Goodness was always Erik Selvig's downfall.
He laughs to himself about it now, low sound that sits deep in his throat and tastes of ashes, about the way his father used to ruffle his hair and call him a good boy, duktig pojke, and warn him not to trust so easily. The way his mother would straighten the collar of his school shirt, wipe the blood from his nose, and whisper, "nämen lilla gubben," when he never learnt to hit back.
He laughs and then he's lost in the memories again because he's long since learnt to give up trying for control; his mind is not his own, and hasn't been for a long time, and then he's five years old again and waking up from a nightmare (but was it? he wonders now, was it really?) and there's a knock at the door. He answers, because Erik Selvig, five years old, is too trusting, and there's a man standing there who just says, "Hello, Erik," and smiles.
He's not from the village, because Lillvallen is small and Erik knows everyone who lives here. This man, tall and pale with dark hair slicked back off his forehead, is unfamiliar. But he must be a friend, because he says, "You're getting big, aren't you?" and drops into a squat so that he can look Erik in the eye.
Erik likes it when people talk to him on his level. He's no idiot.
"Who are you?"
The man smiles again. "You don't know me yet," he says. "I have a present for you, though."
Presents are nice. Erik doesn't have them very often; they are not a family with money, not like the Larssons who live at the top of the valley, and treats are for birthdays and once a year when they go to Östersund. He's not about to pass up a chance for an extra special one, so he cocks his head curiously and the man reaches into his coat.
"I've come a long way to see you, Erik."
Of course he has. Lillvallen isn't near anything else, and the man doesn't have a car, so he must have walked for hours, all the way from the train station over the fields.
"No, longer than that," he says. "Do you want to know how long?"
"I've travelled through time. Just for you."
"That's not possible." Why does everyone think they can make things up and he'll believe them, just because he's small? When Erik makes things up, he knows they're only stories.
"Just because you don't know something, Erik, doesn't mean it isn't out there." The reprimand stings, but then there's a conciliatory smile, and the man pulls his hand out of his coat. He's holding something, and it glows softly in the night, pulse of blue light that seems to spill out over his fingers and bleed away into the night. Erik peers curiously over the edge of his hand; there's a broken piece of something there, like a shard of glass, but it's shining with its own light and Erik can't see where it comes from.
"Doesn't make sense, does it?" The man laughs, quick flash of white teeth, and then turns his hand so that the fragment drops into Erik's outstretched ones.
"Remember," he says, "you may think you know everything, Erik Selvig, but there is always more to find out. If you're curious enough."
He leaves Erik staring at the light in his hands and wondering what it would take to be curious enough.
At twelve, his science teacher begins to explain about optics, light and rays and diffraction refraction reflection until Erik gets confused, puts up his hand.
"What about light that comes from inside something?"
"You mean like a lightbulb?"
"No, I mean… what if you had a piece of glass and it made its own light?"
"Don't be silly. Light must have a source."
Light must have a source, he thinks, except he knows it doesn't.
That night he's up late studying, buried somewhere deep in volume nine of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Otter to Rethimnon. The fragment of not-glass is sitting on the dining table at his elbow and he notices it pulse a little brighter out of the corner of his eye – and then there's a knock at the door.
When he opens it (because in seven years, Erik has learnt no lessons), a man who looks at once familiar and different and dangerous is standing on the step.
"It's lovely to see you again, Erik," he says. "May I come in?"
He opens his mouth to say something, perhaps no or who are you or why do you know me, but he finds himself suddenly without words, nodding mutely, stepping back to let the man pass over the threshold. There's a shark smile, like he had on the night Erik met him, except that now it seems like there are more teeth in it and more steel behind his eyes. "Ah, now," he says, "only one of us can be silver-tongued at a time."
Standing in the middle of the room, the man's gaze falls on Erik's book and he flicks shut the cover without bothering to save the page. "Learning?" he asks, and sounds pleased. "Tell me about phosphorescence."
"How did you know – "
"Never underestimate the ability of secrets to show themselves to the world," he warns Erik, voice low. "Interested in it, are you?" Suddenly, the glowing shard is in his hand, and Erik doesn't remember seeing him pick it up.
"I want to know why it glows."
He's never thought about the why of it before, only that he wants to know about it – where it came from, what it's for, what it looked like before it was broken, how it burns steadily with a cold light. He's never really thought about why he wants to know anything before.
"Knowledge is power, young Selvig," the man says. "Remember that."
Erik doesn't think he wants power – he can't be sure; he doesn't really know what power is or why people would need it – but he can tell it's something the man thinks is important, and so he stores away that piece of information along with all the other ones he's keeping safe. He might not understand power, but he can feel the value of knowledge, and he'll take as much as he can get.
"I've brought you another present."
He waits. The first present still fascinates him, still stays with him whenever he's home, still mesmerizes him with the pulse of its glow late at night when everyone else is asleep. It's a mystery, and it has kept his attention for seven years. Maybe the second present will be a clue.
He's disappointed when the man pulls out a book from under the protective cover of his coat. Erik can get books from school, from the library, from his father if he asks the jultomten nicely. (He doesn't believe in Santa Claus; never has, but his parents like the tradition and his mother asks him for his letter every year.) A book is a good present, but it's not like a flickering piece of something Erik cannot yet begin to understand.
"You're disappointed," the man says.
Erik shakes his head automatically. He knows how to behave; if someone gives you a gift, you're grateful. It shouldn't matter what that gift is.
"This is a better present than the last one," continues the man, stroking the spine of the book in his hands. "Last time I gave you a question. This is the beginning of the answer."
He leaves Erik with the book in both hands, running his fingers along the bold-stamped word on the cover, PHYSICS, and the ghost of a question.
"How badly, Erik Selvig, do you want to know?"
Erik is seventeen and ready for university, armed with books under both arms and a slide rule in his back pocket. His hair is cut (badly), his shirt ironed and crisp, and the Larssons are going to take him to the train station because Carin leaves for university today as well. They are both going to Lund, all the way in the south, because the Larssons are prestigious and Erik has done well in his exams.
They sit together in the train as though they're friends (they're not; even in a tiny town like Lillvallen, the divide between the poor and the privileged is too great to cross, but they are not in Lillvallen anymore and neither of them knows what to expect in Lund, though Carin has once been to Göteborg). It is perhaps four hours into the journey, silent and uncomfortable as Erik reads a book and Carin writes letters, before she excuses herself to the dining car and a figure slides into the seat opposite Erik's.
He looks up, looks down, looks up again.
"How did you – "
But the man is holding up a hand for silence before Erik even finishes his sentence. "Do you really think it's so unusual, Selvig," he says, and his voice is colder than ever before and he says Selvig instead of Erik now, "that I would find you on a train I put you on?"
"You – I – "
"Yes, I know, you did very well," he says. "I'm pleased. But tell me, why are you on this train?"
"To go to Lund for university."
"To study physics."
It occurs to Erik that this man's whys are always the bringers of uncomfortable truth. "Because it's interesting," he says. "Because I want to know."
There's quiet in the train car, dull and flat and cut off from the rushing sound of the carriages on the rails. It cocoons around the two of them, buffer between them and the ordinary world, and Erik remembers the same question asked five years earlier and still not answered.
"That's the gift I've brought you this time," the man says, and his smile is as cold as his voice. "Knowledge isn't enough on its own. Know what you want to do with it."
He makes as if to leave, rising from the seat with one hand outstretched toward the door of the carriage, but Erik manages to say, "Wait."
The man pauses, but doesn't turn.
"Tell me your name."
Now he does turn, slow and measured, so that pale blue eyes meet Erik's and drill down into the core of him like they're looking for the source of him the way he's looking for the source of the light.
"Two gifts in one visit, Selvig? You've gotten bolder."
"You told me knowledge is power."
"And why would I want you to have power over me?"
"I just want to know what I should call you."
His smile this time is slow and easy and full of something Erik can't name, something that chills his heart and makes him, for the first time, afraid. Perhaps, he thinks, he should have been afraid all along.
"You may call me Torvald," the man says. "It seems fitting."
Erik doesn't ask why it seems fitting that the man should want to be known as the Ruler of Thor. He just repeats, in a whisper, "Torvald."
"Use it wisely." And he's gone, and Carin Larsson is back with a lingonberry sauce stain on her collar and a bag of candy clutched in her hand and Erik doesn't ask her if she saw the man leaving because he is beginning to suspect that that is not at all how this works.
Today should be celebratory. After all, it isn't every day that a young researcher from Sweden receives a prestigious American faculty appointment, isn't every day he moves into his new office to find a shiny nameplate on the door (Erik Selvig, Assistant Professor) and a half-dozen requests for mentorship from young physics students in the department.
He's leaning back in his new chair (the leather squeaks against his crisp shirt; he shifts awkwardly) with a perhaps-somewhat-illicit glass of brännvin, reaching for the stack of letters and transcripts when there's a knock.
"Come in!" The drink can wait.
The man who slips into his office is not a student, though, nor another professor come to congratulate and introduce. He's a face from years ago, from a nightmare and a late-night study session and a train, a face Erik has dreamt and forgotten and remembered in the shadows cast by a strange fragment of luminescent glass.
"Torvald," he says, and the man laughs at the name. It's a joke Erik is not party to; that doesn't annoy him, but the man's casual familiarity with his new office does, the way he reaches for the bottle of brännvin to pour himself an uninvited drink, the dismissive look through the small pile of mentorship requests.
Erik doesn't bother to ask how Torvald found him. Knowledge is power, the man said, but Erik knows now that the original quote refers to the power of gods, not men, and whatever game Torvald is playing, it is not for Erik's benefit.
The man pauses with the bottom letter on the request pile. "Oh, yes," he says, sounding pleased, and the smile on his face as he touches the glass of brännvin to his lips reminds Erik of the teacher in the tiny Lillvallen school where he was told that light must have a source.
Five of the request letters are folded up small, tucked into the pocket of Torvald's expensive suit jacket. The sixth he returns to Erik, holding on for just a fraction of a second too long as Erik moves to take it from him, waiting for eye contact so that he can grow serious and say, "You were made for this, Erik Selvig."
Erik waits. He knows how this works; the man will ask him questions he can't answer, give him a gift he cannot understand, and then vanish, and somehow, this will set things in motion in Erik's life.
Somewhere at the back of his mind, there's a question, how much of my life – but it's cut off abruptly, before he can complete the thought, and Torvald is standing much too close to him, hurt look on his face.
"But I've already given you your gift, Doktor Selvig," he says, pursing his lips and drawing his eyebrows together in an exaggerated frown. "Aren't you paying attention?"
He's sure he didn't say any of that aloud. They stare at one another for a moment, and then Torvald indicates the one remaining mentorship request in Erik's hands. "Your present," he says. "Use him well."
As the door is swinging shut behind him, the man leaves his last few parting words. "Don't make him angry," he calls back over his shoulder, sing-song. "You wouldn't like him when he's angry."
Erik and Bruce are in his office, laughing together as they skim through potential Ph.D. programs to see which offer the greatest degree of research freedom, which the best supervisors, which the best facilities ("don't worry about all that," Erik says with a wave of his hand, "the physics, you do in your head," and Bruce grins at him and says, "spoken like a true mathematical physicist," and Erik says, "bite your tongue!" because he is most definitely not a mathematician, you young upstart, and if you say it again I'll have you cleaning superfluid baths until you graduate). Bruce wants to go to a small school ("I've heard State University is really good, Reed Richards is there now"); Erik thinks he should aim higher ("you've a good head on your shoulders and your grades can get you into any Ivy League you choose"). What neither one of them can settle on is what Bruce will study when he gets there.
There are glossy brochures spread out over Erik's desk – astrophysics, cryogenics, high-energy systems, quantum field theory, electrodynamics; Bruce has far too many research interests and the ability to pursue any of them if he wants. Erik can't decide what to suggest, and Bruce can't decide what to study, and so they're sitting here well past the end of the workday, ubiquitous bottle of brännvin generously shared out, Bruce's glasses pushed up on his forehead, Erik's latest monograph buried under the recruiting attempts of a dozen universities.
Bruce is an excellent student, and everyone wants him. And if he is occasionally troubled; if Erik occasionally walks into the laboratory to find him staring off into the distance, work forgotten on his desk, or curled into a chair with his knees hugged to his chest, well, that's Bruce's business and no one else's, and Erik will stand his ground against anyone who questions his methods.
The door swings noiselessly open, and Erik glances away over the top of Bruce's head where it's buried in the brochures again.
He isn't expecting guests, but then, this is not a visitor known to wait for an invitation.
The man makes an expansive gesture with one hand, no, no, carry on, don't mind me, and Erik is about to ask Bruce if he will excuse them for a moment when Torvald says, "He can't see me."
Bruce doesn't react.
"Fortunately, at the moment, he can't tell that you're doing anything out of the ordinary, either," says Torvald, rolling his eyes as though Erik's confusion is a personal affront. "He has potential, this one."
"He's already fulfilling it."
"I knew giving him to you was the right choice."
"You didn't give him to me," Erik argues. "His mentorship request was already on my desk."
"Ah, but," and Torvald's smile is tiny, subtle, hinting at things Erik wants and doesn't want to know, "was it really?"
On the list of things Erik never wants to think about, the idea that Bruce is just another piece in Torvald's game is near the top. He and his young student have done good work together; when Bruce finally convinces himself to forgo polymathy in favour of a focused research topic, he will do great things.
He says as much, and Torvald barks out a laugh, agrees heartily, claps him on the shoulder.
"Now," he says, "let me give you your gift."
"What gift?" asks Erik, who is growing very, very tired.
In answer, Torvald fixes him with a stare that burns straight through him, past faculty appointments and train journeys and physics lessons and five-year-olds who are much too quick to trust into the very heart of Erik Selvig, and something in him pulses with the same strange light as the glowing shard-paperweight on his desk.
"You know, I've heard there is excellent potential in the field of gamma radiation," Torvald says softly.
It's only when Bruce looks up, cocking his head curiously to one side and straightening his glasses, that Erik realizes he's said Torvald's words aloud.
A cross-disciplinary conference in physics is the best idea Erik's heard in a long time, so when he gets an e-mail from Bruce inviting him to speak, he finds the time in his schedule and gets on a plane to Albuquerque. His talk on cosmic radiation and the probabilistic effects of various types of black hole (still not a mathematician, thank you very much!) is well-received, and he finds himself sitting at a table at the bar on the third night with Bruce, Reed Richards and a quiet, serious blond man Erik vaguely recalls might be called 'Hank' and have good ideas about linking pockets of space-time.
He might recall more, but Hank has just introduced him to the concept of a boilermaker.
He's holding forth on the intersection of closed time-like curves with Cauchy surfaces of black holes, arguing cheerfully with Hank and Reed about the potential for singularities to act as bridges between dimensions, when Reed suddenly reaches out a hand and stops someone walking by.
"Dr. Selvig – "
"Erik, have you met Jane Foster?"
She joins them at their table, tells Erik she loved his talk. It turns out that she is an astrophysicist and they spend a happy half-hour defending Erik's position on the Schwarzschild metric before succumbing to the effects of Hank's creative mixed drinks and criticizing one another's taste in music instead. Bruce has well-hidden punk leanings while Jane likes modern pop; Hank is a jazz man and Reed doesn't appear to understand the question. Erik, who listens to opera in his office at night, rolls his eyes at them all and tells them they have no taste, and they're defending their opinions so vehemently that no one notices when a slight, dark-haired man slips into the last remaining empty seat at their table.
"You two should stay in touch," Torvald suggests.
"Oh, no. Not you, not here, not now. Go away, I'm talking about opera."
Torvald smirks and a glass appears in his hand; it takes Erik a moment to notice that he's humming Mephistopheles' theme from Act IV of Faust.
"Oh, very funny."
It earns him a look of what might almost be approval. "Well done, Selvig," Torvald tells him. "Nearly forty years since we met and finally you've grown some backbone."
"Are you here for a reason?" Erik is surrounded by people cleverer than he is and he's just drunk enough to be a little punchy and perhaps a little stupid, which is a combination that makes him less tolerant than usual of the man's games.
"Am I ever without a reason? Have some patience."
"I'll show you patience. Bruce – "
"He still can't see me, you know. None of them can."
"Why are you doing this?"
And the smile he earns for that is blinding, flash of white teeth and thin lips; it shouldn't remind him of his father's broad, jovial grin, and yet it does. "Finally, Erik Selvig, you're asking the right questions."
"Will that get me answers?"
"Another good question. But please, don't allow me to interrupt your conversation," and suddenly Jane is waving a hand in front of his face ("Erik? Dr. Selvig?") and he blinks back into a sudden rush of noise from the tables around them.
"I…" he trails off, looking lamely around for the man with whom he was just speaking, but Torvald seems to have melted into the background and Erik is left apologizing to Jane for his inattention. To make up for it, he orders another round of drinks (none for him; it would appear he's had quite enough), and the table engages in a lively round of argument about causal relationships between spatiotemporal disruptions and near-Earth anomalies.
Near the end of the evening, he feels chilled lips brush his ear, a cold burn in his chest and hears Torvald's whisper, "I understand you're looking for collaborators."
"Are you saying you'd be interested?" Jane asks. He's startled for a moment by the fact that she can hear the words, then understands that she's heard him say them.
He ought, perhaps, to backtrack and say no. He could claim misunderstanding, or a colleague with more closely-related research, or that he is far too busy for a new project. The truth is, though, that he's been considering offering collaboration all evening, and doesn't that mean the question is as much his as Torvald's? Doesn't that mean nothing has truly changed, despite his having asked in Torvald's words instead of in his own?
And after all, he wonders, what harm can it do?
There's a light blinking on his answering machine when he gets back to his office after a week in Switzerland advising a former student on dark matter experiments. He hits the playback button and it's Bruce's voice that sounds from the speakers, tinny with barely-disguised panic.
"Erik, I – there's been a problem with the gamma event, and I think – can you call me back? Not here, on my cell. There were these government guys at the demonstration, S.H.I.E.L.D., and – look, just call me when you can, okay? Please."
He's reaching for his phone before the message even finishes, dialling Bruce's cell phone number (Bruce is always telling him to get one, but until now, he hasn't seen the need). There's no answer, so he dials again and again, just in case he's punched the number in wrong, just in case it changes anything.
The crystalline fragment on his desk pulses bright-brilliant with sudden energy, and then there's a voice from behind him in the darkened corners of the office. "Dr. Banner," it assures him with oily smoothness, "will be just fine."
Erik turns to see Torvald separating himself from the shadows, pale skin faintly luminescent in the reflected glow of the shard. "In fact," he continues, "he'll be better than ever."
"What are you saying?"
"I'm saying not to worry about Bruce Banner. You have more important things to think about."
"He said something about S.H.I.E.L.D. Who are they? What have they done with him?"
"It's fascinating," Torvald says, "to watch you care. You humans are always so quick to choose weakness."
Erik would ask about 'you humans,' but Bruce is missing and Torvald's eyes are glittering dangerously and, after all, it's only confirming something Erik really shouldn't be suspecting, because he wasn't gullible when he was five and he isn't gullible now and what could this man possibly be if not human? Ridiculous.
"You care about something," he points out instead. "Otherwise, you wouldn't be here."
"You amuse me," Torvald says mildly and turns to leave. "Worry about Dr. Banner if you will, Selvig, but you won't find him. Your attentions are far better spent elsewhere."
"Like where?" Erik calls after him.
There's no answer, but as the door closes, it sends a gust of hot, desert-dry wind across his desk.
Atmospheric anomalies in New Mexico sounded like fun; Erik can't deny it. Einstein-Rosen bridges sounded impossible, but fun. A few weeks' vacation from his oak-panelled office, lonely since his decision to move from mentorship into large-scale collaboration, sounded wonderful.
Even breaking into a top-secret government facility in the middle of nowhere sounded like fun, though he won't admit it. Dangerous amusement, to be sure, but after all, he's long since stopped expecting fiery Jane Foster to listen to his warnings, and her new assistant is little better.
Possibly the most fun of all is a strange man who believes he's one of Erik's childhood fairytale gods, who can drink Erik under the table, who makes Jane smile when she thinks no one is looking. He's jovial and good-hearted and makes Erik wish he'd had a brother in the same way Bruce makes him wish he'd had a son.
The outing ceases to fulfil the definition of 'fun' when featureless men in featureless black suits arrive at Jane's facility and pack her research away into featureless vans without so much as a by-your-leave. They introduce themselves ("Phil Coulson, with S.H.I.E.L.D.," and Erik thinks of Bruce and of the things he's heard from Hank Pym lately and of dark danger in the words of a tall, pale man), and when he hears the name, he knows there's little use in fighting.
(Not that knowing it makes much difference when there is a creature of nightmare myth bearing down on them, spewing fire to lay waste to the town. However, Erik is well-versed in duck-and-cover and protect the ones you love and isn't it just his luck that the ones he loves are also the ones hell-bent on fighting back with fists and feet and Tasers and all sorts of useless plans, but he can't fault them; after all, that spirit is what makes him love them in the first place.)
There is, after all, such a thing as a god.
He looks Erik firmly in the eye when he says farewell, and Erik can't help but shrink a little under the intensity of his gaze. If he is a god after all, Donald-whose-name-is-Thor, then it may be that he sees more than ordinary men, and Erik wants to ask about a man (not a man) who is only seen when he wishes to be, but then Thor vanishes with Jane and he has greater concerns.
Phil-Coulson-with-S.H.I.E.L.D. earns Erik's respect when he returns Jane's equipment personally, then loses it again when Erik asks him about Bruce Banner and receives only a vague "if S.H.I.E.L.D. were involved in any way, I wouldn't be authorized to discuss it with a civilian."
He earns it back when he studies Erik, thoughtful, perceptive, and says, "You pioneered a lot of this research, didn't you?" Erik tries to protest that this is Jane's work, not his, but Coulson holds up one hand and continues, "Let me talk to my boss."
He earns it back in spades when Erik receives a summons shortly thereafter and reports to a non-existent underground base in a non-existent facility in a non-existent, purpose-built town. By this time, though, he has plenty of experience with the non-existent, so he manages to take it all in stride.
He's greeted by a man with an eyepatch and a way of staring straight through him with his one remaining eye, and then he shows Erik something that sets his mind spinning, something beyond non-existent, something that whispers to him that perhaps it is coincidence that doesn't exist. His fingers brush the fragment he still carries in his trouser pocket and he stares at the object offered to him, which is the same mystery, but more.
"What is it?" he asks, because it's the question he's been chasing for fifty years.
"Power, Doctor," the man says darkly, and Erik thinks, knowledge is power, if you are a god.
"Well," a voice whispers into his ear, "I guess that's worth a look."
"Well," he hears himself say, mechanical, as if this isn't the end of a story he's been reading backwards all his life, desperate to know the beginning, "I guess that's worth a look."
Knowledge is power, if you are a god.
Erik Selvig is not a god, but he obeys one. He knows Torvald by another name now, Loki, and he would cry out for help, if he still had the ability to speak his own mind.
The words he says instead are borrowed, far more eloquent than any he might choose, but the bitter laughter belongs entirely to him. This is his fault, after all, because at fifty and at forty and at seventeen and twelve and five, he trusted too much, believed too many silver-tongued lies, took too many steps down roads laid out for him by someone else (his father warned him, Den som talar väl ljuger väl, and he should have listened). There is pain now, and guilt and horror and somewhere, distantly perceived, fear, and all of them are nothing but deserved.
Goodness was always Erik Selvig's downfall.