Hello, my dears.

I hope you all will forgive me for how terribly long it's been. Believe me when I say that I would've rather been writing this than dealing with everything that's been going on in my life. (For the full story, visit my tumblr. A long, whiny explanation is forthcoming.)

But you're waited more than long enough (I really am sorry about that). Here we go.

Warning: This chapter contains semi-graphic descriptions of violence and injuries. If you do not want to read this, I'm putting a summary of the chapter in the bottom AN. This is the only chapter in the foreseeable future that has this kind of content.

Disclaimer: Still not mine.

Tony landed on the penthouse's patio and crashed through the plate-glass windows without hesitation. JARVIS scanned the room for Loki, then for any other imminent dangers, before Tony turned to Pepper and lifted his faceplate.

"Are you alright?"

At his words, Pepper's already pale face went almost grey. She was plastered against the doorway leading into a kitchenette, hands gripping a mostly-empty coffeepot. Her eyes were huge, fixed on something at his feet.

Under the minced window glass, a dark stain marred the rug. For a lurching moment, Tony mistook it for blood, but then the overpowering smell of coffee registered. He cleared his throat, and when Pepper looked up, he gestured to the stain. "Did Loki melt? When you-" he mimed throwing a drink in someone's face.

Her head shook slowly, and he dropped the pretense of good humor and stepped closer. "Are you hurt?"

She shook her head again.

"Okay. That's good, that's a good start." He looked around once more, half-hoping to see Loki just so he could take a swing at him and get some answers, but there was no one else to be found.

When Pepper's eyes lifted from the stain, they were filled with a familiar horror-shock medley that twisted his gut. "Come on, Pep."

"Loki was-" Her voice was unsteady, and she stopped short, swallowing hard. "He-"

"Let's get out of here. You can fill me in at the Mansion."

She didn't respond for a moment, long enough that he felt a lingering throb of anger at Loki. Finally, she nodded, and he stepped forward to pull her securely into his chest.

"He's in trouble," Pepper said, voice resounding oddly against the metal, and he patted her back as comfortingly as he could in the bulky gloves.

"He will be."

Loki wretched himself free of the ax. He might've screamed, but he was only aware of the gaping chasm in his chest, of the severed bones and nerves and muscles and sinews and veins. Shock coiled around him like fog, threatening to smother him, and he ripped open the Between and threw himself in, clawing frantically through to the other side, to anywhere but where Amora was-

He fell to his knees on cracked, colorful concrete, blood seeping through the cleaved flesh to soak his suit. With a desperate surge of magic, he drew himself back together, knitting and rejoining. The healing felt like cauterization, lasted a year. He'd not had a wound this deep in… centuries, at least. The magic kept flooding in, draining away, eaten away as the injury resisted being healed. Even as it stabilized, when he was tentatively whole, he could feel the dregs of his magic sifting away, added like links to the incorporeal chain binding his two halves together.

Loki lifted his head and took in a breath that scraped and rattled. Light seeped in through the painted windows and fell across his face, and he recognized the place as the location of one of his and Stark's Junctures.

Amora's blast caught him on his shoulder, wrenching the frail filaments holding him together, and he went tumbling.

He managed to turn the momentum into a roll and finished in a defensive crouch, out of breath but ready. Amora and Skurge stood a few paces away, dirt-smeared and feral-looking. Neither of them wore victory well.

"You think his tricks can save you?"

His shoulder felt cramped, useless, as Amora's magic seeped deep into the muscle and poisoned it. Still, he managed an unconcerned shrug that made him want to pass out. "Certainly, I-"

He deflected Amora's next blast, and even the slight redistribution of his magic made something inside him tear open again. He tasted blood.

Gritting his teeth, he flung icy daggers at the two of them, and in the moment it took Amora to shatter them with a wave, he was gone, hurled into the Between again.

This time, he fumbled along the other side of the veil, feeling for the texture of his enchantments, the ones that would keep Amora at bay. He tore his way into the first protected pocket he could find, but the second his fingers gripped the veil to pull it closed again and seal the charm, Amora's hand closed on his wrist, forcing him away from the tear as she followed him into Livy's apartment.

The bones in his wrist began to crack as her grip tightened, gleaming green. The new pain sharpened him, and he struck out with the flat of his palm. Amora's head snapped back. He twisted away, scrambling, ignoring the soft seep of warm, fresh blood across his back, down his ribs, gathering on his stomach and chest before dripping into the fabric of his suit. When he stood, it trickled into the waistband of his trousers. Each breath pulled, ripped a little more. He was unraveling.

A glint from the corner of his eye was the only warning he had before the ax swung. He dove, reaching for the Between, but Amora was there. Her blade came down, piercing Loki's shoulder and biting into the floor below. The pain stole the breath from his lungs before he began to fade into cloudy black oblivion.

Two fingers probed Loki's temple, and a flash of magic turned his mind crystalline, staving off unconsciousness. Each burst and throb of pain was crisp and sharp.

"Now, then."

Loki realized his eyes had fallen closed. He pried them open and focused slowly on Amora's face before his. Behind him, he felt more than saw Skurge raise the ax high.

"We have some questions."

Tony stared at Pepper, horror raising bile in his throat. "An ax. Came out. Of his chest."

She nodded, unease in her stance and expression. They stood in the workshop, his armor removing itself from his body as she explained. He'd been dumbstruck to hear Loki's insistence that he would not hurt her, that he wanted to talk to her, but he hadn't had two seconds to think about it before Pepper skipped to the finale. His heart sounded in his ears like cannons. The anger he'd held moments ago felt far away.

"And you didn't say anything? Not even after you heard me yesterday, explaining just who has an ax and is on the lookout for me and Loki?"

"It happened so fast, Tony, one second he was there and then-"

His mind was working in overdrive, throwing unhelpful mental images at him (a bloody ax, Amora's grin, Loki lying motionless-). His hand inched towards his gauntlet. "You should go."


"Not kidding, Pepper. I've got to get him out of there." (-blood everywhere, oh, God-)

"And then what?"

He stared. Pepper's voice, suddenly strong, pinned him in place.

"What will you do? Patch him up? Turn him loose?" She advanced one step. "Where will you draw the line?"

"I'm not going to draw anything until I make sure he's not dead," he snapped back, and the word rang in his ears, rattled in his chest – dead, dead, dead. He felt cold.

Pepper's expression wavered as she stared at him, but though her tone softened, her meaning didn't: "How long will you be able to justify what he's done? When everyone he kills after today will be on your shoulders if you save him?"

The words struck him in the gut, and for the slightest of seconds, he looked at the other option. The team would want it. It would get him back in their good graces. It could save lives.

But in his mind, he saw Loki's face – set in puzzlement, in amusement, in affection – and shame burned hot in his veins.

"I'll worry about it later. Right now, I need to-"

"I get it." Pepper looked on in shock and disappointment as he backed towards the elevator.

"Make sure the team knows you're okay. Tell them I'm in a Juncture, and that I can't be disturbed." The elevator opened before he'd pressed the button, but he couldn't spare any brain power to resent JARVIS' eavesdropping. Before the doors closed, he reached out a hand to stop them. "Just... please. Don't tell them-"

"I know." Her face was ice-white beneath her freckles.

Tony didn't respond, but she gave a quick nod after a beat. As he let the doors close, he heard her say, "He'd never do the same for you."

Then he was moving up, too slow to calm the storm brewing under his skin. The gauntlet itched on his wrist, demanding that he summon Loki now, make sure he was okay now. Visualizations of what Pepper had told him swirled in his head as he ascended, and he couldn't quite catch his breath.

The door to his room refused to close behind him, still mangled from SHIELD's search efforts, and after a moment of struggle, Tony forced it shut as best he could and dashed for the bathroom. Bolting the door, he grabbed the gauntlet, heart in his throat. When the cuff heated under his fingers and golden flare of teleportation appeared, he nearly fell over in his relief.

It didn't last.

In front of him, Loki pitched forward. Tony barely moved fast enough, slipping to his knees as Loki's face pressed into his neck and the full weight of his body pulled him to the floor.

A steady stream of words fell form Tony's lips – "Hey, you're fine, you're okay, it's okay, what happened, how did you-"

His hands fell to Loki's back. He touched slick skin, brushed his fingertip accidentally against a tear in the smooth, wet surface–

"Oh, God."

Loki felt hands on his back, at the fringe of the exposed flesh of the wounds. The scruff of stubble scratched his forehead. As the last vestiges of Amora's magic drained away, the pain turned hazy and indistinct. He felt cradled. He felt cold. He felt empty.

He felt so very, very tired.

Amora stared at the place where Loki had been. The carpet was sodden in places, the smell still ripe in the air.

"Where'd he go?"

Skurge looked to her for an answer, bewildered, but rather than respond, she closed her eyes and concentrated. Loki's trail hung before her like mist, old and new trails sweeping through Midgard, in and out of the Between. But the freshest tracks were slowly settling around her feet, a dead end.

"No," she said. "No, no, no!"

The final word elongated into a scream, ringing out until she had no air left. Green fire erupted around her, spiraling outward and latching onto the walls, the floors, the canvases, the furniture, until the flames roared her rage for her.

Tony leaned Loki's limp form against the white tiled wall of the shower. He slumped there, whiter than Tony had ever seen him, so white he almost glowed. Tony knelt by him, hands fluttering over his chest. There were two small gashes, barely more than an inch in length each, showing through the stained fabric of Loki's waistcoat. Barely anything. But he remembered Pepper's words and cold horror numbed him: The ax tip had come out his front.

"Loki?" He said once, loudly, but the god's eyelids didn't so much as twitch. Dampness seeped into the knees of Tony's pants. When he looked down, the creeping liquid looked like coffee in the dim lights of the bathroom.

"Brighter, JARVIS."

Even through the moment of blindness brought on by the sudden flare, Tony saw the gleam of the dull, spreading red. It already dripped from the fabric of the suit Loki wore and trickled across the tiles.

"If you're fucking with me, I swear to God, I'll…" His voice bounced back at him, rebounding against the wiled walls. Loki didn't even twitch.

He pressed his palms to Loki's face and tilted his head, pulling his eyelids up one by one. The pupils were uneven, unresponsive. Blood coated Loki's lips and began to trickle down his chin, brilliant scarlet against the chalk of his skin. Without thinking, Tony reached out and swiped his thumb through it, trying to wipe it away. It smeared against his skin, not nearly as warm as it should have been.

"Shit," he snapped, and his voice shook. "Shit."

Tony dropped his head lower, clawing aside Loki's suit and waistcoat and shirt until he could get his ear against Loki's chest and wait for a sign of breath or heartbeat. He closed his eyes and didn't breathe, just waited for any sign. It took seven long, desperate seconds before he made out the faint, dying rasp of air and the tinny thump of a heart.

Tony's head fell forward, sheer relief crashing over him and sapping the strength from his muscles. "You stupid fucker," he snapped. His voice cracked. "You can't just…"

Loki's face didn't change. His chin had tipped down to rest on his collarbones, and the thin stream of blood had bridged the gap to touch his chest. He didn't look smug. He didn't even look alive.

Tony swallowed hard and stared at his knees, at his socks, anywhere but the spreading red on the tile and the messy tears in Loki's chest. His hands trembled like messy, gore-striped butterflies, and he gulped coppery air until the tremors weren't as noticeable.

"Hang in there," he said, voice steady. "Alright? Just don't die or, you know. Thor will…"

He glanced at Loki, half-expecting his brother's name to bring Loki surging to life, ire piqued, but he hadn't moved. A bubble of blood was slowly forming at the corner of his lips.

Biting back nerves, he put his hands on Loki's shoulders and eased him forward, resting the clammy forehead on his shoulder so that he could examine Amora's work. Loki puddled against him, supple and heavy, like chainmail. Mussed black hair tickled Tony's throat and chin as he strained forward to get a good look.

The suit jacket was torn in three places. One shoulder had a dark stain around a puckered rip in the fabric, no bigger around than a penny, with a dainty, ugly puncture wound within. Another blow had split the back of the suit wide enough to display the wound within. The skin underneath was shiny and raw, almost newly healed, but in places, it was open and angry as though it was pulling apart. Bruising extended outward in all directions, heady red blurring into plum.

The final tear was the worst, longer and wider than the second. Open. Tony glimpsed bone and wet muscle before his stomach turned. He turned his head away, burying his face in Loki's hair and gasping to keep his coffee down.

His veins felt empty, as though they were full of air instead of blood. Yet he couldn't catch his breath. His movements were clumsy and uncontrolled as he pulled away and stripped off his shirt, pressing it against what he hoped was the worst of the wound before he leaned Loki back against the wall.

Could he dig out a bullet? Sure.

Could he stitch a wound? No problem.

Could he fix Loki's back? Not a chance.

"Jarvis," he croaked. "I need help."

Name it, Sir.

He cupped his palms over his eyes, and the darkness was comforting until he felt the cool slip of blood on his brow. He brought his hands away and peeled his eyes open. The butterflies were back. "Call Bruce's cell for me. Please."

Sir, based on the Hulk's history with Loki, I would strongly advise an alternate course of action.

"You said name it, didn't you? Just do it. Please."

There was a resigned sigh, then a pause, then a half-ring before Bruce picked up.

"Tony." The word was a gust of relief, as though Bruce had been holding his breath since they'd last spoken. "You okay? Pepper said you're in a Juncture-?"

"I'm fine. Yeah, no, I'm fine, she's fine, everything's… fine." He took a deep breath, and he could hear Bruce waiting for the other shoe to drop. "Except, I've got a small problem. Tiny, really."

"What can I do?" His voice was firm, but tight.

"You studied medicine, right? For five minutes or so?"

"Two years officially, more if you count extracurricular activities. What's happening?"

"I need-" Tony stared hard at Loki's face. "But you're not a surgeon, are you? That's a completely different branch. Shit, shit."

"Talk to me. Are you hurt?"

"What? No, I'm fine. I told you that." Tony paused. "Hey, how calm are you right now? Scale of one to ten? Because this is only going to get worse, and we just redecorated the East wing last month-"

"Well, you being cryptic isn't the best thing for my blood pressure."

"Right. Okay. Um." He closed his eyes and the negative of Loki's face flashed inside his eyelids. "Loki's hurt. Bad. As in, possibly dying." While he said it, he had a moment of panic that Loki had managed to die without him noticing. His eyes snapped open, and he held his hand under Loki's nose until he felt the drag of air.

"You don't sound happy about that."

"Should I?" Tony let his hand drop. The silence after his voice was a bit too empty, went on a bit too long.

"What's wrong, Tony?"

"I-" his gaze went blurry for a moment, and he took in a deep breath. His eyes refocused on his wrist, on the gauntlet, and he said, "It's a Juncture."

"What is?"

"This. I mean… I'm with him, I called a Juncture, and if he dies before the Juncture ends, then I'll…" Even as he stumbled along, his heart clattered more quickly against his ribs as he considered the tang of truth his words held. "…I might die, too."

Bruce said nothing for a long, cold moment. Tony watched the blood trickle through the cracks between the tiles and considered praying.

"But he's got magic," Bruce said at last. "Couldn't he just-?"

"Apparently not." Tony steeled himself. "I need – if you can manage, I mean, I need–"

"Tony?" Bruce's voice was clear and commanding, but still gentle. "Tell me what to do, and I'll do everything I can."

"Right. Right." Tony kept his eyes on the tiles. "Go to the sick bay. We're fully stocked. Keep me on the line, tell me what you see. I can direct you to what you need." He felt brittle as he listened to Bruce moving on the other end, and a sudden burst of panic threatened to fracture him. "Bruce-"


"Don't tell anyone. Please."

"I won't. It'll be okay. You're going to be fine, Tony, you hear me?"

Tony nodded and clenched his hands into fists to mask the tremors. "Yeah."

Natasha appeared in Clint's doorway between the second and third trips to his closet. He waited for her to speak as he slipped the gear into one garment bag and checked to make sure the correct suit resided in the other.

"Stark's back."

"I heard."

"He won the Challenge."

"Bully for him." He checked the arrows in his quiver before stuffing it into the first bag. "Pass on my congratulations."

She was quiet for a moment. "You got an assignment."

"I asked Phil if anything was available. Shanghai operation. One week, give or take a day."

"You'll need another suit." Her tone was cool.

"This is to get me to my hotel. The rest will be waiting for me."

"You're running."

He turned. From the gloom of his bedroom, he thought the light around her frame made her look unearthly, even sinister. Every limb of her slender silhouette looked heavy with muscle and tension. "I'm getting some distance."

She nodded slowly. "Will you come back?"

"It's only a week."

"You know what I meant. Is this only mission or the first?"

Clint sighed and returned to his packing. "I don't know yet."

She didn't respond.

"Natasha, you've got to understand-"

"I do."

"Do you?" He kept his gaze focused firmly on his hands as they folded his bow and checked the arrowheads stowed in his spare quiver.

"You see your lack of inclusion in the knowledge of Stark's betrayal as a personal choice on my part rather than a tactical maneuver." Her voice was robotic, clinical. "That, combined with Stark lying and putting you at risk-"

"All of us at risk."

"-has created a feeling of being ostracized and mistrusted, which you see as being especially unfair because you were not the one to lie or withhold information. And on top of all of that, you feel shame for not realizing that Stark had gone rogue. This, taking a mission, it's as much about proving yourself as it is about getting some time to think away from all of us."

His hands had stalled. The quiver rested in his hands, and he stared down at it. "I'm not going to change my mind just because you dissect me."

"I know."

He nodded, and the motion broke his trance. He placed the quiver inside the garment bag, tucked into the special slip, and zipped the bag closed. "The car's coming in five minutes, so-"

"I'll tell the others in six."

He slipped his fingers through the hangers and swung the bags to hang over his shoulder. When he turned, Natasha had gone. He listened, completely still, but her footsteps were too soft to hear.

When Bruce tapped on the bathroom door, Tony nearly jumped out of his own skin. He slid Loki's hand out of his (just feeling for a pulse, what a load of bullshit) and got up gingerly. Blood pasted his pants to his skin on one side from his hip to his knee. Before he opened the door, he leaned his head against it and asked, "Are you sure you're okay? Keeping a lid on it and all?"

A pause, a shuffling sound. "You sound awful. I thought it was the connection." When a few seconds passed and Tony made no move to open the door, Bruce sighed. "I'm peachy. I love it when I'm called on to operate outside of my field and patch up someone I despise. Now get out of my way and let me keep you alive."

Tony considered that for a moment, analyzing tone and inflection, before he stepped to one side and opened the door. Bruce blinked sharply. The light from the bathroom fell across him in a flood, sending his shadow sliding out onto the carpet behind him in a clean, clear shape. He wore more rumpled versions of the clothes from that morning, and his hair stuck up to one side from where he'd run his hand through it. He offered a weak smile that soon faded as he took in Tony's appearance, no doubt drinking in the smeared blood and panic. In turn, Tony scrutinized Bruce as the man turned and set eyes on Loki.

"Christ. What was the challenge, a round of hide-and-seek in a blender?" Despite the dry, light tone, Bruce was tense. But rather than tensing outward, bulking and swelling the way he did when he tried to hold in the Hulk, he tensed inward, shrinking into a smaller target. It was a Bruce Banner sort of tense.

He glanced over at Tony, and the whites of his eyes were pink with stress, not a hint of green showing. And at the center, that core of reassuring brown remained. "I'm giving you a check-up after I put Dr. Horrible back together. You look like crap."

"You should see the other guy." Tony replied without a thought. Then he paused. "And when I say 'the other guy'-"

Bruce waved him off with a wan half-smile. "Not the first time it's happened."

Tony watched Bruce step into the shower and kneel at Loki's side, placing the bag of supplies on the ground. The other man moved cautiously as he settled in, worming his hands into gloves. When he placed a hand on Loki's shoulder, he stopped, freezing for a moment as if certain of an imminent death. But Loki had been frozen in place to begin with, giving the impression that the stillness had transferred from his body into Bruce's. Tony bit back disappointment as Bruce tilted Loki forward to look at the mess.

"That's." Bruce's face scrunched as he peered closer. "That's just… When you said all the way through, you actually meant-"

"Yeah." Just thinking about it made the ground wobble beneath Tony's feet.

Bruce was still for a moment, staring down, eyes flitting to and fro. Finally, he looked up at Tony. "Don't just stand there and stare. Go do something. Put on a shirt."

Tony opened his mouth to say, I don't want to go, but he imagined Bruce asking why not? and the silence that would follow. "Fine," he said instead, and he looked to Loki's quiet body for a reason to stay and received none. "I'll be back in a minute."

Ten minutes later, he was staring down at his open dresser drawer. His hands had left red smudges on the little handles, and now they fluttered above the shirts that Pepper had folded neatly and arranged in identical piles. There were band shirts, plain shirts, polo shirts she'd bought him that he'd never worn. He didn't want to touch them now, knowing that he would ruin whichever one he picked up. It was an ugly, heavy thought, pulling his head into a bow and hunching his shoulders. He'd ruin it just by reaching out. And how was that fair? All he wanted was a shirt. It wasn't his fault that his hands were bloody. He hadn't asked for it. Why did he have to ruin everything he touched?


He flinched, blinked, and grabbed the first shirt he touched. Metallica. Grey and black. And, now, red. "Hey. Hi. How is he?"

The second he got the shirt on, Bruce's cool, ungloved fingers took hold of his chin and steered it towards him. "Follow my finger."

He ignored the finger and stepped out of range. "I'm fine."

Bruce folded his arms and lifted his chin. "I just watched you look at a pile of shirts for a full minute."

"I was deciding. Color coordination's tricky, you know. Pepper says I'm an autumn, but I'm not a big fan of earth tones-"

"Tell me what happened. Don't seal this up in there." He tapped Tony's head with one finger. "It'll only eat its way out again."

"Nothing happened. He just appeared like that. I didn't do it." Tony took a step away, out of Bruce's reach. The man's face was weary as he kept his eyes on Tony, scanning and re-scanning him. "Is he… how is he?"

Bruce frowned and leaned forward a fraction of an inch, as though he'd misheard, but then he shook his head. "For someone who got himself cut in half twice, he's fantastic. He should be dead. Never seen anything like it."

"Magic," Tony muttered. At least, he hoped it was magical. Magical meant defying what he thought was possible, and that meant that Loki might actually survive this.

"Well, if he wakes up, ask him if we can bottle it. I don't even know how his heart's still beating, or if it will be for long. I-" Bruce stopped, and Tony realized that he had taken a step towards the bathroom. He settled back on his heels and looked Bruce in the eye, wordlessly inviting him to go on. After a beat of silence, he did. "I gave him painkillers. Antibiotics. But I've never been good at puzzles, and I wouldn't know where to start when it comes to fixing the wounds themselves. That's what the magic's for, right?"

Tony tried to keep his shrug smooth and unconcerned. "You'd think. Doesn't really seem to be happening much on its own, though." That was the worst part. If Loki had hopped up and pieced himself together with a flourish, the whole incident would've come and gone in a minute. Not like this drawn-out nightmare.

"There's not a lot I can do about that anyway." He glanced down at his hands. The lights in the room were dim, the curtains drawn, and the blood looked fake – too dark, too dull. "I thought he'd bleed a different color, Bruce said abruptly, "or a different texture or something. Not like this."

Not like us, Tony heard him say without breath.

Then he looked back up at Tony and went on as though the digression hadn't happened. "I can't poke around in there and do anything but more damage. The best I can do is put some gauze on him to help control the bleeding while we move him."

Tony balked. "Move him?"

Bruce's eyebrows jumped. "We're not keeping him in your shower, are we?"

"I hadn't thought about it." He pictured dragging Loki to the elevator, pressing the down button, arriving in the midst of the people that wanted him dead. "But… yeah."

Bruce was giving him the look that made Tony suspect the man was staring into his head rather than at it. "You're worried Fury might order him killed regardless of the Juncture."

Tony leapt at the explanation without hesitation. "Yeah. Exactly. You saw how he was yesterday, trying to rally the lynch mob. At this point, he's probably not above publicly executing both of us. Two birds, you know." He received an understanding nod, and Tony took a moment to give a fierce, silent thank-you to whatever god had sent Bruce Banner into his life.

"I get it. Don't worry too much about Fury in the meantime. We'll figure something out later. Right now, I need your help getting the bandages on Loki before he loses more blood. I can't hold him and wrap him up at the same time."

Tony nodded and started for the bathroom. "Why didn't you say so?"

Bruce matched his strides. "You were staring into the great abyss of your shirt drawer."

"And that worried you? You must be losing your touch." But the camaraderie sounded forced even to Tony, and Bruce didn't look convinced.

Thor rolled a pen between his fingers and waited as the agent before him shuffled papers and looked over past answers. He'd answered their questions, some more than once, about Loki and the Game. They had offered to let him sleep, but he'd not felt the need and instead allowed them to continue their interrogation.

They'd asked him about his thoughts on Tony's loyalty, on his brother's capacities for destruction and influence over Tony, on his brother's whereabouts and potential future actions. He had written his answers as quickly and neatly as he could and pushed the papers towards the questioner, who skimmed them and filed them away for later. Unless, of course, the answer was not deserving of words.

"If Stark were to be… eliminated," the agent had asked him some time in the early morning, "would Loki be weakened or impaired in any way?"

Thor had stared at her until she flinched.

"You must understand, we're looking at this from a tactical standpoint. Whatever it takes to keep the citizens of this country safe." She regained her authority and asked, "How much will you sacrifice to keep your brother safe?"

I hold his life at equal value with that of any one of your citizens, Thor had written, and the woman had read it twice before nodding stiffly and putting the paper aside.

It was one of a handful of lies he had written that night to satisfy Fury's men. They always took him at his word.

Now, the agent was looking for something he'd written, wanting to clarify. But before she could find it, the door opened and Coulson entered, expression grim and eyes tired.

"There's a fire in an apartment building downtown. Green flames. Little response to water, and spreading fast. We need you to get as many people out as you can from the upper and middle floors."

Loki? He wrote, and Coulson said, "No confirmation, but it's likely."

Thor was out of his seat and moving, heading for the roof and summoning Mjölnir.

Sir, JARVIS asked, voice muted and polite. The Captain has been informed of a fire and has asked me to ascertain the severity and probable duration of your Juncture to predict your availability to help.

Tony had Loki's head pressed into his neck again and was angling the god's torso in a way that allowed Bruce to flatten clouds of cotton to the wounds and secure them with lengths of gauze that he wrapped around Loki's ribs.

Bruce looked up at Tony, pausing with the roll of gauze held in mid-air.

"Critical severity, unknown duration," Tony answered after a moment of consideration. "Better not wait up."

I'll pass it on. Best of luck, Sir.

Tony returned his attention to Bruce, bracing Loki to continue bandaging him, but Bruce didn't move. He was looking hard at Tony with a scrutiny that was rapidly becoming familiar.

"Why don't you just break off the Juncture?" Bruce asked. "If you leave, won't it be over? You'll be safe?"

Tony scrambled for an answer. He felt exposed under Bruce's stare, with Loki in his arms. "If I leave now, I forfeit. Loki wins."

"I thought Junctures took place after the challenges ended."

"No- well, yeah, the challenge is over. I meant that I forfeit my prize. So he'd win by default. You know, because he'd get away without any penalty."

Bruce nodded slowly, but his expression didn't change. He refocused on Loki, moving the roll of gauze in a loop around the limp body and pulling it tight.

"I'm not as fragile as you make me out to be," he said without looking back up. "So if you decide to tell me, you can."

Tony couldn't decide whether to damn himself through denial or confession, so he damned himself through silence by default.

Thor alighted on the burning building's roof and raised Mjölnir to the skies, drawing energy to him from the air that extended out and above until clouds converged on Manhattan, boiling and blackening. He opened his mouth into a silent bellow and swung the hammer, bringing with it the downpour.

Water soaked through his hair and shirt as he approached the edge of the roof and looked down at the assembly of blinking red vehicles and Midgardians. Between him and them, the air was thick with acrid black smoke. The fire was a shocking, electric green, lacing in and out of windows and walls in an intricate, untraceable latticework.

He breathed deep through his nose and summoned the wind, guiding it and the rain it carried in a smooth arc from the heavens to the building's façade. Raindrops zipped past him like bullets. Every drop evaporated into mist before it could touch the flames. Magic, then.

Loki's magic?

Thor narrowed his eyes and scanned the windows until he located the thickest smoke and fire. The building was not as tall as some, and the origin was nearer to the ground than he had expected.

As he let himself fall, he remembered Coulson's words (get as many people out as you can) but the idea of Loki was far mightier a beacon. Perhaps he could reason with Loki, or – more likely – distract him.

He caught himself with Mjölnir, swerving to punch through the window and into the inferno.

There was a moment of wild heat, fire screaming in his ears, and then he hit the floor in a quiet, empty pocket within the firestorm. He rose to his feet, hammer raised, ready to fight.

A woman stood a few paces away with her back to him. Her hands were outstretched to either side, fingers splayed and slightly curved with the force of her magic. Green flames spilled from her hands and curled around them, conforming to the shape of nonexistent walls and leaving the air within unscorched and pure.

A sound at Thor's feet made him step back. The ends of his hair singed.

A huge man was curled into a ball on the floor. His arms were raised to shroud his head and face, hiding himself from the torrential fire. He whimpered. A foot away, a blood-crusted ax lay on the smoldering carpet.

When Thor looked back to the woman, she had turned to face him. Her expression was pure venom, and one hand was outstretched towards him, ready to burn him to a crisp, but she stopped. Her face reshaped itself into soft wonderment, and a smile blossomed. The fire in her hands died, and the flames that surrounded them slowly shriveled to nothing.

"Oh, Thor," she whispered. "How wonderful it is to see you."

No, I'm not going to kill Loki. Deep breaths, everyone. The next chapter will, hopefully, have a lot of long-awaited answers.

And I have literally no knowledge of medical procedures or body-stuff, so if I got something wrong in the depiction of Loki's wounds, please whisper it into my ear so I can fix it quickly.

Thank you, all of you, for still being with me. It means so much.



Summary: Tony arrives at the hotel and rescues Pepper. At this time, Loki is with Amora and Skurge. Loki escapes through the Between and manages to heal himself temporarily, but A & S follow him through and attach him again. He tries to escape through the Between again, this time to a place protected by his enchantments, and finds Livy's apartment. But Amora follows him before he can seal the enchantments, and she and Skurge trap him so that he cannot escape and tell him that they have questions for him. Scene change to Pepper and Tony in Tony's workshop. Pepper explains what she saw happen to Loki, and after a brief argument, Tony tells her to keep what she saw a secret but tell the team she's okay. He leaves, goes to his room, and summons Loki. Loki, battered, passes out upon arrival. Amora, enraged, tries to locate him again, but the protective charm he placed in Tony's room shields him. She is so enraged by his disappearance that she sets fire to Livy's apartment. Tony, meanwhile, examines Loki, panics, and calls Bruce for medical help. To get Bruce's help, he lies and says that, because they are in a Juncture, he will die if Loki dies. Bruce comes to help, noting the severity of Loki's wounds as well as Tony's odd behavior (the combination of worry and shock). At this time, Natasha and Clint meet. Clint is leaving on an individual assignment to get some space. Also at this time, Thor is continuing his interview with SHIELD that took place throughout the night. He is abruptly pulled away by Coulson and told to investigate a mysterious green fire that isn't responding to water. JARVIS asks Tony if he is able to leave the Juncture to help, and Tony says no. Bruce then asks why Tony doesn't leave and end the Juncture to save himself, and Tony answers that he will be unable to claim his prize from Loki and Loki will, therefore, win by default. Bruce knows that Tony is full of shit, and says that he can handle whatever it is that is going on, and that Tony can tell him when he's ready. Finally, Thor summons a storm to try to put out the fire, then crashes into the room where Amora and Skurge still are. The chapter ends with Amora seeing him and saying his name.