Author's Note:

At laaaast, I am back! And I've rewatched The Avengers in the interim! (Felt like I was gonna go nuts if I didn't see it one last time before the DVD release in September.) And I finally got to see the beginning, which was fantastic. When I went to see it the first time, I got in late—during the car chase. Yeah, I missed a lot the first time! (Trust me, it wasn't my fault.)

And twenty-six reviews on the last installment? Plus a whopping forty-five favorites total and over a hundred subscriptions? *passes out* Seriously, guys, I am floored—I have never gotten that kind of response before! You are all so awesome! Group hug! …y'know, that's more reviews than I can realistically respond to, so I'm going to have to pick just a few of the larger ones and reply to those. If I don't reply to yours, it's absolutely not a slight upon you, and I am still inexpressibly grateful for your support!

Let me tell you, this chapter was tough. I'm still new to these characters, and Loki really wasn't making things easy for me. In all seriousness, he wasn't cooperating one little bit—didn't matter how much I love him. Tony, actually, wasn't all that cooperative either, until the second half of the last scene. Pepper and I were pretty tired at the end of the whole thing.

But I do have a long chapter this time—including some very blatant Pepperony—so here's hoping it was worth the wait! Oh, and let me know what you think of the coverart, please!

An overall reply my reviewers:

I already initiated a group hug, but here's another one! *big hug* Once again, I don't have time and space to reply to everybody, but all you lovely reviewers have my sincerest thanks! In fact, I'm not even replying to all the reviews that pretty much gushed over this story, and for that, I do feel slightly guilty. But, again, you wonderful people do have my love and gratitude!

Also, it really means a lot to me to hear you guys say that I'm keeping the characters in-character! I appreciate that so much. IC is what I always strive for, and it's tough when I haven't been with the characters for very long. Thank you! And it really warms my heart to see how people have taken to the whole Pepper thing, and think that I'm doing really well with her!

And to people who are asking for Clintasha, all I can say is that we'll see. I'm a bit divided on that, because I see their relationship as actually being left ambiguous in the film. It really could be nothing more than a brother/sister thing between them, though I am by no means averse to the pairing. Also… I must confess that I'm considering Steve/Natasha. I know, I know—there's next to no chemistry between them in the film, and I'm not typically the kind of fangirl who ships two characters who don't have chemistry. But… I don't know, something about that pairing appeals to me. Ah, well. On to…

Review Replies!

JannaKalderash: Ha-ha, sorry about putting you in the mood for pizza! ^_^ I have indeed read "House Arrest"—it is very funny. Hey, that's a cute idea—Pepper and veggies & fruit and Loki! Thanks, I'll have to squeeze that one in sometime. :D

windrunner: Thank you so much! Hawkeye and Black Widow will indeed be making their appearances, along with Bruce. It just might take another chapter or two (and I need to be confident enough in my characterization of them). As for Clintasha, well… *points above* We'll see!

BlackPuma137: Thank you for your praise, and thank you for your understanding! :) Oh, I can promise you Thor/Jane in the future—I very much ship it! Maybe some jealous!Loki, too—it's possible. Thanks again!

Ynath Esrith: Hee, yeah, poor Pepper. Re Jane: yes, absolutely! (Apparently, Natalie Portman wanted to return in The Avengers but could not due to her pregnancy—at least they gave a plausible excuse for her absence in-universe rather than get a new actress.) She is indeed a fine match for Thor. I love her a lot! Ha-ha, Loki and brownie points. But it's true. On the other hand, he can't hide his nature entirely, and that's going to show in this chapter. Don't worry, he will have a change of heart… it's just going to be a slow process (I'm a big fan of gradual character development). Thank you!

Mackadukey: Thank you very much! Yeah, I love it in The Avengers how she's able to hold her own against Tony (notice that nobody else actually does that in the film?), and I'm holding to that in this story. Plus, sarcastic/witty banter is one of my favorite things to write (alongside torture, h/c, and pure fluff, lol). I'm really happy that you thought Loki and Thor were "perfect." *beams* Thanks again!

Crazy Hyper Lady: *giggles* Thank you very much! And I'm glad you appreciate the, ahem, "cleanliness" so much. :D Obviously, there are some things that I can't get around entirely, but profanity will definitely be kept to a minimum. You're very welcome, and thank you again!

Magical Faerie: Thank you very much! I'm glad you found this story, too! ;D

chatnoir1: So glad you liked the "Snark Tower" and "instruction manual" bits! :D Ah, I love it how Tony can't turn it off—it's what makes him one of my favorites. Thank you very much!

TheNewWinterSoldier: Thanks so much! Yeah, a big part of the appeal for me in writing Pepper as Loki's caretaker (for all intents and purposes) is that it is something outside the norm. Doing stuff like that is kind of my shtick. And that comment about Loki's characterization really made my day. :) Yes, I think Pepper's going to be more than ready for Jane by the time she finally gets relocated. Fellow Troper, yes! High-five! Guess it really does take one to know one! :D

The Pearl Maiden: *grins* Yeah, I knew I shouldn't've mentioned those fics… Even when I come back to Destiny's Call Ch4 (and I do that every now and then), I can't seem to get past it. There's nothing wrong with what I've got written—it's continuing on from there. Especially after some conversations with my brother, which derailed most of my ideas for the future of the story—I'm still trying to build up a more plausible middle and ending. *sighs* Darn you, Sidious… Ahem, anyhoo… Did you ever notice the Sherlock Holmes novel I'm working on? It's on my stories list, and I really think you'd love it. :) Okay, now getting back on track. Teddy-bear, jumbo-puppy Thor… me like. :D I know, I could hug him too! Glad you loved the chapter, and the "Dr. Pepper" bit. It was too good to pass up. Thank you!

.pen: *blushes* Seriously… thank you very much. Your review made my week.

windrunner123: Thank you so much! As I said above, we'll see about Clintasha—I just don't know at this juncture. Heh, I think Loki needs to come to terms with his family before he's ready to love someone romantically—but he will get some loving. It'll just take some time. Thanks again!

Alcatrazzie: Again, thanks so much, love! *hugs* I really did squee when I saw your review. ^_^

Anon: *blushes* Thank you very much! One thing that I try very hard to avoid in any of my fics is flanderization of the characters, and Thor is no exception. From what I've seen, I don't think he gets enough respect, and he really is an amazing man. He proved in the second half of his film that he was indeed smart—more than that: he could be mature, and I'm trying hard to honor that. Heh, Clint's first meeting with Loki is going to be tough—I cringe just thinking about it. Thank you again!

Blue Eyes Smiling: Thanks so much! I'm afraid I haven't read any of the comics, but I'm glad that you like the way I write Pepper. :) Just… thank you so very much!

Disclaimer: Lessee… last time I checked, The Avengers was breaking box office records left and right. Seeing as how I am as poor as a church mouse, I seriously doubt I have any sort of ownership of these characters. But I wouldn't mind having Pepper for a big sister. She's awesome.

==Chapter II==

Every Word Just Echoes

Once the movie started, the evening went remarkably well, up to a point. Tony and Loki kept snarking at WALL-E and at each other, while Steve and Thor kept complaining that they wanted to watch the film in peace. Pepper simply kept her mouth shut and tuned them out as best she could. Sanity was looking more and more as if it would be a precious commodity in short supply for the next year or so.

Heck, maybe the rest of her life. Wasn't that a fun thought?

As the credits rolled and Thor clapped in time with "Down to Earth," a debate started up between Loki and Pepper on the ability of artificial intelligence to fall in love. Pepper held onto the possibility of it happening, while Loki worked to undermine her position. Tony and Steve stayed on the sidelines, with Tony running a commentary to Steve that the debaters heard but ignored.

"The opening premise of the film was faulty," Loki insisted. "Over a course of several centuries, artificial intelligence acquires a personality and, thereby, a soul. And then EVE acquires one over the course of several days because she sees WALL-E's infatuation with her—which shouldn't matter to her in the first place."

Pepper considered for a moment. "I think WALL-E got his personality by watching human films and deciding to emulate them."

"So his personality is based upon emulation."


"Very well, I'll give you that for the moment. But EVE?"

"Again, emulation. These robots were apparently programmed with a large capability to think for themselves—probably to carry out their tasks in the most efficient manner possible."

The god of mischief appeared to be considering that. "Point conceded," he said at last. "But the capability to think freely does not necessitate the capability to love."

"WALL-E watched those romance flicks," Pepper reasoned. "He knew that he was alone, and watching the flicks taught him to feel lonely. They taught him that a person needs people, that no one is meant to be alone. And they taught him what love was like. When he met EVE, he was fully capable of love."

Something indefinable flickered through Loki's grey-blue eyes. "And EVE?"

"EVE saw that one movie, and she saw that WALL-E was attracted to her." Pepper sighed and shrugged. "I don't know—I just like to enjoy it for what it is: a romance. I've never put this much thought into it before."

"Loki has always ruined stories by putting too much thought into them," Thor said unexpectedly.

"And you have always been too accepting of the stories you hear," Loki returned coolly.

That was the point at which the evening started going back downhill.

"Look, fellas, it's just a movie," Steve tried.

"Don't bother, honey," Pepper said, the moment the estranged brothers started arguing in what was definitely Old Norse. She might not be as much of a language buff as Natalie Rushman (yeah, even now there was some friction between her and Natasha), but she knew enough of Northern European languages to recognize Norse when she heard it.

"Darn," was all Steve could say at that point.

"Is there any popcorn left?" Tony wondered.

Sometimes, Pepper wondered why she didn't just retire on the generous pension she'd racked up. She figured she must be a glutton for punishment.


Brilliant, sharp, unforgiving.

There was no escaping the harsh white brilliance around him, for it flooded past his eyelids. Shards of burning, crystalline light bored directly into his skull and throbbed within.

They burned him with light even as they tore open his mind and revealed it for all the worlds to see. Loneliness. Envy. Abandonment. Anger.

They picked his mind apart, piece by piece.

He twisted and bucked and writhed, but their grip never loosened. He sobbed, but they didn't care. He screamed 'til his throat went raw and his voice silent, and still he screamed and they did not care.

No one ever did.

His mind and spirit were naked in the light, and he was utterly helpless to stop it.

Thor never came. Father never came. Mother never came.

No one.



He thought that he might have apologized, he might have begged for forgiveness, he might have gone back to being the dutiful little son, the younger brother proud of his elder brother… if only someone would have come. Would have taken him home.

No one ever did.

The next morning, Pepper was making notes on her planner while sipping her coffee when a certain god of mischief entered the dining room. From over the rim of her mug, she took stock of Loki as he took a seat away from everyone else at the table: he was fully dressed and immaculate as ever, but the dark rings beneath his eyes spoke volumes about his night. Pepper rose, returned to the coffee machine, and poured a new mug.

At least everyone had been very quiet while eating their pancakes, so there was no awkward silence now with Loki's appearance.

Pepper set the mug down in front of him and said, "It's bitter, but you look like you need it."

Loki stared tiredly down at the dark liquid, which she had left black to keep it full strength. "What is it?"

"It'll wake you up."

"Might even send you through the roof," was Tony's offhand remark as he browsed Pepper-knew-not-what on his cell phone.

Thor frowned. "It is not that strong."

Loki raised his eyebrows at his brother, then returned his gaze to the coffee. He wrapped his hands around it and shivered.

"Hey, you okay?" Pepper asked in an undertone. She knew the answer, but…

"I am fine." To his credit, it didn't sound like he was just putting it on. Thor had said that Loki used to be more transparent, despite his characteristic "silver tongue". Now, however… now, Loki was very opaque, or would be, if he weren't fully human at this point in time.

Pepper walked quietly back into the kitchen, forked two pancakes onto a plate, and slathered them with butter and syrup. She set the plate before Loki, who looked up at her with an indecipherable expression. At last, she said, "Eat up, kiddo. We've got a long day today."

She felt Tony's eyes on her as she returned to her own pancakes, and she sent him a brief smile. He did not look to be reassured at it. Sighing, she pulled out her cell and fired a quick text: I can handle him.

Mass-murderer, Pep.

Your idea, Tony.

But only twelve percent.

I'm going to pretend I didn't see that. And I'll be okay. Trust me.

There was a pause in the texting. And then: I do.

Pepper smiled.

Dinner tonight?

I have a feeling I'll need it.

My poor babe. See you then. Oh, and dress up.

Pepper just laughed silently and shook her head.

An hour later, Pepper was in her office with Loki on the other side of the desk. She took a deep breath and said, "All right, Loki, here's our dilemma. You're here, on Earth, for rehabilitation. I won't argue with your father—" he frowned and opened his mouth, and she raised her hand—"and yes, I will call him your father because he most definitely the only one who actually counts. Sorry. We humans tend to have a thing for not acknowledging biological parents who abandon their children.

"As I was going to say: I won't argue with your father, but he has put us in a rather awkward position. Obviously, if you are going to be rehabilitated or redeemed or whatever you want to call it, SHIELD is not the best choice for helping it happen. Thus, they dump the responsibility on the Avengers."

Loki's frown dropped several degrees in temperature. "Am I some stolen relic to be passed—"

"You are a murderer," Pepper interjected, leaning forward and pinning him with a steely glare. "And you are very fortunate that your father is giving you a second chance and that we humans are willing to go along with that. You're mortal now, Mr. Godling, and you can be killed. Will I concede that you have been wronged all your life? Yes, actually, I will. Will I abide by your delusions of entitlement? No, sir, I will not. I can't speak for the Avengers, but you will get from me exactly the amount of respect you deserve. No more, no less. Now are you going to let me finish without any more interruptions, verbal or otherwise?"

Loki looked visibly taken aback, and Pepper even thought she saw a hint of fear lurking in his bright eyes—which confused her. What did he have to fear from her, really, besides an earful? "Yes," he said quietly.

"Good," she said coolly. "Now, as I was saying, you were basically dumped on the Avengers. Well, out of the six of them, Thor and Steve Rogers are the only ones who don't really have a life outside of the Avengers. Even Dr. Banner now has an official position at SHIELD as an analyst. Steve is a good man—one of the greatest I've ever known, really—but he's still adjusting to the modern world, and therapy is not his thing. And Tony and I agree that Thor is unequivocally the wrong choice to be your, as you put it, 'keeper'."

Loki snorted but held his tongue.

"Thus, it was agreed that I would be the one to keep an eye on you," Pepper continued. "But even this presents its own set of problems—most importantly, how can I keep an eye on you and at least help you to adjust life as a human being in the twenty-first century when I have the job of Chief Executive Officer of a very large company?"

Loki gave a much put-upon sigh. "Haven't you a second-in-command to whom you can delegate your responsibilities?"

"You're looking at her," Pepper said flatly. "Tony Stark is still the head of Stark Industries, which means that I'm, for all intents and purposes, the second-in-command."

"I see."

"I must admit, I have entertained the possibility of having you pose as my Personal Assistant," Pepper mused aloud.

"What would such a position entail?"

Pepper shrugged. "Basically? Anything and everything. You'd help me juggle my schedule, handle my correspondence, take notes, fix me coffee when I need it, hail a cab, answer the phone, arrange travel details…"

"A valet," he said, with some measure of distaste.

"That is what it would be in your world, I suppose." She studied him carefully—she could see his mind working. "Until we can hopefully work out a better arrangement, I think it's the only option left to us."

"I see," Loki said again, obviously still mulling over the idea in his mind. "Would I be paid for my services?"

Pepper sighed. "No," she said, sotto voce. "Not until I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I can trust you with your own money."

A smile crept across Loki's face, mirthless and unsettling. "I am a shadow of a doubt," he hissed, still smiling. "I am Doubt itself. You will never be able to trust me, for I will only tell you lies." He rose and leaned over the table, planting his hands on it. Pepper's left hand, which had been resting on her lap for the duration of the conversation, now moved noiselessly to the hold-out pistol hidden beneath the top of the desk. "The only thing you can trust me to do is lie." His smile widened. "A paradox, is it not?"

"Mr. Doubt, you need to sit down," Pepper said gently but firmly, without a trace of sarcasm in her voice. I can't believe I'm ordering a thousand-year-old kid to sit down… "Right now."

Loki merely arched one elegant eyebrow.

"Look, Loki, you have officially ticked off every single one of the Avengers, SHIELD, and quite a large number of the worldwide political realm. Right now, I'm pretty much the only person on your side. So, you know what, it would behoove you to listen to me." Her voice held just an edge of steel, but her eyes flashed. "Please. Sit. Down."

Loki compressed his lips but sat.

Pepper released her hold on the pistol. "Thank you. Loki, I can sympathize with you up to a point, but you've brought this on yourself."

His head jerked up, grey-blue eyes stormy. "I brought on my abandonment, my adoption, the—"

"You know darn well what I meant," Pepper snapped. "This. Your banishment, your human form, the whole nine yards. You have so much blood on your hands, and blood is blood, whether it's human, Asgardian, or Jotunn."

For the briefest moment, he paled. Then he recovered and said, "And this gives you the right to judge me."

"You're not listening. You will never get off this planet, mister, if you don't start cleaning up your act."

"Do you know, you were much more subtle with me yesterday."

Pepper threw up her hands. "Well, congratulations, you've already pushed me past the point of subtlety. I'm tired; I'm overworked; I'm stressed out. I don't need a psychopathic godling giving me further hassle."

Loki frowned in confusion at the word "hassle".

Pepper sighed. "Forget it. Look, can you just do me a favor and behave? Like I said, I'm on your side. And if you just work with me here, I'll defend you from here to hell, all right?"

He still didn't look entirely happy, but at least he said, "Very well." That was as much as could be hoped for, at this point.

"Thank you. Now, let's get started on getting you acclimated to your surroundings. You've got a lot to learn, and very little time in which to learn it."

He shrugged one shoulder. "Fortunately, I am a fast learner."

Pepper gave a little laugh. "I believe it."

He smiled. Just for a moment, but it was a genuine smile, and it was beautiful.


"So, how was the psycho kid today?"

Pepper leaned into Tony's hold in the limousine. Being held by Tony was always relieved her stress, no matter how bad her day had been. "Well, he could have been better, but he also could have been worse. Overall, it wasn't a bad day, and he is a fast learner."

"Something happened. What happened?"

"You know, I'm still trying to decide whether the whole overprotective act becomes you or not."

"Something happened, and I really am starting to regret getting you involved in this."

Pepper sighed. "He monologued. It was a little unsettling."

"Monologue. Like, a classic villain monologue? Like he's so good at doing?"

"Yeah, basically. It turned out okay, though—I talked him down."

He kissed her forehead. "You're a miracle worker."

She grinned. "I know."

The limo stopped, and Tony got out, then walked around to open her door for her, gesturing expansively. "After you, milady."

Her eyes widened as she took in their destination. "You just said to dress up…"

"Pep, you'd look gorgeous in a greasy mechanic's jumpsuit. Relax."

"You know, I really don't trust you, sometimes."

"No wonder you won't marry me."

Pepper whipped her head around to face him. "I won't marry you?" she hissed in a whisper as they entered the restaurant. "Who's still always flirting with every female he comes in contact?"

"I don't flirt with Natasha."

"Only because you had a grudge on her for being a SHIELD spy."

Tony placed a hand over his arc reactor. "Miss Potts, your doubt wounds me!"

"Do you want me to wound you? 'cause, let me tell you, I'd be willing to oblige."

"Um, no, not really—I'm not sure my ego could survive that, and I'm kind of attached to it." As she snorted in genuine amusement, he snaked his arm around her waist and drew her close. "C'mon, let's just have a nice, relaxing evening. No Loki, no Thor, no Steve… no Avengers, period."

"And no SHIELD."

"And no SHIELD," he agreed feelingly. They had been escorted to their table and Pepper was leaning back and soaking in the atmosphere when Tony said, out of the blue, "Will you marry me?"

Pepper sighed gently. "Tony…"

"C'mon, Pep, we've been talking about this for… how long?"

"A little over a year, now."

"Right. And I'm not… we're not… uh…" He looked around the large room as if searching for inspiration.

Pepper leaned forward and rested her chin on her hand, smiling coyly. "I think the line you're looking for is: we're not getting any younger."

He turned to her with a look that was both a grimace and a grin. "Yeah."

She sighed again. "I know, I know…"

"Why, Pepper? Come on, what's holding you back?"

"I don't know," she said honestly. "I don't—I just…" She shook her head. "I don't know."

"Is it… something that's wrong with me?" Oh, that had to have taken a lot to say. Tony Stark was known for many things, but humility was definitely not one of them.

She smiled sadly. "No, it's not." He raised an eyebrow. "It really isn't. The problem is with me, Tony, not you."

"You?" he said, genuinely surprised. "Virginia Potts, you have to be the most perfect person I know." She laughed slightly. "No, I mean it. And, as I know a quite a few people—including the illustrious Avengers—that's saying something."

She reached out and squeezed his hand. "You're sweet."

He gave her a hopeful look.

She dropped her gaze and nodded, smirking at herself. "Give me just a little more time? I'll figure myself out, I promise."

"When're you going to have the opportunity for that, if you're babysitting the psycho godling?"

She looked up at that, the corners of her mouth twitching. "Well. I hear that a good way to learn… is to teach."

Tony lifted his glass. "Here's lookin' at you, Teach'."

She grinned outright and clinked her glass with his. "Thanks. I need it."

Author's Note:

I admit it: I was unashamedly going for heartwarming fluff in this last scene. :D And, to be honest, I don't know what Pepper's issue is, either—her words, not mine, and who am I to argue with the lady? And have I mentioned yet how much I really do like Tony, despite his "laundry list" of faults? (Just don't bring up the Sherlock Holmes films. Seriously, don't.)

The scene in the office is what really held this entire chapter up. Loki wasn't being difficult just for Pepper—he was being difficult for me, as well. Once I was finished with the scene, however, I felt it was worth all the hassle. I really enjoyed Pepper talking Loki down—and, boy, is he messed-up. Ai-yi-yi…

On that note, I really enjoyed writing the brief Flashback Nightmare. The idea of using light as torture was a combination of three things: a captivity in TV series Jericho, two one-shots from my own Sherlockian writings, and my repeated experiences of waking up in the morning to very bright sunlight from a nearby window. Yes, I am completely serious about that last one—couple it with sleeping problems, and you get one whopper of a headache.

The breakfast scene—h/c and fluff. Two of my favorite things. *unabashed grin*

The opening scene, well… that kind of went all over the place, in my head. I did like Thor clapping to "Down to Earth"—I love that song, and I think he'd like it, too. And the debate over WALL-E… that itself took a lot of time and thought. My brain was hurting by the end of it. I'm with Thor—I don't like overthinking stories and thereby ruining them. I like to think that I'm fairly intelligent, but my intelligence is far more intuitive than analytical. Anyway, I didn't see any other way that scene would end but with the brothers verbally duking it out—probably not entirely a bad thing for them, being able to vent. Overall, though, I think my favorite part of the scene was the three opening paragraphs.

Next time (not sure when), we have the finale of Tony and Pepper's night out, the boys at home watching a film, some dancing, and possibly the rest of the Avengers. Don't hold me to that last bit—it all depends on the characters. In the interim…

Please review!