Later, Tony will wonder how none of them ever even saw it coming.
The street has been cordoned off by the police, who are standing guard so that none of the curious can get too close. Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Captain America are helping with crowd control.
Tony comes in for a landing next to Fury. Bruce is squatting on the ground nearby, doing something with a sample kit.
“What’ve we got?” Tony asks.
Fury shrugs. “Green slime.”
“Yeah, seriously! You think I make this shit up for laughs or something?”
“Well, excuse the fuck out of me,” Tony mutters.
Bruce stands and walks over to them, and now Tony can see the green slime oozing out onto the street.
“I have no idea what that stuff is,” he admits. “It’s inert. It doesn’t seem to be biological.”
“Magical?” Fury suggests.
Bruce shrugs. “Maybe.”
Fury sighs. “Well, you and Stark get it back to the lab and figure out what the fuck it is. Meanwhile, we’ll work on keeping everyone away from it.”
“Where’s it coming from?” Tony asks.
“It seems to be bubbling up from between the cracks in the cement,” Bruce replies.
“It is magical,” a new voice says, and they all turn to see Loki standing there in his emerald and gold armor.
It isn’t quite so shiny now, and it’s got a lot of dents. His cape is missing and his helmet looks like it’s taken a few really good blows with something huge and heavy.
And Loki himself isn’t in any better shape.
He has a black eye and a long cut down one cheek that’s still oozing blood, and there are deepening purple bruises on his throat, as if someone with a really strong grip had grabbed him by the neck.
“You look like shit, Laufeyson,” Fury says, and Loki smiles tiredly.
“I’d imagine so,” he agrees. “The slime is the work of Amora, The Enchantress. She has been… dealt with.”
“OK,” Fury says. “And…?”
Loki gives another tired smile.
“I am the cleanup crew.”
“Odin sent you?”
Loki shakes his head.
“No, the All-Father is still deep in the Odinsleep and Thor sits on the throne in his stead. He has asked me to come here and do this for him, for he has never been much of a sorcerer. However, it is but a small thing and I would have done it regardless.”
He raises his hands and they’re shimmering with green magic, and the slime melts away into water.
And the crowd cheers.
Loki looks surprised, but says nothing.
“Looks like we’re all done here, people,” Fury says over the comm.
“Thank God,” Clint says. “I’ve had my ass grabbed like six times already.”
Tony laughs. “How about you, Natasha?” he asks over the comm.
Steve answers for her: “Are you kidding me? Who would dare?”
Loki pulls his helmet off and rolls his head around slowly as if trying to get a kink out of his neck. It’s a surprisingly human thing to do and Tony watches him, fascinated, suddenly realizing that he’s never seen Loki this way before.
“Bastard sonofabitch!” someone yells.
It’s one of the cops, and he’s running toward them, his weapon drawn.
“This is for all of my buddies at the Five-Two that you and your fucking army got killed, you sick bastard fuck!”
And then he fires his gun and it’s absolutely textbook, almost literally right between the eyes and now Loki is crumpling lifelessly to the pavement.
The crowd is screaming and Tony hears someone shouting, “No!” and he suddenly realizes that it’s him, he’s shouting, his voice echoing inside his helmet.
“Motherfucker!” Fury yells. “Fuck, fuck, fuck!”
Bruce is kneeling at Loki’s side and he’s shaking his head and Tony can hear Steve over the comm, calling for an ambulance.
And the cop is still standing there, weapon in hand and a disbelieving look on his face as though even he can’t quite believe what he’s done.
Suddenly, Tony is furious.
He strides over to the cop, his boots making huge cracks in the pavement as he walks.
He flips up his faceplate and pulls off his gauntlet.
“Hey, asshole!” he says, and when the cop turns to look at him, Tony punches him in the face as hard as he can. “That’s for Pepper Potts, you fucker!”
The cop goes down, and Clint and Natasha come forward to collect him.
Tony suddenly realizes that they intend to take him into SHEILD custody instead of allowing him to fall into the hands of the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Department, and he smiles grimly as he imagines what will happen to him next.
The ambulance arrives and the paramedics come swarming out with their equipment cases and their stretcher.
Bruce comes to his feet and hurries to meet them and Tony hears him saying, “I’m a doctor, I’m a doctor,” and Tony still can’t believe this is actually happening.
“How is he?” Steve asks, and Tony starts. He hadn’t even heard him come over.
“Dunno,” Tony says, trying not to think about the way Loki had collapsed bonelessly to the ground, the life going out of those emerald eyes… and the blood and bone and brains all over the street and the sidewalk and the crowd behind him.
They have Loki loaded onto the stretcher now, and Tony hears Bruce muttering, “Oh this is bad, this is really really bad, this is bad…” as he follows the paramedics and their burden to the ambulance.
And that’s when Tony finally gets a good look at Loki and realizes that he’s blue.
“What the fuck?” he blurts out.
“What are we going to do, Director?” Steve is asking Fury.
“Fuck if I know.” Fury shakes his head. “Fuck if I know.”
The SHIELD agent who shows up at Pepper’s door won’t tell her anything; he just silently escorts her downstairs to the waiting car.
The car races through the Manhattan traffic, lights flashing and siren screaming and Pepper's blood runs cold when she sees the hospital looming up ahead.
Oh my God, Tony, she thinks. Something’s happened to Tony.
Steve is waiting for her by the emergency room entrance.
He’s in his uniform. His mask is pushed back off of his face and his expression is grim. She wonders briefly where his shield is and then dismisses that thought as being really bizarre and irrelevant under the circumstances.
The SHIELD agent gets out and opens the car door for her, and Pepper runs to Steve.
“What happened, where’s Tony?” she asks. “Is he hurt? What happened?”
“Come on, Miss Potts,” he says with that old-fashioned formality that usually makes her smile. “I’ll take you to him.”
Steve leads her through the ER and into a small private waiting area where Director Fury is talking with two doctors in white coats, and –
“Tony!” she cries, running to him, falling into his arms. “Are you OK? What happened? Where are you hurt?”
He holds her tightly against him, murmuring, “Oh Pepper, oh Pepper, oh Pepper,” against her hair.
He finally releases her and takes her face in his hands.
“It’s not me, Pep.”
She frowns. “I don’t understand…”
“It’s Loki, Pepper. Some crazy fucking piece of shit vigilante cop shot him in the head.”
“He shot Loki, Pepper.”
“Shot him,” she repeats numbly. “Someone shot Loki?”
“Yeah. In the head. It’s really bad and at this point they’re not sure if…”
He says more but she can’t hear him.
The world is swimming out of focus and a veil of glitter seems to dance before her eyes.
From very far away, she hears one of the doctors say “Catch her, she’s going to – ”
And everything is black.
She opens her eyes.
She’s lying on a sofa, and a very concerned Tony is kneeling on the floor beside her, holding her hand.
“You fainted,” he tells her before she can ask.
“She awake yet?” she hears Fury ask.
“Yeah, I’m awake,” she says, and manages to sit upright with a little help from Tony.
He sits beside her and takes her hand again, and she realizes that they’re still in the waiting room with Fury and the two doctors… and that one of the doctors is Bruce. He’s in a white coat and has a stethoscope around his neck, and she suddenly remembers that among other things, he is in fact a medical doctor.
“How is he?” she asks, and Bruce sighs.
“It’s… really hard to say. He’s… not human. You know? He’s breathing on his own, which means that his brainstem’s intact. Or maybe it’s because he’s a god, I don’t know.”
He motions at the other doctor. “This is Doctor Michael Scott. He’s the neurosurgeon.”
“This is really beyond my area of expertise,” Scott says without preamble. “For one thing, he’s blue. Cold and blue. He’s so cold that we need heavy gloves to touch him without getting burned. And his eyes are red.”
Pepper nods, remembering what Loki had told her that day in her apartment after the incident with the giant robot sharks.
“The glamour failed,” she says.
“He’s not Asgardian, like Thor, his brother. He’s a Jötun – a Frost Giant – but he casts some kind of glamour over himself so he looks human. He’s unconscious, and it failed, and so now you’re seeing what he really looks like.”
“Holy shit,” Tony murmurs.
“He’s more than unconscious, he’s clinically dead,” Scott says. “Both of his pupils are blown and there’s absolutely no discernible brain activity. If he were human, I’d be recommending that you consider organ donation right about now.”
“Shut the fuck up,” Fury says. “No one’s even considering that option, OK? That option is off the table.”
The doctor shrugs.
“Not discussing it won’t make it untrue,” he says. “And anyway, even if he were human and a viable donor, none of you are next of kin. That kind of decision would have to be made by immediate family.”
“Jesus Christ,” Fury suddenly says. “Thor.”
“And Odin,” Tony groans.
“This is SNAFUBAR every single way you look at it,” Fury says heavily. “Just wait ‘til Daddy Dearest and Doting Brother hear about this shit. We’ll be lucky if Asgard doesn’t decide to declare war.”
“Is there any way to contact Thor?” Pepper asks.
“No, unfortunately,” Fury answers. “So that means that he’s gonna get one hell of an unpleasant surprise next time he shows up here.”
“Can I see him?” Pepper asks suddenly.
“Who, Thor?” Bruce asks, frowning.
“No, Bruce… Loki,” she replies with infinite patience. And though she doesn’t actually add you complete and utter imbecile! at the end of that sentence, her voice manages to convey that sentiment all the same.
“Oh yeah, right, right,” Bruce mutters. “Right. What was I thinking?”
“You can’t see him yet,” Scott says. “They’re still… ah, getting him bandaged up.”
Pepper glances from him to Bruce and back again.
“What are you guys not saying?” she finally asks.
“Pepper… he’s… in really bad shape. It’s not pretty. And you’re going to have to face the very real probability that he’s not coming back from this. Most of his brain is just… gone.”
“Oh my God,” she says quietly. “Oh my God.”
“Give us a moment, huh?” Tony asks, and Fury and the two doctors silently leave.
“I can’t, Tony. I can’t, I can’t I can’t…”
And then he’s holding her as she sobs against his chest.
Bruce returns in about a half hour, accompanied by Fury.
“They just moved him into a room,” he tells them. “Come on, I’ll take you to see him.”
“His condition is listed as critical but stable,” Bruce explains as he leads them through the halls. “He’s still breathing on his own, so he’s not on life support. But you should brace yourselves: he looks really terrible.”
“And he’s blue,” Dr. Scott adds, falling into step with them.
“Yes, I’ve seen that before,” Pepper replies.
“Like a great big Smurf,” Scott continues, and Pepper glares at him.
“I think I hate this guy, just a little,” Tony says.
“A genuine alien from another planet,” Scott is saying. “It’s really incredible when you think about it.”
“More like a god from myth and legend who will utterly fuck your shit up if you’re not careful,” Fury says.
Scott smirks. “Not likely.”
“No, wait, correction,” Tony says. “I hate him a lot.”
“Bruce, you should know something,” Pepper says. “You have to be careful with Loki, especially when he’s like this. He’s a lot colder than we are, and warm water will scald him.”
“All right, I’ll make a note in his chart,” Bruce promises, looking thoughtful. “IV fluids and drugs would probably have to be chilled before administration too. Otherwise we might burn his veins.”
“Probably,” she agrees. “Wow. I didn’t even think of that.”
“Good thing you mentioned it,” Bruce says.
They arrive at Loki’s room, and Bruce opens the door.
“Go ahead,” he says quietly.
Pepper turns to Tony.
“Tony, would you come in with me?”
Before the door closes behind them, they hear Scott saying, “Doctor Banner, when the time comes I want a front row seat at the autopsy!”
Feeling like a zombie, Pepper walks up to Loki’s hospital bed.
“I’ll give you a moment,” Tony says, moving across the room. “I just need to make a quick call.” He pulls out his iPhone.
Bruce had warned her, and now she’s glad that he had.
Loki is indeed dark blue, but that’s not the worst part.
His head is swathed in bandages down to his eyebrows. The skin around one of his eyes is an even darker blue than the rest of him, and she realizes he must have a black eye. There’s a bandage on one of his cheeks, and there are more bruises on his neck. It takes her a moment to notice that his hair is gone. They must have shaved it off, she thinks.
“Oh, Loki,” she says quietly, and bends down to kiss his icy lips. “I’m so sorry, my love.”
She sinks into the chair next to the bed and takes his hand in hers, mindless of the cold.
She holds his hand for as long as she can, until her own hand goes numb. It doesn’t take long.
Tears run steadily down her cheeks.
“Please come back to me, Loki,” she begs. “Come back to me, my love.”
She has been vaguely aware of Tony speaking quietly into his phone, and now he ends his call and comes over to her, laying a hand on her shoulder.
She looks up at him and wipes her cheeks with the back of her hand.
“He must hate this,” she says. “People seeing him like this… a Jötun… he must feel so humiliated.”
The door opens.
“Let’s hope he’s not aware, right?” Tony says softly.
“Oh please, he is completely unaware,” Scott says from the doorway. “Brain dead, remember?”
“Oh, yeah, right,” Tony says. “How could we ever forget?”
He moves away from Pepper and goes over to Scott, getting right up in the doctor’s face.
“Hey, guess what? I really hate you right now.”
Scott shrugs. “I can live with that, Mister Stark.”
“Yeah, well, here’s the thing, Scott: I’m your boss.”
“Are you delusional?”
“Nope. I’m your boss. See, I was just on the phone buying this hospital. Know why I did that?”
Tony grins like a kid with a sack full of candy.
“So I can fire your ass, you fucking idiot. Pack up your shit and get the fuck out.”
“I don’t believe you.”
Tony shrugs. “Go check with the Chief of Surgery. And then get out.”
Scott leaves, looking uncertain.
Pepper is staring at him.
“Tony… did you seriously just buy this hospital just so you could fire that jackass?”
He grins. “Sure did!”
And then Pepper suddenly isn’t sure if she’s laughing, crying, or both.
Bruce appears in the doorway. “Did you really just buy this hospital, Tony?” he asks, incredulous.
“Yep. Hey, how’d you like to be Chief of Medicine?”
Pepper goes to the hospital every day, and sometimes some of The Avengers drop by as well.
They never stay long.
Tony is usually there with her, though. He brings his laptop and does whatever work he can sitting there in the hospital room.
And the days turn into weeks.
And still there is no change.
There isn’t a single peep from Asgard.
Loki has acquired two IV lines and a feeding tube, though his body never excretes any waste. The doctors – Bruce included – are baffled.
His bruises are long faded. The bandages are removed from his face and his head, and his hair is beginning to grow again.
Aside from Tony and Bruce, The Avengers stop visiting. Even Fury stops coming by.
Pepper begins reading books to Loki.
She starts with The Wizard of Oz and moves on to The Chronicles of Narnia and then The Lord of The Rings.
“You’re supposed to read to coma patients,” she explains to Tony. “Everyone knows that.”
And Tony nods in agreement and goes back to his laptop so that she doesn’t see the pain in his eyes, because he’s never stopped loving her and he hates to see her suffering.
And the weeks turn into months.
Loki’s hair has completely grown back.
And still there is no change.
And still no word from Asgard.
And then one day Tony is sitting with Pepper in the cafeteria, drinking yet another bad cup of coffee and picking at yet another awful hospital meal.
“Pepper,” he says, pushing a rather rubbery green bean around with his fork. “I think you should know… I know what you were doing.”
“What?” she asks, distracted.
She’s always distracted when she’s not sitting by Loki’s bedside. It’s like she’s become a ghost of herself, and Tony’s heart breaks a little more each day seeing her like this.
And he realizes again how stunningly loyal she is, and he wonders how he could have ever thrown that away.
“Project Redemption,” he says quietly, and her head jerks up in surprise. “Was it your idea, or Fury’s?”
“It was Fury’s idea,” she finally says. “After the robot sharks, he came to me with this crazy scheme… I don’t know.” She shakes her head. “It all seems so unreal now.”
“Yeah, well, Loki was getting suspicious,” Tony tells her. “I was looking into it just before… well, you know. JARVIS found a whole goddamn goldmine on SHIELD’s servers.”
“Oh no,” she says, putting her face in her hands.
“Don’t worry, JARVIS cooked up a nice little wiggle-worm for them. A nice little worm that worked its way through SHIELD’s servers, erasing any and all references to ‘Pepper Potts’ as related to this so-called ‘Project Redemption’.”
She looks astonished.
He smiles. “In case Loki ever found out. In case the shit hit the fan.”
She shakes her head.
“I did it to protect you.”
He thinks for a minute.
“And him, I guess,” he finally admits. “Stupid, right? But I knew if he found out, he’d think you’d just been setting him up. And I knew you weren’t; you really love the guy. You’d never do something like that, and I’d never want him to think that you would.”
Pepper bursts into tears.
When they return to Loki’s room, they get a surprise.
There’s a woman sitting in the chair by his bedside, the chair usually occupied by Pepper.
She’s dressed in a black gown covered with runes embroidered in golden thread.
Her hair is black and her skin is pale and she’s holding Loki’s hand in her own, apparently unaffected by the coldness of his skin.
And she is absolutely gorgeous.
Naturally, Tony cuts right to the chase: “Who the fuck are you?”
She looks up at them, and her eyes are emerald green.
“Virginia Potts and Anthony Stark,” the woman says, and her voice is like a song.
“No, pretty sure that that’s us,” Tony tells her. “Try again.”
“I know well who you are. She is the woman who has loved Silvertongue so steadfastly and so well, and you are his true and loyal friend.”
“I am?” Tony asks.
The woman releases Loki’s hand and rises to her feet.
“And I am Hel,” she says. “Daughter of Loki.”
“Oh,” Tony says intelligently, and now he can see the resemblance: the pale skin, the black hair, the long neck, the sharp cheekbones, and most of all, those stunning emerald eyes.
Except that Loki doesn’t actually look like that; no, his true appearance is the cold dark blue person on the bed.
Hel walks over to them and takes one of their hands in each of hers.
She is her father’s daughter, for her hands are like ice.
“My father came to me in his death, but now his body has healed and is ready.”
“For what?” Pepper asks, dumbfounded.
She releases their hands and turns back to the hospital bed.
She bends over Loki, covering his mouth with hers… but it’s not a kiss. To Pepper, it looks more like a person giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. She isn’t touching him otherwise; her long arms are hanging straight down at her sides.
Hel seems to shimmer, and suddenly Loki’s body bucks up off the bed like he’s having a convulsion.
Hel pulls away with a gasp, and Loki inhales sharply.
And opens his eyes.
“Holy fucking shit,” Tony says.
Loki’s red eyes find Tony, and then Pepper.
“Loki!” Pepper shouts, running to the bed. She throws her arms around him, pretty much dragging him upright. “Oh my God, oh my God…”
And Loki is smiling and pulling her close, murmuring in her ear.
Hel moves close to Tony and takes his hand.
“So I return him to you and yours,” she murmurs, and he suddenly realizes how tall she is.
She even has to lean down a little bit to kiss him, which she does quite thoroughly.
Her mouth is like ice.
Not that Tony is complaining.
“Goodbye, Anthony Stark,” she says, and smiles. “Until next we meet.”
And then she’s gone.
“Wow,” Tony says. He licks his lips, takes a breath. “Wow.”
And Loki is looking at him.
“Uh… that wasn’t what it looked like. I was not kissing your daughter. She kissed me, and hey, Loki, you’re really blue!”
Loki blinks and looks down at himself.
“Oh,” he says, and then nothing more for a moment. “How… unexpected.”
“Hey, no biggie. Everyone gets the blues now and then, right? Just usually not so literally!”
He walks over to the bed and extends his hand.
A very puzzled Loki simply looks at it for a moment.
And then he closes his eyes, and his skin gradually changes from dark blue to pale. He opens his emerald eyes and reaches out to grasp Tony’s hand.
Tony grins hugely as he shakes Loki’s cold hand.
“Welcome back to the Land of The Living, Loki.”
And then Pepper’s arm is around Loki’s shoulders, and she’s reaching for Tony, pulling him down against her chest.
“What… what?” a new voice asks.
They all look up to see Bruce – complete with white coat and stethoscope – standing there in the doorway. He’s holding Loki’s chart in his hand and gaping at the three of them in disbelief.
“Uh… this is really not what it looks like,” Tony says, but he makes no move to disengage himself… mostly because half of his face is pressed against Pepper’s breasts.
Bruce breaks into a huge grin.
“This is amazing!” he crows, and hurries over to the bed.
“Which part?” Tony asks, finally pulling away. “Loki’s miraculous recovery, or his daughter the Queen of Hell making out with me?” He raises his eyebrows suggestively. “She slipped me the tongue, too.” He glances at Loki. “Uhhh… you didn’t hear that, right?”
“Soooo,” he finally says. “What did I miss?”
“Have a seat, Bruce. We’ll fill you in.”