In most universes, Loki discovered later, it was Doom who started it. Perhaps the instinctive recognition of this was why he so rarely betrayed Doom.
Oh, a little double crossing here or there, one or two incidents of leaving him to take the blame, occasionally allowing him to be almost killed when their joint plans fell through – this was all part of the game, like the poison with which Doom had laced Loki's food the first time they had dinner together. For how could either of them respect the other if they didn't sometimes prove difficult and unexpected and perilous to know?
But serious betrayal – irrecoverable harm? He had not done that to Victor. Nor had Victor done it to him, yet. Their truce held at a level of what he had begun to think of as 'friendship'. So when he had needled Doom into inviting him to see the abomination he was working on today, Loki only had four or five second thoughts before following the mortal madman down into the sacrosanct dankness of the furthest of his laboratories.
Outside the door, they paused to tap in pass codes, for the gem in the lock to recognise Doom's magical signature. An intriguing thing, this marriage of science and witchery. Not one Loki cared for – why tame the life force of the universe into bottles, when it might rage wild and limitless across one's skin? But still a thing to watch in the hands of others. He sniffed and smelled amniotic fluid, old blood beneath fresh disinfectant, the throat-closing scent of burned bone, and something far more...
His chin went up. He snuffed again, frowning. Ice, and the faint ketone smell of frost giant, and... himself?
“Ah.” Doom noticed his sudden shift into attentiveness. The welded mask inclined, and that was all the expression of which it was capable, but his voice flexed in smiling challenge. “I thought this would interest you.”
Lights flickered on one by one, dimly at first so that the forms within appeared to create themselves out of shadow. Along Loki's back and across his shoulders the skin stirred, standing on end like the ruff of a wolf. His eyes widened and his jaw dropped – the room was full of him, although it was him in Jotun form. Tanks lined the wall and copies of him floated there, motionless, neither dead nor alive. Some were infants, some grown to adulthood. On the examination table one of the adults lay cut in half, a saw poised above the trailing end of his spine. Hence the smell of burning bone.
There was a brief, quiet moment where Loki did not know what to think. He leaned forward and poked with fierce curiosity at the internal organs on view. He was aware, all around him, of a vast, quiescent potential. Magic, woven into his DNA, waiting, brainless and at peace.
Then he found himself smiling, flattered beyond words. “Oh Victor! How very much I must fascinate you. I declare I am quite touched.”
“Hm,” said Doom, and offered Loki a journal in which he had recorded his observations in careful copperplate handwriting. “Only you could take an exploration of your weaknesses in the light of an attempt at courtship.”
Courtship? Loki thought, not wholly averse to the idea. Say it with vivisected clones? Oh, he did like Victor – the man could be counted on to do things that no one else had done, things that no one else had thought. And in a lifetime of watching everything repeat, over and over again, the spontaneously weird was extremely welcome.
“If that's your intent, you will be sadly disappointed,” he waved a dismissive hand, dropped the journal casually into a pool of...bile, by the smell of it... and went to lean against the largest tank. A small inquiring tendril of power and the thing inside opened red eyes and looked at him. He still couldn't tell if there was a mind there or not.
“Because you are invulnerable?” Doom scoffed. “Normally your lies are are more polished than that.”
Loki turned to look at him, leaning his palms back against the reinforced glass, weakening it. He was not immune to sentiment – didn't like to see any part of himself in a cage, even these inferior copies. If it had the wit to attempt an escape, it now had the means. If not, it was not worth saving.
Doom had missed the point, as usual. “Because these are Jotnar, and I am not. Studying them will give you no reliable information about me.”
Brushing off the journal, Doom inserted two long wires into the back of the dead clone's skull, fired up the computer to which they were connected. Covered in armour from crown to sole, his body language was muted and his face unreadable. Loki was certain that he heard disappointment, nevertheless.
“They share 100% of your DNA. They are Jotnar, just as you are Jotun. I did not think you lied even to yourself.”
Loki's armour was far more adaptable. He chose a self-depreciating smile as he ruled a firm line beneath the hint and offered no more. “Then clearly you do not know me as much as you wish.”
Because although Doom's fascination was flattering – although it was delightful, and unexpected, and glorious, to have anyone try so very hard to understand him – it would be terrifying if he ever actually succeeded.
Distracting himself from that thought, Loki parted the clone's black hair to look more closely at the base of his horns. They were covered in a downy material, like the new antlers of deer in the spring. Rubbing it off revealed enamelled bone, whiter and smoother than teeth. With a vicious moment of disgust, he thought so that's why the helmet. Because the monster in me yearned for its true shape.
Perhaps there were things he could learn from these perfect offspring. But they wouldn't help Doom, who held only one half of the puzzle. For Loki wasn't Jotun. Shapeshifting was not a matter of changing only the outward appearance – if he changed into a horse he took on all the physical characteristics of a horse. If he changed to an Asgardian, he became an Asgardian...
In a tank that looked more suitable for tropical fish, there floated a copy of himself at about four weeks old. Loki had seen this one out of the corner of his eye when he came in and refused to look again. It reminded him he was not much of an Asgardian either. He was what happened when an untrained infant, scarcely born, weakened by starvation and neglect, instinctively adopted a form of which it had no knowledge or understanding. He was riddled with mistakes and ambivalences, some odd, imperfect thing half way between one species and the other. And unique – the only one of his kind in the universe.
Had he chosen an Asgardian form once he had the knowledge and the training to do it right, he would not have elected to retain so strong a family resemblance to Laufey. He wondered at times whether Odin's coldness, his cruelty over the years, had been prompted by the fact that when he looked at his younger son - innocent and anxious and eager to please - he saw the face of his oldest enemy looking back.
Doom bent over his computer, coaxing it to full life. A series of graphs and schematics displayed on the old fashioned screen, and the man himself seemed absorbed enough to overlook the way Loki's fingers were trembling. They cramped so, the fingers of his right hand, when he thought of the man who was not his father, as though they were still trying not to let go.
Loki clasped both hands behind his back to still this tell, and thought about hunger instead. His infant self must have got the Asgardian digestive system wrong. How else could he have out-eaten Volstagg daily and still be wracked with what felt, and looked like, endless famine? Why else would he have felt, when the casket shifted him fully to Jotun form, as though his belly was full of cold writhing eels?
Well, all right, perhaps that last thing had been mere horror. The principle remained: Whatever Doom was looking for, he wouldn't find it in this pure Jotun form. Since the day Odin picked him up, nothing about Loki would ever be pure again.
And now even these copies of himself were making him feel that he wasn't good enough.
No, it was they – stupid creatures – who should be ashamed of themselves, floating passively here, waiting to be carved up. Why had they not broken free? This one on the table, with his ugly black fingernails and his fuzz-covered horns, why had he allowed this to be done to him? Why had he not crushed Doom's head, or buried the new sharp points of his tines in the man's stomach, when Doom bent over to his work, and ripped?
He laughed, once, nervously. Stifled giggles behind his hand, suddenly aware that this place of torture was beginning to distress him. Too many memories, forgotten too incompletely. “Do they never try to escape?”
Doom straightened up. What was visible of his eyes suggested he was smiling. “They do. But they have all the knowledge and coordination of newborns, and are easily contained.”
Now Loki was no longer amused at all. Another emotion was trying to replace it. He could feel it, outside the doors of his mind, inchoate, pressing, not yet identifiable. “Another way in which they are not like me.”
“Yet they serve me well enough,” Doom indicated the computer monitor with a smug gesture. “Look here. If I feed enough data through their brains, I find I can predict your actions in any situation to an 83% level of accuracy. I'm sure with some refinement I will be able to get that up into the nineties before the year is out.”
Ah, it was fury. And now he was shaking with it, and the glass was cracking, splintering into shards that sucked out into a whirlwind of bright edges all around him. They smacked across Doom's armour and shattered into smaller and smaller pieces until the very air was clawed with diamond dust. The clones had time only to open their eyes and scream before they were abraded into a storm of gore.
Nodding to himself, Doom covered his eyes with his armoured hand and backed through the door. He sealed it behind him as his computer tore itself into component parts and the electricity within kindled into welcome, cleansing flame.
As Loki stood in the centre of his own maelstrom of razors, blood and flame, helpless to stop his own reaction to the repugnance, the obscenity of this, he tried to tell himself he had not seen the final line of figures on the now melted screen.
Probability that Loki will destroy the lab and all evidence – 91%
How could Doom know that much, when Loki himself didn't know if he was offended or outraged, betrayed or terrified or destroyed?
Loki goes to the only person he can trust for advice.
Once he had burned down both wings of Doom's castle and allowed the small but vehement cadre of Latverian freedom fighters an unprecedented window of access to the world's internet – to prove Doom's computer had entirely underestimated the severity of his reaction – Loki returned home to think things over.
'Home' these days was a long white house buried in the Vatnajökull icecap, close to the volcanic lakes of Grímsvötn, where he could feel the fires seethe beneath the ice. The Alfar of Iceland, a threatened breed, had gladly accepted his protection from encroaching humans. They provided him with servants just as the Alfar of Alfheim provided servants to the gods - unsmilingly yet ungrudgingly, because it was their nature to do so.
It was soothing to be greeted with warmed wine and to have concerned hands remove his bloodstained garments as he came in. He accepted both, and walked down steps of ice to the warm waters below. Here he could float and be cleaned, while Iceland's bright summer sun filtered down through the glacier above and lit him in milky radiance, as though he were a chick still in the egg.
Predictable? It was the worst thing of which he had ever been accused. Liar, murderer, monster, these he had accepted and tried – with some success – to live up to. The Chitauri thing? That had been positively calculated to scream 'psychopath' and had gone over rather well, he thought. But obvious, a known quantity, a thing that could be weighed and worked around? No.
No, he was not having that.
Doom would not have shown him his research unless he had it backed up somewhere, was probably even now refining his tests in a second, more hidden lab, to take account of the new data Loki had provided him with today. Victor was a thorough man and a patient one, and would not be dissuaded from his obsessions short of killing him.
So kill him. It was the easiest solution.
He padded back up the stairs, streaming water and steaming, was swathed in towels and sat down in front of a table of food. Herring, apparently, just as it had been for the last seven days. They did many things well, the Alfar, but imagination was not one of them.
Killing Victor would be a challenge, keeping him dead even more so, but neither seemed testing enough to make the prospect of a Doom-free world afterwards worthwhile. Besides, as a solution it was a little – dare he say it? A little obvious.
Far better to take up the larger quest and simply become harder to predict. Take the chance, at the same time, to change himself into something he wanted, something not dictated by either father – something of his own.
Put like that, it was so clear he wondered why he hadn't seen it before. Absent-mindedly, he pushed the plate away and smoothed his palm across the surface of the ice table beneath, melting it into silver reflectiveness. He must have seen it before. At least one of his many iterations must have tried, must have hints as to how to go about it, or what to avoid. Loki didn't need anyone's help to do anything, but there was no shame, surely, in asking for his own?
A single drop of his blood, to mix with the water slicking the top of the table, and he had a magic mirror with which to see into the other dimensions. When he had whispered his need to it it cleared into a window, through which he could see old stone walls, a pallet of straw, and then a beating of raven-black wings and a driving black beak aimed at his eye.
He recoiled automatically, sick fear and yearning flinching through him. Of course, there would be other Odins out there too. Why hadn't he thought? Why hadn't he...
And then a boy's voice said brightly “Ikol, stop that! We're well adjusted and happy now, am I right? We don't attack people just because they call us on the freaky washing-basin of Skype, or whatever that thing is.”
“Scrying glass,” huffed the bird, hopping away. Not a raven at all, when it turned to regard its companion it had the white belly and the indigo flashes of a magpie, and the age-old, cynical eyes of something else entirely. “And one which should not respond to anyone but you.”
The boy followed his voice into view – a child on the cusp of manhood, with eyes clear as emeralds beneath kinked black brows that gave him an untrustworthy look, though he was grinning. Long black hair, and a coarse-looking nightgown that fitted with the medieval feel of the room he inhabited. This was not the Asgard Loki remembered, bright and gilded sleek.
“I think it is me,” said the boy, and that brought a rush of recognition that almost lifted the ends of Loki's mouth, helping him ignore the differences. He was clever then, in all dimensions. It was good to know. “That means there's three of us now – we could be a trinity like the All-Mother. Youth, father and king? You'd have to be the king, Ikol.”
“I have been king,” the magpie shifted its wings irritably.
“As have I,” Loki agreed, partly bemused, partly unwilling to go on being talked over.
“It was not an experience I care to repeat.” The bird cocked an eye at him, as if taking his measure. There was a red gleam in the depths of it, and there was a sharpness in the apparently innocent gaze of the boy.
Interesting to be on the other end of his own inquisitive stare. Interesting, but not pleasant. “I am willing to give the throne another go. I am entitled to it, after all.”
“It will not bring you comfort.”
“Perhaps I'm not looking for comfort,” Loki snapped. “Nor am I looking to be patronised by a child's familiar. Why don't you keep your beak shut and let me speak to myself.”
“Oh dear,” the boy picked the bird up and dragged a soothing fingertip across its head as it ruffed up in annoyance. “I knew we used to be evil, but I didn't realise we were rude with it.”
“And slow too, apparently,” Ikol agreed. Despite his protest at being treated like a pet, he curled his scaly taloned feet around the boy's finger and held on, while Loki thought, belatedly 'Ikol?' My...opposite? 'We used to be'?
“There are two of you?” he hazarded. “The bird is your past and you are his attempt to change? How can that be?”
“I don't know that I should tell you, if you're just going to use it to kill people or invade realms or whatever. We frown upon that kind of stuff now, don't we, Ikol?”
The bird gave a harsh croak that might have been a laugh. It eyed Loki through the surface of the mirror with the worn-down gaze of a very old man. “I remember being as peeled raw as this, and having no one in any world to turn to with it. What a multiverse it would be if not even we could show ourself mercy!”
“Oh, alright then.”
Loki mentally dubbed the boy “Luke.” It was easier to do the calculations if they each had a name of their own, and he was “Loki,” of course.
Luke dragged the single blanket from his pallet, folded it up and sat on it, crosslegged, as Loki wondered if he was being punished by being given such mean accommodations, or if this was just another case of Asgard believing that youngsters should be toughened up to make men of them.
“It's a long story,” said Luke, raising a finger like a storyteller commanding his audience's attention, “and maybe Ikol should start it, because he started it.”
“Actually it was Doom who started--”
“Oh,” Loki interrupted. “In my world too.”
“You have a Doom?” Ikol looked pleased, although it was hard to say how. “A metal-clad mortal mage with hideous scars? Ruler of Latveria?”
Loki found himself grinning – new to the pleasures of gossip that was not driven by a hidden agenda. “Well,” he said, “he's quite handsome here. A year or so back, he got hold of some device which healed him. And he keeps careful silence about his magic. Everything else is the same though.” The pleasure shaded once more into petulance. “He told me I was predictable!”
“Ah,” Ikol preened his wing feathers. “Indeed. That was how it started here too. I was, as you are, horrified at the thought...”
The bird and the boy spun him a saga of manipulating Hell and altering fate, of razing and then saving Asgard, of sacrificial death, and apologies and a new start as a blank canvas on which he hoped to write a more heroic tale.
“...So I ended up as a street kid in Paris, with no memories of any of it. And then Thor found me and brought me back to Asgard. So here I am trying to grow up differently this time.”
They had all, Loki thought, enjoyed the parts where he manipulated his opponents like chess pieces to enable this outcome. It was a revelation to him to think that he had been capable of so much. Clearly his plans to date had been far too small. But looking at the boy's hunched shoulders, the slide of his hair across his averted face, he felt moved to say sharply, “And how is that turning out for you?”
“It isn't their fault that they're all mean to me,” Luke muttered to the stones beneath him. “I was mean to them first. Well, Ikol was, but he was me at the time. I haven't got any grounds to complain.”
Something shattered in Loki's peripheral vision. The plate. The knife atop it hurled itself through the air and buried itself in the door. He clenched his hands to stop them tearing the table apart and throwing it at the wall. Gods, he knew how it felt. He knew that puzzled, grudging attempt at fairness under pressure. Years and years of it. He knew he was staring failure in the face. “And why would Ikol have been mean to them, if they had not hurt him first?”
He turned on Ikol. “How could you be such a fool? How could you bring him back to Asgard, to the family and the culture that drove him mad the first time? You made him abandoned, again. An outcast, again. Hated, again. And you returned him to Thor's shadow? Why? If you wanted things to be different, why not raise him in a place that knew how to value him for himself, just this once?”
Ikol tilted his head and made a noise somewhere between sigh and laugh. “There are rules which even we cannot change without forfeiting the whole game. Abandonment is one of those. But as for why we returned to Asgard, can you not guess?”
The bile rose in his throat. Oh, and he could, of course. He could guess it in the taste of the dumb, snarling, helpless, hopeless, screaming frustration that had driven him to attempt his first murder. “Thor.”
Thor wouldn't have known to leave well enough alone. Wherever he tried to make a new start in blessed peace, Thor - to whom all Loki's worst wounds were 'imagined slights' - would have hunted him down and dragged him, kicking and screaming, back into the nightmare.
“Thor who never listens. Thor who always knows best – which is coincidentally whatever is calculated to make Thor happiest. Oh yes, of course Thor would be the one to ruin it all with his selfish, simple minded--”
A ringing crack cut across his tirade. The boy was on his feet now, his face twisted in an expression of such deep and adult malice it almost took Loki aback. He had evidently just thrown a metal goblet at his scrying glass, because it rolled and smoked with discharged magic just below Loki's gaze. “Don't you dare say anything about Thor!”
Oh. Oh. Loki exchanged a complicated, slightly appalled glance with Ikol. Oh Wyrd's weft. He recalled painfully the days when he hero-worshipped his brother, when he thought Thor was the only one who understood. And then later, when he thought it didn't matter that Thor didn't understand, because at least Thor cared. And then later, when he realised that the brother Thor thought he loved had never actually existed at all. That Thor, therefore, didn't really care either – didn't really love him. That that too had been a lie.
“All of that to go through again? What were you thinking!”
“You are very young,” Ikol might have been smiling, if he had been a man. “I am old, and my brother is old. Wiser now. His love can still break bones, but I no longer doubt it is sincere. Do not trouble yourself about the boy – there is still hope this plan will succeed for us. But for you?”
Well, there was no denying that killing himself in order to be reborn in entirely the same circumstances would be pretty damn unpredictable. But that was all he could say for the scheme. He shook his head to clear it, and beckoned for a servant to bring him his chessboard.
“If being reborn means a second childhood in Asgard – no way of replacing my father and brother with something better – I see no advantage in it. Might as well just start again from here and spare myself the misery.”
“I could not do that. Too much blood on my hands, too locked into my choices for anything other than the grand gesture. But if you feel you can... I would say 'good luck', but we make our own.”
One of the most awkward conversations Loki had ever had in his life, it was also one of the best. He grinned again, full up of a strange affection. He wanted to be kind to the child, despite the fact that Luke was still watching him with sullen disapproval.
“Nor will I wish you luck. You are Loki. It is enough.”
He tried not to catch the bird's knowing eye as he let the connection dissolve. He didn't need to – he could tell already what it thought. Since when has being yourself ever been enough?
And true, it never had been yet. But that was the point of this whole exercise. That too, he was about to change, because he was Loki, and he could.
In which Loki meets an admirer, Doom makes a move, and the pieces are put on the board.
Over the next week, Loki went through numerous meetings of which the one in Britain was representative:
He appeared in the office of Sir John Sawyer just as the head of MI6 was unwrapping the rather soggy bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich he evidently intended to have for lunch. The spymaster jumped, dropping wilted lettuce and mayonnaise on top of a report of terrorist threats in the Middle East. Loki returned the man's shocked frown with a small, impish smile of his own, and watched the man scramble for composure.
Two point eight seconds from shock to recognition, to 'oh my God, I'm going to die!' to faintly affable, inscrutable calm. Admirable. Loki allowed his smile to broaden a little as he pulled out the chair on the other side of C's wide mahogany desk, and sprawled on it as though it were a throne.
Another one point three seconds, and the head of British Intelligence stood up and greeted him with a stiff but impeccable bow. “Your Royal Highness. To what do we owe this unexpected pleasure?”
Oh, and that was nice. Just as much a mask, of course, as Fury's thin-lipped menace, as Loki's own charm. That didn't make it any less pleasant to be treated for once with the respect he deserved, even if the man's left foot was slowly edging towards a floor tile of slightly different colour than the rest.
“Please don't,” Loki said, indicating it. “I'm only here for a little chat. No brainwashing, no stabbing, no spiky alien armies. No need for your guns. You know who I am, then?”
C sat, crossed his legs and leaned back in acquiescence, offering a polite smile in return. “We receive regular reports from our operatives all around the world--”
“You spy on your friends?”
“Don't you? Loki, prince of Asgard, destroyer of a good portion of Manhattan.” The mortal had recovered enough now to open a desk drawer, bring out a brown folder with Loki's name on it. His picture paper-clipped inside. He gave Loki a universal look of curiosity. “Incidentally, how do you prefer to be addressed? Our allies have you down as 'Loki Odinson,' but I always thought Odin was your brother.”
“'Your highness' will do.” Loki could feel himself relax beneath the man's aura of good-humoured interest. Interrogation was so much more fun when it was done like this, with a fine veneer of civility. That didn't mean he wasn't waiting for the steel to slide from the velvet and cut him deep. It just meant that until it did, he was free to enjoy the conversation. So few people ever seemed willing just to talk to him. “And you know your myths?”
The spymaster looked genuinely enthusiastic at that. The tense lines of fear eased from around his eyes. “I grew up with them. I was an enormous fan of yours. That business with the gifts – shortening the handle of the hammer, wagering your head but not your neck – brilliant!”
It was Loki's turn to be shocked. Humans remembered that? And not with pity at what Thor had done to him next but with admiration for his wit? Asgard had not thought it praiseworthy. He had supposed he was the only one.
But this man was the head of an organisation that dealt in lies and trickery, knowledge and secrets and manipulation. If anyone could appreciate Loki's skills, he should. It made everything inside Loki lurch a little, shaken.
C looked up and met his eyes, his gaze mild but clear. “I must say that invading Earth at the head of an army didn't seem quite your style. Too bombastic. Not clever enough.” He laid his hand on the grey telephone next to him, waved the other to indicate some sort of surrender. “I promise no guns, but it's lunchtime, and I could really do with a cup of tea. Would you like one?”
And what exactly could they do to him if they did call in the watchdogs? That was half the point of why he was here. In the light of the Avengers, they must feel their lack of super-powered protectors acutely. “Thank you. I will.”
The woman who came in with the tray was far too neat, too steady-handed to be anything other than an operative herself. Letting her pass back out of the door put a time limit on this interview. Ten minutes, perhaps, before the army could get here. Would they phone the Avengers? Would they try to handle him themselves? He took a cup of tea and a chocolate digestive and decided to speed things along.
“If you know that much of me, then you know that sometimes I am placed in unfortunate circumstances and forced to act against my will.”
“Mm,” Sir John agreed, making several notes on one of the sheets inside Loki's file. He had dunked his biscuit into his tea before he did this, and Loki watched with some fascination as the sweetmeat lost cohesion and drooped towards his saucer.
“And you also know that, when this happens, afterwards I make reparations to the best of my ability.”
C engulfed the softened digestive and sucked on it thoughtfully, looking into Loki's face again. His bland mask had given way to the wariness of a man who wanted to buy at market, but was afraid he was being offered counterfeit goods. “You didn't want to attack Earth,” he summarised, “and now you want to make up for it?”
“Well, how can we help you there?”
Loki grinned, and consumed the last of his drink, a bloshy sort of beverage, served hot. It tasted like the cure for asthma – holly leaves boiled in goat's milk. He supposed it must be good for him – there seemed no other reason to drink it.
“I would like to become a citizen of your fine country.”
Sir John choked on his tea – evidently it was not good for you when breathed sharply up the nose – and Loki tried not to laugh too obviously, though this was the part he'd particularly enjoyed in Ottawa and Beijing, and was looking forward to when he moved on to Tokyo next.
Sir John employed the hand gesture again, like the wave of a drowning man. “Sorry. Sorry, don't mind me. Just a bit of... went up the wrong way.”
“Do take your time. Though surely the Avengers' facial recognition software will have spotted me entering the building. They are probably even now speeding to your rescue.”
This was a lie, in fact. Loki had not been anywhere near careless enough for the Avengers to spot him. For all they knew, he was still in Asgard, licking his wounds from his latest defeat. But what a PR disaster it would be for Britain if it was true! Their head of Intelligence, saved from intergalactic threat in his very office? By a strike-force of a country not his own? The international community would laugh them to scorn.
Sir John's face hardened around his streaming eyes. “Diplomatic immunity?” he choked out, dropping some of the amiable buffoonery. And there was sharpness under it – Loki had been beginning to wonder. “You want the protection of Her Majesty's Government? And in return...?”
“In return you will have an Asgardian in your employment. I will obey all the laws of your country, and I will perform such little tasks as you might have for a person of my abilities. If you can use an all but indestructible, shape shifting, invisible, magically trained god as a spy at all?”
“Why are you making this offer to us, and not to the Americans?” The lines of fear were back around C's eyes. It made Loki feel simultaneously fond of him, and desirous of punching him in the teeth. “They're the ones you harmed – they're the ones you need to placate.”
Loki's tongue tingled. He could taste star-metal, still feel the edges of the muzzle pressing into his mouth, silencing his words and making his thoughts scream. He bit down on an urge to shape a plausible lie – this new life required new weapons. Sometimes even vulnerability and the gamble that a chief of intelligence might be just that. “I will placate them. I swear it. But for that to be possible, this must happen first.”
“Ah,” said Sir John. “Yes, I see. Of course.”
Doom did not sulk. Nor did he hide. He did, however, hand the tedious business of rebuilding his castle off to a Doombot, while he retired to his hunting lodge in the pine forests below Mount Moldoveanu. He had better things to do than raising taxes to pay for the repairs, organising labourers, consulting with architects and putting up with the endless tramp through his living quarters of people he couldn't conveniently kill.
If that had an additional benefit of making it hard for Loki to find him, once – as his now tested algorithm clearly indicated – the god got over his snit and returned to murder him, all the better. He also had more important things to do than deal with the trickster's tantrums.
With the forcefield installed around the house and gardens and all the servants subcutaneously tagged, he was taking the moment between eating breakfast and donning his armour to go over his share portfolio. The fire in its great hearth burned brightly, warm and glossy in the dank stone surroundings. No matter how many wolf-skin rugs he put down here, it was never going to be as comfortable as a high class penthouse, but it was a small luxury to feel firelight and sunlight and air move on his skin, and to look with satisfaction at his reflection in his tablet's screen.
Doom was not vain – such things were below him. But it was better to be handsome than to be disfigured, and if he had taken back what rightfully belonged to him, wiped out the mistake made by Reed's stupidity, why should he not be proud of that?
It was the only thing that did give him satisfaction. His old company in the States was prospering without him. Ingrates! US trade sanctions were beginning to drive the economy of Latveria into the ground. His people being punished because they were his – well, nothing new there. But clearly he would have to tighten security measures again, work harder to stamp down dissidents and assassins, and all of that was so tedious, when he could be concentrating on finding and creating new sources of power.
A tiny whisper of air – unnoticeable unless you were familiar with it. But Doom was. He dropped the tablet, whirled to face the disturbance, hadn't even focussed before he was pressing the trigger – armour or not, he wouldn't sleep without a weapon to hand. Loki was still raising his hands in surrender when the dart hit him in the throat.
Doom watched with a feeling of some triumph, waiting for him to drop. He'd engineered the tranquillizer to be effective in milliseconds, refined it on the clones until it was exquisitely attuned to Loki's metabolism. He was looking forward to an armful of unconscious god. Particularly as he had a couple more compounds in hand that would keep Loki docile and suggestible once he woke up.
But instead of folding into a graceful sprawl in front of the fire, where Doom supposed he would have looked rather decorative, Loki plucked the dart out and gave him a big-eyed hurt look, as though he were a puppy Doom had just kicked. “I did tell you.”
And now Doom regretted the absence of his armour. He called on his own intrinsic power instead, let lightning flicker between his fingertips. “Doom will not die easily, Asgardian. Look to yourself.”
A breathless moment as he waited for the god to drop his puzzled mask and attack. Then Loki laughed, a soft little chuckle in his young man's tenor, harmless as you please, except for the calculation in his bright, watchful eyes. “Did it tell you I would come to kill you? Oh dear. Luckily I am not so predictable as you think.”
He dropped the dart into the fire, and gestured gracefully with his other hand as if giving Doom a gift, long fingers spreading like the spokes of a fan. “Do stand down, Victor. Your machine is wrong about me. I have a plan for breaking the Avengers apart from within, and I need your help to put the pieces into play.”
Doom allowed the crackling power in his hands to dissipate. Not because he believed this, but because it would look as though he was afraid if he did not. 98% likelihood that Loki had come to kill him did allow for a 2% margin where he had not. And certainly – now he took the time to notice – Loki was dressed for a business meeting rather than a battle, the long coat and suit of his preferred human attire.
Time to prove Doom wasn't wrong-footed at all, was master of this and every situation. He moved to the decanter and poured two shots of oak-matured palinka, handing one to his guest, before he returned to his cosy seat by the fire. “And Doom would profit by this how?”
Loki's smile was mischievous and full of delight, a weapon to which even Victor had to admit that he was vulnerable. “Well... we could start by you beating Reed Richards to the Nobel Peace Prize, and take it from there.”
In which the Avengers interrupt supervillain afternoon tea to give Loki an offer he can't refuse.
“...Brian Philip Calusky also known as Piledriver? You have? Good. Lock him down tight and throw away the key.” Fury cut the conversation short when the door to his office opened without a knock. He was putting the phone down as Coulson eased through, his arms full of laptop and printouts.
“Morning, sir. Another fine day for saving the world.”
Fury was not amused enough to grimace at this. He nodded at the screens that formed the back wall of his spacious room. “You want to tell me what the ever-loving fuck is going on here?”
Coulson tipped the reports carefully into the in tray, propped his hip against the desk and dug his hands into his pockets as he watched the news reports with his Mona Lisa smile. This of course meant Fury had to look too, and see again the wide, shark-like, beaming white grin of Victor Von Doom as he stood in front of a gaggle of reporters. His robot army was visible in the background, efficiently, relentlessly digging, installing pipes and tanks, labouring day and night to irrigate the drought-struck fields of Ethiopia, Somalia and Uganda.
“This is not charity,” he was saying to the world's press, with a smug little glitter in his cold grey eyes. “In Latveria, we know how easily smaller countries can be pushed to the brink of extinction by corporate greed and the self-serving sanctions of the more powerful. This is investment. It's only wisdom to give while we still have something to give, in the hopes that we will too will be helped when we are in need.”
“Isn't it a bit despicable making a profit out of the poorest people in the world?”
Von Doom did smarmy business charm with an added dash of icy disdain, but it looked good on him – he had the face for it. “The point is for them not to stay poor. When these farms begin to create a surplus, yes, a small proportion of that surplus will come to Latveria. You can check the figures yourself if you're worried, details are online. That's why I say it's an investment. The people here will be able to lift themselves out of poverty, the people of Latveria will also benefit, millions of lives will be saved and the economies of all our countries will be strengthened. I don't see a down-side to that, do you?”
“But where are you getting the money to fund this level of development?”
Von Doom smiled like the cat who owned all the world's dairy farms. “Partly from my own private reserves, partly from donations from my business partner--”
“A true humanitarian. He doesn't wish to reveal his name at this point, and I hope you'll respect his wishes in that.”
“Bullshit,” said Fury flatly, picking up a pencil to point it at the screen. “I know when that man's talking bullshit. He opens his mouth.”
“You'd be alone in that, apparently.” Coulson extracted the front pages of a dozen newspapers from one of his folders. They were more fulsome than the TV reporters, holding Latveria up as a model all first world countries should be following, and – apparently without a shred of irony – hailing Dr. Doom, of all people, as an angel of mercy.
“So where is he getting the money?”
“Interesting you should ask,” Coulson switched on the Starkpad, flicked through to a page of graphs. “Von Doom has been paying for all of this with gold. 24 carat bullion hallmarked in Latveria. According to our economists' calculations, this is new gold. Gold that has never entered the world's economy before. Either they've found themselves a mine under the Carpathian mountains, or...” he gave a quiet laugh, “or they're magicking gold out of thin air.”
The pencil snapped in Fury's fingers. “I... see. Tell Hill to get Rogers on the line--”
The stub of the pencil made a good spiky thing to wave in Coulson's face. “No. As far as they're concerned, you're dead. I do not want to deal with half a dozen superheroes' wounded little egos telling me I had no right to do what it took to get them into shape last time. Not on top of whatever disaster this turns out to be.”
Coulson inclined his head, though it was possible for someone who knew him as well as Fury did to see a tinge of disappointment to the slope of his eyebrows. Probably still sore he'd been taken off the Captain America duty, but wise enough not to say so. His thumbs moved rapidly over his phone as he texted Hill, but he didn't look away. “You're thinking Doom's mysterious 'business partner' is Loki, sir?”
“There's only a small pool of villains known to be willing to work with Von Doom, and of that pool, you think there's any other magic user likely to do something this grandiose? I'm thinking...”
Fury called up the helicarrier's scanning software, fed the results through to the screens. The news reports gave way to a map of the world. A tentative sighting, percentages rocketing up to 100 as the satellite focused and focused tight. Then he was looking down at the lanky foul-mouthed bastard that their resident thunder god thought of as a brother. And Loki, sitting on the edge of a baroque fountain, surrounded by flowerbeds, in the middle of the Cynthia Von Doom memorial gardens, tilted his face up to the sky and smiled straight back.
“Sir!” Hill strode after him as he burst onto the helicarrier's command deck. “Latveria is all over the news right now as a benefactor to humanity. They have not cleared us to enter their airspace. If we go in there anyway, that could be considered an act of war. How do you think it's going to look? Doom saves millions of lives and we come after him with a battleship?”
Fury's step stuttered a little. “Loki is clever,” Thor had told him, looking sullen, as though he resented sharing anything but could not quite think of an excuse to stay silent. Fury hadn't seen 'clever' last time. He'd seen standard issue megalomania with a side order of creepy as fuck. This time, however... Someone had changed the rules of the game, and he didn't like that it hadn't been him.
“So the press is going to wave their fingers in our faces? Well boo-hoo. When we get to the bottom of this, you can bet they'll be falling all over themselves with gratitude again.”
“A moment,” Hill pressed her earpiece to her ear, concentrating, scurried to catch up. “Sir, the Council are ordering us not to proceed with such a high profile action.”
“I will not let this sonovabitch get away from us again.”
“No, sir,” Hill didn't have the same level of composure as Coulson. She looked genuinely alarmed beneath her determination. “But, with respect, we are supposed to be a covert organisation. Starting wars is not in our remit. The Council are suggesting we keep the helicarrier outside Latveria's borders and send a deputation. Thor, Iron Man and Banner have all proved capable of taking Loki down in the past. You go in there with them and it looks like an attempt to negotiate, not an act of aggression.”
They had reached the bridge, dozens of personnel at lines of terminals were giving off the faint air of tension that comes with trying not to be caught eavesdropping. Fury set his hands on the controls and watched his circle of screens flick into life.
Hill clasped her hands behind her back and squared up to the sky. “Besides, Doom is having such a great time playing the philanthropist he could even help. End world hunger and assist in the capture of a supervillain in the same month? All good press for him.”
“There is that,” Fury acknowledged, allowing himself to be talked down. The Council just might have a point this time. “Very well, we'll do it their way. But I'd like to know - who in hell thinks that sending Thor, Iron Man and Hulk qualifies as low profile?”
Fury almost changed his mind and went in guns blazing when the passport control office required Thor to leave his hammer, and Stark to leave his suit at the check point.
“Mjollnir will come to me, when I call, from one end of this realm to the other,” Thor crossed his big bare arms across his chest and glowered as the others balked. “I fear my brother not, armed or unarmed.”
“Yeah?” Stark slid his suitcase onto the desk, brought out matching bracelets from his jeans pocket and slipped them on. “I got one of those too. Has yours got surround sound? Cos let me tell you, there's nothing worse than actually having to listen to your friendly neighbourhood egomaniacs when they get started.”
After which, there was no excuse not to go on, passing out of the concrete checkpoint and squeezing into a single black Daimler which drove them sedately through a view that would have made Disney Princesses twirl with delight. The sun was bright and warm, but the faint tint of snow on the wind was bracing. White topped mountains and deep green pine forest, dotted with chalets, surrounded a town of quaint steepled roofs – flowers spilling from window-boxes, cobbled streets thronged with folk in picturesque national dress.
The castle didn't even have the decency to loom. Its lime-white walls and many turrets caught the light and glowed gold as if it had been dropped out of a fairy tale.
“Whoa,” said Stark as they passed slowly through the smiling crowds. “Anyone else expecting Julie Andrews to leap out of the bushes and start singing about kittens? Cos this is not what I picture when I think about Rivet-face and his fortress of Doom.”
“You notice how they're all happy?” Banner murmured from the back seat. “I've seen that before, in regimes where everyone's too scared of government spies to dare look less than ecstatic all the time. I expect the entire country's under surveillance as a matter of course.”
“You get that from people smiling? Geez and I thought I was paranoid!”
“It reminds me of the lands of Himinbjorg where Heimdall holds sway, a most beauteous and well-ordered country.”
Fury just snorted and watched as they rolled through the gilded wrought-iron gates of the schloss. Ridiculously pretty it might be, but someone had designed it with a view to war. An overlapping spread of gunports left no area beneath the walls for an attacker to shelter, and those little bumps in the gravel all around it looked like forcefield generators to him. Any attacking army that got close enough to do it damage would be held in the kill zone, unable to retreat, while the castle's ordnance rained down. And he just bet there was something nastier behind those window slits than arrows and boiling oil.
The car stopped. A grey haired lady with keys hanging from an ornamental chain at her belt dropped them a curtsey and gestured for them to follow her around the outside of the building. And there were their supervillains – both of them – peacefully sitting at a table in a sunken garden surrounded by ancient, moss-grown walls, in each of which a bank of security cameras made a decorative black stripe.
Doom was tapping on a laptop, Loki reading a book. On the table in front of them were the remnants of a pot of coffee and some sort of regional pastry. In addition to the cameras, there were four liveried servants, two at each exit, and all of them looked thunderstruck when Thor gave a rumbling growl, brushed past Doom's outstretched hand, seized his brother by the throat, dragged him bodily out of his chair and shook him.
“What are you doing back in Midgard, you wretch? Have you not been punished enough?”
Now Fury was torn, because yes, he liked the part where the invader of earth got what was coming to him, but was the potential PR disaster worth--?
Von Doom got to his feet. He looked like he too was smothering a smile at the sight of Loki's tippy toes grazing along the ground, the god using both hands to try and break his brother's grip. But what he said was “We do have laws against assault, Colonel. Put him down.”
Orders? Yeah, Fury didn't take orders easily, and especially not from the likes of Von Doom. He pressed his lips together and watched as the bruises spread out from between Thor's fingers, mottling Loki's throat with purple. Loki arched, catlike, in the massive grip so he could turn his gaze and fix Fury with pale triumphant eyes. “Director Fury. Get this oaf to put me down. Please.”
“Uh-uh, we are dragging your skinny ass out of here to the helicarrier, where you will be confined until we can try you properly for your crimes.”
“You can't just turn up here and abduct my guest!”
“We can't just turn up and abduct you, Doom, much though we might wish to. But I'm not aware that Latveria has chosen to extend diplomatic immunity to Loki. So we'll just take him and be off.”
The hand around Loki's throat was tight enough to make it hard for him to talk, but still he wasn't struggling, was just hanging there, watching Fury like a man who held all the aces. “Have Canadian immunity... Also...UK. Put me down.”
“Bullshit.” Fury hunted in his pockets for his phone, speed-dialled Canada's Prime Minister, held on as Mr Harper spoke to flunkies, came back – sounding surprised – and confirmed that Loki was telling the truth.
Fucking politicians. People higher up the chain of command than Fury were going to have to have words about this. But he in the mean time was left carrying the can. Story of his life. He breathed deeply once, to make sure he didn't sound angry, or worse, defeated. Said “Thor, put him down.”
When Loki stood, rubbing his throat in a self-righteous sort of way, as if to say you fucking brute, that really hurt, Doom held up a hand for the servants and beckoned. Chairs were brought, and another table, coffee and mint tea and some kind of fruit punch.
“Perhaps,” Loki dropped the 'poor, injured me' act and smiled. It was a genuine-looking smile, this one, but then all his expressions looked genuine while he wore them. “We could talk, like civilized people.”
Fury had to laugh, strangely and deeply pleased. “Wait one moment. You did all of that – the good press for Latveria, the diplomatic immunity, just so I wouldn't gag you and throw you in the slammer this time? Just so I'd talk to you? How desperate are you?”
“Oh, Director Fury,” the guy's face lit up with glee, like a proud owner watching its pet dog perform a clever trick, “You're wasted in your current employment. You have the temperament to make an excellent villain – that wonderful desire to gloat.”
“Yeah,” Tony must have discovered alcohol in the punch because the hand he waved under Loki's nose held a large glass full of floating fruit and topped with a paper umbrella. “Let's not get off track here. Thor's got a point. We thought you were in Asgard being flayed or something, what's with that?”
Loki's gaze didn't leave Fury's, although he tilted his head a little and the moving shadows made his changeable eyes slide from blue to green to silver. “I have served my punishment in Asgard for the injuries I did to your people – Thor may ask Heimdall if he will not take my word on it.”
“So I am now...” a look of puzzled innocence, as though Loki was surprised at himself. It was a soft, young, vulnerable look on that angular face, and Fury appreciated the skill of it like he appreciated Natasha's damsel in distress act. “I am now determined to 'turn over a new leaf'. That is the right phrase, isn't it?”
Something almost unguarded – hungry and strange – “I do this not because of Asgard's correction, but because I wish it. I knew that once I showed my face on earth again, you would come for me. That being so, I wished that to happen in a place of my choice, where I would be allowed to speak. To say to you that I have decided to leave my evil ways, and to offer the feeding of your starving as an earnest of my words.”
“Brother--” said Thor, and Loki's mouth went thin as a paper-cut.
“I do not do this for you, Thor. This changes nothing between us.”
Over the other side of the table, Bruce was shaking his head with wry amusement, breaking apart a little flaky-pastry thing to dig the apple out of its centre. He smiled up at Fury softly when Fury gave him a glare, suggesting that if he had something to say he should goddamn well say it. “I'm not even going to try.”
“So... what?” That was Tony, Bruce's opposite, who dealt with doubt by smothering it in words, “You just say 'OK, I'm good now, and we... what? We just say 'great, right, fine by us' and go away? You think that's how this works? Because I'm thinking you don't just get to invade the earth and then suddenly decide, hey that's not working for me, I'm going to be a hero now. I mean, did you even say sorry at any point? Because if you did, I must have missed it.”
“In Latveria,” Von Doom had leaned back in his seat and was watching them all as if they were a play put on especially for his entertainment. “A man who has served his sentence for his crime is henceforth treated as an innocent, until he offends again. I always understood it was the same in the States, but perhaps...?”
“Loki's not a man.”
“What was it that gave me away? Was it the pregnancies?” Loki laughed. Even Bruce chuckled, and Von Doom's eyes gleamed with something Fury didn't want to look at, fiercely and darkly intrigued.
“You know what I mean.” Tony hid his own smirk in his glass. “Loki's not human. I don't think the same rules apply. Sure, shoplifting, yeah, you give a guy a second chance. But you lock a murderer away for life, and I don't think there's a punishment big enough to fit what Loki did.”
Loki's amusement dropped like the mask it was. “I think you'll find I am responsible, directly and indirectly, for far fewer human deaths than you are, Mr. Stark. Fewer than Black Widow, immeasurably fewer than you, Doctor Banner. Your hypocrisy sickens me. Who are you to say whether I can or cannot change? I do not require your approval. Nor will your disapproval dissuade me. I am Loki, I do what I want.”
Total headcase, Fury thought. But he had a point. “So, why this conversation at all?”
“Because it would be easier for all of us if you were not keeping me under constant supervision. But I care not. If you want to get in the way of my attempts to make reparation for the evil I once caused, I can work around you.”
Loki got up and walked a little away from everyone, his arms folded and an expression of noble suffering on his face. It brought back to Fury's mind the fact that they were surrounded by cameras. Oh hell no. He might not swing that way himself, but he was well aware that the psycho godling could be beautiful when he cared to, and would use that beauty to his advantage with as little shame as any temptress. What happened when these two bastards leaked this interview, with its soulful, martyred hero, trying to return to the side of the angels and being thwarted at every turn by strangulation and contempt?
Constant supervision, he thought. Ha, yeah, now there was an idea. Get the lying shit to come aboard the helicarrier willingly or lose any sympathy points he might have already gained.
“Here's a thought,” he said, making Loki turn back towards him, startled and curious. “You really want to make good, you volunteer for the Avengers initiative for, say, ten years. Work off some of that negative karma, save some lives. You prove over that period that we can trust you, and we let you walk free at the end of it, until such time as you mess up again, like I am damn sure you will.”
Fury could feel Thor working up to something – that same feeling of muggy tension that comes before the thunder. He could tell, from Loki's narrowed eyes and sour look, that the liar could feel it too. “Hush up, Thor,” he said pre-empting the disaster. “This is between Loki and myself.”
And that worked like a magic charm. Loki tried to hide it, but delight at coming first for once seeped out around the edges of his smile. “All right,” he said. “It wasn't quite what I intended, but I'll do it.”
He held out his hand. Fury took it, surprised somehow to find it warm and well kept and not at all bloodstained.
Now what the fuck was Victor Von Doom smiling for, like he knew the punchline to a joke no one had actually told?
“Welcome to the Avengers, Mr. Odinson, and may God protect us all.”
In which Steve develops sympathy for the Devil.
“That was awesome, man!” Stark carried on talking as his suit peeled itself off, folded away into a neat, coffin-shaped rocket and flew back into storage. “The whole sky full of decoys. Man, his face! He couldn't figure which to go for. Took him out, no trouble, one two, with the new shoulder rockets. Never had such a clean shot. Fish in a bloody barrel, Frosty. Fish. In. A. Barrel!”
“Your boasting is unseemly, Stark. He was a mighty warrior, and there was no honour in defeating him in so underhanded a way.”
“Thor, buddy,” Tony broke open the bar, poured their usual post-battle tipples. Steve wasn't sure he liked the way that Tony's stress lines had eased a little, that his eyes were brighter, more amused, since their enemy had joined the team. What did it say about him, what did it say about the rest of them, that Tony relaxed in the presence of Loki's brand of evil?
“We won. We won without getting our asses kicked, and we won without trashing half of downtown. You want your epic duel of the fates, with singing women on horseback and commentary by minstrels, fine. But me, I'm not going to complain if I get to walk out of a battle unhurt because someone had the sense to go in with their brains instead of their dicks.”
Steve tried to tune them out.
“What are you saying, Iron Man?”
“Come on, you must know what they say about that hammer, right?”
Pouring himself orange juice, he noticed that the cause of the argument had, as always, slipped away behind their backs. Gone off to lurk somewhere, ice his bruises and lick his wounds in private, as though he didn't care one way or another what the team was saying about him behind his back.
Steve slumped onto the nearest sofa, next to Banner – who was cradling a chamomile tea in both hands, his salt and pepper hair curling slightly in the fragrant steam. “This is what Loki did to us last time, isn't it? He turns up and we fall apart. You think that's his plan?”
Bruce smiled at him sideways, with that shy duck of the head that was almost a flinch. “You know I'm always glad not to be needed in a fight. Any way the team takes down the threat, that doesn't involve letting the other guy out, is great by me.”
“So you... you're suddenly OK with him too now?”
Every time he thought he'd got a handle on it, something turned up to make Steve feel lost again. Nothing, no one worked the way he'd grown up expecting it to. His whole life was like putting his foot on a step that wasn't there, pulling back from falling, again and again and again.
“I didn't say that.” Bruce shrugged, sipped at his tea, and got that distant look to his eyes that he got when he started talking science. “It's just that I don't think that any of us are going to get to the bottom of that guy's issues, so why try? Today's another day he hasn't attacked civilians. That's all we can ask.”
“But...” there were glasses being smashed by the bar now, Thor bellowing, Tony's voice swift and bubbling with derision. “Listen to them.”
Steve had 'Googled' Loki just as soon as Tony showed him how. Found out all kinds of things he wished he didn't know. But what stuck in his mind most was the stone that had survived from Viking times in a church in England. A representation of the guy, complete with the horns, on the base of a stone cross, where – according to the scholars – the early Saxons had carved Loki when they tried to picture the face of the Devil.
Forget Hitler. They had the Devil in Avengers tower, and Tony admired him.
“Tony and Thor would be arguing anyway.” Bruce pushed back his unruly hair with both hands. “Tony's a pragmatist, Thor's ideas come from a warrior culture that died out here on earth a thousand years ago.”
He shrugged. “Maybe Loki just moved with the times more. Maybe the way his brain works is different because he's from a different species – it's not like we know many other giants to compare him with. Maybe our ideas of good and evil make no sense at all to him. Or maybe he's a selfish child who got bored of playing with the black pieces and decided to try the game from the other side. My point is, we don't know, we can't know, and – to be honest – it doesn't really matter.”
And what did it say about Steve that he found Banner's indifference worse than Tony's glee? That he more and more felt it just wasn't polite to let a man save your life in the morning and then ignore him all the rest of the day, Antichrist or not.
“I just, you know. I just preferred it when we knew where we stood with him. Being on the same side as him... I keep thinking of all the people he killed, and the longer it goes on, the more he fights beside us...”
The more times Steve walked into Tony's workshop and found them together talking two different brands of technobabble, with the exact same hungry delight on both their faces; or Loki leaned down over their shoulders to point out the weaknesses of other villains on the briefing screens; or started the second pot of coffee in the morning because he'd drained the first; or sliced, quicksilver and brilliant through the Avengers' battles, wily and far more impressive in combat than Steve himself...
“The more I feel like I'm betraying them all.”
Bruce bent his head again and a note of bitterness joined the beaten softness of his laugh. “Yeah, well, there I can't afford to be so sure. Like he said when he joined, he has far fewer innocent dead than I do.”
Steve didn't like to think of that either. “But you're sorry. He isn't. How can you forgive someone when they won't even acknowledge they did something wrong?”
Back at the bar, Tony seized a bottle in each hand and strode away, leaving Thor looking hard-done-by amid the broken glass. He looked up and caught them watching, stalked out in the other direction, leaving the wreckage behind. Bruce and Steve exchanged glances – rich kids. Both of them too used to being waited on hand and foot to ever learn to clear up their own mess.
“Considering that was Loki's brother telling Tony that Loki's methods are despicable and his victories ought not to be celebrated,” said Bruce slowly, “maybe he used up all his sorry a long time ago.”
Naturally it was only a day later, while this conversation was still squirming like a serpent in his gut, that Steve, sitting out on the flat roof of Avengers tower, sketching the night time city – all bright lit windows and ribbons of fire in the streets – became slowly aware that he wasn't alone.
He wasn't quite sure when the darkness of the alcove by the door became the darkness of a slate-grey suit, or the wind brushing dust across the helipad curled into that corner and lifted long black hair. Only the movement alerted him, as Loki stepped out into the night with his hands clasped behind his back, and a gentle, quizzical smile. Absolutely no sound from his footsteps, as though he was a ghost, and Steve thought it was one of the trickster's doubles until it came to sit beside him and lifted the sketch book from his hands.
Devil, he thought. And team member. And “that's private.”
“But beautiful,” Loki looked through three more pages, to make some kind of point, then handed it back as carefully as if he respected it. “Did you not think of pursuing such a talent? This...” he waved a dismissive hand as if weighing Avengers' tower and daily battles against Steve's drawing, coming up wanting. “Does not seem the ideal life for an artist.”
Steve didn't think any of them had got used to a Loki who wasn't being cruel. Didn't know what to make of it. He kept waiting for the barbs, waiting for the words to turn around and take all the skin off him. Waiting to wake up and find he'd been talked into treason and tragedy and betrayal. But maybe Bruce was right, and it was better not to worry about that. He didn't suppose he would work it out until it was too late, so he might as well just act like himself, make sure he had at least said and done whatever he thought was right at the time. Like his ma said, the important thing was to try to be the best he could be, and let everything else take care of itself.
So he smiled. “I've got to admit none of this is what I wanted. But how much does what you want count for when the whole world is at war? I had to do my bit. So it turns out my bit is a little larger than I bargained for? Other folks gave their lives. No reason why I shouldn't too.”
Loki dangled his feet out over nothingness, leaned back on his elbows and contemplated the stars. “I thought I could do both,” he said. “Keep my art, and use it to the defence of my realm. I did not want to sacrifice – I was not prepared to sacrifice – that which made me me. Did you not stop to think that the way of the warrior is not the only way? That you might perhaps have had something vital to offer had you simply remained yourself?”
Was that cruelty? Hard to tell when it was delivered so gently, with so much of an autobiographical air.
“I didn't,” said Steve. “Magic's different – you can do anything, everything, with it. What could I have done as a weedy little artist with asthma? Won the war by painting?”
“Why not? You did not disdain to win it by dancing.”
Loki looked to one side, as though someone sitting on his shoulder had said something amusing, and apparently changed the subject. “Did you know there was an entire bureau, during the war, dedicated to thinking up tricks to play on the enemy? Wooden airfields, wooden tanks – to fool them into thinking you were stronger than you really were. A thousand different ways of feeding them misinformation, and digging through the lies you got in return for the inadvertent kernel of truth.”
“I did. Or, at least, I know it now. I didn't at the time.”
“But if you had, would you have told those men their contribution did not count?”
“I'd have said good luck to them.”
The god of lies tilted his head to watch the lights of a police helicopter as it swung down into the canyon of the street. “You should not say as much to Thor.”
Steve thought about that, thought about how relaxed he looked, remembered that even when they were on opposite sides, Loki would stop whatever he was doing if anyone tried to talk to him. Like he was hungry for conversation, wasn't used to being spoken to as if his opinion mattered. It was kind of sad.
“I thought I could do something like that for Asgard,” Loki said quietly. “Wars are not won, after all, by soldiers alone, but by good intelligence, good planning and the targeted use of force. A single man may bring down an entire realm, if he only has wit enough to discover its weaknesses and turn them into weapons.”
The night was growing colder and Steve's fingers were chilled. He put his sketch book inside his jacket and zipped it up, uncomfortable suddenly, and angry about it. “It seems to me that you've got something to say to me, yes? You didn't come out here, suddenly, after avoiding me for months, just to pass the time of day. You're building up to something. So what is it?”
“Oh Captain, are you asking me to come straight to the point? Because it physically pains me to do so.” Loki sat up, laid his long hands flat on his knees, and kept smiling the faint, bemused smile of someone who still can't quite believe they haven't yet been made to shut up.
“Still, for you I can attempt to endure it. Very well then. To the point. This endless petty brawling with one villain after another is a waste of my talents, and a waste of the potential that is the Avengers. With a little cunning and strategy behind it, this team could do infinitely more good in the world than it currently is.”
Yeah, maybe asking him to come to the point had not been wise after all. Steve found himself on his feet, backing away towards the door. Not because he was afraid of Loki, but because he wanted so bad to hit him across the face that his fists ached from holding them back.
He didn't like what that said about himself. “Your cunning? Your strategy? You think I should just hand the team over to you? That's what this is about? You're trying to take control of us, from the inside?”
Loki too got to his feet, brushed grey gravel from the tails of his coat. His smile had fallen, but he looked more grounded, more solid without it – as if he found Steve's accusation more reassuring than his sympathy.
From his inside pocket he pulled out a sheaf of paper, offered it to Steve, like offering a treat to a temperamental dog. “There are two schemes here. The first to destroy the Lord's Resistance Army from within, while addressing the underlying problems that gave rise to it in the first place. The second is to decimate the sex trafficking trade by reducing its profits and targeting its leaders. With your help, I could wipe these things from the face of your earth. But if you would rather spend your precious resources punching out the villain of the week, be my guest.”
The bastard then stole Steve's dramatic exit, pushing past him in a swirl of coat-skirts, somehow managing to slam the sliding door behind him, while muttering to himself. “Thor's friends! I should have known. At least Victor has the imagination to appreciate a good plan.”
When they'd broken him out of the ice, there had been compulsory therapist sessions, which seemed to consist of Steve telling a complete stranger a hell of a lot of stuff he already knew, and her asking him how he felt about that. He didn't quite see the point. But she had made one useful suggestion - “Why don't you keep a journal? If you record your thoughts every day, when you read them back you will have a concrete indicator of the progress you're making.”
So he'd done that, and he carried on doing it now. It was good. A little bit like talking to a friend, which was something he didn't have in this decade and wondered sometimes if he would ever have again.
Loki gave me some plans,
he wrote now,
to end some bad stuff in the world. They're good plans – I showed Natasha and she thinks so too. But they're Loki's plans. Why would he care? What is he really after? I wish I knew what to do, because dear God, if we do this and those poor people end up worse because of it, I don't think I could live with that.
Could even he really be that cruel?
Six months later, he read the next lot of entries back all at once. Picked the relevant information out of the records of meals eaten, lives saved, movies watched:
Tony is in everyone's face today over some prototype of Doom's Loki showed him. He's changed his tune over the whole 'I hate magic' thing and is waxing lyrical about how this is going to make upgrading the power grid to take arc reactor energy so much easier.
I'm not happy about the fact that Doom's robots are everywhere these days. OK, it's good that charities are buying them to build flood defences and reclaim land - to terrace and irrigate and so on, but it's Doom. What happens when Doom makes them turn on us? Even if they just threaten to undo what they've done. We're not going to have a hope.
I wonder if Thor's noticed that five minutes or so after he enters a room, Loki finds a plausible excuse to leave? It didn't used to show before Loki stopped avoiding the rest of us, but now it's getting painfully obvious to everyone, except Thor.
I wonder if Thor's noticed that he treats Loki like his personal cheerleading squad? He keeps giving his brother the cue to flatter him and looking crushed when Loki points out his own achievements instead.
These two things may be connected.
Thor is visiting Jane, which is nice. She's a lovely girl, and seems to be able to get through to him. I'm not saying he's stupid, but he's bull headed, and maybe it takes a good woman's gentleness to get him to listen.
I hoped we'd have some peace while he was away, but Tony's been turning the house upside down. He's lost his first arc reactor – the one that Pepper made into a trophy that says 'proof that Tony Stark has a heart.' Like anyone needed proof. I get why he's upset. That was a lovely thing for her to do, but it's hardly going to be in my room, is it?
So, Tony's reactor turned up in his sock drawer. Civilians!
I keep wondering about those plans Loki gave me. Worrying about those kids. He hasn't mentioned his ideas again, and he's settled into the team since, but I still catch him muttering about 'make work' and 'a waste of my time', and 'almost as bad as Asgard.' I want to trust him – especially after he told us what really happened with the Chitauri – but he told me himself his heart was made of ice. How can I?
Awkward. I interrupted the god brothers having a heart to heart on the roof. Apparently Thor had noticed the shunning, and Jane helped him figure out some stuff he might need to apologise for. No big secret about the fact that Loki hates Thor a lot, and as Clint says 'you don't hate people who never hurt you.' So it makes sense, I suppose, that Thor should say sorry first. At any rate, I burst in on the “can you ever forgive me?” “I don't know, Thor” moment, and both of them disappeared like scalded cats.
“I don't know” is more than I expected from him, to be honest.
If Loki turns my shower into snakes one more time I will
Odd little incident today with Loki. We were fighting Magneto in the middle of Detroit. Lots of tearing the tops off buildings. Lots of flying debris. Far too many civilian casualties. I thought Loki was stunned, at the end. He was kneeling in the rubble with his mouth open and a child's shoe in his hand.
The child was It belonged to a little girl, dead at his feet. He looked at me like he didn't know where he was. He said “I don't... I don't- I can't- It's not a game, is it? It's not a game.”
“Not to them,” said Bruce, and then he picked Loki up and put an arm around his shoulders. “It looks like your monster and mine are finally speaking the same language. Come on.”
I'm going to have to talk to Bruce about what he meant. Tomorrow, though. We could all do with the sleep, tonight.
Now Steve settled to his desk, turned over a new page and smoothed it down. He crossed his mental fingers. All he could do was what he thought was the right thing at the time and pray that in another six months time he wouldn't look back on this and weep.
We're going to go with Loki's plans.
In which Loki reveals all to Victor Von Doom.
Loki handed the Lamborghini's keys to the bell-hop to have it parked, pausing at the hotel's golden entrance long enough for passers-by to see who he was. The humans still did a great deal of screaming and running about whenever he put in an appearance, and this continued to fill him with glee.
It was also a useful measure of how far his redemption had come, in popular consciousness, to gauge the tenor of their shouts. The bullets and the death threats had definitely decreased recently, in favour of a swell of offers of sexual favours. Such a change in such a tiny span of years. What fickle creatures they were.
He passed through a marble lobby gently spangled with artificial smiles, using a small glamour to be sure he wouldn't be stopped or questioned. He had an appointment, but he couldn't bear the thought of being the sort of person who introduced himself at the desk and waited for Victor to confirm it before being allowed to go up. Ugh!
For his temporary home in New York, Victor had taken a floor of the Waldorf Towers, to Loki's tastes fussily furnished with 18th Century style upholstery in Wedgwood blue. Loki had broken in easily enough, drifted around the rooms, pulling out the drawers, bouncing on the four poster bed, playing with the hidden electronics and using the diamond in his watch fob to scratch his name in the corner of a window, when Victor opened the one locked door in the suite and came through. He had a white coat on, and behind his shoulder Loki could see a neat little lab – white and sterile and new.
A home wasn't a home without somewhere to tinker with the laws of nature. Loki understood.
“Victor,” he said brightly, dropping Victor's hacked phone onto a seat cushion. “I let myself in.”
“Of course you did.” Doom gave him a look that made him wonder if perhaps it might have been more unpredictable to actually knock first. But still, ugh!
“Dinner will be sent up in half an hour. What will you drink?”
“Whatever is tastiest.” Loki watched as Doom shrugged out of the lab coat, revealing a dinner jacket and tie. He'd been spending less and less time in the armour recently. Loki thought it was an improvement. “Nervous, Victor? I hardly took you for one to make idle small talk.”
“Doom is incapable of nerves.”
“Of course you are,” Loki took a glass of something russet, sniffed it – water, grain and sugar, tannin, apricots, alcohol, no poison. He settled to the couch, picked up the paper that lay on its arm. “Well done on reacquiring your old company, by the way. Did you make the board of directors crawl to you?”
Victor grinned and took a seat next to him, a good foot closer than he had ever attempted before. Interesting. His posture illustrated 'smug' with every glowing inch. “I was merciful. I merely made them squirm.”
Loki flipped the paper open to an article on page 12. “Tragic that the shareholder who objected loudest should be killed in so bizarre an accident.”
“Wasn't it?” Victor agreed, and toned his smile down respectfully, though a cold laughter still glinted behind his eyes. “But the wiring in these old buildings is so unreliable, it's surprising there are not electrocutions every day.”
Loki suspected that his new self-identification as a hero meant he wasn't supposed to laugh at this. He did it anyway. “You, Victor, are a very nasty man.”
“I have no idea what you mean.”
Opening pleasantries exchanged, they settled back against the couch, Doom drinking his schnapps, Loki looking out as a furious sun turned all the rooftops beneath them into beaten brass.
“Latveria's coffers are swimming with gold,” said Victor, with a gentleness Loki felt sure covered a threat. “Wherever I go, doors are opened for me. The business empire I lost is rapidly falling back under my sway, and my economic and trade influence with the poorer countries of the world grows daily.”
“Hm?” Loki waited for the sting.
“As you know, my goal in life is to make this world a better place – better organised, better fed, more contented, more just. I am now closer to achieving this goal than I have ever been before, and you have been of some small benefit in that.”
Oh, how it must have grieved him to admit it! In reward, Loki allowed Victor to reach out and fold a hand carefully around his throat. So much less practised than Thor's, the grip less bruising, the electricity that played around Doom's squeezing fingers darting at a different frequency, filling Loki's blood with zeal and fizz. He imagined it was supposed to hurt, but Loki had felt so many worse things in his time he didn't even have to fake his grin.
“And so,” said Victor, leaning in close, to watch Loki's face with intent focus, “I am not going to kill you for stealing my prototype and giving it to Stark, of all people. But I tell you this, trickster, the next time you take what is mine, Doom will tear down everything you have achieved in this last year, everything and more.”
“You'd wreck the world for mere spite?” Loki interrupted, impressed.
“I would wreck it for revenge and consider it a fair price.”
A silence. Perhaps Doom intended him to be intimidated, but Loki, warmed by lightning and ruthlessness, was fighting quite another reaction. He had just begun to edge forwards, his smile broadening, when a trundling noise outside and a knock at the door heralded the arrival of dinner.
Victor loosed his grip, went to let the service staff in, while Loki smoothed down his hair – which was standing on end from the electric charge – and calmed his breathing. He really ought to try not to look so eager. It was undignified.
When the plates and dishes had been set out in the suite's dining room, and the servants gone, he took the foot of the table and helped himself to blanquette de veau aux truffes and vegetables and bread and wine.
“If we are to solve this world's dependency on stinking oils,” he said, with an offhand truthfulness he hoped Victor would take as an apology, “accelerating Stark's work on clean energy is a good start. Did you not receive details of his arc reactor in return?”
Undoubtedly Victor would claim that Doom did not do sullen. He made a good approximation of it, though, sitting down with folded arms and down-turned mouth opposite Loki. “I received it second hand, after the device itself had been in the hands of the Germans for two days. You gave them a head start on me.”
“I owed them something.” Loki smoothed the napkin over his knees and looked away from the memories. “But you are not the man I think you are if you're worried about a little competition. It is better for everyone if Stark's monopoly is broken. This technology is too beneficial to the world to be allowed to remain in the hands of one lone egotist any longer. He may be an Avenger, but he is primarily motivated by his own fame and enrichment. You, with your genius and your fine ambitions for the world, will be a spur for him that his own vanity could never have achieved.”
Doom's shoulders came down. He unfolded his arms and gave a small, amused scoff. “Speaking of the Avengers, I seem to recall all of this was started by your desire to break them apart from within. I don't see much evidence of that happening yet. Failed there, Loki?”
Loki wondered whether, if he confessed to having lied about that, it would provoke more welcome violence, but decided not to risk it before he'd at least managed to eat dessert. “Changed my mind, rather. I wished to remove them as a threat to me, and that is done. Now I am slowly teaching them to do my bidding. They are not yet wholly mine in truth, but already they are a useful resource.”
Outside, the sun slipped behind skyscrapers and the light faded swiftly from gold to blue. Victor took what might have been a watch or a small pillbox from his pocket and ran it through his fingers like a cardsharp with a coin. It flashed silver in a curious, asymmetric pattern.
There was a choice of four desserts. Loki waited for Victor to serve himself, and then took everything left. No matter how much he ate, the hunger never truly abated, but there was pleasure to be had in the taste, and the brief, lying relief of swallowing.
“If I...” Victor looked sidelong at the thousand colours of electric lights now beginning to blaze against the twilight. The little box flicked in his hand like worry beads. “If I were to ask you what you were really up to, would you tell me?”
“I might. Would you believe me?”
Doom possessed the ability to smile without disdain or threat – to smile pleasantly. He did so now. It looked odd. “I might. Tell me.”
The truth. Loki had been practising it, but it still felt vaguely obscene at the back of his throat, a combination of terrifyingly exposed and horribly embarrassed. “The truth is, I grew tired of being the villain. I once told Thor that while he played at hero with his little friends, the mortals destroyed themselves in wars and famine and disease – that I had come to bring them peace, to make them a realm capable of standing up against Asgard.”
“They put you in chains for that.”
Loki smiled to conceal the serpent-like stir of resentment in his breast. “Because – I now believe – I went about achieving that goal by the wrong methods. I thought I needed to conquer and rule before I could work my will – but when have I ever needed power? I have wit, and words, and that has always been enough.”
Very well, so he had reassured Doom he did not seek to challenge the man's sovereignty. It would also be wise to stop saying 'I'. Like most people, Victor did not enjoy stories that were not about himself.
“Look at what we have achieved already – an end to famine in Africa, the downfall of the LRA, a marked reduction in sexual slavery over the whole world, and that in the first year only. The beginning of a new age of plenteous clean energy for all. Your goal, Victor – your utopia. It is within our grasp if we simply continue. And if, perhaps, you are not yet ruler of all, you are certainly three times as powerful as you were when we began.”
“And you do this out of a newly discovered altruism? You expect me to believe you've changed so much?”
The world was coming to believe it, but Victor Von Doom was cleverer than the world. That was why Loki was here. He laughed. “I do it because it's fun. Your whole world is one enormous puzzle to me. Already Africa's new prosperity threatens the influence of America. The new energy sources will do who knows what damage to those countries whose economies rely on the sale of oil. It is like one of your Rubik's Cubes. How to better every edge? How to make it so that nobody loses – and to do it without holding power, without inflicting casualties? No one told me that good was so difficult. I like difficult. I cannot bear an unchallenging game.”
Victor set the little box down on the table, rose to pour two goblets of wine as red as roses. “You are just playing with our world, because it amuses you?”
A strange look, as though the words came as reluctantly to him as the truth did to Loki. “You have never seemed as much like a god to me as you do at this moment.”
And that... he didn't know what to say. He waited for a long time for the cruel words that must surely come after such a compliment. It was a feint, surely, to make him look the other way while the true blow blindsided him. He braced himself, discomforted, and at last Doom put the two goblets on the table with a clink and a breath of exasperated laughter.
“You like games?”
Loki looked up, watched him twist the box open, take out a capsule filled with white powder. He poured this into one of the glasses, stirred until the milky sediment of it had been dissolved. Then he pushed it across the table and into Loki's hand. His smile had regained the multiple layers of harshness Loki was used to. Reassuringly so.
“Then I have a game for you. In the cup is a compound designed to make you compliant. You will not be unable to say 'no.' But you will see no need to.”
A slippery kind of delight roiled in the pit of Loki's belly. He licked his lips. “To what purpose would my compliance be put?”
Victor waved a hand towards the closed door of the lab. “I might run a number of experiments on you.” Then he leaned close enough for the breath of his words to stir Loki's hair. “Or I might hold you down and fuck you, the way you've wanted me to since you first saw me.”
Oh Victor, Loki thought, touched as he often was by these gestures. If you think you need to drug me to do that, how very much you must fear me.
“And how will I know which it is to be?”
“You can't know, until you drink.”
Loki grinned his madman's grin, “What fun!” and drank.
As it turned out, Victor did both.