It was late autumn afternoon. Grey clouds rolled slowly over Manhattan shrouding the setting sun from view. The air was humid with mist and smog slowly condensing into a nasty drizzle.
Tony was lounging on his comfortable and pricy couch pointedly ignoring Steve’s rambling about team meetings. So what if he missed one, or all of them, they never discussed anything important anyway. And besides, watching Fury’s ugly mug for over an hour was a real downer. He obviously had better things to do. Like teach DUM-E how to do cupcakes, totally legit work. Bruce was doing a crossword-puzzle and sipping his god awful herbal tea, unconcerned with Steve’s lecture. Tony supposed that no one wanted to try and order him around anyway.
Suddenly the drizzle outside turned into an outright downpour and a low rumble shook the Avengers Tower. The superheroes looked at themselves confused.
‘Thor?’ Tony asked standing up from his sprawl and going to the vast floor-to-ceiling windows separating the lounge from his landing pad and balcony.
As if summoned, the god materialized outside, drenched from the rain, Mjölnir in hand and another figure huddled close to him. At first Tony couldn’t recognize who it was, then another lightning flashed and the inventor was left dumbfounded. It was not possible.
‘Is that Loki with him?’ Bruce asked quietly.
And indeed it was. The God’s of Mischief face was turned towards Thor’s chest, his hand tightly gripping the Thunderer’s breastplate, but it was definitely him.
The older god said something that made Loki shook his head in denial, but Thor didn’t relent and gently tugged him towards the stunned Avengers.
Tony could hear Bruce’s breathing speeding up and he himself felt a stab of anger in his chest, right next the arc reactor.
Then Thor stopped in front of them with Loki still pressed close to his side.
‘May we enter?’ The Thunderer asked Tony. Even being called the Avengers Tower now it was still Tony’s building. Rain was pouring down the god’s golden hair and face and his wet red cape seemed to weight ten times more than normal. Stark could almost swear that he looked much older than the last time they saw him.
‘What is he doing here?’ The engineer growled. Shouldn't he be rotting in a fucking dungeon somewhere deep under your fairy land?’
‘Please friends, let me explain,’ Thor started.
‘Then explain and better do it quickly, before I have Jarvis call Fury,’ Tony was seething. How could he bring the Trickster back here after all that happened in New York because of him? After all they went through and the damage the city and its people suffered.
He then heard a familiar voice, except that it was muffled and very faint.
‘Clearly your friends do not want me here brother. We should seek accommodations elsewhere.’
Loki’s voice was wrong. It lacked the god’s normal overwhelming presence and confidence. Instead it sounded strained and resigned.
'Nay brother, you require their healer’s assistance and a place where you can rest undisturbed. Please Anthony!’ The Thunderer begged and it was really heart breaking to listen. Tony quickly glanced at Steve and Bruce, then nodded.
'Alright, but no tricks, you understand?’
‘I can assure you, I am currently unable to perform any ‘tricks’ that you are so afraid of,’ Loki snorted, but it came out weak and without his usual malice.
Tony really looked at him then. Everything about the Trickster was off. His posture, his voice, the way he clung to Thor as if he was going to faint if he would let go. A dark blue cloak was draped over his shoulders and head obscuring his face from view. Its glossy material shone with droplets of rain reminding Tony of stars on a cloudless night sky. He didn't like this, his gut told him something was about to happen, yet he motioned for them to come inside.
Thor let his wet cape drop to the floor and hugged Loki even closer. The younger god didn’t protest, which as far as Stark knew was out of his character, and let himself be hauled to the sofa.
‘I am not sure where to begin,’ Thor admitted looking lost.
‘Maybe at the beginning? When you left us and took Loki back to Asgard?’
‘It was as you say Steven. Upon returning home I handed Loki to the guards and they escorted him away. I then went to speak to the All-Father. I told him what transpired on Midgard, but he already knew everything thanks to his faithful ravens’ eyes - Hugin and Munin. He then promised he would judge Loki accordingly and justly and that I should not be concerned with him any longer.
There were skirmishes throughout the Nine Realms that demanded my attention and it was my duty as a prince to lead our army to put an end to them and restore peace anew.
Thus I believed in my father’s wisdom and left Loki in his hands, thinking that he would be judged fairly, took the Einherjar and with the aid of our sorcerers and the Tesseract, left Asgard. At the time Bifrost was still under construction, so there was no easy path between the realms for me to come back and make sure everything was as it should have been.’
Thor was absentmindedly stroking Loki’s long hair. Tony was starting to think it suspicious that the Trickster wouldn’t look them in the faces, hiding instead. He was about to ask, but the Thunderer continued his story.
‘It was only a short time ago that I had finally returned home and upon my arrival I was immediately confronted by my mother – Queen Frigga. I noticed she looked weary, almost ill and I was alarmed. With haste she took me to her private chambers and told me of Odin’s madness. My father would not listen to reason. He was blinded by rage and hatred while devising punishment for my brother. No one was able to appease him, even my mother, who was always his most trusted advisor.
We then hastened together, shrouded from my father’s all-seeing gaze, to Loki’s cell. And when I laid my eyes upon him… I…’ Thor visibly shuddered, but Tony was more focused on Loki. The God of Mischief had become very rigid, was barely breathing, but his shoulders shook with tension.
‘It was beyond anything I could have ever imagined. It was barbaric and cruel,’ his voice broke and he hugged Loki closer to his chest. After a moment he recovered enough to continue. With a gentle touch he brushed away a stray strand of hair from Loki’s face. He was looking at him with such love and devotion. Tony couldn’t understand how, after all that Loki did to Thor, the older god was still able to love him so much. The inventor then glanced at his two companions. Bruce seemed calmer now, probably not turning green anytime soon, and Steve was looking at the brothers with furrowed brows.
Tony was wondering what kind of cruelties could cause a god such distress when he heard Loki’s voice.
‘No, I shall not!’
‘Brother they have to understand,’ Thor pleaded.
‘I refuse to be a source of amusement for them.’
‘Loki please,’ The Thunderer then gently directed his brother’s face towards them and it really was a huge miracle that Tony didn’t puke out his lunch on the spot. Beside him, Bruce abruptly stood up and left the room. On his other side Cap made a strangled noise.
Loki’s face was in ruin. His lips were bloody and there was still a piece of a thread hanging from a corner of his mouth. They looked like they have been stitched together. But the upper part was even worse. The skin around his eyes looked like it has melted away. The wound appeared raw and very painful and pus was slowly seeping from his eyes. Which, Tony noticed, were dead… His brilliant, green irises turned grey and milky. When the engineer finally mustered his courage and looked closer, he became certain that Loki was blind. It was a fucking nightmare.
‘Does it please you? The Trickster rasped. ‘The punishment. Does it please the heroes of Midgard to see their enemy defeated and punished accordingly?’ The younger god wanted to push himself away from his brother, but clearly lacked the strength to do so. ‘Are you satisfied?’ Loki continued. His voice starting to sound manic and he clawed at Thor’s arm to be set free. ‘Tell me!’
Tony looked at him in horror. Loki’s mouth started bleeding again and he was shaking so hard, he could barely stand straight.
‘Please stop,’ Steve whispered next to Tony. He was looking at Loki with teary eyes.
‘Why, dear Captain, does it not appeal to your sense of justice? Should you not applaud Odin All-Father for his choices?’ Steve could only shake his head in disbelieve. He was rendered speechless.
‘Loki enough,’ Thor gently tugged at his hand. ‘Those Midgardians are honourable, they would not celebrate at seeing you like this.’
The Trickster finally relented and let himself be dragged down to the cushions. Tony’s mind was totally blank. He couldn’t comprehend how someone could sentence another being to such fate, even more so, his own kin.
It has been over two years since the failed invasion. Has Loki been tortured the whole time? How was he even alive after something like that?
‘How…? How did this happen?’ he croaked out. Suddenly his throat was drier than a desert.
‘He was chained down in a special cell and an enchanted serpent was placed above him to drip venom onto him.’ Thor deadpanned.
The thunderstorm outside intensified. Wind howled and rattled the windows as lightning slashed through the grey clouds continuously.
‘Jesus,’ Tony whispered. Steve hid his face in his hands. ‘Couldn’t you have used magic to heal yourself or something?’ He addressed Loki directly for the first time.
‘Whatever for? So the lovely process would start anew? Why waste the energy. Besides our gracious and benevolent ruler made sure it would not be possible,’ the god sneered. He then shoved his sleeve up and extended his arms for them to look at. They were marred with black and intricate markings that covered his porcelain skin from wrist to shoulder and probably also stretched over his torso. They seemed to pulse in rhythm with Loki’s heart (if godly heartbeat was similar to that of a human) and move slightly, like a parasite, still growing underneath his skin. They looked revolting.
‘I am unable to summon my Seiðr at will. Those sigils prevent me from doing so and any attempt at spell casting results in immense pain,’ he said with a flat voice, as if the topic wasn’t at all distressing to him. His unseeing eyes moved over them.
‘This must be a happy day for you, to see your hated enemy reduced to a mere shadow of his former glory, now only an empty husk.’
‘Loki please,’ The Thunderer whispered brokenly.
‘Oh Thor, do not deny your shield-brother’s this moment to gloat at my defeat’ Loki mocked. His hands were shaking badly.
Tony felt as if someone froze his insides. It was painful to watch Loki like that.
Of course, he initially wanted him to suffer after the whole failed invasion, but not like that, never like that. It was too much, too cruel. Tony remembered Loki as a proud prince of a foreign world, strutting through his landing pad, their short, witty banter that ultimately ended with Tony thrown out a window. But then Loki was beaming with confidence and pride, back straight and a mocking smirk on his face. This creature before him was anything but that, like a photonegative of that previous Loki. Tormented, exhausted and feral. Even his clothes were plain, just a simple brown tunic and trousers under the blue cloak. He didn’t even have shoes.
Tony took in all that and he felt only pity for the Trickster god and anger at his so-called father. The engineer exhaled audibly.
‘You can stay for as long as you need to. We can accommodate Loki in your suite Thor…’
‘No!’ the younger god protested.
‘…or you can stay in Pepper’s old rooms on my floor. She doesn’t use them anymore.’ Tony was a bit surprised at the Trickster’s outburst. He was clinging to Thor for dear life just a moment ago and now he didn’t want to live with him? ‘Those are the only two options I can give you. All other floors are occupied.’
‘Then I shall take the other set of rooms,’ Loki decided.
Thor looked at him with confusion.
‘Brother I don’t understand… why would you not want to share my chambers. We did so in the past!’
‘That is exactly why. I know you well enough to be sure I would not be left alone to my own devices.’
Loki’s mask of boredom was back on.
The Thunderer looked hurt.
‘Sooo… it’s decided?’ Tony asked after a moment of awkward silence. At Thor’s nod he rose from his spot and motioned for them to follow. ’Okay then, let me show you the way. Jarvis turn the AC on in Pepper’s old rooms for a bit of fresh air, would you?’
‘Certainly sir,’ the AI responded for the first time since the gods’ arrival. Thor knew about him, so he wasn’t terribly surprised, but Loki flinched while trying to maintain a bored mask on his face.
‘Ah, sorry sorry, introductions,’ the inventor motioned in a general direction of the ceiling. ‘Thor, Loki this is Jarvis. Jarvis, Thor and Loki. They will be staying with us for the time being.’
‘It’s a pleasure, sirs.’ The AI responded with his perfect English accent.
Thor nodded back probably confused a little and Loki didn’t seem to care to acknowledge him at all.
‘A bit of clarification,’ Tony continued. ‘Jarvis is an AI, as in artificial intelligence. He’s a computing system that I created and he manages all my houses and other affairs.’
‘I am your glorified babysitter, sir.’
‘Don’t sass me J.’ Tony laughed.
‘I would never, sir. Those were Miss Pots’ words.’
‘Oh. Anyway, here we are. The sheets probably need changing, but other than that it’s habitable.’
Tony opened the doors with a flourish, but the motion was futile since the person who was supposed to live there couldn’t even see it. ‘This suite consists of three spacious rooms. Here’s the lounge, a study to the right and a bedroom to the left with an adjoined bathroom and a walk-in closet. If you need anything ask Jarvis, he can answer all your questions and/or notify me or any other inhabitant if necessary.’
‘Thank you Anthony,’ Thor flashed him a sad smile. He seemed reluctant to let Loki go. Tony could understand that. When Pepper was moving away after their break up and the shit with Mandarin was dealt with, he also didn’t want to let her go.
‘Yeah, no problem Blondi. You guys make yourself comfortable here and I will find Bruce to see if he can treat his wounds, okay?’ Loki just shrugged. He seemed exhausted. The Thunderer guided him toward the sofa while Tony was leaving. ‘Come Steve, I’ll give you a fresh set of sheets for him.’
Tony found Bruce at his private lab, nursing a cup of cold herbal tea. He approached casually making some noise to not startle his friend.
‘You better now?’
‘I don’t know. It’s just so fucked up!’ The scientist raked a hand through his unruly hair.
Well if Bruce was swearing he had to be really shaken. Not that Tony was surprised. His science buddy was a big hug bear at heart.
‘Yeah, tell me about it,’ he sighed loudly and leaned on the nearest table.
‘His own father Tony, Jesus. I shouldn’t feel sympathy for him, but it’s so hard not to in those circumstances.’ Bruce shook his head.
‘And I thought that Howard was bad when he temporally disowned me for blowing up his priced collection of cars.’
Banner chuckled mirthlessly.
‘I was 9. It was an experiment to see for what he cared more. I then concluded that inanimate objects had more value for him than animated ones.’ The engineer grimaced. ‘Anyway, are you up to give Loki a check-up? He really needs it.’
Bruce swivelled lukewarm tea in his cup and sighed.
‘I think, I can manage.’ After a moment of hesitation he asked quietly. ‘What are we getting ourselves into Tony?’
‘I don’t know buddy. I don’t know, but it will be one hell of a bumpy ride.’ The inventor patted his shoulder and started towards the elevator.
~ ~ ~