Unready Reserves (1/2)Author: mackiedockieWritten for: merrimanCharacters:
Methos, Joe, Amanda, Nick Fury, Agent Coulson, Avengers cameosCrossover:
G for General, C for Crackitude.Wordcount:
Set during the Avengers movie. May contain hints and/or spoilers. Caveat lector. Thank you Beta Readers--you are indefatigable and amazing!Summary:
Joe drops in to see Methos in New York. A quiet little brunch and chat at a sidewalk cafe in the shadow of Grand Central Station and Stark Tower...what could go wrong?
Just a block from Grand Central Station, Methos strolled through the sidewalk tables of the Central Cafe and called out to a busy waitress, "Innkeeper! I require victuals and viands, and the finest of wine and ale, for I have travelled far on my quest!"
"82nd Street is far?" Joe looked up from a table for two with a knowing smile, shutting down his laptop. "From Park Avenue? For me, maybe, but I bet you cheated by taking the subway. Now pipe down, this is a respectable restaurant. I've got the bill to prove it."
"Welcome to New York, Joe. To what do I owe the honor of your secret bat signal? And why didn't you come straight to the apartment? Don't tell me it's Plan B time. I didn't pack my toothbrush."
"Relax, it's just a consult. No reason to wake you up at the crack of dawn. Plane got in late," Joe said with a dismissive wave, repressing a yawn. "Some emergency on the ground threw off all my connections. Besides, something's come up that requires a bit of sneakiness, and I didn't think knocking on your front door qualified as stealthy."
"It must be sneaky, if you didn't bring MacLeod," Methos murmured.
"He's fine, just taking a little sabbatical on the island," Joe answered Methos' unspoken question. "No phone, no pool, no pet Watchers."
"I take it you didn't tell him you were going AWOL to make mischief with me?" Methos stretched out his legs and relaxed.
Joe smiled, and settled a little more comfortably in his chair as well. "He's just not in a cunning mood right now."
"Is he ever? Wait. Are you calling me a cunning sneak?" Methos asked, flattered. "Said the pot to the kettle. I love watching you do furtive."
"It always pays to work with professionals," Joe acknowledged. "Brings out my best work."
"I and my cunning are intrigued. Tell us everything."
Joe flipped open his laptop, and summoned up a series of pictures of an icefield, an enormous wing, and a rescue crew carrying a covered litter. "You remember when the news reported about the frozen supersoldier from World War II that was found up off Greenland?"
"That rumor they found the original Captain America?" Methos asked, eyes narrowing as he perused the grainy photos. "Too absurd to be true. Hoaxes thrive on wishful thinking."
"That's what I thought." Joe clicked to the last picture in the album. "Until headquarters sent me this new photo." He made a side to side comparison--a vintage WWII shot of the iconic hero next to his identical double, standing on an avenue in Brooklyn. The man in the old print was confident, determined, leading a proud group of men. The same man in modern civilian clothes was alone, looking bemused, and a bit lost.
"Alive?" Methos narrowed his eyes, looking for signs of photoshopping. "Captain America? Immortal? Ridiculous. Scientists swarmed all over him in the forties. So did the Watchers. They classified him as an experimental fluke. A Frankensoldier."
Joe winced. "Yet there he is. Not a year older, by the looks of it."
"Why show me this, Joe?" Methos tapped the newer photo. "Do you want me to go to Brooklyn, knock on his door and ask how Immortal he is?"
"No. No! Definitely not," Joe denied quickly. "It's just a little worrying, having this guy with a high profile resurrection in government hands, you know? It gets a lot of people asking questions we don't want answered, comparing notes we'd rather bury."
Methos saw a slight tic in Joe's cheek, but no sign of the look that signaled he was trying to wrap himself around a full blown lie. "Ah. I see. You're the one who is going to go knock on his door in Brooklyn. Speaking of asking dangerous questions that certain people don't want answered. I bet you even read his comics growing up."
"Who didn't?" Joe shrugged, and the tic disappeared. "I'll probably just surveil. Nothing dangerous in some good old fashioned Watching."
"Famous last words, I recognize them a mile off. You're a senior watcher, Joe. The Seniorest Watcher I know. The oldest living field agent."
"Gee, thanks," Joe conceded less than gracefully. "I get the picture."
"The point is, you don't get assigned to lurk on streetcorners, even for Captain America. Someone is trying to put one over on you."
"Mike in Security called it in," Joe said. "He just wanted someone with experience in the unusual to check it out. Though now that I say that out loud, it sounds thin to me, too. Still, Mike's not prone to practical jokes."
"He's not prone to telling you the whole story, either, speaking of sneaky," Methos warned. "And I don't remember him doing you any favors in the past," he added, reading the file notes with a thoughtful frown. "Icy combat to the death, a hero buried with his ship, all quite grim and epically Norse. I wonder if this has something to do with Loki."
"Loki who?" Joe asked as he reached for his coffee. Methos took advantage of the distraction to steal control of the laptop. Joe retained control long enough to hit the logout on his facebook page, but it was a near thing.
" 'The' Loki. One of Odin's lot. Norse god of mischief? I know you're up on the sagas, Joe. Some of them are watcher writ. Freya, Heimdall, Thor. Quite the quaffer, Thor. Still. Back to Loki, speaking of the dead rising from the mists of time. Saw him just this morning."
"Come on, Loki? There is no such dude."
"I swear by Odin's oath, it's true! An enterprising Watcher managed to tap into surveillance footage of some sort of secret lab imploding upstate. Probably the same emergency that delayed your flight. And there was the Trickster, escaping in the back of a pickup."
"There is no way you are not pulling my chain about this," Joe said, searching Methos' face for a sly smile. And there it was. As usual, it was completely nondiagnostic when it came to truth or fairy tales.
"He probably mistook it for a chariot, and was too embarrassed to backtrack and commandeer a bucket seat, by the expression on his face. I do believe he bruised his dignity. Here, I'll download it for your unending amusement."
"Great. I'll probably get some sort of Midgard worm crawling around my harddrive." Joe craned his neck to get a look at his notifications. "I don't see any local New York updates."
"Who said it was local? Very hush-hush, bounced straight to Lyons."
"And you know this because...?"
Methos slid the laptop back to Joe. "Some heroic but unfortunate Watcher managed to upload the footage of the collapsing lab to Lyons before he disappeared into said hole, and they backed up the files to the new green servers in Ayureki."
"And you have a back door to Ayureki." Joe didn't even bother to make it a question.
"Cyber-showoff. But seriously--" Joe stopped in mid-rant and shifted gears. "These guys are just a wild group of Immortal Vikings, right? 'Thor, God of Thunder', my ass. I keep telling you, seeing is not believing these days..." Joe's voice trailed off as the footage finished buffering. "Are those horns?"
"Symbolizes the auroch, Odin's gift to Loki, to remind him to stay bullish on Asgard." Methos said, tracing a hornlike rune in the condensation on the table, then wiping it away. "Think of it as half the Asgardian royal family crest," Methos said. "Thor's dress helmet has some styling raven wings. Daddy always liked him best."
"When did you meet Odin?" Joe managed to get out with a straight face.
"Odin the Allseeing Allfather?" Methos checked Joe's expression suspiciously. "Never met him. Just the kids. I was repenting my sins and inventing new ones with the Irish monks a few years after St. Patrick drove out the Snapes," Methos got the glazed-eye look of an Immortal looking back into the well of memories.
"Don't you mean 'the snakes?' " Joe corrected.
Methos shook his head. "That's another tale. Don't derail me. Anyway. Ireland. Asgard. Odin, in all his wisdom, decided to send the youngsters to Midgard to expand their horizons. They were probably getting on his last nerve."
"Teenager godlings?" Joe scoffed. "Sent off to boarding school?"
"Perspicacious as always, Joe," Methos complimented, putting Joe further on guard as the story continued. "Thor, as any bright young Norseman of his day, went a-Viking, sailed up the Liffey and lay siege to the abbey, Loki trailing in his considerable shadow. Thor conquered, and Loki cleaned up as Thor celebrated."
"Then maybe I should be tracking him down for the Chronicles instead of Captain America," Joe ventured, intrigued.
"Best avoid Loki, Joe. I did. Let's just say he's 'not our kind' and leave it at that. I won't go into details, but it was one of those 'worship, slave, or die' situations. I ended up busboy to the gods for a few months. Quite the quaffer, Thor," Methos hinted again, staring at his half-filled mug. "Did I mention that?"
"You did," Joe sighed, and tried to signal the waitress for another round, but she was gazing up into the sky. "Hey, what's that?" he asked, pointing at a contrail jetting off the Stark Tower. "Is that the trustfund nutjob with the jetpack?"
"It's New York, Joe. Don't look up, people will think you're a tourist."
"Looks like fun, really," Joe said wistfully. The screech of brakes and the blare of car horns drew his attention to a sudden snarl of black SUVs on the elevated street above the cafe. "What's your plan B, again?"
"Same as usual. Run like hell." Methos followed his gaze. "Those look like the same government cars that were in the lab footage, chasing Loki, evacuating from the disaster."
"Black vehicles filled with men in black? Funny." Joe's expression was anything but amused, as a very serious looking posse started to form a perimeter. "They aren't advancing. Waiting for reinforcements? Overkill, if you ask me."
"They may have traced the download to your wifi address here," Methos said sharply. "Up, Joe, we need to get out of here."
"No. They came too quickly. Somebody knew we were meeting, and used me to draw you in. That's on my bill. I pay."
"Come on, Joe. Out the kitchen, up the alley, hail a cab..."
"I don't do 'run'. It's Plan A for me."
"Nothing?" Methos narrowed his eyes. "You are absolutely forbidden to get yourself shot again. Give me your gun."
"What gun? This is Manhattan. I don't have a carry permit in New York."
"Then Plan A really does mean 'nothing.' I've taught you well."
"Well, that, and a little bullshit goes a long way, too. Wish me luck, sensei." Joe stood up straight and jammed his laptop into Methos' hands and the Iphone into his pocket. "Ditch these somewhere permanent. And down the line...quaff one for me."
"I'll meet you back here, right here, in two days. Be here. Or I'll raise new Horsemen to come after you," Methos said, his voice low and fierce and not quite civilized. And then he was gone.
Outwardly calm, Joe opened his wallet and dropped a bill on the table for the waitress, and then made his way to the sidewalk, just as another black SUV pulled up and disgorged four agents. Three pelted past him after Methos' rapidly cooling trail, while the fourth straightened his tie and politely held out his hand.
"Mr. Dawson, I'm Agent Coulson, of SHIELD. I've come to extend you an invitation to meet with Colonel Fury."
"She's called the Argus," Coulson announced proudly when they landed.
Colonel Fury's headquarters wasn't quite what Joe expected--an aircraft carrier seemed like an unlikely command post for an Army man, spymaster or no. Agent Coulson was not what he expected, either. The kidnapping was one of the most genial abductions that Joe had ever experienced in his long and checkered career.
That is, if he left out the hour long ride in the black helicopter. His belly was only just settling as he was escorted from the flight deck, and his appreciation of Coulson's hints about the carrier's advanced capabilities left something to be desired. After all, oddly shaped as it was, it was still just a glorified jet hangar and troop transport, and Navy territory. Joe's experiences in Vietnam had not endeared him to helicopters or aircraft carriers.
Coulson's promotional tour continued inside through a dark warren of metal catwalks. "So this is where the rest of my taxes go," Joe growled, unimpressed. Agent Coulson waited solicitously while he clumped up some metal stairs. "Guardrails could use some paint. And the acoustics suck." There were some remarkably open gangways. "Where are the watertight doors?"
"The new design cuts back on weight," Coulson explained without explaining, irritatingly amiable. "All recycled material from the Naval Shipyards or brand new Stark Technology. Where we're not gray, we're green."
"As long as it's not glowing. I've heard about the nuclear Navy."
Coulson showed Joe into a clean white room with a bunk, a table, and a laptop almost identical to his own. It also had a heavy door that looked remarkably watertight. "I'll be back soon. Here's some paperwork for you to sign. And waivers, of course," Coulson said apologetically.
"Waivers?" Joe read down through the first sheet, then paged quickly through the rest. "Are you out of your minds? This is a call up notice."
"Your file said you would be quick on the uptake, Lance Corporal Dawson," Colonel Fury entered in a swirl of polished leather and menace, and waved Coulson out. "For a Marine," he added, with just a shade of Army attitude.
"You're going to draft
me?" Joe asked, appalled. "You can't do that!"
"Once a Marine, always a Marine," Fury smiled, all teeth. "The Emergency Powers Act says I can call on intelligence assets through the Individual Ready Reserve. Consider yourself called to duty."
"I'm not in the Reserves," Joe said with a desperate stab at logic.
"But you are a Watcher. That makes you an intelligence asset," Fury said calmly. "And you are a Marine. The Marines don't take back the oath on discharge. When there's need, they serve. And we need you."
Joe tried a more practical and obvious observation. "Why me? I'm too old for this shit."
"Not nearly old enough to impress me," Fury grinned. "Methos, your friend now, he's impressive. And still leading my agents on a merry chase. But they'll catch up eventually. They aways do."
Joe clamped his jaw shut, and quickly reviewed his conversation with Methos. He hadn't said his name. Not once. He rarely did, at least not in public. The implication that Fury might know that Methos was not only Immortal, but the oldest Immortal, made his blood run cold. Joe had spent half his career hiding Methos' real identity from the Watchers. There were less than a handful of people who knew his true name. Weighing his options and considering the candidates, he let the silence stretch.
"I can call them off," Fury finally volunteered, clearly peeved at Dawson's lack of response, and apparently pressed for time.
Making a snap decision, Joe stared Fury in the eye. "You call them off, and I sign."
"Done." Fury reached across the table and pointed at the top document. "Here. And here."
"And then what, Fury?" Joe ask, scrawling his name angrily.
"That's Colonel Fury to you, Marine," Fury corrected. "Then what? Then you follow orders. I don't think you're too old to remember how that works."
"Yeah, yeah, it's coming back to me now," Joe snapped back, uncowed. "So what are my orders?"
Fury took a folder from his jacket. "You and your Watchers got into this mess by accessing eyes only SHIELD files. And I will find that leak. We've tolerated the Watchers until now because our missions do not conflict. Make no mistake, that can change. But right now, I need your network to do what it does best. Locate, observe, and report. Find one person for me, and we're done. He's dangerous, has killed before, will kill again. You can help stop him."
"Let me guess. Loki."
Colonel Fury took a step forward and slapped down the folder in front of Joe, looming, his face hardening in suspicion. "That name was not in the material I tracked to you."
"Just a lucky guess. I did a little research into why my plane was delayed. You never know what you might find on You Tube." A little looming didn't faze Joe after twenty years of watching MacLeod. "And Google is a grand invention, Colonel Fury, sir!" He snapped to attention and delivered a rusty salute that went three steps over the line of insubordination to cover the inner relief he felt. Fury was tracking the Captain America download, not Methos' footage of Loki. That made Methos a lever to guarantee Joe's behavior, not a target himself.
"You'd better hope you stay lucky. Find him. Then we'll talk about reclassifying the Watchers as an eccentric social club. Find him quickly, and we'll talk about mislaying your recruiting papers."
"Maybe someone in your organization is playing both ends against the middle," Joe said in a lower, more reasoning tone. "Do you know anyone who might want SHIELD to take down the Watchers?"
"Or use the Watchers to spy on SHIELD?" Fury turned the question around, making it sound like an accusation. "You've got your assignment. Find Loki." With that final order, Fury gathered up the forms and swept out of the room, the leather jacket trailing like a cape. The door shut with a nautical clang.
Joe took a deep breath and tried to relax, all too conscious he was probably being watched. He was fairly sure that Fury was gaslighting him about how much he knew about Watchers and Immortals, but his threat had teeth. The Watchers did not need SHIELD as an enemy.
Joe's shoulders and back remained locked in long forgotten military knots even as his anger ebbed and anxiety grew. Finally, he settled wearily at the table and flipped open the laptop. It was loaded. FBI, Interpol, facial recognition software, webcams worldwide.
He could start with some dangerous Immortal alerts, add some hunter warnings, issue the Watcher equivalent of a worldwide all points bulletin. He could, but it would betray every Watcher asset to Shield across the globe.
For a very long time, he didn't touch a key.
Methos ended up hopping cabs all the way to New Jersey, where he owned a modest-but-profitable gambling establishment under one of the few names that he had forgotten to share with Joe over the years. He found the owner's suite to be tidy and empty, but not too clean for comfort. His library, taking up an entire wall of the suite, appeared undisturbed, and just dusty enough, as he'd left it last.
The hot tub had been recently used, which pleased him, because he didn't really trust employees who didn't take reasonable advantage of available perks when the boss was gone. They tended to be less invested in their jobs, and less likely to protect his overall interests. Particularly, his privacy.
Methos parted the curtains and surveyed the street and the sky. No black cars. No black helicopters, either. And as far as he could determine, no camouflaged drones. Privacy was getting to be hard work to maintain, these days.
He'd turned off Joe's Iphone and disabled the GPS. The laptop had been regretfully consigned to the Hudson River. However, the hard drive still weighed down a pocket in his coat. He drew it out and plucked a modern translation of Herodotus from the shelves. He'd hollowed it out in a fit of pique at the translator--the harddrive fit perfectly.
Joe's latest work, safely stashed. Methos refused to entertain the possibility it might be his last.
Then, using the dedicated and shielded house phone, he dialed Amanda. Unpredictably, she answered.
"You rang?" she said in a deep voice, before breaking into a light laugh. "It's been ages!"
"When can you free your schedule? I have a caldarium and a room with a view of the Stark Tower." He didn't give his current name, she didn't ask.
"Intriguing, as always, dear friend. I've always wanted to survey the Tower. It's gleaming marble, it's shining alabaster..."
"I may have a job for you that requires your special talents."
Amanda became all business. "A professional extraction?"
"Professional, and personal, for both of us. We have a musician-sized hole in our lives. He's been ushered away. We may have to spirit him back."
"From the Stark Tower?" Amanda asked, clearly warming to the task.
"From SHIELD," Methos replied apologetically.
"Oh. Dear. Someone has abandoned a good deal of common sense."
"I'll be happy if you can tell that to Joe in person," Methos said tersely.
"I wasn't talking about Joe," Amanda warned.
"When can you come?" Methos asked, refusing to be insulted.
"Two days, if I stay off the grid. I won't be able to use the usual connections out of Malta, I'm afraid." Amanda was in Europe. That was inconvenient.
"Stay off the grid, by all means," Methos advised. "If he doesn't show up in two days, I'll know where he isn't, and have a very good idea where he might be."
"Pack your parachute. In fact, pack two."
There weren't any clocks in the room, and the men in black had taken Joe's watch and wallet and other loose possessions. There was even an app that had frozen time on the computer, which Joe found slightly creepy. The interval was long enough to hit the narrow rack for a long session of staring at the overhead before the opening door roused him. He only had a vague idea of how much time had passed before Agent Coulson returned to the room carrying a thermos of coffee, two cups and a sandwich.
"Colonel Fury is very irked with your lack of progress," Coulson said sadly, sounding deeply disappointed himself. "We had high hopes that your sense of duty and Marine oath would override your conflicting career...interests."
Joe pushed himself to his feet, wincing. The prostheses had been on too long, and he'd pay for that later. Business came first. Beckoning to Coulson to look over his shoulder, he opened the laptop and navigated to Twitter. Logging in on his cover WorldWatch account, he sent a quick tweet: "@SeeingEyeMike: I know who you are and I see what you did-tell me where I find L, or #tribune
takes charge. You are unShielded. Resp 5 minutes."
"Twitter? Seriously?" Agent Coulson asked, appalled.
"It's easy to hide information in a firehose full of data like Twitter. Normally the code would be more opaque, but you wanted a quick response." Joe poured himself some coffee, and offered a cup to Coulson, who accepted gratefully. They shared the sandwich while they waited, and pried information out of each other.
"Why wait til now? You could have tweeted hours ago."
"It's no fun working miracles without an audience," Joe said, with what he hoped was a mysterious smile. "Besides, it took me a while to figure all the angles."
"How did you figure out that Mike was our agent in the Watchers?" Coulson asked, professionally intrigued.
"Process of elimination. That, and the fact he's jammed me up before. Ancient history now. That's what's wrong with recruiting double agents. It's so easy for them to turn again, and again, until they triple down. Information becomes currency, to be traded, rather than the goal of a mission, to be accomplished."
Joe's eyes swept his twitter notices as they spoke. The #WorldWatch
hashtag had gone almost silent after Joe ran the #tribune
alarm up the twitter flagpole. The Watchers were spooked. They should be.
"What if he doesn't answer?" Coulson sounded worried.
"Then I expose him as a SHIELD snitch and he exposes me as the interfering busybody that I am. Then we're both burned for no return, aren't we?" Joe said. "We'll both be locked out of the Watcher network, and they withdraw and retrench. Even if he does answer, I'll have to come up with a hell of a cover story down the line for the tribune. Not that Fury's factoring that into the equation."
"Colonel Fury is protective of all his agents," Coulson said definitively, not necessarily understanding the tribune reference, but catching the whiff of underlying risk.
"You're an optimist. Amazing, in your line of work." Joe leaned back to take a longer look at the agent. He felt an irrational urge to bask in the reflected warmth of the man's hero worship for Nick Fury.
"I try to maintain a positive attitude. You must as well, to take this kind of chance. For instance, what if this Mike decides to give his information to Fury directly, and denounces you on an open twitter link? You'd be discredited in both organizations."
"It all depends on whether or not he's more scared of me and my friends, or of you and your friends. Want to put a ten spot on it?"
"I'd feel guilty about taking your money. But I would live. You're on." Coulson glanced at his watch, and then announced, "Thirty seconds left."
As the count hit ten seconds, Joe shrugged. "Unlucky at love and gambling. Story of my life. You'll have to get my wallet back from the guards in order to be paid."
With 2 seconds left, a tweet blossomed on the screen. "@BluesManGroup: hold fast. Herculean task in Stuttgart. Repeat. Stuttgart. L flying Lernaean charter. Beware the last head."
Letting out a pent-up breath, Joe squinted at the screen. "Stuttgart. Okay. That's a long way from upstate New York, but not impossible. Still, you must have the major airports covered."
Coulson took over the laptop, tapping keys at a furious rate. "I'm tripling the eyes on Stuttgart, and putting it at the top of our list of possibilities. This time I'm putting my money on you, Joe," he said, flashing a grin and sliding over a ten dollar bill.
"I appreciate the vote of confidence," Joe said dryly. "Maybe I can use it to wangle a weekend leave."
Then a cloud eclipsed Coulson's enthusiasm. "No such charter as Lernaean Air to or from the eastern seaboard. Or out of Germany."
"Huh. Not surprising. It's probably a hint, not a proper name. You know in my file where it says 'historian?' That's not a cover. It's a job description. And we're all drilled in the Classics, including Greek and Roman myths. Immortals are very...mythic. Like your Loki, for instance. Trickster. Shapeshifter. Larger than life, with a hint of magic."
"What does Lernaean Air stand for? Will it change our search grid?"
"I have no idea," Joe confessed honestly, to both questions. "Hercules was tasked with twelve labors--during the second, he had to go to a lake called Lerna and slay the poisonous beast that guarded the gates of the Underworld. It's also known as the Lernaean Hydra. As far as I know, it didn't fly. It had a lot of heads, if that helps."
Coulson paled. "It helps." He grabbed the laptop, slammed it closed and pelted for the door. A belated "Thanks!" floated after him as the door closed with disturbing note of permanency.
"You're welcome," Joe said for the benefit of hidden cameras. Then he pushed his way over to the narrow bunk, eased out of his prostheses, turned his back on the room, and shut his eyes. If there was one thing he remembered from his first time in the Marines, it was the fact that there was never, ever, enough time to sleep.
Still, one thought kept sleep at bay for a long time. "Beware the last head", the last line Mike had sent. According to myth, the last head of the Hydra was immortal.
Methos plotted his next move on the theory that nobody would be looking for him in the places that they had already searched. Travelling back into Manhattan on a motorcycle in a dark helmet with leather leggings and coat, he haunted the buildings overlooking the Central Cafe until he found an empty apartment over a competing restaurant across and down the street.
He bought a burner phone to check Joe's bat signal, accessing his anonymous dropbox decorated with a gif of Gotham City. There was the old fashioned searchlight bat signal, the urban noir landscape, even a little signpost that proclaimed "To the Batcave". Methos amused himself by uploading a mildly scandalous drawing of Robin in a moonlit alley gazing soulfully at the bat signal. Mild by Methos' standards, anyway.
Twenty four hours, then Methos' arbitrary grace period would elapse. If Joe wasn't released by then, Methos would execute his own version of an old-fashioned writ of habeus corpus. And then the wild hunt would begin.
He threw open the grimy window to air the garlicky smell in the apartment. Then he rapidly shut it, as the restaurant fan below blew oily kitchen smoke upward into his face. Throughout the night the spicy smell of roasting goat permeated the air, tickling his memories, as he carefully sharpened his sword.
Sleep turned out to be more of a theory than an application over the next dozen or so hours, as Agent Coulson darted in and out with lists of seemingly random twitters, facebook entries and blog articles for Joe to mark up for possible layered historical inferences and leads. Joe's output was pathetically small in his own opinion, but Coulson seemed pleased at the progress, so he didn't complain. Much.
"What about this one?" Coulson pointed at a pinterest page. "Is Galaga a myth, too? It sounds legendary."
Joe laughed. "Galaga's a video game. Way before your time, kid. Think Next Generation Space Invaders, with cooler aliens and faster ships. I used to play it at the Vet center, eons ago. You know, the dark ages. In the seventies. Before you were born."
"Surely not," Coulson answered politely, eyes twinkling. "I think I'm getting stale. I'm seeing Hydra everywhere," he sighed, discarding the entry.
"When was the last time you ate?" Joe asked, staring at him expectantly.
Coulson took a few seconds too long to think. "Was it a sandwich? Was it your sandwich?"
"It was. About a half a day ago? Another half day, I go on a hunger strike. If you're planning on feeding me on bread and water you're going to have to bring me some bread."
"Sorry, Joe. When they made this section off limits, our guest procedures broke down."
"You mean when they locked down the brig?" Joe translated. "I heard more doors slam a while back. Not on my account, that's apparent. Nobody here is scared of me. So you got Loki?"
"We got Loki. I'll see about finding you better quarters and a decent meal--I'm hoping this is the start of a beautiful friendship."
"In your dreams," Joe retorted, but without sting. "Though you're not half bad for an entrenched spy for the military industrial complex. You've got the Good Cop vibe down pat. I'd roll over and confess all my sins, but I wouldn't want to send you back to Fury in a state of shock."
Coulson laughed. "I should introduce you to Tony Stark. I get the feeling the sparring would be epic. I'd just sit back and take notes."
"Flattery will get you a free beer. I'm easy. But a Captain of Industry is a little too rarified company for a Lance Corporal confined to the cooler," Joe reminded. "Though I guess I should feel honored to be bunking in same brig as a semi-demigod like Loki," Joe ruminated. "Fury's idea?"
"Actually, our regular guest quarters are currently occupied by another new team. But I'll talk to Colonel Fury about..." Before Coulson could finish the sentence, the carrier was rocked by a deep boom. The ship groaned and began to list. Coulson was out the door before the echo died. "Back soon, Joe!" he promised as the door clanged shut.
Joe was not partial to explosions. Memories he normally kept strapped down deep in his psyche tended to clamor for attention during fireworks. On edge, he donned his prostheses again, and made occasional circuits of the room to keep from stiffening up, until a second explosion and steeper list knocked him off his feet. The lights flickered, and went out.
The space under the bunk made a mediocre foxhole, but that's where Joe found himself when the ringing in his ears let up and the lizard part of his brain stopped hissing. "That's what you get when you let the Army drive a perfectly good ship," he complained to the hidden microphones.
He wondered if they were being hit by missiles or mines. The thought being locked in while the ship went down like the Arizona killed his mood completely. He did hear more smaller bangs and explosions, at a distance. But he didn't hear the rush of seawater, or smell the tang of salt, which was small comfort for a short time. Strange, though, not to smell the sea at all on a ship at sea. And there were no alarms. No call to General Quarters. Despite Agent Coulson's optimistic assurances, something was rotten on the good ship Argus.
Light footsteps passed, distant, closer, gone, pursued by something large and heavy. Without warning, his solid steel cell door bulged as something enormous tumbled violently down the gangway. The seam burst, letting in a gleam of light. Joe saw the flash of something green passing the cell door in the dull emergency lights in the corridor, then darkness descended again. Periodic pounding made the walls vibrate until finally fading away to the stern.
Shots. Those were definitely shots fired. Close enough to echo, too far away to smell the stench of gunpowder. Without thinking, Joe reached for his service M16, his hand closing on air. He clenched his fist. It had been a long time since he'd done that.
More time passed, and the list grew more pronounced, but again, no water rushed in. Suddenly, very nearby, there was an anguished cry that curled Joe's hackles. He strained to hear almost imagined voices beyond the door. The taste of the air changed, from steel to a sweet, sickly iron scent that Joe knew all too well. Blood.
Without warning, something uncoupled and swished open, very nearby. Joe's ears popped as air sucked out the seam in the door until the pressure equalized. They still seemed watertight.
Again, the weak drone of voices, just beyond hearing. The conversation was brought to an end by an electrical whine that struck his straining ears like an icepick, followed by a cell-shaking blast. His ears rang so badly that he almost missed the announcement over the PA. "All hands to crash positions, immediately."
Joe forced a breath out through clenched teeth. "Now he tells us."
He smelled more smoke, with an electrical tang, and imagined a spitting short circuit, or a burning transformer. There could be nothing good about smoke on a ship, no matter the size or the source of the fire. The smoke thinned, overcome by a sharp whiff of ozone. The scent of blood lingered. Crouched on the floor in the dark, he re-imagined the cell. No weapons. No fire extinguisher.
Finally, with a cranky whine, an engine began working again somewhere to port, or what Joe had arbitrarily designated as port, and the list lessened. Joe stood and felt his way across the uneven floor, intending to try to force the door. Using his hardwood cane as a lever, he leaned his whole upper body into the job. Somewhat to his dismay, the door swung open easily and he had to catch himself on the frame, to the grim amusement of Colonel Fury's escort of guards gathered outside.
Fury himself was merely grim. "Going somewhere?"
Joe squared himself, and pulled off his snappiest salute, managing not to knock himself over on the tilted deck. "Lance Corporal Dawson reporting for duty." A proper drill instructor would have strung him up for the sarcastic tone. Then he'd catch hell for saluting in his civvies.
"Well, hurray for the Marines," Fury shot back with even more bite. "Too bad the Corps didn't make it out in time to keep Loki from getting away."
"I guess there's no percentage in pointing out the flaw in that argument," Joe said, backing off. Grunts never won that battle with officers. "So. The situation was fubared. New assignment. Point the way, and I'll start looking for Loki again."
"Communications are out. Satlinks fried. Even if your little twitter scam worked twice in a row, we couldn't run it."
"Then put me on the ground," Joe demanded.
"Will you find him?" Fury asked. Not can, but will.
"You can set Agent Coulson on me as a watchdog."
"Agent Coulson is not available."
Joe took in the stains on the corridor floor, the hole where the glass chamber had been, and the deep, deadly chill in Fury's eyes. "Where's Agent Coulson?" he asked.
"Agent Coulson is not available." Fury turned on his heel, beckoning to one of his men. "Set the Lance Corporal up with a spyscope and call number. I do need eyes and ears on the ground, and I can't spare any more good men on twits."
Stung, Dawson fired back. "Trust me or throw me off the fantail. This half-assed recruiting scam is for amateurs."
Fury whirled, pinning him with his one angry eye. "The fantail idea is appealing, and might do wonders for morale, but I'll have to decline that option. It's against regulations." He brooded a moment longer. "I may not trust you, but Coulson did, and that earns you one pass. Just one." With a quick underhand flick, he tossed Joe a cell phone. "Get your boots on the ground, Dawson."
"Joe? Are you okay?"
Joe kept his eyes on the approaches to Stark Tower, mentally marking down characters and vehicles that didn't seem to fit. The afternoon sun lit the Central Cafe's sidewalk tables, but he sat in the shadows, pulling his coat around him against the spring chill.
"Joe?" Methos repeated, sliding into the chair next to him, eyes darting about the crowd before again settling on his companion.
"Are you okay?"
"Fine. Good. I'm fine, too," Methos said carefully. Mirroring Joe's posture, he studied the passersby as well. "How was the helicopter tour?"
"Not my finest hour," Joe admitted, exhaling slowly. He pinched the bridge of his nose, letting his eyes rest a few seconds. "But I think you can cut me loose safely for now. Fury has other fish to fry than Watchers and their peccadillos. That is, if you were honest about Thor and Loki not playing the Game."
"Honest as the night is long," Methos promised. "Asgardians aren't even kissing cousins. We can barely feel each other. Just an occasional change in pitch in the background noise of humanity. Like listening to traffic on a distant highway. Thor was a Veyron in a pack of Volkswagens."
"Is that what I sound like? A Beetle?" Joe asked, a little bit dismayed.
"You, Joe? Never. You project. Loud and throaty, like a little red corvette," Methos said magnanimously.
"Now I know you're full of shit, and everything is almost back to normal."
Methos lost his smile. "Loki isn't normal. If SHIELD is toying with him, they're out of their depth. And I, for one, don't want to stick around to see the body count."
"Then you're off the hook. Good time for a vacation. Send a postcard." Joe pulled out Fury's phone, and turned it on. "Typical. Still going to voice mail." Quickly he rapped out a report. "More unmarked vans in a convoy, going north toward the Stark Tower. An even dozen in the last hour."
"Forward operating post or artillery observer, Joe?" Methos asked acidly. "Here, you might need this as a backup." He slid across Joe's Iphone.
Joe snatched it up and assaulted it with a storm of texts. "Yep. Watchers concur it is probably Loki up in the tower, partying in Stark's pad. If Fury would just answer his damn phone!" he snarled into a final voicemail.
"Now, can we blow this pop stand?" Methos asked, plaintive.
Punching the off button, Joe met Methos' eyes squarely for the first time. "You shouldn't have come back for me. But I'm glad you did. Thanks, man. But what are you still doing here?" he asked.
"Do you know what I went through, waiting for you these last two days? I spent all night and most of today watching for you over a shawarma shop! I'll never get the smell of spiced goat out of my coat," Methos sulked. "I feel jilted."
"Take it easy. I'm just holding down the fort for a few more hours. Literally, I'm phoning this job in. There's nothing to it. But I still want to see what happens. This Loki character has SHIELD running scared, and that should scare the hell out of all of us."
Methos' face twisted into something resembling pain. Or indigestion.
"What now?" Joe demanded.
"I'm trying to channel my inner MacLeod."
"Well, don't hurt yourself. And don't say I didn't warn you."
With that settled, Joe went back to watching the Stark Tower, and Methos went back to watching Joe.
******On To Part Two