“We should give them a moment to themselves,” said Steve, turning his back on the cell monitor so he wouldn't see the doubtless intensely personal and private conversation between Thor and his evil maniac of a brother. “If they could just talk this through like adults...”
Tony laughed, chucked the char-grilled stabilizer he'd been tinkering with into the trunk of broken suit parts by the door and slouched into the swivel chair by the monitor, rolling it back and forth with one foot. “Yeah, except Loki's main superpower is fucking your brain out of your ears with words. Magic shackles or not, I still reckon we should gag him. Asking Thor to talk to him? It's like putting a puppy in a mincer and expecting it to...”
His foot came down with a thud, the chair rolled forward to the sound of shouting from the screen. Steve tried not to listen, but it felt like a futile gesture with Tony there, glued to the feed, and there was something about the distant sound of Loki's “Don't!” raw and honest, that pulled him around despite himself.
“Oh hey!” Tony said, sharp, dismayed. “Oh hey, whoa!”
“You chose to make me your enemy,” Thor's voice, grimmer than Steve had ever heard it, heavy as his hammer, “and I have defeated you. Now I will tame you.”
Tony leaped to his feet. Steve turned to see him braced, bracketing the screen with his arms, leaning in, his face waxy with confusion and disbelief. The sound of a body hitting the wall and tearing cloth, Loki gasping in breath, hissing, a slight, panicky edge of desperation to his words.
“I am your brother! You will shame yourself and all your kin, far worse than I have ever managed... Ah! Don't! Let me go! Let me go!”
Steve couldn't connect his own thoughts – didn't really want to – and at that thought he knew he was being a coward, and he shoved at Tony's shoulder to get him to move aside. He needed to see for himself that the suspicions he'd started to have of his dear friend and comrade in arms were as utterly unfounded as he wished them to be.
The loud crack of an open palm hitting flesh, twice, and he was ashamed of himself when he thought Oh, thank God, he's just roughing him up a little.
Thor's voice, hoarse with fury. “Would you lie back and take this like a woman? Fight me!”
Laughter like sprayed acid, “Because with my magic bound and my wrist chained to the wall, I'm so likely to win. No, Thor, I'm not making this more fun for you... No! Argh... ah, no!” A strangled noise, half sob, half whimper, and then the laughter again, madder than ever, mingled with tears. “Whatever will Mother say?”
All right, this had clearly gone well past the time to stop and watch. Steve bolted for the door, and heard Tony, mumbling “Shit! Shit! Shit!” to himself, pulling a suitcase suit from the racks and tooling himself up in preparation to follow.
The cells were in the basement, the monitoring room on the top floor of Avengers' Tower, next to the office. By the time he had jumped out and slid down the lift cable, fumbled with the key cards and access codes and optical recognition devices – all so cheerily calm and unhurried he would have ripped them from the wall in frustration had he been Thor, he was pretty certain the worst had already happened. And on his watch.
Had he been Thor – there was a thought he wasn't ever going to entertain again. But what...? But how...?
He couldn't even throw open the cell door, automated as it was to prevent injury, had to shove on it and overload the hydraulics and grind it slowly wide enough to writhe through, but by that time he was charged up enough to think nothing of grabbing an enraged god by the arm and hauling for all he was worth. “Thor! Thor! Damn it, man, what the hell do you think you're doing?!”
Rhetorical question, obviously, since he had one hand on the back of his brother's head, driving Loki's face into the wall, the other pulling hard on a bared hip mottled with bruises. At the sound of Steve's distress, Thor dropped Loki to lie curled on the floor, making the kind of small gasping sounds that Steve guessed would have been tears if there had been no one around to hear.
The thunder-god covered himself up, straightened, and gave Steve his normal huge, charming smile, guileless and delighted. “My friend, you did not need to run. There will be plenty of time for you, for his wickedness requires a great deal of humbling.”
It was a good thing Tony arrived at that point, streaking down the corridor like a spectacularly tasteless comet, because Steve was not a stupid man and he knew exactly what would happen if he punched Thor in the teeth. But then Tony was landing, looking over at Loki and Steve had to look too, and yes, it was their enemy, but it was their enemy bleeding and trying to cover himself up with shaking hands. It was their enemy still making that desolate little choking noise while he wiped the blood from his broken nose on pulled-out hanks of his hair.
And on second thoughts Steve didn't care what happened next. He never had. He hauled back and punched Thor full in the face, almost breaking his hand in the process.
He got honest puzzlement as a result. “My friend? What is...?”
“Out! Get out! Tony, take him upstairs and explain to him the things that civilized people don't do. We're supposed to be the good guys, for crying out loud.”
Tony's faceplate had never looked so appropriate, fixed in its permanent scowl, but his voice was full of shades of thought, horror and confusion, yes, but wariness still. “Steve? Puppies and blenders, remember?”
“I don't care. One of us has to do the right thing here and it might as well be me.”
“I'm just saying. As for you...” Tony shepherded a bewildered Thor out of the room, “We're going to need a little talk.”
The door ground jerkily shut, hissing as the locks slid into place. “I... I...” said Steve, as Loki pulled himself into a huddle of long limbs against the wall, easing the pull on his shackled wrist. His inky hair was a veil of shadows over a face crimson with his own blood, and he was silent now, his breathing slowly evening out, his gaze fixed on the floor.
“What can I do?”
Loki took in one long breath and then looked up. Startling eyes, greener than beech leaves, clearer than icebergs, and Steve took a step back and bumped into the wall, for they were brim-full of mockery, genuinely amused.
Except how much was ever genuine, with him?
“Have you come for your turn?” he asked, lightly. “You will surely want to wash me first? Unless, of course, the thought of rolling around in Thor's leavings excites you.”
Thor's greeting, which he had dismissed as meaningless, swam into sudden appalling sense in Steve's head. He recoiled from it as another man would have recoiled from a threat.
“Do you think the Iron Man will leave the suit on? He is such a puny mortal otherwise, I might not feel it at all.”
Steve's gut roiled. The room smelled of sex and gore, and that light, laughing voice got under his skin like razor wire and peeled him raw, rubbing his exposed nerves in the horror he didn't want to think about.
“And Banner. You will have to make him angry first. I am not going to do all the work for you.”
Steve took another step away, found himself reaching for the door and understanding caught him by surprise before he could touch the release. “Fight me,” Thor had said, and Tony had said “his superpower is words.” Loki was fighting, in his own way. And, without Tony's warning, Steve was pretty sure he'd be running back up the corridor right now, convinced he couldn't deal with this villain's level of perverse.
“I'm impressed,” he said instead, “chained and powerless and abused, you still almost won that round. You nearly got me to go away.”
Loki leaned his head back against the wall and straightened his broken nose between thin fingers. He had the best poker face Steve had ever seen, but – if Steve thought of this as a fight – Loki's very expressionlessness was a tell. His first attack had failed, now he was drawing back, thinking, considering what weapon to go in with next.
Then he smiled; boyish, with overtones of smug. “I won the last one too. Thor's going to be sick with worry about our dear Mama from the moment he simmers down, until the moment I tell her everything. And who knows when that will be? I may have to make him suffer a trifle first.”
And unexpectedly, Steve didn't need translation or advice to parse this one. It set him straight back down in all the alleyways and dead-end streets of his youth, saw him skinny and pathetic and defiant, shouting “I could do this all day.” He knew – probably he was the only one on the team who could know – all the little lies you told to keep yourself strong, to snatch back some kind of self-respect out of constant, grinding humiliation.
He dropped his shield to the floor and followed it, sliding down with his back to the door and his arms around his knees in half conscious echo of Loki's posture. Because yes, there was a lot that echoed here, though he hadn't seen it before. He hadn't imagined he could ever be on the wrong side of this divide.
They're not even lies, he thought. If you don't let the bullies make you scared, they don't really win. They don't ever win unless you kowtow to what they want. I never did... I guess that he doesn't either.
Looking across the room at his enemy from here on the floor was a very different experience than looking down on him. He should have thought of it before – less intimidating – it was just that it was hard to think of anyone ever seeing him as a threat. But now he'd put his weapon down and sat, something indefinable had gone out of Loki's eyes – a cruelty, or a fear. Perhaps they were the same thing.
The Liar tilted his head. The blood from his nose, thickening and beginning to clot, oozed across his cheek and into his ear. It was all but impossible to read his face, but the muscles in his arms shook, and his skin was bruised porcelain pale. A hint of enormous weariness flavoured his voice, softening it. “You know, I think, Steve Rogers, what it is to be a boy in a man's world. One must take one's victories where one can.”
“Yeah,” Steve said, while the ground shifted beneath him and left him nowhere solid to stand. “Yeah, I've had enough of that to last me a lifetime.”
“And I have it for an eternity.”
No super-serum for Loki, no way of turning himself into Thor, and thus no way of winning that would not leave him more despised than ever. Steve backed away from the thought as it raised its hood at him and bared its poisonous fangs. Philosophizing was scary. He switched back to the practical. “But listen, do you need a doctor? I mean, are you...” he waved a hand, unable to bring himself to be specific. “Injured anywhere?”
A long, thoughtful look, and then a different smile, sincerely sweet, like an offer of truce. “The hurts are trifling, but I would wash, and replace these torn garments, if you will allow.”
“Of course. Anything else?”
“Freedom.” It was like missing a tread on the stairs, a little beat of shock before discomforting truth morphed into a joke, “this collar off? A knife? Thor's head on a platter?”
He laughed because he couldn't do anything else. “Not on the menu. I'm sorry.” But once he got onto “I'm sorry...” it was damned hard to stop. “I am sorry for what happened here. None of us could have imagined that Thor would... I mean he's...”
“In all truth,” said Loki, so gently that Steve didn't notice the contradiction between the words and the speaker, “you should not blame Thor too harshly for this. It is how the warriors of Asgard have treated their enemies since time immemorial, breaking their wills so that they may be made into tractable slaves. At times, if a captive's spirit is strong, many men must be put to him before it can be crushed. That is why I thought you had come to...” He lowered his face unwarily into his hand, and flinched back up at the touch on his broken nose. “I am glad I was wrong.”
And Steve had thought his own neighbourhood had been rough. What would it be like, growing up as a 90lb weakling in a society that thought rape was the right thing to do to the defenceless? No, he didn't want to think about that. He especially didn't want to think about what it would be like, growing up effortlessly strong in such a society, not when it made such an ugly thing out of all Thor's contentment.
He looked up at the security camera instead. “Tony? We're going to escort the prisoner to the bathroom. Can you bring down some fresh clothes, and a big gun.”
When he looked down, Loki's smile had begun to fray around the edges. He tipped his head forward, hiding behind his long hair, but not before Steve had caught a tell tale sheen of tears in those verdant eyes. The shock must finally be setting in. Steve wondered if he should ask Banner to come down too, but didn't think surrounding a trauma victim with enemies would be entirely wise.
“I thought we were having fun,” Loki murmured as if to himself. “Thor and I. Others have done this to me before – not one yet lives – but between he and I, I thought there would always be brotherhood. That there would always be love and kinship between us no matter how we might play-fight--”
“'Play fight'? With worlds?”
“We are gods. Glorious death in battle is one thing, but this? How can there be brotherhood between the mighty Thor and a man he has declared to be argr? Proved to be nithing?”
A clunk at the door, and the mouth of a pulse rifle came in, followed by Tony Stark with a set of SHIELD scrubs over his arm.
Loki changed in an instant from soft to hard. He rose to his feet with imperious grace, as though he had never shown weakness in his life. Then he gave Steve a sly, sideways look and grinned the wolfish grin they all associated with another city block going up in flames. “Still, there is yet one way in which I may save our brotherhood and restore our equality. An easy and a pleasant way that I look forward to accomplishing as soon as I have escaped this place.”
He reached out and actually patted Steve on the head, while Tony made a low growling noise behind his mask. “Fear not, Steve Rogers, for those who think they can break me only succeed in making me Loki. As for you,” the smile modulated into roguish, and Steve could feel Tony prickle up even through the solid layer of iridium armour. “You have been kind to me. Yours will be a clean death.”
Loki swept out of the room like a prince, and Steve had to laugh again, because while he wasn't entirely clear what all that had been about, whether 'a clean death' was prophecy or threat, he still had the strongest impression that what Loki had really meant was 'thank you.'
They were never quite sure what he had stolen from the bathroom that enabled him to break the lock on the collar, regain his magic and disappear, but Steve couldn't be entirely sorry for it.
“You know,” he said later, as he struggled to remember which of the many buttons on the TV remote control would switch it over from recorded material to broadcast. He still felt undermined and uncertain, and terribly terribly sad. “I don't think Loki's quite as bad as he's made out to be. We might need to have a rethink on the Norse god front. It could well be more complicated than we imagined.”
Banner, who didn't have a moment of the day when he wasn't struggling against his own inner monster, nodded from behind his book. Thor was in Coulson's custody, no doubt being relentlessly re-educated, and all the rooms of the mansion were very quiet without him.
“But what did he mean about a pleasant way to save their brotherhood? He can hardly un-rape himself, can he?”
Tony, with a shot glass of tequila in one hand and a half-built fusion bomb in the other, snorted sceptically. “With some kind of temporal spell? I wouldn't put it past him. But see, that's exactly what I mean – now you don't know who's wrong, who's right, if you're up or you're down. God of the mind-fuck, what did I tell you? Next time we keep him gagged.”