Arecibo turned out to be in Puerto Rico, which Clint told himself he really should have remembered the moment Loki mentioned the name. Then again, it was in Puerto Rico, and he had some interesting holes in his memory from that particular foray, the sort of thing that indicated a liberal application of tequila58. Tony Stark had been along for that one, and most of the occasions in Clint's life when he had large, conspicuous gaps in his memory involved Tony on way or the other. It was something he could count on.
Puerto Rico was too far for a helicopter, or for clinging to Thor (thankfully), so they acquired one of Tony's private jets. Along the way, they also acquired Steve, since he was done with his undisclosed thing in Serbia.
Steve waved off the beer Clint offered him, and eyed the rest of the furnishings in the plane skeptically. "I admit, I haven't been in too many airplanes lately, but is there a reason there's a pole in the middle of the cabin?"
Clint used a combat knife that most sane people would have called a sword to lever the cap off his beer. "You know there are times, when it's better not to ask if you might not like the answer?"
"This is one of those times."
Thor stared morosely at his own beer; he'd been disappointed to find out the bar wasn't so fully stocked as to carry mead. "At least this one doesn't have mirrors all over the ceiling. I found that very distracting."
Steve covered his face with one hand.
Clint laughed, saluting Thor with the beer. "I think that's the point." He leaned back against the leather upholstery of the couch. "So, Thor, there's something bugging me about your brother."
Thor gave him a narrow-eyed look. "And that would be...?"
"He's too damn likeable." Clint took a swig59 of his beer. "I keep having these weird moments where I have to remind myself that we're not buddies, because I almost feel like he's just one of the guys giving me shit. It's freaking me out."
"Maybe he's not so bad after all," Steve offered. It was likely a holdover from his Hitler punching days, but Steve still seemed to have a difficult time grasping the fact that bad guys were normally pretty well practiced at pretending to be good guys, and that the maniacal laughter and indiscriminate stabbing often came later.
"My brother can be very pleasant when he wants to be," Thor said. He shrugged. "And I think you've all taken him the wrong way to begin with." He glanced furtively around the cabin, as if he expected Agent Coulson or Romanoff to pop out from behind the bar at any moment.
Clint sighed. "Both of you, please try to remember the multiple occasions he's tried to murder us all."
"Since he has yet to succeed, I don't see why you're complaining," Thor said. "Life without a battle now and then would be boring."
"Well, maybe, but he's still hurt a lot of people. And damaged a lot of property." Steve rubbed his chin with one hand.
"But see, that's the other thing that's bugging the shit out of me." Clint drained half his beer with another swig, then waved the bottle to emphasize his point. "Because we keep hearing over and over that he's some kind of fucking super genius--"
"—He is the smartest person I know," Thor interjected.
"—right, well, he's probably the smartest person any of us know except maybe Tony, and half the time he's less of a dick than Tony, and let me tell you how much that just disturbs the shit out of me." Clint cut the thought off with a wave of his hand, getting himself back on track. "So he's got brains, and up until now he's had magic, and every time we have gone toe to toe I make sure to wear my brown trousers because even if we win in the end there's still always at least three pants-shitting moments." He finished his beer and slammed the bottle down. It made a good exclamation point. "And supposedly we're at a disadvantage because we're not psychopaths--"
"—he says he's a sociopath--" Thor added helpfully.
"—whatever, we're not sociopaths who don't care who we hurt. And yet we always win. Always. And even if it feels like by the skin of our teeth, we make it through with nothing worse than a few bumps and bruises. But then when we go up against this robot thing once, it half kills Natasha, and came this close to to taking Coulson's head off. Not to mention the awesome scar I'm going to get to show my next girlfriend."
Thor stared at him; Clint realized that as he'd wound up his rant, he'd risen to his feet and started pacing circles around the pole in the middle of the cabin. He stopped, hands on his hips, and stared at Steve and Thor. "Well?"
"I don't think I understand your point," Thor said. Steve, however, looked thoughtful.
"Do you really think that your brother is dumber than some robot?" Clint demanded. "Or do you think maybe something else has been going on, all this time?"
Thor was not a man given to sarcasm – he'd always left that sort of thing to Sif and Loki – but he saved up his occasional dollops of caustic wit for when they would be most useful. In this case, it meant giving Clint a look that somehow managed to combine cynicism, disbelief, and amusement, all with the backdrop of a blond beard just starting to get bushy. "My brother," he said carefully, as if he was worried Clint might be having some sort of brain hemorrhage that would only be exacerbated by hasty words, "always has something else going on."
"You know what I mean!" Clint shouted. Something about that particular look on Thor's face made a line of cold creep down his spine; in that moment, he really felt like he could see the family resemblance between the two.
"No, I really don't." Thor sat back and finally twisted the cap off his bottle of beer, despite the fact that the cap wasn't actually meant to twist off. "You think Loki is up to something. That is like saying that you think the sky is blue or Agent Romanoff--"
"—watch it," Clint said. "You may think she won't find out what we're saying, but I'm telling you, she's got eyes everywhere."
"But you understand my point."
"Well yeah, but I don't think you're getting mine." Clint turned to Steve for some support; Steve was pulling on his blue mask, looking pointedly at his watch. "A little help here?"
"I'm thinking," Steve said.
Clint sighed. "Nothing at all?"
"No, I've got ideas. I'm just thinking." Steve grinned. "And maybe you two should think about getting ready. We're almost there. And from what you said, this isn't going to be a cake walk."
"No," Clint said sadly. "I actually like cake."
Thor grinned. "Is not the thrill of combat far sweeter?"
Clint snorted and started unpacking his bow. "Says the guy who didn't get set on fire last time."
* * *
Clint and Steve, now dolled up in his Captain America outfit, decided to go with a mundane way of entering the scene: jumping out of the plane with parachutes. Thor eyed the parachutes skeptically, but seemed mollified when he was given the job of keeping the air clear and the robot distracted until the other two had landed.
Clint let Steve jump first, since otherwise he thought the might explode from sheer eagerness. He was out the door right behind him,diving into the dense cloud cover over Puerto Rico. "You know what you're aiming for, right Steve?" he asked over the radio channel, more to make conversation than anything else.
"You said it was a telescope, so an observatory, right?"
Clint grinned. He'd pulled up the satellite images of Arecibo. "Oh, you'll see in a minute."
They broke through the clouds; Thor was already a scarlet-caped blur ahead of them, diving toward the green hills that surrounded an odd-looking, gray valley.
There was a pause before Steve spoke again, "What the heck is that?"
"That whole valley? Yeah, that's the telescope." The telescope at Arecibo was the largest of its kind in the world, a massive radio receiving dish that filled an entire valley, topped with antenna and the housing for the sub-reflector.
Another pause. "You said Loki called it little. And darling."
"Loki's an asshole." Clint grinned; the wind rushing by made his teeth ache with cold, so he quickly stopped. "You just need to learn to speak fluent douchebag."
"And he thinks the... robot guy is going to try to steal stuff off of it?"
"Pretty much. The hard part is going to be not blowing anything up. Because you break it, Steve, you bought it."
Steve laughed, then popped his parachute open. "I'll keep that in mind."
Suddenly the whole valley washed out with brilliant blue-white light, so bright that Clint had to shield his eyes.
"Do you think Thor did that?" Steve asked. He pulled out his pistol, though it was still too far to really see anything.
"I hope so. And I hope he remembers the part of the plan where he draws the robot away. I don't know about anyone else, but I bet Jane will murder the shit out of him if he damages this thing."
* * *
Maybe the robot was starting to get the hang of the magic thing; Arecibo was a bigger mess than the museum had been. There were golems made out of animated trees, climbing all over the superstructure and trying to remove the fine little bits and bobs that held the antennas together and kept the reflector out of the robot's immediate grasp. Those, Clint left to Steve. The guy was a super soldier; he he would hopefully remember the incendiary rounds Clint had insisted he take, and also remember that wood was flammable.
Clint released his parachute and hit the ground in a crouch to the rapid BONGBONGBONG of a vibranium shield bouncing between a series of magically animated objects.
Or, Clint supposed, Steve could also just beat everything to death with his fists and shield. Why ruin a good thing?
He scanned the surrounding hillside, looking for the telltale flashing lights or giant vortexes of debris that normally marked Thor's passing. He had his own mission to take care of, one he'd given himself after his little chat with Loki. Clint Barton was a man who firmly believed his arrows should stay where he put them, sticking proudly out of whatever body part on his opponent he'd taken the most offense to. He took it as a personal insult that the arrows had not only gone through60 the robot, they'd done no appreciable damage. That was going to change.
Another blinding flash came from further up the slope, maybe even on the other side. Cursing under his breath, Clint broke into a run, swinging his bow into his hands as he went. His feet were all but silent on the leafy floor, not that it mattered if the sonic boomlettes bouncing between the hills were any indication. He burst over the crest of the hill, his chest burning with the necessity to for god's sake breathe you idiot and then he saw them.
Clint didn't pause; he dropped to one knee, nocking one of his new, special arrows, and fired in one smooth motion. There was a breeze, the arrow wasn't going to fly quite right before it had an incendiary charge on it, and a hundred other variables that could have knocked his shot off course. But Clint didn't so much as blink, because he was Clint Fucking Barton, and he didn't miss.
The robot had enough time to twist its head around in a really creepy way, and then the arrow nailed it right between the eyes.
Compared to the sounds from before, it was almost like a firecracker, a petite little pop. But it got the job done; the robot's head suddenly vanished in a puff of smoke.
Clint grinned, waiting for that satisfying moment when the body dropped.
That was probably his first61 mistake.
* * *
Things had gone according to plan as far as Thor was concerned. He had dropped from the airplane ahead of the others and made a long dive for the telescope dish. The robot, he'd spotted right away; it had reverted to wearing a replica of Loki's old armor, complete with the helmet. That was enough to bring a little lump to his throat, which he got rid of by growling.
He shifted his grip slightly on Mjolnir, calling up a ball of lightning and sending it flying right at the imposter. It made a satisfying noise and a lot of light. Still flying Thor twisted to dodge a bolt of sizzling plasma, screaming in his general direction before the air had really cleared.
Not even bothering to look, since it was plain he'd gotten his enemy's attention, he pulled into a tight turn and flew up the hillside.
Two more plasma bolts, he dodged, and then twisted in mid-air to catch sight of the robot flying after him, no doubt powered by some sort of magic spell. Thor dropped to the ground, throwing Mjolnir at the same time. As he'd half suspected, the robot made no attempt to dodge, perhaps assuming the hammer carried no more bite than one of Clint's arrows. Obligingly, Mjolnir took off one of the robot's legs before stopping and flying back to Thor's hand.
That caught the robot's attention even more. It whipped up another bolt of plasma and threw it at Thor as it landed, far more gracefully than someone newly missing a limb really should have. Tired of the game – really, Loki had been throwing superheated everything-but-the-kitchen-sink at him since they'd been barely out of diapers – Thor batted the plasma away with a swipe from Mjolnir. A nearby tree blew into splinters.
"Take off my brother's face and fight me as yourself," Thor shouted at the robot. "I will not see you shame him further!"
The robot made a negligent gesture with one hand; its leg reformed. "Fool," it hissed, and Thor was forced to admit to himself that the robot had mastered one of Loki's more unpleasant tones. "I am Loki, the true and final iteration." The lines of its face pulled into a smile that caught Thor between anger and illness. "My predecessor was never able to succeed in killing you. I will take this as another opportunity to prove my superiority."
And then it became like a nightmarish replay of their fight on the Bifrost, the only time that Thor had felt with certainty that Loki was trying to kill him. There were illusions, and the sort of frenetic all weapons at hand attack that he'd experienced then, but now it was conducted in eerie silence and the robot moved in a fluid way that even Loki had never managed, as if it had no bones.
On the other hand, Thor didn't find himself in the least bit interested in holding back or reasoning with the robot, so that evened up the odds nicely.
And what was more, the robot wasn't throwing anything at him that he hadn't seen a hundred times before, even if it had turned up the power level. Magical bolts, insubstantial weapons that still cut as if they had an edge, copies that were solid one moment and gone the next; all were things he had faced and ultimately defeated before.
Thor threw Mjolnir at the robot yet again; it responded by simply detonating a globe of pure energy between them. Thor went crashing through eight trees, with the ninth finally stopping him, then raised his hand and called Mjolnir back.
That was another thing. The robot didn't seem to get tired as he'd seen happen to Loki on occasion. There were times his brother had used so much magic all at once that he could almost smell Loki's brain sizzling behind his eyes. The robot didn't seem to have that problem.
Growling, Thor pulled himself to his feet, brushing away a collection of splinters and leaves. The robot had one hand pointed at him, yet another ball of burning plasma – didn't that thing learn? - gathering in its hand.
Suddenly it turned its head almost 180 degrees. And then its head blew up. Rather than falling like a body normally would, the robot's body simply evaporated.
Thor laughed and started moving forward, Mjolnir held loosely in his hand. He had no doubt that Clint Barton had put in an appearance. "Well, that was hardly any fun..."62
A bright explosion blinded him; Thor shielded his eyes, ducking his head against the wash of heat and using Mjolnir to divert the worst of the force. It was difficult to tell, but in the roar of sound he thought he heard someone scream, and the most likely someone for that role was Clint.
Still shielding his eyes, he raised Mjolnir, calling up a bolt of lightning that just needed a target.
Cold, faintly sticky hands slammed onto either side of his face from behind. Even more disturbingly, the fingers seemed to lose form, creeping out over his face and flowing toward his eyes and ears.
"Pathetic," the robot hissed in Loki's voice. "I have no idea why that fool has wasted such energy on hating you."
Thor laughed, even as one of his ears plugged up with goop, as a brilliant star of pain exploded somewhere behind his right eye and his vision started going dark. "You're the fool for not realizing he loves me at the same time."
Two things happened at once, and it was impossible to tell which caused the larger explosion: Thor slammed Mjolnir down into the earth, unleashing all of that power on himself – and more importantly on the robot. And the robot shrieked something that sounded like "Override!" in Thor's ear, inverting every magical field it had created in the area.
Either way, it didn't matter to Thor. At some point, an explosion is just an explosion, when you're in the middle of it.
58 – Clint's general philosophy on the recreation was that, if you didn't wake up with any strange tattoos and could clearly remember what happened, it hadn't been much of a party.
59 – Not quite up to Asgardian quaffing standards, but Thor appreciated the effort nonetheless.
60 – Because technically speaking, he was even willing to accept that as long as "going through" was immediately followed by a cartoonish and dramatic blood spatter.
61 – Technically no; in this situation, his first mistake had been joining SHIELD in the first place, or possibly more fundamentally, being born at all. But if we're talking about on this particular day, his first mistake could more accurately be described as: getting out of bed.
62 – Had Thor been an ordinary human, it would have been fair to characterize this as his first major misstep. As it was, on the grand and magical scale of the universe, Thor was practically made of statements like this and it really couldn't be helped.