“Alright,” Natasha said, still slightly breathless, looking up from her phone. “Coulson says we’re safe in there.”
“Extraction?” Steve asked.
Natasha nodded, pushing back a strand of sweat-damp hair. “Twenty-four hours.”
Tony groaned loudly from where he was sitting, on the bare floor with still half his armor on—he’d only freed his upper body, and his arms were glistening with sweat, smudged with soot and marred with bruises.
“Twenty-four hours?” he protested. “Is he coming for us on snail’s back?”
“Knock it off, rich kid,” Clint said, ripping a piece of molten spandex from his burned shoulder. Stark may be bruised, but the rest of them were bruised and bloody and grimy. “I waited five entire days in a Russian cabin once. Almost froze my nuts off.”
Their banter had enough bite in it to reassure Steve that none of them had suffered any serious injuries. He turned round and asked, “How’s Banner?”
“Out cold,” Loki answered from across the room in his smooth voice. “But otherwise, and unsurprisingly, fine.”
He’d carried Bruce to their underground hideout and laid him down on the only cot they had. This would have been suspiciously helpful of him, if he hadn’t done it only to move things along as they retreated from the battlefield. The safe house was crappy and claustrophobic, bare damp cement with a single light bulb hanging down from the ceiling, and no furniture whatsoever save for that old camp bed, a broken oven, and a three-legged chair. Warzones in the Middle East didn’t get much fancier.
“Thor?” Steve called in his earpiece. “I think that’s enough—get down here.”
A last rumble of thunder shook the ground; then came the roaring noise of a heavy rain, which would ensure their pursuers stayed astray. The door opened on Thor, shaking his long hair to get rid of the first droplets; he closed it behind him and put Mjölnir on the ground before it. It was more symbolic than anything, but if Coulson said they were safe in there, it was the truth.
“Damn,” Tony said under his breath. “One whole day trapped in here. How lucky we’re all of reasonably-sized egos and amiable character.” He waited for a second, pondering, then declared, “I’m either gonna get killed or die of boredom.”
“Accurate,” Natasha murmured.
“I will take you on that bet,” Loki grinned.
“You—better shut it if you don’t wanna win it,” Clint snapped. “Even you should realize you do not want to piss off anyone right now.”
Loki’s smile only got wider. “Should I feel threatened? It would lay such terrible waste on our bright young alliance.”
“For once, I agree with Barton,” Stark said. “The only reason you’re here is because no one else knew how to operate an Infinity Gem.”
Loki opened his hands. “And I fulfilled my end of the deal, did I not? Not to mention I also, quite selflessly, saved all of our lives over that bridge.”
“That is not quite how I recall that part,” Thor groaned.
“Guys,” Steve said.
His tone was firm and stern enough for them all to stop.
“Tone it down. We’re going to stay here for a day. I don’t want anyone to kill Tony if we can avoid it.”
“Love you too, Cap,” Tony muttered as he cracked open his paralyzed left suit leg. “Jesus, finally.”
He painfully got up and stretched himself with a wince, muscles rolling under the black undersuit.
“Alright,” Steve said. “Get some rest, check your injuries. Coulson will be here soon.”
Bruce moved on his cot with a pained groan, and Clint crossed the room to go check on him. Loki’s lips were still stretched on a thin smirk, but he leaned against the wall and crossed his arms, content to watch for now. Thor clasped Tony and helped him sit back down, while Steve retreated next to Natasha, who’d pulled out a needle and thread from her first-aid kit and was busy stitching up her own thigh.
“Need a stitch?” she said casually.
Steve sighed and sat down next to her. “I’ll be fine.” He ran a hand over his face and looked around the room. Bruce was still out of it; Clint was glaring at Loki, who was staring at Thor, who tried to keep Tony from getting up again.
A whole day together in this tiny, glum room.
“Maybe ask me again in twenty-four hours,” Steve added.
Natasha smirked, then cut the thread with her teeth.
Unsurprisingly, Tony was the first to crack. “Ugh,” he said. “Come on. Let’s do something because at this point I’m seriously considering going back out there.”
“Why don’t you keep tinkering away with your toys?” Steve asked, looking at the remnants of the Iron Man suit which Tony had used to build a catapult, two tiny automatons and, inexplicably, a tin foil paper hen.
“I’m not a child, Rogers,” Tony said coldly, then ruined his effect by adding, “and I demand we play board games!”
“We could play poker,” Loki said brightly. “I’m good at poking.”
"No,” Thor and Clint said at once.
Loki raised his hands in mock surrender. “Very well. But I reckon it is only fair to warn you that I am getting bored as well.”
Tony scoffed as if this proved his point. “I’m bored, he’s bored, and Banner’s in the room,” he summed up. “If that doesn’t scream disaster to you, I doubt you’re qualified to lead the team at all.”
Everyone looked at Bruce, who’d just sat up and still looked very dazed. He blinked groggily, then gave them an owlish look. “Um. What?”
“We should play,” Clint said hastily.
“Indeed,” Thor approved. “There is no shame in passing time.”
“Dear me, brother,” Loki grinned. “I remember what usually follows that line. Who will you be attempting to fuck?”
Steve felt his worries escalate along with Thor’s eyebrows climbing to his hairline—but before he could answer, Loki jumped and yowled in pain.
“Whoops,” Clint said, putting down Tony’s miniature catapult which he’d accidentally unloaded right into Loki’s eye. “What are the odds, right? Hey—what?” he protested when Natasha batted the toy out of his hands.
“Remarkable aim,” Loki said, rubbing his eye with a snarling smile. “It reminds me of a story I heard—”
“Stop,” Steve said. “No stories. Everybody sit down. Doctor Banner: pick a game.”
They all more or less grudgingly sat in a circle, then looked at Bruce.
“Uh,” Bruce said in the sudden silence.
He seemed at a loss for a few seconds, looking around the room. “I… I don’t know a game for—I don’t think I’ve ever played with this many people,” he said eventually.
There was an awkward pause.
“Yeah, you’re more of a chess and checkers kind of guy,” Tony said.
“We used to play Monopoly back at the circus,” Clint supplied.
Natasha looked at him like he’d lost it. “Monopoly, Barton? If anything, we’d all kill each other faster.”
Loki perked up. “Tell me more.”
“Brother, be silent.”
“Guys,” Steve said again. “We don’t have a Monopoly anyway. We don’t even have a deck of cards.”
“So,” Bruce said softly. “What can we play?”
There was a silence.
“Truth or dare,” Clint said.
“No,” Steve said, horrified.
“Besides, Loki would cheat,” Tony added.
“I suppose gambling is off the table,” Natasha said.
“Not necessarily,” Loki smiled.
“Look,” Steve began, “maybe this isn’t such a good—”
“Miller’s Hollow!” Tony yelled.
They all looked at him and he flashed them a delighted grin. “It’s perfect,” he said. As he was still met with silence, he added, “What—the Wolves of Miller’s Hollow? Don’t you know how to play?”
“I do not,” Thor said before anyone else could speak. “Enlighten me.”
“Is that the billionaire’s name for the mafia game?” Clint asked.
“Steve,” Tony said, “give me a paper and a pen. Chop chop.”
Steve almost protested that it was drawing paper, but decided he’d rather sacrifice a sheet than wait out an inevitable and possibly deadly meltdown. He opened his bag, dug for his notebook and ripped a page, which Tony promptly shredded into tiny pieces.
“Okay,” he said, writing werewolf on one of them and villager on another, then turning them both face-down. “So, the game works in night and day shifts. We all pretend to be harmless villagers, but some of us have special powers, and some of us are really wolves.” He turned the werewolf card face up. “And every night, they come out and eat one of us. So during the day part, without revealing their identities, the villagers take a vote and lynch their primary suspect. But if they’re wrong, they just end up killing one of their own.” He turned up the villager card. “The villagers win when all wolves are dead, and the wolves win when the villagers are dead, outnumbered, or matched in numbers.”
“Tony,” Steve said. He tried to pick his words carefully, then gave up and said, “This sounds like a terrible idea.”
“What?” Tony protested.
“I concur,” Loki said, to everyone’s surprise.
“What?” Tony repeated, eyes wide. “It’s a mind game! You’re supposed to cheat and lie and hide who you are! Isn’t that perfect for you?”
“It does suit some of us in this room,” Loki shot back with a mean grin.
“Brother,” Thor groaned, “if your only goal is to bring mayhem—”
“It is not,” Loki said, exasperated. “This game is of no interest for me. I will always be killed first!”
There was a silence as they pondered this and realized he was right.
“Then you’ll just be game master,” Tony said, scribbling away. “Here.” He slapped a piece of paper in his hand, “your cheat sheet.”
Loki frowned at it.
Seer — can ask to see someone’s card. Duh.
Werewolves — do their thing. Also duh.
Witch — can heal one person and kill one person per game. Can be the same person. During the same night, even. But that’d be stupid.
Debate time. May the sneakiest speaker or luckiest bastard win.
Rinse and repeat.
“That clears it up,” Loki said sarcastically.
“You can’t make him game master!” Clint hissed. “Are you fucking crazy?”
Thor gave Steve a pointed look. “What do you think, my friend?”
Steve shrugged. Loki looked interested enough by the game, and they did need a distraction. It was the most harmless solution they’d come up with so far.
“Sure,” he said. “Sounds cathartic, if anything.”
“I don’t know these cards,” Natasha objected. “Where’s the fool? And the hunter?”
“We don’t need a hunter,” Tony said.
“Yes we do,” Clint said, forgetting that he didn’t want to play. “The hunter’s the best card.”
“What about the devil?” Natasha went on. “Or Cupid? Or the scapegoat? Or the little girl? And we might need mere villagers.”
“It’s unsettling how well you know this game,” Tony told her. “Look, I’m doing the cards from the version I know, okay? A bunch of villagers… two wolves… there’s the seer who can see people’s cards… the witch, who can raise the dead, but only once per game—she can also kill someone but again, only once… then the hunter—”
“Thank fuck for that,” Clint grumbled.
“—who can kill someone right back if he’s killed or lynched… aaand the little girl, who can open her eyes during the wolves’ round.”
“Why is it a little girl?” Thor asked, frowning.
“Fuck if I know,” Tony shrugged. “Anyway, if she’s spotted, she’s automatically eaten. And… that’s it. I think. That’s probably it. Okay? Everyone clear?”
As far as Tony’s explanations went, this one was actually one of the clearest they’d ever gotten, and they’d have to work with that. Steve was pretty sure he’d gotten the basic gist of it; and even if he hadn’t, they weren’t sitting idle riling each other up anymore. He’d get the hang of the rules as they played.
Tony gave the pieces of paper to Loki, who read them for a silent minute. Then he glanced around. “Are we all playing?” he said with the shadow of a smile.
“Uh,” Bruce said feebly. “It’s… I don’t think I’ll—”
“Brucie,” Tony complained. “We won’t be enough players without you.”
“Indeed,” Loki grinned. “This game demands a monster within.”
Bruce paled a little and Clint barked, “Hey!”
“What?” Loki said innocently. “Fools, hunters, liars and beasts—and me as the game master.” He laughed a little. “I can’t see now how we’d play anything else. This is our common truth.”
“Jesus,” Clint growled. “You’re so fucking predictable it hurts. You think you can use this against us.” He snatched his piece of paper from Loki’s hands. “You know what? It’s fine. Challenge accepted. We’re gonna play your damn game, and you won’t get anything out of it. ‘Cause we’re a whole team against you.”
“I did not expect any less,” Loki said, infuriatingly.
He dealt the rest of the cards. The Avengers all accepted their paper identities with various frowns and huffs. It was a wonder how absolutely no one looked happy.
It’s just a game, Steve reminded himself a little anxiously. Then he looked down at his own card.
He glanced up at Loki, who winked at him, then proclaimed, “The night has fallen.” His voice was smooth and delighted when he added, “Close your eyes, players mine.”
And they all did.
Of course, Tony wasn’t going to respect his own rules and started talking as soon as their eyes were shut. “Wait, how many wolves are there?”
“Two, right?” Natasha said.
“And how many normal villagers?” Clint asked. “Because we’re not enough players for—”
“Be silent,” Loki cut off. “You will have to play to find out.”
To Steve’s keen sense of hearing, what followed didn’t sound like silence—someone kept shifting on the ground, someone was breathing a bit hoarsely, and people all around were swallowing or sniffing or coughing a little. Steve coughed, out of empathy, then took a deep breath and focused.
“Seer,” Loki said. “Open your eyes.”
Steve’s eyes blinked open. Loki grinned at him. To see him standing in the middle of their circle, all of them sitting down with their eyes closed, was a bit surreal and more than a little eerie. Steve felt a surge of alarm he fought to repress; he said nothing, and waited. Just a game.
“So,” Loki said out loud, sauntering out of the circle and walking around it so no one could detect who he was addressing. “Whose identity do you wish to unveil?”
Steve swallowed, then looked around. Bruce was still sitting on the cot, a bit higher from the ground than the rest of them; he looked gaunt and tired, but he was fidgeting in his fake sleep. On his left was Clint, with his jaw clenched; then Natasha, her face smooth and expressionless; Steve himself; then Thor, sitting cross-legged with his fists clenching on his thighs; and finally, Tony, who looked like he was glancing around even though his eyes were unmistakably closed.
Steve realized he wanted the game to end as soon as possible—he didn’t like this. Obviously, Loki had made him into the seer so he could play the role of the audience. Steve could turn it against him, though—it was a powerful card, if he played it right.
Okay. He was a strategist. Who would Loki pick as a wolf?
He looked at them all again. Bruce. Clint. Natasha. Thor. Tony.
Any of them, really. They were all likely to be insulted or humiliated by the identity of the wolf among them. Steve decided to bet on the biggest grudge, and nodded towards Thor.
Loki’s grin told him at once he was wrong—of course, Steve’s deduction was a bit too predictable. Damn it.
Loki was already moving across the players to pick up Thor’s card and turn it towards Steve, who read it and felt his eyebrows knot themselves together.
His confused look only made Loki’s grin brighter; he put back down the card then ordered negligently, “Seer, go to sleep.”
Steve clenched his teeth, but obediently closed his eyes again.
“Now,” Loki said, sounding like he enjoyed himself immensely, “let the wolves get loose and advance with wide open mouths.”
Steve heard a snort from Thor. It puzzled him—Thor wasn’t a wolf, so why would he react to that? Loki’s formulation might have something to do with it.
The demi-god kept walking around them with slow, threatening steps, and Steve found it increasingly difficult to keep his eyes closed. It went against his every instinct.
“Let a victim be picked,” Loki said in a silky murmur.
There was a heavy silence. Steve listened as hard as he could, but even the rustle of clothes and the intakes of breath had stopped now that they all tried to hear the monsters.
A few seconds passed, then piled up into a minute. Whatever debate was going on took longer than expected.
Then the demi-god laughed a little; the choice was made. Suddenly Steve could hear them all breathing and shifting again, like a weight had been lifted.
“Very well,” Loki said evenly. “Go back to your slumber.”
He started walking round and round again; Steve could hear his voice shift slowly from side to side as he walked past him.
“The witch may now raise the dead,” Loki said, “or choose to kill another one.”
Steve listened as hard as he could—Tony shifting a little, Bruce’s cot creaking, then nothing.
“Very well,” Loki repeated, with a sharp grin in his voice. “Close your eyes.”
Another few silent heartbeats.
“Awake, townsfolk,” Loki said.
They all opened their eyes, with some measure of relief, and looked around the room. Loki stood there, hands clasped behind his back, grinning. Everything was the same.
Except Clint was gone.
All was left of him was his upturned card on the bare floor. Steve could see the words written in pencil.
“Miller’s Hollow’s awake,” Loki recited in a sing-song voice, “a new dawn has risen; in debate now partake,” he smiled like a shark, “for Barton got eaten.”