long story." He glanced up at Hulk. "Can the others come down?"
The Hulk blinked and looked up at the hole. "Others? Tin-man?" He sniffed, frowning. "No. No Tin-man." Another sniff and the expression brightened. "Hawk! Hawk-friend!" The creature again stuck his head back up into the ceiling. Phil only had a second to recognize the dropping sensation in his stomach as a snarl reverberated throughout the room. "PUNY GOD!"
The screech of metal woke Clint from his half-doze. He blinked sleepy eyes at Loki wondering when he'd decided using the older boy as a mattress was a good idea. Loki's expression told him nothing and he was immediately distracted by the distinctive sound of gunshots. An enraged growl sent shivers down his spine, and he knew he didn't imagine the hint of fear that entered Loki's crimson eyes. Fully awake now, he turned in time to see a large green hand reach out of a hole in the vent's flooring. Loki gave a small gasp that Clint was not ashamed to admit to echoing.
A sound like a large dog sniffing could be heard, then a loud, growly voice stated with confusion, "Suit-man? Not be Suit-man. Suit-man dead. Hulk confused." Clint exchanged a glance with Loki, who gave a near-imperceptible nod. Another careful sniff. "Smell like Suit-man."
Clint heard Coulson say, "Phil. Phil Coulson."
Due to the narrow confines, Clint couldn't really see what was going on. He heard, "Suit-man," stated with acceptance; and then, -in a tone of urgency, "Come. Why Flag-man so small?" The large hand grasped Coulson and pulled him out of the air duct. Scrambling up on his hands and knees, Clint scurried over to the hole himself, dodging Selvig's grasp and ignoring Loki's startled exclamation. Looking down, Clint could see the large creature, the Hulk, standing off to one side, arms dangling, hands convulsively opening and closing. Steve huddled against the wall, looking a bit wide-eyed, with Phil standing protectively beside him. Clint didn't blame him, he could see what was left of two guards lying about the room.
"You alright, Steve?"
A shaky nod. "Flag-man?" he asked, gaze flickering between Phil and the Hulk.
"It's a long story." Coulson glanced up at Hulk. "Can the others come down?" Clint quickly backed away from the edge in foreboding.
"Others? Tin-man here?" More sniffing. "No. No Tin-man." Another sniff, and the voice sounded nearly happy. "Hawk! Hawk-friend!" The creature again stuck his head back up into the ceiling. Clint braced himself, but couldn't help the tremor in his limbs at the close up sight of the Hulk's large head blocking out the light. "Oh, shit," he whispered. He could feel Loki's hand on his shoulder, giving and taking comfort. His heart banged frantically in his chest. The Hulk looked at him, what could be a smile upon his face. At seeing him, the smile fell, confused. Then, the creature focused past him. It's expression darkened and a snarl reverberated throughout the vent, making his ears ache at the sound. "PUNY GOD!"
Two hands came up, further ripping into the duct, as the creature tried to tear its way to Loki. Rising to his knees, arms wide and braced against the sides, head bent practically double due to the ceiling of the vent, Clint physically barred the way. "NO!"
The Hulk stopped in mid-roar, face scrunched up in confusion. "Bad man!" he wailed, one hand pointing at Loki, while the other curled around the edge of the duct that had easily withstood holding up nearly two hundred pounds of people crossing over it, but bent and crumpled within the green grip.
"No, he isn't." Clint remembered the discussion, how Loki had been tricked into hurting so many people. "Somebody else set him up." He felt Loki's grip tighten as the older boy stiffened in shock.
The expression on Hulk's face still looked confused. "No Bad Man?"
Clint shook his head, "No. And I'm not going to let you hurt him." He put on his most determined looking face, hiding just how fucking scared out of his mind he was. Hulk could smoosh him without even blinking if he felt like it, but Clint didn't move.
Hulk grunted and made as if to shove past Clint, but paused before actually connecting. The two stared at one another for what felt like forever. Clint wrinkled his nose at a huff from the beast that sent his bangs flying, but continued to hold his pose. Finally, Hulk made a sound that was half snort, half laugh. Before he could do anything to avoid the reach, Hulk curled his fingers around Clint, pulling him down through the hole. Trying not to hyperventilate, it took everything he had to keep his shriek from escaping at the motion. A moment later, Clint found himself sitting in the center of the green palm, blinking in the light, staring up into a serious expression. "Hawk-friend tiny, but still just as brave. Hawk say no hurt Bad Man." A huge sigh, "Hulk no smash Puny God."
"Um... thanks?" The creature lowered him to the ground and he startled a bit at a touch to his shoulder. Coulson's smile looked particularly bland as he helped him to his feet. Clint wobbled a bit, quietly grateful as Steve slid over, wrapping his arms around his waist.
Selvig dropped from the ceiling, eyes wide in shock at first, but soon he gave in to scientific curiosity. "The mass conversion should be impossible..." he started muttering.
"Hulk?" Coulson drew the creature's attention. "We're being held prisoner and need to escape. Can you help?"
"Hulk help Suit-man, Flag-man, and Hawk-friend." With brutal, terrifyingly casual strength, the Hulk opened the door, taking out the reinforced frame and part of the wall with it. Filling the doorway, he absorbed several bullets before dashing down the hall with a roar. He moved impossibly fast for something of his size; they could hear the screams of soldiers.
"Let's go," Coulson said making Steve climb up onto his back. "We don't want to lose him."
Though Hulk said he wouldn't 'smash' Loki, Clint made sure to put himself between the two. Loki didn't cringe or cower, but somehow managed to make himself seem smaller. He moved up behind Clint, one hand on his shoulder, and practically disappeared from view. Interesting trick since Loki towered over him by several inches and was blue to boot. As long as he stayed quiet, Hulk ignored Loki.
At a junction, during a brief pause while Coulson took care of a soldier that arrived after the Hulk had left the area, Loki cast an appraising look over Clint. He could feel the boy's exhaustion at a bone-deep level. He cocked his head, continuing his evaluation, pleased that the injuries had mostly healed. He placed a hand on Clint's shoulder to garner his attention and cast a significant look at where Steve perched on Coulson's back. "Climb up." At Clint's hesitation, he continued, "It's not shameful to ask for or accept help." He knew how fiercely his Hawk valued his independence. It was one of the main reasons Loki feared Barton would never accept his apology – no matter how heart-felt; however, they would need to move more quickly if they wanted to keep pace with the Hulk. Loki smirked, "Besides, Banner's alter-ego would hesitate to bash me about if I had you so near."
Clint raised an eyebrow, a faint hint of a smirk of his own upon his lips, but acquiesced. Though slightly taller and broader than Steve, Clint didn't weigh much more than the eleven year old. Loki wouldn't have any problem carrying the boy, no matter the distance. Legs and arms wrapped tightly around him, but did not hinder his movements.
The Hulk had become annoyed with the twists and turns of the corridors and had started tearing a straight path through the walls. They passed through offices and labs, dormitories and possibly the cafeteria. After a whispered suggestion, Loki paused long enough to grab up a few portable food items.
Either the Hulk had dealt with all of the staff, or the remainder had wisely hidden from view. They met with no other resistance and twenty minutes after Banner's transformation they found themselves breathing fresh air. Coulson pointed in a direction and they quickly scurried into the woods. "I spotted a map earlier. The nearest town is thirty miles north of here. About a mile northeast runs a stream. We can follow it nearly the whole way."
"Thirty miles?" Loki frowned. With his magic, they could be there in a literal blink of an eye. On foot, and in their condition, it would take considerably longer. A day, perhaps two if they had to hide from pursuit.
"At least we'll have fresh water," Selvig soothed. "But we only have a few hours of daylight, and I can feel a chill in the air. Tonight's going to be cold. We're going to need shelter."
Coulson hefted Steve higher up on his back, wrapping his arms to hook beneath the boy's knees. "Let's get to the stream. It'll be easier to re-evaluate once there."
Loki readjusted his own grip when it felt as if Clint would try to slip down. "Stay put. You're not heavy. Save your strength for later." He waited until he felt the boy nod against his shoulder before stepping after Coulson. The Hulk had taken point. A moment later, a sharp scream broke through the air, the rattle of a rifle echoing harshly.
"Do you think he's okay?" Steve looked worried, brushing hair out of his face as he peered through the trees.
"Dr. Banner is sturdier than a battle tank. It would take much more than a bullet to slow him down," Loki responded, having seen the evidence himself.
"Think the rifle's any good?" Clint spoke up, aiming the question at either Coulson or Selvig.
Selvig responded. "We have a few pistols. It's been a while since I've shot a rifle. Do you think we'll need it?"
"Rifle's better if you want rabbit stew," came the wearied response as Clint laid his head upon Loki's shoulder. Loki changed his gait, striding smoothly, hoping the soothing motion would lull the younger boy to sleep. He watched as Coulson exchanged words with Selvig and the doctor broke off briefly, heading toward where the scream had resounded. Selvig caught up to them later, his face a touch paler, but with the rifle slung over his shoulder along with some of the soldier's clothing and equipment.
Loki let his body move on autopilot while he delved within his mind, focusing on the barrier that kept him from his magic. The small opening had widened, but he sensed he needed to move slowly and precisely. If he proceeded too quickly or with too much force, the barrier would react violently, repelling him and sealing up tightly. If that occurred, there would be no telling when or if he would ever be able to breech the barrier and access his magic. He couldn't afford that – the closer they got to civilization, the sooner the other Avengers, and more specifically, his brother, would learn of the situation. That he was on Midgard and not in his prison cell on Asgard would not go over well with Thor. He wanted to have every advantage he could before that particular confrontation.