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Restitution

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Tony Stark didn’t hate a lot of things. There were a lot of things that annoyed him. There were a lot of things that put him in a foul mood. There were a lot of things that ticked him off, disgusted him, and made him question the faith he may or may not have had in humanity, but there were very few things he truly, deeply, entirely hated.

Tony Stark truly, deeply, entirely hated the morning.

Specifically, he hated the hours of the morning that fell between four and nine, because those five miserable hours were not nearly enough to get ready for another day. His hangover had not yet been slept off, coffee did little to wake him up, and his temperamental fuse was way too short to be dealing with people in a civil manner. So, of course, it had to be right smack dab in the middle of those five loathsome hours that he received a call from S.H.I.E.L.D. demanding his immediate presence.

You have got to be kidding me.

But they weren’t. So, with sleep lying in heavy circles beneath his eyes, he dragged himself out of bed and began the long trek up to the rooftop, already working on seventy-five different ways to kill Director Fury along with whoever had caused the early-morning disturbance.

If you’re gonna take over the world or hatch some megalomaniacal scheme, you could at least have the decency to do it at a reasonable hour. Earth’s Mightiest Heroes need some Z’s.

Tony got to the top floor, stepped onto the balcony, and placed both feet on the platform he typically used to remove his suit. Snapping his fingers to get Jarvis’ attention, he tried to throw together a somewhat coherent sentence to explain what he wanted.

“Jarvis, suit me up. Use the uh—the Rewind Protocol we’ve been working on.” He rolled his shoulders, trying to work out the kinks and knots that came with falling asleep on a work bench. “If Pepper asks, just tell her I’m out… I don’t know. Tell her I’m out working on something.”

“Yes, sir,” the mechanical voice replied. “And what should I tell her when she sees through that poorly constructed excuse and demands further information?”

Tony sighed, wincing slightly as the rotating applicator fastened his breastplate just a little too hard. “It’s too early for this.”

“Duly noted, sir.”

Seconds later, the mask was snapped on, and—after a few moments spent grieving the loss of several hours of sleep—Tony Stark split the sky in two, making a beeline for the perceived location of the hellicarrier.

 

“How long did you say he’d be out for? Geeze, Stark better show up real soon because I am this close to putting an arrow through his skull. You hear me, Thor? This. Close.”

Tony rolled his shoulders, tilting his head to one side and then the other in an attempt to stretch his muscles out. His flight had done absolutely nothing to ease him into a state of consciousness—in fact, he was almost positive he fell asleep multiple times en route—and it didn’t sound like he would have a chance to leave any time soon.

“Please, have patience. I assure you, he will not wake until I command him to.”

“What do you expect to gain by bringing him here? We won’t give him anything less than death. America won’t accept anything less than death.”

“I—I would truly prefer if we could wait until everyone is here. This situation is very… delicate… and difficult to explain.”

Grasping the handle, Tony let himself in, spreading his arms in a display of exaggerated grandeur as he sauntered over to the only empty seat at the table. “Let’s get this party started. Speaking of which, are you supplying drinks? Because there was no BYOB on the invitation, so you’re technically obligated to give me, you know… what are we doing here?” He sat down and yawned loudly, rubbing his forehead to clear away some of the fog.

“I apologize for calling you all here so early.” Thor, whose presence Tony would have questioned if he had the notion to, nodded in Bruce’s direction. “Especially you, Dr. Banner. I am in your debt.”

Bruce simply waved it off and leaned back in his chair, easily the most relaxed person in the room, but Tony found it odd that the doctor had nothing to say. When situations got serious, Bruce almost always offered a level-headed perspective to help calm things down.

Huh.

Still, the exhausted multibillionaire wanted to get the show on the road, so he chose not to question it. Instead, he waved his hand around to get Thor’s attention before dropping it back down and resting his chin on his palm. “Right, right, you’re super grateful, and we’re all super happy for you. But before you launch into your spiel, does someone want to tell me what’s going on?”

No one said a word, but three fingers immediately extended to point at the far corner of the room. Tony had to lean slightly in order to see around Thor, but after that, it took all of two seconds for him to grasp the situation.

“I hate you.”

Thor sighed, rubbing his face. “I know, but I have a good reason for bringing Loki here.”

“I’m sure you do, and now that Mr. Stark is here, I know we’d all love to hear it.”

Tony startled at the familiar voice and turned to find Director Fury and Agent Hill standing at the end of the meeting table. They had probably been there the whole time but, given Tony’s current level of functioning, went unnoticed. In fact, he hadn’t really noticed anyone in the room except Bruce and Thor, but now that he was looking, he realized the whole team was present.

Clint sat at the opposite end of the table and was, of course, furious beyond words. He sat with his arms folded over his chest and a permanent glare carved into his features, steam practically shooting from his ears. Natasha sat beside him, as impassive as ever but still openly displeased with the situation. Both were in their uniforms, which was more than could be said of Steve, who had shown up in pajama pants and a hoodie with a pair of fluffy brown slippers on his feet. Then again, Tony was only wearing jeans and a t-shirt with little more than a hundred coffee stains on it, so he was in no position to judge.

“Start talking.” It was Hawkeye who prompted Thor to explain himself.

Thor shifted again, glancing over his shoulder for a moment before turning to face his teammates once more. “When I took Loki to Asgard, I expected him to face justice. I didn’t like it, but I assumed he would spend the rest of his life in prison or be executed upon his arrival, and at first it seemed I was right. Loki has spent these past two years in the Asgardian dungeons, but it turned out to be a temporary arrangement. Father wanted to take time to work out a sentence he deemed appropriate, and I received the details of that sentence three days ago.”

Thor paused, looking around the room to gauge whatever reactions he had been given so far. Tony didn’t share his. He wasn’t entirely sure that he had one yet. Whether it was the exhaustion stifling his ability to get mad, or the fact that Loki was completely harmless in his current ragdoll state, he didn’t know. All he knew was that he wasn’t angry—not yet.

“Loki is to be bound in an underground cavern, where a giant serpent will spray its venom on him until Ragnarok, which I am told is similar to the Midgardian Armageddon. During his sentence, anyone who wishes to take advantage of his situation can easily do so by gaining access to Asgard.” Thor sighed, his shoulders slouching as if the weight of the situation hadn’t even dawned on him until that moment.

Steve was somewhat pale, and Tony’s lips had curled into a slight frown, but the others in the room remained expressionless.

“Father has disowned him,” Thor continued, looking at the lump in the corner once more. “He hopes harsh punishment will make Loki realize the severity of his crimes, and that separating him from his family will grant him the independence he has so strongly demanded. I… disagree.”

Silence travelled around the table, but it didn’t last very long.

“What does this have to do with us?” Natasha bluntly verbalized the question that was on everyone’s minds, but Steve was quick to tack on a tone of sympathy.

“We understand he’s your brother, Thor, but you were the one who said he had to face Asgardian justice. What do you want us to do?”

Thor scanned their faces briefly, looking at Bruce for an exceptionally long time and speaking only after he had received a nod of approval from the doctor. “I have pleaded with Father to lighten Loki’s sentence, but he has remained unmoved up until today. I made a suggestion—one that I think could benefit both Loki and Midgard—and he seemed to think it was worth… consideration.”

Tony could feel the pressure building in the room. Thor’s careful words were indication enough that what he was about to say had a high potential to tick everyone off, and when Tony factored in the speed of Clint’s eye twitches, things looked even worse.

“I asked him if I could bring Loki to Midgard… and try to rehabilitate him.”

Silence reigned once more, but it didn’t last, even with Thor’s hands outstretched in a wordless plea for everyone to give him a chance to explain.

“And he agreed?

“Thor, you can’t volunteer the whole planet for things without discussing it first.”

“Even if we would agree, someone had better be ready to convince the Council. They’re still angry about the Avengers Initiative getting pushed instead of Phase Two, and they aren’t going to like this at all.”

“Which is exactly why you can’t volunteer the whole planet for things without discussing it first.”

“Hey!” Steve was the one who brought peace back to the room, giving Thor a pointed look. “I assume you’re going to explain yourself?”

Bruce raised a hand at that, gaining the attention of the table before clearing his throat and getting to his feet. “I’ll actually give a little input on that, if you don’t mind.”

“Please do, Dr. Banner.” Thor rubbed his face and then carded that same hand through his somewhat tangled hair, obviously dealing with the consequences of long-term stress.

Bruce gave a slight nod and cleared his throat again, standing up and adjusting his glasses before speaking. “Loki has actually been on planet earth for a couple of days. Thor came to see me first, and we spent several hours discussing Loki’s mental state. Loki was unconscious the entire time, and without the use of psychological tests, it’s hard to say exactly what’s going on up there, but I do have a general idea. My biggest concern is his psychosocial development.”

Tony perked up at that, a contemplative expression crossing his face. “Psychosocial development?” he echoed, trying to pull up dusty information from his college days. It had been at least twenty years since he used those terms, but he could still scrape together a vague idea of what Bruce was talking about.

“I’m sure you’re familiar with Erikson’s Theory of Psychosocial Development and the different stages a person is supposed to go through,” Bruce continued. “Integrity verses Confusion is the first stage that occurs after childhood. It’s the stage in which someone figures out who they are and what they want out of their lives. They either obtain an identity, or they enter into a crisis and stay there until they can figure out what their identity is. Once they have an identity, they move onto the next stage, which is Intimacy versus Isolation.” Bruce paused and skimmed his audience for any sign that someone did not understand. When there was none, he continued, obviously trying to make his explanation as short and sweet as possible.

“When someone skips a stage or goes backward through stages, there can be serious repercussions. For example, trying to be in a relationship before you know who you are and what you want. Or having a well-established and happy life that is suddenly thrown into reverse because of some catastrophic event that alters a previous step.” Bruce gestured to Thor. “We think this might have been what happened with Loki.”

There was an audible scoff from Clint, and Natasha’s eyebrows arched sharply in disbelief, but Steve was thoroughly intrigued by the aspect. Tony himself couldn’t deny that the theory had some interesting qualities, even if it was a bit farfetched.

“What makes you say that?” Steve asked.

Thor was quick to jump back into the conversation and explain. “My brother and I are both over one thousand years old, and we were told our entire lives that we were both sons of Odin, princes of Asgard, and fully Aesir. However, not too long before my brother’s attack on Midgard, he discovered that such was not the case for him. He is—” Thor turned to look over his shoulder, as if he were afraid his brother would wake up and hear what he was about to say, despite the fact that Loki already knew. “He is the son of King Laufey, of the Frost Giants, and he is born of Jotunheim.”

Tony quirked a brow. “Jotunheim?”

“One of the Nine Realms,” Thor explained. “To put it mildly, they are our mortal enemies. To put it not-so-mildly, all of Asgard loathes their existence, and we are quite… what’s the word? Dr. Banner?”

“Racist,” the scientist supplied.

“Thank you.” Thor dipped his head to show his gratitude. “The Aesir are very racist toward the Jotuns. I am greatly ashamed to admit that, as a child, I aspired to one day wipe out their entire race, and I believe Loki did, too. It was something we believed was right, and finding out that he was one of them was… devastating, to say the least.”

Tony cut in then, the cogs in his brain beginning to turn sluggishly. “I thought Asgard was supposed to be advanced. Racism and torture aside, isn’t it common knowledge that kids should know they’re adopted as soon as possible? That’s why they make soaps about people finding out they’re adopted—it makes for a great, big, dramatic mess.”

“You’re going to take his side on this?” Clint questioned from the other end of the table, his face a mask of thinly veiled rage.

“I’m not taking anyone’s side. I’m only saying that, if what Thor’s telling us is true, then we have to seriously consider the psychological aspect of things. Finding out you’re adopted is traumatic enough on its own, but finding out you’re adopted from a race you were raised to hate and demean is something else entirely.” Tony’s hands started to move as he spoke, his body slowly warming up as the last tendrils of sleep released their hold on him. “We haven’t even asked how Loki found out, how he reacted, who he confronted, how it went, what the surrounding details were—we haven’t even scratched the surface, so don’t jump the gun just yet, Double-O.” Barely taking a breath, he turned and pointed to Steve. “Remember when I told you Loki was a full-tilt diva?”

Steve nodded. “Yeah. Flowers, parades, and giant towers.”

“Avengers Tower is a part of my identity. People know the tower is mine, they know I experiment with clean energy in there, and I know they know it. What if Loki was trying to do the same thing? This is just a theory, but going with the scenario Bruce and Thor set up, what if Loki was trying to build an identity in his own demented, cat-brained way?”

The super soldier cupped his hand around his chin, staring down at the table with a thoughtful expression on his face. “He didn’t try to hide in Germany. He wanted to be seen and heard, and he wanted people to know his name. In his speech, he said our life’s joy is diminished by a mad scramble for power and identity. Sounds to me like he had identity on the brain.”

Tony wished he had some blueberries to give the man. Instead, he gestured to Thor and waved his hand around. “Alright, we’re following along so far. Keep going. I want the deets.”

Blue eyes blinked slowly. “Deets…?”

“Details,” Clint explained, leaning forward in his seat and placing all of his attention on Thor. “Which I would also like to hear.”

“Ah.” Thor nodded and then paused, gathering his thoughts for a moment before speaking. “I do not know the exact conditions, but… well, allow me to start from the beginning. On the day I was to be crowned King of Asgard, Loki used his magic to sneak a handful of Frost Giants—that is, Jotuns—into the weapons vault. I… truly do not think he meant any harm at the time, but in my rage I wanted to go to Jotunheim and force my enemies into submission. So I did, and with me I dragged my brother and friends. I believe it was during this fight that Loki learned of his true heritage, but I was banished to Midgard immediately after our return, so we were never able to discuss it.”

“You were banished?” Steve frowned, giving a confused headshake. “What were the terms of that?”

Thor rubbed the back of his neck a bit sheepishly, allowing a nervous chuckle to pass through his lips. “I was banished because I acted against the will of my king and nearly started a war. On top of that, I endangered the lives of my brother and friends. If not for Loki, we would have surely died.”

Tony was interested in hearing more about how Loki was responsible for their survival, but more than that he wanted to get the full story and figure out what they were going to do with the mischievous horn-head. It seemed Steve was also satisfied, so Thor continued his tale without any more delay.

“While I was on Midgard, Loki entered the weapons vault and picked up the weapon we took from Frost Giants many moons ago. My father tried to stop him, but he had already acquired the appearance a Jotun. He asked—”

“It changed his appearance?”

Thor looked across the table toward Natasha, nodding his head. “Yes. The Frost Giants have dark blue skin laden with risen marks and crimson eyes that are glassy and solid. That is Loki’s true appearance.”

Tony raised his hand. “If Loki does stay, I vote we make him go blue for Halloween.” Not giving Thor the chance to say he didn’t understand, Tony waved his hand around some more and leaned back in his chair. “Never mind. Just keep talking.”

Thor nodded slowly, eyes shifting between the members of the table in clear confusion. “Loki… ah, Loki asked if he was cursed, and when Father said he wasn’t, he began to demand answers. He got them, but he twisted the words, accusing Father of using him for political gain. I am told he was very distraught when Father fell into the Odinsleep, and they were never able to finish their conversation.”

“The Odinsleep?”

Thor took a moment to look around, unsure of who had asked the question, seeing as three different voices had called it out. “It is a state the Allfather must enter into when he is weak. When you live for thousands of years, you must have some form of rest other than sleep. It is much like being unconscious or in a… a coma, I believe.”

Bruce nodded, choosing that moment to push his way back into the conversation. “Sorry, Thor, but we want to keep things moving.” He turned to face the rest of the table. “After Odin went into his sleep, Loki was crowned King of Asgard, and while in power he plotted to kill the King of Jotunheim and then destroy the planet entirely. Building on the previous theory of identity, we could refer to that as a stage of denial. He didn’t want to be a Frost Giant, so he tried to prove the identity he was raised to believe in was really his.”

“He cut his ties,” Clint murmured, drumming his fingers on the table with an expression that made it seem as though he were actually considering the matter at hand. “He didn’t want to be a part of them, so he turned against them to ensure no one would ever see them as the same race.”

“What does that mean, though?” Everyone turned to look at Tony, who wasted no time in continuing his train of thought. “If he’s got psychological issues, we might not want to sentence him to death or the cave of snakes, but what are you suggesting we do? Put him in a home for crazies? Send him to a shrink?”

Bruce exchanged a glance with Thor and cautiously answered. “Well… yes, actually.”

Silence.

“Dr. Banner has already agreed to have daily sessions with Loki, and my Father sealed his magic and stripped him of his immortality before allowing me to bring him here. Loki still has the strength and agility of a physically fit human, and his silver tongue and quick wit are both natural talents of his, but it will be easy to contain him.”

Thor looked around the table, but Tony knew he wasn’t going to find what he was looking for. No one was convinced, and while Steve was sympathetic, it was clear he wasn’t going to take the trickster’s side.

Tony decided to throw him a bone.

“Bruce, you agreed to be a therapist for Reindeer Games?”

Bruce nodded, adjusting his glasses. “I know we can only give you a brief summary now, but Thor and I talked for quite some time, and I was given a detailed account of Loki’s recent and not-so-recent past.” He took a slow breath and then let it out, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I’m willing to give him a chance. He can’t do much damage in the state he’s in, and if there’s a chance we could figure out what’s going on inside that head of his, well…” He gestured to Fury and Hill, chuckling softly. “Maybe we could put some of his power on our side. I don’t think anyone in the room would be opposed to that.”

Looks were cast around the table, but in the end, Tony was once again responsible for keeping the conversation moving.

“Alright, so this could be good for us. We can all agree that we’re in to getting stuff out of other stuff, and we can all agree Loki’s not much of a threat right now. Thor here’s our buddy, so he’s got that going for him, but I have a couple more questions. First of all, how was Loki responsible for you and your pals making it off Jotunheim alive?”

Thor cast a brief but fond smile in the direction of his brother. “On Midgard, I believe you would say he tattled on me. He told a guard of my plans before we left the palace, and that guard reported back to Father, who arrived just in time to save us.” The smile fell away, replaced by a melancholy frown. “He also tried to intervene on my behalf while Father was banishing me. I never thanked him for that…”

Tony nodded slowly, trying to picture Loki as the responsible, peacekeeping half of the immortal outfit. He couldn’t. “Okay, next question. If you just got the a-okay from Daddy Dearest this morning, how has Loki been here for days?”

Thor rubbed the back of his neck, his sadness quickly turning to guilt. “I asked Father if I could bring him to Midgard to discuss some ideas with you all, and he allowed it. I didn’t tell him I wasn’t going to wake Loki up until a decision was made.”

Has a decision been made?

Tony looked around the table then, examining the faces of his teammates and friends, trying to decide whether or not they were ready to respond to Thor’s request. Clint still looked like he wanted to punch something out, but the anger was different. It was less offensive and more defensive, like he wanted to punch out a wall because he knew punching Loki was no longer an option.

Natasha was staring down at the table, her expression half-absent and half-contemplative. If Tony knew anything about the way her brain worked, he already knew what she was thinking, and it was mostly comprised of her own past.

“Agent Barton was sent to kill me. He made a different call.”

Steve had a faint smile on his face, and Tony knew that look even better than those of the other two. Steve was ready to help, ready to aid a friend, ready to reach out to a lost soul in that golden-hearted, goody-two-shoesed gallantry that made Tony sick on days ending in Y.

“Thor,” Tony started, and for once he let the off-handed sarcasm fade from his voice. “Why did you bring Loki down here if you were going to keep him unconscious the entire time?”

Thor looked around the table, his mouth opening and closing as he struggled with his words. “I… do not want to influence your decision…”

Tony shook his head. “You won’t. Decision’s already been made.”

Thor blinked, surprised, and looked around the table several more times before quietly offering his reply. “If I can find no way to remove or lighten Loki’s sentence, I will have no choice but to take him and flee to another realm. I don’t want Father to have a chance to get between Loki and I if such a situation arises.”

Tony stared the thunder god down for a long time, and then he groaned loudly, leaning back in his chair and swiveling away from the table. “Okay, where are we setting this up?”

Thor blinked. “Wait—”

Clint immediately jumped in, leaning forward and putting an elbow on the table. “We need to be able to get to his location fast in the event he tries something dangerous. You might be able to outvote me—maybe even convince me in a decade or two—but we can’t put Loki anywhere he has a chance to escape.”

Thor looked at Clint. “You mean—?”

“Yes, we mean,” Tony snapped irritably. “Now, where are we going to put him?”

Thor and Bruce exchanged glances, silently tossing the answer back and forth, and Thor looked like he thought permission would be vetoed once they answered.

Tony followed that answer with his eyes, glancing from one to the other and back again until realization finally dawned on him. “What? No. No, no, no. You are not bringing that psychopath into my tower!”

I really hate the morning.

Chapter Text

Something was wrong. Granted, there was nothing particularly unpleasant about the surrounding environment, and he wasn’t in any considerable amount pain or discomfort. Quite the opposite, it was very quiet and comfortable, almost peaceful. He felt clean and refreshed, and the air around him was similar, no longer dank or musty or laden with dust. Sunshine streamed in through a large window and danced across his face, the scent of mildew was gone, and he could feel soft, clean sheets rubbing against his skin.

I’m not in prison anymore.

Every muscle in his body tensed, emerald eyes snapping open and quickly scanning his new chambers for any sign of an immediate threat. He saw none, but the thought of relaxation didn’t even cross his mind. He recognized his surroundings—or rather, he recognized the objects therein—and the thoughts they carried with them made his skin crawl.

It looks Midgardian.

Loki was not so quick to believe he was actually on Midgard. For all he knew, the room was just something the Allfather conjured to get a glimpse of how his captive’s brain worked.

Fool. Chambers are chambers, and a cage is a cage; the contents make little difference.

He sat up, bed sheets pooling around his hips while his hands braced against the mattress as a means of support. It took only a moment or two to assess the situation, and once he was confident the room was completely empty, he began to slide toward the edge of the bed, swinging his legs out over the side and placing both feet on the ground.

My clothing is Midgardian as well. However—he gave it a quick sniff—it is most certainly washed and fresh. It’s not luxurious, but I wouldn’t exactly call it the clothing of a prisoner, either. It is, at the very least, comfortable and of a tolerable color scheme.

Shaking his head, Loki slowly rose to his feet and tested out his balance as well as the extent of control he had over his body, flexing his fingers and shifting from foot to foot in an attempt to find some sort of hidden injury he had yet to discover. He continued for several minutes, rolling his shoulders, cracking his neck, stretching his arms, wiggling his toes, and bending his back several times each until he was convinced that he had not been poisoned or cursed.

My body may be sound, but my magic is not. I cannot feel its presence and—

His thoughts came to an abrupt halt as the door to the room swung inward, revealing the Man out of Time as well as the hallway that lay beyond. It looked familiar, though it was not Asgardian in any way, and Loki couldn’t help but think perhaps he truly was on Midgard.

The Captain of America, who was not in his typical outfit of spangles and stripes, motioned for Loki to exit the room with him, standing aside and holding the door ajar with one arm.

Loki’s eyes wandered over him carefully, scrutinizing the man and displaying no small amount of disbelief. “I believe it unwise to take the advice of my adversaries.” His fingers subconsciously curled around the sheets on the bed behind him.

“You can walk, or you can be carried.” The Captain’s voice was stern and clipped, his eyes turning to ice as he stared the other down. “What’s it gonna be, Loki?”

Chewing the inside of his cheek, Loki pretended to ponder the situation, but the obvious choice was to walk. It left a certain amount of dignity at his disposal, and should he get an opportunity to run, his chances of escape would certainly be higher if he wasn’t slung over the other man’s shoulder.

“So impatient, Captain.” Loki started to walk slowly, never once allowing his eyes to leave the soldier’s face. “I was only being cautious.”

Steve—or at least, that’s what Loki remembered his civilian name to be—waited until the god of mischief was just beyond the doorframe to snap it shut and urge him down the hall to the left. Loki complied without any trouble, taking the other’s bitter silence as an excuse to look at his surroundings and see if he could pinpoint exactly where on Midgard he was.

There I go, assuming things are one way when they could be another way entirely. I still don’t know for certain that I am, indeed, on Midgard. He frowned slightly, taking another look around as he was directed down a side path. In fact, if this keeps up, I may never know where I am for certain. There isn’t a window in sight.

“I assume you are leading me to my execution, but I have a question surrounding the circumstances.” He gave the other a pleasant but sarcastic smile. “Should I ask you, or should I wait until I see someone who’s a little bit livelier?”

Steve didn’t respond.

“Oh, Captain, I believe you still have some thawing to do. You’re being rather cold, don’t you think?” He chuckled softly, feigning amusement at his own little joke.

Still nothing from Steve.

What does it mean, though? Was he ordered to keep quiet in order to avoid my traps? Or is this an illusion set by someone who doesn’t know the personalities and behaviors of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes well enough to imitate them?

Loki once again allowed a scowl to twist the corners of his mouth, tension running across his shoulders and into his neck. He didn’t like the uncertainty of the situation, but there was little he could do to change things at that point. He couldn’t develop a plan if he didn’t have any information, and he wouldn’t be getting any information unless he got outside or found somebody who talked, and he wouldn’t be able to get outside or find somebody who talked unless he had a plan.

So the cycle went.

“Stop.”

Loki looked over his shoulder at the sudden command and slowed to a stop, gradually turning to face his guide completely. It’s my turn to be silent. Maybe it will coax him into speaking.

Unfortunately, it didn’t look like Steve was changing his tune, he was simply plucking choice notes out of necessity. He had Loki’s attention, so it was unnecessary to speak anymore, and he seemed quite content to stand there in absolute stillness, staring at the wall.

Loki also stared at the wall, noting the door-shaped indentation and the glowing buttons set to the side. It looked vaguely familiar and was probably a piece of equipment native to Midgard, but Loki hadn’t the slightest idea what it was for. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were a door, but where are the handles? He hasn’t done anything but push a button.

Suddenly, the two metal panels that made up the alleged door slid to their respective sides, revealing a small square room with a mirror on the ceiling and lights on the floor.

“Ahem.”

Emerald eyes snapped over to look at Steve, who was watching Loki with an expectant expression on his face. Figuring the soldier wanted him to step inside, he began the short walk into the alcove, bearing equal amounts of dignity and apprehension. Steve followed him in, and Loki opted for standing near an assortment of buttons he deemed to be the control panel.

Interrogation? He looked around the room for a hatch or a small door that would open at the command of the buttons Steve was now pressing. But it’s so small…

He didn’t expect the room to move.

Breaking composure for a brief moment, Loki grabbed onto the nearby handrail and shifted his stance to catch his balance, muscles going taught at the sensation of suspension the situation brought.

“It’s just an elevator.” Steve spoke softly and plainly, glancing at Loki with an unusual mix of sympathy and suspicion in his eyes.

Loki was quick to stare the other down, squaring his shoulders in an attempt to display a confidence that was less than skin deep. His enemies were present, watching his every move, and the last thing he needed was them believing he was weak. “I know that.”

Steve arched a single brow. “You know about elevators.” It was a statement, but the heavy tone of disbelief made it sound like a question.

I got him to talk. That was good, even if Loki wasn’t fond of the mortal questioning him. If Loki could keep the conversation going, perhaps he could get a little more information about his current predicament, and thus, make moves to plan his escape.

“Yes, of course. I’ve been to Midgard before, you know.”

“Thor’s been here five times. He still doesn’t understand elevators,” was the quick retort.

Loki didn’t miss a beat, a wry smile curling the corners of his mouth. “Thor and I are two very different people.”

“You mean Thor doesn’t wander from realm to realm trying to dominate different races?” There was false humor in the man’s voice, but it lacked the bitterness necessary to be a direct insult. “Although, there was something about a planet of Frost Giants.”

“Oh?” Loki tilted his head to the side, curiosity lighting his eyes while he began to process the information internally. What do mortals know of Frost Giants? Thor could have told them, but he would have little to tell them other than his attempted triumph, and it is unlikely that he would deliberately share a tale of shame and defeat with his comrades.

The elevator jerked to a halt, and the doors were sliding open in a matter of seconds. That time around, Loki managed to limit his reaction to a slight loss of balance, and he strode out with a regained sense of confidence. He was a fast learner—next time he wouldn’t be caught off guard by the moving metal box.

“Stop.” Steve stepped out after him and gave him a pointed look, his shoulders squared just as tightly as Loki’s. “Don’t get too far ahead of me.”

“Aye, Captain.” He ignored the withering glare that was cast in his direction, choosing instead to make note of the more hospitable environment. Unlike the previous hall of shimmering metal and blinding, fluorescent lights, these corridors were painted with a warm, olive color and adorned with tan carpeting.

“So,” Loki began, following Steve down the hall to the left. “You have heard tales of the monsters that inhabit the frozen wastelands of Jotunheim. I assume this is because of Thor. Well, that and the silly legends you humans have written down over the ages.” Loki delicately folded his hands behind his back, painting a gentle smile across his features. “What stories has he regaled you with?”

Steve glanced at him only briefly, keeping his eyes trained on the path in front of him. “Just one.” He kept walking, shoulders squared and face tight, all previous signs of openness gone. “He told us how he got banished. That was it.”

Loki couldn’t ignore the flood of relief that washed over him upon hearing those words, but he didn’t let it show on his face. It was bad enough his origins shamed him to the point where he didn’t want anyone—not even a race as low as the mortals—to know about it, but the thought of said lowlifes knowing he had those kinds of secrets at all was almost worse.

“I see. If that’s the case, then he must have talked about me, as well.”

Steve didn’t look at him that time. “That would make sense.”

Loki said nothing, his hands rubbing against each other out of habit. He’s completely closed up again. It won’t do any good to press him for information right now. So, Loki turned his attention to other things, such as searching for a window that would let him peer into the outside world for a moment. Not knowing what realm he was in was killing him.

“We’re here.”

Loki looked at Steve, tension traveling across his shoulders when he saw the soldier holding a door open for him. Perhaps this is why he got so quiet. One foot extended, and then the other followed it, trepidation lurking behind a veil of apathy. Slowly, carefully, honed in to every aspect of his surroundings, he entered the room.

“Loki!”

Lips curled into a smile, hands spreading delicately to gesture toward the people present in the room, all of them more familiar than he would have liked. “I will admit, as soon as I saw the good Captain, I had a nagging intuition that you would be at the end of this labyrinth. Tell me, Thor, is this something Odin concocted or a justice of your own creation?”

“Neither.” Director Fury’s voice answered him before Thor had a chance, and Loki immediately placed all his attention on the man standing off to the side. “It’s a compromise.”

“Between whom?”

Fury gestured to the blonde-haired thunder god sitting just a few feet away, lined on both sides by his fellow heroes. “Him, myself, and your old man.”

“He is not my father,” Loki growled, the outburst no longer requiring thought. “I asked for no compromise.” He looked at Thor then, eyes still narrowed.

“Br… Loki, you have not even heard us out yet.” Thor glanced at the man on his right, the beast in disguise, and then looked forward again. He opened his mouth but apparently couldn’t find words, his eyes betraying a nervousness that was not native to the thunder god.

“I need not listen.” Loki’s tone was crisp and business like, with just enough bitterness to sharpen the edge. “You should not have gotten involved. Where anyone of emotional value to you is concerned, your sense of justice is weak and fractured, Odinson.”

“True.” The Director cut in once again, pulling away from the wall he had been leaning against and approaching the topic of conversation. “But mine isn’t. Most of the people in this room would gladly see you dead, and since we live in a democracy, you’d be much better off appealing to your brother’s idealistic mercy than cutting it down. We’ll gladly send you back if you change his mind.”

Loki said nothing, not even bothering to correct the man on his non-existent brotherhood with the big blonde oaf. He looked at Thor long and hard, scanning his face for any sign of that familiar sentiment. Weak, wide-eyed, hopeful, pleading sentiment. There was none, and while Thor seemed sympathetic, he also seemed much harder toward Loki than he had been the last time they saw each other.

“Tell me, then.” Loki picked at his thumb with the opposite hand, remaining in a rigid and professional stance. “What is this compromise?”

Steve walked away at this point, joining his still silent comrades at their table. Fury didn’t say anything either, and Loki felt a fleeting ghost of fear, banishing it the moment he was aware of its presence. He didn’t speak. He refused to press for an answer he didn’t want to hear in the first place.

Finally, Tony’s chair started to swivel and creak, his legs finding their way up onto the table and crossing at the ankles. “We’re placing you under house arrest for special people.”

Loki’s brow creased.

“My tower is big enough and advanced enough to keep you in one place, especially now that you don’t have your voodoo. We,” he gestured to those present at the table, “live here, so we’ll be able to keep an eye on you. On top of that…” He let his voice trail, pointing to Bruce and quickly losing himself in a flood of notifications from his cellular device. Either that, or he was playing a game. Both were plausible explanations in Loki’s mind.

Dr. Banner adjusted his glasses and cleared his throat before speaking. “You’ll have daily hour-long sessions with me so we can try and figure out some psychological solutions for you.” That was vague. Loki didn’t like it, but Bruce continued speaking. “As time goes on, we’ll figure out if we need to increase or decrease visits, and other people may be pulled into our sessions from time to time, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

Loki opened his mouth to speak, but Thor interrupted him. Something familiar, at least.

“Your magic has been sealed, and your immortality has been stripped away. You are almost entirely human, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Most importantly, Loki...” Thor stood up and braced his arms against the table, giving the trickster a long, level stare. “During your stay on Midgard, you will repay the debts you owe the citizens of New York City. You will serve the community by putting your talents to good use while you are here. I will not allow you to become stagnant.”

Loki calmed the rage in his gut with a slow and careful succession of inhales and exhales. His hands curled into fists briefly, but he forced them to relax a moment later. I have to maintain the upper hand. I have to stay calm, and I have to appear completely unconcerned.

Giving his brother a mildly curious look, Loki changed the subject entirely. “What did Odin suggest to make you devise such a scheme?”

“Father intended to have you executed.”

Loki could smell the lie a thousand miles away, but he let it slide for the moment, choosing instead to curl his lips into a smirk. “I would have preferred you let him have his way.”

Thor blinked, opening his mouth but having nothing to say.

Agent Barton, who had remained quiet through the entire meeting, spoke in Thor’s place. “Then I guess it sucks to be you, doesn’t it?”

And just like that, Loki’s fate was sealed.


“You need to take a shower.”

That was what Thor had said, and most of his comrades readily agreed. Loki was looking worse for the wear, and it wasn’t just because of his time spent behind bars. It looked like he had been neglecting the notion of hygiene for quite some time. He was dirty, greasy, and had an appearance that was, in general, largely unkempt.

“When you walk in your room, there’s a bathroom on the left.”

This was the instruction of Tony Stark, owner and co-designer of the tower. At the time, Loki had assumed he was being informed of the location of a tub or pool of some sort, but as he gazed down upon the rounded rectangle and the metal contraptions therein, he began to have his doubts.

I can see how the basin could serve as a bathtub, but how do they suppose I’ll get water into it? Emerald hues flashed from one end of the contraption to the other, lips pursing slightly as his fingers came out to rest on the spigot. This contraption most likely pours water into the tub, but how do I get water to come out of it? His gaze travelled up as his thoughts continued. And what is the hanging circle supposed to do?

Sighing softly, he took a step back and surveyed the situation as a whole. Knob, spigot, hanging disk, tub, drain. Deciding that the two most likely to be related were the knob and spigot, he started to fiddle with the former, feeling a small sense of accomplishment when water began to pour from the mouth of the pipe.

“Well. It seems we have water.” Sigh. “Now what?”

Loki tilted his head back, but the disk was no different than before. Looking back down, he stuck a finger under the flow and found the water was only lukewarm. He wondered if there was a way to alter the temperature, and if there was, where such a control would be.

It really shouldn’t be this complicated. Simply get water, put the water in a large container, and take a bath. He sighed. It could be worse, I suppose. Then he frowned, thinking back to the prison bathhouse with a shudder. Yes, it could definitely be worse.

So, silently admonishing humanity for complicating one of the simplest rituals in history, Loki continued on his relentless quest for hygiene.

He was successful, albeit delayed, and in little more than two hours, he was standing before the mirror and running a plastic comb through his hair. He knew he would wind up cutting off the couple of inches that were too tangled to salvage, but it felt much better to have a clean scalp. Well, mostly clean. He could still feel a thin layer of grime coating him from head to toe.

Even worse, his clothing was growing more irritating by the second. He didn’t like the so-called pants that were in his room, and while the shirts were very comfortable, they were also very thin and flimsy. There was no chance of the Midgardian attire protecting him from even the smallest of attacks, and that was a feeling he did not like in the least.

I will feign gratitude, at least. I have to gain enough trust for them to look the other way… and when they do, I’ll leave. What he was going to do after the fact, he didn’t know, seeing as his magic was sealed, he was human, and he had no way of concealing his identity from the planet’s occupants. But he wouldn’t stay, bound and humiliated and patronized. He refused.

Finally satisfied with the amount of hair that had been detangled, Loki sought out a device with which he could cut off the matted ends. Unfortunately, there were no knives, no razors, and no blades anywhere in the room that he could find.

Of course. They wouldn’t trust me with something I could use as a weapon. He sighed and stared at his reflection in the mirror, almost as if he thought they could brainstorm and come up with a plan together. I wonder if—

“If I might make a suggestion, Mr. Laufeyson—” Loki nearly jumped out of his skin, “—there is a pair of scissors in the top drawer to your left.”

The voice seemed to come from thin air, and given its lack of an introduction, Loki was left to scan the ceiling with a pounding heart, his lungs refusing to take in air until he felt he was alone again. A guard? But where? He slowly released the death grip he didn’t realize he had on the sink.

“Show yourself immediately.” Loki squared his shoulders and continuing to look around with narrowed eyes.

“I cannot complete that function. Mr. Stark has not programmed me to be seen, only heard.”

Loki’s lips twitched slightly, confusion creasing his brow. “Stark…?” Oh. Of course. “You are to keep an eye on me, then, as would a jailer or warden.”

This time the voice responded in a more casual manner, almost as if it was processing the fact that Loki was not a guest and did not need to be treated with any sort of formality. It made Loki uncomfortable—he was being analyzed by a pair of eyes he could neither see nor scrutinize in return.

“I have been ordered to do that, yes.” There was a beat. “I operate throughout the entire building, and I am accessible from the Mark 53. I run the house and keep everything in order. My name is Jarvis.”

Loki nodded slowly, turning back to the sink and pretending to comb his hair some more, not wanting any suspicious activity to be reported to his captors. “I see. You are a servant, then.”

“Yes, in a sense.”

Loki took a slow breath, silent and invisible, reaching out toward the drawer the voice had suggested earlier. Sifting through the contents, he found a metal object he had passed over in his first search due to its blunted edges.

“Separate the holes, and the blades will come apart. Push them back together to cut.”

Loki seized one loop in each hand and pulled, watching as the two pieces came apart. While dull on the outside, the inside was plenty sharp, and as he pulled the broad ends back together, he saw how the machine was supposed to work.

“Curious.” He shifted them to one hand and practiced the manipulation with his fingers. “Servant, are you able to see me?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Are you able to see the entire house?”

“That is classified, Mr. Laufeyson.”

Fingers halted, eyes narrowing. “Do not call me that.”

“That is classified, Mr. Odinson.”

His hand started to shake. “My name is Loki.”

“That is classified, Loki.”

Loki didn’t say anything.

Slowly, the task of hair-trimming was resumed, and the minutes ticked by in near silence, the only sound being that of the scissor blades coming together and clumps of wet hair falling into the sink.

Why Laufeyson? I would expect Thor to tell them my last name was Odinson, but Laufeyson? If they intended to use Jotunheim against me, Thor would have told them that it was a pointless endeavor. Given his obsession with our past brotherhood, that would have been the perfect chance to put my surname in as Odinson and nothing else. So why? What purpose did it serve?

It didn’t become any clearer no matter how long he ruminated on it, and by the time his hair was a full six inches shorter, he decided to let the thought die. He had successfully taught the voice his desired title, and that was where the matter ended.

“Servant.” He ran his hands through the remaining hair and threw the rest into a nearby trash can. “What is the time?”

“My name is Jarvis,” the voice replied, nearly perfect in its mimicry.

Loki rolled his eyes and tried not to let the disrespectful lower life form—was it a life form?—bother him. “Very well, then. Jarvis, what is the time?”

“8:49 p.m., Loki.”

Loki pursed his lips. There was no point in asking for the day because he didn’t know on which Midgardian day he had arrived, but regardless, he could tell he had been in the Avengers’ custody for some time. Or at least, he doubted they had developed an intricate and complicated plan, prepared a room for him, programmed the house servant, and transported him from another realm all in one afternoon.

However, despite the recent and rather lengthy spell of unconsciousness he was certain he had endured, he could feel a familiar heaviness settling over his eyelids. There was nothing in him that wanted to even try staying awake. He was fairly clean and comfortable, and the thought of a soft, warm bed was tantalizing at the very least. He may have been a prisoner still, but his room was certainly no Asgardian dungeon, and the bed provided by the mortals was significantly softer than the cot he had occupied for the previous two years.

Perhaps I can read for a little while… and then doze off.

He didn’t exactly like any of the books that had been placed on the shelves in his room, but it would at least give him something to do. Reading was an enjoyable pastime even if he wasn’t all that thrilled to learn about the history and culture of the miserable rock he was stranded on. After all, a book was a book, and books were good.

Period.

Walking back into the living space, Loki made his way over to the small bookshelf and pulled down a historical tome concerning the Midgardian World War Two. From what he understood, the second global conflict was the one which birthed the super soldier who, somehow, was still alive in the time of the Avengers. Of all the books on the shelf, that one had the most potential to give him information he could use against his adversaries.

Hmm. Let’s see what it is that makes the humans slaughter each other in droves.


Loki wasn’t sure when he crossed the line between sleeping and waking, but he knew he would have preferred the former. Then again, perhaps the sensation of being stabbed in the temple was what had woken him in the first place, in which case falling back asleep would be pointless.

Groaning, Loki brought both hands up to his face and rubbed, feeling for blood and trying to ease the pain at the same time. What on Midgard is my head doing to me? He pushed himself up on his elbows and, after a moment of thought, tried to shake away the pain.

Oh. Ow. That was a bad plan. My, that was a terrible plan. He clamped his hands down on either side of his skull and went completely still, trying to ride out the sensations he had brought upon himself. Never, ever, ever shake your head to get rid of pain.

“Can I assist you, Loki?”

Jumping slightly, Loki turned his attention upwards and sighed in response. “You are a voice. You cannot help.” He continued to massage his temples, trying to recall the servant’s name and coming up blank. “Although, if you could tell me whether or not I am dying, that would be superb.”

“You are not dying, Loki. You have a headache, and the only impact on your vitals is an increased pulse, most likely induced by pain.”

Loki could swear he heard a tone of amusement, but he chose to focus on the response itself. “I was being sarcastic.” Somewhat. He was certain humans didn’t drop dead unless they were old. Mostly certain. Fairly certain. Slightly certain. “Servant… was it a legitimate question?”

“Had there been other symptoms, there could have been a dangerous underlying problem, but I am inclined to believe your headache is stress-induced,” the voice explained. “And my name, sir, is Jarvis.”

Loki stared in disgusted awe, his jaw dropping slightly as he tried to fathom a stressful day being the cause for physical pain. If a human body truly did cave under stress, he was going to be rather uncomfortable for the foreseeable future, especially if other humans were aware of the shared weakness and intended to exploit it.

“Loki, would you like me to notify one of the Avengers? They can—”

“Absolutely not.” Loki glared for a few moments and then let out a sigh, lowering himself back down onto the mattress and rubbing his face once more. “I can handle a little pain.”

“Very well. Should you change your mind, feel free to alert me. Goodnight, Loki.”

“Goodnight, servant.”

“Jarvis.”

Loki grumbled under his breath but didn’t correct himself. Jarvis. Right. I have to learn more about Jarvis and… He let the thought trail, the pain distracting him for a moment before he came back to find another subject on his mind. I really ought to find a book on human biology so I can learn more about this… meat sack I’m trapped in. Find out how to get rid of these… stress pains.

He winced, reaching up and rubbing the sides of his head. It seemed to help a little, but the pain was still significant, and even if it had worked completely, he couldn’t simultaneously massage himself and sleep. How do they deal with these? Do they knock themselves out? He moved his hands to his neck and shoulders, trying to ease some of the tension there. Why does it take more than five minutes for their bodies to go back to sleep? When he still had his magic, he could put himself into a deep sleep with a simple snap of his fingers.

Groaning, Loki sat up in bed and pressed both palms against his eyes, heaving a frustrated sigh.

Loki was no stranger to pain, he was simply used to there being a visible source of it. If there had been a gaping hole in his skull, he would have some idea of how to make it more tolerable—stop the bleeding, keep out dirt, don’t pull on the skin around the hole, wrap it in gauze, keep it clean and covered—but there wasn’t. There was no wound, and there was no blood. It just hurt.

Ku-chunk. Click.

Loki froze, watching as the outline of a door swung in and let a silhouette into the room. His mind instantly shifted into tactical defense mode, watching the figure move closer to the bed and feeling the muscles he had just rubbed go tight once more.

“Here, this’ll help…” It sounded like Steve, though his words were low and slurred, distorted by lingering sleep. “Just…” Yawn. “Just lay back down, m’kay?”

Loki opened his mouth to protest, unable to see what Steve had or what he was going to do with it. “I d—”

Steve pushed his shoulder down and let out a tired, frustrated, and somewhat disoriented noise. “Just lay down. I want to go back to bed.”

Loki’s back hit the mattress, and something soft and ice cold was pressed against his head a moment later.

“Just put it wherever the pain is.” Steve yawned again and pulled the blankets haphazardly up over Loki’s head, ambling footsteps signaling his departure shortly thereafter. “Meh… you’ll figure it out.”

Loki lay completely still for several moments, one hand holding the cold object to his head and one keeping the blanket from touching his face, and then his eyes started to drift shut.

“You told him, didn’t you?” he grumbled.

“You have yet to use my name,” was the computer’s reply.

Loki snorted, pressing his face deeper into the cold and sighing in relief. “I didn’t realize computers could be vengeful.”

There was silence from above.

“…Goodnight, Jarvis.”

“Goodnight, Loki.”

What a stupid machine. It figures he would…

Loki was out before he could finish the thought.

Chapter Text

“Loki… Loki… Loki, wake up.”

Viridian eyes snapped wide open the second Loki realized there was a hand on his shoulder. Every muscle in his body tensed, one arm arching up to strike whoever had been foolish enough to take hold of his person while he slept.

He made contact with the hand of one Captain America, fingers closing tightly around his wrist as the voice came again.

“Good morning, Loki.”

Loki scrambled to sit up and drew his arm toward himself, a dark shadow crossing his face. “Release me, mortal.”

“That’s not your call,” the soldier calmly replied.

Loki narrowed his eyes, the ensnared hand curling into a fist as he pulled on his arm yet again. It was pointless, and he knew that—there was no way he could overpower the stronger, serum-strengthened male in the state he was in—but that didn’t stop him from trying.

“Unless you want me to take your hand clean off, I strongly suggest you do as I say and release me this instant.”

Steve arched an eyebrow and, after a brief moment of thought, decided to let go. Loki glared and growled under his breath, rubbing the joint absentmindedly, but Steve paid him no mind.

Loki hated it.

He hated the way the soldier looked at him, hated the thoughts he saw in the pale, sky blue irises. Pity, like he was a charity case in need of sympathetic captors. Irritation, like he was a nuisance the hero would rather not deal with. Patronization, like he was a stubborn child with whom it was easier to agree than fight.

“Do not touch me.”

Loki realized immediately that he was repeating himself, but the unwanted contact had perturbed him, and the foreign sensation of vulnerability left him somewhat disoriented. I don’t have locks on my doors. There are no other prisoners around to notice when something is wrong. There is no chainmail or weaponry to clang loud enough to wake me up. I have no armor. I’m completely exposed. I can’t—

Loki froze, looking down near his chest where Steve’s finger was hovering. Not poking, not scratching, not moving at all, really. Just hovering there, less than a centimeter away from his sternum.

“I’m not touching you.” Steve slowly moved his finger upward, carefully placing it right between the trickster’s eyes without actually making contact. “Still not touching you.”

Loki blinked once, twice, thrice. Then it clicked. It must have showed on his face, too, because the moment he understood what Steve was doing, a very satisfied grin broke out on the soldier’s face.

“Newsflash, Loki: You don’t call any of the shots around here.” The Captain poked Loki on the nose and stepped back, placing his fists on his hips. “Now, why don’t you stop being so difficult and cooperate for a change?”

Loki grit his teeth, grabbing a fistful of bedsheets in each hand. “You are—”

“—in charge, and I’m telling you to get up.” Steve migrated back to his earlier, more businesslike tone. “You’re meeting with Dr. Banner in thirty minutes.”

“I did not agree to any of this.” Loki glared. “I wish to speak with Thor.”

Steve didn’t waver. “We didn’t ask for your opinion.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “I’ll be waiting. If you’re not out in fifteen minutes, I’m coming in to get you.” Then, after giving an intimidating stare, the Man out of Time turned around and stepped into the hall, closing the door behind him.

How troublesome. Loki ran a hand through his hair, sighing loudly. He won’t leave me be, I’m sure of it, and with these limited quarters and no magic, I’ve little to stop him with. On top of that, he had no desire to be manhandled by the Midgardian, so it was best to play along.

For the time being, anyway.

Right. Clothes.

Moving slowly, Loki swung his legs out over the edge of the bed and gave himself a moment to survey the room. It didn’t look like anything had changed from the night before. His bed was still directly across from the door, with the bathroom on his right-hand side. To his left, there was a nightstand, a corner, a small bookshelf, an even smaller table, and a dresser.

Loki stood up, taking one more look around the room before crossing over to the chest of drawers and beginning to explore the contents. It took a while to find something he actually wanted to wear—prisoner or not, appearances were important—but he eventually decided on a pair of black pants and a blue, long-sleeved shirt. He had no idea what material they were made of, but despite their foreign texture, they were comfortable enough and seemed to be somewhat durable.

It actually looks quite nice. Granted, I wouldn’t be caught dead in this on Asgard, but from what I understand of Midgardian fashion… He let his thoughts trail, observing himself in the full-length mirror outside the bathroom door.

“You look fine.”

Loki ignored the remark, watching Steve’s reflection with a smirk. “Have fifteen minutes passed already, Captain?”

“Fourteen.”

Loki chuckled and continued to adjust his new attire. Having his back to the enemy unnerved him, but as long as Steve didn’t leave the range of vision the mirror provided, Loki could swallow the sensation of exposure in order to appear indifferent.

“So cold, Captain. And here I thought you were starting to like me.”

“I said you look fine, so let’s go.” Steve narrowed his eyes just slightly. “Now.”

Loki gradually turned around, drawing the action out for as long as he could. “Why so tense?” He blinked twice, wide eyes radiating innocence and sincerity. “With your strength and your shield, you have nothing for fear from me.”

Steve opened the door and gestured toward the hall, saying nothing but silently willing the dethroned prince to do as he was told.

You are not as soft as you appear. Loki walked into the hallway, suffering a brief spell of deja vu before falling in step beside his guide. “Tell me, are you always this… ah, formal?”

“Only with war criminals.”

Loki clucked his tongue. “Such harsh words, Captain.”

“They’re warranted,” was the simple reply.

Loki bit back a retort, deciding it was not the time to battle his opponents with wit, but rather, to push the boundaries and see where their weaknesses lay. He didn’t need to win every battle in order to do that.

Captain America must have felt the same way, because they didn’t engage in any more conversation until they were on the elevator, and neither of them were the instigators.

“Captain Rogers, Mr. Stark has asked me to inform you of his lunch order.”

Steve crossed his arms over his chest and pursed his lips at the ceiling. “And why exactly does Tony need me to get his lunch for him?”

“Would you like me to play the sound bite?”

Steve nodded, and Loki waited to see if Jarvis would accept the non-verbal command. He did, and Tony’s recorded voice came from the speakers a moment later.

“Because I just spent three solid days getting this place ready for Prince Charmless, and I am trying to do the science.” There was a crackle, and then Jarvis spoke. “If you could please record your answer for Mr. Stark, I would greatly appreciate it.”

Steve rolled his eyes and stepped forward as the elevator doors slid apart, one hand coming out to bar them from shutting again. “Just tell him I said yes, and then put the order on the fridge.”

“Yes, sir. Have a nice time, Loki.”

Loki cast an angry glare toward the ceiling, not liking the fact that the all-seeing eyes were watching his every move, even if it was in the background. Steve merely laughed, clearly not bothered by the constant monitoring, and urged Loki out of the small box.

Loki passed through the opening and took a look around, scrutinizing the walls and ceilings in search of whatever it was that served as ears and eyes for the invisible guard.

“This way.” Steve beckoned the god with a brief gesture and then began to walk. “Jarvis takes a little getting used to, doesn’t he?”

Loki said nothing, watching Steve from half a step behind and trying to determine what kind of approach the soldier was taking. “Do you, in fact, get used to it?” Because if Steve was willing to talk, Loki would be asking the questions.

“You do, actually.” Steve pointed toward the ceiling. “He always knows what you need and when. It’s kind of nice.”

Loki frowned, slipping his hands into his pockets and matching the soldier’s level of comfort. “You mean the person who watches the recordings.”

Steve shook his head. “Nope. Jarvis sees everything as it happens, and he makes decisions on the spot about how to handle them.”

That so? Loki hummed, if only to fill the empty space with something that made it sound like he wasn’t done speaking. It looks like the Captain will be easy to soften up, and he doesn’t seem to notice when he reveals information. Loki scanned the other’s body and took in the little quirks and cues. Or perhaps he just doesn’t think that information is worth keeping from me.

“How many years have passed since you last saw me?”

Steve raised a brow, surprised and a little suspicious of the sudden change in subject. “It’s been about two years.”

Loki inhaled slowly, but it was only half an act. He was genuinely surprised by the length of time he had been gone. “Two years… it feels like yesterday.” Quite the opposite, his confinement had caused one day to blur into the next for what felt like an eternity. “I suppose you’ve never had that problem, being a mortal and all.”

“From time to time. It depends on what happened and how long ago it really was.” Steve shrugged his shoulders and came to a stop outside what Loki had to assume was Dr. Banner’s office. “Loki.”

Turning his head slightly, Loki arched a brow and used the curiosity in his eyes to prompt continuation.

“You’re here because Thor wants to give you a second chance. We have nothing to gain from this arrangement, and you don’t have any advantages you can hold over us. So, if you would, take my advice and actually try to cooperate. Otherwise, you’ll be back in your old cell before you can blink.”

Loki stared back in mock innocence. “Are you certain? I am a very quick blinker, Captain.”

Steve didn’t smile or say a word, throwing the door open and using a slight but powerful shove to get him through the opening. As soon as Loki was over the threshold, Steve pulled the door shut, and then it was only a doctor and his patient, a pair of very human-looking monsters, a force for good and a force for evil. It was only Loki and Dr. Banner.

“I was wondering when you were going to show up.”

Loki glared unwaveringly, hatred burning through his veins at the very sight of the man who had the power and gall to bring the god down to his knees.

“Shall we begin?”


Tension.

It was thick in the room, almost tangible, and it was accompanied by an array of negative vibes that seemed to emanate from Loki’s body with natural ease. Distrust, anger, indignation, defensiveness, and even a small amount of wariness. Just as naturally as a cat had whiskers and the sky had clouds, Loki had this dark and threatening aura around him.

“Did you sleep well?” Bruce knew there was no need for small talk, but he wanted to get Loki into a mildly more open mindset before bombarding him with psychologically distressing questions. They had a lot to talk about, after all, and he knew Loki didn’t intend to make it easy.

“Well enough.” Loki’s reply came out short and clipped, stress traveling through his muscles, showing only briefly in his shoulders and fists before he commanded his body to assume its usual stance.

“Things have changed pretty drastically for you,” Bruce continued, undeterred by Loki’s attitude. “Midgard and Asgard are two very different places, not that I need to tell you that, and you’ve been thrown into a pretty sticky situation. How are you holding up?”

Like a track on repeat, Loki replied, showing more interest in examining the room itself than actually interacting with its occupant. “Well enough.”

“Good to hear it.” Bruce gestured to the chair across from him. “Why don’t you take a seat?”

Emerald hues flickered to the chair and then to Bruce’s face. “I prefer to stand.”

“We’re going to be here for an hour.” Bruce shrugged his shoulders. “Just thought you might want to rest your feet.”

Loki didn’t move. He was no doubt recalling his last encounter with the Other Guy—the one where he wound up in a human-shaped crater—and was pushing every ounce of self-control he had into making sure he didn’t cause the beast to emerge.

Or maybe that was Bruce’s self-depreciating attitude again.

“Loki, I’m just here to talk.”

There was a pause, Loki scrutinizing the doctor for several moments before finally making the necessary steps and seating himself in the cushioned chair. He sat with a confident, regal sort of air, though Bruce couldn’t help but sense some anxiety behind the stiff back and squared shoulders.

“So.” Bruce cracked a small smile. “Tell me about your childhood.”

Loki’s eyes widened slightly, his expression one of utter disbelief, and his body tilted away from his makeshift therapist in a show of repulsion. “I beg your pardon?” He took a quick glance at the door. “I am not going to spend an hour of my day, every day, for the next several years talking about my childhood. What utter nonsense. What on Midgard would you even learn from such information?”

Bruce’s grin only expanded, though he kept himself from laughing for the sake of progress. “Just a small joke to break the ice. It’s sort of a stereotypical line. If you ever see a comic strip of…” He trailed off. Loki wouldn’t know what a comic strip was. “It’s like when you’re watching a comedy and…” Loki wouldn’t know what that was either. “…you know what, never mind. It was a stupid joke.”

“Indeed.” Loki crossed his arms over his chest, resuming his previous position of aloofness.

Shaking his head, Bruce steered them back to the main topic. “You made a good point though. Let’s not talk about the past. Let’s talk about current, relevant things.” He paused. “You’re not going anywhere for a while, and there isn’t much to do in your room. What sort of thing would keep you occupied during the day?”

Loki regarded the question with narrowed eyes, his gaze wandering over Bruce’s form before once more darting around the room. Of all the negative emotions he had exuded when he first arrived, suspicion was the one that was in an overwhelming amount of control now.

“Well,” Loki started after a few beats of silence. “I wouldn’t know, now would I? As you just said, Asgard and Midgard are very different.”

Smart. He’s treating this like an interrogation, trying to use my questions to get me to talk. It’s clever, and certainly wise given his situation, but I need to move him away from that kind of thinking.

“True.” Bruce conceded to the younger—or perhaps older, depending on the scale—man’s argument. “But there are similarities, I’m sure. You could list off a few things you enjoy, and then I can present something that would follow the same basic principles.”

Loki gave him a long, hard stare, but the doctor turned psychiatrist didn’t falter. He stared back with half the hardness and twice the determination. It didn’t seem to do much to change Loki’s resistance, but it did prompt a reply, unhelpful though it was.

“Isn’t this supposed to be an interrogation of some sort?”

Bruce shook his head. “No. Like we discussed yesterday, you’re receiving therapy sessions. Right now, we’re just getting to know each other.”

Loki narrowed his eyes a bit more, but his body language betrayed nervousness. “You are wasting your time. You would sooner beat answers out of me than coax them—I am not so easily persuaded.”

Nodding his head, almost in a gesture of surrender, Bruce picked up a thin stack of papers from the table in front of him. “In that case, how about we go over a list of things that might be somewhat similar to the things you had on Asgard? If something sounds familiar to you, we’ll look into it.”

Bruce watched Loki’s face, both men staring at each other unwaveringly, waiting to see who would show their hand first. Bruce kept his lips in a straight line, and Loki’s face was one of total mistrust and nothing else.

Finally, after at least two minutes of staring, Loki spoke.

“It changes nothing.”

“We’ll see.”

Loki glared.

Bruce smiled.


Pale, green eyes bored relentlessly into the thin stack of papers pinched between the Bruce’s fingertips. It seemed the doctor was serious about the list, and with every moment that passed, Loki couldn’t help feeling a sense of… well, it was difficult to pinpoint with a name, but it was something akin to disappointment and apathy. He had been expecting torture, interrogation, questioning, anger, hatred, harsh words, something.

Something that wasn’t this.

“It’s a pretty vague list, but if we find one or two things that you like, we can look for activities that fall on similar lines. For example, books.” Bruce paused. “Do they have those on Asgard?”

Loki’s jaw twitched, insulted by the blatant mockery within the question. “Doctor, are you aware of a realm where they do not have books?”

“Up until a few years ago, I didn’t know a realm other than mine was in existence. I think it’s safe to say I don’t know which cultures and peoples have things I’m familiar with and which do not.” Bruce raised an eyebrow, a small grin teasing at the corner of his mouth. “Wouldn’t you agree?”

Silence was the answer Loki offered, his arms coming up to fold over his chest. He didn’t believe the beast’s words for a second. Bruce had access to Thor, who knew far more than the basic concepts of Asgardian culture. Also, he had no reason to trust Loki’s words to be true, so there was also no reason why he shouldn’t have covered the basics with Thor beforehand.

“Yes, we have books.”

“Do you like them?”

Tension slipped in between Loki’s shoulders, drawing the muscles into a knot that began to ache in a matter of seconds. Curse this mortal form. Even without the presence of injury, it manages to find itself weakening. Could this be the kind of stress that causes those… headpains?

Loki blinked once, slowly, and leveled his gaze at Bruce. “I don’t have an opinion on them.”

Bruce offered a small frown, confusion creasing his brow and drawing his glasses toward the end of his nose. “That’s a little hard to believe. Most people can’t have one solid opinion on books as a whole because there are so many kinds, let alone not have an opinion on books at all.”

“Asgardians do not look to books unless they contain financial documents or important historical facts.” Loki waited until the doctor glanced down at his sheet to cast his gaze around the room, seeking a window for the twentieth time and finding none. “It is unusual for someone, especially a man, to read for leisure.”

Despite Loki’s hope that such information would be enough to deter, Bruce pressed on, his head shaking back and forth as he began to speak once more.

“I didn’t ask what Asgard thought of books, I asked what you thought of books.” Bruce set down the papers and began to tick off a long list on his fingers. “There are mysteries, action and adventure, horror, suspense, biographies, autobiographies, fiction, historical, historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy—”

“It matters not.”

Dr. Banner spent a long moment staring at him, and Loki couldn’t help the twinge of fear he felt, searching Bruce’s eyes for any sign of green. Despite himself, despite the numerous times he tried to forget his humiliating defeat in that very tower, he could still feel his body slamming one way and then the next into the rock.

And that was when the healing properties and fortifications of a god were still within me. Were the beast to treat this form with the same vigor, I would be dead in seconds with no chance of revival.

He swallowed discreetly, his foot sliding backward just an inch or so. “It matters not,” he repeated. “Regardless, as you already mentioned, some books have already been stored in my room. Should I take a sudden interest in reading, I can explore those before we make an attempt at discussing…” he paused, eyes drifting upward briefly, “…shanra.”

“Genre.” Bruce gave him a smile, adjusting his glasses. “Genre just describes a subset of a larger group, usually an art form. Dance, music, books, crafts, movies, shows, theatre, and various other groups are divided up by genres, which give a little detail about what you can expect from that particular piece of art.”

Loki went over a mental checklist and adjusted his posture accordingly, more concerned with keeping up appearances than what Bruce had to say. “I see.” With that, he allowed his eyes to wander to his hands, nails scraping absentmindedly at the dry, somewhat dirty skin of his palms.

“You really should take a shower,” Bruce advised, gesturing to the way Loki was scratching.

Loki gave him a cold stare in return. “I did.”

For a brief moment, shock registered on Bruce features, but he quickly traded it in for an expression of bewildered curiosity. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but it doesn’t look like you did.”

Loki wasn’t sure how to take that the right way. “I did.” He paused, recalling the state he had woken up in the day before. “I felt clean whenever I woke up yesterday, and then I showered in the evening. Still, I have spent two years in prison—there is only so much water can do.”

“Soap isn’t working?”

There was a moment of silence.

Loki blinked. “Pardon?”

Bruce blinked. “Soap?”

“I am unfamiliar with the workings of your soap.”

Another window of time passed in absolute silence, Bruce features twisting with confusion. Loki simply had nothing more to say. He had no idea what Midgardians used to bathe themselves, but even on Asgard he had preferred to use magic for hygienic purposes rather than going through the task step by step.

“I… do they have soap on Asgard?”

Loki was not as offended the second time, seeing as their conversation was probably what lead Bruce to such a question. “Of course. I simply never used it. I used magic.”

Bruce nodded slowly. “Magic... which you can’t use anymore. So, you didn’t think to improvise with soap.”

Loki shot him dark look but said nothing, unwilling to admit that yes, he had thought of it, but he couldn’t identify which bottles held which soaps and what they were to be used for. Even with the assistance of labels, it seemed the soaps on Midgard each had different uses and were meant for separate areas of cleansing—Loki was not about to accidentally put toe soap on his face or use the multiple hair products in the incorrect order.

“You disagree?”

Loki still said nothing.

“If you don’t talk to me, I can’t help you.”

Still nothing.

“If I can’t help you, you’re going to need a lot more showers.”

Silence. Cold, angry, indignant silence.

Bruce sighed, one hand running through his hair and stopping to adjust his glasses on the way back down. “Alright. If you want to take fifty showers, you are more than welcome to.” Then he cracked a smile. “But don’t come complaining to me when Tony gives you an earful about the water bill.”

For a moment, Loki allowed his brow to crease, confusion painting the forefront of his mind as he pondered what a water bill could possibly be. Soon, however, he abandoned the train of thought in order to keep the session moving.

“You had a list, I believe?”

Bruce took the hint and glanced at the papers again. “Do you have any musical interests?”

“No.” Growing up, he had studied the melodies and musical patterns that had useful effects when combined with magic, but other than that, he had never found music all that captivating.

“What about crafting?”

Loki raised an eyebrow. “You would have to elaborate.”

Bruce shrugged his shoulders. “There are lots of different crafting hobbies. Leatherworking, woodworking, whittling, metalworking, model building, paper crafting, and even letter writing or calligraphy could all technically count as kinds of crafting.”

Your questions make no sense. Loki was, of course, interested in crafting things. Magic itself was a kind of craft, though many on Asgard would beg to differ. But I am a war criminal, not a guest.

“They are all familiar terms.” Well, that was a lie. “However, none of them are of any interest to me.” So was that.

Bruce nodded his head, writing down a few notes beside the general topic and preparing to continue down the list. Loki inwardly sighed. It might not have been torture, but he almost would have preferred that to this. At least if he were strung up by his thumbs, he would feel he was prepared for whatever came next. The abnormal behavior, the lack of hostility, the level-headed composure—it had to be fake, which meant there was a lie to be uncovered. It was exhausting, forcing him to keep his mind and body focused at all times.

Unless that’s the plan. Mentally drain me with the intent of actually behaving in a civil manner, only to turn the tables after I’ve gotten too weary to focus. Or perhaps they assume I’ll think this way, and they’ll be starting the torture in less than a week.

He inhaled and exhaled slowly, forcing the stiffness out of his shoulders only to tense up once again when he realized Bruce had not continued to the next item.

“What?” Loki snapped.

“You seem unsettled.” Bruce sounded genuinely concerned. “Is something the matter?”

Loki rubbed his hands and pressed his thumb into the opposite palm. “Should I be comfortable?” he questioned, preferring to leave the task of answering to his adversaries.

“I don’t know about comfortable. Like I said, you’ve been through a lot of changes within the past couple days, so you’re bound to be stressed out.” Bruce paused, leaning on the arm of his chair and resting his chin in his hand. “I’m sure you’re having a hard time believing we wouldn’t send you to death row.”

Loki smirked. “You could say that.” He inhaled slowly, pretending to take a moment to consider his word choice. “I didn’t make many friends last time I was here, least of all with you and your allies. To grant me such a lenient sentence would be incredibly irrational.”

Bruce’s brow creased slightly. “Why?”

The question caught Loki off-guard.

“What do you mean ‘why?’” He scowled. “Sparing me from Asgardian punishment won’t do anything to help your realm or deter me from attacking it in the future. Who in their right mind gives aid to their enemies and expects no downfall? It’s foolish.”

Bruce only offered a soft smile. “Some of the most famous heroes of Midgard became famous for forgiving and helping their enemies. It’s not unheard of, and regardless of whether or not it will be beneficial to us, it won’t hurt us, either. You can’t leave this tower, and even if you did, you don’t have the power to do any more damage than an average human.”

It stung, the blatant reminder of his human weakness spoken so casually from the lips of a man he had once considered beneath him. Loki had called him a mindless beast, but the words only came back to haunt him as the tables were turned and he found himself several levels lower than those he had scorned just a handful of years ago.

“Loki?” Bruce spoke once the silence became thick, the lack of a reaction leaving him to assume something needed to be addressed.

“I understand your reasoning.” The words were ground out between clenched teeth, Loki’s jaw setting and refusing to move as rage enveloped him from the inside out.

Disgusting, pitiful creatures—all of them! Thor, you bumbling oaf, what did you hope to gain by bringing me here? By handing me over to your precious allies? You could have sent me to the axe with my dignity, at the very least, but instead I’ve been taken even lower than the scum that inhabits this mud rock! Is this your idea of redemption, Brother? Laughable!

Bruce was speaking, and somewhere in the back of Loki’s mind, he knew he should have been paying attention, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t get past the torrential thoughts blurred together by a current of red.

“Loki.”

He tried to hide the startled jump that racked his body, eyes narrowing as he met the kind but unwavering auburn gaze of the doctor.

“Look, I know you’re not happy about this arrangement. Everybody here knows that, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is your new sentence. Just think about this for me.” Bruce held up his hands and paused, collecting his thoughts for a moment before starting again. “If this situation is out of your hands, what good will it do to stress yourself out about potential ulterior motives? Let’s say you find out we are showing you this mercy for our own gain. What are you going to do about it? It won’t lessen the security, it won’t bring your magic back, it won’t give you your immortality, and it won’t take the locks off of your doors.”

Loki opened his mouth, prepared to argue the man into next week, but Bruce held up his hands again.

“Don’t answer. Just think about it, and give me your response tomorrow.” Bruce smiled, sympathy tightening his lips. “You’ve only got fifteen more minutes. Why don’t we just finish the list, and you can sleep on it, alright?”

Loki said nothing. He knew if he did, he would wind up digging himself into a very deep hole, and he couldn’t afford to do that. Not now. Not when he still knew so little about his situation. So he kept quiet, nodding from time to time so Bruce wouldn’t stop to ask whether or not he was listening.

What I am going to do about it is I am going to destroy the lot of you from the inside. I will take your intentions and turn them into acid that melts you down to nothing from your very core. If you think I am going to allow my life to be in the hands of another just because I allegedly can’t change anything about it, you are dead wrong, my dear monster.

It felt like an eternity had passed before the door finally unlocked, and Loki quickly got to his feet, trying and failing to hide his eagerness. He turned toward the door and took two steps before coming to an immediate halt, his entire body turning to stone.

“Not so fast, Reindeer Games."

 

Chapter Text

“Do you tire of me already, Man of Iron?”

The smirk that followed the words gave an air of relaxed confidence, but Tony knew better. Tension wrapped around the god’s shoulders, his fists clenching and unclenching at his sides, nervous movements so slight they could barely be seen.

Well, he is the god of lies.

Gesturing to the medical case in his hand, Tony broke the silence, walking into the room with Steve on his heels. “We need to run some tests. Since your old man made you human—”

“He’s not my father.” Loki glared, every word dripping with venom.

Tony rolled his eyes. “Since Odin, King of the Floating Pipe Organs, made you human, we need to be prepared for any kind of injury or illness that might come your way. I’ve got everything set up with the insurance company, but you have no medical records, which is suspicious and makes the doctors’ work much harder than it needs to be.” He set the case on the coffee table with a hefty thud, and Steve put his own armload down next to it.

Loki peered at the objects warily, keeping his distance but still trying to hide his discomfort. “You take such precautions with a prisoner? How… inefficient.”

Shrugging, Tony flipped the case open to reveal a long row of tubes and syringes. “Well, we could just let you die, but where’s the fun in that?”

“Oh, so you do intend to have fun.” Loki arched his eyebrows, using the opening to try and regain some of his former aloofness. “I didn’t realize this was that kind of an arrangement, Anthony.”

“I mean, it wasn’t part of the plan, but I’m a pretty flexible guy.”

“I prefer firm over flexible, thank you.”

“I’ve seen what’s in your pants, and I gotta say, I find that hard to believe.”

“Enough, both of you.” Steve stepped in, drawing his arm down between the two men and giving them each a long, hard stare.

Perfect. Tony rolled his eyes and waved the soldier off, turning his attention to Bruce. “Would you mind offering a hand? We’ve got a boatload of records to make up.” He stopped to look at Loki then, frowning slightly. “How old are you, anyway?”

“1,051.”

There was a brief silence.

“I know I’ve been out of touch for a while,” Steve started, “but that’s not gonna fly on a medical record.” He rubbed the back of his head, sighing. “Is there a kind of equivalent?”

Loki crossed his arms over his chest. “If there is, I don’t know it.”

Bruce spoke up then, already starting to piece together one of the many syringes from the case. “Age tends to be a milestone marker in most cultures.” He turned to Loki, motioning for him to sit on the couch. “For example, here in America, you can drive at sixteen, vote and be a legal adult at eighteen, and drink alcohol at twenty-one. Do you have anything like that on Asgard?”

Loki sank onto the couch, watching them all with cautious eyes. “Adulthood doesn’t have an exact year, but by age nine hundred, you can do whatever you please as long as it’s within the limits of the law. Much like Midgard, it’s less dependent on your skills and achievements than the number of days you’ve seen, but our lifespans are so much longer that the progression is more gradual.”

Tony, who had been silently watching since he brought up the question of age, determined it was a bit of a sore subject for Loki, and he imagined Bruce had realized the same thing. The whole concept of being allowed to do something because of how long you’ve lived regardless of whether or not you deserve it seems to be a pretty hot button. Am I sensing some Thor jealousy going on there?

Tony shook off his musings and returned to the conversation. “Mathematically speaking, if nine hundred is roughly equivalent to eighteen, then you age one year every fifty years you’re alive. Which means you, Loki, would be somewhere around twenty-one years old. Which is great, because that means you’re legally allowed to drink, just in case you ever decide to take me up on the one I offered last time you stopped by.” He gestured to his own face. “You know, now that you don’t have the muzzle on. Hard to drink with a muzzle.”

Loki didn’t miss a beat. “You speak from experience?”

Neither did Tony. “Muzzle? Nah. Tied up? Oh, yeah.”

“Oh? I would’ve thought—”

They both jumped, caught off guard by the sudden movement and sound of Steve slapping an antiseptic pad on Loki’s arm.

“It doesn’t really matter, right?” Steve gave Loki a pointed look. “We’re putting your legal, Midgardian age down as twenty-one, so you’ll be able to drink if and when you want to. In the meantime, please relax your arm.”

Loki scowled slightly, confusion and distrust playing on his face. “You really shouldn’t let prisoners drink unless it’s for a specific purpose.”

Tony snorted. “Welcome to America, where we have laws against cruel and unusual punishment.”

Steve took a deep breath and slowly let it out, and Tony honestly couldn’t tell how much of it was real irritation and how much of it was for show.

“Most prisoners are not in the situation you’re in,” Steve explained. “You’re the only prisoner in the building, and giving you access to controlled amounts of alcohol isn’t going to start any trouble. Right, Tony?”

“Uh, I plead the fifth.”

Loki blinked, clearly confused. “What?”

Bruce’s laughter interrupted them all. He sat down on the table and rolled up Loki’s sleeve. “How about we focus on the medical records for now?” Still chuckling to himself, he tied a strip of rubber around Loki’s arm and lined up the needle. “This will pinch a bit.”

With Bruce watching the syringe and Steve watching Loki’s free arm, Tony felt it was an opportune time to examine his new houseguest’s countenance. Bruce said to watch for subtle tics. He glanced over Loki’s body before settling on the trickster’s face again. He’s tense, but he’s been tense since he got here.

However, Loki was growing more and more stiff, his eyes glued to the tubes of blood as they were pulled from the object sticking in his arm. Given the fact that he had missed every single standard test and injection for the last twenty-one years of his new, fake life, there was a lot that needed to be done. Tony figured it was pretty overwhelming, especially for someone who had probably never seen a doctor in his life.

Tube nine, tube ten, tube eleven, tube twelve, tube—

“Stop.”

Loki’s hand came down on top of the syringe, and Tony immediately looked at his face. He was concealing something—that much was obvious—but the engineer wasn’t quite sure what it was.

“You’ve taken enough,” Loki said stiffly.

Bruce pointed to the empty tubes, speaking gently. “No, we still have some to go.”

Loki shook his head, jerking when Steve placed a hand on his arm.

“Easy.” Steve didn’t let up on his hold. “Loki, we’re not hurting you.”

“I’m not a child,” he snarled back.

Did he just spit on Cap? Tony examined the prisoner’s hands but saw nothing unusual. It was like a hiss. It wasn’t until he got all the way down to Loki’s ankle that he saw it twisting back and forth on the carpet. He’s basically a six-foot kitty right now. It was a slight movement, no more than a half an inch, but it was there because Loki was nervous. A Lokitty. Tony had found the first tic. I’m good at this.

Not that he thought he wouldn’t be, of course.

“You have enough.” Loki continued in the wake of silence, eyes flashing dangerously at each man in the room with careful precision. “You can distribute what you have into the other tubes. You don’t need any more. Let me go.”

“Look, Hat Rack.” Tony flopped onto the arm of the couch, throwing his arms over the back. “I know you think humans are, like, made of glass and spider webs, but this is nothing. Granted, it’s a little more than you would usually have drawn at a normal check-up, but if you’re looking for a lot of different things or don’t know what you’re looking for, that’s a fairly normal amount.” How many tubes had they drawn and examined before giving the okay for heart surgery? “People literally donate their blood to hospitals by the pint in their free time, just because they can and because it’s a good thing to do. You might not be a god anymore, but you aren’t going to fall apart as soon as somebody blows on you, okay?”

Loki glared at him, but Tony only gave him a cocky grin in return. Bruce and Steve glanced at each other and then at the pair in front of them, the latter slowly pulling Loki’s hand away from the needle. Bruce pushed in the thirteenth tube and started to draw blood, watching the trickster’s face carefully.

“Hat Rack?” Loki’s calm, almost congenial words flooded the room with a sense of ease, and the three heroes shared a small laugh.

“I think,” Bruce drew the final tube and placed a piece of gauze over the hole in Loki’s arm, “Tony was referring to the horns on your helmet.”

Tony held up a finger. “And the staff. If I had a statue of Loki inside the door of Stark Industries, you could put a hat on the staff, one hat on each horn, one on his hand, and—I dunno, maybe you could put a coat over his shoulders or something.”

Bruce rolled his eyes. “You’re a piece of work, Tony.”

“Why, thank you.”

“That wasn’t a compliment.” Shaking his head, got up and sat down beside Loki on the couch. “I need you to pull your arm out of your shirt. Or you can take your shirt off, it’s your call.”

Tony leaned close and whispered in the god’s ear. “Take it off.”

Loki gave him a sultry smirk. “Well, now that you’ve said that, I have no choice but to keep it on.” He pulled his arm into the sleeve and granted Bruce access to his shoulder. “Here.”

“Playing hard-to-get, huh?” Tony nodded, pursing his lips. “That’s fine. That’s fine. I know how to play this game.”

Bruce shook his head and rolled his eyes but only spoke about the procedure. “It’s the same concept, except I’ll be putting something in instead of taking it out.”

He was given nothing more than a wary look and a silent stare, and Tony noticed, not for the first time, how quickly Loki’s demeanor could change.

But why? Hazel eyes squinted just slightly, the exceptional brain behind them replaying the details of the past several minutes. There’s something about the flirting and joking and nicknames that helps him relax. Maybe it provides some sort of control? Helps him to act dismissive in situations where he normally can’t?

But why did he only do it with Tony?

Well, I guess I gave him the opening first. Bruce is here as an emotional sounding board, and Steve is trying and failing to be a professional guard. I’m literally here to screw around and pretend I know what I’m doing. Maybe he picked up on that.

“What are you doing?”

Tony pulled himself from his thoughts and took a moment to register Bruce running a thermometer across the god’s forehead. “It’s a laser,” Tony answered before anyone else had the chance. “He’s using it to make your brain permanently human.”

Loki’s eyes widened, his mask of indifference slipping as he looked at the small device.

“Tony!” Bruce shook his head. “That is not what it does, he’s just being a pain. It measures your temperature. Humans have an average body temperature of 98.6, and it can be dangerous if it goes too high or too low.”

Tony grinned at Loki. Loki glared back.

“You think this is bad?” the inventor cajoled. “His next move is to crush your arm right off.”

“I’ll crush your head right off,” Loki spat back.

Bruce sighed. “I’m just taking your blood pressure. No crushing, I swear.”

“Except for Loki. I think he has a huge crush on me.” Tony winked and leaned a little closer. “It’s alright. I won’t judge you. I know I’m irresistible.”

Loki sneered at him. “If by irresistible you mean the urge to murder you is nearly uncontrollable, then yes, you are very irresistible, Anthony Stark.”

Tony held up his hands in a show of surrender and got to his feet, wandering over to the Keurig and turning it on with the intention of brewing himself a cup of coffee. “You’ll come around, Loki. Just you wait.”

“I highly doubt that.”

“You—”

“Tony, please.” Steve turned his head toward the troublemaker, his brow slightly creased and eyes fully sincere.

Tony sighed loudly, making quite a show of his displeasure, but he eventually relented. “Fine. But only because I love you, Stevie Boy.”

“Thank you.” Steve sighed, clearly relieved.

Tony nodded his head but said nothing, deciding it was a good time to fade back into the woodwork. He had only found one tic since entering the room, and he knew Bruce wanted him to find more than that. So, now that he had poked and prodded a bit, it was time to sit back and observe.

Pepper was right about the blue sweater. Tony pressed the appropriate button and leaned back against the counter, crossing his arms over his chest and inspecting the outfit Loki had picked out. Don’t shrinks say that colors reflect your mood or something? Maybe he wore green because he was jealous and now he’s wearing blue because he’s… blue. He blinked, shaking his head slightly to clear the thoughts before continuing the analysis.

Black slacks, black socks, and a dark blue, cable knit sweater. It wasn’t as over the top as he thought it would be—he honestly expected Loki to make a cape out of the draperies or something—but it was still… Loki. Unlike Thor, who was chaotic and lively and would wear whatever was on hand without thinking twice, Loki’s clothing showed he was careful and organized. Even in prison, he coordinated his colors and chose articles that flattered his figure. He wore black socks instead of white because they looked better with the pants he was wearing, and he probably picked the blue sweater because of how it set off his eyes.

Woah, that was scary. I need to step away from the psychological color wheel here. Tony glanced at Loki’s face again, and then interested himself in what Bruce was doing. Still… there’s only one pair of black pants, and I put them at the very bottom of the drawer. Hmm…


Loki tried not to wince as the navy blue cuff on his arm grew uncomfortably tight, his hands itching to wring each other to pieces. Tch… he’s so obvious it’s almost sickening. He was referring, of course, to the lounging billionaire across the room. The incredibly arrogant, insufferable billionaire who was openly staring at him, as if he were some spectacle on display. That was what made him nervous; what made his fingers twitch in his lap.

It suffocated him.

“Loki, you’ll be completely indifferent to know your blood pressure is very healthy for a man your age.” Bruce removed the metal fixture from his head and freed Loki of the hissing band. “Just a few more things, and then we’ll be done.”

Loki simply nodded and continued to watch the three men in silence. He was sore and tired and quite eager to return to his chambers, but he figured the less he resisted, the better.

For now, anyways.

“One of you can take the blood samples down to the lab for me.” Bruce left the vials to his teammates and returned to the instrument in his hands.

Curious. Loki had absolutely no idea what the thing was or what it was supposed to do, but from what he could see, it was a black and rubber in the shape of a Y, with metal attachments on each end.

“I’m going to listen to your heartbeat, so I’ll need you to be quiet.” Bruce took the bottom part of the contraption and slipped it beneath the trickster’s shirt, pressing it against his bare chest.

Loki held his breath and pressed his thumb into the palm of his opposite hand. Why did Bruce have to go under his shirt? Why couldn’t he feel for a pulse? How could that little Y enable the doctor to hear his heart beating in his chest? Why couldn’t he talk? What would happen if he did?

To his relief, it was over in a minute or so, and seeing as there were no snarky comments from the Man of Iron, he must have done a sufficient job of concealing his discomfort. So, keeping with his forced air of dignity and collected composure, Loki adjusted his shirt and squared his shoulders for what must have been the twentieth time that day.

Then Bruce moved toward him again.

“Doctor, I know I’m heartless,” he refused to move away, despite his unease, “but I’m certain you were able to hear it the first time.” Which roughly translated to, ‘I don’t like people touching me, and I want to be left alone.’

Laughing softly, Bruce shook his head, still advancing with the dial in hand. “No, I heard it. I’m going to listen to your lungs now.”

“I assure you,” Loki hissed sharply, “I am breathing just fine.” His hand was starting to bruise beneath his thumb.

“Loki, it’s a standard procedure.” Bruce paused, watching Loki’s face for a moment before extending the entire object with a smile. “Why don’t you give it a try?”

Green eyes darted from the tool to the doctor’s face and then back again. It seemed simple enough—one piece in each ear, and the bottom piece against a bare chest—and it didn’t seem like it could hurt him in any way. Not unless someone strangled him with it.

“…very well.”

Loki reached out and grabbed it, inspecting both of the earpieces and giving Bruce another cold glare before slowly inserting the ends into their proper places. Then he grabbed the disk and carefully slipped it beneath his own shirt, wincing at the sound of contact and sudden movement. He placed the end on his chest, pressed down on it, and listened.

...b-bum…b-bum…b-bum…b-bum…b-bum…

Loki held his breath, straining to hear the sound more clearly. It was deep and steady, thrumming through the tube and into his ear with a rhythm that was soothing and familiar to him. It was like magic, in a very literal sense.

Having spent so many years training his body and senses to detect, absorb, and manipulate magic, identifying the pulse as such came without thought or effort. Magic, in and of itself, was life. It was a living, oftentimes breathing entity, and Loki had never failed to acknowledge that. When he cast spells or used charms and runes, he was utilizing a living thing in the same way an alchemist or healer would utilize plants and body tissue.

But he had never considered his heartbeat to be a magical thing.

Before Odin had taken his powers, there had been a subtle thrum coming from inside of him at any given time. It wasn’t loud, and he didn’t feel it unless he stopped to think about it, much like one doesn’t think about the fact that they have a tongue in their mouth unless it’s pointed out to them. But it was always there, in the background, living inside of him, and when Odin took his powers…

…something died.

“Loki?”

He startled, meeting the bewildered and slightly concerned expressions with wide, blinking eyes. Moving quickly, he pulled the device away from his body and returned it to Bruce, clearing his throat in an attempt to regain whatever impression he may have just lost on the three.

“Thank you. That was very interesting.”

Loki folded his hands in his lap and allowed Bruce to continue with the medical procedures, quietly focusing his mind on the beating within his chest.

It seems there are some things even you cannot take from me, Odin Allfather.

He could still turn things around. He could still get the upper hand, if only because he was alive, and living meant opportunities. It meant opportunities, and open doors, and the chance to take everything and turn it on his head in an instant.

He was alive, and it tasted like victory.

Chapter Text

Steve glanced over at the clock before sitting down to eat, calculating the amount of time he had left to take Loki his dinner. He wasn’t even sure what to make for the prisoner, and seeing as Loki hadn’t told Bruce any of his likes or dislikes, Steve imagined the same would apply if asked questions about food.

I would ask Thor, but when Bruce explained the identity situation, he said it would be best to pretend we know nothing about Loki other than what we’ve learned firsthand. Steve brought his sub to his mouth and took a large bite, tapping his foot against the floor as his thoughts continued. I’ll have to watch his facial expressions and reactions—if he even has any—to figure out whether or not he likes what I bring him. It’ll be suspicious if I just stand there and watch him eat, though…

Steve looked down at his sandwich, pondered it for a moment, and then stood up and wrapped it in the foil that had stored it up ti that point. Then he moved over to the refrigerator and pulled out the necessary ingredients to make a second one, still keeping an eye on the clock as he created a sub to match the one he already had. He wrapped that one in foil as well and grabbed a couple of sodas, a bag of potato chips, and a stack of napkins.

“Captain Rogers, might I ask where you are taking all of that food?”

Steve gestured with a nod at the meals bundled in his arms. “Heading down to have dinner with your brother.” He paused for a moment, and then offered an encouraging smile. “You’re doing really well, by the way.”

Thor’s brow creased in confusion, and he tilted his head to the side, caught off-guard by the statement. “I beg your pardon?”

“You haven’t tried to visit Loki since he got here. I know how hard it is for you to stay away like this, and I know if Bruce hadn’t suggested it, you would be down there at least two times a day.”

Thor let out a small, half-hearted chuckle. “Yes, that is true.” His gaze dropped slightly, his shoulders slouching with it. “I know he does not wish to see me, but I want to observe his health and behavior with my own eyes.”

“You did the right thing by bringing him here, Thor.” Steve saw the way the situation was weighing on Thor’s mind, and as team leader, he felt it was his personal responsibility to keep Thor from second guessing a good decision. “You didn’t have many options, but you picked the best one you could. On Earth, we call that choosing the lesser of two evils.” He paused, realizing Thor might take that the wrong way, and decided to elaborate further. “It’s a term we use to describe a situation where both options are hard, painful, and not what we want them to be, but we have to pick one, so we pick the best one we can and try to make it work. That’s what you did, and you did it with Loki’s best intentions at heart.”

Thor nodded slowly, gazing down at his feet with a weak smile pulling on the corner of his mouth. After a moment, he jumped, stepping out of the way and gesturing toward the hall. “I apologize, I’ve kept you standing here with your arms full.”

Steve shrugged lightly and started walking. “It’s not a problem.”

“Thank you, Captain… for both your words and your care of my brother.”

“You’re welcome.”

With that, Steve left the kitchen behind and made his way down the hall toward the elevators.

I wonder if I should have waited this long. His initial thought had been to set a schedule for meals and stick to it, hopefully keeping something consistent in Loki’s topsy-turvy situation, but now that he was thinking about it, Loki probably hadn’t eaten in quite a while. I should be more careful, especially since I’m responsible for making sure he gets food at all.

Steve rode the elevator down to the floor where Loki was being kept, stepping off and walking down the hall with a sense of urgency that hadn’t been there before. He allowed the laser to scan his retina and then used his foot to knock on the base of the door. He received no response, which wasn’t all that surprising, so he called out to the man on the other side.

“Loki, my hands are full. Open the door, or you won’t get supper.”

There was the sound of rustling bed sheets, then soft footsteps, and then a familiar voice. “I do not know what a supper is, so I’m not entirely sure that I want one.”

“It’s an evening meal meant to tide you over until morning.” Steve shifted his weight, trying not to jostle the sodas more than he already had. “Trust me, you want it.”

Inside the room, Loki hummed, suspicion invading his voice further. “If your hands are full, how did you operate the elevator?”

Steve couldn’t help but roll his eyes. “I said my hands were full, not my fingers. I only need to stick one out in order to press a button.”

There was a pause, and then the door swung inward. Steve pushed through quickly and kicked it shut with his foot, despite the fact that Loki would have to get through three hundred and twenty-four additional layers of security just to get to the front door. He figured better safe than sorry.

“What is this?” Loki questioned, surveying the food in Steve’s arms with a quizzical brow.

Steve carefully began unloading, placing the items on the dresser one by one. “I brought some subs, chips, and sodas.” He paused, meeting the other’s eyes before clarifying further. “Supper.”

“Hmm.” Loki crossed his arms over his chest, inspecting the food with wary eyes. “Why so much, Captain?”

“Well, I don’t know about you,” Steve unwrapped his own sub and grabbed a soda can before sitting down on a nearby chair, “but I eat quite a bit, and there’s two of us, so I figured it was best to over-estimate.”

Loki watched him carefully, approaching his own half of the meal and carrying it to his bed. He sat down and unwrapped the long sandwich, looking up when he saw no utensils to watch what Steve did with his.

Steve noticed—though he pretended he didn’t—and picked up the sub with both hands, taking a large bite and setting it back down. He looked over at Loki, who was cautiously lifting the sandwich from his lap, and did his best to hold back a smile as the god tried to figure out where to bite first. But, after some deliberation, Loki opened his mouth and attempted to get the end of the sub inside.

Swallowing, Steve tapped the top of his soda can. “This is a drink, by the way. Coke.” He reached out and grabbed the metal tab, popping it open and letting some of the carbon leak out before taking a swig and returning to his meal.

Loki glanced at the can he had placed on the floor, but he made no move to obtain or open it, choosing instead to take another bite of his sub… and another… and another… and another. Steve knew Loki hadn’t eaten since his arrival on Earth—most of the Avengers had skipped meals in order to prepare the whole of Manhattan for Loki’s presence—but until now, he hadn’t thought about how hungry Loki would be.

Thor said Asgardians are not as reliant on food as we are, but I completely forgot Loki’s human now. Not to mention the fact Dr. Banner said Loki was on Earth, unconscious, for two—no, three days.

“I, uh—” Steve cleared his throat, intending to apologize for the oversight but stopping short when he saw the filling from Loki’s sub tumble out of the bread and land on the foil below.

Loki’s eyes got wide, and he observed the mess with an expression of confusion, which quickly turned into embarrassment. “You what?” he pressed, picking up the innards and relining his bread with it.

“I wanted to apologize for taking this long to get you a meal. We were all caught off guard by Thor’s visit and request, and—” He cut himself off and shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. I’m the leader of this team, and it’s my responsibility to make sure you’re taken care of. I haven’t handled that very well up until this point, and I’m sorry.”

Pale lips curled into a sneer, the half-constructed sandwich abandoned on Loki’s lap. “If you’re a leader, you shouldn’t be so weak in front of the enemy. It reflects poorly on your image.”

Blue eyes turned sharp, his ingrained sense of righteousness rising in his chest. “If it were easy to admit when you’re wrong and apologize, a lot more people would do it.” He took another bite, smoothing the business-like edge from his tone and continuing. “Most of the planet wouldn’t dream of apologizing to someone like you, who would take any and every chance to rub it in their faces. That’s not because they’re strong, it’s because they’re prideful, embarrassed, and afraid—in other words, weak.” He took another bite, and grabbed his Coke, swirling the contents as he waited for Loki’s response.

But there was none.

Loki resumed eating his dinner and said nothing more, although he did lose the contents of his sub a few more times before it was finished. Steve kept quiet as well, finishing his meal and throwing away the foil, which lead Loki to do the same with his leftover garbage.

“Captain.” Loki spoke crisply, reaching down to retrieve his drink and scanning it with inquisitive eyes. “I am very curious to know why you are here.”

Steve raised a brow, pausing for a moment before offering up an explanation. “Well, Loki, when a man and a woman love each other very much…” He wished he had a camera so he could capture the look of utter disdain on the criminal’s face.

“You know what I meant.”

“Do I?” Finishing off the last of his beverage, Steve got to his feet and walked over to the dresser, helping himself to the bag of potato chips and walking back to his seat. “You could be asking me why I’m the one in charge of your health. You could be asking me why I’m not out with my team performing some act of heroics. You could be asking—”

“Why are you here with me?”

Steve stopped, looking at Loki for a long time before finally offering a response. “There are a couple reasons, actually. Mainly, I didn’t know what you liked to eat, and I thought it would be a good idea to watch your reactions and see if I could figure out what to make for you tomorrow.”

Loki searched him with sharp eyes, his expression otherwise blank. Steve didn’t waver or back down, unwilling to admit anything else but equally unwilling to let the other believe his words were false.

“Hmm.” Finally, Loki’s eyes fell back to his hands, fingers rubbing over the top of the can slowly. “I am trying to decide whether or not to believe you, my dear Captain.”

“What reason would I have to lie to you, Loki?”

Since World War II and all that entailed, Steve Rogers had not considered himself to be scared easily. He had seen too many horrors, faced too many monsters, and recovered from too many wounds to be frightened by most things that would send an average man’s heart rate through the roof.

But he felt a chill run down his spine when those dark, hateful, emerald green eyes met his.


Loki held the soldier’s eyes for a lifetime. He saw every fear the man had ever experienced flash through the crystalline pools. Every time he had lacked a response, every time he had ever felt confused, every time he didn’t know what to expect from his adversary. It was all there, open to Loki’s gaze like a book.

“What reason would you have to lie to me?” A sharp, cold laugh escaped the trickster’s throat. “What reason would you have to tell me the truth? I am not an imbecile, Captain, nor am I mad, despite what you and your comrades might think. I know I am here because of Thor, and I know none of you wish to deal with me and would much prefer I be sent back to Asgard on a silver platter. You have every reason to lie to me.”

Loki’s voice grew in volume, the muscles in his body going taught as a line of defense against whatever retaliation Steve might offer, rage boiling in the pit of his stomach. “You speak with good intentions and kindness because you think it will make this situation pass in the quickest and easiest way it can. It will keep you in Thor’s good graces, which will in turn give you the most powerful allies in all the Nine Realms, but it will also keep me from causing you any further trouble. It makes you feel as though you truly are heroes, making a sacrifice to achieve a greater good, to do what you have been lead to believe is morally right. You don’t want me here anymore than you did the first time I came, you’re just pretending you do because this time around, it’s convenient and it benefits you directly.”

His vision blurred, the sound of his own words setting the thoughts in stone and leaving no room for doubt in his mind. Loki wasn’t saying anything he hadn’t already known, of course, but laying it out in order, bit by bit, piece by piece—it made so much sense, it was almost sickening the way they blatantly lied in the face of it. It was pathetic.

“So, Captain, I’ll give you a hand an answer my own question for you. I asked you why you were here, and the answer is simple: Because you are trying to earn my trust. It makes no sense for you to come down here for any other reason, because any other reason would offer no benefit to you or your team. But if you earn my trust, oh ho ho,” the laughter dissolved into a vicious snarl, saliva spraying from his mouth, “then everything would be perfect and you could please Asgard and have a brainwashed asset all at the same time!”

Just like Odin.

Silence reigned between them, Loki’s words hanging in the air alone, underlined only by the soft but labored breathing of the furious god.

“People are like that, aren’t we?”

Loki blinked, body rigid, heart pounding in his chest.

“We’re greedy and selfish, and we only want to do things that benefit us. We want to feel good about ourselves, and we try to ignore or deny things that make us feel guilty.” Steve’s voice was soft, but there was no timidity to it. “People do lie because of those reasons, and I’m sure people have lied to you in the past because of those reasons. Maybe there are people on my team who will lie to you or have already because of those reasons. I don’t know.”

Swallowing, Loki felt an increasing urge to back away or hide behind something. He made his accusations with the intent of instigating a fight, but Steve’s quiet and calm demeanor was almost worse. Loki didn’t know what was coming, but he was defenseless to stop its arrival.

Steve sighed, getting to his feet and crouching down by the bed to grab Loki’s still unopened drink. “I can’t tell you what to believe, and if you want to go on saying I’m lying to you so I can use you, well… I won’t try to stop you.” He cracked a small smile, opening the can and holding it out to the man on the bed. “You know, freedom of speech and all that. I have to stand behind the stars and stripes.” Smile fading, he regained the serious tone he had dropped and continued. “But I will tell you I am not lying, and I will tell you Thor is not the only reason you’re here.”

Loki glared. “You are lying.” It was a weak counterargument, and he knew that, but he was at an unbelievable loss for words. If it had been an argument with Thor or Odin or Director Fury—if it had been an argument with almost any one of his enemies in the Nine Realms and beyond—he would have been prepared to answer. He would have gone through the motions a thousand times before and learned the best way to weave his web of lies, silver tongue never failing to give him the last word.

But Steve was different.

The Man out of Time had responded to the jeers and accusations with complete control. He had spoken softly but strongly, calmly but passionately, and kindly but unsympathetically. Rather than casting Loki’s entire argument aside or breaking under the full weight of the words, he picked out the parts that were true and admitted to them while simultaneously drawing out the lies and crushing them between phrases of heartfelt honesty.

“You are lying.” Loki repeated the phrase more for his own ears than anything else, his gaze wandering down to the can that had been pushed into his hands.

Steve responded with a nod, placing his hands on his hips in a way that reminded Loki of the black and white images depicted in the World War II book. Heroic. Pure. Disgusting.

“I respect your decision.” Steve picked up his empty can and dusted off any crumbs that might have been left on the chair, taking the bag of potato chips and placing it on the dresser with the napkins. “I’ll leave those here. They’re a pretty good snack, so if you get hungry before I come down tomorrow morning, feel free to finish them off.”

Loki said nothing, following the soldier with his eyes, waiting for the moment where the cocky smile would break through. For the moment when Steve wouldn’t be able to contain his pity or vindication or rage any longer. He would be ready when the super soldier finally snapped; he was already working on a list of retorts to have on hand when the moment finally came.

But it never did.

Steve let himself out and pulled the door shut behind him, stopping only to call over his shoulder. “By the way, soda is a carbonated beverage. That means it’ll be sort of… tingly, I guess? I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. Just take a sip, and you’ll figure it out.”

Then he was gone.

Minutes ticked by without any movement from the god on the bed. Emerald pools stared endlessly at the bubbling brown beverage in his hand. It was quiet. A chill danced along his spine, his anger and adrenaline no longer there to keep him warm.

He turned his head toward the recently closed door.

“I respect your decision.”

But Steve insisted he wasn’t lying. Steve knew Loki was putting up walls. Steve knew that Loki was going to make the situation as difficult as he possibly could for everyone involved. Steve knew all of that, so why…?

He must have misunderstood.

Yes, that had to be it.

It had to be.

Idiot.

Loki slowly lifted the can to his lips, tilting it slightly and then jerking his whole body forward to spit the contents back into the can when an unfamiliar sensation breached his mouth. Poison? For what purpose?

Wiping his lips with the back of his hand, Loki inspected the drink’s container further, brow creasing slightly. Steve had said something about the drink being carbonated, but the sensation he felt was more like a burn than a tingle.

“I’m not lying to you.”

If Steve intended to make Loki believe that, poisoning the soda would serve to counteract everything he was trying to make his prisoner believe. On top of that, Loki had watched him open the can, so the chances of Steve having added something to it was significantly lower. Thirdly, Steve had warned him that it would taste strange, although that could also be a mark against the soldier depending on how one looked at it. Fourthly, he had consumed the exact same drink in front of Loki beforehand.

“It wasn’t entirely unpleasant, I suppose.” Loki lifted the can and sniffed around the opening, feeling a mild burn in his nose and hesitating once more before claiming the rim with his mouth and taking a large gulp.

If it is poison, Thor will certainly lay waste to all of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Loki took another drink.


“I think you’re talking about a sub.” Bruce smiled, unable to keep a straight face as Loki tried to explain his recent change in diet, dark brown eyes following the somewhat stiff, disjointed hand gestures with a twinkle of amusement. “Did you like it, then?”

Loki glanced at him down the length of his nose, arms folded over his chest. “It was… edible enough.” He glanced to the far side of the room and then leveled his gaze at the doctor once more. “I suppose I liked it, yes.”

“I’m glad.” Bruce gave a warm smile, picking up the cup of tea he had brewed for himself and bringing it to his lips. “There are a lot of different varieties of food on Midgard, mostly because of the many different cultures and what ingredients are available to each one. You’ve got plenty of options to choose from.”

The Asgardian arched an eyebrow, reaching for his own cup with cautious fingers and inspecting the drink for a long time before taking a sip. “What do you mean by that?” he asked, tongue darting over his lips as he went for another drink.

“Well, I’m not sure how things are on Asgard, but…” Bruce trailed for a moment, squinting upwards as he struggled to create a concise explanation of the varying cultures that composed the human race. “It’s… depending on where you live, things like food, clothing, holidays, habits, relationships, and so on and so forth are all different. For example, if you grew up in Japan, not only would you speak a different language and have a different appearance, your name would probably not be Loki, and you would eat with chopsticks instead of silverware. You wouldn’t celebrate Christmas the way we do here, and your major religions and belief systems would be different. Your diet would consist of a lot of fish, and rice would be included with almost every meal. You would drink tea, but not the instant kind I made for us today, and you would never drink it cold like we do here.” He spread his hands, making a gesture that implied the examples went on and on. “There’s much, much more than that, of course. Each culture is very complex and has different variations depending simply on regions and different socioeconomic classes, but that should give you at least a general idea of how they work.”

Loki listened to the explanation with rapt attention, looking away only to ensure he set his cup down in the proper place and didn’t spill it. “Fascinating.” His voice lacked all of the enthusiasm shining in his eyes, and the set in his jaw was quite obviously an attempt at furthering the impression of disinterest.

You’re stubborn, Loki. Bruce brought the tea to his lips and sipped slowly, taking the consequential silence as an excuse to think. You’re very, very stubborn.

It wasn’t the first time Bruce had noticed, but with every new occurrence, he saw a specific trait becoming more and more apparent. Thor and Loki both displayed incredible amounts of childishness at times, which was fascinating because of their exceedingly long lifespans, but their clashing personalities caused the immaturity to show itself in different ways. For Thor, it was his hot temper, and for Loki, it was a bull-headed stubbornness.

Placing his cup back on the table, Bruce leaned back in his chair and rested his chin on his hand. “You’re right, it really is fascinating. Especially the culinary aspects of culture. What Steve brought you yesterday was an Italian sub, meaning that it would fall under that specific food category. Most pastas, like spaghetti and alfredo, along with pizzas, various breads, cheeses, canoli, and other similar things are all considered to be ‘Italian food’ regardless of where you eat them.”

“Interesting.”

Ah, yes, the second aspect of Loki’s stubbornness. Its source was a desperate need for control, which was something Thor’s temper was also bred from, although Bruce was willing to bet Loki needed it more. Tony said Loki has been carefully constructing his outfits, and Jarvis has reported him closely inspecting the contents of his room at least three times since his arrival. It’s likely he needs to have full control of a situation in order to feel comfortable, which is probably why he waffled and was defeated when both of his domination plans had unexpected changes thrown into them. Control is key.

So why wasn’t Loki trying to manipulate the conversation?

“Do they have different food groups on Asgard?” Bruce polished off his tea and reclined in his chair, subtly reminding Loki he was not being interrogated. “Or is everything considered to be food, period?”

Loki glared at him for a long time, almost as if he thought he could eradicate the questions with that single look. Of course, he couldn’t, and after about two minutes, he finally let out a sigh and relinquished an answer. “Three groups. Meat, alcohol, and everything else.”

Bruce chuckled softly, adjusting his glasses with his middle finger. “I’m going to go out on a limb and say the first two groups are Asgardian favorites?”

For a moment, it looked as if all Loki had to contribute to the conversation was a stiff, tight-lipped nod, but then those lips started to move. “Yes. Most feasts don’t have anything but meat and drink after the first course.” He paused. “Sometimes they will serve fresh bread throughout, but that’s simply because it goes well with the remaining food.”

 “Sounds like Asgard knows how to throw a party. Granted, the next morning is probably a nightmare, but…” He let his voice trail off, trying to coax further response.

It worked, and Loki let out a bitter snort. “It certainly was. Thor was the worst, seeing as we roomed across the hall from each other, and I had to deal with his constant whimpering and moaning all day.”

Bruce cracked a broad smile. “So, even gods get drunk and hungover, huh?”

“Terribly so.” Loki finished his own beverage and placed the empty cup on the table. “To make matters worse, the servants can’t clean up the dining hall until long after the sun has set, which means everything the next day is behind schedule.”

Bruce grinned wryly, fingers coming up to rub at his chin. “I take it you’re not one for drinking.”

“I am not.”

It didn’t surprise him that Loki didn’t partake in alcohol consumption. In fact, it fit in perfectly with the proposed need for control. When inebriated, most people couldn’t maintain the kind of calm, level-headed, calculative precision Loki seemed to rely on so much. Getting drunk would cripple him, so it made sense that he avoided alcohol in general.

“Celebrations like that must have been pretty annoying for you, then,” Bruce ventured, making his first attempt at pulling on the other’s personal life.

Shoulders were squared immediately, and Loki replied in a terse, clipped tone. “Indeed.” He looked right into Bruce’s eyes, but there was a sort of haze to them that made Bruce think Loki was trying hard to wall off the topic.

Well, that didn’t work. But Loki was still talking, and that was a good thing, so Bruce kept pushing a tiny bit at a time. “Did you like the food, though?”

“Food is meant for consumption, not enjoyment.”

Bruce laughed. “Don’t let a chef hear you say that.”

For a moment, there was nothing, and then Loki’s lips started to purse. It seemed piquing his curiosity was the best way to get him to talk. “What is a… cheff?”

“Someone who cooks for a living. Food is like an art to them—well, most of them.” He let out a quiet chuckle and wagged his head. “They wouldn’t want to hear someone saying food isn’t for enjoyment. They’ll even judge their dishes based on looks.”

Loki kept his expression a controlled mask of vague interest, one leg coming up to cross over the other, his ankle resting on his thigh. “On Asgard, the cooks could care less what the food looks like. I suppose they figure it will all be eaten anyway.”

“How do they serve it?”

“They put several food items onto a large tray and send them out. If you want something on the tray, you simply grab it and eat it.” Loki’s shoulders started to relax as he spoke, tension wheedling its way from the stiff muscles as the conversation moved further away from his personal feelings and experiences.

Bruce snapped his fingers at the familiar description and pointed at his patient. “That sounds like a buffet. We have those here on Midgard, but it’s not really a standard form of eating. Do you—”

He was stopped by the sudden jingle coming from the phone in his pocket. Upon withdrawal, he saw their hour-long session was up, meaning Steve was waiting outside to take Loki back to his room.

“Is it time for me to leave?” Loki questioned, already standing up and smoothing out his cream-colored sweater.

Bruce looked up from the phone, shrugging his shoulders. “It’s up to you. These sessions are set to a minimum of one hour, but if you ever want to stick around to talk or have another cup of tea, you’re more than welcome.”

There was a single beat of silence.

“I’ll be going now.” He turned away and marched toward the door.

“One more question before you go.” Bruce remained sitting, keeping his posture casual. “Did you think about what I asked you yesterday?”

Loki stared at him, eyes narrowing ever-so-slightly. “Yes.”

Bruce waited for a second, and then prompted the trickster when he got no further explanation. “Would you like to share your thoughts?”

For a moment, it looked as though Loki were going to refuse, but then he turned to face the doctor fully. He smirked, a bitter and cruel sort of twist to his lips, and offered his answer. “I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but Asgard has no qualms about torturing prisoners for information or obedience. Sometimes, it is the job of the royal family to oversee or partake in such activities, as it adds the aspect of intimidation. I can tell you for a fact it is more painful when you cannot see a blow coming versus when you are prepared for it.” He grinned a little wider, showing his teeth. “Will that be all?”

Bruce nodded, satisfied with the answer. “I guess I can’t argue with that.” Standing up, he grabbed both cups from the table and walked to the small kitchenette at the back of the room. “I think I’ll make some tea again tomorrow. If I do, would you like a cup for yourself?”

There was a pause, and Bruce couldn’t tell what was happening unless he turned around, but after a few moments of contemplation, he received his answer.

“Do what you will.”

There was the sound of a knob turning, a few words from Steve, and then a gentle click as the door was closed again. Bruce leaned against the counter and rubbed the bridge of his nose, letting out a heavy sigh.

It’s only day two, and I can already tell this is going to be a very long, difficult process. He’s guarded, and it doesn’t have one single source. There’s the control factor, but there’s also the vulnerability of his new body and situation to blame. There’s definitely influence from Asgardian culture and a life of royalty playing a part, too, but I can’t pinpoint the relationship there just yet.

Adjusting his glasses, Bruce returned to the chairs and sat down on Loki’s side, looking around the room and trying to put himself in the captive’s shoes. It wasn’t a very threatening environment—not with cream colored walls, non-fluorescent lighting, and pale blue carpet and accents—and it wasn’t small or similar to a cell in any way.

Still… the Other Guy did try to turn him into a pancake last time we met. I can understand where the tense atmosphere is coming from. Not like I can really do anything about that. No one else has the know-how or the patience to do these sessions, and even if they did, it wouldn’t do any good to change things now.

He sighed again.

I need a nap.

Chapter Text

“I thought I was going to be—ah, how did you put it? Repaying my debt to society?”

Steve’s lips quirked into a small smile, and he pointed once again at the shoes on the floor. “Trust me, you will be, but that doesn’t start until tomorrow. So, in the meantime, you and I are going to the store so we can figure out what you do and don’t like to eat.”

Loki crossed his arms over his chest, looking from the shoes on the floor to the super soldier’s face and then back down. “We are going to the store.” It wasn’t a question, but his tone made it sound like one.

“We are going to the store,” Steve parroted. “I think it will be a lot easier for me to figure out what to make you if we can get a little bit of everything that looks good and start working it into the meal plan. Over time, we’ll figure out what you do and don’t like. Or that’s the idea, anyway.”

Loki kept on staring, a connection clearly missing somewhere upstairs. “You, Captain America, are taking me, Loki of Asgard, to the store to buy food so the meals—for a prisoner of war, myself—are to my liking.”

Steve nodded his head once, his lips pursing slightly in a show of comic frustration. “Yup, that’s it. You hit the nail on the head.” He pointed to the sneakers again. “These have to be on your feet for the trip to be possible, so if you could put them on, that would be stupendous.”

Glaring, Loki picked up the footwear and began to unlace it, displeased with the situation but apparently deciding it wasn’t worth an argument. Steve was fine with that. If he could just get Loki into the building, he was certain the god’s curiosity would take over.

“How on Midgard do you fasten these blasted things?”

Steve brought himself back to the present and looked at the mess of laces in Loki’s hands. He squinted, at first thinking Loki was playing a trick on him, but then he realized he had never seen Loki wear anything but boots. In fact, every piece of Asgardian clothing the soldier had ever come into contact with was devoid of string; they seemed to favor leather and buckles and clasps.

“You have to tie a sort of bow. Here, let me show you.” Steve crouched down and tried to turn his body so he could tie the knot from Loki’s perspective. “These go around each other, then you make a loop, wrap this string around, pull it through here, and voila. You have a tied shoe.”

Loki blinked, lifted a brow, and gave Steve an incredulous expression. “Why must you humans complicate the simplest of things?”

“Why do superior beings need to keep things simple?” Steve grinned and wagged a finger at Loki slightly widened eyes and frustrated expression. “Aha, see? I got you there.”

“You most certainly did not.” Loki pulled his foot closer to himself and began the process of tying a knot. “That doesn’t even make any sense. If simplicity came first, complicating it just for the sake of showing off would be counterintuitive.”

Steve only smiled and shook his head, knowing that an argument—even a good-natured one—would start the day off on the wrong foot and likely lead to trouble.

“You’ve ridden in a car before, right?”

Loki stood up and examined his feet for a moment before casting a withering glare at his warden. “You were the ones who dragged me to the clearing where you sent me back to Asgard, were you not?”

“Oh, yeah. I forgot about that.” Steve opened the door and gestured for Loki to step through the opening, following him out and locking up behind them. “What about a motorcycle?”

Loki gave him a long, hard look before slowly articulating his answer. “I have… seen them, but… that is where my knowledge ends.”

Steve nodded his head and hit the button to summon the elevator, gesturing over his shoulder as he waited for the doors to open. “We can take the bike then. You’re familiar with cars, so it shouldn’t be too much of a change for you.”

“What is a bike?”

Steve blinked. “A motorcycle.”

Loki’s face twisted in confusion. “Then why did you not call it a motorcycle?”

“Because it’s also called a bike.” Steve shrugged. “Lots of things on Earth have multiple names.”

For a moment, it looked as though Loki was going to question him again, but then the bewildered prisoner settled for a shake of the head and silence.

The doors to the elevator slid open with a quiet ding, and the two men stepped aboard. Steve wasn’t quite sure what to say at that point, so he let the stillness linger, noting with a bit of amusement how determined Loki was not to be startled by the sudden movement of the lift.

Soon enough, they were down at the garage and walking toward the far end where Steve had parked, Loki’s head turning every which way as they went.

“If you don’t mind my asking…”

Steve seriously doubted Loki meant that.

“…why haven’t we encountered any of the security measures I’ve been hearing so much about?”

“Jarvis can see everything, remember? He’ll know if something’s wrong, and—” Steve stopped himself short, trying to smooth out the ending to make his mistake less obvious, “—I’m here, too, so you’re plenty secure for the time being.”

Steve had realized a few seconds too late that Loki was fishing for information. He had mistaken it for genuine curiosity and had been fully prepared to launch into a long explanation about the safeguards they had put up; how there were monitors watching their every move, how there were twenty-seven different guns and tranquilizers in the garage alone, how a single word from Steve would lock down the entire room and flood it with knockout gas while sending out an alert to the other Avengers.

He didn’t, but he almost did, and it shook his confidence.

I should have asked Natasha to do this. She would never fall for tricks like that. Frown. No, he’s my responsibility. Bruce said I was the best fit, and I can’t back out now. Headshake. I can’t let him get inside my mind. I made a mistake, it’s alright. I’ll be more careful. Blink. Wait, is all of this showing on my face?

“Are you quite alright, Captain?”

“I’m fine.” Steve threw a grin over his shoulder. “You aren’t trying to get out of going, are you?”

Loki smirked, relishing his small victory. “No, never.”

“Spangles, Reindeer Games, hold up!”

Steve inwardly groaned and turned halfway, seeing Tony walking up the length of the garage toward them. “What is it?”

“I’m coming, too.” Tony pressed a button on the keychain in his hand and approached the silver Audi up ahead and to his right. “I’m driving. Let’s go.”

Steve shrugged his shoulders and gestured toward the vehicle. “Loki, after you.”

Loki inspected him for a moment and then began to walk, his movements slow and deliberate.

I almost messed up again. Steve had almost told the multibillionaire to stay behind because he wasn’t sure he could keep the two of them from making a scene in public, but he didn’t want Loki thinking there was a power struggle between them. He’ll take any and every opportunity to tear us apart. Even if I don’t like it, I have to tolerate Tony’s whims until I can talk to him privately.

Steve dropped into the passenger seat and turned sideways, keeping Loki in his peripherals at all times even as he looked Tony in the eyes. “Do you know where we’re going?”

Tony nodded and started up the engine, pulling out of the parking spot and speeding down the middle of the garage. It took a while, given that Tony had some twenty cars stored there, but then they were out on the road, AC/DC blaring from the radio and barely managing to overpowering the roar of the wind.

Loki seems pretty engrossed in his surroundings. Steve faced forward for a moment, not wanting to come across as paranoid and make the god feel as though he were still feared. He’s just a human.

Then again, an ordinary human could still kill someone whose back was turned.


Noise. If there was one thing Loki had learned about Tony Stark in the short time he knew the man, it was that the multibillionaire was an incredibly reliable source of constant noise. Even as the trio travelled with not a single word passing between any of them, the vehicle they were in was emitting a nearly unbearable clamor, and the wind whipping against his ears was deafening.

Steve didn’t seem particularly fond of it, either, if Loki was reading his expression correctly. It didn’t seem as though he disliked the music itself, given that he nodded his head in sync with the rhythm from time to time, but whenever they stopped or drove slowly past another vehicle, he would wince and offer the other driver an apologetic wave.

Irritating.

Sighing, Loki turned his attention to his surroundings and began to analyze.

If there had been any doubt left as to whether or not he was on Midgard, it was quelled the minute he saw the unmistakable skyline. There was no way Asgard could have imitated the humans’ impressive but aesthetically degenerate craftsmanship. Having determined that, a quick look around told him they had recovered from at least some of the destruction he wrought during his last visit. Most of it, however, was still very apparent.

Scaffolding molded around half-structured buildings, debris lining the streets, scattered memorials dedicated to the lost every few blocks, and sections of the city that were still closed off all stood as reminders of the damage he had done on his first trip to Earth.

It made him smile.

Faint, just a little twitch at the corner of his mouth, but there nonetheless. Because it felt good to know the humans had not recovered from his attack so easily. It felt good to know that even though he had faced an utterly humiliating defeat at the hands of such lowly creatures, they were still feeling the effects of his actions years later. Two years only, perhaps, but they had a ways to go, and two years was much more significant to the briefly existing creatures around him than to his own kind.

Then everything was dark. Startling, Loki pulled himself from his thoughts and came to the immediate realization they were no longer in the city. Sitting up straighter, he placed both hands on the edge of the car and looked out over the side, still seeing a road beneath them while their surroundings seemed to resemble a tunnel of some sort. It reminded him of the S.H.I.E.L.D. facility he had collapsed when he first came to Earth.

Shopping, indeed.

“Woah, woah, hey! Sit back down and get your seatbelt on, Prince Charmless. You’re gonna get yourself killed.”

Steve turned around at Tony’s admonishment, and his eyes widened slightly, one hand flying out to grab Loki’s arm. “Loki, be careful!”

Startled once again, Loki tumbled back into the seat and blinked at the soldier, torn between aggravation and confusion. “What?”

“Geeze, Edgar Allen Poki, get your butt back where it belongs before you fall out and meet any number of ridiculous ends.” Tony glanced in the rearview mirror, meeting Loki’s eyes only briefly. “You’re human now, remember? You can actually, y’know, die from stuff?”

Loki looked toward the pavement and lighted sidewalks, arching an eyebrow as he noted the space between the top of the car and the ground. He found it hard to believe such a short fall could kill even the most fragile of humans. It couldn’t have been more than four feet, and yet they both seemed so concerned.

“Very well. I’ll keep myself inside the vehicle.” Jerking his arm from Steve’s grasp, he sat down and crossed his own over his chest rather unhappily. “What sort of road is this? It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing a civilian would travel on.”

By which he meant, ‘Where are we really going?’

But Steve merely pointed upward and smiled. “Sometimes, it’s easier to build a road than a bridge.”

“We are under the water, then.”

“Yup,” the duo replied in unison.

“But it is so smooth. How?”

“It’s not a naturally occurring tunnel. It’s man-made.”

Loki thought about the words for a second or two, and then he looked up at the ceiling, trying to suppress the sensation of awe. “Humans build underwater tunnels to travel.” Then, after a brief pause, he continued. “Where exactly are we going? There are stores in the city, are there not?”

Steve remained in his sideways position, resting his arms on the door behind him and calling above the wind. “There are, but there was only one of the kind we need, and you destroyed it along with the rest of the federal building it was in during your attack. It hasn’t been rebuilt yet, so we’re making a short trip.”

Tony grinned into the rearview mirror. “Buckle up, Hat Rack. We’re taking you to Wally World.”

Loki glanced between the two and leaned back in silence, not giving them the satisfaction of a confused expression, despite the fact that he was absolutely and entirely bewildered. Humans build underwater tunnels to travel to the World of Wallies. None of this makes sense.

Then again, nothing had been making much sense since he awoke in Avengers Tower two days prior. He was still trying to decide whether or not it was a part of their plan or sheer stupidity at its finest.

“Hey, Stevo, pay attention. I put this song on just for you.”

For a fraction of a second, there was annoyance on Steve’s face, but it was almost immediately replaced by shock and then excitement. “Is this…?”

“I looked up a list of hits from the forties and picked out the ones I could tolerate.” Tony shrugged his shoulders. “Still not my style, but…”

Steve shook his head as he laughed, grinning from ear to ear and bopping his head with the music. “I didn’t even know they still sold forties music.”

“They sell everything. I’ll have to show you—”

“A, B, C, D—”

“Oh, no.”

“—E, F, G, H, I got a gal!”

Tony shook his head frantically. “There will be absolutely no singing in this vehicle.”

“Don’t want to boast, but I know she’s the toast of Kalamazoo.” Steve only grinned, twirling his fingers in the air and projecting his voice right at the inventor’s ear. “Years have gone by…”

“Stop it right now. I will turn this thing off, do you hear me?”

“I liked her looks when I carried her books.”

“Steve, I swear.”

“I’m gonna send away, hoppin’ on a plane, lea-vin’ to-day.”

“Steven Rogers.”

“Am I dreamin’?”

“I will turn this car around.”

“Hiya Mr. Jackson! Everything’s O-K, A, L, A, M, A, Z, O, Oh, what a gal!”

Loki watched the entire exchange with such a broad variety of reactions, he wasn’t sure which one he wanted to pick.

Surprise; the Captain of America cajoling the Man of Iron for a change? Amusement; some of the best Midgard had to offer were sitting in front of him bickering like children. Disgust; children though they were, they had defeated him and his army and were currently his prison guards. Humiliation; because even when they were like this, exposed and unguarded, what could he do to stop them?

“K!”

“K.”

“A!”

“A.”

“L, A, M, A, Z, O, O, oh, oh, what a gal!”

“Someone please shoot me.”

“A real pipperoo.”

“What does that even mean? What even is a pipperoo?” Tony made a sour face as soon as he asked the question. “I can’t believe I actually said that out loud. I just said the word pipperoo. I just said it again.”

Steve threw his head back and laughed, loud and free, the song coming to an end as he wiped a tear from his eye. “Oh, Tony.” He took a deep breath and laughed again, slouching in his seat. “Man, that was killer diller. You got any more?”

“Killer. Diller.”

Loki actually raised a brow at that one, turning his head to look at Steve inquiringly.

Steve rubbed the back of his head, still chuckling to himself. “I, uh, I guess that phrase isn’t in anymore. It means, you know, awesome. That was great, Tony, that’s what I was trying to say.”

Tony gave him another odd look and then snorted, turning his full attention back to the road and navigating the distinctly different kind of path. “You know what’s not killer diller? New Jersey. New Jersey is not killer diller.”

Steve smiled a little and pointed up ahead. “Well, we don’t have a choice, so that’s the exit you want.”

Tony squinted. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure, I’ve been here before. Get in the right lane.”

“The GPS is telling me to go to the next one.”

“Tony, get in the right lane.”

“But—”

“You’re gonna miss it!”

“Okay, okay!”

Loki gripped the seat a little tighter as the car banked to the right, a rather obnoxious sound rising from several other cars as they passed. Irritated, he finally put his two cents into the conversation. “Are you two going to squabble all day? Because I would much rather eat gruel for every meal for the rest of my life than go on listening to this gobbledygook.”

Steve looked at him, and for a moment there was a glint of suspicion, but it soon disappeared and in its place there was only warmth. “You know, I think Loki is right. This whole argument is a bunch of floy floy if you ask me.”

Tony turned to his teammate and gestured wildly over his shoulder, sending as much of his body language as he could to the backseat. “I will take your floy floy and your gobbledygook and whatever else you lunatics have in your outdated word banks and shove it down your throats if I hear one more word resembling baby babble.”

Steve laughed, turning his head to meet Loki’s eyes, amusement lighting the cerulean rings. He smiled at the god, almost as if to say, ‘We got him good, didn’t we?’ And it was at that moment Loki realized he had unwittingly assisted Steve in his vengeful pestering of the billionaire genius.

He physically recoiled, glaring at Steve with every ounce of hatred he could muster, keeping his jaw tightly set and inwardly berating himself for saying anything at all.

Steve kept smiling, though, and it wasn’t long before Loki began to analyze that smile in depth. He scanned the eyes in search of genuine mirth, observed the muscles in the soldier’s face, noted the way Steve kept smiling even when his attention was directed elsewhere and he thought no one was looking.

“I’m not lying to you.”

Loki shook his head, scratching at his fingers and gluing his eyes to the blurring scenery on his left. You are. He felt anger collide with something in his gut, a steady burn starting there and traveling upward. I know you are. You have to be.

“Hey, I found our first stop.” Tony pointed out over the door of his car, gesturing to the bright yellow words on the building nearby. “BuyRite Beer and Liquor. That is definitely the first place we need to go.”

“Try again,” Steve intoned dryly, pointing in the opposite direction. “That over there is where we need to go.”

“They don’t sell booze at Wal-Mart.”

“Tony.”

“Fine.”

The car turned to the right, and then they were on a different kind of road with many cars parked horizontally throughout. Loki wasn’t sure exactly what it was, but it was all spread out before a very large building in neat little rows, so he assumed it had something to do with storing the vehicles until they were needed again.

Two minutes later, his assumption was proven correct when Tony swung into an empty slot and made all of the noises from the machine suddenly stop. He shoved the keys into his pocket, and both him and Steve got out and stood up.

“Come on, Oscar.”

Loki narrowed his eyes at the inventor. “What?”

“Oscar. You know, Oscar the Grouch?”

Steve sighed. “Why would he know that, Tony?”

“Oh, right.” Shrugging, the multibillionaire started to walk and gestured for the other two to follow. “Well, Oscar is green, always grouchy because he’s a grouch, and lives in a trash can.”

“I do not live in a trash can.” Loki paused and reconsidered the statement. “Rather, I did not live in a trash can up until a few days ago.”

Steve let out a sigh.

“Most expensive trash can you will ever have the privilege of occupying, thank you very much,” Tony shot back.

Loki almost replied, but he saw the closed door in front of his wardens and came to a stop, expecting one of them to reach out and grab it. They didn’t. They just kept walking until they ran right into—

It opened.

Loki held his breath and stood very still, trying to see if he could sense any magic in the surrounding area. There was nothing, or if there was, he couldn’t find it.

“Loki, don’t fall behind.”

Steve’s command pulled Loki from his thoughts, and he cautiously stepped over the threshold. He jumped when the doors started to move, but they immediately jolted back into place, allowing him to walk through before closing smoothly behind him.

Steve was waiting on the other side, smiling sympathetically. “It took me a while to get used to automatic doors, too.”

Loki said nothing, tilting his chin up slightly and maintaining a supercilious air.

Tony, who was idly pushing a metal contraption on wheels back and forth, looked up when the two approached him. “Alright, where do we start?”

“Well, we’re here for food, so I would say the food aisle is probably where we should go first.” Steve smiled when Tony stuck out his tongue, ignoring the inventor and walking in the direction of the produce stands. “We’ll start at this end and go to the other.”

Tony pushed the metal vehicle for a few steps and then jumped onto the back of it, coasting across the floor toward a rather large display of fruits Loki was both familiar and unfamiliar with.

“Alright, what looks good?”

Loki continued to stare at the stands, head shaking ever so slightly. He had absolutely no idea what he would or wouldn’t like, and the various colors and shapes and words on everything around him meant nothing.

Is this a test?

“Uh, alright.” Steve rubbed the back of his head for a moment, watching the ceiling as the cogs in his head began to turn. “Let’s start with taste. Sweet or sour?”

“Does it matter?” was Loki’s immediate reply.

Frustration twisted Steve’s expression for a moment. “Yes, it does. That’s why we’re here. We’re trying to find some foods that you will actually like, so—”

“Food is essential for human survival.” He tried not to cringe at the acknowledgement of his very un-Asgardian state. “I will eat whatever you make.”

Tony and Steve exchanged a glance, and after a moment of pause, the latter tried again to coax cooperation from his ward.

“There is… so much food here. I can’t even begin to list how many things there are to choose from. It would really help if we could narrow down that list by learning your taste preference.”

Loki didn’t miss a beat. “Why should I help you?”

Steve faltered, but his silence was quickly filled by Tony’s voice.

“The sooner we finish, the sooner we can go back to the Tower,” he said.

“Sour.” Loki glanced at the display to his right. “Asgard has apples. I’m unfamiliar with these… other things.”

Steve nodded his head, smiling. “Well, it’s a start. Let’s see…” He stood beside Loki, looking at the different signs and trying to figure something out. What that something was, Loki didn’t know, but he didn’t intend to interrupt any time soon.

“You really shouldn’t get apples at a grocery store.”

Loki startled, turning sharply to the right and spying a brunette with a bright smile. His face must have relayed a message of confusion, because she motioned to the fruit and spoke again a second later.

“Most apples sold at the grocery store have been in climate-controlled storage since last year. That’s why they bruise so easily and don’t last very long, and the reason they’re so shiny is because they’re coated in wax.” She paused for a moment, glared at the fruit, and then continued. “Plus, they taste like cardboard once you’ve had real, fresh apples.”

Loki crossed his arms over his chest, not at all understanding the shopping habits of humans, but knowing he very much disliked the way she butted her way into the conversation. “Oh? Where do you suppose I buy them, then?”

“From an orchard or farmer’s market. They’ll be from the current year, taste better, and last much longer.” Extending her hand, she offered another smile. “I’m Nicole, by the way. I work at an orchard, so I have a pet peeve about grocery store produce.”

Loki considered the hand for a moment and then reached out, giving it a quick shake. “I see.” He didn’t introduce himself, and he didn’t further the conversation.

“So, are you a foreigner, or is this just your first time in a grocery store?”

Loki looked at her skeptically. “Yes.”

Nicole laughed, one hand hovering in front of her mouth. “I thought so. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone quite like you on American soil.” She batted her eyelashes, brown eyes peering up at him. “Well, if I might make a few recommendations; peanut butter, ice cream, Oreos, chocolate, and potato chips.”

Loki blinked at her, watching cautiously, trying to figure out exactly what the stranger was trying to get from him. Quite like me? What does that mean? “I will take that list into consideration.” What do you want? “Thank you.” There. You have my gratitude. Now leave.

“Sure thing!”

“What?” He asked the question before he could stop himself, cursing his slip immediately afterwards.

“Sure thing. It means you’re welcome, no problem, my pleasure, et cetera.” Nicole waved her hands to indicate it was a loose term, and then she started to move away. “It was very nice to meet you, mysterious stranger, even if you wouldn’t give me your name.”

“I wish I could say the feeling was mutual,” he drawled.

She laughed—the second time she responded positively to his sour disposition, he noticed—and batted her lashes again. “Sarcasm does not become you.”

“Please, write me a note and remind me to care.”

She laughed again—again, and it was really starting to irritate him—and then turned to walk to her own metal contraption full of various, colorful items. “Maybe we’ll see each other again sometime, handsome. I can call you that, right? I mean, you didn’t give me your name, so…” She chewed on her lip with a small smile and watched him closely.

Loki tensed. Wait. What? He glanced over his shoulder for a fraction of a second, but Steve and Tony were uselessly grinning at him, clearly enjoying his predicament as much as she was. What do I do?

He looked back at the girl—woman?—and considered her for a moment. She was waiting for a reply, but she didn’t seem all that nervous. Obviously, he couldn’t appear nervous if she wasn’t nervous; that would never do. But he didn’t want to encourage the idea of actually meeting up again, because the last thing he wanted to do was spend time with more humans than he absolutely had to. What on Midgard is she waiting for? Loki looked the woman—lady?—up and down and bolstered his confidence before offering a simple response.

“Well, it is generally considered impolite to lie, especially to people you’ve only just met, so I don’t think it would be right to call me anything else.”

If the smile on her face was any indication, he had answered correctly, and with a slight wiggling of her fingers, she finally turned her back and continued down the aisle.

Loki let out a breath he didn’t realize he had been holding.

“Go get’em, Tiger. Rawr.”

Turning his head sharply, Loki glared at the rather unhelpful duo. “What exactly was that?”

Steve snickered to himself, putting a couple apples into a plastic bag and tying it off. “I’m seventy years out of touch, and even I know what that was.”

Loki narrowed his eyes further, not appreciating the patronization. He refused to ask for an answer a second time; if the humans insisted on antagonizing him, he would gladly return the favor.

“She was flirting with you, Loki,” Steve explained, still grinning like a child.

“I understood that.” False. He didn’t even know what ‘flirting’ was. It sounded like something a bird would do. “I want to know why.”

Tony shrugged his shoulders and picked up a ridiculous, spiked fruit with green leaves of equal pointiness coming out of the top. “She doesn’t know who you are. You’re just some hot guy she met at the store. Of course she was gonna flirt with you. Pineapple?”

Wait, now I’m confused again. “What does my temperature have to do with anything?” Unless that was their way of jeering at his Frost Giant origins, which was a poor move on their part.

“No, like, hot as in attractive.” Tony moved his fingers idly, as if he were trying to physically grab an explanation out of the air. “Like, ‘Man, that chick is smoking hot.’”

“How do chickens come into this?” Loki stared, more confused than ever. “I—never mind. What about pining over apples?”

Steve chuckled softly and gave Loki yet another one of his sympathetic smiles. “Ignore Tony. Pineapple is a fruit, and what he was trying to say is that she found you very attractive, so she was… trying to get your attention… in a very specific way.” Now Steve was struggling for words. “Sometimes people ask people to go on a date, or they court them, but sometimes they just indicate they like a person and let the other person make the first move. That’s flirting.”

Loki blinked. He blinked again. He blinked a third time.

“It’s like—”

“Food. Now.”

Tony laughed to himself, but Steve simply held his hands up in surrender and, after receiving a mildly disgusted but intrigued look, put the pineapple in the cart and moved to the next section.

Is this some sort of mind game? Are they trying to throw me off-balance? If they were, it was coming dangerously close to working. Maybe the, uh… He never had decided what she was. Maybe Nicole is working for them. It would explain why she didn’t acknowledge two of the most famous heroes of Midgard.

“Tony, if you’re just going to follow me around and make dirty jokes, you can go wait in the car.”

Maybe that was the purpose of their humor as well. Songs and merriment and romance… it’s all very benign. It’s too benign. There has to be some purpose behind all of it.

“We gotta swing by the pharmacy section. He’ll need some painkillers, and it would be good to have a heat pack or cold compress on hand—”

Now, that sounded more like it.

“—some Tums, in case this food doesn’t agree with him—”

Oddly considerate for prison wardens, but still logical enough.

“—vitamins, different meds for things, condoms—”

And there was the confusion.

“What would he need condoms for?” Steve sputtered, speaking in a harsh whisper. “Who would he need condoms for?”

Tony winked and nudged the soldier with his elbow. “For his lady friend, of course.”

So, she was a lady, then. Not that the situation made any more sense if she was.

“Um, no. I don’t think so.” Steve shook his head. “Just… just no.”

Loki watched the exchange, utterly bewildered, debating whether to ask the obvious question or just ignore them.

“Hey, it’s a free country—”

“He is not a free man,” Steve whispered.

“So?”

“I said no, Tony.”

Loki cleared his throat. “If I may insert myself for a moment, I have a question regarding your rather grating discussion.” He paused. “What exactly is a con-dom?”

Tony threw his head back and laughed.

Steve buried his face in his hands and groaned.

Loki stared in confusion and silently bemoaned the fact that they were only in the first aisle.

For Odin’s sake, what are they trying to accomplish here?

“Well, Lover Boy, let me tell you…”


Like the final act in a play, it was this sacrificial move that drew the curtains on World War II. In its wake, it left destruction, broken homes, devastated economies, unrest around the world, and horrors that would go down in the history books for centuries. More than that, it left America with a gaping hole in its defenses—a hole that was once guarded by a star-spangled shield and the fiery passion of our country’s core beliefs.

God bless Captain America, a true hero with a heart of pure gold.

Loki let out a sigh and rolled his eyes, snapping the book shut and setting it on his nightstand. He hadn’t been wrong about the text offering useful information, but it was filled with an overwhelming patriotism and the kind of idealistic narrative that left him with a sour taste in his mouth.

Cliché, to say the least. Having met the Captain, I can’t say the author was wrong in their description of his image, but that isn’t who he is as a person or a soldier on the battlefield. Not to mention, it’s a rather pathetic way to end a novel about the supposed monstrosities of war.

Shaking his head, he got to his feet and began to tidy up his room, as he often found himself doing over the last two days. First, he adjusted the pillows and blankets, brushing off any potential dust and smoothing out the creases. Then he went over to the bookshelf and grabbed another novel, placing it on the nightstand atop the one he had just finished. Running a finger over the top of his dresser, he checked it for dust and then made sure his hamper was in the exact position it needed to be in. He still didn’t quite understand it, but Jarvis had informed him that it was supposed to store his dirty clothes and be left as it was, so he figured it was best to wait and see before changing anything about it.

Well, that killed five minutes of my time.

Green eyes flickered to the door, locking onto the knob as it started to move and watching as it swung inward. Steve Rogers was standing outside of the room with a flat box balanced on his head and a large bottle of dark liquid in his free hand.

Loki blinked at him, disdain evident on his face. “Please tell me you did not carry that on your head the entire time.”

“Nope, just when I got to the door.” He grinned and removed the box from his head, setting it down on the bed and placing the bottle on the dresser with two cups and some napkins. “You seemed to like the soda, so I brought some more today.”

Loki regarded him with a nod, carefully moving toward the bed and inspecting the box without ever fully showing the enemy his back. It smelled good, but it also smelled unfamiliar. There was certainly some sort of meat on it, but other than that, he had no idea what the soldier was expecting him to swallow.

“You can open it.” Steve twisted the cap from the bottle and poured the fizzy liquid into the cups, placing them on the nightstand. He pulled up his usual chair and joined Loki for the fourth meal since his arrival. “I see you picked out some books to read,” he commented, gesturing to the stack a few inches from his hand.

Moving slowly, Loki seated himself on the bed and drew his legs up from the floor, exploring the box while giving Steve a half-annoyed, half-suspicious look. “Yes. I’ve already finished the bottom one, actually.”

“Really?” Steve reached out, lifting the top one just enough to read the cover of the one bellow, an expression of mild surprise taking over his features as he read. “Oh, no.”

Loki smirked, intrigued by the man’s sudden discomfort. “What’s the matter?”

Steve pointed to the title. The Star-Spangled Man with a Plan. “This was a part of the theme song they used to have when I did stage shows—before I actually, you know, fought in the war for real. It’s just—” he laughed, rubbing the back of his neck, “—it’s just plain silly, looking back on it. It was silly at the time, too, but… something about a jingle that dumb surviving this long makes it funnier.”

Green eyes flickered between the Captain and the box, the lid finally coming off to reveal a round piece of steaming bread with multiple toppings scattered over it. Loki had no idea what it was or how to eat it, so he waited to see what Steve would do, continuing the conversation to cover up his ignorance.

“Ah, yes, I recall reading about your stage career. Each bond you buy is a bullet in the barrel of your best guy’s gun, yes?” Lips curled into a devilish grin, eyes sparkling mischievously. “I thought it was a rather comical beginning for America’s greatest hero, but it was also… fitting, I suppose.”

“Fitting?” Steve arched a brow, grabbing a predetermined slice of the flat bread and taking a bite. “How so?”

Loki imitated the movement, waving his other hand dismissively. “Oh, you know. You started off as a scrawny child, and then your body got enhanced, but inside you were still the same frail, weak, pliable creature that you were beforehand. So, then you had to go through another change—that is, you had to become battle-hardened and cold—so you could win the war. Hence, stage to battlefield.”

Steve’s expression shifted, turning slightly downcast, and Loki felt a surge of achievement. He had been correct in the assumption that reading up on his captors would give him ammunition to use against them, but the information was proving useful long before he thought it would. It was delicious.

“You’re wrong.”

Loki chuckled. “Am I now?”

“You are.” Steve took two more bites of pizza, forcing a casual air as he chewed, swallowing thickly before meeting Loki’s accusatory stare. “I didn’t change on the inside. I didn’t become battle-hardened or cold. Sure, I might have grown more accustomed to seeing bloodshed, but that doesn’t mean I hated it any less. I still had compassion—still do now.”

Loki’s brow arched sharply, his expression both disbelieving and disapproving. “Really now?”

“I didn’t get into the war by following every last order or hunting for revenge.” The Captain’s voice was more solid, more sure. “I got into the war because I refused to abandon my best friend, because I wanted to defend the weak and helpless, because I wanted to do what was right. I don’t think most would consider that to be a battle-hardened perspective of war.”

Loki caught an opening, and the silver tongue began to work its magic. “And a lot of good that did you.” He let out a low chuckle, shaking his head back and forth, food forgotten on the bed next to him. “You weren’t able to save your best friend, and even though you managed to deal a deadly blow to the war, you did so at the cost of your own life. If you were colder and more ruthless, you could have accomplished both and lived out your life in the appropriate time period.”

Steve licked his lips, lowering the pizza away from his mouth and dropping his gaze to the floor. “I know that I failed Bucky.” He swallowed hard, raising his eyes to meet Loki’s once more, defiance shining in the glassy sapphire pools. “I failed a lot of people. I’ve made mistakes, and I’ve come up short. Maybe I wasn’t the man for the job. Maybe if someone else had my body and shield, the war would have been over twice as fast. Maybe Bucky would still be alive. But I can’t change that. It is what it is, and I choose to make the best of things and help people in the here and now.”

Snarling, Loki spat back a counter, fingers curling through the sheets, heart rate steadily increasing. “You can’t make up for past failures. No matter how many people you save, no matter how many good deeds you do, it doesn’t change anything.”

“It changes the future.”

Breath caught on the walls of Loki’s throat, rage and terror mingling together as he struggled—if only for a second—to find a retort on his lips. “What good does that do you?”

“That depends on the choices you make. It can do you good or harm. Sometimes, it doesn’t do anything for you, but it changes the world for someone else.” Steve smiled, finishing off his first slice of circle bread and reaching for another.

Loki’s stomach lurched, vision blurring as anger churned in his gut, demanding satisfaction. “You’re weak,” he hissed, knuckles fading to white as his grip on the bed sheets tightened. “Like the rest of humanity, you’re ruled by your sentiment and your foolish ideals. It sounds good when you put it in a speech or write it down on paper, but it’s just an illusion. You can’t change anything—past, present, or future—and your attempts to do so are nothing more than a pitiful attempt at easing your own guilty consciences!”

“I’m alright with that.” Steve took another huge bite, chewing contentedly. “There are worse things to be. Bitter, hateful, lonely, jealous… I’d rather be weak and sentimental than any of those.”

Silence.

Steve picked up the cup on the nightstand, swirling the contents a bit before downing it all in one, long gulp. Loki watched him, burning and sick to his stomach from the sheer amount of rage washing over him, hands trembling in the cream-colored blankets. Neither of them said a word, one of them pretending nothing had happened and the other frozen in a silent battle between self-preservation and hate.

“It’s pizza.”

Loki blinked.

“Do you like it?”

Do I like it? Do I like it? What, the pizza, or being cornered and out-witted by a good-for-nothing mortal? Are you incapable of anger, dear Captain, is that what makes you so invincible when facing my words? Well, everyone has a breaking point. Everyone. So help me, Steve Rogers, if it takes me a thousand years, I will find it, and I will exploit it. Make no mistake about that.

Ranting within his own mind slowly took the edge off of the burn, and after a minute or so of silence, he offered a reply. “It is edible.”

Steve laughed but didn’t press the topic, and Loki had to take that as a victory. If he saw it as anything but a successful attempt at muting the hero’s words, he wouldn’t be able to fight off the urge to wrap his hands around the other’s throat. That much he knew.

 Bitter, hateful, lonely, jealous…

It hadn’t been a defensive move on Steve’s part. He accepted his flaws, smoothly working Loki’s own shortcomings into the conversation as a subtle way of returning fire and shifting into an offensive tactic. So not only had Loki failed to provoke the soldier, but he had also left the door wide open for passive-aggressive remarks that left him with little option for reply. If he accepted, denied, or acknowledged them at all, he was essentially admitting to their truth. All he could do was ignore them.

He hated it.

Bitter, hateful, lonely, jealous…

“Loki?”

He growled at the man—quite literally a growl, feral and deranged and furious—dark eyes narrowing into slits. “What?”

Steve gestured to the piece of pizza lying on the lid of the box. “You should eat up. I’m going to be a little late with dinner tonight because of a mission, and I don’t want you going hungry.”

Loki glanced down at the food, having no trace of an appetite whatsoever but also knowing he was too high-strung to argue at the moment. He had to remember that he was a captive, despite all the pleasantries and euphemisms, and it was wisest to act accordingly. Steve seemed to be level-headed enough, but if he were to get into a similar situation with Tony or Natasha, or if word got back to Clint that Loki was causing problems for the other members of the team, well... things could end very badly for the fallen god.

He drew the pizza to his lips, taking a small bite and chewing absentmindedly, gluing his eyes to the far wall and refusing to even look in Steve’s general direction. He saw a third piece disappear from his peripherals but paid it no mind, focusing only on his meal and his need to stay calm.

“We’re going to volunteer on the streets tomorrow morning, and you’ll be coming with us. You won’t have your session with Bruce until we get back.” Pause. “Do you have any questions?”

Loki continued to stare at the wall, his lips moving slowly as he struggled to answer the question without slipping in any underhanded comments. “No.”

He did, actually, but he was in no mood to ask them. He didn’t want to engage with the captain in the slightest, and he couldn’t imagine Steve wanted to interact with him at the moment, either.

That was perhaps the most confusing aspect of the soldier to date.

Because Loki was a prisoner; he couldn’t walk away from the interaction, couldn’t lock Steve out, couldn’t press his luck with boundaries. But Steve could. Steve was the warden, and he could do as he pleased. He didn’t have to stay. He didn’t have to be civil.

Yet he was. And Loki didn’t have the faintest idea why.

“I was thinking of making spaghetti and meatballs for supper tomorrow night. What do you think?”

Loki sighed heavily, air pushing between tightly clenched teeth, lips forming the only words he could think of that would not end in bloodshed. “Captain… are you, by any chance, Italian?”

Chapter Text

They told him to dress for warm weather.

Being raised in a realm with a perpetually moderate climate, Loki wasn’t used to changing his attire because of degrees. Unfortunately, the sphere he was trapped on had a plague called ‘seasons’ that changed the globe from hot to cold rather dramatically. It was, evidently, summertime in the city of Manhattan, New York, in the month known as July.

Tch. They say these things as though they think I know what they mean. If they would simply figure out how to manipulate the weather, they wouldn’t have to deal with all these changes and clothing types and ridiculous contraptions.

Finding a soft, olive-colored shirt with short sleeves, Loki turned it over in his hands and examined its features. It wasn’t as dignified as some of the nicer sweaters he had found in his drawers, but at least it wasn’t as painfully white as the majority of the short-sleeved shirts available to him.

He pulled it down over his head and scrutinized himself in the mirror, frowning slightly. “Hmph. It will have to do.”

Turning back to the chest of drawers, he closed the one his shirt had come from and opened another in the pursuit of lightweight pants. He didn’t particularly mind the denim garments they offered—they certainly made him feel safer than slacks or sweatpants—but he couldn’t imagine it would be a very good idea to wear them if he wanted to keep cool.

Probably.

He hated not knowing what to do. They expected him to piece together the miniscule fragments of information they had given him and turn it into an outfit that was functional, comfortable, and would easily blend in; blend in with a population of creatures he knew practically nothing about, to be specific.

Short sleeves… short pants? His hands started to dig through the contents. I think I saw a pair like that… and tan would compliment this shade of green.

Moments after that thought crossed his mind, Loki withdrew a pair of khaki pants that stopped just above his knees. It took several moments in front of the mirror to decide it was acceptable enough to wear in public, and then he could only wait. They didn’t let him keep shoes in his room—a precaution to deter escape, no doubt—and his door was ever-locked.

If I could still wield magic… He clenched his hands into fists, watching with vacant eyes as his fingers slowly uncurled. If I could still wield my magic, I could have New York returned to its former state in days. My work would be done, and they would certainly feel at least some sense of gratitude and lightened suspicion. Sighing, he dropped his hands into his lap and stared at the wall in front of him. It’s irrelevant, I suppose. Right now, the most important thing is to escape, and I can’t do that unless I can get the Avengers to drop their guard.

It sounded like a challenge.

How enticing. I accept.

There was a knock at the door, and then a familiar voice wafted through the barrier.

“Reindeer Games, you decent?”

“Well, I think so, but there are many who would beg to differ, Anthony.” Loki got to his feet and walked over to the door, folding his arms over his chest and waiting for the Man of Iron to enter his cell.

“Ha, ha, ha.” Tony entered the room in an outfit that seemed to run along similar lines to Loki’s, which made the god think he had made the right choices. “You’re a riot.”

While Loki wasn’t quite sure what the phrase meant, the tone Tony used was enough that he could guess. “Do you have shoes for me, Anthony, or am I to walk around New York in bare feet?”

“Of course not. You’ll walk on your hands.” Tony’s voice and expression were just serious enough to make Loki wonder whether or not he was joking. “Look, if you stop staring at me like I’m going to pull out a taser and go to town, then you can have shoes.”

Loki scowled in response, both confused and irritated, but he stepped over the threshold anyway. He stood in the hallway, waiting, with a careful, precise gaze locked onto Tony’s every move. Of the three Avengers he had spoken to since his arrival, Tony was the one he had interacted with the least, and while the man was clearly a troublemaker after the trickster’s own heart, it still made him uncomfortable.

It’s only going to get worse. Agents Barton and Romanoff will be working today, and Thor will be there as well. I’ll have to interact with all six of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes at once. And he didn’t like it one bit.

Tony shut and locked the door, starting down the hall and motioning for Loki to follow him. “Alright, let’s go get you some sneakers.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“It’s a kind of shoe.”

“Why do you call them sneakers?”

“I don’t know, actually.”

“You should just call them shoes.”

“I’d like to hit you with a shoe.”

Loki rolled his eyes. It was going to be a long day.


Clint crossed his arms over his chest, tilting his head back and to the side ever so slightly. Steve was going over the work instructions for Loki, with Tony throwing in his ever-so-helpful comments from time to time, but Clint wasn’t interested in any of that. He only had one question, and seeing as it hadn’t been answered by the spiel, he waited patiently for Steve to stop talking and immediately dropped it.

“Who’s watching Loki?”

Steve looked over his shoulder. “I figured Bruce or I would—”

“I’ll do it.” Clint met their cautious expressions with a professional tone and stance. “You’re iconic, Steve. It’ll draw too much attention to Loki, and we’ll run the risk of someone recognizing him. Same for Stark and Thor. If Banner watches him, we’ll run a risk of Loki releasing the Hulk.” He turned his gaze to the dethroned prince standing a few feet away. “That leaves Natasha and me, and I know Loki better than she does.”

Steve looked at him for a moment and then offered a slow nod. “That sounds good. You know the necessary precautions?”

Clint nodded sharply.

“Then we’re ready to hit the streets.” Steve jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Make sure to distribute a lot of water. They’re calling for a high of 103, and there’s not a lot of respite from the sun.” Turning to Clint, he added a few more comments. “Loki’s public name is Levi. If anyone asks why he’s with an Avenger, we tell them he’s observing us for a biography.”

Steve twirled a finger in the air, a signal that caused the group to disperse, and it took less than a minute for the room to drop from seven occupants to two. Clint and Loki, standing across from each other, arms crossed, eyes narrowed, jaws tight, and shoulders squared—ready to work together as a team.

“Well, this is a pleasant surprise,” Loki quipped.

Clint ignored him and pointed in the direction of their destination. “We’re going that way.”

Loki started to walk but refused to get in front of Clint, not wanting to leave his back exposed for obvious reasons. “There’s no reason to be so formal with me. You and I go way back, you know.”

“You’re here to hand out care packages, food, and water to homeless civilians.” Clint walked on Loki’s left side, his gaze ever-locked on the space in front of him. “If you want to have a battle of wits, do it later with someone else. You need to focus on your job right now, because if you don’t, I’ll tell Director Fury this arrangement isn’t working, and we’ll send you back to Asgard on a silver platter.”

Loki chuckled, scanning the streets absentmindedly with a smirk on his lips. “I’m not afraid of death, Barton, so that isn’t exactly the most threatening thing to say to me.”

Clint stared dead ahead, refusing to give Loki as much as a sideways glance. Responding verbally seemed like fighting back, given the fact Loki’s most powerful weapon was his tongue, but taking the time to acknowledge Loki and letting his own mind stray from the mission? That felt like surrender, and he was none too anxious to have that taste in his mouth again.

“Odin wasn’t going to execute you.” Clint stopped at the crosswalk and waited for traffic to clear, slipping his hands into his pockets and rolling his shoulders. “Thor lied because you’re his baby brother, and he just can’t bear saying anything that might break your misunderstood little heart.”

“He’s not my brother,” Loki hissed.

Clint started to walk again without a word. He had made his point, and Loki obviously received it; he would have made another crack about his supposed sentence otherwise. But no words passed between them, and the silence remained until they arrived at the block designated their area of work.

“What exactly is it we’re doing?”

Clint glared briefly. “Did you listen to a single thing Steve said?”

“No, not really.”

Captain America really must have been a legend if he was transporting and taking food to Loki, Royal Pain-in-the-Crack, every day. Clint wasn’t sure he could make it to the end of the five-hour shift without putting at arrow in the trickster’s throat at least once.

“See all these people on the streets?” Clint gestured to the group in question, choosing to set aside his frustration for the time being.

Loki followed Clint’s movement with his eyes, looking across the wide area littered with trash and people and lean-tos made of debris. Disgust twisted his features, and he gave a slight nod to acknowledge their existence.

“They’re homeless and have very few belongings.” Clint gave a pregnant pause. “Because of you, in case that wasn’t clear.” Pointing to a Red Cross canopy set up nearby, he continued. “These people are trained to give medical help, and they have tents set up in a couple different places around Manhattan where hospitals still haven’t been rebuilt.”

Clint moved his finger to point at a white truck parked on the opposite side of the road. “That is what we humans refer to as a vehicle.”

Loki gave him a scathing glare, but Clint pretended not to see.

“It has water and care packages that need to be handed out to civilians. Our job is to get supplies to people who need it and get people who need medical help to the Red Cross tent.”

Loki cocked his head to the side, a mixture of irritation and confusion shading his eyes. “They can’t get there themselves?”

“Don’t question your orders.” Folding his arms over his chest, Clint stared Loki down, silently daring him to defy the situation he was in.

Loki might have received a warm welcome from Bruce, and Steve was slowly warming up to him in an attempt to help the process, but Clint had no reason at all to coax him. Frankly, Loki needed to be reminded that they owed him no compromise or comfort; the fact that he wasn’t being tortured or executed was a kindness, one Clint wouldn’t allow Loki to take advantage of.

“You’re not in charge anymore, Levi. Do as you’re told.” Clint reached out and tapped the center of Loki’s chest, the action entirely symbolic and meant to relay a message he knew Loki wouldn’t miss.

It gave Clint such satisfaction seeing Loki’s face twist with pent-up rage. He could only imagine how many insults and sneers were pushing on the inside of the god’s teeth, but none of them would ever see the light of day. Loki didn’t have a choice. It was, quite literally, do or die.

“How many per person?”

Clint smirked lightly. “I’ll show you, Levi.”

Loki glared at him, but he didn’t say a word.

Clint walked over to the truck and unlocked the door with the key he had been given during the debriefing. He put the lock on the tailgate and unlatched the door, sending it up into the top of the truck with one shove.

“So, this is what the inside of a truck looks like.”

If it were possible for Loki to narrow his eyes any further without shutting them, Clint didn’t know how. Loki was seething.

“Seriously, though.” Clint hauled himself up into the back and gestured at he spoke. “This side has cases of water, this side has boxes with care packages in them, and there are a couple of boxes up there at the front that have first aid kits and thin sheets.”

Clint grabbed two cases of water before his last sentence was finished, and he handed them down to his helper for the day. He didn’t bother to hide his grin when Loki buckled slightly under the weight.

“Come on, Levi. You can handle a little heavy lifting, can’t you?” He disappeared before Loki could answer and came back a moment later with two cases of water in his arms. “You give one package to each person. If they need more food than what’s in the care package, which most of them will, let them know we’ll be announcing lunch at the soup kitchen when it’s done. Thor or Steve or both will give us a call when it’s time. Water bottles go to everyone. That truck shouldn’t have a single bottle on it by the time we’re done.”

“Wouldn’t it be easier to have people line up to—?”

“Excuse me, mister?”

Loki stopped mid-sentence and looked down at the rather filthy young girl that had grabbed onto his shirt, revulsion curling his lips. “Yes?” he questioned, arching an eyebrow.

“Can I, um, have two of those?” She pointed at the box Loki was holding and got on her tiptoes, blue eyes peering curiously over the edge of the cardboard.

Loki scowled, moving the box out of her reach. “What do you need two for?”

“My mommy, duh.” She looked at him like he was an idiot, as children are often prone to do, and then reached toward the box again. “Can I have two?”

Loki opened his mouth to respond, but Clint intervened, figuring Loki was not used to dealing with children on a regular basis. The last thing either of them needed was an injured, angry mother storming over and making a scene because Loki made her daughter cry.

Clint set the water down with a grunt and crouched in front of the girl, speaking softly. “Is your mommy sick?”

The girl shook her head, tangled blonde hair flying over her shoulders, hands tugging on the hems of her once white shorts. “No, but her leg got hurt real bad.”

“Very badly,” Loki corrected, irritation seeping from every pore.

Clint glanced over long enough to glare at Loki, and then he put his attention back on the child. “What’s your name, sweetheart?”

“Brianna.” She eyed the box of packages again, obviously determined to get what she came for, feet wiggling around anxiously in her flip-flops. “Can I have some now?”

Clint smiled widely. “Brianna, I’ll do you one better. I have a mission for you.”

“For me?” Brianna rocked back on her heels and then swayed forward again. “What kind of mission?”

“I want you to take as many water bottles as you can and lead my partner, Levi, to where your mommy is. He’ll give you two packages, and once he knows where you are, he can tell the medics so they can help your mommy if she needs it. Okay?”

Brianna gave an enthusiastic nod, bouncing up and down as she waited to be handed the water. Clint gave her four bottles, which she wrapped her arms around and held to her chest, and then he leaned in close and stage whispered.

“One more thing, and this is a super important thing, but my friend doesn’t know a lot about the city. He’s not from around here, so I need you to take care of him and make sure he doesn’t get lost. Think you can do that?”

Brianna tried to salute but quickly realized she couldn’t move her arms without dropping the water. She settled for an enthusiastic nod instead, and then with a giggle she was running down the street.

Clint gave Loki a pat on the shoulder, squeezing the joint and giving him a bright smile. “Better hurry up, or you might get left behind. Have fun, Levi.”

Loki glared and held Clint’s gaze long enough to feel defiant, turning to follow Brianna immediately afterward.

Clint laughed out loud. Even if Loki didn’t have fun, Clint certainly would, and suddenly, he couldn’t remember why he thought rehabilitation was a bad idea.


Emerald hues rolled up and over, a heavy sigh pushing between pale lips as Loki continued to amble along behind the human girl; a human girl who, to his chagrin, was very keen on telling him every single, insignificant, nerve-grating thought that popped into her head.

“…took my doll, and I didn’t think that was fair, but then I also kinda figured she didn’t have anything of her own, yanno, and I mean—I mean, I don’t have much, either anymore, but she had even less so I just let her take it.”

“Fascinating,” Loki drawled.

She stuck her tongue out at him. “You’re mean.”

Loki gasped, his voice full of dramatic flair. “Me? By the Nine, say it isn’t so.”

“Jerk.” Brianna—he was pretty sure that was her name—stomped ahead, leading him toward a large overhang along the front of a half-demolished building that had yet to see repairs. “Yanno, if you weren’t carrying my stuff, I’d kick you.”

He exhaled loudly, sweat trickling down his upper lip. “Oh, would you now?”

“Yeah, I would.” She picked up speed for a moment, and then dropped back down, hopping in between the piles of debris as she went. “I don’t like mean people.”

Loki smirked, following her pattern in a much less enthusiastic manner. “But if you kick me, doesn’t that make you a mean person, too?”

“Nope.” Brianna shook her head, hair flying in all different directions. “Because that’s fair.”

“How so?” Loki glanced around, vaguely aware he hadn’t paid much attention to where they were going or where they had been. “You’re just a child. Who are you to define right and wrong and serve justice accordingly?”

Brianna turned around and huffed at him, stomping her foot. “Why do you ask so many questions, huh?” Her little cheeks started to turn red, brow scrunching up in frustration. “Look, it’s simple. If you do nice things, people are nice back, and nobody gets hurt. If you do mean things, people are mean back, and everybody gets hurt. Get it?” She turned around and started to march down the road.

Loki marched after her, fuming but silently reminding himself the sooner he handed out the necessary supplies, the sooner he could go back to his cell and be alone. Besides, it wasn’t as if she won the argument—not by a long shot—and that wasn’t what was making him angry, anyway. It was the insolent disrespect that seemed to ooze from the very skin of human beings.

I am a god and a king, and I deserve respect. My age alone is enough to warrant propriety from children, at the very least, regardless of my social status. It’s ludicrous.

“Ouch!”

Loki pulled himself from his thoughts in time to see Brianna get to her feet. Fantastic. She had fallen, and knowing children, and knowing humans, he was going to have to deal with an awful lot of crying and complaining before he could get away from her.

“You should watch your step.”

Brianna gave him a dirty look over her shoulder, and while her eyes were glassy with unshed tears, she did no more than sniffle. She dusted her knees off a bit, wincing at the pain it caused, and then she reached down to take her shoes off.

“I did watch my step, dummy.” She sniffled again. “My shoe’s broke.”

“Broken,” he corrected. “Here, let me see it.”

“You can’t fix it.” Despite the statement, she turned around to hand him the shoe. “It’s a flip-flop. Once it’s broke, it’s broke.”

Loki opened his mouth to correct her again but stopped at the sight of blood. Her knees were torn open, a mixture of scratches and cuts drawing out enough blood for it to start trickling down her shins.

“Well? You gonna try to fix it or not?”

Loki blinked, shook his head, and drew his eyes away from the injuries. “I’ll at least take a look. We can’t continue if you don’t have shoes.”

Brianna cocked her head to the side and wiped her eyes again. “What are you talking about? All I gotta do is take the other one off. See?” She pulled the remaining sandal from her foot and tossed it toward him, turning around with the intention of walking.

“Brianna!” Loki crossed the short distance between them, simultaneously dropping his boxes and grabbing her arm. “You stupid girl, you can’t walk in bare feet. You’ll tear them up.”

Brianna huffed and pulled on her arm, albeit unsuccessfully. “Hey! I’m not stupid!”

“Only a stupid person would try to walk through this mess with no shoes on,” he countered, already pushing their conversation to the back of his mind so he could focus on a solution.

“Well, what else are we gonna do?” Brianna pulled on her arm again. “Go to a shoe store? Say ‘abracadabra presto flip-flop?’”

Loki glared at her, but he didn’t have any ideas, so he could hardly offer a reply. I can’t let her walk around barefoot. Barton would throw a fit. Yes, that was definitely why he had to keep her from tearing up her feet. I can’t fix this without an adhesive of some sort, and she isn’t wrong about the impracticality of finding a new pair.

Loki sighed and let go of her arm, straightening up and looking around. “I want you to stay right here.” He backtracked a few steps and gathered an armful of care packages, turning his attention down a nearby alley. “I’ll hand these out so my arms are free, and then I’ll be able to carry you.”

Brianna looked like she was going to object for a moment, but then she stopped. It looked like she was torn between stubborn defiance, confusion, and a desire to avoid walking on glass and nails.

Loki couldn’t really blame her for that, however much he wanted to.

Loki stood up with his packages and strode into the alley, handing them out one by one without offering any verbal response to their thanks. He would nod, occasionally hum, anything to discourage them repeating themselves, but he had nothing to say to them.

Loki handed down the last one he had and turned around, intending to return to his boxes and get more. “Brianna!”

Brianna jumped at the scolding, stopping in the middle of handing a care package to someone on the other side of the alley. She had four more in her arms, and her water bottles were nowhere in sight. “Um—”

“I told you to say put,” he scolded, putting his hands on his hips. “You’re going to cut up your feet, or fall and hurt your knees further, or both.

“But… I wanna help…” It was a weak objection, her avoidance of eye contact giving away her guilt.

Loki opened his mouth to lecture her further, but the old woman who was receiving Brianna’s package spoke up, her voice raspy and soft.

“He’s right, dear. You can’t be running around in bare feet. You’ll hurt yourself. Why don’t you sit here with me, and I’ll tell you a story?”

Brianna fidgeted where she stood, still resistant to the idea of idleness. “But…”

There was another voice, this time from a middle-aged man on the other side of the dumpster. “You can help by smiling for us. We haven’t seen smiles as pretty as yours in a long time.” He gave her a wink and a grin, which caused her to giggle and smile widely.

Loki began to walk toward the mouth of the alley, casting a few glances over his shoulder to make sure Brianna was talking to the surprisingly helpful vagrants. She was, and it seemed to be a good distraction, so he got more packages and continued to hand them out.

Brianna remained distracted, and everything ran smoothly until he got to a young woman, probably around the same age as the one he had been assigned—twenty-one, was it? She was lying on the ground, looking around as if in a daze, her hands incessantly scratching at the red marks on her arms.

Loki nudged her with the bag, but she didn’t move. She didn’t even seem to notice he was there. He cleared his throat; still nothing.

“Hello?”

“She’s high as a kite, pal.”

Loki jumped slightly but suppressed a full-blown reaction of surprise. He turned slightly and saw another man sitting nearby, sucking on a white stick and blowing smoke out of his mouth.

“I beg your pardon?”

“She’s a tweaker,” the man replied, as if that were supposed to mean something. “Jus’ keep going. She ain’t wakin’ up anytime soon.”

Loki looked down at the woman again, watching her eyes dart frantically back and forth, glazed over, the movement of her fingers frantic while her body remained still. He considered her for a moment more, and then decided he would take the man’s advice. Humans would know humans better than he would, after all, so he moved on to the next person and continued to hand packages out.

He distributed them until there were only two left, and then he returned to the old woman to retrieve Brianna. “Come on, we’ve got to get to your mother.”

Brianna looked up at him, pouting for a brief moment before standing up. “Thank you, Miss Margie. I really liked your stories.”

Miss Margie smiled, showing her crooked and gapped teeth. “You’re welcome, dear. I hope your mother is alright.”

Brianna gave her a big smile and a wave, and then she turned to Loki and held out her arms. He leaned down and grabbed her, offering the old woman an obligatory nod of gratitude, and then they were headed for the exit.

It took a minute or two, as he wasn’t used to carrying children, but Loki eventually got her situated on his right hip. His free hand held the two remaining packages and the broken flipper-things.

Such a ridiculous name. But then again, what did the humans do that wasn’t ridiculous? Tweakers. Who ever heard of such a thing?

“Um, we gotta go that way, and then that big building, that’s where my mommy is.” She leaned against him after speaking, her arms wrapping around his neck as her head fell to his shoulder. “You have pretty hair.”

“Excuse me?” Loki arched a brow, but he couldn’t see her face, so the expression was useless.

“You have pretty hair.” Brianna reached out and touched it briefly. “It’s soft. Can I braid it?”

Braids. What in all the Nine Realms is braiding? Loki rolled his eyes as he walked, thankful to see the overhang was just a few yards away. “No, you may not. Don’t touch it, either. Your hands are disgusting.”

Loki opened his mouth to tell her they had arrived, but he was cut off by a slimy appendage invading his ear. “By the—” He dropped the packages and shoes, immediately reaching up to wipe whatever had just invaded out of his ear. “What was that?”

“I gave you a wet willy, ‘cause you were being mean to me again.” Brianna giggled, quite pleased with herself. “Ooh! Ooh! We’re here, put me down, put me down!”

Loki barely had time to register what was happening before she was wriggling down his body and darting over to the form on the ground.

“Mommy! Mommy, I got the helper person!” Brianna dropped to her knees next to the blue blanket against the far wall. She yelped at the pain it caused, but her reaction stopped there, all of her attention on her mother. “Mommy, wake up. I got a helper person.” She put a hand on her mother’s shoulder and shook it. “Mommy, wake up!”

There was no movement from within the wrap, and Loki felt his frustration grow that much hotter. Gathering the supplies he had dropped for a second time, he moved over to the bundle and found a—ah, zipper, was it? He found a zipper and opened the oddly textured blanket, pulling it down to reveal a woman’s disheveled, sleeping face.

“Mommy!” Brianna shouted and gave her mother another shove.

Loki ignored the attempts and frowned at the pale complexion covered in a sheen of sweat. He felt her forehead and instantly recoiled at the heat. Only infants are susceptible to fevers on Asgard, but there is no doubt in my mind that a fever is what she’s suffering from.

Loki’s hands wandered down the woman’s body to her arm, taking a hold of the wrist and feeling for a pulse. For a moment, he thought there was none, but then he started to feel a very faint rhythm under his fingers. Magic. But he didn’t have his magic, and he wasn’t able to give that heartbeat what it needed to get stronger.

“Brianna, your mother is sick. We have to take her to the medical tent.” He added a silent, so Barton won’t kill me, and quickly unzipped the rest of the blanket contraption.

“No!” Brianna jumped up and pushed her hands against his chest, a sort of panic he hadn’t heard before entering her voice. “Mommy said we can’t afford it. She said she’ll be better, we just have to wait.”

Loki shook his head. He didn’t know much about the human immune system, but he didn’t need any sort of education to realize the woman was in danger. She wasn’t waking up or breathing normally, her pulse was weak, and it looked like an injury on her leg had been treated at some point, but it was oozing blood and yellow slime.

“It’s not optional.”

“No, you can’t—”

Loki glared at her, his tone cold and sharp. “Do you want your mother to die, Brianna?” He watched the pale blue eyes widen in fear, pressing her when she didn’t respond. “Well, do you?”

She ducked her head, shaking it back and forth with a miserable whine. “No…”

“I thought not.” Loki looked at the supplies on hand and pondered the shoe situation for a moment. “Let me see your sandal again.”

Brianna sniffled and handed it over. “What are you gonna do with that?”

“I am not entirely sure yet.” Loki crouched down and untied his shoelaces, pulling the string through the excessive number of holes until it was completely free. “I think I can replace the straps with this. It will be rudimentary, but…” He pulled out the straps that were there and pushed a loop through the hole in the middle, sticking the strings through the loop and pulling it tight.

Brianna inched closer, chewing on her hands—he tried not to think about what she was getting in her mouth—and watching him work.

He gave the strings a tug to ensure the knot was tight, and then he moved on to the problem of making the shoe stay on a foot. The hole on the left was torn out, and while the one on the right was fine, it wasn’t much help without its partner.

“Hold your foot out for me.”

Brianna sat down and did as she was told.

Loki looked at it for a moment, and then he put the strings between her toes, running one through each of the remaining holes and wrapping them around so they came up through the hole on the opposite side. He tied the string into a knot on top of her foot, and while it worked nothing like the original flip-and-flop had, it was functional.

“That will have to do. Let’s go.” Loki grabbed the woman around the torso and knees, lifting her from the ground and turning to walk back the way they had come. “Grab the two packages.”

Brianna rushed to get her other shoe on and grab the items, running after Loki with a small amount of difficulty, given the odd contraption on her foot.

Loki had to be careful, too, his foot constantly trying to come out of his laceless shoe, but that was hardly his main concern. I know we only took one turn, so I simply have to look left and right at every corner until I see the tent. He glanced over his shoulder and saw Brianna falling behind. “Keep up, please.”

She ran for a stretch and then fell in step beside him, dropping back a moment later due to the difference in their height. Then she ran again, still not speaking, no doubt dwelling on and fretting over Loki’s words.

Not so haughty now, are you?

Loki stopped suddenly, squinting against the sun and seeing both the truck and the tent down the road to their left. Clint was handing out boxes from the back of the truck, but he had told Loki to take people who needed help to the medical tent.

“Brianna, hold my shirt and do not get lost.”

She did as she was told without hesitation, and as he felt her hand shaking against his side, his lips pulled up into a small, satisfied smile. Not that he wanted her to suffer, he simply didn’t like mouthy, defiant children, and he was pleased to see her somber.

He banished the smirk quickly, just in case anyone was watching them, and then started weaving his way through the people sitting and standing around, waiting for care packages and sweating like dogs in the sun. He chose to ignore the fact that he was also sweating like a dog in the sun, leaving the water on his face and neck unacknowledged.

Pushing his way through the patients-in-waiting, Loki approached the entrance to the tent and tried to get the attention of a young male worker. “Excuse me, you—”

“Please get in the line, sir, and we’ll be with you as soon as possible,” the man said quickly, not turning away from a task which appeared to be paperwork.

Loki’s eyebrow twitched. He would not be ignored. Especially not by a sweaty human who didn’t have the mental capacity to do two things at once. “Turn around this instant, you beslubbering, clay-brained clotpole!”

“Sir, there is no need for—” He stopped mid-turn and mid-lecture, eyes widening at the sight of the woman in Loki’s arms. “What happened?”

“How should I know? I found her like this after a little girl lead me to the place where they were staying. She barely has a pulse.” He extended his arms toward the male. “Here.”

“Sir—” he took a step back, “—we don’t have that kind of equipment here.”

Loki didn’t even try to contain his disdain. “You are the Red Cross, are you not? You must, at the very least, know how to get her to a place where they do have the proper equipment.” He scanned the other’s form and spied a nametag half hidden under a sweat towel. “Brandon, is it? Brandon the Beslubbering, if you do not know how to handle the situation, go get someone who does and be quick about it.”

Obviously overwhelmed, the young man ducked into the tent and started to call out an unfamiliar name. Meanwhile, Loki turned to Brianna and gave her a pointed look. “You’re supposed to be drinking water. They have some here on the table, so open a bottle and get to it.”

Brianna reached out and grabbed a bottle from the Red Cross station, twisting it open before stopping to stare up at him.

“What?”

Her lips pursed like she was trying to keep from smiling, and then she let out a tiny giggle, the joyful noise slightly dampened by fearful tears. “Beslubbering, clay-brained clotpole.” She covered her mouth with both hands and laughed again. “What’s a clotpole?”

Loki rolled his eyes. “It figures you don’t know any proper insults. It’s just another word for a very foolish person.”

Brianna pursed her lips again, this time looking thoughtful, and then she opened her mouth to speak. She closed it almost right away, however, staring over Loki’s shoulder with wide eyes.

“Seriously, I leave you alone for ten minutes—”

Loki turned around, meeting Clint’s gaze evenly and interrupting with a quick, hard, “I didn’t do anything that wasn’t in my orders, Barton.”

Brianna pulled the bottle to her mouth and started sipping, watching the two men closely.

“You didn’t have to,” Clint replied, his voice more irritated than angry. “It just figures you, of all people, would be the one to find a hiccup no one was prepared for: someone this badly wounded two years after the crisis.” Clint rolled his eyes, crossing his arms over his chest.

Brianna mimicked the action. “Yeah, Levi. Way to be a cloptole.”

Clotpole,” Loki corrected, letting out a sigh of irritation as he officially gave up on the concept of his day running smoothly.

Clint’s face twisted up in confusion. “What—?”

Clint was interrupted by two nurses coming out of the tent, but Loki could tell by the look in his eyes that the conversation was not over.

Glorious.


“Do you think she’s gonna be okay?”

Loki opened what had to be the fiftieth box of care packages and dragged his arm across his forehead, letting out an exasperated sigh. “If I didn’t know two hours ago, why would I know now?”

Brianna sighed sadly, sitting on the edge of the truck and swinging her legs back and forth. “I’m just worried.” She bit her lip. “Do they know for sure she was sick?”

“Of course. Why would you ask a thing like that?” He put some of the packs into a smaller box and then opened another, placing the half-empty container on top of it. “Come on, get your box. I don’t have time to stand here all day.”

Brianna hopped down from the trailer and picked up her box, shuffling her feet. “Well, you kinda… everyone freaked out and took her. Did anybody really make sure she needed to go?”

Clint, who seemed to appear and disappear without rhyme or reason, rounded the back end of the truck and pushed himself into the conversation. “Sweetie, these people are trained to recognize when people are sick. I know it’s scary, but your mommy had to go to the hospital to get better.”

Loki counted the contents of his combined boxes, if only to give himself a reason not to acknowledge Clint’s presence, and then he tried to lift them from the ground. He got up about two feet before his vision blurred and then faded to black, forcing him down to one knee and sending his pulse sky high.

“Levi?”

He turned his head toward Brianna, but her face remained obstructed by black splotches for several moments, clarity coming to him slowly and leaving him with an almost numbing sort of weakness in his muscles. What just happened?

“I—I’m alright.”

Clint frowned at him.

Loki returned the expression. “What?”

“You stumbled ten minutes ago, too.” He paused, looking the other over and placing his hand on his chin. “Have you been drinking water?”

For a moment, Loki thought Clint was taunting him, and he was seconds away from making a retort when he noticed something familiar. Clint said he saw him stumble ten minutes earlier, and that meant he was watching Loki, and the only time he had ever seen the Hawk watch people that closely was when Clint worked for him. Clint always knew where everyone was and what they were doing at any given time.

He’s working. This is his job, and he’s treating it as such. He has to ensure I stay healthy, or he’ll get an earful from Thor. He’s following orders.

“Sometime today, please.” Clint tapped his bicep with his index finger, staring the other down with an impatient expression painted on his face.

“I… wasn’t aware I… needed to be.”

Clint blinked. “You’re joking. We spent several hours handing out water bottles and encouraging people to drink as much as they can, and it didn’t occur to you that you should probably be drinking some too?”

When Clint put it that way, it made Loki look like an absolute idiot, and that didn’t bode well at all. “I never needed water to stay conscious before,” he snapped, grabbing the boxes again with every intention of ignoring Clint’s advice just for spite.

Clint moved in the blink of an eye, pushing the boxes back to the ground and grinding out a reply under his breath. “You weren’t human before.” He straightened up and continued at a normal volume. “It’s over one hundred degrees out here. Just because you don’t live on the streets twenty-four seven, it doesn’t mean you don’t need water. I’ll take your box and go with Brianna. Go sit on the truck and drink at least two bottles before you get back to work.”

Loki glared. “I don’t need to, and I won’t.”

Clint crossed his arms over his chest. “You don’t need to, huh?” He pointed to a red sign on the corner of the street. “Then let’s have a little race. If you’re not dehydrated you should have no problem winning or at least making it all the way without passing out.”

Twisting where he sat, Loki looked at the sign in question and licked his lips briefly. It wasn’t even that far, but with that sudden spell of blackness, he honestly wasn’t certain of what his body could do.

“Why should I? I’m supposed to be working, and so are you.”

Brianna pointed a finger at him, poking his upper arm. “If you won’t race, that means you know you’re gonna lose!”

Loki glared at her and chomped on her finger, drawing a squeal from the girl, and then he slowly got to his feet, dusting himself off and looking down the street. “To that sign?”

“Yup.” Clint moved to Loki’s side and cracked his neck, stretching his muscles and rolling his shoulders. “You sure you want to do this? It’s just water, Levi.”

But it wasn’t just water. It was Clint, his former slave, talking down to him like an idiot and asserting his newfound authority over him. It was about being sassed by a nine year old and having the simplest little things enforced in the name of protocol. It didn’t matter that they were right. It was the principal of the thing, and Loki had no intentions of backing down.

“If I wasn’t sure, I wouldn’t do it, Barton.” Loki glanced at him. “Whenever you’re ready.”

Clint looked over his shoulder. “Brianna, will you do the honors?”

“Yes!” She jumped up to her feet and stood in front of them on the left. “On your mark, get set, go!” Brianna dropped her arm like a flag, and both men took off running.

It didn’t take long for Loki to realize that a race was far beyond the boundaries of what his body could handle. In seconds, blackness started to swarm his vision and that thundering pulse from before was striking his eardrums. His legs were tingling—for a moment, he wondered of humans ever lost their legs because of running—and his head was swimming in a sea of down.

Curse his pride, which kept his tongue glued to the roof of his mouth.

Curse his body, which gave out halfway to the sign.

Curse the sidewalk, which he slammed into right before blacking out.

Chapter Text

It was loud.

Noise filtered through the cotton in his ears, the mechanical hum slowly fading into warbled, disconnected speech patterns; like a one-sided conversation with no distinct words he could understand, the volume rose and fell along with pitch. It was slow coming, but as his brain struggled to repair its connection to his ears, he was able to pick out bits and pieces.

What happened…? Loki tried to turn his head but stopped immediately, face contorting as pain throbbed throughout his skull. He groaned, thick and low in his throat, but the sound did nothing to ease his pain.

“Well, well, well. Look who finally decided to wake up.”

Loki felt someone’s hands slide beneath his arms and pull him into a sitting position, the movement sending a wave of numbness through him.

“Now, are you going to drink some water, or would you rather have another make out session with the concrete?”

Loki forced his eyes open, exhaling sharply when he met Clint’s gaze, a flood of memories rushing to the forefront of his mind. “I—” He coughed and grasped at his throat, momentarily convinced Clint had crushed his windpipe while he was unconscious.

Clint held an open bottle up to his mouth. “Here.”

If any of the pride or indignation Loki felt during their previous confrontation was still around, it vanished the moment he felt the cool bottle beneath his fingertips. He grabbed onto it without complaint, taking small sips that slowly got larger and faster the more he realized just how thirsty he was.

“Don’t drink too fast. You’ll get sick.”

Loki blinked in confusion and lowered the bottle. He was loathe to stop drinking when it felt so good; furthermore he didn’t understand how he or any human could possibly get sick from the blessed, much-needed fluid he was holding onto. “What?”

“I said: do not drink too fast, or you will get sick.” Clint enunciated each word obnoxiously and crossed his arms over his chest. He stood there, staring, his expression clearly stating he wouldn’t nurse Loki’s stubbornness a second time.

Loki’s gaze flickered around the room, Clint’s movement drawing his attention to their surroundings, and Loki realized they were in his bedroom. He could only assume Clint brought him back to the tower after he passed out, and there were a lot of things such an action could mean.

But that wasn’t a priority.

“Hmph. Humans are ridiculous,” he snorted, taking a small sip anyway, and returned his gaze to the archer’s face. “If you don’t drink enough, you get sick; if you drink too fast, you get sick. I bet if you drink too much you get sick, too.”

Clint nodded sharply, his expression completely unreadable. “It takes a lot, but it’s possible. People have died from drinking too much water.”

“You’re joking.” Loki shook his head, scoffing before taking another long sip that, regrettably, emptied the plastic bottle. “Humans are painfully weak.” He twisted the cap back on, looking up to ask Clint if he could have another one, but the words never made it past his teeth.

Solid weight collided with his hips, crushing pressure enveloping his throat from every side, cutting off the necessary flow of oxygen in less than a second. His hands instinctively flew to his neck and pulled, his brain sputtering as it tried to comprehend the sudden change in situation.

“B—Barton!” Loki gasped, pushing against the other’s weight and trying to draw his knees up far enough to kick. “S—” He choked on the unspoken word, screwing his eyes shut as the grip grew steadily tighter, fingers digging relentlessly into Clint’s wrists but accomplishing nothing.

Panic shrouded his mind in a thick veil, but even through the haze and innate survival instincts demanding his attention, he was able to grasp one thought clearly.

He’s going to kill me.

Gasping, struggling, tugging futilely on his assailant’s arms, he counted down the seconds, waiting for some physical indication his lungs were finally giving out. Forcing his eyes open, he tried to find the door, hoping against hope he would see Bruce, or Thor, or Steve, or anyone else who would be willing to get his attacker off him.

He’s going to kill me. Help. He’s going to kill me. He’s going to kill me.

Knives raked down the walls of his throat, his body lurching forward as oxygen suddenly coursed back into his body. Shoulders heaved, a violent coughing fit coming over him in waves, racking his body. He pressed both hands to his chest and the burning lungs beneath, trying to find Clint through the excess fluid in his eyes.

What happened?

Loki’s first thought was of another attack, assuming Clint was going to come at him from another angle or take his life by other means. However, when his eyes finally focused on Clint, the archer was simply sitting in the bedside chair with another round of chilled water in his hand.

Loki pushed back against the headboard, wheezing loudly, limbs shaking, lungs slowly regaining what the strangulation had taken from them. “W-why did you—” he coughed again, burying his mouth in his sleeve, “—stop?”

“I wasn’t trying to kill you.” Clint had a terrifyingly calm demeanor for someone who had just been grasping a man’s throat between his hands. “You said humans are painfully weak, so I decided to give you some firsthand experience.”

Loki continued to pant, struggling not to damage his throat any more than Clint already had—assuming there was something Loki could do at that point to inflict damage. There could have been. He really didn’t have the faintest idea. He didn’t know anything.

“You could h—” Loki hated the way the H caught in his throat, saliva choking him between gasps. “You could have killed me!”

“No, I couldn’t have. I knew exactly what I was doing.” Blue eyes narrowed sharply, the chair creaking as Clint leaned forward. “But someone else certainly could have.”

Loki blinked, eyes riveted to Clint’s face, his chest still heaving in the hunt for oxygen.

“You aren’t a god anymore, Loki. You don’t have the kind of freedom that you used to, and I’m not talking about this cell or the cameras or the sensors.” Clint extended the water bottle, still speaking. “Killing you would go against my orders, but if you pick a fight with some stranger in a bar or on the streets, you could wind up dead or worse.” He scoffed then, shaking his head in disbelief. “You still haven’t gotten it through your thick skull that you’re one of us now. You’re going to get yourself killed without us having to do anything at all.”

Loki slowly reached out and took the drink from Clint, swallowing hard as he twisted the lid. He watched every move Clint made and sipped his water small amounts, the liquid creating an odd combination of pain and refreshment. He’s right. My own body is more of a cell than anything I’ve been taken in or out of since my capture two years ago. He felt his hand shaking again, the rippling water making it painfully obvious just how unsteady he was. Get it together, get it together. He’s not going to kill me. I’m fine, it’s fine, it’s just this—this weak, mortal body that’s the problem. There’s nothing wrong with me.

Clint had accomplished his goal, though. Loki was now painfully aware of how fragile he was, and he wondered how many times he had almost died leading up to that lesson. What about when he first instigated Captain Rogers? What if Steve had reacted with anger instead of calm? What about Bruce? It wasn’t like Loki wanted to wake the Hulk, but had he realized before just how excruciating it would be if he did? How it would end for him?

“Here, give me the water.” Clint took it before Loki could answer and set it on the nightstand.

Loki watched carefully, sliding down to the mattress when Clint lifted the sheets.

“Get some rest. You need it.”

Loki glanced down at himself and then at Clint. He didn’t want to sleep—he wasn’t even certain he could—but he didn’t want to refuse, either. Not when he could still feel Clint’s fingers on his neck.

“I…” Loki cleared his throat, immediately regretting the action. “Uh, what do I need to know about… sleeping?”

“You need it to survive, and if you don’t get enough, you won’t be able to function properly.” Clint dropped the blankets and allowed Loki to adjust them however he wanted. “You’re not really in danger while you’re asleep. You can’t defend yourself if someone sneaks up on you, of course, but you’re not gonna starve or bleed to death or anything like that. Sleep is good. Sleep is great.”

Loki swallowed, the raw flesh objecting just as loudly as it had less than a minute earlier. “I see.” He looked up at Clint, his forehead creasing slightly, sharp tickles running up and down his windpipe. “Is—is there still more work to do?”

Clint shook his head but then reached into his pocket, pulling out a woven, multi-color rope. “This is from Brianna. She said to get better. It’s a friendship bracelet, and apparently, friendship is magic.” He placed it on the dresser and turned to leave.

“Where is she?” If Loki were honest with himself, he would admit the words were more to keep Clint from leaving than anything else. What if something goes wrong? How will I know whether I’m in danger of dying? I don’t have any idea how to treat strangulation. Can you treat strangulation?

Clint stopped and turned back toward Loki. “She’s staying with some neighbors. She seemed pretty happy.” Crossing his arms over his chest, he stood at the foot of the bed and watched the god carefully. “Loki.”

Loki swallowed yet again, and yet again there was pain to remind him of the recent close call. “Y-yes?” He cringed at the pitiful stammer, loathing his inability to appear unaffected.

“You’re not going to die. You’ll get bruising around your throat where I grabbed you, and you might get some red flecks on your face, but you’re not going to lose your voice or suffocate and die in your sleep or whatever else you’re thinking.” Clint sighed, obviously annoyed by the situation but realizing he couldn’t very well let Loki work himself into a series of panic attacks unsupervised. “You’re fine. I’m going to leave and get lunch. I’ll bring something down for you in a bit.”

Loki nodded shakily, clutching the bed sheets and willing himself not to tremble. It didn’t work, of course, so he hung his head and let humiliation burn across his cheeks until he heard the door close and lock.

I almost died… I almost died… I almost died…

Inhaling slowly, Loki pulled a pillow to his chest and grasped it tightly, finding it relieved some of the ache in his ribcage. His throat still burned, and his head throbbed from the combined lack of air and water, but the pressure he applied seemed to alleviate the sensation of his lungs trying to explode.

I almost died.


He didn’t, though, and the next two weeks were spent reading, working on the streets, and meeting with Bruce. Steve brought him meals every day, three times a day, and took him to and from sessions. Clint worked with him on the streets until Clint felt comfortable letting him go with Natasha or Bruce, after which he worked with Dr. Banner whenever possible.

Bruises showed up, just as Clint said they would, and Loki made use of the turtleneck shirts in his drawers to conceal them. He had never had bruises before, so when he woke from his nap and saw bluish-purple marks all over his neck, he almost sent himself into a second bout of uncontrollable panic. However, after remembering Clint’s words, he spent the next several minutes looking in the mirror and lightly touching the tender spots, unable to understand how it could hurt when there was no opening in his skin.

Sessions with Bruce contained any number of different topics of conversation, most of them revolving around Loki’s knowledge of Asgard, which occasionally caused him to slip into stories he might not have shared under other circumstances. Bruce managed to get Loki to talk about some of his likes and dislikes, which lead to a stack of new books and a calligraphy set showing up on his dresser one day. Still, Loki felt he had not revealed anything incriminating. So far, so good.

Steve made it a point to eat his meals with Loki, and he had left right after bringing the food on only one occasion. Sometimes Loki and Steve would talk, sometimes just Steve would talk, and sometimes neither of them would talk. Steve asked about the bruises—Loki shut him down, just like he did everyone else. Loki sometimes asked about the tower he was living in and the other Avengers, but Steve returned the favor of silence, placing walls around any information he considered sensitive. Loki couldn’t blame him.

If asked, Loki would have said things were going well. They weren’t optimal, but they weren’t discouraging either. There were many ways he could manipulate the situation he was in, many ways he could get under his enemies’ skin. He just had to find a way to get more information and then wait for the right time. Compliance was his friend for the sake of convincing, but he was far from repentant. The Avengers would sorely regret stopping him the first time he tried to rule Midgard, and more than that, they would regret keeping him alive.

Because, just as the words implied, there would be a second time.


Loki had gotten into the habit of looking for people he knew every time he was on the streets. He was entirely out of his element and, given the amount of humanity involved, he had no idea what needed to be done or not done. Still, it was impossible to stay with an Avenger for every literal second, and once one wandered too far, one found that everything in the city looked essentially the same. Every road, every sign, every light, every corner, every building—all concrete and bricks and varying shades of gray.

At first, Loki was pleased. He didn’t know how he had done it, exactly, but he had gotten out from under the watchful eye of the Avengers, and there was nothing and no one to stop him from running. It was a tantalizing thought.

Until he remembered the feeling of hands on his throat.

I don’t know what I need to survive, and without any weapons, I’ll be at a severe disadvantage should I run into opposition. Loki sighed softly, feeling a twinge of disappointment in his chest, everything in him wanting to run and never look back and never have a lock bar his entry or exit ever again. It would be incredibly foolish. I need to wait until I have a better understanding of my surroundings, my body’s limits, and the natural weaponry of Midgard.

Stopping at the edge of the sidewalk, he looked left and right and tried to figure out which way might take him back to the worksite. He thought he recognized the lighted sign on the building to his right, but he also thought he remembered turning right to get on the street he was currently standing on, meaning he had come from the left… right?

Ugh, this is going to give me another one of those headpains.

“Hey, pal, you lost?”

Loki startled, having been too wrapped up in his thoughts to listen for approaching footsteps, and he assessed the stranger as fast as he could before replying. “No, thank you.”

Laughing in a rather cordial manner, the sandy-haired man rubbed the back of his neck and tried to coax an honest answer from the god of lies. “Aw, geeze, all y’all New Yorkers are so stubborn. I know a lost fella when I see’im, so you’ll have to pardon me, but my southern hospitality can’t let’cha stand here all by your lonesome.”

Loki blinked slowly, his expression twisting with confusion as he processed the bewildering, slang-embossed, heavily accented statement. “I—What?”

Laughing again, the man extended his hand. “Name’s Conrad. I came up here from Kentucky to help out with the relief work, but I reckon I have a pretty good idea of the layout ‘round here by now. You, on the other hand, look an awful lot like I did when I first got here. Just tryin’ to help out.”

That was a little easier to understand, and Loki offered a very uncertain nod. “I see. Well, I…” he paused, averting his eyes to complete the sentence, “…I suppose I wouldn’t mind the assistance.”

“I’d reckon not.” Conrad gestured to the right and started to walk, waiting for Loki to fall in step beside him to continue conversing. “Y’all remember where you came from?”

Loki glanced around to see who had joined them, but it appeared they were still a duo, and he turned confused, pale green eyes to his guide.

“Y’all can be one person, ya’ know.” He laughed for what had to be the third time, and Loki subconsciously wondered what it was with humans and laughing and giving their hands to people. “Y’all can also be a bunch o’ folks. As in, y’all city slickers are odder than a fish in the sky.”

Loki snorted, crossing his arms over his chest. “We—I am hardly the odd one here. You can’t even speak properly.”

“‘Course I can, I just don’t. It ain’t normal to talk normal where I’m from, and I like talkin’ how I do, thank y’all very much.” Despite the defensive words, the tone in which Conrad was speaking was still entirely civil, lips turned upward in a smile. “It ain’t normal not to introduce yourself or to be rude to folks you just met, neither, but like I said… y’all’re strange here in the city.”

Loki rolled his eyes and didn’t say anything for a moment, trying to cool his slightly frazzled brain and tampered temper. “My name is Levi. I was working in an apartment complex on the corner of 7th and 19th. And where I come from…” there are gods, and magic, and palaces of gold, and special punishments for those who can’t speak properly in the presence of royalty, “…proper speech is very important.”

Conrad offered a small smile, and the trickster realized the man’s eyes were almost exactly the same shade of green as his own. It bothered him, though he wasn’t sure why.

“I would reckon so, judgin’ from the way you talk.” Once again, there was a stunning lack of malice in the words, and the misfit stranger continued on as if there had been no conflict at all. “I’ll tell ya’ what, though, these buildin’s are something. Tallest thing we got back home is a water tower, and it ain’t nothin’ like this.”

Loki looked up at the distant tops of the skyscrapers, the ones he couldn’t actually see no matter how far back he leaned. “They are very tall, indeed.” Then, after a brief pause, he took his own turn at asking questions. “What is it like where you’re from? Your…”

“Kentucky.”

“Your Kentucky, yes. I don’t believe I’ve ever been.” Loki looked around as he spoke, giving an air of disinterest and seeing more than a few familiar sights. We must be getting close.

Conrad shrugged his shoulders. “Nothin’ much to report. I live in Harlan—or I did, ‘fore I came up here—so we got trees, mountains, bears, Kudzu on everythin’, some more trees, more mountains, and more bears. Open fields, twenty-two beauties in the barn, and air you can actually breathe.” He laughed again, amused by his own joke, and then he shook his head. “I’ll admit it ain’t the best Kentucky has to offer—lots and lots’a poor folks there—but I like it. I can’t wait to hit the road and head back.”

Loki gave the man a sideways glance. “You want to go back to a poor city?”

“It’s a poor town, thank ya’ very much.” Conrad elbowed Loki in the ribs and laughed. “An’ what can I say? It’s home. I was born and raised there. Me and my five brothers and my mama, bless her soul.”

“Five?” Loki couldn’t keep his eyes from widening in shock. “You have five brothers? I can barely handle one.” He reminded himself a second too late that Thor was not his brother, but Conrad was already replying.

“Yup, that was us. I’m the oldest, and lemme tell ya’, that’s one heck of a job.”

Loki spied Natasha’s bright red hair in the mess of people up ahead. “I… yes, I would imagine it is.” Then, as petty as it was, he tacked on a quiet, “I would imagine being the youngest is quiet difficult, too.”

Conrad laughed, but per the usual, there was no mockery in it. “Every kid thinks they got the short end of the stick. But I’ll tell you what, if any of my baby brothers done screws himself up, ain’t nobody gettin’ as much blame as me. Take that for what ya’ will.”

Loki hummed but didn’t say a word, tossing the concept around in his head before deciding Conrad had invalidated his own opinion by stating, ‘Every kid thinks they got the short end of the stick.’ Still, he didn’t want to return to his work, so he kept the conversation going. “When are you going home, Conrad?”

Out came that white-toothed, sandy-skinned smile again. “Four months. I came up for a whole year, and lemme tell ya’, I don’t regret a day of it, but I’ll be happier than a pig in the mud when I go back.”

For a moment, Loki considered asking what he meant, but he changed his mind shortly thereafter. He understood the basics, and he really didn’t need more than that.

“Well, this here looks like the buildin’ they’re workin’ on today, so I think I got’cha back alright.”

Loki gave a single nod and then, begrudgingly, began to walk toward the building in question. “Yes, indeed. I… appreciate your assistance, Conrad.”

“Sure thing, pal.” There was that odd response again; the ‘certain object’ response. “It was nice to meet’cha and chat for a while—even if ya’ are meaner than a wasp in August.”

Loki smirked, not even considering an apology for his earlier behavior, and with a single wave he left the man behind.

Humans. What troublesome creatures. Always sticking their noses in other people’s business. Talking like idiots. Needing their homes and their families and the companionship of other humans. Utterly ridiculous. I should have destroyed every last one of them…

He glanced around, wetting his lips and hesitating a moment more before finishing his thought out loud, simply because he wanted to see how the sound felt on his tongue.

“…I reckon.”


“I hope you don’t mind, but after we talked yesterday, I got very interested in the rest of the royal family, and I decided to pick up some books on Norse mythology from the library.” Bruce adjusted his glasses and opened the first book to one of the pages he had marked. “I’m sure a lot of it really is just myths, but I thought I’d run some of these things by you.”

“No, I did not give birth to a horse.”

Bruce looked up, smiling when he saw the disdainful look on Loki’s face. He initially assumed Loki didn’t know much about Midgardian myths, but seeing as these particular tales were actually about the god of mischief himself, it made sense that Loki had caught wind of them at some time or another.

“Have you been asked that before?” Bruce asked, still smiling.

Emerald eyes sharpened. “You could say that.”

Bruce recognized the warning tone in the man’s voice and let the subject drop, tucking that little bit of information away for later. Clearing his throat, he moved on to the tale depicted on his lap. “What about Sigyn? Is she real?”

Loki rolled his eyes. “If she is, I’ve never heard of her.” He paused to sip his tea. “That’s just how it goes. If there’s a man, there has to be a woman, and vice versa. It’s simply not a story if the main character isn’t in love, so humanity decided to fill in the gaps left by the reality of my bachelorship.”

Chuckling softly, Bruce removed his bookmark and replied, “Do you enjoy being single, or do you think you’d like to settle down in a couple thousand years?”

There was a certain dignity and pomp to the way Loki replied. “I quite like being, as you say, single. Thor loves to be lead around like a beast on a leash, but I have yet to find myself in a situation where I feel I want to share the rest of my life with another being.” Taking another sip, he crossed his legs and leaned back, waiting for the next question.

“I can understand that.” Bruce looked back down at the book for a moment and then back up. “If Sigyn isn’t real, you probably don’t know this guy, either.” He squinted at the page, wondering if he was even pronouncing half of the words correctly. “Baldur? Does that sound familiar to you?”

Loki, who was suddenly rigid in his seat, gave a slight nod and put his cup down, placing both of his hands in his lap. He started to pick at his hands and fingers, as he was prone to do when he felt uncomfortable, and Bruce watched in thinly veiled surprise as the god started to answer.

“Baldur… was the older brother of both Thor and I.” He paused. “Well, no, I suppose he was just Thor’s older brother, but at the time I didn’t know that, so I don’t think it makes a difference in this case.” His lips were tight, his shoulders were squared, and his jaw was set.

This is obviously a sensitive topic, but he’s talking to me. That’s a big step for him. Bruce nodded, setting the book on the table and making himself comfortable, a silent indication of his willingness to listen to the story, no matter how long. Giving a small, encouraging smile, he folded his hands over his stomach and waited.

Loki wet his lips, considering Bruce for a few seconds before continuing his tale. “He was a likable man, to say the least, and he certainly had everyone’s favor. Even Thor was unable to charm Odin and get himself out of trouble if Baldur was a witness. He was… perfect.” There was no adoration in his voice, just a dark and venomous detestation, as though the word itself left a bitter taste on his tongue. “M—Queen Frigga even took the trouble of going around to every living thing in all the Nine Realms and making them vow never to hurt him.”

Dr. Banner blinked. “Wow.” He blinked again, shaking his head. “That’s intense.”

“Mm-hmm.” Loki turned to look at the far wall, fingers curling and uncurling in his lap. “She didn’t do it for anyone else, and I imagine that it was a lot of work. That should give you a picture of how much he was adored.”

It wasn’t hard for Bruce to catch the real meaning behind Loki’s words. It wasn’t that she didn’t do it for anyone else, it was that she didn’t do it for Loki. Even though she knew Loki was weaker than his two older brothers, even though she knew Loki wasn’t really Asgardian and that it could have bad drawbacks, she still didn’t protect him the way she did Baldur.

Bruce took a sip of his tea and gestured for the other to continue.

“Well, he grew in fame and valor, as the sons of Odin are prone to do, and word got around of his invincibility to practically everything.” His legs uncrossed, palms resting on his thighs as his fingers continued to jerk and jitter. “Unfortunately, there were a few choice objects that Frigga did not make a vow with because she felt they were too young. One of them was mistletoe.”

“Wait,” Bruce held up a hand, leaning forward to grab his tea with a baffled look on his face. “Did you say mistletoe was too young?”

Loki nodded. “Realms all have different ages and rates at which they develop. Midgard is the youngest, and mistletoe was a plant the queen felt was too young to bargain with. I believe the two other realms that held such creatures were… Alfheim and Nidavillir, but they are irrelevant to this story.” Pausing to take a drink and collect his thoughts, Loki returned his gaze to Bruce’s face. “Baldur was shot and killed with mistletoe, supposedly by someone who infiltrated the palace, although we were never able to track them down. Odin went to Hel and made a deal with Hela, the ruler there. She told him that if every living thing on Midgard wept for Baldur, she would allow him to return to us, alive and well. Of course, we all went to Midgard, running from one end to the other and back again, telling every living thing to weep for him. It almost worked, but… there was one who would not.”

Bruce frowned, finishing his tea and setting the empty cup on the coffee table. “Why wouldn’t they cry for him? Did they have a grudge or something?”

Tension racked the god’s frame again, and Bruce got the feeling he struck a nerve, but Loki spoke anyway. “We do not know who it was. All we know is that we went to every corner of the earth and asked everyone we encountered, and none of them refused. Either it was the assassin in hiding, or some creature that was small enough to hide from us and didn’t want to bring Baldur back.” He placed his own empty cup on the table beside his host’s. “Some speculated that it was Jormungandr, who is also not my offspring, though I did watch over him for the majority of his youth, but there was no proof of that claim, either. Regardless, in the end, Baldur stayed in Hel, and life went on.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Bruce sympathized, sensing the story had come to a close. “It must have been hard for you. Don’t take this the wrong way, but given your history with Thor, I imagine there was a lot of mixed feelings about the situation for you.”

For all his masks, Loki was not able to conceal the look of shock on his face. “I—yes, I suppose it… was.”

Bruce smiled and nodded a few times. “It’s not all that uncommon. Even in situations where there’s no hatred but simply… fatigue or sorrow, death can bring complicated emotions.”

Loki frowned and folded his arms over his abdomen, eyes flickering over Bruce’s form in search of deceit. “I… have never heard of such a situation.”

“Well… for example, there is a disease on Midgard called Alzheimer’s, which affects elderly minds. It causes people to forget a lot of things—important things, like who they are and what their kids or spouse look like—and in a lot of cases, their personality changes for the worse. It can get really tiring to take care of someone who doesn’t know who you are or who they are, and who can be downright nasty to you because they have no filter for their emotions and thoughts. It’s not uncommon for family members have conflicting feelings about the afflicted person passing away. On one hand, the person is dead and they’re grieving their loss, but on the other hand, they no longer have to care for someone every second of the day or deal with the emotional stress of that care.” He shrugged his shoulders, spreading his hands in an open gesture. “It’s not exactly the same, of course, but it’s not unheard of either.”

Loki only nodded, his expression growing somewhat distant. He stared at the table, hands clenching and unclenching in slow succession, his brow creasing with thought. Bruce didn’t say anything for a long while, sitting silently as Loki processed the information he had both shared and received.

He’s getting there. It’s getting easier to read his body language, and he isn’t trying so hard to mask his expressions and thoughts anymore. Granted, we’ve got a long, long, long way to go, but I think I can safely say I’ve got my foot in the door.

“Dr. Banner, tell me more about this… Alzheimer’s Disease.”

“Sure. Before we start, I should cover the basics of the human brain…”


“Ready to head back?”

Loki gave Steve a disapproving look. “If I say no, are you going to let me wander about the tower as I please?” He paused, letting Steve answer the question silently and come to the obvious conclusion. “Then there is no point in asking me whether or not I’m ready.”

Steve smiled, pointing down the hall. “If there’s no point in my asking, there’s no point in your answering, either. Hit the road, Jack.”

Staring down the corridor, Loki turned his head to look at the soldier, brow creased and lips pursed in confusion. “My name is not Jack.”

“It’s an expression, sort of.” Steve fell in step beside him, slipping his hands into his pockets. “Make a new plan, Stan. Hit the road, Jack, and don’t come back. See you later, alligator.”

Loki blinked again. “Alright, I can understand the names, but why would you refer to someone as a reptile? Just because it rhymes?”

Steve nodded. “Pretty much, yeah.”

Shaking his head, Loki continued down the hall, sighing heavily beneath Steve’s quiet chuckles. No matter how much he read or saw, he always felt like he knew absolutely nothing about the realm he was living on. He thought, perhaps, it was because eight of the nine realms had a lot of things in common with each other and maintained communication, whereas Midgard was completely set apart and isolated from the rest of Yggdrasil. It made crossing over into another realm feel like… well, crossing over into another realm.

Loki came to a stop and waited for Steve to open the door to his room, mumbling under his breath about the fact that every time he took this trip, it seemed a little bit shorter. A few seconds later, the door was open, and Loki stepped into his room with muttered thanks.

“Hey! Prince Charming, Spangles, I’m glad you showed.”

Both men stared in bewilderment and mild annoyance at the genius sitting cross-legged on top of Loki’s bed, a bottle in one hand and a glass in the other.

“Stark, what are you doing? This is Loki’s room, not yours.”

“I know.” He jerked his head toward the minibar he had, apparently, brought into the room while they were away. “I don’t know if either of you have realized, but Loki has been here for exactly seventeen days and hasn’t killed anyone. That’s worth celebrating, don’t you think?”

“I think you’ll take any excuse to drink and party.”

Loki watched the exchange between the two, curious to see whether or not sparks would fly, a strange sense of déjà vu coming over him. Odin and Thor. Only there was less yelling and spitting, and more sassy remarks. It was… comical. Almost pleasant, actually.

And oddly enough, it was that same playful banter that had annoyed him upon his arrival.

“Okay, you want a better reason? Uh…” Tony let his voice drag until he thought of something. “Oh! Reindeer Games, remember you took me up on my offer last time you were here, but I never came through on it. So, here is your drink, my good man.” He grinned at Steve. “I’m sure you understand the importance of coming through on a promise.”

Steve held the same crossed arms, squared shoulders, and disapproving look for a long time before finally surrendering to Tony’s insufferable stubbornness. “Fine. We’ll have our own little party in here, and then when we’re done, you will leave, Tony.”

“You’re mean.” Tony filled his glass again, and Loki had to wonder where he put it all. “But whatever, there’s the minibar, so help yourself.”

Loki glanced over at the black box, considering it for a moment before shaking his head. “No, I don’t think I will. I don’t prefer the taste of most alcohol.” In truth, he didn’t like alcohol because it robbed him of his senses and, without fail, caused him to be ill within fifteen minutes of his first glass.

“So? I’ll make you a cocktail or somethi—have you ever had a Long Island Iced Tea? I bet that’s something you don’t have in your Castle on a Cloud.” Tony set his own drink aside and rolled off of the bed, kneeling in front of the minibar and pulling out various different bottles of liquor.

Steve glanced over toward Loki, concern creasing his brow. “Loki, if you don’t want a drink, just say no.” He offered a smile. “It really is fine.”

Loki shook his head—probably too quickly, considering the fact that Steve was already looking for signs of deceit—and removed his shoes, crawling onto the bed and making himself comfortable against the headboard. “It’s alright. It’s been a while since I let go.”

Tony snorted, casting a devilish grin over his shoulder. “If trying to dominate the entire planet wasn’t an example of you letting go, maybe I shouldn’t let you have a drink, after all.”

Wagging a finger, Loki clicked his tongue and chided the other. “Now, now. You made a promise, Anthony. You can’t go back on it now.”

Steve nodded, grinning. “Your own words, pal.”

Tony handed Loki the fresh drink and then reclaimed his own, sitting down next to the god with a contented sigh. “I would come back with a sassy remark, but…” he slouched, one stocking foot hanging off of the bed, “…I’d rather just sit here and do nothing.”

Loki nursed the drink, eyes landing on Steve, who was lounging comfortably at the foot of the bed. “Why don’t you get a drink, Captain?”

Shrugging his shoulders, he replied, “There’s really no point.”

Tony shook his head. “Come on, just grab one.”

Loki nodded in agreement, watching as Steve’s gaze wandered over the minibar. “It will give you something to drink—something to do with your hands.” He took another sip, blinking in surprise when he felt mild nausea already setting in.

“Yeah, Cap.” Tony nudged Loki with his elbow. “I don't know about girls back in your day, but the ones we've got now love a man who can do something with his hands.”

“Very mature, Mr. Stark.” But it worked, because Steve relented and grabbed himself a beer, sitting back on the bed and kicking off his shoes. “Alright, alright. I’m officially merry-making. Happy now?”

Tony blew his bangs out of his eyes loudly, finishing his fourth glass. “Don’t play coy, Stevie. You were in the army. I bet you have a million stories about late night drinking.”

Steve gave them both a small grin. “Maybe.” He took a swig and smacked his lips, smile expanding. “But I’ll never tell.”

Tony chuckled, looking over at the raven-haired prisoner and nudging him once more. “What about Asgardian girls, Loki? How do they like skilled hands?”

Snorting in response, Loki took a drink and tilted his head back. “I think girls in every universe appreciate dexterity. Although, I believe on Asgard, it is much more common to find pleasurable handwork in the form of stabbing men who overstep their boundaries.”

Steve whistled, shaking his head. “Remind me never to get on their bad sides. PMS up there must be a nightmare.” He threw back the other half of the bottle and set it down beside the bed.

“Oh, it is. One time, back when Thor and I were much younger, I managed to convince him to play a prank on Lady Sif, his childhood friend. I orchestrated it, of course, but he was the one who carried it out.”

Tony started laughing before the punch line even came, snorting and trying to cover the noises with a drink. Steve glanced at the cooler and then grabbed another beer, sitting back down on the bed and pressing Loki for the ending.

“So, she was on her period?”

“It was one day before she got it, actually. Sif is not a patient woman to begin with, and seeing as she was much younger then and on her cycle, well… let’s just say Thor was concerned as to whether or not he would be able to have children for quite some time afterwards.”

“Ha!” Tony laughed, a light flush filling his cheeks.

Steve shook his head slowly, trying not to laugh and failing. “Oops.” 

Loki was able to conceal his own laughter in his drink as he started to take in larger amounts of his so-called tea, draping an arm over his stomach. Please, just once. I don’t want to think, I’ve been thinking too much. Just once don’t let me get sick. But the rolling in his gut only got worse and worse. And he still didn’t want to stop. He didn’t want to focus on all of the ways this was probably a trap. What do humans do when they get sick? Do they throw up as well or do they—do they have to go to the hospital or—?

“Loki, are you okay?”

His head snapped up, both eyes instantly punishing him by blurring his vision. “I—” Biting down on his lip, he ducked his head, clutching his stomach as the room started to spin.

“Loki—” someone took the drink from his hand and grabbed him by the shoulders, “—Loki, what’s wrong?”

Tony pointed to the bathroom. “Maybe, uh—maybe you should take him in there. He looks kinda…” He started to laugh again, shoulders heaving as he finished off the very last of an entire bottle of wine. “He looks kinda green!”

If Loki had the energy, he would have, quite literally, slapped some sense into the drunken inventor. Unfortunately, he did not, and as Steve helped him stand and walk, he found the only thing that mattered was finding somewhere to empty his stomach.

I shouldn’t have tried to—

He grunted as his knees came in contact with the floor, hearing a quick apology through the cotton in his ears before finding a pair of hands running through his hair. Loki gasped, trying to obtain oxygen around the lump rising in his throat, folding one arm over the back of the toilet seat and pressing his forehead against his sleeve. His stomach lurched and alcohol started to rush back up the way it had gone down, tears stinging his eyes.

“Is he gonna be okay?” It sounded like Tony, even with the mild slur.

 “I think so.” Those gentle fingers were still raking through his hair, keeping it away from his face and rubbing his back from time to time. “It was just too strong.”

“Man, I thought—hic—I thought because Thor holds his alcohol so well, yanno. I guess I shouldn’t have assumed. Every Asgardian is—hic—different, right?”

“But I’m not Asgardian.”

He didn’t realize he had said the words until they were already out of his mouth, his body still quivering from the exertion he had just endured. Reaching out blindly, he sought the tissue box and grabbed a handful of the white cloths, wiping his face and dropping them into the toilet to be disposed of.

“I’m not Asgardian,” he repeated, his voice hardly above a whisper. He fell against the side of the tub, staring at his clothes through the inebriated haze. “I thought I was. I always thought—but I’m not, and he knew.”

“Loki.” Steve flushed the sickness away and then sat next to the frazzled mischief maker, placing a hand on his knee. “Who knew?”

“Odin, of course!” The words came out angrily, but he hadn’t the notion to recant them. “Frigga, too. They knew they were lying to me… for over a thousand years…” He laughed, covering his mouth because it really wasn’t funny but still failing to keep in the noise. “They—they spent all those years lying to me and manipulating me, and then—even when they knew I could never have the—they still pretended to—“ Pain flashed across his knuckles and into his hand and wrist, the drywall giving beneath his fist.

“Hey, don’t do that.” Steve gently took Loki’s hand and pulled it away from the wall, hanging onto it and rubbing the tender knuckles.

Tony, who had remained silent up until this point, wandered over to the toilet and closed the lid, sitting on top and letting out a sigh. “Hey, I mean—we’ve all been lied to. We know what it’s like.” He shrugged his shoulders. “I lost my dad when I was young, and the man who raised me from that point forward tried to kill me just a handful of years ago. It’s hard. No one expects you to bounce back right away.”

Loki shook his head, staring blankly at the wall. “That’s exactly what they expect,” he whispered, shaking his head again. “They never noticed, that’s what they expected when…” His head dropped even lower, chin landing on his chest as his eyes starting to burn again, this time for a different reason.

“Loki, why don’t you go to bed? It’s been a long day, and you could use a good night’s sleep.” Steve shifted Loki into his arms and carried him to the adjacent room, the god’s lips sewn together by fatigue and pain. “I’m going to clean this stuff up, and Tony will stay for a little while longer.” He put Loki on the bed and gave his shoulder a squeeze. “Just… sleep it off, okay?”

“Uh…” Loki made a noise of agreement after a few moments, struggling to get the sheets out from under himself and flopping down on his pillow with a grunt.

…lied to me why did they lie to me I don’t understand Thor doesn’t understand I can’t trust Odin I won’t trust Frigga I’m a frost giant I’m Asgardian I’m both I’m neither I don’t understand why did they lie to me my stomach hurts my head hurts I don’t understand why do I feel this way what did I drink who is talking to me I—

Sleep.


Consciousness came begrudgingly to the front of Loki’s mind, his head pounding from the previous night’s festivities. Or at least, that was what he assumed. He couldn’t actually remember much of what happened after Tony handed him the Long Island Iced Tea, although he figured that was probably for the best.

I probably made a fool out of myself… He sighed, rolling over in bed and pulling the pillow around his face. This is why I don’t drink. Ugh… hangovers are so much worse when you’re a human…

It disturbed him that he compared himself to a mortal so easily, and he quickly turned his mind away from the topic, thinking instead about the day ahead of him. I wonder if they’ll make me work outside like this… maybe I can convince them that I need to stay in bed all day… perhaps—

As if on cue, the door flew open, and Steve’s voice shot across the room. “Get up, we need to go. Now.” He didn’t even step over the threshold.

Loki frowned and sat up, taking a moment to collect himself before responding. “I’m coming… be patient…” Slowly easing himself onto his feet, he took an unsteady step toward his chest of drawers, followed by another, and then another, his hands taking a moment to figure out which knob had to be pulled in order to find clean shirts.

“Loki.”

He turned, arching a brow. “What?”

Steve’s expression was grave, like the kind one would wear to a funeral or a trial. “Right now. We have to go now.”

Loki swallowed the sudden lump in his throat, trying to suppress his panic and failing. Why would Steve wake him and make him leave his room so suddenly? Why wouldn’t he let him get dressed? Although, Steve didn’t look very dressed himself. Why wasn’t Steve dressed and groomed?

What’s happening?

But he didn’t say a word out loud, choosing instead to push his way through the door and follow Steve down the hall, his anxiety climbing with every step he took. He tried to recall whether or not he had done anything to provoke anyone or given anybody reason to be suspicious of him. Could it have been the alcohol?

“Captain, I—”

“I can’t tell you.” Steve licked his lips, glancing over his shoulder for half of a second before facing forward again, his jaw set. “I don’t even know all of the details myself. Just stay close.”

Loki had no intention of wandering off—at least, not until he knew what was causing the disturbance—and he increased his pace to match the soldier’s, taking note of his new surroundings when they took a different route than usual.

Something’s wrong, he’s taking me somewhere new, he doesn’t know all of what’s going on, it involves me in some way, and he can’t tell me anything. It wasn’t much information to go on, but listing the facts in his head still made him feel a little bit better.

“Hurry,” Steve muttered, opening the door and ushering Loki in.

He did as he was told and entered the small meeting room, looking around and finding nothing but seriousness on everyone’s faces. No one spoke, and as Steve entered the room behind him and shut the door, Loki let his eyes fall on the last person in the room.

“Thor.”

The thunderer winced, as if his own name was painful to his ears. “Loki… I have come bearing bad news.” He rose from his chair and crossed the room, stopping just a few feet in front of his once little brother.

Loki crossed his arms over his chest, trying to cover the fact that his hands were shaking. If Thor had bad news that the Avengers didn’t already know about, then Loki had a pretty good idea of what that news was. “Has your oh-so-honorable father changed his mind about your plan?”

Thor sighed, his shoulders slumping. “Not exactly… it is a temporary arrangement, more for political reasons than anything else, and—” his voice picked up here, and Loki could practically taste the desperation to clear Odin’s name, “—and I am sure Father would not have agreed to it if it weren’t for the threat of war.”

Loki sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. It was too early, and he was too hung-over to be dealing with this. “Just spit it out already.”

Thor was silent for a moment but then squared his shoulders and inhaled deeply. “Loki… I have come to tell you… that you are being moved to Jotunheim.”

Loki’s heart stopped beating in his chest.

Chapter Text

“Loki, you are being moved to Jotunhe—”

“I heard you the first time.” Loki glared sharply at the blonde oaf in front of him, drawing himself up to his full height and spitting in Thor’s face as he spoke. “Tell me, what pathetic excuse has Odin come up with this time?”

Thor swallowed, holding up his hands with the palms facing outward as if to physically defend himself. “Loki, let me explain. I think… I can answer a lot of your questions with my explanation, and if you have any questions left when I’m finished, then you may ask them.”

Snarling, Loki took a step back and folded his arms over his chest, never once allowing the ice and fire to leave his eyes. He was livid, and he wanted Thor to know. He wanted the whole room to know.

“I…” Thor glanced around the room briefly and then cleared his throat, lowering his hands and making an attempt at laying out the situation in a calm and delicate manner. “I returned only to speak with Heimdall. I wanted to ensure the peace between the Nine Realms had not faltered in my absence. I swear, Loki, I had no intentions of discussing your sentence with our—with my father.”

Loki scowled, eyes narrowing slowly as Thor’s behavior grew increasingly strange. Loki had noticed it in slight when he first arrived at the tower, but he hadn’t thought much of it at the time, and he hadn’t spoken to Thor even once since then. But it was painfully obvious now, and Loki couldn’t help but wonder if Thor was under some kind of spell.

He’s being calm and level-headed, and he hasn’t called me his brother that I can recall. It’s almost as if he’s finally gotten it through his thick skull that we are not kin, but… if that were true, then why bother going through all of this trouble to keep me out of Odin’s clutches?

Sighing softly, Thor rubbed the back of his neck and continued. “However, while I was speaking with Heimdall, a guard came from the palace and said my father had summoned me. It seems he was waiting for my return...”

Loki tapped his foot, the anger in his eyes never diminishing, even as Thor stared at him dolefully, silently pleading for forgiveness. “Continue, please. I think can figure out that you wound up at the throne room in some way or another.”

Thor rubbed his hands on his thighs, trying to keep his anxiety as inconspicuous as possible and, for the most part, failing. “Odin asked me how the sentence was working out, and I told him that things were going very well. I explained some of the situations here—such as the street work and your accommodations—and then he asked whether or not my teammates agreed with my judgment.”

Loki’s eyes widened slightly, every muscle in his body seizing. Of course. It doesn’t matter if Thor in his sentimentality believes there is good in me. What is important is the objective views of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. He forced his body to relax some, letting out a bored sigh. “Get on with it, Thor.”

“I am getting there!” Thor reeled himself in a second after he snapped, taking a deep breath. “This is important, Loki, please let me finish.” He inhaled again. “I told him that I could not speak directly for my comrades, but then explained your… relationship with each of them. I told him I would gladly have them write out their thoughts for me to take back, but he did not seem pleased with that suggestion.”

Loki filled in the blank for him. “That’s when he said I had to go to Jotunheim.”

Thor gave a slight nod. “Father told me of the negotiations between Asgard and Jotunheim. They are willing to forego war, however… one of their conditions is that you be handed over to their justice system for thirty days.”

Loki couldn’t hold back the snort or the bitter laughter that followed. “I see. You start a war with Laufey, and I finish it, so it only makes sense that I am the one to be dragged back in chains. How… typical.” Venom dripped from his tongue, cutting at Thor with every syllable.

“It is not like that, brother!”

“I am not your brother!”

Less than a second later, the front of Loki’s shirt was being grasped by two strong, familiar hands. For a moment, he half expected Thor to grab his throat the way Barton had two weeks earlier, but that theory was debunked when he felt his heels touch the floor again.

“Loki…” Thor inhaled slowly, deeply, clenching and unclenching his fists in a valiant effort to keep his hands to himself. “I’m trying… to talk to you… can you… please… cooperate?”

Casting his eyes to the floor on his right, Loki let out a hiss that slowly dissolved into a sigh. He couldn’t explain it. He didn’t know if it was a fluke or some odd stroke of luck, or maybe Thor really was under a spell, but Thor was trying. He was using words, something that made Loki feel secure and strong while making Thor feel awkward and out of his element.

“Alright… Thor.” Loki lowered his arms from his chest and licked his lips briefly, trying to keep the utter loathing out of his voice. “So, Jotunheim wants me to spend thirty days in captivity. Is that all, or is there more?”

Thor raised his hands and rotated them slightly, indicating neither a positive nor a negative response. “That is the basic idea, but there are many details to discuss. Foremost on this list is the circumstance that allegedly separates our crimes. You deceived and killed Laufey directly, and it is his first wife who has taken the throne. She is…”

“Emotionally involved. Understood.” Loki still didn’t believe it, but he didn’t think Thor was responsible for the lie.

Thor gave a quick nod. “Yes, exactly. Father did manage to work out some compromises, though. I can visit you at any time, and with permission, Dr. Banner and the Captain may come see you as well.”

Visitors won’t do me much good when I’m dead, Thor. But he didn’t say that. Thor was so convinced it would work, so hopeful that in the end he could bring Loki back to the tower and everything would return to normal. It wasn’t that Loki didn’t have the heart to tell him—because he certainly did have the heart and half a mind to do just that—but he didn’t have the energy. Denial is such a tiring game.

“The queen has picked her most trustworthy guard to watch over you, but there will be a… a condition wherein… for a certain period of time during the day, the Jotuns are free to come and… and do to you as they please.” Shame painted Thor’s face, and he looked down at his feet with guilty eyes. “This is a part of their culture, and applies to all prisoners, but with your situation…”

“Well, it’s not as if you can expect them to be satisfied with jail time.” Loki's voice was even, but he could feel the muscles in his throat turning to stone. It was hard to breathe, and his heart was hammering on the inside of his chest, adrenaline searing through any lethargy that may have been left from his hangover. “If that’s everything, I’ll be headed back to my room. I would like to shower before I leave.”

“Loki—”

He ignored the attempted protest and turned on his heel, disappearing through the doorway as fast as he could without running. Heavy footsteps sounded behind him, spurring him into a dead run as he relied solely on his acute memory to lead him back the way he had come.

“Loki!” It was Steve.

I need him to open the door. Cursing his absent-mindedness, Loki slowed his gait until he had dropped down to a walk, keeping his hands clenched at his sides to maintain at least some semblance of control while still under the watchful eye of his enemies.

Steve fell in step beside Loki half a minute after he slowed, hands shoved into his pockets and lips pressed in a thin line. Loki ignored him. He didn’t want pity. He didn’t want them to know just how terrified he was.

“Here.” Steve came to a stop in front of the bedroom door and pressed his thumb to the pad. “It sounds like we’re going to finish up some details, and then you’ll be leaving with Thor.”

Loki walked into his room and turned around, trying to close the door but being stopped by Steve’s hands. You can’t do anything. It doesn’t make a difference what you say to me, nothing about the situation will change. Humans were such futile creatures.

“Loki, wait—”

“Leave,” Loki hissed, pressing his full weight against the wooden door.

Steve’s hands retreated beneath the pressure, and after listening carefully to the footfalls outside, Loki finally considered himself alone. He turned away from the door and stared at the empty room, his heart beating in his chest, hands trembling despite every attempt to keep still.

Now what do I do?

Loki looked around at his books and calligraphy set, a rather elegant doodle sitting on the top of one of the pads of paper he practiced on. His clothes were all folded and tucked away in their drawers, while his bed sheets were a contrasting, tangled mess left by his sudden departure. But it was his room, and he was in control of everything within the four, sage green walls.

I can’t take any of this with me. They’ll take it away, I’ll have nothing but the clothes on my back, if that. He figured he should dress warmly regardless. I wonder if I could escape now. If I could break down the door or the window and somehow get away. But he hadn’t been planning on leaving so soon. Maybe they’ll let me keep a blanket… unless they expect my own breath to keep me warm in that barren wasteland.

Bare feet started to move across the room, stopping in front of his nightstand as his hands reached out to pick up the book he was in the middle of reading. I shouldn’t have gotten so comfortable. It wasn’t as if I didn’t expect this to happen. Rebellious hands still shaking, he placed the book back exactly as it had been, eyes burning as frustration washed over him.

He couldn’t do anything. He was going to be imprisoned, and beaten, and humiliated, and degraded, and caged like an animal. He would be helpless, weak, injured, pathetic, fragile, and above all, trapped in a wretched, human body that would dangle his mortality in front of his eyes every second of every day. He was going to die, and he couldn’t do a single thing to stop it.

Confused, Loki stared at his outstretched arm, wondering when he had moved it, feeling a surge of relief and a tingling in his muscles. It was as if some of his pent-up anger and frustration had exited through his fingertips, and one quick look at the floor on the other side of the room told him what it was.

Loki had chucked the book from the nightstand full-force into the opposite wall. And it felt good.

Grasping the bedside lamp between his fingers, he sent it over to join the novel on the floor, followed by the clock and his half empty drink from the night before. He let the rage wash over him, completely surrendering himself to every destructive desire that entered his mind.

I have no reason to hold back. What are they going to do? Ship me off an hour sooner?

There was no way to make his situation worse, as far as he was concerned, and that meant there was no reason to deny himself a final display of independence—to take advantage of the one, last chance to do what he wanted without consequence.

So he grabbed book after book from the shelf, throwing them over his shoulder until there was nothing left to throw, at which point he turned to the small table and swept the contents onto the floor. He overturned the table, half tripping over it on his way to the dresser, hands grasping at the top drawer with a vengeance and tearing it out of its slot.

He grunted, finding that the drawer was on a locked track. No matter, he simply put more force into his pull until the entire thing toppled over. It struck his knee on the way down, but the pain was buried beneath the rush adrenaline in his veins.

Undeterred, he bolted across the room, grasping the full length mirror in his hands and swinging it into the wall, once again ignoring the pain that resulted from the mayhem. His head jerked around, eyes frantically searching for something else to grab, something—anything—to keep the flood of terror at bay.

Window.

It was thick and, according to Tony, made of a substance that couldn’t be broken with anything in the room. But Loki didn’t care. If it was his hand that broke instead, that was fine, but something had to break.

He launched himself at the window, pulling his fist back and swinging forward with every ounce of strength, every ounce of hatred, every ounce of desperation he had in him.

Loki never hit the glass, a foreign hand grasping his wrist while an arm wrapped around his stomach, pinning the opposite arm to his side.

I’ll kill you.

Loki threw his head back, trying to hit his attacker in the chin or nose. He missed both, striking a shoulder instead, warm breathe brushing across his cheek as a familiar voice whispered in his ear.

“Loki, stop.”

“I told you to leave.” His voice didn’t crack. He wasn’t shaking in Steve’s arms. His vision wasn’t blurring with an onslaught of tears. He wasn’t afraid. He wasn’t feeling every last bit of energy drain from his body as terror filled the hole his wrath had left behind. He wasn’t. He couldn’t. Not him, not here, not now.

“You’re bleeding.” Steve, without entirely letting go, moved his hands to Loki’s shoulders and steered him toward the bathroom door. “Let me wrap that up for you.”

Loki balked in the doorway and pushed back, reaching behind his head to grab Steve's wrists. “Stop.”

“Loki, you’re—”

“Do you know how much I’ll be bleeding over the next thirty days? This is nothing, Captain, nothing but a scratch in comparison!” Wrenching away, Loki turned to face his warden fully, staring Steve down with a fist clenched at each side, ready to swing at a moment’s notice. “It doesn’t matter.”

Steve didn’t back down. “It does matter. We’re not abandoning you, Loki, we—”

He didn’t even try to stop the half-demented laughter that surged up his throat. “You’re not? Tell me, Captain, what are you going to do to stop a race of bloodthirsty monsters living on a planet you have no idea how to reach from harming me?”

“Loki.”

He gave the man no chance to speak further, silver tongue working its magic as he once again felt the angry fire burning away his fear. “I know what you’re doing here. I know it just as well as I did when I first confronted you, and this only proves my point. You’re going to send me away because it will help you maintain a good relationship with Asgard and because it will make Thor happy. That’s all you care about, so stop it with this—this coddling business! It’s pathetic. It’s—”

“Loki, enough.

Silence filled the room, Loki’s lips ceasing to move at the other’s command. Steve hadn’t yelled, per se, but he had spoken in a sharp, clear tone of authority, and survival instincts told Loki to listen.

“We—” Steve shook his head, starting over. “I am not going to abandon you, Loki. Thor can come every single day of your sentence, and that means he can allow me to communicate with the Queen of Jotunheim and arrange for me to see you as much as possible.”

Loki scoffed. “You? On Jotunheim?”

“If they won’t let me see you every day,” Steve continued as if Loki hadn’t said a word, “then Thor will bring letters from me to you, and I will still visit every chance I get. Dr. Banner feels the same way, and as for Thor, I don’t think I have to tell you this isn’t making him happy in the slightest. Fury, Agent Hill, Clint, Natasha, and some of the others might see this as a political arrangement, but I don’t, and I don’t think Thor does, either.”

Loki scowled but said nothing, biting down on the inside of his cheek.

“You have to stop and think, Loki. Odin is making a pact here, and he’s negotiating to keep war against Asgard from breaking out. He’s not fighting to keep the Jotuns off of Midgard. If we don’t agree, and they don’t like that, they could very well come and take you by force. I’d like to believe that we’re strong enough to protect you, but I don’t know enough about them to say so for sure. I can’t promise we would be prepared no matter what.” He sighed, wetting his lips and continuing with a cautious tongue, watching Loki as though he expected the trickster to jump in at any time. “You could wind up on Jotunheim under much different circumstances, and we wouldn’t be there to protect or support you. That’s my point. I know this is going to be hard on you, but this is a really good situation in comparison to what it could be. It’s only thirty days, trying to keep you overtime will start a war with Asgard they can’t win, Thor is going to visit you every day, and Bruce and I are going to visit you as much as possible. We can bring you things, we can keep an eye on your health, we’ll know if something they’ve done is putting your life in danger, we can bring medical equipment—you won’t be alone, Loki, and I can’t guarantee that will still be true if we hold off on this. I can’t guarantee anything if we hold off on this.”

Loki clenched his jaw, staring at the floor and focusing on the task of keeping every breath even. He knew Steve was right. He knew things could be worse, and the chances of him surviving an arranged, thirty-day transfer were much higher than him surviving capture. He knew that. He did.

But it didn’t make it any easier.

“Loki, it’s going to be alright.”

 “How do you know?” he snapped, fingers digging into the cuts on his hands. “How do you know it’s going to be alright?”

­Steve was silent.

“You don’t know. They’re going to torture me in unspeakable ways, and they’re going to debase me in every way they know how.” His heart started to pound from those words alone. “If and when I come back, I’ll probably be missing various body parts and my mind will certainly not be in the state it is now. Even if you can, somehow, restore those things to me, how long will that take? Months? Years? Decades? Do you think S.H.I.E.L.D. will pay for that? Do you think the Man of Iron will? No. If I’m alive this time next week, I’ll be stunned speechless.”

Steve reached for his shoulder. “Loki, we won’t let them kill you.”

“You can do nothing to stop them!” He screamed, throwing the offered hand aside and striking the man’s chest, forcing him to take a step back. “Don’t you understand that? There is nothing any of us can do. It’s over, Captain.”

Shaking his head, the Man out of Time took a step closer, reclaiming the ground Loki had forced him to surrender. “It’s not over. Talk to Thor, he didn’t finish explaining the rules. If they’re going to start a war because of late return, I can’t imagine what they’d do if the Jotuns killed you. I know you’re afraid, but—”

“I am not afraid!”

Steve didn’t say anything. He didn’t need to. Loki had all but admitted it, and as he heard his own words echo back at him, he started to break beneath the pressure. He felt sick, his head was spinning, his body ached, and angry tears burned tracks down the sides of his face.

Wrapping his arms around himself, Loki stared at the ground, swallowing hard.

“I’m terrified.”

Fingernails dug into his upper arms, clawing mercilessly at his skin to punish the display of weakness, his face burning as he let his head fall against the doorframe. I must sound like a child, afraid of the monsters under his bed.

“There’s nothing wrong with being afraid, Loki.”

Loki lifted his head and frowned. What?

“In fact,” Steve smiled softly, “I’d be concerned if you weren’t afraid. Don’t let your stubborn pride stop you from asking for help. That’s why we’re here, Loki; that’s why you’re here. Let us help you.”

Loki stared at him for a long time, searching his face for signs of malice or mockery or a trap of some kind. He didn’t see any, but he knew he wasn’t in the best of mindsets.

“Captain…” he started, his voice trailing off as he failed to find the words to refuse.

“I won’t take no for an answer. Neither will Bruce.”

Sighing heavily, he dropped his arms back to his side and began to nod. “Alright… I’ll let you help. I’ll try this… this arrangement. I won’t fuss. It’s not as if I have much of a choice.”

Steve smiled even wider. “I’m glad to hear it. Now, will you let me bandage your hands?”

Still disoriented, Loki offered a weak nod and wandered into the bathroom, seating himself on the toilet lid and waiting for Steve to do as he pleased.

I have no choice. I don’t have the energy to tell him no, and that means I won’t tell Thor no, either. Let them believe what they will, it changes nothing. In a matter of days, I’ll be dead. I’ll be…

Loki’s breath hitched when Steve poured some fizzing liquid over his hand, the burn ebbing away as the soldier blew gently over the open wounds.

It wasn’t Steve’s fault. It wasn’t Bruce’s fault, either. It was Odin and Thor he should have been angry at. Loki knew that.

I never should have let my guard down.


Loki adjusted his shirt for what had to have been the millionth time, picking at the bandages on his hands and shifting his weight from one foot to the other as he waited for Thor to say his final farewells. He was dressed in jeans, a wool sweater, and a jacket, all of which he was certain would be removed upon his imprisonment.

“Hey.”

He looked up from his hands, blinking in surprise when he saw Clint standing there. Of all the people who could have chosen to talk to him before he left, it had to be Clint, the one who would revel in his departure the most.

“Hello,” Loki replied stiffly.

“Remember what I told you about sleep.” Clint crossed his arms over his chest, staring him dead in the eye and continuing with a clipped professionalism to his voice. “Sleep is the difference between life and death in captivity. Sleep keeps your mind sharp, it allows your body to repair itself, and in the case of Jotunheim, it will help you conserve heat and energy. Even if you don’t feel like it or don’t think you can, try. Get as much sleep as you can.”

Loki nodded slowly. “Sleep is important to human health and survival. I understand.”

“One more thing.” Clint glanced over his shoulder just as Thor started walking toward them. “Humans can survive for three minutes without oxygen, three hours in extreme weather without shelter, three days without water, and three weeks without food. That is your most basic but most crucial survival information. Remember, Thor is coming every day. If you think you’re in a position where you might wind up dead, that information can keep you alive until help arrives.

Once again nodding slowly, Loki questioned the man, eyes narrowing slightly. “I appreciate the insight, but what possessed you to tell me this?”

“Orders.”

“I highly doubt Director Fury told you to say that to me.”

“Orders didn’t come from him.” Shrugging his shoulders, Clint turned toward the tower and stalked back inside.

Loki’s brow creased in confusion, but his thoughts were quickly derailed by a large hand on his shoulder. He glanced up and nodded his head before Thor could even ask, taking a deep breath as inconspicuously as possible.

“Heimdall, we are ready.” Thor spoke to the sky, but he watched Loki the whole time, his eyes full of concern and grief.

Light shot down from the sky, colors surging around them as they were wrapped up in the energy of the Bifrost. There was a muffled noise from the right, and Loki turned toward it, but all he could see was an unidentifiable blur, and the next moment, his feet were off the ground.

I can survive for three minutes without oxygen, three hours without shelter, three days without water, and three weeks without food. Sleep is crucial to my survival. It’s only thirty days. Thor will come every day. Dr. Banner and Steve will write to me. I can survive for three minutes without oxygen, three hours without shelter, three days…

His body jarred when he hit the ground, knees giving out beneath him as he was slammed into the ice. Thor was at his side in an instant, ever-doting puppy that he was, but Loki waved him away and got back on his feet.

“Let’s not waste any time. I would like to get settled in as soon as possible.” Loki almost laughed at his own words. Settled in, he said, as if he were there on business or taking a vacation.

Thor nodded and took the lead, Mjolnir clutched tightly in his hand. “Queen Leiknyrr!” He looked around, glancing at Loki briefly before calling out again. “Queen Leiknyrr, can you hear me?”

“Honestly, Thor, you sound like a petulant child. Just find the palace and get the attention of a guard or—” Loki was cut off by the ground bucking beneath them, forcing him to his knees while Thor only stumbled.

Humans are like glass. He scrambled back to his feet and dusted himself off, cautious eyes locking onto the fairly large group of frost giants that had appeared through the cracks in the ice.

One of the largest ones stepped forward, arms folded over his chest, blood red eyes peering down at Thor with visible distrust. Thor stared right back, but his grip on his hammer slackened slightly, a subtle show of peaceful intent.

“I am here with Loki. Where is Queen Leiknyrr?”

The Jotunn shook his head. “She will only meet with you if you are alone. You can come with us to Loki’s cell, and when you are ready to leave, you will be directed to the throne room, where you will speak with her.”

Thor nodded his head. “Understood.”

Loki stepped forward, leaning toward Thor and lowering his voice. “There is no point in coming with me. You should hand me over now and walk away.” He remembered the last time he had been on Jotunheim, how he had leaned forward and whispered, trying to calm his then brother down. He had been telling Thor to walk away that time, and he hadn’t listened. Loki prayed he wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.

“But, Loki—” Thor turned to him, confusion on his face. “You do not wish for me to accompany you?” Judging from the careful hesitation in his voice, Thor had been told of the incident in the bedroom.

Loki nodded once, casting his gaze up toward the giant. “Would it be acceptable for me to accompany you while Thor made his way to the throne room alone?”

The giant took a moment to consider the proposition and then nodded. “That would be fine. Liotr, show Odinson where the palace is.”

The giant closest to the leader stepped forward, gesturing for Thor to follow him and then walking in the direction of what Loki assumed must have been the palace. Thor took a few steps and then turned back again.

“Loki… are you sure you do not want me to accompany you?”

Loki waved him off. “Have a little professionalism, Thor.” His heart was racing again, thumping against the inside of his ribcage, his body running hot as fear began to take him over again. “Go on, go on. Shoo.”

Thor gave him a weak smile. “I will come see you tomorrow.” Then he turned and flew toward the Jotun called Liotr, making up for lost territory and landing on the giant’s left side.

Loki wet his lips—and instantly regretted it when he felt the saliva turn to frost—and then he looked at the large giant who had spoken to them first. He opened his mouth, a sarcastic quip dancing on his tongue, but then he closed it and waited for the giants to speak or move first.

“I won’t kill you because it would go against my orders, but if you tick off some stranger in a bar or on the streets, you could wind up dead or worse.” Clint’s warning echoed in his mind, keeping his lips pressed together until further notice.

“Loki Odinson—” Loki bristled at the name, “—from this point onward, you are under the custody of the authority of Jotunheim. Do you understand this?”

Loki nodded his head once.

The Jotun reached out and grasped him by the upper arm, steering him in the direction of what Loki assumed was the prison. With a slight push, the fallen prince was walking on his own, two guards on either side of him and three behind.

Thirty days… I can make it, it’s only thirty days. I just have to be very, very careful. He reached up toward his throat, unable to get the feeling of Clint’s hands off of his skin. From the moment Steve had calmed him down to the moment he was in right now, all he could think of was his mortality. Of how it felt to be inches away from death. Of how vulnerable he was.

“Hands down.”

Hesitating just long enough to feel defiant, Loki dropped his arm back down to his side, keeping both hands unclenched and easily visible. He banished all thoughts about his physical situation and started taking in his environmental one, instead.

There was an abundance of ice and snow, but he supposed that went without saying. Even the stone structures seemed to blend right into the frozen landscape, and since it was just as hard and cold as everything else, that also struck him as unsurprising. However, as they drew closer to a large mountain, Loki began to see signs of life scattered through the holes and crevices.

“Didn’t expect to see fire here, little prince?”

Loki wet his lips and spoke evenly, curling his fingers out of habit. “No, I did not. I suppose I shouldn’t have assumed…” He tried to make himself stop, but his tongue was already moving, and his unfamiliarity with the area was eating away at him. “How do you keep them burning?”

One of the guards on his right scoffed. “Magic, of course.”

Emerald eyes lit up at the word. Magic. Perhaps that will be the… silver outline… to my situation. He wasn’t entirely sure he was remembering it right, but he knew that it had something to do with the way dark clouds looked when the sun was behind them.

It took the small convoy ten minutes and twenty-three seconds—Loki had counted—to reach a massive, wrought-iron gate. It covered the mouth of what appeared to be a manmade cave. As they got closer, Loki saw it was open just enough for them to get through, and he had the feeling they had arrived at their general destination.

Well, it wasn’t as if I was expecting the luxury I received on either Asgard or Midgard. Still… it’s so cold and dark… don’t humans get sick in conditions like this? He remembered what Clint said. Three hours in extreme weather with no shelter… I can’t turn three hours into thirty days no matter how I look at things.

Loki jumped slightly when the gate slammed shut behind them, his heart rate slowly increasing the further into the darkness they went. There was no going back, not with the gate closed and barred. No last-minute escape, no chance to cheat death, no changing his mind.

“Don’t get the wrong idea.” It was the Jotun who had called him a little prince. “You want those to be closed. Because when they’re open, you’re free game.”

Loki bit down on the inside of his cheek and said nothing, nodding his head ever-so-slightly. He couldn’t force a respectful reply from his lips, and he knew that a punishment for silence was bound to be more lenient than a punishment for disrespect.

“Kjaran, Allvaldi, bring the prisoner and come with me. The rest of you, return to your usual stations.” It was the leader, the one who had first approached Loki and Thor, who spoke up. He moved past Loki and marched on ahead while the remaining guards scattered.

“Come on, little prince.” Kjaran—or at least, he was the one who had responded to that name—took Loki’s right arm in his hand and started to pull him along.

Scowling, Loki bit out a quiet, “I can walk myself, thank you.”

Kjaran grinned down at him, showing his teeth. “Yes, and I can rip out your throat with my bare hands, thank you.” With that, he tightened his grip and pulled Loki along even faster.

“ทำไมคุณต้องกระตุ้นเขา?” That was the other one, presumably Allvaldi, and he spoke with a tone of disdain, shaking his head.

Kjaran only snapped in return. “เงียบ!”

Loki looked between the two men, trying to use what little he knew of the Jotun tongue to piece together what they were saying. It wasn’t a friendly conversation, but from what he could tell, the aggressive looks weren’t directed at him, so he was probably safe.

Probably.

Kjaran grabbed the handle of one of the many, many doors lining the cave walls and jerked it open, shoving Loki inside while Allvaldi let out another sigh. Loki caught himself, if only just barely, and quickly surveyed the room. It was completely empty save for a single, small table and the leader from before.

“Take your clothes off and give me your arm,” the still unnamed leader demanded simply.

Loki didn’t react immediately, giving the giant a cautious look before slowly pulling the dark blue sweater up and over his head. Sharp, biting air cut into him the moment his flesh was exposed, but he refused to flinch away. He simply finished pulling off the article and dropped it to the floor.

They didn’t give me any specific instructions, and if they want to pick up after me, that’s their problem. He kicked off his sneakers without bending over or untying them—something he had learned from Steve and found to be a rather neat little trick—and then stripped off his jeans and boxers before extending his hand toward the unnamed leader.

The Jotun took the arm in hand and waited until the skin turned blue before running his fingers over the risen, indigo lines across Loki’s skin. “You were taken when you were an infant, correct?”

Loki shifted his weight, feeling his insides squirm. “Yes, as far as I know.” He hated the way that sounded. He didn’t know when he had been taken, where he had been taken from, or even how old he truly was.

Frowning, the giant ran his hands over the lines again, twisting Loki’s arm this way and that as he examined the stripes. “You probably don’t know this, but those are large veins that run through the surface of the skin. It allows more blood to circulate through the body more quickly, and it’s one of the many things that keep us alive in this environment.” He dropped Loki’s arm, placing his hands on his hips and staring the smaller man down. “Unfortunately, yours never had a chance to develop because you grew up in warm weather.”

Despite himself, Loki looked down at the limb and watched as the blue faded away, lips pursing as curiosity began to stew beneath the surface. He had always assumed the markings were some kind of decoration, or perhaps a strange tattoo that defined what tribe or clan the giant in question was from. The real explanation was… surprisingly educated.

“I see…” Loki mumbled to no one in particular, running his hand over the smooth skin of his arms, his lips parting in an unexpected yawn. Even though I’m a Jotun, I don’t have what they have to keep them alive. That can’t mean anything good for me.

“Can I have my clothes, then?”

All three Jotuns looked at him, confused.

“You said my body is underdeveloped for this weather. It is my understanding that humans die after three hours of being exposed to extreme weather, and I assumed you would want me alive for a little while longer than that.” Then, after a moment of thought, he smoothed out the ending. “It was only a question.”

Allvaldi nudged Kjaran on the arm. “กระโปรงจะไม่เพียงพอ.”

“สิ่งที่คุณต้องการให้ผมทำเกี่ยวกับที่?” he snapped back.

Loki rubbed his upper arms, already feeling the negative effects of the frigid, damp air. Some of it he expected, like the actual sensation of cold and the tingling sort of burn in his limbs, but some of it he didn’t. For example, he didn’t expect to feel so sleepy or lethargic.

“Stay awake, little prince.”

His head jerked in response, another yawn stretching his mouth despite the fact that he was neither bored nor sleep deprived. It felt as if the cold itself were reaching inside of him, draining every ounce of energy he had left from this long, stressful, exhausting day. It was worse than the sweltering heat of the Midgardian summer. Much, much worse.

“ควรจะมีผ้าห่มในเซลล์ของเขา แต่บางทีเราควรจะให้ไฟไหม้อีกด้วย.”

“ไม่ราชินีพูดอะไรเกี่ยวกับเรื่องนี้?”

“Kjaran, รับเขาเสื้อ. Allvaldi, รับเขารูที่จะทำให้เขาอบอุ่น.”

“ใช่!”

Both of the guards vanished from the room, and Loki used the subsequent silence to try and piece together the conversation he had just witnessed. The Jotun who was in charge but still hadn’t introduced himself had addressed both of the guards by name, probably giving them specific tasks which they readily accepted. There were a few words he recognized, one of which involved runes, but he couldn’t get much of an understanding past the fact that they were discussing his underdeveloped vein problem.

Once it was just the two of them, the leader tossed a garment at him. “Here, put this on.”

Loki caught it, noting that the feeling in his fingers was severely muted, and examined it for a moment. It was the same garment almost every Jotun wore, although he had never seen one this close. It was surprisingly well made, for a loincloth, and appeared to work the same way a belt would.

Well-made or not, I’m still going to freeze in this.

He silently thanked his Asgardian upbringing when he stepped out of the room behind his Jotun guide, very well aware that most of the Midgardians, Vanir, and Light Elves he had met in his lifetime would have been severely embarrassed by such exposure. Not that he enjoyed or preferred being practically naked, he was simply grateful that, of all the humiliations he would suffer in the near future, shameful nudity would not be one of them.

Two silver outlines so far, which is two more than I expected. I can’t let my guard down, though, not under these conditions. He glanced around, peering into some of the cells as they passed and wondering whether the prisoners inside were dead or just sleeping. I should try and pick up some more of the Jotun tongue, as well. I’ll have a better understanding of my surroundings, then, and I’ll be able to tell Thor if anything is being plotted against Asgard, Midgard, or myself. If he could find such a plot and then have Thor prove it, he had a very good chance of getting released earlier than expected.

“Raghnall,” the leader called out, dragging Loki along behind him as he approached a small cell at the end of the hall. “Raghnall, are you down here?”

“Do you really need to ask?”

Loki’s gaze snapped to the left and then the right, but he saw no one. It looked like an empty hall, and his mind immediately closed around the reason. Illusion. Whoever is going to guard my cell can use magic.

“Raghnall, I don’t have time for this. Show yourself!”

Loki peered at the empty hall more carefully, watching for the slightest inconsistency in patterns and colors, the faintest flicker in what should have been a solid object. He extended his hand, pointing to a brick that changed half a shade halfway through. “He’s right there.”

Immediately, the illusion fell, and the guard it revealed gave him a broad smile. “You’re smart. I like that.” He took a step forward just as Loki was shoved in his direction, a hand that could easily span the young god’s face closing around his shoulder like a vice. “I have him, so get out of here and quit whining at me.”

“Kjaran and Allvaldi will be bringing him some things in a little while.”

Loki heard no response and didn’t get a chance to look back, his body lurching forward as Raghnall all but carried him into the cell and pushed him down onto the stone slab in the far left corner.

“So, you’re Loki, huh?”

“No, I’m Thor.”

The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them, the sarcastic quip vocalizing on its own accord and turning every muscle in the trickster’s body harder than the rock he was sitting on. To his relief, Raghnall only laughed.

“You keep getting better and better. This is going to be a fun job.”

Loki didn’t comment, swallowing thickly and looking up with questioning eyes. “You… are to stay here the entire time, then?”

Raghnall gave a mock salute. “Queen’s orders.”

Nodding, Loki looked back down at his lap and rubbed at the bumps on his arms, losing his voice to yet another yawn as the cold set deeper into his body. “You seem very... amiable.”

Raghnall chuckled, crossing his arms over his chest and leaning against the bars to Loki’s cell. “No reason not to be.” He paused, his smile fading and being replaced by the same look Steve had worn earlier that day. “I can’t say the same of the rest of Jotunheim, though. Don’t be talkin’ back to everyone like you did me, or you’ll be in a heap of trouble.”

Loki nodded, curling in a little tighter on himself as the last bit of feeling left his toes. “I understand that.” He tried to open his mouth, intending to ask the man about his magic, but the words died on his lips. Both eyelids started to fall lower and lower, his breathing slowing down considerably.

“Sleep is the difference between life and death … in the case of Jotunheim, it will help you conserve heat and energy.”

Clint’s words came back to him yet again, and he clung to the skeleton of a plan that it provided, moving a little bit closer to the corner and resting his head on his knees. “If it’s alright with you…” he mumbled, unsure if Raghnall could even hear him, “…I’m going to try and get some sleep.”

“That’s a good idea.”

Loki didn’t respond after that, taking the words as permission and trying to carefully let go of every stressful thought he had on his mind. His muscles started to relax, and he tried to think of repetitive things that would put him to sleep. Calligraphy techniques, useful information he had gleaned about the Avengers, the rules of chess, and various other lists started to roll through his consciousness.

Warbled voices sounded in the distance, and he inhaled sharply when a hand touched his shoulder, his body recoiling instinctively though he still felt as though he were fast asleep. The touch was gentle, and in a matter of seconds, he was being enveloped in a thick, warm blanket and eased onto his side.

Mmm… must be… Kjaran… and… Allvaldi…

His facial muscles twitched slightly when he felt what he could have sworn was a kiss fall gently on his temple, and with his next inhale, he realized his mistake. It wasn’t a blanket, it was a cape, and the smell was very familiar.

Thor…

“Every day, Loki. I promise.”

Every… day…

Blackness swarmed his mind, the world dropping out from beneath him as he spiraled into the realms of sleep, his body still shivering to keep itself warm as the cape quickly cooled from the sheer volume of ice and snow and frozen rock.

Loki was officially a prisoner of Jotunheim.

Chapter Text

Loki dragged the back of his hand over his mouth in an attempt to clean the blood off his busted lip, silently cursing the fragility of human skin. Thankfully, he had yet to experience the fragility of human bones.

Overall, his punishment had been relatively mild. Besides a few bruises on his stomach and the broken skin on his nose and mouth, Loki was doing well for his first day.

He had yet to interact with angry civilians, of course, and only one guard had been to his cell that morning.

But Loki was going to think positively.

“Pleasant fellow, isn’t he?” Loki watched Raghnall while moving toward his untouched breakfast, green eyes flickering between the man just outside the bars and the long hall that lead to freedom.

“Most of them are,” was the simple reply. “It just so happens the majority of them also hate your guts.” Raghnall’s words were followed by a quiet chuckle, his hands maneuvering a piece of wood and a knife as he whittled the hours away.

“Rest assured, the feeling is mutual.” Loki eyed his supposed meal for a little while and then set it aside. I think I have a better chance of survival if I don’t try and eat this… whatever this is.

Rubbing his arms through the thin but long-sleeved top they had provided, Loki eyed the hallway again, relishing every minute that passed without a visitor.

They’ll come, though. Jotuns are nothing short of savages, and stranding me here without any defense will be entirely too tempting for them. They’ll have no reason to hold back, and I certainly won’t try to give them one. I don’t regret what I’ve done here. Quite the opposite, I regret failing to wipe this miserable rock from even the furthest branches of Yggdrasil.

During his time on Midgard, Loki had figured out humans had at least a few redeeming qualities. With their technology, they could make powerful weapons and warriors, and the contraptions themselves were fascinating. Humans could cure many illnesses that Asgardians weren’t even familiar with, and they had managed to endure being surrounded by eight realms of very powerful, superhuman beings without being destroyed or enslaved. They were still beneath him, but they were useful. He could do something with humanity by controlling rather than destroying it.

Jotunheim had no such qualities.

Even Odin would have to admit that the threat of a long, arduous war is the only thing that kept him from doing the job himself centuries ago. There’s nothing here. Not even the planet has resources that we could use to our benefit. If the Bifrost had remained open for just a little while longer…

His thoughts were interrupted by echoing shouts and footsteps coming down the corridor, childish voices bouncing from wall to wall as five small Jotuns rounded the corner, bare feet slapping against the stone floor.

“ฉันเห็นมัน!”

“ให้เราไปน้องชาย!”

“ไม่ไม่ฉันกลัว!”

Loki couldn’t make out any of their speech, although he could definitely hear a tone of fear in the last voice, but it was easy enough to figure out why they were there. They’ve probably never seen a person before. No doubt their parents were discussing the trade with Asgard, and the frostlings overheard it.

Loki watched as the boy in front of the pack jumped up and latched onto the bars, dropping his feet on the only horizontal beam in the structure.

“Hey!” the boy shouted.

Loki ignored him. He was focused on the scarlet, leather band tied around the child’s arm, wondering what significance it held. None of the other children were decorated, as far as he could tell. Maybe it had something to do with age, seeing as the boy with the red band was clearly the oldest in the group. Loki would have to investigate further.

“Hey!” the boy shouted again, anger breeching his tone. “Are you really Loki of Asgard?”

“Obviously.” Loki drawled with as much sarcasm as his shivering vocal chords could muster, giving the frostling a disparaging look. “Who else would I be?”

It was like Loki had said the magic words, and the boy immediately launched himself back onto the floor. He grasped the cell door in his small hand and wrenched it open, storming across the cold, stone floor. Evidently, this particular frostling held some sort of grudge, and Loki barely had time to get his arm up before the boy’s fist made a sharp, solid connection with his cheek.

“Don’t say it like you’re all impressed with yourself!” the boy snapped, fury in his scarlet eyes, fists trembling at his sides. “You’re a monster. You shouldn’t be proud of that.”

Loki ignored the faint stinging on his face—the little rat was too small to do any real damage—and opened his mouth with a sharp retort dancing on his tongue.

“Brother, stop!”

Two little arms wrapped around the frostling’s midsection, and Loki allowed his gaze to fall from the taller boy’s face to the child cowering behind him.

Brothers. How incredibly ironic.

“Stop it. Mom and Dad wouldn’t want you to hit him.” Blinking, the smaller boy looked up at his brother, bloodred eyes glassy with unshed tears. “It’s not nice, Bjolan, please don’t.”

Bjolan—who Loki was officially coining as the leader of the little band of monsters—looked between his enemy and his little brother, brow creasing as he found himself stuck between two situations he quite obviously disliked.

Finally, after a minute or two of contemplative silence, Bjolan pulled his arm back and swung again. Loki responded in the same way he had the first time, raising his arm at the appropriate angle to deflect the blow, but it never came. Confused, Loki arched an eyebrow, silently ordering Bjolan to explain.

“Made you flinch.” Bjolan smirked, crossing his arms over his chest.

Loki threw his own hand out, snorting when Bjolan jumped away. “Made you flinch.”

“I made you flinch first,” Bjolan shot back.

“I made you flinch harder.”

“I made you flinch twice.”

Raghnall’s boisterous laughter cut the childish bickering short, and with the previous tension dissipated, the other children began to venture into the cell. Four boys and one girl for a total of five little frostlings with dark blue skin and bloodred eyes.

Disgusting.

The girl immediately walked up to him, leaning in close and cocking her head to one side. “Your eyes are pretty.” She reached out as if to touch one, and he quickly slapped her hand away, glaring until she took a few steps back.

Unfortunately, the others were not so easily deterred.

“Why are they so many colors?”

“Why don’t you have any braids in your hair?”

“Ooh! Ooh, I wanna try something!”

It was hard to keep up with the scattered voices and hyperactive movements, but it was probably safe to assume the child who grabbed Loki’s face was the one who wanted to experiment with Loki’s otherworldliness.

“How did you do that, Aki?”

“Why are you white and blue?”

“You look much better this way.”

“Dulan, that’s rude!”

Loki removed the small hands from his face and pushed the child—Aki, apparently—back a few steps, releasing him with enough force to knock him on his bottom. “I am both because I was born here but raised in Asgard. However, I quite like being white, so don’t touch me again, thank you very much.”

Aki was apparently not bothered by being pushed away, and he bounced a bit closer, looking up at Loki with wide, curious eyes. “But how do you change?”

Slowly massaging his forehead, Loki considered the group at hand and started to develop an interactive explanation he hoped they would understand. “If I took away your ice powers and your magic, would you still be blue?”

They all nodded.

“Would you still be able to live here on Jotunheim?”

More nods travelled through the small group.

“It’s like that. I am from Jotunheim—” the words made him cringe, “—and even though my appearance has been changed, it does not change my race; underneath, it’s still the same.”

Aki bounced again. “But how do you change?”

“I suppose there’s something in your skin that forces my body to change. Perhaps it’s the temperature or because we’re the same race. Perhaps it disrupts the magical field maintaining the illusion.” Loki didn’t really know for sure, but he hoped the answer he gave would be enough to satisfy them.

“So… you’re not really Asgardian?” Still hiding behind Bjolan—who had been watching Loki in hateful silence the entire time—the littlest Jotun of the group begged the timid question.

“No, I’m not.”

With those words, relief became tangible among the children.

“Oh, good!” The little brother smiled widely, coming out from his hiding place.

“That’s a lot less scary,” Aki agreed.

Loki arched a brow, securing his blankets a bit more tightly around his legs. “Is that so?”

“Yeah! Asgardians are super scary!”

The girl spoke up then, sitting on the floor and hugging her knees to her chest. “That’s why you can’t stay out after dark. Once the sun goes down, the Asgardians come out, and they like to eat Jotuniri that wander too far from home.”

“Jotuniri?” Loki questioned, turning to look at her.

She fell silent in response, staring down at her feet, and Bjolan took over the explanation from there.

“Us, of course. Kids.” Bjolan crossed his arms over his chest, wrinkling his nose. “But it’s not true, Lini. Grownups just say that to make kids stay inside at night.”

“No, no,” the little brother objected, shaking his head violently. “It’s a real story, Bjolan. Why do you think the whole world almost got cut in half?”

Loki looked between the bickering children, half caught on the idea of Jotunheim being sliced in two and half caught on the idea of frostlings viewing Asgardians in the same light Asgardian children viewed Jotuns in.

“That was him, Klaufi, and he just said he’s one of us.” Bjolan pointed an accusing finger.

Loki shoved it away, mild irritation showing on his features.

Klaufi frowned up at Loki in bewilderment before looking back at Bjolan. “No, he didn’t do that, the Bifrost did. Because of Asgardians!”

Loki watched Bjolan roll his eyes, interrupting the argument before it could begin. “I am from Asgard, remember? Born here, raised there. So, yes, I am the one who tried to cut the planet in half.”

Klaufi blinked slowly, shifting his gaze from his brother to the prisoner sitting just a few feet away. His expression melted into a combination of fear and hurt, his arms coming up toward his chest as if to shield himself. “Y… you killed Mom and Dad?”

Loki’s jaw tightened, and he gave a quick, sharp nod, caught off guard by the sudden but accurate accusation. I suppose that explains Bjolan’s anger toward me.

Klaufi sniffed, his eyes glassy. “Wh… why?”

“It’s complicated.” Loki wasn’t going to explain himself, because no explanation would satisfy and he didn’t owe one to anybody, but he didn’t know how to change the subject. “When you’re older, maybe you’ll understand.”

Bjolan snorted, crossing his arms over his chest. “That’s something else grownups say to make little kids do what they want.” He rolled his eyes. “They hate us, Klaufi, like we hate them. That’s just how it is.”

“It’s not that simple,” Loki snapped, turning his sharp gaze toward Bjolan. “There’s more to it than that.”

Bjolan didn’t back down. In fact, he took a step forward, meeting Loki’s eyes without fear or hesitation. “Whatever it was, you didn’t have to kill Mom and Dad and everybody else.”

“Please… don’t fight…” Lini, the girl who had been quiet for some time, whispered her objection while hugging herself a little tighter than before. “Fighting doesn’t make anyone happy. Fighting is why we’re all here right now.”

Loki glanced at her, leaning back against the wall and adjusting his blankets once more. “What about you? Did I kill your parents, too?”

She shook her head, black braids and strands of colored beads cascading over her small, bony shoulders. “No. Just my house.” Digging her toes into the dirt, she kept her eyes down, tugging on her hair with trembling fingers. “Just my house.”

There was silence in the cell for some time after that, and Loki looked at the two children who had watched the entire exchange in silence. “You as well?”

Aki shook his head. “No… we’re just friends. Lini and her family are living with us, so we all came together.” He shrugged his shoulders, moving closer to the last Jotun, who seemed to be very fond of him.

“I see.” Loki scanned their faces again, tilting his head upward slightly. “Well, did you get what you came for?”

Looks were exchanged among the children, and then Bjolan answered. “I brought them because they wanted to see an Asgardian up close.” He paused, eying Loki for a moment. “Lini and I were the only ones who knew you attacked us. The others just wanted to see you.”

Loki crossed his arms over his chest. “Then, if I am not mistaken, your task here is done. Shouldn’t you be headed home now?” He regretted the words as soon as they left his mouth, the recently added information not ingrained enough to automatically filter his words.

Lini bit down hard on her lip—so hard the skin around her teeth turned a pale shade of blue—and buried her face in her knees, shoulders quivering.

“That wasn’t what I meant.” Sighing, Loki pinched the bridge of his nose, reaching out beckoning her with his fingers. “I meant it’s time for you to return to your current place of residence. It was a mere slip of the tongue, so don’t cry about it.”

“You didn’t have to do it!” she shouted, pulling on her hair with her face still buried against her knees. “Why do you hate us so much? I don’t understand!”

Loki quickly composed a lie, wanting her to calm down as quickly as possible. He didn’t need any more reasons for the Jotuns to be mad at him, and making a little girl cry was certainly a reason.

“I don’t hate you. I don’t hate Jotunheim, either. I was threatened with a war I wasn’t sure I could win, and I wanted to gain the upper hand. I was trying to protect the people I care about. That’s… that’s simply how war is.”

Loki leaned over enough to take her wrist in hand, gently pulling it away from her head for fear she would start pulling her hair out in clumps. He gave a few equally gentle tugs, and she quickly closed the distance between them, letting Loki rub small circles on her back.

“I know it doesn’t make it any easier, but it can’t be helped.

Lini didn’t stop crying, but her sobs did soften considerably. She curled in on herself and scooted closer, nestling her small body against Loki’s side.

 Let the irony continue.

Loki smiled warmly and put an arm around her, trailing nimble fingers through her hair with the opposite hand. “I remember my first war and how difficult it was.” Lies. “I suppose with age, I’ve simply gotten used to it. I forget how scary it can be.” More lies. “I should have been more careful with my words. I must have hurt you.” Lies, lies, lies.

Lini rubbed her eyes, her cries completely quieted. Bjolan seemed to lose some of his anger, his arms falling away from his chest to his sides. Klaufi, Aki, and Dulan all visibly relaxed, the fear and sorrow fading from their faces.

“Now,” Loki started, giving them another smile. “I really do think you should be headed back to your houses. This place isn’t very nice, and the longer you stay, the higher the chance something bad will happen to you.”

Bjolan darted over to the door and waved the four kids along, ushering them out of the cell in obvious agreement with Loki’s statement. None of them seemed to know what to say, and as they started to walk down the hall, it was only Bjolan who turned back to give him one final glare.

Loki met it with a mocking smile and waved.                      

“Loki Liesmith. It suits you.” Still whittling away at that old, wooden stick, Raghnall sat right outside the gate the children had passed through. “I imagine a skill like that comes in real handy when you tick people off. Or at least, you better hope it does.”

Loki sneered, reaching down to rub his frozen feet. “Please. I’m not going to explain my rationale to a bunch of ragamuffin frostlings.”

“Jotuniri.” Raghnall glanced over his shoulder, eyes sharp. “Call them Jotuniri.”

“Why should I?” was the quick retort. “We’ve always called Jotun children frostlings.”

Raghnall snorted, flipping the wood over in his hand and carving on the other side. “You call them frostlings because you and the rest of Asgard have always viewed our people as beasts, and that was the term you coined for our young because, to you, they were just the result of a wild mating season and inbred survival instincts. Ducklings, goslings, frostlings. They’re kids, and the proper term is Jotuniri.” He blew on the piece in his hand and examined it. “I won’t hound you on a lot of things, but that’s something I don’t want to have to listen to for the next thirty days. Not sure Queen Leiknyrr wants to, either, and since I’ll be reporting everything back to her, well… you might want to watch yourself.”

Loki looked down at his hands. “I will keep that in mind.” But he didn’t want to. There was not a single fiber in his being that cared what the Jotun thought of terms and pleasantries.

There were, however, many fibers that did not want to face any more punishment than necessary, and while his silver tongue would get him out of some situations, there was no reason to push his luck.


Blood splattered against the floor of the cell, a bruised hand coming up to cradled the broken nose carefully. Oxygen came in fast, sporadic gasps, his sides aching with every inhale, his throat crying out as the air dragged along his flesh like razor wire.

“I don’t think I heard you right, Odinson. Why don’t you try again?”

Loki spat at the man’s feet without thinking twice, his arms wrapped protectively around his stomach. “I don’t owe you anything, frost giant.”

Stars exploded across his vision, and he felt himself hit the floor, vaguely aware that the blow had come from his right side. Swallowing a groan, he struggled to sit up again, the three angry Jotuns coming in and out of focus.

“You don’t seem to understand the situation you’re in, Loki.”

Loki glared at the only female in the group, eyes turning to stone. “I understand perfectly,” he snarled, blood spraying from his curled lips, “but that doesn’t mean I’m going to give you what you want.”

She shook her head, clucking her tongue in disapproval, and then she crouched down and drew a square on the floor with her index finger. Moving her hand to the center of the doodle, she slowly lifted it up, ice chips swirling from her fingertips until a solid block filled the space she had outlined.

Loki wet his lips, opening his mouth to speak but finding himself unable, a hot knife running up one lung and down the other. What do they intend to do with that? His eyes darted from one Jotun to the next, his composure defiant but obviously pained and exhausted. Block of ice, block of ice—hit me with it?

It was no use. He had been doing this all day, and his brain was completely fried. It was hard enough thinking of witty comebacks to make him sound like he was still on top of things, let alone actually constructing an idea he could use.

“You’re human now, aren’t you, Loki?” the woman asked, dragging him from his thoughts and earning for herself bitter silence with a scathing expression. “You are human, and if you are human, then you should know your place.” She pointed to the patch in front of her. “Kneel.”

Loki let out sharp bark of laughter, regretting it instantly for the agony that split his sides. Still, he kept his composure, shaking his head and chuckling softly. “I will not.”

His head snapped to the side, eyes barely able to register the new scenery before he was dragged back by the chin and slapped again. He couldn’t see who it was, but they struck him a third time, and then a fourth, and then a fifth. Each blow got harder and harder until the pressure forced his head back far enough that it smacked into the wall behind him, sending another flurry of lights across his range of vision.

“Kneel, Odinson.”

“I am no son of Odin.”

“Then kneel, Loki.”

“I will not.”

“Kneel.”

Eyelids fluttered and the world came back into focus, words of defiance dying on his lips when he saw a knife in one of the men’s hands. He had been slapped and punched and kicked and thrown, but aside from the recently broken nose, he hadn’t lost much blood. Loki had managed to keep himself in one piece and avoid any permanent damage.

“…I… I will not.”

She only stared at him, silently mocking the quaver in his voice.

Loki looked at her. He looked at the men. He looked at the ice.

He couldn’t. He just couldn’t. Not to them, not to anyone, not ever.

“Are you really so prideful you can’t put your knees on a block of ice to save your own skin?” she questioned, her eyes narrowing in his direction. “Asgard kept Jotunheim on its knees for years, and we allowed it because we knew the consequence of resistance was destruction. For someone who denies he is Odin’s son at every given opportunity, you certainly don’t try to hide your Asgardian roots.”

Loki had to congratulate the woman for her words, the subtle truths and interwoven lies stinging his ears and drawing a grimace on his features. “I may have an Asgardian’s pride, but I am most famous for my witty tongue, which evidently comes from this part of my origin.” It was a compliment coming from him, but it was the only thing he could think of that might delay or alter the end result.

“You cannot be both. Should you like to keep your tongue, I suggest you cast off what Asgard has carved into your veins and kneel.”

No such luck.

Swallowing, Loki eyed the block and carefully moved closer, his cheeks burning red against his otherwise pale skin. Survival. I have twenty-nine more days to endure, and if I keep it up, I won’t make it. I have to focus on survival. He chanted the words to himself over and over, keeping his eyes on the ice as he slowly maneuvered himself onto his hands and knees, biting down on the inside of his cheek. I have to focus on survival. This is just for survival. It’s a show, it’s a mask, it’s a lie, just like any other lie I’ve told. That’s all it is. This is for survival. I have to focus on survival.

“Was that so hard?” She walked around him slowly.

He could practically feel her eyes wandering all over him.

Stopping in front of him, she pressed for an answer. “That was a question.”

This is for survival. This is for survival. “No, it was not.” He wet his lips, staring down at his fingers and watching the reddish tinge travel over his skin.

“You look cold.”

Loki licked his lips again, the burn beneath his hands and kneecaps slowly fading into little pinpricks and electric shocks. She won’t let me off so easily. Barton said I can survive for three hours in extreme weather with no shelter, but how long will my extremities last when directly exposed to ice?

“If you want to get up, just ask. Politely and respectfully, of course.”

He grit his teeth. She hadn’t asked another question, so he didn’t have to answer. He wanted to answer, but he didn’t have to, so he wouldn’t. It was the safest choice. He knew he wouldn’t be able to control his tongue if he opened his mouth.

They can’t stand here all day, and it’s getting more bearable with time. They’ll have to get bored eventually. He could barely feel the pain in his knees over the steady ache that had set into his palms and forearms. Despite himself, the limbs were quaking ever-so-slightly, fingers slowly turning numb as the minutes ticked by.

“Do you want to get up?”

Loki silently cursed her intuition. “Yes.”

She hummed. “So, why don’t you ask?”

“I will not ask a Jotun to give me permission to stand,” he snarled, blood dripping from his nose and mouth onto the ice below. “Be glad I agreed to this much.”

His shoulders were starting to hurt, the ache in his arms turning into a burn as his hands and feet grew colder and colder. Whether it was from the ice or the lack of circulation, he couldn’t tell, but he imagined it was a little bit of both. He was shaking hard now, unable to stop his limbs from trembling under his own weight.

“I do not think this is a matter of being glad. It’s more of an amusement, really. One of Asgard’s renowned princes behaving like a stubborn child.”

“I fail to see the comparison.” Pain was now a constant, steadily increasing with every passing minute, feet and knees and fingers entirely unfeeling.

She laughed. “You would.” Crouching down, she took his chin in her hand and pulled his head up, blood red eyes twinkling mischievously. “It’s very simple. When you try and put a toddler down for a nap, he’ll resist you, even though he knows he’s tired and knows he’s going to lose in the end. In a similar manner, you’re kneeling here and resisting despite the fact that you already know how this is going end.”

Jerking his head away, Loki tried to redistribute his weight, quickly finding it only caused his muscles to hurt more. “You can’t stand here forever.”

“I can stand here longer than you can kneel there,” was her simple reply, laughter falling from her lips as she rose to her feet and started to circle him again. “It’s not cold to me, and I’m free to sit or lie down if I so choose. You would cave long before me.”

“Would?”

“We both know it’s not going to get that far.”

Loki grit his teeth. “Eventually, the prison will close and you’ll have to leave.”

She laughed again, a chuckle that stayed deep in her throat. “I’m not concerned.”

Loki kept his gaze on his hands the entire time, racking his brain for a way out. His joints were burning, his frozen fingers were completely numb, his muscles were begging for reprieve—but he just couldn’t.

“Fulfilling the condition would actually be quite easy if you weren’t so full of yourself. It doesn’t hurt, it’s not permanent, and it won’t kill you.” She was once again in front of him. “I can understand the resistance to kneeling on the ice. It’s painful, and even with your Jotun heritage, it’s very cold. But a few words of repentance? You have no reason to avoid that, save for your pompously overinflated ego.”

Biting down hard on his lip, Loki focused on breathing only, trying to push the pain from his mind and find a thought he could latch onto. He just needed something to distract him from her words and the agony running rampant across his shoulders and down into his wrists.

I have to survive. I know I have to survive, but even if she can outlast me physically, the jail will close eventually. She’ll have to leave then, and I can make it that long. I can make it. Just take a deep breath and focus on the end goal. I can make it, I can make it, I can make it…

Tremors racked his body, lower legs numb from lack of blood flow, forearms falling to pieces beneath him even as he tried to convince himself that he had a chance.

Loki saw his fingers dig into the ice, but he couldn’t feel it. “May I get up?” It tasted like vinegar on his tongue, every word ground out with a little more loathing than the one before it.

“I think you forgot something.”

Politeness. Right. “May I get up… please?”

Beads jangled in her hair, a sure indication of her shaking her head. “That’s better, but you’re still not quite there.”

Loki bit down hard on his lips, heart hammering against his chest, blood rushing to his face as he struggled to adapt a respectful tone. “May I please get up?” he asked, putting as much effort into the request as he possibly could.

“Yes, you may.” There was hardly a beat between her words. “As soon as you apologize for your rude behavior.”

Growling under his breath, Loki raised his eyes to meet her gaze, fire shooting up and down his neck as he did. “You didn’t say anything… about apologizing.” He clenched his jaw, determined to keep his chattering teeth from affecting his speech.

“You’re right, I didn’t.” She nodded, her arms crossed over her chest, shoulders squared like the warrior she probably was. “However, since you failed to comply the first two times you made an attempt, I have a hard time believing you learned your lesson.”

“I did what you asked,” he snarled over her last three words. “Let me get up.”

She shook her head, expression unchanging and painfully impassive.

Loki dropped his head, unable to take the pain in his neck any longer, shoulders spasming as he opened his mouth to try again. “I am… sorry… for my behavior. Satisfied?”

“You don’t sound very sincere.”

He very nearly swore. “I didn’t realize I had to be.”

Her hand fell on the top of his head, tapping lightly. “Look at me when you say it. Full apology, full request, and a tone of sincerity. I know you can manage that, Loki Liesmith.”

Swallowing, face flushed and eyes stinging, Loki raised his head. He looked her dead in the eyes and spoke with every ounce of sincerity he had in him. “I am…” He stopped, choking on the words before starting over. “I am sorry for my behavior.” He inhaled shakily. “May I please get up?”

Lips twitched into the lightest of smiles, and she nodded her head. “Yes, you may.”

Loki moved as soon as she spoke, tearing his hands and knees from the ice and seating himself on the stone flooring just a foot away. He clasped his hands together, holding them to his midsection and curling around them, pressing his forehead to his knees and trying to drown his shame in the pain he was feeling.

“Leave us.”

Loki didn’t look up, listening to the sound of retreating footsteps until silence filled his cell once more. Sniffing quietly, he pulled his hands away from his stomach and stared in morbid fascination at the red, mottled skin before pulling them in close again.

What did I just do to myself?

“Give me those.”

Reluctant, Loki pulled his hands out of what little warmth he had and gave them to the woman who put them in such poor shape. She took them by the wrists and pulled them a little closer to herself, and it was only because he could no longer see his own hands that he lifted his head. Then the devil woman reached into her cloak and pulled out a small stone with runes carved into it, pressing it into one of Loki’s palms and then pressing both of his hands together.

“จุดชนวน!”

Loki jumped, the stone in his hands heating up all at once and sending a rush of warmth through his frozen palms and fingers. He clutched the rock tightly, pulling his hands closer to himself and mumbling a ‘thank you,’ if only to ensure she wouldn’t take it from him.

“You are welcome, Loki.”

Loki raised his eyes briefly, lowering them when he felt his embarrassment spreading across his features anew. But despite his shame, and more than that his curiosity, he ignored her entirely. He didn’t understand why she was still with him, or why she had told the other two giants to leave, but he was warm. He was warm and nothing else mattered.

“It will start to burn soon.”

“I know,” he snapped. “I can feel it already.” Loki curled more tightly around the precious stone, glaring at her in a silent threat. Do not take this from me.

There was a lull in the conversation, but after a moment, she spoke again. “You should consider yourself lucky. If you were truly human, with no genetic resistance to the cold whatsoever, your foolish pride would have given you frostbite.”

Teeth chattering, Loki glared up at her. “Do I even want to know?”

She arched a regal brow and replied with a crisp tone and factual explanation. “It is a painful and, if left untreated, deadly condition that affects humans when they are exposed to cold temperatures for extended periods of time. Fortunately for you, your skin is not related to your magic but your race. You will always have it to protect you, regardless of what Odin tried or tries to take away.”

“I would rather die from the cold than be cursed with this skin,” Loki hissed.

She said nothing, standing up and watching him with passive eyes.

Loki ignored her again and turned his attention back to his discomfort, hissing under his breath when the burning and tingling became painful. Despite the relief his new position offered, he could still feel the ache in his forearms and shoulders, and he imagined it would be quite a while before they felt normal again.

Tch. They’ll never feel normal. Not while I’m stuck in this wasteland of monsters with no way to defend myself. Nothing about this overgrown snowball is normal.

Shivering, Loki reached back with one hand and grabbed Thor’s cape, pulling it around his shoulders and retreating into the folds, the stone once against clutched between his hands. He couldn’t tell if it had gotten colder, or if it was just the comparison between his hands and his surroundings that made it seem so, but he wanted so desperately to sit by a fire.

Loki turned his head and glared at the woman who had yet to leave.

She stood silently, watching his every move as though he were a beast to be observed.

“Why are you still here?” Loki growled, another tremor surging through his body.

She arched an eyebrow at him, obviously displeased. “I would like to have a conversation with you, now that I have some idea of what to expect.”

“So, that was just the beginning, then? I’ll try to contain my joy.”

The Jotun shook her head. “That was a test. This is the discussion.”

“You have an interesting idea of a test.” Loki glared. “I have no desire to talk to you.”

“You also had no desire to kneel on the ice and beg for respite like a slave.” She gave him no chance to respond, speaking over his attempted outburst with an authoritative calm. “I needed to see just how difficult you were going to be. I needed to know whether or not it was worth my time to come down here.”

“Worth your time?” Loki snarled, eyes burning with hatred, fists clenched against his stomach. “Who are you that you think you have the right to play such games? What business have you deciding my worth and personal restraint? You are nothing but a beast, sentenced to a painfully long life spent crawling under rocks and cowering away from those who look down on you with scorn and hatred, just like every other blue-skinned, red-eyed monster that creeps alongside you on this desolate, frozen wasteland!” His shoulders heaved, breath coming in short, broken pants as he tried and failed multiple times to regain his composure.

“My, my, you do have quite the tongue on you.” Sighing, the woman dropped her arms to her side and took a step forward. “Since you seem so intent on being run into the ground by those who are older and wiser than yourself, I’ll satisfy you once more.”

Horizontal lines of green light began above her head and started to work their way downward, repainting her body as layer after layer of illusions began to dissolve into the air. No longer dressed in a simple loincloth and tunic, she stood there, a long skirt falling from her waist with a slit running up each side and an intricate wrap covering her chest and neck. A cloak of jade and emerald caressed her shoulders, and her hair came down to her thighs, stones and beads and metal clasps decorating various strands throughout. What Loki noticed the most, however, was sitting atop her head, staring at him almost as defiantly as its wearer.

Her crown.

“I am Queen Leiknyrr, twelfth daughter of Álmóðr and Mýrún, first wife of King Laufey, and perhaps most importantly…” she met his gaze evenly, silently daring him to speak his mind once more, “…I am your mother.”

Chapter Text

Loki blinked and scanned the figure in front of him once more, taking in the details of her new appearance and committing them to memory. She certainly was not what he had expected, but he couldn’t decide if he was impressed or disappointed in what he saw.

“You are my mother.” Loki repeated Leiknyrr’s words back to her, his expression shifting from disbelief to sardonic amusement. “You certainly have a funny idea of family reunions.”

Leiknyrr’s lips curled into a smirk, red eyes piercing his own gaze relentlessly. “Yes, well, I don’t tend to enjoy the company of those who attempt to bring my people to an end.”

She walked across the cell and sat down in front of Loki, crossing her legs and placing her hands on her knees.

Withdrawing further into Thor’s cape, Loki looked her over and opted for a subject change instead of a reply. “You wear a crown and robes. Laufey did not.”

Leiknyrr snorted and shook her head, the lone ruby set in her circlet casting rainbows on the walls. “Laufey cared more for the physical role of being king. He didn’t like the meetings and pleasantries and attire.”

Loki nodded sharply, turning his head to stare at the wall, hands shifting his runic stone from place to place in the hopes of spreading its warmth. I have so many questions, and yet, I have an equal amount of reasons why I do not want to ask them. His eyes narrowed at the thought, fingers curling around the edge of the cape once more. I do not need answers. I am neither Asgardian nor Jotun. I refuse to be.

Something in the back of his mind told him that such a decision was not his to make—that his genes and his past were things he couldn’t change no matter how much he wanted to—but he didn’t care. He wanted nothing to do with her, just as he wanted nothing to do with Laufey or Odin or—

Frigga.

“What do you want?” Loki turned to look at Leiknyrr once more, eyes blazing with a renewed hatred. “I do not want you here, and you have made it quite clear that you do not want me. You had your laughs, you killed your boredom, and you told me who you are. What else needs to be done before you will leave me be?”

“I didn’t think you’d be so eager.” Her lips curled into a smile, but her eyes went cold. “We both know how you feel about the last time I left you.”

It was like a knife going into him, but Loki refused to give her any kind of response. His expression had no more life than the stone floor beneath him, and his eyes were glazed with some mixture of disinterest and fatigue that kept his rage well-hidden.

Then, slowly, his lips started to turn upward. His indifference melted away, and the hatred was buried deeper still, emerald eyes set with a cool, almost cruel amusement. He wet his lips and began to speak, his tongue aiding him in more ways than one as he engaged his so-called mother in a battle of wits.

“I suppose you’re right. I should enjoy your company a little while longer.” Loki sat up a little straighter, squaring his shoulders with the same regal air Leiknyrr had. “How do you fare in your negotiations with Asgard?”

“You’re here, aren’t you?” The superior smile never quite left her lips, her composure a smooth blend of professional and mischievous. “We fare well. Then again, it was us who threatened to wage war, so take that for what you will.”

Loki chuckled softly, shaking his head. “Odin certainly dislikes war. Unless, of course, it’s on his own terms. Then it’s another story entirely.” His heart pounded on the inside of his chest, adrenaline coursing through his veins as the game began to escalate.

It was cordial and civilized on the surface, but Loki knew better. Leiknyrr wasn’t relaxed and neither was he. It was a fight—a verbal dance—both of them trying to push each other’s buttons while protecting their own. She brought up his past, so he brought up the war. She smiled at him, and he laughed at her. It would continue and grow and change until one of them broke.

It seems I got at least some of my silver tongue from her.

Leiknyrr nodded her head and heaved a sigh that was more irritated than anything. “Indeed. War is a tricky game to play, but it’s certainly doable if one has the wit. I’m sure you already know this, but your father is—”

“He’s not my father.”

“—not exactly renowned for his cunning. He’s intelligent enough, and his experience certainly gives him an abundance of practical wisdom, but as far as his people skills are concerned, he is quite dull.” Leiknyrr was undeterred by Loki’s interruption, and the words flowed freely from her mouth as though he hadn’t said anything at all.

“You should tell him that’s something he and Laufey had in common, just to ruffle his feathers.” Loki paused, following himself with a quick and unnecessary explanation, each word falling with pointed precision. “Or at least, I assume that’s how Laufey was. It was painfully easy to play with his ego and lure him into Asgard, and once he was there, his guard was so far down it took less than ten seconds to slaughter him. I can only attribute that behavior to excessive stupidity.”

“Laufey had an odd condition of the brain where he was painfully aware of the sorrow war brought to his people, but his temper and lust for power often overrode his responsibility as a king.” Leiknyrr paused and looked at the ceiling, pursing her lips. “Hmm. I suppose that could be considered another trait they shared.” Her eyes flickered back down, meeting Loki’s unwaveringly. “Regardless, you are correct in your assessment of my late husband; we are in this mess because of Laufey’s bullheadedness and lack of foresight alike.”

Loki lifted his brow, expressing surprise. “You do not seem to have many kind words for your late husband. What inspired you to marry him if you detested him so?” He liked where the conversation was going. She didn’t attack, and she left her back exposed to him, giving him the upper hand.

“Betrothal, of course.” Leiknyrr lifted a hand, making a fleeting gesture toward the ceiling. “I don’t know how you arrange things in Asgard, but here, all royal marriages are arranged by the preceding king and queen. Due to my noble bloodline, access to education, and aptitude for weaponry and war tactics, I was chosen to rule Jotunheim at the right hand of Laufey, who was crown prince at the time.”

Brow crinkling, Loki cocked his head to the side and leaned in. “You don’t seem like the type to settle for such an arrangement. Why didn’t you refuse?” He already had an idea, but he wanted a chance to subtly question her strength.

“I didn’t much care.” Leiknyrr shrugged her shoulders, a thoughtful expression that was likely false crossing her face. “I was his first wife, but as time went on, he obtained other women with which to occupy himself, and I was left to my own devices. By accepting my role and biding my time, I gained access to all of Jotunheim’s wealth, knowledge, history, secret affairs, and so on and so forth.” Smirking, she put the nail in the coffin. “Seeing as I’m now the sole ruler of this realm, I would say things worked out rather well for me.”

Loki didn’t miss a beat. “Oh, but surely it must have been hard on you. Living your entire life in the background of something you desperately wanted, watching as Laufey ran from woman to woman and knowing there was nothing special about you; knowing the only reason you finally got what you wanted was because someone died and not because you earned or deserved it.” His voice grew darker with every word until he no longer tried to hide the loathing, meeting her eyes without a trace of fear or remorse in his own.

But Leiknyrr only smiled. “You would know something about that, wouldn’t you? Only you still didn’t get what you wanted, even though many people did die.” She laughed, cold and bitter and cruel. “What does that make you, my dear boy?”

Blindsided.

Chest tightening, Loki stared her down, trying and failing to come up with a reply that was equally damaging. She opened the door on purpose. She drew me into her territory—information about herself and her home—and then she stabbed me in the back. Clever. Unfortunately, it was just as painful as it was impressive, and as the seconds continued to pass, he knew he had to accept defeat.

Loki chuckled softly and shook his head, smiling bitterly at the ground between them. “You are a worthy opponent, Queen Leiknyrr. I quite enjoyed our game.”

When Loki looked up, she was smiling back at him, crystalline teeth shining against her dark blue skin. Her eyes sparkled with a winsome innocence that made him sick to his stomach, and yet, there was no lack of sincerity in her tone when she replied.

“As did I.” Rising to her feet, Leiknyrr reached into the folds of her cloak and began searching for something. “I think I shall visit you again, Loki. Perhaps, at that time, we can discuss your origins at length.”

Loki didn’t actually process what she had said, but he replied nonetheless. “Perhaps we can.”

Leiknyrr withdrew a muted silver ring and leaned down, extending it toward him in silence.

Loki leaned forward slightly, giving it a thorough examination before looking up at her with heavy suspicion in his eyes.

“It is yours,” she explained. “It marks you as an heir to the throne of Jotunheim and a member of the royal family.”

Leiknyrr reached out and grabbed Loki’s right hand, pulling it toward herself and slipping the band onto his ring finger. It was a few sizes too big at first, but then it adjusted to a perfect fit, hugging his finger as though it had always been there.

Leiknyrr laughed softly. “It knows you.”

“It…?” Loki startled, watching as a deep sapphire began to spread over his fingers and hand. His head snapped up, teeth bared, rage bursting in his chest, vision blurring from the rush of adrenaline. “Remove it! Now!”

Leiknyrr straightened up and arched a brow, offering a wicked, self-satisfied smile. “Are you certain? That ring is a reminder to my people of who you are by birthright. It may cause them to think twice about their treatment of you.”

Looking down at the ring again, at the blue skin of his hands and arms and legs, Loki almost refused. Then he looked at the bruises on his stomach, his skinned knees, and his bloody sleeve. He hated it—he hated everything about it, and he hated her—but he was only on his first day and already feeling overwhelmed.

“Can I remove it?” he hissed, clenching a fist around the ring as if he thought he could somehow break it and pretend it was an accident.

“It will be difficult without magic. Rings for the royal family are enchanted, made in such a way that they cannot be lost in battle.” Leiknyrr turned and started to walk away, her hand dancing over her shoulder in a gesture that somewhat resembled a wave. “However, if you sit down and focus all your thoughts and energy on getting it off, the ring will listen to you.”

Loki crossed his arms over his chest and fell back against the wall with a quiet thump. You baffle me, Queen Leiknyrr. You come to beat and humiliate me, but when you leave, I have a rune to keep me warm and a ring to ward off some of those who would do me harm. He watched as she left the cell and carefully locked the door, his knuckles turning white as he contemplated the questions he would ask if and when the time came. Why did you leave me? If you do harbor care in your heart for my wellbeing, why did you leave me? How could you leave me?

Leiknyrr moved down the corridor, emerald folds sweeping out behind her as she strode, that familiar, regal countenance squaring her shoulders and keeping her chin up. She carried herself like Loki did—or he carried himself like she did—and the realization sent another dose of anger into his bloodstream.

Why did you leave me? If we’re so similar, why wasn’t I good enough? Loki looked down at the stone grasped in his hand, his lips parting, pulse pounding against his ears. You are my mother, you weren’t supposed to leave. If my birthright really is to be a prince of Jotunheim, how could you cast me out? How could you—

Loki raised his head, inhaling with the intent to speak but falling silent when he realized the hall was empty.

Sighing softly, Loki cupped his hands and stared at the stone and ring he possessed. How bittersweet a reminder of what he did and did not want to be. Both objects were tied to magic, which was a part of himself he desperately wanted to regain, but the ring on his finger was directly tied to his heritage, which was a part of himself he desperately wanted to destroy.

“Don’t look so glum. Blue suits you much better than white.”

Loki cast the guard a brief, halfhearted glare.

Raghnall laughed in response, leaning against the door to the cell. “You get so bent out of shape about us. Why is that?”

“You’re monsters.” Clenching his fists again, Loki curled in on himself. He clutched the cape that had offered so much comfort over the past twenty-four hours, pressing his cheek against the soft fabric. “If I had my way, you’d all be dead.”

Raghnall only grinned wider. “I think we already established that, but… I’m confused about something.” He tapped his chin and glanced up at the ceiling, his tone somewhere between mocking and feigned bewilderment. “If Jotuns are monsters, and you’re a Jotun, doesn’t that make you a monster, too?”

Loki glared at him wordlessly, refusing to dignify the question with an answer.

“Huh.” Raghnall fiddled with the lock for a moment and let himself into the cell. He shut the door behind him and crossed the floor, sitting down next to Loki with a soft grunt. “Is that the problem, then?”

“Is what the problem?”

“You were raised as a hero, only to find out you’re really a monster.” Raghnall held up his hands a foot or so away from each other. “You thought you were here, but you were actually over here, and you think if you get rid of this—” he dropped one of his hands, “—then you’ll have to be grafted back into this.” He wiggled the fingers of his remaining hand, poking Loki’s shoulder when he didn’t respond.

Loki growled and looked up, his face revealing equal amounts fatigue and anger. Raghnall returned the stare with a hint of a smile still lingering on his lips. After a few moments of silence, Loki let out a sigh of defeat and leaned his head back against the wall.

“Everyone on Asgard thinks ill of Jotuns. When Thor and I were young, he often talked about his future plans to get rid of every last one. I wanted to do the same, if only because I thought it might finally give me some leverage with which I could escape Thor’s shadow.” Loki shook his head and closed his eyes, laughing bitterly. “Odin couldn’t be bothered to intervene, even though he certainly knew if I ever learned the truth about myself, such beliefs would be damaging.”

Raghnall remained silent, waiting to see if Loki was done before offering some words of his own. “When you were young, you formed your beliefs based on what you were exposed to and what you were told was true. But you’re not a child anymore, Loki. I think it’s about time you started figuring out what is and isn’t true on your own.” He smiled softly. “And you’re certainly in a good position to do it.”

Loki dropped his gaze and then brought it up again, trying not to think about the fact that his physical attributes mirrored Raghnall’s. He swallowed, opening his mouth to speak but closing it shortly thereafter.

Several seconds passed in silence, and then Raghnall clapped him on the shoulder and stood up, walking away and leaving Loki to his thoughts.

What truth have I seen here that I was unaware of before? I suppose I didn’t know my mother’s name or face, but there’s hardly anything to be gained from that information, and it isn’t as if I didn’t know she was Queen of Jotunheim. He fiddled with the ring on his finger, watching the band turn, a single emerald passing his gaze every other rotation and catching the light as it went. I knelt on ice, I got punched in the stomach, I met some children… Well, I suppose that was something new. I never thought of frostlings… or Jotuniri… as normal children.

Not that he could say they had been normal exactly, but it certainly wasn’t the sort of abnormality he expected to see. They were orphaned and homeless and living with the threat of war hanging over their heads, so they were bound to be a little unusual, but Asgardian children had suffered similar things and responded in similar ways. Not to mention, the current situation of the Jotuniri was Loki’s fault. But I am also a frost giant. Wouldn’t this be an example of one heartless beast turning against another? It sounded familiar, but it didn’t sit well with him, and he was starting to develop an idea as to why.

“You were raised as a hero, only to find out you’re really a monster.”

He was raised as a hero. That much was certainly true. For as long as he could remember, he was considered to be a prince and a hero simply because he was a son of Odin. Thor’s shadow loomed over him constantly, but it wasn’t as if he was looked upon with disdain or hatred or disgust. He was mischievous, and he would sometimes overhear the servants talking about what an unruly child he was, but no one had ever treated him as though he were less than Asgardian.

Not until the incident in the vault, anyway.

When Loki learned of his true nature, he suddenly felt as though everyone were against him; like they had known all along and had been talking about him behind his back for centuries. It wasn’t just the fact he was a Jotun that upset him—it was the slimy, degrading feelings that came with it.

But I wasn’t different. Not right away, at least, and yet… Loki curled and uncurled his fingers, examining the risen lines on his hands. I felt different. I saw things differently.  If I were raised on Jotunheim, I wouldn’t have had that problem unless… unless I went to Asgard.

Was that it, then? Was that the truth he was supposed to see? That the only difference between Asgardians and Jotuns was the very knowledge of them being two different races?  It seemed like that was the case. Raghnall saw Loki’s situation as a chance to observe the Jotuns as a people instead of monsters—to view them through their own eyes, both literally and metaphorically, and understand their perspective.

But did Loki believe it?

Standing up, Loki moved over to the pallet he used as a bed and laid down on his side, a blanket beneath him and the cape overtop with the warm rune stone clutched to his chest. I don’t know what to think. He closed his eyes, drawing his legs in closer to his body with a soft sigh. I don’t know. I don’t even know if I want to know.

Because it would be so easy to continue on the path he had started paving for himself. To let hatred and fury and whatever preconceived notions he had about the truth take him over and rule his mind, let it fuel his lust for destruction and drive him until he finally felt his thirst for revenge satisfied. Thor, Odin, Jotunheim, Midgard, Asgard—they could all burn, and he wouldn’t feel a single shred of remorse, only delight and fulfillment.

It would be so easy… but it would just be another lie. Everything Loki was raised to believe turned out to be a lie, and it was that fact that brought on the desolate rage and craving for revenge. Would it be wise to trade one lie for another in the pursuit of happiness? Would it even be successful?

“Raghnall, will you wake me when Thor arrives?”

A quiet hum came from the cell bars. “I will.”

Trying hard to push the thoughts from his mind, Loki focused on the task of sleeping, chanting various spells in his mind until he was lulled into a deep, much-needed slumber.


Boots struck the cold, stone floor one after the other, each following and surpassing its twin before falling behind again. Eyes darted one way and then the next in search of their target, anxiety flickering through the shades of blue. His heart pounded relentlessly in his chest, his body shivered from the cold, and he was hyperaware of everything around him.

Because Thor knew he could very well be walking into a trap—it would be quite the advantage for Jotunheim to have both Asgardian princes in custody—but he had to have a little faith in the fear his father had instilled. Hopefully, it held well enough to protect not only Thor but Loki as well.

Hopefully.

Thor rounded the corner and continued running down the hall, thoughts still racing. I wonder if I should have brought some food. I don’t know what they’re feeding him, if they’re feeding him at all, but most everything I can think of would freeze here. I should have asked the Captain of America. I will ask him next time to send along food that will keep in this weather, and I may need to obtain some sort of safe or chest where Loki can keep his food protected. Something with a strong lock. Oh, but they could steal his key. Perhaps the Man of Iron can create one of his eye-reading lights.

Thor turned another sharp corner and spied Loki’s cell down the hall, picking up speed. He barely stopped before he hit the gate, frantic hands grasping at the locks and bolts.

“Easy there, Odinson. He’s not going anywhere.”

Thor cast the guard a brief glare and threw the door open, rushing across the cell and dropping to the floor beside his brother. “Loki! Loki, are you alright? Can you hear me?” Thor reached out and grabbed Loki’s shoulders, recoiling almost immediately when his hands were burned.

“Thor, you buffoon, what are you doing?”

Thor barely heard what had been said, though somewhere in the back of his mind, it registered that Loki was not dead. That was wonderful, but the pain in his hands was very distracting, and he found himself unable to do anything but stare, dumbfounded, at the blackened flesh.

“Raghnall, be careful, he might not let you near him.”

“He’ll have to ice up, then, ‘cause that has to be treated.”

Thor looked up from his hands and saw the guard from outside crouched next to him. “You, ah…” He shook his head and turned to Loki, his primary concern being that of the scarlet eyes staring back at him. “Loki, you are… you are a Jotun.”

Loki rolled his eyes—his solid red, marble eyes—and moved a little closer, using his blanket to nudge Thor toward the guard. “Yes, we established this several years ago. Give Raghnall your hands.”

Thor tensed at the suggestion, glancing at the guard—Raghnall, apparently—and then back at Loki. I will let a Jotun touch me when Helheim has flowers in bloom. That was his instinctive response, but Thor had been working very hard at not letting his instincts control everything he did.

Think, then speak. Think, then speak. Think, then speak. “I simply meant… you are not usually… blue.” Thor looked down at his hands again and then extended them toward Raghnall, trying and no doubt failing to conceal his discomfort.

Raghnall didn’t seem bothered by the disconcertion, and he took Thor’s hands in his gently. Blue light shone from the places where their skin met, and it was soon joined by tendrils of soft, orange light that wrapped around Thor’s hands.

I don’t recognize this magic… but my hands are feeling better already. Thor glanced at Loki, keeping his hands still but attempting to make conversation with the person he actually wanted his attention to be on.

“So, how did you come to be blue?” Thor tilted his head to the side slightly. “That… is an odd sentence. It sounds like I am speaking of your mood.”

Loki smiled briefly, faintly, and then held his hand out between them. “Queen Leiknyrr gave me a ring—my ring, apparently—and it causes my body to… take on my true appearance.” He fiddled with the metal as he continued. “She said it might inspire caution in those who would do me harm.”

“But Loki, how could you—?” Thor watched Loki’s nervous hands, remembering what Tony had told him about the tic as Dr. Banner’s words echoed in his mind.

Loki is going to find out who he is, and that person might not be who you want him to be. But this isn’t about what you want, it’s about what Loki needs.”

Thor understood that, and he had been trying hard to watch his words and his temper, to pay attention to Loki’s body language and habits during the rare occasions when they saw each other. It just wasn’t easy to do when his little brother was… accepting his Jotun heritage.

Embracing Jotunheim and all that came with it meant leaving Asgard and… well, it meant leaving Thor.

“Loki, that is… uh, that is very interesting!” That wasn’t really a lie. “You said the ring is yours. Was it made for you specifically? Or is it something passed down from generation to generation? Do all Jotuns have rings like this, or is it a mark of nobility?”

Leaning back slightly, Loki stared at him, shoulders tense and fingers frozen on the ring mid-turn. “It was made for me specifically.” He spoke slowly, watching Thor with wary eyes. “It is enchanted so it cannot fall off, and it adjusts its size to fit my finger. It’s… fascinating, really.”

Thor nodded. “Then it must be important, which means the queen is most likely correct. Something that specific is sure to make the Frost Giants think twice before harming you.” He smiled again. “This is good, Loki. Don’t you think so?”

Once again, Loki hesitated before answering, not that Thor blamed him. “Yes, I think… it isn’t as serious as I thought it would be.” He paused for a moment and then cleared his throat, gesturing as he spoke. “How are your hands?”

Thor looked down, pursing his lips slightly. “They do not hurt anymore, but I do not know what that means.”

Raghnall removed his hands as Thor finished his sentence, the colored lights fading away. “You’re fine. I took the cold out, just like you would take the heat out of a burn.”

Thor wiggled his fingers slightly, flexing his hands and then balling them into fists. “Thank you.” He glanced up in time to catch the two-fingered salute, and then the guard left them alone.

“Well, are you going to show me what you brought?”

Thor frowned. “What I…?” He blinked a few times, trying to figure out what Loki meant. “Oh! Oh!” He reached back, grabbing the bag he had slung over his shoulder and completely forgotten about, rambling through an explanation as he pulled it free. “I forgot I had it with me. I must have gotten distracted, I—I was a tad worried, so it must have slipped my mind.”

From the doorway came a snort, the guard offering his two cents. “Just a tad.”

All he received was a glare, and then Thor’s attention was back on Loki. “These are some things from Midgard.” He unzipped the bag and started to hand the contents over, naming them as he went. “This is a letter from the Captain, and this is a letter from Dr. Banner. There are some Midgardian books, a pillow, and a box of locks.”

Loki blinked, taking the last item into his arms. “Beg pardon?”

“It is a lock box—a box that you can lock with a key. From what I understand, you are to put important things into it, lock it, and then it will keep your important things safe. Dr. Banner suggested you use it to keep anyone from getting your books or letters.” Thor got the key and opened the box, revealing a large orange package with a note that claimed Tony was its giver. “I… do not know what that is.”

Loki poked it, frowning at the odd noise. “It is like the plastic they wrap around candy bars.”

“Indeed, but this is not a candy bar.” Thor pointed to the object. “See? It is in the shape of a bag, and it has no corners.” He looked up and watched Loki’s face for a moment, smiling as the trickster contemplated his surprise gift. “You are welcome to open it, if you want.”

Shaking his head slowly, Loki pulled away from the box and looked at the things sitting in his lap, brow still creased in confusion. “No… I shall put it off for the time being.”

Thor nodded and closed the case again, locking it and setting it on the floor beside Loki’s bed. “Keep the key in a safe place, if you can.” He dropped the key into Loki’s palm and then rested his hands in his lap once more. “You can look through your things, if you like. We don’t have to talk.”

Even if Thor really, really, really, really wanted to.

Really.

“No, we can talk.” Loki put down the book he had been glancing over and set everything else by the pillow and the lock box. “If I look at them now, I won’t have anything to keep me occupied later.”

Thor nodded, offering another warm smile. “I… suppose there’s no point in asking how you’ve been but… how have you been?”

Loki shrugged his shoulders, eyes dark and glassy, not at all like they had been when Thor first arrived. “As I said, it isn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Yet.” Sighing heavily, he let his head fall back against the bricks. “Still dreadful, though. Cold, dark, and full of people who want to kill me.”

Thor gave a weak smile. “Yes, I thought you might say something like that.” He dropped his gaze, knowing what he needed to talk about but having no desire whatsoever to breech the topic. “What… have you learned about Jotunheim?” He wet his lips, keeping his composure as relaxed as he could. “That is, your heritage and past and culture. I—that is what I meant.”

Loki gave him the third suspicious stare of the evening. “I have learned much. You’ll have to be more specific if you wa—”

“All of it.”

Pause.

“All of it?” Loki parroted, blinking slowly.

Thor nodded enthusiastically. “All of it. I want to hear about everything you’ve learned.”

No, he didn’t. He wanted to tell Loki to ignore his surroundings because he was Asgardian, he was Thor’s brother, he was a son of Odin, and he needed to come home. But it wasn’t about what Thor wanted, it was about what Loki needed. Thor had to remember that. For both of their sakes.

“I… well, I’ve learned a few different things.” Loki paused, resting his hands on his knees and glancing upward for a few moments before wading into the proposed conversation. “I met some Jotuniri. Five of them, actually, they came by earlier today.”

Thor frowned, cocking his head to the side. “Jotun…iri…?”

“Frostlings,” Loki explained, casting a quick glance at the door to his cell. “However, they find that term offensive, and the proper term is Jotuniri.”

Nodding slowly, Thor repeated the word under his breath. “Jotuniri… alright, so there were five of them, and they came down this morning.”

Loki confirmed the accuracy with a quick nod. “Yes. Two of them were orphans, one was homeless, and the other two were housing the homeless child. None of them had ever seen an Asgardian before, and at the time I didn’t look like this. They were fascinated, to say the least.”

Thor chuckled, covering his mouth when the other glowered at him. “I am sorry, Loki, but when I imagine you with five little ones hanging from your person, I cannot help myself.” While he did stop laughing, the grin remained on his features for a little while longer. “Were the two orphans without homes as well? Perhaps I could bring them some things when I come to visit tomorrow.”

For a moment, Loki didn’t say anything. His hands came together, fingers massaging and rubbing each other, toes curling and uncurling against the floor. “They probably won’t come back,” he said after a while. “Bjolan was the oldest boy and one of the orphans, and he only wanted to see me because he knew I was the one who attacked Jotunheim and killed his parents.”

Thor watched a plethora of expressions travel across his brother’s face, very aware of the conflict going on in Loki’s mind. “You… have done some terrible things, yes, but you did them with a mindset that was given to you by people you trusted. It makes sense that—”

Loki’s laughter interrupted him. “I mistakenly trusted them, and at the time of the attack, I trusted them no more. I find it amusing, though, that you, of all people, would try to justify my actions.”

“I was not justifying them, simply explaining them,” the thunderer defended, eyebrows knitting together slightly. “I still do not approve of what you’ve done, Brother, but I—”

“I’m not your brother!”

Thor was stung by the words, but he only offered a quiet apology and then continued. “Yes, of course. I’m sorry. I still do not approve of what you’ve done, Loki, but I have been trying to understand why you did it. I am trying to, as they say on Midgard, walk a mile in your shoes.”

Loki blinked, his face twisted with confusion. “What?”

“They say it to describe experiencing life through another’s eyes.”

“Tch.” Snorting, Loki shook his head. “That’s ridiculous. Putting on someone’s shoes doesn’t change anything about how you understand the world. It is a pointless and illogical metaphor.”

Thor smiled slightly, trying to decide whether or not to point out that Loki was changing the subject. “I agree with you, but it makes sense to the Midgardians, so I go along with it.” Pausing, Thor watched his brother’s face, eyes running over the risen lines and varying shades of blue. “Does it bother you, Loki?”

There was a long silence as they stared at each other, Loki refusing to answer and Thor refusing to back down or ask again. Thor knew he didn’t need to explain himself, for his question was obvious, and he was certain of the answer just from watching his brother’s face.

“It does, doesn’t it?” Thor reached out to touch Loki’s arm before remembering he couldn’t because of the very thing they were discussing. “Loki, if—”

“What is wrong with you?”

The question caught Thor off guard, and it took him a few moments to answer, his head slowly turning from side to side. “I… do not understand.”

Red eyes narrowed into slits, Loki’s teeth showing as he leaned forward and hissed his explanation, fingers clawing into the sheet beneath him. “You and this—this level-headedness. Your talking, your temperament, the way you haven’t been throwing your foolish ideas in my face at every given turn, the way you gave me space on Midgard when I know you wanted nothing more than to kick down my door and throttle me while dragging me back to Asgard so I can be your pet brother again. Do you understand that, Odinson?”

Thor swallowed, nodding his head. “Yes, I do. I have been behaving very abnormally, I know… but there is nothing wrong with me. In fact, I—I think I might be getting things right for the first time in quite a while. After receiving some advice, I have been trying to see things from your point of view…” Taking a deep breath, Thor steadied his voice and continued, fingers curling around his knees as he spoke. “Loki, you were raised for—for over a thousand years to believe something with all of your heart that wasn’t true. Learning about those lies hurt you, and I… I only cared about my own feelings toward the situation. It was selfish... and I am sorry.”

Loki didn’t say a word, his jaw clenched and body stiff, though Thor couldn’t tell whether it was anger or fear or something else entirely. Loki was shaking, his eyes moist and glassy, leaving Thor with the feeling that he had done something horribly wrong.

“I… I know an apology cannot fix what I’ve done, but Loki, I am trying. I swear, I am doing everything I can to repair some of the damage I have caused. I know I can never make it up to you, but maybe I can make some of it right again. Maybe—”

“Leave, Thor.” Loki clenched his teeth, shaking harder, tears streaming down his cheeks.

Thor startled, the words sending physical pain through his chest and stomach. “But I—”

“Leave!”

Loki’s scream echoed down the hall, and Thor quickly jumped to his feet. He still didn’t know what he had done, but it was very obvious that his first instinct was correct—whatever it was, it was very, very wrong.

Don’t make me leave when you sit there with tears in your eyes. Let me comfort you, please, you are my little brother no matter what, let me be there for you. I’ll find a way to make things better, I promise, just please let me hold you. Please…

Turning toward the door, Thor started to walk, pausing at the bars and speaking softly. “I’m sorry, Loki. Should I not return tomorrow?”

Silence filled the prison, and Thor’s heart sank into the pit of his stomach. Loki wasn’t even talking to him, it seemed, and he didn’t know when he would get clearance for someone else to visit.

Sighing, Thor opened the door and stepped out, beginning the long journey down the hall.

“Every day?”

Thor halted, not turning around for fear Loki would think he was gloating. “Every day.” His heart felt but an ounce lighter, and it was with slow and heavy footfalls that he made his way out of the prison, his own eyes burning with unshed tears of remorse and frustration.

Brother, please… please, please, please…

He didn’t know what else to think.

Please…


Loki watched Thor leave through a veil of tears, cursing himself for his inability to dry his eyes on command. He wasn’t sad, he wasn’t hurt, he wasn’t even upset—he was angry, and yet, the angrier he got, the more his eyes watered.

He’s lying to me. Just like Odin, just like Frigga, just like Queen Leiknyrr, just like the Avengers. He realized he can’t get to me by shouting the same thing over and over, so he’s trying a new tactic. It all has the same end result. It’s not different, not really.

Swinging his arm out, Loki threw his fist against the wall and relished in the pain that spread though his bones. It was different. It was different because Thor couldn’t lie to Loki. He was honest to a fault, and when pitted against Loki’s sharp tongue and skill for the woven word, there was simply no way the god of thunder could pull a fast one on the god of lies.

It was impossible.

Slender fingers curled through greasy, black locks and pulled on the tangled strands, his knees drawing closer to his chest as his forehead came down on the bony knobs. I have to get a grip. I have to get a grip. Raising his head, Loki searched desperately for something to occupy his mind with, finding the two unread letters almost immediately and snatching them up without a moment of hesitation.

He practically tore the first one open, not bothering to see who it was from. Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think. Running a hand through his hair, he reclaimed the letter in both hands and started to read, stopping every now and then to dab at his eyes and clear his vision.

Dear Loki,

     I’m not sure if I should tell you this or not because it’s kind of embarrassing, but I took breakfast to your room this morning… only to find that you weren’t there. Let it never be said that you were not missed.

    Clint said he saw Brianna today, and she asked about you. He told her you were on vacation, and when she asked where, he said the North Pole. I think that was his attempt at a joke, but I’m not sure whether or not you’ll find it funny… I hope you do. I bet you need a few laughs right now.

    Tony and I started remodeling your room, but when we took in the full amount of the damage, we decided it was a project we weren’t sure we could have done in time. It’s not like we can call in a construction crew to work on it, and with our day jobs and missions, it would have been a little more than we can swallow. So, we’re moving you up onto one of the higher floors, and we’re transferring all of your things up there. You’ll have a better view of the city, which was Jarvis’ idea. He says you spend a lot of time looking out the window.

    Thor has already started talking to Queen Leiknyrr about allowing Bruce and I to come visit. You probably already guessed, but he’s been taking turns moping around like a kicked puppy and pacing the floors in—

Loki shut the letter and stuffed it back into the envelope, inhaling deeply and slowly in an attempt to keep the anxiety in his stomach at a controllable level. Still trying to deny the problem at hand, he moved on to Bruce’s letter and opened it, unfolding the paper and reading the contents with a slew of thoughts clawing at the back of his mind.

Dear Loki,

I asked Thor to get some books on Jotunheim for me from Asgard. It’s taking me a while to decipher the language, but I’m trying to get a better handle on how your situation is going to be dealt with and what the limits will be. I really don’t think you need to worry about anyone trying to kill you (doing so would essentially be starting a war with Asgard, which is exactly what these negotiations are supposed to avoid) and from what I’ve discovered so far, there is actually a set time where the prisons are open to civilians. I’m not sure if that applies to you, but you should try and ask around if you can. It’s supposed to be a way to allow families to care for their loved ones who have been imprisoned, although I imagine many Jotuns are using this against you. Still, if you could find out when the ‘safe’ time is, maybe it could offer you some peace of mind…

I sent along a couple books I think you’ll like. Read them, if you can, and try and use them as a way to relax. This might sound strange to you, but human bodies are weakened by stress. If you don’t find some way to unwind, your body will get weaker and weaker, even if no one is doing anything to it. It’s hard to just forget about stress, but for the sake of your health, please try. Also, drink as much water as you have access to. I think you already learned this the hard way, but water is very important. I can’t underline that enough.

Lastly, I know Thor is going to be spending a lot of time with you over the next thirty days, since he’ll have the most access to you. I’ve been talking to Thor about the way he handles interactions with you, so if you really need a break from his presence, just tell him so. He’s actually been doing really well at—

Loki closed that one too, placing them both in the lockbox with the orange things and then picking up the books that had been left for him. Macbeth was one, To Kill a Mockingbird was another, and the last was called Slaughterhouse V.

They all sounded interesting, and yet Loki found himself unable to read more than a page of any of them. He would start to read and then find himself overwhelmed with unwelcome thoughts and feelings, which would cause him to lose his place. He would then start over only to find the same thing happened the next time around.

To top it all off, his eyes were still wet.

“Loki, I think you need to lie down.”

Snarling, Loki looked up from his books and sent a sharp glare toward his ever-present, ever-nosy personal prison guard. “What business of yours is this?”

Raghnall only arched an eyebrow, sighing in the same way a parent might sigh at an irrationally emotional toddler. Standing up, he opened the door to the cell and let himself in, closing and locking it in his usual manner before joining Loki on the floor.

“Thinking out loud can really help get your head on straight. Why don’t you give it a shot?” Raghnall suggested, pulling out his knife and a piece of wood to partake in his favorite hobby.

Loki snorted and barked out a bitter laugh, dropping his head to his knees again. “That is a wonderful idea. Please, allow me to reveal my all of my private thoughts to you, a complete stranger and ally to my enemies. Brilliant!”

Raghnall didn’t look up from his work, crossing his legs at the ankles. “Who better? I know nothing almost nothing about you, and even less about the people you’ve got on your mind. I’m a stranger. I have no opinions. I’m just a set of ears that you’ll probably never see again after the next twenty-nine days are over. I might be a Jotun, but I wouldn’t have been placed in charge of you if Queen Leiknyrr thought I had any personal vendetta against you.”

Loki turned his head slowly, staring at the wall for a minute or two before folding his arms over his knees and burying his face in the fabric of his sleeves. He really was going to drive himself over the edge if he kept teetering on the brink of an internalized meltdown. Raghnall had never proven himself to be an enemy, and the guard had helped him to sort out at least some of his thoughts earlier that very day.

“…I don’t know what to believe, I suppose.” Loki didn’t lift his head, not wanting to acknowledge that he was actually speaking to another living being. “All my life I was told one thing, and then everything suddenly changed, and I thought I was getting used to those new concepts, and now… everything is changing again, and I’m not entirely sure it really changed the first time.” Fingers curled through the cloth over his arms, feet twisting on the stone floor as he struggled to keep his nervousness under control. “When I tried to destroy Jotunheim, Thor came to stop me. I—when we were young, he would brag about how he intended to hunt down and kill every last Jotun, and just like that he was telling me I was wrong for fulfilling those very words. I thought that was his change. I thought Midgard made him soft and sentimental, but now… now it seems as though he’s changed again, and I don’t even know if what happened to him the first time was genuine or just an act or…”

Shudders racked his body, his voice thick with emotions he did not want. “I don’t know what to think. I don’t know—about Jotunheim, about this ring, about this form, about my mother. The Captain—a human, someone I enjoy the company of—sent me a letter, and in it he told me of a young girl who inquired about my absence. When I first met her, I thought she was just as pathetic as the rest of the human race, but she revealed herself to be much stronger and more resilient than I realized. So, then, am I to change my opinions on the Jotuniri, too? On Bjolan and Klaufi and Lini? And if I do, what does that mean for my opinion of Jotunheim as a whole, of myself and this—this skin that I can’t get rid of no matter how hard I try?”

He curled in on himself even tighter, his feet no longer twisting for lack of room to move, and his body no longer shaking for the tension in his frame. “Even as a child, I never trusted easily. Those I did trust, I still didn’t reveal myself to fully for fear they would look down on me or I would lose their—their pride and affection. Father—” a sob escaped him, and he cursed himself for it, digging his fingernails into the skin of his arms, “—and Thor I trusted, but I felt so inferior that I never wanted either of them to know what I was thinking. I wanted them to believe I was just as strong and unshakable as they were, and they never showed me any weakness, so I felt I had no right to do otherwise to them.”

He was rambling now. Loki was rambling and tears were soaking his shirt. His forearms were bleeding, his head was pounding, his nose was running, his face was hot, and he would be skinned half alive if he could make any of it stop.

“It’s not even that important, though, you know, it’s not even that relevant because they weren’t my real family, so it wouldn’t have mattered what I did or didn’t tell them. I was never, ever a son of Odin, and nothing I did was ever going to change that, because I was a son of Laufey by blood regardless of what my actions were or who I believed myself to be. I was a son of Leiknyrr and Laufey, and they decided to make the best move in the history of child-rearing and leave me on a frozen rock to die!”

Somehow his head had been lifted during the mayhem, and he was now shouting toward the bars of his cell, one hand coming up to grab a fistful of his hair. His other hand came up to cover his mouth and nose, lungs burning as he held his breath in a last-ditch effort to stop himself before he derailed completely.

Raghnall reached out and picked up the pillow Thor had brought, handing it to Loki and waving his hand toward the other end of the cell. In an instant, the bars were gone and replaced with a stone wall just like the ones that surrounded them on every other side, and Raghnall resumed his whittling once more.

“Like I said, you should lie down.”

Loki stared at the pillow for a second or two and then slowly lowered his face into it, his hands behind the pillow, the whole mess resting atop his knees. Fingers curled through the fabric as he let himself breathe again, the presence of oxygen causing fresh tears to spring up and burn through his sinuses.

And that was when the floodgates opened.

All of the anger, all of the hatred, all of the fear, all of the desperation, all of the confusion, all of the loneliness, anxiety, doubt, hurt, sadness, rage, distrust, bitterness, jealousy, inferiority, weakness, humiliation—all of the brokenness. It all came rushing out in a single, hoarse, crackling, ear-splitting scream.

The scream gave way to sobbing and wailing and screams of smaller size and weaker volume. It dissolved into curses and threats and an onslaught of uncensored thoughts coming from the very core of every emotion the god of lies had ever experienced. It rose and it fell, it grew and it shrank, it bounced off of the walls, it hurt his ears and made them ring, it made him want to start from the beginning and break all over again.

Then it started to fade. Slowly, almost unnoticeably at first, it started to give way to the fatigue and exhaustion that racked his body, that conquered him in every sense of the word. Then he found he had no more tears left, and the cries turned hard and dry, rubbing his throat raw and sending shards of glass into his lungs with every rasping inhale. Finally, even his voice failed him, and the last of the cries fell away, leaving him curled up on his side, clutching a pillow, and shaking in absolute silence.

And Raghnall didn’t say a word. He sat, and he whittled, and he kept the wall up. Loki stared at that wall, stared at it long and hard, wondering if it was real or if there was a group of spectators beyond it that had seen the whole thing; that had watched him shatter into a million pieces on the floor.

Then Loki realized… he didn’t care.

He grasped the pillow just as tightly as before, and he pulled the cape and the blanket around his body, curling up into the smallest ball he could possibly make of himself. Then he closed his eyes, too drained to make any coherent thought other than the one he found looping at the forefront of his mind unceasingly.

I want to go home.

He had no idea where home was.

I want to go home.

He didn’t know if he even had one.

I want to go home.

But he really, really wanted to go there.

I want to go home, I want to go home, I want to go home, I want to go home, I want…

Chapter Text

Steve couldn’t imagine a more ironic situation. Jotunheim was a fortress of ice and snow, shades of blue going on for as far as the eye could see. He hadn’t seen so much ice since he had been buried in it, and he hadn’t really seen it then.

But there he was, trudging through the snow to the prison, passing blocks of ice ten times the size of the one that had trapped him. He stepped into the building, passing frosted walls of stone and clay, and slowly, the scenery changed from the cold blues of the outside world to a warm, earthen

Odd that the prison would be more inviting than the freedom of open air.

Steve adjusted his coat, tugging on the sleeves and pulling his hat down further over his ears. Originally, he had planned to wear his uniform for the sake of professionalism, but Thor had disagreed. The Asgardian believed Jotunheim would see it as an unspoken threat, and that Steve would freeze to death in a matter of minutes. Needless to say, Steve wound up layered in a wide variety of warm, heat-conserving, civilian clothes.

From the looks of things, Jotuns can not only survive this weather, but they’re actually comfortable in it. I can see a lot of guards wearing nothing but loincloths, and the queen herself wore thin garments that left her stomach and arms exposed.

Clearing his throat, Steve stepped up to one of the Jotun guards and tapped him on the shoulder. He was startled by the sudden chill that invaded his gloved hand, but he didn’t let his smile falter. “Excuse me, I’m Captain America, from Midgard.” He gestured to his shield as evidence and continued. “I’m here to see Loki, but I’m not sure where to find him. Could you point me in the right direction?”

For a moment, the Jotun only stared, examining him with critical, crimson eyes. Then, after a minute or so, he extended his hand and pointed down the hall to their left. “Two rights, one left. He’s at the very end.”

Steve smiled warmly and started down the indicated hallway, extending a hand as he left in a display of gratitude. “Thank you.”

Steve looked around as he walked, trying to get an idea of his surroundings without wasting any of his allotted visiting time. He continued and made the first turn, increasing his gait until he was caught somewhere between a jog and a fast walk. There were a lot of cells, he noticed, but most of the ones he could see were empty.

Either their crime rates are low, or their laws are slipshod. If it’s the second one, we could have a problem on our hands in the future. Steve glanced around, making more notes as he walked, writing down a mental list of things to put in his report to Director Fury when he returned. Even though S.H.I.E.L.D. had turned Loki over in order to appease Jotunheim, the move had also served as the first interaction between the two realms.

It had the potential to open some very dangerous doors.

Steve looked down at his shield again, tapping it idly as he took the second right. Queen Leiknyrr said she would allow it because it’s for self-defense. Better make a note not to use it for any offensive tactics unless I absolutely have to, or I might lose one of my very few advantages here.

Looking back up, Steve made the third turn and peered down the hall in search of a familiar face. He didn’t find one, but he did see a cell at the very end of the hall with a guard posted right outside. Based on the directions he had been given, he figured that was where he needed to go.

Steve waved a friendly greeting and approached the guard with the intent of conversation. “Hi, I’m Captain America, from Midgard.” He stuck his hand out, waiting for the Jotun to take it.

The Jotun looked him over for a long time, just as the last one had, before finally accepting the handshake and offering up his own introduction. “Raghnall. Loki is under my direct supervision while he’s here.”

Steve nodded and returned his arm to his side. “Thank you for keeping an eye on him. He’s under my direct supervision on Midgard, and I was a little concerned about handing him over to someone else.” He rubbed the back of his head and laughed quietly, feeling foolish. “I guess that’s a little strange, huh?”

For a moment, Raghnall just stared at him, but then he smiled lightly. “No, I understand.”

“Captain, did you come to socialize with me or the guards?”

Unmistakable sarcasm floated from the cell bed, and Steve turned to look with a slight shrug. “Well, he does seem to be better company.” He placed his hand on the lock and looked at Raghnall, making sure he was allowed to let himself in before doing so. “But, seeing as it’s your six-day prison anniversary, I guess I can spend some time with you, too.”

Loki crossed his arms over his chest but said nothing, a half-hearted smirk lingering on his lips. It was a rather bleached response, coming from the god of mischief, and Steve would have questioned it immediately had he not found himself preoccupied with Loki’s new look.

“How did you change your appearance without magic?” Steve shook his head as soon as he the question passed his lips, waving a dismissive hand and sitting down next to Loki on the pallet. “Never mind, you can tell me later. I want to know how you’re doing.”

Loki nodded his head, gazing down at his lap where his hands sat fiddling with each other. “I am doing well. I think one of my ribs was broken this morning, but I’m not sure.” Pale lips turned upward into a weak smile. “I’m not exactly used to assessing injuries, but it hurts like you wouldn’t believe, so something must be wrong.”

“Would you like me to take a look?” Steve scanned Loki’s face, not liking the vacant glaze he saw. “I’m no doctor, but I know how to identify a broken rib.”

Loki shook his head in response. “No. Just leave it alone.”

Frowning, Steve scanned Loki again, wondering whether or not to press the subject. Steve was concerned, of course, but even if Loki did have a broken rib, nothing could really be done to treat it. Was it worth disrupting the brief period of sanctuary?

“Alright, I’ll leave it alone if that’s what you want. Broken ribs usually heal on their own, anyway.” Steve leaned back against the wall, stretching his legs out in front of him and setting his shield on top of his lap. “So, have you read any of the books yet?”

The response was delayed, but eventually Loki’s head started to bob. “I read Macbeth.” He exhaled slowly. “I just finished it last night, actually.”

Something is wrong. Which Steve had fully expected. Between the travel, the climate change, the prison, the physical strain… well, Steve would have been unnerved if something wasn’t wrong with Loki. But this was different. Like the day he left.

Steve could still see Loki’s face when he closed his eyes; he could see the exact moment Loki frantically blurted out he wasn’t afraid, effectively revealing he most certainly was, and the moment that came right after—the moment the wall took its first blow. Loki’s rage had failed him, and the broken spirit left behind was a sight Steve couldn’t forget.

“Loki, are you alright?”

Loki snorted. “I’m in prison, Captain. It’s hard to be all right.”

“That’s not what I meant.” Blue eyes stared Loki down, unafraid of the dark red gaze that confronted them. “You look like death warmed over. What happened?”

Silence filled the space between them, but Loki didn’t try to change the subject or dodge the question. He looked at Steve, and his brow creased thoughtfully, fingers fiddling with the ring on his right hand.

“Nothing happened.” Loki inhaled slowly, and his gaze wandered up to the ceiling, lingering for several moments before dropping back down to his hands. “I suppose I have a lot on my mind. That is all.”

Steve let a few seconds pass, waiting to see if Loki had anything else to say before pressing on. “What kind of things are you thinking about?”

Chuckling, Loki reestablished eye contact and shook his head. “I don’t think so. I tried to think out loud a few nights ago, and it didn’t go very well.”

“Really?” Steve’s eyes widened to show genuine interest, and he prodded some more. “Why not?”

Loki glared sharply. “Must you do this?”

For a moment, Steve thought about dropping the subject, but he chose to stand his ground and try to find out what was going on in Loki’s head.

“I’m only trying to help.” He held up his hands slightly, a subtle display of surrender. “Don’t turn me into a frog for saying this, but you aren’t exactly famous for your stellar understanding of emotions.”

“You wound me,” Loki drawled.

Steve rolled his eyes. “I’m serious.”

Sighing, Loki ran both hands through his hair and let his fingers tangle together behind his neck. “I wound up… very distraught. I do not wish to repeat the experience, as it was rather unpleasant.”

“I can understand that.” Steve’s tone made it clear that he wasn’t done yet. “But sometimes you need to get upset in order to face what it is that’s bothering you. It’s like facing your fears. If you never face them, you won’t be afraid, but you’ll also spend the rest of your life running from them.”

“I know how fear works, thank you.” Loki swallowed and sat very still, not making a single sound for quite some time. If it weren’t for the rise and fall of the blue flesh stretched across his abdomen, Steve might have thought he had stopped breathing altogether.

“Loki…” Steve stopped, looking down at his shield and deciding to let the topic die. He didn’t have the expertise to know for a fact he would give good advice, and he knew Bruce would only re-ask the questions when it was his turn to visit. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have done that. You’re clearly exhausted and don’t want to talk about this.”

Loki blinked a few times, bewildered, and all he offered was a slight nod in reply.

Steve simply smiled and carried on. “So, tell me what’s been going on. Have you made any new friends?”

“Tch. You’re hysterical.” Loki shook his head and looked around the cell, almost as if he thought he might find an answer written on the walls. “Did Thor tell you about the little ones?”

Steve tilted his head slightly, thinking back to his conversations with Thor but coming up blank. “No, I don’t think so.”

Loki gave a quick nod. “I see.” His lips came together tightly, hands folded together in his lap, eyes growing glassy.

Steve wasn’t sure how to interrupt, or if he even should, and silence reigned in the cell for a solid three minutes before Loki finally broke it.

“Captain, tell me about racism.”

Steve, caught off-guard, took a few moments to get his bearings. “I—uh, sure. What do you want to know about it?”

“How would you define it, and what do you think about it?”

Steve sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. Only Loki could ask a complex question that was bound to have an extensive, equally complicated answer as if he were asking for the time. Still, Steve got the feeling he understood the reason for the breech of topic, and he wanted to make sure he didn’t give Loki any wrong ideas.

“Racism is when you treat someone as lower than yourself, view them as lower than yourself, or assume they would do something you or your society disapproves of based only on their race. For example, if I assumed Raghnall here,” he gestured to the guard, “was less intelligent than myself because he’s a Jotun, that would be racist of me. There’s no basis for it other than the color of his skin. Nothing about his skin being blue means he is unable to be just as smart and intellectually capable as myself.”

Loki nodded his head, crossing his legs and watching the other intently. Raghnall also found himself interested in the conversation—most likely because Steve had pulled him into it—and he leaned against the bars, watching the Captain of America with careful eyes.

“Racism is unfounded, illogical, morally wrong, unjust, narrow-minded, and it can be downright cruel. There were a lot of strong feelings about it when we still bought and sold slaves, and even today, it would be almost impossible to find someone who doesn’t know their position on racism.” Steve paused when he heard the guard at the door clearing his throat, his expression lightening in silent permission to interrupt.

“So, you don’t trade in slaves anymore?” Raghnall asked, curiosity lacing his tone.

Steve shook his head. “Not in America. It divided our country and eventually lead to a civil war, which was won by the Union from the North and lead to the abolishment of slavery.” It was the cliff notes version, but it answered the question well enough. “However, slavery still exists in many countries around the world—in fact, there are more people enslaved today than every other time in history combined—and racism is still something humanity struggles with today. Not everyone believes all people are created equal, and while civil rights have come a long way, there’s still some groups and factions of people who cling to those old ideas.”

Loki nodded his head, picking at the skin between his fingers and keeping his gaze directed toward his hands. “So, Captain, you would not see the children on this planet as any different than those found on Midgard?”

Steve tilted his head. “Well, I mean, human kids can’t freeze things or survive temperatures this cold, but that’s not a difference in value. It’s sometimes tough to draw the lines, because you have to acknowledge that different races are different and so are the cultures they live in, but they’re all equal in value and rights. Does that make sense?”

“Yeah.” Raghnall nodded, flipping his pocketknife in his hand.

There was a brief pause, but Loki finally agreed. “Yes, I understand.”

Steve gave them two thumbs up, happy to see there would be no fighting, and he was pleased with Loki’s curious, questioning attitude. Steve had expected Loki to become more guarded and closed off as his sentence on Jotunheim continued, but it looked like the opposite was happening. Loki was so overwhelmed by new experiences, he couldn’t shut the world out, and he had no choice but to come to terms with some of the struggles he would spend the next several years of his life sorting out.

I wish Bruce were here. He would know how to handle this. He would know what to say and what all of the psychological implications were. There’s no way I’ll remember all of Loki’s facial expressions and body language when I’m giving Bruce an update tonight.

“Loki, have you taken a look at Tony’s gift yet?” Steve tried to change the subject to something lighter, not wanting to hand Loki a bunch of complex worldviews, only to leave him to digest it all alone.

Red eyes flickered over to the lockbox and then back to Steve’s face. “Yes, I did. They were very tasty.”

Steve smiled widely. “They’re Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Tony loves them.”

He had been surprised by Tony’s random and wordless addition to the lockbox, but after pondering it for a minute or two, it made perfect sense. Tony had been in captivity, and if Steve recalled correctly, one of the first things he got upon his return was a cheeseburger. Loki was now in a similar situation, so Tony had sent along comfort food based on his own experience.

“So…” Loki mused, “that is what they are called.”

Steve pulled himself out of his thoughts and smiled. “Yup.”

Loki gave a quiet nod, his expression blank and eyes glazed over. It looked like he was lost in thought again, his fingers starting to twitch and fiddle atop his thighs. He swallowed, focusing on his hands for a moment before losing focus once again, staring at nothing in particular as he continued to fidget.

“Loki.”

Hearing his name, the trickster looked up and blinked a few times. “Yes?”

“We haven’t forgotten you.” Steve levelled his gaze at Loki, his allegedly cliché but heartfelt honesty shining bright in his eyes. “Just twenty-four more days, and then things will be back to somewhat normal.”

A smile flickered across Loki’s features. “Somewhat normal, hmm?”

“Well, I mean, if you think it’s normal to live in a giant tower with your demigod not-brother, one of the smartest and richest people on Earth, humanity’s first super soldier, a couple of master assassins, and the Incredible Hulk, then…” He let his voice trail, smile broadening when he managed to pull a faint chuckle from Loki.

He’s going to be alright, we just have to be careful. He has to know this isn’t just a political arrangement, otherwise he’s just going to get bitter and resentful again.

“So, is anyone going to tell me whose idea it was to wear loincloths in this weather?”

He’s going to be alright.


“Woah! How did you do that?”

Loki smiled slightly and extended his hand, tongue flashing over the cut on his upper lip out of recent habit. “It is actually quite easy once you know the secret.” He retracted his arm and started to fiddle with the string again, pulling it this way and that until it had been tied into what appeared to be a large knot. “You just have to blow on it properly. Why don’t you give it a try?”

Klaufi bounced a little closer, leaning forward and blowing onto Loki’s cupped hands. Eyes wide with fascination, he watched as Loki pulled both ends of the string, the knot dissolving into a single line of cotton.

“Where did you learn to do that?” Bjolan questioned, standing a few feet away with his arms crossed tightly over his chest—as was his prerogative. “Or is that common knowledge on Asgard?”

Loki shook his head. “Not really. I learned it from one of Thor’s friends. He had a fondness for impressing the ladies with tricks and games and… other displays of grandiosity.” He smiled a little at the memory of a young Fandral impressing girls with his supposed magic.

Klaufi leaned into Loki’s side and tugged on his sleeve, staring up at him with wide eyes. “Where did you learn your real magic? You know, with the spells and runes and stuff.”

“Queen Frigga taught me all of the basics, and after she laid the foundations, I began to study magic on my own.” He cast a brief glance at his hands, once again made painfully aware of his depowered state.

“Did you use magic to attack Jotunheim?” Bjolan asked, his gaze sharp.

Loki met it evenly, his expression neither mocking nor ashamed. “No. When I attempted to destroy Jotunheim, I opened the Bifrost and did not let it close. It’s not meant to be kept that way, and as the power began to build, it started to cut through the planet.”

Bjolan looked away, occupying himself with the wall and keeping his arms folded snugly against his chest. Loki was getting used to the boy’s behavior, and he had decided that the constant situation of his arms was a subconscious move toward self-defense, so it didn’t irritate him half as much as it used to.

“I hear footsteps,” Klaufi said suddenly, tugging on Loki’s sleeve again as he sought instruction. “Do we have to go? Can we come back later?”

Frowning, Loki placed a hand on the boy’s head to silence him and peered down the hallway, waiting to see who it was before offering an answer. It didn’t take very long; the moment the visitor rounded the corner, Loki was able to identify him and quickly addressed the little blue creatures at his side.

“You may stay. He will not hurt you.”

Bjolan discreetly inched closer, and Loki restrained the smirk that threatened to curl his lips. You claim to hate me, and yet any time you hear someone coming, you come closer as if you think I’ll protect you. On one hand it was irritating, but on another it was endearing. Loki simply couldn’t decide which hand he wanted to go with.

“Loki, I did not think you would have visitors at this hour.” Thor’s voice boomed down the hallway, loud but not at all angry, as was Thor’s default. “Are these the Jotuniri you spoke of?”

Klaufi squeaked, crawling under Loki’s blanket and drawing a sigh from the lips of the fallen god. Reaching under, Loki grabbed Klaufi around the waist and dragged him out. “None of that, now. Thor won’t hurt you.”

Laughing heartily, Thor let himself into the cell and approached the trio, kneeling down on the ground with a friendly wave. “Hello, little ones. I am Thor, of Asgard. It is very nice to meet you.”

“I’m Bjolan,” the still distant child stated, jerking his head toward the smaller boy, “and this is my brother, Klaufi.”

“Brother, I can introduce myself!”

Bjolan arched a brow. “Does it really matter?”

Klaufi nodded seriously. “Yes.”

“Fine, then.” Bjolan rolled his eyes. “You do it. Go on, reintroduce yourself.”

Clearing his throat, Klaufi looked up at Thor and smiled. “I’m Klaufi, of Jotunheim. It’s nice to meet you.”

Thor laughed at the exchange while Loki shook his head, the older prince speaking to the children with an exuberant and cheerful disposition. “That was very nicely done, Klaufi! You’re both so grown up. How old are you?”

Shifting slightly, Bjolan looked between Klaufi and Thor, hesitating for quite some time before giving an answer. “I am 124, and Klaufi is ninety-eight.”

Loki’s eyes widened slightly, a look of approval crossing his face. “I would have thought you to be at least a decade older. You are indeed mature for your age, Bjolan.”

Grinning, Thor leaned forward and gave Klaufi a wink. “And you are almost one century old. That’s very exciting!”

Klaufi giggled, obviously no longer scared of Thor but still holding onto Loki’s blanket with one of his hands. Bjolan still had his arms crossed, and every time the conversation turned to him, he seemed to shrink away ever-so-slightly, always narrowing his eyes just enough to look displeased.

They are both afraid, but they show it in different ways.

“So, what are you doing here, Thor?” Klaufi wiggled his toes, watching the blonde with curious eyes. “Did you come to see Loki? Is Loki your friend?”

Still smiling like an idiot, Thor nodded and shifted his position so he was sitting cross-legged. “Yes, I came to see Loki, and yes, he is my friend. We were raised in the Asgardian palace together as princes.”

Bjolan blinked, tilted his head to the side. “Wouldn’t that make you kin?”

At this point, Loki intercepted, casting Thor a brief glance that told him to keep his mouth shut on the details. “I was adopted into the royal family and raised as one of their own. That is the only relation between us.”

Thor gave a jerky nod and a tight-lipped smile, his eyes flickering down toward his lap. “It is as Loki says. We were raised together, we played together, we fought together… but that is all.” Swallowing, he turned the topic of conversation back to the little ones, avoiding Loki’s gaze. “Loki has told me the two of you are in a difficult situation.”

Bjolan glared, his body tensing. “We’re fine.”

“Psst!” Klaufi leaned forward and whispered loudly, cupping both of his hands around his mouth. “Brother’s really hungry and tired all the time, and we don’t have a house.”

“Klaufi!” the older brother snapped. “That is none of their business.”

Loki opened his mouth to explain that, because it was his own fault they were orphaned, it was very much their business, but Thor jumped into the conversation before he had the chance.

“We do not need to know the details in order to help you, and you need not use us as a crutch. If you let me, we can work together to find the things you need. It would be like an adventure—an older warrior passing on to a younger warrior the essentials of survival.” Thor grinned widely and stuck out his hand. “What do you say, Bjolan? Will you go adventuring with me while I am here?”

For a long while, Bjolan just stared, but then his arms slowly dropped to his sides. He looked at Thor’s fingers as though they could turn into knives at any moment, gnawing on his lip as he considered the proposal.

“I… No, I won’t.” Bjolan’s arms came back up and crossed, pressing tightly against his bare chest. “I can’t.”

Loki spoke up then, his voice coaxing and smooth. “Bjolan, Thor cannot hurt you. Even if he wanted to, it would cause much war and destruction, and King Odin would punish him severely.”

Bjolan swallowed hard, curling in on himself and staring at his feet. He didn’t say a word, though his gaze did travel up and down, sweeping over the occupants of the cell as he assessed the situation a second time. Finally, he found himself staring at Thor’s still outstretched hand, his entire body rigid with anxiety.

“…I can’t shake your hand. You’ll be hurt.”

Thor grinned. “Give it a try, Bjolan.”

Frowning, Bjolan did as he was told and cautiously approached, grasping the offered arm below the elbow and watching as Thor did the same. Blue light shone through the gaps where their skin met, but they both remained unharmed, and there were no marks left over when they dropped their hands again.

Loki blinked, his expression one third amazed, one third angered, and one third suspicious. “Thor, what was that?” He shook his head slightly. “No, allow me to rephrase. Thor, from where or from whom did you get that?”

“Mother.” Thor reached down the front of his shirt and produced a leather strap with a blue crystal dangling on the end. “I went to Asgard to see if there was a way to protect myself when making physical contact with a frost giant. She told me she used this necklace when you were a babe, and after strengthening some of the spells, she gave it to me.” He smiled, clearly proud of himself, and clutched the pendant to his chest.

“That will certainly be useful.” Loki offered no further encouragement, swallowing his words as he examined the shimmering crystal from afar. “It was excellently made. It shouldn’t fail you unless someone directly attacks the spells or tries to remove them.” He didn’t speak his mind any more than that, but he couldn’t quite repress the thoughts pushing up from beneath the surface.

She crafted a pendant so she could hold me at all times. Leiknyrr didn’t want to hold me at all. But Frigga lied to me, and Leiknyrr is excruciatingly honest.

“Thor.” Loki interrupted his own thoughts, placing a hand on the little head by his ribs. “You should take Bjolan now rather than later to ensure you get back before the prison closes. Klaufi can stay here with me so he won’t get lost or hurt in your, ah, adventures.”

Blue eyes flooded with concern, brow creasing as the idea was contemplated. “Loki, I can see that you are able to sit up on your own, but you are hardly in a condition suited for taking care of a child.”

Scowling, Loki turned his head away, one hand coming up to rub at his midsection absentmindedly. “I know that I’m a little worse for the wear—”

Raghnall’s familiar, mocking laughter interrupted him. “Last I checked, you’ve got yourself a couple of broken ribs and about a hundred bruises and cuts, not to mention the pulled muscles in your leg and the blow to your head that sent you under for a couple minutes.”

Loki glowered darkly and crossed his arms over his chest, staring his older brother down. “Thor, I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself and Klaufi. We’re just going to sit here and learn some magic tricks, and Raghnall is here with us as well.” He could feel his heart rate picking up, frustration seeping into his voice as the worry on Thor’s face grew.

“Loki, you don’t have any of your healing abilities or—”

“I am fine, and I don’t want to hear another word on the subject.”

“But—”

“Not. Another. Word.”

For a moment, Thor looked as though he were going to refuse, but then he let out a heavy sigh and got to his feet, dusting off his pants. “Bjolan, are you alright with this arrangement?”

“It’s alright, Brother!” Klaufi wrapped Loki’s blanket around his shoulders and made himself comfortable against Loki’s side. “You go with Thor, I’ll stay here. When you come back, I’ll show you a magic trick! Okay?” He shifted his weight as he spoke, trying to find a position that wouldn’t make Loki flinch in pain.

Bjolan stared for a long time, red eyes flickering between the four other people present. Loki could read him like a book, his face composed of words and phrases that spelled out his thoughts in crisp, black ink. Bjolan didn’t trust Loki or Thor, but he did trust Raghnall, and he didn’t want his baby brother to go back out into the black wilderness. He was conflicted and still incredibly terrified, but he was also hungry and needed to get a more permanent shelter for him and Klaufi.

Use your head, Bjolan. Loki willed him to listen to reason, already feeling his patience with Thor wearing thin. Go on. Go. It wasn’t even as if Thor was doing anything wrong. No, it was the awareness of his own physical state and the sensation of Thor’s shadow crawling over him again, even if it came with the purest of intentions.

“Bjolan,” Loki started, catching the boy’s attention and meeting his eyes. “I have no reason to hurt Klaufi, and even if I did, Raghnall wouldn’t let me. You know that.”

Still frowning, Bjolan started to walk toward the cell door, passing a wary glance over both Asgardians. “I suppose… we can go now…”

Thor followed him out with an encouraging smile, giving Loki a final, very worried glance over his shoulder. “We will be back soon. Take care of each other.” Then, turning away from the cell, he started down the hall on Bjolan’s right, launching into a long-winded explanation of the best ways to prepare a shelter without manmade supplies.

Klaufi immediately decided he wanted attention and tugged on Loki’s sleeve. “Will you teach me a magic trick now?”

Loki nodded, a light smile pulling at his lips, and he tugged on the end of his blanket until it produced another thread. “Here, this one will be yours. We’ll start with something simple, and you must practice until you can do it with relative ease.”

Klaufi nodded, taking the string into his hands and waiting for further instruction.

“Now, the first thing you’re going to do is fold the string over your forefinger and middle finger. That’s this one and this one.” He pointed to the specific digits and waited for Klaufi to complete the move before continuing. “Then, you want to take the bottom string here and wrap it around your fingers once.”

I still have three weeks to survive, and Thor isn’t wrong. My physical state is poor, and if I’m not careful, I could wind up severely injured or dead regardless of Odin’s pact with Jotunheim. Instructions continued to flow from his mouth as he demonstrated with his own hands what he wanted Klaufi to do. If Mo—Queen Frigga gave Thor a pendant to enable him to help me, I wonder if she would send along an elixir if I asked. Of course, that might break the details of the agreement, and Odin certainly wouldn’t be pleased about my receiving help. And if Odin isn’t pleased, then Thor isn’t either, and he’s my only contact with the other realms at the moment. Blast…

“That’s very good, Klaufi. Now, with your left hand, pull on the two strings and watch what happens.” Loki didn’t demonstrate this part, wanting Klaufi to realize the trick on his own.

“It winked at me!” Giggling, Klaufi extended his hands, using the string tangled around his fingers to wink at Loki. “It winked at you, too.”

Loki raised his hands and winked back, chuckling softly. “You did a very nice job.”

Klaufi leaped forward in response, throwing his arms around Loki’s neck and hugging him tight. “Thank you, Loki!”

“C-careful!”

Klaufi froze at the noise of discomfort, carefully readjusting his arms and legs so he wasn’t putting any pressure on Loki’s midsection. “Better?”

Instinct told Loki to push the boy away, but Klaufi really wasn’t doing any harm, and it wasn’t as if anyone besides Raghnall could see the exchange. So, slowly and reluctantly, he wrapped his arms around the small form on his lap and returned the gesture, patting Klaufi’s shaggy, black hair.

“Yes, it’s better. You’re welcome, and I’m glad you liked the trick.”

Flopping backward and untangling the string from his hands so he could start over, Klaufi continued to giggle and smile. “Are you coming back, Loki? After you get out of prison, I mean. Are you gonna come back and live here?”

Loki startled a bit at the question, and as he opened his mouth to respond, he realized he didn’t have an answer. If he had been asked nine days ago, he wouldn’t have hesitated to express his utter disgust toward the planet and any notion of living upon it. But things had changed, and he was more confused than ever about who he was and where he belonged. He couldn’t say for sure that he would come back, but he couldn’t say for sure he wouldn’t.

“I… don’t know.”

“Why not?” Klaufi asked, already starting to form the first step of the wink.

Sighing, Loki joined him, staring at his hands as his mind sought the words to speak. “It’s hard to explain, but there are a lot of things happening right now. I don’t even know when my sentence will be over, or when I will be allowed to leave Midgard for any reason other than prison terms. It’s all very… complicated at the moment.”

Klaufi nodded, his expression painted with undertones of confusion. “Oh… well, I hope you do come back. Even if you don’t live here… maybe you could visit sometime?”

Nodding his head slightly, Loki conceded to the request. “I think I can say with certainty that you will see me again.”

“Good!” Klaufi smiled to himself and looked down at his hands. “Um… Loki, I forgot what comes after step one.”

Loki shook his head with a faint smile. “You are only learning, so you will forget things often. What comes after step one is the step where you take the string next to your middle finger and wrap it around the two fingers the string is already on. If you think about the mechanics behind it, you have…”


Well, it’s like they say. When it rains, it pours.

Bruce leaned against the bars to Loki’s cell, looking in through the metal lines at the figure splayed atop the miserable excuse for a bed in the corner. Dried blood stained the prisoner’s clothing, and the cape Thor had left behind was no longer the bright red of Asgardian royalty, but rather, a reddish brown similar to the color of rust or clay. The floor was splattered and speckled with the life liquid, the angles and shapes too chaotic to give the doctor any idea as to what he was dealing with.

And of course, Loki himself wasn’t looking well at all.

“So,” Bruce turned toward the guard on his right, “you said most of this happened within the last twenty-four hours?”

The Jotun nodded, shrugging his shoulders. “It usually happens that way. Things will be mild to moderate for a while, but then a group of youngsters will drink their weight in ale and rile each other up. From there, it’s a matter of how many there are and how far they’ll go.”

Bruce nodded slowly and turned back toward the cell, white steam billowing from his mouth as he exhaled. “How many times has this happened?”

“For Loki? Just this once.”

That’s not bad, considering the fact that we’re halfway through his sentence. Still, I don’t like the thought of him struggling through the next fifteen days like this. He glanced at the guard again, taking in the available expression before turning his attention to the unconscious lump on the floor. The guard seems to be a neutral enough party, and the queen knows why I’m here, so she shouldn’t try to interfere any time soon.

Reaching out, Bruce grasped the bar that held the door shut and lifted it, letting himself in with a quick word of thanks to his unnamed informant. Then he walked over to Loki and crouched down, putting his medical bag on the ground and pulling out his StarkPhone.

Let’s see what we have here. Bruce adjusted his glasses and placed the device next to Loki’s head, setting up a quick brain scan. His face is bruised up pretty badly, he needs stitches in his upper lip, his fingers need a lot of attention, and that cut on his head needs to be cleaned ASAP.

He hadn’t even seen Loki’s entire body yet.

“Hnn…”

Bruce picked up the phone just as Loki turned his head, placing it a couple of inches away and digging through the contents of his bag in search of a numbing agent. “Loki, can you hear me? This is Dr. Banner. How are you feeling?”

Loki stared long and hard at the doctor, his expression a blend of disorientation, fatigue, and vacancy. He seemed to recognize Bruce, but if he had any idea where they were or what was going on, it didn’t show.

“Loki, do you think you can lie still while I stitch up your lip?” Bruce asked, creating a small pile of supplies on his lap as he spoke. “I’ll give you a shot so you won’t feel the stitches, but the syringe needle will pinch a bit, and you can’t move your head around.”

Loki moaned softly and blinked at the ceiling, otherwise unresponsive.

Well, that can’t be helped. Bruce reached into his bag and pulled out a syringe, carefully preparing it with Novocain. “Hold still,” he mumbled, taking the bruised chin in his thinly gloved hand and carefully puncturing the skin on the left-hand side of Loki’s upper lip. “It’s just a little pinch, you’re alright.”

His words fell on deaf ears, and Loki whimpered at the sudden, rather unpleasant sensation, trying to pry his face away. He was unsuccessful, and soon enough, Bruce was pulling out the successfully emptied syringe and setting it aside. It would take a few minutes for Loki to lose feeling, so Bruce grabbed a gauze pad and doused it in hydrogen peroxide, gently cleaning the blood from Loki’s forehead and revealing a fairly large, oozing cut underneath.

“D… Doct…”

“It’s alright, I’m just cleaning it.” Bruce continued to dab, glancing at the rest of Loki’s body from time to time. We knew something like this could happen. I should have been better prepared.

Loki shifted, trying to turn his head again and letting out a frustrated grunt when he couldn’t. Bruce didn’t know how to explain it to him, either. At least, not in terms Loki would understand in his current state.

“Loki, you can’t move right now, okay? I need your head to stay very still. I know you don’t understand, but if you don’t let me do this, you could get very sick.” Glancing at his watch, Bruce determined enough time had passed since the injection and began cleaning the split halves of Loki’s lip, still mumbling under his breath. “Everything’s alright, Loki. Queen Leiknyrr herself gave me permission to come down here. Nobody’s going to kick me out, nobody’s going to hurt you, and if they try, well… I don’t know how the Other Guy would feel about that.”

Joking about the Hulk wasn’t something Bruce made a habit of, and he wasn’t even sure if it was the right kind of encouragement, given Loki’s prior experience with the monster, but it was the only thing he could think of that was both accessible at any time and stronger than the Jotuns.

Finally, Loki’s mouth was clean and disinfected, leaving only the stitches to be done. Bruce didn’t think it would take too many, but he knew he had to be careful. He had to move quickly enough to keep his fingers from freezing while moving slowly enough that a sudden move from Loki wouldn’t send the needle into his gums or nose.

This is no place to perform any sort of medical procedure.

“Now.” Bruce threaded the needle and carefully took Loki’s lip between his fingers. “It’s very, very important that you stay still.” Moving quickly, he got the needle through and back, tying it off just as the frost started to bite at his fingertips. “You can’t pick at this, either, even when it starts to itch. You have to let it heal.”

Loki stared up at the ceiling, eyes cloudy and unfocused, and as concerning as that was, it ultimately proved to be useful. Loki didn’t move an inch, and Bruce was able to complete the stitches and bandage the facial lacerations in record time.

After a quick break spent warming his fingers, Bruce moved down the pallet and started to examine Loki’s right hand. He chewed his lip at the sight of the swollen joints and dark bruises, and then he carefully lifted the arm from the floor, turning it over in his hands. He gingerly pushed the fingers up and down and rotated the wrist joint, trying to gauge the damage without any proper equipment. Loki whined at the movement, but there wasn’t much Bruce could do to help.

Broken index finger… and another break in the ring finger… that’s just busted blood vessels… wrist is sprained, but I don’t think it’s broken… Sighing, Bruce shook his head and set Loki’s hand down on his thigh. Two broken bones in his dominant hand. He’s never had a broken bone in his life. Thankfully, Bruce would be able to realign them and put them in braces, although he wasn’t sure how much of a blessing that really was.

“How is he?”

Bruce looked over his shoulder, surprised to see the guard hovering nearby with curious and somewhat worried eyes.

“He’s not good, but he could be worse,” Bruce replied. “I haven’t seen any signs of internal bleeding, organ rupture, or failing systems and body functions.” Of course, he hadn’t looked very far yet. “It would be helpful if you could tell me exactly how he got his injuries, starting with his hands.”

The Jotun knelt on the floor to the right, watching the procedures with careful eyes. “They—it was a group of three younger men, all of them drunk—struck each hand with an iron rod. I stopped them at four blows to the left one and five to the other.”

Bruce nodded, processing the information while going through the motions of gathering splints, braces, foam, tape, and anything else he might need to secure broken fingers for an undetermined amount of time. “Thank you for stopping them. If his hands were worse, I wouldn’t have what I need with me. He’d be stuck with broken bones until I could come back again.” Sliding the first splint over Loki’s finger, he began to wrap it in gauze and then tape, trying to give it extra padding. “I don’t believe I caught your name, by the way. I’m Dr. Bruce Banner.”

“Raghnall Bjordson.”

Bruce nodded. “Good to meet you, Raghnall.”

They lapsed back into silence, and Bruce placed his full attention on Loki’s wellbeing, taking the middle finger into his hand and setting it as quickly as he could. Loki cried out and curled slightly, his right leg coming up toward his stomach while his left leg remained flat and unmoving.

That’s not good.

“I’m sorry, Loki. I know it hurts, but it’s over now. I’ll put a brace on it and give you some medicine for the pain.” Bruce tried to rub Loki’s upper arm every chance he got, but given the incessant movement of his hands, that wasn’t often.

Finishing up the second brace, Bruce grabbed a sandwich bag and held it out to Raghnall. “Can you fill this with ice cubes?” Pause. “Er, can you fill this with small pieces of ice that can conform to Loki’s injuries?”

Raghnall looked at him for a moment but eventually took the plastic and started to form small balls of ice inside. Satisfied with how the first hand was looking so far, Bruce picked up the StarkPhone and examined the scan results.

Nothing showed up, but I’m willing to bet he got at least one head concussion. Hopefully, that’s all it is, because I won’t be able to get an actual MRI until he’s back on Midgard. Shoving the phone into his pocket, Bruce returned to the injured hand and took the ice bag from his makeshift helper, carefully placing it on top of the battered extremity.

“Did Thor bring you here?” Raghnall asked, still watching with rapt attention.

Bruce glanced up, hands flying from place to place unceasingly as he treated the badly beaten mischief maker. “Yes.” He leaned over to look at Loki’s other hand and carefully picked it up. “I help with Loki back on Midgard, and it just so happen I’m a medical doctor, so I was the first person Thor came to when he found Loki like this.”

Raghnall nodded sharply, his expression contemplative. “It’s good that he has you.”

Bruce wasn’t sure whether it was Loki or Thor the guard considered fortunate, but he didn’t ask. Instead, he focused on the new hand, examining it as thoroughly as he could in the dim light. There were no obvious fractures or dislocations, although it was still heavily bruised and swollen, and Bruce had to wonder if that had something to do with the fact that Raghnall stepped in a blow early.

I won’t complain, regardless.

Grabbing another bag, Bruce handed it over to Raghnall and asked for more ice, covering the left hand in the same manner as he had the right. Then he hiked up Loki’s tunic and checked the skin beneath, a low whistle escaping him at the sight.

“Oh, boy…”

There was a lot of bruising. No, actually, there wasn’t a lot. There was one, giant, purplish-black, tender bruise covering everything from Loki’s diaphragm to his hips. Unfortunately, Bruce couldn’t do much of anything to treat a bruise, and he wasn’t even sure it was as terrible as it looked. Perhaps Jotuns simply turned black and purple when they were bruised instead of green or blue or yellow, so it looked darker and deeper than it actually was.

“Raghnall, what do you make of this?”

“They punched and kicked him for quite some time.” He shrugged his shoulders, hands coming down to rest on his kneecaps. “I was expecting a mark like this.”

“So, the exceptionally dark coloring is normal, then?”

Raghnall’s face scrunched up slightly, and he leaned forward to get a better look at the marks on Loki’s stomach. “It’s still pretty bad, but…” he traced his finger lightly along the outer portion of the bruise, “…all this is pretty minor, so it’s not as big and bad as it looks.”

Bruce nodded slowly. “Alright. We’ll keep an eye out for internal bleeding, but I think he’ll be alright.” He buried his hands in his armpits, trying to warm up the freezing fingertips. I’m running out of time. I won’t be able to treat him with numb fingers.

Gasping suddenly, Loki started to move and fidget where he lay, sucked back into the realms of consciousness after several minutes of dazed silence. “D… Dr. Banner, how did…?” He coughed, trying to sit up and failing. “How did you know… to come?”

Bruce reached out and adjusted the blanket over Loki’s body, silently but effectively ordering him to stay put. “Thor came and got me. Do you remember him visiting you?”

“No… I do not.” Loki grit his teeth, and Bruce imagined he was finally coming to grips with the state his body was in. “I… do not remember mush of what… happened today.”

“It’s alright. Thor said you were pretty out of it.”

Frowning, Loki gingerly ran his tongue over his upper lip, his slurred speech making him very aware of a disturbance in his mouth. “I can’t feel my lip.”

Bruce smiled, moving down toward Loki’s legs as he spoke. “Don’t worry, it’s supposed to be that way. I had to give you stitches.” Pushing the loincloth aside, he examined the leg Loki had yet to move, gently pressing on the inside of the thigh and knee.

“S-stop!” Loki banished Bruce’s hands with a single cry, but he continued to pant and wince even after contact had been broken. “Whatever… you just did… do not do it again…”

Nodding, Bruce put his hands in his lap, warming them as he contemplated the best way to treat the pulled muscles. Icing them would be easy, and elevation would be difficult but possible. Heat was out of the question unless magic was somehow involved, and rest would rely on visitors not aggravating the wounds.

“What’s this?” Bruce looked to the other leg, frowning at the blood that had collected there and lightly fingering the poorly wrapped cut.

“Knife.” Raghnall reentered the conversation, following the pattern Bruce had set and slowly forming an ice archway over Loki’s left leg. “I think it was meant to be a stab, but Loki moved at the last second and tore himself open pretty badly. I stopped the bleeding, but that’s about it.”

Loki hissed, a shudder tearing through him as ice continued to encase his body. “I’m fine, Dr. Banner. Don’t… don’t make a futh. It’ll only attract un… unnethessary attension.” His hands twitched slightly, a quiet moan escaping him.

Bruce grabbed another gauze pad and started to clean the cut, softly admonishing the other’s protests. “You can’t let your body stay in this condition. You have fifteen days to go, and the longer we wait to treat you, the more dangerous, painful, and damaging it will be.”

“I will be fine.”

It would have been funny if the situation weren’t so serious, the way Loki tried to maintain his godly superiority while trapped in a thoroughly beaten, very mortal body, with a speech impediment to boot. Unfortunately, it wasn’t funny, because Loki’s pride was once again putting his health in danger, and he was making no move to stop it. Bruce wasn’t about to let him go without treatment, of course, but it certainly wasn’t a sign of progress.

“There’s nothing wrong with needing help, Loki.”

Crimson eyes narrowed into slits, shoulders lifting from the floor as Loki made another attempt to sit up. “I do not need help, Dr. Banner. I—”

“You need help just like you need water to keep from passing out. Denial isn’t going to make you any less mortal, Loki, and you’re only going to hurt yourself more. Not to mention, you’ll make a complete idiot out of yourself. Again.” Bruce met the other’s eyes, hands still working to clean the blood from the dark blue thigh. “Right?”

Loki glared at him, seething silently.

“Right, Loki?” he pressed.

“I am not a shild, and you need not speak to me as suss.” Embarrassed by his inability to create certain sounds, Loki’s cheeks became tinged with a faint shade of purple. “Everyone knows you cannot shange a thircumstance through denial.”

“You say that, but you don’t act like it.” Despite the admonishment, Bruce offered a soft, sympathetic smile. “I know this is a big change for you, Loki, but you have to try and accept it, or you’re going to wind up in a lot of trouble.” Grabbing another dose of Novocain, he continued. “Hold that thought. I have to give you another shot and stitch up your leg before I lose all the feeling in my fingers.”

“Why did you bring those dreadful things?” Loki groused, tensing up despite himself at the sudden pinch and trying to cover it with a wince.

“This is what I used to take away the feeling in your lip. It’s temporary—” he set the needle aside and grabbed his sewing kit once more, “—but it’ll enable me to give you stitches without you having to feel them.”

Loki didn’t say anything, and after waiting for the drug to kick in, Bruce started to work his thread through the torn flesh, suddenly realizing he didn’t know how much of his visit he had already used up. He had no idea if or when he would be allowed to return again, and from what Steve had told him, Loki was overwhelmed and trying to understand quite a bit of new information. For Loki’s sake, he had to try and make the best of every minute he had on Jotunheim.

“So,” Bruce started, tying off the fourth stitch and giving his hands a brief warm-up. “Steve told me you’ve seen a lot of stuff here. What’s it like?”

Loki glanced at him, cocking his head slightly and trying to move his hand. Coming to a quick halt and grunting loudly, he tried to motion to the pillow beneath his head. “Raghnall, give Dr. Banner my rune. Please.”

Bruce blinked, confused.

Raghnall got to his feet and moved toward Loki’s head, crouching down and producing a small, smooth stone from the prisoner’s pillowcase. “Here.” He extended his hand and dropped it into Bruce’s cupped hands before returning to his post by the door. “Holler if either of you need anything.”

Bruce stared at his hands, enthralled with the warmth that radiated from the stone and barely remembering to thank Raghnall for his assistance. “What on Earth…?” he wondered aloud, turning the rock over in his hands and examining the carvings with curious eyes. “This is incredible.”

“It is mathical.” Loki smirked from where he lay. “It is actually quite simple as far as mathic is concerned. If I still had my powers, I could create a hundred of those for you without draining very mush energy.” His expression soured, head turning to stare at the wall again. “However, as you well know, my mathic is sealed. That was a gift from Queen Leiknyrr.”

Bruce arched his eyebrows, relinquishing the stone in order to continue his treatment of Loki’s leg. “Queen Leiknyrr? Did she come to visit you?”

Loki didn’t move, his jaw remaining clenched for a few moments before pale lips began to part. “Yes, and see gave me a ring and that rune.” He paused, licking the stitches in his mouth and staring intensely at the wall. “You know who she is, don’t you?”

Bruce nodded slowly. “Yes, I believe so. She’s your birth mother, right?”

Loki snorted, and silence reigned between them once more. Bruce watched his face, trying to find any signs that this topic was strictly off limits. He knew Loki wouldn’t want to talk about it—Loki didn’t want to talk about hardly anything he considered personal—but Bruce didn’t know just how much Loki wanted to avoid the topic. If at all possible, Bruce was going to press Loki into a corner and see what he could get him to admit to.

“What did the two of you talk about?”

Loki’s body shook, a bitter cackle rattling his chest. “Do you mean before or after she abused and humiliated me? She did not come to talk, Dr. Banner, she came to make a mockery of a burden she thought she had taken care of long ago.” Laughter dissolved into a sigh, and he shut his eyes, keeping his walls up. “We had a battle of wits, if you will, and she dithcussed the properties of the ring see gave me, which reveals my Jotun form. That is all.”

Raising Loki’s injured leg slightly, Bruce smeared antibiotic ointment over the wound and started to dress it with gauze. “That’s a shame. Did she say why she feels that way about you? Why she left you?”

“Pah.” Loki tried to move his hand again and whimpered; Bruce imagined he was quite uncomfortable with his inability to fiddle. “Doctor, one does not simply ask a complete stranger suth questions.”

“Why not?” There was no hesitation, trained hands never ceasing as Bruce finished off the gauze bandage and began to cover it with an elastic, cloth one.

Loki didn’t answer.

Bruce glanced up from his work, pinning the bandage in place and taking the rune in his hands once again to warm his frozen extremities. “Loki, do you think you deserve an answer?”

“Of course I do,” he snapped, clenching his jaw and glaring at the ceiling.

“Then you know what I’m going to say.” Bruce kept his eyes on Loki at all times, watching the tension fall away from his face, quickly replaced by something Bruce could only define as pain.

“How does one go about phrasing sush a question?” Shaking his head ever-so-slightly, Loki ran his tongue haphazardly over a mouth he couldn’t feel. “What sort of converthation do you work that into?”

Bruce smiled, laughing softly. “Loki, you don’t always have to have a silver tongue. Sometimes, the best way to approach a problem is tactless and blunt.”

“Even so.” Loki replied too quickly, the tension in his neck betraying him. “See may feel see has no obligation to give me answers, in which case the questhion would be a waste of time.”

It was a poor argument, and Bruce dismantled it with ease, waving a hand dismissively. “That’s not really relevant. You won’t know until you ask her, and if the worst thing she can do is refuse to answer, I don’t see you having much to lose.”

Loki fell silent once more, the only sound escaping him being that of his breathing. His hands twitched, the unbroken fingers on each hand fidgeting beneath the bags of ice. Red eyes flickered from one end of the room to the other, eventually landing on the ceiling and staying riveted on one spot.

“Loki… if it’s all the same to you, I think I know what the problem is.” Bruce picked up some of his equipment and started to pack it, leaving out a few small things he could still use to ease the pain Loki was in. “I think you don’t want to ask her because you’re afraid of the answer.”

Snorting, Loki shook his head. “What is there to be afraid of?”

“Confirmation.” Bruce started to fill a small, plastic bag with the garbage he had accumulated. “You’re afraid she’ll confirm everything you hate about being from Jotunheim. That you’re a monster. That she left you because she didn’t want or love you. Something along those lines, right?”

Loki swallowed hard and bit down on his lower lip, eyes losing their focus before closing entirely, air escaping his nostrils in a slow and steady stream. “You’re too nosy, Dr. Banner.”

Having cleaned up his equipment, Bruce sat down next to Loki’s head and shrugged his shoulders within the other’s field of vision. “Maybe, but I don’t think I’m wrong.”

Loki offered no response.

“Look… Loki.” Bruce sighed softly, rubbing his arms as the cold started to invade the many layers of fabric that enveloped his body. “You don’t have to be perfect all the time. I saw it when you invaded Midgard, and I hear it in the stories Thor tells me, and I see it in front of me right now. No matter what you do, whether it’s magic, fighting, traveling, behavior, destroying planets, or anything else you put your mind to, you want to do it perfectly.” Pausing, he wet his lips and tried to think of the best way to phrase his advice. “You… will never be perfect, and the sooner you admit that, the soon you can focus on being the best you can be without feeling the need to push yourself to unrealistic extremes.” He paused again. “Queen Leiknyrr may confirm what you fear is true, she might debunk it, and she might refuse to answer altogether. But you need to be alright with all three of those.”

Loki’s body tensed, and Bruce stopped speaking in case the other chose to interject, but after a few seconds, the muscles relaxed. Loki remained silent, and Bruce began to speak once again, hoping Loki hadn’t shut him out.

“You can’t allow your past to define you, Loki. You have to be okay with any answer she could give, not because it’s particularly noble or fair or because you like it, but because it doesn’t matter anymore. You’re allowed to be angry and hurt by whatever she tells you, but there is nothing to fear about your past.” Bruce smiled, looking upwards with a reminiscent laugh. “That’s one of the best things about the past. You learn from it, and then you get to change the rest of your life for the better, but it doesn’t have any power over you.”

Once again, Loki was silent, and Bruce was actually starting to feel encouraged by it. He had expected Loki to continually interrupt, insisting that he wasn’t afraid and wouldn’t be hurt and didn’t need to be told he was a perfectionist, but there had been no such objections.

After a few more beats of silence, Loki parted his lips and whispered, “…it is not that simple, Doctor.”

Smiling sadly, Bruce nodded his head. “You’re right, it’s not. It’s very hard and very painful, but I know you can do it. You have the willpower, the strength, and the support. All you need now is the notion.”

Loki scoffed, opening his mouth to say something but stopping himself short. With a sigh, he relented to the words. “Support… you have all supported me, though I do not understand why. I expected it from Thor, but not from you.” Then, in a quieter voice. “Any of you.”

“I know.” Bruce didn’t let his smile falter, his hand coming out to pull Loki’s hair away from the bandage on his forehead. “I knew Steve would warm up to you quickly, no pun intended. Clint and Tony surprised me, though.”

The faintest of smiles appeared at the corner of the trickster’s mouth. “Unsurprisingly, you know your teammates better than I.” He shifted his hand slightly, swallowing the cry of pain that rose in his throat. “Since you seem insistent on me asking questions, you shouldn’t mind if I direct one at you. Why did you agree to Thor’s plan?”

Bruce inhaled and exhaled in slow succession. “That’s a complicated one. I would say first and foremost, you don’t really pose a threat to us. Unless we give you total freedom, you really can’t do that much damage without your magic and immortality. A close second would be that none of us thought your proposed punishment was fair. We’re not into torture—some of us have been through quite a bit of it, some of us have caused it and never want to go back—and without a good reason to refuse, I don’t think any of us could just leave you to a fate like that.” He shrugged his shoulders. “There are a lot of other, smaller factors, and everyone has their own reasons for doing what they do. I can’t speak for all of the Avengers, so you’d have to ask them yourself if you want to know more.”

Loki nodded slowly, turning his head and staring up at Bruce. “And… what of you, Dr. Banner? Why did you offer to have daily sessions with me, knowing I would neither like it nor cooperate?”

At that, Bruce actually laughed. “That was all Thor. I’m not certified as a psychologist, so I told Thor if he really wanted to help you, he should get a professional to do it, and his face just… crumbled. He said any other human wouldn’t be trustworthy enough, and he was worried that they would use the situation to get revenge of some sort.” He shrugged his shoulders, still smiling. “I couldn’t say no to that face, and after I brushed up on my psychology skills and actually felt somewhat prepared to give you advice, I was glad I didn’t. You’re a very interesting person, Loki, world-dominating tendencies aside.”

“I’m truly flattered.” Loki rolled his eyes, chuckling softly and turning his head back again. “I will think about what you have said, Dr. Banner.” He paused then, staring at the ceiling for several minutes before opening his mouth again. “…Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. I hope it helps.”

Well, that’s the understatement of the century.

Chapter Text

Ten more days. You’re two thirds of the way done with this miserable, frozen rock. Don’t overthink things and don’t overstep. You can’t afford to. These were the thoughts hammering against the forefront of Loki’s brain as he watched the Queen of Jotunheim make her way down the hall. He shifted slightly but was unable to move more than an inch, a grimace twisting his features as pain shot up his left leg and into his stomach.

“You may stay as you are.” Leiknyrr placed her hand on the door as if she meant to open it but remained outside, sweeping the room with her eyes before finally meeting Loki’s gaze. “How goes your recovery?”

Loki cast her a dark look, ignoring her earlier words and pushing himself into a sitting position he found somewhat comfortable. “I’m doing just fine.” He looked down at his lap, running a finger from his good hand over the brace encasing its twin. “Dr. Banner did an excellent job.”

“Hmm.” Leiknyrr arched an eyebrow, looking him over once more before opening the door to the cell and letting herself in. “I trust he did his job well, however, I also trust that your mortal body will not recover as easily as you think it will.”

She knelt down and reached out to take his injured hand, but he jerked away. Oddly enough, he found he wasn’t entirely angry with her, but he knew his reaction hadn’t been controlled by abject fear or repulsion. It was more like caution, and he avoided her hands in the same way one might avoid the fangs of a venomous serpent.

Equally odd, Leiknyrr seemed to accept this and didn’t push.

Dr. Banner said I should ask my questions directly, but I don’t know how. I don’t know what I want to say, and I don’t want to know what she’ll say back. I don’t even know if she’ll be willing to answer. By the Norns, this is a mess.

Loki wet his lips, trying to return some of his wit to his tongue. “It’s not that bad. You should have a little more faith in human resilience.”

Leiknyrr chuckled softly, returning to her feet and folding her arms over her stomach. “I don’t know what to do with that information, given that it’s coming from you.” She smirked lightly, amusement and disdain dancing dually in her eyes. “You would know more than most what it is to be whipped by the human race, yet I have never heard you regard them with anything but condescension. I wonder, which of these two ideas you’ve shown me is the truth?”

Letting out a bitter laugh, Loki shook his head. “They are both accurate representations of my opinion, given the right context.” It was an obvious copout, but he had yet to pick a side and knew he couldn’t support one or the other without tripping over himself. “Regardless, my health is not relevant to this conversation. It wouldn’t make any difference to you whether I was nearly dead or nearly alive, as I can converse either way. So, what brings you here?”

Remaining silent for several moments, Leiknyrr walked the length of the cell and pressed her toes against the bloodstains, dragging the brown dust across the rocks with a faint smile. “I have come to talk.” Her eyes darkened the moment she began to speak. “I want to know what you’ve learned.”

Loki blinked. “What I’ve…?” He shook his head, confusion creasing his brow. “I do not understand.”

“I want to know what you’ve learned,” she repeated, as if that made everything clear. “You’ve been here for twenty days. You’ve been treated with kindness and brutality, you’ve met the old and the young, and you have seen the consequences of your actions as well as validation of the reasons you had for them.” She conjured a chair beneath herself, falling back into it as white smoke plumed around the summoned structure. “What have you learned, Loki Laufeyson?”

He bristled, gritting his teeth. “I have learned I still despise both the name of Laufey and the name of Odin.” Heavy fatigue quickly overtook his anger, and the tension fell from his shoulders. “I will admit… I am thinking differently than I was when I arrived here, but I still…” He shook his head. “I don’t know. That is all.” He glanced up, toying with the fabric on his lap while he awaited her response.

“I see.” Leiknyrr nodded slowly, one hand coming up to trail through her long, yet remarkably untangled hair. “I can understand that. As Queen of Jotunheim, my primary concern is to see to it that you never repeat the actions that landed you in my cells; however, I also realize that a millennium of one idea cannot be undone by thirty days of another.”

Loki chuckled, shaking his head and trying to draw his knees to his chest. He was stopped by sudden, stabbing pain and settled for leaning back against the wall instead, suppressing a shudder at the vulnerable feeling it gave him.

“Queen Leiknyrr...” he started after another round of silence, “…you baffle me.”

“Good.” She smirked, resting her chin in her hand and crossing one leg over the other. “You may speak your mind, you know. This contract was created on interrealm politics, not your unpleasant personality and moody disposition.”

Loki scowled half-heartedly but considered her offer all the same. There are many, many things I’d like to tell her, but even if I cannot alter my sentence, much of what I have to say will not serve to endear myself to her. Furthermore, I can’t trust that she’s telling the truth about the basis of my punishment, and I can’t risk a longer sentence. I need to get out of here.

Blowing his bangs out of his eyes, Loki tried to recall Dr. Banner’s advice and put it to good use, his lips slowly parting as words began to form on his tongue. “Why did you… come and visit me?” He shook his head, unable to comprehend the question coming from his own mouth. “Why did you give me the ring and the heat stone? You had no reason to, politically; one of the realms involved is powerless against you and the other wouldn’t care about something so small. My abandonment is proof that you feel no emotional attachment toward me. So… why?”

Leiknyrr took a deep breath and slowly let it out, her gaze wandering up to the ceiling and remaining there for a few seconds before falling back down to meet his. “You are my captive, and as such, the weight of your wellbeing and survival is on my shoulders. If something were to go wrong, I would pay the price, which would in turn affect my people. As Queen, I can’t allow that to happen. Furthermore… you are a Jotun, Loki. You are my subject just as much as any other on this planet. Odin may not have required any level of comfort, but I am obligated to extend the hand of civility to at least some extent.”

Loki nodded his head slowly, saying nothing but refusing to let his gaze fall. I am a subject? You are obligated? You truly feel nothing, despite having conceived, carried, and delivered me, as my mother. Nothing at all. Pain tore through his right hand, and he curled around the injured limb, cradling it to his chest and cursing his inability to stop fidgeting with his fingers.

Queen Leiknyrr waited for him to collect himself before adding a few statements, her voice growing just a few tones softer yet still detached and cold. “You might find this hard to believe, but I do acknowledge you as my son. I will never deny that we share blood, and regardless of what I may or may not feel for you, I will protect you.”

Laughter split the air, dark blue hands pressing against his bruised and broken sides in a self-defeating attempt to take away the pain caused by the spasms. “You will protect me? What a disgustingly bold-faced lie. I’m here, Leiknyrr, because you left me. You left me on a frozen rock in the middle of nowhere during a bloody war with the most powerful army in all the Nine Realms. You knew I would die, but you left me there anyway, because that was what you wanted. Tell me, is that what you call protection, Mother?

Silence painted the air between them, Loki’s shoulders quaking with each shuddering breath he took. Neither looked away, but neither spoke, the wordless battle giving him the time he needed to collect himself.

“I may no longer be a god, but do not mistake my humanity for stupidity, and do not insult me by giving answers that indicate such.” He inhaled slowly, willing his eyes not to burn. I have nothing to weep over. But the ache in his chest begged to differ, hurt hiding beneath a layer of anger in an attempt to stay safe.

Leiknyrr remained silent for a few more moments and then responded. “I never said that I have always acknowledged you as my son, only that I do now.” Her voice was even and quiet, heavily controlled and closely guarded. “When you were born, I felt no obligation to protect you. As far as I was concerned, you were a burden that got in the way of my ascension to the throne. However, that was over one thousand years ago, and it is impossible for someone to live such a length of time without changing in one way or another.”

Incredulous, Loki shook his head. “So, somewhere along the line you came to the conclusion you made a mistake by leaving me, and then you proceeded to do nothing about it. Am I to accept that as an answer? Is that supposed to excuse what you did?”

Leiknyrr arched an elegant eyebrow slowly, fingers twirling through a strand of hair that fell over her shoulder. “I never said it was a mistake. I have a stronger sense of duty now than I did back then—something that came with maturation and increasing responsibilities—but there is no guarantee things would have been better if I hadn’t left you.”

Loki stared at her, speechless and unmoving, heart pounding on the inside of his chest. His brain was buzzing with a swarm of emotions he couldn’t quite identify, water stinging his eyes despite every attempt to keep them dry. Battered hands trembled—from rage or fear, he couldn’t tell—and his throat ran dry, silver tongue limp against his teeth.

I don’t know what I was expecting. If Leiknyrr had ever felt any remorse over his abandonment, she would have tried to contact him. She hadn’t—over one thousand years, and never once had she reached out to him—because she didn’t care. She didn’t love him. She never had, and she never would.

“Did that answer your questions, Loki?”

He met her gaze for a brief moment before turning his eyes toward the ground and focusing on the task of keeping his fingers from moving too much. “Yes.” He swallowed discreetly in an attempt to loosen his throat and looked up at her with narrowed eyes. “Your answers were perfect.” She had confirmed several of his worst fears, but he supposed that was beside the point.

There was another round of silence, and then Leiknyrr let out a sigh. “There is no such thing as an excuse, Loki. There are only explanations. If an explanation is enough to earn forgiveness or serve as penance in any capacity, it speaks to the compassion of the person wronged. Some things, you simply cannot atone for. You cannot repair the damage.” She looked at him for a long moment, something dark but soft passing through her eyes. “Learning to let go of those things is what we call survival.”

Loki looked at her for a long time, and while his anger steadily decreased, her words brought him no comfort. He wet his lips, took a breath, and it was all he could do not to smile and shake his head at himself. “You’re right. You could say or do anything you like, but it doesn’t make things right and it doesn’t change what happened; however, as a wise man once told me, it changes the future.” He tried not to think about what the Captain of America would say if he could hear the conversation Loki was having.

Leiknyrr stared back, scarlet eyes blinking slowly, her expression calm. Her lips pulled up on one side, and she bowed her head slightly. “Then let’s change.”

That gave Loki pause, if only for a moment. What is that supposed to mean? She said it wasn’t a mistake, yet she apparently wants to make a change because of it? He wasn’t exactly fond of her idea of change—a distaste which was strengthened by the steady throb that never truly stopped pulsing throughout his body—but if she was willing to take some kind of non-oppositional stance…

Loki could play that game.

“Very well.” Loki inhaled briefly and turned his head to the side, pursing his lips as he contemplated various lines of questioning. “I’m curious to know more about my heritage,” was what he finally decided on. “What sort of family are you from, Leiknyrr?”

“Hmm.” For a moment, it looked like she might refuse, but after a minute of contemplation, she complied. “I already told you I am the twelfth daughter of Álmóðr and Mýrún, but I suppose that doesn’t mean much to you. To clarify, Álmóðr was a very powerful sorcerer as well as a close companion of the king who reigned before Laufey. Mýrún was from a noble family halfway around the planet—a family well-known for their ability to take a small, broken down town and turn it into a shining metropolis.”

Loki couldn’t deny the surprise and impressment he felt upon hearing her words. He had no idea Jotunheim even had social constructs, but if she truly was telling the truth, then there were obviously levels of social standing and nobility. Furthermore, she—and by extension, he—was very high on that ladder.

“I was their daughter, eighteenth to be born out of twenty-seven. Mother taught me how to manage wealth and fight with swords and fists. Father guided me in the ways of magic, and he often took me on political trips with him to give me firsthand experience. On my own, I studied until my eyes bled, learned every language and dialect this planet has to offer, committed our history and culture to my memory, and prepared myself for the role I wished to obtain. You, Loki, are my firstborn child, though you now have thirteen younger siblings, and you contain the nobility of both of my parents’ bloodlines as well as that of Laufey and his parents.”

Loki nodded slowly and took the information, processing it and coming to terms with the position he held by birthright. “Four lines of nobility, then?” He found the information interesting, but he couldn’t deny it was difficult to speak so casually. “I received my magic from your side of the family, it seems.” This is all part of the game, he reminded himself. If I want to figure out her intention, I have to give her what she wants. “What about Laufey? Did Laufey have any magicians in his family?”

Leiknyrr nodded her head slightly. “Some. Laufey himself took an interest in magic, but he did not have the bloodline to support it. He was able to accomplish much, but he could never become an exceptional master because his body, mind, and soul were not engineered for it.” Smiling softly, she nodded in the direction of Loki’s pillow. “That rune I gave you; you can feel it, yes? Magic is alive, and you have the ability to sense its presence—it’s essence. Laufey could not. There are many who wield magic but never know it as intimately as it is meant to be known. You can feel it because I can, as could my father before me. It is something you were born with.”

Loki glanced down at himself, turning his hands over in his lap and mumbling under his breath. “Something I was born with…” He tilted his head again, looking up and meeting her gaze. “What of your other children? Do they also have this gift?”

Leiknyrr nodded her head. “Of course.”

“I see.” Loki paused, venom slipping into his tone as he started to speak again. “Did you give birth to thirteen children after me, or did you keep thirteen children after me?”

“Neither,” she replied coolly. “I had two sons and a daughter, and then I gave birth to a stillborn boy. I had three more girls after that, one of whom fought in the war against Nidavellir and died in battle. I had no further problems until I gave birth to what would have been my twelfth child. He was very sick, and despite all efforts, he died eight days after he was born. I had a daughter and son after him.”

Loki frowned in confusion, processing the long list of those alive and dead before questioning the one piece of information that stuck out the most. “What is a stillborn?”

Leiknyrr glared at first, but as the seconds passed, her scowl melted away into bitter laughter. “No, I suppose an Asgardian would not know such pain.” She shook her head. “Stillborn babies are babies who are born dead.”

“What?” Loki was unable to keep the word from passing his lips, disbelief contorting his features. “That’s impossible. What could harm them before they are even born?”

Leiknyrr shrugged her shoulders, turning her head to look down the hall. “Sometimes they are sick, sometimes they are weak, sometimes the mother gets hurt, and sometimes the baby gets wrapped up in the lifeline and is strangled. Or it could be any number of other things. It’s often hard to say.” She blinked, setting her jaw and continuing to look toward the exit.

Loki swallowed hard, looking down at his lap silently. On Asgard, such things were unheard of. Babies were vulnerable, yes, but they never died inside of the womb and sickness was extremely rare. To know that other races gave birth to corpses was upsetting and disturbing, to say the least.

I wonder if Midgard is also plagued with the stillbirth? He couldn’t imagine the humans were invulnerable to something that affected a race of hardy, nearly immortal giants, but it wouldn’t be the first time Earth had surprised him.

Loki glanced up at Leiknyrr and considered extending his question to her, but he decided against it. He could wait until he returned to Midgard and find some books on the subject or ask Bruce if he wanted to know more. Although, I am curious…

“Queen Leiknyrr, what was the cause of your stillborn’s death?”

It was as if he flipped a switch and activated every wall she had ever built around herself. He could feel the room go a few degrees colder, and she sat stiffly with squared shoulders and frozen eyes. Loki straightened up and eyed the exit, wondering if he had just made a terrible mistake.

“He was strangled by the lifeline when I was ten months along.”

Wetting his lips, Loki nodded and dropped his gaze to the floor, very aware that he had picked the worst possible question to ask. But why shouldn’t I ask? She abandoned me to die, why should I feel any sympathy if she lost a child she actually wanted? He had no answer, but he didn’t return to the topic, even if his mind did.

Because underneath his anger, there was a prickle of fear. Loki had been strangled—he had struggled for air, he had experienced that helplessness—and he knew it was not a quick death. It sent a shiver down his spine to think of what a mother must go through, feeling their child struggling and dying inside of them, unable to do anything but wait and mourn.

“I have another question,” he said quickly, desperate to get his mind on something else.

Leiknyrr didn’t respond right away, and Loki watched her face for any sign he had made things worse for himself. But then she turned her head to look at him and nodded her wordless permission, something unbelievable cold and dead still in her eyes.

Loki cleared his throat, resting his hands in his lap and willing himself not to fiddle. “If I decided at some point in the future that I would like to meet my supposed siblings, would such a meeting be a possibility?”

“It would depend.” Leiknyrr rose to her feet, the chair crumbling to dust as she left it behind. “If you were here with ill intentions, or if I had reason to suspect you were going to harm them, then no. However, if you came here under civil terms—perhaps with an escort?—then I don’t see why there would be a problem with such an arrangement.” There was a pause, her brows arching sharply as she appraised him. “Assuming, of course, they want to see you.”

Loki said nothing. If there was one thing he had learned since his arrival, it was that he had hurt a lot of Jotuns and couldn’t expect any of them to be forgiving. Of course, he had known that was the case from the beginning, but it was different now. Now those Jotuns might actually be worth something more than the ice they were standing on, and their forgiveness might be something he actually wanted to obtain.

“I noticed you’ve taken to one of the little ones that comes and visits. Klaufi, I believe his name is.” Leiknyrr paused, giving him a pointed look and continuing in a low tone of thinly veiled anger. “Did you know your youngest brother is about his age?”

Loki automatically opened his mouth to deny siblinghood before remembering she was, in fact, talking about one of his biological siblings. “I didn’t even know they existed until today. Why would I know their ages?”

Leiknyrr gazed out the hall again, continuing as though he hadn’t said a word. “He began asking if he could sleep in my room about three years ago. He says he doesn’t want the Asgardians to get him.”

Loki realized she was trying to make a point—a passive-aggressive one that annoyed him, to be perfectly honest—but he simply nodded his head in understanding. “Yes, I’ve heard about the stories you tell your children.”

Black strands swung outward slightly as she gave her head a sharp turn. “He wasn’t afraid of Asgardians until they tried to destroy his home. Now I can’t get him to so much as look at the sky without having to explain that, no, the falling star he just saw was not the Bifrost trying to kill us again.”

Silence permeated the cell again, both of them averting their eyes in unison. Loki wanted to apologize, and yet he didn’t. He was sorry, and yet he wasn’t. He felt guilty, but he also felt angry, and above all, he felt an overwhelming sense of confusion that prevented him from picking a team and sticking with it.

“What would you like me to do? Since we’ve decided to entertain the noble idea of change, what would you like me to do?” Scarlet hues narrowed into slits, his good fist clenching by his side. “I’m in prison. This is what you chose as my punishment, and I’m receiving it without fail. What else can I do? What else would you have me do?” He tried to control his volume, physically hunching his shoulders in an attempt to keep his voice inside himself.

Leiknyrr stared, saying nothing for several seconds before slowly walking over to the door and raising the latch. “I don’t want you to do anything, Loki. I simply want you to know exactly what it is you have already done.”

“I assure you, Queen Leiknyrr, that lesson has been learned.” He spat the words, venom spraying from his lips with a vengeance he had tried too long to contain.

Trying to keep in mind all that Bruce had told him, Loki watched Leiknyrr leave, blood pounding against his eardrums as his pulse ran higher and higher. Sapphire lips parted with faint quivers, Bruce’s advice running through the front of his mind on a continuous loop.

“Sometimes, the best way to approach a problem is tactless and blunt.”

He inhaled slowly and tried to speak, but nothing came out. Expelling the air in his lungs, he sucked in once again and made another attempt, determined to ask her before she got too far away.

Just ask. Just open your mouth and ask. Don’t think about it, don’t think, just ask. All you have to do is open your mouth and say—

“Do you regret it?”

Loki’s heart leapt into his throat as soon as he spoke, every fiber in his being rejecting the decision to speak. Leiknyrr turned to face him, and his blood ran cold when their eyes met. He felt like his chest was going to burst or he was going to be sick—or perhaps both at the same time.

This is why I never speak without thinking. I shouldn’t have said anything.

“Do I regret what?” Leiknyrr paused, folding her arms over her chest. “Leaving you?”

Loki gave a jerky nod, swallowing thickly and failing to find his voice.

Leiknyrr watched him for a long time, arms slowly falling down to rest at her sides. “Do you regret what you’ve done?” Her tone was curious and softer than before.

Blinking, Loki wet his lips and struggled to word an answer, taking Bruce’s advice a second time and trying to let his thoughts just come out through his mouth. “I… I honestly don’t know yet. I’m… confused.”

Leiknyrr nodded slowly. “Then I cannot tell you.” There was no anger in her voice, and he thought for a moment he saw a hint of sadness in her eyes. Too soon, she was turning around and walking away, and Loki didn’t have another question on hand to stop her.

She cannot tell me… but it sounds like she has made a definite decision. Perhaps she wants me to be certain of where I stand before she reveals where she is standing herself?

Loki sighed, lowering himself onto his mat with a pained grunt and staring up at the ceiling. His body ached, he was tired, and despite the fact that he had adjusted to the Jotun weather almost entirely, he was cold.

I don’t know what to think. Klaufi, and Bjolan, and Lini, and everyone else who lost someone during the attack—my attack. I know I hurt them, I know I killed their families and neighbors, but they’re Jotuns. What was I supposed to do? Let Laufey wage war? Raghnall said himself that war caused horrible situations where everyone was equally at fault. I can’t be blamed for that.

But that didn’t sound right. It sounded like something he would say to Thor or something he would slip into an interrogation to make himself seem less detestable, but it wasn’t the truth.

What if I do regret what I did? What am I supposed to do about it now? I’m going back to Midgard in ten days, and they’ve already claimed my abilities and manual labor for who knows how long. I can’t change anything here, and I certainly can’t undo what I’ve already done.

“It changes the future,” Steve reminded him.

Yes, thank you. I said that myself not twenty minutes ago. Loki sighed, returning his gaze to the ceiling and allowing his eyes to drift shut. If S.H.I.E.L.D. and Odin have their way, I don’t have a future to change. I’m never going to be free again. Although, I suppose I could still help this realm under contract, just as I am doing with Midgard.

“Sometimes, it doesn’t do anything for you, but it changes the world for someone else.”

Could he really change the world for another living being just by admitting to a lack of judgment? If he had asked himself that question a month ago, the answer would have been no, but things had changed. If—and it was a huge if—but if he finally came to the conclusion that he was guilty, he would need to do something about it. It was difficult to do much of anything in his position, but he was also a very resourceful person.

I could serve as a liaison between Midgard and Jotunheim. I could use Thor to influence Asgard and create some semblance of peace between the two realms. I could greatly improve my magic if I—

He buried his face in his pillow, sighing loudly as his brain scattered the thoughts across his mindscape, leaving them in cluttered disarray he didn’t have energy to reorganize.

Do I regret what I’ve done? Do you regret what you’ve done, Queen Leiknyrr?

He hoped her answer was a yes.

He hoped, but he doubted.


“Loki, wake up.” Shake, shake. “Come on, it’s time to go.”

His brain was still fogged up with sleep, but it still managed to lock onto the words being spoken, and he jolted into a state of consciousness without another moment’s hesitation.

“Make haste, Loki. The Avengers await us back on Earth.”

Loki opened his eyes and was greeted by the sight of Thor and Steve standing over him, both smiling and holding a bag containing the items he had collected during his stay. For a moment, his own lips twitched into the faintest of smiles, and he sat up with a quiet grunt.

“We let you sleep as long as we could,” Steve started, “but you’re all packed up, and we knew you wouldn’t want to stay any longer than necessary. We’re supposed to go talk to Queen Leiknyrr, and then we can head home, no strings attached.”

Inhaling slowly, Loki looked around the cell, examining the walls that had limited his barely-existent freedom for the past thirty days. Fingers twitched against the frayed fabric of his blanket, dried bloodstains scratching against his palms.

“Loki.”

Startling, Loki gave Thor a questioning look.

Thor offered a soft smile. “It’s over. It truly is.”

Loki dropped his gaze to himself for a moment, and then suddenly leapt to his feet, wincing at the pain in his only somewhat healed left leg. “If you have everything then let’s go.” Leaning down, he grabbed onto Thor’s cape and folded it over his arms, walking toward the open door with an undeniable eagerness in his steps.

“Loki,” Thor laughed, “that is old and dirty. Why don’t you leave it here? I can always ask mother to make me a new one.”

Loki didn’t look back, his grip tightening on the fabric in his hands. “It can be mended.”

Refusing to say another word on the subject, Loki walked through the prison’s main gate and took his first step as a—relatively—free man, striding across the icy terrain with an enthusiasm his battered body did not support.

“Slow down!” Steve quickly caught up with him, chuckling softly. “It won’t do you much good getting out of prison if you’re only going to wind up confined to a hospital bed later today.”

Loki scowled. “No, I suppose it wouldn’t.” Still, his steps only slowed somewhat, his eyes darting from snowy rock to snowy rock in search of an ambush or change of heart. “Where is Raghnall? I didn’t see him by the gate.”

“He has returned to his home,” Thor replied. “I imagine he trusted us to get you to the throne room unharmed, and after spending thirty days straight guarding you, I’m sure his eagerness to leave rivalled your own.”

There was the faintest of grins on Loki’s lips when he spoke. “Yes, I suppose so.” Looking down at his feet, he watched them fall one after the other, savoring the way the scenery changed as he walked. “Do you have any idea how long this meeting will take?”

Steve shook his head. “Nope. She said she had a question to ask you, but there were no other details.”

Loki nodded slowly, lips pursing as he contemplated what the queen might have in store for him. Does she still want to know if I regret my attack on Jotunheim? He shifted his train of thought, not wanting to consider the possible outcomes of such a question, and turned his head to look at Thor.

“Klaufi and Bjolan. How are they?”

Thor smiled widely, blue eyes sparkling. “They are both doing well, given their situation. I helped Bjolan build a small shack, and they’ve slowly been adding furniture and some recovered belongings to it.” Thor chuckled then, shaking his head. “Bjolan told me to inform you that he doesn’t hate you as much as he thought he would, and he hopes you feel better soon.”

Loki once again allowed Thor’s words to bring a smile to his face, vaguely aware that his right hand was hurting more than usual; it only egged him on, loincloth barely covering his indecency as he half ran, half walked toward the palace in the distance.

“Aren’t you cold?” Steve increased his speed to catch up and wrapped his arms around himself, as if making a point, white steam billowing from his lips every few seconds.

Loki shook his head. “My body was made for this weather, and I’ve grown accustomed to it since I arrived.” Since he arrived thirty days ago, the thirty days that were over.

It was over.

Loki rushed up the stairs, fighting the urge to take them two at a time, and closely watched the path ahead of him for any sign of his destination. Slowing down, he allowed Thor to take the lead and guide them to where the throne room was, trying to calm his heart and keep the grin off of his face.

Just a little ways down the first hall, Steve leaned over and whispered to him. “Are you really alright? If—”

“I’m fine, Captain.” Loki gave him a pointed look, making it excruciatingly clear he was in no mood to talk about his sentence. He wanted to return to Midgard as soon as possible, nothing more and nothing less. “I am fine.”

Steve nodded understandingly and leaned back into his own personal space, turning his gaze forward with his head held high and shoulders squared. Loki watched him, noting the comfortable and confident way Steve carried himself. Briefly, he wondered how Steve felt about the planet he was standing on.

Thor stopped outside two massive, double doors made entirely of ice and addressed one of the guards. “We’re here to finalize the end of Loki’s sentence. Queen Leiknyrr requested our presence.”

Nodding, the guard took the news to the post next to his and, after a moment or two, the gates swung inwards. Thor smiled briefly and glanced over his shoulder, waving Loki and Steve along before stepping into the large room and approaching the throne.

Loki swallowed as he stepped over the threshold, his curiosity not quite strong enough to make him tear his eyes away from the throne.

Leiknyrr was as elegant as ever, delicate folds of dark blue fabric cascading off her ornate chair and onto the floor, a small crown adorning her head.

“Loki Laufeyson.” Leiknyrr spoke crisply and clearly, waiting until Loki took a step forward to continue. “You have remained in the custody of Jotunheim for the allotted thirty days, as was negotiated with Odin Allfather, King of the Nine Realms. Your crimes against Jotunheim have been paid back in full, and any attempts to extend your sentence shall be disregarded. If any person in any of the Nine Realms demands restitution from you based on what you have done to Jotunheim in the past, that person is acting outside of the law of Jotunheim and Asgard alike. Do you understand?”

Loki nodded once, deeply. “Yes, Queen Leiknyrr.”

“Good.” She stood up then, walking down the steps and stopping a foot or so away from her firstborn son. “It is customary on Jotunheim to kneel when you’re standing before the throne.”

Steve and Thor both dropped to one knee immediately, showing their respect without hesitation, but Loki took a moment to stare her down. He knew this was a test—her little way of seeing if he had really learned his lesson—but he had no desire to get Jotunheim on his bad side again, and he would be lying if he said she didn’t have at least a small amount of his respect.

So, he dropped down to one knee and bowed his head, wincing slightly at the pain his position caused. “I apologize. This is the first time I’ve been to Jotunheim on civil terms.”

Leiknyrr didn’t acknowledge the apology. Instead, she fired off the question he had been waiting for, her voice a blend of tones he couldn’t quite decipher. “Loki, do you regret what you’ve done to Jotunheim?”

Loki inhaled slowly, staring down at the ice and allowing the question to burrow itself in his mind. He had thought long and hard, agonizing every night as he tossed and turned, comparing the concepts he had been taught since childhood with the ones he was starting to learn. He had come to a conclusion, and he wasn’t sure if it was the right one, but if she truly wanted the truth, then it was all he could give her at the moment.

“While I am still considering the weight of my actions here, I can say with certainty I do regret my attack on Jotunheim, which I executed with the Bifrost.” He paused, wetting his lips before he went on. “I do not regret tricking and murdering King Laufey, as I have not yet decided whether or not he was a good king who deserved his throne. However, I do regret the fact that his murder sent Jotunheim into disarray until leadership was shifted into your hands. To put it briefly, yes. I regret what I did.”

Silence settled over the room, and after two minutes of nothing, he slowly raised his head and sought her eyes. He found them, and with the bloodred glass came a sad sort of smile and a quiet confession.

“As do I.”

Loki’s eyes widened, chest tightening the moment the words reached his ears. Swallowing hard, he tried to steady himself before rising to his feet and pulling on the ring attached to his finger. “I, ah… I suppose I should return this,” he said, desperate to change the subject.

“Keep it.” Leiknyrr nodded her head toward the object. “It was made for you. It knows only you, can be worn by only you, and will accept only you. Keeping it locked away in my chambers will make useless scrap of it.”

Why keep it all these years, then? Loki looked down again and released his own hand, lifting his eyes and scanning her face, half expecting to find deceit or cruel humor there. He found nothing. She was as formal and elegant as ever, but she was far from cold or angry.

Turning, Leiknyrr waved a hand and started walking back to her throne. “Loki Laufeyson, Thor Odinson, and Steve Rogers, the Captain of America, you are dismissed.”

Loki turned to face his escorts as they got to their feet, quickly pushing between them to get to the exit. He heard their footsteps falling behind him, but he didn’t slow down or turn to look over his shoulder.

“I regret what I did.”

“As do I.”

Her subtle confession answered some of his questions, but it left hundreds more in its wake. If he was not certain of his desire to return before, that doubt was gone.

Because if she truly did regret what she did, he wanted to know why. He wanted to know what changed her mind, wanted to know why she never did anything about it, wanted to know whether Laufey ever knew Loki of Asgard was his long-dead son. He wanted to know why none of his siblings ever came to see him, if they even knew he existed.

But he knew she felt something like remorse, and that would have to suffice until another opportunity to interact with her came along. Regardless of the reason, regardless of how long it took her to reach a point of remorse, she regretted leaving him to die that night. She regretted it, and that was something. It was a start, and despite his efforts to keep his emotions in the back of his mind, he couldn’t help the feeling of worth that came over him.

How utterly pathetic.

“You seem happy.”

Loki startled slightly, pulled out of his thoughts by Steve’s playful jab. His expression immediately twisted into one of heavy sarcasm. “I happen to enjoy being outside of jail cells. Is it all that unusual for me to be happy about this dreadful circumstance coming to an end?”

Steve smiled, eyes sparkling mischievously. “I never said it was unusual. I just said you seem happy, and you do.”

Rolling his eyes, Loki continued walking toward the Bifrost site, aware of Thor’s quickly drooping mood and knowing it was due to the fact that Loki had begun to ignore him. Loki didn’t care about that, though. He was going back to Avengers Tower—back to civilization and decent living conditions—and he couldn’t be happier.

Except, perhaps, if he escaped to a distant realm and avoided consequences altogether. But that wasn’t exactly on his list of plausible options.

“Heimdall!” Thor raised Mjolnir toward the sky. “Take us to Midgard!”

Seconds later, the trio was awash in vibrant colors and blinding lights, the sensation of solid ground disappearing beneath their feet. For a moment, Loki thought about who he would have to interact with, and he wondered what the rest of the Avengers would think of his blue skin. He didn’t contemplate it for very long, however. It was too late to think about things like that, and quite honestly, he was too tired to care.

This is the first time something else has taken precedence over my race. Curious.

Both feet landed on warm concrete, the heat feeling mildly uncomfortable after thirty days of ice and snow. He could feel the wind even before the Bifrost was finished materializing them, and he figured they were on the large balcony attached to the side of the Tower. He reveled in the familiarity.

Loki was back on Midgard.

“I’m going to get dinner started,” Steve said, shedding his backpack and walking toward the doors that lead into the building. He stopped halfway there to address the group of four standing in the shade. “If you guys could help Loki get situated, I’d really appreciate it.” Turning to wave, Steve smiled and continued walking toward the doors. “Loki, I’ll see you later, okay?”

Loki nodded in response and picked up the fallen bag, extending his hand to receive the other one from Thor. “If you wouldn’t mind…” He left the ending open, but his tone made it very apparent that their stint of civility was over. Thor was no longer a lifeline, and therefore, Loki was freed from the obligation of communicating with his not-brother.

Thor realized this as well, and with the eyes of a kicked puppy, he handed over the bag and tried to force a smile. “It is good to have you back, Loki.” There was a pause, and then he cleared his throat and walked toward the building, offering a brief explanation to his teammates as he went. “I believe I will assist Captain Rogers in the kitchen this eve.”

Well, four people are certainly much easier to handle than six. Still, I’m out of practice.

Loki stared at the line-up with narrowed eyes, resisting the urge to cross his arms only because he would have to put his bags down again. “Well? Are you going to say something, or are you just going to stand there like a swarm of wingless jaknas?”

Tony shook his head at that, finally speaking. “I’m sorry, a swarm of what?”

Loki rolled his eyes with a contemptuous sigh. “Jaknas. They are some of the dumbest sprites Alfheim has to offer, easily identified by their bulging eyes and inability to fly in a straight line.” His couldn’t think of a simpler way to put it, so he figured his brief description would have to suffice unless one of them was going to somehow get their hands on a field journal or sketch.

Loki dismissed the topic of fairies with a shrug, looking at the other three people present. “I expected to see you, Dr. Banner, but you two are certainly a surprise.”

Clint shrugged his shoulders, shoving his hands into his pockets. “I came up for dinner and found Tony waiting for you. I had nothing better to do, so I stuck around.” He glanced to his right. “I don’t know about Natasha.”

“I have to verify Dr. Banner’s report on your physical, mental, and emotional condition.” She folded her arms over her chest, her expression as unreadable as ever. “That’s all.”

Loki cracked a little grin, tempted to press for details but choosing to abandon the topic in favor of something much more interesting—something everyone had avoided mentioning up to that point. “Are you quite certain S.H.I.E.L.D. will take you seriously when you tell them I arrived looking like this?”

For a moment, no one said anything, but then Tony shrugged and tossed out his opinion, as he was apt to do. “You’re from another planet. What are they going to say? Aliens are green not blue?”

Bruce entered the conversation before Loki could respond, gesturing to the appearance in question as he spoke. “I think before we talk about skin color, we should focus on your injuries. If we hurry, we can get you fixed up before it’s time to eat.”

Loki balked at the idea. “I assure you, it isn’t as bad as it looks.”

Bruce shook his head. “I didn’t have the right equipment with me when I came to Jotunheim, and there’s a long list of internal injuries that could slowly be developing as a result of that. Besides,” he continued with a knowing smile, “the sooner we fill out that report, the sooner S.H.I.E.L.D. will leave you alone.”

Loki considered the man’s words for a moment before reluctantly nodding his head. “Very well.” He slowly started walking toward the building, tacking on a recommendation of his own. “However, unless you want your fingers to freeze off, you might want to let me change forms first.”

Tony fell in step beside the god, looking him over curiously. “Is your skin really that cold?”

“Why don’t you touch it and find out?” Loki rolled his eyes, sarcasm thick in his voice.

He didn’t actually expect Tony to grab his arm.

Tony retracted his hand immediately, letting out a loud cry of pain and a long string of profanities to ease the burn. He held his hand close to himself and doubled over, gritting his teeth.

Loki blinked. “I wasn’t serious, Anthony!” His scolding and mildly frustrated tone effectively covered up that fact that he was actually quite amused by the other’s plight.

“It was for science,” Tony grumbled, shaking his hand before returning it to its original position. “I should have you come down to the lab some time. I bet there are a lot of useful things hidden in that skin… hoo boy…”

Bruce shook his head with a soft, exasperated sigh. “I’ll wrap that up before I start checking Loki.”

Taking the lead, Bruce got the group moving again, and they entered the building in something resembling a line. They crossed the living area before turning down the hall to their right, Bruce then Tony then Loki then Natasha.

“Isn’t Robin Hood coming with us?” Tony turned his head over his shoulder to give Natasha a grin.

She only arched an eyebrow, ever silent, watching the trio from the back.

It must be unnerving, living with her. Even now, I can feel her eyes on me. It’s disturbing and… disconcerting, to say the least. For a moment, Loki considered swinging his bags over his shoulders to protect his back, but he quickly came to the conclusion that it would be both obvious and pointless. If Barton has orders not to kill me, she likely does, too. I should be safe for now.

Even if he wasn’t, two backpacks were hardly going to stop Natasha.

Loki followed Bruce and Tony onto the elevator, watching in curiosity as the metal around him started to mist up. It seemed Midgard was only able to avoid the consequences of his temperature if he didn’t make physical contact and didn’t stop moving. Of course, even if he wanted to walk in circles around the elevator, it was so small and crowded that he suspected it wouldn’t do much good.

“If you break my elevator, I’m sending you the bill.”

Frowning, Loki turned his head and stared. “I have heard this phrase before. I believe the Captain mentioned it.” He shook his head, squinting slightly. “What does it mean?”

They arrived at their floor and stepped off, Tony and Loki walking shoulder to shoulder as the discussion continued.

“Well, bills are like records of a debt… but also a demand that you pay them. Like, a receipt is record of money you spent, but bills are meant to be paid, not… like, okay, for example, a phone bill is specif—”

“Not a good example, Stark,” Natasha interjected, still trailing behind them.

Tony let out a sigh, rubbing the back of his head. “Good point. Um… alright, so you can get something called a credit card, which isn’t money, but it can be used to pay for things like money. Say you go to the store and you buy some clothing, and then you go over to a restaurant and get some food, and lastly you buy a fuzzy blanket because fuzzy blankets are awesome. Your credit card—or the credit card company, really, the place that gave you the card—pays all of those stores, but then you have to pay the credit card company back. So, the credit card people send you a bill—a piece of paper saying what you owe and why—in the mail, and then you have to write a check, which is another kind of money, and send it back. If you don’t pay it, there are penalties, and you wind up owing more. Make sense?”

Loki blinked, nodding his head slowly. “I think so. I am not familiar with most of the terms you used, but the basic concept is clear to me.” Mostly.

Bruce stopped when they came to a side hall, turning around with a small smile. “I’ll get you a book on economics. Right now, though, you need to go to your room and… do whatever you have to do so I don’t get frostbite.”

Suspicion darkened Loki’s expression, and he didn’t hesitate to point out the glaring problem with Bruce’s statement. “This is not my floor.”

“Do you remember wrecking your last room?” Bruce asked.

Tony held up a finger. “You owe me for that, too.”

“Not the point here, Tony.” Bruce shook his head, chuckling softly as he continued to explain. “Anyway, the damage was pretty bad, and we haven’t had the time to get it all cleaned up and fixed, so we moved you to this floor.”

Loki nodded slowly. “I… I vaguely recall the Captain writing something to that effect in one of his letters.”

It still seemed odd—there had been other rooms on that same floor, hadn’t there?—but he let the topic drop. He was tired and sore and wanted to crawl into his warm, soft, slightly bouncy, Midgardian bed as soon as possible.

Natasha pointed down the hall. “Second door on the right. Bruce, you should look at Tony’s hand while Loki changes. I can bring him down to the infirmary.”

Bruce gave a thumbs up. “Sounds perfect. We’ll see you in a little while.”

Loki ignored the exchange of words and waves, approaching his door and waiting only because he needed Natasha’s retina to get in. She joined him in seconds, unlocked the door, and jerked her thumb toward the interior. “Knock when you’re done.”

Loki nodded and stepped inside, moving cautiously just in case it was some sort of trap. He may or may not have jumped when the door shut and locked behind him.

But, all in all, it really did look like a normal bedroom; it was practically identical to the room he’d had before, although the color scheme and wood stain were a bit darker. His books were all on their shelves, his bed was made up nicely, and a stack of recently cleaned clothing was folded in a basket by the dresser.

I don’t understand.

Surrendering his bags to the forces of gravity, Loki made his way over to the bed and sat down with a heavy sigh. He grabbed the ring on his finger and closed his eyes. Even if it didn’t make sense, he couldn’t worry about it right now. Queen Leiknyrr said he would have to focus all of his thoughts and energy on removing the ring, and getting back to normal was at the top of priorities.

I should still be able to sense the ring’s magic. Once I find that, I just need to will it off.

Straightening up slightly, Loki crossed his legs and started to level out his breathing, focusing solely on the ring in his hand. Background noises created by the ever-running machinery in Stark’s tower faded to a quiet hum and then disappeared altogether. His eyes adjusted to the darkness of his closed lids and began to paint images across his mindscape, thoughts and sensations and pictures of the ring loosening and coming off flooding his senses. His legs and backside started to numb, the energy travelling to his fingertips and coating his hands and forearms in hypersensitive skin.

I want you to come off of my finger. You need to come off of my finger. This is not an option, it is simply something that you must do. I am taking you off of my finger. Let go of my finger. Loosen up so I can take you off. Those thoughts were joined by others that ran along a similar vein, repeating in a continuous loop beneath the mental picture of the ring falling off.

Suddenly, Loki felt something shift in the energy, and he opened his eyes.

His hands had come apart and the ring was in his palm. Success.

Letting out a heavy sigh, Loki laid down the bed and started to breathe again, his body returning the energy to its proper places before allowing him to stand. He quickly stashed the ring in his nightstand drawer, and then took a moment to assess himself.

Finally… skin a man can be proud of.

Shifting feet outside reminded Loki he was not alone, and he moved quickly toward the dresser, pulling out a pair of jeans and a dark blue t-shirt. It was plain, but it was so much better than anything he’d worn during captivity, and since he hadn’t had a chance to shower, there was no point in putting on a clean outfit he liked.

It’s over. He still couldn’t get his head all the way around it. Midgard put him under many restrictions, but at least he got to pick out his own clothes and had a small amount of privacy and knew he was going to get three square meals a day. It’s over. I don’t ever have to go back, Queen Leiknyrr said so. Odin can’t make me go, Thor can’t make me go, S.H.I.E.L.D. can’t make me go, even Leiknyrr herself can’t make me go. It’s over.

Loki bit down on his lip, unable to stop himself from smiling but making an attempt nonetheless. Walking over to his new bookshelf, he grabbed the first book he saw and returned to the door. He knocked, as she had requested, and a moment later the lock was sliding.

Natasha arched an eyebrow when she saw him. “Why did you bring a book?”

He couldn’t restrain the grin that time, and he hoped she would assume it was his usual, sarcastic superiority. “Because I want to.”

There was no other reason. He brought the book because he wanted to—because he could. Because, in his new perspective, he understood the Avengers had given him several luxuries he hadn’t even realized existed until they were taken from him. Whether that would be their downfall or not, he couldn’t yet say, but he didn’t much care, either.

Because Loki felt freer than he had in a very long time, and that was something.

That was something.

Chapter Text

“I’m not so sure this is a good idea…”

“It probably isn’t, but that’s never stopped me before.” Tony responded without hesitation, rubbing idly at the bandage on his hand as he watched Loki through the two-way mirror. “He needs to relax, and you were the one who said heat would be good for him.”

Bruce adjusted his glasses and let out a soft sigh, turning to face Tony fully. “He can get heat from a rice pack while he lays in bed and sleeps. He’s tired, Tony. He’s had a long month.”

Tony was ten steps ahead both mentally and physically, his feet already carrying him toward the door that led to the examination room. “Which is exactly why I should do it now. I’ll get him relaxed and send him straight to bed once I’m done talking to him. Tomorrow morning, he’ll wake up refreshed and renewed and whatever else makes you want to let me do this.”

Bruce met his gaze evenly, disapproval evident in his eyes. “Tony—”

“It’s really not a bad idea.” Natasha pushed into the conversation, her gaze never leaving the trickster on the examination table in the other room. “I’d like to go through his belongings before he has a chance to hide anything he may have brought back from Jotunheim. I’d appreciate the distraction.” She gave Tony a brief, sideways glance. “As long as you don’t antagonize him.”

“Who me?” Tony placed a hand over his heart and gave Natasha a wounded expression. It faded quickly, however, and was replaced with a sort of sincerity Tony didn’t often express. “Out of all of us, the only people who might be able to relate to what Loki went through on Jotunheim are Clint, myself, and you, Natasha. Clint hates his guts, and you’re not exactly Dr. Phil, so that leaves me.”

Bruce snorted, still openly uncomfortable with the idea. “You’re no more a Dr. Phil than she is.”

“I have lots of money, I wear suits, and I’m a man. That’s three points for me that she doesn’t have.” Not giving either of them a chance to respond, Tony grabbed the door handle and let himself in the examination room. “Hey, Reindeer Games.”

Loki’s head snapped up immediately, one hand stopping halfway to his ribcage while the other held an x-ray up to the light. He slowly arched his brows but said nothing, looking Tony up and down suspiciously.

Tony jerked his thumb over his shoulder toward the door. “Come on.”

Loki only stared, hands dropping to the table and fidgeting with the paper sheet. “Where are you taking me?”

“Follow me and find out.” Tony turned away from Loki and made his way toward the exit. “That wasn’t a suggestion, by the way. I’m still the rule-maker in this outfit.”

There was another moment of hesitation—or perhaps defiance, it was sometimes hard to tell with Loki—and then Tony was being tailed out of the room and into the hallway. Slipping his hands into his pockets, the inventor made a conscious effort to leave his back exposed, the action serving as both a test and a statement. On one hand, he was tempting Loki with an opportunity to attack and seeing whether or not the trickster would take it. On the other hand, he was reminding Loki that he wasn’t afraid of a one-on-one fight.

Thankfully, Loki was a very cautious megalomaniacal psychopath.

“Does Dr. Banner know about this?”

Tony laughed. “What are you going to do if he doesn’t?”

“Tell him, of course.”

Turning his head to look over his shoulder, Tony smirked. “Tell him what? That I took you for a walk? You don’t know where we’re going, and even if you did, you wouldn’t have the right to refuse.”

It was clear Loki was beginning to understand his situation, if the twitching in his fingers was anything to go by, and Tony was content to let him squirm a little. Loki had gotten too comfortable, too fast, and it wouldn’t end well for anyone if he kept up the façade of control.

“Can you tell me what the secrecy is for?” Loki asked, folding his arms over his stomach and glancing around the hall with cautious eyes. “If I have no right to decline, what harm is there in telling me?”

Tony snorted and shook his head, slipping his hands into his pockets. “Ever heard of a surprise, Rudolph? I’m not gonna skin you alive or anything, so just roll with it.”

“Just…?” Loki’s face twisted with bewilderment, but he chose to question a different portion of human language in the end. “What is an olf?”

“Huh?”

Loki’s eyes narrowed slightly, and Tony got the feeling he thought he was being mocked. “Just now, you said I was a rude olf. I want to know what an olf is.”

Confusion melted away into understanding and then laughter. “Rudolph, not rude olf.” Tony chuckled to himself as he stopped at the door to their destination. “There’s a Christmas story about a red-nosed reindeer named Rudolph. It’s been around for a long time, there are movies and songs and books… and I already call you Reindeer Games, so it fits.”

Loki frowned, still missing the connection between himself and the fairytale fawn, but Tony didn’t offer any further explanation.

Instead, Tony opened the door and stepped inside, motioning for Loki to follow. He crossed the room, going past the swimming pool and lounge chairs to a bubbling hot tub.

“Ta-da!” Tony spread his arms, fully expecting Loki to have no idea what he was looking at. “I thought since you did time on the galaxy’s biggest ice cube, you’d like a little something to warm you up.”

But Loki was tense, his weight shifting onto his better leg as he took a half step back. “Did Director Fury order you to do this?” he asked, glancing around the room with an air of calculated terror.

Tony blinked. “What?”

“I completed my time on Jotunheim, he should have no reason to—”

“Shakespeare, it’s a hot tub.”

“It’s boiling, Anthony.” Loki glared, holding a hand to his side. “I’m not an idiot.”

“Could’ve fooled me,” the inventor droned with a quick eye-roll. “There are jets inside of the tub that shoot out streams of water. It’s perfectly safe. Here, I’ll prove it.” He tugged off his shirt and tossed it aside, sending the rest of his clothes after it a moment later. He eased himself into the hot water with a contented sigh. “See? Safe. Safe and very, very enjoyable.”

Loki watched him a moment more and then approached the hole in the ground, carefully sticking his fingers in and testing the temperature for himself. He stared at the water then, occasionally glancing up at Tony’s face, and after about three minutes of heavy contemplation, he followed in Tony’s footsteps.

This is what I really wanted to see. Wanna turn around for me, Reindeer Games?

Loki did not heed the unspoken request, but as he pulled his shirt over his head, Tony found it didn’t matter. He could see the bruises on Loki’s side and stomach just as clearly as he had expected to see them on Loki’s back.

That’s why Bruce wanted the x-rays so badly. Tony openly grimaced at the sick shade of yellow painting Loki’s abdomen, his mind wandering to his own experience with torture and the long hours spent coughing up water on the floor of a cave in Afghanistan.

“As if you look any better.”

Tony jumped slightly at the sudden voice, drawing himself out of his thoughts and humming vacantly. “Hmm? Oh.”

Still frowning, Loki approached the hot tub and carefully lowered himself into the corner opposite of Tony, exhaling slowly as he did. “I never got to ask… what happened to the force field that protected you during my previous visit to Midgard?”

“I had it removed.” Tony tapped the center of his chest, the knotted flesh too numb to feel his fingertips. “It wasn’t a force field, though. It was an electromagnet that went through my sternum and in to my heart.”

Loki made a face like he tasted something sour. “Why would you ever want or need such a contraption?”

“I got blown up and captured overseas, and the shrapnel from the bomb got in my chest. It was an emergency surgery, not exactly safe or sanitary, and they didn’t knock me out, which was really great. I would’ve died without it, though, so I guess I shouldn’t complain.” He gave the scar another tap and shrugged. “But that’s a thing of the past now. I’ll let you read my autobiography sometime if you want to know more. No, I’m just kidding. I don’t have an autobiography, but if I did, I’d let you read it.”

Loki chuckled softly, a smirk curling the corner of his mouth. “Is it wise to be telling your enemy so much about yourself and where your weaknesses lie?”

“That’s actually something we need to talk about.” Tony latched onto the opening, spreading his arms on the smooth concrete and extending his feet to rest on the seat across from him. “I know you’re excited to be back and all—”

“Excited is hardly the word I would use.”

“—but don’t get confused about your situation here. You’re still a war criminal, and while we might not try to turn you into a pancake like Jotunheim did, you can’t do whatever you want.”

Loki scowled. “I haven’t attempted to do any such thing.”

“Yet.” Tony bounced his finger against his temple. “While you were gone, you only had contact with Steve, Bruce, and Thor. Steve has a heart of gold, Bruce is your therapist, and Thor is your doting not-brother who believes he’s your brother and would rope the moon for you in a heartbeat. I just want to make sure you haven’t forgotten the other three members of this team, along with Director Eyepatch and Company, and the fact that we’re all chasing our own agendas here.”

There were a few beats of silence, and then Loki started to chuckle, shaking his head as a patronizing tone invaded his voice. “Oh, believe me, I have not forgotten. I am very well aware of your desire to be rid of me.”

Tony interrupted him once again. “See, that’s where you’ve got this all backwards and sideways.” He shook his head, leaning forward slightly and lowering his arms into the tumbling water. “We don’t want you gone, we want you active. You’ve been sitting in a cell for thirty days, and like I said, you’ve been doing a lot of talking with the three people in this building who will go the easiest on you. Don’t be surprised when you’re pulled out onto the streets tomorrow and expected to pick up where you left off.”

Loki glanced down at his stomach. “But—”

“See?” Tony pointed his finger again. “That’s what I’m talking about. You got some bruises, buddy. You pulled a muscle in your leg, got a blow to the head, and a couple broken fingers. That’s the worst of it, and while the others might be more sympathetic, the majority isn’t. I mean, we’re not gonna make you do anything your body can’t handle, but you can work a little banged up; we all have. Heck, the main reason we had to repair Manhattan while banged up was you. We had to clean up your mess after we risked our necks stopping your invasion, and we weren’t handing out water bottles, I can tell you that.”

Green eyes flickered downward, settling on the surface of the water and lingering there. Loki stared blankly for a moment, and then his expression turned thoughtful and somewhat disturbed before finally falling into wary comfort. “Well, at least it’s believable.”

“So,” Tony pressed, wanting to be sure. “You understand your situation here?”

Loki nodded slowly, seeming somewhat absentminded. “Yes, I understand that. What I do not understand is the purpose of… this.” He gestured to the hot tub they were in. “Why did you bring me here?”

Tony shrugged and leaned back. “You’re tense, I’m tense, and it’s a great way to unwind. You spent a lot of time in the cold, so I thought it would be nice. Plus, Bruce said heat would be good for your muscles.” He sighed contentedly, shifting his weight and sliding down until the water was up to his chin. “I thought we might as well kill two birds with one stone.”

“Even though you just finished explaining I’m nothing more than an asset to you?” Loki questioned, mimicking Tony’s actions and humming happily at the result he got.

“For starters, I don’t like captive situations, and for seconds, I do nice things for people whether or not they can give me something back. It’s called being a decent person. You should try it sometime.” Tony couldn’t help but grin to himself a little. “But if you want another believable answer, think of it this way: what good is a rusty tool? I keep you healthy, I get what I want.”

Loki thought about that for a moment, nodding his head as the words sank in. He looked around the perimeter of the tub, almost as if doing one last sweet for a trap, and then he shifted a bit to make himself more comfortable. “I am… appreciative of this… gesture.”

It was probably as close to a thank you as Tony would ever get.

“Sure thing, Reindeer Games.”

He still has the Three Musketeers doting on him, but hopefully we’ll be able to balance things out and keep him from trying anything stupid. Not that Loki had done anything wrong, Tony was just nervous. He remembered getting out of captivity. He remembered immediately making changes and demands—not even bad things, just sudden things, things neither he nor the people around him were ready for—and he remembered being so focused on what he could do with his newfound freedom that he stopped paying attention to what his mind and body said was too much.

That won’t happen with Loki. But could he be sure?

Tony’s lips twitched into the lightest of frowns.

“Anthony…” Loki pursed his lips for a moment, carefully considering his words, and then he looked across the tub with a bewildered expression. “How did the reindeer get a red nose?”

Tony put his head back and laughed. He could definitely be sure.


“Levi.”

Loki turned his head to look over his shoulder, silently prompting further explanation from Natasha, a gray t-shirt still hanging from his hands.

“Break time.” Natasha held out a bottle of water and gestured to the couch along the far wall. “Sit down, drink some water, and try to eat something. I don’t think either of us want a repeat of your first day on the job.”

Loki scowled at the memory, briefly wondering if they would ever let him live that down, and then he pulled himself to his feet. He took the drink without a word and made his way over to the couch, pressing an arm across his stomach with a quiet hiss.

Even the simplest of movements hurt, but if Dr. Banner didn’t find anything concerning in the electronic rays, then it must just be the bruises. Thankfully, they have me working inside today, otherwise—

No. He couldn’t get comfortable again.

At any given moment, I could be dragged out of this situation and thrown into another, and if I’m not prepared, it’ll be Jotunheim all over again. Sweat slid down the back of his neck, his hand quickly coming up to wipe away the sensation of filth it left behind. I need to focus on my goals, namely escaping. There’s no point in trying to trick Natasha or Clint—probably not Tony, either, though that remains to be seen—but I’ll still need to show them a more trustworthy side in the event those I do trick go to them for advice. I have to swing everyone in my favor—he caught and held Natasha’s gaze for a half of a second before returning to his water and the sights of the city—if I want to get out of here. Everyone.

It would take time, but Loki had always been a rather patient individual. Bruce and Steve were already sympathetic to an extent, and Thor was bent on obtaining his brother’s love now more than ever. For the time being, the team was split down the middle, but it needed to be better than that. At the very least, Loki needed three for him, two neutral, and one against; anything less than that would be too risky.

“Levi!”

Raising his head, he scanned the area and looked for the owner of the enthusiastic and familiar voice, a small smile breaching his lips when he saw her. “Hello, Brianna.”

“Levi, you came back!” She darted across the room, reaching for him with arms that were painted with bruises and scrapes.

“Brianna, wait!” Loki thrust his arms out, grabbing her around the waist and forcing her to come to a stop. “Brianna, you can’t jump on me. I… had a bit of an accident while I was on vacation.”

Wide eyes blinked at him, her little hands fisting his shirt as she fidgeted in his hold. “Is that why you were gone so long?”

Loki nodded, smiling tightly as he surveyed the rest of her body and found more minor injuries throughout. “Yes, that’s why.”

Brianna nodded, ducking under his arm and crawling onto the couch, where she proceeded to make herself comfortable. “I thought you were never gonna come back,” she mumbled, bouncing her legs against the couch cushions.

Wetting his lips, Loki looked Brianna over once more and reached out to brush his fingers across one of the larger, fresher scrapes on her knee. “Brianna, what happened to you? Where did all of these marks come from?”

Brianna dragged her arm across her mouth, shrugging her shoulders. “Just can’t stay outta trouble, I guess.” She kicked her legs again, watching them fall back down against the couch with a somewhat vacant look in her eyes. “I like to look around for toys and clothes and food in the old buildings. Canned stuff lasts a long time, yanno, and I really love canned peaches.”

Loki frowned, not following her train of thought at all.

“It’s just… sometimes it isn’t so safe. Lots of glass and holes and falling, um, lights and stuff. Sometimes I just fall down, and I get scraped up.” She turned slightly, lifting her foot up and placing it on Loki’s lap. “I broke my flip-flop. See? That’s why I came here.”

Loki examined the foot for a moment, bothered by the state of her shoe much more than he would have liked; the flip-flop that had broken was the same one he had ‘fixed’ several weeks earlier. “I know where to get you new shoes, but I have a question for you first.” He finished off his water and set the bottle aside, turning sideways on the couch to face Brianna fully. “Your mother should be home from the hospital by now. Why isn’t she the one looking for food and clothing?”

Brianna looked up at him, eyes glassy and lips wobbling, and he immediately knew he had said something wrong.

“…Mommy didn’t come back from the hospital...”

Loki offered no immediate reaction, and it took several seconds and one slow inhale to get him talking again. “Her injuries were fatal, then?”

Brianna dropped her chin to her chest and shook her head back and forth, shoulders quivering as she began to cry. “Mommy… didn’t want to come back…” She sniffed, wiping her face with the back of her arm once more. “It’s my fault… I wasn’t supposed to let the doctors see her, and… and now she owes a lot of money, and she d-doesn’t…”

Loki swallowed, trying to muster up enough cold-heartedness to find himself annoyed. It didn’t work, and with a quiet sigh of resignation, he placed his fingers beneath her chin and lifted her face. “What do you say we find you some footwear, hmm?”

Sniffing, Brianna nodded and got to her feet. Loki stood along with her and grabbed two bottles of water from a nearby cooler, handing one to his little companion before leading her out the room and down the hall.

It was interesting, the little house they were in. It looked like a normal living space from the outside, but inside it was filled with clothing and shoes and food. Loki had spent the entire morning and afternoon going through large black bags, sorting out the contents and sending it out to the various designated rooms. He had been surprised to find the clothing came from people across the country, and allegedly, they didn’t get anything in return for their donations.

Loki still wasn’t sure he believed that.

“Here.” He stepped into the shoe room and made his way to the far corner, pulling two plastic bins away from the walls. “These should fit you.”

Brianna popped the lid on one and reached out to sift through the footwear, rubbing her eyes. It didn’t take her very long to find a pair of moderately worn, bright pink sandals with yellow flowers on the straps, and she quickly put them on and walked around the room to see how they fit.

Loki snapped the lid back on the container. “I think those will do just fine. Don’t you?”

Brianna stopped next to him and looked up, nodding silently. She hadn’t said a word since she told him about her mother, and Loki wasn’t entirely sure what to do about that. She wasn’t his responsibility, and it wasn’t his fault her mother had left, but he couldn’t help wondering what would happen if she were left alone.

“Well, now that we have that settled, I can get back to work while you stay on the couch.” He turned toward the exit and started walking, motioning for her to follow him. “I’ll have to find somewhere to take you. What happened to the neighbors you were staying with?”

“They moved. They didn’t know about…” she trailed off, going quiet for a moment before bouncing to life a second later. “Levi, can I help you work?”

“Why would you want to do a thing like that?” he questioned, kneeling down in front of the next bag and pulling out the first article of clothing. “It’s a rather boring job.”

Brianna took a big gulp of her water and then trotted over to him, grabbing the next piece of clothing and looking to him for guidance. “I want to help. How do I do this?”

“Well…” Loki glanced around the room and sighed, holding out his hand to take the shirt. “All of the bins are labelled, so I’ll fold the clothing and tell you which bin to put it in. Your job will be taking it to the right bin and making sure it doesn’t come unfolded. Alright?”

Brianna nodded and bounced on her feet, watching as Loki checked the tag and folded the purple t-shirt, holding it out to her with a simple order.

“This goes in Girls 6/7.”

She grabbed it from him and started to walk around the room, completely oblivious to the fact that he was watching her every move.

I’ve always thought humans to be fragile, but it takes a lot of strength to smile in a situation such as hers. She is a warrior in her own right, for certain. Frowning slightly, Loki picked up the gray shirt Natasha had distracted him from and started to fold it. Just like Jotunheim.

He was still struggling to accept the idea of Jotunheim being a civilization instead of a glorified iceberg, but the fact was, both Midgard and Jotunheim had surprised him. He couldn’t deny his perceptions of them had been inaccurate, although he supposed it really shouldn’t have surprised him. After all, his perception of himself was faulty for over one thousand years. How could he trust anything else had been taught about the world around him? It was foolish to think Odin had only lied about his true heritage.

“You were raised as a hero, only to find out you’re really a monster.”

Raghnall had coined a phrase that described Loki’s mindset perfectly, but there was more to it than Loki’s role in the two cultures. He had begun to question whether Jotuns were monsters at all; whether Asgardians were heroes.

“Levi, are you okay?”

Shaking his head, Loki cleared away the thoughts and regained awareness of his situation, handing the shirt in his hands to Brianna. “I was lost in thought, that’s all. This goes in the Men’s Large bin.”

Brianna took the article into her hands and bounded off again, leaving Loki to figure out how much he had done while he was thinking as well as what pile he wanted to brave next.

“She likes you.”

Loki exhaled sharply, not turning his head toward Natasha. “She’s lonely. She’ll cling to whoever lets her.” He dragged another trash bag toward himself, ripping it open around the top and peering inside.

“She likes you.” Natasha put her hands on her hips and surveyed the room. “We’ll be leaving in about an hour. You managed to get a lot done.”

Loki hummed in agreement, nodding his head. “Here, Brianna, this goes in the 4T bin.” He handed it off and continued. “So, why are you here if it’s not time to leave yet?”

“I’m never very far away.” She held his gaze for a moment and then leaned over, grabbing a few articles and walking around the room as she spoke. “I came to see how you were doing. You seem unsettled.”

Loki scoffed. “Am I supposed to be enjoying this?”

“You look uncomfortable, not displeased. Upset.” Natasha picked up a couple pairs of jeans and checked their tags before dropping them into the appropriate bins one by one. “If there’s something on your mind, you should talk to Bruce.”

Loki said nothing, once again shifting into autopilot as his thoughts took off. I’ve finally managed to get Dr. Banner away from the topic of Asgard. Why would I bring it back up?

Ever since his return, the sessions with Dr. Banner had consisted mostly of discussion regarding Jotunheim. His experiences there, his physical health, his mental health, his relationship with his guard, how things went when he interacted with his mother, and so on. It was a break from the constant maintenance of the barrier he had placed around his distant past, and while Asgard was beginning to rear its ugly head again, Loki was in no way eager to breach the topic.

What I’ve already told him has enough lies in it without me adding more. If I get too far in, he’ll start to notice inconsistencies, or worse, he’ll ask Thor for confirmation, and then he won’t believe the parts that actually are true. Not to mention, Thor will begin to question Baldur’s death, and depending on what he finds…

“Brianna, come here for a moment.” Loki beckoned her with his finger, softening his tone when she obediently approached. “You should talk to Lady Natasha about your current… situation.”

Brianna took one look at Natasha and shook her head, taking a step back.

“Now, Brianna,” he chided. “You can’t continue to live on the streets, or you’re going to wind up very sick like your mother. Lady Natasha can help you find a place to stay permanently, but you have to explain what happened, or she won’t be able to help you.”

Natasha crouched down beside him at this point, draping her arms over her legs and giving Brianna a warm smile. “I know it’s scary to ask a stranger for help, but we’re here to make things a little better for everyone. It’s our job. You can trust us to do our job, right?”

There was another moment of hesitation, and then Brianna offered a slight nod and mumbled, “I guess…”

“Good.” Loki stood up with a stack of shorts in his arms. “We’re going to be leaving soon, so the two of you can talk while I finish up a few more bags. Alright?”

“Alright.” In two steps, Brianna had her arms wrapped around his waist, head nestling against his bruised stomach. “Bye, Levi.”

Grimacing, Loki bit back a grunt and carefully detached her body from his. “Goodbye, Brianna.” He gave her a pat on the head and watched her leave with Natasha, waiting until the duo was out of sight to resume his work.

“You were raised as a hero, only to find out you’re really a monster.”

Exploring Jotunheim was only half of the puzzle. Loki knew that—truly, he did—and yet he couldn’t see a safe way to talk about Asgard without incriminating himself. The Avengers already had a long list of reasons not to trust him, and if he wanted to escape, he needed that list to get shorter. His past would almost definitely serve to make it longer.

“Baldur was shot and killed with mistletoe… we were never able to track them down... we all went to Midgard… telling every living thing to weep… but there was one who would not…”

That story was only half true, and that meant no matter what Bruce asked him about, if it fell on the timeline after Baldur’s death, it would have lies underscoring it all. Loki may have been the god of lies, but disjointed stories spread out over hundreds of years was too much for even him to keep track of. He was bound to slip up sooner or later, and Bruce would be looking for it.

It’s already on the table, though. I can’t take that back. I could tell him the truth, but that wouldn’t improve my standing with him, and it’s not as if the truth will fall in line with the history books, so he might not believe me anyway.

Of course, there was also Thor to worry about. If Thor knew the truth, it would surely mean the end of his compassion. Telling the truth seemed to end badly no matter which way the situation played out, but he couldn’t avoid the topic forever. There was no given end to his sentence—assuming they intended to release him at all—and he could only dodge questions for so many years.

Still, there’s no need to rush. If he doesn’t bring it up, I won’t either.

Natasha knew, though. She knew, and she had reasons to use it against him.

But I shouldn’t assume. If he doesn’t bring it up, I won’t either.

Hands stopped at the bottom of the bag, finding plastic instead of cloth and moving on to the next sack in line. His broken fingers were objecting to all the activity they had seen, and a painful imprint of Brianna’s head was still burning against his abdomen. To top it all off, his mind was beginning to scramble itself again, thoughts flying in every direction with no order or purpose whatsoever, just as it had when he found himself confronted with new truths on Jotunheim. He hated it.

If he doesn’t bring it up, I won’t either.


Loki tossed another book onto his steadily growing pile and let out a sigh, staring up at the ceiling and pleading with his mortal form to send a wave of fatigue over him and put him out of his misery. He had heard Tony use the term ‘too tired to sleep’ before, but he had never imagined it could be so frustrating.

Standing up, he walked over to the table where his aqua-colored robot was sitting and turned it on with the push of a button. It was a curious little thing—a gift from Steve that heated water for tea—but he very much enjoyed its qualities.

Loki sighed and grabbed a teabag, popping it into one of the two ceramic mugs he had on hand. He sighed again, blank eyes staring as the water started to trickle into the cup. Honestly, he almost wanted Tony to burst through the door with his minibar and throw another random party. It would be a nightmare in the morning, but if Loki could drink himself into unconsciousness, then it would all be worth it.

I’ve got too much on my mind, that’s the problem.

His detainment on Jotunheim had ended almost three weeks ago, and while he hadn’t noticed anything particularly suspicious upon his immediate return, he had begun to notice a certain unease into the tower. Steve didn’t smile as much, and Tony was either dead silent or rambling nonstop. Clint seemed touchier and short-tempered, though that might have been due their general distaste for each other, and even Natasha had lost her professional edge a time or two. Bruce was the only one who seemed to be somewhat normal, and Loki wasn’t sure how Thor was doing because he hadn’t seen him lately.

Still, that was four out of six behaving abnormally, and considering his fate was in their hands, he didn’t like not knowing why.

As if I needed something else to fret about.

Eighteen days since his return. Seventeen hours spent talking with Bruce. Sixteen hours spent avoiding the topic of Asgard, Frigga, Odin, Thor, Baldur, and anything else that fell into similar categories. Eight hours spent on the creation of false stories and occurrences if only because he couldn’t think of anything else to say. Two hours spent lapsing into the same silence he had given when he first arrived over two months earlier. Countless, innumerable hours spent wrestling with himself over whether or not it was even worth it; whether or not he truly had a reason to hide his faults any longer.

I tried to destroy Jotunheim, I tried to take over Midgard, I’ve killed hundreds if not thousands of people, destroyed millions of dollars of property and landscape—what are a few misdeeds when compared to that?

Too much. Even if those truths about himself were ancient history, they were condemning enough to cause problems if they were brought to the attention of the wrong people. It could be the drop that made the cup run over, and the mercy of his human detainers was bound to reach its limit sooner or later.

“Odin wasn’t going to execute you.”

Yet another thing that lingered in the back of his mind. If Odin wasn’t going to execute him but Thor still saw the need to intervene, Loki could only imagine what had been planned for him. Growing up, Loki had heard horror stories about what happened to traitors and enemies of Asgard, but he had never imagined Odin turning such a harsh hand toward him. Even after he knew the truth about his bloodline, Odin was so adamant that Loki truly was his son that it hadn’t occurred to Loki to fear punishment that harsh.

It appears I was wrong about that, too. Huzzah.

Sighing, Loki grabbed his drink and stirred in some sugar, looking around the room in an attempt to find something that would occupy his mind for a little while longer. His calligraphy set was sitting on the shelf, but his broken fingers prevented him from using it, and he had already passed four hours of the night reading, so books weren’t going to do it. There had to be something else.

Emerald hues came to rest on the dresser, his lips curling up at the corners just slightly.

My ring.

Bruce had once suggested Loki use the relic on a daily basis to try and get more comfortable in his Jotun skin, but he had quickly shot the suggestion down. Loki may have been willing to admit to some faults in his judgement of Jotunheim, but that was a far cry from wearing his heritage with any kind of pride.

But the ring has magical properties. I could feel it when I took it off the first time. Perhaps…

Loki opened the top drawer, sifting through the contents until he found the ring and pulling it out slowly. His fingertips immediately turned blue, and the shade quickly spread to the rest of his body, the temperature of the room dropping a handful of degrees almost instantly.

If I can get used to finding and manipulating magic pulses again, perhaps I can find out where Odin hid the seals. Of course, even then it would be hard to break them with such limited resources, but it wouldn’t be entirely impossible.

Loki returned to his bed and lay down, sliding the ring on but keeping it pinched between his fingers. His intention was focus on the ring like he would when removing it; however, it seemed the fatigue he had been aching for all night long had finally decided to grace him with its presence. His eyelids grew heavy, and with the steady thrum of magic pulsating beneath his fingertips, the idea of staying awake grew less and less enticing.

I wonder… if the cold… is making me tired… or if… I’m just…

He was asleep before he could finish the thought.

Chapter Text

“Loki, we need to talk.”

“Oh, how I despise those words. Coming from you, especially.”

Thor didn’t react to the harsh words, choosing instead to let himself in and take a look around. He was unsurprised to find the room in an immaculate state of organization and cleanliness, and the stack of books by the door gave the impression his brother was still enjoying his old hobbies. Everything was so familiar, so similar to how things used to be. For a split second, it actually felt like everything was normal again.

But it wasn’t, and Thor knew he wouldn’t get any sort of greeting or invitation, so he helped himself to a chair and started to explain the situation that had sent him to Loki’s room.

“Look here.” Thor pulled a technological tablet from his jacket and began playing a video he hoped would help him explain the situation. “This is called a News Broadcast. It is showing us what is currently happening within the borders of the Midgardian country known as Norway.”

Loki watched him with cautious eyes, moving closer to the table but not sitting down. Hesitant and suspicious, he turned his attention to the screen and watched it for several moments, his brow furrowing more with each passing second. “Infidels. They cannot begin to fathom what they are claiming to be.” Pause. “Why are you showing me this?”

“Because their arrogance and their strength come from the same source.” Thor took the tablet back and changed the image on the screen to display a three-dimensional scan of a fragmented, engraved rod. “They cut this out of a tree trunk before committing the atrocities you just saw on the news. It is Asgardian in nature.”

Loki arched a brow, several questions written across his face.

“It has runes.” Thor cleared his throat, gesturing to the image again. “I can tell they are magical in nature, but I have been unable to figure out more than a few words. I cannot think of anyone who would better know how to decipher this.”

Loki remained silent, his expression making it clear he had not yet heard what he wanted.

Thor sighed in response, shaking his head and turning to look out the bedroom window. “I have no pride when it comes to you, Loki, but I cannot speak for my comrades, especially in this particular situation. They do not view you in the same light as I, so do not push them. I know the Man of Iron has already warned you to this affect, but it seems you have not taken his words to heart. You would do well to remedy that.” Shifting his eyes back to Loki’s face, he finally conceded. “We need your help.”

Smirking, Loki reached out and took the tablet from Thor, staring at it for a few minutes before handing it back. “I can’t see entire phrases in this image. If you want me to help, I’ll need to get my hands on a replica.” He clasped his hands together behind his back and rocked on his heels slightly. “Your comrades must also understand that this is only one part of the staff, which means the information I find will be limited. I cannot read what is not there.”

Thor nodded, getting to his feet. “I assumed as much.”

Not waiting for Loki to officially agree, Thor threw the door open and stepped out, starting to walk. He knew Loki would follow him for the sake of curiosity, if nothing else. Magic was his passion—his first and only love—and considering he had spent the last two months without it, there was no doubt in Thor’s mind Loki would accept the job.

Less than ten seconds later, he was proven right, Loki’s footfalls sounding out behind him as he continued to make his way down the hall. For a moment, Thor considered changing the topic to something more casual, but their relationship seemed to go smoothest when it was purely professional, so the idea didn’t linger long.

“The Avengers will oversee your work, and there will be someone in the room with you at all times to ensure you don’t cause any unnecessary trouble.” Thor glanced over his shoulder. “Understood?”

Loki chuckled, a wry smile twisting his lips. “You don’t waste any time getting down to business, do you?” He sped up and fell in step beside Thor, grinning. “I like this.”

Thor cast a warning look in his brother’s direction for what must have been the thirtieth time. “Do not mistake their need of your skills for lenience, Loki.”

“Tell me, Odinson, what will they do to me if I don’t behave?”

Moving suddenly, Thor grabbed Loki’s arm and swung around to stand in his way, taking the bony shoulders in his hands and meeting Loki’s gaze evenly. “If you do not cooperate willingly, then they will beat you into submission.”

“You—”

“And I will allow it.” Thor gave him a shake, keeping the younger god’s mortality in mind as he gripped Loki’s frame. “People have died, Loki. People are still dying and suffering today. I love you—”

“Don’t—”

“I love you, Loki, but I will protect this world from your schemes as well as those of others. If you choose to work against me and suffer the consequences… so be it.” It burned his throat, his tongue, his lips to say those words, but he knew it would be worse to leave it unsaid. To leave it confirmed by actions that would, without proper context, come off as uncaring and cold.

Loki stared for a few seconds and then smiled, eyes glimmering mischievously. “Finally putting on your adult trousers, I see.”

Thor said nothing, released Loki’s shoulders, and started to walk again.

Loki, please try to cooperate. The Avengers are giving you a chance—a chance our own father would not—so please… for your sake… make it work.


“Oh, good, our interpreter is here.”

Loki ignored Tony’s comment and looked around the room, both eyes immediately locking onto the object sitting in the center of a very large, round table. “This is the replica, yes?”

“Yup.”

Loki exhaled loudly, already trying to throw together certain terms and phrases as he pulled the rod toward himself, turning it over in his hands delicately. “Good.”

“And why is that?” Fury’s voice came from behind, the dark figure appearing in Loki’s right peripheral half a second later. “Personally, I’d like to have real one here with us. Then we could skip this whole step, and you’d be back in your cell drinking tea.”

The Director’s casual use of the term ‘cell’ put the slightest of frowns on Loki’s face, but he concealed it with a guise of focus, running his finger over one mark in particular. “It’s good because the original would have inflicted some unpleasant symptoms and side effects on whoever tried to wield it.” He pointed to the top-most portion of the rod. “This indicates mass violence, city-wide at the very least. Some of these symbols are typically associated with rage, and there’s a variety of terms associated with bloodshed.”

Tony approached the table and dropped into one of the available swivel chairs. “Associated?”

“Magic is both a science and a language. I can get a general idea at a glance, but I’ll need time and instruments to get an exact translation, so what I just told you is a vague message created by related terms and images.” Loki glanced up briefly, meeting Fury’s only visible eye. “I’ll need a pen and paper, Director.”

There was a pause, and then Fury pulled a fountain pen from his jacket. “Stark, get some paper. Loki, don’t keep me waiting.”

Loki swallowed a sarcastic remark and took the offered pen. He returned his gaze to the rod and tried to decipher more of the basics.

Rage… hatred… strength… power… wrath… it’s complex and very old… much older than Thor and I. It was intended for warriors, so the chances of it being a sorcerer’s private creation are slim. Oh? What’s this?

He was vaguely aware of a paper pad being placed nearby, and he quickly began scrawling notes and words with symbols and question marks scattered throughout, lines connecting one thing to the next and then again.

We have half of a date here, and it looks like… two thousand years, give or take no more than a century. The rest of its creation is probably cataloged on the top piece, so I won’t get much more out of this as far as its beginnings are concerned. Unfortunately, warnings would most likely be placed at the end, so I probably won’t find much there, either.

He pulled the first piece of paper from the tablet and scratched the word ‘origins’ across the top, setting it aside and starting on a fresh page.

Strength. It’s most useful asset is strength, which falls in line with the idea of it belonging to a warrior. In two places, it says ofridr bati… hostility advantage. So, the rage is supposed to cloud a sense of morals and ethics, enabling the warrior to take the strength offered by the staff and fight without restraint.

“Director, do you have a list of crimes committed in the area between the forest and the city of Oslo?” Loki’s gaze left the staff only briefly, flickering over to his writing hand before shifting back to the rod.

“Yeah. Why?”

“I’d like to take a look at them as soon as possible. They may have done more damage than we’re aware of. Thor, I want the moving picture screen with the News Broadcast as well, and don’t wander too far. I may have need of you.” He leaned back in his chair, gesturing to the tabletop. “I don’t have much so far, but I do know this. Its main objective is to enrage the holder and give them immense physical strength. This combination is valuable in battle, so it was probably made in a time of war, which means I’ll need some history books. It’s roughly two thousand years old, so it is about one thousand years before my time, and there’s no indication on the staff itself as to when it arrived on Midgard.” Claiming the small screen from Thor’s hands, he leaned forward and started to examine the staff again. “I’m afraid that’s all I have for the moment. If you want more, you’ll have to be patient.”

Tony frowned, leaning against the table and looking over Loki’s shoulder. “Those trees are ancient. They date back much further than two thousand years.”

Loki let out a sharp sigh. “Magic, Tony.” He pulled out a new piece of paper and started sketching an illustration. “If I used magic turn a seed into a fully grown tree at the snap of my fingers, and then I asked you how old it is, you would never suspect, suggest, or believe that it was only thirty seconds old. This staff is very well made, so if its creator says it is two thousand years old, then the trees must be the ones lying to you.” With that, he buried himself in his thoughts again, vaguely aware of Tony mumbling something under his breath.

Loki listened to the device on the table, scanning his notes and looking for connections between the reporter’s words and his own deductions.

“...safety perimeter, in an attempt to stop the growing violence. The writing has left twenty injured, three in critical condition. Reports indicate that a group of about a dozen was led by this man and woman, and while their motives were unclear, their message was hauntingly spelled out on the streets of Oslo.”

Loki’s face once again twisted into a scowl at the outrageous claim on the pavement, but he pushed aside those thoughts and focused instead on the report. “They haven’t killed many people yet. That could be because they haven’t had the chance, or it could be because one fragment isn’t enough for them to lose their conscience completely.”

Tony, once again pushing himself into Loki’s study space, put his chin in his hands and gave the rod a little flick. “Well, we know they had a chance to kill because they injured. What made them stop?”

“Retreat, probably. As I said, this staff was designed for war, meaning you destroy everything in sight and range. If your enemy retreats, then you destroy their supplies and remove their advantages before continuing the hunt, so they could have stopped short of killing because they were more inclined to boast on the blacktop and light some houses on fire. Or, again, it could be that a single fragment isn’t enough. Or it could be something else entirely.” He shrugged his shoulders, starting a new page for notes about the runes on the first and second lines. “Time will tell.”

“Loki, I have found history books.” Thor spoke up from where he sat at the computer desk. “According to the World Wide Web, there are many of them currently at the library located a few blocks away. Would you like me to get them, or should I stay here a while longer?”

Tony raised his hand briefly, standing up and crossing the room to the computer. “Just let me print the list, and I’ll go get them. You stay here in case there’s some voodoo thing he needs you to do.”

I need peace and quiet. One of you, go already!

Trying to push the commotion from his mind, Loki began to write out literal translations of each individual rune, looking for any double meanings or undertones the spell may have had hidden within the phrases. Aldrnari… dreyri... raudr…

“Loki.”

Heaving a sigh, Loki turned to look with disdain in his eyes. “What is it now?”

Thor only watched him for a moment, but then he wet his lips and started speaking, increasing in speed the further he got. “You… have not spoken to me… since we returned from Jotunheim, and I… I haven’t had a chance to ask how you are. I barely see you, and the others tell me you are doing well, but I would much rather hear it with my own ears and see you say it with my own eyes. I know you bear much resentment toward me, Loki, but can you grant me a little peace of mind? How are you? Truly, how are you?”

Loki didn’t say anything for several seconds, and when his lips finally did start to move, they struggled to stay in control of his words. “I don’t understand why my well-being is weighing on your mind. If you would just cast out this silly concept of brotherhood, you would feel much better.” He swallowed thickly, feigning irritation.

“Then do not tell me as a brother. Tell me as a friend—as a fellow foreigner and a fellow prince. Just… please. I won’t ask again after this.” Thor watched him, eyes wide and shining with hope that perhaps, just this once, his beloved baby brother would reach out to him.

Loki pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger, exhaling slowly and pushing his chair away from the table. “Thor…” he met the god’s eyes unwaveringly, fighting the urge to smack that dopey look off his face, “…I am doing fine. You and I both know things are much better than they could have been, and I feel fine, so stop worrying. You’re worse than Queen Frigga.”

Thor held Loki’s gaze, nodding slightly, and two minutes passed in complete silence before he finally looked away. Loki looked away as well and resumed his studies, stillness settling over the room like a blanket.

Leidr… storradr… eiga afl… eiga hraustligr…


“Here.”

Loki startled and looked up from his work, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. His vision slowly cleared, revealing not only the speaker, Natasha, but a steaming mug in her outstretched hand.

“What is it?” Loki carefully took the cup and assessed the brown liquid inside. It looked a lot like tea, but the smell was stronger and completely different, and the color was slightly off.

“It’s coffee. Has a bitter taste, but I added some sugar and cream.” She gestured toward his increasingly incoherent notes. “Helps you stay awake. Keeps your mind running.”

Blinking, Loki looked from the drink to her face and then back again, raising it to his lips and taking a hesitant sip. His face twisted up immediately, the bitter kick unexpected despite her warning, but as the liquid settled in his stomach, he found the taste was half tolerable.

“It will take some adjusting, but I shall give it a chance.” He paused, giving her a brief, sideways kind of glance. “Thank you.”

“Yup.” Natasha looked over his shoulder, scanning the cluttered table and grabbing one of the nearly finished translations. “So, magic is really this complicated?”

Loki nodded. “On Asgard, magic is a science. You have biology, chemistry, physics, and so on. We have magic.” He smiled slightly, pointing to a few of the symbols on the page she was holding. “We use runes instead of equations, and when we mix chemicals we get potions and spells rather than medicine or fuel. However, magic is much more… alive than your sciences. More intimate, for lack of a better word.” Taking another sip with a slightly reduced cringe, he penned another note and rotated the sheet in front of him from portrait to landscape. “If you want to give the sheet in your hands to the director, you’re welcome to. It’s a translation of the first three lines, and this page with lines four through six will be done in about… twenty minutes, give or take.” He pursed his lips briefly. “Have we found anything on the location of the real staff?”

Natasha gave a sharp nod. “Rogers, Stark, and Clint headed out just a couple hours ago to follow a lead, and Thor is on call if they need backup. You’re stuck with Bruce and me.” She smiled lightly, leaning back against the table.

“Bruce and I.”

“Ah, ah, ah.” Natasha wagged a finger at him. “You determine whether it’s ‘I’ or ‘me’ based on what the sentence would be without the other person. I wouldn’t say, ‘You’re stuck with I,’ I would say, ‘You’re stuck with me.’ Therefore, it’s Bruce and me. Or me and Bruce.”

Loki opened his mouth to correct her but stopped short, pen freezing halfway through a word. Oh. He was so used to people using the phrases incorrectly that he switched it up without thinking.

“Aren’t you supposed to be good with words?” Natasha asked, a slight smirk curling the corner of her mouth.

“Tch.” Loki got back to his work, feigning indifference. “Technically, it isn’t incorrect to say ‘Bruce and I,’ seeing as, ‘You’re stuck with I,’ is still a grammatically correct sentence.”

“True, but mine was grammatically correct and appropriate for the time period and culture, so you didn’t need to correct me.” Natasha let her smirk grow, clearly pleased with herself.

Loki glared at her, clearly the opposite of pleased with her. “I can stop translating any time, you know.”

Natasha only laughed.

Loki tried, but he couldn’t stay irritated for very long, and his scowl soon gave way to a small chuckle. Not that he didn’t enjoy being the enemy, but sometimes he missed his childish pranks and annoying but harmless wits he once engaged in. He often wondered when exactly it was that he let his mischief turn into chaos. He wondered when he stopped having fun with arguments and started being genuinely angry.

Loki pulled himself from his thoughts with another sip of coffee. “Well, getting back to business, I sincerely hope they find the staff soon. From what I can tell, the weapon appears to be from a Berserker arsenal.” He held up a finger before she could ask the obvious question. “Berserkers were mostly third-class workers who got drafted when things started looking desperate. They were given weapons, spells, and other similar enhancements to get them ready for the battlefield in a short timeframe.”

Natasha crossed her arms over her chest, giving a few, slow nods as a contemplative expression took over her features. “It’s made to turn average or under-average men into conquerors.”

“Exactly. It’s similar, in a way, to your soldier serum; the difference is, unlike the serum, the weapons and charms could be passed from soldier to soldier with ease.” Loki looked back at the pages for a moment, sighing and taking another bitter sip as he began to write again. “This isn’t like the time Mjolnir landed on earth. Mjolnir couldn’t be lifted or manipulated by anyone, so it just sat there, waiting for a worthy hand, completely harmless. This…” He let out another sigh, heavier, more defeated. “This was designed for the unworthy, ordinary, average man to use it. It’s about as far from harmless as you can get.”

“Well, the boys are wearing gloves, and reasoning isn’t in the game plan. We can try to rationalize with them after the staff is in our hands.” Natasha folded the paper she had and stuffed it in her pocket. “I’ll get this to Fury. It won’t be that much trouble to update him again in fifteen minutes.”

Loki scratched down two more notes and then slid the page closer to her. “You can take it to him now.”

Natasha arched a brow, impressed, and took the sheet from him. “You work fast.”

Loki snorted softly. “I can give you more than that. I can tell you the staff was created by someone of a noble rank or higher, given the half of the signature I can see. I can tell its indestructability is on the same level as Captain America’s shield, meaning it wasn’t broken by humans or even a physical attack from an Asgardian. Magic built it, and magic took it apart. That said, we can probably find whoever hid it, because they can’t be mortal and they have to possess magic or strength so extreme they could fight the green beast—and possibly win.”

Natasha blew her bangs out of her face, red locks falling back down and forcing her to use a hand to swipe them away. “Bruce and I,” she gave him a knowing smirk, “will scan for any alien activity, and you might want to hit the history books again. Just because it was in a tree, that doesn’t necessarily mean it was dormant. Maybe there’s something in the books humanity has misinterpreted. Some plague or catastrophic destruction of a village or town nearby.”

Pursing his lips, Loki reached out and grabbed a book from the top of the stack, opening to the table of contents and mumbling under his breath. “That’s not a half bad idea… let’s see, that would start… somewhere between one hundred B.C. and one hundred A.D.”

“Loki.”

He looked up, his expression betraying the confusion and sudden alarm he felt.

“I talked to Bruce. You haven’t told him what’s on your mind.”

Loki only huffed and returned to his book. “What I do and do not share with Bruce is my business, not yours. We’ve had other things to talk about.”

Natasha crossed her arms over her chest, weight shifting to push her hip to one side. “You really didn’t tell him, then.”

Loki blinked and then glared, fists clenching around either half of the book. “Must you do that?”

“Do what?” Her eyes were innocent, but a knowing smile danced on her lips.

“This isn’t an interrogation, Romanoff; the manipulation and mind games are unwarranted. It’s none of your business what goes on during my sessions with Dr. Banner, so why don’t you stop shoving your nose where it doesn’t belong, hmm?” He snapped the book shut and slammed it down on top of the stack, standing up and pretending to occupy himself with the clutter spread across the table. “For Odin’s sake, you’re worse than Thor.”

A satisfied hum came from behind, pushing his blood pressure higher, and her voice followed a few moments later. “I think that’s a compliment, coming from you.”

Loki scoffed. “Have you seen us interact?”

“No.” There was no mirth in her voice, but it wasn’t cold, either. “Nobody has, because you haven’t had more than four short, heated conversations with him since he was banished.”

Loki paused in his movements. “We spoke on Jotunheim.”

“While you were injured and desperate and he was walking on eggshells so you wouldn’t be alone.” Her reply came without hesitation, footsteps signaling her approach and forcing Loki to turn toward her. “If you’re telling me I’m like Thor, then I can only assume you’re telling me I’m like a sibling to you, because you don’t have anything but that image to go on. You don’t know who Thor is any more than he knows who you are.”

Loki slammed his hand down on the tabletop, the sound echoing through the room. “Enough!” He glared at her, fingers curling around the papers beneath his hand, rage swelling beneath his ribcage. “I know Thor better than any of you. We have one thousand years of history, nearly our entire lives with interwoven, and you claim to know him better with what little you have? Impossible.”

“Is it?” Natasha cocked her head to the side, eyes unwavering, expression impassive. “If that were true, it would go both ways, so why doesn’t Thor understand you? Why do you accuse him of never realizing how much he hurt you? Why is Thor still struggling to communicate with someone he supposedly knows better than anyone else?” She paused for half a beat, not giving Loki the chance to reply. “You don’t know Thor any more than he knows you. If you did, you would know how much he loves you, and you would appreciate him a lot more.”

“I know—”

“No, you don’t.” She patted her pocket. “Thank you for this. I’ll take it to Director Fury right away.” With a quick glance at her watch, she started for the door with a soldier’s gait. “You better get back to work.”

There was a fragment of a second where he could have said something, but then the door was closed, and the chance was gone. Loki stood alone by the table, the room empty and mostly dark. He realized the piece of paper beneath his hand was being crumpled up, and he quickly released it, pulling his hand close to himself so he could rub obsessively at the center of his palm.

I know Thor. I know him. He’s a loud, reckless, sentimental, arrogant, violent, buffoon. He cast me out, cast me aside. He stole our father’s love when I thought it should have been mine and tried to give it back when I learned I had no right to it.

Loki sat down slowly, resting his elbows on his thighs and lowering his head into his hands. Natasha’s words ran back and forth across his mindscape incessantly. She had made him feel cornered, and he knew that meant there was at least some truth in what she said. Being the god of lies, he knew the best way to construct a lie was to mix it with as much truth as possible.

I know Thor. I have to know him, he’s m—he’s not my brother, but I still spent over one thousand years by his side. We were raised together, we played together, we fought together—

“—do you remember none of that?”

He jolted, eyes snapping open as the memory invaded his thoughts.

No. I have work to do. I need to focus.

Shaking his head, Loki returned to the task at hand, determined to put Thor and all related topics out of his mind. He had to focus on his project so he could take his results to Natasha and prove there was absolutely nothing wrong with him. He had complete control.

Loki stopped.

I didn’t even try to bargain with them. I just… accepted it. I was so desperate for something to do, something involving magic, that I threw away a good chance at gaining some benefits for myself. Laughing bitterly, he began to rub his face. Oh, this is fantastic. Would it be too obvious if I switched things up now? No, I could do it. I could make it look like a plan, and I could give the incentive of their three teammates being stranded, waiting for more information.

Loki turned his head, surveying the contents of the table with a frown. It was half completed already, and what good would making threats do, anyway? It might get him what he wanted in the moment, but it would make it much harder to gain their trust in the long run.

Trust is more important than comfort. I don’t have any demands right now, anyway. I’ll play it safe, follow the rules, and keep an eye out for weak spots.

Loki sat with a heavy sigh and reclaimed his pen, sliding a blank sheet toward himself so he could begin translating the seventh line. He would finish that, at least, and then perhaps take a nap. Even the mysterious ‘coffee’ could only keep him awake for so long. Probably.

I know Thor. I won’t let Natasha tell me otherwise again.

Loki pretended it didn’t bother him that the topic was still on his mind.


“Looks like someone had a late night.”

Steve heard the cheeky comment before he even entered the room, and it was enough for him to lift his weary head and see what Tony was talking about. He was greeted by the sight of Loki passed out on the table, papers and pens sprawled out beneath him, the replica on the floor nearby.

“Nobody wake him. I’m taking pictures.” Tony pulled his phone out of his pocket and started snapping photos, getting shots from several different angles before stepping back and giving a dismissive wave. “Alright, have at it.”

Steve glanced at Thor, who quickly shook his head, and then stepped forward, taking it upon himself to rouse the trickster from his sleep.

“Hey.” Steve put his hands on Loki’s shoulders and gave him a few shakes. “Loki… Loki, it’s Steve. You fell asleep on the table.”

He was met with incoherent mumbles and intermittent groans, and then Loki’s head slowly started to rise. Bleary eyes wandered as the sluggish brain behind them started to process data once more.

“Mm… good morning… Captain.” Loki pulled himself out of Steve’s grasp and looked down at his work. He rubbed his face, ran his hands through his hair, and picked up his pen to start again. “How did it go?”

Clint spoke up at that, perched on the back of a chair some fifteen feet away. “They still have their piece of the staff, but we kept them from getting the second one. We’re tied, and there’s only one more piece, so they’re going to be even more of a pain than before.”

Loki scowled. “Troublesome.” Returning his attention to Steve, he continued. “When can you get me a replica of the second piece? Also, I will need more of the coffee drink. Preferably in a new flavor.”

Steve shook his head before the last request was even out of Loki’s mouth. “What you need is rest. You should get a couple hours of sleep before you start working again, and we can look for leads of our own in the meantime.”

Loki opened his mouth to object, but to the surprise of both opponents, Clint interrupted in favor of Steve’s idea.

“It’s just like any other battle or hostage situation. We might not be fighting them hands on at the moment, but it’s still a battle of speed and wits, which means the rules of combat and survival still apply. Sleep is crucial. I slept for six hours on the flight back. You should have at least four before getting back to work.”

For a moment, Loki looked like he was going to keep fighting, but then he relaxed his shoulders and conceded with a brief nod. “Very well. I will rest for a while.”

Steve smiled, clapping the god on the shoulder. “Come on. You need a thumbprint, and I need to hit the showers. Tony, you got things here?”

“Yup. Scan will be set up by the time you get back.”

Steve gave two thumbs up to the entirety of the room and then turned, walking through the doorway and into the hall with Loki at his right. “You did a great job.” He started speaking the minute they were out of the room. “You work well under pressure, and you really came through for us.” He paused, a suspicious sort of grin parting his lips. “What inspired you to cooperate?”

Loki cast him a weak and fleeting glare, apparently too tired to hold the expression for very long. “I have always enjoyed studying magic, and it gave me something to do—eased the boredom for a while; and those infidels were infuriating, to say the least, so that may have played a part.” He yawned, reaching up to cover his mouth and smacking his lips when it had passed. “It was a change in routine. That’s all.”

Steve nodded his head, but his eyes still held a curious and almost teasing sort of look. If this works, even if it takes a while, it could really be worth it. Loki would make a great ally… and I don’t think he’d be half bad as a friend and teammate, either. If he can get over his burning desire to destroy us, of course.

“What are you smiling about?”

“Nothing, I was just thinking about last night. It was really crazy out there, so your help was appreciated.” Steve paused briefly, and then decided to make a psychological move. “I’m glad we finished when we did. I think Clint was the only thing keeping Tony and I from throwing punches.”

It was Loki’s turn to be curious, his brows arching sharply at Steve’s words. “I wasn’t aware there were harsh feelings between the two of you.”

Steve had figured as much. Loki had gotten almost all of his information from Clint, and Clint wouldn’t have known something like that at the time of Loki’s attack. Or, even if he did have some kind of idea, he never got the chance to see it in action, so he wouldn’t have known the specifics.

“Not really harsh feelings, just a difference of opinions and morals.” Steve shrugged slightly. “I’m… well, like it said in that book you showed me. I’m the ‘golden boy’ with the pure heart. I like to follow the rules and take responsibility when I lead. Tony sometimes acts like he doesn’t have a heart at all, and he likes to break the rules and follow his own lead.” Steve smiled softly, staring up at the ceiling as a reminiscent light filled his eyes. “We have clashing personalities, and we were raised in two completely different time periods. I think the only thing we share is taste in music. But I guess that’s just how teams work, you know?” He glanced over to gauge Loki’s reaction.

Loki’s brow creased and his eyes shifted downward, focused intently on the patterns in the carpet, almost as if they held the answer to his unspoken question. “Battle is very uniform on Asgard. Tony wouldn’t be able to make his own rules unless he was very high on the chain of command, so…” He shook his head, bewildered. “Why tolerate it? You’re the leader, are you not?”

Steve laughed softly. “Being the leader doesn’t mean bossing people around. It means keeping people together and bringing out the best in them. Tony likes to break the rules, but sometimes that’s necessary. He’s an independent thinker, and it might be frustrating, but it can also lead to great ideas and innovation.” He shrugged his shoulders slightly and hooked his thumbs in the belt of his uniform, wishing he was in his civvies. “Good leadership means listening to input, treating everyone as your equal, and accepting that you can’t always get what you want.”

Loki nodded, paused, and then nodded again, falling silent.

Steve let him mull it over for a moment and then nudged him in the ribs. “Hey, maybe I’ll let you sit in on a training session sometime. I can show you what I mean.”

Loki gave another nod, obviously deep in thought, and then his mouth started to move. “Captain… from a strategic point of view, is it better to address problems within a… team unit… before or after a time of conflict?”

Steve frowned slightly, rubbing his chin and pursing his lips. “Well, every situation is different, so it’s hard to give an answer to such a broad question. By ‘time of conflict’ you mean physical conflict, right? Like, during battle or a mission?”

More nodding and confused but thoughtful silence.

“Hmm… well, it’s been my experience that ignoring problems never works.” Steve got the feeling Loki was asking a non-hypothetical hypothetical, so he tried to gear his answer toward something helpful to Loki, specifically. “If you want to avoid collateral damage as much as possible, sooner rather than later is almost always the right answer. Problems always come out at the worst of times, in the worst of ways. Dealing with the problems, whatever they are, in the middle of a mess might seem like a bad idea, but if you aren’t careful, messy can become gruesome just like that.” He snapped his fingers, coming to a stop outside Loki’s bedroom door. “Was that helpful at all?”

Loki was silent. Slowly, his head started to nod, tongue flashing over his lips. “Yes.”

Steve smiled and opened up the door. “Glad I could help.” He gave Loki a pat on the shoulder. “Get some sleep. There will be plenty for you to do when you wake up.”

Loki hummed and made a beeline for his bed, otherwise unresponsive.

Still smiling, Steve closed and locked the door, starting down the hall toward his own chambers with a new weight on his mind. Bruce hadn’t mentioned anything about Loki having problems, and he was required by the contract with S.H.I.E.L.D. to bring anything unusual or concerning before the team for group consideration. So, either Bruce was lying or Loki was concealing potentially dangerous thoughts and feelings from everyone. Neither scenario had a good outcome, and, placed on top of the current dilemma in Norway, it was more than Steve wanted to deal with at the moment.

I’ll talk to Bruce after my shower.

He yawned, covering his mouth with one hand and rubbing his eye with the other.

I’ll talk to Bruce after my nap.


Four hours later, just before the sun hit the horizon, S.H.I.E.L.D. got a new report and alarms were blazing throughout the Tower. It had happened again, and those same three words were scrawled across the road in fire, daring Earth’s Mightiest Heroes to get in the way again.

WE ARE GODS

Chapter Text

Loki cast another glance at the clock, measuring how much time had passed since he woke up as well as how much of that time the ground team had spent trying to locate the third piece of the staff. He immediately decided they were moving too slow for his tastes, and with a shake of his head, he returned to the book spread before him.

“I think you can relax.” Bruce picked up the two cups of tea he had made and walked over to the table, extending the one in his left hand with a kind smile. “We know where the third piece is, and when we have two out of three, we’ll have the upper hand. Plus, with a demigod, super soldier, long-distance assassin, and suit of solid metal fighting against that magic, I think they’re pretty evenly matched.”

Loki shook his head, accepting the cup with a muttered word of thanks and taking a generous sip before speaking. “Magic can be very unpredictable. Victory of any kind is not assured until the battle is over. Even then…” He trailed off, staring through the window at the bright, blue sky and wondering what the weather was like. “I suppose I’ll have to make up for all the street work I’ve missed, hmm?”

If Bruce noticed the change in subject, he didn’t say anything. He simply sat next to Loki, leaning back in his chair with a quiet chuckle. “This qualifies as work, too, you know.” He sipped his tea. “If anything, they’ll let you have the day off tomorrow so your body can catch up.”

Loki stopped with the teacup halfway to his mouth. “I beg your pardon?”

“Your body,” Bruce repeated, adjusting his glasses. “You’ve gone without sleep for the past day and a half, and you’ve been under a lot of pressure.” He smiled faintly, as if suppressing a laugh. “You keep forgetting you’re human now. You need a little time to bounce back from stuff like this.”

Scowling, Loki returned to his notes, vaguely aware he was doing so out of spite. “How can you live in bodies so fragile? Furthermore, how do you manage a lifespan of more than ten to twenty years?”

Bruce only laughed, nursing his drink in between statements. “I didn’t say you were going to get sick or be stuck in bed, you’re just going to be tired. If a human wants to do intense physical work every day, they have to build their body up for it. Your mind is no different. You can’t burn out all of your energy—mental or physical—in one run and expect no repercussions.”

Green eyes flickered from page to page, not actually reading the words they were looking at. Briefly, Loki considered the similarities between magic and human endurance, but he didn’t let his thoughts linger long.

“It is infuriating.” Terrifying. “You walked around with death hanging over your heads, and yet you somehow manage to ignore it and pretend you’ll live forever when you know you really won’t.” Loki finally looked up from his work and turned to Bruce with questioning eyes. “How?”

Bruce shrugged his shoulders. “I think it’s a perspective thing. We seem fragile to you because you’re used to a superior body type. For us, it’s all we’ve ever known. Granted, most people have been faced with a situation that reminded them of the frailty of human life, but it’s not as if every single thing we do is detrimental to our health.”

Loki had nothing to say to that, so he let the room go quiet, taking another swig of his drink and staring absently at the parchments spread all over the table. Talking about mortality while surrounded by the one piece of his godhood he wanted back the most was proving to be very counterproductive, and he once again found himself wondering why he had taken the job so willingly.

“Loki, I know this isn’t a session, but some of us are concerned about you.” Bruce placed his cup on the tabletop and crossed his legs, interlocking his fingers and resting both hands atop his knee. “You go for long spells where you look very distracted and unsettled. You’ve been reacting defensively more than usual and to people you aren’t usually defensive with. You’re backtracking as far as sessions are concerned, and you don’t seem to want to talk to anyone about anything of importance.”

Heaving a sigh, Loki brought his hand to his face and massaged the muscles running tight lines across his forehead. “Dr. Banner, is this really an appropriate time to have this conversation?”

“It’s a good a time as any.” Bruce glanced away for a moment, as if to gather his thoughts, and then his gaze returned to Loki’s face. “I know you don’t trust us, and I know you’ve got a lot of conflicting thoughts and feelings right now. You came back from Jotunheim very overwhelmed and exhausted, and you’ve been recovering, but if you put your walls back up, you’ll backslide. If you backslide, it’s just a matter of time until you’re back at square one.”

You think I don’t know that? He kept that particular reply inside the confines of his own mind, staring at the table with unwarranted intensity. “There is no backsliding, Dr. Banner, because there was no progress in the first place. You took advantage of my situation on Jotunheim, and while I applaud your strategic approach, you had to have known it was a unique situation. You manipulated me in a moment of weakness, nothing more, and it won’t happen again.”

Bruce tilted his head slightly, a curious and uncondemning expression consuming his features. “You’ve spoken to that affect before, and I understand your mistrust, but can I ask you something?”

It took Loki a moment to realize it was a legitimate question and nod in reply.

“What is it about sharing with me that scares you? What is it you think I’m going to do with the information?” Bruce adjusted his glasses, waiting a few seconds before pressing further. “I know you’ve heard this from some of the others, especially lately, but it’s true. Loki, if we wanted to, we would treat you like the war criminal you are and force our way to information and cooperation. You’d have an ankle bracelet, a proper cell, and one outfit to your name. This whole idea that there’s some intricate, convoluted plan to gain your trust and then exploit you is… quite honestly, illogical.”

Loki set his jaw, tension running through his shoulders and into his back. “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

“I see you found Sherlock Holmes.” Bruce offered a small smile, but he didn’t follow the red herring to the topic of books. He got right back to business. “What’s so impossible about us giving you a second chance?”

Loki scoffed, chest tightening as the familiar sensation of being cornered started to creep into his bloodstream. “Don’t be daft. I’m a threat to you and your planet. I have proven myself an enemy in the past, and I maintain the title of ‘war criminal’ to this day, a fact which you yourself admitted not three minutes ago. Kindness won’t get you anything from me, so there is no benefit to be had.”

“You sure?” Bruce didn’t miss a beat, adjusting his glasses and then gesturing toward the door. “Natasha got a second chance from S.H.I.E.L.D. Tony was given a second chance at life, and what he did with that chance was truly incredible. You know what I am. I’m a monster, an uncontrollable beast, and yet I’m still somehow a member of this team.”

Loki glared, but it quickly melted away into defeat, a sigh escaping his lips as he reluctantly conceded and ceased to argue. “Dr. Banner… I know that you are sincere. I do not understand it, and I do not trust it, but I can see that you mean what you say. However,” he gave Bruce the sort of look that meant the doctor should have known what was coming, “I have never been one to share personal stories or facts. I don’t want to talk about what has been on my mind of late, and if you truly are sincere, then you should respect me and my wishes and leave well enough alone.”

Bruce stared him down for several minutes, his face a mixture of concern and disappointment, but he ultimately nodded. “You’re right, and if that’s what you want, that’s what I’ll give you.” He uncrossed his legs and leaned forward slightly, reaching out to give Loki’s upper arm a quick squeeze. “But please remember, I’m always here if you need me, any time of day or night.” He smiled, and it was all Loki could do not to look away. “If this… thing, whatever it is, decides to rear its ugly head at four in the morning or during street work hours or wherever and whenever else… just let me know.”

It took Loki a moment to process the words, but he managed a sharp nod and a barely audible word of thanks before he threw himself into his work again. Silence filled the space between them, neither man attempting to break it, and Loki found it didn’t matter how long he stared at the text on the pages in front of him. He couldn’t read anything.

If this thing decides to rear its ugly head in the middle of this project.

That was what Bruce had meant, even if he hadn’t outright said it; he was trying to build on what Steve had said the night before. If Loki had to deal with something, they wanted him to deal with it right away—not that Loki didn’t understand why.

After all, he was working on things related to Asgard—a topic he often avoided like the plague—and the alien object in question was a purveyor of hatred and despair. Mixing hatred, Loki’s conflicted thoughts about his race and his homeland, and the absence of most of the Avengers from the Tower… well, it was the perfect recipe for disaster.

It doesn’t matter. I’ve already decided not to reveal the lies I shared with Dr. Banner, so the best course of action is to keep dodging. We should have the staff in our possession soon enough, and when we do, things will go back to routine. The only thing I might need to worry about is Natasha sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong and feeding Dr. Banner information. I’ll have to watch my back more carefully, especially when I do street work with her.

His train of thought continued to fly down the track, leaving his anxiety behind and plowing straight into the one thing that made him feel like he was in control: manipulation. Manipulation, schemes, and lies. Without them, he had no defense against prying eyes. Without them, he had to admit defeat.

Without them, he had to talk to Banner, and he couldn’t do that.

He just couldn’t.


Over and back, the long waves crawl, and track the sand with foam; night darkness and the sea, takes on that desperate tone, of dark that wives put on, when all their love is done. Over and back, the tangled thread falls slack, over and up and on; over and all is sewn; now while I bind the other end, I wish some fiery friend, would sweep impetuously, these fingers from the loom. My weary thoughts, play traitor to my soul, just as the toil is over; swift while…

Loki grabbed his bookmark from the nightstand and wedged it between the pages, snapping the book shut and setting it aside with a long, heavy sigh. Hilda Doolittle had kept his attention no better than Arthur Conan Doyle or William Shakespeare, and he found himself staring up at the ceiling once again.

I don’t like it.

The Avengers had gone to retrieve the third piece of the staff. They had fluttered off to fight the infamous hate group from Norway and claim the Asgardian treasure as their own. They had donned their suits and their spangles and their weapons of choice and disappeared into the sky. They had left, but that wasn’t what bothered him.

What bothered him was the eighteen hours that had passed without their return.

They are fighting mortals—young, stupid mortals, at that. Once they obtain the staff piece, the group should be no more dangerous than the homeless people living in the streets below. So why is it taking them so long?

His stomach growled, and he shoved a pillow over it in annoyance. He hadn’t eaten since lunch the day before, but there was nothing to be done about that. He couldn’t leave, he didn’t have food in his room, and until Earth’s Mightiest Heroes returned from their conquest, there was no one to get him any.

Watch them all die and leave me to starve in here.

Sighing again, he pulled the pillow from his stomach and placed it over his face, groaning loudly. “Jarvis.” His voice was muffled by down and cotton. “I don’t suppose you can unlock my door?”

“I cannot, Loki.”

“You can’t bring me food, either, can you?”

“I do not have a physical form, Loki.”

“You can’t call anyone?”

“Not at your request, Loki.”

“Can you finish a sentence without the inclusion of my name?”

“Yes, Loki.”

Low, guttural, incredibly frustrated noises rose in his throat, his brain going over a mental list of his belongings in search of something to do. He had copied nine poems with his calligraphy set, finished one book and attempted to read three others, he had made his bed twice, reorganized his closet and bathroom, taken a nap, and at one point he had resorted to making faces at himself in the mirror.

I’ve considered using the ring more than once, but I’m not entirely sure how to make it unsuspicious. If I put it on my finger and then sit on the bed deep in concentration for a few hours, it’s going to grab their attention, and right now it’s the only magical thing I own.

Dropping the pillow, he sat up and looked at the dresser, pursing his lips. “Jarvis, Dr. Banner said it’s a good idea to spend time in my Jotun form. What do you think?”

“I am unable to give an opinion on that particular topic, Loki.”

Of course not, you’re a machine. “It couldn’t hurt. Not really, I guess. No one will see me,” and no one can read my thoughts, “so why not? I can take it off. I know I can, I’ve done it before. It’s not as if I’ll get trapped in my Jotun form or…” He feigned a nervous laugh, getting up and inching his way closer to the dresser.

“If Dr. Banner has recommended this method of treatment, I would assume it is a wise course of action. However, I will have to raise the temperature in the room to counteract the decreases your change will cause.”

Loki gave a slight nod, figuring the security cameras in his room served as eyes for the artificial intelligence, and he opened the top drawer of his dresser. As far as anyone knows, I’m hesitantly taking Dr. Banner’s advice. I just have to be careful not to spend too much time with it.

He dug through his socks and underwear until he found the little piece of silver, staring at the emeralds and jades embedded in the band as they caught the light. The ring changed him before he could ever get it on, but as he closed the drawer and turned to face the mirror, he found himself surprisingly comfortable with what he saw. He didn’t like it, of course—he wasn’t sure he ever would—but his usual feelings of disgust and shame were absent. He felt the form was, at the very least, acceptable.

“I don’t suppose you have any opinions on skin color, do you?”

“I have an opinion of equality regardless of race,” the AI replied immediately. “Although, I have been programmed this way, so I am not certain whether or not you find such an opinion valid, Loki.”

Sighing again, Loki returned to his bed and lay down on his back. He closed his eyes and let out a slow, steady breath, waiting for the subtle thrum of magic to bump against the inside of his chest.

He had only managed to use his ring to sense his magic once—his first night back, right before being hauled off to a hot tub—but it still came naturally to him, even if it was infuriatingly slow compared to what he was used to.

Focus. Your magic is coursing through your veins, your muscles, your bones, your very being. It’s inside of you, where it belongs. You only have to find the rhythm, and the manipulation will come naturally.

Or at least, it would try. It was impossible for control of his magic to just… happen naturally the way it once did, given all of the seals Odin had placed throughout his system. Thinking otherwise was tantamount to an athlete with broken legs thinking they could still run a marathon. It didn’t matter that the legs were still there, or that they could be fixed, or that the mind knew what they should be capable of. At the moment, they were broken. Useless.

Loki had the same problem with his magic. He could feel it, he could see it, and he knew it could be fixed, but he couldn’t do anything with it.

Not yet.

If there are seals containing Odin’s magic, then they will either react to the presence of a foreign signature, or they will block it off altogether. Both of them should be easy to spot, and yet the magic seems to be flowing through without any disturbances. Odin, you clever, clever man.

Loki opened his eyes and cast a quick glance at the clock before trying again.

You made it as undetectable as possible, but you underestimate my abilities. You can delay me all you like, but you can’t stop me, not in the end. You can keep my birthright from me, and you can keep my home from me, but you cannot keep my magic from me. That is one thing I will never surrender. You are a fool if you think—

“Your blood pressure is rising, Loki. Might I suggest you take a break?”

Loki let out a frustrated sigh and nodded his head, pushing a congested sort of tone into his voice. “Y-yes, I… yes, that would be a good idea.” Closing his eyes again, he started to focus on the removal of the ring, taking deep and calming breaths. “I think I’ll try reading again.”

“An excellent decision, Loki.”

He dove back into the depths of his mind, focusing solely on the task of removing the ring, and after a three-minute struggle, it was finally off. Still feigning distress, he dropped the ring back into his drawer, blue fading to cream and red fading to green.

Well, at least now I know that trying to interact with my magic creates a perceivable difference in my human body. I’ll have to find a way to manage the… blood pressure… before I try again.

Flopping onto his bed, Loki picked up his book and started where he left off, asking one final question before attempting to lose himself in the pages.

“Jarvis, how long has it been?”

“Eighteen hours, thirty-two minutes, and twelve seconds, Loki.”

Loki heaved a sigh and put his eyes on the text, torn between thinking about the missing Avengers, thinking about ways to unlock his magic, and focusing on what was actually in front of him.

…swift while the woof is whole, turn now my spirit, swift, and tear the pattern there, the flowers so deftly wrought, the border of sea-blue, the sea-blue coast of home. The web was over-fair, that web of pictures there, enchantments that I thought, he had, that I had lost; weaving his happiness, within the stitching frame, weaving his fire and fame, I thought my work was done, I prayed that only one, of those that I had spurned, might stoop and conquer this, long waiting with a kiss.

But each time that I see, my work so beautifully, interwoven and would keep, the picture and the whole, Athene steels my soul, slanting across my brain, I see as shafts of rain, his chariot and his shafts, I see the arrows fall, I see my lord who moves, like Hector, lord of love, I see him matched with fair, bright rivals and I see, the lesser rivals flee.

Loki smiled.

I see the lesser rivals flee.


“I said I’m not angry with you.”

Thor dragged his hands down his face, standing next to the large table where Loki sat devouring a long overdue meal. “But you are angry with me. I can tell, but I do not know what more I can do. I have apologized many times, Loki, but it was not something I had control over.”

Loki didn’t even glance in his general direction. “I know. Hence, I am not angry with you.”

Sighing, Thor threw himself onto a chair and let it roll across the floor, frustration evident on his features. It had taken them twenty-seven hours to complete the mission and return to the Tower, and by then Loki was bordering between fury and panic. He didn’t let on, of course, but Thor knew.

“Why would he be angry, Blondie? Someone would have gotten him eventually.” Tony shoved a piece of pepperoni pizza in his mouth, chewing with the gusto of a man who had worked but not eaten all day. “Heck, I expected him to throw a party while we were gone.”

Thor shook his head. “Man of Iron, you do not understand. Ever since we were young—”

“Thor, if they want to know such trivial information, I’ll let them read my biography.” Loki paused. “I’m kidding, I don’t have a biography. But if I did, my previous statement would apply.” Smirking, he cast a glance in Tony’s direction. “That is how the joke went, yes?”

Tony chuckled and nodded his head, reaching for another piece. “Close enough, Reindeer Games.”

Thor glowered silently, sulking on his swivel chair, appetite coming and going depending on how much thought he gave to Loki’s disposition. He’s doing this on purpose. He is being jovial and friendly with them but specifically cold toward me, and yet he will not admit that he is angry. How can I make amends if he gives me no chance?

Heaving a sigh, Thor got to his feet and walked toward the door, hoping some fresh air would help him to clear his mind and calm his temper.

“Thor, you haven’t even touched your pizza.” Ever the caring leader, Steve had to point out that Thor wasn’t taking care of himself properly.

Thor couldn’t find it in himself to be grateful. He ignored the statement and let himself out through the double doors, striding down the hall with every intention of going up onto the roof.

“Mr. Odinson, Tony wants me to tell you that you are forbidden from breaking anything.”

Thor scoffed. “I am not a child. You tell him—” He stopped, turning slowly and looking up at the ceiling. “Jarvis, you have the surveillance footage for every room in the building, yes?”

“Yes, Mr. Odinson. Is that your message for Tony?”

“No, no, forget about that.” Rubbing his chin, Thor started back the way he had come, trying to recall exactly where the computer lab was and how to work the machines inside. “I should have clearance to view the video footage of Loki’s room. Would you assist me in watching his movements for the last day and a half?”

“Of course, Mr. Odinson.”

Thor cracked a small smile. “You needn’t put my name at the end of every sentence, my invisible friend.”

“Duly noted, Mr. Odinson.”

Thor rolled his eyes and passed the room he had come from, continuing down the hall. He took a few turns and went down two flights of stairs before making another handful of turns that left him standing in front of a large computer.

“Jarvis, bring up the footage from the past forty-eight hours.” Thor sat down in the chair and grabbed the mouse, waiting until the image popped up to search for the fast forward, rewind, and pause buttons. “Now, let us see what my brother has been up to.”

He clicked the fast forward button right away, knowing he wouldn’t see anything out of the ordinary until at least twelve hours had passed. He found Loki still behaving normally at that point, lying on his stomach with his face in his hands and his nose in a book. Smiling, Thor fast-forwarded through two more hours and then stopped again.

Loki was now copying text from a book, writing in out in flowing, elaborate letters with symbols and borders so intricate, so delicate, so dignified, Thor found himself wanting to read them just to stare at the lines and curves. That, in and of itself, was not odd. However, as Loki continued to write, Thor noticed that his care decreased. He made a few minor mistakes but didn’t correct them, and the ornamental decorations got less frequent and steadily simpler.

He first started showing distress at fourteen hours and thirty-six minutes. We were gone for another... twelve and a half hours. Thor sighed, rubbing his forehead. It was nice to know, but it didn’t exactly help him. He knew exactly why Loki was angry with him, what he didn’t know was how he was supposed to fix it when Loki wouldn’t even acknowledge the existence of a problem in the first place.

Shaking his head, Thor pressed the fast forward button again and waited until Loki had moved on to another task to play it. He repeated the process several times, making notes as he went and trying to determine at which point Loki finally decided to be mad about it.

He can’t get himself into books, which means he’s very distracted and upset, but he still doesn’t seem angry. Frustrated, perhaps, and maybe even worried, but not angry.

He was surprised to see Loki trying on his Jotun form, and he inwardly kicked himself for the automatic thoughts that flickered through the front of his mind; thoughts condemning his brother for conforming to a species they had always believed was beneath them.

“Your blood pressure is rising, Loki. Might I suggest you take a break?”

There.

Thor leaned forward slightly, watching Loki’s movements and listening to the conversation between him and the AI. Loki must have gotten angry while he was laying there in his Jotun form, but why? What was it about his supposed self-acceptance exercise had made him angry with Thor?

Did he feel abandoned? His birth mother abandoned him, so he could feel… no, no, he doesn’t rely on me in the first place. Abandonment would be something he would feel toward the Captain or Dr. Banner. He swallowed the bitterness rising in his throat and tried to think it through again. Is this more of his anger about his heritage showing through again? Is it about the fact that he’s adopted? No, it can’t be, he’s always quick to express anger about that. He’s trying to keep his anger hidden this time. Why?

Leaning back in the chair, Thor rubbed at his face and listened to the audio, trying to pick up on something—anything—that would give him a clue. He found nothing, and he could only conclude that the reason was what he had thought it to be all along.

“Jarvis, shut everything off.” Thor pushed his chair back and stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him and making his way toward the gathering room with a fist clenched on either side of him.

If I was right, why won’t he tell me?

Loki had always despised being alone. When Thor and Odin went on their first hunt together, they had taken an extra day to explore and play games. It was meant to be harmless, but they came home to find Loki sitting by the door with tears running down both cheeks, immensely relieved to find they weren’t dead. It became less obvious and less frequent as they grew older, but even up to the hunting trip Thor took less than a week before that fatal coronation day, Loki worried about him when he wasn’t home in a timely manner.

For whatever reason—maybe it had something to do with Loki’s need for control, or maybe Loki really did harbor some brotherly feelings—that old fear was still there.

“Loki!” Thor threw open the door and stormed up to the table, yanking the pizza box out of Loki’s reach. “Why are you not admitting your anger toward me?”

Loki only glared. “For the last time, I’m not angry with you.”

“That is a bold-faced lie, Loki, and you know it.” Thor gestured toward the open doorway leading to the halls, aware of his rising volume but unwilling to stop it. “I watched the footage of your room, and you may think me an oblivious buffoon, completely blind to evidence of your emotions, but you are wrong. I knew the minute you started to show distress, so do not tell me that you are not angry when I know for a fact that you are. I saw it happen right in front of me.”

Loki heaved a sigh and rubbed his forehead. “You know, Thor, sometimes people have trouble reading because of headpains or fatigue. It doesn’t always mean they’re upset about something.”

“I don’t mean when you couldn’t focus on your books. I mean when you were practicing calligraphy exactly fourteen hours and thirty-six minutes after we departed.” Loki’s eyes widened ever-so-slightly, and Thor knew he hit the nail on the head. “See? You were distressed, Loki, and I know it was because we did not return on schedule and we did not contact you—I did not contact you, never mind the we. I am the one responsible, and I am sorry, but I don’t know what you want me to do.”

“Thor, drop it.” Loki reached for the box of pizza, wetting his lips and speaking in a quiet but extremely deadly tone. “I don’t want to discuss it.”

Thor’s hand came down on top of the box. “I will not drop it! It is unfair, Loki. You cannot get angry at me and brush me aside, and then lie to me and refuse to tell me what I can do to show the sincerity of my apology. It’s like telling me you want me to read and forbidding me from looking at the written word. I cannot win, it’s impossible.”

Loki slammed his hands on the table and stood up, turning to face his brother fully. “You want to talk about fairness? I’ll tell you what’s unfair, Thor, because I’ve been fighting a losing battle much, much longer than you have. If I do tell you I’m angry and ask for an apology, you always find some way to twist it around and make it my fault, because I’m Loki the Liesmith, Loki the Silvertongue, Loki the Liar. If I don’t tell you I’m angry, then I’m obviously hiding some nefarious plot or scheme because I’m Loki the Trickster, Loki the Troublemaker, Loki the Master of Mischief. I can’t win any more than you can, that’s how it’s always been, so pardon me if I err on the side of silence!”

Thor didn’t even miss a beat, his temper boiling over, hands shaking and cheeks flushing red. “Can’t you see I’m trying to fix that? I know I did you wrong, but you did me wrong as well, and I have not brought those past transgressions up to you once. I am doing everything I can to get this right, and you know it, Loki. I know you know it because you confronted me on Jotunheim. You thought there was something wrong with me, and when I tried to tell you there wasn’t, you got angry with me, and here we are, weeks later, and you’re doing the same thing.” Thor spread his arms, struggling to lower his volume for a moment or two before giving up. “I tried to apologize, and I tried to understand, and I tried to make amends, but you shut me out again. I said nothing about your secrecy being part of a plot or a scheme, I only want an answer. What do you want from me, Loki?”

Loki let out a burst of sharp, bitter, sarcastic laughter, angry tears already forming in his eyes. “I want sincerity, and if you expect me to believe you’ve experienced some magical change over the course of two months after one thousand years of pretending you were somehow better than me because of your stupid hammer, you’ve got another thing coming, Brother!” He spat the word, saliva spraying from his mouth but going unheeded as the thunderer leaned in closer.

“What exactly is so unbelievable about that? You changed overnight just from learning one little fact about yourself, why can’t I do the same?” Thor laughed in the same way Loki had. “Oh, but of course!” He threw his hands up, using one to smack himself in the forehead. “It is because I am weak-minded, right? Because you are so very smart—you have always been so very smart—and you can take one single fact and use it to rewrite your entire person, but I would need much more time and cultivation because I’m too thick to figure things out as quickly as you do!”

Loki let out a frustrated shout. “Why am I not surprised? Once again, everything is my fault. Brilliant!”

“You know what I think?” Thor took a step forward, leering down at the slightly smaller Asgardian with unbridled fury in his eyes. “I think you simply can’t let go of anything anyone has ever done to you because if you don’t have something to hate people for, then you have no justification for the way that you act. All of a sudden, the destruction of Manhattan and Jotunheim, the orphaned Jotuniri, Brianna living without a family or a home—all of it is because of petty, selfish, childish reasons.”

“Shut up, Thor.” Loki’s face and voice were tight, panic creeping in beneath the rage. “Do you hear me? Not another word.”

Thor ignored him. “If you forgive me for what I’ve done in the past, and if you try to make things right, then you can’t take your anger out on me anymore. In fact, you can’t be angry at all, you have to let it go, and I think you like being angry.” Thor prodded the center of Loki’s chest with an index finger, gritting his teeth as his tone fell lower and lower. “You want to make everyone pay for every bad thing that has ever happened to you, and you can’t stop now because that would mean everything you’ve done was in vain. All the blood, all the carnage, jumping off the rainbow bridge, the Chitauri, the Jotuns, Manhattan—all of it is both unwarranted and meaningless without that burning, seething, relentless, petty hatred.”

“Shut up!”

Thor staggered backward, just half of Loki’s scream registering before he felt two hands around his throat and the full weight of his little brother being thrust against him. Loki couldn’t get Thor on the ground in his mortal form, but the grip Loki had on his throat was unrelenting, and it didn’t help that he had been taken by surprise.

“Loki, let go!”

Thor could only see Loki’s eyes.

“Careful!”

Furious, ashamed, afraid, weeping.

“Thor, dig your fingers into the inside of his wrists.”

Natasha’s voice broke through the chaos, crisp and clear, and Thor immediately took her advice. He dug his fingers in and twisted Loki’s wrists until the hands came loose, at which point the rest of the Avengers dragged the two away from each other.

“Loki, calm down.”

“Thor, can you breathe alright?”

“Let me go this instant!”

Thor leaned on the table, breathing hard.

“Should I get the sedatives?”

“Do you need first aid?”

“Enough!”

Silence blanketed the room, everyone stopping and looking at Steve, who stood between the group and the open doorway Thor had burst through, a hand on each hip and his jaw set in place. There was no sound in the room save for the heavy breathing of those involved in the scuffle, making Steve’s voice all the more authoritative when it pierced the air again.

“Thor, do you need medical attention?”

Coughing, Thor shook his head. His throat was sore, and his voice would be hoarse for a little while, but he hadn’t blacked out and he, unlike Loki, was still in possession of his godhood.

“Good.” Steve gave a single nod. “Dr. Banner, how are your stress levels?”

Bruce cleaned his glasses on his shirt, surprisingly calm given the situation. “I’m fine, thanks. I kind of saw this coming, so I was prepared.” He returned his spectacles to their perch and gave an encouraging smile.

“Good.” Steve looked to the only non-teammate in the room, the one who was staring at the ground with enough fire in his eyes to scorch the entire planet in a second. “Loki, are you calm?”

For a moment, it looked like there might be another fight, but then Loki’s head started to bob up and down. “Enough.”

“Clint, Tony, let him go.” Steve waved them off, and then he gestured to the room as a whole. “So, who wants to go first?”

Thor’s shoulders slouched, fatigue overcoming his body as the adrenaline his temper had given him started to run out. “What—” he coughed, cleared his throat, and tried again, “—what do you mean?”

Steve crossed his arms over his chest. “I mean that was a pretty intense argument you just had. There’s a lot of raw emotions flying, and a lot of interwoven factors here.” He nodded in the direction of specific teammates as he referenced them. “Bruce, Natasha, and I have all noticed Loki acting strange lately. Tony, on the flight back, you said Thor was behaving differently but you didn’t know why, and I agreed with you. Clint, you don’t say much, but I know you see everything and usually catch onto stuff like this before the rest of us.” He paused, looking around the room. “This might be an argument between Thor and Loki, but it involves all of us. We’re going to tackle this as a team. So… who wants to go first?”

Thor stared at the floor, tuning out his surroundings as a wave of frustration washed over him. He had been doing such a good job of keeping his temper under control and giving Loki space. On Jotunheim, he thought things were actually getting better, but as soon as they returned, he realized Loki simply didn’t want to be abandoned there. Still, he kept on trying, and he gave Loki a wide berth, and he didn’t snap or interfere when others were trying to help… and then he blew it all to pieces.

“Well, uh, I guess I’ll go first?” Tony rubbed the back of his head, putting the other hand on his hip and letting out a slow breath. “I guess I’ll start by saying that if you guys are ever gonna learn to get along, you’ve gotta let go of the past. I know it sucks, but forgiveness can’t be based on the actions of the person you’re forgiving, because people mess up. Loki, if you don’t forgive Thor for things he’s already done, then every time he makes the tiniest mistake, it’s going to bring back all these horrible memories and feelings you can’t control. Thor, you don’t hold onto stuff like Loki does, but some of what you said sounded an awful lot like unresolved conflict. You’ve got to start working on forgiveness for those smaller things, or they’ll keep getting bigger and coming out any time they have the chance.” He looked between them for a moment and then spread his hands, closing his statement with a shrug. “You have to forgive on your own terms before you can write up terms and conditions for each other. If you wait for the other person to get it right before you forgive them, you’re going to be waiting forever because nobody’s perfect. Also, footnote: I hate group exercises.”

Thor once again dropped his gaze to the floor, mulling over what Tony had said. It hadn’t hit him until he was in the heat of the moment, but he really did have a lot of buried feelings about Loki that had been left unacknowledged for quite some time. Thor had been so obsessed with Loki’s betrayal and dangerous ambitions that he swept them under the rug, but Tony was right—they almost always came out when he was angry, and they always scarred the relationship deeper.

Clint shifted his weight, shoving his hands into his pockets and taking the floor. “If we’re just analyzing the argument,” he started, “I’ll note you guys have the typical, age-old Sibling Reverse Syndrome. Loki, you think Thor thinks he’s better than you because he’s strong. Thor, you think Loki thinks he’s better than you because he’s smart. Odin favored Thor, so I’m willing to go out on a limb and say Frigga favored Loki. You just have to face the fact that you are two completely separate individuals and no one will ever treat you with one hundred percent equality.” He shrugged his shoulders, hopping backward and landing on the table with a sigh. “That’s all I got.” Swinging his legs, he turned his head to look at Natasha.

“Oh, no.” She shook her head. “I don’t give advice on relationships.” Glancing across the room toward Bruce, she nodded her head in his general direction. “Maybe the makeshift therapist should start talking now. Save us all some time.”

Bruce laughed softly, spreading his hands with a light-hearted shrug. “I think this is great.”

Thor frowned, prompting Bruce to hold up his hands in a silent plea for patience.

“Loki,” Bruce started, gesturing to the trickster in question. “You’ve been under our jurisdiction for about two months. During that time, Thor gave you a lot of space, so there wasn’t much opportunity for conflict. When you were on Jotunheim, he was your only contact with the outside world, so your ability to argue with him was limited by your own fear of abandonment.”

Thor pretended not to see the way Loki flinched at those words. He hoped his team would do the same.

“Thor,” Bruce continued, turned slightly and gesturing to the new topic of conversation. “You’ve been doing a great job. You’ve put a lot of effort into taking my advice, and it’s been working really well.” He glanced at Loki and then back at Thor again, adjusting his glasses. “But you can’t stay like this. If you two make a pact to never argue again or to avoid each other as much as possible for the rest of the time, then you’re not in a relationship. You’re not even enemies, you’re just… existing in the same building.”

Thor turned his head to look at Loki, unsurprised to find his brother’s face still contorted by anger, and Thor let out a sigh. As much as he appreciated the care and advice of his friends, it really didn’t matter what he said or did. Loki didn’t want to repair their relationship, so the effort would forever be one-sided. Thor could follow the advice of every member on the team, he could get closer or draw back, he could be hard or soft, forgiving or vengeful, fast and pushy or slow and easy-going, but it didn’t matter, it didn’t matter. Loki wouldn’t accept his efforts. Fighting would always be the end result.

“Loki.” Bruce turned back toward the trickster, spreading his hands and gesturing between the two brothers. “You noticed a change in Thor, didn’t you?”

“It was an act,” came the quick, monotonous reply.

“But you did notice, correct?”

Loki sighed, scrubbing his face with both hands before running them through his hair. “Yes, I noticed Thor was behaving differently. Does it matter?”

Bruce shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know, does it? You seem to think Thor is too sentimental and honest to try manipulating other people, but you’re convinced he’s putting on a front to get you to trust him. Why?”

Loki was silent for a few beats, fists shaking at his sides, and he ground out a response with hatred in his eyes. “I don’t have to answer that.”

“It’s just a question, Loki.” Extending a hand toward Thor, Bruce offered something akin to a compromise. “Would you like me to ask Thor a question first?”

“I would like to be done with this conversation so I can return to my room.” Loki dropped his gaze to the floor and let it roll sideways until he was looking at the windows, a lazy gait inching him closer to the door.

Bruce shook his head. “Sorry, Loki, but that’s not an option. We’re going to get some answers tonight, for everyone’s sake.”

Stopping, Loki let out another sigh and stared up at the ceiling with an air of disinterest.

Thor watched in silence, his eyes wandering over Loki's form and counting up the oddities in his behavior. Loki felt cornered and ganged up on, already embarrassed with the threat of further humiliation hanging in the air behind him, forcing him to feign disinterested superiority.

Thor could see right through him, of course. He knew the very idea of sharing feelings with an audience was mortifying to Loki. So, Thor had a choice.

He could interject himself into the conversation and state what he so plainly saw in Loki's countenance, embarrassing Loki but forcing him to come to terms with something he so vehemently denied; or, alternatively, he could find some way to dismantle the group and let Loki return to his room with his pride in tact along with the belief that Thor was incapable of sincere love for him.

Thor didn’t like either option.

“I don’t think you need to ask him, Dr. Banner.” It looked like his brain had made up its mind without consulting him. “Denial can be related to many emotions, but there is still one core feeling beneath it all, and that is fear.”

Loki turned his head to glare, silently shaking, unadulterated loathing in his eyes.

Thor stared right back, unwavering. “Loki doesn’t think I have the skill or the heart to manipulate him, so the only reason he would be denying the sincerity of my actions is because he’s afraid to believe that they’re real.” He squared his shoulders, trying to calm his heart in his chest. “Isn’t that right, Loki?”

“Shut up.” Loki grit his teeth and growled out the command, a fresh wave of angry tears forming in the corner of his eyes.

Bruce crossed his arms over his chest, looking curiously between the two, almost as if he wasn’t quite sure what to do with the turn of events. “Well, Loki, what do you have to say to that?”

“I already said it.” Loki wet his lips and swallowed, articulating with prejudice. “Shut. Up.”

Thor shook his head and folded his arms over his chest, standing his ground. “I will not. You’re going to despise me no matter what I do, so I might as well take the opportunity to make you face what you continuously deny.”

“I am not in denial!” Loki shouted suddenly, the increase in volume putting everyone on edge. “I have spent one thousand years with you, Thor, and you might be a stupid, naïve, fool of a god, but there’s nothing you won’t do to get what you want.”

 “Nothing I won’t do? You mean I would give up the one person in the universe that I love the most? I would let someone else be his family in my place, no matter how much it hurts me?” He took deep, steadying breaths in between phrases, determined not to shout again no matter how angry or upset he got. “Tell me, if I wanted something bad enough, would I swallow my pride and allow my every attempt at civility to be smitten by hatred? Are you saying I would even go so far as to risk my friendships and the welcoming arms of a planet I have come to love and respect as my home away from home just to get what I want?”

Loki blinked rapidly, still facing the door, eyes glued to the wall as he struggled to maintain a hold on the situation. His pride was burning, crumbling beneath the weight of the situation, his cheeks tinted with the slightest shade of pink beneath the glisten of nearly invisible tears.

“Loki, what could I possibly want so badly?”

“For me to come home, of course!”

There was silence in the room, Bruce offering up the smallest of smiles in Loki’s direction, as if he expected Loki to understand what had just happened. Everyone else kept their eyes trained on Loki for a very different reason, and while Thor knew they were making Loki even more distraught, he didn’t know how to ask them to stop without being accused of patronization.

“Tell me, Loki…” Thor reached out a hand, taking a few steps closer. “What is so terrible about that?”

Loki sidestepped and snarled. “Get away from me.” He took another step toward the door, casting Steve a dark look when the soldier made a move to intercept him. “Just—” He glared at Thor, then Steve, then Thor again. “Just—just—”

“Loki,” Bruce started, crossing the room and pulling Steve back slightly, taking his place as the barrier between Loki and the exit. “Thor is trying to help. He’s one of the few people in this world who hasn’t given up on you. Just let him—”

“No.” Loki slid around him, speeding up when he saw Tony moving to stop him. “No, I said no, now leave me alone.”

“Loki—”

Both doors slammed shut, anxious feet coming to a sudden halt as their path was blocked once and for all by the artificial intelligence overseeing the building. Thor wet his lips, grimacing slightly when he saw Loki’s head start to bow.

Loki needed to get out. Badly.

“Dr. Banner, if I might make a suggestion—”

Loki turned his head sharply. “Enough, Thor. For once, do as I ask and shut your mouth. Now.” He inhaled deeply and exhaled with a frightening amount of care and precision. “Dr. Banner, things have taken an interesting turn. I would… appreciate… some time alone to… digest all that has been said.” He repeated the earlier breathing exercise, swallowing hard and spitting out his request. “Open the door… please.”

Tony looked at Bruce for guidance, and Bruce gave him a nod, which Thor seconded with a vigorous nod of his own. Both doors swung inward, and Loki was able to walk through, disappearing around the corner as quickly as was humanly possible.

“He will not go to his room, and I doubt he will cause trouble,” Thor said softly. “He just needs to be alone.” His voice got even lower. “I’ve embarrassed him greatly. I know he would appreciate it if no one spoke to him of this night. I would appreciate that as well.”

Clint pushed himself off of the table, ignoring the request in favor of tactics. “We can’t let him wander around unsupervised.”

Bruce held out a hand. “Clint, we—”

“Jarvis will keep an eye on him.” Tony ran a hand through his hair and moved toward the doorway himself. “I need a drink.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Tony.” Steve looked up from his phone, brow creased ever-so-slightly. “Fury just messaged me. We’ve got three dead agents.”

Just like that, Thor’s adrenaline returned. “What?”

“It’s the staff,” Steve replied. “It’s active.”

Chapter Text

He couldn’t stop shaking.

It was his hands that shook the most—wringing each other this way and that, coming up to rake unsteadily through his hair—but his heart was pounding frantically in sync with them. Quivering, even though his body had seemingly turned to stone, even though he could feel his throat constricting and his jaw clenching tight, he was shaking. Whether it was from rage or fear or some combination of the two, he didn’t know.

But he couldn’t stop.

…shouldn’t have, what else was I supposed to say, could have told him I was angry at something else, I probably should have, he was wrong, he was so wrong, but he wasn’t, I know he wasn’t, should have told him I was only Mother’s favorite because she felt the need to counterbalance Father’s favoritism, no he wouldn’t have believed that, no maybe he would have, no he wouldn’t have, I don’t even know if I believe that, I don’t know what to think, but I do think, I think…

Loki screamed, burying both of his hands in his hair and pulling until he thought his scalp would bleed, frozen right in the middle of the hall.

I can’t think.

It was too much. Too frightening, too unpredictable, too confusing. There were too many thoughts and feelings, all of them rushing over him like a series of waves with no space to breathe in between the blows. It hurt—it physically hurt to try and think, to try and identify one single emotion—and he could feel the heat radiating from his head and face.

I have to calm down. I need to calm down. This is ridiculous. I shouldn’t be this angry.

Taking a deep breath, he lowered his hands to his sides and started to walk again, wetting his lips and drawing in another lungful of air. He watched his bare feet, focusing on steadying his movements and giving his steps a rhythm and mannerism he hoped would make him feel relaxed. It wasn’t very effective, but he was able to grab a few thoughts out of the static, his gaze never wandering from the carpet.

“Tell me, Loki… What is so terrible about that?”

Loki leaned against the wall to his right, sliding down until he hit the floor.

I don’t know.

He couldn’t answer the question, and he didn’t know if it was the look on Thor’s face when he said it or the lack of background noise enabling him to actually absorb the words, but that was the one line he couldn’t get out of his head.

He just wants me to come home.

That was all Thor had ever wanted. Back when they fought on the Bifrost, when they faced each other in Germany, and then again on both planets more times than Loki could count, it had been that same plea on repeat. Come home, come back, come home, come back—never ending—and once upon a time, it was infuriating and somewhat hurtful the way Thor constantly tried to drag him back to Asgard against his will, but now…

“You mean I would give up the one person in the universe that I love the most? I would let someone else be his family in my place, no matter how much it hurts me?”

Thor was actually trying to understand. He was trying to respect Loki’s wishes. Even though all he wanted was for Loki to come home and be his little brother again, he was willing to throw that dream away if it meant Loki found a place to belong. If Loki would only be satisfied when Thor was no longer a part of his life, then Thor would leave.

“Tell me, if I wanted something bad enough, would I swallow my pride and allow my every attempt at civility to be smitten by hatred?”

Pride had always been Thor’s greatest weakness—the one thing that managed to get him into trouble more than all his other faults combined—and he had swallowed it more than once in the months since Loki’s arrival. Loki had seen it. He had seen it. He had consciously recognized it and found it to be odd. It was there.

“Are you saying I would even go so far as to risk my friendships and the welcoming arms of a planet I have come to love and respect as my home away from home just to get what I want?”

Loki buried his face in his hands, inhaling and exhaling in slow succession, his pulse still pounding against his eardrums. His fingers trembled against his temples, stomach twisting into a smoldering knot of anxiety, eyes and nose burning with unshed tears of frustration.

He risked the trust and affection of his companions, his alliance with Earth and the subsequent ease of access to his lover, the approval of our father, and quite possibly his throne… for me. Why?

Tears burned tracks down the sides of his cheeks, sliding into his sleeves and dampening skin and fabric alike. It hurt to breathe, and with every passing second, his body was rejecting the idea of self-control more and more, each carefully constructed method of deceit falling apart beneath the strain. His throat was tight and hard, his muscles had turned to stone, and his bones were starting to ache from being bent into the awkward ball he had formed on the floor.

Why?

He threaded his hands through his hair and took a deep breath, opening his eyes and staring up at the ceiling lights. His fingers were aching, no doubt from the strain they had been under, but he couldn’t bring himself to stop wringing and pulling and fidgeting.

Dr. Banner said they’re not broken anymore, but this bloody ache… Folding his arms over his stomach, Loki pressed his forehead to his knees and took another deep breath, drying his eyes on the fabric over his kneecaps. Three weeks, then one month on Jotunheim, and now two months here… it’s been almost four months since this entire mess started. He clenched and unclenched his fists, gritting his teeth when the pain started to worsen. Thor couldn’t lie that long. He’s not a good liar to begin with, and even if he could manage to pull it off for a day or two, there’s no conceivable way he could still be putting up a front after all this time. He wet his lips and swallowed, sniffing and clearing his throat alternatingly. What if he really is telling the truth? What if it really is different now? What then? What does it change? What do I do?

He stood with a quiet grunt, weariness invading his body as an exhausting, nerve-wracking nausea settled in his stomach. “Jarvis, are you there?”

“I’m always here, Loki.”

It was almost comforting to hear those words, never mind the fact Jarvis was nothing more than a glorified computer program.

“What are the Avengers doing right now?” Loki paused. “By which I mean, is there any reason for me to return to the meeting room?”

“I believe so. They are discussing the staff and its recent activity, Loki.”

Loki’s brow creased, eyes narrowing slightly. “Activity?”

“Yes. It is both active and dangerous. According to my records, it has claimed three—beg pardon, four—lives thus far.”

Rubbing his face and eyes, Loki took one final, deep, calming breath and started back toward the meeting room, putting force into his steps and pushing the earlier questions and doubts from his mind. If the staff was active, they would need him, and while he didn’t trust or believe anything about anything at the moment, he knew he could get the staff under control.

“Should I tell them you are returning?”

Loki sighed, quickly tiring of the uncertainty in his stomach. “I don’t know. I don’t suppose it matters all that much.” Spotting a mirror out of the corner of his eye, he stopped and quickly evaluated his appearance.

There wasn’t much he could do while stranded in the halls, but he still dried his face and smoothed his hair down, making himself at least somewhat presentable before marching off down the hall again.

He rounded the corner with a brusque command and strode to the table near the center of the room. “Don’t touch my notes.” Despite the tone of authority, he refused to meet anyone’s eyes. “You wouldn’t be able to make sense of them, anyhow.” He sifted through the available packets and selected the one that held information on environment and storage, leafing through the contents with a scowl. “For the moment, I’m entertaining two possibilities. First, it’s possible the staff was preset to become active if it was ever assembled. However, I told you it was destroyed on purpose, and I fail to see why someone who destroyed a weapon would cause it to become more dangerous upon reassembly. Second, the staff could have been tampered with in some way, shape, or form that set it off. I need to know everything S.H.I.E.L.D. did to it from the moment it was assembled until the moment it became active. Do we have footage of the room it’s currently being held in? Because—”

“Why?”

Loki continued to stare at his notes, responding to Clint’s question without a hint of emotion in his voice. “I don’t know.” He shook his head, grabbing another packet and placing it on top of the one he was already holding. “I don’t know, so don’t ask, and don’t make any snide comments. I can and will change my mind.”

Steve’s hand moved in Loki’s peripherals, his voice breaking the partial silence. “Tony and Natasha, find out everything you can on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s movements with the staff. Thor, fly to the hellicarrier and try to keep everyone away from that room. This thing needs to be given a wide berth, so make sure people are following protocols and doing just that.”

Loki let out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding, concealing his relief by burying himself deeper into his files. Just as he had hoped, everyone was too concerned about the staff to grill him on his intentions or bring up the recent fighting.

“Hey, are you sure you’re up for this?”

Everyone except Bruce.

“I’m not up for anything, but that’s hardly relevant.” Loki sighed, shaking his head and forcing out a sentence he was certain he would come to regret. “Tomorrow we can talk about… anything, practically anything, almost anything. I will cooperate, just… not now.” He shook his head, painfully aware he had just made a commitment he had no intention of following through with. It doesn’t matter, as long as I don’t have to talk to anyone.

Bruce placed a hand on Loki’s shoulder, giving him a small smile. “As much as I would love to have that sort of free reign during our sessions, and as helpful as I think it would be for you, I’m not going to force anything. When you’re ready to talk, we’ll talk. You don’t have to come up with excuses. Not for me.”

Loki felt the lightest of smiles ghost across his lips, his head dipping slightly. “I know.” He opened the folder on top and started to look through the notes he had written up less than twenty-four hours ago. “I know.”

Bruce said nothing.


“Natasha, tell me about S.H.I.E.L.D.” Loki replayed the footage of the fourth victim for the third time, his lips twisting into a scowl. “Are they closely associated with other agencies? Is there some sort of factor that segregates the staff that I’m unaware of?”

Agent Romanoff looked up from her tablet and shook her head once. “S.H.I.E.L.D. operates independently; though, compartmentalization is a big part of the system.” She frowned slightly. “Why?”

“Hmm…” Loki rewound the video once more. “I have yet to find anything connecting the four victims. I thought perhaps they were connected by a group or subdivision of sorts. Who exactly was present when the staff was assembled?”

Tony slumped unceremoniously into a swivel chair and slid closer, joining the conversation. “All of us. Remember, you were here alone and got paranoid?”

Natasha and Loki both cast scathing glares in his direction, one to indicate lack of helpfulness and the other to indicate distaste and volatility.

“Geeze. Did the temperature drop a few degrees or is it just me?” Holding his hands up in a semi-sarcastic gesture of surrender, Tony continued. “There were six field agents and the six of us. After it repaired itself, it was locked up and carted onto a waiting jet. I have no idea who saw it after that, and we can’t get the footage because the plane is actually midflight somewhere over the Pacific. It left on another mission almost immediately after landing.”

Loki sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “You didn’t notice anything suspicious about anybody who was there? Were any of you arguing? It’s possible the staff realized it had been put together in the midst of a conflict and assumed it was being brought back into battle.”

Tony and Natasha exchanged glances, but in the end, they both agreed no such conflict had been present. If there had been desire for battle among the group, whoever harbored it had kept it hidden well.

“Oh.” Loki stopped, eyes darting from one note to the next, thoughts forming too rapidly for his tongue to capture as the pieces started to shift and fall in place. “Oh, no, no, no. I had it backward.”

Natasha gave him a questioning look.

“Why was the staff broken?” Loki answered her unspoken question with a verbal one.

Tony spun on his chair. “Because whoever made it didn’t want people to use it?”

Loki shook his head. “That’s just the problem, Anthony. Even in pieces, the staff still grants immense strength and brings out the most depraved and hateful emotions humankind knows. It was broken intentionally, but it still serves its function, so there has to be something new here—something not in my notes—that the staff can only do as a whole.”

Smirking, albeit bitterly, Loki grabbed the papers that showed the original rune carvings and started to read over it again. “This staff feeds on hatred, and it turns it into strength. That is its only purpose, so if that can still be accomplished, then there must be something more. I would speculate that this staff, when complete, not only feeds on hatred, but it seeks it out. It may not be entirely necessary for there to have been hatred present at the moment it was fixed, if in fact the fixed version seeks it out at all times.”

Tony nodded slowly. “So, someone creates a weapon that turns average guys into warriors with both the strength and the guts to kill people by the dozens. They want to make sure this weapon is going to be in the most useful hands, so they build in a little hate-detector and let the staff choose who should wield it, rather than using a trial-and-error system.”

Loki gave the duo an enthusiastic nod, feeling a small surge of adrenaline at the chance to use his mind on a broader scale than usual. “Exactly.” He turned to Natasha, concealing his glee with a clever smirk. “Agent Romanoff, you said S.H.I.E.L.D. works alone, most likely because they don’t trust outsiders with their intelligence and supplies. However, I would be willing to bet they have many, many enemies all over the world. Suppose one of these enemy forces infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D. and worked their way up the chain of command. Some of them would no doubt be on the hellicarrier, and when the staff was brought in, it would immediately pick up on their animosity toward S.H.I.E.L.D. It would draw them in, send memories and emotions flooding through their minds before they had a chance to process what was even happening to them.” He whirled around and faced Tony once more, causing the man to startle. “Anthony, this hate group in Norway, did the staff fragment kill any of them?”

Tony blinked, confused, and shook his head.

“No, of course not.” Loki’s grin expanded against his better judgement. “Who would create a weapon that kills the one who wields it? Nobody, because it would defeat the purpose. But these people had secrets. They had to make sure nobody knew they were working undercover, so when their self-control started to slip, they did what any good, well-trained soldier does. Natasha?” He turned back to her and extended a hand, awaiting the answer he knew would not disappoint him.

“They killed themselves.” She didn’t even hesitate, walking around the table to grab the files on the four victims. “If they did anything else, they would risk blowing their cover and revealing the presence of their organization within S.H.I.E.L.D.”

Loki nodded, feeling rather pleased with himself and refreshed by the mental stimulation. It was rejuvenating, clearing away from of the mental debris left by the earlier fight. “Exactly. It wasn’t killing anyone, it was calling warriors, and those who had something to hide were killing themselves. It was active not because of anything anyone did but simply because it was in one piece and its job was, at that point, to start looking for a new owner.”

“Okay, that’s great and all,” Tony stood up and braced his hands against the edge of the table, “but we’ve still got two problems. One, that theory sounds good, but there’s a lack of evidence. All the agents were facing away from the cameras when they died, and we don’t see them using any weapons on themselves, so until we have an autopsy, we can’t really say whether or not it was suicide. Still, assuming that Loki is right, because this is his area of expertise, we’re faced with another problem.” Tony paused, looking from Loki to Natasha and back again. “How the heck are we supposed to stop it?”

Loki paused for a moment and then gave a slow, almost uncertain nod. “Yes, well… I haven’t quite figured that out yet. Thor shouldn’t be guarding it, though, he’s too volatile. We either need to come up with a plan immediately, or someone more level-headed needs to go and replace him.”

Tony gestured to the resident assassin. “Natasha, if we can’t get an idea going, you can always jet up there and take over for him.” He put his hands on his hips, letting out a slightly strained breath. “So, for starters, can we break it again? Maybe do what the previous owner did, but instead of burying them in the middle of the woods where anybody can find them, we take each one to a different S.H.I.E.L.D. facility and lock them up.”

“If we have been infiltrated,” Natasha cut in, “then those who are undercover would know where we’re hiding the pieces, and we might be faced with three simultaneous attacks in three different locations.”

Tony shook his head. “It’s no different than having it in one piece and them getting their hands on it in one fell swoop, no assembly required. I admit they’re both bad situations, but I think we’ll be safer if we keep the broken pieces in three different facilities around the globe.”

“Indeed.” Loki nodded his head, leaning back against the table and pinching the bridge of his nose. “Neither plan is very desirable, as you said, but we know for a fact when people were hunting individual pieces, we were able to stop them. If we separated them into three different facilities, even if they did manage to get their hands on them all at once, we would still have a period of time before the moment of assembly to hunt them down. I like those chances much better.”

There was a snort from above, and the trio all turned to look at the chuckling archer perched atop the cabinetry. Honestly, Loki had completely forgotten he was there.

“What is it?” Loki snapped, indignant.

Clint shook his head, still laughing to himself. “I don’t even think you’ve noticed.”

Sighing, Loki folded his arms over his chest. “Noticed what, Barton?”

Clint cracked another grin and leaned back, looking down at all three of them with a satisfied, almost victorious expression. “You keep saying ‘we’ when you reference the Avengers. Are you interested in signing up, Mr. Magic?”

Loki started, caught off guard and incredibly frustrated by the nitpicking comments. “If and when you come across something magical again, I assume you’ll come to me for help. That’s all I meant.”

Clint only grinned. “Exactly. You’ve already made up your mind that if we ask you for help, you’re going to cooperate. You’re actually having fun, aren’t you?”

Loki sighed and turned to face Clint fully, brow creasing with irritation. “Yes, Barton, I do enjoy using my mind to solve puzzles and riddles others cannot. Mental stimulation is very refreshing—you should try it some time.”

“Ooh,” Tony sat down on the swivel chair again, turning his attention to the interaction. “My money’s on Reindeer Games.”

Natasha glared. “Don’t make things worse.” Tilting her head slightly, she addressed the other two men in the room. “Boys, we don’t have time for this. If you want to fight, do it later.”

Clint and Loki glared at each other for a few moments more, but finally, Loki turned and walked back to his position at the table. He tried to push the myriad of remarks out of his mind so he could focus on the task at hand, and with a soft sight, he approached the problem again.

“Alright. If we want to break the staff, we need a powerful sorcerer. I would normally be able to do it, but seeing as my magic is not currently accessible, you’ve got two options. Natasha, you could go to Asgard with Thor and allow my—allow Queen Frigga to break it for you, or you could have Thor tell Odin to return my magic, and I could do it here.”

Tony arched his eyebrows, blinking once. “Really?”

Loki only shrugged, a subtle grin dancing on his lips. “Worth a try.”

“So,” Natasha once again centered their attention, “I’ll be going with Thor to Asgard, and we’ll be taking the staff with us. There, Queen Frigga will break it for us, and we can hide the pieces.”

Clint hopped down from his loft, cracking his neck and rolling his shoulders. “Tony, you should start looking for this inside man, and if S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t have time for the autopsies, I say get Banner to do it. Find out if they actually killed themselves or if it was the voodoo.”

Loki rolled his eyes. “It’s not voodoo, it’s magic.” He gathered up his notes, shaking his head and mumbling a mini-rant about human ignorance under his breath. “Agent Romanoff, you will need to take these with you. Show them to Queen Frigga, and tell her they’re from me.”

“That’s right, you were a prince, right? So, is the queen, like, your mom?” Tony asked, ever the beggar of pointless questions.

“No, she was my second cousin.” Loki rolled his eyes.” Of course she was my mother.” He said no more on the subject, placing the papers in Natasha’s arms and meeting her gaze evenly. “You cannot lose these. Without them, she will have to start over from scratch, and you don’t have that kind of time.” He hoped Clint had heard that very specific pronoun. “If you can, avoid going through Odin to reach her. Even with Thor on your side, Odin is wary of any and all outsiders, and he doesn’t like mortals in Asgard. M—Frigga will not hesitate to help you with the staff, and she will be far more hospitable. Ask Thor, since you don’t trust me, and he’ll tell you the same.”

Tony glanced at his watch. “Whatever it is we’re doing, we need to get a move on. It’s been almost eight hours since the staff activated and—”

“We’ve got another victim.” Steve rushed into the room with a folder in his hands. “That’s five deaths. Do we have a plan?”

“Yes.” Everyone in the room spoke at once.

Steve blinked. “Oh. Uh, good.”

“I’m going to the hellicarrier. Keep your coms on.” Natasha turned and strode out the door, leaving the four men alone to discuss the plan and carry out the rest of the steps.

Tony swiveled his chair once more and then kicked off the table, sliding across the room to the computer consoles with a mild sigh. “I’ll be over here, hacking.”

Loki glanced between Clint and Steve, choosing to sit down and let Clint explain the situation for him. Thor and Natasha aren’t here, Tony is pretty well distracted by his new project, and Clint will be talking to Steve for a little while. That left Bruce as the only person without a task to keep him occupied, but he wasn’t in the room at the moment, so it was a good opportunity for Loki to fade into the woodwork.

I can’t risk using one of the computers. They aren’t that engrossed in their duties, and there are three of them. My notes are with Natasha, so I can’t pretend to work. I suppose, for the time being, my best bet is to wander aimlessly.

Loki adjusted the sleeves on his sweater, fascinating himself with the fabric for a minute or so as his feet carefully guided him toward the exit. He couldn’t imagine every single door in the building was locked, and even the most insignificant of rooms would provide him with more knowledge about his environment. If he looked long enough, he was sure to find something helpful sooner or later.

“Tired, Loki?”

Both feet came to a smooth stop, neither one betraying the miniature heart attack Steve had just inflicted. “To be perfectly honest, I don’t know.” Is he suspicious, or is that his usual, caring nature coming out? “My mind is a little weary, but… I don’t particularly want to go to bed, no.”

Clint glared. But then again, he never really lost that expression when it came to Loki.

Steve, on the other hand, seemed to find the explanation reasonable, and he gave a slight nod. “I definitely sympathize with you there. In fact, I think I’ll join you. Clint, why don’t you come with us? You can finish explaining the plan and maybe burn off a little energy yourself.”

Clint looked between Loki and Steve, frowning slightly but nodding his head.

Too much, too soon. Steve, at the very least, doesn’t trust me enough to leave me alone, though I don’t know if his suspicions are specific. Either way, the fact that he wants to come along is proof there is information I can find while wandering about on my own, which makes it all the more imperative to earn such a right as quickly as possible.

He was frustrated—discouraged, even—but his facial expression revealed neither emotion. Every little bit of information helped, and as long as he was both careful and patient, he would eventually come out on top.

Eventually.


Steve startled at the sudden roll of thunder, his eyes turning toward the windows while Tony, Loki, Clint, and Bruce all began to slowly work their way into consciousness. It seemed their teammates had returned, hopefully with a broken staff, and a quick look at the clock told Steve they had been waiting for just under thirteen hours for Natasha and Thor to return.

“Please tell me that’s not a normal thunderstorm.” Tony pulled himself haphazardly to his feet, staggering blindly toward the kitchenette.

Steve shook his head in response. “I don’t think so. I can see blue sky just a few blocks away.” He walked over to the window and tried to get a better look at the sky directly above them, squinting against the filtered sunlight.

“It’s about time.” Tony grumbled, turning on the coffee maker and yawning loudly. “Does anybody want coffee?”

Every hand around the table went up.

“One for me, too.” Steve waved his hand around to make sure Tony didn’t miss him.

“Have you people never heard of an empty gesture?” Grumbling, Tony turned away from the group and started to go about his task, shaking his head and whining to himself about why he didn’t do nice things for other people.

Steve only chuckled, smiling softly as he returned his gaze to the table and its occupants, blue eyes scanning each individual face with careful precision. He saw fatigue clearly, and he knew there was a lot of tension leftover from the previous night’s argument, which also meant everyone would be pushing everyone’s buttons, even if they weren’t doing it on purpose.

Thor and Natasha are back, and the staff should be in pieces. If it is, we need to hide the pieces as soon as possible, and that shouldn’t take the entire team. Some of us can start sleeping now, and later we’ll all sleep. We need at least a whole day off. His gaze lingered on the mischief maker from space, lips twitching into the slightest of frowns. Loki, especially.

Steve didn’t think Loki was planning to intentionally do anything wrong, but he was emotionally raw and mentally drained. That was dangerous, especially with a magical wrath stick in the mix.

Thor stepped into the room with Natasha at his side, giving the group a halfhearted wave and a weary smile. “Good morning, friends. Mother has broken the staff, and Natasha spoke with Father as a liaison for Midgard. She requested one of the pieces be kept in Asgard, which is why we have only two pieces with us.” He lost the last couple of words to a yawn, one hand covering his mouth while the other grasped a staff fragment through a navy blue sash.

Natasha, who held her fragment with the assistance of gloves, masked her exhaustion more successfully than Thor, but it was clear she was tempted to yawn right along with him. “We made an executive decision to leave the middle section on Asgard in the weapons vault, and as far as the other two pieces go, we think it might be a good idea to hide them at the North and South Poles rather than S.H.I.E.L.D. facilities.”

Steve nodded sharply. “Makes sense. They’re on opposite ends of the planet, aren’t easy to get to, and nothing we hide there could be accidentally stumbled upon.” Probably. He had been told his frozen body and the wreckage it was found in had been an accidental discovery. “If S.H.I.E.L.D. has been infiltrated, it will at least take them a long time to get the pieces, and it’ll quickly be obvious what they’re after; nobody has any reason to go to the Poles.”

Loki turned his chair around then, peering up at the trio with more interest in his eyes than his body could commit to. “If you’re going to hide them there, you should put them in thermal cases. Magic is alive, meaning it gives off heat. It would stand out like a… very hot thing surrounded by a lot of very cold things.”

Clint snorted against the table. “Nicely done.”

“I’m tired,” Loki snapped.

Steve glanced over his shoulder but quickly turned his attention back to the staff when it became clear things wouldn’t escalate between the two. “I think taking them to the Poles is a great idea, and I think we should get it done as soon as possible. Dr. Banner, you don’t have any sort of thermal casing, do you?”

Bruce adjusted his glasses, shaking his head back and forth. “I don’t, no, but S.H.I.E.LD. should. Although, I’m not sure how Fury will feel about us burying these things before his scientists get a chance to examine them.”

Loki rolled his eyes, intoning dryly. “He can have a copy of my notes.”

“Oh, that reminds me.” Thor grabbed a leather-bound journal from underneath his arm and extended it toward Loki, smiling weakly. “Mother compiled your notes for you. She said you would be familiar with the sorting system she used.”

There was a moment of hesitation, but then Loki took the book from Thor’s hands and began to leaf through it, humming to himself. “I see.” He closed it and held it against his chest, almost protectively, giving Thor a nod. “Give her my thanks when you see her.”

Thor nodded, but he wasn’t able to meet Loki’s eyes for very long.

“So,” Steve started, clapping his hands together. “Let’s get this over and done with so we can get some shut-eye. Tony, get two of those thermal cases from S.H.I.E.L.D. Thor and Natasha, put the pieces on the table—I think we should avoid holding them as much as possible, even with protection.” Frowning slightly, he turned to look at Loki. “Speaking of which, those two pieces can’t become one again, can they?”

Loki shook his head, rubbing the spine of his book idly. “No, they cannot adhere to one another. However, if they touch each other or are being held by the same person, their power and influence will get stronger. It’s best to keep them separate, even with the middle portion on Asgard.”

Steve gave a quick nod and continued to hand out tasks to each member of the team. “Clint, check for any difficult weather that might get in the way of a flight pattern. Natasha, get some sleep as soon as possible. I know Director Fury has a list of missions for you a half a mile long.” He cracked a small smile and got an even smaller one in return, but she accepted the decision and left her staff on the table, following his orders. “If possible I’d like Tony and Thor to take the staffs to their respective locations. You’re the only two that can fly without the assistance of a jet, so you’ll be the fastest at getting the job done. Loki and Bruce, I think the two of you should follow Natasha’s lead and get some sleep.”

“So, you want me to take this?”

“Dr. Banner, before you go…”

Steve saw it happen in slow-motion. Tony picked the fragment up from the table and turned to ask Steve for further instructions. Thor turned in the opposite direction to speak with Dr. Banner, the staff piece still in his hand, being held away from his body and the exposed skin of his arms. Their simultaneous movement combined with the overly exhausted brains in the room made for a collision course only three of the rooms occupants saw coming.

Clint’s hands tightened on his bow, muscle memory preparing him for the potential threat. Steve waited, confident the two would quickly realize their mistake and pull the pieces apart. Loki, exhausted and distrustful toward everyone in the room, reacted on instinct and instinct alone.

And Loki was the closest person to the point of intersection.

“Thor—!”

It felt like a minute, but it was only a split second. Steve lunged forward and hit his knees beside Loki, pressing down on his shoulders. Loki seized beneath the touch, his back arching up from the floor, hands clawing at his neck and shoulders in an attempt to tear Steve off. An arrowhead entered Steve’s field of vision, and he realized Clint had jumped onto the table and was waiting to see if a knock-out shot was necessary.

“Loki, can you hear me?” Bruce called to the seemingly lost man, kneeling down across from Steve and placing a hand on Loki’s forehead.

“Loki!” Thor crouched next to Bruce and grabbed Loki’s knee, giving it a shake. “Loki!”

“Sedate?” Clint asked, still prepared.

“No, not yet,” Bruce rushed.

“He’s not seizing anymore, but he won’t stop shivering.”

“Loki, can you hear me? Loki?”

“His pupils are dilated.”

“Loki!”

“I didn’t do it!”

Silence.

“I didn’t do it.” Loki panted, eyes wide and unfocused, body quivering on the meeting room floor. “I didn’t do it. You don’t know. I made sure. You don’t know, you can’t know. You can’t.”

Thor frowned, exchanging looks with Bruce before trying to reach his brother. “Loki, what do you think is happening? What are you seeing?”

“I didn’t do it, Thor, I’m sorry.” Loki shook his head again, staring up at the ceiling. “I didn’t do it. I didn’t… I…”

“Didn’t do what, Loki?” Thor pressed.

“I didn’t… I didn’t… I didn’t…” Loki inhaled sharply, screwing his eyes shut and shaking his head, the muscles beneath Steve’s hands going soft. “I…” He opened his eyes, taking another deep breath and focusing on the tip of Barton’s arrow as if he were seeing it for the first time. “I did something… didn’t I?”

“Actually, you keep saying you didn’t,” Tony quipped.

Loki blinked slowly, and Steve cautiously removed his hands from Loki’s shoulders, allowing the disheveled man to sit up and look around the room.

“Dr. Banner…” Still disoriented, Loki looked around until he saw who he was looking for, leaning closer to the bespectacled man and lowering his voice beyond what Steve could hear. He spoke rapidly in between unsteady breaths, his body still shaking and twitching on and off.

Bruce listened for a moment, and then he shook his head. He listened again and gave a quick nod, which was followed by another a few moments later. “Yeah, absolutely. Tomorrow?”

Loki nodded and moved out of Bruce’s personal space, sinking back to the floor with a grunt.

Tony leaned over the group, putting a hand on Steve’s shoulder and leaning down to offer some whispers of his own. “You get Loki back in his cell, and Thor and I will make sure these devil sticks are out of our lives indefinitely. Sound good?”

Steve gave a sharp, almost invisible nod and then reached out to help Loki to his feet. “Come on, let’s get you to bed.” He draped Loki’s arm over his neck and began to walk toward the door, glancing over his shoulder with a questioning look on his face.

Bruce only smiled, giving him a thumbs up behind Loki’s back, and Steve had to assume that the situation was under control. Whatever the situation even was, and whatever it was that Loki did or didn’t do, it was under control.

Stop thinking. We all need sleep. We can think and plan and talk later.

Facing forward again, he looked down at Loki’s feet, frowning when the god seemed to have trouble walking.

“Hang in there, Loki.”

Loki mumbled incoherently.

We just need sleep.


Loki hit the mattress hard, hissing through clenched teeth as his muscles instinctively curled him into a ball. He could feel Steve’s hands on his shoulders, squeezing and shaking the joints until Steve was certain Loki hadn’t gone into that trancelike state again. Loki found himself making slurred, guttural noises from time to time so Steve knew he was listening, but for the most part, he ignored his surroundings and stared blankly ahead.

“Do you need anything?”

Head twitching to the right, Loki sank further into the sheets and sighed. He didn’t want anything. He didn’t even want to be conscious at that particular moment—and perhaps never again, depending on what he had admitted to in his state of delirium.

“Alright.” Steve paused, and somehow, Loki knew he was flashing one of his quick little smiles. “I won’t be back for a while. Tell Jarvis if you need anything.” Footsteps indicated his retreat, but then he spoke again from just a few feet away. “Loki, if the staff did something to you, you need to tell me. Either way, you’ll be monitored for abnormal behavior for a while. Do you understand?”

Loki gave a noncommittal grunt, more concerned with Steve’s departure than anything he had to say. Thankfully, after a few moments of silence, his unspoken wish was granted, and he was left alone without need for further conversation.

I didn’t do it. I know I kept saying that, but what else did I say? What else did I do? Why did Barton have an arrow pointed at me? He swallowed, recalling the words he had whispered to Bruce and realizing that had been a mistake, too.

“I didn’t mean it. I’ll explain tomorrow, when we meet for our session. I’m innocent, I swear.”

It had been a stupid, emotion-induced move, plain and simple. He had panicked, unsure of what he had said and done but painfully aware of what he had seen. At the time, the only thing that mattered was clearing his name, but now he realized by doing so, he had actually made himself look more suspicious.

I can’t believe I did that. Even under the influence of the staff, it’s so unlike me to blurt things out without thinking first. He scowled, slowly sitting up and pulling his shirt over his head. Though, there really isn’t any point in continuing to keep it a secret. I’m an enemy of both Asgard and Midgard, and many consider me to be a traitor. Perhaps it’s time for the truth to surface.

Kicking his jeans onto the floor, Loki tumbled back into the sheets and drew the comforter up to his chin. No. Secrets are meant to stay secret. I’ve kept it this long, and there’s no benefit in telling the truth now. I need to look more trustworthy, not less. Of course, if he refused to tell the truth or even to talk at all, he would lose a lot of the meager trust he had gained, anyway.

I can’t do this right now. I need sleep. I’ll figure something out when I’m rested and coherent.

He folded his arms over his stomach, still aware of the fire burning there; that sickening, smoldering sensation of hatred that hadn’t quite left his stomach since the staff had been against his hand.

“Jarvis, turn off the lights.”

“Yes, Loki. Goodnight, Loki.”

Within minutes, Loki was sound asleep.

Chapter Text

Loki swallowed quietly, adjusting the position of his teacup for the sixth time and placing his rather fidgety hands in his lap. He could feel Bruce’s eyes on him and see the polished, brown shoes in his peripherals, but he couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge Bruce’s presence.

I made a mistake. I made two, actually. Two incredibly massive mistakes.

Bruce cleared his throat, and Loki tensed, waiting for the makeshift therapist to speak. Bruce kept quiet, though, and silence blanketed the room once more.

It’s too late to turn back now.

Clenching his teeth, Loki looked around the room—anywhere but Bruce’s face—fingers twitching against his thighs. “So, I… Dr. Banner…” He exhaled loudly, pinching the bridge of his nose.

“It’s alright, take your time.”

Loki dropped his head into his hands and sighed. “I’d honestly like to drop the entire thing, but I don’t suppose we can do that, now can we?”

“It’s not a good idea, no.” Bruce smiled warmly, leaning back in his seat and making himself comfortable. “You’ve met a lot of surprises since you arrived on Midgard. Maybe the outcome of this conversation won’t be what you’re expecting.”

Loki swallowed hard, wringing his hands and letting out a slow breath. “I highly doubt that.” He swallowed. “But I suppose it doesn’t matter now.” He took another drag of air. “I… haven’t been completely honest with you.”

“You established that, yeah.”

“Doctor, this is not a laughing matter.”

Bruce shook his head, holding his hands up in a gesture of surrender. “I’m not laughing. I’m simply pointing out the redundancy. Yesterday, you acted like you wanted help, and now you’re fighting this session with everything in you. What changed between now and then?”

Desperation. “Last night, there was a chance the staff would come into contact with me again, and—”

“Nope, that’s not it.” Bruce adjusted his glasses and leaned back in his chair, shaking his head. “There was a chance it would come into contact with you before you touched it the first time. If the staff really does make you feel angry and hateful, you should have been less conscientious after it touched you, not more.” He paused. “Do you know what I think?”

Loki swallowed and shook his head, unsure of what to expect.

“I think you saw something when you touched the staff that you reacted inwardly to.” Bruce held up a finger. “Except you thought you reacted outwardly, and whatever it was you did, you felt the need to deny it.”

I thought I admitted to murder, yes. Loki chewed on his lip. “I did think I had done something, yes. I…” He shook his head. “Dr. Banner, you don’t know what you’re asking. This is Asgardian history. This is… ancient secrets of a long-enthroned royal family. I’ve never spoken honestly about this to anyone, ever, and it’s—”

“It’s eating you alive,” Bruce interrupted. “You said the staff triggers hateful memories, so clearly this thing, whatever it is, is still raw enough to be triggered in a split second.”

“Triggered by magic.”

“Loki.”

Sighing, Loki rubbed his face, conceding beneath the weight of Bruce’s expression. “Alright.” His throat constricted. “I told you about Baldur the Beloved, yes?”

Bruce nodded.

Don’t answer or give me a break to collect my thoughts or anything. That’s fine. “Well, I told you… that we never found his killer… or the one who would not mourn his death.” He wet his lips, rubbing his hands on his legs again.

“Yes, you did.” Bruce nodded again, listening intently.

“Well… I lied.” There were at least fifty different phrases Loki could think of that would have sounded better. “Now, I—I didn’t kill him. I didn’t even hurt him, not really.” He inhaled sharply to shut himself up, a shiver running down his spine.

There’s still time to change the story. You can still get out of this, you can still blame someone else. No one has to know what happened that day. If you go any further, you won’t be able to turn around.

Every instinct he had was telling him to run. The Avengers couldn’t be trusted, and it wasn’t in his nature to accept responsibility or consequences even if they could. It wasn’t right. Loki the Liesmith couldn’t just… start telling the truth. It didn’t fit. It wasn’t right.

“I… I was the one who… I didn’t…” Loki clenched his teeth and sucked in air, spit flying between his teeth. “Why aren’t you saying anything?”

Bruce blinked, brow furrowed slightly. “Hmm?”

“You should—interrupt or something!”

“Loki.” Bruce steepled his fingers and wet his lips before continuing, each word carefully chosen. “I know you’re not comfortable here, but you’ve got to try and talk to me about this.” He paused. “Have I ever used what you said against you?”

Loki stopped, gazing down at his lap with a look of contemplation. He slowly recalled the past several months, returning to the times he felt betrayed or antagonized, even if those feelings had later resolved themselves. Bruce had always remained, at the very least, a neutral party.

“No… no, you’ve never…” Loki sighed, shoulders sagging slightly. “When Hel said every living thing on Midgard had to weep, we all embarked on a frantic trip to meet those demands. Thor and Mother and F—and Odin all wept as they spread the news, but I… did not. I could not. Baldur was everyone’s favorite. He was… nothing short of perfect in the eyes of our family and our people alike, and he never let me forget it. Specifically me, because I was different. In retrospect, it was probably because he knew of my true origins. I… I hated him…” He shook his head. “By the Norns, I hated him.”

Bruce nodded slowly, finishing the story for him. “So, you didn’t weep for Baldur, and he stayed dead.”

Loki nodded solemnly, eyes fixated on the hands he had folded in his lap. “It was tantamount to murder. He had the chance to come back, and we couldn’t find anyone else who refused to mourn him. It was me and me alone who kept him dead.”

Bruce nodded again. “So, this caused family trouble for you?”

For a moment, Loki considered lying from that point forward, but his lips were ahead of his mind, desperate to release some honest information for once.

“No.” He bit his lip, fingers curling and uncurling slowly. “No, the family never found out. As far as Asgard knows, the story I told you the first time is the truth. No one knows who kept him dead. Nobody knows that I… that I didn’t do it.”

Bruce nodded slowly. “And when you touched the staff, you thought you somehow admitted to it. You thought Thor knew the truth.” He paused, taking a sip of his tea before continuing. “Loki, what did you see? Specifically, tell me what you saw when you touched the Berserker staff.”

Loki swallowed, leaning back in his chair and folding one leg over the other, attempting to remain indifferent and failing. “I… I saw the day it happened. Not the murder, but when we were traveling across Midgard. I remember… one moment in particular… on a beach… some eight hours after we started…”


Why? Why can’t I do it?

Tears blurred his vision, silently mocking him for that which he could not force, slipping down his cheeks and falling to the ground as he ran. His chest ached, but only from the lack of oxygen caused by running back and forth along either side of the Midgardian equator. He wanted nothing more than to abandon his mission and find a place to be alone. Not so he could grieve, but because he was so ashamed that he couldn’t bear to look anyone in the eye.

“Jormungandr!” Boots kicked up the sand, emerald hues skimming the surface of the water in search of a familiar, blue-green ridge. “Jormungandr! ‘Tis Loki of Asgard, I must speak with you!”

Waves rose and fell in the distance, white spray kissing the horizon as the large serpent appeared, slithering through the water toward him. Loki raised his hand and waved, preparing to put as much sincerity as he could into his speech.

“Loki, you seem upset,” the monster purred when he arrived on the shore, lowering his head to the sand and peering up in a silent request for a head rub.

“It’s Baldur,” Loki said softly, complying with Jormungandr’s wishes and stroking the greenish blue scales with practiced care. “He’s dead, and we must get every living thing on Midgard to weep for him, or he shall stay that way indefinitely.”

“I will weep for him, Loki, and all the oceans with me.” Jormungandr blinked, transparent lids sliding over golden hues languidly. “But Loki, you and Baldur do not get on well. Do you not fear what others will do if you are not successful?”

Loki chuckled softly, petting the snake again and giving a slight shake of his head. “I am a very talented liar, Jormungandr, and because I speak the truth in this particular case, it will be easier still. I did not kill Baldur, and I am doing what I can to bring him back. I am safe, I assure you.”

“Very well.” Purring, Jormungandr lifted his head and turned back toward the ocean, blinking slowly toward the waters which he would have to forward the urgent message to. “I am truly sorry, Loki Odinson.”

“As am I.”

No, I’m not. I wish I was, but I’m not. Thor spends his nights in the training hall, smashing everything in sight until he can no longer stand on his own two feet. Mother cries until her tears are gone and breath refuses to enter her lungs. Father stays in his room, staring at the wall and pretending he’s deep in thought when, in truth, he simply doesn’t know how to function. And I… do nothing. Nothing at all.

Nothing, save beating his fists against the floor and cursing his own name because no matter how hard he tried to weep for his deceased brother, he couldn’t. He couldn’t feel loss, couldn’t miss Baldur, couldn’t feel the throbbing ache that never failed to accompany sorrow.

I hated him. He was worse than Thor, constantly impressing Father and finding silly reasons as to why I can’t do the same—reasons why I’m unworthy. Belittling me because I can’t fight the way he does, because I use magic instead. Telling me I’ll never measure up to him and that I’ll never have the throne because I’m unworthy. I never want him back. I never want to see him again.

His tears continued to flow, strengthened by the hatred and frustration directed both outward and inward, powered by everything he felt toward Baldur and leaving him numb to the only feeling that mattered.

Grief.


“Was that the first time you felt accused? Or that you had to lie to protect your cover?”

Loki shook his head. “No, of course not. I had an openly negative relationship with Baldur, and given my talents with magic, I was the first suspect for many people.”

Bruce frowned slightly, tapping an idle finger on the rim of his mug. “Why would they suspect you so quickly?”

Loki chuckled, a bitter expression twisting his features. “I always thought it was because of how different I was. Lately, however, I’ve come to realize it was because I was never truly Asgardian to begin with.”

“I thought that was a secret.” Bruce took a sip of his tea. “Who all knew?”

“Anyone significantly older than myself. It wasn’t as if it was planned, Doctor. My… Queen Frigga had not shown any signs of being with child, and suddenly, right after the end of the war with Jotunheim, there were two little princes running around.”

Bruce nodded. “Less announcement, more adding two and two together.”

Loki gave the man a dry smile. “Indeed. On Asgard, we believe all Jotuns are born with the desire to kill. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know what I was, because it wasn’t about knowledge or culture. In the minds of those who knew, murder was in my blood.”

Still nodding his head, Bruce took another sip and summarized Loki’s words back to him. “So, most people who were old enough to know or guess your origins thought you had killed Baldur. You were used to the distrustful accusations, but something about this specific interaction made you angry.”

Loki snorted. He knew what it was—he had always known—but he didn’t have any inclination whatsoever to share the answer with Bruce.

Bruce, of course, couldn’t leave it alone. “Are you going to tell me, or are you going to stare at the wall and make me figure it out on my own?”

Loki propped his chin on his hand and gave Bruce a lazy smile. “I’m going to make you figure it out on your own, obviously.”

Bruce looked at him for a few moments, almost as if he thought Loki would cave and surrender the truth without any further struggle. When it became apparent that no, Loki wasn’t going to do any such thing, Bruce put his fingertips together and started to hum.

“Hmm… let’s see. Did you travel alone when you were on Midgard that day?”

Loki nodded, reaching out to grab his tea from the coffeetable. “For the most part. There was communication between the lot of us, but we only met together when we were done.”

“Alright.” Bruce was quiet for a while, lips pursed as he contemplated the information he had. “You said everyone wept willingly, but you probably expected that, so you had no reason to be mad at them, right?”

Loki gave a single nod, sipping his beverage.

“Hmm.” Bruce fell silent once again, drumming his fingers on the tabletop. “How many guesses do I get?”

Loki scowled, but he couldn’t really be indignant when he was the one who had turned it into a game. “Three.”

“Hmm… were you angry because you had to travel all over Midgard asking people to cry for Baldur’s sake?”

Loki shook his head. “I was irked at most.” He took another sip.

Bruce nodded slowly, taking a moment to nurse his own mug. “Then… given the situation and the information I have on hand… I would have to say the person you felt the most anger toward was… you.”

Loki choked, spitting his tea back into his cup.

“You didn’t miss your brother,” Bruce continued, overlooking Loki’s reaction. “You didn’t want him to come back, but your family was suffering.”

“Dr. Banner—”

“Now, hold on. I want a chance to explain my reasoning before you give me the answee.” He took another sip and set his cup aside, steepling his fingers and leaning forward in his chair. “You didn’t want him to come back, but you knew you had to weep for him for your family’s sake. But you hated him. I mean, you really, really hated him, and it was hard to mourn his death and bring him back.” He met Loki’s eyes, even and fearless yet gentle and kind. “You were running all over planet Earth by yourself, which gave you plenty of time to think. You had time to dwell on how badly your family was affected by his death; on how much pain he had caused you, and when you tried to weep and couldn’t, you had time to think about the implications.”

“Selfishness,” Loki breathed, fingers curling around his kneecaps. “I couldn’t cry for him even as I watched my family fall apart, because every time I came close, I thought about myself and how I felt about him, and I stopped.” Swallowing, he turned his head to stare at the far wall, startled by the words that had left his own mouth. “I kept him dead because I wanted him dead. And I hated myself for it, but I still wanted him gone too much to change my actions.”

“And that’s why the staff showed you that memory.” Bruce frowned slightly. “Why that one, though? Why that specific memory? I would imagine you were on Earth for a long time.”

Loki shrugged his shoulders, leaning back in his chair. “I suppose it’s because Jormungandr was the only person on Earth I felt I owed an honest answer to.”

Bruce stood up, grabbed his cup, and walked to the small kitchenette with a thoughtful expression on his face. “So, why is this a problem today? If you’ve cut your ties with your family, wouldn’t telling them the truth make them leave you alone?”

There was silence.

“Well?” Bruce turned away from the tea machine, a bag still dangling from his hand.

Loki shook his head, hiding the turn of his lips in his cup. “I can’t. Not now.”

“You can’t tell them, or you can’t tell me?”

“Both.” Loki swallowed hard, crossing one leg over the other and leaning back against the sofa in an attempt to look relaxed. “You said you wouldn’t make me, so drop it. I said enough for one day, don’t you think?”

Bruce was quiet for a few moments, and then he gave a slight nod, returning to his teacup. “I understand.” He finished preparing the beverage and then returned to his chair, taking a sip and letting out a contented sigh. “You know what I’m going to ask about next, though.”

Loki only sighed.

“I have to be a bit pushier about it, too, because of the whole war criminal thing. We need to know you’re in control of yourself.” Bruce picked up his clipboard, readying his pen and meeting Loki’s gaze evenly. “You wanted time to think. Did you reach any conclusions?”

“No.”

“That was a pretty quick reply.”

Silence filled the room, and Loki began to fidget in his seat, picking at the skin on his palms absentmindedly. He wet his lips and took several breaths to calm himself, his thoughts dissolving into incoherent static as the stillness dragged on.

Loki heaved a sigh, rubbing his temple. “I… I don’t know.” He crossed his arms over his chest, watching Bruce carefully as he articulated something very foreign to him. “If you have any… advice… I would appreciate the… input.”

Bruce pursed his lips and looked up at the ceiling. “Well, that’s a pretty broad request. There was a lot said and done last night.”

Loki nodded. “I know.”

“My advice would be to talk through your own thoughts first, and once you think you have an idea of where you stand, you need to talk to Thor. As much as I want to help, Loki, there are certain things I can’t do. One of them is speaking for Thor—or any member of your family, for that matter.”

“I know.” There was another break in the conversation, and Loki slowly got to his feet, walking toward the wall and then back again. “I don’t have any thoughts to discuss. It’s all noise.” He turned around and went back to the wall again, quickly assuming a steady pace across the room. “Thor and I are… simply different. We’ve always been different, and there is… there are so many stories I could share, so many reasons I could give to explain why I’m bitter, but he’s never done… this before, whatever this is. I don’t know how to handle this. I don’t have an opinion on things anymore. It’s as if… as if my brain can’t handle the contradiction, so it erased every thought about the situation one way or the other.” He paused, stopping in his tracks to turn and look at the man still sitting in the chair. “Does that make sense?”

Bruce nodded, is expression open and accepting. “It makes perfect sense. Keep pulling thoughts out, even if they seem completely unrelated.”

Loki ran both of his hands through his hair and interlocked his fingers, pulling on the back of his neck as he resumed his uneasy walk across the carpet. “I want to be angry at Thor, and yet, it’s almost as if I don’t have the energy or the willpower. I would vastly prefer to simply never see him or think about him again.” He looked at Bruce again, frowning. “Even this makes no sense to me. I don’t trust you, so why am I telling you these things?”

“Maybe you’ve been holding onto them for too long.” Bruce shrugged lightly, unperturbed. “Most of your conflict with Thor has been building for a very long time. Eventually, the metaphorical dam is going to break.” He pushed his glasses up the length of his nose. “Or maybe you’re just trying to get it over with.”

Loki shook his head. “Nothing makes sense.” He looked back to the chair and felt a knot twist into his stomach. He was sharing his thoughts with an enemy—worse than that, a human enemy—and he was genuinely seeking advice. Had he gotten that desperate, or were they simply getting better at worming their way into his mind?

I can’t do this. I can’t talk about this—about anything. I need to go back to the way I was before, when I didn’t even tell him what recreational activities I liked or disliked. Protecting myself is more important than escape—escape can wait, if I expose myself…

“Dr. Banner, how long have I been here?”

Bruce gave him a long, hard stare, checking his watch only after he had made his confusion clear. “You arrived about forty-eight minutes ago.”

Painting a warm smile across his features, Loki turned and walked back to the couch, sitting down and resting his hands on his thighs. “There’s really no point in delving into this when there’s only twelve minutes left. Perhaps we can talk about it another time.”

“Loki… don’t do this.” For a moment, Bruce almost looked hurt, but Loki quickly realized it was a mixture of disappointment and pity on his face. Pity was unacceptable.

“Beg pardon?” Loki blinked wide, innocent eyes.

“You know exactly what you’re doing, and you know it’s not going to do you any good. You’re entertaining a cycle, one that will perpetually bring you back to this place and offer you the exact same choice.”

Loki’s lips curled into a smirk. “But it is a choice, my dear man, and the choice I have always made is one that has kept me safe for nearly one thousand years. Why should I change my tactics now?”

“Because if you don’t, you’re going to destroy yourself.” Bruce leaned forward and met Loki’s eyes unwaveringly, but there wasn’t a hint of anger anywhere on his face. “Because every single time you choose to shut people out, you’re setting yourself up for a fall much bigger than the one before it. Think about your past, Loki, think about the times you chose to lie to yourself and to others for the sake of keeping your sense of safety intact. Was it worth it? Was it worth winding up here, stranded with your enemies, stripped of your magic, and forced to obey people you consider beneath you?”

Loki stared, impassive. “Have twelve minutes passed?”

“No. So, tell me, was it worth it?”

“Yes.”

Bruce sighed, rubbing his temple “You didn’t even think about it. You’re just firing off answers to shut me up and pass the time. Why?”

“I don’t trust you,” he snapped, arms instinctively folding over his chest. “I don’t like you, I don’t like this situation, and I refuse to be taken in by your charismatic manipulation.”

“Loki—”

“Has it been twelve minutes yet?”

Bruce stared at him for a moment, silent, and then he glanced at his watch. Loki was certain twelve minutes had not actually passed, but it looked like Bruce was ready to give up anyway.

“It’s been fifty-eight minutes since you got here. We’ll round up and call it an hour.”

“Good.” He stood up. “Now, if you don’t mind, I—”

“You’re going down to the lab with Tony.”

Loki clenched his fists at the subtle rush of anger. “What?”

Bruce gestured to the door. “You don’t want to talk to me, and that’s fine, but I’m not letting you go back to your room. That is when you build your walls, when you’re alone.” Reaching out, he grabbed his teacup and took a sip, smiling with an almost chipper disposition. “So, now you won’t be alone. You’ll spend some time with Tony in the lab, and then you’ll do your street work, and then when you come back, you’ll eat dinner with the rest of us.”

There were no words in Loki’s mind for several seconds after Bruce stopped speaking, and it was only after the new rules sank in that he was able to jumpstart his train of thought and reply. “You can’t do that forever. Eventually, I’m going to be alone.”

Bruce arched his brow, his tone casual and offhanded. “You sure? There are lots of Midgardian rituals you know nothing about, Loki. I’ve got a laundry list of things I can do to keep you from being by yourself.”

Loki grit his teeth and swallowed hard, making a halfhearted attempt to conceal just how angry he was. “If you choose to do this, you’re only going to add weight to the dam, and when it breaks, I swear, I will take it out on you.”

Bruce only smiled more. “That’s exactly what I’m counting on, Loki.”


Tony grumbled, throwing his goggles across the table and burying both hands in his hair. “Why do I have to babysit him? I get that Bruce doesn’t want him to be alone, but why do I have to be the one to keep an eye on Hat Rack?”

Steve crossed his arms over his chest. “Tony, this is a group project. We all agreed to help Thor. You’re only keeping an eye on him until we hit the streets, and, assuming he hasn’t snapped by then, he’ll join us all for dinner. Then we all get to share the burden.”

Still grumbling, Tony returned to his schematics, clearing away a small space where Loki could sit and, if Tony was a very lucky man, not touch anything.

Right.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” Tony gave a quick gesture to the door and went to retrieve his goggles. “He’s not supposed to be alone, or whatever, so get his sorry butt in here.”

Steve offered a small smile and did what Tony asked, opening the door and ushering Loki into the room. Tony gave the two of them a scathing glare and snapped the safety glasses back onto his face, thoroughly miffed that his sanctuary of solitude had been invaded by Bruce’s pet project.

Steve pointed to the area Tony had cleared away, giving Loki a light shove in that general direction. “You’ve never seen Tony work before. It’s pretty interesting.”

“I’m thrilled.”

Wow. He really is back to square one. Just to get a reaction—and because he wanted to get back at Steve—he pressed a button on his latest upgrade that he knew was faulty. Sparks flew out of the arm in every direction, and the desired affect was achieved.

“Whoops,” he said dryly, his tone making it very clear that he wanted Steve to go and Loki to be quiet. “I should write that down.”

Steve glanced between the captive and the captor for a moment, his gaze ultimately landing on the latter. “Tony, don’t do anything you’ll regret.”

“I don’t regret things. My life motto is literally, ‘I regret nothing.’” Tony picked up the arm again, this time to actually make an attempt at fixing it.

“Tony, this is serious.” Steve was using that no-nonsense voice that never failed to make Tony want to kick something. “If I can’t trust you with this, just say so.”

Tony bit his tongue, leaning against the counter and sticking a screwdriver beneath the plate that concealed the power core for the appendage. “That was very manipulative of you. I didn’t know you had it in you, Cap.”

“Tony—”

“I didn’t say you can’t trust me, so I think that means you leave now.” He glanced up from his project. “I’ll get over it, Steve. Just an unexpected change, that’s all.”

For a moment, it looked like Steve was going to argue further, but in the end, he accepted the answer and left the two disgruntled men alone.

Of course, Tony wasn’t really angry. Frustrated was a better word, and it wasn’t really at any one person in particular. He simply needed his alone time, and he relied on having certain times and places where he knew he would be alone. One of those places had just been invaded, and it made him unhappy.

“Don’t take it personally,” he muttered, wanting to make at least some attempt at conversation. “I just wasn’t expecting to be around people today.”

Loki shook his head. “I understand that more than you know.”

Tony said nothing, taking the answer as an excuse to sink into silence, hands working meticulously with the jumbled mess of wires in his hands. Loki can wait. I need to get this ray working again.

He did want to help, though, if he even could. No one on the team wanted Loki to move backward, because that would mean he was more of a threat. Not to mention Thor would turn into a wreck and no longer be a reliable source of help. And he would look like a kicked puppy, and really, that would be the hardest thing to deal with.

Why would Bruce not want Reindeer Games to be alone? Tony glanced discreetly over his shoulder, a slight frown turning the corner of his mouth. He doesn’t think Loki will, like, hurt himself or something, right?

Tony could not deal with a suicidal god. He just couldn’t.

No, Loki wasn’t suicidal when he got here, and Steve’s exact words were ‘he’s back to square one.’ We kept Loki pretty much alone when he first got here, though… what did that enable him to do? Think? Does Bruce suspect he’s got some sort of plan in motion we don’t know about yet?

“Stop that.”

Tony blinked, looking up from his work with a dumbfounded expression on his face. “Huh?”

Loki rolled his eyes and shook his head, disdain consuming his countenance. “You’ve attached and detached the same metal bracket eight times now; no doubt because you’re trying to figure out why Dr. Banner made such a sudden and unadvised change.”

“Hey,” Tony wagged a screwdriver at the other man. “If I wanted someone to tell me what I’m thinking, I’d call Pepper. I don’t need that from you, too, Reindeer Games.”

Scoffing was the only response Loki gave.

“So, are you gonna tell me?” Tony flinched, pressing a gloved hand down over the impending shower of sparks. “Because if you don’t want me trying to figure it out by myself, you sort of have to tell me.”

Standing up, Loki crossed the room to the table and stared down at the project, a subtle curiosity tinting his features. “What is that?”

Tony sighed, removing his hand and letting the fuse have its fit. “That was the most obvious subject change I think I’ve ever seen. You really are back to square one, aren’t you?”

Loki straightened up, clasping his hands behind his back and traipsing around the table with sickeningly sweet smile on his face. “For all you know, I never left square one. I am the god of lies, after all.”

“I don’t think so.” Tony tore out the faulty wire as well as the fuse it was attached to, cutting a fresh one and trying a new connection. “If you did, you made too many mistakes.”

Loki hummed. “If a mistake is intentional, is it really a mistake?”

Tony shrugged. “I don’t know. You should ask the guy who thought it was a good idea to gather his enemies together before attacking them, as if that would somehow make them easier to beat.” He raised his goggles and frowned. “Oh, wait.”

Loki said nothing, turning away from the counter and sitting back down on the chair that had been set aside for him. Tony watched him go and then returned to his work, trying and failing to actually focus on the equipment in his hands.

This is why I need an empty lab.

Tony whipped his goggles off and tossed both them and the project aside, walking to the end of the counter where Loki was. He leaned forward and propped both elbows against the tabletop, sighing dramatically as he dropped his chin into his hands. “Well, since you’ve killed any chance of morning productivity, I think you owe me at least a couple answers.”

“I owe you nothing.”

“Wrong.” Extending a finger, Tony poked his adversary on the nose. “You owe me—and the Avengers in general—quite a lot. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not the type to call in favors day in and day out, but since the two of us are stuck together, I figure I might as well take advantage of the opportunity.”

Loki crossed his arms over his chest, staring Tony down for at least a minute and a half before finally offering up an answer. “It’s as the soldier said. Dr. Banner believes my attitude is retrograding. For some reason, he thinks keeping me around you lot will stop this.”

Tony drummed his fingers on the counter, tapping out an uneven beat as he considered what Loki had said. “Interesting.” Then, following his gut, he pushed the conversation in a particular direction. “Poor Steve.”

Loki arched a brow. “Bed pardon?”

Blinking, Tony feigned confusion, gesturing to the space between them. “Well, you won’t even call him by his name. He’s ‘the soldier’ now. I thought you two clicked pretty quickly. I mean—” He shook his head, picking up a circuit board and pretending to lose himself in the metalwork. “You had that meltdown before Jotunheim, and he was there for you. There was that time you got drunk, and then there’s all the meals and the hours he spent visiting. He takes good care of you.” Shrugging, he placed a small chip on the far-left corner of the board. “But that’s what you get when you play nice with the enemy. I told him to keep his guard up, but he never listens to me.”

Loki chuckled softly. “He tried at first, but he didn’t get very far.”

“Obviously.” Tony stopped for a moment, shaking his head and putting his hands up in a display of surrender. “Okay, okay, fine. It was all faked. But just between us, did it still tick you off when he didn’t come along to Jotunheim?”

“I don’t understand.” Loki frowned. “Why would that anger me?”

Tony held his hands up. “How should I know? He just really seemed to think he should have gone along with you. He tried to grab Thor before the, y’know, cylindrical shower of space glitter sucked you up, but you two were already gone.” He ran a hand through his hair and grabbed a pair of pliers, sighing softly. “I guess that wasn’t a tactical move, then. I assumed he was trying to stay on your good side, but it must have just been his golden-hearted sappiness again.”

Loki looked like he wanted to launch himself across the table and grab Tony by the throat, but—thankfully—that plan never came to fruition. Instead, Loki gave a couple sharp nods and stared down at the floor, muscles tense and fingers twitching.

I have to hand it to Bruce. It’s a pretty clever plan, and it’s certainly more fun than talking over tea and scones.

Tony smiled.

Interesting.


“I’m going to go out on a limb and say you’ve never done anything like this before.” Clint wiped his brow and took a long drink of water before continuing. “Anything that can be salvaged goes on that truck, glass goes in that bin over there, trash goes in any of the big green bags, and metal goes into that giant pile for Tony to go through. He loves scrap.”

Loki nodded slightly. “Simple enough.”

Clint took another drink and gestured over his shoulder. “Make sure you keep drinking water. It’s October, which means the northern hemisphere is getting cooler, but your body still needs water to function.”

“Seasons.” Loki made a face like he was tasting something sour.

Snorting, Clint moved toward the leveled block. “Yeah, seasons. October is autumn—or fall, if that’s what you please—and it won’t change again until December.” He set his water bottle down and clapped his hands together, rubbing them a few times before pointing out the perimeters. “So, today we’re working from that street corner to that one. All of the buildings here were demolished, and we need to get all of the waste out of the way before we can start rebuilding. There’s really no rhyme or reason—just pick a section and start working. One way or another, it all has to go.”

Loki said nothing, but he nodded his head and approached the pile just the same.

He’s different.

Clint could tell the moment Loki and Tony came out of the elevator to join the rest of the team for work. Bruce said Loki had backslid, but Clint saw something more. It was true Loki was more guarded, and he was trying to reinforce the walls he had built around himself, but his train of thought was different. Of course, Clint didn’t expect Bruce to notice this, because Bruce wasn’t trained to get inside of people’s heads and determine what course of action they would take before they took it.

He’s exhausted, but I think that’s Bruce’s intention. Loki isn’t being given the time or space he needs to recharge himself, so the more fatigued he gets, the less he’ll be able to maintain his blockade. But that’s the solution, not the problem. Loki’s motivation almost seems to be… fear.

“This is rather soft for metal… does it still count?”

Clint stepped away from his own mountain of junk and glanced at the object in Loki’s hands. “Yeah. Some metals are really easy to manipulate, but they’re still metals. Tony will want to have a look at it.”

Nodding, Loki lapsed back into silence.

He’s probably doing the same thing I am. Using the time and the lack of conversation to think. Which, he assumed, he was supposed to prevent. These past couple days have worn him down, and I’d bet a thousand dollars he wasn’t prepared for his meeting with Bruce this morning. Too much exposed, too little time to patch it all up again. But Loki is clever, and the more ground he surrendered, the more he realized he was losing his control over the situation as a whole. He got scared, closed up, and now Bruce is trying to force him to open up again.

Clint liked the plan, and he would have loved to help, but he had no idea how to engage Loki outside of the mission. Clint had already given Loki his instructions, and unless Loki asked another question, Clint wasn’t exactly the kind to make small talk. Especially with psychopaths that had brainwashed and used him.

Maybe that’s the idea, though. It would be new, and it would throw him off-kilter. He sighed, dropping an armload of wood and plaster into one of the trash bags. Worth a shot.

“So,” Clint started, walking back to his section of the mess. “You don’t have seasons on Asgard? It’s just the same temperature all the time?”

Loki cast him a glance, suspicion written plainly across his features. “Not exactly. We have different temperatures, but they don’t stray from a rather moderate range, regardless of where the universe is in its rotations and cycles. It rarely goes below fifty degrees or above seventy-five.”

“Do you have storms? Ones not caused by Thor?”

Loki nodded his head. “Occasionally.”

“Cool.” It was the only thing he could think to say. He didn’t like Loki, didn’t like small talk, and really didn’t like making small talk with Loki. This wasn’t his area of expertise by any stretch of the imagination.

“Barton, do you hate me?”

Clint blinked, a blank expression on his face. “What?”

“Do you hate me?” Loki repeated the question as if it were the most obvious conversational turn in existence. “Yes or no?”

Blinking a few times more, Clint tried to regain his train of thought, rubbing the back of his neck and squinting at the sky. “Well, it depends on your definition. I have tons of enemies and not enough time or energy to hate them all. Granted, you’re in the top five, but…” He shrugged. “I guess I’m not really sure what you’re asking.”

Loki glanced up from where he was slowly accumulating an armful of shrapnel. “Anthony said something today that has me thinking about Jotunheim, and I recalled the advice you gave me before I left. You said you were acting under orders that weren’t from Fury.” He pursed his lips briefly. “I’ve been thinking about it, and I can’t imagine your teammates would ask you to help me, seeing as they all understand your feelings, and I wasn’t aware you answered to anyone else.”

Clint sighed. Like I said. Loki is clever.

“In short, I want to know why you gave me survival tips that day.”

Wiping his brow once again, Clint leaned over and picked up the scrap Loki didn’t have the arms for, jerking his head in the direction of the pile. “Work and talk.” He started to walk, clicking his tongue as the words to explain himself began to fall together in his mind. “You had no idea what limitations your human body had—you still don’t most of the time—and I figured it would be helpful information. I don’t like you or trust you, but that doesn’t mean I want fire and brimstone to fall on you. That’s more your style.”

“But that doesn’t make any sense.” Loki deposited his load and started walking back, a scowl etched deeply into his features. “I am your enemy. You have no reason to help me.”

“There’s Thor, Bruce, and Steve, being on good terms with Asgard, and basic human decency for starters.” Clint shrugged his shoulders. “It wasn’t like I put my life on the line for you, or went out of my way to do some great act of kindness. I gave you some pointers that took maybe twenty seconds of my life to relay.”

“But why?”

“Why not?”

Loki just stared at him.

“See, that’s your problem, Loki. You are bent on vengeance and payback and getting even—an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, as we humans say. You don’t understand the concept of making life easier on someone you dislike because you want to see them suffer. I don’t understand the concept of making life harder on someone I dislike because there’s enough suffering in the world without me tacking on my two cents, and I’ve got better things to do with my time and energy. We have different worldviews, that’s all.”

For a few moments, Loki kept on staring and offered no response to Clint’s words. Then, slowly, he began to open his mouth. “I… I think I understand.” He paused, taking another long silence before continuing. “I suppose this means I could… to an extent, at least… expect some help from you, if I were to need it.”

Clint frowned, finding the statement odd, but he nodded his head. “Like I said, I’m not going to go out of my way to be your best buddy, but I don’t mind helping out. I took care of you when you passed out on the sidewalk, didn’t I?”

Loki gave a jerky nod, going very still and quiet.

Clint ran a hand through his hair, rubbing at the back of his neck and letting out a sigh. “We should get back to work. If you want to talk, we can do it on the way back to the Tower.” Feeling the conversation had gone well—and not wanting to drag it out any more than he had to—he left Loki to his thoughts and got back to work.

Well, dinner is going to be interesting.


“Do you want a book to read?”

Loki twitched, giving a quick headshake as his answer. Desperate as he was for an escape, he knew he wouldn’t be able to focus on a book given the situation he was in. He would simply have to wait for dinner to be ready in silent nothingness.

“Well… shall I fetch your calligraphy set from your room?”

Loki shook his head again, pinching the bridge of his nose. “No, Thor. I am fine.”

Thor turned away from the television and sighed. “You keep saying that, but you are angry with me again. I can tell.”

Loki chuckled bitterly, shaking his head and staring down at his lap absently. “Believe it or not, it isn’t anger.” He swallowed, picking at his hands. “I finally understand why Dr. Banner didn’t want to leave me alone.”

Thor raised his eyebrows to indicate he was listening.

“He told me it was to stop me from building walls, but it was more than that.” Loki leaned back, resting his head on the back of the couch. “If it was just to keep me from building walls, he would have put me with Steve. Instead, he put me with two of the people in this building who distrust me the most, knowing they would take advantage of my lacking defenses.”

Frowning, Thor pulled his legs up onto the couch and faced Loki fully. “What did they do? Are you alright?”

Loki rolled his eyes. “Peachy.” He took a deep breath and continued, making no attempt to keep the exasperation out of his voice. “Anthony spoke to me about Steve and his bleeding heart, and Barton explained to me the pointlessness of hatred, although that conversation was more my fault than his.” Scoffing, Loki dropped his gaze down to his lap. “Look at me, Thor. I don’t even have the energy to get mad at you. I’m exhausted.”

“Dr. Banner wants you to be exhausted, then.” Thor paused, clearly confused but refraining from a barrage of half-coherent questions, as was his usual nature. “Might I ask what this is about?”

Loki let out a sour laugh, drawing his knees up and letting his forehead fall against them. “I don’t want to tell you, and ironically enough, that’s the part he wants an answer to. Why? Why would I care whether or not you approve of a certain course of action I took years ago? That’s the question.”

Confused, Thor pressed him again. “Well… why would you? I don’t understand, either.”

Loki looked at him. He really looked at Thor, staring long and hard, searching the sky blue eyes for any clues to the contents of his heart. Loki examined the facial expressions and the body language as Thor awaited an answer, his own mind slow to calculate the proper response.

I could tell him. I should. If he knew, he would abandon any brotherly affections he has for me, and that would give me legitimate reasons to stay away from him. He would run home to tell Odin, and then this circus would come to an end. Furthermore, Dr. Banner would get what he wanted and stop pursuing my past—hopefully.

“I...” Loki stretched his legs out again, slowly getting to his feet and beginning to pace, much like he had in Bruce’s office earlier that day. “I can’t believe I’m even saying this.” He ran his hands through his hair and heaved a sigh. “Do you remember when Baldur was killed?”

Thor’s brow creased with confusion, but he nodded all the same.

“You remember Odin made a deal with Hel, and everything on Midgard had to mourn?” Loki wet his lips, not waiting for Thor’s answer. “You know Baldur and I didn’t get along very well, and even you had a handful of bones to pick with him, and—” He swallowed thickly, scratching his palms until he thought they would bleed.

Don’t act guilty; use this to distance him.

“To make a long story short, it was me.” Loki shrugged his shoulders, forcing an air of nonchalance. “Like I said, I didn’t do it.”

Blue eyes stared back at him, frozen in shock, wide and painted with confusion and hurt. Then came the blinking—the rapid, unnecessary blinking that came without tears and seemed to serve no purpose whatsoever. Thor’s head started to shake back and forth slowly, his mouth hanging open ever-so-slightly.

“You… you did not mourn our brother’s death?”

Loki clasped his hands together behind his back, looking down his nose at the other with both eyebrows arched. “I hated him. I had no reason to mourn.”

Thor raked his hands through his hair and left them there, placing his elbows on his knees and taking a deep breath. “But—But I saw you. Loki, I saw you weeping that day. I saw you.”

Loki gave Thor a devilish grin, but his will wavered beneath the mask. “I’m Loki Liesmith. It’s not difficult for me to cry falsely.”

Thor stood up suddenly and closed the short distance between them, causing the younger of the two to glance over his shoulder in search of help, backing up as he did.

“Now, Thor—I’m mortal, don’t forget.”

“Tell me the truth, Loki.” Thor grabbed him by the shoulders, the grip tight at first, but then adjusting to accommodate Loki’s smaller, admittedly weaker form. “Look me in the eye and tell me again that you did not weep for Baldur.”

Loki was able to meet Thor’s gaze evenly at first, but when he opened his mouth to speak, he found it took him several tries to get the words out. This is what happens when you reveal a three-hundred-year-old secret. “I did not—did not weep for Baldur. He—stayed dead because of me.”

Thor stared at him, pain clearly written in his eyes. “Loki… how could you?”

“I think we both know the answer to that.” Loki arched an eyebrow, but he could hold it for no more than a second, quickly losing his ability to feign indifference. “Odin and Frigga went above and beyond to give Baldur whatever he wanted. He never liked me, probably because he knew I was a frost giant, and I never liked him. He died, and I didn’t want him to come back.”

“But Mother.” Thor’s voice was thick with tears, his shoulders heaving with unsteady breaths. “If not for Baldur or Father or me, you should have brought him back for Mother. She was distraught, Loki, for days on end—”

“I know that,” Loki snapped, his eyes narrowing into slits. “But she recovered, did she not?”

“Loki, this—he was family!” Thor shook Loki slightly, but he still seemed aware of Loki’s physical limitations. “Say what you want about our relationship now, but you knew no better at the time. He was flesh and blood to you—and it destroyed us, could you not see that? Was your hatred for him so blinding?”

Loki tore himself out of Thor’s hands, stung by his own weakness and the knowledge that Thor must have let him go. “I am not blind,” he snarled, placing several feet between them, his pulse pounding in his ears. “I know what I am. I know what I did, and I don’t need reminding.”

Thor fell silent, mouth opening and closing with unspoken words.

Loki didn’t say anything, opting to let Thor find his verbal footing first.

It’s done. He knows, soon Asgard will know. History has been rewritten.

“Did you… do you… regret what you did?” Thor spoke cautiously but earnestly, the look on his face making it clear he would have his answer one way or another.

“Define regret,” Loki intoned dryly.

Thor was quiet, but it didn’t last as long that time around. Soon, he was nodding his head and muttering under his breath, his words eventually developing into audible speech. “That’s all I needed to know.”

It was Loki’s turn to be confused, and he watched Thor with careful eyes, waiting for him to explain. He didn’t, though. He just sat down and let out a sigh, rubbing his temples and staring off into space as his brain processed everything Loki had told him.

“Loki—” Thor looked up suddenly, flashing a weak smile, “—thank you for being honest with me.”

Sentiment.

But Loki knew it wasn’t. It was Thor taking Bruce’s advice, trying yet again to reach out on a level Loki could understand and appreciate. He was being calm, he was talking, and he was keeping his temper under control. He was doing everything he could to meet Loki in the middle and make things work.

Five steps brought Loki back to the sofa, where he seated himself and took a deep breath, hoping against hope that Thor would have some sort of outburst and interrupt him. He wasn’t that lucky.

“That day… I did weep, and it wasn’t for Baldur, but it wasn’t a lie.” Inhaling again, he continued carefully, avoiding Thor’s gaze at all costs. “Dr. Banner and I were discussing… my behavior that day, and I explained to him that… I was distraught because I was angry. I was angry with—with myself for refusing to bring Baldur back. I knew I was being selfish and cruel. I knew I was hurting my family, and yet… I repeatedly chose to do what was in my best interests, despite those other factors. It was… wrong, I know that, but to this day, I can’t bring myself to wish he’d come back.”

Silence filled the room, and Loki began to wonder if he had revealed too much too quickly. He had, essentially, just told Thor he didn’t care enough about his family—even before everything went down in flames—to bring back its most beloved member.

“Loki… Father, Mother, and I love you. I know you have a hard time believing it now, but you shouldn’t have felt the same back then. It… hurts me to know that you caused Baldur to stay dead… but it hurts me more to know that you were too afraid to tell us the truth.” Thor sighed, running a hand through his hair. “Baldur had his flaws, and I believe we were all aware of them. He was perfect in front of a crowd, but behind closed doors he had certain… attributes that were rather deplorable. I think it affected you the most, and I know it was hard on you. It was hard on me at times, as well, and I spent many sleepless nights wondering if my own tears had been real. But I never felt that Mother and Father would… would disown me or hurt me or anything of the sort. Did you?”

Loki swallowed, wetting his lips and staring at the wall, eyes flickering across the surface as though the words he wanted to say were written there for him to read. “I don’t know what I thought. I merely... I wanted…” He stopped, turning to look at Thor, his stomach turning to stone. “If I tell you, you mustn’t say a word in return. I don’t want a lecture, and I don’t want your pity. Are you capable of that?”

Thor nodded solemnly.

“Very well.” Returning his gaze to the wall, Loki began to knead his hands nervously. “I wanted to make our parents proud, and… I knew if they knew what I had done, it would be that much harder to prove myself to them. I feared that they wouldn’t…” He sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “This is so childish.” He rubbed his face and heaved yet another sigh. “I feared they wouldn’t love me anymore. That is all.”

There was so much more to the story than that—so many wild emotions and thoughts he still didn’t understand even after centuries of contemplation—but everything he had said was true. That was a big deal for him, and the sheer exhaustion of it all told him he needed to stop there and wait for repercussions.

Thor nodded slowly, waiting several minutes before opening his mouth. “I assume I can talk now, but not about what you just said. Yes?”

Loki soaked up another second of silence, and then he nodded. “Yes.”

Thor gave a sharp nod of his own and gestured toward the door. “We should go see if dinner is ready yet. Unless, of course, you want to go back to your room. I’m sure now that we’ve talked, Dr. Banner will allow you to leave.”

Loki turned to look over his shoulder, frowning at the door for a few moments before rising to his feet. “I’m here. I might as well join you.”

Thor smiled, crossing the room to the door and opening it up. “Then let us go and feast. I believe the Captain of America is making steaks.”

“Steaks? What are those?”

“It is a kind of meat. There are many kinds, cuts, and flavors. The Captain makes the best of steaks.” Thor rubbed his stomach, walking down the short hall toward the kitchen with Loki at his side. “You were very wise to speak with me, Br—Loki. From what I understand, Dr. Banner was going to set up a slumbering ritual if you did not.”

Loki frowned, his brow scrunching up as he mulled over the term. “I wonder what that would entail.” Whatever it was, he couldn’t imagine it would have been very fun for him, so he was glad to have avoided it.

This feels… different. It’s very calm, and I don’t feel like I want to punch the wall. Normally, conversations between Thor and I don’t go this well… He glanced up when they entered the kitchen, offering a small smile in the group’s direction as Thor bellowed out his delight over the steaks. Dr. Banner, you are a mystery.

Perhaps the smartest and kindest mystery Loki had ever met.


Tick. Tick. Tick.

Loki stared up at the ceiling, inhaling and exhaling in slow succession, every breath careful and precise. Any thoughts he’d had throughout the day—and there had been quite a few—were gone from his mind. He was completely focused.

You’re a clever man, Odin. You hid the seals well, but I’m getting close, I can tell. I can feel them. I can feel my magic.

It was faint, but it was there. Like an echo to his heartbeat, it pulsed deep underneath the surface, trying and failing to reach his veins. He listened and coaxed it, trying to lock onto a clear signal, just as he had been doing for several weeks.

Tch. This is only the first one. I’ll be nearly dead by the time I’ve found them all, let alone unlocked them.

Exhaling slowly, Loki pushed the thoughts from his mind, focusing once more on the single echo calling to him from the darkness. 

It was so close, somewhere in his mindscape, less than ten metaphorical feet away. His fingers twitched atop his stomach, a chill going down his spine as he brushed up against the pulse. He had to find the strongest point in order to find the seal, he knew, but just the fact that he could feel it again made his heart race.

“Loki, if the exercise is too strenuous, I would recommend that you stop.”

Loki shook his head at the disembodied voice. “No. Not this time. I can do it.”

Jarvis was referring to Loki’s daily transformation on Bruce’s request. Loki was not.

Breathing deeply, Loki tried to bring the pulse back into focus. It was waiting for him, ever faithful, and he reached out through the fog in a desperate attempt to latch on. His body twitched, a dull ache forming in his chest as he drew closer to the lock Odin had placed. He bit down on the inside of his cheek, knowing the bond wasn’t going to like his presence.

“Mm!” Loki jerked, pain tearing through his innards like a clawed hand, mercilessly burning its way into his core.

It’s just a seal. It can’t do any real damage. It’s all in the psyche.

Taking a deep breath, Loki reached out again, applying as much mental pressure as he could. The seal reacted the same way as it had the first time, agony stabbing into his gut.

“Loki, I strongly recommend taking a break. You seem to be negatively affected by long-term exposure to your Jotun form.”

“I’m fine,” he ground out, pulling his lip between his teeth and biting hard.

“May I lower the temperature at least?”

“Y-yes, that would… be g-good.” Loki took a deep, rasping breath and extended his mind again, a pattern of failure quickly developing as he struggled to break the seal.

I can’t… I can’t.

His breath came in short, broken gasps, heat rising from his stomach and surging into his head. It was too much—the magic, the seal, the strain. He was overheating, which was more than a little uncomfortable given his biological condition.

“Alright… A-alright, I’ll take a break.”

“Capital idea, Loki.”

“Stop that.”

“Stop what?”

“You know what.” Loki pulled himself into a sitting position with a grunt and wrestled the ring off his finger, the metal band greatly disturbed by his magical excursion. “Taking a break wasn’t my idea, and I don’t need to be patronized about it.”

“Of course you don’t, Loki.”

Loki tried to be angry, but he was smiling by the time he set his ring aside. “Thank you, Jarvis. I can always count on you to be honest, can’t I?” He chuckled softly. “There is only one other person who even remotely comes close to that status, and even they have fallen short on multiple accounts.”

“You are most welcome, Loki. I enjoy your presence in this tower as well.”

“Yes, I suppose it must be fun watching me. Boredom evokes strange behavior.” He rubbed the back of his neck, chuckling softly. “I forgot about the microphones. I guess you’ve heard me talking to myself as well.”

“Indeed.”

Loki sighed, staring at the ring on his nightstand and contemplating his progress.

I found the first seal. If I work at it slowly and carefully, I can break it, and that little bit of magic will be all I need to locate the others.

Loki looked across the room to his bookshelf, the Captain America novel catching his eye. It was wedged in between two books on civil rights Bruce had given him after his return from Jotunheim.

Once I find the other locks, I just have to chip away at them with what little magic I have left. Soon enough, I’ll have everything I need to escape.

“Goodnight, Jarvis.”

“Goodnight, Loki.”

He slipped beneath the sheets just as the AI killed the lights, closing his eyes. I have to escape. Regardless of how they act, I don’t belong here. I made myself a villain. I can’t go back now.

“Loki, I have been told to inform you that Captain Rogers will be bringing your breakfast down earlier than usual. He demands you not be grumpy at that time.”

Loki cleared his throat. “I see. Thank you.”

I can’t go back. I have to escape. I have to.

Cementing the thought in the front of his mind, Loki drew the blankets around himself a little tighter and drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Text

“Levi.”

Loki jerked at the sound of his assumed name, trying and failing to bring Natasha’s face into focus. “Hmm?”

“You don’t look good. Have you been drinking water?”

Sighing, Loki massaged his temples, pure disdain taking over his features. “I passed out due to lack of water once, and I haven’t made that mistake since. When are you going to get it through your thick skulls that I know to drink my bloody water?” His voice rose in volume as he spoke, the pain in his head making his temper that much shorter.

Natasha arched an eyebrow, but if she was offended, she kept it to herself. “It’s called not letting you live it down. It’s a human thing.” She tilted her head just slightly. “So, what’s the matter?”

“It’s nothing. Just my head.” He rubbed his temple again and tried to think of a more convincing explanation. “I really… it’s just a headache.”

Stepping closer, Natasha extended her hand toward his head.

Loki jolted back, pressing himself against the side of the food truck. “What are you doing?” he asked, wincing at the contact to his very hot, very sensitive skin; even through his shirt, it was painful.

“Checking your temperature. Just stand still.” She pressed the back of her hand to his forehead, cheek, and then neck. “You’re burning up.”

“I’m fine,” he grumbled, stepping side so he could take the pressure off his back.

Ignoring him, Natasha slipped her hand beneath his shirt. “Why are you in so many layers?” She pressed her palm against his side as she spoke, turning her hand over and using the back to press in the same spot.

“Because it’s November,” he drawled. “It’s only two shirts and a jacket.” Except one of the shirts was a flannel, the other was a sweater, and he had a t-shirt underneath it all that he neglected to mention.

“You rarely wear this much, and you’re a frost giant. Don’t tell me it’s because you don’t have your magic ring, because you weren’t in your Jotun form for the first several days of your detainment on Jotunheim, and my understanding is you were nearly naked with few complaints.” Natasha didn’t give him a chance to reply, turning around and marching up to one of the Red Cross tents.

“Agent Romanoff!” Loki braced an arm against the truck and then pushed off, painfully aware of the sway in his step as he followed her. “Natasha!”

She received something from one of the workers and turned around, meeting him halfway back to the truck with a plastic-sheathed stick of some sort. “Open up.”

Loki frowned but, after a moment of hesitation, decided resistance was futile and hesitantly dropped his jaw.

“Hold it under your tongue.” Natasha slipped the stick into his mouth and pressed the communicator on her shoulder, leaving Loki to follow orders. “Rogers, Levi is under the weather. What’s your status?”

Loki blinked. “I’m under what?”

Natasha gave him a sharp look. “Don’t open your mouth until it’s done.”

Loki fixed her with a scathing glare but did as he was told, tapping his foot impatiently while she finished her conversation.

“I’m checking now.” She pulled the rod from his mouth and slipped the plastic off, looking down at the miniature screen on the fattened end. “He’s got a headache and a fever of 104.1. He’s really out of it.” She paused, no doubt listening to the instructions in her earpiece. “Will do.” Pause. “Likewise.”

Loki sighed loudly, exasperated and wanting his displeasure to be known.

“Stop whining,” was the sharp reply. “You’re in no condition to work.”

“Natasha Romanoff, I swear to you, I am fine.” He clenched his fists at his side, partly because of the pain he was in and partly to show his anger. “Though I highly doubt I will stay fine if we go to Banner’s lab and stick me with those heinous needles.”

Natasha was already walking away, returning the still-unnamed stick to the Red Cross tent. “No one’s going to stick you with needles. It’s probably just the flew.”

Loki frowned, reluctantly trailing behind her as she left the tent. “What flew?”

“Not F-L-E-W. F-L-U. Flu. Short for influenza, a human illness.” She never once slowed her gait, evidently very determined to get Loki back to the Tower with speed. “Regardless, your body needs to rest.”

Loki sighed, knowing it was pointless to argue. His body was fighting something, and while he knew it wasn’t the illness Natasha suspected, he was a far cry from healthy. It would be nearly impossible to convince someone as shrewd as Natasha otherwise.

“Keep up, Levi.” Then, in a marginally kinder voice, “We’re almost there.”

“I’m coming, I’m coming.” His voice was not kinder; not even marginally. “Hold your horses.”

She chuckled but slowed her steps. “He knows ‘hold your horses’ but not ‘under the weather.’”

“Hold your horses makes sense,” he muttered. “When you need to catch up, you tell the group ahead of you to hold their horses, as in hold them in place. Under the weather is just ridiculous.”

Natasha gave him the lightest of smiles and lapsed back into silence. He let her, neither eager nor equipped to have a conversation. Instead, he tried to push his rebellious nerve-endings and their incessant pain out of his mind and focus on his surroundings.

The city, he noted rather sourly, was already showing signs of the ‘Christmas,’ whatever that meant. Sale signs ornamented every visible window, and lights of varying colors were beginning to show up just about everywhere. Everything was red and green and gold and silver.

Didn’t they buy enough on the Black Friday?

“Bruce says you’re doing well.”

Loki let out a sigh and cleared his throat before speaking. “Does he now? What exactly am I doing well at?”

“Talking.” She shrugged, swiping her access card at the door. “He can’t share details unless absolutely necessary.”

Loki scowled. “I still don’t see how talking fixes anything.”

“You, of all people, should understand the power of words.” Natasha led him into the Tower and started toward the elevator. “Talking helps your brain process the information you’re talking about. In your case,” she pressed the appropriate floor button, “Bruce hopes it’ll help you sort through some stuff—distinguish truth from lies.”

“And that will make me a good person?” Loki arched a skeptical brow. “Am I supposed to believe that? More importantly, am I supposed to believe you believe that?”

Natasha placed a hand on Loki’s doorknob but then stopped, pausing for a second before offering her response. “When you know who’s telling you the truth, you learn to trust those people. When you trust people, you let them help you, and you value their input.” She turned to face him, eyes hard but still somehow tinged with sincerity. “That input, if it’s good, and if you take it, helps you become a better person.”

Loki said nothing, pondering her words in silence while she unlocked the door. When Natasha let him in, he remained quiet, wandering over to his bed and sitting down.

“I’ll be back in about fifteen minutes. Don’t do anything stupid.” She turned to leave.

“Are you a better person?” he asked suddenly, surprising himself.

Natasha turned to look at him, her expression saying she couldn’t decide whether or not he was laying a trap. Both arms wandered up and slowly folded over her chest.

“Are you better than you used to be?” he pressed, genuinely wanting an answer.

It must have showed on his face, because after at least thirty seconds of absolute silence, her jaw started to move, lips parting several second before any words came out. “I am.”

Loki nodded slowly. “From a… professional, non-subjective, non-emotional standpoint… do you think I could be?”

Once again, she was quiet, but he appreciated her careful consideration and said nothing to urge a response.

“I think you could.” She stared him down a moment more and then turned to go. “You won’t, but you could.”

And the door closed behind her.

For a moment, there was nothing but his breathing and the throb behind his eyes to break the stillness. Soon, however, he began to move around the room, changing into more comfortable clothes, picking out a book to read, and making himself at home on the bed. All the while, his thoughts raged.

“You won’t, but you could.”

So, she’s still suspicious of me—not that I expected any less—but she is warming up. She is at a point where she believes I could become something better. That’s progress.

Loki lurched forward, a sudden pain searing through his gut. Both hands clutched at the skin beneath his shirt, trying in vain to ease the stabbing sensation, but to no avail.

Not again…

It seemed to come in waves, each one slightly less painful than the one before, but agonizing all the same. It burned in his stomach, knotting the muscles and sending a surge of painful messages to his brain.

“Ugh…” He swallowed thickly, pulling his knees up to his chest and pushing his head down on top. His skin hurt, his head hurt, his joints hurt, his muscles hurt, his eyes hurt—he couldn’t move an inch without feeling pain somewhere.

His heart pounded against his eardrums, blood coursing through his veins and hurting him further. He screwed his eyes shut, his head growing light and almost… detached.

Maybe I should lie down for a bit.

No sooner had the thought crossed his mind than he found himself tumbling backward, consciousness gone before he even hit the mattress.


“Well, it’s about time.”

Loki groaned, forcing his eyes open and trying to make out the face of the person standing over him. Bright light shone from the corner of the room, his eyes objecting to the rays immediately, burning pinpricks travelling through his eyes into his skull.

“Hnn…”

“Here, try and eat some of this. Once you’ve got something in your stomach, I’ll get some Advil for you.”

Grunting, Loki attempted to sit up but slumped back down after just five excruciating seconds. “Can’t…”

Two hands slipped beneath his arms and pulling him upright, one of them disappearing momentarily to place a pillow behind him.

“How’s that?”

He nodded haphazardly, finally recognizing the caretaker’s voice. “N’tasha…?”

“Don’t worry, I didn’t poison you in your sleep.”

That hadn’t been what he was going to ask, but it was a valid question that needed answering nonetheless, so he didn’t correct her. Not that he could correct her if he wanted to.

“Still think you’re fine?” she teased.

He tried to glare in response, but the energy required to look angry was beyond him, so he settled for a grouchy, grumbled ‘no’ instead.

“Try and eat some of this.” Natasha offered him a steaming bowl, an amused smile still dancing on her lips.

Shivering, Loki pulled his hands out from the tangle of sheets and took the bowl, trying not to spill its contents. “Do humans have this sort of problem regularly?”

Natasha shrugged, pursing her lips. “Every few years, give or take, depending on their circumstances.”

Loki shuddered—more from cold than disgust, though both were definitely involved—and sniffed the yellow liquid in his dish. “What is it?”

“Soup.”

Loki cast her a withering glare.

Natasha only smirked. “It’s chicken noodle soup. Just try it.”

Still watching her carefully, Loki lifted the spoon to his mouth. His suspicion melted away the second his taste buds touched the broth, surprise tugging his brow upward. “Mm.” He grabbed another spoonful. “This is surprisingly good.”

Natasha’s eyebrows shot up. “Surprisingly?”

“Well,” he cleared his throat, “you’re not exactly a model housewife.”

Natasha snorted and folded her arms over her chest, but her face was one of resignation. “You’re not wrong. Soup is about the only thing I can cook.”

Loki smirked. “As I suspected.” He enjoyed being right. “Well, it’s good nonetheless. However, you should still take a day and let me out of my cell so I can teach you how to make something new. Perhaps something Asgardian.”  He sipped the broth some more, watching her closely despite their lighthearted conversation.

“You know how to cook?” Her disbelief was almost palpable.

“Hasn’t Thor ever told you I favored our mother?” Loki cracked a grin and downed another spoonful, growing increasingly grateful for the warmth his meal provided.

“No, he hasn’t.” Natasha gave him a quirky, almost suspicious sort of smile. “You called her your mother.”

Loki rolled his eyes. “Yes, yes, I meant to say the queen.”

“No, you didn’t.” Natasha leaned back in her chair, crossing one leg over the other and continuing. “So, you took after your mom. Can you sew, too?”

He scoffed. “Of course. Do you think I bought my clothing at the bazaar? Or entrusted our imbecilic royal tailor with the task?” Shaking his head, Loki downed the last bit of soup and set it aside. “No. No, I sew my own robes, thank you.”

Natasha stared for a few moments, her very breath inaudible as she scanned him not once, not twice, but three times.

“What?” Loki shifted in the bedsheets.

She squinted. “Just wondering something.”

“Wondering what?”

For a moment, she only stared some more, but then a smile turned the corner of her mouth. “I might tell you someday.”

Loki rolled his eyes. “You cou—ah!” He nearly doubled over, caught off-guard by the surge of pain in his abdomen, and he barely managed to keep his dish from spilling.

“What was that you said about my cooking skills?” Natasha spoke with a teasing tone, but there was a distinct flicker of concern in her eyes.

Loki shook his head and bit down hard on his lip, vaguely aware the bowl was being pulled from his hands. “It isn’t—nausea, it’s just—pain.” Air whistled through his teeth, the pain clawing its way up into his chest.

Natasha’s hands were suddenly on his shoulders, pushing him down onto his mattress and squeezing lightly around the base of his neck, rubbing the hardened muscles there. “Try to relax. Take a few deep breaths and describe the pain for me.”

Loki’s knees pulled against the blankets, trying to curl around the afflicted area. “It’s like—someone’s stabbing me, and my skin—feels raw.” He grunted, rolling onto his side and curling into a ball beneath the sheets. It occurred to him two seconds too late that he shouldn’t have been so forthcoming with his symptoms.

Natasha’s hand came down on his forehead again, the contact sending little sparks of pain all across his scalp. He hid those easily; they were nothing like the pain in his core.

“Your fever spiked.” She frowned.

Loki’s voice caught in his throat. She can’t find out. “You don’t think this has anything to do with me being a frost giant, do you?”

“I don’t know.” Her frown deepened. “It’s getting colder outside. You would think that would be better for you, not worse.” Her head tilted slightly. “Though, if the temperature of your body is rising… that could have adverse effects on your Jotun body.”

“Natasha…” Mercifully, the pain began to fade, falling away until there was nothing left but a dull ache. He was able to manage a quirky smile. “Are you absolutely certain you didn’t poison me?”

Natasha smiled briefly, but she still seemed concerned by his pain.

Loki heaved a sigh and sat up slightly, leaning against the headboard again, though not as vertical as before. “I jest, but in all honesty, do humans truly get this sick for unknown reasons?”

She sat back in her chair, still watching him closely. “It’s not really unknown. It’s germs. I’m concerned about the fever, though.”

Loki nodded jerkily, clenching and unclenching his fists a few times to test the mobility. “Should we wait, or do you intend to act immediately?”

She shook her head, gaze absent. “No, we’ll wait. Keep an eye on it.”

“That sounds reasonable to me. It seems to be over for the time being, anyway.”

He grunted slightly, shifting his weight and subsequently aggravating his sore muscles. They have to continue thinking this is an illness. I’ll take their medicine without a fuss, and I can pretend it’s helping, but I can’t have them digging deeper.

Glancing up at Natasha, Loki gave a quiet but stern demand. “Don’t tell Thor.”

“I’ll have to.” She clearly didn’t care how sternly he said it.

“He’ll fuss,” Loki tried. “Keep him in the dark; it’s less messy that way.”

Natasha shook her head. “He’s not the same, Loki. I’ll tell him you want him to stay away.”

Loki sighed and shifted back down into the sheets, staring up at the ceiling. “If you must.”

“I must.” Her joking tone was back.

Loki sighed but didn’t say a word.

It was unlikely Thor would be able to figure out the true source of Loki’s troubles. Thor had never been very good with magic, so he would no doubt believe Natasha’s flu theory.

Because it was magic causing the sickness, not human disease. It was Loki’s body trying to adjust to the sudden presence of magic in its veins. Because Loki had cracked the first seal, and magic was slowly seeping into his body, saturating every molecule that had been deprived up to that point.

Loki had cracked the first seal, and once his body adjusted, he would use what little magic he had to blow the rest of the blockage wide open. Then it was only a matter of waiting for, or creating, the right opportunity.

Game, set, match.


Loki thought he tried very hard to accommodate the Avengers and their ridiculous requirements surrounding his imprisonment. He understood he was at the disadvantage, and he saw no benefit in fighting back against some of the smaller rules and rituals they demanded he follow, but there came a time when a man—a god, an Asgardian, a Jotun, a trickster—simply had to put his foot down.

“Captain Steven Rogers, this is unacceptable. I want them out. Now.”

Steve looked over his shoulder with a bright smile and nearly sparkling eyes. “Come on, Loki. One strand of each. That’s not so terrible, is it?”

Loki massaged his temples, giving an irritated sigh as his answer.

“Come on. It’s Christmas! Get in the holiday spirit.” Steve taped the end of the garland to the doorframe and carefully ran it up and over the opening.

Loki remained unconvinced. “It’s absolute silliness, is what it is; a holiday for fools. Honestly—”

The door flew open before he could finish his sentence, and Thor appeared, panicked and disheveled, in the archway.

“Captain of America! I require your assistance! I have encountered a foe of such cunning, such dastardly skill that all my attempts to subjugate it have failed.”

Steve was off the stepladder in a second. “What? What hap—”

Thor held out a knotted ball of Christmas lights. “This cord of merriment has bested me in both strength and wit. I know not how to secure victory against such a formidable adversary.”

Steve stared at Thor for a solid ten seconds before he realized it was a joke. Both of them quickly dissolved into laughter, leaving Loki to sigh in overwhelming exasperation.

“Like I said, a holiday for fools.” Snatching the lights from Thor’s hands, Loki made himself comfortable on the bed and began to tackle the knot. “Carry on.”

Steve smiled and returned to his self-appointed task. “So, Thor, what do you think of Loki’s room?”

Thor tensed, looking to Loki as if he expected to be kicked out—which Loki had considered, if only for a moment—but Loki countered his caution with nothing but curiosity and patience.

“Yes, Thor. What do you think?”

Sensing a trap, Thor began to walk around the room, examining everything in sight. “I think it is very nice. Organized and tidy, per the usual, and the color scheme is… pretty. It, uh, it has got a bed.” He sighed, shaking his head. “I don’t know. I don’t understand interior design. I apologize.”

Loki smirked. “Well, at least you were honest.”

Thor, encouraged by the positive response, walked closer to the window and let out a winsome sigh. “I can say your view is much better than mine. It’s stunning.”

Loki tossed what he had managed to untangle to his left. “I agree. It’s a very nice view.”

For a moment, there was silence. Thor was likely trying to figure out how far Loki would let him push, and Steve was undoubtedly hoping his silence would decrease the apparent tension in the room.

“One strand each, Captain.” Loki got to his feet and handed the lights to Thor. “Your lights are untangled, and I can hang my stand of lights myself, so I want the both of you to go.

Thor took the strand with an expression of surprise, but he made no comment. He simply uttered a quiet word of thanks, smiled, and quickly exited the room.

Good. He still knows his place.

Steve stepped away from the door and grabbed the strand of lights he had brought. “You sure you wanna do these yourself? You’ve been stuck in bed almost all week, and you still look a little under the weather.”

There’s that stupid phrase again. Loki took the lights with a stare of judgement. “Getting back on my feet will do me good.”

“Alright. Though, since we’re on the subject…” Steve met Loki’s eyes and stared intently, a silent portrayal of what would and would not pass for an answer. “How have you been feeling?”

“Better.” That was a lie. “I’m still having bouts of nausea, and my head hurts like a ten-keg hangover, but I don’t feel dizzy or lightheaded, so it’s safe to say I’m on the mend.” So, so, so many lies.

Steve quirked a brow. “A ten-keg hangover?”

Loki frowned slightly. “Yes. Are you unfamiliar?”

“Uh, no.” Steve chuckled softly. “I think you might be overestimating the alcohol tolerance level of humans.” He laughed again and shook his head. “Either way, it sounds like you’re doing better, which is good. Keep me posted, alright?”

Loki only nodded, eager to see the man go, and after a quick thumbs up and a friendly smile, that was exactly what Steve did. As soon as the door closed, Loki’s façade crumbled, and while he didn’t do anything that would clearly show up on the security footage, his face contorted with pain.

Deep breath. Moving across the room to the window, Loki tried to focus on hanging the lights, using the task as an excuse to show the cameras his back, which in turn provided cover that allowed him to claw at his stomach. It’s almost over…

The crack in the seal had broadened—with an incredible amount of painstaking work, of course—his magic now seeping through at a constant and steady pace. His human body was buckling beneath the weight of its new power, even with the advantages offered by his Jotun skin. Antibodies were trying to destroy and expel viruses and bacteria that didn’t actually exist because his human DNA couldn’t comprehend the presence of Asgardian magic. But it would adapt.

It had to.

Patience is a virtue with which I am well acquainted. I’ve waited this long.

Loki sighed, grunting softly as he forced his hands to actually perform the task of hanging Christmas lights in the window.

Once I have my magic back, I’ll have to find some sort of vessel I can use to travel through a doorway to another realm. Alfheim, maybe? I have a history there; they like me.

He taped the last section of lights to the window and leaned against the sill, gritting his teeth.

But what then? I could attack any one of the realms that have done me wrong but… Midgard and Jotunheim have shown mercy and kindness. And the suffering. So much suffering… and for what? I can’t… Midgard and Jotunheim… all the little children and the siblings I have yet to meet. The Avengers, my mother, Raghnall—even Director Fury. I don’t trust a single one of them, but the hatred—the loathing—is just… gone. It’s utterly gone.

Loki tilted his head, watching the traffic and crowded streets down below. The city was so alive, and Loki couldn’t find it in himself to want it dead. He had no qualms about taking whatever he needed in order to stay out of prison, but the desire to watch humanity burn was absent, a hollowed apathy taking its place.

I could go after Asgard but…

No. He could hate it until the end of the Nine Realms, but he wouldn’t attack while his mother was alive. Possibly not even after that, though he made no promises.

What will I do after my escape?

And as Loki stood there, he realized he didn’t know. The Avengers hadn’t earned his trust, but they had certainly succeeded in softening his edges. He didn’t know what he wanted. All he knew was he wanted to get out. He wanted to travel again, visit old friends, and see if there was more to his past than he originally believed.

He wanted freedom.

But beyond that, he had no clue.


“Peaches?”

Loki let his head fall against the doorframe to his room, vexation overwhelming his composure as the conversation dragged on. “Yes, Barton, I want canned peaches. What part of this don’t you understand?”

“Uh, the part where you want me to take you down to the local grocery store at ten o’ clock at night and buy you the most random food item in the history of random food items for no apparent reason.” Clint ran a hand through his hair and let out a heavy sigh. “Why are you asking me, of all people? Why not ask Steve or Bruce—or literally any of the people who actually enjoy being around you?”

Snorting, Loki shook his head. “I assure you, I would greatly prefer such an arrangement. However, we both know you would assume I was up to something if I did that.”

“I think you’re up to something no matter what you do.” Clint’s eyes narrowed sharply, and he folded his arms over his chest. “Why do you even need peaches? You get three square meals a day. I’m sure eventually there will be peaches.”

Loki sighed, pushing off of the doorframe and shoving his hands into his pockets. “They’re not for me,” he admitted, his voice bordering on the edge of soft.

Clint only stared. “Nope. More confused now than ever.”

Loki huffed. “Christmas is a time of gift giving, is it not?”

Clint’s head bobbed up and down.

“Well, I know someone who loves canned peaches, and seeing as Christmas is less than a week away, I thought it would be appropriate…” He let his voice trail off, giving Clint a look that implied the level of disappointment he would express if Clint still didn’t understand.

Clint stared back at him, lips pursed and brow furrowed in contemplation. He seemed to genuinely consider the request, which was a good sign, as he looked down at the carpet and tapped his foot.

Please.

As if hearing the silent plea, Clint sighed. “Alright. Fine. We’ll run to the store and get some peaches.” He threw his hands in the air and turned on his heel, walking down the hall toward the elevators. “Why the heck not? It’s Christmas.”

Loki allowed himself a brief smile, and then he followed Clint into the lift, down to the ground floor, out the door, and onto the streets. Loki didn’t say a word the entire time, not wanting to push any limits for fear he would lose whatever ground he had gained.

“So, are you going to tell me who this mystery person is? Because the last time I checked, there’s only six people you have contact with, and none of them are all that excited about peaches.” Clint cupped his hands around his mouth and blew into them, steam billowing from the space between his fingers.

Loki scowled, pulling his coat more tightly around himself. “I don’t suppose you’ll let me get away with not answering.” He focused his gaze on the cement, using the distraction to force the answer between his lips. “Brianna.”

Clint turned his head sharply, surprised. “Brianna Leitholf?”

“I don’t know her last name, but if you’re talking about the little girl who was abandoned by her mother, then yes.” Loki looked up but directed his gaze to the left, refusing to look at Clint. “She loves canned peaches. The stupid girl hurt herself trying to dig through old, collapsed buildings in search of them.” He could feel Clint staring at him, but he ignored it in favor of observing the city-street mayhem.

“Yeah, that’s her.” Clint said nothing for several moments, and then approached the topic from a different angle. “You still haven’t explained why you asked me to take you.”

“Yes, I did.”

“I don’t buy that for a second, especially now that I know what you really want the peaches for.” Clint’s hand brushed against Loki’s arm, his fingers digging in just enough to get Loki’s attention. “Why me?”

Loki pulled away from Clint’s grip instinctively, exhaling sharply. “You are one of the few people I know who won’t see this as some sort of…” he waved his hand, indicating his lack of an appropriate word, “…benevolent and soft-hearted gesture.”

Clint arched an eyebrow. “What would you call it, then?”

Loki glared. “I owe her. Nothing more.”

“You owe everyone in this city. I don’t see you being anybody else’s Santa Claus.” Clint grabbed Loki’s arm again and started walking, leading the way to the grocery store. “How do you owe her more than anybody else?”

Loki smirked, following Clint into the building and down the aisles. “You ask such logical questions, as if you think I’m being logical about this. I’m the psychopath who invaded your world and killed thousands of your people—you expect me to make sense to you?”

“Yeah, I do.” Clint gave him a sharp look, making it clear he wouldn’t play the game.

“You’re such a bother.” Loki glanced around and lowered his voice a few decibels. “I took her mother to the Red Cross tent. I was the reason she was sent to the hospital.” He hesitated briefly. “Had I not… intervened, her mother would have stayed with her. That is all.”

Frowning, Clint looked over his shoulder. “If you hadn’t intervened, her mother would have died.”

“She would have left Brianna with the belief that she had a mother who loved and wanted her. I would have preferred that. I couldn’t care less whether the woman survived the ordeal.” Loki spoke evenly, holding Clint’s gaze for several moments before breaking eye contact in order to search for the desired Christmas present.

Clint hummed, keeping in step, and crossed his arms over his chest. “Don’t you think you’re judging pretty quickly?”

“You’re defending her?” Loki glared, anger swelling in the pit of his stomach.

Coming to a stop in front of a large wall of canned fruit, Clint shook his head and replied, “No, of course not. But you destroyed a city and killed thousands of innocent people—as you just recently mentioned—and here we are, trying to learn your side of the story and give you a second chance.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe the woman knew she was a terrible mother and thought Brianna would have a better chance if she were up for adoption. Maybe the money trouble is less about a bank and more about thugs who will do anything—including kidnap, torture, and kill Brianna—to get money she might not be able to give them. It’s not likely, but it’s possible. Just keep it in mind, that’s all I’m saying.”

Loki only glared, occupying himself with the cans and refusing to answer. He didn’t care what reasons the mother did or didn’t have. He didn’t like to see Brianna without a family and a home. It was too familiar. It made him angry, and that was where his compassion stopped.

“How many of those are you going to get?”

Loki looked up from his armful of items, a total of seven cans, and blinked, a sly smile curling the corner of his mouth. “I might want to try some for myself.”

“I’ll tell Steve to put them on the shopping list,” Clint deadpanned.

Loki only rolled his eyes. “What harm can I do with peaches?”

“I wouldn’t trust you with a pool noodle.” Clint shook his head, glanced around, and leaned down to grab some of the cans from Loki’s arms. “Don’t talk about your attack anymore. I’ll explain later.”

Loki nodded slightly to indicate understanding and then claimed another three cans, rising to his feet and following Clint to the front of the store. For a moment, he considered asking what a pool noodle was, but he figured if he wasn’t supposed to talk about his attack, he probably wasn’t supposed to indicate he was an alien, either.

“So, we swing by the orphanage, drop these off, and then we go home.” Clint glanced over his shoulder. “You’re not going to be able to see her. You know that, right?”

Loki nodded. He assumed Brianna would be asleep, given the late hour. “I told you. I owe her.”

“Like Natasha owed me?” Clint arched an eyebrow, walking up to a large machine and swiping the first of many cans across a glass square. “Because you know what that actually means.”

Snorting, Loki handed over his items, trying to think of some excuse to explain his behavior and coming up blank. “I don’t need to tell you my reasons, Barton. I am giving her a gift, that is the bottom line, and that is as far as your hand in this goes.”

“Sounds like I…” he pressed the ‘Pay Now’ option on the screen, “…pushed your buttons.”

Loki deadpanned. “You think you’re hilarious, don’t you?”

Clint gave Loki a stupid grin and swiped his plastic card, finishing up the transaction and handing the bags to Loki. “I am hilarious, thank you very much.”

Blinking, Loki looked down at himself, startled by the weight of the combined objects and slightly disturbed by the way his muscles reacted. He knew the seal was straining, keeping no more than a sliver of magic behind its crumbling walls, but his body was still adjusting, and the longer it was taking the seal to break, the longer he was suffering. It was better to have a short but intense period of adjustment than constant weakness and pain and general inability to function.

“Levi.”

Loki looked up and blinked. “Sorry.” He shook his head. “I got distracted.”

Clint gave him a long, hard, suspicious look. “Uh-huh.” Pointing over his shoulder, he started walking backward down the sidewalk. “This way, Santa Claus. Let’s get this over with.”

Head bobbing, Loki followed close behind, mumbling under his breath, “Let’s, yes.”

Tonight, I am breaking this thing once and for all.


No one had really explained what he was supposed to be doing. He had been called from his cell and directed to the couch in the living room with knowing smiles and, in Tony’s case, quips about necessary human experiences. He had been placed on the sofa, right in front of the new-fangled fireplace Tony had installed, and given a sweet—and slightly bitter, but not quite bittersweet—steaming-hot beverage to sip on.

Odd. More than most things he had seen on Midgard, the large fireplace in the center of the room was perhaps the oddest. Not that the fire itself was unfamiliar; quite the opposite, it was so very Asgardian that having it in front of a massive, flat-screen television threw him off. It was strange, but warm and so incredibly mesmerizing to stare at.

“Hold up, Reindeer Games, there’s more where that came from.” Tony plopped down on the couch next to Loki and held out a pair of fluffy, green… somethings… and an equally soft sweater. “Put these on.”

Loki gave the articles a scrutinizing look and then cast his gaze upon himself, brows furrowing as a frown creased his lips. “I am already wearing the pants you dictate for lounging, despite their distasteful appearance. These articles are all rather… peasant-like. It’s a bit much, don’t you think?”

Tony only grinned a little wider and shoved the items into Loki’s lap. “You just have to trust me on this one. Seriously, you haven’t experienced humanity at its finest until you’ve done this.”

“I don’t particularly care to experience humanity at all.” Loki tried to hand the items back, but Tony jumped to his feet and backed away before he could. “Man of Iron—!”

Tony wagged his finger and kept backing up. “Socks. Sweater. Do it, and I’ll be right back.”

Then Loki was alone again, sitting on the couch with the toasty fire blazing in front of him. He considered the items in his hands for several moments, turning them over in his hands and idly rubbing the fabric they were made of.

They were incredibly soft. Besides, the Avengers could attack him whenever they wanted; they didn’t need to get him out of his more durable clothing by force. They could simply wait until he was asleep.

Swallowing, Loki pulled his feet out from beneath himself and slipped the new socks—because, evidently, that was what the fuzzy, green somethings were—over the normal socks he was already wearing. Then, after a quick glance around the room to ensure no one was lying in wait, he stripped off his denim jacket and folded it over the arm of the couch. He pulled the sweater on in one, swift movement that didn’t leave his eyes covered for more than five seconds, and then he curled back up and waited to see what the humans would do next.

Mm. It’s warm and soft. I like it.

If only he had had such clothing on hand during his stay on Jotunheim.

They would have taken it, anyway. Loki took another sip of his drink, running his tongue over his upper lip to clean off the marshy-mallow smears he left there. He was pretty sure that was what Tony called it. It had sounded disgusting when described—who would name a sugary treat after stagnant body of water and a hairy-stemmed plant?—but it far exceeded expectations in the best possible way.

Hmm. Loki sighed and continued to observe his surroundings. He looked toward the kitchen area and saw Steve cooking something, and while he wasn’t quite sure what it was, it was obviously bread-like in nature and incredibly tasty.

Or at least, Loki assumed the reason Clint kept sticking his finger into the bowl was because it was tasty.

Clint.

Clint, who still hadn’t mentioned the odd shopping trip to anyone, at least as far as Loki could tell. Clint, who was constantly teetering somewhere between a neutral party and a perpetual thorn in the side. Clint, who may or may not have been planning to kill Loki the minute his back was turned—Loki honestly couldn’t tell.

Clint, evidently, thought Steve’s cooking was tasty.

Odd and odder still.

“Here we go, here we go.” Tony appeared in front of the couch again, holding yet another piece of fabric that was soft and warm and allover tantalizing to the touch. “Get in a comfy position.”

Loki blinked a few times, confused, and frowned at the inventor. “Comfortable for… what?”

“To read. To think. To sit and do nothing. To sleep.” Tony shrugged his shoulders. “Come on, let’s do this.”

Do what? Loki wanted to scream.

“Ah, I am comfortable as I am. Do what you will.” Loki pulled his drink a little closer and took a quick sip, if only to put on a false face of ease.

“Cool.” Tony flicked the cloth in his hands, and it billowed out to roughly ten times its folded size; then Tony tucked the fabric around Loki’s body. “Nothing is more important in the winter than fuzz. Fuzzy clothes, fuzzy blankets, fuzzy feelings. Fuzz is the new black.”

Loki had no idea what any of that meant, but the blanket was certainly more comfortable than anything he had ever slept with on Asgard, so he chose not to complain. It allowed him to stretch his legs out a little bit more without losing any body heat, and it helped ease the ache in his knees.

Because human knees sometimes ached in the cold. Not because they were injured, not because the human had done anything to them, not because of any illness or defect, but simply because they were cold.

I truly do hate this body of mine.

“Jarvis, play some Christmas music, would you?”

Loki glanced up briefly when the noise began, preparing himself for several hours of Tony Stark’s usual ruckus. He was surprised ever-so-pleasantly when the sound of soft string instruments and a velvety, low voice came over the speakers.

“Oh, yeah. Now it’s coming together. The Christmastime Experience, copyright Tony Stark.” Grinning, the multibillionaire sauntered away to his minibar and prepared to make merry in his own way.

As for Loki, well… he sipped the last of his drink and set the mug aside, pulling his arms into the shelter of the blanket and burrowing down into the couch cushions. It was so warm, and so peaceful, and so… simple. It was utterly simple, and for a brief moment, he thought perhaps he understood what Thor found so appealing in humanity.

Because it shouldn’t have meant anything. Soft music from above underscored by the crackling of a fire and the clacking of a wooden spoon against a bowl shouldn’t have meant anything. Warmth that spread from the top of his head all the way down to his toes and back again, his belly full of something warm and sweet, his eyes half-lidded as he stared at the dancing flames shouldn’t have meant anything.

It shouldn’t have made him feel any particular way. Laying there on the couch and staring endlessly into the fireplace while his body slowly succumbed to the sensations of warmth and comfort and fuzz; the sweet aroma of whatever Steve was making wafting overhead as a rumbling baritone sang to his family about being home in time for Christmas; the blanket’s entirely irrational sensation of safety, the sound of Tony’s laughter, the taste of chocolate still on his lips—none of it should have meant anything.

But it did.

It felt safe. It felt secure. It was so inviting, so charming, so gentle, so… so…

So human and so simple and so stupid, and yet he couldn’t recall a time in his life when he had felt so at ease, so delighted with his surroundings, so giddily happy over nothing at all, so at home in his environment.

It was a good feeling.

Christmas, Loki decided, was a very good feeling, and with that thought in the forefront of his quiet, docile mind, he drifted off to sleep.


“Merry Christmas!”

Loki ducked down, trying to escape the impending reindeer antlers Tony was trying to stick on his head. He was unsuccessful, and Steve snapped a picture before he could tear them off, the smile on Steve’s face shining brighter than any of the lights in the room.

“You’re all obnoxious.” Crossing his arms over his chest, Loki surveyed the room and let out a resigned sigh. “Why must I join you for Christmas dinner? I do not celebrate this holiday where I come from, and I do not want to celebrate this holiday where I am now.” That may or may not have been a lie. It remained to be seen if Christmas dinner was as nice as the Christmastime Experience©.

“Reindeer Games,” Tony sang, wiggling his fingers in Loki’s face for the sole purpose of taunting him. “Get it? Because I gave you the antlers. You really are Reindeer Games now.”

“Yes, Anthony, that is absolutely magnificent. Now shut up.” Turning his gaze to the one responsible for dragging him to the noisy gathering, Loki pressed for an answer. “Dr. Banner, please tell me you have a good reason for this.”

Bruce only smiled. “Christmas has many different moving parts. This is the part where we have a party, play games, laugh ourselves sick, and eat delicious food until we can’t see our feet anymore.”

“Ham!” Thor bounced up from behind the counter, where he was keeping a vigilant eye on the dish in question. “It is a most delicious meat, Loki, and it must be experienced on this, the day of Christmas.” He was practically giggling with excitement.

Loki groaned, running his hands through his hair and letting out a long, languid sigh of defeat. “You aren’t going to let me leave, are you?”

Bruce, Tony, Steve, and Thor all smiled at him.

“No, I thought not.” Reaching out, Loki grabbed a candy cane from one of the end tables and twirled it between his fingers, somehow managing a halfhearted glare despite all the positivity. “Merry Christmas, mortals.”

Steve laughed, snapping another picture and hastily shoving the device in his pocket so he could return to the task of preparing Christmas dinner. “Loki, why don’t you give me a hand?”

Raising both hands, Loki began to applaud less than enthusiastically, his face deadpan.

“Ha ha. You’re funny. You’re a funny guy, Loki.” Steve pointed a spoon at him, quickly realizing his mistake and pulling it back when brown syrup started to drip onto the floor. “Natasha says you can cook. Goodness knows Tony and Thor can’t, and I think Dr. Banner is still bringing some gifts up from the lab. So…” He trailed off, turning back toward the stove and pointing next to himself.

Loki bristled, thoroughly offended by the forward attitude. Had he gotten so casual with his enemies that Steve thought he could order Loki around on a whim? Loki was a prince, born of one noble bloodline and raised by another. He didn’t cook on command, especially not for those that had imprisoned him.

“What would you like me to do?” he asked, stopping beside the stove and looking at the various dishes still in progress. “I get to lick the spoons.”

“Of course.” Steve smiled, handing him a knife and an orange potato—or at least, that was what it looked like. “If you can chop those into thick slices, and then cut those slices in half, that would be great.”

Loki’s brow shot up, emerald hues scrutinizing the man in front of him. “You’re giving me a knife. Is that wise?”

“You tell me.” Steve gave him a bright smile, sliding another sharp instrument over the surface of the potatoes that had yet to be peeled. “Can I trust you with a knife?”

Loki glared. “Of course not.” But he didn’t cut anything other than the vegetables he was given, tossing the chunks into the brown sugar sauce when Steve directed him to do so.

He wasn’t really docile, of course, he was simply playing them. He had broken the first seal, and that meant he was well on his way to escape. That, of course, meant he had to focus on gaining as much trust as possible before he finished breaking the rest.

Or at least, that’s what he told himself.

He honestly didn’t know what to think about his relationship with the Avengers. He didn’t trust any of them—probably not, anyway, although maybe he potentially did—but he certainly couldn’t say they were faceless enemies. Not after the last five, nearly six, months of confusing and unexpected developments in his life.

Steve was a good man with a pure heart and a unique sort of honesty, courage, and strength that Loki respected. Tony was a far cry from an enemy, and though he made himself a nuisance on a regular basis, his attitude was so carefree and nonsensical that it was hard to see him as cold opposition. Natasha was professional, but there was no hatred or malice driving her actions, and even Clint was able to put aside his personal feelings for the sake of accomplishing a goal, which Loki both appreciated and respected.

Then of course, Bruce.

Bruce was the closest thing to a friend Loki had had in a very long time, and while Bruce, like every other Avenger, was a potential threat and not to be trusted, if Loki absolutely had to trust someone or ask for their help, he would go to Bruce. Bruce, who didn’t bat an eyelash no matter what Loki put on the table. Bruce, who never lost his patience or raised his voice or started to show even the slightest hint of green around the eyes. Bruce, who smiled at the antics and grinned when Loki tried to fight. Yes, Bruce was as close to a friend as Loki believed he would ever have again.

But Loki had to escape.

Because even when things were like this—calm and civil and happy—they would come to an end. When the lights went out, the Avengers would be free to come and go as they pleased, and Loki would be guarded by endless layers of security. He couldn’t live like that. He couldn’t—he just couldn’t accept that. He wanted to be able to run through the streets at any hour he chose, no matter how ridiculous, wearing whatever he wanted and screaming at the top of his lungs, “I am Loki, of Asgard, and I do what I want!”

Not that he would actually do such a thing, but he wanted to have the ability.

Freedom. Freedom was key. He wouldn’t settle for anything less than that.

I deserve freedom. If I break the remaining seals, I can fix the damage here in a matter of months. I wouldn’t owe them anything if they let me do things that way. They’re doing this to me on purpose. They’re keeping me here for their own sick amusement. They—

Another voice, yet somehow still his own, cut into the conversation, reprimanding his mind for wandering down such a path.

No. Emotional damage is not so easily fixed. Think of Brianna. Think of Klaufi and Bjolan and Lini. Some people will never recover from the things I’ve done, no matter what I do or how much time has passed. I can’t pay back my debt, not in full, and freedom is a privilege I forfeited when I chose this path. I knew that.

But did he know that? Did he really have any idea what he was giving up when he first touched down on Midgard? Could he have foreseen any of this?

“Loki, are you alright?”

Startling, Loki looked up from the cutting board, vaguely aware he hadn’t been cutting anything for a minute or so. “I…” He shook his head. “Just lost in thought. I apologize.”

Steve frowned. “Is everything okay?”

“I… think I’m fine.” Shaking his head, Loki began the process of playing up his distress to earn more sympathy, swallowing the guilt that came with his lies, clenching and unclenching his fist around the knife. “I just don’t…” he glanced around and lowered his voice, “I don’t understand you and your teammates. I am the enemy, the god of lies, I—I attacked your planet and killed your people. Why am I cooking Christmas dinner with you?” There was a certain sincerity to his words and tone, his eyes searching Steve’s face for any signs of suspicion.

“Well, it’s hard to explain, but the bottom line is that you aren’t a threat like this.” Steve shrugged. “We can extend more opportunities to you because there’s a limit to how much damage you can do.”

Loki shook his head. “But why? I understand why you don’t fear me, but that doesn’t explain why you would go out of your way to give me a second chance. Every time I ask, I’m told it’s because I’m not a threat and you have the necessary resources, but none of those are reasons. They explain why you didn’t say no, not why you said yes.”

Steve looked at him for a long while, both hands hovering mid-peel, face displaying an odd mixture of sympathy and reluctance. “We said yes because we’re the good guys. We believe in second chances, in helping those who don’t deserve or want to be helped, in putting ourselves in harm’s way to give someone an opportunity normal people can’t or won’t. We said yes because we believed it was the right thing to do, and that alone makes it worth doing.”

Loki stared at him, blinked rapidly, and the emotion in his voice was hardly forced at all. “You are… something else, Captain. You baffle me.”

Steve gave him a smile and handed over another potato. “I take it Asgard isn’t big on forgiveness, huh?”

Smiling bitterly, Loki shook his head. “No, and I don’t suppose they should be.”

“Well, yeah, after the whole ‘destroying Jotunheim’ thing, I can imagine.” Steve tossed over another peeled potato and smiled to indicate he was joking.

“That wasn’t illegal.” Loki cut through the pile he had neglected during his daydreams, quickly catching up. “To be perfectly honest, I don’t think anyone on Asgard cared about the attack except Thor, and he only cared after his trip to Midgard. Prior to that, well… he was less than supportive of the Jotuns and their planet.”

Steve listened quietly, nodding when Loki had finished speaking. “I see. So, what did you do that was illegal in Asgard?”

“I tried to kill Thor.”

“Oh, is that all?”

Loki jumped, startled by Tony’s unexpected intrusion, but he never got a chance to reply.

“In his defense,” Thor began, moving closer to the kitchen area, “All Loki did, initially, was lie to me. It was still wrong—” he cast a brief glare in the trickster’s direction, “—but Loki did nothing to entice my friends to commit treason. It was only after they did so that he took more drastic measures.”

“Heimdall, on the other hand…” Loki’s expression soured. “I botched that one rather badly.”

Thor snickered, which got the attention of just about everyone in the room, given the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the stares only caused him to laugh harder, delaying his story as he struggled to get the giggles under control.

“Loki,” he bit his lip and snickered again, “do you remember the time I lost Mjolnir in a bet?”

Loki’s cheeks darkened as soon as he realized where the conversation was going. “Thor, I would really prefer we keep that little incident to ourselves.”

“But this is a time of merriment! That is why they say Merry Christmas.”

Loki continued to glare. “It might be a merry memory for you, but I had to dress up as a woman—”

“So did I!”

“—which I do not find amusing.”

Tony’s eyebrows shot up, and Loki kicked himself for using that particular bit of the story as his example. “Wait, what?” Tony seated himself at the island and leaned over the counter, grinning from ear to ear. “You have to tell us now.”

Loki groaned but did nothing to stop Thor from launching into the tale most joyously.

“‘Twas my own fault, how it all got started. I was foolish enough to wage Mjolnir in a silly bet, and—as has always been my luck—I lost.”

“Sorely,” Loki interjected.

“Well, I do not know about—”

 “You had your backside handed to you.” He smirked. “And then you came to me and begged for help, because the conditions he had placed on its return were nigh on impossible.”

Thor pouted. “Loki, it is my tale. I wish to tell it.”

Loki only rolled his eyes.

“As I was saying, I went to Loki with the terms my adversary had set. These terms were complicated, namely because they did not involve Loki or myself. What I needed to do to reclaim Mjolnir was convince Freyja, Queen of the Valkyries, to marry the winner of the bet.”

“She was opposed to the idea,” Loki quipped.

Steve lowered his face to his palm, shaking his head back and forth and mumbling about the stupidity of the bet in the first place.

“As I was saying,” Thor cast both men a dark look and then cleared his throat to continue. “I knew I would have to trick him, because there was no way in the Nine Realms Queen Freyja would be swayed. And because Loki was, is, and always will be the best at tricks, I went to him for help.”

Tony’s grin broadened. “I like where this is going.”

“Yes, Anthony, this is the part with the crossdressing.” Loki rolled his eyes for what had to be the fifth time. “We decided if the winner wanted a bride in exchange for Mjolnir, a bride was what he would get.”

“Loki!” Thor snapped.

“Fine, fine, carry on.”

By this time, Bruce, Natasha, and Clint had been drawn in, the group circled around the end of the island. Loki didn’t even know when the latter two arrived, and their silent entrance quite honestly scared him.

“As I was saying, Loki used magic to make me look like Freyja and himself like her handmaiden. We ventured into the belly of the beast, if you will, having every intention of stealing Mjolnir back. But we ran into a few snags along the way.” Thor’s arms and hands began to move as he spoke, the thunder god growing more animated as the story went on. “We had to actually go through with the wedding, because the marriage vows had to be legally binding before he would take his guards away from Mjolnir. Loki and I were able to keep the disguise up through the wedding and into the feast, which was a miracle in and of itself, given that I ate almost three entire pigs and drank four kegs of mead.”

Bruce blinked. “Wow.”

Natasha grimaced.

“Once the feast was partially underway, the winner took Loki and I—not knowing, of course, who we were—to see Mjolnir. He was an arrogant fool, and as soon as his guards were out of the way, we dropped our disguises and made off with Mjolnir for the skies.” Thor laughed heartily, slapping his thigh. “It was a good day.”

“Wow.” Tony stared for a moment or two and then shook his head with an incredulous laugh. “Please tell me that this was a normal, everyday thing for you. I’ll be so disappointed if it wasn’t.”

Loki gave a small smirk. “Well, the crossdressing part was new, but Thor was always getting into trouble, typically with Mjolnir.”

“Me? I think you mean we, Loki. Remember when you got us trapped on Alfheim looking for magic crystals? Or the time you tried to sneak Jormungandr into the palace?”

Loki scoffed. “Please. That’s nothing compared to the bilgesnipe hunting trip disaster. I almost lost a leg because of you and your stupidity.”

Steve gasped, turning away from the group with a single exclamation, “The food!”

Loki also turned and quickly jumped back into the cooking process, all thoughts of his childhood escapades vanishing as he followed Steve’s orders and tried to help get things back under control.

It took a little while, but they were successful, and the team—plus Loki—enjoyed a Christmas dinner that was nothing short of a feast. Throughout the meal, Loki and Thor continued to regale them with stories of their past conquests and sore defeats alike.

Then it was time to open presents. Everyone gathered around the tree—except for Loki, who watched from a few feet away, curiosity evident in his eyes—and exchanged presents.

“Bruce, this is for you. This one is Natasha’s. This is… Loki, where did you—oh.” Steve walked over and handed Loki a small, brightly wrapped package. “Merry Christmas, Loki.” He smiled widely. “I’d wait until Tony gives you his before you open it.”

Loki stared, blinking slowly, utterly speechless.

“Oh, right!” Tony hopped up from his seat on the floor and grabbed a somewhat large gift from the tree, carrying it over to the man with a grin. “Happy 170th day of captivity.”

“Here’s a couple from me, too.” Bruce handed him two presents. “The bigger one is more of a gag gift, but I think you’ll enjoy them both.”

Loki kept staring, still blinking, still speechless, at the growing pile of gifts in his arms.

Thor gave the baffled man a light smile. “My gift is silly and sentimental, so I put it in your room. I figured you would prefer to open it in private.”

Loki just kept staring, mind buzzing with flurried thoughts and yet completely blank.

This is good this means they trust me but why what have I done to deserve gifts from any of them that doesn’t matter take advantage of it this is perfect you just got some of your magic back and escape is just around the corner you need this but they care they care and I don’t know why—

“I… thank…” he kept staring at the parcels, unable to tear his eyes away, “…thank you.”

There were murmured responses all throughout the group, and then the merriment continued, as if nothing extraordinary had happened.

“Alright, let’s see what we got here.”

“Tony, you didn’t set this thing to explode or something, did you?”

“I never use the same trick twice, Steve, my dear.”

“Liar.”

“I, too, have received such gifts from you, Tony.”

“Just open the presents already.”

Loki sat slowly, almost cautiously, on the floor and began to open the first present. It was from Tony, and after Loki saw what it was, he was confident the initial idea to give such a gift came from Tony as well.

Technology.

Loki had absolutely no idea what it was, but he also had no inclination to ask. He was certain, later on, in the privacy of his room, he would be able to figure out what the device was for. So, setting the box aside, he picked up Steve’s gift and started to pick at the paper corners.

Peeling away the parchment, he discovered the gift to be three plastic squares stacked on top of each other. One read, ‘daughtry baptized,’ while another read ‘ThePianoGuys2,’ neither of which meant anything to him. Between them, a thinner case held a disk with a message scripted across the top in what appeared to be genuine handwriting. It said, ‘Loki’s Mix Vol. 1,’ and while Loki didn’t understand what it was, it was obviously custom made for him.

Taking a deep breath—quietly, so as not to draw attention to himself—he moved on to the next gift, the supposed gag from Bruce Banner. Somewhat nervous, Loki peeled back the wrapping paper to reveal a book on Norse Mythology and a bright yellow sticky note.

 

Just in case you need help

recalling the details.

-DB

 

Loki smiled, understanding the concept of a ‘gag gift’ and making a note to get vengeance at a later date. Then he moved on to the next gift, discovering a black box of watercolor paints beneath the veil of gold paper.

“I know you really like working with acrylics, so I thought I’d get you something new to try.” Bruce smiled from where he sat, holding a soft replica of the Hulk with a tag dangling from its ankle.

 

You gotta learn to love

the Other Guy! He gets lonely.

-Tony

 

Loki blinked and then looked back to his own things. “Yes, thank you.” And that was where he ran out of things to say. What else could he say? His enemies, enemies he was plotting against at that very moment, had gotten him presents for a holiday he didn’t celebrate. For once, his silver tongue wasn’t so silver. It was more like brass or copper—or lead—and he didn’t know what to do to fix it.

“Captain, I would like to retrieve something from my room and require a thumbprint. Would you accompany me?”

Steve nodded and rose to his feet, adjusting his brand-new, Captain America baseball cap as he started toward the doorway. “Did you like the gifts Tony and I got you?”

Loki nodded. “Oh—yes, thank you.”

Steve smiled. “You have no idea what they are.”

“Not a clue.”

“That’s alright,” Steve laughed. “We figured half the fun would be figuring out what it does and why it needs those extra parts.”

Loki nodded. They weren’t wrong. Loki greatly enjoyed riddles and puzzles.

Coming to a stop outside Loki’s room, Steve opened the door and waited. “Do you want any help?”

“No, I’ve got it.” Stepping into the room, Loki made a beeline for his nightstand and pulled out a tablet he had been using to sketch and paint on. Granted, the paper quality wasn’t the best, but he was a prisoner with limited resources, so they would have to get over it.

“Here,” he mumbled, pulling out a sheet and walking back toward the hall. “Take this.”

It was a painting—mostly abstract—with various shades of blue swirled and splotched against a white background with a crisp, black quote intended specifically for the Captain.

 

“Greatness is not found in possessions, power, position, or

prestige. It is discovered in goodness, humility, service, and character.”

-William Arthur Ward

 

“Loki, this—”

“Not a word. I am only evening the battlefield. I don’t want to be indebted to any of you.” He looked at Steve, long and hard, daring him to say another word on the subject.

Because in all honesty, Loki had no idea what he was doing. He didn’t know why he made the stupid pictures in the first place. At the time, he assumed it was his own artistic, slightly odd way of processing his thoughts, but now—

Ducking his head, Loki pushed past Steve and made his way back to the living room, letting out a disgruntled sort of noise as he began passing out paintings to each individual in the room.

“I despise debts,” he grumbled, staring each of them down the same way he had Steve. “I’ve given you each a gift now, so we’re even.” He pointed at Clint and Natasha. “I am ahead with the two of you, and you are more than welcome to keep it that way.”

Then, having nothing else to say and not entirely sure whether he actually meant that which he had already said, Loki sat back down on the floor and started to leaf through his new book.

He didn’t read it, he just scanned the words with vacant eyes, slowly running over each image in his head and wondering if he had made the right choice in handing them over.

They were all generally the same. Loki had thought of each individual as he painted their picture, using colors and shapes to describe them before placing a quote that he felt fit their character in bold lettering somewhere on the page. It was just practice. Just something to kill time.

“Loki.” Bruce looked up from his painting, a faint smile pulling on his lips while the rest of his expression remained stunned. “Thank you. I really appreciate this.”

Loki only nodded, trying to keep his attention on his book as much as was humanly possible. It didn’t work, random words about horses and golden hair and shining steeples all filtering through a fog in his mind, but he tried.

“Well, it’s no can of peaches, but it’s not half bad, either.” Clint gave him a cocky, sideways grin and ignored the confused expressions his teammates offered. He folded the image up and tucked it into his jacket.

Loki’s head continued to bob up and down, eyes never once leaving the pages in front of him. He felt as though everyone were watching him, his heart rate climbing higher as the team continued to examine their paintings. Natasha said nothing about her painting, but from the parts of her expression he could actually see, he assumed it was to her liking. Bruce and Steve both exchanged comments about the color choices and blending methods, and Thor simply sat and grinned at the portrait like an idiot.

“Thanks, Reindeer Games.”

Loki glanced up at the uncharacteristically soft voice, his eyes wandering over to where Tony sat in some sort of stupor, staring at the picture in his hands with a faraway look in his eyes.

Loki specifically remembered Tony’s picture. It was composed of a bright and vibrant red and a deep, somewhat muted purple. While the two colors did little to complement each other with sharp lines, the god-turned-artist had done an excellent job of blurring the borders until there was another color between each section, something like a burgundy or wine.

 

“Success in life comes to those who simply refuse to give up; individuals with

vision so strong that obstacles, failure, and loss only act as teachings.”

-Silken Laumann

 

Loki had initially hesitated to use the quote, and he hesitated again when he went to grab the painting from his room. Would Tony focus on the ways the quote related to him? Or would he focus on Loki and try to figure out if the Avengers were the ‘obstacles’ Loki was determined to overcome. Ultimately, he had decided it was safe to hand the picture over, and it seemed he had been right.

“Yes, yes, you’re all welcome.” Loki appeared disgruntled, but he gave Tony a brief smile that was painfully sincere. “I hope you enjoy them. If you can enjoy a painting.”

There were smiles and kind words all around, and then Loki started to drown out the noise, letting it fade into static and burying himself in his new gifts while his mind started to process the modified statistics. Thor is certainly for me, Steve and Bruce are right behind him, and I may have just pulled Tony out of the neutral zone and onto my side. Natasha and Barton are somewhere on the negative end of neutral, and while I’m not certain I can draw them in before I escape, I’m also not sure how much it will matter. No one is entirely against me.

He curled in on himself a bit more and mumbled the words he was reading under his breath.

I can’t think about this now. It’s all this Christmas nonsense turning me soft. By the time I unlock my magic, this fuzziness will all be gone, and I’ll be back in my right mind.

“Loki, Cap, put your books away.” Tony stood up on the couch and got off by stepping over the back, immediately heading toward the media center. “No point trying to read while it’s so noisy. We’re gonna watch a movie!”

Loki rolled his eyes, glowering at the man across the room. “Must we really?”

But Tony just laughed. “Don’t be so glum, Loki. I think you’ll really like this one. It’s called,” he paused for dramatic effect, whipping the plastic case out from behind his back, “Nightmare Before Christmas.”

Clint perked up. “Ooh! I love that movie.

Loki blinked.

What on Midgard have I gotten myself into?


Clint pulled his arm back and stared, unblinking, at the red dots on the far wall. His breathing inaudible, his body still as a statue, he lined up the three arrowheads with their three respective targets.

Something’s wrong.

He let them fly, wasting no time in reloading his bow and quickly lining up the next three so they would collide with those already flying. They cut through the air half a second later, and he watched to see what they would do.

“Barton, do you hate me?”

That was the one that got him started. Clint’s brain had stuttered, unsure of what to do with the question, and while he felt he had handled the impromptu inquiry well, it bothered him that there was no visible trigger.

Loki had been digging through his past at the time—he still was—and Clint understood there would be certain triggers and situations that would bring up unusual topics from time to time. With that in mind, Clint had begun to analyze every detail of the time leading up to that particular question.

Nothing.

It was completely out of the blue, and anything that should have been on Loki’s mind that day wasn’t related to their relationship—or lack thereof—at all. So, Clint had broadened his search to include less specific topics, including everything from civil rights and family values to famous wars and mythology, hoping to find some link back to himself.

Nothing.

He reached back and found his quiver empty, the twenty-four arrows scattered around the room on various targets. Sighing, Clint began to walk around and collect them, his thoughts still lingering on the god downstairs.

It’s there. I can’t see it yet, but it’s there.

Loki had brought up deep, thought-provoking questions with just about everyone on the team, but far too many of them were unrelated to his past. Tony had managed to aggravate Loki by talking about how much Steve cared for him. Clint, of course, got the question about hatred. Footage showed Loki had asked Natasha whether or not she thought he could be a better person.

Those things shouldn’t have mattered to Loki, but for some odd reason, they did.

For some odder reason, Loki was insistent on pretending they didn’t.

 “Don’t talk about your attack anymore. I’ll explain later.”

There hadn’t actually been any danger in the store that night. Clint had said that to get a reaction he could study, and what he found was that Loki forgot about the incident rather quickly. Once they left the store, Loki’s mind switched onto a single track, and that was Brianna. It wasn’t until later that Loki asked Steve to send Clint down to his room, at which point Loki asked what the problem had been, and Clint fed him a quick, simple lie.

Loki’s main concern should have been himself, but for some odd reason, it wasn’t.

For some odder reason, Loki didn’t seem to notice, and if he did, he didn’t care.

Christmas had been the tipping point; the moment Clint actually started to worry about what Loki was planning. Why help Steve cook dinner? Why tell stories with Thor? Why entertain Tony’s movie choice? Why give the team presents? Why go along with all the nonsense when he kept showing such intense irritation with the holiday?

“I despise debts. I’ve given you each a gift now, so we’re even.”

It sounded right. It sounded like something Loki would say, it sounded prideful and detached and unfeeling. But it wasn’t. Getting gifts shouldn’t have meant anything to Loki, and thus, he shouldn’t have been indebted to anyone. Instead, he had been touched, and he felt the need to repay a debt.

“You are one of the few people I know who won’t see this as some sort of… benevolent and soft-hearted gesture.”

But it was a benevolent, soft-hearted gesture. If Loki had been using his gift for Brianna to scheme in some way, he would have asked Steve or Bruce, who would show more compassion and maybe even become convinced Loki had truly turned over a new leaf. But he asked Clint, and once again his concept of repaying a debt only revealed how much his heart was in the action.

“Merry Christmas, mortals.”

Loki was split right down the middle. Half of him wanted to stay the same, half of him wanted to change into something new. He had tried putting up walls, and it failed miserably, forcing him to continue down the path Bruce had set for him. Still, he would resist when he got the notion, throwing in curveballs and speed bumps to make things complicated whenever he got the chance.

But then something tipped the scale. Why is he fighting himself so intensely? Nothing about his daily routine has changed, and other than the sickness he’s been battling, he’s been healthy and in a pretty good mood. So, what happened?

Then, like a light had been turned on in the dark, he understood.

He found a way out.

Somehow—and Clint didn’t know how just yet, but he would—Loki had figured out a way to escape the Tower. Unfortunately for Loki, Bruce made a lot of progress in the meantime. He had cut Loki open, like a surgeon exposing a tumor, and Loki was afraid to leave in the middle of surgery. He was surrounded by people—lifelines—he wasn’t sure he could live without, even though he had never appeared to need them before. He was facing a choice between getting cut deeper and having the cyst removed or covering it up and letting it fester and grow back.

Neither would be pleasant, but only one of them would ultimately lead to his demise. But which one did Loki think would lead to a dead end? That was the question.

What now?

Clint watched as the wooden target splintered beneath the force of the third and final blow. He pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed, trying to figure out what to do with the information he had.

Loki might not leave. I don’t trust him enough to believe that, but there’s still a possibility the others can get through to him before he’s actually ready to escape, and I need to take that into consideration.

He picked up one of the arrows and examined it, pressing the tip to his forehead and exhaling slowly.

We don’t know what the escape could possibly be, and honestly, it’s hard to believe there is one, given all the precautions we took. It’s not like we can monitor him more than we already do, and interrogating him won’t get us anywhere. He can’t know that we know.

Clint flipped the arrow and stuck it over his shoulder, following it up with seven of its brothers and sisters from around the room. Turning on his heel, he marched toward the door, having a single destination in mind.

Maybe nobody else should know. Thor and Steve are both terrible liars, and Tony and Bruce would be able to pull it off, but not long-term. One of them would let something slip, and Loki is too clever to miss something like that.

He closed the door behind him and started down the hall, pulling his cell phone out of his pocket and shooting out a quick text to the one person he felt he could share his discovery with—the one person who would be able to keep it under wraps and cover his blindside whenever necessary.

1 New Message

Tasha: I’ll put the coffee on.

Chapter Text

Loki startled awake, grasping at the hand over his mouth and thrashing beneath the blankets. Who has me? What’s going on? Panic dragged him from the soft realm of slumber into painfully acute awareness, sending his heartrate through the roof. What’s happening?

“Shh!” Clint shook him hard and pressed down on his mouth and chest, glaring Loki into submission. “Not a sound,” he whispered. “Understand?”

Loki nodded slowly, not at all comforted by the order.

Clint gave a single nod in return and slowly uncovered Loki’s mouth, stepping away from the bed. “Clothes. Durable. Quick.”

Loki took a deep breath and forced himself to calm down, choosing to ignore the pounding in his chest and focus instead on being as quiet as possible. He slipped out of bed and walked to his dresser, thinking about its contents for a moment before picking a single drawer to open. Thankfully, it didn’t squeak.

Loki pulled a pair of dark jeans from the drawer and grabbed a forest green turtleneck from the dirty laundry. He left the drawer hanging open and quickly stripped off his t-shirt and pajama pants.

“Shoes,” he whispered, shoving his head through the sweater.

Clint inched toward the door and looked both ways before disappearing around the corner. Loki took no more than thirty seconds to don his jeans and grab a couple jackets, following Clint out into the hall immediately after.

Where are the alarms? Where are the other Avengers?

Loki turned to watch their flank, slowly putting on his sweat jacket followed by his denim one. Hopefully, the combination would be durable enough without making him overheat.

Fingers twitched anxiously at Loki's sides, longing for a weapon of some sort to grab onto. His eyes darted back and forth between Clint and the corridor stretching out behind them. For a moment, he considered taking a couple of Clint’s arrows, but he ultimately decided it was unwise. He couldn’t explain his reasoning given their situational silence, and he didn’t want to do anything that might provoke or startle Clint into attacking.

He has plenty of reasons to stick an arrow in my head without me grabbing him from behind in the midst of an emergency.

Clint came to a stop and reached a hand back to keep Loki from going further, pressing the down button on the elevator panel and waiting. Loki waited with him and then watched in perplexed curiosity as Clint stepped inside, pressed every single button, and stepped back out.

“Stairs.”

Despite his rapidly increasing confusion, Loki said nothing, trying to keep an eye out for any sort of threat as they made their way down the corridor to the stairwell. Clint seemed to think the danger was lessened once they were inside, seeing as he put his bow away and took the steps three or four at a time, but Loki wasn’t so quick to lighten up.

What if Clint is the danger? No one else is here, and there aren’t any indications of an emergency outside of what he’s told me.

Loki shook the thought off as quickly as it came, not wanting to entertain such an idea until there was more proof. From the look of things, they only had each other as allies for the time being. Loki didn’t want to oust the one person he had on his side.

“Others?” Loki whispered, glancing around for any sign of a microphone or camera.

Clint shook his head, confirming Loki's suspicions. It was just them.

Reaching the bottom of the stairs took longer than either of them would have liked, and Clint threw the door open with an urgency that hadn’t existed at the top. Beckoning Loki into the room, which appeared to be a weapons vault of some sort, Clint continued over to the far wall and began to sort through a crate of arrows and small projectiles.

Loki shut the door behind them and approached quietly, glancing over the contents of each box he passed and trying to find something he was actually somewhat familiar with. Granted, he didn’t imagine it would be very hard to fire a gun, but daggers or swords or even a staff would be more his area of expertise.

Click.

“Hands where I can see them.”

Loki froze for half a second before the demand registered, and he slowly lifted his hands up above his head. “Barton? What—?”

“Quiet.” Clint’s voice was hard and cold, sending a chill up Loki spine. “Face the wall and get down on your knees. Slowly.”

Wetting his lips, Loki took a deep breath and made a quarter turn to the right, slowly lowering himself onto his knees and keeping his hands where the archer could clearly see them. “Barton, you’re making a mistake. Just—”

“I said quiet. Do as you’re told.”

Loki tensed, feeling the barrel of a gun against the back of his head. He had seen what the fire-spitting weapons could do to a mortal skull. Back when he was still a god, it was mildly amusing but of little interest. Understandably, things were a little different when he was the one with the mortal skull.

“Put your hands on the wall and keep your head down.”

Denying the shudder that threatened to tear through his frame, Loki flattened his palms against the cool metal surface and bowed his head, licking his lips as his nerves ran amuck.

Why is he doing this? He can’t go against orders, and I haven’t done anything to deserve execution—at least, not lately, I haven’t. He tried to turn his head, but Clint’s hand came down and pushed it back into place, fingers curling through his hair and gripping relentlessly. He can’t know. It’s impossible. I unlocked the second seal last night, certainly, and my magic is stronger because of it, but S.H.I.E.L.D. has no way of tracking or identifying magic, and I’ve been so careful.

Loki hissed as fingers dug into the back of his neck, prodding every vertebra with mild but unexpected pain. “Barton—” after all, Clint hadn’t threatened to shoot him for speaking, “—can you at least explain what’s happening?”

Clint pulled Loki’s head back and leaned down, whispering harshly beside his ear. “I told you to be quiet. You don’t need to know any more.” Both hands were removed, but the sound of a switchblade took away any sense of comfort the action may have caused.

Loki held his breath, waiting to see what Clint would do. For a moment, there was nothing, but then he felt the blade sliding across the back of his neck horizontally, warm blood slipping down into his collar a moment later.

What is he doing? I don’t understand. I don’t understand. Loki swallowed, forcing himself to keep his hands on the wall and not resist whatever it was Clint was doing to him. He has one hand on my shoulder, and he’s cutting with the other, which means he doesn’t have the gun anymore. But Loki didn’t move. He didn’t know what to do or think or trust, but he didn’t move. He can’t go against orders. Even if he could, he wouldn’t. Not like this, not unprovoked.

Clint’s knife continued to move, quickly cutting another line parallel to the first and then up the sides, forming a crude rectangle. Then the tip went back to the bottom, pressing into the wound while two fingers pushed down from the top.

Loki yelped in pain, the sound entirely involuntarily, and he bit down on his lip in the hope that Clint would understand he wasn’t trying to cause trouble.

Clint sighed irritably, but his voice softened somewhat. “Hang in there.”

Pain shot up the back of his neck again, and Loki flinched, feeling only mild relief as something was pulled out from beneath the surface of his skin. There was a moment of no contact, and then Clint was pressing what felt like gauze or some soft fabric against the wound. He held it there for a few moments, and then Loki felt an adhesive strip on his neck.

“There.” Clint dusted his hands off. “Piece of cake.”

“I’m glad you think so.” Loki glared over his shoulder, anger masking the confusion and fear still coursing beneath the surface. “What were you doing back there?”

Clint motioned for Loki to get to his feet. “I had to remove the chip in your neck.” He dropped the little metal square into Loki's hands and continued. “Remember when those agents were killing themselves because of the staff? You said they probably had a big secret they didn’t want getting out?”

Loki gave a single nod, disturbed by the knowledge of being chipped at some point, and yet so incredibly relieved to find no one knew about his magic that it almost didn’t matter.

“We’ve been investigating your theory, and after months of evasion, we got our answer. H.Y.D.R.A. has been growing inside S.H.I.E.L.D. for who knows how long. We must have been getting really close, because they dropped their cover and decided it was time to go for the throat.” Clint began to speak with more urgency, moving around the room and grabbing various weapons and supplies to take along. “Stark went to a convention in Germany and fell off the map, and Romanoff and Rogers are on the run, Thor is still on Asgard, and Banner was gone when I woke up this morning with no signs of Hulk activity. It’s just you and me, pal, and I needed to know there was some level of trust between us.”

Shaking his head, Loki tried to process the sudden onslaught of information. “So, Anthony and Dr. Banner are likely captured, we have no way of contacting Thor and relaying the importance of him returning to Midgard, Captain Rogers and Agent Romanoff are presumably fighting the battle from their end, and you and I are supposed to do… what, exactly?” He shook his head. “Furthermore, what makes you think I trust you at all?” He glanced down at his hand. “And when and why was I implanted with this—this thing?

Clint pointed towards the opposite end of the room. “Look for weapons and shoes while we talk, and don’t put the chip down yet.” He threw a second quiver over his shoulder and then patted himself down as if looking for something. “We chipped you because, on the off chance you managed to get through all three hundred and twenty-five levels of security, we needed to be able to track you. If you had known the chip was there, you would have removed it as soon as you escaped, so we did it while you were unconscious. But H.Y.D.R.A. has access to everything S.H.I.E.L.D. does, including tracking devices, so it just became a huge disadvantage, and I had to remove it.” He tucked a few knives and a pistol into various holsters and pockets in his clothes. “You and I are going to fight H.Y.D.R.A. because they are a mutual enemy, and I know you trust me to at least some extent because I made sure you had more than one opportunity to overpower me, and you didn’t.”

Loki said nothing for a moment, pulling an assortment of daggers from the box in front of him and frowning at the odd handles. Still, they should work. He tucked them in between his jackets, along with a handgun and a few small explosives, filling the lining of his coats with a smorgasbord of weapons, both familiar and foreign.

“I still don’t understand how we are going to fight H.Y.D.R.A.” Loki gave a bottle of what appeared to poison a long, hard look before shoving it into his pocket. “They are an organized group of international terrorists, and we are two men. Unless I’m missing something, and I don’t think I am, we are severely outnumbered.”

Loki found himself unable to stuff anything else in his clothing without it becoming apparent from the outside that he was concealing weaponry, so he grabbed one final knife to hold in his hand and sat down to put on the thick socks and boots he had found. He set the chip next to him and started to fight with the leather and laces, waiting for Clint to explain the mission.

Clint only shrugged, testing the mobility of his arms before deciding he was satisfied with his own level of weaponry. “It doesn’t matter. They’ll destroy anyone and anything they get their hands on. We have to at least try to stop them.” He walked over and took the chip from the floor next to Loki, moving it closer to a crate full of weapons. “That’ll have them thinking we’re down here for at least a little while longer.” Clint turned and headed for the door. “We need to get back to ground level. We’re going to headquarters, and we’re going to do anything and everything in our power to get that building back under S.H.I.E.L.D.’s control.” Stopping at the door, Clint turned to face Loki fully and gave him a hard stare. “If you want to back out, do it now.”

Loki thought about doing just that, but the idea was short-lived. If H.Y.D.R.A. took over, they would no doubt strap Loki to a table and spend the rest of his limited lifespan cutting him to pieces in the name of science. Dr. Banner, too, and as much as Loki had been rebelling against such softness, he couldn’t deny Bruce had become something like a friend to him. He didn’t want to see Bruce reduced to a drooling, brain-dead mockery of an experiment.

Or Steve. Or Tony. Or anybody, really. Loki knew what H.Y.D.R.A. was capable of thanks to the research he had done when he first got his hands on the Tesseract, and it was a tad crueler than anything even he had ever planned for the human race.

Given his actual plans for the human race, that was saying something.

Most of all, there was Clint. Clint was by no means a friend or ally, but he was a skilled warrior with noble intentions. He fought for his people and his home, which was something Loki admired. Despite their history and stark differences, Clint had earned Loki's respect, and Loki knew Clint wouldn’t have reached out unless Loki had, on some level, earned a bit of Clint’s. 

“You can’t get rid of me that easily, Barton.”

If he got lucky—and somehow, he doubted he would—Loki thought he might actually live long enough to regret those words.


“Put your hands where I can see them.” Clint pulled the bowstring back and narrowed his gaze at the young agent, driving her away from her desk with the tip of his arrow.

Moving slowly, the woman stepped away from her computer and did as she was told, raising her hands above her head and staring at him with an expression of confusion mixed with horror. “Agent Barton? I… I don’t—”

“No one did. That’s what made it perfect.” Smirking, Clint let the arrow fly across the room and then looked at the computer screen to see what she had been up to. “What do we have here?”

She looked between him and the shaft pressed snugly up against her throat, struggling with her words for a moment before wetting her lips and setting her jaw. “If you can figure it out, be my guest.”

“Oh, I can.” He loaded his bow and drew the string back once more. “But I think it would be easier for the both of us if you just told me.”

“Go jump off a bridge.” There was no hesitation, her body pressing back against the wall out of heavily suppressed survival instincts and fear, none of which she allowed to show on her face.

“Now, now.” Clint shook his head, clucking his tongue disdainfully. “You really should be more cooperative. If you swear allegiance to H.Y.D.R.A., you might actually walk away from this. You could walk away from this with benefits, even. If not…” He let his voice trail, allowing a cold smirk to finish the sentence for him.

Her eyes turned to ice, her body language defiant and unwavering. “I’ll take the arrow.”

“You sure?” Clint arched a brow, an innocently questioning expression crossing his face. “It can take more than one of these to kill you if I do it right.”

“I hope it does.” She swallowed, shaking her head with a bitter laugh. “Fewer arrows to hit the others with.”

“Have it your way.” Clint pulled back just a bit more and stared her down, taking in every aspect of her countenance in deadly silence.

Her determination, despite its accompanying fear, was a refreshing sight. She was prepared to die—suffer, even—for her cause, and she had chosen the right side to fight for. She was afraid, but she would be crazy not to be, and he didn’t fault her for it.

“Loki.” Clint lowered his bow, relief surging through him. “We found one.”

“Oh, good.” Loki sauntered in the room, twirling a blood dagger between his fingers. “For a moment, I thought we would have to kill everyone in the building.” He flashed one of his classic smirks in the agent’s direction. “Congratulations. You’re the first person we’ve found who hasn’t sworn loyalty to H.Y.D.R.A. You get to live.”

“Don’t get discouraged.” Clint quickly cut in, not wanting Loki to completely destroy the morale her loyalty had created. “This is only the first floor, and we’re working our way up, not down.”

She blinked, hands still over her head, and looked between the two men. It took a few more seconds for the situation to sink in, and then she allowed herself to breathe again, groaning as the anxiety and adrenaline was flushed from her body. “Oh, I hate you. I… hate you.” She inhaled deeply and ran her hands through her hair, letting the air back out in a long stream. “Uh, alright, so it’s just the three of us, then? You don’t have any of the other Avengers?”

Loki shook his head, using his silver tongue to make quick work of the explanation. “They’re either running or missing. We’ve started our own little rebellion by trying to reclaim the building and hack into the systems so we can see what H.Y.D.R.A. is up to. What is your name, and would you like to help?”

“Agent Elaina Byer. Yes.” Moving away from the wall, Elaina returned to the computer she had abandoned and pointed to the screen. “I was trying to hack into a database and a frequency; the database to try and figure out if either side has a plan, and the frequency to send out a warning to any S.H.I.E.L.D. agents who were either on a mission or taking time off when H.Y.D.R.A. revealed themselves.”

Clint looked over her shoulder, skimming the limited information on the screen. “Smart thinking.” He frowned. “Would H.Y.D.R.A. get that warning, too?”

Elaina nodded. “I figured it was better to alert everyone than to leave our agents in the dark, and H.Y.D.R.A. can’t use a warning about their own actions against us.”

“Agreed.” Clint paused and then shook his head. “We don’t have the power we need here. These are basic computers for paperwork and filing. We need to get to the top floor, hopefully into Director Fury’s office, and use one of the systems there.”

Loki snapped his fingers in front of the screen to get their attention, still fully facing the door. “I hear footsteps. We need to go.”

That was all Clint needed to hear. He pulled two grenades from his belt without a second thought, ushering his two companions toward the door and following close behind. “Go right and don’t stop running!” He threw one bomb to the far end of the room and tossed the other just a few feet away, bolting out the door and chasing after them. He sent a volley of arrows down the hall in the direction they had come from, the shafts spitting nets in every direction to block the path.

There was no going back, anyway.

“Loki, take the lead. Byer, use this to do whatever hacking you can on the way.” Clint tossed her his StarkPhone followed by a handgun, still running behind them. “If you know someone is H.Y.D.R.A, shoot to kill. Only hesitate if you think they might be S.H.I.E.L.D.”

Elaina grabbed the gun and disengaged the safety, holding it close to her side and using her free hand to navigate the glorified smartphone as they went. “What’s my priority?”

Clint huffed, unsure of how to answer. Both missions were important, but which one was more important, and which one required more urgency to be of any use?

“Send the distress call.” Loki grabbed a guard by the throat and stabbed him twice in the abdomen before dropping him to the ground. “Even if we don’t have specific orders to give those agents right away, they will at least know what they’re walking into when they return to their base. They can do damage to H.Y.D.R.A. with or without orders; chaos has more power than you know, I assure you.”

Elaina looked to Clint for confirmation, a bewildered expression on her face. She probably didn’t expect Loki, of all people, to be helping her and Clint Barton take on H.Y.D.R.A.

But Clint nodded. “Do what he said.” He fired a trio, a double, and another trio, watching the soldiers fall one by one, bodies stacking up in the hallway. “Loki, your priority is protecting Agent Byer. She needs to be able to focus on hacking with as few distractions as possible—the most important thing is that we get into those computers yesterday.”

“Understood,” was Loki’s only response.

Could today get any more ridiculous?

Clint fired another arrow, knowing that it could and almost certainly would.


Loki hissed softly, using the pain in his shoulder to fuel his adrenaline. He slashed the agent’s throat and held onto her corpse just long enough to ensure she was dead before he dropped the body to the floor, rolling his shoulders and rubbing the tender joint with a grunt.

“Remind me not to get on your bad side.” Elaina barely glanced up from the phone Clint had given her, fingers dancing across the screen with a certain precision and accuracy that could only come from experience.

“We do not have guns on Asgard. Battle is bloody by default, and if you want to survive, you cannot hesitate.” Shrugging, Loki moved down the hall a little further and motioned for her to follow. “It would be foolish for me to try and use a gun in a situation such as this. I am best with knives, and we can’t afford many mistakes, so knives are what I intend to use, as long as they are capable of accomplishing the task at hand.”

Elaina gave a soft, almost cynical chuckle. “Trust me, I wasn’t suggesting you use a gun. You’re doing great. I just…” She shrugged, never taking her eyes off the device in her hands. “I don’t know.”

Loki glanced over his shoulder, feeling an odd mix of sympathy and vexation. “It’s doubt. How can we be the good guys when we’re justifying such a brutal slaughter? It’s an excellent question, one that has crossed just about every mind in the history of the universe. I don’t believe there is an answer.”

Elaina didn’t say anything, but she didn’t ignore him, either. She was giving his words a copious amount of thought in between commands and keystrokes. Her silence gave him time to sort out his own thoughts and prepare for whatever was next, so he didn’t press her for a reply.

We’re on the seventeenth floor, and Barton said he would meet us in the stairwell outside the door to the eighteenth. We have to be getting close to the top, but the amount of people in this building who were loyal to H.Y.D.R.A. is overwhelming. Barton is trying to utilize what resources we have right now, but there couldn’t have been more than two hundred men when we last saw him. I have to wonder, even if we do manage to get things under control here, will it really matter in the end?

Loki grabbed the handle and pulled the door open, heading into the stairwell with cautious steps. There was no one on the same level as them, and a quick look up and down told him they were alone.

“Agent Barton said to wait if we got here before him.”

“I know.” Loki scowled, making his way up the flight carefully. “But we can only wait so long. We have no way of knowing whether he’s late or dead.”

Elaina nodded, burying her face in her phone again. “I’m trying to get a secure line up, but H.Y.D.R.A. is actively blocking the attempts.”

Loki scowled. “They must have extra manpower on hand. We might be winning here, but I doubt the same can be said of every facility they’ve attempted to overthrow.” Chewing on his lip, he peered through the stairwell door window. “It looks empty. They’re bound to be coming up behinds us.” Sighing, he pressed his back against the wall and looked up at the ceiling. “It’s almost been a minute already, and a minute is a precious thing in battle. Barton gets four more, and if he’s still not here, we’re moving on. We can’t afford to wait.”

Elaina gave a quick nod and continued to tap away at the screen, an expression of frustration quickly overtaking her features as the seconds ticked by. Blue eyes darted back and forth, following numbers and codes Loki couldn’t begin to understand, but it seemed whatever she was doing wasn’t having the desired effect.

“Three minutes.” Loki sighed. “Is there something else you can try if the secure line isn’t working right now?”

She shook her head. “The secure line was my something else. Originally, I was trying to hack into the database, then I was trying to send the S.O.S. Now this.” She stuck the phone in her mouth for a moment and pulled her hair back, tying it up before returning to the device. “It’s not that I can’t get in, they’re just waiting for me when I do. Honestly, even if we do manage to get to Director Fury’s computer, I don’t know what good it will do as long as they’re policing the servers.”

Loki nodded his head. “Two minutes.” He paused, thinking over the hacking situation and trying to decide the best way to go about removing that extra manpower. “We need to know where they’re hiding Dr. Banner. They can’t kill him, so he must be heavily sedated, but I would imagine they still have a lot of men on site. That’s where we need to attack next, and hopefully if we cut off those heads, they’ll be spread too thin to be focused on keeping you out.”

Elaina nodded. “I’ll see if I can find correspondence about Dr. Banner. It’ll be easier than trying to break into an entire database, for sure.”

Loki gave a slow nod, still thinking over the situation. “Once we have Dr. Banner, we’ll be up to four people. I don’t know if it would be wise for him to engage in battle, but we would at least have that option. Such an attack would certainly do damage, spread them thinner. Thor should be back fairly soon, and electrical storms as well as water are not the friends of technology. Perhaps he could throw out some interference…”

Elaina looked up at him, a crease in her brow and a look in her eyes he didn’t understand.

“What?” he snapped. “What is it?”

She immediately looked down at her phone. “Nothing.”

Loki scowled, not believing her but knowing he didn’t have the time to argue. “Hmph.” He shook his head and grabbed onto the door handle. “Time’s up, Agent Byer. Let’s go.”


“I told you to wait for me.”

“Really? You’re still going on about that?”

Clint fired a smoke bomb arrow into the hallway behind them, gray fumes billowing into the passage as they continued to run. “Yes, I am.”

“Don’t be childish. Agent Byer and I were able to get Dr. Banner’s location and secure Director Fury’s office without you, and you were able to eliminate far more H.Y.D.R.A. agents because things were under control.” Loki looked down at the StarkPhone in his hands and made a sharp left, following the directions that would hopefully lead them to Bruce’s holding cell.

“I know. It was a smart move.” Clint fell in step beside Loki, firing two sets of three arrows to deal with the group of agents up ahead. “But I told you to wait.”

“Are you pouting?”

“No.”

Loki shook his head with a sigh, and Clint cracked a small smile. If not for the part where Loki was a genocidal war criminal that couldn’t be trusted for even a fraction of a second outside of situations that directly benefitted him, he would make a good ally.

“You’re rather quick to fire. Aren’t you concerned you might be killing S.H.I.E.L.D. agents?” Loki asked, pointing out a path up ahead and to the right. “That way.”

Clint shook his head, following closely behind and sending seven more arrows down the option to the left. “No. If they’re firing at me, they’re H.Y.D.R.A.”

“How can you be so certain?” Loki questioned, slightly out of breath.

Clint looked at him, but Loki’s gaze was still on the phone, so Clint turned his attention back to their surroundings. “S.H.I.E.L.D. is more than my occupation. S.H.I.E.L.D. is my home—my family. No one here would think I was part of H.Y.D.R.A.” He paused to collapsed his bow and throw a grenade out behind them, not liking the volume of the approaching footsteps. “Even Byer didn’t believe it at first, and I was pointing an arrow at her head.”

Loki pursed his lips, wincing at the explosion behind them and the subsequent pain in his ears. “I see. This must be… difficult for you.”

Clint’s expression darkened. “I’ve done worse things to them.”

Loki must have sensed the danger because he immediately fell silent, not uttering a single word in his defense.

Good.

They came skidding to a halt outside the door that allegedly held their companion behind it.

“Why would they put him on a hellicarrier?” Loki wondered aloud, stepping back and allowing Clint to work on the keypad by the door.

“I have two theories. One, they don’t have anywhere else to contain him until the fighting is over. Two, they intend to drop him in the middle of a populated area and let survival instincts bring out the Hulk. Or both.” Clint took a step back and readied his bow, muttering under his breath. “I hope he’s still Bruce when we get in there.”

The door hissed as the seal was broken, pushing inward slightly and sliding away into the wall, thick metal creaking and whining with the movement.

“Dr. Banner?” Loki called softly.

Clint ran into the room but bypassed the hospital bed with Bruce strapped to it, going straight to the computers and trying to figure out exactly what was keeping Bruce unconscious.

Loki continued toward the center of the room, going to the side of the bed that allowed him to watch both Bruce and the now-open door. “Can’t we just remove the mask and intravenous drip feeds?” He reached out, fingers tugging lightly at the restraints. “Once the drugs wear off, he should wake up, yes?”

“Yes, but I don’t know if they set any traps. It could be rigged so taking him off the sedatives will trigger the Hulk.” Clint’s fingers flew across the keyboard, a frown creasing his brow. “Loki, what do you know about the human body?”

Loki snorted. “I believe we’ve established it is next to nothing.”

“Right. Stupid question.” Clint ran both hands through his hair. “I have no idea what this means. I’m just going to shut the whole thing off and see what warnings pop up.”

Loki walked a little closer and peered at the screen, arching a brow. “So, you’re going to do what I said to do two minutes ago?”

“Shut up, Loki.”

Trying to get a better look at the screen, Loki took a few more steps and leaned over Clint’s shoulder, effectively sending a chill up Clint’s spine.

“What you said earlier…” Loki started, articulating slowly, “…about S.H.I.E.L.D. I truly am—”

“Don’t.” Clint kept his gaze forward, jaw tight, unable to breathe with Loki so close to his exposed back. “Not now. I’m too angry, and I wouldn’t believe you. If you think about it for a while and still want to say it—preferably when we’re not in a life-or-death situation—then by all means, go right ahead. But not now.” He didn’t spare a single glance in Loki’s direction, and with a final keystroke, he turned around in the opposite direction to look at Bruce. “He should wake up any second.”

“Should,” Loki echoed.

Clint poked his head out into the hall. “And H.Y.D.R.A. should realize we’re here in about two to three minutes.”

Red lights flooded the room and adjacent hallways, alarms screaming up and down the corridors with the sound of thundering footsteps rumbling underneath, the entire base submerged in a haze of emergency as their presence was broadcasted throughout the ranks.

“Should.” Loki gave Clint a devilish sort of grin and drew his knives, approaching the door cautiously. “I see two good ways to do this. One, we each take one half of the hall. Two, which I believe will be more successful, you shoot the ones in the back, and I kill the ones that get past you.”

Three arrows found themselves lined up against Clint’s bow. “I like option two.”

The first of many agents rounded the corner, and Clint released the string, readying three more before the previous set found their mark. Anytime you want to wake up, Banner. Any time at all. He didn’t expect Bruce to listen to him, however, so he kept firing at the black and gray swarm in the distance.

“Agent Barton,” his earpiece crackled. “I’m in the database, but there’s nothing in here about Stark’s location. I found a transcript of a phone conversation saying he was ‘obtained,’ but I don’t know where they took him. I’m trying to contact Jarvis, and I’ll give you an update when I do. This line is secure, and I extended the frequency to Agent Romanoff.”

Clint made brief noises of comprehension in between her sentences and his attacks. Loki was an excellent cover, somehow able to distinguish between Clint waiting for a closer target and Clint actually needing help.

“Captain America is on Hellicarrier No. 3,” she continued, “and we have no Bifrost activity in the United States within the last twenty-four hours. I’ll do a global search as soon as I can.”

“We have Banner, but he’s still unconscious. We’re still on Hellicarrier No. 2. What is our next course of action?”

“Clint,” Natasha’s voice broke into the conversation. “Steve is taking down the hellicarriers, and I can’t reach him to tell him where you are. You need to get off the hellicarrier and find Tony.”

“We don’t have any idea where he is. Agent Byer couldn’t find a location. He could be anywhere.” Clint started walking backwards and let Loki cover the door while he returned to Bruce’s bedside. “Banner is still unconscious. Tell me how I’m supposed to carry him out with dozens of H.Y.D.R.A. agents trying to attack when it’s just me and Loki.”

“Be amazing.”

“That doesn’t help me.”

“Good luck, Clint.”

“I hate you.”

The line went dead, and Clint let out a frustrated growl, collapsing his bow and quickly—albeit sloppily—maneuvering Bruce over his shoulder. Thankfully, Bruce wasn’t all that heavy, despite the immense weight of his other half, but there was still no way Clint could fire arrows.

“Loki! I need you to cover me. We’re going to the hanger.” Clint stepped into the hall and placed himself directly behind the god of mischief. “It’s all you. Good luck.”

“Gee, thanks,” Loki drawled, dropping another body to the floor. Sliding his knife into his holster, he grabbed two pistols from the bodies on the floor and began firing down the hall, evidently understanding their need for long-distance damage.

“Huh.” Loki fired a few more rounds. “Seems I’m not so terrible with a gun, after all.”

Clint watched the soldiers fall like dominoes, a haughty grin curling his lips. “Your aim could be better.” It really wasn’t a joking matter.

Loki sighed and fired the last two bullets, returning to his default weapon as the hall started to clear. “Everyone’s a critic.” Shaking his head, he turned the conversation back to business. “You said we’re going to the hanger. I assume we’re going to steal a jet, but then what?”

“That’s a great question,” was Clint’s winded reply. “When I have an answer, I’ll let you know.”

“Fat lot of good you are.”

It really shouldn’t have been funny. It really shouldn’t have been funny.

But it was. Fighting side by side with Loki was almost as entertaining as fighting alongside Stark or Natasha. The bantering, the remarks, the sarcastic wit—it was all so casual, flowing naturally as if things were supposed to be that way.

But he’s going to betray us.

For the moment, however, they were on the same side, trying to achieve the same goal. So, Clint tucked away any thoughts about Loki’s long-term loyalty and started forming a skeleton of a plan in his mind.

Where would I take Tony Stark? Where would I be able to contain him and keep him away from electronics? Where would I try to hide one of the most famous men in the world?

“Barton, is this what we’re looking for?”

Clint stopped by the door and looked in the window, muttering a quick word of confirmation and stepping back to allow Loki to open it up. He put one foot through the door, and in the split second it took him to lift the other one, he had assessed the layout of the room and determined that H.Y.D.R.A. had not expected this move. His next step took him into open space, and the third put him a good yard or so from the door.

Loki fell in step behind him, occasionally sending a projectile through the air towards an unfortunate agent who happened to turn their head at the wrong time, but for the most part, their transit remained unseen.

Clint picked a small jet—fast and adept at maneuvering through violent airspace—and he darted up the ramp, pulling one of the collapsible beds from the wall and dropping Bruce rather unceremoniously. “Keep this plane empty until I can get the ramp shut.”

Loki nodded his head without a word, drawing two of his knives and focusing all of his attention on the broad opening at the back of the aircraft. It wouldn’t take long for someone to find the fallen guards, and once they did, it would be Hallway Ambush: The Sequel.

“If we could get this thing in the air immediately, that would be superb.” Loki glanced over his shoulder. “Or at least let me borrow your gun so I don’t wind up throwing all of my knives away.”

Clint sighed, twisting in the pilot’s chair and tossing one of his unused handguns at Loki’s head. “Here. But ammo is limited, too. Don’t forget that.”

Loki grabbed the weapon and trained it on the doorway. “I am aware of that as well as the fact I am firing from a longer distance and increasing my chances of missing. It’s worth it, in the long run.”

“Don’t forget to take off the safety, genius.”

“Barton! Get this jet in the air!”

Clint didn’t need to be told a third time. He started the engines and flipped half a dozen switches, one of which instigated the slow raising of the ramp. I’ve got about three minutes before they figure out we’re rogue and try to shoot us down. He put the plane in drive—for lack of a better, more accurate term—and began rolling down the strip.

“Lo—”

Three shots were fired in quick succession, a small intermission filling the craft with silence before two more rang out.

“Loki, hold on to Banner!”

Loki dove for the unconscious man, grabbing onto both him and the bed he was laying on.

Wheels hit the end of the runway, and then they were suspended in midair, nothing to keep them up but wings and jet fuel. Bullets rained down on the metal frame, but no significant damage was done, and they were out of range in less than a minute.

“You can let him go now,” Clint called. “I don’t think they’ll be scrambling their jets. They’ve got bigger things to worry about.” His lips twitched into a light smile at the sight of the compromised hellicarrier sinking toward the ground. Go get’em, Cap.

“Right. Good.” Loki’s voice filtered up from the back, and Clint spared a glance in the rearview mirror. “We stole a jet.” Loki ran his hands through his hair, relief showing on his face as a long, steady stream of air passed through his lips. “We stole a jet from H.Y.D.R.A., and we’re still alive.”

Clint smirked. “Feels good to do the impossible as a human, doesn’t it?”

Loki gave him a dirty look, but he didn’t deny the truth in the statement.

Clint said nothing, but he was certain his face showed enough to satisfy. Unfortunately, given that they were still in H.Y.D.R.A. airspace, the tension was just as palpable as the relief. It was an odd mix, but it was certainly better than the overwhelming chaos they had experienced for the majority of the day.

“Dr. Banner is waking up.” Loki shifted closer to the bed, a frown darkening his features. “I only hope he’s in control of himself. If he unleashes the Hulk, we’re going down for certain.”

Clint nodded sharply, looking into his mirrors. “Try to keep him calm, and bring him up to speed gently.”

“Why do I have to do it?”

“Because I’m flying a jet.” Clint smirked over his shoulder. “And you’ve got the silver tongue.”

Loki snorted and rolled his eyes, kneeling beside the fold-out bed and placing a hand on Bruce’s shoulder. “Dr. Banner, can you hear me?”

For a moment, there was nothing, but then Loki spoke again. From the sound of things, Bruce was conscious but still too drugged-up to know what was going on.

“Dr. Banner, this is Loki. Hawkeye is here, too. You’re safe. Do you understand?”

“Hmm…” Bruce opened his mouth, but nothing coherent came out. “Uhh…”

“It’s alright. Don’t push yourself. Just relax and let us handle everything.”

Bruce inhaled deeply, slurring his words. “S’cold…”

Loki sighed softly. “I’m sorry, Doctor. I don’t have anything to help with that. This jet wasn’t exactly designed for comfort.”

“Here.” Clint switched on the autopilot for half a second and shed his uniform jacket. “Tell him to ignore the blood stains.”

Loki gave Clint a curious look but walked up to the front and retrieved the coat, taking it back and draping it over Bruce’s body carefully. “Better?”

Clint shut the remainder of the conversation out, speaking into his comm in the hopes of receiving good news in return. “This is Barton. Loki and I have Banner, who is regaining consciousness. We stole a jet, and we are currently going southeast. Any update on Stark’s location?”

For a moment, there was nothing but static, and Clint’s heart dropped to his stomach, but then Elaina’s voice cut through.

“This is Agent Byer. I hacked the Iron Man suit, and I can confirm that it is functioning; however, Jarvis is not responding, and there are no life signs in the suit.”

Clint sighed heavily and shook his head, screwing his eyes shut. “Any sign of H.Y.D.R.A. running the suit or containing it?”

“Without Jarvis, I have no way of knowing. I’m going to try and hack into the GPS and visuals, but I can’t guarantee anything.”

Growling, Clint took one hand off the controls and tried to navigate the onboard computer systems. “Where is the signal coming from?”

“Twelve different locations around the globe.”

“Probably H.Y.D.R.A. then.”

“Or Stark trying to keep H.Y.D.R.A. off of his scent,” she countered.

Clint sighed. “Can’t we just keep things black and white so I have a clear target to shoot at?”

“No.” Elaina exhaled into the mic. “I’ll narrow it down somehow. For now, you need to go to the Castle. It’s been completely taken over by H.Y.D.R.A. It’s unlikely they left any members of S.H.I.E.L.D. alive, and we need to cut our losses there.”

Clint frowned, glancing in the rearview at the two battered men under his command. “And what would you like me to do about that?”

“Something. Anything. I don’t know, but we’re losing this fight, and without Director Fury, I’m making up my own orders as I go along.”

“What do you mean without him?” Clint abandoned his attempt to operate the computer, placing both hands on the sticks again. “What happened?”

“Agent Barton…” Elaina’s voice crackled through the speaker, sympathetic tones mildly distorted by the static. “Director Fury is dead. I’m sorry, I thought Romanoff would have told you. She was there when he flatlined.”

Clint didn’t say anything for a moment, pushing through the shock only to find himself torn between anger and logic. He can’t be dead. Natasha wouldn’t keep that from me. She has to know something we don’t. He can’t be dead. He can’t be.

“Agent Barton?”

“Right, got it. We’ll do something about the Castle. Let me know if you find out anything about Stark. I’m guessing the global Bifrost activity scan hasn’t revealed anything yet?”

“No, sir.”

“Keep me posted.”

“Will do.”

Clint dropped the connection and let out a deep sigh, brow creased with frustration and—as much as it burned him to admit—doubt. She would have told me. Byer and I don’t know all the details, and Natasha couldn’t afford to communicate the truth through the wire. She would have told me. Fury isn’t dead. He can’t be. She—

“Barton, is everything alright?” Loki’s voice filtered up from the back.

“Yeah.” Clint responded too quickly, he could feel it. “We’re going to Canada. There’s a S.H.I.E.L.D. base there that isn’t S.H.I.E.L.D. anymore and needs destroying.” Trying to focus on the task at hand, he turned to look over his shoulder. “Bruce?”

“Yup, I can do it.” Bruce slowly sat up, leaning against the side of the jet and holding a hand to his head. “If you wanna drop me over the area…”

“Are you sure?” Clint flipped on the autopilot and turned his chair around. “If you’re not comfortable unleashing the Hulk—”

“Of course I’m not comfortable, but my comfort isn’t exactly the most important thing in the world right now. If we need to take down the base, we need to take down the base.” Bruce shrugged his shoulders, his acceptance of the situation only half-genuine. “It’s the Battle of New York all over again. We’re going to do what needs to be done. Period.”

The three men stood in silence for a few minutes, and then Clint turned back toward the controls. “It’ll take at least an hour and a half to get there. Try and rest until then.”

There was silence from behind, so orders were presumably followed, and then Loki appeared on Clint’s right.

“Still no sign of Thor?” Loki pretended to be fascinated by the blinking lights and buttons despite the obvious tension stretched across his features.

“Nope.” Clint heaved a sigh.

Loki scowled. “That’s not right. Heimdall would most certainly have seen the mayhem by now and reported on it.” He glanced over his shoulder and lowered his voice. “Barton… are you certain it’s, ah, wise to unleash the Hulk?”

Clint gave him a brief smirk. “He was able to control himself last time. I don’t see why this should be any different.”

“Oh. Well then.” Loki sniffed, crinkling his nose with an expression of disapproval, the former tightness replaced with a childish, bratty attitude. “Good to know.”

Clint snickered to himself, shaking his head.

“It’s not funny,” Loki mumbled.

“It’s a little funny.” Clint didn’t try to hide his smile. “You totally deserved it.”

Loki glared at him, but the expression didn’t last, quickly dissolved by slouched shoulders and a sigh of resignation. “Yes, I suppose I did.”

Clint’s grin expanded, another chuckle rising in his throat. “You should have seen the look on your face when you turned around to see us all standing there.” He really did try to stop smiling at that point, but every thought lead to one that was more amusing than its predecessors. “‘If it’s all the same to you… I’ll have that drink now.’”

Loki folded his arms over his chest and tapped his foot impatiently. “Are you finished yet?”

Clint grinned, color slowly returning to his knuckles as he eased up on his hold,. “Ehehe. I guess so.”

“You weren’t there to see how I interrupted his ‘I am a god, you dull creature’ speech.”

Both men turned to look at Bruce, who was sitting up on his bunk with a sleepy grin.

“What was it you said?” Bruce tilted his head to the side. “Something about not being bullied?”

Loki glowered at him. “I thought you didn’t remember what you did as the Hulk.”

“I don’t.” Smiling, Bruce leaned against the side of the aircraft and scooted closer to the end of the bunk. “But I wanted to see what I did to you, so I looked at the security footage.”

Clint huffed. “And you didn’t share it with the rest of us because…?”

“You would have killed the humor by watching it one hundred times the first day,” Bruce retorted dryly. “But I do still have it. If we survive this, I’ll let you watch it. For a fee, of course.”

Clint held up his hands in total surrender. “Name your price.”

“Oh, joy.” Loki rolled his eyes. “Do be sure to let me know before you watch it so I can have plugs permanently glued into my ears.”

Clint glanced at the screen, watching the time tick down as they drew closer to their destination. It was flecked with blood, red speckles and smudges leftover from when he had grappled with the controls.

“Did Cap ever tell you about his first internet experience?” Breaking the silence rather abruptly, Clint cast a toothy grin over the group, trying to ease the weight on his chest.

Bruce frowned. “No, I don’t think so.”

Loki shook his head. “He did not, no.”

So, Clint told another funny story, which led to another tale from Bruce, and eventually, with much pestering and blackmail, one from Loki as well. That was how they passed the time. Three men, stained with blood and flying a stolen, armored jet to a location where they would spill more blood and steal more weapons, all in the name of the greater good. Three men—no, Clint thought, three monsters pretending to be men pretending to be heroes—trying to smile a little while longer, the world below them fading away until it was just them and a jet.

And a lot of stupid stories.


Ugh… seriously? Who set an alarm? It’s Saturday.

Probably Steve or Bruce—those crazy morning people—and one of their stupid group projects that required everyone getting up at the buttcrack of dawn.

“Jarvis, turn off—” He stopped, caught off-guard by the pain in his throat and the hoarseness of his voice. “Jarvis?”

There was no reply, and after a few moments spent in silence, he decided it was time to get up and find out what was going on. Except he couldn’t. He couldn’t move at all.

What?

He tried his legs first, but they were strapped down. There was a strap across his stomach, his hips, and his chest. He tried his arms, but they were even worse, restrained and tangled in a mess of what felt like tubes and wires.

Felt like.

He couldn’t see—couldn’t even sense light versus dark—and as the situation finally sank in, he panicked.

I’m in captivity, I can’t move, I don’t know where I am, it’s happening again, it’s happening again, it can’t happen again, I can’t do this, I can’t—

The alarm, which he now realized was a heart monitor, got faster and more erratic as his panic escalated. Visions of a dark cave and a car battery flashed before his unseeing eyes, a flurry of languages he didn’t understand meshing together to form angry words and plots against innocent lives, lives they wanted him to take.

“Mr. Stark, it would be wise of you to calm down. We wouldn’t want to have to sedate you again, now would we?”

He flinched at the unfamiliar voice, quickly slipping beyond the reach of reason as fear escalated. I can’t go back there, no again, never again, please let me out, let me out, let me—

“Hood, what’s going on in here?”

“I was just about to sedate him again, sir.”

“Good. Make sure he’s completely unresponsive before you leave him unattended.”

There was a pinprick in his arm, and he was taken over by a numb, lucid feeling moments later. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out; whatever had been left of his voice was completely gone, his tongue turning to rubber in his mouth.

“Bring the arc reactor down to the lab. We’re ready for it.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Hail, H.Y.D.R.A.”

“Hail, H.Y.D.R.A.!”

Chapter Text

Bruce wiped the sweat from his brow and leaned back on his haunches, staring up at the skies. He let out a deep sigh of what could only be described as sickened remorse and dropped his gaze back down to the bloody figure in the snow. He placed two fingers against the man’s throat and felt a weak throb beneath the surface.

“You barely made it out alive.” Bruce smiled bitterly, shaking his head. “I think you’re the only one, so congratulations.”

Glassy, blue-grey eyes stared infinitely upward, bloody lips moving but remaining silent.

“You haven’t crunched your cyanide yet.” Bruce brushed the matted bangs back out of the man’s eyes and wiped some of the blood from his mouth and nose. “Why not?”

“P… p…”

Bruce could guess what the man was going to say, and he ran his hands through the agent’s hair again, trying to soothe him. “I won’t hurt you. I’m sorry. This is my fault, I know. I won’t hurt you, though. I…” He trailed off, unsure of what it was he was trying to say.

What could he say?

“The Other Guy… doesn’t recognize the value of life. I do, and I promise, I won’t hurt you. I don’t care who you fight for. I have no reason to hurt you, so it’s going to be okay, just…”

“Bruce!”

Bruce raised his head and began to look for the source of the distant call. It didn’t take long to spot two figures standing atop a large pile of rubble about a hundred and fifty yards away, and Bruce cupped his hands around his mouth to holler his reply.

“I see you! I’m right here!”

“S… s… sr…”

Bruce turned back to the man on the ground, unsure of what to do with him. Questioning him was pointless given the state he was in, and while Bruce believed he was trying to get a point across, a few disjointed sounds offered no starting point or context to work with.

Turning back around, Bruce saw the figures—almost definite Loki and Clint—had started to move toward him. He waved his arms to ensure they had, in fact, seen him and were coming his way. Both returned the wave, and after a brief thumbs up he doubted they could actually see, he returned his attention to the man on the ground.

“Can you try to speak one word?”

Nothing.

“Can you point to something that would give me a clue?”

Bruce thought he saw the man’s hand twitch, but other than that, nothing again.

“I can’t do much more to help you. There are no medics out here, and…” He shook his head, deciding not to delve into the severity of the situation. “If there’s something you want or need to tell me, you have to try really hard to say it right now.”

Bruce crouched down, placing both hands on the shirt he had been using to staunch the blood flow from the severed femoral artery. He might be messing with me. Distracting me from something, maybe? Some sort of… H.Y.D.R.A. murder-suicide tactic. Bruce frowned. Could he even be coherent enough at this point to pull something like that?

“Do you… do you know where Tony Stark is?”

“S… sss… sa…”

Bruce sighed and ran both hands through his hair, trying to decide whether or not there was any point in continuing. Maybe it wasn’t even an attempt at speaking. Maybe the guy was just trying to breathe and Bruce was looking too much into it. Maybe it was time for Bruce to put him out of his misery.

“S… s… ry…”

Bruce stopped, lowering his ear to the trembling mouth. “What did you say?”

“S… ry… I… I…” Blood spurted over the man’s lips, coughs and spasms racking his body as he struggled to bring in air. “Mm… m’sss… so… sor… ry…”

Bruce froze, chest seizing, both hands shaking against the blood-soaked fabric doing so very little to keep the injured man alive. Oh… Oh, God… I… He shook his head and wet his lips, speaking as steadily and softly as he could despite his swelling unrest.

“It’s alright. I… I forgive you. I’m sure… whatever reasons you had…”

Jerking, the man drew a broken, mangled hand up to his chest, rubbing it back and forth slowly. He tried to tap himself, but he couldn’t elevate his limb more than a centimeter or two before it dropped again.

“Bruce, who is it?”

Bruce heard the call, but it was too distant and too irrelevant to draw his eyes away from the man dying in the snow. Instead, Bruce slid the hand aside and started to peel away layer after layer of sticky, crimson fabric.

“Dr. Banner!”

His hands were trembling, the man’s rapidly devolving state weighing on his mind as he came to a plastic sandwich bag. It was taped to the man’s chest beneath his uniform, and Bruce carefully started to peel away the adhesive. He removed a small photograph from inside the damaged bag. Blood had stained the majority of the image, turning the backside red and dampening the quality of the picture, but Bruce could still clearly make out one woman and two young daughters.

He wasn’t H.Y.D.R.A.

“Dr. Banner, what’s the matter?”

“Bruce, are you hurt?”

“I think the blood is from the agent.”

“No pulse, but the body is still warm.”

Bruce felt numb. His ears told his brain Loki and Clint were speaking, and his brain told him they needed to move on to the next location and continue their search for Tony. Everything in him knew he had to get up, but he couldn’t. His muscles weren’t working, his nerves weren’t feeling, and if his neurons were firing, they were too immersed in a thick, hazy fog to translate any message but one.

He wasn’t H.Y.D.R.A. He wasn’t H.Y.D.R.A.

“Barton, he has something in his hand.”

“I know. I see it.” Pause. “Oh, no.”

“What is it? What’s the matter?”

Bruce took a shuddering breath and realized his cheeks were wet, his stomach knotting into a tangled mess of anxiety, his hands still gripping the photograph to the point where it began to tear around his fingers.

“Bruce, this isn’t your fault. We were misinformed. It was a mistake.”

“Dr. Banner, we need you. You have to get up.”

“Come on, Bruce, take my hand.”

“Dr. Banner, you need to focus on the mission. This man is just another casualty on a long, long list associated with H.Y.D.R.A. and its endeavors. You can’t get so emotional about every innocent caught in the crossfire.”

It was as if Loki had flipped a switch, and with a creasing brow, Bruce sat up straighter and turned to look at him, incredulous. “Just another casualty? Just another casualty? Is that all he is to you?”

Loki scowled, looking at the corpse for a moment before turning to meet Bruce’s eyes. “This is war, Doctor. He is not the first to die, and he certainly won’t be the last.”

“He had a family. He had a wife and two beautiful daughters, and they are never going to see him again. Doesn’t that mean anything to you?” Bruce struggled to his feet, teetering at first from the lack of circulation in his legs. “He’s never going to walk them down the aisle. He’ll never see them graduate, or hold his grandchildren, or grow old with his wife, or see any of their smiles ever again, and they’ll never see his. That’s not a casualty, that is a tragedy, and it’s my fault. It’s my fault, so don’t tell me to—to forget it because I’m not you, and I’m not Clint, and I’m not Natasha. I can’t forget it. I won’t forget it. I just killed an innocent man, and there is nothing, nothing, nothing okay about that.” He was stammering, losing his words and repeating himself as the situation became more real, more painful. “This isn’t a side effect of war, Loki, this is the heart of war. It’s not about politics or battle strategy or causes, it’s about the men and women who never go home to their families again. Causing that kind of pain is, is—it’s unforgivable, and I can’t just forget it like, like, like I cut him off on the freeway!”

Loki stared, utterly silent, and glanced between Bruce and Clint, looking extremely unsure of himself and a little afraid.

“Bruce.” Clint put a hand on Bruce’s shoulder, squeezing gently. “I know you’re upset, but you need to take a deep breath. We won’t make you fight anymore, but we do need to keep moving, and we won’t leave you here. It’s hard, but this man is gone. There’s nothing we can do for him, but there is still something we can do for others.” He paused briefly, softening his voice. “His wife and daughters deserve to live in a world where they’re safe from H.Y.D.R.A.”

It was emotional manipulation, and Bruce knew it, but it wasn’t exactly wrong, and he clung to it like a life vest in a hurricane.

“We need to keep moving. Not just for us, not just for Tony, but for him and every other family H.Y.D.R.A. has torn apart over the years.”

Bruce ran his hands through his hair and clasped them behind his neck, letting out a long stream of air and trying to stop the tremors running through him. “I know. I know.” He inhaled and exhaled, screwing his eyes shut while he collected himself. “I know. Just… lead the way.”

Get me out of here, was the unspoken plea.

“I can do that.” Clint carefully slid his hand from Bruce’s shoulder and started to walk. “Come on. Let’s get back in the air and see what we can do.”

Bruce trailed behind him, staring at the snow with a blank expression on his face, losing himself to a flood of blurred, incoherent thoughts that made little sense but burned like fire in his core.

“Dr. Banner…”

Bruce gave Loki a sharp look, not opening his mouth for fear of what would come out.

“I… I did not intend to… upset you with my words.” Loki paused, twisting his lips and massaging the center of his palm with his thumb. “I do not make a habit of expressing… sentiment, and I would strongly suggest you never bring… this… to my attention again, but... you should know you are doing the right thing.” He swallowed, glancing down at his feet for a moment before looking up and meeting Bruce’s eyes. “None of this destruction is a one-man demolition. None of this is caused by lacking control or careless disregard for the value and sanctity of life. It is a group effort, something created and evolved by prejudice and blind worship, by a system of motivation that justifies moral ambiguity.” He cleared his throat. “You are… a good man, and… I am… I apologize.”

Bruce blinked in surprise, mouth slightly agape, staring with a dumbfounded look on his face. He had been expecting a lot of things to come out of Loki’s mouth, but encouragement and an apology hadn’t been on the list. Even knowing the improvements Loki had made, there was a certain danger in that kind of vulnerability, and Bruce hadn’t seen anything to indicate Loki was ready for that.

“Loki—”

“Not a word.” Loki pinned him with a glare and held it for a few seconds before breezing past him to catch up with Clint. “Come along, Dr. Banner. I think Barton intends to leave us behind if we take too long, and I, for one, am not anxious to be stranded in the snow again.”

Bruce stood still, staring after Loki for several moments before continuing on their trek toward the jet. I’m doing the right thing? He rubbed his arms, the clothing he had taken from various corpses doing little to keep him warm. I killed him. I killed everyone. If he wasn’t H.Y.D.R.A., how can I be certain any of them were? I’m a monster… I’m a monster… I killed them, I killed them, I’m a monster, I killed them…


Tony didn’t know how many hours had passed since he first started pulling at the strap on his right wrist, but considering it was actually starting to give a little, he figured it had to have been three hours at the least. It wasn’t as if the material was easy to stretch out, and he had to be careful not to work too hard or too fast, knowing an accelerated heartbeat would draw the attention of his guards and get him sedated again.

I can’t afford that. I have to get out of here, and I have to be in my right mind when I do. I need to be able to find my suit, send out a signal, escape this… whatever it is, and fight my way out with whatever is on hand.

It wasn’t going to be easy, but then again, neither was building a suit of flying armor out of missile parts in a cave in Afghanistan. He had done that, so he could do this. He just needed to get one hand free, and the rest would come to him.

Or at least, that was the plan.

I have to make things go as smoothly as possible… I should focus on the signal in case they recapture me. I need someone to know where I am, and after that I guess I can go for the suit. Or maybe I should just escape and forget about the suit. It would be harder, but…

He swallowed hard, wondering if the sensation of leeway was real or simply the result of fatigue and wishful thinking. Or maybe he was having the worst nightmare of his life and none of it was real, though he doubted the probability of that option.

I can’t feel my fingers anymore, but I can feel it cutting into my hand on the one side. It just needs to be a little looser… just gotta stretch out the material a little bit more… and I’ll be able to get my hand through…

He still wasn’t quite sure what he was going to do once that was accomplished, but he decided his first order of business would be to obtain a weapon from the room he was in. Then he needed to let someone know where he was, never mind the fact that he didn’t know where he was, and somehow tell them how to get to him.

Focus on finding a computer. Just focus on finding a computer. Everything else will magically fall into place afterwards, so sayeth Tony Stark.

He gave his arm another tug and felt the knuckle of his thumb rub against the restraint, a grin pulling at the corner of his mouth.

Ohhh, we’re halfway there, ohh-ohh, livin’ on a prayer…


“Agent Byer, this is Romanoff. Do you copy?”

Elaina turned to her right and started typing, encoding the frequency as waves passed between them. “This is Byer. I copy.”

“I don’t have a location on Stark, but I know the Iron Man suit has been compromised. Get out the message that it needs to be treated as an explosive weapon. Stark isn’t inside, and whatever is inside is capable of mass destruction.”

Elaina turned the other way, hands falling on a different keyboard as she started to look through recent transmissions on the H.Y.D.R.A. lines she had managed to hack. “I can send that message out. I don’t see anything about Iron Man in H.Y.D.R.A.’s communications, but if I could find something, I might be able to pinpoint a location. Can you find out if there’s a code name of some kind for the suit?”

“Hold on.” Natasha disappeared for several moments, and then she returned, her words crackling in and out before gaining stability. “There is a code name, but I need more time to get that information. For now, tell Clint what you know, send out a warning, and stay in touch with me. I’ll have more for you soon.”

“I’ll do that right away. Is there anything I can send your way?” Frowning, Elaina looked at the center screen. “Actually, where are you? You’ve fallen off the map.”

 “I know. I need to stay that way for a while. I can handle myself. Just tell Clint what he needs to know and make sure they get Stark back.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Elaina killed one connection and immediately brought up another, fingers flying unceasingly across three different keyboards. She watched for Bifrost activity on one screen, monitored the global map on the other, and scanned for any information about Tony Stark’s location on the third. It was a mess, but it was her mess, and she understood every pixel.

“Agent Barton.” She stopped and adjusted her earpiece. “Sorry. I just spoke with Agent Romanoff. She informed me that the Iron Man suit has been compromised by H.Y.D.R.A.”

“Isn’t that a shame?”

Elaina froze, hands hovering motionlessly above her many, many keys. “Who’s there?” She swallowed, opening a different window and scanning the lines for any glitch or virus that would have given an outsider access. “What have you done with Agent Barton?”

“I haven’t done anything with him,” the man replied softly, a quiet chuckle vibrating against her ear. “Tell me, Agent Byer, why are you doing this?”

She wet her lips and looked around the room nervously before calming herself. “You didn’t answer my question.” She tried to figure out how to move forward. “I have no obligation to answer yours.”

“Obligation, no. Incentive, yes.”

She clenched her fist and brought her knuckles up to her mouth, chewing one of the knobby bones for a few seconds before grinding out a response. “You’re H.Y.D.R.A. You’re a white male, probably in your mid to late forties, relatively intelligent. You either have a trick up your sleeve, or you’re an incredibly good liar. Given your occupation, it could be both.” She rattled off all she could deduce about him from his voice and mannerisms, hoping to stall him while she used every program at her disposal to trace the call back to its source. “Your voice is smooth and relaxed, but I can hear someone moving in the background, so either someone is with you or you have a restrained hostage in the room with you. I doubt you’re with Agent Barton, because I believe he could have overpowered you, but you’re not a grunt either. You have at least some sort of rank or position that gives you this air of confidence.”

“Nicely done.” There was a pause, and then the man spoke again. “Agent Byer, let me make this as quick and simple as possible. You are going to shut down your computers, walk out of S.H.I.E.L.D. Headquarters immediately and inconspicuously, and then you are going to sit in your apartment and wait until the dust settles to show your face again. Are we clear?”

“I won’t leave this building until I receive orders from someone I trust.” She tried to ignore the quiver in her own voice, breathing slowly through her nose and trying hard not to give away her anxiety over the wire.

He only chuckled, and she could picture him shaking his head disdainfully. “Aren’t you going to ask what the incentive is?”

Elaina wet her lips, unsure of how to reply. She didn’t want to play into his trap, but she needed to know what she was bargaining for, or she ran the risk of making a massive mistake.

“What is the incentive?” It tasted bitter on her tongue. It tasted like defeat.

He replied in a voice of sick delight and arrogance. “I’m so glad you asked, my dear.”

“Llama?”

Elaina froze, every muscle in her body seizing at the sound of the small, frightened voice on the other end of the line. She saw the screen to her right flare, indicating Bifrost activity, but it didn’t register. Neither did the fact that she had successfully traced the call back to an abandoned S.H.I.E.L.D. facility in Venezuela. All she could process was that voice.

“Charlie?” she whispered.

“That’s an interesting nickname you have, Agent Byer. I assume there’s some sort of story behind it?”

Elaina shook her head slowly, pressing a hand to her forehead and trying to force herself back into the realm of objectivity. She had been trained for this, had prepared herself in every way possible for the day a loved one was in the crosshairs—for the hard call.

“Your little brother is very… single-minded. He’s done nothing but ask for you since he woke up.” There was a burst of static. “You would think he’d ask for food or water or a blanket at some point, but… no, just you.”

She clenched her jaw, fingernails digging into her palms, chest heaving as she started to look from screen to screen. Adrenaline dragged her from shock to action so quickly she hardly knew what she was doing, but she was typing purposefully, and her hands seemed to have a plan.

“What… what do you want from me?” Keep him talking. If you can tell Agent Barton, if he can get there in time… just keep him talking. “Up until this morning, I was just a technical analyst. What can I do?”

“Well, that’s just it. You were a technical analyst, and that wasn’t a problem for us, but now you’re doing quite a bit of wirework for the Avengers. You’ve been tracking things you’re not supposed to, interfering in some rather irritating ways, and now you’re trying to relay some information we would really rather keep private.” He paused, and she held her breath. “I know what you’re doing, Agent Byer. I already told you what I want, and you haven’t forgotten. You’re just trying to buy time.”

“You’re letting me.” She shook her head, staring at the message on the screen and trying to figure out how she could send it without alerting H.Y.D.R.A. “Why?”

“Because it doesn’t matter. You can trace this call, but if you want your brother back alive, you’re not going to tell anyone what you found. You’ll do as you’re told and disappear into irrelevance when this is all said and done.” He laughed again; that sick, cold, mirthless laugh that made her skin crawl a bit more every time she heard it. “Your parents are dead, and your extended family is on the other side of the country, completely unconcerned with your wellbeing. Charlie is all you have, and you’re all Charlie has. He needs you. So just walk away, Agent Byer. Let the Avengers handle this. You’re out of your league, and you know it.”

Elaina bit her lip, wayward tears sliding down her cheeks, and continued to type. She added information about the Iron Man suit and Bifrost activity to her message about Charlie and his location. She slid the cursor across the screen, hovering over the button that would send the information to the only people she could trust to make good use of it.

“Llama…?”

She screwed her eyes shut, running a hand through her hair and sniffing hard in an attempt to clear her sinuses. “It’s gonna be alright, Charlie. It’s gonna be alright.” Lowering her forehead to the table, she continued to speak, forcing air into her rebellious chest. “I’m going to see you very… very soon, okay?”

“Llama… m’cold… bring a blanket…?”

“I will.” She sobbed, lowering a shaking hand to the mouse and biting down on her lip until she tasted blood. “I love you.”

“Mm… la’ya, too…”

“See?” the agent crooned, replacing Charlie’s voice with his own. “That wasn’t so hard, now was it? Just leave the building and lay low, and when this is over, we’ll be sure to bring your brother back to you.”

Elaina shook her head, vision blurred with unshed tears, chest aching from the suffocating lack of oxygen. “No, you won’t.”

She hit the button.

There were roughly five seconds between the click and the sound of gunfire.

She pushed away from the desk and dropped her head between her knees, gulping air between sobs and trying to keep the flood of anxiety at bay.

He’s gone. He’s gone, he’s gone, he’s gone.

She had made him breakfast that morning. For the first time in over a year, she cooked a real, proper breakfast; eggs and bacon and toast laid out on the table with orange juice to drink and muffins for dessert. He got dressed, and she helped him get his favorite hoodie down over his head. They went out to the bus stop together, and she kissed him goodbye, making sure he was safely on board before she returned home to get her car and go to work.

And just like that, he was gone. Permanently. Indefinitely.

Static blared in her earpiece, but she didn’t take it out. Instead, she focused on the sound. She pretended it had all been a recording; some sick joke to throw her off her game. If she hadn’t heard his voice coming from a phone in Venezuela, she might have convinced herself of such a scenario.

Charlie… I’m sorry… I’m so sorry…

She didn’t know how long she stayed that way, sobbing to the floor and clutching the seat of her chair. Her computer pinged multiple times with incoming messages, one after the other, increasingly rapid. It was probably Agent Barton.

Charlie…

Elaina slowly moved back into a sitting position and transferred her death grip from the chair to the desk. She could see the messages, words filtering through the haze sporadically, but her brain couldn’t make any sense of them.

I have to get out of here.

She looked between her screens, sniffing and wiping her eyes again and again. They could handle it. They were the Avengers, and it wasn’t like she had had any luck finding Tony. There wasn’t much else she could help with. They didn’t need her. If she disappeared right then and there, nobody would get hurt.

 “Hel—?”

Elaina jumped, pressing a hand to her ear and letting out a quiet sob.

“—body—re?” There were a few more moments of static, and then a voice cut through the noise, urgent and out of breath. “Hello? Hello, is anybody there?”

She opened her mouth to speak, but her tongue felt like lead. “I…” Every word was a struggle. “What do you want?”

“Hold on, let me… this is—is this Agent Byer? Oh. Yup, yeah, there’s a file here, and that’s definitely—” He let out a huge sigh of relief that quickly devolved into a coughing fit. “It’s Tony—Stark, you know, Iron Man, whatever.” He stopped to cough some more. “I’m… well, I don’t know where I am, but I shot someone, and now they know I escaped, and I have no idea how close they are to finding me. Is this—is this like your son or something?”

Elaina gasped, wiping her eyes again and staring at the little red dot on the monitor. “You’re there with… with Charlie?”

“Charlie? Yeah, he’s—he’s alright, I think, but he looks drugged. Probably. I don’t know, he looks out of it. Listen, please tell me you know what’s going on, because I don’t. I can’t contact anyone, I don’t know where I am, I have no idea how H.Y.D.R.A. found me, or why they’re even still a thing, or how to find my suit and undo whatever they’ve done to it, or—do you know what they’ve done to it? I think they did something to the suit and maybe something to me, too because—”

“Mr. Stark, slow down, slow down.” Elaina pressed her temples and took a deep breath. Charlie is alive. Charlie is alive, and he’s with one of the Avengers. He’s safe. Focus on the mission. If you don’t, they’re both dead. You got a second chance. Don’t waste it. Focus on the mission.

“Hello?”

Elaina cleared her throat. “Okay. Agent Barton, is with Dr. Banner and Loki. I’m going to tell them where you are, and if we’re lucky, they’re already on their way.” That was, of course, assuming the Avengers thought it was worth it to save one little boy in the middle of nowhere. “No one’s really sure how H.Y.D.R.A. is still around, but they’ve been growing inside S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s possible they were never gone in the first place, or this could be a new thing. We just don’t know.”

“Oh. Good. Good, great, awesome. Love it.”

Elaina swallowed, picking up speed as the adrenaline started to overtake her emotions. She sent the message about Tony’s location, not bothering to explain her absence. “Agent Romanoff told me they turned your suit into a bomb or missile of sorts, but we aren’t exactly sure what. Rogers is in the hospital, unconscious. I don’t know his full condition. I have—I have some recent Bifrost activity that might be Thor, but I have no idea where he is now, and he’s been out of the loop since the beginning.”

“And it just keeps getting better. It must be my birthday.”

Elaina looked at the incoming messages, trying to maintain both conversations at once. “I’m talking to Barton right now. I can try and get him on this line—”

“No, don’t do that. You—crap, you shouldn’t have told me anything; this is one of their lines. I wasn’t thinking, I’m—I’m all over the place, let me—” He inhaled deeply and let it allout in one burst. “Okay. I’m gonna hang up and focus on getting out of whatever building I’m in. I’ll carry this radio with me and keep it on, but don’t communicate, just use it to track me. They could already be listening, and—wow, if I screwed that up, I’ll be so mad.”

Elaina rubbed her forehead. “Track don’t talk, got it.” She wet her lips. “Mr. Stark?”

“Didn’t I just say no talking?”

“I know, but… please take care of him. Charlie, I mean. Take good care of him. Please.” She wiped her stinging eyes, realizing she had begun to cry again. “He’s all I have.”

There was a pause, and then his voice bounced back across the wire. “I wouldn’t be able to call myself a hero if I didn’t.”

The line went dead, a new signal appearing on the same frequency less than a minute later, but Tony didn’t say a word. Tracking him was her job now, and he wouldn’t be offering to help again any time soon.

Elaina cracked her knuckles and started to look from screen to screen, fingers flying across the keyboard with an urgency and speed she didn’t know she had in her. Charlie. She poured herself into her work, banishing any and every thought of him, stuffing anxiety into the pit of her stomach until she was certain her brother’s life wouldn’t be endangered by her actions a second time.


Loki jumped and grabbed onto his seat, looking toward the front of the jet as lightning split the sky in half. His stomach dropped, a grimace twisting his features as an overwhelming sense of déjà vu rose in his stomach and chest.

“What’s the matter? Scared of a little lightning?”

“I’m not overly fond of what follows.”

For a moment, Loki could almost see Iron Man and Captain America standing just a few feet away, neither of them knowing what he meant but not wanting to find out. Then Thor was on the jet and Loki was being slammed into a mountainside hard enough to form a crater, and he didn’t want to think about what happened after that.

But I haven’t done anything wrong this time.

“Hey, Loki, what’s got your brother in such a tizzy?” Clint called, pulling on the sticks to try and get the jet above the clouds.

“He’s not my brother,” Loki mumbled, observing the sky with apprehensive eyes. “And I don’t know what his problem is.”

Whatever it was, it was far more than a tizzy. Loki couldn’t remember the last time he had seen the sky so angry, its clouds black and warped and chaotic. Thor had blown past the realms of frustrated or angry and straight into livid, and nothing could get in his way when he was like that. That was the anger that had nearly caused an all-out war between Jotunheim and Asgard; the anger that sent entire armies running home to their mothers.

But I haven’t done anything wrong!

Two feet hit the roof of the jet, and Clint must have done something, because the ramp started to lower. Loki stood up with a jolt and backed away from the opening, putting an additional, completely pointless fifteen feet of space between him and his not-brother.

“Loki!” Thor landed on the jet and immediately closed the gap Loki had just created, fists trembling at his sides. “Did you do this?”

Bruce held his hands up, taking a step forward and trying to keep both of them calm. “Thor, we have no reason to believe Loki did any of this. Why don’t you—?”

“I did not ask you, Dr. Banner.” Thor grabbed Loki by the shoulders and shook him, repeating his question in a much lower, deadlier tone. “Did you do this, Loki? Did you aid H.Y.D.R.A. in these attacks?”

“What do you think?” Loki snarled, trying to pull himself away.

Thor responded by moving his hands to either side of Loki’s face and pulling him close. “I need to hear you say it. Tell me you had nothing to do with this, and I will believe you. But you must look me in the eye and tell me.” Thor shook him again, his voice sliding from furious to desperate. “Tell me you had nothing to do with this, Loki.”

Loki stared for several seconds and then let out a soft sigh. “Fine. If it makes you feel better…” He paused and cleared his throat, staring Thor dead in the eyes without blinking. “I had nothing to do with any of these attacks. I have done nothing but assist Agent Barton and Dr. Banner in their endeavors to fight back.” Then, as childish as it was, he tacked on a testy, “I didn’t do anything wrong.”

When Thor didn’t let go, Loki thought perhaps he had underestimated just how angry Thor was, but then Thor gave him a small smile and dropped his hands to his sides.

“I believe you. You had nothing to do with this.” Thor ran a hand through his hair and started to pace, still distraught and angry at something, though Loki didn’t know what. “I believe you. I do. I—” He looked up suddenly. “Dr. Banner, I apologize. I did not mean to discount you or your input. It was simply a… a complicated matter, and I am rather distracted at the moment, and I… I apologize.”

Loki frowned, looking between the two men with a furrowed brow and confused eyes. According to Bruce, Thor’s temper was on the mend, and Loki had seen evidence of such himself. For a moment, it had appeared as though Thor had surrendered to that primal rage again, but there was something different about it. There was a… a hurt or a fear that hadn’t been there before, and the disorientation was unsettling.

It was the rage of a wounded man, not a man with wounded pride.

“It’s alright, Thor.” Bruce smiled weakly, trying to keep the air clear. “It happens.”

“Yes, it’s…” Thor ran both his hands through his hair and stopped for a moment, holding his head before dragging them all the way through and resuming his nervous pacing. “I am sorry I didn’t arrive sooner. What can I do to help?”

Clint took the opportunity to submit the first request. “Well, for starters, you can get rid of this storm.” He flipped a few switches and pointed to a nearby screen. “That red dot is where Tony is, and we could definitely use your help there, too.”

Thor nodded, taking a deep breath to calm himself and lapsing into silence as he focused on the act of soothing the skies beyond the windshield. Loki and Bruce exchanged glances, bewilderment coloring both of their expressions.

Odin and Heimdall are the only two people on Asgard who can see what transpires in other realms at will, and Thor would have come into contact with both of them. Either of them would gladly pin this on me, so that doesn’t narrow it down. If I had to guess, I would say it was Odin, simply because Heimdall’s subtlety would no doubt go over Thor’s head, but Thor has been surprising me lately…

Loki turned away from the group and walked back to his seat, trying to focus on the positives.

Thor said he believed me, and now that he’s here, I should be able to lay any lingering suspicions to rest. Odin and Heimdall practice magic, but neither of them are magically inclined, so the seals would be hidden from them. Of course, Odin is the one who made the seals, but he’s far too arrogant to think I could successfully break them. What reason would—

“Loki, you might want to start getting ready. We’re less than forty minutes out.”

Loki barely responded to Clint’s advice, briefly nodding his head before tumbling back into his scattered trains of thought. He was pulled back out a second later by a hand on his shoulder.

“Loki.” It was Bruce. “Are you alright?”

“Just feeling a little queasy from the turbulence.” Loki forced a smile. “Give me a moment in calmer weather, and I’ll be right as rain… ironically enough.”

Bruce managed a smile, his gaze lingering for a moment, and then he turned and made his way up to the co-pilot’s seat.

I didn’t do anything wrong, but I intend to. Could they have somehow picked up on that? Loki looked at Thor, who was still lost in his own little world. It’s not really wrong, though. I don’t want to destroy anything, I just want freedom; there’s nothing wrong about that. I can escape and go somewhere else and live peacefully. He knew that was a stretch. He was a god of chaos; peace didn’t appeal to him. There’s nothing wrong with leaving. I’m not hurting anyone. I just want to leave. I want my magic back. I want… I want a clean slate. I want to start over. Somewhere. Somehow.

“Loki, did you hear me?”

Loki lifted his head. “You said we were getting close.”

“I also said to start getting ready.” Clint turned around in his seat with a cheeky smile. “Unless you’re chickening out.”

“I am doing no such thing,” Loki shot back, scowling. “I’ll get ready when we’re closer.”

Clint’s smile didn’t waver or fade. “Good. I need you out there, man.”

“Believe me, I know.” Giving Clint an eyeroll, Loki got to his feet and began sifting through the remaining weapons on the jet.

Maybe if I use my magic for something good before I go, they won’t follow me. I could fix the rest of Manhattan, or summon food from the kitchens of Asgard to fill the pantries of the homeless shelters.

But it wasn’t that simple. If he didn’t work for it, they didn’t get their justice, and they wouldn’t stand for that. Not that he blamed them, but he didn’t want to stay long enough to repair an entire city with his useless, weak, human hands. He didn’t want to die in captivity.

They’ll never be satisfied. They’ll never let me go. I have no choice but to escape.

Having convinced himself of his goal for what had to have been the hundredth time, Loki set the matter aside and focused on the task at hand. Escape was months down the road. Rescuing Tony was less than an hour away, and he had to be completely focused if he wanted to be of any use to them.

And he did. Despite everything, he wanted to be of use to them.

Despite everything, he wanted them to believe he was worth it.


“We are going to be okay, Charlie. We are gonna be just fine, everything is going to be super fantastic, so we’re not freaking out, and we’re not—I’m talking to an unconscious nine year old to calm myself down. This is not how my day was supposed to go.”

Tony pressed his back against the wall and took a quick look around the corner to be sure it was empty before he sprinted down the hall. He could feel himself running out of juice, exhausted by hours of running and hiding, the weight of Charlie’s body in his arms, and whatever H.Y.D.R.A. had done to him while he was unconscious.

“Okay, okay, okay, okay.” He put Charlie down at the end of the hall and started to rummage through the storage cabinets scattered along the corridor. “Find something you can use, find something you can use.” As if he hadn’t already weaponized everything in the building at least once.

“…mmm…”

Tony looked around, but there was nobody else in the hallway Charlie could have been reacting to. “It’s alright, buddy.” He continued digging through the shelves, pulling out anything that looked even remotely useful and listening to the sound of approaching footsteps. “You’re gonna be alright. I promise, I’m gonna get you out of here, and you’re gonna see your sister-mother-aunt person again, and everything is gonna be fine.”

Charlie didn’t respond, still staring up at the ceiling with a dazed expression on his face.

Tony cursed under his breath, feeling like there was some first aid… thing he was supposed to be doing. Something to help a drugged-up, half-conscious, traumatized child victim. He knew there had to be one.

He had no idea what it was, but he knew there had to be one.

“Focus, Tony.” He muttered to himself on a near constant loop as he gathered up the scissors and scalpels and other pointy objects he had collected, shoving them into his pockets and waistband as he crept down the hall toward the oncoming threat.

They’re getting closer.

Tony waited at the corner until the first guard came around and then threw his arm out, stabbing the agent in the throat with a pair of scissors. Two more rounded the corner, and with a scalpel in each hand, Tony killed them the same way. But then there were two more, and then three, and then it was a steady flow, and he couldn’t hold them off anymore.

Why aren’t they shooting? I should be dead. Not that I want to be, but I should be.

Tony backed up, looking around for anything he could use to defend himself long-distance and finding nothing. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Charlie stirring on the floor and knew that was the area of last retreat. Once Tony got to Charlie, he would put Charlie behind him, and then there was a wall. No more running. They were trapped.

Why aren’t they shooting? What are they waiting for?

Tony reached Charlie and carefully pulled him to his feet, trying to stand him up against the wall so Tony could keep his own eyes on the enemy. Somewhere between fifteen and twenty guards came to a stop roughly three feet away, every gun aimed but not a single one firing.

Tony stared, waiting, but nothing happened.

“Well.” Tony pursed his lips. “This is awkward.” He coughed. “Someone wanna tell me what’s going on? I didn’t get the memo.” His anxiety was easily hidden beneath his sarcasm, but his hands were starting to betray him, and he could only hope the guards didn’t see them shaking.

“Llama…?”

“Not now, Charlie.” Tony reached back and placed a hand on Charlie’s head, still watching the guards carefully. Spying one with a hand on his ear, Tony probed for information, eyebrows arching slightly. “You have to ask your boss before you’re allowed to pull the trigger? What makes me so special? I mean, besides literally everything about me.”

There was more silence, and then the guards in the back began to leave, each row running back the way they had come until only six men remained. The front three stepped forward, one of them holding a pair of handcuffs, while the back three stayed in place and kept their weapons at the ready.

They want me for… what? They have my suit. Unless they think they’ll need my intelligence at some point… or maybe they need me as a hostage? Tony narrowed his eyes, looking from one guard to the next and slightly broadening his stance. They don’t need the kid, though. Once they have me locked up, they’ll kill him without thinking twice.

“Woah.” Tony held up his hands in a ‘stop’ gestured but kept them away from the guards. “I’m usually up for just about anything, but do you really think this is the time or the place?” He was stalling. He was panicking and stalling and trying to back up even though it was physically impossible to remove himself any further. “I mean, you are trying to kill me. That’s bad BDSM etiquette, and with the kid here, don’t you think it’s kinda skeevy trying to—”

Tony couldn’t think of a single time in his life when he found the sound of an explosion to be so peaceful and reassuring. Smoke had never looked so much like a fluffy cloud. Gunfire had never made him feel so safe.

Knees buckling, Tony dropped to the floor and pulled Charlie down with him. He held Charlie in his lap and rocked slightly, trying to catch the breath he hadn’t realized he lost.

“Charlie, they’re here. It’s okay now, it’s okay, it’s…” He looked up and watched the figures dance through the smog, taking comfort in the knowledge that some of them were his teammates. “We’re safe. We’re going home… it’s… it’s gonna be okay…”

“Tony!”

There was a bit of a delay, but Tony managed to get his head up and look for a familiar face in the chaos. He spotted Clint and opened his mouth to speak, but for the first time in a long time, Tony had nothing to say. His tongue had turned to lead, and the heart-pounding adrenaline that had kept him conscious up to that point was fading fast. How long had he survived on his own? Six hours? Seven? He was so tired…

“Tony, are you with me?” Clint dropped to the ground beside Tony and gave him a shake, searching his eyes for something, though Tony didn’t know what.

“I’m… yeah.” Tony stopped and tried to get his mind back in order, dragging one thought after the other through a swamp of muddled consciousness. “This is Charlie. He’s, um, he’s a brother… son… thing to some agent. I, uh… I’m okay, I just need to get… get back to the Tower and… I need some sleep, yeah, lots of… where’s my suit?”

Clint grabbed the unconscious bundle of Charlie and frowned at Tony, grabbing his sleeve with the portion of his hand he could get free. “Come on, Tony, get up. We’ve got to keep moving. Bruce is waiting for us; he can help. He’ll know what’s wrong.”

“I’m, uh—I’m coming.” Tony stood up with more than a little difficulty and started down the hall behind the archer, the agent, the angel that had come with all of Tony’s other angelic friends to save him just in the nick of time like something out of a movie.

I really thought I was going to have to… to watch them…

Forcibly derailing that train of thought, Tony focused on putting one foot in front of the other, bracing himself against the wall when it became a necessary part of standing.

“Anthony?”

Tony looked up, blinking a few times and then cracking a tired smile. “Hey, Loki. You come here often?”

Loki stared at him for a moment, pretending Tony had said nothing at all, and he frowned at what he saw. “You don’t look well.”

“I’m fine, just—just disoriented a bit.” Tony wiped his brow with the back of his hand and kept moving, turning to look behind them more than once. “How far are we from… wherever it is we’re going?”

Loki looked to Clint for confirmation as he spoke, receiving it halfway through his first sentence. “It’s roughly twenty minutes away if we keep up the pace. Do you need to get there faster?”

Tony gave a jerky nod. “I think—I think so. I feel… really…” He staggered and fell against the wall, tugging on the collar of his bloodstained, sweat-soaked t-shirt. “They didn’t shoot… why didn’t they…?” He took a step forward, but his legs felt like jelly, and his stomach was twisting and turning uncomfortably in his gut. “I can’t…” His knees hit the floor, lungs burning as a suffocating sensation crawled over his skin.

“Loki, carry Tony.”

Tony felt an arm wrap around his torso, and then he was pulled into the air, the world around him slowly blurring into long streams of monochromatic grayness.

Fifty Shades of Gray. Tony snorted, trying to point to the wall so Loki would understand the joke. “S-see, it’s funny because—we’re running for our lives, and—”

“Relax, Tony.” Clint’s warbled voice floated from somewhere overhead, each word varying in its level of clarity. “You’re an asset. They… so they had no choice but to keep you alive… adrenaline… pain so you can… didn’t feel it when… found a lab with a lot… they… Charlie… hours… water… help that…”

Nothing made sense after that, and with a slurred ‘shut up,’ the billionaire genius slumped in the arms of the mischievous demigod and surrendered to unconsciousness, hoping the world would make more sense when he woke.


Thor swung his arm in a wide arc, every muscle in his body going taught as he threw Mjolnir full-force into the ground. Fractures split the earth, a shock wave surging outwards and knocking anyone in the immediate area to the ground.

“Go, now!”

On his command, Loki and Clint appeared through the dust and smoke, each of them taking a different path to reach the other side of the room. Thor watched them for a second or two and then began to survey the area, ensuring their enemies were still recovering from the quake.

“I will join you shortly, my friends. Get Stark and the boy to safety!”

Thor met Loki’s eyes for a moment and flashed a brief but encouraging smile. Then he launched himself back into the fray, scowling as his thoughts turned to his recent trip home.

“You know Loki is responsible for this destruction.”

“I know no such thing, and neither do you.”

Grabbing a young woman by the throat, Thor lifted her off of the ground and stared her down, fire burning in the pit of his stomach as he lost all patience with the universe. “Where is the Iron Man suit?”

She spat, clawing futilely at his skin. “I’ll never tell.”

“Very well.” Thor shrugged, unperturbed. “Another!”

She was thrown down the hall like a ragdoll, and he was marching down the corridor in the opposite direction before she even hit the ground. He immediately started looking for someone new to question, determined to get an answer from someone, somehow, sometime soon.

“Loki has done all we’ve asked of him, albeit reluctantly, and we are pleased with his progress.”

“Are those the words of your comrades or your sentiment?”

“Where are you keeping the Iron Man suit?” Thor held yet another agent aloft, feeling the man wriggle beneath his fingertips. “Tell me, and I might spare your life, though I make no promises.”

Thor was met with silence, and after a few seconds of testing his already worn patience, the stubborn man joined his partner down the hall in a lifeless heap. It got somewhat quiet after that, the rest of the guards running in various directions as alarms around the building began to scream and whistle.

“I know all he has done, but you agreed to give him this chance. Do you intend to recant that decision now?”

“Loki needs a firm hand and harsh discipline, or he will never see the error of his ways. If you truly want to help him, you will bring him back and put him where he belongs.”

Thor heard a footfall behind him and whirled around, grabbing the individual by the throat and once again bellowing his demands. “Tell me where the Iron Man suit is!”

Loki blinked rapidly, confusion quickly melting into annoyance. “If I knew, that’s where I would be headed, you oaf.”

Startled, Thor immediately released his brother, looking at his hands for a moment before meeting Loki’s eyes. “I apologize. I… am not myself.”

“I’ve noticed,” Loki deadpanned. “Perhaps you are the one who needs daily sessions with Dr. Banner.” Pointing over his shoulder, he started to walk backward. “We need to get out of here and return to the Tower.”

Thor nodded, slowly at first and then faster. “Indeed. I will do my best to focus.” He closed the distance between them in two steps, one arm wrapping around Loki’s waist while the other hoisted Mjolnir skyward. “Hold on.”

“Wait, Thor—!”

They launched into the air, Mjolnir breaking through the ceiling and the ground above it until the hit clear air and sunshine. It took mere seconds for Thor to regain his bearings, and then the wind was blowing through their hair, the world blurring into a swirl of colors beneath them as they approached the jet at top speed.

“Thor, you imbecile, we could have walked!” Loki gripped Thor’s armor with one hand, the other wound tightly around Thor’s neck. “You forget, this body won’t survive such a fall!”

“I did not forget, I simply do not intend to drop you.” Thor gave Loki a cocky smile and continued toward their escaping comrades, the back end of the jet hanging open to enable a quick entry. “I would never drop you.”

Loki held on a little tighter all the same. “Don’t get sentimental.”

Thor smiled briefly, but there was no mirth to it. When he held Loki so close, he could feel the mortality in him. He could sense the frailty, that little something about the structure that was so prone to breaking, that lack of mass and density Loki had always possessed, regardless of his slight figure.

Thor wasn’t stupid, no matter what others may have said about him. He knew Loki could—and probably would, at some point—betray him, but he didn’t understand the need to lock Loki up and beat him into submission. The Avengers had earned Thor’s trust and faith, and he believed they had what it took to change Loki for the better. Even if they couldn’t, Loki’s current living situation was certainly preferable to the punishment Odin intended to hand down.

“His birthright was to die.”

Both feet touched down on the aircraft, Thor’s arms falling to his sides and allowing Loki to regain his footing. He couldn’t lift his eyes from the ground, his mind entirely consumed by the words he had exchanged with Odin not hours before. He didn’t know how Natasha and Clint and even Steve could do it; how they could shut down their emotions until there was a more opportune time to deal with them.

“You aren’t a hero for bringing him home. You know that, yes? There is nothing special about seeing an infant lying in the bloody snow, screaming and crying, completely helpless, and deciding to care for it.”

Looking to Clint, Thor begged the same question of him that he had of the agents in the base down below. “Where is the Iron Man suit?”

“We’re still trying to figure that out,” Clint replied, engrossed in his switches and sticks. “Elaina is on the wire right now, but according to H.Y.D.R.A. transmissions, there are at least three different places it could be going, and we don’t know which ones are decoys. Natasha has been single-handedly keeping H.Y.D.R.A. out of the Tower and interrogating as many agents as she can along the way, but there’s only so much she can do.”

Thor scowled thoughtfully, turning Mjolnir over in his hands. “What are the locations?”

“Shanghai, China; Karachi, Pakistan; and Tokyo, Japan.” Clint flipped on the autopilot and turned around in his chair, giving up on the idea of multitasking. “We have no idea which one is the real target.”

Loki crossed his arms over his chest, pursing his lips as he often did when thinking. “What’s the significance of these places?”

“Population,” was Clint’s immediate reply. “These are some of the biggest cities in the world. If a bomb that large goes off in any one of them, it will kill millions.”

Thor shook his head. “No, that isn’t right.” He rubbed at his temple, pushing all thoughts of home aside for just a moment. “They know they cannot win as long as we are here to fight them. That is why they captured Dr. Banner, tried to kill Steve and Natasha, and abducted Stark. They need to divide us and keep us subdued, and until they do that, they have no business trying to achieve their ultimate goal.”

Clint nodded slowly, rubbing his chin. “I see your point. So, if we’re the actual target, where would they attack?” He snapped his fingers as soon as he finished speaking, smacking himself on the forehead shortly thereafter. “Dumb question. They’ll attack us at home.”

“Manhattan,” Loki muttered.

“This is H.Y.D.R.A. we’re talking about. I wouldn’t be surprised if the entire state of New York was in danger.” Clint turned back around and regained manual control of the craft. “It’s the one place we would all go to regroup, it’s where we keep our resources, and two of our members are already there. They know they knocked Tony for a loop, and…” They all glanced at Bruce, none of them saying anything but all of them thinking it.

Dr. Banner is not okay.

They watched as Bruce checked Tony and Charlie for injuries, his expression flat and somewhat dazed, movements disjointed and lacking the urgency that should have been there.

Clint shook his head, clearing his throat. “My point is, it’s just the three of us.”

Thor turned and walked back to the edge of the ramp, setting his jaw as he watched the underground base go up in smoke, cracked earth caving in as the supports dissolved. “Let me handle the Suit of Iron. I’m certain Natasha could use your assistance back at the Tower.”

“Thor—”

He smiled over his shoulder, hoping he appeared more confident than he felt. “I have a plan. Besides, I can arrive much quicker on my own than on this airship.”

Not waiting for a response, Thor jumped from the plane and began flying north. His mind immediately sank back into the wreckage he had somehow managed to stay above during the recent conversation, the thoughts bringing with them a flurry of conflicting emotions.

“There are many in the Nine Realms who feel justice has not been served. They question why Jotunheim and Midgard received recompense, but not them.”

“Loki was sent to Jotunheim to prevent a war that would have killed millions, and he is repairing Midgard because we believe it will help him understand the damage he has done. To those who wish to see him tossed from realm to realm and subjected to any number of violent punishments, I strongly advise they consider the difference between justice and revenge.”

He could no longer see distinct shapes on the land and water below, the colors all blurring together and fading into a smooth, glass-like surface. He was over North America now, and he knew it wouldn’t be long before he saw that familiar red and gold puppet dancing across the sky.

“You were on Midgard for three days. Loki has been on Midgard for six months.”

“I was foolish, Father. Loki is wounded and angry and confused. I needed simple correction, but Loki needs long-term guidance. He is lost, can you not see?”

Thor slowed his speed just enough to distinguish between cloud layers, knowing a long trail of white smoke would be his best chance at locating the machine. However, the skies were still full of strictly natural clouds, so he sped up once more, still scanning the heavens for any sign of the bomb.

“I thought you had learned to trust that I know what I’m doing.”

“I do trust you, Father, but you are not infallible, and I believe you are making a mistake. There is no harm in leaving Loki as he is now, and it is not as though we will run out of time to try other methods. I plead with you, Father, allow us to continue down this path.”

Thor saw a faint glimmer out of the corner of his eye and turned sharply, flying in the direction of the flashing light and reaching out his hand. He grasped the back of the artificial neck, coming to a stop only to change directions and start flying straight up, the world beneath him dissolving into oblivion.

“Enough, Thor. I have made my decision. It’s time for you to choose where your loyalties lie. Loki or Asgard?”

“Father, you are asking me to choose between my family and my home. That is unfair!”

He felt the air thin out and then disappear altogether, fury blinding him to anything but the path set directly ahead, the path leading him to outer space.

“Asgard needs her prince and future king. Loki is a lost cause, and this mission you’ve created for yourself is stealing time away from your responsibilities. You cannot have both. You cannot handle both.”

“Father… please, do not do this. Please, I beg of you…”

He left the Troposphere…

“Choose, Thor.”

…stratosphere, mesosphere…

“…”

…thermosphere…

“I choose Loki.”

…exosphere.

“Then you need not come home again.”

Thor swung his entire body full circle and launched the bomb into deep space, an anguished cry muted on his lips by the lack of atmosphere. His eyes burned, his chest ached, his hands shook, and his throat tightened.

“You cannot keep me from returning home, Father. You can keep me from Asgard, but Asgard is not home without Loki, and where he is, you have no say.”

Thor felt something tugging on his wrist and realized Mjolnir was trying to pull him back down to Earth. Complying with its wishes, he began his descent, body numb and mind completely unaware of his surroundings. He let his hammer—his beloved hammer, his consistent, reliable, trustworthy hammer—lead him back to Avengers Tower, back down through every layer of atmosphere he had mindlessly blown through minutes earlier.

He landed on the roof less than gracefully and dropped to his knees on impact. He didn’t move. He just sat there, staring at the hands in his lap, forcing himself to breathe, and trying not to give up on the hope that, one day, his family would be whole again.

“So be it.”

“So be it, indeed.”

Thor lowered his face into his hands and wept.

Chapter Text

“Well, this is interesting.” Loki slipped his hands into his pockets and moseyed up to the dining table, giving Steve a wry smile. “I was enjoying a book of poetry when, lo and behold, my door opened all by itself. I waited for several minutes, but no one came in. I had to ask Jarvis what exactly a self-operating door was supposed to mean.”

Steve gave a weak smile in return and gestured to the space next to him, where a steaming cup of tea waited for Loki to consume it. “I’m sorry. This was a bit of an impulse decision. I didn’t mean to disturb you.”

“You didn’t disturb me, Captain.” Loki sat down and made himself comfortable, giving the tea a tentative sip. “Though, the fact is I was napping, when so gently you came rapping, and so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door.”

“That I scarce was sure I heard you. Here, I opened wide the door; darkness there and nothing more.” Steve took a quick drink from his own mug and continued, the words coming to him effortlessly, as if he’d recited them a thousand times before. “Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before; but the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token, and the only word there spoken was the whispered word, ‘Lenore?’ This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, ‘Lenore!’ Merely this and nothing more.”

Loki lifted the tea to his lips and sipped again—it was a little too sweet, but not so much that he minded—unable to ignore the chill travelling up his spine. “Captain, I didn’t know you enjoyed poetry.”

“It’s just a hobby.” Steve smiled sheepishly, running a hand through his hair. “I don’t read it much anymore, but Tony made me memorize ‘Oh Captain, My Captain,’ and I brushed up on some others while I was at it.”

Loki smirked. “For all our sakes, do your best not to lie on a deck, cold and dead.” He took another sip and then set the mug aside, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms over his chest. “But you didn’t let me out of my cell unsupervised to idly chat. So tell me, oh Captain, my captain, what can I do for you today?”

Steve chuckled but quickly lost the laughter to a sigh. He turned his head to look out the window, remaining silent for several moments before answering. “Things are… not good… and I don’t know what to do.” He shook his head, eyes still fixed on the glass pane. “Tony won’t come out of his lab, Bruce won’t leave his bedroom, and Thor hasn’t spoken a word since he took the Iron Man suit to outer space. Clint and Natasha seem alright, but I can never really tell with them, and I…” He rubbed his forehead and turned to stare at the tabletop, swallowing thickly. “I was thinking I could talk to them, and I was hoping you would help me.”

Frowning, Loki took another drink and contemplated the proposal. Thor was on the list of problematic individuals, which meant Steve no doubt intended to get Loki to talk to him, and Loki did not like that idea at all.

“Captain,” he started slowly, trying to find a polite way to decline. “Do you truly believe that’s the best idea? I cooperated during the attack because I had no choice. It doesn’t mean your team is more inclined to trust me, nor that they should.”

“This isn’t about trust.” Steve didn’t even hesitate. “It’s about honesty.”

Loki snorted and lifted his cup to his lips again. “Definitely not the best idea, then.”

“Why not?” Steve looked at him with genuine eyes. “Truth is the trademark of a good lie; it’s what makes them so powerful. You’re good at deceiving people because you’re good at reading them, figuring out their thought processes quicker than most people can. You…” Steve ran a hand through his hair and then winced, reaching down to press his injured side. “I really need that kind of help right now.” He exhaled slowly, pain creasing the corners of his eyes. “I can’t talk to Tony. We’re too different, and knowing me, I’ll just end up yelling at him. That’s the last thing he needs right now.”

“Well, I can’t argue with that.” Humming, Loki rose to his feet and began to walk aimlessly around the open room. “I don’t suppose it would be a good idea for me and Dr. Banner to have a mutually therapeutic relationship, so you should be the one to talk to him.” He stopped and stared out the window, cringing inwardly at his own choice of words.

Therapeutic. Relationship.

How did he get from declining to advising?

“I was thinking the same thing.” Steve nodded in agreement, taking a sip of his own beverage, presumably coffee. “You realize that, uh, that leaves Thor.”

Loki glared, squaring his shoulders. Of course I realize. Idiot.

“I understand your relationship with him is… not the best, and I know you might not want to talk to him, but it would really be good for him to know you care right now.” Steve’s eyes softened, imploring. “Even if you don’t, just giving him something to hold on to would help.”

Loki cast a sideways glance across the room, keeping his lips in a tight, thin line. If? What is that supposed to mean? He turned his gaze toward the streets with a sigh, watching humans scurry down the sidewalks in the snow. I don’t want Thor to start treating me like his brother again, but if he isn’t talking, it must be bad, and I don’t suppose he’ll want to discuss his weaknesses with his fellow heroes. His pride wouldn’t allow for that.

“If you don’t want to—”

“No, I will.” Loki turned away from the window suddenly, returning to the table and grabbing his tea. “Don’t expect any miracles, but I’ll talk to him.”

Relief washed over Steve’s features, and he nodded his head, a small smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “I understand. Thank you.”

“Indeed. You would do well to speak with Natasha and Barton also. Even if they appear to be alright, they might need more coaxing. They’re trained to hide this sort of thing, after all.” Loki finished his drink and set the cup in the center of table. “Thank you for the tea.” He turned and started toward the exit. “I wish you the best of luck, Captain.”

“Same to you,” Steve replied. “Beware the Jabberwock, my son. The jaws that bite, the claws that catch.”

Loki ran a hand through his hair and laughed. “I should very much like to discuss poetry with you at length sometime.”

“It would be my pleasure.” He could hear the smile in Steve’s voice.

How did he get from advising to helping?

Shaking his head, Loki left the living room behind and continued into the hall, walking down the corridor toward the elevator. He had no idea how he was going to approach or what he was going to say, but he had agreed to help, so he would make an attempt at the least.

Loki had noticed—more than noticed, really—the immediate decline in team activity after the unexpected attack on S.H.I.E.L.D. They were all a bit of a mess when they got back to the Tower, and after everyone had taken about an hour to freshen up, Steve called them into the dining hall for dinner. Loki, Clint, and Steve had been the only ones to actually show up.

Natasha joined us later, though. She most likely needed some time to think, which I don’t fault her for. However, the rest have made themselves scarce for three days now. This can’t possibly be healthy, and it’s certainly a strategic weak point.

“Loki, would you like me to turn off the music?”

Loki pulled himself from his thoughts, glancing at the ceiling in confusion. “What mus—” He stopped short, the elevator doors sliding apart and allowing the most obnoxious ruckus he had ever heard to come crashing in. “Is that what he calls music?” Loki lifted a hand to his temple, idly rubbing away the throb that had suddenly formed. “Yes, please, turn it off.”

Loki shook his head and heaved a sigh, stepping into the hall and making his way to the lab with a renewed distaste for the situation he found himself in. “Tell me, Jarvis, how much has our friend had to drink?”

“Too much,” the AI replied.

“Well, that is very specific of you.” Loki let out a quiet chuckle, but it was bitter and short-lived, his head wagging as he tried to scrape together some idea of what he was going to say when he entered the lab. He didn’t know Tony all that well; it was Steve and Bruce he spent the most time with

Loki gave four sharp knocks on the glass to let Tony know he was coming in, and then he stepped back and waited for the electronic housekeeper to grant him entry. Seconds later, the door was gone, and Loki walked inside, casting a disdainful look around the room.

“How do you work in this mess?” Loki questioned, picking up a random tool and waving it in Tony’s general direction. “It’s disgraceful.”

“Jarvis, I told you not to let anyone in.” Tony didn’t look up from where he was working, shoulders hunched, eyes focused on some sort of metal plate. “And it’s not a mess. It’s organized chaos. I know exactly where everything is.”

Loki ignored the statement and tried to think of how to move forward. He allowed a hint of curiosity to light his eyes and approached the work bench, stopping behind Tony and peering over his shoulder. “You’ve been down here for three days. Is this what you’ve been doing the whole time?”

“No.” Tony still refused to even glance at him. “Do you know why I come down here?”

“To be alone, either to think or distract yourself.” There was no hesitation, because Loki understood, both factually and personally, the need for that sort of safe haven. “However, spending several days locked away down here and not interacting with the outside world in any capacity jeopardizes your health, and certain people start to get worried.”

Tony scoffed, turning the plate vertically and sliding a chip into one of its many sockets. “Cap should be worried about his own issues, not mine.”

“I think you are one of his issues, Anthony.” Loki swept several tools and gadgets toward the end of the table, seating himself next to the work-in-progress and peering down at Tony unsympathetically. “You’re practically drowning in a sea of doubt and self-pity. He’s not going to turn a blind eye.”

Tony actually raised his head at that, glaring coldly at the trickster who had so rudely invaded his personal sanctuary. “You shouldn’t even be out of your cell, let alone down here talking to me about my mental state. I have everything under contr—”

Tony was interrupted by the device in his hands sending off a slew of sparks, forcing him to drop it and blow on the scalded skin it left behind. Cursing, he shook the injured hand rapidly, using the other to grab a glass of scotch that had been forgotten in the wake of creative genius.

Loki arched a brow. “Clearly,” he deadpanned.

Tony glared.

Loki nodded his head in the general direction of the liquid vice. “How many of those have you had?”

“I could be wrong, but I think that’s none of your business.” Tony finished the remainder of his glass and set it down, rubbing his temple and letting out a sigh.

Loki arched his brow a little higher at the display, a low chuckle rising in his throat. “You are an absolute child, Anthony Stark. Do you know that?”

“Shut up.”

Leaning down, Loki sniffed Tony a few times, a sour expression contorting his features. Tony reeked of alcohol, body odor, and an excessive amount of cologne clearly intended to conceal its predecessors. If the bags under Tony’s eyes were any indication, he hadn’t allowed himself the luxury of sleep since their return from battle, and the faint trembling in his hands could have been from the alcohol, but Loki was more inclined to believe he was hungry, dehydrated, and on the verge of passing out.

“When was the last time you showered?” was what Loki finally said.

Tony groaned. “What are you, my mother?”

“Don’t get smart with me.” Loki’s light-hearted joke did little to erase the lines on either of their faces. “I’m just a concerned party. You don’t look well, and you aren’t acting like yourself. I don’t need to be one of your teammates to know something is wrong.”

Tony pushed away from the desk and started to swivel in his chair, idly drumming his fingers on the armrest and alternating between watching the ceiling lights and staring at his feet. “I don’t know what you want me to say.”

“Just start talking,” Loki advised, recalling the guidance Dr. Banner had given him under similar circumstances. “It’ll help you put your thoughts in order, and something will come out of the mess eventually.”

Tony snorted. “Eventually.” He swirled a few more times, shoulders heaving as he unleashed an exceptionally deep sigh. “It’s nothing, really. More irritating than anything else.” He turned another half circle and stopped again. “I created the Iron Man suit to save. First, it was just me and a friend, then it was civilians, and then it was the world… but it was never… never meant to endanger and destroy and… blow things up that are good things.”

Loki said nothing, placing his hands in his lap and listening intently. He could hardly judge the lack of vocabulary when he knew how drunk Tony was.

“I haven’t made weapons in years, but somehow, my creations are still killing people. I hate it, but I don’t know how to stop it. It’s like… like I’m meant to create weapons of mass destric—destruction, and no matter what I do to stop it, that will always be the end result.”

“What will?” Loki questioned, pursing his lips.

Tony laughed bitterly, running both hands through his hair and lowering his head between his knees. “Everything I didn’t want my legacy to be; a body count. I never wanted that, but Obie…” He trailed off, shut down for a second, and then started again. “Lots of people wanted me to keep doing what I was doing, and… I thought when I became Iron Man… when I started helping people, I had… I don’t know, proven them wrong.” His fingers dug into his scalp, dragging through his hair and clasping behind his neck. “I thought I had proven I don’t need blood on my hands to be worth millions. My potential… at its best, doesn’t have to… to kill people and destroy homes and… stuff.”

Because you want to believe you’re worth more than that. But Loki didn’t say a word. He simply sat and stared with open eyes, hoping his silence would encourage further venting.

“They took my suit… and they turned it into everything it was never meant to be.” Tony’s voice dropped off at the end, and he slowly straightened up. “I didn’t even fix the problem. Thor did. Everyone did. You did, and you’re not even a member of this team. I was unconscious when the suit blew up. I did… nothing to fix the problem I made.”

“Everyone has days when they can’t contribute, Anthony.” Loki folded his arms over his chest, lowering them to his stomach when he realized how defensive the gesture was. “It isn’t as if you didn’t try. You saved Charlie, helped him escape. You managed to contact Agent Byer despite the odds stacked against you, which gave us your location. You did the best you could.”

“But it was my suit.” Tony scowled. “It was my weapon.”

“So what?” Loki paused to let the words sink in, observing Tony’s baffled and somewhat angry expression before continuing. “Every Avenger has been a threat. Every Avenger has been a hero. You make mistakes, and you learn from them. You cannot singlehandedly save the world every time.”

Tony opened his mouth to speak, but Loki cut him off, his voice quiet but hard and unwavering. “You feign arrogance. You brag about your accomplishments and what you’ve done for the world, but being a hero has never been about the glory for you. It has always been about redemption. It has always been about the sun going down on a man who hates himself a little less than the man it came up on.” Loki stared at Tony, searching his eyes for any indication the words were hitting home. “You are punishing yourself, because it makes the guilt bearable, but that doesn’t mean your self-imposed sentence is valid, or that your guilt is not misplaced and exaggerated. You cannot control what you did in the past, Anthony. You can only control the future. The Iron Man suit was stopped. Period. Nothing else matters.”

Tony shook his head, hands balled into fists. “No. No, it doesn’t—you can’t—it does matter. If we hadn’t stopped it, millions of people would have died. I screwed up, and that’s on me, and I need to make sure this doesn’t happen again. It’s my job, my responsibility, to make things better and safer and—”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Anthony! You cannot prevent every possible negative outcome.”

“I know that!” Tony tried to stand up, but he wobbled and fell back onto his chair. “I’m not stupid, I know I can’t—perfection is impossible, alright, I get that. But that doesn’t mean I stop trying. What, you, you want me to look at the victims of my negligence and ignorance and say, ‘Well, one way or another, something was going to go wrong, so… sucks to suck.’”

“No, but I would like to see some consistency,” Loki shot back. “If you insist on this self-flagellation, I want to see you blame innocents for their victimization in the name of lacking preparedness. How can you be so hard on yourself and still dedicate your life to saving people who could have saved themselves if they simply prepared for what this universe has to throw at them?” Loki sighed, wondering why Steve thought he could be of any help at all. “I understand where you’re coming from, and I think you are wise to learn from your mistakes, but you are taking it too far. You cannot save everyone. And you don’t have to.”

“Do you have any idea how many people would be still be alive today if there had been a plan in place before your attack?” Tony got to his feet again, managing stability long enough to jab Loki in the chest with his finger. “Fury knew about Asgard, and he had the Avengers Initiative, but he wasn’t ready. He wasn’t ready, and people died.”

“That was more than a lack of preparation, Anthony.” Loki just barely kept the annoyance from his voice, fighting the fast-increasing urge to strangle the man in front of him. “If Fury hadn’t been tampering with the Tesseract in the first place, it wouldn’t have mattered how prepared he was; he would have been fine. You all would have. If you want to help, you should stop trying so hard to plan ahead and focus more on what you’re doing in the moment. Consider the consequences of leaving your team with one man down right after H.Y.D.R.A. reared its ugly head. Consider the consequences of pushing away your closest friends when you need their trust and cooperation the most.”

Silence settled over the room, both men staring each other down unwaveringly. Tony glared, but he couldn’t think of a good counterargument, and Loki was content to let him dwell on his own speechlessness for a few moments.

Then Loki shook his head, pushed Tony’s finger aside, and began to walk toward the door. “I can’t make you believe me. I can only tell you what I know to be true.” He took a few steps and then stopped, speaking over his shoulder. “If I might offer another piece of advice, you should sincerely consider what it is that makes you valuable as a person. You might—”

“Nothing.”

Loki turned slightly, frowning. “What?”

“There isn’t anything that makes me valuable as a person.” Tony fell into his chair again, reaching for his unfinished drink. “There are things that make me valuable as a teammate, as an asset, as a hero… but there’s nothing that makes me valuable as a person.” He threw back the rest of his glass. “That’s the part you don’t get. That’s the difference. If people are in danger because they didn’t prepare, they’re still worth saving, because they are people. People are inherently valuable, and they deserve to be saved.”

Loki was shocked into silence, his mouth slightly open, and he turned to face Tony fully. His brow creased as he considered the man before him—the clearly broken, far-deeper-into-the-darkness-than-anyone-realized man before him—and slowly, his lips started to form an argument.

“Do I?”

Tony lifted his head and tilted it to the side, face screwing up in confusion. “What?”

“Do I deserve to be saved?” Loki let the question hang for a moment. “Because this is your tower I’m staying in. Your money, your food, your clothes… Why are you saving me?” He shrugged, questioning eyes locked on Tony’s baffled ones. “Do I deserve it?”

Tony opened his mouth, stopped, and then closed it. He shook his head, breathing slowly, confusion written plainly on his face. “I don’t… I… yes, of course. I… I was fine with you staying here, with… Bruce and Thor and their plan.”

“But I attacked New York. I killed hundreds of your people. You’re still seeing the effects of my attack to this day, and I haven’t exactly been repentant. I’ve been an unwilling participant from the start.” Loki spread his arms slightly. “Why not revoke your kindness?” He hated using the term in reference to himself, but it was accurate, and given the circumstances, his pride had to take a brief trip to the backse