Tony Stark wakes up in the middle of the night to find his face bathed in light. This in and of itself isn't a problem given the arc reactor in his chest, what is a problem is that the glow isn't cold blue, it's dull red. For a moment all Tony can do is groggily blink wondering if he's somehow ended up in a cheap brothel but then he sees what it is that's giving off the light. Floating in mid-air over the bed are three very big, very sharp, dark red words.
[WHERE IS THOR]
Tony snaps to full alert. Immediately turns to check on Pepper and almost wilts with relief when he sees she's still asleep and breathing. That established he reaches out and tries to touch the words hoping he can bat them away like smoke – nope, his hand just goes straight through. Swearing under his breath particularly with regards to Steve "I didn't want to wake him so I'll tell him in the morning" Rogers Tony gets out of bed, grabs the homing bracelets – really, he should just sleep with the damn things on – and, pulling a robe over his pajama pants, storms out of his bedroom, out of his penthouse into the elevator and all the way down to the lowest R&D floor. The time this takes doesn't calm him down, in fact it does the exact opposite so that by the time he's striding up to the containment chamber he's crankier than a cat at bath time. "What the fuck?" Tony demands.
Two sets of eyes turn to him. One set is condescending and poisonous even from behind thick glass. The other set of eyes is hard as diamond and once having identified Tony, locks back on Loki like sighting a target. "You too?" growls Clint.
"... Apparently." Not being first on the scene gives Tony a moment to take things in. Clint is standing with an arrow loaded in his lowered bow ready to draw at a moment's notice, something that is only slightly put off by the fact that he's only wearing grey-and-purple striped boxer shorts and a white singlet beneath his quiver. Sitting heavily on his narrow bed facing them behind the glass Loki sneers as if he doesn't care that Tony has just been woken up from a very nice comfy bed next to Pepper at past three a.m. of the first night Tony is actually managing to sleep without decapitation-by-giant-insects nightmares. Scratch that as if, of course Loki doesn't care, and Tony's fists clench as he glares. "In case it wasn't clear before, Rudolph, we weren't kidding about how you mess up we express FedEx you to the Chitauri. A midnight booty call I'm willing to overlook but do it again and—" He watches Loki roll his eyes and start air-writing again. "Now what!"
Glowing dark red letters pass through the containment chamber window to loom before Tony and Clint's faces. [WHERE IS THOR]
"Not here. Answering a call of nature – do you guys even use the bathroom? – joined a heavy metal band, performing with Cirque du Soleil—"
[GET HIM HERE]
"Yeah, uh, no, it's not like Thor carries a cellphone and even if he did you can't talk anymore—"
[GET HIM HERE NOW]
"What part of no don't you understand?" snaps Clint. "You've lost your tongue, dickwad, not your ears."
"—and since when do you care anyway? All the time Thor was here you barely looked at him so I don't get why you're all snippy now, but hey, you tell us why you suddenly want Thor so badly and we tell you where he's gone. Deal?"
For a moment he thinks that Loki might actually deal. Something about the way his lips are curled in what is otherwise a great impression of a New York City gargoyle. Then those lips thin, Loki draws himself up to sit straight, and he turns away as if bored by the entire situation. Tony smirks with petty victory. "Didn't think so."
Spitefully he swivels on his heel and heads for the door. Clint stares after him. "Stark—"
"I am going back to bed," Tony announces without looking back. "Stay if you like though if you haven't noticed he's still not standing much so he's not breaking out anytime soon."
"Stark, I don't know if you've noticed, but he sent his glow writing out of the containment chamber all the way up to our rooms!"
"Manipulated light, ooh, scary. You ever text someone in the middle of the night?"
"Only if I'm drunk, what does that have to do with anything?"
"Midnight texting is something you do when you can't sleep and want attention," says Tony, pressing the elevator button. "This is me switching my phone off."
The elevator opens and Tony steps in. Yawns and ignores the way Clint is gritting his teeth across the room, and he definitely ignores Loki because he'll be damned before giving that bastard anything he wants. Clint should be smart enough to get that.
Back in the penthouse Pepper is still blissfully, blessedly asleep. Loki's glowing text message is also gone. Tiredly Tony crawls into bed beside Pepper and, with grim satisfaction, falls back into dreamless sleep.
* * *
He's just sitting there. Sitting and watching him through the glass with too-sharp eyes and a snide knife-thin smile. Although he knows he doesn't have the power Clint wants to rip off that smile and grind Loki's face into a bed of rocks – even now the memory of having his mind under Loki's control makes Clint's skin crawl. Maybe he could open the containment chamber just for a moment, just long enough to shoot Loki in the gut right where the Chitauri carved open his liver so that the trickster god spends the rest of the night writhing in agony—
The knife-thin smile grows wider. Challengingly Loki lifts his chin like he still knows exactly what is going on inside Clint's head. Clint's fingers clench down on his loaded arrow so incredibly tempted, but then he remembers what Rogers said and Thor's hand on his shoulder. Slowly lowers his weapon and makes himself return Loki's smile equally thin. "I would have your eyes out," he says calmly, "but we promised your brother we'd look after you. You should thank him."
Loki's smile has disappeared. Clint's on the other hand has become a grin. With a mocking wave over his shoulder he leaves without looking back.
* * *
SUPER TUESDAY PRIMARY RESULTS
Kenichi Patry: 46%
Diane Morrison: 42%
Mitchell Fairmont: 10%
Mary McAvery: 35%
Ted Davis: 31%
Rick Samson: 24%
Parry Sherman: 12%
Around the web:
CNN: The 'Avengers Advantage' is real. Here's what it means for the campaign trail
MSNBC: Republican candidate Samson scrapes through on campaign funds
Fox News: 'We need a true patriot': Voter writes 'Captain America' on ballot
NYT City Blog: Superhero size me! Shun Lee's goes viral after Avengers home delivery
* * *
Steve Rogers regularly gets up at dawn to exercise, sometimes with weights and boxing, sometimes going for a run. He'd like to run more than sometimes, the problem is that running takes him out in public and the public is something Steve has to be cautious of. Although he wears a mask as Captain America he can't wear it all the time, and unlike the black-and-white film world of seventy years ago now there's mass media, celebrity culture, technology and the internet, which is why Steve upped and moved to Stark Tower in the first place where Tony's security pointedly discourages paparazzi telescopic lenses and Pepper's equally pointed smile discourages nosy media and fans. Having the reassurance of virtually impenetrable privacy at Stark Tower makes it easier for Steve to deal with the public when he does go out.
It helps also that New Yorkers are generally a jaded lot when it comes to celebrities. If people do accost Steve begging for autographs or hyperventilating and screaming about having his babies it's a good bet they're tourists, and since tourists aren't usually the type to wake up at dawn early morning is when Steve goes running. This particular morning is foggy which makes things even better, so Steve takes his run up along the east side (avoiding the reconstruction areas, of which there are a lot) across the bridge into Brooklyn where streets of brownstones still stand and for a while Steve can almost pretend he's in his city of seventy years ago before his feet turn back to Stark Tower. All in all it's a great run, one completely uninterrupted by fans or public, and it puts Steve in a good mood that refuses to be spoiled by Tony Stark's morose I-need-more-coffee face at the kitchen table. "Hey, morning," says Steve, going to sort out some breakfast. "Though isn't it still early for you?"
"Pepper was up earlier." Tony scowls over his mug out the window at the skyline.
"She's gone already?"
"To the office, being actually responsible and all, she'll be back tonight."
"Ah. So what's with the look on your face?"
"Because—" Tony breaks off as a hologram screen blinks on above the kitchen table to show a large close-up picture of his face fast asleep with his mouth open and a bit of drool. "Aw c'mon, JARVIS!"
"I am only following Miss Pott's instructions, sir," says the computer primly. "They were very precise."
"Yeah, Bruce was laughing his head off, morning happy achieved tick—"
"Shall I give you your list of outstanding correspondence instead, sir?"
"Hell no, especially if it's full of Avengers media requests or worse, requests from anyone in Washington, but make a note to remind me one of these days to payback-Instagram Pepper sleeping—"
"I'm sure that unlike you Miss Potts always looks beautiful first thing in the morning," says Steve, hiding his laugh behind the cupboard door. "Cereal?"
"Only if it has coffee."
Steve pours out two bowls of muesli. "So I take it you slept properly for once, then."
"Sure, if you ignore getting a booty call from Thor's baby brother. Which reminds me, I need to check with Bruce about some kind of extra shielding—"
"Wait, Loki did what?"
"He sent a glow message up to my bedroom at about three this morning demanding to know where Thor was, which he might not have done if someone had just told him—"
"Up to your room?"
"Uh, yeah, Barton and me were pretty pissed, what, did you not wake up or—" Tony breaks off. Steve frowns as Tony stares into space with widening eyes in a way that he probably wouldn't be happy to hear is an echo of Howard Stark in what Steve learned was a ‘eureka' moment. "Oh. Oh man, that would actually make perfect sense."
There's no sense being made for Steve. "What does?"
Shoving his chair back Tony stands up; he's dressed in jeans and his favourite Black Sabbath t-shirt again. "You been down to check on our prisoner yet?"
"No, I was going to bring him breakfast—"
"Forget that, I've got something better, come on."
Abandoning the muesli Steve scrambles to catch up with Tony who is already heading quickly out the kitchen door just as Bruce is trying to come in carrying an empty coffee mug. "What's going—"
"Going down to R&D Seven, you should come Bruce might need you. By the way, did you get a glowing text message in the middle of the night?"
"Uh, I was sleeping but no, I don't think—"
"Nope, you didn't, and I'll bet Natasha didn't either. One-eighty, Brucie, we're going to pay Tall and Annoying a little visit."
Any attempts from Steve or Bruce to get Tony to explain go nowhere. From the way Tony is smiling, but, Steve is pretty certain it's going to be interesting. Potentially in the playing with fire sense. Suddenly he's glad that Bruce is with them, just in case.
They take the elevator down to the lowest research and development floor and step out. In the middle of the floor in the experiment containment chamber Loki looks up from his position cross-legged on the bed apparently meditating or something. His eyes narrow as Tony strides straight up to the window flanked by Steve and Bruce saying straight out, "You owe these two an apology."
Loki blinks. So do Steve and Bruce, who look at each other wondering what on earth Tony is going on about. Tony's grin spreads. "Last night, remember? Technically this morning. You called me and Barton down here for a party, but you didn't invite Rogers or Bruce or Natasha which is incredibly rude. I think they deserve to know why, don't you?"
Still Steve feels lost, but knowing Tony is building up to something keeps quiet. "No note? That's fine, I can guess. I mean, with Bruce it's obvious – you wake him up in the middle of the night, chances are the Hulk uses you as a chew toy. Natasha, she's manipulated you once already so you understandably don't want her around. But the Captain, why you didn't invite him? I mean, he's the only one who comes down to water you – other than Thor of course. Is it his lack of witty conversation? Because he gives you reading homework? Nah, I think you didn't invite him because just like Thor he makes you uncomfortable."
"How did you figure that one?" asks Steve, eyebrows raised. He can't help but notice that Loki's posture is now very, very still.
"You're decent to him," Bruce explains sotto voce. "Also you got him out of that torture flashback. You could claim that puts him in your debt."
"I'd never say that—"
"Now me and Barton," continues Tony loudly, obviously miffed at being interrupted, "we got invites because our company's easier to handle. Barton's not a party guy but you've played with him before, you probably get kicks out of seeing him twitchy. Me, I'm the life of every party and I can't keep my mouth shut, I probably would've even tango'ed with you but I was actually enjoying sleeping for once and you know why? Because I had someone with me. And you know what I realised? Up until last night, you had someone too."
Once, long before the experiment during the Depression, Steve had seen some bored kids chucking rocks at a trapped stray cat. He remembered how the cat had bristled, tail puffed out as it hissed but unable to escape or attack. Loki's reminding Steve a lot of that cat now. "You were looking for Thor last night because without big brother around you don't sleep properly," says Tony smugly. "Am I right or am I right—"
There's a muffled bang as Loki gets to his feet and slams a fist against the containment chamber window. He looks positively explosive, something that is not helped by how instead of spitting out a response all he can do is write. Stabbily. [Impudent, presumptuous mortal]—
"Why of all places in the universe when you escaped the Chitauri did you make for Earth? And not—"
—[you dare reflect your pathetic needs onto me]—
"—just anywhere on Earth, but the Big Apple. C'mon, just admit it, you aimed for New York because you knew Thor would be here, and for all of your song and dance routines about how you hate Thor when the chips are down and you're completely desperate he's the first person you run to. Right?"
If looks could kill Loki is glaring up a massacre, of Tony specifically. "Really, Stark, I don't think this is necessary—" is what Steve starts with, only to stop as he realises that the edges of Loki's hands are starting to shine gold.
"Denial, not just a river in Egypt but on Asgard as well." Tony smirks either not noticing the shining or not caring. "Y'know the Avengers merch line has plush dolls, we can—"
"Tony, I don't think you should provoke him—"
"—get you a Thor one—"
"—cozy snuggle times—"
The gold shine is now very bright and all over Loki who looks like he's about to rip Tony's head off, probably literally. Steve doesn't have faith that the containment chamber will stop him. Swiftly he grabs Tony yanking him floorward which should give Bruce an opening to Hulk out, making Tony give a yelp that's lost in the buzzing whine coming from the chamber—
"Eyes, cover!" Bruce shouts.
—there's a flash that lights up the inside of Steve's eyelids along a teeth-rattling thunderclap, and the golden glow is gone.
Gingerly, his pulse trip-hammering, Steve lifts his head from Tony's shoulder. The containment chamber still stands exactly as it was, but Loki is no longer in it. No, wait, he's still inside, he's just lying face-down on the floor not moving with wisps of smoke rising from his hair and clothes— "Hey, it worked," says Tony happily.
"What worked?" Steve looks confused up as Tony hops to his feet and goes over to the chamber window.
"The precaution," explains Bruce absently, also going to the window for a closer inspection. "Tony and I rigged up the containment chamber so that when the sensors pick up a high-energy reading inside, there's a huge burst of electricity released. What voltage did you set it to generate?"
"Three-fif— Tony! We're trying to contain Loki, not kill him!"
"Oh pfft, like three hundred and fifty kilo-volts for nineteen milliseconds is going to kill this guy. Remember how Thor told us about when he accidentally lightning-bolted Loki on a monster hunt?"
By now Steve is back on his feet and also looking anxiously through the containment chamber window at Loki lying unconscious on the floor. "Is he okay?" he presses.
Tony does an exaggerated shrug and drawl. "'She'll be right, mate.'"
"That is a bad Australian accent." With a sigh Bruce goes around to the side of the chamber and its heavy door. "I'll give him a check-up."
He goes inside – eventually. The heavy triple-lock takes a while to get through, and that's just the outer door. Steve meanwhile glances over at Tony who is still looking far too pleased with himself. "Did you know that would work?"
"I was pretty confident."
"So not really, then."
"Hey, look on the bright side! At least now we know it's possible."
"To electrocute an alien god?"
"Actually I was talking about what we were talking about before Peking duck, you know, how all Loki problems could be solved if maybe possibly he could make up with Thor? If Loki still has some not-hate-feelings for his brother, that's something to work with."
"While Thor's not here. And we still haven't actually told Loki where and why Thor's gone. If what everything you said earlier is right, how well do you think Loki's going to take hearing that Thor has left to go back to Asgard?"
"On a scale of one to ten with ten being tantrum throwing, I'm going to say eleven. But here's an idea – unless Loki asks nicely, let's not tell him anything about where and why Thor's gone."
"What will that achieve?"
"Seeing whether Loki values his brother more than being a dick. Want to take bets on how long he holds out?"
* * *
Ahmad Ramzan, or DJ Zan as he likes to call himself, is having a bad day. Not because he's hungover, though that isn't helping, but because he spent half the morning on zero sleep in a police station being bombarded with probing questions he had no answers to. Yes, of course he was at the beach party out in the bay last night he was the DJ for crying out loud, no he doesn't know Pierre Valois or whatever that European guy's name is, and no he definitely didn't see why Valois was attacked by people at the party let alone who it was doing the attacking. He did see the aftermath though. Until then, Ahmad had never realised just how much of a beating a man could take and still be alive.
Anyway. When Ahmad finally convinced the police that he had nothing that could help them charge anyone they let him go, without providing him any transport of course meaning he had to walk all the way back to beach and from there convince a fisherman in broken Vietnamese and bad charades to take him out to the island where he's staying. Tomorrow he flies back home to Pakistan, and Ahmad is really hoping he can salvage something of his last night in Ha Long Bay with a swim.
He does. The ocean waves wash away the immediacy of the experience of being crammed into a cell with smelly sandy party-goers for hours and relentless police questioning. By the time Ahmad gets out of the water he's feeling much better about his day and life in general and at sunset he takes a walk along the beach to dry off. His route takes him back to the site where last night's party had been, deserted of course. The bungalow bar is open purely because it doesn't have any walls, but when Ahmad climbs in hoping to find a drink it turns out the ice-box is chained shut. Nearby, the remains of the bonfire can be seen as smudges of black against the sand.
Scowling, Ahmad wanders over to the bonfire site on bare feet. The area looks so calm now, like a tourist postcard perfectly shot with water and sunset making the trouble of last night seem all the more unreal. Lost as he had been then in the beats and music Ahmad recalls only impressions, the writhing bodies, the smell of sweat and alcohol and smoke, the shadows of people black against the flames. As he told the police all he really remembers is when he realised something was wrong, namely that a group of people right next to the bonfire were moving not with his music but in an animalistic, jerking frenzy about a single point. Turns out, that point had been a man. Ahmad wonders what that man did to have so many people suddenly want to bash his head bloody but he doesn't really want to know. He turns to leave only to stop as his toe hits something in the ashy sand.
Bending down, Ahmad picks up the something and shakes it clean. It's a circular piece of metal, a bit too small for his hand, and bright silver. There are some patterns on it like ribbons or snakes woven together. Some girl's bracelet Ahmad guesses, lost in the chaos of last night. Not much use to him so he's tempted to just drop it back on the beach for a treasure hunter, but inexplicably he stops. On second thought Ahmad puts the bracelet in the pocket of his board shorts then heads back to the little guesthouse where he's staying. There's probably dinner there now.
The next day Ahmad wakes up ridiculously early to catch a boat back to the mainland, a cramped bus into town, and another longer bus to the airport. Given the shortness of the trip and that he spent half the time swimming Ahmad doesn't have much more than a carry-on bag and the stuff in his pockets. It should mean that he sails through the airport security check so he slings his bag onto the belt for the scanner before dumping his passport, ticket, wallet, keys, MacBook, iPod and headphones into a tray and sauntering through the metal detector which to his surprise immediately starts beeping. When airport security orders him to empty his pockets Ahmad is startled to find the bracelet. He doesn't remember packing it, let alone putting it in his jeans pocket, but with a plane to catch and an impatient line of passengers behind him there's no time to wonder. Shoving the bracelet on his left wrist Ahmad grabs the rest of his things, stuffs them into bag and pockets, and hurries off to find his departure gate.
Ninety minutes later finds Ahmad in the skies somewhere over Burma, dozing in a window seat with headphones in his ears. He's listening to a rough recording of one of his own compositions, a hip hop song he's trying to refine because although DJing is great and gets him exposure and some money he'd really like to do something with his own voice one day. In his dreams he's vaguely aware of lyrics coming together. On his wrist, the silver bracelet is flying west.
* * *
It's out there somewhere. Loki can sense it tantalisingly definite but frustratingly faint – it must be a long way away. In his still-weakened state just reaching out to that lost part of him requires immense concentration, and influencing it is virtually impossible unless he goes into trance. Then again, it's not like Loki has a lot to do safely locked up in the Avengers' cell other than wait for his body to heal.
He's been waiting a long time. The Chitauri did their work excruciatingly well (Loki tries not to think about it and somehow manages not to for once), and whatever improvement he's made since his frantic escape across the universe hasn't been helped by overexerting his magic, or being thrown about by the Hulk again. Getting electrocuted by a man-made lightning bolt is just yet another disheartening setback.
All that on top of having his tongue ripped out. Him, of all beings, bereft of words and speech. It's almost as despairing as the moment when he found out about his monstrous heritage.
Hilariously, it's the Hulk's alter-ego who is checking that Loki hasn't been hurt too badly. Loki would laugh if he wasn't pretending to be unconscious still. Much as it galls him to endure Banner's clinical hands (and it galls so, so much to be touched by anyone) he knows very well that any attempt to break those hands will only result in his own shattering yet again which he can ill-afford. Being the Hulk means Banner is the only one of the Avengers who can be in the same room as Loki with impunity, though the irritatingly high-minded Captain also regularly comes by for unfathomable reasons. Loki isn't sure which of the two is worse – but at least they're not Thor.
Golden Thor, heroic, kingly Thor, Thor who still foolishly cares for his not-brother despite everything and nobly deigned to appoint himself Loki's guard and caretaker here in Stark's tower. Having Thor hovering so close is bad enough but his constant support and pity is downright sickening. The only upside to the whole situation has been Thor's expression every time he sees Loki mute and hurting, so Loki makes sure his hurts are as obvious as possible, and spitefully enjoys Thor's misery.
Thor would have dropped everything to go after Loki's lost tongue if Loki told him to. Unfortunately when Loki realised his tongue was somewhere on Earth, Thor despite his promise to always be there wasn't around to be made to go fetch it. Demanding answers from the likes of Stark was a futile effort and worse still allowed Stark to glimpse that disgusting, horrible need Loki has and hates that he has for Thor—
"Are you all right?"
Loki opens his eyes. Bruce Banner looks down at him on the bed and the tight, trembling fists his hands are in with a forced smile. "So you are awake. Feeling okay?"
Looks down at him. Loki feels his lips curl but of course cannot spit out any retort. Worse still, Banner doesn't seem to expect him to. "You have some mild burns and burst blood vessels from that electrical strike, but given that it's you they'll go away eventually. Can you sit up for me?"
Loki pointedly turns his head away towards the wall – how pathetic, that he who should have been king has been reduced to this. Banner sighs. "Look, I know that you've been having a bad time lately but we promised your brother we'd look after you so like it or not and despite what you've done, that's what we're doing. You may as well make it easier on yourself." Still Loki doesn't move. Banner sighs again. "Fine."
He turns to go, at which point Loki can't stand it any longer and lifting his hand he sends words floating through the air like dust-motes. [Where is Thor?]
It wasn't Banner who answered. Snarling, Loki sits up on the bed with a hiss of pain he only half conceals to glare through the containment window at Stark. Stark waves cheerfully with the soldier Steve Rogers standing at his shoulder looking rueful. "Sorry Sparky," continues Stark, voice slightly mechanical through the outside microphone, "but unless you play nice we're not going to tell you where Thor is. Don't worry, we'll still feed you regularly."
It's all Loki can do not to take his magic and lash out again. Or not all – he's still weak from that electric shock earlier, and in any case the Hulk's man-skin is still on his side of the door. Stark's grin widens. "We'll let you think about it. Bruce, there's some atomic particles with your name on them to bounce about in the lab, you going to come play?"
"Sure." Incredulously, Banner turns and gives Loki an apologetic shrug as if he actually regrets not telling him Thor's whereabouts, before pressing his hand against the scanner by the door. It disables the electric charge set up to run through the mechanical lock of the inner door so that it can be opened, after which Banner has to wait for the inner door to close and lock again so that he can let himself out through the outer door. Only then, finally, do Banner, Stark and Rogers depart leaving Loki alone in his silent cell.
Slowly Loki unclenches his fists. Fantasies about eviscerating the Avengers are well and good but won't get him anywhere. In his current state he doesn't have much in his favour, however the one positive thing is that he knows what he lost has been found.
He doesn't need Thor. With time and patience Loki can get his tongue back by himself at which point he should be fully healed with all of his magic. And when that happens and he can speak again, then he will extract payment for his humiliation. From each and every last human in this city.
Blood drips unnoticed from his palms onto the floor. Shutting his eyes Loki tries to make himself relax and cast his mind out, calm, focused, reaching for his missing part to call it back. It's also a way to keep himself from remembering how his ribs were pulled open ... but this time, he doesn't manage. At least down here no one can hear him sob.