The storm raged around him until he could no longer see any of the others. Stark was somewhere above him, the flare of his rockets lost in flashes of lightning. The rain and wind made it impossible to hear anyone else. It had been many years since Steve had felt so utterly alone.
And then he heard the voice, soft and insinuating, like the voice of one of those smooth-talking villains played by British actors in the movies.
"What do you bring to this fight, mortal? Not magic. Not machinery. Courage, I think. Yes, that is your gift."
Steve turned in time to see a figure in a green cloak raising its hands.
"And so I shall take it."
There was a flash, the sense of being struck by a powerful force.
And then nothing.
"It's not that I don't love your brother, Loki, because you know I do," Annie said. "But I wish he had given us some advance warning about that storm last night. If I'd known about it I wouldn't have left laundry hanging out."
"And we might have warned the neighbours to likewise bring their clothing in," Loki agreed. He held up several unfamiliar undergarments that had blown into the garden from elsewhere. "Have you any suggestions of what we should do with these?"
Annie sighed. "I'm having to do all our laundry over anyway. Give them to me and I'll run them through the wash as well. Then I suppose we can host a laundry reunion party or something out in the street. It might be fun. We can make cocktails."
"I just hope George is all right," Loki said as he moved a dustbin and squeezed behind it to retrieve a cardigan that might belong to the elderly lady in number twelve. "Of all nights for such a storm."
"Well, at least he's got a nice thick coat when he's in wolf form, and if it got muddy I don't have to launder it," Annie said heartlessly. "Actually, come to think of it they should be back by now. Mitchell left to pick him up quite some time ago. He'll probably be wanting a cup of tea."
"If you wish to put the kettle on, I am competent to operate the clothes-washing machine," Loki offered.
Annie narrowed her eyes at him. "If you have any trouble, you'll call me to help, right? You won't just put another curse on the machine?"
Loki looked as innocent as he could, which was very innocent indeed, which he knew Annie knew meant exactly the opposite. "It was not exactly a curse."
"I don't know what else you'd call it, with the cellar flooded and a sea-serpent flailing around amid soap suds and wet socks."
"They came out very clean," Loki pointed out, which made Annie throw the socks she was holding at him. They did not, so far as Loki knew, belong to anyone in their household, so he thought Annie's shriek of dismay as they turned into starlings and flew away was unnecessary. If the neighbours who owned the socks wished to retain them, they should have come out after the storm and looked for themselves. Besides, the spell would only last a few seconds--perhaps the socks would find themselves closer to home when they resumed their normal form.
Annie was about to remonstrate further when from inside the house they heard Mitchell's voice, calling,
"Annie? Loki? Can you come inside? We need some help."
Annie and Loki traded alarmed glances and ran into the house, dropping the wet, muddy laundry on the doorstep outside. As they entered the kitchen they were both relieved to see the problem was not with George, who was standing by Mitchell. He was dirty and tired-looking, as he always was the morning after the full moon, but he was dressed in the dry clothes Mitchell had taken him to replace his rained-upon ones, and he seemed in good health.
No, the one in need of assistance was a stranger standing behind Mitchell, a tall muscular man with close-cropped blond hair and eyes as blue as those of Loki's brother. He was muddy and shivering, and looked around the kitchen in a vague, alarmed way that spoke of a recent head injury.
Or-- Loki looked more closely at the stranger's eyes. That vacant look wasn't injury, it was sorcery.
"Mitchell," he said, pitching his voice softly so as not to frighten the stranger any further, "what is going on?"
"George found him," Mitchell explained. Loki and Annie looked at George, who sat down wearily on a kitchen chair and explained,
"I woke up this morning and started to walk back to where I left my clothes, and he was just kind of wandering in the woods looking lost. He was obviously out in the storm last night."
"How fortunate that you found him when you did," Loki said through suddenly stiff lips. It would not be apparent to the stranger, but his words had two meanings: it was not only fortunate for the stranger that George had found him, but quite literally that George had found him when he did.
George this morning was the soul of warmth and kindliness.
George a few hours earlier, under the influence of the full moon, would have been another matter entirely.
"I thought that myself," George agreed. "I need a bath, but perhaps our guest should go first."
The stranger turned his head toward George, the first sign that he could at least hear what they were saying. It was impossible to tell whether he understood them.
Annie plugged in the electric kettle and said, "When I brought in that first lot of clothes for Loki, there were a few things that were too big--a couple of t-shirts and some sweatpants. I think those are in a box in the cellar, I'll go find them."
"Good idea, Annie," Mitchell said.
"Thank you," said the stranger, looking directly at her. Annie started, then smiled at the stranger as she left the kitchen.
That removed any doubt about the involvement of magic: the stranger was definitely human, and since Annie was a ghost, under normal circumstances humans could not see her. Contact by the human with Loki, or presumably another sorcerer, seemed to provide enough magical contact to make her visible to the human involved, but Loki had not been touching the stranger. There had to be another source of magic.
Mitchell, with his usual kindly practicality, escorted the stranger upstairs to the bath while Loki made tea and toast for George. His tea was not up to Annie's standards, but it was acceptable when enough sugar was added. Handing over a mug, Loki asked,
"Where did you say you encountered this man?"
"In the woods a mile or so from, from my starting point." George meant a mile or so from the spot where he changed forms. Loki nodded.
"That was also, I believe, the centre of the storm we experienced last night," Loki mused.
"Yes, I do remember that," George said, rather bitterly. "At least, I remember the skies opening just as I started to change. Was that your brother?" Loki nodded apologetically. "I must have a word with him about that."
"The intensity of the storm implies he was engaged in battle," Loki remarked. "Possibly along with his… new associates."
"Is that right," George said, looking very interested.
In the months since Herrick's death and the housemates' return from Asgard, things had been uneasily quiet on the vampire front, and the housemates had settled into a watchful yet peaceful routine.
Bristol was, for the most part, quiet. However, as if to maintain equilibrium, threats had begun to emerge elsewhere on Midgard. As they did not involve vampires or directly affect Bristol, Loki and his housemates did not consider themselves responsible for these other matters, although Loki had renewed the protective charm on the school and set another on Mitchell and George's hospital. However, for reasons best known to himself, Thor had agreed to join a group of Midgardian warriors known as The Avengers (an appellation which for some reason amused Mitchell very much, and caused him to inquire rhetorically whether someone named Mrs. Peel was also part of the group) to protect the realm.
Loki and his friends followed the adventures of The Avengers as closely as did the humans around them. Loki had been very amused when the first action figure of his brother turned up in the lost-and-found box at his school. (He restrained the impulse to keep it and deny all knowledge to the child who came looking for it, instead merely quizzing the boy about where such an item might be obtained. As he always put away his own clean laundry, the presence of a tiny plastic figure beneath his folded socks was no one's business but his own.)
As he remarked to George, the previous night's storm had felt like a battle, apparently fought almost directly overhead. Knowing his housemate was, as Mitchell would say, "all in" after his night in wolf form, Loki restrained himself until George had finished his tea and eaten his toast before requesting his assistance with the computer.
"Sure," George replied, replenishing his tea and rising. "What do you need?"
"I wish to view images of my brother's colleagues," Loki explained. George nodded agreeably and led the way to the front room, where the computer sat closed like a book on a shelf. It was the work of a minute or two to retrieve the information Loki sought, and both housemates found themselves gazing at a depiction of a muscular, blond man with eyes as blue as Thor's.
"Loki," George said, his voice outwardly calm but pitched rather higher than usual, "do we have Captain America upstairs in our bathroom?"
"Yes," Loki replied, his own voice also calm, but perhaps a little more wooden than was normal. "I believe that to be the case."