Fury frowned from where he stood in the centre of the dark room, the thin holographic frames trickling into his peripheral vision, surrounding him. He could feel the dullness if the council's hollow, lifeless stares from where they shadowed over him.
"The Draugur is taking too long, Director. The people of this country – of this planet – can't afford to wait around for some freakish thing to finish playing hide and seek while Loki is still loose."
"Just give it more time," Fury growled deep from the back of his throat, "Loki's not the type to lay low for long and when that happens—"
One of the councilmen laughed hollowly, "Let me guess; you precious Avengers will be waiting for him, just like last time?"
"What about the creature?" the hologram's neighbour asked, "What's to stop it from mutiny?"
"The Draugur is under our complete control," Fury promised, nodding tiredly at the councilwoman.
The frame on the far side of the room belched out a laugh, "That's what you said about the green fellow too, and look how well that turned out; half of New York City smashed to smithereens in a single afternoon! Hundreds of billions spent on reconstruction! And Grand Central Station torn apart at the seams! And we haven't even started on the Vatican – the united church is furious! Your record on promises isn't exactly looking impressive, Director."
"I'll remind you that I wasn't the one who tried to use chemical warfare as a solution, councillors, and it was the Avengers that stopped Loki from spreading any more damage than he did."
The first councilman leant forward in his frame with a snort, leering down at Fury, "Are you planning on having this... pet 'ghost' of yours join your little rag-tag play-group?"
Fury felt the skin around his lips tighten as he clenched his jaw, trying not to grimace, "Perhaps," he replied coolly.
Cackles spread throughout the room, bouncing off the walls to rattle in his brain. He watched them impassively as they glared eerily at him, sneering – all except for Vlad Masters, who sat majestically in his high-backed chair, preening as if it was a throne, his silver hair pulled smoothly back at the base of his skull, grey suit immaculate. Fury watched him smirk from his seat before he drawled, "Have you made any process on Amity Park, Director?"
The laughter halted at his soft voice, the rest of the council watching the man with rapt attention, their eyes dry and unblinking.
"Well?" Masters pressed, stroking his beard.
Fury fought the urge to bark at him, "We've set up a four-mile perimeter around the border of the city. The local services have been advised to call for evacuation at the first sign of trouble and the National Guard are on standby."
Vlad tutted, wagging a finger lazily like he was scolding a misbehaving child, "Ah-ah, Director, surely if you were truly worried about Loki you would have already evacuated the town, no?" he didn't wait for an answer, "I want that town as silent as the grave. All of your available SHIELD operatives are to be relocated to a perimeter at least a twenty miles out along with all civilians—"
"Excuse me, Masters," Fury frowned, "but that has to be one of the most asinine things I've heard in a long time, and I have heard some very, very stupid things in my days. We need as many operatives as possible to man the Helicarriers and keep our systems up to date – without them who knows how long it's going to take us to find Loki."
Vlad smirked, "Oh, and what is this?" he shuffled some papers off-screen, staring down at them with a feigned air of interest, "I seem to have received a rather impressive resume from a... Miss Victoria Hand. Seems that she's applying for a job in SHIELD," he held the pages up mockingly, waving them in Fury's direction, "yours, in fact."
Fury didn't hold back the snarl that tore from his throat, his fists clenched. Masters ignored him, his voice taking on a cold edge, "By tomorrow, I want Amity Park to be a ghost town. Understood, Director?"
Fury didn't reply.
Vlad frowned darkly, "I said; understood, Director?"
/ / /
Natasha rounded on the bars as she struggled to crawl out of range of the horrific creature in front of her. Painted a sickly pale green that glowed softly in the semi-darkness, she speculated that the squatting monster stood taller than a temperamental Bruce's nine feet. Its blank red eyes seemed to drill into her skull as it stared at the two of them – she could only assume its pupil-less gaze was flicking back and forth between her and Clint, where he stood on the far side of the room, wielding his bow like a baseball bat.
The beast chuckled, Natasha shivered, "It's been a long time, friends. Six months, in fact."
The assassin in her let out a roar, the woman in her gave a sob. They both released a shuddering breath, "No, it can't be... I— I saw the body... you're supposed to be dead!"
The look-alike gave a wry, familiar grin, "So it seems," was all it mused.
Clint said nothing, turning an interesting purple colour as if he'd just swallowed his own tongue. Natasha forced her eyes to swivel back on the creature that had taken a debauched adaptation of her former colleague.
She felt the stinging of bile begin to rise in her throat at the sight of the Draugur's claws, who waved at them with a pinched smile, "I have to say out of all the possibilities of the afterlife, I didn't expect there to be so much politics. And I'm not even getting paid for it now. They've already worked me to death, what more do they expect from me?"
Natasha stared as the face-stealer laughed at his own morbid joke. Her head spun as if she'd done too many barrel rolls in a MiG-29 and her heart was still rolling around in her stomach.
"Y-you aren't r-real. It's impossible for you to s-still be alive," if she wasn't so afraid, Natasha would have been embarrassed by the shake in her normally level voice.
Those watery red eyes looked straight through her, "You're right, it's not possible."
"Is this some sort of trick?" Clint finally spat out, thrusting his bow in front of him like a conductor's baton, "Some twisted game you Draugar play for fun?"
"What?" Natasha hissed confused. She saw the Draugur frown from the corner of her eye.
"Well that's what Phantom did, didn't he? To Stark's apprentice – the kid disappears the moment the Draugur pops up and no one's worried, and then he just appears on the Helicarrier again like magic? No identity registration, no protocol check-in, nothing. I don't believe that kid ever existed in the first place, I think that Phantom—"
"Phantom?" the Draugur blinked, "As in Danny Phantom? The Danny Phantom? Saviour of both the Ghost-Zone and Earth? You know him?"
Clint's jaw snapped shut, "Beg your pardon?" he grunted sardonically.
"Saviour?" Natasha hiccupped.
A familiar grin crossed over the fake Coulson's face. One the Black Widow recognised as whenever the man had cornered a poor, unsuspecting rookie to show off his mint-condition, vintage Captain America card collection to. It looked beastly surrounded by the glowing, bulging flesh and sightless eyes, Natasha pushed herself further back toward the bars.
"Danny Phantom's influence has been traced all the way back to the Ming dynasty. He's only two of his kind – well, three if you want to be technical about it – and he was one of the top candidates to join the Avengers—"
"That thing was asked to join the Avengers?" Clint had taken to waving his bow around to emphasise his disbelief.
"You're lying," Natasha declared.
The Draugur shook its head vigorously, "His case-file was never opened. Completely off the system. Not even Stark would've been able to find a trace. The supernatural was always off-limits for us since it's not really SHIELD's sector. He was classified as an enigma, which meant it was out of our jurisdiction at the time. It was safer for all of us to play it from the sidelines."
Clint frowned, eyeing the Draugur suspiciously "Even if this was true, why wasn't he—?"
"PROJECT: FriendlyFire," Natasha gasped, "They would have had no way of containing him, so..."
"The GiW was supposed to bring Phantom in to SHIELD; to try and figure out his weaknesses and gain better control of him in case things got out of hand... And well, you know how well that turned out."
The assassin frowned, "No, I don't actually."
The Draugur didn't bat an eye at her harsh tone. It was like speaking to the actual Coulson again – the only man who could stand to be in the same room as Stark and resist throwing the nearest pot-plant at his over-inflated head. The female assassin felt the steady ache in her heart scuttle up to her oesophagus.
"There was an outbreak a few years ago. An unknown creature was recognised to be terrorising a town called Amity Park. Giant force-fields, an undead army, mystical possessions... the usual end-of-the-world crisis."
Natasha bit her tongue at false-Coulson's ill-placed dry humour.
"I was in New Mexico at the time with this guy," the monster jutted a thumb out at Clint, "Trying to stop Thor's baby brother's temper tantrum. None of the higher-ups really took Amity Park seriously; they'd been weening the 'haunted town' thing almost as much as Roswell and their aliens for months. But then the whole place vanished."
Clint rose an unimpressed eyebrow, "What do you mean 'vanished'?"
The Draugur shrugged, "The whole town had disappeared in a smoking crater shortly after the GiW reported an infestation. I was ordered to go there as soon as I had airway clearance to check it out. But, by the time I arrived, the townspeople had claimed that Pariah Dark had already been beaten."
"Thor said that this Pariah guy was pretty much unstoppable," Clint mused, Natasha nervously nodded in return, "Then who beat him?"
"Danny Phantom was the one to stop his reign. He replaced the gatekeeper," Coulson supplied.
A real smile crept over the Draugur's face, as it shuffled closer to the pair.
"Stay back!" Natasha threatened.
The smile disappeared.
"Prove it," Clint said from the far corner, "Prove that everything you've been telling us is true. About whether Phantom is good, about FriendlyFire, about you."
"You know," the Draugur drawled, reaching into the torn lapel of his suit, "Cards weren't the only thing I collected."
Pulling out his hand, he motioned towards them, Natasha leaned over, careful to stay out of reach of the gigantic meaty paw. Sitting innocently in the centre of his palm, no larger than a dime, sat a memory chip labelled 'Fenton'.
/ / /
"Look! Right there—! Oh, no... wait, that's not it. Hold on..."
Jane watched Steve stab once more at the remote, willing it to rewind as she and Thor sat perched at the end of his couch, Jane more than a little annoyed at the amount of room her boyfriend was taking up, leaving her to balance herself on the far edge. Thor, in return looked confused as he stared at the television.
Rolling her eyes, Jane spoke, "Steve, if it's about the portals, we know—"
"No, no, wait – this is really important! A-ha! Got it! The clicker was upside down..."
Jane rolled her eyes, slumping into Thor who looked even more bewildered as the television began to rewind.
"How is it that the warrior is able to control the passage of time in the little talking box? To wield this power would mean that one is capable of preventing many wrong-doings to mankind."
"It's taped, honey," Jane pinched the bridge of her nose, feeling the beginnings of a headache coming on, "Steve, please, we need to see Director Fury urgently. I think I've discovered a way of tracking—"
"There!" Steve nearly threw the remote in his excitement, and pointed wildly at the television screen, "See there? That flicker of light? I thought it was just a sun-beam at first, but now I believe it's a—"
"Portal, yes, I know, Captain," Jane finished primly, "Doctor Selvig and I think we've discovered a way of tracking the development of the inter-dimensional rifts and we're recording how long they're open for. We were just on our way to report to Director Fury."
Steve seemed to deflate at her words, his excited smile slipping off his face in a wave of humility, "Oh, right. Of course, let's go."
Squeezing herself off the couch, Jane motioned for Thor to follow as a rather glum Steve trailed behind. After asking directions from one of the, oddly many, passing SHIELD operatives, the trio made their way to the controls room, dodging and weaving their way between multiple agents that strode down the corridors with an intensity of what Jane could only suppose was a person on a mission. Reaching the controls room, she watched through the oversized glass window as a flock of SHIELD jets flew out out of the lower-level hangar before disappearing into the clouds.
"What's going on?" she asked, striding into the room. Fury stood on his favoured platform, watching agents mechanically switch off machinery and leave the room without a second glance.
"We are currently in override, Miss Foster," Fury exclaimed gravely.
"By who? Why would they want SHIELD agents to abandon their posts?" Steve asked.
"They're not abandoning their posts, Captain. They're being relocated to Illinois on Mr Masters's orders."
"Who's Mr Masters?" Steve asked, hurrying out of the way of a disgruntled woman carrying an armful of files.
"Illinois? Was that not a name you spoke of, Jane?" Thor burst out, "With the rays of gamma that are both so like and unlike Banner's?"
Jane frowned, "Yes, it was. In fact that was one of the major hotpoints…"
"Care to explain, Miss Foster?" Fury barked as Steve nodded, curious.
Jane rushed through her theory of portal jumping, drawing out her tablet and flicking through data. Fury's only eyebrow furrowed before he swivelled on his heel to face his holographic screens.
"I want a full team meetup, Captain. Go and collect Banner and Stark; Miss Foster is going to need their help in setting up a live feed. Thor, I need you to get the Draugur, he should be with Barton or Romanoff – it seems he's been hiding information from us."
Steve gave a sharp salute before jogging out of the controls room to collect the scientists. Jane flinched at the slightly malevolent grin on her boyfriend's face as he darted after Steve's heels.
She nibbled on her lower lip, "Are you sure it's safe for Thor to be collecting Danny, sir?"
The Director ignored her, "You can go set yourself up at one of the available stations, Miss Foster."
Jane blinked at the near empty room, only four operatives were seated at their stations – the rest had been abandoned. She chose a desk with a bobble-headed bulldog seated on the corner which she smiled fondly at as she booted up the computer.
The computer hadn't even loaded completely when Steve came careening back into the room, a rather curious-looking Bruce Banner and Tony Stark following shortly after. Looking around the room, they bee-lined their way toward her – Tony snatching up her tablet with a hiss of "prehistoric junk," as Bruce looked in wonderment at her findings over his shoulder. Steve wandered over out of lack of things to do.
A familiar whistle came from her tablet, making Jane snatch it back Tony, ignoring his indignant cry as she easily transferred Erik's latest coordinates to her station. She frowned, ignoring the confused murmurs coming from the men over her head.
"Uh, Director Fury? I think you might want to see this…" with a little help from Tony, Jane sent the contents of her screen onto one of the central monitors. Eastern China and Jerusalem were highlighted on a map of the world like a weather chart.
"What am I looking at?" Steve asked.
Jane explained, "If what Erik sent me is correct, this is a live location feed of Loki's portals. But unlike any of the other portals," Jane pointed at Israel before trailing her finger to Asia, "there are two portals open at the same time!"
"How long have they been open?" Bruce asked, adjusting his glasses as he stared up at the screen.
Jane reviewed the gamma radiation levels Erik had sent her, "China's just opened a few minutes ago. Jerusalem has been open for over… forty-two minutes."
"With those sort of radiation levels there should be some prominent weather disturbances. Flash-fires, hurricanes, flooding…" Tony snagged the neighbouring station, overriding Jane's feed with world weather patterns; "Nothing's coming up except for a bit of cloud coverage. Forty-two minutes is more than enough time for the local television stations to have gotten coverage if anything strange happened. Jerusalem's a major spot for tourism, but what could be that far east in China for Loki to have an interest?"
"The Mogao Caves?" Bruce suggested. Tony, Steve and Jane looked at him, "I spent a bit of time up there when I was… you know…" Bruce glanced nervously over at Fury.
"Seems like we've made a connection," Steve concluded, crossing his arms, "First the Vatican, then Uppsala… Loki's going after sacred land sites."
"But why?" Jane asked.
Fury tapped on his monitors furiously, "Right now I don't care if Loki's just bought the latest edition of Lonely Planet. What I want to know is how to stop him. Romanoff! Barton!" he barked down at his screen, "I need you both to report to me before you head on top!"
A crackling of static pierced through the surround system. Jane gasped and covered her ears, "Way ahead of you, sir. Hawkeye and I are already cleared for flying," came the reply before the line went dead.
"Romanoff! Under whose orders are you cleared for flight?" Fury tapped at the screen so hard that Jane was worried he was going to crack it.
Thor stormed back into the room, a mixture of fear and anger splayed across his face.
"Where is Phantom?" the Director demanded.
Thor shook his head, "I have circled this floating vessel thrice-over to find nothing. I fear that the Draugur is not here."
Fury didn't bat an eye, drawing up another screen next to Tony's. Romanoff appeared, seated in the cockpit of a transporter, a headset placed securely over her ears.
"Agent! You are not to leave the hangar until I am certain that our latest detainee has been properly secured! Where is Phantom? You and Barton's primary duties were to make sure that he did not escape!" Fury spat.
Romanoff nodded at the camera on the plane's dashboard as she flicked a few switches overhead, before angling the camera to peer into the cabin where a handcuffed Danny sat, "Don't worry, sir. We have Phantom as per request to work as a scope creep in China at the latitude coordinates; forty point zero one four—"
"And who, might I ask, was stupid enough to give Phantom field clearance without my permission? And why are you acting stupid enough to follow through with said clearance orders? Fall back, now!" Fury growled out.
"No can do, Director. We've gotten orders from higher up," Romanoff replied coolly as she swivelled the dash-cam back to her, "We're escorting Phantom to the drop-off zone and continuing in as backup. See ya."
The video cut off with another shriek of static before the screen went black.
"Did 'Tash just blow off Fury?" Tony asked.
Thor stepped next to Jane, "Her actions seemed rather peculiar for those she holds great honour to."
Steve snapped to attention, "We should collect as many of our men that are available. Order them to redirect the Helicarrier toward the Arabian Sea – keep us from being landlocked, but in a position that if something goes wrong, help won't be too far. Stark, Banner; I need you two to try and find a trace of Loki or this Vlad character. Check any televised events or—"
"Already found him. He's in Israel," Tony smirked from his workspace, leaning back in his chair, "You see, Capsicle, these days tracking technology has advanced farther than hitting pause and play on a remote."
Bruce roll his eyes.
Steve frowned, "Alright then, we'll split up. Stark, Thor and Bruce will head to the first portal, I'll meet up with Natasha and the others. Miss Foster, we'll need you to keep track of the portals – see if you notice any irregularities or changes. Any questions?"
Jane raised a hand timidly, "Well actually, about the portals…I just find it a little odd. I mean, the Mogao portal was only opened a little over six minutes ago, but Agent Romanoff was already strapped in with the GPS coordinates…"
Fury's jaw was tight as he ground out, "Rogers, suit up. The rest of you I want in Jerusalem in less than twenty minutes. I need to have a talk with Masters…"
/ / /
The manacles slipped through his wrists, falling with a rattle of metal onto the ground. Danny leaned back in his seat in the cabin, raising his arms behind his head, revelling in the low hum of the wind whipping against the outside of the plane.
"You're an awful actor," Danny sighed, "What kind of girly voice was that you did?"
"My apologies, Phantom," came a voice from the cockpit, "Though despite that slight hiccup, it seems that everything is going according to plan," Danny pinched one blue eye open to stare at the devilish grin spread across Natasha Romanoff's face.
"Good. Double-check the coordinates and try and make sure we don't run into any air traffic. The last thing I want is to run into one of Stark's pitiful friends from the air force. What was that one guy's name? Rhodey?"
The smile slipped off Natasha's face as she muttered his orders to the pilot. Danny watched with disinterest as her skin began to ripple; her golden tan turning a clammy grey as her face narrowed and stretched. A dark trench coat replaced the SHIELD uniform and the short-cropped auburn hair pulled taut on her scalp, moulding into a fedora. Her features began to slip away entirely, leaving only a pair of red-tinted spectacles.
Danny heaved himself off his seat and strode over to the cockpit, clapping the ghost on the shoulder with his uninjured arm, "Nice work, Amorpho. Why'd you choose the girl?"
"The male was interesting, but the female had more flair," Amorpho motioned with fingerless palms. Danny could hear the excitement and greediness in his voice.
"Huh. I suppose that's fair. Just don't tire yourself out too much. I don't want you to embarrass me in front of our masters when we reach the caves."
/ / /
It's been nearly a year since I updated this story. Far, far too long. But I lost the drive for it last July after my computer crashed with all of my notes and I was stuck trying to remember and retype everything. That along with feeling rather foolish and frustrated with how characters were being represented and the emotions they gave off. So, in result, I went on a sabbatical of sorts.
I came back to this story because, despite the lack of updates I had offered and all the empty promises of updates in the past, people continued to give both positive and negative feedback about the story, which made me feel that the story was still relevant. I actually went and saw how many views this story had gathered and I was shocked to find that it had a total of 377,000 views. No joke. It was ridiculous and an utterly insane concept that this single story had garnered so much attention and people had deemed it worth their time to read it that I couldn't just leave it alone. It wasn't fair.
So here it is. I've updated the previous chapters as well (nothing too dramatic, but it allows the storyline to flow better and the characters to have more purpose behind their motives – which is why I haven't placed a preview or a 'last time' at the beginning of the chapter), and I hope to continue writing for this story soon!
Thank you for all the great feedback, follows and favourites. And hey, even if you just clicked on this story and found you hated it, I'm glad you thought it worth at least a little of your time to check out. See you all hopefully soon. xx