"Because we'll need them to."
Behind Fury, Maria Hill turns on her heel and goes back to her station. Fury takes a deep breath. They've won; they faced an enormous threat and they've won. The cost was great, but they've saved the world. He was taking a leap of faith with the Avengers - especially now, with most of the team gone - but it worked once so it will work again. Hopefully they won't need them--
"Director Fury, sir!"
--for a very long time. Fury sighs and turns to look at Sitwell. The agent looks terrified. That is rarely a good sign.
"We've just located a giant power spike near Broxton, Oklahoma."
Fury's starting to have a bad feeling about it.
"And?" he prompts Sitwell. The agent swallows thickly.
"And the energy signature matches that of the Tesseract." Sitwell makes a pause for a better dramatic effect. "They're back, sir."
"Hill, get a hold of Romanoff and Barton," Fury barks at his second-in-command. "Tell them to stop Rogers and Banner before they leave New York. And tell them to bring Stark with them, he might be needed."
Hill nods and promptly gives orders to two of the closest techies, O'Grady and Morse, Fury thinks. The agents almost fall out of their chairs because of the shock of having Vice-Director Hill directly address them, then they hurry to carry out their orders. Soon Fury hears O'Grady messaging Romanoff and Morse yelling at Barton over the comm.
"Take us to Oklahoma," Fury says to no one in particular, but the Helicarrier soon takes on a new route.
Thor blinks and lets go of the Tesseract tube. Then he blinks again. This is--- certainly not Asgard, unless things changed a lot since he was there but a three days ago. In front of him, Loki is not avoiding his eyes anymore and is looking directly at his brother. Thor cannot make out his expression because of the gag, but he knows that glint in his brother's eyes, once again clear and green. It's annoyance mixed with amusement, and it's something Thor was used to seeing on his brother from the moment they were both mere children. It's Loki's usual mischievous look and suddenly Thor has a suspicion that he's been tricked. Again.
"What is this sorcery, brother?" he booms and Loki merely shrugs. Ah, yes. The gag. Thor weights the pros and cons of unlocking the device and decides that hearing his brother speak of madness is worth getting an answer to the most pressing question: why are they still on Midgard? He takes it off and Loki wets his cracked lower lip. Then he runs his tongue over his teeth and grimaces.
"You almost ripped out my tooth, you idiot!"
"Why are we still on Midgard, Loki?" Thor asks and Mjolnir vibrates in his left hand. "Is this your doing?"
The rest of the answer is drowned in the noise a small flying machine makes as it descends nearby them. Stark shoots into the air before the machine is done landing; soon after, Steve, Natasha, Banner and the archer appear in the entrance, followed by Director Fury. Loki shifts uncomfortably and Thor clenches his fingers around Mjolnir's handle. He and the mortals had an agreement - he was supposed to take care of Loki. They agreed to that. Thor glances at Loki. No. He isn't going to let them take his brother.
"You were supposed to be gone," Stark says incredulously. Banner is eyeing Thor and Loki with curiosity. Ah, Thor thinks. Of course. They were the ones who designed the tube to contain the Tesseract. They would be interested in why their magicks were not working.
Loki glares at Stark and raises a brow.
"You know, Mister Stark, it's very impolite to offer one a drink and then not deliver it."
Barton and Lady Natasha both have their weapons out and aimed at Loki. Thor is unsure of what to do and how to react. On the one hand, he understands the mortals, his comrades. On the other, Loki is his brother, Thor loves him and feels responsible for him, including his safety.
"What the hell is going on here?" Director Fury demands as he stands in front of Thor and crosses his arms over his chest. "You were supposed to be gone."
"Aye," Thor replies. Beside him, Loki is stubbornly refusing to meet anyone's eyes and glances pointedly at the sky above. "I do not know why my brother and I are still in this realm."
"Sub-space interception," Loki murmurs.
"What?" both Thor and Fury ask in unison. Stark just takes off his helmet and stares at Loki as if he was seeing him for the first time.
"Nothing." Loki shrugs.
"Well then," Fury motions the Avengers to get closer, "since we cannot remove the threat from this world, we will have to contain it. Barton, Romanoff, go and get--"
He trails off when a beam of light not unlike one usually left by the Bifrost appears nearby them, in the middle of a desert, and two figures emerge from it. The Avengers all wear more or less shocked expressions, Fury looks disgusted and Loki looks giddy. Thor is not sure which one of those is worse.
"Hold the horses, Fury," one of the newly arrived women, a warrior-like lady with fiery green hair, says. "We need to talk."
"Agent Brand," Fury says with distaste clearly coating his words.
"Who?" Steve asks. Thor is similarly baffled by this 'agent' person. Is this another one of SHIELD's warriors? Or is it an ally of Loki? The other one is more probable as Loki looks delighted to see the woman. Delighted, but also-- Also annoyed, Thor notices. Whoever that woman is, his brother is not happy with her. Maybe she was to help him in his quest and failed to do so?
"Agent Abigail Brand of SWORD," Fury explains and, judging by the confused looks on both Stark's and Lady Natasha's faces, that explanation does not help anyone, "the Council's ugly step-child."
"Commander Abigail Brand of the Council's ugly step-child, thank you very much."
"What's SWORD?" Barton inquiries while still keeping an arrow fixed at Loki. That doesn't escape the notice of the other woman, a tall blonde who's accompanying Commander Brand.
"Sentient World Observation and Response Division," Brand answers.
"The science-fiction version of SHIELD," Fury adds. Brand glares at him. "What the hell do you want, Brand?"
"I believe you're keeping one of my people prisoner." She glances at Thor, who's still holding the tube. "And if you so much as try to beam out of here again, we'll reroute you to the fucking Siberia."
Next to Thor, Loki raises his still bound hands and smiles brightly.
"Yes, can we do something about the whole prisoner thing?" he asks. "Carol, would you be a dear--?"
The blond woman - Carol - rolls her eyes and moves towards Loki. She doesn't take more than three steps before an arrow lands an inch in front of her right shoe.
"Not a step closer, lady," Barton warns. "And someone please explain what the fuck is going on."
Thor admits that this situation confuses him as well and he would be glad to hear an explanation. Loki sighs and lowers his hands; then his head snaps back up and he glares angrily at Brand.
"If you don't explain it to them in less than five minutes, I will refuse to take responsibility for my actions."
Brand doesn't look impressed by his threat and Thor immediately decides that he likes this mortal. The woman puts her gun back into the holster and she crosses her arms.
"Trial run," she says simply.
"Excuse me?" Stark. Thor didn't notice when he inched closer so that Loki was directly in his line of fire. Thor's eyes narrow. This is not a conduct of an honourable warrior.
"He," Brand points at Fury, "wanted a response team that would be capable of handling any situation and would save the world. So my team organized a trial run for you. A mock invasion, so to say. We wanted to see if you were up for the task."
"A mock invasion?" Natasha asks. She's not as shocked as she ought to be, Thor thinks. In reality, she looks like she's finally putting all the pieces of a complicated puzzle together.
"Yeah. Turns out you can't even save one borough, so I wouldn't bet on you saving any worlds in the nearest future."
"He works for you."
Natasha points at Loki, who wriggles his hands again.
"Yes, yes, I do. Can someone please take these cuffs off, my wrists are starting to hurt."
"It was staged." Barton looks like he's about to get a heart attack. Or launch an attack on everyone else, one of the two. "A hundred people died."
"And you think that if this was a real situation everyone would have been just dandy," Brand deadpans while Loki says:
"I'm surprised it was only a hundred." His absolutely casual tone ticks Steve off and he would have jumped at Loki if Stark and Thor didn't stop him. Loki raises his hands defensively. "I'm just stating a fact. Point is, the Chitauri aren't much of a threat to begin with. It was a test, we were hardly going to choose a level 10 opponents for you when you're barely making it to level 2."
"Level-- what?" Stark shakes his head and steps in between Fury and Brand. "Wait, wait, wait. Start from the top and assume that we're all idiots here."
"I don't need to strain myself to do that," Brand snarks and takes a breath. "SWORD's main objective is making sure that Earth faces no extraterrestrial threats. When SHIELD was given my budget to support a stupid-ass dream of having a team of superheroes, we decided to find out if our money was at least spent on something useful. I got one of my best agents," she nods at Loki, "to play-pretend a villain. He got himself an army and staged a little disaster. And honestly, for most of the exercise, you guys sucked. No team skills whatsoever."
"Not to mention," Loki interrupts, "that when I was in SHIELD's custody no one even tried to find out if maybe I was also mind-controlled."
"Were you?" Barton asks.
"No, but I made it look like I was, just a bit." Loki sighs when no one figures out what he means. "My eyes are naturally green, do your homework."
"Thankfully, your team managed to get its act together before SWORD was forced to admit that you're just a bunch of incompetent idiots and to step in and take control of the situation," Brand finishes. "You defeated the villain and more or less saved Manhattan. Also, for the record, SWORD will not pay for the criminal damage. It's all your own damn fault. If you were as good as we thought you were - and as good as Loki made you look - you wouldn't have let the fight in the city even start."
"Speaking of fights," Loki looks at Brand and that anger is back in both his eyes and voice. "Weren't you supposed to inform SHIELD bosses of our little training exercise so that, oh, I don't know, no giant green rage monster would mutilate your employee?"
"Sorry, Loki." Brand shrugs. "I was going to tell Fury, but I missed that Council meeting - problems at the Kree border, you know how heated that gets - and then I forgot."
"As per usual," Loki mutters darkly.
"One question," Bruce Banner awkwardly raises a hand. "Where did you get an alien army?"
"And where one usually gets an alien army?" Brand answers sarcastically and Barton makes a point of drawing out another arrow.
"Who cares about an alien army, where did you get this lunatic?"
Loki and Brand exchange meaningful looks and Loki's lips curl in a smile. It's a normal smile, alike a thousand that he and Thor exchanged when they were younger. Thor's waiting for what his brother has to say, but, surprisingly, it is the blond woman - Carol - who answers Barton's last question.
"SWORD's policy has always been the firm belief that if it's alien and it's abandoned, it's ours," she says simply. "Loki crashed in Iowa less than a year ago and since none of our usual suspects tried to claim him, we employed him."
"Employed?" Stark sounds dubious. "Him?"
"I'm very good at diplomacy." Stark doesn't seem convinced. "Which reminds me," Loki turns to Brand. "Whoever is in charge of the Chitauri is much more dangerous and devious. They wouldn't have demanded the Tesseract all on their own."
"Which means your father was right."
That spikes Thor's interest.
"Father?" He grabs Loki's arm and shakes it. Loki makes a face and points his chin towards his still bound wrists. This time Thor doesn't hesitate before unbuckling the cuffs - much to Barton and Fury's dismay. "What is she speaking of, brother?"
Loki rolls his eyes and massages his chaffed and red wrists.
"Really, Thor," he says carefully, as if Thor were a particularly slow child. "Our father is the King of Asgard who happens to have a man who sees everything at his service. Do you honestly think he was unable to find me?" Thor doesn't give him an answer and after five minutes, Loki gives up on waiting for one. "He came to me not long after our last-- meeting. We had a nice, if overdue, conversation--"
"You still owe me for that equipment you've broken then," Brand inserts.
"--which ended a bit more emotionally than I expected--"
"And you also owe me for the psychiatric help that poor Andy Paulletz needed after seeing you two cry."
"--and we resolved our previous disagreements."
"And then you decided to go and conquer Earth."
Loki moans and buries his face in his hands after hearing Barton. Thor knows the meaning of that gesture all too well - Loki is being frustrated by how slow and dim-witted Barton is. Thor cannot help but smile; it's refreshing, not to be at the receiving end of this particular frustration.
"I did not. Seriously," Loki looks at all the Avengers, "I'm a prince of Asgard and the king of Jotunheim, what would I need Midgard for?"
He says 'Midgard' like it's a foul word and Thor feels obliged to be offended on behalf of his favoured realm, when the meaning of Loki's words dawns on him. He takes a breath and opens his mouth to speak, but Loki silences him with a flick of his hand. They will talk about this later.
"How come I did not know about this?" Thor asks and does not care that the hurt in his voice is obvious to everyone. He's spent months mourning for a brother he thought forever lost and then he's spent the last few days thinking he was losing his brother once again, this time to madness. And, apparently, everyone in his family knew it was not the case, but refrained from informing him; Thor has the right to be hurt.
"Father thought it better if you figured it out on your own," Loki pats Thor's shoulder. "But you're not exactly a rocket scientist, are you?"
Thor doesn't know what Loki means by that.
"How is anyone okay with this?!" Barton drops his bow and waves his hand in Loki's general direction. "People died because of him."
"Unfortunate casualties. Those usually happen during an alien invasion, you know."
"He killed Coulson."
Ah. Thor feels his anger rise again and he glares at his brother.
"He didn't," Natasha replies quickly. That makes everyone stop dead in their tracks and blink. "Right?"
"Wait, you think-- you think I actually killed Phil Coulson?" Loki's eyes widen comically. "You actually do think that, Odin's pants. Carol, will you--?"
"Life Model Decoy," Carol explains. "Phillip John Coulson is currently--" she takes out a sleek black gizmo and checks something, "He's currently sitting by the pool belonging to British Colonial Hilton Hotel in Nassau. He's drinking an appletini."
"Even if SHIELD didn't know about our little exercise," Brand adds, clearly speaking to Fury, "I needed an inside man on your ship. And Phil Coulson was pissed enough at you for giving the, quote, 'Captain America babysitting duty' to an agent named Sharon Carter that he agreed to help us out if a need would ever arise. And a desperate need arose when your six superheroes turned out to be a bunch of easily irritated first-graders."
"My idea!" Loki grins.
That is more than Thor can comprehend, and the whole explanation was filled with terms he didn't understand. But he did find out one important thing - his brother was not guilty. His brother was not mad and he was still his brother. That was much better than Thor ever dared to hope for.
"Does that mean we should welcome you on the team?" Natasha asks and extends her hand. Loki eyes it suspiciously.
"Absolutely not." Brand walks up to Fury and wriggles a finger in front of his face. "You already got most of my funding, I'm not letting you have my Norse god as well."
"I'm sure we can make this work," Steve says as a way of trying to pacify the situation. "We have two organizations which are working to make the world safer. We also have two Norse gods. It would be fair if each agency had-- one of those, right?"
"Splendid idea, Captain, no wonder you're a national hero." Brand extends two fingers, points them at Loki and then bends them. "Odinson the younger, with me, we have a debriefing to go through and a fugitive from two galaxies away seeking sanctuary that in fact might be a prelude to a first stage of a real invasion."
Brand and Carol both go over to the place where they first appeared in. Loki turns to the Avengers.
"Director Fury, if you ever decide to fire Agent Coulson because of his involvement with us, be sure to know that we'll gladly take him. Aside from that... It was lovely meeting you all," he says cheerfully. "We'll have to repeat it sometime. Oh, and Thor?" He grins and Thor's beloved mischievous glint is back in his expressive green eyes. "I so look forward to our inter-agency cooperation."