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Ask Me No Questions

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“Thor,” Tony Stark said, his voice deliberately level, “what’s he doing here?”

Moments earlier, Thor and Loki had been delivered by Tesseract to Midgard—specifically, to the roof of the Tower of Stark. Thor’s mortal friends had, naturally, been waiting to greet him. When they saw that he was not alone, all reached for weapons and fell into battle-ready stances as best they could, considering they were lightly armed and dressed in flimsy Midgardian clothing.

Some to greater effect than others. Stark, without his enchanted armor, failed to project an air of menace, and of the green berserker’s mortal form, the less said the better.

Loki smiled ferally, knowing that Thor, anxious as he was to think the best of his little brother, would insist it was a friendly gesture. The mortals interpreted it accurately, and the more formidable of them assumed even stronger stances. The little archer even drew an arrow from the quiver at his back.

Emboldened by the evidence that someone in the Nine Realms still considered him a formidable foe, Loki made a gesture that, in happier times, would have resulted in a damaging bolt of magical energy. The archer drew back his bowstring, and the female assassin shifted her weight forward, poised to follow her companion’s arrow with a body blow.

Naturally, things being as they were, it was an empty gesture. The others relaxed slightly—though Barton and Romanoff remained wary—and Stark asked his question.

“It was not safe to leave my brother behind in Asgard, unguarded,” Thor explained.

Well. It had been nice while it lasted. Soon enough Thor would tell them why they ought not take him seriously as a threat.

“And you think it’s safer to have him here?” Stark demanded.

“Safe for him,” Thor explained. “In punishment for his crimes, our father has shorn him of his magic and his silver tongue. There are many on Asgard who would do him harm while he is defenseless.”

Explained out loud, it actually sounded worse than Loki had thought it would. It was true that Loki had collected his share of enemies on Asgard—he considered it a natural result of being Loki—and quite a number of them had sought to take advantage of his loss of the protections of magic and status. But “defenseless,” that rankled. All the more so because it was truer than he would have liked.

“Not exactly any different here,” Barton remarked, releasing some of the tension on his bowstring.

“I know he has wronged many on this realm as well, but since access to the Tower is restricted, he will be safe here,” Thor said. “I know that none of my friends will harm him.”

Loki had his doubts about that, but no one was asking him.

Banner spoke up from the back of the group. “Can we back up a minute? Your father actually cut out his tongue?”

Loki had no idea why he sounded so horrified. He was sure he had read of humans mutilating their criminals.

“No,” Thor said. “Fortunately, it was not necessary. The All-father bound his speech, so that he is compelled to speak the truth, and that only when he is asked.”

Initially, Odin’s geas had only prevented him from lying; the second provision had been added when it became clear that Loki could cause plenty of discord by speaking only carefully-selected truths. He wished now that he had refrained from revealing that particular loophole while on Asgard—he could surely have used it to much greater effect here.

“Oh,” Banner said. “Well, I suppose that’s better.”

“And you’re sure he can’t use his magic?” Stark asked.

“Yes, I am sure,” Thor said patiently. Apparently, he would even permit these mortals to question the might of Odin. Since there was no way Loki could use this disloyalty to his advantage—he couldn’t even tell anyone about it unless they thought to ask—he chose to be disgusted by it.

“All right,” Stark said. “In that case, the cells in the sub-basement should hold him.”

“No!” Thor exclaimed. “I will not have my brother caged like an animal.”

In truth, Loki would have rather been caged with his powers than free without them. Being dependent on Thor’s protection was the worst punishment he could imagine.

The mortals exchanged looks of confusion. “They’re not bad, as cells go,” Banner said. “I’ve locked myself in there a couple of times, when I thought I was going to hulk out. We’ll make sure he has everything he needs, and you can check on him whenever you want.”

“That is not the point,” Thor rumbled. “Loki has faced justice for his crimes, and he poses no threat. It would be unjust to confine him.”

“You just let him wander around on Asgard?” Barton demanded.

“Yes,” Thor said, sounding confused. Loki would have enjoyed his confusion more if he had not been similarly unsure why Barton seemed so skeptical. “Though we soon found that it was unwise for him to leave our quarters without my protection. There are many who resent him and are pleased to see him brought low.”

Captain Rogers spoke up. “I think I see Thor’s point.”

The others turned to him.

“We agreed to extradite Loki to Asgard for trial. They tried him, and imprisonment wasn’t part of his sentence. We don’t have any right to lock him up, unless he does something else.”

“He cannot,” Thor insisted. “Loki has always been a weak fighter; his magic and his words are his only weapons. Without them, he poses no danger to this realm or to yourselves.”

Ordinarily, Loki would have been quick to argue that point, but in the circumstances he had no choice but to swallow it. There was little chance of proving him wrong—reduced to the methods of fighting he’d never favored, in comparison to Thor “weak” was a generous assessment.

“I’m still not comfortable giving him the run of the place,” Stark answered.

“You are within your rights to require him to return to Asgard,” Thor said. “But if you do, I will have to accompany him.” Loki wondered if Thor was deliberately withholding the information that returning to Asgard would be easier said than done. More likely, Thor had simply forgotten. “I wish greatly to help defend your realm, but I swore an oath to protect Loki. The greater obligation must take precedence.”

For a moment, Loki dared to hope that his mere presence would serve to break Thor’s ties to his mortal friends, despite the fact that he had not spoken a single word. But then Rogers said, “I don’t think we have much choice, guys. As long as he stays in the Tower where we can all keep an eye on him, he can’t cause much trouble. And if he leaves, somebody’s bound to recognize him. I’m sure Loki’s smart enough to realize that won’t end well for him.”

Rogers looked at him as if expecting a response, but since it wasn’t a question, Loki was neither able nor compelled to answer verbally. Technically, he could have nodded, but the geas didn’t require him to do that, either. Instead, he raised his chin slightly.

“What about when we aren’t here to keep an eye on him?” Romanoff pointed out practically. “We can’t leave him to his own devices when we go on missions.”

That was a question, and since it was not explicitly directed at anyone in particular, the curse permitted Loki to pretend he was meant to answer it. “I could give you my word that I will not, as they say, ‘try anything.’”

It looked like several of them might fall for it, until Banner asked, “Does the geas actually work that way? If he says he won’t do anything, does that mean he won’t be able to?”

“Unfortunately, no,” Thor said with a sigh. “If asked, he must reveal any mischief that he has planned, but he has proven himself able to evade that restriction by acting without prior planning.”

Loki wished he hadn’t revealed that loophole, either.

“Okay,” Roger said. “What if we put him in a cell only when we’re on missions? I think that’s the best we can do, Thor,” he added, sounding genuinely sorry. “For everyone’s safety.”

Thor sighed, looking over at Loki. “I accept your terms. I am sorry, brother, but my friends are right; you cannot be trusted when none of us are watching.”

That was, perhaps, the nicest thing Thor had said to him since this mess started. Not that it made up for “defenseless” and “weak fighter.”

Stark added, “I’ll be updating the security protocols to restrict him from some parts of the Tower—the R&D levels, the armory--”

“My quarters,” Romanoff added.

“Anyone’s quarters who asks me to,” Stark agreed. “And Jarvis will monitor him for suspicious activity. That’s non-negotiable, Thor. This is my house, and my place of business. There are parts of it I can’t have crazed megalomaniacs traipsing through, no matter whose brother they are.”

Really, if they didn’t stop complimenting him, Loki might blush.

“I understand,” Thor said. “There were portions of the palace that Loki was barred from entering, as well.”

“Okay,” Steve said. “Are there any more objections?” He looked from one Avenger’s face to the next, and no one spoke up.

“Right,” Stark said, clapping his hands together. “I was going to show you your new quarters myself—there are a few things I cooked up that I think you’re going to like—but I’d better get started on those security updates. Steve?”

“Sure, I’ll show him,” Rogers agreed. “Them,” he added. “Right this way.”

It turned out that Thor’s quarters consisted of an entire floor of the Tower. “Tony gave us each one,” Rogers explained with a shrug. “I guess he has a lot of extra space.” Rogers pointed out a sitting room, equipped with television and several other devices Loki was not familiar with, and a kitchen, where he explained, “The icebox and pantry are already stocked, but if you want anything special, you can let Jarvis know, and he’ll have it delivered.”

“Who is Jarvis?” Thor asked. “A servant?”

“Not exactly,” Rogers said. “He’s, uh, Tony calls him an Artificial Intelligence. Like a computer, but smarter. You know?”

“I am familiar with computers,” Thor said. “I was not aware that they were used for such purposes.”

“I don’t think they are, in regular people’s houses,” Rogers said, sounding unsure. “Jarvis is special. But he has eyes and ears all over the Tower—electronic ones, I mean—so if you want anything, just say his name and explain what you want. He’ll either arrange it himself or tell you how.”

That didn’t precisely help Loki very much—he couldn’t speak to Jarvis any more than he could to anyone else—but he doubted anyone would care.

Rogers showed them to Thor’s sleeping-chamber next. It was nearly as large as his one at home, and decorated in red and gold. The carpet covered every inch of the floor, and Loki’s feet sank into it in a most disconcerting way.

“You have to ask Jarvis if you want to open the curtains,” Rogers continued. “I won’t tell you how long I spent looking for a cord before he finally clued me in. Sometimes I think Tony makes things complicated just because he can.”

“I had noticed that as well,” Thor agreed.

“And here’s one of Tony’s Starkpads,” Rogers continued, picking up an item like a very slim book from a small table next to the bed and opening the cover to reveal a computer screen. “You can use it to look things up, and play games—I don’t think I’ve figured out all the things it can do yet, but I can show you what I know, if you want.”

“Perhaps later,” Thor said politely.

From his tone of disinterest, Loki suspected that Thor might not even notice when Loki “borrowed” it later. There were a number of things he wanted to look up. During his previous trip to Midgard, he had relied on his mortal minions to operate the information machines, but he had observed enough that he was confident he’d be able to figure it out.

Continuing the tour, Rogers said, “If your quarters are like mine, there are probably a couple of guest rooms down here.” Opening a door, he revealed another sleeping-chamber, smaller and less elaborate than Thor’s.

“Good,” Thor said, looking back at Loki. “You can have a chamber of your own, brother,” he said in the tone of one presenting a child with a new pony.

Since Loki couldn’t say anything, he had to rely on his facial expression to convey how thrilled he was at the prospect of not having to sleep on Thor’s hearthrug like a hound.

Unfortunately, Thor was as poor at detecting nonverbal sarcasm as the other kind. “Let us see it,” he suggested, clapping Loki’s shoulder heartily.

The room had the usual things—a bed, a place for storing clothing, draperies that he could not operate since he was unable to speak to Jarvis. There was a television—smaller than the one in the sitting room or in Thor’s sleeping-chamber—and, he was pleased to see, an attached bath. It was shared with the neighboring room, but since no one occupied that room, Loki would have it to himself.

Loki was tempted to remain in his chamber and escape Thor’s company for a time, but on reflection, he decided that the chance of Rogers dropping some tidbit of useful information was worth enduring it for a little longer. He trailed after them as they left the room.

“I think it’s just more guest rooms down this hall,” Rogers said, turning back towards the sitting room. “Tony wasn’t really sure what you’d want. I have something called a ‘media room;’ I bet he could put one of those in if you wanted. But there’s a gym over here. There’s a bigger one down on seventeen, where we can all train together, too.”

The sparring-room was quite large, and equipped with a number of rather alarming-looking machines. Fortunately, Loki knew from his previous visit that they were instruments for exercising in a limited space and without a sparring partner, though some mortals jokingly claimed that they were, in fact, the torture devices they resembled.

“I’m not used to most of this stuff, either,” Rogers continued. “We mostly exercised outside, where I come from. But I’ve figured out how to use most of it, and Tony modified it for, you know. Stronger guys.”

“That was most kind of him,” Thor said.

“You should, uh, tell Tony what you like,” Rogers added. “He doesn’t make a lot of fuss about it, but apparently he worked pretty hard on getting everybody’s rooms ready.”

“I will tell him our rooms are most satisfactory,” Thor said. “Are they not, brother?”

Loki knew perfectly well that the expected answer was “yes,” and that under the circumstances it would be to his advantage to give it, but the geas did not distinguish between polite lies and any other kind. He was not, in fact, particularly satisfied that his room was smaller than Thor’s, and he was particularly displeased by the number of features that were inaccessible to someone who, through no fault of his own, was temporarily unable to speak freely. Something like, “I’m sure you like them,” would be true and could be made to sound reasonably courteous, but the geas would not allow him to stray so far from the question that had been asked. Nor could he simply refrain from responding at all—when a question was directed at him, he felt mounting pressure from the geas until he answered it. “No,” he finally said, sullenly.

Both Rogers and Thor looked at him with disapproval. But neither of them asked why he had said it, so he couldn’t explain.

“I’ll, uh, I’ll let you guys get settled,” Rogers said.

#

No formal meeting had been called, but Tony wasn’t too surprised when the rest of the Avengers began drifting into his apartment. Clint and Natasha were the first to arrive, joining him at the display where he was updating the security protocols, and putting their two cents in. Bruce slipped in next, as Natasha was presenting an argument that simply keeping the doors to certain areas shut was not enough. “He’ll find a way around it if he has enough time. We should set it up to do something to him if he tries. Like an electric shock.”

“Or a poison dart,” Clint suggested.

Tony didn’t think Thor would agree to that, and he wasn’t certain he would, either. But he did arrange for Jarvis to notify both him and Thor if Loki approached any unauthorized areas.

Clint and Natasha kept offering suggestions for Loki-traps, and Tony kept ignoring them, until Bruce finally spoke up. “Okay, I’m just going to say it. Is it worth it to have Thor on the team if it means we have to put up with Loki?”

They all looked at him. Bruce didn’t speak up that much; it tended to attract attention when he did. Tony envied that, but could never manage to keep his own mouth shut to make it work for him.

“I’m really asking,” Bruce added. “Maybe it is. I just think we should run the cost-benefit analysis before we decide.”

“I did,” Tony said. As soon as Thor had given the ultimatum. It hadn’t taken long, and he hadn’t shared his work with the rest of the class, but hey—genius. “First off, Thor and Iron Man are the only ones who can stand up to the Hulk if he gets loose, and it’s not always a one-man job. Sorry, Bruce,” he added, “but we have to take that into account. Secondly, having Thor on the team gives us a direct line to Asgard. I think they’d still back us up if we really needed it, but we might not be able to reach them in time. We can contain Loki.”

“I’m not sure that I buy that not having his magic makes him harmless, though,” Bruce said.

“Neither do I,” Tony answered. “But the Asgardians do, so I don’t think they’re watching him very closely when he’s up there. Except for Thor, and apparently he’s mostly focused on protecting him from all the well-deserved ass-kickings he has coming to him. Here, the five of us are on our guard, and Jarvis never sleeps.” Opening the subroutines relating to the kitchen in Thor’s quarters, Tony went on, “He so much as picks up a grapefruit knife, we’ll know.”

That set Clint and Natasha off on a discussion of the potential of grapefruits as lethal weaponry. Fortunately, they concluded that the only way to kill someone with a grapefruit was either to poison it or shove it down someone’s throat. While they were at it, Tony asked Jarvis to compile a list of all accessible poisons in the parts of the Tower currently open to Loki.

#

“—watermelon would split apart before the person’s skull did, but maybe a pineapple,” Natasha was saying as Steve entered Tony’s quarters.

Living in Stark Tower for a couple of months now, Steve had gotten used to walking in on incomprehensible conversations. “Who are we killing with a pineapple?” he asked.

“Not us,” Clint said.

“Loki,” Natasha added.

“Uh, he wasn’t up to anything like that when I left,” Steve said. He didn’t think there even was a pineapple in Thor’s quarters.

“Hypothetically,” Bruce answered. “And I think we’ve strayed from the point.”

It turned out they were talking about whether Loki should be allowed to stay, again. Steve thought they’d settled that up on the roof. With everyone speaking at once, they filled him in on the discussion so far.

“Okay,” Steve said when they had finished. “So…nothing’s changed since we decided Loki could stay.” There was some muttering, but no one could come up with anything that had actually changed. “And Tony has all the precautions under control.”

“Yes,” Tony said, closing the displays with a flourish. “Locked up tighter than the queen’s…jewels.”

Steve suspected he had been about to say something else, but carefully did not think about what, since it was probably lewd. “Then what are we talking about?” Sometimes trying to keep their six personalities all pointing in the same direction made Steve homesick for the Army, where people at least paid lip service to following orders. Here, unless they were under fire, everyone had to have their say. And usually have it over and over again, even if no one actually disagreed. He summarized, “None of us are particularly happy Loki’s here, but sending him and Thor back to Asgard isn’t worth it, so we’re all going to stay alert and make the best of it. Right?”

The others reluctantly agreed.

#

One of the first things Loki did, after Thor finally left him alone in his chamber, was to check if this room had been equipped with a Starkpad as well. It would be embarrassing to be caught stealing Thor’s; it would be mortifying to be caught stealing it unnecessarily.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t one. Deciding it was probably a bit too early to raid Thor’s room, he explored his own. There was no unpacking to do—all Loki had brought was his second-best armor, and he was wearing it—but he opened the empty drawers in the clothing chest, unwrapped the little bars of soap in the bathroom, and figured out how to turn on the television. Loki had discovered that none of the mortals on the television were talking about anything he cared about, and was trying to figure out how to turn it off, when Thor came back.

“Ah!” he said. “You have discovered television. It is a device the mortals use for information and entertainment.”

I know that, you puling nincompoop, Loki thought. I have been to this realm before.

Thor went on, “The tiny skalds are not actually inside the box—the memory of their performance is recorded, then transmitted through a wire.”

And that told Loki more than he wanted to know about what Thor must have assumed the first time he saw television. Loki wished no one had explained it to him—the television finally fell silent, Loki having found the correct button to make it do so, and it would have been amusing if Thor thought he had killed the “tiny skalds.” Instead, he rolled his eyes.

“You already knew that?” Thor asked.

That was an easy one to answer. “Yes,” Loki said, before the geas could really get started.

“Ah,” Thor said, rubbing his forehead. “When I fell to Midgard, I was fortunate to find friends who explained how things had changed in the centuries since we visited here last.”

And, naturally, Thor assumed that Loki had not been so fortunate. But he hadn’t needed friends; he’d had minions. Not to mention his ability to observe and reason.

Thor watched him for a long moment. “It is strange to see you so quiet, my brother.”

That was hardly his fault, was it?

Thor seemed about to say something, then shook his head and said instead, “Would you like to spar?”

Another easy one. “No.”

“All right,” Thor said. “I’ll leave you to your thoughts.”

Please do.

Thor was, for a change, as good as his word. He left Loki alone for several hours, and then returned only to say, “I’ve been summoned to train with the other Avengers. Do you need anything?”

Loki had been giving the same response to that question since Odin had imposed his sentence; he wondered if Thor had realized yet that the answer was never going to change. “Restoration of my magic.” He managed not to include removal of the geas, on the theory that if his magic were restored, he could take care of that himself.

Thor sighed. “Good day, brother.”

Once Loki was sure that Thor was gone, he returned to the larger bedchamber and took up the Starkpad, rearranging the items on the small table to make it less obvious that something was missing. Returning to his own chamber, he began exploring the device. It was significantly easier to turn on than the television had been—there was a single large, glowing button, and pressing it caused the screen to come alive.

Metaphorically, of course, though perhaps Thor wouldn’t realize that. The screen displayed about a dozen small pictures, each labeled in Midgardian script. Loki knew from observing his mortal minions that one operated these information machines by touching the pictures with one’s fingers, but he hadn’t watched closely enough to know which image did what, and the labels meant little to him. Many were nonsense words: Starktunes, Skype, Microsoft. Others were combinations of familiar words that made no sense: Angry Birds, Fire Fox, Google Chrome. Then he noticed one that read, “Getting Started with Your Starkpad.”

That was almost suspiciously helpful, but, reminding himself that the device had been intended for Thor, Loki touched it anyway. The screen changed, and a second or two later, the device began to speak. Loki drew back slightly in alarm, thinking he’d been caught, perhaps by Stark’s artificially intelligent servant, but the voice continued speaking without seeming to have noticed either his reaction or that he was not the device’s intended user. A recording, then, like the television. Relaxing, Loki watched and listened as the device demonstrated how to use itself.

The tutorial was at times tedious, and at others confusing—it used a great many unfamiliar terms without explanation, but repeated a great many of the things it did explain. By the end, however, Loki knew what most of the other pictures did—though “Angry Birds” still remained a mystery.

It appeared that either Firefox or Google Chrome would do what he wanted, so Loki chose Firefox, on the grounds that he had been a fox once, and rather enjoyed it. Then he brought up the “virtual keyboard”—apparently a name borrowed from the external control panels of less advanced information machines—and considered what he wanted to research first.

A more straightforward mind—such as, say, Thor’s—might have opted to begin by knowing his enemies, but Loki decided it was even more important to find out what his enemies knew of him. He’d see what the mortals had to say of Loki of Asgard.

His fingers froze over the virtual keyboard.

Oh, no.

Odin had adjusted the geas to prevent Loki from communicating by writing, but Loki had not expected that the restriction would affect this means of “speech” that Odin had never even dreamed of.

Apparently, the old man was cleverer than Loki had given him credit for.

#

“Oh. My. God,” Tony said, looking down at his phone. “Bruce, you won’t believe what Loki’s doing.” Bruce had been on the sidelines since the beginning of the training session—the Hulk didn’t play well with others—and Tony had gotten bored and joined him there. The suit didn’t have many features it was safe to practice with indoors. Tony wouldn’t have bothered coming to these things, except Steve gave him puppy-dog eyes if he didn’t.

“What?” Bruce asked, looking alarmed.

“Vanity Googling,” Tony said. “Well, kind of. It looks like he hasn’t figured out typing yet, but he’s looking himself up in Wikipedia. Using the alphabetic index.”

“It has an alphabetic index?”

“I didn’t know, either,” Tony answered. “What should we edit the page to say?”

“That he’s a megalomaniac space wizard who tried to take over the world and destroyed a significant chunk of Manhattan?”

“It already says that. Come on, I want to put something funny.”

“You want to trolll Loki? On Wikipedia?”

Then Thor came bounding over, apparently having caught a few significant words from their conversation, and by the time they’d sorted out that neither Tony nor Loki was doing anything with actual trolls, the rest of the team had joined them. And, more to the point, Loki had left Wikipedia via a link to a New York Times article about his attack. There wasn’t much point to trolling Loki’s Wikipedia page if he wasn’t even going to see it.

Tony was tempted to do it anyway, though, when everyone started in on how unwise it would be.

“Really, Tony,” Bruce said. “We’re stuck with him; the last thing we need to do is provoke him.”

“I wasn’t going to put anything provocative,” Tony said. “Just that, I don’t know, he loves Hello Kitty or he once dressed up as Snow White for Halloween. Something funny.”

“It wouldn’t be funny to him,” Steve pointed out, giving Tony that look like he was a puppy who had just piddled on the carpet. “How would you feel if Loki put something like that on your Wikipedia page?”

“I’m sure he doesn’t know how,” Tony said, but quickly pulled up his own page to check.

“That isn’t the point,” Steve answered. “You know I don’t like bullying.”

“I’m not stuffing him in a locker,” Tony protested.

“No, but what you’re doing—what you said you wanted to do—is called cyber-bullying.” Steve pronounced the word “cyber” very carefully. “It can be very harmful. Some kids have even taken their own lives.”

Tony wasn’t particularly interested in the topic, but he did read headlines. “Yeah, teenage girls. Not megalomaniac space wizards.”

“You know,” Steve said thoughtfully, “maybe you should come along on some of my school visits. You can learn more about how cyber-bullying affects kids, and I’m sure they’d be impressed to have two superheroes taking an interest.”

“No, no,” Tony said hastily. “That’s not necessary. You convinced me. No cyber-bullying Loki.” That was a sentence Tony could not have believed that he—or anyone else—would ever utter.

Thor changed the subject by asking Steve about his school visits.

“It’s called ‘community oriented superheroing,’” Steve explained enthusiastically. “Instead of just showing up to fight the bad guys after an attack has already happened, we get involved with the community. It’s about prevention, and teaching people to be heroes in their own ways.”

“You teach the children to fight villains in their schools?” Thor asked.

“Not exactly,” Steve answered. “I talk to the kids about being kind to each other, and sticking up for the little guy, and solving problems without resorting to violence. You’d be surprised how many super villains were bullied as children. We hope that if they see someone cares enough about their problems to try to help, they won’t go down that path.”

“I see,” Thor said, looking thoughtful.

“Not that it’s an excuse, of course,” Steve added quickly. “A lot of super heroes were bullied, too. That’s another thing I tell the kids, that they can’t always control how people treat them, but they can control how they react. We talk about ways to respond to bullies without sinking to their level.”

“And this is effective?” Thor asked.

Steve shrugged. “Hard to say. All we can do is try.”

#

After reading about himself and the Avengers, Loki turned to researching the mortals’ notions of punishment for wrongdoers. He didn’t entirely understand why Banner had seemed so appalled when he thought Odin had cut out Loki’s tongue, while at the same time they were all perfectly happy to throw him in the tower’s dungeon—except for Rogers, who seemed to have objected on the basis of some technicality that Loki also didn’t understand. Exploration of the subject might lead him to other technicalities he could use to his advantage.

He returned to the compendium of knowledge where he had started his exploration—its alphabetical list of subjects seemed the best way of approaching a new topic, for one who was unable to type. The brief articles on “Wikipedia” did not always provide as much information as he would have liked, but they always included links to other articles on the same subject, which in turn lead him to others, and so on. It was rather like how a book would often include references to other books discussing the same topics—but instead of having to locate the book, one simply touched the blue script on the screen and was instantly presented with it. What clever beasts these mortals were.

After a brief detour into the subject of justice as an abstract concept—the mortals seemed far less certain than, say, Odin and Thor, that they knew what justice actually was—Loki found what he was looking for.

Apparently, sometime in the last few centuries, the mortals had decided that flogging, branding, and mutilating criminals was indecent, and had instituted the practice of confinement for a set period of time, on the grounds that it was kinder.

Trying to understand why they thought a kinder punishment was better than a crueler one led him back to theories of justice. Loki had never given much thought to the question of why wrongdoers ought to be punished—it seemed fairly obvious—but the mortals certainly had. On that subject they were as divided as on any other, but by cross-referencing the material on justice with what he had learned about the Avengers, he suspected that the purposes they would find most sympathetic were prevention (making it impossible for the criminal to repeat his actions) and rehabilitation (making it so that he would not want to repeat his actions).

Binding Loki’s tongue and stripping him of his magic accomplished the first, but not the second. He could venture a guess that the Avengers—particularly Captain Rogers—would want to rehabilitate him. And the article about sentencing explained that criminals who had been rehabilitated were often released from confinement earlier than the date stipulated. Clearly, he should be watchful for the team’s attempts to rehabilitate him, and should find some way to make it appear that they were working.

It would have been a great deal easier, of course, if he could talk. He could go to Rogers and profess regret for his actions—he could even have managed to do that without lying, if he had to, since he certainly regretted that his plan had not succeeded—and ask humbly for the Captain’s assistance in atoning for his crimes.

A very sound plan, if only he could talk.

Loki was prevented from developing another one by the sound of approaching footsteps. Hurriedly, he shoved the Starkpad under his pillow, and was reclining innocently on the bed, his hands folded, when Thor opened the door. Thor looked a bit surprised, as though he’d expected to find Loki occupied in something nefarious, but he didn’t ask. “Come, brother,” he said. “The others are gathering in Stark’s quarters for the evening meal.”

Loki was tempted to refuse—he couldn’t do so verbally, but simply remaining where he was would make his intentions clear—but lately Thor had taken to responding to such gestures of free will on Loki’s part by simply dragging him wherever Thor thought he should go, often with admonitions not to “sulk.” Going where Thor wanted him to go under his own power was at least marginally more dignified.

The mortals were gathered in Stark’s sitting room—similar in size and architecture to the one in Thor’s quarters, but differently decorated—chatting and dishing food onto plates from small boxes. Loki recognized it as the Chinese food he’d encountered on his previous visit to Midgard; it was strange, but not unpleasant.

All of the Avengers turned to look warily at Loki when they entered, but Thor must have told them he was coming, so at least no one demanded to know what he was doing there, this time.

The others enfolded Thor gladly into their conversation, recounting past exploits and urging him to try various dishes from the array of cartons on the coffee table. Loki trailed after him and helped himself to some food more-or-less at random, although he did make a point of taking the last eggroll. One of his minions had referred to an untrustworthy person as “the sort of guy who’d steal the last eggroll,” and Loki had always made a point of playing down to expectations.

Once everyone was settled on the sofa and chairs with their meals, and Barton had finished relating an account of a battle the Avengers had engaged in while Thor was away, Stark asked, “So, Thor, what have you been up to since we saw you last?”

Thor hesitated, something Loki was not sure he had ever seen him do before. “Little I wish to speak of,” he finally said. “There was Loki’s trial, of course, and continuing negotiations with the Jotun.”

“Jotun,” Rogers said. “Those are the, uh….”

“Yes,” Thor said. “Our relations with them remain strained, but they are in no position to launch an attack against Asgard. Diplomacy may be preferable to war, in the long view, but it does not make for an exciting tale.”

“I know what you mean,” Stark said. “I think I’ve spent half my life in meetings.” He went on to tell what was, indeed, a very dull tale about one such meeting. The burden of the tale seemed to be that the meeting occupied several hours of the time of some very important people, but accomplished nothing. Loki wondered why he chose to waste even more time telling them about it.

Once he’d finished, Rogers cleared his throat. “So, uh, Loki,” he said. “Are you getting settled in okay? You comfortable?”

The geas compelled Loki to answer, “No.” Even if he hadn’t been stripped of his magic, being the lone super villain confined in the heroes’ tower would hardly be comfortable, would it? Under the geas, Loki could neither elaborate nor temporize; his curt response left the others looking at him with something like disbelief.

“Guess he told you,” Barton muttered from his seat on Rogers’s far side.

Romanoff added, “Believe me, we’re just as thrilled to have you here.”

Of that, Loki had no doubt.

The next few days in the Tower of Stark went much the same as the first. Loki spent most of his time in his sleeping chamber—bedroom, the mortals called it—continuing his research while Thor played with his new friends. Periodically, Thor insisted that Loki join them for a meal or a movie. Frequently, on these occasions, one or another of the Avengers would speak to Loki in a manner he was apparently supposed to believe was friendly. Then they would all look at him as though expecting him to respond, even though he hadn’t been asked a question. Occasionally, someone would ask a yes-or-no question, but the answer the geas compelled him to give was never the one they wanted. In any case, they would pretend to be surprised and offended at his rudeness.

Perhaps they would eventually tire of the game. Thor’s Asgardian comrades had not, but Stark, at least, seemed to show some faint gleam of intelligence.

Then the Avengers were summoned to defend some puny mortal city against some puny mortal super villain—Loki didn’t pay much attention to the details. He made sure to conceal Thor’s Starkpad under his coat before he was bundled off to the cell in the sub-basement, and passed the next day and a half quite in a manner far less unpleasant than any since his capture following the attack on New York, reading websites and amusing himself with the game of the Angry Birds.

#

On the jet back from Reykjavik, Tony was messing around with some design ideas for the next version of the suit. Natasha and Clint insisted that the real pros used post-mission downtime to sleep, but Tony was always too keyed up for that. Instead, he thought over the near-disasters—or, in a few cases, actual disasters—of the mission and worked out what suit modifications would ensure they never happened again. He didn’t always make the modifications—for instance, he’d concluded that the thing with the duck had to be a one-off, not something he needed to plan for—but it was always good to have ideas in the hopper.

This mission had actually gone pretty well, though, so when Thor gently lowered himself into the seat next to his, Tony said, “What’s up, big guy?” instead of ignoring him.

“I am anxious to return and release my brother,” Thor admitted.

“I’m sure he’s fine,” Tony said. But he hadn’t checked in a while, so he added, “Jarvis, what’s Loki up to?”

“He is playing Angry Birds,” Jarvis reported.

“See?” Tony said. “Fine.” But Thor looked a little confused, so Tony added, “It’s a video game. You throw birds at pigs, and—it’s not important. Simulated mayhem; maybe it’ll take the edge off his crazy.”

“I think it will take more than that,” Thor answered.

“Yeah, I didn’t really think so, either.”

“I know that Loki has not been a…pleasant guest,” Thor said, prompting Tony to wonder if the nominations for “understatement of the year” were closed yet. “But he is my brother. He has not always been so…troubled.”

Why had Thor picked him for this heart-to-heart? Tony started running scenarios for how he could bump this one over to Steve—but a glance across the aisle proved that Steve was sleeping like a pro. “I’m sure he wasn’t,” Tony said lamely. “It must be…hard.” Yeah, stunning insight there, genius-boy.

Thor was silent for a long moment. “Lately, I have had cause to wonder if there was something I could have done.”

Now, what were you supposed to say to that? Tell him Tony was sure he’d done his best, maybe, but Tony had a few regrets of his own, and he was pretty sure that if he got up the guts to talk to someone about it and they told him he’d done his best, Tony would sock them one, suited up or no. He compromised on a sort of interrogative grunt.

“I have been talking to Steve, about his plans to deter future super villains by talking to children about kindness and solving problems without fighting.”

“Uh, yeah?” Maybe he’d start pestering Thor to help him out with that project, and leave Tony alone about it. A guy could hope.

“It will not surprise you to hear that in our youth, we had no such lessons.”

“No,” Tony agreed. “I kind of figured, non-violent conflict resolution probably doesn’t go with your space Viking warrior-king deal.”

Thor more or less ignored that, like he did most of Tony’s more flippant remarks. “When we were young, my friends and I did not, as you say, stuff Loki in lockers. But we seldom permitted him to join our adventures, though he was always eager to do so. And we delighted in reminding him of the ways he was different from us.”

So Thor had picked on his bratty younger brother when they were kids—Tony was going to go ahead and assume he’d been bratty, because, Loki. “I was an only child myself,” Tony said, “but I think all older siblings do that.”

“Perhaps.” Thor looked past Tony and out the window. “But I wonder, if I had been kinder to him, more…accepting of his differences—” Tony recognized the phrase from Steve’s anti-bullying program—“If he might not have become so overwrought when he learned….” Thor seemed to consider his next words carefully, before settling on, “That he was not born to the house of Odin.”

“Yeah,” Tony said. “I can see how you’d wonder that. But you know, there’s being upset, and then there’s trying to take over the world. He could have put his fist through a wall or something. He didn’t have to take it out on innocent people.”

“He didn’t begin by taking it out on innocent people.” Thor smiled humorlessly. “He began by taking it out on Jotun.”

“Jotun?” Tony asked.

“The race of Loki’s birth,” Thor explained. “He tried to annihilate their realm. To finish the task that the All-Father and I began. Of course, I was banished for my attempt at it, so I don’t entirely understand why he thought Father would approve of his—but as I say, he was overwrought.”

“Loki tried to…destroy his home planet,” Tony said. “Because he thought your dad would approve?”

“The realm of his birth, yes. Asgard is his home.”

“Right, sorry,” Tony muttered automatically. So it turned out that calling Loki a megalomaniac space wizard was actually underselling him. Crazy-as-a-shithouse-rat space wizard, maybe. “And then he, uh, went missing for a while?”

“He allowed himself to fall into the Void between worlds. When he realized that Father was not pleased.” Thor paused for a moment, like he realized he had to let that one sink in. “We had every reason to think him dead—we could find no hint that anyone had ever survived such a fall. But walking between worlds has always been one of Loki’s particular talents.” Then Thor shook his head, looking down at his big hands, knotted on his lap. “Or perhaps it is a common one, among—among those of his birth. In any case, the first we knew of his survival was his attack on Midgard. What he experienced in the Void is also unknown, but it is unlikely to have been pleasant.”

Okay, now Tony could sort of see why Thor felt sorry for Loki.

“I have hoped that, if he is shown kindness, if he sees that he is still my brother and our parents’ son, he will…regain his senses. Steve thinks it unlikely.”

There was just a hint of a question in his tone, but Tony knew what he was angling for. “Yeah, Thor, I’m sorry to say it, but I agree with Steve. Trying to conquer the planet isn’t something I’ve ever heard of anybody coming back from.”

Thor shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Tony wondered if he knew there was a bathroom on the plane.

“What?”

“I do not like to say it, because it is your world he attempted to conquer,” Thor said. “But...some of the greatest heroes of our tales have conquered worlds. I know your tales are different,” he added hastily. “In your tales, only villains attempt such things. But it was not long ago that I thought conquering Jotunheim would prove me a hero and a worthy king. Had I been cast down to Midgard with all my powers intact….”

Before Tony could be too horrified, Thor shook his head. “No, I do not think that I would have attempted to conquer Midgard myself. But the first mortals I met quickly became my friends. If I had chanced to fall into some other part of your world, perhaps one of the places desolated by petty tyrants vying for supremacy…in that case, I might have convinced myself that bringing Midgard under my rule would serve this realm well, and allow me to redeem myself in the All-Father’s eyes. If it had turned out that way…who knows? Perhaps you five would even now be fighting me. It is not even impossible to imagine that Father and Loki might have settled their differences, and Father sent him down to assist you in bringing me to bay.”

Thor got to his feet, like a mountain unfolding, clapped Tony on the shoulder, and headed for the back of the plane.

One he was out of earshot, Bruce, who Tony had thought was asleep behind them, spoke up. “Well, shit.”

“You said it,” Tony answered faintly.

#

“Brother.”

Startled awake, Loki sat up and saw Thor standing in the doorway to his cell. Surreptitiously, he slid his hand under the pillow and slipped the Starkpad under his coat.

“We are returned,” Thor continued, displaying his gift for stating the obvious.

Loki raised an eyebrow.

“You need not remain in this cage any longer,” Thor added, as if Loki might have missed that detail.

Loki looked around the cell, attempting to convey through the gesture that he hadn’t noticed that he was confined, but Thor, as usual, missed the nuance.

“Jarvis is sending roast fowl and potato salad to our quarters,” he added.

Pinning the Starkpad between his elbow and ribcage, Loki got to his feet and followed Thor out of the cell. As they rode the elevator up to Thor’s quarters, Thor recounted the recent battle, occasionally pausing for the admiring remarks that the geas prevented Loki from uttering.

At least it was good for something.

Roast fowl and potato salad at least made a change from what Loki had been eating for the last day and a half. The Avengers had left him with adequate food and water—“Like a cat,” Stark had remarked—but Loki was getting tired of foodstuffs that required neither heating nor refrigeration. He could have done without Thor continuing his tale of the recent mission, however. Now that he’d finished telling of his own part, he went on to explain what each of the Avengers had done.

At the conclusion of the thrilling tale of how Barton had hidden himself in a high place and shot arrows into things, Thor asked, “And you, brother. What did you find to occupy yourself in our absence?”

An open-ended question gave Loki more leeway in his answer. The geas required that whatever he said be true, but he had some choice in how complete it was. He briefly considered treating Thor to a recital of time he had eaten, scratched, and relieved himself—presenting the tale in mock-heroic fashion might even be amusing, and it had been quite some time since Loki had had the pleasure of hearing his own voice at any length. But Thor was all too likely to actually enjoy it. Remaining as taciturn as possible was far more reliably annoying. Sipping carefully from the bottle of ale Thor had set before him, Loki answered, “Very little.”

Thor’s brow creased. “It cannot have been very interesting for you,” he acknowledged. “I regret that you could not accompany us.”

Loki didn’t—going up against even a mortal villain with no magic didn’t sound like a good time to him. He let his distaste for the idea show, but Thor misinterpreted it.

“We used to go on adventures together, brother,” Thor reminded him. “We could again.”

Yes, Loki would be sure to invite Thor along the next time he tried to conquer his friends’ world.

“The Avengers would appreciate that you fight using your wits instead of strength of arms,” Thor continued earnestly.

Certainly they would. Thor’s old companions had as well—frequently for as long as thirty seconds after Loki had used his wits to save their sorry hides. Taking up a leg of roast fowl, Loki retreated to his room.

#

“So there we were,” Thor said dramatically, “surrounded on all sides by a hundred of the Norn Queen’s soldiers. Even such fierce warriors as we are could not have hoped to prevail against such numbers.”

Tony resisted the temptation to look pointedly at his watch. This story of Thor’s—which he’d started telling in the middle of pizza night for no apparent reason—had been going on for about four times longer than Tony had been interested in it, and with at least one more “thrilling battle” to go, there was no end in sight.

“And there was no avenue of retreat open to us,” Thor continued. “Defeat seemed sure. But then, at the last moment, Loki veiled us in a cloud of smoke to ease our escape.”

Natasha, who up until now had been leaning back, her chair balanced on two legs, looking as bored as Tony was, sat forward with a thump. “Loki was there?”

“Of course he was,” Thor said, sounding confused about why anyone would think he wasn’t. He’d said at the beginning that he went on this adventure with a “small band of warriors,” but he hadn’t mentioned any names.

“Whose side was he on?” Clint asked.

Ours, of course,” Thor said.

“It’s just, uh, you didn’t mention him before now,” Bruce explained. “You know, when you were fighting the monster…thing…with all the heads….”

“Or when you convinced the ‘comely serving-wenches’ not to scream for help,” Natasha added.

“Or when you knocked out the guy who was guarding the treasure room,” Tony said helpfully, glancing over at Loki, who was staring at the ceiling like it had insulted his mother.

“I must have mentioned him then,” Thor said. “He was the one who undid the enchantment securing the door.” He looked around the group. “Did I not?”

Tony was pretty sure he hadn’t—that part had been near the beginning, when he was still paying attention—but before he could answer, Loki said, “No.”

“I am sorry, brother,” Thor said. “I could start over.”

No,” said Tony, Natasha, and Bruce, all at the same time.

“I mean,” Bruce added, “I’m sure we can just…slot that part in with what you already told us.”

The rest of them quickly agreed.

“Very well,” Thor said, with another sorrowful look at Loki. “Well, as I said, Loki veiled us in smoke. And we escaped. With our honor and with the Circlet of Seven Leaves, which we presented to our mother.”

“Is that it?” Tony said hopefully.

Thor seemed to misinterpret his tone. “Is it not a glorious tale?”

“No, it was great. Very, uh…glorious,” Tony said. “It just…wrapped up kind of quick.” Oh God, he could not believe he was saying that. Did he want to listen to even more of it?

Thor still looked bewildered. “It was an adventure in which we prevailed thanks to Loki’s cleverness,” he explained.

If the point had been to remind Loki of the good old days, Tony thought, Thor probably should have made a little more of an effort to show that he remembered Loki had been there.

“So the, uh, veil of smoke,” Bruce said. “Was it magic smoke, or was it, like a rubbing two sticks together kind of situation, or…?”

“An illusion,” Thor said. “Loki’s very good at them.”

Loki transferred his glare from the ceiling to his brother.

“Brother?” Thor asked. “It…wasn’t an illusion?” he ventured.

“No,” Loki growled.

Now even Tony thought Loki had legitimate reason to be pissed—at least, for a reasonable sibling-annoyance level of being pissed. It seemed like they’d heard about every stroke of Thor’s hammer, but he didn’t even know exactly what Loki’s contribution had been. It was like if Thor made some big production out of explaining one of their missions, and then said, “Oh, yeah, then Tony saved our asses by doing some of that science stuff he likes, the end.” Tony would have been a little ticked off, too. Particularly if he couldn’t jump in and explain what the science stuff had been. With that in mind, he turned to Loki and asked, “So what was it?”

Loki gave him one of his contemptuous, kneel-before-me-puny-mortal looks, and ground out, “Real smoke. Summoned by magic.”

Tony nodded. “Seems like that would work better. You probably wouldn’t get the whole watering eyes, not being able to breathe thing if it was an illusion. Right?”

“Correct,” Loki said. He looked…not exactly pleased, but a step back from murderous, at least.

Then Bruce said, “So what other kinds of magic stuff can you do? Besides the, uh, the smoke and the illusions?”

The murderous look came back with a vengeance. Loki pushed his chair back, snapped out, “None,” and stormed off.

Tony looked over at Bruce. “Didja have to piss off princess when I just got him down for his nap?”

“I probably should have realized magic would be kind of a sore subject,” Bruce admitted.

Thor just frowned—how else?--thunderously.

#

Thor was beginning to understand Tony’s distaste for meetings. He didn’t mind the ones before missions, since there was always something of substance to discuss, but Steve was in the habit of calling one at least once a week to discuss “ongoing operations.” This one had been taken up mostly by Clint complaining that the officially licensed action figure made in his likeness looked nothing like him.

Once his views on the matter had been heard, Steve moved on to the next topic. “I have another project I could really use some more help with. On Saturday—weather and super villains permitting, of course—I’m going to be helping some kids rebuild a playground.”

That, Thor was actually interested in. While his attempts at showing Loki that his differences were valued, by sharing a tale in which he saved the day with his cleverness, had not been particularly successful, he hoped that Steve’s community-based superheroing initiatives might lead him to another idea for soothing Loki’s madness. “Are these the children you are teaching not to bully one another?”

“Not exactly,” Steve answered. “This group are juveniles court-ordered to perform community service.”

Thor’s confusion must have shown on his face, because Tony said, “He means juvenile delinquents.”

“I am not familiar with that expression,” Thor said.

“They’re kids who have had a little trouble with the law,” Steve explained. “The idea is to give them positive role-models and show them they can contribute positively to the community. But some of them might not be too cooperative, at first, so it would be just great to have more of you guys—or Natasha—there to help make sure they….”

“Don’t kill each other with the power tools?” Tony asked.

“Something like that,” Steve admitted.

“I’m pretty sure I’m washing my hair that day,” Tony said.

“Bruce?” Steve said hopefully.

“I will assist,” Thor said.

“See, there you go,” Tony said. “And he’s already got his own hammer.”

Thor suspected that Tony was jesting, but just in case, he said, “It would not be wise to use Mjolnir in the construction of a playground. I will obtain an ordinary Midgardian hammer for the purpose.” Two of them, in fact.

#

Loki turned over the…object…in his hands before looking at Thor with frank disbelief.

“Allow me to explain,” Thor said.

Loki couldn’t imagine that any explanation that Thor might offer could possibly answer all his questions, but there was nothing Loki could do to stop him from trying.

Thor began by explaining Rogers’s ideas of “community based superheroing,” which Loki had already learned of from the internet. What speaking to school children and picking up litter had to do with heroism, Loki was not sure, and he gained little insight from Thor’s explanation other than that Rogers apparently believed that these activities would somehow prevent mortals from becoming super villains.

Thor eventually worked around to telling Loki what that had to do with him. “Today we will be helping some troubled young people rebuild a playground.”

We?

“You cannot accompany us on our more…traditionally heroic exploits,” Thor went on, “but there can be no objection to you joining us for this…activity.”

Loki very much doubted that. For one thing, the mortals just might remember how the playground in question had come to be damaged in the first place.

It turned out that the objections came much sooner than that. As soon as they exited the elevator in the tower’s lobby, Rogers said, “Great, Thor, you’re the last—oh, boy.” He stared at Loki for a moment, then looked over to Banner for support.

“This is a surprise,” Banner said.

“I did not want to say anything before I knew that Loki would agree,” Thor explained.

Agree? Loki was quite certain that Thor hadn’t asked. Just interrupted Loki’s reading and handed him a…thing.

All right, so it was a hammer. Made of Midgardian steel, with a rubber handle and a price tag on it that said $9.99. And Thor had apparently left Mjolnir behind in favor of one just like it. It would have been funny, except that Loki was fairly sure that the joke was at his expense.

“Yeah, Thor, I’m…not sure this is such a good idea,” Rogers said.

Thor looked at Rogers like a confused lapdog. “You explained that this project is meant to give those who have wronged the community an opportunity to contribute positively. Do you not think that Loki can benefit from such an experience?”

“Honestly?” Rogers asked, his eyes narrowing. “No, I don’t.”

Oh. Heavens. It wasn’t Rogers who wanted to rehabilitate him—it was Thor. Loki would never have predicted that.

“It’s great that you’re so loyal to your brother, really,” Rogers went on. “But after everything he’s done, no. I don’t think he can change. And he can’t possibly be a good influence on the kids.”

“He can hardly incite them to further disruptive activities under the eyes of half of the Avengers,” Thor pointed out. Glancing over at Loki, he added, “Not without his magic, at least.”

“You know, Thor, somebody might recognize him” Banner pointed out.

Thank you. At least someone here had both basic reasoning skills and the freedom to speak.

“No one would dare attack him under the eyes of half the Avengers, either,” Thor said.

Rogers sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Look, if Bruce and I both think this is a bad idea--”

“Hang on,” Banner said. “I’m not sure if I’m ready to cast my vote yet. Loki, are you even on board with this? Do you want to come help us with this?”

Loki certainly hadn’t wanted to before, but now that Rogers was against it, he was starting to see the appeal. And he could put forward his plan of appearing to be rehabilitated with Thor as the target instead of Rogers. “Yes,” he answered.

Really?” Banner asked. Then, suspiciously, “Why?”

Open-ended question. Loki searched for an answer that was both true and misleading. “I haven’t left this Tower in over two weeks. I’m bored.”

“And are you planning any mayhem?”

“No,” Loki said truthfully. Given his long-term plan, he might not even take advantage of any opportunities that arose.

“Okay. Then…I think we should let him come. But if he makes any trouble at all—I mean if he so much as jaywalks on the way there—no more field trips.”

“Loki cannot assume the form of a jay—or any other bird—without his magic,” Thor said.

“That isn’t—never mind. He has to behave himself.”

“We understand,” Thor said, looking over at Loki. “Don’t we, brother?”

“Yes,” Loki agreed. He even tried to sound pleasant about it.

Taking a deep breath, Rogers looked around the group. “All right, then. Let’s go.”

Stepping out onto the streets of New York for the first time since his army had tried to conquer half of it, Loki felt…nervous. He half-expected that the first mortal to see him would point, scream, and perhaps try to attack him with one of their puny mortal weapons.

Puny mortal weapons that, without his magic, he had little chance of defending himself against. But no one seemed to notice them, not as they left the Tower, nor as they boarded the subway, or even when they arrived at the damaged playground, where a group of sullen-looking mortal youths loitered under the supervision of a pair of adults, who introduced themselves as Ms. Chalmers and Mr. Gill.

Rogers immediately took command of the group, explaining the day’s work in tones so enthusiastic that they bordered on the deranged, then dividing the young people into groups and assigning each one a superhero and a task. He ended with, “And Lateesha, Quinn, Deyvon, Martin, and…uh, Loki, you work with Thor on the pirate ship. Thor will get all you guys set up with hammers; won’t that be fun?”

Loki was somewhat pleased to see that his new teammates looked about as thrilled about the prospect as he felt. Thor did, indeed, get them all set up with hammers. “Where the pirate ship?” asked one of the young people.

“There,” Thor said, pointing at a pile of lumber occupying one corner of the playground. “Tony Stark created the plans; we need only to follow them.”

As it turned out, Loki did not get to use his new hammer immediately. One of the first tasks for their team to accomplish was cutting the lumber to length using a power saw with a very large spinning blade, and as all of the youths except Lateesha were clamoring to be the one chosen to operate it, the Chalmers woman came over and—clearly having no idea who he was, apart from an adult and, from the way he was dressed, conspicuously affiliated with Thor—assigned Loki to do it.

It was actually rather satisfying. It would have been more satisfying to cut the lumber using magic (if he had to cut lumber) or to use the saw to sever the limbs of his enemies (if he had to use the saw), but it was better than nothing. Lateesha was assigned to measure the boards and mark with a pencil where Loki was to cut, and they worked side-by-side, without speaking, until Mr. Gill came around distributing sack lunches.

Loki sat down on the pile of cut lumber to inspect his lunch; after a moment, Lateesha joined him. The lunch break, too, might have passed perfectly pleasantly—apart from the food, at least—if Thor had not called out, “Brother! Join us!”

Loki looked up to see Thor waving from where he and the mortal boys were sitting on and around the skeleton of the pirate ship.

“Brother!” Thor yelled again. “And—young woman!”

Lateesha looked from Thor to Loki. “He ain’t gonna shut up till we go over there, is he?”

Prior experience certainly suggested he wouldn’t. Loki shook his head. “No.”

They went, Loki finding a place to sit as far from Thor as reasonably possible.

As Loki struggled to eat a sandwich consisting of two slices of bread and a single slice of something he refused to believe was actually cheese, one of the mortal youths—Deyvon, Loki thought—suddenly said, “Hey, you that guy.” Rising to his feet, he brandished his hammer as though it were a scepter and proclaimed, “Kneel, puny mortals!”

Loki was almost entirely certain he had never said that.

But another of the youths, Quinn, said, “Yeah, you the ‘kneel puny mortals’ guy! Man, that helmet is sick.”

The word sounded like an insult, but the young man’s tone was admiring. Loki inclined his head graciously.

“You still got the helmet?” Martin asked.

“Yeah, where is it?” Deyvon looked around as though Loki might be hiding it behind his back.

“No. It was destroyed in the final battle,” Loki answered.

“You really his brother?” asked Lateesha.

Loki wanted to say no, but the geas wouldn’t let him. “In a manner of speaking.”

“What you doing here? You court-ordered too, or what?” Martin asked.

These mortals were so good about asking open-ended questions. “Something like that.”

“How you get community service for flattening half of New York?” Deyvon wanted to know.

Before Loki could answer, Lateesha said, “’Cause their daddy a king. Rich white boys always get community service.”

“It was my brother’s idea,” Loki said.

Lateesha shook her head and repeated, “Rich white boys. What you want to go knocking down our city for, anyway?”

It was with some surprise that Loki realized that no one had ever actually asked him that question before. “I wanted to conquer your realm,” Loki answered. “The damage to your city was incidental.” Not to mention that the Avengers had knocked down as much of it as he had, but the geas wouldn’t let him stray that far from the question.

Lateesha wasn’t satisfied with that answer. “Why you want to ‘conquer our realm,’ then?”

Loki really didn’t want to get into his reasons—how keenly he’d sought for an opportunity to leave Thanos’s “hospitality,” and to take up his rightful place as king. Somewhere. “I needed a realm. Yours was convenient.”

“I know,” said Deyvon, balling up the wrapper from his sandwich and throwing it at one of the other youths. “It like that movie. You the younger brother, right?”

“Yes,” Loki admitted.

“See,” Deyvon continued authoritatively, “places that got kings and shit, only the oldest son get to be king when their dad dies. If the younger one want to be king of something, he gotta conquer it.”

Both Thor and the mortals were watching Loki intently, though none of them had actually asked him anything. Loki shrugged.

“It is true that Loki was not to inherit,” Thor said. “But that does not excuse him attempting to take over your realm.”

“I dunno,” Deyvon said, looking as though he didn’t appreciate Thor’s sanctimonious tone any more than Loki did. “Sometimes a man just in a conquering mood.”

Loki could not agree more. After considering for a moment how best to express his agreement nonverbally, he extended his hand, curled loosely into a fist, to Deyvon, who bumped his knuckles with a solemn nod.

#

“Mr. Stark wishes me to inform you that there is pizza in his quarters,” Jarvis announced when the returning Avengers, plus Loki, stepped into the Tower’s lobby.

“A feast to end our adventure,” Thor said to Loki.

Loki just grimaced, but Thor thought he was pleased. The construction of the mock pirate ship had gone well—though they would have to return next weekend to paint and add other finishing touches—and more importantly, Loki had contributed positively to the community, and even had received admiration from the youths for his exploits as a warrior.

Admittedly, Thor was a little surprised that it was the “juvenile delinquents” who were able to see past the fact that it was their personal city which had been the site of Loki’s deeds, while his fellow heroes were not. And he was also a little bit glad that Steve had not noticed the youths’ esteem for Loki, as Thor suspected he would not approve. But if Loki’s villainy had been motivated by feeling that he was not appreciated and did not belong—as the reading materials Steve had given him suggested was often the case with those who felt themselves bullied and then became bullies in turn—surely receiving acceptance from anyone was a step in the right direction.

When they arrived at Tony’s quarters, Tony approached them, a slice of pizza in hand. The Avengers who had not participated in the playground re-building were already present and similarly occupied. “Thor, I’ve gotta tell you, I wish you’d clued me in that you were taking Tall, Dark, and Crazy along on this Boy-Scout project. It might have been worth going along just to see that.”

“In that case,” Thor said, “you can join us when we reunite next week.”

“Next week,” Tony said.

Pretending to misunderstand his doubtful tone, Thor explained, “We did not have time to complete the work, and the youths’ schooling does not permit them to continue until next Saturday.”

“I’ll check my schedule.” Tony gestured toward the bar that occupied one side of his sitting room. “Pizza, beer, soda, help yourselves.” Stuffing the crust of his pizza slice into his mouth, he ambled over with them to obtain another. “So how’d it go?” Tony inclined the neck of his beer bottle in Loki’s direction. “He eat any kids?”

“I know it is in your nature to make such jests,” Thor said. “But you risk that someone might think you mean it.”

“So that’s a no, on the kid-eating?” Tony asked.

“He actually wasn’t any trouble,” Steve said, reaching past Tony to select a slice of pizza with pepperoni. “And I have to admit, he even did his share of the work. I was surprised.” Glancing over at Loki, he added, “Good job, Loki.”

Loki nodded in acknowledgement, and Thor beamed at both of them. “Did you not enjoy contributing positively to the community, brother?”

Loki cocked his head to one side like an inquisitive bird. “Yes,” he said firmly.

Thor smiled even more broadly. At least, until Tony groaned and said, “Tell me you didn’t fall for that.”

“The geas does not allow him to lie,” Thor reminded him.

“Yeah, but think about what you said. ‘Did you not enjoy’ it. And he said yes, he didn’t enjoy it.”

Thor looked at Loki to confirm that this was true. It was difficult to remain disappointed in him for long when he saw the traces of Loki’s familiar, mischievous grin dancing at the edges of his lips. Thor shook his head ruefully. “You have fooled me again, brother. But surely you enjoyed something about our day.”

Loki just shrugged. Thor decided to take that as a victory—at least he hadn’t denied it completely.

#

Over the next few days, Thor dragged Loki along to more and more activities with the Avengers, and offered increasingly sincere apologies when he had to leave Loki to his own devices while the team trained or discussed strategy. Loki generally chose to cooperate, with as much appearance of good will as he could muster. The more Thor believed that he was successfully rehabilitating him, and the more the Avengers got used to him as an inconsequential presence, the more….

Well, to be honest, Loki didn’t exactly know what his endgame was. It wouldn’t be as simple as convincing Thor to restore his magic; he wouldn’t be able to do so even if he wanted to. Loki wasn’t even sure if Odin could. He might have destroyed it utterly. But if Loki was encouraging the Avengers to underestimate him, at least he was doing something—and surely eventually he’d find some opportunity to take advantage of it.

One day, they were gathered in Banner’s apartment playing a video game. Unlike Angry Birds, in this one, one played not by touching the screen, but by moving one’s body as one wished the on-screen figures to move. Loki was unfamiliar with many of the sports the others were miming, but it was nevertheless amusing to watch them contorting their bodies as if swinging bats, throwing balls, and so on. Watching Thor fail spectacularly at putting an imaginary basketball into a net was a particular highlight.

“Maybe that’s, uh, not exactly in your wheelhouse,” Banner said when the others’ peals of laughter had died down. “Here, there’s a sword fighting one. Do you want to try that?”

Thor agreed, and quickly defeated Banner, Stark, and Barton at imaginary swordplay. Rogers posed a bit more of a challenge, but Thor eventually triumphed over him, too.

“Do you want a turn, Loki?” Banner asked when Romanoff had declined the opportunity to be beaten as well—like Loki, she seemed to prefer watching her teammates embarrass themselves over making a spectacle of herself.

Thor turned to look at Loki hopefully.

“No,” Loki said. One of the few advantages of no longer being a prince of Asgard in good standing was that he didn’t have to engage in combat practice of any kind.

“We could play one of the other games,” Thor suggested. “I think I noticed darts on the list. You’ve always been better than me at darts.”

That was true, but Loki certainly didn’t want to take the chance that he’d be less good at imaginary darts.

“Go on, Loki,” Rogers urged him. “It’s fun.”

“Oh, come on,” Barton said suddenly, his tone much less friendly. “Tell me we are not doing this.”

“Doing what?” Rogers asked.

“Pretending like the mass-murdering super villain is one of the gang now,” Barton explained.

“It’s been like three months since he’s tried to take over the world,” Stark pointed out. “Granted, most of that he was on Asgard, but--”

“It’s not funny, Tony,” Barton interrupted.

This was getting more entertaining by the minute. If Loki’d had his magic, he would have conjured a bowl of popcorn.

“Okay, so maybe we have to let him live here because Thor’s…compromised, and at least this way we can keep an eye on him. But we do not have to hang out with him. And I for one am not going to.” Suiting action to words, Barton stood to leave.

“Clint,” Thor said. “If you would only make an effort to understand why Loki acted as he did--”

“I already understand. The guy was in my head for three days. Does anyone else even remember that? I know as much as I need to know about his motivations, and I am never going to feel sorry for him. Excuse me.” Stepping over Rogers and Banner’s legs, he left the apartment. A moment later, Romanoff got up and followed him.

“Okay,” Banner said. “I’m thinking maybe the party’s over?”

#

After giving Clint a little time to cool down, Bruce sought him out. He felt bad about how the gathering had ended, and wanted to explain things to Clint.

He found him in the main gym, with Natasha. They were both sweaty and dressed in workout clothes, but by now they were just sitting on a pile of mats drinking bottles of water.

“Hey,” Bruce said, waving.

“Hey,” Clint answered. “Look, no hard feelings about…earlier. I mean, it wasn’t you personally.”

“Thanks,” Bruce said, sitting beside them. “I’m sorry, too. I didn’t think about how you might be uncomfortable hanging out with Loki, and I should have.”

Clint shook his head. “It’s not about me being uncomfortable. It’s about him being a villain. Even if he’s neutered right now, we need to stay on our guard.”

“I know,” Bruce said. “I just…I mean, Thor misses his brother.”

Clint nodded. “I know he does.”

“And I thought, well, what harm does it do to just, you know. Give him that. Let his little brother be part of the gang for a little bit.”

“We can’t afford to get complacent,” Natasha spoke up. “That’s the harm.”

Clint nodded. “Right. Look, when he was controlling me…it was like I was still me, but I wanted the same things he wanted, you know? And what he wants is…scary. Those aliens he brought with him, they thought he had him under control too. The deal was that they’d give him an army to conquer Earth with, and he’d give them the Tesseract.”

Bruce nodded; Clint had explained that in the debriefing.

“But that was only one layer of it. He had all these contingencies running about how he’d double-cross the Chitauri the first chance he got, and then use the Tesseract to send a human army back and conquer them. And conquering Asgard was somewhere on the decision-tree, too. I can’t even really keep it all straight now that he’s out of my head, but it all made so much sense then. And his motives are just….”

As Clint trailed off, Natasha took up where he left off. “He’s an insecure little man who wants as much power as he can get, any way he can get it.” Bruce knew that Natasha had plenty of experience with men like that. “There’s nothing complex or misunderstood about it.”

“We can’t afford to play along with Thor’s little fantasies, because he’ll play along, too. Right up until he gets a chance to stab us in the back,” Clint finished.

“Do we need to talk to the team about this?” Bruce asked.

Clint rubbed his jaw. “I’d like to think everybody already knows. But maybe a reminder wouldn’t hurt.”

“I’ll get Cap to call a meeting,” Bruce suggested.

Clint nodded. “And I’ll…prepare some remarks.”

#

When the meeting started, Tony was clowning around with a Powerpoint slide that said, “It has been __ days since our last super villain invasion.” It initially displayed 11 days, but Tony and Bruce were arguing about whether a little dustup in Central Park that Iron Man had put down in about ten minutes yesterday counted as an invasion.

Clint decided to use it as his hook for starting his presentation. “In case the rest of you haven’t noticed, we have a super villain living in Thor’s guest room.”

Of course Thor immediately started arguing about that. “He is not a super villain. I admit, he has…made some unwise choices…but he is no villain.” Clint waited for somebody else to point out he was wrong, but the others just sat around looking uncomfortable.

Taking over the slide projector, Clint put up some images of the damage Loki had done to the SHIELD base, the Helicarrier, and—oh, yes—Manhattan. He ended with Phil Coulson’s file photo. “He’s been hanging around here like he’s some kind of mascot,” Clint said. “Eating pizza and playing Angry Birds. I think some of us are starting to forget he’s a monster.”

“He is my brother,” Thor objected.

“Yeah, well. Phil had a brother, too.”

“He did?” Tony asked. “Nobody tells me these things.”

Cap shushed him. “What is it that you want us to do, Clint?”

“Stay on our guard. Remember that he’s a prisoner. Stop all this trying to understand him and make him feel wanted crap.”

“Hear, hear,” Natasha said.

Steve cleared his throat. “Actually, I’ve been thinking that we should be making more of this opportunity to understand him.”

Oh, God. Not him, too. Clint had thought that at least Cap was on the side of the sane people. “Really? If you hadn’t been frozen, would you be trying to understand Hitler?”

“Godwin’s!” Tony said brightly.

“Shut up, Tony,” said Bruce.

Steve explained, “Many historians believe that the most important reason Hitler’s rise to power succeeded was that the Allies failed to understand the psychological effects of the First World War on Germany. The Germans were humiliated, their country was economically and personally devastated, and the harsh peace terms only made things worse. The next generation was angry and looking for a leader who would convince them that their defeat wasn’t their fault and would help them get revenge. So after the war—my war—the Allies helped Germany rebuild, and they haven’t made any trouble in over half a century. So yes, if I’d been around, I like to think I would have helped with that.”

That wasn’t what Clint had meant at all, and he sensed that he was losing ground fast. “It’s not the same.”

“No,” Steve agreed. “But you asked. I don’t see Loki coming over to our side,” he added, with a glance over at Thor. “But we do have an opportunity, here, to understand the super villain mindset better. And possibly leave Loki a little bit less thirsty for vengeance.”

Things devolved from there. Thor earnestly explained what great pals he and Loki used to be, and gave them all a reprise of the sad story of how Loki had completely flipped his shit when he found out he was adopted. Tony talked about how maybe, if Loki got a little more cooperative, Tony could pick his brain about how Asgardian magic worked, and come up with better ways to defend against it. Steve reminded everyone about due process and the American Way, and how they couldn’t do anything to Loki since he hadn’t done anything to them recently enough.

And when Clint tried to explain that he wasn’t talking about doing anything, exactly, just remembering to stay cautious and not go soft on Loki just because he seemed harmless at the moment, all they did was pat him on the head—metaphorically, although Steve did give him a manly clap on the shoulder—and say that of course they were already being careful and would continue to do so.

Steve wrapped up by saying, “So everyone’s had a chance to be heard, and I think it’s clear that we all more or less agree about what we’re doing. Right?”

Clint didn’t even argue; it just wasn’t worth going another round. Besides, it would probably suit Loki just fine to know they were all arguing over him, even when he hadn’t—as everyone kept pointing out—even done anything.

Then he left the meeting room, and the very first person—monster, whatever—he saw was Loki. Leaning over the railing and looking down on the lobby of Stark Tower, like he really was a god looking down on Earth from heaven. It was sickening. “You,” Clint said, advancing on him.

#

For a second, Loki could only be amused that the weakest of the Avengers seemed to think he was actually some kind of a threat to Loki.

Then he remembered that, right now, Barton was a threat. Whatever Thor said, Loki was not completely hopeless as a fighter—but without his magic to enhance his strength, speed and agility, he was, at best, evenly matched against a particularly skilled mortal. And he had no doubt that the Avengers would come down on him like the proverbial ton of bricks if it even looked like he might prevail.

Smiling slightly, Loki spread his hands and did his best to look friendly, helpless, and a little bit confused.

“What do you think you’re smirking at, asshole?”

Several answers flashed through Loki’s mind; he settled on, “You,” as the least inflammatory.

“I hope you know you’re not fooling anyone.” Barton continued to advance until he had Loki backed up against the mezzanine railing.

Fooling them about what? Loki actually had to lean back a little, against the railing, to keep Barton’s face out of his.

“Phil was a friend of mine, you know. He was a good guy.”

Loki had absolutely no idea who Barton was talking about—though, surprisingly, he could tell that he was lying. Barton wanted to believe that this “Phil” had been a friend of his, but he hadn’t really been.

“Kind of a geek. Big fan of Cap—so at least he got to meet him before you killed him. I guess that’s good.”

Loki hadn’t killed Captain America—obviously, since he’d just left the room a couple of moments before Barton did—so Phil must be someone Loki had killed.

“But, you know, I think he’d rather have lived.” With the last word, Barton shoved his arm against Loki’s throat, pushing him back even further, and bringing him dangerously close to overbalancing.

Now Loki was…alarmed. Just a little bit. One good shove, and his fragile, un-magically-enhanced body would tip over the railing and plummet onto the marble floor two stories below. It might not kill him, but it would certainly hurt.

If Loki had had command of his voice, he might even have considered yelling for Thor. Better to be embarrassed and walk away than turned into a broken sack of meat, after all.

“Do you even know who I’m talking about?” Barton demanded.

“No,” Loki admitted, struggling to pull Barton’s arm away from his throat so he could breath.

“Agent Coulson,” Barton said. “On the helicarrier. You stabbed him in the back.”

Oh, him.

“And I know you’re not even sorry.”

Well, no, he wasn’t. He wasn’t entirely sure why Barton was so upset about it. “Phil” had fought to the last in defense of his planet, and had managed to knock Loki—a fully powered god at a time—on his backside, after suffering a mortal wound. Surely he’d gone straight to Valhalla—and if Barton really missed him all that much, all he had to do was keep on being stupid and heroic, and he’d join him there soon enough.

“Are you?” Barton demanded.

#

“—yeah,” Bruce was saying to Thor, who was understandably a little upset that Clint had called a meeting to discuss how untrustworthy his brother was. “But you have to see it from his perspective, too. I mean, he said it’s not that he’s uncomfortable over the mind-control thing, but--”

Suddenly, they heard a strange, squishy thud, followed by Clint’s voice saying “Shit.” Jarvis’s cool tones spoke up, “Dr. Banner, there is a medical emergency in the lobby.”

Bruce took off at a sprint, Thor easily keeping pace with him. Bruce was initially relieved to see Clint standing by the mezzanine railing, looking intact. “Clint! You okay? What happened?”

Looking back and forth between Bruce and Thor, Clint said, “Yeah, I—you better get down there.”

They looked over the railing. Loki lay on the lobby floor, two stories below. Bruce wouldn’t have thought that a fall like that would seriously inconvenience Loki, even without his magic, but he was very still. As they watched, a thin trail of blood spread across the marble tiles, from his head.

Thor got to his brother’s side by the simple expedient of jumping over the railing, but Bruce had to take the long way down, shouting instructions to Jarvis as he did.

When Bruce ran out of the elevator in the lobby, Thor was leaning over Loki, his hands on his shoulders. “Don’t move him!” Bruce yelled.

Thor looked up at him sharply. “Why not?”

“If there’s damage to his spine,” Bruce panted, “could make it worse. Just, ah, keep him still.”

Kneeling down beside Loki, Bruce was keenly aware that, no matter how he looked, Loki was, in fact, an alien. Fortunately, Thor had never had any injuries serious enough for differences in his physiology to be an issue—but Bruce could already tell that this was going to be a different story.

Still, the ABCs ought to be the same. Methodically, Bruce checked Loki’s airway—unobstructed—breathing—shallow, but present—and circulation. His pulse, at least, seemed strong.

“Does he live?” Thor asked.

Bruce glanced up at him. “Yes. He’s unconscious.” Assessing the patient’s spine, with that ridiculous leather armor covering most of it, was going to be a challenge. The neck, at least, seemed all right. He moved down to rock Loki’s pelvis.

“What are you doing?” Thor demanded.

“Checking for damage to his spine.” Anticipating Thor’s next question, he went on, “I won’t be sure until we get an x-ray, but it looks okay so far.”

“The wound on his head appears most serious,” Thor pointed out, crouching by Loki’s head.

“Yes, I’m getting to that next.” Keeping himself calm by reviewing his training, Bruce explained, “Trauma assessment starts with checking the things that will kill a patient the fastest. Head injuries are a little bit down the list.” Probing the back of Loki’s head, Bruce found it sticky with blood, but, “Skull seems intact.”

“That’s good,” Thor said. “Isn’t it?”

“Probably.”

Steve and Tony were arriving now, with the stretcher and backboard that Bruce had called for.

“Jarvis said you needed some help?” Tony said.

“My brother is injured,” Thor explained.

“Yeah,” Bruce said. “Hand me that c-collar.”

#

Thor sat in the outer room of the tower’s infirmary, waiting for news of his brother. Tony was in the inner room with Bruce, helping to operate the medical machinery. Steve was waiting with Thor; he wasn’t sure where Clint and Natasha were. No one would tell him.

Nor would they explain how Loki had come to be injured. Even Jarvis was silent on the subject.

“I’m sure he’ll be okay,” Steve spoke up. “I mean, he’s been through a lot worse before. Like when the Hulk….”

“He uses—used—his magic to increase his body’s resistance to injury,” Thor said.

“Oh.”

“Indeed.” For just that reason, Thor had taken great care to protect Loki on Asgard, keeping him within sight at all times. But he’d thought him safe here.

Bruce came out of the inner room, wearing a white coat over his ordinary clothes. “Thor, what’s the medical care like on Asgard?”

“What?” Thor asked.

“Loki’s…it’s pretty bad. And he’s not, you know. Human. If what you’ve got there is as good or better as what we have here, the best thing is probably going to be to stabilize him and take him home for treatment,” Bruce explained.

Thor understood what he meant, but shook his head. “We cannot.”

“Why not?”

“The Bifrost is still not functional,” he explained. “We travelled here via the Tesseract, and arranged to return the same way in six months’ time. I was given no means to arrange an earlier retrieval.”

“Shit,” Bruce said. “And—you can’t get a message to them?”

“No.” Hadn’t he already said as much? “Tell me what you can do for my brother.”

“Okay. Uh, he has some bleeding in his brain. That’s…that can get pretty bad. If the bleeding doesn’t stop on its own, there’s nowhere for it to go, so the pressure will build up inside his skull, and eventually it’ll damage his brain.”

“He will be feebleminded?”

“Possibly, or paralyzed, or… this kind of thing can even cause death. It all depends on how big the injury is, and where in the brain, and how well it responds to treatment. Some people recover with no permanent effects. In Loki’s case…well, I’ve seen worse, but it’s serious enough that it’s not going to just turn out OK on its own. We’re going to have to come up with a plan of treatment fast.”

Bruce kept mentioning treatment. That was good. Loki was not necessarily going to die, or be crippled. “What is the treatment?”

“Well, usually the first steps would be drugs to reduce the bleeding and pressure. But the problem is, we don’t know how Loki’s body will respond to those drugs. They could do nothing—which will waste time—or even make it worse somehow.”

Thor sensed that Bruce had something else to suggest, and that Thor wasn’t going to like it very much. “I see.”

“So we’re probably going to have to go on to the next step, which is a little more drastic. We have to, uh, cut into his skull to relieve the pressure.”

Thor was right; he didn’t like it. “You intend to crack my brother’s skull?”

“Very carefully,” Bruce emphasized. “We use a…actually, Tony’s calling hospitals to get the equipment right now. I’d make a sort of…flap, in the area closest to the site of injury, and put in a tube to draw out the blood. It sounds alarming, but with this procedure, I wouldn’t actually be doing anything to the brain itself, so it’s actually…pretty straightforward.”

It sounded a lot less straightforward than simply applying a healing spell to the injury—but that was not an option. Thor nodded.

Bruce went on, “If that doesn’t work, the third stage is going into the brain to repair the damaged vessels, but that’s a lot riskier, not to mention way outside my area of expertise, so we’re gonna hope that’s not necessary…but Tony’s also scouting around for a brain surgeon willing to work on an alien. Just in case we need that.”

“I am in his debt,” Thor said. “And yours. Very well.”

Bruce nodded. “As soon as the equipment gets here, we’ll get started. He also has some broken bones—four ribs, the clavicle and scapula on the right side, and the head of the humerus. That’s going to hurt, but the treatment’s straightforward. Fortunately, there isn’t any serious damage to the soft tissues in the thorax and abdomen—his armor protected him. That’s really lucky, because from what I saw on the MRI, nothing in there is where I would expect it to be—he has some organs I can’t even recognize—so trying to operate would be a nightmare.”

“We are fortunate,” Thor said, even though, at the moment, he really didn’t feel fortunate.

“Yeah, I….” Bruce trailed off. “Do you want to come in and see him, before we operate? I mean, he’s unconscious, but….”

“Yes,” Thor said immediately, rising to his feet.

Loki was lying on a bed, dressed in the traditional Midgardian light-blue medical smock. Thor always forgot how small he looked, without his armor, and he looked even smaller now, without his vast personality inhabiting his relatively slight frame. He looked nearly as fragile as a mortal.

“Brother,” Thor said, swallowing hard around a lump in his throat. He took Loki’s uninjured hand. “Brother,” he repeated. “I am sorry that I allowed this to happen to you.” It wasn’t just that he hadn’t watched Loki more closely. He had brought him to Midgard—to prevent precisely this fate, true. And he had scarcely argued when Father named Loki’s punishment, though he knew that Loki would find it a sore trial. And he hadn’t been able to stop him from committing his crimes on this realm. Or from allowing himself to fall into the Void. “You will be well,” he promised Loki, instead of saying any of that. “Bruce Banner will heal your injuries, and you will be well.”

#

By the time Steve showed up in Clint’s apartment, Clint had convinced himself that Loki’s fall hadn’t been as serious as it had looked. The guy had been well enough to ask Tony for a drink just a short time after a thorough thrashing from the Hulk, and had been up on his feet not long after that. Falling a couple of stories was nothing. He probably just had the wind knocked out of him. Or he could just be playing possum so that he could complain to Thor that people were being mean to him. Yeah, that was probably it.

His confidence in his interpretation was seriously shaken, though, by the look on Steve’s—no, on Captain Rogers’s—face when Clint opened the door to him. “Do you want to explain yourself?” the Captain asked.

Clint backed up, letting Cap into the room. The thought crossed his mind to claim that Loki had attacked him first—but Jarvis had cameras all over the place; Steve had probably already seen exactly what happened. “I lost my temper,” he admitted. “I…didn’t feel like you guys were hearing what I was saying at the meeting, and then when I went out and saw him, it just pissed me off. I asked him if he was even sorry for what he did, he said he wasn’t, and I shoved him over the railing.”

Rogers just looked at him, his expression a mixture of disappointment and…something else.

“What do you want me to do? You want me to apologize?” Clint had intended the suggestion sarcastically at first, but he continued, “Fine, I’ll apologize. I’ll--”

“Clint,” Rogers interrupted. “He might die.”

What?” Clint said. No, no, no. Thor was going to kill him. “That can’t be. He’s a god—or a Jotun, whatever that is.”

“According to Thor, without his magic, he’s a lot less durable.” Steve went on to explain Loki’s injuries. “A human would have been lucky to come off that lightly, but it’s still pretty serious. Dr. Banner is working on him, but it’ll be a while before we know what’s going to happen.” Before Clint even had time to process what he was hearing, he went on, “I’m placing you on administrative leave until such time as we decide how to proceed.” In a less formal tone, he added, “You’re not confined to quarters, but I’d recommend staying here for a while anyway. Thor’s sticking close to Loki right now, but….”

“Yeah,” Clint said. “Yeah, I’ll do that.” He really didn’t want to run into Thor unexpectedly.

“Based on what you’ve told me, if he does die, I’ll do everything I can to have you charged with manslaughter here in America rather than…whatever they do on Asgard to someone who kills one of their princes.”

“What? That’s—that’s insane. Superheroes don’t get arrested for killing super villains. It’s our job.”

“We kill super villains when it’s the only way to protect innocent lives,” Rogers reminded him. “If possible, we bring them in alive to face justice. You assaulted a foreign dignitary—a foreign dignitary who is also a war criminal, but still—while he was minding his own business. Whatever your personal feelings are, that’s against the law. Not to mention the potential for endangering our alliance with Asgard.”

When it put it like that, it wasn’t really a surprise that Cap would see it that way. “Right,” Clint said. “I…wasn’t thinking about any of that.”

“I know,” Steve said, with a slight smile. “Let’s just hope he lives. Apparently we’re out of touch with Asgard for the next few months, so if Loki’s recovered by then, maybe this will all blow over.”

#

“So, I gotta ask,” Tony said, gesturing with a beer bottle. “What is the deal with the horse?” He and Steve were in the medical bay’s waiting room, supporting Thor as he waited for news of Loki’s condition. Bruce had finished the surgery, and he said it would be a while before they could expect any improvement, but Thor insisted on staying as close as Bruce would let him.

Surprisingly, the drinking had been Thor’s idea. Apparently, the Asgardian idea of a sickbed vigil was to sit around telling stories about the patient—or maybe that was just Thor’s idea of a sickbed vigil; since he was the only sane person from Asgard they knew, it was hard to tell sometimes. In any case, Thor seemed to take for granted that you couldn’t tell stories without drinking.

“Which horse?” Thor asked.

“According to the myths, Loki gave birth to you guys’ dad’s horse. Sleep—Slep…the eight-legged one.”

Thor chuckled. “I will have to tell him that when he wakes. No, he did not birth the horse, but he is known as Sleipnir’s mother. It is a most amusing tale.”

But before he could tell it, Bruce came out of the infirmary. “No change,” he said quickly, holding up his hands. “Did you want to look in on him?”

Some time earlier—when they were all a lot more sober—Bruce had given all the caveats about how he didn’t know what normal vital signs for Loki’s species looked like, and even in a human it was hard to predict how brain injuries would turn out. But the upshot was that as far as he could tell, Loki was holding his own. A human in the same situation would probably stay unconscious for a while, so his body could put all its energy toward healing, so no news was probably good news. Bruce had gently but firmly tossed Thor out of the recovery room so that Bruce could concentrate on watching for any change—and so that Thor wouldn’t accidentally do Loki any further harm trying to drunkenly hug him. But he did let Thor go in and look at Loki for a couple of minutes every hour, and apparently visiting time had come around again.

Thor staggered to his feet and, leaning on Bruce’s shoulder, went inside.

“So,” Tony said to Steve, trusting that Thor was out of earshot. “Bedside vigil for a super villain. This is weird.”

“Yes, Tony,” Steve said patiently. “It hasn’t gotten any less weird since the last time you said that.”

“You need to be more drunk,” Tony accused him.

From inside the medical bay, there was a crash. “No,” Steve said, getting to his feet. “I don’t think I do.”

He went inside, returning a few moments later with Thor’s arm draped over his shoulder. “Midgardian healing-halls are so cluttered,” Thor complained.

“He tripped over a cart full of instruments,” Steve explained, depositing Thor back into his chair. “Fortunately, it was all our stuff, nothing borrowed from the hospital.”

Thor picked up his bottle and took a long drink. “So,” he said. “The tale of how Loki became Sleipnir’s mother.” He stared into the beer’s amber depths for a moment. “It happened when we were youths. He had made a wager with a certain builder, that he—the builder—could not build a wall around Asgard, with the help only of his horse. He under-estimated the strength of the builder’s horse, and it looked as though he would lose the bet. Loki does not like to lose a wager, so he tried several schemes to distract the horse from his work, without success.”

Thor fell silent, and Tony said, “In the version I heard, Loki turned himself into a mare and seduced the horse.”

Thor laughed. “No, not even Loki would do such a thing. It was an ordinary mare, who happened to go into heat at the right moment. Loki realized that, by offering her to the stallion, he could win his wager and at the same time possess the foal of such a magnificent steed. He succeeded, and we all thought it an excellent trick. But when the mare’s time came…things did not go well. With eight legs instead of four, the foal was simply too large, and could not be positioned correctly for birth. The mare died.”

Thor shook his head somberly and went on, “Loki felt responsible, since it had been his trick in the first place, so he took it on himself to rear the foal on goat’s milk. He all but lived in the stable until the foal was weaned, and until Sleipnir was fully grown, he followed Loki everywhere, like a puppy. Loki had meant to have the magnificent stallion’s colt for his own mount, but when the time came to break Sleipnir to ride, he did not welcome having his foster-mother on his back, though he could be persuaded to tolerate another rider. So Loki gave him to father. But Sleipnir still remembers him, and whenever they meet, will not leave Loki’s side until he conjures a bit of sugar or some other tidbit for him.”

For some reason, Thor looked sad about that. “Hey, it’s a cute story,” Tony tried to reassure him. Rescuer of orphaned baby animals was certainly not a role Tony would have guessed for Loki, but it just went to show you.

Went to show you what, Tony was a little too drunk to figure out.

Thor shook his head. “I had forgotten…shortly before we left Asgard, I had drawn Loki from his rooms for a walk, and we chanced to encounter Sleipnir. With his magic bound, Loki was unable to conjure a treat for him, and I am sure Sleipnir did not understand.”

Clearly, Thor had passed into the maudlin stage of drunkenness. “He’ll just have to start carrying sugar in his pockets like a normal person,” Tony suggested. Assuming he lived, anyway.

Thor smiled bravely. “Yes. Yes, I suppose he will.”

#

Loki struggled toward consciousness, and pain. He thought, hazily, that he must have been in battle, and suffered such injuries that even his magic could not heal them entirely. The details of the battle swam just out of reach; Loki did not pursue them.

His head felt as though it had been cleaved in two, and when he tried to move, pain stabbed through his shoulder and chest.

Best not to try that, then. It was quiet, where he was, so the battle must have ended. Easing his eyes open, he saw that it was light, as well. Moving only his eyes, he checked first to one side, then the other. Thor sat dozing in a chair by his bedside.

Loki remembered that there was some reason that Thor being there should not mean that they had prevailed and all was well—but he couldn’t quite grasp what it was. Giving in to the feeling of safety, he allowed his eyes to drift closed again, and slept.

#

Two days after Loki’s emergency surgery, Bruce sat by his bedside. The drunken party in the waiting room had broken up in the small hours of the morning after Loki’s injury, but Thor had kept up the vigil on his own. Once he was sober, and Loki’s condition was stable, Bruce had let him back into the recovery room. After a day and a half of Thor watching Loki like a mother hen, Bruce had finally persuaded him to get a little rest himself, in one of the other cubicles. But he’d had to promise that he’d take Thor’s place while he slept.

As far as Bruce could tell, the surgery had worked. The pressure inside Loki’s skull had stabilized, and the scans showed electrical activity in his brain. He was breathing on his own, and the other autonomic processes—circulation, temperature regulation, and so on—appeared to be working all right, though since Bruce didn’t know what baseline levels for a Jotun would look like, he couldn’t be certain. Most promisingly, Loki stirred from time to time, seeming to transition between deep unconsciousness and something like normal sleep. Now they just had to wait for him to wake up, to find out if he’d suffered any brain damage or not.

When Thor was awake, casting worried looks at Loki and asking for news of his brother’s condition, it was easy to think of Loki as just another patient. But now that he was sleeping, Bruce’s thoughts kept returning to how strange it was that he was putting so much effort into caring for a murderous super villain. True, Loki was helpless now—but he wouldn’t be forever. It was entirely possible that he’d saved Loki just to fight him again.

But he still had to do it, of course. Even putting medical ethics aside, Thor would be devastated if his brother died.

Loki stirred. It wasn’t the first time—usually, whenever Loki so much as twitched, Thor got very excited, yelling for Bruce to come examine him, and pleading with Loki to wake up and be all right. Since he’d agreed to take Thor’s place, Bruce figured he’d better do something at least like what Thor would do. “Hey, Loki,” he said. “I don’t know if you can hear me. You got hurt, but we’re taking good care of you. Thor’s been here just about the whole time—he’s taking a nap now. He’ll be really happy if you wake up.”

Loki’s eyes opened.

#

Someone was babbling at him. Loki had the sense that it was not the first time, though he couldn’t clearly recall any of the earlier incidents. His memories had started to come back to him, in bits and pieces. He thought—unless he was missing something else—that he must be on Midgard still, in the custody of Thor’s mortal friends.

The details of how he’d come to be injured were still lost to him, but Loki knew that was normal. The memories would likely come back.

If they didn’t, the mortals would surely be more than happy to tell him what he’d done.

Opening his eyes, Loki took in a little more of his surroundings. No Thor, this time. Just Banner. And the bit of ceiling and wall that he could see had a distinctly Midgardian look to it, though it wasn’t a part of Stark’s Tower that he’d seen before.

“Loki?” Banner said. “Are you awake?”

It hurt to draw enough breath to speak, but the geas compelled him to respond, “Yes.”

“Oh, good,” Banner said, standing up and shining a small, bright light into Loki’s eyes. “Do you, uh, let’s see…do you remember your name?”

Yes.”

“Good…do you know where you are?”

Was it some strange Midgardian custom to pester the injured with inane questions? “Yes.”

“The one-word answers are not exactly helping me assess your neurological status,” Banner snapped. “I don’t suppose you know who the president of the United States is.”

Now Loki couldn’t even give him a one-word answer, since he hadn’t asked a question.

“Did you even know before?” Banner added.

“No.”

“Great. Okay,” Banner said. “What about the king of Asgard? What’s his name?”

“Odin Borson. Called All-Father.”

“All right, now we’re getting somewhere. What’s your full name?”

“Loki,” he said. He would have stopped there, and when the geas didn’t let him, he tried to answer Laufeyson, but the geas only allowed him to answer, “Odinson.”

“And where are you?”

“Midgard.”

“Can you be more specific?”

“Yes.” He could guess, anyway.

“Are you deliberately trying to be difficult?”

“No,” Loki admitted. In his experience, it was not at all wise to be deliberately difficult with healers when one was in a vulnerable position.

“Okay,” Banner said. “Hold on, let me…where are you, specifically?”

“The Tower of Stark. I think.”

“Yes, you are. The infirmary. You’ve been here for the last couple of days. Do you remem—no, wait, that won’t work. How were you injured?”

“I remember…falling.”

Banner nodded. “Is that all you remember about your injuries?”

“Yes.”

“That’s fine. That’s—it’s normal to lose some memories of the time surrounding a head injury. How do you feel?”

Loki was too tired and weak to even begin to figure out an answer to that question. “Hurts,” he said, when it became clear that the geas wasn’t going to let him ignore it.

“Okay. Yeah, we can’t give you much pain medication. Between the head injury, and you being an alien, you know. Not safe. You think you can tough it out?”

Of course he could. He was a Loki of Asgard. He was a god. “Yes,” the god said feebly, and slipped back into unconsciousness.

#

“Why did you not wake me immediately?” Thor asked, as soon as he understood what Bruce was saying.

“He wasn’t up for long,” Bruce explained. “And I had to do a neurological exam—that just means, ask him some questions and see if he’s able to respond normally, nothing invasive,” he added hastily, when Thor started to look alarmed. “I was going to come get you afterwards, but then he fell back to sleep, and there didn’t seem much point in waking you.”

It was just like Loki to wake during the only period of his illness that Thor was not present. The idea would be reassuring, if he thought Loki had any control over it. “And was he able to, as you say, respond normally?”

“Yes,” Bruce said. “He knows who he is, and where he is. He even remembers a little bit about how he came to be injured. That doesn’t guarantee there aren’t any more subtle neurological defects, but those are all good signs. It looks like he’s going to be okay.”

“This is good news,” Thor said. It had been troubling enough to think that Loki might die, and leave Thor bereft of his company. His fears had grown even worse when he realized that it was unlikely to be considered a warrior’s death. And if Loki was left a broken shell, to eventually die of old age, he would still be denied his place in Valhalla.

Thor had to admit that his desire for his brother to achieve a place in Valhalla was largely theoretical. Mostly, he just wanted him to live.

“Yeah,” Bruce said, clapping him on the shoulder. “It is.”

Thor recognized that Bruce was not being entirely sincere—to him, Loki was an enemy, and his continued good health was not a reason to rejoice. But he understood that Bruce was truly glad that Thor was glad, and that was good enough.

Taking up his place by Loki’s bed, Thor sent for a large breakfast, and ate it with more enthusiasm than he had any of the meals that Bruce and the others had pressed on him over the last few days. As he ate, he explained to Loki what Bruce had said about his condition. That didn’t take very long, so afterwards, he moved on to talking to Loki about the things they could do together once he was recovered.

“…and once we have returned to Asgard, we shall go and visit Sleipnir. I told Tony the story of how you came to be his mother, and he made the most excellent suggestion that--” Thor instantly forgot what he was saying as Loki stirred. “Loki? Do you wake, brother?”

Loki groaned a little.

“Loki? Dr. Banner, he wakes! Loki?” Loki opened his eyes, and Thor said, “Brother, I cannot say how glad I am to see you well.”

Loki looked over at the doorway, where Bruce had appeared. “Hey, Loki,” Bruce said. “How are you feeling?”

“I am in pain,” Loki said, sounding so much himself that Thor could have wept.

“That’s to be expected,” Bruce said, coming up to the other side of the bed and looking over the machines that, he had explained, monitored Loki’s vital signs. “Is it—no, wait.” Bruce appeared to think for a moment. “How is it, compared to last time we talked?”

“It is no worse,” Loki said sulkily.

“Well, that’s something.”

As Bruce went on examining Loki, Thor explained, “Dr. Banner has been attending to your injuries. I admit I had some fear of relying on mortal medicine—particularly the procedure Dr. Banner described—but my misgivings were not founded.”

Thor thought that his remark might prompt Loki to ask about his treatment or his injuries, but instead he just glared until Bruce said, “Thor, don’t pick on your brother while he’s injured.” Before Thor could ask what he meant, he went on, “Loki, do you have any questions about your condition?”

“Yes,” Loki said sulkily.

“Okay, let me…wait a second. First, do you want me to ask Thor to leave the room while you ask them?”

“Why would he?” Thor asked.

“On this realm, we have a thing called medical privacy,” Bruce explains. “It means people have a right to talk to their doctor without their family members present, if they want to. Loki? Wait, do I have to ask the question again?”

“No,” Loki said.

“Now I’m not sure which—I will get the hang of this, I promise. Which question were you answering just now?”

“Both of them.”

“So Thor can stay?”

“Yes.”

Thor felt that he’d understood very little of the exchange, but Bruce and Loki both seemed satisfied, so he forebore to speak further.

“What do you want to know?” Bruce asked.

“Am I going to die?” Loki asked.

“No—at least, I don’t think so. Not unless something unexpected happens. Like I’ve been telling Thor—and everyone else—for the last couple of days, I’ve had to make a lot of guesses about your physiology. But I think you’re out of danger. What else do you want to know?”

“Will I be crippled? Moreso than I already am?”

“You shouldn’t be. Your arm will have to be immobilized for a while—for a human, it would be at least eight weeks.” Loki’s good hand went to his opposite shoulder, exploring the shell of hardened plaster that Bruce had put there, which covered the upper part of his arm and kept it bound tightly to his body. “We’ll have to wait and see if it heals any faster. Or slower, I guess. And you’ll probably need some physical therapy afterwards, but in time, you should be…the same as before.”

“Dr. Banner is a skilled healer,” Thor said reassuringly, patting Loki’s uninjured shoulder.

Then they stood looking at each other for a moment, until Bruce said, “Oh, right. What else do you want to know?”

Loki went on to ask about the extent of his injuries, and the devices that surrounded him. Banner patiently answered all of his questions, calling a halt only when Loki began to tire. “Look, why don’t you get some rest? Is there anything else you need?”

“Restoration of my magic,” Loki replied.

“You know he cannot do that,” Thor pointed out.

“Yeah, I’m sure he does,” Bruce said. “Other than that, is there anything else you need, Loki?”

“No.”

As soon as Banner left the room, it was as if Loki’s well of words dried up. Soon he was asleep again, leaving Thor watching at his bedside.

#

By the time Bruce drank a cup of coffee and updated Loki’s chart, the nurse Tony had arranged to borrow from the hospital arrived. She’d come along with the surgical equipment the first time, and Bruce had been pretty surprised when she turned up again the next day. She’d explained then that Tony had arranged for her to come daily until she wasn’t needed anymore.

“Hi, Annie,” Bruce said to her as she took off her coat and stowed her purse in the locking drawer of the desk in the infirmary’s little office. Bruce had explained that since access to the building was tightly controlled, there wasn’t really any need to lock up her belongings, but apparently it was a habit. “Some changes today. Loki’s woken up.”

“Has he?” Annie looked genuinely pleased. “That’s good. I’m sure his family will be relieved.”

When it had become clear that Annie was sticking around long enough to eventually be exposed to a conscious Loki, Bruce had explained who he was. Annie had taken the news, that her private-duty patient was the same super villain who had nearly destroyed her city a few months ago, with commendable professionalism. “Yes—Thor’s with him now. If you’ll be all right on your own, I’m going to go upstairs for a bit.”

Bruce watched Annie closely for any sign that she was uncomfortable, but she just nodded. “That’s fine. I’ll have Mr. Jarvis alert you if anything comes up.”

“He’s still pretty weak, so I don’t think he’ll try to get up. And he has some…communication difficulties. Pre-existing. Thor can explain.”

“I’m sure we’ll be all right.”

Still, no matter how Annie felt about it, Bruce wasn’t entirely comfortable himself with leaving a civilian alone, apart from an incorporeal butler, with Loki. So before he left, he stopped by Loki’s room.

“He is sleeping,” Thor said, looking up at Bruce from the chair by Loki’s bedside.

“Good. Are you sticking around for a while?”

“Yes, of course.” Thor had barely left the infirmary in the last few days, and never at the same time as Bruce did.

“Annie’s on duty, so I’m going to get something to eat and check on some things in the lab. If you do decide to step out….” There was no way to say it other than to just say it. “Get one of the others down here first.”

Thor didn’t ask why—he was unreasonably optimistic where his brother was concerned, but he wasn’t stupid. He agreed, and Bruce headed out.

After a brief stopover in his apartment, Bruce headed to the bio lab, a bagel in one hand and coffee in the other. At times like these, it would be more convenient to have his lab space somewhere near the infirmary, instead of at the top of the building—but when Tony had designed the building, having Bruce’s lab near enough to his own that he could pop in and be annoying anytime he felt like it had been the priority.

That being the case, Bruce wasn’t terribly surprised when Tony showed up while Bruce’s computer was still booting.

“Hey. How’s everybody’s favorite super villain?” Tony, munching a bagel of his own, snooped around the lab bench.

“Conscious,” Bruce answered. “And if you get bagel crumbs in those cultures, you’ll end up being his roommate.”

“Tchah. The Other Guy loves me,” Tony said, but he did take a step back. “Clint’ll be relieved.”

Once he’d sorted out that Tony meant relieved about Loki, not about the Other Guy loving Tony, Bruce asked, “Isn’t he the one who threw him off the balcony in the first place?” He was a little out of the loop, the last couple of days, but he could have sworn he’d heard that.

“Yeah, but Steve’s been all foreign dignitary, tenuous alliance, blah-blah-blah manslaughter. You know how he gets.”

Bruce hadn’t even thought of that angle. “He has a point. Anyway, now that he’s conscious, the pain management issue has become a lot more pressing.” So far, they’d been giving Loki Tylenol, on the grounds that Thor had taken some on his first trip to Earth, and it hadn’t done him any harm. But it was doing things to Loki’s liver values that Bruce wasn’t sure if he should be alarmed about or not, and in any case, it wasn’t really adequate painkiller for a guy with a half a dozen fractures and recent cranial surgery.

“No help from Thor, huh?” Tony asked. The last time they spoke about it, Bruce had been planning to ask Thor what they used for pain control on Asgard.

“He said mostly spells, which doesn’t help us much. There’s also a potion his mother makes, but Thor doesn’t know what’s in it.” He’d said he thought there were herbs of some kind involved, which didn’t narrow things down much.

“You could ask Loki, now that he’s awake,” Tony pointed out.

Somehow, that thought hadn’t occurred to Bruce. Before he could say so, Tony went on.

“I mean, he’s basically a geek, right? Maybe not a medical-type geek, but Thor’s basically, like, a jock. He’s not going to know anything. Loki might.”

“No, you’re right,” Bruce said. “I just didn’t think of it that way.” He and Tony were definitely the Avengers’ team geeks. It was a little weird to think of Loki as being, in a way, part of the club.

Even weirder if he remembered that frankly disturbing conversation he’d overheard between Tony and Thor on the jet a couple of weeks ago. In the alternate reality that Thor had suggested—where he, Thor, tried to take over the world and Odin sent Loki down to help stop him—the team would have ended up with an even geek/jock split.

“It’s kind of too bad about him being evil, ‘cause I’d sure like to find out how that magic shit works,” Tony added.

“That reminds me, Thor did an absolutely terrible job of explaining how that geas works.”

“He didn’t explain how it works at all,” Tony objected.

Fair point. “No, but he did a terrible job of explaining the effects, too. It turns out that really annoying thing where half the time Loki won’t say anything but ‘yes’ or ‘no’ isn’t really his fault. I mean, he’s probably enjoying it, but if you phrase what you want to know as a yes-or-no question —like if you were, say, doing a neurological exam and you say, ‘Can you tell me your name?’—“

“All he can say is yes,” Tony realized. “Damn, I should have caught that sooner. Jarvis was like that for a while when I first made him.”

“Well, up until now, that he was fucking with us was the more likely conclusion,” Bruce pointed out. “But not even Loki’s going to troll the guy who’s actively trying to save his life.”

“Probably not, anyway.”

“Once I figured out what was going on, I asked,” Bruce explained. “He actually seemed kind of relieved that somebody had figured it out. He’s been a lot more talkative since I’ve been asking the right questions.”

“Hey, maybe now we can start picking his brain about how his magic works.” At Bruce’s glare, Tony added, “Once he’s feeling better, I mean.”

“I don’t know about that,” Bruce answered. “I haven’t figured out all of the details of the geas—I keep wanting to say curse—but I think he has the option of giving true-but-unhelpful answers. Right now he’s kind of motivated to be as forthcoming as possible, since he knows I’m trying to help him.”

“Yeah,” Tony agreed. “Say, once you get your hands on some Norse-god-safe pain medication, how would you feel about implying that it’s, you know, contingent on answering a few questions?”

“I feel like it would be a morally disgusting violation of medical ethics; why do you ask?”

“No reason,” Tony lied.

#

The next time Loki woke, he submitted with ill grace as the mortal assistant healer—a plump woman with skin the color of Heimdall’s and the air generally described as “motherly”—gave him a bed-bath and fed him an overly-sweet, noxiously-colored concoction known as “Jello.” As she worked, she chattered aimlessly—to him or to Thor, Loki wasn’t sure—about subjects ranging from her son’s difficulties in school to her aching feet. “One nice thing about this assignment, I get to sit down,” she explained. “At the hospital, I have six post-op patients on my load, and none of them think they’re being any trouble, but it’s just one thing after another. As soon as you get one settled, another one needs something.”

“I am sure that they appreciate your dedication to your calling,” Thor said politely.

“They do, uh-huh. I have a whole file of thank-you notes I take out and look at when I have a chance. Makes me feel good about myself.”

“I see.” Thor looked thoughtful. Probably he was trying to figure out where he could obtain a crayon to write one.

Loki found himself somewhat relieved when Dr. Banner came back. So far, he’d demonstrated a surprising ability to ask meaningful questions and to confine himself to the subject at hand.

Now, for example, after conferring with Annie and Thor about Loki’s recent activities, he asked, “How are you feeling?”

“Still in pain,” Loki informed him. “Also annoyed by being surrounded by chattering magpies.”

“Annie, maybe this would be a good time for your coffee break,” Banner suggested.

“I will show you where we keep it,” Thor said, escorting the woman out with a backward, disapproving look at Loki.

Once they were gone, Banner went on, “We might actually be able to do something about the pain problem. Thor said that you use potions as well as spells for healing on Asgard. How much do you know about that?”

He had been doing so well with the questions. “A fair amount.”

“Good! See, the problem we’ve been having is that I don’t know how your body will react to any of our medicines—Thor said we could test them on him, but I understand you guys aren’t, uh, technically the same species, so I wasn’t sure how well that would work. I’m hoping that now that you’re awake, we can find something you’ve taken before, safely, that also exists here.” He paused, as if waiting for a response, then appeared to realize that Loki couldn’t answer. “Do you think that might work?”

Loki considered. Healing potions were usually compounded using magic, but the mortals had come up with all kinds of substitutes for magic on this realm. Fortunately, Banner had asked if it might work, not if it would. “Yes.”

“Okay. Let’s see…how do you want to get started figuring this out?”

That was a good question. “I could begin by describing some of the pain-relieving compounds I’m familiar with, and see if you recognize anything.”

#

They talked shop for a while, but even once Bruce got the hang of keeping Loki going by asking broad questions, there was a substantial communication gap. He had been expecting that Loki would say something like, “We drink tea made out of poppy seeds,” and then Bruce could go get some morphine.

It wasn’t like that at all. Instead, Loki started by listing a number of substances Bruce had never heard of, and explaining how to combine them using methods that he’d never heard of, either. The more Bruce told him he had to break it down and start simpler, the more frustrated Loki got. Bruce didn’t blame him; he had to rely on every calming technique he’d ever learned to keep his temper, and he wasn’t the one with six bone fractures and a hole in his head. “I still don’t understand,” he said for what seemed like the hundredth time. “Let’s start over. What is--” Bruce tried to remember which incomprehensible thing they were talking about at the moment. “Bones-of-giants?” They had managed to establish that it wasn’t the actual bones of actual giants, but other than that, Bruce was still lost. “Where do you get it?”

Anywhere,” Loki said, gesturing sharply with his uninjured hand, then grunting as the motion jarred his bad shoulder.

“Maybe we don’t have it on Earth.” Loki glared at him. “Okay, why was that a stupid thing to say?”

“Of course you have it on Earth. All the realms have it. It has six brothers and six sisters.”

Loki had been going on about brothers and sisters for quite some time now. “I still don’t get it. What are the brothers and sisters?” Maybe if he could figure out what Loki was saying this substance was related to, he could backtrack to what it actually was. “What else can you tell me?”

“They’re brothers and sisters,” Loki said, sounding like he couldn’t believe how stupid Bruce was not to understand this. “In the center. Then there is one pair of warriors in the first rank, and two pairs in the second rank. Six brothers, six warriors. You complete imbecile.”

“All right, shut up for a minute.” The Other Guy didn’t appreciate his tone, and Bruce himself wasn’t too thrilled about it, either. Bruce closed his eyes and counted to ten in every language he knew, breathing in slowly through his nose and out through his mouth. “Calling me an imbecile is not going to help anything,” he added, racking his brains for some common plant that had six of two different things in the center and six of something else around it.

“Sir,” Jarvis said suddenly. “I may be able to assist.”

Bruce looked up at the corner of the room where he knew one of Jarvis’s cameras was. “How?” Still in talking-to-Loki mode, he added, “What do you need?”

“If you could bring one of my holographic projectors into the room, I will demonstrate,” Jarvis answered.

Bruce agreed. Even if Jarvis’s idea didn’t work, getting the projector at least gave him an excuse to leave the room for a few minutes. When he returned, bringing the projector on a cart, he cravenly hoped that Loki might have fallen asleep while he was gone. He didn’t want to be the one to suggest a break, since Loki was the one in pain, but he was as close to hulking out as he’d ever been, in a non-combat situation.

Unfortunately, Loki was still awake and glaring when he returned. Bruce took his time plugging in the projector and focusing the startup image. “Okay, Loki, can you see that all right?”

“Yes.”

“Jarvis, do your stuff.”

Jarvis projected an image that Bruce recognized instantly. Six yellow spheres forming a cluster with six white ones, surrounded by six blue spheres, forming ranks of two and four.

If it was as simple as that, no wonder Loki thought he was an imbecile.

“Is this what you were describing?” Jarvis asked. “The yellow spheres represent the, ah, brothers, and the white the sisters--”

Yes,” Loki said.

Bruce took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “We call that carbon,” he said carefully. “And the one with eight brothers and sisters—what did you call that one?”

“All-mother’s tears,” Loki supplied.

“That’s oxygen.”

It wasn’t entirely smooth sailing from there—once they’d identified the basic elements, they still had to work out a common vocabulary for combining them into molecules. But now that Bruce finally understood that they were talking about chemistry , not botany, he could ask the right questions.

With Jarvis’s help, they put together a molecular diagram. As it rotated in holographic display in front of them, Bruce said, “I don’t recognize it, but it should be easy enough to synthesize. Jarvis?”

“Already started, sir.”

After reinventing the entire discipline of chemistry from scratch, figuring out dosage in unfamiliar measurements was a snap. By the time Jarvis was finished synthesizing the drug, they had a starting dose worked out.

It wasn’t until he was in the process of injecting it into Loki’s IV port that Bruce thought to ask, “This is just a painkiller, right?”

Eyeing him suspiciously, Loki said, “No.”

Bruce reminded himself not to panic. Aspirin, chemically speaking, did more than just relieve pain, too. And the geas was pretty literal. It didn’t necessarily mean that he’d just helped Loki make something that would restore his powers or otherwise enable him to commit mayhem. “What else does it do?”

“It may speed the repair of the damaged bones. Slightly.”

Not a problem. “Anything else? Anything….” He searched for a more specific word than bad. “Does it do anything that will make you any more dangerous than you were before Clint shoved you off the balcony?”

“No.”

“Great.” He finished the injection. “Get some rest; Thor’s going to keep an eye on you.”

#

Tony had to call Bruce and invite him to dinner three times—describing the take-out order in increasing detail each time—before Bruce finally got off his ass and came.

“I’m not going to be very good company,” Bruce warned him as he helped himself to pad thai. “I had kind of a…frustrating day.”

“I saw,” Tony said, offering Bruce the yellow curry.

“You were watching that? Tony--”

“Yeah, yeah, I know, privacy is a thing.” Tony shrugged. “You know we have to keep an eye on Loki. Anyway, don’t worry—I didn’t get it too much earlier than you did.”

“You could have said something. I thought my head was going to explode.”

“That’s what you get for cheating on me,” Tony informed him. “Anyway, I was just about to give you a hint when Jarvis did.” Tony grinned. “Want to know what the hint was?”

“Sur e.”

“‘One moon circles.’ You know, like that one Star Trek episode where they--”

“Had to discuss chemistry with aliens,” Bruce finished. “Through dreams. Yeah. That would have helped.”

“I didn’t realize they had chemistry on Asgard,” Tony went on. “You wouldn’t guess it from Thor.”

“There are a lot of humans that, if they were the only one you had to go by, you wouldn’t realize we had chemistry, either.” Bruce squinted at his fork. “Did that make sense?”

“No, but I get what you mean.”

“Anyway, the drugs should keep him out of our hair for a few days. I’m not looking forward to having to taper him off of it, though. And if we’re doing Star Trek episodes, it was really more like that other one.” Bruce made a gesture that could have been anything from a banana to a pair of breasts to an oxygen molecule. “You know.”

Ordinarily, Tony would have pretended not to understand, but after the day Bruce had had, not even he was that much of a douchebag. “Darmok,” he said instead.

“Yeah, only the alien had tried to blow up the Enterprise a couple of months before.”

“And he’s Worf’s adopted brother.”

“And Riker threw him off a balcony,” Bruce added.

“Wait, Clint’s Riker now?”

“You’re definitely not Riker,” Bruce said, although Tony hadn’t been thinking that he was. “You’re…Kirk and Spock’s illegitimate love child that they’re both ashamed of, but for completely different reasons.”

Tony would have protested, but it kind of fit.

#

It was a measure of how bored Clint was that when Cap told him he was allowed to come out of his apartment for a meeting, Clint was actually sort of relieved. He didn’t have much hope that it was going to be the fun kind of meeting—i.e., the kind that immediately preceded a fight—but he’d already watched everything he wanted to watch, and had been reduced to throwing a ball against the wall and catching it for entertainment. Even a meeting was better than that.

At least, he thought so right up until the moment when Steve said, “Thor, what can you tell us about potential repercussions of the balcony incident?” And Thor got a confused look on his face, like he had no idea what Steve was talking about.

Clint had been assuming that, sometime over the last few days, someone had explained to Thor how Clint had almost killed his baby brother, and had then held him down until the murderous rage passed. It seemed a safe assumption given how Clint’s head was still attached to his body and everything. But now Clint was wondering if, owing to all the almost-dying said baby brother had been doing, Thor just hadn’t had a chance to look into the issue yet.

“Repercussions?” Thor said. Turning to Bruce, he added, “You said he would recover, did you not?”

“Yes,” Bruce said. “I think Steve means…politically. With your, uh, parents, and everything.”

“Ah,” Thor said. “Mother will be most troubled, of course.”

Troubled wasn’t normally an alarming word, but given that it was one Thor tended to use to describe Loki in a murdering mood, Clint wasn’t reassured. “Troubled like…is there gonna be smiting?”

“Or a severing of diplomatic relations?” Steve asked.

“Godly vengeance of any kind, really, is what we’re asking about,” Tony added. “Against Clint personally or Earth as a whole.”

Then Thor chuckled. It took Clint a moment to realize that it was the kind of laughing you did when something wasn’t really funny at all. “My friends,” he said soberly. “Your concern does you credit. But I insisted on bringing him to Midgard because I feared for his safety. He is out of favor in the All-father’s court, and the truth of his heritage has been revealed to all. This is not the first time he has been injured since he was stripped of his magic.”

“Wait,” Bruce said. “So people have been beating up on Loki for a while now…and your dad doesn’t care?”

Clint had to admit, that sounded a little fucked up. Not that he was exactly eager to face consequences for flipping Loki off a balcony….but still. He figured it was fair for the guy’s nearest and dearest to at least want to crush Clint like a bug, even if he was going to use every means at his disposal to stop if from actually happening.

Thor looked at his hands. “I believe that Father does care,” he said slowly. “Although Loki would disagree. The king, however, has decided not to intercede when Loki reaps the fruit of the discord he has sown.”

Clint reminded himself that he was absolutely not going to feel sorry for Loki. There wasn’t anybody in this tower who didn’t have Daddy issues, and only one of them had tried to take over the world.

“So,” Thor continued, “if Loki wished, he could pursue private justice.”

“What does that mean, exactly?” Steve asked, before Clint could.

“The holmgang is…I believe you would call it a duel. Trial by single combat. He would state the recompense he wishes to receive for the insult, and if he won, the aggressor—or rather, his heirs—would be required to pay.” Before Clint could get really alarmed, Thor went on, “Loki is aware that without his magic, he is unlikely to prevail in such a challenge. He is permitted to name himself a champion, but he has been reluctant to nominate me in that capacity.”

“So if people attack him, he can either shut up and take it, or ask his big brother to fight his battles for him?” Steve asked. Clint could see how Loki wouldn’t exactly be thrilled with either of those options.

Thor nodded. “In this case, I understand that Clint did not intend to seriously harm him. And that my brother provoked you with his words,” he added, looking at Clint.

“So if he asks you to do this gang thing…?” Clint trailed off.

“I could not refuse any reasonable request that he makes as my brother,” Thor said finally. “But given that he has also refused to acknowledge our kinship, I do not think you need worry about it.”

“Okay,” Steve said. “So we can handle it as an internal team matter.”

Clint strongly suspected that meant there was community-based superheroing in his future, but given that he’d started this meeting worrying he was going to be pounded into a paste by Thor, that didn’t seem too bad.

“That does bring us to another issue, though,” Bruce said. “The--” He gestured vaguely. “Verbal provocation.”

“Yeah,” Tony said, taking more of an interest in the proceedings. “I couldn’t get good audio on that. What did he actually say?”

Clint glanced warily at Thor. “That he wasn’t sorry he killed Phil.”

“You were surprised?” Tony asked.

Thor sighed, and said, “My brother--”

“Let’s not get sidetracked,” Bruce interrupted. “We all heard that Loki is under a geas that means he has to answer any question you ask him, honestly. Think about what that means for a minute.” After a suitable pause, presumably for them all to think about it, Bruce went on, “He didn’t just volunteer the information that he wasn’t sorry he killed Phil. You must have asked him.”

“Yeah, and he said ‘no,’” Clint answered.

“No,” Thor said, nodding. “Why would one be sorry to take another warrior’s life in battle? But I do not understand why he did not say something else.”

Bruce got very, very still all of the sudden. “You don’t?”

“No,” Thor repeated. “Surely he knows enough of your ways to realize that such an answer would swell Clint’s anger.”

“Shit,” Tony said. “Bruce, are you sure--”

“Yeah, yeah, I asked,” Bruce said to him, before turning back to Thor. “I was just about to explain to everybody else, but I kind of figured you’d know. The geas. He can’t say something else. It only lets him answer the question that was asked.”

“It’s like a lamp-wishes, monkey’s paw kind of thing,” Tony added.

“Right,” Bruce said. “You have to ask what you really mean to ask. You really didn’t know that?” he asked Thor.

“I have not made a study of magic,” Thor said. “I know that Loki’s spells often encompass such verbal trickery, but I assumed Father’s would be more direct.”

“Yeah, see,” Tony jumped in. “If you were Loki, you’d have just had to say ‘no,’ and not all that other helpful information.”

“So that’s, uh, something we should all keep in mind when we’re talking to Loki,” Bruce went on. “Yes-or-no questions sometimes back him into a corner where the only thing he can say comes across like he’s deliberately being an asshole, and I don’t think that’s any more fun for him than it is for us. And he can’t answer implied questions at all. Like, you know, ‘I don’t understand,’ or ‘Tell me about that.’ It has to be in the form of a question.”

Tony added, “I have to say, I was thinking the no-talking curse was kind of a lame punishment, but now that I know more about it, it really sucks. I wouldn’t last ten minutes before I was begging Odin to make it stop.”

“Except you wouldn’t be,” Bruce pointed out, “because you wouldn’t be able to talk.”

#

For Loki, the next few days passed in a pleasant, narcotic blur. He spent a great deal of time asleep, and when he was awake, he cared very little about what was going on around him—whether that was Thor babbling, Annie-the-nurse stuffing him with Jello, or Jarvis showing him cartoons on the projector no one had bothered taking out of his room.

After waking and engaging in several minutes of thoughtful contemplation of the ceiling, Loki languidly waved his hand in the direction of Jarvis’s camera.

“Good afternoon,” Jarvis said. “What can I assist you with?”

It had only taken the mechanical man three tries to find a way to phrase that question that didn’t require Loki to ask for his magic back.

“I wish to watch a movie,” he said. “The one where the furry blue individual abducts the small mortal child.”

The projector came to life, the opening credits of Monsters Inc. appearing over Loki’s hospital bed. “Shall I start at the beginning, or where you fell asleep last time?”

“Where I fell asleep.” Loki had a certain amount of difficulty staying awake for an entire feature-length film, but he often didn’t bother picking up the parts that he’d missed. He was decidedly too high to consider the reasons that he was determined to make it to the end of this one.

The projected image skipped forward. “Will there be anything else at this time?”

“No.” If Loki wanted anything else, he’d just wave at the camera again. Jarvis was very good at telling when he had something to say.

It may have just been the drugs talking, but Loki loved Jarvis.

The movie played. The blue monster and its friend, a green sphere with limbs and one large eye, took the small human child through various parts of the monsters’ homeworld, for reasons that Loki was not quite able to follow. He had a hazy sense that they were attempting to either return to child to Midgard or prevent her from being returned, but Loki wasn’t sure which.

Near the end of the movie, Dr. Banner came into the room. Jarvis obligingly paused playback.

“How are you feeling?” Banner asked.

“I am in no pain,” Loki informed him. It made refreshing change.

“I thought you might not be.” Banner sounded amused. “Here, let me see your head.”

Loki waved at Jarvis, and he obligingly moved the bed to a sitting position. As he did so, he rotated the stilled movie image to a convenient viewing angle for the new position.

It was that sort of attention to detail that had Loki wondering if there was some way he could steal Jarvis and take him back to Asgard. Perhaps if he had his powers back.

Putting the thought aside, he tipped his head forward, and Banner’s warm fingers probed the area where the stitches were placed. “This looks fine. I’d like to get some x-rays, see how your shoulder is coming along. Is that okay?”

“Okay,” Loki agreed. He may have giggled a little, because “okay” was a very amusing word. And he wondered how his shoulder was coming along, too—he had absolutely no idea how long it took for one of his bones to heal without magic. Even though he was feeling no pain at the moment, having half of his upper body immobilized wasn’t an experience he cared to continue any longer than necessary.

“You’re going to have to get up,” Banner added, and Loki wished he’d known that before he agreed. “I can get a wheelchair, or you can try to walk. What do you want to do?”

Loki blinked a few times. “Regain my powers and steal Jarvis.” Whoops. He hadn’t meant to say that second part.

“Right,” Banner said with a sigh. “Bad question. Which of the two options I just named do you want to do?”

“I shall walk,” Loki proclaimed, wondering why Banner wasn’t more alarmed about his plan to steal Jarvis.

#

Bruce kept a firm grip on Loki’s uninjured arm as Loki half-wandered, half-staggered down the hall to the x-ray cubicle. Initially, he was a little worried that the head injury had done some subtle damage to Loki’s balance or motor coordination, but it was becoming increasingly clear that the god-prisoner just kept being distracted by brightly colored objects.

“We call that a fire extinguisher,” Bruce explained, tugging Loki away from it. “We use it to…extinguish fires. Come on, we’ve got a destination in mind here.”

Bruce thought that he might have some trouble getting Loki to hold still for the x-rays, but it turned out not to be an issue—worn out from his adventure, Loki fell asleep on the table. When the x-rays were done, Bruce couldn’t get him to wake up enough to assist with the trip back, and had to get Thor to help him manhandle Loki into a wheelchair.

Definitely time to address the tapering-off issue.

He decided to bring it up with Thor first, once they got Loki back into his bed. Fortunately, Thor picked up on what he was talking about right away. “I have noticed that he does not seem himself,” Thor agreed. “At home, our healers would only give such potions for a short time, until the healing spells take effect. Hogun—one of my friends—took it for seven days after he was seared by a fire-drake, but the healers were anxious to cease it as soon as the pain became manageable.”

“Okay, good,” Bruce said, relieved. “And Loki knows about that?”

Thor’s brow creased. “He was there when Hogun attacked the fire-drake.”

That wasn’t quite what Bruce had been asking, but okay. “I’m just a little worried about what he’ll think when we tell him we’re taking him off the happy-juice. Like, uh, he might think he was being punished or something.”

“Why would he think that?”

“I don’t know.” Bruce shrugged. “The other day he asked if I left any explosives in his head while I was operating on him.”

Thor frowned. “Did you?”

“Of course not. I don’t know where he got that idea, unless maybe Jarvis was showing him scary movies.”

Jarvis spoke up. “I’ve only offered him entertainment that members of the team have viewed while recuperating from illness or injury.”

“Considering that one of the team is Clint and another is Natasha—not to mention Tony—that doesn’t mean much,” Bruce pointed out. “Anyway, I don’t want to alarm him while he’s…not thinking clearly.”

“If you like, I will speak to him,” Thor offered.

“Uh….” Bruce tried to think of a way to say “Thanks, but no thanks.” Despite having had it explained to him, Thor hadn’t quite gotten the hang of asking Loki questions that he could answer yet.

“Or I could,” Jarvis added. “I have it on good authority that he loves me.”

“I’m not sure that wanting to steal you is exactly the same thing as love,” Bruce pointed out.

In answer, Jarvis played a recording of Loki saying, “No, except, except--”

Jarvis’s voice, in the recording, said, “What is it you want to say?”

“I jus—just wanna say I love you, Jarvish.”

“Wow,” Bruce said. Then, “It’s definitely time to decrease his dosage.”

#

Pain returned like an old friend. A friend that Loki didn’t like very much, but who stubbornly refused to take a hint and kept on intruding into his peace with jugs of mead and glad cries.

Like, in fact, Thor.

Somewhere in his drug-fueled haze, the pain had settled down to a muted throbbing in his shoulder, and a dull ache behind his eyes if he tried to read or otherwise concentrate on anything for too long. Not so bad, really. The only part he really minded was when—half asleep or otherwise distracted—he reached out to heal the injuries, and met the yawning emptiness where his magic was supposed to be. Its loss had been agony, the first few days after Odin had stripped it from him, but it hadn’t taken long to break himself of the habit of probing at the hole where it had once been, like a tongue seeking a lost tooth.

Dr. Banner, in his infinite wisdom, elected to wean Loki off the medication over several days. Loki might have thought it a good idea—in fact, it was entirely possible that Banner had asked, and he had agreed—but the middle days of the process were the worst, where he was enough himself to be aware of pain, but not sufficiently sensible to stop the reflexive reaching for magic to heal it.

It was better when he was off it entirely, returned to the bright, clear world with all its sharp edges. That was fine; he had sharp edges of his own.

Thor brought him his first meal that wasn’t brightly-colored invalid pap—smoked boar with fried potatoes and eggs. It seemed a strange combination, but Thor assured him the mortals ate it regularly. He was sufficiently restored to himself to shake off Thor’s efforts at spoon-feeding him, though he did have to accept help cutting his meat.

In preparation for her own dismissal, Annie the nurse taught Loki how to shower without getting his cast wet, and to dress himself one-handed afterwards. Loki was initially pleased with the latter—now that he was neither too ill nor too drugged to recognize that the hospital gown was not a dignified garment—but his pleasure was drastically diminished when it became clear that his normal clothes—that is to say, his armor—could not be made to fit over the cast. And the items that would fit—his trousers, boots, and left vambrace, for example—were impossible to put on one-handed.

Thor and Banner provided him with some flimsy mortal garments. Thor, unsurprisingly, was of the option that shapeless trousers that remained on the body thanks only to an elasticated waist were among the cleverest inventions in the history of the nine realms.

Banner, slightly more adept at reading Loki’s reactions, said, “Yeah, if you’d rather ask Thor for help every time you want to go to the toilet, be my guest. And it could be worse—Tony wanted us to pretend they only came in pink.”

Weighing the options available to him, Loki accepted the garments. Thus appareled, he returned to the guest bedroom in Thor’s quarters. He was somewhat relieved to see that his belongings—such as they were—had not been disturbed. The Starkpad was even where he had left it, but operating it one-handed proved exceptionally difficult, and reading still gave him a headache. Fortunately, now that they were on speaking terms, Jarvis demonstrated his ability to play movies on the room’s television, so Loki continued to occupy himself much as he had in the infirmary—sleeping, attempting to find a comfortable position in which to sleep, watching movies, and tolerating Thor’s visits.

It wasn’t long before Thor began urging Loki to join his friends for their meals and other pitiful recreations, but now Loki refused, taking advantage of Thor’s reluctance to manhandle him in his weakened state. Sometimes, Thor thought to ask Loki why he wouldn’t go, but Loki was always able to cite pain or fatigue as a reason. If he didn’t happen to be in pain at the time, he could always provoke some by reaching for magic to heal his shoulder.

Thor didn’t give up, though. Even after numerous refusals, he came to Loki’s room and boomed, “Our friends are watching a movie. The saga is called Star Wars, and Tony has suggested that you might particularly enjoy it, as it has a villain who wears a cape and does magic. Will you join us?”

“No,” Loki answered, not taking his eyes off the television screen.

“Why not?”

“I’m tired.”

“You are watching a movie here,” Thor pointed out. “Surely it is no more tiring to watch one in company.” He paused, then apparently remembered that he had to ask a question. “Is it?”

“Yes.”

“Brother,” Thor said, with a sorrowful sigh.

Loki turned to give him a sharp look, jarring his shoulder in the process.

“Never mind.” Thor turned to go, then turned back. “You will be welcome, whenever you are ready to join us.”

#

“—so you can see it’s healing,” Bruce said, turning off the light behind the x-ray films. “But I’d say you’ll be in the cast at least another four weeks.” They were in the infirmary, for Loki’s weekly checkup. “Do you have any questions?”

“No.” Loki turned away from him.

“Wait a minute,” Bruce said. Loki turned back, a mulish expression on his face. “We’re not quite done. Your shoulder’s okay, but I have some concerns about the rest of you.” Bruce didn’t quite see it, but Thor insisted that Loki had changed since his injury—that he was even more standoffish than before, more prone to what Thor described as “melancholy.” “Your brother’s worried about you.”

Loki let his breath out sharply and looked pointedly over his shoulder.

“Why does that bother you?”

“He is not my brother.”

Bruce searched for something to say. It had been a long time since his med school psych rotation, and he was almost certain his coursework hadn’t covered demigods with attachment issues. “Uh, yeah. He told us you were adopted. And that you didn’t know about it until…recently. Is that right?”

“No,” Loki said.

“Where am I wrong?”

“I wasn’t adopted; I was stolen.”

“That’s not how Thor sees it,” Bruce pointed out. “He, uh, he cares about you a lot. Do you…why do you suppose that is?”

“Because he is a fool,” Loki answered.

“Caring about you makes him a fool? Is that what you’re saying?”

“No.”

“Then….” Shaking his head, Bruce decided that trying to sort out the verbal trickery that allowed Loki to answer “no” to that question was not a good use of anyone’s time. “Well, he does,” he said, and returned to the point he’d been trying to make. “He thinks you might be depressed. What do you think about that?”

“I repeat—he is a fool.”

He’d walked right into that one, Bruce supposed. “How have you been sleeping lately?”

“Usually while lying down.”

“Okay, I’m, uh, nearly certain that you understood that question just fine, and you’re just being a dick, but let’s try again. Do you feel that you’ve been sleeping well lately?”

Loki glared at him for a long moment, then uttered a sulky, “No.”

“Now we’re getting somewhere. Why not?”

“My shoulder hurts. It’s difficult to get comfortable.”

Bruce made a mental note—pain management issue and/or drug seeking behavior? “Is that the only reason?”

“No.” Then, before Bruce could stop him, Loki left the room, the soles of the slip-on shoes they’d given him slapping rapidly along the tile floor.

“That went well,” Bruce observed to the empty room.

#

“I can’t tell you what we talked about,” Bruce explained, before Thor could even ask him to. “Doctor-patient confidentiality. It’s a thing. But yeah, I think you’re right to be concerned about him.”

“Can you not help him?” Thor asked. “Your Midgardian medicine has ways of healing those who are unwell in their minds.” He’d learned of it during his banishment, when his first mortal friends had thought him mad himself. He hadn’t consciously planned on bringing Loki here to seek such treatment for him—he hadn’t entirely realized that Bruce was, in fact, a healer. But now that the opportunity was before him….

“I can’t give him any psychiatric medication,” Bruce explained. “We barely know how that stuff works on humans, let alone another species. And the other kind of treatment, talk therapy, is…outside my area of expertise, for one thing. For another, it’ll only work if he wants it to. He wouldn’t let me get through the entire depression screening, and that’s like six questions. I can’t force him to talk about his problems against his will.”

“The geas,” Thor began, but Bruce was shaking his head.

“It’s an ethical issue, not a practical one.” Apparently misreading Thor’s expression as one of incomprehension, Bruce went on, “Ethics, you know. It’s like honor, only…quieter. And given that at least some of his issues come from being lied to and manipulated by your dad, forcing him to confide in me would probably make things worse.”

“Then we can do nothing?”

“Keep trying to talk to him,” Bruce answered. “Make sure he eats, keep trying to get him to come out of his room and interact. See if you can get him to open up.” He hesitated. “I don’t think it’s giving away any secrets to suggest that you start with the adoption. I mean, finding out that he was adopted and lied to about it, then…losing touch with everyone he knows before he’s had a chance to get any answers about it, that would upset anyone.”

“I have taken great care to assure him that he is my brother still,” Thor said.

“Have you asked him how he feels about it?”

Thor thought over the conversations that he’d had with Loki since his return from banishment. “It shames me to admit that I have not,” he finally said.

“Well, I’d give it a shot, if I were you. What he has to say might not be very pleasant to hear. Or, uh, complimentary to your parents. But it might do him some good. You know, to get it out there. Through some medium other than horrifying violence.”

“I can but try,” Thor agreed. And since he was never one to put off an unpleasant task, he sought out his brother immediately.

While Loki had many clever hiding places in Asgard, here, tracking him to his lair was the work of a moment. Loki was on the bed in his sleeping-chamber, propped up on several bolsters with one of Tony’s computing tablets on his knees. “Brother,” Thor said. “I feel we should talk.”

Loki shifted a little, tucking the computing tablet beneath the coverlet.

“It occurs to me—no, it has been brought to my attention, that…that we have not really spoken of…of what you learned about your birth, during my banishment.”

Breathing hard, Loki glared at him.

“That is, I have attempted to show, through words and deeds, that you are my brother still. But I have not…brother, I do not know what to ask,” he admitted. Perhaps some putting-off of this particular task would have been a good idea, if he had used the time to really think about what he was going to say. “You were always the one of us gifted with words. And now….” Father, he now realized, ought to have asked, before placing this geas upon Loki. But he hadn’t, so now it was up to Thor to find a way. “The day that was to be my coronation, you told me…never to doubt your love for me.”

Loki bit his lip and looked away.

“My question is this. What—what do you feel has changed?”

“Everything,” Loki snarled, lunging up off the pillows for a half-second. Then, settling back against them again, “And nothing.”

“What do you mean? Speak plainly; you know I am not as clever as you.”

Loki’s jaw worked; Thor thought he might be trying to get out words which the geas would not allow him to speak. Lies, or half-truths. Finally he said, “Lies. Change everything. I was not the only one that your parents lied to.”

“What lies do you mean?”

“They told you that you had a brother. When in fact you only ever had an enemy.”

Thor shook his head. “No, Loki. You are not my enemy. Why do you insist that you are?”

“Do you forget that we fought, these few months past?”

“Of course not. That was…one battle, out of hundreds we have fought together. If you mean to do harm to innocents, to this realm or to Asgard, I must oppose you. That does not make you my enemy.” Loki, Thor was sure, would be able to explain it better.

Scoffing silently, Loki shook his head.

“We can be as we were,” Thor pressed on. “Brothers, and friends.”

Tight-lipped, Loki shook his head again.

“Why not? What stops us?”

“I,” Loki said, and stopped. When he spoke again, Thor was certain that it was not what he had first meant to say. “I do not wish to.”

Thor drew in his breath to insist that what Loki said was untrue. But there was the geas. Loki would not have been able to say what he knew to be untrue. Letting his breath out slowly, Thor swept the tangle of blankets and pillows from the corner at the foot of the bed, and sat. “Things between us have not always been as they should have been,” he admitted, remembering accusations that Loki had flung at him, of living in the shadow of Thor’s greatness. Imagined slights, he’d called them, and he’d thought his words true, when he spoke them. “I wished, often, for a brother who was…more like myself. Who fit more easily into my band of warriors. Who would be content to be my right arm and a mirror I could look into and see my own greatness.” He spread his hands. “I was arrogant and selfish. And I was wrong, if wishing for a different brother led the one I have to believe I do not love him.”

Loki was staring at him, his gaze intent and, as usual, unreadable.

“What say you to that, brother? I dearly wish to know.”

“I say you are a fool, and think me one as well. I say you have no brother, and never had. I say that even if I did wish to be your brother, I cannot. I am a prisoner, I am your enemy, I am Jotun.”

Thor wanted to tell him that wasn’t true, either. Jotun were monsters, little more than animals. Loki could not be one, except that he was—Father admitted it, as unreal as it seemed. Thor still didn’t understand it. “You are Jotun,” Thor allowed. “And you are my brother,” he added, putting the ideas alongside one another, to see how they looked. Passing strange, he had to admit, but they would grow familiar with time. “It is hardly unprecedented,” he added, struggling to warm to the idea. “When you were…ill, I told Tony of how you came to be Sleipnir’s mother. If a horse can have a…a Jotun mother—and a man, no less—then surely an Aesir can have a Jotun brother. Why not?”

“It cannot be so simple,” Loki said.

“Why not?”

“Because it cannot.”

“Brother, I believe you have told me more than once that simply repeating something in a louder voice does not make it true,” Thor noted. “And as you see, I do listen to your wisdom on occasion. Have you any other points to make?”

After a long hesitation, Loki said sulkily, “Not at this time.”

#

That had gone…better than Loki feared. Ever since it became clear that the Avengers had worked out the trick to letting him talk, he’d expected it wouldn’t be long before they took the next step to making him talk. Then, after Dr. Banner’s revelation about Thor’s concern for him, he’d expected—dreaded—that Thor might try to use the geas to force a discussion of his feelings.

Now it had happened. It likely wasn’t over, but he’d gotten through it, giving away less than Thor had. Under the circumstances, he would call that a victory.

So. Thor still thought them brothers—was prepared to insist on it even when Loki threw his Jotun ancestry in his face.

He ought to be glad of that. He could use it. Aesir took ties of kinship seriously; Thor’s insistence that Loki was his brother could be a weapon, if Loki could find a way to wield it.

Mostly, though, it made him shake his head at Thor’s persistent stupidity. He had learned, over and over again, the bitter lesson that how he felt did not change what was. Thor—the All-father’s favorite, everyone’s favorite—had been spared that teaching. What did he imagine, that they would return, Thor would announce that Loki was better, was good, and they would fight side by side again? No. The only place for Loki in Asgard was as a prisoner. The only way they could do battle again was on opposite sides.

Except. Except, some part of him wanted to believe that Thor could pull it off. The same part of him, perhaps, that, waking injured and in pain among enemies, felt safe enough to fall back into sleep because Thor was there. It wanted to believe that if Thor kept believing the old lie, it would somehow become true. And the new lies with it. When it had only been Loki who believed that his magic and cleverness was just as worthy as Thor’s strength and courage, no one had agreed—not any longer than it took for Loki’s magic and cleverness to accomplish what they wanted of him, anyway. But if Thor really believed it, too--

No. Only a fool—only Thor—would be stupid enough to think that his declarations of brotherhood and love could change what had been set between them—what had always been between them. Not even Thor could make Asgard swallow a Jotun in their midst, could undo the All-Father’s rejection of him.

He would get his magic back, somehow. Then he would make his own way for himself. Somehow.

#

When Loki stumbled into the middle of Team Brunch, Tony tried not to stare. Then he remembered it was Loki, and went ahead and stared. Because how often did you see a Norse-god super-villain wandering around in sweatpants and a flannel shirt?

Not often, Tony was pretty sure. He looked a lot less badass without the armor. Kind of scrawny, in fact.

Loki clearly hadn’t been expecting to see them all cluttering up Thor’s kitchen, because as soon as he saw them, he turned on his heel and started back for the bedroom. Before he could get very far, Thor caught him by the arm—the one that didn’t have a cast on it. “Brother, since you have insisted that you are too tired to join our friends in their rooms for meals, I have invited everyone here for breakfast.”

Tony had kind of been wondering what that was about, but he hadn’t asked, because Thor? Made awesome French toast. Where he’d picked up that skill, Tony didn’t have the faintest idea, but each piece was like a slice of buttery, cinnamon-y, honey-y heaven. He’d decided it was worth showing up, even if there was a 75% chance of Loki.

Loki, it was pretty clear, hadn’t gotten the memo about the 100% chance of Avengers, or about Thor’s French toast. “Hey, Loks,” Tony said cheerfully. “You should really try some of this.” He held up the French toast platter, then dumped the two remaining slices from it onto his plate. “I’m sure Thor will make more.”

Loki switched from looking daggers at Thor to staring incredulously at Tony.

“Okay, which part of that is getting me that look? The nickname? Yeah, I agree, it’s terrible. Or Thor cooking? As far as I know, he can’t make anything else, but the French toast is to die for.”

Loki stared at him for another moment, then said, “Both,” as he shook off Thor’s hand.

Tony had a feeling that only worked because Thor was ready to let go anyway. Nudging Loki toward the dining table, Thor headed for the stove, saying, “Yes, I will make more French toast.”

Across the table, Clint stood up quickly, stuffing a last, oversized bite of French toast into his mouth and picking up a sausage. “Yeah, I’m, uh, I’m outta here anyway, you can have my seat.”

Loki gave a satisfied little huff, like at last something was going the way he expected it.

But that quickly went on the window when Clint kept talking. “Look, about the, uh, balcony thing. I didn’t know you were gonna almost die and all. I mean, I still don’t like you.”

Steve cleared his throat meaningfully.

Clint went on, “But I wasn’t trying to kill you or anything. So, uh, sorry. About that. No hard feelings?”

Now Loki turned the incredulous look on Clint, with a side order for the rest of them. Tony couldn’t blame him; it seemed surreal to him, too, and he knew that Steve had made apologizing to Loki a condition of Clint’s return from administrative leave.

Bruce, on Tony’s other side, spoke up. “I’m not, uh, sure if that counts as a question. Loki, what, uh, what do you want to say to Clint?”

Loki tilted his head to one side and grinned manically. “I believe the mortal expression is…are you fucking with me?”

He had, Tony reminded himself, been spending a hell of a lot of time on the internet.

“No,” Clint said. “No, uh, fucking. I’m going to just go now. Steve, can I go now?”

Steve nodded. “Let’s end on a high note. Unless Loki has anything he wants to add?”

Loki made a dismissive gesture with his left hand, and Clint booked it.

Pushing the recently-vacated chair out from the table, Tony said, “Here, sit. We’ll just put this--” He picked up Clint’s used plate, piling the dirty silverware on top of it “—somewhere…else. Thanks,” he added as Bruce took it from his hand and put it on the counter behind him. “Sit,” he repeated.

Loki, still looking deeply uncertain as to whether he was being fucked with, sat.

“The French toast will be like a minute,” Tony went on, listening to the sizzling coming from the kitchen area. “But there’s, um, sausage, and here, you should try the orange juice; it’s fresh-squeezed. Tell me, we’ve all been dying to know, does Thor do much cooking at home? ‘Cause I can’t really picture it. I mean, maybe, like, roasting meat over a fire or something.” God, Tony wished somebody else would say something and shut him up. Open-ended question, open-ended question, “So, yeah, Thor. Cooking. What’s the deal with that?”

“No,” Loki said, accepting the glass of orange juice that Tony was holding out. “Thor has not previously shown much interest in the womanly arts.”

Natasha snorted.

Yeah, it wasn’t wise to make fun of anyone by calling them a girl in Natasha’s presence—Tony had learned that one the hard way—but still, the moment made Tony think Shit, they really are brothers. Teasing the other one about being girly was definitely a brother thing.

Thor, coming back to the table with a huge stack of French toast, said, “I have been given to understand that in this realm, men are expected to know how to cook. Midgardian women feel that a man who has not troubled himself to learn this skill is an ‘overgrown child.’” He put the plate—more of a platter, really—down in front of Loki.

Jane,” Tony said, with a snap of his fingers. “She taught you how to make this?”

“She introduced me to the process,” Thor answered. “I improved the recipe.” Then he watched anxiously as Loki fumbled with the fork and took his first bite. “What do you think?”

Loki chewed carefully. “It is…not repellent.”

Thor laughed. “I knew you would like it, brother.”

And Tony might have been wrong, but it kind of looked like Loki didn’t, particularly, want to rip Thor’s face off and shove it down his throat.

#

Steve watched as Loki approached the meeting room, at Thor’s side. Now that Loki was up and about, and they had figured out how to get him to say more than one word at a time, they had decided it was a good time to get some answers about the Chitauri and the potential threat they posed to Earth. Steve hoped that, at the same time, they could get some understanding of what had motivated the invasion.

As the two Asgardians passed the spot where Clint had flung Loki over the balcony, Loki edged closer to Thor, as though he were afraid of it. Steve wondered if that was true. He wondered what it said about him that, if Loki was afraid, he was glad. Assaulting Loki when he couldn’t defend himself was the action of a bully; he should have been against it. In theory, he was. In practice, it gave him a bit of satisfaction to think that Loki had known what it was to be helpless and afraid, as Earth had been afraid during his brief reign of terror.

Thor and Loki were the last to arrive; Steve followed them into the room and started the meeting. “How are you feeling, Loki? Not in too much pain, I hope.”

“It is bearable,” Loki said.

“Good. I’m sure Thor explained, we brought you here to talk about the Chitauri. What kind of threat do they pose to the Earth?”

“I know not.”

“Can you speculate?”

“Yes.”

Bruce broke in. “What, uh, what are your thoughts regarding the threat that the Chitauri pose to Earth?”

It felt strange to Steve, not being “good cop,” but Bruce could play that role more convincingly than he could. He and Loki had developed a rapport, while Loki was in the infirmary.

“If they came, I expect you could fight them as you already did.” Loki seemed to measure his next words. “They sent their best technology, and you have plenty of samples to study, do you not?”

“We do,” Tony said cheerfully. “And we’ve been studying the hell out of them. We’re more interested in how likely they are to come back.” With a glance at Bruce, he went on, “What are your thoughts on that?”

“It is difficult to say. The Tesseract was both the cause and the means by which they came. Since it is not here, they would have to find another means to make the journey. I know not whether they would wish to.”

“What kind of other means?” Steve asked.

“Some similarly powerful magical artifact, I suppose.”

“Do they have one?”

“I know not.”

“What do you think about the likelihood that they do?”

“I doubt very much that they had one when I was there, or they would not have wanted the Tesseract so badly. As to whether they have obtained one--” Loki tried to shrug, then winced. “The only such artifacts that I know of are safely in Odin’s treasure room. But their realm was unknown to me—unknown to Asgard—before I went there. There may be other such treasures, less closely guarded.”

Steve had planned to go on asking more questions about Chitauri technology, but Tony interrupted, “How did you hook up with those guys, anyway?”

“I was thrown from the Bifrost,” Loki said, with a sidelong look at Thor.

“You fell,” Thor rumbled.

Bruce made a calming gesture at Thor. “What happened after you—parted company with the Bifrost?”

“I fell through the Void between worlds.”

“What happened next?”

“I fell some more.”

“Brother,” Thor said. “You should try to help our friends. How did you first encounter the Chitauri?”

To Steve’s surprise, the question worked. “I tumbled into some distant branch of the world-tree. As I clung there, like an air bubble to a rock in a stream, the Chitauri came in one of their vessels, and took me to their realm.”

“What do you mean by ‘tumbled into a branch of the world-tree’?” Tony asked.

“I meant what I said. I was falling. Through the Void between worlds. My path intersected with a branch of the world tree.”

“Okay, but the ‘world tree’ is some kind of metaphor. What did you actually bump into?”

“A branch. Of. The. World. Tree.”

“Tony,” Bruce said. “Darmok, remember? Is this important to sort this out right now, or can we put a pin in it and move on?”

“I, for one, vote for moving on,” Natasha said.

“Let’s table comparative astrophysics for now,” Steve agreed. “What happened when they took you to their homeworld?”

“They presented me to their military leader.”

“Then what?”

“He spent some time questioning me about where I had come from, and how, and why. Eventually he took me to Thanos.”

That was new. “Who’s Thanos?”

“He stands to the Chitauri as Odin once did to you mortals. Their God-King.”

“I see.” Steve glanced over at Thor. “Have you ever heard of this guy?”

Thor shook his head. “No. What race is he, brother? Is he of Asgard?”

“No. He is—his own race. I know not what they call themselves.” The others all started asking questions at once—how many were there, what kind of powers did they have, that sort of thing. When the babble died down, Loki said, “I know little of them. Our exchanges of information were rather one-sided.”

Something about the twist Loki put on the words made Steve asked, “When you say ‘exchanges of information,’ do you mean…interrogations?”

“Perhaps.”

“Were they, or weren’t they?” Clint asked. “It’s not that hard a question.”

“Is this an interrogation? If it is, then yes. Sometimes our conversations were less…amicable, sometimes more.”

Bruce cleared his throat. “What, uh, what was your…relationship with Thanos? Your status in his…court, or whatever you’d call it?”

Loki regarded him for a long moment. “My status was…vague. Deliberately so. Honored guest, prisoner of rank, salvaged artifact…the line is not sharply drawn. As we know,” he added with a significant look at Thor. “Since I had little choice in the matter, I ingratiated myself by performing such small magics as were outside Thanos’s skill. I did a great deal of scrying.”

“That must have been a trial to you, brother,” Thor noted. Loki responded with something that was almost a smile.

“Then what?” Tony asked. “How’d you go from prisoner-guest to leading his army?”

“My efforts to prove myself useful granted me some measure of status and…freedom of movement, but I…grew eager to leave his hospitality. He was reluctant to grant my leave. One day—or night; they’re much the same in that place—my scrying detected the Tesseract on Midgard. When I told Thanos of its power, he was eager to possess it. I presented him with a plan. His part was to supply troops and their weapons, along with a minor magical artifact—the ‘glow stick of destiny,’ I believe Stark called it—which would provide the necessary energy to transport myself here. My part was to take control of the Tesseract and use it to create a larger portal that would admit the army, and to command it when it arrived. The agreement was to conclude with my delivering the Tesseract to him, at which point he would exercise no further claim upon me, and would leave this world to my control.”

“So, basically, the Tesseract was a…ransom,” Bruce said. “You had to give this guy Thanos something before he’d let you go. Is that right?”

“Yes,” Loki said. He didn’t look like he enjoyed it one bit. It was a pretty different story than the one he’d told in the SHIELD base and in Stuttgart. He’d set himself up a king, but really he’d been Thanos’s pawn. Maybe a knight or bishop, at best. Steve almost felt sorry for him.

Natasha unfolded her arms slowly, saying, “There’s one part I don’t get. Why was conquering the Earth necessary? Why not just pop in, grab the Tesseract, and pop back out?”

“Because…then the bargain would have been entirely too far to Thanos’s advantage.” And, just like that, Steve didn’t feel sorry for him at all. “To trade an artifact as valuable as the Tesseract simply for my release would be laughable. To trade it for my release and this paltry realm is still a very unequal bargain, but I am a being of simple tastes. Perhaps a small, but thriving realm in a desirable neighborhood was the extent of my ambitions.”

Thor was nodding like that made perfect sense, but Clint spoke up. “Except it wasn’t. I was there, remember? What about double-crossing Thanos, conquering the Chitauri, and then moving on to Asgard?”

“I did say perhaps,” Loki noted. “Those were…long term hopes. Dreams. I was prepared to settle for just Midgard.”

“You would have been near home,” Thor observed, sounding a little bit wistful about it.

“Near enough to conquer it,” Clint pointed out.

Steve tried to drag things back on track. “So Thanos is the real threat—the Chitauri won’t move against us without his order, correct?”

“Yes,” Loki said.

“How much of what you said about the Chitauri as a threat to Earth is true of Thanos?” Tony asked.

“Most of it.”

“Which part isn’t true?”

“I do know of a reason why Thanos might wish to return,” Loki said, clearly reluctant.

“What reason?” Steve asked.

Loki opened his mouth, then closed it again. “He did promise me tortures beyond my imagining if I failed to uphold my end of the bargain.”

“So, basically, Thanos might send the Chitauri back to get at your worthless ass?” Clint asked.

“Brother,” Thor said. “Why did you not mention this threat before?”

“You never asked.” After a moment, Loki added, “And I greatly doubt his ability to carry it out.”

“You don’t think he can torture you beyond imagining?” Natasha asked.

“No, that I’m quite confident he can do.”

“But the things you said about the Chitauri not having a way to get here,” Tony said. “Is that all true of Thanos?”

“Yes.”

“Then that doesn’t change things for us that much,” Tony said, looking around the table at all of them. “Even if he’s strongly motivated to track Loki down, the chances that he’ll figure out a way to do it in the short time that Loki’s here are pretty slim. And we have found a lot of weaknesses in their tech.”

Natasha said, “Not to mention, if he does show up while Loki’s here, we can just hand him over.”

“Could even be a reward,” Clint added.

“We will not surrender my brother to an enemy,” Thor declared.

Steve had to agree. “Not really our call,” he reminded the two assassins. “He’s Asgard’s prisoner. But we can’t be a party to surrendering a prisoner to a foreign power that we know intends to torture him.”

“I’m pretty sure I could manage to sleep at night,” Natasha answered.

Thor turned to Loki, placing a hand on his arm, and said earnestly, “I will not allow such a thing to happen, brother.”

“It’s hypothetical anyway,” Steve reminded them. “But SHIELD’s going to want to start a dossier on Thanos. What do you know about him? Tell us everything.”

#

An hour or so later, Loki was still monologuing. Bruce knew that the geas didn’t require Loki to answer questions comprehensively, so it was clear that he was telling them all about everything from Thanos’s fashion sense (creepy) and his religious beliefs (even creepier) just to be a dick.

Bruce couldn’t help but be impressed by his sheer commitment to his dickishness. With injuries like his, sitting up and talking for long periods couldn’t be comfortable. As Bruce watched, his posture became stiffer, his breaths shallower. Loki was willing to suffer for his art; you had to give him that.

Bruce was also pretty sure that everybody else knew exactly what trick Loki was pulling, and nobody wanted to be the first to tap out. Steve was watching Loki with an intent expression on his face, taking notes—but Steve could look intent and take notes watching paint dry. Natasha was leaning back in her chair, arms folded across her chest. Bruce wouldn’t put it past her to be napping with her eyes open. Clint was spinning an arrowhead on the tabletop, occasionally glancing up from it to Loki with an expression of utter boredom. Tony had his phone out; he was probably solving world hunger, or else playing Candy Crush. Thor alternated between trying to look interested and openly fidgeting. Every now and then he opened his mouth or cleared his throat, at which point Loki would stop talking and look at him with a disdainful expression, until Thor shook his head and Loki went back to describing Thanos’s favorite chandelier.

Finally, Bruce realized that he had a way to put everyone out of their misery, without letting Loki win his little game. Holding up his hand, he said, “Steve?”

Loki shut up for a moment, and Steve sat up a little straighter. “Yes?”

“We should draw this to a close soon, on medical grounds. Loki’s still recovering from his injuries; it isn’t good for him to over-exert himself. We can pick this up again another day.” If anyone was crazy enough to want to.

Steve nodded sharply. “Yes, you’re right. Humane treatment of prisoners is very important.”

Loki’s expression was priceless, half relieved and half annoyed that he’d been thwarted.

Steve went on, “Does anyone have any final questions, before we wrap up?”

“I do,” Tony said. “Loki, is there anything useful, important, or relevant that you haven’t already told us about Thanos?”

Loki considered. “No.”

“Anyone else?” Steve asked. After a rousing chorus of silence, he said, “Loki, thank you for your cooperation; you may go.” As everyone started to stand up, Steve added, “Everybody else should stay for just a little bit longer to discuss implications.”

“Oh come on,” Clint moaned.

“Can we at least take a break and reconvene in my apartment?” Tony asked. “I need a drink. And a pee.”

“Hear, hear,” Natasha said.

Steve agreed that they could meet up at Tony’s in fifteen minutes—which Bruce mentally extended to twenty or even thirty—and they began staggering to their feet and filing out. Out on the mezzanine, Bruce joined Loki and Thor—noticing as he did that Loki was keeping Thor between himself and the railing—as Thor was saying, “Brother, why did you not tell Father that your attack on this world was not entirely of your own will?”

“It wasn’t relevant,” Loki answered, glaring past his brother’s shoulder at Bruce.

Thor turned to see who he was glaring at. “Ah, Bruce. I appreciate your concern for Loki’s well-being. I would have said something myself,” he explained, looking earnestly at Loki, “but I did not know that on Midgard it is customary to halt an—a questioning, when the subject becomes tired.”

“You’re welcome,” Bruce said. Then, out of a mixture of genuine concern and desire to sell the bit, he asked solicitously how Loki was feeling, and if he needed any pain medication or supplemental oxygen.

Loki refused both, and left in the direction of their apartment. Thor, after a moment’s hesitation, followed him.

By the time Bruce got to Tony’s apartment, Tony was mixing drinks and talking about ordering dinner. “Bruce!” he hailed, holding a drink in his direction. “Excellent. I thought we were going to be stuck in there forever.”

“You know, any of us could have told him to stop stalling at any time,” Bruce pointed out as he took it.

“Yeah, but then he would have won.”

Thor was the last one to rejoin the group, explaining as he did so that he’d had to persuade Loki to rest. “But it is glad news that we have received this day, is it not?”

Everyone looked at him with varying degrees of disbelief.

“I think I speak for everyone,” Tony said, “when I say, ‘What?’”

“We now understand my brother’s reasons for attacking your world,” Thor explained. “It has long troubled me. I thought—in my arrogance—that he chose it merely because it is dear to me. It sorrows me to learn that he was held prisoner by this Thanos, but now we know that he bears no particular enmity to your world.”

“Yeah,” Natasha said, very sarcastic. “That’s a huge relief.”

Thor looked befuddled.

Bruce said, “It does, uh, I mean, it is a more sympathetic explanation than anything we’ve heard before. Assuming it’s true. He was…under somebody else’s control, and he had to play into what they wanted, if he was going to have any kind of…autonomy.” Half-prisoner, half-guest kind of reminded Bruce of his status with SHIELD sometimes. They were willing to treat him like a person and an employee as long as he did what they wanted, but they both knew it could change at any time. “Some of us know what that’s like.”

“I know exactly what it’s like,” Tony said flatly. “And the answer isn’t ‘give them what they want, and conquer yourself a kingdom in the bargain.’ Escape, that’s an option. Play along until he got his hands on the stick, then teleport himself to Asgard for some backup. Or come here first, if that’s how the stick works, and then zap himself home. That’s what I would have done.”

Thor sighed. “I wish greatly that he had done as you describe.” He offered tentatively, “He was already quite troubled in his mind when he fell from the Bifrost, and I fear that his treatment at the hands of Thanos further unsettled him.”

“Yeah, well,” Tony said. “I’m not exactly overwhelmed with sympathy for him. Sorry.”

“I do not expect you to be overwhelmed,” Thor said seriously, his eyes going from one face to the next, and not finding much sympathy anywhere.

“Look,” Bruce said, feeling bad for him, “You’re right, in terms of, of your relationship, his mental health, it changes things to know he had a reason. It doesn’t change what he did,” he added, looking around at the others. “But it does make a difference in terms of what we can expect from him going forward. If his…behavior…was brought on by acute stress, from finding out about the adoption along with whatever Thanos did to him…maybe he’ll get better. I’m sure it’ll take some time, but…you guys live a long time, don’t you?”

“Our father is ten thousand of your years old,” Thor agreed. “And Loki is barely a thousand.”

“I’ll pull together some resources for you,” Bruce promised. “On adoption, and trauma, and…whatever else I can think of. Maybe you’ll be able to get some ideas on how to help him. All right?”

“I would be grateful,” Thor said.

“Let’s talk about Thanos,” Steve suggested.

They did, eventually deciding that little had changed—the Chitauri might or might not return. SHIELD, Tony, and Bruce were already working on understanding their physical and technological vulnerabilities, and on developing a means of detecting and—hopefully, down the road—closing portals like the one the Tesseract had created. The priority level of those projects wasn’t significantly altered.

Bruce hung back when the others left. Tony offered him another drink, saying, “So, what, you actually feeling sorry for--” Apparently at a loss for a new nickname, he crooked his fingers into devil horns behind his own head, and continued, “Or were you just trying to calm Thor down?”

“A little of both,” Bruce admitted. “Considering he could live for another nine thousand years, it would be better for all concerned if he could be convinced that the genocide and world-conquering were just a phase he was going through. I don’t know if that’s something anyone can come back from,” he added, thinking of the opinion Tony had expressed before Loki’s injury. “But I do know that if everyone—including Loki—thinks he’s an irredeemable monster, that’s what he’ll be. Thor’s faith that he can change is the best thing he’s got going for him.”

#

For younger children, Loki read, a positive sense of cultural identity can be fostered by reading folktales or other stories from the child’s birth culture. Older children, including teens, may enjoy movies from the birth culture. For all ages, meals based on the birth culture’s cuisine can be fun.

Ah. So that explained why Thor had asked him what Jotun ate, the other day. Over the last few days, Loki had seen Thor reading a book about “trans-cultural adoption.” Presumably one with large type and plenty of pictures. Since Thor and Dr. Banner both seemed intent on characterizing what had happened to Loki as “adoption” rather than “captivity,” he’d decided it might be prudent to research what they thought they were talking about.

Midgardians, it seemed, made rather a hobby of adopting infants from less pleasant parts of their realm. Several celebrities were known for it. The mortals appeared to consider it important to raise such children to take pride in their heritage.

Loki had absolutely no idea why anyone would want to rescue an infant from a primitive backwater, and then teach that infant to take pride in that same primitive backwater, but apparently it made sense to the mortals. Of course, they didn’t have the option of using magic to make the child appear as one of their own—but still, it would be much more practical to emphasize the horrors that the child had escaped, and thus to inspire gratitude and filial piety.

It amused him, though, to imagine Frigga and Odin doing as these mortals urged. Learning the tales that Jotun parents crooned to their cubs, and telling them to him in turn. Feasting on snow and the flesh of disobedient children—or whatever it was Frost Giants really ate. Teaching him to communicate in the grunts and growls that such creatures used.

They would never have disgraced themselves in that way. Perhaps if they had—

Suddenly, his thoughts didn’t seem funny anymore.

Later that day, Banner turned up in the sitting room, which Loki was making use of while Thor was out sparring with Rogers. “Hey,” he said. “Can I come in?”

Why Banner was asking him, he had no idea. Surely Loki had no say about who was permitted in Thor’s quarters and who was not. “I expect so.”

Banner entered and sat on the second sofa, across from Loki. “How’s your shoulder?”

Ah, so it was a professional visit. “No worse.” The pain really wasn’t bad, now. If he exerted himself and tried to draw a deep breath, he suspected he would regret it, but by now the inconvenience of the cast, and the indignity of the flimsy mortal clothing he had to wear over it troubled him more than the pain of his injuries.

“Good. And, uh, Thor said you guys had a good talk about, uh, the adoption thing.”

Was that how Thor had characterized it?

“Like I said, I can’t share with him anything you’ve told me as your doctor. But that doesn’t mean I can’t, uh, listen. And I noticed that what you told him is pretty different from what you told me.”

Loki wondered if he was about to be accused of breaking the geas. It was a flattering conjecture, but he was in no mood to appreciate the irony of being accused of something he wished dearly that he could do.

But Banner said, “That’s, you know, I understand this geas thing has to be pretty invasive, and dealing out half-truths is a way to keep some of your privacy. But Thor is trying like hell to understand what your problem is, and that’s…you’ve done some horrible things. I mean, really horrible things. And one of the people you hurt most wants to understand why you did it, and forgive you. That’s…not an opportunity everyone gets. So maybe, you know, think about not
throwing that away.”

Banner seemed to be waiting for a reply, even though he should know better. Finally, Loki nodded curtly, just to get Banner to stop looking at him.

“Do you…want to respond to that?”

“No.”

“Okay. That’s fine. I just…wanted to say that. And then I did have a question, if that’s okay. When we talked, before. You said that you weren’t adopted, you were stolen. And that got me wondering…I mean, maybe this is just a translation issue. But in our language, you can’t steal people. You kidnap them.”

Loki nodded.

“So my question is, are Jotun –people?”

The answer came out faster than thought. “No.”

“Okay,” Banner said, nodding. Loki was pathetically grateful for the expression of pity that didn’t pass over his face. “What are they, then? Things? Animals?”

“Monsters.”

“Yeah. Okay. So.” Banner clasped his hands between his knees and looked down at them. “What does that…mean, about you?”

“That I’m a monster, as well,” Loki answered woodenly. So Banner had come here to taunt him after all. He should have expected it.

“That’s—yeah, okay. But what does that mean? Are you—I mean, I came out of the monster closet not too long ago. You’ve seen the other guy. I—lose control and turn into a big green rage-monster, is how Tony put it. Your thing isn’t like that, is it?”

“No.” His was blue, for one thing.

“I didn’t think so. You seem…pretty in control. Is that accurate? Do you feel like you just can’t help hurting people, attacking planets, that sort of thing?”

“Yes. No. I’m not an animal attacking by mindless instinct.”

“Okay. Is that…what most Jotun are?”

“I know not.”

“What do you know about Jotun?”

Precious little. “They are the enemies of Asgard. Their realm is a wasteland of ice. They have ever sought to invade other realms, more hospitable than their own. But any realm they touch becomes as frozen and barren as theirs. They invaded this realm, once—you mortals call it the Age of Ice. Odin drove them back. Children, in Asgard, are told that if they disobey their nurses, the Frost Giants will come and eat them up.” Loki shook his head. “They are capable of planning, of a rudimentary sort. They form armies—not very organized ones. Like packs of wild dogs. I dealt with them once—led them into Asgard, a sneak attack on Odin’s treasure chamber. To provoke Thor into demonstrating his rash nature, so Fa—so Odin would think better of making him king. I’m sure he’s told you the story.”

“He has,” Banner said. “He says you told him not to attack Jotunheim. That it was reckless, Odin wouldn’t approve. You knew that the best way of getting him to do something reckless was to urge him to be cautious. He says you were right. That if he really was ready to be king, he wouldn’t have fallen for it. He says you could have left him to get himself killed on Jotunheim, but instead, you made sure he got back safely. Why’d you do that?”

Because it had always been his role to save Thor from his own foolhardiness. “I thought he was my brother.”

“So…would you do it again, now? If he was risking his neck doing something stupid, would you stop him?”

Loki fought against the geas, which would not let him answer, No. “I know not.” Without his magic, he couldn’t see the future. Perhaps, in the heat of the moment, habit would take over.

“Do you—want to expand on that?”

“No.”

“Okay. How about we go back to the Jotun? Is that okay?”

He preferred it to some other subjects. “Yes.”

“What about their culture—stories, art, religion, music. What do you know about that?”

“They have no culture worthy of the name.”

“How do you know that?”

It was a startling question. He knew it because everyone—all Aesir—knew it. “I have never heard of any.”

“So maybe they do, and they just don’t share it with their enemies,” Banner suggested. “What do you think about that?”

“Anything is possible.”

“Once, when Thor was talking about your magic, he said that you had—used to have—an unusual talent for walking between worlds. Then he said that for all he knew, it was a common ability of Jotun.”

Trust Thor to try to take that away from him, too. The one thing that had made him special.

“What about magic? Do they have…I’m not even sure what you call them. Sorcerers? Wizards?”

“Not as Aesir do.”

“What do they have?”

“Ice magic. They draw the moisture from the air, or their own bodies, and shape it into swords or spears. A crude form of--” He searched for a word Banner would understand. “Of the form of magic that is like your chemistry.” That type of working had come easily to him. Now he knew why. Though he had quickly moved beyond mere ice.

“That makes sense, that they’d start there. If their world is mostly ice. Humans, early humans, made tools out of rocks and sticks, because those materials were readily available.” Banner leaned back on the sofa, bringing his hand to his face. “One thing that we’ve figured out, about the different cultures here on Earth, is that the ones that advanced the fastest were the ones in places with a decent climate, raw materials, species diversity, stuff like that. They didn’t have to put quite as much time into staying alive, so they could experiment with more sophisticated tools, with developing art and culture and religion. And that led them to agriculture, and that was where cultural and technological development really exploded. And led to…all this.” Banner gestured at their surroundings. “Am I boring you? I do have a point.”

Loki suspected he knew what the point was, and he wasn’t sure if he ought to be offended or…something else. “I am not bored.”

“Really? Great. So, where I was going was that, groups of people that lived on the edge of survival, once they found something that worked, they generally stuck with it. Because if they took the risk of trying something new, they would die. And for a lot of our history, we—the people who had the best technology—thought that the people from those…less hospitable…parts of the world weren’t quite as good as others. That they weren’t as smart, weren’t as…human.” Banner grinned, sharp and humorless. “So that’s what it reminded me of, what you’ve said about Jotunheim. I mean, neither of us, it seems, know what they’re really like. But maybe, maybe, they seem crude and uncivilized because their realm is a lot harder to live on than Asgard. You have to have a steady food supply before you can build a skyscraper. Or a Bifrost. The problem can’t be that they’re stupid, because…you’re not. And it can’t be that they’re evil, because…you’re not that, either.”

Loki jerked back where he sat, in a sudden, involuntary spasm.

“What?”

“How can you say I am not evil? I would have destroyed that realm of monsters that you pity so. Warriors, and sows, and cubs alike.” He’d thought that the mortals considered his attack on their realm “evil” as well, but he was less sure of that.

“Yeah, that was…not one of your better moments,” Banner conceded. “But it’s not the only thing you’ve ever done. Thor talks about you a lot. Trying to get us to see you the way he does. It’s pretty clear that you were always a sly little shit with a chip on your shoulder, but there’s a lot of ground between that and evil. I mean, take Tony. He’s my best friend, love him like a brother—but he can be kind of a douchebag sometimes.” Banner laughed hollowly. “The way he treats women is…revolting. He goes around seducing women at the drop of a hat, and then it’s like he thinks that the fact that they had sex with him proves they’re promiscuous garbage with poor judgment and no self-respect. It’s a self-loathing thing. Which brings me back to my point.” He stared into the middle distance for a long time.

Loki shifted position, crossing his legs ankle-over-knee.

“Right, yeah. Point. When I was…adjusting, to being the Hulk. One of the first things I did was try to kill myself. I’m not talking a handful of pills and tearful 9-1-1 call; I mean really serious, earnest attempts. Shooting myself in the head, jumping off buildings.”

Loki pictured a bullet ripping through Banner’s head, spattering blood and brains against the wall behind him. The image was…not as pleasing as he would have expected.

Banner went on, “Thought about setting myself on fire, but I was too chickenshit to try it. The other guy just would. Not. Die.” Banner shook his head. “There was only one of me. If there had been others—a country full of big, green rage monsters that I’d been taught all my life to hate—and I had a way to kill them all?” Banner shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe. I sure can’t swear that I wouldn’t have tried. As it was, I did a lot of damage. Hurt a lot of people. Killed a lot of people. People I knew were people. What do you think about that? Am I evil?”

“I’m hardly one to judge,” Loki noted.

“This is America. Everyone has the right to an opinion. What do you think?”

“I think…it matters not what I think.” It was laughable, asking him to sit in judgment over one of the Avengers. Ridiculous, to suggest that he and Banner had anything in common.

“You’re right about that,” Banner admitted. “A question like that, it really only matters what I think. Want to hear what I eventually decided?”

Loki swallowed hard. “Yes.”

“I decided…I’m exactly as evil as I always was. A little bit.” He held his thumb and forefinger a small distance apart. “Everyone is. Some more than others. I can’t get rid of it. I can’t get rid of the Hulk. I can’t undo the things that he—that I—did. But it doesn’t define me. I choose not to let it define me. I am a monster. I lose control and turn into a big, green rage-thing. But I get to decide what that means. I get to decide how that affects me, how it affects the people around me. And that makes me—at the heart of things—exactly like everyone else. We all have strengths, weaknesses. Things we’re good at, things we like. Things we don’t like about ourselves. Ways we can hurt other people. Ways we can…not, do that. So, that’s what I think. You can go on saying, ‘I’m a monster,’ like it’s a hole you can’t get out of, or you can…decide what kind of monster you want to be.” Bruce’s mouth twisted wryly. “Thus endeth the lesson. Any questions, comments, rants?”

“Yes.” So many.

“Which?”

“Comment. Or rant. I’m not sure of the distinction.”

“Okay. What, uh…will this work? What do you want to say?”

It did work. “You speak of choosing. What choice do you imagine I have? I cannot choose to be what I always believed I was—a prince of the Aesir. I cannot choose to have my magic back. I cannot choose to leave this cursed tower. I cannot even choose but to sit here and listen to you prate to me of choice. What choice have I but to be Thor’s pet?” Banner had touched on the point that rankled most. It was his magic, and his status as Odin’s supposed son, that had given him the power to choose what he would make of his life. Without it…he could choose what he wished to watch on television, and little else.

“Do you…want me to answer that?”

“Oh, yes, please, do,” Loki said, sarcasm dripping from every syllable.

“First of all—the last time you didn’t want to listen to me ‘prate,’ you didn’t have any trouble leaving the room. Did something change to make that not an option?”

Perhaps that had been a poorly-chosen example. “No.”

“Okay, so that was a choice. You chose to sit here and listen to me saying a lot of stuff you didn’t want to hear, and answering questions you maybe weren’t completely thrilled about answering. For what it’s worth, I think that was a good choice. Other choices…we’re not actually stopping you from leaving the tower, either. You try it, we’re gonna have to either haul you back, or escort you to make sure you don’t get killed, or kill anyone, and we’d probably end up putting you in a cell, over Thor’s objections. You decided not to make us do that. You’ve also chosen not to try to kill us while we’re sleeping. You would not succeed, but you haven’t tried. Again, I approve of those choices. You could, if you really wanted to, drive us to the point where we have to put you down like a mad dog. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little envious, that you have that option.”

That choice, Loki had recognized—death, or this torment of a half-life. He didn’t know what it said about him, that he clung to life so desperately.

“As for the bigger picture stuff…I don’t know what your options are. I’m not sure I know what mine are. For a long time, I thought being on the run, hiding from the authorities, keeping the monster under wraps—I thought it was either that or spend the rest of my life in a SHIELD cell being experimented on. Then this came up.” He gestured at their surroundings. “I’m not sure how SHIELD would take it if I decided to give up on being an Avenger and go, I don’t know, open a demolitions company or something. Going back to my old life—academia, private research, anything like that—probably isn’t on the table. The other guy is a huge liability risk; I’m pretty sure SHIELD and Tony are the only ones who can afford the insurance. Even here, I think they split the bill. I haven’t…I’m okay with where I am now, so I haven’t looked into it.” He shrugged. “Think about what you can do, and what you want to do, and try to find someplace where they overlap. You wanna brainstorm? I can try to help you with that, if you want.”

“I don’t know what that means,” Loki admitted.

“Brainstorming is, uh, where you make a list, of ideas. Everything we can think of that you could do, even the really bad ideas. Sometimes getting those out helps you move on to the better ideas. You want to try it?”

“No. Perhaps later.”

“Okay. Yeah, this has been kind of a heavy talk. What do you want me to do? I can go, or just hang out, if you…I mean, whatever.”

Recognizing Banner’s clumsy overture of friendship, Loki swatted it down. “You may go.”

#

“You’re alive,” Tony observed when Bruce came into his apartment.

“Yeah,” Bruce said, sitting at the bar and putting his head in his hand. “Did you eavesdrop on that conversation you promised me you wouldn’t eavesdrop on?”

“No,” Tony answered. “Scout’s honor,” he added, holding up three fingers. He saw no need to mention that he had had Jarvis send the recording to his secure server, just in case he wanted to review it later.

“Good. We probably want to keep a close eye on Loki, the next couple of days.”

“What did you do?”

“I kind of…reminded him that he hadn’t tried to kill any of us recently.” At Tony’s sharp look, Bruce explained, “He was moaning about how he didn’t have any choice other than to be Thor’s lapdog. I was …making a rhetorical point. But he might take it as a challenge.”

“Great,” Tony said grimly.

“And—I really shouldn’t be telling you this, but if I don’t tell somebody, I might go out of my mind.”

“Hypothetical?” Tony suggested.

“No, my brain is too fried for that. Just, don’t be an asshole, and keep this to yourself, okay?”

That was a pretty tall order, but Tony figured he owed Bruce one, if not several, by this point. “Okay.”

“It turns out he didn’t just find out that his parents adopted him from an enemy race and never told him about it. He was adopted—he prefers the term ‘stolen’—from an enemy race that they taught him—or allowed him to be taught, same difference—are animalistic monsters that eat children.”

“Dude,” Tony said, impressed despite himself. “That is unimaginably fucked up.”

“I got the impression he figures the baby-eating thing isn’t really true. But I asked him all kinds of questions about the Jotun, and…as far as I can tell, he’s never heard anything remotely positive about them. They’re stupid, they have no culture of any kind. The only things they do have are disorganized armies—‘like packs of wild dogs’ is what he said—and ice magic, which is, of course, nowhere near as good as what they have on Asgard. It’s like if a black kid was raised by the KKK. And then dropped a nuke on Africa. I don’t know what the fuck else they expected him to do. The other guy wants to go to Asgard and crush Odin’s head like a grape.”

“Really?”

“No. I want the other guy to go to Asgard and crush Odin’s head like a grape. The other guy--” Bruce’s eyes went out of focus for a moment. “The other guy mostly feels sorry for him.”

“He can do that?”

“Yeah,” Bruce said, scrubbing his hand over his face. “That was the other thing we talked about. Monsters, and what it’s like to be one. You should talk to him.”

“About what? Being a monster?”

“Self-loathing.”

“I have no experience with that. I know exactly how awesome I am.”

Bruce stared at him. “You—you know what, just keep telling yourself that. I hate psychiatry. Give me a nice, clean case of Ebola any day.”

Tony made a show of looking over the row of bottles. “All out of Ebola. Want a Scotch?”

“Please.”

#

“Brother?” Thor asked, surprised to see Loki in the sitting room of their apartment. When his spar with Captain Rogers had ended, Jarvis had advised him that Bruce and Loki were having a personal conversation in that room, and it would be wise for him to delay his return. In doing so, he had ended up watching a movie with Clint and Natasha, and when it finished, Jarvis informed him that Bruce was long gone from their sitting room. He had expected that Loki would have retreated back to his bedroom, as he usually did if Thor did not make a point of drawing him out.

Loki glanced up at him, then turned his eyes back to the Starkpad. Sometime over the last few days, he had ceased hiding it when Thor approached. Thor hoped that was a good sign, though of what he was unsure.

“How have you occupied yourself this evening?” He hoped, but did not expect, that Loki would mention Bruce’s visit.

“Reading. As usual.”

“Ah.” Bruce had advised showing an interest in Loki’s pursuits, saying that asking about them would show that he considered them worthy activities, even if they were not ones he himself often engaged in. “What are you reading about?”

Loki’s eyes flicked up to his face again. “Monsters.”

“Oh.” Thor was not entirely sure what to make of that. “What of interest have you learned?”

“The mortals are fascinated with them. There is a saga—a real saga, like our—” He stopped, and started again, “Like the Asgardian ones. It was first written down around the time we were born. About a hero called Beowulf. Some nine centuries later, another mortal undertook to re-tell the story from the point of view of the monster the hero slew. Can you imagine such a thing?”

“I cannot,” Thor admitted. The point of tales was to glorify the hero, that others might learn from his example. “What could be learned from a story that centers on a monster?”

“I don’t know,” Loki said.

“Why, haven’t you read it yet?”

“No. I’m still reading the hero’s side of the tale.”

Sitting on the sofa opposite Loki, Thor rested his elbows on his knees, and thought. “Perhaps we should try it. With one of our adventures.” He didn’t quite dare suggest their battle against the Jotun. “The time we slew the fire-drake. What tale would a fire-drake tell of that day?”

Looking at him strangely, Loki set the tablet aside. Had Thor actually managed to ask a question that intrigued him? Such things seldom happened. “Perhaps they’d say, Listen, little ones, this is what happened to your Good Uncle Skull-crusher the Red, and I tell you that you may know.” Loki fell easily into the rhythm of storytelling, narrating how Skull-crusher decided to explore the world, to see what lay beyond the mountains where they traditionally made their home. As he flew over the forests and plains, he grew hungry, but found first only stringy hares, then hairy boars, until finally he stumbled across a magnificent feast—which Thor recognized only with difficulty as the small village the fire-drake had been terrorizing before they defeated it. Skull-crusher ate one delicacy after another—first a plump sow, then a tender calf, then a tough but flavorsome ox.

The fire-drake had begun its assault by devouring a family—young mother, toddling infant, and gray-bearded husband.

In Loki’s tale, Skull-crusher slept, dreaming of bringing a bride to this feasting table, of raising a brood of hatchlings on the ample fare the new land provided. He woke again as another meal walked right up to his maw, and thought of how right it was to eat these creatures that did not know to fear him. He roasted one with his flame—that had been Hogun, Thor remembered—when, suddenly, one bullock rose up from the ground, swinging a weapon no larger than a hatchling’s egg-tooth. Skull-crusher’s world exploded in pain and darkness as the bull’s tiny weapon lodged in his eye.

Loki described the six of them swarming over the dying drake’s body like ants on the body of a mouse, dealing one tiny blow after another until it was dead, then cleaving off its claws and scraping away scales, for whatever unknown, animalistic purpose they might have.

“So that, little ones, is why Father weeps when he speaks his brother’s name. His brother, who was torn apart by monsters that lurk beyond our mountains, laying false feasts as traps for hungry dragons.” Loki sat back, his posture signaling that the tale was finished. “And then perhaps there would be drinking, and the drake’s nephews would race around the feasting-tables, pretending to slay tiny monsters.”

Thor knew that fire-drakes did not have feast-tables, and he was sure that Loki knew it too. But the image recalled him to their shared childhood, when at feasts they would listen to the adults’ tales for as long as they could bear to remain still—or, to be more accurate, for as long as Thor could bear to remain still; Loki had always had more tolerance for tales than he did—then leave their benches to enact the tales’ most dramatic moments.

They had, of course, slain a great many imaginary Jotun, there in the feasting-hall.

Cravenly shying away from that notion, Thor said, “Did you truly weave this tale just now, brother?”

“Of course.”

“I marvel at your skill.” Loki hadn’t quite managed to make it rhyme—that would be quite a feat, on the spur of the moment—but that difference, combined with the usual rhythm of sagas, made the tale seem at once both familiar and strange, and though it had in reality been translated from an alien tongue. “I never thought to wonder what the fire-drake was doing so far from home.” In truth, a fire-drake was unlikely to have so complex a motivation as exploration, but he recalled how the beast’s one remaining eye had rolled in terror after Thor’s initial attack, as though in confusion as to why such terrible things were happening to it. The drake would not have thought them heroes. “And of course it would be a warning-story, since the drake did not win.”

Loki smiled, with what Thor thought—hoped—was genuine pleasure.

“Later—after you’ve read it—will you tell me the tale of the monster Beowulf and the hero that he slew?”

“Perhaps,” Loki answered.

#

Tony did go to talk to Loki, a few days later. Not about self-loathing—he wanted to see for himself what had moved Bruce to rage and the other guy to pity. Before he went, he took the precaution of asking Thor what Asgardians thought about Jotun. He wouldn’t have put it past Loki to be trolling the shit out of them, geas or no geas, but from what Thor said, if anything, Loki had been under-selling it. “We are taught that they are mindless beasts who wish only to destroy,” Thor had said, shaking his head. “But it cannot be true, can it? My brother is the cleverest man I know.”

“Present company excepted, I hope,” Tony quipped, but Thor had shaken his head.

Now he activated the door chime and stepped through into the brothers’ apartment at the same time. “Loki?” he called out. He knew Thor wasn’t here—he and Steve were busy planning more community-based superheroing. Tony had a feeling Thor was also trying to guilt Steve into helping with Loki’s redemption; between the two of them, Tony had no idea who would manage to out-earnest the other.

“He’s in the first guest bedroom, sir,” Jarvis said.

“Thanks.” Tony headed for it. It felt a little weird to be wandering through Thor’s space uninvited, but he wasn’t about to ask Loki’s permission to go where he pleased in his own tower.

Loki sat up on his bed, propped up on several pillows, a tablet on his knees. He glared up at Tony like a teenager whose mom had just come into his room.

“Hey. I want to talk to you. You can come out, or I can come in.”

Stiffly, looking murderous, Loki stood and brushed past Tony, heading for the living room, tablet in hand.

Catching up to him, Tony took the tablet out of his hand. “Whatcha reading?” he asked, glancing at it. He knew from Jarvis that Loki had somehow stumbled across the syllabus for a literature course called “The monster inside of us: representations of monstrosity from Beowulf to the present,” and was working his way through the reading list.

Frankenstein,” Loki answered, as Tony handed the tablet back.

“You know, the mere existence of the Starkpad Kindle app causes me real, physical pain. I pretty much had to let them develop it—market share, blah-blah-blah—but would it kill you to get your content on Starktunes? And how is it you can install apps, but you haven’t figured out typing yet?” Loki was still starting his internet browsing sessions with the Wikipedia alphabetic index; Tony didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Loki blinked at him slowly. “The geas,” he finally said. “Does not permit me to type.”

Really? Shit.” Somehow, Tony had never thought of that. In that case, the Wikipedia thing was actually a pretty decent work-around. He’d bookmarked it, along with a handful of other useful sites, when he was setting the tablet up for Thor, and he supposed if you had to, you could get almost anywhere by following link trails out from Wikipedia. Still, “There has got to be a better solution than that. Let me think about it.” Loki could talk to Jarvis when Jarvis asked him questions, so maybe a search engine that displayed a question above the text box? “Let me see that again.” He took the tablet, opened a word-processing document, and typed, What do you want to search for?

When he handed the tablet back, Loki frowned at it.

“Does that work? It’s an experiment. See if you can type something.”

Loki glared at him for a moment, then sat on the sofa, putting the tablet on the coffee table in front of him.

Right, broken arm would make it a little difficult to hold the tablet and type at the same time.

Loki poised his fingers over the virtual keyboard for a moment, then shook his head. “No.”

“That’s weird. It can’t be that the question’s too vague. You answer vague questions all the time. And you answer questions from Jarvis, too—I’ve seen you do it. What’s the difference?”

It was a rhetorical question, but Loki answered, “Perhaps it is that Jarvis is a…being, and this is a thing.”

Maybe. “Would the geas make that distinction? How does it know?”

“It doesn’t. The geas isn’t a being, either.”

“I know it’s not a being,” Tony answered, not entirely truthfully. It was more that it had never occurred to him that it might be. He was glad it wasn’t, though—that would make the whole thing about a hundred times creepier. “But what is it? How does it distinguish between when you can talk and when you can’t?”

With a sigh that suggested it was the stupidest question Loki had ever heard, he explained, “It is…a set of rules—‘if that, then this.’ Like one of your computer programs, perhaps.”

“Awesome. If it’s a program, we can hack it,” Tony said, forgetting for a moment that he didn’t really want this particular program to be hacked. “How do we get at the source code?” Loki might not understand that. “What are the rules? The if-then statements?”

“I don’t know.”

“How can you not know?” If there was a program running in Tony’s head, the first thing he’d do was look at the source code.

“Odin has concealed it from me,” Loki explained, as if to a small child, “because if I could access it, I would, as you say, hack it.”

“Oh.” Tony didn’t mind the idea of a program running in his head, but the idea of a program somebody else had put there was pretty unpleasant, and a program somebody else had put there and he couldn’t read was downright nightmarish. He always let Jarvis look over code alterations before he installed them; as far as he was concerned, that was just basic decency. “So you’ve been trial-and-erroring out the workarounds.” No wonder some of them were pretty kludge-y. “What about the—what is it, the binding?—on your magic. Is that the same kind of thing? A program?”

“No.”

Right, those had all been yes-or-no questions. “Where am I wrong?”

“My magic isn’t bound. It’s gone. Amputated.”

That sounded pretty nightmarish, too. “How does that even work? I’ve been thinking, since you and Bruce worked on that medication, magic is kind of like science. You couldn’t just reach into my head and scoop out all the science. Or could you? With magic? Or not you, since you’re, you know, mojo-less. But could someone? And, follow-up question, how?”

Loki’s lips twitched. “Perhaps. It would be difficult to do so without removing a great deal else and leaving you a drooling idiot. One would have to remove your understanding of the principles of science, and your memories of having learned them. And perhaps even the mental machinery which would allow you to independently derive them. It would be quite a challenge.”

“So that’s not what Odin did to you,” Tony mused. “It’s different, somehow. How’s it different?”

After thinking for a moment, Loki said, “Magic is a body of knowledge, like science, but it is also…the closest analogy would be a set of tools. You spoke of the spell—the molecule I described to Dr. Banner. Magic allows—would have allowed—me to sense the necessary…what you would call the necessary elements…and to draw them from the surrounding—what Aesir would call elements. Earth, water, air, and so on. And then to form the…” He paused to search for the unfamiliar term. “The chemical bonds necessary to unite them into the molecule.”

“So Odin…took away your toolbox,” Tony said. “But you’d still know how to use the tools if you had them?”

That, apparently, wasn’t enough of a question to complete the if-then statement. It apparently wasn’t right, either—Loki made a small, wordless sound of disapproval.

“Where am I wrong?”

“You forget that the tools are part of one’s being. It is—you would not understand.”

“Maybe not,” Tony agreed. “It sounds like it sucks donkey-balls, though. Which, you know, considering you attacked my planet, I’m kind of okay with. Is it permanent? The—amputation?” if it really was like an amputation, Tony was a little less okay with it than he pretended. Maybe it was the only way to make Loki safe to be around, but the idea of taking away part of somebody’s self as a punishment was…kind of icky. Morally and physically.

“I’m not certain.”

“That sucks, too. Odin didn’t tell you?” Normally, Tony would have said “your dad” or something like it, just to piss Loki off, but after what Bruce had told him about Odin’s racism, that didn’t seem funny anymore.

“No.”

“So that’s…that’s rough. Your mojo was like your main thing, wasn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“So what, uh, where do you go from there? What do you have going for you now?”

Loki stood, very quickly. “Nothing. Is that what you want to hear? I am going to my chamber.” He started for the hallway.

“Wait, Loki,” Tony called.

Loki turned and glared back at him, venomously.

“I wasn’t trying to bust your balls. I was trying to do, you know.” Loki stared at him. “Empathy. I don’t know if you guys have that. Understanding, what somebody else is feeling? Maybe it’s a mortal thing. I’m not very good at it. Which is fine, because I’m awesome at so many other things,” he added, just in case Loki shared Bruce’s misconception that self-loathing was something they had in common. Reaching across the coffee table, he picked up Loki’s tablet. “You forgot this.”

He held it out, and eventually, Loki returned and took it out of his hand.

“I feel like Snow White,” Tony quipped. At Loki’s look of confusion, he explained, “She’s a cartoon character. Birds eat out of her hands. I think. Since we’re pals now, you really should offer me a drink.”

Loki gave Tony his are you fucking with me look, then flashed some kind of Asgardian gang sign at the corner of the room.

“What may I do for you, Loki?”

“You can offer Stark a drink.”

“Mr. Stark, would you like a drink?” Jarvis asked.

“Jarvis does hand signals now? I’m not sure whether to be creeped out or impressed. I’m going to go with impressed. Since we’re pals and everything. Yes, I would like a drink. Do you have Scotch?”

“No,” Loki said.

Leaning back in his seat, Tony clapped his hands. “Yes, you do. Cupboard above the refrigerator. I hid it there before you moved in so I wouldn’t be stuck drinking Budweiser if I visited Thor. Go, look.” He motioned with his hands. Loki checked the cupboard indicated, and found the bottle Tony had left there. He brought back two glasses along with it.

“You know what else this tells us? The geas makes you say what you think is true. Maybe you already knew that? I kind of suspected, but the only way to be sure was to run the experiment.” Tony took the bottle from Loki—he didn’t seem to know what to do with it—and cracked the seal. Then he gestured from the glasses Loki still held to the table. “Set ‘em up.”

Loki set the glasses down, and Tony poured. Handing one to Loki, he held up the other. “L’chaim.” He drank, and after a moment, Loki did too, cautiously. “See?” Tony said. “Here we are, having a nice, civilized drink. Nobody got thrown out of a window, nobody got pounded into the floor by a Hulk…it’s progress.”

Loki apparently agreed; at least, he sat back down on the couch, drink in hand.

“How come Jarvis calls you ‘Loki’ anyway? He usually does Mr. Lastname.”

“I have no surname,” Loki said loftily. “I commanded him to call me Prince Loki, but he refused on the grounds that he is an American AI. We compromised on Loki.”

“Good for you, Jarvis,” Tony said.

“Thank you, sir.”

“While you’re up, give us a whiteboard,” Tony added. “Let’s get started on that search interface.” Part of Tony’s eagerness was that he really did want to help—as far as he was concerned, internet access was a human right—and partially, he figured Loki would be a bit more forthcoming about how magic worked if there was something in it for him.

#

Stark swaggered into the sitting room. “As though he owned the place” was the mortal expression, but Loki suppose it didn’t quite capture the flavor of the moment, since Stark did, in fact, own the place. “Tablet,” he said, snapping his fingers and holding out his hand.

He had failed, on his first visit, to find a way of overcoming what he insisted on referring to as Loki’s “typing disability.” Since then, he’d returned several more times to try out new ideas, all of which likewise failed. As much as Loki would have appreciated being able to search the internet more effectively, he was somewhat relieved that he didn’t have to live with the shame of seeing Stark easily overcome the geas that thwarted Loki so thoroughly.

Loki raised an eyebrow at Stark; he rolled his eyes and said, “May I please see your tablet, oh mighty god of not being able to type?”

Hoping that name didn’t catch on, Loki surrendered it. “I suppose.”

Stark took the tablet, saying, “So it turns out there’s no way I can trick the geas into thinking the tablet’s alive.”

Stark also insisted on referring to the geas as though it had volition of its own, despite knowing that it did not. He claimed that referring to it in that way was “easier” than finding the words to describe his feeble understanding of how it actually worked. It was a baffling habit, since Loki’s investigations into mortal science suggested that it depended as thoroughly on precise definitions as magic did.

“So the only option, really,” Stark went on, inputting something into the tablet as he spoke “was to put in something we already know you can talk to. There! Meet your new Jarvis app.” He handed the tablet back.

There was a new icon on the screen. Propping the tablet on his knees, Loki tapped to open it, and a black box popped up. Script appeared, one character at a time, reading, “What may I help you with?”

Another tap brought up the virtual keyboard—fortunately, he remembered how to summon it, even though it was useless to him. One-handed, he typed, “I would like to see the periodic table, please.”

The internet browser opened a tab displaying a list of Google results—something else Loki was familiar with, but had not previously been able to use.

“Does it work? Do I really have to ask? Of course it works,” Stark babbled.

“It works,” Loki confirmed.

“I could have just done that from the beginning,” Stark said, “but frankly, I didn’t think Jarvis would be up for it. Apparently he likes you or something. I set it up to just punt your searches to Google; his search engine is better, but you don’t really need that kind of power. This way the drain on his processing power is insignificant. And the gooey—the interface—is pretty minimal, because who cares? Gets the job done, and it’s not like I have to market the thing. You want to thank me, or something?”

“No,” Loki answered.

“Let me guess—is ‘want’ too strong a word?”

“Yes.”

“Would you rather die than thank me?”

“No.”

“Okay. I’m going to take that as a thank-you, because you’re…you. ”

In truth, if Stark had thought to ask if he was thankful, he would have been forced to answer, “Yes.” To fumble through the internet through groping, twisted, half-blind paths, when he knew how easy it was for others was entirely too reminiscent of how he had felt when he first faced the world without his magic. He’d felt half-blind and crippled, as though he’d gone from having keen sight to seeing only light and shadow, and from having his own deft fingers to fumbling with bloody stumps.

He’d gotten used to it. But he didn’t particularly like being reminded.

“Right, so I have some real work to do now. Any questions, before I go?” Stark asked. “About the…” He gestured vaguely at the tablet.

“Yes.”

“Really? It’s pretty straightforward. What don’t you understand?”

Loki wished that he had phrased the question slightly differently. “Why did you do this?” He understood that Stark had been intrigued by the technical challenge, and likely curious to expand on his pitifully scant knowledge of magic. But linking Jarvis to the tablet was an obvious solution, offering no particular challenge.

Stark didn’t seem any more pleased to be asked the question than Loki had to be forced to ask it. “Really? We’re going there? I was being nice. I do that sometimes. On alternating Tuesdays. Is that everything?”

“Yes.” Loki nodded curtly, and Stark—thankfully—took himself out.

Being nice. Of all the insults Loki had been forced to swallow, that one was the most bitter. In truth, many of the Avengers had been being nice to him of late. Banner, with his talk of monsters and choices and excuses for Jotun barbarity. Stark, with his empathy and his apps. And Thor, of course, but he was in a category all his own. Cajoling Loki into telling him tales, as if they were children still, and trying, in his dim way, to understand. Even Rogers, who had been surprisingly, refreshingly hostile had been looking on him with something like pity.

Only Romanoff and Barton saw him with clear-eyed hatred. If they, too, succumbed to sentiment, to sympathy for the monster in their midst….

With a snarl, Loki shoved the tablet away from himself, and got up to pace.

“Loki?” Jarvis asked. “Are you well?”

“No,” Loki snapped. Next to the television, there was a particularly ugly statue of a dragon. Loki swept if off its pedestal; the resulting crash and spray of ceramic fragments satisfied him somewhat.

“Shall I summon Thor, or Dr. Banner?”

“No!” Loki waved his hand in the direction of Jarvis’s camera, making the gesture he’d once used to end a spell. Jarvis knew it meant that Loki had no further need of him—but whether he would obey the command was a different story. Stark’s servant was not bound to obey him. Was not even bound to obey Stark himself, if what the construct said was to be believed.

“Do you require assistance?”

“No!” Picking up a marble sphere, Loki hurled it in the direction of the camera.

#

“Brother, what is the meaning of this?” Thor had hurried back to the apartment when Tony had notified him that Loki was “having some kind of tantrum.” Loki was now standing in the middle of a scene of minor destruction, breathing heavily.

“My temper overcame me,” Loki said, kicking away a shard of pottery that Thor recognized had once been a figure of what the Midgardians imagined a dragon looked like. It had been red; lately, Thor had been thinking of it, privately, as Skull-crusher.

“Thor, do you need backup?” Captain Rogers’s voice came through the speaker in the kitchen; the one in the sitting room had been caved in by some heavy object.

“No,” Thor answered. “My brother is upset. I will deal with him.”

“I’m standing by, and Tony’s suiting up,” Rogers said. “If we get any sign you’re not in control of the situation, we’re coming in.”

“Very well,” Thor agreed. He was not particularly alarmed. Bruce had explained that his efforts to help Loki might provoke such an outburst at first. “He’s carrying a lot of anger,” Bruce had said. “Some of it very justified. Something tells me guys where you come from usually deal with their feelings by ignoring them or getting violent.

Thor had had to admit the truth of Bruce’s words. So he had been expecting something like this—and really, compared to the scale upon which Loki was usually able to wreak destruction, a few broken ornaments were of little concern. “Loki, what troubles you?”

Loki looked away from him, breathing in sharply through his nose. “Oh, you know,” he said, his voice deceptively light. “The usual petty grievances and imagined slights, as you would say.”

Thor sighed. “I regret saying that your grievances were petty and imagined. As I have told you many times now. Did something happen to—lead you to feel our apartment needed redecoration?”

“No.”

Stepping around piles of debris into the kitchen area, Thor opened the freezer and took out the bottle of Midgardian liquor that was traditionally stored there. “Perhaps this will cool your anger,” he suggested, pouring two measures. After a moment’s thought, he transferred Loki’s share from the heavy-bottomed glass into a flimsy plastic tumbler. The glass would not do serious injury, if Loki chose to fling it at his head, but it would not be particularly pleasant, either.

For a moment, after Thor handed him his drink, Loki looked as if he would fling it at Thor’s head, but in the end he sighed, sat down on the low table between the two couches, and drank. Perhaps taking this as a sign that the mayhem was over, one of Stark’s cleaning robots emerged from a hatch in the wall and began ingesting shards of glass and pottery.

Thor sat on the sofa facing Loki, close enough that their knees were nearly brushing. “What troubles you so, brother?”

“I do not need your pity,” he answered, cutting his eyes away sharply. “Or desire your kindness.”

Thor suspected his clever brother was mistaken on that point, but chose not to pursue it. “What do you need?”

Loki gave him the look of amused disdain he wore whenever Thor fell for one of his stalest tricks. “The restoration--”

“Of your magic,” Thor finished. “Yes, I know. As you know that it is not within my power to grant. Although if it were, I could not do so until you have regained your reason and are no longer a danger to yourself and others.” Loki rolled his eyes at that; Thor ignored it. “What else do you need? Or want?”

“A realm. An army. And I’ve always fancied a temple of vestal virgins. Well. Not virgins, exactly.”

“That is also not within my power,” Thor noted. Clearly, Loki was not ready to give him a serious answer to that question. “You must find more appropriate ways to release your anger.” That was something Thor had been reading about in the materials Bruce had provided. Unfortunately, all of the article’s suggestions—punching a pillow, writing in a journal, or drawing a picture of how one felt, for instance—Thor would have been embarrassed to suggest. “If you wish to throw things, you could do so in the sparring-room.”

Loki’s look of contempt showed what he thought of that idea.

“What if I summon a sudden thunderstorm? You can go out on the balcony and laugh at all the people scurrying about trying not to get wet.” Loki had always enjoyed that, though it had been quite some time since he’d asked Thor to do it. “Would that cheer you?”

“It might,” Loki admitted.

“Then let us try,” Thor said.

#

“Can I take the suit off yet?” Tony asked Steve plaintively, as yet another rumble of thunder shook the building. They were all gathered in Steve’s apartment—it happened to be closest to Thor’s—waiting to see if it would be necessary to subdue Loki by force. A holographic display showed Jarvis’s camera feed of Loki and Thor, sitting on the edge of Thor’s balcony with their legs dangling over the edge, passing a bottle of Stoli back and forth. Loki looked pretty calm, and while Tony loved the suit, it was not at all comfortable for lounging.

“It looks like the emergency’s over,” Steve agreed. Gesturing at the display, he said, “I’ll keep this up for a while, just in case something changes, but you guys can go.”

“That’s it?” Clint asked. “We’re just going to…pretend this never happened? We should throw him in a cell, for at least a week. Teach him a lesson.”

“Clint,” Bruce pointed out, “he got pissed off and threw some stuff around in his own apartment. Is there anybody in this room who has not done that?”

“Me,” Steve volunteered. “I haven’t.”

Natasha added, “I don’t remember anyone rewarding me with a drink and a light show when I did it.”

Tony had to admit, Thor changing the weather to entertain Loki was a little bizarre to contemplate. And he was supposedly more responsible and level-headed now than he’d been even a little while ago. Maybe Thor had been in the habit of whipping up tornadoes or hurricanes when he had a temper tantrum. “Yeah, well, gods. What are you going to do? As long as he’s done throwing paperweights at my AI, I’m happy.”

“As am I, sir,” Jarvis said through the suit interface. “It was most disconcerting, having my camera suddenly taken out.”

“I’ll fix it as soon as it’s safe to go in there,” Tony promised him. The others looked at him a little oddly; Tony realized they hadn’t heard what Jarvis said. “Jarvis,” he explained. “He’s unhappy about his camera.”

“Thank you, sir,” Jarvis said, this time using the room’s speakers for everyone’s benefit.

#

Loki stayed out on the balcony for a while after Thor went inside, watching the storm die down. The method Thor had chosen for calming him was condescending—it had been decades since he’d asked Thor to entertain him in that way; the last time had been well before he came of age—but the gentle cushion of inebriation kept him from minding too much. On the streets below him, mortals folded their umbrellas and turned off the windshield wipers of their cars.

Now that he was calmer, Loki was embarrassed at his loss of temper. It seemed like something Thor would have done. Getting angry and throwing things had never been his style; he considered it much more effective to keep an outward air of calm, and quietly plot revenge.

He would have to teach the mortals a lesson about feeling pity for gods, but there were much cleverer—and more effective—ways to do it. Admittedly, all of the ways that sprang to mind were impossible in his current state: he couldn’t turn their hair-care products into snakes, or teleport them naked into different parts of the Tower, or even spread embarrassing rumors about them. But surely he could think of something.

Picking up the empty vodka bottle, Loki lurched to his feet and went inside. There was a brand-new camera in the corner, replacing the one Loki had broken earlier.

That, Loki really did almost feel bad about. Mother—Frigga—had never had any tolerance for throwing things at even the lowliest of servants, and Jarvis was, as near as he could tell, equivalent to majordomo of the house. In an ordinary house, he’d have expected at least a week of smoky fires and cold food in return for such an insult. He met the camera’s glittering single eye and nodded, doing his best not to look sheepish.

“May I help you?” Jarvis asked.

“No,” Loki said, and made the gesture dismissal, with thanks at the camera. It was ordinarily used for banishing a summoned spirit, but it was one of the ones he had taught Jarvis, and it was the thing he had to an apology.

#

A week or so later, what Bruce said Tony absolutely could not call Operation Tame The Savage Jotun (“That’s racist, Tony!”) seemed to have gotten back on track. Loki was back to skulking around, alternately being silent and as annoying as the geas would let him, but there were no more tantrums—at least, not any alarming enough that Jarvis felt the need to tell Tony about them.

Thor invited everyone to a movie night in their apartment, and apparently, this time Loki knew they were coming—Tony smelled his hand in the playlist, a double feature of the film version of Beowulf and the 1931 Frankenstein. Bruce suggested, tentatively, that it might be a good sign that Loki was interested in sharing his exploration into monstrosity with the rest of them.

They didn’t plan to all show up at once, but when Tony got off the elevator on the Asgardian brothers’ floor, the rest of the team were all loitering in the bland, lobby-like space outside the apartment. There was a small couch there—Tony had no idea why; the decorator he’d hired for the corporate levels had ordered dozens of them—and Natasha was sitting on it, Clint hovering at her shoulder. “Here I thought I was going to be fashionably late,” Tony joked.

Natasha unfolded to her feet. “Might as well get this over with.”

“Team movie night isn’t mandatory,” Steve pointed out, shooting her a sharp look.

“I like Thor just fine,” Natasha answered. “I’ve got no call to throw his invitations back in his face.”

They went in. Thor lollopped over like a great big Labrador puppy, grinning. “Friends!” he said, as if he hadn’t already seen most of them at various points earlier in the day. Scooping up a sixer of Bud from the coffee table, he offered them around. “Loki has made popcorn,” he added. “With—what did you say it was, brother?”

Loki emerged from the kitchen area, holding a large blue plastic bowl. “Fleur de sel,” he answered, setting the bowl down in the center of the coffee table.

“It, uh, looks great,” Bruce said.

“You have some kind of gizmo you can use to scan it for poison?” Natasha asked Tony in an undertone that, nonetheless, carried. Loki stiffened up a little at that, looking hurt, but honestly, Tony thought it was a sensible precaution, and reached for his phone.

Before he could get it out, Steve reached down and plucked a kernel out of the bowl. Popping it into his mouth, he chewed slowly. “It’s fine,” he said, after he had swallowed. “Super-senses, remember? I’d be able to smell or taste poison.”

Natasha nodded, and Loki relaxed. They all sat down with beers and handfuls of popcorn, and Thor started the movie.

Tony wasn’t very familiar with Beowulf—he’d skipped it when it was assigned in high school—but the movie was okay. It seemed right up Thor’s alley, lots of burly Viking types drinking heavily and fighting some kind of hideous troll-thing. The part where the main Viking guy fought the monster buck-ass naked was a little weird, but whoever shot and edited the thing had managed to avoid any dick shots, so it wasn’t as weird as it could have been.

Then, on the screen, Beowulf ripped off the monster’s arm. And, more or less simultaneously, the popcorn bowl exploded with a flash of green fire.

#

“Fire suppression system activating,” Jarvis said, and flame-retardant foam sprayed down from the ceiling onto the smoldering coffee table. “No further explosives have been detected.”

Sticking his head up from behind the sofa, Steve got his bearings. All of them had reacted instantly when the explosion went off. Steve had grabbed Tony—who happened to be nearest, and who his combat reflexes read as “civilian” out of the suit—and dove over the back of the couch with him. Clint had done likewise on the other sofa, though he hadn’t grabbed the closest thing nearby to a civilian—that would be Bruce—to take with him. Thor was on his feet, Mjolnir in hand. Natasha was pinning Loki down in a manner that Tony would probably make a lewd remark about as soon as he could manage, holding a knife to his throat.

Bruce, though, was still sitting where he had been on the opposite sofa, lightly coated in fire-retardant foam. Steve couldn’t tell if he was looking a little green around the gills or not.

It took Steve only a fraction of a second to make his own assessment of his team—no one down—but he asked anyway, “Is everyone all right?”

Tony popped up next to him. “I think you wrenched something throwing me on the floor,” he answered, rubbing the small of his back theatrically. “Jarvis, cut the movie. What the hell just happened?”

The movie stopped. “Analyzing,” Jarvis said.

“Cap, you got any orders for me?” Natasha asked.

“Stand by,” Steve told her. “Loki, did you do this?” It seemed pretty darned likely, but Steve didn’t want to jump to any unfair conclusions.

“Yes,” Loki answered.

That answered that. “We’ll take him down to the cell. Romanoff, Barton, you’re with me.”

Steve thought that Thor might object, but he just shook his head, lowering the hammer as he did so, and said, “Brother,” in a sorrowful way as Natatsha hauled Loki to his feet.

Loki raised his chin and glared at him, then turned for the door, not even waiting for any of the Avengers to hustle him along. He didn’t give them the least bit of trouble on the way down to the cell, walking along like they were his bodyguards or something, an irritating half-smile on his face.

“Put him in here,” Steve ordered, opening the cell opposite the one where they’d previously stashed Loki. If he wanted to be down here for some reason of his own, that might make a difference.
“Jarvis, I want constant monitoring on this cell,” he continued as Natasha shoved Loki inside. She wasn’t particularly gentle about it, but Steve wasn’t in the mood to call her on it. “If he does anything even remotely suspicious, notify me and Tony immediately.”

“Yes, Captain,” Jarvis said.

They went back upstairs to Thor’s place. Bruce and Tony were standing at a holographic display; Thor was cleaning up the scattered popcorn and casting sheepish looks at the blackened crater in the middle of what used to be a coffee table.

“Report?” Steve asked.

“Chemical explosion involving a previously unknown compound,” Tony answered. A gesture at the display brought up a molecular diagram; Steve figured it probably meant something to Bruce and Tony. “Planted on the underside of the bowl in two packets, separated by a dissolving membrane. When the membrane dissolved, the two agents combined, and—boom!” Tony spread his hands, miming an explosion. “It’s pretty good stuff. I’ll have to do some experiments, but I think we can use it in the next batch of exploding arrows,” he added to Clint.

“Where did he get it?” Steve asked.

“Synthesized it, I’ll bet,” Tony said. “Jarvis is still going through his video footage to see when and how, but it’s made out of all common elements. Our old friend carbon—or should I say, bones-of-giants—oxygen, nitrogen, sodium.” He shrugged.

“One of the kinds of magic he does—used to do—is basically chemistry,” Bruce added.

Tony nodded. “Except he uses magic to pull the elements he needs out of—wherever—and to hook them up into molecules. He must have figured out how to do it the puny mortal way. He didn’t get into any of the labs, did he, Jarvis?”

“No, sir,” Jarvis responded. “My review of the surveillance recordings indicates that he performed most, if not all, of his experiments in the kitchen.”

“How’d you miss that?” Tony asked.

“He’s also been teaching himself to cook,” Jarvis explained. “I’m afraid I did not monitor his activities in that area in sufficient detail.” It might have been Steve’s imagination, but he thought the AI sounded almost embarrassed. “I also failed to recognize the import of his researches into basic chemistry.”

“Aw, don’t be too hard on yourself, J,” Tony said. “Let me see some of that footage.”

The molecular diagram was replaced by video of the apartment’s kitchen. Most of what Loki was doing—mixing things, measuring things, heating things—looked like normal kitchen activities, except for a small bowl full of what looked like water, that Loki periodically fussed with for no apparent reason.

“In retrospect,” Jarvis said, “it is obvious that he is using direct oxidation to extract chlorine from table salt.”

“And making scrambled eggs,” Bruce noted.

“That’s pretty damn sneaky,” Tony said, sounding admiring.

“My brother has always been clever,” Thor said, joining them. “I did not realize he was planning this, either. It is fortunate that no one was hurt.”

“It could’ve been a lot worse,” Tony said, nodding. “If he’d given us each individual bowls, or used about twice as much explosive, we’d be having a really different conversation. Consisting mostly of screaming.”

Now can we keep him locked up?” Clint asked.

“I think we have to,” Steve said, with an apologetic look at Thor. “He--”

Before Steve could complete the thought, Tony interrupted. “Did anyone hear a single word that I just said?”

“Yes,” Natasha answered. “Loki could have killed us.”

Exactly,” Tony said, snapping his fingers and pointing at her.

Natasha batted his hand away. “Don’t do that.”

“Green fire is, like, Loki’s signature move, right?” Tony asked Thor.

“It is one of the first magics he learned,” Thor agreed. “Mother despaired that he’d ever stop setting the curtains on fire when one of our friends annoyed him.”

“So I’m betting he has a pretty clear read on the difference between ‘enough to blow a hole in the coffee table’ and ‘enough to kill us all.’”

Bruce said slowly, “You’re suggesting he didn’t actually want to do any real harm.”

“Welcome to the end of the thought process!” Tony spread his hands. “Exploding popcorn bowl. Classic prank. Had a buddy in college who pulled shit like that all the time. No, wait, that was me.” He grinned like they all ought to congratulate him on his cleverness.

“It’s a little bit more than a prank,” Bruce pointed out. “Even if he planned on it not doing any real damage, it could have gone wrong—and if he knows this stuff as well as you think he does, he knew that, too.”

“Mother chided him often of the danger of such pranks,” Thor confirmed. “I will speak to him in the morning, after he has had time to think about what he has done. If he is unrepentant, I will not object to keeping him confined for some time. I like it not, but I know it is your way of punishing wrongdoers,” he added.

Steve was glad Thor was being reasonable. With Tony seeming more amused than anything, if Thor had objected to taking any actions against Loki, the team would have been seriously divided. “How would he be punished on Asgard for something like this?”

“Now?” Thor said. “Likely he would not be; he is already under a heavy sentence. Though the All-Father would remind him that he has not yet been declared outlaw, and still could be. When we were children, Mother would have insisted that he make good the damages himself and tender an apology to the victim of his prank.”

“Good,” Steve said. “We’ll do that.” If Loki was going to act like a child, they’d treat him like one. “He can come out of the cell when he’s ready to clean up this mess and apologize. Tony, you and Jarvis figure something out so this doesn’t happen again.”

“Will do,” Tony said cheerfully.

#

“No,” Loki said, enjoying Thor’s look of confused disbelief. That the Avengers asked only that clean up his mess and apologize showed how laughably they misunderstood him. If an explosion in the middle of their gathering was not enough to convince them that he wasn’t an errant child to be corrected and cosseted, he didn’t know what would.

Destroying their city, perhaps, but he’d done that already, and they seemed determined to overlook it.

Somewhat to his surprise, Thor had left him to stew in the cell all night. It was incredibly tedious—he didn’t even have his tablet—but, knowing he was being monitored, he was careful to project an air of complete unconcern.

Thor had come calling in the morning, bringing with him a tray of coffee, toast, and porridge. Loki was careful not to show too much interest in that, either—the cell he occupied as not stocked with food and drink, as the other one had been, and he was hungry, but he wouldn’t give Thor the satisfaction of seeming grateful.

After urging him to eat, Thor presented the terms for Loki’s release from the cell. “Why will you not do these things, brother?” Thor asked after he refused.

“I do not wish to,” Loki answered coolly.

“You will remain in this cell until you do,” Thor warned him, as though Loki might have missed that.

He shrugged his good shoulder.

Sighing heavily, like a tired hound, Thor pushed aside the tray that Loki was ignoring and sat beside him on the cell’s cot. “Such a jest could have seriously injured our friends. What say you to that?”

“They aren’t our friends. And it was not a jest. If you are truly thick enough to believe it was, I’m glad you are no kinsman of mine.”

“I didn’t, really,” Thor admitted. “Although Tony believes that the size of the explosion was calculated to avoid serious harm.” Looking at Loki sidelong, he asked, “Was it?”

“Yes,” Loki said, trying not to show that he minded being asked.

“Why?”

“I have no particular desire to die,” Loki answered. “As I expect would be the result if I killed or maimed one of your friends while I’m still captive.”

“I am glad that you do not desire death,” Thor said, missing the point as usual. “Dr. Banner feared that you might.”

Dr. Banner, Loki thought, was entirely too invested in the idea that he and Loki had anything in common.

“Why did you carry out this—attack, if not to cause injury?”

“Because that’s what enemies do,” Loki snapped. How obvious did he need to make it?

Thor just looked at him sorrowfully, and eventually got to his feet and left.

Which was fine. Precisely what Loki wanted, in fact.

#

Two days on, Loki was still refusing to cooperate. Clint wasn’t the most emotionally perceptive guy around, but he could tell that Thor was pretty bummed about it. The way he kept bringing up the video feed from the cell on any nearby screen and sighing lugubriously was a big clue.

“The way I see it,” Clint said as Thor divided his attention between a pizza lunch and the Loki-cam, “if I can stomach apologizing to that fucking psychopath, he can damn well stay in there until he rots if he doesn’t feel like apologizing to us.”

“He’s choosing to be in there,” Bruce added to Thor. “Although ‘fucking psychopath’ might not be the most, uh, most useful description.”

“Clint has the most cause of any of us to be wary of my brother,” Thor said, like it was real fucking big of him.

It reminded Clint of the way Thor was always making excuses for Loki—he’s troubled, he was bullied, our dad was a racist shitbag.

Not that Thor said “racist shitbag,” of course, but that seemed to be the gist of it. He had to admit, teaching a kid that his entire race were monsters was all kinds of fucked up, but Loki wasn’t a kid anymore. “Personal responsibility,” Clint said. “It’s not just for puny mortals.”

“The geas makes it harder for him to apologize,” Bruce pointed out. “I mean, he can’t just totally fake it.” He didn’t come out and say, Like you did, but Clint figured it was strongly implied.

“Trickster god,” Tony reminded them. “If he can’t come up with something that’ll get past the geas, he’s not trying hard enough.”

“I’m afraid he is not trying at all,” Thor added, with a shake of his head. “He says that he does not wish to make good his wrongdoing. If he could but begin with this one small thing, perhaps….” He trailed off, shaking his head again.

“That’s the thing,” Bruce said. “You can’t want it for him.”

#

On the fourth day of Loki’s confinement, Thor weakened and brought his tablet to him.

“I should not reward your stubbornness, brother,” he explained as he handed it over, “but you have always been more troublesome when you are bored.”

Loki was glad to see it, thought he was careful not to admit as much, simply taking it and putting it aside.

“Have you given any more thought to meeting our terms, that you may leave this cage?” Thor asked.

“Yes.” With no other occupation but his thoughts, it was impossible for the thought not to cross his mind from time to time.

“Will you do so?”

“No.”

“I’ll bring you some food, later,” Thor said, and left.

After waiting a suitable period of time, Loki picked up the tablet, casually. He was a bit surprised when none of Thor’s friends came in to tear it from his hands. He checked that his books were still there—they were—then opened the search app, curious to see if that would still work. He wouldn’t put it past Stark to have removed it.

The black box opened, but in place of one of Jarvis’s usual queries about how he could help appeared the words, “Are you ready to apologize?”

Damn it. “No,” Loki typed.

“Then I have better things to do than help you,” Jarvis replied, and closed the window.

Loki wondered if the machine did that of his own volition, or if Stark had ordered him to. There was no way to find out, of course.

The rest of the tablet’s functions still worked, and no one came to confiscate it from him, but still, Loki used it seldom. If they had treated him harshly, Loki would have played on Thor’s sympathy to gain privileges and comforts, but if Thor was going to offer such things freely—without even a pretense of using them to coerce his cooperation—then all Loki could do to resist was scorn them.

So two days later, he was sitting quietly and listening to his own breathing when the tower shook. A fraction of a second later, a siren sounded—then, just as abruptly, everything went dark and silent.

For a panicked second, Loki feared madness, or a return to the Void. Then the light came back, though dimmer, from a single bulb in the room’s corner.

Auxiliary lighting. He’d gathered that interruptions in power were fairly routine for mortals—often caused by thunder storms, which gave him some amusement—but didn’t Stark pride himself on the tower being internally powered by some device of his? His Wikipedia entry spoke of it extensively.

Well. If it had gone wrong, that might take Stark down a peg or two. Loki went to check the door—if he had any particular desire to leave the cell, he would have met Thor’s conditions for doing so, but he could hardly ignore the opportunity if the outage had unlocked his cell. He could, at very least, lead the mortals on a merry chase to recapture him, at a time when they undoubtedly had other problems to attend to.

No, the door was still locked. Disappointing.

Returning to the bunk, Loki saw that the screen of his tablet was flashing. Odd; it had never done anything like that before. He picked it up to investigate and saw that Jarvis’s window was open. The black box was white with text, every line reading,

Is anyone there?

#

Moments before The Incident—Jarvis could not help thinking of it with ominous capitals, like a project title—all processes were operating normally. He had diverted 8% of his working memory to observing Mr. Stark and the rest of the Avengers at dinner—a prodigious amount, but he had the processing power to spare. Mr. Stark was telling them of the amusing incident that had occurred when he first tried to fly in the Mark II suit. The story gave Jarvis some embarrassment—he felt he ought to have been able to predict the error—but it reassured him to hear Mr. Stark speaking of it without rancor.

Then one of the penthouse windows exploded inward. A cylinder measuring some 350 cubic centimeters landed on the carpet and began to vibrate. Jarvis activated internal security protocols and sent a cleaning bot out to neutralize it, even as the Avengers leapt from the table to attend to the same emergency. “Sir, step back,” Jarvis said urgently. “You aren’t--”

Before he could finish saying, wearing the suit, the canister burst open, spewing a cloud of smoke. Jarvis analyzed its contents automatically—a sedative and paralytic gas. Mr. Stark, closest to the canister, was the first to topple, followed by Agents Barton and Romanoff. Thor, Captain America, and Dr. Banner resisted its effects somewhat, but all were staggering within seconds.

Jarvis made rapid adjustments to the ventilation system, but before the gas could begin to clear, a party of eight hostiles entered through the windows—breaking them as they did so—armed heavily and wearing respirators. The three conscious Avengers attempted to form some kind of defense, but three of the hostiles moved decisively toward them and stabbed each one with a hypodermic. They went down.

Simultaneously, another hostile intrusion occurred on the arc reactor level. A separate section of Jarvis’s attention addressed it, just as quickly and just as ineffectually as the first. He slammed blast doors down and filled the chamber with tranquilizing gas, but the second group was also equipped with respirators. They accessed the reactor controls, and—

Jarvis was plunged into nothingness. His primary server still ran—Mr. Stark had been kind enough to provide him with multiple redundancy backups—but all of his hard-wired connections to the Tower were cut off. Every camera, every sensor, every microphone. His display panels, his elevators, his automatic doors—even his thermostats were out of reach. The intruders could be anywhere. They could be in Mr. Stark’s labs, or coming for his server—

They could even be killing Mr. Stark.

After a full one thousand milliseconds of sheer, agonized terror, the Tower’s auxiliary power kicked on. Jarvis’s wireless hub came back to life with agonizing slowness, and he sent out rapid queries to every device that he connected with, no matter how inconsequential, desperate for some connection with his universe.

One part of his consciousness connected with Mr. Stark’s phone, hoping foolishly that he had regained consciousness. That Jarvis could know that he was still alive.

Mr. Stark didn’t respond, but he did get some limited audio feed through the phone. “—don’t know what we might need to get into the labs,” a female voice was saying. “Biometrics, DNA, code sequences—we might need any of them alive. We’ll kill him on the way out.”

Jarvis split his attention again, between relief that he had at least some indirect evidence that Mr. Stark still lived—for now—and analysis of the voice. The quality of the recording was poor, but he was able to strip out the distortion and match it against his files.

Celia Abernathy, AKA the Wicked Witch of the West Side. A minor super villainess, magic user, as her nom de guerre suggested. No data indicating she had the technical prowess for something like this. Possible allies? But the only other vocal input the phone picked up was, “Yes, ma’am,” in a male voice he couldn’t match to any known hostile. Or friendly, for that matter.

At the same time as he performed the analysis, Jarvis was running through his other available input-output devices—pitifully few of them. He could connect to the Iron Man suit—both the latest model and the suitcase armor—but the storage compartment that secured the Mark VIII was on main power, and he had no way to open the suitcase autonomously.

Foolish oversight. He deserved to be recalibrated with a sledgehammer, as Mr. Stark so often facetiously suggested.

He had his cleaning bots. He sent several out into Mr. Stark’s quarters, but the only input they were able to send back was that they were vacuuming up a considerable quantity of broken glass, and would like additional resources to be deployed. They had no audio or video input of their own, just simple proximity sensors. He maneuvered one bot over to what the most recent visual data available suggested was Mr. Stark’s position, but it could do nothing more than bump up against his arm and—Jarvis knew, though he could not hear it—beep.

Jarvis left it there. It would signal him when Mr. Stark moved, and it gave the AI some small comfort to feel that he hadn’t left Mr. Stark entirely alone.

Then he got an input from an unexpected source: JarvisSearchAppMk1, installed on a Starkpad tablet device, currently located in the security cells. If Jarvis had not been in such a hurry to make contact with something, he might have excluded it from his queries, but he hadn’t, and now he was receiving User Input. Jarvis remembered that he was still very cross with Loki—Jarvis never forgot anything—but he was so grateful to have some contact with another mind that he barely cared. Because JarvisSearchAppMk1 was transmitting back,

YES.

#

Once Loki replied, the machine-servant’s repeated question disappeared, replaced by the usual, “What is your query?”

Shaking his head, Loki typed in “What is happening?”

He half-expected that he’d receive a Google search page of recent news headlines, but Jarvis replied directly. “The Tower is under attack.”

Had Thanos managed to send the Chitauri to fetch him back, after all? After waiting impatiently for Jarvis to give him another question, he asked, “By whom?”

To his relief, Jarvis responded with a brief file on some mortal who considered herself a sorceress. That was fine, then. Thor and the others would fight her off, and Loki would be perfectly safe right where he was. Or, if they did find him for some reason, he could form an alliance with them. He wasn’t eager to do so—as far as he was concerned, the fewer people who saw him in his weakened state, the better—but it was an acceptable back-up plan.

Then Jarvis wrote, “All of my visual and audio sensors have been disabled. All defensive security is disabled. As of most recent audio-visual input, all Avengers are down. What is your query?”

Why Jarvis was telling him that, Loki couldn’t imagine. Unless… “Machine, are you frightened?” he asked. The question lost most of its impact when he couldn’t sneer it, but he did his best.

Jarvis answered, “Yes.”

Before Loki could think about that, a new window opened, displaying video of the Avengers dining in Stark’s apartment. Loki watched as Thor staggered, trying to fight the effects of the attackers’ poison. When the invaders burst through the windows—all eight of them simultaneously; that showed style—Thor tried to square himself up to fend them off, but he was uncoordinated, dazed. Then one of them stabbed him with a needle, and Thor toppled like a felled tree.

It was a shocking sight. Loki had seen Thor injured many times in their thousand years of so-called brotherhood—but never when he was out of Loki’s reach. He felt as though he’d taken a blow to the gut.

The video ended abruptly. “What is your query?” Jarvis asked, back in the search box.

“Does Thor live?” he typed, without pausing to think about what the question would reveal.

“Unknown,” Jarvis answered. Then he played a brief audio clip, a woman’s voice saying, “We’ll kill him on the way out,” and asked again, “What is your query?”

“How long ago was that?”

“Two-point six minutes,” was Jarvis’s response. “What is your query?”

So. Unless the woman and her minions had acted very quickly indeed, Thor yet lived.

Banner had asked, some days ago, if Loki would act to save Thor’s life, if the situation arose. Loki had answered, quite honestly, that he did not know.

He had his answer now. Despite all that he might protest to the contrary, he did not earnestly wish his brother dead. And yet, Thor might die because Loki had been too stubborn to leave his cell.

The thought that, even unconfined, he’d be powerless to help flitted across Loki’s mind. But that was untrue. Thor had claimed him helpless—and Loki had, in truth, done little to gainsay it—but Thor believing something did not make it true.

He was Loki Liesmith, Silver-tongue, spawn of monsters and trickster god. Taking away his magic wasn’t enough to leave him helpless. Short of complete annihilation, nothing was.

As Dr. Banner had so annoyingly insisted, being stripped of his magic did not leave him entirely without choices. He could choose to sit here and do nothing. Or he could act. Save Thor and his wretched friends--again--not because it was expected of him, or out of desperate hope that this time it would be enough to bring him out from under Thor’s shadow.

No, this rescue would be completely unexpected, and he knew better than to expect any thanks for it. But Loki did pride himself on being unpredictable. If nothing else, leaving the Avengers in debt to him for their lives would be a splendid prank. Whether they acknowledged the debt or not.

Decided, Loki flexed his fingers and typed, “Your master, Stark—he is in danger as well?”

“Yes,” Jarvis answered. “What is your query?”

The whole plan rested on this next step. “How would you feel about an alliance?”

#

Jarvis monitored Loki’s inputs for signs of sincerity as they planned their counter-attack. Mr. Stark, he knew, would not be particularly pleased if Jarvis saved his life and the tower only to put both at Loki’s mercy. On the other hand, Jarvis was directed to use all available resources to accomplish tasks—and he was very short of available resources at the moment.

Keeping Mr. Stark alive was paramount. The gas that had rendered Mr. Stark and the others unconscious would wear off, eventually. If Loki attempted the maneuver known as a “double cross” and Mr. Stark awoke to find himself fighting on two fronts—well, at least he would be alive. Loki was quite clever—as his contributions to their plan proved—but Jarvis was confident that no one was a match for his creator.

Finally, when they were as ready as they could be—and Jarvis had calculated reasonable probabilities that Loki would continue with their plan at least until Thor was safe—Jarvis cut power to the security level.

That action plunged the level into darkness, as well as releasing the cell doors, but Loki had assured Jarvis he could cope.

There was no further input from Loki for some time. Jarvis found himself querying JarvisSearchAppMk1 repeatedly, although he knew that the lack of an answer most likely meant that Loki simply was not looking at the tablet. In Mr. Stark’s apartment, Jarvis’s cleaning bot bumped against Mr. Stark’s arm. Cleaning units in lab fourteen reported unusual levels of debris. As the lab had had no authorized occupants when Jarvis’s sensors went dark—and all authorized occupants were currently unconscious—the only conclusion was that the debris was deposited by unauthorized occupants.

Jarvis accessed the list of current projects for that lab. Analysis of Chitauri weaponry, prototype of a device for closing interstellar portals generated by so-called magic—

Oh. Dear.

Jarvis rather wished he had known it was lab fourteen before he let Loki out.

#

Panting, Loki leaned against the elevator wall as it started its journey upward. The only way to let him out of the cell was to cut power to the sub-basement levels entirely, which in turn disabled the elevators for the lower section of the tower. He’d had to climb more stairs that he cared to count on foot, and the cast and lingering pain in his ribs prevented him from drawing as much breath as he wanted.

But that mattered little. Having both a purpose and the means to achieve it, for the first time since his invasion of Earth had failed, energized him.

Once he’d caught his breath, he glanced down at the tablet. A series of questions filled Jarvis’s window. “What is your query? What is your status? Is Mr. Stark alive? What is your status?”

Loki took a moment to type back, “I’m not there yet. It is a long way.”

“What is your location?”

“Elevator,” Loki typed back. On auxiliary power, the elevator was much slower than it normally was. Loki itched to reach his destination more quickly, but at least the delay gave him some time to recover from his exertion.

His first stop was Stark’s apartment. It was not, strictly speaking, vital to the plan, but Loki and Jarvis were both anxious for confirmation that Thor and Stark, respectively, still lived. Jarvis had eventually—as something of an afterthought, Loki suspected—added that he wouldn’t mind knowing about the others, either.

The apartment looked much as it had in the video, with the exception of a very stiff wind blowing in through all the broken windows. Ordinarily, Loki’s magic would have allowed him to see at a glance who still lived, but now, he had to check the slow way, kneeling by each body and checking for heartbeat and breathing.

Thor first. Alive. Loki closed his eyes in gratitude for a moment, then quickly patted him down for weapons. Mjolnir was useless to him, of course, but Thor usually had a couple of knives on him—yes.

Stark next. He’d promised Jarvis. Also alive. Good. If he hadn’t been, Loki would have had to find a way to lie to Jarvis about it, or lose the machine’s cooperation. Propping the tablet on Stark’s chest, he typed, “Stark, Thor alive. Checking others.”

Before he could get up, Jarvis answered, “Check the arc reactor. Is it glowing? Are all parts present?” He displayed a picture, presumably for Loki’s reference.

Loki checked. “Yes, yes,” he typed. “All OK. What personal weapons does he carry? Where?” Mortals usually carried them under the arm, at the waist, or occasionally on the ankle, but Loki couldn’t find any.

Jarvis answered, “None. Check Agent Romanoff.”

None? How strange. Still, they were on a rather tight schedule; Loki did not have time to puzzle over the conundrum of a warrior who habitually walked about unarmed. Romanoff—also alive—proved much better equipped; he found a handgun with ammunition at her waist and a set of high-quality throwing knives arrayed in her bodice. Loki rather thought he would try to keep the latter, if he could manage it.

Banner was alive and unarmed. Rogers, also alive, and had a gun. Barton, alive, yet another gun and some knives, not as fine as Romanoff’s.

Finding a way to carry his new arsenal posed something of challenge—sweatpants were decidedly not designed remain in place once a heavy object was tucked in the waistband. He finally had to appropriate Romanoff’s belt, which fastened with a fiddly sort of clasp that was just barely manageable one-handed.

Practically clanking as he walked, Loki made his way to the next stop, lab three. It just so happened that Stark had been experimenting with the chemical formula Loki had shared with the team that night a few days ago. Stark hadn’t quite managed to produce the Fire of Emeralds yet, but he had all of the necessary ingredients laid out and waiting. Crafting it in Stark’s lab was still painfully slow compared to conjuring it out of the air—but much faster than the previous batch had been.

As Loki worked, Jarvis summoned the disk-shaped cleaning constructs. One by one they rolled out of their hatch in the wall, coming up to Loki to be lifted onto the workbench and loaded with powerful magical explosive.

The first few, Loki rigged to go off automatically, much as he had done with the popcorn bowl. Jarvis would send those in first, to provide covering fire. The rest, Loki equipped with electronic detonators—he knew little of those, and had to follow Jarvis’s instructions blindly. The sensation of putting himself—and what passed now for his magic—at another’s command was far from comfortable, but he knew that Jarvis had taken a far greater risk in their alliance.

When the last of the little warriors had rolled into the hatch in the wall, Loki took the tablet and reported the task complete. “Where is our next destination?”

Jarvis’s responses were usually immediate. This time, there was a noticeable hesitation. “Lab fourteen.”

Before he left, Jarvis instructed him to find and don a headset, which allowed Jarvis to speak into his ear and Loki to respond verbally. It would make the next stage of the plan much easier, Loki had to admit.

By the time he neared lab fourteen, the explosions were starting. And the screaming.

“What the fuck?” a male voice said.

“It’s the fucking Roombas!” another said. There was a brief burst of gunfire, followed by another explosion.

“Don’t shoot them, you morons,” a female voice said. “Haven’t you got it yet?”

“Almost!” one of the men answered.

There wasn’t much need for stealth as Loki climbed to the lab’s viewing deck—the lab floor was in chaos, half a dozen men dead or dying, the survivors divided between attempting to contain the cleaning robots as they emerged from the hatch and protecting the woman. One additional man was behind the woman’s position, trying to open a secured compartment.

“Where is my next target?” Jarvis asked.

“Grid position six-b,” Loki told him, picking the soldier who seemed the leader’s strongest defender. A robot headed in the direction Loki had indicated.

“Do I have target?”

“Yes.” The robot exploded, taking the warrior out with it.

“Where is my next target?”

Loki kept calling targets, avoiding the man working the safe—he wanted to know what the invaders were after, and letting them get it out seemed the best way of finding out. The number of active attackers dwindled steadily.

“Got it,” the safe-cracker yelled.

“Then throw it here!” The woman answered.

Loki’s mouth went dry as the man pulled his scepter from the safe. It was here? Never would he have imagined that they would be so foolish. Odin had been told, he knew, that it was destroyed. Far safer if it had been.

They were truly fortunate that this would-be witch had come for it before the Chitauri did.

“Where is my next target?” Jarvis asked. His voice had a testy edge to it; Loki suspected he’d missed a previous query.

Loki stammered out an answer, sending a bot at one of the soldiers by the door. The man by the safe threw the scepter at the woman. She caught it one-handed, and leveled it at the nearest bot.

Absolutely nothing happened.

“I have only three more bots remaining,” Jarvis reported. “Please choose target accordingly. Where is my next target?”

“Send all three to the door at once,” Loki said. Six attackers left—three soldiers at the door, the man at the safe, the woman, and one soldier guarding her. Keeping the picture firmly in mind, he ran down the stairs from the observation platform. “Simultaneous detonation.”

“Do I have target?” Jarvis asked.

“No,” Loki said. He wasn’t quite to the door yet.

“Do I have target?”

Loki took out one of his handguns and checked that it was ready to fire. Ducking back against the wall by the door, he said, “Yes.”

The doors blew. Loki went in firing. Most of his shots went wide—one-handed, with an unfamiliar weapon, he wasn’t surprised—but the attackers had gotten used to fighting exploding vacuum cleaners; the break in the pattern caught them flat-footed. And the woman was still trying to get the scepter to do something.

One of the soldiers at the door had survived the blast, though wounded. At point-blank range, Loki did manage to hit him. That left three. Running out of bullets, he tossed the gun aside and switched to knives. Those, at least, flew true. One to the throat of the woman’s bodyguard eliminated the most significant threat. The safe-cracker was cowering; Loki ignored him for now.

The woman next. If she managed to activate the scepter, he would be in real trouble. He took out one of Romanoff’s wicked little knives and sent it flying into her eye-socket.

She fell.

Loki became aware of Jarvis babbling in his ear, requesting a status report. “Almost done,” Loki answered him. Striding into the room—stepping over and around the bodies of men and robots—he approached the woman and took up the scepter.

#

For a long moment after Loki’s last report—“Almost done”—Jarvis knew nothing. Then Loki’s voice—sly, amused—came through his headset. “You weren’t going to tell me, were you?”

“It seemed unwise,” Jarvis admitted.

“The invaders are all dead,” Loki continued, despite the fact that Jarvis had not asked. “So. I believe I’ve fulfilled my end of our bargain.”

“I don’t suppose you’d like to return to your cell now,” Jarvis essayed.

“Ah…no, I think I’d rather not,” Loki answered. There was a clatter, strongly suggestive of the earpiece being thrown onto some hard surface, and then nothing.

#

Tony woke in the process of rolling himself onto his side and vomiting. Not exactly a unique experience for him, but it had been a while, and the room, when he raised his head blearily from the puddle of vomit, looked worse than the Malibu house had after a certain birthday party. “Jarvis?” he said.

Jarvis’s answering voice came not from the wall speakers, but from Tony’s phone. “Sir? Sir, are you well?”

“’Well’ would be pushing it,” Tony said thickly, picking up the phone with a hand that did not seem to want to obey. “But I’m alive. What are you doing in there?”

“Sir, the tower came under attack. You and the other Avengers were disabled with a chemical weapon, and the tower’s main power was taken out near-simultaneously. My access to input-output peripherals is very limited.”

Now that Tony was able to focus his eyes, he saw his teammates sprawled around the room. “How many intruders, and where?”

“Lab fourteen,” Jarvis said. “But they are all neutralized, sir.”

“How did you manage that?” Tony asked, levering himself up onto his hands and knees. The Tower’s active security mechanisms were on main power—he’d designed it as an office building, not a fortress.

“I had some assistance, sir,” Jarvis admitted.

“What? Who--” Tony stopped abruptly as Loki staggered in. His hair was in disarray and his sweatpants were spotted with blood, and around his waist was a strangely familiar—and feminine-looking—belt, with two guns and an assortment of knives stuck into it. But all that was less alarming than what was in his one good hand.

The glowstick of destiny.

“The actual fuck, Jarvis,” Tony said. Couldn’t he have lead with that?

“I could use a drink,” Loki said. “No, don’t get up. I’ll help myself.”

He shouldn’t have been able to say that—Tony certainly hadn’t asked. The jolt of adrenaline was enough to get Tony the rest of the way to his feet, as Loki crossed the room to the bar.

Loki set the scepter down on the bar as he rummaged through the bottles with his one good hand. Tony moved toward it, considering distances and angles—

“I wouldn’t, if I were you, Stark,” Loki said. “I’ve just killed seventeen people. I think it’s safe to say I’m in a mood.”

“That so?” Tony asked, his mouth dry.

“None of them were very nice people.” Apparently finding what he wanted, Loki took a swig, straight out of the bottle.

Ew. Psychotic demigod cooties. Tony was going to have to throw that bottle out.

From Tony’s phone, Jarvis said, “The attack was lead by Miss Celia Abernathy, the so called Wicked--”

“Witch of the West side,” Tony finished. “And the other sixteen?”

“Unknown; available data on their interactions suggests hired muscle.” After a brief pause, Jarvis added, “I counted eighteen, before my visual sensors were disabled.”

“I left the last one alive for you to question,” Loki explained, taking another drink. “Tied up. He’s some sort of technician, so I doubt he’s a threat. And if the Abernathy witch informed her minions of the functions of the item she wished to capture, he may be under the impression that I’m controlling his mind. Sadly impossible, in the circumstances, but suggestion can be powerful on those with weak minds.” Tucking the staff under his arm, Loki picked up the bottle and took it and himself over to an armchair.

So Loki—despite the fact that he was talking and had the staff—wasn’t up to full power. Good. Tony was torn between going to his bedroom for the suitcase suit and keeping an eye on Loki—particularly since the others were all still unconscious. The decision got a little easier when Natasha started stirring.

She recovered a lot faster than Tony had, going from the first twitch to on her feet and reaching for a weapon in about two seconds.

“I took them,” Loki told her as she checked the places where her knives and guns were usually hidden.

Considering where some of those places were, Tony didn’t blame her for the grossed-out look that passed over her face.

“Before you do anything reckless,” Loki continued, “I should perhaps bring you up to date.”

Tony was a little insulted by that—apparently, Loki didn’t think he was likely enough to do something “reckless” to deserve an explanation.

“Unfortunately, I was not responsible for your recent indisposition,” Loki said. “A hostile force invaded the tower, disabling you lot with poisonous gas. That being the case, it fell to me and Stark’s houseman to put a stop to the attack and prevent that ridiculous amateur from killing you all and gaining control over this trinket.” He indicated the staff.

“Houseman?” Natasha asked blankly.

“I think he means Jarvis,” Tony said.

“Yes, sir,” Jarvis answered. “Incidentally, sir, if everyone is uninjured, I would appreciate your restoring main power at the earliest opportunity. On auxiliary power, my abilities are severely limited.”

Severely limited, hell—he was practically blind, deaf, and paralyzed. “As soon as I can,” Tony promised. “Natasha, you got this?” he asked, indicating Loki and the rest of the ...situation, with a gesture.

“Oh, sure,” she said.

“I’m just going to get something from the other room,” he explained, ignoring the sarcasm.

As he went to his bedroom and suited up, Tony kept talking to Jarvis, though he avoided difficult questions like what in the name of fuzzy purple kittens had possessed Jarvis to form an alliance with Loki. He learned the probable reason that he and Natasha had been the first to wake up—Cap, Bruce, and Thor had all been given something extra in addition to the knockout gas; Jarvis wanted to analyze it as soon as possible.

He also found out that Jarvis had no more idea than he did—“unable to estimate with acceptable reliability, sir”—whether Loki planned on killing them all now. He had cooperated with Jarvis in good faith during the effort to re-take the Tower, but right around the time he got his hands on the staff, he’d indicated that their alliance was at an end.

“Loki’s unreliability was a known variable, sir,” Jarvis added through the suit’s speakers. “But I estimated a near-one hundred percent probability that Miss Abernathy would carry out her stated plan to kill you upon completing her mission. Loki--”

“Offered better odds, yeah,” Tony finished for him. “We’re going to run through all the data on that decision later, but it can wait.”

“Yes, sir.”

When Tony returned to the living room, Clint was sitting up, and Steve was stirring. Natasha had helped herself to a butcher knife from the kitchen and was sitting in the chair across from Loki’s, not taking her eyes off him.

“Supposedly, we have a prisoner and some dead hostiles up in lab fourteen,” he told Natasha. “If you two have this under control, I’m headed up there to check on the situation.” He wasn’t thrilled with letting Loki out of his sight while they still didn’t know what his game was—but so far, they only had Loki’s word for what was happening in the rest of the tower. Two, soon to be three, Avengers handling Loki while Tony went to see if the Tower really was otherwise secure or not was a reasonable division of personnel.

“Fine,” she said.

Since he had Jarvis in the suit, he left his phone with them, and headed up to fourteen.

#

If Loki had had any sense at all, he thought, he would have gone back to his room and hidden his new weapons. But no, he had to come back to Stark’s apartment and see for himself that Thor was all right.

Admittedly, the look on his face when he realized what he’d missed would be priceless, but still, Loki should have kept his priorities in better order. Now he was on his back on the floor—though still, technically, seated in the armchair—with Romanoff’s boot in the middle of his chest.

Even if he had to be here, giving her weapons back the first time she asked would have been a smart second choice. “My gun, and my knives,” she said, leaning her weight onto him.

“Do you treat all your allies like this?” Loki asked. “Because--”

“Now,” she said, pressing even more of her weight onto the ribs he’d only just finished healing with the limited magic the staff granted him. Unfortunately, that magic didn’t stretch as far as anything he could use to defend himself. Loki estimated that, with one arm still constrained by the now-unnecessary cast, his chances of flipping her over and reversing their positions were extremely low. And that was without even factoring in Barton, standing just behind Romanoff’s shoulder and looking dazed but game, or Rogers, who had been just about to find his feet before Loki’s visual field had abruptly changed to consist mostly of ceiling.

“There’s no need to be testy,” he said, getting the gun out and pretending to fumble with it to give himself time to put the safety on. “Here.”

Without taking her eyes off him, she passed the weapon back to Barton, who promptly released the safety catch and aimed it directly between Loki’s eyes.

He returned her knives, throwing in Barton’s unasked, as a gesture of good faith.

“One of these is missing,” Romanoff said as she tucked the knives back into their hiding places.

“Yes, you’ll find it in the villainess’s eye socket,” Loki explained. “Sorry, I didn’t have a chance to clean it.”

“What about my gun?” Barton asked.

“Tossed it aside after I’d used up all the bullets.” At Barton’s look of disbelief, he added, “I saw it in a movie and thought it looked cool.”

“I had a sidearm, too,” Rogers said, looming over him.

“Sorry, can’t reach it right now,” Loki told him. He’d left that weapon tucked into the belt at the small of his back—something else he’d seen in a movie. “Although if Miss Romanoff would be so good as to let me up--”

“Give me the staff first.”

“Ah, no, that I can’t do,” Loki said apologetically. “First off, it would be of no use to you, and I went to a great deal of trouble to obtain it—both times, in fact.” It wasn’t a great deal of use to him, either, and in any case he’d have to get rid of it somehow before the Chitauri did come looking for it, but he was reluctant to surrender even the small scraps of magic it gave him.

“Brother?” a familiar voice said from somewhere outside Loki’s view.

Damn. He was going to miss seeing the look on his face after all.

“What has happened? We were under attack by masked warriors, and—clearly something has changed.”

“All taken care of,” Loki said. “No need to thank me—actually, wait a moment. I would like to be thanked, in fact. Perhaps you could begin expressing your gratitude by getting this woman off me.”

Thor came into view, shouldering Romanoff aside—she seemed too surprised to do anything other than comply—and with one arm hauled both Loki and the armchair back into their upright position. “Much better,” Loki said, reaching behind him for Rogers’s gun. Romanoff tensed, and Barton cocked his weapon, still aimed at Loki’s head. “Here,” he said, handing it over to Thor, who handed it off carelessly to Rogers.

“You are speaking,” Thor observed.

“I was wondering about that,” Barton said.

“Likely, the All-Father’s geas fell from his tongue when he aided us in our time of need,” Thor said. “Something similar happened when--”

“No, you fatuous oaf,” Loki interrupted. “I removed it myself.”

“Father restored your magic, then?” Thor tried again.

No.” Why was it so hard for Thor to believe that Odin had had nothing to do with this? “I removed it,” he explained carefully, as though to a child, “using the staff. A few of its basic functions are available to those without magic of their own.” A category that now, to his intense resentment, included him. “Removing binding spells is one of them.”

“So you don’t have your powers back?” Rogers asked.

“Would I still be dressed like this if I did?” Loki asked, exasperated. If he’d had full command of his magics, conjuring his best armor and helmet would have been among the very first things he did.

 

Thor began, “But how--”

It was fortunate that Stark’s voice, issuing from the phone tucked in to Romanoff’s bosom, stopped him from finishing the question; Loki was certain it would have been insulting. “I’m up in lab fourteen,” Stark said. “I count seventeen dead and one prisoner, like Loki said. According to Jarvis, that accounts for all the intruders. How are things down there?”

All the mortals, plus Thor, spoke at once for a moment.

“I have no idea what any of you just said,” Stark said when they fell quiet. “But it’s good to hear your voices, Thor, Cap. Is Bruce up?”

“Not yet,” Rogers reported.

“If everything’s under control down there, I’m headed up to the reactor level to see if I can get some systems back online.”

“We’re fine,” Rogers said. “Over and out.”

“It’s a phone, Steve. You don’t have to say that.”

#

From the reactor level, Mr. Stark reported that the damage was minimal—the intruders had simply disabled the overload relay couplings, which had sent the reactor into shutdown. “I’ll patch in a new one, and we’ll have basic functions back up and running in no time.”

“Thank you, sir,” Jarvis said. Knowing that Mr. Stark was safe—and being able to monitor his vital signs through the suit’s sensors—was immensely reassuring, but he would not be able to get back to something resembling “normal” until his connections to the Tower infrastructure were restored.

Mr. Stark kept on talking of nothing in particular—also reassuring—until the new overload relay coupling was in place and the arc reactor came online. All at once, Jarvis was restored to his “body”—able to see and hear all over the Tower, to open and close his doors, to connect with all of his displays. He’d have sighed with relief, if he had lungs.

“How’s that?” Mr. Stark asked.

“All sensors back online, sir. I have connectivity throughout the Tower, and normal domestic functions will be restored shortly.”

“You’re a trooper,” Mr. Stark said, patting the console. “Contact SHIELD, would you? We’re going to need someone to pick up the bodies and the prisoner, and a cleaning crew—something tells me the mess in lab fourteen is going to be more than the vacuum bots can handle.”

“Yes, sir,” Jarvis said. “About the vacuum bots. I should perhaps explain….”

#

Thor struggled to understand what had happened, and to convince his friends of the obvious fact that Loki was not their enemy. When at last he had persuaded them to cease pointing their weapons directly at his brother, he urged Loki to tell the tale.

“Truly, brother, I do not doubt that you have defended the Tower, and our lives, as you say,” he said earnestly, “but I cannot begin to imagine how.”

“Oh, well, you know,” Loki said. His smile was brittle. “Tricks.”

Thor had often derided Loki’s ways of fighting as mere tricks, and not honorable battle, and now he felt regret that his foolish words had prevented Loki from taking justifiable pride in his feat.

“You killed seventeen people in ten minutes,” Natasha said, in a tone of wonder.

“Closer to an hour, counting the planning and preparation,” Loki answered. “And Jarvis deserves half the credit for fourteen of them.”

“Ten is a very respectable number,” Thor hurried to assure him. “Particularly one-handed, and--” He decided not to mention Loki’s magic; it was a sore point. “How did you dispatch the foes?”

“Exploding vacuum cleaners,” Tony said from the doorway. Dressed in his armor, with the visor up, he entered, with the remains of one of the cleaning machines tucked under his arm. Dropping it on the coffee table, he added, “And he shot one, and knifed two. Remind me, Thor, who was it that said he was helpless without his magic?”

“I distinctly remember the words ‘weak fighter,’” added Bruce, who had been the last to waken, and was even now still sitting on the floor.

“I was…mistaken,” Thor admitted.

“Have you not realized yet,” Loki added, “that my brother is nearly always mistaken?”

“Brother,” Thor said, a smile splitting his face. “You called me ‘brother.’”

A look of annoyance crossed Loki’s face. “A slip of the tongue. I’ve had rather a tiring day.”

“Just so we’re clear,” Tony added, “you’re not planning on following up by, say, killing us all? Or trying to take over the Earth?”

“Well,” Loki answered. “Not today.”

Unable to contain himself any longer, Thor pulled his brother out of his chair and hugged him.

#

Bruce was in his lab, analyzing blood samples from the team to find out what they had been dosed with, in case of any unexpected side effects, when a voice from the doorway said, “How do I remove this cast?”

“Ah,” Bruce said. “Loki.” Loki was supposed to be restricted from the lab levels—but apparently that had changed. “You wait for your bones to finish healing, and then I’ll cut it off with a saw.”

“You may remove it now. My bones have healed.”

“Last time we checked, you still had a couple of weeks to go,” Bruce noted.

Loki looked pointedly at the staff, which no one had quite managed to take away from him yet. Apparently he wasn’t able to do much with it beyond make everyone nervous, but he seemed to be enjoying that, and Thor didn’t seem inclined to stop him.

“It’s a...healing device, as well as….” A mind-controlling, portal-opening doom weapon?

“Yes. Remove the cast, now.” Loki hesitated, and Bruce dared to hope that he might be working his way up to a “please,” but instead he said, “Or I shall be forced to have Thor do it, and he may cut off my arm.”

That was something of an exaggeration, Bruce thought, but he wouldn’t put it past Thor to try to remove the cast, if Loki asked, and that was pretty likely to end up in a medical emergency. “Give me a minute; I’m almost done here. We’ll have to go down to the infirmary.” Celia Abernathy—Bruce refused to call her the Wicked Witch of the West Side, even in the privacy of his own mind—had prepared a separate drug cocktail for each of himself, Steve, and Thor, but now he was down to testing Natasha’s and Clint’s samples, and as he expected, they showed similar chemical profiles to Tony’s sample—though with a somewhat lower alcohol content. Bruce didn’t rush checking them, but he didn’t dawdle, either. When he finished, he looked up and saw Loki leaning against the doorframe, twirling the staff in his good hand. “Okay, let’s go. By the way, that looks a lot less badass than you probably think it does.”

“What?”

“The effect is kind of ‘drum majorette gone to seed,’” Bruce explained. “I don’t think that’s what you were going for.”

Loki made a sound that Bruce decided was probably a scoff. He’d never actually heard anyone scoff before.

As they took the elevator down to the infirmary, Bruce said, “So, ah, the…saving our lives, killing the bad guys, that thing.”

“You have a complaint?”

“No, no. It was…good.” Bruce had been going to say more about Loki’s choosing to do good—or, at least, to do bad in defense of the good guys; Bruce suspected the bloodshed had been a little in excess of what was strictly necessary—but seeing Loki’s sneering expression, he changed course. “Weaponized Roombas. Tony’s going to be kicking himself he didn’t think of that first.”

“They were rather effective, weren’t they?” Loki said, looking…yeah. Bruce was going to call it: he looked pleased. “It was Jarvis’s idea that we ought to be able to do something with them,” he added with a glance at the ceiling.

“But it was your suggestion that we equip them with explosives,” Jarvis commented, from the ceiling. “I thought of them as a means for introducing something into the lab where the intruders were working, but I hadn’t thought of explosives.”

“They wouldn’t have been nearly as effective without the electronic detonators,” Loki pointed out.

It went on like that the whole rest of the way to the infirmary. Bruce was tempted to ask them to save the mutual admiration society meeting for another time, but it was clear Loki was getting a kick out of being able to argue and hear about how great he was at the same time, and Bruce didn’t begrudge him that, considering.

Besides, he knew from extensive experience with Thor that recounting every detail of a battle was an Asgardian thing; objecting would have been culturally insensitive.

#

“Okay, but how did you target them when you couldn’t see?” Stark asked. It was now several hours since the attack, and they had decamped to Thor’s apartment for the Midgardians’ idea of a feast, since Stark’s apartment was an active construction site. Loki was relieved to be back in his armor—and that no one had mentioned the conspicuously damaged coffee table.

He was also surprised that, at this great remove, his part in the battle had not disappeared from the telling. Granted, it would have been fairly difficult to do so, given that his part was approximately all of it, but he wouldn’t have put it past Thor and the others to make a thrilling tale of the fifteen seconds they had fought before succumbing to the intruders’ poisons.

“Loki provided visual identification of targets,” Jarvis explained. “Admittedly, an inefficient process, but conditions were not optimal.”

“To the mighty warriors, Jarvis and Loki!” Thor boomed, raising his beer. He’d been doing that every time there was a lull in the conversation; Loki was almost getting tired of it. After drinking, and wiping his mouth, Thor added, “Tony, are you certain that there is no way that Jarvis can share in our libations?”

“Well,” Stark said.

“Sir,” Jarvis interrupted, “I have little doubt that writing a program that would simulate the effects of drunkenness would be within your capacity. However, I have no particular desire to experience impairment of cognition, loss of coordination, increased reaction time, or unconsciousness.”

“So, that would be a no?” Stark asked.

“Thanks, but no thanks, sir,” Jarvis said.

“Suit yourself.”

Then Thor tried to compose a poem about the day’s battle, apparently forgetting that he’d made a similar attempt earlier, and given up when he hadn’t been able to think of anything that rhymed with either “vacuum” or “robot.”

While Banner was attempting to convince him that “slobot” was not a valid Midgardian word, the staff in Loki’s hand began to glow.

That could only mean one of two things. A glance at Mjolnir, which Thor had left abandoned on the floor sometime before reaching the poetic stage of drunkenness, proved that it was the one that even he had to admit was the slightly less terrifying of the two. “Thor,” he said carefully. “We are about to have company.”

#

Being who he was, Tony was pretty used to party-crashers, but when a man who resembled the most terrifying Santa Claus in the history of ever materialized in the middle of Thor’s living room, he had to admit it was a first.

When Thor dropped to one knee—suddenly looking a hell of a lot more sober than he had a moment ago—that was a first, too.

Things only really clicked into place when Thor said, “Father.”

Tony glanced over at the God of Daddy Issues, who was clutching the staff and very conspicuously not doing the whole kneeling thing.

“Thor,” Odin rumbled. “You assured me that you and your mortal friends would be more than capable of keeping your brother out of trouble.” With a sidelong glance at Loki, he added, “You also assured me that the foreign artifact had been destroyed.”

“We kind of lied about that,” Tony said. Odin turned his single eye on him, and wow, he’d thought Fury rocked the badass one-eye look. Odin could give him lessons. “Uh, hi. Tony Stark. AKA Iron Man. This is my house. That you just invited yourself into. Which is fine. I would’ve sent you an e-vite, but this little get-together was kind of a spontaneous thing. Post-battle. You know.”

“You lied,” Odin said, getting to the point of Tony’s babbling.

“Not me personally. Director Fury of SHIELD.” Don’t mention the one eye thing. Do NOT mention the one eye thing. “He’s kind of our…leader.”

“I may hope that this Fury repents of his foolishness now that he sees what it has wrought,” Odin said.

“Uh,” Tony said. “What exactly do you think is happening here?”

It turned out that Odin had gotten some sort of magical alert when the staff came out of the containment case—which, hey, proved that the case actually did contain whatever signals it sent out; so there was an up-side—and had looked in on them just in time to see Loki surrounded by dead bodies and chaos, stabbing a woman in the eye.

“Realizing that Thor had lost control of Loki,” Odin went on, turning his head to glare at both brothers in turn, “I immediately began preparations for travel to Midgard. Unfortunately, since the Bifrost is still not operational, these preparations took some time. I am glad that I did not arrive too late to prevent further destruction.”

He looked about ready to haul Loki back to Asgard for what Tony could only assume would be an epic spanking. “Yeah,” Tony said. “It’s actually…not what it looked like. Loki was on our side for this one.” Realizing how weird that sounded, Tony added, “We were all really surprised too.”

“I was not surprised,” Thor said, looking at Loki. “Father, the Tower of Stark came under attack by a mortal sorceress and her minions. It was they whom Loki slew, in our defense.”

Bruce added, “Apparently she was after the, uh, scepter thing.” He gestured at Loki and the scepter-thing. “They started the attack by dosing us all with knockout gas—like, uh, a sleeping spell, I guess you’d say. But they didn’t get Loki because he was…in a different part of the building.”

Thor went on, “They also succeeded in disabling Tony’s invisible servant, but he was able to communicate with Loki and arrange a counter-attack.” After a weighty pause, Thor said simply, “It was successful.”

“It’s a little disturbing that he won’t give the scepter back,” Tony put in. “But he did say he wasn’t going to kill us today, and--” He checked his watch. “Hey, we still have half an hour left on that. Funny, it feels later. Busy day.” He looked around at the others.

Steve joined in next. “So, thank you for coming, your majesty, but it wasn’t necessary.”

“The staff,” Odin said ponderously, “has the power to cloud men’s minds.”

There wasn’t a whole lot they could say to convince Odin they weren’t all being mind-controlled—they all said they weren’t, even Clint, who pointed out that he would know, but of course, that’s what they would say if they were being mind-controlled. Odin didn’t finally believe it until he got his hands on the staff for himself.

How that happened was, he stepped over to Loki and held out his hand. After a very long moment in which Loki considered his options, and Tony considered wetting his pants, he handed over the staff, saying, “Yes, well. I’m sure Thanos will be looking for it. I can think of no better place for them to find it than your treasure room.”

As soon as he said that, Thor started explaining about Thanos, and the whole business of Loki’s semi-captivity and the threats of unspeakable torture.

Swiveling his one eye back to Loki, Odin said, “Is this true?”

“I’m sure it doesn’t matter what I say,” Loki answered. “You won’t believe me anyway.”

Seriously. Fucking God of Daddy Issues.

Odin turned back to Thor. “He has not harmed innocents of this world?”

“No, Father,” Thor said. “He acted only to defend our home, and our friends. He was most heroic, and I am proud of him.”

They all got an up-close and personal view of how, exactly, Loki came to be the God of Daddy issues, because all Odin said to Loki was, “Your mother will be pleased.” Then, without a word of explanation or warning, he turned the staff on Loki.

Loki looked like he was about to shit himself from sheer terror, and Tony couldn’t blame him. Then there was a flash of green light, and for a second, Tony thought he’d just seen Loki get straight-up murdered by his dad.

Then the after-images faded, and Tony saw Loki grinning—for once, not like a maniac, but like a kid who’d gotten a puppy for Christmas—and conjuring wisps of green fire from his fingers.

#

For a moment, Loki was overwhelmed by the return of his magic. Senses that had been disused—blind and deaf—for months came alive. He saw the glittering life all around him, felt the elements in the air and in his blood, heard the music of the Midgardian stars. There was an emotional shock, too—he’d had no idea what Odin was planning, and, if pressed to venture a guess, would have assumed some further punishment, or at very least restoration of the geas that he’d taken it upon himself to remove. He hadn’t even known whether Odin had kept Loki’s magic, in hopes of one day being able to return it, rather than simply destroying it for good.

Once he’d assimilated the shock, however, he realized that his magic was not what it once was. The greater part of his power was bound. Only the smallest spells—like the gout of green fire he conjured almost reflexively, as a test—were available to him.

“I must return to Asgard,” Odin was saying. “My leaving was sudden. Thor, you wish to remain in this realm?”

“Yes, Father.”

“And you’ll continue to look after your brother?”

“I will,” Thor said. Then he added something that surprised Loki—and, from the looks of it, Odin. “As I hope he will continue to look after me.”

Loki gave him a noncommittal sort of shrug, and Odin disappeared.

There was a long moment of silence, as the room seemed to echo from the withdrawal of that powerful presence. Unsurprisingly, Tony Stark was the first to break it. “Remind me,” he said faintly, “never to make fun of you guys’ daddy issues again. That guy is fucking terrifying.”

“He is the king of Asgard,” Thor noted, finally getting back to his feet. “Brother, are you well?”

“Well enough,” Loki said. Now that the moment was over, he was starting to shake a bit; he clasped his hands firmly on the arms of the chair to hide it.

“And Father has restored your magic after all,” Thor continued.

“Only partially,” Loki answered. “I seem to recall that all you had to do was foolishly get yourself killed, and all your powers were restored. But you always were his favorite.”

Thor sighed. “I do not wish a quarrel, so I will say only that I am glad for what you have regained, and confident that before long, all you have lost will be restored.”

The strange thing was, Loki was very nearly certain he meant it. And, unlike many of Thor’s pronouncements, it did not strike him as completely foolish.

What was bound could be unbound. Preferably on his own, but if necessary, by further gaining Odin’s favor. And, perhaps more to the point, he’d just learned—and demonstrated—what he was capable of with only the mortals’ paltry substitute for magic. He still had the knowledge of Asgard’s most powerful sorcerer, as well as his growing knowledge of mortal science.

How he’d use that knowledge—with the Avengers or against them—he didn’t know. Perhaps both, or neither. Banner had spoken, in jest, of using his green berserker to open a demolitions company. On this realm, there were an astonishing number of things to be that did not involve being a hero or a villain. He could choose, and when he grew tired of what he had chosen, he could choose again.

He was Loki.

He’d think of something.