Nick Fury had gone off the grid.
Coulson told them the SHIELD Director’s GPS had gone out mid-morning three days prior, and not a thing had been heard from him since. None of the Avengers, given their current predicament, could agree to whether this was a good thing or a bad thing.
“He’s on a Black Ops mission,” Tony stated the obvious. “I think it’s what he does with his vacation time. Imagine that guy’s call to a travel agent: ‘Does it have a war zone?’”
“’I’d like twenty-four hours to defeat the terrorists, please,’” Clint joined in gruff, ornery tones. “’Do these events occur in real-time?’”
They cracked up in unison.
Natasha rolled her eyes. “You guys sure are funny. And if he’s actually in serious danger…?”
This, of course, was probable. Still Tony shrugged. “Fury’s a big boy. If he’s in trouble, he’ll find a way to let us know.”
The others were uneasy. The undercurrent of guilt in the room was only marginally outweighed by the other undercurrent of relief. With the way things had been going for the past few days, the absence of Fury’s all-seeing eye felt like a miraculous blessing.
“What do you make of it, Captain?” Thor asked.
They all turned to Steve who, everyone knew, had the last word when it came to matters such as these.
Steve folded his arms over his broad chest. The lines in his forehead deepened, the chords in his wide neck tensed.
“I think… I agree with Tony,” he answered slowly. “SHIELD are doing everything they can to locate him and if we’re needed they’ll call us in. In the meantime, we’ll keep our eyes and ears open. For now we have to trust that he knows what he’s doing.”
Clint frowned suddenly. “Hey, why don’t I ever get to go on vacation?”
The meeting ended, and there was still an upside; for now at least, they wouldn’t have to explain the Loki Problem.
A month had passed since Loki had become an Avenger.
To an unofficial capacity. Until further notice, Tony kept reminding himself.
The team had surrounded the Trickster God on the roof of a derelict warehouse in lower Manhattan. It had been a particularly clear blue day, and Loki had spent his afternoon rearranging the clouds to spell out rude things in the sky about Thor’s manhood.
The brothers were engaged in intense combat, while the rest did little more than watch from the adjacent roofs.
Thor revved up Mjolnir.
“I have warned you not meddle in this realm for the last time, Loki! Now you will pay for this devilry!”
Thor flung the enchanted hammer. Loki hopped out of the way and it boomeranged back into Thor’s hand.
“Too slow, Thor!” Loki called back. Several more images of him appeared and they all danced around to Thor’s confusion.
Thor’s feet scuffed the ground like the hooves of an angry bull.
“It will take more than your tricks to keep me from you! I will not go easy this time!”
Loki snorted. “Ha!”
Thor took a running start and then flew backward ten feet when the real Loki hit him with a bright green blast of energy. Thor landed on his back, chest smoking.
“Do you think we ought to-?” Tony nudged Steve.
“Let’s… give it another minute."
Thor scraped himself up off the cement and swung Mjolinor into a frenzy, building up speed.
“Prepare to do battle, Brother!”
Thor released his hammer, and Loki threw both hands forward in a blinding flash of light.
With a deafening crash the building collapsed, swallowing Thor and Loki into the wreckage.
It had taken several tense hours for the clean-up crew to move enough groaning debris to allow for safe passage.
“We’re coming, Thor,” Steve resolved quietly, and the Avengers followed him down into the dark.
When they got to the sub-basement level they saw light coming from underneath a door. Tiptoeing closer, they heard voices from the other side. With a nod and a silent count of three, Steve kicked it open and they burst into the room.
The Thunder God was sitting on the floor across from them, side by side with his brother, locked in what looked like deep conversation. Thor had one of Loki’s hands clasped between both of his, a pleading expression on his face. Even from a distance, Loki looked like he might have been crying. Both Gods startled at the sight of them.
Loki vanished, and Thor gaped down at his empty hands.
“Uh… you’re safe now,” Tony dropped his palms and switched off his fire-blasters.
Thor looked at them in a way that could only be described as ‘pissed-off’ before warring his features into a look of gratitude.
“My friends, thank you for your rescue. It is a fine thing to have such noble warriors at my side,” he commended, standing. “Let us leave this place.”
They tramped back up in silence, over hunks of wobbling concrete.
The moment they were outside, Thor said something about wishing to breathe the fresh air and walk the city. He told them not to wait for his return.
“It may be a very late hour. Several days, perhaps,” he added. He raised Mjolnir and took flight, disappearing into the darkened sky.
It was only about two hours later when Thor arrived back at the mansion with Loki in tow.
He held a protective arm in front of his younger sibling as they entered the living room where the rest of the team were recovering. The trickster hovered just behind his brother and kept his mouth shut, barely looking at them.
Thor swept challenging eyes around the room.
“My brother has chosen to join our team. He has put his days of villainy behind him, and wishes to fight the good fight. He shall reside in my quarters for now.”
Loki had nodded to them swiftly and followed Thor down the hall to his bedroom.
The others blinked at the sound of the closing door.
After a long moment, Steve cleared his throat. “Well…it’s been a long day. We should talk about this tomorrow.”
They muttered their reluctant assent and went to bed.
Tony didn’t know about the rest of them, but that night he slept with an axe under his pillow.
The memo that came from SHIELD confirmed it.
The morning after Loki’s arrival, a document slid from the fax machine.
‘Effective immediately: Loki Laufeyson will join in consultation and field work with the Avengers team to an unofficial capacity until further notice’.
It revealed nothing else, but Nick Fury’s signature was scribbled at the bottom in pen.
The very-recently-former villain had done little to ingratiate himself to his new teammates in the weeks since. He spent most of his time in the bedroom he shared with Thor, doing whatever he did up there in eerie silence.
When he did venture downstairs, Thor followed him around like a shadow and levelled fearsome stares at anyone who might have looked at him funny. When he engaged in conversation, it was usually to Thor, or to the rest of them by way of Thor. It was never very friendly.
He refused to join them at meal-times and spoke mincingly (to Thor) of the terrible food they stocked. He seldom seemed to eat but had a habit of making all of Tony’s expensive deli cheeses disappear along with entire punnets of strawberries and blackberries, leaving empty biodegradable boxes in the fridge.
He criticized their battle strategies and their structure as a team. He made an insulting remark (to Thor) about Tony’s waistline.
On occasion, he would teleport suddenly into other rooms, seeming to enjoy making everyone jump.
“You will come to know Loki in time,” Thor persisted in telling them. “He is shy.”
The best they got was when, after the second week, he began to materialize in the living room midway through a film, sneak popcorn from the communal bowl and then wink out again the second it finished.
Loki had been good on his word when it came to fighting the good fight though, so far at least. His magic was incredibly useful when you weren’t on the business-end of it, and Tony had to wonder why, during the bad old days, he hadn’t just turned them all into hats.
He stole the show during their face-off with Doctor Doom, catapulting the Latverian and his entire army from the Bronx to the Atlantic Ocean, from what the report said later. The coastguard had failed to apprehend them, but keeping Doom from kidnapping the President during a televised speech was still considered a great victory.
“Hey, you were great back there,” Steve congratulated him afterwards.
“It is hardly remarkable. Everyone knows that Doom dislikes the sea,” he retorted, and retreated back to Thor’s room.
“What the hell does he do up there?” Tony had asked Thor eventually.
Loki’s second and third battles were two of the shortest Tony had ever experienced as an Avenger. The fights were over in less than the time it had taken him to run downstairs and put on his armour.
Bullseye was hurried off in a straightjacket, and if the Red Skull’s daughter had been capable of blushing without facial epidermis, she would have done so as she was led away in handcuffs.
“That was really good work!” Steve insisted, both times.
Loki humphed and shrugged his shoulders.
“Do you really consider these people your great enemies?” he wanted to know. By the tone of his voice, he was slightly insulted.
There was a lot of humming and hawing as they tried to decide whether or not to bring him to his first public appearance.
It was a low-key visit to an elementary school in Queens. A first-grade teacher had won an achievement award for her outreach work, and had written a letter signed by her whole class asking them to come in for a few hours to visit and talk about helping out in the community.
“Little kids,” Tony kept repeating, “Little kids.”
“Maybe he ought to sit this one out,” Steve said finally, to the nods of almost everyone.
But when Loki came down from upstairs alongside Thor, helmet on and ready to go, he thanked Steve pre-emptively for letting him come along. Steve seemed to lose his nerve.
“You don’t need to thank me,” he said, a bit guiltily. “You’re part of the team now. Do us proud.”
They stood shoulder to shoulder in full costume, in front of the class of wide-eyed six-year-olds. They each introduced themselves before Steve made a short speech about taking care of the environment, visiting the elderly and helping out your parents at home.
The children clapped, and the teacher thanked them. She asked if they wouldn’t mind answering some questions before getting to know everyone.
“Go on, you guys,” she said cheerfully to the class. “You’ve been looking forward to this all month!”
The children stared at them shyly. None of them moved a muscle.
“Go on!” she insisted.
After a very long moment, one boy asked Tony if he wore underwear under his suit.
There were a few giggles, then another silence. Children shifted in their seats, chairs creaking.
A little girl in pink overalls with hair the colour of a bright new penny raised her hand.
“Yes?” Steve pointed to her encouragingly.
She turned to Loki and asked, “Did you used to be a bad guy?”
Loki smiled at her in amusement. “Oh, yes. I was very bad.”
There was a soft buzz around the room.
A dark-skinned boy in a Sponge-Bob T-shirt spoke without raising his hand.
“What bad stuff did you do?”
“I mustn’t say,” Loki replied coyly. “It would give you terrible nightmares.”
A dozen arms shot up at once, straining and waving desperately to be called on.
Steve nervously tried to steer the conversation.
“That was in the past, though; Loki’s a good guy now! Which just goes to show that there’s hope for everyone!”
A child shouted, “Did you murder people?”
“I think that’s it for questions!” Steve said loudly.
They were freed to interact with the class.
It turned out that Loki was great with kids. Immediately, a large group formed around him as he sat cross-legged on the carpet to tell them a story. Tony tuned in long enough to make sure it wasn’t about murdering people.
The story was about two princes who lived in a land far away, whose father the King sent them on a journey to defeat a wicked witch. The princes started their journey together but disagreed on how to accomplish the task. They separated, and each faced a different danger along the way.
Thor sat in the circle with the children, watching and listening eagerly. He looked tense when Loki reached a part in the story when one of the brothers went to face the witch alone, and was in grave danger. But the other prince showed up and together they faced her as a strong united force.
Loki was speaking in a low voice, making enunciating shapes with his long fingers.
“The witch raised her staff in the air, summoning her dark powers,” he glanced upwards suggestively.
All of the children looked along with him. A small dark had cloud materialized near the ceiling.
“The sky grew dark and then-!”
For a split second the lights went out. There was a crack of thunder, and tiny lightening bolt flashed high above their heads.
The children shrieked rapturously and jumped in their seats.
Tony had to be impressed with Loki’s storytelling skills. He would have listened to the whole thing himself if he hadn’t had a little boy following him around, kicking and punching his legs, saying that he’d be Iron Man and Tony could be the bad guy.
Just before the time they were meant to go, Loki finished his story to joyful applause. The children swarmed over him, climbing over one another to shout questions at him and touch the horns on his helmet.
Tony gathered it had been a happy ending for the princes of the story, because as soon as they stood up to leave, Thor crushed his brother in a hug that might have left him with bruised ribs.
During his fourth field assignment, Loki had seemed disinterested in joining the fight until Tony was in the middle of being killed by a Deathlok. The cyborg’s hand had shot out quicker than he’d expected and was busily strangling him to death.
Tony had dealt with Deathloks before, but had forgotten how damn strong the things were. The armour around his neck had been crunched and his delicate bones were soon to follow. None of his teammates were close enough to intervene and no matter how hard Tony tried to point his repulsors in the right direction, he couldn’t seem to get his aim straight through the impending blackout.
From the blurry edges of consciousness, he saw Loki step out from the shadow of a shop-front awning and start to chant. The sorcerer held up his palms and a glowing green light pulsed around them.
The metal hands that were crushing Tony’s wind-pipe began to come apart, chink by chink.
Within moments, all of the Deathlok’s individual pieces were at least a foot apart from each other, suspended mid-air. Cogs and circuits and bits of metal circled Tony like a swarm of silver insects- then froze in place.
Gravity hit, and they shot to the earth in a clatter.
From his position on the ground, Loki gave Tony a curt nod.
This time when they thanked him, Loki at least didn’t seem resentful. He may have even betrayed the tiniest hint of a smile when Captain America clapped him on the back.
So all in all, it came as a surprise when, during Loki’s fifth mission, everything went all to hell.
It happened after a morning when the trickster had locked Thor out of his own bedroom, shutting himself away entirely.
The God of Thunder had stalked from room to room and complained to anyone who was near enough to listen.
“My brother is not himself today,” he fretted. “I do not understand why he will not speak to me.”
Steve tried to reassure him. “Try not to take it too personally, Thor. He’s still adjusting to his new life here. I think he’s doing pretty well, considering.”
Tony added, “You should probably get used to it. The guy’s got a permanent big, gold staff up his-”
Red light flashed and the buzzer sounded from the wall-alarms and all of their transponders: the signal that they were needed had gone off.
“Hey, whattaya know!” Clint interrupted them cheerfully, “Time to assemble!”
Doctor Octopus was attempting something at the headquarters of one of the country’s most popular television stations. When they caught up with him he was up on the roof, fiddling with an enormous satellite dish. Spider-man must have been on an out-of-state vacation.
Doc Ock abandoned whatever he was doing when they charged toward him, and with no time to get away, he lifted his eight formidable tentacles and engaged.
They fought him down to ground-level, coming at him from all angles, taking their turns. Tony got in a particularly good shot and felt pleased.
Not long in, though, he noticed that Loki seemed way off his game. He backed away whenever the fight got too close and hung back in the intervals where he’d usually taken to making his moves. He made jerky motions with his hands but didn’t actually make use of his magic.
Something’s wrong, Tony thought, but without any time to reflect on it.
After a few minutes, Ock must have smelled blood in the water. He honed in on the Trickster as their weakest link.
Loki saw it coming and threw an energy blast. He missed, and was punched solidly in the face by a metal octopus arm.
Loki was so dazed by the blow that Ock then took the opportunity to snake a tentacle around his waist and pick him up like he was Mary Jane Watson, scampering up the side of a high-rise.
Not only did Loki fail to magic his way out of Ock’s clutches, he allowed himself to be brought all the way to the very top of the building and then thrown off.
Tony, who had been zipping back and forth, waiting to cut Ock off before he made it to his getaway pod on the rooftop, instead had to make a diving swoop to catch the falling God. By the time he had set Loki down on earth, Ock’s transport had taken off and switched to invisibility mode.
Tony snapped his visor back. “What the hell was that about?”
Loki looked shaken, seeming to forget that he was still clinging on to Tony.
“A miscalculation on my part. Magic is not always the most precise weapon.”
It sounded like a bad lie. If there was one thing that Loki was never bad at, it was lying; he’d built a reputation and several nicknames around the fact.
Something was wrong. Tony was sure of it.
The next morning, there was a cow in the kitchen.
“MOTHERFUCKER!” Tony yelled, and backed into a coat-rack painfully.
The cow didn’t seem to mind the screamed profanity. It chewed and blinked guilelessly at Tony with long eyelashes.
From behind him, Tony heard an amused chuckle. He whirled around.
“You! Why is there a cow on my marble floor?”
There was a plopping sound and, as if on cue, the cow was no longer the only unwanted thing on Tony’s marble floor.
“A practical joke,” Loki replied. “Do you not see the humour in it?”
Even through a mist of rage, Tony noticed something off about him, but Loki turned away before he could decide what. Tony moved in for a closer look and the God deliberately sidestepped him.
Thor appeared, yawning pleasantly. “Good morrow! Brother, it is good to see you join us for our morning meal!”
“Thor, you deal with this!” Tony thumbed furiously at the cow.
Thor perked up even more. “Ah, excellent! The milk will be most fresh in the Mighty Thor’s Cocoa Puffs!”
“Morning, guys- Whoa!”
Clint’s eyes went huge and he stumbled backwards midway through the door. The throw rug bunched under his feet and he landed on his backside.
“You see?” Loki smirked. “Most humorous.”
Loki whisked out of the room looking pleased with himself. Thor was milking the cow straight into his cereal bowl.
“What’s going on?” Clint scowled, getting back on his feet.
“I don’t know,” Tony said. “But I’m making it my business to find out.”
After an hour of problem-solving, they managed to remove the cow. Thor had begged to keep it as a useful pet (Loki’s suggestion, apparently), so it had been moved to the disused stables where Tony kept a few of his less-favoured sports-cars.
With that matter temporarily adjourned, Steve agreed that Loki’s behaviour had been strange enough to warrant investigation, and consented to join Tony in confronting him.
At the end of a lengthy search, they found him in a rarely-entered room at the end of one of the long upstairs corridors. It had been vaguely designed as an office, but had never been claimed as one. Against the wall opposite the door was a narrow couch upholstered in shiny, reddish-brown leather. Loki was curled in a corner of it with his head on the arm-rest and his eyes closed. His green cape was drawn over him like a blanket.
At their intrusion, he sat up straight and threw his cape back over his shoulder with a harassed expression.
“What are you up to in here?” Tony asked suspiciously. He looked around for signs of evil-doing, but could see nothing obviously out of the ordinary.
“Loki, you look terrible,” Steve said with concern.
He did, actually. Now that Tony was able to get a look at him, his skin was pasty and there were dark rings under his eyes. His nostrils were pink and wet-looking.
Loki heaved a sigh.
“I would imagine so,” he responded. “I believe I am ill.”
“Why, what’s- Oh!” Tony backed away a few steps. “Holy crap! Do we need to alert SHIELD? Create a containment zone?”
Loki waved a hand dismissively.
“That will not be necessary. It is a common ailment here on Midgard, I am told. Rife among children especially. It will go in a fortnight or so.”
“So… you have a cold?” Steve tried to clarify.
“Yes, that is it.”
“And you know this because you’ve had them before?”
“It would seem I am prone to them.”
Tony rubbed his goatee. “Huh. That’s… really weird. Does this mean Thor-”
“No,” Loki snapped testily, his first real show of annoyance. “My brother’s physiology is different to mine. He is not susceptible to your human illnesses.”
Deciding to file that bit of information away to examine later, Tony moved on to other pertinent questions.
“Does this have something to do with what happened during the fight yesterday? You barely used your magic at all.”
“I cannot use magic. Not until my health returns. It would be very dangerous.”
“Dangerous?” Steve repeated.
“In my experience, yes. My spells err in ways I cannot fathom. There have been… unruly side-effects,” Loki grimaced at the memory, whatever it was. “You heroes would definitely not approve.”
“But don’t you have healing powers?” Tony backtracked. “I’ve seen you shake off being impaled in like, thirty seconds.”
Loki slowed his speech as though he were talking to a particularly stupid child.
“That is different. I use magic to heal wounds. They do not just heal themselves.”
“So you can’t use magic even a tiny bit, just enough to restore yourself?”
“Not without running the risk of decorating the walls with my innards, no.”
“Well,” said Steve. “Just take it easy until you’re better. We can hold down the-.”
Tony interrupted him peevishly. “Hey wait, you used magic this morning! In the house!”
“No I did not.”
“Oh, that. That was an accident.”
“I did not purposefully channel any spell, but sometimes there are… slips.”
“What? How so?”
“Misfires,” he elaborated. “Uncontrolled bursts.”
“What does that mean, exactly? How does it equate to a cow in my kitchen?”
“Magic can be evoked by will, but it is only ever a contained beast,” the God rubbed his nose irritably. “It is difficult to describe the subtleties to those who do not practice. To begin with…you would…”
Loki trailed off, and then sneezed loudly and abruptly into his hands. He pulled them away and gave his palms a disturbed look.
“Bless you,” said Steve, supplying a neatly folded cloth handkerchief from his pocket. Loki snatched it from him and began delicately wiping his hands and nose.
Tony cleared his throat. “You were saying?”
“Must I explain this all now? You are making me tired,” Loki complained. “It is hardly likely that you would understand, anyway.”
Tony was prepared to keep grilling, but Steve motioned against it with a shake of his head.
“You’re probably right. We’re sorry, Loki. Maybe we should leave you alone now.”
“Oh,” Loki said in a small voice. “I thought perhaps… but it is no matter.”
“I thought,” He fidgeted with the handkerchief. “You might advise a course of action.”
Steve looked to Tony in total bewilderment.
Tony sighed. He grabbed Loki by the elbow and hefted him to his feet.
“Come on,” he grumbled. “Okay, first rule of being sick: let’s ditch the cape and the twenty pounds of armour and find you some comfy pyjamas.”