Disclaimer: Nothing from this Marvelous universe is mine.
Summary: Three months after Operation Avengers all is well. Or is it? When Steve and Tony hack into SHIELD to find missing weapons shipments they find more than they bargained for in the form of a prisoner who should, by rights, have been sent to Asgard long ago.
Warnings: Moderately graphic torture, hints of non-con.
A/N: ~May the Fourth be With You!~ (Srsly though, thank you so much to every one of you still reading. I don't deserve it. I really don't.)
Chapter 38: A Tangled Web
He does not know where, but they arrive, and he is smiling with the triumph of it even as his knees buckle beneath him and he slams face-first into the ground. It is dirt under him, not concrete, he thinks. He can feel the grit sticking to his face.
His hands are still wrapped about Bruce's arm, and Steve's.
He wants to release them, but his fingers will not obey him. They twitch uselessly, spasmodically, when he tries, as though he has taken a bolt of lightning to the chest. He soon gives up. It can make no difference to Steve, and Bruce will pry himself free soon enough if he needs to. He wonders where he has taken them. Tries to remember what his thoughts had been before he left, but all he can recall is the desperation to be somewhere far from New York and safe. It will be a place that he has been to before though. That, or somewhere he has seen.
"Tell me we're still on earth," he hears Bruce groan from beside him.
He would say so, but the dirt presses against his lips and he thinks he'd rather keep them closed.
He hopes, distantly, that he did not hurt Bruce too much falling. He does not want him to Hulk here.
He wonders how many pieces the beast would tear him into.
Or maybe it would just be his bones again.
"Loki?" Bruce says.
And then Bruce is prising free of him, and saying his name again more sharply and kneeling beside him in the dirt. He wants to pull away from the fingers that rest against his throat, but it is only Bruce, of course. Just Bruce, checking to see if he is dead or alive. He can feel something hot leaking from his nose and his mouth. He wonders if that is what the grit is sticking to. Wonders if he has been crying, or if it is merely blood.
He can't remember. A nagging voice whispers, somewhere, that this should matter.
"Loki, I'm going to flip you over, okay?"
Warmth, on his shoulder. He flinches, only that is a twitch too and makes no difference at all.
There is a grunt, a heave and—nothing.
"You're heavy," Bruce mutters.
Volstagg is heavy.
There is the crunch of dirt as Bruce moves over to his other side. And then the mortal is pushing instead of pulling, and the world is lurching about him and he's staring upwards, and there's something wrong with his eyes, there must be, because it's like they've been smeared by thick grease. A rich scent hangs in the air— a soft tang that catches somewhere in his throat, familiar and—oh. Oh. He knows where he has smelt this before. It brings back memories of I missed you too and cold air and colder stone slamming into his back and watching, amused, wondering if Thor would manage to kill Stark before he realised he was fighting an ally.
He feels like laughing and he doesn't know why.
"—going to be fine," Bruce is saying now, and then, lower, almost to himself, "Or I hope we are. Should've kept your coat, hmm, Banner?"
Is he cold? Probably.
He is, and he is a Jotun.
"I could warm you," he manages to produce, somewhere between a whisper and a croak.
He can't, actually, he suspects. He can't even lift his own fingers.
Predictably, Bruce's voice turns firm with displeasure.
"If you're thinking of using magic to do it, don't."
A flicker of warmth sparks inside.
It's nice, knowing the mortal cares.
"Is this earth?"
"Yes," Loki says.
It's a bit better than last time, his voice.
He needs a drink, he thinks. Water. But there is no water here.
"I don't know."
Silence. Then Bruce is reaching forward, and beginning to brush off the sticky filth off his face with something soft.
His eyes want to slip shut, and with each blink the dizziness in his head grows worse. He can't afford this. Cannot afford to rest, when Polt may still pursue them. And yet… What use will he be to either of them without it? What can he do for them, when he cannot even stand? When he cannot even see?
Viciously, he stamps the thought to pieces.
He will be able to. Maybe he cannot now, but soon.
Soon, in a few minutes, he will be well enough to function once more. If he rests, he may do so for hours. Days, even. He has done it before.
Bruce sounds like he is having similar concerns, because he speaks suddenly, sharp.
"Stay with me, won't you? Don't go to sleep."
"I won't," Loki manages hoarsely, "I am—,"
"If you're going to say fine, then I'm pre-warning you now I'm not buying it," Bruce says.
Loki glares vaguely upwards.
The effect is ruined a little when something catches at the back of his throat and he breaks down coughing. It is ruined totally when Bruce squeezes his knees under his back to support him, props his head up so he can properly breathe, and begins patting his back as though he is a child trying to vomit. More blood leaks from his mouth, down his neck. He wishes it would not. It is undignified, sitting like this.
"What do we do now?" Bruce asks, minutes later, when he is done.
Loki shrugs, a weak twitch of one shoulder. But he can do that now, and it is something.
"I do not know."
"Where's Loki most likely to be?" Tony asks, mid-flight.
Pepper's vital signs are normal, he notes. Slight bruising, a few cuts. A smudge of soot. All in all, not too bad. She should wake soon. Assuming SHIELD is even remotely secure and nothing happens to her in the little florist shop with 'Sale NOW' graffitied on the side in red paint that Clint tells him is actually a mini HQ. Which actually, no, that's not something he feels even remotely safe assuming.
"I do not know," Thor is saying now, frustration in every syllable, "I am no student of magic."
"Come on, you've fought beside him for, what was it, eight hundred years? You must know something."
"Magic is not something one simply does. It takes years for one to master it."
"I'm not asking you to do magic, I'm asking you to give me some insight into where he'd want to go with Bruce and Steve with a grenade going off."
"Look," Clint interjects, "I still don't get why you can't just wait for him to go all Banquo on you. Send an extraction team then."
"I'm concerned he's not conscious is why, Locksley."
"It will be a place to which he has been before," Thor says, "Likely somewhere he feels is safe. But we often visited this realm as youths. It could be anywh—"
There's a sudden scramble of voices, high and panicked, and Thor's voice, low and pitched to soothe someone who isn't him, telling them he's here to help.
"How is it back there?" Tony asks.
"Building's on fire," Clint says for Thor. "We've got agents going over now. Word is, the shooter hightailed out when Banner didn't Hulk. They lost him in the underground."
Damn the underground. He needs to get back there. Maybe Polt's minions haven't followed him and won't see if he leaves Pepper mid-way?
But they will.
They've followed everywhere else.
"How did they find us, anyway?" Tony demands.
"You're not exactly easy to miss. You practically have five glowing beacons on you saying 'I am Iron Man'."
"In New York in the rain? With every other sign and streetlight on or flashing?"
"We're still working on it, okay? Maybe they've got some way of tracing the serum. Maybe they sliced the cameras and saw you land there."
"But why attack now? Why not before?"
"Rain? Traffic? Waiting for a good shot at Bruce? I don't know. Does there need to be one? He was definitely their target though. Resistance here collapsed as soon as it got broadcasted that the serum was gone and Bruce wasn't Hulking for them. Same in Washington. Same everywhere, and that's with half the staff down. Disgusting really. And unprofessional. It's like it never occurred to them we'd act at all, let alone now. Makes me wonder just how much Fury's been holding off 'cause of the serum."
"Or how many double-agents turned triple when they realised he'd lost."
"That too," Clint allows. "Fuck, I am not looking forward to this debriefing."
Tony snorts, and then breaks and swerves around a building.
"Can SHIELD trace teleportation?"
"Kind of. Strange can. He's on vacation at the moment somewhere in Spain, but he's due back in a few days."
"You don't just call Strange."
"Um, why not? I don't remember being on vacation ever stopping SHIELD bothering me."
"Because you don't magically reroute all calls that aren't your girlfriend or your bank to classical music, or alternate between relaxing at top-notch resorts and single-handedly decimating the latest magical threats to planetary security before SHIELD can do more than detect they're there on your vacations."
"So pretend we're the bank."
So Strange is out. Okay. Fair enough.
"Thor's girlfriend. Jane," Tony says abruptly, "She was doing something with inter-dimensional travel, wasn't she? Where's she these days?"
"... Tromsø Norway, from memory, buried in a lab somewhere. You want to try her?"
"Maybe. What are the odds Polt'll try her too?"
"… Shit. I'll raise it with Fury. And get you her number."
"Is Jane in danger?" Thor asks, concerned.
"Probably not. Polt's more likely to pose as SHIELD asking for info on atmospheric abnormalities than to shoot her, but like I said, I'm putting through a call to Fury now."
Tony wouldn't count on that, personally. If Thor likes her, Polt's just as likely to go for her as he is for Pepper now he knows Thor is here and his plans are ruined. Not that Polt ever has gone for Pepper specifically, but still. Call him paranoid. He blames the pulse of fear that had passed through him, standing at the door knowing he couldn't get back to her in time.
Five minutes later, he's there.
Two eye-scans, one false wall, an elevator and two hallways later, he's standing in front of a mini-hospital ward that's been curtained off from the main communications room. There's no nurse there, but the agent who feels Pepper's pulse when he sets her down on one of the beds looks competent and tells him she's going to be fine. He's also got a gun at his belt, which is, right now, a lot more reassuring than a pen or a stethoscope. Still:
"Jarvis? Call up a spare suit. Keep it next to Pepper. If things go south, get her out."
"Ms Potts will be my first priority, sir."
Because maybe an empty suit flying right here will be a double-tell that he's left something here to defend, maybe it'll make everyone here more of a target, but it's the only protection he's prepared to trust in. He's failed up till here, with pretty much everyone.
He'll be damned if he fails with Pepper now.
It is ten minutes before Bruce extracts himself and rests Loki's head back first on the ground, then on Steve's arm.
"It's not much of a pillow, but I don't think he'll mind."
"Don't you think I'm a little dirty?" Loki says.
"Not really. It's just blood. Like I say, I don't think he'd care. I'll be back soon," Bruce adds, "I'm just going to see if there's enough kindling here to start a fire."
"With what?" Loki frowns.
A part of him does not like the idea. A fire will keep them warm, true, but unless this place is very remote a fire will also mean that someone will come here looking for it. Still... at the moment, Bruce is right. The cold is probably his most significant threat. He doubts anyone will come for it in the night, and with luck they will be gone from here by morning. Gone, or rescued. Assuming Barton or Romanoff know this place when he recovers enough to contact them and tell them where he is.
"Steve's got supplies for it," Bruce says, "Tinder and matches. And a torch."
"Ah. Very well," Loki says, "Try not to..."
"Hulk?" Bruce says for him, "Yes, well. At least it doesn't look like there's much round here to smash."
True. Or at least, Thor and Tony hadn't seemed to find anything that mattered.
Bruce keeps talking as he gathers his fuel. About the weather, about Polt, about when Steve will wake. About science. Loki contributes little more than "yes" and "no" and "I don't know", but he is grateful, as much for the distraction as for the indicator of where the doctor is. A part of him wants to know why the mortal is still here. To know what is different between now and the Helicarrier, that Bruce was able to retain control. But perhaps it is just that here is under no direct threat and the aspirin is still protecting Bruce from the worst of his injuries. He wonders what will happen in an hour or so, when it wears off.
It's ten minutes before he catches the acrid scent of smoke that heralds Bruce's attempts at starting a fire.
"I don't know if it's caught or not," Bruce mutters, "It seems to be mostly smouldering. Wet wood, I guess."
Loki agrees with him, though there is the odd crack of sparks that says it will produce some warmth eventually.
He wonders if they will still be here with it when it does.
They will be if he is like this for long. He lets the steady stream of words rush over him, and focuses on moving.
It is too long before his fingers and his toes obey him. Even when they do, the rest of him remains sluggish. Dull. The world alternates between the grey blur of night and the bright blur that means Bruce is shining his torch near him, and no amount of concentration will make it get better. He feels like Han Solo after the carbonite. Still. He can feel, and guess what is about him and his nose and mouth no longer leak blood. If he cannot move gracefully, at least he can move. It will serve him well enough, must serve him well enough, to walk after Bruce to the fire, and maybe even to feed it tonight and allow them both to alternate watches. And then, when his sight is better, he will contact Barton. It is a good plan, he thinks.
He manages to flop himself up half-way before collapsing back with a small whine.
Pathetic. This is pathetic.
He is pathetic.
He grits his teeth, steels himself to try again, and then Bruce's good hand is pressing firmly against his shoulder, forcing him down.
"Don't be an idiot. You can't walk in your condition."
"I'm not. And I can."
"You are," Bruce tells him roundly, "Stop trying to push yourself. Just settle down and rest. The fire hasn't even started properly yet."
"I thought you did not want me to sleep."
"That was when I was concerned that you were dying. I'm fairly sure now you're not."
Loki changes tactics.
"You have one good hand. I can help. Physically," he stresses, in case Bruce thinks he means with magic.
Bruce makes a frustrated noise.
"Did you stop to consider that if you waited for, what? Twenty minutes? An hour? Then Steve'd wake up and do it for you?"
Loki hesitates, frowning.
"Of course you didn't. You treat yourself like you're expendable in every plan you make."
That is because he is expendable. He has always been expendable. From the day he'd so carelessly given the advice that had threatened to cost them the sun and the moon and the beloved child-hostage of Vanaheim, he'd known that. He'd been so young then, he remembers, and stupid. So stupid. Stupid enough to think that going to Odin might be a solution when the mobs had found him drinking in the taverns and told him that if he did not fix the mess he had created he would die. Stupid enough, later, to try anything when Odin had told him that even if he did intercede, if no way was found to stop it they all would.
He knows he isn't to them here, intellectually. Intellectually, he remembers Tony talking about boundaries and Steve telling him he worries.
But this is not hurting himself without cause.
There is a reason for this.
"I cannot die in any way that matters," he forces out, "I only hurt. Hurt is nothing. I heal faster than any of you."
"No, you don't. I heal faster than you, if the Other Guy comes out. I don't even know if I can die, except by the serum. Does that make me expendable?"
"It is not the same."
"It's exactly the same. You're like, I don't know. Blackavar, post-rescue, or Tristan going over to what's-his-name's tower binding the ice."
Loki frowns doubtfully. 'Blackavar' means nothing to him, and the only Tristan he remembers reading about from this realm was a knight in love with his aunt who didn't do much about it and died. He does not recall any ice. But the tone is an odd mixture of concern and anger and something that sounds like care, and he can guess well enough that these are not things he wants to be likened to. So:
"I am not," he says firmly.
"You are. Loki, just because it's a side-effect of helping us in some way, just because it won't be permanent, doesn't make it mean nothing or be automatically okay with me when you half-kill yourself or break down screaming. You're not expendable, Loki. Why can't you see that?"
"I didn't break down screaming," Loki snaps defensively.
"Not now, maybe. You did when your collar was coming off."
Loki is silent.
Bruce exhales above him, long and slow.
"I'm sorry. For... using that, and getting angry at you. I just... I feel so helpless, watching you get hurt."
"… You do?"
"You were prepared to stand between eight agents and me when you could barely keep yourself upright, and you took me here knowing that if I lost it you'd be smashed just to keep me safe from Polt and Manhatten safe from me. I'm a time-bomb waiting to detonate anything near me, and you either don't have a self-preservation instinct or you never use it. Why wouldn't I feel helpless?"
Loki swallows uncertainly and thinks of his children.
Of Steve, and waiting in an alley in the rain wondering if they'd caught him too.
He feels ill when he is helpless and he hates whatever is responsible for it, but the anger usually comes later. But Thor sometimes yelled at him for getting himself hurt, he remembers. He wonders, suddenly, if sometimes Thor didn't do it because he was angry with him or because he thought he should have done better somehow or been more, but because Thor felt helpless too, and shouting was his solution to not knowing what to do about it. Wonders if sometimes, not often, no, but sometimes, he has misjudged his not-brother.
"I did not mean to make you feel helpless," he says stiffly.
"I know. I just don't think you see sometimes how much—"
Something snaps, in the bushes. Moves.
Bruce twists around, and Loki turns his head there blindly too and wishes he could see.
"What is it?"
A click, and a bright blur replacing the fuzzy black.
"... Wind, I think, breaking the branches."
"We need to move."
"We need to wait, Loki. For Steve."
"I know. You don't like needing help. I don't much like it either. But can you just... try? For twenty minutes?"
Something snaps again.
His heart is pounding in his chest, hard and far too fast.
He hates it. Hates that Bruce can feel it.
Hates that Bruce's hand won't let him rise.
"Something is there."
He can feel that something is there.
He wonders if this forest is home to wolves.
"You've been watching too much 'Beauty and the Beast'," Bruce tells him, when he says so. "Even if it was, they'd be unlikely to go for us with the fire."
Loki scowls more.
On Asgard, nothing is intimidated by fire. Not unless it is attached to a weapon.
"You need to rest. Can you even see?"
"Yes," Loki lies.
"Then you can see nothing is there."
But something is. Something is.
He can hear it breathing, loud in the night.
"Don't panic. Just... breathe. In and out. Okay? It's a forest. It's natural that things will be in it."
He is not panicking.
What is there?
"Steve'll be up soon and we can, I don't know. Climb a tree, maybe. We're fine."
What if it is wolves?
What if it is Polt?
He can't kill the Hulk, but if Bruce Hulks, will he hurt Steve? Will he hurt him?
Loki thinks so. He doesn't think the Hulk likes him any better than he likes the Hulk.
"It's probably just a rabbit or something."
"Have you ever seen 'Ella Enchanted'?" Loki asks him.
There's another snap, closer this time. Too close, and he's reaching inwards instinctively before he remembers to stop, summoning a dagger just in case he somehow finds the strength to wield it. And then his body is shaking with laughter, mad and silent and desperate, because it does not answer. His magic writhes inside without direction, igniting every nerve and he arches his back in silent agony as it washes through him, but it doesn't answer.
Bruce's hands are on his shoulders and he is speaking now, telling him that it's okay, that it's just a bear, that it's moving past, that he mustn't panic since they're not usually aggressive, asking what is wrong, but Bruce does not understand.
It needs to work. He can feel the panic fluttering inside. Can feel his eyes widening with realisation and with terror.
He has overextended himself.
He has managed to do what he did after the Builder, after the Void, after Skadi, and he can't use it.
He hadn't realised he had stopped. His hands are scrabbling uselessly at the soil, forming matching furrows in the ground.
"It's going to be okay, Loki. Breathe."
It's not. It's not. Everything is wrong inside and it is not.
How long? How far has he pushed himself? How long will this last?
An hour? A day? A week?
They don't have a week.
"Loki, whatever this is, it's going to be okay. We're okay. Breathe. In and out. Just breathe."
He can't stop laughing. He can't breathe in because he can't stop breathing out and all of this is too hilarious to stop.
It is a long time before it ends. Even when it does, he can't stop shaking.
His fingers are filthy, caked with soil and leaf mould.
Bruce does not stop holding him.
Part-blind as he is, it could almost be Steve doing so. Or Thor.
"I can't use it," he whispers.
Too small and too lost, and he's not surprised when Bruce goes rigid behind him.
"I cannot use it."
Bruce is silent for a long while.
When he speaks, his voice is forced.
"You said it was like using a weak muscle, right? When you do too much with one, you end up straining it or tearing it eventually. You probably did it bringing us here."
Loki feels a hot lump forming somewhere in his throat.
Of all the things Bruce could have chosen to say, words to blame him for trying, for dismissing himself again so easily, words to say why did you do this or I told you so or why didn't you listen, Bruce has chosen ones that he thinks will comfort him the most. He doesn't know if it's true. He does know that Bruce knows far less than he. It shouldn't matter. The comfort is meaningless and it shouldn't matter like it does that the mortal still tries.
"I'm sorry," he whispers.
He doesn't know why.
For all of it, maybe. For failing.
I did not mean to make you feel helpless.
Or maybe he is just overtired, overwrought and sore.
"Don't apologize, buddy. You'll be okay. You need to rest though."
He can't rest. He can't.
He is beyond rest now.
He needs to get up, to watch Steve, to move.
"Even for just twenty minutes," Bruce says. "I'll wake you as soon as Steve does, or if there's a danger."
The dull panic pounds inside, urging him to refuse. Demanding that he stay awake.
And yet, he can hear the worry in Bruce's voice.
Would it really mean so much?
Even if he can't rest, he can at least pretend, can he not? He can still lie.
Even when there is nothing else, there is always that.
"You don't even have to sleep," Bruce adds, "Just... close your eyes. Try to relax."
"... I have your word on it?"
"My solemn oath. Twenty minutes."
"Twenty minutes," Loki repeats after him.
Just twenty. Slowly, too slowly, he allows his eyes to drift shut.
Nothing changes, really. He feels the same. Everything is just darker.
He wonders if Steve will remember where they are. He hadn't been piloting, he remembers, but he had been near to Romanoff. He might be able to. But it doesn't matter, of course. SHIELD will find them, eventually. They will see the smoke, or the reports of those that do.
Maybe Polt will too, but...
Bruce is right. Steve will be awake then.
Steve will be able to kill those who threaten them. Maybe he will even be able to contact Tony. To contact SHIELD.
And in the meantime he decides, hands wrapped tightly about his middle, trying not to shiver, he will wait.
Wait, and do his best to pretend for Bruce that sleep has come.
It's surprising really, how quickly it's over in the end.
There's a skirmish or two, according to Clint, but nothing he or Thor need to handle. Nothing serious. No attempts on Pepper, no shots at Thor. No mysterious phone calls with vague do-or-die threats that all the cliches say should be happening right now. Polt himself is caught trying to board a Quinjet— both pilots, unfortunately for him, are double agents. Or triple agents. Tony's not sure. With SHIELD, he's not sure he ever will be. But Polt's put inside a nice little cell, alone, for a private trial.
"Though I'm predicting a quiet accident, myself," Clint says. "Hope it's me."
SHIELD capture, according to Clint, ninety-percent of the people working for Polt. Natasha puts the figure rather lower, but she at least thinks they got seventy percent.
None of them are shape-shifters.
The optimistic part of Tony hopes that's because Polt only had two.
He and Thor get the upper levels of the block out, and about twenty minutes in the fire services arrive and fix the rest. Everything is a mess, especially when the press turn up, and Pepper's insurance premium is definitely going to climb by a factor of ten, but it could have gone worse. It is worse, sort of, going back to the Tower, but he's got rid of Polt's virus now and Jarvis's air filters have mostly purged the poison from the air, and SHIELD arrive to pack up what's left of Polt's agents and take them away in black bags before he can think too much about them. Pepper comes back, flying, and tells him that she is impressed he isn't claustrophobic in his suits because she is.
The difference Tony tells her, is that Jarvis flew her and he flies himself. In space, claustrophobic sums up exactly how he'd felt.
None of them talk much about how they can't find Loki, Steve and Bruce.
Pepper makes calls to New Mexico, to Germany, to every other place with people that Loki's been known to go to, asking if they've seen Steve or Bruce.
She also calls Dr. Foster, and gets someone called Darcy Lewis, intern, who says Jane's out and will call back.
Tony drinks scotch in the penthouse and tries to work out an algorithm for self-repairing code so Jarvis can notice when people who aren't Tony or authorised by Tony alter him and restore himself to what he was without it. He also puts on a fresh suit so that if an emergency happens he can respond. Thor is rather less useful than either of them, but Thor saved Pepper and most of the block so that's fair. The demigod seems to be mostly pacing and frowning and asking Heimdall to ask Odin if he can take him back home and send him immediately to where Loki is. Tony gives him points for determination. He'd have stopped asking the first hour of getting absolutely no response.
"You did say your dad found the whole inter-dimensional travel thing exhausting, didn't you?" he offers once.
It's better than 'Your dad's a dick and I honestly doubt he gives a damn about your brother'.
It's six in the morning before Tasha calls. None of them have slept.
She sounds like she hasn't either.
"You have found Loki?" Thor says, before anyone can speak.
"No. Still looking. Thor, Lewis just called SHIELD. Dr Foster didn't return for lunch, and she's not at the observatory. She's also not answering her phone. The last time she was seen was this morning, when she got in a car with some guy calling her up about some new data. We checked it out. His ID is a fake."
Thor's face darkens.
"What are you saying?"
"We think she may have been compromised."