Agent Coulson does not take days off. But he has lunch breaks and he is very meticulous about them. And he likes to use them efficiently.
Right now, he is sitting in the posh offices above the trading floors of the New York Stock Exchange and carefully unwraps a turkey bagel. Most employees are out to lunch but beneath him the first traders are getting ready for foreign markets to open up and start the buzz all over again.
"I figured I'd find you here." He says, seemingly to thin air. But Coulson does not waste words on empty space.
There is a brief flicker in the general fabric of reality and nothing suddenly becomes someone. The God of Mischief casually strolls over to Coulson and slides onto the couch next to him. His blatant disregard for personal space does not go unnoticed.
"I am impressed. For a mortal you are astoundingly swift on the uptake." Loki has changed a lot since the last time Coulson saw him. He is not trying to maim anyone, for example. And he is wearing a suit which Coulson can only assume is worth more than his entire pension.
"It was a logical conclusion." The distribution of salad in the bagel is not to Coulson's satisfaction so he starts rearranging. "You can do quite a lot of damage here with a minimum of effort. It seemed like something you would do."
Loki watches him for a while and then nods, "It's stunning what a misplaced zero can do."
"Exactly." Coulson checks his watch. He has twenty minutes left to eat his bagel and convince Loki to abandon his quest for world domination.
Other people knit or golf - Coulson spends his spare time with villains from other dimensions to ensure world peace. To each their own.
"I assume you did not just come here to enjoy your-," Loki grimaces, "what is that even?"
"Turkey bagel. I would have brought two but your file is a little fuzzy on the subject of favorite food."
"You have a file on me? How droll."
Coulson nods sagely, "We had to buy an extra server to store it."
"And yet you know nothing about my personal preferences. Disappointing."
"Would you prefer if I asked your brother about it?"
Loki shrugs but it's really just a shiver in disguise, "Be my guest. Let me know when you've managed to get something intelligible out of him on the topic of my person."
"I will." Coulson puts the rest of the bagel aside and brushes stray crumbs off his lap. "In regards to what I assume was your initial question: I came here to ask you something."
Loki raises his eyebrows but is obviously intrigued enough to hear it. At this point Coulson knows his survival is based purely on Loki's interest in things that surprise him. So, he'll just keep surprising Loki.
"Have you ever thought about what will happen after you have achieved your goals?"
Loki's smirk is sharp and oddly reminiscent, "More often than you can imagine. Why?"
"Because I think it's time somebody told you."
"Told me about what?" Seeing Loki confused is probably something not many people have lived to tell the tale of - least of all mortals - so Coulson takes mental notes for future reference.
"About why it's a bad idea," he replies, leaning back into the soft leather of the couch. He should start working here. The closest thing to a couch he has in his office is a permanent bump in the rug that he strongly suspects to be one of Stark's lab rats that got carpeted over by accident.
He isn't fazed by the sudden bout of derisive laughter on Loki's part. The thing with working with pampered geniuses and Nordic gods is that you come to expect the unexpected.
"Fine," Loki concedes once his giggle fit has died down, "I will indulge you. Please elaborate. I am always eager to learn."
"That you are," Coulson admits and fishes for the packet of chewing gum in his jacket pocket, "I'm surprised you haven't figured this out by yourself yet. You know how many times a supreme being has already tried to take over the world?"
Loki grins, "Judging by the state of your world... none?"
"Wrong. Two-hundred-and-twenty-seven times." Coulson pops one chewing gum into his mouth and neatly folds the wrapping paper, "You've upped the count in the last few months though."
"I do what I can." Loki gives a nonchalant shrug and Coulson is yet again reminded why the position of God of Mischief is such a perfect fit for him.
"Yes," Coulson offers a tiny smile in return, "and creating a lot of new jobs in the process. The economy is indebted to you."
Loki makes a miffed face and Coulson tries to keep his smile from bordering on insulting.
"Get to the point, minion," Loki huffs. Talk about insulting.
But Coulson has been called worse by friendlier people so he takes little offense. "My point is that every species has its own survival strategy and there is a reason why none of the two-hundred-plus evil overlords is around anymore."
"The reason being?"
"We're annoying as hell."
For a moment, Loki just stares blankly at him. "That's your species' secret survival technique? A bit thin, if you ask me."
'Thin' is an understatement but Coulson has seen it work more often than he cares to count. "Let me tell you something about humans. You can try to rule us. And you'll probably succeed. And then you'll have to deal with everything we are."
Loki arches one eyebrow which reminds Coulson an awful lot of Stark whenever he is about to call bullshit. He doubts Loki uses such expletives but as the god has pointed out: he is adaptable. You never know.
Coulson starts counting with his fingers, "Empiric evidence suggests three ways of how humans cope with evil dictatorship. The first faction will love you. They will bow at your feet, cater to your every whim, and generally think you are the next best thing after sliced bread. Just as you wanted. They will love you and they will dump all their personal issues on you until you wish that black hole you fell through had swallowed you."
He ignores Loki's attempts to interrupt, "The second type are the ones that will fight you. They will protest and whine and wage a bloody guerilla war on you if necessary. And they will do so until the end of time or your death, depending on which comes first."
"The third group and by far the most dangerous and irritating one is the one that just does not give a crap. Trust me, they are the largest and they have managed to finish off even the toughest of end bosses."
He carefully watches Loki to see whether or not further examples will be necessary but it seems as if the god is actually contemplating Coulson's words.
"So," Loki says after a while, "are you suggesting that I cease my efforts on account of being faced with a terribly unruly bunch of mortals who might ignore me? You must be joking."
Coulson checks his watch. He has ten minutes left to get back to HQ.
"No," he gets up and makes sure his suit is in a presentable state, "call it a friendly word of advice from someone who knows what they're talking about. Go ahead, try to rule the world. I am merely warning you that it might not be everything it's cracked up to be."
"I won't give up."
Coulson nods, "I know."
Loki inclines his head and gives him a look of pure suspicion, "Then you must have something up your sleeve."
"An alternative, of sorts." Coulson smiles because he can already picture Loki's reaction. "Come work for us."
There is complete silence for a second - even the yelling from downstairs gets sucked into the complete void of noise that suddenly envelops them. And then Loki starts to laugh. He doesn't stop for quite some time.
When Coulson glances at his watch for the third time Loki finally lets out a last chuckle and smirks up at him, "Me. Work for you? And they call me mad..."
Coulson is a lot of things but insane isn't one of them. He knows because he has passed the obligatory S.H.I.E.L.D. psych evaluation five times with flying colors. It takes a healthy dose of pragmatism to do his job.
"The way I see it if you are so determined to rule us you will have to deal with our problems either way. Might as well earn some karma points while you're at it. Plus, you get to take out your competition and we won't hunt you down for it."
"Am I understanding you correctly," Loki's grin resembles that of a man watching a comedian struggle with the punch line of a joke, "as an alternative to world domination you offer me a menial position in your little club of minions? I'm curious, what in the nine realms did you expect me to say to this?"
Coulson produces a business card and holds it out to Loki, "Nothing yet. Just think about it. I hate to see talent go to waste."
Loki balances the card on his open palm. It spins on one corner while Loki gives Coulson a quizzical look, "You think my talents would be wasted as ruler of your realm?"
"All I'm saying is that once you're faced with the first nation-wide strike your talents are the only thing you've got left anyway." He leans down so that they are almost face to face, "Give it some thought. Sleep on it. You do sleep, don't you?"
"Occasionally." The card stops dancing and disappears entirely. Loki flashes him a grin that would have most people trembling in fear. But Coulson is not most people. Coulson is his own brand of people.
"See?" He straightens up and moves to leave, "Another point in your file. We are already making progress."
"You forgot your dead chicken." Loki gestures at the half-eaten bagel on the coffee table.
Coulson turns around in the doorway and smiles knowingly, "As I said: It's turkey. And you can have it. Try it. You may even like it."
The last he sees of Loki that day is how the God of Mischief regards a turkey bagel as if it is going to jump up and latch onto his face. The horrible part is that he can probably make it do that.
In all honesty, Coulson expects prank calls. Or for Loki to advertise his number as a sex hotline. This is why he has taken to carrying around two phones, just in case.
What he does not expect is for Loki to actually call.
He just has awful timing.
"Is this a bad time?" Loki asks and Coulson swears he can hear faint violin music filtering through the speakers. He can't really be sure because the sound of gunfire and several agents yelling orders at each other tend to drown out chamber music.
Coulson aims at the two-headed spider the size of a family van and shoots while clamping the cell phone between ear and shoulder and flinging himself backwards. He should have requested a second headset for this one but the Bluetooth sets are so hard to get approved.
Hanging up seems like the most sensible option but he suspects Loki is not the type to care for ringbacks.
"No worse than usual." He rolls to the side before one of the spider's massive legs comes crashing down.
"No. No, I think I'm interrupting something."
"Just dinner." Out of bullets Coulson grabs a random steel rod from the debris and successfully takes out a couple of eyes. Too bad there are twice as many left as normal.
"I thought your kind was well beyond the hunt and kill phase."
"We are. That's part of the problem." Coulson curses and dives behind a heap of concrete that used to be part of a building before it made contact with a mutated arachnid. Moments later he is covered in spider-goo, courtesy of one of Thor's attacks. Lightning has a very explosive effect on these animals, it seems.
He scrambles up and scans the area. All spiders appear to be either gone or have been reduced to stinking puddles on the asphalt.
"Alright." Coulson adjusts his tie, regardless of the splotches of glibber dripping off of him. It's a matter of principle. "What can I do for you?"
"Well, that was quick."
"Dinner got cancelled. So, what do I owe the pleasure to?"
For all it's worth Loki actually snickers, "I have taken your proposal into consideration and I have come to the conclusion that I am willing to give it a try."
"Really?" Coulson says absent-mindedly as he commandeers his agents by gesturing at miscellaneous puddles of ooze, "May I ask what brought on this change of heart?"
"You were right. You are annoying creatures."
Coulson never says 'I told you so' because usually when he has reason to say it the ones it would be directed at are dead. This is an entirely new experience, so to speak.
He keeps it to himself however, "I'm glad to hear we've finally found some common ground."
"Are you free tomorrow evening? There are some details I would like to clarify before you can enslave me together with the rest of your soldier ants."
Coulson wishes even half of S.H.I.E.L.D. were as organized as ants but reality speaks a different language. He doubts having Loki help from behind the scenes will remedy that but from a strategic point of view the trickster is a lucky pull.
"Are you asking me out on a date?" Coulson is confused. He wants Loki to work for them - not date him.
"Why does everyone immediately assume I have romantic intentions when I ask them to have dinner with me?" Loki sounds exasperated.
Coulson shrugs, "You're sending mixed signals."
Coulson can't quite decide how to ask whether or not Loki is still there. Calling the God of Mischief by his first name seems impolite and referring to him as 'Sir' or, even worse, 'Lord' goes against all of Coulson's beliefs. And since he isn't entirely sure what Loki's last name is these days he settles for:
"Let's make it coffee and I think we're both out of the woods."
"Acceptable. And don't worry, I will keep my libido in check."
"Oh, believe me," Coulson strides up to his car, "when I'm worried you'll know."
"Don't tempt me. It may cross my mind to find out what will actually have you worried."
"Are you flirting with me?"
"Will it get me access to your headquarters?"
"Then I'm not."
"Good,” Coulson agrees because the alternative is somewhat difficult to process, “I’m afraid I need to run now but we'll talk details tomorrow."
"We haven't agreed on a time and place yet."
"I'll find you." Coulson says and ends the call before Loki can get another word in edgeways.
"Everything alright?" Barton gives him a questioning look when he fits himself into the passenger seat next to agent Romanova, "You seem awfully happy for a guy covered in spider innards."
Coulson slides the phone into the inside pocket of his jacket and schools his expression into something generic that could mean anything, "Nothing. Seems like I have a job interview tomorrow."
"External consultant," Loki echoes over a double espresso (black, two sugars; who would have thought that Loki is such a sweet tooth), "Is that more or less than a soldier ant?"
"Technically, it's not an ant at all." Coulson stirs his own coffee (distinctly less sweet), "Your tasks would include covert operations like infiltration, observation, and - I know you'll like this - assassination whenever necessary. For a man with your skill set this shouldn't be a problem, right?"
Loki scowls, "My skill set does not include- what do you call it?... Ah, team work. Especially not with that stupid oaf."
"That's why it says external in your job description." Coulson sighs. This is one of the reasons why Loki is the best suited candidate for the job but by far not the best choice. "You’ll be reporting only to me. Nobody even needs to know it's you."
"So, you would be my superior?" Loki snorts into his coffee and empties it in one gulp, "Unacceptable."
"Well," Coulson expected this, "you can't very well be mine since that would entail that you work closely not only with your brother but also with a lot more mortals than your delicate sensibilities seem to be able to handle. Your call."
The empty paper cup magically crumples up and bounces off the table. A waitress slips on it and douses a customer nearby with hot chocolate, judging by the smell of it. Coulson is quickly catching on to the fact that causing random mischief is part of Loki's thought process.
"Do I get one of those nifty cards that open doors?" Loki finally inquires as they watch the scene unfold before them.
"You mean key cards? God, no."
"Your offer of benefits is meager at best."
"Either that or ruling a planet full of ants. Take it or leave it."
The waitress and a nameless helper carry the injured man off to the bathroom which marks the end of today's entertainment.
Loki heaves a sigh, "Do I get to kill people?"
"Sometimes." Coulson takes a sip from his coffee while waiting for Loki to reach a decision. He knows when not to rush things.
"Can I torture them?"
Coulson gives this some thought. He is certain that a great part of their enemies is deserving of punishment but he has never approved of senseless violence. On the other hand, he is currently recruiting one of the peskier threats to planet-wide security so he guesses the line is about to get very blurry.
"In select cases," Coulson concludes, "yes."
The God of Mischief falls quiet for a long time. He doesn't speak up until Coulson is almost finished with his coffee. Undoubtedly, Loki is trying to figure out how to turn this whole arrangement to his advantage.
Eventually, he holds out his hand, "Agreed. Until further notice, that is."
They shake on it.
"Naturally," Coulson adds and tosses his cup into the trash can near the door, "or do you think I'll let you weasel out of your trial month just because you happen to be a deity?"
Loki squints, "A what month?"
Contrary to appearances Coulson does not get up in the morning with the fixed idea to incorporate vicious villains into their team. In fact, he gets up every morning hoping he won't have to.
But when Director Fury says 'Bring me a motherfucking invincible ninja James Bond.' you bring him the motherfucking most ninja-esque British secret agent you can find.
Loki is neither Japanese nor British and Coulson has yet to find out about his stand on Martinis but he's close enough. You work with what you've got and Coulson figures it can't hurt to remove an opponent from the board who does not just impersonate people but literally becomes them, complete with social security number and Facebook contacts.
Upon Coulson's inquiry as to why they need a new agent Fury has this to say: 'Agent Romanova is busy babysitting Stark who is disqualified from undercover work by default, Banner is undercover his whole damned life, Barton is a brilliant sniper but let's face it he's a fucking diplomatic nightmare, and Rogers is too fucking polite for covert ops. He would probably go and introduce himself first. And please do not get me started on everyone's favorite lightning rod. Please. Do not.'
Which leaves Coulson with limited options. Everyone else just dies too easily in his experience.
So, with the exception of being a nut job from space and having family issues that make the French Revolution look like a bar brawl Loki fits the required criteria quite nicely.
Coulson will just have to circumnavigate mentioning his name in any mission reports for as many reasons as S.H.I.E.L.D. has operatives. There is barely an agent on their team who would not like to get their hands on the trickster's neck and snap it. Loki even managed to rally the local S.H.I.E.L.D. receptionists against him by diverting all of their calls to the fax machine.
But Coulson will find a way. Keeping it vague comes as naturally to him as breathing.
"What is this?" Loki stares at the transparent tablet PC courtesy of Stark Industries that Coulson pushes across the table.
"Your first assignment."
Sometimes Coulson finds it hard to believe that Thor and Loki originate from the same place - which, obviously, they don't anyway - because Loki starts tapping and swyping away on the screen like a pro while his brother is still having trouble operating a swivel chair. In his defense though: Most swivel chairs can't even hold Thor. He claims it's the armor but Coulson suspects the pop tarts.
"This is ridiculous." Loki points at the screen and makes a face like something nasty has just crawled up his pants, "You don't need me for this."
"How about you let me be the judge of that?"
"This is child's play."
"I thought I'd keep it nice and easy for your first assignment."
Loki shoots him a peeved glance, "Do I look like I need it nice and easy?"
"I'm sure you'll find a way to complicate things." Coulson spins the tablet around and indicates the target, "Your mission is to locate their base, infiltrate it and send information back on their security measures. We'll take it from there."
Loki's face continues to be the epitome of indignation, "This is hardly worth the effort. Why can't you have one of your minions take care of it?"
"Because they tend to die when they get shot in the head. It's a nasty mortal habit."
"It's no less pleasant if you don't die from it, let me tell you."
Coulson shrugs and gathers his coat, "Then I suggest you avoid bullets."
Loki's expression says 'Fuck you' if the Norse god were familiar with this distinctly earthly figure of speech but Coulson assumes they have other means of insulting each other up there. Over there. Wherever.
"Oh, and please," Coulson turns around by the door of the coffee shop, "try to be stealthy. The key word here is covert operation."
"They won't even know I was there." Loki smiles and it's about as reassuring as a triangular fin in the ocean.
Three days later Coulson gets a text from an unknown number.
Keep the armor man out of the news for a while.
Two hours after that Ms Potts comes rushing into his office with what appears to be a ransom note, claiming that the author of said note has one Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man in their custody.
Personally, Coulson thinks 150 million is a tad overpriced for Stark but the financials of a delusional group of thieves-turned-kidnappers are really none of his concern. What does concern him is the fact that Stark is working in his lab and is quite obviously not a victim of abduction.
Ms Potts appears to find this very vexing.
Coulson briefly wonders if she would rather have him kidnapped or if she is merely irritated by the sudden increase in ominous correspondence. In the end he doesn't care either way because the only ones facing a future full of nightmares are the kidnappers.
Grounding Stark does turn out just as difficult as Coulson expected. He catches Stark twice trying to sneak out through the ventilation system.
Loki had better have a damned good explanation as to why it was absolutely necessary to impersonate Tony Stark for this mission.
They storm the building with a considerable number of forces - in vain, as they soon discover.
The entire block is out of power and whatever equipment and furniture used to occupy the rooms is either trashed or gone altogether. There is a faint sheen of ice on everything. It conserves the corpses quite nicely.
Coulson sighs and ignores the questioning glances directed at him. He will need to have a talk about the term 'excessive force' with Loki.
They find the experimental drugs that the group had stolen in a hidden room that was remodeled into a giant freezer. They also find the last man standing. Although, he is not so much standing as hurdled in a corner.
"Okay, I know I'm impressive but this is ridiculous." Stark steps out of the room and shakes his head. Behind him a half-frozen gangster is pointing a shaky finger at Iron Man and shrieks something about the devil in Polish. When Coulson's agents try to drag the man out of there he winds up dead on account of shooting himself.
Stark rolls up the visor of his armor and narrows his eyes at Coulson, "What the fuck was that all about?"
Coulson sheathes his gun and shrugs his shoulders, "Brain freeze."
"Your mom never bought you ice cream, did she? Because if she had you would know what's wrong with what you just said."
The problem is that the real explanation is even less believable. When Coulson refuses to amend his statement Stark gives up.
"You know what? I don't even wanna know. But I hope for your sake that somebody taped that because I need to take notes for next Halloween. I'm gonna make Rogers shit his pants." He stalks away, awkwardly avoiding patches of ice and occasional body parts.
Meanwhile, Coulson scans the crowd in the street outside until he spots an impossibly tall guy in an Iron Man cap strolling away from the scene. Coulson is almost disappointed not to see Loki do a jolly skip before rounding the corner.
"You seem troubled," Loki ascertains as they walk away from the hot dog stand.
"Good call," Coulson says and takes a bite off his hot dog. Loki, of course, didn't get anything to eat which leads to the question of whether or not Loki eats at all. His brother certainly does.
"Is this about the last assignment?"
Coulson doesn't reply. For one, he has his mouth full of sausage and secondly, he really dislikes stating the obvious.
"I don't understand why you are dissatisfied," Loki complains, "I did exactly what you asked of me. Even more!"
Coulson wipes his mouth on the napkin, "Yes, exactly."
Loki tugs at the lapels of his coat which Coulson has learned to take as a sign that the god is disgruntled. It's better than what he does when he's angry - fewer casualties.
"You puny humans are difficult to please."
Coulson shakes his head, "We would be plenty pleased if you had left one alive for us to question."
"I did." Loki seems genuinely surprised, "Did you not find him? To my knowledge he had locked himself in the room with their loot."
"We found him."
"Then why are you upset?"
Coulson stops in favor of bestowing all his attention upon Loki, "There was a problem with his general attitude."
Loki gives a noncommittal shrug, "He seemed reasonably frightened to me."
"Yes, we noticed that. He made it abundantly clear that he was not a happy camper."
"If you need me to give it another try just say so..."
Coulson almost chokes on his hot dog, "No. No, I think you've done enough. The man killed himself. I can't recall his exact words but I think he was scared that Iron Man was going to skin him alive or something? You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?"
Loki smiles. It's oddly fond and therefore creepy as hell.
"Next time, do me a favor," Coulson finishes his lunch and starts wiping his fingers clean, "try not to impersonate the only member of our team who gets more media coverage than Kim Kardashian's marriage."
Coulson waves it off, "Never mind. Just don't do it."
"Who would you rather have me pick?" Loki asks and turns around to saunter further down the path through the park, "The green troll? Your national hero? My brother?" He actually makes a disgusted face at the mention of Thor. "No offense, but your precious tin man was just the easiest to get abducted as."
Of course it's offensive and Coulson has no doubts that if Stark were here Loki would tell him so to his face. In prettier words perhaps but there are some meanings that transpire loud and clear no matter how nicely you phrase it.
Coulson refrains from following Loki. He is due back at the office in a few minutes anyway.
"Just so we're clear on this," he calls out after Loki who shows unexpected courtesy by actually turning around, "if you copycat anyone from my team again I will tase you until your little space odyssey feels like a Sunday picnic by comparison."
Loki quirks one eyebrow and is clearly not impressed.
"It works pretty well on your brother," Coulson heads off in the direction of HQ, "and unless you can magically turn yourself into some kind of nonconductive material I suggest you heed my warning."
Loki is horrifyingly effective. He does not impersonate any more S.H.I.E.L.D. members - to Coulson's knowledge which, in even the humblest of opinions, reaches quite far - and even reports in every now and then.
Granted, he does so via miraculously showing up in Coulson's bedroom or his kitchen or that one awkward time in the bathroom which does not end well for the surrounding sanitary installations but he does report.
It would all be nice and dandy if Loki didn't get a little... overinvested sometimes. The first time Coulson puts it down to Loki's inexperience with working for anyone else's benefit but his own. The second time it is clearly a misunderstanding.
Coulson said, 'Bring back one of the clones.'.
What Loki brings back is something that resembles roadkill after it has been run over by a convoy of 18-wheelers. But DNA is DNA - even when it is dead, so Coulson has no reason to argue.
The third time is... an accident. It involves several coordinated missions all over the world, a secret weapons lab, Loki's screwed-up idea of diplomacy, and a cat, for some reason.
This is when the questions start.
"Hey," Barton chimes in over the comms, "I'm beginning to get a little bored up here."
Coulson can hear the telltale clicking of Barton's bow. He's already packing up.
"You know," he drones on while zipping up his bags, "I'm just wondering how we can have like a hundred percent mission success lately when we barely even do anything."
Next to Coulson agent Romanova is silently agreeing. Coulson can see it in the way her body tenses from the effort of not nodding.
Meanwhile, there is no escaping Barton's musings, "It's just frustrating, you know? If I didn't get practice by shooting Stark's clay pigeons I wouldn't get any practice at all anymore."
Coulson rubs the bridge of his nose, sighing, "Those were not clay pigeons, Barton. Those were experimental drones he was testing."
"Really? Could have sworn they were clay pigeons."
"Apparently, that's all they are good for now."
"Look," Barton says, this time from behind them. He does that sometimes. "All I'm saying is that I hate being second, okay? So who the fuck keeps interfering with our missions all the time?"
Coulson narrows his eyes at the archer, "Is there a formal complaint in there somewhere or are you just upset because you didn't get to shoot anybody?"
"I'm upset because I'm not the goddamned cleaning lady, alright? I'm sick of cleaning up after someone else," Barton spits and stomps past them. "And I didn't get to shoot anyone."
This is, in fact, when S.H.I.E.L.D. starts receiving packages of various shapes and sizes from a company called LAU F. & SONS. Strangely, all to the attention of agent Coulson.
Some of them comprise neatly arranged documents with prominent Top Secret stamps in miscellaneous languages, often accompanied by a note along the lines of 'This looked interesting.'. Or 'Found this on the dead guy. P.s.: He was already dead when I got there.'.
Coulson's personal favorite is the freight container that gets dropped off one evening and holds a device which - upon closer inspection by Stark and Banner - was clearly designed to blast a hole into the greater part of the Northern hemisphere. The note attached to it only reads 'You're welcome.'.
Other packages are of more lively nature. One fateful Thursday afternoon two agents drag a sour-looking man of Asian persuasion into Coulson's office where the man demands that these shackles be taken off him. He then proceeds to shove said evidence of capture under Coulson's nose and rants about something Google translate later reveals to mean ’filthy Nordic serpent’ which is just about everything Coulson needs to know.
He has no idea who the man is but his agents hand him a letter that supposedly came with the bundle of 6'2" of Chinese rage.
Your tin man may want to have a word with this one. You owe me. Dinner is on you tonight.
"How did you even know?" Coulson asks over dessert. It has proven impossible to decline an invitation to dinner from the God of Mischief. As much as it can be called an invitation when Coulson is the one paying for it.
But when Coulson's car simply refused to be steered homeward he gave up and allowed it to take him to whichever place has piqued Loki's interest.
It's Chinese. How fitting.
"You employ me for my skills of persuasion and that is precisely what I do. I persuade people." Loki says as he pokes at a piece of jelly on his plate. Come to think of it, it's the first time Coulson has seen the trickster eat anything. Must be some kind of experiment.
"And you just convinced him to admit to you that he led the group who kidnapped Stark?"
Loki hides a grin within a frown which is an impressive merger of facial expressions, "I may have used what you like to call excessive force."
"What would you call it?"
The grin spreads on Loki's face like butter in the sun.
"The chains were an interesting touch," Coulson ventures.
"Oh that," Loki makes a dismissive gesture, "it appears he was not untrained in the use of magic. Like I said: Self-defense."
"I doubt he was any match for you."
"Oh?" If at all possible Loki's grin grows even wider, "Was that a compliment, agent Coulson?"
And this would be the first time Loki has ever called him by his name. It's a bit like sitting at the dentist's and hearing screams. Coulson prefers the good old 'minion'. Or 'puny human being' if he were forced to choose.
"No," Coulson doesn't move a muscle, "it's a fact. We took the shackles off and checked."
Loki taps his finger against his chin and winces theatrically, "Bad idea."
"I've had worse."
"Do I hear a grain of regret in this?"
"A grain?" Coulson smiles and signals the waiter to bring the check, "More like a cornfield."
"After all I've done for you?" Loki sneers. He probably thinks it's frightening but Coulson has higher standards. Once you've stared into as many faces of inter-dimensional beasts as Coulson has anything with less than two-hundred teeth is actually a blessing.
"You reap what you sow. I was prepared." Coulson glances at the check, "You just had to order all the most expensive dishes on the menu, didn't you?"
Loki shrugs, "I am inexplicably drawn to exquisite things."
"We should get that looked at." He tosses his American Express on the table and the waiter obediently bustles over to take it away.
"But since we're on the topic," Coulson folds his hands on the table, "I need you to stop making up your own assignments."
"I thought you would appreciate the gesture." That could be a pout on Loki's face - or the beginnings of a snarl, "I provided you with valuable gifts and information, didn't I?"
"You charged us shipping," Coulson deadpans.
"International shipping is very pricey and it’s not like you’re paying me. I don't know why your kind abandoned carrier pigeons as a means of delivery."
The waiter returns quietly and Coulson fits his credit card back into his wallet. This is going to be interesting to explain at HQ. "I don't know what kind of carrier pigeons you have in Asgard but ours a bit overstrained with transporting a cargo container."
"Breed bigger birds."
"Yes, so your brother keeps telling us."
Loki glares at him. Mentioning Thor has that effect on him and Coulson is not beyond exploiting it to shut him up.
"In all seriousness," Coulson continues, "you can't fabricate your own missions. Please stick to the ones we give you. And stop sending us prisoners we've never even heard of."
"I was doing you a favor." Loki scoffs and Coulson wonders if they have the same definition of the word 'favor'. Probably not.
"Please refrain from any more charitable actions in the future. Unless they are immediately connected to the mission at hand."
Loki leans back and scowls, "This concept of employment is very constricting. I'm not sure I like it."
"Like it or not," Coulson gets up to leave. He knows Loki will just magically vanish once he's gone so there is really no use in waiting, "but next time I get a package I didn't specifically ask for I am going to send it back. You'd be surprised how persistent Fed Ex can be when I ask them to."
"Do they use carrier pigeons?"
Coulson slips his coat on and smiles, "Only on special request. Good night, Mr-" He pauses and frowns because none of the ways he could end this sentence is to his liking.
The trickster smirks, "Please, call me Loki."
"I'd rather not."
"Can I help you?" Coulson looks up from his paperwork. He has tried to erase Thor's presence from his mind for the last ten minutes but it is difficult to ignore a 6'6" blond giant sprawling in the only other chair in his office. Even more so when said giant looks like somebody ate his last pop tart.
"I am concerned." Thor heaves a heart-felt sigh.
"I can see that. Do I need to know why?"
"My brother has been awfully quiet as of late."
Coulson wishes he could agree.
"And you are worried that he might be up to something." Coulson nods. It's not a question because Coulson knows for a fact that Loki is cooking something up. With a little luck he is doing so in the Andes as instructed.
Thor's expression goes from 'concerned' to the facial equivalent of a super storm, "He has never been absent for such a long period of time. Something is wrong."
At least, this is something Coulson can second. They are lucky if the Andes are still there when Loki is done.
"I'm sure he is... fine." Most likely. "And happily thinking up ways to kill us all." Most certainly. Coulson is convinced that up to 10% of Loki's brain are exclusively dedicated to coming up with new and inventive ways to inflict mass destruction and panic on them.
Thor hums quietly, drumming his fingers on the armrest of the chair. He is leaving small indents which Coulson eyes with growing displeasure.
"I should seek him out," Thor suddenly declares. "Perhaps something has happened."
Coulson means to argue that Loki neither requires nor is particularly fond of Thor's help when his cell phone beeps. He glances at the screen and is instantly thankful for the way the preview conveniently cuts off mid-way.
Tell him he can stick his concern where the su |
He ignores the text message and turns to Thor, "I'm not sure he would appreciate the gesture."
"I have to do something," Thor insists. "He could be hurt! Or worse!"
I'll show him worse. Tell him that if he has the |
Coulson does not care to tell Thor anything. He pointedly avoids looking at his cell phone, "In my experience, and I believe everyone in this department will share that opinion, it is very difficult to do your brother any harm. It's rather the other way around."
Thor scowls, "He is very good at making enemies."
Your lack of cooperation is worrisome.
Coulson nods knowingly and makes a mental note to increase security and run additional perimeter checks. Also, he will have to change his phone number and set up an answering service.
"He is...," Coulson searches for an appropriate word but it seems the human language has yet to adapt to Loki, "complicated."
To his surprise Thor smiles, "That he is."
What did you tell him? Why is he smiling?
So, unless Loki has recently developed super sight he is in the building across the street; about three windows to the left, if Coulson were to guess.
He casually rolls back in his chair, makes an apologetic gesture to Thor and lets the blinds rattle shut. When he returns to his desk the cell phone screen lights up.
In Coulson's opinion it is more than justified to kill Loki's entertainment in retaliation for him killing Coulson's patience. One distraction down, he leans forward and prepares to keep Thor from accidentally asking the right questions.
"My agents will keep an eye out for your brother. If he shows up we'll let you know. In the meantime, why don't you take it easy for a while and enjoy the unexpected downtime?"
You do realize I can still text you, right?
If only Coulson could do the same. But apparently he has not only managed to successfully turn Loki into a covert operative on their behalf but the man has also grown strangely attached to him. Coulson senses a lengthy talk about the term 'stalker' in his near future.
Another sigh and Thor shrugs, "Maybe you are right. Perhaps I worry too much."
Shockingly personal empiric studies have shown that when it comes to Loki one can never worry too much. But Coulson firmly believes that he is already doing enough worrying for the both of them. Besides, Thor's type of good-natured concern tends to land them in traps. He means well but Loki has little understanding for altruistic motives and will exploit whatever opening he finds.
Like cell phones, for example.
I can do this all day. Just so you know.
"Maybe a little." Coulson agrees and watches Thor scramble out of the chair. It creaks under his weight.
"I've been told we have a new member in our group," Thor suddenly says with an enthusiastic smile as if he had just remembered what he came here for in the first place.
"Who told you that?"
"Fury. But he would not reveal their identity. I'm surprised it has not been officially announced yet. When do we get to meet them?"
Coulson's smile would have put a marble statue to shame, "In time."
Thor's shoulders droop a little, "I see."
"He's very... busy."
The cell phone remains alarmingly quiet.
"Well," Thor grins, "be sure to let us know so we can give them a proper welcome. Any addition to our cause is a welcome friend."
Except for this one. Coulson can imagine what kind of welcome party they would throw for Loki. He keeps his expression carefully blank when he answers, "I will."
When Thor is well out of earshot Coulson picks up his cell phone and dials the number from the texts.
"I was beginning to think the stupid oaf would never leave."
"Good day to you too," Coulson says because he hates foregoing simple conversational protocol and peers through the blinders, "Is there anything in particular I can do for you today?"
"I have recovered what you asked for. At great expense, if I may add."
Coulson frowns; he sent Loki to track down a missing shipment of Plutonium.
"You brought it here, didn't you?"
"Of course I did. Or would you like me to leave it unattended in the street?"
It would probably be safer.
"You are sitting over there with a container full of Plutonium, aren’t you?" Coulson sighs, "Don’t move. I'll be right there."
He doesn't even bother to grab his coat before he hurries out the door.
"And while you wait I want you to google the term stalker. Entertain yourself."
"Agent Coulson. A word, please." Fury uses the two-finger-jerk which Coulson rarely experiences since it means trouble.
Coulson is one of Fury's best agents. That's not some kind of delusional overestimation of his capabilities - it's a fact. His yearly review says so. And he is not Fury's right hand man for nothing. So, when the Director uses the infamous signal on him caution is advisable.
Not that Coulson doesn't already suspect what this is about. He is just surprised it hasn't happened sooner.
Coulson has utmost respect for the Director and they both know the usual intimidation techniques won’t work on Coulson so he appreciates it when Fury skips straight to the point.
"I have here a mission report without a name." Fury taps a standard S.H.I.E.L.D. folder which Coulson knows all too well, "Can you explain this to me?"
"A mishap, Sir."
"A mishap?" Fury laughs but it only lasts a moment. "In all the years you've worked for me you've never handed in a report with so much as a single misplaced comma in it. Try something else."
Coulson adjusts his catalogue of excuses that will not ultimately result in a blatant lie.
"The new agent is not in the system yet so I've left it blank to be filled out later when all the corresponding paperwork has been dealt with."
Fury nods with as little agreement as a nod can possibly convey, "I see. That's very foresightful of you."
"Thank you, Sir."
"No, no, that wasn't a compliment." Fury opens the file and points at a seemingly random page, "What's this?"
Coulson leans closer, squinting, "Looks like a coffee stain, Sir."
"Can you read what's underneath?"
"I'm afraid not, Sir."
Fury smiles but if there is a dark side to humor, this is it, "Fucking convenient coffee stain, don't you think?"
"I wouldn't know, Sir. I apologize. If you like I can make you another copy?"
"Hell, no." Fury snaps the file shut, "With your artistic employment of caffeine we'll run out of coffee in a day."
Coulson keeps his face carefully blank. They are playing Taboo and neither of them is willing to give in by mentioning the no-go words.
The director eventually gets up and rounds his desk, stepping up to Coulson and it's quite clear that this is the part that contains the last warning, "Agent Coulson. I know I gave you an order to find me a suitable operative for our covert missions and it seems that you have found someone... let's say capable. Success rates have sky-rocketed since we are employing this new agent, who I am still trying to put a name to, by the way.
"And you know what? I am willing to go with it because I know you would never do what I think you did," Fury goes on while Coulson remains tactfully silent, "But I've been hearing some troubling reports about this guy's methods, so let me make one thing clear: If I find out that you recruited the motherfucking god of bullshit I will have you personally bring him in and deduct any resulting damage from your paycheck."
Considering how strained Loki's relationship is with Thor and how all-encompassing the aim of a bolt of lightning is Coulson estimates a debt that might cease to affect his grandchildren. Not to mention the death toll.
He looks Fury in the eye and says the least compromising thing he can think of, "Sir, I can assure you, mothers have nothing to do with it."
Coulson admits that this is getting slightly out of hand. But in his experience no situation is beyond saving.
And for some reason he still thinks Loki could be a valuable part of the team - whenever his mischievous planning and random killing sprees are not directed at S.H.I.E.L.D. or the general public. When all is said and done he does carry out his missions. He does so with a very loose grasp on the word 'covert' but so does Stark and nobody is thinking of throwing him out.
Of course, mitigating circumstances like owning half the premises S.H.I.E.L.D. operates on speak for Stark but from a realistic point of view most of their team exhibit a tendency to leave behind a trail of destruction. So, Loki fits right in. And at least he kills quietly. If his acquaintance with Thor has taught Coulson anything it's that people scream a lot when they get electrocuted - no matter if accidental or not.
Needless to say that Dr Banner is also not exactly a master of disguise when he lets himself go.
So, by their standards Loki is actually the most discreet operative they have besides agent Romanova and, maybe, Clint Barton - depending on his distance from the target. Besides, Coulson would rather have Loki as an ally with attitude than as an enemy with issues.
It is over cocktails at some after-work bar squat in the middle of Manhattan - well, Loki is having a cocktail; Coulson is sipping the most expensive glass of Cola he has ever come across because he is, technically, still on duty - when Coulson says, "I think I'm going to kill you."
A mouthful of Brandy Alexander goes down the wrong pipe and Loki momentarily chokes on his drink, "I beg your pardon?"
"I said I'm going to have to kill you," Coulson repeats and wonders if Loki can actually die from getting alcohol down his windpipe. It opens way to the question of whether or not he needs air to breathe at all but Coulson leaves this discussion for a later point.
Loki's coughing fit smoothly blends into laughter, "And may I ask what caused you to arrive at this conclusion?"
Coulson shrugs, "This arrangement is not working out as expected. There are complications which make it necessary for you to die."
"And here I thought we were beginning to become friends." Loki shakes his head but his grin grows even more crooked, "Alright. I'm curious. How exactly are you planning on ending my miserable existence? Do tell."
Coulson savors the last drops of his Cola and smiles, "Simple. With pen and paper."
The look on Loki's face is priceless.
On November 22nd a nameless agent dies in the mountains of Romania. He dies alone and under somewhat dubious circumstances but bravely in the line of duty.
At least, that's what it says in Coulson's report on November 23rd.
"He's dead." Fury looks up and scrutinizes Coulson over the documents. It's astounding how the lack of one eye can in fact double the scrutinizing effect. But Coulson does not flinch. He hasn't flinched in years.
"Yes, Sir. Very tragic."
"And I'm supposed to believe that?"
"I don't see why you shouldn't."
The Director drops the file on his desk and smiles, "I'll believe it when I see a body."
"I'm afraid that's going to be difficult, Sir."
"Really? And why is that?" Fury's smile grows wider but Coulson has anticipated this. As a matter of fact, he has gone through dozens of scenarios of how this conversation could go. This is number two on his list.
He steels himself and keeps his expression as blank as possible, "He was pulverized, Sir."
"Well," Coulson amends, "more like... dematerialized, really."
Fury sighs, "How does a human being, assuming it ever was one, get dematerialized?"
"Loki did it." It's the perfect answer for almost any situation. It explains everything while leaving it all up for interpretation. And, in a sense, it's even true.
"So, you're telling me your super agent was never Loki to begin with?"
"I would never officially employ a known villain in the services of S.H.I.E.L.D., Sir."
"I love how you're able to say it with such a straight face."
"Thank you, Sir."
"Again, not a compliment." Fury shoves the file into the bullshit tray. Literally; it's labeled as such.
Unfortunately, this also tells Coulson that this conversation is steering towards outcome number 27 which will require additional action.
"Will that be all, Sir?"
"Unless you want me to sign a paycheck for fuckin' Satan or the goddamned Grim Reaper, yes."
Coulson is smart enough to bow out.
A week later there is a monster infestation in downtown New York and the entire HQ is out in the streets decapitating, stabbing, shooting, smashing, and in one case, zapping beasts of various shapes and sizes.
Coulson has no idea where Loki even gets these from. Some of them look like they belong in a large body of water and not on 21st Street.
But the place of origin doesn't really matter when something with more heads than legs comes chasing after you. Coulson has a hard time deciding which head to shoot first.
He ducks underneath the silvery blur of Cap's shield, which effectively slices through two of the beast's throats, and aims at the thing's legs. There seem to be considerably fewer of those and they stand remarkably still.
The creature roars in pain but manages to stagger on until it has a very unfortunate run-in with the Hulk who takes great delight in beating every single one of its faces to a pulp.
Coulson thanks the Captain with a curt nod and shoots whatever is suddenly breathing down his neck. It turns out to be a middle-sized mixture between a bear and something that mutated straight out of a pack of cereal. He catches sight of Loki over the twitching body of the monster and throws the trickster a disapproving glance.
He knows it's understood when Loki flashes him a brief grin before reverting his attention back to Thor.
Chaos continues to capture several blocks as Coulson throws himself into a side-alley, slotting a new magazine into his gun.
"The fish creatures are a bit too much," Coulson says and lets the safety click into place.
Loki - supposedly the real one - is leaning against the wall and smirks, "You said to go all out."
"No," he shakes his head and slips his weapon into the holster under his jacket, "what I said was 'make a show out of it'. Not 'turn half the city into ruins'."
"I hate doing things half-heartedly." The smile on Loki's face turns a bit more devious as he detaches himself from the wall and sidles closer, "Besides, we really need to sell it, don't we?"
By 'selling it' Loki presumably means convincing everyone that the trickster could have never secretly been a S.H.I.E.L.D. operative. Coulson remembers nothing about walking fish sticks and the destruction of downtown New York.
"This is not a sales pitch. It's supposed to be a decoy. And I said no casualties."
Loki rolls his eyes and waves a hand at the adjoining street, "Which there are none of if you care to check."
It's true; despite the sheer indescribable chaos any reported injuries are of non-lethal nature. Loki is surprisingly precise when he wants to be. He is essentially a surgeon of destruction.
Coulson gives a reluctant nod, "Well done then, agent-"
"Come on," Loki practically negates any personal space Coulson may have maintained up to this point and leers, "say it. Just once."
"Your overgrown dog is trying to eat my boss," Coulson says instead because it seems more important than Loki's urge to make him feel uncomfortable. He can hear Fury's cursing over the comms.
Loki's gaze briefly flickers to the scene behind Coulson. He narrows his eyes, "How can you even tell?"
Coulson does not budge because if he had anything to fear from Loki they would not be having this conversation, "It's my job. Now, if you please..."
"You take all the fun out of it." The trickster scrunches up his nose in disgust but raises his head and whistles. It takes a few moments but then the excessive cussing subsides - as does most of the buzz of battle.
"Thank you." He refrains from commenting on the fact that Loki just dog-whistled at his pet monster.
"I doubt that."
Loki chuckles, low and mostly to himself.
"You realize that I could easily turn this into a real attack," Loki says with a meaningful grin. It's a verbal tripwire - whichever way Coulson reacts may very well turn this whole operation into mission Do Not Die Today.
"I know," Coulson fixes his tie and presents Loki with the smile of a man who knows that it could be far worse, "and I suppose there is little we could do to stop you."
"So, what is stopping me?"
"That we'll try. And we'll keep trying." He unfastens his gun and unlocks the safety to get ready to rejoin what is left of the fight, "And I know how much you dislike stupidity and pointlessness but that's all you're going to get. Besides, you get to make your brother's life living hell in your spare time. Provided you keep it to a maximum of two incidents per quarter as we agreed."
Loki makes a face that reminds Coulson of disgruntled cats, "What makes you think that this will be enough?"
"It's what you came here for in the first place, isn't it?" Coulson shrugs, "And you keep telling me every time we meet."
The trickster sweeps closer like a gust of wind, snarling, "Don't ever assume you know me."
"I wouldn't dare," Coulson does not stand down because if he does this whole arrangement will fall to pieces, "But I'm very good at guessing."
Loki's eyes narrow and Coulson is silently counting the ways in which the trickster could kill him and vice versa. Oddly enough, if they stick to non-supernatural means they are pretty evenly matched.
The moment of tension ends with the curve of Loki's lips as he smirks, "When I do decide to rule this planet I think I'm going to keep you as a pet."
Coulson figures this is the closest thing to an admission of affection anyone will ever hear from the God of Mischief. It's funny how he can make it sound like a threat.
"Touching. I appreciate the thought."
Loki gives a graceful shrug and slips out of Coulson's reach, "You know you owe me for this one."
He nods towards the street as he slowly disappears into the shadows at the other end of the alley.
Coulson frowns, "I suspect a simple dinner will not cut it this time, will it?"
Loki's grin is barely visible in the semi-dark but it suffices to make Coulson wish he had never asked.
"You are not getting a S.H.I.E.L.D. ID," he calls out after the trickster.
Loki's voice echoes off the walls when he replies, "I'll think of something else then."
"I was afraid you were gonna say that."
The position of covert operative gets reassigned to a former CIA agent with a spectacular résumé. He gets introduced to the rest of the team on his very first day, has a proper office, and his own coffee mug in the kitchen cupboard.
What he doesn't have are missions. Not really. He is away three quarters of the year, always comes back alive and without a scratch on him, and is amazingly tan for someone who just spent several months in the tundra.
He never complains. Mainly because if he does Coulson will give him a certain look that speaks of unpleasant encounters with tasers.
The agent's name is of no import since Loki does all the work anyway. The God of Mischief continues to work for S.H.I.E.L.D. based on a very elaborate system of trading favors with agent Coulson. He still wrecks havoc every now and then to keep up appearances and seems to have a blast doing so since most of it is aimed at making Thor feel miserable.
Coulson makes sure there are no casualties.
There are reports too; spotless, grammatically correct reports with names in all the right places. They don't end up in the bullshit tray even though Fury's expression suggests that they should.
The questions cease because technically there is nothing to ask about except, perhaps, for the sporadic intervals at which Coulson drops off the radar for an hour or two.
He never tells anyone where he goes and for some reason he always ends up somewhere without cell phone reception. He knows this is Loki's doing and one day he will get it out of the trickster how he manages to obstruct a good dozen satellites from relaying a signal.
But for now he sticks to keeping Loki - or any other supernatural or man-made being - from destroying or enslaving Earth. He does so quietly and with the worst yet most artful reasoning on behalf of the human race imaginable:
If Loki can't argue with that no one can.