Please note (for the entire future of this story) that I suck at science and my admiration for Tony and Bruce's intelligence does not necessarily translate into being able to properly convey it. Their science conversation is pathetic, but I DO WHAT I WANT. Just go with it, guys.
Loki hadn't gone mad. He knew he hadn't.
He knew where he was, knew how they'd gotten there. He knew what day it was, how old he was, he knew what had happened.
It was only that he kept forgetting.
His mind had always been carefully organized, even when he was a boy. His logic and ability to analyze the world around him were what made him good at magic and why no one saw his tricks coming. But things were different now. He felt as though someone had come in and ransacked his mind. Somehow, he'd let his guard down, and something had come in and wrecked the place. He was frantically trying to restore order. But sometimes, he just forgot.
Sometimes, he was still there, with Brokk, with his mouth closed and his tongue stilled and fear filling him until he couldn't breathe—Father abandoned me, no one's coming, I didn't mean it, please please please I can't stand this I'm losing my mind please take it off me, Father help me—but then he'd remember. That was long ago. Brokk was still alive to rail against the embargo, but Eitri had died two summers ago.
When Loki was fully present, he could look at himself, take stock of what he'd done to himself, see the fear in Thor's eyes, and he'd know that he forgot more often than he remembered. It chilled him to the bone. He was not in control. He could not imagine anything more terrifying than being out of control, and here he was. Brokk had never frightened him as much as he frightened himself.
In those moments when he was present, he saw the benefit of pretending he wasn't. It made them think he was harmless, possibly even a lost cause. It bought him time. More than anything, he needed time. He had to fight through this, put to rights all the things that had been knocked askew inside him, and try to stop forgetting. He couldn't do it, locked in a cell. The cell had been . . .
There were several days that were simply missing from his memory. He couldn't bring himself to think on them, because it brought the crippling fear back and he would feel himself starting to slip away. He needed time to fix things. He needed time to stop being so afraid. To stop feeling so defeated.
He didn't know how to do that. He couldn't formulate a plan. There was nothing.
That was why he'd gone with Thor. That was why he was with him still. There was nothing else. He'd fallen so far and failed so badly. There was no world he could go to that would give him refuge now. There was no way he could earn the forgiveness of Asgard—and he didn't want it, not from those bastards, why would he, he didn't—
Steady. He had to stay present.
Every time he tried to think of a way out of this desperate situation, he'd only find himself forgetting and going away again. He had no mercy he could fall back on and no safe place in all the realms, and someone had broken into his mind and taken away his last ability to defend himself. It wasn't fair. It couldn't be. He didn't deserve this much shame.
. . . Did he?
He had difficulty remembering all that had happened. Especially after he fell from the bridge—you let go, you didn't fall, you let go—but he remembered that people had died, some of them here. New York. The tower. Thor loved these people, these Midgardians, and Loki had tried to make them his people because— No, he couldn't think about that. With the Chitauri, during that time, there was so much terror and pain and despair and loathing, and the worst part was that he couldn't remember whose . . . Maybe that was when. That was when the stranger had broken into his mind and moved things out of their proper place.
He couldn't be sure of the things he'd done. He didn't know. He remembered being so very angry and hurt and afraid and alone . . .
He'd had to please the Chitauri. That had been important, he could remember that it was important and skitter away from why it was. That was why he'd stayed after the battle. He could have run, but he hadn't, he had waited for Thor. Because he had failed, and Thor had been there to take him away. If he hadn't, Loki would have had to go with the Chitauri. There was something worse beyond them, if they'd taken him there would have been something . . . Loki remembered being desperately happy that Thor was there to claim him, but he couldn't think about what would have happened otherwise. He simply couldn't. It made him so afraid. It made him forget things again.
Thor was his brother.
He'd wanted so much to deny it, but Loki had failed in that as he had in everything, because Thor was so damned stubborn. Thor wouldn't let anything change it. They were brothers and that was all. His behaviour these past . . .hours or daysorweeksormore no, no, he had to remember that much, he had to know the passage of time at least because he wasn't mad, he wasn't—
Steady. Don't go away again.
Thor had changed. The banishment had changed him some, but in the time since then he'd changed much more. He was quieter and more thoughtful. Kinder. Some perhaps could be attributed to his silly human girl but much more than that, it seemed Thor had simply decided it was time to grow up.
It was supposed to make him a better prince, it was supposed to make him kingly. But he'd chosen exile, for however long this lasted. It made no sense. He was gathering up all his stubbornness, all his passion, all this newfound patience and gentleness, and he was pouring every ounce of it into . . . Loki.
That was so terribly frightening. He couldn't cope with Thor's devotion. Thor was putting himself at risk by taking responsibility for all this, and was wearing himself thin trying to live up to that.
Thor was laying right beside him, frowning even in his sleep. Loki had faked what signs of madness didn't come naturally until they all believed he was nothing but a broken shell, so he could be left in his brother's care. It hadn't been a plan, it had been a reaction, but it was all he had. Loki had failed so spectacularly, he'd even failed at dying. He was shattered and he'd thought all that was left was to face judgment and hope it killed him. He hadn't thought that Thor would intervene in his punishment. But Thor had, so Loki had clung to it for reasons he couldn't name.
He'd hurt people who were under Thor's protection. He might have even done it on purpose, only he couldn't think about that now. It—Thor— made no sense. Loki was a Frost Giant, they weren't even truly brothers, and Loki had hurt people. Thor had no reason to do anything but sit back and watch Loki burn.
Thor muttered in his sleep. It sounded like Loki's name.
Thor loved him still. Loki was no longer able to doubt it, no matter how he wished he could, and all he could do in his fear and pain and confusion was latch onto that and look for deliverance. He didn't know what Thor could accomplish and while they'd been in Asgard Loki had been forgetting everything so often that he couldn't guide him. Some of the fear had gone away the minute they were out of Asgard, but not enough.
It was too much. It was too hard to bear. Loki couldn't take the sight of Thor's face right now. He couldn't look anymore at Thor's belief that he was still worth it and he hated seeing that Thor had found the strength in himself to change, something that Loki couldn't find.
He took the debit card that Thor had set down on a table, because there was a humming in his mind that told him he had to start giving something back to Thor before the man grew too weary to do this anymore. What if he left Loki stranded with only half a brain and three worlds hungry for his blood? Well, four, if the dwarves blamed him still for that embargo. He had to make Thor happy. He would bring back dinner.
There wasn't much Loki could do, when he was like this, but he could probably find food. Thor deserved something. Didn't he? Or was he repaying a debt he owed Loki for the pain in their pasts? No, he couldn't think about that, it made him feel dark and his vision went narrow like he was about to forget . . .
He was so very powerless. So very trapped. Hopeless. He had to depend on Thor completely and that was terrifying. He couldn't go home, to a world he knew and understood. Every minute there had felt like stones dropped onto his chest to suffocate him, and he'd felt like he'd lived every minute of it back in Brokk's imprisonment. All of them hating him, all of them judging him— they stitched him up to silence him— he wasn't allowed to be Loki, nobody liked Loki, he was supposed to be a shadowy copy of Thor— lock him up and put him away where they couldn't see him— sew him shut so he couldn't fight with his only weapon—
Thor had never asked him to change. Thor was the only one. Thor hadn't seemed to bat an eye at finding out Loki was a Jotun . . .
He'd thought there was nothing left, when Father rejected him. He'd been hanging there and Father had told him it was all for naught. He'd let go. He couldn't keep holding on while he was feeling jagged bits of his heart tearing through his chest, and he'd thought there was nothing left. He let go.
Falling into the Chitauri's world was the worst thing that could have happened. They'd latched onto his despair like it was nectar to them, and they'd crafted it into such staggering hatred that Loki didn't know how he'd managed to feel it all. He could feel it in there still, the hatred, like a pocket of infection, trying to bleed into his veins. He'd been wrong. When he'd let go, he'd been wrong. He'd still had Thor. It wasn't in Loki to comprehend such forgiveness and so he hadn't believed, and he'd repaid it with such unfathomable cruelty. It sickened him now, thinking of the way people had tried to run from him here. They'd died.
People had died because Loki didn't believe in forgiveness. He was forced to believe in it now, faced with everything Thor had done for him—but it was far too late, and it made him feel terribly sick. Truly, wrenchingly sick. So sick that he fell to his knees and vomited, right there in the street. He didn't know if he was trying to expel the hatred that still lingered and tried to poison, or if he was even now trying to expel his forced belief in Thor— it splattered across sun-warmed pavement, whatever it was. He tried to vomit up the violence the Chitauri had made him show to these puny little defenseless beings— and he was one of them now, just as small— tried to make the uncontrollable anger come out of him— All that pain and anger, it had to come out of him, he couldn't stand it anymore—
All that water he'd been drinking to try to help himself came gushing out of him. It stung his lips.
He had to face Thor's impossible forgiveness and love because he had no other choices. He wanted to run from it and believe it couldn't exist, but instead he was latching onto it until he wished he deserved it. He had nothing else left. Not even himself.
Someone was speaking. Loki hadn't realized he was on his hands and knees until he heard a voice over his head. He wanted to stand up and face them, but he was too weak. This mortal body wouldn't obey him. He just looked up.
"Yeah, Fury gave me this number and told me that you'd have some interesting news for me. That news wouldn't, by any chance, be related to the reason your brother is right in front of my house, crying in a pool of his own vomit, would it?"
Loki would have died in that moment if he could have. He had somehow wandered to Stark's tower. Whatever he was trying to do in his own mind had made him come back to the scene of his crimes. He couldn't have walked all the way here in this state, could he? Had he taken a cab? He didn't remember, that was very bad, he'd thought he was totally present—
"I'm not mad," he said fiercely. He tried to back away from the hate-tainted puddle he'd made. "I'm not mad, I'm not mad, I . . . I'm not . . ."
Loki needed to get up, to fight. Stark, the Iron Man, if he thought Loki was vulnerable, what would he do? He needed to get to his feet and try to do something, but he felt more sick and dizzy than ever before, and he was aching all over now. He couldn't get up, could barely even keep himself here, keep himself from forgetting.
"So he says he's not mad, but I'm looking at a lot of evidence that he's crazy as a box of Fruit Loops. Please advise."
Thor. Stark was talking to Thor. That was good, wasn't it? Thor would tell him. Thor would tell him that Loki was harmless, because Thor believed it. Loki . . . He was, wasn't he? Harmless. Curse everything and be damned, because he really was. He had no magic, no strength, no words, no clever mind. His hands hurt and his joints hurt and he just wanted to sleep. But he was so very frightened when he realized that he had no way to fight.
Stark hated him. This was the Iron Man. He wasn't wearing armour but that didn't matter when Loki was so weak, and the other scientist was standing right behind him, now. The one who turned into the monster. The one who'd crushed Loki into the floor as though he was nothing. Banner was standing there staring at him.
Loki was terrified. These people could hurt him and there was nothing he could do. Thor was the only person who cared and he was too far away to stop them. Loki didn't want to hurt anymore, he really was just too tired and sick and he honestly didn't know if he could come back from forgetting if these men hurt him.
"Uh, okay, now he's crying and begging us not to hurt him."
He was? Loki clamped his mouth shut, and then he thought he was slipping away because he didn't like it when his mouth was shut. He dragged his fingers over his lips and tried to hang on to what was in front of him. He couldn't go away, not now.
"Well, uh, yeah, of course he's talking, hard to shut him up, isn't it? Sick? No shit, dude, he's puking on my sidewalk. Oh. Oh, you mean, like, actual crazy. Damn. You seriously thought this was the best place to bring him? Oh, I'm sure it's fascinating. Get down here, then, because I am looking forward to this explanation of yours."
Suddenly Stark's stream of words stopped, and Loki's jaw ached with clenching it shut so his teeth wouldn't chatter. They were just staring at him.
He honestly didn't care about how humiliating he would have found this, before. He had been a prince of Asgard, but now he had nothing. Wasn't this all he deserved? Thor was the odd one for trying to give him anything better. Loki was nothing, now.
"Actually crazy is right," Stark muttered. "Also, what are the chances he ate red jello for lunch?"
"He doesn't look like he's been doing a whole lot of eating, does it?" the one called Banner replied.
Stark was looking at the hate-puddle on the pavement. "Shit, then. Ulcers?"
"Thor said he hasn't spoken since they took off. Apparently we're privileged."
"Tony? Maybe we should take him inside."
"What? No, that's just, I don't want him in my house, we've barely repaired what happened last time, what in hell are you—"
"Look at him, seriously."
Loki laid down on the sidewalk and hoped that the weakness of his mortal body would catch up and take him now. Thor would be free and Loki could get away from this. He wished he could scream at them, tell them to stop looking, stop judging, they didn't know anything— they wanted to stitch him up, didn't they? Stop him being Loki, shut him up, because being Loki was never enough, so they laughed at you and beat you when no one was looking, and you had to be clever, but what if they took your brain? They sewed you up so you couldn't scream—
"Come on, Tony, he's crying."
He was so hot, he was burning, but that didn't make sense, how could he be burning when he was so cold—
"Oh my fuck, what is he doing to his mouth, Bruce, why is he doing that to his mouth? God that's disgusting."
"How should I know? Can we just get him inside while he's not fighting us? Oh, wow, he's burning up."
He wasn't, he was freezing and he couldn't stop shivering. He hated the cold because it made him remember such awful things but he couldn't remember because he was forgetting. He tried to chase after his mind, it couldn't run away now, not here with these people who could hurt him so badly . . .
Loki went away.
When he heard Thor's voice, he desperately clawed his way back. Panic roiled like nausea in his stomach because he didn't know how long he'd been gone. He couldn't be lost when he didn't know if he was safe. Thor was here though, wasn't he? He heard Thor's voice and Thor kept promising him he was safe. Thor was stronger than any of them and Thor loved him, as strange as it was, so Thor would fight them off if he had to . . . Thor was here. Holding his arms. Speaking to him.
He was present again. He looked around himself in surprise.
They were in some kind of modern bathing facility, and the place was a disaster. There were medical supplies strewn everywhere, and a few streaks of blood. Stark was there, looking harried and concerned. Thor was right in front of Loki. Loki himself was . . . He was huddled into the corner of a glassed-in box, a shower, there was a drain in the floor. His hands were bloody and his mouth was stinging with unbearable pain. He breathed deeply, trying to calm himself, and he felt tears or blood or maybe both drying on his face.
"What in all the realms?" Thor was roaring.
Stark threw up his hands. "I don't know! He was tearing up his lips, so I brought him in here to bandage him up. He freaked, okay? He was screaming and fighting us off, he started crying, and he tore half his own damn face open! Bruce had to leave, even. This guy kept saying he wanted to die and please let him go, and I don't even know, Thor. He kept saying it hurt and saying 'take it off' and begging for his father."
Loki jerked back when he heard that. He'd gone back to Brokk. To the sewing. Gone back to the time when he'd really thought Odin would come for him . . .
"Oh, Loki," Thor said in a voice of unbearable sadness. He put his hand under Loki's chin and forced him to meet his eyes. "Are you with me, brother? Are you alright?"
Loki couldn't look into his eyes. It hurt. Thor wasn't supposed to love this, this sick creature Loki had turned into. Thor was tired and broken from all this, and he should get something back . . . Loki had gone to get him dinner. He remembered now. He couldn't even get that much right.
He wasn't alright, he wasn't anywhere, he was unmoored and drowning and he couldn't put his mind back together the way it used to be. He didn't know how to answer Thor, but Thor deserved something. He'd been so happy about the water. He'd been glad to see Loki drinking it. And then Loki had turned it into rage and thrown it all up.
"Water? Please?" he whispered. Would that be enough? He couldn't manage more.
Thor was holding him now, tipping Loki's exhausted and aching body forward to lean against his broad chest. The warmth felt good because Loki was so cold.
"Will you let me see to your wounds?"
He could do that, he thought. It would be hard to drink the water that he was so desperately thirsty for, if his lips were still bleeding. So he nodded and let Thor lift him out of the glass shower. Stark was silent but still there, and Loki wanted to pretend he wasn't.
"If you'll allow me to tend to him first, then I will tell you everything," Thor said to Stark, ruining Loki's ability to ignore him. "I am sorry that you had to deal with all this. I fell asleep by accident, and I—"
"Hey, do what you've gotta do. I'll be in the study down the hall." Stark looked twitchy and uncomfortable.
Loki wanted to needle him, he wanted to say, "what's wrong, you can't handle one sick madman?" but he didn't, because he wasn't mad, and besides he couldn't speak right now because his lips hurt. He couldn't remember why they hurt. Wasn't it something . . . Brokk. Brokk had taken up Eitri's big bone awl and sewn Loki shut, trapped him inside where he couldn't get out and Father would never hear him screaming . . .
Tony hadn't had too much trouble believing that Loki had finally gone over the edge and was totally mad, not after the way he turned into a jibbering wreck and smashed up the bathroom. He'd seemed to calm down when Thor showed up, which was kind of unexpected considering that last time he'd seen the brothers things had been a little tense. But hey, no more crazy guy throwing things and crying, Tony could live with that.
It seemed to basically confirm the crazy factor when Thor carried Loki into the room, with the dark-haired brother whimpering and trying to do disturbing things to his mouth again. Thor dropped Loki into one of the smooth leather chairs, and Tony wanted to protest. Loki looked kind of gross and he'd been puking all over the place not too long ago, that was not a thing Tony wanted on his nice chairs—but, well. He'd feel like a huge asshole if he said that to some crying panicky crazy person and his clearly exhausted and overwhelmed caretaker. It wasn't like Tony couldn't afford new chairs if necessary; he could always claim re-upholstering the chairs as part of the insurance settlement (yes, of course he had disaster insurance on The Tower, god who wouldn't get disaster insurance).
Well, wasn't this just surreal? Tony caught Bruce's eyes and thought Bruce was feeling the same bewildered amusement he was. Tony was always a just-go-with-it kind of guy, but this was pushing it. Two weeks ago, they'd been shipping an angry god back to his own damn planet to get a royal spanking from his father the even-better god. And now somehow they were all back here, and the damn floor wasn't even fixed yet because the insurance company was surprisingly stubborn against his wheedling for a good contractor instead of the one they were willing to pay, so there was still a Loki-shaped hole in the other room—it probably wouldn't be a good idea to let Loki see that. The "bag of cats" metaphor was taking on a disturbingly literal meaning, with the way the guy was hissing and clawing.
"So . . ." he said slowly, then he got up and went to the bar to pour everybody a drink, because if there was a time for a drink it was when super villains went off their rocker and cried in your shower. He tried to figure out how to ask, then decided to keep it simple. "What in actual fuck?" He made sure to ask in a polite tone, infuse this thing with a level of civility that he honestly thought should be admirable. People should admire him for not freaking the fuck out right now.
"I wasn't told something I should have known," Thor answered. Well, if you could call that an answer. The gladness with which he took his drink from Tony and took a deep slug, that spoke volumes all by itself. Tony tried to give a drink to Loki, too, because why the hell not? Thor snatched it out of his hand, looking alarmed. "I don't think that would be wise, he hasn't eaten in weeks—"
"What, weeks, seriously?"
Loki was curling in on himself in the chair and silently attempting to tear a new hole in his face. Yeah, Tony could see it, the god/alien/whatever was looking a little gaunt.
"Talk," Tony commanded, not even caring that Thor was a god or alien or whatever. This was his house, he could command.
And Thor did. He explained the whole story, starting with Brokk the dwarf and the imprisonment and mouth-sewing—and seriously, what the actual fuck?—and then explaining how the muzzle had sent Loki on a downward spiral that had brought him so low even Asgard found him too pathetic to punish. Tony tried, he tried really hard to not feel anything about Loki spending three days trapped in a nightmare in a prison cell, but it didn't work. There were feelings, sympathetic ones. Yes, this was the guy who'd thrown him out a window—and tried to take over the world, can't forget about that—but it was kind of hard to think of him that way right now. What with Thor, his brother who so clearly loved him, sitting there looking like the embodiment of guilt and agony. Nobody could emote like a god. Or alien. Or whatever.
Speaking of guilt, this whole thing was starting to smell fishy. And not just because it had obviously been a while since Loki had bathed. There was way more to this story, like why nobody had stormed the dwarves castle/whatever to save Loki when he was a kid getting his mouth sewn up, and possible wars with other planets be damned, and also why Thor was here acting like everything that had happened was his fault.
Tony looked at Bruce again, looking for confirmation that something was suspicious. The two of them were getting scary-good at reading each other, because Bruce was already looking at him and nodding. But the guy was showing all the classic symptoms of needing a distraction, stat: twisting his hands, tilting his head, staring down at his feet. He was feeling really on-edge and Tony didn't need any more god-shaped holes in his floor—or his life, really—thanks very much.
"Okay," he said, going for the fake cheerful thing that always seemed to work. "I say first things first. To me, first thing is Loki is actually starving himself to death, and we don't want that, do we? Well, Thor wouldn't want that, anyway. So let's move this to the kitchenette—I just have a kitchenette on this level, the big one's upstairs, but anyway—Bruce and I were eating when Loki showed up, so the stuff's out—hey, do you guys even do hummus? There's plenty, we've got veggies and cheese and stuff. The good doctor here makes me eat sometimes, but he never said it couldn't be finger food or that I had to stop working while I was eating . . ."
By now, he'd grabbed Loki by the arm and hauled him to his feet. Even after hearing everything and seeing Loki being all miserable and pathetic, Tony kind of expected Loki to attack him. No magic and he was weak as a kitten, but Tony had thought maybe he'd call him a pitiful mortal and kick him in the shins or something. Maybe even go feral and try to bite his face off. Instead, Loki was just sort of gaping at him and trying to follow Tony when he tugged him down the hall. He looked dizzy and dazed, but he came obediently along.
"So, guy, you're with me right now, right? You know where you are, all that jazz?"
Loki didn't do anything affirmative like nod or say yes or anything helpful, but he was looking Tony in the eyes, so that probably meant yes. Tony was probably supposed to feel privileged, he got the feeling even being acknowledged was a big step in Loki's terrified-of-everything state. He would work on feeling privileged, because right now it was just weird.
"Great. So you're really not doing so hot, right now, and you really need to eat. Believe me, I wouldn't exactly cry at your funeral, but Thor would and I'm helping out because Thor's a good guy and I like him, plus you aren't actively doing anything wrong. The point is, have a seat, eat something."
He pushed Loki in the direction of the chair he'd been sitting in earlier. Bruce's laptop was still open on the other side of the table, and the rest of the thing was papered with design sketches and notes that Tony had been working on. Their food was just sort of wedged in wherever the sketches would allow.
Loki was staring at the table like he was overwhelmed, and then he started furiously scrubbing at his lips with the back of his hand.
"Okay, no, don't do that," Tony yelped, grabbing his wrist to stop him. His really, really thin wrist. God, could he be any more skinny? He was amazed that Loki wasn't fighting him, and so was Thor, judging by the look on his face where he stood in the doorway. "Look, your mouth is fine, there's nothing wrong, I checked, okay? Here, try this cheese, it's cured in wine, it's amazing." Not willing to wait for Loki to have a full-blown panic attack again, Tony just picked the cheese up and shoved it into Loki's mouth. Bruce was right beside Thor, and he made a strangled nose that was probably an aborted warning against dealing with insanity that way. But Bruce shut up, because Loki was chewing and swallowing, looking rather shocked but eating it anyway. He looked oddly like a chastened little kid when he reached for the bowl of olives but cocked his head at Tony like he was waiting for permission.
"Go, yeah, knock yourself out."
Loki didn't go wild or anything, but he started plucking up whatever he could reach and putting something new in his mouth as soon as the previous bite was gone. Bread, cheese, olives, vegetables, hummus started rapidly disappearing. He chewed evenly and wiped his fingers on a paper towel that Tony grabbed for him, and that was just damn good table manners for a guy who . . . When had he last eaten? Tony had totally given him a bourbon when they'd arrested him, because he was a man of his word, but as far as Tony knew, that was the last thing that had gone into Loki's mouth. How was he not dead? These Asgardians, they were some hearty people. But then, Tony knew that. The guy had already survived the Hulk using him to make snow angels in Tony's floor.
"Hey, fantastic," Tony said encouragingly, feeling accomplished and also hating himself for feeling accomplished. Loki, for fuck's sake. "You want something to drink? Want some tea? Bruce makes great chai."
Bruce glared at him, but Tony wasn't paying much attention, because Loki was doing that thing again. Tony asked a simple question, and he wasn't prepared for it to make Loki freeze up and look like he was about to get a needle to the lips again. He put his hand over his mouth and his eyes were welling up. Aw shit, crying again?
"I'm going to be sick," Loki whispered.
Oh, scratch that, puking again. On his sketches this time, too. What a total waste of good food. Thor had been hanging back in the doorway looking afraid to so much as breathe, but now he took a step forward. Too slow. Bruce was already there.
"No, you're not, you're going to be okay," he said, using his soothing-doctor voice. Tony loved the soothing-doctor voice, unless Bruce was using it to coax him out of the lab and get some sleep, because then it was just devious. "You ate too fast, that's all," he said, dragging a chair around to sit beside Loki. "You've got to keep that down, because you need that. Try breathing with me, okay? Big deep breath in, okay, good, now let it out slowly. You can relax, that's good. Okay, breathe in again. Tony, can you get some water?"
Tony was pretty sure he should be upset about this, about getting ordered around by his houseguest on behalf on the guy who'd trashed said house, but he was feeling rather calm and he'd really rather not analyze what that said about him. At least not right now, because right now he was busy trying to analyze everything that was striking him as very, very weird about Loki. This guy was a damn prince, right? Beloved brother of Thor, pampered member of royalty, and suddenly he'd gotten a bug up his ass about taking over a planet his brother was fond of? And then just completely losing it when he got punished for that? Different strokes for different folks and all, it wasn't like Tony knew anything about Asgard, but this just didn't add up.
Tony remembered it being said as sort of a joke, on the helicarrier. It didn't seem that funny right now. Something had obviously gone wonky. Maybe he wasn't as beloved and pampered as "prince" implied.
Loki was sipping the water, listening to Bruce and breathing with him, so he wasn't throwing up. That was good, that one design he'd been sketching for some heat-seeking arrows to give to Agent Barton was pretty killer and wiping half-digested olives off the paper was pretty much on the bottom of Things Tony Stark Will Ever Do.
Wow, not good, maybe he wasn't going to puke, but he sure as hell wasn't okay. He was slumping down onto the table and moaning, sweat beading on his forehead. He was shivering so hard Tony could see it where he was standing.
Thor stepped close and put a hand on Loki's back. "Thank you for . . . You have been a great help. But he is still unwell, and I need to take him home. If any issues arise, this cell phone device—"
"Whoa, hey, no," Tony said, catching Thor by the elbow before he could follow through on his attempt to pick Loki up. "Thor, buddy. We're not done talking."
Thor had felt as though he'd been doing nothing but thinking since his own brief banishment. But he'd kept his own confidence and had only himself to reason with, and it was hard after Loki fell from the bridge to be fair and honest with himself when he was grieving. These past few weeks had seen grief turn to anger and then quickly to guilt.
Tony and Bruce stripped everything down and made Thor see what was there. For the first time, he felt like he knew where his guilt came from and how much he really ought to bear.
"You thought it was funny when your friend kicked the shit out of him?" Bruce repeated, looking ill. "I get that you guys all made up later, and I get that by your rules him learning how to fight was a good thing, but he was twelve, Thor, you can't . . ." And only a minute later, "Your dad mocked him in front of everyone for studying too much? That's just, wow, self-esteem issues in the making." Bruce ducked his head then and stared at his shoes and breathed very deeply, so Tony took up where he'd left off.
Tony was even less forgiving. "How is it nobody thought he should fucking know he was adopted from another fucking planet? That's a thing you should tell a guy before he finds out on his own!"
Loki slept through all this. His fever had sunk its claws in deep, and his body curled up on the sofa with his head beside Thor's leg was burning with heat. Thor found that his hands constantly touched Loki's hair or brushed against his clothes, seeking some kind of reassurance. Looking at it now, Loki's childhood had not been easy and Father's way of overlooking him was only half of it. Loki had always felt as though he was an outsider. Learning he was a Frost Giant had just been the final word. Thor stroked Loki's shoulder and wondered how often Loki had pretended to be happy just to keep Thor happy.
Bruce frowned deeply when Thor told of his Warriors coming to Earth to help him find his way back, killing some of Thor's happiness at remembering how his friends loved him. "Your tribune put him on the throne. They did. It was totally aboveboard, Loki was next in line. And then everybody acted like he'd staged a coup. That seems . . . unfair . . ."
Thor felt shamed and embarrassed on behalf of the Warriors even though he felt that the two scientists weren't understanding the whole thing. That they knew Loki had lied about Thor's exile. That they had acted on his behalf out of friendship far more than as a rebellion against Loki's leadership. He didn't interrupt though, and continued to tell Tony and Bruce the story. He told them everything, because he wanted these feelings, he wanted to have it all become clear to him, so he'd know how they'd gotten here. He never wanted things to be that way again.
"I'm sorry," Tony blurted out halfway through the telling of the battle he and Loki had fought, "can we go back? To the part where he killed his evil birth father who abandoned him, to protect his emotionally distant adoptive father? I'm kind of still stuck there, sorry. No, wait, I think I figured it out, keep going."
Tony allowed him to finish telling of it all: the destruction wrought on Jotunheim, the battle between the brothers, and the destruction of the Bifrost, and how they'd both hung over the edge with Odin all that stood between the two of them and the dark abyss. Thor had to pause to collect himself because what came next hurt to remember, and he knew it would hurt even more to say it aloud. That was when Tony spoke again.
"He said no? Are you—are you fucking serious right now? His obviously unstable son was hanging there into space and he couldn't just lie and say yes and get him back onto the fucking ground before telling him he was wrong? You are so lucky he didn't just kill himself."
Thor stared at him bleakly.
"Oh, shit," Tony said dumbly. "But he—" He gestured to Loki, who shivered and burned and was clearly not dead.
"He let go," Thor said softly. "I tried to— but he— fell."
"Wow, hey, that is just icing on the shit cake. He's suicidal. Swell. Granted, your dad isn't as bad as some other people's dads, but— "
"Do not speak against my father when you do not know him," Thor snarled, affronted, and tried not to see the desperate twisting of Bruce's hands and the way he hung his head and took shallow breaths. But even he could not deny that Odin's rejection had been ill-timed. It might have been better to get them to safety before expressing his disappointment. "Loki, it seems, fell among the Chitauri then. Time can be strange and take odd paths when you travel between worlds, but I think he must have been among them for some weeks, perhaps months."
"So that brings us to the part where he tries to take over here. It's safe to say that he'd already mostly lost his mind by that point. And we have to ask ourselves what he was really trying to do, here. It's like he was just taking Thor's favourite toy and screaming for attention."
Tony and Thor, who'd been glaring at each other in rising anger, both turned to Bruce in surprise.
"I mean, obviously we don't really know," Bruce said more hesitantly. "But to me, it looks like he just gave up on Odin and stopped wanting anything from him, but he still cared about you, Thor. There was still some hope that you loved him, so he came here and started jumping up and down and shouting 'I'm over here, I'm still important, please look at me' and just begging you to care."
Thor had bowed his head to the tribune, he'd bowed his head to Nick Fury, he'd listened to a host of insults against his father and brother and himself. He'd felt guilt and embarrassment and abject terror. He had good reason to think he'd already hit his lowest point. Now, he found, this was his lowest point.
"And to answer him, I set the Avengers loose on him, scolded him as though he were an errant child and I was much wiser, and then finished it all by restraining him with the one instrument he truly feared." Thor dropped his head into his hands and for some time could not speak or lift his eyes. The other two were oddly quiet, now. "But if that was so, if what he wanted was my attention, why would he not just agree to come home with me, at the beginning?"
Tony snorted. "Home? You really think Asgard feels like home to him?"
"If not Asgard, then where?" Thor asked in bewilderment. Surely the Chitauri had not made him feel so welcome . . .
"I think that's really the point, Thor," Bruce said softly. "Part of the reason he got so frightened he lost his mind. He doesn't think he has a home. Anywhere. He has no family anymore and no place to feel safe."
Thor was dumbfounded. "He has me."
Bruce frowned deeply at that. Why? But then Bruce's eyes were dropping down to Loki, so Thor looked down to see why.
Loki was awake.
"You have me, brother," Thor said quietly, wiping sweat-damp hair out of Loki's unfocused eyes. "I will spend a lifetime doing penance for the way I treated you, if you want it. I never meant you to feel . . ." He wasn't sure he could even name the way Loki had felt. "I love you," he said instead. "The rest can wait until you feel well enough for it."
That caused Loki to moan miserably and turn his head to hide his face. "So hot," he rasped.
"Is he, um, human? I mean, you said he's mortal now, and I was wondering how medication would effect him. Aspirin would make him feel a little better, at least help with the fever, assuming it worked on him."
Thor remembered the thing called aspirin. Erik Selvig had taken several little white pills after their night of drinking. "Yes, that might be good."
"But I don't know," Bruce frowned. "I don't think it's a good idea to give him anything medicinal without having at least a reasonable expectation of how it will effect him. I have no way of knowing whether his physiological makeup is similar enough to ours to—"
"Well, what are we calling reasonable?" Tony interrupted, sitting forward intently in a move Thor recognized. The two of them got like this. Science.
Bruce spoke. "Based on Thor's experience here as an exile, he probably still has enviable physical endurance and strength, but he does need regular sleep and sustenance to maintain peak health, so—"
"But how do we know that wasn't just Thor's physiology, based on his size and the shape he's in?" Tony interrupted. "I mean, Loki isn't even from the same planet, so there's no telling if his physiology resembles Thor's."
"No, no, that's a good point, but Odin's exile was meant to put him into a human mortal form, so I would assume that would cancel out any differences there might have been between the two in an unaltered state."
"Probably," Tony frowned. "I know he's still got an incredible amount of stamina, he'd have to, remember I gave him bourbon when we captured him—"
"Which I still can't believe you did, by the way—"
"—and it didn't even seem to mellow him out, even after two days without sleep and the fact that you had just pounded him into the floor. Which is why I feel like if we're going to try medication it would have to be kind of a lot."
"Thor, I wish you knew more about what they gave you during your exile, while you were in the hospital, we could—"
"No," Tony suddenly snapped. "Because you know what? The last thing we should be doing is trying to use Thor as a guideline for Loki. That hasn't worked very well so far for anyone."
And suddenly the room was full of such a heavy silence that it sounded like a faint annoying buzz in Thor's ears. None of them wanted to look at each other.
Loki shifted, moaning softly. His hand clutched into Thor's leg when he was racked by a violent shivering. Thor put a hand on Loki's back and found his brother wriggling closer to be held, deliriously seeking comfort in his distress. That was surprising, but not unwelcome.
"Well, we can't exactly take him to urgent care," Tony said flatly.
Loki was listless and sweaty and bleary-eyed and it was making Thor feel rather desperate. "Thirsty," he muttered.
"Shit, yeah, fluids, fluids are good, I'll get on that," Tony responded, leaping to his feet. "I've got Gatorade, that couldn't hurt, I'll get that."
That left Thor staring thoughtfully at Bruce, who was staring thoughtfully at Loki, who was making tiny moaning sounds and hiding his face in Thor's leg.
"Tony is an exceedingly strange man, even for a person of Midgard," Thor said carefully. "I'm sure he has a reason for aiding Loki that makes sense to him, but I fear to ask. However, I cannot help but wonder why you would also be willing to help him."
Bruce was twisting his hands together and looking nervous. Thor found it rather entertaining that this little man could turn into such a creature as the Hulk, but he would rather not have that happen now, not with his brother here so ill and defenseless. He almost retracted the question.
"I . . . yeah, it is. Because no matter what happened, I don't think it gave Loki an excuse to do what he did here. I think I might be able to understand, but that doesn't mean I can condone the death and destruction. I shouldn't be okay with this. The thing is, I'm not sure I'm looking at the man who did all that. I guess I think it would be unfair to punish him when he's not in his right mind. We can't be sure he really knows what he did."
Thor was grateful for all his friends here, but he felt very grateful indeed that among his friends he counted Bruce Banner. The things that Bruce did to avoid becoming the Hulk had made him a patient, compassionate, careful man. Thor was shocked to find in himself a desire to be more like that. Of course, it only made sense that Bruce felt he must pardon such actions. He more than most understood what it meant to truly lose control.
"So I had an interesting thought," Tony said, entering as abruptly as he'd departed. "Those aliens, the Chitty Chitty Bang Bangs or whatever— their leader was talking right into Loki's brain, I think I remember hearing that."
"And the leader was also the one who gave Loki that staff, the one he was using to do mind control, the thing that got Hawkeye?"
"Oh my god, Tony," Bruce said suddenly, sitting up straight with wide eyes.
"What?" Thor was mystified, and he hunched protectively over Loki.
"I was just wondering how much of that stuff Loki actually did voluntarily."
Thor just stared at him in shock.
"I mean, it's just a theory, just throwing it out there, but there is a possibility that Loki was being manipulated, I mean, there was an alien in his brain. Loki, buddy, do you—"
"No," Thor said fiercely. "You cannot ask him now. If you do, he'll lose his mind again, he'll harm himself. Right now, he needs that drink more than we need answers."
Tony just shrugged and came forward to hand him a strange blue-tinted beverage. Loki had started shake, and Thor feared they'd already lost him. He hadn't thought Loki was coherent enough to pay attention. "Shhh, it's all right," he murmured, smoothing back Loki's damp, greasy hair again. "Don't think of it now. You're safe. You're with me. Can you drink this?"
He held up Loki's head and Loki drank eagerly. He didn't stop shaking.
"Don't give him the whole thing at once," Bruce said. "His stomach is already upset from the food, he might not be able to keep it down." He stood up. "I need to go for a walk."
Tony opened his mouth, but Bruce held up a hand.
"No, I need to go for a walk. I really do. Thor, I . . . good luck, that's all I can say."
Bruce was twisting fingers tight into his hair as he hurried out of the room, and Thor wondered if something had set him off or if he'd just been holding himself together admirably well this entire time.
"Will he . . .?"
"Probably not," Tony said, and he looked strangely disappointed. "He has no sense of adventure, I swear. Anyway, he did good staying in here this long, I honestly thought he'd give up a while ago. Loki's not the only one with daddy issues, you know? Anyway, it's getting late. If you guys want to stay here I can—"
"No, but you have my gratitude," Thor answered automatically, even though he was rather reeling with shock that the invitation had been given. What reason could Tony possibly have for offering so much hospitality? Thor considered him a friend, but he hadn't thought that would extend to his brother. So far, Tony had been gracious. He found himself afraid to ask Tony to explain.
"Because he looks like a sad half-drowned kitten," Tony said.
"I do not think I understand—"
"You're wondering why I'm being nice to Loki. It's because he looks like a sad little kitten you pulled out of a gutter, that's why. Fix him up and make him all scary and villainous again, would you? It creeps me out when he's all cuddly like that."
Thor glanced down and found that Loki had fallen into that restless half-sleep again, his hand splayed on Thor's leg as if to hold him in place.
"I should take him home," Thor said. It was jarring to say that word and mean the flat a few miles away. He needed to get used to that.
"Yeah, let me get you a cab," Tony said, flipping out his cell phone. "I'd get you my driver, but he's not on duty. Hang on, I think I still have a monthly tab with this cab company , I should have cancelled that when I stopped being a mess in public all the time . . ."
Thor realized Tony meant to foot the bill for their ride and tried to protest, but Tony waved it away and kept up a steady stream of chatter while he was guiding them back to the ground floor entrance.
"Hey, man, keep us updated, okay? Let us know if you need any help."
"I shall," Thor said, feeling warm and somehow less weary. He may not totally understand why they were willing, but he understood now that he had good friends in these two men. He felt closer to them now. He decided this meant that next they spoke, he was allowed to ask if Tony had merely invited Bruce as a guest or if he planned to make him his life's companion. An unusual match, to be sure, but it would not be the first time Thor had seen two shield brothers choose their own company over that of women.
Once safely in the cab and en route, Thor began thinking of all the things that needed to be done. He still hadn't even called Jane. But first things first, as Tony would say: the first thing he needed to do was get a lock for the door that Loki couldn't open.
"Yo, buddy, you okay?"
He heard Tony calling to him as he walked closer to the laboratory. Bruce gripped the table and tried to breathe. He'd come down here because this room was the best and most welcoming room he'd ever been in. He'd thought it would keep him calm.
His hands were turning green.
"Okay," he breathed. "Okay. Okay."
Tony stopped in the doorway. "Oh, shit."
He was usually so polite. He liked to be. He liked that the monster inside him couldn't dictate his personality, that when he was Bruce he was respectful and patient and reasonable . . . But The Other Guy was right there and he wanted out.
"You're looking a little off, buddy, why don't we—"
"Get out!" he screamed. He was afraid, he was so goddamn afraid of hurting the only person left in the world who seemed to give a shit about him, he had to get him out of here— oh, god, the equipment, all Tony's equipment and the experiments they'd both been running . . . "No! No, I have to go, I have to . . ."
He stumbled. His muscles were locking up. Tony caught him, held onto him, Tony had such terribly strong hands.
"I've got a room, dude. I use it to test out updates on my repulsors and thrusters. I was gonna say let's get you in there. Damage should be minimal if we can keep you in there."
"No," he gasped, green-tinged fingers tight in Tony's clothes. "I'm not letting him out. Not in your house, not with you here—"
"I'm not worried. He likes me," Tony stated plainly, helping Bruce to a chair and plunking him down. "You sure? I'd rather get you down there now than find out he's coming out without your permission in this lab."
Bruce sucked in air and nodded. He could do this.
"Okay," Tony said, wearing a smile.
This was so far from being okay. Why hadn't he run away yet? Everybody ran away. He shouldn't have brought Bruce here to begin with, and now he wouldn't even leave him alone for his own safety. Tony was crazy. He seriously needed help.
"Ahhh, no," Bruce moaned, gripping his knees as he was reminded.
"Why don't you tell me what set you off? Maybe I can help."
"What set me off?" he repeated in disbelief. "Are you not— Tony, that man blew up half of this city, and he is legitimately crazy. Thor is not capable of dealing with that. Thor doesn't even understand what mental illness is. And he's convinced that Loki isn't going to do it again, but we don't have any idea— Tony, he needs to be seen to by professionals. The consequences of allowing Thor to handle this himself are . . ."
"Oh, I know. That's why he's here. Fury's not stupid, you know, he would have stuck Loki in a cell and called in a team of scientists if he thought he could get away with it. The problem is, Thor is a god. Or alien, or whatever. He's going to do what he wants to do, and if we don't let him, he'll go somewhere else. This is containment, Bruce, and we're in charge of it. Maybe we didn't get an official order, but that's probably because Thor and Loki's presence on Earth is not official, either. You, me, and probably Rogers. He sent them here because he's counting on us to keep it under control. We don't control it, then Thor moves his brother to a world where we have no jurisdiction. It's better to keep him here."
Bruce gaped at him. He was right, God help them. Thor's only obligation to them was as a guest on their planet. If they told him he couldn't stay, and he took his brother to a hostile planet, things could get worse.
"What are we supposed to do?"
Tony shrugged. "Hell if I know. At least I got him to eat, right?"
"Yeah, let's explore why he listens to you."
"Really? Let's not, that's definitely something I'd like not to explore. You know what I would like, though? I'd love to get fantastically drunk and pretend that today did not happen. Sound good?"
Bruce looked at his hands. He'd relaxed them without noticing. The green tinge had gone. He felt wrung out and the collar of his shirt was soaked with sweat, but he was okay.
"Fine. One drink, Tony. Then we're both going to bed."
"I always knew marriage would cramp my style," Tony pouted. "Baby, let's stay up and watch the sunrise just this once?"
"You are such a creep. You told me that I'm supposed to make you stop when you're out of control."
"You're great. I'm all distracted from my alcoholism with this branch of science I've never studied before, it's fantastic. I need you in my life, baby."
"You are so lucky Pepper is not here to hear this."
"Pepper loves you."
"Just shut up and get me some gin," Bruce muttered, ducking his head. Tony was annoying and needy and audacious, and somehow he'd decided that they were friends and Bruce wasn't allowed to argue. Not that he wanted to, exactly. He wasn't totally convinced yet that he wasn't having an elaborate dream. A place to work and somebody who believed in him, those were things he'd been wanting for so long that maybe he was delusional. Bruce had been through a lot, he was crazy enough to dream up a friend like Tony.
. . . Okay, so what had happened tonight was too unbelievable to be a dream. Loki and then Thor, that was pretty convincing evidence that this was real. Bruce maybe wasn't happy about suddenly being saddled with the responsibility of keeping a psychotic alien from destroying New York (again), but that also meant his safe haven was real. Tony and Pepper and the way they'd just started acting like he'd lived here all along, that was real. He could live with this whole Loki thing if it meant he got to keep the rest.
Loki slept for nearly two days, waking only to beg for something to drink before falling back under. Mindful of Tony's advice, Thor gave him what were called "sports drinks" sometimes instead of water. He tried to talk Loki into eating again with no success, although he was exceedingly grateful that Loki had experienced a lucid spell long enough to bathe himself. While Loki was taking a shower, Thor went out and discovered a sandwich shop on the corner of the block that had delicious offerings. He had since availed himself of their wares several times.
Thor slept a great deal, too. He still fretted, but it was easier to relax now that they were away from home. It helped that a great and noble lady named Pepper had come at Tony's behest, arranged for the delivery of another bed and the installation of a lock on the door that needed a key to open, even on the inside. She had given Thor a map of the city with locations of interest marked in bright colours, everything from the nearest grocery store to her favourite theatre. She had both grace and command, and Tony Stark was a lucky man.
When he wasn't sleeping, he often talked on his cell phone with Jane. She spoke of how her research was beginning to bear fruit, speculated that perhaps he would be able to visit her when Loki's health improved, and told him about her new colleagues. It was the most painful happiness Thor could imagine. This was not his world, for all that he loved it, and he wasn't going to stay forever. She was bright and daring and wonderful, and Thor could not keep her. So he would lie down and put the phone close to his ear and just listen to her voice for as long as he could.
He slept in the bed that Lady Pepper had arranged for, but never for long. Loki would have wild fever dreams, would gasp and cry out and mutter nonsense, and often when Thor went to him to calm him he found himself held fast in Loki's frightened grip. So he would stay, stroking his hair or murmuring nonsense, and eventually fall asleep at Loki's side.
Thor found himself worrying more and more, not about the improvement of Loki's health, but what it might lead to. Loki clung to him now but Thor was beginning to think it was a childish response to being sick and confused and it might not last when he felt better. What if he had meant the things he'd said a few weeks ago? He . . .
There was a scar under his shirt that no one had seen, from something he had not told anyone. Loki had stabbed him. Loki had stabbed him. And then he'd used a knife. Oh, yes, the words had hurt, far worse than the blade. How twisted Loki's reality had become, Thor had thought, that first night when they'd met again, when he'd fought with Tony and Steve. That was when he'd known that something had broken in Loki's mind, and he'd tried not to be hurt by words spoken by a madman. He'd thought, if only he could get him home . . . But then after everything Thor could do, Loki had stabbed him.
He was distracted from this melancholy by Loki gasping and whimpering at his side.
"Wake now, you're all right," Thor said, jostling his arm a little.
Loki was awake, his eyes frightened. "Hurts," he mumbled.
"Tell me," Thor said, and thought of the aspirin. He'd found some and brought it home, but hadn't wanted to risk using it after Bruce and Tony made it seem so complicated. But if Loki was in so much pain— he started get up. Loki flinched. Thor sank back down, his chest tight. "Brother? What are you afraid of?"
"You hurt me," he whispered.
Thor had vowed, to himself, waiting on S.H.I.E.L.D.'s flying fortress, that he would not allow things to get out of control like they had on the Bifrost. No matter what he had to do, he and Loki would not fight like that again. He wouldn't hurt him so, now that he knew how far from reality Loki had strayed.
But then he had. He'd unleashed his strength, and all he remembered was being so angry . . .
"You hurt me, first," he muttered. It was not an excuse, not in his mind, but truth be told he was still angry, and he needed to be brave enough to admit that it wasn't anger but hurt.
Loki's eyes flashed, and Thor knew that this was a mistake. Loki wasn't ready for this, he was going to lose him again—
"You said I threw you," he blurted out, then turned his face away to hide it. He hadn't meant to say it. He had tried so hard to forget those words, but they wouldn't leave him, and every time it was like the knife punched into his skin again. "You said— a lot of things, but— you said I threw you off the bridge . . ."
"I never said— did I?" Loki closed his eyes and groaned, and his fingers found the abused patch of hair at his temple and tugged. "It— I— things are not— not always the same—"
"Don't," Thor said sternly, trying to untangle his fingers before he made the bald patch larger.
Loki caught hold of his hand, tight enough to hurt. He looked up. "I'm sorry. I don't know— things are out of order— I know I didn't mean that. You tried to save me. I know you did. I— I can't—" He stopped and curled in on himself.
This was the most he'd spoken so far, and Thor was simply glad they'd gotten as far as they had. "Loki, it's . . ." What could he say? "It's going to be all right."
He stayed at Loki's side in case he tried to harm himself. He thought his brother's mind had strayed, and was startled when he spoke again.
"My mind is, it's out of order, and I-I-I-I'm trying, but somebody broke in, they moved things . . ." He dug his fingers into Thor's leg. "Don't leave me," he whispered. "You should. I've hated you and-and there was so much hate, I couldn't breathe, I couldn't breathe, I couldn't think, I just needed— I don't know, I don't know who I am and I can't fix it and if you leave me, I-I-I—"
"I won't," Thor said, hearing his own voice crack. His chest hurt. He shifted, put his hand behind Loki's head and brought them close so he could catch those tortured eyes with his and keep him there. "You are Loki of Asgard, and you are my beloved brother. You have strayed far, but you are coming back to me. I can wait a thousand years, if you but call me brother again."
"Stop," Loki said, his breath hitching, closing his eyes. "There is no forgiveness for all of this—"
"Loki, I have thought long on it and I know now what part I played in your pain, the part we all did. If there is no forgiveness for you, there would be none for me, either. Is that what you want? To never forgive this, to be trapped in this misunderstanding forever?"
"No, I don't—stop, stop it—"
"I blame myself for all of this. I know that you had little choice about what you did to Midgard, once you fell among the Chitauri, and it is my fault, mine and Father's, that you fell at all, so I—"
"Stop!" Loki screamed, and scrambled up, away from him. He clutched at his temples and scratched at his mouth. "Don't— I don't want to forget— let me out! I have to get out!"
He threw himself at the door which would not open for him. Thor could not in good conscience release him when he was so clearly on the verge of breaking down. There was no way of telling what he might do, to himself or others. But it felt like nothing had ever hurt quite so much as hearing Loki beg him, tears streaming down his face, just to get away from him.
"Thor, please. I can't— please."
His fingers were digging into the wood like he could prise the door open. His chin was streaked with red blood. Thor couldn't stand it. He got the key and opened the door.
"Don't . . ." he said as Loki fled. He didn't know what he meant. Don't cry? Don't hurt anyone? Don't leave? Don't blow anything up? Don't give up? He went back to his bed and sank down onto it with heavy limbs. They could hardly make any effort to move forward if speaking of it sent Loki into such a frenzy. This uneasy way they were coping together without any understanding was little more than a temporary truce and it couldn't last. But the next step eluded him. Was there a next step, or was there only waiting? Waiting for Loki seemed almost fitting . . . Loki had been forced to wait on his pleasure often enough, and maybe it was Thor's turn. He just didn't know what he was waiting for.
He'd told it true: he could wait forever if the reward was to have his brother back. If, at the end of this, Loki drove another knife into his side and ran, the knowledge that Thor had done everything he could would be no comfort.
"Yes, Jarvis?" Tony asked blearily, barely remembering to cut power to his soldering torch before looking away from his work and toward the flashing screen.
"There is a potential security threat—"
"Oh goddamnit," Tony cut the AI off. "Bring up video." He already had a pretty good idea of what he was about to see, and sure enough, there he was in all his deranged and malnourished glory. He was tempted to ignore it, but somebody was bound to notice and possibly publish photos of the crazy man crying in front of Tony Stark's tower. "Where's Bruce?"
"Master Banner retired to bed two hours and thirty-six minutes ago—"
"Okay, yeah, knew that—really, thirty-six minutes?— well fuck. Could you wake him— no wait, never mind, don't wake him," Tony said, remembering that Bruce had pulled an all-nighter last night and his beauty rest was a way higher priority than Tony's. "Aaaargh, I am too old and tired for this crap. Just . . . Turn on the soft lighting and turn up the heater in the den."
Thank God for Cap, though. At least this time Tony had a slightly better idea of what he was dealing with.
He rode the elevator down and strode outside to greet his extremely-unwanted guest. He didn't bother with the preliminaries. He said, "You really need to stop doing this," and grabbed Loki by the arm and dragged him inside. "Is one of your problems with enclosed spaces? Because if you can't handle the elevator, you're taking the stairs by yourself."
Loki didn't answer, because apparently saying, "I had to, I'm sorry, I had to," over and over again was occupying all his attention right now. Well, whatever. Tony shoved him in the elevator and tried really hard not to think about what would happen if Loki got a weird flashback or something. He just banged his head against the wall and muttered to himself the whole time, though. Creepy, but not destroying Tony or his property, so that was okay.
"Yay, here we are, my floor," Tony said wearily. Just because Cap had gotten him the information he needed didn't exactly mean Tony was thrilled by it. "I'm calling your brother, by the way, because he'll freak out if he can't find you. I thought Pepper was taking care of getting new locks, anyway, how the hell did you get loose?"
Yeah, no, Loki definitely wasn't capable of answering questions right now.
"I'm guessing that you're a lot more on top of things than you're pretending you are, since you managed to get the key off of him without him noticing. I mean, I assume he didn't notice, or he'd be hot on your heels. Ugh, and you come here, to me? I'm not your babysitter. Have I mentioned how unfair this is, yet? Because I hate repeating myself, but do you even know how much it pisses me off? You did some seriously messed up shit to my world and you shouldn't get to skip out on paying for that."
Tony dropped Loki onto the same sofa he'd slept on last time.
Tony tried to pretend he wasn't having a freaking heart failure when Loki just randomly started talking like he was aware of things. When had he stopped having an episode and started listening?
"Huh, what, you're listening to me? You know?"
"I know that I have done—" He closed his eyes and gripped his hands into his knees. "I know that I must, as you put it, pay for that. I would be paying for it now if not for Thor."
"Yeah, and I think it's bullshit that you're taking advantage of him—"
"Are you so naïve?" Loki whispered, eyes still closed. "My only choice was whether to take my punishment from Asgard or from—from—from the Chitauri. I think I cannot be blamed for choosing Asgard. I did not look for mercy, only some guarantee that I would not be tortured to death. I didn't ask for—" He dropped his head into his hands and started yanking at his hair. "I— whatever Thor did, I could not have asked for it, I don't even know what it was, because I wasn't— I still can't—" He took a great, heaving breath and tried to calm himself down. "I will receive punishment for my deeds, Tony Stark, you may be sure of that. I care not how you might judge me for taking the opportunity I've been given to get my mind back first."
"You say that like someone took it," Tony said, because while they could speculate all day, Loki was the only one who could really tell them the truth about that. Assuming he would. Stupid assumption, and Tony wasn't exactly planning to just believe anything he said.
"Not to keep," Loki muttered. "Just to rifle through it and leave things a mess." When he looked up, he looked almost like he thought this was funny. "You are suspicious of me for being too honest with you, are you not? But I have no pride left. No secrets left." He let out a wild laugh. "I no longer even care. I, who for the sake of pride and secrets . . ." He started to sob.
"Oh, fantastic," Tony muttered. "Stop that."
"Why?" Loki demanded, still crying. "Aren't madmen allowed this?"
"Oh, so now you are mad?" Tony asked innocently. "That's weird, I swore you said you weren't last time. Jarvis! Bring up the video of Loki's last visit—"
"I don't know!" Loki shrieked, so loud it made Tony's ears ring.
"Cancel that, Jarvis," Tony said after a long pause.
"You— how am I supposed to know— I must be— I can't even remember some of the things I did, and I can't remember why, and it sickens me to try!"
"Oh, you could," Tony said, matter-of-factly. "You could remember if you tried. But if you did that, then you'd have to admit that you're ready to stand trial for it."
"They can hold the trial tomorrow, for all I care," Loki whispered. "I don't care what they do to me, do you understand that?" he asked, his voice trembling with the possibility of crying again. "I doubt there is a just punishment for what I've done, but I will accept whatever they deem to be justice. It ought to be severe. If the horror I dealt was so great I cannot even recall it, then what is the point in waiting until I can?"
"Holy shit," Tony blurted out as he suddenly put this all together. Just like that, it all slotted into place. God, he really had given Natasha everything when she'd interrogated him, and none of them had seen it because they were too busy dealing with the situation. "Can you wipe out that much red?" Even with Chitauri fingers in his brain and Chitauri agenda to complete, he'd already been trying to apologize. "Holy shit, you're actually sorry, aren't you?"
The bleak expression spoke for itself.
"Oh my god. This is, like, not even what I thought it was. You actually went off an emotional deep end and did stupid, stupid things, and you actually regret them so much you're experiencing some kind of dissociative disorder. I mean, the whole creepy story about how those dwarf people tortured you as a kid should have clued me in to how psychologically damaged you are, but I am generally suspicious and especially so when it comes to the guy who used my house to stage an alien invasion. Holy shit."
Loki's hand immediately went to his mouth at the reminder.
"No, no, no," Tony chided him, gently slapping his hand away. "That is really awful, never do that. Look, are you even actually a bad person?"
"I'm a mass murderer, you fool," Loki whispered.
"See, that right there, that makes me think you're usually an okay guy, and wow. I mean, Thor loves you, but Thor fucking loves everyone. The thought that you might have once been a loveable person is really just . . . My mind? Blown."
Tony was not even capable of dealing with this. He'd been right on the money, in that he'd suspected the aliens of messing with him. That was why he'd given Cap a list of demands when he went for a meeting with Fury. They'd called him right away to give him the heads-up about Thor and Loki being in town, and he'd already been bored and pissy and was perfectly willing to get indignant. He'd gone storming into his meeting telling them how unfair it was to be given the responsibility of dealing with Loki without being given any warning or intel. He'd demanded whatever records S.H.I.E.L.D. had managed to create during the night they'd had him in custody. Then, of course, being a team player, he'd brought the results back to Tony and Bruce.
Yeah, the Capsicle was getting something nice for his birthday.
It seemed that Loki was suffering from a range of ailments, running the gamut from dehydration and malnutrition all the way to depression with tendencies toward self-harm and post-traumatic disorder with tendencies toward paranoia. Then there was that pesky one that had really bothered Tony and that he hadn't wanted to believe. Possible dissociative fugue. Interestingly enough, they'd brought in the same person who'd done Hawkeye's psych eval after the mind-control, so S.H.I.E.L.D. had at least suspected the same thing Tony had.
Well, it's wasn't a full-on fugue or whatever, but Loki clearly was not okay with who he was.
"I am not even going to try to figure this out right now. And seriously, it's not like I can. I may be an expert in self-destructive tendencies but I have never actually studied psychology. Dude, you need a therapist, badly."
"I think I need to lie down," Loki mumbled.
Tony grimaced, because while he was getting his mind blown, Loki had started sweating and looking like he was going to throw up. He was so ridiculously thin and pale, and watching him whimper took Tony all the way back to feeling like he was looking at an abandoned kitten.
"You need a doctor, actually. I ran tests on all the blood you left in the bathroom. A couple of your injuries are infected. Also, have you eaten since you were here last? Yeah, that's obviously a big fat no. Anyway, the good thing about getting S.H.I.E.L.D.'s info on you is that it collaborated with mine. You might have a serious infection, but we can treat it, because you're a real boy now, Pinocchio. I figured there was no way we could just take you to a doctor, but that's okay because I have a ton of money to toss around and got the goods anyway, go me."
Loki was sort of just staring at him now.
"Drugs," Tony clarified. "Antibiotics, to be more precise. The downside is that somebody's got to dose you— oh, shit, I forgot, calling Thor. I'm going to call Thor now. Because Thor is going to do this. I am not doing it."
That was as far as Loki got, although presumably the rest of that sentence was supposed to be "about to pass out" because his eyes rolled back in his head and he fell onto the floor.
"I am not picking your sorry ass up," Tony muttered. He spent a minute just grimacing at the prone body on the floor. "Shit. Fine. I'll get you a blanket. God. Right, calling Thor now. Thor, who probably will need to have modern psychology explained to him. And probably also antibiotics and hypodermic needles. Ugh."
Bruce got concerned about Thor's gigantic hands and the fact that after Bruce's careful explanation, he still looked very confused . Which is how Bruce wound up jabbing a needle into Loki's ass, and how Tony wound up rubbing Bruce's shoulder in sympathy for having to do that, and how Thor wound up asking a really awkward question.
"Shield brothers and companions of what now?" Bruce asked in disbelief, as Tony cringed.
"Ohmygod, no, no, absolutely no, Bruce and I are science bros, okay? Science bros is what's going on here. Yeah, you don't get that, do you? It is a sacred bond, a brotherhood of curious minds, a pure—" and here Tony gave up on his interest in trying to speak all cool like Thor did. "Listen, dude, just no. Have you met Pepper? I'd die with a stiletto heel jammed up my nose for keeping a gay lover on the side."
Suddenly struck by a thought, Tony whirled around and gave Bruce a wide-eyed look. "It is so totally cool if you are actually gay, by the way, I just thought this whole thing where we don't dwell on each other's personal shit has been working really well for us so far. But yeah, just in case, that was not meant to sound derogatory. Just . . . I do not think of you that way, okay."
"Science bros," Bruce agreed mildly, fist-bumping him to put him out of his misery. "Thanks, by the way, but I . . . there's a girl. Well, there was a girl."
"Nice. Oh my god, you shouldn't have told me that, I am totally going to interrogate you about this girl, and there will be weeks where you try to resist telling me but I am going to drag it out of you, you should have just told me you were gay. No, that wouldn't work, then I'd try to find you a boyfriend. I am an asshole, why do you hang out with me? Anyway, Thor, my man. You need to keep a better eye on your brother. You want me to knock him out and embed a GPS tracker?"
Thor looked like a kicked puppy, that was terrible and Tony would honestly feel bad if he was capable of that feeling.
"I let him out."
"I let him leave. I am sorry, I did not know he would come back here and disrupt your sleep—"
"Why would you do that, is what the relevant question is."
"Because he wanted to get away from me," Thor explained, looking away.
"I see," Bruce said. "I know this will seem intrusive, but it's actually important. Why did he need to get away from you so badly that you let him do it?"
Thor rubbed his hands over his face. "I was trying to explain to him that Father and myself must share the burden of guilt for his actions. I was trying to apologize. He could not hear it. He ran from me. I think he is still not ready to hear that I can forgive him."
"Oh, fuck me," Tony muttered. He and Bruce shared another of their scarily-communicative looks.
"Believe me: while he may never love me as he once did, I will never allow him to—"
"Thor. Um. He loves you a lot actually."
"Did he speak to you?" Thor asked, his face lighting up with hope. Ow, right there in Tony's nonexistent feelings. Thor was just too much.
"Uh, yeah. He didn't actually say that, by the way."
Oh, yeah, that was definitely like kicking a puppy. It was possible Tony was capable of feeling bad. He was so not good at talking about emotional baggage, not even other people's.
"Thor . . . He is carrying a metric shitload of guilt around. He considers his actions so vile that he can't even think about them without having one of his episodes. And he cannot handle it when you attempt to implicate yourself in them. Do you understand?"
See, that was not fair. Somehow he made being dumb seem so cute. Most people just made Tony feel slightly manically aware of how much smarter he was, but Thor was kind of adorable.
"He looks up to you. He thinks you're a good person."
And now Thor looked like he had gas.
"He thinks he is a bad person. He thought he was above humans and now he thinks we're above him. He has had his entire worldview somehow completely changed and can barely remember why. He is literally trying to separate himself from what he did. He wants to be punished for it so badly that he's taking it out on his own body. You with me, here?"
"I am still standing here, am I not?" Thor said, sounding puzzled.
"Tony's trying to ask you if you understand Loki's thoughts," Bruce translated helpfully.
"I . . ."
"Great. So, that's why he can't listen to you when you try to say you're in the same category he is. For one thing, his ego's still there somewhere, and he subconsciously doesn't like you trying to equate yourself with him. For another, he thinks his actions were incredibly bad, and he wants to hold you apart from them. He wants to think of you as better than that."
Seriously, why did Thor trying to think look so much like Thor trying to take a painful shit?
"Because he loves you, man. He doesn't want you to get taken down with him."
And the light bulb went on. It was almost visible.
"Thank you, my friends," Thor said, grabbing them both around the neck and drawing them in to the most awkward group hug since the Stark Industries Board of Directors Team Building Exercise of 2006. "Thank you for all of your help. This is such encouraging news."
"Yeah, you're welcome," Tony yelped, attempting to extricate himself. Still, he had nothing on Bruce. The man slipped out from under Thor's arm and was across the room in the blink of an eye, twisting his hands together.
"Well, there is only one thing to do," Thor said happily.
"And that is . . .?"
"Tell Loki that he is good and does not need to punish himself so. The judgment of the tribune will not last forever, and he is still a prince of Asgard. If he knows that, perhaps he will not feel so lost."
"Oh, boy," Bruce muttered.
"Is this not what he needs?"
"Oh, it probably is," Tony said slowly. "But there's a difference between being told something and believing it, you know?"
"Yes, I certainly can attest to that," Thor said more thoughtfully.
"Much as it hurts me to say this, I think the two of you are going to be here for a while."