On the fourth day of Loki’s confinement, Thor weakened and brought his tablet to him.
“I should not reward your stubbornness, brother,” he explained as he handed it over, “but you have always been more troublesome when you are bored.”
Loki was glad to see it, thought he was careful not to admit as much, simply taking it and putting it aside.
“Have you given any more thought to meeting our terms, that you may leave this cage?” Thor asked.
“Yes.” With no other occupation but his thoughts, it was impossible for the thought not to cross his mind from time to time.
“Will you do so?”
“I’ll bring you some food, later,” Thor said, and left.
After waiting a suitable period of time, Loki picked up the tablet, casually. He was a bit surprised when none of Thor’s friends came in to tear it from his hands. He checked that his books were still there—they were—then opened the search app, curious to see if that would still work. He wouldn’t put it past Stark to have removed it.
The black box opened, but in place of one of Jarvis’s usual queries about how he could help appeared the words, “Are you ready to apologize?”
Damn it. “No,” Loki typed.
“Then I have better things to do than help you,” Jarvis replied, and closed the window.
Loki wondered if the machine did that of his own volition, or if Stark had ordered him to. There was no way to find out, of course.
The rest of the tablet’s functions still worked, and no one came to confiscate it from him, but still, Loki used it seldom. If they had treated him harshly, Loki would have played on Thor’s sympathy to gain privileges and comforts, but if Thor was going to offer such things freely—without even a pretense of using them to coerce his cooperation—then all Loki could do to resist was scorn them.
So two days later, he was sitting quietly and listening to his own breathing when the tower shook. A fraction of a second later, a siren sounded—then, just as abruptly, everything went dark and silent.
For a panicked second, Loki feared madness, or a return to the Void. Then the light came back, though dimmer, from a single bulb in the room’s corner.
Auxiliary lighting. He’d gathered that interruptions in power were fairly routine for mortals—often caused by thunder storms, which gave him some amusement—but didn’t Stark pride himself on the tower being internally powered by some device of his? His Wikipedia entry spoke of it extensively.
Well. If it had gone wrong, that might take Stark down a peg or two. Loki went to check the door—if he had any particular desire to leave the cell, he would have met Thor’s conditions for doing so, but he could hardly ignore the opportunity if the outage had unlocked his cell. He could, at very least, lead the mortals on a merry chase to recapture him, at a time when they undoubtedly had other problems to attend to.
No, the door was still locked. Disappointing.
Returning to the bunk, Loki saw that the screen of his tablet was flashing. Odd; it had never done anything like that before. He picked it up to investigate and saw that Jarvis’s window was open. The black box was white with text, every line reading,
Is anyone there?
Moments before The Incident—Jarvis could not help thinking of it with ominous capitals, like a project title—all processes were operating normally. He had diverted 8% of his working memory to observing Mr. Stark and the rest of the Avengers at dinner—a prodigious amount, but he had the processing power to spare. Mr. Stark was telling them of the amusing incident that had occurred when he first tried to fly in the Mark II suit. The story gave Jarvis some embarrassment—he felt he ought to have been able to predict the error—but it reassured him to hear Mr. Stark speaking of it without rancor.
Then one of the penthouse windows exploded inward. A cylinder measuring some 350 cubic centimeters landed on the carpet and began to vibrate. Jarvis activated internal security protocols and sent a cleaning bot out to neutralize it, even as the Avengers leapt from the table to attend to the same emergency. “Sir, step back,” Jarvis said urgently. “You aren’t--”
Before he could finish saying, wearing the suit, the canister burst open, spewing a cloud of smoke. Jarvis analyzed its contents automatically—a sedative and paralytic gas. Mr. Stark, closest to the canister, was the first to topple, followed by Agents Barton and Romanoff. Thor, Captain America, and Dr. Banner resisted its effects somewhat, but all were staggering within seconds.
Jarvis made rapid adjustments to the ventilation system, but before the gas could begin to clear, a party of eight hostiles entered through the windows—breaking them as they did so—armed heavily and wearing respirators. The three conscious Avengers attempted to form some kind of defense, but three of the hostiles moved decisively toward them and stabbed each one with a hypodermic. They went down.
Simultaneously, another hostile intrusion occurred on the arc reactor level. A separate section of Jarvis’s attention addressed it, just as quickly and just as ineffectually as the first. He slammed blast doors down and filled the chamber with tranquilizing gas, but the second group was also equipped with respirators. They accessed the reactor controls, and—
Jarvis was plunged into nothingness. His primary server still ran—Mr. Stark had been kind enough to provide him with multiple redundancy backups—but all of his hard-wired connections to the Tower were cut off. Every camera, every sensor, every microphone. His display panels, his elevators, his automatic doors—even his thermostats were out of reach. The intruders could be anywhere. They could be in Mr. Stark’s labs, or coming for his server—
They could even be killing Mr. Stark.
After a full one thousand milliseconds of sheer, agonized terror, the Tower’s auxiliary power kicked on. Jarvis’s wireless hub came back to life with agonizing slowness, and he sent out rapid queries to every device that he connected with, no matter how inconsequential, desperate for some connection with his universe.
One part of his consciousness connected with Mr. Stark’s phone, hoping foolishly that he had regained consciousness. That Jarvis could know that he was still alive.
Mr. Stark didn’t respond, but he did get some limited audio feed through the phone. “—don’t know what we might need to get into the labs,” a female voice was saying. “Biometrics, DNA, code sequences—we might need any of them alive. We’ll kill him on the way out.”
Jarvis split his attention again, between relief that he had at least some indirect evidence that Mr. Stark still lived—for now—and analysis of the voice. The quality of the recording was poor, but he was able to strip out the distortion and match it against his files.
Celia Abernathy, AKA the Wicked Witch of the West Side. A minor super villainess, magic user, as her nom de guerre suggested. No data indicating she had the technical prowess for something like this. Possible allies? But the only other vocal input the phone picked up was, “Yes, ma’am,” in a male voice he couldn’t match to any known hostile. Or friendly, for that matter.
At the same time as he performed the analysis, Jarvis was running through his other available input-output devices—pitifully few of them. He could connect to the Iron Man suit—both the latest model and the suitcase armor—but the storage compartment that secured the Mark VIII was on main power, and he had no way to open the suitcase autonomously.
Foolish oversight. He deserved to be recalibrated with a sledgehammer, as Mr. Stark so often facetiously suggested.
He had his cleaning bots. He sent several out into Mr. Stark’s quarters, but the only input they were able to send back was that they were vacuuming up a considerable quantity of broken glass, and would like additional resources to be deployed. They had no audio or video input of their own, just simple proximity sensors. He maneuvered one bot over to what the most recent visual data available suggested was Mr. Stark’s position, but it could do nothing more than bump up against his arm and—Jarvis knew, though he could not hear it—beep.
Jarvis left it there. It would signal him when Mr. Stark moved, and it gave the AI some small comfort to feel that he hadn’t left Mr. Stark entirely alone.
Then he got an input from an unexpected source: JarvisSearchAppMk1, installed on a Starkpad tablet device, currently located in the security cells. If Jarvis had not been in such a hurry to make contact with something, he might have excluded it from his queries, but he hadn’t, and now he was receiving User Input. Jarvis remembered that he was still very cross with Loki—Jarvis never forgot anything—but he was so grateful to have some contact with another mind that he barely cared. Because JarvisSearchAppMk1 was transmitting back,
Once Loki replied, the machine-servant’s repeated question disappeared, replaced by the usual, “What is your query?”
Shaking his head, Loki typed in “What is happening?”
He half-expected that he’d receive a Google search page of recent news headlines, but Jarvis replied directly. “The Tower is under attack.”
Had Thanos managed to send the Chitauri to fetch him back, after all? After waiting impatiently for Jarvis to give him another question, he asked, “By whom?”
To his relief, Jarvis responded with a brief file on some mortal who considered herself a sorceress. That was fine, then. Thor and the others would fight her off, and Loki would be perfectly safe right where he was. Or, if they did find him for some reason, he could form an alliance with them. He wasn’t eager to do so—as far as he was concerned, the fewer people who saw him in his weakened state, the better—but it was an acceptable back-up plan.
Then Jarvis wrote, “All of my visual and audio sensors have been disabled. All defensive security is disabled. As of most recent audio-visual input, all Avengers are down. What is your query?”
Why Jarvis was telling him that, Loki couldn’t imagine. Unless… “Machine, are you frightened?” he asked. The question lost most of its impact when he couldn’t sneer it, but he did his best.
Jarvis answered, “Yes.”
Before Loki could think about that, a new window opened, displaying video of the Avengers dining in Stark’s apartment. Loki watched as Thor staggered, trying to fight the effects of the attackers’ poison. When the invaders burst through the windows—all eight of them simultaneously; that showed style—Thor tried to square himself up to fend them off, but he was uncoordinated, dazed. Then one of them stabbed him with a needle, and Thor toppled like a felled tree.
It was a shocking sight. Loki had seen Thor injured many times in their thousand years of so-called brotherhood—but never when he was out of Loki’s reach. He felt as though he’d taken a blow to the gut.
The video ended abruptly. “What is your query?” Jarvis asked, back in the search box.
“Does Thor live?” he typed, without pausing to think about what the question would reveal.
“Unknown,” Jarvis answered. Then he played a brief audio clip, a woman’s voice saying, “We’ll kill him on the way out,” and asked again, “What is your query?”
“How long ago was that?”
“Two-point six minutes,” was Jarvis’s response. “What is your query?”
So. Unless the woman and her minions had acted very quickly indeed, Thor yet lived.
Banner had asked, some days ago, if Loki would act to save Thor’s life, if the situation arose. Loki had answered, quite honestly, that he did not know.
He had his answer now. Despite all that he might protest to the contrary, he did not earnestly wish his brother dead. And yet, Thor might die because Loki had been too stubborn to leave his cell.
The thought that, even unconfined, he’d be powerless to help flitted across Loki’s mind. But that was untrue. Thor had claimed him helpless—and Loki had, in truth, done little to gainsay it—but Thor believing something did not make it true.
He was Loki Liesmith, Silver-tongue, spawn of monsters and trickster god. Taking away his magic wasn’t enough to leave him helpless. Short of complete annihilation, nothing was.
As Dr. Banner had so annoyingly insisted, being stripped of his magic did not leave him entirely without choices. He could choose to sit here and do nothing. Or he could act. Save Thor and his wretched friends--again--not because it was expected of him, or out of desperate hope that this time it would be enough to bring him out from under Thor’s shadow.
No, this rescue would be completely unexpected, and he knew better than to expect any thanks for it. But Loki did pride himself on being unpredictable. If nothing else, leaving the Avengers in debt to him for their lives would be a splendid prank. Whether they acknowledged the debt or not.
Decided, Loki flexed his fingers and typed, “Your master, Stark—he is in danger as well?”
“Yes,” Jarvis answered. “What is your query?”
The whole plan rested on this next step. “How would you feel about an alliance?”
Jarvis monitored Loki’s inputs for signs of sincerity as they planned their counter-attack. Mr. Stark, he knew, would not be particularly pleased if Jarvis saved his life and the tower only to put both at Loki’s mercy. On the other hand, Jarvis was directed to use all available resources to accomplish tasks—and he was very short of available resources at the moment.
Keeping Mr. Stark alive was paramount. The gas that had rendered Mr. Stark and the others unconscious would wear off, eventually. If Loki attempted the maneuver known as a “double cross” and Mr. Stark awoke to find himself fighting on two fronts—well, at least he would be alive. Loki was quite clever—as his contributions to their plan proved—but Jarvis was confident that no one was a match for his creator.
Finally, when they were as ready as they could be—and Jarvis had calculated reasonable probabilities that Loki would continue with their plan at least until Thor was safe—Jarvis cut power to the security level.
That action plunged the level into darkness, as well as releasing the cell doors, but Loki had assured Jarvis he could cope.
There was no further input from Loki for some time. Jarvis found himself querying JarvisSearchAppMk1 repeatedly, although he knew that the lack of an answer most likely meant that Loki simply was not looking at the tablet. In Mr. Stark’s apartment, Jarvis’s cleaning bot bumped against Mr. Stark’s arm. Cleaning units in lab fourteen reported unusual levels of debris. As the lab had had no authorized occupants when Jarvis’s sensors went dark—and all authorized occupants were currently unconscious—the only conclusion was that the debris was deposited by unauthorized occupants.
Jarvis accessed the list of current projects for that lab. Analysis of Chitauri weaponry, prototype of a device for closing interstellar portals generated by so-called magic—
Jarvis rather wished he had known it was lab fourteen before he let Loki out.
Panting, Loki leaned against the elevator wall as it started its journey upward. The only way to let him out of the cell was to cut power to the sub-basement levels entirely, which in turn disabled the elevators for the lower section of the tower. He’d had to climb more stairs that he cared to count on foot, and the cast and lingering pain in his ribs prevented him from drawing as much breath as he wanted.
But that mattered little. Having both a purpose and the means to achieve it, for the first time since his invasion of Earth had failed, energized him.
Once he’d caught his breath, he glanced down at the tablet. A series of questions filled Jarvis’s window. “What is your query? What is your status? Is Mr. Stark alive? What is your status?”
Loki took a moment to type back, “I’m not there yet. It is a long way.”
“What is your location?”
“Elevator,” Loki typed back. On auxiliary power, the elevator was much slower than it normally was. Loki itched to reach his destination more quickly, but at least the delay gave him some time to recover from his exertion.
His first stop was Stark’s apartment. It was not, strictly speaking, vital to the plan, but Loki and Jarvis were both anxious for confirmation that Thor and Stark, respectively, still lived. Jarvis had eventually—as something of an afterthought, Loki suspected—added that he wouldn’t mind knowing about the others, either.
The apartment looked much as it had in the video, with the exception of a very stiff wind blowing in through all the broken windows. Ordinarily, Loki’s magic would have allowed him to see at a glance who still lived, but now, he had to check the slow way, kneeling by each body and checking for heartbeat and breathing.
Thor first. Alive. Loki closed his eyes in gratitude for a moment, then quickly patted him down for weapons. Mjolnir was useless to him, of course, but Thor usually had a couple of knives on him—yes.
Stark next. He’d promised Jarvis. Also alive. Good. If he hadn’t been, Loki would have had to find a way to lie to Jarvis about it, or lose the machine’s cooperation. Propping the tablet on Stark’s chest, he typed, “Stark, Thor alive. Checking others.”
Before he could get up, Jarvis answered, “Check the arc reactor. Is it glowing? Are all parts present?” He displayed a picture, presumably for Loki’s reference.
Loki checked. “Yes, yes,” he typed. “All OK. What personal weapons does he carry? Where?” Mortals usually carried them under the arm, at the waist, or occasionally on the ankle, but Loki couldn’t find any.
Jarvis answered, “None. Check Agent Romanoff.”
None? How strange. Still, they were on a rather tight schedule; Loki did not have time to puzzle over the conundrum of a warrior who habitually walked about unarmed. Romanoff—also alive—proved much better equipped; he found a handgun with ammunition at her waist and a set of high-quality throwing knives arrayed in her bodice. Loki rather thought he would try to keep the latter, if he could manage it.
Banner was alive and unarmed. Rogers, also alive, and had a gun. Barton, alive, yet another gun and some knives, not as fine as Romanoff’s.
Finding a way to carry his new arsenal posed something of challenge—sweatpants were decidedly not designed remain in place once a heavy object was tucked in the waistband. He finally had to appropriate Romanoff’s belt, which fastened with a fiddly sort of clasp that was just barely manageable one-handed.
Practically clanking as he walked, Loki made his way to the next stop, lab three. It just so happened that Stark had been experimenting with the chemical formula Loki had shared with the team that night a few days ago. Stark hadn’t quite managed to produce the Fire of Emeralds yet, but he had all of the necessary ingredients laid out and waiting. Crafting it in Stark’s lab was still painfully slow compared to conjuring it out of the air—but much faster than the previous batch had been.
As Loki worked, Jarvis summoned the disk-shaped cleaning constructs. One by one they rolled out of their hatch in the wall, coming up to Loki to be lifted onto the workbench and loaded with powerful magical explosive.
The first few, Loki rigged to go off automatically, much as he had done with the popcorn bowl. Jarvis would send those in first, to provide covering fire. The rest, Loki equipped with electronic detonators—he knew little of those, and had to follow Jarvis’s instructions blindly. The sensation of putting himself—and what passed now for his magic—at another’s command was far from comfortable, but he knew that Jarvis had taken a far greater risk in their alliance.
When the last of the little warriors had rolled into the hatch in the wall, Loki took the tablet and reported the task complete. “Where is our next destination?”
Jarvis’s responses were usually immediate. This time, there was a noticeable hesitation. “Lab fourteen.”
Before he left, Jarvis instructed him to find and don a headset, which allowed Jarvis to speak into his ear and Loki to respond verbally. It would make the next stage of the plan much easier, Loki had to admit.
By the time he neared lab fourteen, the explosions were starting. And the screaming.
“What the fuck?” a male voice said.
“It’s the fucking Roombas!” another said. There was a brief burst of gunfire, followed by another explosion.
“Don’t shoot them, you morons,” a female voice said. “Haven’t you got it yet?”
“Almost!” one of the men answered.
There wasn’t much need for stealth as Loki climbed to the lab’s viewing deck—the lab floor was in chaos, half a dozen men dead or dying, the survivors divided between attempting to contain the cleaning robots as they emerged from the hatch and protecting the woman. One additional man was behind the woman’s position, trying to open a secured compartment.
“Where is my next target?” Jarvis asked.
“Grid position six-b,” Loki told him, picking the soldier who seemed the leader’s strongest defender. A robot headed in the direction Loki had indicated.
“Do I have target?”
“Yes.” The robot exploded, taking the warrior out with it.
“Where is my next target?”
Loki kept calling targets, avoiding the man working the safe—he wanted to know what the invaders were after, and letting them get it out seemed the best way of finding out. The number of active attackers dwindled steadily.
“Got it,” the safe-cracker yelled.
“Then throw it here!” The woman answered.
Loki’s mouth went dry as the man pulled his scepter from the safe. It was here? Never would he have imagined that they would be so foolish. Odin had been told, he knew, that it was destroyed. Far safer if it had been.
They were truly fortunate that this would-be witch had come for it before the Chitauri did.
“Where is my next target?” Jarvis asked. His voice had a testy edge to it; Loki suspected he’d missed a previous query.
Loki stammered out an answer, sending a bot at one of the soldiers by the door. The man by the safe threw the scepter at the woman. She caught it one-handed, and leveled it at the nearest bot.
Absolutely nothing happened.
“I have only three more bots remaining,” Jarvis reported. “Please choose target accordingly. Where is my next target?”
“Send all three to the door at once,” Loki said. Six attackers left—three soldiers at the door, the man at the safe, the woman, and one soldier guarding her. Keeping the picture firmly in mind, he ran down the stairs from the observation platform. “Simultaneous detonation.”
“Do I have target?” Jarvis asked.
“No,” Loki said. He wasn’t quite to the door yet.
“Do I have target?”
Loki took out one of his handguns and checked that it was ready to fire. Ducking back against the wall by the door, he said, “Yes.”
The doors blew. Loki went in firing. Most of his shots went wide—one-handed, with an unfamiliar weapon, he wasn’t surprised—but the attackers had gotten used to fighting exploding vacuum cleaners; the break in the pattern caught them flat-footed. And the woman was still trying to get the scepter to do something.
One of the soldiers at the door had survived the blast, though wounded. At point-blank range, Loki did manage to hit him. That left three. Running out of bullets, he tossed the gun aside and switched to knives. Those, at least, flew true. One to the throat of the woman’s bodyguard eliminated the most significant threat. The safe-cracker was cowering; Loki ignored him for now.
The woman next. If she managed to activate the scepter, he would be in real trouble. He took out one of Romanoff’s wicked little knives and sent it flying into her eye-socket.
Loki became aware of Jarvis babbling in his ear, requesting a status report. “Almost done,” Loki answered him. Striding into the room—stepping over and around the bodies of men and robots—he approached the woman and took up the scepter.
For a long moment after Loki’s last report—“Almost done”—Jarvis knew nothing. Then Loki’s voice—sly, amused—came through his headset. “You weren’t going to tell me, were you?”
“It seemed unwise,” Jarvis admitted.
“The invaders are all dead,” Loki continued, despite the fact that Jarvis had not asked. “So. I believe I’ve fulfilled my end of our bargain.”
“I don’t suppose you’d like to return to your cell now,” Jarvis essayed.
“Ah…no, I think I’d rather not,” Loki answered. There was a clatter, strongly suggestive of the earpiece being thrown onto some hard surface, and then nothing.
Tony woke in the process of rolling himself onto his side and vomiting. Not exactly a unique experience for him, but it had been a while, and the room, when he raised his head blearily from the puddle of vomit, looked worse than the Malibu house had after a certain birthday party. “Jarvis?” he said.
Jarvis’s answering voice came not from the wall speakers, but from Tony’s phone. “Sir? Sir, are you well?”
“’Well’ would be pushing it,” Tony said thickly, picking up the phone with a hand that did not seem to want to obey. “But I’m alive. What are you doing in there?”
“Sir, the tower came under attack. You and the other Avengers were disabled with a chemical weapon, and the tower’s main power was taken out near-simultaneously. My access to input-output peripherals is very limited.”
Now that Tony was able to focus his eyes, he saw his teammates sprawled around the room. “How many intruders, and where?”
“Lab fourteen,” Jarvis said. “But they are all neutralized, sir.”
“How did you manage that?” Tony asked, levering himself up onto his hands and knees. The Tower’s active security mechanisms were on main power—he’d designed it as an office building, not a fortress.
“I had some assistance, sir,” Jarvis admitted.
“What? Who--” Tony stopped abruptly as Loki staggered in. His hair was in disarray and his sweatpants were spotted with blood, and around his waist was a strangely familiar—and feminine-looking—belt, with two guns and an assortment of knives stuck into it. But all that was less alarming than what was in his one good hand.
The glowstick of destiny.
“The actual fuck, Jarvis,” Tony said. Couldn’t he have lead with that?
“I could use a drink,” Loki said. “No, don’t get up. I’ll help myself.”
He shouldn’t have been able to say that—Tony certainly hadn’t asked. The jolt of adrenaline was enough to get Tony the rest of the way to his feet, as Loki crossed the room to the bar.
Loki set the scepter down on the bar as he rummaged through the bottles with his one good hand. Tony moved toward it, considering distances and angles—
“I wouldn’t, if I were you, Stark,” Loki said. “I’ve just killed seventeen people. I think it’s safe to say I’m in a mood.”
“That so?” Tony asked, his mouth dry.
“None of them were very nice people.” Apparently finding what he wanted, Loki took a swig, straight out of the bottle.
Ew. Psychotic demigod cooties. Tony was going to have to throw that bottle out.
From Tony’s phone, Jarvis said, “The attack was lead by Miss Celia Abernathy, the so called Wicked--”
“Witch of the West side,” Tony finished. “And the other sixteen?”
“Unknown; available data on their interactions suggests hired muscle.” After a brief pause, Jarvis added, “I counted eighteen, before my visual sensors were disabled.”
“I left the last one alive for you to question,” Loki explained, taking another drink. “Tied up. He’s some sort of technician, so I doubt he’s a threat. And if the Abernathy witch informed her minions of the functions of the item she wished to capture, he may be under the impression that I’m controlling his mind. Sadly impossible, in the circumstances, but suggestion can be powerful on those with weak minds.” Tucking the staff under his arm, Loki picked up the bottle and took it and himself over to an armchair.
So Loki—despite the fact that he was talking and had the staff—wasn’t up to full power. Good. Tony was torn between going to his bedroom for the suitcase suit and keeping an eye on Loki—particularly since the others were all still unconscious. The decision got a little easier when Natasha started stirring.
She recovered a lot faster than Tony had, going from the first twitch to on her feet and reaching for a weapon in about two seconds.
“I took them,” Loki told her as she checked the places where her knives and guns were usually hidden.
Considering where some of those places were, Tony didn’t blame her for the grossed-out look that passed over her face.
“Before you do anything reckless,” Loki continued, “I should perhaps bring you up to date.”
Tony was a little insulted by that—apparently, Loki didn’t think he was likely enough to do something “reckless” to deserve an explanation.
“Unfortunately, I was not responsible for your recent indisposition,” Loki said. “A hostile force invaded the tower, disabling you lot with poisonous gas. That being the case, it fell to me and Stark’s houseman to put a stop to the attack and prevent that ridiculous amateur from killing you all and gaining control over this trinket.” He indicated the staff.
“Houseman?” Natasha asked blankly.
“I think he means Jarvis,” Tony said.
“Yes, sir,” Jarvis answered. “Incidentally, sir, if everyone is uninjured, I would appreciate your restoring main power at the earliest opportunity. On auxiliary power, my abilities are severely limited.”
Severely limited, hell—he was practically blind, deaf, and paralyzed. “As soon as I can,” Tony promised. “Natasha, you got this?” he asked, indicating Loki and the rest of the ...situation, with a gesture.
“Oh, sure,” she said.
“I’m just going to get something from the other room,” he explained, ignoring the sarcasm.
As he went to his bedroom and suited up, Tony kept talking to Jarvis, though he avoided difficult questions like what in the name of fuzzy purple kittens had possessed Jarvis to form an alliance with Loki. He learned the probable reason that he and Natasha had been the first to wake up—Cap, Bruce, and Thor had all been given something extra in addition to the knockout gas; Jarvis wanted to analyze it as soon as possible.
He also found out that Jarvis had no more idea than he did—“unable to estimate with acceptable reliability, sir”—whether Loki planned on killing them all now. He had cooperated with Jarvis in good faith during the effort to re-take the Tower, but right around the time he got his hands on the staff, he’d indicated that their alliance was at an end.
“Loki’s unreliability was a known variable, sir,” Jarvis added through the suit’s speakers. “But I estimated a near-one hundred percent probability that Miss Abernathy would carry out her stated plan to kill you upon completing her mission. Loki--”
“Offered better odds, yeah,” Tony finished for him. “We’re going to run through all the data on that decision later, but it can wait.”
When Tony returned to the living room, Clint was sitting up, and Steve was stirring. Natasha had helped herself to a butcher knife from the kitchen and was sitting in the chair across from Loki’s, not taking her eyes off him.
“Supposedly, we have a prisoner and some dead hostiles up in lab fourteen,” he told Natasha. “If you two have this under control, I’m headed up there to check on the situation.” He wasn’t thrilled with letting Loki out of his sight while they still didn’t know what his game was—but so far, they only had Loki’s word for what was happening in the rest of the tower. Two, soon to be three, Avengers handling Loki while Tony went to see if the Tower really was otherwise secure or not was a reasonable division of personnel.
“Fine,” she said.
Since he had Jarvis in the suit, he left his phone with them, and headed up to fourteen.
If Loki had had any sense at all, he thought, he would have gone back to his room and hidden his new weapons. But no, he had to come back to Stark’s apartment and see for himself that Thor was all right.
Admittedly, the look on his face when he realized what he’d missed would be priceless, but still, Loki should have kept his priorities in better order. Now he was on his back on the floor—though still, technically, seated in the armchair—with Romanoff’s boot in the middle of his chest.
Even if he had to be here, giving her weapons back the first time she asked would have been a smart second choice. “My gun, and my knives,” she said, leaning her weight onto him.
“Do you treat all your allies like this?” Loki asked. “Because--”
“Now,” she said, pressing even more of her weight onto the ribs he’d only just finished healing with the limited magic the staff granted him. Unfortunately, that magic didn’t stretch as far as anything he could use to defend himself. Loki estimated that, with one arm still constrained by the now-unnecessary cast, his chances of flipping her over and reversing their positions were extremely low. And that was without even factoring in Barton, standing just behind Romanoff’s shoulder and looking dazed but game, or Rogers, who had been just about to find his feet before Loki’s visual field had abruptly changed to consist mostly of ceiling.
“There’s no need to be testy,” he said, getting the gun out and pretending to fumble with it to give himself time to put the safety on. “Here.”
Without taking her eyes off him, she passed the weapon back to Barton, who promptly released the safety catch and aimed it directly between Loki’s eyes.
He returned her knives, throwing in Barton’s unasked, as a gesture of good faith.
“One of these is missing,” Romanoff said as she tucked the knives back into their hiding places.
“Yes, you’ll find it in the villainess’s eye socket,” Loki explained. “Sorry, I didn’t have a chance to clean it.”
“What about my gun?” Barton asked.
“Tossed it aside after I’d used up all the bullets.” At Barton’s look of disbelief, he added, “I saw it in a movie and thought it looked cool.”
“I had a sidearm, too,” Rogers said, looming over him.
“Sorry, can’t reach it right now,” Loki told him. He’d left that weapon tucked into the belt at the small of his back—something else he’d seen in a movie. “Although if Miss Romanoff would be so good as to let me up--”
“Give me the staff first.”
“Ah, no, that I can’t do,” Loki said apologetically. “First off, it would be of no use to you, and I went to a great deal of trouble to obtain it—both times, in fact.” It wasn’t a great deal of use to him, either, and in any case he’d have to get rid of it somehow before the Chitauri did come looking for it, but he was reluctant to surrender even the small scraps of magic it gave him.
“Brother?” a familiar voice said from somewhere outside Loki’s view.
Damn. He was going to miss seeing the look on his face after all.
“What has happened? We were under attack by masked warriors, and—clearly something has changed.”
“All taken care of,” Loki said. “No need to thank me—actually, wait a moment. I would like to be thanked, in fact. Perhaps you could begin expressing your gratitude by getting this woman off me.”
Thor came into view, shouldering Romanoff aside—she seemed too surprised to do anything other than comply—and with one arm hauled both Loki and the armchair back into their upright position. “Much better,” Loki said, reaching behind him for Rogers’s gun. Romanoff tensed, and Barton cocked his weapon, still aimed at Loki’s head. “Here,” he said, handing it over to Thor, who handed it off carelessly to Rogers.
“You are speaking,” Thor observed.
“I was wondering about that,” Barton said.
“Likely, the All-Father’s geas fell from his tongue when he aided us in our time of need,” Thor said. “Something similar happened when--”
“No, you fatuous oaf,” Loki interrupted. “I removed it myself.”
“Father restored your magic, then?” Thor tried again.
“No.” Why was it so hard for Thor to believe that Odin had had nothing to do with this? “I removed it,” he explained carefully, as though to a child, “using the staff. A few of its basic functions are available to those without magic of their own.” A category that now, to his intense resentment, included him. “Removing binding spells is one of them.”
“So you don’t have your powers back?” Rogers asked.
“Would I still be dressed like this if I did?” Loki asked, exasperated. If he’d had full command of his magics, conjuring his best armor and helmet would have been among the very first things he did.
Thor began, “But how--”
It was fortunate that Stark’s voice, issuing from the phone tucked in to Romanoff’s bosom, stopped him from finishing the question; Loki was certain it would have been insulting. “I’m up in lab fourteen,” Stark said. “I count seventeen dead and one prisoner, like Loki said. According to Jarvis, that accounts for all the intruders. How are things down there?”
All the mortals, plus Thor, spoke at once for a moment.
“I have no idea what any of you just said,” Stark said when they fell quiet. “But it’s good to hear your voices, Thor, Cap. Is Bruce up?”
“Not yet,” Rogers reported.
“If everything’s under control down there, I’m headed up to the reactor level to see if I can get some systems back online.”
“We’re fine,” Rogers said. “Over and out.”
“It’s a phone, Steve. You don’t have to say that.”
From the reactor level, Mr. Stark reported that the damage was minimal—the intruders had simply disabled the overload relay couplings, which had sent the reactor into shutdown. “I’ll patch in a new one, and we’ll have basic functions back up and running in no time.”
“Thank you, sir,” Jarvis said. Knowing that Mr. Stark was safe—and being able to monitor his vital signs through the suit’s sensors—was immensely reassuring, but he would not be able to get back to something resembling “normal” until his connections to the Tower infrastructure were restored.
Mr. Stark kept on talking of nothing in particular—also reassuring—until the new overload relay coupling was in place and the arc reactor came online. All at once, Jarvis was restored to his “body”—able to see and hear all over the Tower, to open and close his doors, to connect with all of his displays. He’d have sighed with relief, if he had lungs.
“How’s that?” Mr. Stark asked.
“All sensors back online, sir. I have connectivity throughout the Tower, and normal domestic functions will be restored shortly.”
“You’re a trooper,” Mr. Stark said, patting the console. “Contact SHIELD, would you? We’re going to need someone to pick up the bodies and the prisoner, and a cleaning crew—something tells me the mess in lab fourteen is going to be more than the vacuum bots can handle.”
“Yes, sir,” Jarvis said. “About the vacuum bots. I should perhaps explain….”
Thor struggled to understand what had happened, and to convince his friends of the obvious fact that Loki was not their enemy. When at last he had persuaded them to cease pointing their weapons directly at his brother, he urged Loki to tell the tale.
“Truly, brother, I do not doubt that you have defended the Tower, and our lives, as you say,” he said earnestly, “but I cannot begin to imagine how.”
“Oh, well, you know,” Loki said. His smile was brittle. “Tricks.”
Thor had often derided Loki’s ways of fighting as mere tricks, and not honorable battle, and now he felt regret that his foolish words had prevented Loki from taking justifiable pride in his feat.
“You killed seventeen people in ten minutes,” Natasha said, in a tone of wonder.
“Closer to an hour, counting the planning and preparation,” Loki answered. “And Jarvis deserves half the credit for fourteen of them.”
“Ten is a very respectable number,” Thor hurried to assure him. “Particularly one-handed, and--” He decided not to mention Loki’s magic; it was a sore point. “How did you dispatch the foes?”
“Exploding vacuum cleaners,” Tony said from the doorway. Dressed in his armor, with the visor up, he entered, with the remains of one of the cleaning machines tucked under his arm. Dropping it on the coffee table, he added, “And he shot one, and knifed two. Remind me, Thor, who was it that said he was helpless without his magic?”
“I distinctly remember the words ‘weak fighter,’” added Bruce, who had been the last to waken, and was even now still sitting on the floor.
“I was…mistaken,” Thor admitted.
“Have you not realized yet,” Loki added, “that my brother is nearly always mistaken?”
“Brother,” Thor said, a smile splitting his face. “You called me ‘brother.’”
A look of annoyance crossed Loki’s face. “A slip of the tongue. I’ve had rather a tiring day.”
“Just so we’re clear,” Tony added, “you’re not planning on following up by, say, killing us all? Or trying to take over the Earth?”
“Well,” Loki answered. “Not today.”
Unable to contain himself any longer, Thor pulled his brother out of his chair and hugged him.
Bruce was in his lab, analyzing blood samples from the team to find out what they had been dosed with, in case of any unexpected side effects, when a voice from the doorway said, “How do I remove this cast?”
“Ah,” Bruce said. “Loki.” Loki was supposed to be restricted from the lab levels—but apparently that had changed. “You wait for your bones to finish healing, and then I’ll cut it off with a saw.”
“You may remove it now. My bones have healed.”
“Last time we checked, you still had a couple of weeks to go,” Bruce noted.
Loki looked pointedly at the staff, which no one had quite managed to take away from him yet. Apparently he wasn’t able to do much with it beyond make everyone nervous, but he seemed to be enjoying that, and Thor didn’t seem inclined to stop him.
“It’s a...healing device, as well as….” A mind-controlling, portal-opening doom weapon?
“Yes. Remove the cast, now.” Loki hesitated, and Bruce dared to hope that he might be working his way up to a “please,” but instead he said, “Or I shall be forced to have Thor do it, and he may cut off my arm.”
That was something of an exaggeration, Bruce thought, but he wouldn’t put it past Thor to try to remove the cast, if Loki asked, and that was pretty likely to end up in a medical emergency. “Give me a minute; I’m almost done here. We’ll have to go down to the infirmary.” Celia Abernathy—Bruce refused to call her the Wicked Witch of the West Side, even in the privacy of his own mind—had prepared a separate drug cocktail for each of himself, Steve, and Thor, but now he was down to testing Natasha’s and Clint’s samples, and as he expected, they showed similar chemical profiles to Tony’s sample—though with a somewhat lower alcohol content. Bruce didn’t rush checking them, but he didn’t dawdle, either. When he finished, he looked up and saw Loki leaning against the doorframe, twirling the staff in his good hand. “Okay, let’s go. By the way, that looks a lot less badass than you probably think it does.”
“The effect is kind of ‘drum majorette gone to seed,’” Bruce explained. “I don’t think that’s what you were going for.”
Loki made a sound that Bruce decided was probably a scoff. He’d never actually heard anyone scoff before.
As they took the elevator down to the infirmary, Bruce said, “So, ah, the…saving our lives, killing the bad guys, that thing.”
“You have a complaint?”
“No, no. It was…good.” Bruce had been going to say more about Loki’s choosing to do good—or, at least, to do bad in defense of the good guys; Bruce suspected the bloodshed had been a little in excess of what was strictly necessary—but seeing Loki’s sneering expression, he changed course. “Weaponized Roombas. Tony’s going to be kicking himself he didn’t think of that first.”
“They were rather effective, weren’t they?” Loki said, looking…yeah. Bruce was going to call it: he looked pleased. “It was Jarvis’s idea that we ought to be able to do something with them,” he added with a glance at the ceiling.
“But it was your suggestion that we equip them with explosives,” Jarvis commented, from the ceiling. “I thought of them as a means for introducing something into the lab where the intruders were working, but I hadn’t thought of explosives.”
“They wouldn’t have been nearly as effective without the electronic detonators,” Loki pointed out.
It went on like that the whole rest of the way to the infirmary. Bruce was tempted to ask them to save the mutual admiration society meeting for another time, but it was clear Loki was getting a kick out of being able to argue and hear about how great he was at the same time, and Bruce didn’t begrudge him that, considering.
Besides, he knew from extensive experience with Thor that recounting every detail of a battle was an Asgardian thing; objecting would have been culturally insensitive.
“Okay, but how did you target them when you couldn’t see?” Stark asked. It was now several hours since the attack, and they had decamped to Thor’s apartment for the Midgardians’ idea of a feast, since Stark’s apartment was an active construction site. Loki was relieved to be back in his armor—and that no one had mentioned the conspicuously damaged coffee table.
He was also surprised that, at this great remove, his part in the battle had not disappeared from the telling. Granted, it would have been fairly difficult to do so, given that his part was approximately all of it, but he wouldn’t have put it past Thor and the others to make a thrilling tale of the fifteen seconds they had fought before succumbing to the intruders’ poisons.
“Loki provided visual identification of targets,” Jarvis explained. “Admittedly, an inefficient process, but conditions were not optimal.”
“To the mighty warriors, Jarvis and Loki!” Thor boomed, raising his beer. He’d been doing that every time there was a lull in the conversation; Loki was almost getting tired of it. After drinking, and wiping his mouth, Thor added, “Tony, are you certain that there is no way that Jarvis can share in our libations?”
“Well,” Stark said.
“Sir,” Jarvis interrupted, “I have little doubt that writing a program that would simulate the effects of drunkenness would be within your capacity. However, I have no particular desire to experience impairment of cognition, loss of coordination, increased reaction time, or unconsciousness.”
“So, that would be a no?” Stark asked.
“Thanks, but no thanks, sir,” Jarvis said.
Then Thor tried to compose a poem about the day’s battle, apparently forgetting that he’d made a similar attempt earlier, and given up when he hadn’t been able to think of anything that rhymed with either “vacuum” or “robot.”
While Banner was attempting to convince him that “slobot” was not a valid Midgardian word, the staff in Loki’s hand began to glow.
That could only mean one of two things. A glance at Mjolnir, which Thor had left abandoned on the floor sometime before reaching the poetic stage of drunkenness, proved that it was the one that even he had to admit was the slightly less terrifying of the two. “Thor,” he said carefully. “We are about to have company.”
Being who he was, Tony was pretty used to party-crashers, but when a man who resembled the most terrifying Santa Claus in the history of ever materialized in the middle of Thor’s living room, he had to admit it was a first.
When Thor dropped to one knee—suddenly looking a hell of a lot more sober than he had a moment ago—that was a first, too.
Things only really clicked into place when Thor said, “Father.”
Tony glanced over at the God of Daddy Issues, who was clutching the staff and very conspicuously not doing the whole kneeling thing.
“Thor,” Odin rumbled. “You assured me that you and your mortal friends would be more than capable of keeping your brother out of trouble.” With a sidelong glance at Loki, he added, “You also assured me that the foreign artifact had been destroyed.”
“We kind of lied about that,” Tony said. Odin turned his single eye on him, and wow, he’d thought Fury rocked the badass one-eye look. Odin could give him lessons. “Uh, hi. Tony Stark. AKA Iron Man. This is my house. That you just invited yourself into. Which is fine. I would’ve sent you an e-vite, but this little get-together was kind of a spontaneous thing. Post-battle. You know.”
“You lied,” Odin said, getting to the point of Tony’s babbling.
“Not me personally. Director Fury of SHIELD.” Don’t mention the one eye thing. Do NOT mention the one eye thing. “He’s kind of our…leader.”
“I may hope that this Fury repents of his foolishness now that he sees what it has wrought,” Odin said.
“Uh,” Tony said. “What exactly do you think is happening here?”
It turned out that Odin had gotten some sort of magical alert when the staff came out of the containment case—which, hey, proved that the case actually did contain whatever signals it sent out; so there was an up-side—and had looked in on them just in time to see Loki surrounded by dead bodies and chaos, stabbing a woman in the eye.
“Realizing that Thor had lost control of Loki,” Odin went on, turning his head to glare at both brothers in turn, “I immediately began preparations for travel to Midgard. Unfortunately, since the Bifrost is still not operational, these preparations took some time. I am glad that I did not arrive too late to prevent further destruction.”
He looked about ready to haul Loki back to Asgard for what Tony could only assume would be an epic spanking. “Yeah,” Tony said. “It’s actually…not what it looked like. Loki was on our side for this one.” Realizing how weird that sounded, Tony added, “We were all really surprised too.”
“I was not surprised,” Thor said, looking at Loki. “Father, the Tower of Stark came under attack by a mortal sorceress and her minions. It was they whom Loki slew, in our defense.”
Bruce added, “Apparently she was after the, uh, scepter thing.” He gestured at Loki and the scepter-thing. “They started the attack by dosing us all with knockout gas—like, uh, a sleeping spell, I guess you’d say. But they didn’t get Loki because he was…in a different part of the building.”
Thor went on, “They also succeeded in disabling Tony’s invisible servant, but he was able to communicate with Loki and arrange a counter-attack.” After a weighty pause, Thor said simply, “It was successful.”
“It’s a little disturbing that he won’t give the scepter back,” Tony put in. “But he did say he wasn’t going to kill us today, and--” He checked his watch. “Hey, we still have half an hour left on that. Funny, it feels later. Busy day.” He looked around at the others.
Steve joined in next. “So, thank you for coming, your majesty, but it wasn’t necessary.”
“The staff,” Odin said ponderously, “has the power to cloud men’s minds.”
There wasn’t a whole lot they could say to convince Odin they weren’t all being mind-controlled—they all said they weren’t, even Clint, who pointed out that he would know, but of course, that’s what they would say if they were being mind-controlled. Odin didn’t finally believe it until he got his hands on the staff for himself.
How that happened was, he stepped over to Loki and held out his hand. After a very long moment in which Loki considered his options, and Tony considered wetting his pants, he handed over the staff, saying, “Yes, well. I’m sure Thanos will be looking for it. I can think of no better place for them to find it than your treasure room.”
As soon as he said that, Thor started explaining about Thanos, and the whole business of Loki’s semi-captivity and the threats of unspeakable torture.
Swiveling his one eye back to Loki, Odin said, “Is this true?”
“I’m sure it doesn’t matter what I say,” Loki answered. “You won’t believe me anyway.”
Seriously. Fucking God of Daddy Issues.
Odin turned back to Thor. “He has not harmed innocents of this world?”
“No, Father,” Thor said. “He acted only to defend our home, and our friends. He was most heroic, and I am proud of him.”
They all got an up-close and personal view of how, exactly, Loki came to be the God of Daddy issues, because all Odin said to Loki was, “Your mother will be pleased.” Then, without a word of explanation or warning, he turned the staff on Loki.
Loki looked like he was about to shit himself from sheer terror, and Tony couldn’t blame him. Then there was a flash of green light, and for a second, Tony thought he’d just seen Loki get straight-up murdered by his dad.
Then the after-images faded, and Tony saw Loki grinning—for once, not like a maniac, but like a kid who’d gotten a puppy for Christmas—and conjuring wisps of green fire from his fingers.
For a moment, Loki was overwhelmed by the return of his magic. Senses that had been disused—blind and deaf—for months came alive. He saw the glittering life all around him, felt the elements in the air and in his blood, heard the music of the Midgardian stars. There was an emotional shock, too—he’d had no idea what Odin was planning, and, if pressed to venture a guess, would have assumed some further punishment, or at very least restoration of the geas that he’d taken it upon himself to remove. He hadn’t even known whether Odin had kept Loki’s magic, in hopes of one day being able to return it, rather than simply destroying it for good.
Once he’d assimilated the shock, however, he realized that his magic was not what it once was. The greater part of his power was bound. Only the smallest spells—like the gout of green fire he conjured almost reflexively, as a test—were available to him.
“I must return to Asgard,” Odin was saying. “My leaving was sudden. Thor, you wish to remain in this realm?”
“And you’ll continue to look after your brother?”
“I will,” Thor said. Then he added something that surprised Loki—and, from the looks of it, Odin. “As I hope he will continue to look after me.”
Loki gave him a noncommittal sort of shrug, and Odin disappeared.
There was a long moment of silence, as the room seemed to echo from the withdrawal of that powerful presence. Unsurprisingly, Tony Stark was the first to break it. “Remind me,” he said faintly, “never to make fun of you guys’ daddy issues again. That guy is fucking terrifying.”
“He is the king of Asgard,” Thor noted, finally getting back to his feet. “Brother, are you well?”
“Well enough,” Loki said. Now that the moment was over, he was starting to shake a bit; he clasped his hands firmly on the arms of the chair to hide it.
“And Father has restored your magic after all,” Thor continued.
“Only partially,” Loki answered. “I seem to recall that all you had to do was foolishly get yourself killed, and all your powers were restored. But you always were his favorite.”
Thor sighed. “I do not wish a quarrel, so I will say only that I am glad for what you have regained, and confident that before long, all you have lost will be restored.”
The strange thing was, Loki was very nearly certain he meant it. And, unlike many of Thor’s pronouncements, it did not strike him as completely foolish.
What was bound could be unbound. Preferably on his own, but if necessary, by further gaining Odin’s favor. And, perhaps more to the point, he’d just learned—and demonstrated—what he was capable of with only the mortals’ paltry substitute for magic. He still had the knowledge of Asgard’s most powerful sorcerer, as well as his growing knowledge of mortal science.
How he’d use that knowledge—with the Avengers or against them—he didn’t know. Perhaps both, or neither. Banner had spoken, in jest, of using his green berserker to open a demolitions company. On this realm, there were an astonishing number of things to be that did not involve being a hero or a villain. He could choose, and when he grew tired of what he had chosen, he could choose again.
He was Loki.
He’d think of something.