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After Defeat

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… Four. Five. Turn… Loki Laufeyson paced the confines of his cell. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Turn. Silent behind the gag, he contemplated his situation. The Chitauri would want his blood, of course, although, honestly… his lips twisted wryly for a moment, unseen, even as his fists slowly clenched… that they had not conquered could hardly be his fault. What kind of great army was it, anyway, that fell apart immediately with the loss of one ship? And even without that little problem, where were the numbers? The force sent had hardly been sufficient to take Manhattan, never mind the world… Were they honestly that stupid? It hardly required the intelligence of a god to understand their failure.

The thoughts continued down these profitless avenues only a bare second longer. Regret was as useless as the cheap sentimentality he had derided among the so-called Avengers. The Chitauri had harnessed the power of the staff, had dared to use it against him, Loki. By the Nine, they would live to wish they had never heard of the gems of infinity. They had lost the staff, and unless they had been holding back more than he currently believed, their army was less than promised, but what else had he been able to observe in his days of bondage? Certainly, they believed that with the Tesseract, they would be able to conquer the Universe, but then, they thought they could take Midgard with no more than a single division. Idiots, then, unlikely to challenge the full power of a god without the influence of the staff.

Falling through the space between the worlds for what had seemed an Infinity, he had had time to contemplate his last days in Asgard. It was infuriating that no one seemed to actually *think* among the Asgardians. He had wondered all his life why he alone seemed to be several steps ahead, analyzing problems, finding solutions. The others were content to feast and fight with never a stray thought to trouble them, while Loki contended with a restless brain that took everything in, finding connections in places the others didn't even look. Even now, they could not see what he had tried to do for Asgard, and so they had trapped him like this, silenced, in the belief that this would strip his magic from him.

Of course, had his magic truly been taken from him, there would have been the little matter of reverting to his true, Jotun form, but the fact they hadn't thought of it was a sign that perhaps he could find the other weaknesses, the other slips that would allow him to go elsewhere, to find a place worthy of his rule. Time, then, to consider the weaknesses of all his enemies again…

Tony Stark contemplated the new, bulletproof window in his tower room. The floor was still a mess, though it was now even and again reinforced, but still unfinished, as he had wanted the window and the essentials fixed first – then everyone could worry about the décor. This floor had just been approved again for use. Maybe things would be ready next week for the movie night he had promised Steve if he'd come over. Pepper would be back by then. He was also working with Bruce Banner on the readings they'd taken from Loki's staff. It hadn't been hard to secure it after the cleanup started. He'd even managed to scrounge some Chitauri hovercraft, armor, and weapons *before* just about everything he hadn't hidden in Stark Tower had been grabbed by SHIELD. The new toys should keep him happily at work for a little while yet.

With that thought, he grabbed his private elevator and headed up to Bruce's temporary lab. "Any luck with the pulse measurements? I've been thinking –" He broke off as he took in the look on the physicist's face. "What's new?"

"It's the staff. After what happened on SHIELD's stealthcraft, I figured we'd better put it in a sealed container while it was being scanned, so I know no one's touched it on this end, but it's giving off the same energy signature SHIELD picked up on the Tesseract, just before Loki paid a visit."

"Not good. Very not good. Do you think the Chitauri are dumb enough to give it a second try? Or could he have…"

"I don't know. All I know is I nearly walked out of this lab when I saw the readout a few minutes ago. I really don't want the other guy showing up in inhabited places without an established enemy to fight." He gave the self-deprecating smile Tony had learned to associate with him and added, "Besides, this is a nice lab you have."

"Right, right. JARVIS, give me the new readings, overlaid with the old. Bruce, don't head to the middle of nowhere just yet, okay? I want to see if we can establish a pattern to the timing, here, and I'll need you, buddy. When did we first see this kind of reading from the Tesseract?" He began humming to himself as he manipulated the charted readouts. When he had rearranged them to a close approximation, he frowned. "We can't be absolutely sure that the staff has the same mechanism as the Tesseract, but this looks a lot like the signature we saw about 72 hours before it went critical. You're the expert here, Bruce, and I'm just going on the visuals. What would you say?"

Frowning, the physicist leaned forward to double-check the data. "I'd say I wish we had the others still in town, though given what happened last time something like this went off, I suggest the staff should also head for the 'middle of nowhere.' The fluctuation is smaller, but so is the overall energy pattern. It could take longer than the Tesseract to go critical." Here, he looked over at Tony directly, "but I sure wouldn't bet on it.

Steve Rogers had finished his routine and was headed home. With any luck, a new disk would arrive tonight from the service that Tony had set up for him. A new movie practically every night, and all he had to do afterwards was put it back in the envelope and send it back through the mail. The machine itself had not been nearly as confusing as he had feared. All he had to do was touch the rectangle, put the disk, shiny side down, onto the tray, and touch the tray. The movie would usually start then, but if it didn't, Tony had made a special remote-controller for him, with only a few functions, clearly marked.

He had been pleasantly surprised, also, to find that he could still get familiar food. Tony and Bruce seemed to eat the most outrageous things with impossible names. He had thought Chop Suey to be sophisticatedly foreign, but found himself astounded by the range of cuisines Tony regularly had sent up during working meetings. Mrs. Stein, on the corner, made incredible liver, and he'd always been fond of liver, believing when he was younger, that the vitamins would make him bigger. The best part was that she always did "Big Band Thursdays," where the music was familiar.

He didn't want to eat alone tonight, a Friday, though, with only memories for company, so instead, he got a couple hot dogs from a street vendor – with everything, exactly the way he always ordered them. No sense wasting money by not getting everything you pay for. The mailbox did indeed contain a red envelope, so he went upstairs to watch something called "Forrest Gump". Just as he had set down the food, retrieving a box of salad from the refrigerator, something which still caused him a moment of awe, and put his bag neatly on the shelf, the telephone rang.

"Hey, big guy, think you could free up a minute to head out this way? Can't promise you the in-house theater yet, but I think you might be interested in tonight's show anyway. Happy's on his way, maybe even outside your place now if traffic wasn't too bad." Steve tried to fight the smile of relief that crossed his features as he realized he had someplace to be, something to do tonight. But before he met the driver downstairs, he'd eat the hotdogs, so he wouldn't have to depend on Tony's mercurial appetite.

Loki had stopped pacing, choosing to sit against the wall, his long limbs elegantly disposed and his piercing eyes hooded as he allowed his mind to explore the area around his prison. Even here, the manacles and gag stayed, a small tug on the edge of his consciousness, reminding him that the body was bound, though the spirit roamed free.

He looked out over the great towers of Asgard and wondered what punishment his so-called father and brother would concoct for him. At least they were unlikely to send him back to the mortal world, as had been done to Thor. While the power of Mjolnir was under Odin's control, it might prove more difficult to completely cut off the sources of Loki's power, particularly since his native Jotun form had powers that were certainly not under Asgard's control, and it required magic to keep him from reverting to that form. He wondered for a moment whether Thor's sentimental nature would cause him to ask for mercy, knowing Odin would certainly not grant it.

Even in this shadow form, Loki found his lips pressed together with resentment. They had set themselves up in judgment since his earliest memories, and he had always been found wanting. Why should this time be any different? He hadn't even been on Asgard, yet they presumed to decide his fate by their whim. Before, when he had found a way to win the war that Odin had conducted, and Thor had long wanted to win, they had actively stopped him from destroying Jotunheim and not even bothered to listen to his reasoning. It was then he knew he would never have a fair hearing from either and had chosen to fall into the space between worlds rather than trust to their "justice".

In some ways, that eternal fall had been no worse than this interminable waiting. Certainly, he had not been bound, instead moving through nothingness, free to think whatever he would, to seek out the chinks in reality that allow for movement between the planes. Most Asgardians required something as flashy and powerful as the Bifrost, but Loki had learned to slip through the merest waverings where worlds met. When he had found such a place in the emptiness, he had grabbed the chance and trusted to luck and his own wit and cunning to see him through. So far, it had seen him through to here. But if anything were needed to teach him the ability to use defeat as a weapon, having Thor as an older "brother" would certainly do it.

Speaking of whom… Loki caught the silver pinpoint of light reflecting off steel armor, the merest hint of red, and returned spirit to body, unwilling to give Thor even a hint that he had found at least some respite from his imprisonment. Both to disguise the alert listening stance he had taken, and to remind Thor that he was beaten, Loki curled up more tightly, rested the manacles visibly against his shins, allowed his forehead to rest on his knees. The ghost of a smile drifted away when he heard the hoof beats stop.

Thor had been troubled since the discovery of his brother's madness. Loki had always been the clever one – he planned ahead so that they got away with more youthful pranks than Thor would have accomplished on his own. And Thor had always made sure to include him, along with Sif and the Warriors Three, whenever there was something interesting to do. But Loki had always been quieter, with the hard-to-read face that allowed him to get away with so much mischief. Thor felt guilty that he had not read that face better, known the glitter in Loki's eyes for madness, saved him from the inward turning ambition. He inwardly writhed with the knowledge of his errand.

And so, even knowing that Loki could not be trusted, Thor's heart twisted to see him curled up, back to the wall, the strap of the gag just visible under the black hair, the manacles starkly silver against the black leather trousers. It twisted further to realize that Loki must have heard him enter the cell, yet did not look up, keeping his head down, refusing even to look at his brother. "Loki…" he began, not knowing how to proceed, how to talk now that they were so far apart.

At last, Loki looked up, eyebrows raised, and face molded into an expression of cool inquiry. Thor's discomfort with his errand and with his brother doubled as he realized that the entire burden of conversation would be on him, that he could not count on Loki to be the wordsmith for this message. "Our father…" Loki's head tilted, just a fraction of a degree, but enough to communicate his rejection of the relationship. "Odin has decreed your sentence." At this, Loki raised his arms, resting elbows on knees, and bringing the manacles to rest against his chest as his chin came down in his hands. Save for the bonds, he might look like a child awaiting a particularly dull lesson.

"You are to be chained here, hands and feet bound to the rock." At this, Thor took an uncertain breath to steady himself as his blue eyes grew suspiciously shiny. Loki's face remained impassive, impossible to read. "And your gag will be removed, in order for the Serpent to drip venom on your face the rest of your days." His voice broke with the last words. Loki lifted his eyes to look directly at Thor, his face set and white. Taking a deep breath, nostrils flaring, he leaned forward onto his toes and stood, turning his back for the removal of the gag.

Thor, rendered clumsy by his emotional distress, fumbled for a moment with the gag before managing to release it. Loki stood, still turned away, hands hanging down as his jaw silently worked out the stiffness of the gag. Finally, still not turning, he asked, his voice rough with disuse, the words barely spoken above a whisper, "Now? You?"

"We have some time. I asked it of the All-Father and he granted my boon, for the sake of our brotherhood. Others will come before sundown for the punishment. Provided you neither attack nor attempt escape, we may talk. Is there anything you would have of me? If it is within my honor and my ability, you will have it."

Pathetic, really. He's come back with a sentence of eternal torture and hopes a few tears in the eyes and some moments – to do what, by the way? will make everything all better, will make Loki's life all better, the childhood in Thor's shadow, the loss of brotherhood and identity in one moment, the sentence to come. All better.

Still, it's an opening. Willing his face to the expression he'd last worn dangling over an eternal abyss, Loki turned with shining eyes, lips softy parted in an expression of earnest hope and lifted his hands. "Please, brother, must I go to my punishment wearing these? Surely, everything has been taken. I have no staff, I have been weakened these days here with nothing to eat or drink, bound night and day. Can I not have a few moments with my hands unbound? No, you would hardly trust me with that. So let Mother know I still love her. Don't let her suffer for my punishment." He put every ounce of earnest goodwill he could find into his voice, letting it break at the end, in nearly perfect imitation of Thor, who did not notice the echo, but instead reached forward to grasp the manacles. Loki cast his eyes down in seeming humble submission to hide the sudden gleam of triumph.

Bruce watched, amused, as Tony made sure that a few more scans were made of the Chitauri "toys" and put in his personal file, while they waited for Happy to show up with Steve. Remembering the chaos that the staff had left in its wake on the SHIELD ship, and even that it had seemed to target him, Bruce wondered about the wisdom of having it in an enclosed space with him again, but at the same time, recognized the wisdom of having Avengers on hand when whatever was about to happen happened. The billionaire was getting increasingly edgy, however, and had already snapped at JARVIS to stop interrupting him, then dictated a series of staccato orders for travel arrangements to one of Stark's various land holdings.

"JARVIS, where the hell are they? Cap need to stop for a ballgame or something?" Tony ran a hand through his hair, adding to the disorder already reigning there.

"We're here, Mr. Stark." The tall blonde was walking from the elevator, a boyish smile lighting his face. "No ballgame, just slow traffic. But if we're not seeing a movie, what's the show you were talking about?" He looked around the room, then, taking in Tony's nervous tension and the worried look on Bruce's face.

"No. You are not about to tell me that you've found a problem and kept it secret, are you? I know that's not what you're going to tell me because you'd be more responsible than that." His eyes narrowed. "Right?"

"Wrong. We're responsible enough not to want to get civilians killed, and aren't sure that involving SHIELD will further that goal." Tony's look was direct, his feet planted, every line of his body showing his willingness to defend his words. "Look, we just – that is, Bruce just noticed that the readings on the staff – it was still in the tower, so we took readings on it – the staff readings are looking maybe a little like the readings from the Tesseract from before, you know, the whole 'It Came From Outer Space' thing. I wanted to get some Avengers together, and you know, we're already here, we take the staff and go to an old missile complex I happen to own. Once we're there, if you have to let Fury know, then do it, but I'm getting this staff out of Manhattan first."

"My helicraft should be on the roof by now. Yell at me on the way, okay?"

Steve bit back his frustration with the chaotic inventor. True, the first priority should be to get the staff away from the crowded city. And he knew from personal experience that SHIELD was not always on the side of sweetness and light, but the fact stood that nobody should be able to just claim the kind of power that the staff represented, and it sounded like Tony had simply decided to take it during the cleanup. It was moments like this that deeply disturbed him, when he wondered if anyone understood the importance of having good leadership and following those leaders staunchly.

None of this, however, was getting the staff away from Manhattan, so he nodded curtly and turned toward the elevator again. Tony grabbed a small suitcase, and a long, thin metal box and now lead the way to the helipad.

As the shackles fell free, Loki stretched and flexed his arms carefully, as if experimenting with the feeling of having arms. Quietly, he turned to Thor, long, dexterous fingers moving as though to return feeling to them, each movement graceful but hesitant, almost uncertain. "Do you remember, Thor, the day I helped slow down the new wall around Asgard?"

Thor chuckled, "That was truly one of your better jests! How could I forget it?"

Suddenly, Loki focused on Thor, his face intent "Everyone was so angry, simply furious. Especially the All-Father, but you asked a boon of him, and…"

Thor shifted his eyes away from the pale serious face, turning to the wall of the cave. His feet shifted uncomfortably. For a moment, unseen, the light falling on Loki shifted slightly, almost flickering. "This is more serious than that was. Your obsession with imagined slights has led you to do much evil. Our father believes you must learn repentance." Thor said, looking up again. Loki's eyes were turned down now to the floor, idly watching as a small fly crawled onto Thor's boot, then he looked back up to Thor's face, smiling the razor-edged grin that had become too familiar.

The next moment, green light filled the cave and the raven-haired god was gone.

From the edge of Thor's boot, Loki watched as his illusion disappeared and a shout of protest erupted from the god of thunder. If there would ever be a day Thor would discern the difference between the real Loki and an image, today was not that day. Loki wished for a moment he could roll the compound eyes. The problem, of course, was that Thor had never seen him, had only ever seen the image that Thor wanted to see. It ached to know that the "big brother" in whose shadow he had grown, whom he had desired with every breath to become, could not pierce the simple illusion.

Soon enough, Thor was pounding out of the cave, running for his horse and shouting at the top of his lungs. Predictable, so utterly predictable. Loki clung to the boot, wings poised for flight, even as he wondered for a moment how he had ever thought that an idiot like Thor could possibly understand him. After they had passed into the sunlight of late afternoon, Loki waited another moment, then lazily flew off the boot onto the tail of Thor's horse.

The disadvantage, of course, to being a fly was that it would normally take some time to travel, but Thor would get him where he needed to go. His escape would, naturally, have been reported by this time. And this form would not necessarily hide him from others, but they would probably assume he was long gone. In any case, the risk would have to be taken. He'd forgotten to bring something when he'd left in such a hurry last time, and while he was at it, there was another toy he'd like to pick up. Inwardly, a manic grin spread through his being.

"Bruce, do we have those scanners for a go?" Tony had thrown out about half the seats in his luxuriously appointed private helicraft while the three Avengers loaded themselves and the staff. While the front remained obviously intended for comfort, the back had been rapidly stripped down to bare metal, and now contained only the heavily secured container for the staff, a few pieces of mysterious apparatus, and a tablet that Tony had fished out of a locker in the front, then handed to Bruce. The case Tony had brought on board sat next to him.

Bruce knelt, dividing his attention between one of the devices now securely attached to the floor and the tablet. "Almost, although, it's hard for me to tell, the readings are fluctuating too much. I can't tell for sure whether it's the instrument or the staff is further along than we thought."

"Right, yeah." Tony turned his head to the cockpit and barked out, "Whatever it is that you're doing up there, cut it out and get us going!"

Smoothly, rapidly, the helicraft rose from the pad and began the long trip west. As they went airborne, some of the tension in the air faded, though Bruce kept anxiously glancing at the readout on the tablet. Tony blinked, visibly calming himself, looked at the other two Avengers. "I know I've got a decently stocked bar on this thing, and usually there are sandwiches. Anybody hungry?"

The diversion was not destined to be successful. "Mr. Stark, can you explain to me what is happening, and how it is that you just 'happen' to have the staff?" Steve Rogers was leaning forward, eyes intently focused. His stiffer-than-usual military posture was an easy tell for the outrage he felt over the appropriation of the staff.

"About that, yeah. Well, the Tesseract was on its way to Asgard, care of everybody's favorite thunder god, which seemed like a good thing then – still does, actually. I kind of picked up one or two things the Chitauri had left behind, you know, not really scrounging, but it doesn't do to leave everything a mess, and besides, we all know that when SHIELD gets its hands on that stuff, they're going to have their engineers trying to backwards engineer everything, only none of their engineers are me." Here, he gave the practiced smile he used when accepting awards or revealing a new invention. "In any case, it seemed like a good idea at the time to keep an eye on the staff. We already know it can be used as a weapon, even if none of us knows exactly how it works. So, I kind of cleared out a little space in a locker that might not be on the official plans"

"We, that is, I - thought, 'hey, let's keep an obvious weapon out of the hands of a department that was already trying to use the Tesseract to make weapons.' Because I just know that somehow, some way, they'd get the wrong information into the wrong hands. And besides, it needs to be looked after by experts. I had Bruce up in the R&D levels, so I already had the best expert, plus, of course, me. So what about those sandwiches?"

Steve looked troubled, obviously wishing he could find the flaw in the argument, but unable to disagree.

Loki again hid himself on Thor's boot as they drew close to the palace. As he dismounted, Thor tossed the reins to a lackey, running through the marble entry and lightly up a set of perfectly proportioned stairs leading to a light filled chamber. Here, he dove into the complex passages to reach the more private, more secure family zone. Since Loki had escaped, if he chose to remain on Asgard, he would want the Casket of Ancient Winters, and Thor would have to protect it. With any luck at all, they would not yet have created a second secure chamber for the Tesseract.

Effortlessly clinging to the decoration on Thor's boot, Loki waited to be carried exactly where he wanted to go.

The Avengers landed in the partially restored missile base, and headed for the entry to a blocky concrete bunker. Opening the door, Tony gestured around at the spare furnishings. "Okay, guys, it's not the Ritz, I'll grant you. We've had workmen out to make the place liveable – it was taken down in the '90's and had some problems. Gotten a whole bunch of the land declared a wildlife sanctuary for the tax benefits, and Pepper was talking about making it a kind of retreat. So I've got a basic setup for coming out to check up on the place. There's a small workroom kind of thing – not really a full lab, but better than the helicraft. I got bored last time she dragged me out here. Speaking of, shouldn't she be back from that conference thing by now, JARVIS?"

"I am sorry, sir, but she has two more days in Madrid. Shall I make the connection?"

Tony thought for a moment. "Not yet, this might worry her, and I hate it when that happens." He opened a few doors. "Main bathroom, six bedrooms, kitchen with backup survival rations – the deliveries here can be inconsistent, so there's the Mormon food thing. And, finally, my workroom – The place does have wireless internet and, obviously, is connected to my servers, so don't feel like we'll be totally cut off from the world here." They filed into the workroom, which was larger than the lounge they had initially seen. Bruce placed the box onto one of the metal lab benches in the center of the room.

Just then, the metal box began to glow bright blue, and shake.

Nick Fury paced restlessly. "Hill, do we have any information yet on where they might have gone?" His eye focused sternly on the young woman looking through a readout on the computer screen.

"Their flight plans go through to California, but it's odd… they have a fueling stop, here in the Great Plains. I thought his personal helicraft had been converted to ARC reactor technology, so why does he need fuel? I checked the stop. There's nothing there that we know of, except Stark started a wildlife refuge there a few months ago as part of Stark Industries' Greener, Greater, Better campaign, right before the Manhattan incident, if you remember. Reclaiming an old missile base, but you had cleared agents going through a second time as soon as you realized who was going to buy it."

"Stark." Fury snorted. "Why does that not surprise me? I knew we had to keep an eye on him as soon as Agent Romanov realized he must have the staff. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to get anybody highly enough placed in there since they spotted her. I'm just glad our man spotted Captain Rogers going in at the same time as a helicraft. Wait, didn't we send Barton to monitor the situation in Montana? Get him out there ASAP!"

Natasha smiled and played with the straw in her drink. As she smiled up at the gentleman who towered over her, she ran her tongue over her lower lip and gave a delicate shrug. "Yes, darling, but I'd need that shipment by Tuesday, and everything would have to be secure. My boss is not a… patient man."

The man's brutal features shaped into a leer. "Tuesday is not too soon. I'm not patient, either." His hand moved to her waist as she lifted the drink for a tiny sip. Next, she melted into his embrace, and lifted her face for a kiss. A few moments later, the man was rolling, purple-faced, on the floor. She stood over him for a moment, decided he'd earned a little mercy for the information he'd given, and broke his neck.

Just then, her cell phone went off. When Nick Fury began to speak, she smiled. "Your timing is perfect. I was just cleaning up here."

Loki slipped off the boot, and flew the few feet to the raised dais on which the Casket sat. Looking over, he saw that the Tesseract was also in the same room. Perfect. He'd planned for much more difficult scenarios while caged. From the hall came the sound of shouts, running feet, clashing swords, and his own voice in a low snarl. "You will not deny entrance to a King of Asgard!" Predictably, Thor ran into the hallway, following the elusive battle. Loki smiled as he transformed back into his preferred form. As he grabbed both treasures, the wall began to light up, signalling the entrance of the Destroyer, but Loki gestured with the hand holding the Tesseract, causing it to disappear, then grabbed the Casket with both hands and froze the wall. Of course, that wouldn't hold the Destroyer for long, but he didn't intend to linger.

Looking down at his now-blue arm, he snarled and gestured the Casket away. Running to the end of the hall, he slipped through the worlds into the wreckage of a mountain in Jotunheim.