Tony woke to a cool hand on his forehead. He groaned, vowing never to drink that much again... The throbbing of his head cleared and he remembered what had happened. He cursed, pushing to his feet, looking around wildly for Loki. Instead he saw Rhodey dressed as the War Machine, Natasha and Clint.
"Wha-" Tony staggered a bit, and Rhodey caught his elbow.
"Stark, where's Loki?" Natasha demanded.
"The pumpkins took him! Where did they go?" Tony staggered around a little, and when he looked at the assassins, they were both staring at him oddly. Rhodey had his head in his hands. "I'm not drunk!"
"This could be linked to those energy signals we picked up," Clint said, toying with the string of his bow.
"The ones that I was investigating until you two showed up," Rhodey groused.
Tony wasn't interested. "They took Loki! Obviously this has to do with the Chitauri, we've got to find him!"
He staggered, nearly collapsing again. Rhodey caught him.
"Stark, you hit your head pretty bad. Colonel, you should get to the hospital," Natasha started forward, but then with a sideways glance at Clint shook her head. "Clint, you should get him back to the house, Pepper can take him to the hospital. War Machiene and I will go after the pumpkins, and you can bring the others back. Do a flyover of the area, will you, WM?"
Rhodey shrugged the best he could and transferred Tony to Clint before taking off.
"Well, this wasn't how I imagined the evening would be," Clint complained. "Stay in touch."
"I can help-" Tony started to say before he collapsed against Clint again. "Nope, just leave me, Barton, go after Loki... Actually, don't."
"That's probably a good idea," Clint replied, hauling Tony into a nearby car. "Natasha can handle it anyway."
Tony groaned. His head was pounding. How much could a body go through before it gave up? And what did the pumpkins want with Loki? If it was the Chitauri again... Trying to take his mind off the unpleasant possibilities, Tony turned to the archer. "So were you guys really on a mission, or did I just interrupt date night?"
Eventually the plastic pumpkin-skeletons threw Loki down. He fell hard, rolling over twice before something landed hard on his back, stopping him. His hand went to the corners of his mouth; they were bleeding. At least the bulk of the dragon costume had broken his fall.
"The titan told me that you'd look like a little brat," a jeering voice said above him. The thing on his back – a foot, he realised – pressed harder. "And what exactly is this disguise supposed to be?"
The foot flipped Loki onto his back and he stared up. His instant relief that it wasn't the Other was replaced by instant dread. Staring down at him was a pale blue face and light-coloured eyes that were almost white. A tangle of black hair surrounded the face, and an ill-fitted and ragged uniform clung to his rippling muscles.
"Ver-Men," Loki greeted coolly. He started to get to his feet, but the disgraced Kree officer kicked him over again. "I didn't expect a debauched bounty hunter to show up tonight. Weren't you scheduled to be decapitated on Hala over a year ago?"
"Did you really think you'd be rid of me so easily?" Ver-Men kicked him again. "The titan interfered. He sent me to collect you, you know. He says I am to bring you back alive and whole... But he also gave me plenty of the devil's balm to heal you up. So we will still have plenty of fun on the trip, you and I."
Another kick. Loki's mind raced. The Kree picked him up by the collar of the dragon costume. He wouldn't go back to Thanos. He couldn't go back! And Ver-Men... he shuddered to think of what he could do, with the healing power of the devil's balm.
But could he count on the Avengers for help? Tony was unconscious or worse, and the only person with any inkling he might be in trouble was Barton. He had no magic. What could he do? He could scream, even though they were in a dark alley-
Just as the thought came into his head, Ver-Men threw him back down. He knelt over Loki's small body, pinning it and stuffed a rag into his mouth. The kree tied his hands, and then pressed a gag tight into his mouth, flipping him over to tie it. Loki bit back a whimper as his face ground into the asphalt.
"You shouldn't have double-crossed me, trickster," Ver-Men growled, tucking Loki under his arm, starting to walk away. "But I doubt that what I will do to you is going to be half as bad as what the titan will do, once he gets his hands on you. You know, I almost feel sorry for you."
Loki forced his body to stay limp. He couldn't fight his way out of his situation. He couldn't talk his way out. Thor, he thought, Thor, please. Come save me.
But how could Thor find him?
And then he felt something in his sleeve. His hands were bound too tight for him to escape his bonds, but if he wiggled his hands enough, he could reach into the sleeves of his costume...
Natasha let out a long, low whistle when she saw the pile of plastic pumpkin-headed skeletons. Several of the little orange spikes from Loki's costume were scattered about them. He had struggled, but it wasn't enough.
"Stark was right," she muttered, straightening. She glanced over at Rhodey. "Loki was abducted by Halloween decorations."
"How? And who were they working for, though?" the colonel replied, his brow furrowing. "And where is he now?"
Natasha glanced at the sky. It was rapidly storming over. Seconds later Thor landed with a thump that broke the asphalt.
"Where is my brother?" he thundered.
"We're trying to figure that out," Natasha replied. "Anybody else coming?"
Thor nodded. "Miss Potts is taking Howardson to the hospital, but the others are all coming. If Hogun were here, he'd be able to track them..." he bent to the ground. "I see nothing of use."
"I do!" Natasha leapt over the pile of decorations and snatched something off the ground. She grinned, holding it up. "Candy. And here's another one."
"Tony must have had Loki stuff it into his costume," Rhodey said. "He makes me do that all the time."
"Really?" Natasha raised a brow. "Never mind. He's left us a trail."
Thor didn't wait for anything else. Bent over so he could see the candy trail, he started running. Natasha hesitated only a moment. The others needed to know which way to go, but Thor needed backup. Rhodey had the War Machine suit, and as much as Natasha hated waiting around doing nothing, if they were up against the Chitauri he was better equipped.
"Go," she told him, and without waiting he blasted off from the ground.
Natasha checked her guns, found a nice hidden doorway, unwrapped the piece of candy she had taken from the ground, popped it into her mouth, and waited.
Loki squirmed his fingers as far as he could up the sleeve of his costume, but found no more candy. He tried the other one to find it empty as well. He was trying to reach into the neck when Ver-Men stopped. He shifted Loki to his other arm, and held up a device in his free hand. Loki recognised it as a cloaking generator, and soon a sleek long-distance scout ship shifted into view.
"Home, sweet home," Ver-Men said, strutting aboard.
The gangplank closed behind them. Loki swallowed down his fear, hoping against hope that his trail of candy had worked, that Thor was coming for him. The interior of the ship was single-roomed, retrofitted to hold a narrow metal table, a furnace, a small tub underneath a device that Loki knew would empty ice-cold water. The wall hung with whips, branding irons, pliers and other torturous implements. Beside them were shelves of small containers. The Devil's Balm, that could heal a broken bone in less than a day.
Loki's heart pounded as Ver-Men took a knife from his belt. He cut free Loki's hands and then forced his arms to either side of the table and strapped him down.
"Just relax, trickster," the Kree muttered as Loki uselessly struggled. "We have to get out of this solar system before autopilot will take effect. Enjoy it while you can. But if you want to plead with me to show you mercy..."
Ver-Men ripped the gag off. Loki spat in his face. The Kree slapped him, making him cry out, and then laughed.
"I really wonder how long you'll be able to keep that up."
Outside, thunder crashed. Loki's hopes rose. Please, don't let it be too late.
Thor got to the ship just as it was lifting off the ground. Blood pounded in his ears. "LOKI!"
If he sent Mjölnir through it, he would risk hitting his brother. He began twirling the hammer to give himself liftoff. He would not let these people take Loki away! Tony's War Machine friend buzzed overhead.
Two bright lights emerged from the ship and began chasing him. The War Machine responded by sending some sort of missile towards the ship, but he had to quickly accelerate into the sky to avoid the weapons chasing him. His aim had been true. There was a flash of light, and the ship faltered and plummeted back to the ground. The nose of the ship crumpled.
Thor rushed forward, pounding his way through the hull. His first sight was of Loki lying strapped to a metal table.
"Thor!" he shouted, relief plainly written across his face.
"Loki! Are you alright?"
"I will be once I kick Stark in the face for getting me into this situation." Loki struggled against his bonds. "Thor, the pilot, get him. He's got weapons that will injure even-"
Before he could finish, a blast of energy hit Thor. Bright lights danced before his eyes, and pain spread throughout his body. He gasped once, and fell to his knees. Gasped twice, and darkness overtook him.
"Thor!" Loki shouted, fighting uselessly to get free.
Ver-Men staggered out of a smoky haze, blood pouring down the side of his face. "The titan said this might happen," he hissed.
"You're trapped here, vermin," Loki spat at him. "The titan can't help you."
"No? Death waiting or not, he gave instructions should I find myself stranded. The only question is whether I run a blade through your brother's heart or slice his throat. And then it'll be your turn."
Thor had to be faking it. He had to be. There was no way a single blast from a Kree weapon would take him down! They weren't powerful enough for that! Unless... Loki's heart sank. He had told Thanos of the Aesir's powers. The titan could very well have developed a weapon that could take down a god with a single blast.
"And then what?" he asked, desperate to stall Ver-Men as the Kree made his way to Thor, pulling a knife from his belt. Thor couldn't be here alone, he must have backup! "After he and I are dead, what do you do? Kill yourself as well or risk the tortures of Asgard?"
Loki fought the urge to roll his eyes, and then thought better of it. He let out an exaggerated groan of disgust. "Where, not who, you idiot."
Ver-Men stopped. "What did you just call me, Runt?"
"You heard me! You're an idiot!"
"Clearly you have a fetish for pain."
Ver-Men stalked forward, gripping the knife.
"Just know that whatever you do to me will be answered tenfold on your head," Loki spat. Where were Thor's friends? Had they abandoned him?
Ver-Men laughed. "I doubt it." He twirled the knife in his hands. "Now, which one of your fingers should I take off first?"
Loki bunched his hand into a fist. Ver-Men forced it flat again. Loki sucked in a deep breath, biting on his cheek to keep himself from screaming. Ver-Men smiled, pressing the blade to his index finger.
And a bright white light filled the ship. Loki flinched away from it. Ver-Men shouted, shielding his eyes. Loki couldn't see what happened next, but he heard the distinctive sound of a blade slicing through flesh. The light faded, but he found himself unable to keep his eyes open. He was so, so tired... His head lolled to the side and he was asleep.
Frigga had quickly outpaced the mortals as she raced along the candy trail that Loki had left. Her heart was in her throat, and the only thing she could think of was finding her sons dead, being only able to hold them and weep... Just like Balder, torn from her forever with no way of getting them back to her...
She was gasping by the time she reached the smoking ship. Kree. She recognised the design instantly. Her heart was in her throat.
The first thing she saw was Thor lying face-down on the floor. A scream caught in her throat when she saw Loki lying next to him. No. No. No. No. She stared down, unable to breathe, unable to think.
The queen jumped, spinning. She stopped, finding herself face-to-face with a beautiful young woman. Leaves and flowers were braided into her golden hair, and she wore a flowing white gown with green and gold trimmings. She smiled at Frigga, and the queen sunk into a hasty curtsy.
"Jord." Frigga cast a look at her sons before looking back at the Mother Goddess, one of the oldest and most powerful beings in the known realms.
"They're sleeping," Jord assured her. "But they won't be for long."
Frigga dropped to her knees, pulling Loki into her arms and stroking Thor's golden hair. "And the man who did this?"
"My eldest took care of him." Jord knelt and tenderly touched Thor's hand before standing again. "I will take my leave now."
"Are you sure you don't want to meet him?" Frigga asked, standing as well, holding Loki tightly in her arms.
Jord smiled sadly down at Thor. "You know the pain of losing a child. Now imagine watching him grow old and die as the lesser gods do, while you remain young and beautiful forever. Thor is to me as mortals are to you. In a few centuries, he will be nothing more than the ache of loss in my heart. It is better if I stay my distance."
Frigga curtsied again. "Thank you, my lady, for being here."
"And thank you, Frigga, for being the loving mother my Thor deserves."
The Mother Goddess walked out of the ship without a backwards glance. Moments later, Loki yawned and stirred. He opened his eyes sleepily, and smiled at his mother. The smile disappeared and his eyes widened. He bolted upright in her arms, panicked.
"It's alright," Frigga quickly assured him. "You're safe."
Loki relaxed for only a second. "Thor!"
Thor groaned and rolled over. He sat bolt upright. "Loki!"
"I'm here!" Loki quickly said. "I'm alright."
Thor got to his feet. By this time the mortals had arrived. Bruce bent over the Kree's dead body. Clint and Natasha secured the area. Loki assured them all that he had only seen the one kree. They exited the ship together, and the warrior known as War Machine dropped out of the sky. The faceplate rose and Rhodey looked a little put out.
"I'm fine, since nobody asked," he said.
"Were you in trouble?" Clint asked, his brow furrowing.
"Yeah, I was being chased around by two alien missiles. Didn't anybody notice?"
"I did," Thor replied. "But nobody else was there."
Rhodey shrugged. "All right. The kid okay?"
"I am neither a young goat or a child," Loki replied hotly, his little arms around Frigga's neck as he snuggled against her, his head on her shoulder.
"Who was that guy, anyway?" Clint interrupted, his voice flat.
Thor protectively stepped between Clint and Loki, giving the archer a look telling him to shut up. Clint shrugged and walked with Natasha.
Loki looked at Bruce."Stark?"
"He's fine. Pepper took him to the hospital." Brucelooked at the group. "We should probably go see him..."
"I'll sit out, if that's okay," Loki replied instantly. "He'd probably put me in a wheelchair and make me go to all the rooms asking for candy, since we've lost..." Tears pooled in his eyes. "Virginia got scared by the pumpkins and ran away."
Frigga pulled him in close.
"We'll find her," Thor promised. "Doctor, can you get Loki and Frigga back to the house? The rest of you, with me."
"Are we seriously going to go look for a pony?" Clint asked incredulously. "We have to call this in to Fury-"
"I've called it in to my superiors," Rhodey interrupted. "Also I've phoned Pepper and let her know that Loki's okay, since nobody else seemed to think of it."
"Thank you," Loki told him sincerely.
Rhodey shrugged. "I have to stay with the wreckage."
Natasha and Clint glanced at each other. "Fury'll take over if he wants to," Natasha reasoned. "Where was the last place you saw the pony?"
Later that night when Loki was out of the ridiculous costume and into his jammies, after having a bath and smelling like oatmeal baby shampoo, Tony came into his room. Loki looked up from the notebook he was scribbling in and then closed it.
Tony peered interestedly at the notebook. "Is it a journal?"
"No." Loki cleared his throat. "I'm writing a novel, if you must know. It seems that Midgard is suffering from a lack of proper reading materials and I would like to mitigate that."
"You're going to publish a book?"
"Perhaps. Did the others find Virginia?"
"Yeah, she's fine. She was at that house with the lady who was dressed up as Mother Nature. Not a scratch on her. I guess there wouldn't be, since they were after you... And we still got most of the candy, too, so we can pig out tomorrow." Tony trailed off. "Look, I'm glad you're all right."
"And I am glad that you are as well," Loki replied.
Tony grinned. "Pumpkin headed skeletons. Who would've thought? Meh, next year'll be better anyway."
"Yeah. I've already got the theme-"
"I most likely will not be here for another year," Loki interrupted. "And I certainly hope I am not stuck at these size for that length of time."
"Oh," Tony muttered. "Right. I forgot."
Loki's brow furrowed. "How could you forget?"
Tony shrugged. "I got smashed in the head by the sidewalk?"
"I suppose. But it is late, Mr Stark. I should probably get some rest. This body needs a lot of it."
"Sure." Tony stood. "Night, Lokster."
"I already asked you not to call me that."
Tony shrugged and headed for the door.
"Thank you." Loki's green gaze was steady. "For not leaving me behind."
Tony's brow furrowed. "Why would I do that?"
Loki shrugged. Tony left him alone. He closed the door softly and made his way to the living room. It was empty. He sat down, holding his aching head in his hands. It had been quite a night! Chased by plastic decoration, thrown into the hospital with a cracked head...
"Well, I deserve some candy now!" he decided, and went to find where Pepper had hid it.
Rhodey had beat him to it.
"No fair," Tony whined, slumping down. "This is my stash."
"My stash now," Rhodey grunted. He unwrapped three lollipops and stuck them in his mouth. "Tony, I've got to say. I'm jealous."
"Jealous? Of what?"
"Your team here. They're good people."
Tony raised his brow. "After all the complaining you did that nobody asked how you were after being chased around by alien missiles?"
Rhodey shrugged. "They've been a good influence on you, I think. You're actually acting like a grown-up."
"I'll have to remedy that."
"You do that."
Loki turned off his light and slipped down under his covers, forcing himself to believe that Thanos didn't have any more bounty hunters waiting in the wings. In the room next to his, Thor stood vigilant, determined that he was not going to sleep that night. In the basement, Rhodey and Tony steadily worked through the stash of candy, joined after an hour by Pepper, who stole all the peanut butter cups. Clint sat on the roof, silent, a few tears running down his cheeks – it was the anniversary of his little sister's murder, and he had been pulled away from her grave by Loki's crisis. Natasha waited in the kitchen, having just told Steve what had happened, and deciding whether she wanted mint or camomile tea. Frigga sat on the porch swing, a blanket pulled around her shoulders, shivering – It wasn't cold, but she couldn't shake the feeling that he was watching...
Thanos leaned forward, commanding the drone to move closer to Frigga's face, turning off the other displays. She was just as beautiful as she had been all those years ago when she had run from him.
"My dear Frigga," he whispered and she shivered as though she could hear him. "Your years of happiness are almost up. Soon you will know true pain." He smiled and leaned back. "Time for phase two."