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“Jesus,” said someone. “I don’t even want to – I’m gonna be sick.”

“I can put him out of his misery.” He knew that voice. His hawkling. No, not anymore. They stole him back. If he could just think through the thick fog of his thoughts, find his way out – he struggled against it, clawing through the layers of softness enveloping his mind.

“—fuck, looks like he’s coming out of it. More morphine. Maybe something stronger, he shouldn’t be up at all – no, Thor, stay back.” That voice, a different one. Less familiar. He couldn’t think.

Thor. What was he – was this Thor’s doing, then? Some new scheme to bring him to heel? He snarled, or thought he did. Thought he might have heard a faint sound that didn’t sound like him. “Maybe we could just hit him a few times.” And yet another. Stark. Was that Stark? Probably. Impudent little man.

“You will not-

“No one’s hitting anyone.” Calm, level. The Captain? “We should probably just back off and-”

Why are they here? Did Asgard finally decide to be rid of you? There was something tickling at his memory, at his senses. Just out of reach. He groped for it. Clenched his right hand and felt – restraints. Something holding him down. This time the snarl was clearer in his ears.

“Okay,” said the unknown voice, tense and very close by. By process of elimination…Banner, perhaps? “I was serious about the morphine, or we’re going to have a serious problem here in a minute.”

“Not for very long we won’t.” The grim voice of his hawkling, Barton. I will bend you to my will once more, just watch-

Something wasn’t right. Something was very, very wrong. He struggled harder against whatever was fogging his mind, on burning it away, forcing his eyes to open. Everything was a blur of light and shadow with figures swimming through it. He was lying on his belly, arms pinned above his head by whatever they had used to hold him down. He reached for his power and felt it slip out of reach, like trying to catch a fish with bare hands. He felt a rush of terror.

“Loki?” His damned brother. “Loki, please remain still and calm. It is well, you are safe-”

Safe? There is nowhere I am safe. He reached for his magic again with the same result. Tensed himself and pulled against the restraints, felt them begin to give, adrenaline burning the last of the fog away and-

-he forgot about trying to get free. Forgot everything, because what the fog had been keeping away was pain, agony stabbing through him, and he remembered what it was that had been tickling at his mind. He could hear himself scream, high and painful and sharp, and the world was a cacophony of sound and chaos and voice for one searing, flashing moment.

His mind fled.

The package came on a Tuesday.

Package was inaccurate. Body. Sheet-covered, and it hadn’t been there the night before, and then it was.

The first person to pull back the sheet didn’t even make it to the sink before spewing vomit on the floor. “What’s it supposed to be,” someone whispered. “A warning? A gift? Some kind of message?” Someone else identified the mutilation as an old Norse method of execution. The blood eagle. Because it looked like wings.

And the question, echoing from mouth to mouth – are they going to call them in?

It was one of the guards stationed just in case that noticed first. The minute, tiny flutter of exposed lungs. The staggering beat of the heart. “Oh god,” he said, with a kind of terrified awe. “It’s still alive.”

Someone, somewhere, was breaking bones. He knew that sound. “Clever,” said someone, lowly. “Turning his own speed healing against him. I always wondered if…have they calmed Thor down yet?”

“No. Pretty sure he’s still smashing things.” Breaking bone very nearby. Loki tried to focus his mind, but it was like trying to cut burnt meat with a dull knife.

“Huh,” said the first voice, familiar somehow. “Was that a twitch?”

“God,” said the second voice, mild but something fervent underneath. Loki knew both these voices. From where? “I seriously hope not. Why you and not Cap, out of curiosity?”

“Cap said it was making him sick looking at…that.”

“It doesn’t you?”

“Course it does,” said the first voice, blithely. “But I figure, he threw me out a window. I kind of owe him one, if it comes down to that.”

His body felt distant and far away. Loki didn’t think he could have moved it if he tried. He had it now, though. Stark, the first voice. The second…Banner. Mentally, his lips curled back from his teeth.

“Uh-oh. Bruce, he’s snarling again.”

What were they doing to him? What had they done? He remembered – ah. He remembered a brief, searing flash of agony, enough to make him want to flinch. They didn’t do this to you. A whisper, in the back of his mind. They don’t have the power.

“Yeah,” said Banner. “I see that.” Two more sharp cracks of bone. “Okay. Okay, if we could just for a few more minutes…”

He couldn’t move. Couldn’t feel his own body, limp, helpless, utterly vulnerable-

“Loki – uh, can I call you…? Loki. It’s very important that you stay calm.” Banner again. How did he know…? “It’ll just be a few more minutes. It’s a…combination muscle relaxant and sedative that you’re under right now, it won’t last.”

“Enough to kill a horse,” Stark muttered. Loki would have tensed if he thought he could.

They drugged me? They dare to-

“Just a few more…” The snap of bone. Close, close. Your bone. Your ribs, opened like wings. (Screaming, cursing, begging, oh stop please stop please-)

We would suck the marrow from your bones, but there are others who desire the sweetness of your blood, and we can be generous. You are finished. There is nothing more of worth in you.

“Oh Jesus,” said Stark, sounding…something. Loki couldn’t pin the emotion down. “Is he…”

“Tony. See that syringe? That’s the tranquilizer. Use it.”

He didn’t fight the prick or the sweeping dark that reached to swallow him. It did not quite seem worth the effort. He could only hope that they tired of this game swiftly.

No one would quite meet Thor’s eyes when they arrived on the helicarrier. “Why have we been summoned?” he boomed, and everyone looked in different directions very deliberately. Which pretty much answered that question.

“Is this about Loki?” he asked, expression going a little tired. “Has he emerged from wherever he was hiding to wreak more havoc?”

“Um,” said Tony, after a slightly awkward pause. “Not exactly.”

“But it is Loki,” Thor pressed. “What is it he has done this time?”

“Actually,” said Tony. “Less a matter of what he did and more a matter of what was done to. If we were to be-”

“Tony,” said Steve, in a warning tone. “If just once you would-”

“Who,” said Thor, going from zero to divine wrath in 2.5 seconds, “Did what to my brother.”

Thor was there when he next opened his eyes. (Of course Thor was there.) Loki wondered idly if Thor was pleased with this turn of events, or if he merely allowed it because of the leash these pathetic humans kept him on. Well. He’d always known where he’d fall on Thor’s list of priorities.

“Brother?” Thor’s voice was loud, almost shuddering through him. “Can you hear me?”

He could feel his body, Loki realized. And it didn’t hurt quite so much. That was…surprising. Perhaps this was the next phase of his punishment. Allowing Thor to speak to him. Remarkably refined, for these crude little creatures. Loki had considered the idea, during the long months of his imprisonment, that there was nothing worse. Or perhaps they had merely pieced him back together for the pleasure of taking him apart again.

But then…he could feel his body. The restraints were gone. Of course, there was Thor, but- he reached for his power. Something to throw Thor back and he could be gone from here before they even realized…

It slipped through his fingers again. He blinked, and Thor’s expression burst into a sunny grin of genuine joy.

“You are truly here! Bruce Banner assured me that you would wake soon, but I have been here many hours waiting and began to grow apprehensive.”

Loki reached for words and found them, though it seemed to take a moment too long. “Come to – mock me?”

“Mock you?” Thor’s expression slid into a charmingly familiar one of puzzlement. “No, Loki. I am here to assure you that you are safe, and to ask that you forgive me. Had I known that you were not taken willingly from your cell-”

He didn’t intend to laugh. The harsh sound dragged from his throat hardly even sounded like one. “Not taken willingly? My dear brother. Did I look willing to you?” He remembered. Remembered fighting tooth and claw and nail because he knew what waited, knew what failure meant. Remembered Thor at the end of the hall staring at him in horror, and for a moment Loki had thought it was on his behalf. But no. Oh no, of course not.

“I misjudged,” Thor said, his expression falling almost pathetically. Loki scoffed.

“Yes. You did.” He shifted to shove himself to a sitting position, and Thor reached out and pushed him back down with humiliating ease.

“Loki, you are still not well. You were sorely wounded-”

“You think?” Loki said, voice rising to a slightly embarrassing pitch. He did not bother to try to pry Thor’s hand off his shoulder, aware from long experience how useless (not to mention humiliating) that would be. “They pulled my ribs out through my back. Bit of an understatement to say ‘sorely wounded’, I think! But I am not some weakling, I feel-”

He’d been about to say ‘fine.’ Apparently his body had a perverse sense of humor, however, because the world was suddenly spinning all wrong and Loki gave into the sudden and desperate need to vomit.

Most of it, to his relief, ended up on Thor. Less to his relief, the heaving motion appeared to have set his back on fire like his rib cage was splitting open all over again, and he couldn’t hold back the howl of pain soon enough.

He should have been healed! What had they done-

Thor was rubbing his shoulder gingerly, he realized, mopping up his mess with a towel and speaking in a low, soothing voice, like he might use on a skittish horse. “Breathe slowly, Loki. And carefully. There is something…you are healing, but slowly. Bruce suspects that somehow your natural resilience has been…impeded.”

Crippled, Loki heard. Helpless. He felt sick all over again. Thor seemed to see it on his face, because his brow furrowed in obvious worry. “We hoped that when you awoke you might be able to shed light on…”

“I don’t want you here,” Loki said. The words grated a little over his throat, over the desire (childish, weak) to let Thor solve his problems with fists and force as he had when Loki was small. “If your Avengers thought that a familiar face would keep me docile, you know as well as I that they chose wrong to send you.” He closed his eyes so he did not see the pained, hurt expression he knew Thor would have. “Tell me simply, Thor. I am a prisoner, am I not?”

“I wouldn’t say-”

Loki opened his eyes and pinned Thor with his gaze. “Am I permitted to leave as I wish?”


“Then by definition. I am also physically weak, for the moment. I will give you my solemn word that I will not kill anyone you are especially fond of in the next twenty-four human hours. Return before that and all promises are moot. Now leave me.” He closed his eyes.


“That is the best bargain you will receive from me. Remain and I will see how many insignificant human lives I can extinguish before you stop me.”

Thor lingered for a moment longer before he retreated. Loki exhaled and let his eyes drift open. He still felt flayed open, sickeningly raw and vulnerable. Not to mention stinking and filthy. You are among enemies, he told himself. Let no one see your weakness. Or let them see the weakness it suits you to let them see, while you rebuild. There is no fall so great that you, Loki, cannot rise from it.

He closed his eyes again and breathed quietly through his nose.

There is nothing that you do not have the will to outlast.

Steve, ashen-faced, came to find Thor about an hour after Thor had retreated, and found him not, as he had expected, bashing things to a pulp with either hammer or fists. He was sitting in a quiet place on the helicarrier, out of the way, head bowed so his expression was invisible. When he lifted it as Steve approached, his expression was drawn and pained.

“Hey,” said Steve, both greeting and invitation to speak. Thor’s shoulders shuddered.

“For eight months has Loki been absent. When he was taken from his cell, Asgard readied itself for war. I warned Midgard of the possibility as well. But never once did I think that perhaps this was not one of Loki’s schemes, that he might be…” He made an abortive motion with his hands. “To do such a thing…even to an enemy, is despicable. Better to kill quickly, cleanly, than to…”

Steve felt a little sick, thinking about it again. The scene he’d left. Had to leave, so he could stop thinking about how it would have been done and imagining if Loki were conscious through the entire grisly process- “No,” he agreed. “No, it’s not right. But you couldn’t have known. You had every reason to think-”

“Did I?” Thor asked, and his blue-eyed gaze was anguished. “I and my mother are the only ones on Asgard who would believe in Loki, who would take his part. If I had but – I told him that I wished to understand, that I hoped he might be brought back to us and made whole. And yet…he accused me of speaking only pretty words without meaning. I thought it an unfair accusation, and yet my first reaction when I saw the Chitauri was not of his safety; only suspicion, horror that he could betray even Asgard.” He shook his head, very slightly. “I cannot but wonder…if Loki was right, and I am not worthy of his trust at all.”

“You’re plenty worthy,” Steve said firmly, and sincerely. Thor sighed, heavily.

“I know not.”

Loki tried his best to keep his mind quiet, with as much success as he’d ever had (which was to say, not much). He lay still, focusing his energy inward, on healing, on mending whatever those damned vermin had set awry that left him so weak.

Thor stayed away, to his relief. He suspected that as he was he could not do much damage at all, and it would be humiliating to have to attempt to uphold his threat. He rested, and tried not to think. Lay still and kept his eyes open because there were things waiting for him whenever he started to close them.

Dr. Banner was his next visitor. Loki heard the hiss of a door opening and glanced over to see Banner stepping into his little cage. Loki’s lips peeled back from his teeth. He hadn’t forgotten their last encounter.

Though at least Banner was wearing his human skin. Loki did not think he could put up much of a fight against the other and had no real desire to have his insides liquidized again. “After my brother,” he sneered, “You are their second choice?”

“No,” said Banner, voice and expression the picture of placidity. “I came to check on my patient. Nobody else thought it was a particularly good idea, but, well, I take my practice seriously.” Banner shot him a sheepish looking grin. Loki supposed it might be considered disarming. By some.

“Come any closer,” Loki said coolly, “And I may not be able to refuse the temptation of ripping your spleen out through your throat.”

“That really,” Banner said, “wouldn’t work out very well. And I’d be the one to have to put you back together again anyway. So why don’t we both just…” he spread his hands in what Loki guessed was intended to be a sort of ‘let bygones be bygones’ gesture.

Loki pushed himself to a sitting position. To his relief the room stayed upright and he did not feel the temptation to vomit again. “Very well,” he said, after a moment making his voice acidly polite. “I’ll play your game. What do you require of me?”

“Nothing,” Banner said quietly. “’Cept it helps if you hold still. Just want to see how your ribs are coming along.”

Loki held still. Submitted with gritted teeth to the professional prodding of Dr. Banner at his back. The skin had closed over, at least, so it was only the bone. He deliberately did not make a sound when those fingers found a place where bones still shifted gratingly against each other. “Thor said you would normally already be healed. Any idea what…”

“No,” said Loki, shortly. If he thought about it he might. He hadn’t been thinking about it. Didn’t want to go back in his mind to that…he felt himself shudder. It will wear off. You will not be powerless forever. Banner stilled, and Loki wished, too late, that he had suppressed it.

“Sorry,” said Banner, after a moment, sounding genuinely contrite. “I didn’t mean to…bring up anything.”

Loki gritted his teeth. “Do not,” he said tightly, “Patronize me.”

“Wouldn’t even think to,” said Banner, and pulled his hands away. “Well. I mean, if you were human I’d be worried, but if you were human you wouldn’t be alive right now, so I guess you’re probably all right.” He narrowed his eyes a little, coming around to stand before Loki and examining his face. “…you look a little pale. I’ll get some food down here.”

Loki stared at him, very slightly incredulous. “What are you playing at,” he said, finally. Banner shrugged.

“I’m a doctor,” he said. “Like I said, I take my practice seriously. And besides, I’m pretty sure…” Banner’s gaze was level and calm. “I don’t think anyone deserves what they did to you. In my opinion.”

Loki let him leave without further comment, mostly because he couldn’t think of anything to say. There are those, he thought, who would disagree, but that was near to self pity, and he would not give in to that.

His Thor free hours were waning. He did not doubt that his brother would be back the moment their agreement allowed. He would just have to savor the solitude while it lasted, and wait for the humans to make their move. Because they would. Eventually.

There was a kind of numb silence once Loki had been pumped full of sedative for the third time and it finally seemed like it might stick. The kind of silence that came after an explosion. Or an unwelcome phone call.

Thor returned to where Tony and Bruce were sitting a safe distance away from the gore spattered region around their makeshift operating table. Tony looked like he was trying very hard for unimpressed and managing an interesting shade of grey-green.

“You are…you have finished?”

“Much as I know how to do, yeah,” said Bruce, after a moment and a deep breath. “This isn’t exactly…this isn’t exactly what I’m used to.”

Thor glanced over toward the table and the limp figure on it, expression slightly apprehensive. “And he is still…”

“Alive? Yeah.”

“At this point,” said Tony, his voice slightly thin and ragged, “I’d be more impressed if he weren’t.”

“Just unconscious,” Bruce went on, rubbing the bridge of his nose, “to which I can honestly say: finally.”

“Yeah,” said Tony. Paused a few moments, swallowed hard. “Yeah. Um. You going to be here for a while, Thor?”

“Such was my intent,” Thor said. Tony nodded.

“Good,” he said, and started clanking for the door, stumbling and graceless. “Cause I’m getting out of here. And going to buy a…liquor store.”

“You know, Thor,” said Bruce. “I guess ‘nearly indestructible’ really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, huh?” He shook his head, jerkily. “Sorry. Gallows humor. That was…I never want to do anything like that again.”

“Hopefully,” Thor said after a moment, looking over at Loki’s body, which still looked too still to him, too quiet, “It will not be necessary.”

The humans did make their move, but it was not the move he was expecting.

He was experimenting with walking and finding it possible but not enjoyable. He occupied his mind by thinking of the various and inventive ways in which he would punish the creatures who had reduced him to this. After a while, he tried reaching for his power again and touched just a sliver of it, enough to feel its rush like a wave over his feet before it was gone again, Loki felt his whole body slacken in relief. Not gone. He hadn’t lost it forever. They hadn’t taken that from him as well.

Distracted, it took him a moment to notice the projection.

He turned to examined it once he did, regarding the image of the one-eyed man with bland incuriosity for a few moments. Waiting.

“Before you and your brother get going again,” said the man (Fury, Loki thought he remembered), “We wanted a chance to have a word with you.”

“Oh?” Loki let the corner of his mouth curl up in a slightly cruel smile. “Is this where you attempt to gain the information you desire politely before turning to other methods? Because I truly doubt there is anything you can do which would be effective.”

“No,” said Fury, “I think I’m gonna have to go ahead and agree with you there. That’s not the idea.” The projection folded its hands across its stomach and settled its feet. “SHIELD – that’s our organization – just might be interested in hiring you.”

That wasn’t exactly what he had seen coming. Loki kept his face deliberately blank. “Excuse me?”

The illusion’s expression was impassive, difficult to read. “You have a skillset we could use, if you were willing to. Mm. Direct it constructively.”

Loki let his eyelids fall to half mast, the slight curl of his lip effectively communicating contempt. “My. Such an offer. What will your…Avengers think?”

“I’m not particularly concerned about that,” the man said, evenly, frankly. Huh. Loki snorted and jerked his head.

“I do not fancy being your pet on a leash.”

The illusion shrugged. “Might find it a bit more comfortable than imprisonment.” Loki flashed his teeth, less smile than snarl.

“What makes you think they can hold me?”

“The way I see it,” the illusion said, still irritatingly calm. “You have a couple choices. You can either keep slipping Asgard’s net and getting reeled back in – because let’s face it, sooner or later your brother’s going to catch up with you-”

“He’s not my brother,” Loki snapped. Fury went on as though he hadn’t been interrupted.

“Or you can get paid for spoiling the poorly thought out schemes of lesser mortals. Your choice.”

Loki let his eyebrows creep up, hoping they managed to effectively convey his skepticism. “That is all you have to offer me? A slightly larger cage and some small bribe?”

“Yeah,” the illusion said. “Just about. Oh, and not to mention the things that sent you our way? Might wanna take you back if you wander off. You ride with us, you get the benefit of our protection. Which, you may have noticed? Pretty good. Just a thought.”

The illusion vanished. Loki frowned at the place it had been. He hated letting others have the last word. There was something profoundly unsatisfying about it.

It wouldn’t do to admit that, though, so Loki focused his energy on looking casually disinterested instead, keeping the dizzy, trackless circle of his thoughts from showing on his face.

Thor sat with Loki through the night in the new containment cell set up for him. “I’m not even going to try to guess how long until he comes around,” Bruce had said wearily. “Five minutes, five hours, somewhere in that range? And who knows what kind of condition he’ll be in then. Just because he hasn’t tried to magic us all to pieces or whatever doesn’t mean he won’t.”

Thor was thus, at least nominally, the guard. Though looking at his brother,Thor did not think it would be much of a fight. Loki looked painfully thin. Always slight, he had wasted away to gaunt. His hair was long and unkempt, matted in places, the rest of his body equally filthy.

And his eyes that Thor had glimpsed earlier – wild, beast’s eyes, empty of intellect or anything but fear, desperation, pain.

He feared that Loki might wake and be unrecognizable, his sharp mind broken. He thought anything might be better than that.

Thor reached for and clasped one of Loki’s long, limp hands. “I am sorry,” he said. “I think that I have failed you. I will seek to- I will seek to do better, I swear to you.” Loki did not even twitch.

The moment the twenty-four hours were up, Loki started counting. He made it to twenty seconds before Thor appeared, and was almost impressed. He said so. Thor did not look terribly amused.

“I had heard,” Thor said, after a moment, “That Nick Fury extended an invitation to you.”

“Not exactly how I would put it,” Loki murmured. “I would say he offered me a collar and leash and asked if I would like to put them on.” Thor’s expression pinched. “You do realize, don’t you, that if I agree I am effectively escaping Aesir justice? How does that sit with you?”

“I would sooner have you hale and happy than force you where you would not.”

Loki’s laugh sounded harsh and false to his own ears. “Such noble sentiment. Ever gracious, Thor. Are you so merciful to all your enemies? Midgard has made you soft.”

Thor looked gratifyingly upset. His face scrunched up just like it had when he was a child. “You are not my enemy. You will never be my enemy, Loki. You array yourself against me but I will not accept-”

“Just as I will never be your equal?”

“I never said-”

“You never had to.” Even sitting perfectly still on the bed (embarrassing, to have to crane his neck to look up at Thor, but worse to fall to the floor when his legs gave out and worse still to have Thor catch him) pain was shooting through his back, bones knitting together painfully slowly. “It was plain enough. To me. To everyone else. You crave my presence at your side because it gives your greatness more meaning to have one so obviously less standing beside you. This is what infuriates you most. Not the deaths of these insignificant creatures. Not that I would hurt you. That I dare to exist apart from you.”

Thor’s expression was so perfectly, exquisitely wounded. “That is not-”

“You hoped – hope, perhaps – that given time, I might crawl back to your side, to fawn about your feet like a wretched cur.”

“Loki, I have only ever wanted what is best for you-”

“And you are what is best for me?” Loki asked, voice sharp, biting, mocking, an invitation to Thor’s temper.

Thor’s shoulders slumped. “No,” he said, sounding abruptly, alarmingly weary. “Perhaps not. I want to be. But…I wish to help you, brother, and I do want what is best for you. Perhaps I must accept that that does not include me.”

Loki blinked, silenced and actually genuinely surprised. And felt an unhappy twinge stinging at him, no, don’t leave me warring with a part of him that rejoiced at the idea of being free of Thor (you will never be free of Thor). It took him a moment too long to realize that he was staring stupidly up like some gawking idiot.

“I will miss you,” Thor said, quietly, “And I will always be your brother. But if you wish it, as long as you do not trespass in some way I must stop, I will not force you back to Asgard to resume your imprisonment.”

“What if I do not accept the offer made to me?” Loki asked, after a moment, striving for casual but even to his own ears his voice sounded thin and strained. His mind was whirring, trying to calculate and figure and understand what Thor thought he was…

“As long as you do not trespass in some way I must stop,” Thor repeated, after a moment, and his gaze on Loki was weighty and solemn, “You are free to do as you will.”

There was a strange kind of panic quickening Loki’s heartbeat, a feeling like he was being backed into a corner, and wasn’t that strange, when for the first time in what felt like forever he truly had a choice. No one telling him to do this or that and failure hanging like a sword poised to cut off his head. And yet it was now he felt trapped. “The Allfather will send hunters after me,” he managed, though the words did not come easily, seemed to stumble on his tongue.

“He will not.” Thor paused, and his smile was small and faintly pained. “And even should he, you know as well as I, Loki, that there is no hunter that can find you when you do not wish to be found.”

Except for you, Loki thought. You could always find me, and he wasn’t even sure if his own thought was bitter or grateful or longing.

“I know you, brother,” Thor said, taking a step back. “You are not what you pretend to be. You told me once to never doubt that you loved me. I know not if it was a lie, but I would tell you the same now. Be well. Choose thoughtfully. I hope that we might speak again, someday.”

Loki couldn’t summon the words to reply as Thor left. Stared blankly after him, feeling thick and slow and confused.

Thor was predictable. Thor was always, always predictable.

How had he managed to surprise him?

Loki held perfectly still. There was a feeling, somewhere, like cracks spidering on glass. Weakness, like insect legs on his spine. Like possibility, or a door suddenly hanging open. Choose thoughtfully.

Thor was oddly quiet when he emerged from speaking with Loki. His expression pensive and shoulders bowed as though weighted down. “That’s not a good face,” Tony observed, under his breath and sideways, to Steve.

Maybe they were hovering. A little bit.

“Thor, buddy,” Tony went on at Thor’s continued silence, “You know, nobody expects you-”

“I have told Loki that if he does not cause trouble that I will not interfere with his business,” Thor interrupted. His voice was solemn, deep and low. Three sets of eyes blinked at him. Two narrowed.

“Yeah,” said Clint, “Okay, that doesn’t mean we can’t-”

“No,” said Steve, almost absently, focused on Thor. “Why did you…what are you thinking, Thor?”

“I’m thinking that I still believe in my brother,” Thor said quietly. “And that I wish to give him a chance. I cannot, of course, rule your justice, but I wish to…I will hold to what I told Loki. He has been punished, more severely than I would ever have willed. So long as he does not cause harm…I will not fight him.”

“That’s very noble of you,” Tony said, tone creeping a little towards sharp. “But what about-”

“Tony,” said Bruce, just that, quiet and simple, and Tony actually shut his mouth. Thor shook his head, slowly.

“I must go,” he said, sounding very tired. “And…” He turned, and strode off down the hallway. Gait almost faltering.

He slept, restlessly and uneasily, and woke feeling jittery and uncomfortable in the dark (too much dark, too deep). He reached instinctively for his magic and touched only a sliver of it, not even enough to light a candle.

At least he felt more whole physically. Less like his back was going to split wide open if he moved too quickly. That was an improvement.

His mind was still trying to work through…still going over and over what Thor had said. You are free to do as you will. As he would. Within limits, of course. Thor would undoubtedly disapprove if he tried to subjugate Midgard, would come swooping back to give him a scolding. Truthfully, however, that thought did not seem terribly interesting. Rather dull, in fact; almost pedestrian.

What would he do with mastery over these little people, anyway?

But to tie himself to them, accept their bondage, however disguised…that thought was even more distasteful. Humiliating, even.

You might, murmured a small voice in the back of his mind, look at what your pride has gotten you thus far. You have all too few allies. You are vulnerable just now, and will be for who knows how long? Your enemies are powerful. Are you Thor, to cling to your pride to the point of stupidity? There is wisdom in knowing when to bend the knee.

Loki chewed on the inside of his lip where it could not be seen.

Accepting a leash does not mean you must remain on one forever. You can always break it. Whenver it suits you.

Free of Thor’s shadow. Free to forge…what, a place for himself? Here? Laughable. But if you could. That same murmur. If you could, what then?

Asgard was not home. Had never been home. All that waited for him there was a cell, and the hope that his former allies would not come for him again – or if they did, that they would be stopped. Loki did not put much weight on that hope. It was a good move, offering him this…position. Neutralize a threat and gain a powerful ally at the same time. He could appreciate the intelligence of it. The kind of intelligence that might appreciate subtlety as much of Asgard never had.

Choose thoughtfully, Thor had said, but Loki’s mind kept going in circle after circle, fruitless and frustrating. You are free to do as you will.

Do you even know what you want? A different voice, faintly snide. Have you, since you let go and fell, meaning to die? Or just grabbed at whatever was held out to you in desperation? What do you want, Loki Laufeyson? Given your choice, what would you do with yourself?

The fact that he did not know the answer to that was more disconcerting than anything.

He felt suddenly, draggingly tired.

Loki opened his eyes. He tilted his head back. “Fury,” he said, voice cool, level, and calm, to the cameras he was certain were listening. “Tell me the terms of your contract. I’m interested.”