Loki insisted he carry their purchases. Maia had nearly had a heart attack when the total came up but Loki didn't bat an eyelid, merely paid, thanked the assistant, who apologised for her earlier conduct, and Maia understood; everyone had bad days it was just important to remember not to take it out on anyone else. Maia convinced Loki to buy a simple black leather jacket which would look good even with slacks and a shirt but be a step more casual than a full suit, then they called Stark to let him know they were finished. He would be with them as soon as he could.
They walked back towards the exit and Loki asked questions about various stores and their products, straight back to business again. He suggested they get lunch to eat back at the tower from a delicatessen and it was as they were leaving, Maia insisting on carrying that lone bag, that things got...odd.
A nondescript man rested his hand on Loki's arm as they passed, halting their progress. Before Loki could ask what he was doing the man said; 'There is a darkness coming for you.' Then walked away, shaking his head, as though nothing had happened.
'Do you know him?' Maia asked as Loki watched the man walk away.
'I can safely say I have never seen him before.'
'New York is full of nuts.' She shrugged, not really believing it, as he hadn't looked the sort to be preaching to strangers. 'What was it he said?'
'Something about a darkness.' Loki frowned. If he had access to his full range of powers he could have told if the man were under some form of duress, but as it was he was reduced to minor tricks. The man had said the words with conviction and then walked away as though confused. He mentally filed the information away for later.
Maia watched the concentration on Loki's face. He seemed unnerved by the encounter. She threaded her arm through his, which got his attention. He looked down at her and she smiled. 'Let's get back to the tower.'
He could tell by the smile she gave him she knew this had bothered him more than he admitted aloud, but returning to the tower seemed their best course of action.
They continued on their way and no fewer than four other people, of varying status, stopped Loki to mention "a darkness" again, and on the last one, a small child who couldn't have been more than four and was now skipping back to her mother, Maia gave Loki a worried look.
'Okay, this is getting weird now. Do you have any idea what they could be talking about?'
‘No, I have no idea, but I doubt it is good.'
They picked up the pace towards the doors, meaning Maia had to all but trot to keep up with Loki's longer legs, but they were soon outside and it was like a pressure had lifted, as though the inside of the mall had contained the threat.
'Should you tell your teammates about that?' Maia asked, glancing back as though there would be something to see.
'I doubt they would believe I did not provoke it somehow.'
'Then I'll back you up.' She made him stop as Stark pulled up to the curb. 'You've done nothing wrong, and what happened back there was not normal.'
He looked into her eyes, so sincere and worried for him. 'I will consider it and decide before we arrive back at the tower. It may be nothing.' She gave him a raised eyebrow. 'You think me naïve?'
'I think you'd rather not share unless there's more evidence. I admit it will sound weird but I saw it too.'
He glanced over at Stark who had opened the tiny trunk on his car expectantly. 'Let us discuss this over lunch together, then tell the team.'
'Alright.' She shrugged, determined he should share, in case it was something bigger. She might not have the field experience from being one of Xavier's X-Men, but she knew just from holding the fort that any tiny detail could be a piece in a bigger puzzle. She would try and convince him of that.
Tony watched as they walked towards him, no longer arm in arm and with a palpable tension between them. Maia was always so cheery, what could Loki have done to make her look so serious? Maybe he had caused mischief where it wasn't welcome.
'Looks like you owe me a dance, Squirrel.' Tony said as Loki put the bags in the trunk and closed it firmly.
'She owes you nothing.' Loki informed him curtly before helping Maia into the passenger seat and elegantly climbing into the back before Stark could comment.
'Okay.' Tony got in, buckled up and pulled away.
Neither one of them seemed to want to talk so Tony didn't either, instead wondering if Maia's hair now being down was somehow relevant to the tension. He was on the brink of asking when FRIDAY interrupted through the console.
'Boss, I'm picking up some sort of discrepancy on my scanners.'
'What kind of discrepancy?' He asked as Maia looked back at Loki, who was leaning forward in his seat.
'Some sort of cloud, boss. It's acting like a swarm but it's not alive, and it seems to be homing in on your position.'
'Shit.' Maia whispered as she spotted what FRIDAY was referring to. In the distance, several feet above them, moved just what the AI had described; a cloud that moved like a swarm of insects on a deliberate path, but it was like no cloud she had ever seen. The colour was almost painfully black, flecked like a starry sky. 'Loki!' She said even as he turned to see what had made her curse.
'FRIDAY, analysis.' Tony demanded.
'It's powered, but not with electricity.'
'It's some sort of magic.' Loki said as he and Maia shared a worried look.
'Can we beat it to the tower?' Tony asked as he accelerated through traffic much faster than he should have.
'Not at the rate it's gaining, its acceleration gives impact in thirty seconds.'
'Can you get this band off me, Stark?' Loki pulled back his sleeve as Maia unbuckled her seatbelt.
'No, I don't know how.'
'Loki, get down as low as you can!' Maia yelled as she got to her knees on the seat.
'Squirrel!' Tony shouted. 'What the hell are you doing?'
'I'm not sure, but try not to flip me out of the car.'
The people who had stopped Loki referred to this as a darkness, and if there was one polar opposite to that it was light. She could try stop it before it could do whatever it planned on doing to Loki. 'Down!' She screamed, leaning over and removing his seat belt before pulling on his shirt to make him move. There wasn't far for him to go, the back of the car offering little protection, but Maia wanted him not to be the first thing whatever this was would reach. Staying low she climbed over him until one foot was under him as he got as far into the footwell as he could, her other knee on the back seat.
Loki reached up, his hand touching her arm where she held the backs of the front seats for balance. ‘What are you going to do?'
She glanced down at him. 'What I can.'
Loki had no idea what she meant but she seemed to have a plan, and he hoped it was not just she would offer herself as a human shield, because with what power remained within him he could feel that this thing would eat through her in seconds.
Maia stared at the mass as it approached and she evened her breathing, knowing she had to time this right.
'Squirrel!' Tony yelped as the countdown hit one and Maia closed her eyes, drawing what she and Charles had worked so hard to keep shut away. Her power.
Loki felt magic rise in Maia he had not felt outside of Asgard and he watched in disbelief as a pure white light burst from her and into the darkness, which recoiled as though in pain, but not fast enough. The light enveloped it, ate through it and destroyed it, and as the last of the cloud vanished Maia's power shut down, as did the rest of her. Her legs buckled and she collapsed part on top of Loki, part on the seat.
Loki scrambled to straighten as he pulled Maia towards him, her head lolling, eyes closed, as Tony yelled from the front of the car for someone to tell him what had happened, but Loki ignored him. He checked for a pulse, letting out a breath he hadn't realised he was holding when he found it. He could now see she was breathing too, shallow but regular, and he situated her against him, with his arms supporting her.
'Call ahead for medics to meets us!' He commanded and Tony did as he was told, relaying what Loki knew as he told him.
Tony had no idea what had happened, but as he pulled into the secure underground parking garage with a squeal of tyres he knew, whatever it was, Squirrel's secret was out of the bag.