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You do not have to walk on your knees

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They were in trouble. They were in serious trouble.

Tony had always kind of assumed that the whole mad sorcerer thing was individual to Loki, but apparently not. Not if this Amora chick – Enchantress, whatever – and her tank were any indication, anyway.

Her tank named Skurge, currently swinging a sword about the size of Clint at Tony’s head. “Hey, Thor,” he yelled, flying out of range and firing a repulsor at the guy’s head with no visible effect. “You really need to stop inviting your friends over, I don’t think they like us very much-”

“Tony, pay attention!” He caught the blast of magic coming at him out of the corner of his eye and veered narrowly out of the way. Steve deflected another with his shield. Tony glimpsed an arrow flying at the Enchantress’s face only to see it incinerate midair a moment later.

Magic, Tony thought. I really, really hate magic. Hearing a roar and looking back down, Tony saw the Hulk slam into Skurge.

They needed to find a better way to handle this fight.

“My friends!” That was Thor, his voice crackling over the comm they’d finally managed to make that wouldn’t explode when he channeled lightning. “Amora is a powerful sorceress! I think it perhaps best if I-”

“Don’t even say it, Thor,” Natasha snapped. “That’s not the way this works,” and as though Amora had heard her say it, her head whipped around.

“Where is Thor?” Amora called. “Thor! My golden prince, come to me! I will see all of your little mortal friends fall until you have no choice but to face me yourself!”

“I will not allow,” Thor started to bellow, and Tony’s mood was just getting worse and worse, and god, he was going to need a drink after this.

He fired another repulsor blast at her, hoping to at least distract her, but it bounced off of a hastily erected shield, and then she turned a snarl on him and lifted her hands. “I will tear you from the sky, metal man,” she said, almost a shriek, and then one blonde Norse god slammed into concrete not ten feet from her.

“Goddammit,” Tony swore. Steve sounded somewhere between panicked and hissing mad.

“Thor, what do you think you’re doing?”

“Enchantress!” Thor bellowed. “If it is I you wish to fight, then fight only me!”

“Shit, Thor, no,” Clint yelled over the commlink, but Thor was already charging and Amora just looked pleased, her hands coming up and it wasn’t fire or ice or anything like that, just – light. A beam of swirling, multicolored…light.

Fucking magic.

But Thor stumbled when it touched him. Tony flipped over and dove toward him, immediately, but out of nowhere Skurge and the Hulk were both in his way and he had to pull back to keep from getting hammered by one or the other or both. But Thor had stumbled, Thor never-

“Thor!” Steve yelled, and Tony glanced in his direction just in time to see him catch another bolt of Amora’s magic in the side and go flying.

“No,” said Amora, “All of you, away!” That light was still streaming between her and Thor, and Thor was dropping to his knees, the Mighty Thor, on his knees like some kind of non-invincible mortal guy, and Tony could see the mad grin on Amora’s smug blonde face. “Now you are mine,” she said, and none of them were going to reach him in time-

From behind him, Tony heard a crackle like static electricity, and then the vibration of a familiar voice, low and full of fury: “No.

Oh, shit. Because this day needed to get better. Tony whirled around, hands up prepared to fire, but Loki wasn’t even looking at him. Was looking past him, and Tony followed that truly formidably pissed stare back to –


The progress of her magic seemed to have stopped. Tony could see Thor struggling to breathe, to rise. Her face broke into a dazzling smile. “Loki? Why, what a lovely surpr-”

Tony caught only the slightest motion of Loki’s hand, and the Enchantress had a moment to look startled before she went flying and hit a nearby building with a crunch of what was either bone or concrete or, knowing Asgardians, possibly both. He almost felt whatever was holding Thor snap like a rubber band and the big guy fell forward, gasping. Which was weird, which was really weird, Tony had never seen Thor so much as winded.

And Loki was-

Had flickered out of view and reappeared, striding (seriously, striding, Tony had described people as striding before but this was actual striding and Tony was pretty sure if someone was coming in his direction that way he would just fucking run) to where Amora was dragging herself up, looking slightly bedraggled but mostly puzzled.

“What have I said,” Loki was saying, his voice icily clear, “About your. Going near. Thor Odinsson.”

Amora was staggering to her feet and beginning to look slightly peeved. “Loki, dear,” she began to say, “Don’t you think you are being a bit unr-”

She went flying again. This time there was definitely a crunch, and she bounced back up with a snarl and flung a fireball at Loki’s face that he brushed aside with one sharp wave of his hand. It crashed into the sidewalk instead, and left a misshapen hole of molten concrete bubbling where it landed.

They’d all, Tony realized, just kind of frozen. Except for Bruce, who was still dueling Mr. Brick Wall what sounded like a few blocks away. The rest of them were just kind of…staring. “Should we…” Tony started to ask, and Steve cut in with a sharp, “No, no, just stay out of it.”

“I can take him out from here,” Clint said, and there was a hard, nasty edge in his voice that Tony could completely understand and sympathize with.

“No,” said Steve. “The way they’re going getting in the middle would just – containment, all right?”

That seemed smart. The way green was sparking around Loki’s hands clenched at his sides did not, Tony was pretty sure, bode well. Amora drew herself up. “One chance,” she said, “Loki, darling, you know you cannot possibly hope to-”

Loki laughed, and that was the nastiest, most scornful version of that noise Tony’d ever heard, and he’d heard a few. “Amora, my dear,” he said, and his voice was dangerously pleasant, suddenly. “Don’t embarrass yourself.”

“I’m hardly the one who’s going to embarrass myself,” she said haughtily, and Tony caught Loki’s lips peeling back from his teeth in a snarl.

Monologues, Tony thought, always monologues, what was it with villains and snarking at each other except maybe he couldn’t really talk, and then he caught a movement out of the corner of his eye.

And Tony found himself suddenly in the strange position of yelling, “Loki!” in warning rather than rage, because Skurge, apparently broken free of the Hulk, was hurtling toward him with that enormous sword raised, and Loki’s head snapped round. He flung out a hand, then, with an inarticulate snarl, and Skurge…froze.

Literally. Like, block of ice on the street froze.

Holy fuck.

Amora made a distinctly unhappy noise. “How dare you,” she said, and her voice was starting to vibrate with anger, “How dare you touch my shield with your filthy-” and then they were at it, or rather, Amora was at it and Loki was moving through her flurry of strikes like nothing could touch him, implacable, unstoppable. In the flurry of sparks and light he lost sight of both of them for a moment, and then it just – stopped.

Loki’s hand was wrapped around her throat, and no, that was definitely panic, and also blood coming out of her nose and eyes and fuck ears and Jesus Christ what was Thor’s psycho little brother even doing-

“I think,” Loki said, and his voice almost seemed to thrum which was…hey, weirdly sexy, “We need to have another talk.” And then, like that, they were all gone.

“Someone want to tell me,” Tony said uncertainly, “What the fuck just happened?”

No one seemed willing to answer his question, at least not until Thor himself stood up and said with a kind of awe, “Loki saved my life.”

They were all quick to come up with reasons why that wasn’t – couldn’t – be true. It was part of a long con, personal rivalry, something… Tony contributed a few half-hearted suggestions, but he couldn’t help but think of the look on Loki’s face when he’d first showed up. Absolute rage, yeah, sure, but beyond that-

He only knew it because he saw it on Steve all the time. The sort of tight, worried look around the eyes. Yep. Loki had been pissed, sure, but more than that, Loki had been worried.

Tony kept it to himself, just in case he was wrong. At this point, giving Thor false hope just seemed cruel.

When Clint had been a kid, there was nothing he’d liked more than alien invasion stories. They were weird, they were creepy, and they were complete, never-gonna-happen bullshit. Or they had been at that point.

At this point Clint was pretty sure there was nothing he hated more.

“Another Tuesday, another interdimensional rift,” Tony drawled into the com, and Clint caught the flare of his repulsors out of the corner of his eye. “Who’s up for pizza after?”

“I was going to suggest Thai,” Natasha’s voice came in, “but pizza’s pretty good too, I guess- check your six, Cap-”

It was like the Chitauri had sent out some kind of signal to every fucking species in the galaxy that it was open house on Earth, everyone’s invited. Free snacks. At least none of the rest of them brought creepy fucking megalomaniacal mind-controlling-

Yeah, not even going to start down that road.

These ones today were nasty. Ugly fuckers, with shiny, slimy skin that looked like a frog’s but repelled attacks like a rhino, long and whiplike prehensile tails, and a scream like nails on a chalkboard. Clint sent an arrow at one heading toward Natasha, and the electric charge effectively dropped it. Finally.

“Eyes work,” he called out. “And a shock drops them or at least shows them down, Thor-”

“Your advice is received and understood,” Thor bellowed over the line, and a moment later lightning shot down from the sky a few blocks away.

“Jesus Christ,” Tony groused, “A little more warning next time? You almost-”

“Stark, focus,” snapped Natasha. “There’s a few looking like they might slip past the perimeter.”

Clint tuned them out and focused on finding his next target. He shot two more out of the sky in quick succession, fired on another that swerved to attack him, caught motion out of the corner of his eye and started to turn, arrow already nocked-

Not quite fast enough. The thing barreled into him, and his arrow loosed but went wide. The creature grabbed for his bow at the same time Clint did, and it was stronger. The heavy tail swept around and hit his locked arm like a baseball bat. He felt the bone give and forced his fingers to stay locked, at least until the alien bastard wrenched again, almost hard enough to take his arm off and definitely hard enough to pop it out of the socket. It flung the bow away and leered down at him. Clint scrabbled for a knife with his other hand, but now would be a really good time for-

The creature screeched, loud enough to set Clint’s ears to ringing, and then went the characteristic limp of a dead body. There was a nasty sort of schlup sound, and then someone hauled the thing off him. His head was spinning and there were bright spots in front of his eyes. Arm, he thought, and tried to move it.

He lost a few moments, and came back in tune with his vision swimming and an all too clear voice filtering in.

“I will have you know that I will consider it the most severe impertinence if you should die without my permission.”

Oh, fuck. Oh, shitfuck. His head spun but Clint still tried to get up, which didn’t work. He did his best to communicate death with his eyes. Glowering up. The fucker had the audacity to grin.

“Now, don’t look at me like that. Isn’t that a touch ungrate-” He cut off and flashed into motion, wheeling to catch one of the aliens as it pounced at his back. He grabbed one of those clawed limbs, flipped the creature to its back and drove a knife through its throat. When he looked back at Clint (trying to reach one of his daggers), he looked decidedly peeved. “I must say,” he said conversationally, “I do not understand the appeal of this.”

“Get the fuck away from me,” Clint snarled, preemptively. Like he could do anything about it, with his left arm broken and his shoulder out of place and this was going to put him out of commission for weeks, months-

Useless, came the murmur in his ear. He squeezed his eyes closed and tried again to get up.

“That is just downright rude,” Loki said chidingly, amused more than anything, and twisted to light another attacker on fire. Clint managed to gain his knees before he had to stop, panting. Loki glanced over his shoulder and gave him a look that almost made him want to drop and stay down until he was told it was okay to move again.

He bared his teeth again, and then Loki’s eyes narrowed and he flung out a hand. “Down,” he said, sharply, and Clint dropped without thinking. He almost heard the whistle of claws over his head, and felt the heat of flames accompanied by a scream of pain too close behind him.

“That’s enough of this,” Loki said, striding over to him, and made some sort of complicated gesture with his hand. There was a low boom somewhere, accompanied by several howls of dismay. Clint was starting to lose track of things, though, his head spinning. “What have you done to yourself,” murmured his voice, and Clint blinked, startled to see Loki kneeling over him. He lashed out, automatically, but his left arm refused to answer him, and the pain trying caused threatened to make him black out again.

“Not my,” he started to object, and then one of Loki’s hands landed on his shoulder and the other gripped his arm, and he didn’t have time to object before with a grind and a pop, he’d reduced the dislocation, and Clint didn’t bother not to howl.

“Well,” said Loki, sounding more amused than anything, “If that doesn’t bring your friends running…you really ought to be more careful. If I had not been here, hm?”

“Don’t want your help,” Clint mumbled. His head was still spinning. Or trying to. Loki’s fingers were moving down his arm, and he tried feebly to pull away.

“Isn’t that a pity. I have reserved you for myself, hawkling, whatever your wishes. I will certainly not allow you to be damaged by someone else. Mmm, yes. It would seem you have broken yourself. Ugly, as well.” Clint’s heart sank. Dislocation and a break, he’d be benched for – too long.

“No,” he said weakly, and this time it wasn’t even directed at Loki. He heard, or thought he heard, the roar of Tony’s thrusters. Or maybe that was Bruce. He squeezed his eyes shut. Weak, least of all of them, they’re all going to see it now-

“Ah,” Loki murmured. “The cavalry arrives. Give me your arm.” His fingers wrapped around Clint’s wrist before he could think of pulling away, and there was a sharp crack and then a wonderful sense of numbing cold up his arm. Clint went limp with relief at the sudden lack of pain. “There. I daresay that is better?”

“What,” he started to say, but glancing down at his arm it just looked…fine. Normal. Not broken.

“I’m afraid I must leave you, hawkling.” He stood, and Clint stared blankly up at him, still half dazed. “Remember: you are mine to break. Allow that pleasure to no one else, understood?”

Clint snarled, half automatically since he was still trying to work out what Loki had done to his arm, but then it was Nat kneeling in front of him and oh, good. “Are you all right,” she asked, and Clint bobbed his head.

“Yeah,” he said, and added, “I think Loki fixed my arm?”

That was weird. That was…very weird, Clint decided, but maybe not bad? At least, it could be worse. “My brother?” Thor said, doing his little head-swivel. “Where?”

“Um,” Clint said, “Good question.” He took a few breaths. Natasha’s hand landed on his left arm and that felt…good. “Do you think I made that bit up?” He managed to ask, not quite hopefully, before passing out.

So she’d screwed up. It happened sometimes. Not often, not often at all, but sometimes. They knew she wasn’t who she said she was. They might not know exactly who she was, or where she was from, but for HYDRA, it seemed, one lie was enough. Natasha swore in the safety of her own head.

She’d gotten out of stickier, Natasha told herself. She could get out of this too. She wasn’t sure how, yet, but-

The door opened behind her and she stopped trying to loosen the zip ties. The mooks gathered around her all looked up, and she could see the expressions of dismay dawn on their faces. Natasha felt every man around her tense. She made a point of – not.

“We didn’t expect you,” said one of them, after a moment’s silence. “We are in the middle of interrogating a spy-”

“A spy? Ah, I see,” said a familiar voice, behind her. “Terribly sorry. She is one of mine. Good afternoon, gentlemen.”

“One of yours.”

“Surely you did not think I trusted you.” Loki sounded faintly, disdainfully amused. “I am not so foolish as that.” Loki’s hand on her shoulder was light. She felt his index finger tap twice against her collarbone, and kept her expression blank.

Loki wasn’t supposed to be here. Loki wasn’t supposed to even be on Earth, they hadn’t heard anything from him in months, not since the last time when he’d impersonated a senator and very nearly managed to provoke an international incident. And then destroyed a city block in Berlin making his escape. He certainly wasn’t supposed to be working with HYDRA. If they were wrong about that-

She stayed calm. That was what Natasha was best at, after all, staying calm.

“I made no such assumption.” She could hear in his voice that he had. Loki seemed to hear it too, judging by the faintly amused cough from behind her.

“Quite. Now, if I may? I would take it very amiss if my investment were harmed.” Her bonds…dissolved. Not cut. Melted, she would have said, if zip ties could melt. There was a little pile of plastic crumbs, she noticed, below the chair.

“You can’t just send in spies against us and not expect-”

“Pardon?” Loki’s hand lifted from her shoulder, and he shifted very slightly. “I believe I just heard you tell me that I can’t. Surely you know that I do not take well to being told that I can’t.”

“Ah, that is not…” The little weasel sounded nervous. Natasha reminded herself not to be pleased. She needed him alive. “That is not what I meant, I did not-”

Loki moved just too fast to catch and broke the man’s neck with a sickening crack. He dropped the body a moment later. “I suggest you select a wiser leader,” he said, smoothly, voice not changing pitch in the least. He hadn’t even broken a sweat.

“I needed him alive to get anything out of him,” Natasha said. Not afraid. Whatever was going on here, she could play it. She’d played Loki once. She could do it again. He wasn’t so different from any other mark.

“And now any intelligence you did have is out of date,” Loki said smoothly. “So it does not particularly matter, does it? Come along. I think we were leaving.” He turned in a swish of leather and cape and strode for the door.

“You’re not all powerful,” someone said, to his back. “We have allies. We will have retribution for your treatment of us.”

Loki lifted a hand and waggled his fingers without looking back. She could almost see the smirk in it.

After this they would probably not leave her alive. Kill her in vengeance, at the very least. And Loki was right, the information she’d been meaning to get had just become severely out of date with the expiration of the body on the floor. She didn’t like anything about this, but that had never been a requirement for her work.

She got up and padded after him. Natasha caught up to his long strides and stayed just slightly behind him. Loki did not even glance back at her.

“Pleasant to see you again, Agent Romanova,” Loki said silkily, turning left down an unmarked hallway. “I trust you have been well?”

“Fine.” She stared at his back, wondering if it would be worth it to put a bullet between his shoulder-blades. She decided it probably wouldn’t be. “And you? How was revisiting Asgardian prison?”

“Still ineffective,” Loki said, lightly. “They were never very good at holding prisoners. Execution is rather more usual, you see. More practical, certainly, when a life sentence might extend for…millenia.”

“But they still won’t kill you.”

“No,” said Loki, something almost jaunty in his voice. “They didn’t kill me.”

“How did you know I was here?” She asked, next, filing that away. She wondered if they’d ever turn around on that. Not if Thor had anything to say about it, probably. Too bad.

“I make a point of keeping track of interesting people, Agent Romanova. You are most certainly an interesting person.”

“Mm. And those guys back there. You work with them often?”

Loki laughed, for some reason. She hadn’t meant that to be particularly amusing. “Not anymore, I daresay. Well, they were never very fond of me. No great loss, I suppose. This way, if you please-”

Natasha stopped. “Wait,” she said. Loki turned, eyebrows slightly lifted.


“Why are you here,” she asked, warily, poised on the balls of her feet to move. Loki’s smile was slender and knife sharp and dangerous.

“I was bored,” he said lazily, and that was a lie but what was it a lie covering and if he knew that she could read him maybe he wanted her to think it was a lie and this was why she really didn’t like Loki. Challenges were great. She liked challenges.

Psychotic alien gods with what seemed like constantly shifting motives? Less so.

“And now?”

He swept an elegant gesture. “My dear Agent Romanova. You are free to go.”

“Why,” she asked flatly.

“There would be no enjoyment,” he murmured, “To taking prey scavenged from others. No. When I bring you down, Natasha, it will be by me alone.” He tilted his head, as though listening. “Ah, is that pursuit? If I may, I suggest you run.” And he vanished.

After a moment, Natasha followed his advice. Her mind was awhirl, trying to –

She had not, she realized, felt threatened. Not once, except in the vague way she always did when around someone who could, perhaps, match her skill. It wasn’t menace she’d felt from Loki. If it were anything…Natasha would have said possessiveness.

She tucked that thought away, to consider later.

Bruce didn’t even know who they were. Some branch of AIM, maybe, or…either way. Whatever they’d drugged him with made him feel sick and unsteady. And it was keeping the Hulk buried. It had been a long time since he’d felt this helpless.

And he was helpless. Whatever they were planning to do…

Stupid, he berated himself. Careless.

“Well,” said a familiar voice from very nearby, “This does not look terribly comfortable.”

Bruce turned, deliberately slowly. He could feel the Other Guy roaring against the drug holding him down. He just stared at Loki, letting him see the rage that only the drugs were controlling.

“This all seems so…hopelessly crude,” Loki went on. “Though I suppose with such limited resources and mental capacity…there is only so much you can do.”

“Sorry you’re not impressed,” Bruce said blandly. A flicker of amusement touched Loki’s face for a bare moment, then was gone.

“Mm. I didn’t think this was your idea. Was I mistaken?” His voice was light, airy, teasing. Bruce just looked at him, and Loki’s mouth curved into a slender smile. “Not amused, Doctor Banner? Pity. You look as though you could use some entertainment.”

“I think I’m fine,” he said. “Thanks.” Loki’s eyebrows arched delicately and he gave a pointed look at the reinforced bars to Bruce’s cage.

“So I see.”

Bruce gritted his teeth. He could practically hear the Other Guy roaring to be let out so he could pound Loki into the concrete again. At the moment, Bruce thought they were in perfect agreement. “So,” he said, voice flat. “You working with these guys?”

Loki laughed. “Working with? Oh, no, no. Hardly. No. I am here for you, Doctor Banner. You and your beast.”

Bruce did not let himself show fear. “That right? Cause I don’t remember previous meetings going so well. For you.”

Loki’s expression only flickered slightly. He maintained the smile with admirable determination. “Mmm. Yet I have an advantage this time, do I not? Your beast is chained. Your defender hobbled. You are very nearly…helpless.”

Every alarm he had was practically screaming that he was in trouble. Very serious, very deep trouble. “Not that helpless,” Bruce said, hoping he could bluff.

“Don’t try to lie to me,” Loki said easily. “It is endearing up to a point, but after that…”

Stall for time. “Why now?” Bruce asked. “Is this the start of some new plot…”

“Isn’t it always?” Loki sounded faintly amused, his voice light and careless. “Opportunity knocks so rarely. One must be ready when it does.”

Come on, Bruce thought, desperately, though he wasn’t sure what he thought would happen. There was a hint of laughter in Loki’s eyes, amused more than cruel. That seemed worse. “So what’s the plan?”

“Simple enough.” Loki’s head cocked fractionally to the side. “Would you still, I wonder, have the same resilience as you are now that you do otherwise? Or will you be just as easy to kill as any other mortal?” His fingers lifted, tapped against the glass. “Such is not their purpose, but I wonder…”

Bruce held very still, tense, trying to will the drug out of his system. He didn’t know the answer to that, didn’t know and didn’t want to know, didn’t want to die here, not now- he stayed silent, judging that the best response. Loki’s mouth quirked at the corners in the slightest of smiles.

“Hm,” he said, and then stepped back, eyed the glass, and flicked his fingers.

It exploded outwards, not touching Loki. Bruce scrambled to his feet as Thor’s younger brother strode over the destroyed barrier and up to him, lashed out with an uppercut that Loki caught with humiliating ease, hampered by his chains. “Doesn’t it make you a coward, attacking when I can’t fight back,” Bruce said, trying to call on Tony.

“I’ve always been a pragmatist,” Loki murmured amiably, and half closed his eyes. “You’re a curious creature, Dr. Banner. A creature of rage sheathed in a man of reason.” His long fingers around Bruce’s wrist tightened fractionally. “Contradiction or duality?”

Bruce wished again for Tony’s bravado, and couldn’t quite find it. Helpless. With the Hulk suppressed, if he died like this…Bruce tried to brace himself, hoping that somehow-

“Hold still,” Loki said, sounding strangely distracted, and when Bruce glanced at the hand around his wrist there was a faint sheen of green light around Loki’s fingers. “This might be…slightly unpleasant. My most sincere apologies.”

He felt a surge of panic. That didn’t sound like - maybe Loki wasn’t going to kill him, maybe he was going to do something worse, if he could get the Hulk under his control he’d have a nearly unstoppable weapon. Could he do that without his scepter thing? No, he thought frantically, no, the others, my friends. Everything he’d started to build, and this bastard was going to take it away because of his petty grudge match with Thor.

He struggled. Loki’s grip tightened until his bones creaked. “I said hold still,” Loki repeated, his voice a little sharper, a little less polished. “This takes a bit of delicacy, not that I expect you to appreciate that-”

There was fire in his veins. Burning through every blood vessel in every corner of his body, and a hand clamped over his mouth kept the scream in his throat. This was worse than death, was this what it felt like to be overcome-

He felt the drug burn out of his blood, evaporated by that searing fire not his own. Every drop purged from his veins, the fire disappearing with it, and the Hulk came roaring up. He had just a moment of clarity to look at Loki with clear eyes, catch a smile and a, “I think you can manage on your own from here.”

When he shrank down again, it was in the middle of a demolished facility, and Tony landed in his suit while Bruce was still rubbing his eyes. “Huh,” his friend said, looking at the wreckage. “I guess you took care of it, then.”

There was no sign of Loki. Bruce found himself weirdly relieved.

And for reasons he wasn’t sure he could have explained, he didn’t mention the incident to anyone. Just…wondered.

This kidnapping shit got old fast.

Right. Stay flippant. Cause that’ll help. At least no one’s dragged out the barrels of water yet, remember that, good times-

Sometimes it would be really nice if his brain would just shut off for a little while, Tony was pretty sure. If this started to become a thing, Pepper was going to put a tracking device under his skin. “This is why I don’t go to board meetings,” he said, loudly. “Things like this – my birthday’s not for another month, guys, can we wait on the super secret surprise party-”

Someone whacked him on the back of the head. “Shut up.” Gravely voice, he identified. No particular accent. Of course, as Natasha would tell just about anyone, good spies didn’t have accents. Or they could have a misdirecting one. Or…

Watching spy thrillers with Natasha was no fun.

Still more fun than this, though.

His mysterious kidnappers du jour were dragging him down several flights of stairs, which they’d reached by some kind of car on some kind of road. So it was hard to tell directions when there was a sack of mildewy burlap over one’s face. He really ought to work on that remote activation thing, accio suit! or something-

He stumbled and almost fell flat on his face, only to be roughly hauled up. “All right, so this stopped being fun about seven minutes ago, any time you feel like calling it off-”

“Another word, Stark, and I’ll put you out like a light.”

Good to know. Well. This was fine. He had backup. So if the Avengers would Assemble already and get their spandexed asses over here right now, that would be appreciated, thanks. (He was going to start bringing the suit to meetings after this. Honestly was.)

They stopped, finally. Of course, that was followed by throwing him on the floor, and ow that was his elbow. Accio Avengers. Nope, not working yet. When he got out of this they were having a talk about response time.

Someone hauled the bag off of his head and he blinked at the sudden inrush of light, wincing. “Now this is all very nice,” he said, trying to push himself up to a more comfortable position than belly down with his hands behind his back. “But I’ve got these friends, see, and they’re a little bit possessive…”

Someone kicked him in the stomach. Tony just managed not to retch. “They won’t find you here,” someone gloated. “As of right now, they’re following one of our decoys.”

Great. Well. They’d figure it out.

Soon would be nice. “Uh huh. So what’s this about? Money? Power? Money and power?” He raised his head as far as he could look, but could still reach just about to a greyish shirt. That problem was solved when two mooks hauled him up off the ground again and he could see a proper face. It wasn’t a very exciting face. It was a face with some thoroughly insane eyes, though.

“Nothing so plebeian,” the lunatic said. “I want your mind, Tony Stark.”

“My…okay, guess I’ve heard weirder pick-up lines.” He tested the mooks’ grips and found them more or less immovable. Think fast. “Sorry, though, I’m afraid I’m going to have to let you down gently, trying out this committed relationship thing-”

Mr. Jeepers Peepers picked something up from the table next to him. Oh. That was nice. A bone saw. “I did not speak figuratively.”

“You’re shitting me,” Tony said, not sure whether to be appalled because really? or to be panicking a little more because some lunatic was about to carve open his very nice head in the middle of wherever the hell-

Over off to the left somewhere, someone made an unpleasant sort of choking on blood as one dies noise. Bone Saw Guy looked over, seeming peeved, and Tony felt a well of relief.

“Not according to plan?” he said, brightly. “Cause I’m thinking you might want to go check that out and see what’s-”

The door to Tony’s right shattered inward with a crash, and a severed head came rolling into Tony’s field of vision. They all stared at it. It stared back at Tony, expression still twisted in what must’ve been Mook Number Six’s last moments. Tony thought for a moment he might throw up. Possibly.

When did we start beheading people?

“It rather displeases me when mortals attempt to interfere in my affairs.”

Oh, wonderful. Day just kept getting better.

Loki strolled in a few steps after the severed head, sleek as ever, weirdly attractive as ever (okay, so he’d noticed) and spattered with blood as ever. Everybody’s favorite psychopath. Maybe they were going to play tug of war over who got to fuck with Tony Stark. He wasn’t betting on Bone Saw.

Bone Saw, who seemed rather perplexed by this turn of events. “What – you? You’re not supposed…”

Loki’s sigh only sounded slightly affected. “Oh, my apologies. Have I intruded?”

Bone Saw brandished the – bone saw. “Men,” he said, slightly shrill, “shoot this interl-” Tony didn’t quite catch the part where Loki moved. Just the part where Bone Saw screamed and the arm he’d been holding his weapon with was at a very wrong angle.

Someone fired. Loki made a sharp, irritated gesture and the bullet bounced away and ricocheted into its owner’s face. No one else made a move.

Tony started trying to edge away a little harder. Mooks One and Two had let go to reach for their guns. Loki was still holding Bone Saw’s mauled appendage as he glanced over and Tony froze almost instinctively. “Stark,” he said, with remarkable calmness. “I daresay it’s been a bit, hasn’t it?”

“Yep,” Tony said, his mouth feeling painfully dry. “Little while. Sorry I can’t offer you any snacks.”

“Mmm. Less than ideal circumstances, but…” He heard the grinding noise of bone on bone, and then Loki let go, the now comatose Bone Saw Dude folding to the floor. “I assume you can find the door on your own? And I certainly hope the next time we meet you shall offer me a better welcome.”

Tony blinked. Stared. Blinked. None of the mooks seemed to want to move, in case they ended up like their three already deceased friends. Only three, he thought a little dazedly. That was restraint for you. “What?”

Loki didn’t look back at him, just raised a hand and flicked his fingers. “Out, Stark. I assure you that I am quite capable.”

Tony swore he felt the universe fold around him. He blinked, though and he was standing on wobbly legs on the top of Stark Tower. Not a sign of Loki, not a sign of Bone Saw Guy.

His hands were still tied, though.

Wait a minute, Tony thought blankly. Did Loki just…rescue me?

Maybe he’d slipped into a parallel universe for a second. Or hallucinated. Or…

I’m pretty sure Loki just rescued me. Tony rubbed his forehead. Like Thor. And Tasha. And Clint. Is this starting to be a pattern?

And there, Tony thought, before turning to head indoors to find a phone and accio Avengers the normal way, was what was wrong with the world. Right there. When you started thinking that Loki might be looking out for them in some kind of weird, possessive, only I may kill you sort of way…that was a sign you’d been in this business too long.

Or hanging around Thor too long.

Maybe a little bit of both.

Pain. Such was his world. Pain and the dull throb of the machines that pulled his magic from him, and when he escaped from here, when he found his way free, oh they would pay, in pounds of flesh carved from their bodies as they screamed for mercy he did not have-

Dark, beautiful fantasies to drown himself in when their poisons sent his mind spiraling, and he could not even find the breath to scream as dreams came to gnaw at his bones. A moment of weariness, a moment of weakness…how many, he wondered, would laugh to see him here. Would think it his fair due.

He himself might have laughed, if it did not hurt so much. But he did hurt.

He wondered how long he would last. If they were good, perhaps a long time. Taking just enough to leave him alive. Clever creatures. Clever, vicious, cruel-

Like you, isn’t that so? He could have laughed at that as well, if he had not been so completely empty. He needed to think, to think, to-

His thoughts were brittle like human bone. Splintering. He was splintering.

Oh my…god. Voices, he thought, vaguely. Drifting in from somewhere far away. Guys, I think – He knew that voice. So very familiar. But he couldn’t quite reach it. The last time they’d drawn him back he’d spat inventive threats in their faces, and in return they’d cut him open and laughed to watch him scream, magic sparking as he tried to heal himself, but always sucked away before he could find enough.

--found their power source. Give me a minute.

He knew that voice, or ought to. But he couldn’t make his mind cooperate enough to recall. It just slipped away, close but not quite… he felt his lips pull back from his teeth in a frustrated snarl with a sort of distant, detached awareness that kept the pain at bay, flexed his fists against the manacles holding him spread-eagled to their device.

Okay, easy, just, just a minute, hang on…

Someone was touching him. A warm hand on his arm. Skin, not gloved. Loki fought his way back along the thread of sensation he’d spun deliberately thin to distance himself from pain. Don’t go back, his mind protested. It’s not real. No one ever comes. You’re on your own. But he needed to-

Dammit, what did they – oh god. Okay. Okay. Now the hands were on his neck. His body tensed reflexively, and he tried to hasten his progress, but there was only so much he could do. I really hope you’re as out of it as you look because this is really-

The back of his neck and all down his spine exploded in pain, a line of searing fire that dragged a howl from his throat and slammed him forcefully back into his body, gifting him with full awareness of that exquisite agony. He thrashed, as though that could help ease it, struggling wildly and with too little effect. His lips peeled back from his teeth as the pain built to a crescendo, and then-

--and then began to fade. He fell limp against the manacles holding him spreadeagled to their machine, panting, and it took him several moments to realize that the throbbing wrongness sucking him dry was gone. Loki made a sound that he was ashamed to admit was almost a sob.

“—okay. Okay, just…relax, try to relax, it’s okay…” The voice filtered into his awareness gradually. He knew it, and struggled to recognize from where. It wasn’t coming, though, his thoughts still a fragmented mess crowding for space, seeking his attention. He took a ragged breath and let it out slowly, or tried, though it turned into a whimper as the throbbing of his body’s pain began to return to him.

He hated himself, ferociously, even for that small sound. There was a brief pause and then a worried but still almost gentle “Shh.” He fought to control himself. To pull the fragile and scattered threads of his consciousness together. He knew that voice and it seemed unbearably important that he not be weak where it could see. Where anyone could see, you don’t have allies, trust no one, when they realize what you are-

“Guys?” That wasn’t, he didn’t think, addressed to him. “Did their…okay. I’ve got everything handled down here. No, no, I…don’t think I need backup.” Warm fingers at his neck again, checking for a pulse. He didn’t dare try to lift his head or open his eyes. “—uh huh. I’ll join all of you in a minute. Is Thor…no, never mind. I’ll talk to him later.”

Ah. He had it now.

A part of Loki wanted to laugh, and laugh hard. He couldn’t even say he was surprised. It was the sort of absurdity that just seemed to fit. This was his life, after all. His pathetic life that would hardly be out of place in a farce. Sometimes he had to wonder if that wasn’t it, after all. He fought to open his eyes and finally prised himself out of the last of his fog.

“Loki?” he sounded cautious. Good. Well he might. (As though you could do anything right now.) He did not answer immediately, gathering his voice and his thoughts, and after a moment he felt the brush of a hand against his shoulder as though it was about to shake him, and repeated, “Loki?”

“Don’t touch me,” he forced out, attempting to make it more vehement than a mumble. The hand jerked away at once, and Loki hated himself a little more for missing its warmth.

They were here. Thor’s friends. Or one of them, and the rest would follow, he needed to pull himself together and get away from here-

He didn’t, Loki realized, have the power. He was trapped, helpless, wounded, and utterly at the mercy of one of Thor’s pathetic mortal friends. Yes, that was just lovely.

“Do you know who I am?” the voice asked, hesitantly, after a few moments of silence.

“Unfortunately.” His neck and spine still ached, pain tracing up and down the line of his back. It would heal now, though. With their grotesque device pulled out, it would heal. He would…eventually. (If he had the chance, if he was not-) “Captain America, isn’t it?” His voice sounded weak, a pitiful and diminished thing.

Silence, for a few moments. Likely the soldier did not know what to say. “—and where you are,” he said, finally. “Do you know…”

“Yes.” If HYDRA thought they could do this to him with impunity, if they thought - he would see they knew their mistake. Before he destroyed them utterly. He tested his bonds, carefully, but still was not certain enough of his strength to try to break them.

“How long?” the Captain asked, sounding a touch more sure of himself.

“How long…”

“Has HYDRA been torturing you?” It took Loki a moment to pin down that tone of voice. When he had it, he wanted to laugh. Anger – no, outrage, so clearly and painfully feigned. He forced his eyes open and his head up expressly so he could meet Steve Rogers’ eyes with perfect indifference.

“Is it of import?”

The Captain stared at him as though he didn’t understand the question. “Of course it – they were using you like some kind of – battery, there was something attached to your spine!” He was a fine actor, Loki thought. Convincing, perhaps, to others.

Loki shrugged. “Months, perhaps. Do not act as though you intend differently. Whatever you hope to gain from this pretense - I will not rejoice to exchange one torturer for another.”

The man blinked. “I don’t – what?

“You had best move quickly,” Loki said, forcing his mouth to curve into a smile. (If they do the same…how long will you endure?) “I estimate you have perhaps an hour before my strength is properly my own, and then I assure you I do not intend to go quietly.”

The Captain was shaking his head. “You think I’m just going to – what, hand you over to SHIELD so they can- no!” He sounded genuinely appalled. Loki held back a laugh.

“Surely you do not expect me to believe that you intended to free me from my captor’s clutches and simply let me go.”

The soldier’s frown deepened. “We didn’t come here looking for you-

“Perhaps I was not your target, but when a snare for a rabbit catches a wolf, I do not think you would let him free.”

The Captain was still staring at him as though he was trying to comprehend some particularly difficult puzzle. “You’ve been letting us go,” he said, suddenly. Loki tensed.

“I’m afraid I can’t recall…”

His voice was fractionally more sure again. “Thor with Enchantress. Clint with those alien things, Natasha from HYDRA, Tony from his kidnappers. Maybe not me or Bruce, but nonetheless. You keep…well. Saving us.”

Loki nearly bristled. “Hardly. It merely offends me to see you defeated by someone other than myself.”

“Uh huh,” said the soldier, so hatefully dubious. Loki snarled at him.

“What do you want? Do what you will and have done with it. I am in no mood to converse.”

“It’s just interesting,” Rogers said, after a few moments of silence. “That’s all.” Loki sneered viciously at him.

“What, were you thinking it was some kind of mercy? Or compassion? Foolishly sentimental attachment, perhaps?” His throat felt raspy and dry, and he was becoming rapidly aware of how thirsty he was. To ask, though – he wouldn’t ask.

“I don’t know,” the soldier said, after a moment, not seeming perturbed by his venom. “I don’t have a theory. Honestly, I’m not sure you know why you’re doing it.”

Loki let out a harsh laugh. “You think I am such a fool as that?”

“No,” Rogers said, slowly. “I just think…never mind. Whatever it is, whyever it is…it means that my friends are still alive when they might not be otherwise. So thanks.”

Thanks. Loki felt a strange surge of panic well up under his sternum, had a sudden searing feeling of being backed into a corner he couldn’t see the way out of. He pulled a sharp edged smile and forced out the words. “As though your petty gratitude would mean anything to me.”

“Maybe not.” Was the man truly that unflappable, or just that dull? “But whether you care or not…it’s still there.” He hesitated, rubbed his hands on his ridiculously garish clothes. “Loki…I don’t condone torture. Ever. For anyone.”

The laugh grated over his throat. “Not everyone shares your high principles, Captain.” The flavor on his tongue was like despair. They would take him, and hold him, and lock him away where no one would care how loudly he might scream and eventually he would be free but what would be left by then, mortals had proved more inventive even than-

His breath shortened and went ragged for a moment. His strength was returning, but too slowly, and he didn’t think he could delay long enough to gather sufficient to run. Rogers took a small step back toward him, looking suddenly uncertain. “Are you…”

Loki snapped his head up and bared his teeth. “Quite well. I recommend that you come no closer; even trapped as I am, I can still bite.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Rogers said, but he paused. And then looked around the room. “Is there a sink somewhere around here? Something to put water in?”

Loki tensed almost reflexively. “Thirsty, Captain Rogers?”

“No, but I bet you are,” he said, calmly, and then walked out of Loki’s field of vision. “You said ‘months.’ I just figured…”

“You’re wasting time,” Loki said, flatly, his muscles tensing further. He heard the sound of running water and swallowed reflexively, thirst overwhelming him for a moment. What was the man playing at? What did he think he was doing, what did he think he would achieve by this sickening display? “Waiting for orders?”

Rogers reemerged on his other side, holding a small cup of water. Loki’s eyes locked on it and his tongue flicked out, and when it was held to his mouth he swallowed greedily, thoughtlessly, the shame only returning belatedly when he blinked and found Rogers looking at him with pity.

He snarled, and strained against his bonds. “Best make your move. Call your friends. Have done with this stupidity.”

Roger’s expression was thoughtful, pensive, and then he nodded, decision clearing his Thor-blue eyes. “Okay.” He turned around, looking around the room. “Are there keys somewhere in here for that…I guess you wouldn’t know.”

Loki blinked. All thought seemed, suddenly, to have fled. “What?”

“Keys,” Rogers said, determined. “I mean, that can’t be comfortable. I don’t see why you can’t recover in a more normal position.” Loki stared blankly at him as he poked through drawers and finally sigh. “Maybe the shield…”

“What are you doing?” Loki asked. His voice sounded strange in his own ears. Slightly high, and more than slightly incredulous.

“Letting you go,” Rogers said, picking up his shield and coming back over. “Fair’s fair, right? We weren’t here for you. anyway.” Loki stared at him, barely comprehending. “Oh – here’s a catch. So just like-”

The clamps around his wrists and ankles snapped open. He fell the half foot to the floor and landed gracelessly on knees that crumpled at once under his weight. Horror of horrors, the soldier caught him before he hit the floor. “Sorry, guess I should have figured-”

Get away from me,” Loki hissed, clawing at the arm supporting him with as much effectiveness as a housecat trying to pierce armor. “I will not-” Rogers let him go hastily, and he almost fell straight forward, but managed to catch and hold himself up on the machine that had been his prison, trembling, weak.

Captain America took a step back, slowly, his hands raised. “I’m just going to…go. Tell the others that HYDRA’s power source is taken care of. Don’t…” His eyes closed, momentarily. “Don’t make me regret this, okay?”

Loki stared at him, not quite swaying. Not understanding. You’re letting me go? He thought stupidly, but did not quite ask. This was not…this wasn’t…

“Please,” Rogers said again, still backing away, never taking his eyes away from Loki. Not a fool, no. He might look it, but this one wasn’t a fool. Did he know what ancient chains he was drawing tight? A life for a life. Mercy for mercy. “Don’t make me regret this.”

Then he was gone.

Loki sagged against the only thing holding him upright. Pain still reverberated through his body. His magic was still far distant, returning only slowly, in wisps. But he was free.

Every law would have given Rogers the right to take his enemy captive. Kill him, even. But he hadn’t.

Like you haven’t. A murmur at the back of his mind. Why not? Why have you snatched them away from danger, ensured they would live to fight you another day? Why keep your enemies on the board?

He hovered, for a moment, near to something. So close, almost within reach, and if he just stretched out his hand and touched it at last things would fall into place.

Loki sank down to the floor and closed his eyes. No. He pulled back from the edge, retreated into safety. No.

I’m just not ready to be done with this game yet.