Author's Note: So...this is what happens when I get peeved about people reviewing to say my slow update speeds are inconveniencing them, and then forget to come back. Whoops. ...the lesson to take from this is please don't bug me about update speeds; I know I'm slow, I also know that I'm drowning in work at the moment and sometimes this story is a pain and a half to write.

But hey, look, I came back! And the next chapter will even be up shortly, which is what reminded me to update over here. So yeah.

Bless all y'all who are sticking with me patiently. Your kind words mean a lot.


He woke up with a snarl, jolting upright prepared to start fighting again, only to realize that he was covered in a fleece blanket and lying on his own couch. For a moment, his thoughts spun in disoriented circles, until he noticed Natasha watching him from one of his armchairs, a book open on her lap. He stared at her, and she looked back, eyebrows raised.

"Good…" she glanced at the wall, briefly, and then back to him. "…afternoon. Welcome back."

The urge to say you found me surged up, but he managed to suppress it and spare them both the embarrassment. "You look well."

"Entirely unkidnapped." Loki felt a twinge of shame, but suppressed it. "Feeling all right?"

"More or less." He sat up, slowly. His head gave a warning twinge, a headache on the way, but the rest of him felt…surprisingly intact. "I'm…surprised. I expected to wake somewhere rather more clinical."

Natasha shrugged. "Fury's not happy, but I managed to convince him that if you came around disoriented it probably wouldn't end well for any staff in the vicinity." She paused, and added, something slightly strange in her voice, "or the building, apparently."

It took Loki a bit of digging through his hazy memories to puzzle out what she was referring to. He almost winced when he found it. He hadn't meant to play that much of his hand. A show of power like that…

A grim part of him was surprised they hadn't taken that information and buried him in a deep pit. Perhaps they were simply aware now that they didn't have the resources to do so.

"Ah," he said, in lieu of sharing his thoughts. "Yes. Thank you for that, then."

"You're welcome." Loki scrutinized her face, but she didn't look wary, or nervous. Then again, she was one of the few he thought he might not be able to tell if she were. After a moment, she uncrossed her legs and leaned forward. "It's smart. Letting us underestimate you."

Loki considered feigning ignorance, but decided that that would be…unfair. She deserved better. "I suppose I thought that you might be…unnerved…if I immediately showed my full potential."

"Which is? Just out of curiosity." Romanov raised her eyebrows. "After all, you did evaporate a building when you were…not exactly at your best."

Loki shrugged one shoulder. "I don't think you appreciate the complicated nature of that question."

"No," she said, after a moment. "Probably not." She sat back, and rubbed her hands up and down her thighs. "I guess I'll take it as a good sign that you haven't vaporized anything else. That I know of." Her tone was perfectly bland. Loki suspected her true feelings were rather less so, but he couldn't help but be faintly pleased that she didn't seem to be jumping to any immediate conclusions.

"I appreciate your charitable lack of judgment," Loki said casually, and she turned her gaze on him again, eyes narrowed.

"Oh, rest assured, I'm judging," she said. "Just maybe not on that point. You're damned lucky, you know that?"

Loki raised his eyebrows. "Not the first descriptor I would think of."

"No?" A sharp note slipped into her voice. "You took off on your own, without backup and without telling anyone where you were going. For all we knew, you'd dropped off the face of the planet. Fury was this close to just assuming you'd fucked off and weren't coming back." Loki frowned and opened his mouth, but she cut him off. "It was only my guess and Coulson's word that meant we went looking, and it was only the tracking tech – the thing you were so upset about – that meant we could find you. And the fact that Coulson persuaded Fury that we could pull off an extraction without starting an international incident is, frankly, a miracle-"

Loki began to feel faintly sullen. "For all I knew you were dead," he snapped, and Natasha glared at him.

"Based on one phone call? Have a little faith in my competency!"

"What would you have had me do?" Loki asked sharply, bristling, and Natasha threw her hands up as she stood and started pacing, motions jerky.

"Not fall for an obvious trap, for one," she said, not quite snide, and Loki jerked like he'd been slapped, stung.

"I beg your pardon to have inconvenienced you," he said, the taut note in his voice not quite masking the thrum of emotion underneath, to his irritation. "I did not ask for you to come swooping in after me."

"For the love of-" Romanov swore. She pivoted on her heel and glared at him, and then appeared to visibly calm herself. "Look. I get it." Loki scoffed, apparently too loudly, because she narrowed her eyes. "I do. How do you think I felt when I got back and found out that you'd gone off the grid because you'd gone haring off after me?"

Loki glanced aside and pressed his lips together.

"Thanks," she said after a few moments. "I guess. The thought's nice, even if you really don't need to worry about me. I can take care of myself."

That's not it, Loki wanted to say. If you had been hurt, it would have been because of me. Because I was fool enough to leave a threat alive. He said nothing. After a moment, Natasha sighed and sat back down.

"I told you not to go after Osborn," she said, finally. Loki breathed out sharply through his nose.

"If I had killed him in the first place-"

"If you'd killed him in the first place, there'd be a lot worse trouble now, believe me." Romanov gave him a sidelong look. "Not that I don't appreciate the sentiment. He'll get what's coming, though. The man's unstable, at best. He can't keep it up forever."

"And Doom?" Loki said, and was not quite able to keep his voice from trembling. Romanov looked at him, for a moment, a frown between her eyebrows.

"In Latveria. We don't have anything to go after him with." Loki felt his hands curl into fists, and Romanov leaned forward. "Silver, I'm serious. Don't go after him. I understand you want to."

Loki's lips peeled back from his teeth. "Do you?"

"Yes," she said, tonelessly. "I do. But you need to think about this, and I'm telling you that going after him isn't going to get you anywhere. Latveria is a sovereign nation, and he is its ruler, whatever we think of that. SHIELD can't start a war with it, or him. Not without something we can offer the world as justification."

Loki took a few shallow breaths. "I understand." That his pain was not worth their trouble. That he was to be bound by stupid, foolish, human agreements from taking revenge, as was his right-

"Loki," she said, and he started at his name, his real name, in her voice, jerked from his thoughts. She was standing again, her hand on his arm, though only lightly. He could feel himself vibrating in contrast to her stillness. "If it were up to me," she said, her voice clear and precise, "I'd help you kill the bastard. But more likely than not you'd be the one to suffer, and that doesn't appeal to me." Loki could still feel the metal locking his jaw closed. That impassive metal face, and all his hate and power nothing, nothing.

Romanov's hand was slightly warm on his arm. He…believed her, almost. Wanted to believe her.

She had come. He'd been so certain no one would, but she, and Barton, and Stark… It rankled, to think that they had seen him so weak. So pathetic. But nonetheless…

"If I have the chance," Loki forced out, finally, "I cannot promise I will not take it."

"I wouldn't expect you not to." Romanov's voice had a strange note to it that he couldn't quite identify, and she stepped away. Loki leaned back into his couch. His body still ached, but when he reached for his magic it came only slightly reluctantly. He let it go without attempting anything; the relief he felt was pitiful in its strength. He could feel her watching him, but she said nothing for several minutes. Then he heard her shift.

"You called me Loki," he said, eventually, watching her sidelong.

Natasha looked at him directly. "It's your name, isn't it?" He held still, but a moment later she shrugged. "Clint told me. And Clint heard you say it. If you're trying to keep on the down-low, you might want to work on your desire to showboat."

Loki fought the urge to wince. "I do not…showboat."

"You do," Romanov said, matter-of-factly. "Every so often, anyway." She sat down again, folding her feet under herself on the couch. Loki waited, but she said nothing.

"Well?"

She shrugged. "What is it to me?" The corner of her mouth tilted up slightly. "Loki suits you better than Luke anyway."

Barton knew, Loki thought, and Romanov. He could take that knowledge from them. It would be safer. Thinking about it, however, made him feel vaguely sick, and he knew he would not. "You had best keep using the other in company," he said, finally.

"I'm not an amateur," Romanov said, dryly. "Despite what you seem to think." Loki threw her a glare, but she met it with equanimity. "If you get in trouble on my behalf again," she warned, suddenly, "I'll kick your ass until you can't get off that couch for a week."

Loki blinked. He wasn't sure what he had expected. Not that, he thought. He blinked at her, but the look she gave him was stony-faced. "Clear enough," he said eventually, though he couldn't quite keep the confused note out of his voice.

Her mouth quirked, very slightly. "Who would I beat at chess?" she said, sounding a good deal less serious. "Clint won't play me anymore."

"Perhaps he is a wise man," Loki murmured, relaxing as the conversation entered less dangerous waters. "Sometimes." Natasha's mouth twitched like she was trying not to let her smile grow too much.

"He did volunteer for your little rescue mission, you know," she said, and Loki felt an unexpected little knot in his chest. "As, curiously enough, did Stark." He gave her a sidelong look and she shrugged. "Food for thought."

"I'll keep that in mind," Loki said, neutrally. "So…what now?"

"What now?" Natasha sat back. "Coulson wants to talk to you, when you're ready. Debriefing. As for the moment…it's raining and I'm not technically on assignment. Fancy a game?"

When you are ready. So they would give him time. The cynical part of his brain pointed out that it was probably merely wariness. The rest of him was grateful nonetheless. "When do I not?" he said, summoning a smile.

His body still ached. He was still tired and he knew he had to look pale and sick. She didn't look at him differently, though, and never once did Natasha ask if he was all right. Nor did she look at him, it seemed, substantially differently than before, no matter how carefully he watched her.

Loki carefully, cautiously, revised her status in his mind from co-worker to friend, and his smile when she beat him handily for his distraction was, if small, still genuine.

~.~

Loki gave himself three days of quiet in which to recover. His body did not, strictly speaking, need all of the time – he could easily have been on his feet and moving, if still uncomfortable, in one day – but he took it anyway. His mind needed it more. He slept poorly, when he could at all, dreams full of helplessness and pain and the dreadful certainty that he hadn't really escaped at all.

But it was nothing he wouldn't survive.

Barton came by – Loki wasn't sure whether or not to feel betrayed that Natasha had apparently told him where he lived – dropped off a stack of books, and eyed Loki with some awkward wariness before shoving his hands in his pockets and remarking that it was too bad about Doom, and if he turned up again he'd be happy to pin him to a wall or something while Loki, quote, did his thing.

Stark sent him a series of text messages demanding to know where he could send the flowers and chocolate and also if he was going to have time to meet and talk magic whatever in the near future, maybe. Loki ignored those, not certain how to deal with them.

And when he was certain he could control himself without showing a single crack in his armor, he went to SHIELD.

Thus now he sat in front of Coulson's desk, hands folded in his lap, expression carefully blank. He'd given a relatively brief accounting of everything he thought relevant, from going to Sweden through his experience at Doom's hands, though he kept the description of that as sparse as he thought reasonable, and his tone expressionless. That finished, Coulson regarded him, relatively inscrutable as he always was. Loki frequently wondered what went on in the man's head.

"First things first," Coulson said, after a long pause. "You're grounded."

Loki blinked. "Beg pardon?"

"Grounded," Coulson repeated. "No missions, no field activity, nothing, for the next two weeks." Loki felt himself start to tense, but Coulson wasn't done. "You've also got four mandated sessions with the psychologist and a screening, which I expect you'll probably lie your way through." Loki felt his lips peel back from his teeth.

"You jest," he said. "Surely."

Coulson looked back at him without any sign of perturbation. "I'm afraid not. Not only is it standard protocol to take any agent that is captured out of the field and ensure their well-being-"

Loki felt himself tense. "Do I seem unwell to you?"

"Frankly?" Coulson said flatly. "Yes. You've been erratic for a while now, and based on the report from Barton and Romanov I'm not prepared to send you anywhere until I'm sure you're not going to implode any more buildings." Loki felt his nostrils flare. "Torture is psychological as much as it's physical. I suspect you know that."

Loki leaned forward, eyes narrowed, hands clenched white-knuckled in his lap. "You cannot possibly think-"

"This isn't a negotiation, Agent Silver." Coulson was watching him closely, and Loki wondered with sudden, savage vividness what the man would do if Loki wrapped a hand around his throat and squeezed. A moment later the violence of the thought startled him, and he wavered for a moment. His magic had risen up, surging under his skin in response to his emotion. Loki took a slow breath, dragging himself back under control, unnerved by his own loss of composure. "I have no trouble believing you can do your job as well as ever. But this is as much for your sake as anything else."

I don't need your pity, Loki thought viciously, but some of the violence had gone out of the thought. "For my sake." He said nonetheless, tonelessly.

"Yes," Coulson said. "And, as I said, standard procedure. You agreed to work for us, Agent. That means you follow the rules."

Loki half closed his eyes and looked at Coulson sidelong. "I agreed on the condition of looser parameters than one of your usual minions."

"And you've gotten them," Coulson said, even and steadfast. "For one, if anyone else had pulled the kind of stunt you just did, disobeying direct orders, they'd get a whole lot more than a temporary suspension." Loki felt his mouth twist, but he had to admit…they had given him a fair amount of free rein. And he had been…a fool.

They could have left him to die, and they had not.

"Fine," he ground out, finally. He could always lie to this – psychologist. Four conversations and two weeks. It was little more than a slap on the wrist, if that. Loki took a deep breath and made himself lean back. "Fine. I will – accept your terms."

"Good," Coulson said, and Loki thought he caught a very slight relaxation, though he would not have sworn to it. The man slid a file across the table. "The psychologist is Maureen Fisher. Your first session is on Friday, on site here."

Loki took the folder and sent it with a flick of his wrist to drop on the counter at his apartment. "Is that all?" he asked, still slightly tightly.

"For the moment," Coulson said. Loki inclined his head and stood.

"Then I suppose-"

"You might want to make a visit down to thank the techs," Coulson said, suddenly, and Loki turned. "We wouldn't have been able to find you without their work." Loki felt his shoulders tense.

"They invaded my privacy," Loki said, tersely. "And I might be concerned with how avidly some seem to be attempting to persuade me that I should not be concerned with that offense."

"It wasn't an order, Silver. Just a suggestion." Coulson's voice didn't change inflection at all. "What you do is your business. But I hope you recognize now that this isn't a one-sided arrangement. I told you. We look after our agents. And I'd suggest that if you're going to be angry about the decision to track you, direct it at the ones who gave the order."

Loki felt his shoulders draw up and lock. "What concern is it of yours?" he snapped.

"It isn't," Coulson said, evenly. "As I said. Just a suggestion."

Loki bit back the urge to reply, and turned for the door. "Duly noted. Good afternoon, Agent Coulson."

He did not quite stalk out. He stood outside the door for a moment, hand opening and closing. Loki stood perfectly still for several moments, and then simply twisted through space to reappear in front of the door to Chandra's lab.

He let himself in with a slight gesture and stepped through the door into the semi-familiar chaos that always seemed to reign, keeping his chin high and expression blank, not sure what he was expecting.

It was not for Roslyn, perched with her computer on her lap and tapping away at the keyboard, to notice him and squeak, eyes (surrounded with dark circles) going wide. "Agent Silver!" she said, rather loudly, and several heads turned. "You're – um-"

"Is Dr. Sheffer here?" He asked, keeping his voice level and pretending to ignore the way they were staring at him despite the fact that the hair on the back of his neck prickled with it. They hung back. Warily, he thought, except that Roslyn was scrambling to her feet. She almost dropped her computer, recovered it, and took a step in his direction before stopping, fluttering awkwardly.

"She's – she stepped out to take a call, she should be right back. Are you, um…"

"Not here for long," Loki said, keeping his voice clipped, though he kept noticing those dark circles, and after a moment he added, "You look exhausted. Has she been working you that hard?"

Roslyn glanced aside. He could feel the others listening, all the usual hubbub suddenly strangely quiet, and he knew Roslyn noticed it too, by the way she fidgeted. "Um…no? It was just…"

"She was up running the scans looking for you," a familiar voice said, sharp and professional. He turned, slowly, and examined Chandra. Her arms were crossed, and her expression was set in the stubborn frown he'd become familiar with from her, but he thought he caught, just briefly, a flicker of…relief? "She was the one who put together the programming, after all. What are you here for?"

Roslyn, Loki thought. Quiet, unassuming, curious Roslyn. He might have known. The thought was more rueful than angry, though, and the look on her face when he glanced back, wide-eyed and nervous and more than a little exhausted, decided him.

"Then I suppose it is you I need to thank," he said, turning the rest of the way back toward her. She blinked, and after a moment, considering the pairs of eyes on his back, Loki caught her fingers and swept an elegant and ultimately unnecessary bow over her hand. "It appears I owe you a debt."

Roslyn's face went vibrantly pink. "Oh," she said, voice a little high pitched. "What? I. No, I don't think-"

Loki felt his mouth try to twitch, and kept it from doing so. "I have been dreadfully churlish," he said, smoothly. "I hope you will – all of you – find it in yourselves to forgive me." He took some faint pleasure in Roslyn's thoroughly stymied expression, even as he released her hand and straightened, turning. Chandra was looking at him with narrowed eyes. Other than a few murmurs, there was silence. Waiting for her cue.

She smiled, eventually, the gesture fractional. "Good to have you back," she said, eventually, and Loki felt the atmosphere relax.

He let his mouth twitch just slightly toward a smile, and even as the rest of the crew began to clamor at him with questions he only barely listened to, he added, just for her ears, "but remember not to test me again," and waited for her nod before he turned, smiling slightly, to the flock of techies that he had still, somewhere, considered his.

~.~

When he extracted himself – eventually – from the lab and the flood of questions varying wildly from the personal (where were you?) to the professionally curious (you said you could explain shapeshifting to me, is that still…), there was a pleasant buzz in his brain and blood and he almost felt like himself again.

He had also, however, remembered that there was one other appointment he had missed thanks to Doom's…intervention.

This time, Loki took the slightly longer way to Foster's lab. Which was to say that he teleported in a few feet from the entrance and walked the rest of the way. Which meant that he nearly walked into Foster as she strode out of her lab, talking animatedly on her phone, with some ire in her voice.

"No, I'm not going to - for the last time! I am not your little science minion and I'm not going to- fuck!" Loki stepped nimbly out of her way, but she still stared up at him, wide-eyed and plainly startled. He looked back at her, expressionless. "I'll call you back," Foster said after a moment, and hung up her phone, eyes going from wide and startled to narrowed and suspicious.

"My apologies," Loki said delicately, "for my lateness."

"Only by about a week," Foster said, after a moment. Despite her surprise, she sounded no less annoyed with him than she had on the phone. "Where were you?"

Loki felt his lips press together. "Otherwise occupied." Her eyes narrowed another notch, and for a moment he was sorely, bitterly tempted to tell her in exact, grotesque detail. Like as not she would only look at him with pity, however, and the idea of that made him itch.

"Too otherwise occupied to cancel?" Foster challenged. For a moment, the image flashed into Loki's mind of her confronting Thor like this, eyes narrowed, full of defiance for all she was almost three heads shorter than he was and less than half his bulk. The urge struck him to laugh at the same time as he felt it like a knife in his chest, the combination decidedly peculiar.

"You are not precisely my first priority," Loki said, acidly. "I would not expect you to be so affronted by my absence."

Her face went, curiously, slightly pink. "I was expecting you," she said, after a moment. Loki felt his lips curved, the expression far from his eyes.

"Disappointed?"

"Yes," Foster said, to his surprise. "I was!" Loki blinked at her, not quite able to keep the surprise off of his face, but she didn't seem to notice. "But now – well. Come on. I have something I need you to look at." She turned on her heel and started striding back toward the lab. Loki stared at her back, suddenly feeling as though he'd walked into a marsh when he'd expected sound earth.

"I – what?" He felt like an idiot the moment the words were out, but she'd caught him entirely wrong-footed. Her glance over her shoulder was obviously impatient.

"Are you coming?" she demanded. "I think I figured something out."

Loki tried to wipe his expression clean. "Do you." Perhaps the woman was mad. Perhaps that was the appeal. It is her work, Loki decided, eventually. She wants to know if she is right. You, too, have worked with those you hate for the sake of knowledge. He finally moved, following Foster the few paces to her lab where she was already rummaging through a stack of papers. The other girl he remembered from before waved at him from where she was eating out of a takeout container in the corner.

"Hey," she said, "you're back."

"So I am," Loki said, looking back toward Foster.

"If I ask where you went are you going to tell me it's classified?" The girl – Darcy, he thought he remembered – asked. Loki didn't glance at her.

"No," he drawled. "I would just lie."

"You SHIELD types are no fun," Darcy complained, and then Jane straightened, brandishing a piece of paper in his direction.

"Look at this," she said, with some amount of triumphant defiance that made Loki's eyebrows rise. "I was just fooling around-"

"Pulling three all-nighters in a row," Darcy muttered, somewhat darkly, but Jane hardly looked at her, so neither did Loki.

"-and I think I might have figured it out. Well – not it, per se, but the problem of the energy – where it goes, I mean, how it gets dissipated, I think…"

Loki frowned, pacing over and plucking the paper from her fingers, examining the scrawled series of words and formulas written on nearly every blank space at various angles. Quantum field generator? it said in one corner, and in another but where does the heat go? underlined several times. Circled, however, was what he suspected Jane wanted him to see, and he narrowed his eyes at it, reading it several times over, then pacing over to the table, taking a cleaner piece of paper, and rewriting it in his own hand with eyes half closed, so he could feel the pattern of it.

Loki's eyes snapped open. "Oh," he said, and his head came up. He could feel a smile curving his mouth. "Oh…well. Jane Foster."

"What?" she asked, her voice slightly sharp and slightly apprehensive. "What is it-"

Loki tapped his fingers against the paper. "The few researchers that have attempted to study the Bifrost in the past have found this very problem highly vexing. And yet you seem to have…" He examined the formula again, and couldn't help a slightly strangled laugh. "You seem to have solved it. Or at the very least explained it."

Foster blinked at him, and then started to grin. "So it's right," she said. "That's actually-"

"More or less." Loki settled back on his heels. His smile felt slightly crooked. "You asked me to look at it. I am telling you that, at least to my eye, it looks as though you understand some of the Bifrost's workings better than our previous conversation would suggest."

"So what's the 'less' part?" Jane demanded, her eyes lighting up. "You said more or less, so which part of it isn't…"

"For one," Loki said, "you haven't quite accounted enough for the-" He made an impatient gesture. "The flux between worlds. I don't know how you would say it."

"Flux between worlds? Do you mean some kind of inter-dimensional-"

"Hold the fuck on," a loud voice broke in, and Loki realized, belatedly, that he'd forgotten the other girl in the room. "Not that I'm eavesdropping, but did your weird SHIELD science buddy say Bifrost? As in-" Loki felt his teeth click together and wanted to swear. The look Foster threw him was somewhere between accusatory and panicked. "You! Tall, dark, absurdly handsome, are you from Asswhatever? Jane, have you been chatting up aliens without telling me?"

Loki's jaw tightened and put both of his hands on the table, splaying his fingers. "Give me one good reason," he murmured, "why I shouldn't simply wipe her memory."

"Wait, what?" the girl squawked, and Foster tensed immediately, snapped, "No. To – to start with, I'd – no! You can do that?"

"Somebody tell me I just misheard," Darcy said. "Cause I'm really hoping I misheard that."

Loki's fingers curled and he muttered a curse directed at the Norns, wherever they were. Why exactly his difficulties seemed to amuse them so much- "You did not," Loki said, schooling his face to impassivity before he turned around and fixed a cold stare on her. Darcy took a small step back, stopped, and glanced at Foster.

"I think I liked the blond one better," Darcy said. Loki felt his lips try to peel back from his teeth. Most do, he thought, and half started to raise one hand, not sure whether he intended to banish the girl somewhere else – another realm, possibly - or wipe her mind of this conversation, and jerked when Foster grabbed his arm.

"No, Loki," she said, sounding a little frantic. "Don't, it's fine, don't you dare touch her or I swear to god I'll- I'll-" She seemed to be scrambling for a threat that would make sense, and Darcy's eyes widened further.

"Wait wait wait," she said, "did you just call him – no way, you can not be serious-"

"If you do anything I will go straight to SHIELD," Foster said, finally, her expression stubborn despite the fear he could see there as well, and of course he could pull free of her hand, it would be so very easy to take them both out, remove this entire interaction from both their minds. Why not?

For the same reason he hadn't before, Loki thought, almost dully, and he let his arm relax. "Fine," he said aloud, and Foster blew out a loud exhalation of relief. "Now let go of me." Foster jerked her hand away hurriedly, and Loki turned his gaze back to Darcy, who was now looking at him with narrowed eyes. Loki raised his eyebrows at her fractionally, and Darcy glanced at Jane.

"So that's-"

"Yeah," Jane said, sounding tired, "yes, Darcy, this is…Loki. Thor's…um." She stopped, glancing at Loki, and he didn't offer her help. Darcy's eyes narrowed further, though Loki thought she was trying to mask nerves.

"Right," Darcy said. "The homicidal one with the giant explode-y robot, right? Okay. Okay, I can kind of understand why you didn't tell me but why didn't you tell me, Jane-"

"It was hardly any of your business," Loki cut in, keeping his voice level and even. "Nor, for that matter, is it."

"Hell yes it is," Darcy snapped, turning on him. "I work here! And I'm Jane's friend, so you bet it's my business if she's talking to some kind of – crazy alien whatever!" Loki felt his jaw tighten again.

"Watch your tongue," he said, not quite sharply. "Or I will see it silenced."

"If you threaten my intern again I'm going to kick you out," Foster said, her voice tense. "And then call SHIELD, and maybe a few newspapers while I'm at it." She stepped around to move between him and Darcy, her mouth set in a stubborn line. "Clear?"

Loki looked from her, to Darcy, and back to Foster. He jerked his head, impatiently. "So I am to – what, trust that she will say nothing? You will forgive me if I doubt that."

"You talk even weirder than Thor," Darcy muttered, and then added, louder, "and you can quit talking about me like I'm not in the room, by the way. I am, and I can keep my mouth shut." She was eyeing him warily, but also with something else. "Why are you here, anyway?"

"That is most assuredly none of your business," Loki said, tersely. He opened and closed one hand at his side and focused on Foster. "Can she?"

The barest hesitation before Foster nodded. "Yes," she said, "she can. Are we good?"

Loki looked back at Darcy. "I have a lot of questions," Darcy said, after a long moment. "But I guess I'm going with it. That's what I do, go with the weird shit. I'll ask Jane later. As you were, do with the sciencing." Loki stared at her, and she waved her hands. "No, seriously! Science away. I'll just be…here."

He turned, eventually, back to Foster, who looked like she wanted to breathe a sigh of relief and instead drew herself up. "…so you were saying about the formula…"

"I've just got to ask," Darcy's voice broke in. "Are all the Asgarders excessively attractive, or is that just a…"

"Darcy," Foster said, giving him a nervous look. He kept the angry prickle under his skin.

"It is an elaborate illusion," he said, too mildly. "In truth, we are all entirely covered in scales." Close enough, for you, a dark whisper murmured at the back of his mind that he ignored. The shocked silence at his back, followed by a hoot of laughter, was almost worth it.

"Okay," Darcy said, "okay, homicidal and sarcastic, I can work with that."

"You were saying," Foster said, with a slightly sharp glance over her shoulder. Still tense, but she was listening. And that she'd puzzled that much out, already…she was clever, perhaps even more than he'd reluctantly granted.

"Yes," he said, finally. "The interdimensional flux, then," and told himself he was not drinking in her eager attention in the least.

Interlude (XXI)

Carl fidgeted in his chair. "See," he said, sounding slightly smug. "I told you my mom could help."

Loki gave him a look, but he couldn't hold it very well. "This once," he allowed, finally, "I will allow you the point." Carl grinned, looking so unspeakably pleased with himself that Loki either wanted to wince or wanted to laugh, and wasn't sure which. Loki tapped the sheet of paper again. "Focus."

Carl frowned down at it. "Why?"

"Because I am to be teaching you, and I do not intend to neglect my duties," Loki said. The thought flickered across his mind that he could appreciate the impatience of his own tutors somewhat better, though he pushed it away almost at once. "I do not particularly wish your mother upset with me."

"Yeah," Carl allowed, chewing on the end of his pencil, "she can be pretty scary when she's mad."

You should see the All-Mother, Loki thought, before he remembered not to, and it seared through his mind, making his heart clench. Loki pushed that away as well. "I would not wish to be on her bad side." Carl sighed, heavily.

"I don't want to do math," he objected. "It's stupid." He brightened, then, and twisted around in his chair. "Can you teach me magic?"

Loki gave him a withering look. "No."

Carl drooped slightly. "Is it because I can't learn or because-"

"No," Loki repeated, more firmly. "Focus on the math. Two problems. I know you know how to do them."

"No, I don't," Carl said. His eyes narrowed, expression going slightly calculating. Loki breathed out through his nose.

"You are a dreadful child," Loki said, though without any real feeling. "I am not going to teach you magic. For any number of reasons. And you may try to manipulate me into doing so, but I assure you that it will not work."

Carl sighed heavily and put his head down on the table. "That's not fair."

"Most things are not," Loki said, perhaps not quite lightly enough, because Carl gave him an odd look. "Do we need to go through these one step at a time?"

Carl pushed the paper back and forth between his hands. "You're worse than Asher used to be," he said, not quite mumbled, and Loki blinked. He hadn't heard that name before.

"Asher?" he said, cautiously. Carl didn't look at him.

"My older brother," he said, after a moment, and Loki felt himself stiffen, remembered what Andrea had said about her other boy. He wasn't sure whether or not he was supposed to ask. But it seemed…Carl had lapsed into brooding silence, and Loki's stomach twisted strangely.

"You were…close?" he said, carefully. Carl nodded, and then paused.

"Well," he said. "We…were. He was a lot older and sometimes he didn't want to play games with me, but most of the time he seemed to like it okay. And he was always after me about getting my work done." Carl pushed up and rocked back on two legs of his chair. "Only then he got all weird and then…"

Loki didn't have to ask. It was a peculiar chill down his spine. "I am sorry," he said, awkwardly, because it seemed like the only appropriate response. Carl shrugged moodily.

"Mom doesn't like to talk about it," he said. "I still don't really know what happened. Just that – that he got in trouble, somehow, and some guys k-killed him." Carl's voice caught a little on the word. "They're in jail now, I guess."

What was he supposed to say? Loki half reached out to lay a hand on Carl's shoulder, but pulled it back, not certain what that gesture would communicate. I had a brother once. Or thought I did. Even the thought of saying that made him want to spit bile, though.

"You remind me of him sometimes, kind of," Carl said, suddenly. "Cept older, and – and magic, but…"

Damnable boy, Loki thought. It was like someone had punched him in the solar plexus. He did reach out, then, rested his hand very lightly on Carl's shoulder. "You miss him," Loki said, quietly. "That's not…a bad thing."

Carl turned to look at him, his eyes looking slightly shiny. "Do you have any siblings?" he asked, and Loki almost jerked back, but after a moment he summoned a smile.

"No," he said. "None."

Carl turned away again and swiped at his eyes. "Sorry," he mumbled. "M'being stupid."

Loki shook his head sharply, felt a frown deepen between his eyebrows. "Not in the least," he said, a little more fiercely than he meant, and Carl looked at him for a moment, and then hunched his shoulders and bent more over the table.

"Carl," Loki started to say, cautiously, but he stopped, grimacing. He had the vague feeling that he ought to know what to do, that maybe he had, at one point, and it was just that he kept thinking about- no. "Do you need…"

Carl sniffed, turned, and almost flung himself in Loki's direction. Loki stared down at him, and after a moment moved his awkwardly hovering hands to pat him on the back, saying nothing, even as he began to feel his shirt-front dampen.

Damnable boy, Loki thought, but this time the thought was softer, and he closed his eyes, heart aching vaguely.