It was a beautiful May day; the sun was shining, the leaves were green, and Anna Mitchell was absolutely exhausted. As she walked along one of the longer hiking trails around The Culbuter School for Young Women, she realized that this day had all kinds of things going for it, a deep blue sky covered with puffs of clouds, a slight breeze to take the edge off the late afternoon heat. The trail was nice as well with the tall trees giving plenty of shade and small flowers growing all around the path. She’d walked it many times before. It was one of her favorites because it let her get far enough away from the main campus that she could no longer hear everyone else. For a while she could pretend she was all alone with no one around for miles.
So really, she knew she ought to be enjoying herself. But she wasn’t. She was done with it all. She should be savoring this time. It was senior year for crying out loud. Her last year at this school, last year with all her friends, and on top of that she was the resident assistant of her dormitory floor, which meant all sorts of fun, little perks like a lax curfew and cutting to the front of the dinner line.
But nine months was such a long time to be away from home. Graduation was coming up soon, and she’d finally get to go home. She didn’t think she’d be able to make it another month. Exams were coming up, and the professors were starting to pile on the reviews. Between the books, internet distractions, and over-caffeinated roommates, she’d needed a break for a while.
Normally walking the trails helped clear her mind. Just getting away from it all for a bit was usually all it took to get her back in good spirits. But not today. Today she was feeling just as mopey and sick of it all as when she’d started. Nothing interesting was happening. Just review sheet upon project upon essay, into an abysmal infinity.
She’d all but convinced herself she was never going to go back, just walk the trails and forget about all her assignments, when a man stumbled out onto the path in front of her and fell to his knees.
Anna froze, not certain what she should do. Who was he? Was he dangerous? She’d been walking for nearly half an hour. There was no one around. These woods went on for miles outside of the Culbuter campus. If he tried something, she’d have to fend for herself. Her heart started beating and she tried to remember the self-defense attacks she’d learned years ago. She’d taken a few martial arts classes over the years, but she’d never actually used any of it. It had just been a way to keep in shape without running laps.
Then he turned his head and looked at her, eyes wide and she could tell immediately: he was terrified. She made a snap decision, hoping she wouldn’t regret it.
“Are you okay?” She asked, hurrying over. He pulled away, frightened, until he realized she was trying to help. “Where did you come from?”
“Please,” He said, his voice hoarse. He had a faint English accent, and something about his voice made her long to trust him. “Is there anyone around? You’ve got to help me out of this. There’s a madman on the loose. He put these on me. I only barely got away.” He held his arms out and she saw that his wrists were bound together with some kind of strange metal bracers linked with a long chain.
She hesitated for a moment, wondering if he might be some kind of escaped criminal. But there was no prison anywhere near here. His clothes looked normal – not like an inmate’s at least. Just long dark jeans, and a green t-shirt. Both were scratched and snagged from the underbrush. His arms and face bled from numerous small scratches as well. He looked desperate. Besides that, those handcuffs didn’t look like anything she’d ever seen in a prison either. Not with that strange long chain. No, this was no psycho wandering, escaped. This was a man who needed help.
“There’s a school not too far away. If we can get back there, we can call an ambulance.” She knelt down to look at the bracers. “Is there anything I can do to get these off?”
He took her hand, and pressed something metallic into it. Two small keys. “I managed to get these away from him, but I can’t work them myself. I need someone else to do it.” He turned his wrists over, exposing a long twisting groove on the underside of each cuff. “You’ve got to move both keys at the same time through the pattern. It’s impossible to do while wearing them.”
She’d never seen keyholes like these before, but the concept seemed simple enough. She quickly took the keys and fit them into the grooves. She slid them through the pattern in sync, feeling the small clicks as she rounded corners and the keys flipped the levers. Seven turns to make on each. When she finished there was a snap, and the bracers opened. She pulled them off his wrists quickly. The skin was red and chafed beneath.
She was about to ask what she should do next, when faster than she could see, his hands whipped forward, grabbing the cuffs and snapping them closed around her arms. She pulled back in surprise, dropping the keys. She grabbed at the bracers, but they were already locked tight.
The stranger met her eyes, and a small smile crept across his face. “Thank you, darling. Those were beginning to grow uncomfortable.” He said, rubbing his wrists gently. His accent was much more pronounced now, and his voice was low and husky, not the raspy, desperate breathlessness he’d had before. He sounded calm and confident, and there was laughter in his eyes, as if he’d told a joke that only he understood. He picked up the two keys from the dirt, giving them a quick shake clean them, and closed his hand around them.
“What….” Anna stumbled to her feet, backing away. The long chain clinked as she moved. “Who are you?”
He rose slowly, and as he did he seemed to shimmer like a mirage on a hot day. He transformed right before her eyes. The torn clothes evaporated, revealing a long, dark green cloak and covered with gold trim and a few pieces of armor. A dark strap hung from the golden epaulet resting on his right shoulder. His face changed slightly, becoming longer and thinner, the cheekbones more pronounced. He towered above her, standing over six feet tall now that he was on his feet.
He ran a hand through his now-shoulder-length black hair, smoothing it back. “I thank you,” he said, chuckling softly. “You have been most helpful.”
Anna caught herself against a tree, afraid her legs were about to give out. She nearly tripped over her handcuffs’ chain as she did. She recognized him. Heaven help her, she knew exactly who this was.
“Oh my God.” She whispered.
“Yes.” He smiled. “I am.”
“Now if you would be so kind,” He said, looking down as he brushed dust off his cloak. “I have further need of your assistance.”
Anna slowly managed to find her voice again. “I know you.” She whispered.
His face split in a beaming smile, flashing white teeth. “I doubt that very much. There are very few who could claim to know me.”
“You’re Loki.” Her voice trembled as she spoke the name. “Loki Laufeyson.”
His eyes flashed at the mention of his full name – eyebrows narrowing, lips pursed in a frown – but it was gone in an instant, replaced by calm composure once more. Anna wondered if she’d just imagined it. He nodded once, and gave a small, but formal bow. “You are correct. The God of Mischief, at your service. Though, my first name alone shall suffice.”
Anna pushed herself away from the tree, standing up straight. If she was going to go toe-to-toe with the god of lies and deception, she wanted to do it standing on her own two feet. “What do you want with me?” She demanded, trying to sound more confident than she felt. It didn’t work.
He turned away from her, clasping his hands behind his back. “My brother and his bellicose friends are no doubt searching for me at this moment. They will arrive shortly, to take me away once more.” He glanced back over his shoulder, meeting her eyes again. The gaze sent a shock of ice down her spine. “You and I will need to convince them, otherwise.”
“What am I supposed to do?” Anna asked. She wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to know the answer. Loki smiled as if she’d said something amusing, then he shimmered and disappeared. Anna turned frantically, trying to find him but he was nowhere to be seen.
Then his hand fell on her shoulder as his other placed something cold against her neck. She jumped and gasped, trying to step backwards, but only serving to bump into him.
“Nothing, my dear.” That silken voice whispered in her ear. “You are simply to be my insurance. Something to keep my would-be-captors from doing as they wish with me. They have such sentiment for the bystander, the innocent. And Mr. Stark in particular seems to have a soft spot whenever prisoners are involved."
“So I’m to be a hostage, then?” Anna barely breathed the words, afraid that the knife at her throat would cut her.
“A deterrent. A small bit of protection against their combined hot-headedness. If I were to meet them alone, I fear things would immediately turn to fighting.” He tapped her shoulder lightly, moving his fingers in a wave. The motion made her shiver. “With you here to keep the peace, there is hope yet that we might solve our differences diplomatically.”
“Or that with your silver tongue you might be able to trick and deceive your way out of it.”
He laughed, and there was genuine mirth in the sound. He let the knife drop and pulled away, walking around to face her in front. “Perhaps you do know me. What is your name, Midgardian?”
She lightly touched the spot on her neck where the knife had been. Then she placed her hands on her hips, looking up and meeting his eyes. The chain on her handcuffs was just long enough to allow it. If she was going to face a god, she might as well act like she knew what she was doing. “Anna. Anna Mitchell. And your plan isn’t going to work.”
He raised an eyebrow, still smiling. “Don’t tell me – I lack conviction?”
“No,” she said, shrugging. “It’s just a dumb plan. A hostage against the Avengers? I doubt they’d negotiate, especially with you. There’s no way that would ever work. I’m pretty sure JARVIS could lock on and let Tony put a bullet through your head without so much as touching me. That is, if Hawkeye doesn’t just go all ‘Katniss’ on you and shoot you in the hand. Or, knowing Barton, in the face.”
He grabbed the chain on the cuffs, yanking her arms forward and pulling her in close. He stared deep into her eyes, their noses almost touching. She tried to ignore the sound of her heartbeat pounding in her ears. “And what would you suggest instead?” She could feel his strangely-cool breath on her face as he whispered the words.
“Well,” she said, trying to keep her voice steady. “If you want to stay out of their custody, you’re going to need more than hostages.” She hesitated, closing her eyes and frowning to herself for a moment. I can’t believe I’m suggesting this. “You’re going to need an army. And I know just the girls for the job.”
During the long walk back to the campus, Anna explained. As she talked, her mind was whirling, trying to come up with different scenarios, categorizing all the resources she had access to, imagining her friends reactions when she told them. There would be so much to do.
Loki had been skeptical at first. He had followers? There were people out there who would support him? Fight for him of their own volition? He’d thought she was lying in order to get him to unlock the handcuffs. She’d pointed out that if anyone should be able to catch a lie, it should be him. So he decided to hear her out.
“You’re not nearly as evil as you like to think.” She’d told him.
"Am I not?” He seemed amused. Potential ally or not, he still refused to release her, so at the moment she was walking slightly behind him as he held her cuffs’ chain.
It really wasn’t that strange. The Culbuter School wasn’t terribly large – only about 2,000 students in all. With that many girls spending every moment of their lives together, everyone tended to know what everyone else was up to and interested in. Someone starts reading a new, good book and all of a sudden the hold list at the library gets miles long and anyone with a copy finds it passed around the whole school. Someone brings up a new TV show they’ve started watching at lunch, and a few days later someone’s set up an all-night long marathon of the first three seasons in their dorm lounge and fifty girls show up with popcorn and cookies to watch.
Overhear one person talking about something and you can look it up if it sounded interesting. Overhear two and you might want to check it out just to be in the loop. Overhear three and you’d better learn to love it, because it’s all you’re going to hear about for the next few weeks.
The fads and fashion trends of Culbuter were fandoms and fiction of all forms. And after The Avengers hit the screen, liking Loki was the new black.
There hadn’t been much interest when the small, on-campus, two-screen theater first announced that they’d be showing The Avengers. A superhero movie? At an all-girls school? Most of the students assumed it wasn’t going to be their cup of tea. But Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer had made the rounds about a year ago, so the name Whedon drew some eyes.
After it opened though, the movie was all anyone could talk about. Every showing at the campus theater was packed for days. Conversations often started with “So which one’s your favorite?” But while all the guys on the team got a fair amount of love; the misunderstood, banished prince of Asgard took the school by storm.
The soccer team got into quite a bit of trouble when they covered the front doors with pictures and a huge banner reading “Loki’d!” as part of their end of the year prank. Lockers and dorm rooms received similar treatments in the following days. Notes and quizzes were handed in with all kinds of little doodles and sketches in the margins. The English teachers had to specify that Thor and The Avengers were not “works of literary merit” and would not be accepted on the open-ended analysis essays.
“And it’s not just here,” Anna said as she finished her explanation. It had taken nearly the entire walk back to campus to explain everything. She could see the tops of the dormitories “It’s all over the internet as well.”
“Interesting.” Loki said. “I will need time to think this over. This… changes things.” He stopped on the path and turned back to face her. “In the meantime, what exactly were you thinking as to how this plan would go?”
“I have a few ideas, but if we’re going to do this, I need to know. What was your plan?” He looked a bit confused, turning his head slightly, so she continued. “I mean, if somehow you were able to pull off the hostage thing. How would it have gone? What would you have asked for?”
“Ah.” He nodded, understanding. He shrugged lightly. “Simple. I would have asked for one use of the tesseract. A portal to somewhere of my choosing, where I could not be followed.”
Loki sighed. “My brother has never been what one would call a ‘lateral thinker.’ He’s always the kind of person to rush headfirst into something – be it a battle or a simple decision – never thinking that there might be something sinister waiting in the wings. The path, as he sees it, is straightforward: I’ve committed a crime. Therefore the right thing to do is to bring me back to Asgard where I’ll face justice and be punished for my actions. Simple, clean, and easy.”
“So what’s waiting in the wings?” Anna felt somewhat awkward, standing there with her arms in front of her, but he still had a tight grip on the chain so there wasn’t much she could do.
“The Chitauri, of course.” Loki said. He walked slowly as he talked, back and forth, almost like he was pacing. Anna had no choice but to follow, the metal links jingling as she walked. “There are two things in existence that they want more than anything else right now. The tesseract and myself. And if Thor does things his way, the Chitauri will have both of those wrapped up together in a shiny, Asgard-shaped package. They would have no choice but to attack.” He swept out one of his arms – palm up – to emphasize the inevitability of the situation.
“More than likely,” He continued. “They would fail. Asgard’s defenses are strong. Very few have ever managed to breach its walls.” He paused, smiling slightly. “Even fewer have managed it without my help. Still, Asgardian lives would be lost in the battle, and I would be blamed for the invasion – despite the fact that a Chitauri invasion is the last thing I would want.”
He stopped and turned to face her again, holding her eyes. “For if, through some cruel twist of luck, the Chitauri did their research and somehow found a way to win the battle, I shudder to think what they might do. They’d have the Cube, and with it the ability to wage a more brutal form of warfare than anyone in the Nine Realms has ever seen. And they’d have me. I could look forward to unending torture and unfathomable agony for the rest of the foreseeable future. You’ll pardon me if neither of those outcomes seems particularly favorable.”
“So you’d run?” Anna said.
“Not run,” Loki said. “Hide. I have no intention of being chased. Without the temptation of capturing me, Asgard’s formidable defenses should be enough to dissuade the Chitauri from trying to take possession of the tesseract. And as for myself, I could lay out quite the labyrinth of false clues, circular tracks in the cosmic sand leading nowhere but back to their origins. The Chitauri could spend millennia trying to find me.” He lowered his eyes. “After my failure, they probably will.”
Anna took a small step closer to him. She felt bad for him, but tried to hide it. She didn’t think he’d appreciate it if he knew. She had a feeling the God of Mischief would not take kindly to being pitied. “Where would you go?”
He raised his head again and smiled wryly for just a moment. “You can’t honestly expect that I would tell you, can you? Suffice it to say that there are plenty of unimportant, forgotten corners of the universe. Places where no one has ever heard of Asgard or her outcast failure of a prince.”
You poor thing, Anna thought, grateful that mindreading was not among his abilities. You’re broken, aren’t you? She should be scared, she knew. This man had killed hundreds, tried to invade her world with an army. But she couldn’t help it. She’d always had a heart for the hurt and the damaged. And it was hard to think of anyone more damaged than Loki.
Afraid her pitying thoughts would break free to her face, Anna decided to change the topic. “Okay, so the end goal is a tesseract portal. We can work with that.” She looked over at the school. “First though, we’re going to need some allies.”
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Anna raised her hand to knock on her dorm room’s door, but hesitated. Did she really want to do this? Once she went in, there was no turning back.
She glanced over at Loki, who stood beside her. The God of Mischief had changed his appearance before they’d entered the school. To her, he seemed to be wearing a well-tailored suit with a green and gold scarf draped around his neck. She assumed that she was the only one who could see him at the moment though, since no one had noticed him or said anything when they’d walked through the halls. Thankfully, he’d finally taken the handcuffs off her before they’d entered. That would have been difficult to explain.
He raised an eyebrow at her pause. “Second thoughts?” he asked smoothly. The smallest of smiles touched his mouth. She pursed her lips. This was it. She could back down right now if she wanted. Her eyes flicked between him and the door.
“Nope. Let’s do this.” She turned back to the door, determined, and knocked with three quick, forceful taps.
“Who is it?” A muffled voice called from the other side.
“It’s me.” Anna answered. “I’m back.” She opened the door, walking in. A thought occurred to her as she walked in, and she stopped, not letting Loki through the door. “Is everyone decent?”
“I certainly like to think so,” A voice from the left said.
Anna glanced around the room quickly. Off to the left, Xandra was laying on her stomach across her bed, a few textbooks splayed in front of her. Her curly brown hair was tied back in a loose bun and her legs were crossed in the air behind her. She was the one who’d spoken. Xandra was probably the most outspoken of all four of them; always ready with a witty comeback. She wore size 10 pants because she was curvy, not overweight – as she was quick to correct any who felt the need to mention it – and had no intentions to change anything about herself anytime soon.
On the other side of the room, Yumi looked up from a large stack of flashcards. Her notes were neatly arranged in front of her with a stack of blank cards to her left and the finished cards to her right. Yumi was tall and slim with long, straight, black hair. She was the quiet, straight-A student of the bunch, highly organized, with strict parents who monitored her grades incessantly. She often tried to help the other three with their grades, but to little success. Xandra said there was no point in even trying to catch up, since Yumi had the unfair advantage of being Asian – which was practically cheating at all things academic. Yumi had simply remarked that doing well had nothing to do with nationality and everything to do with attitude. Xandra’d stuck her tongue out.
In the bunk bed above Yumi’s perfectly neat desk, the final occupant of the room sat with her nose buried in a book. Lynn didn’t seem to have noticed Anna walking in. Long aqua-blue headphone cords emerged from her loose blonde hair, connecting to the iPod balanced on her knees, and she was singing softly under her breath. It didn’t sound like English. Looking closer, Anna saw that the cover of the book read Fils des Brumes: L’Empire Ultime. Lynn had her Advanced French exam coming up in a few days and she’d been practicing through total immersion. They’d been lucky to get an English word from her at all for the past week.
After affirming that everyone was fully clothed, she stepped all the way in, letting Loki slip in behind her before she closed the door. He surveyed the room, making note of its three other inhabitants. Anna suddenly wished they kept their room a little neater. It’s wasn’t messy, per se, but the beds were unmade and there were some clothes lying about. Loki’s face was unreadable. Whatever judgments he made of her and her roommates, he kept to himself.
None of them reacted as he entered, reinforcing her invisibility theory.
Xandra pushed herself up onto her elbows. “What took you so long? You were gone for like an hour.” She picked up one of her pencils and threw across the room at Lynn. “Hey, Croissant! Anna’s back.”
Lynn pulled out one of her headphones, glaring at Xandra. “Laisse-moi tranquille. Je suis en train d’étudier.” She looked over at Anna and waved. “Salut, Anna.”
“No one can understand you.” Xandra said in a sing-song voice, rolling her eyes.
“Je sais. Et je m’en fous.”
“Hey, everyone. Or, ‘bonjour’ I guess for Lynn.” Anna said, cutting off Xandra’s response. The conversation, if left unchecked, would have no doubt devolved into an argument of which she could only understand half the words. “I need some help. You guys have to promise not to freak out though.”
Yumi capped her pen, turning her swivel chair away from the desk. “Help? With what?”
Anna’s eyes flicked to Loki for the barest of seconds. He just smiled. “Well, actually, I have a friend who needs help. See, he’s kind of in a bit of trouble, and I think there might be something we can do.”
“Trouble? Like, with the law?” Yumi looked uncertain. She was definitely a rule follower, and wasn’t comfortable with illegality.
“‘He’?” Xandra asked, a mischievous smile creeping across her face. “Anna Mitchell, did you bring a boy on campus? Do you have some hot cousin who needs our help?”
“What? Why would you…?” Anna said. She stumbled over her words. “No! He’s not my cousin! Well, I mean, I guess I did bring him, but it’s not like….” She sighed, shaking her head. “I’m not making any sense am I?”
Loki glanced over at her, amused. “Perhaps it would be easier to show than tell.” He said smoothly.
Anna looked from him back to her friends, uncertain. Then, she gave the smallest of nods. “Perhaps it would be easier to show than tell.” She repeated.
Loki stepped forward, his form shimmering again. The suit changed back into his long Asgardian cloak from before. Presumably he dropped the illusion keeping anyone besides Anna from seeing him, because her friends’ eyes went wide all at the same time.
Fun fact: The book Lynn is reading is the French translation of Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series! Awesome books. Check them out.
Oh, and for those who don't feel like using Google Translate, here's a translation of Lynn and Xandra's conversation.
Xandra: Hey, Croissant! Anna's back.
Lynn: Leave me alone. I'm studying. Hello, Anna.
Xandra: No one can understand you.
Lynn: I know. And I don't care.
Though that last phrase is a bit more vulgar than "I don't care." You can look up "Je m'en fous." if you want the actual translation.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Anna stood nervously as Loki looked between her friends slowly. He was smiling, enjoying the shocked looks on their faces. What have I done? Anna wondered.
After the first moment of surprise, her friends’ reactions were all different. Lynn let out a small shriek then clapped her hands to her face. As she pulled her hand away, her jaw dropped slowly and an overwhelmed, open-mouthed smile split her face. She looked between Anna, Loki and the other two as if waiting for someone to tell her it was all a joke.
Yumi on the other hand, gasped in horror, the blood draining from her face. She looked as though nothing was more terrifying than the man who’d just appeared before her. She flinched when Loki turned his gaze on her and unconsciously pushed herself back until her chair bumped into the desk.
“Is this real?” Yumi barely breathed the words. “Are you real?”
“Only one way to find out.” Xandra said. She pushed herself off her bed, a wicked grin on her face.
Loki watched her as she walked up to him, raising an eyebrow. She stopped only right in front of him, looking up. He towered over her, nearly four inches taller and looked down his nose condescendingly. She regarded him silently, still smirking, and turned her head this way and that like she was inspecting a painting. Loki only smiled faintly back as she stared him down, as though he found her interesting and was curious.
Then in one quick motion, she grabbed his head and pulled him down, pressing her lips forcefully against his. Her hands knotted in his dark hair, grasping wildly and holding him close.
Loki’s eyes widened in shock, quickly replaced with outrage. Almost faster than Anna could see, he grabbed Xandra roughly by the neck and threw her across the room. Xandra flew through the air to hit the closet door with a loud thump and slide to the floor.
“How dare you touch me!” He snarled.
Xandra sat up slowly, rubbing her head, still grinning. She didn’t seem the least bit scared. In fact, she started laughing. “I think you might have given me a concussion!” She shrugged, then groaned. “Oh well, still worth it.”
He took a threatening step forward, rage twisting his features. His hands flexed; fingers curved and claw-like, like he wanted to strangle her. “I ought to kill you where you lay for such galling audacity! Bring you to the deepest depths of agony and suffering. Make you beg for me to end your pathetic existence long before I finally do.”
She started to laugh again, but winced in pain. “You want me to beg, baby? Any day, for as long as you like. And afterwards, I would die happy.”
Confusion mixed with fury on Loki’s face. His eyes narrowed suspiciously. Xandra raised her eyebrows suggestively, batting her eyes. Loki scowled, stepping back as though he found the thought of touching her distasteful. “Perhaps that is reason enough to let you live.”
Lynn leaned forward in the top bunk, looking astonished. “Monseigneur, vous parlez à mes amies en français, mais elles vous répondent en anglais. Comment ? Pourquoi ? Je ne peux pas le comprendre… ”
Loki turned towards her, looking up as if grateful for a distraction from the annoying girl now lying on the floor. “You are confused. I am not speaking French nor English as you suppose. I speak with the All-Tongue. You hear my words in whichever language is most familiar to you.”
Xandra had managed to push herself to her feet, but she was still leaning against the wall heavily. “Wait a second. Lynn, you’re hearing him in French? Dang, I want to hear! I bet it sounds sexy as hell.”
Anna’s head fell into her hand, a loud smack sounding as her palm hit her forehead. She shook her head in embarrassment. Could her friends not behave like normal people for a few minutes? She decided to step in before things got any more out of hand. Loki was already glaring at Xandra again like he was reconsidering his decision not to kill her. “Will you two stop it? We need to talk about this. Lynn, can you try to speak in English please?”
“Sure, fine.” Lynn nodded. Her face scrunched in concentration. “I’ll try. It feels weird though. I’ve been thinking in French for days now. I’ve got to switch back over.”
“Well, I appreciate the effort. And Xandra,” Anna said turning towards her other friend, a fierce look on her face. “Keep it in your pants.”
Xandra nodded. “Of course.” Then she grinned again. “That sounds like the perfect place for him to keep it.”
Loki tensed again, but Anna spoke again before he could do anything. She fixed her friend with a flat stare. “I’m serious. Control yourself and your hormones.”
Xandra sighed, rolling her eyes. “Fine. You’re no fun you know.”
“Yeah, I know.” Anna said. “You wouldn’t recognize me otherwise. Seriously though, we need to talk this through. I wasn’t kidding about helping him.”
“What do you need?” Lynn asked.
Here's Lynn's translation again:
"Your Highness, you talk to my friends in French, but they respond in English. How? Why? I don't understand...
Well, Monseigneur isn't quite as formal as "Your Highness. It's a bit more like "my lord." Sorta. It's a bit of a weird translation.
Anna talked through the encounter in the woods and how everything had happened. She explained why Loki couldn’t go back to Asgard and the plan to get a one-time use of the portal somehow. “We can do this you guys. Think of how many girls there are in this school who’d stand with us. We won’t go down without a fight.”
“A fight…” Lynn interrupted at that point. “So wait, does this mean the Avengers are going to show up here?”
Anna nodded. “I think so. I’m not sure what kind of timeframe we’re looking at though.” She turned to Loki. “Any idea how long we’ve got?”
“I selected a random location during my escape, hoping it would buy me time.” Loki said. “Erik Selvig created the personal portal device for the tesseract, and I’m sure he would be able to find out where it sent me, at least within a fairly small radius. As for how long it will take for my brother to find him, get the information as to my whereabouts, and then assemble his friends…”
He shrugged slightly. “I cannot say for sure, though I would say we might have a few days before ‘Earth’s Mightiest Heroes’ come knocking at your doors.” Loki’s voice dripped with contempt as he said the team name. “Perhaps a week at most.”
Anna tapped her lips as she thought. “A few days? I think we can work with that. But we’ll have to move quickly. If we’re to be an army we’re going to need weapons and recruits. The first shouldn’t be too hard to get a hold of. Xandra, you’re on the archery team. Do you think you could get access to the bows and arrows?”
“Yeah,” Xandra said. “But I don’t know how they’d work as real weapons. The arrows aren’t really meant to go through anything more than the targets. They’d hurt but I don’t think they’d seriously injure anyone. Certainly not if we’re going up against the Avengers.”
“Is there anything you could do about that?” Lynn asked, looking at Loki. “I mean, you’ve got magic right? Could you change the bows and arrows to make them more threatening? Like you did with the scepter. You switched between the spear, small scepter, and little cane depending on what you needed. Those were actual changes right? Not just illusions.”
Loki looked thoughtful. “It’s possible. You’re right, I changed the scepter’s actual form. I suppose I could use a similar technique on your weapons.”
“You know,” Lynn said. “I’ve got some friends on the track team. I bet they could get some javelins. And the color guard has those throwing sabres. Think we could give those a magic makeover as well?”
“Nice thinking, Lynn.” Anna said. “So we’ll have equipment. Now, about the army itself. First, we’ll need to neutralize the faculty. I don’t think our teachers would really be on board with us militarizing the school.”
Xandra raised her hand. “Ooh! Pick me! Pick me! There’s that mandatory staff meeting where they talk about what all the teachers and janitors and stuff have to do before the summer break coming up, right? They always have it during one of the study hall periods around this time of year. They leave all the RA’s in charge of all of us while they go off to meet. They’d be all penned up in that lecture hall on the fourth floor. We could just block the entrances off while they’re inside.”
“But that meeting’s not for another week and a half. They already called all of the RAs in and told us about it.” Anna said. She was the RA, short for ‘resident assistant,’ for this dormitory floor. Each wing had their own. “I mean, I think I could probably get some of the other RAs on board with this, but it’s too far away.”
“So send a memo out saying it’s been rescheduled.” Xandra said. “Put it under the president’s email address, then leave a note on the desk, like one of the secretaries left it. It can say something like, ‘The meeting needed to be rescheduled so I sent out a memo on your email.’ He’ll think the secretary sent it; everyone else will think he sent it. They won’t suspect a thing. Yumi’s an office aide. She could get in and send it easily.”
“No.” Yumi’s voice was soft, but forceful. Anna turned towards her Asian friend. She’d nearly forgotten that Yumi was here; she’d been so quiet the whole time.
Yumi was shaking her head slowly, a mixture of fear and disbelief on her face. “No. I won’t do it. I won’t do any of it. Are you three insane? Weaponizing the school? Fighting the Avengers? We can’t do this.”
“We have to.” Anna said. “We can’t just give him up.”
Yumi’s expression was a mix of confusion and disbelief. “Yes we can! In fact we probably should! We ought to be calling the police, or the Avengers or something!”
Xandra scoffed. “Right. ‘Cause I’ve just got Tony Stark’s number in my cell phone.”
“That’s not the point.” Yumi said. Her voice was getting stronger as she spoke. It had been trembling and fearful at first, but was now more pleading and desperate. She motioned to Loki. “He’s the bad guy, you three! The antagonist! You’re not supposed to help him!”
Loki glanced at her, and she cut off with a squeak. He laughed in response, taking a step towards her to inspect her more closely. He tipped his head, staring deep into her eyes. Her face went white again and she unconsciously grabbed the sides of her chair, bracing herself. She was absolutely terrified of him.
Anna went over to kneel beside her, placing a hand on Yumi’s shoulder. “Yumi, it’s okay.” Yumi didn’t look at her, just stared over Anna’s shoulder, unable to break away from Loki’s gaze. “Yumi, look at me.”
When her friend didn’t respond, Anna looked back over her shoulder. She frowned at Loki, giving him a pointed look as if to say, “Could you cut it out for a moment, please?” He laughed again, but turned away like he was giving them privacy. Lynn started asking him questions about what exactly he could do with magic, trying to figure out all their options.
Anna turned back to Yumi. “Hey, what’s the deal? I thought you liked Loki. Like the rest of us.”
Yumi sighed heavily, her head falling as Loki looked away. Anna could feel her trembling slightly. When she looked up there was a forcefulness to her eyes, imploring Anna to understand. “I like Loki as a character, Anna. Yes, he’s tragic and I feel bad for him – really I do. Everything he’s been through is just heartbreaking. But that was all hypothetical, and he was a fictional character.
“With this – I don’t even know what to call it. Reality, I suppose. With this reality, we can’t just ignore the things he’s done! He’s killed people, Anna. He led an army against the Earth. He’s the God of Mischief and Lies, for crying out loud! We can’t trust him!”
Anna’s voice was calm as she answered. “We have to. You heard about the tesseract and the Chitauri. We have to do this. And on top of that…”
She trailed off, glancing over her shoulder to make sure he wasn’t listening. His back was to them and he was in the middle of explaining how he conjured his throwing knives to Lynn and Xandra. One appeared suspended between two of his fingers as he spoke.
She looked back at Yumi, lowering her voice. “On top of that, this could be our only chance. He’s so close to the edge, so broken. No matter what he acts like on the outside, he doesn’t think anyone is ever going to understand or respect him. What if we could change that? Imagine, hundreds of people standing up for him, showing that we believed that he wasn’t really evil – not deep down, willing to face down his enemies to protect him. We could bring him back. Like he was before all of this happened.”
Yumi looked uncertain. “What if something goes wrong? We get in trouble, or he double-crosses us, or something else? What then?”
Anna met her eyes, her voice certain. “He’s one of the most powerful people in the entire universe.” She said. “You don’t think the chance of redeeming him is worth the risk? How many lives could we save?”
For a moment, Yumi looked like she was going to argue again, but then she sighed. “I can’t believe I’m agreeing to this. Don’t make me do anything I’ll regret, Anna Mitchell. Please.”
Anna smiled wide, pulling Yumi into a quick hug. Yumi just sat there, letting Anna embrace her, but didn’t hug back. “Thank you.” Anna whispered. “We can’t do this without you. And you don’t have to do anything if you don’t want to. I’ll write the email and set this all up. I’d just need to borrow your keycard.”
“No.” Yumi said, pulling away. “It’d just look suspicious. You don’t have any reason to be in the office. I’ll do it. If I’m going to do this, I might as well not hold anything back.” She wasn’t supportive of this plan; she was resigned to it.
“If you’re sure. Xandra was right; you’re more likely to get away with it. Thanks.”
Yumi stood up and grabbed her purse. She fished her office keycard out. “I might as well go now. There aren’t usually many people in the office at this time of the afternoon. Besides,” she said, looking over the room. “The less I know about the master plan, the better, right? I mean, just in case I do get caught and taken into interrogation or something. I have a feeling I wouldn’t hold out very long under torture.”
“Not funny.” Anna said, but smiled. “No one’s getting tortured or interrogated. But you’re probably right. The sooner the better.”
“I’d best get to it then.” Yumi slung her purse over her shoulders. She walked to the door, pointedly avoiding looking at Loki. As she opened the door, she looked back. “I really hope you know what you’re doing, Anna.”
I hope so too, Yumi. But she couldn’t say that. So, Anna just smiled and gave a confident nod. “I do. Don’t worry. Everything will turn out fine.”
Anna watched silently as the girls of Culbuter filed into the large common area of the school’s library. It was the morning of day after she’d found Loki, and the past 24 hours had been unbelievably hectic. Yumi had infiltrated the office successfully, and the teachers’ meeting had been rescheduled to today. Late yesterday evening, Anna had met with the other RAs and told them she had an announcement to make during study hall the next day, and to be sure that everyone on each of their floors were there. Sometimes there were girls who would stay in their rooms during study hall and Anna wanted to be sure that nobody missed this.
The way Anna had phrased it, she’d made it sound like she was planning some kind of school-wide prank for the end of the year. She’d figured being vague and letting the other RAs spin their own interpretations would be better than any fake story she could come up with. She got more than a few curious glances as the girls filed in, talking loudly to each other and finding tables.
Normally, the student-supervised study halls were a bit rowdier than those that the teachers oversaw. Not much studying was done, but that was typical for any time the students were together without being given a specific task to complete. The teachers always tried to keep everyone quiet, but the RA’s didn’t usually bother. With the teachers holed up on the other side of the school, it wasn’t like there was anyone else to disturb with the noise. When the students were running the show, study hall was more like a second lunch hour, but in the library instead of the cafeteria.
Lynn came over to where Anna stood beside the reference section, tapping her shoulder. “All the doors besides the two main entrances are locked.” She said, looking about furtively. She was having way too much fun with all this. The whole operation was like an Ocean’s Eleven heist for her, and she was living it up. “Xandra’s gone to block off the doors to the teachers’ meeting on the third floor, she should be back in a few minutes for the main event.”
“Good.” Anna said. “Any sign of you-know-who?”
“No one’s reported seeing Voldemort around, no.” Lynn said. At Anna’s flat look, she laughed. “I haven’t seen Loki either. Not since this morning.”
“That’s probably not a good sign.” Anna pursed her lips. “Oh well. I don’t really have the energy to worry about him right now.” She looked over the quickly growing crowd of girls, feeling butterflies start to flutter in the pit of her stomach.
Lynn followed her gaze over their peers. “Are you sure you’re ready to do this?”
Anna took a deep breath. “Ready as I’ll ever be. I can do this. I’ve done public speaking before, it’s not a big deal.” She wished she didn’t sound so much like she was trying to convince herself.
“Hey.” Lynn grabbed her head and put their foreheads together, staring at her. “If anyone can do this, it’s you, okay? I mean, you convinced all of us. Besides, these girls love Loki way more than is healthy. They’re not going to just give him up without a fight. So don’t sweat it. You’ve got this.”
"Thanks. It helps to think of it like that."
Lynn squeezed Anna’s shoulders encouragingly and gave her a quick smile. “I’ve got to go. Knock them out, okay?”
Lynn moved away, probably to check on Yumi and see if Xandra was back yet. Anna waited at the back of the room, watching as the last stragglers trailed in. Xandra re-entered a few minutes later, giving Anna an “all-okay” sign. So, the teachers were squared away. One task down, about a million to go.
At ten minutes after the study period started, the RA’s shut the doors. Lynn and Xandra casually took up positions standing beside the doors, ready to make sure no one tried to leave after the reveal happened. Yumi was sitting with some of her friends from her orchestra, trying not to make eye-contact with any of her roommates. She still wasn’t entirely comfortable with what was going to happen next.
Anna took one last look around. Still no sign of Loki. Hopefully he’d turn up while she was speaking. She’d need him for this to work. She turned to walk to the front of the room, running through what she’d prepared to say in her head.
“Nervous?” A smooth voice said beside her.
Anna nearly jumped out of her skin as Loki shimmered into visibility beside her, wearing his tailored suit and scarf again. She quickly ducked into the bookshelves so she wouldn’t be seen talking to nothing but air. He followed, laughing to himself at her startled reaction.
“You nearly gave me a heart attack!” She said, turning on him. “And you scaring me is about the last thing I need right now.” She ran a hand through her hair. “Where have you been?”
“I was overseeing your security measures,” He said. “Should any try to unlock any of the doors your friends have blocked they will find the locks frozen shut.”
Anna blinked. “That’s surprisingly helpful of you.”
Loki didn’t respond, turning and walking to the end of the shelves. He looked over the gathered students. “Such youth. They don’t seem like much of an army.”
Anna shrugged. “Don’t give up on them too quickly. They’ll surprise you.”
He tipped his head, as if acceding her point. “There is an energy about them. Perhaps there is more here than meets the eye.” He glanced back at her, a sinister smile on his lips. “And of course, if this doesn’t work, there’s always the contingency plan.”
“Contingency plan? What’s the contingency plan?”
“If this doesn’t play out well, you’ll find out, won’t you?” He smiled again, then turned back to the crowd.
Anna frowned, but he didn’t say anything more. Well that’s ominous. Like I needed any more pressure. She almost sighed again, but stopped herself. She set her jaw. She could do this. She was going to do this.
When she walked out of the shelves, her step was determined. Loki raised an eyebrow as she passed him. She met his look and gave him one quick confident nod as if to say “Just watch me.”
She drew stares as she walked up to the front of the tables. The girls pointed and whispered. Most of them had heard that she was the one with the announcement and they were curious as to what it was. As Anna reached the front, shushes and whispers went through the room and the noise quieted.
In one smooth motion, she climbed atop the front table and stood, looking over the now-silent group. Two-thousand sets of eyes stared back at her.
Here goes nothing. She took a deep breath, and began.
“You had one job.” Tony Stark said, looking flatly at the Asgardian in his penthouse suite.
He grabbed a bottle of scotch from the bar, pouring himself a drink. He’d been rather surprised to be woken up at 4 AM when JARVIS had announced that there was an unauthorized landing on the helipad of Stark Tower. He’d been even more surprised when it had turned out to be Thor with bad news.
“Is something going on? We heard the intercom.” Steve Rogers said, walking in. Dr. Banner was right behind him. They’d both taken the time to get dressed before coming up. And they both looked surprised to see the God of Thunder standing across the bar from Tony.
“Thor?” Steve asked. “What are you doing here? I thought you took the tesseract and Loki back to Asgard.”
“One out of two isn’t so bad.” Stark said, taking a sip of his drink.
“My friends,” Thor said gravely. “As glad as I am to see you again, I’m sorry to say I bring bad news. Loki has escaped.”
“Yeah, how’d that happen actually?” Tony said. He gestured with his glass, causing the ice to clink. “I mean, how exactly do you lose a six-foot tall demigod? Honestly, I’m curious. The guy was handcuffed and muzzled. Did you just leave him behind on the subway or something? Slipped between the couch cushions? Did you check your other purse?”
“Stark, would you cut it out?” Steve said. “This is serious.”
“It was a serious question.”
Bruce walked over to the bar, where the portal device was laying on the counter. The tesseract glowed with an even, blue light inside. “Did he use this?” He asked, picking the large cylinder up.
Thor nodded. “He reset it back to Midgard. When I located him, he had already activated the contraption. I was able to secure the tesseract, but he was engulfed by the portal before I could stop him. I know not where he might have gone.”
Tony walked around to the other side of the bar. “Hey, at least you managed to narrow it down to the entire planet.” He said, clapping Thor on the shoulder. “Well done there, Goldilocks.”
“Thank you.” Thor said. “I wish I could have done more, though.”
Tony gave him a flat look. “Sarcasm’s not really your forte, is it?”
Steve walked over to stand next to Bruce, who was inspecting the writing around the edge of the handles. “Could we use the device to find out where Loki sent himself?”
“That’s what I was thinking.” Bruce took out his phone and started punching keys, looking between the tesseract and his screen. “See, these numbers around the outside are coordinates. If I plug them into a GPS system, we should be able to find out where the last destination was. Here we go.” He held his phone up, waiting for the information to load. “And… Stark Tower. Manhattan, New York.” He sighed, looking at Thor, and sat down onto one of the bar stools.
The God of Thunder looked mildly embarrassed. “The Bifrost is as of yet unrepaired. I had no option but to use the device to return. What might you have done, were you in my place?”
“I don’t suppose you wrote down what the coordinates were before you changed them?” Dr. Banner asked. He sounded resigned, as though he was expecting too much.
Thor’s eyebrows drew together and he looked away. The small, guilty frown that crossed his face answered the physicist’s question.
“We’ll find him.” Steve said, still unfazed. He took the stool next to Dr. Banner, looking over the portal device. “S.H.I.E.L.D has all kinds of technology that can track him down, right? It worked last time.”
“Yeah, who wants to make that phone call, huh?” Tony mimed holding a cell-phone up to his ear. “ 'Yes, Director Fury? Hi, how are you? Sorry to bother you at this hour, but you see, we might have misplaced Public Enemy Number One. So, if you could just put a trace on him, that’d be really nice. We’re sorry. It won’t happen next time, promise. Thanks a lot. Love you too.' ”
“Could we not ask the Lady Natasha or Agent Barton?” Thor asked. He looked around the room, noticing their absence. “Do they not stay in the tower with you all as well?”
Tony rolled his eyes. “Oh, Mr. and Mrs. Smith bunk here with the rest of us. The tower’s one of the most press-proof locations around, and the rest of the team doesn't seem have my skill at avoiding the paparazzi.”
“So where are they now?” Thor said.
“They were called out on official S.H.I.E.L.D. business around midnight,” Steve said. “I guess they’re not back yet.”
“Which...” Tony said, drawing the word out dramatically, “probably means they’re somewhere making out in the back of Natasha’s car.” He looked thoughtful for a moment. “Which – technically – I’m loaning out to her. So they’re probably making out in the back of my car.”
“Actually, sir,” a slightly-mechanical, British voice interrupted, coming from the ceiling. Steve and Thor jumped slightly at the sound, looking up quickly in surprise. “Agents Romanoff and Barton returned a few minutes ago. They’re in the elevator on their way up as we speak.”
“And you didn’t feel the need to tell me this, JARVIS?” Tony asked.
“You seemed otherwise occupied at the time, sir. I thought it best not to disturb you.”
“Well, if there’s any more vitally important information that you think it best to keep to yourself, don’t. Keeping track of this bunch is hard enough without my house actively hiding their whereabouts from me. I need a little warning before those two walk awkwardly in on some conversation.”
“Thanks, Stark.” Agent Barton said as he walked through the door, holding it open for Natasha, who followed just behind. “The feeling's mutual.”
Stark clapped his hands together once and pointed at the final two Avengers. “Yep, just like that. That’s exactly what I’m talking about.”
“They've arrived, sir.” JARVIS said flatly.
“Yeah, thanks. I got that.”
“Stark’s personality flaws aside,” Natasha said, walking to the middle of the room to face the team. “We’ve got bigger things to worry about. We need to find some way to get in contact with Thor. Something’s come…” She trailed off when she saw the Asgardian standing off to the side. She didn’t look entirely pleased to see him. “I guess it’s true then.”
“What do you mean?” Thor asked. “Do you know something about where Loki is?”
Natasha closed her eyes for a moment, as if Thor’s confirmation was the last thing she’d wanted to hear. She pulled her cell phone from one of the pockets of her catsuit and began typing. “We got this a few hours ago. A phone call to a police department.”
She held the phone out, the volume turned all the way up as the message played back.
“This is 911. What’s your emergency?”
“Hello?” A tinny, female voice said. The voice was breathy, like the speaker was whispering very close to the phone’s microphone. She sounded very scared. “You have to help us. My school is under attack!”
“What is your location, miss?”
“I’m at The Culbuter School for Young Women, 15 miles west of town. Please! You have to come quickly.”
“What is the nature of the attack?”
“You’re not going to believe me, but you have to know I’m telling the truth. It’s Loki. We're under attack from Loki.”
“Loki Laufeyson, like from the Avengers. He’s invaded the school and he’s taking students hostage. He tricked some girls into locking the entire staff up, and now all the doors are frozen shut. He won’t let anyone out. I managed to get away in the chaos and now I’m hiding in one of the storage closets, but I don’t think I have much time.”
“I’m sorry, miss, but did you say Loki?”
“Yes!” The voice grew desperate. “Yes, I swear it's true! Please, you’ve got to send help!” There was a small gasp on the line, and then silence apart than the girl’s breathing.
After a few seconds she spoke again, whispering even softer. “I can hear footsteps. Oh God, I think he’s coming. I have to go.”
The call disconnected.
Natasha looked at her phone again and tapped the screen a few more times. “About 10 minutes after that call, the police received this.” She held the phone out again.
“You’ve reached the police department. What do you need?”
The smooth voice that answered was unmistakable. The room grew tense as soon as the first words were spoken. “Yes. This is the President of The Culbuter School for Young Women. It has come to my attention that one of our students made a false distress call to your department a few minutes ago.”
“The call was fake?”
“Yes. There are no cinematic super-villains attacking our campus, I can assure you that.” There was a soft chuckle from the speaker. “I apologize for the inconvenience. Rest assured, the students responsible have been caught and will be disciplined accordingly. The call was meant as an end-of-the-year prank.”
The officer hesitated before responding. “Well, we did think the whole thing seemed a bit fishy, sir. Thank you for letting us know.” There was a click as the call disconnected.
The penthouse was silent as Natasha slowly lowered her phone. “S.H.I.E.L.D.’s vocal recognition software picked it up. The voice was a 92% match with the recordings we have of Loki.”
“It was him.” Thor looked deeply troubled. “I would know his voice anywhere.”
“Yeah.” Clint said flatly. “It’s not really the kind of voice you forget.”
Steve stood up, looking determined. “So we know where he is then. What are we waiting for?”
“JARVIS?” Tony said. “What kind of travel time are we looking at here?”
“Cross-referencing current atmospheric conditions and weather predictions for the next 12 hours," JARVIS answered, "I would estimate that the quinjet could make the trip in approximately three hours and fourteen minutes. Estimated time of arrival is 7:53 AM. That is, if it doesn’t take you half an hour to get ready, sir.”
“Get the suit ready and it won’t.” Tony said. He looked over the group, downing the last of his scotch. “Suit up, everyone. We’re taking a road trip.”
The school was completely silent as the Avengers approached. There’d been no shouts of surprise when the quinjet had landed in the soccer fields. No one came running when they neared the school. There was no sound apart from six pairs of feet on the gravel path. The whole campus was still, like it had been abandoned.
Tony’s faceplate slid back, revealing his face with a small whirr. “So, would saying ‘It’s quiet… Too quiet,” be asking for it right now?”
“I don’t like it.” Steve said, hefting his shield as he walked. “This whole place feels dead.”
“Maybe I should wait back at the jet.” Bruce said. “Someone needs to guard the tesseract, and I don’t think I’d be much help in this fight. I don’t think letting the Other Guy take over when there’s civilians around sounds like a very good idea.” Thor had been reluctant to leave the tesseract back in New York, so they’d brought the cube along. He seemed to be afraid that S.H.I.E.L.D. would try to take it again.
“Good idea, though let’s hope this doesn’t come to a fight.” Steve said. “Keep us posted if anything suspicious happens.”
As Dr. Banner headed back to the jet, the other Avengers fanned out, looking for any signs of Loki. They walked through the eerily quiet campus, weapons at the ready.
After a few minutes, Natasha called out: “Over here!” The others hurried over. She stood beside the front doors of one of the largest buildings they’d seen yet – likely the main classrooms and office building. The door handles and locks were covered in a thick layer of ice.
“They weren’t kidding about the ice.” She tapped the door with Loki’s staff. She’d showed up at the quinjet before takeoff with the weapon. The others had been surprised to realize that she hadn’t turned it back over to S.H.I.E.L.D. after the original attack, but she’d offered no explanation for it. Only Barton had seemed unsurprised.
Stark leveled his hand at the door, hitting the ice with a quick blast from his repulsor. The ice shattered. Thor tried the doors, and upon finding them locked, proceeded to kick them in. The loud bang echoed through the empty halls. The Avengers entered cautiously, searching the large atrium for any signs of movement.
“Help!” A desperate voice screamed. “Is there someone out ther—?” The voice cut off mid-word as if the speaker had been struck.
“This way!” Steve shouted. Stark’s suit powered up and he shot down the hallway, heading towards the voice. Thor, with Mjölnir in hand, took to the air behind him. The others followed on foot. When the rest of the team caught up, they found Stark blasting another set of frozen doors.
“They must be in here.” He said, the helmet’s speakers distorting his voice slightly.
‘In here’ was actually outside. The door led to a large, open courtyard in the middle of the building. A paved, covered walkway ran around the perimeter, becoming a raised open stage at the end opposite the entrance where the Avengers now stood. The grassy sections in the middle fell toward the stage in shallow tiers, like an amphitheater.
And standing center stage, like the lead actor in a twisted tragedy, stood Loki in full regalia – shining armor, full-length green cape, and golden horned helm.
Behind him, the stage was filled with girls sitting with their hands bound behind their backs, almost five hundred of them. Floating above their heads – in a scintillating, glittering, razor-sharp cloud – were hundreds of knives, tacks, glass shards, and needles. It looked as though every sharp object in the school had been gathered up to be suspended here. The captive girls all looked up, wide-eyed as the Avengers entered the courtyard, terror and hope written across their features. Though they were not gagged, none of them spoke a word.
Perhaps that was to do with the girl held in Loki’s arms, struggling against his grip. Her hands were also bound, though unlike her peers, a green scarf was tied around her mouth. She bit at it and tried to spit it out, tossing her head back and forth, to no avail.
Loki had a firm arm across her shoulders, holding her fast, while he conjured a knife in his other hand, bringing the blade against her neck. The girl stilled reluctantly, though there was a defiant fire in her eyes.
“Let her go, Loki.” Steve said, slowly walking forward. Tony and Natasha approached with him, while Clint and Thor stayed back by the door, guarding the exit. The three in front stopped about 10 feet from the stage.
Loki smiled wide at his five opponents spread across the courtyard. “Something tells me I might not enjoy what you would do if I complied.” He said, his voice carrying loudly and filling the enclosure.
“I know you’re not going to enjoy what we’ll do if you don’t,” Tony said. He raised his arms, panels unfolding and sliding back to reveal all sorts of gadgets and guns. Natasha leveled the scepter, threateningly. Behind them, Clint nocked an arrow.
“I wouldn’t.” Loki said calmly.
Stark and Natasha hesitated, but Clint drew the bow back, training the arrow on Loki’s forehead. “You don’t think I could make this shot?”
“I do not doubt your skills, Agent Barton.” Loki said. “I know first-hand the extent of your capabilities. They served me well on multiple occasions.”
The archer’s eyebrows drew together, annoyed at the reminder of his time in Loki’s service.
“No,” Loki continued. “I only ask you to think of the poor girls behind me. Keeping all of these injurious objects afloat requires quite a bit of concentration. If I were to be harmed, or otherwise distracted, I fear my magic would fail. I can’t imagine that would be a pleasant experience.”
Some of the girls looked upwards nervously. However, most kept their eyes on Loki and the Avengers, waiting anxiously to see how this would play out. At a quick look from Steve, Tony folded his weapons away and Clint relaxed the draw on his bow. He kept the arrow nocked though, just in case.
Thor hefted his hammer, staring at Loki intently. “How do we know these aren’t illusions?” He’d been tricked enough not to take anything at face value where his brother was involved.
Loki seemed surprised, like he hadn’t expected Thor to be the one to suspect a trick. Perhaps his brother was learning. Loki’s knife disappeared with a twist of his fingers. He held up his now-empty hand, inspecting it with his fingers splayed wide.
“How am I to prove that what you see before you is real?” He said, almost to himself.
With the threat of the knife removed from her neck, his personal captive began struggling again. “Not so fast.” He said softly, gripping her tightly. He walked forward toward the edge of the stage, pulling her with him. “I’d like you to meet a friend of mine. Miss Anna Mitchell.” He put his hand under her chin, turning her head to look at him. She pulled free of his grip, turning away angrily.
He laughed. “If it were not for her unfortunate outburst just before you had arrived, she would be sitting with the rest of her peers.” She lifted her head slightly, her eyes proud above the gag, at the mention of her insubordination. “Unfortunately for her, I can’t trust her to keep her tongue, so she’ll have to stay with me. I suppose it is only fair that she would receive such an honor. She has been most helpful through this whole affair. I couldn’t have done any of this without her.”
A wicked-looking piece of glass floated from behind him. “You want me to prove that what you see is real?” He took the hovering sliver delicately from the air, turning it so the sharp edge caught the light. Then, in one smooth motion, he drew the glass quickly across his captive’s cheek, leaving a long, shallow slice. The girl cried out, the sound muffled through the gag.
He casually tossed his impromptu weapon to the Avengers below him, little drops of blood spinning off the edge. The glass shard landed with a clinking sound, leaving a small red smear on the pavement. Steve stepped forward, and – without taking his eyes from Loki – picked it up. The glass was no illusion and the blood stained his gloves.
“I assure you,” Loki said. “All of my weapons and lovely assistants are real. Or do you need me demonstrate further?” He held his hand out and his glittering cloud of began to fall for a moment, before stopping again and floating back up. The girls on stage flinched reflexively, looking up in terror. The blood from the cut on his hostage’s cheek was staining the scarf around her mouth.
“That won’t be necessary.” Natasha said.
Loki regarded her, noting the weapon she carried. “Agent Romanoff,” he said with a smile. “I should thank you for bringing my scepter. Though, I must admit, I’m surprised Agent Barton doesn’t mind you carrying it.”
“I’d have a problem with anyone else carrying it, actually.” Barton said, walking forward to join the others. Thor followed. They’d apparently decided that the threat was standing on stage before them, and guarding the door wasn’t really a priority.
“How touching.” Loki said. “I hope that you—”
Whatever he had been about to say was lost, because at that moment the girl in his arms threw her head back with a jerk, smacking his chin. He was so surprised by the motion, that his grip slackened enough for her to yank herself free. He lunged forward to grab her again but she leapt off the stage. Unfortunately with her hands bound, she had no way to land safely.
“I’ve got her!” Steve jumped forward, diving to catch her before she hit the ground. Natasha hurried over to assist. Steve set the girl on the ground, and Natasha cut the bonds using the blade on the scepter. As soon as her hands were free, the girl pulled the bloodstained gag out of her mouth, spitting and coughing.
“You’re going to be okay.” Natasha put her arms around the girl, still holding the scepter. She rubbed the ex-hostage’s back while the girl trembled and tried to slow her frantic breathing. The S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent didn’t look completely comfortable with the situation, but she tried her best. “We won’t let anything happen to you. You’re safe.”
The girl nodded silently, her face buried in Natasha’s shoulder. She unwound her right arm from the embrace to wipe the blood away from the cut on her cheek, but the left stayed wrapped tightly. The motion left a smeared streak across her face.
As she finished the movement, though, the girl reached behind her head. In one quick motion, she grabbed the scepter and flung it with all her might towards the stage and the Asgardian ready to catch it.
Over the course of the next three seconds, Anna found herself grabbed, twisted, flipped and pinned. She slammed into the concrete hard, feeling the gritty surface scratch her other cheek as Agent Romanoff’s knee dug into her back. The air left her lungs in a rush, and she gasped, trying to catch her breath despite the weight of the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent on top of her.
How exactly did you think that was going to play out, Anna? She thought bitterly. At least Loki had gotten the scepter. Ever since the Avengers had shown up, she’d been somewhat worried that she wouldn’t be able to pull off her part of the plan. She wasn’t terribly thrilled that he’d cut her in order to do it, though. Her cheek still stung from the slice. He’d failed to mention that part of the plan when she’d offered to play the hostage again. Well, you didn’t expect to escape working with the God of Lies and Mischief completely unscathed, did you? It could have been worse than a paper cut. She ought to be relieved.
“What’s this?” Natasha’s voice said above her. “Another brainwashed minion?”
“Not exactly brainwashed.” Anna grunted. Natasha turned to glare down at her. Anna stared at the ground, refusing to meet her eyes.
“She's not under the spell. Her eyes aren’t right.” Clint said. He’d moved over to stand beside Natasha. “They’re brown. They'd be glowing blue if he was controlling her.”
“And Loki didn’t have the scepter.” Steve said, frowning at the Asgardian on stage.
“Not until recently.” Loki said with a smile. His hand moved down the staff, like he enjoyed the feeling of it in his hands again.
“So, can we skip the part where you hit me really hard in the head to fix it, please? I'd appreciate it." Anna said. She tried to squirm out from under Natasha, but the agent’s grip held her fast. "I think I’ve been knocked around enough for today.”
“And I’d appreciate if you would kindly let her go.” Loki said.
“Hmm, that’s funny.” Stark said. “Now we’ve got the captive and you want her released. It’s like a weird Freaky-Friday, tables-are-turned kind of thing. What in that long-locked head of yours makes you think we’re going to do that when you ask, after you so kindly completely ignored us five minutes ago?”
“I wasn’t asking.” Loki said with a smile. Then he leveled the spear and sent a bolt of blue energy streaking towards Natasha.
The S.H.I.E.L.D. agent saw the attack coming and dove out of the way, dextrously rolling and coming to a stop a few feet away in a catlike crouch.
Anna flinched as she saw the bright flash of blue go right over her head. He’d missed her, thankfully. More importantly, however, now she was no longer pinned.
“Natasha!” Clint said, running over to help her.
“I’m fine!” Natasha yelled from the ground, pushing herself up and waving him away. “Don’t let the girl get away!”
But Anna was already on her feet, sprinting back towards the stage. She scrambled up and ran to stand behind Loki. She was going to be terribly bruised and sore tomorrow after all this. Not to mention that gash Loki’d given her, which stung like lemon juice on a paper cut. She touched the cut gingerly. The bleeding seemed to be slowing, but it pulled and stung whenever she moved her face too much. Nothing she could do about that now though.
“Let us be civil about this, shall we?” Loki said with a disarming smile. Anna felt a bit safer standing behind him. He’d use the scepter to protect her if they tried anything, right? “Such aggression is unnecessary. I need only to borrow the tesseract briefly.”
“Oh, really?” Tony said, nodding understandingly. “You just need to borrow it? Well, in that case… No.”
“I will return it once my purposes are finished.” Loki continued. “This I swear.”
Steve narrowed his eyes. “You know, for some reason, I find that hard to believe.”
“What use have you of the tesseract, Brother?” Thor asked. “You have no army waiting for you on the other side.”
"He's running, Thor." Natasha said. "Like cowards always do."
“I don’t care if he plans to string it with a hook and turn it into a Christmas ornament,” Clint said. “The answer is no.”
Loki shook his head slowly, disappointed. “That is unfortunate. I do so dislike using force, but if we cannot come to terms diplomatically, I have no choice but to demand your surrender.” He lowered the scepter again. “Relinquish the tesseract or you will be made to relinquish it.”
Steve stepped forward, meeting Loki's challenge. “And how exactly do you plan to do that?”
“Oh, come on!” A new voice called from the other side of the courtyard, sounding annoyed. “That would have been the perfect time for: ‘You and what army?’ That would have been so perfect!”
Anna couldn't help but grin as, directly opposite the stage, Xandra stood up from where she'd been crouching behind the small wall on the roof of the walkway. The Avengers turned quickly, rearranging themselves to look up at this newcomer without completely turning their backs on Loki and Anna.
Xandra put her hands on her hips and – though Xandra was too far away for Anna to actually see – Anna would bet money that she was rolling her eyes. “I mean, seriously. ‘How exactly do you plan to do that’? You completely missed your cue there, Cap. Perfect opportunity, wasted.” She clapped her hands a few times slowly. “Well done.”
“Another deluded follower?” Natasha asked skeptically, looking back at Loki.
“Excuse me?” Xandra called, causing Natasha to turn back. “Did I look like I was done? Rude.” She shook her head. “Anyway, like I was saying, you all seriously dropped the ball there. Loki set that up perfectly and you let the opportunity slip by like a term paper deadline. I mean, really. If I can’t count on Stark to ironically spout clichés in an attempt at humor, I feel like I can’t really count on anything anymore.”
While the Avengers were focused on Xandra’s tirade, Anna stepped backwards towards the floating weapons and the girls beneath them. She grabbed a fencing-foil-turned-sword, feeling the weight settle into her hand as her touch caused it to stop floating. Loki’d done an amazing job at turning innocuous objects from all over the school into weapons. The once light-and-harmless foil this had once been was a far cry from the solid and wickedly sharp blade she now held.
As Anna stepped up next to Loki again, Xandra leaned down and picked up a bow and quiver from where they’d been obscured by the wall in front of her. She drew an arrow, pointing down at the Avengers. “Seriously, though. We’re going to need that tesseract. And I’m not even going to give you the opportunity to mess this up again. I don’t trust you to do it right. So, to answer the question you missed your chance on last time: This army.”
Back on stage, Anna raised her sword high. “To arms!”
All around the courtyard, Loki’s army answered the call.
The five Avengers fell back into a circle, facing outward in all directions, back to back. They were all fighters; they knew basic strategy. And as they watched hundreds of girls appear and arrange themselves around the courtyard, strategy told them that back to back was the only option. One thing was clear: over the course of less than a minute, their situation had changed from an opportunity to protect hostages to something far more sinister.
An ambush. Surrounded and outnumbered.
There were girls everywhere. The loud, yelling one on the roof had been joined by nearly fifty other archers. Like her, they had been crouching down behind the short walls on top of the walkways. Now each one of them was nocking a lethal-looking arrow on a bow as they stood up, lining the courtyard from above on all sides.
On ground level, girls poured in through all entrances, the first group of them carrying long spears that vaguely resembled track-and-field javelins, others behind brandishing all sorts of impromptu weapons – softball bats, curtain rods and other clubs and staffs of various sizes. They fanned out and formed a huge ring, filling the walkways beneath the archers and blocking all entrances. The spear-carriers stood in front, the line of them bristling with sharp points to discourage any ideas of escape. The rest of the girls stood behind, reinforcing the spear line and looking threatening.
Finally, up on the stage behind Loki and his scepter-throwing assistant, the hostages stood up as well. The ropes tying their hands together shimmered and disappeared, nothing more than illusions. Each of the ex-hostages reached up and grabbed one of the weapons floating above them. The kitchen knives and shards of glass became long swords and short sharp daggers in their hands. All two hundred of them stood at a loose attention, determination behind their eyes.
The first girl on stage raised her sword again. “For Loki!” she yelled.
The answering roar was deafening. “For Loki!” Nearly a thousand voices cried out all at once, raising weapons of all kinds high into the air. The Avengers walked slowly, turning their defensive circle as they warily regarded the army around them.
“Okay,” Tony said through his helmet. “I’ll admit, I didn’t see that one coming.”
“There is something seriously wrong with this school.” Natasha said quietly.
“Stay calm, everyone.” Steve said.
On stage, Loki raised a hand and the shouting died down. “Perhaps,” he said, addressing the heroes below him. “You would like to reconsider my offer? As I would hope is now apparent to you, I once again have an army, and you seem to be lacking your Hulk.”
“They are rather young for an army, Brother.” Thor said, concerned.
“Hey!” The loud girl called from the roof. “I turned 18 last month, Thundercat! I’m a legal adult. Not all of us have millennia to do something meaningful with our lives, Mr. I-Live-For-Thousands-Of-Years-because-I’m-Asgardian. ‘Kay? Don’t tell me I’m too young!”
“Xandra.” The leader on stage said flatly. “You’re ruining the moment.”
“I don’t ruin moments, Anna. I enhance them.” Xandra relaxed her draw and lowered her bow, falling into the same ready position as the other archers around her. They kept the arrows nocked and looked ready to draw back and take aim at any moment.
“Don’t mess with this moment. I was handcuffed, cut with glass, and more than a little bit emotionally abused for this moment.” Anna gave Loki a pointed look. He raised an eyebrow and smiled back, smugly unrepentant. She pointed to her cheek. “Did I mention cut? Wounded?”
Xandra pointed a finger. “You got to be held in Loki’s arms for a quarter of an hour. You’ve lost the right to complain about pretty much everything for the rest of your life.”
“That has… You…” Anna stuttered, her mouth dropping open as she glanced over at Loki nervously. He turned toward her and raised a questioning eyebrow. When his eyes met hers, she turned quickly in embarrassment, trying to hide the bright blush spreading across her face. Her friend on the roof laughed loudly.
“I’m with Tasha.” Clint said, looking between the two girls and the other Avengers. “This school is crazy.”
“Crazy, yes.” Tony said, his armor clinking as he turned. “But an army, no. Thor’s right. A bunch of girls with pointy sticks aren’t really much of a threat to us. Why are we still listening to this? Let’s grab Loki, get back to New York, and make sure that we double-tie his knots this time.”
“Hey! Not much of a threat?” Xandra said. She raised her arm, and the archers on the roof lifted their bows and took aim. “Make a move, soda can. I dare you.”
“Stark.” Steve said. “Back down. Loki’s a negotiator. Let’s try to settle this without a fight.”
“You scared, Cap?” Tony asked.
“Hey, Stark,” Clint said. “Not all of us are wearing bulletproof armor. And most of the archers seem to know what they’re doing with those bows. Fifty arrows versus five of us, not to mention the other thousand sharp points they’ve got trained on us right now. I don’t really like the look of those odds, Stark.”
“Regardless,” Steve said firmly, looking quickly at the team before turning back to keep an eye on the enemies around them. “We’re not fighting a group of teenage girls. It’s not right.”
“How chivalrous.” Loki said, laughing lightly. “That old-fashioned sense of honor will get you killed some day, Captain.”
The soldier looked up, meeting Loki’s amused eyes. “Then I’ll die an honorable death.”
“There is no such thing.” Loki said, his expression growing dark. “Honor is but a word. It rests not with the living and is of no use to the dead.”
“Rogers,” Natasha said. “I’m with Stark on this one. We can’t let Loki get away – teenage girls or not.”
He glanced at her, insistent. “Look, I’m not going to-”
“Listen to me.” She said, cutting him off. “I’ve killed men because they did the exact thing you’re doing right now. The fact that I was a woman made them hesitate, and I used that. I’m not about to let you make the same mistake they did.
“These girls do not need your protection. They’re armed. They’re threatening us with violence. And they’re old enough to understand the choice they’ve made. If they’ve decided to side with him, they don’t need or deserve your mercy, especially not just because they’re female. Trust me. Loki’s playing against your weaknesses, like he’s done with all of us. Make the call. Do what needs to be done, Captain.”
“I must disagree. I cannot believe attacking is the right course.” Thor said solemnly. “My brother can be incredibly persuasive-”
“Yeah. He’s a real charmer.” Natasha muttered.
“-and we cannot hold these young girls’ actions against them.” Thor continued, ignoring the interruption. “I admire their bravery to stand as they do. If compassion for my brother’s situation is their crime, I am as guilty as they.”
“You’re not pointing a spear at us, Thor.” Clint said. “It’s a bit different.”
“Yes, but I can understand why they have chosen this all too well.” Thor said. “Our difference lies in that they are simply too young to understand what is best for him.”
“What’s best for him?” The leader on stage said, stepping forward forcefully. There was a fire in her eyes. “Or what’s best for you, Thor? Is returning to Asgard in chains – humiliated and degraded, to be locked away in the dungeons for ages – really what would be best for him? And do you honestly believe you’re more suited to make that call than he is?”
“My brother is… confused.” Thor said trying to defend himself. “He does not see-”
“No.” She cut him off, shaking her head. The embarrassed, blushing girl from before was gone completely. In her place stood a confident leader, speaking with conviction. “I can see it in your eyes and hear it in the way you speak. You’ve got this idea in your head that if you take him back, somehow, eventually, things are going to go back to the way they were. All will be forgiven and you can be one happy family again.”
She looked over at Loki, who seemed surprised and somewhat taken aback by her defense of him. Though she continued to address Thor, her eyes stayed locked on Loki. “Can’t you see? He’s different now. No matter what you do, things aren’t going to be the same. It’s not that easy. Life’s not that easy. I’m mean, you know what it’s like to have your world torn away; you better than most, Thor.
“But the difference is this: you got it all back. Your family, your friends, your home; everything went back to the way it was for you.” She paused, looking down, her voice growing soft. “He hasn’t gotten it back. He isn’t going to. You see, the world he thought he knew was a lie. He didn’t just lose everything.
“None of it was ever even his to begin with.”
When she looked back up, she met Steve’s eyes and her voice was steady. “You should listen to Natasha. She’s right. We knew what we were getting into when we picked up these weapons. We’ve made our choice.” She raised her sword, pointing to the group of heroes with the point. “Now it’s time to make yours. Surrender and give up the tesseract or face the consequences. I’ll ask one more time. Do you concede?”
The Avengers glanced at each other, each of them nodding to the others in turn. They all knew what they needed to do. There would be no surrender. As they prepared to fight, Steve hefted his shield, staring down the length of the sword to meet the hard eyes of the girl at the front of the stage.
Just as he opened his mouth to speak, however he was interrupted as static sounded in each of their earpieces, followed by a familiar voice.
“Uh, guys.” Dr. Banner’s shaky voice came over the radio clearly. “We might have a problem out here.”
“Banner!” Tony said. “He’s still back at the jet!”
The other four looking at each other, alarmed.
Dr. Banner frowned curiously at the quinjet’s rear-view camera screen. With cameras set at nearly every angle, he had a very complete view of the soccer fields around the quinjet. And with all of the jet’s weapons, the small airplane was a very defensible position. All the cameras meant he’d also be able to see anyone trying to sneak up on him.
Which was why he immediately noticed someone trying to do just that.
As he watched, a girl with a loose, blonde hair tied back peered around the bleachers of the soccer field. She looked back and forth quickly, her ponytail swinging behind her, then dashed toward the jet in a low crouch. As she ran, he could see she had a backpack slung across one shoulder, bouncing and hitting her back with every step. She came to a rushed stop in the shadows underneath the landing gear, breathing heavily. She glanced about again, trying to gauge whether she’d been spotted. After a few moments she decided she was probably safe, and then leaned out and waved her hand quickly at the bleachers she’d just left.
Two more girls leaned out from behind the bleachers. The first girl waved to them again, and they left behind their hiding spot and sprinted across the open area to join her. One of them carried a purse hugged tight to her chest, the other a small stack of books and folders. Once they were safely in the shadows under the jet, all three looked around quickly again.
The blonde girl put her arms around the other two and pulled them close together. On camera, Bruce saw her mouth start moving as she whispered something, pointing at the jet above their heads. He found himself leaning closer to the screen, trying to hear what she was saying, before he remembered that there weren’t microphones with the security cameras. He leaned back and laughed at himself a bit for it, glad that no one else had seen. He’d just have to watch them and try to figure out what they were planning.
Fortunately, he didn’t have to wait long, because after a few moments, the blonde one crept over to stand underneath the cargo door. He saw her take a deep breath, then she reached up and knocked lightly against the metal.
Bruce turned away from the screen as the taps sounded behind him, immediately followed by a muffled voice asking through the door: “Is anyone in there?”
He pressed the button for the PA system. All three of the girls jumped as his voice came from the speakers. “Yes. What are you doing out there?”
The first girl knocked again desperately as she spoke, her words spilling out quickly. “You’ve got to let us in! Loki’s taken the whole school hostage, and we managed to get away because we weren’t where we were supposed to be, and we probably should have tried to help everyone else, but I had to get them to safety and so we just ran, and when we saw the jet land over here we thought-”
“Whoa, settle down,” he said, the crackle of the speaker cutting her off. “You can come in. You’ll be safer in here with me.”
The girl’s whole body sagged as she sighed deeply in relief. The two behind her looked at each other hopefully. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you so much.”
He flipped a few switches and the cargo door lowered with a mechanical whirr. As soon as the opening was wide enough, all three girls scrambled up. As they sat down on the bench, the blonde girl slid her backpack off and dropped it to the floor, while the other two set their things on the bench beside them.
Bruce reached to flip the switch to close the door again, but he stopped. In the heat of the day, the quinjet had gotten rather warm and with the door open, the breeze cooled things down considerably. Backpack-girl was fanning the other two, worrying over them. Perhaps leaving it open for a bit would be the best choice. Besides, the cameras would warn him if anyone was coming and the door could shut in a matter of seconds if any trouble decided to show up.
Actually, he noticed, the blonde girl seemed to be taking care of the other two, like she was in charge. She spoke softly, telling them that all of them were safe now, asking them if they were okay and generally trying to calm them down. Bruce wasn’t terribly good at guessing girls’ ages, but he thought she looked a little older than the other two.
“Are you three alright?” He asked. He decided to sit on the bench across from them. They looked like they could use a little space.
“Yes, thank you,” the main girl said, not looking away from the other two. “I don’t know what we’d have done if you hadn’t let us in.”
“Could you maybe tell me what’s going on in there?” He asked. The rest of the team had been radio silent since they’d parted. He was really starting to wonder what was going on in that school. The others were all together, so they were probably just talking to each other out loud, not even thinking to keep him in the loop back in the jet. These girls might be able to clear some things up. “And maybe your names? Talking through what happened might help.”
She shook her head, looking embarrassed. “Sorry. I didn’t even think to introduce us.”
He smiled, trying to make her and the others feel at ease. “You had a lot on your mind.”
She turned toward him, meeting his eyes for the first time. “Well, I’m Lynn. I’m a senior here at Culbuter. This is Morgan and Sarah, they’re freshmen.” she said, gesturing to each of the girls. She ran a hand through her hair. “As for what happened… I don’t even think I know what happened. I wouldn’t know where to start.”
“Just start at the beginning,” he said. “What were you doing when…” he trailed off, not entirely sure how to finish that question.”
“When everything when to hell?” Lynn said bluntly. She laughed once at his surprised expression. “Well, what else would you call it? My school got taken over by a psychotic god with magical powers from another planet and he took all of my classmates hostage.”
“Okay, what were you doing when that happened?”
She glanced over at the two freshmen, who were still looking a bit wide-eyed. Neither of them spoke. “Well,” Lynn said, turning back to him, “we were supposed to be in the mandatory study hall in the library, because the teachers had a conference meeting, but… we weren’t. We ditched. See, it gets really loud in there when everyone is required to go, and it’s even worse when there are no teachers. These two asked me to tutor them in French, because they’ve got a French 1 exam coming up and I’ve been in French for four years, so yeah. We just skipped out. I snuck the three of us out and we went up to one of the empty classrooms on the second floor where we could actually study in peace.
“After like an hour or so, we hear this voice come over the PA, saying all sorts of unbelievable things. ‘This is Loki, your school is now under my control, resistance is futile, any attempts at escape will be met with swift retribution. Blah blah – evil overlord clichés – blah blah. ’
“I mean, at first I thought it was a joke, even though it really did sound a lot like Loki. So I told these two to stay put while I went out to investigate. First I found the teachers’ conference room, and the doors were frozen shut, which was a weird sign, then while I was trying to get to the library, I actually saw him walking away from me down one of the other halls. I swear I nearly had a heart attack. I’ve never been so scared in all my life.”
Bruce leaned forward, fascinated by her account of the attack. “Were you the one who called 911?”
She nodded. “Yeah, for all the good it did. I knew they wouldn’t believe me.”
“Actually, it helped more than you think,” he said. “S.H.I.E.L.D. picked up on the call and that’s how we found you. Loki actually called the police after you did to try to cover his tracks and our voice recognition software caught it.”
She opened her mouth to respond, then closed it again, pursing her lips. After a few moments of silence, she looked at Morgan and Sarah, then started laughing.
“What?” he asked, looking between all of them. “Was something funny?”
“Oh, no,” she said, still laughing. She shook her head slowly. “I just can’t really believe that any of this is happening. Loki’s in my school? The Avengers landed their jet in our soccer fields? S.H.I.E.L.D. listened in on my call? It’s all just so insane!”
Bruce chuckled at that. “I guess we are kind of famous now. Ever since New York, we’ve been all over the news. I suppose that makes me a celebrity of sorts.”
“I don’t think you quite understand.” She bit her lip and looked down, almost like she was embarrassed. “It’s not that you’re famous. I can’t believe you actually exist.”
“What?” Bruce said, sitting up in surprise. This was turning out to be one of the strangest conversations he’d ever had. And considering the company he’d kept the past few months, that was saying something. “What do you mean? Of course we exist. Haven’t you been watching the news? Didn’t you hear about the invasion in New York?”
“Yeah, I heard about it.” The girl, Lynn, said. “When I went to go see The Avengers in theaters. The movie that just came out a few months ago.”
“Movie? I don’t understand.”
She shrugged, spreading her hands. “Yeah, neither do I! Up until Loki showed up, The Avengers was just a movie! All of this – you guys, the jet, Loki – you’re all fictional! Or, you were. I mean, it was a good movie, but I never expected the villain to show up at my school! Now he’s got my roommates held hostage!”
He gave her a very skeptical look, so she sighed and reached down, pulling a laptop out of her bag. “Here, I’ll show you.” She tapped at the keys for a few seconds, then turned the computer around on her lap, showing him the screen. “I’ve got a copy of it saved on my hard drive.”
She clicked a button and a media player expanded on the screen. Bruce stood up, frowning and walked across the cargo bay to her bench. The two freshmen watched him warily as he came over, like they thought he might disappear at any moment. As he sat, Lynn held the computer out to him. He took it and set it on his lap, watching the screen carefully.
It was the strangest thing he’d ever seen. It was their adventure of a few months ago, to a tee, but cut and edited to flow smoothly like a motion picture. There were detailed title screens and fancy credits and a soaring, full-orchestra soundtrack that lined up perfectly and added tension and suspense.
He didn’t watch the whole thing – it was far too long – but he skipped around, watching snippets of different scenes. Everything looked so accurate; everything was exactly the way things had actually happened. He saw some events that he’d only heard the others talk about, like when Thor had intercepted the quinjet and kidnapped Loki. He saw familiar things, like when Tony had shocked him in the lab. He felt a phantom pain in his side when that happened, remembering the quick, painful jolt.
Most disturbing to him though, were the times when the Other Guy came out. Personally, he only had vague impressions tied to those events; gray areas and gaps in his memories. Seeing them played out before him in sharp clarity was very uncomfortable. Seeing the fear in Natasha’s eyes as he transformed in front of her, her terror as she ran for her life from him. Even the events towards the end, when he was fighting the Chitauri, seemed strange to him, though he had clearer memories of that fight.
After about fifteen minutes of skipping around, he hit pause and handed the laptop back to Lynn. She watched him carefully, trying to gauge his reaction. Good luck, kid, he thought. Because I don’t even know how to react.
His mind was racing, trying to figure out any explanation for this. Had there been secret cameras following them the whole time, capturing their every move? Was this some kind of documentary? But no, those weren’t scenes from a documentary. That soundtrack, the editing? That was a summer action movie, a blockbuster if ever he’d seen one – except this one starred him and the people he’d worked with on a daily basis for the last few months.
Lynn laughed nervously, trying to break the silence. “You see what I mean? It’s weird, right?”
“That’s one way of putting it,” he said. “I’m just trying to wrap my mind around it.”
“Trust me,” she said. “I’ve been trying to do that ever since Loki showed up. Maybe the tesseract has something to do with it? I mean, that’s probably how Loki got here.”
One of the freshmen – he thought that one was Morgan – spoke up quietly. “Is that really it over there?” She pointed to the gold-and-glass cylinder and the tesseract glowing inside of it where they sat beside one of the pilot’s seats in the cockpit.
“Yes, that’s it.” Bruce went over to pick up the device, turning it over in his hands. “And you’re right, Lynn. He did. Thor said Loki used it when he escaped.”
“Well, it’s possible, isn’t it?” Lynn’s voice was casual, but her eyes were locked on the tesseract in his hands, like she couldn’t pull them away. “I mean, it can make portals between worlds. Why not alternate universes? It pulled you into our world, maybe?”
Bruce frowned, considering the possibility, turning the implications over in his head. A parallel universe where their adventure was fictional and the plot of a motion picture. And Loki had somehow transported himself here instead of back to Bruce’s own universe. Or something like that. But how had he and the other Avengers gotten here?
“It is possible,” he said slowly, a theory forming in his head. “But I don’t think it pulled us into your world, I think it pulled you into ours. The other Avengers and I, we never used the tesseract as a portal, Loki and Thor were the only ones, so there’s no way that we could have changed universes. But, Thor said that he interrupted Loki when he was making the portal, and it didn’t work completely as Loki had planned.”
He was growing more sure as he spoke. He looked between them, trying to explain what he was thinking without getting too technical. “Imagine this: our two universes are running side by side, like strings, parallel in space. Loki tries to use the tesseract to jump from one to the other, but Thor messes him up and he can’t quite make it. Instead of making it all the way across like he was supposed to, your universe bends to catch him – or maybe he used his magic to do it, I don’t know. Anyway, your universe ends up touching ours, but only in this one spot, where it got pulled to.”
“So, like the school got magically transported?”
“More like you’re in both universes at once. The universes are touching, overlapping probably. For the time that Loki and all of us are here in this area, your universe is meshed with ours. Probably not your whole universe though. Maybe just the area around your school, maybe it’s as big as your county, but really just this spot. You didn’t leave your universe, it just kind of merged with ours for a little bit. I’d imagine once we leave, your universe will untangle itself from ours, straighten out again and you’ll find that we’re back to being fictional like you thought we were before.”
All three of the girls looked fairly confused, even though he’d really tried not to use very difficult terminology. Even as she frowned though, Lynn nodded slowly. “I think I understand, but I’m not sure. So, you’re saying Loki yanked us into your world. Temporarily.”
“It’s just a guess, but in theory it could work.” He hefted the tesseract and its case. “I wouldn’t put it past this thing to be able to pull something like that off.”
“Would that mean,” the freshman from before said – Bruce was almost positive that one was Morgan, “that the actors in the movie don’t exist here?”
“I hadn’t thought about that.” Lynn said. She looked at him, curious. “Do you know any of the cast? Robert Downey Jr.? Scarlett Johansson? Samuel L. Jackson?”
He shook his head. The names were completely foreign to him.
“What about Mark Ruffalo? He’s the actor that plays you in the film.”
He cocked his head, thinking. “That one sounds a little familiar, but not as an actor… I think I might have had a fake passport with that name on it while I was abroad, actually.”
Lynn laughed. “This is so weird! I guess they’d be like your alternate universe counterparts, then. It’s funny, people on the internet always joked that the Avengers actors were like their characters, but this is a little ridiculous.”
He laughed too. It did seem a bit absurd, but no more so than anything else they’d talked about. “I’d hate to meet the guy who plays Loki. I bet he’s a piece of work.”
Lynn frowned, cocking her head. “No, actually. He’s not.” She looked thoughtful. “Tom Hiddleston is one of the nicest people ever.” She laughed. “Well, I don’t actually know him, but I mean, I’ve seen interviews and signings and stuff. But, yeah. Tom’s a wonderful person. He’s just incredibly polite and kind and considerate. He’s got this adorable laugh and whenever he smiles everything just seems a little brighter.”
Bruce raised an eyebrow, not able to believe it. “You’re joking, right? The guy who plays Loki? ‘Brightening a room’ isn’t really something I associate with his smile. More like, turns your blood to ice and makes you want to take a shower.”
“No, I’m completely serious.” She started typing on her laptop again, and after a few moments she turned it to show him a picture.
The man on screen looked like Loki’s not-so-evil twin. His hair was a curly red-blonde and is mouth was stretched wide in a beaming smile that made his eyes crinkle around the edges. It was honestly one of the most unnerving things Bruce had ever seen. He looked so happy. It was a very un-Loki-like expression.
“How in the world would someone like you just described act like Loki? It doesn’t make sense.” Bruce remembered the movie clips, and the Loki in them had been disturbingly spot-on. It was hard to imagine that this was the same person.
“No, I think it does. I think he plays Loki so well because he is such a nice person.” Lynn said softly. “I mean, you see Tom talk in interviews and you can tell that he really feels bad for Loki; he understands what Loki’s gone through and why he’s doing the things he does. He just has this immense compassion for Loki’s situation; this empathy for everything that happened to him.
“I guess it’s like,” she paused, searching for the right words. “You know how Thor feels really bad for Loki because he’s his brother and they grew up together?” He nodded slowly. “Well, it’s kind of like that, except maybe even more so, because Tom went through all the really devastating parts that Thor missed because he was on earth when it all happened. I don’t know. That’s really the only way I can think to explain it.” She trailed off, frowning.
“What is it?” He asked. It looked like she’d just thought of something.
She laughed sadly once, looking down at her feet. “I just realized if your theory’s correct, then we’re in a world where Tom Hiddleston doesn’t exist. That’s kind of a depressing thought.”
Bruce didn’t exactly know how to reply to that. He wasn’t entirely sure that he believed her about this actor. Anyone playing Loki that well would have to be well off the deep end, there just wasn’t another explanation for it. He was about to open his mouth to speak, but not entirely sure what he was going to say, when a flash of movement on the monitors caught his eye.
He turned just in time to see something green and fluttery moving off-screen. He immediately got up, setting the tesseract and portal device on the bench and hurried back to the cockpit. He flipped the switch to raise the cargo door again– heat or no heat; if that really was Loki, he and the girls needed to be protected. As the door whirred and clicked into place behind him, he stared at the screen intently, watching for whatever the green thing was to reappear.
A loud thunk sounded behind him, and he turned quickly. He knew that sound. That was the sound of the cargo door’s outside locking mechanism being slid in place. Bewildered, he realized the cargo bay was empty – both the girls and the tesseract were gone.
He turned to the door’s outside monitor just in time to see Lynn lowering her arms from the thick lever that controlled the heavy lock. The two freshmen stood behind her, looking much less scared than they had before, one of them cradling the tesseract’s case in both arms. Yeah, that one was Morgan. He was sure of it now.
He hit the switch again, trying to lower the door, but it was too late. All he accomplished was making a pop-up appear on the control panel saying: “Outer lock engaged. Please disengage and try again.”
He looked back at the monitor as Lynn delicately took the tesseract from the other girl. She looked up, staring right at the camera, almost like she could see through it to him on the other side. When she spoke her voice was muffled through the door, but he could understand her. The camera’s delay made her lips on screen move just barely out of sync with the words.
“Sorry, Dr. Banner. But Tom Hiddleston isn’t the only one who feels bad for Loki. It had to be done. Thank you for trying to help us. It was kind of you.”
He hit the microphone button with more force than he needed. “Girls, what are you doing? Come back and unlock that door! You don’t know what you’re doing!” But the girls had already turned and began walking back toward the school. Lynn pulled what looked like a walkie-talkie out of her backpack and started talking into it.
He pounded his fist against the console, his emotions dangerously unsettled, and took deep breaths to calm himself down. He needed to keep his head and think this through. As he stood there, the green movement appeared again, and this time he was close enough to see what it was. Another student stepped out from behind the scoreboard, twirling a large green flag over her head. After a few spins, she stepped back, hiding again. A decoy, just enough motion to distract him.
He’d been set up and tricked.
With deliberate, controlled movements, he raised his hand to his ear and pressed the button on his radio. “Uh, guys,” he said. His voice shook slightly. “We might have a problem out here.”
All five of the Avengers in the courtyard held their earpieces, each of them trying to figure out how exactly they were going to get back to the quinjet without the archers turning them into pin cushions. In the meantime, however, they needed to find out what had happened.
“Banner!” Steve said. “The girls at this school are working with Loki, don’t trust them!”
“Yeah. No kidding.” Bruce’s voice came over the radio, with a bit of static. “That would have been nice to know a few minutes ago.”
“What’s happened?” Steve asked.
“Is the tesseract secure?” Thor’s eyes locked onto his brother as he spoke.
“Are you okay?” Tony asked. He was all but ready to take off and fly over there himself. Only the weapons aimed at his team held him back.
“A couple of them got in here and tricked me into opening the door. I turned my back for a second and they were gone. They took the tesseract and the portal device.”
Natasha cursed, glaring at the girls around them. She was thoroughly sick of these girls. “Go after them. Get it back.”
“Don’t try to protect-”
“No, I honestly can’t. They locked the cargo door from the outside. I’m trapped in here.”
“You’re trapped?” Tony said. “Never thought you were one to get ‘trapped’ anywhere. What, did they give you laughing gas to keep you from hulking out? They taped up cute pictures of kittens, didn’t they? It’s impossible to get angry when there’s kitten pictures around. I think we’ve found your Kryptonite, Banner.”
“You really want me to get out that way? There might be a few new windows and doors in the jet when I’m through. Maybe a skylight. Do you want a skylight? I hope you and Thor don’t mind flying the rest of us home, since the jet certainly won’t be flyable.”
“Ignore Stark.” Steve said. “Just stay put, for now. Keep us posted if anything changes out there. We’ll get the tesseract back.”
“Yeah, you sit tight then and we’ll deal with this.” Tony said casually. “Play Tetris on your phone or something.”
“Thanks, Tony.” Bruce said flatly.
“Is there a problem?” Anna called out from the stage. She was leaning on her sword like a cane, and the smirk on her face was enough to convince anyone that Loki’s smugness was contagious. “You look like you’ve lost something.”
“One can only hope.” Loki said beside her.
“You know,” Tony said quietly to the team. “I’ve about had it with those two. Archer-girl on the roof as well.”
“I’ve about had it with this whole school.” Clint said.
“Ignore them.” Steve said. “We need to focus. I’ve got an idea….”
The Avengers were talking amongst themselves, too quietly for Anna to hear. She watched them carefully, waiting for them to make their move. It wouldn’t be long now.
Someone tapped her shoulder. Anna turned, and one of the girls behind her held out a walkie-talkie and an earpiece. During the preparations, they’d taken a whole set of the devices from band hall and distributed them amongst the group’s leaders. The drum majors used them during marching band to keep time with each other and make sure the band stayed on beat.
Loki’s army was using them to make sure that everyone involved stayed on plan.
“It’s Lynn.” The girl said. “Sounds like good news.”
Anna hooked the earpiece in place and shoved the receiver into her back pocket. “Lynn, this is Anna. I’m guessing from the way our friends over here in the courtyard are acting that you’ve got the tesseract?”
“Yep. The portal device too. Morgan, Sarah and I are headed out right now. Do we have anyone coming after us yet?”
Anna glanced down at the Avengers. “Not yet. They’re just talking right now, but I’m sur-”
As though Anna’s words had prompted them, the Avengers sprang into action. Tony leveled a quick, compressed blast from his repulsors at the girls guarding the nearest door. The force of it – not enough to do damage, but still powerful – sent spears went flying in the air as a section of girls were thrown backwards into their peers. Where they had been standing was now a space just wide enough for the flightless members of the team to slip through. Natasha went through first, using fluid grabs and throws to non-lethally get any stragglers out of the way. Clint followed right on her heels, slinging his bow over his shoulder to make it easier to run, and Steve brought up the rear. The three of them burst through the girls, escaping through the double doors to into the building.
As soon as their companions were safely through the enemy lines, Thor and Tony both took to the air, flying out of the courtyard and over the heads of the archers on the roofs. They headed east, in the general direction of the soccer fields.
To the side, Anna could see Loki smile.
No one tried to stop the Avengers as they left. No arrows were loosed, no swords or spears attacked. The girls had never intended to fight. The weapons and the standoff had been a bluff, and the heroes had just called them on it.
Not that that was a bad thing: they’d served their purpose. The threats, the weapons, and the army had been stalling mechanisms, and they had worked perfectly.
Now it was time for Phase 2.
“Scratch that, Lynn. The Avengers are on the move.” Anna’s words were quick and clear as she gave the orders over the walkie-talkie. “They’re headed east. If Loki’s prediction is correct, they’ll go free Dr. Banner then come after you. Head to Rendezvous #3. Stay low and stay out of sight. Keep the tesseract safe.”
“Understood.” Lynn answered. “We’ll be there.”
Reaching behind her, Anna flipped a switch on her receiver so that what she said would now go out to all the other walkie-talkies in the area instead of just Lynn’s. Her mind whirled as she spoke, details and plans falling into place. “Pursuit team 1: do you copy?”
The somewhat breathless voice of Julia, the captain of the track team, came through the headset. “We are on the move. The on-foot Avengers are eastbound, sticking to main corridors.” Anna could hear quick footfalls in the background; Julia was sprinting as she talked. “Destination is likely the soccer fields. You were right.”
Members of the track team – each group with one of the walkie-talkies – had been positioned near each of the exits for when the Avengers made their escape, ready to follow. They would tail the team on foot, keeping an eye on where they went and what they were doing.
“Excellent.” Anna said. “Keep me posted. If they change direction or anything, let me know.”
“Xandra.” Anna looked across the courtyard to her friend standing on the roof.
Though Anna had spoken through the walkie-talkie, Xandra just shouted her answer at the top of her lungs. “Yes, O brave and fearless leader?”
Anna rolled her eyes, but otherwise ignored the unconventional response. She’d learned that that was usually the best way to deal with most of the things Xandra did. “Split the archers. I need one team following the fliers. Don’t let Thor or Tony Stark get out of sight. If they split up, so do you. Make sure there are two people with headsets with that group.
“The rest of the archers need to head to Rendezvous #3 and establish a rooftop perimeter there. Climb over the building to get there. You’ll get there faster than those down here who have to navigate the hallways. When Lynn gets there, you need to protect her team and the tesseract. Whatever happens, we can’t lose it.”
Xandra snapped off an over-exaggerated salute. “Aye, aye, Captain!” She immediately turned to the girls around her on the roof and started giving out orders.
Anna waved her hand toward a group of about ten standing behind her on the stage. She’d spoken to these girls earlier and had specifically chosen them to go with Loki on the way to the rendezvous spot. Personally, Anna would stay back and direct all the different teams from here, ready to amend plans if something went wrong.
The guard group started readying themselves to leave as Anna continued to speak into the headset. “Yumi, check in,” she said. “How are things inside the building?”
“Uneventful, thankfully.” Yumi spoke clearly, but there was a hint of discomfort in her tone. “Loki’s ice on the teachers’ door is holding. Though, Dr. Reather has threatened to expel all of us for this as soon as she gets out.”
Anna couldn’t help but wince. She could imagine all too clearly the stern headmaster’s voice yelling at them for this little event. “She can’t expel us all. The school would lose half of its students. Speaking of which, how are our non-Loki-sympathizing peers?”
Out of the almost two thousand students at Culbuter Academy, a little more than a thousand had agreed to help with Anna and Loki’s plan. Half of the school was far more than Anna had expected, though she had a feeling that peer pressure and the fear of siding against the super-powered Norse God of Mischief who had appeared in front of them moments before had had something to do with the good response.
Still, not everyone had agreed. But the plan hadn’t needed them to.
Yumi had agreed to help, but only if she could stay out of the actual confrontation. So, she’d stayed back. She and about fifty other girls were stationed around the library and upstairs outside the teachers’ meeting room door, making sure no one tried to interfere with the main event. And thankfully, it seemed that the guard duty was as easy as Yumi had hoped.
“They haven’t tried anything too drastic,” Yumi replied. “Most of them are resigned to it, not really willing to do anything, though they do keep shooting us dirty looks every so often. There’s some grumbling and talk, of course. But nothing we can’t handle.”
“I could easily put a stop to that,” Loki said beside Anna, tapping his fingers playfully against the scepter.
“We’re not brainwashing anyone,” Anna said flatly, giving Loki a level look. She wondered how he’d heard Yumi, He didn’t even have a headset. She was about to call him out on it, but on second thought, she figured she probably didn’t actually want to know.
His eyes narrowed at her response and he stepped smoothly across the space between them. As he loomed over her, the girls around her shied back. It was all Anna could do not to flinch as he stared her down. His voice was low and threatening as he said, “And what could have possibly made you think that I was asking your permission?”
“I wasn’t…” Anna started, her voice traitorously unsteady. She swallowed and tried to speak calmly, but it was difficult when it felt like her heart had jumped into her throat. “What I meant was, we don’t really have time for you to go use the scepter on a thousand girls in the library. You need to get to the tesseract before the Avengers regroup and take it back.”
He held her eyes for a few tense moments – she didn’t even trust herself to blink under that soul-piercing gaze– then he laughed turning away. She had to stop herself from sighing in relief. I can’t tell when he’s being serious and when he’s just trying to mess with me! Anna thought, shaking her head slightly. And I’m not sure I know which would be worse.
Trying to ignore the heartbeat pounding in her ears, she turned toward the guard group behind her. “Speaking of getting to the tesseract,” Anna said. “You all need to be on your way. Lynn will be waiting at Rendezvous #3 – the front steps of the main building. I need you all to accompany Loki there and make sure nothing happens. I’ll be here, checking in with all the groups and keeping tabs on everyone. If there’s a change of plan, you’ll hear from me. If anything happens, let me know. Got it?” All of the girls nodded, looking determined and ready to go. A few even looked excited.
Even as she finished speaking, a hand fell on Anna’s shoulder, sending chills down her spine. That now too-familiar voice spoke softly in her ear. “Actually, there’s already been a change of plan, Ms. Mitchell. You will be coming with me, instead.”
Before Anna could react, Loki’s hand gripped her shoulder tightly. A tingling ran through her arms and legs, followed by the strangest sensation, as though her body was being pulled inward towards herself. Everything around her – the courtyard, the walls, and the girls reaching out to help her – blurred and stretched in front of her eyes before vanishing completely.
Everything was chaos and distortion, twisting in all directions. Loki’s grip on her shoulder was the only thing that gave Anna a point of reference.
She stumbled and began to fall as the ground became solid again beneath her feet and gravity took hold once more. The world straightened itself out again for just a moment, and Anna barely got a glimpse of their surroundings, but a glimpse was enough.
A line of pillars to her left. A large set of wooden double doors to her right. Lynn and the two freshman girls standing just in front of them. The identical expressions of shock crossing their faces. The tesseract cradled in Lynn’s arms.
They were at the front doors of the school. The rendezvous point.
One of the freshmen let out a scream. Lynn started to take a step back in surprise. “What the-”
Without taking his hand off of Anna, Loki reached forward smoothly and took the tesseract from Lynn. “Thank you, dear,” he said, calmly.
The whole exchange lasted barely a second, not even long enough for Anna to regain her faltering balance. Lynn had just enough time to reach forward and try to grab them before Anna felt that unnatural lurch in the pit of her stomach again. She felt fingers brush her arm and heard Lynn’s voice shout, “Anna!” before everything the world wrenched again.
Colors spun sickeningly, and when the swirling blurs finally started to re-organize themselves into shapes and forms, there was far more green and brown than there had been before. She felt the ground touch her feet again and that same off-center vertigo tipped her sideways.
She’d learned her lesson this time, though. She needed to get away from him if she didn’t want to get teleported again. Even as she stumbled, she shoved Loki as hard as possible, forcing herself out of his grasp.
The powerful motion threw off what little sense of balance she had and she tumbled awkwardly to the ground away from him. Dirt and small stones scraped her as she caught herself on hands and knees. She took a split second to be thankful that she’d managed to keep herself from falling on her face.
They were surrounded by rocks, trees, leaves, and flowers. A gravel trail ran underneath her. She recognized the place: Loki had brought her back to the trail in the woods where she’d first found him. She almost rolled her eyes. His sense of drama was unbelievable. Full-tilt diva, indeed.
For a few moments, she just knelt there with her head bowed, staring at the ground. She took a few deep breaths through her nose, biting her lip to keep from shouting the string of curses building in her head. She had a feeling that freaking out was exactly the kind of reaction he was looking for.
Her voice was tense but quiet when she finally trusted herself to speak without swearing. “Honestly, would it have killed you to give me some kind of warning before ripping me through space and time?”
Behind her, he chuckled. “I believe I mentioned that there was a change of plans.”
She shook her head, laughing quietly as she pushed herself up to sit on her heels. “You’d think that after this whole ordeal I’d get used to you pulling this sort of thing.”
“You ‘getting used to it’, would somewhat defeat the purpose,” he said. His boots crunched on the gravel as he walked around to stand in front of her. He offered his hand to help her up.
She looked up at him, raising an eyebrow at the gesture. “And now, all of a sudden, he’s a gentleman.”
“I still have need of your assistance,” he said. “Therefore, I need you to stand up.”
Sighing, she took his hand, letting him pull her to her feet. “Wow. Plot twist: Loki tells someone to stop kneeling.”
He laughed again as she brushed herself off. “Anna Mitchell, I am going to miss you.”
She shrugged, smiling despite the fact that she was still annoyed at him.“Well, I guess I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t going to miss you too. And you’d probably be able to tell.” She turned, trying to get a better look at their surroundings. “So, why exactly did you drag me out into the middle of the woods?”
He didn’t answer her. When she turned back to see why, he was holding the tesseract. He had the case tipped sideways, his long fingers carefully aligning the symbol-covered dials on the end of the golden case. Where did that come from? He took it from Lynn, but he wasn’t holding it a second ago.
After a few moments, he held the case out toward her, his hands wrapped around both of the handles. The scepter rested casually in the crook of his arm. “If you would kindly take hold of the glass…”
She reached forward, but then stopped, frowning. “Wait a sec. What exactly is this going to do? I mean, I’ve had quite enough teleportation for one day, thank you very much. I don’t really feel like getting whisked halfway across the universe this time. Going across campus was bad enough.”
“Relax,” he said. “Amusing though you are, you’d do little more than get in the way where I’m going.”
She crossed her arms. “So why are you asking me to put my hands on a locked-and-loaded, super powerful, teleportation device?”
“I need you to keep the tesseract from coming with me.”
Anna blinked in surprise. “You’re not taking it with you?”
“Of course not,” he said as though it were obvious. “I have no use for it. There is no army waiting for my orders on the other side. Where I am going, it would only attract attention and make me a target.” He paused, then tipped his head like he was conceding a point. “Well, more of a target than I already am. No, my brother and his friends can keep it. It will be safest under their protection. In addition, should I ever decide that the tesseract would be useful again, I’ll know exactly where to find it.”
“Oh. Well, then,” Anna said. “I have to admit, when you said you didn’t want the tesseract before, I thought you were giving me a bunch of super-villain BS to try to trick me.”
His face split in a wide grin. “You are aware that not everything I say is a lie.”
She looked at him for a moment, then nodded to herself. “Yep. And expressions like that are exactly why I thought so. Okay, so how am I supposed to keep the tesseract from teleporting with you? Isn’t that how it works? And how am I not going to get sucked up along with you when you activate it?”
“One must hold the handles in order for the device to have effect. You will be holding the case in the middle. Perfectly safe.” She raised an eyebrow at that statement, but Loki ignored her. “As soon as I activate the device, you are to pull it away before it comes with me. Then, once I am gone, you will mix up the dials on the end so my brother and his friends cannot follow me. It’s as simple as that.”
Anna was still skeptical. Loki sounded fairly sure of himself, but the whole just-grab-the-incredibly-powerful-device-while-it’s-doing-its-thing was sounding like somewhat of a sketchy plan. Besides, that cube freaked her out just a bit. “How do you know that this is going to work?”
“Because,” Loki said slowly, “Thor managed to accomplish this exact thing only a few days ago completely on accident. How do you think I got here?”
She stared at him, trying to read whether or not he was telling the truth. It was no use. She couldn’t read a thing in his eyes. After a few moments, she gave up, shaking her . “I really hope you’re telling the truth, dang it. You’re too good of a liar.”
He gave her a flat look that seemed to say: What exactly did you expect?
Silently praying that this wasn’t a trick, she hesitantly reached out and grabbed the tesseract case around the middle. The glass was hot, just shy of burning her, and she nearly pulled her hands away in surprise. She stopped herself though, gripping the slick surface. The cube within glowed blue around her fingers, casting strange shadows on Loki’s face as she looked at him.
“Are you ready?” He asked quietly.
She glanced down, swallowing. After a moment’s thought she wrapped her hands around the device, lacing her fingers together on the opposite side. Feeling the pressure of her own fingertips pressing into her skin, she met his eyes again and nodded.
He looked at her, and then back at the tesseract. He paused as if he was considering something, then quickly shifted two of the dials on the end to a new setting. When he was finished, he met her eyes again, his voice intense. “We’ll go on the count of three. As soon as I turn the handle, you pull the case away from me, understand?”
She was about to say yes, when a thought occurred to her. “Wait! What am I supposed to do once you’re gone? I mean, how am I supposed to deal with the Avengers and everyone back at the school?”
He raised an eyebrow. “You’re a clever girl. You’ll figure something out I’m sure. You have a long walk back to the campus to think of something.”
“Excuse me?” She said, indignant. He’s just going to drop this mess on me? “I don’t think-”
“Oh, but you do,” He said, cutting her off. “You do think, Anna Mitchell. A skill too many seem to have forgotten. A skill that serves you well. Remember that.”
Anna was so taken aback by the compliment that she didn’t exactly know how to respond. Her objections died even as she opened her mouth to speak them. Loki used her hesitation against her, taking control of the conversation again.
“Now then, on the count of three,” he said, his voice perfectly calm. Realizing that he was going through with it this time, Anna took a deep breath. She gripped the case tightly.
He held her eyes as he spoke. “One, two, three.”
As soon as the last number left his lips, he turned the left handle with a sharp twist. An unearthly glow like bright blue fire spread upward from his arms, covering him in less than a second. In the same instant, Anna pulled with all her strength, tripping backward as the device slipped easily from Loki’s light-consumed fingers. His flickering blue form stood still for a moment, the light growing brighter. Then at the last second, the figure lifted its face and the blue flames shot into the air, streaking like a comet.
Anna looked up into the sky for a long time after the light disappeared, hugging the tesseract to her chest. She could feel the warmth of it through her shirt as she stood. He’s gone. We did it. And I’ve got the tesseract.
Eventually, she looked down at the device in her arms. Remembering Loki’s instructions, she turned the dials on the end of the tesseract randomly, spinning them like she was resetting a safe. As she started to leave, she noticed the Loki’s scepter lying on the path where he’d been standing. Tucking the tesseract underneath her arm, she walked over to inspect the long, golden spear. Sunlight flashed along its length as she picked it up.
“I guess this would draw attention too, wouldn’t it?” she said quietly. She gripped the scepter tightly, swinging it up to rest on her shoulder. “Might come in handy, I suppose. I’m going to need all the help I can get.”
She started walking down the path back to school, but after a few steps, she paused and turned around again, looking up. “Take care of yourself, will you?” She said to the sky, knowing full well that she was being silly and that he couldn’t hear her. She didn’t care. “Don’t do anything stupid or reckless. I care about you, alright?” She paused, looking down for a second. “Just… be careful, okay? For me.”
Then, tesseract under her arm and the scepter on her shoulder, she turned away and began the long walk back to campus. She wasn’t nearly done yet.
“I told you already. I don’t know where it is.”
The blonde girl – Bruce had said she’d given her name as Lynn – sat back against the steps in front of the building, crossing her arms. This interrogation wasn’t really going as well as Steve had hoped. He’d had some training in questioning prisoners, but he couldn’t seem to get any more information from this girl. She didn’t really seem to be defiantly holding back information. In fact, she just seemed annoyed that she was being interrogated for information she didn’t have.
Steve was tempted to believe her – that she didn’t know where the tesseract was – but Bruce had been insistent that she and her friends were very good actresses. Natasha had made the original decision that the three girls should be questioned separately. She and Barton were each talking to one of the other two girls far enough away that the conversations wouldn’t be overheard. Bruce was standing next to Steve right now, listening to Lynn, but every so often he’d go listen to one of the other pairs.
Finding Lynn and her friends had been a bit of a stroke of luck. After finding their way back to the soccer fields, Steve, Natasha, and Clint had unlocked the quinjet and regrouped with Banner. While they’d searched the campus again, Bruce had given them the details of what exactly had happened with the girls. They hadn’t found the tesseract, but they had happened run right into the three thieves. Or more accurately, the girls had run into them. The leader, Lynn, had collided with a very shocked Steve at the corner of one of the buildings. A stroke of luck indeed.
In fact, things in general had started to go more smoothly after leaving Loki. Not that “more smoothly” would have been difficult. Dealing with the God of Mischief seemed to throw even the best plans into chaos. “Smoothly” was not usually a word used to describe how a stand-off with Loki went.
Unless, perhaps, Loki himself were describing it.
“You’re telling me within the ten minutes between you stealing the tesseract and when we caught you,” Steve asked, addressing Lynn again, “you managed to lose track of it?”
The girl sighed, giving him a suffering look. “No. I didn’t ‘lose track of it,’ Captain. Loki took it. Like I told you.”
“Run through how that happened again, please.”
“Fine. For the fifth time now, Morgan, Sarah and I took the tesseract and locked the quinjet.” She glanced at Bruce. “Sorry about that, Dr. Banner. No hard feelings, right?”
Banner didn’t respond, turning and walking away to listen in on one of the other interrogations.
Lynn shrugged. “Okay, so maybe there are still a few hard feelings.”
“The tesseract, ma’am.” Steve prompted.
“Yeah, yeah,” she said. “I’m getting there. So we take the cube to the front of the school, because that was the rendezvous point we decided on.” He’d noticed this when she’d told her story before, but there was a slight accent to the word “rendezvous” whenever she said it, especially on the “r” at the beginning. It rolled a bit, like a breath caught at the back of the throat. It caught him off guard every time.
“Loki appears out of thin air,” she continued, still sounding bored, “grabs the cube, says ‘thank you’ like I just passed him the salt and pepper at dinner, and then disappears again. A few minutes after that, you guys showed up, and we surrendered. And then, for the last half hour I’ve been sitting here answering this question. Happy?”
“And this wasn’t a part of your plan?” Steve asked.
“Not as far as I was told.”
“So why did Loki go off the book?”
She gave him a flat look. “It’s Loki. How should I know? I’m pretty sure that the only person who could answer your question disappeared in that blue flash over the woods twenty minutes ago.” Strangely, she seemed to grow angry as she spoke, her eyebrows drawing together in some emotion Steve couldn’t quite place. Fear? Worry? Frustration? It almost seemed to be a mix of all three.
What aren’t you telling me? There’s more to this story, I’m sure of it…
Even as he wondered, though, Steve couldn’t help but look over his shoulder at where they’d seen the flash. It had certainly looked like the tesseract’s portal, but they’d sent Thor and Tony out to make sure. Making assumptions based on what your enemy let you see was usually a good way to get yourself trapped. Especially when that enemy was Loki.
As Steve started to turn around, he heard the now-familiar sound of Tony’s rockets coming over the building. Moments later, the man himself landed a few feet away. Strangely, Thor wasn’t with him. Even more strangely, he was carrying a girl in his arms.
“Look what I found,” Tony said as he landed.
Lynn looked up, surprised. “Xandra?”
“Hey, check it out,” Tony said. “You’ve got one too. Hostages are just all the rage right now, aren’t they?”
Xandra dramatically threw her arms around Tony’s neck, batting her eyes. “It’s ‘cause we’re so sexy, Mr. Stark.”
In response to that, he pulled his arms out from under her, letting her fall. Her yelp of surprise was cut off as she hit the grass lawn on her back.
“You’re a bit young for me, kid,” Tony said, his faceplate sliding back. “Also, a bit more psychotic than I’d prefer.”
Xandra laughed, sitting up and rubbing her back. “Well that last one’s incurable. I’m a fangirl; being psychotic is part of the job. My doctors have told me it’s terminal.” As she stood up, Steve pointed sternly at the stairs. Sighing, Xandra walked over and sat down next to Lynn.
“They got you too, huh?” Lynn asked.
“Eh, the archers and I surrendered. They’re up above us on the roof still, but Stark took the bows away,” Xandra said, shrugging. “The arrows weren’t going to do much against the suit anyway and he was the only one around. I figured you already had the cube, so it didn’t really matter. You?”
“Not watching where I was running. I ran right into the Captain over there.”
Tony looked like he was going to say something, but Steve held up his hand. He wanted to let the two of them talk. Speaking casually to each other like this, they were more likely to slip up and reveal something than answering questions.
Xandra leaned back, resting her elbows on the step behind her. “Yeah, I figured I’d take my chance when I could, right? I mean, Anna was probably the only one who was going to be held by Loki, but at least I managed to get Tony Stark.”
Lynn laughed flatly, shaking her head. “You are unbelievable. Though, you were the only one to kiss Loki, though. That’s an accomplishment, right?”
Xandra grinned wickedly. “I’d almost forgotten about that. I guess I did, didn’t I?”
Despite trying to stay out of the conversation, Steve couldn’t help but react to that statement. “Wait, you kissed Loki?”
Xandra nodded, looking very proud of herself. “Yep. He threw me at a wall for it, it was awesome. Totally worth it. I would have tried to kiss Tony too, but he had his faceplate down the whole time. I figured kissing the helmet wouldn’t quite be the same.”
“Well, I guess that makes the suit bulletproof and Xandra-proof,” Lynn said. Her voice stayed neutral, like she was afraid that reacting would only encourage her friend’s behavior. “That’s certainly impressive.”
Tony looked somewhat uncomfortable with this new revelation. “And, now I feel like I need to take a shower. Or fly through a car wash.”
“If you decide to go with the shower thing,” Xandra said, “can I watch?”
Lynn covered her eyes with a hand. “Xandra. Could you try to tone it down, please? In case you forgot, we are prisoners right now. If you keep this up they’re going to throw us S.H.I.E.L.D.’s dungeons for the rest of our lives or something.”
“Oh, they’re probably going to do that anyway,” Xandra said, unconcerned. “Might as well enjoy the moment while we can. I mean, what are they really gonna do to us right now? We’re not really a threat or anything anymore. No weapons, no plan, no leader, no tesseract, and no Loki. Though I’m guessing those last two are halfway across the universe by now actually.”
Lynn got quiet all of a sudden. She looked down. “I’m just hoping it’s not the last three.”
Xandra sat up, looking concerned. “Wait a sec. What’s that supposed to mean?”
Lynn looked between Xandra and the two Avengers listening in. Finally, she sighed. “I guess it doesn’t really matter if you guys know now. I can’t see how it would hurt.”
Yes, Steve thought. It’s working. This is what she was holding back before.
“What are you talking about, Lynn?” Xandra asked. “Did something happen with the hand-off? I saw the flash and figured the plan worked. Are you saying something went wrong?”
“Yeah, something went wrong. Loki went off the books. There wasn’t a hand-off at all, Xan. He appeared, grabbed it, and vanished; God only knows where he went.”
Tony raised an eyebrow. “What, Loki didn’t stick to your plan? Strange, I’d always pegged him as such a team player.”
Xandra rolled her eyes at that. “Why didn’t Anna say anything? She was supposed to let us know if things changed.
Lynn met her friend’s eyes solemnly. “Xandra… he had Anna with him.”
“Wait, what?” Xandra sounded confused, like what she was hearing didn’t make sense, like Lynn must have made a mistake. “Why would he take Anna?”
“What do you think I’ve been trying to figure out for the past half hour?” Lynn said, her tone rising. She sounded more frustrated by the second. “I mean, I can understand why Loki might choose to do the tesseract thing without us – he never really seemed like much of an ‘honor guard’ person anyway – but why take Anna?
“Here’s what I’m thinking. You know that whole, ‘the tesseract will work with only one person, you don’t need two, I know it only shows two people using in the movie, but don’t worry about it’ thing? Remember who told us that? Oh yeah, the God of Lies. So, what if he actually does need another person holding the other end of the tesseract. Easy, he grabs the closest person disapparates the heck out of there. And that’s Anna.”
“Wrong fandom.” Xandra pointed out quietly.
Lynn shot her a glare that seemed to say: Of all the things, that’s what you took from that? She looked like she was going to call Xandra out on it, then she just glanced away, pounding her fist against her leg. “And now, I’m stuck here sitting on the steps, getting asked the same dumb questions over and over, while one of my best friends might just have gotten kidnapped to the other side of the universe. I can’t tell if I’m angry that I’m trapped here and can’t go help, or if I’m angry because there’s nothing I could do about it anyway!”
“We’re not going to let him do this.” Xandra stood up. “We’ve got to do something!”
“You’re not going anywhere.” Tony said sternly, pointing at her. “Sit down.” Xandra frowned at him, but reluctantly sat again.
Lynn sighed sadly and just shrugged, staring at her feet. “Oh, it’s not like it matters. If I’m right, we’re too late anyway. That flash was almost half an hour ago. If he took her, she’s gone. I don’t even care if we go to prison now. We deserve it if we got our best friend kidnapped.”
Steve didn’t exactly know how he was supposed to react to that, so he was glad when Thor appeared above the trees and landed at the bottom of the steps a moment later. He walked over to meet the God of Thunder, shield in hand. “What’s the status on the woods, Thor? Any sign of Loki?”
Or anyone else out there? He added silently. Despite the fact that this Anna had stood against them, if Loki had taken her against her will, it was their job to try to help her. He wasn’t sure the rest of the team would see it that way though.
“There is nothing,” Thor said. “I could find no sign of my brother nor the tesseract. I fear we are too late. He is gone already.”
Steve looked at the two girls, concerned. Their faces fell at the news. Xandra put an arm around Lynn, but she looked just as broken. He looked at his teammates. All around, he could see them giving up. They thought this was over. Loki had won.
He wasn’t ready to give up just yet.
“We’re not leaving here until we’re sure. We’ll search the woods for any sign Loki,” He paused, turning toward Lynn and Xandra, “Or Anna. Any clues as to where they might have gone.”
He was about to start giving orders, when Xandra sat up, looking surprised. He followed her line of sight to the woods behind him, turning just in time to see someone step out from behind one of the trees.
The newcomer held the tesseract case loosely in one hand, the cube glowing evenly within. The golden scepter resting on her shoulder moved as she shrugged casually, smiling.
“This will probably be a short search for you, then.”
“Anna!” Lynn stood up and started to run forward, but Steve caught her shoulder. The situation had changed again. Anna wasn’t a victim anymore. With that tesseract in her hands, she was the opponent again. And Steve wasn’t about to let their only leverage against her run off to give her a hug.
Anna smiled and gave her friends a little wave with the hand holding the scepter. “A word of advice,” she said coolly. “Thor’s probably not your best bet when it comes to reconnaissance. No offence, Big Guy, but attention to detail doesn’t seem to really be your forte.” She looked thoughtful for a moment. “I suppose I should be glad that Hawkeye can’t fly, or I’d never have made it all the way back here.”
Thor looked like he was going to say something, probably to defend his tracking skills, but Tony spoke first. “So, if you’ve got the cube, where is Mr. Tall, Dark, and Not-So-Handsome?” As he talked he slowly started to walk forward.
“I beg to differ on that last one,” Xandra said, holding up a finger.
“We know, Xandra. We’re well aware of your stance on that issue,” Anna said. She pointed the scepter at Tony as she spoke, making him stop. “Yeah, I’m going to have to ask you to stop right there. I just feel like this conversation will go more smoothly if you all keep your distance. I’m not completely sure about what all I could do with this pretty staff, but I’m sure could figure something out if you need convincing on that point.”
She pointed the scepter upward and shot off a bright blue blast. Then she smiled, leveling it at the team again. “Yep. That’s going to work wonderfully. Hopefully, I won’t need to use it, because we’re all going to be mature here and talk about this thing like adults. Right?”
Steve motioned for the team to lower their weapons a bit, and they complied with varying degrees of reluctance. While Anna was armed, she didn’t seem to be threatening them, just trying to protect herself. In fact, she was acting like she wanted to negotiate. they could work with that.
“Thank you,” she said. She looked at Tony again. “Where’s Loki? He’s gone. It was really cool: blue light, bright flash, you know the deal. He’s off hiding in some unimportant, forgotten corner of the universe where no one has ever heard of Asgard or her outcast prince. He didn’t tell me specifics. To quote a friend: ‘I’ve sent him off, I know not where.’”
Thor frowned at that.
She hefted the tesseract case, showing the controls on the end. “I scrambled the dials myself. There’s no use trying to follow him. Face it: it was a good run, but Loki won. It’s over now.”
“Not quite,” Steve said, nodding toward the tesseract. “There’s still that.”
“Not quite,” Anna conceded. “So let’s talk about what happens next.”
Natasha folded her arms, eyes narrowing. “Something tells me you’ve already got an idea.”
“Is it the fact that I’m a amazing strategist who is also currently in possession of a glowy-blue bargaining chip?”She laughed once, then grew serious. All of a sudden, the girl standing before them was all-business.
“Here’s what’s going to happen,” she said. “First, you let my friends go. You let all of us go. No charges pressed, no arrests, no interrogations. I don’t really feel like going to prison, and I’m fairly certain my friends feel the same way. A life spent in locked away isn’t much of a life.” She paused, cocking her head. “That reasoning is also, coincidentally, my rationale for this whole escapade in the first place.”
Thor stepped forward. “Loki must retu–”
She held up a finger, cutting him off. “Please save all comments until the end. I wasn’t finished yet. In addition to letting us go, you help us cover up. It’s simple enough. You tell everyone that we were brainwashed, that Loki put us under a spell. It’s believable. Our teachers will buy it. The S.H.I.E.L.D. interrogators will buy it. It’s perfect.”
“It’s a lie.” Natasha said flatly, arms still crossed.
“So, it should be familiar territory for you, too.” Anna ignored the glare that followed that comment. “Look. You’re going to agree to this plan. Because I’ll give you the tesseract. No muss, no fuss, no bloodshed. I’ll hand it over and you can go lock it up in your secure, top-secret vaults, or let Thor take it back to Asgard. Hey, and because I’m feeling generous, I’ll let you have the scepter too. It’s everything you want out of this negotiation. All you have to do is let us off the hook.”
Steve looked around, watching the reactions of his team members. He felt as though he already knew what each of them would say. Natasha would vote no immediately and recommend that they all be locked up for good, possibly in the psych ward. Clint would agree with her, wanting to follow protocol to a tee. Dr. Banner would want to call back to headquarters and ask them before making a decision.
Tony would say that they should pretend to take the deal, grab the cube, and then haul them all off anyway. That was the strategic thing to do, but it twisted Steve’s stomach to consider lying to the girls, even to get the tesseract back. He wasn’t going to do something like that
On the other side, Thor would be the voice of opposition. Steve could tell that already. He would say that the girls could not be held accountable for their actions, that whether he’d used magic or not, his brother was persuasive and these girls had simply been swayed by his words. Thor had been sympathetic with them earlier back in the courtyard, and Steve was sure he’d sympathize with them now. If pressed, he would argue that what was done was done, and securing the tesseract was their main concern. Anna’s offer was their best bet for that.
In fact, the only reaction that Steve wasn’t entirely sure about was his own. There was a lot at stake here, and a lot of different ways that this could go down.
Which was why he was very surprised to hear himself saying: “Okay. It’s a deal.”
Anna looked surprised. “Really?”
Natasha turned toward him sharply. “Captain? You want to think about that decision a bit longer? Maybe discuss our options here before agreeing to this?”
“No,” he said, a plan already beginning to form in his head. “I’m sure.” They would take the deal, make the switch, even give the girls their alibi and help them stay out of trouble. But after that…
He met Anna’s eyes. “We agree to all of the terms. The tesseract and scepter in exchange for full immunity.”
She looked carefully into his eyes for a few moments, and then nodded once. “You know, if Stark had said it, I probably would have just laughed. But you’re honest, Cap. I think I can trust you to keep your word. Okay then. It’s a deal.”
She started walking forward, and he went out to meet her. When they were only a few feet apart, she stopped. “Thank you,” she said, “for being civil about all of this.”
Anna might trust him, but he still wasn’t sure she was trustworthy. He couldn’t think of a reason why she’d want to trick them, but that was usually exactly when she pulled the rug out from under them. “Just hand over the tesseract and scepter, Miss.”
She smiled. “Polite as always. They’re yours.” Casually, she tossed the scepter towards him. He caught it easily in his right hand. The tesseract was a bit heavier, so instead of throwing it, she proffered it carefully, holding the case with both hands by the handles. He tried to take it, but she held on.
“Keep your end of the bargain,” she said seriously, meeting his eyes.
“I will,” he said. “I swear.”
Finally, she let go. He nodded gratefully toward her. He turned to head back toward the team, tucking the tesseract under his arm. After only a few steps thogh, Anna called out behind him, making him stop again.
He turned. “What now?”
“I probably ought to let you know that we locked all the teachers upstairs and Loki covered the doors in ice. We may need your help fixing that one.” She shrugged sheepishly. “Sorry.”
The last few weeks of school after that day seemed to pass all too quickly. On the surface, everything seemed normal. There was cramming for exams, yearbooks to sign – and for the seniors – graduation preparations. Yet underneath it all, the school was changed.
Anna noticed that people looked at her and her roommates differently. Where most people had ignored her before, now she was getting reactions. Sometimes it was anger, sometimes fear, and more often than not, admiration. Everyone knew who had been behind the events with Loki, though no one dared to say anything aloud. It was the unspoken secret of Culbuter.
It wasn’t just the students; all the teachers seemed to know who was to blame for that day as well. There was never any punishment, though. No one could prove it. The Avengers themselves had vouched for the girls’ innocence, claiming as Anna had asked, that everyone involved had been under a spell.
While Anna enjoyed the newfound notoriety, she couldn’t help but feel like she was waiting for the other shoe to drop. Except in this case, the other shoe was a fully-armed SWAT team that Anna was certain was about to burst through her classroom door at any moment and haul her off to prison. But it never happened.
There was one afternoon, about a week after everything had happened, when she had been called up to the president’s office. Dr. Reather had stared Anna down across her large, mahogany desk, daring Anna to say anything.
After a few minutes of stubborn and awkward silence, Dr. Reather had simply said, “I know that it was you. This whole situation has your fingerprints all over it.”
Anna had simply shrugged, trying to act unaffected. “Well, I suppose that I must have acted like myself while under the Loki’s spell. It’s incredible what magic can do, huh?”
For the last month of school, Anna had diplomatic immunity. She had to stay on her best behavior, but so long as she toed the line, they couldn’t touch her. She didn’t get expelled, she didn’t get detentions, not so much as a single demerit.
And she pulled it off. She couldn’t quite believe it, even as she walked across the stage at graduation, her long robe swishing around her ankles. The smile on her face as she returned to her seat had little to do with the diploma in her hand. She couldn’t have thought up a better end to her senior year if she’d tried. Nothing would ever top the time she and Loki had outwitted the Avengers together.
Or so she’d thought until she opened her small diploma booklet after the ceremony and something fell out.
She was outside the auditorium now, waiting for her parents to find her when it happened. She picked up the object, a white envelope, feeling the smooth, expensive paper under her fingers. When she flipped it over, she saw that the only thing on the front besides her name was the circular insignia of a stylized eagle.
Her heartbeat started to pound in her ears as she slipped her finger underneath the flap and opened it. Her mouth dropped open as she read the short, overly formal letter inside.
“Whoa, hey. What’s that?” Xandra said as she walked up. She leaned in to get a closer look. Yumi and Lynn were pushing through the crowd close behind. “I didn’t get one of those.”
Anna read over the words twice, then three times, trying to make sure she was understanding correctly. Her voice sounded strange to her when she spoke. “It’s… an offer. From S.H.I.E.L.D. They want me to work for them as an intern over the summer.”
She looked up at her friends, seeing her own shocked disbelief mirrored on their faces. No one really knew how to respond to that.
The next voice to speak though wasn’t one of theirs.
“If it’s not too much trouble, I’d like to get your answer before I go.”
All four of them turned toward the oddly familiar voice and the man it belonged to. His suit didn’t stand out amongst the dressed-up families of the graduates, though the Bluetooth receiver in his ear seemed a bit corporate for an event like this.
Xandra looked like she was having trouble deciding whether she should scream or pass out. Lynn and Yumi alternated between looking at each other and the newcomer as though they couldn’t believe their eyes.
Anna just smiled.
Despite the strange reactions, Agent Coulson remained unfazed, patiently waiting for a reply. “It’d be a bit of a hassle to send another jet out here to get you later,” he added. “We could use someone with your skills working for us, Ms. Mitchell. You come very highly recommended.”
Anna looked between her friends. She heard a voice call her name and she turned, catching a glimpse of her parents slowly making their through the crowds to get to her. Her mom waved at her and turned toward her dad, pointing Anna out.
Anna looked back at the agent, then at the letter in her hand. She almost wished she needed time to think about her answer, but she’d already made her choice. “I’ll do it.”
Coulson nodded, as though this was what he’d expected. He held his hand out to shake. “Welcome aboard, then.”
Chapter 19: Epilogue
Even as Loki activated the tesseract, a small part of him regretted resetting the dials. Not that he would ever admit that. Loki had a very strict policy when it came to messing up: Never let anyone know that you made a mistake, and act as though your failures were a part of the plan all along. Not that resetting the dials had been a mistake, per se, but it certainly was going to make things more difficult. It was more of an inconvenience than a problem.
Though admittedly, an inconvenience that could possibly get him killed.
As he let the handles of the tesseract device slip from his fingers and the blue light overwhelmed him, he told himself that he wasn’t doing this because of the girls. Their devotion to him had been useful. Something he could exploit to bring his plans to fruition. Anna and her friends had been tools, nothing more. Occasionally amusing, but certainly not anything for which he would endanger himself.
No, he had changed those dials for himself. It wasn’t a mistake, it was a challenge; something to make life interesting. Sometimes one simply had to enter a difficult situation in order to find a way out. It was an exercise, a game. Something to keep his skills sharp.
Yes, he decided. This is my choice. Any advantage that his actions lent Earth or Asgard would simply be a side effect.
The tesseract’s power consumed him, filling his vision with blue. He could no longer feel. He could no longer see or hear. The world around him might as well not have existed. Nothing but that blue light was real. He felt neither cold nor heat. There was no sense of up and down. His own body seemed to have abandoned him – he had no arms, no legs, no fingers or toes. Even his heartbeat had gone silent, its oft-ignored rhythm noticeable in its absence.
It wasn’t an entirely unpleasant feeling, this nothingness. He was nothing. He was the shadow of an idea floating in an endlessly bright abyss. In the tesseract’s anesthetizing embrace, he could imagine that he was truly and completely separated from the universe, detached even from his own self and the unyielding burden of his thoughts and memories. It was freeing, this nihility.
Oblivion seemed to him a more enviable state than existence.
But unfortunately, reality found him once more. Sensation spread across him, pushing outward from his core and running down his arms and legs. He flexed his hand, feeling his fingers brush against each other, tangible once more.
While the feeling was returning to his body, he also summoned his armor, feeling the weight of the metal plates settle on his shoulders and across his chest. He wasn’t expecting this encounter to turn into a fight, but the armor served a more useful purpose than mere protection. This was about image, presence. Words were powerful, yes, but so was appearance. And he would use both to their fullest extent to accomplish his goals. He would need to, if he wanted to make it through this encounter alive
As a finishing touch, his helmet shimmered into existence atop his head. He tipped his head back slightly; partially due to the balance of the helmet’s curved horns, but also to complete the look of menacing condescension already written through the rest of his posture.
He took a step forward as the blue cleared from his vision, trusting that the ground would appear beneath his feet. He’d found that it was easier to find his balance post-teleportation if he was already moving.
His eyes adjusted to the dark scene quickly. Slightly uneven ground beneath his feet, scattered with loose stones; twisted rock formations rising on all sides; a sky blacker than night, studded with stars and planets; and a soft, purple glow providing the only night.
Even as he completed the step, Loki heard the familiar sound of the Chitauri’s laser rifles cocking and charging. He could see four of the creatures in front of him from where he stood, but he knew without turning around that there were more behind him as well. If he guessed correctly, there were about ten Chitauri guards around the perimeter of the rocky meteor. All would be armed.
He was surrounded and every weapon aimed at his chest. It seemed his armor might serve its more practical purpose after all.
Directly in front of Loki, between two of the Chitauri, The Other turned with a surprised snarl, the mask on its face covering everything but its lips. The creature recovered from the shock of Loki’s appearance quickly, and began to laugh. The raspy sound echoed hollowly across the empty space.
Loki ignored the chilling, sinister laughter. On the outside he was perfectly calm, completely unfazed by the weapons pointed at his chest. Inside however, his mind was whirling, racing. He was assessing the situation, reading every detail in his opponents, playing out the variables and possibilities in his head. He was improvising yes, but already three steps ahead.
The Other spoke first. “You are a fool to return here after your failure, Asgardian. If you have come to beg for mercy, you will find we have none to spare.”
“I don’t beg.” Loki said, raising an eyebrow.
The Other’s lips pulled back in a twisted approximation of a smile. “Oh, but you will. Long before we are through with you, you will beg. But not for mercy. For your embarrassing failure, you will be broken. You will be desperate. Your arrogance humbled, your proud figure made pitiful. Your pathetic cries will be for nothing but death. You will grovel on hands and knees before us, your pretty words deserting you in your pleas, your silver tongue tripping over itself in your pleas for us end to your suffering.
“And it is only then your punishment will truly begin.”As the creature spat his threats, it walked forward, stopping mere inches from Loki.
The thing’s breath was horrendous, but Loki didn’t move or flinch. “As tempting as your offer of unending agony sounds, I do have more important things to attend to.”
Loki stepped forward, circling The Other as he spoke. The Chitauri kept their weapons trained on him as he moved. They wouldn’t fire without orders, but they would be ready to at any second. The Chitauri didn’t think or make decisions on their own. Loki liked that about them. The thoughts of others tended to get in his way.
“You see,” Loki said, “I’ve come to give you valuable information. Well, that is if you are still interested in the whereabouts of the tesseract.”
The Other’s lips drew into a firm line; suspicious, but curious. “Its power clings to you like a stench, but we know that you do not have it. We know where it is, for we have watched you and your actions. The tesseract remains on Earth still, kept from our reach. The depths of your inadequacy are limitless. Twice you hold the cube in your power, and twice you lose it.”
Loki spread his hands, unconcerned. “I could have taken the tesseract, had I wished. Leaving it behind was part of the plan. Why would I bring it to you, when watching your forces break their teeth against the defenses of Asgard and Earth would be so amusing? Without my help, you will destroy yourselves in your mad desire to claim it.
“At least, that was the original plan.” Loki watched The Other carefully as he summoned the glowing blue cube to his hand, appearing just above his fingers. The creature tensed immediately, its entire body alert, like a predator about to pounce. Inwardly, Loki smiled. The Other spoke well and could negotiate with skill, but it couldn’t control its reactions.
Loki turned the cube absently, as though inspecting it. “You see I thought of something even better than leaving the tesseract behind, protected on Earth: letting you think it had been. Oh, how much more satisfying would it be to see your efforts and struggles, knowing they were all in vain? Watching you throw all of your might against Earth, for nothing. For a decoy, a fake. That would be a marvelous trick, indeed.”
The Other seemed to be on the verge of lunging for the cube, barely holding itself back. “If you sought to trick us, deceiver, why do you tell us your pan? You have revealed your hand.”
“Have I?” Loki asked seriously, staring at the place where its eyes should have been. “If you’re going to be tricked that easily, this won’t be any fun. Have I revealed my hand? Or have I simply informed you that I’m playing one?
“Tell me, creature, which tesseract is the real one? Is it the one that I hold here, or is it still on Earth? Or perhaps neither of them is real, and I’ve hidden the true tesseract somewhere else entirely. You see, you don’t know. You can’t know. You’re not smart enough to figure it out.
“What is my real plan here? Would I leave the tesseract guarded from you and your forces back on earth? It wouldn’t be my problem anymore. Oh, but am I really the kind of person who gives up something so powerful? It seems likely that I’d want to keep something like that close at hand. Or would I sequester it away, far from sight, taunting you with false choices?
“What am I trying to get you to do? And how does my explaining all of this change things? Which course of action is the trap, and which leads to success? Or is it all a trap?” Loki laughed. “It’s a riddle, a puzzle. And you can’t solve it, because you can’t solve me.”
The Other’s next words came out in a hiss, pointing at Loki. “The lies are yours. You know the truth. You will tell us which is the true tesseract.”
Loki scoffed. “If you are expecting me to tell the truth, you are suffering a gross misunderstanding of my character.”
The Other reached forward with its inhuman hand, as if to wrap it around Loki’s neck. “We will have the answer, even if we must drag it from your screams.”
“You would have to catch me for that,” Loki said.
“Then we thank you for saving us the trouble of tracking you down,” The Other said. He looked to the Chitauri standing at the ready. “Subdue the traitor. Seize him.”
The guards leaped forward, their armored hands outstretched to grab him. Loki only laughed as their arms and weapons passed harmlessly through the illusion. The illusion Loki standing before them smiled once before shimmering out of existence.
The Other snarled, turning frantically to try to find the real Loki. When the God of Mischief spoke once more, his voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. The words simply filled the air.
“Yes,” Loki’s voice said. “I believe we both know you’re nowhere near clever enough to catch me. And you never will be.”
The Other’s furious roar was swallowed by the dark, disembodied laughter that echoed across the meteor before disappearing into the starry expanse above.