Chapter 16: Game Changer
Not fooled by the seemingly docile posture and casual pose, Thor remained vigilant even though three guards surrounded his disarmed brother. Loki was a master of illusion with not only projecting false images but crafting his face into an innocent mask that had fooled many. He’d done it harmlessly enough throughout their youth but had honed his skill with precision in their later years. There was great advantage in being underestimated – something Thor was sorely guilty of doing where was brother was concerned. He vowed never to make the mistake again.
Loosely chained and surrounded by mortal guards, Loki was the picture of subdued defeat. Thor had watched as one mortal soldier after the other questioned him but though he maintained his cowed, submissive posture, Loki did not speak and rarely acknowledge the others in the room. In fact, the only time Thor noticed a substantial reaction out of his brother was when anyone approached the unconscious maiden he so clearly coveted.
Defensiveness and possessiveness radiated in the taut lines of Loki’s shoulders and the arms that he’d bring down over her prone body when any approached her, caging her under his body. The one who talked too much – Tony, and also the one with a penchant for metal armor and who had fought against Thor with misplaced righteousness – did not appear at all impressed by the protective display.
“Ease up there, Rudolph,” he smarted as he sauntered up to the table, some sort of device in his hand that he slowly drew over the girl’s body.
“You’d do well not to underestimate my brother,” Thor cautioned, eyes still appraising Loki’s lithe form. A coiled up snake, Thor thought as he took in the subtle flexing of Loki’s forearms as he braced himself over the girl. His hands curled slightly around the edge of her bed and Thor had the distant thought that he was either using his grip to anchor himself in place or preparing to launch himself over the girl and bed and attack if need be.
“Please,” Tony scoffed, apparently satisfied with whatever his little device had accomplished as he turned away, not even deigning to spare Loki a backward’s glance as he eyed his results. “Reindeer Games over there won’t make a move – he’s all tuckered out.”
Thor snorted. And his people thought him arrogant. “Do you treat all your enemies with such casual disregard? If so, I fear the future of Midgard. Loki holds great power and is capable of using it against anyone in this room – it is in your benefit to respect that and not underestimate him.”
“Respect is earned, not given, Fabio and I’ve got none to spare for some punk kid who keeps pulling my girl’s pigtails while out on the playground,” Tony stated dismissively, plugging in some numbers into a screen as Dr. Banner came up on the other side to peer at his results.
From the corner of his eye, Thor noted as Loki eased up out of his haunched stance and turned his back on them. Subconsciously it seemed, he reached out to the girl’s hand, the care with which he caressed her limp hand entirely at odds with everything he thought he knew about Loki. Perhaps he’d never known the truth of his brother at all.
Still, Thor was not fooled. Despite his apparent lack of interest in their conversation, Loki was listening to every word said and planning how to use it all to his advantage.
“I care not for the tails of pigs, metal man Tony, but you’d do well to heed my words. There is some truth to what you say but only a fool would ignore what is so clearly a threat to the safety of so many.”
“Maybe we’re not so sure you’re not a threat too,” the female warrior chimed in. Though shorter in stature, her bearing once more brought to mind the warrior Sif, causing an instant kinship to spark within Thor’s breast.
“You are wise to be wary,” he acknowledged. “But my quarrel is not with you. I seek to recover the tesseract before anymore harm can be done and to bring Loki to my father for Asgardian justice. Midgard is and always will be under my protection.”
Her cool eyes appraised him. “We’ll see about that,” she dismissed his posturing. The woman struck him as made of ice but when her eyes flicked over to the maiden on the table, Thor saw her thaw with concern. A vaguely familial glint ignited in her eyes and Thor felt a surprising swell of sympathy for not only her, but the others in the room.
The unconscious maiden clearly meant a great deal to all of them – even the Dr. Banner who was distant with just about everyone else fluttering around.
Though Thor thought it peculiar when Tony had threatened Loki earlier with the quiet doctor. Initially, Loki had refused to step away from the girl at all and it was only when Dr. Banner swiped his glasses off with frustration and huffed, “You’re starting to make me angry,” that his brother relented.
“And you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry,” Tony quipped. “You’d be positively green with envy at his temper tantrum.”
Giving the man a deadpan look, Dr. Banner had replaced his glassed on his head and fixed Loki with an almost daring glare as he approached once more. Loki yielded, stepping aside while still maintaining contact with the woman.
What followed over the next several hours was a mad scramble that truly showed the best of humanity. Once upon a time, Thor had found the mortals of Midgard petty, cruel and weak, not all unlike how Loki looked down upon them presently, he was shamed to admit. But there was a capacity for greatness lurking within them and amidst the chaos that ensued as this unlikely band of misfits united to save one woman from vampirism, Thor saw it ignite within them.
Thor had come across such a malady in his previous visits to Midgard and had always found the vampiric creatures that scoured the mortal realm to be immature. Oft times the self-professed ancients of the species – the Volturi, he believed they called themselves – reminded him of a spoiled child that would gnaw off the hand that fed it if given the chance. They held no respect for humanity, forgetting that their own humble beginnings were rooted there. Thankfully, he had little need for dealing with them in the past though given the scene he was now witness to, he was suddenly very curious about their present doings.
As the proverbial ticking clock came closer to zero, Thor couldn’t help but think of Heimdall’s last words before Odin had scrambled the last vestiges of magic in their realm together to send Thor to Midgard. With every fiber of his being he hoped this woman would save his brother where Thor himself could not.
And he hoped she would not be damned for her efforts.
“I think we’ve run out of time, boys,” the warrior woman said moving away from the corner and towards the table with Isabella.
“Natasha…?” Steve asked, standing taller as she approached the table, arms folding imposingly across his chest. Thor thought he saw a glimmer of a bittersweet fondness when the patriotic soldier glanced to the unconscious Isabella but it was gone too fast to be certain. Thor did, however, recognize the protective stance the man adopted as the woman Natasha moved closer.
“Ease up, Rogers,” Natasha glared, looking mildly offended. “I’m not going to hurt her.”
“Well you are Fury’s go-to gal, aren’t you?” Tony accused as he too moved to block her view of Isabella.
“You don’t know the first thing about me, Stark,” she countered coldly.
“Oh I beg to differ,” he countered. “Jarvis is quite the gossip and has told me many juicy tidbits – not just about you but also about Fury’s little secret action plan.” He circled around the screen he’d been plugging numbers into and asked, deceptively casual like, “Just what exactly were you all really doing with the tesseract?”
“You mean they weren’t trying to harvest clean, sustainable energy?” Steve asked, looking uncertain.
“Of course they weren’t,” Tony scoffed. “First and foremost, they’re spies. Soldiers. Hardly boy scouts looking for a new source of green energy,” he turned to Dr. Banner and quipped, “No offense to the big guy.”
Bruce’s eyes widened as he held up his hands and shook his head, moving away from the trio and the rising tension. “I’m just here to track the gamma radiation from the cube – and now to help Bella. Do not drag me into this.”
“But you are in this – we all are,” Tony countered. “This whole Avenger Initiative boy band group we’ve got going on is just another facet of Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D.’s military schemes and they’ve got us playing their number one hit – don’t bring a knife to a gun fight.”
“Gun fight? Weapons? You think this is about weapons?” Steve frowned, arms falling to his sides.
“Ding, ding, ding – the price is right!” Tony chimed, turning around back to Bella.
“You really think…”
“Of course I do,” Tony cut Steve off. “And if you weren’t so distracted by our girl here, you’d be thinking it too. Doesn’t matter though,” he went back to work and his eyes flicked to a clock. “Jarvis will be done hacking into their mainframe any minute now and the proverbial beans will be spilled.”
“You’re hacking into S.H.I.E.L.D.’s systems?” Natasha asked, voice even and eyes hard as stone.
“Oh wipe that look off your face, cupcake – you know it’s not the first time I’ve done it.”
“All of that aside,” Bruce broke in – and Thor thought he sounded fairly aggressive for a man who claimed to be uninvolved. “What matters right now is Agent Romanoff’s initial statement. We are out of time. By our calculations, Bella’s transition should be complete within the hour, give or take. Obviously we are working with some unknown variables and we are no closer to a solution, much less a cure.”
Frowning, Thor interjected, “What unknown variables do you speak of? The vampires of your realm lack depth and subtlety. They should be easy…”
“But your brother did something with that staff of his,” Bruce reminded. “Anyone can look at her and see she’s changing – her skin is cold and hard to the touch. She’s paler, certain features are more pronounced. But even still, she is not progressing like she should. Her skin isn’t as cold or hard as a vampire’s, Tony has been able to conclude. She’s pale but still holds the peach undertone of life… Actually, if anything I’d saw she’s nothing like the sheet white pallor of a vampire and actually has a tint of…”
“Blue?” Thor guessed, moving closer to the table.
Bruce took off his glasses and looked at him. “Yes, actually. Just a hint of it every now and again.”
“When Loki makes skin contact with her?” Thor asked, frowning as he looked to his brother. Loki’s gaze was blank, lips flat but ever so slightly tilted up at the corners. Even now, he maintained contact with Isabella but Thor was quick to note he was no longer touching her skin – when was the last time he saw his brother touch the maiden’s skin?
“Well…” Bruce trailed off, frowning as he thought about it.
“He’s held her hand off and on though,” Steve pointed out, that edge of bitter almost-jealousy to the words. “Even if their skin hasn’t come in contact recently, they’ve always maintained some sort of connection.”
Thor’s mind reeled with implications as a theory sprouted to mind. “Frost giant,” he murmured.
“Who said what now?” Tony asked.
Thor ignored him and turned to his brother. “Loki, what have you done?”
Loki grinned. “You’re much quicker on the uptake than you used to be – though still too late.”
“Take her hand,” Thor ignored the bait and pressed for an answer to his new suspicions.
“Very well,” Loki said affably and he slid the hand currently curled around her forearm down until the bare tips of his fingers grazed her palm.
It was faint but instantaneous and mutual. A light blue tinge spread across Isabella’s skin starting from their point of contact and an answering darker blue spreading up Loki’s own arms.
“What the hell is that?” Natasha asked, moving closer. “That hasn’t happened before – why the hell is it happening now?” She sounded confused and thoroughly pissed about it.
“Because it’s as they’ve said,” Thor offered. “Her time is up and the transformation is near completion.”
“Transformation into what, though? Obviously she isn’t a vampire – what has Loki done to her?”
Thor shook his head. “I’m uncertain of what exactly he did – magic has always been his and our mother’s speciality, not mine. Even still, I’ve never heard of…”
“Of what? I’m getting real tired of this information tease, Fabio – spit it out already.”
“Loki is my brother but not by blood. He hails from Jotunheim, the land of the frost giants. If I’m right, then he has somehow morphed the vampire’s venom using his own nature. I suspect it is not a vampire we will face when she awakens but some hybrid combination of human, frost giant and vampire. The first two to be sure – the third, I’m uncertain. There’s no telling if he changed the nature of the venom or sealed it with his own nature.”
“And you’re just now telling us this – when the overtime clock is about down, you throw a flag on the field?” Tony accused.
Thor frowned. “I’ve no idea of what you speak but if you are accusing me of willingly withholding information I may remind you that I arrived after these events and am only working with the information you are imparting to me now – which is not much.”
“Isn’t that a convenient out for you,” Natasha said with a lifted brow.
“Enough,” Bruce snapped and Thor swore he saw a tint of green to the mild doctor’s eyes but when he blinked, it was gone. A trick of the light, perhaps. “This is helping anyone.”
“Dr. Banner is right,” Steve agreed. “Perhaps now would be a good time to move Bella to a safe room and…”
“You mean a cell – you want to lock her up like some sort of prisoner of war,” Tony accused, eyes glittering with barely suppressed rage. The way he said it had Thor thinking perhaps there was more to the seemingly unflappable man than he first assumed.
Steve gritted his teeth and sighed, “Yes, I do. It’s clear that we have no idea what we’re dealing with so for our sake – and her own – I want to get Bella safely squared away before she…”
“Before I what?”
The room stilled and became unnaturally quiet. For once, not even Tony had a sarcastic quip to break the tension that seeped into the air like a gas leak waiting to ignite at the slightest static shock.
So as not to draw any unwanted attention, Thor slowly moved his hand behind him and waited. With a soft whistling thud, Mjolnir slammed into his palm and his fingers curled around the handle as though welcoming an old friend home. He did not expect to have to use it, but would if he must. There was no telling how the tense silence would shatter or if Isabella was in her right mind – not to mention if any of the others were prepared to deal with her should she not be.
Silence, taut and ready to snap should the slightest pin-prick of sound drop and then, “It’s alive. IT’S ALIVE!”
Everyone turned to Tony who’d been the source of the impressive Frankenstein impersonation and glared but their attention was immediately drawn back to the table by a quiet, still somewhat weak sounding feminine giggle.
“That’s better,” she smiled as her eyes fell closed with a yawn. “For a second I thought you’d lost your touch, Tony.”
And then seemingly without thinking, the girl lifted an arm and curled her fingers around the hand Loki still had upon her shoulder. A faint blue tinge seeped into her skin as Loki’s hand turned and tightened around hers and despite not having all the answers, Thor recognized the look of a man lost to a woman.
For better or worse, he knew his brother would not be letting Isabella go and if the way she returned Loki’s possessive grip was any indication, Thor suspected the maiden herself would not be relinquishing her hold anytime soon as well.
Time passed like a dream she knew she was having, but was unable to wake from, not that she wanted to wake at all.
“Higher Clint – higher!” a young, giggling voice cried out in glee.
“Easy there, little bird,” Clint chuckled, his strong hands pushing at the base of her back. “I push you any higher and you’re gonna fly off that swing!”
“You’d catch me,” she said with all certainty, smiling over her shoulder at her big brother, the glint of hero worship in the corner of her eye.
“Always,” he grinned, giving her another push.
Some part of her knew it was a dream – a memory – her mind had pulled forth in order to deal with the cold barren landscape her subconscious had banished her to while she went through whatever it was Loki’s magic and Victoria’s venom had triggered in her fragile human body. Knowing that, Bella still couldn’t bring herself to care. Just the memory of her brother supporting her in all the tiny ways she’d taken for granted as a child was enough to bring her comfort and strength as she remained suspended in limbo.
“Do you think one day I really could fly?” young Bella asked as Clint obligingly pushed her higher despite his warning.
“I think you can do anything you want to, Eyas – that you have the power to do the impossible.”
She giggled and then snorted. “You’re such a nerd, Hawkeye,” she teased, using her special name for him she’d found over the summer at their dad’s house. Not long after, he’d started calling her Eyas which she always rolled her eyes at even if she secretly adored it. She loved that they had special names for each other – it made her feel like a superhero.
“You love your big brother anyway,” he shot back.
Bella laughed again. “Well someone has to!”
“Ouch, Eyas! That stings!” he proclaimed through his own amusement.
“It was meant to,” she airily retorted.
He pushed her higher yet. “You’re getting a little too quick with the comebacks, Bella – does me proud.” Clint pretended to sniffle and wipe away tears of joy.
“I did learn from the best,” she smiled over her shoulder again.
“And now you’re sucking up – what do ya want, squirt?”
“Just your undying servitude, slave!”
“Oh is that all?!”
“Clint – you’re such a dork but I love you anyway.”
He laughed. “Well it’s as you said, right? Someone has to love me – might as well be you.”
“Also Lisa Thomas who lives across the street,” Bella singsonged with a mischievous grin.
Clint’s hands fell away as though burned and he jogged around to the front of the swing set. “What? What do you mean? Did she say something to you about me? What did she say?” spilled out in a rush, his eyes wide and eager.
Bella broke into a sputter of giggles. “Oh my God – your face!”
“Hardy har har,” he deadpanned but with a small smile that let her know he was taking her teasing in good sport.
Her legs kept pumping as she leaned back for more momentum. “And just what would you do with Lisa if she did like you, hm?”
“I’d carry her books at school and take her out for ice cream on the weekends. After our dates, I’d give her a nice hearty handshake after walking her home,” he stated.
“Lame! You’re just saying that! I know you want to kiiiisssss her!”
“Boys don’t go around kissing girls, Eyas,” Clint scoffed, then got a peculiar glint in his eyes as he added, “And if any of the boys around try to tell you otherwise you come tell your big brother and I’ll set them straight, yeah?”
She snorted and rolled her eyes. “I’m only nine, Clint.”
“You won’t be forever, kiddo,” he countered softly.
“Shut up!” she gasped, breaking the moment.
“As if!” he returned in his best valley girl voice, his smirk widening into a grin when she let out another peel of giggles. “Now hop on down and I’ll catch you, baby hawk.”
He held his arms out in open invitation and there was no hesitation. When the swing hit its peak height she pushed off the seat with a rattle of chains and sailed through the air to her brother, knowing without a doubt he’d catch her. He always did.
Arms closed securely around her and the scene melted away into cold winds and greying light.
“This again?” Loki’s voice taunted.
Within the circle of his arms, Bella tilted her head up, not at all surprised that the memory of Clint had melted away and Loki had caught and held fast to her now. A pang ached in her heart at the loss of her brother, even if it’d been nothing more than a fantasy memory.
“Don’t pretend you’re not jealous,” she glared up at him.
He lifted a condescending brow. “Jealous? Whatever of, little siren? I not only have your brother – I also have you.”
His arms tightened meaningfully around her.
Instead of pulling away in a huff, Bella maintained her confident posture and tilted her head back in faux bravado while claiming, “You’re jealous because my brother loves me more than yours will ever love you.”
“You think you’re so clever – think you’ve got me figured out, little human?”
“I think,” she began, a little more uncertain as she became increasingly aware of his body lightly grazing hers. “That I know you better than you care to admit and that scares you.”
He gave a light, scornful laugh. Tilting his head down, she felt the ends of his hair tickle her cheeks. Bella shivered.
“By the end of this night, little siren,” he murmured, his breath puffing gently across her skin. “We will each know the truth of the other and your friends will learn the truth of you.”
“Just what exactly are you insinuating?” she breathed, fighting the urge to lick her lips as she craned her head back even further to meet his eyes.
While she’d always known they were inexplicably bound to one another, the sudden intimacy between them had her body clenching and heart racing. For weeks they’d fallen into the other’s dreams and reality, both unable to resist the call that pulled them together through time and space. To whatever end, their connection was real – a solid, unbreakable force that had nearly tore her heart out of her chest once they’d met in person only to be separated. Nothing about it made sense but it was an immutable truth between them, one that she’d struggled with accepting.
Looking at Loki had been like looking into the depths of her own sorrow. Truth was, she related to him far more than she was comfortable with. Part of her wanted to claim his recent actions as the byproduct of being driven temporarily mad by his grief and what he saw as betrayal, but the platitude rang hollow even in the safety of her own mind.
In fact, that was what truly disturbed her so about Loki; it wasn’t that his actions alone were appalling, it was that a part of her understood them, envied them almost. They couldn’t be reasoned away with a temporary insanity plea. Loki was clever, devious and more than ruthless when he set his mind to something. He would take any means necessary to achieve his goals, both the high and honorable roads and the dark seedy alleyways. Nothing was off limits to him. She looked at him and saw a man unhindered by a conscience or one that was easy enough to silence, and damned if that didn’t make her feel envious and terrible for being so.
Damned if a part of her wasn’t attracted to him for it.
“You love your brother, do you not?” Loki asked out of nowhere.
Bella felt the urge to roll her eyes and mutter ‘duh.’ She refrained and answered isntead, “Of course, I do.”
“You would do anything for him? Anything to get him back?”
Unease danced down her spine, but her response was fast and true, “Yes, of course I would.”
In the back of her mind, Clint’s voice howled at her to stop – to think rationally about the power her confession was giving him – but she ignored him, her conscience, and focused only on her own wants and desires. Perhaps she was more like Loki than she’d even thought.
“What if I were to release him, little siren? Set him free of the mind compulsion and release him back unto your merry little band of friends…”
Her heart yearned for just that even though she knew it would come at a price. Some sort of spiritual connection or no, Loki did nothing unless he stood to gain something. Only question was, what would he gain from releasing Clint?
He leaned further down and brought his lips to her ear and started whispering. Slowly, his words seeped into her, each poisoned promise planting seeds of hope that she knew would sprout into weeds. A serpent’s tongue, she thought as he finished his proposition and pulled back to stare down at her, cold eyes glittering in victory as he already knew what she would say. Loki possessed a serpent’s tongue that had well and truly damned her.
“Yes,” she said hoarsely, tears filling her eyes as again, Clint started protesting in her mind. “Yes, I agree to your terms – just let him go.”
Loki brought a chilled hand up to her cheek and swept away a rogue tear that had escaped. He frowned for a moment, conflicted as he studied her heartbroken expression. Shaking whatever it was off, he leaned down towards her once more. Despite his cold touch, fire sparked where they met and ignited even further when he brought his head down to hers and sealed their bargain with his lips.
Unbidden, she responded, her body pressing further into him as her lips parted under his own. Kissing Loki was like taking a sip of a thick milkshake, cold and undeniably worth the effort. His lips were two ice chips against her own and still she thawed against him, letting out a small sigh of want; only Loki’s ice could set her aflame. She shivered and was oddly grateful when his arms tightened, grounding her to him.
The moment seemed to hang suspended in time. Though it was almost conceited to think so, Bella felt like someone watching a movie who recognized the turning point of the plot. A game changer move, she thought; everything was changed now. Better or worse – ? She’d find out with the rest of the audience.
When he pulled back slightly, Bella looked up into his eyes and was struck by the truth: the devil hadn’t risen up from below to claim her but had fallen from worlds high above and frozen love into her unwilling heart.
A game changer, she thought once more, her hands trailing up Loki’s arms. The game was entirely different now and she was going to play to win.
(A/N): Hiya and thanks again for your patience and understanding with the delay. Hope it was worth the wait and you enjoyed it.
And yes… you will find out soon just what it was Loki whispered to our girl 🙂
Until next time!