Chapter Two

The Unexpected Decision

I can't let this go on, she thought in a miserable tone. It had become quite clear—after Loki had shaken off a fourth such strike from Thor, and Thor had treated a few swipes from Loki's impossibly sharp blades as though they were no more than scratches from a kitten—that they were going to be at this a while.

And that, no matter how long this spectacle dragged on, they were determined to kill each other if it came to that. Hermione swallowed hard as she sank back into her seat. If she let it come to that. She couldn't let that happen, she couldn't let someone kill their brother over her.

There was only one possible answer. She had to find a way to intervene. She hated the purpose of this fight, but she hated the potential outcome more; she hated being held by Beilor like some useless little lump in a pretty dress.

The battle below had settled into a rhythm, thus so had the cadence of the audience's reactions. She looked toward Beilor and his companion, their attention was rapt on the competition below. Already, she'd gauged the chances of being able to concentrate with the crowd—something less of an issue, now that she could time the ebb and flow of their noise. She'd wagered she couldn't get far from her captor, even had she the chance to undo her manacles—perhaps she didn't need to go far.

Dear Lord, this was the dumbest thing she'd ever thought of, but this madness had to end before one of those supposed gods down there got killed.

Stealing another glance at Beilor to assure herself he wasn't paying her mind, just now, she closed her eyes. Hermione focused on her breathing, steeling her nerves and allowing the sounds around her to melt into rhythmic humming.

Slipping her fingers around the manacle—not just to unlock it, but to keep the thick metal band from hitting the floor—she whispered the charm, "Alohomora."

As the manacle opened, she fought not to let herself feel relief, she still had to undo the one on her ankle, after all. Again, she looked at Beilor. He was far too thrilled at seeing the Asgardians trying their damnedest to fell one another.

She crossed her legs, the open manacle in her lap hidden by the many folds of purple fabric. Clamping her hands on either side of the metal cuff, the witch made it appear as though she was doing no more than adjusting the damnable ornate sandals they'd stuck her in. Once more, she closed her eyes and steadied her breathing, once more she focused on her task.

Repeating the charm, she exhaled quietly as the second manacle opened in her fingers.

All right, Hermione, she thought, looking about one final time as she wound the chains together to give them more weight, it's now or never.

So anxious she felt all sensation drain from her hands, she bolted out of her seat and chucked the manacles over the railing of their platform. The shock of the sudden motion pulled Beilor to his feet before he realized what was happening.

Relinquishing his hold on the chain, he let out angry sound that tore across the coliseum, but Hermione was already darting through the crowd.

Just as she hoped, the moment had distracted not only the other spectators, but the combatants, themselves. She forced her legs to carry her as fast as they could move, the thundering footfalls of Beilor's subordinates were sudden and sharp in her ears and she had to force herself not to look back at them.

Shifting her attention to the god-men in the pit, she shouted as she took a hard turn down an aisle that led back to the edge of the platform. "One of you had better be prepared to catch me," she shouted at the top of her lungs, already feeling her heart hammer in her throat from the mere anticipation of what she was about to do.

Thor and Loki exchanged a bewildered glance before they each rushed in her direction.

"You may have to throw me," Loki said from the corner of his mouth as he and his brother headed for the clearly mad witch.

"What?"

"I've already calculated the distance and her trajectory when she jumps. I'll catch her, and then you can grab us, both, before we hit the ground. I don't like it, but throwing me is faster than using your hammer to—" Loki let out a surprised yelp when Thor, without warning, did precisely as requested.

"Don't have to ask twice, Brother," Thor said with a chuckle as he picked up his pace.

Loki hissed out a curse as he shifted his attention. His gaze locked with that of the surprised, and notably frightened, witch as he hurtled in her direction. Quick thing she was, as she seemed to immediately comprehend what was happening.

With a nod, she swallowed hard. Closing her eyes tight, Hermione flung herself from the ledge. Her collision with Loki forced an oomph out of her, but he had to ignore her discomfort as he latched his arms around her and turned, putting himself between her and the wall just in time. The impact jarred them both, leaving her unprepared for the lurching sensation in the pit of her stomach as they slid down, moving as fast as if they were free-falling in the open.

She winced, bracing to hit the ground—even with Loki's lean frame as a cushion.

But that next impact never came. They simply . . . stopped falling?

Opening her eyes, she looked up into his face. Loki's handsome features were twisted in an exasperated scowl. Above them, Thor—well, he was a pretty one, too, wasn't he?—wore a smug grin.

"I think you can put us down, now, Brother," Loki said in a miserable tumble of words.

"Not just yet."

Loki's green eyes narrowed lethally. Hermione could only think sibling squabbles between these two must be very interesting. "And why not?"

Thor snickered quietly as he answered, "Because this is funny."

Hermione sighed. "Please don't make me do something as undignified as having to scramble down both of you after all of that."

"Oh, all right." Though he sounded petulant about it, Thor did as the witch asked, setting Loki on his feet.

Loki's shoulders drooped and he shook his head, seeming to forget that he was still holding Hermione. "Oh, certainly. Your own brother asks and you won't comply, but the let pretty girl ask and you snap to action. That's how it works, is it?"

Arching a brow, Thor met his Loki's gaze with an expression as though the Frost Giant had just sprouted a second head. "Yes, that would be exactly how it works."

"Um, hullo?" Hermione called, drawing their collective attention to her. Good Lord! It was hard enough not blushing over both of them acknowledging that they thought her pretty—after all, look at them!—but now that they were each staring directly at her, she needed a second to collect herself, even in this ridiculous situation, before she could go on. "I'm thrilled you both think me pretty, but do you suppose you could put me down, now, Loki?"

His jet brows shot up. "Oh, of course! Apologies." He titled with her in his arms to place her feet on the ground, allowing her a smooth transition from carried to standing.

"That was an unexpectedly pleasant maneuver."

He smirked and offered a fluid, lazy shrug. "Well, I suspect you deserved such after the hell of a time you must've just—"

"This was all quite unexpected." Beilor's voice boomed through the coliseum, reminding the three unpleasantly of their current circumstances. "But I suspect trying to relieve the Asgardians of the Prize now that she is with them would not be an easy task."

Thor sneered, hefting Mjolnir in display. "Why not try it and see?"

"I assure you there is no need for such shows of bravado, Son of Odin." Beilor turned side-to-side, gesturing toward the crowd. Only then did it truly register the audience was making quite the ruckus. Between the excitement of the last few moments and the impossible pitch of Beilor's voice, all that ambient noise had sort of faded into the backdrop for all three of them. "This event was orchestrated to entertain these good people, and entertain them you have. Though it is unorthodox of proceedings such as these, I do not see any other choice. This battle ends in draw! The witch, and the spoils that would accompany her ownership, now belong to you, both!"

"Both?" Thor and Loki echoed in unison; neither had considered this might be the outcome of helping her escape her captor.

There were many things in what Beilor had just said with which Hermione, herself, took issue, yet she couldn't seem to focus on the whole ownership problem. Perhaps that was because she'd already heard the idea bandied about several times as though it weren't something a person should be upset over. No, no, she had another question entirely.

"Spoils that 'accompany my ownership?'" She looked to the men standing on either side of her before she asked, "What spoils? What the bloody hell is he talking about?"