Thor snuck back into Avengers Tower guiltily around three in the morning, trying to avoid them all. Unfortunately for him, there had been a small accident involving a minor chemical explosion going off in Bruce's face, so they were all awake clearing away the damage to the top nine floors and they'd already realized Thor was out. Even when they'd caught him creeping in, though, he still refused to say anything about where he'd been. Natasha was the one who noticed that Mjolnir was missing.
"Wow, that's some walk of shame," Tony said. "Is this going to end up like that story where you had to dress up as a woman and pretend you were going to marry a giant?"
"What?" Thor said, turning pink. "I do not know this story of which you speak. Why should you imagine all your legends of me are true? I would not marry a giant. Do not ask me any more questions."
Loki shot in through the middle of the gaping hole in the side of the 75th floor shortly after dawn, wild-eyed. They had all conked out on slightly softer pieces of rubble, and the crunch of his boots landing stirred them groggily awake. "Whoa!" Steve said, getting his eyes open first. He flipped over and grabbed for one of the crowbars, for lack of a better weapon.
"Don't bother," Loki snarled. "I will..." He paused, his jaw working, and then said in a stifled voice, "...help with the repairs."
Tony had just been firing up his repulsors. He paused. "Come again?" he said.
Loki stood there with his fists clenched, and then he turned and stretched out a hand over the mess of discarded bits of broken wires and said something that none of them could follow. The wires stirred, twitched, and formed into knots that started moving like little octopi across the floor, gathering up debris and piling it atop themselves. They added new arms as they went, spreading across the room. In five minutes they'd already cleared a wider space on the floor.
Thor had been staring the whole time. Now he flung himself off the table and across the room. He seized Loki by the shoulders. "Brother!" he said, ecstatically. "Has the spell — the spell has worked!"
Loki stared back at him. "What spell?" he spat. And added, choked off, "...dear brother."
"By Yggdrasil," Thor said, "the witch has been true to her word: my friends," he turned to them all, beaming, slinging an arm around Loki's shoulders, "rejoice with me! Not long hence did I learn of a mighty witch here upon your world, and sought her aid, and behold! My brother's spirit has been freed from his madness."
He kept beaming. The rest of them looked at Loki doubtfully. Loki glared hatefully back.
"Uh," Bruce said after a moment, "no offense, Thor, but — that sounds like it would have to be a pretty powerful spell. How sure are you that it really worked?"
"It was not bought save at great cost," Thor said, low, and looked downcast. "For this spell did I barter away the great weapon Mjolnir."
"What?" Loki said, pulling away from him. "You have given away Mjolnir? I could destroy you now — " he swallowed, " — if I wanted to," he added. "Which of course I do not. At all."
Thor laughed with joy. "I regret it not!" he declared. "How can I count any cost, to have my brother restored to me. At last we will fight once more together, Loki!"
"I will never — leave your side again, Thor," Loki said, and looked appalled. "But will your fr— friends," he said, stuttering over an attempt to sneer the word, "allow me to remain? Surely not." He shot a desperate look at the other Avengers.
"Yeah, no offense, Thor, I'm just not feeling it," Tony said.
"Stark, I understand your hesitation," Thor said earnestly. "But I cannot be parted from Loki again." He turned to Loki. "Perhaps we should return to Asgard, brother. Our father will rejoice as do I to see you — "
"No!" Loki said. "I refuse to see that — that — beloved place again until I have truly atoned." He stopped, fists clenched hard and eyes glittering.
"Ah," Thor said, nodding. "You would be welcome back nonetheless, brother, but I do understand your desire to make amends, and honor it. I know not where in Midgard we might go — "
"Hey, hey, hey," Tony said. "I'm not kicking you out, Thor. Just, you know, let's talk — containment options?"
"I will not be put in a cage!" Loki snarled, and then said, "...unless it would make you all feel better." His eyes widened, panicky. His jaw worked a moment, and then he muttered reluctantly, "Perhaps if I offered more proofs of my good intent."
Steve and Tony traded looks. Steve shrugged helplessly. "I guess he could do more of the cleanup?"
"Those things are doing pretty well, actually," Bruce said. The spiders had finished clearing out the living room floor and were busy putting the books back on the bookshelf and straightening the artwork on the wall.
"I want a sandwich," Clint said, arms folded.
"What, this second?" Tony said. "Jarvis — "
"No," Clint said, and jerked his chin at Loki. "I mean him. Make me a sandwich. If you're on our side now."
Loki said in honeyed sweet tones, "Why certainly," and then spent a solid minute doing an interpretive dance where he kept trying to point at Clint and then his hand would jerk away. He finally gave up and said savagely, "No, I am not making you a sandwich."
Then he added through his teeth, "but I can make breakfast, if you're hungry."
He stood for a moment trembling and then stiffly picked his way across the floor to the kitchen, which had mostly escaped demolition. Thor bounded after him and perched on a barstool overlooking the island. The rest of them trailed after more reluctantly.
Loki pulled a knife out of the block. Natasha, Clint, Steve, Tony, and Bruce all tensed. Thor said happily, "What will you make for us, brother?"
Loki stared at the knife in his hand as if willing it to move. Then his hand shot out — and seized a banana from the fruit bowl. He put it on the counter and began chopping. "Pancakes," he said, sounding defeated.
"These are really good," Steve said, a while later.
"Mm-m," Bruce agreed, around a forkful of banana pancakes.
"We're not seriously going to let Loki move in just because he makes good pancakes, are we?" Clint said.
No one answered him. They were busy eating. "But this trial was one you yourself put forth, Barton!" Thor protested, after he'd finished cleaning his third plate.
"I don't suppose you make mimosas?" Tony asked Loki.
"Or screwdrivers," Natasha put in.
Loki was scowling down at the surface of the counter. The griddle was too small to make pancakes for six Avengers at once, so he'd used magic to turn the whole thing hot enough to cook them on. "Don't you have some natural disaster or small war somewhere to go be heroic at?" he said bitterly. After a moment he added, "Which I could assist with."
"Not right now," Steve said.
All their comms went off at once with the "Avengers! Assemble!" ringtone Tony had made from Thor's voice. They all looked at Steve reproachfully, except for Thor, who leaped from his stool like Santa had just come. "Come, brother!" he said. "We shall answer this call to arms together!"
"I'm delighted," Loki said, in a monotone.
Dr. Doom did a double-take when they arrived, his robot army marching steadily on towards I-95. "Loki! What are you doing?" he demanded. "Are we not allies?"
"My brother no longer stands with the likes of you, villain," Thor said. He'd grabbed a fallen streetlamp to use as a weapon. "Flee now, or you will face the wrath of both Odin's sons together!"
"I'm under a spell!" Loki said to Doom, lunging forward to seize him by the arms. "Help me — save all these innocents and surrender!" Then he put both hands on Doom's chest and blasted him across the battlefield and through the ranks of his army with a white flare of magic.
Doom staggered up out of the wreckage of thirty robots. "You will pay for this treachery, Asgardian!" he hissed.
"I'm under a spell!" Loki snarled at him feverishly. "I don't want to help them! I — I want to stop you myself!" He blasted another robot as it clanked towards him.
"For Asgard!" Thor shouted, and smashed down ten robots at once with a swing of his streetlamp. "Come, brother, let us crush these mindless machines as one!"
Loki screamed in frustration and grabbed one of the robots by the leg, swung it over his head and bashed another three of them flat. He flung the first one down onto the heap and incinerated them all with a magical blast. He threw himself into the midst of the robot army and started tearing them apart at the joints with his bare hands.
The rest of the Avengers paused on a hill overlooking the battlefield, watching Loki and Thor wading into the army together. "Huh," Tony said. Then he sat down.
"What are you doing?" Steve said.
"Taking a coffee break," Tony said. "I'm pretty sure they've got this one."
Thor and Loki surfaced back out of the sea of smashed robots about an hour later. Doom had flown off vowing revenge and retribution. Thor was bouncing as he walked, and even Loki looked vaguely less disgruntled for having torn apart several hundred robots.
"I don't know that it's all that healthy to like brawling as much as those guys do," Bruce said. He'd sat down next to Tony. They were playing Words With Friends.
"It has been some time since I have enjoyed a good melee," Thor said cheerfully as they climbed the hill. "Was the battle not glorious, brother?"
Loki said grudgingly, "A good fight." Then his eyes widened and he choked out, indignantly, "In a good cause."
They went back to Avengers Tower to celebrate defeating Doom, stopping by Original Ray's to pick up the usual: pizza and beer. "And yes, fine," Tony said to Thor as they came out. "Loki can stay for now."
"I don't want to — go anywhere else," Loki said. Then he added, a moment later, "Shall I carry the pizzas?" and looked even more horrified.
It took a while for all of them to get used to having Loki hanging around Avengers Tower. At first he spent most of his time lurking in unused rooms and avoiding everyone else, but Thor kept tracking him down and dragging him out to spend time with the team. After a week or two, Thor said, "I wish you would not hold yourself so aloof from our company, brother," a little sadly. "I assure you that my friends are ready to open their hearts to you."
"My heart is not — any less open," Loki said, and added through his teeth, "I will do as you wish." After that, he huddled in a corner of the living room every night. Clint asked him for a bedtime story the first time just to needle him, but after that it turned into kind of a routine: someone would ask Loki for a story, he'd tell a great one and they'd either roll around choking with laughter or end up sobbing like children, and then Thor would hug Loki and Loki would say something hilarious like "I loathe all of you," or "Are you all mocking me?" or "Maybe you've all gone mad," and then he'd add, "I'm joking, of course; let me replenish your cups," and they'd all get happily drunk together.
After three or four weeks of that, interspersed with helping on the occasional heroic mission, they all mostly got used to him. It turned out a sorcerer was a highly useful team member, even aside from Loki's also being Asgardian-strong and nearly indestructible, and a wicked hand with a knife.
"All right," Tony said, the evening after they got back from dealing with an attack of nuclear-powered killer squids — Namor had shown up at the end and claimed they had "accidentally" escaped from Atlantean captivity; Hulk had "accidentally" dropped the netted-up squids on his head.
Everyone was pretty wiped out. Loki was lying stretched out on one of the couches staring fixedly up at the ceiling and looking faintly green; he'd turned himself into a giant sea serpent and eaten several of the squids. Tony dragged himself up out of his chair and pushed aside the wreckage of the calamari they'd ordered in sympathy. He leaned over to the control panel in the table. "I think this is called for," he said. "Jarvis, set aside level sixty-three for Loki, and let's get him a keycard."
"Very good, sir," Jarvis said.
Loki rolled his head over towards Tony and stared at him. "What?"
Tony waved a languid hand as he fell back into his chair. "No, don't thank me," he said. "Gratitude is boring. Just don't trash the place. Well, more often than Bruce does."
"What is the matter with you?" Loki said. "You do recall I threw you out the window of this very building? How can you possibly be — generous enough to offer me a home here?"
Thor beamed at Tony. "Stark, your hospitality honors your name."
"Yes, I know," Tony said, smugly.
"Seriously, buddy," Steve said to Loki, "you've earned it." He leaned over and gently punched Loki in the arm.
Loki reached out and grabbed Steve by the — shoulder and gave him a companionable shake. "You are all mad!" Loki said, "— to forgive all my crimes! I swear I will — repay all your kindness!" He let go of Steve and looked almost desperately at Clint. "Do you have no objections to this?"
Barton scowled a little and said grudgingly, "Fine, you've been useful. I still owe you an arrow in the ass, and don't think you won't be getting it at the right moment."
Loki gnashed his teeth. Once; then they clenched into a delighted if slightly stiff grin.
They set up a press conference announcing Loki had joined the team. Loki objected to being present, on the grounds that he didn't deserve such an honor and he couldn't bear to face those he had wronged so greatly, but they chivvied him along and Thor shoved him in front of the room at the end and stood just offstage with an encouraging and hopeful smile.
"Very well," Loki snarled into the nest of microphones. "Here I am! The one who sought to conquer your world and subjugate you all. For which I am very sorry." He glared viciously around the room. "Ask what you will of me, you — honorable disseminators of knowledge."
There was a moment of awkward silence as the collected body of reporters stared up at him.
Finally, the correspondant from Fox News raised his hand. "Now that you've joined the Avengers, do you plan to apply for American citizenship?"
"Of course I am not going to apply for citizenship in this — great and glorious nation," Loki said.
"Guys, Thor and Loki are considered diplomatic representatives of Asgard," Steve called out. "We don't expect them to seek citizenship, considering that they're part of their country's government."
"Loki, would you describe your magic a little more for our readers?" one of the reporters asked. "What are the limitations?"
"I am not going to recount my powers and vulnerabilities for any — evildoer — to hear," Loki said. He added through his teeth, "As I'm sure you in your obvious wisdom can understand."
"Loki, are you single?" the reporter for US Weekly called out.
"What?" Loki said.
Tony wolf-whistled from the sidelines. "Yeah, he's flying solo, ladies," he called out.
Loki didn't manage to answer any other questions. He was pretty red on his way out of the press conference. "Aw, that's cute, he's embarrassed," Tony said to Bruce.
"I am not embarrassed!" Loki snarled. "I am — " He halted just through the exit from the Waldorf and pulled up short. One of the more enterprising street vendors had set up shop outside the back door and was selling Avengers t-shirts and stuffed dolls. He'd already added a plush Loki to his collection. It was going briskly; there was a small boy in front hugging the doll tightly while his mother paid for it.
The child looked up as they came out and his eyes got huge. Loki stared back with his eyes almost as huge.
"Hey," Tony said to the kid, "you already have an Iron Man, right?"
"Why, I must have one of these," Thor said, beaming. "Look, brother, the helmet may be removed."
Loki was backing away from them all. "My army must have slaughtered a thousand mortals in this very city!" he said. "What lunacy is possessing — " He stopped; he slowly turned his head to stare at Thor. "You didn't just ensorcel me," he said. "You've bound all Midgard into this spell. What did you ask that witch for?"
Thor blinked at Loki uncertainly. "I asked that you should be redeemed, and make amends for all the evil you had done," he said. He thought about it a bit more. "And I asked that you should be forgiven in turn," he added, "and find yourself again honored as your gifts deserve."
Loki stared at him. Thor stared back with a faintly puzzled expression. Then Thor said. "Ah! And I asked as well that you should stand once more by my side. And be made welcome by my friends. And also that — "
"In other words," Loki said, in controlled tones, interrupting, "You made a dozen half-conflicting wishes, most of them impossible without twisting the minds and memories of every mortal alive, and then you laid all Mjolnir's power behind them."
"Did I?" Thor said blankly.
"You — idiot—ically loving — !" Loki yelled. "I can't believe you did something so — splendid for me!"
Thor beamed at him. "Brother, you must know I would have done far more to save you," Thor said, and then he reached out and took Loki's face in his hands and kissed him.
"Mmmphmrmrmmrrpphmmphr!" Loki said. His arms flailed wildly until they landed on Thor's shoulders. He broke away gasping and leaned back. Thor gazed at him adoringly. Loki glared at him savagely. "Tell me," he said in measured tones, "tell me, brother, that you didn't ask for me to find love or some other similarly — tender and considerate wish."
"I have oft thought that you were too much alone?" Thor said. "Now that you recall it to my mind, I believe I — "
Loki groaned and dropped his head into his hand. Thor laughed softly and tenderly, and caught him under the chin and kissed him passionately again. Loki bit him. And then sucked hard on the bruised lip, teasing it while Thor gasped and grew heavy-lidded and shuddered against him.
"Aaaugh!" Loki said, squirming away. "No! I am not going to fuck you — here in public." His eyes widened in horror. "Or ever!" he added. "Unless you are truly sure you wish it. And not even then! Save when I have properly and honorably courted you!" He opened his mouth to add something else, and then shut his mouth and turned aside and said to the vendor, "May I purchase one of these fine creations from you?"
He gave the doll to Thor. Thor tucked it under one arm and held Loki's hand all the way back to the tower, aglow with happiness.
"You are all ensorceled," Loki said.
They stared at him skeptically.
"Look, pal," Tony said, getting up and putting a hand on Loki's shoulder, "I trust you on magic more than anyone around, but I think this might just be the guilt talking, okay. We can care about you without being under a spell."
Loki opened his mouth, then blew out a deep breath instead. "Listen to me," he said in controlled tones, "this spell cannot be allowed to continue. With each hour, its effects stretch ever farther, wreak ever deeper changes upon your perceptions and your thoughts. These have a cost. Thor's mind bears the worst of it, but he is the strongest; and the rest of you lag not far behind. After you, the rest of the mortals you fight to defend. Soon you will begin to lose your hold upon reality, having had so many of your thoughts unraveled and false ones thrust upon you."
"Loki," Natasha said, "I get that you think we're compromised. But what are these false thoughts you think we've got?"
"That I am your beloved friend!" Loki yelled at her. "As of course I wish to be," he added. "But am not. Because of all my hideous crimes!" He looked savage.
"We all think that," she said, looking around to their nods of agreement. "Don't you think it's more likely that you're suffering from false feelings yourself? Think about it — do you hate us?"
Loki opened and shut his mouth several times. Nothing came out. Thor rose and went to him, drawing Loki into his arms. "Come, brother," he said softly, gently. "Let go these evil shadows that cling to your mind." He caught the back of Loki's neck with his broad hand and kissed him again, sweetly. "If you will not yet lie with me, then let us go and spar; some vigorous exercise will help to lift this gloom from you."
He kissed Loki again, and stroked his back. Loki half-unwillingly leaned into the touch, like a reluctant cat, and only with a jerk drew away. "You will all listen to this much, at least," he said. "There will be signs that the spell draws to a breaking point — to your breaking point. When you see them, then you will heed me at last."
"We shall, brother," Thor said placatingly.
"Stop that!" Loki snapped. " — and keep stroking me." His jaw clenched on the words. He looked away, his thin cheek flushing. "Let's away to the sparring rooms, then."
"He's totally going to cave," Tony said to Clint, loudly, winking. Clint grinned back.
"It's pretty cute to watch the two of them dancing around it," he said.
The next morning, Clint jumped off the building. Bruce saw him falling past the window, the Hulk went out the side, and managed to catch him before he hit the ground. "What are you guys talking about, I was fine," Clint said, as they hauled him into an observation room and checked him over. "I'm Hawkeye, I can fly."
"You can't fly," Tony said, in half-unsure tones.
"I told you," Loki said, standing with his arms folded. "The spell is breaking his mind: the sooner because his hate for me is the greater, but it will soon break all of yours. Do you wish to risk that happening to him?" He nodded towards Bruce. "We must undo the spell."
Thor sullenly led them to the witch's home: a renovated Victorian mansion on the beach in Connecticut, decorated in Laura Ashley and Martha Stewart. There was a small engraved sign on the door saying A. Wells. "This," Loki said to Thor, "this is the abode of the — brilliant and generous sorceress whom you relied upon to enchant me."
"Yes," Thor said unhappily. "Brother, surely you might yet be mistaken — "
"I am not mistaken!" Loki said.
The witch, a tall slim woman with a neat cap of blond hair and warm blue eyes, opened the door and said cheerfully, "Well, it's a pleasure to see you all. Come in! I'll make some tea. Or would you like some sherry?"
"We are here for Mjolnir, witch," Loki said, "and to end your — extremely ingenious spell. What were you thinking?"
"My, you're upset," she said. "I really think you should come in and have some tea."
"Come on, Loki," Tony said. "Don't be rude."
Loki glared at him over his shoulder as he trailed involuntarily after her into the house. "Sit, sit," she said, ushering them into the living room, which was full of overstuffed couches and round accent tables and a small tidy altar in the middle of the room instead of a coffee table, decorated with seashells. Mjolnir was sitting on top of it. Thor gave a small longing sigh as he sat down.
They balanced china cups and saucers on their knees while she poured tea and passed around freshly baked scones. "And please, call me Allison. I'm a little surprised to see you, I have to say," she said to Loki as she sat down with her own cup.
"Do you even have any conception what your — brilliant work — is doing?" Loki snapped.
"Well, of course I do," she said. "It was a pretty neat job, if I do say so myself."
"It's going to kill your precious heroes," Loki said, gesturing at the rest of the team. By general agreement, Bruce had stayed back with Clint. Tony was staring into his cup with a small frown between his brows and Natasha was looking out the window with a distant expression; Steve was eating his third scone in about two minutes, scattering crumbs all over the floor. Thor was just gazing longingly at Mjolnir.
"Sure," Allison said. "Then once they're gone, you'll be the last Avenger, and everyone already loves you. It really shouldn't be too hard for you to take over the world at that point."
Steve raised his head from his fourth scone. "Wait, what?" he said.
"Don't worry about it, honey," she said. "Try the cinnamon scones, those are my favorite."
"Okay," Steve said, and got one out of the basket.
Loki put down his plate, then rose and went to look down at Mjolnir. "I've underestimated you," he said slowly. "You tricked Thor into this, didn't you?"
"He was pretty easy, to be honest," she said. "He really wanted there to be a way to change your heart."
Loki turned. Thor was still gazing on Mjolnir. Loki reached out to tip Thor's head up a little; Thor looked up at Loki with eyes blind and dazzled and a vague smile. "Yes," Loki said. "I imagine so." He turned to the witch. "And what reward would you like for this generosity?"
"Well, there's that part of the spell where you're supposed to find love," she said. "I figure every king needs a queen." She gave him a bright, polished smile. "And what could make a nicer wedding present than one of the golden apples of immortality?"
"Ah," Loki said. "Not much of a price for a realm. The hand of a charming lady," he bowed to her a little; she smiled back and inclined her head, "and a single apple from the orchards of Idunn — easier to acquire for a prince of Asgard than a mortal witch."
"I hoped you'd feel that way, when you had a chance to think it over," she said. "I'm sure it's been a little annoying — I did have to let your brother throw in a bunch of wishes to get him started. But once he's dead, I should be able to winnow those out of there. After I've got the apple, of course."
"Yes," Loki said, looking back down at Thor. "Not precisely the end you were looking for, brother, was it, when you decided to bind my will to your desire?" he said softly. "No objections to make, now?"
Thor blinked up at Loki, frowning a little fuzzily, and then he said, "You will — you will be happy?" He stopped and thought it over a moment and then nodded in satisfaction. He rose and caught Loki by the shoulders and kissed him. "You will rule generously and well," he said earnestly, "and surely the witch will make you a fine lady."
Loki stood looking at him, his mouth pressed tight and hard. "Yes," he said to the witch, "it really is remarkable work. Give me your hand, brother," he said, and took Thor's hand and put it on Mjolnir's haft.
"Loki — " Thor said.
Loki smiled at Thor, wintry. "Trust me, brother," he said softly. "And swing."
"What are you doing?" Allison said, jumping to her feet.
"If — if you are certain," Thor said, unhappily.
"Yes," Loki said, and Thor raised Mjolnir from the altar and brought it crashing down.
Tony shoved off a large section of roof to get to open air, and staggered up out of the pile of wreckage that had been the house. He reached down into the hole to help: Steve was bracing the beams with his shield. Natasha crawled out. "You okay?" he said.
"I've been better," she said, wiping a trickle of blood away from a few splinter cuts. They both held the roof while Steve pulled himself out.
A chunk of house exploded as Thor came bursting out Mjolnir-first, landing with a crunch. "My friends, you are not hurt?" he said.
"I'm feeling a little nauseous," Steve said, "but I'm pretty sure that was the scones."
They turned: Loki had just phased through the roof. He was carrying the body of the witch, by the scruff of her neck: her head was lolling at an improbable angle. He tossed her at their feet and looked them over. No one said anything for a moment. A long moment.
"I'm so very happy that I could be of help to all of you, and save you from this evil witch's trap," Loki said.
They stared. "Uh," Tony said after a moment, "you don't mean that." He paused. "Do you?"
"Of course not," Loki said. "You pathetic weak-minded idiots." He closed his eyes and smiled beatifically.
"Hang on a second," Steve said suddenly. "You did save us."
"Only incidentally," Loki said coldly. "Do you imagine I would ever bind myself to a mortal who would betray her entire world only for fear of death?" He snorted. "Don't expect any more favors from me," he added. "And as for you, my dear, unutterably stupid brother," he spat at Thor, "the next time you try to have me chained to your will, I'll gut you with a kithar."
"Loki!" Thor called, but it was too late: Loki had vanished.
Clint and Bruce came to pick them up in the Quinjet. "So we're all agreed," Clint said, looking pasty and sick, "the last four months have been a horrible dream, right? Don't tell me otherwise."
There was a wall of journalists six deep around the Tower: all the news channels were running stories demanding to know why the Avengers had put Loki on the team, with a second line of stories speculating on whether Loki had used mind control on the entire world. Thor looked out through the smoked window of the limo as it pulled into the house: a small bonfire of plush Loki dolls was burning on the sidewalk in front of the building.
"I owe you all my deepest apologies," Thor said quietly, when they'd all sat down in the living room together. Fury had debriefed them on the plane and SHIELD was going to handle the PR. "My folly nearly brought ruin upon all of you, and your realm."
Tony poured him a drink and slid it over to him across the table. "You got played," he said. "Don't beat yourself up."
The problem was, the spell was broken, but the effects hadn't all evaporated. Loki had been shoved into their brains for months. By now they were used to having him around, even though he wasn't anymore. Three days later they got sent to take out a HYDRA base hidden in the Amazon. Flying alongside the jet, Tony said into his comm, "Loki, keep us under wraps until I hit the front gates, then take the north tower, will you?" and they all waited expectantly for half a beat before Steve suddenly said, "He's not here! We don't have stealth — " just before the base opened up a barrage of fire in their faces.
They fought their way through it, finished the operation, and staggered back to base. It was even worse there. The silence where Loki wasn't making insulting remarks anymore didn't feel like the absence of their worst enemy; it felt like they'd lost a friend. Like they'd lost part of the team.
They all sat around pretending they all were fine, just fine, not in the least sad that Loki wasn't there, because what kind of idiot would be sorry to not have Loki around, except for Thor, who didn't pretend anything and just sat on the couch slumped and drinking his way through several six-packs with his eyes wet.
They all looked up as Loki landed on the balcony with a thump. Except Thor, who was slumped in on himself (he'd made it through the beer and moved on to Tony's 30-year-old Macallan). Loki shoved the doors open, looked around with a cool, supercilious air, and announced snottily, "In case it's escaped your acute perceptions, Dr. Doom has rebuilt his robot army in Antarctica and is preparing to launch it against you."
"What?" Steve sat up.
"Loki!" Thor said, springing to his feet. He wasn't very steady on his feet, so he managed to send the coffee table flying. The other end shot up and whacked Bruce hard under the chin.
"Ngarrrgghaaar!" the Hulk roared.
Three hours later, they all collapsed onto what was left of the couches, covered in dust. Bits of masonry and wiring dangled into the gaping hole looking out over Manhattan that had previously been a wall of the building.
"I'm going to have to buy another insurance company," Tony said. He dug the Macallan out from under the rubble — the bottle hadn't smashed — and took a swig straight from the neck.
Steve was sitting next to him, head lolling back over the back of the couch, staring at the ceiling. "Wait," he said. He struggled up and looked across the room at Loki. "What was that about Doom?"
Loki looked more than a little battered — the Hulk had managed to get hold of him at one point, which as always hadn't ended well for him; and to top it off he was jerking an arrow out of his side. Clint had yelled, "Watch out," right after it had flown off his bow towards the end of the melee, but he was eyeing Loki with narrow satisfaction that made it questionable just how accidental the shot had been. Loki was glaring right back at him; Thor had a hand planted firmly on Loki's other thigh, pinning him down to the couch, or else the fighting might not have been entirely over.
"Exactly what I said," Loki snapped. "He's rebuilt the robot army, and this time he's managed to somehow work magic into their construction. You won't be able to simply smash them apart."
"Great," Tony said, swigging again. "Giant magic robot army headed our way, check."
"When do they get here?" Natasha said.
"A week or so," Loki said.
"A week?" Steve put his hands over his face for a deep breath. "Okay," he said to all of them, straightening up. "We're going to have to pull the Fantastic Four in on this, maybe the X-Men — "
"Nah," Tony said. "It'll be a piece of cake."
"What?" Steve stared at him.
Tony waved the bottle in the air vaguely in Loki's direction. "You're in, right? Don't tell me you don't want to help take out a giant magic robot army. Come on, it'll be good times."
They all stared at him, then looked over: Loki's face was still and almost expressionless, his mouth drawn in small and tight; his eyes flicked to Thor, who had sat up with a sudden hope dawning in his face.
"Loki," Thor said, his voice strained and desperate. "Loki, will you — "
Loki sneered at all of them. "Don't imagine that I'm going to become the lapdog for your pathetic brotherhood," he said coldly, "or I'll rip your entrails out through your nostrils." Then he shrugged, elaborately. "That being said — "