Tony has to return to the States once Stark Tower is made ready, and he enlists the help of both Thor and Clint to convince Loki that the God of Mischief has to go by Air SHIELD.
It takes them three days' preparations, two collections of new clothes from Hugo Boss and Ermenegildo Zegna, and five long hours of Thor-cuddling (Tony refuses to think beyond that: it is Not Good for his heterosexuality to consider the shenanigans they get up to in that room of theirs) before Loki allows SHIELD to gag and cuff him with some sort of inhibiting devices, all the while making it very clear that he hates it and will find some way to take it out on Tony Stark and Thor and Clint very soon.
Thor tells Tony and Clint that actually the inhibiting devices only serve to irritate Loki, which is the main reason why Tony opted for his private jet instead (fuck the green movement: he prefers to keep his skin intact and far away from a green-clad Loki) and leaves Thor and Clint to guard Loki.
Once they get to New York, Tony is kept busy with press conferences about the new investment opportunities in China now that Stark Industries is meeting with the officials there to build a new power generator. Pepper buries him with piles of documents that require his signature, and no, not a single one that she is handing him can be signed by her, even though she can manage a fairly decent forgery of his penmanship becausethat would be wrong.
"Oh, and I hear that you are still keeping Loki and Thor with you under the same roof?" asks Pepper once the paperwork is more or less cleared.
"Yes, they are still under my protection," Tony says, "if only to make sure that SHIELD doesn't get their mitts on either of them and turn them into lab experiments."
"You don't trust them."
"About as far as you can throw Bruce when he's in a green mood." Tony frowns. "Is he around?"
Pepper shakes her head. "There's been some upset people sending rather rude emails and putting up signs. I thought it'd be nice for him to take a vacation in Maui, and he says he doesn't mind." The efficient woman smiles. "I used your other private jet. And Natasha volunteered to go with him."
"Natasha. In Maui."
"Can I assume coconut shells and grass skirts?"
Both of them ponder the image, and Pepper is the first to giggle. "No. Probably string bikinis made of Kevlar or something."
"Now there's a thought to keep me warm," Tony quips, and ducks the swat from his girlfriend. "Now to go back home and make sure that the two are keeping each other warm. Gods forbid anything should try to separate them right now."
[Sir, welcome home. Mr Thor and Mr Loki have arrived three hours, fifteen minutes and eighteen seconds ago. There are four other non-human visitors on your balcony.]
"Friendly or hostile, Jarvis?" asks Tony.
[Apparently friendly, sir, but Mr Loki does not appear to welcome their appearance.] Jarvis sounds puzzled by that, and Tony refrains from asking Jarvis to show him what exactly is going on in the living room. He's about to find out anyway.
"He's a grouchy guy," says Tony just before the doors ping open and he steps out.
Okay. Thor in the middle, three big brawns on the left, hot babe off to Thor's right, and Loki sulking on the couch without looking at any of them and is instead staring at Toddlers and Tiaras. Do I even have that channel? And my god, Loki hates these reality-exploitative shows. He must be really pissed.
Tony saunters into his home and waves his hand to Thor and his friends. "I'm Tony Stark, this is my home, you are in my building, so who the heck are you guys before I throw all of you out for trespassing?"
Loki's lips curl with amusement but he says nothing still. On the screen, some overly-made-up child is bleating about how she's ready to be the best.
Thor grins and says, "Stark, these are my friends. Fandral, Volstagg and Hogun, the Warriors Three, and this is Sif. They've come with great news."
The one Thor calls Fandral nods and says, "The Bifrost is repaired. We came to see Thor and also to be acquainted with his valiant comrades on Midgard."
"Valiant? Ah, Thor, you shouldn't have," Tony teases and affects a pose, placing his hand over his arc reactor. "But you guys come at a bad time. Natasha and Bruce are in Maui, Steve is gallivanting somewhere, I'm assuming Florida though I'm hoping he's flown to Vegas for a wild weekend, we never know, and there's only me and Clint and Clint seems to have disappeared."
"He is at the top of your tower, Stark," Thor informs Tony. "He tells me that you have a good view from the Helipad."
Sif scowls, and even with her scowl she is very attractive. Tony thinks that if she wasn't an Asgardian, he'll be tempted to try his luck, but oh wait, there's Pepper and Pepper will kill him if she catches him trying to pick up new girls now that they are in a Relationship. Remember the therapy, Tony, he tells himself.
The tension in the room is about to kill him and frankly, he is in no mood to deal with their bullshit. "Hey. I'm getting the sense that not everyone is in a fuzzy mood here. However, I did just get this place remodeled and rebuilt, so if you want to try anything that just MIGHT damage SOMETHING, do it elsewhere. Like Central Park elsewhere okay?"
"Fly into the sky, the place that has no buildings, few lights and has way too many trees, that's Central Park. You wanna fight, go there." Tony waves to them again and returns to his suite.
Half an hour later he emerges from his bath, feeling a lot more refreshed, and then he swallows an unmanly shriek when he sees Loki sitting on his bed, knees bent to his chest, and forlornly gazing out the window at the New York skyline.
"Uh, Loki. You seem to be confused. This is MY room," says Tony, trying to sound authoritative and failing, primarily because he is wearing only a towel around his waist and secondly because Loki seems really vulnerable and sad.
No, Tony is not feeling protective. That's Thor's schtick. Besides, Loki is taller than Tony anyway. If there's any coddling to be done, it should be the taller Loki coddling the smaller Tony, who is absolutely worn out and WTF he did not just think about being coddled by Loki.
The slender demigod doesn't even blast Tony the evil eye. "I don't want to stay outside, and going to our room..." Loki trails off. "Jarvis told us that the room opposite is ours, but it doesn't feel like it yet without Thor inside, and he's not going to be inside until... until after a while."
"Oh." Tony hesitates. "Um."
Loki glances over and sneers - that's the Loki Tony recognizes. And hates, on general principles. "You can put on some clothes. You have nothing I wish to see. Except maybe that glowing jewel in your chest, but that does not require you to be naked from the waist down."
"You never know, you might like what you see," Tony retorts because he is Tony Stark, master of the Snark, and he will not give Loki the satisfaction of having shut him up.
Loki scowls. "As if I will be tempted by a child. You are yet too young, pathetic little mortal."
"And you are the god that came running to the room of a child then," snaps Tony as he pulls on drawstring pants and a t-shirt. "Who's the pathetic one, hmm?"
"I might just wipe the floor with your face, Stark," Loki threatens, and Stark sees the green light edging around Loki's hands. "Don't tempt me."
Tony huffs and plants himself heavily next to the God of Discord. "I'd prefer it if you tell me why you came here. Those out there aren't your friends, are they?"
"Thor used to think so," answers Loki quietly. The bitterness in his voice startles Tony.
The inventor cocks his head and says, "I never had friends either, not until I met Rhodey. I mean, sure I had hangers on and suckers up and bootlickers and all that trailing me around like some sort of rock star entourage, but I never had friends." Tony smiles crookedly and regards Loki. "Never saw the need."
Loki studies Tony a beat, as if considering whether Tony is pulling his leg. Then he says, "Thor is the one who attracted people."
"He's the pack leader, huh." Tony remembers watching that dog show with Rhodes once, when they were both stuffed to the gills with lousy beer and cheap pizza on a night 'slumming it' in his Malibu home.
"Pack leader of wolves," answers Loki, "and I was like a fox that got dragged in. It never felt right, really, even though we worked well."
"You didn't fit in on Asgard?"
"I am a sorceror in a realm bursting at the seams with warriors and shieldmaidens. Do you think I fit in?"
Tony considers and then chuckles humorlessly. "It must've sucked."
"Sucked?" Loki appears puzzled.
"I meant, it must have been really bad," explains Tony. "Like, 'why isn't there someone who can understand me and accept me and is proud of me?' bad."
There is an intense silence that falls. Tony wonders what he said that has captured Loki's full attention. Then Loki smiles wryly and shrugs, his arms releasing their death-hug on his knees.
"For the longest time I felt that way," Loki confides. "But Thor does understand me and accepts me and is proud of me. And it's... it's amazing."
Then his smile grows, and Tony sees, really truly sees, why Thor is not only lusting after Loki but in love with him. When Loki smiles, there is a light in glimmering green eyes and a bashfulness in his face, and if Tony were the sappy sort he'll say that he can see Loki's soul shining out from within him.
Tony isn't that kind of guy, so instead he says, "He's a good guy."
"He's a great man," Loki corrects him, but the smile is abruptly shuttered and a scowl appears in its place. "And they want him back."
"Why are you staying here?" asks Fandral. "You can go home easily now. Leave Loki here and visit him if you must, but Asgard needs you."
Thor shakes his head. "Asgard has no need of me yet, and Loki has not been pardoned. I cannot leave him like this."
"You are the prince of the aesir. You have responsibilities, and we worry about you," Volstagg adds his voice. He glances around. "Or are you satisfied to stay in this hovel?"
"This hovel is to many Midgard people a palace," Thor corrects his friend. He sighs and runs a hand through his long hair. "Father is the king still. I will not return until he accepts Loki as one of us again."
"Loki is not you," Sif says suddenly, and there is an angry glint in her gaze. "We want you back to lead us, Thor, and you tarry here on Midgard because of him? Have you forgotten what he has done to you, what he risked all the realms for? Why are you staying with him? Let this be his penance for trying to destroy all we hold dear!"
Hogun says nothing but his eyes search Thor's, trying to see if their friend has any answer. Thor takes some time to compose himself. Finally he sits down on the sooft couch and motions for them to do the same.
"I know all of you love me," he begins, and he does not notice Sif's pink cheeks. "And therefore I ask that you give me time. I must change Loki's heart to what it once was before I can return home. To abandon him here is akin to cutting my arm from me; I cannot do it. He has been left behind too often, and to do it again will lead to greater harm."
Hogun leans forward and states, "You are in love with Loki."
Thor swallows - Hogun with the clear sight sees more than his other friends. "Yes. I am."
Sif jerks to her feet and stamps to one side before she swivels around and accuses, "He's someone who tried to kill you! To kill us!"
"That is when he had felt threatened by me," says Thor. "It does not excuse him - but he has been punished for that. For a year and a day he fell through the shapeless, formless void between realms, cold, alone and hopeless; he was taken hostage by the Chitauri, forced to do their bidding. He has been exiled from the realm he loves - and yes, before you argue, Fandral, Loki does love Asgard, and he loves it so much he was willing to give up his one chance of complete dominion for its safety. Loki had the Gauntlet with him, as well as the Tesseract, and yet he did not take them for himself."
Volstagg stares at Sif, at Fandral and then at Thor. Finally he rumbles, "You think he can be redeemed?"
"I must believe so," says Thor. He places his hands on his knees. "And now I know I can love no other. We are irrevocably linked, Loki and I, and if I must stay here an age, an epoch, I will do so to ensure that he never again doubts that he is not alone."
Tony has just put on Pirates of the Caribbean to entertain Loki, and it is with some trepidation and anticipation that he allows Loki to uncurl and place his head on Tony's knees. The entrepreneur is fighting - and losing - an urge to caress dark raven tresses spilled out over his lap, if just to see Loki's reaction to being petted.
Loki suddenly speaks, and Tony's hand jolt back to his side immediately. "I wonder if you can see stars from here."
"Not in New York," Tony replies. "We're too bright."
"The constellations are different from those that I know," Loki adds thoughtfully. He shifts and snuggles - that's not the word, Tony tells himself, not snuggling - moves closer to Tony for the warmth, and sighs. "I miss my stars."
"You like stargazing?"
"It was one activity that kept Thor quiet and still beside me," Loki says.
Tony nods in understanding. The noise in the living room was rising and Tony increases the volume.
Loki rolls over and looks at Tony. "I am a god. I have great hearing."
"You should have touched me when you had the chance, Tony Stark," says Loki, getting off the bed. "I'm going outside to put a stop to all these."
Tony hurries off the bed also and says, "If you go out, this will escalate. I do not want any fighting: it costs a lot to remodel a Stark domicile."
"I am also named Silvertongue, have you not heard?" Loki flashes a mirthless smile at Tony. "Listen and learn, young mortal being."
"You've been bewitched!" Sif exclaims, pulling her arm from Fandral's hold. "He still has his magic - he must have put a spell on you!"
"I chose to come with him," Thor says loudly. "It was my choice to love him as well! Do not accuse Loki of such deceit!"
"He is the God of Lies and Deceit, remember? The mortals named him that, and he has always been the one who tricks and manipulates his way out of trouble!"
"How is that a bad thing, Sif? With his tricks we have been saved more than once, and you owe your life to him as well you know!"
Hogun stands between them but for once his presence calms neither down. Volstagg is absolutely miserable, peering at one and the other, trying to figure out why Sif and Thor were yelling. Fandral tries to restrain Sif again but the warrior maiden is adamant on getting her point across.
Sif slams her hand against the wall and shouts, "You are brothers! Does it not disgust you to harbor such feelings for one brought up as your brother?"
"And does it not hurt you to attack a friend?" asks someone from the doorway near the back.
Everyone in the living room turns and stares at Loki, who now saunters into the center of the argument. Tony remains where he is, and all he can observe is Loki facing the others. He wishes he can see Loki's expression right now.
Sif tenses up and Thor makes a gesture, as if to embrace Loki, but the dark-haired sorceror holds up both hands. He examines Thor and then Sif, and he says, "I thought a little, just now, and now I shall share my thoughts."
"You Three came to see your friend. He is fine, in good health, and as happy as the circumstances allow. Are you glad for him?" Loki asks the Warriors.
The first to nod is Hogun, followed by Volstagg, and finally Fandral issues a curt, "Yes."
Then Loki looks at Thor. "We are not brothers, and you will one day need to return to Asgard. However, I am selfish enough to want you here with me until that inevitable moment of parting. Will you stay wiith me until then?"
"Aye, Loki, and beyond."
"Don't issue promises lightly, Thor." Now the slender demigod turns to Sif. "You can have any score of young, brave warriors to... fight... by your side. I suggest you look for them instead of bearing an unhealthy fixation on what you can never gain. Even if I were not in the picture, Lady Sif, there will have been another."
Sif bristles. "You are the cause of this."
Loki is not done. "I have not put a spell on him."
He touches his lips.
"I have never entertained the thought of being my brother's lover until he confessed his heart to me."
He touches his lips again.
"I have never hurt him and found joy in it."
The fingers that he places at his lips finally falls.
"And in case you think that the spell has been lifted," Loki says deliberately, and Tony sees Thor's eyes widen and his hand reaching out to stop Loki from speaking, but Loki's next words have come, "I say now: I do not love Thor."
Sif falls onto the couch in shock at what she sees. Tony sees Thor grimace and pull Loki to him, whirling him around, and the three brawny men pale and look away.
Tony rushes over. "What happened- oh fuck shit. This is... This is justice? You-you guys... You Asgardians did this?" He shoves Thor. "You let your father do this to him? What the fuck is wrong with all of you?"
Loki's eyes are closed, but at Tony's voice he opens them and places a slim hand on Tony's shoulder. He shakes his head. No. Not Thor's fault.
Tony can only stare morbidly at the threads that have sewn Loki's lips together, those lips that he has been touching, and then he grits out, "Get out of my home. I don't care if you are gods - this is my home, and you will leave right now."
Fandral moves closer. "Thor, I-"
"Leave," Thor echos Tony's command, and his blue eyes rake over each of his friends' faces. "You have witnessed his punishment. Is it not enough? Would you see more than this? Leave!"
The four Asgardians, stunned by both Thor and Tony's hostility, walk out to Tony's balcony and then a beam of light smashed down on them. When the light disappeared, there was no trace of the visitors.
Thor took Loki's hands and kissed the knuckles, before enveloping Loki in an embrace. "You did not have to do that. You should not have had to do that."
"Then you'd better put your affairs in order quickly," Tony snarls, surprising even himself. "They're not going to stop coming to persuade you, and if one day I see Odin arrive I will have some words with him about how to discipline children. This is barbaric. You - you will go back and settle everything properly, and make sure you- I don't know what the hell you need to do, because you must get this spell or curse off Loki somehow, and your father is a prick. I know Loki has been a murderous, treacherous bastard, but you do not do such things to someone you call a son!"
Loki sighs through his nose and gently soothes Thor, before pulling away to put a hand on Tony's head. The demigod pats Tony almost affectionately, and then walks into the room that he was sharing with Thor.
Tony glares again at Thor. "Let me tell you this, Greased Lightning. If you can't find a way to help Loki, then don't you dare claim that you love him. Because I would never leave Pepper suffering in any way if there was some humanly possible way to keep her from it. And you are a god. You find a way to help him, and not hide down here like a rat enjoying some stolen cheese."
With that, Tony stalks back to his room, and all through the night Tony tries to reason out why he said all that he said.
When Loki wakes he wakes to an empty bed, the space beside him already losing the familiar warmth.
That, somehow, hurts him far more than the threads that still bind his lips together; he has to force down a yawn and settles instead for a stretch. Bones creak; he has been curled in Thor's embrace all night as his adopted older brother - as far familial ties are concerned, Loki will only accept this much - soothed him and petted him until Loki fell asleep.
Loki discreetly checks his magic in case Odin has tried to seal his powers while Loki was unconscious. He does this every morning now. Some might call it paranoia (Thor certainly will think it, even if he doesn't say it) but Loki has learned not to take things for granted.
For instance, the ability to speak, and eat, and drink.
His fingers tingle as light glimmers on the tips; he traces patterns in the air, protective runes, and the runes settle into his skin. On the table is a laptop that Tony has begrudgingly given Loki access. Jarvis is connected to it, of course, and therefore Loki does not even need a password in order to log in.
It took Loki some time to understand how the modern world works, and he's beginning to see why he failed the first time round. It's amazing what people will forgive, he muses as he peruses the day's news at lightning speed, especially if there are reasons for them to forgive.
He purposely stops that line of thought.
Tony is up in the kitchen, for once fixing a breakfast for himself. He has not been waking up in the mornings for a long time. Usually, he sleeps only when it's the morning, unless there has been a pretty little thing in his bed the night before, and then he disappears by the time it's morning and Pepper has to clean up. He used to prepare breakfast when he was in college - it was one way to impress babes - and he would usually be able to secure a round two before tossing them out of his apartment.
He doesn't do that anymore. All of that.
Tony hates to think that he's reformed, because really, there's not that much bad in him to change, but he knows he is no longer the same guy. He has improved - a little, he admits grudgingly - and therefore he believes that everyone can become better. If someone like Tony Stark can become a better person, anyone can do it.
Or every human one, that is. He doesn't know if demigods can change at all.
He doesn't want to feel protective over Loki. Or defensive on Loki's behalf. He doesn't want to feel responsible for that murderous bastard, in fact.
So why is Tony feeling as though he must offer help to Loki?
"Shit." Tony stares at the three servings of what he meant to be sunny-side-ups turned scrambled eggs.
Then he recalls what transpired last night, and he splits one of the servings into the two other plates.
Then he figures that Thor is unlikely to want to eat if Loki can't, and he tips the second plate onto his own.
Then he remembers the blood dripping from Loki's lips, trailing scarlet lines down that white, pointed chin, dripping ruby beads that fell on the carpet, staining it with dark red, and Tony puts the eggs away.
He isn't all that hungry in the first place.
Loki does not want to think why Thor is not around. He can hear Stark puttering about in the kitchen - godlike hearing is amazingly useful sometimes, and hearing Stark curse when Loki and Thor are being obnoxiously loud in bed amuses both the demigods - and Loki debates joining him.
He decides against it.
The look of utter disgust and fear in Stark's eyes last night tells Loki a lot about Stark, and also about human justice nowadays. If this was in the past, when Loki and Thor walked among the people in the north, this punishment is nothing.
Away from Asgard, away from Thor, Loki can admit that Odin has been merciful. Cruel and yet merciful Odin, Loki chuckles in his throat.
[Mr Loki is in his room, Sir, and Mr Thor left early this morning.]
"He's gone? Why didn't you tell me?" Tony's alarm is not feigned; if Loki should go loco at this time, Tony knows that he cannot stop the God of Mischief alone. "Which Avenger is in New York right now?"
[Mr Barton is still in the Tower, Sir. He stayed outside all night.] Jarvis cannot really sound disapproving, since its programming does not allow that, but its tone comes close. [Should I invite him in, Sir?]
"Don't bother," Tony strolls out to his balcony and hollers, "BARTON!"
"Holy flaming tacos, don't do that!" Tony nearly jumps out of his skin.
Clint is behind him and shrugs nonchalantly. "I'm a super-spy. What did you expect?"
"You stayed out here all night?" Tony gestures for Clint to follow him into the house, and pours a glass of juice for the archer. "Wasn't it cold?"
"I was on the lookout, just in case Loki became trigger happy in the confrontation." Clint shrugs again when Tony offers him some eggs. "The director knows that Thor's friends visited."
Tony narrows his eyes. "I feel so much better that you told him, I really do. Maybe he can order the Avengers to assemble again and smack the shit out of no-one, because ALL OF THEM are like, Thor-strong." Tony frowns. "Maybe not Thor-strong. But Loki-strong, you know?"
"I am aware of the dangers," Clint comments. Then he smiles coldly. "That's why I was told to stay. Arrows that come from unexpected angles and does unexpected things do more harm than an obvious threat."
Tony shakes his head. "I assume you saw Thor leave then."
"He went to look for Miss Foster, he said," Clint says. "He asked me for Selvig's location first."
There is an explosion in Loki's room.
Tony and Clint stare, and both sprint towards it. Clint is the faster; he kicks the door open and draws an arrow and fits it to the bow in one swift fluid motion.
There is smoke, and there is some debris from the walls, and the windows are completely shattered.
Loki is gone.
Tony gapes and squeezes his eyes shut. There is no word that can encapsulate the feeling he has now, and judging by the phone call that Clint is making to Fury, the agent is feeling the same.
Wanting to vent, Tony smashes the glass he has been holding for Clint's orange juice. "Fuck."
Thor lands where Dr Selvig told him Jane is. She is there, and she sees him outside her trailer.
"Thor? Is that - I thought you went back to Asgard!" Jane runs towards him without hesitation, and throws her arms about his neck with delight. Her sweet scent and exuberant response are more than what Thor has been expecting and he hugs her carefully. Jane pulls away, a little flushed by her honest reaction. "Thor. I'm so glad to see you. I saw the news on New York and I... Is everything all right?"
"Lady Jane, I am... I'm glad to see you too," says Thor sincerely. He holds her hands, warm, welcoming hands that he remembers, and his smile is genuine. "I promised to see you again, and now I've kept my promise."
Jane blushes. "I never doubted it. Oh, and we're making amazing headway into the wormhole that you came from. Last night we found its coordinates and-"
"It's been found because the Bifrost Bridge has been repaired," Thor tells her gently.
"Oh." Jane looks put out for a moment. "Well. It's still something, don't you think?"
After inviting Thor to take a seat in the trailer, Jane makes coffee. She chatters happily, telling Thor about Selvig - whom Thor has just seen - and Darcy, whose cheerful and sarcastic demeanor has won her some fans in the writing community. "She's putting together a book now. You wanna guess the title?"
"I would rather not," Thor replies as he drinks the coffee offered.
"You'll never have guessed it anyway." Jane laughs and holds up a piece of paper, on which there are five or six titles and all but one is canceled. "We finally decided on, If All Homeless Guys Are This Cute, I'll Pack A Shopping Cart Now: The Epic Saga of a Bystander While Gods Fight in the Background."
Thor tilts his head. "That does not sound like a title of a proper book to me."
Jane grins. "It's not a proper book. She's putting in all her usual snarks and getting paid for it. It's quite funny, really, or at least the few drafts she's let me read."
The God of Thunder smiles softly. Seeing Jane Foster this contented makes it easier for Thor to tell her, and he waits until she has brewed her own cup and is sitting beside him on the tiny trailer bed, made tinier by Thor's bulk.
"So. I don't think this is a social visit," Jane begins, and her eyes do not miss the fading of Thor's smile. She puts a hand on Thor's. "Talk to me."
Thor swallows and he lowers his head, reminding himself why he chose to come all the way out here for her advice. Then he starts talking, and by the time he's done the coffee is cold and untouched.
Without interrupting once, Jane listens attentively to every word, and notices every twitch of Thor's hands and tightening of his jaw. She observes the averted gaze, the nervous nibbling of lips, and finally the shaky exhalation when he's done. Then she sighs inwardly before putting on a comforting smile.
"Are you afraid of the consequences?" she asks quietly.
"I fear them, yes." That in itself is difficult to admit; Thor takes a calming breath. "There is too much at stake. And he knows that I cannot run from my responsibilities forever, and that I have merely postponed the day I have to choose."
Jane knows what she says next will not be pleasant. "Choose Asgard."
Thor stares bleakly at her. "And Loki?"
"And Loki?" Jane repeats. She touches his hand and the blond god flinches from the contact. "He must face punishment as well, Thor. He's killed dozens of men, and from your account he was ready to kill an entire race. It's not nice to hear this, but your feelings are clouding your judgment."
"I didn't think so, not until last night," confesses Thor. "And I was looking at Loki asleep in my arms and... I remember how he used to do that when we were children. He was always so trusting then."
"People change, Thor."
"He could be good again," Thor argues.
"But that does not absolve him of his crimes," Jane counters. "I don't know if he has even repented. You say that he helped you retrieve the artifacts, so perhaps some of his wrongdoings can be mitigated, but he took innocent lives."
Thor sighs again and covers his face. "I keep coming back to that point. I try not to think about it, because it is so - good - to have Loki believing in me again, to have him at my side, but there's always that issue that weighs on my conscience."
Jane pulls the demigod's hands away from his face and gazes into bright blue eyes. "Thor. Return to Asgard, and bring Loki with you. Persuade him to face up to his crimes, put him in prison or whatever you have in place of prison, and then, when your father deems it sufficient time, or when you are king, release him with a full pardon."
As Thor studies his cup of coffee, he ponders over Jane's words. Eventually he seems to come to a decision and stands up. "Lady Jane, thank you for your advice," he says.
Jane pulls his face down to kiss him on the cheek, and hugs him tightly. "You're always welcome, Thor. I hope things work out for you too."
Loki wanders the streets of New York, expertly dodging the press of mortal bodies as he takes in the sights. He has a black-and-gold scarf wound around the lower half of his face in order to hide the binding threads, and the rest of his attire is as dark as night itself. He hides outside in the world where humanity is rebuilding its pathetic efforts to be like gods; the skyscrapers' walls have been ripped and shredded, the roads torn up in parts, and there are scores upon scores of smelly, sweaty human mortals moving earth and stone just to put things back to what they were before.
Loki even sees the contributions from Stark Industries - arc reactor generators, Jarvis had informed him before - that powers the lights and tools that are needed to repair.
There is a chilly satisfaction that Loki gathers from his walk. He did this, all of this; he brought the army of pain and destruction and chaos here, and if not for the Avengers and his adopted brother, Loki would have succeeded. But it would have been a hollow victory, Loki knows, because he was still controlled by the Other at the time. Now, if he so willed...
He smirks inside. His lips are parched and painful, but Loki has already tuned out the pain.
"Hey, rich guy in the fancy scarf," someone calls out from the alley next to him.
Before Loki can respond, two other men, burly and stinking of alcohol, shove Loki into the narrow alleyway and Loki sprawls on the ground. He pushes up and dusts off his coat and pants before adjusting his scarf. Turning around he sees the three brawlers.
One of them is dark-skinned, just like Heimdall, and the other two are as pale as Loki himself. The dark-skinned one steps forward and draws out a weapon. "You look like you've some money. Give it."
Loki scowls. He shows them his hands and indicates that he has none.
"Can't talk?" the tallest one, a pale-skinned Midgardian with tattoos all over one side of his bearded face, says. "Or won't?"
"Why you hiding your face?" the other one without tattoos drawls. "Too pretty? Or ashamed because your jaw's stuck from sucking some huge dick?"
The crudeness offends, and that must have shown in Loki's eyes because the three are now jeering and guffawing, pressing in close.
The one with the tattoos leer, "I got a huge cock I can get you to suck. Hell, I might even pay you, since you have no money on ya."
"I gotta gun, so if you're thinkin' of fighting, you might want to rethink yer options, pretty boy," the dark-skinned man taunted.
They close in further, and Loki is pressed with his back against the wall. Suddenly filled with a need to unleash, Loki unwinds the scarf and lets it drape over his shoulders instead.
"Fucking shit! What the sick fuck is that?" one of the brawlers exclaims. The other two are also frightened by the sight, and the sudden revelation of Loki's face seems to trigger a memory in the dark-skinned man.
"You the fucking bastard that brought the aliens!" he snarls. "I saw you riding one o' them flying things! You didn't have them threads over yer mouth then, but I remember you! Fuck! You and yer goons killed my sister, you cocksucking bastard!"
At that insult, Loki lets his magic snap out. The gun abruptly changes form into a viper, and before the man could drop it the venomous snake sinks its fangs right in his left eye. He screams and falls to the ground, trying to wrestle the reptile off him. "Get it off! Get it off my eye! Help!"
However, there is no help available. Loki summons his throwing knives and stabs one in his soft, bulging gut, twisting the blade and relishing the red heat that washes over his hand. There is a burbled plea, but Loki withdraws the knife and slices across his throat.
The last one is running down the alley, trying to get to the main road, and he screams like a woman when he sees Loki standing in front of him. When he teeters around he is met with another Loki and a sharp knife through his sternum, and Loki twists and digs in the knife as he did with the previous brawler.
Loki does not even look at him. When the man falls, Loki wipes his hand clean on the corpse's shirt, and winds his scarf about his face again before continuing his little inspection. He can't stop the small burst of pleasure at the thought of using his knives on someone else.
It's still that woman. That woman is still between you and I, Thor. Loki thinks back on the sensation of hot blood over his cold hand and his green eyes narrow. I have chosen to stand by you, and you promised to stand with me.
I will do whatever it takes to make sure you don't break your promise.
"I don't understand how he got off the tower in the first place," says Agent Maria Hill once she reports in from SHIELD headquarters, wherever that is at the moment. "It's a lengthy drop."
"He climbed from the side and went into the floor below us," Tony explains tiredly. "Jarvis is active only in my home, not throughout the building, so we didn't discover how until we saw the footage."
Clint folds his arms across his chest and adds, "He came back into the house to get dressed after Tony suited up and dropped me downtown. Insult to injury, that man."
"That demigod, you mean."
Hill shakes her head. "The director is already hopping mad. All agents on the street are on the lookout for him."
"He's a shape-shifter," Tony reminds Hill. "It's not going to be easy."
"It never is." Clint unfolds his arms and returns to the sofa, where he plants himself in an armchair. "How much longer before the others return?"
"Dr Banner and Agent Romanov will be back in approximately two hours. Captain Rogers is already notified and is being flown back directly; his ETA is twenty-five minutes from now." Hill checks her watch. "Twenty-three," she amends.
Tony closes his eyes and sinks back on his chair. Once he and Clint saw the broken window, they went into overdrive and stormed out of Stark Tower. It was only when Tony was already in the sky checking in with Jarvis that he was notified that Loki was in the house. By the time Tony hurtled back to the tower, Loki was already gone again.
The man cannot imagine telling Thor that his beloved brother (adopted) has disappeared. And since the universe is an unkind one, Thor chooses that moment to return. They saw him land on the balcony and the two men exchange glances. Tony raises his brows and Barton shrugs. Hill coughs expectantly.
"Stark, Barton, good afternoon," the big guy says pleasantly, and then he nods at both SHIELD agents. There is a pregnant pause before Thor says, "Loki is still in the room?"
Sometimes, it'd be nice to catch a break from all the drama, Tony thinks. He says quietly, "No. He's gone out."
"Via the window," Clint adds helpfully.
"And we have no idea where he is," Hill comments.
There is a pause. Thor's brow furrows. "You have more news than this," he accuses. "Otherwise you will be out seeking him. What are you hiding from me?"
As the two other Avengers shifts in their places, Hill chooses that moment to ease their burden. She steps forward and says, "Loki has been killing again. Director Fury wants him taken in as soon as humanly - or inhumanly, in your case - possible."
"Killing? Who has he killed?"
"At last count, fifteen." Hill wets her lips, trying not to quail from the demigod's bright blue gaze. "Three men were found dead down an alley off Park Avenue. The trail of dead bodies head south, and then we lost track in the Flatiron district. We're still looking." She takes a deep breath. "Five of the dead were policemen, and the rest civilians who were restoring a building on the corner of Twenty-Third and Fifth."
Thor's frown deepens. "How do you know that they died because of Loki?"
Tony thinks he's the only one who catches Thor's odd phrasing. The entrepreneur goes to the bar and slides on the bracelets; having been a hellraiser for most of his life, Tony Stark recognises danger signals.
"Snake bites that contains toxins that we have no records of. Wounds inflicted by knives as sharp as scalpels. What conclusion should we make, Thor?" Hill demands, and Tony winces at her tone.
To his credit the demigod does not react to the agent's challenge. "When I left the room he was still sleeping. What happened to have made him leave?"
"You tell us," Tony retorts, startling Hill and even Clint. "Clint tells me you went to visit a Miss Jane Foster - is she your ex or something?"
"What has this got to do with Lady Jane?" asks Thor.
Clint steps in. "Stark asked me where you had gone, so I told him you were going to find Miss Foster. That was when the windows blew out and Loki disappeared."
The God of Thunder suddenly pales and he stares at Clint in mute horror. "Loki heard that... he heard that I went to visit Lady Jane?"
Tony watches in dumbstruck amazement as Thor walks to the sofa and sit down without a further word. He seems genuinely distressed and then he buries his face in his hands. After a tense moment (Tony fingers his bracelets nervously) Thor stands up and says, "I will find him. We have to find Dr. Selvig first before Loki."
"Selvig is at headquarters," Hill tells them. "He's safe."
"No. He's not," Clint corrects his colleague. "Loki almost killed all of us that one time at the base. No agent can fight him hand-to-hand, and Loki moves too fast for the weapons we developed before-"
"-Phase Two is still active?" Tony interrupts angrily.
Clint matches his glare. "That is none of your business, Stark."
"Fuck you," Tony snaps back. "Once we get to your HQ, see if I make it my business."
"The director will make life very difficult for you if you do."
"Fuck Fury too. I don't like cloak and dagger shit, so if you want our help getting Loki secured, I suggest you call your precious director and tell him to man up and own up." Tony clicks his bracelets and walks out to the balcony. "I'll see you all there."
Loki sits and stares at nothing.
He is hungry and tired and thirsty; his lips would be free in an hour or so. Yet he has no desire to move from this place.
From the narrow window next to where he sits, he can see the humans moving about their business. Some of them he recognises as the agents of the dark man who led the Earthlings on their 'Avenging' quest. They will not find him; he knows how to avoid their detection now.
Loki wants to get to Jane Foster. He wants to get to her, to find out what Thor has told her, to find out what she has told him, to know for sure if they have feelings for each other. (He wants to claw her skin off and wear it as a cloak; he wants to drink her life's blood in a sacrificial feast; he wants to loop her innards around the tallest tree in the realm and call down the ravens for her eyeballs.)
He shivers as hot anger is slowly replaced with cold decision.
For the past few weeks he has been deceiving himself, Loki thinks. He counts mentally all the times Thor has gotten him into bed, shown affection and passion and desire and want for his body, taught Loki all the delights of the flesh, took from Loki and gave himself to Loki. The pleasurable sensations had drowned Loki in a haze - blinded him to the realities of the situation.
But Thor is not Loki's. Loki is Thor's.
And now Loki sees it, sees how the bonds have been built. Sees how Thor uses his honesty and sincerity and bull-headedness to trap Loki against himself.
Thor is afraid that Loki will leave him. Why is that? Loki reasons that Thor does not want to have to deal with Loki as a criminal again; it is too jarring for the Asgardian's soul to have to judge and condemn someone he considers his family. Coming with him to Midgard was not Thor's original plan; they fell through unformed space-time for more than ten Earth days, and in those ten Earth-days Thor held Loki close, always close. Always afraid that Loki will leave him.
Thor claims that he loves Loki. He says it often, whether they are breaking the morning fast or watching the entertainment device or lying in bed together. He says it most fervently and ardently when he has Loki in his embrace, and in those times Loki wants to believe him more than anything else.
Loki knows that he loves Thor. Loves him more than the way he used to love Thor as an older brother. Loki loves him with terrifying, dizzying intensity, as if his heart were a supernova of emotions captured within a frail frame.
He does not trust Thor to stay by his side, to accept Loki for all his flaws and support him in all his ambitions.
Not if Thor wants Loki to be the one to stay by Thor's side, to change himself to suit Thor's purposes.
Not if Thor wants to continue being the center of Loki's universe.
"Hey. You okay over there?"
Loki's green eyes snap up to glare at the slight dark-haired woman who has just come up the stairs. She has wrinkled olive skin, and her brown eyes seem quite kind. Loki withdraws further into the corner and his eyes narrow; his fingers twitch with readiness.
The old woman, not knowing her peril, says with a smile, "I live down the hall. So if you want some food and you're not some crazy hobo, you might wanna come over. I always cook too much." Then she peers at Loki. "You need some feeding, boy. And what with half the city blown to hell, you might need some help getting food. Ain't no shame. We've all put up with others' assistance before, haven't we all?"
Then she chuckled as she trotted towards her home. "And hark at me prattlin'. By the way, if you do happen to be a crazy hobo, I do have a gun in my purse and a shotgun in the house, and my aim is still as good as I used to be when I was a national champion."
Loki watches warily as the old woman enters her home and locks it, wondering whether he ought to kill her or not. Then he decides not to harm her. If she does have what they call a gun, she might fire it and alarm the searchers down in the streets.
The threads in his lips tingle; they will fade soon. Then he may just take up her offer for sustenance.
"Well, so you're not a crazy homeless beggar, are you?" says the old woman when Loki finally decides to take up the offer.
Loki makes himself smile as pleasantly as he can. The acting comes back to him easily; he says, "As I far as I know, I do have a place to stay, except there's been some unpleasantness. I promise I have no intention of harming you."
All truths, Loki reminds himself, and then a voice whispers in the back of his mind that truths can be lies in their own way too.
He is invited in and the woman shows him a seat. Around the little apartment are many photographs. She introduces herself as Elisa, and sets in front of him a bowl of soup, red and rich and savory, and he digs in after thanking her. She watches him eating and smiles, as though she is satisfied with his appetite.
"You don't sound like a New Yorker. Where are you from?" she asks after she takes a seat opposite him.
He dabs at his slightly sore lips with the paper napkin she has given. "I'm not from around here. Where I used to call home is really far away, and... well. The unpleasantness that I mentioned earlier is partly about that."
"I don't mean to pry, kid, I'm sorry." Elisa brushed her hair from her brow and tilted her head. "You remind me of my wife."
"Your... your wife?"
"Yes." Elisa stands up and picks one photograph out of the many littering the shelves and surfaces. "This is Frances Anne. I called her Frannie. We grew up together and, well, one thing led to another, and we fell in love. Of course back when we were girls this wasn't accepted, so we packed up and left one day and traveled around. Told others we were sisters, so it wasn't odd for us to live together for so long."
Loki looks at the women in the picture. The one on the right is Elisa, evidently; the button nose and warmth in those eyes are obvious, even if it is a black-and-white photograph and she is decades younger. The woman on the left has to be Frances then. Straight, almost patrician nose, large eyes framed with long dark lashes, and tresses of rich dark hair tumbling down in waves - she is not classically beautiful, but there is a fierce intelligence shining from the gaze, as though the photographer caught a sliver of her mind inside that image.
"A couple of years ago there were rumors of them passing the bill, so we came down here and found a place to stay. Frannie's brother never really stopped contacting us or caring for us, so when he passed on he gave us his home, and his children are all right with that being as they don't want to come up to New York anyway." Elisa has poured herself some tea and passes a glass of soda to Loki, who sips it warily. The sugar gets to him easily, he has learned, and he can't drink more than one can. Elisa smiles with fond memories. "I promised Frannie we'll be married one day, and when they did pass the bill the first thing I did was pull Frannie to City Hall and got us married, woman to woman, and last year has been the happiest year of our lives, and we have been through some very happy times together, Frannie and I."
Loki smiles and nods, as if he knows what Elisa is talking about. There is no sign that someone else lives here, though, and there is a photograph set aside, all by its lonesome, and it is of an old woman, much older than the women in the picture Loki is holding, and with that solo frame are many white flowers. Loki opens his mouth to say something, and then realizes he cannot speak. He has no voice.
He stands abruptly but before he can move away he crashes to the carpeted floor, and now there is an agony that bursts from his abdomen and wrenches at his lungs. He coughs, and his eyes widen when he sees blood. He is coughing up blood. His fingers scrabble to put together a spell, but all his strength seems to have abandoned him.
"I was wondering when that poison would take effect," Elisa says conversationally. Gone is the friendly demeanor; she has a large weapon in her hands. "After all, I did put in the whole load. I meant it for myself, but I can always buy it again after you die, you son of bitch."
Loki rolls over and stares up at the frail-looking old woman with her gun, a shotgun if he remembers correctly, trying to put the fragments together in his head.
She has no smile now. The gun is levelled not at his head, but at his heart. "You were the one who took her from me. For forty years she and I stayed together, through hardships things like you cannot even begin to imagine, and you took her from me just when we were at our happiest. I remember you face you bastard. You called down those demons and you took Frannie from me, and you will burn in hell for this!"
Her finger twitches, there is a loud sound, and all Loki registers is heat and blinding pain. And then a slow, slow chill that spreads from his chest and darkness.
Thor is at the SHIELD headquarters, listening numbly to what Director Fury is saying but making no comment. Tony Stark is lounging tensely against a wall, dark eyes locked on Thor. Clint Barton is back in agent-mode, standing to attention at the most advantageous spot, and the captain is seated at the head of the table as if he belongs there.
"We will scour New York City, but there is no guarantee that he is still within city limits." Fury exhales heavily. "What does Loki want this time?"
"If we knew we would be able to do something instead of sitting around in a conference room," snaps Tony. The moment he arrived earlier he has Jarvis hook into the mainframe (which, despite SHIELD's best efforts, is still vulnerable from where Stark looks at it) and he is pulling out data about Phase Two while Fury rants at them for letting Loki slip. "Or maybe we can do something about why you are still hanging around here. I'm sure it's not because you miss my handsome mug, so my guess is that your agents are doing pick-up duty looking for the blasters left behind by the aliens."
Fury is staring at Tony. "What we do as SHIELD is none of your business, Stark, and I will charge you with treason if you continue to meddle with our R&D department."
"So sue me if I don't trust you! You are using technology, alien technology, to-"
"Tony, Fury, you are missing the purpose of us meeting," Steve Rogers warns tightly. "Our focus now is Loki. You say your agents lost his trail in the Flatirons district, so why aren't we there looking for him?"
Fury glares one more time at Tony before he explains, "I don't want any of you incapacitated if Loki is really going to launch another full scale attack. The last time we needed all of you at peak efficiency, and if he is as out of control as he was before I think we will need all the firepower we can get."
Thor stands up. "I must seek him out. He has no reason to be doing any of thi-" Something strikes at his heart, and suddenly Thor finds it hard to breathe. He manages to say, "I have to-"
Then he falls over, gasping, choking, clutching at his chest as though there is something that is about to burst out of it.
"Thor!" Steve is the first to get to the demigod, and he rolls Thor to his side, trying to get Thor to cough up whatever was choking him. He pounds Thor on the back a few times and Thor wheezes, chokes again, eyes rolling back.
Fury calls for medics. "What's happening?" he asks Clint.
"I don't know," the agent says, eyes scanning Thor's writhing form. "He seems to be in pain but he can't be. He's a god, and nothing here can harm him."
Thor is gasping out a word, words, but he has no breath to speak aloud. Tony shoves Steve to one side and bends down to listen.
"Loki... Loki is injured. About to die. Loki. Get - get to Loki." Thor's hand, so strong usually, touches Tony's arm. It is cold, and his fingers actually tremble. "He trusts... he trusts... you. Find."
"I will find him," Tony promises. Before anyone can call him back he runs out of the room runs to the entrance and suits up in record time.
Steve Rogers has heard what Tony says, and infers that Thor tells him to save his younger brother. Then he catches on what Thor has said earlier and his breath catches in alarm. "Thor, do you mean that if Loki is going to die, then you will too?"
Thor is unable to speak, his lipds fluttering shut, his breathing shallow and slowing down. "Bound," he mouths. "Heart. Life."
Steve jumps to his feet and yells at the medics to set up all their equipment in the room immediately. "Keep him alive in any way possible!" he instructs. "Director Fury, I know you've probably ordered your agents to take Loki in alive or dead. It's what I would have done. But now you must make sure that no one kills Loki."
"Thor's life is linked to Loki's?" Fury narrows his eye and nods at Clint to relay the message. "But what are you doing?"
"Keeping Thor alive so Loki stays alive, long enough for Stark to find him," says Steve. "Agent Barton, we may need to get Agent Romanoff and the doctor here sooner. Could you ask them to speed up?"
Clint glances at Fury, who indicates that Steve Rogers is the head of the Avengers and is more than cleared to issue commands with a mere blink of his eye. The archer takes over the communications station inside the room and starts barking out orders to the agents in the field, all the while tapping on keyboards to get to Natasha Romanov.
Loki's vision blurs and clears, clears and blurs. His dark hair is spread across the carpet like spilled ink, and the blood soaks into the fibers. He thinks, detachedly, that it will be quite difficult for Elisa to scrub the stains out. He feels his strength and magic ebbing, and his heart is slowing down, slowing, and he thinks then of Thor. If the Allfather has removed that bond, that link between them, then Loki is ready to forgive Odin anything.
Vaguely he hears the door crash open, Elisa's shout of protest and the sound of her struggles, and his eyes close.
They give him one shock, then another, and another, until his heart reacts and begins to beat again, weak, frail, and there.
Thor breathes, his powerful chest rising and falling, and color creeps into his cheeks.
Steve sits back and closes his eyes. Thor lives.
It is almost as if his spirit is poured back into his body. Loki's eyes flutter open, and the first thing he sees is blood-soaked carpet, his dark hair splayed over it and drinking his blood into the strands, and his white hand. His fingers.
He does not know why, but Loki thinks he is still alive.
He moves his hand. The back of it feels slick and tacky at the same time, but he can move. There is strength when he closes it in a fist, and there is magic when he summons a pale flame to his fingertips. He can breathe, and he licks his lips which are bitter-metallic with poison and blood.
"What are we to tell Director Fury? Barton said that old Cyclops wants him brought in alive and this old lady just ups and kills him," someone is saying as the door opens again. "And do we bring her in also? She's calm, man, and I've never seen anyone that calm after a kill that isn't an agent."
"I don't know, Jennings. We'll take his body in all the same, I suppose, and we'll see what we can do. Anyway, if she hadn't fired that shot, we wouldn't have known Loki was here. She's not one of us, so even if she killed him it's not our fault." The second voice is nasal and Loki hates it the moment he hears it.
When they reach for him and roll him onto his back, Loki allows himself a count of three before he opens his eyes.
"You're alive!" one says in surprise.
"You do point out the obvious," Loki comments. Knives flash into his hands and he stabs both in the throats. They clutch at his hands, goggling as they try to breathe, but before they could pull out their guns Loki twists both blades, pull them out, and drives the knives from their soft chin into their brains.
They die instantly. Their limbs hang down limply like marionettes without strings, held up only by Loki's weapons.
He registers their deaths dimly as the magical weapons dissipates and he looks - stares - at his hands. Bloody hands, red and sticky all over. Loki wipes absently on his chest, only to encounter more blood, his blood, and he opens the shirt, tears it open and sees his body healing the damage from the weapon. The shotgun, he recalls, and he smiles without humor. His chest was a mess of flesh and blood and skin. When he sits up and looks around him he notices just how much he has bled, how much he has completely destroyed the carpet, and he begins to laugh. Laughs and laughs and laughs as he gets to his feet, and he is still chuckling when he strides out of the apartment. He only stops laughing when he sees Elisa and two other agents, and when they reach for their guns he sends two bolts of green fire at them and burns clean through their torsos.
Elisa meets his emerald eyes with steely resolve and resignation. "Go ahead," she says.
"I didn't know her," Loki says. "And even if I did, I likely wouldn't have cared. But I must say you are an incredibly courageous woman to do everything you can for the love of her life."
Elisa frowns slightly before her eyes widen and her mouth gapes. She looks down and then back up, before looking over her shoulder. "You-"
"I am thanking you for your hospitality, Miss Elisa, and I hope you get to see Frances when you die," whispers Loki. His blade is jammed in between her ribs from behind, and there is no way she can get it out of herself. "And it will be a slow, painful death. Because I want you to know, Miss Elisa, that because of you I know what I must do to one who threatens my love, and this is my way of showing my gratitude."
He forces open the door to a nearby car and seats her inside. She gasps, her body shaking with shock and impending death. Loki ignores her and shuts the door. No one will notice she is dying until she is dead. To his mild surprise no one is peering out the window to see what the noise is about. He supposes the agents' deaths have been so quiet that the humans have not noticed.
When he goes to check on the two agents that were holding the old woman, he hears a crackle from a device on their belts. He pulls it from the belt - it is a celll phone, he remembers - and slides a sticky finger over the screen, and the words come through, "Agent Kingston, verify if hostile has been shot fatally. Repeat, verify if hostile has been shot fatally."
"The hostile," Loki speaks into the phone slowly, "has, in fact, been shot, but it wasn't fatal. More to the pity, don't you think?"
"...Who is this?"
"Loki? Loki, this is Barton. You have to-"
"I have to do what I need to do," says Loki evenly. "And you need to listen, Agent Barton. You need to listen very carefully."
The agent falls silent and Loki takes it as his cue to continue.
"Barton, I want Jane Foster brought to this city. Tell Thor that the sooner he brings that woman here to meet me, the sooner I stop killing these Earthlings he finds so very precious." Loki allows himself to smile. "And I am very good at what I do. What happens from now on is up to him."
"How will we find you?"
"Tony Stark is probably looking for me now, isn't he?" Loki licks some blood off the back of his right hand, and pushes his dark hair back from his face. "He can keep searching. When she is here, send a message to someplace obvious, and then I will allow him to find me." The demigod smiles again, and drops the phone before stomping on it, crushing it to smithereens.
Everyone winces at the feedback.
"Loki's gone mad," Steve says unnecessarily. "Why? Why now? Who is Jane Foster?"
"She offered me succor when I was last exiled from Asgard," Thor explains. He buries his face in one meaty hand. "I should not have gone to see her, I should have stayed here-"
"And Loki should have been a kitten with a bell and a collar and a leash, but that is all the shoulds that aren't," Fury says angrily. He stands up and folds his arms across his chest. "Barton, how many of our agents do you think he's taken out?"
Clint does some rapid calculations in his head. "Kingston was partnered with Edds, and earlier it was Adams and Jennings that called in the shooting."
"That's four." Fury stares at the wall and scowls ferociously. "Barton, you're my best eye in the sky, but until Romanov's here I want you running communications and coordination. Hill, you'll join the ground crew, but you're acting as my twic out there. Captain, if you could assist Agent Hill I'll be very thankful. Thor, you need to get Miss Foster here as soon as you can."
The God of Thunder looks at Fury. "If she comes she may be killed."
"If she doesn't come there are dozens out there that WILL be killed. You can protect one woman, Thor, far easier than protecting dozens out there."
"Sir, should we send out a warning?" asks Hill.
Fury shakes his head. "I don't want widespread panic to hit New York. He's going about this one all low key - ugh. I hate inadvertant punning." Fury chews on the inside of his cheek before continuing, "He's staying low-profile, which makes him far more dangerous. Seek him out as best as you can, but if you do find yourself in a one-on-one fight, get out of there as fast as you can and wait for backup."
[Director Fury, Sir wishes that I inform you that I am present also. Sir asks what directive you have for him?]
"Jarvis?" Thor exclaims.
[Mr Thor. I am sorry about Mr Loki's escapade.] The AI actually sounded apologetic. [I am scanning traffic cameras and security cameras as fast as my processor allows me to. I hope you find him soon.]
Thor smiles wanly. "Me too."
"Jarvis, inform your master in his tin suit to stay away. Wait for our calls. Otherwise when we need him, his battery's all run out."
"Nick Fury, your blood will run cold before my battery's drained. I'm over the Flatirons. Where was the last location we have him tagged at?"
"The call was cut before the trace was completed," Barton says.
"Jarvis, patch what we have over to me."
"You do not just take over our-" Fury rolls his eye in frustrated exasperation and then glares at all the rest. "Move it."
Loki slips into the nearest bathroom and washes the dark red off his face and hands. His hair is slick with blood, his own and others, and he knows he stinks of death. Feeling momentarily disgusted by the gore clinging to him, Loki debates whether to change his clothes, and decides to do so. The shirt is completely ruined anyway. He strips, washes himself clean, and walks back out naked to the bedroom, past the man whose eyes are still open in shock even in death. Loki picks out a black shirt and black pair of slacks from the walk-in closet, and thinks he is quite lucky since the dead man wears shoes that Loki's narrow feet fit into.
The full-length mirror reveals that Loki looks every inch an aristocrat in the tailored outfit. However, the green eyes in the mirror are darkly shadowed and he sees the blossoming madness within its depths.
He bites his lower lip and Loki reaches out to the reflection, slim fingers tracing the edges of his mouth, curving into a cruel smirk.
"Bring her to me, Thor," he murmurs, and adds, "please."
Tony lands in the middle of the street and is immediately set upon by police officers and reporters.
"Mr Stark! Iron Man! Is it true that the terrorist Loki is back on Earth? We have had reports of sightings of him, and there is a mounting death toll-" an overeager reporter bursts through the barricade of burly policemen and shoves a microphone in Stark's face.
Tony ignores it and the reporter - they really should know better, and send pretty girls out into the field - and walks towards a likely detective.
"Iron Man," the detective grunts. She glances sidelong at him as the faceplate shifts and Stark's face is revealed. "Mr Tony Stark. What on earth is happening? Because no weapon I know can do that to a person."
The detective points at the mess that is being shielded from the gawkers and news vans, even if nothing can hide from the eyes in the skies; Tony gags and swallows the nausea forcefully. Loki has not been merciful.
Two of SHIELD's agents have been slaughtered. Tony then considers his words, and changes it to 'partially disintegrated', because nothing should look like that dead or alive. The only thing that identifies the corpses as previously people are their bottom halves: the calves are intact. They are the only parts left intact. Everything else is melted or burned off.
Despite being staunchly atheist, Tony prays that the two agents died instantly.
"There's another, an elderly woman we found in a resident's car. Bled out completely in the back seat, and she wrote the word 'LOKI' on the back of the passenger's seat. In her blood." The detective makes a face and walks away. Tony follows. "I don't know what shit you guys have stirred up, but if this is the same Loki as did our city a couple months ago, I know the NYPD is outmatched. We're doing all we can to just... clamp down on the panic, trying not to hit the hysteria button, but if I have to see anything like that again I'd hit that button myself."
"Thanks for the information, detective. I'm trying to track him down too. He's not easy to find." Tony glances about him. "Any clues he left behind?"
"Other than the trail of fucking corpses like so many breadcrumbs? No." The detective huffs in annoyance or fear and looks around Tony. Her chin juts out and indicates the group of news journalists and video cameras craning to see over the barriers. "The pictures are already viral as we speak. Now all of New York is about a sentence away from panic. If you confirm that Loki is back and murderous, I guarantee you mass hysteria. And that will be on your shoulders, Iron Man, because I'm nowhere near that creature's league."
Tony scowls. "You ought to get to know Nick Fury," he says quietly. The faceplate snaps down and he blasts off into the night sky. Maybe Jarvis can locate Loki through the security cameras.
Thor is still slightly lightheaded but his constitution is strong. His stubborn will is stronger.
"You cannot ask me to bring Lady Jane to meet Loki, it is as good as killing her!" he argues. "I am powerful in battle, but no one moves faster than Loki when he fights. No one. His speed... and his wrath. His magic. We cannot bring her here to face him. I cannot do this."
"Thor, if you don't, many people will die."
"I will find him and stop him," Thor snarls, but Fury's hand keeps him from storming out.
Fury's voice is quiet and almost pleading. "Thor. I swear on my life that we will keep her safe. Agent Romanov and Dr. Banner will be here in ten minutes. Find her and bring her here. Dr. Banner can go with you to help keep her safe, and Loki will not challenge the Hulk. You know this."
"Loki may not be thinking rationally at this point," Clint puts in. He clicks on a window and magnifies it. "We've found Loki."
"Where is he?" asks Thor, staring at the sight of Loki looking up into the camera, smirking, like he has won something, but the God of Thunder thinks that he sees beyond that.
Fury grips his chair and snarls, "Times Square."
The square is large and crammed with noise and lights and people, so many people, and Loki knows that it is very likely that Tony Stark has found out where he is. But this is such a busy spot that it is near impossible for Stark to attack without causing collateral damage. He darts into buildings and out, mingles among the cattle, and whenever he feels like it he smiles into one of the watching machines inside the shops.
He has taken the last man's wallet and is swiping the card for jewelry now, signing something on a bill that the sales clerk doesn't bother to check. Loki loops the delicate necklace around his neck, its emeralds deeply, enchantingly green, and when the sales clerk comments that it is originally meant for women Loki leans forward and whispers a curse into his ear before he steps out.
The sales clerk feels the odd man's breath over the shell of his ear and winces, not quite understanding why his head begins to ache and pound, and even when he feels dizzy five minutes later he doesn't link the symptoms to the strange customer. Six minutes and twenty-eight seconds after Loki left the jewelry shop, the sales clerk dies of a sudden brain hemorrhage.
Jarvis's information is definitely accurate, but even Tony Stark knows better than to land in the middle of Times Square and demand a mentally unstable - what the hey, call a spade a spade - a psychotic murdering deity to come out and return to the unloving arms of SHIELD.
"If Fury had listened to me in the first place and taken them away instead of asking me, the irresponsible playboy billionaire genius philanthropist, to look after them..." he grumbles inside, even as he is perched atop one of the buildings. Loki is smart; he keeps to the throngs and with him in commoner garb not even Tony can seek him out easily.
[Sir, Ms Potts is calling.]
"I'll answer it." And it was Pepper, her lovely face relegated to a small corner of the screen as Jarvis ran facial recognition for thousands of faces now passing under Tony's feet.
"Tony, I returned home and there's a hole in the wall, and there's an agent from SHIELD telling me to remain calm. That is not what calms me down after a week in Belize wrangling trade concessions with an obdurate conglomerate. What's going on?"
Ever since Tony almost died in the Avengers job with the aliens and all that, Pepper has been a lot more outspoken and Tony wonders if it is a good thing, but he likes to think it is because Pepper trusts him even when she is not perfectly poised or in control. "Loki escaped and killed a bunch of people. Some of whom might be innocent."
"Oh god," Pepper murmurs, and even with the crappy video feed Tony has installed into the suit he can see that she is distressed. "Have you found him?"
"He's in Times Square. I can't get to him without endangering everyone, and I can't go to him without the suit because I'm afraid he might just kill me." Tony hisses out through his teeth. There, he's said it. He is scared of Loki now, a Loki that is not the slinky, sex-kitteny demigod that cuddled up to Thor in the mornings and afternoons and evenings and nights, not the Loki that was just as fascinated as Thor was over the microwave, not the Loki that condescended to speak to Tony when the inventor found the demigod awake in at two fucking a.m. in the den. He has no idea what, exactly, made Loki flip out, and he hates not having a clue. When he has a clue he can then solve the riddle and put things right.
Now he can't.
"What does he want?" asks Pepper.
"He wants some chick named Jane Foster. She's, I don't know, Thor's ex of some kind. I don't think Loki wants to meet her for hugs and peanut butter sandwiches." Tony grunts with frustration as he sits down. "Fuck, Pepper. What am I supposed to do now?"
Pepper pauses as she thinks. "Is anyone bringing her over now?"
"Thor is, supposedly. And Captain is somewhere around, I really should get in touch with him, and Clint Barton is back with Eye of the Tiger."
"Why would he?"
"Why would who what?"
"Why would Thor bring Jane Foster over? He's... he's a prince, Tony. Princes don't lead damsels to distress, they save them from it," Pepper blurts out.
"Shit. That means..." Tony licks his lips and tries to slow his thoughts down. "Pep, if I land in the middle of Times Square, and fire off a few calculated blasts to scare these people away, how much trouble will I be in?"
Pepper tries to smile. "If you can capture Loki? None."
"They're gonna sue the pants off me for property damage or something."
"Tony Stark, you have me and the best legal team in the entire East Coast of USA. We can handle that. You, on the other hand, have to handle Loki." Pepper nods encouragingly. "Go for it."
Fury is relieved, though he won't show it, that Barton took the initiative to get Romanov to pick up Jane Foster without waiting for Thor's decision. Thor on the other hand is a lot less than thrilled.
"Lady Jane! You shouldn't be here - how could you have brought her here? She will be defenseless and helpless against Loki," Thor exclaims.
Jane Foster is the picture of calm support. "Thor, I'll be fine. You need me to be here to get your brother. We can't let him keep killing."
"You don't understand, Jane, he'll kill you!"
"And I came knowing that," she says, crossing her arms. "I know that he is probably insanely jealous right now, and the emphasis is on 'insane', thank you, but I think we can all acknowledge that I'm a grown woman with a mind of her own."
Bruce Banner coughs almost shyly. "And I'll be going with her, along with Natasha. We're backing you up, Thor. The captain is already there, I hear, and so is Tony."
"And Clint, with a team of our best soldiers," says Fury. "They'll be backup for the backup."
Natasha takes over when Fury gestures. She steps forward and says, "Thor, you and Ms Foster will head to Central Park. Stark and Captain Rogers will monitor Loki's transport from where they are-"
"-Times Square-" Clint supplies.
"-Times Square to our rendezvous point. Dr Banner will be there, right next to you and Ms Foster, and Loki is smart enough to understand what that means. If he has words to say to her, let him say it, but if he tries to harm her we will all move in." Her lips twitch mirthlessly. "He does not have an army now."
"He has his magic, and speed and agility beyond any of you," Thor says quietly.
Natasha regards the God of Thunder for a beat. "Would you let him harm Ms Foster?"
"No. On my life I've sworn to protect her and my friends."
"Then protect her with your life," says Natasha. "Barton?"
Clint smiles. "Got your back."
Thor looks at all of them, and his face is shadowed by... fear? apprehension? He says, "We should leave now, if this is the decision."
Jarvis manages to cut in before Tony can fire off any of his repulsor beams. [Sir, they are on their way to Central park. Captain Rogers is waiting along 7th Avenue with Agent Hill.]
"Are they making out?" Tony asks with a grin.
"No, Stark, and please keep your focus on the mission." Steve sounds embarrassed and annoyed.
Tony chuckles. He knows that the communications link is now open to all who have a receiver. In addition, there are several young men and women posing for photographs with THE Iron Man, instead of running away from him as they were supposed to do. He raises an arm and poses, allowing a few dozen more shots, before he says, "Alright guys, I kinda need some takeoff space, so back away now unless you want your clothes all mucked up."
They do back off, and Tony launches himself towards the nearest screen that is blaring advertisements. "Jarvis?"
"If I can locate the feed, can you override it and let me make a little speech to Loki?"
[Sir, that is a question you know the answer to.]
Jarvis actually sounds peeved that Tony has to ask, and Tony laughs at his own genius. He has to laugh now because later, later he may be facing off a pissed-off crazed homicidal demigod who probably thinks he has nothing left to lose. And Tony Stark, wunderkind, is fucking terrified.
He hadn't been afraid to face off against the God of Mischief months ago. It was easy, pitting himself against a seemingly inconquerable foe, but that was before he knew Loki.
Now he knows Loki, knows him as a person. He sees how much Loki is in love with Thor, and he understands how much Loki must be hurting. He sees the way Loki brightens up a little when Thor is in the room, he recalls the pain when Thor's friends were pushing Thor to return to Asgard, he remembers the curve of Loki's neck and the spray of black hair in Tony's lap when Loki turned to him for some emotional support. And Tony had fucking offered it. He had offered it, like a tentative olive branch, and Loki had taken the very tip of the branch, as if wary of some hidden agenda.
Tony has wondered why he understands Loki. He has no answer to that, but he does.
That part scares Tony. He isn't supposed to empathize, for Chrissakes. But he does, and he sort of sees where Loki is coming from and why he's lost all control over his inner morality compass and fuck if it doesn't scare Tony that Loki may be pushed yet further along his madness.
Because if Loki really goes over the edge, Thor may not stop him. Thor may even join him. But Thor will never kill Loki, whatever insanity Loki perpetuates.
They are shadow and light; they define each other.
And nothing on earth will be able to keep them apart.
"Attention all shoppers: Jane Foster is in town. I repeat, Jane Foster is in town. If you give a fuck, then please meet me and the good captain at 7th. If you're there to take photos or ask for photographs, I will blast you where it hurts and then throw you so far, you land next Friday. Not a joke, people." Tony wonders briefly if he ought to have said it better, then shrugs off his own criticism. He knows Loki is listening, and that is all that matters right now.
Loki hears the words and his knees suddenly feel weak.
She's here. Thor has brought her here. Thor brought her, here, to me. Loki cannot name the emotions surging within him, so complicated and complex they have become, and perhaps it is because of his feelings that he starts murmuring curses and benedictions beneath his breath as he seeks balance.
"Hey, it's snowing!" a young child cries out in delight. There are more mutters and exclamations around the square, and then when the snowflakes burst with brilliant sparks at each contact there are screams. People start hiding under shelter, and the few that are caught without or are slow to respond shriek with pain when the miniature explosions singe their skin.
As the snowflakes float down, they hit the brightly lit screens and there are multiple flares which killed the screens, one by one, all except the one where Tony Stark has spoken from.
Loki barely looks at the skies as he shoves the people aside and walks out into the open. The snow does not touch him, and as he stalks forward the snow becomes heavier and the wind wilder, like a blizzard brought down from the icy wastes of the north, and Loki still remains untouched by the snow, and remains blind and deaf to the escalating screams as the now-dark screens explode into pieces.
She is here. She is mine.
Thor tenses. "He is coming," he says quietly.
"Stark says Loki called down a snowstorm which shorted out all the lights in Times Square. He can't see Loki anywhere in the dark and the snow. He can barely see two feet in front of him, and he's in the suit." Natasha shut off the comunit and glances at Thor. "The captain is also similarly incapacitated. They don't know where he's coming from."
"I know," Thor responds simply. He hefts the hammer, his blue eyes intent and - sorrowful? Natasha can't tell - and the demigod straightens. "When Loki is distracted, take Lady Jane and run. Doctor, I entrust her safety to you."
Jane touches Thor's arm. "I did not come to run, Thor."
"If you value your life, then you will run," Thor growls, not looking at her, but then softens. "Lady Jane, I do not doubt your valor, but you will not survive Loki's wrath or jealousy. I will attempt to calm him down; I do not think he will. Ease my heart of its burden, my friend - run when you can, and do not look back."
Loki knows - Loki always knows - where Thor is when he is near. One blibbering idiot of a human told him where the 7th is and what it leads to, so Loki tosses the human aside and stalks towards Central Park.
It is fitting then, the God of Discord thinks, that they are ending this in another idyll. They landed in a beautiful, grassy spot in Midgard; they will now sort things out in another such place. Except the blizzard follows Loki as he moves, the storm of ice and hail and snow chilling everything around him while his rage and jealousy mounts to fiery heights.
They sense him coming - it's not hard, given the size of the snowstorm - but Loki is a practiced hunter and tracker. With a careless sweep of his hands he calls down gales, throwing the agents off the trees where they have hidden themselves. Another blast sends the concealed vehicle tumbling.
"I am Loki of Jotunheim and Faerie!" he cries out in wild triumph when they start firing at him. "This is nothing to me!"
The bullets hit, but unlike the shotgun blast Loki feels nothing as he moves. His skin is blue, deep blue, and the delicate scars describe his sharp angles and high cheekbones. There are lights in the park, but like those in Times Square the bulbs explode on contact with the snowflakes and hailstones.
"I am Loki," he repeats, almost reverently, as he looks at his hands. He does not need the light to see, he realizes bleakly. Blue, all blue, all Jotunn and hideous and monstrous and him. "I am Loki Kinslayer. I am Loki the Abandoned. I am Loki the Exile."
The names he calls himself echo forlornly throughout the park.
The names float in the howling wind and the blizzard is all around them now; they are in the eye of a snowstorm. Only the skies above Thor are clear and they can still see the stars.
Thor catches the words Loki has spoken and his heart breaks. Despite his best efforts Loki still believes himself alone, and with what he has done this time he has ensured his solitude, for if nothing else the Midgardian authorities will want him under lock and key. as for Asgard... Odin has banished Loki from that realm, and the only places which may accept Loki are not hospitable by any stretch of the imagination.
Loki comes slowly into view.
Bruce tenses and so does Natasha. Jane, seeing what kind of power Loki holds, has paled and she grips Thor's forearm tightly, trying not to show her weakness.
The dark-haired demigod snarls, "Let go of him."
"Lady Jane, do as he says," Thor instructs.
Jane peels her fingers from Thor's reassuring form and is immediately hustled back by Natasha and Bruce. She watches as the two Norse gods face off.
"You brought her here," Loki says, a hint of wonder in his voice. "You brought that woman to face me."
"I didn't," Thor corrects. He is always honest with Loki. He can't be otherwise. "They did. I did not want her to come."
"I am afraid."
Loki's grin widens and turns manic. The blizzard abruptly stops, revealing a host of Loki copies standing around the clearing. Above, Iron Man hovers and he drops Captain America unceremoniously before landing next to Natasha and Bruce.
"Hey Banner," says Tony, his voice mechanical and odd.
"Hi Tony." The doctor manages a bashful smile when Tony nudges him in the ribs.
Loki tilts his head. "All of you want to stop me," he states. "Why?"
Thor takes the lead. It's what he does. "Because this is wrong. Hurting others is wrong. Killing others is wrong."
"I've never been right in my life, Thor," Loki sneers. "Have you forgotten? I am Loki. Loki of an unintended, unwanted Jotunn-Faerie union. Loki the not-prince of Asgard, Loki the Gullible, Loki the Blind, Loki Kinslayer, Loki the Betrayer, Loki the Thief, and now Loki the Mad. I - I am wrong."
"You are Loki, my heart and my love." Stepping forward cautiously, Thor never lets his eyes stray from Loki's anguished gaze. Mjolnir is in his left hand, not his right; Loki recognizes that it is a signal that Thor does trust him. "Loki, come to me."
Loki moves back, still some distance from Thor. "No. Do not touch me yet. Not yet. Give me the woman."
"Loki, you know I cannot do that."
"Why not? Why can't you?" Loki stares at Jane, and the astrophysicist can feel the demigod's hatred almost physically. She gulps and backs away a little more, and is met by Steve Rogers' assuring form.
"Because you intend her harm, and I have pledged to keep her and hers safe," says Thor. "She had my word that I will return, and I have, and that was all I did, Loki, I just went to see her and assure her that I have not forgotten my promise."
Loki stills, silent and unmoving, and the wind picks up. Then he shifts slightly and the golden-and-black armor appears over his black clothes. A long spear shimmers into existence in his right hand. "I was killed earlier, Thor."
"I know. I died also."
"But I didn't die." Loki pointed at Thor. "Neither did you."
Steve cuts in. "You didn't die because we saved your brother."
"He is not my brother." Loki fires a blast at Steve, but it is blocked by Mjolnir. Thor is equally adept with his left and right when it comes to fighting. Loki continues as though nothing has happened. "I died, and I woke up in my own blood, Thor, I woke up with a hole in my chest and all my heart's blood on the floor and you were not there."
"Loki, I'm sorry, I didn't know where you were."
"I knew where you were," Loki says. "I just didn't know who you were with. And you were with that harlot, without telling me that you were going to see her-"
"Hey!" Tony Stark strides into the fray. "You know, much as I enjoy a bunny boiler explode, Loki, you don't get to blame this on Thor."
Loki bares his teeth like a wolf. "Stay out of this. It is not your business, mortal."
"Oh no, you made it my business when you stayed in my house," Tony says smartly. "And I prefer my name. TO-NY. Say it."
"May your genitals rot and fester," Loki responds.
Tony tsks. "Rude. Anyway. Loki, I really, really do not wish to fight you now. You had an army then, and we had Banner. You lost. Now, at this moment, you DON'T have an army, and Banner is still here. Somehow you've grown on me, like a really annoying but not-unbearable... cat, and I don't want to see you hurt."
"I have already been hurt," snaps Loki. "There is nothing in me that does not hurt, Tony Stark, do not patronize me with you pathetic human mind, and it is NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS!"
The sudden blast tosses Iron Man off his feet, sending him rolling into the myriad copies of Loki ringing the group. Steve Rogers flings his shield towards Loki, who ducks, and another blast sends it careening into the captain, who barrels into Natasha and knocks the gun out of her hand.
Loki pants heavily before ripping the horned helm from his head and throwing it to the side. "Give her to me."
Thor changes Mjolnir to his right hand. "Loki. You know that I cannot."
"Give. Me. The. Woman."
Loki screams and lunges forward, but just as Thor is about to grab hold of him he discovers that this Loki isn't the real Loki, it is too polished and perfect; the real one-
"Jane!" he bellows.
Banner hulks out immediately and reaches out for the shadowy form that has come from behind, death in the dark, but he misses, grabbing only a green cloak that rips from the armored shoulders. Jane has only time for an inhalation before Loki grabs her from behind and covers her mouth.
Everyone freezes in their tracks.
Steve is still mid-crouch. Tony is crawling up from the creek he has been blasted to; Natasha's gun is pointed back at Loki and Jane, and there is a pulsing vein in the Hulk's neck. Thor is getting to his feet, having caught mere air and illusion earlier.
"Still falling for the same trick, Thor," Loki says dully. His smile is humorless, his armor gone, and his blade angled against Jane's throat. "When will you ever learn?"
"Let her go, please," says Thor. He stands and drops Mjolnir. "You have no need to do this. You have me. I am already yours."
"You aren't mine," Loki says sadly. "Everyone has a claim on you, golden son of Asgard. You have to return to the realm to rule one day. You are an Avenger, whatever that means. You have friends who miss you and comrades who will risk their lives for you and even this woman, this whore has a claim on you. You fulfil promises to her even though you know I will hurt, Thor."
Thor holds up both hands, openly pleading now. "Loki. I have other obligations, that is true, but I am yours."
"No, you're not. I am yours, another one of your 'obligations'." Loki licks his lips. "I am not stupid, Thor. I see very clearly who I am, what I am, and what I must do for you to understand."
Jane dares not struggle. She does not even dare to speak. She can sense Loki's shivering, as if he is cold; she can feel his shaking voice by her ear. Jane knows, on an intellectual level, that Loki is emotionally and perhaps mentally unstable. When Thor told her about Loki being adopted (robbed from his natural habitat), about Odin's punishment (rejection from his paternal figure) and their current relationship status (classify under 'Ew, but maybe kinda Hot'), Jane thought it was merely a cry for attention on Loki's part. Now she can't think, can't imagine at all what Loki is thinking, or if there are any thoughts in the demigod's mind, because she is terrified.
"Thor. I need you," Loki whispers. The knife at Jane's neck lowers and the woman breathes a little easier. "I... I need you. You cannot leave me. You can't. And I don't know what I'm supposed to do to have you realize that."
Thor exhales and says, "I won't leave you, Loki, I've already promised to stay with you. To stand with you through anything in the Nine Realms."
"Prove it," Loki says.
Jane feels the blade slide into her, and then she falls with a gasp of agony.
Thor stares as she crumples at Loki's feet.
"Lady Jane?" he whispers. Then he looks at Loki, whose face is a mask of tragic triumph. "Loki... she was a woman. A defenseless woman."
"I know. I did not care," Loki replies. He gazes at Thor, and even when the Hulk grabs him and grips him with all his fury, bellowing in the God of Mischief's face, Loki says nothing else.
Clint emerges from the shadows and tackles Natasha before the Hulk accidentally smashes her aside. The green behemoth is almost about to rip the demigod into two, but the two agents are trying to keep him from doing so. Tony and Steve rush over to Jane, but even as they bend over the astrophysicist's body Thor roars with rage and summons Mjolnir. He smashes it into the ground, causing chunks of earth to fly out and there is a burst of lightning that envelopes all of them.
Natasha loses control and screams; she is not the only one as pure energy wraps about them and they are burning, Natasha thinks, and she hasn't repaid her debt to Clint-
They collapse onto a strange surface that's warm and lit with running lights all over and through it. Thor ignores them all, reaching for Jane, and then calls for someone named Frigga as he leaves them on the path, flying off with Mjolnir.
Loki is still in the Hulk's massive fist. He smiles tiredly and says, "Welcome to Asgard, mortal beings." Then he closes his eyes and says no more.
"Mother!" Thor's voice carries along the corridors of the golden hall, but he does not stop to wait. Mjolnir is left at the door. Frigga runs down the steps and leads them to the healing baths without question. Thor carries Jane to the room and then leaves her in Frigga's care. "Mother, Loki stabbed her. He's been- I don't know I should do. He killed so many others but... he didn't kill her, I don't know why he didn't kill her-"
Frigga cuts across her son's rambling. "Where is he? Where is Loki?"
Thor stares at her, and then pales. "By Valhalla... he'll think I've abandoned him again. I have to go. I have to get to him."
"Thor, I hear you have brought home the traitor." Odin is at the door. "And that you have returned."
"Father, this is not the time. I must get to Loki."
"He is being brought to us as we speak," Odin says. "This time, we will have a trial."
Thor bristles. "I brought Lady Jane here for healing; I did not come to bring Loki to judgment!"
"And yet judgment he must face." Odin's face is impassive. "The Nornir have come three days before, and they foretold your returning. We will meet in the great hall, before the eyes and minds of Asgard, and Loki will be judged."
Loki is unceremoniously carried by the Hulk as the other Avengers wandered down the long bridge.
"No welcome wagon?" Tony asks aloud, to break the uneasy silence.
The Hulk grunts and shakes Loki in his hand, but Loki does not deign to reply. He has not spoken, but all of them know he is still alive.
Clint snorts and glances at Tony. "Your welcome wagon is waiting, monsieur. Armed to the teeth, every single one of them."
"Ah." Tony grins humorlessly. "But I think that is less for me and more for him."
"Congratulations on finding your long-lost sense of humility, Mr Stark," Natasha comments dryly. Her red hair seems a lot richer in tone in this light, Tony thinks, and wonders why on earth he has to deal with TWO redheads. He likes blondes better - more biddable, most of them. The brunettes are usually stronger in their opinions and earthier, somehow. But redheads? Tony winces as he recalls the few arguments he and Pepper have had, and how he, the great Tony Stark and his limitless supply of snark, always ends up on the losing side, even when he thinks he's won.
But he won't have Pepper any other way.
Suddenly he misses her sharp intuition and incredible observation skills. He needs her here, a second pair of eyes and a heart used to sorting out feelings, because he certainly is nowhere capable of organizing this mess that Loki has engineered. He meant it when he said that Loki has grown on him. It isn't hard for Tony to find grudging liking for someone that clever at quipping, who gives as good as he gets, and can strike Tony speechless with just a Look. Tony also admires anyone who puts in great effort at achieving success, although Tony thinks Loki's definition of success is rather twisted. And it really doesn't hurt that Loki is easy on the eye, even if he is very much a male, thank you.
All these thoughts occupy Tony until they finally reach the end of the bridge.
"Who are you, and why do you seek entry into Asgard? How come you here to this realm?" the guard at the head of the column asks, his voice ringing with suspicion.
"Hulk smash?" The Hulk turns to Steve.
The Captain shakes his head. "No." He strides forward before Tony can speak and land them in trouble. "Thor brought us here, and he left us on the bridge. I do not know where we are to head next and we thought to find him. He has one of our friends in his care."
The guards exchange uneasy glances, and then they see Loki in the Hulk's custody. Their spears snap to attention and the Avengers are staring at a wall of sharp, pointy bits. The guards' sudden tension is understandable: their prince, disgraced or not, literally in the grips of an outsider.
But Tony still doesn't like sharp pointy bits, especially when they are pointing at him.
"So, Cap. Do or do not?" He peeks at Natasha, and sees her rolling her eyes. "There is no try."
"Hold," someone in the back calls out, and the guards slowly part to reveal a tall warrior with dark hair. He studies each Avenger in turn, pausing when he sees Loki being held by the Hulk. He inclines his head slightly and says, "I am Hogun. The Allfather has asked that I escort these valiant warriors to the golden hall."
Without another word he turns on his heel and strides away. After a moment's hesitation, Steve starts following, and the others fall in line. Tony is the last to do so, and as he trails after the others in his heavy suit the guards close in behind them.
Rats in a gilded trap, he thinks, and decides that whatever happens, at least he has come to an alien world, and if he survives this he's going to have hell lot of bragging rights the next time Rhodey swaps stories with him.
Thor paces in the golden hall which is already filled with the nobles and the warriors of Asgard. The Nornir, readers of fate, sit on a dais away from the main level; Thor catches himself peering at them every now and then, but they are veiled in dusty gray which obscure their faces. They seem out of place in the gleaming palace, yet utterly at home. Thor supposes that if he knew all of history and the future, the present isn't of much importance then.
"As you requested, Odin Allfather, here are the valiant defenders of Midgard, and Loki." Hogun spares no glance at Thor; he walks to his customary place next to Fandral and Volstagg. Opposite them Sif stands, robed in regal blue-and-white instead of her usual armor, and she does catch Thor's eyes. The God of Thunder cannot make out the message she tries to send, but he isn't paying much attention to her anyway.
Odin stands. "Greetings to you, Midgardian warriors. I have heard of your prowess from my son, and it is good that you have come on this day." The old god examines each in turn, much as Hogun did earlier, and he inclines his head when he sees the Hulk. "If it pleases you, I prefer to speak with the gentler man."
A stream of light flows from Odin's staff and wraps about the Hulk, and he shrinks into Dr. Bruce Banner. Thankfully, Odin seems to have known that the change often leaves Bruce naked, and his magic has constructed garments about the mild doctor. Now Bruce looks almost Asgardian.
"Nice threads," Tony compliments, and Bruce beams with bashful vanity.
Natasha looks at Clint and the archer shrugs. They step closer together and their eyes survey the room, knowing as they did so that dozens of other warriors and hunters have noticed their movements and purposes, and are somewhat impressed by their silent collaboration.
Loki is now standing on his own two feet, his hands unbound. Loki's eyes have been closed all the way from the bridge until now, so when he does open them it seems fitting that the first person he notices is Thor. He smiles at the tall God of Thunder, but does not call out to him.
Thor wants to walk over, but someone holds him back. Frigga has stealthily moved to his side and she holds his forearm. When Thor tries to pull away she says, "This is not your fight, my son. You cannot interfere until it is over."
"Loki is mine to protect," insists Thor under his breath.
Frigga's fingers clench and Thor for the first time sees tears in Frigga's eyes. She whispers, "Do not think that he is powerless. And do not assume that my fear is less than yours. Loki is and always will be my son, adopted or no, and yet I must do nothing lest I jeopardize everything in the balance. You must do the same, Thor."
Loki's gaze flick from Thor to his father. "Odin."
"I suppose the gathering is not merely to welcome the Avengers," Loki says.
Odin is quiet for a beat. Then he says, "I have no desire for such an audience, Loki, but once again you have brought yourself to this."
"I have come back, and you are ready to pass judgment. I assume the Nornir have come before today to let you know of this eventuality." The God of Mischief sweeps his emerald gaze across the veiled faces of the ladies above. "Greetings to you, ladies of the Well. I understand that we shared common ancestry, from my studies of the lore."
Though none of the women speak, everyone in the hall sees that they are bowing their heads to Loki.
"I am much honored." The slender demigod laughs and throws his head back. "I crave an answer, my ladies."
One rises to her feet, tall and imposing, in her faded gray robes more queenly than Frigga. "You shall have it."
"Will I gain what I seek?"
She does not speak, and all the hall looks at her save for Thor, whose sapphire gaze never leaves Loki. The tall, gray Norn finally nods an affirmation. "You shall have it."
"Good." Loki turns to look at Odin. "Today is my judgment, I think, for you have gathered such a worthy host not to merely clap their hands for these mortal beings, brave though they be."
"You are always the one with keen insight, Loki," Odin replies. He grasps Gungnir. "I will bid you to kneel and accept your fate."
Loki scoffs, and then he saunters forward deliberately. His helm reappears, as well as his armor, and he looks every inch the prince he used to be. To everyone's surprise, Loki does bend his knee to Odin. "As you wish, I have knelt."
Even Odin seems slightly taken aback by this development. He examines Loki, bowed before him, and remarks, "Will you accept your fate?"
"I suggest that you remove the bond between Thor and I before I can answer that question honestly," Loki retorts. He glances at Thor to the right. "That spell will affect my decision so long as I am beholden to another."
"Father, leave the spell as it is," Thor interrupts. "Loki, Loki there is no need for this. We can leave-"
"Loki Silvertongue has spoken, and you think you can outspeak me?" Loki sneers. "What good is this bond? It satisfies no one and risks too much. If, in your foolhardiness, you choose to take on too huge a risk, I end up dying as weregild. A poor one, no doubt, but a reluctant one nonetheless, son of Odin, and I know many of them here will not wish to see you as the gild of my funeral bier when I die, yet that that will be so."
Thor looks up pleadingly at Odin. "Father, he's up to something. Don't remove the spell!"
"He's speaking the truth, Thor, and you know how I feel about that heart-bond." Odin lowers Gungnir before Thor can protest further, and the golden thread of magic that bound them together is withdrawn from them.
Thor feels it as it disappears: an emptiness where he had not felt empty before, and a longing nothing can quench. He stares abjectly at his father, and then at Loki who resolutely does not look at him. "Loki... Loki, what are you doing?"
Loki who is still on his knee touches his heart. "I'm no longer burdened now," he says, green eyes darting up at Thor, and then he gets on both feet. "Thank you, Odin. Now that that's gone, it's easier to do what I must do."
Steve notices the slight motion before anyone does, and he dashes forward to tackle Thor to the ground. The knife flies past his ear, barely nicking it, and buries itself hilt-deep in the pillar. The two stare at the weapon and Thor suddenly, violently wrenches the blade from the pillar.
The entire hall is silent, and then a clamor rises. Swords are drawn and many make to approach, but Odin bellows a word of command and all subside.
Loki laughs, a hollow and empty sound. "You, judge me? You who sits atop that throne because of the blood shed before it, you who stole a babe from its father, you who has lied with a straight face to all of Asgard, judge me. Odin of the Ravens, you are an old fool to think I will accept the fate you dictate. For do not assume I am meek because of Thor; do not assume that I am willing to bear the yoke of humiliation and subjugation again. I am Loki, and I am a God, much as any of you here. I will accept no fate but that which is of my own doing."
Tony raises his eyebrows, but of course no one sees it. Which may be a good thing, come to think of it. And other than Steve, everyone else is clustered about him, back to back, as if they are about to fight off yet another army. Which may happen. If these Asgardians think that the Avengers brought Loki here to kill Thor, things might turn ugly very quickly.
And here, Tony cannot access Jarvis's full capabilities. The computing power present in the suit is nowhere close to the system running Jarvis down on Earth. He feels trapped.
"Of course you might say that I must be brought to justice." Loki chuckles darkly. "Do you really think I can be redeemed? That I can be a good person?" He stands proudly, lifts his chin and regards the Allfather. "I have come back not as their prisoner or your captive. I have come as a challenger, Odin Allfather, Odin of the Sagas, Odin Gallows-God. I, Loki, son of Laufey, king of the Jotunn; I, the true heir of Jotunheim of the Frost Giants; I, Loki, prince of the realms of Faerie, challenge you to a battle - for Asgard."
Tony's jaw drops. He's not the only one stunned. Everyone is staring at Loki.
"Is he mad?" Bruce whispers aloud. "He's challenging his father?"
"Adopted," Natasha corrects blandly. She looks about her. "This really isn't our place."
Thor flings the throwing knife to the floor before Loki. "I cannot agree to that. This is madness! You cannot challenge Father-"
"-and why can't I?" inquires Loki coldly. "I am the leader of a realm, as he is. I am a sorceror, and wield magic, as he does. I am myself, beholden to none, as he is his own and no one else's. Furthermore, I have the right. Odin Gallows-God has taken me hostage and lied to me about my heritage, casting me out from my true family and pitting me against them on numerous occasions. And when the time came and the situation suited him, he hurled my loyalty in my face as an insult. For years I have believed a lie, more tremendous than any I have myself uttered."
Thor feels his heart pound harder and harder; magic is practically coalescing around Loki, icy and freezing and bitingly cold.
The nobles of Asgard are not prepared for this. Some are backing away in apprehension of the coming battle. Thor sees the Warriors Three standing their ground, as does Sif despite her thin garment. The Avengers are standing close together, and Frigga has taken her place in front of these guests.
Loki's voice grows stern and his skin turn Jotunn-blue. "Odin, if you had loved me truly, why did you let me think that I am the lesser son, undeserving of your pride and joy? Why did you let me labor without gain? Why did you see it fit for me to languish in Thor's shadow, envious of your glowing pride in him, wistful for your praise, yearning for your approval?"
"I tried my best to love you as my son," Odin replies heavily.
"And then you gave up trying?"
"I have not given up trying, Loki, but I am king. If you are to battle me for Asgard, then you must be prepared for what it might take," says Odin, soft and distant.
"Whoa, hold it, Fury-wannabe, you are not seriously considering this," Tony speaks up. "It's insane."
The gods, except Thor and Loki, all turn at the same time to regard this intruder and it is almost funny, except that all of them can probably kill Tony Stark and co. easily. Maybe not so easily for the Hulk, but yeah, the rest are just so much cannon fodder. This does not deter Tony, however, and he steps forward.
"You are the man of iron Thor spoke about," Volstagg volunteers with some admiration.
"I would prefer to see the man behind the armored mask," Odin interjects, and again with a shimmer the suit is retracted into the bracelets and Tony is standing in front of the pantheon of Asgardian nobility. "Your name, honored stranger."
"I'm Tony Stark, and you are a terrible foster parent, and Loki is a nuttier than a squirrel's winter hoard," says Tony in one great rush. A sussuration arises throughout the hall. Twice in a day has the king been insulted, and this time by a Midgardian mortal. Tony decides to follow the advice of the great philosopher, Nanny Ogg: Do what seems right at the time, and do it as hard as you can. Something like that. (He likes Nanny Ogg: full of snark and sexual single-entendres, and cares deeply for family. He can relate. Except for the family part.)
"What was the previous punishment you put on Loki? Oh, right: to sew his lips together when he tells a lie. What on ea- I mean, what in all the heavens prompted you to think that will even get him to reflect on his sins?" Tony asks aloud. "It seals his lips. So what? Will the pain change his mind? Or let him stew in his thoughts? Have you let him know how you feel? Or, maybe call me crazy, have any of you listened to how he feels? My therapist recommends it, and given how much improvement he's got me to make - not that there was a lot to improve, mind you - I think he's right. About listening. To others."
"Anthony Stark," Loki intones without looking at him, "again I remind you, this is none of your business."
"Right. And Thor isn't my friend. And I don't see that he's suffering because of you, Loki, and your little rampage through New York City hasn't meant that you've stamped a 'Entrance Denied' on your intergalactic passport." Tony scoffs again. "You've made it MY business because you accepted MY hospitality, you fucked up MY city, and you wore the shoes that I bought for MY girlfriend." Tony pauses. "And you look really good in them, by the way."
Now Loki and Thor are both staring in disbelief at him.
Tony spreads his hands. "Odin. I get it, Loki is bad. But to accept his challenge to you for a kingdom? What are you, senile? This is bogus-"
"You will shut up," Loki interrupts, and a spell hits Tony right in the mouth. The next sound that comes out of Tony's throat is the squeaky chirrup of a chipmunk. Tony clutches at his throat before flipping Loki the finger on both hands. Smirking, Loki returns to facing Odin. "Odin, do you accept my challenge?"
"No one here will bow to you, Loki," says Odin.
Loki shrugs. "Not yet."
Thor shakes off Steve and prowls up to Loki. He grips the slim God of Discord by the shoulders and shakes him. "What do you think you're doing? You have just returned from the edge of death, and here you go courting it again?"
Loki shoves Thor off and his double-bladed spear materializes. "I know what I'm doing, and I do what I want to do. Leave me be, Thor Odin's son, or I will be forced to teach you manners."
"I accept the challenge."
Frigga's expression of utter shock and despair mirrored Thor's own, and when she falls to the floor in a faint it is Bruce who catches her in time. Odin spares nary a glance at his wife when he repeats, "I accept your challenge. Name the time and place, Loki son of Laufey, heir to Jotunheim, prince of the Faerie."
At his father's words, Thor's heart sinks. The Allfather has finally repudiated all claim on Loki as a member of the house of Odin. He barely hears the location, but registers the time: two hours from this moment.
One sorcerer facing another, in the battle fields, with the Nornir as impartial adjudicators.
"And if allies of either side enters the ring, it is accounted a forfeit," Loki states his final request.
Odin narrows his eye, and nods. "We will meet there."
Thor is left alone with Loki in the hall; the Warriors Three usher the Avengers out, while Sif sees to Frigga.
"Why are you doing this, Loki?" Thor whispers from where he sits, the base of the stairs to the throne.
Loki is sitting in the middle of the gleaming floor, and he says nothing. But he never looks away from Thor, and the older male thinks he sees warmth and love from the deep red eyes of the Jotunn, but that may have been a trick of the light.
Jane has somewhat recovered from the stab to her lungs and is bandaged up. Her gown of deep forest green is a lovely cut that emphasizes her slight curves, but her attention is not on the sartorial.
"Loki is challenging Odin?" she echoes. "What does Thor think?"
"We do not dare to ask," says Fandral, gloomy as Hogun is for once.
Tony punches the wall. Loki's spell still works, but it is fading. When Tony speaks, it is a mixture of chipmunk-and-Tony-voice, and Tony swears that if Loki doesn't die then by all the gods Tony will kill him.
No he won't. But he'd like to have the chance to try.
"The constellations here are so different," Bruce observes from the ledge. It is obvious he is trying to change the topic; it does no one good to dwell on the coming battle. Everyone seems to know that Loki is going into the fight to die; no one understands why Loki wants to do this.
Even Steve has given up pacing and is now staring out the other window, and when Tony tries to prod him to some response all Steve says is, "I know how he feels."
"How?" Tony asks. His chipmunk voice is bloody irritating, he thinks, and wishes it gone.
Steve looks out over the glittering city and then up into the impossibly starry sky. "Like you are walking into your grave while you are awake."
"I hear he has killed innocents in Midgard again," the one called Sif says; she had been the one helping Jane to the other humans. "What did he do?"
Clint summarizes clinically, his recount nothing more than facts. The Asgardians' faces do not change as they listen; Tony wonders if they consider good and evil the same as humans do.
Jane has joined Bruce at the balcony, not knowing that he is the Hulk, and her quiet company seems to help drain the tension from the doctor. Tony wanders over and hears them discussing astrophysics and then Bruce talks about 'dark matter'.
"So there really isn't dark matter?" Bruce asks. Figures that the doctor rather converse about science rather than the fact that Thor is going to see his father kill his lover. But Bruce has seen that before, though on the wrong side of the equation. Tony wonders just how many lovers Bruce has had to give up because of the risk he posed to them, and how many times he feared killing someone's father or brother or uncle because they are trying to protect a woman they loved as much as he?
Jane, bless her heart, is doing her best to keep things light. She seems to understand why Bruce is purposely not discussing Thor and Loki. "It's a theoretical presence, kinda a placeholder to explain certain anomalies in astronomical and theoretical physics. It's not certain whether it exists or not; its assumed existence is the basis for many of our calculations, but some of my colleagues and other experts are working on experiments that tests if it does exist in the first place."
"It sounds fascinating." Bruce smiles. "I'm more familiar with studies on radiation."
"I'm not the one to explain it though, I prefer what is definitely there than what should theoretically there," says Jane. She adds wistfully, "Though some things - like Asgard and Thor - are not even within my assumptions. You think we know what's out there, and we find out there's so much more out there than we initially believe."
Tony listens and leans against the wall. It is warm from the day and now it is beginning to cool; he feels it seeping through his shirt. There is little he understands about Jane and Bruce's conversation as it goes on. Tony prefers engineering, and solving problems, but Jane's description about dark matter is sort of a problem and the astrophysicists and particle physicists are trying to find a solution to it...
"What happens if there is no such thing as dark matter?" Bruce inquires, genuinely curious.
Jane makes a face. "There are many equations, important ones, that have to be re-examined and our own findings have to be checked also. The numbers... Wow, just running the numbers of all our collective discoveries again will be a career and a half."
"So it's not just a matter of taking out the figures for dark matter?"
"No, not really. Too many variables involved." Jane stretches her arms in front of her and winces. "You'll have to isolate the factors and work out the details slowly."
Isolate the factors... Tony straightens from his slouch. "Is it time?" he demands from Jane and Bruce.
Bruce glances at Jane, who isn't wearing any timepiece. "I... I don't know. I don't wear a watch anymore."
"Captain, what's the time?" Tony asks with a hint of desperation. "How much time before the battle?"
"About eight to ten minutes. What is it?"
"Shit." Tony takes off, pushing from the balcony where he has been lounging to sprint towards the great hall where Loki and Thor are, but he makes a wrong turn somewhere and is completely lost. "Shit! THOR! Thor, where are you? Don't let Loki go to battle!"
Fandral and Hogun who have been following Tony catches up and grabs him. "You can't just run around in the house of Odin!" Fandral hisses.
Tony wrenches his arm from the warrior. "I'm trying to get to Thor. Where is the fucking hall where they are supposed to be?"
"This way," Hogun says and jogs ahead. Tony follows and urges the speed a little faster.
When Tony skids into the main hall he breathes out heavily and slams his hand against the pillar. Thor and Loki are gone.
"It's too late. He's gone ahead with it." Tony closes his eyes and cursed roundly all of Loki's forefathers. "Fuck. Fuck, Loki. Why didn't you tell me about this plan? This stupid, stupid plan?"
It is a simple battlefield. There are witnesses, and there is Odin in his armor, and Frigga in the stands with her lovely warm golden-brown hair. Thor is a step outside the ground of the battlefield, and he is not allowed Mjolnir. None of the watchers have weapons with them.
Loki has his spear, and he holds it in his right hand. Murmuring runes of protection, Loki allows himself to appear as tall as he truly is, no longer dwarfed by Thor's huge size. His pulse is steady, his grip is firm, and a thousand voices in his head tells him to run. Loki breathes slowly, drawing in air which becomes by the second increasingly precious.
"Loki, please don't do this," Thor begs again, his voice low and pleading.
Loki ignores him and hefts the spear in his hand. Odd that he has never wanted a customized weapon like Odin or Thor; he prefers the freedom of his hands to cast spells as needed or to throw distractions and illusions around. But now as he sees the scarred old god stalk into the arena he is not ashamed to say that he is afraid and needs the assurance of something to block Odin's wrath. Gungnir is both a sorcerer's staff and a spear of unerring balance and aim. Loki knows what he faces.
"Thor, if you enter the battle, you forfeit your kingdom." Loki looks over to Thor. "For you are of Asgard, and I am no ally of yours."
Thor's fingers bunch into fists so strongly that he thinks his bones might splinter. "Loki, step away, please!"
"You are bound by honor to the protection of Asgard, Thor, for you are meant to be king." Loki's smile is both bright and terrible. "And so, see to your honor, prince."
Odin stands in the middle of the arena and there is a scattering of ravens in the darkness of the starry night. "You issued the challenge, but you are the younger. Custom dictates that the challenger receives the first blow; my heart tells me to cede you the first attack. What shall it be?"
"Let custom stand, Odin, because I am not your family nor friend; there is no need to cede me anything," Loki says.
Odin narrows his eye. "So be it."
Thor tells himself to shut his eyes, he cannot witness this, but the Nornir are watching and he has to, he has to watch and see and try to think of something he can do.
From nowhere Odin hurls a bolt of power at Loki, who accepts the assault with a shuddering of his slender frame. He flies back into the sand and Thor makes to stand, to rush to his fallen brother as he has always done in battle, but Loki returns to his feet and now his spear is at the ready for Odin's second blow. The old god looks sorrowful, but he still sends another burst of power forward. Loki neutralizes this one, and returns with green fire that lick at the grass around Odin's feet.
For a second it seems as though Loki might just be able to hold his own, and then Odin throws Gungnir when Loki hits him with a blast of Jotunn magic. The spear shoots straight and true, but its trajectory is obvious, so if Loki unleashes an ice storm now or maybe just a strong burst of magic Odin might just lose-
Loki lets his hands fall to his sides. Gungnir impales Loki in the abdomen, throws him out of the battleground and pins him to the earth.
Thor stares. Then he roars.
Tony hears the thunderclap that splits the heavens above. The stars, visible a scant five minutes ago, are now hidden behind thick, roiling clouds, and Tony knows that Loki has done it.
"You bloody fool," he breathes, and collapses against a wall, slowly sliding to the floor. "You bloody, sacrificial fool."
"Loki, Loki my heart, my love, you must hold on," cries Thor, pulling and throwing the hated Gungnir to the ground beside him. Rain begins to pelt down and Thor screams defiance at his own power, the storm soaking into the earth and draining Loki of blood faster than before. "Mother, mother, the baths - we must get to the healing waters... Father! Please, send us back to the palace!"
But Odin is injured as well, and Frigga is taking care of him. The Nornir help no one. They are impartial.
"No," Loki says with surprising firmness. His blue skin fades back to Asgardian pale, and his red eyes turn back to living emeralds. "This is what I sought from the Nornir. This is my reward, Thor. I am free. No obligations, no debts. Nothing."
Thor does not care what Loki is saying now, he wants him to be saved, to be healed and then, then Loki can have all he wants. He can have Thor, or Asgard, or Midgard or any of the realms he cares to name, as long as he lives. He rambles something of that sort as he stumbles with Loki in his arms towards the palace. Why is the palace so far away? Why isn't the storm abating? Why can't I save Loki?
"Thor, we won't make it," gasps Loki, growing breathless. Every step Thor takes makes him cry out in pain; his blood runs down in rivulets along Thor's legs and shins and is stepped ruthlessly into wet grass and mud. "Stop here, Thor, please."
"Loki... By the realms, Loki, what can I do?" Thor weeps as he crumbles to his knees, still holding Loki, so only Loki knows that Thor is crying. The tears have mingled with rain. "What can I do?"
"Nothing. Do nothing. Accept that this is what I want," Loki murmurs. "I cannot... share you with anything else. I'm terribly selfish, Thor, and that has hurt you. You can't... be torn between your heart and... your duty. You need to be whole, because when you are whole... when you're whole, you shine. Like the sun. And that's when... I love you most. Know, know this..." Loki's voice is softer than the raindrops splattering on the muddy ground now, so Thor has to cradle Loki close to listen, and Loki breathes his last words to the one man whom he has loved for all of his life.
Thor falls silent. And the storm breaks completely, thunder and lightning ripping the skies apart, the rains drenching and flooding Asgard as have never before happened.
The Avengers and Jane Foster are returned to New York, Central Park, immediately after the injured Odin is brought back to the palace. Thor is remaining on Asgard for the time being while his father recuperates. After that, he informs them, he will come to Midgard. Asgard is no longer truly home for him.
"But Loki..." Steve begins to ask. Thor ignores the question and asks Hogun to escort them home.
"There will be no funeral pyre for Loki," Hogun tells them at the Bifrost Bridge. "Thor mourns him alone."
Tony is the only one to get angry at this, and the others do not quite understand why Tony is angry, so when they reached New York Tony leaves all of them and hails a cab back to Stark Tower, where he proceeds to systematically trash everything Loki and Thor has got their hands on before.
When Pepper returns in the evening, she sees Tony standing in the middle of a devastated living room, along with the remainders of numerous appliances. "Oh, Tony..."
"Don't," he warns thickly. "Not now, Pepper."
Pepper has lived with Tony long enough to know when not to push, so she sets down the dinner she has bought for him and exits the building, telling Jarvis to keep an eye on Tony lest he does something stupid.
Tony eats the dinner in utter silence, and then walks into the room Loki and Thor shared. The laptop is already in smithereens on the floor, hurled with great force against the wall, and now Tony allows himself the smallest bit of guilt that he did not see Loki's plan before.
"For a guy that's scarily smart, you are incredibly stupid," he mutters. Then he walks around the room and finally sees the piece of paper stuck under the pillow on the left side of the bed.
I figure you would be the one to understand my motives.
I have a blood debt, as Romanov has said before, and I will pay it in full with my own.
I will be killing people again, for Thor will not act otherwise. For that I apologize. I do not know if they are good or bad people, but I know that I will not harm children.
I will drag you and your friends into some trouble. I promise to keep it less... traumatic than before.
If you did get to Asgard, I hope you saw it the way I did: its beauty unparalleled and its serenity heartbreaking. I have never stopped hoping for its continued prosperity and peace.
And if I did not get a chance to be killed by my father, tell Thor that I know he struggles between duty, honor, and me, and that I have no wish to see him suffer any longer.
I am selfish, and incredibly fearful of the future, and a coward. Think of me what you will - I know what I am.
In secret we met—
In silence I grieve
That thy heart could forget,
Thy spirit deceive.
If I should meet thee
After long years,
How should I greet thee?—
With silence and tears.
Wise words from a Midgardian poet. And I will wait for him, at the very end of days, when he will find me again.
Tony stares at the letter and shuts his eyes. The great philanthropist inventor playboy genius billionaire Tony Stark does not cry for villains who killed people for his own gain, nor does he cry for fellow damaged beings with relationship and emotional issues, and definitely not for people who steal his girlfriend's shoes and eats his Rocky Road ice cream without asking.
"I'm not a fucking messenger, Loki," he mutters, and locks the note away.