All characters © Marvel Comics
Summary: All in all, pretending to pay penance was not going well. This was so much worse than the tree. Character study, post-Avengers.
He thought the tree had been bad, before this.
Odin the Allfather could be incredibly creative when it came to punishing his sons. Loki himself had lost count of the number of times he had been banished, as well as of the number of unusual punishments he had endured over the centuries. Trapped inside a tree, serving rock trolls, falling into the abyss. Sure, those were annoying enough—like deistic detentions or time-outs—but this latest one really took the cake.
So he'd destroyed most of downtown Manhattan and killed more than three thousand humans in less than a week. It wasn't like he'd destroyed the entire Midgard, for Valhalla's sake. His brother had broken the ever-loving Bifrost and he'd gotten a new cape and a feast for his endeavors. What did Loki get for his little escapade? Banishment to Earth, confiscation of his magicks, and doomed to remain biologically human until he supposedly "thanked a fellow mortal genuinely, from the bottom of his heart." Like that would ever happen in this lifetime. In all honesty Loki would have preferred imprisonment inside a giant tree.
At least his knowledge of Earth was slightly more extensive this time around, lest he avoid an entrance similar to his brother's (which, from what Loki had gathered, had been far from graceful). No, he wouldn't look a fool, but he would have to do a good enough job to goad father into restoring his powers and divine essence.
At the moment, it was taking an enormous effort. There were just so many abominable things about this world that made it quite difficult.
For one thing, there was no true beauty in Midgard. The skies did not shine with the prismatic colors of the vast galaxies; instead there was only a wan, endless blue stained with the toxins of the planet's inventions. Loki had to bite back a sneer. It was a depleted, pathetic planet, slowly being destroyed by its own life. By these apes more barbaric than the giants of Jotunheim, despite their diminutive stature. But now, Loki was starting to see why they were so barbaric: they were weak.
Being human felt, in Loki's humble opinion, like someone had taken the wool of a mountain goat and had stuffed it into his ears, nose and eyes, and had then placed Mjolnir's little cousin on his chest and told him to go about his business. He had no agility and no heightened senses or reflexes despite his bone density having lightened considerably (his weight had gone from a "slim" 525 to a slightly slimmer 140). There was no speed, no telepathy, no shape-shifting. He was doomed to live alongside those who he should have been rightfully conquering, hidden as one of them until he himself bowed to one. It was laughably ironic. Odin really outdid himself this time.
There was always the option of killing himself to escape the torment of the never-ending idiocy of mortals. If Loki had to hear another "Yo, dude" he was sure to find a way. In fact, he had been severely tempted during his first month in exile, before recalling how father had warned him that intentionally dying would only extend his sentence. Bugger.
Loki hated that these humans lived in such a highly-indulgent world. They did not embark on quests or train for leisure. They did not kill their own food. In lieu of observing a match or crafting weapons they resorted to television, tanning salons and drugs. And copulation, if it struck their fancy, which it usually did. Loki had never seen such an over-sexualized society of beings. He now thought he could sympathize with Banner. A little bit. Being surrounded by puny morons was enough to keep him in a state of high piss-off for most of the day, save for the times when he could return to his uptown apartment, play some Brahms records and read something somewhat intelligible.
Loki's litany of Midgard's shortcomings could write several novels, but as a quondam god he decided it would be apposite to preserve at least a little of his dignity. Complaining did not a king (albeit a fallen one) make. And yeah, he was probably venting his anger and insecurities out on this unfortunate race, since he'd convinced himself that criticizing them in all aspects seemed to make him feel a teensy bit better.
All in all, pretending to pay penance was not going well.
Yet if he was ever going to leave this place (and go where? he wondered), Loki knew he had to "suck it up," as the people here so eloquently put it. Make the best of things until he could uncover a way to wiggle out of this one.
So he had gotten a flat on the Upper East Side, close to the top of an inconspicuous building that sported some schmaltzy neo-classical design fit to make an Asgardian architect weep. When he was not spending his time sulking in the public libraries or attending the Met, Loki bought fruits and vegetables in bulk. The apples were nowhere near the quality of Idunn's, but these grown foods were the only things not processed to repulsiveness and therefore slightly more edible. Eating imported fruits by day and watching Don Giovanni or Wozzeck by night was not too terrible; Loki often let his frustration be overridden by his cynical amusement in these pointless frivolities. The humans had such odd tastes in art. Nonetheless, he could pass the time and distract himself from his increasing restiveness. Father had made sure that money would not be an issue (Loki could care less about the little green bills, and could hardly believe that the mortals argued and killed over some dirty paper that smelled an awful lot like a dwarf's waste disposal).
His temporary lodgings were uncomfortably close to the Stark Mansion on Fifth Avenue, but Loki was careful to stay out of sight. Neither S.H.I.E.L.D. nor their little team of superheroes knew that Loki had returned to their world and was seething as a silent recluse in this filthy city. Thor was cognizant of father's decision, naturally, but he was powerless to act once Odin had made up his mind. He had bid Loki a somewhat depressed farewell, as if he knew that once again, his little brother would not be returning anytime soon. For once Loki agreed with his brother. Like hell he was ever going to thank anyone here, at least for a good long while. Might as well get comfortable.
It was Ýlir in Midgard, and a time that Loki's ancestral blood thrived on. After a mere six or seven months following the parade of Loki and his Special Friends, downtown was still pretty much in shambles. A few buildings had been rebuilt and the debris had long since been cleaned up, but there was not much else to see besides some construction and smeared yellow tape. Presently it could appear somewhat menacing to an outsider, swathed in the polluted snow and ice. Loki admitted to himself that the snow added a sort of aesthetic value to everything. He would not say pretty, necessarily, but rather homey.
Ýlir's weather had always been Loki's favorite. His high tolerance for the cold, spawning from his Jotun heritage, had been one of the few areas in which he had bested Thor as children. Thus, he had taken an overblown amount of pride in this feature. He thought it was only natural that he retain that ability as a human, since father had already been generous enough to halt the mortal aging process for him until his sentence was finished.
When the air had started to crispen and cool, Loki initially thought nothing of it. On a particularly chilly afternoon during Ýlir (November, he reminded himself) he wore a cotton shirt to retrieve his food and was astonished—no, infuriated to find little white bumps covering the flesh of his arms when he lifted up his sleeves. His muscles were oddly tight and he was shivering. Shivering, for Valhalla's sake. Giants born in snow and ice and battle did not shiver.
But then again he was human, Loki reminded himself. Even if it was a temporary and most unfortunate...condition. Regardless, he was royalty. Kings did not succumb to the elements, and neither would he. He refused to accept the fact that one of the few things he had over Thor was now gone.
As the days wore on, Loki observed the humans donning warmer apparel; some of which looked puffy and feathery and positively ridiculous. Even the ones wearing the pelts looked silly. Loki figured that buying a coat would make him more comfortable, but his pride would not allow it. So he fared with his human suit-jacket, and that was all he needed, thank you very much.
Loki often went on long walks—it was a slightly better alternative to pacing and he liked the open space—even when the snow began to fall harder and the humans rushed about trying to procure frozen fowl like their lives depended on it. More often than not he would find himself meandering downtown, a thin little smile curling up his lips as he did so. Later he would return, shivering badly with skin numb and red, though only from discomfort and nothing more. He would have to take hot showers to warm up again, rubbing his arms to generate feeling that should not have even been lost in the first place.
He had never felt discomfort from walking out in the cold before his banishment; the goosebumps it brought seemed to plant the idea in his head that walking outdoors more would somehow fix this. On one such occasion an elderly woman had passed him by, frowned at him behind her bifocals, and had crackled, "Where in the world is your coat, young man?" Loki had twisted his face into some sort of smile-hybrid but had not bothered to reply. He hardly spoke to the humans unless he needed something from them anyway.
Tonight had been another night for walking, although Loki returned from his evening escapades in an even sourer disposition than that in which he had left. This new issue of his, which he had been steadily ignoring for the better part of the day, was starting to grate on him. Namely, something seemed to be off with his...well, his throat.
There was a dryness to it and a scratch that refused to be flushed out with water. It was quite annoying when he stopped to pay it heed. Loki did not know where this peculiar (and uncomfortable) scratchiness had come from nor what it meant, but he needed another hot shower to warm him up and the moon was already high in the sky.
He decided it best to exercise his wit on the matter tomorrow.
Loki knew that something was wrong even before he woke up.
He squeezed his eyes shut against the sun's apricot rays and bit back a groan because his throat was on fire. Well not literally, but close. To express his thoughts accurately, he felt like a great steaming pile of Audumla manure. His body had once expressed similar sentiments after his intergalactic jump through the Tesseract's portal (which had been exceptionally draining), as well as when the good doctor had literally wiped the floor with him back in Stark Tower. But this time Loki had not battled anyone nor had he jumped through space.
He rose and dressed himself, squinting his eyes against the brightness of the day. His head throbbed in rhythm to his heartbeat and he wondered dimly if he had been poisoned. It took him less than a minute to dismiss that thought, as he was cautious almost to the point of paranoia when it came to human food consumption. The possibility of poisoning was near zero. There must be some other factor that he was simply missing.
By ten that morning Loki's throat was even more swollen than before and a new, stuffy pressure had blossomed between his eyes. He had even sneezed a few times, which was a process that he was not entirely used to and did not think he would ever be. Frustrated and even more restless than before, Loki decided to venture to the library by Third Avenue to uncover the source of his extreme discomfort. The library, for him, held all the answers to this world; he had never bothered with computers or "mac-books" or any other kind of Midgardian technology.
Once there he busied himself by reading a few texts on human anatomy. His anatomy. Cellular structure, digestive tract, bone composition, blah-blah-blah. Loki darkly thought of ways to break those bones once he found out who (or what) had done this to him.
Nothing proved to be incredibly interesting until Loki got to the readings on viruses. Everything there struck home. Apparently, his body was expressing symptoms of an illness. A human virus, a pathogen. Great. He could take out a thirty-foot Jotun easy-peasy, but a microscopic enemy that he should by all means be immune to was getting the better of him. Midgard sure was fun.
Begrudgingly accepting the fact that he may have somehow contracted a human illness, Loki casually wandered over to the health and fitness books to find a cure. He suspected that what he had was the human "rhinopharyngitis," which, from what he'd gathered from his readings, did not seem to be too serious.
It also turned out that there was no cure. Wonderful. Loki resisted the urge to knock over the shelf and fling all those carefully-placed books out over the tables and chairs. Then he would rip up those pages into shreds, and rip those shreds into even smaller shred—
Sangfroid, Loki, he told himself. He was an agent of chaos, not a victim of it. He would have to wait out this little inconvenience until it passed, was all. He had endured the travails of torture and labor and pain before. A mild sickness that the humans seemed to get on a monthly basis should be nothing.
By five that evening Loki considered having rephrased.
His internal temperature could not decide between hot or cold, prompting him to alternately remove his sweater or to get up for a blanket. His dark hair clung to his neck and he pushed it away, methodically drinking glass after glass of water. He was achy, sweaty, and now his head really did feel like it was stuffed with the wool of an incredibly hairy mountain goat. Sneezing only made it worse, so he tried to prevent that as much as possible. Coughing did nothing to alleviate the pain in his throat, and Loki cursed in every language that he knew.
This was real torture.
The next morning was exponentially worse. Apparently his body had settled on "indescribably freezing" as its correct temperature, and nothing Loki did could warm it up. His eyes felt puffy and swollen, although when he squinted into the mirror they only looked a bit red. The flaring pain in his throat had mercifully calmed to a dull, achy throb. On the flip side, his nose seemed to be blocked up and it occasionally made his eyes water with sharp twinges. Loki was not entirely accustomed to the prospect of sneezing, but with the way he was going it looked with he would be experiencing a great deal more of it.
The thought came to him, as he sneezed for the seventh time in a row, that perhaps father had known that this would happen. Even if the old man hadn't, he was probably getting a kick out of things right now, watching his adoptive son leaking mucus and shivering like a moron. Loki sneezed again and uttered a particularly colorful phrase in Old Norse.
"I hope you're happy," Loki said to his empty room, raising his eyebrows and running a bent finger under his nose.
Eventually, Loki conceded defeat. It was a small step backwards on the chessboard, yet one that did not necessarily merit his withdrawal from the game. He had merely decided to invest in a coat.
In their books of medical practice the humans suggested tea and Advil and other assortments of anodynes. Mainly, they recommended seeing a doctor. Loki's faith in the primitiveness of mortal healers was almost as microscopic as the thing that was making him ill. He would settle for the coat, thank you very much.
Loki finally decided on some zippered atrocity filled with feathers and called a "Steve Madden" to make it more expensive. For the life of him he could not see why Midgard had to brand all of their merchandise. It was ridiculous, and showed how much dependence they had on material pleasure. If anything Loki would have preferred a pea coat, but by that point he was quite literally trembling with an unnatural chill and decided to forgo aesthetics just this once.
The human behind the register shot him a sympathetic glance. She was young and probably considered pretty by human standards. As Loki moodily handed her payment she told him that she hoped he felt better soon. Now that was surprising. And infuriating. Did he really look so ill that this human knew simply by looking at him? The last thing he needed was pity from this inferior species.
Evidently, this illness did not mix well with his tolerance. Loki snatched his bag and left, not bothering to thank the cashier and waiting until he was safely out of sight before taking the coat out and putting it on.
The first thing Loki did when he returned to his apartment was sneeze. And sneeze. Muttering under his breath once he was finished, Loki wondered how the hell humans could live like this. Earlier, he had become acquainted with the art of nose-blowing (an utterly repulsive process) and went to do as such, balling up a wad of tissue with a black look. He was secretly glad that his brother could not see him like this, for it was utterly humiliating.
Throughout the day the last of the pain in his throat had migrated to his chest, which felt strangely heavy (and not in a Mjolnir-ish sort of way). By the next morning Loki had begun to cough, and it hurt considerably more than he had anticipated. He recalled one time when Fandral had been pierced through the lung with a Valkyrie sword on one of his little philandering quests and had complained of the burning for an entire week. Loki imagined this to be a similar feeling, only with no blood or visible wound (there was sputum, which Loki had read about in his books, but the concept struck him as so nauseating that he had not bothered to read further).
Sometime later he tried issuing another curse, as he had just sneezed again and a blasphemy here or there almost always followed sneezing. This time, there seemed to be something wrong with his voice. It was hoarse, guttural, and it squeaked if he tried to force it. Fantastic. Not only were his powers stripped of him, but now his voice seemed to be packing its bags as well. If he didn't at least have his silver tongue, just who was he?
Very sick, as it turned out.
So Loki curled up on his couch, wearing his Midardian coat, coughing and fidgeting and futilely wishing for death. His sleep, light and restless even as a god, was now fitful and nightmarish. He woke dozens of times, scared and sweaty with his black hair in tangles. Clutching his chest he coughed, deep and thick, and whispered a word through his dry lips.
And somewhere in the mighty citadel of Asgard, Thor Odinson opened his eyes.
It had been a week and a half, and Loki was sure he'd not only passed the point of no return, but the point of no returning from the point of no return. If that made any sense, which he suspected it did not because he'd been running quite the fever for the past three days.
He was muzzily aware this was probably something worse than the human "cold" he'd picked up last Friday. It took some convincing, but the fact that he had seen himself in his room last night, by the foot of his bed, was just a slight hint that things weren't as they should be. Loki had read that high body temperatures could sometimes cause hallucinations, but it was all the more disturbing when it actually happened. Sif had been there too, he remembered, with long golden tresses spilling over her shoulder in a mocking mango sheen of curls. She had laughed and told him that he had never cut her hair off; she was planning to grow it out to her ankles. Loki sweat, and through the sweat he had seen others. There had even been a horse at one time, only it couldn't have been a horse from Midgard because it appeared to have eight legs. After that Loki decided that nothing would surprise him.
His voice had whittled down to an inaudible croak from coughing and his lungs had filled with some unspeakable fluid. His chest burned, became heavy, and breathing became increasingly more difficult. Wheezing took the place of sleeping, which would have annoyed Loki if he had not been feeling half dead.
It was sometime between sunrise and sunset on Wednesday that Loki decided he needed to do something about this.
His mind was seriously muddled by this debilitating affliction, but he retained enough of his wits to realize that what he planned to do was probably one of the stupidest ideas in the Nine Realms. Perhaps it was the fact that he could no longer get oxygen properly, but at that point Loki did not care if his resolution was incredibly stupid or incredibly brilliant. His fever-addled thoughts, smoky and disoriented, barely registered that he had gone into the bathroom, broken the mirror, and had slipped two pieces of glass into his pockets. They would come in handy later, probably.
He slipped on his shoes and hobbled to the door, almost missing the keyhole twice to lock it. Once he made it outside he hailed a taxi for the first time (an altogether impatient process that he would not admit he was grateful for) and managed to rasp out "890 Fifth Avenue" to the driver. The cabbie had the heat turned up uncomfortably high, which made Loki want to close his eyes and sleep. The idea that his life could end the moment he stepped out of the taxi was just enough to keep him from dozing off.
Loki paid and wordlessly exited the car once it had reached Fifth Ave. He tried not to sway. The taxi really had been too hot, and now it was too cold. But he had made it in one piece. Loki raised his weary eyes and deemed the sight before him only slightly impressive. The house, if you could call it that, spanned the entire block, complete with stone statues and a vast, snow-capped lawn. The fence itself was at least fifteen feet high and the bushes on either side guarded the fact that several security devices would probably incinerate Loki on the spot the minute he took a step further.
That was the Stark Mansion for you.
Loki hadn't spent a lot of time researching the defense protocols of the mansion, but you couldn't have a place built by one of the smartest men in the northern hemisphere and not have it protected in some highly technological way. Vaguely, Loki recalled that Midgardian inventions of the twenty-first century plus the aid of limited extra-terrestrial innovations equaled...nothing more than some fancy scan rays and heat detectors.
The mirrors took care of the rays, but he suspected his current body temperature would be enough to drive the heat sensors crazy. And lookee here, the stun-cannons were powered by none other than several Stark-funded thermal sensors. Loki coughed and bared his teeth in a grin that was not altogether unfamiliar. This was going to be fun.
Clint Barton had just sat down to a mouthwatering and long-needed hazelnut roast when the security alarm went off. He spared a second to give his coffee a forlorn glance, knowing that by the time he returned to it it would be ice-cold. Dammit.
He was currently in his quarters on the second floor, so he grabbed his quiver and ran down to the first basement level to see what the problem was. The rest of the Avengers save for Captain America were out gallivanting with some business or another, so it was only Steve who Clint saw in front of the monitors once he made it down to the security floor.
"What's the problem, Cap?" he asked, disabling the shrill buzzing of the alarm so he could hear Steve's answer.
"Intruder," Steve replied. "It only looks like one, but..." he frowned, pointing to the nearest set of monitors. "Look at this."
Clint's eyes narrowed as he became more acquainted with the screen in front of him. The cameras had picked up a hooded individual slowly making its way toward the main entrance. The figure had somehow made it past the gates and was obscured by the foliage and the lightly falling snow. It was impossible to tell what happened next; only that the stun-cannons began to fire and the cameras lost footage shortly after.
"Where is it now?" Clint asked as he called up a reading from the sensors before the lost footage. Without looking he guessed that Steve's lack of response meant that he either did not know or was too busy strapping on his suit. Clint tried to make sense of the reading as the screen loaded. Basic humanoid figure, one heart. Thermal readings dictated a temperature of one-oh-three degrees Fahrenheit. What?
Clint got his net arrow ready in the quiver and hurriedly buttoned his coat as he followed Steve up to the main floor. The detention coils around the front door had not activated, so the intruder had either opted for the back way or was still elsewhere on the mansion grounds.
As it turned out, the intruder had never left the front lawn. Clint spotted the figure face down in the accumulating snow and made a signal for Steve to get behind him with his shield ready. Most of the stun-cannons were in pieces and Clint could smell smoke and fried wiring. How on earth this person had managed to do that was beyond Clint, but he would soon find out. He crept closer, drew the net arrow over the bowstring and slowly turned the figure over with his foot.
His hazelnut roast would definitely have to wait. Dammit.
He barely registered Steve's intake of breath as he lowered his arrow and activated his earpiece. "Nat," he said, speaking quietly and enunciating clearly, "I want you to get Director Fury over here now."
From the other side of New York Natasha Romanoff froze. She immediately recognized the tone of the voice in her ear as Clint's own built-in emergency setting; a tone adopted when the situation was dire or incredibly threatening, and one that meant things were serious.
"On it, Agent Barton," she answered, addressing him formally in reassurance that she understood. "May I ask what the nature of the situation is?"
The answer over the line was enough to make her body flash cold. "Loki."
Once Clint heard the soft click of Natasha disconnecting the line he drew his arrow and approached the figure once more. As he got closer he could hear a faint, congested wheezing that made him cringe and ultimately decided that he wouldn't be needing the arrow. It wasn't Loki's style to play possum. On closer observation, Clint came to the reluctant conclusion that Loki was not faking and might actually be injured. He cataloged the bits of broken glass by Loki's feet and saved it in his memory to ask about later.
Steve had lowered his shield and was peering cautiously over it, down at the unconscious Loki. Clint pinched the bridge of his nose between his eyes and exhaled loudly. "Let's get him inside," he grimaced, living Loki a slight kick with his boot and sheathing his arrow. At least Steve looked as thrilled about carrying Loki inside as he did.
Loki was only remotely surprised to wake up in restraints. He knew the Avengers weren't cruel enough to kill him on the spot before at least finding out what he wanted. He took in the horse straps and chains double-bolted to the chair they had put him in and sighed. It came out sounding like a rattle. The camera in the far corner of the room (room or posh holding cell; at the moment Loki couldn't tell the difference) told him that he would be expecting visitors very soon now that he was awake.
He was not disappointed; a moment later Nick Fury and the Russian spy entered. None looked especially pleased to see him.
Fury stopped a good distance away, checking with his one good eye to make sure the restraints were in place before coming closer. Don't even bother, Loki wanted to say. They had not muzzled him, but his voice was hardly suitable for speaking even if he wished to say anything. He sighed. Coming here really had been a crap-shoot. Nothing good could come out of this, except maybe the fact that he would die by the hands of his enemies like a good Asgardian warrior should.
While Loki was silently fuming, his nose and throat had started to tickle something fierce. He realized this a moment later and held his breath, hoping vainly that he would neither cough nor sneeze. His nostrils flared and his eyes watered desperately. Not now. Please.
Meanwhile Fury, noticing none of this, had decided to launch into his grand interrogation. "Just when I think I have you out of my hair," he sighed, shaking his head. "Care to tell me why you're back?"
No, Loki would not care to tell him why he was back. He would care to be rid of this horrid illness, to—
—to not sneeze, more than anything. The situation was rapidly spiraling out of his control. Excuse me, Loki tried to say, opening his mouth, but do you have a tissue? You've tied my hands. All that came out, to his horror, was a croak.
Natasha noticed the faltering in his expression and her eyebrows drew together, puzzled. In front of her Fury asked, "Well?" The answer Loki gave him was certainly not what he had been expecting, that was for sure.
Powerless to stop it, Loki snapped forward with two harsh sneezes. The restraints held him back or he would have toppled from the chair. The sneezing made him cough; wet, tearing barks that made Fury draw back in surprise. Loki could barely hear Fury ordering someone to go get some water. By the time his coughing fit ended Loki's eyes and nose were running freely and his hair had fallen into his face. He swallowed back a wad of phlegm, grimacing and looking at the floor tiredly. How utterly embarrassing.
Both Fury and Natasha were speechless for a moment, staring at him with unintelligible expressions. It was Fury who broke the silence, speaking to Natasha while raising an eyebrow and never taking his eye off Loki's face.
"Why don't you go add some tissues to that?" he offered.
"I can't imagine this being comfortable for you," Bruce Banner said, twisting on some white gloves. They were in the basement of the Stark Mansion, which mostly consisted of an impressive emergency medical facility. Loki, on the other hand, was far from impressed. He was irritable, cold and groggy. He was also a little chary at the thought of having Banner examine him. When someone forcibly introduced you to a tile floor and repeatedly rubbed your face into it, it scarred you in more ways than one. You did not necessarily want your life in that person's hands.
Bruce saw Loki's look. "Yeah, I know, sending in the guy who's both the good cop and the bad cop at the same time to do the interrogating, not too promising," he pointed out. "But," he paused to doff his glasses, "I'm a scientist. Doctor actually, as of recent, which means that I put the patient's health before anything else, despite whether or not the patient is a total douche bag." He said it all in the same placating tone, which managed to both diminish and increase Loki's unease of him concurrently.
Bruce pointed to a little notepad and pen on the table. "I wouldn't recommend talking just yet, so write down anything you need to say on the notepad," he instructed. Loki shot him a look of incredulity, pale eyes sharp and serriform despite the way his body was shaking head to toe with chills.
"As I mentioned, what you're going through isn't very pleasant," Bruce continued. "You somehow registered as a human under the visitor's scan, which you can tell me about later. For now, I'm going to treat you as a human because what you have is probably bacterial or viral." He met Loki's eye. "Do you want to get better?"
After a moment Loki pursed his lips and bowed his head in a nod.
Banner leaned forward on his knee. "Then you are going to have to be completely honest with me," he said. "I know you're supposedly the God of Lies or whatnot, but I can't heal you if I don't know what's wrong. For the next few days we're going to lay our issues aside, and when this is all over you can go about your business and evildoing as you like. So, do we have an agreement?"
Loki closed his eyes and nodded again. Yes, anything. He just wanted to sleep.
That did not escape Banner's keen eye either. "You can rest after I've examined you," he told Loki. "Trust me, you'll be feeling a lot better soon."
So Loki complied, reaching for the pen and notepad wearily. The medical interview only took a half hour at the most, but to Loki it felt like an entire day had gone by. He answered Banner's questions willingly, however annoying they were (how much do you sleep, when did you start coughing, have you taken anything, when was the last time you ate, yadda yadda yadda). Halfway through Loki had another sneezing/coughing attack, and Banner stopped to get him some tissues and water. Once the questions had concluded Banner had him go through a brief physical examination with some of the oddest instruments Loki had ever seen. One of them vaguely resembled a tire pump, and Loki thought it better for his mental health if he didn't inquire further.
Bruce recapped what he'd written down on his chart, more to himself than to Loki: "Hm, temperature is one-oh-two point nine, blood pressure eighty over fifty-five, weight is...you're extremely underweight, do you know that?" The only response he got was a wan, downcast look from Loki, so he continued.
"You know, the rest of the guys up there are going crazy trying to figure out why you came back," he said mildly as he scribbled something on his chart. "You're a level ten threat to Earth. I don't know why you returned here in the first place, but I can guess why you came here." Bruce pointed to to the floor and gave something of a smile, eyes crinkling. "We are all you know of this world. If it was anybody else, I'd say I was flattered."
Loki pushed the notepad in Banner's general direction. Care to find out what's wrong with me, or would you rather humor yourself with jokes, mindless Beast?
Bruce read it and huffed out an amused breath through his nose. "I think we'll leave the snark to Mister Stark," he answered (his tone only slightly betraying the fact that he'd had that one in the pun arsenal for months), and slipped his delicate glasses back on. He got up and retrieved a small bottle from one of the nearby cabinets and shook a small capsule out onto a gloved hand.
"Your fever's rather high, so I'm going to give you some acetaminophen for that," he said. "I'm hoping you know how to swallow pills."
Loki gingerly took the pill, staring at it for a moment. "It'll help," Bruce prompted. Loki grimaced and swallowed the pill dry.
"I'll have full results for you in an hour or so," Bruce told him. "Until then I suggest you try to sleep while that takes effect."
He didn't have to tell Loki twice.
Predictably, the Avengers were slightly less sympathetic despite the potential seriousness of the situation. One of their collective mortal enemies gets his comeuppance and they all turn into giggling, gloating teenagers.
"I still want to know how he single-handedly managed to fry almost all of our stun-cannons in under five minutes," Clint said, shaking his head in wonder. They were all gathered at the main floor in the public conference room. Hey-ho, Avengers assemble once again. At the moment it wasn't a mission to save the Earth so much as it was waiting, antsy as hell, for Bruce to tell them what was going on.
"You said there were bits of broken glass all around him," Tony said, returning to the room and nursing a newly-poured glass of bourbon. "Did you check if they were reflective?"
Tony stared at Clint and Steve pointedly. "If they were mirrors he could have used them to deflect the cannons," he replied. "Although he probably had a forty percent chance of actually making it to the door I'm impressed that he made it to the courtyard. What I'm wondering is how he made it past the gate."
Natasha spoke up. "We think he either climbed the wall or that he may have...slipped through the bars."
"What, did he suddenly turn into Plastic Man?"
"You didn't see the guy," Steve pointed out.
"No, and I'm not too keen on seeing him again," Tony said, taking a swallow of his bourbon. "But seriously. Nobody could slip through those bars unless they were under twelve or Mary-Kate Olsen."
"I don't know about Mary-Kate, but the guy definitely looked like he could have used some pork chops," Fury spoke up from his seat at the conference table. He was the only one with his ass actually in a chair, though it did little to put the team at ease. Bruce seemed to be taking his sweet time down in the lab.
As if that thought was enough of a summons, Bruce was standing in the doorway a minute later, looking worse for wear. Fury rose, his chair making a muffled creak as he pushed it out. "How's Mister Sunshine doing down there?"
"Not good," Bruce admitted. He approached the table, hesitant as to how he should break this to the team. He decided that bluntness would be the best approach. "He has pneumonia."
Fury rubbed the skin underneath his eye patch. "Well shit."
"I know," Bruce said, scratching his neck compulsively. "I could show you the chest X-rays, if it makes it more believable."
"Why did he even come here anyway?" Natasha wondered aloud.
"I think I can answer that," Tony said before Bruce could open his mouth. "Say you were stranded in a world where you desperately needed help and the only people you knew in it were your enemies."
"So in the deep dark chasm that passes for Loki's mind, coming here was kind of like a temporary truce," Fury finished, shaking his head in wonder. "I'll never get that guy."
And the fact that he trusts us more than he does a regular doctor says something, Bruce thought silently. He just didn't know what it said, exactly.
Steve absently reached for Tony's glass on the table and took a sip. He remembered back in his day when people dropped like flies from pneumonia. "Captain of the men of death" and all. His own mother had died from it. "How did this even happen? Loki. He's supposed to be..." he waved his hand, searching for an appropriate description, "a god." Somehow saying the name aloud seemed to clear the stupor in the air.
"I don't know how or why, but at the moment he's one hundred percent human," Bruce replied. "And an extremely sick one at that. Normally someone in his condition would require hospitalization, but I think I can make do. We'll need to keep him here for a few weeks."
Tony blanched. "Weeks? Hell no. Put Loki on the helicarrier." He gestured towards Fury, whose mouth turned down in a scowl. The last time Loki had been captive aboard the helicarrier, things had not gone swimmingly. The idea of repeating that process would not sit too well with the rest of S.H.I.E.L.D., Fury was sure.
"Actually, the increased altitude would have deleterious effects on his recovery," Bruce pointed out. "He's barely getting enough oxygen as it is. My workspace is already set up and we could just restrict his access to here and the basement only. I might add that Loki will be in no condition to try anything funny...if it's any consolation."
"Loki is going to be out of commission for the next few weeks," Clint repeated grimly. He had been mostly quiet during the whole conversation, not entirely sure if he should be feeling triumphant, pitying, or indifferent. He really didn't know what to feel. The guy had mentally violated him and had pretty much made Clint his bitch for a few days. It wasn't something one simply forgot.
Tony seemed to consider. "Does this mean I can be as much of a pain in the ass to him as I want?" When no one answered directly an impish grin spread across his features. "Fine by me, then."
"Isn't anyone going to contact Thor?" Natasha asked quietly. She was met with a moment of silence from the others. In all the chaos they hadn't thought about that.
"How do you suppose we do that?" Steve asked. "We don't have a portal and the Asgardians possess the only one we had."
"And if we do catch Thor, what are we going to tell him?" Tony snorted. " 'Thor, your little brother has the sniffles. Come jump across the galaxy and give him a tissue.' "
Nick Fury opened his mouth, looking somewhat guilty. "We could try a pager," he said, holding up a little black box that he had unlatched from his belt.
Clint's eyebrows shot up and he stared at Fury, agape. "What?"
"Thor is actually in New York," Fury admitted.
"And you were going to tell us when?" Tony inquired. All in all he wasn't too surprised; Fury always liked to keep the final Ace in his pocket. You thought you were in the loop, then wham, S.H.I.E.L.D. pulled one over on you. They had not earned their title as a top-secret organization for nothing.
"He made one of his crash-landings in New Mexico the other day and our agents found him," Fury explained. "He seemed almost as upset as the time we squared off his magic hammer. All he could say was that his brother was in trouble."
"Maybe Thor will give us some more answers," Steve offered, taking another swig of Tony's drink. Tony noticed this time and snatched the bourbon away, downing the rest in one gulp.
"Maybe Thor can use some Asgardian voodoo and heal Loki so I don't have to play house-guest for the next two weeks," he added. In response Fury only brought a hand to his forehead to massage his temples.
Thor was utterly incapable of handling the complexities that came with the Midgardian communications device, the cellular phone. He had accidentally made a call to Taiwan (that was following the Text Message to Director Fury that read something along the lines of "wrtjfgglkxt;") before breaking the phone cleanly in two. Director Fury had shaken his head and had handed him a small box with the instructions "if it beeps you come."
Thor sighed now, looking at the little letters on his new pager that told him where to go. Thankfully Agent Hill was giving him a ride, lest Thor embarrass himself further by attempting to give directions to the drivers of the yellow cars.
There had been several times over the centuries when he had been inescapably and helplessly furious with father for whatever reason. The anger often manifested itself in the form of rebellion (which he was told Midgardian adolescents also went through), only on Asgard instead of being sent to your room you usually had something mystical or sacrificial to answer with. He'd had his fair share of punishments (banishment, amnesia, the usual) and had watched, sometimes with a kind of quiet desperation, as Loki lived out his own sentences.
This time, though. This was beyond anything any Asgardian—or Jotun—should have to endure.
Thor couldn't even imagine what was in that abyss at the end of space and time that Loki had thrown himself into for decades (centuries?). He didn't like to think about it. Sure, that was condemnation on a galactic, Old Gods Beginning of Time level, but what Loki was currently suffering through on Midgard seemed infinitely worse to Thor.
He had overturned several feasting tables on the basis of what father had told him. No one, not even Loki, deserved this. Thor had been at Loki's trial upon their return from the destruction of the humans' Manhattan city, and although Loki disagreed with him rather strongly Thor didn't see anything so terrible about living with the humans. He had thought it a most appropriate and humbling punishment; one that demanded humility and reclaimed honor.
Father hadn't bothered to tell him that turning Loki mortal would open up a whole new door to pain and torment.
Thor had been stripped of his powers before and knew how frustrating it could be. Apparently Loki hadn't taken well to becoming human, and with his Asgardian immunity to all toxins gone, well, things had gotten a little out of hand. The only reason Thor was even privy to this information was because Loki had spoken to him, perhaps inadvertently, in his dreams. Thor's mental connection with Loki over the span of worlds was not as strong as it used to be. He had not been expecting to hear from Loki for a long time, at least until Loki found a way to escape and wreak unholy havoc on the Nine Realms (like he usually did).
He had also not been expecting Loki to call out to him, from across the stars.
It had been a while since he'd experienced cold-seated dread like he'd had a few nights ago. Thor instantly knew that something was wrong because the day Loki asked him for help would be the day that Volstagg finally went on a diet. He recalled several times in their childhood when Loki had attempted some improbable task, always determined to succeed on his own. To prove that he was as worthy as everyone else. So yes, the God of Mischief and Chaos calling for help was a slightly out of character moment, if you will. It was something that Loki just didn't do.
If his little brother needed him and was weakened enough to admit it, then things had gone horribly wrong and someone needed to do something about it now. Thor also wanted a word with whatever had caused his brother to reach such a state. Naturally, father had been reluctant to let him go, but there was little he could do since Thor had also been granted access to the Tesseract in addition to other...less desirable methods of transportation. Odin also knew that there was little stopping his eldest son when he went into one of his moods. It was a little like trying to stop Fandral from flirting with a Valkyrie. There was simply no point.
Director Fury had certainly been taken aback to see Thor standing in the doorway to S.H.I.E.L.D's base, escorted by several agents (strangely, some of which Thor distinctly remembered pushing into the New Mexican mud eons ago), back in New York City. Thor quickly realized that the humans had no idea that his brother had returned to their world, but he did not want to waste time with the banalities of the trial and the verdict and things that were not important when his brother was somewhere nearby and dying.
Fury had taken him to Tony Stark's mansion on Fifth Avenue and had assured him—somewhat reluctantly—that Loki was in safe hands. Bruce Banner would fill him in on the rest. Banner had (wisely) taken the conversation to the basement gymnasium since Thor was very likely to break something once he heard the full story.
Fortunately, the damage was minimal (a punching bag...and the entire ceiling beam that it was connected to) and Banner claimed that in a few weeks' time, Loki would be completely healed.
"If you don't mind my asking," Bruce began, hesitant, "I'm sure your healers could probably do a lot better job than I could. Couldn't you take him back to Asgard?"
"If I could I'd have him there in a heartbeat," Thor replied. "However, father's sentence dictates that Loki remain here until he is satisfied enough to permit Loki to return. The portal would reject him."
Bruce sighed. "I thought as much. And about this sentence...Loki...really isn't in a position to talk to us and we don't exactly know what's going on," he said, craning his head upward to meet Thor's eyes. "We were hoping that you could shed some light on the matter."
Which brought Thor to where he was now, gathered in the training rooms with the other Avengers and Director Fury. He found that after seven of Tony's "Wild Turkeys" it became easier to explain what father had done. The drink tasted nothing like an Earth-fowl, but it calmed him a little as he described the terms of father's enchantment to his friends.
"Man, Loki must be one stubborn son of a bitch," Steve whistled once Thor had mostly finished. "Is it really so hard to say 'thank you' each other these days?"
"You must understand that Loki has a lot of insecurities, which in turn exponentially increases his pride," Thor reminded them testily. "His enmity stems from jealousy and inferiority. In his eyes, having been lowered to your level—please don't take umbrage, I only mean physically," he quickly added, hearing Tony's indignant scoff, "is the worst kind of punishment for someone with my brother's mindset."
"Well isn't that comforting."
"You mentioned that your father won't let Loki back into your world," Natasha pointed out, ignoring Tony's remark. "We'll have to keep surveillance on Loki, no matter how much we don't like it, and we'll also need to break this enchantment before he becomes a problem. What do you suggest we do?"
Thor blinked and raised a hand to rub the stubble along his jawline. "I do not understand, Miss Romanoff. All you need to do is provide the proper care and I'm sure it will be enough to merit gratitude," he replied.
Clint frowned. "Somehow I don't think a little Florence Nightingale Syndrome is going to do the trick," he argued.
"Actually, I think you mean transference," Bruce corrected, out of impulse. "Florence Nightingale Syndrome is the opposite—"
"Can we discuss Freud another time?" Natasha snapped, cutting them off. She turned her gaze back to Thor. "They do have a point," she told him. "I don't think some nice bedside manners from the enemy will sit well with that monster."
"I have never seen my brother so weakened, even after months of battle in the fires of Muspelheim," Thor replied gravely. "He may surprise us all."
"Alright." Tony shrugged. "But I'm sending the bill to whoever acts as your insurance agent up there when Loki gets his golden horns back and summons his little retinue of space cadets. Do you realize that he's making us all his bitches even when he's unconscious? I mean, that takes some serious skill..."
Thor, however, wasn't listening. From what he remembered Tony had a proclivity to resort to sarcasm and long, unintelligible rants when he was frustrated over something, and Natasha had told him at one point that it was best just to let him vent a little. So Thor turned about, cape swishing gently around his ankles, and quietly asked Fury, "Would I be able to see my brother now?"
Banner ran off some of the treatments that he was using to cure his brother, and about a third of it consisted of things Thor actually understood. But no matter.
"Thank you. I know my brother is in good hands," he told Banner, fixing the scientist with a warm smile, "but I wish to be alone with him for a moment before I depart."
Banner returned the smile, gesturing to the room they had just stopped in front of. "Try not to wake him," he said.
Still young for an Asgardian, Thor did not possess much of a paternal streak. When he saw Loki motionless in the bed of this clean, white room, something in his chest gave a little, however. His brother's charcoal-black hair no longer flipped up devilishly at the ends but lay limp, fanning out on the pillow beneath his head. The bones of his face were considerably more prominent and his lips were as bloodless as the corpses dumped in the snow of Jotunheim.
Thor hung his head. Oh, my brother.
He almost wanted to ask, what have they done to you, but the more accurate question was, what have you done to yourself? Based on what Banner had told him, Loki had made no attempts to heal himself. So even more accurately, Thor thought, was, why did we let you do this to yourself?
Loki's only response was a low murmuring from the bed. His sleep was not calm, and Thor came closer to the bed to see if he could make out what his brother was saying. Nothing coherent, apparently. Just a farrago of unfinished, disjointed phrases. Meaningless words, the compositions of dreams.
Thor tried not to notice how awful Loki's voice sounded.
Loki stirred and his eyes opened slightly. The irises were pale and faded; the color of dead starlight. At one point they even fixed themselves on Thor, but Thor doubted they registered his presence. "Sleep, brother," he whispered, and was grateful to see Loki's eyes slide shut once more. With one last glance on the sleeping figure in the bed, Thor swallowed and breezed out of the room.
As much as he wanted to remain here, there was nothing he could do in this realm. He put his faith in the Avengers and knew that they would protect the Earth with their lives if things, or Loki, somehow got out of hand. So Thor would leave, would return to his world of flying horses, warm mead and golden halls. And on the way he would ponder his black sheep of a brother and how far he'd fallen, as well as think upon new ways to help Loki up until he could stand on his own. Even if it took another millennium, he would find a way...
So you can really come home.
Natasha had a cat once, when she was a little girl. It had been one of those fat, squashy Persians that Ivan had picked up from the pound and had thought that she would enjoy. Ivan had named it Kisa because all the Russian girls in her neighborhood were naming their cats Kisa and it was as good a name as any. It was the equivalent to the American Fido or Spot. Natasha would have preferred Cyzarine, but Ivan had bought a little felt collar with the name "Kisa" written on it before she could do anything about it.
Anyway. The cat had been one of the most difficult creatures on the face of this planet, at least before the super-villains and the aliens and the KGB.
Cyzarine really should have been the cat's name because it had acted like it was the king of the hill, ruler of the puny humans in its household and slaughterer of all the mousefolk. Natasha remembered she couldn't even pet the cat without it biting or scratching her. Kisa had been peckish, finicky, and altogether a real diva.
Similar, now that Natasha thought about it, to an unnamed former god currently residing in the Stark Mansion.
Thor had left the benighted Loki in their hands, which, considering what had happened the last time Loki was in their custody, took balls. He seemed to think they could nurse some good into the guy who had tried to wipe out all of Manhattan simply because he had a brother complex. It would take more convincing for Natasha to buy into that, because at the moment she was losing what little patience she had to start with.
"It's lapsha," she grit out, extending the steaming bowl. "Look." She pointed with one hand. "Chicken, noodles, broth. You didn't like the shchi and I'm not making anything else." Loki continued to look at the soup with one eyebrow raised.
Natasha sighed. "I'm going to leave it here in case you decide you're hungry," she told him. He still looked skeptical so she added, "It's good for you. Someone like my father used to make it for me when I was a sick as a kid." And if your majesty doesn't want to eat it, it's your loss.
Out of all the odd jobs and undercover cases she'd had to carry out over the years, Natasha came to the conclusion that this was one of the more unnerving ones in her little black book. She was a bodyguard, a spy; master of over ten different martial arts styles, qualified sifu, black belt and renshi roku-dan, but she had never considered herself a care-giver before. She knew basic medical training and had used it when needed (cognitive recalibration and all), but extended nursing was a whole new ball game.
Natasha discovered that the most unsettling thing about the situation was that Loki couldn't use his voice. Reticence just did not suit him. He was a being that prided himself on his wit and sharp tongue, the twister of words and the basket maker of woven lies. Natasha had once been on the receiving end of that tongue's serration. While she was the human shape shifter, as most spies were required to be, Loki was the real one. Bur both his magic and his voice was gone now. His unwilling taciturnity was even more prominent now that he was out of the mansion's basement and in the presence of the other Avengers.
After five days Bruce had recommended that Loki continue his recovery on the ground floor, now that the latter was not delirious nor on the verge of passing out. The first day that they'd moved him upstairs Loki had requested Tolstoy. The cabin fever seemed to be getting to him.
Bruce and Natasha had been the main ones running the show. Clint had locked himself in his room and Tony kept finding convenient parties to attend or claimed that he needed his "private time" with Pepper. Steve dropped by occasionally, but he was usually training or busy with his latest homework assignment from Fury (acquaintance with the twenty-first century and mandatory immersion in all the "hip" trends, apparently).
Natasha stuck around because she worried about Bruce getting the short end of the stick. She knew she should have more faith in the scientist, but Loki was notorious for sending people over the edge even without his voice. Another smaller part of her admitted that she was also trying to get over her fear of being in the same room as Bruce. It seemed that a great deal of people closely acquainted with "The Other Guy" tended to break out in a sweat even in his considerably milder presence.
Bruce really had done some remarkable work over the past week. Natasha knew that treating the sick was a high-maintenance job and she could only imagine what the last few days had been like treating someone who had not only never been ill, but who was reputed across the galaxy as a "problem child."
Without his armor and horns Loki looked incredibly human, sitting on Tony's immense leather couch and wearing Steve's borrowed sweats. The baggy clothes diminished his height and brought out the pallor of his face. And although he could not talk, Natasha had to keep reminding herself that this was still Loki. Still a threat. No, Loki couldn't use his voice, but he spent most of his time throwing everyone caustic, biting glares.
Like a cat that's been neutered, Natasha thought.
At the moment Loki was crinkling his nose at the soup she had brought a few minutes ago. The wet spoon on the table told her that he had at least tried it, which was a small improvement from yesterday. Natasha folded her arms and met Loki's unsympathetic stare. "What's it going to take to get you to eat?" she asked him.
Loki scrawled on the notepad beside him and handed the paper to Natasha. Five hundred pounds of Indunn's apples, my brother's head on a platter and all of Asia. Oh, and the Tesseract would be nice. He smirked.
Before Natasha had the chance to retort she heard the main doors swing open. A moment later Tony appeared wheeling what looked like the entirety of Radio Shack in a cart. He pushed the cart off to the side and leaned over the back of the couch, surveying Loki and raising his eyebrows.
"Wow, if I thought you came out of a Tim Burton movie before—"
Natasha nodded toward the cart inquiringly. It wasn't that she desperately needed to know its contents, but the less Tony provoked Loki the better their chances of a "thank you" were. In a way it was a relief that he was out of the mansion most of the time.
Tony rolled his eyes and waved his hand in the air conversationally. "I'm still fixing the stun cannons that you destroyed," he replied to Loki. "Some of this technology is most likely illegal and was very hard to find..." Tony broke off, suddenly getting a whiff of the soup on the table and leaning over farther to inspect it. "What the hell is that?"
Natasha had had enough. "It's what you're going to be making," she decided. "I can't get this guy to eat; it's your turn."
Tony blinked rapidly. "What? I need to fix the cannons and recalibrate the thermal input and, you know, go to that thing at the Guggenheim tonight..."
Natasha's bottle-green eyes were merciless and her voice was low and even. "Get him to eat and I will personally help you fix them."
"Fine." Tony shrugged. "You do know that I have no culinary experience whatsoever. Pepper keeps an entire shelf of Pepto in her medicine cabinet for the times I try to make dinner. What am I supposed to make, gravlax?"
"You have an IQ of one sixty-nine. I'm sure you can think of something."
I think I'd prefer his cooking. It will kill me faster, Loki wrote.
That afternoon Tony entered the first floor kitchen armed with an apron, gloves, and a super heavy-duty spatula. As it turned out, most of it was unnecessary in the end. He had just gotten the ingredients out when fortune bestowed upon him the one person he had been wanting to see.
"Steve, my good man!"
The unfortunate superhero froze in the doorway. "You normally don't sound that pleased to see me unless you want something," he said hesitantly.
"True," Tony admitted, "but this'll be fun. Some good old-fashioned American cooking, what do you say? I bet you're fed up after a day of iPhones and 3D cameras."
Steve winced. Earlier that afternoon he had been privy to a "rap-off" on fifty-second street between two heavily-jeweled beat-boxers and was feeling especially depressed about society. Tony had hit a sore spot, and he had probably known it too. With a sigh Steve acquiesced. "Fine, I'll make the soup," he sighed.
"You're a winner," Tony exclaimed, pointing at Steve as he quickly exited the kitchen. He had been away from his machines for far too long.
"...Don't mention it," Steve said to the empty kitchen. He saw that Tony had set everything up for him, including a brand new cookbook opened to a page on sweet potato soup with leeks. Rolling up his sleeves, Steve retrieved a pot from the cupboard. Might as well get started.
Twenty minutes later he realized why Tony hadn't put out any leeks. They didn't have any.
Frowning, Steve searched the massive pantry for anything resembling leeks. He didn't want to use onions and spinach was out. Eventually he settled on some dill, which was partially due to personal preference and partially due to the fact that he didn't feel like looking through the entire pantry for such a small portion of ingredient. So they didn't have leeks; Loki was likely to spit out anything they gave him anyway so it was not like it actually mattered.
Bruce raised an eyebrow. "I'd heard that Tony was making the soup," he said as Steve came in carrying a bowl an hour later. Steve wore a mixed expression of exasperation and annoyance.
"Yeah. He had um, other things to do."
Bruce shook his head, laughing quietly. He was standing beside the couch and was waiting for the thermometer in Loki's mouth to beep its final verdict. As Steve set down the soup, the thermometer signaled that it had finished taking Loki's temperature and Bruce gently slid it out. He lifted his glasses and peered at the number bar. "You still have a low-grade fever, but it's gone down a lot," he informed Loki. Steve thought it was his imagination, but he could have sworn that there was some relief in Loki's pale eyes.
Eyeing the soup, Bruce added, "Apparently you've been rather finicky about food." He looked amused, like a chess master who has planned ahead and knows the final outcome of the game. "If you still won't eat we can always resort to the alternative." His eyes met Loki's knowingly, and a moment later Loki reached for the spoon.
Steve blinked. Incredible. He wasn't sure what the alternative methods of feeding had been down in Bruce's lab and thought it best that he didn't ask for clarification (especially if it was enough to unsettle Loki, of all people).
Bruce looked satisfied. "You're ready to try some soup then?" Loki covered the lower half of his face with his hands and sneezed.
"I'll take that as a yes, then," Bruce replied before directing the conversation over to Steve. "How goes catching up on seven decades of pop culture?"
"Don't remind me," Steve groaned, rubbing the skin around his temple in little circles. "When did people lose all their manners?"
"Probably around 1960 or so," Bruce said lightly. "But it's not all bad. We mean well, but since you've been gone we've simply found...different ways of expressing it. You'll get used to it."
Steve nodded. "It will take some time, but yeah. This week Fury says I should go watch Star Wars and Monty Python."
"I was always a Scooby Doo kid myself," Bruce offered.
"Was that before or after Rocky and—" Steve froze mid-sentence, having just noticed Loki. "Wow."
Bruce followed his gaze down to see a mostly empty bowl of soup. Loki, licking the spoon, paused to give them a look that plainly said What?
"I...guess he liked it."
"What was that then, sweet potato soup?" Bruce frowned as Steve nodded in confirmation. "We made you sweet potato soup before and you didn't eat it," he said to Loki. Loki gave them what Bruce had come to recognize as the "you're all idiots" look and scooped a little something from the bowl onto his spoon. Bruce peered over at it. "What did you put in it, Steve?"
"The recipe called for sweet potato and leek, but I couldn't find any leeks," Steve confessed, "so I put dill in instead." He heard a spoon clinking and turned to see Loki holding out his notepad. There was a single word written on the page: dilla.
"Just a second, I've heard that before," Bruce recalled. He rose and wandered towards the library, leaving Steve standing awkwardly next to Loki. Thankfully, Bruce was only gone a few minutes.
"I knew I heard the word 'dilla' somewhere before," he announced upon his return. "I just can't remember where. It's Old Norse, meaning to lull or to soothe, and was used for medicinal uses back in the day. I'm not surprised you like it," he remarked to Loki. "We'll be making some more then, if it's alright with Steve."
Loki felt sweet, cool air fill up his lungs and he almost wanted to cry. He settled for a quiet laugh and sat up. For the first time in weeks he could breathe deeply without hacking up half a lung, and he decided that he would never take oxygen for granted ever again. Loki smoothed his hair back away from his face, feeling better than he had in a long time but still bone-deep exhausted. He certainly felt less...febrile, but he could definitely use some of Idunn's apples if he ever made it back to Asgard.
The bright sunlight of a late winter morning pooled around his blankets and Loki closed his eyes, feeling oddly serene. His anger had mostly dissipated along with his fever, and he felt washed out in its wake. Not completely satisfied but clean, almost.
He found he had mixed feelings regarding his little care-team. The scientist treated him like he would a recalcitrant teenager (or Thor in his younger days, Loki thought amusedly). No matter how much Loki had resisted Banner remained irritatingly calm, smiling and soft-spoken and somehow scarier than hell. Loki had not been partial to the shots, to say the least.
The Russian spy looked at him like she wanted to kick him where the sun didn't shine. Repeatedly. He supposed he was to answer for that, but he didn't feel too guilty about it. He was the God of Evil and Lies, for Valhalla's sake. He should be entitled to a little nastiness. Rogers was not too difficult and Barton, understandably, kept out of sight.
Stark was a whole other story.
Take first night Loki moved upstairs, for example. Back then Stark had warned him that when humans got really sick they started coughing up their lungs in little blue and green-spotted chunks. "Let me know if you see anything on your collar that looks like a blueberry," he'd informed Loki before getting reprimanded by Steve for scaring the immortal.
The guy got his jollies from annoying the hell out of people, which was something that Loki could also do quite well. He could certainly understand what Stark saw in it. It was incredibly fun to poke people with your verbal cattle prod, digging into their insecurities and hammering on their berserk buttons until they simply cracked. Having mastered the art himself, Loki was near impervious to verbal scorn on a good day. However, the past few weeks had not sat well with Loki's tolerance levels, and Stark was also skilled in the art of button-pushing.
"Okay," Stark had said on one occasion a few days ago, plopping down on the leather couch perpendicular to Loki's, "let's just be clear: you piss me off. But you see this thing here?" He gestured to the large black screen in front of the couch that could have passed as a window for its size.
"It's called a one hundred fifty-two inch plasma HD," he'd explained. "I'm incredibly bored at the moment, so just to make you miserable I suddenly have the urge to watch overly-dramatic soap operas and intelligence-disintegrating reality shows." He flashed Loki a wide grin. "Enjoy. Do you like Jersey Shore?"
If Loki had not been as doped up on antibiotics as he was at the time, he probably would have committed homicide. Again. He would never speak of the hour in which Stark had ensconced himself on the couch and had watched some of the most horrifically asinine things Loki had ever seen (and would probably never "unsee" again for a while).
But even Stark's bumptious twaddle wasn't so bad in the end, usually because he wasn't present the majority of the time. Loki had been too tired to find all these things appropriately infuriating. He'd alternatively decided to direct what little energy he had into trying to decipher the conundrum of the homo sapient nature, because not everything they did managed to piss him off and it confused the hell out of him.
Take Rogers, the captain lost in time. Every day he made that potato dill soup. As a child Loki had been especially partial to dill, as Frigga used it often in preparing their meals. Thor had hated it, always loudly requesting some ox or steaming duck. No vegetables for him; he needed "man's food" so he could go out and smash things with his hammer. Funny, now that they were all grown, how Thor was the one who would eat anything on the table and Loki had turned into the picky eater.
Loki would sometimes drift off on the couch, cold but lacking the strength to do anything about it. He would wake up sometime later to find a blanket resting over his shoulders. There were always fresh tissues and water on the coffee table. Someone (presumably Bruce) had left a small collection of classic Midgardian literature on the table in addition to the New York Times (although Loki was not aware of this fact, it had been Clint who'd left the newspaper for him).
Humans had the natural instinct to nurture, which was probably a result of their own extensive weakness, Loki concluded. He'd first assumed that the instinct would be stronger in females than in males, and he could not tell if it was a good thing or a bad thing that they had all healed him to some extent. They hated him (with reasonable justification), yet they tended to him. It was all contradictory and very addling, even for someone of Loki's intellect. Hence, he could not tell if their attempts at bonhomie were genuine or simply because they wanted him gone.
Either way, he was relieved to be getting his strength back. With his eyes closed, Loki rested his head against the back of the couch and wondered if all human illnesses acted as some sort of cathartic ritual for the morally bankrupt.
Sometime later, Banner came over with auspicious news.
"Your pneumonia has pretty much cleared up," he announced, looking over his medicinal chart and nodding. "You might have a lingering cough for a few days and you'll need to take it easy, but you're going to be fine. I imagine you're feeling better?"
Loki's face, bright and alert, acted as confirmation.
"It's important that you rest and don't do anything extraneous," Banner explained. "Your body is still healing." He looked as if he wanted to say more but bit his lower lip and scribbled something down on his papers. Loki knew what was going through his mind. They needed to decide what to do with him once he was completely healed. From observing Banner's expression, they were clearly avoiding the issue.
Loki reached for his ever-trusty notepad. He anticipated the day when he could burn the accursed thing. When may I be permitted to speak again? he asked. This time he could not quite read the expression on the Banner's face. It looked hesitant, yet almost...humored. A moment later brown eyes crinkled up at the corners. Definitely amused. Loki furrowed his brow inquisitively up at Banner, demanding an explanation.
"Oh, you could have started talking days ago," Banner said, smiling. "We just didn't want you to."
Clint was on his third cup of coffee, and it wasn't even noon yet. Ever since Bruce had announced that Loki was all better, he had been a little stressed. It was the hardest for Clint to be so close to Loki, and he knew that while the others sympathized, they couldn't truly understand. Not even Nat. They had not been laid bare for Loki to play with, to rearrange every thought and dream and desire. Clint was not a completely unforgiving person, but he did tend to carry grudges for a long time. It came with a soldier's undying loyalty to be wary for longer than was needed.
He tried to ignore Loki's presence and keep contact to a bare minimum, however he inevitably needed to pass through the foyer in order to get to the stairs leading up to his room. Upon Nat's suggestion he had gone out and had bought Loki some newspapers. It was about as gracious as he was going to get.
After finishing his cup Clint walked downstairs to rinse off his mug. His private quarters did not have its own kitchen and he did not mind the additional exercise. He padded down the stairs and was just about to pass through the foyer when Nat's voice stopped him. "Clint."
He froze. She was presently getting out some pills for Loki, who sat in the lotus position on the couch. Dear god, was she going to make him come over there? Loki saw his expression and smiled. "I won't bite," he said quietly. "Promise."
Promise. That was rich coming from the god-version of a pathological liar. Nonetheless, Nat needed him for something so Clint came closer. He gave the couch a wide berth and signaled for her to continue. The ceramic mug felt cool in his hand.
"Fury wants to hold a meeting tonight," Nat said as she set another pill down on the table.
"Here?" Clint asked, jabbing a thumb in the general direction of the conference room and trying not to look at Loki. He looked into Nat's eyes instead, which always calmed him. They were a different green than Loki's; more vibrant and bursting with color. Like velvet and the jungle all at the same time.
Nat shook her head. "Stark Tower," she replied. "The top floor is repaired enough. That one first." The latter comment was directed toward Loki, who had apparently been reaching for the wrong pill. Nat pointed to the right one and added to Clint, "Eight thirty."
Clint internally groaned. None of them needed to inquire about the purpose of the meeting, since it was a topic they had all been reluctant to tackle as of late. Loki seemed to realize this as well and held up his hand once he had chased down the last pill with a sip of water.
"If I may, I do not think your meeting will be necessary," he said. Clint thought his eyes looked somewhat livelier than they had a minute ago. The mug handle tightened in his grip.
Nat's features could have been chiseled in stone. "What?"
Loki raised his head to look at them, and they saw that he was truly smiling now. "It's started," he said. "Look."
Clint could see little crackles of light dancing along Loki's arms and torso and he quickly jumped forward to pull Nat back. If this was going to be anything like what he'd read about Thor's entrances, they needed to get out of here now. With his other hand he pulled out a mini arrow from his pocket, but was stopped by Nat's hand on his arm. "Wait," she told him.
The little particles of light surrounding Loki grew brighter, gleaming and refulgent, and for a minute Clint saw Loki's figure shift like he was both there and not there at the same time. A fast wind blew and he felt the whole mansion tremble violently under his feet. Loki flashed them one last brilliant smile before closing his eyes and sort of...Clint was chary to say disintegrating, because that's not what it was it all. He just seemed to fade and disperse until all that was left was a blanket and the soft imprint of his weight left on the couch.
Nat was blinking like she had just stepped out into the sun, and Clint suddenly felt something that had been sitting on his chest and darkening his brow for days lift. "What happened to saying 'thank you?' " he asked. Not that he was complaining, though.
Nat drew her lips together good-naturedly. "Maybe he didn't actually need to say it, only feel it," she offered. Clint pocketed his arrow and shrugged, not caring so much about the protocols of Asgardian curses so much as the fact that they didn't have to deal with another war on Earth. A moment later they both heard the elevator ding and Steve rushed out in response to the tremors, eyes wide and frazzled.
"Trouble?" he asked. Clint shook his head. Steve frowned over at the empty couch. "Where's Loki?"
Nat smiled. "Gone."
"You mean—" Steve pointed toward the ceiling and waved his finger around. Nat's smile widened. "That's it? It's over?"
"No more Loki. Someone needs to buy Bruce a really big drink," Clint offered, holding up his empty coffee mug.
A grin finally broke out on Steve's face and he looked at them, clapping his hands together. "I guess we won't need to have that meeting after all, then."
Loki could feel the strength of a thousand men returning to him, running through his veins and peppering his cells with minute blossoms of magic and power. The stuff of Old Ages. It was bliss. Just a moment ago he had been human, which was already difficult to believe as the energies of the Nine Realms returned to him.
Those little humans...had he really thanked them? Shown them gratefulness? Apparently so, or he would not be traveling over the stars at the speed of a shooting comet. Perhaps it had been a moment of weakness.
He was being dragged back to Asgard, but for once Loki was not metaphorically kicking and screaming on the way. True, he dreaded Thor's mawkish welcomes, but a small spark in him hoped that father would acknowledge that he had served his sentence accordingly. Even if he had gotten himself into the situation in the first place. But he was a god again, black magic and perfidy notwithstanding.
The portal temporarily dispelled every molecule of his being so he really was just pure, swirling consciousness for a short while, one with space and time. There were a lot of things to ponder, Loki decided, and he was not entirely sure where to go from here.
For one thing, the humans had turned out to be slightly more complex than their apish exteriors suggested. They were weak, but their weakness in turn made them very odd indeed.
Had Thor known this all along? Would he prove himself a little in father's eyes?
What would happen now?
Loki ruminated and contemplated all these things as he raced through the stars to the place he had once called home. Ultimately, he found it difficult to find answers to anything.
He really didn't know what to think.