SATURDAY, APRIL 14, 2012 - 5:02 AM
SHIELD HELICARRIER CONFERENCE ROOM B - APPROX. 30,000 FEET OVER NEWARK, NJ
“You think Loki is being controlled?” Natasha asked, clearly skeptical of the notion. “By who?”
“Not by who… by what” Applejack said with a confident smirk as she looked over the conference room. Seated around the dark, polished hardwood table were Jen, Natasha, Agents Hill and Coulson, and Director Fury. Thor leaned against the wall behind her, gazing at her attentively as this new information came to light. “I reckon that the staff he used to control Agent Barton and Doctor Selvig… is also controlling him.”
“Furthermore,” Thor added, scowling. “I now believe this whole foul situation to be a plot devised by someone far greater in power than my brother,” He rumbled, clearly incensed at the idea that somebody had willfully cursed his brother with a mind-addling artifact. “When I spoke with Loki on the mountainside, he claimed that he’d been shown true power. That he’d been given a glimpse of worlds beyond the scope of Asgard. And when I asked him who showed him these things… who gave him his scepter and pulls at the strings of the would-be-king… he would not say.”
There was silence in the conference room for a minute as the SHIELD agents digested everything. Only the sound of the clock ticking on the wall could be heard. Applejack’s breath quickened as she fidgeted in her seat, desperate to know what Fury’s reaction would be.
Finally, the aged spy spoke. “This is valuable intel,” he finally said. “If Loki is taking orders from somebody else then we have a lot more to worry about than just the immediate crisis. Somebody is targeting the earth and even if we stop his current stooge, there’ll be more coming after us in the future.” He grumbled, massaging his forehead with his hand. “Damn. We are not prepared for this.”
“How can we be sure that Loki is actually being controlled like Barton and Selvig are?” Agent Hill asked with a pointed look at Applejack. “How do we know he’s not playing a part in all of this out of his own free will.”
Applejack wrung her hands. “Admittedly… I only reckon that’s the case. But Thor tells me his brother ain’t acting normal.”
“Understatement of the century.” Natasha muttered.
AJ rolled her eyes. “I mean normal for Loki. He says Loki ain’t one for invasions and public murders and actin’ all noisy-like. He says he’s more of a spy type of fella-- made him sound like he was the one-man SHIELD of Asgard ‘fore he went and got too big for his britches.”
Thor blinked at the comparison. “That’s… not inaccurate.”
Applejack turned to Thor. “Y’all also said that he’s more concerned with ruling Asgard than having anything to do with people here on Earth.”
Thor nodded. “Now that is true. Loki was never particularly sympathetic towards Midgardians. In the past he has described your kind as insects - short lived and short sighted, with petty goals and small minds, not worth wasting his time upon.” He cleared his throat, coughing into his fist. “No offense.”
“Some taken.” Natasha said sardonically.
Thor shrugged. “T’was Loki’s words, not mine.”
“What I’m sayin’,” Applejack continued, “Is that this is a pretty hefty change in tune for him. Why would he want to invade and rule Midgard? Who wants to be ‘King of the Ants?’” she leaned back in her chair “A fella with an ego like his ain’t gonna settle for any consolation prizes.”
“This helps us fill out his psych profile,” Coulson said, fixing AJ with a patient gaze, “but it doesn’t really confirm that he’s being mind controlled.” He turned to Thor. “The last time you saw him was around the same time we met in the desert, correct?” At Thor’s nod Coulson continued, “That was two years ago, Thor. A lot can happen in two years. He could have simply gone mad.”
Thor took a deep breath. “I… admit to the possibility, friend Coulson. But I hold out hope that Lady Applewood’s theory is correct… if only for the chance that I might one day have my brother back.”
“I might be wrong,” Applejack said, “but it fits with what I’ve seen before.”
“Hold up,” Natasha said, an intense gaze in her eyes and steel in her tone. “You’ve seen this before? Mind control? When?”
“More like… mind scrambling.” AJ explained. “Not too long before I came here… to this world I mean… I saw something a lot like this.” Applejack ran a hand through her hair and muttered, “Celestia, it feels like it was only a couple weeks ago, but it was almost seventy years…”
“Miss Applewood,” Fury said sternly, prompting her to go on.
“Right, right.” AJ composed herself before continuing, “Well, there was this one unicorn… mage I guess y’all would say. Name of Trixie. She came to our village a couple years back. She was a performance mage by trade, but weren’t a very good one. She mostly drew a crowd by tellin’ wild, tall tales ‘bout herself and her feats of magic and puttin’ on a fancy light show to go with it.” Applejack’s gaze dipped as she took on a rather abashed tone. “We… didn’t treat her so well. Heckled her a little. Probably wasn’t good of us. Even if she was a right pain in the flank and had an ego the size of the moon she was mostly just tryin’ to make a bit.”
She shook her head. “Anyway, long story short, a monster ended up attacking town and when the townsfolk tried to get her to back up her tall tales and drive it away, she couldn’t even scratch the beast. My friend Twilight - who’s a bushel or three better at magic - was the one who had to drive the thing back, saving both the village and Trixie. She left town that night.”
“The next time we saw her, though, she’d changed,” AJ explained, “She wasn’t a stagepony out to put on a good show no more... She’d gone full ‘dark wizardess’ on us. She went and found a magical artifact called the Alicorn Amulet that boosted her magic and put her above even Twilight’s power level. And she used it to enslave the town and cook up all sorts of ornery tortures for us. And she singled out Twilight in particular, challenging her to a duel and banishing her from the village.”
Jennifer finally spoke up, raising a finger questioningly. “But why? If your friend Twilight saved her life wouldn’t she be grateful? I… I understand wanting to be stronger after being attacked by a monster like that but…”
“Exactly.” Applejack nodded. “Weren’t no reason for her to single out Twilight like that, ‘specially since Twi didn’t even join in with the rest of us what with the heckling. And there weren’t no reason for her to target the town like that. At most she maybe had reason to play a few tricks in payback on those of us who’d jeered her and maybe punish a couple’a naughty colts who’d caused her some grief, but there weren’t nothing that called for the scale of what she did.” AJ leaned forward, resting her elbows on the table. “Turns out it was the amulet. The amulet that granted her all that magic power was scramblin’ her brains, causin’ her to see Twilight as the cause of her trouble instead of the pony who saved her, and to see Ponyville as some sorta town full of angry plotholes who chased her outta town for something that weren’t her fault -- even though nopony never did no such thing.”
There was silence around the table for a moment before, finally, Agent Hill spoke up.
“And you think the same is happening to Loki.”
Thor took that moment to interject. “T’would fit with his sudden change of heart in regards to ruling Midgard. As well as his overly extravagant methods.”
Hill looked over at Fury, displeasure clear as day for all to see upon her face. Her lip twisted and her brow furrowed as she silently pleaded with him, begging him to stop listening to this nonsense and get back to finding a real solution.
Fury, however, didn’t seem to even acknowledge her. Instead his gaze was locked somewhere far away as he digested everything Applejack said.
Finally, the older spy took a deep breath and turned back to AJ.
“So, let’s assume this is all true,” Fury said slowly. “What do you want to do about it?”
Applejack took a deep breath of her own and looked Fury right in the eye. “I wanna talk to Loki.”
“Out of the question!” Hill blurted.
“Explain,” Fury said.
Hill whirled on him, a scowl on her face. “Director!” but she was silenced as he held up a hand, then gestured for Applejack to go on.
This was it. The part that Applejack feared would turn the Agents of SHIELD away from her the most. At this point it was all wild speculation and guessing about her new lot in life. But Applejack was not a stupid pony. Simple, perhaps. Uneducated, probably. Uncomplicated, almost certainly. But never stupid. Things didn’t always make sense to her, but she paid attention and did her best to keep a level head. It didn’t always work out, and she’d made some foolish gaffes in the past when she felt forced into a corner - a particular applebuck season and a little bit of needless hoopla after the Equestria Rodeo came to mind - but she wasn’t so dumb that she didn’t have a sense of pattern recognition.
Ever since waking up in this world, she’d had abilities that she’d never had before. Her strength had been amplified to degrees unheard of, even amongst the most magical of Earth ponies. Her durability had skyrocketed, allowing her to take cannonfire with barely a scratch. And, if she was right… something remained of her previous position as the bearer of the Element of Honesty.
Applejack took a deep breath. “I can see lies.”
Hill snorted, standing up from the table. “Director this is ridicul--”
“Agent Hill.” Fury didn’t raise his voice, but his tone stopped the deputy director in her tracks. “Sit. Down.”
Hill looked positively livid, her eyes narrowing at her boss, but she nevertheless complied.
Fury looked back at Applejack. “Go on.”
AJ nodded. “Y’all know how I didn’t know my own strength when I woke up? How I can take cannon fire and not get scratched?” At everybody’s nod she continued. “Y’all said I had ‘powers.’ I think… I think bein’ here in this world is somehow supercharging my magic.” She glanced down at her hand, tightening her fist, feeling the iron-hard muscles beneath her skin shifting and contracting. “Back home… my friends and I were the bearers of a set of artifacts known as the Elements of Harmony. Six magic gems with crazy levels of power packed into ‘em.” She looked back up at the assembled group. “My element was Honesty. And I think some of that element has followed me here.”
Fury considered this for a moment before speaking again. “And what do you mean when you say you can ‘see’ lies?”
Applejack shook her head. “It’s hard to explain, but when something ain’t right… when something’s false… I can just sorta tell.” She pointed at Natasha. “Like you, Nat. I don’t mean to offend or nothin’, but y’all act like you’re just a normal person, wandering around here with the rest of the agents, but you ain’t are ya? There’s something about y’all that you’re hiding. Something dangerous.”
Natasha was very still as AJ’s words sunk in. Jennifer, Thor, and AJ didn’t notice it, but the other SHIELD agents could tell that the normally unflappable woman was shaken by AJ’s words. Her breathing had quickened ever so slightly and her posture and shifted ever so much.
“And that ain’t all,” AJ continued. “When Steve and I were fighting Loki, I could see through his illusion when he teleported behind me. I didn’t know what was happening at the time, but in hindsight I think it’s related.”
“Anything else?” Fury prompted.
Applejack gulped before speaking again. “There’s one thing… when I went out on the bridge for the first time… I got a look at yer agents, Director Fury. A lot of them… I’d say about a third of them… there’s something wrong with them.”
Fury’s gaze was intense enough Applejack might’ve worried it’d bore holes into her. “Wrong how?”
“I… I don’t rightly know for sure.” She shrugged weakly. “All I know is that I look at them and sometimes… they seem to light up in my vision. Like they’re clouded by some sorta glowing red haze… And somehow I just know that there’s somethin’ about them that just fundamentally ain’t honest. I figured that it might just be because they were spies and lyin’ is what spies tend to hafta do… but now I ain’t so sure.”
Fury looked like he’d been struck. “Can you tell me any agents in particular? Is anyone in this room compromised?”
Applejack looked around the room. Jen was clean. As were Coulson, Natasha, Hill, Fury, and Thor. She shook her head. “No. There’s no haze ‘round nobody here.”
Fury let out a barely perceptible breath of relief.
“As for agents in particular…” Applejack cast her mind back, trying to remember. “That agent who told us where Loki was. Called us over to his station. He was lit up like a Hearth’s Warming Tree.”
“Agent Sitwell?!” Coulson gasped, stunned.
“Bullshit.” Hill snarled. “Sitwell’s been with SHIELD for longer than I have! He’s one of our highest level agents!”
Fury ignored the both of them. “And you think you can use these… lie detector powers… to determine whether or not Loki is under the same sort of spell as Agent Barton and Doctor Selvig?”
Applejack nodded. “I… don’t know exactly how to control these powers yet. Sometimes they give me weird answers and I hafta figure out what they mean - like, I ain’t figured out the difference between what’s goin’ on with Natasha here and what’s up with Sitwell and the other agents yet... but I think if I can talk to him… yes. I’ll be able to at least tell y’all if he’s doin’ all this himself or not.”
Silence reigned. The tension in the room was so thick in the air that the room felt more like a muggy, stagnant swamp than a well air-conditioned conference room. The ticking of the clock on the wall mocked the lot of them as time slipped away.
Finally, Fury stood up. “Agent Romanoff?” he said.
“Yes sir,” Natasha said stiffly.
He nodded to her. “Please escort Miss Applewood to the prisoner.”
“Director!” Agent Hill snapped.
Fury continued, heedless of Hill’s protests. “Agent Walters, Thor, you’re dismissed.” Jen stood on shaky legs, snapping a clumsy salute and hurrying out of the room, Thor not far behind her. “Agents Hill and Coulson, with me. I’m afraid we have a lot to discuss.”
Applejack sighed in relief. She stood slowly. “Thank you director.”
“Don’t thank me yet.” Fury snapped. “Just figure out what’s going on with that madman. Tell me once and for all whether or not he’s a victim the same as Barton and Selvig, or if he’s a mad dog that needs to be put down.”
“Come on,” Natasha said, putting a hand on AJ’s shoulder. “It’s time to jump into the lion’s den.”
Applejack steeled herself for the encounter to come.
SATURDAY, APRIL 14, 2012 - 5:35 AM
SHIELD HELICARRIER: DIRECTOR FURY’S OFFICE - APPROX. 30,000 FEET OVER THE BRONX, NYC
“You want to tell me what the hell that was all about, Director?!” Hill snapped before Fury even had a chance to slump down into the plush leather chair behind his large mahogany desk. He opened a cherry wood box of cigars and flicked open a lighter, sticking the end in his mouth.
“Agent Hill you are out of line.” Fury said calmly, the end of the cigar sparking alight.
She stiffened, glaring murderously at him. “With all due respect, sir, when you appointed me Deputy Director you told me my purpose was not just to carry out your orders, but also to be the one to question them.” Hill stomped forward and slammed her hands down on Fury’s desk. “Well I’m damn well questioning them!”
Fury didn’t even flinch. “You seem particularly convinced that using Applewood to try and determine Loki’s nature is a bad idea.”
“No shit it’s a bad idea!” Hill snapped, straightening up and proceeding to pace around the room. “The girl’s no agent... Hell, she’s barely a functioning adult! She’s completely naïve to the way the world works. Her world was apparently a happy-go-lucky fantasy land full of rainbows and unicorns and friendship where everything was sunshine and cuddles! And you’re sending her in to talk to a superpowered Hannibal Lecter! He’s going to eat her alive!”
The director quirked an eyebrow. “You’re really that concerned about her?”
“Oh it’s not just her I’m concerned about.” Hill growled, crossing her arms. “Loki could easily twist her around his finger and get her to reveal valuable intel. She is a civilian, Director. A traumatized, emotionally vulnerable civilian at best -- and one who I’m still not completely convinced isn’t just insane at worst! She knows nothing of proper interrogation procedure, nothing of proper secrecy protocols. She’s a child, Director. And you sending her in there jeopardizes both her safety and the safety of SHIELD!”
“A fair point.” Fury said calmly, blowing smoke out his nostrils and tapping the ash off his cigar into an ashtray. “But let me be frank, Agent Hill… none of that matters.”
Hill sputtered. “What?!”
“None of that matters, because we’re charged with protecting the safety of not just one traumatized civilian, or our own organization, Agent Hill.” He stood up, gazing her directly in the eye. “We are charged with protecting the safety of the whole world, Agent. We are all that is standing between Loki and the rest of the planet. And I think I made it very clear when I spoke to him that we are very desperate.” Fury stepped over to the window and took another drag of his cigar, leaning against the window, he gazed out over the city, just beginning to sparkle in the waxing light before daybreak. “It’s true. Applewood might leak something she shouldn’t. Loki might somehow be able to break her with nothing but words and trickery. She might be completely insane and her lie detection powers might be completely made up. But what choice do we have?”
“We’re already working on it though!” Hill protested. “Banner and Stark are tracking down the Tesseract!”
“And how long will that take?” Fury snapped, “Banner’s algorithm was supposed to have finished hours ago. For whatever reason he can’t seem to get a bead on the damn thing. Maybe it’s on the move and the damn thing can’t get a lock. Maybe Loki is concealing it or has taken it off-world somehow. Maybe he just forgot to carry a damn two somewhere. But every minute we waste is another minute closer to catastrophe; one that we are still unprepared for, and one that could strike anywhere on the globe.” Fury turned back to Hill. “If there is even a one percent chance that she might be able to help us stave off the oncoming storm then you’re damn right I’m going to take it and pray for a motherfucking Hail Mary.”
Hill scowled, her gaze breaking away from Fury’s as she looked down at the floor. “I don’t like it.”
“Welcome to the past 48 hours, Agent Hill. Glad you could join us.” Fury said gruffly. He stepped back over to his desk and sat down again. “None of us are exactly comfortable with the situation right now, Agent Hill. At this point, all we can do is hope Applewood can work some literal magic for us. In the meantime, we can make ourselves useful by discussing more long term matters.”
“Long term, sir?” Agent Hill asked.
“It’s like I said, Agent Hill,” Fury spoke dryly, taking another puff at the cigar, “Until such time as the world ends, we will act as though it intends to spin on. And Miss Applewood has very helpfully given us some important intel that I don’t think we can afford to ignore.” He turned to regard Agent Coulson, who had been quietly standing against the wall the whole time, arms folded behind his back. “So what do you two make of it?”
Coulson shook his head, unable to help but chuckle. “I’d say she’s a nightmare of a security risk, sir. Especially for an organization that makes keeping secrets its business…”
“True.” Fury said with an acquiescent nod. “But if she’s to be believed then she’s just helped SHIELD out tremendously.”
“If she’s to be believed,” Hill stressed.
“Well, whether she really has lie detection powers or not, we can’t just ignore the possibility that something is rotten in SHIELD.” Coulson said. “If what she says is true, then we can’t waste our chance to circumvent whatever is happening. If nothing else it’s grounds for an investigation. A quiet one.”
Hill bristled. “You’re talking about investigating our own agents here. Agents that we have no reason to suspect any wrongdoing of, other than one woman’s say so. A woman whose credibility is questionable at best.”
“And if the investigation turns nothing up then nothing will come of it.” Fury declared. “On the other hand, if it turns out that there is some sort of conspiracy hidden inside SHIELD, then we’ll be damn glad that we followed up on her tip, won’t we?”
Hill grunted. She wasn’t exactly pleased that hardworking agents who’d done nothing to warrant an investigation would be looked into, but she couldn’t fault Fury’s logic. She couldn’t very well bemoan the potential breach of security that Applewood posed by talking to Loki, only to then turn around and ignore a much greater potential breach of security in the same breath.
“So be it,” Fury said, “Agent Coulson, I’m going to be putting together a team to quietly investigate suspicious activity within SHIELD. I’d like you to head it up.”
Coulson nodded. “Sir.”
Fury took another long drag on his cigar before speaking again. “There’s also the other piece of intel to discuss,” he said. “The idea that Loki may be under the control of an even greater power - one that’s set its eyes upon Earth.” He opened up a desk drawer and pulled out a manila folder marked ‘Classified.’
“Sir?” Agent Hill asked.
“I had an idea for a special operatives team specifically focused on extra-terrestrial threats after a bit of a… situation back in the 90’s. Nothing came of it then, but perhaps the current crisis will see to it finally getting approved.”
Hill and Coulson spared a glance at the folder. In dark, blocky letters it spelled out the word ‘S.W.O.R.D.’
Hill opened her mouth to ask a question only for a speaker on Fury’s desk to blare out. Fury quickly turned and pressed a button on the device. “Agent Romanoff?”
“Loki means to unleash the Hulk. Keep Banner in the lab. I’m on my way. Send Thor as well.”
SATURDAY, APRIL 14, 2012 - 5:31 AM
SHIELD HELICARRIER LOWER BRIG LEVEL CORRIDOR - APPROX. 30,000 FEET OVER THE BRONX, NYC
Awkward silence stretched on between Natasha and Applejack as they wove their way through the winding metal corridors of the Helicarrier’s lower levels. Applejack wasn’t the most socially competent pony she knew - that honor fell to Rarity - but she was savvy enough to know that Natasha was feeling shaken. And the way she walked, stiffly without sparing AJ even a single glance, was enough to tell her that she was probably the cause of it.
“Natasha…” AJ began, looking around to make sure that nobody was eavesdropping, “What I said back there…”
“How much do you know?” Natasha said curtly.
AJ stiffened. Nat didn’t sound angry per se, but she was definitely tense. “Not much,” she admitted. “I just know that there’s something you want to keep hidden. Something dangerous that you’re trying to cover up.”
Natasha hummed distantly.
“I swear that’s all I know,” Applejack said. “Whatever this power is, it just tells me somethin’s there. It don’t tell me exactly how somebody’s lyin’ or covering something up - I still gotta figure that part out myself. And it don’t tell me what the truth of the matter is neither.”
Natasha took a deep breath, and for a moment, Applejack swore she saw a chink in the steely woman’s armor. Her lip curled and her eyes blinked a little faster, and there was something vulnerable, buried far beneath her professional exterior. A split second later, though, all of Natasha’s walls went back up.
“Look I’m sorry. I probably shouldn’t’a said nothin’.”
“No, you shouldn’t have.” Natasha snapped, causing AJ to flinch. Nat shook her head and spoke again, gentler this time. “Sorry, It’s just…” she trailed off for a minute, sparing Applejack a glance before turning back around. “It’s just that there’s a lot that I’ve been trying to leave behind. Both for my own sake as well as for my friends. The past is dead and it doesn’t matter anymore.”
Applejack wondered at Natasha’s words. What could have been so terrible in her past - made her into such a dangerous and powerful woman, yet one with such terrible inner hurt - that now she so desperately felt the need to forget that it ever happened in the first place? AJ got the sense that maybe the lie she saw in Natasha was the one she told herself.
“If y’all need to talk--”
“I’m handling it.” Natasha said, iron starting to edge its way into her voice.
Applejack nodded solemnly. “Alright.”
“We’re here,” Nat said, turning a corner, around which sat a huge, pressurized airlock door. Applejack could tell from just a single glance that there was something different about this door compared to most of the other containment rooms. The frame was clearly sturdier, and the door was made from a darker, more matte metal. It looked solid enough that AJ wasn’t sure if even one of her newly-superpowered punches would leave a dent in it. A baser part of her almost wanted to test it and find out, but that tiny part of her was smothered by the anxiety she felt as she got ready to speak to an absurdly powerful sorcerer - one who was either mind controlled at best, or downright insane at worst.
Natasha entered a code into pad on the wall beside the doorway. The door hissed open with a silence that surprised Applejack given its size. Natasha pressed a few more buttons and a panel opened up in the wall, revealing another “live feed scrying screen” or whatever they were. In the window, she could see Loki pacing around his cylindrical glass cell, looking for all the world like a wild cat prowling his domain.
“I’ll be watching you from here.” Natasha instructed. “He’s going to try and manipulate you; twist your words around and trap you with them. Don’t let him bait you. If he tries to pull anything too dangerous I’ll drop him.”
Applejack nodded. “Got it.”
She made to step in through the door but felt Natasha put a hand on her arm. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
AJ looked her in the eyes. “If I have a chance put a stop to this before it gets any more outta control I gotta try…” She shrugged. “Sometimes a gal’s gotta do what a gal’s gotta do, right?”
Natasha nodded. “Right. Good luck, Applejack.”
There was a slight quiver in her knees as she took that first step into a dark corridor. She paused and took a deep breath, tempering her nerves before continuing forward and around a corner. As she rounded the bend and came to the top landing of a set of metal stairs, she spied him.
He stood there in the center of his glass prison, watching her as she stepped down the grated metal of the staircase, clearly having heard her coming down the hallway. His face broke out in a wide, mocking grin as she descended towards him.
“Oh, now this is simply precious.”
Applejack resisted the urge to roll her eyes, keeping her gaze locked with Loki’s as she came to the bottom of the stairs, circling around the railing to face the mad god head on.
“I have to say,” Loki said, “Fury I expected. Or perhaps his redheaded lackey. But I never even considered the idea they’d be so foolish as to send in a mere babe like you to talk to me.”
“I asked them to.” Applejack said, trying to keep any waver out of her voice.
“And they agreed to it?” Loki’s grin seemed like it might split his face. “Goodness, Fury must be even more desperate than he let on if he’s sending in the likes of you.”
Applejack frowned, pulling a chair from against the wall and settling it directly in front of his cell door. “I think y’all may find I’m a bit more familiar with your type than y’all think.”
“Oh really,” Loki said, pacing around the edge of his cell before sitting down on a bench that ran around the far side of his prison, eyes locked upon hers. “And just what do… y’all… perceive ‘my type’ to be?” he said, drawling out her countryism mockingly.
“A snake,” Applejack spat, failing to keep her emotions entirely contained, though she quickly reigned herself back in. “Somebody who cheats and manipulates good folk into doin’ the sort of things he wants them to do with the right lies whispered in the right ears. Somebody who thinks they’ve got everyone else figured out and thinks himself big and important enough that he deserves to milk everybody for every last drop they’re worth.”
“How hurtful,” Loki said, gently clasping a hand to his chest. “You’ve barely known me half a day.”
“And in that time, y’all tried to stab me in the back and then tried to manipulate me into doubtin’ my friends.”
Loki grinned. “Is that how you see them, then? Your friends? You can’t have known them much longer than you have me.”
Applejack shrugged. “Maybe. Far as I’ve seen they’re decent folk. I’d say they’re good friends to have.”
Loki narrowed his eyes, though the grin never left his face. “As far as you’ve seen, you say? Yet you admit that you’ve known them but hours.” He leaned forward in his seat, his elbows propped on his knees and his hands folded. “What beautiful little ball of sunshine must you have come from to have such a naïve outlook on people?”
Applejack folded her arms over her chest and leaned back in her chair. “I ain’t seein’ how that’s any of your business where I came from.”
“Oh but it’s simply adorable.” Loki said. “A stranger from another world shows up just in the nick of time to help save the earth and unite the world with the power of friendship. It’s just such a beautifully virginal notion it might sweeten my very blood were it not so utterly pathetic.” His smile, already mocking, turned positively feral. “If you knew even the first thing about your new ‘friends’ you’d be running for the hills.”
“That so?” Applejack raised an eyebrow.
Loki laughed. It was a slimy, slithery sound. “Oh you’re going to love this. Of course there’s the Iron Man, Tony Stark. Did you know they once called him the Merchant of Death? He sold weapons the likes of which you couldn’t even begin to imagine, bringing ruin to the lives of thousands, if not millions. All to make a profit so that he could live in the lap of luxury.”
Applejack growled. She may have been new to her powers but every sense was telling her that everything Loki was saying was true.
The mad god continued. “Or how about your friend Miss Romanoff? Would you like me to list the atrocities she committed personally? How she set fire to a hospital to kill a single man? Or how she murdered the daughter of another simply to demoralize him? What company do you keep, Applewood, when you ally yourself with such heinous wretches?”
Again. All true. “I think you’ve made your point.”
“Oh but I don’t think I have.” The look in his eye was wild now as he stood and approached her. “Your friend Steve. Did you know he willingly let himself be experimented upon? That he was a willing tool of murder in the greatest war this planet has ever known? How many bodies must he have left in his wake, do you suppose?”
Loki cackled. “And then there’s my utter barbarian of a brother: A warmonger who’s lived for thousands of your years gleefully hopping from world to world, spreading violence and death everywhere he goes. Why, over the millenia he’s been alive he’s likely murdered millions! Would you call such an abomination ‘friend,’ Applewood? Would you let them drag you down to their level and make an abomination out of you too?”
True. All of it was true. Applejack scowled, glaring directly into Loki’s eyes as he gleefully laid out her teammates’ lists of crimes for her, and her newfound power gave her the benefit of knowing that every single charge was the truth.
Applejack glared back at Loki defiantly as he chuckled once more and gave her the most smug, triumphant grin. “I simply hope I’m there to see your face when the truth of your new friends’ natures come to light and the monsters tear everything apart around your head.”
--- --- ---
Natasha scowled as she watched the feed from the room beyond.
--- --- ---
“Y’all seem to think you know a lot about my friends.” Applejack said, scowling.
“I assure you,” Loki said, smirk never once leaving his face, “everything I’ve said is true.”
“Oh I believe it.” Applejack said, crossing one leg over the other, her gaze never leaving his. "What I'm wonderin' is if y'all care to tell me how they've actually been more recent-like."
Loki frowned "I do not understand."
"I think you do." Applejack said, her expression never changing. "Is Tony still the 'Merchant of Death?' Does Steve make a habit of killin' folks for fun? If Nat's such a monster, why's she eatin' herself alive over what she done in the past?" Applejack shook her head. "Folks can change, Loki. And if my friends have changed for the better I ain't seeing the issue."
"Truly?" Loki's frown deepened into a scowl as his eyes narrowed. "All those atrocities, and you're simply willing to let them slide? To see them go unchallenged?"
"Maybe they deserve to be punished. Maybe they need to repay for what they done. But maybe they already have. And even if they haven't, I reckon it ain't my place to say." Applejack crossed her arms, fixing Loki with a stony glare. “Y'all know a lot about their pasts, Loki... but y’all don’t know horseapples about mine, do ya?”
Loki merely blinked
AJ smirked. “You don’t, do ya? That’s why y’all tried to off me back in Stuttgart, isn’t it? You’re powerful enough that you coulda got Steve the same way any time you wanted, but you held back. ‘Cuz for whatever reason you wanted to get his attention. Y’all wanted to be here.” She pointed at the ground. “Here, right now, in this cell. Am I right?”
Applejack stood up. “But y’all didn’t count on me. Y’all didn’t count on a new piece landing on the board, didja? You broke character.”
Loki scoffed, taking a step back into his cell. “You are but another pawn in Fury’s game. Nothing more.”
“Am I? You sure about that?” A fire burned in Applejack’s eyes “Y’all know so much about my friends, maybe it’s only fair you hear somethin’ about me. Wouldn’t want y’all to be playing your little chess game at a disadvantage, would we?”
Applejack stepped forward, their faces now mere inches from one another, separated only by a clear pane of glass. “My name is Applejack Smith-Apple. I’m from the land of Equestria on the planet Equis. I’m the bearer of the Element of Honesty, and you. Don’t. Fool. Me.” Her voice was hard, neither a scream nor a whisper. Every word punctuated with iron. “I’ve seen your type before. Y’all ain’t nothing but another Saturday to me.”
Loki’s reply was equally hard. “I think you’ve already made very clear what you consider ‘my type’ to be. I assure you that I’ve not lied once--”
“Oh I know.” Applejack smirked.
If anything she’d said had caught Loki off guard, it was that. His eyes widened and his brow wrinkled. “But--”
“I’m the Element of Honesty, Loki.” Applejack’s smirk widened as she interrupted him. “I can tell when somebody’s tellin’ a lie, and you weren’t. Not technically, at least. But that’s what makes you such a good liar, ain’t it? The best liars know when to tell the truth.” She chuckled. “You thought you had me all figured out, didn’tcha? That I’d run crying from the room and go and confront them over it? That I’d find out it was all true and abandon them? Maybe even fight them over it?” Applejack shook her head “Maybe if y’all’d caught me a couple years ago, but I’ve hooked bigger fish than you since then.”
“Thor was right, you know,” She continued, causing Loki to scowl deeply. “He told me y’all was a manipulator. That y’all liked to get folks to dance to your tune.”
“I believe I am done speaking to you.” Loki said, sitting back down on his bench.
“Oh really? ‘Cuz I’ve only just started.” Applejack said. “I know your type, Loki. Snakes like y’all slither in silence, doin’ your best to get around unseen. And y’only strike from the bushes when your opponent steps too close. What’s more, you’re good at it.” She crossed her arms. “Which is why it don’t make no sense y’all’re playing at being a dragon.”
Loki raised an eyebrow, clearly taken off guard. “What nonsense--”
Applejack jabbed a finger at him. “You heard me. Thor told me all about how you nearly took over Asgard with nothing but the right words whispered in the right ears. How does somebody like you go from that to announcin’ himself and makin’ a right public scene of it in the middle of a crowded city? Why does he even bother to try and conquer a planet of short-lived, short-sighted insects? That was how y’all described them, wasn’t it?”
He narrowed his eyes. “You’re trying to get me to reveal my plans to you.” He said, smirking smugly. “It won’t work.”
“I don’t give a sack of dried beans what your plan is.” Applejack shouted, locking eyes with him. “Don’t matter none to me either way what your plan is. I’ve stopped so much worse, there ain’t even a question of whether or not I’ll stop you too!” She jabbed a finger at Loki. “What I want is for y’all to ask all this to yourself! How does a god go from nearly ruling Asgard to cooling his heels in a cell?!” She pointed at Loki’s prison, never once breaking eye contact. “This cell! Right here, right now! I know a little glass ain’t stopping you from teleporting away! Y’all could slink back to the shadows, plan your li’l conquest in silence, and we’d never know when or where you’d be coming from! But you won’t! Y’all’re determined to sit there on your plot and make a right gloatin’ spectacle of yourself instead.” She slammed her hand down on the glass with a resounding ‘BANG.’
“So tell me, Loki! Why. Are. You. Here?!”
Applejack looked deeply into Loki’s eyes. They were blue, icy and cold, without a shred of mercy or compassion as he gazed back hatefully at her. She’d seen eyes like his before, whether they were a maddened red and yellow or a glowing, slitted green. And yet there was something about Loki’s eyes that gave her pause. Something that sent a shudder down her spine every time she saw him. Something that simply didn’t sit RIGHT with her.
She looked deeply into his eyes. Behind the blues of his irises and the whites that surrounded them. She looked deeper.
And she saw a red, hazy glow.
Applejack blinked. Then she blinked again. Loki’s eyes were no longer the icy, intelligent blue they had been a moment ago. They were red. Glowing red. And no matter how many times she blinked, they kept glowing red.
Applejack smiled, a genuine grin breaking out over her face. “And there it is.”
“There what is?” Loki snarled.
“You’ve been--” Applejack started to say when a sound suddenly stopped her. From down the hall, she heard footsteps clattering against the metal floors of the corridor, growing steadily closer. Loki heard it too as they both turned just in time to watch a haggard and out of breath Jennifer Walters rounding the corner, sweat pouring down her forehead and wheezing for air.
“Applejack!” Jennifer cried. “You’ve got to come quick. They’re fighting!”
AJ blinked. “Who?” She asked. “Who’s fighting?”
“Stark!” Jen yelped, trying to compose herself. “Steve, Thor, Director Fury… They’re all fighting! It’s getting really bad up there!”
“And there it is.” Loki grinned as he echoed her words back at her. “Perhaps I’m not as much of a liar as you thought,” he said smugly, “am I, Applejack?”
AJ scowled whipping around and jabbing a finger at the caged god, glaring straight into his glowing red eyes. “We ain’t done here.”
“Oh but I’m afraid we are, Applejack,” he said with a chuckle. “Good luck sorting out your friends.”
Applejack snorted turning and dashing up the stairs. She caught hold of Jennifer and hefted her into a bridal carry causing the poor girl to squeal in shock as she barrelled through the Helicarrier corridors.
As she charged up the stairs towards Banner’s laboratory, Jen pointing her in the right direction, she desperately prayed that Loki’s half-truths about her friends wouldn’t turn out to be whole-truths.
SATURDAY, APRIL 14, 2012 - 6:08 AM
SHIELD HELICARRIER RESEARCH DECK 4 CORRIDORS - APPROX. 30,000 FEET OVER MANHATTAN, NYC
Applejack heard their voices long before the lab came into view. All of them were shouting, each trying to be heard over the other as they all unloaded upon one another with everything they had.
“Put on the suit and let’s go a few rounds.” Captain America growled dangerously.
“You people are so petty and tiny!” Thor rumbled.
Applejack dreaded the coming encounter, though she thanked Celestia, Luna, and all the stars up above that they were still just shouting at each other… even if Steve’s words suggested that wouldn’t be the case for long. She scrambled up the stairs, dodging nervous-looking SHIELD agents, her hands trembling as they carried a jittery looking Jen.
Fury interjected sternly. “Agent Romanoff, would you escort Mr. Banner back to his--”
“Where?! You rented my room!” Banner shouted.
She so desperately wished she didn’t have to do this right after her confrontation with Loki. Now that she was away from him she could feel how much he’d shaken her. All too much of her bluster about being the Element of Honesty and having faced bigger threats than him was just that; bluster. Without her friends to complete the Elements of Harmony, Nightmare Moon and Discord would have completely rolled over them. And they actually hadn’t managed to stop Chrysalis. While Loki didn’t seem to be as powerful as any of they were, she wasn’t actually particularly sure how well she’d hold up in a one-on-one fight with him.
“The cell was just in case--”
Of course, the prospect of an imminent super-powered throwdown here on the Helicarrier was keeping her adrenaline pumping enough that she didn’t feel too hampered.
She just hoped that Loki wasn’t actually right about them. While at first she’d thought his words were half-truths and he was well known for being a manipulative liar, she now worried that perhaps they weren’t half-truths after all. This most recent fight was planting a seed of--
Applejack grabbed hold of that seed, threw it on the ground, and stomped on it.
This fight didn’t necessarily mean anything. She and her friends had fought all the time back in Equestria. She and Rarity would so often fail to see eye-to-eye, after all, and there were even times she’d come to blows with Rainbow Dash.
Applejack whirled around a corner as she raced towards Lab B when she heard Banner shout again.
“In case you needed to kill me, but you can’t! I know! I’ve tried!”
Jen gasped, practically leaping out of Applejack’s arms as they approached the threshold to the lab. “I got low,” Banner said as the open door came into view. AJ and Jen spied Banner standing aside a desk upon which sat Loki’s scepter. Nearer to the door stood Thor and Natasha, while across the room stood Steve and Tony. “I didn’t see an end so I put a bullet in my mouth and the other guy spit it out!” Banner snarled, his hand reaching out to grasp the staff upon the table--
“Bruce!” Jen shouted. Everybody in the room seemed to snap to attention as she darted into the room past Thor and Natasha, grabbing hold of his arm before he could close his fingers around the haft.
“Jen--” Bruce sputtered lamely, only to be cut off as Jennifer buried her head in his chest.
“You never told me it got that bad...” Jen wept, shaking a little as Bruce put his arms around her.
“What in Tartarus are all y’all goin’ on about in here?!” Applejack snapped, closing her fingers around the doorframe, feeling the metal bend between her fingers.
“Ah good.” Stark muttered. “The pretty pink unicorn has arrived. Now we’ve got the complete set.”
“Unicorn?” Thor asked, bewildered.
Steve growled. “Don’t you start again, Stark.”
“HEY!” Applejack barked. “Enough of that! Loki’s cooling his heels down in the brig and y’all’re up here duking it out with each other? Did y’all just forget that he wants us all dead?! How do y’all expect to fight him and his army off if y’all’re sniping at each other every chance you get?!”
There was a pause for a split second as the rest of the room stared at her, only for a sudden beeping noise to break everybody out of the reverie.
Gently, Banner pried himself away from Jen. “Hopefully we won’t have to.” He muttered as he bustled over to a monitor across the room. “The computer has a lock.” Natasha quickly followed him.
“You’ve located the Tesseract?” Thor asked.
“I can get there fastest.” Stark interjected
Steve shook his head. “Look all of us--”
“The Tesseract belongs on Asgard” Thor bellowed, “No human is a match for it!”
Applejack scowled as the lot of them descended back into infighting. Jen looked lost, her terrified eyes desperately darting between the seven of them, mouth opening and shutting as she tried to find the words to say something.
“You’re not going alone!” Steve shouted, grabbing hold of Tony’s arm.
Stark slapped it away. “You’re gonna stop me?” he challenged.
Steve looked over at Applejack. “AJ, would you talk some sense into him?”
“Hiding behind your girlfriend now, Captain?” Tony sneered.
“Leave Applewood out of this, Rogers.” Fury warned.
“Hey!” Applejack shouted, slamming a fist into the wall and leaving a dent. “Do y’all have rocks in your ears?! Listen to me! The Staff is--”
Bruce gaped at the monitor. “Oh my god--”
And then everything exploded.