When Loki shifts back to his regular form, there is a girl staring at him.
It's embarrassing that he had to shift at all, but confronting the Avengers had not gone according to plan, not at all. Loki had miscalculated how depleted his magic was from his last altercation with Doom. While evading Mjolnir was such an old game as to take no great concentration, shielding himself from the Iron Man's blasts proved more taxing than usual, especially since Stark had figured out how to vary the frequencies as fast as his magic could adapt.
Then the archer's latest attempt for his eye proved to be not the expected explosive but a magnesium flare, momentarily blinding him—clever, Loki would give Barton that—and when his vision cleared he found himself cornered. The Hulk had dealt with his concrete fighting construct faster than anticipated, and Loki just barely in time tossed the monster an illusory body to tear apart instead of his own flesh. But in doing so the Hulk took down half a building—which should have been to Loki's advantage, as it switched the Avengers' priorities to damage control; but he happened to have been concealing himself in that half of the building at the time.
Caught off-guard, he lacked the power or concentration to teleport, and his hasty shield only blocked some of the falling concrete; the rest pounded him almost as hard as the Hulk's blows might have. That he had only just before been hammering the heroes with the concrete fists of his magically animated monster was an irony he had not the breath left in his lungs to appreciate. Bruised and battered and almost too exhausted to move, Loki considered simply staying lying under the concrete, let the heroes do the work of digging him out.
But every time he is captured he expends another trick to escape, that next time they will find a way to thwart. And Stark and Barton would be so unbearably smug about their successes, and Banner annoyingly apologetic about the building. Though Fury would live up to his name, of course, which would almost make it worthwhile.
But Thor would also be there, and Loki was far too weary now to endure his brother's sickeningly predictable entreaties. So damn earnestly offering Loki yet another chance, and that has moved beyond pathetic and boring and into torturous. The pain should be Thor's, that Loki always throws the offer back in his face, or else pretends to submit only to turn on him later. And yet every time Thor begs him come home, his tone holds the exact same portions of regret and conviction and hope, and the unchanging sameness of it is like slivers under Loki's nails, like water dripping endlessly on his face—
So lying under the building's rubble, he gathers the last dregs of his magic and changes himself into a black cat, small enough to slink unnoticed between the debris. He's bruised still and limping on a broken leg that he has not the spare power to heal. And Thor would likely recognize him, having seen him take this form before, but Loki is too tired to think of a new shape. Instead he cowers in the shadows, watching with green eyes as the captain orders the thunder god to lift up part of a fallen wall. While Thor is so occupied, Loki makes his limping way to the street.
A fireman new on the scene notices him, calls, "Aww, you got hurt? C'mere, poor pussy," and crouches to coax him into his arms. Loki hisses and swipes his face with his claws. The man swears and drops him, and Loki makes good his escape down the sidewalk, weaving between pedestrian legs until he reaches the city alleys.
The problem with being a cat, however, is that a cat's brain isn't much suited for plotting past the basic steps of finding creature comfort. Normally Loki's magic keeps his wits intact without the physiological support, but drained as he is now thinking is hard with only a feline mind. He is aching and tired and craves nothing so much as to curl up in a ball, somewhere warm and safe—burrow under a red cape, cradled in strong arms, and let big gentle fingers scratch his ears—
He has just enough presence of mind to instead seek the more reliable safety of shadows. Night has fallen, dark and chilly. He ducks under the latest chain-link fence and huddles behind the concealment of a large metal dumpster, and lets go of the cat shape, that he might think with his own thoughts, work out his next move while his magic replenishes itself. Besides, clothed and in his normal form he's not bothered by the cold.
Not until after he has shifted does he hear the high-pitched gasp behind him, and realizes he did not make sure he was unobserved.
Loki turns on his good leg and sees a girl standing beside the dumpster, staring up at him, dark eyes round as the moon, mouth dropped open. She's dragging a bulging black plastic bag almost as big as she is, which is not terribly big. He's not certain how quickly humans age, but if she were Aesir she would not yet be half-grown.
"You're not a kitty," she says, blinking at him.
"No," Loki says, and it would be no great thing, to reach out and snap her mortal neck before she can scream. The dumpster is easily large enough to hold her body as well as the trash bag burdening her.
He has killed children before, he is sure. There would have been children in New York when he led the Chitauri invasion. There might have been children in the building that fell today.
It's a different thing, however, to reach out with his own hand.
—Playing in the winter woods with Thor as boys, his footsteps flushed a pheasant, and Thor's thrown stone for once did not go wide. The bird's red blood stained the snow as it flopped about, squawking in its dying pain. They both cried, but Thor at least had the strength to take his knife and slit its throat, while Loki had only been able to sob until he threw up. Technically it was Thor's first successful hunt, but they buried the pheasant in the snow rather than bring it home, and neither of them could bear eat roast fowl at dinner for a month after—
There's only a nip of frost in the air, not cold enough for snow, but Loki is frozen yet, for too long. The wide-eyed girl drops her bag and runs away, back around the dumpster. Loki does not try to follow her. He breathes in, breathes out, and forces himself to change back to the cat. The effort leaves him shaking. He crouches down, the dirty pavement damp and cold under his paws, and crawls underneath the dumpster, his injured leg dragging behind him.
Loki strains with his cat ears for the girl's shrieking, but hears only a door banging shut, and it does not open again; no footsteps come for him. So maybe they are more clever than that, these humans, and he listens instead for sirens. But the only police cars he hears are blocks away and not getting nearer.
They would not call the Avengers, not on the basis of one little girl's story; but still, he has been seen, and he should run. But his body is so stiff it hurts to move, and no one is coming.
Not for several minutes, and then the door creaks open again, followed by footsteps, heavier than the child's, a man's tread. Loki inches on his belly, further under the dumpster's solid metal bulk; a normal man could not lift it to reach him. The footsteps stop before the black mass of the bag left by the dumpster, white sneakers showing against the pavement. Another bag falls besides the first, and a baritone holler cuts over the grumble of traffic out on the street. "Hey, Mei!"
The door opens again, and lighter footsteps patter out. Her sneakers are purple. "Yes, Papa?"
"Honey, what have I told you about taking out trash bags too big for you to pick up?"
"But I could pick up that one!"
"Then why is it still on the ground instead of in the dumpster?"
The purple sneakers scuff the pavement. "Um, I forgot..."
"All right, then, why don't you come here and give Papa a hand with this bag that isn't too big."
The purple sneakers skip over, and the dumpster's lid squeals as it's opened. The bags on the ground are heaved up and tossed inside, making the metal above Loki's head rattle. Then both pairs of sneakers retreat, and the door closes on the girl's cheery chatter.
Loki unconsciously licks his side, where a little blood is matted in the black fur. His ears twitch and swivel, focusing on the sounds around him, but none are in the alley. Through the door he can faintly hear voices—most of the shouts are about food, and he can smell cooking meat, over what's rotting in the dumpster. His cat-belly growls, but both feline instinct and sentient reason agree that its pangs aren't worth leaving the safety of this dirty shelter.
He drops his head on his paws instead, dozes. When it's later he can dare take his true form again, or else rest enough to gain the strength to flee in this shape. It would be better if he could get away from the city and all the people who might see and recognize him, but that's a long way for a little cat.
The door opens again later, more white sneakers delivering bags to the dumpster; Loki only partially rouses, stays silent in his hiding place and goes undisturbed.
He loses track of time, but enough hours pass to lower the traffic's roar to a rumble, and not quite as many footsteps cross the sidewalk beyond the alley. The shadows are no deeper; city lights blaze all through the night. But in a few more hours it will be his best chance. For now he can still rest—
"Not-kitty! Psst, are you there, not-kitty?" Purple sneakers, and then a round upside-down face peers under the dumpster, her black pigtails brushing the pavement. "Oh, you're still there!" the girl says, grinning, and a chubby little hand reaches under towards him, fingers wiggling enticingly. "Come here, not-kitty, look, I got you food," and she sets a bowl painted with flowers down on the ground.
Loki puts back his ears, huddling against the brick wall behind him. The girl says, "Okay, I'll give it to you, then," and slides the bowl under the dumpster. The ceramic grinds on the pavement. The girl pushes it as far as she can towards him, about halfway before she can't reach any further under. "There you go! Now you don't have to go very far."
Loki can smell fresh warm milk in the bowl, sweeter to his feline nose than it would be otherwise. It's so close that he's crawling to it before his conscious mind can question it—question what? That a human girl would poison him? Humans like cats. They're not obedient like dogs, but they're still predators too much smaller and weaker than humans themselves to be seen as threats, and cats know how to pretend a pleasing subservience to get what they want.
Not until he is at the bowl does Loki's cat-mind, too easily distracted by the food, remind him that this girl knows his true shape. Though why then did she not tell her father? Or did she try but he did not believe her; or...
The milk is delicious, and filled with chewier morsels that fill his belly. "Do you like it?" the girl asks, kneeling by the dumpster with her cheek resting on the pavement, to watch him eat. "Papa always makes me rice porridge when I'm sick, and you look sick, so..."
"Mei? What are you doing out here?"
The edge of the shadows sharpen as yellow light floods the pavement around the dumpster. The white sneakers cross it, over to the girl. "You're supposed to be in bed, young lady—what are you doing sitting on the street in your pajamas?"
The girl jumps to her feet, brushes off her nightgown. "Oops! Sorry, Papa, but there's this not—there's a cat. Under there."
The man sighs. "Mei, I've warned you about the cats here—some of them are feral, they might scratch you—"
"This one's different, Papa. I haven't seen him around before. And, um, I think he's sick..."
The man kneels and bends over like the girl to look under the dumpster. Light sweeps over Loki, momentarily blinding him like Hawkeye's flare before. Loki hisses, fur ruffling, pressing back as far as he can against the rough brick wall. Fortunately his cat eyes adjust in seconds to the flashlight's glare, so he can make out the face of the man, browner than his daughter's, but his eyes are the same, dark yet sparkling bright, shining in the light.
The man frowns. "You're right, he's hurt. Here, kitty..." He reaches under the dumpster, his arm almost long enough to reach Loki. Loki growls and swipes at the man's hand with his claws out, and the man pulls back, but stays crouched, watching Loki. "What happened to you, little fellow? Mei, go get my cell phone. We can call somebody from the city to come get him and take him to a vet."
"I—I don't think we should, Papa," the girl says in a breathless babble. "He's really—he's really scared, and the police will make him scareder—"
"It would be animal control, not the police," the man says. "But I guess they'd be even scarier, for a stray cat..."
"What do we do?"
"Well..." The man crouches and reaches under again, but this time not to Loki; instead he retrieves the bowl out from under the dumpster. "He seems to have eaten all of this; why don't you go get more, and maybe we can lure him out from under there."
"Okay!" The girl's sneakers patter off as the man pushes himself back to his feet, but stays standing before the dumpster. Loki hisses in angry dismay. He cannot outrun a grown man, not injured as he is.
The girl comes back in a few moments, sets the bowl down on the ground with the chiming of ceramic on pavement. A few drops slop out over the brim, white on the dirty gray, deliciously sweet, and Loki's treacherous cat-nose and cat-belly conspire to make him hunger. He yowls, low and frustrated, digs his claws into the pavement to hold himself in place.
"Are you okay, no—kittty?" the girl asks, bending down to peer at him.
"Give him room, Mei," the man says. "He's scared." He sits down on the pavement a couple of feet from the bowl, leans his back against the dumpster and says, "Come here, honey, let's wait for him to come out."
The girl sits down next to her father and they start to talk in low voices, mostly about a 'second grade' which Loki assumes refers to their human schooling program; and also Pokemon, which Loki would never admit to knowing anything about. Mareep is apparently her favorite—of course she favors lightning types. Everyone always does.
Time passes and the conversation subsides but still they sit there. Quiet now, though, and their breathing is slower—have they fallen asleep? The hour is getting later; Loki only has a short period when the city's tides of people are ebbing that he might escape.
He creeps out on his belly, paws silent on the pavement, holding his injured leg stiff above the ground. The bowl calls to his stomach, and he needs the strength enough to risk going to it, lapping up a few tongue-fuls of milk—
Loki hisses, bristling like a thorn bush, crouches low and glares with green eyes up at the man still sitting by the dumpster. The girl is in his lap, sound asleep with her pigtailed head on his breast and his arms around her; he cannot move without waking her, and doesn't seem to wish to. That might save him, and Loki backs away, belly to the pavement and still bristling.
The man frowns at him. "You won't get far on that leg—come here, little fellow," and he holds out his hand, snaps his fingers lightly. In his lap the girl stirs, rubs her eyes sleepily and then sits up, staring at Loki.
"Not-kitty! You came out!"
"Shh," the man says, putting a finger to her lips, and murmurs, "Go slow, okay? We don't want to spook him; he could hurt himself more." Carefully he helps the girl off his lap and gets up in a crouch, pointing her to the other side of the dumpster. "You go that way, and I—"
They're moving to corner him, clear tactics even to his simple cat-brain, and Loki snarls, takes stock and makes his move, feinting one way and then darting the other. But his injured leg and full belly slows him, and the man is fast, for an ordinary mortal. He grabs Loki by the scruff of the neck, pins him down.
Loki yowls and wrenches and twists around, trying to free himself, trying to scratch with all his claws extended, but he can't get purchase. The man has taken off his jacket and wraps it around Loki, swaddling him so tightly he can't wriggle free, though carefully not around his broken leg, or his wounded shoulder.
Scooping Loki up in his arms, the man tells the girl to get the door, and then Loki is carried inside. His eyes are covered but through his mewling he hears the door close, and more jostling steps, and then he is set down again.
"Shh, shh, it's okay," the man is saying soothingly. "It's okay, Mei, he's only upset—" and Loki realizes over the involuntary mews escaping his throat that the girl is also whimpering and sniffling.
A warm hand settles over Loki's neck, not grasping this time, but massaging the base of his ears in a calming rhythm. "Honey, go get a towel and the first aid kit—the white box in the bathroom, okay?" Small sneakers patter off, and the man says, "Shh, kitty, it's okay, we're not going to hurt you. Or I'll try not to, though this—what happened to you?" Loki feels the man's other hand on his shoulder, fingers gently smoothing aside the bloody fur. "Is this a burn? I thought you'd been hit by a car, but this...who would hurt a poor creature like you? Some people are real bast—oh, Mei! Yes, that's it, great, honey. Now let's see what we can do for him..."
The astringent chemical the man dabs on his wound stings, and the burn in his nose is worse; Loki snarls and struggles but cannot free himself. To his small cat self, the jacket and towel he is wrapped in might as well be the chains in which Thor first brought him back to Asgard. His leg is in agony from his efforts, and worse when the man binds it in elastic bandages and two pencils for a makeshift splint.
"There," he says finally, letting go of Loki but not unwrapping the jacket. At least Loki's worked it off his eyes, enough to see that he is in a narrow cardboard box, lined with the towel. The man closes the carton's lid over him. "He'll do in here until morning, I think, and then we can take him to a vet and get him looked at properly. Now let's get you to bed."
"But, Papa," the girl says, "can I watch him? To make sure he's okay?"
"He'll be all right," the man says. "He'll be calmer if he's alone."
"Can I pet him good night?"
"I don't think he wants to be petted now, honey," the man said. "He's hurting, and hurt animals can get so scared they'll hurt you, even if they don't mean to. Maybe tomorrow, if he's feeling better. Now come on—the sooner you get to sleep, the sooner you can see him again."
There are small holes cut in the box's side; Loki watches out one as the man and the girl retreat, switching off the light to leave him in a marginally more comfortable darkness. He can see little else of the room he's in, save wooden cabinets before him, and a tile floor; a kitchen, probably, though in their private home, not the restaurant. It's warm and clean and quiet but for the refrigerator's steady hum, and ever-present dull roar of the city outside.
Loki scratches idly at the box's confines as he considers his situation, as best he can through the haze of pain and fatigue and his small feline brain. On the one hand, the humiliation of these circumstances is unparalleled.
On the other hand, humiliation is a complex emotion for a cat to grasp, no matter how prideful they might behave; and he is hidden and warm and his injuries hurting less for the man's ministrations. And there is safety in hiding among ignorant innocents. This is, he thinks, among the last places Thor would look for him, should Thor be inclined to hunt him down.
His magic will regenerate slowly in this form, but perhaps if he rests now he can gather the strength to make his escape tomorrow, before the promised vet visit. Yes, that is a workable plan.
Or so Loki tells himself; in truth his cat body decides for him, closing his eyes and sliding him down into the benign oblivion of sleep.
Some time later he awakens—a couple of hours, not long enough for morning to have come, and it's still dark when he opens his eyes. But he was disturbed by a sound, a pattering on the floor—not a rat but larger feet. The girl has come back, snuck out of bed on her bare tiptoes. She's clever enough to leave the light off, as she taps lightly on the side of the box, whispers, "Hello, not-kitty, are you awake?"
Loki stretches, carefully around his injuries, and murmurs a noncommittal meow.
"Do you want to come out?" the girl asks. "This box is really small for you, isn't it?"
Loki mews again, letting her draw her own conclusions as to his meaning. She puts her hands to the cardboard flaps.
Then she stops, asks softly, "Only—only if I let you out, do you promise not to hurt me or Papa?"
Loki's tail lashes before he can help himself, thumping against the box's thick cardboard side.
"Because," the girl says in a rush, "I know you hurt people, I know you're a bad guy. I see you on TV and they show us pictures at school and tell us to be careful and to tell a teacher or our parents or a police person, if we see you and the other bad guys like you..."
Global Threat Level Zero, is the official SHIELD designation; Loki is one of half a dozen individuals so honored. The media has taken to calling them 'supervillains', which amuses Loki. But he likes 'bad guys,' too; it's so marvelously simple, something even a small child can grasp and fear.
And she sounds afraid, this little girl, her voice trembling; except she's opening the box he's in, too, and that Loki does not understand. She's a good child; she should be telling her parent about him, as instructed. She's old enough to use a phone, and smart enough to remember the emergency numbers; she should be calling the authorities.
Not that she could reach a phone fast enough, of course. But then she thinks this box is enough to contain him, thinks she has to open it for him.
Why is she opening it, when she knows what he is?
She lifts the box's flaps and Loki stares up at her, crouched in the box among the towels and her father's jacket still tangled around his legs, his green eyes narrowed as he studies her face. If she is not what she seems; if she has powers of her own—some humans have special abilities, not just the made freaks Fury found, but innate gifts, born to them—
But she does not look like she has power to threaten him with. Though she doesn't look scared, either, as she reaches into the box to pick him up. Her arms are bare, smooth soft child-skin that he could shred, even with his small cat claws; even in this form he could maim her, give her scars to remember him by all her life.
He keeps his claws withdrawn, his paws resting soft and harmless on her arms as she lifts him out of the box, cradling him carefully. She scratches him under the chin as she cuddles him, saying, "I know you're bad. All the kids, when we play heroes and bad guys, they say they wish you never came to Earth. Except I don't say that. Because you came here and you did those bad things with the aliens, but Papa says those bad things are why the A-ven-gers," and she sounds it out, carefully precise, "why they became heroes, to stop you. So if you weren't here and didn't do those things, the Avengers wouldn't be here either."
She's holding him so close that he can hear her heartbeat; he can feel her trembling, but maybe it's not with fear after all. Or maybe it is, because she goes on, "And I'm glad the Avengers are here, because last year—last year a very bad thing happened here. And Papa—my mama died when I was little, so I only have Papa—and Papa is a hero, too, sometimes he works in an am-bu-lance," and she pronounces it as carefully as she said 'Avengers', "so he was there, when the bad thing happened—he went there, to help people.
"Only everything got badder and badder," and Loki is thinking—the Mandarin attacked this city last year, hadn't he, a trial run of some plot or other. Loki had advised him on the magical mechanics of wielding his rings, but may have forgotten a few pertinent details, and so judiciously kept clear of the inevitable backlash that nearly leveled downtown—"and then the Avengers came, and helped everybody—" with some ridiculous half-baked last-ditch ploy, concocted by Stark and Banner and using the captain's shield and Mjolnir, as Loki recalls—"they saved everybody, and they saved Papa, too. Hawkeye and Black Widow, they saved him. And someday I'm going to be like Black Widow and save people like them and Papa do.
"So I'm glad," and she squeezes Loki as tightly as she can with her small arms, presses her face to the top of his head between his ears, leaving damp spots on his fur. "I'm glad you came, even if you do bad things, because if you hadn't I wouldn't have Papa anymore."
She holds him a little longer, sniffling. Then she sets him down on his three good paws on the kitchen floor, carefully, gets up and steps back. "But I think you should go now," she says, wiping her eyes with her fist. "Before you do anything bad, or Papa finds out about you."
Loki takes a breath, lets it out and lets go of the cat shape as he does, casting off the bandage and awkwardly made splint as he unfolds to his full height, clothed and armored. The girl stares up at him, wide eyes still glittery with unshed tears; she looks sad, but not afraid.
"Are you going to hurt me?" she asks, too clever to try to flee from him. The kitchen is small but he is too close; she would never reach the door.
Loki considers her, then shakes his head. "No," he says. His voice sounds rusty, like a cat's meow; it always takes him a little while to find it again.
"Oh," she says, almost as if she is surprised.
Loki looks down at the carton she so kindly freed him from. Bracing himself against the wall to balance with his broken leg, he turns it over on its side, then straightens, looks back to the girl and says, "Don't tell your father you let me go; tell him I ran away in the night."
But the girl shakes her head. "I don't lie to Papa."
Loki laughs, soft and hoarse. "Of course you don't. Though you didn't tell him about me—ah, well. You're clever enough to figure out for yourself what to say to him about this."
The rest did him some good, and the food as well; his magic is still diminished, but he's feeling strong enough to bear the pain of his leg. And with every breath he draws his power returns to him; he'll soon have enough to slip between the shadows and depart the city.
He'll leave this house first, though. She's up far too late for good little girls, and while he's here she won't go back to bed.
Loki takes a hobbling step toward her, and the girl stands her ground, still looking up at him. Oh, she is brave; dark eyes and hair as black as his, but her set chin could be a match to Thor's. She'll make a fine hero someday. Perhaps an Avenger—perhaps she will fight Loki, if he's still playing on Earth. She might outgrow her naive gratitude, learn not to be so glad of his coming.
Or maybe she will be still. Some things Loki cannot change, for all his power and influence and wicked deeds. Some heroes have wills too strong to be shifted; and some bonds forged in pure child hearts cannot be broken, however fiercely one might later tear and struggle against them.
He bends over, kisses the top of her smooth shining hair and tells her, "Thank you for the porridge, Mei."
"You're welcome, Mr. Loki," she whispers, as he turns from her and limps to the entryway; he doesn't look back as he opens the door, but he knows she is waving him farewell.