It was the second day of the summer holidays, and Loki and his supervisor Carol were taking advantage of the absence of students to give the school and its grounds a really thorough cleaning. They did their best to keep on top of things during the term, but it had to be faced: a hundred children were more than a match for two custodians, even if one was frequently referred to as the God of Mischief. (Loki was, strictly speaking, not actually a god at all, but he did not object to the nickname.)
Indeed, it also had to be admitted that Loki's personal proclivities did not make him naturally suited to the position in the first place. He had taken it shortly after his arrival in Bristol, when he was in no position to be picky and saw the wisdom of following his housemates' injunctions to maintain a low profile. While admittedly not the most methodical creature in the Nine Realms, and also not generally much opposed to making a mess, Loki found his interactions with the children enjoyable enough to make the job worth keeping. When local supernatural activity became threatening some months back, he had appointed himself guardian of the school and its inmates and so was bound to stay.
Because of this, and because he liked his supervisor, an older mortal lady who called him "pet," Loki did his best to fulfill his duties to an acceptable standard, with minimal use of magic for fear of calling attention to himself. But truly, by the end of term he sometimes found himself so rushed that, for instance, rather than scrubbing graffiti off the stalls in the boys' lavatory, he sometimes resorted to casting a quick spell to replace any obscenities with the limericks of Edward Lear, or an adjuration to consume adequate daily portions of vegetables, while he went on to something more pressing.
By this time of year a thorough turning-out was definitely in order. The day being sunny and warm, Loki volunteered to work outside for the morning while Carol ran the polishing machine up and down the corridors. He spent some time raking up little bits of detritus-- the remains of squashed food wrappers and the like-- from the playground. He checked to ensure the ants relocated from their old abode near the steps were still safely residing on the far side of the fence, and had a brief chat with a couple of scouting worker ants to remind them of the wisdom of remaining at a distance from humans with poison.
And then he settled down to weeding the flower beds at the front of the school, and incidentally planting certain herbs known for their protective magical qualities. There were already enchantments guarding the property from evil supernatural forces, but Loki believed in playing it safe.
And, of course, when he settled down to a quiet task like that, he found himself once more troubled by the story he had read the night before, just before going to sleep.
Loki frequently ended his day by reading from a book intended for children: the librarian employed at the school had very kindly extended him borrowing privileges, after he presented himself as the offspring of "hippies" who believed in neither fiction nor television, which conveniently explained the numerous gaps in his knowledge of Midgardian popular culture. (After his disappearance earlier in the spring, to assist some of the Avengers with a problem involving a figure from British mythology, most of the inhabitants of the school were aware his history was perhaps a little more complicated than he had given out. Being English, however, they politely allowed his original cover to stand.)
By now he was entranced with the stories, had read his way through a variety of delightful and intermittently upsetting tales (he was extremely wary of any book containing animals, particularly dogs, although the one with the literate spider was the most beautiful and therefore worst of the lot.) It had only recently occurred to him, remembering a conversation with Tony Stark about Norse mythology, that perhaps he would like to find out exactly what stories the primitive mortals had told about his family all those years ago.
There was an appropriate book of myths in the reference area, and Loki had taken it home just before the end of term. Parts of it were enlightening: for instance, he now knew the details behind the story that had amused Stark so much, the one that claimed Loki was the mother of his father's eight-legged horse, Sleipnir. (Of course! He had been a horse himself at the time! Now it all made sense!) Loki being in truth a shapeshifter, that story was a great deal more plausible than most of them, particularly the one in which Thor, for reasons that made no sense to Loki even when he was reading it, had disguised himself as a bride. This tale reduced his entire household to tears of laughter; in fact it was all Loki could do to restrain himself from telephoning Jane Foster on the spot to read the whole thing to her. Had his brother possessed a communication device, he would certainly have done as much to Thor.
And then, of course, because he always ruined everything, Loki had gone on to the end of the book, and had found the story of Ragnarok, the end of all things.
It was his fault, of course, it would be his fault: Loki apparently caused the end of the universe by murdering Balder the Bright. (He didn't even know a Balder whose nickname was "the Bright," why would he murder him? And surely if he did turn to murder [again] he could think of a better weapon than mistletoe?)
And then, in punishment...
Loki grubbed at the dirt, scraping his fingers raw, trying to banish the rest of the story from his mind. He had no children. He had no children, one of the benefits of growing up in circumstances in which no one was willing to touch you was, it kept you out of romantic entanglements with perfectly nice decent young women who married you and bore you children and were then condemned to spend eternity holding a bowl above your face to catch corrosive venom as it dripped into your eyes, and meanwhile you were helpless, tied by your father with bonds formed from the entrails of your child...
He shuddered. It was a story, only a story, a total fantasy. There was no Balder the Bright, no Sigyn, no children-- there were never likely to be children, because the closest thing he had managed thus far to an actual romantic entanglement was a shy attachment to his housemate Annie, whose wonderful qualities were too many to enumerate but who was, after all, a ghost…
And besides, no matter what Loki had done or might do, his father would never... Loki's entrails were one matter, there might indeed be circumstances in which he would deserve to be bound by his own entrails, in fact when you considered his history some might argue he'd already earned such a fate, probably twice over, but Father would not... would never... not to an innocent child...
Loki stopped what he was doing, looked down at the tiny plant crushed in his hands, and stood up abruptly. This was ridiculous. It was a story. Something about it had taken hold of his mind and upset him, it would upset anyone, surely, but it was entirely make-believe. It would be foolish for him to allow a story to ruin his entire day, and especially such a pretty one. He would go have another word with the ants, ants were practical creatures -- down to earth, as the Midgardians said, and the thought made him smile-- and then he would find Carol and work in closer proximity to her for a while. He needed to talk to someone, stop spinning thoughts around in his own head like this. It wasn't good for him to spend too much time with only his thoughts for company-- he had gotten himself in considerable trouble that way before.
As if granting his wish for distraction, a black car pulled into the parking lot of the school, and a man and a woman got out. Loki, as the only representative of the school staff present, walked over to see what they wanted.
Some hours later, when he woke up with his wrists and ankles bound, a collar tight about his neck, and excruciating pain wracking his body in time to every beat of his frantic heart, it crossed his mind that perhaps the myths were not such completely ridiculous fantasies after all.
"We could have used Thor this afternoon," Clint Barton remarked wearily, dropping into a chair. "Anyone have any idea when he's coming back?"
Tony Stark shook his head. "No. There's still no sign of his brother, and I have a feeling we won't be seeing much of him until he figures that out."
Clint grunted. "He ever consider the possibility Loki doesn't want to be found?"
"Don't say that to Thor," Steve Rogers warned as he walked in from the kitchen with three beers carefully held by their necks. "To tell you the truth, I'm worried too. Tony and I met his brother, that time in England, and he's not…"
"Flaky," Tony supplied the word as he accepted a beer.
"Exactly," Steve agreed, handing over the third bottle to Clint, who looked skeptical.
"He's the God of Mischief," he pointed out.
"Yeah," Tony said, "and he's caused trouble before, but he genuinely doesn't seem to want to make a career of it. And I don't think he'd worry Thor like this on purpose."
"Kill him, on the other hand…" Clint muttered.
Steve shook his head. "Again, don't say that to Thor. Whatever happened between them, it seems to be forgiven."
Clint snorted, but he suddenly looked thoughtful. Given Clint was the only one of the three who had a brother, and given their relationship, maybe he actually understood Thor's attitude.
Tony had just opened his mouth to chip in again when Pepper walked in, looking frustrated. Tony knew better, but he called out, "Hey, Pepper, tell me you've got good news."
Pepper gave him a look that should have reduced him to a smoking heap of empty clothing. "If you mean good news about the inhibitor prototype, no. I have no news, good or otherwise. I thought SHIELD was secretive when Nick Fury was in charge, but dealing with Maria Hill is like trying to have a friendly conversation with the Berlin Wall. The one new piece of information that slipped out is, the prototype is in use right now, and it seems to work."
Tony set his beer down. "It's in use? It can't be in use, it was a beta version. Hardly even a beta. It hasn't been properly tested. We don’t even know if it has side effects-- "
Pepper raised both hands, a gesture that indicated she was exhausted and at the end of her patience. "I know that, Tony. That's what I told Agent Hill. She doesn't seem to be concerned. Maybe Dr. Strange volunteered to field-test it after all or something. Anyway, if we want it back we're going to have to sue them." Tony cursed, took a sip of his beer, thought about it. Pepper went on, "From a business point of view I don't even know if it's worth it. We'd be tied up in litigation until the next century."
Tony looked incredulous. "SHIELD took a piece of our technology. Yes, they contributed to the project, but it's still proprietary Stark Industries tech, and they just took it. From a business point of view, we can't afford not to sue their asses. And from a non-business point of view-- "
"I know," Pepper said, sinking onto the couch in a posture of utter yet graceful exhaustion. "From a non-business point of view, if that device has unexpected side effects and they use it on someone, we're morally responsible, and quite possibly legally, too."
"Morally responsible? You?" Clint needled Tony.
"Shut up, Barton," Tony and Pepper said together.
The inhibitor prototype had been a sore spot between Stark Industries and the new regime at SHIELD for more than two months now. SHIELD held the device was an adaptation of restraints currently in use on their helicarriers, and therefore they had intellectual property rights and were justified in seizing it.
The current restraints worked fine, in fact Tony had seen them in action during a misunderstanding with Thor's little brother and was now of the opinion they might actually work a bit too well: after being tied up for about half an hour, Loki had not only been unable to cast magic for quite some time, he couldn't even stand up unassisted. Tony was also pretty sure that if it had been necessary to put him back into the restraints later they would have had a fight on their hands, and they probably would have had to hurt him.
It had struck Tony that it would be easier on everyone if the inhibitor system was more portable, more like handcuffs, something the prisoner could wear while being transported or while in a cell, could move around in, with settings that could be remotely adjusted to keep him harmless but not totally drained. Part of Loki's issue had seemed to be just the apprehension caused by being unable to move, which was understandable and probably not uncommon. Tony figured that, if you could just put the restraints on and leave them, adjusting the settings as necessary, you'd have less trouble with the prisoners.
He had actually developed an entirely new system, one that dealt with the magic differently, something totally new and not, in fact, based on existing SHIELD tech at all. SHIELD had kicked in some instruments for Stark to use in initial testing, and had funded part of the project to ensure they got first crack at the completed device, but that was the extent of their involvement.
Theoretically, the device should work, but without a magical volunteer to test the prototype on, Tony couldn't be confident that it would, or that nothing untoward would happen to the prisoner. He'd actually been planning to try and recruit Steve Strange and Loki to participate in some practical testing, once he was satisfied with the prototype.
And then SHIELD had decided Stark Industries, who had built the damn thing, had created the tech, wasn't secure enough to keep it safe, and the next thing Tony knew he was looking at a message from his engineering team, saying the lab had been raided-- that was the only word that seemed adequate-- and the prototype confiscated.
As Pepper said, SHIELD had been secretive enough when Fury was in charge, but Fury had recently been replaced as director by Maria Hill. Rumour had it that Fury was thought to be getting soft, which made Tony shudder a little at the thought of what that said about Hill. The only person in the agency who would speak to him these days was Coulson, who was a field agent and therefore not privy to the kind of information Tony needed. Besides, Coulson was a Fury holdover and not in Hill's good books anyway.
It was just about possible, though, that Coulson would be able to find out more about the use to which the prototype was being put. If it was being used on a prisoner and Tony could get a look at its effects, he might at least have a leg to stand on when he demanded it back to finish the testing.
"You know what's weird," Steve said suddenly. "I can't think of anyone we've arrested recently who was a magic user. You'd think we'd have been called out in a case involving someone like that."
Tony and Clint looked at each other. That was weird.
"So who are they using it on?" Clint asked. It was a rhetorical question, but Steve went a little pale, and all four of them looked at each other.
"Oh, no," Steve said weakly.
"Can't be," Tony agreed, but not as if he entirely believed it.
Pepper got to her feet. "Do you have Coulson's number?"
Thor generally preferred coffee, but Annie made a wonderful cup of tea. She was able to do so even when beside herself with worry, so it was almost a shame that nobody seemed able to drink it.
"Still nothing?" Mitchell said, turning the steaming mug in his hands.
Thor shook his head. "Nothing. I have spoken to Heimdall again, there is still no sign of him." He did not have to explain what that might mean: Heimdall should be able to see Loki unless he was cloaked by magic-- his own or another's-- or dead.
Heimdall had not seen Loki since the day six weeks ago, when he had walked across the schoolyard and vanished.
Trying to offer hope, though he was not sure whether he offered it for the others or himself, Thor went on, "Sif and the Warriors are still searching on other realms, and will let me know what they find." There was no reason to think Loki would willingly travel to one of the other realms alone, far from certain he was even capable of doing so with only his own magic to carry him, but it was better to be doing something.
George, the bespectacled werewolf, spoke now: "We've spoken to the police again, and there's no sign of him." Ordinarily the housemates-- a ghost, a werewolf, a vampire, and until six weeks ago a godlike alien sorcerer-- would take great pains to avoid contact with the police, but Carol was human, and Carol knew Loki was missing, and therefore they had to behave as "normally" as possible over the disappearance.
"They're not looking very hard for him," Mitchell said. "He's an adult, he wasn't afraid of anyone or in any trouble, so I think they assume he just did a runner for some reason of his own."
Annie rubbed her temples. "Tell him about the vampires."
Thor sat up straighter. "What about the vampires?"
Mitchell stalled for a moment by drinking his cooling tea. The vampire situation in Bristol had been complicated for a long time, and since Mitchell had gone "on the wagon," his relationship with the rest of the community had been even more so: not quite one of them, never entirely outcast, but opposed to the occasional power plays dreamed up by creatures with eternity on their hands and not enough to do with it.
"Did we tell you about the protective spells Loki placed on the school and the hospital?" Mitchell asked. Thor shook his head. "Well, back a few months ago, when the vampire situation got hairy, Loki got worried about vampires attacking the school just to piss him off, so he placed a ward on the grounds. Later he put the same spell on the hospital where George and I work, for the same reason." Thor nodded to show he understood: if Loki and his friends were seen as enemies by these creatures, the risk of attack on anything or anyone they were attached to was increased. "The way the spell worked was, if a supernatural creature with evil intent tried to get onto the property, they'd be chased away by an enchanted rhinoceros."
"An enchanted mother rhinoceros," George specified, remembering Loki's insistence. "With an enchanted calf tagging along after it."
"A rhinoceros?" Thor repeated.
"Yes, large plant-eating animal with a horn on its nose-- ?" George explained.
"I am familiar with the beast. But why did--?"
"Why did he choose it? Search me," Mitchell replied. "For some reason, he likes rhinos."
"They look like monsters, but they're not," Annie explained, picking up her untouched mug and going to the sink to pour it out. Nobody had any response. Mitchell picked up the thread of his story.
"The point is, a couple of days ago George and I were in the canteen at the hospital, and two vampires just walked right in. The source of the magic powering the enchantments was Loki himself, obviously, and now he's out of range or hurt or… Anyway, the vampires have figured out his spells aren't keeping them out anymore, and they'll probably realize that means he isn't around right now. And I mean, he's our friend, not a defensive weapon, but the fact is, just knowing he was around was enough to keep the more ambitious vampires from getting ideas, especially after what happened to their last leader."
Thor looked worried. "I would offer to speak to someone in SHIELD about this matter, to see if the London office can help you, but it must be admitted my confidence in the agency has suffered since Nick Fury was replaced as director." He thought a moment. "I will give you the telephone number and computer mail address of Tony Stark. He is frivolous but trustworthy, and he likes you. Should you need my help, contact Stark and let him know." Thor set aside his mug and rose to his feet. "Also, contact Stark if you hear anything from my brother. I will be back in touch soon, and certainly the moment I hear anything."
"Thank you," Annie said, trying not to sound as forlorn as she felt. Thor reached out a powerful arm and embraced her.
"We will find him. Everything will be all right."
In the beginning, guards had come in twice a day, once to leave a tray of food, once to retrieve the utensils. They were uniformed, in black, with black helmets and face shields that made them look, that made them look like… scurrying, on the earth, marching two by two…
In the beginning he had tried to talk to them, not to plead, but to ingratiate, to become real to them, it was harder to hurt you if you were real. He remembered a man with pale hair on his face, and a quiet one, darker, a large one with a great deal of hair, face and head, and a woman. He had not been real to them, not ever, he was not real to anyone and so no one would help him, no one would make it stop.
He was not sure how many guards there were, had tried at first to take note of how they moved, no voices to go by, they never spoke, tried to tell them apart, to remember which was which so he could tell whether he had spoken to them before, see if talking worked at all, but it was too hard, they all ran together two by two in the confusion and pain.
He no longer spoke, it was too hard, too many gaps, so many words missing, so hard to think. He had stopped trying to prevent himself from whimpering.
He could move his hands just enough to feed himself, at least at first, the cuffs that burned his wrists connected by a cable behind his back, elbows also bound by a cable that limited how far forward his hands could go. Once, early, no telling how long ago, he nearly got one hand free before the guards came in, smell of blood but no pain, none he could distinguish from the rest, and now the cuffs were tighter, wrists and ankles, tight like the collar, and the pain was worse.
The pain was now the only thing he was sure about, the only thing he knew, like everything being pulled apart and crushed and pulled apart again. He had been angry and afraid, and then just afraid, and now the pain was all that remained.
After a while they stopped bringing food, it only made him sick, the guards had come with… hose, spraying water, drain in the floor, and now the cell smelled persistently like sickness and damp. There was sharpness in his hand and a bottle of something hanging above him. Now the guards came, two by two, only often enough to change the bottle, see he was still alive.
He thought he was still alive.
In the beginning he had thought about rescue, dreamed of someone coming for him… bright hair and red swirling at the shoulders… but he could no longer tell whether that had ever been real or was a fantasy, his mind trying to comfort him. No one knew where he was, or no one cared, or probably both.
He was not real, not to anyone, not to himself. No one was coming to find him.
He was not real. Only the pain was real.
The pain, and the end. He did not remember how he knew this, but he waited for the end of everything.
The phone had rung three times before Tony got to it, shouldering gently past Steve, who never trusted himself not to accidentally cut the connection when he tried to pick up the call.
"Stark," Tony announced himself.
"Coulson. I've found out about your device."
"Yeah?" Tony prompted.
"It's being used on a prisoner named Laufeyson, first initial, L." Coulson paused, and after a second Tony figured it out for himself.
"'Son of Laufey and of Odin,'" Tony said, quoting a supernatural creature's greeting to Loki on their adventure together. "Son of a bitch. What in hell did he do?"
"Can't find any charges," Coulson replied. "Might even be an end run around the mutant registration legislation that's stuck in committees. A lot of people in offices here are nervous about the idea of powerful supernaturals walking around loose with no one keeping tabs on them. And Loki didn't do himself any favours with the thing in New Mexico."
"Yeah," Tony agreed, mind spinning. SHIELD had a file on Loki from the killer-robot-from-space incident, a file that certainly painted a picture of an aspiring young supervillain. And the fact he'd maintained a low profile since hadn't really done him any good, since his file began and ended with the Puente Antigua affair. There should have been something added after the episode in England, he'd been very helpful and Steve for one owed him big time, but it would have been inserted by Fury. Maybe Fury's good word wasn't enough anymore.
Speaking of whom--
"Where's Fury?" Tony asked.
"Fishing in Costa Rica. Officially," Coulson replied, his voice neutral.
That could mean anything from, "Fury was really fishing in Costa Rica," to "Fury was engaged in covert operations above the Arctic Circle." Tony knew better than to press Coulson.
"Have you spoken to him?"
"Can you get me in to see him?" Tony persisted. There was silence from Coulson for a moment, and Tony didn't press him. Coulson was a career agent, not a billionaire playboy genius philanthropist, and Tony was asking him for a favour that wouldn't do his career any good at all.
On the other hand, Thor was one of their guys, and Thor was really worried about his little brother.
And they probably owed Loki, at least enough to make sure he was all right, was locked up for a good reason.
"Yeah," Coulson said. "I'll get back to you. Don't call."
And the line went dead.