Loki slipped from his imprisonment in S.H.I.E.L.D's high-security facility not with a bang, but a whisper, vanishing into the night. All hell broke loose as code RED was issued, but the Tesseract's vault hadn't been breached. This easy up and going served as an uncanny reminder that they were mere mortals dealing with an Asgardian god.
Clint, suspended until the higher-ups finally figured out how to treat an agent who had been mind-controlled by the enemy, was at the archery range when he overheard the news. The moment he identified the warm feeling rising in his gut as relief, his grip loosened and sent his arrow awry.
Clint stood still for a long time, listening to the echo as the projectile skittered across the ground.
He had been questioned, lying through his teeth with all the grace of an undercover agent with years of experience under his belt. Clint had spoken of the cold emptiness that had replaced his free will, the hollow feeling of a puppet on its strings, the pressure of Loki's commands, the urge to carry them out.
Because that was what people expected to hear, what they could nod off with a sympathetic smile and some notes jotted into his personal file and psychological report. It was the story that would get him back on active duty and into Nick Fury's good graces, the latter being the more tricky part considering how paranoid the man was.
Moving slowly to collect his arrow, Clint's thoughts turned to the truth, that tangled ball of feelings, all contradicting each other, that left him uneasy with nervous energy and a fatigue that he suspected might not be entirely his own.
It was the knowledge, the history of a god, of being an outcast and painfully different, of cold so all-consuming that it felt like heat, of another so close to you that you felt tangled up with him, not sure were one began and the other ended. The feeling of being exposed, everything laid bare and being accepted for it, all the blood and darkness without judgment, but with the praise of having a strong heart, a warriors soul.
And what Clint remembered the most vivid of all was Loki's surprised look and that tiny smile, either too honest for the God of Lies or painfully true, when their eyes had met for the first time after the spell had been woven with nothing but the casual touch of a staff. It had felt like recognition and Clint still struggled with making sense of it.
When an hour later the call from HQ came for Clint to join the hunt, a plan had taken vague shape inside his mind, spurred on by the feeling of fatigue not his own, that slowly spiraled down into pain.
“Sir, I'm on my way. ETA in forty minutes.”
“Good,” Nick Fury growled, head bent over a desk overflowing with datapads and manila folders. “Agent Barton, you're assigned to Team Alpha. Fury, over and out.”
It's funny how people thought that the daily routine of a secret agent is all thrill and explosions, life and death situations. Clint had gotten plenty of that, but not in one of those fancy novels had he ever read anything about how most of the time he did nothing more but hurry up and wait. Or how he came back after a mission, sticky with blood and dirt, having taken the life of someone without knowing why, no questions asked.
Clint had never before stopped to consider this life of his, to take and turn it, to watch the shadows lengthen over many points in his past, as he viewed them under a new light. He took the time to do it now, on the chopper flight, ignoring the din of turning rotors and howling of wind.
When the foreign pain turned sharp and hollow, his final decision was made and he knew full well that there was no turning back. Being a soldier, that made it easier.
The death sentence over Loki's head unified the whole manpower of S.H.I.E.L.D. in their efforts to locate the Asgardian. So far without success, as evident in Team Alpha's orders to wait in stand-by for the begin of their mission.
Clint was - officially - no longer under any suspicions and his security clearance made it all too easy to stroll straight into the crawling anthill that was the operations center. He didn't like to steal a page out of Natasha's book, but knowing that Bonny had a thing for him made her the logical target to plant his device and tap into the data streams HQ received.
“Hi Bonny,” he greeted the timid blonde, leaning casually on her desk.
She startled and blushed prettily, barely daring to glance up from her screen.
“Agent Barton! I mean – Sir!”
“Relax,” Clint said, quick enough to prevent her from jumping up and saluting him. “I've got a new face on my team, Agent Riley. Just wanted to have a quick look at his file.”
That got her head up. “Isn't that a bit paranoid?”
“It's what keeps you alive out there.”
It came out colder than Clint had intended, and the implied insult to her as a pencil pusher hung heavily between them as Bonny's smile froze. It served its purpose, though, because her attention was anywhere but on his hands.
“I – of course, Agent Barton. I go and get you a copy.”
Clint watched her as she tossed her ear piece on the desk and left quickly. Everyone else was busy, so he bend down to get a better look at the map on her screen, where little dots signified field agents and search teams.
One grid square stood out to him for no reason that Clint could pinpoint – other than that painful tug in every cell. S.H.I.E.L.D would not search it for another six hours, which gave him barely enough time to pull Loki out.
Collecting the bug he would no longer need, Clint straightened. He waited until Bonny came back with the folder, thanked her and went to gather his equipment. He left no trace behind save for his standard issue Glock 26 – not the usual way to resign from service, but it was a nice touch and would get his point across.
Armed and ready for anything save Loki's reaction, Clint stole a jeep and made sure to get rid of any potential pursuers before he turned in the direction of the abandoned steel foundry.
There was not much left of the hall that had housed the steel mill with its electric arc furnaces for the heavy machinery had been dismantled. The place seemed abandoned, but Clint simply followed his instinct.
Glass and metal splinters scrunched under his boots no matter how careful he placed his steps. But then, he had no doubt that Loki was already aware of his presence, since it was his magic that had led Clint here. Or maybe it was more accurate to say that he had followed it here. It was a small but important detail, even if it might have been nothing more than the delusion of free will.
He found a hole in the ground, cleanly cut as if a drill had been used. It could have been part of some kind of drainage, but the earth underneath all the concrete was still fresh and a bluish glow rose from deep down.
Clint lowered himself over the edge and the walls provided enough footholds to climb the first meters down easily. After that he used his head, back and feet to apply opposite pressure to descent it like a chimney.
The light grew stronger with each passing minute and finally revealed the ground; it was close enough for Clint to drop down. He landed on something soft that cushioned the impact. - Moss. It glowed gently.
“You came back.”
Clint turned slowly around, intent on avoiding all moves which could be interpreted as aggressive.
Loki sat leaning against the muddy wall, looking pale and gaunt. A slight sheen of sweat made his hair stick to his dirty face, while his armor had remained impeccable. His long fingers turned the remains of his staff around idly, his electric eyes watching the hypnotic movement all the while. They had lost their vividness, reduced to a murky green. Looking up to him, Loki let the broken pieces drop away.
Neither of them said a word, content instead with studying each other. They both recognized the gravity of his statement.
Suddenly the Asgardian stood in front of Clint, but he didn't flinch away. Loki's hand was poised to touch his cheek; radiating a coldness that grew fiercer with proximity. Their skin touched and it felt as if a circuit had been closed; a jolt of energy circled between them.
Hot and cold, water and acid, young and old, vital - and so tired.
“Our essences,” Loki clarified without Clint needing to ask.
The connection sent a shiver through Clint and he was gratified to see and feel that he was not the only one affected. Fingertips followed his cheekbones, traced lightly over his stubble, before Loki took a step back.
“You kept it wide open. You followed it here.”
“Yeah.” Suddenly, Loki's rapt attention made him uncomfortable, as if Clint had admitted more than was wise around the god. He covered his insecurity with a look on his wristwatch. “S.H.I.E.L.D. will be here in one hour – we need to leave.”
“You don't look up to much of anything in your current condition, much less a fight,” Clint pointed out reasonably.
Loki inclined his head. “True, my magic is drained. But I have no intention to hide here either. This planet holds nothing more of interest for me.”
“Speak freely, Clinton Francis Barton. You have earned as much – and more.”
He preferred not to think about the implications of that sentence, at least not now. “What about the Chitauri? And Thor?”
“Who said that I have no desire to return in the future?” Loki smirked, showing too much teeth, before turning sober again. “But I need time to prepare myself. And as for the Chitauri... As planned I am rid of them, for which I am indebted to S.H.I.E.L.D and the Avengers Initiative. I severed the chains binding me to their will and thus your world is safe. Let's not speak of them again.”
Clint nodded, sensing the danger rippling under Loki's aloof demeanor as if it were his own pain and hatred. Trying to make light of it he changed topic.
“So, leaving this planet... I'm sure we're not talking spaceships here. What then? That rainbow bridge thing I heard about?”
Loki smiled, that tiny upward stretch of blueish lips that spoke of honest amusement. “The Bifröst is still being rebuilt as we speak. No, I have my own means of travel, which is why I have chosen this very spot.”
Clint was reminded of Loki's flair for the dramatic when the god whirled around to the wall he had leaned against, one arm outstretched. His hand closed on empty air, like a claw ripping into tender flesh – and then he pulled.
White light burst forth as something invisible was torn apart. Whatever it was left a vacuum that tried to suck Clint into what looked like a black hole. Only Loki's body seemed to resist the pull, as the god moved as if to weave loose threads together. Clint could barely hear him shout over the roaring air, lilting words that no human tongue could hope to match.
Then everything just stopped: the rush of air, the spilling light, the flutter of their clothes, the unforgiving pull into the dark nothingness. Time itself ceased to exist.
With a hissed command the gateway opened. Like a burst of sunlight, energy flooded the little cave and created a golden aura around Loki – and the god threw his head back, opened his arms wide in invitation and laughed in delight as it flowed into him.
Clint was no poet, but in that moment Loki looked beautiful, like an ethereal thing too precious to be wasted on Earth.
The moment of wonder ceased when Clint realized that the same energy that restored Loki's magic was slowly destroying everything else. Earth, moss and chunks of concrete lost their shape, chipped to dust within seconds under the golden onslaught and sucked away.
Loki turned around and a silver veil seemed to follow his movements – it was a shield built with magic, that had protected Clint the whole time. That knowledge somehow failed to slow his frantic heartbeat.
“If you truly wish it, then come with me,” Loki said, like a king bestowing his lowly subject with a boon. Before Clint had any opportunity to get annoyed, Loki winked at him and offered his hand. “Last chance to bail out.”
It occurred to Clint that a playful Loki might turn out to be the bane of his existence in a non-lethal and entirely welcome way. Had he not known it before this would have been the point were he figured that he was screwed.
“I came here with a one way ticket, remember?”
Clint took the offered hand, not surprised that the skin had warmed up. He followed Loki's tug that brought them closer until their noses almost touched. Green eyes, so vivid that they seemed to glow from within, met his.
“Do not let go of my hand during transit,” Loki said urgently, all humor gone from his voice. “I have to wrap the shield tightly around us through the point were we touch, or the void will tear you apart.”
Clint nodded. “Got it.”
Loki moved forward. Clint had only taken one step over the flowing gold that was the gateways threshold when reality slipped away from him with a violent lurch. He fell, away from Earth, from Loki, from himself.
Everything went dark.
When Clint came to the first thing he felt was the even rise and fall of Loki's chest against his back and the cool balm that seeped from the god's hand into his brow, where it calmed his pounding headache.
“Open your eyes.”
Loki breathed the words into his skin as if they were life. - And maybe they were, since the numbness slowly retreated from his body until Clint could follow the command. One quick look and he shut them again with a groan, overwhelmed by the sprawl of light and crystals, two suns and three moons and a city made of gold.
Loki's cool lips brushed his temple, sustaining him with new strength.
“Welcome to Infinity.”