Tony Stark was not happy. His day had started off fine, but then Coulson had paid him a visit and even though he respected the hell out of the man (enough so that he'd listen to whatever Fury was talking about, because Coulson thought he should) he was beginning to regret it. Finding Loki had been easy enough—the man (/god/alien) had wandered right into an opera house in Germany and started killing people. It was about as subtle as a bull in a china shop and that was worrisome, considering what SHEILD knew of Loki. The alien was supposed to be a smooth operator and if his carelessness was intentional then he wanted to be caught and that brought up a whole host of questions that Tony really didn't feel like dealing with at the moment. He'd been punched and kicked by what felt like a freight train, he had dents in his armor that would take him a week to polish out, and now some bureaucrat from the United Nations was standing in front of him attempting to confiscate the prisoner he'd just reclaimed. He wasn't all that fond of Nick Fury either, but the man was having none of it and for that Tony was grateful.
Unfortunately it appeared that he was about to be overruled. Fury stood aside and the smartly uniformed brunette stepped forward. She typed something into her cell phone and nodded to the men behind her. They were huge, taller than Shakespeare-in-the-park, even, and they moved with a sort of fluid grace that hinted at a great deal of training. Natasha moved the same way when she wasn't pretending to be a secretary and he'd seen her take out a room full of highly-trained assassins without breaking a sweat.
"So you're just letting him go?" Tony objected. "Do they even have anyone who's qualified to deal with him?"
"Orders are, unfortunately, orders, Stark," Fury replied.
"Loki is of Asgard," Thor asserted. "I was sent to retrieve him and bring him before our father."
"Loki is an alien and a threat to the safety of the planet Earth," a new voice rang out from behind them. It was warm and firm, a woman's voice, with a heavy British accent. London, perhaps one of the poorer parts of the city, but it was worn smooth around the edges like the speaker had spent a long time away from home. "As such he is under the jurisdiction of UNIT—the United Intelligence Taskforce—in conjunction with the United Nations." They turned. The speaker was a woman. She was shorter than the brunette, and blonde, with warm brown eyes. She wore no uniform, just a pair of snug black jeans, a red camisole style blouse, and a battered leather jacket. Her brown eyes glittered as she glanced around. Her posture was casual but Tony was willing to bet that if asked she'd be able to map out every entrance or exit to the room and the position of every person inside of it. Rhodes looked like that whenever he entered somewhere new. It was a soldier thing, he'd said when Tony questioned him about it. You never walk into somewhere blind—always know the lay of the land.
The brunette snapped to attention. "Ma'am," she said.
The blonde rolled her eyes. "How many times do I have to say it?" she replied with some exasperation. "Don't salute."
"Agent Wolf," Fury greeted the newcomer with resignation. "It's been a while."
The blonde—agent Wolf—nodded. "Director Fury." She smiled. "Agent Coulson."
"Agent Wolf," the stoic man replied with a slight incline of his head. "You're looking well."
"And you." She was still smiling. "How's your cellist?"
"She moved to Portland," he admitted. He looked like he was going to say more, but Tony was done with being polite.
"I'm sure you've got a lot to catch up on," he drawled, "but I'd really like to see who you've got to handle crazy-on-legs over there."
Agent Wolf raised an eyebrow. "That would be me, Mr. Stark."
"You have a first name, sweetheart?" he asked.
She considered him briefly with the same dispassionate intensity he often exhibited when he was faced with a particularly vexing mechanical puzzle. "Yeah," she said after a long moment. "It's 'agent.'" Someone snickered. Tony's money was on the Captain. He opened his mouth to continue, but Wolf had apparently grown tired of their sparring. "Look," she began crisply. "We've got jurisdiction and an order from the United Nations. Go fight them if you want, but I'm getting him," she jerked her chin at Loki, "to a secure facility."
"This is a secure facility," Fury argued.
Her eyes roamed over the room. "Airships are vulnerable. I've got seven ideas for taking this one out already." She raised an eyebrow. "Bit too close to the Valiant for comfort."
"Excuse me," Dr. Banner asked hesitantly. He'd been silent for so long that most of the people in the room had forgotten he was there. "But what makes you qualified to deal with him?"
Wolf shrugged. "I know a thing or two about aliens with a god complex."
Fury, of course, wanted to send an escort, because he'd be damned if some bureaucrats let Loki loose on the world after his men (Tony objected to the possessive pronoun) went to all the trouble of catching the troublesome demigod. Captain Erisa Magambo was in charge of the delegation from UNIT. She was a tough cookie—but it finally came down to agent Wolf, who declared that she didn't care if they brought popcorn and a video camera as long as they were quiet and she could interrogate the prisoner. Fury attempted to counter by pointing out that he needed Tony and Dr. Banner to work on finding the Tesseract, but Magambo simply offered them the use of UNIT's laboratories.
In the end it was determined that agent Romanoff would remain with Dr. Banner, who was more than capable of monitoring the search for the Tesseract while Thor, the Captain, and Tony accompanied UNIT back to their base. Wolf remained aloof during the negotiations between Fury and Magambo. Her attention was firmly fixed on the security footage of Loki pacing in his prison like a caged lion. Her lips were pursed and her forehead wrinkled; she looked to be in deep concentration.
Which was why he was startled when she spoke. "Yes, Mr. Stark?"
"Just wondering, sweetheart," and he didn't miss the way a muscle in her jaw twitched every time he patronized her. It was petty, but then so was he, occasionally. "How are you going to transport him?"
She tapped one foot impatiently. "This isn't my first rodeo, Mr. Stark."
"I went through a lot of trouble to pick him up, agent Wolf. I want to make sure you're not just going to lose him again."
That got her attention. She held up her left hand and pulled the sleeve of her jacket toward her elbow. What looked like an oversized digital watch fastened to a thick leather strap wrapped around her wrist. It was far too complex to actually be a watch. It told the time, strangely enough, but there were a string of numbers that looked like GPS coordinates followed by two more strings of numbers, one of which appeared to coincide with time and date. The third he didn't recognize, but it looked like some sort of complex, evolving algorithm. It was flashing, which in his experience was never a good sign.
"This is a teleport," she said, and let her hand fall back to her side. "It would take a Time Lord to crack it and while Loki is good—he's not that good. Like I said—not my first rodeo."
He raised an eyebrow. "Time Lord?"
Wolf didn't answer, but the smile she gave him was hard and bright, like plate armor.
The flight to UNIT's base in Manhattan was incredibly boring. Tony offered to fly there under his own power, but Magambo firmly denied him. If he wanted access to the base and their labs (and if he wanted to observe Wolf while she questioned Loki) he would have to play by her rules. Tony disliked rules on principal. Far too often they ceased to perform their intended function and simply got in his way. And besides, he didn't relish spending several hours in a small, enclosed area with Captain America. Thor, at least, he could bait with impunity, but Steve Rogers—with his outdated, simplified idea of right and wrong and his self-righteous attitude—got under Tony's skin. The man was a relic and worse, he was a soldier. He followed orders with the best of them, and when Magambo had outlined the terms of their stay at UNIT he'd nodded meekly, hadn't even bothered to try to argue. And that didn't sit well with a man who had acknowledged problems with authority.
For the moment his curiosity overrode his distrust of UNIT, agent Wolf (whoever she was), and Fury. Oh, Fury had protested that the weapons Tony's computer virus had brought to light were a contingency, that they were the result of Loki's first visit to Earth and the destruction that the Asgardian had caused. He'd even believe that they were intended to be defensive; incidents attributed to extraterrestrials had quadrupled in the past decade. It was all very hush-hush—but Tony was smart enough to see though the cover-ups. And after the events of five years prior—the twenty-six planets that appeared in the sky, the 'Dalek' death-machines that wreaked havoc, the sudden return of Earth to its original space coordinates—only idiots clung to the belief that humans were alone in the universe. For all of his faults, Tony Stark was far from an idiot.
From the outside UNIT's American headquarters was remarkably unremarkable; it looked for all the world like an ordinary office building, and he supposed that the majority of the building probably was. Large, public organizations like UNIT had hundreds of employees, which necessitated dozens of bureaucrats and a chain of command longer than the Empire State building was tall. The lobby was generic enough that he was immediately suspicious, but the desk attendant tossed off a sharp salute when Magambo arrived.
"Sir," the fastidious young man said.
Magambo acknowledged him with a nod. "Private. Has agent Wolf arrived?"
"Yes sir. She's below."
"Very good." She gestured to the elevator located behind the desk. "Gentlemen."
Beyond the reach of the public eye UNIT appeared much the same as SHIELD—shiny, clean, and an endless maze of corridors designed specifically to confuse and disorient intruders. Agent Wolf was waiting for them outside a particularly reinforced set of doors. Loki was noticeably absent.
She inclined her head. "Captain."
"Wolf." Magambo's tone was a great deal more relaxed than it had been, and she even smiled at the blonde. "He give you much trouble?"
Wolf worried her bottom lip with her teeth. "None at all—an that's what worries me."
"The cell was designed to hold the Master," Magambo pointed out.
"Still—" Agent Wolf's eyes went distant. "Call Dr. Jones, just in case."
They gave the Asgardian a table and two chairs. Magambo warned him not to try and shatter the glass. It wouldn't work, she said. He didn't bother. In fact, Loki didn't look concerned at all and that made Tony nervous. Fury had commented on his calm when SHEILD still held him—why do I get the feeling he's the only one who wants to be here? They were in one of UNIT's bunkers deep underground. They had better security than the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of Great Britain combined. He should feel secure. He shouldn't be worried.
He was. And now they were letting Agent Wolf in with Loki, the alien who almost destroyed an entire town in order to take out his brother and had managed to kill 80 people in just under two days. What the hell were they thinking?
That was the problem: he didn't know. Tony was good at reading people, not as good as Natasha, but then very few were. He couldn't read Loki and he couldn't read Wolf. She looked like a child, like a girl barely out of her teens, but she was one of UNIT'S scientific advisors and she spoke with an authority that he would have been hard-pressed to muster, even with all of his bravado. And her eyes—there was something off about them, something strange. Holding her gaze for too long gave him vertigo, made him feel like the world was spinning beneath him. It was, but that wasn't the point. He shouldn't feel it. Human beings didn't feel the turn of the Earth.
The heavy doors slid open and a young, attractive black woman in a long white lab coat strode into the room. It was a simple space, like a waiting room in a hospital and her presence only reinforced that image. Her long black hair was parted into dozens of fine braids and then pulled back in a practical bun. The Captain rose from the seat he'd been slouched in, as did Thor. Tony remained at his place next to the glass. It was one-way; they could see Loki but he was unable to see them. He kept looking at Tony, though, as if he knew the other man was watching. It was unnerving.
"Have they started yet?" the woman asked.
"No ma'am," the Captain replied. He nearly saluted, but somehow managed to restrain himself. It was a wonder, Tony thought, that he didn't pull a muscle doing so.
"You'd be Doctor Jones, then." Wolf might be immune to his charm, but maybe this new woman would be more amenable.
She held up her left hand and glanced pointedly at the delicate ring, set with a sparkling ruby, and the corresponding wedding band on her ring finger. "You'd be Mr. Stark, then." She mirrored his tone. "They warned me about you, mister."
He pouted. "You wound me, Dr. Jones."
She laughed. "I very much doubt that."
"You are a scientist?" Thor inquired. He'd been friends with Dr. Selvig, the astrophysicist in charge of SHIELD's team assigned to study the Tesseract, and there were rumors about another scientist, 'Jane' something; she'd been whisked away to some remote university as soon as SHEILD regrouped after Loki's attack.
"I'm a doctor, a medical doctor," she replied. "My specialty is xenobiology."
The conversation ceased as the door to Loki's cell swung open and Wolf stepped inside. The cage was good work—a waist-high wall of cement and then the rest was glass. It was alien tech, Wolf explained, and used in spaceship hulls. It was stronger than steel and thicker than Tony's wrist.
Loki regarded her with obvious scorn as she slid into the chair on one side of the table. He stood for a while, but she seemed unconcerned. Eventually he sat across from her. "So," he began. "They've sent another woman to question me. Did Fury think that ploy would work twice?"
"Who said Fury sent me?" The corner of Wolf's mouth twitched upwards. "Don't think I didn't miss that, by the way. Very smoothly done, that bit of 'divide and conquer.' It's a pity that we took you away before you could finish. Does it bother you more that I'm a woman, or that I'm human?"
"I speak the truth that you do not wish to hear. You have failed to retrieve the Tesseract." he replied.
"Every good lie contains truth." She leaned back in her chair, her arms folded across her body. "I'd like to know if I'm dealing with a misogynist or just another arrogant alien, because I've seen the future. I've been to the year five billion—beyond that, actually—and I've seen human beings touch every star in the sky. I've seen humanity at the end of the universe, after Asgard has turned to dust and time itself is winding down." Her lips curved into a feral smile. "You're not the first alien with delusions of grandeur to try and conquer the world. There have been others, so many others, and we sent them packing. I've got this theory, you see. I think you're afraid of us, of the human race and what we can accomplish."
Loki watched her like a snake might watch a mouse. He was a predator, for all his courtesy and his soft words. Like ivy he crept across supposedly smooth walls, found the cracks, and sent his tendrils creeping in. Tony had seen ivy tear down buildings that had survived hundreds of years of erosion and assaults by cannons and catapults. He was insidious. For a long moment he said nothing, but then he leaned forward, his eyes fixed on hers. "I don't care about your gender," he replied, his voice low and soft. "But I wonder, does it bother you more that men assume you are less competent because you're a woman—or because you're not human?" He smirked, but she didn't flinch—or if she did, Tony didn't catch it. "Why don't you show me what you really are?"
It was Wolf's turn to lean forward. Her smile never wavered—if anything, it sharpened. "One day," she promised. "One day I will." She pushed her chair back and stood. "I think you may regret asking." Then she turned and walked out of the room.
"That was a lovely bit of grandstanding," Tony commented sardonically as Wolf shut the door behind her.
She ignored him and smiled at Dr. Jones instead. He was beginning to feel just a bit left out. "Martha, it's good to see you."
"And you." The other woman crossed her arms over her chest. "But I'm not sure why you want me here. Unless the headaches are back?"
"No, my head's fine." Wolf jerked her chin at Loki, who lounged in the chair like it was a throne and stared at them through the obscured glass. "It's him. You traveled with the Doctor; I trust your instincts. Something about this whole situation is—off."
"Are you an alien?" Tony asked bluntly.
"Stark," the Captain warned.
"What?" Tony protested. "We've got a right to know what we're dealing with."
"Yes," Wolf replied without hesitation. "I am. I'm also the resident expert in genius aliens with plans to conquer the world, so maybe we can focus a little less on my heritage and a little more on the megalomaniac in the cage."
Tony shrugged. "Touchy."
"How is the search for the cube going, Stark?" she shot back.
He checked his phone. "No word from Bruce yet. I'd say they haven't found it."
A panel in the wall slid down to reveal a flat television screen. Captain Magambo's face dominated it. "Agent Wolf." The blonde woman stepped forward. "We have received new orders. You have twelve hours to question the assailant known as Loki, after which he will be returned to SHIELD custody."
"What?" Wolf demanded. "Has the Brigadier gone mad?"
"Director Fury has friends in high places," Magambo replied grimly.
She shook her head. "You can't let them take him, Erisa. He was planning to let SHIELD capture him; if he gets back on that aircraft carrier he'll be exactly where he wants to be, and that's not good for any of us."
Magambo's lips pulled into a thin line. "I'm sorry, Wolf. It's out of my hands." The screen went dark and the concealing panel slid back in place. Wolf whirled around and stalked towards the door, muttering something that definitely wasn't English, and didn't sound like any language Tony had ever heard before.
She was calm when she opened the door to Loki's cell, and her demeanor was more suited to a picnic than an interrogation. "Now," she said mildly as she took her place across the table. "Where were we?"
"It's so easy," Loki said, apropos of nothing. "The killing, I mean."
"Was it?" She asked. Wolf didn't sound interested at all. In fact, she sounded a bit bored. She had a book open and her feet propped up on the edge of the table and she appeared to be paying very little attention to the dangerous alien across from her. It was a front, of course. Anyone who was at all familiar with competent soldiers, or just observant, would have noticed the way she seemed to be aware of every minute move he made. He'd refused to answer questions earlier, and her current approach appeared to be designed to outlast him.
Tony paced. He was ill-suited to waiting. There was still no word from Banner on the location of the cube.
"They are like ants," Loki continued. "It was so easy to reach out my hand and crush them." His eyes wandered back to her face. "Don't you see it when you look at them? They're so small, so petty—so tiny with their meaningless little lives. They eat, they sleep, they fornicate—and they like to do that. They live in the mud they came from and never once realize there might be something bigger out there."
"Oh," Wolf said, and turned the page. "I think they look like giants."
Wolf glanced at the device on her wrist and set the book down just outside of Loki's reach. "Where is the tesseract?" she asked without preamble.
"Names have power," Loki replied slowly. "Odinsson, for example, means quite literally 'son of Odin.' I'm not, of course, but should I use it I would be claiming that connection and that could tell you quite a bit about me."
"Where is Clint Barton?" Wolf continued, refusing to take the bait.
Loki tilted his head to the right. His eyes did not leave her face and he didn't blink, not once. He looked like a snake and Tony half-expected his tongue to be forked when he finally spoke. "You call yourself 'wolf,' but wolves travel in packs." He paused. "Where has your pack gone to, little lone wolf? It's not them." Scorn colored his voice. "Not those fools in uniform. They're dogs, every one of them. 'Sit' and 'stay' and 'lay down your lives for the cause.'" He leaned in conspiratorially. "But not you, no. So where are they, your pack—your mate?" Loki saw something in her, something that spread a smirk across his lips. He sat back. "So that's it. Little lost wolf, looking for her mate." His voice turned deadly. "When I get out of this cage I'm going to find him, and I'm going to kill him, slowly—while you watch."
Tony hardly saw her move, but a second later Loki's face was pressed into the table and Wolf was leaning on arm, which was twisted up behind his back. She held him in that position easily, and pulled a strange, squat gun from a holster at her side.
"Do you know what this is?" she asked conversationally as she showed him the weapon. He smirked at her. She continued, apparently oblivious to his gleeful scorn. "It's a psychokinetic wavelength disruptor, from the forty-seventh century. I've traveled in time, you see, so I can say for certain that your little scheme isn't going to work. We will stop you—the only question that remains is how." Her fingers swept over a dial set into the side of the gun, and an edge crept into her voice. "On this setting it's nothing impressive, pretty much a glorified stun gun. I shoot you with it, an' you'll wake up a couple hours later, none the worse for wear—unless you're a telepath; then you'll have a nasty headache." Her grip on the gun tightened and she pressed it against his temple. "But if I turn the setting up, if I fire on you then—then your brain will be a puddle of goo dripping out your ears." She shoved him down hard enough to bruise and replaced the gun in its holster. "Not even a Time Lord can come back from that."
Loki sat up and wiped a trickle of blood from his split lip. The look he shot in Wolf's direction was positively poisonous. "Time Lords?" he asked incredulously. "Have you come here to tell me fairy tales?"
Wolf crossed her arms over her chest and regarded him evenly. "Says the man who walked straight out of Norse mythology. We have these stories for a reason, Loki of Asgard. And I think you do too."
"If they were real once," Loki spat, "they are no longer. No one is coming to save you, halfling—or humanity."
The corners of her lips curved up in a smirk. "Now, there I know you're wrong."
Outside, the Captain turned to Martha. "Time Lords," he repeated. "She's said that twice now. What are they?"
"I don't think that's relevant," Martha replied.
"I agree with the Cap," Tony said and leaned against the glass nonchalantly. "For an oldtimer you have a surprisingly sharp memory. If it's relevant to Loki, it's relevant to us."
Martha frowned. "The Time Lords are aliens—good ones. UNIT has worked with them in the past."
"You have met a Time Lord?" Thor looked at the young woman with what appeared to be borderline awe.
"I traveled with one—a man called the Doctor," she acknowledged.
"And Loki is afraid of them." It was a statement, but the Captain's tone made it a question.
"It is said that the Time Lords were a race apart, a people old when the universe was young, that they could bend the fabric of the universe to their will." Yes, that was definitely awe in the Asgardian's voice. "Humans have elevated my people to godhood, but the Time Lords were truly the closest to gods that the universe has ever seen. They were beings who could make their will reality." Thor held out his hands in a gesture of appeasement. "Nothing was impossible, not for them."
"So where are they now?" Tony demanded.
"Gone." Martha's voice was soft, but the weight of her words brought all attention back on her. "There was a war, and they lost. The Doctor is the only one left, the last of his species in the whole universe, in all of time."
The Captain frowned. "So where is he? We could sure use his help now."
"He's—unpredictable. I've tried reaching him, but I get no response." Martha's lips pulled into a thin line across her face. "He could be dead."
"He's not." Wolf's voice from the doorway startled them. Her eyes were wild and a muscle in her jaw was twitching restlessly, but her voice was level and sure. "He's not dead, Martha, but he's not coming either. We're on our own for this one."
Dr. Jones glanced at the clock. "Two hours and counting."
Wolf frowned. "I know."
She came back out an hour later with Loki's jeers ringing through the hallway behind her and no new information. The door shut behind her, and Wolf's fist slammed into the wall. It was the first time her careful façade of indifference slipped, and it was just a little unnerving.
"Breathe," Martha ordered sharply.
"It's the Valiant all over again," Wolf shot back as she shook her hand out. There were cracks in the smooth cement, radiating from the point of impact. She was strong. "And I don't want to be some maniac's prisoner for a month before we bring him down."
"The Valiant?" the Captain questioned.
Tony pushed off from the glass and wandered over. "That's where Harold Saxon was killed."
Rogers turned to glare at him. "Okay, not helping."
"That's where the Master was killed," Wolf corrected.
"He was a lunatic," Tony continued. "Former Prime Minister of the UK. He lured a group of world leaders, including the President, onto an aircraft carrier called the 'Valiant' with the promise of real contact with extraterrestrials—aliens. Turned out it was all a lie, and he killed the President on live television." Stark shrugged. "It was before your time, Captain."
"He was a Time Lord," Wolf cut in. "And he killed more than just the President of the United States, Stark. His death count was in the thousands, maybe millions. No one bothered to stop and tally all the bodies when the world was ending."
"Hold on." Rogers held up his hand. "You said the Time Lords were gone."
"We thought they were," Martha told him. "We were wrong then, but we're not now."
Wolf's eyes were back on Stark, clear and sharp as diamond and just as hard. "Listen carefully, Mr. Stark, Captain Rogers, Thor Odinsson, because I'm only going to explain this once. Time is not what you think it is. People talk about time as a river or a line but that's because we don't have the words to describe it. There is/has been/will be one language that does, and the person who speaks it is unavailable at the moment. The best metaphor I have is an ocean: every moment happens at once and every moment is constantly changing, being acted upon by dozens of players. That's okay and in most instances the universe compensates but there are some moments that have to happen. These fixed points in time are like reefs—no matter what changes, they don't or time disintegrates. The ocean dries up or a crack opens up in the seafloor and lava boils it away. The Master created a paradox, the kind of paradox that would break open the ocean floor and destroy time in a heartbeat, but he was clever, so he built a machine that would compensate for the wrongness he engineered and hold the universe together. You don't remember him because I broke his machine. Time reversed to the moment the paradox began and I stopped him. But I was on the Valiant for a month. I spent thirty-two days with that madman, and in the mean time he more than halved the world's population. You need to call Fury and tell him that he's looking at that situation all over again if he removes Loki from this facility. You want to take him?" She turned to Thor. "Once the cube is found, by all means, but don't bring him back to that airship."
"You seem awfully sure of yourself, agent Wolf," Stark commented.
"This once, Mr. Stark," the blonde woman replied. "I'd like to not be the one left saying 'I told you so.'"
Her arguments and warnings came to naught. The time Magambo allowed her to question Loki expired, and it was with great relish that Tony hauled the man out of his cell. "Come on, your highness," he mocked. "We've got front-row tickets to watch your plans crumble."
Wolf stood by, arms crossed, eyes flinty. "Watch him, Stark," she ordered.
"We're big boys, agent," he replied. "We can take care of him ourselves."
She did not look appeased. "We'll see."
Sometimes Wolf hated being right. She got the call five hours later, during a brief nap. She didn't sleep much, not anymore, but that didn't mean she didn't need to sleep at all. Going more than 24 hours with no sleep led to mistakes and she couldn't afford any, not now. The phone roused her from a familiar dream of golden light and an enfolding song and she flicked it open without glancing at the caller ID.
"Wolf," she said shortly and yawned.
"Hello agent." It was Rogers.
His voice hit her like a bucket of cold water. "Captain," she replied and rolled out of bed.
"You were right."
She cursed. "Where is he?"
"Loki? We're not sure, but Stark thinks he's heading for Stark Tower in New York."
She glanced out the window; Stark Tower loomed over Manhattan. "I'm closest."
"We'll meet you there."
She struggled with the zip on her jeans, for a moment. "Who should I expect?"
"Stark, agent Romanoff, agent Barton, and myself. And Wolf…" He hesitated, and she froze.
"Out with it, Captain."
"Loki killed Coulson."
Her eyes slide closed and she drew in a deep breath. "Was it quick?"
"I think so."
She exhaled. "Be there soon."
There was a knock on her door just as she was picking her weapons. She dressed for speed and range of motion. Loki intended to bring a war down on their heads, and she was prepared for battle. "Come in," Wolf called and strapped on spare ammunition.
It was Martha Jones. She was fond of the spirited young doctor. Wolf knew the woman's story, of course. When she'd heard that Martha had traveled with the Doctor she'd supported Lethbridge-Stewart's recommendation to hire Martha. It had been hard, staying away when she knew the Doctor was near, but the Time Lines were tangled and uncertain and she couldn't risk interfering, not when the outcome was in doubt. She'd been biding her time since she arrived shortly after the appearance of a man who called himself Harold Saxon, waiting for an appropriate moment to find the Doctor after her Dimension Cannon malfunctioned. The teleport functioned, but little else. Now it appeared that there was an even greater danger, in the form of an unbalanced alien in command of an equally alien army.
"Bambera's declared a state of emergency," Martha remarked as she eyed Wolf. "But I think you already knew that."
"I had a heads-up, yeah." Her hand rested briefly on her customary stun-gun, but she discarded it in favor of a standard-issue hand gun.
Martha raised an eyebrow and took the weapon for herself. "I'm coming with you."
Wolf shook her head. "I'll travel faster alone."
Martha cocked her head. "Tough."
The war raged around them. Rogers, Romanoff, Wolf, and Martha were on the ground, fighting against the Chitauri—Loki's army—who weren't mounted on some sort of flying vehicle. Stark was in the air leading a group of them on a merry chase and Barton watched from a nearby rooftop, calling out orders and picking off stragglers. Banner was nowhere to be found, but Stark seemed to think he'd show. Wolf wasn't so sure. She'd only met the good doctor briefly, but from what she'd heard he wanted nothing to do with fighting. She couldn't blame him. Out of all of them, he was the one who had the least choice in what he'd become.
The Chitauri swarmed over the city, their numbers seemingly inexhaustible, and a pillar of eerie blue light shot up from the top of Stark Tower. It pooled against the sky and a patch of darkness formed, set with stars that Wolf had never seen before. More Chitauri poured from the newly-formed portal, along with creatures that looked like something out of a nightmare. They were long and sleek, like gigantic, armored, eels and bristling with troops that were riding within them.
"Stark!" Rogers yelled into the comlink built into his suit. He really was the Captain, the leader. He pulled them together, kept all members of the team working in the areas in which they were strongest. He would make a fantastic general, and an image swam to the forefront of her mind—of the statue that would stand in the center of New York, centuries from now. It was a statue of them, of the Avengers, as they would come to be known.
Against all the odds, Banner came. He arrived just after Thor, and he let them in on the secret of his masterful control of the 'other guy:' he was always angry. Wolf could identify with that. After all, she carried something every day of her life, and she knew how it felt to hold that in. It took constant attention, a vigilance that meant she hardly ever relaxed, even in sleep. The Captain assigned them positions, and the fight began in earnest.
But it wasn't enough. For every Chitauri they defeated three more came through the portal, and when the four left on the ground ducked behind a bus for a breather, Natasha voiced what was on all of their minds. "None of this is going to mean a damn thing if we don't close that portal." Blood dripped from a deep split in her lip and she wiped at it with the back of her hand.
"Our biggest guns couldn't touch it," Rogers replied with a glance toward the ragged patch of darkness in the afternoon sky.
"It's not about guns," Wolf panted, "but there's a way." She was out of ammo for one gun, and she let it fall to the pavement. Her cheeks were smudged with ash, and there was a long burn across the back of her leather jacket. It was ruined, but it saved her skin. Martha was in similar condition. "There's always been a way," Wolf continued.
"Then why didn't you use it?" Rogers demanded.
The blonde woman smiled gently. "Because there's a price, Captain." She gave her remaining gun to Martha, pulled what was left of her ammunition from her belt, and handed that over as well.
"What are you doing?" the other woman demanded.
Wolf turned back to Rogers. "I need you to do something for me."
He eyed her appraisingly. "What?"
"Promise me." Her voice was level, but there was something strange in her eyes. They were different somehow—lighter—and in the strong afternoon sun they almost appeared to glow. "Promise me that you'll find the Doctor, and you'll tell him—you'll tell him that Rose Tyler loved him. And if he won't listen, you tell him two words, just two. You tell him, 'bad wolf.'"
Rogers nodded once, sharply. Wolf—Rose—closed her eyes. When she opened them again the familiar warm brown of her irises had been replaced by pools of golden fire.
"You can't!" Martha yelled.
"Goodbye, Martha Jones." Rose's voice took on a strange, duel quality, and a light seemed to shine from beneath her skin, like her whole body was simply a vessel for fiery, liquid gold. "You're a star." She turned her face toward Stark Tower, and then she rose in a halo of golden light.
In a secret base in the heart of Cardiff, Wales, an alarm blared, and the monitor of a sentient, dimensionally transcendent space-and-time ship thousands of years in the future lit up like Michigan Avenue during the Christmas season. In an unknown location, a group of individuals responsible for overseeing SHIELD, and most of the Earth's governments, voted to launch a nuclear bomb at Manhattan. Captain Jack Harkness strapped on his Vortex Manipulator, useless for time travel, but the Doctor never did fix the teleport after the twenty-seven planets incident. In the TARDIS, Amy Pond and Rory Williams clung to the railing while the Doctor danced around the console and the ship hurtled towards Manhattan, Earth, present day. And Tony Stark, warned by Nick Fury of the bomb's imminent arrival, was about to risk everything, with no way out, to save thousands of lives. Later he would swear that, as he fell, barely conscious, through the closing portal—he heard the howl of a wolf.