Clint has an arrow in his hand, and he's throwing it in the air and catching it as it falls back down with robotic precision. It's the middle of July, sweltering hot, and they haven't had a call to assemble in weeks.
Not that Clint wants civilians to get hurt, but you know. The boredom he's been going through is torture.
JARVIS flashes through the walls, like a greeting, and informs Clint, "There is a package waiting at the front door, Mr. Barton."
Clint continues flipping his arrow through the air and says, "I don't mean to sound rude, JARVIS, but why aren't you telling Tony this?"
"Mr. Stark is in the lab, sir. The package is also addressed to all members of the Avengers."
"I see." Clint speaks flatly, getting up anyway. He slings his bow and quiver of arrows over his shoulder, just because, and sighs before depositing himself into the elevator. It's depressingly silent since he's the only one inside, and he taps his feet absently as he waits.
At level 26, the elevator pauses, and Peter gets in. "I'm heading to the workout room," he tells Clint. "The one in the basement. Thor told me to meet him there."
Clint rolls his eyes before chuckling. "Thor can wait. Why don't you go to the lobby with me? Apparently there's a package that's been sent to the team."
Peter blinks, long lashes fluttering. "That's weird. Usually they're sex toys sent to Tony."
He turns to look at Peter. "How do you know that? Have you been stealing his mail? That's illegal."
Peter shrugs. "Tony doesn't care. I intercept most of them before they reach him, anyway. Besides, it's a good replacement for sex ed."
"You're something, Peter." Clint watches the numbers at the top of the door change from 3 to 2 to 1. The doors ding open, and he and Peter step into the lobby.
"The receptionist has the package, sirs," JARVIS tells them, eerie because the suddenness of his voice wasn't expected. The receptionist sends Clint a friendly smile, before reaching under the desk and handing him a small brown box.
"Thanks," he tells her, turning back to Peter. He shakes it, grinning at the younger boy as they listen to the faint clunky rattle inside. "What do you think it is?" he asks ominously, waggling his eyebrows like a comedian. A very, very bad comedian.
Peter laughs. "I don't know. Fan mail?" The high schooler shrugs, moving a hand to brush at hairs on his temple. It's awfully shaggy, Clint thinks--like he doesn't want to be able to see anyone through the soft shade of brown.
They return upstairs, to the main living room of the Tower, where Natasha is sprawled (still managing to look graceful) on one of the couches. She most likely just returned from her daily round of training. "What do you have there?" she asks.
She barely looks up.
"Someone sent us a package," Clint answers, throwing it onto the coffee table. Natasha sits up suddenly, scrambling away. "What? It's not a bomb."
"Unless Stark has his security check his packages very thoroughly, then it definitely is a potential bomb."
Clint rolls his eyes but doesn't say anything back. At the same time, Steve, Tony and Bruce step out of the elevator, presumably from the labs.
"What's this? Gifts from Pepper?" Tony asks, throwing a completely soiled rag into a wastebasket. It's soaked in a suspiciously dark, now-dry liquid. He moves to crouch on the carpet beside Peter, running a finger along the plain rectangular sticker that labels it as to the Avengers.
"Since we're all here, we can open it together." Clint looks around. "Well, Thor's . . . somewhere, but whatever. This thing doesn't look very important."
Bruce joins Natasha on the couch."Who sent it?"
Tony peels the packaging tape off the top. "It doesn't matter. I get anonymous packages all the time." He rids his fingers of the sticky plastic, then pulls aside the flaps at the top of the box. He pauses, frowning. "What--"
There's a bright flash of light, then the air changes suddenly from crisp to stuffy, like the kind inside a greenhouse. Clint blinks away the afterglow of the brightness, trying to make out his surroundings. His feet stumble momentarily, kicking into the soft, sandy ground.
He looks up. There are bold, lush green trees with very impressive looking foliage towering over them, and birds call majestically through the moist air. When he instinctively reaches for his bow, he can't. Not because it's not there, but because his wrists are bound to two others'--Thor and Natasha's.
As he looks around, he notices that they're all tied to each other. In a circle. By some sort of metallic-looking fiber, soft and flexible but strong and unbreakable. When Clint peers closer, the material almost appears to be glowing, golden like sunshine.
To his left, Natasha tugs sharply, jolting him and Peter. "Where the hell are we?!" she snarls, glaring. "That fucking box--"
Peter stares. So this is the famous Loki, the one that nearly took over the mortal world. He would have been there too, fighting, but the Avengers Initiative didn't involve him (as Spider-man hadn't existed at the time it was created) and he'd been in school. Trying to leave in the middle of an evacuation to help save the world counts as truancy.
The green-eyed god grins at them all. "Let's play a game," he says, walking around their circle slowly. "This should be fun, seeing that now you have another member."
Peter snaps his head up as Loki pets his hair mockingly. "So you're Silvertongue," he dares to say boldly. "The God of Mischief, right? And lies, and deceit--"
He receives a kick to the ankle, Natasha and Steve holding him up when he stumbles. He glowers.
"He is an insolent one," Loki comments, making a face. "Very interesting."
Tony growls. "What do you want, Loki?" His face clearly shows his irritation; he's powerless without his suit. All of them are helpless, connected to each other like this. Peter doesn't know how Thor got here when he wasn't in the living room with the rest of them, but he doesn't have Mjolnir. Even if they did have weapons or something to fight with, they would be nearly impossible to utilize.
"What have you done, brother?!" Thor rumbles. "How did we get here?!"
"That is a very excellent question, and I will answer it," Loki smiles at his brother, the wickedness visible in all of his features. "I received help from someone Mr. Stark should know very well--his name was Hammers. Justin Hammers, correct?"
"Bastards," is all Tony says.
"Mmm, yes. Earlier this summer, he gave me the idea to set about a gigantic bird upon New York City. I believe your friend had some fun in that little episode." The god smirks, and Peter's face burns with something like humiliation. "And that box you've all just opened? Mr. Hammers aided me in sending it to you. I encased it with a spell, one that would transfer you all here if any one of you, including your insect-like friend, opened it."
"They're arachnids," Peter mutters.
"This is no game, brother." Thor glares, probably wanting to point at the villain, but unable to because of the bonds. "Games are played with rules; games are fair! You have imprisoned my comrades! How is Asgard allowing this?"
Loki lets out a cruel laugh. His image flickers once; suddenly there are six of him in various points around the outside of their circle. The Avengers all dart gazes around. "Which of me is real, brother?" he spits. "Even you were never able to tell, and of course neither does Asgard."
He claps, and there is only one of him again. "This game is fair, brother. It's really quite simple; if you find the way to break your bonds, I will return you all to your tower."
"What if we don't?" Bruce asks quietly.
The villain laughs. "You'll see," he promises, and disappears.
Natasha is the first to move. "Shit!" she yells, flexing her arms angrily. The others, with the exception of Clint, have probably never seen her so dangerous, so out of control.
Peter glances around warily. Natasha is attached to his right, and Steve on his left. If he lists his fellow team members continuing left, it goes: Tony, Bruce, Thor, Clint, and then Natasha again. "So he put an enchantment on that box?"
Beside him, Steve sighs. "I guess. How the heck are we supposed to get these ropes off? They look like they're . . . magically enhanced."
Thor nods vigorously. "I know these well. Loki has subjected my friends and I to these many times before."
"Then how do we get them off?" Tony looks more and more miserable each passing second. Peter understands. He has a twisted type of claustrophobic feeling pooling in his core right now--there's barely any freedom to move, and his hands itch to be free. He can't climb the trees, can't scout the area; he's limited to the rest of his group and they are limited to each other as well.
"You can only cut them with an enchanted device. My brother must have left one hidden somewhere for us."
Tony sighs. "So, assuming he was kind enough to do so, we have to go find it?"
"I suppose. That is the trick of the situation, I believe. It's very difficult to move when we are attached like this, and we are not able to separate."
Natasha twitches. "I feel powerless; we don't have any weapons or--" She takes a breath. "God."
"I have my arrows," Clint offers, but she ignores him.
"We should look for what we need to free ourselves," says Thor. "There is something more to this, something he isn't telling us." Swallowing, he continues, "Despite what he believes, he is my brother. I have lived with him long enough to know."
Clint and Tony make a sound simultaneously. "The thing is, where do we start first?" the archer points out. "Like you said, there's no way for us to split up."
"This must be some sort of joke," Tony mutters. "A god of mischief can't go from trying to take over Manhattan to some stupid game like this."
Bruce pulls on his ropes, causing the entire group to shift a few steps in his direction. "Walk," he advises. "Before something bad happens."
The air is an oppressing kind of humid, and Peter attempts wetting his lips as his sweat-dampened shirt unsticks from his chest. They've been progressing in the same direction for nearly an hour, but already the heat is draining his energy and right now Natasha is the one doing all the work.
Tony stops at one point, panting slightly. "Sorry, guys," he says. "I have to pee." Bruce and Steve are the two on either side of him, and they groan in dismay. "Hold on; how do I get my pants down?"
Peter and the rest of the Avengers look away as Tony fumbles with the button on his pants. "Sorry," Tony says, not sounding quite sincere enough, as the sound of liquid hitting the ground begins.
As soon as Tony finishes zipping back up and they're all properly facing each other again, Bruce blinks and tries gesturing at the space behind Clint and Thor. "What is that?"
Everyone turns to look. There's a faint, tall silhouette; hidden partially behind the trees and foliage. It's about thirty feet high, and it moves just like an animal does, slow and aware. "Whatever it is," Steve hisses, "don't disturb it."
Peter swallows. Under normal circumstances he wouldn't be worried, but obviously helpless like they are there won't be anything they can do if they get attacked. "Should we run?" he asks, his voice low, nearly a hum.
The creature moves closer as if it heard him. Shit, he thinks, as they all try to sneak away as quietly as possible.
It doesn't seem to work, because the monster/creature looms over them, making itself visible. Natasha curses multiple times, in at least six different languages, as Clint yells.
Breathe, Peter thinks.
At first he assumes it's a giant lizard. Then it gets even closer (and oh, holy shit) and he blinks. It looks as if Loki has reincarnated a dinosaur. It's huge, carnivorous-looking, with dark, leathery-looking skin and feral eyes, and roars at them as they take off running.
"What the fucking fuck is up with supervillains and giant, lethal monsters?!" Tony yells, barely managing to not trip on the natural debris that coats the uneven ground. Their shoes slip on the moss as they scramble away desperately.
"Shut up!" Natasha screams and it's obvious that she's trying to think. "It's going to kill us!"
"No shit!" Bruce and Clint scream back as the animal storms behind them.
Thor yanks them all through a particularly thick spread of trees, which is effective at slowing the reptile down for a few seconds. "I can attempt to conjure some lightning," he offers, as they loop in a frenzied path around the trees in their way. "But without Mjolnir I'm afraid I won't be very successful at keeping this beast away."
Peter's legs ache. The ropes are tight, enough that he's starting to chafe.
He lets himself be dragged along, stumbling over fallen branches and mossy rocks as the thing--he's pretty convinced it's a dinosaur, what the heck--cries out again behind them. "Peter!" Bruce yells at him as he kicks into a tree trunk. "Are you okay--"
He can't tell who--what--started it, but without warning Steve and Tony fall down beside him and he follows, too. Natasha lands with a grunt on his foot. When he blinks the dirt from his eyes, Thor is raising his hand (and Bruce's) to the sky, muttering words none of them can understand.
The beast/dinosaur knocks down a tree, sending vibrations through the ground and Peter's skull. He winces. Just as he does so, Thor holds his palm out, and a blindingly white fork of electricity strikes the reptile.
Someone--maybe multiple someones--yells. The reptile makes a strange, foreign groaning noise, and staggers into another tree. . Hopefully, if it's unconscious, they can get away before it wakes up again.
Meanwhile, Natasha rifles through the multitude of arrows Clint has in his quiver. She manages to find a poisonous one, tipped with enough that could kill twenty people in seconds, and she grins. "Tasha, what--" Clint begins, but she rushes forward and plunges the weapon into the beast's thick leg before he can even finish.
Then she sighs. (She sighs.) She shoots the now-twitching monster a somewhat satisfied look. "Thank god."
Tony looks at her. "I swear you're the only reason this entire team is still alive," he declares, slumping tiredly against a tree. Half of their circle is sitting on the ground, and their chests heave from the exertion. Generally, they don't run because they have other methods of traveling, so this is a whole different situation for them.
"Thanks." She sends him a half-friendly smile, and huffs out a breath, the sweat on her face and neck gleaming. Her chest heaves from the effort running, and she's about to sit down when a loud--unnaturally loud--noise disrupts her.
Natasha whirls around at the sudden cracking noise. Behind her, Loki smirks, looking incredibly smug at their exhaustion. "Having fun?"
Tony lifts his head to glare at him. "Yeah. So much."
"I'm glad." He looks around, grinning wildly. "So you still haven't found it yet? Tsk, tsk, I was expecting more from the Avengers." He says the last word like it's poisonous, and curls a lip before going on. "I told you you would face consequences. They only get worse from here, so you all ought to hurry."
The god shakes his head, taking slow steps to circle around them. "Maybe," he says, "maybe if I'm lucky, you won't ever find it. If you don't find it, you'll be here until one of my traps finishes you all for good."
"Where are we?" Bruce demands, standing up slowly. "I've never even seen pictures of a place like this, every single specimen is so unlike the next. It's unreal."
Loki turns to the scientist. "This is a very special place, Doctor," he says, sounding incredibly smug. "It is impossible for you to return to the mortal world without the device you need."
Bruce stares into those green eyes--such a different type of green, more sinister--and doesn't blink. His stance is collected and defiant. Not daring, but quietly unwavering.
Loki snaps his fingers, the maniacal smile returning. He backs away, bowing before he disappears. "Good luck!"
Steve grits his teeth right afterwards. There's a smudge of dirt on his face and his white t-shirt is evidence of the insanity they're going through. "We'll need it."
"What kind of device are we talking about here?" Tony asks, examining the golden bonds that restrict them all to each other. They shimmer, even in the dim sunlight from the tree that he's sheltered under. The cords loop, like handcuffs, so that there's only a few centimeters of air between one person's hand and the next. "Is it some pair of weird, enchanted cable cutters or something?"
Bruce scratches idly at his wrists. "I'm starting to chafe."
Tony snorts, pulling himself off the ground with a grunt. "We have to get these off. That dinosaur incident--we're just lucky we have Natasha."
Steve tugs at his arms. "I think they're getting tighter," he says worriedly. "Before, I could slide them up my wrists, but now they're almost glued to my skin."
Bruce glances back down at his hands. "Shit." Everyone who's still sitting gets up. "If that's true, we'd better find that thingnow."
They all get up, not wanting to risk themselves any further. The situation seems to get only more and more dire the longer they're here, and their chances of returning slimmer.
It's been almost two hours. Natasha swats at her face, irritated beyond what she thought possible. Her clothes stick to her all over her body, and the growing amount of bees that keep attacking her hair don't help either.
Steve seems to have the same problem. "Do bees live in the jungle?" he asks nervously. He wrinkles his nose as one whacks into his shoulder. These are bigger than any he's ever seen before, and his arms twitch nervously.
Beside him, Tony jerks violently. "Shit!" He rubs carefully at a spot near his elbow; he's been stung. "Why the hell are there so many of these?" He winces at the tiny swell of red skin on his arm, glaring at the insects that hover in the air. They're huge, fat, and they buzz menacingly as they bump into various points on his body.
Bruce glances worriedly at the tiny wound. "That doesn't look very typical for a bee sting," he remarks. "Is this another one of Loki's traps?"
"If it is, then I have a smoke bomb in my boot," Natasha says, glowering at the bugs. She wipes at a strand of hair that's fallen into her eyes. One of the bees lands on her shoulder, and she winces as it pierces her.
Peter pales. "Um, guys, I think we should get out of here before th--" He stumbles backwards, only managing not to fall because Steve helps to catch him. He groans, staring at the welt that's (already) forming just above his outer wrist. "Shit, shit, shit--"
Bruce pants, tripping backwards. "Guys!" He only gets the word out just as the buzzing increases exponentially, more of the tiny creatures flying out from god-knows-where to freaking attack them.
Natasha is busy fumbling with her shoes. "Clint!" she screams, half dragging the archer and Peter away from the insects, trying desperately to keep them from stinging again. There's a numb sort of sharpness raking up and down her arm, and she screams again because if they don't get out of there right fucking now, they're going to die. She knows the symptoms of poison, and has had far too much experience to know that this is fucking dangerous.
Clint shoves his hand into her boots, reaching around wildly for the smoke bomb she said was in there. Eventually, his fingers grasp something cold and metal, small enough for him to wrap his hand around. He yanks it out, his fingers trembling above the pin. "Run, guys!" he calls, and as they tear away, he slides the metal piece out and drops it at his feet before he's yanked, nearly off his feet.
Moments later, massive clouds of cough-inducing smoke billow through the trees, and no one can see anything. Nevertheless, they continue running, turning around trees in an effort to leave the insects behind.
Natasha chokes on the infected air, wincing as her arm brushes against a tree trunk and a shock of pain rides its way up. Shit. Those things were really fucking lethal.
Thor bellows, just as they run into a sudden clear spot. The smoke seems to have distracted most of the bees, and the ones left are perched hazily on the nearby trees. "Loki!" He yells, turning in all directions. "Why do you wish this upon my friends and I?!"
Bruce pats his arm (or attempts to), telling him, "We'll make it out of here."
Tony brushes the side of his face onto his shirt, wiping dirt off. He looks pointedly at Bruce, then at the rest of them, who's faces are now grayer thanks to the diversion that Natasha provided. "How?" he asks, and the question is followed by a depressing silence.
Tony sighs, heavy and laced with a wistful sort of longing. "I'm going to miss being able to have sex before we die," he says.
Steve rolls his eyes, but rubs the back of his hand comfortingly. "We're not going to die," he promises. "We've already survived two attacks."
"And I don't know how many more we can take." Tony sighs, jabbing the captain when he begins to reply. He just eyes Steve with a look that tells him not to say anything, and the supersoldier shuts up.
"Where could it be?" Peter asks, digging little crescents into the dirt with his shoe, then erasing them again. He closes his eyes and yawns, the obvious tiredness showing up clearly on his face. He flexes his shoulders, trying to ease the aching in the cramped muscles. This is an insane way to die, he thinks. Out in a jungle on a world that probably doesn't exist, being chased by evil dinosaurs and killer bee traps designed by a jealous, maniacal god. Huh.
"Somewhere he knows we wouldn't be able to reach," Natasha answers, rubbing absently at the sting on her arm (the pain is subsiding, thank goodness) and the cords by her wrists. If she looks closely she can see the bright redness as her body's response to her skin being rubbed off.
"Then it's probably in a tree," Clint says. "Where we can't climb." His face has a sadness to it when he speaks, like he knows that he isn't able to get back to his second home among the sheltering branches. His hand twitches, and he looks up every so often with a paranoid expression.
Peter squints toward the sky, letting the breeze push his hair back for him. This place is still strange; more humid in certain places, more dry and windy in others. The soil changes, the terrain ranging from rocky to wet and damp to sandy. Like Bruce said, the trees vary a great deal, and even Clint can only recognize a few. "What do you think, Thor?"
Thor shrugs. "Knowing Loki," he comments, "he probably has it hidden somewhere very close to us, but still out of our reach. He delights in teasing his victims like that."
"It makes sense," Tony says, pondering. "He's a bastard." He sighs. "We're going to die," he laments, slumping against a tree trunk and heaving his chest dramatically. "SHIELD is never gonna find us, and we're going to either get eaten by a tyrannosaurus or rot here, still chained to each other."
"I can't believe any of this," Natasha mutters, tugging again on her ropes without realizing it. "Where the hell could that 'device' be?"
"Ask him," Clint suggests sarcastically.
It's funny, because just then Loki poofs magically into sight, bearing a smirk that would drive Tony to insanity if he weren't already exhausted and lying on the ground of this mysterious jungle. "Ask me what?" he asks, faking innocence and looking around to appreciate the torment his traps have caused.
"How to get the fuck out of here." Natasha deadpans, glaring at him.
"Ah," Loki casts an exaggerated face in her direction. "I'm so, terribly sorry, but I'm afraid that you'll have to work that out on your own. Find your own solution, if you will."
"My solution is to ask you."
Loki chuckles, low and amused. "Well, then, that solution is a dud."
Natasha stares at him. Her expression is completely blank; it's the face she uses when she hides amusement or anger or anything else she wants to hide. Loki seems to be unfamiliar with it, because he blinks several times before stepping back. "What do you want from us?" she asks, her voice completely devoid of emotion.
"Why do you think?" he retorts. Then he smiles, wicked and promising. Promising of what, no one can tell. "Besides, your new friend here . . . I haven't seen him bleed yet."
Peter pales, pressing his lips together as the god steps towards him. "So helpless, all of you. If I took a dagger out right now, none of you would be able to do anything about it, would you?" The villain runs a hand slowly, softly through the teenager's hair. "This one is so young. They say children heal faster; I wonder if that's true?"
Natasha grinds her teeth together, yanking at her ropes. "Loki!" she grunts, low and desperate. "Leave him alone!"
He turns to her, grinning. "So the Black Widow does have a heart after all, hm?" He reaches into a discreet pocket attached to his armor, pulling out a sheathed dagger only a few centimeters longer than his hand. Even covered, it's easy to see how sharp it is, the tapered point glinting as he pulls it out.
Peter's mouth falls open, breathing heavily as his eyes widen. Behind Loki, he can see Thor and Bruce's expressions imitate his. "Please," he whispers, as Loki reaches forward, grazing the tip of the blade against his throat, against his collar bone. Even touching him this lightly, they etch tiny white lines into him, sticking out against the sweat-slick skin.
Natasha wriggles desperately, rising onto her knees. "Loki," she says, her tone warning. Her hands are clenched into tight fists, her fingers digging into her palms. When she stands up, the god turns around and points his weapon at her threateningly.
"Maybe I can start with you, if you want," he says dangerously. "Originally, I wanted to get rid of your . . . Peter first, since he seems so dear to you, but--"
"He is to us what you used to be to me," Thor interrupts, his eyes shining with tears or hatred as he stares at his brother. "It does not matter that you were never related to me, Loki--"
"I am not your brother!" Loki spits, glaring. He meets Thor's gaze, cold and bright; threatening. After at least two minutes, he exhales, turning back to Natasha. "Now, darling, wh--"
Natasha lunges forward suddenly, dragging Clint forward with her and snatching the dagger out of his hand. Wasting no time, she twitches her wrist and the thing slices cleanly through the ropes holding her and Clint together. She breathes sharply, her eyes widening as she looks up.
"What--" Loki has stumbled backwards, but as soon as he sees the cut bonds he screams. "No!"
Natasha's eyes are huge as she looks at him. He lunges for her, and she drops the weapon to the dirt either in terror or surrender, but before he can reach her the same blinding light that brought them here illuminates their circle.
Clint lets a tiny yell escape him as his feet touch carpeting. Carpeting, oh God. They're back in the Tower, and when he looks at his arms there are no stings, no bruises, no sweat, nothing left but for two identical red rings around his wrists.
"Tasha!" Tony yells, jumping off his kneeling-crouching position back by the coffee table and throwing his arms around the assassin, who looks both pleased, surprised, and disgusted at the same time. "Oh my God, I am so glad you're part of this team, I--"
"Okay!" she says, shoving him off her and landing in a spot on the couch. "Thanks, I get it, I'm just glad we're back."
Peter looks less pale, and he brushes repeatedly at his hair with his fingers. The lines are gone from his skin now, but he has the same red rings as Clint does. Everyone has them, either as reminders or because of the magic imbued in the cords. "Oh my freak," he says. "I'm--I thought we were going to die." He looks at Natasha, who is blushing slightly now from the praise everyone is giving her. Bruce rubs her shoulder comfortingly. "How did you know?"
"Thor told us," is all she says, and Thor just shakes his head.
"You tricked the God of Mischief." He makes an expression of disbelief. "I've never seen that happen before. You truly are amazing."
"He just . . . better not come back."
Tony squishes onto the couch next to Natasha, practically sitting in her lap. "Oh my God, I love you forever."
"Shut up, Stark." She rolls her eyes.