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Silvertongue

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"God I hate politics," groans Clint from the couch. "This is what, the fifth Republican debate? And the presidential election isn't for another ten months."

"You know, you could just not watch cable news," Tony points out the obvious from the kitchen table where he and Bruce are science jamming; he's supposed to be at a company board meeting this afternoon but science jamming is just so much more fun and Pepper so much better at talking down stuffy corporate suit types. "Like, until November's over. It'll do wonders for your sanity, trust me."

"Seriously can you believe this lot?" Clint expansively sweeps a hand at Tony's giant flat-screen television. "Old white guy senator one, old white guy senator two, slightly less old smarmy white mayor guy three, middle aged white guy four who can't even string a sentence together—"

"You mean Texas Governor Samson? Guy verbal-trips over his own teeth but he plays a mean game of golf and keeps a good whiskey cabinet."

"—crazy congress lady, token black guy on a glorified book tour—"

"Actually, you know what, if you don't go cold turkey on the cable news for your own sanity, why not do it for ours? At least limit yourself to Daily Show episodes or something. Or hey, here's an idea, get off the couch and go spar with Natasha some more—"

There's a dull popping sound from outside, like a distant explosion. A minute later the door bursts open and Steve Rogers runs in shield already in hand. "We have a situation," he says, straight to the point. "Central Park area, apparently a battalion of robots came up from the sewer system. Thor's already there and Ms. Romanoff messaged to say she's on her way."

This gets everybody's attention, including Clint's. Tony feels like he can kiss the robots for their timing. "Sounds like fun," he says while Bruce unbuttons his shirt with a sigh. "Hear that Barton? Mommy says you have to turn off the TV and go play outside now. Be a good boy and tie your own shoelaces, ‘kay?"

Clint pretends to aim an arrow at his head as he leaves to get his stuff. Tony laughs it off and tells JARVIS to get a suit ready. Time to fly.

 

* * *

 

Attack du jour turns out to be a wimpy disappointment. Granted, compared to Loki most stuff thrown at the Avengers is wimpy but steampunk robots against Tony's genius so-ahead-of-the-curve-I-touch-the-X-axis tech is just lame. This battle? More like a walk in the park, at least for the Avengers. The people who ran screaming out of Central Park just before it turned into a greener lunar surface, not so much, but at least it means the area is clear of civilians.

Of course, Tony's life being what it is, the moment his mind forms the words walk in the park everything changes.

Heavy black clouds quickly gather overhead low enough to brush Stark Tower. There is wind. Tony's first thought as he hovers thirty feet above street-level is that Thor is about to do his thunder thing which although very impressive and sometimes shit-freezingly "oh god an actual god" scary is really overkill in this situation. His second and very understandable thought as the clouds rapidly twist into a funnel down to the torn-up ground is something's coming. Already he can hear Steve shouting at Natasha and Clint to drop what they're killing to get over here, down below Thor is looking up from the remains of the giant moving Etsy piece he's just smashed into cogs, and Hulk will be bounding in any moment now making them ready for whatever is going to be appearing. Very ready. Abso-bloody-lutely rea—

The funnel cloud pulls away. The sky goes back to being calm overcast. There is a very familiar figure in green and black curled on the ground. Tony groans because there is only so far people can be ready against the unpredictable God of Mischief and speaks for all of them. "Ah, crap."

Or almost all of them. "Brother!" shouts Thor, as if the more he throws the word at Loki's head the more it will sink in and change Loki's mind about taking his family issues out on Earth. The rest of the Avengers are gathering into their anti-Loki stances: Captain America raising his shield, Hawkeye with an arrow cocked and scanning the area for Loki's latest minions or tricks Black Widow beside him, the Hulk lumbering in from what had been an alleyway fists bulging. Thor is approaching his brother Mjölnir in hand, which is a really good idea since Thor is best to handle whatever initial attack Loki throws out, and also a really bad idea since seeing Thor is a great way to crank Loki's kill instinct from 'when I feel like it' to 'deadly serious'. Luckily Tony has an idea to counter that. He turns on his suit's sound system and calls up a track. A pulsing bass beat booms across Central Park with a snarky comment about a couple of trailer park girls. On cue Tony starts singing along – loudly.

"Guess who's back. Back again. Asshole's back. Warn your friends. Guess who's back, guess who's back, guess who's back ..."

He leaves off when the song goes too low even for his voice. There is a pause over the comms for about three seconds. "Is that … music?" asks the Cap doubtfully.

"Really, Stark?" That's Clint. "My respect for your music collection just dropped into the subway."

"Hey, there's some damn good buskers in the subway. Besides, nothing like bad music to ruin a dramatic entrance and we all know this diva just loves his dramatic entrances." Tony turns Eminem a little louder and grins behind the armoured face plate.

"I'm not sure you had much of an entrance to ruin," says Natasha, her voice clipped. "Look."

Tony does look. Hard.

Loki isn't moving. More than that, not only does he not have his ridiculous helmet, he isn't even standing up instead just … lying there. With clothes torn and bloody like he's just escaped something with claws. Zooming in visuals, Tony can see Loki is breathing with eyes closed and more blood around his mouth and throat. A lot of blood. Thor reacts predictably.

"Brother!" Whump goes Mjölnir to the ground never to be moved until Thor calls it, and there goes Thor rushing to Loki's side. He's the only one – the rest of the Avengers hang back expecting a trick and who can blame them – though Tony does hover a little closer which gives him a better angle to see what's happening. That and watch Thor's back. It's less out of concern for Loki hitting the big guy than it is for what Loki might say to him …

"Brother. Loki." Thor lifts Loki and lays him across his knee. The trickster god's skin is much paler than usual, especially in contrast with his black hair and Thor's fingers which are – oh Jesus – brushing over his brow like a caress. "Loki, what has happened? Why do you not wake?"

"What's going on?" asks Steve quietly over the comm's rapping background music.

"Loki's hurt and not saying anything. Not even moving. I'd give some analogy about a squashed bug but since Loki doesn't have his golden stag beetle helmet I'll save it for some other time."

"Is he alive?" asks Natasha.

"Yeah."

"Pity," Clint mutters.

"Better not say that around Thor, he's doing a pretty good impression of Romeo over Juliet in the final act right now." Tony ignores the ugh did not need that image cough from Clint and powers down his repulsors (along with the sound system, probably to the team's relief). "Gimme a sec, I'll enter stage left."

He lands on the ground near Thor. Thor doesn't look up at him, instead moving from trying to touch his brother awake to gently shaking him with the same lack of result. "Hey, big guy, nice work with the walking clocks, what's up with your bratty brother, huh?" Tony asks brightly.

Thor doesn't look up from Loki's unconscious form. "My brother is badly hurt!"

"Yeah, well, can't help with that." Or care. "So this would be the point we call up Fury and tell him to ready the SHIELD containment cells again but since Loki's swooning like a Southern belle in a wasp corset maybe you could call your all seeing space viking buddy to take your brother back and put him in the Asgard cell where he's supposed to be?"

"He is hurt!" shouts Thor, complete with a rumble of thunder overhead.

"Okay, okay!" Tony reassures hurriedly, hands out and reminding himself once more that angry god does not equal good idea. "Loki's hurt, you're concerned, we get that, but what are we supposed to do about it?"

Thor's eyes harden and fix on him with a flash that isn't metaphorical. Tony gets a sinking feeling. "We must help him—"

There's a gurgled gasp as thin white fingers jerk up to grab Thor's arm. Immediately Tony drops into an attack stance ready to fire those nice little surgical strike missiles he installed last week. Thor starts and looks back down to find Loki staring up eyes wide in a way that is either terrified or furious or both, but definitely unseeing. Thick, choked sounds come from the trickster's mouth as he coughs out blood which falls into the soil like heavy rain— "Loki!" Thor shouts, still supporting his brother's shoulders. "Loki, what has happened to you? Are you all right?"

Of course I'm not all right, you thundering oaf let go of me I hate you! is what Tony expects Loki to say or something to that effect, except Loki doesn't. Instead Loki is making those awful sounds as he spits out blood looking really worse for wear, but he's pulled too many tricks before so Tony keeps weapons up. Behind them the rest of the team are shouting things and the Hulk is sounding dangerously close to coming over. "It's all right I think," Tony calls over his shoulder. "Mangled God of Mischief having a panic attack, totally okay in the sense that he's only digging fingers into Thor's bicep, not magicking the city into melted chocolate or anything. Totally under control—"

Which of course is the point that the rest of the steampunk robots still functioning decide to crash the party. It's a pretty pathetic crash for the reasons described before Loki entered the picture, so Tony doesn't bother to do much other than shoot his missiles into the three metre tall rusting clunker clanking towards him. It falls down with an undignified thud but Thor doesn't even look up and clutches his choking brother. Tony rightly assumes that the rest of the team will take care of the party crashers and goes back to the alien Norse god problem. "We are not helping him," he tells Thor firmly. "Setting aside the little issue of your brother being a supervillain who tried to take over Earth and did some 160 billion dollars worth of to damage to New York we have no idea how to deal with Asgardian physiology—" Loki gives a particularly guttural sound that makes Thor's face twist helplessly and Tony feel like he's a heartless supervillain instead of Iron Man. It's not a feeling he likes, so he blusters through it. "Oh come on, Loki, we've seen you get up from worse, you're a god for chrissakes. Just stand up and insult us for a bit like you always do, it's not like the cat got your tongue and it'll make you feel bett—"

He breaks off looking down at Loki's contorted face. Specifically, at his throat and mouth. Loki's bloody, empty throat and mouth.

Oh. Oh.

Iron Man definitely feels like a heartless supervillain now.

A roar and a smash lets him know that the Hulk is taking care of the remaining robot problem. Loki has stopped hacking up blood but is now shivering in Thor's arms. Thor himself is looking desperate as he covers his vagrant little brother in his red cape. Tony has no idea if gods go into shock like humans do but what the hell, executive decision time. "Fine. Pick him up, we'll get him some medical attention, but if this turns out to be some overly elaborate plot of his to get us to lower our guard god or no god you are cleaning the windows of the tower every day for a month. Make that three months. Six, even. And the bathrooms as well."

Thor is already standing with a red-wrapped Loki burrito in his arms. "That is acceptable. Let us go quickly."

"Iron Man, what's going on?" asks the Cap urgently over the comms.

"We're taking Loki somewhere safe."

"Taking Loki somewhere safe?!"

"Hey, I'm not happy about it either but if you want to argue with an upset thunder god, be my guest," Tony replies shortly, already lifting off. There's a whoosh as Mjölnir is called to Thor's hand. Thor's other hand is holding the Loki burrito slung over his shoulder as he spins Mjölnir to take flight. "Have fun with the clockwork tin cans, we'll see you back home."

"Stark!"

Tony really hopes he isn't going to regret this.

 

* * *

 

'Taking Loki somewhere safe' turns out to be 'taking Loki into Stark Tower'. JARVIS kindly reminds Tony that Pepper figuratively arm-wrestled the insurance company to cover Acts of God(s) when he fixed it up after the Loki/Chitauri incident to include suites for his teammates, training areas, state of the art medical facilities and more, but it doesn't make anyone feel any happier about the situation.

"So what's wrong with him?" asks Natasha warily. She and Clint are seated with weapons nearby watching Thor and a de-Hulked, re-dressed, and now in doctor mode Bruce Banner hover over Loki through the medical room's industrial-strength glass window. Steve and Tony stand on either side of the window so as to not block their view.

"Has to be pretty bad to take down a Norse god," Clint replies, morbidly fascinated by the scene.

They all fall silent as they imagine how powerful something would have to be to hurt someone like Loki to this extent. Inside the room Bruce is gingerly poking and scanning bits of Loki while Thor stands by with one hand cupping Loki's head. Over the months everyone has repeatedly tried to tell Thor that tender isn't the way to treat a supervillain but when said supervillain is Thor's little brother exceptions have to be accepted. That doesn't mean anyone has to like it, but under current circumstance nobody is going to tell Thor to stop.

Eventually Thor and Bruce come out of the medical room. Thor looks grim, Bruce slightly green and not in the Hulk sense in the glow of the tablet computer he's holding. "Uh, okay. Setting aside the fact that I've only treated human patients, although Asgardian biological processes—"

"I thought Loki was Jotunn?" cuts in Tony. "Giant frosty the snowman people?"

Bruce shrugs. "I'm not sure about that, but Thor did explain that while they're not brothers by birth Loki was raised as one of Asgard and is a talented shapeshifter …"

Tony lets it go and waves at Bruce to continue. He clears his throat. "As I was saying, although Asgardian biological processes are literally out of this world in terms of strength, efficiency and speed, the overall structure of their bodies is essentially human so I'm working from that basis. Loki's injuries ..."

Bruce clinically reads out a list. Joints pulled out of their sockets. Bones smashed, several times over. Chest hacked open, ribs pulled apart like wings before being shoved back into place. Evidence of massive internal trauma as if something long, barbed and heated was plunged in and twisted. Throat cut from jaw to clavicle. And the list goes on. By the end of it Steve and Tony are feeling ill. Natasha and Clint are studiously expressionless. Thor's face is thundercloud black.

"If Loki were human he'd be certainly dead," Bruce finishes. "Since he's not he's already healed some and going by observation of our resident Asgardian in time he'll recover completely with one exception."

"Which is?" Steve asks.

Bruce bites the inside of his cheek for a moment. "Do you know what a Columbian necktie is?"

Tony knows, it was the first thing that came to mind when he saw Loki's condition in full. The two assassins definitely know. Steve and Thor blink. "What is this thing of which you speak?" Thor demands.

"It's an execution method that was used extensively during the Columbian civil war in the fifties," Natasha explains. "You make a vertical slash in the victim's throat and pull the tongue out so that it hangs over the chest hence the name, after which you count down until the victim asphyxiates or dies of blood loss."

"Exactly," Bruce says, looking relieved that he didn't have to do the gory explanation. "Except in this case the victim couldn't die and the tie was yanked out completely."

There's a moment as that image sinks into everyone. "So Loki God of Lies Silvertongue has had his tongue cut out," Clint sums up at last.

"Yes. And unless Asgardians have the ability to regrow lost limbs and organs, that isn't going to heal."

A dark smile spreads across the archer-assassin's face. "I fail to see how this is a bad thing."

"Uh, Barton?" Tony nods at Thor who looks to be two breaths away from divine wrath. Clint drops the smile, if not the sentiment which to be perfectly honest is probably shared by everyone in the room with the exception of Thor. Certainly Tony feels it.

Thor, thankfully, accepts the disappearing smile for what it is and calms down. Sort of. "I know my brother's speech is poisonous and all of you have been harmed by it. I myself have felt its sting many a time, but be that as it may I cannot find any joy in his suffering." Thor draws himself up to meet all their eyes with an indomitable gaze that reminds Tony that not only is their teammate more than human, he's also a prince. "Loki is my brother. For me to turn my back on him this day would ignoble and unworthy."

With that Thor goes back into the medical room. The rest of the Avengers watch as he takes a chair, places it by Loki's side, and sits down obviously resolved to stay there until Loki wakes up. After a moment's hesitation Bruce follows him in. Natasha's lips thin. "All right," she says to no one in particular. "Now what?"

Tony has an answer for everything. "Drink. And then pizza and ice-cream not necessarily in that order. I don't know about you, but as far as I'm concerned we did our work, saved the day again, and since both Snow White and the Huntsman are down for the count they can wait until morning. Right guys?"

The others are already heading for the lounge.

 

* * *

 

In remote outback Australia, a shooting star falls to earth. It's a small one, the sound of its impact barely heard by the tiny town fifty kilometres away, but very bright. When the light and dust clears there's a perfectly formed crater left behind maybe six metres in diameter. There's something shining in its centre.

Something silver.

Chapter Text

Tony Stark wakes up to feel the floor shudder. It doesn't last for long which makes him think he's not particularly hung over – he didn't have that much to drink at last night's We Love You Tony Stark Please Support Our Campaign dinner the Democrat senator for New York threw (great dinner, though seeing how Tony sidestepped and longstepped any attempt to be pinned down on an endorsement the senator probably doesn't agree) in fact he even managed to stumble into his own bed instead of passing out on the couch. Then the floor shudders again and Tony realises that it's not a hangover making the floor move, it's something worse. Throwing off the sheets he grabs the homing bracelets from his bedside table and, dressed in sleeping shorts and a singlet, does a mad dash down to the medical floor running into Steve and Natasha on the way. Natasha looks gorgeously dishevelled in black tank top and shorts, Steve on the other hand looks like he was up at the crack of dawn which he probably was. Given the circumstances Tony totally expects to find the medical floor completely blown out, which makes it something of a relief when they arrive find just a lot of expensive equipment in pieces, supplies scattered, and Loki thrashing on the bed with hands up around Thor's throat.

Thor can handle it (he's doing a lot of shouting), that's not what Tony's worried about. What he is worried about is the brotherly tussle turning into a full blown battle with Thor swinging Mjölnir around and Loki despite the arm restraints (cooked up by Tony and Bruce in an urgent overnight science jam) magicking things into who knows what. Tony's first reaction is to suit up and shoot the two of them apart but Natasha has a more straight forward idea. Without hesitation she grabs some of saline water packs spilling out of the broken fridge and rips them open to dump contents over the two gods. That gets their attention.

Loki pushes himself up on elbows to look at everyone dripping wet. He looks gaunt and pale but his visible injuries are mostly gone. His eyes however are downright vicious and very soon the air around him is wavering in the way that Tony now associates with oh shit duck. The air starts to glow when Thor reaches out for him but before Tony can yell at JARVIS to deploy a suit Loki falls back with a gasp. Apparently even godly healing processes take a while to work through the tortuous list Bruce read out.

"Brother." Again Thor reaches to touch him and now Tony knows Loki is in bad shape when the trickster god doesn't automatically flinch from Thor's hand. "Be at rest; you have yet to completely heal."

Loki glares daggers from under a damp fall of black hair. His mouth twists to speak.

Nothing comes out.

It's a beautiful moment. Loki's eyes go wide, his gaze turns inward, and he moves his mouth like a fish. A look of horror spreads over his face as realisation dawns, and even knowing what was done to him Tony savours the schadenfreude. For about three seconds.

Loki tries to reach up to his face, a difficult feat when both arms are manacled to either side of the bed on a short leash. In the end he has to painfully stretch his head over to his right hand in order to stick fingers in his mouth, the look in his eyes increasingly wild as he feels inside. Over the past few days as the trickster god lay unconscious (Thor, in one of the few times he could be convinced to leave Loki's side, told them that Asgardians used healing trances when seriously injured or to restore vitality referring to his father as an example) the human Avengers had all discussed if not outright darkly chortled over the karmic fact that the murderous lying pain in the ass Loki had lost his silver tongue, a turn of events so full of irony it trumped the question of who or what had cut out his tongue to begin with. Tony had been one of the louder chortlers (loudest being Clint) but now looking at Loki all hurting and horrified and quite frankly pathetic lying chained down in a pale blue hospital gown unable to speak, to say nothing of Thor's agonised expression seeing his younger brother so, suddenly the situation is a lot less funny. Steve and Natasha glance at each other with palpable unease.

"Loki." The hand Thor has on Loki's shoulder presses down to make him lie back. "Calm yourself, you are safe here."

Safe? Tony wants to laugh at that because hell no is Loki safe here even if he is an immensely powerful alien deity, not with Clint still itching to put an arrow through his eye-socket, Bruce's alter-ego capable of showing up the moment Loki sneezes funny, Thor's very presence rubbing salt into hurts going back centuries, to say nothing of SHIELD and Director Fury – who, by the way, are yet to be informed about the Loki situation. Before Tony can decide yes or no on the laughter the hurt-horrified-vulnerable look on Loki's face vanishes to be replaced with the all too familiar supervillain visage, and he twists away from Thor's touch as if his brother burns him. Even if Loki can't speak his bared teeth say everything, which makes it all the more flabbergasting when Thor starts loosening Loki's restraints.

"Whoa, whoa!" Tony physically dives to grab and stop Thor's large hands. "Bad idea, very bad idea!"

"Thor." Thank you, Captain America, and your wonderfully calm voice of authority. "We can't let him loose, he's too dangerous."

Thor looks confused. "He is badly injured and currently poses no threat."

"Maybe by your standards, but by human standards he is very much a threat," Natasha retorts sharply.

"Yeah, with a big capital 'Th'." Firmly Tony pushes Thor away from Loki's bed trying not to think about the lethally focused glare the trickster god is giving his back. "Let's just take things slowly and think about this—"

"Surely we can allow him some movement instead of keeping him in this pitiful state—"

There's the sound of wire snapping and Tony goes flying into Thor sending them both into a wall. Loki sits up on the bed one arm free and eyes ablaze. Immediately Steve goes for Loki only to be thrown back as the trickster god frees his other arm and rolling off the bed just in time to dodge the scalpel thrown by Natasha. Thor shouts trying to shove Tony off, Tony is trying to shake his head clear of stars – there's a blur of red and black as Natasha goes in more scavenged scalpels in hand, fluidly evading Loki's blows until she gets close enough to stab Loki in his (hopefully) still healing spleen. It works and Loki doubles over with a hiss as Natasha darts back giving Steve an opening. Somehow Loki evades the punch and whirls around with a kick that hurls the Captain bodily backwards onto Natasha, and when Tony finally lifts his head off Thor's leg he wonders if he has concussion because now there are five Lokis in the room, all pale and feral-faced and dressed in hospital blue. Steve scrambles to his feet looking wildly between them all, Thor doesn't even bother doing that knocking Tony painfully away to charge at the Loki he believes is real. Natasha sends the rest of her scalpels flying.

All five Lokis wink out and disappear. The four Avengers are left in a tense shambolic mess, of a medical room that is though that description could apply just as well to themselves. Tony groans from his position on the floor, which by the way, is a great place to appreciate how there are three scalpels embedded in three different places all at heights indicating trajectories that would have gone right through a Loki's head. "Pitiful. Great word to use when describing your brother, Thor. Also, note for next time guys, I do not fight well first thing in the morning especially before coffee. Any and all future fights involving me must take place after breakfast."

Hurrying footsteps are heard outside rapidly approaching to introduce Bruce Banner also in sleepwear with his hair standing everywhere. "What happened?" he demands, and then realises the medical room is missing his patient which speaks for itself, and swears under his breath.

There’s a thud as Thor slams a frustrated fist against the abused wall. "This isn’t good," says Steve urgently with the obvious. "Loki is loose on New York and who knows what he plans on doing."

Natasha, breathing hard, looks grim. "Oh, we know what he plans on doing. He wants the world to kneel before him, remember?"

Tony thinks of Loki's white face changing from pathetic horror to savage snarl in a heartbeat, and perhaps not so strangely, the time he woke up in a dark cave in Afghanistan in a makeshift operating theatre. "I'm not so sure about that," he announces, feeling his own heartbeat starting to calm beneath the arc-reactor. Carefully sits up because wow he's going to have some impressive bruises to explain to Pepper when she gets back from D.C. "The way Loki whacked his way out of here seems less like 'great master plan' and more like 'get away from me' lashing out.”

"Whatever the reason, either way this is a bad situation." Steve moves to allow Bruce to pass and retrieve the tablet computer from a corner – the screen is cracked but it still turns on at Bruce’s touch. "We need to find him before he hurts someone."

"He’s still plenty hurt himself," says Bruce, scrolling through the tablet’s contents. "Loki's wounds may have healed enough for him to regain consciousness but he shouldn’t be exerting himself. Whatever strength or power he used to escape it's going to be painful once the adrenalin wears off. Unless Asgardians don't have adrenalin?"

Thor frowns. "I am unsure of your words, but a warrior's fever does come upon us during battle wherein we have no heed of injury and on departure leaves us pained and cold."

"Uh, yeah, that would be adrenalin. One of these days I’m going to have to sit you down and do a comprehensive biological analysis—"

"Sir." The carefully modulated voice of JARVIS cuts off any discussion. "Director Fury is on the line."

"What? Oh man." Tony stands up suddenly feeling like a kid being told he has to see the principal. Tesseract incident aside, the relationship between the Avengers and SHIELD is still cautious and far from open – Fury himself may be a fundamentally fair bastard (the Avengers don't say this to his face) but a spy is a spy and SHIELD with its shadowy council undoubtedly has more secrets than Phase 2. Given the rumours about what happened to the Chitauri bodies and technology after the Manhattan clean up Tony hadn’t been keen on sending SHIELD a comatose sliced up Asgardian as well (not that Thor would have let him anyway), which is why Loki was in Stark Tower instead of kicked over to SHIELD and why none of the Avengers had told SHIELD about Loki in the first place. "Is it a social call or a call about something uh, specific?"

"I paraphrase for brevity, but he's asking that you brief him immediately about your guest."

'Paraphrase for brevity' is JARVIS-speak for 'bleeping out expletives'. "And how did he find out about our guest?"

"I believe Agent Barton is with Director Fury at the moment."

Ah. That makes sense. The Avengers isn't SHIELD, but two of its members are SHIELD agents. Natasha's face gives nothing away, Tony notes. "That so, huh? And here was me thinking Black Widow had eaten him. What do you say, Cap, should we sit down and have a breakfast meeting where we get yelled at, or should we find Loki before he takes down a city?"

Steve gives him a Look that shows just how he feels about being made to make the call but sighs anyway. "Suit up. We can apologise to Director Fury when we get back."

"You can, I'm not." Tony looks down at what he’s wearing before deciding no, shorts and singlet will not be comfortable in the Iron Man suit, Loki or not he is getting coffee, shower, and proper clothes in that order. Or maybe he can convince Thor to try making that coffee while he’s in the shower, it's not like the guy has to do much to get ready other than hold Mjölnir and click his heels together. "JARVIS, send the Director our regards and tell him he's next on the appointment list. Our guest has gone on walkabout."

"Very well, sir."

Natasha has already made her exit to change and gear up. "If it's all the same to everyone," says Bruce quietly, "I’ll come along as myself. The Other Guy will be there obviously, but it's not like Loki has an army this time and if he's in the condition I suspect he is the Other Guy shouldn't be needed."

"That's fine, as long as you're ready," Steve replies. "Stark, Thor, I expect to see you ready to go in ten minutes."

"Ten mi— didn't you hear what I said earlier about my coffee?" Steve ignores him and leaves followed by Bruce who at least flashes him a smile. Tony pouts before turning to the uncharacteristically quiet Thor. "You care about my coffee, right big guy? Think you could try making me one while I—"

He breaks off when he sees what Thor is looking at. Now that Loki is no longer on the bed, the dark bloodstains on the mattress are very, very obvious.

Red blood, white face. And yet the emo bastard still managed to break his restraints, knock down four Avengers, and whisk himself away with magic. Tony grits his teeth; if they catch Loki after this he's is going to have a lot of fun designing some stronger restraints. Ones with some bite.

 

* * *

 

Although the sun is setting over the Western Australian outback, the dry air is still hot enough to suck moisture from the mouth. Edith Wurlagoodja is used to it, has been for over sixty years and will keep enduring it for as many years as fate sees fit to grant. She's searching for the roots and small animals that will be dinner tonight, a back-breaking task which has taken her further than usual from camp. The long drought has made food scarce.

She comes to a small ridge that she knows did not form part of her land six days ago. The ridge is curved forming a perfect circle inside which there is nothing but flat red earth. Or almost nothing. In the exact centre, there is something shining in the fading sun.

Edith walks towards the shining thing on bare feet. It's a metal circlet bigger than her wrist, and there's a small snake curling about it seeking any lingering warmth. The snake is bright yellow with black bands and unlike many of its brethren in the Australian desert, not poisonous. Ignoring the hissing Edith catches the snake easily and crushes its head with a rock – the meat will be welcome tonight. The metal circlet she polishes with the hem of her skirt and inspects with blurry eyes. She thinks it's something dropped by one of the adventurous tourists who venture out here to camp sometimes, or maybe the mining survey team that went through recently left it behind. Whatever the origin, it's a pretty thing. She slides the circlet onto her arm and turns to make her way home.

Later, when the stars are out and the snake filling the bellies of her family, Edith will gather her children and grandchildren by the burning fire and haltingly tell them a story. Many of these children are disillusioned, some brought low by petrol fumes and drink, and don't want to be out in the desert on a camp forced upon them by Edith and the elders in an attempt to set them right. They never listen to her stories no matter how many times she explains that these are their stories, the stories of their people – but tonight is different. Tonight when Edith speaks, the words flow from her lips like rain. The children are enthralled. Some of them cry.

Edith smiles and holds her youngest close as she speaks. In the firelight, the metal circlet on her arm glows warm.

Chapter Text

It takes twenty minutes of the fastest shower Tony has ever taken and the worst coffee he's ever had for him to join everyone in the hangar that he added to the Tower's garage floors. Steve, dressed in his ass-hugging star-spangled blue, gives an impatient glare of course but since Natasha has the small fierce Stark Industries jet ready to go doesn't bother saying anything, he just gets in after Bruce. Thor of course is all ready to go his mail and red cape accessorised with an earpiece that looks hilarious out of place. Tony had a lot of fun explaining that the first time he gave it to Thor to wear.

"Any suggestion of where to look?" asks Bruce over the comms when they've all taken flight.

Tony soars across the cold blue sky in the opposite direction from Thor sensors primed for, well, anything. "Do an audio scan for mass screaming?" he suggests.

"We're presuming Loki's still in New York," Natasha says dryly. "Thor, you're his brother, can you tell us anything that could help us track him?"

"If my brother does not want to be found it will be impossible to do so." Thor's deep voice easily cuts through the rush of wind that comes with his communication. "Though if this were Asgard I would at least know his favourite haunts …"

There's something in Thor's voice that sounds tired. Tony zips through the Financial District scanning the streets for chaos that isn't traffic. "You know, Thor, now that I think about it, when you came back to Earth a few months back you didn't really say much other than 'Loki has been sentenced' and 'the Tesseract enabled us to rebuild the Bifrost'. Something you want to get off your chest, buddy?"

"I have nothing on my chest but my armour."

"I believe Stark means 'unburden your soul'," explains Steve.

Old timey 1940's dialogue is apparently more compatible with Shakespearean English than contemporary American slang, because Thor starts to talk. About how he brought Loki and the Tesseract back to Asgard and presented both to his father, Odin. About how Odin asked Thor to list Loki's crimes against Midgard to the deathly silent court. About the expression on Frigga, their mother's face, as she saw her youngest son standing before the throne in gag and chains. About how Odin stood, looked Loki in the eye, and in a bitter voice sentenced him to have his lips sewn shut with burning wire and imprisonment for an age.

"And lo, when the Allfather spake those words, the gag fell and wires red from the forge did appear from air to plunge into my brother's face." Thor's voice is sonorous, as if he's telling one of the epic poems he and his kind inspired. "My brother screamed but once before the wires made their first stitch, but he was not completely silenced for he gave muffled cries of pain like one being crushed. I watched him claw at his own face with bound hands as his lips were sealed together, and held his eyes as they met mine full of agony and loathing. I watched as he fell to hands and knees before the entire court with blood streaming down his chin, and kept my silence as the guards bore him away to his chambers. To the court I acknowledged the judgment of my king and father, but in my chest my heart was heavy and wept. I thought I could escape the memory of that day by returning to Midgard and you, my friends, but I confess, I am haunted by my brother's eyes."

There's nothing over the comms but the crackle of wind and static for several moments. Tony wants to say something funny, but then he thinks about the look on Thor's face when he saw his younger brother shattered and choking in unimaginable pain, and decides against it. Gory Norse stories are great when they're tales about mythological figures and a lot less so when you've met those figures up close and personal and seen them bleed. "Do you think it was your father who had Loki tortured like … that?" asks Bruce at last.

"No. Our father may punish, but he will not torture. Even Loki's sentence, after a month's passing our father lifted the wires from my brother's mouth so that he may eat and speak." Tony can only think that punishment and torture obviously have very different meanings to a race of people governed by an absolute monarchy and who are virtually immortal. "Such clemency may have been at our mother's pleading—"

"We've got something," Natasha's voice cuts in. "Midtown."

"On it," says Tony, actually grateful for the interruption. With a flare of jets he banks north wondering what the hell awaits.

A lot, as it turns out. Overturned cars litter Sixth Avenue causing chaos, many of them burning with a strange green fire, there's even a yellow taxi sticking half in and half out of a building three stories up like some contemporary art piece. People are screaming and running every which way with 'PATRY 2016' placards fluttering everywhere - there must have been some kind of rally going on. As for what they're running away from, well, that's easy enough to spot, for Loki is standing in one the roof gardens of the Rockefeller Center in full regalia, green cape and over-the-top helmet and all. He's also holding a long golden spear that thankfully doesn't have a glowing blue hypnosis stone (that particular sceptre got handed to SHIELD to lock up), only an elegant curved blade. When he sees Iron Man fly by he snarls but makes no attempt to move from his perch. Only then does Tony notice there's a sickly green haze around the lower floors of the GE Building.

Natasha brings the jet in low and Captain America jumps out, catching himself on his shield to tumble on the ground and come up on his feet. "There are people in the building," he says urgently.

"And I bet they can't get out because, magic." Tony slows and circles the scene from above, keeping his eye on Loki who keeps an eye on him. "Not sure what the green stuff is supposed to be exactly, but my guess is it'll do something horrible if we approach Reindeer Games the wrong way."

"A hostage situation then," says Natasha, unimpressed. She brings the jet into a hover with missiles aimed at Loki's head. "Bruce, you want to get out there?"

"I don't think I have to. Look at him, he's not exactly up on his feet."

It's true – zooming in, Tony realises that Loki is leaning on the spear, face pale as milk, and he has one arm cradling his chest. Tony hopes it's because he's still in pain, but finds the hope cold and hollow. Actually, Tony's not even looking forward to this fight. Crap.

Then Thor flies in, a red streak against the winter blue, and Loki's head snaps up eyes blazing. The green haze around the building glows brighter and people in the windows start to scream. Captain America uselessly slams his fists against the green haze which resists him, Thor makes to land on the roof garden— "Hold on a sec!" Tony barks, mind racing like a particle in the Large Hadron Collider. "Thor, back off, you're making things worse."

"My brother—"

"—looks like he's about to light up 30 Rock like it's Christmas eleven months early if you so much as wave at him, so back off." Mercifully Thor does, going to land on the street and stand next to Steve where they both look up at Loki on the roof and Iron Man hovering in mid-air. The green haze swirls but otherwise doesn't seem to get any brighter or thicker— "What is that stuff anyway?" Tony asks, frowning.

Loki moves his mouth but again, nothing comes out. His face contorts in a mix of rage and frustration. Suddenly Tony feels an idea come one along with a big, big smile.

"Alien fog machine." The green eyes beneath the helmet blink. "Asgardian farts." More confused blinking. "You're throwing a giant hash party? Wait, no, I got it, you're the island smoke monster!" Tony gleefully claps armoured hands together.

"..." is all that's heard from the comms.

Loki grips his spear tightly and hunches like a coiling snake. Tony grins. "What, got nothing to say? Here, let me help." Dramatically he clears his throat and strikes a theatrical pose in mid-air. "'Impudent mortal how dare you speak thus to me.' That's what you'd say right now, yeah? 'Come down coward and face me like a man.' Nah, I kinda like it up here, sunshine and all. 'Are you mocking me?' Hell yeah I am, what are going do about it, huh?"

"Stark," asks Steve, very slowly. "Are you playing charades with Loki?"

"'I will crush you under my heel you vile cur.'" Tony has decided on using an over the top snobby English accent for his Loki-voice, and is having far too much fun with it. Loki on the other hand appears to be gnashing his teeth. "''I will rip off your manhood and feed it to the dogs'. I bet you'd like to get your hands on that, what's the story about you getting frisky with a horse—"

A crackling ball of green energy streaks towards him. Tony dodges at the last moment and watches it disappear into the sky. "I think the Mets bowl better than you," he comments, as nonchalantly as possible though beneath the suit his pulse is pumping because silenced wounded god or not, fuck that looked nasty. "Wanna try again?"

Another energy ball comes flying, and another and another. Tony takes evasive action past all of them wincing as one tumbles into a neighbouring building and explodes. On the comms the rest of the Avengers are shouting and on the ground Thor looks about to take flight carrying Captain America— "Guys, guys, just wait one friggin' moment," Tony yells as he curves around behind the GE Building. "I've got everything under control—"

"Like hell you do," Natasha retorts.

"Actually he sort of does." Bruce's voice is tense but still light years calmer than everyone else. "Those energy blasts seem to be costing the poor guy."

Loki is noticeably leaning on his spear now breathing heavily. His pride however won't let him bend a knee even to support himself— "Don't you think your concern is a little misdirected?" Natasha asks Bruce.

"I'm a doctor, concern for my patients is in the job description."

Tony is more inclined to agree with Natasha but he can't help feeling rather proud of Bruce for having all the decency he doesn't. Flying close to ground he passes by Captain America and Thor before pulling up sharply to skim the side of the Rockefeller Center. He clears the edge of the roof garden right next to Loki who involuntarily steps back and falls into a defensive stance spear at ready and other hand glowing green. It casts a weird light over Loki's haggard face.

Tony turns off his jets and lands before Loki on winter-dead grass.

"Hey." He holds his hands out palm open, despite the gesture Loki doesn't drop the glowing. "Want to chill for a sec so we can talk? Or rather, I talk and you listen, because, well. You know."

Loki glares. Tony is fully aware that he's on a tightrope here but walking on tightropes is how he's gotten to his current place in life and he sees no reason to stop now. "Remember last time we had a chat before you threw me out a window, how I said there is no way you come out on top? This right here and now is like that, only a zillion times worse for you and you know why? Besides the obvious with the—" Tony gestures vaguely to his throat and chest, trying not to think about the details of what Bruce read out or Thor's story which even if it's Loki is just wrong. "Because of this."

He tells JARVIS to tap into the cable news frequency directly above their heads and the tiny projector in his helmet turns on beaming a holographic screen between him and Loki. One half of the screen shows a high-angled, long-distance video feed of himself and Loki facing each other on the rooftop garden, the other shows a shaken but determined brunette newsreader in a chaotic newsroom. "—terview with Democrat primary candidate Ken Patry interrupted by another attack on New York, this time by alien supervillian Loki who has suddenly returned to Earth and taken the entirety of the NBC hostage along with the rest of— oh god is that a hellhound chasing Jimmy Fallon in 6-B?! Um, y-yes, we're coming to you live from inside the studio where we've just seen the Avengers arrive and it seems that Iron Man is confronting Loki—"

"Television, Loki," says Tony. "It's the way we humans tell and share our stories, that and the internet, and you of all people know the power of a good story. The place you've picked today holds one of the nation's biggest broadcasters and they've just had today's breaking news land on their front door. Every camera they have is now pointed out the window at you, and guess what? You can't grant them an interview. If that gets out to the world the only kneeling you'll have is people trying not to roll on the floor laughing. Hell, it probably wouldn't even take a minute for some wise-ass to downgrade you from supervillain to run-of-the-mill villain on Twitter."

Loki twitches, his glare now positively murderous despite his condition, and the green glow in his trembling hands grows brighter. Tony switches off the projector ignoring every survival instinct he has and keeps running his mouth off. "What are you even trying to do here anyway? You don't have an army, in fact I don't think you even have a plan, you just got dumped back on Earth in pieces and now that you're pulling yourself together you're putting on a show to remind us that you're the big bad wolf not Sleeping Beauty. Newsflash, you don't need to do that, we all know you're a major dick even if you are in bad shape. Which you are. Very. We know it, and you know we know it. I don't like kicking someone when he's down and neither does the Captain, Bruce has the Hippocratic Oath and your brother's on a massive guilt trip over you already so he definitely doesn't want to do any kicking if possible, so here's the deal: you walk away and magic yourself off this planet right now and we don't pummel you. Because we all know how well your last attack on this city ended and that's when you had an army. You by yourself already beaten up unable to even do the entertaining banter is just not worth our—"

The green glow in Loki's hand bursts out and catches Tony full in the chest flinging him like a cue ball right into the outer wall of the GE Building. Glass and masonry fall like hail as alarms go off everywhere in the Iron Man suit which even if it did save Tony's life didn't prevent him from being thrown around like a Mythbusters crash test dummy. Dizzily Tony reminds himself walking on tightropes is one thing, dancing is another, but then there's a shadow above him and Loki is lunging down, a vengeful god in gold and green his spear aimed at the arc-reactor and face contorted in anguished fury. Somehow Tony manages to roll to one side to avoid the spear only to knock down more masonry which pins his leg. Servos whir, he frantically fires a repulsor blast at Loki to give himself space to get free – the blast misses and then there's Loki, too close and frantic-eyed and soundlessly yelling in Tony's face as he hefts the spear again—

The ground shudders. Loki is yanked away. The Hulk gives a triumphant bellow as he dashes the god against the garden's frozen earth. Tony watches for a little while before letting his head fall against a pile of bricks with a sigh of relief. "Thanks, Bruce," he remarks, trying not to think about how his heart is racing at having brushed death once again. "Guess we needed the Other Guy after all."

The Hulk roars. Tony closes his eyes calming down a bit before sitting up to push away the rubble. When he stands up Thor has joined Hulk on the roof and is yelling at him to drop Loki, which the Hulk only does to start fighting with Thor. Above, Natasha is bringing the jet in to land on the roof garden while below the green haze around the base of the GE Building has disappeared. Dipping into the NBC broadcast Tony can see that Captain America has rushed inside where he is undoubtedly taking charge in that annoyingly wonderful way of his reassuring people, organising medical, soothing Jimmy Fallon, kissing babies, the lot. Tony wonders what he's going to say for the cameras when they inevitably get to him.

Speaking of speaking to camera …

"JARVIS. Did you record the visuals of everything that just happened?" JARVIS confirms that it did. "Run that last bit when Loki was trying to cut my head off and yelling on mute, see if you can read his lips."

JARVIS does so. In the background, Thor has apparently managed to knock the Hulk over and plant Mjölnir on his chest which pins the green giant down long enough for Bruce to wrestle back into control with minimal property damage, and leaves Thor free to go to his brother's side. "Are you done?" he asks JARVIS.

"I am, sir."

"Play it."

A video overlays over Tony's view of Thor carrying his unconscious brother into the jet under Natasha's stony gaze, and once again Tony is seeing Loki loom over him. It's not the greatest video, all guerrilla shaky-cam and bad lighting which makes it hard to see Loki's mouth but a few words can be made out and they appear as subtitles coincidentally in green. JARVIS apparently has a sense of humour.

—dare look down on— **UNREADABLE** —not imagine what I endured— **UNREADABLE** —have the mercy to kill me— **UNREADABLE** —don't you under— **UNREADABLE** —I have nowhere, nowhere to go—

The video ends. Tony replays it twice, once to re-read what Loki was saying and once to watch his face as he says it. The video makes Loki look positively demonic especially with the horned helmet, and the way he spits the words out as if he can make himself be heard through sheer force doesn't help, but Loki also looks ashen, desperate in fact. Even – dare Tony say it – terrified.

"Stark." Natasha's voice comes over the comms calm and hard along with the sound of engines on stand-by. "We've got Loki secured and done the usual with Bruce." ('The usual' meaning 'wrapped up in something warm, brought on board and put in a corner to wake up with a new set of clothes'). "How are you?"

Tony closes the video and starts running a diagnostic of his armour. Short report: he's going to have a bumpy flight back and the suit will be going into the workshop again. "I took a magic blast to my chest and put a hole in the Slab with my back, but otherwise I'm up and A-OK. Thanks for asking, by the way."

"So you're okay to fly back to the Tower, then."

"Actually it'd be kinda nice to hitch a ride, it's my jet after all—"

"See you back home, Stark."

She hangs up. Tony gives a wry sigh as he watches the black jet lift straight up off the roof garden and fly off through the skyscrapers. Maybe he and Captain America can get a cab.

 

* * *

 

Twelve-year old Patrick Wurlagoodja is happy to be going back to town, so happy that on the morning of departure he sneaks a hand into his grandmother's bag. After ten days out in the desert he's desperate for some chips, a burger, and booze all of which require money he doesn't have but knows how to get. He won't take his grandmother's wallet, but something else, something small that hopefully she won't notice quite so quick, that will do. With practiced fingers he goes through the old cloth canvas bag and pulls out a few loose coins, a pocket knife, and a metal bracelet. The knife he puts back, his grandmother uses and needs that out bush. The coins and bracelet he shoves in his pocket.

His grandmother hugs him before he climbs into the back of the ute for the ride back to town and his parents. She cries a bit and tells him to be strong and remember the story of the serpent, where he came from. Patrick remembers that story, the way it took him away from his little life on a ship of smoke to sail a sea of stars. He cried when he returned to earth, cried for longer than he's ever had before even after being beaten by his father or watched his parents fight, but he got over it. He always gets over it.

Back in town, Patrick first goes to the service station where he buys himself a meat pie and steals a bar of chocolate. That done, he then goes to the secondhand store on the town's main road and boldly offers up the bracelet gripping it in one dark hand. The shopkeeper is suspicious and rightly so given the reputation of Patrick and his friends around town, but then Patrick starts talking. He talks quickly but sweetly, even charmingly, with the confidence of one who knows his letters and words properly rather than a perennial class truant. Eventually Patrick convinces the shopkeeper to not only not contact the police, but also give him a higher price for the bracelet which the shopkeeper identifies as silver. It's more money than Patrick has ever held in his short life.

Patrick walks out of the shop in a mix of triumph and guilt. He tells himself that after he's bought food and drink, he'll get some paints and paint his grandmother's story for her. The shopkeeper meanwhile, shakes his head and polishes up the bracelet before placing it in a display cabinet of costume jewellery where it will hopefully attract a customer. There are some strange designs on the bracelet like braids or interlaced serpents.

The shopkeeper dismisses it as art. Had he bothered to look closer, he might have seen the designs writhe.

Chapter Text

In the end, once the situation has been passed over to emergency services and enough impromptu NBC interviews have been done, Tony decides to fly back to the tower wonky repulsor and all because it makes better television. He carries Captain America and if he wobbles a bit on camera, he blames it on the way Steve has his shield slung over his back being thoroughly un-aerodynamic.

"My arms hurt," Steve complains as he dangles in mid-air.

"Shut up, NBC's still got cameras on us," Tony hisses, gripping Captain America's upper arms and feeling rather like one half of an aerial trapeze act. "Now right hand, let go, wave and smile."

Steve does so with the awkward-but-sincere grace of someone used to performing, which he is even if his experience is seventy years out of date. Tony waves as well but since he has a faceplate forgoes the smile in place of a nod of acknowledgment for the viewers at home before gaining altitude and taking them out of camera reach. From there it's a relatively short flight back to Stark Tower by which point Steve's temper is about as sore as his shoulder muscles and Tony is more than happy to drop him. On the Tower balcony, that is, not mid-flight.

"We really need to develop a better system for you to carry someone," Steve grumbles, rubbing his arms.

Tony lands on the upper deck and starts the walk of unsuiting. "It's a one-man suit of armour, not a Segway. Lifting people up and down, sure, but extended straight flights is what the jet is for. And I am not installing a baby chair on my back."

Steve laughs at that, which is great because he really doesn't laugh enough. Tony grins down at him as they both enter the tower where his grin immediately drops when he sees who's standing in the middle of his penthouse lounge room.

Director Fury's single eye bores into him. "Stark."

Tony barely misses a beat. "JARVIS, what did I say about letting in uninvited guests?" he complains as he wanders over to the bar. As he does so he sweeps his gaze over the tableau around Fury: Fury's aide Maria Hill standing by the elevator door, Clint and Natasha perched by the far windows together where they can watch and likely hit all of the exits – all three SHIELD agents in utilitarian black, of course. Far more colourful is the group on Tony's designer curved sofa where Loki has been laid out on his back with Bruce (wearing yet another new set of clothes) and Thor (grim and worried) hovering over him. The trickster god isn't fully conscious but he is moving weakly and soundlessly. Tony isn't sure how he feels about that.

"Director Fury and Agent Hill were invited in by Agent Barton," JARVIS explains smoothly. "As Agent Barton is a resident Avenger I deemed the invitation valid."

"I bet you did," mutters Tony, shooting a Look at the archer-assassin who coolly returns it. After a moment's temptation Tony pours himself a soda – Pepper may be away but she's incredibly smart and if she found out Tony was having alcohol before lunch Tony would be sleeping on the floor for a week. "Hey Bruce, thanks for earlier, so much for being concerned about your patient, huh."

"I am. The Other Guy isn't," replies Bruce shortly, running a handheld scanner over Loki who is slowly coming around. Thor bends down to whisper something to his brother too low for anyone to hear. "Thor, please move, I need space to work and Loki needs space to breathe."

"Captain Rogers," says Fury as Steve ascends the stairs to join the gathering having discarded the more star-spangled parts of his costume. "So glad you could join us. Nice work on the NBC by the way, you may have just anointed a presidential nominee."

"Director Fury. Agent Hill." Steve nods acknowledgment of the visitors then looks around with his soldier's eye taking in the situation. Sensibly takes a seat on the chair beside the sofa where he can grab Loki if need be. After a moment's consideration Tony copies him taking the chair at the sofa's other end, albeit sprawling drink in hand rather than sitting soldier straight.

Fury paces the floor hands clasped behind his back. "Now that we're all here, let's get started. We are all here and awake, right, Doctor Banner?"

"Just a sec." Bruce puts down his scanner as Loki groggily starts pushing himself upright. Green eyes dart about the room taking in everyone whereupon they immediately narrow very much aware and full of contempt. The rest of Loki however is not so co-operative after the Hulk's ministrations, and it seems to be all he can do just to sit up even suffering Bruce's help— "Easy there, I know you're healing but that beating definitely didn't do your injuries any good, so uh, let's not try any more escapes, okay, because I'm right here which means the Other Guy is right here and the Other Guy well ... you know."

Loki scowls at Bruce, an expression which quickly disappears into a flinch and a snarl when Thor reaches out trying to offer support. Rejected, Thor moves with jaw set to stand sentry-like behind the sofa at Loki's back – whether he's guarding everyone from Loki or guarding Loki from everyone it's hard to say. Fury watches all of this with his good eye. "As I was saying," he says with deliberate emphasis, "let's get started. First question: how did he get back here?"

Fury stabs a finger at Loki sitting pale and weak but otherwise composed on the sofa. Knowing Loki can't speak Tony decides to jump in. "Well, we assembled, took my jet, looked around for mass panic—"

"You know what I mean, Stark." Fury glares at him in a way that reminds Tony of a bad-tempered schoolmaster and is about as effective (ie., not very). "Why is Loki back on my world instead of locked up on Asgard? Thor?"

"I do not know." Thor looks unhappy. "When I left Asgard my brother was still there under watch and guard. I had not received any word of his release."

"Or escape." Fury's one eye bores into Loki who is resolutely keeping his face blank. "So, real power, mind telling us how you got here and why?"

"He can't," Clint calls out.

Fury turns to the archer-assassin. "What do you mean, 'can't'?"

"He lost his tongue." Clint is openly smirking. "The God of Lies has had his tongue cut out. No idea who did it, but I'd like to thank them."

Fury stares for a moment, first at Clint, then at Loki whose blankness has become seething. Then a slow smile spreads over the Director's face. "Well," he says. "Well, well, well. Real power has lost his signature power, that's just too good. Ironic, even. I'm enjoying this."

He shares his grin around the room that Maria returns and Clint meets with a laugh. Natasha remains characteristically expressionless but she does look at Clint as if with disapproval. Steve on the other hand shifts uncomfortably in his seat and Bruce is similarly uneasy sitting close to Loki and Thor both of whom are certainly not sharing Fury's mirth. For his part Tony is remembering how quickly his urge to laugh died seeing Loki's horror in the medical room, and gulps his soda wishing it was scotch.

Eventually Fury drops the amusement and gets back to it. "All right, so he can't tell us what happened. Still, you can write, can't you Loki? So get him some paper and something to write with."

Maria Hill takes an instinctive step to obey before stopping uncertainly to look at Tony since well, it's his place. "Good luck finding paper around here," Bruce says wryly. "I've never used any; it's all keyboards and JARVIS taking dictation."

Tony shrugs, not at all inclined to help. "It's environmentally friendly, save the trees and all."

"You telling me there's nothing to just write with?" Fury demands.

"I have some pencils and drawing paper in my rooms," Steve supplies. "Only a couple of blank sheets though, I keep meaning to get a new sketchpad..."

The dilemma devolves from there as Clint suggests using a computer and Tony immediately shoots down any notion of Loki's magic fingers touching anything connected to his systems. Fury looks impatient, Maria asks Steve if he can let them use the back of some of his sketches, Thor makes some comment about Midgardian palaces … rolling his eyes Loki lifts his left hand and begins to draw through the air with a long thin index finger. It quickly gets attention.

Steve's eyes widen. "Wow," he says, fascinated.

Glowing ice-blue letters form in the air like lingering firefly trails, slowly floating up and rotating so as to be read from all angles. They're elegant, even calligraphic, and a quiet hush falls over the room as they watch and read. Behind Loki Thor beams no doubt thinking is my brother not talented? at everyone. Then they read what Loki has written.

[You are all idiots.]

"Problem solved," Fury announces. Satisfied, Loki lets the words hang in the air for a moment more before gesturing whereupon they vanish like smoke. "So, E.T., I'll repeat: how did you get here and why?"

Loki gives Fury a sneer that Tony is certain they'll be seeing a lot more of, and for a moment it seems he's not going to co-operate. Then Thor gently places a hand not on Loki's shoulder but of the edge of the sofa's back near Loki's head. Loki stiffens just slightly. "Brother, please," asks Thor quietly. "I too, wish to know your tale."

Loki's lips thin. Eventually, but, he lifts his hand again and begins to write.

[My tale, Thor? A tale it is, but not one for carousing or drink - or perhaps it may be such, for I have no doubt your allies will delight to know what was done to me, and enjoy it as a feast]—

"I won't," says Steve firmly, shooting a Look at Tony before he can chime in. Off-side, Natasha does something to Clint's hand that makes him immediately shut his mouth with a yelp. "No honourable soldier enjoys his enemy's suffering."

[The Captain is too kind.] Loki's writing actually looks sarcastic, and of course he uses proper punctuation, commas and periods and all. As he writes, the older words float up and fade out to leave room for more. [The tale, then.

[You have been told of my sentence, no doubt. How once Thor had recited the litany of my acts against your world, the child-thief who claimed to be my father had my lips sewn shut with burning wire. Did the Odinson describe to you how the smell of my scorched flesh filled the court? Or the looks of satisfaction on those I had grown up with as they watched me fall to hands and knees unable to scream?]

"That is not true," Thor says, hurt. "The Warriors Three and Lady Sif were as pained as I that day."

[Pained? What do you know of pain, Thor?] Loki's writing is becoming sharp. [You, golden prince of Asgard, favoured son]—

"You give no credit to—"

—[beloved by all]—

"—my feelings for you—"

"That's enough," Fury cuts the two of them off before they go on loop. "Also, I know epic poetry's your thing but us mortals don't have the lifespan to sit through it, so try to stay on track."

Loki's lips curl with disgust while behind him Thor looks miserable. Quietly, Bruce shifts to sit closer to Tony and further away from the brotherly tension as Loki resumes. [I was confined to my chambers. Guarded at all times, bespelled from leaving, unable to eat or speak. A golden cell for a mutilated prince. Of course none visited me, not even my mother.]

"I visited," says Thor quietly. "You would not see me."

[After a month my lips were freed], Loki continues ignoring Thor. [The burned and bloody wounds left my Aesir face as monstrous as my true one. They were slow to heal, but when they did I made my escape. I need not say how, only that being weak from pain and hunger it was not easy, and the hidden paths beyond Heimdall's gaze were once again my terrible refuge. Do you know what spiders have woven their webs between Yggdrasil's branches? What manner of foul parasites have made their lairs in the dark spaces between the stars? Your mind would beg for insanity rather than comprehend them, and oblivion would be a mercy. Neither was granted to me as a fugitive between the realms.

[And then the Chitauri found me.]

There's a pause, like a held breath before a difficult speech. Loki's glowing letters have taken on a decidedly darker shade. [The Chitauri promised unimaginable pain for failure. As the reason for my failure, you will be pleased to know their promise was kept. Legs, that's what started with, then my arms. Fingers and toes they flayed before crushing them in heated vices. They were kind, kind enough to let me heal, then I was made to watch as my chest was cleaved open] …

The elegant writing has turned jagged and uneven. Loki's hand is trembling. Bruce exchanges uneasy looks with Steve. [They pulled my ribs apart. I watched my own]— more trembling —[lungs fill with sscreams. A burning jaggd bl]— the trembles have become shakes now —[ade thats wht they]— used is the word Tony guesses Loki means to write, but the letters come out incomprehensible, and now Loki's hand has dropped along with his head as he curls arms about himself breathing rapid and shallow.

He's also glowing with a dark green light. Instinctively Tony grabs Bruce and holds him because having the Hulk come out is the last thing they need right now. Thor calls Loki's name, Fury is trying to talk to Loki his voice level but raised … above their heads Loki's writing is warping into twisted things – a Chitauri face, clawed hands with ugly blades, an anatomy dissection gone horribly, horribly wrong – that soundlessly writhe in the air like maggots. One series is particularly vivid and makes Tony feel sick: Loki, chest partially healed and bent backwards as a serrated knife saws into his throat, a pair of clamps pulling out his tongue, all of which explodes as light bursts from Loki's very core— instinctively Maria and Clint duck as something swoops their heads, Natasha has pulled a knife from somewhere ready to throw at Loki while Thor has hands on Loki's shaking shoulders as he shouts his brother's name, which is not a good idea in Tony's opinion judging by how Loki's eyes are completely wild and blank—

Steve moves. Grabs Loki away from Thor and takes the terrified god's face between his hands. "Loki. Loki, listen to me. You're not there anymore, you're on Earth – uh, Midgard and those Chitauri, they're far away. They're not here, you're not there, you're safe now so take it easy, just breathe for me okay soldier? Slowly. Deep breaths. That's it..."

Steve speaks softly, calmly, thumbs moving over Loki's cheeks. Gradually the light around Loki's body fades. "Deep breaths, Loki, in and out, good..."

One by one the horrible animated images vanish. Tony swallows tautly tasting bile at the back of his throat and lets Bruce go. "Thanks," Bruce murmurs as he rights his glasses.

"No problem." Tony glances around the room and the array of shaken faces, all looking at Loki. Thor in particular looks helpless as he watches his brother slowly come back to himself under Captain America's efforts. "Didn't think the story would come in 3D."

"If I never see that again it'll be too soon."

Loki's breathing is now even and regular. Not wanting to take chances Steve keeps hold of him even when Loki's eyes focus and realise what's happening. Then Loki shoves and Steve immediately removes his hands in a no harm gesture. "What did you do?" demands Thor.

Steve carefully moves away giving Loki space to recover composure. "Back in my time, we would get soldiers coming back from fighting shook up real bad. They'd be in hospital but in their heads they were still on the front. Talking and reassuring them that they were safe helped when they woke up screaming or worse, grabbed a gun and tried to shoot everyone in the vicinity."

Bruce looks between Director Fury and Loki sitting rigidly on the sofa except when Thor reaches for him, in which case he hits Thor's hand away. "If it's all right with you, Director, I don't think we should make him continue."

"I'm inclined to agree." Fury looks grim. "But there's still two things I want to know from him. One: did you escape or were you set free? Nod for escape, shake for free."

Green eyes full of hate lift up but slowly, Loki nods.

"All right. Two: has anyone or anything come after you i.e., do I need to worry about another alien fleet showing up on Earth's doorstep?"

The answer to this is neither a nod nor a shake but a shrug. "I'd take that as 'I don't know'," Tony supplies.

"If I wanted a DVD commentary, Stark, I'd ask for it," Fury retorts. "Though since you are so eager to stick your neck in, it brings me to my second question. Why the hell wasn't I immediately told that Loki had returned to Earth?"

The way Fury glares balefully at the Avengers makes it clear the question is addressed to all of them. Also clear is the way everyone glances at Tony to answer. Tony lifts an eyebrow. "I wasn't aware that we had an obligation to do that," he replies.

"You're supposed to report to me."

"I signed up for the Avengers, not SHIELD."

"The Avengers is SHIELD's initiative."

"Exactly!" Tony leans out of his chair to point triumphantly. "Initiative, something you start. You gave the push to get the Avengers ball rolling which by definition means you no longer hold the ball you're watching it roll off and do its thing. If you wanted a yo-yo you'd be paying us but I'll tell you right now, you can't afford my salary."

"I pay two of you, and those two are my string," Fury retorts. Behind him, Natasha and Clint are impassive. "The Avengers are a yo-yo."

"And yet you let us go our separate ways after we did our thing knocking back this guy and his army." Tony smiles beatifically as he waves at Loki. "The fact that we all came back was our individual decisions, not on anybody's orders, and you'll notice that everyone came here. Bruce never moved out of my labs in the first place, Rogers missed me, Thor checked in for a holiday, even your stringy Agents asked to move in because I've got far better digs than anything SHIELD can supply and you let them. Everyone came to my place, I welcomed them in, and my castle, my rules. No yo-yo, no SHIELD obligation."

Fury throws his hands in the air and turns to Steve. "And you just let him keep quiet, Captain?"

Steve meets the one-eyed accusation with a mild expression. "Stark has a point; there's no chain of command over the Avengers, we're essentially an autonomous group. We certainly work with SHIELD when there's a threat, however when Loki arrived he was badly hurt and and no immediate threat was presented. If anything his presence was a personal matter which has nothing to do with SHIELD."

Tony stifles a chuckle and a grin; seems he's having an influence on the good Cap after all. Fury doesn't look like he can believe his ears. "How is the unexpected arrival of an alien criminal a personal matter?" he demands.

Steve points at Thor who has quietly taken a seat beside Loki, not touching or trying to, just sitting there head bowed with eyes on his clasped hands as if hoping to offer comfort simply by being a near presence. Loki watches him poisonously but doesn't, Tony notes, make any effort to distance himself further from Thor. Fury grits his teeth. "What about this morning at the Rockefeller Center? Why wasn't I notified about that?"

"With all due respect sir, you were notified. Through Agent Barton. He notified you on our behalf when Loki actually started doing something more threatening than lying unconscious in a medical room."

Clint raises an eyebrow, as does Maria. Natasha on the other hand has a little smile on her lips that Tony choose to interpret as being that she's impressed by Steve's reasoning. Fury rolls his eye heavenward and gives up. "Fine. Whatever. Let's just get to the last thing which is what to do with Loki."

Loki looks up at that, as does Thor, both Asgardians wary. Tony can't help but think of what Loki had been trying to shout at the Rockefeller Center about having nowhere to go. "I vote for kicking him off our planet," Clint calls out.

"I'd like that too, but there's the question of kicking him somewhere he can't come back from."

"Asgard?" suggests Maria.

There's a hissing sound of air through teeth from the sofa. [I will NOT go back to Asgard!] writes Loki in sharp letters. Beside him Thor grimly presses his lips together but doesn't protest. Tony wonders if Thor understands that Loki's statement is based less on fear of another torturous punishment than fear of all of Asgard laughing to see him bereft of his tongue.

"Asgard is the only place we could arrange to send him, but obviously Asgard doesn't do a great job of holding him," Fury says as the words fade out. Suddenly he looks down at Loki with a gleam in his eye. "Maybe we shouldn't bother picking a place, just shoot you out into space special delivery for the Chitauri."

Loki blanches and Thor immediately gets to his feet. "You will NOT do that to my brother!" he roars.

"Just kidding." Fury grins up at the towering thundergod as Steve and Bruce noticeably let out a sigh of relief. Tony can't say he liked the idea of dumping Loki with the Chitauri again either - Loki may be a dick but what the Chitauri did to him, that's just not right. "SHIELD containment cells it is, then."

Tony snorts as Thor looks uncertain. "That's your solution, really? Because it worked so well last time."

"We have our ways, Stark, not that you need to know about them."

"You mean like we don't need to know a lot of things? What did you do with all the Chitauri stuff after we saved New York, huh?"

Fury's face darkens. "If you've been hacking into our systems again—"

"Yeah I have, so bite me, think of me as your friendly neighbourhood white hat." Tony folds his arms and sticks his chin out in the way Pepper has dubbed 'stubborn toddler'. "So? You wanna tell or shall I?"

Director Fury's eye narrows. Steve and Bruce look uneasy. "What are you talking about, Stark?" the Captain asks.

Tony meets Fury's gaze and holds it. "Remember Phase 2, Rogers? And all those alien weapons that were left behind when we closed the Tesseract portal? What comes after 2?"

Steve's eyes widen, and his mouth thins with disappointment as he looks at Fury who's now giving Tony a nasty glare. Tony has more. "And all those Chitauri bodies littering Manhattan, man the SHIELD scientists must have a field day with so many samples to play with. Even if I'm not a biologist those anatomy reports are pretty neat. But hey, weird vaguely insect orc things are one thing, an Asgardian on the other hand, wow, that's really cool. I mean look at them, they're just like us only taller, stronger, with superhuman endurance and healing and great hair at least in Thor's case, that could help experiments to replicate the Cap's super solider serum. And oh, did I mention the practically immortal bit? C'mon, Fury, can you honestly say that poking around the insides of an Asgardian especially one you don't like has never once crossed your mind or – and this is the important one – got discussed by the secret spooky SHIELD council?"

Fury's glare is now very nasty. Tony puts hands behind his head and basks as Thor's protective older brother instincts rev up again complete with flashy lightning eyes. "You will NOT take my brother!" he thunders at the Director.

Bruce reaches up and shushes Thor to turn off the divine wrath which he does - sort of. Loki, Tony notices, is smirking. Bastard. "What are you suggesting then, Stark?" asks Maria crisply.

"Nothing." Tony shrugs. "Just saying that getting locked up and used to make shiny things that hurt people for shady secret organisations isn't something I'm down with, personal experience and all. I agree that SHIELD should hold the guy, but if they're going to do more than just keep him in a box I think we should know."

"And you like to know everything, don't you, Stark." Suddenly the Director is smiling in a way that Tony definitely does not like. "Being the court jester's fun; you get to throw spitballs and poke holes in everyone's plans without having to make the hard decisions to come up with any alternatives. Just for that, I'm volunteering the Avengers for guard duty."

Tony blinks. "Wait, what?!" exclaims Clint. Even Natasha's eyes widen.

"You heard me." Fury smirks. "You caught Loki, you keep him, and if he gets out or anything goes wrong, I'm going to hold you personally responsible and the Avengers might get a little less autonomous. Especially you, Stark. We could use a few Iron Man suits on the helicarrier."

Thor and Loki look at each other, one relieved, one dark. "Wait one effing moment!" Tony scrambles to his feet to face Fury gesturing wildly at Loki and his Tower in general. "What did I say earlier? No yo-yo, no SHIELD obligation! Also, in case you haven't noticed this is my Tower, the place where me and my girlfriend and my friends live and hang out, it's not Rikers, I don't have a prison cell let alone one that could hold a slippery son of a bitch like Loki—"

"Actually you do," Bruce pipes up. "The lab containment chamber where we do all the dangerous stuff with explosives and radiation? Change the locking system, stick in a bed and TV, that would work pretty well."

Tony gives his friend an et tu, Bruce? pout. "And what about the magic stuff, huh? How are we going to deal with that?"

"If Loki escapes we chase him down." Bruce replies calmly. Steve nods in agreement, which means that's it, all of Tony's arguments are done for. "We're the Avengers, you didn't register the 'Earth's Mightest Heroes' trade mark for nothing, as long as Loki is on Earth we can catch him and when we do, we kick him into space for the Chitauri with a bootprint on his ass. Alternatively, Thor can drag him to Asgard where I'm sure he'll get to find out what the punishment is for skipping out on a jail sentence. But I hope it won't come to that, because if I'm reading things right, even if you are more than mortal you're in no shape physically or magically to do anything big for quite a while, are you Loki."

Bruce gives Loki a friendly smile tinged with green. Loki doesn't meet his gaze but he does grit his teeth. "So it's settled, then," announces Fury, paying no attention to the way Clint is grimacing next to a stony-faced Natasha. "Have fun, people, and remember – I'm holding you personally responsible."

He strides for the doors, Maria Hill already calling the elevator though not before giving Tony a smirk. Tony groans and keeps groaning even as Steve reaches to comfortingly pat his back. Thor on the other hand looks determined and pleased. "I promise, Master Fury, that I will keep my brother close."

"I bet you will. One thing." Fury pauses and turns to Loki again. "Just out of curiosity, what happened to your tongue after it was pulled it out?"

Slowly, Loki looks up to give the Director a baleful stare. His green eyes are enigmatic. Then, gracefully, he lifts his hand to write.

[Destroyed. Or flung into deepest space. Either way, it is beyond your reach, and mine.]

Fury reads the reply with a look of satisfaction. "Good."

The elevator pings and opens. Director Fury and Maria Hill step inside. The last Tony sees of them before elevator closes is a one-eyed stare as hard as diamond, and he groans once again. "Jesus. You know what this feels like? Like I've just been dumped with an unwanted cat, one that's big, bad-tempered, has really sharp claws, and isn't house trained. Did I mention I don't like cats?"

"I'm with you on that one," growls Clint. "Tasha?"

Natasha watches Loki with flinty eyes. "At least he can't talk."

Steve is standing over Loki. "Come on," he says, not completely unkindly. "Let's get you settled in. Bruce, would you mind joining us?"

Bruce gets up casually removing his glasses and putting them in his pocket just to make it clear what will happen if Loki tries anything on the way. "Sure."

Loki scowls up at them making no move to stand. It takes a moment for Tony to realise that maybe Loki can't stand while he still recovers from being flung about by the Hulk on top of all his other tortures, and that makes him feel better. Then Thor steps in. "Here, brother," he says, bending down. "Let me."

Before Loki can jerk away Thor scoops up him up in what Tony can only describe as a bridal carry. Loki's eyes widen, he instinctively grabs Thor's neck – it's really too funny and Tony and Clint burst out with guffaws which only get more raucous as Loki gives a killer glare more eloquent than any words. Steve and Bruce are barely more polite, even Natasha is stifling a laugh— "Do not worry, Loki," says Thor, obviously happy at how he's finally managed to catch his brother. "It will be like that time you broke your ankle jumping after me down the waterfall and I had to carry you to the healing room dripping wet wrapped in naught but your cape—"

Letting Loki's hands near Thor's neck is never a good idea. Without warning long white fingers jab into Thor's throat making the thunder god both choke and involuntarily drop his brother on the floor. Natasha leaps to her feet, Clint yells, Bruce goes to Thor as Steve dives for Loki who lies sprawled and glaring. For a second Tony's only thought is how to tell Pepper that they're going to need yet another repair crew but then he realises that while Loki looks furious he's thankfully not doing the glowy thing, or replicating himself, or any other magic voodoo. Just pushing himself upright green eyes promising death to anyone who tries to help.

Steve stops just short of touching him. Nearby, Bruce has a hand on Thor's back closely watching as the thunder god's coughing eases. Thor himself is watching Loki with a look of hurt as he holds his throat. He does not, however, make any further attempt to approach his brother.

Slowly Loki gets up. It's a painful, silent process filled with obvious effort, but eventually Loki is standing on his own two feet with head held high. Tony keeps forgetting how tall Thor's little brother is. He's not liking the reminder.

Loki gives the room one of his contemptuous little smiles. Then he glances at the elevator door arching one eyebrow at Steve and Bruce as if to say, well? Aren't you coming?

"It's ten floors down," says Steve curtly, apparently needing no interpretation. "And there will be stairs."

Loki inclines his head in a bow. Ignores Thor completely as Steve and Bruce step up on either side to escort him. Together the three of them get into the elevator and disappear. Once again Tony gives a groan only this time there's no Steve to give him a comforting backrub. "Personally responsible for Loki," he says to the room. "This is so not a good idea."

No one answers him.


* * *



Doctor John McArthur is tired but satisfied. He's on the tail end of his Flying Doctor circuit and unlike previous trips to this little town in remote Western Australia he hasn't had to do much other than give check-ups and vaccinations. So comparatively laid back is this stop that John finds himself with a couple of hours to kill before his plane is due to take off, and he spends it wandering through the town's centre. There isn't much to see, a newsagent that doubles as a post office, a diner with cafe aspirations, a police outpost, and a second-hand shop. John picks up an out of date magazine in the newsagent for plane reading, a lukewarm tea in the diner, and browses through the second-hand shop out of sheer boredom. The shopkeeper gives him a curt glance but otherwise doesn't look up from the cricket on his little TV.

A group of young Aboriginal boys run by outside. John looks inside a display cabinet of costume jewellery and sees a glint of silver.

Forty-five minutes later sees John on the plane back to the Derby base, reading the out-of-date Men's Health with a small silver bracelet sitting in his bag. John likes to support local communities wherever he can, and if he can do it under the guise of buying something for his daughter all the better. Trying to give his daughter things seems to be the only way they communicate lately.

That night, travel-weary from two planes and a taxi, John gets back to his home in Darwin to find the house a mess and his daughter Amy frantic with last minute packing. Amy is twenty-two years old, headstrong, and excited about her first proper trip overseas backpacking solo around the world. She's dutifully made dinner for him but hugs and kisses, those are in short supply and have been ever since Amy's mother walked out on them twelve years ago. John has tried many times to tell Amy that wasn't her fault, but he's long realised that once a child gets an idea into their head it is incredibly difficult to dislodge, and it's not like he could ever figure out the right words to say. For her part, Amy seems to find it easier not to bother listening in the first place.

John watches his daughter prepare to fly. Awkwardly brings out his present and shows it to her. At first she seems unimpressed by the silver bracelet but then John finds himself talking, telling Amy how she's grown, how strong and independent she is, how proud he is to have her for a daughter. He tells her thank you not just for tonight's dinner but for all the dinners she never failed to make for him when he worked late, how much he's going to miss her, and how happy he is for her adventure. He tells Amy how he loves her.

Amy listens to every word and cries. To John's astonishment she throws her arms around his neck squeezing tight as she whispers thank you I love you too dad. It's all John can do to embrace her without wanting to cry himself.

The next day Amy sits on a plane smiling out the window as she remembers her father's bon voyage kiss. She's heading to Singapore, and she wears a bracelet on her right wrist that shines silver in the sun.

Chapter Text

THE NEW YORK TIMES, FEBRUARY 7, 2016
OPINION - THE AVENGERS ADVANTAGE?

A picture tells a thousand words, and in an election campaign all of those words are gold. Dramatic as the Rockefeller Center attack was, the lingering image from that day is not that of Iron Man confronting alien supervillain Loki or Loki's thrashing defeat at the hands of the Hulk, but rather one decidedly less blockbuster: that of Captain America, surrounded by relieved and cheering people, firmly shaking hands with congressman and Democrat primary candidate Ken Patry.

Much praise has been deservedly given to Mr. Kenichi Patry, a former disaster volunteer, for his calm leadership during the attack. It is a timely reminder to all of us that heroism does not require super powers or chemical enhancements or billions of dollars. At the same time, there is no denying the power of the Avengers not just in terms of their unique abilities, but their place in the public consciousness.

The images of Captain America with Mr. Patry has kicked the Patry 2016 campaign into high gear. After winning the Iowa caucus Mr. Patry stumbled losing several of the January primaries to better known rivals Senator Mitchell Fairmont and former governor Diane Morrison. His moment with the Avengers has the real potential to turn things around – and the first polls since Rockefeller definitely show a significant increase in Mr. Patry's support. An 'Avengers Advantage', if you will.

What this means at the ballot box is uncertain. A glance at the history of celebrity support for presidential candidates shows a mixed bag of sparklers and fizzers - but the Avengers aren't Hollywood fluff. They are heroes – super heroes, in fact. They put their lives on the line to fight for and save people regardless of colour or creed, inspire individuals to serve the community, and under their watch the world can sleep in the comforting knowledge that although there are bad things out there in the universe, we are protected – powerful sentiment for a politician to tap into.

Will the superhero gloss stick to Mr. Patry? No one knows. One thing, however, is certain: thanks to his brush with the Avengers, the Patry campaign will be going into Super Tuesday flying high ...

 

* * *

 

Virginia 'Pepper' Potts flies back into New York just after lunch and heads straight to Stark Tower. She's been state-hopping through Florida and California and Iowa finishing up in D.C. meeting red and blue people of various influence to discuss energy policies with mixed results that make it a relief to be home, which at first glance seems to be empty. A check with JARVIS reveals that this is not quite the case; that Natasha and Clint are out shopping, Steve at the library, Thor on the lowest R&D floor, and Tony and Bruce on the first R&D floor workshop. That established Pepper swaps her heels for the comfy ballet flats she left under the couch, makes herself put away her Blackberry, and heads on down to see the science bros. As expected they're deeply absorbed in work, so much so that neither of them realise Pepper has arrived until she's right behind them.

"Hello, boys."

Tony freezes and jumps, which is Pepper's first hint that something's up. Her second comes from the way Tony spins around with a big slightly manic smile. "Sweetheart!" he exclaims, soldering iron in hand as he spreads his arms out, and wow Pepper can actually see his brain working frantically. "You're – back. Already. Uh, how was D.C.?"

"Ridiculous. The whole city's in combat mode, I'll tell you more later. Hi Bruce," she adds, coming forward to give Bruce a kiss on the cheek. Bruce greets her warmly and the two of them laugh as Tony pouts until Pepper eventually gives him his kiss on the lips. Tony's goatee is untrimmed and smells of metallic gases, and up close Pepper can see shadows under his eyes that speak of little sleep and too much coffee. "What are you working on this time?" she asks.

"Uh, well." Tony wraps an arm around her waist and uses the other to vaguely wave the soldering iron at the workbench cluttered with wires and curved bits of metal. "Stuff. Electric stuff. Shockingly electric stuff."

"Fascinating; another Iron Man suit modification?"

"No, no, and – you know, I think we should get out of here tonight, go fly somewhere nice like Paris or Morocco have a few days together, romantic getaway just you and me—"

Pepper twists to give him a Look. Tony immediately shuts up. "What's going on, Tony," she asks bluntly.

Tony helplessly looks to Bruce for help— "Don't look at me," says Bruce quickly. "You're on your own with this."

With a sigh Tony gives up and puts down the soldering iron. Pulls away so that he can face her properly. "We have a supervillain in the basement," he admits.                             

Pepper blinks. Binge drinking again, forgetting to sign the contracts she had sent him, even a one-night stand with a nameless piece of eye-candy while she was away, all those she had expected but this, no. "What do you mean 'in the basement', and how super is super?"

"In the containment chamber on R&D Seven, and out of this world super. Literally." Tony gives a weak lopsided grin. "Like, 'attacked SHIELD released an alien army over New York'—"

Her eyes go wide. "Loki?!"

"—also did I mention he's Thor's little brother and Thor's been a complete angst bucket ever since Loki arrived seriously the clouds over the Tower haven't moved in days—"

Pepper closes her eyes and takes several deep breaths. "And how long is Loki going to be in the basement?" she demands.

Again Tony looks to Bruce for help. "We don't know," says Bruce, finally agreeing to be drawn in. "It could be a temporary thing, it could be longer, Director Fury didn't say."

"It can't be life imprisonment, that'd be like radioactive waste disposal," mutters Tony. Still Pepper has her eyes closed covering her face with her hands not sure whether to laugh or cry at the thought of an incredibly powerful dangerous alien criminal who threw her boss/boyfriend out an eighty floor window staying in her home and Tony guiltily slides an arm around her waist again. "Come on, Pepper-pot, let's take this upstairs maybe have some food, things always look better with food – coming, Bruce?"

"Thanks, but I think I'll stay and work on these restraints." Bruce waves at the workbench and gives a 'you should have some alone time' smile. "Bring me a bagel later."

Tony nods leading Pepper to the elevators. She still has her hands over her face and is starting to shake a bit, out of shock yes, but also because out of nowhere the whole idea of Loki-in-the-Tower strikes her as incredibly funny. Distantly she hears herself laugh.

"Uh, Pepper?"

With a deep breath she calms and pulls away to lean against the side of the elevator. Gives Tony a wry smile. "Sorry. I was just thinking about when we redid the Tower and you said, 'hey, let's add in a few guest suites so that Bruce has somewhere to crash when I peel him out of the lab,' I said 'Bruce is lovely and if he can keep a lid on his other self, sure.' After that you said, 'hey, Pepper, remember Steve Rogers' – as if I could forget – 'he needs a place to stay can he stay with us', which was then followed with 'by the way, the two master assassins want to join the party' and I said yes to all of them. Then Thor came back and you didn't even ask about him, you just texted me to say hotel Stark now has a god and I thought well why not. After all that, telling me you've put a diabolical supervillain in the basement? Practically a logical extension."

Tony lets out a sigh of relief. "So you're not mad? I should say up front that I didn't want to put Loki in our basement, Fury just dumped him on us."

"I don't like it and I could be mad but tell me how and why Loki is in the basement first …"

So Tony tells her, rehashing bits of what he's mentioned in their brief phonecalls when Loki first arrived all cut up and unconscious, through the showdown at Rockefeller (which Pepper caught on TV) to the impromptu conference in their lounge room with SHIELD and Loki's pretty-but-freaky air writing about his vivisection at the claws of the Chitauri. By the end of it the two of them are in Pepper's bedroom suite and Pepper's smile is gone to be replaced by an uneasy, thoughtful expression. She makes Tony sit down on her bed and keep going while she goes to change.

"—so now Bruce and I have gizmo'ed up the containment chamber enough to hopefully hold a god but this is a sneaky smart trickster god, once he heals up he could do anything at any time. No idea how Bruce isn't freaking out but then again I suppose he's got the keep calm and carry on tea and yoga routine down pat. Barton, we weren't happy with him going off to tell on us to Fury on principle, but me and Rogers had a chat with him and Natasha about the whole SHIELD-slash-Avenger line so I think that's okay until— are you wearing the Victoria's Secret stuff I got you?"

"Mm hm." Dropping her blouse Pepper adds a little hip wriggle as she extricates herself from her pencil skirt.

"Was I going to get hi honey I'm home I missed you sex?"

"Mm hm, but then you said you put a supervillain in the basement, so keep talking."

"Damn. Okay, uh, so, turns out when Natasha gets edgy she gets slightly trigger happy so if you see her with her back to you don't creep up on her. Barton isn't much better, and he really doesn't like Loki obviously for the whole flying monkey thing. On the other hand there's Rogers who's so ridiculously decent he checks up on Loki, gives him books, make sure he's comfortable, and— you know, I feel like I'm in a HBO sexposition scene the way I'm info dumping watching you strip are you sure we can't re-negotiate the welcome home sex?"

"Keep talking." She has her back to Tony so he can't see her smile.

"Aw. So Rogers is being ridiculously decent, Bruce has the responsible doctor thing so he's also checking in on Loki on a regular basis, which is good since it means I can just avoid R&D Seven entirely but it's kinda impossible to forget Loki's here when his big brother is moping storm clouds. The whole dad sewing Loki's mouth shut is bad enough but now that Loki's been ripped apart by aliens Thor is guilt central. Something about having failed his little brother, completely overlooking the fact that his little brother is a homicidal little shit who made his own shitty choices and is now being a shitty little brother every time Thor tries to be nice to him. The look on Thor's face when Loki mimes at him to fuck off? It's like watching a puppy get kicked."

"You've never had a puppy."

"I have the internet and Bruce bookmarked Cute Overload which I know doesn't show actual kicked puppies, but Cute Or Sad posts are close enough. Am I the only one who thinks Thor would be a golden retriever?"

"You're adorable," says Pepper fondly, coming out of the walk-in wardrobe barefoot in shorts and baggy T-shirt. She sits beside Tony on the bed and looks at him with concern. "And you, Mr. Stark? How are you holding up?"

"You mean other than not sleeping properly because there's an enemy alien sorcerer sitting fifteen floors below my bedroom?" Pepper nods and brushes light fingers over his brow and the bags under his eyes. "Uncomfortably. Turns out being a jailor means being responsible and you know how much I like being responsible for people I like. People I don't like I'd lock up and feed the key to a shark but …"

"But?"

Tony takes a breath and exhales it slowly. "I don't like Loki. I don't like him in my home, I don't like him being on the same continent as you, I don't like him on my planet. That said ... you didn't see his light writing go haywire but it was bad. Like, PTSD bad. And that's on top of whatever made Loki go from the charming little brother Thor's always going on about to Chucky in the first place. And then I have nightmares about getting my tongue ripped out by giant insects ..." Pepper's smile is painfully sympathetic as she strokes his cheek. "As I said I don't like Loki but no one deserves to have that kind of shit done to them and wow I think I'm feeling sorry for him, is that crazy? I mean, I know I'm crazy in general but am I crazy crazy feeling sorry for Loki?"

He looks at her a little desperately, and Pepper feels her heart constrict. He's come so far he doesn't even realise, and even if she can't say she shares his feelings on this she wants to curl about him protective and supporting. "You know," she begins at last, "when New York was attacked and you and the others fought to protect it and us and the rest of the world … I was scared out of my mind. For you. Genius suit aside, you're a man fighting alongside super soldiers and radioactive berserkers and people with proper combat training and an alien god – and yet you were the one who flew into a wormhole. To deep space. Carrying a nuclear missile." She gives a chuckle then, small and fragile. "I was so scared and angry at you for making me scared – but the crazy thing? I was also really, really proud of you."

Lightly Pepper lets her hand float down Tony's chest to trace the glowing outline of the arc-reactor through his T-shirt. "Ever since this you've gone from an egotistical son of a bitch to an egotistical son of a bitch who would sacrifice himself to save the world. And now you feel sorry for the person who's killed countless people and say he's been hurt enough, which is way better than me. Yes, Tony Stark, you are crazy, but in a good way. You have a heart." She smiles at him proudly. "I'd say that's a requirement to be a superhero."

He's blushing. It's incredibly cute. "And here was me thinking being a superhero meant looking good on kids T-shirts," Tony mutters.

"There's that too." Pepper's fingers are now playing around his chest.

"You've gotta admit it is pretty cool."

"Captain America sells more T-shirts."

"Seriously? The guy's old enough to be my dad! Literally! And— are you still mad? Because I kinda like what your fingers are doing."

"I'm considering it, but I could be persuaded otherwise."

"Like if I put on a strong argument?"

"It would have to be a very strong argument – and loud, and long."

"Oh?" Pepper's eyes sparkle coyly. Tony grins and draws her against him. "I'd better work hard, then."

 

* * *

 

"I should not have left you."

It's cool in the containment area. The heavy, industrial strength observation window is even cooler.

"I should not have let others push me from you. I should not have kept silent when the Allfather sentenced you. I should not have tried to forget you."

The walls are thick. They create a stillness that is almost overwhelming. There is no sunlight between them, only an artificial yellow glow.

"When you were bound and shut away on Asgard I tried to understand what drove you to do what you did. Intentionally or not, there has been much wrong done to you, by the Allfather, by our – my friends. I realise that I too have done you wrong. All those years we spent together I now see in a different light, one that casts a long cold shadow in which you stand alone. And I am so, so sorry for it."

In the containment chamber there is a bed, a small table, and a stack of books. The stack is untouched, the table foldable, and the bed occupied. The occupant lies stiffly on his side with his back to the window.

"You have done great wrong too, brother, that I cannot deny. Nor can I deny that justice needed to be done, and be seen to be done. But this, this torture is too much, it is not justice, it is wrong and I cannot help but feel had I not failed you …"

Outside the containment chamber is a god. He sits in a chair facing the window, head bowed, hands tightly clasped. The bed's occupant looks asleep.

"Will you not respond?"

Silence is expected but some movement, the barest acknowledgement of this vigil, that is all that's hoped for. It is a vain hope. The god's shoulders slump further.

"I know you are angry and suffering, to depths I cannot understand. But please, brother, know this: from this day forth, I promise I will always be here for you, as I should have always been. Whether you want me or not."

The bed's occupant does nothing. With another sigh the god wearily gives up, sits back, and after a while, falls to a restless doze. Eventually, the bed's occupant exhales closing narrowed eyes and he too, uneasily sleeps.

 

* * *

 

Steve Rogers gets back from the library that evening with his borrower's card maxed out. As usual most of the books are modern history for his self-imposed get back into the world catching up on the last seventy years study regime (this week's subject: the Cold War and the Nixon presidency) but he has a selection of fictional titles too such as To Kill A Mockingbird (Pepper's recommendation), American Gods (Bruce's) and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Tony's). It will all keep him busy for a while, and hopefully they'll be of interest to Loki as well. Steve didn't personally look after P.O.W.s back in the Second World War but he met those who did and knows that keeping prisoners occupied is essential to head off trouble. That and, well. It's just the right thing to do.

(He tries not to think about Loki's face, terrified between his hands and as vulnerable as a child's. Sometimes, as if to counter their condemnations, Thor will tell the Avengers stories of his youth with Loki, stories of play and warmth and adventure that all seem too distant, too nostalgic to be worth anything. Now that he's seen Loki bleeding and tortured, Steve is finding those stories have an uncomfortable weight.)

In the Stark Tower elevator lobby Steve runs into Natasha and Clint. The two of them have been out most of the day shopping apparently though Steve suspects they needed some space away from the rest of the Avengers. After Director Fury's departure and Loki's (hopefully) secure imprisonment with Thor standing watch, Steve and Tony had had a talk with the two assassins (well, Steve had talked, Tony on the other hand had been typical Tony). Steve understands why Clint told Fury about Loki and doesn't really blame him, but it is an awkward reminder that there will be times when Clint and Natasha's SHIELD obligations will conflict with their roles as Avengers. Steve isn't sure that it's been completely resolved but as he put it, the least Clint and Natasha can do is be open with them instead of – as Tony put it – running off to tattle to daddy Fury. Natasha had listened calmly and said she understood but then again, she wasn't the one Steve was worried about. For his part Clint had been defensive but eventually followed Natasha's lead and promised that yes, if a similar situation came up in future, he would talk to the team about it first. Steve had been satisfied with that, and stepped on Tony's foot to make sure Tony was too.

None of this is on Clint or Natasha's face as they greet him. Clint is chatty about his day's people watching and he carries a bag of groceries, Natasha likewise is carrying groceries and asks about Steve's booklist. With his new found knowledge off the Cold War it's with some awkwardness that Steve shows her his borrowings, but Natasha simply smiles and says she'll recommend him some Russian writers for next time. Together they all go up to the residential floors where after stopping by his rooms to put away his books Steve heads to the lounge to be sociable, though not before checking with JARVIS about their prisoner. JARVIS's response is the same as this morning: Loki is still where they put him, and Thor is still keeping watch.

In the lounge, Bruce is already chilling out in front of the television. Clint has decided to join him there and is now taking over the driving of the remote to Bruce's apparent distaste, while Natasha is curled up on the chair by the window with a news magazine. Upon seeing Steve Bruce invites him to join them, enjoying much as Tony does in teaching Steve all sorts of things about the twenty-first century and watching his responses. Steve indulges him – and really, everything people show him from advances in science to the Ellen Degeneres show is interesting in some way – joining Bruce and Clint on the couch which is how Tony and Pepper find everyone when they arrive a bit later. Pepper is wearing one of Tony's T-shirts and Tony is grinning looking rather more relaxed than when Steve had left that morning, and the two of them are laughing together. Everyone welcomes Pepper with waves and hellos and Bruce gives Tony a wry smile. "I asked you to bring me a bagel," he says accusingly as Tony and Pepper head for the bar.

"Sorry, something came up," smirks Tony in a way that makes Pepper laugh more and Steve turn red. This gets Tony's attention. "Too warm, Captain? If I'd known you were around you could have joined in – ow!" Pepper whacks his arm.

"Good evening, Miss Potts," says Steve, pointedly ignoring Tony.

"Good evening, Captain Rogers," replies Pepper smilingly, leaning against the bar while Tony contritely rummages through the bottles. "I saw you on the NBC the other day, you looked very heroic."

Steve turns even redder. "Just doing my job, ma'am."

"Doing more than that, you were getting chatted up by a potential President," chuckles Clint, which gives Bruce a chance to swipe the remote and start flicking. "I bet Patry's a closet Captain America fanboy."

"He probably just saw an opportunity and took it," says Natasha dismissively.

Steve shrugs. "He did a good job keeping people calm at the Rockefeller Center, I wanted to commend him."

When Steve had finally managed to get into the building he'd been surprised and relieved to find several floors barricaded holding frightened-but-not-panicking people, and a man in the middle of it directing the effort instead of complete chaos. Steve hadn't particularly cared who he was, only that he'd done well making sure a bad situation hadn't been made worse and wanted to say so. Finding out that he'd been commending a presidential candidate hadn't changed Steve's opinion of what Patry had done, or for that matter, Patry himself.

Clint twists to look at him. "Yeah, but did you read that New York Times column? Thanks to us or at least you, Patry's going into Super Tuesday with an 'Avenger Advantage'. Like a Colbert Bump, only bigger— no, Banner, get off the Discovery Channel, we are not watching another documentary—"

"It's the history of space flight!" retorts Bruce, stretching to keep the remote away from Clint's grabby hands. "I thought Rogers would appreciate it, see the small step giant leap and all."

"Actually Stark showed me something about that last month," Steve replies. He still remembers his awe and wonder that a man – and a completely normal, unpowered man at that – was walking on the surface of the moon, and this was something everyone today took for granted. "Though I don't mind seeing it again."

"You think walking on the moon is cool gimme a few months and I'll take everyone to the Sea of Tranquility for a cocktail party that'll make Richard Branson cry." Tony hands Pepper a vodka martini and gets a winked thanks in return as she heads to sit with Natasha. "Anyone else for drinks while I'm here?"

There's a chorus of replies (Budweiser for Clint who gives in on the documentary, sodas for Bruce and Steve, Natasha requests a red wine) and Tony sets to work. Watching him pour Steve can't help but think of what Pepper once told him, that a few months ago the idea of Tony Stark, Eccentric Billionaire Playboy Inventor Extraordinaire sharing living space with anyone – including Pepper – would have been laughable, which makes sense when Steve remembers what Howard Stark was like, and this arrangement with all the Avengers in one place is in a word, amazing. Each of them has their own private apartment if they really want to shut away the world for a while (Steve sometimes does this when the twenty-first century gets overwhelming), but it's nice to have company, squabble over movies and chores, and just have someone to talk to. Someone who understands what it's like to be so ... different. There's conflict of course – Steve gets exasperated with Tony who can't resist riling him up, Clint's bluntness can be a bit much, Thor has culture clashes, Bruce needs to be reminded to be sociable, no one dares to piss off Natasha – however they're all adults (possible exception of Tony) and they generally respect each other's space.

There's a lot of space right now. Thor is so large in both body and personality that it is acutely obvious when he is absent. They all know where he is, of course, and they also know there's no point inviting him to join them for Thor will only leave his watch of his own accord or when Loki pushes him away. Until then, it seems that everyone is determined to go about their lives as normal. "Hey I'm starved, who's organising dinner tonight?" asks Tony as he brings drinks over.

"Not me," says Clint.

"Like we'd want your cooking after last time." Bruce makes a gag face as he takes his soda. "That soggy pasta bake thing you did was rank."

"It's your turn, Stark," Natasha replies from where she and Pepper are catching up.

"Really? In which case I'm going to exercise billionaire privilege and say JARVIS, place an order with Shun Lee's, pay 'em extra to send Stark Tower a deluxe banquet for seven—"

"Eight," Steve interjects quietly. "We have eight people to feed."

The lounge atmosphere changes immediately, like a chill wind just slid through. "Thought standard prison food was cardboard and grit," Clint mutters, joviality gone.

"We're better than that, Barton," says Steve firmly. He thinks of some soldiers back in the Second World War, soldiers who when dealing with captured German soldiers treated them worse than dogs to be shot. Steve had made it clear that such behaviour was unacceptable, that being Americans they could defeat the Nazis without sinking to their level, and having now learned just how horrific a level the Nazis reached with the Holocaust Steve's determination on this point is even more entrenched. "We have to be better than that."

No one challenges this. "Banquet for eight, JARVIS," Tony sighs, sinking into the couch with his scotch next to Bruce. "And tell Thor we've got food coming so if he wants any he should come up in a bit."

"Very well, sir."

The room is silent except for the TV documentary droning on about Apollo 11. Natasha still has her magazine open between her and Pepper but Steve doubts they're actually reading. "You get anywhere with the restraints?" Tony asks Bruce finally.

"Just into a wall. You're talking about pumping ten thousand volts through a pair of wrist cuffs, there's no way you can do that and have them be portable unless you want to install an arc reactor."

"You're still talking about restraints, not a permanent solution," Natasha points out. "We can't lock Loki up here forever."

"Are we locking him up or giving him a place to crash while he heals?" growls Clint. "Because it really feels like the latter, and I don't like being nice to criminals."

"He's already been sentenced," Steve reminds them.

"A sentence he skipped out on."

"And then got tortured beyond belief," adds Bruce under his breath, like he doesn't want to set off any recollections which of course is exactly what happens and Steve gulps his soda keenly feeling his throat muscles as he swallows. Giant insects ripping out his tongue ... out of the corner of his eye he sees Pepper quietly move to sit beside Tony and realises Tony is having similar thoughts.

"So what, you saying he's been punished enough?" Clint demands. "Because that's what it sounds like, but it doesn't magically make everything Loki's done okay."

Steve doesn't like the twisted expression Clint has going but to his surprise it's Tony who answers. "Fuck no it doesn't make everything okay, but we got to draw a line somewhere."

"Yeah? Then why are you making him a pair of bracelets to go with his new dressing room?"

"There's a difference between vengeance and punishment, and punishment and precaution," says Steve patiently. "I want everyone to be clear that what we're doing with Loki is the latter."

"Which is a nice distinction but means little in practice and again, we can't keep Loki locked up forever." As usual it's Natasha who brings everyone back on point. "We still need a long term solution."

"Or a permanent one," mutters Clint darkly.

"Yeah, uh, no because one the god thing, and two, Thor," Tony retorts. "Also three extraterrestrial diplomatic relations, four Thor, five what Rogers said, and six, Thor. Did I mention Thor god of thunder and major brother issues?"

"So Loki gets special consideration because he's Thor's little brother?"

"It's not something we can ignore," says Natasha.

Tony snorts derisively. "Like Thor would let us. 'My friends, let me tell you of the time Loki and I adventured to Middle Earth-heim where I whacked a big fantasy monster on the head and Loki cast a bunch of spells that only now do I realise saved our lives and afterwards the two of us made merry woe where did we go wrong I miss my cute baby brother blah blah.' Paraphrasing of course, but you get the idea."

"I suppose it's kind of sweet," says Pepper. "Considering how many siblings don't speak to each other after family Christmas parties Thor's determination to make up with his brother is pretty special."

"Also pretty sad considering Loki doesn't feel the same," Bruce murmurs.

"Don't forget 'pretty destructive'." Tony's arm around Pepper looks protective. "Like a kid wanting to break a great toy just so the other kid can't have it, only replace 'toy' with 'Earth' and 'small parts choking hazard' with 'humans'."

 "Also you can't spank Loki," Pepper adds.

"Hulk can." Tony grins and points at Bruce with his scotch glass.

"PUNY GOD BAD. PUNY GOD NOT HURT EARTH." Clint mimes a spanking motion over his knee and booms in a decent impression of the Hulk that makes Bruce wince. Natasha rolls her eyes.

"You know what I mean," says Pepper chidingly. "Actually here's a thought: what if instead of trying to lock up Loki or beat him into submission you got him to reconcile with Thor? As I understand it the whole reason Loki attacked Earth in the first place is because of a family grudge, so maybe if he and Thor could fix things Loki will stop doing that?"

The Avengers all look at her then at each other with varying expressions of pity and doubt. "Not wanting to knock you down, Pepper-pot," replies Tony carefully, "but you haven't seen what Loki's like with Thor. The guy can't even bear for Thor to touch him unless they're fighting, so as much as Thor might like to kissing and making up? Really don't think it's going to happen."

"Are you sure? Because all the stories Thor keeps telling about him and his brother, those can't be wiped out no whatever Loki does or you say. If Thor and Loki could salvage something from that and resolved things, it could not only deliver an outcome that's optimal for everyone but one that lasts for the long term – pretty important given we're talking about immortal aliens."

"You realise you're talking about feuding Asgardian gods in business plan words?"

"You realise it's because of my business plan words that Stark Industries is top of the Fortune 500?"

"Miss Potts has a point," says Steve, breaking up the lovers' banter. "If Loki could be rehabilitated and repair things with Thor he could stop being a threat and we wouldn't have to worry about him coming back for more trouble."

Clint gives a derisive laugh. "Like that's gonna happen. We're talking about Loki here, even before he attacked Earth he was known as the Norse god of chaos, trouble is what he does. That kid brother Thor keeps going on about, if he ever existed you can't honestly think there's anything left of him."

The other Avengers and Pepper glance at each other. Clint stares at them in turn with disbelief. "No way. Really, guys, serious?"

Bruce smiles wryly. "I don't know about seriously thinking there's good in Loki, but after seeing Thor practically glued to Loki's bedside waiting for him to wake up I'm kinda wanting it for the big guy's sake."

"Loki's made of crazy but Pepper's ideas are always good ideas, so ..." Tony shrugs and gives a cheeky grin. "No harm being an optimist, right Cap?"

Clint gapes at Steve who calmly meets it, before inevitably turning to his closest teammate. "Tasha?"

For a moment Natasha looks at them, piercing and inscrutable. Then she shrugs. "It's worth a try."

Clint stares at her, his mouth setting in a hard line but Steve knows that at the end of the day if Natasha is going along with things then Clint will follow no matter how much he dislikes it. Clint is most definitely disliking the idea of showing any kind compassion to Loki, understandably of course, but as Steve said they have to be better than that. Especially so since they've been dubbed superheroes. "And just how are we supposed to—"

The elevator door opens and Thor steps out. Clint immediately stops talking. Thor looks tired, and while he smiles at everyone it's obvious from the slump in his shoulders that his continued watch over Loki is taking its toll. "My friends," he says as he walks over to their hellos and waves, "the night is young yet your faces are long. Has Stark neglected to provide the drink tonight?"

"As if, we're just taking it slow waiting for you, big guy." Tony raises the last of his scotch in a welcome toast.

"Hi Thor," greets Pepper smilingly.

"Lady Pepper! Forgive me; I was not informed of your return. Are you well?"

"I am, very – let me get you a drink ..."

She stands up and out from Tony's half-embrace and, taking Thor by one arm, brings him over to the bar every bit the warm hostess. Steve watches Tony watch her, how slight and delicate she is compared to the Asgardian, and knows Tony is thinking about the danger she's in while Loki is in the building. At present that danger is less urgent since as Bruce suspected Loki isn't in much of a shape to do much which is of great relief, but later is another question entirely. Steve hopes that later is far enough away that they have time to implement a solution, preferably Pepper's if they can figure out how but failing that … well. They'll just have to think up something else. Something a lot less compassionate.

There's an interruption from JARVIS then, informing Tony of a delivery downstairs and Steve's mind – and stomach – immediately turns to dinner. With a grin Tony tells JARVIS to send it up which soon results in a very wide-eyed and dumbfounded Chinese delivery boy stepping out of the elevator pushing a trolley into the middle of the lounge, jaw metaphorically dragging on the floor as he realises who his customers are. Tony being Tony hams things up mouthing off ("About time, someone was about to Hulk out if he didn't get his spring rolls, you okay there, you seem a little awestruck – yes, that really is Thor in the flesh and yes that's what Captain America looks like out of the tight blue pants, do you want an autograph, we can autograph anything you want, all six Avengers, instant collectors' item or eBay profit") as he relieves the delivery boy of his trolley of food boxes and sends it rolling to Clint. Bruce gets up to start fetching plates and cutlery, while Steve catches Pepper's eye and the two of them go rescue the overwhelmed delivery boy. It's a joint effort with Pepper firmly pulling Tony away and Steve awkwardly dealing with the delivery boy who starts babbling about what an honour it is to meet Captain America, such an inspiration, you represent why my family came to this country, etc. etc. Steve bears it all as best he can, even smiling for the camera when the kid frantically pulls out his iPhone and finally sees the delivery boy off with generous tip. As the elevator door closes he can hear the kid already calling someone oh my GOD you'll never guess who I just served—

"Fanboys, Captain," Tony says over the Peking duck with a grin. "Though I'd have thought you'd be better at the whole dealing with fans thing given you were performing back in the day."

"Back then I didn't have to deal with things going – what did you call it? 'Viral online'," Steve replies, finally getting down to eat with the rest of them. "It's weird knowing that seconds after I've done something there's going to be people in Japan talking about it."

Tony's grin gets wider. "Not just talking about it, there's the fanart and fanfics and Tumblr—"

"Tony," interrupts Pepper sweetly. "What have I said about talking about Avengers fandom?"

"…No breaking the Captain's brain?"

"Exactly," Pepper says, and Steve lets out a sigh of relief that's probably echoed by Clint and Bruce. He remembers the first time Tony explained in detail what certain online fan communities were getting up to with their love of all things Avengers. Tribute art Steve understands, but the stories, particularly those pairing the male members of the Avengers in various combinations in pornographic detail … Steve is all for live and let live but he would have been quite happy not knowing there were people out there who fantasised about him and Tony sleeping together. Certainly Tony hadn't helped by deciding his explanation would benefit from a dramatic reading of one particularly purple-prose-laden story which had lasted exactly twenty seconds before Clint threatened to put an arrow in Tony's mouth, Bruce buried his head in a cushion and Steve walked out trying to metaphorically scrub his brain of their cocks melted together with searing pleasure. "Get me another drink or I'll ask Natasha to do live tests on your bedroom's security when you're sleeping."

"Like I haven't already done that," says Natasha dryly from where she sits with a ravenous Clint. It does the trick and an exaggeratedly contrite Tony goes to make another martini for Pepper who winks at Steve.

None of them are sitting at the table, that's got the food on it yes, but buffet-style so that everyone piles up their plates before going to sit where they like around the lounge. The only two actually at the table are Bruce and Thor. From what Steve can see Bruce is explaining the various types of Chinese food to the Asgardian who's enthusiastically fascinated. Thor isn't being particularly loud with his enthusiasm because as well as his own very full plate he's also filling up another with dumplings and meat and more, all of which he cuts into small, bite-sized pieces. It's a consideration that Steve is pretty sure ended badly the first time Thor brought Loki a meal but Thor keeps doing it and Steve doesn't see any food in Loki's cell-slash-room when he goes down, so Steve presumes Loki is eating. That or if Loki is throwing the carefully cut up food at Thor's head, Thor is cleaning it up.

No one comments on what Thor is doing, of course. Nor do they say anything other than "see you later" when Thor stands up and announces that he'll be going downstairs to bring Loki his meal. Sometimes, it's just easier to mind your own business and pretend that things are normal. Normal for them, at least.

It's when the dinner is mostly decimated and Tony has poured out another round of drinks that JARVIS pipes up to say there's someone on the roof terrace. Someone who identifies as Asgardian.

"Was Thor expecting visitors?" asks Bruce in confusion.

"Were we expecting visitors?" Clint adds, eyes narrowing.

Steve thinks for a second. "Maybe it's a diplomatic delegation?"

"With only one person, unlikely," replies Pepper. "In any case I'd expect even alien monarchies would precede a formal delegation with some sort of message."

"Maybe this is the message," says Natasha. "Or maybe they've come to take Loki back."

"Please oh please oh please. Still, if they're interrupting dinner they'd better not expect us to dress up," Tony declares, standing up and stretching in a way that makes Jake E Lee's face on his T-shirt glow blue. "JARVIS, tell Thor to come up and let's go say hi."

They all move to ascend the stairs Pepper included, snagging coats along the way. By some unspoken agreement the procession ends up being Steve in front followed by Tony and Pepper, then Clint and Natasha with Bruce bringing up the rear. It's a pretty safe assumption that any Asgardian visitors aren't going to be hostile to their prince's teammates, not unless they really want a royal hammer in the head.

The first thing Steve notices about their Asgardian visitor is the height and the silver armor. The second thing he notices is the long hair tied back and blowing out like a pennant in the wind, a characteristic he immediately puts in context with Thor's stories to name their visitor. "Lady Sif," he says in surprise. (Beside him Tony whistles under his breath no doubt having first noticed their visitor's female attributes. The whistle quickly snaps off when Pepper elbows him.) "Uh, hi."

The warrior maiden fixes him with a look that makes it certain that just as Thor as told the Avengers about his friends on Asgard, he has told his friends on Asgard about the Avengers. "You are the soldier?"

"I am, but please, call me Steve. Steve Rogers. Welcome to Earth." (There are some snickers from Tony – "He said it! In complete seriousness!" – which Steve ignores.) "This is Tony Stark or Iron Man with Miss Virginia Potts, this is Agent Natasha Romanoff who's Black Widow, Agent Clint Barton who's Hawkeye, and Doctor Bruce Banner who holds the Hulk. What can we do for you?"

"Where is Thor?"

"Downstairs," chips in Tony. Beside him Pepper pulls the coat – Tony's – about herself; February in New York is cold enough, let alone a February night eighty floors above street level. "With your escaped jailbird. I'm hoping you're here to take Loki back because having one pagan god come to live among mortals is mind-blowing enough, two and the fundies are going to blow what brain cells they have left. Also we don't like him."

Sif's face darkens at the mention of Loki, only to immediately brighten when Thor marches through the roof terrace door behind Steve to join them all with Mjölnir on his hip. "Sif!" he exclaims happily, coming forward to catch his friend in an embrace. "JARVIS did not say why I was called or who to – I cannot believe mine eyes that you are here!"

Sif is smiling when released, but grimly. "My heart is lifted to see you, my prince, but I regret that it must be on an ill wind. I come on behalf of the Allfather to summon you back to Asgard."

"My father? Back to Asgard?" Thor looks astounded, which is only marginally better than the reaction from the humans. "Has something gone amiss?"

"Hello, missing god of mischief?" reminds Clint.

"Heimdall has reported that the Chitauri have amassed on our borders," says Sif, ignoring the human Avengers. "They come to bring battle to Asgard."

There's a stunned silence that follows this. "Uh, why?" Bruce asks in shock.

Sif glances at them, then meets Thor's rigid face. "We have reason to believe they come for the Tesseract."

The Avengers glance at each other as the implications of this sinks in. "But they're not going to get it, right?" asks Steve. "I mean, attacking Asgard is a very different kettle of fish to attacking Earth – it just means that Asgard and Earth are very different," he quickly adds seeing Sif and Thor's looks at the fish expression.

"Like in the, 'if two assassins, a Hulk, a super soldier, me of course and one thunder god can knock back an invading Chitauri army, a whole kingdom of godly space Vikings would eat them for breakfast' sense. Pre-breakfast. Maybe a midnight snack," Tony chips in.

"They will not succeed." Sif's faith and firmness rings out in a way that with a pang reminds Steve of Peggy Carter. "The Allfather is prepared and the warriors of Asgard strong. But we would be stronger still with the Odinson to lead us into battle."

"Is that why I have been summoned?" Thor asks.

"Yes. Immediately."

A cloud draws over Thor's face. "I cannot go."

Steve blinks in surprise, a reaction echoed by most of the others except Natasha, Pepper and Sif. Natasha for her part simply raises an eyebrow, Pepper interestingly seems unsurprised, while Sif has gone the other way to stunned shock. "What do you mean you cannot, Thor?" she demands.

"I mean I cannot leave this place. Not while Loki remains."

"Loki." Sif can't hide her contempt as she speaks the name. "What is the traitor doing on Midgard to begin with?"

"My brother is here having escaped from the Chitauri who captured him after he fled Asgard, and who far from treating Loki as a valued ally instead sought vengeance for their failed attack upon this realm. The Chitauri tortured him, Sif, tortured and mutilated putting Loki through unimaginable pain from which he has barely recovered and in some respects never will. Even with all Loki has done, can you not feel some sympathy for him? Or have you already forgotten all those eons in which you called each other friend?"

Thor speaks so earnestly, even pleading, and Steve can see the effect it has on Sif. Still, however, she stands her ground. "But you cannot disobey your king and father," she objects.

"And I cannot leave my brother. Already I held my tongue watching as my king and father drove burning wires into Loki's face, and before that I was blind and ignorant to the wrongs done to him by all of us in our youth, wrongs which permitted a madness to flourish in his heart with devastating consequence for this realm. I cannot turn my back upon him again. No, Sif, Asgard has its king and countless warriors to defend it. Loki has none but me."

"What if that's the point?"

The Avengers, Asgardians and Pepper turn to look at Clint. The archer-assassin has his arms folded with hands tucked into his armpits to keep them warm as he watches everyone. "What if we've got it all wrong, and instead of escaping the Chitauri Loki was released? He gets the Chitauri to beat him up, comes here with a sob story that makes everyone feel sorry for him especially Thor, which keeps Thor here on earth with his thunder hammer. Attacking Asgard may be a tall order but it's gotta be easier to do when its mightiest warrior is away on a guilt trip, right?"

Thor's face darkens and he opens his mouth to retort— "I don't know, Barton," says Bruce. "I mean, Loki's injuries and PTSD, that's a pretty extreme way to go for a cover story."

"Not if you're an alien super being with healing powers. Even the tongue thing, who's to say it's not going to regrow or get replaced somehow? In any case this is Loki we're talking about – or did you forget he's the god of lies and chaos?"

When put like that Steve has to admit – reluctantly – that Clint has a point, even if it's one he thinks is unlikely. He can see that the others are admitting it too in varying degrees. Sif nods. "Such a ploy would be just like Loki," she says, "and it makes it even more imperative that you return to lead our defence, Thor. We need you not just as Asgard's finest warrior, but as Asgard's crown prince. The people look to you, depend on you. It is your duty to defend them."

That does it. Thor wavers unhappily. "Can Loki go with you? Back to Asgard?" asks Pepper gently.

"That could be a risk," says Natasha. "Remember what Loki did allowing himself to be captured on the helicarrier – if Loki is working with the Chitauri it'd be dangerous to have him on Asgard near the Tesseract.

"Also remember how he let the Jotunns into Asgard on your coronation," adds Sif.

"And if Loki isn't working with the Chitauri, imagine what they'd do to him if they caught him again," says Bruce quietly.

Thor is looking more and more unhappy. Steve decides it's enough. "Thor, go to Asgard. We'll look after Loki in the meantime."

Thor's face lights up— "Oh no, no." That's Tony, waving his hands as if to physically deflect Steve's words. "Thor, you are not leaving us alone with your crazy brother!"

"Thor has a duty to protect Asgard, and we can't take the risk of letting Loki be on the same planet as the Tesseract during a Chitauri attack," Steve states.

"Yeah, and what about our planet, huh?" demands Clint. "Every day that passes Loki's healing up and sooner or later he's going to want out and then what kind of trouble is that going to be? Hell, he's trouble even while he's just sitting around locked up cause we'll have to roster up and watch him—"

"What we told Director Fury still stands," says Steve firmly, and offside he can see Bruce nod. "We're the Avengers, we can handle Loki and that doesn't change just because we're one person down. Or are you saying that next to Thor Iron Man and Hawkeye are just supporting characters?"

He raises his eyebrow at the two meeting their respective scowls, before glancing at Pepper who's pale with cold and tense in the way of someone who doesn't like a course of action but sees that it's the best compromise. Tony grits teeth and gives Thor a Look. "You, buddy, had better make it fast."

Thor has the biggest relieved smile on his face. "I will. You have my deepest gratitude, my friends, for permitting me to impose the burden of my brother on you even before this summons. I will forever be in your debt for this further imposition."

"Don't think like that, Thor. You're our friend." Bruce's voice is firm. "Friends help each other out, so there's no need to feel indebted to us."

"Though y'know, it'd be pretty useful to have a god owe me one - ow!" Tony yelps as Pepper elbows him.

Thor places one large hand on Steve's shoulder. His other reaches out to grasp Clint's. "Be patient with him," he says quietly, as behind him Sif lifts her face to the night sky, "and kind too, when you can. Hateful and mad as Loki may be he was not always such, and the blame for his change falls in no small part upon me. Perhaps he may accept from you what he cannot accept from his brother."

"We'll try," says Steve, without hesitation. Across from him Clint presses his mouth together in a tight thin line, but eventually gives the slightest of nods while further back Natasha smiles a small encouraging smile at Thor. Tony on the other hand just looks resigned. It's a consensus, albeit a reluctant one. "We promise."

A light shines down from the heavens pillar-like and dazzling bright. Sif stands in the middle of it her armor shining with scintillating colours. "We must go, Thor."

"Now?"

"The Bifrost is open and there is not a moment to lose."

"But—" The pillar of light is expanding out from Sif to cover Thor, and the rest of the Avengers and Pepper hastily back away from it. For a moment Thor looks torn but as the light brightens he sets his jaw, blond hair haloing about his face in the Bifrost's light which hums with the music of the spheres. "Fare thee well, my friends," he calls out. "I will return quickly, on that you have my word."

"You'd better!" yells Tony. "Kick some Chitauri ass for us!"

"And be careful!" Bruce adds.

Thor grins. Then he lifts Mjölnir and the light flashes bright enough making everyone throw their hands up to block their eyes. When they can see again, Thor and Sif are gone.

Tony is, predictably, the first to speak. "Okay, that was cool," he announces, looking at the spot where the Asgardians had been standing just seconds ago. "Think we could make one of those?"

Bruce doesn't answer as he stares round-eyed up at the night sky which after the light of the Bifrost now seems extra dark and cold. Steve notices that despite her coat Pepper is shivering. "Let's go back inside, okay guys?" he asks.

Natasha is already leading the way to do exactly that, and Pepper hurries after her followed by Tony. Bruce and Clint are next leaving Steve to go last and shut the terrace door – super tolerance of temperatures aside, it really was a little cold to be standing outside for so long. Only when everyone is heading back down to the lounge floor does the obvious question get asked. "So, uh," asks Bruce, "who's going to tell Loki his brother's gone?"

The others look at each other. Then, as one, they look to Steve. Steve gives a little sigh – he would have volunteered regardless, but it would have been nice to see that others were willing to step up to the plate. "Okay. But after we finish dinner and clean up."

Tony slaps him on the back with a grin. "Thanks, Cap. Knew we could count on you."

Steve sighs again.

 

* * *

 

Amy McArthur is having the time of her life. After three days of sightseeing, eating, dancing and drinking in Singapore she's now on a beach in Vietnam's Ha Long Bay. There's a large bonfire nearby on which she cooked her dinner of freshly caught fish, she's drinking a coconut from the nearby bungalow bar, a crowd has gathered and she's hanging out with some new friends. They – Amy herself, a South Korean surfer dude, two girls from Brazil, a Frenchman and an older Canadian woman – had all met at the hostel two days ago and grouped together to go to tonight's beach party for company and for the girls, to look out for each other. Especially Amy as the youngest of them, but then again since she's the only one who can actually speak the local language to some extent in a way she's the one best equipped to handle any trouble.

Amy hadn't been particularly confident in her Vietnamese before. She's never learnt it formally, just picked some up over the years from friends at school and even then it's been generally simple things like greetings and introductions, food and insults. Yet after two full days in Vietnam Amy is finding she knows much more Vietnamese than she thought, enough to not only order food and ask directions, but haggle with shopkeepers, argue with motorcyclists, and even strike up conversations with people in tea houses. She thinks maybe there is something to her father's suggestion that she take up a language and international studies at university after all.

The sun is setting. The bonfire burns higher. Amy touches the silver bracelet on her wrist and smiles as she thinks of her father.

Music starts up, a throbbing beat pulsates – a DJ's been set up in the bungalow bar and he's getting the party started. Laughing, Amy allows the Frenchman to pull her to her feet and begins to dance on the sand in bare feet, sarong flying, her hair and bikini top smelling of sea salt. The bracelet on her wrist catches the firelight.

Many hours and several drinks later, when the party is at its peak, the Frenchman tries to kiss Amy. Amy likes it at first, kisses back, but then the Frenchman is groping her backside pulling at the ties of her bikini top and Amy shoves him back with an outraged glare. The Frenchman laughs it off and grabs her arm, Amy struggles – the Canadian woman is there now shouting at him to stop or at least that's what Amy presumes she's shouting because nothing can be heard over the dancing crowd and music. There's a scuffle, Amy's arm is still caught – panicked, she screams for help in some language she doesn't know and suddenly the nearest dancers turn and start pulling at the Frenchman. They haul him back with shouts and then Amy herself is being rushed away, out of the crowd, back up the beach past the tree line into the quiet dark where she collapses sobbing in fright. Grim-faced, the Canadian woman wraps an arm around her shoulders and whispers an endless stream of reassurance. Eventually it has an effect and Amy begins to calm down, though she's still in shock. It's only then that she realises that her bracelet, her father's farewell gift, is gone.

Back on the beach a dancer savagely kicks sand into the Frenchman's bloodied face. With the musical chaos of the party the flash of silver that flicks up to land in the bonfire goes unseen. The red flames hiss and leap.

 

* * *

 

In his cell, Loki opens his eyes.

Chapter Text

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.

 

* * *

 

FIVETHIRTYEIGHT.COM
SUPER TUESDAY PRIMARY RESULTS

DEMOCRAT
Kenichi Patry: 46%
Diane Morrison: 42%
Mitchell Fairmont: 10%
Other...

REPUBLICAN
Mary McAvery: 35%
Ted Davis: 31%
Rick Samson: 24%
Parry Sherman: 12%
Other...

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
(more...)

 

* * *

 

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—"

"Stark—"

"—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-fifty."

"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.

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?]

"That's classified."

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.