The great thing about being perceived as an asshole is that it's real easy to hide guilt, shame, self-loathing, and just about every other emotion behind a Kevlar wall of sarcasm. Someone tries to ask Tony Stark a serious question, he shoots back a flippant reply. Eventually they stop asking. It's a good system.
At 8 am in whatever time zone S.H.I.E.L.D.'s magic castle is floating through, Thor of all people has made a pot of coffee for all the sad sacks sitting around the conference table. Rogers and Romanoff's half-assed attempts at conversation have fizzled out. Now they all slump in silence wondering what to do next. They caught the bad guy. There's one mission accomplished. He's been dragged off to some high-security room somewhere for a repeat of whatever Fury did yesterday. Any minute now he'll crack and give up the location of the Tesseract, then S.H.I.E.L.D. can swoop in to save the world. The good guys win, everyone's happy, global security crisis averted. Throw a party. Celebrate. Get drunk again.
Live the rest of your life trying to forget you were directly responsible for the imprisonment and torture of another human being.
Or... something that resembles a human being, at least. Close enough in Tony's mind to be the same thing. And no matter how many times he tries to tell himself it's justified, that Loki is a genuine homicidal maniac of epic proportions straight out of a James Bond movie, it still doesn't sit right. He deserves to be in jail or, better yet, stuck in a work detail picking up Burger King wrappers on the side of the highway. Not playing Dungeons and Dark Ages with Nick Fury.
Do the others feel the same? Hard to say. Romanoff: probably not. Tony knows she's seen - and done - worse. Rogers? No, he's a good little tin soldier, which means he'll side with the one giving him orders. Banner? Well, by the way he keeps rubbing his bloodshot eyes and poking at that tablet, it's a good bet he's been up all night tweaking his program that'll let them track down the Tesseract without Loki's forced cooperation. That guy cares.
Then there's Thor, who prowls around the table like a caged tiger. He very obviously cares, and who can blame him? Where others see a deranged psycho, he sees family. S.H.I.E.L.D. wants justice, he wants his brother back. Too bad he's the new guy in the office, the low man on the totem pole, and his opinion on what they should do with Loki carries all the weight of a feather.
Let me speak with him, Thor had said. Reason with him. I only need time.
Thing is, time is what they don't have. The longer the Tesseract is missing, the slimmer the hope of ever getting it back before something disastrous happens. Chatting about hurt feelings and whose daddy didn't love them enough is a civilian luxury.
So what's the next step, when by all logic you've done the right thing and yet your conscience is screaming so loud the sound of it reverberates through your whole body? How do you cope when the only thing stopping you from dropping your head into your hands in despair is the fact that there's a coffee cup in the way? What do you do when you're sitting at a table with people you can't bear to look in the eye because you know you'll just see your own guilt shining back at you?
You do the only thing you can do. Irish up that coffee.
Tony stands. "Well kids, this has been a great meeting. Lots accomplished. Really hard-hitting, productive conversation. Let's do it again soon."
"Where are you going?" Rogers asks.
"Back to my room. I have things I'm working on. You know, cutting edge modern technology involving wires and lights and other zany stuff they didn't have back in the land before time."
"Stark, wait," Romanoff calls after him, but he's already out the door.
There's a bottle of Macallan 25 in a locked case beside his bed. It goes down smooth.
"This isn't right."
Tony expects a reaction from Thor. Something. Anything. A word of agreement, a nod, even a grunt. When nothing is forthcoming, he tries again.
"Look, I don't know what the protocol is for you back on Asgard, but here on Earth it's not really socially acceptable to torture prisoners."
A muscle in Thor's jaw tenses. Now there's something.
"What did Fury say to you?"
A long pause, filled with expectation on the edge of a held breath. "He asked me what I was prepared to do," Thor answers quietly.
"Then let me guess," says Tony. "He told you just enough of his plan to convince you it's for the greater good. Made you think he knows what he's doing and you can trust him."
"No, he... He told me his full intent. I believe he was seeking my approval, or permission."
Seeking permission... that didn't sound much like Fury. But ferreting around for answers under the guise of a respectful conversation? Now that did. "What did you tell him?"
Another long pause. "We of Asgard do not feel pain as humans do. We can withstand much, and heal with far greater speed than you. The... methods... he proposed would prove ineffective on Loki."
"And based on your information, he was able to figure out what would work."
Thor immediately rounds on him, snarling like a dog. "You think me responsible for this?!"
"No," Tony says quickly, holding up his hands in a gesture of peace and taking a step back. "That's not what I meant. What I meant was Fury has this way of finding out things we don't want him to know. He listens between the words you say for what you're trying to hide. You tell him what will fail, he'll worm his way around to success. That's what he does."
"And this is the result."
Yes, Tony thinks to himself but doesn't say aloud. This is the result.
He doesn't really want to look at that result. He turns his head and looks anyway.
Loki seems smaller in that drab gray prison shirt, stripped of his intergalactic Hell's Angel gear. Diminished. He looks just like a real person. Right down to those little drops of blood on the floor near the back of his head. At the moment he's either unconscious or he's fucking with them, and for reasons that make Tony's stomach turn he sure hopes it's option two. But something tells him that's not the case. Loki was dragged into the middle of his cozy glass cell over an hour ago and hasn't moved since. He stays where he is, nothing more than a heap of discarded clothing with a few oddly angled limbs left inside.
"This was never my intention," Thor eventually says, breaking the brief silence. And it was promising to be such a good silence, too, since Tony doesn't feel much like talking any more.
"Hm," is all he says in reply.
"And this is not my brother. This is not Loki. If you had known him before, Tony Stark, you would know that these actions, whatever he has done, are not his own. The brother I know would not do these things."
Tony shrugs. "Lot of evidence says otherwise."
"He is a trickster, yes. He is a liar, yes. He seeks mayhem for fun then sits back to laugh while others strive to set things right. But these accusations your people sling at him..." Thor pauses to rub his face, as if the pressure of his fingers under his eyes might help him wake up from a bad dream. It doesn't. "This is not my brother."
"So what, you're saying he's possessed or something? Mind control? Fairy dust magic?"
He means it half as a joke, but Thor doesn't take it that way. "I do not know. But that scepter he carried… it is not of Asgard. Someone must have given it to him, and someone sent him here."
Now that's nice and vague. Someone. "No idea who?"
"No," says Thor. He drifts into silence again, arms clamping together over his chest as tension crackles around his body.
Loki still hasn't moved. The guy has to be fucking with them. Tony pulls the flask out of his back pocket and takes a swig before offering it to Thor, who declines with a frown. Maybe he doesn't like scotch. Maybe he doesn't know what scotch is. Either way, his loss.
So, possession, mind control, or fairy dust. It's an interesting theory. A wacko theory, but interesting nonetheless, and after all they're talking about immortal space men so wacko might be the new reasonable. It's a theory that makes all of Fury's business sit even less well in Tony's stomach. And at the moment, it's not so much sitting as roiling, like a toy boat in a hurricane.
"Just out of curiosity," Tony asks Thor, "what's the dumbest thing you've ever done?"
Is that a hint of a smile pulling at Thor's mouth? "Recently?"
"Sure. Say, last five years. Or even ten. What counts as 'recently' for you guys, anyway? A hundred?"
"Recently," says Thor, "in direct opposition to the orders of my father, the king, I traveled with my friends to the realm of Jotunheim. We killed dozens and started a war over nothing more than injured pride."
Tony nods. Yeah, that qualifies as a little better than 'dumb'. "How'd that end for you?"
"I was stripped of my powers and banished to a place called New Mexico."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
No, he really isn't. This is starting to sound promising.
"Why do you ask, Tony Stark?"
He takes a breath and exhales slowly. Is there any use in stalling? No. He's just tipsy enough to convince himself that this is a good idea, and there's no doubt in his mind he can convince Thor too. "Do you ever… disagree with decisions other people make on your behalf?"
"All the time," answers Thor.
"And do you ever feel like taking things into your own hands so you can make sure they're done right?"
"All the time," Thor repeats.
"Good," says Tony. "Meet me back here at eleven."
"Why? What do you plan to do?"
"Taking things into my own hands. And that starts with getting your brother out of this shit show."
The suit isn't exactly made for indoor stealth, but Tony can get around that with a few total bullshit lines about navigation mapping and how walking the hallways of the helicarrier is necessary for his new dimensional recognition software upgrade. It helps that Rogers can't tell a microchip from a mushroom and his eyes glaze over the minute talk turns to technology. Meanwhile, Romanoff is too preoccupied with tracking down Agent Barton to bother with anything more than a cursory 'What are you doing?' Only Banner raises an eyebrow, but if he suspects anything he keeps it to himself. As long as Tony just paces the halls and stays clear of restricted access doors, nobody looks twice. Crazy Drunken Plan Phase One is a go.
Thor is already waiting in the appointed place at the appointed time, skulking in a shadowy corner like a back alley thug. Tony doesn't bother with any greeting or small talk: better get right down to business without thinking too much about what total idiocy they're about to pull. Time for Crazy Drunken Plan Phase Two.
"Okay, here's the deal. We probably have ten minutes at most before one of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s little worker bees notices something's up, so your job is now to listen and do exactly what I say. Got it?"
"Understood," says Thor.
Tony gestures to Loki's cell. "I've overridden the passcode, but security settings will only let me keep the door open for fifteen seconds maximum. After that, it's sealed shut for twenty minutes and nobody gets in or out without a whole lot of hassle. Door opens, clock's ticking. You go. No time for chit-chat in there and all tearful reunions are on hold until later. Throw Loki over your shoulder and haul ass."
"What of the mechanical eyes?" Thor asks, looking up at a camera overhead.
"Every camera between here and the nearest outer access door is currently transmitting a recorded loop of the last half hour."
Does Thor understand that? Probably not, but it shuts him up all the same. Tony continues.
"According to the cameras, I'm in my room, you're standing in the corner, and Loki's..."
Loki is curled up with his back against the glass and his arms covering his face. Either he crawled there himself or somebody dragged him, but whatever the case, he's not moving now.
"It'll look like Loki's right where he is. But that brings me back to what I said before about somebody figuring out something's wrong. We can't count on having all the time we need, so as soon as you've grabbed the damsel in distress, we move out. Follow me and do whatever I say, no questions. If our dumb luck holds, we'll make it outside."
"And then what?"
"Do I look like I've planned that far ahead? We'll figure it out when we get there. Just go stand by the cell door and prep for showtime."
At least Thor is a man of few words and quick action. A handful of broad strides and he's in place at the door, leaning forward in the pose of a sprinter on his mark. He takes a breath to steel himself and slowly nods.
Tony nods in reply before punching the passcode into the computer terminal, hoping like hell there isn't some secret alarm he overlooked when modifying the system. Nothing happens. Well, nothing unexpected: a little green light pings on and the door to the cell begins to slide open. Tony releases the breath he hadn't noticed he was biting back.
One second: Thor's already through the door before it's even had time to open all the way. Three seconds: he's across the room, bending one knee and reaching down to the body on the floor. Five seconds: Loki's in his arms. Thor's standing back up and pivoting around in one fluid motion. Eight seconds: out. Tony releases the door hold button and it slides shut with a little hiss of air.
"Let's blow this popsicle stand."
Then it's on to Phase Three. Tony leads, Thor follows. It takes another thirty-eight seconds to reach the nearest outer access door. Tony counts each one in his head, hoping like hell with every step that some junior-level button pusher doesn't stumble into them and then try to go all heroic. It would really make the supervillain rescue mission look bad to accidentally maim or kill some innocent redshirt. But luck holds. The hallways are deserted. The door standing between captivity and freedom, though, is locked, and designed to be operable on the ground only, air pressure sealing it in place.
Maybe he should have thought ahead a little more. He turns back to face Thor.
"Okay, Plan B. Smeagoling our way out of here is no longer an option, so how do you feel about blasting the door then jumping through a hole in the smoldering wreckage? Sound good?"
"Do what you must," Thor replies.
"See, that's what I like about you. Always up for an adventure. Now stand back," he says, raising his hands to take aim at the door. "This will very likely cause an explosion."
"Or I could do this," says Thor. He steps forward, hefting his hammer, and one smooth swing later the door is flying off into the cloudy night along with its bolt, hinges, and part of the wall. Yes, that also definitely worked.
Overhead a light begins to flash, accompanied by an alarm that's barely audible over the deafening rush of wind through the busted-out door. So much for 'do what I say': speech is impossible over this din. Time for non-verbal 'follow my lead', and also 'get the hell out before somebody shows up'. Tony flashes Thor a quick thumbs up. They must have thumbs up in Asgard, because he nods in understanding. Then they jump.
Tony's looking straight into at a thirty thousand foot freefall, unwilling to risk firing anything that will draw attention to him in the dark of night. Just drop out of the sky like a bullet headed straight for those city lights shining below, until he's close enough to disappear among them. He can angle his arms to steer in that general direction. Worry about landing when the time comes.
When a split-second of static hisses in his ear, he's expecting Jarvis with some annoyingly helpful advice about how this probably isn't a good idea. Instead, he gets... Nick Fury.
"Stark! Where are you?"
His stomach drops, if that's even possible while hurtling towards the Earth at two hundred miles an hour. All he can manage is an awkward, "Uhhhh... hey."
"There's been an incident with door eighteen, portside level three. I need you out there ASAP to figure out what happened."
Stunned silence. If Fury's calling him for help as if everything's still peachy between them, does that mean this stupid gamble actually worked? Nobody's noticed yet that he and Thor and, most importantly, Loki are missing?
"Well how about that," he mutters to himself. Then aloud to Fury, "Got it. On my way." At least that should keep Big Brother from wondering where he is for the next couple minutes.
And then comes the annoyingly helpful comment from Jarvis. "Sir, if I might suggest-"
"Nope, I'm good. Let me handle this. You just keep track of Thor and tell me if we start to lose him."
"He's following directly behind you, approximately forty feet back."
"Good. Let me know if that changes. And block any more incoming conversations from S.H.I.E.L.D.. I have a feeling the next one might not be so friendly. Actually, let's go offline entirely. I don't want to give them any opportunity for tracking."
"Of course, sir."
The ground's coming up fast now, the city's yellow glow becoming clearer and separating into individual streetlamps and headlights. Unfortunately this means he's now in prime UFO territory: any strange flares in the sky will be reported to the local police by a thousand ignorant yokels. He needs to find somewhere to land, somewhere out of the way, maybe in a valley or behind a ridge. Or on the beach, next to what looks like a bank of dunes? That'll do. He flattens himself spread-eagle to slow down as much as possible, which really isn't much at all but hey, it's a start. Now, just a little closer...
It's a hard landing, waiting too long to fire up the repulsors, and Tony plows into the sand with a force that he's pretty sure is a hair away from shattering every bone in his body. He rolls onto his back with a groan and spends a couple seconds just lying there trying to get his brain to stop clanging around in his skull. This is going to be the mother of all headaches. A few yards away, Thor lands in a perfectly executed crouch accompanied by a dramatic spray of sand. Show-off.
"Sir," Jarvis begins tentatively.
"Not now," Tony mutters. As he sits, something in his back pops and sends a fiery bolt of agony straight down his spine. That's a way more effective reminder of the night's bad choices than a computer telling him how he screwed up. He drags himself to his feet, cringing all the way, and lifts his mask.
A gust of salty air hits face with a sobering slap. They're on the ground. They're on the ground. They're not in the helicarrier, not being chased by S.H.I.E.L.D.'s jets, not locked in a cell after a botched escape attempt. They're out. Maybe just for now, but at least that's something.
"Holy shit it actually worked," he says to the night sky. "That was the dumbest, most half-assed plan ever, and it actually worked. I don't believe it." To Thor: "Do you believe it?"
"You thought it might fail?" Thor asks with a frown.
"Not fail, but I thought... we'd have a harder time of it. You know, something goes wrong, have to kick a few asses, narrow escape. That's usually how my plans unfold."
This is when Tony notices that Thor hasn't stood up. He's still crouched on the sand, leaning over the limp, shadowed figure at his feet. The muscles in Tony's neck and jaw tense, and it has nothing to do with the pain of a miscalculated crash landing.
"Uh, how is he?"
Thor shakes his head. "I don't know."
Those words, I don't know, are somehow worse than a straightforward answer of 'bad'. 'Bad' usually means 'it'll be tough, but we can fix it'. 'I don't know' has connotations of 'nobody has any idea what's wrong or where to even start trying to make it better'. Loki looks bad. He also looks 'I don't know.' In the half-clouded moonlight, his skin has an eerie blue cast to it. He looks... Truth be told, he looks a little like a B-movie zombie next to the tanned shade of Thor's hands.
Tony takes a step back. It's not the moonlight that makes Loki's skin look blue. In the same light, Thor doesn't look like that. Which means... Loki's skin is actually blue.
"Uh, Thor? What's happening here? His skin is... what is that?"
"That is what I don't know," Thor answers.
Well, awesome. The supervillain they just risked their necks to spring from prison, the one they need alive if they're going to have any hope of tracking down the Tesseract before S.H.I.E.L.D. does, is now turning a weird color and probably dying right there in front of them. "I'm assuming being blue like this isn't normal for Asgardians?"
"Not for Aesir. But in truth, Loki is not of Asgard. By blood he is Jotun, and in my experience this is how Jotnar look. However, I have never before seen him take this form. He has always lived as a one of us. So..." He pauses, looking up. "I don't know."
"I hope you know none of that made any sense," Tony says, stepping forward again and kneeling at Loki's side. "But if you say you've never seen him like this before, I'm going to go out on a limb and guess he's looking like this now because something's wrong. Reasonable assumption?" He doesn't bother to wait for an answer. "So that means we find a way to fix it, because I have this bad feeling he's not doing so hot."
"Fix it how?"
"Through the amazing power of logic. We look at the problem logically and see if we can't find a solution. Problem one? His skin is blue and..." Are those ice crystals forming on his shirt? "He appears to be freezing through his clothes. Is that normal for the Yo-thing you said he was?"
"Jotun. Known also as Frost Giant. So, yes."
"Frost Giant," Tony echoes back. Oh good, 'Frost Giant' sounds fun and not at all terrifying or monstrous. "Now that brings us to problem two: you've never seen him like this before. You've only ever seen him as a regular old Asgardian."
"Until recently, I believe he was," says Thor. "We both did."
"So what allows him to look like an Asgardian?"
Thor sighs, huffing out a long breath. "He has great skill in magic, and the ability to change form. It's possible that he..." The words trail off into a tense silence, and Thor looks down, then away. The gesture of a man turning from something he doesn't want to face.
"That he took on an Asgardian form," Tony finishes, urging Thor to go on because Loki's getting bluer by the minute and now has crazy patterns of ridges and lines rising on his skin. "And if he's been in that form for as long as you can remember, he probably prefers it, so changing now means?"
"His magic is fading." Thor's head snaps up. "This isn't his choice. He's too weak to hold it, and he's..."
Dying. But nobody says the word.
"Okay, that's something at least," says Tony in a half-assed effort to stay positive. Isn't that what you're supposed to do in times like this? "Now we know what's wrong. He hasn't been cursed by a witch and he doesn't have some mysterious blue space-man disease. We'd be SOL with either of those things, but this, this, can be fixed." He hopes.
"How does one fix death, Tony Stark?"
"In America? By throwing technology at it. Now bear with me. I have an idea." It's not exactly a good idea, but he has to try something. "I've seen this on TV a few times. Well, not exactly this." Lifting his hands, he charges the repulsors. "But similar."
"Sir!" Jarvis barks in alarm.
"Just to be clear," Tony says to Thor, ignoring the warning, "you and Loki have the same tolerance for, say, a high-energy blast straight to the chest?"
For the first time all night, Thor looks worried. "It's okay," Tony assures him. "I'll start off on the lowest setting. Just a little jolt to wake him up. It'll be fine." He places his hands on Loki's chest, one near the collarbone and one over the sternum. Loki's icy shirt cracks and shatters like glass beneath the touch. "It'll be fine," he repeats.
Please be fine.
Gritting his teeth, he fires the beams and hopes for the best.
There's a flash of light and the smell of something singed, and Loki's body arches up off the ground. In that first split second Tony thinks it's just an unconscious reaction to the blast, but then Loki's eyes fly open and he's gasping for breath. He jerks his head to the side to stare at Tony in... Is that shock? Rage? Probably a bit of both? Whatever it is, Tony's too caught up in the fact that those eyes are bright red against his creepy blue skin to bother caring about much else.
...No that has to be his imagination.
The visual connection lasts only a second before Loki groans and falls back onto the sand. Slowly, his eyes and skin fade back to normal human (human-ish) colors. He's breathing. He's blinking. He's awake, and best of all he's not dead.
"Jesus Christ, that did it," Tony says to break the silence. "I mean... I knew it would. I'm a genius!" And he's two for two with crazy, off-the-cuff plans tonight. He should really hit up a casino with this run of luck he has going on.
Thor rests a gentle hand on Loki's shoulder. "Brother?"
Loki just makes an unhappy little sound in reply and rolls halfway onto his side, unable to make it all the way over.
"Can you stand?"
"If I could stand do you think I would be..." Loki doesn't finish the sentence. More like he can't finish it. His words trail off into another unhappy growl, accompanied by a grimace and a shudder that rolls down his back.
Thor takes that as his cue to stand up, gathering Loki in an awkward, cradling embrace. Tony would've bet money that Loki would object to this, either through some token physical struggle or even a disapproving, if ineffective, grunt. Instead, ever a source of surprises, he wraps his arms around Thor's neck and lets himself be carried like a small child.
He must feel really, really, really bad. Or he's fucking with them. Tony will never stop being suspicious that this is, in fact, the case.
"We should leave," says Thor.
Those words are enough to snap Tony's mind back to what's important. "Right." S.H.I.E.L.D.'s helicarrier is still puttering around in the clouds, and once Fury realizes they took off it won't take him long to figure out that down is about the only place they could've gone.
"Is there somewhere nearby we can seek shelter?" Thor looks around. "What is this place?"
"Well," Tony answers, "judging by the coordinates and, more importantly, the aerial view of that coastline I'd recognize anywhere..." He spreads his arms in one big, grand gesture and feels one big, silly grin stretching across his face. "Welcome to Atlantic City."