Apparently when Norse gods weren’t getting kicked out by annoyed parents, or trying to kill one another, they tended to keep to themselves. It had been a week since Clint, as he preferred to be called (and Darcy couldn’t help but wonder how annoying it was for him to get a coffee from Starbucks), was put on scientist-babysitting duty, and there had been nary a sign of Thor or any of his friends. It was like he’d forgotten he’d ever stepped foot on Earth. Jane was starting to seriously mope, and even on days where cloud cover was minimal, there wasn’t a whole lot of work getting done. There also wasn’t a whole lot of course work getting done, since Darcy was still waiting on her books to get in from Amazon. Rather than sit alone in a cold, depressing hotel room, with nought but her laptop to keep her busy, she spent her time in the slightly less cold and depressing lab with Clint watching over her shoulder as she obsessively refreshed Facebook and Tumblr.

“Is this all you guys do?” Clint asked. He leaned forward and pointed at an infographic. Darcy clicked it to make it slightly easier to read.

“It’s cloudy today, so yep. We don’t have one of those X-ray thingies.” She wrinkled her nose, trying to remember the word for it. “Hey, Jane! What don’t we have? Some electron-scope-whatever?” she called out.

“Radio telescope,” Jane called back tiredly.

“Yeah, that. We don’t have that. We have to do all our star-gazing old-school, and the clouds get in the way or something.” Honestly, Darcy barely understood any of it. This was supposed to be her burn-out relief before getting serious about a career in politics, and she was all too happy to spend as much of the term as possible wasting time on the internet.

But not too much time, because she still had six credits worth of lit and writing to pass. The writing was fine, but the lit was in seriously dire straits without the books she needed.

“Hey, has anything been delivered today?” she asked the room at large.

She got a vague chorus of nos from Jane and Erik, and an indifferent headshake from Clint. It turned out that’s just how he always looked—either bored, or like he was going to shank someone without warning—no matter what his mood.

“What are you waiting on?” he asked.

“My books for this class. I’m already behind because Amazon’s taking their sweet time, apparently.” Darcy frowned and clicked over to Amazon’s site, hoping to at least get a shipping update.

“Why don’t you just download them?” asked Clint, not even bothering to do the decent thing and look away while she typed in her password.

“Dude, you work for the government. Isn’t that entrapment?” Darcy was pretty sure that was the dictionary definition of entrapment. Clint only answered with a shrug.

“Yeah, with all the suits crawling around this town right now, I am not even going to risk jaywalking.” She found her order in the depths of Amazon’s confusing site map, and immediately saw the problem with her order.

“Great. Just what I need,” she muttered.

She started the daily dance of gathering up everything that had migrated from her bag and cramming it all back in.

“Hey, boss lady, I have to go to Bloomfield. Need anything?” she asked.

Jane turned to give her an almost comically suspicious look. “What’s in Bloomfield?” she asked.

Darcy got up and started making for the door. “My books, since the post office here doesn’t exist anymore, and Amazon wouldn’t ship to the hotel.”

Jane shook her head and waved her on.

“Need company?” Clint asked.

Darcy almost considered saying yes. Almost. “No offence, but I think I need some me-time.”

Clint nodded. “All right. How long will it take? I need to call it in.”

And if that wasn’t just about one of the creepiest things Darcy had ever heard, she wasn’t sure what was. “I don’t know. Hour and a half, if I’m lucky and don’t pass any cops. I probably won’t be back here though. I’m like, way behind on my homework and need to get caught up.”

“Right. Have fun,” Clint said. It didn’t sound like he meant it, but he’d been out there in that giant litter pan almost as long as she had, so he probably knew just how fun driving nearly ninety miles round-trip could be.

AKA, not fun at all.

She left before Clint had the chance to tell her she was going to be tailed by a suspicious unmarked car, or something else equally disturbing.

She’d driven all the way down to New Mexico from Virginia, cramming all of the essentials into the back of her old Taurus—mini-fridge and a microwave she bought for her dorm, DVD player, her big book of burned DVDs, laptop, clothes, knitting bag, vibrator. Everything a growing college girl needs. She kept her car parked at the hotel, because no matter how bad the weather got, she couldn’t quite justify driving the three blocks across town to get to the lab. And now it was just more convenient, since she could walk around giant potholes a lot easier than she could drive around all of them.

She got down to the hotel and slipped into her car. If she was expecting a reprieve from the cold weather outside, she was sorely disappointed. If anything, it seemed even colder inside the car than it did out on the pavement.

“Worst desert ever,” she complained as she slotted the key into the ignition and started the car. She let the engine warm up for a few long moments before pulling out onto the road, taking the long way around to get onto the 550 toward Bloomfield. “Deserts are supposed to be hot! Warm up, car. I want the heater on.”

The drive was completely boring, with nothing along the way save sand and sagebrush, and eventually some of those weird green circles you could sometimes see from aeroplanes. Every now and then, the wind would kick a sheet of dust onto the road, making the car want to suddenly hop over into the next lane. Luckily, no-one else ever drove that stretch of highway, so if Darcy did find herself straying over the centre line, there was little danger of hitting anyone.

She got to the post office without killing anybody, and even managed to find a place to park right up next to the door. The woman inside gave her a sympathetic look when Darcy gave her the information for the parcel, which only made her wonder what the SHIELD-spun story had managed to turn into on its rounds through the rumour and conspiracy mill. Not really wanting to deal with finding out, Darcy took her books back to her car as quickly as possible.

Even though she knew what was in the box, she opened it anyway. Perhaps she just needed to actually hold the books in her hands to make the whole thing feel real. If this was what the rest of the term’s reading list was going to be like, she couldn’t wait to get started on the comparative literary merits of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Actually eager to get back and get started on her reading, Darcy tossed the books onto the passenger seat and started the car again. The sun was already starting to set, and the last thing Darcy wanted was to do a desert drive in the dark with the possibility of crazy Space Vikings wandering around somewhere out there. Though, really, with her luck she’d just run over a giant tortoise or a burro or something.

She followed the highway southbound, squinting against the setting sun that no amount of sun-visor-yoga would block. If she twisted the stupid thing around any more, it was likely to break right off. And that was the exact opposite of what she wanted. Darcy was so busy fiddling with it that she didn’t even see the guy hitching until she’d almost passed him. At least, she thought he was hitching. He was closer to Bloomfield than Puente Antiguo, but if he’d broken down between the two, Darcy hadn’t seen the car on the side of the road anywhere. She pulled over and checked her mirrors, on the off-chance someone was tailgating her. Seeing the coast clear for miles, she backed up and opened the passenger door for the hitcher. Even in the dimming light, as she craned down to look up at him through the open door, she realised immediately that he wasn’t hitching at all. Someone had gone out of their way to fuck him up. He was barefoot, handcuffed, and the clothes he’d probably stolen (judging by the way the jacket he wore had been put on after the handcuffs) were stained with blood.

“Jesus, buddy. Do you want a ride?” Darcy asked, flashing another look behind her for anyone who might be after the guy.

It took him a few seconds to even look up at her. No sooner had his gaze met hers, Darcy slammed her foot down on the accelerator with a string of creative swearing. She hardly even had the time to process exactly who he was before she reacted, but the more distance between herself and that Loki creep, the better. Of all the people in all the world, she had to offer Loki a lift. Christ, who even let him out?

Or perhaps more accurately, who let him escape?

“Oh, shit. Fuck, should have brought Clint,” Darcy told herself. She checked her mirror again, watching Loki hunch up into his coat where she’d left him on the side of the road.

He hadn’t looked like he was in that bad of shape from the photo Coulson was showing them. But that was almost a week earlier, and Coulson said Loki had been handed over to some other agency. Even after PATRIOT, there were laws against beating the shit out of prisoners. But wasn’t that the whole crux of the mutant debate? Laws only apply to human beings. Darcy briefly wondered how close she was to Roswell. Before she could properly contemplate that particular thought, her stomach lurched hard enough to make her want to be sick. She stopped thinking about Roswell and all the crap that may or may not have happened there. But this SWORD thing, whatever the hell they were. They were supposed to be the good guys, right? Loki, even if he was a creep, was still a sentient being.

A sentient being from another planet, delivered to some shady government organisation by another shady government organisation. A nice, long prison sentence never was in the cards, from day one.

Before Darcy could even talk herself out of it, she turned round and sped back toward Bloomfield. With the sun almost completely set, she had to focus more on the opposite side of the road if she was going to have any chance of finding Loki in the dark. Finally, she spotted him still trudging along the shoulder. Shaking her head at her own stupidity, Darcy turned round again and caught him up. Even as she pulled over, she knew this was a monumentally stupid thing to do. But at least if everything went wrong, she wouldn’t be alive long enough to be embarrassed by her own stupidity. Gathering up all her nerve, Darcy pulled up alongside Loki and opened the door again.

“You better get in before someone sees you,” she said uneasily. “I’ve got a shower. You can at least get clean before you become America’s Most Wanted.”

Terribly stupid. She’d never forgive herself for it, but she’d have never forgiven herself if she didn’t, either.

Loki looked over at her as if he had no idea what was even going on around him. But Darcy was surprised he was even standing, let alone having managed to get away without being caught. Finally, he seemed to have got the hint and climbed gracelessly into the car, knocking the books aside. He looked down at them, as if their very existence offended him to his core.

“Sorry,” Darcy said as she moved them from the centre cup holder and tossed them into the back seat.

As she twisted back around, she caught the sight of his wrists. In the yellow light from above, it was clear he’d been on the receiving end of something seriously not cool, and that he’d done everything in his power to get as far away as possible. The handcuffs had dug into his skin, and it almost looked like he’d actually tried to chew his way out at one point.

“I might be able to…” Darcy started awkwardly. She reached for her handbag and dug around the bottom, finding an old bobby pin. “Here. Let me see your hands.”

She couldn’t begin rationalise what she was doing, so she didn’t even try. Loki was far less dangerous while handcuffed, but she’d already gone this far down the rabbit hole, so why not?

She kept her attention on the rear-view mirror as she bit the pin, tearing off the plastic beads on the ends and straightening it out into more of an L-shape. Reaching out carefully for the handcuffs, Darcy took a steeling breath and tried not to think about the amount of trouble she was getting herself into. She thought instead of cheap sex-shop handcuffs, and losing the key down between the bed and the wall. Cheap sex-shop handcuffs were pretty much the same as the real thing, right?

Loki watched her tiredly as she fed the pin into the keyhole, trying to remember which way to twist it. She fished around, this way and that, trying to find something to catch against. She hardly took her eyes off the rear-view mirror, ignoring the way her hands were starting to tremble as she worked the bobby pin in the keyhole. Finally, she felt something catch as she turned the pin, but even after it clicked, nothing released.

“What the… Wait.” She found the catch more easily this time and twisted it in the opposite direction. It was a tricky, tedious affair, but finally the first cuff came loose just long enough for Loki to get his hand free. He jerked away from her so hard he nearly fell out of the open passenger door. Darcy flinched away, slamming herself against her own door and curling in toward it to get as far away as possible in case he started taking swings at her. After a few moments of no-one hitting anyone, Darcy gathered up the nerve to turn back to face Loki. He was tugging on the cuff that was still locked around his other wrist, trying to pull it off as well.

“I can do that one too,” she said timidly.

He gave her that look again, like he didn’t understand a word she said. It wasn’t until she pointed at his wrists that he connected the dots and offered his hand over. Darcy worked the same process with the second cuff, twisting the pin first one way, and then the other until the lock released. Loki pulled away more slowly this time, looking down to inspect the damage done to his hand and wrist.

Darcy watched him in the dim light. It was even more apparent, with him more or less still and focused on something else, that someone had gone seriously Roswell on him. There were what were clearly puncture marks on the side of his neck, right over where she figured his jugular must be, and there was a dried stream of blood down the side of his face, starting from under his hair. Which, now that she looked at it, some of his hair had been shaved away, the rest a matted, sticky mess. Darcy was no doctor, but there was usually only one reason to shave someone’s hair like that. If she thought about it anymore, she knew she was going to be sick, right there in the footwell of her own car. So she focused instead on putting her handbag into the back seat.

“Can you shut the door?” she asked carefully. “I was serious about that offer of a shower. If you want it.”

Loki stared at her as she spoke, and as confusion and annoyance and complete and utter despair washed over his features, Darcy was certain that he really didn’t understand a single word she said. She had no idea how he’d got so far from whoever had done this to him, but she no longer cared. This was everything the mutant rights movement fought against, sitting in her car and staring at her like a lost child.

“Your door,” Darcy said, tapping at hers and the pointing at his. “Close it so we can go.”

She could see the moment her instructions clicked with him. He pulled the door shut with a loud bang, and Darcy would have cringed for the sake of her car if not for the overhead light going out, only making her decision suddenly very real. It was almost completely dark with no-one around for miles, and she’d invited a psychopath into her car. Brilliant.

Definitely not thinking about it, Darcy put the car into gear and got back onto the road. As she drove, she cast occasional glances to Loki, but he didn’t seem too interested in anything. If anything, he looked like he was getting kind of car sick. Of course he was. He flinched every time the car hit a bump, Darcy sincerely hoped he didn’t get sick. Her own puke in her car was fine. Gross, but fine. Someone else’s was unacceptable.

At least he stayed on his side of the car.