The device whirred as it dug its way into the back of Loki’s neck to anchor itself in his flesh. He did his best not to cringe. This was perhaps the worst decision he had ever made in his life. Though he kept his face neutral and still, his skin had prickled oddly. They had to have noticed. They had definitely noticed the state he was in before he covered it up again with an illusion. Loki didn’t know why he was bothering to try to uphold his dignity anymore.
“So what happened to you, anyway?” Stark asked. “Where are your shoes?”
Loki regarded him disdainfully, then glanced back away and breathed out slowly.
“I was accosted by a group of ogres, if you must know. They strung me up by my feet in their cave. I escaped by slipping out of my boots.” He added sulkily, “They were trying to eat me.”
Stark looked surprised for a moment, but then his features settled. “Yeah, that pretty much seems like it’d be a normal story for an Asgardian.”
Loki shrugged. “I suppose it’s not that uncommon, if one has the misfortune of being alone on Vanaheim.”
Stark hummed, and Loki got the impression that he had only understood half of that at best.
The room lapsed into an uncomfortable silence. It seemed that no one knew what to do now with their enemy sitting calmly in their midst. It was all very well, because Loki had some suggestions.
“Pardon me, but now that I have been sufficiently enthralled, may I ask you to remove these?” he asked, spreading his hands as far apart as he could to display the handcuffs.
“What, so you can stab us?” Stark accused.
Loki rolled his eyes. “Have you already forgotten that with the push of a button you can cause me immense pain? I’m not particularly keen to do anything that would encourage you.” Immediately upon saying it, he realised just how much venom had crept into his voice. He lessened the intensity and added, “If you must leave them on, so be it. I just thought I’d ask.”
Stark considered him for a moment, then deflated. “Oh, what the hell,” he said, flapping a hand toward the sorcerer. “Strange?”
The wizard muttered a few words over the cuffs, and they retracted and folded themselves neatly into a cube. It clattered to the floor between them, and then rolled into a tiny hole Strange summoned in the tile. It closed behind it, but not before Loki heard it fall onto something else.
“You could have just caught it,” Loki said, bemused. He hadn’t seen such flagrant overuse of magic since he had first come into his own power. “You’re a new practitioner, aren’t you?” he asked bitterly. “Let me tell you something, fledgeling. No one will ever be as impressed at your powers as you want them to be, so I recommend you stop trying. It’s unbecoming.”
“Most people seem pretty impressed,” Strange said, calm as he ever was. “Maybe it’s different in a place where everyone can do it.”
“Everyone-!” Loki said, cheeks coloring with rage. “The only other people who were even halfway decent at magic were my mother and father.”
“Okay, I’m just gonna cut in here,” Stark said, and Loki’s attention was grabbed immediately when he saw the man’s fingers were playing over the buttons on the controller. “This is a warning. Calm the hell down. And for future reference, if you get into a fight I’m going to assume it’s your fault.”
Loki swallowed, eyes flicking from the controller to Stark’s face to the floor. “I apologize,” he said quietly, hands folded in his lap.
“Okay, good. Great. I don’t want to hear you screaming at anybody in my house,” he said, and for a moment he sounded tired. “I like to foster a calming environment. I can’t have you messing with my feng shui.”
He was barely listening. Seeing Stark’s hand on the button was uniquely unnerving. Loki had dealt with the pain before, but the anticipation of it may be worse.
“I need a list of rules,” Loki said. It would be the best way to consistently evade the man’s wrath. “I think it would be best for everyone if I knew what, specifically, to avoid.” He met Stark’s eyes for a moment before he thought to add, “I don’t know what feng shui is.”
Stark had looked serious up to that point, but now he was smirking to himself. “Oh, you know. Feng shui. Goes off of yin and yang. It balances your chi.”
“You are obviously mocking me.” Loki scowled. “Would you rather I stumble into some mistake so you have a reason to hurt me? I didn’t take you for a sadist.”
The smile dropped from Stark’s face. “I’ll write something up,” he said tersely. “For now, don’t break anything, don’t hurt anyone, and don’t pick fights.”
Loki inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement.
“Feng shui is bullshit, by the way,” Strange said offhandedly.
In normal circumstances, Loki would have said that so was most of everything else that came out of Stark’s mouth.
“I suggest you take a shower,” the wizard said, not looking at him. “Stark, since you own this facility, I’d say it’s your responsibility to clothe him. However, I’ll pick some up for today.” He glanced around the room. “I doubt any of us want to share.”
If Loki recalled correctly, a shower was a Midgardian method of bathing. If that was the case he desperately wanted to follow Strange’s suggestion, and damn how it hurt his pride. He didn’t know exactly how disgusting he looked since he hadn’t had access to a mirror, but even though he’d found a river to wash in he still felt grimy and his hair refused to untangle. He had changed into a spare set of armor, but now it was as battered and filthy as the one he had died in.
Still. “It’s not my fault,” he said, trying not to sulk. “I was stranded in the wilderness, and-”
“Loki,” Doctor Strange said over him. “I didn’t say that to insult you.” He let the statement hang in the air while Loki shifted uncomfortably, and then span open a portal and was gone.
“He’s right though,” Stark said cheerfully. “You do look awful. Did look awful?”
Loki stared sullenly at the floor.
Bruce spoke up again. “I guess I can show him where a shower is?”
“Nah,” Stark said. “I can do it.”
He turned to Loki, but it took a few seconds to pick out his words. “I saw what room Strange put you in. I guess it’s yours now. C’mon, I’ll show you how to actually walk there.” It felt weird to talk to him without insults or threats.
Loki looked like he felt similarly, but rose to his feet all the same. He was still a little wobbly, and leaned on the table for support. “What does a bedroom have to do with bathing?” He strove to keep his tone civil.
“Better to show you the one nearest to your room.” It felt like he was being more polite to Loki than he was to most guests. Then again, stiff formality was preferable to acting familiar. The third option of being aggressive wasn’t very appealing when he just got through lecturing Loki about getting into fights.
He took a few steps towards the door, but Loki didn’t move to follow him. He was instead warily staring him down. “Do not punch me again,” he said. He had tried to sound commanding, but a hint of uncertainty had crept in.
“Really?” Stark sighed. “I wasn’t planning on it.” He quickly broke eye contact and added “Not that you wouldn’t deserve it, but...”
Loki stayed where he was. Stark couldn’t really blame him, because that had been nowhere close to reassuring.
“Not that I’m not flattered that you consider me such a threat,” Stark said, his usual sarcasm creeping back in, “but seriously, do you want a shower or not?”
Loki pressed his lips into a thin line, but he stepped away from the table.
“Good,” Tony said. “This way.” He had nearly made it to the door when he thought of something else.
“Friday, tell them if anything goes wrong,” he called to the ceiling. Then he tossed the controller to Captain America. Loki cringed, and it gave Tony no small amount of satisfaction.
“You know what to do,” he called as he went through the door. It almost closed before Loki caught it.
“Did you just throw the controller at him?” he asked indignantly. “May I ask you to be a little more careful?”
“Not gonna ask why?”
“I know why. You thought I’d steal it and escape.” He was still slightly unsteady on his feet, but it didn’t make his voice lose any of its force. “Which I wouldn’t have done, mind you.”
“Uh huh,” Tony said. “Want me to walk slower?”
“Do not mock me,” Loki growled.
“That was actually a legitimate offer,” he said, slowing down his pace anyway. He had also been knocked pretty hard in the head before, so it was difficult to be entirely unsympathetic.
Loki walked silently and deliberately. Stark decided to match his pace.
“So...” Stark trailed off. He wanted to fill the silence with something. “I heard you blew up your own planet?”
Loki faltered, but before Tony could finish turning to see his expression he sped up, striding fast down the hallway.
“Hey!” Stark called after him. “Hey! Don’t leave my line of sight! Cap’ll push the button!”
He stopped. Tony jogged to catch up to where he was. When he was almost right behind him, he could see Loki’s jaw was clenched and his fingers were twitching. He decided to keep his distance.
“Woah, okay, touchy subject,” Stark said.
Loki managed to hiss out, “You are a sadist.”
“What? No,” he said. “I just didn’t know that you, uh...”
Loki turned fully to glare at him. “What? That I’d be upset that my home burned?” he said, nearly choking on the words. His nails dug into the palms of his hands. “That everything I ever knew is gone? That I had to be the one to do it?” The ferocity in his voice grew with every sentence. “You knew, you knew damn well! I brought chaos and death to your planet, but at least you still have one !”
Stark had been stunned into silence. Loki stared at him, shaking with anger as he tried to get a hold of himself.
A voice coming from the ceiling jolted him out of his enraged focus. “Boss, I’ve told them that something went wrong.”
Loki’s stomach dropped. He had time to think Tony Stark is an absolute sadist , and then the pain struck him.
He would have cried out if he could make any noise at all. Slowly, he started to pitch forward, and then the ground rushed up at him.
Stark caught him before he reached the floor. “Turn it off!” he yelled as Loki helplessly twitched and spasmed. The man laid him down carefully as he shouted for someone to turn it off again.
It stopped as abruptly as it had started, but the aftereffects left him tired and gasping on the floor.
The door down the hallway banged open, and Captain America stormed out followed by all the rest. Loki struggled into a sitting position and then wondered if it had been worth it. He couldn’t fight back or run away.
“What’s going on?” Cap asked. His eyes scanned Tony for injuries.
“No, Cap, look...” he said, searching for his words. He grimaced when he found them. “I was the asshole here.”
Loki hadn’t expected that, but he was nowhere near in the right mind to analyse it. He let himself wilt by a fraction.
“I kinda brought up his planet being gone?” Tony admitted, cringing. “He didn’t attack me.” He said firmly. “Well, I mean, he did verbally ...I should have given Friday better instructions.”
The Captain covered his face with his hand.
Hawkeye poked out his head from behind him. “What did the button even do?”
“It looked like a seizure,” Stark answered, glad to speak about something more clinically.
While they were talking, Loki began to pull himself to his feet. He used the wall as a support.
Stark watched him, his lips pressed into a thin line. “Are you...okay?” he finally asked.
Loki glared at him.
“Well, I feel a little less guilty now,” he remarked. “On to the shower?”
“Tony...” Cap started.
“Yeah, yeah. I know roughly what you’re gonna say, but I promise I’m not gonna start a fight again.”
Steve still looked uncomfortable, but he nodded. Tony had been half afraid he’d push the issue.
“Can we get on with it?” Loki snapped.
Stark rolled his eyes. “Sure thing, princess. Right this way.”
It was a relief for Loki to get out of that hallway. He hoped that they didn’t spend most of their time collected in a giant mass of people, because running into the lot of them regularly would be a nightmare. Then again, if they did spend most of their time in a group they could be easier to avoid. Still, it was unlikely that any of this would turn out in his favor.
“Where did the other ones come from?” he asked on a whim. “The original Avengers seemed to form out of extraordinary coincidences. Rogers, Banner and your own story in particular seemed exceedingly unlikely. How have you found more?”
Tony thought of ignoring him just out of spite. “There isn’t an easy answer to that.”
“Are their origins just as complicated as your own?” Loki asked.
“Uh, more complicated in some cases.”
“Honestly, what is wrong with your planet,” Loki said, half smiling. “I have never heard of a place so entirely unpredictable.”
That raised an eyebrow. “Really? I’ve heard some things about Asgard,” Tony paused, for a second wondering if he shouldn’t have said that, but Loki’s mood hadn’t changed. “And it sounded like it’s...it was kind of crazy.”
“Maybe to you, but regardless things were easy to predict.” He shrugged. “From a young age one could tell who would be strong. Moreover the strong were all incredibly similar. They were all very good at hitting things. Here, however - and it may be because there are more of you - but here, powerful people can show up out of nowhere.” He shot Stark a smile that was mostly genuine. “It’s an entertaining quality, at the very least.”
“That almost sounded like a compliment.”
“Yes, well. Regardless, I’ll have to be properly introduced at some point.” He waited for a moment before he thought to ask, “So, what does Ant-Man do?”
“He talks to ants,” Stark said, entirely deadpan.
Loki’s face broke into a wide grin and Tony noticed, for the first time, that the man had laugh lines. He had been grinning like a maniac in New York, but the corners of his eyes had never crinkled up like they were doing now. This man had spent most of his life smiling, and that was an uncomfortable thought. It wasn’t the way Tony had pictured him.
“He can also shrink,” he added. “You should see him fight sometime. Better yet, you try and fight him.”
“I think I’ll refrain,” Loki said, his face relaxing into a smile. “I assume he’s stronger than he looks.”
“You’re not wrong.”
They lapsed into silence for a while until Loki recognized the hallway. He mapped out the way he had come in his mind in case it was ever important.
“That’s the room I was in,” he noted. “Where’s the ‘shower’?”
It turned out that the shower was almost directly across the hall.
“I just wanna say that other people live here. This is a communal bathroom,” Stark said, speaking slower than he needed to.
“We did have public baths on Asgard, you know. I didn’t visit them often, but I am fully capable of understanding the concept.”
Tony snorted. “Actually, here it’s one at a time. Just don’t monopolize the room.”
It was a bit of a relief, Loki had to admit. He didn’t want to be naked and vulnerable around his enemies.
“Very well,” Loki said imperiously. He pulled open the door.
Inside was covered in gray and white tile. Dark wooden cabinets lined the wall to the right, and the rest was covered by one large mirror. Loki decided not to look into it until he was clean again. To the left of the door there was a toilet, and in the back there was a large glass box.
Loki looked back at Stark. “Do you happen to have anything pertinent to tell me about showers?”
Stark seemed genuinely surprised. “I thought you knew what they were.”
“I’ve...heard of them.” He was growing defensive. “I know their function.”
“Alright, alright, let me show you,” Stark said as he pushed past him into the room.
Operating the machine seemed rather simple after it was explained. Loki had a feeling he could have figured it out on his own, and so regretted asking.
“This is shampoo, by the way. You should use it.” Stark said, trying to hide his smirk. Loki didn’t know what shampoo was, but he wasn’t about to ask and show his ignorance again.
“Thank you for your explanation, but I feel I can handle it from here,” he said as politely as possible. He hoped it would annoy Stark.
“Okay, see you later,” he said, and left Loki to it.