Notes: In which we get as tactical as possible, although with quick cuts to disguise my weakness in this area. I am so clever!
I've been mostly referring to the Fantastic Four by their superhero names, but when we see things from their perspective they think of each other by their real names: Ben, Reed, Sue and Johnny. I hope that's not too confusing, since things are confused enough already!
Aannnnd- Tony has some opinions about Loki that may or may not be entirely accurate, but are his.
Warnings:In case we need some.
Steve stumbled backwards out of the flight deck, shield up, as the Red Skull charged him. There was no more pretense, no attempt to appear amused or urbane or human: the Red Skull was now pure rage, frustration, possessed only by the desire to strike out at anyone he could blame for the failure so far of his plans.
That reaction, more than anything, made Steve realize they had a chance after all. He briefly remembered Thor's descriptions of Loki's breakdown and fall. Obviously this wasn't exactly the same kind of situation, but Loki's worst excesses had apparently happened as he got more frustrated and less rational. And Loki, of course, had been a troubled kid pushed to the end of his rope in the first place: someone who, underneath his defenses, hadn't been as tough as he had tried to appear, or very stable to begin with.
If the Red Skull, a heartless professional villain if ever there was one, was giving in to that same sort of frustration and anger, then things must be looking very bleak for him.
Steve gave ground under the assault, backing down the aircraft away from the flight deck. About halfway down the narrow aisle, Mr. Fantastic peeled himself away from the bulkhead in a flat sheet as they passed him, reconstituted himself into his normal shape, and ducked into the flight deck. Somewhere else in the ship, Steve could hear the Thing fighting the remaining crew.
And now that the way had been cleared for Mr. Fantastic to get onto the flight deck and deal with the Wraith pilot, Steve stopped retreating. He swung his shield and the Red Skull blocked it with an armoured forearm. If the Red Skull was all frustration and spite at the impending wreck of his plans, well, Steve could admit that he, himself, might easily be blinded with rage at what was being done to his city. Back in Scotland, Loki had spoken right up to claim responsibility for protecting London, on the grounds of payment owed for sanctuary. Steve's own claim on New York went without saying, because this city really was his, and the wreckage below them called for retribution.
Steve swallowed that thought, because there were things that made him different from the Red Skull- and also from Loki before his crash- and the ability to detach himself from a situation, to be able to think instead of just reacting, was a big part of it.
The Red Skull rolled away from under a blow from Steve's shield, grabbed for a sidearm in a holster. Steve brought up the shield to block what turned out to be a laser blast. The beam deflected off the shield and blew a hole in the bulkhead next to Steve, who lashed out with a foot and caught the Red Skull in the knee in a sideways sweep. The Red Skull stumbled and Steve hit him in the jaw with a gauntleted fist, then followed up with a blow from the shield.
And then both of them were knocked off their feet as the aircraft lurched violently, rolled to the right, and began a spiraling descent. The Red Skull grinned at Steve as he dragged himself upright, hand-over-hand on the bulkhead.
"Let us see, shall we, whether we 'super soldiers' can really survive any injury. Based on our shared history, I suspect we can."
He vaulted over Steve and threw himself out the open hatch.
Without hesitation, Steve plunged after him.
Clint gasped and lurched back into consciousness, flailing out as though to fend off attackers. Someone grabbed his wrist.
"Calm down," ordered a female voice. Previous history suggested the voice should belong to Natasha, but it didn't. Clint opened his eyes. As he did, Mystique sat back on her heels. "Oh, good, you're not dead. Neither Natasha nor I is a skilled archer, so losing you would have been inconvenient."
"Hey, Clint, good to see you back," Natasha added, over Mystique's shoulder. "You okay?"
Clint sat up and rubbed his head, which didn't hurt nearly as much as he thought it probably should. "Give me a second. What happened?"
"Our position got hit by some kind of flash cannon," Tash explained. "Mystique here turned herself into a shield over the two of us so we wouldn't get cooked, but you were closer to the blast and you hit your head pretty hard when the concussion flattened us. Luckily, the Aesir army brought medics along with them, and if I was Tony I'd be making terrible jokes about Hawkeye being treated by a MASH unit. They seem to have fixed you up good as new. Ready to go?"
"Sure," Clint agreed. "Thanks, Mystique."
"Don't mention it," the blue mutant replied, in a tone that said clearly: No, really, don't ever speak to me about this again, unless you want your internal organs to become external. Clint assumed she didn't want her pal Magneto to think she was getting soft. As far as Clint was concerned, ignoring her own feelings about humans in favour of sticking with the mission demonstrated that she was about as tough as they made them. Tash-tough, even.
The Aesir medics made no effort to stop Clint from leaving- considering they were used to patching up Thor and his pals, they would probably consider him a pussy if he didn't insist on rushing right back into the battle. Not, of course, that Clint cared what a bunch of dudes in funny helmets thought of him. He picked up his bow and Tash handed him his quiver.
And then he realized he couldn't have been out for very long, because the big ship that had fired on them, the one with the arrogant Hydra symbol emblazoned on it, was still circling the battlefield. As Clint and his two companions watched, though, the circle became tighter and steeper, and they realized it had turned into more of a graveyard spiral than a circle.
Mystique spoke up, her tone thoughtful: "We should do something about that. Your Captain America and two of the Fantastic Four are aboard that aircraft."
Clint and Tash exchanged a look, and then they were running toward the anticipated crash site, Mystique jogging along behind them. Clint had no idea what they intended to do when they got there.
Rhodey had been in some tight situations before, frequently because of Tony, but this one was definitely the worst, and what made it the worst was, he really couldn't blame Tony for it. All right: Tony had sort of gotten him into the mess, but he hadn't created it. And, obviously, Rhodey would have ended up here with or without Tony.
He'd still yell at Tony later, Rhodey consoled himself. Absolutely he'd yell at Tony later. They'd have a drink, and Rhodey would yell, and then they'd both laugh. Of course they would. There would definitely be a "later."
He pulled up, firing his repulsors at one of the enemy aircraft, a vessel carrying the Hydra symbol, trying at least to drive it away from the main Aesir line. Rhodey was almost sure, however, that his fire was not the reason, a moment or two later, the ship nosed into a steep turn that became a spiral dive.
Rhodey had been in the Air Force for most of his adult life so he knew a thing or two about spirals, and he was pretty sure the aircraft was not now in a state of controlled flight. The two figures that plunged out of the open hatch in the side of the aircraft reinforced that impression.
And the Aesir troops were still below the aircraft, right in the path of the crash.
Rhodey accelerated forward, took out a rocket fired from the ground (watch it, assholes!) swooped above the Hydra craft, came up following it and fired his repulsors into the engines. The difference between a spin and a spiral, the thing that made the spiral so much more dangerous, was that in a spiral, the aircraft continued to fly, as opposed to the stall-spin scenario in which it would simply fall. That meant terminal velocity did not take over, the aircraft continued to accelerate, and at some point if it didn't crash first, G-forces would continue to build until the plane tore itself apart.
Eliminating the engines in a craft like this one obviously removed the source of thrust and turned the plane into a glider. That, of course, didn't affect the aerodynamics of the situation, but at least it meant it wasn't flying toward the ground quite as fast. The other factor was, with the engine unserviceable, the controls went back to manual hydraulic instead of the electrical assist provided by the power system. Rhodey, as War Machine, could deal with the manual hydraulics.
Rhodey made for the lowered wing, grabbed the aileron that controlled its vertical movement, and forced it down, into the neutral position. This of course had the paired effect of pushing the lowered aileron on the raised wing into neutral as well.
Once he was no longer fighting the engine or the aerodynamics, Rhodey went underneath the fuselage, got a grip, and powered upward. The aircraft went obediently back to straight and level flight- or, at least, as close to straight and level flight as it was currently capable of, considering the fact that, with its relatively tiny wings, it possessed the glide ratio of a cardboard box. Rhodey, acting as the power source, controlled for the rate of sink and guided the aircraft safely down on a nearby roof.
Which was, of course, when the battle in the flight deck, between Mr. Fantastic, the Thing, and a Dire Wraith, came spilling through the front windshield of the plane.
As the aircraft came diving toward them, George yelled at Balder to scatter his men. Not that this was likely to help, since they didn't have anything like enough time to flee far enough for safety, but it was the best response he could think of.
The best Coulson could think of, on the other hand, was to shout at George and Mitchell to help him with the ground-to-air rocket launcher. Coulson and Mitchell directed the muzzle while George retrieved another shell. With a weird puffing foom, the rocket was ejected up at the diving plane, changing its trajectory to follow as the aircraft followed its spiraling plunge.
George had just had time to consider that burning wreckage raining down upon them wouldn't really be much of an improvement over the whole aircraft dropping on them in a single piece, when a black-and silver figure came screaming in from his peripheral vision. It blasted the rocket out of the sky and grabbed for the aircraft, which was about when George recognized the silver-and-black shape as War Machine, otherwise known as Tony's friend Lt. Col. Rhodes.
Balder glanced up with them as War Machine dragged the aircraft away across the sky, then called to his troop to stand fast as another wave of Hydra troops- honestly, where were all these soldiers coming from, surely there weren't this many truly evil people in the world- came at them.
The Aesir soldiers stood, and George, Mitchell, and Coulson with them, but you did not have to be a student of military tactics to know they were going to be overrun. George found himself desperately wishing lycanthropy worked like whatever the Hulk had, so he could turn whenever he needed to and could also be aimed.
And then, from the Aesir's right flank, came a blast of icy air, and bellowing, and a division (or whatever they called it) of Jotun troops came at the charge, straight into the Hydra force. If you'd told George a year ago that ice could be a deadly weapon, he wouldn't have believed it. He didn't think Canadians would believe you could wreak as much havoc with icy spears and clubs as the Jotun were doing.
"Never thought of this before," Balder puffed with gallows glee, "but when the Jotun are our allies, it's dead easy to tell who's on our side. I just hope they can tell the difference between us and those Hydra troops!"
George cast a sideways glance at the raging blue giants and could only, as the song would put it, second that emotion.
Ben had polished off the remaining crew, and came charging back up the aisle just as Captain America dove out the open hatch. Ben was close enough to have grabbed him, pulled him back, but he since was clearly acting with a purpose, Ben left him to it. Stumbling against the bulkhead as the plane banked, he went on to help Reed on the flight deck.
And arrived just in time, by the look of it: Reed was wrapped around the pilot, who looked like Dr. Strange but was obviously one of the shapeshifting aliens they'd been warned about. Left unattended, the control wheel had apparently been bumped, and the descending uncoordinated turn was rapidly becoming a spiral dive. Ben and Reed could survive a crash themselves, but it would be bad news for anyone on the ground below them, so ordinarily Ben would have grabbed the controls and leveled them out.
At the moment, getting control of the aircraft was suddenly the last thing on Ben's mind. Just as he arrived in the doorway, the alien dropped its transformation and turned into a big red squashy thing that clutched Reed with what looked like three-fingered paws and then stuck out its tongue, which extended about two feet and was suddenly shaped like a drill, and-
Reed stretched his neck desperately, trying to avoid whatever the hell the Dire Wraith planned to do to him, and Ben charged.
He could feel the plane leveling out underneath them but had no time to think about why that might be happening as he launched himself into the twisting pile consisting of his friend and their enemy.
The Dire Wraith let go of Reed and grabbed Ben.
Everything lit up before Ben's eyes, and then a red curtain descended.
Rhodey fell back more in surprise than alarm as the Thing came bellowing at him out of the Hydra aircraft, a big red squashy lump clinging to his back, Mr. Fantastic wrapped around both of them. It took a startled moment for Rhodey to realize the Thing wasn't trying to dislodge the- Dire Wraith? It had to be a Dire Wraith-
The Thing wasn't trying to get rid of the Dire Wraith. He was trying to get at Rhodey.
And then, of course, Rhodey remembered the briefing: both the warning about keeping out of the clutches of the Wraiths, and Tony's own story about his Wraith prisoner getting loose and what it made Thor do to his brother. Oh, shit, did not even begin to cover this situation.
Rhodey got airborne as the Thing jumped at him, hovered and fired a repulsor. Which turned out to be several different kinds of bad idea, because it also hit Mr. Fantastic and knocked him out cold- although at least he lost his grip on the Thing and the Wraith and fell clear, which all things considered was a good thing, especially since he fell to the roof and not several storeys to the street below- besides enraging both the Thing and the Dire Wraith. And it didn't even slow the Thing down: the next thing Rhodey knew, the rock-like hands were clenched around his ankle with a grip like… well, granite. And it was just ridiculous how much the Thing weighed.
Hoping to shake both of them- or at least the still-clinging Dire Wraith- loose, Rhodey dove toward the only street he could see that wasn't filled with combatants. Just above the deck, he reversed power and shot back up into the sky.
Not only did he not manage to shake the Thing loose, Rhodey was suddenly aware of the magicked superhero climbing hand-over-hand up his legs.
What the Thing might do if he started tearing at the controls of the War Machine suit, in the state he was in, just did not bear thinking about. The suit was damn near impervious to damage, but damn near wasn't anything like the same as completely. And Rhodey was uncomfortably conscious that the suit had a squishy, vulnerable centre.
Rhodey headed for altitude in a corkscrewing barrel roll, and then felt himself yanked right off his flight path as something heavy and moving fast hit the Thing.
Tony wasn't keeping tabs on Rhodey because he didn't trust him. In fact, Tony wasn't keeping tabs on Rhodey at all, really. It was just that the airspace was getting a little congested, what with the Dire Wraith aircraft and the Hydra aircraft and War Machine and that flaming showoff the Human Torch, so Tony was prudently keeping his head up and trying to monitor where all the other flying objects were, be they friendly or foely. The last thing he wanted in the middle of a battle was a midair collision he hadn't planned out in advance.
And so, in the course of keeping tabs on the other fliers in his general vicinity, Tony saw Rhodey wrangling the diving aircraft. Tony also took note of him bulldogging it onto a nearby roof.
Which should have been the end of it, but a few seconds later, when he did another check of his airspace, Tony also saw Rhodey blasting back into the sky with something hanging from his legs. That was weird enough to call for a second look, which was when Tony realized Rhodey was under attack by the Thing, who was under attack by a Dire Wraith.
Tony immediately changed direction and went charging to the rescue. It wasn't that he didn't trust Rhodey, obviously, but it was evident Rhodey more than had his hands full.
Tony looped around and came up under Rhodey and his... passengers, extended his left fist, and drove into the Thing's stomach as hard as he could. The blow almost fractured his hand right through the armoured glove, knocked Rhodey sideways in the air, and did absolutely nothing to shake the Thing- or more importantly, the Dire Wraith- loose.
Rhodey righted himself in the air as Tony grabbed for the Thing again, only to have himself kicked loose by a huge granite foot. Tony dropped well below War Machine, hovered to take stock of the situation, and then realized that he was approaching this all wrong.
He powered back up and rose toward the trio. This time, he caught hold of the Dire Wraith, latching onto its tail and trying to pull it loose. The Thing twisted around and swung at him, but Tony was able to partially block the blow and retain his grip. He swung from the tail, almost like a kid from a rope swing, where you make a big arc out over the pond and then let go.
Tony didn't let go. And the Dire Wraith wasn't like the pet lizard Tony had as a kid, which on one terrifying occasion had left its tail in Tony's hand and caused him for an awful few hours, until he did some research, to think he'd done irreparable harm to his only friend. No, the Wraith's tail stayed attached to the Wraith, and Tony stayed attached to the Wraith's tail. And then he transferred his hold to of one of the Wraith's legs- back legs?- and eventually, mercifully, he felt the creature starting to peel loose.
The Wraith lashed at him with its tail, wriggled around to try and do that drill-tongue stunt. Tony actually flinched, a purely animal-level reaction to the idea of having that happen to him again. But he flinched inside the suit, and the suit was more than proof against the Wraith's assault.
The Wraith was no quitter, however. It suddenly released the Thing and latched onto Tony. From the corner of his eye, Tony could see the Thing suddenly let go of Rhodey, confused and disoriented like Thor had been when Wilbur's attack on him ended. Rhodey was taken by surprise, and maybe didn't yet completely understand what was happening, so he didn't reverse jets to catch him quite as smartly as he probably should have.
The Thing plummeted earthward, which probably wouldn't have killed him but might have been very unpleasant both for him, and for whoever happened to be underneath him when he landed.
And then the Human Torch came streaking out of nowhere and grabbed him, then directed his fall onto a conveniently-placed rooftop trampoline that turned out to be the recovered Mr. Fantastic.
All this took place in the space of a few heartbeats, and Tony never really lost his focus on the Wraith. The creature was obviously trying to put one of its contact spells on him, the same kind it had used on Thor and the Thing.
Except, of course, Tony was in the suit, and whether it was the armour itself or the protective forcefields that always operated, contact magic couldn't get through. The Wraith stubbornly continued trying and the suit stubbornly continued to repel him, and Tony gave some lightning-fast consideration to what he should do next.
One obvious possibility was finishing the Wraith off with a blow to the head. As far as Tony was concerned, such an action would be perfectly defensible. And besides, if they took the Wraith prisoner, with Tony's luck Loki would give it a name and get attached to it- really, someone should have had pets as a kid, was all Tony could say, so he wouldn't keep trying to make up for it now. It wasn't that Loki was stupid, of course he wasn't, it was just that, in Tony's experience of him anyway, he didn't always have a lot of sense-
Anyway, there was no telling what kind of trouble trying to take this thing prisoner would lead to. They'd certainly learned these creatures couldn't safely be contained, at least not with the kind of restraints they currently had on hand.
"Tony," came Rhodey's voice in his helmet, "that Wraith was aboard the big Hydra ship that just went down. I think I saw Captain America dive out of it a few seconds before I got there. He was going after someone in a Hydra uniform."
Someone in a Hydra uniform... That almost had to be the Red Skull. There was no one else Steve would throw himself out of a crashing airplane to pursue. If the fugitive had been some regular Hydra minion, Steve would at least have stuck around to try and regain control of the plane.
And that changed things with regard to this Wraith.
"So this might be one of the higher-ranking Wraiths," Tony concluded. No guarantees, obviously, but it didn't seem like the Wraiths to assign one of their members to act as a lackey to the Red Skull. No, it seemed to Tony far more likely that a ranking Wraith would accompany the Red Skull, to reinforce the idea of an alliance of equals, at least until they turned on each other.
Okay, if that was the case, then it was worth the risk to try to hang onto this one. Tony used his navigational systems to find the Avengers' command site. As he did so, he radioed ahead:
"I'm coming in with a Wraith prisoner for questioning. Does anyone know where Loki is right now?" In spite of his irrational, although admittedly kind of endearing, tendency to develop misplaced sympathy for things that really were monsters, Loki was still the best member of the Avengers' team to interview this prisoner. He was the only member of their force who had ever held a conversation with a Wraith, and between his greater experience with them and his talent for spotting lies told by others, Loki was the only one with a chance to be able to tell whether this one lied to them. He'd admitted previously that he didn't know the "tells" of the species yet, but maybe he could use his experiences with Wilbur to put this one into perspective.
"Nope," came Fury's voice in his helmet. "He's with Tyr's force, but we don't know exactly where they are right now."
"Okay," Tony replied. "Do you know where Annie is?"
Clint and his companions were distracted from the crashing Hydra aircraft when the two little figures came tumbling out of the open hatch.
"Shit. Shit, that's Cap," Clint yelled.
"He can probably survive the fall," Mystique pointed out, with cold-blooded reasonableness. "Unlike whoever that plane lands on."
She was still speaking when War Machine came screaming in and grabbed the plane out of the air. And War Machine was still wrestling with the aircraft when below them, suddenly, Cap and the second figure stopped falling.
This obviously wasn't unexpected, everyone stops falling eventually, even Loki had. What was unexpected was the fact they stopped falling in mid-air. Even from two hundred feet below them, Clint could recognize the flash of surprise on both faces.
And then, apparently, they realized someone on one side or the other- probably the Avengers'- had thrown a forcefield or a spell at them to arrest their descent. After a moment they started to fall again, but this time slowly, as if they were in an old and creaky elevator. This gave Cap a chance to sort of air-swim his way over to the other figure, and a moment later the two of them were battling again in mid-air.
Well, since they didn't seem to be needed to deal with that situation, Clint looked around and spotted a knot of Aesir and Jotun troops a short distance away, engaged in what looked like mop-up after a pitched engagement. After a second he recognized Coulson and a couple of Loki's friends in the middle of the group. Coulson and Loki's pals seemed to be trying to aim a rocket launcher at Cap and his adversary, which just did not look like a good idea to Clint.
"What are you doing?" he demanded, as he and the two women ran up to the group.
Coulson glanced over, matter-of-fact as ever. "That's the Red Skull," he explained coolly. "I'm trying to figure out how to target him without risking injury to Cap."
"Let me see what I can do," Clint suggested, unslinging his bow. "How have things been here?"
"Fine," Coulson said levelly, his tone implying for a given value of "fine." "We were in some trouble a little while ago, but Vog and Byrnjolf- " he indicated two particularly hard-bitten-looking Jotun who were discussing something with an almost equally hard-bitten-looking Aesir soldier- "arrived with their squads."
"So they bailed out an Aesir troop?" Tash asked. "I would have expected them to leave each other to take their own chances."
"Doesn't seem to have been sentiment behind the action. Apparently their king made a deal with the Allfather, to trade cooperation here for a new treaty with Asgard, and the return of some artifact that seems to be really important to their people," Coulson explained. "Whatever it is, the Jotun appear to be motivated to be as helpful as possible. How are you doing there?" he asked Clint.
"Fine, if I can get some separation between them," Clint replied, holding his firing posture and continuing to track the slowly-falling figures. "Tash, Misty, you want to stick around and help these guys?"
"Sure," Tash shrugged, recognizing Clint's question as genuine, rather than an ill-advised attempt to give them orders.
"Why not," replied Mystique. "Also, call me that one more time and you'll be carrying your arrows in a quiver made from your own intestines."
Clint grinned and continued to track Captain America and his adversary.
Annie was perfectly capable of taking part in the battle. Everyone knew that. It wasn't as if she got shrieky or girly under pressure. Or at least, it wasn't as if she let getting shrieky and girly interfere with her ability to fight. She didn't like to fight, obviously, and admittedly she wasn't very good at it, at least not compared to Asgardian warriors who had been trained to it for hundreds of years. Still, for a former barmaid who'd never even worked in a really rough pub when she was alive, Annie could hold her own. Honestly.
So it wasn't that she couldn't take part in the battle. With that said, Annie could at least admit to herself that she wasn't at all sorry when Helblindi showed up with the second wave of Jotun troops and asked her to help the Aesir healers.
It was not, Helblindi explained carefully, that he distrusted the Aesir. It was simply that the Jotun did not have a great many healers of their own- Annie didn't ask whether that was Loki's fault or whether they had lost the skill over the centuries of decay since the war- and the Aesir healers could not touch wounded Jotun soldiers without harm to themselves. As Annie had proved when Loki transformed before her, that wasn't a problem for her.
And also, Helblindi added, whatever he felt about the Aesir, he did trust her.
Even had she been keen to fight, Annie would have found it very hard to turn down a request like that. She here she was, following instructions from the Aesir healer named Eir, doing her best to look after whatever injured Jotun were brought to them. The more of them she saw, the less alarming any of them seemed.
She was bandaging a head wound for a boy- it was still hard for her to guess Jotun ages, but she had the impression from his manner, and the way the companions who brought him in spoke to him, that he was probably young- who was a bit stunned and confused and wanted to tell her about his village, when one of Eir's assistants came in.
"Excuse me, ma'am, but Miss Annie is needed at the Avengers' command centre." The young man spoke as if each individual word was familiar to him but he had no idea what they meant all strung together. And he carefully did not look directly at Annie or her patient.
"Me?" Annie spoke up. "What do they need me for?" The young healer glanced at Eir, and Annie said in her firmest voice, "If you have a message for me, speak to me, please." To her intense annoyance, the young man looked at Eir again, and only when she nodded did he address Annie:
"Director Fury- " again, he spoke as if the title was unfamiliar and clumsy in his mouth- "needs you to locate Prince Loki and send him to the command centre."
The injured Jotun youngster, and both his friends, stiffened at the mention of the name. Annie compressed her lips and reminded herself that Loki would be the first to remind her the Jotun had every right to continue hating him.
"There, Kolfinn, good as new," she told her patient, finishing up with the bandage. She glanced at his friends. "He's going to have to stay here and recuperate. The Jotun wounded are over that way- " pointing- "so if you'd help him... "
"Certainly," rumbled the taller Jotun, Valgard. He looked tempted to say more, most probably about the advisability of Annie remaining on her guard when dealing with the iniquitous prince of Asgard, but something in her face discouraged him. Instead, he made a little bow to her and, along with his friend, helped Kolfinn to his feet. Annie, feeling badly about the chill that had descended on their brief relationship, patted Kolfinn's hand.
"You'll be perfectly all right in a little while, just take care for now. You've done your bit."
Kolfinn grimaced at her- Annie was becoming convinced that smiles were not natural Jotun expressions, but they were very quick to realize hers were kindly meant and try to mirror them back as best they could- and went away with his friends.
Annie took a moment to orient herself and cast out what amounted to a supernatural net, feeling for known and loved consciousnesses.
"Found him," she said aloud, partly to Eir, and vanished.
Steve didn't waste much time being surprised when the spell or forcefield or whatever broke his fall and the Red Skull's. After an initial startled moment, he and the Red Skull grappled with each other again as they resumed their fall.
"I find it rather amusing, all these years later, to find you still as naïve as ever," the Red Skull grunted, his voice slightly constricted from the headlock Steve had him in. He twisted, somehow finding purchase in the air to throw Steve over his shoulder and slip the hold.
"You haven't changed much yourself," Steve replied dryly.
He was just about to grab for the Red Skull again when there was a hissing sound, and the Red Skull rocked backward under a violent blow.
Steve just had time to register the shaft of one of Clint's explosive arrows protruding from the Red Skull's tunic, when the world exploded all around them.
Loki glanced up as the Hydra aircraft opened fire on ground positions, but before he could do anything about it himself, Steve and two of the Fantastic Four were aboard.
A few moments later, Steve and another figure came plunging out of the aircraft and plummeted toward the ground. Loki was still hoarding his magic as much as possible, fighting hand-to-hand instead, but this was the sort of occasion for which he had been protecting the magic in the first place. He reached up and cast what he would have described to his friends as an arresto momentum spell, such as could be seen in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Loki had not actually learned any new magic from the stories of Harry Potter, but he would be the first to admit he had indeed gotten some new ideas for ways to use the magic he already possessed.
Steve and his opponent came to a smooth stop in the air, and then continued their fall at a much safer, really quite sedate, pace. The spell being self-contained, Loki was able to leave them to it and direct his attention back to the opposing army.
"They are led by disguised Dire Wraiths," he reported to the young officer commanding the company to which he was attached. "Tell your men to target the leaders' heads."
The officer's mouth compressed in displeasure at the idea of taking instruction from the banished traitor, but both Tyr and Thor had made it very clear insubordination would not be tolerated. For his part, Loki was making an honest effort not to draw attention to himself unless it was necessary.
The officer nodded curtly and turned away. Loki ruthlessly squashed any stirrings of resentment- he had certainly earned such distrust, and worse- and was focusing on the approaching enemy when Annie appeared at his elbow. For once, her sudden appearance actually startled him.
"Sorry," Annie said hastily. "Fury needs you for something at the command centre."
Loki glanced at the officer and-not entirely to his surprise- was waved away with something like relief. Annie looked like she badly wanted to comment on the other man's reaction, but Loki caught her by the hand and directed her attention back toward him.
"Certainly," he said. "We will go immediately."
There was a flash, and the officer found himself standing alone.