• Published 6th Feb 2014
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An Old-Fashioned Notion - Thereisnospoon303



The battle between Loki and the Avengers is altered by a twist of fate. Now stranded in the idyllic world of Equestria, "Earth's Mightiest Heroes" must find a way to unite alongside six colorful ponies to stop Loki's schemes.

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Point of No Return

An Old-Fashioned Notion
Chapter 1
Point of No Return

“Engine 1 is now in shutdown!”

Agent Phil Coulson’s knees buckled as he steadied himself against the wall. Fresh determination helped him quickly regain balance. He had previously witnessed the wake of destruction created by Loki’s arrival on Earth. According to the frantic alerts sporadic throughout the ongoing attack, the Helicarrier and her crew were shaping up to be his next victims.

Coulson stumbled once more as he maneuvered through Helicarrier’s corridors. In his arms he cradled a weapon nearly half his size. The modern equivalent to a hand cannon possessed some sort of standard S.H.I.E.L.D. designation for Phase 2 weaponry; Coulson just preferred to call the thing “the Prototype.” In theory, the Prototype served as yet another tool to address the unfolding realization that human beings were completely outclassed by other worlds.

In truth, no one knew what the damn thing could do.

Coulson had grasped rather quickly that Loki planned to escape as the team turned its attention to fighting the invading mercenaries. Even if men like Loki and Thor could easily shrug off punches, kicks, and standard ordnance, the Prototype stood as the great equalizer. If Loki failed to get the message, Coulson would be more than willing to express deliver it through the barrel of his newfound gun.

“We are in an uncontrolled descent!”

Time was running short. Coulson hastily punched in an emergency security code into a keypad; the door into the chamber containing Loki’s prison hissed open. Coulson leaned through the doorway. The cadence of Loki’s voice was immediately evident. An armed mercenary—one of Loki’s men—stood at the foot of the walkway leading around the glass cell. Coulson felt a pinch of uneasiness as he scanned the room and assessed the situation.

He could see—and hear—Thor, stuck inside the cell. As Loki strolled alongside the cell, Coulson gathered that he must have tricked Thor, using some sort of ability that eluded human comprehension. He watched Loki linger near the control panel of the prison. His hands hovered dangerously over the release switch.

Loki turned to face Thor, grinning as he did. “The humans think us immortal. Shall we test that?”

Coulson did not need to stand by for confirmation. If he waited any longer, Loki would eject the cage which confined Thor. Even the mighty Asgardian would be hard-pressed to survive the fall from 30,000 feet.

With a quiet grunt, Coulson lumbered forward with the Prototype. He slammed the barrel of the gun into the back of the mercenary’s skull. As soon as man hit the floor, unconscious, Coulson trained his weapon on a surprised Loki.

Coulson’s lips parted briefly, prepared to deliver a taunting threat. His throat constricted as he found himself speechless. A twinge of anger twisted his chest. Loki may have raised his hands halfway in surrender, but Coulson could see the twinkle in his eyes. When confronted, all Loki could do was smile like a boy who got caught with his hands in the cookie jar. If given the opportunity, he would add more corpses to his extensive résumé—one which included colleagues Coulson had once called friends.

No more games, Coulson thought. Loki was long overdue for a beating. Blowing him to pieces would not bring back the dead, but it would sure as hell stop the list from mounting.

With a click, Coulson pulled the trigger. The Prototype whirred as its barrel glowed bright red—but nothing happened. As Coulson titled his head to one side in confusion, the recoil knocked him onto his back. An explosion rattled the chamber; dust and debris quickly caked the area with soot.

Dizziness and a ringing in the ears racked Coulson's skull. With the Prototype lined over his chest, he managed to turn his face towards Thor to offer a lame smile.

“So that’s what it does.”

Thor leaned against the glass of the cell, his eyes wide. He called out—but the persistent buzz in Coulson’s inner ear muffled his voice.

“Sorry,” Coulson said. “My brain’s kind of scrambled right now.”

Thor squinted, confused. Once again he shouted something to Coulson; once again the words were lost.

With a small sigh, Coulson gestured to his ears. “I can’t hear you!”

The message at last got through. Thor’s face relaxed; he merely nodded and took a step back deeper into the cell.

Coulson wobbled to his feet. He hoisted the still smoking Prototype and gave it a brief inspection. The barrel glimmered, though not with the same intensity as it did when it fired.

The weapon had already done a fine job by leaving a burning wreck where Loki once stood. The “god of mischief” had not stirred or attempted to crawl out of the mess of melted steel and wire. Coulson nonetheless recognized the unlikeliness of Loki’s demise, given how tough Asgardians—even the adopted ones—could be. Once Thor was by Coulson’s side, they could begin inspecting the wreckage for whatever remained of Loki.

Coulson looked at the smoldering husk of the control panel. Without it, freeing Thor required a new plan. He hastily ticked through his options. None of them were terribly appealing.

“Thor!” Coulson yelled, adjusting to his partial loss of hearing. “Can you hear me?”

“I can. Are you all right, Coulson?”

“Just peachy. Listen, I’m going to need you to stand back. I can get you out of there, but it’s going to get a little messy.”

“What do you intend to do?”

Coulson held up the Prototype. “A prison break—but it’s going to have to be snappy. As soon as the glass breaks, this cell is going to eject. Hopefully the hole will be big enough for you.”

As Thor eyed the Prototype, Coulson swore he saw the “god of thunder” gulp.

“Are you certain about this?” Thor asked while gesturing towards the Prototype with Mjölnir.

“Not really, no.” Coulson took a few steps backward. “But frankly I’m running low on ideas and my head sort of hurts. By this point anything seems like a good plan.”

The Prototype glowed. Coulson winced as he prepared to pull the trigger. The recoil definitely needed some work.

Thor cautiously moved over to one side of the cell. He braced one hand on the glass of the cell and with his other gripped Mjölnir. As Thor drew in a breath and readied himself, his eyes caught sight of a gold and green shadow shimmering behind Coulson.

“Loki!”

Thor’s shout barely made it to Coulson’s ears. Coulson swung the Prototype around to defend himself. The barrel clanged against Loki’s scepter, catching the bladed end before it could pierce his chest.

Loki snarled, weighing down upon Phil Coulson with increasing inhuman strength. Steel screeched against steel. Eye to eye with Loki now, Coulson pulled the trigger. The Prototype fired into the ceiling and exploded above Thor's cell. The rush of air and the sudden force of a vacuum swept through confinement area.

Loki flinched but momentarily as hot shards of metal clattered against his armor. Coulson squinted against the wind blowing on his face. Both men struggled to keep their footing, their weapons interlocked and grinding together.

Loki leaned closer to Coulson and growled. “What have you done?!”

The creaking of metal robbed Coulson of a retort. He looked over his shoulder at the cell containing Thor. Against the forces of the winds below, it would not last much longer.

Sensing an opening, Loki shoved Coulson to the floor and tumbling across the walkway. Coulson caught himself—but immediately rolled over again to evade the blade intended for his heart. As Loki struggled to dislodge the scepter from the grated steel, Coulson rose to his knees and lifted the Prototype to his side. The massive weapon once again targeted Loki.

For the second time in the last five minutes, Loki—the real one—had the perfect look of utter dismay.

Coulson labored to control his panting. His hands to shook with the rush of adrenaline; he could hear his heart thumping over the blowing winds. This time he was determined to have his one-liner: Loki of Asgard would soon understand that he got his ass kicked by Phil Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D.

“You lose.”

The hollow clicking of the trigger echoed in the chamber. But the Prototype did nothing; no lights, no smoldering hole in the wall.

Loki’s lips spread into a malicious grin. A bone crunching boot to the chest launched Coulson several feet before he hit the wall with a thump. The S.H.I.E.L.D. agent slid down to the steel floor and toppled over in a heap, failing to rise.

“No!”

Thor slammed his palm against the glass of his cell. Unleashing a primal roar, he raised Mjölnir and smashed the glassy wall of the prison—but even his mighty hammer managed no more than a large crack. Thor reared back with Mjölnir yet again, growling as he did; then he hesitated, pausing before slowly letting his arm drop to his side. Mjölnir remained in his grasp, but his grip weakened. Nothing he did, it seemed, could undo the carnage already unleashed by his brother.

Loki quietly observed Thor’s outburst. While keeping a careful eye on the cage, he plucked his scepter out of the steel floor and spun it back into his grasp. With the wind tugging at his coattails, Loki’s shoulders broadened as he stepped toward Thor. Indeed, he felt command of the situation returning to him.

Loki glanced over the large, splintering crack Mjölnir had created in the glass. He chuckled. The container rocked from side to side, teetering ever so perilously above certain doom.

“Is this what you were meant to protect?” Loki pointed his scepter at the unmoving Coulson, whose body was slumped against the wall. “You would lower yourself to defend these humans, these creatures you could crush beneath your boot. Look how fragile they are!” The intensity in Loki’s eyes and voice flickered like wildfire.

Breathing heavily, Thor did not offer a response. His expression only grew more somber.

“The mighty Son of Odin—defeated by sentimentality!” Then Loki’s voice lowered as he raised his scepter towards Thor, like a king pronouncing judgment: “And now, just as you left me to fall into the abyss, I shall return the favor.”

The glowing end of the scepter hummed. In a flash, a bolt of energy exploded through the supports of the cell. The container clashed against the catwalk. Thor stumbled forward toward the glass, thrown onto a knee. He dropped Mjölnir with a clang, using it to avoid sliding across the floor.

As the glass prison dangled, the whole of the Helicarrier rumbled, prompting Loki to look to the ceiling and let out a bitter snort. The time to end this was close at hand. Glaring at cage again, he fired another bolt. The melted steel at last snapped like old threads, causing the cell to plummet with a hiss.

Loki strode over to the edge of the opening and peered beyond the railing. Curiosity had beckoned him. Through the opening he watched the clouds rushing beneath the Helicarrier—a sign that it was rapidly losing altitude. The vast expanse of blue beyond the clouds promised that the Helicarrier, the mighty flying fortress, would soon join Thor in the ocean.

Pursing his lips in satisfaction, Loki turned on his heels and began to make his exit. As he passed Coulson’s motionless body, he halted. Loki glanced at the tip of the scepter in his hand, entertaining the thought of skewering the mortal’s flesh like a wounded animal. In his mind, such a fate was befitting for the man who sought to defy him. But as the Helicarrier trembled ever more violently, Loki suppressed the urge. One human was not worth the risk—even if Loki did desire to hear his dying screams.

There would come time soon enough when by his hand all of humanity would cry out in agony.


Though the Helicarrier was intended as a platform for war, its command center was not. As the dust settled and the smoke continued to rise, the final testament to the destruction wrought had yet to be given, but the images were already damning. Rows of computer terminals resembled war-torn trenches, littered with debris and coated in scorch marks. The sight of smashed touchscreens riddled with bullet holes was just as common as frayed wires snaked across the floor. Amongst the carnage S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel frantically moved about, shouting to one another in an attempt to overcome the moans of the wounded. Many of those killed in the assault were already draped in blankets or makeshift body bags. A few corpses of fallen comrades and mercenaries alike were still left unattended.

Nick Fury observed the whole of the scene from his command station. The computer screens standing at either side of him buzzed with static. His grasp tightened on frame of the consoles. What eluded him more than anything else was the element he perhaps took most for granted: control.

The Avengers were a failure. Tony Stark had lost his cool upon his return, storming off with the declaration that he would not march to Fury’s fife. Steve Rogers nobly tried to corral a team together, hoping to prevent Loki from ravaging the Earth—yet Fury recognized Captain America mistrusted him as much as Stark did. Banner and Thor were MIA. Romanoff was tending to the newly reacquired Clint Barton, adding yet another link to the emotional daisy chain. The only saving grace was Agent Coulson’s survival. Without him, Fury knew, they would have been completely blind.

Phase 2 had failed. The hero card had failed. Their best chance to stop Loki now rested with a veteran assassin brainwashed by mysterious alien technology. Still, Fury allowed for a wistful smirk. He recalled a sentiment conveyed by Coulson: his belief that heroes could emerge to save the world weighed heavily on Fury’s mind. It was a notion all of them desperately needed.

Fury glanced over his shoulder at the large conference table. It was there the so-called heroes had gathered for a time before being torn apart. Fury now realized that trying to force a bunch of explosive egos to get along for the sake of world peace was pure hubris. He played with fire and got burned. It was not the first time it had happened; it certainly would not be the last.

“Director Fury.”

Despite hearing his name, Fury’s gaze lingered on the table a while longer. Only after long pause did he at last turn his head to face Agent Maria Hill, who stood at the side of his terminal. In spite of her visible bruises and wounds, she maintained the poise of command, standing upright before Fury.

“Yes, Agent Hill?”

“I just received word that Agent Barton left the infirmary—unrestrained—escorted by agents Romanoff and Coulson, as well as Captain Rogers.” Hill paused. “Did you grant them permission to do so, sir?”

A hint of a smirk appeared on Fury’s face. “I told them that they should interrogate Agent Barton and, if they happened to extract any information regarding the Tesseract or Loki, to act accordingly.”

“Sir, are we just going to let them loose?”

Fury turned toward Hill and arched the brow over his good eye. “Should I try and stop them?”

“With all due respect, Director,” Hill said, folding her arms, “these people are dangerous. They’ve severely compromised our ability to react against Loki. This entire operation has been a disaster.”

“This is true.”

“Then is there a reason why we should let them leave?”

“Agent Hill,” began Fury, his tone weary, “I can’t offer a single reason which couldn’t be scrutinized and torn to pieces by any rational person. But even if we could all be perfectly rational, the crisis we are faced with is as unprecedented as it is absurd. We tried to play this by the book, and it bit us in the ass. Now we’re out of the game.

“Thor was right when he said that we keep talking about control when in reality we’ve made a mess of things.” Shaking his head, Fury stood upright to survey the entirety of the bridge. “I’m doing this because we are desperate. I am desperate. There is no other option.”

Time passed as the silence mounted between Fury and Hill. Fury continued to study the bridge—his bridge. His nose wrinkled with the smell of burned rubber and plastic rising in the air. He then moved out from his terminal, folding his arms behind his back and walking along the elevated walkway which led to a glass dais at the edge of the bridge. Hill followed, albeit at a distance, scrutinizing Fury’s movements.

Standing at arm’s length from the window, Fury caught a glimpse of his face. Even in his faded reflection, wrinkles of fatigue were evident. When was the last time he even slept? This operation, starting from Loki’s arrival almost a week ago, had consumed his every waking moment. There was no such thing as a good night’s sleep when in the line of duty. Much like Phil Coulson’s idea of heroes, it was a notion that had long since slipped out of practice.

“We have to get our systems back online. This ship has to be operational as soon as possible.” Fury glimpsed halfway over his shoulder at Hill. “If Rogers and his team have a lead, we need to be prepared to assist them.”

“’Assist them’?”

“Yes, Agent Hill—to aid them; to render support.” Fury’s voice had gained a new edge. “Is there something unclear about that?”

“No, sir,” said Hill, almost begrudgingly. “I understand…” The end of her sentence seemed to be leaning on more, but nothing else followed.

“Good.” Fury returned his gaze to the window. “Stopping this invasion is our top priority. I don’t care what it takes. We need to be back in this thing before Loki’s army can arrive.”

“Yes, sir,” Hill said. She turned on a heel but paused, instead returning her attention to Fury. “And what about Stark?”

“Let him go. We’re better off not having to babysit him again.”

Hill drew in a quiet breath. “Understood.”

As Hill proceeded to bark orders to the remaining members of the crew, coordinating their efforts as best she could, Fury looked down through the transparent dais. The contrast between the clouded wreckage on the flight deck and the crisp morning sun caused his frown to deepen. Yes, he had gotten the message.

Fury’s idle musings were disrupted by the low-pitch roar of engines. Rocketing out from the belly of the Helicarrier, Tony Stark blazed through the clear sky in his armor. Iron Man then just as quickly disappeared into nearby cloud cover, leaving only a vapor trail in his wake.

“Goddam,” Fury muttered. “I hate being desperate.”


Dr. Erik Selvig busied himself with the Tesseract—a task he gladly accepted even before he had been ‘enlightened.’ Countless hours of work on the portal device had left him unshaven and unkempt. His glowing blue eyes accentuated his vacant look; yet he remained attentive to every detail of the apparatus he had constructed for the Tesseract.

Nearby Loki paced the edge of Stark Tower’s roof, his back turned to both the Tesseract and Selvig. Normally his movements carried an air of precision. At present, however, Loki fidgeted, shifting his scepter from one hand to the other as he scoured the New York skyline.

“Almost finished,” Selvig called over. “I only need to make a few more calibrations before the reaction is self-sustaining.”

“Very well,” said Loki absently. “Continue your work.”

“I have to thank you again, Loki, for opening my eyes!” Selvig enthusiastically threw his arms apart and smiled. “This is beyond anything I could have imagined! The Tesseract is ready to show us something: a whole new universe!”

A barely audible utterance escaped Loki’s mouth. “Yes, you’re right.”

“I can’t blame you for being anxious. I didn’t think it would be possible to find a power source capable of soliciting a sustained reaction from the Tesseract. But when you suggested the arc reactor—”

“I know very well what I told you!” Loki paused, briefly exhaling, before turning to Selvig to flash an irritated smile. “Please, Doctor, finish your good work. I promise that you shall not be disappointed.”

Selvig’s grin faded. He returned his attention to the device without a word of resistance or hesitation. Loki drew a sharp breath through his teeth and eyed the Tesseract. Like a beating heart, the artifact pulsated in irregular intervals. Each pulse heightened Loki’s anticipation, for he felt all the more certain conquest was within reach.

Loki well understood the power of symbolism. Every step in his plan was designed to be a message to his would be enemies; to stand triumphant above humanity’s greatest city on a stage built by one of its self-proclaimed saviors could not have been a more perfect climax. Striking at the heart of S.H.I.E.L.D., humiliating his brother, and undermining their collective resolve were but a mere warm up for the final act.

Though Loki stood upon the crown of Earth’s greatest city, primed to attack humanity, savoring the theatricality proved to be more difficult than he had imagined. In his mind he envisioned himself ensconced in his new throne above the world, overseeing mankind’s downfall. But complete mastery remained elusive. Asgard, the Realm Eternal, once called Loki king—only to see him fall from power in a cascade of misfortune. Midgard was little by way of recompense for the banishment and humiliation endured. This entire enterprise felt truly beneath his worthiness.

Loki’s grip on his scepter tightened, matching the mounting tension in his stomach. The stakes were clear: the Chitauri would soon arrive, Earth would be conquered, and Loki would have his elusive triumph. Even if Thor had survived, he alone could not stem the eventual tide. And the human forces? They were scattered at best. Their power paled in comparison to that which the Tesseract would soon unveil.

Yes, Loki thought, victory was indeed at hand.

Loki squinted, hearing a faint rumbling in the air. The Tesseract had yet to activate, and even Selvig gave a curious glance up from his workstation. With the sound growing louder, Loki’s lips curled into a strained smirk. This was a moment he had anticipated, but the timing was less than ideal.

“All right, kids. Show’s over.”

On cue, Iron Man hovered into place above the rooftop. As Loki faced Iron Man, he silently noted that Stark did not so much hover but rather sputtered through the air. From Loki’s perspective, Stark’s entrance was unceremonious even by his loose standards.

Loki snorted, still smirking. “Please tell me you’ve come to deliver yet another ultimatum.”

“I know what your game is, Loki,” said Stark, struggling to keep himself airborne. “Using the arc reactor was pretty slick, I’ll give you that one. Too bad I’m the first one to know when someone touches my stuff.” He awkwardly cocked his arm back, leveling a repulsor at Loki. “Now turn it off.”

“Do you think threatening me makes a difference? The Chitauri will soon be here, and not you or anyone else can stop that!” Loki jutted a finger at the ground. “This world will fall before me!”

“Dr. Selvig!” Stark called. “Shut down the Tesseract! Now!”

Stumbling away from the control console, Selvig exclaimed, “He’s right, Stark! I just input the final commands.” He fell to his knees, fatigue and elation washing over his face. “She’s ready to enlighten us all!”

Stark sighed. “Fantastic.”

If a brainwashed Selvig refused to see reason, then Stark was determined to cut out the middle man. The repulsor glowed and let out a low-pitch whine. A beam of light streaked out of Iron Man’s palm and collided with the Tesseract.

Or it should have. A previously unseen barrier flashed around the Cube and its housing apparatus, swallowing the blast. The force field returned the beam toward Stark; in its wake, a shockwave burst across the rooftop. Although Stark evaded the beam, the following burst slammed his body through the air and away from the roof.

After tumbling about, Stark righted himself in midair. He could see Loki clinging to the rooftop by his fingernails, struggling to drag his body back onto safe ground. The staff he wielded was out of his grasp. For now, Stark recognized, Loki was not the problem. He could be dealt with later.

Stark’s attention instead turned to finding Selvig. He scanned down the length of the tower. If the blast was strong enough to knock Loki off of his feet, it did not bode well for the average human. The fleeting sight of Selvig plummeting toward the city streets confirmed those fears.

“JARVIS! All power to flight stabilizers!”

Iron Man spun higher into the sky, his repulsors roaring as he built up speed for a dive. Stark understood that any sudden stop could tear the Selvig’s falling body to pieces. Timing would mean everything.

Stark dove and rocketed after Selvig. Within seconds he maneuvered next to Selvig in midair. Carefully he embraced the scientist with one arm while maintaining velocity. Iron Man was then forced to swerve abruptly to avoid crashing into a construction crane. Despite the bumpy ride, an unconscious Selvig remained intact in his grasp.

The first leg of the emergency rescue was complete.

A metal panel broke off his suit as Stark angled his legs for a landing. The repulsors screeched but did not fire; sparks spat out from his suit’s feet and palms. Stark continued plunging toward New York, wind whipping around his body and Selvig’s.

“JARVIS,” grunted Stark, “any time now!”

“Maximum power has already been diverted to flight stabilizers, but systems are nonresponsive.”

“Chest piece! Use the chest piece!”

“Rerouting power.”

A short beam of light flared from the arc reactor, and Iron Man immediately halted in midair. Stark heaved out a gasp as the sudden stop knocked the wind out of his lungs. The chest piece then let out smaller bursts, allowing Stark and Selvig to descend in short yet unsteady drops. A growing crowd of people below watched Iron Man stagger his way down the side of Stark Tower.

“Power transfer complete,” JARVIS said. “Reengaging flight controls and subroutines.”

Stark moaned. “It’s… about time.”

With the repulsors again blazing to life, Stark angled his legs back toward the ground. The café near the base of Stark Tower would serve as the improvised landing zone. A few chairs fell over under the force of the repulsors. Dishes clattered as patrons scattered to find cover. Upon landing on the sidewalk, Stark leaned Selvig against his knee and checked for vital signs. The scientist would no doubt require a trip to the emergency room, yet he was otherwise in one piece.

JARVIS spoke with his usual dispassionate cadence: “Sir, I should warn you that although the maneuver was successful, we are now down to 20% power and dropping.”

“Yeah, well, desperate times.” Stark turned his head. Pedestrians and customers alike remained in place, gawking at the battle ravaged Iron Man and the man in his custody. “I’ve got to drop Selvig off. Loki’s still breathing, and until I nail the son of a bitch, we can’t stop for dessert.”

Without a word to the crowd around him, Stark heaved Selvig into his arms and marched over to a nearby table undisturbed by his touchdown. Sitting at the table was a group of older men, all of whom were slack jawed. They ignored their spilled cups of coffee to stare at Iron Man as he placed the unconscious Selvig at the foot of their table.

“Sorry to disturb your pre-bingo festivities, fellas, but this man needs to be taken to a hospital.” Stepping backwards, Iron Man activated his repulsors, hovering himself off the ground. “And make sure to tell them to tie him down. He gets cranky after his naps.”

As Iron Man ascended into the sky, an elderly man, wearing sunglasses, seated nearby, exclaimed in annoyance, “I knew I should have brought a camera!”

Within mere seconds Stark soared to the top of his skyscraper. Loki, having since recovered from his near fall, awaited his arrival. As he stalked in front of the Tesseract, he primed his scepter in one hand. The sight of Iron Man prompted him to scowl.

Again overseeing the rooftop, Stark focused not on Loki but instead the Tesseract. The display field within his helmet filled with diagnostic information. “JARVIS, give me something to work with.”

“The Tesseract is surrounded by an impregnable field of energy. I’m afraid nothing can penetrate it.”

“Okay, not the kind of news I was looking for,” Stark said, scanning the analysis charts in before his eyes. “How about the arc reactor?”

“The arc reactor’s last energy spike registered four minutes ago. Unfortunately, sir, the Tesseract has already produced a self-sustaining reaction. Disabling the arc reactor would have no effect.”

A few seconds of silence passed. Stark’s eyes rapidly flicked back and forth in thought. Squinting as though something had caught his interest, he asked, “Is the arc reactor still hooked into the Tesseract?”

“Yes, though I fail to see how—”

“JARVIS, I want you to put the arc reactor up above maximum output. Pump everything we’ve got into the Tesseract. If we can’t cut it off, then maybe we can overload it.”

“Sir, I highly recommend against this course of action.” For once JARVIS’s normally aloof tone betrayed a sense of urgency. “There is a chance that overloading the Tesseract could produce a criticality accident on a cataclysmic scale. The entire tri-state area would be threatened—”

“I understand the physics, JARVIS! Just do it!”

An energy pulse smacked Iron Man in the shoulder, knocking him to one side. The flight systems on his feet spat out a few sparks before regaining thrust. Glancing down at the roof again, Stark saw Loki with his scepter raised.

“Enough!” Loki shouted. “Selvig is no longer of any consequence. His work here is finished. I shall now usher in a war that will consume this planet”—the scepter began to glow, a signal that it was ready to fire—“and you, Tony Stark, will be the first to fall!”

Before Loki could strike, a discordant rumble arose from the Tesseract. The once hibernating artifact glowed to life. Flashes of blue arcs erratically arced around the Cube, fizzling against the metal of the machine containing it. A visible barrier shimmered into view, one not unlike the shield which deflected the repulsor blast, pulsating for several seconds before the energy bubble dissolved. Uneven hums rose in pitch with each additional discharge.

“Sir, the arc reactor’s output has reached 105%,” JARVIS said. “Should it progress any further, emergency shutdown protocols will be activated.”

“Bypass the protocols. Crank it up to eleven for me.” As Stark spoke, his eyes narrowed on Loki. The lighting scheme within his helmet switched from a pleasant light blue to a more alarming red tone. “I’ll take the kid with the glow stick.”

Iron Man may have been hovering close by, prepared to attack, but Loki was entirely preoccupied with the glowing Tesseract. Loki well recognized the artifact’s unpredictability could be disastrous. What if it opened a portal and sucked the planet through a wormhole? If not that, the dispersion of the Tesseract’s energy was more than capable of collapsing the Earth in on itself. Everything for which he had worked—plans for revenge, for conquest—would be ripped apart by the vacuum of space or crushed into dust.

Eyeing the glowing stone at the end of his scepter, Loki vividly recalled the Other’s warnings. They would hunt him down, if he failed. Shutting down the Tesseract was not an option. He needed this war. He needed this victory, no matter the cost.

A bright beam rocked Loki’s ribcage, knocking him clear off of his feet. The sickening feeling of a long plunge overtook him, but the trip was short lived. Loki had the good fortune of only crashing onto the balcony several stories underneath the roof.

“That’s for the cheap shot,” Stark said, his repulsor flaring.

Hissing through his teeth, Loki rose from the small crater. By the time he reached his feet, he was cackling, having dismissed the pain that numbed his chest and limbs. “I would hope you could still put up a fight in that suit of yours!”

“Arc reactor output level has reached 120%,” JARVIS stated bluntly into Stark’s ear. “At this rate, a catastrophic meltdown is imminent.”

“Great. Keep me posted.”

Another staccato of high-pitched noises filled the air. Stark watched as the cylinders on the portal device began to spin, their mechanical whirring mixing with the strange shrieking of the Tesseract. The energy discharges had gathered above the spinning cylinders into a ball of light that swelled with the flashing beats of the Cube.

Stark flinched as a white flash from the Tesseract consumed his vision. He half expected to be evaporated with the rest of Midtown Manhattan; yet when his sight returned, Stark beheld a column of light ascending from the Cube. After it spiraled high into the clear morning sky, the peak of the column dispersed, and the excess discharge began swirling like water circling a drainpipe. A swarm of energy currents flashed around the wavering pillar of blue light.

“Sir.” JARVIS paused for emphasis. “A catastrophic meltdown has occurred.”

“Duly noted,” Stark murmured, slack-jawed.

“It seems you found a way to sabotage the Tesseract after all!” Loki outstretched his arms, smirking as he did, as if to mockingly concede to his enemy. “You would threaten to destroy this whole planet just to spite me? Are you truly that desperate?”

Iron Man shifted his gaze back to Loki. In spite of his bravado and substantial firepower, Stark knew he was pushing his suit to the absolute limit. The armor could barely stay airborne, let alone fight toe-to-toe with a Norse god wielding otherworldly power.

“We are now at 14% power,” said JARVIS.

Stark’s gaze tightened. If Loki thought this was going to be his grand day on the mountaintop, Stark was determined to tear down the whole mountain, even if he was the one who had built it. “Decrease power to flight. Activate emergency power reserves.”

“Yes, sir.”

Iron Man descended feet first toward the landing dais above the lower balcony. Once he touched down, he stepped to the edge of the platform to gain a full view of Loki. Standing twenty feet above his opponent, Iron Man's imposing figure seemed all the more menacing.

“Is this yet another vein effort at intimidation?” Loki asked, grinning as he craned his head backward.

“No more games. It’s just you and me, prince of space.” Stark raised both his repulsors. “It all ends here.”

“Yes! Of course it does.” The alien staff in Loki’s clutch glowed. “Shall I open the festivities?”

The repulsors hummed to life.

“No. Allow me.”


The general mood on the streets was already thick with tension. Bruce Banner knew precisely what was generating a buzz, though his immediate concerns remained inward. He was lucky—not lucky to be alive, but lucky he had not caused more damage when he had lost control. When he awoke in a deserted warehouse, nude and disoriented, the lone security guard who had greeted him gave assurances that the worst thing the Other Guy’s landing did was cave in a roof and scare a few pigeons. The older fellow was cordial, if blunt, and furnished Banner with some spare clothes and a spluttering moped. Not much else was required to slink off into anonymity. A large urban area was the perfect place to disappear into a crowd.

Banner’s run of luck evaporated as soon as the pillar of light engulfed the top of Stark Tower.

Jersey City was a strange place to have an epiphany. As Banner rode through traffic on his old moped, the humor of achieving some form of enlightenment in New Jersey failed to lift his spirits. To the contrary, now Banner found himself buried beneath the scope of Loki’s schemes.

How the hell could he have been so stupid? He himself had identified Loki’s cryptic jab at Stark regarding “a light for all mankind to share.” Once the in-fighting began and S.H.I.E.L.D.’s true designs for the Cube were revealed, Banner dismissed the comment as alluding to the Phase 2 arsenal. Yes, that was true, he thought, but he likewise recalled the shock which overcame him when the Tesseract was at last located.

Banner’s thoughts were washed out as he recalled the horror, the utter loss of control that preceded the appearance of the Other Guy on the Helicarrier. His stomach boiled with bile at the distorted images turning through his mind’s eye. A lump grew in the middle of his throat, threatening to burst out of his mouth.

Stopping at a red light, Banner labored to reorient his mind, and his gut settled with the renewed wave of focus. He understood how Erik Selvig intended to use the arc reactor as a catalyst, jumpstarting the Tesseract and opening a portal. Loki wanted a tunnel through space, and the iridium prevented the Tesseract from becoming unstable and collapsing the portal in on itself. Banner felt like a kid who bombed a major exam, only to emerge from the aftermath knowing exactly how he failed. For a man of his intelligence, the feeling was oppressive.

Banner continued to ride with without a general destination in mind. He spotted the signs for the Holland Tunnel. New York City was about to become a warzone; Loki’s army, S.H.I.E.L.D., Thor, and the United States military would soon swarm over the island. If Banner went his own way, perhaps he could avoid the conflict altogether. As soon as the bullets, missiles, and laser blasts started flying, the Other Guy would emerge. Anywhere close to the action was too close for comfort.

And Banner considered further: Why the hell should he help? S.H.I.E.L.D. tried to imprison him—to kill him—and the rest of the so-called Avengers were an unstable and violent bunch. Even Stark, the one man who seemed to be in Banner’s corner, did not inspire much confidence with his daredevil, balls to the wall antics. No matter how much he claimed to the contrary, Stark could never understand what it was like to live with a monster inside, tearing his psyche apart, waiting to be unleashed by the slightest provocation. The others could hang their suits and weapons up in trophy rooms when they were done; Banner had no choice but to try and hide the Hulk inside himself.

The decision looked as though it was clear-cut—and yet, as Banner sat on the idling moped, staring at the tunnel entrance, he knew where he had to go. In doing so, however, he would cross the point of no return. He assented to the horrific fact that no matter where he went, no matter how fast he could travel, he would never escape the reaches of this calamity. Disaster would find a way to drag him back into the fray.

Above all, Bruce Banner was tired of running.

Most of the cars in line for the tunnel toll had completely stopped, for passengers had begun exiting their vehicles to catch a glimpse of the strange display over Stark Tower and the New York skyline. Banner sighed, revving the moped’s tired motor as he prepared to wind his way through the dense traffic. The distinct whirring of jet engines, however, led him to look skyward. A S.H.I.E.L.D. aircraft—the Quinjet, if he remembered the model’s name correctly—hovered at the mouth of the tunnel.

Pedestrians sought cover, many of them panicked by the sight of the aircraft. Banner, on the other hand, remained in place. He leaned back in his seat and folded his arms. Though he certainly cared for the well-being of the innocents around him, S.H.I.E.L.D. had him pinned. If they wanted an early showing of the Other Guy on top of the imminent alien invasion, Banner was in no practical position to resist.

“Dr. Banner!” a voice sounded over the Quinjet’s PA. “Please remain where you are. We are not here to hurt you.” Banner recognized Natasha Romanoff’s terse and alarmed tone on the other end.

The aircraft slowly performed an about-face to reveal the open rear hatch. Standing on the lowered platform were Steve Rogers—dressed in his full Captain America regalia—and Agent Phil Coulson. The Quinjet was dozens of feet off of the ground, but that did not prevent Rogers from leaping down onto the pavement. After hoisting his shield onto his arm, he briskly maneuvered between the parked cars.

Banner cleared his throat once Rogers was within earshot. “I don’t know about you, Captain Rogers, but I’m not all that comfortable with performing in front of an audience.”

Rogers stopped in front of Banner, taking a breath before speaking. “Dr. Banner…”

“I guess if S.H.I.EL.D. wanted me dead, things would have gotten pretty ugly already,” Banner said, glancing at the hovering Quinjet. He then smirked awkwardly at Captain America. “So, any reason why you’re down here, or did you just come to cover the toll?”

“Actually, we were hoping you could tell us where to find the Cube.” Rogers took a peek over his own shoulder at Stark Tower. “I guess we were a little late.”

“Sorry that the surprise got spoiled, Captain Rogers.”

“Is there a way to shut it down?” asked Rogers, gazed locked on the energy spiral in sky. Streaks of light flew across the roof.

“Without having a closer look at the device, it’s hard to tell,” Banner said plainly, shrugging as he did. “If I had to guess, based on Selvig’s notes, the reaction caused by the Tesseract is now self-sustaining. In other words, we can’t just pull the power cord and turn it off. And since Stark probably figured this all out, then he’s already shut off the catalyst device.”

Rogers’ brow raised underneath his cowl as he turned back to Banner. “Catalyst device?”

“The arc reactor.”

Rogers gasped. “Good God!” He took a moment to regain composure. “Dr. Banner, if Selvig is under Loki’s control, we’re going to need your help. You’re the only one who knows how to turn off the Cube.”

“I, uh…” A short pause followed before Banner briefly shook his head and said, “I can’t promise that, Captain. Besides, Stark knows that technology as well as I do. Why not get him to do it?”

“Because Stark’s a hothead.”

“Well, I won’t deny that…”

Captain America’s eyes narrowed on Banner. Even underneath the colorful patriotic cowl, his intensity was unmistakable. “Dr. Banner, I know how you feel. S.H.I.E.L.D. lied to each and every one of us; there’s no getting around that. But right now we—”

“It’s not just S.H.I.E.L.D., Captain,” Banner interrupted. In a gesture of fatigue and vexation, he wiped a grimy hand over his face. “Putting me in there is too dangerous. Stark might be a hothead and a showboat but he can control himself when he needs to. Me? Loki’s alien army might be the least of your worries if I go.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” said Rogers. “You were ready to come down here, to put it all on the line to make sure that Loki doesn’t succeed. One way or another, we’re going to need all the help we can get.”

Banner anxiously rubbed his fists. The tower of light looming over New York skyline nabbed his attention once more. The mere sight of it sent a shudder up his spine. The familiar tingling of bile teased the back of his throat. In spite of Captain America’s impassioned words of encouragement, Banner was all the more certain this would end in catastrophe.

But what else could he do now? Running was never an option. That was perhaps the hardest truth of all to accept.

Banner tightened his lips, tense yet decided, knowing he had yet to offer a reply. He looked Captain America square in the eyes. “We’ll be putting a lot of people in danger. You know that, right?”

“Dr. Banner, if we don’t act now, the whole world will be in danger.”

Nodding to himself and to Rogers, Banner dismounted the moped and hiked up his ill-fitting pants. Rogers gave him a grin before signaling for the Quinjet to land. As it descended above the numerous abandoned cars, the two men promptly made their way to the open hatch, with Agent Coulson there to greet them.

Coulson reached out and assisted Banner into the cabin. “Welcome aboard, Doctor.”

“Thanks,” Banner said, sincere but subdued.

“Where to, Captain?” a man called from the cockpit. It was a voice Banner did not recognize.

Rogers strode toward the bow of the craft. “Barton, get us to Stark Tower ASAP.”

Banner began to follow Rogers without much thought, his curiosity over the presence of Clint Barton guiding him. The sudden ascent of the aircraft caught Banner by surprise, and he was forced to grab a nearby handle strap for support. He awkwardly repositioned himself over to a seat, fussing with several of the buckles once he found his place. It was from this position that he had a good glimpse of the cockpit and its occupants, one of whom was Natasha Romanoff.

By now Coulson had taken a seat at a computer terminal across from Banner. Rather than strap himself in, the seasoned S.H.I.E.L.D. agent leaned against the console in an almost casual fashion. “How are you holding up, Dr. Banner?”

Turbulence jolted the Quinjet. Banner’s nails were already digging deep into the straps dangling around his shoulders. “Oh, I’m great. Just great. I was really looking forward to flying in a confined space over a crowded city of about 10 million people. Again.”

“Sorry,” Coulson said, genuinely contrite. “That was a dumb question.”

Banner took a deep breath. “No, it’s... I just have a bad history with air travel.” With his eyes darting frantically around the cabin, Banner noticed his own picture displayed on the nearby computer screen, as well as a satellite imaging map of New York City. “Is that how you found me?”

“That’s right. Using the face-trace, we managed to reroute the onboard computer directly into one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s satellites. Since we knew your approximate landing point, we cross-referenced that with our database.”

“That was pretty quick, even for you guys.”

Coulson offered a small, apologetic smile. “We’ve had you on record as a top priority target for a long time, Doctor. Tracking you was faster than usual.”

The explanation prompted a meek, understanding nod from Banner. “Yeah. I forgot about that part. Good thinking.”

“You should thank Agent Romanoff. It was her idea.”

Banner’s body tensed at the mention of Natasha Romanoff. In the cockpit she was preoccupied with reading instruments and conferring with Rogers, who was standing in the open door, and Barton, the pilot. He could remember only fragments of their last encounter, yet each memory that managed to resurface carried with it a prick of guilt. Somehow his muscles recalled the Hulk’s destruction, the attempts to kill Natasha, better than his own mind. Small aches and spasms gripped Banner’s limbs; his heart thumped at an alarming rate.

The greatest fear came not from the rampage but from its aftertaste.

“Agent Romanoff,” Banner said, backtracking almost instantly when he saw her jolt upright in her seat. “I mean, Natasha. I, uh… know this might not be the best time to bring this up…”

Natasha glanced through the cockpit entrance. Her complexion was paler than usual. Her eyes, he saw, revealed that her own fear was very much alive.

“Don’t worry, doc,” Natasha said, as though she were politely entertaining a bad joke. “The worst has yet to come.”

Banner chuckled uneasily. “I’m not so sure about that.”

“I’ve got a firefight on the tower,” Barton said. Numerous flashes glittered across the peak of the skyscraper. “Looks like Stark and Loki are already going at it.”

Rogers moved into the cockpit and leaned forward to get a better look through the glass. “Stark, you idiot! I told him he couldn’t go up against Loki alone. He’s going to get clobbered if he keeps this up.”

Natasha wheeled back around in her seat. Her flush and poise returned in an instant. “Trust me, Captain: this isn’t the first time.” She flipped a several switches on the control panel before grasping the center stick. “Swing us in close, Clint. I’ll give Stark some fire support.”

Barton looked over at Natasha. “That’s going to be a tight shot.”

“I don’t think Stark’s too concerned about collateral damage right now.”

Focusing his sights on the incoming skyline, Barton shrugged. “Yeah, well, he might not like the 20 mil sticking out of his chest, either.”

“Our priority is shutting down the Tesseract and preventing Loki’s army from reaching the city,” Rogers said authoritatively. “Barton, get us as close to the roof as possible. I’ll move in to secure the Cube and cover Dr. Banner while he figures out how to close that portal. Romanoff, hold your fire unless I give the command. With any luck, Stark will keep Loki busy. You just need to make sure Loki doesn’t reach the Tesseract.”

“You want to put Banner on the roof?” asked Barton.

“He’s the only one here who knows how to shut down the Tesseract,” Rogers said, a hint of uncertainty creeping into his tone. “Just give us some cover and I’ll handle the rest.”

“This is going to be a tall order, Captain,” Natasha remarked, drawing in a breath. Energy bolts continued flying across the skyscraper. “One stray shot and we’re finished.”

Captain America nodded. “I know. That’s why this has to work.”


“Sir, emergency energy reserves have been depleted.”

“I can read, JARVIS! Don’t keep reminding me!”

Iron Man retreated to avoid another shot from Loki, nearly falling from the dais as he lurched to one side. Stark was running out of tricks. Wires were spilling out from underneath armored panels on his armor. Loki’s skirmish tactics were more than annoying: they now proved to be a genuine threat. It did not help that the demigod had scored a few indirect hits of his own.

The walkway below Stark was littered with debris from repeated blasts. Holes and scorch marks marked the path of destruction. Loki presently remained crouched in the midst of the carnage, poised for another barrage.

Iron Man reared his arm back and fired another blast. Loki rolled to his side to avoid the repulsor ray. He then sprung to his feet, unleashing a shot of his own that hit Iron Man in the hip. Stark let out a pained moan. He could feel burning metal threatening to char his skin.

Holding his side, Stark stumbled back from the dais and fell down on one knee. A flood of diagnostics warned of the armor’s sustained damage and imminent shutdown. Stark’s view through his helmet display was reminiscent of an old television set, with unfocused colors smearing together in a midst of static.

Spotting an opening in Iron Man’s dismal state, Loki leapt from the walkway below as though it was a mere step on a flight of stairs. Arriving with a soft thud, Loki postured at his full height, occupying the platform Iron Man had once defended.

“I admit that your bravado is not entirely without merit,” Loki said, a small grin rising on his face. “It is no wonder why these… people worship you.” The demigod descended several steps from the dais, his stride possessing a casual swagger. He gestured toward the blade on his scepter. “I wonder, what might they do when they discover that Earth’s ‘mightiest hero’ has fallen?”

An earsplitting crack of thunder shook Stark Tower. Loki stopped in his tracks, his grin melting under his paling complexion. Both he and Iron Man glanced up at the sky which had grown dark from a horde of thunderheads. Lightning crackled through the darkness wrapping around Stark Tower. The only light came from the energy continuously soaring skyward from the Tesseract.

“JARVIS, what’s the weather report for today?” Stark asked.

“78 degrees with clear skies, sir,” JARVIS said. “I cannot discern the origin of this anomaly. It does not appear to be caused by the Tesseract.”

“That’s what I thought.”

Loki stepped back from the landing dais and raised a forearm over his face. Before him heavy steel and marble crunched beneath the heels of Thor. He wore his full battle regalia, with silver-scaled armor encasing his arms. On his back billowed a red cape, and his hair whipped across his face in the high winds of the surrounding storm. Thor’s eyes fixed on his brother in fury.

“Loki!”

“I see you survived the fall,” Loki lamely stated as he lowered his arm. A nervous snicker followed. “To be very honest, I was hoping you would live. How pitiful it would have been for the mighty Thor to meet his end by way of simple parlor tricks.”

Thor pointed Mjölnir at Loki. “I have come to put a stop to this madness! Shut down the Tesseract, or I will destroy it!”

Loki’s expression soured. “Is this the best you can do? Threaten me? In my moment of triumph? As always, the role of the fool suits you well. You are too late: the Tesseract cannot be stopped. Strike it with lightning; level this entire city! Your best efforts are in vain.” He leaned toward Thor, pointing a finger in the air. “On this you have my word.”

Thor’s grasp on Mjölnir loosened, confusion overtaking his anger. “What are you saying?”

“Ha!” Loki slammed his foot down in defiance. “Look at you—unable to resolve a problem with your hammer! You are pathetic now more than ever before. You wax endlessly of your love for humanity; yet even now you are powerless to protect it!”

Renewed enmity flashed upon Thor’s face. “Do not force my hand, brother. I will destroy you, if I must.”

Loki spread out his arms, as if to dare Thor. “Idle threats! You and I both know it.”

As Thor readied to speak, the thrusting of turbines buzzed overhead. The Quinjet flew into view over Stark Tower, rocking gently from each side in the winds of the storm. It angled around the skyscraper, remaining at a safe distance. A minigun popped out from the aircraft’s underbelly and trained on the three figures on the roof.

“Sir, I have an incoming transmission from Agent Romanoff.”

Stark glanced at the open channel in his helmet and smirked. “How does it feel to play the cavalry this time?”

“Stark, we’ve got sights on the tower,” Natasha’s voice crackled over the communications. “What’s the situation?”

“I’m doing fine, thank you for asking,” Stark snidely replied. “Uh, yeah, I’ve got two angry Norse gods on my roof, working out their family issues.”

“And the Tesseract?”

A guilty wince momentarily twisted Stark’s face. “That’s a bigger problem. The Tesseract’s gone critical. I don’t even think Loki knows what the hell it’s doing anymore.”

“So what are our options?”

Stark sucked in an unsteady, almost panicked breath. “I’m still working on that.”

From the corner of his vision Loki watched Iron Man struggle to his feet. In a near perfect stroke of theater, all of them had gathered at one point. No doubt the armored aircraft brought with it the Black Widow and Captain America, he realized. Loki quickly dismissed their presence as insignificant. If he could just remove Thor from the battle, he could secure the Tesseract and thus his conquest.

Loki grinned to himself. He shifted to face Thor, whose attention remained with the Quinjet. A small dagger slipped in-between his palm and fingers.

“You must realize by now that it is too late,” Loki said, stalking toward Thor. “There is no turning back. We are beyond negotiation and reason. We are,” Loki took a short breath before dipping his voice into a sharp whisper, “beyond the point of no return.”

Thor faced Loki and scowled. He raised Mjölnir in preparation to strike. “Then so be it.”

Thor’s words were punctuated by an unnatural screeching from above. A new ripple of energy tore through the blue column above Stark Tower, slithering its way up to where the vortex swirled. Late morning sky slowly, painfully ruptured under the Tesseract’s power. The dramatic showdown instantly gave way to the startling sight of a gaping hole emerging out of thin air.

Powerful gusts whipped across the skyscraper as the breach yawned. A blue translucent field blanketed the whirlpool of energy. Though the discordant noises from the Tesseract ceased, the winds offered their own chilling sounds as they heaved against the creaking steel of Stark Tower.

The vortex was devouring whatever it could pull off the ground. Thor and Loki stumbled, covering their faces as debris flew through the air. Stark scrambled to find a grapple hold along the edge of the walkway. He moved on all fours to remain grounded.

“JARVIS! All power to flight!”

“Sir! All reserve power cells have been depleted. I cannot—”

Stark’s helmet went dark, leaving him only with the muffled howls of the wind outside of his suit. “JARVIS? Come on, buddy, don’t quit on me now. Pick up!”

JARVIS did not respond. Stark could still move his body, but near total blackness pervaded his vision. He could only see through two small slits. The suit felt like the inside of a coffin.

Tony Stark’s strength waned under the growing pull from the vacuum. He clenched his fingers deep into the marble and steel crafted by his design. The slabs of tile crunched like paper in his grip, offering him no support. Stark’s eyes widened as he felt his tenuous hold slip through the broken marble.

“JARVIS!”

In an instant, Iron Man was launched into the air, his body rolling and spinning out of control. Within seconds he approached the mouth of the widened vortex, plates and bolts torn out of his once impervious armor. Chunks of Stark Tower battered him across the sky.

There came no momentary pause or dramatic last-ditch effort to resist the overpowering void, nor any screams of defiance or terror. Iron Man’s gold and red silhouette simply disappeared into the abyss.

---

Inside the cockpit of the Quinjet, flashing red lights blinked across every electronic surface. Alarms wailed out of sync. Their warnings went unheeded as Rogers, Barton, and Natasha gaped at the vortex in the sky, having watched Stark vanish into the maw of the unknown. All three remained at a loss for words.

Rogers, squinting in disbelief, at last broke through the buzzing of the alarms: “Mother of God…”

“That thing is still dragging on us,” Barton said, returning his attention to the flashing instrument board. “Nat, tell me we can get a little more juice out of the engines.”

Natasha leaned over in her seat and flipped a line of switches. The pained groans of the Quinjet’s turbines grew louder. “We’re already on afterburners. If we don’t get out of here soon, we might be joining Stark.”

Barton grunted as he reared back on the controls. “Captain Rogers, if you have any ideas, I’m all ears.”

Rogers remained silent as he weighed the scenarios and alternatives. As he understood it, there was no way any of them could get close enough to the Tesseract without the risk of being sucked into the sky like Stark or incinerated like the Red Skull. Yet Banner was the only one among them who knew how to stop the device. That was the plan cobbled together from the start.

Now they needed a new plan.

“Captain, the clock’s ticking.” Sweat trickled down Barton’s face. Despite his efforts, the Quinjet dragged ever closer towards the funnel of energy spewing from the Tesseract.

Instinct urged Rogers to look into the cabin. Banner was secured in his seat, but his breathing wheezed over the constant rattling of the Quinjet’s frame. His eyes were closed tight, his hands locked like vice grips on the belts strapped around his body. Across from him sat Agent Coulson, whose jaw tightened visibly as he watched Banner.

“You’d better call it, Captain!” Barton shouted.

Rogers refocused on the glow of the Tesseract. “Romanoff, aim for that machine powered by the Cube! If it’s anything like HYDRA tech, knocking it out should kill the portal!”

Natasha shot a look at Rogers. “What about the Tesseract?”

“This is the only chance we’ve got,” he said with a palpable hint of resignation. “Let’s make it count.”

Swallowing hard, Natasha shifted back in her seat. “Right. One stray shot.” She gently twitched her head to the side. “Clint, keep it steady for me.”

“Hell of a way to get back into the game, huh?”

“Well, you know me: never a dull moment.”

A pained smile flashed across Barton’s face. His eyes continued to dance back and forth between Stark Tower and the controls as the Quinjet kept crawling dangerously close to the rooftop. Sweat dripped from his brow as his face twisted under newborn exertion. “Come on, baby,” he muttered.

The Quinjet’s violent trembling reached a fever pitch. The aircraft began rocking wildly from side to side. The vacuum dragged across its hull. A new wave of alarms squawked amongst the others. The Quinjet’s engines whirred into silence.

“What the hell?!” exclaimed Rogers, who clutched the rear of Barton’s seat.

“Engines are offline!” Natasha hurriedly stated, flipping several switches on the instrument board. She then slammed the screens with her fist before she quietly said, “We’re losing power. None of the systems are responding.”

Calmly turning his head, Clint Barton glanced at Rogers. “Captain, I suggest you get back there and buckle in.”

---

From his crouched position Loki beheld the Quinjet yield to the Tesseract. A large slab of flying marble slammed into the aircraft’s belly, forcing it higher into the sky. With endless streams of debris crashing against the plane and its engines, there was no moment for the vehicle to regain equilibrium.

Loki felt quite certain that their fates were destined for the emptiness of space, for that was where the Chitauri readied their invasion of Earth. The thought of dying in utter silence crossed his mind, but Loki felt no urge to cry out in premature anguish. He recalled the detachment that accompanied throwing himself into the unknown when Odin rebuked him. As the force of the vortex yanked on his body, Loki refused to let fear follow him to his death. He would not be conquered in his final moments.

No! Loki, of Asgard, would face his end like a true king. No power—not even that of the Tesseract—could deny him this reality.

The Quinjet rose alongside the pillar of light. As it was with Stark, there were no evident signs of final resistance. Without further theater, the aircraft slipped through portal, disappearing among swirling blue waves.

Loki remained fixated on the vortex. His grip tightened on the scepter in his right hand. He smiled in grim acceptance. “My turn, then.”

An especially powerful gust caught Loki by his legs. Mere seconds separated Loki from joining the so-called “Avengers” within the void.

Loki’s body then jolted painfully, stopped by a force caught on his left forearm. Loki moaned as he felt his arm nearly ripped from its socket. Squinting through the winds, Loki caught sight of the hand clasped around his wrist.

Beneath Loki stood Thor, poised on the last patch of marble tile yet to be ripped from its foundation. Mjölnir was planted at the base of his feet, a growing crater formed around where it rested. With his left hand grasping the hammer’s handle, Thor used his right hand to clutch Loki. Thor’s face squeezed and reddened under strain; even his impressive strength could not resist the vacuum indefinitely. Slowly his firm grip on Loki began to slip.

“What are you doing?!” Loki shouted, his voice battling over the winds.

“I will not let you go! Not again!” Thor’s grasp continued to loosen. “Now pull!”

“It’s too late! Nothing can stop this!”

“We will find a way! Together!” Thor struggled to reposition his feet. The marble slab beneath him cracked like ice. “But I will not lose my brother!”

Loki’s eyes widened and mouth partly opened. He appeared genuinely moved, as though the veil of spite and fury he wore since his arrival had been cast off into the howling winds. The water in his eyes threatened to streak across his temples.

This was a face Thor had longed to see. The grasp of lunacy possessing Loki was crumbling, and with it Thor’s own hold on his brother strengthened. “I will not lose you again, Loki. You have my word.”

Visibly swallowing, Loki blinked his tearful eyes at Thor. “Your word?”

“Yes. As your brother.”

Loki barely managed to withhold a small smile—one of joy, not malice. He then grit his teeth as he swung his right arm forward, wrapping it over Thor’s bicep. The scepter dangled in his hand. Together the two of them worked in unison to bring Loki’s feet back closer to the ground. From there they hoped to at least both take advantage of Mjölnir as an unshakable buttress against the portal.

Thor at last placed his hand on Loki’s back, the firm grip bracing the banished prince. The two brothers locked in an impromptu embrace. “I will not let go, Loki, but there is still much work to be done.”

“Yes, indeed there is,” said Loki, beaming broadly in jubilation.

Thor himself allowed for a grin. “Now, we must find a way—”

The contentment forged by the reunion quickly drained from Thor. A sharp pain pierced his ribs, locking his throat in shock. He glanced to his side to find Loki’s hand dripping with fresh blood. The glint of steel flashed between his fingers.

A cold, almost knowing scowl had since replaced Loki’s euphoric smile. He pulled his face within inches of Thor's. “Take care of your words, Odinson. We are not brothers. Your father is not my own.”

Thor’s expression clouded with agony. The sudden ease of the betrayal exacted more pain from Thor Odinson than any blade or club could manage.

Demeanor unchanged, Loki scoffed, “Sentiment.”

With a long swing of his legs Loki bucked his feet forward, his heels clanging against Thor’s armor. The force of the blow dislodged Loki from Thor’s slackened arm. The winds rushing skyward were quick to catch Loki in flight. Thor could only watch helplessly as his brother was claimed into the air.

As quickly as Iron Man—or perhaps even faster—Loki hurtled toward the vortex. His arms were spread outward, scepter in hand, giving him the appearance of ascending to some heavenly plane—until a piece of debris collided with his chest. Loki tumbled headlong into the portal. The man who sought to become Earth’s king then vanished, accompanied only by his scepter.

Thor nursed the wound in his side. A grunt at last escaped his throat as he ripped the dagger from his flesh. The blood-covered blade dropped to the ground, clanking against the rubble. Thor’s brows furrowed at the sight of the fallen weapon. Turning his head upward, he watched the energy pillar gradually dissipate and the vortex begin to close. For reasons entirely unknown to him, the Tesseract had at last expended itself. Calm was returning to the human city below.

But Thor knew better of it. Regret overcame him. Though the Tesseract no longer threatened to tear Midgard apart as an instrument of Loki’s blind rage, peace could not be restored. Not like this. The only way to return the Tesseract to Asgard was to have Loki by his side. No realm could know peace so long as the artifact remained at the disposal of Midgard or any place else.

Thor ripped Mjölnir from the ground, beholding the mighty weapon in his hand. Newfound resolve gave him strength. He would not fail his father, his world, or the people of Earth. Bringing the hammer down next to his thigh, he now swore silently to himself that he would return Loki from whatever world or realm to which he had escaped.

Time was running short. Thor twirled Mjölnir at blinding speeds. As soon as Mjölnir went airborne, both it and Thor sped past the roof of Stark Tower upon which the idle Tesseract resided.

Only a sliver of the portal lingered. Thor squeezed his eyes, willing more power into Mjölnir. The last time he flew with such urgency was upon his return to Asgard when Loki sought to destroy Jotunheim. Unlike then, Thor would follow his wayward brother to the very end.

The last thing Thor Odinson recalled was the sudden feeling of weightlessness, followed by a blow which robbed him of his consciousness.

Author's Note:

Revision made 9/4/2014.

Second revision made 4/26/2015. Minor changes to descriptions for action scenes.