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Lonely Way Back Home

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Agent Coulson looked up as Loki, Thor, and Steve Rogers entered his office in SHIELD's Los Angeles headquarters.

"Close the door behind you," he ordered, then gestured for the three to seat themselves. When they had, he went on, "We need to talk about this business with the television show next week."

"What of it?" asked Thor. "It was our understanding that SHIELD wishes for us to make this appearance."

Coulson managed to remain impassive and yet simultaneously pull a disgruntled face-- Loki found it fascinating, how he could do so-- before replying,

"It's not so much that SHIELD wants you to do it. It's more a matter of bowing to the inevitable, and trying to make the best of it. The Avengers are personalities--" Coulson uttered the word as if it were some malediction, although being Coulson he restrained himself from the use of "air quotes"-- "and people want to know more about you."

"Indeed," murmured Loki, who despite having no secret identity took a certain amount of trouble-- magical and otherwise-- to maintain what Midgardians referred to as a low profile.

"That's the way things are, these days," Coulson said, rather sourly.

"That's the way things always have been," Steve pointed out reasonably. "Or at least since before the war." No one, certainly not Loki, troubled to remind him that "the war" was not exactly a specific time reference on a world so prone to conflict as Midgard. Everyone in the room knew exactly the war of which he spoke. Steve went on, "I mean, I still remember the fuss people made over King Edward and Mrs. Simpson."

"And certainly the existence of mythology implies such interest has always existed," Thor added. With a sly sidelong glance at his brother, he went on, "Mortals have ever been fascinated with the doings of… personalities. Their adventures and conflicts. Their loves. Who among them has borne a foal-- I mean a child-- to another."

Clearly, Thor had gotten his hands upon a book of Norse mythology. Perhaps his beloved Dr. Jane Foster had loaned him her own.

"Who among them cuts the most attractive figure in a wedding gown," Loki retorted, without looking at his brother, who snickered.

"Knock it off, you two," ordered Coulson, and the two aliens-- aliens, and not gods of anything-- sat up straight and mimicked Steve's expression of earnest sincerity. Loki's was the more convincing, which meant that anyone in their right mind would realize it was false. Thor's was considerably marred by the crinkles around his eyes.

Coulson knew both brothers well enough to be aware they were mocking him but would also cooperate, so he let it alone and returned to the business of this meeting. "Now, the issue with the program is-- " he began, but Steve interrupted him.

"Wait, Agent Coulson, shouldn't Tony be here too? Since he's also appearing on the show?"

Loki cocked an eyebrow at the good captain, Thor looked patient, and Coulson frowned.

"Steve," the agent said evenly, "the briefing is about Tony." Before Steve could protest such base treachery, or argue the discussion should not be carried on behind Tony's back, Coulson explained, "The woman who hosts the program is an old friend of Tony's-- they’ve worked together on a number of charity events. That's actually one of the reasons you've been booked on her show in the first place: this is a fluff piece, strictly for PR purposes, not hard-hitting journalism. Nobody at SHIELD wants you answering serious policy questions, or to be put in a situation where you'll be badgered to reveal sensitive information. So it seemed smart to have you appear on a friendly daytime program whose host is unlikely to try to corner Tony and bait him into saying something controversial. This isn't a controversial show.

"But. You never know what might happen, if the host gets curious and Tony gets expansive and… indiscreet." Coulson paused, letting them all think about that. Tony could be indiscreet enough when he was being discreet.

"Come on, Agent Coulson," Steve spoke up loyally, "you know Tony wouldn't-- " Common sense made him stop and consider. Rather weakly, Steve completed the sentence: "Well, not on purpose."

"On purpose or by accident won't matter, if he blurts out information about our collaborations with British vampires and werewolves. For example." Coulson looked at Loki, who blanched at the idea, and then added, "Or if he accidentally mentions the name of a deep-cover agent, or something like that. You know Tony: his own life is more or less an open book, and he might forget himself, especially talking to a friend. You three are out, as it were: everybody knows who you are, and as Captain America and a couple of Norse gods--"

"Aliens," Loki corrected scrupulously.

"Gods, aliens, it's all the same to the viewing public. You're interesting. Tony's Iron Man, and everyone knows it. It would be very easy for him to do all the talking and let something slip, if his fellow guests were retiring or dull, so that's where you come in."

"You want us to head him off if he looks like he's about to get carried away?" Steve asked.

"Exactly," Coulson replied. "I'd do it myself, but it'd look bad if I had to taser him on camera to make him shut up." He looked briefly regretful, then glanced at the other three to ensure they understood their roles.

"I will not strike Tony with lightning!" Thor protested when Coulson's eye rested upon him. Assuredly Thor did not really believe Agent Coulson would ask such a thing of him, but Loki thought it wise of his brother to establish what they had heard Steve refer to as "the ground rules" at the outset.

"No, of course not," Coulson said patiently. "Anyway, that would look even worse."

"And probably set the studio on fire," Steve murmured.

"We just want you to be paying attention. If you realize he's going off in a direction that might, for instance, embarrass Dr. Banner or Agent Romanov or someone, intervene," Coulson went on, as though Steve had not spoken. "I'll be right off-camera, in a location visible to you, and if I get concerned I'll catch your eye. Otherwise, use your own judgment."

Thor looked considerably worried by that: being himself of an open, friendly disposition, he obviously considered himself the least likely of the three to notice an indiscretion of Tony's until it was too late. Loki rather thought Thor was giving himself too little credit, and spoke up.

"I take it you would wish for such intervention to take the form of a funny story about our difficulties in learning modern Midgardian ways, or perhaps of a harmless incident on some other realm?" he suggested. Thor's face cleared a little: he certainly grasped the differences between Aesir and human sensibilities, and thus knew the sort of story humans would consider harmlessly amusing. And he was willing enough, here on Midgard, to make sport of his own difficulties. As long as he was given some sort of signal, he would ably do his part.

"Exactly," Coulson agreed. "Or if it looks like a real emergency, you could turn yourself into a duck or something. Whatever."

"Very well," Loki agreed.

"The host will help you out," Coulson added. "Like I said, it's a friendly show, and you guys are all likable. She won't want to make you uncomfortable."

"Did she and Tony ever... " Steve looked embarrassed. "You know. I mean, before Pepper. Tony's always been pretty open about being, well-- "

"He was," Coulson agreed. "But no. I think it's safe to say she and Tony never... you know."

"Just wondering," Steve mumbled. Loki could not blame the captain for asking: after years of observing his brother's-- and more particularly his brother's friend Fandral's-- interactions with women, he knew quite well that what Steve referred to as you know could introduce a considerable amount of difficulty to any subsequent relationship. As a bystander, he counted himself lucky his brother and Sif, the shieldmaiden who was Thor's nearest dear companion back on Asgard, had never engaged in you know. The resultant awkwardness might easily have gotten someone killed.

"All right, that's all I needed to talk to you about," Coulson said, standing. "I'll see you back at Tony's place in an hour or so."

Loki was following Steve and Thor to the door when the agent added, "Actually-- if you could give me a second, Loki." When Thor and Steve looked back, Agent Coulson gestured for them to go on. A moment later, the door closed and Loki was left behind.

"Yes?" Loki asked, his tone and expression unconcerned. His stomach, on the other hand, felt most uneasy, and he found himself hastily considering all the possible ways he might have unwittingly done something to earn a rebuke from the quiet agent. Nothing immediately came to mind, but that did not mean there was not something.

Coulson sighed. "Calm down," he ordered, and Loki did not even try to pretend not to know what the agent meant. Coulson said bluntly, "When you're on the show-- don't start apologizing."

"I beg your pardon?" Loki inquired, then flushed in embarrassment, even though surely that did not count as a real apology. "What do you mean?" he asked next.

"When you're on the show," Coulson repeated, "SHIELD-- and Mi6, for that matter-- don't want you to get into your reasons for being here on Earth. Make up something harmless-- what's that thing British kids do, when they take some time to travel after they finish school? Gap year? Like that. And don't get into Puente Antiguo." Loki felt his face go even hotter. Agent Coulson certainly realized the fact Loki did not even try to suppress his guilty reaction was a gesture of trust, but he did not comment. Instead, he emphasized, "Don't bring it up. Or Jotunheim."

"You wish for me to create the impression that I am well-disposed and harmless," Loki said, trying not to sound accusing.

Coulson shrugged. "Well, to be fair, these days you are, at least to anyone who's 'well-disposed and harmless' themselves. And even when you weren't, there were extenuating circumstances."

"Insanity excuses everything," Loki muttered. "I was not as irrational as all that when I set the Destroyer on my brother, you know."

"The fact you're no longer banished, and a free citizen of Asgard again, suggests your dad sees it differently," Coulson said. "The point is, there isn't any need for you to get into details about your role in events you've already made amends and been pardoned for. Besides-- when you get right down to it, the only member of the Avengers whose closet doesn't rattle with skeletons is Steve. You're not the only one who's been allowed to move on and try to do better in the future. If you start apologizing for your past, it could open up the whole team to scrutiny, even though-- yes, I know-- you're technically not an Avenger. SHIELD and Mi6 would really prefer you don't do anything to draw that kind of attention."

"What if someone asks?" Loki said worriedly. Obviously, he would simply lie, but the prospect of facing such questions was unpleasant.

Coulson looked thoughtful. "The host won't. And the type of studio audience she attracts isn't likely to. SHIELD will be scrutinizing everyone who has tickets to the taping anyway, and if there's a question-answer period, our people will be in control of the microphone and relay questions to the stage. That's to avoid embarrassing anyone, especially SHIELD, not just you. Okay?"

"Okay," Loki agreed.

Coulson smiled, a few degrees warmer than his usual, meaningless one. "Just chat with the host and have fun. Believe me, nobody wants to make you out to be a villain anymore."

"Myself least of all," Loki agreed.

~oOo~

Loki needed to get back to Bristol, as he had to go to work in the morning, but after leaving the office he accompanied Thor-- whose lack of curiosity about his conversation with Coulson suggested he had been given an advance briefing of his own-- back to Tony Stark's sprawling home in Malibu. (Steve, it transpired, had been invited by Pepper to visit a gallery hosting a display of American artists he admired, and had left directly from the interview to meet her.)

The brothers joined Tony, as well as Drs. Foster and Banner, in the underground laboratory in which Tony made all his studies.

"Okay," Tony said cheerfully. "We've gotten the results back from those preliminary tests we did a few weeks ago." Loki and Thor had surrendered samples of saliva, hair, and--as a sorcerer, this was a considerable gesture of trust on Loki's part-- blood, and Tony had arranged for various tests to be run on them. "This won't come as any surprise to either of you, but the genetic comparison between Thor's samples and the ones we took from Loki in his Aesir form are identical, so far as species goes."

"I have already told you my Aesir form is a true one," Loki pointed out, trying not to sound affronted.

"I know, and we all believed you were right about that, but from the scientific point of view we had to confirm it," Tony explained-- not for the first time. "What else is interesting is, your DNA is of course completely different from anything we've seen before, but there were similarities between the two samples that parallel the similarities you get in mammals who are related by blood." Loki raised his eyebrows, Thor looked hopeful, and Tony spelled it out: "Whatever information your magic used when it created your Aesir form seems to have been gathered very directly from both your parents. In other words, you're Thor's brother from a genetic standpoint as well as a legal and emotional one."

While Loki and Thor digested that information, Jane spoke up.

"Also, the samples we took from you in your Jotun form apparently caused the lab equipment to go completely crazy, so, again, we're going to assume a complete transformation there as well. Meanwhile, the Aesir results indicate we can feel pretty safe in using Thor as a control subject while we run some tests on your magic. If you're still willing to participate, I mean."

"He has already promised he would do so," Thor defended his brother's integrity.

"We still have to ask him," Jane explained.

"But he gave you his word," Thor protested, looking upset that Jane would doubt Loki.

"Yes, but according to our rules, if he wants to change his mind, he can," Jane said firmly.

Loki glanced from her bright-eyed face to that of Bruce, and then Tony. The human scientists had pledged they would do nothing invasive, nor would they use any information gathered in these tests to, for instance, develop means of neutralizing Loki's powers should SHIELD ever wish it done. Jane and Tony, in fact, had looked saddened and horrified when Loki tentatively broached the possibility, which had made him feel wretchedly ashamed of himself. Bruce, whose knowledge of such issues was more... intimate... had been more understanding.

"I will be glad to cooperate," he assured them, almost entirely truthfully. He knew that Tony could be numbered among his friends, as, he hoped, could Jane. He and Bruce were not what could be termed "close," but there was mutual liking and a certain understanding between them, which might indeed develop into true friendship. Of course he could trust them.

"Really, I am happy to be part of your studies," Loki repeated, more sincerely this time. Bruce smiled in a way Loki found reassuring.

"Now," Tony said, enthusiasm bubbling in his voice, "we've talked about it, Jane and Bruce and I, and what we'd like to do today is measure some basic things like your blood pressure and respiration and temperature, so we have some comparisons for later while you cast magic. Okay?"

"Okay," Loki agreed.

"Great," Tony said cheerfully, and then his look went briefly penetrating as he added, "Since we don't really know what we're doing at this point, we figure we'll start with baby steps. Once we've examined the first sets of results and talked them over with you, you can decide whether you want to continue to participate. You can stop us at any time, okay? We won't pester you, or try to make you change your mind."

"But I have pledged-- " Loki began again, a little bewildered by Tony's and Jane's insistence on this point.

"You've agreed to indulge our curiosity," Bruce spoke up, "about something that's extremely important and very personal to you. But there's a thing in science called informed consent, remember we talked about it?" Loki nodded. "That means that you, as the volunteer, always have the right to know exactly what's going on, and you can withdraw your consent at any time and for any reason."

"You mean a good reason, do you not?" Loki asked.

"Any reason is a good reason," Bruce said firmly. "If you find the process uncomfortable, or embarrassing, or a little scary, or if you think we're being too nosy or you just get bored -- "

"If there's a Formula One race on television, and you want to go watch it instead," Tony chipped in, with a glance at the McLaren Racing Group logo on the chest of Loki's t-shirt.

"Right. Any reason at all. Including to reassure yourself that we really will stop when you tell us to," Bruce said.

"You seem to believe I do not trust you," Loki protested, feeling his face flame. He did not look at Thor, not eager to see his brother's reaction to such implied insults to the honour of his friends.

Bruce shrugged. "If you didn't trust us, I very much doubt we'd be here in the first place. But even if we don't know anything about magic, we do understand that poking around at it in any way is already a bit of an invasion. We understand that you're letting us do something you wouldn't let just anybody do. That being the case, the last thing we, as your friends, want to do is make you feel you're somehow compelled to let us do anything we want to you, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable. If you ask us to stop, we'll stop. We promise."

"On our honour, as scientists," Jane added. "Okay? Here on... Midgard, scientists have a duty to respect the rights and wishes of the volunteers who help us. Obviously, we hope you'll find what we do interesting and maybe even fun, but if you don't and you want us to stop-- say so and we will. Promise. Okay?"

"Okay," Loki agreed, feeling awkward but also reassured.

"Great," Bruce said calmly. "Now, we'd like to spend a little time today establishing your physical norms, as well as Thor's as our control Aesir."

"If you expect my 'physical norms' to look anything like Thor's, I believe you will be doomed to disappointment," Loki objected.

"Come now, brother, let me join in," Thor said mildly.

"That was not what I meant," Loki mumbled self-consciously.

"Well, if you'd like to recruit some more Aesir to give us a better control group, that would be awesome," Tony said. "As it is, we'd like to measure your resting heart rate, blood pressure, temperature and respiration first. Okay?"

Loki and Thor both nodded.

The measurements of which Tony spoke were straightforward. There was a little trouble over the measurement of Thor's blood pressure, since this required a stretchy band to be wrapped around his upper arm and the largest size they could procure kept flying open every time Thor moved. The scientists had finally to resort to adding an extra piece of fabric, attached with silvery tape. Then there was further difficulty when they attempted to measure Thor's internal temperature by means of a device inserted into his ear.

"Come on, Thor, stop giggling," Tony ordered, leaning in to read the device.

"It tickles," Thor protested. "Also, you are breathing on me."

"Will you quit squirming? I feel like an Asgardian pediatrician."

"That sounds very painful," Thor snickered.

Tony gave up. "Jane, can you take over here?"

"Well-played, brother," Loki congratulated, as Jane took Tony's place leaning against Thor.

After the first tests, the brothers permitted Tony to affix various "sensors" to their bodies, to take the same readings while the wearers ran upon a sort of moving mechanical path. Those tests completed, the three investigators summarized them for Thor and Loki's benefit.

"Thor, your resting temperature is a bit higher than Loki's-- " both brothers snorted, which Bruce, reporting, pretended not to notice-- "and Loki's blood pressure and heart rate are just a little bit higher than Thor's. The numbers actually even out when you're exercising, at least at the rate we used in the experiment."

"We have one last request to make of you today," Tony said. "The box."

"What box is that?" asked Thor, and Loki, who had once read a very disturbing myth concerning a fictitious Loki imprisoned by a giant, felt himself blanch. The glance Thor cast at Loki suggested his own reading of mythology might have encompassed the same story.

"Agents Coulson and Hill will explain. Follow me," Tony said, and his expression reflected only cheery anticipation of fun to be had. Reassured, but still allowing Thor to precede him, Loki followed the scientists into a second smaller room where Agents Coulson and Hill waited.

The "box" turned out to be a small suitcase, and to Loki's relief it was abundantly clear that no one was meant to be put inside it. Agent Coulson opened it to reveal an electronic device that bore a passing resemblance to the "instrument panels" Loki had seen when riding in Midgardian aircraft.

"This is a polygraph machine," explained Agent Hill. Thor and Loki nodded earnestly, totally bewildered. Hill went on patiently, "It measures some of the same processes as the earlier tests you just went through. The difference is, in the previous tests you were either at rest or physically active. This particular machine measures those processes when you're under mild psychological stress." The brothers looked even more earnest, but also more confused.

"The purpose of the machine is to measure the physiological differences that occur when you're telling us something factual, as opposed to making it up," Coulson took up the explanation. "It operates on the expectation that people-- humans, at any rate-- feel at least mild stress when they're inventing an answer to a question."

"Lying, in other words," Loki spoke up. "This is a machine meant to detect falsehoods? I have heard reference to such devices in American television programs concerning the activities of the police."

Thor looked rather offended, but Coulson only shrugged. "Okay, you got me: this is the machine used by police forces in what they call 'lie detector tests.' Which is frankly a gross oversimplification, and also an over-estimation of its accuracy."

"It assumes that humans find the act of lying to be worrying, and so their physiological processes reflect that," Loki said. His expression, he knew, reflected his opinion of such beliefs.

"Exactly," interjected Agent Hill. "It's not accepted as totally accurate, and its results are not admissible as evidence in American courts of law. However, for Tony's purposes it's not a bad idea: he's asked us to use it to try to determine whether either of you show different responses when you're making something up. Tony, maybe you should explain your thinking."

"Sure," said Tony, looking slightly uneasy. "It's not that we want to catch you lying, we just want to know whether you and Thor register any kind of different readings when you're, you're inventing a story. Then we'll see whether your reactions are similar when you're casting magic. It's the best means we have of measuring your responses when you're doing mental work, similar to the physical work we measured earlier."

"We have no idea whether the results will even make sense," Jane added. "But we'd like to give it a try."

Loki chewed his lip, then nodded. Thor, who had been watching him carefully, spoke up:

"I should like to go first, brother, if you will permit me."

"Actually," said Bruce, "Jane has volunteered to give a demonstration."

Jane accordingly stepped forward, bright-eyed, to be sat down in a straight chair with arms. Agent Hill placed straps containing the sensors around Jane's torso, set smaller ones around two of her fingers, ascertained that Jane was comfortable, and stepped back.

"Have you got the list of questions?" she asked Tony.

"Here you go," Tony replied, handing over a printed sheet. To the others he explained, "We've made up lists of questions we already know the answers to. Jane is going to answer with a simple yes or no. Some of the time she's going to answer truthfully, and other times with a made-up answer."

"It really is all right for you to say lie in my presence," Loki remarked, beginning to be amused-- and also rather touched that they seemed so set upon not alarming or offending him. Tony smiled at him and turned back to Jane.

"Ready, Jane?"

"Ready," Jane confirmed cheerfully. Agent Hill smoothed out the paper she held, Agent Coulson leaned over the machine, and the questioning began.

"Is your name Jane Foster?"

"Yes."

"Do you hold a doctorate in astrophysics?"

"Yes."

"Have you ever gone to Gloucester, in a shower of rain?"

Jane began to giggle. "Yes!"

The process took some fifteen or twenty minutes. It was quickly apparent the questioning was not intended to elicit the sort of anxiety Loki had seen in the television programs concerning policework: Jane was asked to confirm or deny questions related to the universities at which she had studied, her favourite foods, and whether she had ever pined for love of a vampire who sparkled in the sunlight. (Her "No!" to this carried the unmistakable ring of truth.)

By the end of the questioning Jane was giggling quite a lot, and had to compose herself before moving on to the final section-- not part of the ordinary process, at least as far as the television had shown-- in which she was asked to tell two stories about herself, one true and the other fictitious.

Jane's first story concerned her arrival at the University of Albuquerque to take up her position as something called a "post-doctoral fellow," and her battles with the bureaucracy of the university. These were incredible enough that Loki would have been inclined to believe this was Jane's made-up story, had her second not been a lively account of her role as a spy for the Rebel Alliance against the evil Empire, her theft of some plans for a great battle star and subsequent capture and imprisonment, and her eventual rescue by a ragtag crew including an old man, a young man, a being resembling a big walking carpet, and a very attractive intergalactic smuggler.

When Tony called a halt to the test, Thor gazed at his beloved in wide-eyed admiration.

"Truly, Jane," he said earnestly, "I had no idea you had led a life of such varied adventure! Although I confess myself very interested in the question of what became of the handsome space brigand."

Tony and Bruce exchanged alarmed glances, and Tony said carefully, "Uh, Thor, she was-- "

At which point Thor and Jane both began to laugh uncontrollably. Loki found himself -- and not for the first time-- wishing that Jane was not mortal, and therefore only likely to live another sixty or seventy years.

As Jane was speaking, the machine had been graphing her responses to each question. Agent Coulson had marked any indicators of special note, and now he explained the results to the others.

"Obviously, this was nothing like a standard test," Coulson said in his even, calm voice, "but I think it might really get at the information you need. See here, every time Jane gives an untrue answer to a question, there's a little spike in her heart rate, but we also see the same thing when she finds a question funny. Her reactions to stress or emotion are especially obvious when she's telling her stories-- here's quite a big spike, when she talks about dealing with campus IT, that must have been quite a day-- "

"You have no idea," Jane assured him.

Agent Coulson nearly smiled. "But when she's telling her made-up story-- " Thor and Jane began to laugh again-- "her pulse and respiration are consistently, noticeably higher than usual. Since it's unlikely she actually found the story stressful to tell-- yes, Thor, I know, such a tale of desperate adventure-- it's possible you're seeing an indication of her interest, and the effort of making up the story."

"Remembering it," Jane said. Tony rolled his eyes. Jane kicked him gently in the ankle. "You know what I mean-- remembering the plot of the movie."

"I'd love to see what your brain waves were doing when you were telling that story," Tony remarked.

"Well, you keep after the medical supplier for that portable EEG, and I'll be glad to tell it again," Jane replied.

"EEG?" Loki asked politely.

"Electroencephalography machine," Jane explained. "It measures brain activity."

"We can talk about EEGs after we've finished this round," Tony said quickly. "One thing at a time. Especially since we don't even have a machine yet."

Loki raised an eyebrow. "I find it difficult to believe you would have any trouble obtaining an item of technology."

"Well, no," Tony admitted. "It's more a matter of finding one Bruce and I can easily learn to operate and interpret by ourselves. The testing is no big deal, incidentally-- you just have to wear a silly hat, with sensors on it. I'm sure you can handle that."

Loki glared. "You did tell me I could withdraw my consent at any time and for any reason, did you not? And besides, as I recall, the last time I wore a silly hat, it was pressed upon me by you." Loki did not address, and no one made an issue of, the question of where the idea for the said silly hat-- actually a helmet with giant golden horns-- had come from in the first place.

Tony smiled charmingly. "And you wore it very well. Okay, which of you characters wants to go first?"

This stage of testing took nearly an hour, by which time Loki was becoming a little restless and beginning to wish to go home. Still, the test itself was quite amusing-- indeed, it was worth the use of Loki's free afternoon just to watch Bruce and Tony's faces as they tried to guess which of Thor's tales of swashbuckling adventure were true. The penny finally dropped when, toward the end of the second story, Thor mournfully described the deleterious effect upon his character of a magical ring carried by one of the company.

"I'd have pegged you more for Aragorn than Boromir," Tony remarked. Loki could only agree.

"In that you would be mistaken," Thor replied. "I have not his patience, and certainly not his reticence."

"And where was I in all this, brother?" Loki demanded.

"Oh, by that point in the story you had valorously defended the company from the menaces of a hideous Balrog, and had fallen-- " Thor, to Loki's astonishment and horror, fell abruptly and totally silent, his face draining of colour and his eyes filling with tears. Loki stepped hastily forward, crouched, planted both hands on Thor's knees and made his brother look him in the eyes.

"From which I returned with no harm done, and having gained new wisdom. Yes, I recall the incident perfectly now. Although I must say, I feel some sympathy for the poor Balrog, who was only being a Balrog."

"You two ready to switch now?" Bruce asked hastily, and Thor nodded.

Loki did his best to lighten the mood by responding in the affirmative to the most ridiculous of the questions posed him: yes, he had once spent time as an owl (this was in fact true), during which time he had indeed become enamoured of a pussycat (not true, at least not in the sense the question seemed to imply) and had gone with her to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat (green not being one of Loki's favourite colours, he had some doubt about whether a boat in such a shade could even be beautiful.)

Thor appeared quite recovered by the time Loki began to tell his stories. Mostly to be contrary, Loki refrained from rehearsing any tales of past adventure. Instead, he related an account of his first effort at riding a city bus alone, and ending up at the end of the line, across the bridge from the city, with no idea where he was or how to get home. That was his made-up story-- Annie, his housemate, had taken care to ensure he fully understood the bus system before he ever attempted such travel alone.

Loki's true story concerned his efforts to learn to use the clothes-washing machine that dwelled in the basement of the little house in Bristol, and how in confused frustration he had finally cast upon it a spell that resulted in a basement flooded with soapy water, and a sea serpent to do the job of thrashing the wet clothing into a state of cleanliness.

"Annie was not best pleased when she beheld my efforts," Loki admitted, and he did not confess how dismayed he had been at her disapprobation.

"I've heard of people doing a half-assed job at a chore to get out of ever having to do it again," remarked Tony, "but that really is ridiculous."

Loki assumed an expression of offended innocence. "But the clothing was rendered very clean, and I sent away the water and the serpent when the job was done. Besides, I have since become quite proficient in such matters, and often do the washing of our entire household." Which was well-known to everyone present, since only this past Christmas he had performed this task for all of the Avengers.

"Well, don't tell Pepper," Tony shuddered. "She'll be after me to learn to do something useful, too. Okay, I think we're done here. Agent Hill, could you-- ?"

Agent Hill released Loki from the sensors, which he had successfully avoided thinking of as restraints, and the entire group decamped upstairs to a comfortable sitting room with a view over the Pacific Ocean. Tony plied the company with drinks-- Bruce, as was his custom, refused alcohol in favour of grapefruit juice with sparkling water. Since he had not enjoyed his only taste of the liquor Tony called Scotch, Loki joined him in that choice.

Agent Coulson produced the marked-up results of the polygraph tests and interpreted them to the company.

"I find this interesting," he said calmly, indicating Thor's test results. "Thor isn't a particularly plausible liar, on the occasions when he tries, but from these results it seems he doesn't seem to find it actually stressful. His test results are pretty much the same all the way through, whether he tells the truth or not."

Thor frowned. "Is that bad?"

Coulson shrugged. "It just is. And probably reflects the fact you know this is a game, so you're not too concerned about it. Loki, now-- "

"Yes?" asked Loki, trying to conceal a sudden, powerful wish for his own falsehoods to be undetectable, too. Lying had always been one of his few talents, practically the only thing at which he could best his brother-- although it had since transpired he was wrong in his assumption that he was the only or most adept liar in his family-- and he was loath to give that up.

Agent Coulson laid out the paper before them. "See for yourself."

It took a moment, but Bruce finally spoke.

"It looks," he said slowly, "as if you have more of a reaction to telling the truth." Loki examined the paper before him and was forced to agree: the spikes representing extra effort-- or possibly anxiety-- all seemed to occur when Loki spoke honestly.

"Well," he mumbled, embarrassed and afraid this was shameful, "I am after all the so-called God of Lies." Which was weak, and he knew it: Loki was not a god of anything at all, and there must be something wrong with one who told lies so fluently but apparently worried about telling the truth.

Agent Coulson did not look up from the paper, but he said in his flat voice, "Again, this is an artificial test, and you certainly had nothing at stake with your lies." Which rather begged the question of what consequences Loki could possibly think would result from his telling the truth, particularly in this company. Still without looking up, Coulson went on, "And you're unlikely to have gotten over the instincts of a lifetime in just a couple of years. This is kind of an interesting anomaly, but I wouldn't worry much about it."

"No?" Loki asked, trying not to sound hopeful.

"No," Coulson said decidedly. He glanced up with one of his faint smiles. "If it makes you feel any better, Natasha and I can both make the box give any result we want. We could probably teach you."

"Well," Tony broke in, "don't explain your technique until after we've had a chance to finish the first round of testing on magic. Another drink, anyone?"

Everyone accepted, and Tony turned the discussion to the upcoming television appearance, and then to a concert to which the Avengers and their friends had been invited at a large sports complex afterward. Loki was uncomfortably aware of the beating of his own heart, which eventually subsided to a rate that would probably be taken for calm unconcern by the polygraph machine.

He was being silly, of course. His heart had indeed once betrayed him-- or perhaps he had betrayed it-- into villainy, but intent counted for more than the rate of movement of blood, and he would not fall into evil and folly again. He would not.

Loki leaned back in the comfortable sofa, at the other end from Thor and Jane, and after a while he felt able to join in the conversation.

~oOo~

The emissary had been kept waiting for long enough that most humans would have begun to feel either anxious or impatient. The small, neat, soberly-dressed man who was eventually shown into the throne room seemed to feel neither of those emotions. He strode in a few paces in front of the guards, came to a halt at an appropriate distance from the throne, and bowed to its masked occupant with the correctness of one who has been raised at court.

At such close proximity, it was possible to tell the small, neat, soberly-dressed man was not in fact a man at all.

The being on the throne felt a prickle of interest.

"You have come a considerable distance to seek audience," he stated.

"I have," replied the creature who looked like a man. After a brief pause he went on, "My name is Edgar Wyndham. I come as an emissary of my... people."

"To what purpose?"

Edgar Wyndham's eyes glittered. "We have certain... interests... which are not incompatible with yours. It is our hope that we might find ways to... join forces, and so defeat those who have until now thwarted our aims."

The masked figure leaned forward on his throne, a gesture as much of intimidation as attentiveness. It was a rare petitioner who resisted the urge to draw back, but Edgar Wyndham stood his ground with perfect calm.

"And what might be those... interests... you believe we have in common?"

Wyndham's smile was a thing of sharp teeth and fell humour.

"Power," he said simply.

"Indeed," said Victor Von Doom.