In the morning, Loki decided to go about this properly, and got a ticket for the funicular. As the little car trundled up the hill and he was surrounded by tourists from the massive white boat that had appeared at the end of the fjord, he watched the city unfurl beneath him, proud and content to look on it. In a few short days he'd proven that he could be home here again, and Asgard be damned. This was no punishment to be here.
At the observation deck he pulled out the rifle scope from his jacket pocket and looked at the city again. From here he could see the way the ridge was terraced, houses on either side of thin streets on long switchbacks, going all the way down to the main road. But pedestrians had more direct access on the funicular or the long staircases. How beautiful it was laid out beneath him, not ruined, not destroyed, but rebuilt and lovely and vibrant again.
He glanced upward. You sent me here to suffer, but I will not. I'll prove that you are wrong, that you were always wrong about Elsa and Anna and Birgitte. They were true family and this place is as much a home to me as Asgard ever was.
He touched his envelope full of powder and headed for the meadow.
From the trees, he observed with the scope. He'd expected a few people, and a little equipment. But there were many people, two vehicles, and they'd put a canopy over the mark itself.
His fingers tightened into a fist that they were defiling his place. Trampling it like it was nothing.
I want you gone from here. Just be glad I don't want you all dead for this.
Security was lax, as the ten people barely noticed him walking toward them, too busy running around with scientific machines. The little he overhead suggested they understood nothing about the mark or the lightning that had made it. Which made him roll his eyes, as what sort of natural phenomenon would create such a precise mark in the soil as that? Was there not one person on Midgard with the sense to realize it was a much grander phenomenon?
SHIELD had it all cordoned off beneath a canopy and he intended to burn the whole thing if he could. First, standing off to the side as if he were curious local he took out a soda straw, and blew a dusting of gunpowder along the upper surface of the canopy. Mourning the lack of seidr for lighting fires, he used a cigarette lighter and lit the corner on fire. It smoldered unpleasantly and he was unsure if it would catch, but the the cord burned better and got hot enough for flames to form.
But he was already several steps away when the alarm went up. As everyone ran to try to put out the growing fire of the canopy, he lit the corner of the envelope on fire and tossed it atop the papers on the table. It burned and crackled loudly, just as the powder on the canopy caught as well, hissing and popping with growing heat and flame.
Many were thrown into a panic, but a few were more savvy. One taller dark haired agent spied the man who didn't belong and shouted. "Hey you there, stop!"
Loki kept walking away.
Loki declined to stop, but he did look over his shoulder, "I told you to leave, Agent Ward."
"Oh shit, it's him!"
Laughing, Loki turned forward again and ran.
* * *
Natasha waited in her car as soon as she heard about the fire up at the site. Target was on foot, heading down the slope.
He would take the stairs, the only question was whether he would take this set down to Gunnarsson Boulevard. She pulled her car against the curb, right at the foot of the steps, looking upward and waiting, ready to hurry to the next set farther north, depending on the report.
But no, there he was at the top, three levels up, running down the stairs two at a time. Then, about halfway, he vaulted one handed up onto the railing itself and slid all the way down the rest of the railing.
Her mouth dropped open as he launched himself from the railing right as a car went by, lightly touching the roof of the car, enough to propel himself to the next railing and then in a slide on his boots down the next railing with his hands out for balance.
It was a reckless and unnecessary, since it would be much easier to avoid his pursuers by zigzagging, not going straight, no matter how fast, but for sheer theatricality it was glorious to watch.
Even from the agents pursuing him she heard an admiring, "God damn."
But they shot at him and clattered down the steps in pursuit, and she hoped they remembered the primary objective of herding him to her.
There was one more set of stairs until he was at her car. She stood up, out of the open sun roof, and pulled her sidearm.
His eyes widened, seeing her aiming in his direction, but didn't try to duck or leap off the rail, perhaps figuring he was going too fast for her shot to be accurate. Which was an incorrect assumption, since if she'd wanted to shoot him she could have, but he wasn't her target.
Instead she aimed carefully past him and up, at the concrete at the other agents feet, and fired twice. "Come!" she shouted at him. "I can help you!"
Then, damn it, his right side jerked as one of the bullets from above hit him, and he lost his footing, twisting. So instead of the landing he probably would have made, he fell.
Miraculously, he grabbed the rail with his other hand briefly, managing to break his fall, and rolled once on the sidewalk and slid practically into the car.
The SHIELD agents now did what they were supposed to do, sending a few more bullets in their direction, striking the sidewalk.
She swore in Russian, in earnest. Because damn it all to hell, his being hit was exactly what she hadn't wanted. "Get in! Hurry! she demanded urgently as he started to stir. "In the car. They're coming."
He pushed himself up and staggered into the passenger seat, folding long legs like some kind of grasshopper. She was peeling away before he slammed the door. He leaned back against the seat, breathing careful and controlled, while he held his left arm with his hand.
"Oh ow," he groaned. "He shot me. That bastard shot me."
"I can bandage it, when we stop. But first, we escape."
He closed his eyes, brow knitted, and seemed in quite a lot of pain as she hurried through town and out to the highway to go south.
Then his eyes shot open again and he looked at her. "Who are you? Why are you helping me?"
"My name is Natalya Alianovna Romanova," she introduced. "Russian intelligence. I have been watching SHIELD activities, to learn what they are doing."
"They're not your friends, then?" he asked.
She gave a dry laugh. "No, not friends." She waited a moment, and prompted. "And you? Your name?"
His jaw clenched and he hissed through his teeth, before forcing himself to breathe. "Luke."
She smiled. "Luke. Good to meet you."
"You were rather... fortuitous," he said, and switched to Russian. "Natalya Alianovna. Thank you for coming to my rescue."
Her eyebrows lifted. "You know Russian? Your accent is quite good." Actually his accent was impressive-- he had a bit of St Petersburg, as if he'd spent some time there, but little foreign inflection.
Despite what pain he was in, his lips flickered in a smile and he didn't answer the implied question. She suddenly wondered if he was KGB and not a local at all.
"Where are we going?" he asked.
"Away first. Where we could talk about what you saw."
"Ah, payment for my rescue. I thought there might be some," he said and muttered under his breath, "So predictable."
She didn't frown, keeping her reaction locked down, but his accent was echoing her own now. He was no ordinary policeman, that was for sure.
"You can take me back, I can hide well enough until they go away."
She said in English, wondering how far his facility went, "They won't go away. SHIELD doesn't just pack up and leave."
He peeled his right hand away from his wound and lifted his fingers to look at them. She glanced aside. There was blood, but not a lot of it. He'd been winged, but nothing life-threatening. And it certainly looked like completely human red blood. As did the rest of him. So unless space aliens looked and bled just like humans, the guy was human.
He examined his blood-stained hand. He asked, in English too without pause, the same mix of Oxford touched with Germanic she'd heard before. "No? So what do they do, Natalia?"
"They complete their mission, whatever that is. They take what they want, solve the problem if there is one. Then they leave. So what is it they want?"
"Something to do with strange meteorological phenomenon, apparently," he answered, and held his wound again with his bloody hand, wincing at the touch. "I dislike having foreigners on Arendelle's soil."
"Including me?" she glanced at him, hands tight on the steering wheel. He didn't appear to have a weapon, but he'd stolen the tactical knives so he might...
He chuckled. "Are you invading the country? Then, yes, though that would be quite churlish of me after you helped me, wouldn't it?" He dropped his head back against the headrest with a groan. "This hurts quite a bit more than I expected, and it is still bleeding. It needs healing."
"You're not dying," she said, rolling her eyes at his drama.
"That would be unfortunate," he murmured with a dry chuckle.
She pulled off at the next sign for a decent-sized town and looked for a store. "I'm going to get supplies. Stay here."
Inside the door, she glanced at the car inside which Luke was resting, and she grabbed up the shop's stock of first aid supplies and some pain reliever and sleep aid. She smiled at the clerk as she dumped it on the counter. "My husband fell on some rocks. Is there a place to stay tonight?"
The man's English was pretty good, if with a heavier accent than Luke's and she found the information she wanted.
She slid back into the driver's seat, and gave him the package. "There are some cottages at the end of this road that are rentals apparently."
"Rivkelm," Luke muttered. "I remember this place. It's still here...."
Natasha glanced at him, frowning as he seemed less alert, blood loss starting to affect him perhaps. "Almost there." She patted his leg once, intending reassurance and because physical contact would make him trust her more, and had a surprise that he might be slender but that thigh was hard as a rock. Runner, at the very least, perhaps rock climber with that physique and the agility he'd displayed on the railing. And he'd displayed training, taking down Ward. Not someone to take lightly, though he was currently offering no threat. His eyes were closed, though he was not asleep.
The road wound around some rocky hills without much vegetation but grass, and then abruptly opened up to a picture perfect narrow fjord and a village of twenty houses and other buildings clustered around the dock.
Well, at least this mission had some pretty scenery.
She found the small cottages and the owner was happy to rent one to her. Getting Luke out of the car proved a bit more difficult, as he was a full head taller and he'd stiffened up in the seat, but with some tugging she got him inside the cottage. It was basic but modern – two twin beds, a table with two chairs, and a small bathroom with a shower stall.
Luke sat at the end of one bed, holding his wound tightly, and she dumped the first aid supplies next to him.
"Can I cut off your sweater?" she asked.
"I'd rather you not, unless there's another shirt lying about," he said.
"It's all blood-stained, but maybe some will wash out. Here, let me help."
With much hissing and pained grunting, he pulled the sweater off over his head. That left him bare from the waist up, and he was pale skinned and like his leg, lean but strong. There were a few abrasions on his skin from where he'd hit the sidewalk that he inspected curiously, lip curled in what looked like disgust. The gunshot wound on his left tricep was the worst. "Clean shot through, it could use a couple stitches--"
He snorted sounding scornful as he muttered, "Stitches."
She ignored the scorn. "But I'm not a doctor, so best I can do is clean it and bind it together." Which she did, while he watched her work intently, either curious or concerned that she didn't know what she was doing. When she tied off the bandage, she nodded in satisfaction. "You should probably have a sling for it to keep your arm still, but why don't you take a couple of these and rest." She set a couple of the pills next to the bottle of water. "I'll go find us some food."
His hand shot out and grabbed her. She could've broken his hold, but she stayed there. His grip was quite strong, long fingers wrapping her wrist. "Yes?"
"Why?" he demanded. "I know little about why they came here; I have little information to give you. All I know is I want them out. So why are you helping me?"
"Perhaps I don't like SHIELD," she answered. "I don't like the way they bully everyone. I don't like the way they think they have a mandate to control everything unusual or powerful."
He released her wrist and sat back, light eyes on her intently. "Is that so?"
Natasha had learned a long time ago not to flinch under regard, and she wasn't going to start with him, though she was curious about how unafraid he was. He'd been shot at, and yet he treated it as if his wound was painful and inconveniencing, but not that being shot at was particularly noteworthy.
Who the hell are you, really, Luke No-Last-Name?
But she would get to that eventually. Build his trust, interrogate him, and she would find out who he was.
"It's so," she answered. "Rest. I'm going to get some juice for you to replace the blood you lost and something for supper. Take it easy, they're never looking in this little place."
His eyes flicked to the window as if pursuit hadn't occurred to him before that. He was the strangest combination of prepared and ignorant and she could not figure it out.
"Rest," she urged him. "Be back as soon as I can."
Slipping outside, she waited until she was away from the cottage to call Sitwell. "I have him," she reported.
"Threat status?" Sitwell asked.
She snorted. "Right now? Zero. One of your idiots managed to wing him in the arm. I've done some first aid and I'll do containment. But it didn't help his hostility. We'll hole up a day. I'll leave the phone open when I start to interrogate him."
"Understood. We'll pull back."
"Good." She hung up, in no mood to continue that conversation, wishing Coulson was here instead. He understood the psychology of her missions better than most of her SHIELD observers, and kept himself out of her way. Sitwell, like most of the Ops division, often lacked subtlety and patience.
At the small market she bought a few groceries and returned to the cottage. Luke was asleep, on his back, boots off the end of the bed as if someone had taught him not to put his shoes on a clean bedding, but they'd been too difficult to remove. His injured arm was tucked close to him, but the other gripped the pillow in a fist.
She called the monitor line so SHIELD could listen in and record. Then, with her foot, she shut the door loudly as if she'd just come in.
He stirred, blinking himself awake blearily. "What-- Natalya? Did I fall asleep? How strange... What is that noise?" he complained, groaning, and pressed his forehead with his good hand. She had no idea what noise he was talking about, but he seemed confused. He looked at her, and shook his head more alert. "Oh. I see you brought food."
"Yes, if you're hungry." She set the crackers, cheese, and pickled fish on the table and held up the bottle of berry juice. "You should drink this."
While he was moving himself to the small table with much pained hissing, she set the phone on the table – the screen was dark so it would look off – and sat down across from Loki to start opening the packages.
"How are you feeling after your nap?" she asked, pushing the crackers to him.
He rubbed at his eyes, one-handed. "Does napping truly make people refreshed?" he asked. "Because I feel more tired than I was before."
"You did have some blood loss. Eat the crackers, too, that'll help."
He nibbled on the crackers and drank his juice. "So, are we safe here?" he asked.
"I think so," she answered. "There are many small towns, and SHIELD can't search them all. They'll wait for us to surface."
He glowered at the plastic knife he was supposed to use for spreading the soft cheese and gripped it like he wanted to stab someone with it. "I only wanted them to leave. And now they've gone and ruined everything."
She winced inwardly. "I think if you leave town and lay low for awhile, you can come back. I don't think they're very interested in you; you were interfering in what they were investigating." That was, of course, a total lie, because SHIELD was interested in this person who had assaulted their agents. But she thought Fury would probably let it go, once she proved that Luke had meant well and once she unearthed his true identity.
Luke didn't volunteer that he'd assaulted two agents and that maybe they were interested in him for a good reason. He just sighed. "I hope that's true."
"So what did you see of what they're doing?"
He shrugged. "Little. In the mountains they have some tents set up where lightning struck. They seemed very interested in it. And I heard one of them say that they suspected there might be a device that made the storm or the lightning? But they found nothing. So I suppose when they find out it was just a freak of nature, they'll go."
Natasha thought back to the photo she had seen of the site. "You think it was natural?"
"What else could it be?" he returned and started eating out of the jar of pickled fish when Natasha declined sharing with a shake of her head. "Are you sure? It is delicious."
Pickled fish reminded her of times she didn't care to remember, so she gestured a pass. "No device?" she asked. "You saw nothing out of the ordinary at the work site?"
"Aside from a bunch of foreigners camping in a place they had no business being, no."
She spread some cheese on another cracker to give herself time to think. "You saw no pattern? I was told there was a pattern in the burnt soil."
He snagged another piece of fish and chewed it. "A pattern?" he echoed. "Not that I saw."
Had he truly not seen it, or was he lying to her to make it sound uninteresting to her? He had acknowledged he didn't want any foreigner hanging around, so it was in his interest to lie about it. He was good though, nothing in his attitude gave it away. She tested lightly, "Strange that they should defend nothing so vigorously."
He laughed dryly. "You see why I want them out."
A nicely non-revealing answer. "You're from Arendelle?" she asked. "You seem very defensive of it."
"From Genovia," he corrected, to her surprise. "My mother's family was from here though, and I'm becoming a citizen."
"Oh, I see. I like Genovia. The mountains and cathedral are so pretty."
His eyes flipped up to her, hooded, and a slow smile formed on his lips. "You are mistaken. Genovia is on the coast. You're thinking Andorra perhaps?" He asked the question deliberately, knowing very well that she had tried to make him betray himself with ignorant agreement.
She chuckled. "Just checking." She leaned back and regarded him openly. "You are an enigma, Luke. What's your real name?"
His smile, if anything, grew more amused. "Luke Rendell is my name, Natalya."
She raised her brows and called him out on that one. "You can't even bring yourself to lie that it's your 'real' name."
With a studied deliberation, he took another cracker and answered, "It's not the only name I've had, but it is the only name that matters now."
The admission had the ring of truth to it, that at least he believed it. She nodded slowly in understanding. "All right. Fair enough."
His gaze flipped up to meet hers, surprised that she was letting it go. Of course, she had no intention of letting it go, but she needed time to come at the question from another way.
She shifted the conversation to the food, as he finished it off, and then when he went into the bathroom to wash his hands, she dumped sleeping pill powder in his juice. He was competent enough to take the car and leave her here if he could, and she was suspicious that he was going to try it. It was better for both of them if he didn't try.
She went to stand by the window when he came out, and she heard him finish off the juice before tossing it in the bin. She let the corners of her mouth twist up in a bit of satisfaction at her reflection before turning. "Want to take a walk by the water?"
"Why, that sounds quite romantic, Natalya," he teased.
"If you want it to be," she returned lightly, testing. If that's what he wanted, she could do that to get closer to him.
"With someone as lovely as you, I would be honored," he responded, but as he gestured for her to precede him out the door, he kept his distance, not touching her.
"Do you want your jumper?" she asked. "The sea breeze isn't very warm."
He shrugged one-shoulder uncaring, so she shrugged back. If he wanted to go outside shirtless it was not her problem. And it turned out he didn't seem to mind, lifting his face at the sea, and letting the wind blow back his hair. There was something about his profile then, the high forehead and thin face that tickled her with its familiarity. Had she seen him, or his photo, before?
He stood at the rock-strewn edge, facing the water. This deep within the fjord there was little wave action, the water swirling gently among the rocks. Most men of his physique would be shirtless deliberately, as a ploy to attempt to seduce her, though he seemed uncaring of whether she was looking or not. Instead he watched the sun play on the water, a frown drawing his brows together and his mind apparently far away from this place.
"Euro for your thoughts?" she asked.
He chuckled. "Ah, that is too much. A pebble, perhaps, is all they're worth."
She bent to scoop a rock off the ground and held it out to him. Bemused, he took it and tossed it into the water. She watched his form as he threw – he had an interesting side-throwing technique, with a practiced grace to his motions and he shifted the rest of his body reflexively to the action.
"Memories of the past: so cheap to acquire and yet so expensive to leave behind," he murmured, apparently all the answer her rock paid for. He relaxed enough he let out a yawn. He chuckled afterward. "Getting shot is more fatiguing than I would've expected."
"Let's get you back, and you can rest."
She helped him with his boots this time and watched him fall asleep, feeling faintly guilty that she was drugging him, but it was for the best. He had one moment where he jerked back awake, eyes flaring with fear as if he suddenly realized his tiredness wasn't natural, but it passed and he was soon breathing heavily.
She pulled the blanket up over him and plucked his wallet out of his back pocket. It was mostly empty except for two stolen credit cards in SHIELD agents' names, some cash, and an id card in the name of Luke Rendell.
She texted the number on the card to SHIELD, and was not surprised that the answer came back:
"New identification issued yesterday. Reported theft of previous id and citizenship in Genovia. In process for Arendelle asylum."
As he'd all-but admitted, "Luke Rendell" was as fake as Natalie Rushman. The only interesting thing in the rest of the report was that the police had run his fingerprints through the system and come up empty. SHIELD was running the prints and facial recognition through their larger database, which might yield some interesting results if he was known to them.
She put the wallet back, without letting him stir at the touch, and laid down in the other bed. Propping her hand under her head, she looked at him. Operational expertise, yet occasional bursts of complete ignorance, and a lack of a verifiable history. What did it mean?
She frowned, replaying their conversation and what little she knew about him. What if... he had lost his memory? He hadn't said so, but he didn't trust her so why would he?
Was there some agency or organization out there, who had scrubbed him and dropped him here to fend for himself? That was possible, but it was also possible she was trying too hard to make him familiar to her, making him a refugee from something like Red Room? Or was there some truth to that instinct? Something had to explain his skills and yet why he was such a blank slate.
But the answers would not be found staring at him. She needed to rest, while he was asleep.
* * *
Waking when he stirred to stumble his way to the restroom, she indulged in a yawn and sat up to check her phone. Just after six in the morning, and she had one message that the facial recognition software had found nothing.
It wasn't a surprise, but it did put a hole in her for Another Agency theory. On the plus side, it probably also meant he wasn't working for Ten Rings or some other terrorist or criminal organization, if SHIELD had no intel on him.
Something dropped to the floor in the restroom, and he yelped as if it had fallen on his toe. She rolled her eyes before knocking. "You all right in there?"
He pulled the door open a crack to glare at her. "Fine, but this..." he lifted his injured arm at the shoulder, "still hurts, and made me drop the hand soap. And also, I appear to be growing a beard, which is not a good look for me, and this whole business is simply intolerable." The door shut in her face, leaving her blinking in surprise.
"Oookay, someone needs coffee." Tragically there was no coffee maker in the cabin, so she hoped there was some in the office, because clearly Luke was not a morning person.
He was in a better mood by the time she came back with coffee in mugs, and dressed again in his sweater. The left sleeve was stiff with dried blood, but he'd shoved his arm through it anyway.
At the table, over the coffee and the leftover food, she smiled brightly, "So I was thinking we keep our heads down in the village today, and then tomorrow drive to Oslo--"
"No," he said firmly, and glanced at his arm. "I need to take care of this."
"I know it hurts," she said, "but it'll heal...."
He snorted. "Too slowly. It needs better tending, and I need to meet someone. So either you drive me there, or drop me off in Arendelle and I'll find my own transportation."
"Better tending, hm? You're welcome," she said dryly, but the sarcasm went right past him. "All right, I'll take you."
This was curious, that he needed to see someone. Who could he mean?