The Hulk woke with a pounding headache. Or more accurately, Bruce started to wake with one, but as memory flooded back with consciousness, the Hulk was the one of them that actually opened his eyes and rose from the platform, accompanied by the snap of frayed straps and shattering of micro-fracture-riddled metal. He roared his anger even as he scanned the room he was in, taking in the single entrance and multitude of cameras.
He charged the closed and locked door, but the heavy metal-clad panel and frame don't even dent from the impact. He backed off a step, pounding his massive fists against it in frustration. A siren began to sound somewhere outside the room, close enough to be heard but not close enough to hurt his ears.
"Let me help with that," a voice said, and Hulk whirled to see a dark-skinned female form sliding head-first out of a small rectangular opening high on one wall, gripping onto the edge of it to flip upright and land on her feet as she slid free. She smelled strongly of fear but some part of him knew that she was someone Bruce knew and didn't consider an enemy, so he merely snorted loudly at her before moving another step back, watching her warily.
She smelled even more strongly of fear as she passed closest to him on her way to the door, where she spread her hands flat on the metal. There was a popping sound, followed by the acrid odour of something electrical shorting out. "It's unlocked now," she said, then gestured to one side. "I think it's meant to move sideways, that way," she added as she moved hurriedly out of his way.
Hulk grunted in response, then set his own hands flat on the door and pushed sideways. It resisted at first, then there was a groan and screech of resisting metal failing as it popped a short distance outwards and to the side, opening a few inches before jamming in place. He wrapped his huge hands around the open edge and yanked, forcing the opening wider despite the jam, the metal first bending inwards and then tearing apart at the seams and joints from the force of his pull. Hulk squeezed out the doorway as soon as he had it torn open wide enough, the woman following on his heels.
The next room was bigger, filled with equipment, and had the look of a place that had been hastily evacuated; chairs pushed back at the couple of desks, a coffee mug fallen to the floor and spilled, the liquid still spreading. The woman walked with apparent calm over to a pair of double doors in one wall. "This way, I think," she said, setting one hand to a panel to one side of the doors. They opened, then she dove and rolled to one side as shots rang out.
Hulk charged out the doors into a wide hallway. A group of black-clad men with guns were gathered at a distance down the hall. They, too, smelled of fear, one of them blanching and falling back a few steps at sight of him. Hulk grinned at them in a thoroughly unpleasant way, then roared his defiance.
"I'd suggest running," the woman called out from behind him. "You can't kill him." She moved to stand behind him. "You can't kill me either," she added, grinning just as unpleasantly as he had. "Though you're welcome to try." Hulk growled his agreement.
The cluster of men exchanged worried looks. Several began to slowly back away. Hulk snorted and began to crouch in preparation for a charge, but the woman reached out and set her hand on his arm. He turned his head to look curiously at her; she stilled radiated fear of him, and yet she dared to try to stop him.
"Run," she repeated firmly, looking to the men, and more of them began to back away. The handful remaining kept their weapons raised, but the reek of their fear was much stronger now. "Last chance," she told them. "I'm sure this isn't what you signed up for. Go now before you anger him any further. Now." The last word was like a whip-crack; the men flinched, then exchanged looks. Some of those already backing away dropped their weapons and ran, the remainder began a more orderly retreat, the muzzles of their weapons turned aside though remaining generally pointing in their direction until they reached a side-corridor and moved out of sight. Hulk snorted, a mix of disdain for them and disappointment at not being allowed to fight them.
The woman smiled at him, her hand patting his arm lightly. "We need to go, but first there's a couple of things we should pick up. That way," she said, pointing at one wall of the corridor. Hulk grinned in pleasure, and smashed an opening through it.
"Pardon me, Sir," Jarvis interrupted the quiet conversation Tony and Phil were having by the coffee maker. "Signal has just been acquired on Loki's cell phone via the Stark satellite network; GPS places it somewhere to the east of Tranquility Ridge in the Wanaque Wildlife Management Area, just south of the New York-New Jersey border."
A new display popped up, the location marked with a flashing X. No roads or buildings were marked, just a meandering blue line marked "Beech Brook" and a point marker positioned (presumably) on the ridge.
"What does satellite view show?" Tony asked. The image changed, to a sea of lumpy green tree tops, broken by two large meadows and a swampy, water-filled area, the X being in the trees between the ridge and the two clearings. Tony squinted at the display. "Zoom in on that clearing near the X. No, the middle clearing, not the southern one. Hawkeye, those look like vehicle tracks to me; same to you?"
"Yeah, same," Clint agreed. "I'd guess either off-roaders or an access road maybe? ATV trails? There might be an offshoot of that leading to the X, somewhere under those trees."
"Not that we need a road," Tony said.
Clint was already on his feet and slinging his quiver on, and nodded at Tony. "I'll go fire up the quinjet. Someone figure out if I'm stopping to pick up Cap and Nat, or if they'll be making their own way there."
"Wait for Iron Man," Phil called after him, then turned to look sternly at Tony. "I'm sure you can fly there faster than the jet, but I'd rather neither of you go in without backup; either go along on board or fly alongside, I don't care, but stay with each other. Go suit up, I'll contact the others and arrange a rendezvous point."
Tony nodded, deciding against arguing; his speed in the suit wouldn't get him there all that much before the quinjet would make it, and as organized as the kidnappers had clearly been, he figured Coulson might be right about it being better to go in with backup on hand; no telling what they were going to find out there.
There was sporadic resistance as Hulk and Nari moved through the facility, enough to make her thankful that she'd donned her armour for the fight. At some point she'd acquired a length of rebar that made a tolerably decent quarterstaff, and a knife with a blade the length of her hand from one of the soldiers who'd been made of stern enough stuff to stand and fight.
Her initial fear of the Hulk was fading; the two of them had fought well together, and he'd been willing to take direction from her, at least in the simplest forms. A lot could be done with "smash", "don't smash" and "this way", and despite his brutish appearance and limited vocabulary he was clearly intelligent, and could understand more than he could say in return. But then Bruce Banner was a genius, so perhaps it was hardly surprising that his alter ego had its own level of brilliance, especially when it came to puzzling his way around or through obstacles.
They stopped briefly in the office that Nari had originally followed his kidnappers to, or rather Nari stopped and searched it while Hulk went up and down the corridor smashing in doors and happily destroying the contents of the other rooms. She found only a few items that looked promising, and stashed them in a dimensional pocket before rejoining Hulk.
"There is someone we should take with us when we leave," she told him, as she led the way back in the direction of the garage they'd originally been brought into the facility by. "A young man; you might recognize him. He was in a wheelchair."
Hulk scowled. "Made Bruce sleep."
Nari nodded. "Yes, he made Bruce sleep. But I think he's a prisoner here, the same way they tried to make you a prisoner."
"Not smash?" Hulk's scowl lessened, became a frown.
"Not smash," Nari agreed, then pushed open the doors leading into the garage, and looked around at the scattering of vehicles parked within it. "Well, not smash the boy. Smashing these is just fine."
Hulk grinned toothily at her, then launched himself into the air, the high ceiling allowing him to gain an impressive height before he landed feet-first on top of an armoured vehicle, denting it significantly. Nari continued at a stroll across the garage as the Hulk rampaged around the large room, entertaining himself with destroying things before rejoining her as she opened the doorway which should lead them to where she'd last seen Troy.
"Hulk know you," he said as he ducked through the doorway to follow on her heels, then sent a chill down Nari's spine as he added "Puny god" in a tone of deep satisfaction.
Nari swallowed and continued walking. "Yes, that was me," she said, tensing as she tried to decide whether or not she should attempt to flee from the beast.
"No worry," Hulk said, and patted her back in what was probably meant to be a reassuring gesture, though the force of it was enough to send her stumbling forward a few paces. "Bruce likes."
That surprised Nari. She'd thought she was tolerated by Bruce, at most. But liked? Unlikely. Inconceivable. Really? But she couldn't imagine any reason for the Hulk to lie about it, and when she turned her head to look at him, the expression on his face didn't betray any hostility towards her.
"Thank you," she said, voice a little faint with the combination of surprise and relief.
They reached what she judged to be the area of Troy's room, at least if she was correctly remembering the distances and directions she'd travelled through the ductwork earlier. "He should be in one of these rooms," she told Hulk. "Mind opening a few doors for me? Carefully."
"No smash," Hulk agreed, and set to tearing the nearest door open.
Steve and Natasha ran into the quinjet, Clint lifting off again before they were even half way up the loading ramp. Tony turned and nodded to them from where he was standing just back of the cockpit, one hand holding onto a grab-hold on the ceiling, his faceplate open.
"Any further information?" Natasha asked as she slipped past him to take the co-pilot's seat, Steve moving to take hold by Tony.
"Yeah, Jarvis managed to remote into the phone and open a channel, mostly it's been a soothing soundtrack of outdoors at night, but there was a siren for a while at first, and after that cut out there's been a couple of times that we think we heard a distant Hulk roar," Tony explained.
"That sounds like a good sign," Steve said.
"Yeah, at least for our side, not so much for whomever Hulk is roaring at, I'd guess," Clint agreed. Natasha smirked at his appraisal. "We should be there in about ten minutes, give or take finding a landing spot for this bird. The tree canopy looked a little dense on satellite."
"Most of us can skip a real landing," Tony pointed out. "I can carry Cap and Widow down."
"I can jump, come to that," Steve said. "As long as we're not too high. Though Clint would still need to land the jet."
"Looks like it won't be an issue after all," Natasha said, gesturing with her chin toward a screen set in the dash between the two seats. "Coulson did some prying, there's another clearing right where the GPS puts Loki's phone – it was showing as canopy on satellite mapping images because there's a well-camouflaged base there."
"A SHIELD base?" Tony asked, frowning.
"Army," Natasha corrected.
Tony made a disgusted noise. "General Ross," he said.
"Possibly," Natasha agreed. "Coulson is looking for any provable connection."
"I don't think I like this General Ross," Steve said.
"I know I don't like him," Tony growled. "Jarvis, remind me to find out where his new favourite watering hole is these days and buy that one too."
"Of course, Sir," Jarvis' voice could be heard from the speakers in Tony's helmet. "What would you like it turned into this time?"
Troy was backed into the corner of the room furthest from the door, staring at the Hulk with terrified eyes. The boy had already attempted to knock them each out in turn, as he'd done to Bruce earlier, but forewarned was forearmed, and Nari had already shielded them against such interference even before Hulk had found the right door.
She stepped between Hulk and Troy now, holding both hands up in a placating gesture. "We're not here to harm you, Troy – we're here to rescue you," she said.
Despite the fear and disbelief his expression showed, there was a brief flash of something else in his eyes when she said that – hope. He glanced from the Hulk to her and then back again. "How can I trust you?" he asked, voice shaking.
Nari shrugged. "You don't have to. Though I'll point out that if either I or the Hulk here really wanted to harm you, we already could have. You've been made to seem like you were complicit in what happened earlier today, but this," and she waved one hand dismissively around at the nearly bare room, the door that only opened from the outside, "looks more like a prison cell to us than some place you're living voluntarily. Neither of us is fond of cells, nor of the kind of people who'd lock someone else up in one in order to control them. We'll take you somewhere safe, where you can tell your side of the story. I have a feeling it will be an interesting tale."
Troy straightened slightly at that, and swiped his nose on the back of one wrist. "Get me safely out of here and I'll talk all right," he said bitterly. "I've been locked up here for months."
Before any of them could say or do anything further, there was the sound of gunfire from out in the corridor, and the Hulk whirled around and roared, before disappearing out of sight as he charged off at whomever was attacking them. Nari bit back a curse; the Hulk and she might be effectively impervious to gunfire, but Troy certainly wasn't; she'd rather not see him accidentally injured or killed before she and the Avengers had had a chance to question him properly.
"Do not be frightened," she told him, even as she reached for a larger, better-armoured form. "It's jail-break time," she managed as her face lengthened into a scaled muzzle, forcing the last words out before she lost the capability of speech. Troy had gone pale, watching the transformation, but simply closed his eyes and remained motionless as giant scaled paws closed around him and drew him protectively close before Loki's dragon form bulled its way upwards through the ceiling and into the freedom of the skies.
"There's the clearing," Clint said as the quinjet slowed and began to lower as its jets pivoted from horizontal to vertical positions. "Judging by the several areas of collapsed roofing I see, Hulk's been having some play-time."
Tony grinned. "Here's hoping he's left something for us to do," he said, then slapped his faceplate closed, preparing to exit the back of the jet.
"Don't forget your passengers," Natasha said, grabbing hold of him before he could move away. Tony sighed and lifted his arms, waiting for her and Steve to take hold on either side of him.
"FUCK!" Clint suddenly exclaimed, the quinjet banking sharply to one side, Tony and Steve clutching at handholds while Natasha held on to Tony. "Shit. Looks like Loki is having some fun play-time too."
A roar sounded from outside; not the Hulk's well-known deep voice, but a higher, more animalistic sound; a screech, not a bellow. Natasha bent down to peer out the windscreen, keeping a tight grip on Tony's armour in case of additional sudden manoeuvring. "Looks like we have a dragon in addition to a Hulk," she commented dryly.
"Wonderful," Tony said, grinning inside his helmet. "Let's go play."
The loading ramp opened, Steve released his handhold and gripped onto the armour, and Tony flew out the back of the jet, dropping down to set Steve and Natasha down on the roof of the building before shooting off after dragon-Loki.
Loki was hovering to one side of the clearing, head turned to watch the quinjet as it disgorged its passengers, his forepaws... Forehands? Foreclaws? ...cupped in front of his chest, holding something. No, holding someone, Tony realized as his visual sensors zoomed in for a better view. He got a glimpse of a pale face peering over one of Loi's massive claws, before he had to turn his attention to helping the team take control of the partially destroyed facility. The fight was brief, what little resistance remained mostly choosing to surrender when faced with almost the full complement of the Avengers, followed shortly by additional backup arriving in the form of several SHIELD teams that Phil had sent in after them to secure and investigate the site.
By the time the Avengers had handed off things to SHIELD, Loki was curled up near their quinjet, the Hulk sitting leaning back against his flank and looking sleepy after his energy expenditures of the evening. The dragon's clawed hands were still cupped protectively around – or possibly imprisoning, or maybe a bit of both – the young man.
Tony made it over to them first, landing just in front of Loki, popping his helmet open even as he reached up to run his gauntleted hands across Loki's scaled chin, wanting the reassurance of physical contact. Loki rumbled approvingly and lowered his head, putting Tony briefly in mind of an oversized cat. "Going to introduce me to your new... friend? Prisoner? Other?" Tony asked.
Loki snorted, then squirmed and rippled in a distinctly unsettling fashion as he edged away from the Hulk before shifting back to human form. His female one, again. Nari kept one hand maintaining a grip on the kid's upper arm after the change. "A little from column A, a little from column B," she said. "This is Troy. He's the mutant who knocked out Bruce yesterday, though I don't think I'd necessarily say he was the one responsible for doing so," she said.
Steve and Natasha had arrived by then, Cap moving to check on the Hulk, who was slumping down and sideways as he began his own transformation back to his smaller and pinker form. Natasha moved closer to Troy, frowning and craning her head to one side. "What's that under your hair?" she asked him suspiciously.
Troy glanced nervously from her to Nari and over to Tony, then turned towards Nari and bent his head, exposing a black box – a literal black box, with a matte black finish – of some kind that seemed to be directly attached to the nape of his neck. "They control me with it," Troy said, his voice shaky. "I don't know everything it can do; it's a shock collar, it can be used to paralyse me, and they told me it's got a tracker in it so that even if I somehow managed to escape, they'd still be able to find me."
"Huh," Tony said. "I am liking none of that, and I wouldn't put it past the kind of mind who'd think up something like that to also build in an anti-tampering device or some kind of kill-switch. My vote is we get this kid the hell away from here and into a shielded location pronto, and then figure out how the hell to both turn it off and take it off."
"Motion seconded," Natasha said.
"Carried," Steve agreed as he crouched down to pick up a now-sleeping Dr Banner. "Clint! Get your ass over here, we need to leave."
"Coming!" Clint called from where he was standing on top of the building, talking to a small cluster of SHIELD personnel. He hurried their direction, leaping over a gap in the ceiling and then bending down to pick up something a few strides before he jumped down off the roof, rolling out of the fall at the bottom before trotting over to them. As he drew near he called out "Catch!" and tossed whatever it was he'd picked up at Nari.
Her free hand snapped up, snatching it out of mid-air, and she raised her eyebrows in amusement at him before looking at what she held in her hand – her custom Starkphone. "Thank you," she said, slipping it into her pocket, then put one arm around Troy's shoulder and steered him toward the nearby quinjet. "Let's get out of here."