Bringing a tall, stacked blonde back to Stark Tower caused a surprising stir, even though you'd think that everyone would be used to that kind of thing by now. It should probably have been a much bigger deal that Tony was involved and there was only one blonde. And she still had most of her clothes on.
Then again, it might have had more to do with the fact that Steve Rogers, bless his ten little patriotic toes, had announced that the blonde was an alien the instant they stepped into the lobby.
It had gone down like this: Steve had stepped up to the security desk and given the nice, heavily armed lady there a stunning, All-American smile and said, "Hi, Mary? Is there a protocol for first contact? Because this nice lady here, Sharla, isn't actually from Earth."
Of course he knew the security agent's first name. Steve knew everyone's first name. Even the garbage collectors and the guy whose job seemed exclusively to be spraying doorknobs with disinfectant before Tony touched them.
Mary the security agent had stared at him, but there wasn't even a hint of disbelief in her expression. Steve tended to have that effect on people. He had a smile of +3 Earnestness12. Then, wordlessly, she'd reached across the desk and pushed a bright green button.
And then things had happened, fast. Things like an armed escort appearing as if by magic. And them all being cordially invited in a way that was most definitely not an invitation so much as a 'Jesus Christ what you have you special little snowflakes gotten up to this time?' with a side of 'If you keep making my life interesting, I'm going to have no choice but to make yours even more interesting' up to Director Fury's office.
Crammed into the glass-sided elevator with a bunch of assault-rifle-carrying yet suit-wearing no-necks, plus his two fellow Avengers, plus the hot alien, Clint was pathetically stuck on the fact that there was apparently a special button on the security desk just for aliens. How often did this actually come up? Was there a giant pile of fascinating off-planet hanky-panky that Agent Coulson had been holding out on him all this time?
The Director waited for them in his office, which Clint was prepared to swear actually became more intimidatingly expansive the more pissed off the man was. Right now, the office appeared to be larger than the actual building, because the annoyance of Director Fury had more important concerns than obeying physical laws.
The man himself stood just outside the elevator doors, waiting with his hands clasped loosely behind his back. Despite being indoors, he wore his trademark black leather trench, the sort ideal for concealing just about any weapon known to man. "Gentlemen."
Oh shit, Clint thought. The Director had an entire vocabulary made of nothing but that word. It was all inflection and tone, like Chinese but ten times as bad ass and with a one-hundred percent chance of being at the mercy of someone who could not only dock your pay, but decide that Antarctica was lovely this time of year and he had a few errands that you needed to run. And the tone he'd used said that frost bite and twenty-four hours of darkness would be a kind memory if this turned out to be anything but the real deal.
"Sir," Steve said. He didn't actually salute – the Director had finally broken him of that habit – but everything in his tone and posture said he was doing it in spirit. And if you were Steve Rogers, that was the part that counted anyway. "This is Miss Sharla. She's from the... Consortium of Kaytrel. Which isn't on Earth," he added helpfully, after a pause and a disbelieving look from the Director.
"You are Nick Fury," Sharla said, giving him a perky smile. "This is excellent. We are in need of your assistance."
The Director favored Clint with a look that said, 'You ass clowns had better not be yanking my chain,' because of course, out of the available culprits, he would be able to make Clint's life the most difficult. Mentally, Clint cursed Tony and his ability to just take his suit and flame out like a giant drama queen.
"Well, we can talk about it if you want to have a seat," the Director said, waving her over to a conference table that had apparently been constructed from plate glass and pure menace. He seemed entirely unaffected as she brushed by him, probably because he was made of sterner stuff than normal men, pure badassedness strong enough to rival even the General Niceness Field of Steve Rogers.
They all sat. There was coffee and water. Clint grabbed a cup of coffee and nursed it along, deciding his best bet was to let the people above his pay grade do the talking.
"Now, Miss... Sharla, where did you say you were from again?" Nick Fury asked, simultaneously being utterly serious and projecting the feeling that he was humoring this shit just long enough for Clint, Steve, and Tony to play out sufficient rope for a good hanging.
"I am with the Consortium of Kaytrel. It is an organization of our government, not actually a place where we live. I am from Abaddon, which you probably have not heard of. It's outside of your dimension."
Clint shot a look at Tony and got a nod coupled with a shrug. So he wasn't imagining things. That was some awesome name for Hell in a different culture. He sank a little lower in his seat. Because of course something that blonde and good looking couldn't be true. Or might just be there to drag them all to Hell. Either way, it was another symptom of the basic unfairness of life.
Nick Fury oozed non-plussedness. "You're right, we haven't heard of it. Not really up on our dimensional travel yet. So what kind of help are you after?"
"I am from the enforcement arm of our organization. I'm in pursuit of a criminal and we have reason to think he has taken refuge in this dimension, on your world."
The Director leaned back a little in his chair. "Go on."
"He most often goes by the name of Loki, or Loki Odinsson. Though he has many other aliases that we've been made aware of in the course of our investigation. I can list them for you if you like."
Suddenly, she had the attention of everyone in the room.
This, Clint realized, was the sound of the other shoe dropping. Of course it sounded like Loki. "Wait, you know him?"
"Not personally. Just because of his crimes. Do you?"
It kind of depended what she meant by that, and suddenly all Clint could think of was the man grabbing him by the hair and the strange, terrifying-but-not feeling of someone that dangerous not so much invading his personal space as building a summer vacation home there.
He was thankfully saved from having to answer by the Director. "You could say that we're acquainted with that particular gentleman." A snort from Tony, and the Director cranked his eyebrow up to a notch that had Clint studying the table top with the sort of intensity he normally reserved for the Victoria's Secret catalog. "Gentleman in the Tony Stark sense, of course."
"I don't know if that's really fair to Loki," Clint informed the tabletop.
"Ouch," Tony muttered.
The blonde just looked confused. "I don't understand. Tony Stark is well-respected in the realm of justice, is he not?"
Tony grinned. "I met Justice a couple days ago. Her friend was named Destiny."
Nick Fury ignored him with practiced ease. "You could say something like that, Miss. Stark isn't really the topic of conversation here, however, no matter how desperately he'd like to be. So let's return to the subject at hand: Loki. You're after him. Now, we have a fine tradition of extradition in this country, but we'd still like to know what you're after him for.. He's been a major pain in my ass since he made a crater in the middle of Montana, and he's got a fine array of crimes to answer for on Earth."
Sharla frowned, and there was a predatory edge to the expression that Clint didn't really like. It made him wonder just how much of the floaty smiling had been an act. Then the expression was wiped away like it had never been, but he knew better than to doubt himself on this one. Clint had learned to read expressions on Loki out of a desire to not get a shank run through one of his kidneys. That kind of survival skill, he trusted. "Our claim is prior," she said.
"Sure is. But if he's been shoplifting, I don't give a crap. He's blown a lot of things up around here, and hasn't been too concerned if warm bodies have been in the way."
Again, that flash of something that was vapid and attractive in the same sense that a great white shark was either of those things. "When Loki first came to Abaddon, we welcomed him and cared for him. He was grievously wounded from his time in non-dimensional space. As soon as he had recovered, he repaid us by destroying the hospital and one of our research facilities. Over a thousand died, and several more were unlucky enough to be in the swathe of destruction he cut as he made his escape. He slit the throats of our researchers and stole a dimensional rift generator, the prototype. That was how he escaped. And that is why it has taken us so long to pursue. The research had to be rediscovered and the technology reproduced."
In the realm of poker faces, Nick Fury lived somewhere between God and Loki. He didn't so much as bat an eyelash, though he did give Clint a look, one that clearly demanded a second opinion, make it snappy.
Clint could only answer with a shrug. He was a man that cataloged shrugs the way others treasured their collection of grunts. His shrug in all its careful nuance indicated: Fuck, I don't know. Loki's sure a giant space cock, but there's something fishy about the blonde lady and have you checked out her legs by the way?
It was plainly not the level of certainty the Director was looking for – his eye narrowed slightly. Clint could only offer another shrug, a philosophical little number that he used far more than he liked to think about since joining SHIELD: No such thing as certainty in an uncertain world, boss.
"We'll have to discuss this, if you don't mind. Miss," the Director said in a tone that plainly stated if she did mind, well, tough shit. "If you'd like, you an be our guest while we chat. The facilities are somewhere between opulent and ridiculous."
Sharla didn't look happy, but she nodded, setting her hair bouncing in a series of strange waves. "I have a colleague that came through the rift with me. May I contact her?"
"She as pretty as you?" Tony asked, shit-eating grin in full force.
Nick Fury, who had long since banished Tony from his universe for the purposes of the meeting, simply said, "Please do. She's welcome to stay here with you. Any other colleagues of yours wandering around that could use some... hospitality?"
"No, just us. Our capabilities for moving between dimensions are still shaky thanks to the criminal's escape. We were counting on your assistance." She gave the Director a sweet smile, accompanied by eyelash batting. He appeared unimpressed.
A couple of impeccably suited agents took her away after that. The Director leaned back in his chair, hands clasped loosely over his belly. "You get all of that, Agent Romanoff?"
"Yes, sir." Natasha stepped out from behind a hidden panel in the wall near the elevator. Clint squirmed slowly in his chair, trying to remember if he'd said anything particularly piggish, of if he'd left that all up to Tony.
"Do you have any more useful insights than what Agent Barton could come up with?"
Natasha shook her head. "We can't really expect an alien to be easy to read."
"But I think her story is entirely plausible, from what we've seen of Loki. He's going to be a... royal pain in the ass no matter what dimension he's in." Her lips twitched like she was fighting off a smile.
"I don't know," Steve said. He cleared his throat, looking a little sheepish when all eyes turned to him. "Explosions... that I can believe. As well as general mayhem. But I'm not so sure about the throat slitting."
He was treated to an array of disbelieving looks, except Clint found himself nodding. At which point that focused the attention back on him and he wished he'd just kept giving the stink eye to the table top. Because suddenly he was in the unthinkable position of defending Loki, and wasn't that just the sort of bitchy situation that asshole excelled at creating. But too late to back down now. "I agree with Steve. Loki's not the sort to get his hands dirty. And... I don't know. About the hospital. Just doesn't seem like him. Up 'til now there's been a reason behind everything he's done, and I can't see where blowing up a bunch of sick people fits in."
Natasha cleared her throat. "This is the guy that filled the inside of seventeen office towers with chocolate pudding. Because he was bored."
"But that's the thing. Boredom equals chocolate pudding or... fuck, I don't know, sentient toasters that have angel wings, with this guy. Not exactly mass murder."
"Clint, have you started doing drugs recently?"
Nick Fury let out a short bark of a laugh. "Eloquently put, Agent Romanoff."
"It's still a valid point," Steve said.
Stop helping me, Steve, Clint thought so hard that it made his head ache.
"Really, Captain Rogers. What other brilliance do you have to add to this discussion?"
A sane man with a modicum of self-preservative instinct would have taken that invitation to shut up up with gratitude. Steve Rogers was a man that had once thrown himself on top of a grenade without even an instant of wondering if his intestines would really look better decorating the grass than safely inside his abdomen. It was safe to say that Steve and self-preservation were not even on speaking terms these days.
"Maybe I do. Loki's always... played nice with us. He's had ever opportunity to kill us all about a hundred times over, and he never has. So what did these people do to make him... uh... not play nice?"
"They didn't have Goldilocks with them?" Tony suggested.
Which seemed like a valid point on its face, only Clint had seen Loki and Thor really go at it, once, and Steve had been there too. And Clint didn't know how Steve felt about the whole thing, but it still gave him the cold sweats if he thought about it too hard. Not because either one of the Asgardians had gotten all that banged up, but because it was a reminder of just how, well, fragile human beings (like, say, Clint Fucking Barton) were in comparison. He knew that he wouldn't be able to just shake off getting hit full in the face with a steel I-beam, not even at a much slower speed.
And the fact that Loki seemed to get that, and calculate for it so that everything was scary and unpleasant without actually hitting a deadly point was simultaneously comforting and terrifying.
"Look, Steve... I don't get why this is even a thing," Tony said, pushing his douchebag glasses up on his nose with his middle finger, a signature Tony Stark gesture of utter maturity.
"Yeah, well, maybe that's because you weren't here for the fun and games last year," Steve said.
"Through no fault of my own." Tony held up a finger. "So back on the subject. He's a bad guy. He did some bad things here, and some worse things somewhere else. So it's simple. We help the legion of the hot blondes catch him, justice is served, party at my house."
"Yes, but why--"
Tony grinned, leaning forward. "No one bothers asking me why I do half the shit I do--"
"Because it's pretty obvious the why is located in your pants," Natasha muttered.
The finger – at least it wasn't the middle one – got wagged at Natasha. "Not necessarily. Sometimes the why is located in my bank account. But the point is, no one cares about why, even when it's something as innocent as buying a hotel so I can have it knocked down. You just call me an asshole and move on. So if you're giving Loki some benefit of the doubt you won't even give your dear friend and coworker... well, Steve, I've got to say I'm hurt. Real hurt. Right in the mechanical bits."
Steve shut his mouth with an audible snap.
Director Fury snorted. "So are there any actual drawbacks to this plan as so eloquently laid out by Tony? Anyone? And... what the hell is all that noise?"
The noise in question was two ring tones - Killing in the Name Of (not because Clint liked Rage Against the Machine particularly, but he'd be damned if he was going to go with anything less balls to the wall where other people could hear) and Star Spangled Man - trying to play simultaneously. It was not a happy musical marriage.
Clint hauled out his phone, as did Steve. And while Clint unlocked his screen and got down to business with a muttered, "Could've sworn I had this on vibrate..." Steve stared at the device with something akin to horror and handed it to Tony.
"You are a neanderthal. Are you sure you were only frozen in that ice block for 60 years?" Tony peered at the phone. "Oh look, a priority e-mail."
"I have e-mail?" Steve repeated, his tone suggesting that he might need a refresher on what that was before even getting to the scarier revelation that it came in 'priority' flavor.
"So do I," Clint said.
"Oh look, from... Loki? I must need to tighten the spam filters. And he wants to meet with us. I mean you. Wow, what were you guys up to last year? I didn't think there was actually something to the whole Loki Fan Club act, but now... was there an ice cream social I didn't get invited to?" Tony offered the phone back to Steve, who seemed very reluctant to take it.
"Care to explain this, Agent Barton? You in the habit of giving known hostiles your personal contact information?" Director Fury swiveled his chair to put Clint squarely in the kill zone of his displeasure.
Suddenly, any sympathy Clint might have been feeling for this particular devil dried up. "No, sir."
"Care to hazard a guess?"
"It's Loki, sir. If I even could guess, you'd probably need to have me committed."
"Good point." Nick Fury stood. "Well, far be it from me to ignore the happy gifts of chance." He smiled, the sort of expression commonly accompanied by the phrase, 'what big teeth you have, grandmother.' "Sounds like he's got a trap for us. Let's get the tables turned. I'm sure our guests will be happy to help."
Then he swept from the room, Natasha in tow and Tony following along after mutter something about aliens sure as hell being easier on the eyes than a couple of sad sacks.
Clint looked across the conference table at Steve. The super soldier didn't look unhappy, exactly. The expression was more thoughtful, with a faint hint of worry. Like you'd expect on a guy, standing in a middle of a forest, who also smelled smoke. Clint met his eyes and thought: Troubled. Troubled is the word I'm looking for.
"I don't like this," Steve said.
"I don't either. Do you know why?"
"Me neither. And that's what I like the least."
12 – There was a good reason that Clint knew this kind of expression, though not one he'd ever admit out loud even under threat of torture. There had been a summer, you see, when he was a teenager and had broken his shoulder while skateboarding, so couldn't really do his normal running around and causing general mayhem. And D&D was better than watching television, at least that's what he told himself every time he got e-mail from his old friends, jokingly addressed to Legolas13 the Elven Ranger.
13 – Okay, yes, he'd also read The Lord of the Rings, but it had been in the eighties14, damnit, and he'd done it before it was cool. That counted for something.
14 – And you can stop thinking about the giant hair15 and awful neon colors, wise guy.
15 – IT WAS A MULLET, OKAY? ARE YOU HAPPY NOW?16
16 – Let the record reflect that at this point in time, Clint Barton hates everyone. Particularly you.