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The Missing Queen Job

Chapter Text

John McRory's Place is little more than a hole in the wall, another Irish pub in a city known for its Irish pubs. Situated in the basement of an apartment building nearly as old as Boston, it's the type of place where everybody knows your name, and if they don't, they'll buy you a beer and ask. Pepper Potts runs the place--John was her grandpa, and her mom took it over from him when he got sick--but what very few people know is that she doesn't technically own it.

Phil Coulson does.

He doesn't care much what Pepper does; it was never his intention to run a bar. He just wanted a place that's his, some place safe for him and his team--his family--and after the incredible financial success of their first job together, he had the means to do so. God knows there's not many places that would give them sanctuary. He used to track criminals like them for a living, before a crisis of faith drove him to the other side of the law, and he knows the lengths his former employers would go to put them all behind bars.

Natasha Romanoff is a wanted woman in more countries than not--and under a different name in most. Phil knows more about her past than even she does, including the name she was born with. (It isn't Natasha.) She's a world-class grifter, with enough charm to convince the Queen of England to give up the Crown Jewels, and trained from childhood in hand-to-hand fighting skills that put most men to shame. She used to steal for the money; now she does it for Phil.

As unlikely as it seems, Clint Barton actually has more warrants in more countries than Natasha. Raised in a circus, he's an Olympic-caliber archer with a penchant for hanging out in air ducts and jumping off tall buildings, and he specialized in art theft before he hooked up with Phil. Whenever a new museum exhibit opens, he'll disappear for a week or so, just to keep sharp, he claims. Phil doesn't mind--everyone needs a hobby.

Steve Rogers was a Captain in the U.S. Army when his team--including his best friend and partner, James Barnes--went down in a poorly-planned mission. He was the only survivor, and so he was the default scapegoat. He came to Phil for help clearing his name, but refused to return to the system that betrayed him. Now he's Phil's heavy-hitter instead of the Army's, and a surprisingly adept art forger.

Tony Stark is a mouthy young hacker with an ego the size of Boston--but it's mostly earned. Raised a trust fund baby, he didn't do much with his brains until his company was stolen out from under him by a man he considered family, before he even graduated MIT. In the five years since, he's gotten into every secure system Stane Industries has put out, stealing from its clients to fund his vendetta against Obadiah. (He also hacks the Pentagon monthly, but Phil ignores it; plausible deniability is something he learned early on in his previous career.) He doesn't trust many people, but in their line of work, that's more of an asset than a liability.

Bruce Banner is their other tech, a physicist and inventor whose genius gives Tony a run for his money and an explosive temper he takes great pains to leash. His painful past isn't something he discusses openly, but his innate dislike of anything military speaks for itself. Phil knows the gist of the story, and keeps tabs on General Ross as a precautionary measure. He'd once asked Bruce if he wanted them to go after Ross--righting unrightable wrongs is their gig, after all. He'd shaken his head, smiled sadly, and murmured one word: “Betty.” It's explanation enough for Phil.

John McRory's Place isn't much, but it's theirs. It's where their clients come to tell Phil their stories, where they rant and cry about the unfairness of life. He listens thoughtfully, coffee mug in hand, and promises that he'll do what he can.

Phil can't always protect them from the pain and the wrongs that have been done, but he can damn well help avenge them.

Chapter Text

When the large man walked into the bar Thursday afternoon, stopping just inside the door to look around, Phil Coulson took notice. It wasn’t as if random customers didn’t come to John McRory’s Place for the beer and atmosphere; they did, occasionally. But more often than not, a stranger in his bar meant they were looking for something--either to arrest one of his team, or for their particular brand of help. He sipped at his coffee, silently observing. The man stood tall, well over six feet, and looked to be as muscular as Steve; though he was dressed casually in a pair of blue jeans and a red tee shirt, his bearing looked more suited to a military uniform. An unshaven scruff of reddish-blond stubble and blond ponytail indicated he probably wasn’t a cop, though Phil supposed he could be undercover. The whole situation was worrisome. He took another drink of coffee, and waited.

It wasn’t until he heard a high-pitched squeal of “Thor!” coming from Darcy, Pepper’s cocktail waitress and second-in-command, that he finally relaxed. The girl practically vaulted the bar and rushed at their guest, who scooped her up in a tight hug, her feet dangling a full foot off the floor. “Hello again, fair Darcy,” he said, his voice loud and booming, but his tone gentle.

When Thor finally set Darcy back on the floor, she propped her hands on her hips and glared up at him. “What are you doing here? Is everything alright?”

Thor’s smile faded and he pressed his lips in a thin line. His shoulders slumped just slightly, and he suddenly looked tired. “I have come to speak with your friends, to ask for their help.”

Darcy turned and shot a look at Phil, her eyes wide and her expression guilty. “Um...shit.”

Phil just raised his eyebrow and his coffee mug. After a moment’s indecision, Darcy murmured something to Thor that he couldn’t hear, and led him to the corner table where Phil usually conducted business. Once Thor was settled, she returned to the bar, her face serious. “So, remember when I had that community service thing?” Phil nodded. Of course he remembered; it was how he’d learned why Darcy had come to Boston in the first place. “Thor was one of the other volunteers at Dr. Foster’s place. Not court-ordered,” she added quickly in response to Phil’s expression. “Well, one night we got a little drunk--he knows a lot of fun drinking songs, you know--you don’t care, okay, getting to the point.” She took a breath. “I told him my story, and he was, well, he was pretty upset on my behalf. His dad is kind of a big deal, I guess, and he said he was going to pull some strings for me, get the Douche, you know, um...” She trailed off.

“Taken care of?”

Darcy narrowed her eyes at him. “Not like mob ‘taken care of,’ Phil, God, but... yeah. So I told him that someone was already on it. And then I had to explain what I meant. And since I was drunk, I might have explained a little bit more than I should have.” She dropped her eyes to the scarred wooden bartop, tracing one of the many gouges with her forefinger. “Thor’s good people, Phil. I don’t know what he wants, but... Just hear him out, okay? I’m not asking you to help him, but just... listen.” She glanced up, her blue eyes more serious than he’d seen them in months. The pain and fear she’d managed to push through with his help--his team’s help--was clear in her gaze. “You’re not going to tell Pepper to fire me, are you?”

Phil covered her hand with his own, stilling her movements. “No, of course not.” He squeezed her fingers gently. “Not that she would do it even if I asked; no one else here can put up with Stark’s shit like you do.” She huffed out a quiet laugh at his attempt at humor. “Just try not to spill the beans to everyone, okay? There’s still several people who’d like nothing more to see us in jail--my former partner foremost among them.”

She met his eyes and smiled tightly. “I know. I’m sorry.”

He let got of her hand and picked up his nearly-empty mug, eyeing the glass carafe behind her. “Is that coffee fresh?” Without waiting for an answer, he walked behind the bar and poured some into his cup. He took a long drink and grimaced.

She waited until he’d lowered his cup to answer his question. “Of course not, Phil. It’s two in the afternoon. But don’t let that stop you,” she deadpanned, a wry grin on her face.

“I never do.” He winked at Darcy as she dumped the remains of the burnt coffee down the drain and started to brew a new pot. He turned and saw Darcy’s friend watching the two of them, a fond look on his face. Phil schooled his own expression into a bland smile--his ‘working’ face, Clint called it. Phil thought it was funny that the same face that had terrified hardened criminals into spilling all their secrets could be used to put skittish civilians at ease. Looking harmless and actually being harmless were two very different things; criminals understood that. He set his coffee cup on the table and lowered himself into the chair across from Thor.

Before he could speak, Thor grinned. “Darcy has told me much about you, Mr. Coulson. She says you are a great friend and a true force for justice for those with few options. Thank you for agreeing to listen to me.”

Phil blinked, caught off-guard momentarily. His booming voice was at odds with his formal speech patterns, and he detected a slight accent. He cocked his head to the side and studied Thor. “I’m not making any promises, Mr.--?”

“Odinson. But please, you may call me Thor.”

“Thor then,” he said. He wrapped a hand around his coffee cup and leaned back in the chair, one leg extended. “What is it you would like us to do for you?”

Thor sighed, all trace of happiness gone. He scrubbed his hand over his face and dropped his gaze to the table. “I am afraid for my mother. She is... missing.”

Phil stifled a sigh. “Mr. Odinson, if you believe your mother is missing, you should go to the police.”

“It is not that simple, Mr. Coulson.” He paused then and took a deep breath, as if steeling himself for a blow, and looked up to meet Phil’s eyes. “I am not on speaking terms with my father, and he forbid my mother from contacting me. But, in defiance of my father, she and I have continued to speak, usually several times a week. She mentioned no travel or other commitment; no reason why she wouldn’t answer when I call. I am--I am afraid something has happened.”

Phil cocked his head to the side. “What do you believe has happened?” He needed the rest of Thor’s story, but it wasn’t relevant if they chose not to take his case, so he let the vagueness slide for now.

“I have spoken with my brother. He insists that our parents are fine, that they are travelling. A cruise, he said.” The muscles in Thor’s face jumped as he clenched his teeth. “He lied to me. I contacted a friend of mine in the state department, who says that neither of my parents passports have been used. As far as the U.S. Government is concerned, they are still in the country.”

Phil blinked, the only outward sign of his surprise. Normal people didn’t have friends who could check the status of a passport, not on short notice. Add that to the fact that Thor thought to check the passports in the first place, and this case was becoming far more interesting than he’d initially thought. “Could they have left without using their passports?”

Thor shrugged. “My father has a private jet. But I checked with the manager at the airstrip, and it is still in the hangar, and no one has filed a flight plan.”

Before Phil could ask the question that was hovering on the tip of his tongue--why would someone whose father owned a jet need their help, anyway--a loud crash heralded Tony Stark’s arrival in the bar. “Hey Darcy, you got any coffee back there? And did Potts ever order that Glenfiddich 21 I asked for? Is she coming in tonight, or is she avoiding us? Hey boss! And--huh.” Stark’s monologue stopped short when he caught sight of Thor. He narrowed his eyes for just a second before shooting him a bright, insincere smile. “I know you,” he said as he dropped heavily into one of the two empty chairs, leaning back and looking for all the world like the smirking, indolent scion of Stark Industries he no longer was. “Thor Odinson, heir apparent to Asgard Corporation. Well, former heir apparent.” The last sentence was laced with just enough venom that Thor flinched and Phil shot Stark a glare. “How’s life down here with the regular folks? Tried SPAM yet?”

Thor straightened, his eyes steely and hands clenched into fists. “Indeed, my fall from my father’s good graces came as quite a blow, and I was bitter for some time. But I have come to understand that he was right to disinherit me. I was a spoiled princeling with no real understanding of how the world worked, or how my actions affected those around me. It was only once the silver spoon was removed that I learned who I truly was.” He tilted his head to the side and stared Tony down. “Can you say the same, young Anthony Stark?”

The two displaced corporate princes glared at each other for a long, silent minute. Phil knew he should do something to relieve the tension, but though Stark had been with his team for two years now, the subject of his loss of Stark Industries on the heels of his parents’ untimely deaths was not one Tony enjoyed discussing. He and the rest of the team tended to avoid the issue entirely after a memorable night that had begun with Stark and a half-bottle of scotch and ended with Steve restraining a murderous Natasha after Tony bloodied Clint’s nose.

“And, to answer your other question,” Thor said, just before Tony looked about to go apoplectic, “I like SPAM. It is not something I thought I would enjoy, but fried crispy with mustard, it makes a delicious sandwich.”

Darcy let out a bark of laughter from behind the bar, and Stark turned to shoot her a glare. She approached them with two large mugs of coffee in one hand and the carafe in the other. She set the mugs in front of Thor, who smiled at her, and Tony, who still looked slightly murderous, then filled Phil’s cup from the steaming carafe. She leaned down and pressed a kiss to Tony’s cheek. “Be nice, Tony. Thor is my friend. If you ask nicely, he might even teach you some Scandinavian drinking songs, which you can use to annoy Clint; you know how much you like to do that. Oh, and Pepper did not order that Glenfiddich; she said until you start actually paying for your drinks, you can suffer through well scotch,” she added as she walked away.

“Well scotch is a crime, Darcy! A crime against good taste and all that is holy in this world, and I should know, because I am a world-class criminal. I refuse to drink that swill, I will start patronizing a bar that understands good whisky, and you can tell your boss I said that!”

Darcy turned and lifted one eyebrow. “Do you think that maybe that was her plan all along?”

Stark turned back to Phil and Thor with an irritated huff. “Well, I suppose I have to play nice, or Darcy will get Pepper to do something truly awful to me. Her extreme competence is terrifying. And hot. But mostly terrifying.” He focused on Thor, arms crossed in front of his chest. “I heard you were doing charity work.”

Thor shrugged, not denying it, but not agreeing. “And I heard you dropped out of MIT and turned to a life of cyber-crime.”

The corner of Stark’s mouth twitched up in an almost-grin. “Whoever said ‘crime doesn’t pay’ was lying through his teeth. Crime pays almost as well as being a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist, and requires a lot less bullshit politicking. I have to say, I prefer it; I haven’t been to a black-tie charity dinner in years. Well,” he amended, his smile sly, “not to hobnob, anyway.”

Thor grinned. “Aye, formal dinners were never my favorite pastime either. My brother excelled at making small-talk with society people; my talents lay in getting rousingly drunk and starting fights.”

Tony snorted. “Yes, CEOs generally frown on their sons being hammered at company functions. Apparently, it makes the shareholders nervous.” Phil could hear the undercurrent of bitterness in Tony’s words, and wished, not for the first time, that the young man would let them help him take down Stane.

“I can’t imagine why,” Phil said, interrupting their conversation before it could devolve further. “Before your interruption, Mr. Odinson was about to explain why he would like our help.”

Tony frowned at Thor. “What’s going down over at Asgard Corp?”

“My mother is missing.”

Before Stark could say anything, Phil started questioning Thor. “You said your brother lied about their travel plans. Why would he do that? Does he stand to gain anything by it?”

He shrugged. “I am never quite certain what is going on in my brother’s mind. He is so far beyond me, and has been since we were just children. We have not been close these past years; I believe he feels guilty for our father disinheriting me.” Thor paused and dropped his eyes to the table, a small smile on his face. “Perhaps Loki was the catalyst for our father’s actions, but I cannot say truthfully that he was the cause. That dubious honor falls squarely on my shoulders.” He stopped and drank most of the coffee in his cup before continuing. “The last time I spoke with my mother, she implied that perhaps I should contact Father. I believe she thought he might reconsider my banishment.”

“You think your brother would, what, hurt your parents to keep the company?” Stark phrased the question more bluntly than Phil would have, but it was his thought as well.

Thor frowned. “I... I am not sure. My heart says that Loki would do no such thing, that whatever anger he might feel toward our father or myself, that he would never take it out on Mother.”

Phil picked up the unspoken ending to the sentence. “But that much money and power makes even good people do bad things sometimes.”

Thor sighed and nodded. “But who am I to tell? The police? I am the disgraced, disinherited son who has not had public contact with my family for nearly three years. My brother is the good son, the heir to the family business, who runs most of the day-to-day operations. Were I to go to the authorities with my suspicions, they would accuse me of attempting to discredit my brother, and even if they investigated, Loki would lie to them as he did to me.” He slumped forward a bit, as if even thinking of the possibility was painful. “But, if he did not do this, why would he lie?”

Phil caught Stark’s eye. Tony raised an eyebrow and tipped his head to the side, and Phil nodded. “Mr. Odinson--Thor. I understand your concern for your mother, and I believe it is well-founded.” The big man let out a sigh of relief. “My team and I will look into this, but you have to understand, we are not the police. If your brother has done something to hurt your parents, or kidnapped them, we will have to go to the authorities.” He let that statement soak in. “If that’s not something you can accept, you can leave now, and everything that’s been said here will remain between us.”

Thor swallowed and met Phil’s eyes. “You’re saying that if I walk away, you will just let this lie. Even if Loki did... Did do something to Mother.”

Phil gave him a small smile. “He is your brother. No one here would blame you for wanting to protect your family.”

He closed his eyes and bowed his head. “I appreciate your offer, Mr. Coulson. But if my brother did... If he has harmed my parents, he must face justice, no matter that I love him.”

Phil nodded. “Okay then.” He stood and offered Thor his hand. “We’ll look into this for you. I can’t promise you’ll like the results, Mr. Odinson, but because you are Darcy’s friend, I’ll do what I can.”

Thor gave him a somewhat watery smile and shook his hand firmly. “I appreciate your honesty, Mr. Coulson. And, no matter the results of this, I swear to you, your secret is safe with me.”

They made small talk for a few more minutes, then Thor left. Phil turned to Tony. “So?”

He shrugged. “I don’t think this is Thor’s way of getting back at his brother; it’s much too sneaky and subtle for him. Thor’s a few years older than me, so I never really met him, but my dad always held him up to me as a bad example of an heir to a large company--too blunt, more of a hammer than a scalpel. But,” he shrugged, “maybe he learned something out in the real world.” He finished his coffee and put the cup down with a louder bang than was strictly necessary. “When I put together the dossier, I’ll be sure to include Thor as well as the rest of them.”

“Good. Get to work.” Phil glanced over to where Darcy was doing her best to look like she wasn’t eavesdropping. “I’ll call the rest of the team. How long do you need?”

“Couple hours,” Stark answered, pulling out his phone. “JARVIS, give me everything you have on Asgard Corp, Odin & Frigga Alfoder, and Thor Odinson & Loki Laufeyson.”

“Certainly sir. Shall I pull it up on the screen in the apartment?” the AI answered, its crisp British tones slightly subdued by the phone’s small speakers.

“Yeah, go ahead. I’ll be up there in a bit,” he muttered, walking off without a goodbye, his fingers flying over the touchscreen. “JARVIS, dig a little deeper into the company financials, and see if you find anything offshore that looks fishy...”

When he was gone, and it was just Phil and Darcy, he brought the empty coffee mugs back to the bar. “This might not end well for your friend, Darcy. He could be lying.”

She pursed her lips and shook her head. “No. Thor has his faults, but he’s so honest it’s kind of ridiculous. He’s all about honor and shit like that. I didn’t think people like that still existed.” She paused to bite her bottom lip. “He’s pretty blind where his brother is concerned, though. If he’s asking for help with Loki, it’s probably worse than he’s saying.”

“I guessed as much,” he said. The silence between them was stilted and awkward. “Darce-- You don’t have to be afraid we’re going to disown you for any little thing. You’re family.”

Darcy shot him a self-deprecating grin. “And we’ve all had such great experience with those, huh, Phil?” The smile fell from her face. “I guess... Old habits, you know?”

He reached over and took her hand, squeezing gently before letting go. “I do.”

After another moment, she sighed and rolled her eyes, breaking the tension. “Okay, enough with the feelings, it’s like I’m in a chick flick right now. I’ll order some food for you guys, yeah? Since you all forget to eat when you’re working.” She turned around to fumble for one of the many take-out menus stashed behind the bar. “Greek okay?”

“Get extra tzatziki sauce; Steve likes to drown everything in it.”

Darcy waved him off. “On it. Now go do your Robin Hood schitck.”

Phil raised an eyebrow. “Yes, Mom.”

He knew she was giving him a death glare behind his back as he headed for the stairs. “You’re, like, twenty years older than me, and clearly spending too much time with Tony and Clint,” she called out. “I’ll start stocking Folgers down here; do not test me! I mean it, Phil!”

Her indignant voice followed him up the stairs, and he couldn’t help but smile.

Chapter Text

The team was assembled in the main living area of Phil’s apartment above the bar, munching happily on the food Darcy had ordered. Barton, perched on the back of the couch, was doing his level best to steal the olives from Natasha’s salad without getting stabbed, while Steve watched the show with a mix of horror and amusement from his seat next to Phil at the kitchen bar. Both of them had finished their share of the food quickly and cleaned up their trash; the habits the military had drilled into them were hard to break. Bruce sat on the edge of the couch, as far from the squabbling couple as possible, a yellow legal pad in his lap. He ignored the rest of them and ate mechanically as he scribbled something incomprehensible to anyone but himself or Stark. Tony stood on the other side of the room, mumbling to himself--or to JARVIS, the results were usually the same--and trying not to drip tzatziki sauce all over the touchscreen table as he finished putting the briefing together.

Phil cleared his throat, getting everyone’s attention. “Alright, Stark, run it.”

“Ok kiddos, listen up,” he said, licking the last of the sauce off his fingers. “This lesson will be on the final.”

Clint rolled his eyes and tossed one of his pilfered kalamatas at Tony, cackling gleefully when it bounced off the exact center of his chest. Tony glared and wiped at the logo on his Black Sabbath tee shirt. “Ten points from Gryffindor for that stunt, Mr. Barton; this is vintage.”

Phil sighed. “If you are all quite done with your childish games, can we start the briefing now?”

Tony nodded and did some complicated hand motions, bringing up a 3-D holographic display in the middle of the room. In the center was a family photograph, clearly several years old, showing Odin, Frigga, Thor, and Loki, posed in formal clothing. “Meet the family of Odin. Odin Alfoder married Frigga Fjorgynsdottir back in Norway, and they had one son, Thor Odinson. Random, but what’s up with this naming scheme? Wouldn’t that get a little confusing after a while?”

“It’s a very old cultural tradition, Tony,” Bruce said, his voice deceptively mild. “There is a similar naming convention in Russia.”

“Well, far be it from me to insult Mother Russia,” he answered, shooting a glance at Natasha, who smiled blandly back at him. “I like all my limbs where they are, thanks. Okay, okay, moving on,” he replied to Phil’s dirty look. “When little Thor was eight, Mom and Dad became the legal guardians of another boy, Loki Laufeyson, six, and when they emigrated to the states a few years later, they took Loki with them.”

Steve interrupted with a wave of his hand. “So Loki was adopted, then?”

Tony shook his head. “There aren’t a lot of records online from back then, but from what I could put together, Laufey Nalsdottir was a maid in the Alfoder household, and, allegedly, was having an affair with Odin when she got pregnant.” He shrugged. “Either way, biological son or not, when Laufey died of cancer, the Alfoders took six-year-old Loki in, and raised him as their son. Odin and Frigga are his legal guardians, both here and in Norway, but he was never formally adopted.

“Anyway, Odin comes to America, and starts Asgard Corporation, which quickly grows into a technology giant, the American dream, blah blah blah.” Tony continued, flicking his fingers to move around floating holographic photos, blueprints, and financial records of Asgard Corp. “They’ve been at the forefront of pretty much every advancement in computers, medicine, and energy in the past couple decades, and made Odin a lot of money. Like, a lot of money.” Several more images popped up on the screen: Odin, dressed in a formal suit, accepting an award; Odin and Frigga posing in front of a large hospital wing that bore their names; and the family as a whole sitting at a table at what was clearly a black-tie charity event.

Tony continued, and the computer brought up new photos, school photos of Thor and a dark-haired boy that could only be Loki. “Thor was the natural heir, being the oldest and Odin’s legitimate son, but Odin sent both boys to the best Boston prep schools money could buy. Thor’s grades were never the best, as he preferred to spend his time and effort on playing sports--at which he excelled--and getting smashingly drunk--at which he was also quite successful.” A few more clicks, and the computer showed several team photos, all with a tall, blond Norse god in the center, smiling a dazzling smile. “He was actually recruited by several Division I college football teams as a running back--his nickname was 'Mjolnir' for the way he broke through defensive lines--but turned them all down to stay in Boston. He somehow managed to get accepted into Harvard--”

Clint’s cough sounded suspiciously like ‘Daddy’s money,’ and Natasha elbowed him in the ribs in retaliation. Tony waited for his whines to die down before asking, “Done, Barton?”

Barton just grinned.

Tony rolled his eyes. “As I was saying, Thor went to Harvard, but dropped out after his freshman year.” Tony touched his phone a couple times, and several paparazzi photos took center stage, all showing a grinning Thor with a different scantily dressed young woman or pair of women. Some were getting into or out of his car, others were outside clubs, and a couple were even on a yacht, wearing what could only be generously called bikinis. “He moved to New York City and proceeded to take his prodigious skills in partying and apply them to seducing every model and celebutante he could get his paws on, all while drinking enough alcohol to kill an army. There was even a quote-unquote ‘leaked’ sex tape,” he said with a lascivious grin.

The room perked up a bit at that, and Natasha said, “Let’s see it,” at the same time that Clint asked, “Can we watch it?”

“No,” Phil said, hoping to cut off this conversation before the slight throbbing behind his eyes turned into a full-blown headache. “Absolutely not. Stark, if you even think about it, I will personally empty every bottle of scotch you own into the sink.”

Natasha and Clint turned toward him. “Why not? It’ll be like, a team-building exercise,” Clint offered. Natasha nodded, her tongue darting out to wet her lips. Phil gritted his teeth.

“I have it on the hard drive, boss, I can queue it right up,” Tony added unhelpfully. “It’s pretty vanilla actually, and the lighting is really awful. Green is not our boy’s color.”

Phil rubbed his eyes so hard he saw stars. Of course Stark had already watched it. “Can we continue with this, please? If you want to watch homemade porn after the job, be my guest. But--” he added, cutting into the planning session that was about to start, “you will not be watching it in my apartment. That’s... just. No.”

Clint screwed his face up into an expression that was probably supposed to be a pout but didn’t make Phil feel any sort of sympathy. Natasha’s small grin, on the other hand, made Phil more than a little nervous. He’d known her for years, and knew more of her secrets than probably anyone else alive, but he never really knew what was going on inside her head. He pushed the thought away; he could worry about her plans later. “Stark, if you would continue?”

Tony nodded, wiping away the photos of Thor and pulling up pictures of a studious-looking Loki. “So, while Thor was off making sex tapes with models, little brother Loki graduated Summa Cum Laude from Harvard, got an MBA from Yale, and was generally the son CEO dads dream about but never get. However, Odin continued to try to reign in Thor’s behavior and mold him into someone worthy of taking over the company, which, according to business gossips, was absolutely infuriating to Loki.

“That changed three years ago,” Tony said, bringing up several newspaper articles. The Wall Street Journal’s headline read: Heir to Asgard disgraced; will second son save company? “No one will say exactly what happened, but Thor and Odin had a ‘disagreement,’” he said, adding the completely unnecessary air-quotes, “and suddenly, the Golden Boy was out on his ass without a penny to his name, and Odin named Loki CEO, while retaining his position as Chairman of the Board of Directors. Thor went a little extra-crazy for a while, got arrested once for public intoxication, but dropped out of the public eye after about six months and hooked up with Dr. Jane Foster--”

Bruce perked up. “Darcy’s Jane Foster?”

Tony mimed shooting Bruce with finger pistols. “Indeed, my science brother. That’s how our boy found us, weren’t you listening? Did I mention that?” Bruce shook his head. “No? Oh, sorry. Apparently he and Darcy got friendly while she was doing her community service with Jane.” Bruce frowned and sunk back into the couch. Tony didn’t notice. “Anyway, he worked with Jane and her program for a while, dated the good doctor for a bit, and apparently turned his life around. He basically became Cap: a grown-up boy scout.”

Steve huffed and rolled his eyes. “Can we cut the commentary, Tony? I’d like to get this job done sometime in the next 70 years.”

“Yeah, yeah, don’t get your star-spangled panties in a twist,” Tony continued, waving Steve off. “Since becoming said boy scout, Thor’s financials are exactly what you’d expect,” he said, clicking through a series of documents that were mostly numbers. “He’s been getting a bit on the side from Mommie Dearest, but he lives in a small one-bedroom apartment, doesn’t own a car, spends about what he makes working for Dr. Foster, and he buys more groceries than any one person should be able to consume and not turn into Jabba the Hutt.

“His phone records bear out his story too--he talked to Frigga about three times a week for the past two and a half years. On Sunday afternoon, his call went straight to voicemail; same thing on Tuesday. Yesterday morning he called his brother’s cell, and they talked for ten minutes, presumably about Frigga.” Phil squinted at the holographic list of phone numbers and times. Tony tapped a few keys and one number blinked and turned red. “This is the interesting one, here. He called a very highly placed member of the U.S. State Department, and they talked for thirty minutes. That same employee looked up Odin and Frigga Alfoder’s passport information, and, two hours later, returned Thor’s call.” He shrugged. “It looks like our boy is telling the truth about everything.”

“Well, that’s a good sign, right?” Bruce asked.

Phil hummed unhappily. “Yes and no. It means Thor probably isn’t a viable suspect, but, well.” He shrugged. “It cuts our potential leads in half.”

Tony nodded. “I checked on the travel thing as well, thinking that maybe they wanted some secret getaway,” Tony continued, pulling up a series of documents, complete with photos. “Odin Alfoder and Asgard Corporation own a private jet, two yachts, and a stable of cars that put my old man’s garage to shame. One yacht is in drydock for repairs; the other is sitting in a private marina in the Hamptons. No one has filed a flight plan for the jet in two months, and a quick call to the hangar indicates it’s still there. Not all of the cars are accounted for, but they still need a passport to get into Canada or Mexico, and theirs haven’t been used. Their credit cards haven’t been used to buy a ticket on any plane, train, or automobile. As far as I’m concerned, they have not left the country by any normal means.

“I checked into their phone records, and GPS puts Odin and Frigga leaving a restaurant at six-thirty on Saturday night. They were both home by seven PM. Just before eight o’clock, the GPS on their phones cuts out, and hasn’t come back on. Neither one has made a call since or even popped up on the grid. They’ve completely disappeared.”

“So they didn’t leave the country, and the phone thing is fishy.” Natasha narrowed her eyes. “What about the brother, Loki?”

Tony grinned. “Oh, boy, Loki is a character. I don’t know whether to slap him or shake his hand. People in the know think he orchestrated the fight that ended with Thor being disinherited, but no one can prove anything, and let’s be honest, it wasn’t like Thor was a saint. It probably would have happened eventually; Loki just sped up the timeline. He and Thor were always close, despite their disparate interests--Loki was a year behind in school, but he was usually in Thor’s classes because he was so much smarter than everyone else. Some of their boarding school teachers were sure that Loki was doing some of Thor’s homework, but, again, they couldn’t prove anything. Even while Thor was being groomed--unsuccessfully, I might add--to take over Asgard Corp, Loki was doing everything to ensure that he’d be a better choice.

“Since he was named CEO, through means both fair and not-so-fair, he’s acquired several companies and their attendant technologies, and generally made himself the enemy of everyone in the business world. His financials are clean; he’s not skimming from the company, he spends far less than his salary, and hasn’t touched his trust fund since he was 21.” Tony stopped and shook his head. “I miss my trust fund,” he whined.

“Stark, back to Loki, if you please.”

Tony mockingly saluted Steve. “Yes sir, Captain America, sir.” Steve glared. “Anyway, up until recently, Loki Laufeyson was as clean as any corporate shark can be; which is to say, pretty dirty, but nothing unusual or conclusively illegal. But then...” He trailed off and pulled up a photo of a man in a lab coat. His face was severe, with sharp cheekbones and thin lips, and his eyes looked steely even in the photograph. “Meet Johann Schmidt. Our buddy Joe here worked for Asgard Corporation on a super-secret classified project known as the Tesseract Project, until he and Odin had a falling out, and Odin fired him.”

“I’m sensing a theme with this Odin fellow,” Clint murmured to Natasha.

“Well, Schmidt didn’t take his banishment with quite the grace of Thor. He made some very public threats against Odin and Asgard, then promptly disappeared. He’s popped up on the FBI watchlist a couple of times as a terrorist threat, and Interpol has a file on him a foot thick. Our good buddy Fury,” he said with a nod toward Phil, “would do just about anything to put him behind bars.”

Phil nodded, studying the photo. “I remember him. He was just becoming a threat about the time I left Interpol. He was implicated in a bombing in Vienna; a hydroelectric dam, I think. Rumor had it that Schmidt was caught in the blast, but survived.”

Tony nodded, and brought up images and newspaper articles. “Good memory, boss. Schmidt has been mostly linked with a group of anti-technology crazies called Hydra. They think the world was perfect back in the days before indoor plumbing and cell phones, and they like to blow up power plants and the like.” Tony shuddered. “How can you hate technology? What did an internal combustion engine ever do to them?”

Frowning, Steve asked, “So he went from creating technology to looking for a way to destroy it? That... that seems quite a leap.”

Tony shrugged. “He wasn’t really all that stable to begin with. Maybe he got hit with gamma radiation or something in the lab, who knows?”

“Gamma radiation doesn’t make people crazy, Tony,” Bruce interrupted. “In large enough doses, it might cause cancer and death, but not insanity or multiple personalities.”

“You just love poking holes in all my theories, don’t you?” Bruce didn’t answer, and Tony huffed in annoyance. “Either way, he’s off his rocker and has been actively working to send the world back into the dark ages.”

“And what does this have to do with Loki?” Phil asked, impatient.

“Ah, this is where things start to get really interesting,” he said, and brought up another set of phone records. “Loki contacted Schmidt about six months ago. He claimed that the Tesseract project wasn’t going as well as it should be, and he wanted to re-hire Schmidt. He and Odin fought about it, but nothing more came of that call. Or so we thought.

“Late Saturday afternoon, Loki got a call from a burner cell, and talked for half an hour. His office at Asgard doesn’t have any security cameras, and, of course, the burner cell was purchased in Boston, nothing there to trace. After that call, he wired a hundred grand from his personal account to a Cayman Islands account, and called the cell back.”

“Whose account?” Steve asked.

“I’m not done yet,” Tony scolded. “Loki leaves work and goes home, and from there, he makes a couple calls to some shady characters with ties to the Irish mob, and who have, allegedly, done some dirty work for both Odin and Loki in the past.” A fuzzy feed came up on the screen, showing a white van driving through a gated driveway. “Red light camera outside the Alfoder estate shows an unmarked van being buzzed in, staying for about twenty minutes, then leaving.

“At around ten PM, another 2.5 million is transferred from Loki’s account to the same recipient. The account belongs to a shell company I traced back to a Hydra true believer, but the money didn’t stay there long.” A world map appeared, with several red lines connecting different locations. “They tried to hide it by using proxies and moving it through multiple countries, but, being the genius that I am, I traced it to an account at a bank here in Boston. And that account has been accessed several times in the last week, including a cash withdrawal outside the convenience store that sold the burner phone.”

“Well this all looks fishy as fuck,” Clint observed.

Tony snorted. “Doesn’t it? Plus, Loki’s been acting very out of character this week. I hacked into his calendar, and he’s cancelled all his meetings for the week, won’t take any phone calls, and sent home the entire R&D staff except one guy, a brand new hire, Dr. Erik Selvig.”

“Okay, enough about Loki,” Steve said. “What do we know for sure about Schmidt and Hydra?”

“Eh, not much. The bastards don’t use computers any more than they have to,” Tony said, disgruntled. “I have JARVIS searching for anything that looks useful, but if I’m right--and I usually am--they’re strictly paper-pushers. Coulson would approve.”

Clint frowned. “So we’re thinking that Loki paid Schmidt to kill Mom & Dad so he could keep the company?”

“If he thought Odin was softening toward Thor, was planning on taking away the company he worked so hard for, it would be a good strategy,” Natasha said, tapping her finger to her lip. “Schmidt would be someone the cops would look at first, the disgruntled employee with ties to terrorism who showed up in Boston just before the murder. And if he’s already known to be unstable, no one would take him seriously if he accused the grieving son of being involved.”

“People have killed for far less than a multi-billion dollar international corporation,” Bruce said, tapping his pen against the pad of paper still in his lap.

“Eh... something still seems fishy. Why did he need the mob guys to dispose of the bodies?” Clint asked. “Wouldn’t it be better if they found them dead?”

“Maybe he decided ‘missing’ was better than ‘actually dead,’” Tony said. “I mean, maybe Odin never got around to putting him in the will, and since he was never formally adopted, he might not necessarily be an assumed heir.”

“This is all speculation right now,” Phil interrupted, using a commanding tone to get them to focus. “There could be a perfectly innocent explanation as to why the Alfoders aren’t speaking to their son.”

Steve cocked his head and asked, “Do you really believe that?”

Phil sighed and rubbed his temple. “No, I don’t. But we need to go into this as a fact-finding mission, not a vigilante revenge thing. If he’s working with Schmidt, he’ll be keeping the evidence under lock and key, but close, probably in his office. It’s the only place in the building that isn’t monitored by cameras. Tony?”

“On it,” Tony said, already bringing up the blueprints to Asgard’s corporate headquarters. “The security system was installed three years ago by our old friend Obadiah Stane, so it’ll be no problem to hack in. When will people stop buying his shit? Every time SI releases a new OS for those piece of shit systems, I hack it in less than three hours. While drunk. Idiots,” he muttered, glaring at the holographic building, as if he could somehow affect the man whose stolen company built the security system with the force of his hatred.

“Well, their misfortune is our advantage,” he said after a sullen pause. Phil was just grateful he didn’t go into his full-blown Stane rant; yes, the guy was an asshole; yes, what he did to Tony was morally reprehensible and legally questionable, but they’d all heard it a hundred times. “I can make up some blind key-cards that won’t show up on logs to get you into the building, but Loki’s office is here,” he pointed to a large corner on the top floor, “and the only access to the floor is via a private elevator. That system runs an Asgard Corp proprietary security routine, and I haven’t had enough time to hack it. I can,” he added, quickly, “I’ve just never needed to before. They don’t sell it, and the elevator only goes two places: the executive offices on the top floor, and the high-security labs just below. It uses a three-pronged lock: keycard, retinal scan, and voiceprint. So, unless you want to wait another couple days for JARVIS and me to work something out, we’re going to need another way into the office.”

“Let me see that,” Clint cut in, getting up to walk around the 3-D model. He zoomed in on the upper floors and bent closer to study them. After a moment, he looked up and grinned. “Who am I taking with me? Get me roof access, and you’ve got your in. I know these windows--I broke into a penthouse apartment in Chicago that had windows like these. No one ever expects you to come down from the top when you’re this high up, so they’re not very secure.” A dreamy, far-away smile lit his face. “This guy had a Monet just sitting there, not wired to the wall, no internal security, nothing. It was beautiful. And the painting was okay too.”

“No. No, no, no,” Steve said as Phil and Clint both turned to him expectantly. “I was a soldier, not a circus performer, I don’t get my kicks jumping off buildings like some people. Natasha should do it,” he countered, his voice rising a little higher with each word. “She and Clint rappelled off the Hancock last weekend. For fun!”

Natasha turned and shot Steve a nasty glare. “That was supposed to be a secret.”

Bruce huffed out a laugh and rolled his eyes. “You think Phil didn’t know about it already? Clint is not as sneaky as he thinks he is.”

Phil shook his head. “Natasha and Bruce need to go in the front door, to distract Loki and get him out of his office, and Tony’s past visibility in the business world means he needs to stay in. I’d do it myself, but...” He rolled his left shoulder, the sharp pain of the old injury making him wince. “I can’t. I’ll be here with Tony, running the comms.”

Steve pressed his lips into a thin line. “You could do the grift with Bruce, let Nat go with Clint.”

Phil knew what Steve was really saying: he wasn’t sure he could handle jumping off a building, not after Bucky. Phil knew the ins and outs of Captain Steve Roger’s last mission with the Army Rangers probably better than even Steve did. He knew that Steve had watched, helpless, as his best friend, his partner, the man he’d followed into the service in the first place, fell hundreds of feet to his death. He knew Steve hadn’t voluntarily gone above the tenth floor of any building since, let alone done anything close to what he was asking of him now. He also knew that Steve was still a soldier at heart, and that if Phil needed him to do this, he would, but that if he ordered him to do it, he might lose his trust for good.

He looked Steve in the eyes and shook his head. “Loki would pick me out as a g-man from a mile away. It has to be Nat.”

After just a few more seconds, Steve nodded crisply, every inch the good soldier, though the skin around his eyes was tight with tension. “Yes, sir.”

Bruce raised his hand, pen still held loosely in his ink-stained fingers. “And Natasha and I are... what? Health inspectors? I don’t think that will work,” he said mildly.

“Asgard Corp has quite a few military contracts, mostly related to green energy,” Phil said as Tony pulled up the documents. “Tony, can you see if anyone has been trying to get into check their progress?”

Tony flicked through several dozen emails so fast Phil’s eyes started to cross. “Nope,” he said after a few moments. “They’ve been left mostly alone.”

Phil and Natasha shared a look. Natasha grinned. “Are your suits pressed and ready, Congresswoman?”

“Always.”

“Well, then. Let’s do this.”

Chapter Text

Asgard’s corporate headquarters were stunning. The skyscraper shimmered gold in the light of the afternoon sun, a trick of tinted glass, and instead of the clean lines of the modernist buildings around it, it was all curves and arches, spiraling up through the Boston skyline. Despite all its glitz, it was more elegant than showy, with glittery touches of old Hollywood built into the design. Natasha loved it.

The clack of her heels on the concrete soothed her as she mentally shifted from Natasha to her cover. She reached up and tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear, at the same time adjusting her earpiece. “Can you hear me, Tony, Phil?”

“Coming through loud and clear, Tasha,” Tony answered, his voice slightly distorted by the comms. “You guys in place?”

“Yeah, we hear you, Tony,” Bruce said as he tucked a greying curl out of the way and rubbed the skin just in front of his ear. “When we get done with this job, you and me, we’re going to sit down and redesign these things. They don’t fit quite right.”

“Getting your blood pressure up, huh?” Natasha could hear Tony’s laughter through the comms, and she rolled her eyes. “You know I love hanging in the lab with you, Bruce. We’ll make it a date.”

“Okay boys, we’re almost here,” Natasha replied, cutting off what would likely devolve into a long science conversation before it could get started. “Did you get everything online, Stark?”

Tony huffed out in annoyance, the sound absurdly loud through the comms. “Did I? Natasha, my darling, I am a genius. Hacking into Congress’s website is child’s play for a man with my intellect. I don’t know how they do things in Soviet Russia--”

“Stark.” Tony quieted at the sound of Phil’s stern voice. “A simple yes or no would have sufficed.”

Clint’s laughter interrupted them. “Like that’s ever stopped Tony before,” he said.

Phil sighed, the sound exasperated but fond. “Clint, Steve, are you ready? I’m not entirely sure how long Natasha will be able to keep Loki occupied and out of his office.”

“As ready as I’ll ever be,” Steve replied, voice grim. Natasha could hear the soft whine of the wind behind Steve’s voice; he and Clint had snuck up to the roof in the guise of maintenance men, and were waiting for her to ensure Loki was out of his office before dropping over the side of the building. Clint claimed the sunlight reflecting off the windows would make them invisible from the ground, and from her position on the street, Natasha could only agree.

“Good. Tony has hacked into the security feeds at Asgard, so he and I can see what their cameras see, which does not include Loki’s office,” Phil reminded them, needlessly, Natasha thought. Of course she remembered that important detail. She squinted up at the building, trying unsuccessfully to catch a glimpse of Clint or Tony on the roof. “He can, however, track his movement via his keycard, where video feed is unavailable. Tasha, you’re up.”

Natasha let a small smile flit across her face, and she nodded. “Excellent.” She straightened her spine and adjusted her shoulder bag and the lapels of her suit jacket. She glanced over at Bruce, who wore slightly ill-fitting khaki slacks and a wrinkled purple button-down shirt. With his glasses and perpetually-rumpled salt-and-pepper curls, he looked every inch the long-suffering scientist he was playing. “Come along, Doctor.”

She blazed through the glass doors of Asgard and stalked through the lobby to the receptionist’s desk. The girl behind it was young, probably still in or just out of college, with long blonde hair and blue eyes hidden behind wire-framed glasses. She looked up at Natasha, clearly startled. “Um, hello! Welcome to Asgard Corporation. Where may I direct you?”

“Congresswoman Natalie Rushman, Illinois 13th Congressional District,” Natasha replied, her usual silky tones replaced with a slightly-nasal Midwestern accent. “I have a meeting with Mr. Laufeyson.”

The girl’s eyes went wide, and her pink mouth opened into a perfect ‘O.’ “Mrs. Rushman--”

“Congresswoman Rushman,” Natasha corrected sharply.

“Uh, yes, Congresswoman. I’m sorry.” Chastened, she glanced down at her computer screen and clicked the mouse a few times. “I’m very sorry, Congresswoman, but your meeting with Mr. Laufeyson was cancelled.”

Natasha smiled again at the girl, this time with much less warmth and much more threat. She glanced conspicuously at the nameplate, and leaned in, tapping her finger against the monitor. While the girl was distracted by her intimidation tactics, she pressed one of Tony’s bugs against the cable that connected the monitor to the computer, tapping the button that released a tiny needle to cut through the rubber covering and into the wiring. “Please, Beth,” she cajoled, stressing the name, “check again. I’m certain I would remember if this meeting had been cancelled.”

Swallowing visibly, Beth looked back to her monitor and took a full minute to check the email and calendar. “I’m not Mr. Laufeyson’s personal assistant, madam Congresswoman, so I didn’t personally send the email. I can call up to Lauren, see if she--”

“How about this instead,” she said. “You call Mr. Laufeyson and let him know that Congresswoman Natalie Rushman from the Energy and Commerce Committee is here, and I would really, really like a moment of his time. I won’t be long, I promise.”

Natasha almost felt sorry for the girl, whose mouth was gaping like a fish. She snapped it shut and nodded sharply. “I’ll just do that, then,” Beth babbled. “If you’ll give me a moment.”

Natasha stepped away from the desk, and she and Bruce pretended to study a list of donors to the Asgard Foundation emblazoned in bronze on the wall. “You in, Tony?” she asked.

“Oh yeah,” he replied. “I’m into the network, easy as pie. I’ve just added a confirmation email to Congresswoman Rushman’s office cancelling the meeting to Laufeyson’s assistant’s Sent box, she’s getting it...right now. And Lauren and Beth are both Googling you, shocker. I hope you don’t mind I played up your head bitch in charge reputation on a couple of news sites, you know, sell the con.”

Bruce smirked at her, and Natasha had to force herself not to roll her eyes. “And you just happened to have those articles already written, did you, Tony?”

Tony’s broad grin was audible in his voice. “Of course I did. I have all sorts of articles about all of you. A guy’s gotta have a hobby. Anyway, let’s see, Lauren is calling the bossman, probably to convince him that you are Not to Be Trifled With, and oh.” Tony paused, sounding concerned. “Loki has been spending most of his time in the top-secret research lab, which is, well, weird.”

Bruce shot Natasha a glance, and she shrugged. In an undertone, he asked, “Loki doesn’t have a science background, does he?”

“No,” Tony said, his tone distracted. “All business in college, though it looks like he was pretty into physics in high school. Won a couple of state-wide awards, talked to some of the bigwigs in the physics department at Harvard before he ended up in the Business program. JARVIS, do me a favor and start digging up more information on Laufeyson’s high school physics work.”

“Very good, sir,” the AI responded. Natasha still thought it was strange that Tony had wired it into their comm system, but it had come in handy more than once, so she no longer questioned it.

“So he was good at science, but chose not to pursue it.” Coulson hummed, obviously curious. “Which still doesn’t explain why he’s in the research department right now.”

“No it does not,” Tony mused. “Clint, can you and Steve get into that lab?”

“If I had a couple hours notice, sure. Right now? Nope.” The rush of the wind grew quieter; Natasha thought he probably turned away from it. “Those windows have more security on them, reflective coating, etc., because of possible corporate espionage. That’s where they keep all the fun toys, and I didn’t bring any of mine.” He sighed. “I wanted to, but Cap said no,” he pouted.

“We’ll just have to get in the old fashioned way,” Coulson said to Natasha.

“I’ll do my best, but if they’re not working on any government contracts in there, they won’t want us poking about,” she murmured, shooting a glance back to where the receptionist was worriedly talking on the phone.

“You guys have incoming,” Tony warned. “Loki just swiped his card to call the executive elevator. He’ll be on the main floor in thirty seconds.”

“Clint, don’t jump yet,” Phil cautioned. “Wait until Tasha confirms how long he’ll give us. I’m getting a weird feeling about this job.”

“I got a bad feeling about this job the moment I strapped into this harness,” Steve muttered, and next to her, Bruce stifled a laugh.

She ignored them both, schooling her face into Natalie Rushman’s cool, collected, and slightly intimidating expression. The elevator chimed and the doors slid open, framing their mark. Loki looked much like the photos from Tony’s briefing, though several years older. He wore a dark suit with a plain white french-cuffed shirt, and an emerald silk tie. His dark hair was long and slicked back from his face, and his skin was paler than in the photographs. He ignored the two of them and leaned over the desk to chat with Beth.

“He looks tired,” Bruce whispered, and Natasha had to agree. Loki had dark circles under his eyes, and his sharp cheekbones made him look almost gaunt, a far cry from his photos.

She filed the observation away as Loki came toward them, a smile on his face. “Congresswoman Rushman, Loki Laufeyson, CEO of Asgard Corporation,” he said as he offered her his hand. “I apologize, but I believe that I had cancelled our meeting.”

She shook his hand firmly, and pulled her fingers away without lingering. “You did,” she conceded. “However, my colleague here,” she gestured to Bruce, “is so rarely available, that I hoped you could spare a minute of your time anyway. May I introduce Dr. Ross Oppenheimer? He consults for the Committee when we can drag him away from his research.” Bruce and Loki shook hands, murmuring inane pleasantries.

Loki pressed his lips into a thin line, his entire body radiating his displeasure. “There was a reason I cancelled our meeting. I am up against a very tight deadline at the moment, Congresswoman, and I haven’t any time to spare. Every moment is critical.”

“Thirty minutes,” she offered with a bland smile. “I just want to ensure that things are going well with your government contracts.”

He raised one eyebrow minutely, clearly reading the implied threat in her words. “I see. Are you expecting... problems?”

“Of course not,” she answered, her voice smooth as glass. “Asgard Corp is very highly regarded in the halls of Congress. I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.” She met Loki’s eyes and tilted her head just slightly to the side.

After a moment of silence, he nodded. “May we adjourn to someplace a little less public?”

“Certainly,” she said, and heard Phil give Clint the go-ahead over the comms. Thirty minutes was more than enough time for him to get in and out of Loki’s office.

Loki led them to the elevator, and swiped his card to call it. As soon as the door shut on the three of them, he turned to her, his eyes narrowed. “Are you here to talk, or are you looking for visual confirmation that we’re spending the government’s money more wisely than it can?”

Natasha allowed herself a smile. “Can’t we do both?”

“I don’t care for threats, Congresswoman.”

“I don’t recall threatening you, Mr. Laufeyson,” she retorted, her voice steely.

The elevator dinged, and the doors opened onto one of the research levels. “Hmm. If you say so.” He led them into a lobby-like area with floor-to-ceiling windows. Inside, gloved and goggled lab techs hunched over tables. “This is one of our three clean rooms, and no one outside the company is allowed inside. You understand that?”

“Certainly,” she said, and beside her, Bruce nodded sagely.

He explained, in broad strokes, the type of work they were doing, helping to further miniaturize components for pacemakers and artificial hearts. Bruce was listening intently, and asking pertinent questions, so she allowed herself a mental step back to observe Loki. His voice was smooth and cultured and held the same hint of accent as his brother’s, but without the more formal inflection. He didn’t stumble over any of the medical or technical terms, and Natasha wondered how involved he was in the actual research; probably far more than any other CEO. His pale skin looked almost waxen in the fluorescent light coming from the clean room, and here, the bags she’d noticed in the lobby were even more prominent. His suit, a custom-tailored, high-end wool-blend, draped poorly across his shoulders, as if he’d lost several pounds since it was fitted to his already lanky frame.

Something wasn’t right.

“Mr. Laufeyson,” she interrupted, earning her a surprisingly sharp look from Bruce. Apparently they were getting along fabulously. “I’m actually most interested in your company’s work with green energy. And as that is the largest contract you have--”

“I’m afraid that’s impossible,” he said. “The project is in a very unstable phase at the moment; no one but the head scientist, Dr. Erik Selvig, and myself are allowed in the lab. Perhaps,” he added, his voice sharp, “if you had rescheduled your appointment, we could have chosen a more opportune time for you to see it.”

She smiled at the insult and tilted her head to the side as Steve’s voice came over the comms. “Hey guys,” he said, his tone serious, “I have something you’re gonna want to see.” Steve told them what he’d found, and only years of running cons kept the surprise from showing on her face. Tony swore loudly and fluently, and even Phil muttered some choice oaths before telling her what he wanted her to do.

Natasha nodded slowly, and caught Bruce’s eye. He was much less skilled at dissembling, and his unease was clear to see. “Of course, I understand completely.” She paused and took a breath. “Is that what he wants? In exchange?”

Loki tensed, his slim body coiled like a spring, and before she could react, he had her pinned against the wall, his forearm crushing her windpipe. He leaned in, his green eyes wide and wild, and growled, “Who the hell are you, and who sent you?”

--

“Ready, Cap?” Clint asked as he double-checked his own harness. They were standing on the very edge of the roof of Asgard Corporation’s headquarters, forty stories above Boston’s sidewalk. Over the comms, Steve could hear Natasha talking to Loki, negotiating a thirty-minute window for them to break in and get what they needed to find out what happened to Frigga Alfoder. He knew Clint could probably do it in ten, but thirty gave them a good cushion.

“Does it matter?”

Clint grinned. “Not really.” He turned serious for a moment. “You trust me, right?” Steve nodded, and Clint responded by checking Steve’s harness, tugging hard enough that he had to brace himself to keep from jerking forward. It was methodical and thorough, and the action served to slow Steve’s thundering heartbeat.

A few moments later, Phil’s voice was firm in his ear. “Barton, Captain. You’re up.”

“On it, boss,” Clint replied, and took a slow step backward, tugging Steve with him by the harness he was still holding. He winked, and Steve had no time to react before Clint flung the pair of them off the roof with a wild yell.

The fall was over almost as soon as it began, the pre-positioned brakes jerking them to an undignified stop outside Loki’s office window. By the time Steve managed to right himself, Clint had already positioned a suction cup lifter to Steve’s right. “You couldn’t have given me a warning?” he yelped, indignant.

“Mmm? Oh, that,” Clint said, dismissing his concerns with a wave of one hand while he swung over to the corner of the window and began placing small white discs along the edge of the pane. “You wouldn’t have jumped if I gave you some time to think about it. Sometimes you just have to trust your instincts, close your eyes, and leap.”

“Barton, did you just quote a musical at Steve?” Tony asked. “I didn’t know you listened to anything but hair bands.”

“Mmm,” Clint hummed as he pushed off and swung out to avoid hitting Steve. “Me, Nat, and Phil went to see Wicked on Broadway last month. The stunts were really cool.” Clint attached the other handle to Steve’s left, and Steve grabbed them tightly, thankful for the stability and the knowledge that this part was almost done. Clint placed several more of the white discs on the pane, then swung back until he was butted up against Steve’s side. He reached into the pocket of his black cargos and pulled out a small black box. “Remember, don’t lift, tilt.” Without anymore warning, he pressed the button.

An ominous hiss followed a series of pops as the tiny chemical explosives did their thing. Steve didn’t know exactly how they worked, but Clint had been ecstatic for weeks after Bruce and Tony perfected them. The glass vibrated under his hands, shivering as if it were working itself free of the frame, and after thirty seconds, Steve was supporting the full weight of the entire pane. Carefully, so as not to break the glass, he tilted the bottom inward as Clint released the braking mechanism an inch at a time. Soon enough, the glass was settled solidly on the floor of Loki’s office, and so was Steve. “We’re in,” he said, once he’d regained his breath.

Clint was already unhooked from the rope and had begun stalking around the office walls, sizing them up and muttering to himself. Steve leaned the glass against the wall and undid his own rope. Loki’s office was luxurious but understated, with dark wood walls and green wall-to-wall carpeting. Several paintings hung on the walls, ranging in style from renaissance to modern. One was obviously a Vermeer, and he thought the framed sketch looked like a Picasso. Steve shook his head; he wasn’t here to admire the art, gorgeous though it might be.

“Okay, I’ve got some access to his private computer,” Tony said over the comms, “but he’s got a couple ghost drives that I can see but not actually get into. You have one of my babies?”

Steve stifled the urge to roll his eyes at Tony. “I do.”

“Good. Try to put it somewhere out of the way; on the back of the tower if you can.”

Steve knelt down and frowned into the darkness under Loki’s desk. “Which tower?”

“Ooh, he has more than one?” Tony sounded gleeful. “Smart boy, almost as smart as me. One of those is probably only connected to his main computer, not the network,” he mused to himself. “Okay, bug both of them.”

Steve was nearly finished when he heard Clint sigh. He popped his head up to see their resident circus performer-turned thief staring lovingly at a wall safe that had been hidden behind a false panel. “Isn’t she a beauty, Cap?”

He raised a disbelieving eyebrow. “If you can get into it, yes. If not, no.”

Clint pouted and stroked the metal door. “It’s okay, baby, I appreciate you for you, not just what you can do for me,” he crooned to the safe.

“Barton.” Clint snapped upright at the sound of Phil’s voice over the comms. “Quit flirting with it and open it.”

“Jealous?” he quipped, grinning, but leaned in and pressed his ear to the door, his fingers skating over the dial.

Phil sighed, but Steve could hear the amusement in his voice as he said in a dry monotone, “I know your first love will always be the Murphy-Beyer model PRK-11-21; how could I possibly compete?”

“Well, I can think of a few ways--”

“Hey, hey, hey, this is a public channel, people, you wanna talk dirty, do it on your own time,” Tony said.

“If Pepper was on the line, you’d be saying far worse things,” Steve pointed out.

“And getting half as far,” Clint said, adding insult to injury.

Tony huffed. “Shut up, all of you, or I will make sure that the next time you put in your earpieces, you get the shock of a lifetime.”

“In!” Clint said, jubilant. The heavy door swung open on well-oiled hinges, and he reached in for a stack of papers that looked, to Steve’s eye, as if they’d recently been moved. “Cap, you go through these,” he said as he handed them over, his eyes glued to the neat stacks of cash and shiny baubles in the back of the safe. “I’ll, uh, check for any hidden compartments.”

Steve began sorting through the paperwork, unsure exactly what he was looking for. A sheet of paper with “Step 1 - Hire shady ex-employee to take out Mom & Dad; Step 2 - Get away clean”? He sorted them out, making one pile for financial records, and another for anything that looked like a diagram or chemical formula. About halfway down, he stopped, his blood running cold. “Fucking hell,” he breathed.

“Hey guys,” he said, swallowing back a wave of fury, “I have something you’re gonna want to see.”

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Clint said when he saw what Steve was holding. It was a Polaroid of Frigga Alfoder tied to a metal folding chair. One of her eyes was black and swollen nearly shut, and they’d stuffed a dirty rag in her mouth as a makeshift gag. Her arms were wrenched tightly behind her back, and a masked man tugged on her hair to hold her head up for the camera. Her clothes were bloody and dirty, though they seemed relatively intact. Another kidnapper held a copy of the Boston Herald in front of her chest.

“Someone kidnapped Frigga, and sent proof-of-life photo to Loki. It’s got today’s date on it and,” he said, shuffling through the stack to find a couple more, each with a different date, but all of the same scene, “it isn’t the first one. The first one in here is from Tuesday, and she’s not in good shape at all.”

“Son of a motherfucking cocksucking whore,” Tony muttered.

“Shit,” Phil agreed. There was a silent moment, then he said, “Tasha? We’re going to need his help to get her back.”

Steve held his breath as Natasha asked, “Is that what he wants? In exchange?”

The thud of her hitting the wall was loud over the comms, even as Loki’s voice was soft and distorted. “Who the hell are you, and who sent you?”

Steve wished he could see what happened next, because he never got tired of watching Natasha fight. It wasn’t long before the scuffling stopped. “We’re here to help,” she murmured, not even out of breath. “Your brother was worried.”

“I thought you looked too young to be a Congresswoman,” Loki spat, sounding strangled and out of breath. “And Thor’s an idiot.”

“Yet you’re the one pinned to the ground,” Bruce pointed out through clenched teeth. To say he had issues with violence against women was a vast understatement. “If you want help rescuing your mother, you would do well to listen to what we have to say.”

Several tense moments passed, until finally Loki relented. “Very well.. But not here.”

“No, not here,” Natasha replied. “We have a place.”

Chapter Text

Tony and Phil were already sitting at their usual table when the rest of the team, plus Loki, made it to the bar. Pepper took one look at the harnesses Clint and Steve were still wearing, Bruce’s murderous expression, Natasha’s mussed hair, and Loki’s black eye, and sighed. “Last call, ladies and gentleman,” she announced, turning away from them and addressing the rest of the bar. The handful of patrons who were holding down the fort in between happy hour and the evening groaned and started to argue.

Darcy snorted and slammed her palm onto the bar. Everyone turned to stare at her. “Hey! If you finish your drink in,” she paused and looked at her watch, “the next ninety seconds, it’s on the house. If you don’t, we’re still kicking you out, but you’ll be leaving it here AND paying double for it. Now hurry up and drink.”

The patrons grumbled a little more, but five minutes after the team had trooped in, they were the only people in the bar. Pepper switched off the neon open sign and turned to look at Phil, her lips pressed tightly together. “Am I going to have cops in my bar tonight?”

Phil shook his head, swirling the dregs of his coffee. “Doubtful. Unless our girl Darcy tased someone I don’t know about.”

“I haven’t tased anyone since you made me do my community service before letting Tony wipe my record. I learned my lesson,” Darcy said as she cleared the glasses off the two back tables, and dropped them off at the bar before returning with a full pot of coffee and a clean bar towel filled with ice. “And besides, the Douche deserved that and more.”

“You should have come to us first,” Bruce murmured as he settled into his seat, his hands clenching and unclenching rhythmically. “We would have helped you.” Phil watched him closely, noting how Bruce’s gaze kept flicking between Natasha, who was trying to wave off Clint’s not-subtle hovering, and where Loki sat, holding his head in his hands.

Darcy sighed and refilled Phil’s and Tony’s mugs and set the icepack down in front of Loki, who held it against his black eye with a quick, thankful smile. She set the carafe down and wiped her hands off on the towel tucked into her apron before running a hand lightly through Bruce’s mussed, salt-and-pepper curls. He relaxed into her touch and Phil let himself breathe a little easier. “Trust takes time,” she replied, her voice soft. “You, of all people, should understand. Besides,” she added, picking up the carafe and walking back toward the bar, “hurting him was good for my soul. Jump-started the healing process, if you will.”

Bruce sighed, but before he could say anything else, the front door opened with a slam, and everyone turned to look. Thor, his face flushed and breathing heavily, stood backlit by the streetlights, eyes wild and searching. His gaze stopped on Loki. “Brother. Loki,” he said, his voice breaking on the second word.

Loki looked up and dropped the ice pack, a mix of shock and happiness on his face. After a moment, he seemed to remember himself, and quickly schooled his expression into a blank mask. “Thor,” he offered blandly. “What are you doing here?”

“I called him while you were on your way,” Phil answered.

Loki pursed his lips. “Of course. I suppose he can’t screw anything up from here.”

Thor’s expression turned thunderous, and he stalked across the room. He gripped Loki by the shirtfront and dragged him out of his chair to press him bodily against the wall. “Why did you not tell me? Why did you not come to me for help? And what happened to your eye?”

Loki sneered, apparently unconcerned by his brother’s overt display of temper. “And what help could you do, hmm? Ask your doctor girlfriend to send some of her urchins to my aid? I rather think I could do better than that on my own. You forget, I have money and connections, while you are living on tinned meat in a hovel!”

“She is my mother, Loki. Our mother. I would do whatever is in my power to assure her safety, no matter whether I live in a mansion or a hovel!” Thor growled.

“And you think I would not?” Loki spat back, his face mere inches from Thor’s. “You think I would harm her in some childish quest for glory? What do you think I was doing when your ‘friends’ broke into my office and blackened my eye? Sitting on my hands waiting for you to ride in on a white horse and whisk us to safety? I was working myself sleepless to finish the damn Tesseract so I could get her back!”

Thor deflated and leaned in, closing his eyes and pressing his forehead against Loki’s. “It is Schmidt, then?”

“Who else?” Loki said, his anger replaced by despair.

“And Father?”

Loki huffed out a short, humorless laugh and pushed Thor away. Thor stumbled a little and sat heavily onto Loki’s vacated chair. “Your father is in good hands, though Schmidt’s men hurt him badly when they came to the house for Mother. When I arrived--” He paused and looked away. “He was beaten, Thor. Nearly to death. They took her, then they beat him and left him lying on the floor of their bedroom. It’s a miracle he is in a coma and not the morgue.”

“Where is he?” Phil asked, needing to take control of the conversation.

“Aesir Medical. It’s a private clinic that our family has used before, very expensive, and very discreet,” Loki said, sitting down next to Phil. “I checked him in under an assumed name.”

“Is he protected?”

Loki glared at Thor. “Of course. I insisted upon 24-hour guard. Schmidt meant to kill him, and whatever issues I have with Odin, I do not wish him dead.”

Phil nodded at Tony, who started typing away on his laptop. Pepper and Darcy, shaken out of their stunned silence, retreated quickly to Pepper’s office with the contents of the cash register, leaving the team and their clients alone. “What name did you use?” Tony asked.

Loki sighed. “John Wednesday.”

“Hmm,” Tony hummed, essentially tuning the out the rest of the room as he focused on his computer screen.

Clint narrowed his eyes at Loki and slumped into the seat next to Natasha, reaching out to twine a lock of her hair around his finger. Natasha rolled her eyes, but allowed the contact. Phil knew Clint would likely never forgive Loki for assaulting her, even though she easily came out the winner in that fight; Phil couldn’t say he disagreed. If the man hadn’t been so obviously distraught over his mother’s kidnapping, Phil would have hit Loki himself. “So,” Clint asked, “Johann Schmidt kidnapped your mother to force you to, what? Give him this... Tesseract? And what about the $2.6 million you paid him?”

“I should be surprised that you know who I am referring to, but I find I am not.” Loki sighed and shook his head. “I only paid him one hundred thousand dollars--hush money, to keep him from suing us over the Tesseract technology. The rest was stolen from my account; I didn’t realize it was gone until Monday, and by then, I was so worried about Mother that I wrote it off. And the Tesseract...” He paused. “Schmidt was the head researcher on the project when he worked at Asgard, but after Odin fired him, the project stalled. We hired a new researcher just a few months ago, Dr. Erik Selvig, and he’s starting to make new progress. Schmidt doesn’t just want us to give him what we have, he wants it operational.”

Steve frowned and drummed his fingers on the table. “Why does he need you to finish it? If he worked on the project before, couldn’t he just, I don’t know, build his own from scratch?”

“It’s not that simple. The Tesseract...” Loki glanced over at Thor, whose expression was studiously neutral. “The components needed to build it are very rare, and very expensive. Odin has been working on the project off-and-on for decades, and personally built most of the pieces himself. It would be nearly impossible to replicate the research outside of Asgard’s labs.”

A tense silence settled over the room for a moment. Bruce was the one who broke it. “We’ve been dancing around the big question since you started talking. What exactly is this Tesseract that Schmidt is so excited to get his hands on?”

Loki drummed his fingers on the table, not meeting anyone’s eyes. “It’s proprietary technology.” After a moment more of silence, he sighed, defeated. “Self-contained cold fusion. The power to fuel a city in a device the size of a coffeepot.”

Tony snorted, looking up from his laptop screen. “That’s impossible.” Loki turned toward him and their eyes met. “That’s impossible,” he repeated, though he sounded less convinced. “That’s...impossible,” he finally said, his voice shaky, “isn’t it?”

Loki shrugged. “It’s not operational yet. But we’re close. Very close.”

“Holy fucking shit,” Bruce breathed.

“Holy fucking shit,” Tony repeated, his tone near-reverent.

Clint crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair.. “Can someone please explain why Tony and Bruce look they’re about to jizz their pants?” Natasha snorted and flicked his ear. He smirked and swatted her hand away.

Bruce and Tony shared a silent look, and Bruce nodded. “Okay, in the interest of time, I’m going to simplify this immensely. Current nuclear plants use nuclear fission to generate energy,” Bruce said, slipping into his professor voice. “It’s the same theory that’s behind nuclear bombs: take uranium, plutonium, or another heavy, radioactive element, and shoot it with a high-speed neutron. The heavy atom’s nucleus splits into lighter elements, and releases kinetic energy, gamma radiation, and free neutrons--which continue to hit more nuclei, continuing the chain reaction. Power plants harness the kinetic energy as heat to run turbines, which in turn create electricity.”

Tony broke in at that point. “The ratio of fuel needed to energy produced makes this one of the most efficient way to produce energy, which is why it’s used on the space station and submarines--they can’t really stop to fill up on unleaded, and have to carry it all with them.”

Bruce nodded. “The drawbacks are pretty immense, though. Both the fuel and some of the byproducts generate long-term radioactivity. The big problem with nuclear power, as it stands now, is storage of the fuel rods and disposal of the waste.

“But fusion!” His eyes lit up and he smiled. “Fusion is what powers the sun and all the stars. If you take very light elements--hydrogen, usually--and slam their nuclei into one another fast enough, they will fuse into heavier elements--helium--and release a huge amount of energy. The benefits over fission are clear: hydrogen and helium are both inert gases, have no long-term radioactivity, and hydrogen is far more abundant and easier to obtain than uranium.

“The biggest hurdle scientists have is that hydrogen nuclei are so small and light, it’s impossible to aim one hydrogen atom at another with enough precision; the only way we’ve found to get them to fuse is to heat them up and let kinetic energy do it for us: thermonuclear fusion. But then you have the issue of how to contain something that is--literally--as hot as the surface of the sun. The plasma--the super-heated gas--melts or burns any solid surface it contacts. There’s been a lot of research into using magnetic fields to contain it, but nothing is yet ready for the market.”

Bruce looked around, gauging their reactions. Thor’s lips were pressed in a thin line, Loki and Tony were nodding along, while Clint, Steve, and Natasha all looked thoughtful. Phil took a drink of his coffee, and Bruce continued. “Cold fusion is pretty much the holy grail. If we could figure out an efficient method of nuclear fusion that doesn’t require heating the hydrogen into a plasma state, it would become the only energy source we need. No more fossil fuels, no more radioactive nuclear waste, no more loud, ugly wind turbines. Just nearly limitless, clean energy.”

“And that is what the Tesseract is,” Loki concluded. “It’s not market-ready, but we’ve gotten closer than anyone else. If we can perfect it, fossil fuels will go the way of the dinosaurs they’re made of.”

“And for this, Schmidt took our mother?” Thor asked. “To force you to finish his work?”

Loki nodded slowly. “At first, I thought it was a business rival. Asgard Corp has not reached the pinnacle of the business world by being nice; we have enemies, some with very deep pockets.” Loki paused and ran his fingers through his hair before meeting Phil’s eyes. “That’s why I checked him into Aesir in the first place; I didn’t want to spook the board or the shareholders, if this was a takeover or ploy of some sort.”

Phil leaned back and sipped his coffee. “When did Schmidt first contact you?”

“When I went out to meet the the men I hired to take Odin to Aesir, there was a plain manila envelope on the doorstep. It hadn’t been there when I first came in. It contained the first picture of Mother, and informed me that I had ten days to provide a working Tesseract, or that they would kill her.” He looked down at the table. “It also said no police, of course, or they would kill her. And that further instructions would be forthcoming.”

“Do you have the envelope? And the other photos?”

Loki nodded. “I had one of our scientists take a look at it, but they found nothing of any use. Common paper, common envelope. The only thing that was remotely interesting was that the letter was typed up on a manual typewriter.” He frowned. “Both the envelope and the first two photographs are in the lab on the thirty-ninth floor. After that, I decided to concentrate my energies on finishing the Tesseract, as the photographs were giving me no clues.”

“I’ve had JARVIS trawling property records for anywhere Schmidt might be keeping her,” Tony said. “If I could take a look at the envelopes and pictures, I could probably narrow it down.”

“Well,” Clint said, “we still haven’t answered the big question.”

Phil turned to him, one eyebrow raised. “And what’s the big question, Barton?”

Clint frowned. “You said that Schmidt doesn’t have the capabilities to replicate it, right?” Loki nodded. “So, he’s got two options: either he’s going to sell it or use it. If he were going to sell it, it figures he’s just after money, right? So why bother with the Tesseract at all? It’d be ten times easier to just kidnap Frigga, and hold her for a cash ransom. No need for any scientists to get involved, no one but Loki, Odin, and maybe a lawyer.”

Nodding slowly, Phil said, “That seems logical.”

“If we assume he’s not going to sell it, that means he’s going to use it. It’s a power source.” Clint paused and pursed his lips, “So, what’s he going to power with it?”

Everyone looked around the table in shock. “This is bigger than a kidnapped woman,” Steve said.

“I think you’re right, Captain,” Phil said. He glanced over at Natasha, who was worrying her bottom lip, a nervous tic she rarely indulged. She met his eyes and shrugged minutely. “Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. Steve, you and Natasha go to Aesir medical. Check out the security systems, the employees, the other patients--if Schmidt decides to kill Odin now, he’s a sitting duck.” They exchanged a look, and Steve nodded once. Phil turned to Tony. “Have you found any possible hideouts for Schmidt?”

He shrugged. “Maybe. The guy is practically a ghost; he pretty much dropped off the grid after he left Asgard. He doesn’t pay taxes, doesn’t have a cell phone, no utilities in his name, nothing. However,” he said, stalling Phil’s questioning, “there’s a warehouse down on the waterfront that’s owned by a shell company that I can sort of trace back to a company that Schmidt was part-owner of back in the 80s.” Tony shrugged. “It’s not perfect, but it’s a place to start.”

“Okay, Clint and I will go down to the warehouse, poke around, see what’s going on. Tony, keep looking into Schmidt’s life, see if there’s any other possibilities, but I want you and Bruce to go with Loki to Asgard, and see if you can get this Tesseract into some sort of working order.”

“You’re not seriously thinking of giving this terrorist what he wants, are you?” Thor asked, his expression dark.

Phil sighed, ready to explain, but it was Natasha who answered. “Thor. They didn’t blindfold her.”

He frowned. “I don’t understand what that has to do with anything.”

She licked her lips. “Listen, not all of us have been on the side of good our whole lives, okay? Before I took up with Clint and Phil, I did some bad things, some really bad things. That included kidnapping for ransom.” She paused and Phil reached over and touched a finger to the back of Natasha’s hand. She quirked up one side of her mouth in a tiny, thankful smile, then met Thor’s eyes steadily. “When a professional kidnapper intends to let their victim go, when they intend to accept the ransom in exchange, they always do everything they can to obscure their own identities. Blindfolds, windowless rooms, no television or radio--nothing that a freed victim can use to bring the police to their door.” Thor’s eyes widened slightly, and he leaned toward her. “These men are not careless amateurs. If they allowed your mother to see their faces, they are not planning on letting her go. They are planning to kill her.”

Loki looked away, and Phil saw the truth written on his face. “You knew,” he said softly.

“I assumed,” Loki corrected. “But, I... I had no other choice. I had to believe that if I delivered what he wanted, that he would allow her to live. I had no other choice,” he repeated.

Thor reached over to place a hand on his brother’s shoulder. Loki startled, but didn’t pull away. “We will make this right, brother,” he said. “Together, we will save her.”

“Yes, together, we will,” Phil said. “Thor, you go with Bruce, Tony, and Loki to Asgard. I don’t know if Schmidt has factored you into any plans he might have, but I’d rather you not be alone.”

Thor nodded. “I will go with them, but once you have located my mother, I wish to be involved in the rescue.” Phil opened his mouth to object, but Thor held up a hand. “I understand you may not think it for the best, but I insist. If she is harmed more because of my absence, I should never forgive myself.”

Phil sighed, but reluctantly nodded. “Fine. Steve, Natasha, be extra careful at the clinic. This just got a lot more interesting.”

“Same to you, sir,” Steve said. “Clint, you probably ought to take your bow, just in case.”

Clint grinned. “I like the way you think, Cap.”

Phil rolled his eyes, but didn’t dispute the order. Clint’s circus background had come in handy too many times for him to discount it in such a sticky situation. “Okay, gang. Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

Aesir Medical was thirty minutes outside the city, in a very posh, very exclusive suburb. Natasha drove, partially because she and the rest of the team always chided Steve for driving like an old man and time was of the essence tonight, but mostly because she wanted to take her black Spyder convertible and no one but she and Phil were allowed to touch her baby. Clint had taken it for a spin “around the block” once, and had vowed that he would rather jump off The Hancock without a harness than face Natasha’s wrath again. Steve didn’t ask for details.

It was full dark when they pulled into the parking lot. There were a few other cars scattered around, mostly sedans and minivans; Steve assumed they belonged to the staff. “Tasha,” he murmured, and pointed at a late-model black SUV that was nearly hidden in the back corner of the lot.

Natasha nodded and frowned. “I see it.”

“Could be a problem,” he said as he unbuckled and slid out of the car.

She snorted. “Could be? With the way this job is going, it almost certainly is.”

Steve couldn’t really argue with that, so he checked the safety on his side arm and shoved a spare magazine into the pocket of his leather motorcycle jacket. Natasha wasn’t wearing any visible weapons, but he wasn’t fooled. She probably had a half-dozen knives secreted on her person, plus the special bracelets that Tony and Bruce had created for her. Most people couldn’t tell by looking, but she was by far the more dangerous of the two of them.

Their footsteps echoed in the parking lot as they walked purposefully toward the front door. Steve noticed several cameras scattered on the outside of the building, some pointed toward the doors, others out at the lot. He wondered if they were picking up the SUV, or if it was out of their range. They stopped in front of the double glass doors and pressed the buzzer.

“Aesir Medical.” The woman on the intercom sounded bored and annoyed. “How can I help you?”

“We’re here to see a patient,” Steve said, putting as much charm into his voice as possible.

There was a slight pause, then the keypad next to the door beeped, and Steve glanced at it. “Please input the patient-specific code and press the pound sign.”

Natasha typed in the five-digit code Loki had given them, and the light turned from red to green. A loud buzzing accompanied the distinctive snick of a lock being opened, and Steve grabbed the handle quickly. He stepped back and allowed Natasha to precede him into a small, glass-walled antechamber. There was a second keypad inside that required a different code; she punched that one in as well, allowing them into the foyer of the clinic.

Steve looked around, trying to keep his jaw from dropping like just another poor kid from Brooklyn. The room looked absolutely nothing like any hospital, doctor’s office, or clinic he’d ever seen, and he’d seen more than his fair share--first as a sickly child, and then later, in the service, visiting his injured soldiers. The carpet was plush under his feet, a deep burgundy that positively screamed money. The walls were papered with a textured cream silk on the top and a forest green with brown stripe on the bottom, with dark wood trim in between. Landscapes in gilded frames hung every few feet, and crystal chandeliers, turned low in deference to the late hour, sparked and gave the room a warm glow. To the right, plush couches and chairs had been arranged to create several semi-private seating areas, while to the left was a check-in desk that looked more like it belonged in a hotel than a clinic.

The only concession to the medical nature of the building that Steve could see was a red medical call button near the desk and the scrubs the woman behind it wore. Natasha took his elbow and steered him toward the desk, a smile plastered on her face. Steve quickly followed suit. “Hello, we’re here to see John Wednesday,” she said, her accent a perfect replica of Loki’s and Thor’s.

The receptionist frowned at them. “We do discourage late-night visits with our guests,” she said, emphasizing the last word. Steve figured that if he was paying tens of thousands of dollars a day, he would probably insist that he was a “guest” as well. “It would really be best if you came back in the morning,” she added, pointedly.

Natasha just continued to smile at her, not intimidated in the slightest. Finally she sighed and looked down at her computer screen. “Mr. Wednesday is in the green wing, room seventeen. Take a left out of the foyer, then your second right past the nurses station.”

After thanking her, the two of them made their way through the quiet corridors. Once they left the entrance, it was more obvious that the building was meant as a medical facility. The carpet gave way to white tile, the chandeliers to the greenish hue of industrial fluorescents, and the luxurious wallpaper was replaced by light blue plaster. However, instead of the usual hustle of a busy hospital, the corridors were silent and deserted.

“Cheery, isn’t it?” he murmured. Natasha rolled her eyes, but he could see the edge of her lips quirk up.

They were less than ten feet from the oddly-empty nurses station when Steve heard heavy footsteps. Steve drew his sidearm and took point, motioning to Natasha to stay behind him. She nodded, a pistol in one hand, and a wicked-looking blade in the other. Steve edged around the corner, and spotted a pair of black-clad men entering a room. From his current position, he couldn’t tell if it was room seventeen or not, but he’d bet even money it was.

He wordlessly signaled their number and position to Natasha and crept hurriedly down the hall. Two chairs were positioned on either side of the door, both empty. The guards Loki had placed were gone--dead or paid off, the result was the same. The thugs had shut the door behind him, and Steve waited until Natasha was in position on the hinge side of the door before slamming it open.

The sound of the solid wood door hitting the wall behind it echoed loudly through the hallway and startled the would-be assassins. One was holding a pillow to Odin’s face; Steve trained his gun on him. Natasha ducked under his extended arm and slashed at the other man’s leg with her knife. He yelped in pain, and tried to wrestle the blade away from her, while Steve vaulted the bed and tackled the other man.

The thug had discarded the pillow and drawn a semi-automatic pistol, which was a mistake. Steve dropped his own gun and bent the assassin’s wrist backward while jamming a knee into his gut until he released the pistol. His opponent punched him hard in the kidney, causing Steve to grunt with pain. The man wasn’t an amatuer, Steve thought wryly, as he wrenched his arm backward in a submission hold. Steve could feel the bones grinding under his hand, but the man didn’t give up, twisting his body like a snake until he was free of Steve’s grasp.

“You will not win, soldier,” the man grunted as he brought his fist down on the back of Steve’s head. Steve rolled with the punch, taking most of the sting out of it, and elbowed the man in the groin, eliciting a pained gasp. While he was distracted, Steve yanked a power cord out of the wall, heedless of the frantic beeping and the conversation between Tony, Bruce, and Phil over the comms.

“We won’t win, huh?” He maneuvered until he was lying on his back with the man half on top of him. Steve gripped him tightly around the middle with his legs, partially immobilizing him, and wrapped the cord around the man’s neck. “What does Hydra want with the Tesseract?” he asked, yanking the cord taut.

The man squirmed and gurgled as Steve cut off his air supply. When he was nearly unconscious, Steve let up and repeated the question. “Hydra’s mission is of more importance than my life!” he gasped in answer.

Grimly, Steve asked, “Is that so?” and squeezed tighter. From the other side of Odin’s bed, he could hear Natasha still scuffling with the other thug. “Tasha, you doing alright?”

She laughed, a high, joyful sound that was at odds with the pained noises her opponent was making. “Oh, Cap, I could do this all day. He’s hardly a challenge.”

Steve let up the pressure on the cord again. “Tell me, what do you want with the Tesseract!”

The man coughed and tried to twist until he could attack Steve again, but a quick jerk of the cord stopped that in its tracks. “We will show this depraved country a better world,” he choked out.

The distinctive sound of a skull meeting tile cut off the other man’s whines. “Bullshit,” Natasha said. “You think technology makes the world evil? You know absolutely nothing of evil,” she hissed as she stepped around the foot of Odin’s bed and came into view. She was barely breathing hard, her mussed hair and a few drops of blood on her pale face the only indications she’s just beaten a man senseless.

The Hydra goon bared his teeth at her. “American who--”

Steve cut off the man’s word with a quick squeeze. “Now, it’s not polite to speak to a lady that way. If you’re not going to apologize, I’m not going to let you speak.”

Natasha grinned down at them, and drew her semiautomatic, aiming it at the man. “And, besides, I’m Russian.”

“You won’t shoot me. You could injure your--AH!” His scream of pain was drowned out by the echo of the gunshot in the small room. The stunned man looked down at the red stain that was spreading across his knee.

“There are many other places I can aim that will not hurt my partner,” she said, her voice no longer amused, but hard and angry. “Would you like to answer his question?”

Grimacing in pain, the man glared up at Natasha. “Your way of life is coming to an end, harlot. You would do well to remember that.”

She arched an eyebrow. “My way of life? What do you know of my way of life? Are we Facebook friends and I forgot?”

He laughed, more hysterical than amused. “You people, you have everything controlled by computers. Your cars, your cell phones, your homes, even your weapons. You are slaves to the technology you created.”

“And you’re going to, what? Set us free?” Natasha’s voice positively dripped scorn and derision.

The man just smiled with bloody teeth. “Yes. Free to live unfettered by the bonds of your technology, free to live as God intended.”

“God has nothing to do with it,” Steve growled, digging his heel into the man’s wounded knee. He screamed and arched up, nearly dislodging himself from Steve’s grasp. “People like you need something to justify your hate.”

“You will soon live as the peasants you are, and those of us who can see the truth will rule you,” he gasped, his face white with pain. “And when your society has crumbled, I will find you both, and I will punish you for this affront! Hydra’s day is coming! We will soon be victorious!”

“Well, that day is not today,” Steve said, tightening the cord until the man went limp. He held it for a few more seconds, then rolled the now-unconscious and bleeding attacker to the side and wriggled out from under him.

Natasha offered him a hand and tugged him to his feet. “Is he dead?”

He frowned and knelt, checking for a pulse on the man’s neck. It was thready and weak, but definitely there. “No, he’s alive. Yours?”

She sighed. “He’s just out, though he probably has a concussion. More’s the pity; I really dislike those who go after the defenseless,” she added, her voice dripping scorn.

“Yeah, me too,” he said, eyeing the spreading pool of blood under the man’s knee. “I appreciate you not shooting me, too.”

“Getting shot in the knee is very painful but rarely fatal,” she pointed out, slipping her gun into its holster at the small of her back, where her jacket hid it from view. “I’m glad you weren’t in the way.”

“In the way,” he repeated slowly. “Would you have shot him even if I had been?”

She shrugged, but he could see the side of her mouth quirking up and the amused sparkle in her eye. “Probably not.”

He nodded. “Probably not. Good to know where I rate on your must-not-shoot list: just a few steps above a murderous terrorist.” Steve said as he ripped the end of the cord out of the machine and used it to tie the man’s hands behind his back. “You know,” he mused, “there’s absolutely no reason for a whole shift of doctors, nurses, and guards to all be missing; they were probably paid off.”

Natasha looked at Odin, lying still on the bed. His face was bruised and battered, and he had a gauze patch taped over one eye. His right arm was in a cast, while his left was bandaged but not broken. He was breathing on his own, and seemed blithely unconcerned by his near-miss with death. “Well, we can’t leave him here,” she said.

“Should have taken the van,” Steve replied, drawing a nasty look from Natasha. “What? He’s not going to fit in your backseat easily.”

She rolled her eyes. “There’s an emergency exit just down the hall. I’ll pull the car around.” She didn’t wait for an answer, just stalked off, leaving Steve alone with three unconscious people.

He sighed. “Hey, Phil,” he said, getting the other man’s attention over the comms, “we’re bringing Odin back to your apartment.”

“I caught that,” he replied, his voice hushed. “Those guys seemed pretty sure that their perfect technology-free world is coming up really soon, didn’t they?”

Steve dragged Natasha’s attacker around the bed and tossed him roughly on top of his companion before carefully unhooking the IV bag from its stand and laying the pouch next to Odin on the bed. “Yeah. You have any idea what that means?”

Phil sounded grim. “Yeah. I have an idea.”

---

Phil had never really cared for the wharf. He didn’t mind the beach, but by the waterfront, the scent of the sea was always overpowered by the stench of rotting fish and diesel. Tonight, though, he had to suffer through it, as he and Clint cased the warehouse Tony thought was Schmidt’s base.

“Looks deserted to me,” Clint observed, rubbing his thumb absently over the handle of his bow-case. It was disguised as an ancient guitar case, one that didn’t look out of place being carried by a guy in dark jeans and a battered leather jacket. Phil was dressed similarly, and had a pair of drumsticks in the back pocket of his jeans; together they could pass for a couple of blue-collar musicians on their way to or from a gig. As disguises went, it wasn’t perfect, but it was better than nothing.

Clint was right; the place looked derelict and unused. Too derelict, Phil thought. Most of the empty buildings in this area were inhabited by addicts and drifters, especially if the roof was more-or-less intact, as this one’s seemed to be. But here there were no signs of life, only the movement of plastic sheeting fluttering in the drafts caused by broken windows. The rusted side door hung awkwardly on squeaking hinges, but the large garage door was intact and new, though it was covered with graffiti. The spray painted tags looked authentic from several blocks away, but once they got closer, Phil could tell the graffiti was fresh. The narrow streets were clear of cars and garbage, as if primed for a quick getaway. “You know, I think this is the place.”

“Yeah,” Clint said slowly. “I think you may be right. If they have her here, there’s probably an interior office or maybe a basement, away from windows.”

“Right. I’m going to need you to get eyes up high, keep watch while I look around.”

“On it, boss,” Clint said, and started toward a building across the street and kitty-corner to their target building. Phil watched as he slung the case over his shoulder and onto his back before jumping straight up and grabbing onto the bottom rung of the metal fire escape. Within thirty seconds, he was halfway up to the roof, and Phil turned away to plan his own infiltration.

He took a slow ramble around the block, his steps slightly uneven, giving the impression that he was drunk. The alleys seemed normal, full of rodents and dumpsters, but were empty of the streetwalkers and transients that he knew frequented this area. He and Clint had passed several people on their walk from where he’d parked the SUV, but they’d thinned out the closer they got to the building, until now, when there was no one but the two of them.

Fifteen minutes later, he’d circled back to the building Clint was perched on. “Talk to me, Barton,” he murmured as he stepped back into the shadows.

The electronic crackle of the comms was loud in the silence of the night. “If I didn’t know what I was looking for, sir, I’d think the place was empty. These guys are good,” he said. “There are a couple lights on deep in the interior. They’ve built fake walls a few feet inside the windows to hide it--clever--but from up here, I can see over them.”

“How many?”

Clint sighed. “I can’t tell. They’re definitely moving in a pattern, though; I’m guessing they’re guarding something.”

“Frigga Alfoder,” Phil surmised. “And whatever they want the Tesseract for. Cameras?”

He could hear the frown in Clint’s voice when he answered, “No. None that I can see. There’s a couple of brackets that look like they used to support one, but they’re rusted out.”

“Well, Hydra is an anti-technology cult. It could be that they want to keep their base free of the, uh, ‘taint’.”

Clint snorted. “Yeah. But Tony said they were computer-literate at least. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Phil nodded, eyes on one of the front windows. “I know what you mean.” They were both silent for several minutes, during which they saw more movement inside. “So, if they’re anti-technology, why do they want something as advanced as the Tesseract?”

He knew Clint well enough to picture his shrug before he answered. “Crazy is as crazy does, sir.”

“Yeah,” he answered slowly. A grinding noise drew his attention back to the building. “Barton, what are you seeing?”

“There’s a lot of movement inside. Door’s coming up,” he said.

“You got your bow out?”

Clint huffed in annoyance. “Of course.”

Phil rolled his eyes. “You have one of Tony’s bug arrows in your goody bag?”

“I like how you think, sir.”

“If you shoot just one--”

“I know. How many do you want?”

Phil watched as the garage door rose, and a large, older van rumbled out. “As many as you can fire before that door closes.”

As soon as the words left his mouth, Barton let loose with several arrows. The men inside the warehouse started yelling and scrambling for cover from the hail of arrows that were suddenly buried in the sides of the metal van and the steel door. Phil couldn’t tell which one was the bugged arrow, but he trusted Clint to aim it somewhere it wouldn’t be easily found or removed.

“Okay, I think they figured out where I am,” Clint said over the comms, and Phil could hear him collapsing his bow and putting it in its case. No matter how dangerous the situation, he would never leave his weapon.

“You need cover fire?” Phil had already drawn his sidearm, watching as the men aimed automatic weapons up toward the roof Clint had fired from.

“Nah, I’m already a block away,” he said, breathing hard. “Love it when buildings are, ah, close together!”

Phil couldn’t stifle his smile as he backed away, keeping his eye on the men with guns. “Meet you at the truck,” he murmured.

Fifteen minutes later, after ducking into and out of several alleys to ensure he wasn’t being followed, he spotted Clint, lounging on the hood of the SUV, a self-satisfied smirk on his face. “Took you long enough,” he said as they climbed in.

Phil started the engine and pulled out of the spot. “Not all of us are well-versed in parkour, Barton. Some of us mere mortals have to hide in alleyways from jack-booted thugs with guns.”

“Never thought I’d see the day you’d be hiding from jack-booted thugs, Phil,” Clint said with a grin.

“Only for the job.” The rode in silence as Phil navigated the traffic on the way back to the pub and his apartment. “Where’d you end up putting the bug?”

“Shot it into the joint of the rafters. They were so busy with the rest of them, they didn’t even notice it flying overhead.”

“Good.” He put on his blinker and pulled into the small parking lot behind the bar. “Stark, you got ears in the warehouse?”

“Mm-hmm, I do,” Tony said over the comms. “Uh, they’re talking about the package--probably the Tesseract--someone’s getting yelled at about Barton’s Robin Hood impression...” He trailed off. “Yeah, they’ve got Frigga inside. I can’t see her, the video feed is pointed the other way, but-- Oh, fuck.”

Phil shut off the engine and stilled. “Oh, fuck, what, Stark?”

“This is not good. Banner, tell me this isn’t what it sounds like,” Tony said.

There was a shuffling as Bruce and Tony conferred. “Oh, fuck,” Bruce repeated. “Phil, this is a problem. A big one.”

“Well, what is it?”

“They have an EMP device that’s big enough to take out half the East Coast.”

The silence that stretched after Tony dropped that bomb was interrupted only by the sound of Natasha and Steve fighting on the other end of the comms.

“That’s what they need the Tesseract for,” Bruce murmured. “As soon as they turn that thing on, it’ll short out the computers that run the power plants. Without a protected, external power source, it’d be nothing but a blip centered in Boston. With the Tesseract to run it, they could take out Boston, New York, New Jersey, maybe all the way down to DC and Baltimore. It would be catastrophic.”

Phil turned and met Clint’s eyes, seeing his own fear and panic mirrored there. “Hospitals, banks, police stations, government buildings, communications--everything would go down. It’d be anarchy.”

Clint swallowed, eyes wide. “That’s probably what they’re going for, sir.”

The sat in silence for several more minutes, listening to Steve and Natasha interrogate the would-be assassins. Finally, Steve said, “Hey, Phil, we’re bringing Odin back to your apartment.”

“I caught that,” he replied, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “Those guys seemed pretty sure that their perfect technology-free world is coming up really soon, didn’t they?”

Steve grunted. “Yeah. You have any idea what that means?”

“Yeah. I have an idea.” He swallowed. “Meet us back at the apartment. I need to make a call,” he said, emphasizing the word call.

Clint shot him a wide-eyed look. “You’re calling him? After what happened last time? He tried to put you in prison, Phil! He tried to put all of us in prison! Hell, he’s still trying to put us in prison! Can you even trust him?”

Phil sighed. “No. I can’t trust him to do what I ask him to. I can’t trust him to help us, not even for old times’ sake.” When Clint started to interrupt, Phil raised a hand to quiet him. “What I can trust is that Fury’s a paranoid bastard, and we’re going to make that work for us for once. Stark? Banner? Listen up.” He quickly outlined his plan. “I need you to finish up there ASAP, and get back to the bar. I won’t make the call until you get back.”

Tony let out a long, shuddering breath. When he spoke again, he sounded worried and lost. “You sure it will work, boss?”

Clint reached across the console and grabbed Phil’s hand, squeezing reassuringly. “I hope so,” Phil said.

Chapter Text

Phil adjusted his earpiece and leaned back against the brick wall of the building across the street from their target, scuffing the toe of his shoe on the sidewalk. He wore an older brown overcoat that was a touch too heavy for the late spring evening in order to hide his gun, and a pair of aviators that disguised his intense interest in the back of a seemingly abandoned warehouse. He glanced around surreptitiously, making sure he was still alone, then went back to watching the back door of the building. “Barton, talk to me. What do you see?”

“One sniper, fifth floor, third window from the right of the red brick building, just where I said he’d be,” Clint said, the rush of wind over the comms muffling some of the sharper sounds. “Looks like an older rifle, nothing high-tech. Don’t see anyone else up high. No cameras, but we knew that. Foot patrol every fifteen minutes, dressed like civilians, but they walk like military. Looks like the same two guys walking the same route each time.”

“Are they going to be a problem?” Phil asked, frowning.

Natasha answered, her voice hushed. “They have radios, but they’re not doing regular check-ins from what I can tell. Once we take them out, it’ll be at least twenty minutes before they’re missed. Amateurs,” she added in a scathing undertone. Thor, who had insisted on coming over Phil's repeated objections, and Steve muttered an agreement.

Phil smiled, though no one could see him. “The planning may be amateaur, but their fighting style was not, don’t forget. Dr. Banner, how are you and Loki doing?”

“We have the package, and are about ten minutes out. Loki is...”

“Fully ready to answer for himself. And I am ready to retrieve my mother from these idiots,” Loki snapped, interrupting Bruce. “And wreak vengeance upon Schmidt for taking her in the first place."

Bruce sighed. “We’ll be approaching from the west.”

“We are both ready to rescue Mother,” Thor spat, his voice hard. Even after Phil had agreed to let Thor help, it had taken the team a very long time to convince him that rushing in headlong to snatch Frigga away from Schmidt was actually the best way to get her killed. It was Loki who had persuaded Thor that Phil was right, in a scathing tirade that had shocked everyone. At the end of it, Thor had meekly agreed with Phil's plan, and Phil's own estimation of Loki had inched upward. He had teamed Thor up with Steve and Natasha, who were acting as muscle this time around, and hoped that the man could take out some of his aggression on the guards.

“Everyone in position?” The whole team replied in the affirmative: Tony from Phil’s apartment; Clint from the roof of the sniper’s building; Thor, Steve, and Natasha from the alley that backed up to Schmidt’s warehouse; and Bruce and Loki from the van carrying the Tesseract. “Okay, Barton, take out the sniper. Cap, Natasha, Thor, you’re up.”

He pulled out a small cell phone from the pocket of his coat and powered it up, dialing a number he’d memorized years before. It rang twice before the other party picked up with a barked, “Fury.”

Phil smiled. “Hello, Nick. Long time no see.”

--

Steve nodded as Phil gave them the go ahead, and signaled to Natasha and Thor. They’d discussed their plan before, and though Steve was a little wary of allowing their untrained client loose on a couple of thugs, Thor had insisted. Steve had to admit, the plan was almost elegant in its simplicity. He just hoped Phil and Clint didn’t actually kill him for his part in it. He liked all his limbs where they were, thank you.

Natasha looked at her watch, and counted down silently. Sixty seconds before they expected the guards to pass them, she grabbed Steve’s arm and the pair of them stumbled out of the alleyway, clinging to one another and giggling drunkenly. Completely ignoring the two men, Steve twirled Natasha around until she was back against the brick wall of the building, and grabbed her ass with both hands, drawing a not-entirely feigned gasp of surprise. He grinned and leaned down to kiss her, slanting his mouth over hers. “Mmm, girl,” he mumbled against her lips, loud enough that the goons could hear, and completely ignoring Clint’s outraged squawk over the comms.

“Hey, you two! Get a room,” one of the thugs called out, stomping toward them. Steve ignored him in favor of rubbing his cheek against Natasha’s while he thumbed the gun at her hip, ready to draw it if necessary. He could feel the warm metal of the blade at her wrist caress the skin at the back of his neck as she shook it loose of its sheath under the guise of running her hands through his hair.

A loud thud and its accompanying shout caused the pair of them to break apart and whirl on Schimdt’s men. One was already on the ground, groaning and bleeding from the head. Thor was laughing as he grappled with the other for control of his gun, a bloody hammer in one hand. “Speaking of amateurs,” she muttered, low enough that Thor couldn't hear as she pinched the bridge of her nose in annoyance. Then, raising her voice, she instructed, "Don’t kill him. We need them all alive."

Thor nodded, and with that same bloodthirsty smile on his face, wrenched his hand hard enough to snap the man’s wrist. The goon howled in pain and dropped to his knees, where it was easy for Thor to knee him hard in the face. He crumpled to the side, blood spouting from his nose, and the gun clattered to the ground.

Steve kicked it out of the way, and knelt to check the first man’s pulse. “Tasha, grab the rope,” he said. Between the three of them, they tied up the two guards and dragged them back into the alley, hiding their prone forms behind the dumpster. Thor wiped his bloody hands on one of their shirts while Natasha disarmed them both. All told, it had taken less than two minutes.

“Clear here,” Steve said after they were done.

“What the hell was that, Rogers?” Clint yelled, and Steve and Thor both winced at the volume. “You just decided to mack on--”

“That, Barton,” Natasha snapped back, “was an excellent plan, which I approved, and since I’m an adult, I have that right. And it worked just fine, so put on your big boy panties and get over it.”

“We’ll discuss how you chose not to run your ‘excellent plan’ by your team first when this job is over, Natasha,” Phil said tightly. Clint muttered petulantly, and Natasha rolled her eyes, but they didn’t argue any further. “We can’t get distracted right now. I’ve made the call, so we’re officially on the clock. Stark, how long before he traces the phone’s location?”

“Given the government’s outdated software, and the fact that none of their techs are a genius like yours truly, you have,” he paused, humming to himself, “a little more than half an hour.”

“More than enough time,” he said. “Barton, report.”

“Sniper is down, sir. I have, uh, reappropriated his nest, and have eyes on Loki and Banner,” he said, his tone fully professional. “They’re about three minutes out.”

“Okay. Steve, Natasha, I need you to get in the warehouse from the side door. Take out as many as you can, but silently. Do not get caught,” he said. “Loki and Banner will be coming in the front, and Schmidt will have Frigga with him there. Thor, are you listening?”

He glanced over to Steve before answering. Steve just shrugged. “Yes, Coulson, I am listening.”

“I think it would be better for everyone if you sat this part out. Before you argue,” Phil said, cutting Thor off, “these men have had your mother for a week now. We know she’s alive, but we don’t know exactly what sort of conditions she’s been living in. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Thor nodded. “You’re saying that I will see things I would rather not see. That these men have hurt my mother.”

“Exactly.” Phil sighed. “And if you go after one of them, tip our hand... If you’re going in, you have to trust that I know what I’m doing, and that I have your mother’s safety at the forefront of my mind. Do you trust me?”

The only sound was the vaguely electronic crackle of the comms as Thor considered. “I trust you. I do not like staying my hand when it is my mother’s safety at stake, but I will follow your orders.”

Steve let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding and Natasha shot him a pleased smile. “Good,” Phil said. “Now remember, don’t get caught. I don’t want anything to distract Schmidt from Loki and Bruce. And for god’s sake,” he added, his tone exasperated, “don’t kill anyone.”

“We’re pulling up right now,” Bruce cut in.

Natasha was already making her way toward the side entrance of the warehouse. “We’ll see you inside,” she said, and Steve sent a brief prayer heavenward. They needed all the help they could get.

--

Bruce glanced over to where Loki sat stiffly in the passenger seat, hugging his briefcase to his chest. His expression was stony, betraying nothing. “We’re going to get her back, Mr. Laufeyson. This team, um, we’re very good at what we do.”

He nodded, but wouldn’t meet Bruce’s eyes. “I’m sure you are. And perhaps I would be more confident if my mother’s life wasn’t at stake. This whole plan of yours... It’s mad. It’s completely insane. There’s too much that can go wrong.”

Bruce sighed. “I know, it’s hard to trust us. But Phil--he knows people. He reads people, that’s his thing. And I, I trust him with my life.”

Loki scoffed. “You trust him with your life? That’s rich, coming from a wanted criminal.”

“Not all of the team came from a glamourous life of crime, Mr. Laufeyson,” he retorted, slowing down and switching on his turn signal. “I wasn’t a criminal until the government made me one. I was a well-respected scientist until the research I'd worked on for years caught the interest of the wrong type of people. All Phil would have to do is drop my name in someone's ear, and he’d get a full pardon and enough money to buy a small island. As I said, I literally trust him with my life on a daily basis. I’m not saying you have to take my word for it, but even if you don’t, remember that we also have a vested interest in making sure every computer on the East Coast doesn’t go down at once.”

Loki didn’t respond immediately, waiting until they were nearly to the warehouse before he spoke. “Why are you trusting me with this?” he asks, his voice soft enough that the others couldn’t hear him over the comms. “I’ve no reason to keep your secrets after my mother is safe.”

“You’re trusting us with one of the most important people in your life,” Bruce said, his voice very serious.

“Besides,” Tony piped up, his voice echoing tinnily through both his and Loki’s earpieces, "if I even hear a whisper that you’ve sold Bruce out, I will personally destroy you and take your company apart brick by brick until it’s nothing but rubble and bad memories.”

“Tony--”

“No, no,” Loki said, waving off Bruce’s objection. “I understand his threats more than I understand your sentimentality, Dr. Banner. Perhaps when this is over,” he added, his tone sly, “I can work off my debt to you and your friends by providing you with some information on a mutual enemy.”

Bruce could almost hear the wheels turning in Tony’s head. “Stane,” he said, his voice just above a whisper.

“Even so,” Loki said, a smirk on his face. “He has been a thorn in my company’s side for far too long. Watching him brought low by the very person he thought too stupid to run SI... Ah, the delicious irony.”

“I think we can discuss this afterward,” Tony said, his voice slightly strained. Bruce heard the longing in his words, and prayed that Loki was serious. If he wasn’t, he might have to hurt the man himself, to punish him for getting Tony’s hopes up.

Bruce straightened up as he pulled onto the correct street. “Call him,” he directed Loki, who was already dialing the number Schmidt had given him. “We’re pulling up right now,” he said for the benefit of the rest of the team.

“We’ll see you inside,” Natasha said in his ear.

The garage bay door creaked to life and he jumped, his heart thundering in his chest. “He says to pull in,” Loki murmured.

“Make sure to keep a hold of the briefcase,” he whispered back, before easing the van up the drive and into the building. “Do you have your switch?” Loki nodded and patted his breast pocket.

Having spent the last eighteen hours watching the warehouse, its layout wasn’t a surprise to Bruce. It was a large, mostly open space, with solid concrete floors and a cinder-block foundation. About six feet up, the weathered cinder-block gave way to red brick and square-paned windows. Some enterprising soul had stapled clear plastic over a handful of the broken panes, but most were boarded up with plywood and scrap wood. The rafters were rusted steel, held up by concrete and brick pillars, and Bruce forced himself not to glance up to where Clint’s camera-arrow was still lodged and broadcasting to Tony’s command center.

He shut off the van’s engine, and they were immediately swarmed by six of Schmidt’s men who yanked the doors open, guns trained on Bruce and Loki. Bruce raised his hands to show he was unarmed, and deliberately stumbled a little as they dragged him out of the van and onto the dirty warehouse floor. Two of the men took his arms, while the third prodded him from behind with the gun, directing him to where Schmidt was standing backed by four men in para-military fatigues. Each held an automatic weapon, but that sight wasn’t was gave Bruce pause.

In their nearly day-long surveillance, the camera had not caught a glimpse of Schmidt’s face. He’d worn a red bandana over his nose and mouth, presumably to filter out the air in the warehouse, or to hide his own identity from his own men. Now, the cloth hung loose around his neck, and Bruce saw the real reason Schmidt hid his face.

The bottom half of his face was covered in such extensive scarring that Bruce was honestly surprised the man could speak. His chin, which had been prominent in the photo from years before, was nearly gone, covered with ruined skin that dripped and flowed like melted wax. The tip of his nose was simply gone, and his scarred lips were twisted back in a permanent grimace. Apparently, the bomb in Vienna had taken out more than just the dam. “Good evening, gentlemen,” he said, his German accent heavier than Bruce expected. “I understand you have something I need.”

Loki, like Bruce, was flanked by three armed men. He clutched the briefcase tightly in one hand, the switch in the other. “And I believe you have something I need as well.”

“Ah,” Schmidt said, twisting his face up in a macabre expression of delight. “Indeed I do. Hans, please, bring me the prisoner.” One of the four men behind Schmidt nodded and turned toward the small office near the center of the warehouse. He unlocked it and opened the door, cursing softly in German. Bruce heard a soft scuffle that ended with a meaty thud. He clenched his fists and began to count in Hindi, trying to calm the rage that was bubbling up inside him as the thug dragged a bound and gagged Frigga into the open.

Her blonde hair was dark with sweat and blood, and both her eyes had been blackened at some point in the last week; one had already begun to yellow as it healed, while the other was dark and purple. A smear of blood trickled down from her lip where she’d been hit recently. She was still wearing the dress she’d been taken in, and while it was obviously dirty and ripped, it was mostly intact. Bruce breathed a small sigh of relief at that; she probably hadn’t been sexually assaulted. He thanked God for small mercies.

He glanced over at Loki; besides a tension in his jaw, the man looked unaffected by the sight of his mother, beaten and bloody. “I believe you promised that she would be in good condition. That,” he said, tone as flat as if he were discussing a car rather than a human being, “is not what I consider ‘good condition,’ Dr. Schmidt.”

Schmidt smiled, or what passed for a smile with his ruined face, while Frigga whined softly. “Ah, so sorry. She was, um, recalcitrant.”

“Mmm,” Loki said, nodding. “She can be quite stubborn,” he agreed, pointedly not looking at her.

“So, my merchandise?” Loki moved to hand him the briefcase, but was stopped by a thug. Schmidt shook his head. “Slide it to me, if you would.”

Loki nodded, and knelt, setting it flat on the ground and sliding it over. As he stood, he looked at Bruce, who nodded. “And Frigga?”

A harsh laugh that Bruce supposed was Schmidt’s laugh echoed through the empty warehouse. “I think I will check to see that you have not double-crossed me first,” he said.

Loki pursed his lips. “I would expect no less,” he replied cooly.

Schmidt unlatched the case with a click. As he lifted the lid slowly, a cool blue light washed over his face. His grin faded, and he looked up and glared at Loki. “This is not the Tesseract,” he snapped.

“No,” Loki said, his voice like silk, but his face stony, “it isn’t.”

“Do you think I am bluffing?” He stood up, his already hideous face contorted with rage. “Do you think I won’t kill her?” He leaned down and wrapped his arm around Frigga’s neck. “Do I look I’m bluffing? Where is it? WHERE IS THE TESSERACT?”

Loki cocked his head to the side. “I don’t have it.”

“You don’t have it?” Schmidt spat as he stood, tossing Frigga onto the floor. He took two steps toward Loki. “Did you not bring it, or did you not finish it?”

“Well, to be honest, Mr. Schmidt--”

“Doctor! I am a DOCTOR!” he yelled.

Loki didn’t seem phased. “So sorry, Doctor Schmidt. And to answer your question, both, actually. I mean, I really ought to thank you, on behalf Asgard Corporation. If it weren’t for your, uh, interference, shall we say, I wouldn’t have personally begun working on the Tesseract Project. Honestly, between myself and Dr. Selvig, we’ve made some significant breakthroughs that, I believe, will allow the Tesseract to become market-viable in less than ten years. And with that,” he said with a small, pleased smile, “we will make shatteringly large amounts of money. So, thank you.”

Schmidt ground his teeth together, radiating fury. “And what is to stop me from killing you where you stand?” At that, the man on Loki’s right pressed a pistol to his temple.

“This,” Loki answered, holding up a device about the same size and shape as a ballpoint pen. “You see, you know that isn’t the Tesseract. You didn’t ask what it was.” Schmidt’s eyes widened and he glanced down at the briefcase. “It’s a bomb, Dr. Schmidt. And this,” he nodded at the device in his hand, “is a dead-man’s switch.”

The warehouse was suddenly silent enough to hear a pin drop. The only sound was Frigga’s pained gasp. The thugs all started looking at one another, then to Loki, who bared his teeth in a macabre semblance of a smile. “You do understand the theory behind a dead-man’s switch, don’t you? It means that I must continue to hold this button down, or the bomb detonates. And,” he added quickly, when Schmidt’s gaze turned to Bruce, “my associate also has one, so don’t get any ideas.” Bruce held up his own device, his expression grim.

“So, we find ourselves at an impasse,” Schmidt said.

“Not really,” Loki countered. “Impasse would indicate that you have some sort of power or say in what happens next. That’s not the case. I have all the power here.”

“You won’t do it. Not her,” he said, looking back at Frigga for the first time he’d shoved her onto the floor. “You wouldn’t kill her.”

Loki cocked his head to the side, face expressionless. “Do I look I’m bluffing, Dr. Schmidt?”

Bruce swallowed as the two men stared at one another, neither giving any ground. It went on so long some of the goons began to fidget.

Finally, Schmidt looked away. “And with this power you now possess, Mr. Laufeyson, what do you plan to do?”

Loki smiled again, an expression that gave Bruce chills. “I’m feeling... magnanimous today. If you and your men leave right now, no one has to die.”

“And if I refuse?” Schmidt asked, his ruined face twisted into a snarl.

Loki raised the switch and one eyebrow. He looked from his hand to Schmidt and back. “Then I suppose we all die. It looks as if you’re already halfway there, so it shouldn’t be too terrifying.”

“We will need some time,” Schmidt answered after a short pause, “to gather our things.”

“You have five,” he said. “I’m being generous. Doctor, my mother?”

Bruce nodded and shook off his escorts to kneel by Frigga. “Where are you hurt?”

She closed her eyes and bowed her head. “My ribs,” she whispered, her accent thick and her voice raspy. “And I think...” She raised her hand to touch the bruises on her face. “I think this bone is broken. The rest is bruises, small cuts, not serious.”

“Okay, we’re going to get you to a doctor,” he murmured, watching the thugs out of the corner of his eye. Loki stood watching the process with his hand prominently around the dead-man’s switch. “Just hang on.”

“This isn’t over, Laufeyson,” Schmidt spat, as he and his men moved toward the back entrance, each carrying parts of the hastily disassembled EMP device.

Loki shook his head, watching their backs as the hustled out through the door. “No, it’s not,” he murmured as the door slammed shut behind them. As soon as they were clear, he turned back to Frigga and Bruce. “Mother!” He dropped to his knees and reached for her, tears in his eyes, his agonized expression a far cry from his earlier blankness. “Mother, I tried to get here sooner, I tried.”

“Oh, Loki, my son, you came,” she said, and threw her arms around him. “I knew you would come.”

“Always,” he breathed, hugging her carefully, his fingers skating over her shoulders and down her back. “You need a hospital.”

Bruce stepped away as Thor came barrelling in, letting the family have their private reunion. “Phil? Did you do it?”

“Package has been delivered,” he said. “Tony?”

“Yeah yeah, hold your horses.” Bruce could hear the click of keys over the comms. “Ah, Fury’s team is tracking the phone, ETA fifteen minutes.”

“Will Schmidt be back at his safehouse by then?” Phil asked.

“Should be. But you guys gotta get moving,” Tony warned. “He’ll be able to track the GPS back here, and will, once he realizes the whale he caught isn’t the one he’s been fishing for.”

“Understood. Bruce, get them into the van and get out of there,” Phil said. “Steve, Tasha, Clint, meet me at the SUV. We’ll regroup at the bar.” Bruce could hear the grin in his voice. “And then I’ll have another call to make.”

--

“Fury.”

“Hello again, Nick,” Phil said, cradling the phone against his shoulder. He leaned against the scarred wooden bar at John McRory’s watching his team celebrate their success, and listened to the muted sound of sirens on the other end of the line.

Fury huffed out a short laugh. “I found your phone, Phil. Do you want it back?”

Phil chuckled, tracing the rim of his coffee cup with one finger. “Go ahead and keep that one. I’ve got another.”

“I can see that.”

“Don’t bother to trace this one,” Phil warned, as the sound of sirens grew louder, then abruptly cut off with a thump. “It’s a little more high-tech.”

When Nick spoke again, his voice was much more clear; probably sitting in his car, Phil reasoned. “That was very clever, planting your phone on Schmidt when you knew I was tracking it.”

“Sometimes, simple is best.”

Nick sighed. “I suppose I ought to thank you. Johann Schmidt is one of Interpol’s most wanted terrorists, and you practically gift-wrapped him for me. Funny though,” he mused, “my men tell me it looks like he had someone held captive at the first location, but there’s no one there.”

“Is that right?” he asked, noncommittally.

“Yeah,” Nick drawled. “Then there’s the mysterious reappearance of Frigga Alfoder at Massachusetts General Hospital, with injuries consistent with being held against her will and being beaten repeatedly over the course of several days. But between her sons, her lawyers, and her money, we can’t get a word out of her. Do you know anything about that?”

Phil smiled. “I may be a criminal now, Nick, but I’m not a bad guy. Schmidt, on the other hand, is a very bad guy.”

“No, you’re not.” After a short pause, he said, “You could always come back, you know.”

A bark of laughter from the other side of the bar drew Phil’s attention. Tony was on one knee in front of Pepper, holding her hand in both of his, clearly begging for something, but from Clint’s reaction and Pepper’s own tolerant-but-amused expression, she wasn’t buying whatever he was selling. Darcy rolled her eyes at them as she played with Bruce’s hair, while Natasha poured herself, Clint, and Steve each a shot of vodka. He smiled as a warmth spread through his chest at the sight of his team, his friends. His family. “The price of coming back, of course,” he said to Nick, “would be to turn in my team.”

“You know it would.” Phil was surprised to hear a tinge of regret in Nick’s voice. “They’re criminals, Phil. They deserve to be in jail for some of the things they’ve done.”

“And they deserve medals for some of the things they’ve done, and you know it,” he shot back. “We’re two sides of the same coin, Nick, both working for what’s right. We just have different methods.”

“I hope--” Nick paused, and Phil could clearly picture his old partner rubbing his temple in frustration. “Are you happy?”

Phil glanced back at his team. Pepper looked exasperated but fond, as Tony whirled her around the room, dancing to some godawful rock song pumping from the jukebox. Bruce and Darcy had slipped away to a back booth, hopefully to resolve their absurd romantic song-and-dance. Clint was arguing with Steve about something, and Natasha turned to meet his gaze. She raised her shot glass to him and quirked her lips up in a smile. “Yes, Nick, I’m happy.”

His friend--still his friend, even after all that had happened between them--sighed. “Good for you,” he said sincerely. “I’m still coming after you,” he added after a moment.

“I would expect nothing less,” Phil said, and hung up the phone with a solid click. He left it sitting on the bar, and went to join his team.