Classical thought holds there are three vectors of magic, three ways to direct the power of a spell. They are as follows: spoken word, gesture, and will. While vital in learning control, it is said the more powerful the student becomes the less he need rely on them to effect an outcome.
So was Loki taught as a child, and it was a solid foundation.
It wasn't until after his fall, however, that he came to recognize a fourth vector-one far more subtle and difficult to master than the other three. It did not depend on the caster of a spell; rather, it came from without. His mother would call it spirit, perhaps. His brother, luck. Odin would say it was wyrd.
Spirit, chance, fate; it was the change that can't be calculated or accounted for. Loki called it chaos.
He pulled himself upright at the base of the stairs, certain of two broken ribs, a dislocated shoulder and an arrow aimed at his face. He replayed his plans, and he realized he had forgotten to account for the fourth vector.
He should have known better.
He looks beat to hell, Tony thinks, watching as Loki hauls his ass up on Tony's steps. He doesn't feel all that sympathetic. He had had to take on a nuke because of this fucker.
Barton must be thinking what he's thinking, because Pinkie pulls out his bow and nocks an arrow, and it's aimed for Loki's brain via his eye. Tony kind of hopes it's one of the ones that explode. Blood is hell to get out of the carpet, but he's due for some hefty renovations, anyway. He's willing to let things get a little out of hand.
Loki looks around, taking in the six of them. He's sitting hunched, one arm tucked against his ribs, and he seems to be trying to appear harmless. It looks painful. "If it's all the same to you," he says, "I'll have that drink, now."
Tony holds back his snort by the very slenderest of threads. He's not too sure how Barton would react to loud noises at this point, and Stars and Stripes is looking mighty twitchy, too.
No one speaks up, so Tony takes one for the team. "Don't think so, Sparky. One-time offer."
Loki bites back a tired, apologetic smirk (they even make those?), eyes zeroing in on Tony. "What a shame," he says. His hand swings outward, as though to counterbalance himself to stand-only Thor starts bellowing right in Tony's ear, and okay, it's muffled by a layer of titanium alloy, but it's still loud, and then he's swinging that incredibly subtle effort at overcompensation he calls a hammer. There's a clang and a blinding flash of light and Barton's arrow goes very much awry, burying itself in an interface panel for JARVIS-which releases a stream of protest from its occupant as all the magic smoke leaks out.
That's all beside the point, however. The point is there is chaos going on that Tony didn't create and isn't following, and he'd very much like to know what got Thor's panties in a punch, thanks kindly.
When the dust settles Loki is flopped back on the stairs like some overdramatic 1930's starlet, and oh, he's out cold, too. Cap's shield is poised to smite the ass of any wrongdoer in his sight, Barton's got another arrow nocked, the whites showing all around his eyes, and the Hulk is flexing his prodigious musculature. Miss Romanoff, however, has already holstered her weapon, risk assessment complete and apparently set to "dangerous as fluffy rabbits in a woodland meadow." Tony relaxes and lowers his hands.
"What the hell was that!" Steve is up in Thor's business, now, a nice change from when he was up in Tony's, and Tony sort of wants to laugh at Thor's bemused expression.
"Loki was summoning a spell to incapacitate us." Thor says like it was the most obvious thing in the world, and Tony's kind of impressed he knows words that big. "He meant to escape. I deflected the spell with Mjolnir before it could cause harm."
"So that's what all the-" Barton waves his arms around, arrow happily back in its quiver, "-was about?"
Thor nodded. "Yes. My brother uses gesture for much of his spellwork."
"Magic spells," Bruce says, apparently done with being green for the day. Steve hands him his shield, and Tony makes a note to see if any bathrobes made it through the destruction. "I don't think I'll ever get used to that."
"What you do is no different from when my brother shapeshifts," Thor says. "Our magic is simply-"
"Yeah, that's wonderful, really is," Tony says, flipping back his visor and pulling his helmet off the rest of the way. "How about we get this dickbag-" he jerks his thumb toward Loki, still out like a boy scout after half a beer, "-locked up tight before we start on any deep philosophical questions of the universe? And then get something to eat, because I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm starving."
It is a slow fight to consciousness. Loki hears first a high-pitched buzz, then the smell of stale air, and last an awareness of bright lights shining on his face.
He opens his eyes, and finds himself in a tiny room. A cell, more precisely; the walls are seamless, the furnishings severe. A broad mirror lines the opposite wall. Loki sees himself in it, sitting up on a cot suspended from chains. The lighting casts his eyes into deep shadow.
He reaches up to touch his temple. It feels as though a parade of state is marching through his skull, churning his brain to mush even as the trumpets sound. He freezes when he sees the shackle.
Loki stares at it for a moment, uncomprehending. Slender chains connect his wrists, and thick cuffs anchor them. They are silver, etched with the Fuþark. Thor must have brought them from Asgard, no doubt given to him by Odin should Loki prove problematic.
He knows it's a fruitless endeavor but he draws on his magic anyway, twitching his fingers and willing the door of his cell to unlock. Obedient as ever, the magic flows down his arms and fills his hands, but he cannot will it past his skin. It puddles in his palms and burns, aching and restless, before he pulls it back and disperses it. Frustration burns in his chest.
He waits, he doesn't know for how long. It feels like a century goes by in the space of a breath, and millennia in a minute. He picks at his fetters, he sits, and he waits.
He waits until black memories he had thought buried start to rise in his mind-and it is a peculiar mercy, indeed, when he hears footsteps outside his door. There is whirring and beeping, and he senses the working of what passes for higher magic in this place no less potent, just ask Clint Barton and his marvelous arrows, and with a clank, the door slips open. An agent steps inside, and moves to stand against the wall. Thor follows him in. Loki shoots to his feet.
"Brother," Thor says. His voice is hard, yet his eyes are sad.
"I have nothing to say to you," Loki hisses.
Thor looks down, searching for words. "You realize I must bring you to Asgard to answer for your crimes?"
Loki sneers. "Yes, of course. Ever the dutiful son."
"I need your help to do it, Loki. I cannot work the tesseract on my own."
"You want me to help you bring myself before Odin? Even if I'm not executed outright you know what Asgardian justice looks like, Thor."
"I must, Brother. I am sure Father would not be so cruel as-"
"I am not your brother. And do not pretend I won't lose my hands for this." He holds up his manacled wrists.
Thor looks away. "I cannot say what will happen, but I will not see you maimed. I will not, Loki." His eyes blaze.
Loki sighs and sinks back down on the cot. "Our people will not be so lenient as you would have them. I am a traitor, after all, and Jötunn, to boot."
"That doesn't matter," Thor snaps, and Loki quirks an eyebrow.
"Doesn't it?" he says softly.
Thor flushes, but doesn't look away. His nostrils flare in irritation. "What of the Chitauri, then? If you will not face our justice, what of those you failed?"
What indeed. Loki's hands clench into fists in his lap. Even his brother, dense as he is, can tell the conversation is over. Thor leaves, sighing, and the agent locks the door behind them.
Loki stares at the cuffs.
"What's he doing?"
"Looks like he's chanting..."
The agents cluster around the monitors. The prisoner is kneeling in the middle of his cell, manacled hands still in his lap, but he's mouthing words, his eyes closed and his forehead creased in concentration. The lights and monitor screens flicker before flaring back to life.
Maria Hill seizes her walkie. "All agents on alert, the prisoner is trying to escape! Repeat, Loki is trying to escape!" Two seconds later the lights fizzle out, and the command center is plunged into darkness.
Maria unholsters her weapon and moves toward the door, checking the safety as she fumbles for the handle. The emergency lights flicker on as she gets it open. She clears the hall, then gestures for the agents behind her to follow.
Loki is waiting for them. He is standing in the middle of the cellblock, the patchy illumination sapping his skin of all color. His teeth are bared in a smile.
"Agents." He nods in greeting, then says another word, no word Maria recognizes, and suddenly she's hitting the wall. Pain spikes down her back and her knees cry out when they smack into the concrete floor. She pushes it away and scoops up her gun, aiming it at Loki's back.
"Stay where you are!" she calls, and Loki pauses, looks over his shoulder. He speaks again in that strange language, and Maria's glock turns red-hot in her hands. She cries out, drops it. Loki speaks again, and all the agents' weapons flare red with sudden heat. Loki continues walking.
Steeling her nerve, Maria lunges after him. She knows she's no match for an Asgardian, but she can slow him down until the cavalry arrives. She tackles Loki from behind; his chained hands barely come up in time to keep his face from smashing into the floor. Maria reaches for her taser, but before she can pull it from her belt Loki rears back, smashing the back of his head into her nose. The world goes white, and she falls back.
She blinks the tears away just in time to watch Loki clamp a hand around her throat and haul her upright, then slam her back against the nearest wall. It hurts more than she would have expected, like her head is going to pop off her neck from the force her body exerts against his grip. She kicks, trying to get loose.
"I find I am thoroughly annoyed at human persistence," Loki says, squeezing. Maria feels her eyes bulging out from the pressure.
"How's this for persistence!" A metallic voice echoes down the hallway, and in the sudden burst of light Maria sees Loki's surprise etched in harsh chiaroscuro. Quick as a shadow he raises his free hand-but the chains on his wrists bring him up short, and the ball of energy knocks him off his feet. Maria crumples to the floor, gasping. Thor and the Captain step up to either side of Stark, and behind them all rears the lurid green bulk of Dr. Banner.
Loki recovers quickly, and is on his feet and chanting before Stark can fire another shot. The air ripples before him, and the hairs stand on the back of Maria's neck. Stark fires anyway. The bolt flares when it hits Loki's shield, but instead of tearing through the barrier absorbs the energy, illuminating the outline of a sphere before dissipating.
Dr. Banner roars, the sound deafening in the narrow hallway, and Loki's eyes widen. His hands raise, fingers spread, but the cuffs and chains about his wrists flare blue and he snatches them back to his chest, hissing. The shield wavers.
One of the agents behind takes the opportunity to fire. The bullet rebounds harmlessly, but Loki grits his teeth. His eyes search for a way out, any way, but Maria's S.H.I.E.L.D. agents fill the dead-end behind him and the Avengers block the entrance before him. Maria pushes herself to her feet, pulling her taser free and training it on the gap in his armor in his armpit.
"Loki," Thor says. "Stop."
Loki doesn't respond, voice devoted to maintaining his shield. His eyes though, promise fire and death.
"Please, brother. There is nowhere for you to go."
Loki spits a word and Thor collapses to his knees as though struck. The Captain sees an opportunity and launches his shield at the barrier. It collides with a reverberating screech, sending flares of shocky overload through the air, and Loki stutters, concentration broken. His magic flickers. This time, Stark is ready. He fires a double pulse square at Loki's chest, punching through the wavering field, and when the bolts connect they launch him down the hall. He slams into the wall with an unholy clatter of armor and chains and crumples to the floor, stunned.
Thor lurches to his feet, waving aside the hands of his fellow Avengers, and walks to his fallen brother. He bends down, carefully rests his hammer on Loki's chest. All the air leaves Loki's lungs in one furious gust. His face crumples in pain; the weight can't feel good against his healing ribs.
Maria watches as Thor pulls something from his belt. He kneels. "I had hoped to avoid this, brother," he says. His body obscures Maria's sight, and she hears Loki whimper. Thor rises and retrieves his hammer. He steps back, head hung low, unable to look at Loki.
Maria looks, and sees what looks like a rune-etched vice clamping Loki's mouth shut. Loki stares at the ceiling. He's limp with defeat, his hands lax against his chest and eyes blank.
Maria calls agents over to help her drag him back to his cell.
Loki stares at his reflection in the glass. He knows, by now, that there is a room on on the other side of the mirror, that people may come and watch him like a beast in a menagerie and feel safe because he can't see them. He is alone, now, but it galls him, that they think him so insignificant.
His eyes are fixed on the mask strapped to his face. It is... words cannot capture the venom that surges through him at the sight. It is anger built upon humiliation and betrayal and rife with fear and helplessness. It is textured and multifaceted. It festers, and the industrial machine of Loki's brain ticks away in circles, chewing thoughts to dust between its gears.
He raises one hand to touch it, but can't bring himself to. The metal would be cool beneath his fingers, he thinks, warmed by his skin and breath but chill everywhere else. It digs into the back of his neck. He wants to pry it off, throw it away, use it for target practice with his magic. He wants to ram it down Thor's throat, then tear it out his neck and use it to carve out Odin's remaining eye.
Someone steps into the room on the other side of the mirror. Loki freezes, lowers his hand from where it had stalled halfway to his face. He tracks the other's passage; he can't see him, but he can follow his movements with the more passive magics unrestrained by Odin's shackles. He does it for no other reason than because he knows it will unsettle his visitor. The other stops, and Loki can feel his eyes on him. He always knows when he's watched. It's a physical sensation, like a thought he can't quite pull free-only someone else is thinking it, not him. He glares into the mirror, past his reflection to the person beyond.
They stand like that for a bare moment, and Loki loosens his grip on his rage just enough. Quick as a snake he slams his fists against the glass. It sends furious reverberations through his arms, and the CLANK-chink of his shackles overwhelms the slender acoustic of his cell. He spreads his palms, and between them he glares at the unseen body.
The person, whoever it is, leaves far more quickly than they came. Loki cherishes the tiny victory.
He pulls his hands away, smirking beneath the mask, and turns to face his cell. The flush of power drains away between heartbeats. Nothing has changed. He's still trapped in this box. He's still bound for an unpleasant future, and there's still nothing to distract him from either of these facts. There's no place to run except into his own mind-and that's no safe place to be.
He is vulnerable, raw. Exposed. Trussed like a chicken and helpless as a babe.
He sinks onto the cot, puts his head in his hands. It's too much like falling again.
Nick Fury is very much annoyed. A lot of that annoyance is for the WSC, who are hanging off his telephone and demanding answers when they're not countermanding his orders. More of that annoyance is for the Avengers, back to squabbling like little children now that the Earth is saved. Nick Fury would like it recognized he is not a motherfucking babysitter.
But Nick's biggest, nastiest annoyance is sitting behind two inches of bulletproof glass, under ten tons of high-grade concrete (and the remains of New York City), and inside the most technologically advanced security system in the world, invented last week when Tony Stark was drunk and bored.
Loki Whatever-the-fuck-his-last-name-is. War criminal, terrorist, and major pain in Nick's ass.
Nick would like to say he knows what to do with Loki, he really would.
Loki is pacing when Nick enters the cell. He looks like a caged wolf, and the muzzle doesn't help. He pauses in mid-step to glower at Nick. His eyes above the mask are bloodshot and dangerous.
"I find myself in a quandary," Nick says. "Namely: what do I do with you?"
Loki, naturally, says nothing, though by the looks of things he'd dearly love to. Nick is liking this arrangement more and more.
"I've got a number of options, each with their own appeal. One, I could deny your brother's claim for extradition and keep you here, for trial under our laws." Loki stands motionless, unswayed.
"Two, I could allow your brother to take you back to Asgard. I'm sure they want to roast you on a spit just as much as we do, and aside from a bit more paperwork, that would take the whole problem of you off our hands." Loki's brows furrow. His hands fist, and he looks away before flicking his gaze back to Nick. Nick's pretty sure he could toast marshmallows in the heat of that glare.
"Three, I leave the door open when we're done here and you escape. You'll evade justice according to law, but I'm sure your allies aren't too pleased at your pretty damn spectacular failure."
Loki goes white. Nick is duly satisfied. Getting the better of this asshole is a thrill of God not unlike frying ants with a magnifying glass. Or stomping on them with a boot, whichever.
"Even if they don't get a hold of your skinny ass we'll just hunt you down again. I understand Dr. Banner is willing to go another round."
This time Loki goes red, blotchy and livid. Nick doesn't like Tony Stark, but when he had surrendered his security footage for "debriefing and morale-boosting purposes", Nick had laughed harder than he had in a ridiculously long time. It had engendered something like goodwill between them.
"As I said, it's a quandary. I'll let you consider your options." Nick steps out, closing the door behind him. He doesn't lock it.
Gesture, Word and Will. Those are the vectors. Loki walks beside his brother, the weak Midgardian sun pressing down from its featureless sky. His hands are bound in magic-damping manacles. His voice is locked beneath a mask that deadens vibrations. His will... well, Loki means to survive, and Asgard is strong enough to protect him. He can suffer a great deal, if it means escaping Thanos' reach. At least until he can regroup.
And he will regroup. No matter the agony Odin has planned, Loki will slip through it like a shadow between pools of light. He glares at the ring of Avengers around him. He has time.
Thor offers him a handle, and together they align the chamber. The power of the tesseract roars through both of them, and over its scream Loki can hear the polyphonic bellow of Bifröst's remains as she answers the call. They're torn from Midgard with all the force of gravity, but with none of its delicacy.
Loki pries his eyes open against the wind of their passage and stares down the bridge to where the swirls of color disappear into darkness.
He has time, and he will remember to allow for chaos.