"Those creatures. Asgard is under attack!"
It was lunch time, so there were a few people there when Thor burst into the kitchen. It was physically possible to see the colour drain from Loki's face as he turned to look at his brother.
"What?! So soon?"
Given that Heimdall and Merlin were both actively monitoring everything, and Loki had left some tracking spells running the news came as a shock. It was also a move they were tactically not expecting. All things considered, Asgard was the strongest of the Nine Realms. Earth shouldn't be bad – nukes can slow down a lot of things – but Asgard was easily superior in terms of intergalactic war.
It didn't make any sense to go after that realm and not somewhere like Jötunnheim first.
"Heimdall is holding the Observatory but they have swarmed the citadel!" Thor said desperately. "He calls for aid!"
"Jarvis, get everyone in here, now." Loki had rallied whilst his brother was trying to explain, and was already in control of the situation. When Jarvis was a beat too late in responding the trickster glared up. "Main alarms."
The siren wailed – a rare enough sound that it brought everyone thundering into the kitchen with an urgency that probably hadn't been seen since Hydra had attacked the Tower. Even those Avengers currently not in residence were alerted so that they knew to get themselves there as quickly as humanely possible.
If the alarm wasn't enough to state how dire the situation was, Loki and Thor's faces said it all.
"What the hell's happened?" Everyone was armed, but Tony actually had the Ironman suit assembling around him as he stumbled into the room – one leg struggling to attach.
"Asgard! She's under attack! We need to go!" Thor actually grabbed his brother's arm, only for Loki to throw him off.
"What? Thor, I can't! You know I can't!"
"Thor, stop a moment!" Steve was possibly the only person able to take Thor on physically and pulled the God round to face him, forcing him to stop. "What's happening? Who's attacking Asgard, and how do you know?"
"Heimdall managed to contact me; those creatures that have attacked other realms have now turned their sights on Asgard."
"Turned their sights on it, or there's an active attack underway?"
"An active attack! We have to stop them!" Thor turned back to his brother again to meet Loki's wide-eyed stare. "Is there no way you-"
"Thor, I can't! I have no magic, the Bifrost would be disastrous, I can't!"
"Can Asgard withstand this?" Tony cut across him. "Do you still have your army?"
Thor paused, the question running across his face – evidence that he hadn't thought any further than running to Asgard's defence.
"No." Loki's response was terse. "The battle on Alfheim took out a considerable number of our best warriors."
"Can Asgard defend herself?"
"We will fight for our kingdom, we won't-"
"Can Asgard defend herself?!"
"No." Again, Loki was the voice of reason. "No, she can't." When his brother looked like he was going to protest the Trickster held up a hand to silence him. "No, Thor, she can't. We don't have the men, we don't have the weaponry, we don't have the defences in place. Asgard is complacent and arrogant; we're not ready for this!"
"Right." Tony sounded grim as the final pieces of the suit settled around him. "Capricorn; you can't go, and that's not even being discussed. So that means I'm going."
"What?!" The Gods may not have been biologically related but their looks of horrified astonishment were almost identical.
"I've got the suit; I've tanked it up since Alfheim and Svartalfheim, it can withstand the radiation, the temperatures and the firepower we've seen exhibited. I was ready for this even if you guys weren't."
"Just your suit?" Rhodey interrupted Loki.
"War-machine too. And about half of the Iron Legion. The others can stay here as protection against Hydra."
"The Hulk is as indestructible as they come, and if you pull me through the Bifrost into a battle you can guarantee I'll be pretty damn angry." Bruce offered quickly. He saw Tony open his mouth in concern and forestalled him. "And Jarvis will be here and is as competent a doctor as me, if not better since he has the internet in his head. Any medical events –" And they both knew what he meant by that. "-Jarvis can sort it out."
Tony held his gaze for a beat then nodded. "Right. Rhodey, you in? This'll be big, man."
James snorted. "Try and stop me!"
"Excellent! 'Kay, Thor; you've got me, War-machine, Hulk and half the Iron Legion which is…about sixty something suits, off the top of my head. Maybe a few more."
"Anthony!" With no one listening to him Loki grabbed Tony's arm hard. "What in the Norns names are you thinking?! You can't-"
"Totally can and am. We're married, goat-horns, that had political ramifications, yes?"
"Yes, of course, but-"
"You can't fight, so I can fight for you – consider it a romantic gesture or something – look, you'd be doing this for me, right?"
"Of course! But I have seen these things in battle, you haven't, you don't know what you're going up against!" His fingers were probably leaving dents in Tony's gauntlet. "I'm a God! You aren't!"
Stark carefully peeled the trickster's hand off his arm and instead interlocked their fingers. "No, I'm Ironman. I'm not going to let these big bad space goons stomp all over your home if I can do something about it."
"But-" Loki's gaze slid to Rhodes and Bruce, unable to understand why they had any reason to do this.
"The Hulk is pretty much untouchable, and I liked Asgard; I'm willing to fight for it." Bruce offered.
"I fight for my team mates. Even if I don't like them. And besides, I told Tony that he had to take me with him next time he jetted off somewhere exotic!" Rhodey grinned. It was a pretty big statement; the man had never been to Asgard, had not seen the destruction the attackers had wrought on other worlds, and had made it very clear he disliked Loki. To state so quickly and decisively that he was willing to fight for Loki's home world when the trickster couldn't was a clear mark of the type of person he was. It was rather worthy of Steve Rogers.
"Outvoted, Capricorn. And we don't have time to debate it any further." Tony's tone was bright and flippant but his eyes said different as he tried to make Loki agree. Trust me. I can do this. We got this.
"Tony…" And that was fear right there. He didn't need to say anything else for Stark to hear it and know it. But there was also acceptance. Asgard being under attack put Loki's parents in danger, his son, his friends. And Asgard also held the Infinity Gauntlet, along with the Tesseract. Another Stone to be grabbed and, even more enticing; the receptacle the Stones were to go in. If Asgard were to fall the consequences were disastrous. "You had better be careful."
"Me? Careful? Always!"
"I mean it. I have seen these things in action, and if I had a choice I would keep you as far from them as possible."
"But there's no choice, and Asgard needs help."
Loki nodded, grudging, but in agreement. Tony squeezed his hand and grinned, then scanned the rest of the silent room for Evie.
The teenager shrugged. "Gotta save the universe. Or Avenge it, or whatever. I'm kinda used to one parent or another disappearing off to another planet and certain death like, every other month."
"Dad, I get it. Seriously. We're talking planet-wide destruction here; do you really think I'm going to stop you from trying to save them? That's my big brother and my grandparents up there!"
Tony stared at her for a moment. "Oh Birdy…The shit we keep putting you through. You've had to grow up way too fast."
"Well, somewhen between Hydra trying to kill us all and crazy aliens deciding to wipe out the nine realms it was kind of warrented, I guess." She shrugged and tried to smile. "I'd say be careful, but, y'know. Evil alien invasion and all that." She did allow her father to hug her though, despite the Ironman suit.
"We'll be quick and I won't take stupid risks." Tony pressed a kiss to her hair, then lowered his voice so that the others couldn't hear them. "And look after your mum for me."
For a long moment he couldn't work out why the terrible pain was so familiar. He had fallen asleep in bed had he not? He remembered the soft mattress, the pillows. He was certain he remembered. Stark tower, and Evie, and Tony, and…
He was sure he remembered that.
But then he felt the creature inside him squirm again and that wonderful dream melted back to cold, harsh reality.
The bar through his wrist held him tight to the wall – and through the dizzying pain he wondered how he could have ever imagined that it was gone. How could he have dreamt that this was actually over? The harsh rasp of the gravel that made up the floor, the heavy chain that pulled at his arm and the constant gnawing, biting pain. He couldn't even say where it originated from. So much hurt that one thing couldn't be pin-pointed any more.
How could he have been foolish enough to believe that anyone would be able to rescue him here? He knew how far from the Nine Realms they were – beyond the reach of the Bifrost, beyond the sight of Heimdall…so far and so alone.
Curling into a tight ball, Loki could do nothing more than scream wordlessly.
It was the gentle repetition of his name that eventually allowed him to fight back to consciousness and for half a moment he had absolutely no idea where he was.
The vividness of the pain and the terror were so real that it was near impossible to work out what was real and what wasn't. Something was pinning him down, pain was still shooting through his body and each breath was tight in his throat. With the imagery of the tiny cell still so fresh his mind was struggling to work out which sensations were real and which were remembered.
Was he still with the chitauri? He had always feared, deep at the back of his mind, that one day he would wake up back in that cell to find that the life he thought he was living was just another twisted torment. Had that happened? The pain and the fear made it very real.
"Loki, I need to you open your eyes." The voice was authoritative but quiet. "Open your eyes and look at me."
It was simpler to obey than try to fight and as his gaze came into focus he saw it was Jarvis leaning over him. When they made eye contact the droid smiled.
"Good. You are in the tower and completely safe. There is nothing here that can hurt you."
Loki nodded abruptly in response but it was quite clear that he hadn't taken on board what had just been said. His vitals were all over the place and Jarvis placed an articulated hand on the trickster's chest.
"Loki, I want you to name me five things you can see. Right now. What can you see? Five things."
The prince's brow furrowed as he stared up at the droid. With full blown panic racing through his system he could barely understand what was being asked of him.
"Look around, what can you see?" Jarvis repeated.
"…you." It was the easiest answer to force out.
"Excellent. That's one, I need four other things you can see."
The prince's wild gaze darted around for a moment before settling on the droid again. "Ceiling…"
"Good, that makes two."
"All normal, safe, bedroom things. One more please."
Jarvis nodded encouragingly. "Well done. Now four things you can hear. Listen and tell me what you hear."
Loki frowned again, but this time didn't need as much direction. "Air con…"
"Yes, it is rather noisy, isn't it? What else?"
He closed his eyes again, taking a deep breath as he tried to centre himself enough to concentrate. "…You? Your ankle clicks."
"Yes, I've been meaning to sort that out. Two more things?"
"…My breathing…and the clock."
"Good job. Now three things you can feel."
It was getting easier to think. His hammering pulse was slowing and breathing evening out which made thought possible again.
"The sheets. They're tangled. And…your hand. And…cold. It's cold in here…"
"It is colder than usual, yes. Now; two things you can smell."
Loki lay still for a moment, eyes closed as he breathed deeply. "…Tony's aftershave." He said finally. "On the pillow. It still smells of him. And…washing powder from the sheets. It smells like lavender and I don't like lavender."
"Noted; I'll change the washing powder. And finally one thing you can taste."
"Excellent. I am pleased to report that your pulse rate and respiration are slowing to levels that I have monitored as normal for you. How do you feel?"
"That's understandable. That did appear to be a nightmare of epic proportions."
Loki nodded shakily.
"Are you in pain at all?"
"I…no. No, I do not believe so."
"You do not believe so? Forgive me, but you are either in pain, or you are not."
The trickster shook his head, screwing his eyes closed again. "I don't know!" He started at the cool metal of Jarvis' hand against his forehead. "I don't know! I thought I was back there! I thought…It was so real!" The hand removed itself and he reached out blindly to grab it – a life-line in a not-yet real world.
"You were dreaming of your captivity again?"
"This wasn't real. This was the dream! None of this had been real!" Loki half sat up, the words tripping over each other in his renewed panic. "I was still there – it was still happening! Tony never found me!" Had he been more aware of what was happening he would have been ashamed of the way he so readily broke, pushing Jarvis away to curl over and hug his knees. "He never found me!"
"Your heart rate is rising again." The droid said carefully. "That is neither good for you nor the twins. I need you to focus on the present. You are safe; nothing can hurt you here."
"Here isn't real…This isn't real. I'm dreaming and I'm going to wake up and this will all be over! I'm still there, I'm still there!" Loki's fingers had tangled in his hair, tugging at the roots.
"You are in Stark Tower, it is quarter past three in the morning and there is nothing that can hurt you here."
"It's not over! It won't ever be over! I'm still there!"
"You are not asleep; you are on Earth – Midgard – in New York." Jarvis was a creation of logic, so logic was really all he had to go on in the moment.
"I can't believe that!" Loki's face was hidden as he spat the words.
"Look, why would you dream of me in this form?"
The droid raised a hand up, flexing the delicate joints. "Well, when you were taken I was just a voice in the walls, and one you barely spoke to, correct? So why would your dream give me form? And wouldn't you dream of Mr Stark, not myself?" He watched the trickster's frantic breathing slow by a fraction and when he judged that Loki was calming down he gently helped to untangle the prince's fingers from his hair. "There are many things about this scenario which don't ring true as a dream."
The God allowed Jarvis to lower his hands, but remained hunched over his knees. "But…"
"You had a nightmare. A particularly vicious one I believe."
"It was a nightmare. You are in the tower."
Loki took a deep, shuddering breath before raising his head a little to look around. "The tower? I'm…But I remember…I thought I was still in the cell."
"A nightmare. Or a memory perhaps. Either way, a long way from reality."
"It seemed so real…"
"These things tend to."
The prince straightened up and gently pushed the droid away, trying to regain some composure.
"What time is it?"
"Quarter past three." As good as he was at understanding emotion, there were still times when Jarvis just couldn't read what someone was thinking, and this was certainly one of those moments. Loki was still staring at the bedclothes, one hand unconsciously pressed to his stomach. Jarvis recognised fear – that was an obvious one – and confusion, but there were a myriad of other feelings bubbling away under the surface that the AI just couldn't decipher. "I would council not going back to sleep right away."
"I don't think I could if I tried…" The trickster rubbed a tired hand across his eyes. "I don't think I ever want to go to sleep again."
"If you would like some company, Ms Romanov is currently in the main room watching Rocky Horror."
Of all of the Avengers Natasha was probably the best at providing non-judgemental company. It wasn't very difficult to decide that it would be far better to have some company than stay where he was.
When Loki reached the main room Natasha simply glanced at him then pushed the bowl of popcorn over so that when he sat down he could reach it. The film was part way through which meant they didn't need to talk, nor really even acknowledge the other's presence until the credit's rolled.
"You want to pick a film?"
"I have no preference, something mindless will do."
Natasha nodded and flicked through the menu until she found the Disney section. "A classic mindless enough for you?" When a shrug was all she got in reply she selected one.
"You didn't give me a preference. Something against canines?"
"I have no problem with canines. I have a son who is a canine in fact; estranged now, sadly."
Natasha glanced at him in surprise, then caught Loki's tired grin. "Oh sure, ha ha."
"I'm being serious. He's called Fenrir, and he doesn't particularly like me very much."
The trickster rolled his eyes and didn't deign to answer. A few more minutes passed before Natasha shifted her weight a little to turn and look at him again.
"What brought you down here then?"
"Well, you were a bag of nerves when you walked in, but you seem to have calmed down now. What happened?"
Loki recalled his assessment of Natasha being the least judgemental of the team and decided to just go with the truth. "I had a nightmare and wanted some company."
"Just company, or were you hoping to talk about it?"
It wasn't as if the woman didn't know what it was like. As someone who had had her fair share of nightmares she knew that the innocuous, almost childish label hid something that was big and terrifying and at times appalling.
Disney and popcorn would work.
They managed about half an hour before Natasha turned to look at the prince.
"Can I ask a question?"
Loki raised an eyebrow. "I'm surprised you want permission."
"Well, I would like an honest answer, and I doubt you'll want to give me one. But I want to ask, given that it's just you and me right now. And Jarvis of course."
"I'm intrigued as to what you could possibly want to ask me that requires privacy."
The woman laughed. "Well, a number of things spring to mind, but actually this is serious, I'm afraid."
Given that he had come out here for distraction from his dreams, and the film wasn't exactly drawing his attention, Loki nodded. "Alright, what do you want to ask?"
"These creatures; they've taken out two realms already, and are warring on Asgard at the moment. How big are those realms compared to Earth?"
That wasn't such a straight forward question as it sounded, and the trickster frowned slightly before answering. "Depends on what you mean. Geographically Svartalfheim was much larger than Earth, but very sparsely populated. Alfheim in contrast was about the same size and had a much greater population of living beings – Elf and animal. Asgard is smaller in both regards. Why?"
"And military-wise; how would they compare to Earth?"
"That's not exactly something that can be compared." Loki said slowly. "Alfheim lost most of their own army before Asgard joined, so that was a staggered battle of two separate forces. However, we worked together well where we could. Alfheim was a strong and united realm so there was no dissension within their military. The same is true of Asgard. Earth, however, is made up of fractured nations."
"So we're weak compared to other realms?"
"Earth has possibly the most advanced weapons in any of the realms. Early on we other realms worked on tapping into the life forces of the universe, allowing our species to create the Bifrost and such. Humans however, left such arts behind with their pagan beliefs and industrialised instead. We all made peace between our realms and while we forged alliances you only forged new ways to kill each other. Of course; it doesn't help that Earth is so very young compared to everyone else." Loki waved a hand around at the room they were in. "When I was born Homo sapiens were still evolving."
"But if we've got advanced weapons-"
"Earth is fractured. How could you compare to a realm like Alfheim with one solid standing army, when each country here has it's own and they're usually fighting each other. Look at what's happening around the world and tell me that Earth is strong. Believe me, to an invading force this realm looks like easy pickings."
"Is that what we looked like to you?"
"I wasn't trying to win, remember."
"But if you had been. Does humanity really come across as that easy to destroy?"
"I believe it was an American president who said something about a house being divided? It is very easy to topple a system that isn't united."
Natasha slumped back into the cushions, looking dispirited. It was hardly difficult to see that Earth was a very complex world, politically, but it was hard to believe that given the firepower of most major nations that the realm wasn't taken seriously as a military power.
"Can we hope that Asgard will take care of them so we don't need to worry about it?" She asked hopelessly.
At the mention of his home realm Loki scowled. "I don't know."
"I thought you guys had the best army in the realms."
"We did, yes. And then we went to support Alfhiem. Our forces have been decimated."
"Can you win?"
The silence was telling. Loki drew his knee up to his chest, staring at the cartoon on the TV without really seeing it. "I don't know. If it were up to me I would have approached the whole battle as a rescue mission, evacuating as many of the civilians as possible."
"They won't be doing that?"
"They will eventually, but you must remember what Aesir think like; depleted army or not, they would go into a battle assuming a victory."
"I'm not Aesir."
Natasha appeared to think on this for a few moments, biting her lip as she stared at the TV.
"Loki, if the creatures attack Earth, can we win?"
"No. Humanity would put up a valiant fight I believe, but no."
"Could we run?"
"How? You can barely reach your own moon. Where would you run to?"
"But…" The woman started a reply, stopped, thought about it for a moment, then tried again. "Would the other realms help us?"
"You're assuming they would still be standing by this point. There may be no one left who could help. And even if there was someone left alive out there, Earth has no links to any but Asgard, why would a realm risk such odds?"
Natasha appeared to think on this for a few moments, biting her lip as she stared at the TV.
"But surely…" She cut herself off again. "Could we surrender?"
"To whom? There's no obvious chain of command, there's no leader on the battlefield. I doubt they'd even understand the concept." Loki smirked, ever so slightly. "And besides, I would not think humanity would allow itself to give in so easily, you are a proud people, whether it serves you well or not."
"True." The woman sighed. "Is this it then? Are we saying we've got however long it will take for them to get to us and then that's it? Game over for Earth?"
"On the assumption that the other realms fall, it is very possible. However, there is no reason for them to come here that we know of. They are after the Infinity Stones, and with the tesseract gone Earth doesn't hold one anymore."
"Yeah…don't think we're gonna thank you for that though."
"Perish the thought."
The film had finished in the background and the credits were rolling. Natasha switched off the movie centre and one of the rolling news channels came on. Nothing huge; a minor earthquake somewhere in Asia, politics in the Middle East, some celebrity doing something to raise money. Run of the mill, good old Earth.
As much as people complained and fretted and worried, it was still a planet worth fighting for should the need arise.
"I miss Hydra."
Loki cast her an amused glance and she shrugged. "I mean it, I do! They're human, at least. We know how to fight humans. We can fight humans. This whole Independence Day style thing is way over our heads; even the chitauri could at least be killed. And we knew that if we took you out we'd probably win. This is too big."
"We still have Asgard. There is still the hope that they will prevail."
"Yeah right - you don't believe that. You said yourself that you lost most of the army to Alfhiem."
Loki watched the images flicker over the television screen. "True. But I have to hope. If I don't then I have to think about how I've sent my husband into a hopeless battle that he can't win and may not return from. And believe me; if you thought you saw insanity when I brought the Chitauri here it will pale into comparison to what will happen if Tony dies." His hand had unconsciously migrated to his stomach as he spoke, and Natasha noted the movement.
"You know he'll do whatever it takes to get back here. There was a time when the Tony I knew would have quite happily gone into self-destruct mode in such a battle, but he's got too much to live for to do that these days."
"What? Sleepless nights and a grouchy spouse?"
"Well, Evie's cute at least. He can always sleep on the couch if you annoy him too much."
"Shouldn't that be if he annoys me?"
"Everything annoys you."
Loki smirked. "True."
Natasha let silence stretch out between them again for a few moments before changing the subject. "By the way; I don't remember if I ever thanked you for saving me from that mine back in Iceland. I'd have blown us all up if you hadn't been there."
"That seems so long ago now." The trickster mused. "Although you are welcome, of course. You are certainly one of the people here whom I find the least annoying."
"A high honour, I'm sure."
"Thor would think so."
The woman laughed quietly at that. "Thor can annoy all of us at the best of times." She glanced over to see a more relaxed smile stretch over her companions face. "Loki…can I ask something else?"
The prince sighed, his eyes slipping closed. He knew what she wanted; it was written all over her face and he couldn't say he hadn't been expecting one of them to ask at some point. He had been waiting on bringing the subject up himself, but realistically they needed to know; especially if something were to go wrong without Tony or Bruce there.
"You want to know if I will finally reveal what is wrong with me." He didn't need to open his eyes to know he was right.
"It's been months now, and no sign of improvement. Believe it or not but we're worried about you."
"Of course you are; my magic is very useful."
"No; we're worried about you. We all know you're finding it tough without Tony around. You don't quite trust us, you're ill and you have no idea when or if he will return. We're worried about you."
The God of lies tried to pick that statement apart and found that he couldn't. Natasha was a talented liar – but she wasn't using those skills at the moment and he could tell the sincerity in her words.
It came out quite suddenly, and he wasn't entirely certain he'd given his mouth permission to say the words.
"…Oh. Is that…good?"
He couldn't blame her for the question; he hadn't exactly made it sound good.
"Yes. Yes it is. It is making me very ill, and draining all of my energy, but…it's a good thing." His hands move to rest on his stomach – imagining the bump that he knew was hidden. "Just unexpected."
"Congratulations." Natasha's voice had warmed; more sincerity and genuine feeling than she usually allowed. "Any idea of the gender?"
"A surprise. Both of them."
The assassin was always going to be quick on the uptake so rather than surprise at the statement she just laughed. "Oh that is going to be fun! Evie is a handful as it is! Two more? Good luck with that!" She reached over to playfully punch his arm. "Seriously though – congratulations."
"It still feels strange to tell people about it. I'm using what little magic I can muster right now to hide the visible signs but I suppose I will have to confess sooner or later."
"Take your time; there's no sense in getting worked up over something that you can control. If it's stressing you out you can put it off a little longer. Or delegate. Get Jarvis to tell the others."
"Actually…that's not a bad idea."
It may have been considered a little bit the cowards way out, but with everything else going on Loki just didn't have it in him to face down the rest of the Avengers with the news. Natasha had spelt it out quite correctly; he was still very sick, beside himself with concern about Tony and fearful for his homeworld. He didn't need to deal with everyone else's emotions upon finding out the news.
Jarvis informed him that it went well, though, which was something. Sam and Scott – both of whom were less used to the very strange world the Avengers lived in – were noticeably weirded out, and Clint made some crude jokes, but the group were pretty accepting really. Quiet words of congratulations and happiness were expressed on an individual basis to Loki, but in general nothing really changed.
Well, Steve started cooking decent meals rather than ordering take-out for them all every night, but no one was going to complain about a little healthier eating.
However, the one thing that didn't make anything any easier was time.
Despite knowing that there was a significant difference in the way time flowed between Asgard and Earth it was still very difficult as the weeks turned into the months with no word. Loki was in a permanent bad mood; hormones, worry and lack of sleep all warring against each other. He was reasonable with Evie, and to some extent Natasha, but no one else wanted to be around him. This led some of the Avengers to come up with creative excuses to get away from the main living spaces.
The miniature helicarrier had been moved from its place on the table down to one of the labs, and locked in a safe as an extra precaution. There had been some debate as to whether or not to turn the interior of the safe into a vacuum just in case, but Tony had nixed that since no one could quite work out what the shrinking had done to all of the liquid oxygen in the fuel tanks, and no one really wanted to find out.
Now, however, it sat on one of the lab tables, looking like a child's toy, where Steve, Sam, Bucky and Scott had put it. It was highly likely that the computer systems hadn't been properly put in place yet, since the thing had been under construction, but that just meant that there was a good chance there would be more by way of paperwork lying around. This did pose the question of how they were going to retrieve any of it though - since it wasn't like they had the space anywhere to hide a full-sized helicarrier inside, and outside it would be pretty obvious to any curious satellites. Steve had briefly entertained the idea of going back to Tony's lab in New Mexico where Project Direwolf had been put together all those years ago, but Jarvis had quickly informed him that even that space wasn't large enough.
Then Scott had looked at them like they were idiots and reminded them that he could shrink down to the same scale. And shrink them with him.
This was why there was a sheet of paper next to the tiny helicarrier, with 'DO NOT TOUCH, EXPERIMENT UNDERWAY' written in big red letters and Jarvis was ready to jump in and shoo people away. Not that they were expecting anyone to come down to the lab, but they knew better than to not take every precaution these days.
"This is weird."
"You said that already."
The four of them were walking down one of the main corridors to the helm of the ship, Sam periodically turning to walk backwards so that he could stare at the expanse of hallway behind them.
"I mean, you know it's tiny, so it should feel tiny too, you know what I'm saying?"
"No." Bucky was the only one bothering to reply, and wasn't exactly playing nice in the process.
The helicarrier did, to all intents and purposes, look normal though. Scott was the only one of the four who hadn't seen one in operation, but even he could see the potential the craft had and what it might be capable of when fully running. They had already noted some new and upgraded weapons systems that would need Tony's insight when he returned.
From the command deck it made sense for Scott to be the one to stay and help Jarvis play with the minimal systems that had begun to be installed on the computers whilst the other three split up to search the other decks for hard copies of any information that might have been used.
Even blueprints to the ship they were stood in could give them some clues into what Hydra was planning next.
"They've barely got an operating system here." Scott was definitely one of those people that talked to himself whilst working. However, Jarvis couldn't always tell the difference between talking to one's self and directed conversation so often plumped for the latter and answered anyway.
"There is enough for me to work with, Mr Lang."
"Even with half the computers still in boxes on the floor?"
"I only need to access one and then I can go through the network."
"Wouldn't it need to be linked to the network first? This thing barely plays the Window's start up music." It wasn't actually Windows, but Scott had never heard of the custom built soft-ware Hydra were apparently using.
"Technically, yes, but I know these systems quite well; I can find a way, Mr Lang." The voice in Scott's earpiece sounded smug as he stuck the metallic dot Jarvis had given him to the side of the screen.
"How does this even work? Shouldn't I be putting a USB stick in or something? That's not even the computer; that's the monitor. How can you possibly link into anything through a monitor?"
"Just assume that Mr Stark is a genius and that I know what I'm doing."
That rather implied that Scott was an idiot, especially in the tone of voice Jarvis used. He settled down to watch the incomprehensible symbols roll across the screen.
Elsewhere in the ship Sam and Bucky had been sent by Steve to check the cargo bays whilst the super soldier hunted down the munitions stores. This hadn't gone down so well with either of the men.
"Why he thinks we have to stick together on this…" Sam hissed.
"He's obviously worried that you couldn't hold your own if we run into trouble."
"There's nothing to run into! He just thinks you're going to get lost in here."
The bickering had become a habit; the two actually worked rather well together as long as it didn't develop into an actual fist fight. Steve knew this, and whilst both could hold their own, Bucky knew the helicarrier layout and Sam understood modern technology better. It made sense even if it annoyed them.
The cargo bays were easy enough to get to and weren't locked. Or rather locks hadn't been installed yet. There were a handful of large containers already in place, but given the lack of security the two men could already correctly guess that they would be empty.
"Steve, please tell me you're having more luck than we are." Sam pleaded.
"Not particularly. None of the weapons were installed so there's not much to go on."
"What about weapon delivery systems?"
"The usual and some newer bit and pieces we'll have to ask Jarvis about."
"Can you take a photo Captain Rogers?" Jarvis could still make them all jump when he hijacked their comms systems to ask his questions.
"Uh…Yeah, will my phone still work? I don't understand how this shrinking thing works."
"I believe it will, but you will have to try it to find out."
Evidently it did work since Sam's phone pinged in his pocket and he pulled it out to see that Steve had sent the photo to himself and Bucky. He frowned at what he was seeing.
"That's not a gun. That looks like some sort of nozzle."
"Yeah, that's what I thought. Kind of reminded me of a crop duster. There's a pumping system attached." A moment later a second photo arrived of said pump. "There are about twelve of them on this deck alone. That's going to be…fifty odd over the whole ship? There's no sign of what's meant to go in them."
Sam glanced at Bucky. Project Insight had intended to wipe out anyone who was a threat, and originally that had been via armed warheads. Hydra had definitely been going down the more subtle route since that mishap and the Falcon had a horrible suspicion what that weapons system was intended to deliver.
"Jarvis? Bets on what that is meant to spray?"
"Nothing good. Are there any canisters or tanks of any form that may hold a gas or liquid nearby?"
"Uh…there are some small gas canisters pre-loaded in the mechanism, but they didn't bring the main stocks on yet. No name on them, just the chemical formula. My chemistry is pretty poor."
"Allow me, Captain Rogers."
"C4H8Cl2S. That mean anything to anyone?"
It meant very little to Bucky and Sam certainly.
Jarvis affected a little cough – his usual way of preceding bad news that he thought wasn't going to be taken well.
"Gentlemen, Can I suggest that you all evacuate the ship, please?"
"Is that your way of saying that shit's dangerous?" Scott, long forgotten by the others, chimed in. "Because that sounds like a chloroethyl-sulphide and that's not something I want to be around."
"How do you know that?" Sam hadn't intended to sound quite so insulting, but it came out poorly.
"I've got a degree in engineering – I minored in chemistry."
"Again, can you discuss this after you've evacuated please." Jarvis' tone was sharper. "I would like to remind you that we are currently shrunk down by a considerable amount and therefore the gas in those canisters is under tremendous pressure."
"So it is dangerous? Can it be disarmed?" Steve asked.
"Captain Rogers, that is Mustard Gas, if you know of a way to disarm it, please go ahead."
It was quite eye-opening just how quickly the four men managed to get themselves off of the helicarrier and back to the correct size. The moment they were all out Jarvis scooped the miniature craft into an airtight box. Just because it was currently stable didn't mean it was going to remain that way.
"Is there any way this could return to its correct size without your input, Mr Lang?"
"Uh…as far as I know it can't."
"Good. In that case I shall keep this contained to prevent any contamination should the tanks lose integrity given the pressure they're under."
"You think it's likely to blow?"
Jarvis looked at Scott, highly refined optics focussing on the man. "Let's just say I would rather we are prepared just in case."
"Mustard gas?! Hydra are using fucking mustard gas!?" Clint managed to work anger into the horror the sentence rightly deserved. "Why? Why use an obsolete weapon?!"
"Hardly obsolete." Natasha quickly corrected. "It works, it works well, is easy enough to manufacture and you can easily protect your own side from it."
"But surely sarin or anthrax or something-" Evie started.
"Mustard gas is old school trench warfare. Literally trench warfare. People are too advanced these days. We're prepared for new and devastating attacks, not old ones – do you keep a gas mask on your person at all times?"
The girl shook her head. No one outside of the military and emergency services really kept a working gas mask on them every waking moment.
"There are still places where it is used, but it has drastically fallen from popularity." Jarvis said primly. "It may have been devastatingly effective in World War One, but people learnt from that and when the Second World War started Britain provided every man, woman and child with a gas mask to try and prevent that devastation in a civilian population. It worked, and gas was never used in the Blitz, because what would be the point? Now, however, no one in the Western world expects it."
Bucky waved a hand at the droid to stall him. "History lecture aside, since some of us here had to live that crap, can we just focus on the fact that Hydra are arming themselves with mustard gas!"
Jarvis nodded. "We need to find where they are creating it. In the meantime I shall start research and manufacture on gas masks for everyone in the tower immediately. I will also put together an information sheet of what to do in case of an attack."
"Surely 'put on a gas mask' is all we need?"
"It's a little more complicated than that. There are a significant number of people in this tower who would not have the first idea what to do in the event, and within our own group we need to watch out for Miss Evelyn."
Clint groaned and rested his head in his hands. "Y'know, I can't decide what is worse; this, or the possibility of spontaneous alien attack."
Loki was still awake, having watched the clock run through the hours to early morning. He was idly reading an ancient text on Tony's Starkpad when there was a gentle cough and Jarvis interrupted him.
"You needn't address me like that, Jarvis, we've had this conversation before. And what could possibly be wrong at this time of night?"
"Your daughter is outside the door and wants to know if you're still awake."
Loki frowned. "Well obviously yes, but why is she awake?"
"Would it not be better to have this conversation with her?"
"Oh, yes. Of course."
Evie looked like she'd been crying, her blanket wrapped loosely around her shoulders where she stood in the doorway. At a glance Loki was pretty certain what was wrong.
She nodded miserably. "I often have them, but this one was really bad…" There was an unspoken question at the end of the statement that was readily understandable to her parent. Loki placed the Starkpad to one side and indicated to the empty space in the bed. Evie was quick to accept the invitation for a hug.
It had been a long time since Loki had had one of his children come calling in the middle of the night due to a nightmare. Sleipnir had been terrible for it – although that was possibly more because he was clingy and had separation issues than genuinely having bad dreams.
"I'm worried about dad." Evie whispered. It was like admitting it heightened the danger. Loki was equally worried, but that wasn't exactly something he could tell his daughter.
"Your father has survived the most unbelievable of things before. I think that whatever he comes up against in Asgard it will learn to fear humankind."
"He takes too many risks. You weren't here when there was that thing with the drone; it was horrible!"
"He's got enough people watching his back – and Jarvis will forcibly take over if he thinks he needs to. Whatever happens, your father is coming home."
"Mmmm." Evie sounded less than convinced. "I'm still worried."
"That's natural. I would have concerns if you weren't worried."
"Are you worried?"
"I'm half a million years old. It gets to a point where you realise worrying just steals away time you could spend on sorting out the problem."
"Not much we can sort from here."
"Then worrying is useless."
"Does that ever work?"
"Not particularly, but it is better than nothing."
Evie smiled slightly. "Not that helpful really."
"I'm running on very little food and sleep; it is the best I can manage." Loki ruffled her hair. "And I am not my sharpest at 3AM."
"Yeah, I guess…" The girl looked despondent as she settled down next to him. "Can I stay here? I don't want another nightmare."
"Only if you promise not to snore."
"I don't snore!"
She did, but only a little, and only in the way most children do. It took her very little time to fall asleep again, cuddled up against Loki's side. He picked the Starkpad back up but made certain to set the screen to as dark as was still readable.
Should you not be getting some sleep too?
The silent text from Jarvis scrawled across the screen and Loki smiled slightly as he typed a response.
I do not want to risk my own nightmare with Evie here; that should be obvious.
….Of course, sir. I should have realised that.
You're not personally familiar with nightmares, Jarvis, I wouldn't expect you to have thought of it.
Would you like something to watch to help stay awake?
Go on then, surprise me.
Dangerous words to a creation of Tony Stark's but he trusted Jarvis enough not to have Hentai blare out of the tablet at full volume. As it was he was presented with Casablanca which he had seen many times before, but could always watch at least once more.
Despite Jarvis's best attempts Loki did doze off, but the AI monitored him for the signs he had come to recognise as a nightmare beginning, ready and waiting to wake him if necessary. There was no need though, and it was possible the trickster's subconscious knew that Evie was there so was keeping strict control on his dreams. Evie was also far more peaceful now that she had a parent nearby to make her feel safe.
It should have been a quiet night now that Jarvis was content everyone who needed to be asleep was asleep. However, nothing can ever be that simple. Tiny micro-crystal circuits picked up on a familiar echo of energy about twenty seconds before the energy itself manifested and sirens began to wail.
Some people in the tower were far more used to being woken by alarms than others, and some were far better at it, but everyone was taken equally by surprise.
"Main balcony. Bifrost incoming." Jarvis spoke over the alarms, his voice echoing throughout the tower from every speaker. He drew the main power resources to the elevators as all the members of the Avengers tried to rush to the afore mentioned floor and all used the lifts at once.
The whole group was in sleepwear, although some – Evie, Loki, Natasha – had managed to grab dressing gowns en route, and there was a very haphazard array of weaponry that had been to hand. Still a lethal show of force if needed, but certainly not conventional.
The sight that they all ran in to, however, was not what anyone had hoped for.
Tony and Thor were upright, at least, but supporting Rhodey between them. Sleipnir was collapsed behind them against the railings, his grey coat stained rust red and one leg at an unnatural angle. However, these sights were barely noticeable as the glass doors of the balcony shattered inwards, showering the approaching Avengers in glass.
The Hulk came roaring into the main room, swiping blindly at the sofa and sending it flying out of one of the windows. The people around him automatically scattered as he thundered forward into the centre of the room.
Mad eyes roved wildly before falling on Loki – an old and known target – and he started towards the trickster, bellowing furiously.
"Banner, no!" It was Steve who yelled loudest, but he was only just heard over the other horrified cries.
With all of the other far more recent horrors he had seen and experienced, Loki had almost forgotten what it was like to stare down the Hulk when the creature was in full rage mode. Had his circumstances been different he may have tried to stand his ground, tried to reason with the tiny piece of Bruce that could hear him. But it wasn't his own safety he was thinking of.
No one was close enough to intervene as the Hulk chased the trickster backwards until Loki's back hit the wall and he had absolutely nowhere to run.
"No!" From where he stood, still outside with War-machine a dead weight across his shoulders, all Tony could see was the Hulk draw back and punch. Hard.
The alarms fell silent, leaving an eerie quiet across the room broken only by Evie's terrified sobs. The Hulk stood motionless, his fist still where it landed and shoulders rising and falling harshly. He was hunched, forehead against the wall, shielding whatever had just happened from the room's view. For the longest moment no one moved.
Then part of the plaster on the wall fell down around where his fist was buried in it and broke the horrified spell that had fallen and people began to breathe again.
Loki was sat at the Hulk's feet, back flat against the wall as he stared up at the creature in silent terror, his arms wrapped tight around his stomach. The punch had landed directly next to his head, leaving him unharmed if not badly shaken. The Hulk snarled at him, but his gaze kept returning to the trickster's protective stance, something cutting through the rage to recall the reason Loki had run and not fought.
The Hulk took a lumbering step backwards, grunted again, then suddenly collapsed in on himself. The settling pile of clothes stirred to reveal Bruce knelt in the centre of them, looking utterly bewildered and lost. Then his gaze focussed on Loki and his expression turned to horror.
"Oh God, no! Did I-?"
"No. No, your Mr Hyde stopped himself." The trickster's voice was shaking and barely above a whisper. "He remembered and stopped himself." It had been the first time he had been face-to-face with the Hulk since the aborted invasion and it felt as terrible as the first time, even if the results were different.
A large piece of plaster fell down from the huge hole in the wall to shatter next to the prince and he flinched.
"You're sure you're okay-?" Bruce was scrabbling at the torn clothing to cover himself, but was still managing to worry.
"Fine. I'm fine." Loki didn't sound it, but was already searching out his husbands gaze. "And you? All of you?"
Because they didn't look fine at all.
"Rhodey…" Was all Tony needed to say.
War-machine was a dead weight across his colleague's shoulders, and when laid flat down on one of the sofas didn't stir. Tony went to release the armour, but Bruce – still scrambling with his torn, oversized clothing – hurriedly stopped him.
"Don't; the suit is protecting his spine!"
"What happened?" Loki had pulled himself to his feet and was at his husband's side, trying to assess the situation from the little he could see.
"Severed spinal cord. Jarvis is monitoring and he's still breathing but…" Tony was staring down at his best friend like he thought James was going to vanish in front of him. "It's C1, C2. He's broken his goddamn neck."
"I have a Shield doctor prepped and on her way, Sir." Jarvis, as efficient as ever. "ETA twenty minutes."
"Is that soon enough?" Loki asked. When there wasn't an immediate reply he glanced up sharply. "Jarvis, will that be soon enough?"
"I can't say, sir. It may not be."
"Is anyone else this badly wounded?" The question was directed at Tony, but when the man didn't answer, Loki turned to his brother instead. "Thor? Are any of you this badly wounded?"
"Wha-? No. No, Colonel Rhodes is the most grievously injured of our group." Which said a lot, since they all looked appalling. "Why?"
The answer was apparent enough when the trickster crouched down beside the sofa and placed one hand over the armour covering Rhodey's neck. Despite saying that his magic was unusable he hadn't been quite truthful – it could be used alright, it would just have repercussions. But they were repercussions on him, and not the twins, so he would willingly take this hit.
Still; the spine is a complex, delicate and complicated thing. Nerve and bone and sinew and blood vessels all making sure that the whole body can communicate. Loki's healing skills were rudimentary, and he could in no way fully solve the problem, but he could help seal up a severed spinal cord. It would keep Rhodes alive until the doctor arrived, at least.
"Loki!" Bruce seemed to realise what he was doing first, but knew better than to try and interrupt someone in the middle of a medical procedure. However, his realisation made Tony recognise the consequences too, and dive to Loki's side. It was a few more moments before the trickster gasped for breath, then collapsed sideways, his husband being the only thing stopping him from smacking his head on the floor.
"Sir, the Colonel's vitals are looking steadier." Jarvis said. "He appears to be stabilising."
"Good. That's good." Tony didn't look like he meant the words though; sat where he was on the floor, grey and shaken, his husband unconscious in his arms.
For a very long moment no one spoke; silence filling the room as the Earth-bound Avengers took in the state of their comrades. Shell shock was the only thing that came to mind.
All the blood and mud in the world didn't mean a thing compared to the wild-eyed thousand mile stare that refused to meet any other gaze. Even Sleipnir, where he lay slumped, had a glassy expression, his ears flat back against his skull and eyes showing the whites.
"Tony…" Steve was the one to break the hallowed silence and who asked what they were all thinking. "What happened?" No one expected to hear anything good.
"We…"Stark looked down at Loki in his arms, then at Rhodes – broken and battered on the sofa – and shook his head.
"We lost." Bruce filled in for him. "We lost the battle."
"Asgard is gone."