As the cold dark water closed over his head, all Phil Coulson could think was, I have had better days.
Reconnaissance. That was all it was supposed to be: reconnaissance. Get into the crumbling-but-under-renovation Scottish castle rumoured to be the new property of Dr. Doom. Have a look around. Gather intel. Get back out. No trouble, no confrontations, no James Bond shit. The Avengers being occupied with the man himself in Latveria, Coulson had been the obvious person for the assignment. He'd even gone along with what had seemed like a perfectly reasonable suggestion from Fury, and asked Loki to accompany him to scout for magic.
Thor's little brother had been perfectly willing-- eager, even-- to be helpful, saying something Coulson didn't catch about "Spring half term" and being able to get away for a couple of days. It was February. That, to Coulson, was not "spring." But that was also immaterial, so Coulson and Loki had made their way to northern Scotland, to the picturesque and probably evil castle on the loch, to nose around.
It should have been simple, Doom being back in Latveria with the Avengers all over his ass. The problem, though, with set a magic user to catch a magic user was, if Loki could sense magic in other sorcerers… they could also sense it in Loki. And it turned out the Doombots had just enough magic programmed into them (say what you would about Doom, he was a hell of an engineer) to be able to hone in on Loki like sniffer dogs on bacon.
When the excrement hit the fan, all Loki had to say about it was, I assumed you had planned for this eventuality, with a big-eyed look of betrayal and disappointment that left Coulson conflicted about whether to rescue him or punch him out. And that, of course, was not actually even a decision, given Thor's apparent inability to see his perfectly competent nine-hundred-odd-year-old little brother as anything but a preschooler-- which apparently made Coulson the babysitter.
And also, you know, Coulson kind of liked him.
It ended up in a high-speed chase down a scenic and really damned dangerous mountain road. And then an airborne car-- not, Coulson might add, in the Harry-Potter-and-the-Ford-Anglia sense-- flying off the road, over the cliff, and into the deep waters of the loch below. Loki, braced so hard in his seat he'd probably left his own fingerprints indented in the armrest, managed to propel the car clear of the rocks near the shoreline and set it down relatively gently, which meant that instead of being killed on impact, Coulson got to watch the water rise around him as the car sank.
Which wasn't the most enjoyable ten minutes of his life. As noted, he'd had better days.
However, as soon as they were underwater, Loki used another burst of magic to blow the doors, which accelerated the whole sinking thing, but made it a lot easier for them to get out of the car.
Not, of course, that this was a huge improvement in their situation, since when Coulson's head broke the surface he realized that, although Doom's minions had done the Doom's-minions thing of assuming the intruders were dead (apparently, Doom found magic easier to program than critical thinking skills) and returning to base, they were now in the middle of a loch, in February, being dragged down by the weight of their clothing.
As Coulson went under, he was both struggling out of his suit jacket and also looking around for Loki, who was known not to be a strong swimmer either.
And saw an empty bundle of clothing sink toward the bottom of the loch, and the silvery flash of a salmon rising out of it. Because, when you are a shapeshifter dumped into deep water, the obvious thing to do is transform into something that swims better than you do.
Coulson, without that option, had just a moment to enjoy a really horrible feeling of betrayal. And then the salmon twisted in the water and, with another green flash of magic, began to change shape again. It happened too fast to really be properly disturbing, and anyway by that time Coulson was pretty much occupied with trying to get back above water.
As he did so, a giant hairy black head broke the surface right next to him.
The salmon thing suddenly became clear: Loki could change his own shape, but his clothing didn't change with him. So in a situation where it was impractical for him to undress before shifting, it was easiest to change into something small enough to swim out of his clothing, before making a second shift into something large enough to be helpful.
Obviously, in this situation it would have been ideal for Loki to have transformed himself into a rubber dinghy, but apparently he was limited to live creatures. In that case, changing himself into a Newfoundland dog nearly as big as a lifeboat was certainly better than nothing.
Coulson wrapped his arms around Loki's hairy neck, and the dog struck out for the opposite shore.
By the time his feet touched bottom, Coulson was very much wishing for a big hairy fur coat of his own. He was so cold he couldn't even think, could hardly move, was pretty much just about capable of hanging on while dog-Loki dragged him out of the water. He crawled up the rocky beach onto dry land, and then just sat there for a minute trying to convince his limbs to cooperate.
As he did, he noticed something… weird… about Loki. Still in dog form, he seemed to be trying to walk away from Coulson, but he kept sort of… hitching. He wasn't quite staggering, but there was definitely something wrong. He'd seemed fine while he was swimming, but casting magic always took it out of the sorcerer and Coulson was suddenly lucid enough to worry his companion was about to keel over. Coulson wasn't at all sure he'd be able to gather the energy to rescue both of them, particularly considering that in either form, Loki was quite a bit bigger than he was.
Coulson was just trying to get to his feet when Loki stopped, about fifteen feet away from him. The hitch turned into a wriggle, and the next thing Coulson knew Loki was shaking himself, violently and with apparent relish, ears and jowls flapping, water flying from his oily black coat and soaking everything within a twenty-foot radius.
Coulson was soaked already, but he wasn't thrilled with the extra spray. Still, he tried to appreciate Loki's efforts to get out of range before giving in to the urge to shake. Especially when, possibly affected by the natural impulses of the dog form, Loki rushed back wagging his big fluffy tail and plunked his enormous wet head in Coulson's lap. The only thing Coulson could think of to do was rub his ears and mumble, "Good boy."
And in fact, it turned out he was a better boy than Coulson had realized, because he'd managed to land them less than a mile from the inconspicuous little cottage that SHIELD had acquired as a base, and at which the two of them had already left their stuff.
"Stuff" in this context mostly meaning, "dry clothes oh my God."
Coulson definitely envied Loki's dog form as they hiked back to the cottage in the falling darkness: having lost his shoes in the water, the rocky path was unpleasant going, and he was damn near frozen solid. He tried not to be bitter, though, reminding himself that Loki's clothing was at the bottom of the loch, and if he changed back right now he'd be not only soaking wet but stark naked. Coulson was generally too practical to be prudish, but his feelings on the matter were a combination of "no need for him to freeze too" and "there really is a limit to how well I need to get to know Thor's little brother."
He had, thank God, clipped the keys to the cottage to a belt loop instead of to the key ring of the long-lost car. When they got to the cabin, Coulson buried his hands in Loki's ruff for long enough to warm them a little, then dug out the keys and, on his third try, managed to open the door.
Loki shot through first, across the main room into the storage room at the back where they'd left their suitcases, dripping and probably getting dog hair all over everything. Coulson stepped inside, closed the door and leaned on it. As he stood there he could see a flash of green in the other room, and a minute or so later Loki, wet-haired but bipedal, came out again in pajama pants and a sweatshirt, carrying a blanket and a big towel. He was wearing exactly the same expression Thor did when one of his human "shield brothers" got hurt: a combination of confused and scared and mother-hen-ish.
"Quick, get out of those wet clothes and dry yourself," Loki fussed-- he fussed remarkably well, for the so-called God of Mischief-- shoving the towel at Coulson and attempting to undo his necktie. "Why you insist on wearing this ridiculous thing at all times-- "
"You never know when you might need to choke someone to death," Coulson managed to get out, through chattering teeth. After a moment he added, "This place smells like wet dog."
Which at least had the desired effect of making Loki laugh, and finally calm down a little.
"Dry off, before you begin to resemble my blood relations," he commanded, then turned to the little iron stove in the corner. "I will see about making a fire."
"Seeing about making a fire," when you were Loki, apparently consisted of stuffing wood and kindling into the stove and then zapping the hell out of it. Coulson hoped his magic also encompassed spells against setting the chimney on fire. He didn't complain, though, because the next thing Loki did was fetch (heh) dry clothing for him-- SHIELD-issue sweats, as it happened.
Coulson ended up getting to know Thor's little brother a little too well after all, what with his hands being so cold he needed help getting undressed and dried off and then dressed again. Oh well. More embarrassing things had happened in his career.
And then, unexpectedly, Loki shoved Coulson toward the bed against the back wall. Coulson had assumed they were going to argue over possession of it, later tonight, and had been wondering whether SHIELD-trained treachery would be any match for mischievous magic in a coin toss. He had also planned to argue that Loki could just take on the form of a cat and sleep curled up on top of the covers.
Loki, with the Thor-look on his face again, got the bed made a little too fast for no magic to be involved, then pulled back the covers and gestured autocratically for Coulson to get under them. As the senior agent on the mission-- hell, Loki's status was so unofficial he was practically a civilian-- Coulson tried to stand on his dignity, but that was difficult considering he was having some trouble standing on his feet, which he could hardly feel. And also he was now wracked with one gust of shivers after another.
All things considered, really, it seemed easiest to just do what Loki told him.
Buried up to his neck under blankets and a duvet that weighed about as much as Loki in his dog form, yet still shivering, it took Coulson a minute to realize that Loki, who was crashing around in the cupboards apparently looking for tea, was shaking pretty hard himself. Which made sense: dog or no dog, they'd both gotten a good dousing in very cold water. In fact, Coulson figured the fact they were still able to shiver was a damned good sign.
"Loki." It came out garbled, through his chattering teeth, and not loud enough to be heard, so he tried again. "Loki. C'mere."
Loki turned at that, one eyebrow raised, and it crossed Coulson's frozen mind that Loki was probably acting his ass off, trying to pretend he wasn't at all cold, or freaked out, or worried about the possibility of Doombots appearing (unlikely, since Doom wasn't anywhere near stupid enough to program them to take the initiative) or Coulson dying of hypothermia (considerably more likely, though probably not today after all.)
"What?" Loki asked.
Coulson made an effort, and spoke clearly. "Treatment for hypothermia. Body heat. C'mere." He pushed back the covers a little to make his point more clear. And then, when Loki still looked dubious, he made a great effort and whistled. "Here, boy."
Loki narrowed his eyes, demonstrated his acculturation to Earth with a gesture recognized as obscene in much of the English-speaking world-- and then, grumbling, walked over and got into bed next to Coulson.
The improvement was instantaneous. Coulson, who was normally not a snuggler, immediately found himself moving closer to Loki, who instinctively edged away. Finally, Coulson reached out and wrapped an arm around Loki, before he could fall out of bed and take Coulson with him.
"Stay right where you are," he ordered, mostly into Loki's shoulder. "For a Frost Giant, you're really warm."
"Did you not know, I am the worst Frost Giant ever," Loki mumbled, and from the extra wave of heat he sent out, he was probably blushing.
"I've got no complaints," Coulson assured him. Well, bony and stiff with embarrassment could use a little work, but it seemed rude to mention it, especially with Loki, as noted, embarrassed already.
There was a period of silence, which was probably awkward on Loki's part but not on Coulson's, since his brain seemed to be melting as his body warmed up. He hadn't realized how tiring hypothermia was. He kept his firm grip on Loki and let his head settle under the sorcerer's chin. Even if he'd been a snuggler, Coulson really wasn't temperamentally inclined to be the little spoon. However, when snuggling a tree, certain realities have to be faced.
Besides, this was a particularly cozy tree. Okay, there was a collarbone digging into the side of his head, but that was a minor detail. Maybe, Coulson thought woozily, he could squash it down flat. He pressed his head against the bone, which did not go anywhere. Loki flinched a little and Coulson muttered an apology, but aside from the wince Loki didn't try to go anywhere either. In fact, he might have settled his chin more snugly on top of Coulson's head.
Maybe Loki was a snuggler. For some reason, Coulson found that amusing.
And then, very quietly, a little voice above his ear said, "I am sorry I ruined our mission."
"Wha--?" Coulson practically slurred. And then he pulled himself to full wakefulness. "What was that?"
"Our-- your mission. It was because of me that we were discovered. I am very sorry."
Coulson played the words back in his head, then reviewed the events of the day-- including the part where he had not been killed by the long drop from the cliff, and then had not drowned in the loch.
"Oh well," he shrugged, as well as he could shrug when his whole body was still focused on the snuggling, "that wasn't your fault. Or at least, you were right, SHIELD should have had a plan in place for the eventuality."
"I had rather hoped to be able to talk our way out of capture," Loki went on, apparently committed to explaining himself and more tense and bony than ever. "Unfortunately-- "
"Yeah," Coulson replied. "Doombots."
"Not exactly amenable to reason. Or trickery, as the case may be," Loki admitted.
"Or charm," Coulson agreed. "Doesn't even work for me." Loki let out a little giggle and relaxed slightly, which made him feel less angular.
"Tony Stark?" Loki suggested next.
"Oh, him they try to kill on sight," Coulson replied. Loki let out another snuffle of laughter, and became a couple of degrees less bony. "More the shoot-first, ask-questions-never type," Coulson went on. "Which I should have thought of. Anyway, since you're the reason I'm not dead right now, let's just call it even. You don't have anything to apologize about."
"Really. Thanks. I should have said that before, but my tongue was frozen to the roof of my mouth." Despite not being a snuggler, Coulson tightened his arm. "We'll try again tomorrow, all right?"
"All right. I could assume the form of a bird, and then report back," Loki offered, even more hopeful, and beginning to tense up again. Coulson absent-mindedly patted him with his free hand, and some of the tension went away.
"Or we could think of something together. In the morning. When I'm warmed up again. Go to sleep," Coulson ordered. "That's what I'm going to do."
And that was what he did.
It turned out that, when he was asleep anyway, Loki actually was a snuggler. And also really damn heavy, which Coulson noticed when he woke up some hours later with the not-quite God of Mischief sprawled across his chest. While simultaneously still hugging him, in a way that made Coulson wonder whether they had teddy bears in Asgard. And whether this was any less manly than being the little spoon.
But he was still warm. And finally kind of soft, for a tree.
And, in this form at least, not covered in heavy black fur.
Although the place still smelled kind of like wet dog.
Screw it, thought Coulson. He snuggled up to Loki, and went back to sleep.