He cannot clearly remember how he got here. He remembers even less from before.
When his thoughts are allowed to surface and reform, he finds this fact alarming, but the heavy tangle of confusion and lethargy that weighs down his mind for much of his waking existence rarely permits such urgent feelings.
Anger too is dampened. But not fear. This they let him keep, albeit in small enough doses that he can build up no real momentum. It's an ever-present anxiety, one that prevents complete rest and aids his captors' purpose. Whatever that may be. He thinks they mean to keep him pliant, and without the peace needed in which to gather his thoughts he is left defenceless when they come for him.
His only real moments of clarity come in the transition between states. When they come to test him, or interrogate him, or otherwise torment him. He both dreads and anticipates these times in the vague, fuzzy way he can still fear or hope for anything. He experiences precious moments of near lucidity when they do, and the scant opportunity he has to properly think is something he never wastes.
He's not sure why it's so important to do so, but he needs something to hold on to, and although he knows almost nothing about himself or who he was, he is almost unaccountably determined to maintain a sense of self, paltry though it is.
The room they take him to is always the same.
Although he remains uncoordinated and laughably weak, they insist on walking him there shackled and under guard. He's had time enough to wonder (even without any clear sense of how long he's been here) if they are afraid of him. Of what it is exactly they fear. Perhaps if he knew, he could use this knowledge to his advantage. As it is, the speed at which they frog-march him along their empty and characterless corridors is usually enough to exhaust and bewilder him.
He concentrates as much as he can on picking up his clumsy and uncooperative feet, but the vice-like grip on each of his upper arms keeps him upright and moving. His escorts never speak, and anyway he'd find it difficult to respond. It's all he can do sometimes to understand a barked order, let alone command his sluggish thoughts and tongue to protest in a timely manner.
He is deposited into a chair when they reach their destination and strapped in securely, wrists, ankles and neck. He has just enough command of his thoughts to understand that this means another test today. They will need to release him from some of this stupor if they are to deliver it.
He attempts to roll his head to one side and peer through the hair that's fallen across his face. He's been away from the cell they keep him prisoner in for long enough that he can feel some strength returning already, but he knows he won't be left to recover for long.
The man who takes a seat opposite is one he doesn't recognise, but he's not too far gone to acknowledge that his faculties aren't always at their best when he needs them. He's fairly certain he has a number of different tormentors, distinguishable from his other keepers and caretakers by the long white coats they come attired in. There are women sometimes, too, although they're no more disposed towards kindness than their male counterparts.
Today's examiner places a tray on the table between them and snaps on a pair of tightly-fitting gloves. There is no introduction of any kind. No words or acknowledgement at all, in fact. This is normal. This is as expected. He's known nothing else, and he's not sure why there should be a suggestion of any other kind of treatment.
He watches as a needle is lifted from the tray to the light, its cylindrical body tapped with a finger, its contents emptied into the port taped to the back of his left hand. He doesn't have to wait for long. Almost immediately the familiar icy rush shoots along his veins, the ache of it travelling up his arm and into his blood. It's an uncomfortable mix of sensations that he's ill-prepared for every time, a combination of the tingling numbness of inebriation and the hyper-alert apprehension of nausea.
Where before he was blunted and heavy, he begins to regain awareness. The buckles bite into his skin where they are strapped too tightly, the deep tenderness of old bruises reasserting themselves beneath. The room is cold, the thin layer of clothing he has been allowed barely sufficient to muffle the sharp difference in temperature he can now detect. His mouth is dry and foul, his stomach painfully empty.
They never feed or water him, he remembers all at once. He raises his head. Yes, he remembers now. This was his discovery the last time. The tube, the metal hook. The bag of dripping liquid. He'd focused his mind on that single mystery and laid another fear to rest. Some sort of food replacement, he'd deduced. He would not be allowed to starve.
This time he uses his opportunity to puzzle over another nagging enigma. He tests his jaw gingerly, covering the action by working up some moisture with which to speak. (They always expect him to speak. They often demand it.) There is some pain, but nowhere near as much as there was when he was here last.
He has had time to heal. He files that information away, doing his best to commit it to memory in the simplest terms he can. He will need it later, when it gets too much. When he'll need the assurance that whatever they do to him, the damage won't be lasting.
It isn't much, but it's all he has time for. He's grateful for it. Now is the time to start fighting.
He has flushed hot, and already a fine sheen of sweat is coating his face. He blinks rapidly against the stinging in his eyes and tries to control his breathing, already too fast and erratic and almost painful to drag in.
The man across from him is holding fingers to the inside of his wrist, pressing down with some force and consulting a small, ticking device. When the hand is removed, it produces a small but blindingly bright light that's shone directly into each of his eyes in turn. The palm against his forehead and the thumb anchoring his eyelid prevents him from jerking away and he endures it as best he can.
Another white coat is readying his equipment, placing sensors and attaching wires and turning dials. Notes are scribbled on parchment, data tapped into devices, screens and recordings readied.
A hot drop of sweat rolls down from his hairline and patters onto his chest. An itchy, crawling feeling floods over his skin like the march of a thousand skittering insects and he wants to get away. He wants to make it stop. He forces shaky words out between panting breaths.
"Who are you?"
This they never answer. It's a question they've heard (and ignored) many times before. He always means to follow it up with another, with 'what do you want?', but he never seems to quite get that far. Those scant few words have stolen his breath for the time being, and the pain is starting. His knees begin jiggling with nervous energy and he twists as much as he can in his chair. It won't be long now.
The white coats exchange a few words. They are ready to begin. One rolls a large screen a little closer and activates it, returning to his equipment as moving pictures begin to appear.
The footage is grainy and the colours washed out. There is no sound. (His pulse is thunderous in his ears which is sound enough.) The picture jerks and shakes, then settles and focuses. The effect is nauseating, and he screws his eyes shut against it. A hand fists itself painfully in his hair – one of his ever-present handlers, he supposes – and rattles his head until he opens them again.
The picture has levelled out somewhat, and he can make out the figure of a man. He is tall, striding slowly from a grand building. The angle suggests the picture has been captured off to one side, whoever it is recording striving to remain out of sight. The man on the screen is dressed in dark colours and emerges with purpose. With no apparent gesture or mechanism, the man's appearance begins to change as he walks, his formal attire morphing into elaborate armour with a shimmer of greenish gold. The glowing staff he carries elongates and sharpens, and a golden helm of wicked points materialises to crown him.
He is terrifying.
The picture cuts out and begins again from where it started, the figure once again distant and blurry as the camera moves and settles.
The white coats watch him with interest as he squirms in his seat, his breath now coming in snatches. The jittery feeling has hold of him fully now and his body vibrates against his restraints. Every instinct he possesses is urging him to run, to fight, to act. He needs to move with a desperation that tightens his chest. Everything behind his ribcage is being squeezed and the tension in his muscles burns.
Coloured lights are blinking benignly on the equipment he's connected to and he tries to focus on that, tries to slow his breathing to match the steady pace they're setting. He knows what comes next, and he can't bear it.
Change, they command him. The order lances through his head like a dart of purest agony and he bares his teeth at them to contain a sound of pain. Ample time for that later. He must save up what release he can.
After several prolonged seconds the pain recedes and he loosens his clenched fists. This is manageable. For the moment. He knows it won't be for long.
The white coats talk into their machines, cataloguing his reactions. They refer to him as 'subject', but they never address him as such. He understands distantly that this is a label only. He never learns his true name.
The footage is looping again and he wrenches his face away. Change, they demand again, and again he grits his teeth against the pain. This time when he can breathe again he rocks himself forcefully against his bonds and growls out his frustration. This behaviour is met with quiet disapproval and the scratching of pens. A second needle is inserted and plunged, and fresh sweat breaks out over his top lip.
The room begins to expand and contract in sickening waves and his vision blurs with tears. He hangs his head forward and someone yanks it back up. He can't get enough air.
Change, it comes again. A wordless grunt of pain forces itself out and tongues of fire lick their way along his nerves. He can't. He can't. He doesn't understand.
An insect whine starts near his ear and he panics. He fights now with all his strength, throwing himself against his restraints with bruising force.
Change, they command again, and this time it’s accompanied by a cold kiss of metal and the snapping, electric bite of lightning. His body arches and he screams, and a feeling like static flickers in his fingers. He sags back against his chair to murmurs of interest from the white coats, and gulps in air as dials are adjusted.
No, his mind screams frantically. No, stop.
Again, the white coat instructs his tormentor, and the current pours all his sound from him. It's too much. It's too much.
I can't I can't I can't I can't—
Aftershocks curl through his limbs even as the device is removed, and his muscles jump and dance of their own accord. He gasps a single shuddering breath before even this is taken away from him, a large hand closing round his throat and squeezing until black spots fill his vision.
Change, the white coat orders, and he screws his eyes shut.
An alarm shrills a warning somewhere in the distance but the grip doesn't lessen. Someone somewhere is protesting weakly, and someone else is arguing back.
He feels his grip on consciousness loosening, a black maw opening up to swallow him. A presence at his ear leans in close, the voice impatient and insistent. Change! it demands as a fist connects with his abdomen, and his mind fractures. The whole world goes white.
There's a split second of vacuum, then a pulse of power that throws his assailants back with incredible force. Screens shatter and alarms blare. Broken pieces of debris clatter around him. The larger furniture is tipped over and shoved against the walls. Sparks jump from a smoking console, and somewhere someone groans.
He starts to return to himself, his eyes wide and frantic. He's shaking with pain and fear and anger. And laughter. Manic, sobbing laughter.
He remembers now. This is how he'd earned his cracked jaw. This is why the white coat is new. He's done this before and he'd laughed and they'd hurt him. They don't like to be bested. They don't like to be mocked. He's suffocating with it but he can't stop. He laughs harder.
And look, here it comes again. His brawny tormentor hauls himself up with murder in his eyes, and when the backhand comes the blackness it brings is bliss.
"You're gonna want to see this, Tony."
Tony stops just as he’s about to leave the room. He supresses the urge to roll his eyes, even though he’s fairly certain Rhodey won’t be able to see him doing it. He’s just got back, he has a mountain of paperwork waiting to be foisted off on someone else, and he’s nursing the mother of all headaches. A three day conference with a bunch of people he barely tolerates at the best of times has pretty much eroded his patience quotient for the week.
He’s already tried fobbing the guy off with a promise to listen to him properly later (like that’s ever going to happen) but Rhodey is a persistent son of a bitch when he wants to be. And he’s using a tone. That tone. The tone that says this is A Thing and he'd better put his summer plans on hold 'cause this is going to shit all over them. He really hates that tone.
"You're killing me," Tony replies with a sigh, and Rhodey doesn't so much as crack a smile.
Yep. It was A Thing.
Rhodey hits play, and a clinical room Tony doesn't recognise appears on the screen.
"What," he says, savouring his first sip of bourbon, "no trailers?"
Rhodey's face remains grave. "Just watch, Tony." He's no fun when he's like this.
Tony takes in the scene. The picture is canted at a slight angle, as though the camera has been knocked out of alignment and not yet rectified. The room is oddly featureless, no windows, no wall fixtures, no colour. A plain, empty table takes up the centre of the room. The edge of a free-standing console of some description is visible just to the right of the picture, but not enough of it is in view for Tony to guess at its purpose. Behind the table is an empty chair, half of it out of shot. The arm rest in view has a wide leather cuff hanging from it.
A time code in the bottom left hand corner of the screen counts off the seconds, the only evidence that the picture hasn't frozen.
Tony casts a questioning look up at Rhodey, but the man doesn't take his eyes from the screen. With a sigh, Tony settles himself more comfortably and waits.
The sounds of shuffling break the silence and a broad man's back comes into view from the left of the screen. He manoeuvres somewhat awkwardly between the table and the chair, eventually making room for a second man who sidesteps in next to him. If Tony had to guess he’d say they were both wearing stab vests.
They jostle and heave, and Tony can just make out a limp hand that disappears behind them, presumably belonging to a third person being moved into place between them.
Before Tony can get a better look the view is blocked by the looming face of a man in a lab coat. The guy frowns at the camera, adjusting and turning it to square off the picture, his eyes flicking up as if checking the angle is more to his liking on a corresponding screen. Satisfied, he moves away, revealing a colleague puttering about at the room's table. The two larger men are no longer in sight.
As the man goes about his task, he repositions just enough to allow glimpses of the chair opposite.
Its occupant is strapped to the armrests by his wrists and appears to be semi-conscious. The only signs of movement are the slight flexing of his long fingers. His head is hanging forward, dark hair obscuring his face, a strap just discernible across his throat which seems to be keeping him somewhat upright. The sight is an uncomfortable one.
Tony fidgets uneasily in his seat and places his glass on the coffee table in front of him. Rhodey remains ominously silent.
The two lab coated men exchange a few words in a language Tony doesn't immediately recognise. Eastern European, perhaps? One of them checks his watch and scribbles something on a clipboard, moving out of view to the right. The second moves around to the side of the seated man, finally revealing a tray of medical paraphernalia laid out on the table. A number of syringes are laid out in a neat row alongside small glass bottles of clear liquid.
Tony sits up straighter in his seat and swallows.
It's difficult to see what's happening without clear line of sight, but from his movements Tony surmises the lab coat is in the process of delivering an injection to the man in the chair. His guess is confirmed when he turns to place an empty syringe on the table, stripping off plastic gloves as he does so.
The other lab coat comes back into view with a handful of wires, and together they begin attaching sticky pads to the seated man's chest. Several disappear beneath the neck of his shirt and a monitor is clipped to the end of one of his fingers. The guy's head is then tipped back and his hair moved to one side so that more pads can be attached to his temples.
Tony feels the blood drain from his face as he gets his first good view of the man in the chair. He looks gaunt and pale and his eyes aren't tracking, but there can be no mistake.
This time when Tony looks up, Rhodey meets his eyes.
"What the ever-loving fuck?"
Rhodey has a fist to his mouth and a pinched expression to his face. He extends a single finger towards the screen without lowering his hand and flicks his eyes back at the picture. Watch.
Tony drags his eyes back to the screen with a conflicting mixture of reluctance and fascination and leans further forward in his seat. He needs to work on believing what he's seeing. His eyes rake more carefully over the figure in the chair as though his eyes have been deceived. The long limbs, the black hair, the time stamp apparently dated less than a week ago... It's adding up to something his mind doesn't quite want to examine too closely.
Loki is beginning to stir and hold up his head, and any lingering doubt Tony was holding onto is banished. Glassy eyes regard the lab coat taking his pulse for a moment before giving the room a sluggish once over. He's forced front again by fingers on his chin and hisses as a penlight is shone in his eyes. He's released and the lab coats exchange more words, their attention momentarily on their notebooks.
Tony studies Loki's face carefully. He doesn't think he's imagining it when Loki squeezes his eyes shut and breathes in deeply through his nose, seemingly gathering himself. When he opens them again they seem clearer, and his face has lost its slack expression. He gives his head a single sharp shake and starts to surreptitiously test his restraints, his hands fisting and unclenching in a steady rhythm at his sides.
He licks his lips, and Tony startles slightly to hear him speak.
"Who are you?"
The words are delivered haltingly between little huffs of breath. He watches the men around him closely as they go about their business, turning his head to follow them as much as he's able, but if he's expecting an answer he doesn't get one. Tony expects an impatient sneer or a clever remark to follow, but instead Loki grits his teeth, a spasm of discomfort screwing up his face. He's starting to sweat, Tony can see, and he's becoming restless in his chair.
Several long minutes pass. Tony can’t understand them, but he gets the impression the lab coated men are shooting the breeze while they wait for the juice to take effect. They seem perfectly relaxed.
Loki, on the other hand, does not. He says nothing more, but his eyes become gradually wider, and he trembles as though enduring something incredibly unpleasant.
His panting finally becomes audible, and bright spots of colour appear high in his cheeks. The lab coats are watching now with interest, although Loki no longer seems to have eyes for them. His gaze skitters wildly, and Tony feels something turn over in his stomach. He knows panic when he sees it.
The view is once again obscured as one of the men approaches the camera, retrieving something from behind it. He returns to the table and pushes the tray to one side, placing whatever he's fetched in its place. He retreats back a couple of steps and takes up his clipboard again. A plain ceramic mug now sits innocuously on the table.
Loki eyes the thing like he's never seen one before and as though there's a chance it might leap from the table and bite him. He starts tugging at his cuffs in earnest and flashes panicky looks between the two men. One of them says something, loudly and clearly – an instruction of some kind – and Loki bounces the back of his head off the head rest like he's been backhanded. He lurches forward again with a snarl that runs Tony's blood cold, his eyes promising slow and brutal murder.
The effect is quickly lost to him as he pants for breath and he starts to rock back and forth in his seat. If Tony's reading him right he's fighting to hold back sounds and knows he will soon lose the battle.
The same words are repeated by the clipboard-holding lab coat, and again Loki's body snaps forcefully against his chair. The defiance is stripped from him this time, a whine escaping as he strains forwards. Drops of sweat snap from the ends of his hair as he leans, his body shaking with effort.
Tony watches several more rounds of this with his thumbnail clamped firmly between his teeth.
"What are they even doing?" he finally demands as the Loki on the screen reverberates in pain once more. He has to avert his eyes. Loki is throwing his head back and forth almost mindlessly.
"They want him to make it disappear," Rhodey discloses. Tony doesn't ask him how he knows this.
His attention is drawn back to the screen by a whimper that makes him wince. A second syringe of chemical persuasion is being emptied into the cannula on the back of Loki's hand and he's frantically scanning the ceiling like his salvation might be found there. One of the large men who first brought him in has returned to the room, carrying what looks suspiciously like a taser in his beefy hand. Loki sees this and lunges at the man with a snap of teeth that miss by a wide margin. A huge fist fixes in Loki's hair and slams his head back hard in remonstration, and Loki growls wordlessly.
The hand lets go and when the instruction comes again, the taser is pressed firmly against Loki's exposed neck.
"Ah, Jesus," Tony mutters and has to look away. "Rhodey..."
"I'm sorry, Tony. But there's more."
"Well yeah," Tony growls in irritation. "That's kinda my point here."
Rhodey stabs at the remote and mutes the sound, but he doesn't stop the playback. "It's coming up," he insists.
Even without the gut-wrenching sounds, Tony recognises agony when he sees it. The taser is touched to his skin again and Loki bucks violently against his restraints, his head tipped back and the cords of his neck standing out as he screams.
Tony has almost turned away again in disgust when he sees it on the third round. Loki arches again and his hands fly open. The image vibrates finely and the picture breaks up. When it returns the table is still rocking slightly and the mug rolls back and forth on its side. Loki's breath is heaving and his stare vacant, but the lab coats are in a frenzy of motion.
The sadistic bastards look inordinately pleased with themselves.
One of them rights the mug on the table and steps back again, the thug with the taser back in position.
Tony's seen enough. He takes a breath to protest but Rhodey's already hitting the fast forward. The frames jerk past with much of the same – and Christ if there isn't minutes of this shit – until Rhodey hits play again just as a brawny arm locks an elbow over Loki's throat. Loki struggles for several agonising seconds and Tony snatches for the remote.
"Stop," he barks angrily when Rhodey dodges him.
"It's okay," he says, and Tony thinks the fuck it is.
The picture fuzzes out white and when it comes back on Loki is alone in his chair, his breathing still laboured but his face otherwise blank.
The mug is gone. So too is what was left of the row of syringes. One of the lab coats staggers past the camera with one of them protruding from his neck and makes a hasty exit from the room. The other is nowhere to be seen.
Tony watches with no small amount of horror as Loki's face splits into an eerily familiar grin, crazed and desolate and with tears of pain still streaming down his face. It's hard to tell without the sound, but he's making small choking movements that look like sobbing laughter. They don't let him get too far with that.
The taser-wielding guard re-enters the room and cracks Loki one across the jaw. A huge hand appears out of nowhere to fumble with the camera and the screen goes black.
Tony feels sick to his stomach. He lurches to his feet and paces jerkily to the other side of the room. Rhodey sighs behind him and sinks into the place on the couch he's just vacated. Tony turns to see him scrubbing his face with his hands. He picks up Tony's abandoned drink and tosses it back in one.
"That doesn't get any easier on the second watch," he says almost to himself.
Tony doesn't know how to feel about this. He's actually lost for words. He paces a couple more times, runs a hand through his hair, turns to Rhodey, thinks better of it. Paces some more, leans against the window with both hands, straightens. When he turns again, Rhodey is gazing at him contritely.
"No. Just don't." He takes a breath. "What the fuck did I just watch?"
Rhodey assesses him with a measuring look and seems to come to a decision. He's all business when he speaks, and it gives Tony the time he needs to collect himself. He can't quite find it in him to feel grateful.
“It came in two days ago. I tried to get hold of you, but you kept dodging my call.”
Tony draws a hand down his face. He’s been keeping so damn busy. He knows exactly what he’s been doing. “Came in from where?”
Rhodey’s pause is eloquent. “A source.”
“Uh huh,” Tony replies, and damn if this doesn’t have Fury’s bloody fingerprints all over it. “Is the date accurate?”
“Far as we can tell.”
Tony lets that sink in for a moment. “Who’s ‘we’?”
“You’re not the only one with friends on the inside, Tony. I had to check it was legit and I had to run translation. I wasn’t going to bring in something I couldn’t verify.”
Tony feels like he’s barely holding back his frustration. “So you come to me for that.” After everything they’ve been through. After this last crappy year. He doesn’t trust anyone who isn’t them to deal with something like this properly. Rhodey should know that, dammit.
The look Rhodey gives him has so many layers it’s painful to look at. “No offence Tony, but that’s not exactly been easy lately.”
He doesn’t want to examine that one too closely. He’s not having a conversation about his availability, or his feelings, or his questionable coping mechanisms. He’s not even having one about how out of the loop he is now, because that way lies deep, shark-infested waters.
“So why all the cloak and dagger?” he asks instead, dropping heavily into a chair. “Where has this even come from?”
“Best we can guess, we’re looking at some shadowy weapons outfit out of Eastern Europe. Language is Ukrainian, but spoken with an accent, so chances are we’re just talking ballpark. It was on a flash drive intercepted making its way in at top level. My guy seems to think it shouldn’t get there.”
Tony guesses ‘top level’ means military, maybe NSA. He’s not sure who Rhodey is in bed with these days. Not sure he’d find out if he asked. And isn’t that sad. What he does know is that Rhodey’s right: this can’t get anywhere near Ross.
Rhodey looks uncertain. Like he’s not sure which way Tony’s going to jump with this. If he’s honest, Tony’s not sure he’s entirely made up his mind either. But he isn’t feeling generous. He’ll let Rhodey hang for a bit longer.
“This is a problem,” Rhodey hedges. “A big problem. We’ve got unknown interests dicking around with a high level security risk. We’ve got covert US interests picking up the scent. And we’ve got people on the inside not liking the way that’s shaping up. And I happen to agree with them.”
“You think we should handle this ourselves,” Tony concludes, and the solemn look Rhodey returns is enough to raise the hairs on his neck.
“You really want someone like Ross getting an idea like this?” Rhodey asks. “You really want to start on that slippery slope?”
“I thought you were all for oversight,” Tony returns, just because he can.
“This is different and you know it. This is weaponising people. This is rounding up people of interest and writing them off as assets. And after Barnes? After Wanda and the others? This scares me, Tony.”
“Gotta be a person first though, right?” What is wrong with him? Why can’t he stop? “Last time I checked, this guy—“ he jerks a thumb at the black screen “—damn near levelled the city. And that was just the appetiser.”
Rhodey looks about as disappointed in him as he’s ever seen. And that’s saying something.
“I know you don’t believe that,” he says firmly. “You just saw the same thing I did. There’s no way Loki’s there by choice, and no matter what he’s done, no one deserves what they’re doing to him.”
Tony nods decisively and slaps his thighs as he stands. “Good. Glad we’re on the same page. Because I happen to agree. I don’t like it, but it has to be us.”
Rhodey raises his brows and sits back in his seat. He looks like he’s caught between relief and a scowl, and settles for a cool glare. “You’re a real dick sometimes, you know that?”
Tony flaps a dismissive hand. “So anyway. I thought Loki was dead.”
“Yeah. So did I.”
He and Thor are going to have words, if ever he sees the big blonde lightning rod again.
“We’re sure it’s him?”
Rhodey affects faux innocence and leans forward with the remote. “Oh, you want to watch it again? ‘Cause I can just…”
“Okay okay. It’s probably him. And you’re the worst, by the way. So how’d he end up with this bunch of clowns getting poked with pointy objects? And how are the clowns not yet dead?”
“Maybe he never made it back to Asgard. Or maybe he came back and got himself whammied. He doesn’t exactly look in great shape.”
“Performance issues,” Tony agrees distractedly. “So, what, is this a Manchurian Candidate kind of deal?”
“Doesn’t look like it’s working out for them too well if it is. Maybe it’s early stages. They’re studying him, trying to work out how he does it. Replicate it, maybe.”
Tony makes a scoffing noise. “Do they even know what ‘it’ is? Do we?”
“Well whatever it is, it’s powerful enough to short out the camera, and make a mess. And anyway, you’ve seen him in action.”
And ain’t that just the rub. Tony’s seen some completely unexplainable shit these last few years, not least of which has been alien armies, mythical beings and unliftable hammers. But that doesn’t mean he’s ready to start believing in magic.
“Maybe I’ll ask him,” Tony decides. “When we, you know. Spring him. Which I’m assuming is your plan.”
“Yeah. See, this is where things get a little… hazy.”
Here it comes. “I take it from your tone that we’re low on intel.”
Rhodey waves his hand vaguely at the still black screen. “That’s it. That’s all I’ve got. My source couldn’t give me any details.”
“Couldn’t or wouldn’t?” Tony challenges, and Rhodey just looks apologetic. “We’re going to need a little more to go on if we’re going to do something about this.”
“If I might make a suggestion.”
Both of them startle at the interruption and Tony clutches at his heart. He turns to find Vision looming serenely at his shoulder, completely unconcerned. They’ve talked about this.
“I recall an instance when large energy outputs were mapped to determine the location of certain wanted persons,” Vision continues. “A similar approach may prove effective a second time.”
“Great idea in principle,” Tony agrees, considering and then discarding the algorithms he and JARVIS had used to find the Extremis combustibles. “But we have access to sensors for reading thermal energy events. Not so much for spikes of mystical mojo.” He’s not going to call it magic. Not even in his head.
Vision considers this. “Then perhaps I can be of assistance.” He touches the yellow crystal at the centre of his forehead with something between reverence and caution. “This entity emits exotic energies the likes of which are unknown to your science. Were we to calibrate a device to recognise such frequencies, we might use it to scan for anything similar.”
Rhodey raises his eyebrows at Tony. “There is a connection there,” he says. “Loki’s sceptre. Wanda’s… weirdness. It could work.”
Tony will be the judge of that, thank you very much. But even leaving that aside, he has more pressing concerns. “Okay, so hypothetically. We locate the Bond villains’ lair, then what? Ask them nicely to hand over their prisoner? Who just so happens to be dangerous and unstable, by the way. You guys haven’t met, but trust me. Not fun to be around.”
Vision acknowledges this with a polite incline of his head. “I believe I was able to gain some small insight into Wanda’s abilities while in her company.”
Tony snorts softly remembering how well that went. Vision ignores this and continues.
“I am confident we have the tools we need to contain any threat, and if you’ll permit me, I’d like the opportunity to explore these phenomena further.”
Rhodey gives Tony an unreadable look. It figures that the two of them would underestimate the risk involved here. They weren’t around the first time, and all they’re seeing is a bust up skinny guy getting worked over by nut jobs and their evil henchmen. They think they can be reasonable about this and that Loki will fall in line, but they’re wrong.
Tony has an uneasy feeling lurking in the pit of his stomach and he doesn’t know what to do with it. So he does what he always does in situations like this: he sarcasms the hell out of it.
“Okay, Vis, you got it. You make Mr God Complex there play nicely and he’s all yours. The two of you can knock yourselves out. But I’ll be taking some serious precautions. I dunno, just call me over-cautious, I guess.”
Again Vision concedes to this with a bow of the head. If he understands the nuances he chooses not to comment on them.
“So that just leaves an actual rescue plan,” Rhodey adds, and yeah, no lack of sarcasm there at least.
Vision bestows upon them one of his rare, enigmatic smiles, and the twinkle in his eyes leaves Tony wondering if he hasn’t misjudged him after all. “Well,” Vision says without a hint of irony, “I can walk through walls, after all.”
Sometimes when he sleeps he is tormented by beautiful figments. These he fears more than his next waking hours. More than the room. More than what they will do to him in it.
He dreams of gleaming towers and golden spires. Of turrets, bridges and resplendent glass. Causeways of crystal stretch through a shining city, buttresses vaulting high above satin waves. Gardens and fountains adorn its terraces. Courtyards grace its hollows. And above it all stretches a vermillion sky, the eternal patterns of the cosmos but a veil's width from reach.
He cannot bear the sorrow he feels when they come to him. They do not feel like home.
He has been spared sleep this day. The price has been high, but one he has paid willingly.
He curls his fingers slowly, the tubing pinched and kinked between them. With the poison in his bloodstream reduced, he’s been able to observe the comings and goings around him and discern their patterns. There has been discomfort. And humiliation. And fear. But there has also been knowledge, and an escape from the confusing tangle of his sleeping mind.
He is rarely left unattended. A constant cycle of nameless people attend to him as he lies prone, checking monitors, recording data, testing his restraints. Sometimes he’s deliberately provoked to test his awareness, but the jabs and pinches are easy to ignore. He remains quiescent and quiet. Waiting. Watching.
His cell (if indeed it can be called such) is a simple room without windows or ornament. He lies on a surface he supposes passes for a bed, although it is uncomfortable, hard and cool. His wrists and ankles are secured with straps to its railings which prevent him turning onto his side. These restrictions do not trouble him. If he wills it so he can break them, but he does not wish to test his returning strength just yet. He must hoard his advantages and learn more about his captors if he’s to best them, and that’s something he sorely longs to do.
He thinks perhaps they mock him.
There appears to be a hierarchy of some form among them, marked somewhat by their strange and uniform garments. The white coated ones inflict the pain. They ask the questions, set the tests, give the orders. They are the ones who invade his mind.
The larger ones are the warriors. These carry weapons, enforce order, respond to their masters’ commands. They guard him at all times and ensure his cooperation. Their black-clad bulk is lightly armoured, their hands rarely without weapons.
Then there are the underlings in pale, unremarkable green. Servants of some kind, tasked with menial labour. They see to it he continues to function, attend to his basic needs, aid his captivity and torture. These duties must be lowly ones, because they go about them with resentful malice.
He has snatches of memory of times on the floor. Of less than gentle handling. Of casual abuse and taunts. He notices these now and catalogues them. Searches for weaknesses. For lapses of judgement. When his opportunity comes, he will be ready.
The rattle of the cart is one he has come to recognise. It echoes along the corridor to his cell long before it arrives, accompanied by two of the smock-clad servants. He watches through carefully lidded eyes as the guard at his door moves aside for them, a bored expression on his square-jawed face.
He recognises these two. They come to take his blood from him, for what purpose he can only imagine. They change over the bags of liquid suspended above him. And sometimes they clean him in the most perfunctory manner they can manage.
The young female is in charge. She goads her companion into acts of casual cruelty, somewhat mindful of the guard at her back but without the caution that would suggest anyone would step in to stop them. The boy seems eager to please and delights in her creativity. They banter and snigger as they perform their duties and enact their unkindnesses, apparently oblivious to the subtle trickery he has managed. He will not risk repeating it until they have left, but that will require enduring the steady slide of poison into his blood in the meantime. With any luck he won’t have to suffer it for long.
They make their first mistake soon after.
The guard at the door barks at them to finish their work. The brute is impatient to relieve himself and requires them to seek out another to take over his watch. A calculated look passes between the two underlings that the guard misses, and they make their complaints. They still have work to do. They suggest he cross his legs.
The guard replies to this insolence with some choice insults that only amuse them and orders them to remain in the room. With a final promise to cause them bodily harm if they disobey him, he departs in search of relief.
The two servants grin at each other and hurry into action.
They release him from his bonds and haul him upright, urging each other to speed as they do so. Careful to remain limp and pliant, he allows them to manhandle him from the bed. They kick his legs out from under him and lower him to kneel, a fist in his hair enough to keep him upright.
The boy rummages amongst the items on the cart and removes a small rectangular device hidden beneath folded sheets. The sight sends a thrill of adrenaline through him, but he forces himself to remain still. It becomes quickly apparent that it is not intended to cause harm. It is unlike the one the guards carry.
The woman at his side strikes a pose above him that he supposes is meant to represent dominance. Her free hand she contorts into a fist with small and index fingers extended. Her tongue she extends with an open-mouthed grin, revealing a small metal stud through its middle. The boy laughs, raises his device before his face and activates it, producing a small flash of white light and an electronic noise.
This done, the boy insists upon another pose. One he wants both of them to participate in.
This is their second mistake.
With only weak protest and a glance towards the door, the woman agrees, and they lift him back to his feet. He is propped against the cell wall and the two of them crowd in to either side, their faces pressed close to his. The boy outstretches his arm in front of them, the device pointed towards them. A small screen displays their image back to them, and the boy adjusts the angle to best capture the scene.
To either side of him, the pair of them choose their pose. The woman leans in to kiss his cheek, her eye playfully directed towards the recorder. The boy pulls a face like a child, presumably to suggest scorn. Again the device emits a flash and a sound, and the two pull away laughing, fists bumping together in a display of triumph.
That small distance is all the space he needs.
The pair of them squeak in dismay when he captures them both by the throat. He allows himself a brief moment to enjoy their shock before bringing their heads together with a crack. The device clatters to the floor and he releases their limp bodies to join it.
He steps over their inert forms to the cart and inspects it for anything that would serve as a weapon. The needles are sharp but flimsy and do not look likely to stand up to much force. He dismisses them as useless. He will be better served relying on his reflexes until he can procure something more substantial. He finds nothing else of use.
He steps from his poor excuse for a prison and considers his options. He takes a right. It’s the direction the guard took when he left, but it’s one he hasn’t been forced along before. More importantly, it’s a route away from the white room.
It has evidently been some time since he last walked unaided. Even without the poison in his veins he does not feel as strong as perhaps he should. His muscles ache with disuse and neglect. He rolls his shoulders to loosen the stiffness there and flexes his arms. He will need to work with what he has.
He is tested soon after. He slows to a stop as he nears an intersection and cocks his head to listen. The sounds of booted feet approach. He readies himself. The returning guard rounds the corner, coming to an abrupt stop at the sight of his prisoner standing in his path. The man gapes and scrambles for something at his side. He doesn’t quite find it in time.
The man’s cheekbone makes a satisfying crunching sound as it meets the corridor wall.
After some investigation, he finds an object strapped to the guard’s belt that extends into something resembling a baton. It won’t help him in close quarters, but its weight is reassuring. He finds no blades or projectiles, but to his disgust he does locate a means of torture. He considers taking it and attempting to operate it. Using it to bring down his enemies would be sweet revenge indeed. He finds however that even handling the device causes his gorge to rise, so instead he smashes it into pieces under the heel of the baton.
The last thing he takes is a ring of metal keys. He rips these from a belt loop and examines each one, but there is little to distinguish between them.
He rises to leave when a sound of static emanates from another device at the prone guard’s shoulder. He can’t quite make out the words, but there’s an undeniably urgent tone to the voice that follows.
Almost immediately the overhead lights go out and he’s plunged into total darkness. Next comes the shrill blare of an alarm and the distant sounds of people shouting.
This is inconvenient.
He supposes the discovery of his escape was inevitable, but he had hoped for more time than this. His captors will be all the more difficult to overwhelm with prior warning. Still, the darkness could also play to his advantage. He finds he feels comfortable in it for all its unknowns.
He pads further into its embrace, one hand skimming the wall, the other clutching the weapon at his side. It is several frustrating minutes’ work to open the metal gate that bars his way, but with patience he’s able to fit the correct key to the lock he locates with the pads of his fingers. He locks it behind him before he goes.
He encounters two more guards soon after. The first he takes by surprise with a swift upper cut, the club catching him just below the jaw. As that one staggers back he rounds on the second, blocking a similar blow to his collar bone and using the momentum to throw the guard to the ground.
The thrill of the fight is electrifying, and he finds he needs little conscious thought to guide his movements. He trusts to the simple wisdom of his reflexes, instinct driving each block and counter-attack. These men cannot seem to match him for physical strength, and their almost negligible body armour barely offers any protection from his blows.
It is over quickly, but there is no time for a further weapons search. Drawn by calls for aid from their struggling comrades, he hears the ominous approach of reinforcements.
There is nowhere for him to hide. He will not return the way he came. He pushes onward, and he will face what may.
Hand-held lights strobe through the darkness ahead of him as the group of men approaches. They stop when they see him emerge from the shadows and raise their weapons in warning. He ignores their commands to stop and begins to sprint. They fire.
Projectiles whistle over him as he throws himself into a slide, taking out the legs of the man nearest him. A second trips over his fallen comrade with a yelp as he rises, disarming a third with a sharp blow to the man’s wrist.
He’s required to flip one attacker over his shoulder when the man attempts to tackle him bodily. The distraction allows another the opportunity to bruise his ribs with a vicious strike, then follow it up with an agonising jolt of current that forces him to release the choke-hold he’d like very much to maintain.
A pulse of purest terror lends him the strength he needs to push his assailants back, and with a renewed sense of fury he launches himself back into the fight. He cannot afford to allow them a second strike with their electricity, so he opts for speed over finesse. The last guard to drop is dispatched with a sharp twist at the neck, but not before he’s earned himself a number of additional bruises.
He stands over the collection of fallen bodies and works to bring his exploding breath under control. If he’s to leave this place he needs to avoid open confrontation. He’s not certain he’ll be able to hold off better prepared assailants in greater numbers.
He takes a moment to examine the projectile weaponry the guards have dropped. He’s disappointed to find them seemingly inert, though whether this is because they are empty or because he is unable to operate them correctly he is not sure. He wastes no further time lamenting this and lets the darkness of the hallway ahead swallow him once more.
His heightening senses lead him easily toward a promising doorway. It opens into a spacious area that must act as some sort of waypoint, with many other doors and passages leading from it. The unmistakable coolness of sweeter air draws him towards one in particular, but when he pushes at its smooth, metallic surface it resists his efforts. His questing hands find no lock or even a handle, just a seam running horizontally down its centre.
He is considering how best to leverage it open when the sounds of people approaching disturb him. He tucks himself around a corner as a group of three people skid into the space, beams of light bouncing from their hands. They are white coats, and they are agitated.
He watches as one of them swipes a flat rectangle through a protuberance in the wall next to the door that interests him. They repeat the action with progressively more frantic motions, apparently not achieving the desired effect. A short argument ensues and he listens with interest. The door apparently leads ‘up’, but without power they are unable to open it. They opt to go for help or to search out an alternative exit elsewhere, and he lets them pass unmolested.
He waits for a full minute before he emerges from his hiding place. The white coats do not return. He focuses his attention back on the door and runs his hand along its seam. He’s able to hook his fingers into the narrow gap, and with some repositioning wrenches a wider space in between.
His eyes begin to adjust to the darkness again as soon as he’s on the other side; light must be filtering in from somewhere nearby. A shaft disappears up into a shadowy recess above him, cables hanging from some unseen mooring, and a network of wires, pipes and runners spider across the brickwork on all sides. Cooler air caresses his upturned face. He decides to follow the draft.
The cables are greased, but with some effort and the aid of unclad feet he pulls himself up into the dark.
The climb is awkward, and before long he finds his way blocked. He quests in the dark for the exit the white coats talked of but finds no hatch or opening above him. He is about to descend when he makes out a sliver of pale light in the wall before him. Another sliding door.
This one is more difficult to open without the leverage necessary, and he is required to wedge himself onto the narrowest of ledges in order to get purchase at all. It’s almost more than he can manage, but with a final push that strains at his shoulder he gets the doors moving.
He tumbles out into a corridor similar in layout to those he has left behind, but these have small, high windows lining one side. The night’s sky is just visible through them, but even if he were tall enough to reach them they are too small to force a way through. He is encouraged however, even despite the sounds of chaos around him.
Were it not for the lack of people in his immediate vicinity, he would assume he has emerged into a scene of battle. To his left he hears the sounds of running. Shadows flicker past the panes of glass in the doors at the far end of the hallway as people hurry past. To his right he hears shouting and what could well be the report of weapons fire.
He wastes no time wondering at this development. Neither does he move to investigate the commotion. A short distance from where he stands is the door to a room he has a view of through a pane of meshed glass. It is lined with desks and monitors and uncomfortable-looking chairs, but these are not what interest him. Beyond is a line of windows, and beyond those is an outside space.
He tries each of his stolen keys, but none of them fit this door’s lock. He throws them away in frustration. Backing up a couple of steps, he waits. A fresh round of weapon’s fire is all the cover he needs, and he slams his heel into the centre of the door. It splinters down the middle, and with a second kick gives way entirely with a crash and a heavy scrape.
Ignoring the cut to his foot he negotiates his way around a jumble of overturned furniture displaced by his violent entrance. The crude barricade has done precious little to stop him, but it does beg a question. He sweeps his gaze over the room.
Two white coats cower beneath a desk in the far corner, their arms cradling their heads. One of them whimpers when they see him.
Outside is an area of grass enclosed by a high wire fence. Vehicles idle haphazardly along a track leading to a heavily-guarded gate. Fighters swarm like ants at the perimeter, long-barrelled weapons in their hands and baying hounds straining at tethers on their wrists. At a shout a group of them pivots to aim their weapons at the sky, and a volley of explosive blasts strafes the ground around them. It’s enough to send them fleeing for cover, although their attacker remains out of sight.
He watches this with some apprehension and considers his options. He cannot stay here, he will not go back, and yet ahead of him lies a veritable army and an unknown assailant. Perhaps if he could find an alternative way out…
Louder shouts reach him from the interior behind him, followed by projectile fire only a corridor away. The white coats respond to this by trying to make themselves smaller where they huddle, and a particularly reverberating hit is enough to make him flinch. It ricochets off something metallic and is followed up by a building whine. There’s a pause, then a pulse of light, then the airborne figure of a man hurtling past the ruined door.
He makes his decision. He flings a chair at the largest window with all the power he can manage, heedless of the cacophony of shattering glass. He yanks the nearest of the two white coats from their hiding place by the collar of the man’s shirt and swings him towards the jagged exit he has just made.
The man begs for his life as he does this. He has no intention of taking the white coat’s life himself; he’d make a poor shield if he were already dead.
He’s about to launch them both through the gaping window when something monstrous steps into the room.
It is man-shaped, but it is no man. It gleams red and gold, an unnatural blue glow shining from its chest. There’s a pneumatic whirr as it moves, and its eyes glow with baleful light. It is terrible to behold.
There is nothing to be done but to hold his ground, and he pulls his living shield to his body with a single arm. The other holds a shard of glass to its fluttering throat, his own blood running freely down its side. He barely feels the slices to his palm. His attention is entirely focused on the threat before him, the adrenaline singing in his veins.
He stares the metal man down and waits for it to make its move, but move it does not. Instead it speaks with an electronic voice, its words both baffling and absurd.
“Huh. Well, this I was not expecting. Do me a favour, Cuckoo’s Nest – put the mad scientist down.”
They had gone off plan almost as soon as they’d begun. If there’s one thing Tony hates, it’s being on the back foot.
He’s not sure how they lost the element of surprise. One minute he’s doing a count, relaying positions to Rhodey in the tree line over yonder, and the next people start running around like someone’s stirred up their ant nest with a stick. A pointy stick. That’s on fire.
He’d told Vision to wait for the signal, dammit.
He pulls the power relays and fries them. Quick and dirty, but the time for subtlety has passed. They’re not really ready. They’re going to have to improvise this thing.
“Vision,” he says into his comm. “In case you were unclear, that was the signal.”
“Noted,” Vision replies with his usual measured tone. “I should report however that I remain beyond the boundaries of the base as we discussed. I thought perhaps your activities had been noticed.”
Oh. Well colour him humbled.
As if the dying lights aren’t enough of a giveaway, someone starts cranking a siren. It’s like one of those prison camp movies from the 60s, only with fewer Nazis.
“Rhodey, what do you see?”
“A whole lot of pissed off people,” Rhodey replies. He’s sounding worried, and Tony can’t say he blames him. “Are we still thinking we’re doing this? Because I’d say our cover is blown.”
Tony doesn’t like this. He really doesn’t like this. But this might be the best they can hope for now. “If we don’t try we might lose our chance. They’ll move him, and they’ll be better prepared for uninvited guests. I say we go with it.”
They’re closing the gates. A row of armed personnel scrambles for strategic points along the fence line, and snipers take up position in the two guard towers. Dogs are barking. Engines are running. Claxons are blaring. This is not exactly what he’d hoped for.
“Would you like me to begin?” Vision asks.
“Go,” Tony agrees. “Do your thing. But let’s try to keep the fireworks to a minimum, shall we? In and out. Rhodey, keep ‘em occupied. I’ve got the back door.”
“One shock and awe, coming up,” Rhodey confirms, and Tony hears the tell-tale sound of repulsors before he sees him. War Machine streaks over the yard to the astonishment of the men below and draws their fire. He has their attention. Now he just has to keep it.
Tony doesn’t see Vision enter the building, but he trusts him to do his part. He’ll search out their target, in whatever state he may be in. Tony’s job is to clear a way out.
There’s a skylight towards the back of the building that looks promising.
“Three heat signatures, boss,” FRIDAY supplies, and that’s good enough for him.
He drops through in a shower of dirty glass fragments to the surprised yells of his audience and lands among long canteen tables. Three people in chef’s whites scurry away from him and he lets them go. They’re just the worker bees. What he needs is one of two things: a clear route towards the sweet spot in this joint or someone in the know who can lead him there. At this point he’s not too worried about which it is.
FRIDAY displays the immediate layout for him in crisp night vision. The dead, glassy eye of a security camera stares sightlessly at him from one corner of the room. The remains of several meals stagnate on their trays along one table. There are three exits to the hall (other than the impromptu one he’s just smashed through the ceiling). One leads onto a kitchen which he dismisses. Another is the route the canteen staff have just taken, which he guesses could lead to an exit from the building. He picks the third.
The trail feels warm. Almost immediately he passes what looks like a guard checkpoint, although there is no one on duty. The distant sounds of gunfire clatter outside as Rhodey puts on a performance, and the muffled slap of boot soles on vinyl echo from somewhere further into the building.
Tony heads towards them.
“Vision, any joy?”
There’s a moment of silence before Vision replies. “I believe I have managed to avoid detection, but I am yet to locate our Asgardian friend.”
“Keep looking,” Tony tells him. “Let me know when you find anything. I’m headed your way.”
“Of course. There is something else however. I have found several persons in need of medical attention.”
Tony grimaces at that. “Prisoners?”
“I do not believe so. They appear to be base personnel.”
That brings him up short. “Injuries?”
“Various. I suspect more than one may already be dead.”
Oh, wasn’t this just turning out perfectly. “Okay. Urgency level just got bumped up to eleven. Find him, Vis.”
FRIDAY pre-empts his next thought. “Shall I alert emergency services?”
“As soon as we’re done. Ten minutes, tops.”
He hits pay dirt not long after. Two goons in riot gear skid to a stop ahead of him and curse colourfully. Tony’s not sure of the translation, but he doesn’t need a dictionary to make an educated guess. They don’t hesitate to fire on him, and the shots deflect harmlessly off the suit.
When they pause, he aims a single repulsor blast at the ceiling above them and they cover their heads with their arms.
“Fair warning,” Tony says. They don’t take the hint.
The two men barrel towards him and he lets them come. He uses their momentum to throw one of them bodily into a room behind him and pins the second to the wall with an arm across his chest.
“Look, Incredible Bulk. This is a no win for you. So how about you take me to the goods, and we’ll take the guy off your hands.”
The man stares back at him uncomprehendingly. He really should have taken the time to upgrade FRIDAY’s language centres.
“You know what, never mind.”
He throws the guy to join his friend and pulls the door shut, melting the handle just enough to jam it closed before he goes. Further down the corridor he comes to an intersection. He’s deciding which direction to take – would it kill them to put up signs? – when he hears the sound of wood splintering a fair distance ahead. He heads towards it.
Light is filtering in from somewhere nearby and it gets brighter as he walks. When the corridor turns a corner it widens into a larger hallway, elevator doors gaping open in the wall to his left. Bingo. He’d lay money on a trip downstairs being his ticket out of here.
Angry shouts behind him whip him around, and again he receives a peppering of bullets. When this does little to inconvenience him the goons decide instead to box him in. One of them lunges in close enough to thwack him with a stick that goes as far as to leave behind a small dent. They’re really not getting the message.
He’s about to point this out to them when he’s tasered. The suit absorbs the charge, but it shorts out a joint closest to the point of impact and forces FRIDAY to compensate. Okay. He’s had enough of this now.
Twin repulsor blasts send the whole bunch of them flying in pleasingly varied directions.
There’s a resounding crash from a neighbouring room. “Rhodey? That you?”
“Kinda busy here, Tony,” Rhodey replies, which he guesses means ‘no’. Only one way to find out for sure.
The scene he’s presented with when he steps over the busted door is one it takes a moment to absorb.
A cabinet lies on its side across the doorway among a stack of toppled chairs. There’s broken glass everywhere. A battlefield scene is playing out beyond the shattered window, and a woman in a lab coat is sobbing loudly beneath a desk in the corner of the room.
And in front of him stands Loki, tattered, bloodied and dirty, a man as chalky white as the lab coat he’s wearing clutched in front of him. He has a wickedly sharp piece of glass pressed flush against the guy’s neck, thick ropes of blood snaking down his forearm. He is utterly still but for the trembling of the poor sap in his grip, and he’s eyeing Tony like he’s weighing up his options.
“Huh,” Tony says. “Well, this I was not expecting. Do me a favour, Cuckoo’s Nest – put the mad scientist down.”
Loki tilts his head like he’s said something completely incomprehensible. He flicks his eyes to the doorway at Tony’s back and shifts his weight just so, and Tony raises his hands very slowly.
“Please,” the lab coat says in heavily accented English, and Loki bares his teeth. The glass is slicing the guy’s neck now, and he’s beginning to whimper.
“Woah, okay,” Tony says, taking a cautious step forward. Loki backs up and drags the man with him. “I get it. It’s been a long day. Tensions are running high. This douchebag probably has it coming. But you don’t have to do this. I can’t believe I’m actually going to say it, but we’re here to help.”
Loki narrows his eyes. “You won’t take me back,” he says with quiet menace, and it’s so gravelly Tony wonders how long it’s been since he’s spoken more than three words together.
He has to think carefully about how he’s going to handle this. He’s not going to promise something he can’t deliver, and he fully intends to find a way to get Thor on the phone as soon as he’s got a minute. It’s not that he has a problem with lying to the guy, more that he knows trying to bullshit his way through this would only embarrass them both.
“Look, that’s really not priority one at the moment,” he tries, going for patient. And possibly not succeeding. “And I gotta be honest here, I’m not even sure how we’d do that just now. So how about we focus on getting the hell out of dodge, and we can talk about calling the folks later. Deal?”
Loki doesn’t so much as blink. Tony wasn’t expecting gratitude exactly, but maybe he should have been a bit more prepared for uncooperative, surly and fractious.
He’s thinking of a way to get through to the guy when Vision phases through the wall beside him. Loki’s eyes widen. The man in his grip goes rigid, but whether it's from the shock of what he’s seeing or the tightening grip Loki has on him, Tony’s not sure.
“Ah,” Vision says delicately when he notices the situation. “I see my timing leaves something to be desired.”
Not taking his eyes off Loki, Tony extends a hand towards Vision to warn him against approaching any further. “Vis, why don’t you go lend Rhodey a hand? I’ve got this.”
He sees Vision consider this out of the corner of his eye, then turn and leave the way he came. But the damage is already done.
Loki’s gaze snaps back to Tony with a wild edge that wasn’t there before. Tony has just enough time to register the sinking feeling in his gut when Loki shoves his hostage forward and vaults cleanly through the broken window behind him.
The terrified scientist knocks into Tony with enough violence to stagger him backwards, and it’s a moment or two before he’s untangled himself enough to follow. By the time he’s made it out into the yard, Loki is nowhere to be seen.
Tony curses to himself. “Rhodey. Vision. Anyone got eyes on?”
The sound of gunfire comes from around the corner of the building, and a dull explosion throws flaming pieces of vehicle chassis several feet into the air.
“Fire escape,” Rhodey supplies a little breathlessly, rifle reports loud across his comm. “And you might want to hurry it up. I’m running out of ways to—oh shit.”
“Colonel Rhodes?” comes Vision’s concerned voice.
“Rocket launcher,” Rhodey confirms. “That’s definitely a rocket launcher.”
“I’ve almost got him,” Tony tells them, and hopes he’s not far off. “You’re doing great.”
He scans the roofline overhead and just catches movement disappearing over a ledge. His thrusters make short work of the distance, taking him up and over in seconds. Loki is already halfway across the flat roof at a sprint.
“God dammit,” Tony mutters to himself as he pursues. This is not how today was supposed to go.
He’s aiming to take the guy out at the legs when Loki anticipates his approach. He banks sharply and leaps the gap between the roof and the one adjacent, tucking and rolling as he hits the other side. He’s back up and running again without breaking stride, heading directly for the high wall enclosing another storey of the building. Tony can see what he’s about to do. He won’t reach him in time, but he heads that way anyway.
“No, no, no,” he chants to himself, “don’t—“
Loki does. He throws himself shoulder first through the large window and disappears back inside the building.
“God dammit,” Tony swears again, moving to follow. This is going to be fifteen times more difficult in close quarters. And Loki’s counting on that, the little shit.
There’s a smear of blood on the wall opposite where Loki has braced himself, and plenty more on the floor besides. Tony tries not to wince at the thought of bare feet among all this glass as he follows the trail it's left for him.
When he catches up he has to duck back to avoid being flattened by the body hurtling backwards in mid-air. Two more guards are attempting to parry strikes from their enraged prisoner and taking a beating for their efforts. Loki fights with a feral desperation that leaves Tony in no doubt of how the bodies Vision found came to be there. He needs to put a stop to this before more people get seriously hurt.
He steps in and yanks the two bouncers out of the way. “Okay,” he says with his ‘in charge’ voice. “That’s enough. Just stop.”
Loki rounds on him and damn, he’s fast. He takes several hits that push him back, and when Loki hooks an ankle around his to topple his balance it’s only his repulsors that keep him upright. When he finally gets a grip on the slippery little sucker he’s determined not to lose it. Tony pins Loki face first against the wall and twists an arm up behind his back. “We done?”
Loki struggles. Even leaning all his weight on him, Tony has to fight to keep him there. He almost loses his grip on one particularly violent heave and decides he’s not making his point clear. He slams Loki back forcefully enough to loosen plaster from the wall.
He realises his mistake too late.
There’s a suction at his ears that he shouldn’t be able to feel through the controlled atmosphere of the suit and a sudden absence of sound that’s deafeningly loud. He only registers he’s flying backwards when his side clips something hard and sends him spinning to the ground, his in-helmet display fizzing and glitching as he goes.
He sits up and raises his face plate to see Loki stagger back away from him, looking about as dazed as Tony feels. He almost trips over the downed guard at his feet.
Loki jerks when a hand wraps itself around his ankle. The guard lurches forward from his position on the floor and slams his fist against Loki’s calf. When it comes away it leaves a red-tipped dart behind.
Loki rips himself away with a snarl and snatches the thing out. He flings it angrily to the ground and pushes himself from the wall at a run.
It takes Tony a couple of tries to push himself up from the floor and he has to shake his head to clear it. He feels fried. And bruised. The suit’s joints are stiff and slow, and FRIDAY’s voice stutters incomprehensibly. This is not good. This is very not good.
He takes off at a loping trot in the direction Loki took, his gait heavy and clumsy. A door clicks shut just as he rounds a corner, and he opens it onto a stairwell. Tony looks over the railing and sees Loki standing on the landing below, one palm against the wall. He seems to notice he’s being watched and looks up, wobbling unsteadily. He wears the look of a trapped animal.
“Stay right there,” Tony tells him, and of course Loki does exactly the opposite. He lurches away from the wall, grips the bannister and flips himself neatly over the edge. It’s two floors down.
Tony raises his eyes to the heavens and breathes. Aw, what the hell, he thinks. With much less grace and a hell of a lot more noise, he takes Loki's example and follows.
The impact is a heavy one but the shock absorbers take it. The floor’s going to need remodelling, though. He extracts himself from the crater he’s just punched into the concrete and straightens. He hears the clicking of safeties and the readjusting of firearms and does a cautious scan of the room around him.
He’s surrounded on all sides by men bristling with weapons. Several train rifles and handguns on him. The rest are busy barricading the door against the battlefield they’ve given up on outside.
Between him and them stands Loki, his shoulders heaving, his hands clenched into fists at his sides. The room is silent but for his harsh breathing.
Tony slowly raises his hands. “Uh, guys?” he tries sotto voce into his comm. “Need a little help here.” It gives a pained splutter in response but otherwise produces nothing of use. Oh boy.
One of the armed men gestures aggressively with his rifle and shouts an order of some kind. Surrender or else, Tony supposes. When neither he nor Loki reacts, the man repeats himself, and a number of his men shift their grips on the trigger.
“Hey!” Tony says, stepping forward. He needs to defuse this thing, and fast, or there are going to be stains on the wall that probably won’t come out. “Just… everybody chill for a second. Nobody do anything stupid.”
And of course that’s when things go sideways.
Some trigger-happy genius fires a dart that Loki snatches out of the air and sends sailing back at his assailant, pointy end first. Tony has just enough time to tackle him to the ground as the other men open fire in response, and the shower of sparks the bullets strike off the suit leave golden smears across his retinas.
He may as well be trying to shield a large and angry cat for all the help Loki gives him. Loki struggles and thrashes beneath him, trying to buck him loose. He bears down as much as he can until something sharp is jammed into a seam in his armpit and twisted. It doesn’t quite pierce his skin, but it does screw with the circuits in his shoulder joint and makes moving even more difficult. He wraps his arms around his reluctant charge and cinches them tight, and if he’s a bit more rough than is needed he doesn’t exactly feel bad about it.
He sends a small prayer to anyone who might be listening and engages the thrusters. His left boot fails altogether, but the right chokes into life with enough intermittent power to force the pair of them past the surrounding ring of men and through the doors behind.
They careen down a short row of concrete steps and thud to an uncomfortable stop in the turf of the yard outside.
Tony sits up and wrenches the jagged piece of metal from beneath his arm. It comes away with a fair few components he’d rather have kept hold of but frees up a bit more movement. Men begin pouring from the exit he’s just made from the building but hang back warily, their eyes scanning the sky. It’s a two minute reprieve, but not one Tony wants to waste.
Loki rolls away from him with a shove and tries to get up. He staggers sideways a short distance before dropping again to one knee, seemingly running out of juice. This could make things easier, or it could make them even more difficult. The suit’s fried, and the guy is heavy.
Tony backs towards him, one eye on their audience and another on the sky around the building. Come on, guys, he thinks to himself. A little back up would be welcome right about now.
He hauls Loki up and drapes one arm over his shoulders. “Got any more surprises for me or can we go now?” he asks as he starts dragging, but he gets no reply. He ducks and moves faster as a smattering of pot shots narrowly miss him.
Loki leans more heavily on him the closer they get to the gates, and Tony begins to worry that he won’t be able to hold them both up. He stumbles when Loki suddenly goes slack and has to readjust his grip. He gives him an impatient shake, and Loki just about regains his footing. “Oh no you don’t. No checking out. Not yet.”
There’s a sharp whistle from the group of men still lingering by the cover of the building, and Tony's blood runs cold to the sound of baying dogs. He forces the both of them around and raises his free hand, jerking it forcefully. His gauntlet tries to power but doesn't quite catch and he grits his teeth hard. He tries again with the same result. "Come on."
A pack peels away from their handlers and thunders towards him, slaver flying in their wake. His gauntlet fails a third time. He doesn't have time to try for a fourth.
The dogs are brought up abruptly by a beam of light that slices the ground before them. Vision’s cape settles behind him as he alights silently on the scrubby grass, and the animals scatter whimpering and yelping before him. Always with the dramatic entrances. Tony wonders where he gets it from.
“About time,” he grumbles, tugging Loki's sagging arm a little tighter around his shoulders.
“You’re welcome,” Rhodey answers as he sets down at his side, flipping his face plate as he does. “What happened to ‘check in regularly’? And what’s with the new look?” He runs a metal finger over the pock marks and dents decorating Tony's flank with a barely restrained smile and Tony swats his hand away.
“Can we save the snarky debrief until after we finish the mission? Here.” Tony thrusts an armful of slumped demigod into Rhodey’s chest and gives him a saccharine smile. “And be careful. The little bastard shanked me.”
Rhodey frowns. “He okay?”
“I’m fine, thank you.”
The men at their back start to reform and advance, although the effort seems decidedly half-hearted. Time to go.
“Might I lend assistance?” Vision offers with a tactful but pointed look at Tony’s busted suit.
It’s not his preferred way to travel, and it’s been a while since he’s needed a lift, but Tony’s not about to walk to the jet. “Let’s hit it,” he agrees, and with Rhodey following close behind with his burden, they peel off into the surrounding trees.
Rhodey tugs one last time at War Machine’s harness and satisfies himself that it’s anchored securely to the bulkhead. He gives the breast plate a solicitous pat. That rocket had been a little close for comfort, and there’s some loosened plating that’s going to need attention in the left flank, but it’s nothing some tinkering can’t fix.
He stretches his back out carefully, mindful of the twinges he still gets sometimes if he overbalances or twists wrong, and works the stiffness out of his hips with some careful pacing. He’s pretty much mastered the transition from suit to braces now, but there’s always a moment of regret when he has to give up War Machine’s intuitive embrace. Sometimes, he can almost forget. Like when his movement’s aided by pistons and power. Or when he’s flying, or standing, or walking. Almost.
Tony’s still bitching at the front of the jet as Vision attempts to help him from the suit. The release mechanisms are well and truly cooked, as are most of the rest of his systems, and he’s about as pissed about it as Rhodey’s ever seen him.
“Hey, go easy with that!” Tony chides as Vision wrenches a gauntlet away. “That’s still good for parts, and I’m kind of attached to what’s underneath. Figuratively and literally.”
Tony rubs fretfully at the parts of him Vision has so far managed to liberate and casts Rhodey an unhappy look. He’s beat up, and he’s down a suit, and he doesn’t like how close that brought him to vulnerability. Rhodey can’t say that he likes it much either. He likes it even less when he imagines the same happening to his own suit, given the way things are now.
From what Tony’s told him, it took a split second for that amount of damage to be done. Which means they have a serious problem on their hands. One he’s hoping to hell they’re equipped to deal with.
Rhodey crouches down stiffly across from their guest. He’s trussed up in a harness of his own with his hands cuffed together in front of him. He’s not said a word since they brought him onto the jet, and he’s been kinda out of it for most of the journey. Whatever it is they used on him, it’s strong; but there are signs he’s already shaking it off. He’d pulled his hand away when Rhodey had tried to assess the damage, and he’s been shifting in his seat a little like someone trying to wake from a nightmare. Rhodey guesses that analogy isn’t too far from the truth.
A final piece is peeled from Tony’s body and he stands with a groan. “Finally,” he complains, shaking a cramp from one arm. “I thought I was gonna have to shower with that thing still on.”
He walks over to a tool kit set into the bulkhead and rummages around in it.
“How’s the patient?” he asks glibly as he saunters over, flipping whatever he’s found into the air and pocketing it.
Rhodey has learned to be wary of that tone. He leans back a little to give Tony room to approach, but he doesn’t entirely move out of the way. He’s marking a line in the sand here, and they both know it.
Tony claps a hand down on Loki’s shoulder and snaps his fingers in front of the guy’s face. “Listen up, buttercup. You and I need to have a little talk.”
Loki tips his head back to rest against the bulkhead and regards Tony wearily. He’s looking a little green around the gills, not to mention spacey as hell, but he holds Tony’s gaze steadily. Rhodey imagines god-strength dope comes with the kicker of all hangovers.
Tony digs in his pocket and pulls out what looks like a flat metallic bracelet. He holds it up in front of Loki’s face and spins it slowly. “You see this?” He grasps Loki’s cuffs and pulls until he has access to his arm. He snaps the bracelet over the guy’s right wrist, and Loki winces slightly as it closes.
“That,” Tony continues, “is insurance. Call it your shiny new conscience. You pull a stunt like any of the stunts you pulled today, you look at us wrong, you so much as twitch suspiciously, and FRIDAY will have that thing activated before you can spit. And that is some weapons-grade stuff in there, let me tell you. I’m talking 24 hours of down time, drooling into the carpet, liquefied brain cells, the whole deal. Are you getting this?”
Loki blinks lethargically, and Tony raises an eyebrow.
“I’m not sure he’s really in a condition to understand you, Tony,” Rhodey tries, but Tony just smiles humourlessly.
“He understands just fine, don’t you, Reindeer Games?”
Rhodey thinks maybe Loki’s warming up to more of a sullen glare now, and Tony seems to think so too. He breaks into a hard grin, claps Loki’s shoulder a couple more times, then moves off back towards the cockpit.
Loki’s eyes follow him as he goes, then return to meet Rhodey’s own. Rhodey isn’t sure quite what he reads in that gaze, but he doesn’t like it. He purses his lips and stands, creakily. He’s going to have to draw more than just a line in this sandbox.
For someone who’s not had that long to get the hang of all things human, Vision has picked up the meaning of non-verbal cues surprisingly quickly. He is fast to contrive a reason to move away to the back of the jet when Rhodey gives him a subtle sideways nod, leaving Rhodey alone with his teammate. Tony works hard to ignore him, punching buttons on the console with slightly more force than is warranted.
“What the hell was that?” Rhodey asks him in a low voice, and watches Tony’s jaw clench.
“Necessary,” Tony returns without looking up.
“He’s barely conscious. And I thought we’d talked about this? What happened to ‘Vision can handle it’?”
“Never hurts to have something in reserve. I give it ten minutes.”
“An excuse to test that baby out. Give him a taste of his own medicine.” Tony smirks, but the levity is forced.
“Not cool, Tony. Not cool.”
Tony’s veneer of unconcern vanishes instantly. “Oh look, you didn’t really think I was going to let us come into this without backup, did you?” he returns hotly. “I mean, don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t mess with Vision. He’s a powerful guy. And between the three of us? We’ve probably got most threats covered. But my faith in all of us only goes so far when we’re dealing with shit that can do that—“ he waves a hand at the pile of suit pieces on the floor, “without so much as a magic word.”
It’s not that Rhodey hasn’t expected something like this. Tony has said as much to him and Vision both, and the security measures they’ve put in place back at the compound are heavy duty and entirely reasonable. But for some reason this doesn’t sit well with him, and he suspects it’s partly because it doesn’t seem to sit comfortably with Tony, either.
“I get it,” Rhodey says. “I do. He’s strong. He’s mean. You don’t like him. But that doesn’t give us free rein to decide what’s right. You’re talking about serious harm here, Tony. I think anyone would call that thing cruel and unusual punishment.”
“He’s dangerous,” Tony growls back. “Don’t let the act fool you. He’s been doing this longer than Christmas and he’s looking for a way to screw us. If it takes a nuke strapped between his eyes to keep us all safe, you’d better believe I’ll be the first one drawing up the blueprints.”
It’s not that he wants to, but Rhodey has to push this. He has to. For all of their sakes. “So, what? We’re just going to keep him living in fear and hope that does the trick? He doesn’t have rights?”
Tony turns fully to face him, and the moment of silence is icy. “I’m going to say this one time. You. Weren’t. There.” Rhodey tries really hard not to read an accusation into that, but Tony’s not making it all that easy.
“I just think provoking the guy is a fast way to nothing good. You’ve got to give him a chance to fall in with us, otherwise he’s not going to.”
“He’s not staying. As soon as I can get Thor on the cosmic telephone, he’s outta here. In the meantime he needs to know who has the power. And anyway, it’s not like he doesn’t have a choice. He behaves, he stays fine. He doesn’t, FRIDAY zaps him. Easy.”
“I’m not sure he’ll consider that much of a choice, Tony.”
Tony snorts. “My heart bleeds. Tell it to Barton, or to any of the other puppet men he had doing his dirty work for him.”
Rhodey looks over his shoulder at where Loki sits, examining the wrist wavering woozily in front of him.
“Don’t pick at that,” Tony calls over to him cheerfully. “You’ll only make it worse.”
“Can you just promise me one thing?” Rhodey asks Tony, calling his attention back. Tony gives him a look that says he’s considering being contrary and saying no off the bat, but since he’s a friend – pretty much his only friend – he will hear him out anyway. “Promise me you won’t let him get to you. That you won’t let this change you. You’re calling the shots here, but don’t lose sight of why we’re doing this. I really don’t want to have to play that tape again.”
Tony’s expression is unreadable for a moment, and Rhodey half suspects he’s going to smile this off like he always does. Instead he drops his eyes and nods gruffly, turning back to check readings that have never needed adjusting in all the times Rhodey’s flown on this boat.
Rhodey’s not the sort of man to revel in his victories – he’s not Tony – and he’s not going to push his luck with this. Satisfied for now, he drops heavily into one of the pilot seats and props his feet up on the console in front of him.
They’re still a couple of hours out. He just hopes it’s enough time for Tony to cool off.
When the jet touches down it’s mid-afternoon and the light beats mercilessly against Rhodey’s tired eyes. The closing hangar doors soon plunge them into a comforting and cool dim. He always gets a headache when he flies. In all his long career, that has never changed.
He longs for his bed. He’d settle for a shower. He knows neither of those two things are on the horizon any time soon.
Loki still looks pale, and there are circles under his eyes like fading bruises, but he’s perked up considerably in the time it’s taken to finish the flight. It’s possible the water had something to do with that, and Rhodey’s only sorry it took him as long as it did to figure that out. He hadn’t quite been prepared for the urgency with which the bottle had been snatched from his hands, and even Tony’s indignant protest had died on his lips as they’d witnessed the almost obscene relief with which Loki had proceeded to down it.
Loki had spent the remainder of the journey watching them all in wary silence, jealously guarding the second bottle Rhodey had given him as though he expected it to be taken away again. The hunted look he’d flashed at the suggestion had also been enough to convince Rhodey to leave any further medical intervention until they touched down.
The jet powers down as the hatch opens. Rhodey watches Loki peer out as much as he can from his seat and thinks he looks nervous. He has to admit that this is not matching the picture he’d built in his head, but he’ll reserve judgement for now.
“Vision, you’re up,” Tony says as he exits the jet without so much as a backward glance. Rhodey knows exactly where he’s going, but he’s not going to mention it. He lets him go without comment.
The deliberate care Vision takes as he unbuckles Loki’s harness puts Rhodey in mind of a handler reassuring a skittish horse. Loki stares at Vision as his deft hands move, tense but acquiescent, and Vision gives him a gentle smile. “We mean you no harm,” Vision assures him, then stands and offers a hand. “Allow me to help you.”
Rhodey is prepared to intervene if he needs to, but the drama he’s half expecting (thanks in no small part to Tony’s paranoia) doesn’t materialise. Loki studies Vision’s offered hand for a moment and draws his brows together just slightly. If this is an act, Rhodey thinks, it’s a very good one.
Vision takes this as permission and, slowly, reaches to brace beneath Loki’s arm. He helps him to stand and gestures to the back of the jet. “Come.”
Rhodey follows them both a few paces distant and marvels at the way Vision is able to make it seem like he’s simply escorting a guest rather than herding a prisoner. Loki needs only token support as they make their way across the cavernous expanse of the hangar and towards the interior of the base. He takes in his surroundings with a naked interest that borders on awe, and Rhodey notes that the slight limp he’s been trying hard to disguise becomes more noticeable as he’s distracted.
This is not at all what Rhodey had expected.
He’s anxious to get a closer look at some of those injuries, and there’s a disturbing amount of blood on the whites the man is dressed in. Tony assures him it’s not all Loki’s, but Rhodey suspects there may be bullet wounds hiding under there somewhere.
When they enter the elevator he keeps his eyes forward, but he can feel Loki’s assessing gaze traveling over his body and lingering on the braces. It’s a feeling he’s getting use to and not one he particularly minds. Let people look. Let them underestimate him. He’s not ashamed of who he is.
They emerge into one of the large open areas that serves as a reception space, floor to ceiling glass letting natural light and warmth flood in. The view from here is a good one, and Loki drinks it in with a fierce concentration that requires Vision to steer him a little more forcefully than he’d like.
“So I know it’s not the tower, but it’s still pretty impressive, right?”
Loki’s head snaps round at the sound of Tony’s voice, and Rhodey doesn’t miss the flicker of interest that passes across his face at those words. It’s gone in an instant and is replaced again by wary hostility as he notices the new gauntlets Tony has changed into and is making no effort to hide.
Tony looks down at them like he’s just noticed he’s wearing them. “Oh, you like these? They’re new. Prototypes really. Not quite ready for the field, but I figure I’ll give them a test run. It’s nanotechnology. Fewer pesky circuits and gears to worry about, you know? Less that can go wrong.”
If Loki perceives the barely veiled threat he doesn’t respond.
“Talkative today, aren’t we?” Tony needles, smiling when this earns him a glower. He turns to lead the way deeper into the compound to the room they’ve prepared in advance. When they arrive, he sweeps an arm out in mock invitation at the door.
Vision moves Loki over to the edge of the bed and is much more polite when he says, “Please, sit.”
Loki does so, if warily, and eyes the three people surrounding him. Tony leans against the doorjamb with his arms crossed, his casual stance belied by the way he worries at his lower lip. Vision offers another reassuring smile and steps back, creating a bit of space.
Rhodey pulls a chair close and sits opposite. “I’m going to take these off now,” he tells Loki, gesturing to the cuffs. “I don’t want to have to put them back on, but I will if I have to. Understand?”
Loki stares at him hard, then nods his head minutely. Tony pipes up behind them and taps his own wrist pointedly. “We’re not going to have a problem. But please, give me a reason. I’d be happy to give you a demonstration.”
Rhodey ignores this and releases the cuffs. Loki pulls his hands to his body without breaking Rhodey’s gaze and his fingers immediately start exploring the circle of metal at his wrist. It’s a tight fit – the thing is flush to the skin and doesn’t budge an inch – but it doesn’t seem to be hurting him any. Rhodey supposes he’s grateful to Tony for that.
Vision hands him the first aid kit without being asked, and Rhodey sets it out on the bed. A shallow bowl of warm water and a cloth follows soon after. “I’m going to need you to take that off,” he says, nodding meaningfully at Loki’s filthy shirt.
Loki stiffens almost imperceptibly, but the message is clear.
“You are injured,” Vision observes calmly. “We need to assess the damage.”
This does nothing to unwind their reluctant patient. If anything he retreats into himself further.
Rhodey decides to start with the visible problems first. He holds out his hand and waits. A decision wars over Loki’s face for a second before he cautiously offers his own hand, cut palm up. It’s deep but the incision looks clean, and it already seems to have started healing. It’s no longer bleeding, at least. Loki watches closely as Rhodey bathes it and cleans it. He barely flinches as Rhodey applies an alcohol solution that he knows has got to sting like a son of a bitch. He finishes up by winding a bandage over his work.
The glass in Loki’s feet is more of a challenge. There are fragments embedded deep in the soles of both and the blood and dirt make finding the smaller pieces difficult. It’s twenty minutes’ work to wash the filth away and extract the worst of it, with new blood soaking everything in the meantime. Loki endures all this without a sound.
When he’s satisfied he’s dug out as much as he can find, Rhodey wraps them both. He sits back and gestures again to Loki’s shirt. “Anything else we need to know about?”
Loki’s eyes slide to where Tony watches from the doorway. Rhodey sighs.
“Tony,” he says without looking round. “Think you can give us a minute?”
He hears Tony snort. “I’m not going anywhere.”
As is becoming normal around here, it’s Vision who is the voice of reason. “I will remain with Colonel Rhodes,” he says, giving Tony a level look. “We will join you shortly.”
Tony shifts where he stands and looks between them both, clearly bristling at the dismissal and trying not to show it.
“Please, Tony,” Rhodey adds to soften it.
He looks like he wants to argue, but he surprises them. “Fine,” Tony concedes. “But I’ll be right outside. Watching.”
Rhodey knows that last part is for Loki’s benefit. The reinforced door slides closed when he leaves and locks with a heavy ka-chunk.
Rhodey thinks perhaps some of the tension leaves Loki’s frame, but he could be imagining it. He capitalises on this by nodding again at Loki’s shirt. “Okay,” he says. “Let’s go.”
Loki hesitates only briefly. He scrutinises Rhodey’s face with an assessing gaze and seems to come to some understanding before gingerly shucking the ruined garment. His torso is an ugly patchwork of bruising, grazes and burns. A network of old scars thread beneath the fresh injuries, including a shining whorl that scores from his lower abdomen to his ribs.
Much of the skin remains unbroken. Tony was right – most of the blood on Loki’s clothes clearly hasn’t come from him. But there are two bullet wounds Rhodey can see, one in the meat of his right upper bicep that seems to have passed right through, and another at his collarbone that Rhodey has no doubt would have killed a human. It still bleeds sluggishly, and he suspects the bullet is lodged somewhere inside. He needs to check the other side to be sure.
“Turn around, please.”
Loki narrows his eyes at this. He looks at Vision, who nods in encouragement, then back at Rhodey. There’s a warning there that says a breach of trust now will never be forgotten, but reluctantly he shifts around.
The large scar has an exit wound at the back, Rhodey notices, but he can see no more bullet wounds. The abrasions and cuts that decorate the musculature are much the same as on his front.
“Okay,” he says as Loki twists back around. “Looks like you got off pretty lightly.” He doesn’t add that he guesses the guy is used to worse than this. Especially if those scars are anything to go by. “I’m going to go ahead and assume your healing will take care of most of it. You seem pretty robust. But I’m still going to look at these two.” He gestures to the sites of the two bullet wounds on his own body.
Rhodey tackles the arm first. He tries to ignore the way Loki’s eyes bore into his face as he starts to clean the ragged wound and jumps slightly when Loki finally speaks.
“You know me.” It isn’t a question.
He covers his surprise with a quirk of his lips and doesn’t stop his work. “Well you are kinda famous. You made pretty sure of that.”
Loki only frowns at this, then changes topic. “Who are you?”
The familiar query is one he’s been waiting for. One he hopes he can work up some favour by answering.
“Colonel James Rhodes. I missed the party the first time around, but I work with Tony. And this is Vision. He’s new.”
Vision lifts his hand in a little wave.
Loki considers this in silence for a minute and winces this time when Rhodey applies alcohol to the wound he’s just debrided. It’s ugly, but Rhodey would rather trust to Asgardian healing than an attempt to stitch it himself. He roots around in the first aid kit for adhesive strips to help close the edges.
“And Tony…” Loki prompts, tasting the word like he’s saying the name for the first time.
“Don’t mind him,” Rhodey tells him, fully aware that Tony’s probably listening in right now. He sticks a square of gauze over his handiwork.
“You have nothing to fear from Mr. Stark, or from us,” Vision adds, responding to some emotion he reads in Loki’s face. “Provided we can say the same of you, of course.”
Loki’s expression looks pained, but he says nothing more. Rhodey sits back and assesses his work. One down, one to go.
“That bullet’s got to come out,” he says, pointing to the second wound. He rummages again in the kit for what he needs. “It’s not going to be pleasant, but I can give you something to numb the pain first.”
He’s barely withdrawn his hand from the kit when an almost bone-shattering force knocks his arm to the side. It sends the hypodermic clattering to the other side of the room and a bolt of crippling pain shooting along his nerves. He has a moment to open his mouth in alarm before he is slammed against the wall, and the breath leaves his body all at once. The oxygen his lungs demand in return cannot squeeze past the vice-like grip on his throat that holds him in place.
Stupid, is all his brain supplies for him before coherent thought stops altogether.
A heartfelt thank you to everyone who has read, kudosed and commented so far. I treasure each and every one.
The incident is an unfortunate one, but perhaps not entirely without its merits.
If Vision has learned anything about human behaviour during his time here, it is that a mistake can be a powerful teacher. Everyone knows where they stand now, at least.
Stark’s cuff performs as promised. The current it delivers is enough to lock and then release muscle, and Colonel Rhodes falls gasping from Loki’s hold like a stone. Vision may not have anticipated the speed with which Loki had launched himself forward, but he’s fast enough to step in and restrain him now before further damage can be done.
The pain of the shock must be considerable. Loki writhes breathlessly in Vision’s grip but is not entirely incapacitated, and it is only seconds before he’s released from whatever torment the device inflicts. It would seem FRIDAY has judged the situation and adjusted her response accordingly. The same cannot be said for Stark.
The door slides open at their backs and Stark bursts in, a building whine accompanying him. He trains his gauntlet inches from Loki’s face and barks at Vision to step back.
Vision ignores this command. He turns and presses his shaking charge back into a seated position on the bed, a firm hand on his shoulder enough to keep him there. Then he lowers Stark’s arm with a pointed look.
Stark trembles with anger and simply brings his other hand up in its place. He flashes Vision a look of betrayal. Vision notes that he has yet to fire, however.
“Colonel Rhodes, are you well?” Vision asks over Stark’s shoulder.
“Peachy,” Rhodes confirms with a cough and a wince. He rubs tentatively at his neck and shifts on the floor. “Someone help me up.”
It takes Stark a moment or two more to break the intense eye contact he holds with his opponent, but eventually he does. Careful not to turn his back on Loki, he bends to assist his friend back into a standing position.
“It’s okay,” Rhodes assures as he straightens. “It was my fault.”
Stark is immediately incensed. “Your fault?” He turns a glare back on the man on the bed and Loki growls at him. Stark steps forward, again raising his arm in challenge. Loki strains against Vision’s hand but is unable to rise to meet the threat. “Oh, please, just make a move,” Stark warns dangerously.
“Tony,” Rhodes cuts in, his voice slicing through the air like a whip crack. “Come talk to me a minute. Outside.”
The tension in the room is palpable. Stark is seething, and Loki’s body thrums beneath Vision’s palm. It’s with visible effort that Stark eventually backs down, but he doesn’t look pleased about having to do so. Without another word he turns on his heel and marches from the room. Vision shares a complicated look with Rhodes before the colonel follows Stark out.
“We will return shortly,” Vision tells Loki before exiting as well.
The door has barely closed before the argument begins.
“Well that was helpful. Feel better now?”
“Oh, save it. Are you out of your mind? You can’t let your guard down like that.”
“You’re the one coming in guns blazing. Are you trying to get us all killed?”
“I told you he was dangerous.”
“It was an accident.”
“He had you pinned to the wall! Looked pretty intentional to me. You can’t trust him.”
“Whatever. I’m benching you. That’s it. And you—“ Stark rounds on Vision, “you should know better. FRIDAY is supposed to be a last resort. You’re supposed to being doing the heavy lifting around here.”
“I believe the situation was handled appropriately,” Vision returns patiently. Stark simply glares at him.
“He’s playing you.”
“Tony,” Rhodey intercedes quietly. “You didn’t see his face. He was terrified.”
“I saw plenty. He’s a time bomb waiting to go off and as soon as you lose sight of that you’re toast.”
“None of us here are unaware of the risks,” Vision interrupts. He is not unsympathetic to Stark’s concerns, but neither is he prepared to allow tempers to dictate the situation. “Allow me to continue with what must be done. Our friend cannot harm me, and I believe I can act as a neutral party.”
“Friend,” Stark mutters under his breath with a huff.
“I do not count him as our enemy.”
“Well maybe you should.”
Their attention is drawn to movement on the viewscreen next to the door. Loki has shuffled back on the bed to put the corner of the room at his back, his legs drawn up before him. Blood stains are already maring the clean white bandaging the colonel has applied to his injuries.
They watch as he raises his uninjured hand and probes the open wound they’ve yet to attend to. With a grimace he digs his fingers deep into his flesh, and after a brief and gory struggle, extracts the buckled remains of a bullet. He lobs this across the room with a snarl of disgust and curls himself tighter against the wall, heedless of the bloody mess he’s just made.
Colonel Rhodes looks horrified by this. Stark looks faintly ill.
“Bag of cats,” Stark tells them both emphatically, although Vision’s not entirely certain he grasps the man’s meaning.
Vision finds Stark again in the small hours, his demeanour subdued. He sits in the dark of their under-used sitting area, the subtle glow of the viewscreen before him the only illumination in the room. It bathes his face in ghostly light, a lonely figure on an all-night vigil. He appears to have had no sleep.
His eyes remain on the screen in front of him as Vision approaches and he chews absently on the pad of his thumb. He is deep in thought, or at least appears to be, though Vision knows this is sometimes a play for time. He will speak when he is ready, and not before.
The screen displays the holding room much as Vision had left it many hours before. The food he had brought sits untouched to one side, as does the medical aid he left for self-administration. The clean clothes also remain folded in a neat pile, with the exception of a long-sleeved shirt that has been taken to replace the ruined garment he’d confiscated. The room’s occupant remains with knees drawn up at the head of the bed, eyes staring sightlessly ahead.
Stark straightens in his seat with a sigh and rubs his eyes. “Been like that all night,” he admits peevishly. “It’s been a laugh riot.”
Vision doesn’t need to ask why Stark has felt the need for this vigil. He also knows it would be unwise to comment on the result.
“How is Rhodey?” Stark asks.
“Still resting. The damage was minimal.”
Stark tenses his jaw but says nothing to this. He throws back whatever liquid remains in the cup he cradles, makes a face, and hastily discards the cold beverage on the table in front of him.
“I thought I might suggest an interview in more open surroundings,” Vision offers. “Here in the sitting room, for example.”
Stark examines him sidelong, like he’s trying to work out a particularly trying puzzle. Vision is accustomed to such an expression, even from among those closest to him. He is not as guileless as he perhaps appears, although he admits it can be to his advantage to be considered so. He finds it allows him to address thornier issues more forthrightly than might otherwise be tolerated.
“Think you can get him to talk?” Stark asks, clearly with some misgivings.
“Perhaps. But if not today, certainly with patience.”
“Hmm,” Stark says. It’s a non-committal noise, but it’s an improvement on outright distrust.
“Your presence would be appreciated,” Vision continues. “I would however ask for your cooperation.”
“You want me to play nice,” Stark guesses with an ironic smirk.
“I would simply ask that you put your preconceptions to one side. As I have done.”
“Vis, you’ve never met the guy before. You don’t have any preconceptions.”
Vision has no intention of arguing the point. Instead he outlines his thought process, and if Stark doesn’t exactly looked convinced by his plans, he at least agrees to them.
Loki is quick to stand and face him when Vision opens the door to his room. He leaves space around himself as he positions his body and plants his feet with purpose. He lowers his head just slightly. The effect could be viewed as marginally sinister, Vision supposes. But instead of reading defiance in the stance, Vision chooses to see an attempt at self-defence. It’s certainly not enough to intimidate him.
There is no need to enter the room. Instead Vision steps to one side, leaving a clear path into the corridor outside. “We’d be grateful if you would join us,” he says pleasantly, and waits.
Loki shifts slightly as though expecting a trick of some kind. He cranes his neck to get a better view of whatever might be waiting for him outside, then draws his brows together in a small frown. “Am I not to be shackled?” he asks with no small amount of suspicion.
“I would prefer not to,” Vision answers.
“But you fear me.”
“I am concerned with our safety, yes. But yours as well. I imagine we would all like to avoid a scene such as we had last night. I think we can work together to achieve that.”
Loki licks his lips. “What do you want?”
“Simply to talk. You may return here at any time.”
The pause contains a wealth of unspoken sentiment that Vision is certain is not all polite. “I wish to leave.”
“I’m afraid that’s not possible at the moment. But if you would talk with us, we may be able to find a means of returning you to your home, if that’s what you would like.”
Loki’s frown deepens. “Home?”
Vision supposes the prospect of trading one cell for another may not be terribly attractive, but until they can discover more about the situation and how Loki came to be here, it’s all they can realistically offer. “Come. We can discuss alternative arrangements, too.”
He watches as Loki makes his decision, his shoulders squaring and chin raising just slightly. He approaches the door with a keen eye on Vision and stops just shy of the threshold.
“This way,” Vision gestures, allowing Loki to go ahead of him. Loki does so with caution, uncomfortable to leave his back vulnerable but intent on leaving his confinement. He is careful to keep Vision in his periphery as they walk, checking back over his shoulder on occasion.
The journey to the sitting area is a short one, but it’s clear to Vision that Loki wastes not a second of it. He registers and catalogues every turn and doorway, alert to any threat or opportunity. They have made sure to keep doors closed and to secure any loose items that might present temptation, but they’re taking a gamble here. One Vision is confident will pay off in the long run.
Loki comes to an abrupt halt as they enter the sitting area, immediately on edge. Stark putters casually in the kitchenette as they’d discussed, seemingly ignorant of their approach. The sweet smell of pancakes mingles with the rich coffee flavour already infusing the room.
“Be right there,” he calls over his shoulder without turning to look.
For a long moment Loki doesn’t move. It is only once he considers Stark otherwise occupied that he deems it safe enough to move further into the room, and he immediately heads towards the large windows at the opposite end of the space. Vision wonders what it is he is looking for as he takes in the dawn-flushed landscape, or if it has simply been some time since he last saw the sky. Perhaps he is merely considering a means of escape.
Stark is playing his part admirably. He barely checks behind him as he moves about the counter, for all appearances completely unconcerned by the predator prowling the very limits of its cage. Vision joins him, accepting the stack of plates he’s handed and transferring them to the table they will dine from. He returns for cutlery and glasses, laying them out neatly. He sets four places, even though he will take no food himself. Stark insists upon it, and Vision has never seen fit to offend his sensibilities.
“FRIDAY,” Stark says into the air. “Give Rhodey a nudge, would ya?”
“Sure thing, boss.”
Vision takes a seat as Stark deposits a stack of pancakes in the middle of the table with a flourish, dropping into a chair of his own. He forks several onto his plate and douses them liberally in syrup.
“Get ‘em while they’re hot,” he says to no one in particular.
Loki watches all of this out of the corner of his eye with a sort of fretful agitation, otherwise examining the room thoroughly. Vision is careful not to be caught evaluating Loki directly but notes his every reaction and movement intently. He truly hopes he has not misjudged this, and that an indirect approach is the correct one.
Loki backs up quickly when Colonel Rhodes enters from a door just beyond his field of vision. There is only a faint mark on the skin of his neck, and he appears untroubled by the bruising he is likely to still carry across his shoulder blade. An admirable man, Vision thinks.
“Morning,” Rhodes greets the room in general, a knuckle digging firmly in one eye. He heads directly for the coffee maker and pours himself a cup before joining them at the table.
Rhodes peers at Stark’s plate as he pours himself some juice. “How can you eat those?” he asks with a faint air of distaste. “They’re swimming.”
Stark grins at him. “More syrup than pancake. Just as nature intended.”
“At least eat some fruit or something.”
Stark motions at his food with a stab of his fork. “Blueberries,” he explains around a large mouthful.
Rhodes loads his own plate and begins to eat, a subtle flick of his eyes the only signal he gives. They are all ready to begin.
Stark chews a while longer, swallows and clears his throat. “So. Sleepless in Seattle. You gonna eat these or what?”
Vision allows his head to turn, interested to know what the answer will be. But Loki has his back to them and apparently isn’t listening. The growing light silhouettes him against the view outside, his stance stiff and angular and conspicuously out of place.
The silence starts to feel uncomfortable and Vision can detect the beginnings of irritation in the lines around Stark’s mouth.
“Hey,” Stark calls. “Loki.” Then with more force when he gets no response, “Yo. Loki.” He snaps his fingers impatiently and Loki finally turns to look. “Yeah, you. Pay attention. You’re being rude.”
“Tony, cool it,” Rhodes murmurs with a significant look.
“Will you not join us?” Vision asks before Stark can forget himself further.
“Do they even have pancakes in space?” Stark wonders aloud. Loki casts him a confused look. “Or, you know. Breakfast. It’s a thing, right? You guys actually eat sometimes? Wait. What am I saying. Of course you do. I’ve seen the big guy put it away. Guy’s a machine.”
The silence stretches further, and Stark’s knee begins to jiggle beneath the table. Vision exchanges a look with the colonel.
“I gotta say,” Stark continues, his fork dropping to his plate with an overloud clink, “you used to be more the loquacious sort."
Loki returns a flat stare, and Stark intentionally misinterprets.
"You know," he expands with a flamboyant twirl of his hand, "loquacious. As in talkative. Chatty. Annoyingly verbose. In a prim and sinister sort of way, I’ll grant you, but--."
"Yes thank you,” Loki interrupts with forceful irritation. “I know what loquacious means."
"Ah ha!" Tony crows. "So you do speak. Good to know. And I know what you're thinking -- I'm one to talk, right? It's a nervous habit. Part of the charm. But even I get tired of hearing my own voice sometimes.”
“Wonder of wonders,” Rhodes mutters and receives a swipe to his shoulder for his pains.
“I think what Mr. Stark means to say is that we are anxious to hear your version of events, whatever that may be,” Vision concludes.
“Yeah,” says Stark. “What he said.”
Loki scowls and begins to pace, fingers wringing absently at the cuff on his wrist. Vision notices the darting glances he gives the doors, though whether for fear of what might come through them or the means of escape they offer he cannot be sure.
“Can you tell us what happened?” Rhodes asks, his plate of food forgotten. Loki flashes him a look but continues to pace. “Like how you wound up where we found you? If we can understand, maybe we can stop it happening again to someone else.”
“Or,” Stark adds, “you could tell us why you’re here at all. Last we knew it was ‘so long Midgard’, ‘sorry it didn’t work out’, ‘better luck next time’ and all that jazz. And I really want to believe this isn’t a relapse, really I do, but it’s not looking that great from here, gotta say. So what’s the deal? Snuck back and wish you hadn’t?”
“Tony,” Rhodes warns.
Stark holds up his hands. “Okay okay. Sorry. Sore subject, I know. How about an easy one, then. How did you get back here?”
Loki frowns to himself but doesn’t answer.
Vision notices Stark’s fingers gripping the table edge, his patience fraying. “Oh for the love of-- would you just say something?”
Loki whirls around. “Speak. Move. Change.” The scorn in his voice is apparent, the pitch rising as he speaks. Vision straightens as he hears it, his focus crystalising with every word. “I am tired of your orders and tired of your games. Stop speaking to me in riddles and just tell me what you want!”
Stark tenses as though to rise, and Vision lifts a hand towards him to motion for calm. It works, but barely.
“This is not an interrogation,” Vision assures Loki with a pointed glance at Stark. “We simply wish to understand. Do you know how you came to be captured?”
There’s a pause before Loki replies, and it stretches so long that Vision is almost sure he isn’t going to. “I don’t… know,” he admits quietly.
This does not satisfy Stark. “You don’t know, or you won’t tell? ‘Cause I’m not exactly inclined to take your word for it.”
Loki grits his teeth and turns back to the window, his hands balling up into fists.
“What were you doing before all this happened?” Stark continues to press. “Polishing your horns? Perfecting your sneer? Planning world domination?”
“I mean, did you even get home at all, or did you pull a fast one on us all? Or did you just dupe your brother? Hey, does Thor even--”
Loki’s outburst is sharp. “I don’t know!”
Stark sits back in his seat, arms crossing across his chest. “Uh huh. Look, you can play it that way if you want--”
Loki fists his hands in his hair and makes a sound of frustration, and this time Colonel Rhodes raises a hand for Stark’s silence.
“What can you tell us?” Rhodes asks carefully.
The burst of laughter that follows is dry and entirely without mirth. It takes a moment for Loki to master himself, and when he does it’s almost as though the effort has exhausted him. He presses his forehead against the window and traces a finger in an aimless pattern across the glass.
“I was there, and then I was here. That’s all I know.” His voice is almost toneless. It’s clear the admission has cost him much.
“Wait a minute,” Stark says incredulously. “What? You expect us to believe--”
“I expect nothing of you,” Loki returns sharply, his shoulders suddenly heaving. “And if you think this laughable charade will teach you more than your tortures and your poisons you are sadly mistaken. I can tell you nothing and I will give you nothing. If you try to force me again I will stop you, and if I cannot stop you I will make you kill me.”
The silence that follows is broken only by Loki’s harsh breaths and the intruding hiss of the dripping coffee filter on the counter. Stark gapes openly, and Colonel Rhodes exhibits a state somewhere between compassion and revulsion. Vision experiences a sensation he imagines must be similar to what humans describe as dawning understanding. He has indeed misjudged the situation, but for reasons entirely different to those he’d feared.
It is Stark that breaks the tension, perhaps unsurprisingly. “Hold on,” he says, attempting flippancy but falling well short of the mark. “I’m confused.”
“I think that makes two of you,” Rhodes says under his breath, but his visible concern remains.
Vision is not confused. If anything, he thinks the situation is suddenly, painfully, clear. “You do not remember yourself, do you?” he asks gently, and Loki finally meets his eyes. The hollow fear Vision sees there is obvious, and he wonders why he did not notice it before.
The journey back to Asgard is not an easy one.
The blade missed vital organs, true, but it didn't inflict a mere graze. The performance he’d put on for Thor had not been entirely fictional; such is the way with the most effective lies. He has lost blood and the pain is not insignificant.
But still, it was an opportunity. One he is relieved he had the presence of mind to act upon.
The way is arduous but not completely beyond his strength. Scaling the ridge proves to be the most taxing endeavour.
He’s fortunate this desolate rock holds little combustible material. It had pained Thor to abandon his martyred brother’s body to the elements without so much as a funeral pyre to mark his passing, but Loki had counted on that. What he hadn’t quite expected was how easy Thor would make this for him. The golden imbecile had departed on foot.
His einherjar form is not necessary just yet, but he dare not dispel the illusion he has conjured. (It had worked. Thank the ancestors, it had worked). Maintaining a glamour costs a fraction of the effort each new change does, and he does not wish to overtax himself. And besides, he must master all the subtleties of his new disguise if it’s going to be convincing. He holds the threads of the magic in his mind beside the camouflage that thwarts Heimdall’s gaze and focuses his concentration on the task at hand.
Once he’s confident his movements won’t give him away, he assesses the idling skiff for damage. It is listing slightly to one side and some of its panelling has been shorn off during the journey, but it’s a simple matter of clearing the coating of fine black sand that has settled over the vents before it lifts smoothly from the ground. The approaching storm buffets and rocks it as it rises, but it should hold steady with some speed. It will certainly outrun the storm.
He’s confident its absence (and that of his body) won’t be missed. A search party will undoubtedly be dispatched to locate his brother, and he supposes there’s a chance Thor might feel sentimental enough to want to return for what he’s left behind, but it’s doubtful he’ll be confident of the location. Thor always did leave the logistics of their little jaunts to Loki and this time has been no different.
He coaxes the vehicle into proper flight and turns it, heading back the way they came. The shattered remnants of this world pass by like skeletal fingers, the hulls of ships long scuttled exposing the bones of their structures to the indifferent grey air.
The quiet of it gnaws at him and he urges the skiff to fly quicker.
If he’s being generous to Thor, he must admit the passageway would be difficult for a layman to locate again. He might struggle himself were it not for the invisible pull of the tear. The disturbance, the wrongness, the otherworldly crackle of it whispers to his senses. He can almost taste the petrichor flavour of it on his tongue, and the nearer he approaches, the sharper it becomes.
He has no one to impress this time and a wound to favour, so he eases through the tear at a more sedate pace than before. It takes slightly more from him than he had hoped to commit to increase his shield against the gaze of the gatekeeper as he passes the threshold, but it is necessary.
The craft coasts over smooth and agitated water alike. As he nears the outskirts of the city, he cloaks both himself and the water the skiff displaces. It is a further strain and his wound protests, but he won’t have to maintain it for long.
At the shore he finds a spot not far from the dock to sink the craft beneath the waves. It’s a sturdy beast and not predisposed to capsize, but by flooding the vents and overburdening the upward thrust he’s able to rend a weakened panel in two. It welcomes the steady progress of water and accepts its fate. When it is fully submerged, he releases its cloaking with a sigh of relief and rests for a moment among the rocks. His wound burns in the saltwater and his limbs begin to feel heavy, so he doesn’t linger for long.
He intercepts the search party on their way to the observatory. He does not try to turn them back, but instead suggests silently to them that they will find some of what they seek. There will be no sign of Thor or his woman, no sign either of the weapon. But they will find a body, and circumstances will prevent them from bringing it back. A sandstorm, perhaps; he will leave the details to them. The Allfather will be notified, of course. They needn’t trouble themselves with that.
Their minds accept this fiction willingly. They have no great love for their fallen prince and in their hearts they fear Thor may be lost to them. The illusion so closely matches their innermost thoughts that the magic required is little. They continue on their way with barely a pause.
He remains unmolested for the rest of the journey to the palace; an officious aura and purposeful stride is all that’s required to pass unnoticed. He will not court discovery, however, and looks to take hidden ways into the palace proper.
The way is long but requires no more than instinct and memory to navigate. He has been a shadow on these paths for centuries, the routes between destinations well-trod over the years. The underground network has been his hideaway, his accomplice and his ally since he was a child, its rooms and chambers never closed to him. He draws that knowledge around himself now as he heads deeper into its embrace.
The scents of the healing hall reach him first; marjoram, fennel and citrus combine in a heady mix of soothing and sharp. These are the scents of his boyhood, of misdeeds and adventure, of safety and comfort. The low murmur of patient voices reaches him next, and he takes a steadying breath before slipping entirely into shadow.
He helps himself to a salve from a shelf of medicinal ointments, jars and pumices. The ingredients he needs for a powder are easy enough to purloin, but he has to employ distraction to spirit away the pestle and mortar he needs. While the healers are still puzzling over the toppled bell jar, he snags a length of wrapping from a neatly folded stack.
He finds an empty alcove at the secluded end of the hall and pulls the privacy drape in place. He’s confident he can disguise himself again in time if he’s disturbed and finally allows his cloak and glamour to dissolve entirely. He perches on the edge of the bunk and closes his eyes for only a moment.
It’s an effort of will to peel his bracing arm from his midsection, and when it comes away his clothing is sticky and damp. There is heat and a rich copper smell that even the saltwater hasn’t completely dispelled.
He takes a dagger to his ruined tunic and suppresses a hiss as it comes away from the wound. It bleeds sluggishly but is not as ugly as he’d feared; the edges are clean instead of ragged and no part of the blade remains inside. It will scar, but it will not be too unsightly.
Once he has stripped and bared his torso, he cleans the site of the wound as best he can. The sealing powder he crushes burns when it comes into contact with his exposed flesh and the angle is a little awkward, but he manages. It stems the worst of the bleeding. The salve will ward off the poisons that can take root in a wound of this kind, and the wrappings he winds tightly around his midsection should prevent him from reinjuring himself as he moves.
He finds when he is done that he feels weary. His body longs for rest. The time he has spent languishing in his cell has hardly been conducive to maintaining peak condition, and he supposes even Thor would concede rest for a battle wound like this.
But he cannot rest just yet. There is still one more thing he must do, and the task will be no hardship. If he’s truly honest with himself (and he tries to be even when no one else will), this is a duty he relishes.
He finds Odin alone in the throne room, pacing haltingly among the detritus of battle. The Allfather looks worn and weary, the twin hurts of grief and betrayal weighing heavily upon him. Loki feels a confusing surge of anger and pity when he sees this and reminds himself this is all the old man’s own doing.
Odin climbs the dais as Loki-as-einherjar approaches, the patriarch’s proud shoulders hunched with burden and age. The old man is turned towards his broken throne and looks every bit the elderly dictator coming to the end of his reign.
“Forgive me, my liege,” Loki begins, addressing the back of the mighty ruler brought low. “I’ve returned from the Dark World with news.”
The last time he was in this room, a supplicant at the mercy of Asgard’s might, he’d had the Allfather’s full attention. Swift had been his judgement then. This time he sees he will have to work to coax forth the emotion he craves: not anger but sorrow, or – dare he even hope – even one small scrap of approval.
Odin’s head turns just slightly, the promise of hope enough to move him to speak.
“Thor?” he asks, and the longing in it is enough to ignite Loki’s ire. He will dash the old fool’s hopes with casual dismissal and watch as he stoops even lower.
“There’s no sign of Thor or the weapon, but…” He lets the pause stretch and steps closer, the anticipation delicious. Yes, he has Odin’s full attention now.
“What?” the Allfather prompts, and is that apprehension Loki can detect in his eye?
“We found a body.”
It is almost too perfect a moment to contain, but contain it Loki must. This is it now, what he’s waited a lifetime to hear. A declaration of regret, perhaps, or a single tear of loss. Surely a spasm of paternal grief, if only for the tiny foundling he once felt the compassion to deliver into the kindness of his wife’s arms. At least some sign of kingly sorrow, even in the presence of such a lowly servant.
Loki bows his head and waits, and the Allfather speaks his name.
He savours the sound. He perhaps fails to hide all of his triumph when he meets Odin’s gaze, his silence enough to confirm his king’s fear.
The absence of reaction from the Allfather echoes loudly around the chamber, and Loki experiences an exquisite stab of anxiety. He is caught, his mind insists. His glamour has been too weak or he has given himself away. Odin has recognised him and will call for his arrest. He will laugh at him as he sends him away and mock this pathetic attempt to gain favour.
But no. No. It is much worse than that.
Odin turns away from his news-bearer with the dismissive air of the high born. When he speaks, it is with such flat detachment that Loki can barely believe his ears.
“Then justice has been served,” Odin decrees, and Loki reels where he stands.
His wound throbs beneath its bindings to make its presence known, and for a moment his glamour flickers before he regains mastery of himself. He takes a hurried step forward as Odin ascends towards his throne. There is a way to salvage this, he is sure. The old fool clearly doesn’t understand.
“Forgive me, sire,” Loki stammers. “There is more. It would appear as though battle was met. There were many elves slain, a number by the prince’s hand.”
Odin is unmoved by this and apparently has no comment. Loki flounders for a moment for the right thing to say, for the words that will garner Odin’s admiration. He must lead the old man to the correct conclusion without tipping his hand.
“Your son died valiantly in battle,” he continues with a worryingly genuine waver of emotion. “His body was laid as if in state, his weapon in his hands.”
I died a hero, Loki thinks. Will you not even acknowledge it?
“Clearly my son yet lives,” Odin answers with some impatience. If there is any regret for Loki’s passing, he hides it well. “You will return with fresh men to seek him out, and you will not stop until he and the aether are found.”
So that is all the thought he is to be spared. As only a footnote to his brother’s story, a distasteful accident of fate, an embarrassment, a family’s shame. He is passed over even at his most glorious hour.
Loki feels stunned. He’s too removed from his own emotions to question why he’s surprised.
“And what of Prince Loki,” he forces himself to ask. “Would you have us arrange funeral rites?”
“The ceremony is not for traitors, even royal ones,” the Allfather answers. “Have him interred beyond the city walls, well out of sight of the people.”
He is dismissed by a raising of the royal chin, but it takes him a moment to respond.
Confusion and hurt are crashing in, hysteria threatening to burst free. He will not even be granted a commoner’s wake, deserving nothing at all for his sacrifice. Were his mother still here perhaps it would be different, but on Odin’s part it seems there really was scarce little affection to be had.
More alarming is the power the old tyrant’s words still have over him, on a disgraced son already so utterly convinced of his father’s disdain. He had not expected this level of cruelty at all, but to have it rip the still beating heart from his chest with such force is to admit to his own lingering weakness.
“As you command, my liege,” he manages to choke out, and turns to make his retreat. He is only a few steps in when the anger and hatred rise up to swallow him, and he clings to these old friends like a drowning man to a raft.
“You would disown your own son so readily,” he hisses as he turns back, spittle flying in the force of his contempt. Odin reveals no displeasure in the face of this impertinence, and his calm demeanour goads Loki further into fury.
Does he know, Loki thinks. Does he toy with me even now?
He bares his teeth at the man he once called Father and advances once again. His fingers itch for a real weapon.
“There is nothing to be done that pleases you,” Loki accuses sweetly, “no deed or gesture that conforms to the Allfather’s standards. We are all of us judged before we so much as try, and woe betide those who fail to meet your lofty expectations.”
“Be silent!” Odin bellows, his pride finally piqued.
Where once Loki may have quailed in the face of his father’s temper, the command only serves to fuel his rage. He will be silent no longer, hold his peace no more. He will have his victory one way or the other and he will bring the Allfather to his knees.
The power he summons is there at his calling without need for conscious thought. Even unplanned, the spell weaves itself with intricate care, and almost before he realises he’s doing it, he’s casting it at his father with all the seidr he can muster.
The angry tears track unnoticed down his face and his wound flares white hot. He grits his teeth and growls out his agony as he works.
The Allfather counters his efforts with a surge of magic that staggers them both. They battle furiously without landing a single blow, the air around them sharp and acrid with duelling forces.
Weary and aging though he may be, the Allfather’s seidr is powerful, and Loki struggles to master his defences. He drops all pretences now, his presence exposed to the sight of Heimdall and Odin alike. Despite the extra edge this gives him, it is not quite enough, and within moments he feels the Allfather’s efforts begin to overwhelm him. The tear in his side screams at him, and he has just enough time to rue this attempt while so badly injured.
Oh shit, is all he can think when the spell turns back on itself and slams Loki into perfect darkness.
Me: Right. New chapter. Let's roll.
This chapter: FIGHT ME
Me: Um, okay?
This chapter: HA! YOU LOSE SUCKA
Me (bruised, insecure and finally finishing): Seriously. Who hurt you?
Also, there will be no update next week while I'm away. Hope you can bear with me -- normal service should resume once I'm back...
He has said too much.
If this is some kind of trick, a ruse to put him at ease or a new gambit to reveal his weaknesses, he has played right into their hands.
If it is not… Well. He’s not sure that possibility offers him any comfort.
The hot water pounding his back is soothing and luxurious. It soaks into his muscles and sluices blood and grime from his skin. The pain of his injuries is easing as they heal, although the mess he has made to his front will likely take longer to seal than the rest. He lets the water run over them and leans heavily into the small measure of privacy he has been allowed. He is caught between a desire to relax into the relief the water offers and a visceral urge to remain alert. He is not alone, and he cannot afford to let his guard down even if he were. Regardless, it feels good to finally be clean.
The steam and the heat starts to make him feel light-headed, so with reluctance he shuts the shower off. He dries and dresses under the watchful eye of his artificial caretaker and is escorted back to his cell. He does not answer any of the questions put to him as he goes.
He will not let his frustration get the better of him next time. He will tread more carefully. He will determine the course of any future interrogation, and he will guard his discoveries more closely.
He’ll certainly be more mindful about exposing his ignorance. He’s been careless. Foolish.
His captors had finally been at a loss for words. He had gained a grim sense of satisfaction from that at least. Once they’d recovered their equilibrium he had tuned them out, their questions and doubts and strangely earnest assurances allowed to pass over him without comment. In hindsight he perhaps should have used the opportunity to learn something, or to turn the situation to his advantage. He had not wanted to reveal just how overwhelmed he had felt at that time. How little he knows. How completely defenceless he is. He hadn’t trusted himself to remain calm.
Loki. They’d called him Loki.
It hadn’t felt quite right, hadn’t quite fit, somehow. But it was something. Whoever this person was, he’d had a name.
He’d focused on the view outside and let himself retreat from the demands on his attention. He’d wanted to go out in it, to feel the wind on his face and the sun on his skin. More than anything he wishes to leave these confines behind and to be allowed the space to breathe. He doesn’t know where exactly he would go. Perhaps it wouldn’t matter.
Whatever this place is, it is different to the last. Different also to the pictures that come to him in his dreams, already vague and distant apparitions that no longer feel quite as real as they once did. They spoke of a tower, but there is no sign of any structure resembling what some unknown part of him half expects. Everything here is so very ordinary. So very unremarkable.
“Will you not speak to me?” the one called Vision says when they enter the small room, finally breaking into his reverie. His tone suggests he has tried many times to draw Loki out.
Loki keeps his eyes fixed ahead and doesn’t allow Vision’s disappointment to affect him. The synthetic being finally takes his leave, and he is left alone in his cell.
Vision had at least kept his word -- Loki had been allowed to retreat not long after the insistent babble had become too much. He’d cut across them with an insistence he be allowed to return, and with obvious reluctance they had finally acquiesced. A small measure of power, perhaps, but any control he can exert over his situation he will gladly use.
A tightness he has been carrying in his muscles melts away a little now that he’s alone, but he keeps the door in sight as he reclines. More food has been left for him which he tries to ignore, the sickly smell of it turning his stomach. His mind is too full to heed the demands of his body, and he’s not sure he’s quite ready to trust their food anyway.
He lets his eyes travel over the bland room they keep him in. The door has no window, but there are evidently eyes on him at all times. They know of his movements, and he must be mindful of what they might be watching for. A lack of activity would perhaps be the safest course until he can determine more.
He lets out a long breath. He feels empty. Hollow. As though he is slowly losing something, something important. He’s not sure what he has left to lose when it seems most everything else has been taken from him, but the feeling lingers all the same.
And he is tired. He has not needed to fight sleep (resist them, his body whispers, do not let them take you unawares) but his mind longs for a reprieve. He does not mourn the absence of the lassitude that imprisoned him more securely than walls and chains could, but neither does he relish this newfound disquiet that will not release its hold.
How did he come to be here? What has happened to him? Who is he?
There is a complete absence of memory, a lack of reference, a hole where his past should be. And it is not simply an emptiness that could pass unnoticed. This is not a benign forgetfulness or the blissful ignorance of something never known or missed. It has sharp and jagged edges where it has been ripped away, leaving him exposed and painfully aware of the gap. He knows there should be something there, but he can’t quite reach it.
He has already had all night to think on it. Those hours of solitude, while underpinned by apprehension and pain, had offered the first real opportunity he’s had to ponder his situation. His mind had shied from probing his scant few memories too closely, but he recalls only too well the impending panic that void of understanding had brought him to.
And more than this is the insidious curl of something dark inside him, something alive and powerful and frightening.
Something hums beneath his skin. It is a glimpse out of the corner of his eye that disappears when he turns to look. It is a missed step in the dark, a whisper in the howling wind. It is an instinct, a sense he can’t describe. He yearns for it without understanding what it is he seeks to control, an addiction he cannot satisfy but that pulls at him all the same.
There is something very wrong with him.
He curls himself tighter against the corner and allows his eyes to close. His racing thoughts chase themselves in ever tightening circles and he slows his breathing to quiet them. If he allows himself to rest now, he may be better prepared to face whatever comes next. To unpick his thoughts and begin to plan.
But he mustn’t sink too far.
He props himself more securely upright and leans his head against the cool surface of the wall. He allows his limbs to go lax, his breathing to deepen. He lets his mind clear and feels sleep rush to claim him. It is sanctuary and unwelcome intruder both, and he embraces it all the same. He knows what waits for him in that realm.
Sometimes when he sleeps he is haunted by comforting lies.
The woman who tells them is betrayed and betrayer both. She is robed in majesty and wisdom, her face bright and quick to laughter. She is a warrior queen, a protector, a ruler. Her lullaby is a war song, her touch a soft caress. Her absence is a lance to his chest, her acceptance a balm he does not need.
He hides himself from the promise of her open arms. She does not feel like love.
When they come to fetch him again it is much the same as before. He is not certain how much time has passed, but the heaviness in his limbs and the stiffness in his neck suggests he has slept for longer than he intended.
He is instantly alert when the door slides open, the remnants of sleep swept aside with a spike of adrenaline. He notes absently that his mind feels clearer for it, and on the journey to the interrogation area he decides upon his strategy.
He will use his opportunity to gain more information. If nothing else, these new people seem disposed to talk, though how much he can trust what they say he is not certain. He should formulate a plan, watch for a chance to escape. These people seem better prepared to contain him than the last, even if they appear more relaxed, but there are fewer of them, and on the surface their precautions seem light.
But appearances can be deceiving. The armour the metal man wears is formidable, and although barely tested the strength of this artificial creature seems greater than his own. It is powerful, that much is clear.
He smooths his fingers over the band of metal at his wrist, the surface cool and featureless to the touch. He is shackled as much as he ever was, even with no chain in sight.
The room is empty this time, and after a quick sweep to check for anything untoward he makes his way to the window. He feels Vision’s eyes on him as he goes and contrives to ignore him. It is possible to keep the room’s entrances and its occupants in his field of vision if he stands just so, while still allowing him an unobstructed view of the world outside. He makes sure to keep the activity on the other side of the room in his periphery at all times.
The sky is darkening outside. Much of the day has already passed, it would seem. There is still enough light to make out the distant water, although he can’t hear its movements.
He briefly entertains a bid for freedom. The glass before him is thick but not impossibly so, and the ground is not far below. He wonders how far he could run before the invisible servant delivers punishment, and if there are limits to her influence. He wonders if the damage that can be done to him would truly be enough to kill him, or if this is all an elaborate bluff. Perhaps he will test these boundaries. But not now.
They have not harmed him. Not yet. There might be more he can learn, if he chooses to stay longer. And it will be a choice. His choice. He did not speak lightly of his intention to die if he must.
He will not suffer their testing again.
The metal man and the colonel enter the room together, deep in conversation. He spares them a glance that covers a more appraising look and satisfies himself that they will not try to approach him.
“I’m telling you,” the loud one -- Tony -- is saying, “we can keep this under the radar.” He drops the flat, square boxes he carries onto the countertop and moves further into the kitchenette.
The colonel follows him. “Yeah, but for how long? Things are more… complicated than we were counting on.”
Tony follows the colonel’s eyes and casts a dubious look towards Loki’s back. “That’s assuming we’re buying what he’s selling,” he says with obvious scepticism.
The two of them continue to bicker. Loki watches all this out of the corner of his eye and gives no outward reaction to their words. They suspect he plays at ignorance, that much is clear. As much as he fears he has given himself away, he has at least made his situation plain. Their mistrust rankles for a reason he can’t quite identify.
He tells himself he’s not concerned whether they believe him or not. It matters little to him. What does matter is what they will do with the information he has already given them and whether they have a means to use it against him.
They seem to know him.
Or at least, they know who he is supposed to be. Much of what they say is incomprehensible, but it is clear they consider him an enemy. What purpose they could have for keeping him here if that is the case is a mystery to him. If it were simply vengeance for some previous forgotten crime, he would not expect the relative freedoms he seems to have been granted. And yet so far, they have not moved against him. They have not tried to take him to another white room.
He is weary of feeling vulnerable. Of waiting for the axe to fall. He decides to take the initiative and force their hand, to whatever ends that may bring him. And apart from anything else, he longs to finally know something.
The pair busy themselves opening bottles, pausing frequently to argue and gesticulate with the kitchen implements they’re using. When their backs are turned he makes his move. He approaches the counter separating them from the rest of the room under the watchful eye of Vision and waits silently for one of them to turn back around. It is Tony who does so first.
The man starts with a barely swallowed noise of surprise and half drops the bottles he holds onto the surface in front of him. “Jesus,” he huffs with poorly concealed alarm. The colonel also stops what he’s doing and turns quickly to check.
They make no move to defend themselves, but neither do they relax. They seem to be waiting for him to do something, though what that is he’s not quite sure. They both start to speak.
“Tell me,” Loki says, cutting their words off with his own. “Tell me how you know me.”
They stop and stare, then look between one another as though deciding their course of action. They are withholding information from him. Information that should be his by rights. He cannot allow that to continue.
“Uh, okay,” Tony says. The expression on his face suggests he finds the prospect of this conversation uncomfortable. Good. If he is unprepared and pressed, he will be more likely to reveal information of value. “But just for the record, I’m still on the dubious side of the fence. Call me agnostic. These guys might be ready to give you the benefit of the doubt, but you and I? We have history.”
Interesting. But perhaps not surprising, given the man’s behaviour. “Then you won’t mind revealing what that is.”
Tony looks at him hard for a moment. “The last time we met you threw me off a building. A tall building. Through an otherwise intact window, I might add. Ringing any bells?”
Loki has no idea how he’s expected to react to that, but the thought is faintly amusing. He settles for a mild, “Hmm. Well, you are incredibly irritating.”
Tony registers surprise at this before his expression darkens. He turns back to forcefully retrieve a stack of napkins from a drawer behind him and seems to work up some nerve before continuing. “Oh, and before that?” he adds with deceptive levity. “You killed a few people. Enslaved a few more. Did your damndest to subjugate the human race. Me and some friends, we stopped you.” The man meets Loki’s eyes with something of a challenge in them and waits for a response.
Alarming, Loki thinks, but not beyond the realms of possibility. He supposes airing these thoughts would be a mistake. “I imagine I had a very good reason,” he offers instead.
“Nope. Because see -- you’re not the hero of this story. You’re what we call the bad guy.”
How quaint. “All men believe their cause to be just. The judgement of history does tend to favour the victor.”
Tony gives him a sour look. “Yeah. We’re going to have to agree to disagree there.”
He will need time to dissect all this later. For now he means to goad as much as he can from this man, even if he likes little of what he hears. “And how did I hope to achieve this diabolical feat?”
“Looking for pointers, are we?” Tony counters. He moves towards the room’s large table and hands what he’s carrying to Vision. “You’re not exactly from around here, but I’m guessing you’ve worked that out by now.”
They have hinted at such, it is true. What that means exactly…
“And what of us,” Vision interrupts after he has set everything down, steering the conversation away from the fight Tony always seems to be angling for. “What is it that you think we want?”
He seems insightful, this one. Less inclined to speak without thought. And perceptive. Lies are unlikely to be effective. “To prevent me from leaving,” Loki says truthfully.
“And what else?”
“To harm me. To force me to your will.” The admission seems to wound them, although that was not Loki’s intention. He finds himself feeling increasingly uncertain of his status here.
“I can assure you that is not the case,” Vision says. “What those other men did -- that will not happen to you here.”
“You understand that we’re the good guys, right?” Tony says, miffed. “We’re the ones that bust you out of there.”
Perhaps he… does. “To what purpose?”
“Does there have to be a reason? Apart from it just being the right thing to do?”
Loki considers this. “But I am no friend to you.”
“Doesn’t matter. Still not gonna fly. And besides, we couldn’t risk them getting hold of what they wanted.”
“And what was that, exactly?”
The pause is significant. “You don’t know?”
Loki thinks perhaps he does. Or at least suspects. He doesn’t quite know how to explain what that means, even to himself.
He turns to move back to the window, taking that half-formed fear with him, and worries absently at the skin of his palm. Night has fallen quickly outside, and the light of the room they stand in casts reflections on the glass that obscure the view.
He falters when he sees his image in the mirror-like surface and he swallows down a swell of dread that flushes his skin cold.
The man from the white room looks back at him, his face pale and his frame angular. He is not imposing, not in the clothes he wears now, and his eyes hold something haunted that he did not detect before. But his hair, his height, the features of his face...
There can be no doubting it now.
“You should eat something,” comes a voice at his shoulder, and he jerks away before he can stop himself. The colonel looks at him with something like concern in his eyes and holds a plate out to him at arm’s length.
For a moment Loki imagines slapping it out of the man’s hand. He pictures vividly the colour his blood will be when he takes up a broken piece and uses it to effect his escape. He can almost hear the snap of bone, feel the crunch of it beneath his fingers as he fights his way free. It’s what he should do, a part of his mind insists.
Instead he stalks away and wraps his arms around his chest, the force of his grip enough to contain his racing heart.
He is the monster they say he is. Perhaps they are right to cage him.
Thank you all so much for your kind responses to the last chapter, and apologies for keeping you waiting for this chapter. You guys rock.
Jesus Christ he’s tired.
Tired in that headachey, wired sort of way that will not ease up no matter how much booze, work or soft lighting Tony throws at it. The longer he lies awake the more he winds himself up, the wasted minutes ticking by without actually resulting in the rest his gritty eyes tell him he desperately needs. And he’s fixating on that. He knows he is. The injustice of it is that he only came up here because he couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer. Now that he’s vertical it’s like the little bastards have got their second wind.
He gives up on sleep halfway through the third attempt to untwist the sheets clinging to his restless legs and goes in search of coffee.
Yawning, he scrubs a hand through his hair that he’s pretty sure leaves it sticking up worse than it already was. He’s not worried. Rhodey is away on Mission Discreetly Point Someone Important At The Mess Still To Be Cleaned Up Out East and Vision is tucked up doing... whatever the hell it is Vision does at night. Not sleeping, presumably.
The brew he concocts is thick and bitter and exactly what he needs. He sucks down the first cup while he’s still at the counter, the chilly tiles beneath the pads of his feet a sharp counterpoint to the hot liquid scalding his tongue.
The remains of tonight’s predictably failed dinner attempt are congealing in scattered containers that no one could be bothered to put away. Tony nudges a particularly unappetising selection out of olfactory range and pours a second cup of coffee to go.
Vision seems to be conducting a vicarious tour through the foodstuffs of the world. Or at least he would be, if any of them were being eaten by their intended recipient. Today it was Thai. Yesterday it was something resembling Mexican. A variety of tempting offerings designed to coax their guest into some semblance of nutritional engagement. Tony doesn’t have the heart to tell him he suspects he’s wasting his time. Asgardians can apparently function for long periods of time on water and sheer pig-headedness alone.
The deserted air to the place becomes more complete as Tony heads drowsily downstairs. He passes workout rooms long gone unused, stores of equipment no longer checked out, training areas gone still and silent. There was a time when he found the quiet of the facility jarring. Tonight it’s what he needs.
He hasn’t checked the time, but it’s pitch dark outside. Cold rain pelts the glass of the windows in gusty waves as he approaches the workshop. The lights blink on reluctantly when he enters and the cool air of the room soothes the tension he still holds around his eyes. The comforting smell of solder and oil enfolds him like the welcoming familiarity of routine.
Mindless distraction has always worked for him in the past. Contrary to popular belief, his tinkering isn’t about escaping his problems. That’s what alcohol is for. And, admittedly, the bigger projects that absorb his focus for days on end, the pure discovery of it all enough to crowd out everything else. Like eating. Sleeping. Human relationships.
He pushes an errant, rueful thought of Pepper firmly to one side.
No. The smaller fish, the playtime stuff -- this is how he relaxes. It gives a small part of his brain just enough to keep it occupied while the rest goes still. If he can focus his thoughts away from whatever’s bugging him, his subconscious can sometimes sneak up on the solution.
Inspiration often strikes while he’s in the shower. Or performing some other mundane task. Or driving a familiar route. Then wham, he has to pull over and find a pen because if he doesn’t write it down it’ll get lost before he can finish what he’s doing.
What’s on his mind tonight is the same thing that’s been kicking the shit out of it since Rhodey brought everyone’s favourite home video back for show and tell.
And he really, really would like to get the star of so many of his nightmares out of head, at least during his waking hours. Especially as there are apparently a hell of a lot more of those turning up just now.
Rolling his shoulders, Tony hunkers down over the magnifier and scrutinises the delicate circuitry he gave up on only a few hours ago. He gets to work, letting his fingers manipulate the fine tools with the focused calm he finds it so easy to slip into.
This is his happy place. This is his zen.
He lets his mind run back over the last couple of days, picking at the many threads that still hang loose. Maybe if he can break everything down into its component parts he can rebuild them again into something that makes sense. Because as it stands, the questions he has loom too big to properly answer.
Major Problem Number One? Working out how to send a supposedly mind-wiped, potentially murderous and seriously unhinged alien demigod back to where he came from, who knows how many light years away, without any means of contacting said home and the only people who might be able to help. All while their best shot at doing it either can’t, or more likely won’t, give them the information they need to see it done.
Major Problem Number Two? Deciding whether the supposedly mind-wiped, potentially murderous and seriously unhinged alien demigod actually is mind-wiped, whether they should help address that, and how they would go about it even if they wanted to. All while knowing the answer to Major Problem Number One is probably pretty dependent on undoing whatever might be causing the hypothetical (and highly convenient) memory lapse.
Major Problem Number Three? Coming up with a contingency plan if they a) can’t send their crazy powerful, crazy long-lived and just straight up crazy wanted war criminal home or, more critically, b) work out their crazy war criminal’s play when the amnesia act proves to be one almighty hoax.
Tony sighs, pushes himself upright and wheels himself over to the workbench behind him to search for the components he needs.
He can’t decide what to think. And it’s driving him insane.
Of course Loki would mess with their heads. He’s all about mind games. Misdirection. Mayhem. Lies and illusions and a subtle approach would be as natural to him as breathing. But something, some undefined, elusive unease is niggling at Tony’s carefully constructed defences. Making him question his very reasonable, very sensible suspicions.
Far as he can see, there are three possibilities.
Possibility One: Loki is telling the truth. He really doesn’t remember who he is, what he’s done and what he’s capable of. The knowledge to send him home is trapped in his head, along with who knows what else.
Possibility Two: Loki is lying. This is part of some convoluted plan to lull them into a false sense of security. Loki has some nefarious plot in the works that involves infiltrating their team, bringing them on side and blindsiding them.
Possibility Three: Loki is withholding the full truth. He’s found himself in a sticky situation and is playing them to his advantage now that they’ve given him a way out of it.
Much as he’d really like to dismiss Possibility One out of hand, Tony has to admit that the evidence is stacking up in its favour.
Firstly, he simply cannot think what advantage Loki hopes to gain with a lie like this. He’s looked at it every which way, worked every angle, and he just can’t see it. Tony may not be an evil mastermind, but he is a genius, and he’s had time to think this through. He’s coming up blank every time.
Secondly, it seems a clumsy tactic. It should be obvious it wouldn’t hold water. Not with Tony.
That serial killer smile is yet to put in an appearance, and levels of outright hostility are lower than Tony’s been expecting. And while they’re all tip-toeing around the ugly ass elephant in the room, there’s been a distinct lack of freaky space wizardry. Tony tested that cuff to a level bordering on obsession before they started this thing, and the hair trigger he put on that baby should flip at so much as a flicker. And yet so far, no dice.
There’s a chance, of course -- a good chance -- that the guy’s playing a long game. Laying up some sympathy. Putting them at ease. Watching for an opening (or an unprotected back). Tony hasn’t missed the covert glances at anything even approaching a weapon, an exit or a likely threat.
But then, that’s just it, isn’t it? Tony hasn’t missed them.
Loki’s either seriously off his game, or this? This is the real deal.
Kicked your ass pretty handily if I remember, Rhodey had said last night.
Tony had scoffed. I was trying to catch him. He was trying to kill me.
He’s not having so much luck this time around. Catching someone out in a lie is pretty damn hard to do when you know so little about them. That had become painfully obvious embarrassingly quickly.
They’ve been over it all.
All the weird family crap Thor has inadvertently let slip with a sad smile or a cryptic reference. All the mythic backstory and fantastical abilities. All the crazy shit Tony’s seen in person. The genocidal mania, murder and mind control. The alien hordes and gigantic space whales. The hole in space.
Hell. Hearing it all spoken out loud, it had sounded ludicrous.
Oh, and also? You were dead, by the way. We’re a little light on the details, but…
Loki has responded to every piece of information with a disturbing flatness. Because sure, no one wants to hear they’re a basket case. But something should have hit a nerve. Gotten a rise. Cracked that soulless, prince of darkness exterior the guy has going for him. Revealed the scam for exactly what it is.
Something should have tripped Tony’s bullshit alarm.
Apparently not. Because Loki has taken everything they’ve handed him and given them nothing in return. Not a twitch. Not a huff. Not a single word of defence. Not a play for sympathy, or an abject denial or even a hint of surprise. Nothing. And now he’s stopped talking. Again.
The last couple of days have left Tony with a bad taste in his mouth and whole load of unanswered questions. He’d expected to feel like an idiot, laying it all out like that. Playing to the act. Having Loki stand there laughing at him, a mask in place for the others.
But Tony’s not getting that. Not at all. Instead he’s finding himself reevaluating his take on the situation, and he’s got to be honest -- he doesn’t like it.
Tony leans back in his chair and shoves his fingers into his eyes.
The guy is shutting down. Closing off. And Tony’s finally worked out why that seems so familiar.
Remind you of anyone? Rhodey had asked.
What’s worse is they’re getting nowhere.
Tony likes to think of himself as a pretty easy-going guy. Got skeletons in your closet? So does he. Have a tendency towards some of the more extreme personality traits on the spectrum? It’s cool -- he’s not exactly the poster child for meek and mild himself. Got a past you’re not so proud of? Welcome to the club.
But give him nothing to work with and Tony’s patience goes off the deep end in a big way. Loki’s pulling tighter into his shell with each one-sided conversation and wielding the only weapon he still can with devastating force -- Asgardian-Strength Silent Treatment™.
And if there’s one thing Tony cannot resist doing, it’s filling a silence.
The nail of Tony’s left thumb is well and truly fucked. His teeth continue to worry at it despite that fact, the wall at his back propping him up as he decides.
This is a mistake. Irresponsible. Asking for trouble. There are so many things that could go wrong, so many ways this could blow up in his face.
He should wait for Vision. Or at least discuss this with Rhodey. Let them talk him out of it, maybe. But then he’s not sure he wants to have that conversation or to find out where it would lead. Rhodey would be so painfully understanding, of course. So earnestly accommodating. Tony doesn’t want to examine his own motivations for doing this thing too closely, and he’ll be damned if he’ll let someone else fill in those blanks for him. He doesn’t particularly want an audience for this, either.
He almost turns and walks away twice. In the end it’s frustration with his own hesitation that has his hand moving to punch the code into the panel.
Loki’s perched at the head of the bed on his haunches, arms draped over his knees and head lowered. Creepy bastard that he is, he puts Tony in mind of an enormous, hibernating vampire bat.
He barely spares Tony a glance when the door slides open, and the lack of reaction only adds an edge of impatience to the confusing tangle of emotion that’s making Tony irritable. He’s had enough of this. He’s had enough of this whole ridiculous situation.
“Okay,” he says with what he hopes is just the right balance of authority and patience. “We’re getting out of here. Come on. Let’s go.”
Loki turns his head to Tony listlessly but doesn’t move to get up.
“Take a walk with me,” Tony insists and leaves the room again without waiting for an answer.
He doesn’t have to hang around for long. Loki emerges from his lair with all the enthusiasm of a teenager invited on a grocery trip and falls reluctantly in step just behind Tony’s left shoulder. Tony tries really hard not let this proximity bother him and, in his considered opinion, does a pretty convincing job of projecting casual self-assurance. The prototype nano tech nestled discreetly in the palm of his hand sure helps in that respect.
They take a route deeper into the heart of the facility that Tony’s pretty sure Loki’s not been led down before, and as it becomes obvious they’re not heading towards their usual destination, Loki begins to fall back a little.
Tony allows himself a small smile. Twitchier than a long-tailed cat.
Tony forges on ahead without letting on he’s noticed the hesitation and pushes his way through a set of double swing doors. He slips the shades over the bridge of his nose, satisfies himself everything is ready, and waits.
A few moments later, Loki cautiously follows. Tony watches his expression carefully.
As soon as he enters the room, Loki’s eyes sweep upward. His gaze follows the towering lines of giant redwood trunks as they reach high into the sky, their immense girth barely tapering as they rise. Their laden branches are soon lost to thick mist, their crowns some unknowable height above them.
A winding forest path meanders between the living monoliths and into an open glade carpeted with soft needles, the bank of a mountain river skirting its edge. The loud chitter of birds and other critters gives everything a sort of Disney quality, and the over-vibrant colours of the picnic blanket spread out at the base of one particular veteran stand out vividly against the otherwise muted scene. The only thing missing is the heady alpine scent that Tony’s senses expect.
Loki takes this all in without saying a word and eventually casts Tony a questioning look.
“Go ahead,” Tony tells him. “Knock yourself out.”
After a beat or two Loki steps forward, absorbing the scene around him. He takes a few short paces before he turns back to examine the wall behind them, noting the way it blends seamlessly into the forest. When he approaches a tree and reaches out to touch its bark, his fingers pass through it with a flicker of pixels.
“This is not real,” he concludes somewhat unnecessarily.
“Figured you’d appreciate a change of scenery. This is the closest I can offer to, you know. Actually going outside.”
Loki looks at Tony then. Really looks at him. It’s not a sensation Tony particularly enjoys, so he turns his attention to the chipmunks scolding one another on a nearby tree and concentrates hard on not noticing the appraisal.
This is pragmatism. That’s all this is. God knows being cooped up would be a fast ticket to driving Tony nuts, and if a little fresh air is what it takes to break the stalemate, it’s an olive branch Tony’s willing to extend. Even if that fresh air is nothing more than air conditioning and fancy visual tech.
He doesn’t state the obvious. That apart from the clear flight risk, a trip out even as far as the yard is not something they can chance just now. They don’t know who might be watching, and they don’t want to advertise Loki’s presence here.
Whether Loki accepts the gesture for what it is, Tony’s not sure. He watches as Loki heads further into the trees, stopping to turn a slow circle in place. He tilts his head to one side as a peal of child’s laughter reaches them from some distance away, its clarity somewhat lost to the distance of time and imperfect memory.
Loki meets Tony’s gaze and raises a curious eyebrow.
“Welcome to Yosemite, circa nineteen-seventy-something-or-other,” Tony says with a small smile. He wanders further into the scene, folding creaking knees sit cross-legged on the waiting blanket. He has improved on the projection technology in recent months to rely less on physical props and anchors. He has to remind himself to brace for the discrepancy when he sinks a little lower than the uneven ground appears, settling not on the soft dirt his brain expects but on the cold hard floor of the room underneath.
He can still pretend, though.
“My folks brought me here on the way home from one of Dad’s business trips,” he says as Loki makes a slow circuit of one of the smaller sequoias. “The car broke down and we had some time to kill while the thing was in the shop, so we took a day trip to the nearest attraction. I remember it because it was one of the few times we were all together. It was just us, you know? No work. No meetings. Nothing to rush back for. I had a blast.”
More high-pitched laughter makes its way through the trees, and Tony can just make out the form of a boy flitting breathlessly from one hiding place to another.
“The child is you,” Loki guesses from his vantage point, watching as the indistinct shape of a woman creeps with over-dramatic menace towards her squealing son.
“Bears,” Tony remembers fondly. “I had this weird thing about bears.”
The two grey and faded figures chase each other playfully until they eventually disappear again into the mist. Tony’s still not certain if the hazy scenery is a true reflection of that day so many years ago or simply a result of the passage of time. It’s certainly harder to reconstruct vague memories than those burned into clarity by trauma or obsessive revisitation. And the further back he goes the less success the tech seems to have pulling out anything coherent.
“How is this all possible?” Loki asks absently as he gazes up into the trees. “Is this…” He twirls a hand in the air with obvious meaning but doesn’t elaborate further.
Tony’s mouth twitches. “Magic? Nope. Just your good old, garden variety science. And a splash of my brain’s poetic license.”
“It is impressive,” Loki allows, and much as Tony would like to think it’s his brain being complimented, he takes the guy’s meaning. Loki checks back again towards the exit at their back and something begins to shutter behind his eyes. “I take it you’re not just showing me this to relieve my boredom.”
“See, that’s what I like about you, Lokes. Always thinking a few steps ahead.”
“I’d rather gotten the impression there was nothing you liked about me.”
Tony can’t help a smirk. He raises a finger to tap the side of his shades. “I can calibrate one of these babies for you,” he says. “Could probably do it without your permission if I had to. But it’d be a hell of a lot easier with your cooperation, and I’m guessing you’re about done with people screwing around in there.”
Loki scowls and wraps his arms around himself. The dangerous look he gives promises swift and disproportionate retribution for any attempt at unsolicited contact.
Yep. Called that one right.
“Look,” Tony continues, taking a small measure of pity on him (and very much valuing the current location and arrangement of his internal organs). “You want to get out of here, right? And believe me, we want you off our hands. Seems to me the quickest way to do that is to try and fix whatever it is our white-coated friends have managed to jimmy with in there and get your input on how we might do that.”
“And here I was thinking you didn’t believe me. Silly me.”
“There’s no need to get snippy,” Tony continues, intrigued by the sarcasm despite himself. “If you’ve got nothing to hide, I can’t think of a better way to prove me wrong, can you?” If it works, they’ll get answers. If it doesn’t, at least they’ll know for certain where they stand. It’s a win-win situation in Tony’s books.
Loki doesn’t look so sure. “You’re assuming I want to be shipped off to wherever it is you would send me.”
“I guess I’ll take my chances. And besides, it’s gotta beat hanging around here with me for the unforeseeable future, right?”
That earns him the barest flicker of a smile. It’s not much, but Tony will take it. “Besides,” he continues, “aren’t you curious about all the things you can’t remember? Hell, I know you better than you know you. That’s weird. And unhealthy. You’ve got to be dying to get that stuff back.”
Loki doesn’t exactly rush to agree, and Tony supposes that in his position, he might be more than a little leery of what could be lurking in the dark recesses of his mind. Still, there’s interest there, he can tell. It’s there in the way Loki gives him the side-eye (as though he thinks Tony won’t notice). It’s there in the lack of outright refusal, in the hesitation and the silence. It’s there in the nervous gestures Tony’s starting to pick up on now that he knows to look for them.
As though he’s become aware of the way he’s fidgeting, Loki moves further into the trees around them and is silent for some time. Tony is working himself up to try a new argument when Loki breaks the silence.
“If I agree to this… what do you suppose we will find? What… what am I?” The questions are quiet. Cautious. Almost… resigned. Tony isn’t quite sure what he’s supposed to do with them.
A hundred different answers queue belligerently on his tongue.
Sociopath. Villain. Monster.
He’s not shied from using those words in the past. But now that it comes to it, he finds he can’t give voice to any of them.
Tony’s seen acts of evil. And he’s seen amorality in action. For the longest time he’d counted Loki among that number, but it’s easy to write off everything as either black or white with enough distance that the greys get lost in between. If he’s completely honest with himself he hates to think of anyone as completely irredeemable, but he’s not about shirking responsibility either.
“You’re…” Tony stalls. What’s the word he’s looking for? ‘Misguided’ would be to duck the truth. ‘A lost cause’ isn’t quite right either. He doesn’t want to sugar-coat this, and he’s not going to make excuses for the crazy motherfucker, but even he can see that complete vilification is the wrong way to go here.
He changes trajectory and tells himself he’s not dodging the question. “You’ve made some bad calls. Done some shitty things. For reasons I can’t begin to guess at. I’m not going to call them mistakes, ‘cause I think you knew exactly what you were doing, but I’m also pretty sure we’re working with two completely different frames of reference here.
“We let Thor take you home before because of that. We didn’t have to, and you’d better believe there were a whole lot of people very unhappy with that decision, but it was a call I would make again. Am making again. And I’d like to be able to get away without the political fallout this time if it’s all the same to you. I’ll never hear the end of it otherwise.”
He doesn’t add that apart from those calling for justice, punishment and, let’s face it, blood, there were others more interested in the asset they let slip through their fingers. One for which torture and experimentation would seem oh so reasonable when balanced against the crime. One that wasn’t even human to begin with, and certainly had no constitutional rights.
“Thor,” Loki murmurs, almost to himself. “You keep mentioning him. I should know who he is.”
Now there’s the understatement of the century. “Yeah, you could say that. You guys are…” He thinks about this for a sec. Close? Important to one another? The absolute personification of family melodrama and dysfunction? He goes with: “...complicated. But trust me. I don’t know you all that well, but I do know Thor. And I think you’re gonna want that back.”
He’s not sure what it is that does it. Perhaps it’s the note of sincerity that creeps into Tony’s words despite his best efforts, or perhaps something he’s said piques Loki’s interest. Whatever it is, it works, and Tony realises that he’s… well, surprised.
“Very well,” Loki says, finally turning back to Tony like he’s facing his own execution. “Let’s see what there is to find.”
Rhodey’s not sure exactly what has changed, but on his return to the compound things are… different. It’s like a breath they’ve all been holding has finally been released, and while he wouldn’t call the situation relaxed exactly, the atmosphere has definitely improved.
The afternoon he gets back he finds everyone in the kitchen. Tony pokes distractedly at a tub of takeout as he manipulates a circuitry blueprint on the display in front of him. Vision is at the sink washing dishes and is the only one to offer Rhodey a hello.
It’s the third person in the room who stops him in his tracks as his hand is halfway to opening the refrigerator door.
Loki sits at the breakfast bar entirely unconcerned by Rhodey’s entrance. As if that wasn’t unusual enough in itself, his attention is focused with single-minded ferocity on the sub in his hands. The almost indecent efficiency with which he’s devouring it is a sight to behold.
Rhodey looks meaningfully at Tony across the room, who without meeting his eyes simply shrugs. When Rhodey then turns to Vision he receives a pleased smile that borders on smug.
Okaay, Rhodey thinks, and without further comment fetches himself the soda he’s been craving all day. He leans back against the counter and tries to hide his fascination behind an appreciative first pull at the bottle.
“Was your trip productive?” Vision enquires politely, and Rhodey has to tear his eyes away from the spectacle of Loki neatly unwrapping a second footlong.
“Um, sure,” he manages intelligently. “It went great.”
Vision doesn’t push for more, well aware that the debrief will have to wait for now. They’re playing safe, keeping Loki out of earshot. If they’re right it’s probably unnecessary, but if they’re not… doesn’t hurt to be cautious.
Rhodey’s pretty confident he’s nudged the right people in the right direction, although he’s going to have to be careful about how he confirms the desired effect. Something he intends to get Tony to look into, provided he can tear his friend away from whatever this shiny new project is that has caught his attention.
What they really need is intel. They need connections, funding streams, affiliated groups. They need to know what (if anything) has been achieved by their friends out east, what’s been shared, and what’s been done with whatever’s been learned. And they need to know how to stop any of it going further.
Rhodey has pointed good people at the problem, but what comes back might be out of their hands. If that’s the case he wants to make sure he, Tony and Vision are in a position to act on it first.
“Hey, Loki,” Tony calls over his shoulder, breaking Rhodey’s reverie. “C’mere a minute.”
Loki rolls his eyes with a long-suffering air that suggests this isn’t the first time he’s been asked to inconvenience himself recently, but to Rhodey’s surprise he sets his meal down and approaches Tony at the table. Tony points at something on the glowing screen, and the two of them move closer together to study it.
Rhodey leans in discreetly to Vision as this happens. “So…” he says, gesturing vaguely towards the pair at the table. “This is… new.”
Vision dries his hands off on a towel. “I understand our guest and Mr Stark are collaborating on a project of some kind. They appear to have had a ‘heart to heart’.”
It’s still weird to hear Vision use idioms like this, especially when the way he pronounces them gives them obvious air quotes. Rhodey frowns. “Should we be worried?” he asks. The question is at least half serious.
He watches as Tony produces a pair of shades and thwaps Loki in the chest with them. “Here,” Tony says, barely paying attention. “Try these on for size.”
Loki stares at the man without moving to take them. “You have got to be joking.”
The bickering that ensues ends with Loki crossing his arms and Tony looking sullen, but to Rhodey’s increasing wonder no blood is spilt. Tony agrees to work on something else, clearly aggrieved at having to do so. He mutters something about entitled higher beings and punctuates this by invading Loki’s personal space, crudely measuring the side of Loki’s head with the span of his fingers. Loki endures this for a moment before irritably swatting the offending hand away.
Rhodey watches this open-mouthed.
Vision rests a hand on his shoulder. “Welcome back, Colonel Rhodes,” he smiles.
The room Tony has commandeered for this little experiment is large, mostly empty and located in one of the unused wings of the facility. Judging by the set up it was last employed as an assembly area of some kind, a screen and projector still awaiting use and gathering dust on the far side of several rows of seating. Between them, Rhodey and Vision push stacks of chairs against the walls to create a space big enough for the visual tech to work unhindered. Something to do with providing a blank canvas, Tony had said. Less for the brain to seize on and try to populate with matching scenery. Rhodey’s not entirely clear on the specifics, but he gets the gist.
If he’s honest, Rhodey’s still not entirely sure about this. He gets what Tony’s trying to do, he does, and God knows having something to concentrate on has done wonders for Tony and Loki both, but there’s a niggling unease there that won’t go away.
Of course Tony is keen to push ahead. He’s invested now. It’s his idea and his design. He doesn’t want to back down from a challenge and he wants to prove his theory could work. Rhodey’s seen him like this many times before.
Tony tells him he should live a little. And Vision just seems to want everyone to get along so badly he’ll go along with anything. But Rhodey… Rhodey’s never been one to rush into anything without a damn good reason and a back up plan to boot.
Tony is putting the finishing touches to the improved tech he’s worked up for Loki. The guinea pig himself looms at Tony’s back, his gaze intense.
As Rhodey approaches, Tony leans in close to solder the last connector in place and sighs. “Would you stop doing that?” he says without looking up.
Loki ignores this and continues to scrutinise the work, prompting Tony finally to straighten and look at him. When he registers just how close Loki is to him he jerks back slightly.
“You are next level creepy, you know that?”
The smile Loki returns is almost predatory. Yeah, Rhodey thinks. He knows.
“Is there anything else you require?” Vision interrupts, and Tony casts a speculative look over the room.
“I think we’re good,” he declares. “Time to road test this baby.”
The device he hands to Loki is small and compact, no bigger than a large coin. Loki inspects it carefully, apparently finds nothing too concerning, then raises an eyebrow at Tony.
“Really jam it on in there, right here,” Tony instructs, tapping a spot just behind his ear. “Once the spike’s in it’s not so bad.”
The look Loki returns is flat.
“He’s kidding,” Rhodey hurries to explain, sliding Tony a warning look. He takes a moment to think about it, then double checks. “You are kidding, right?”
The grin Tony produces isn’t exactly an answer. “Just press it lightly and relax. The tech’ll do the rest.”
“Hmm,” Loki says, doubtfully. “And what are we to expect? A charming scene from early childhood, perhaps?”
“Well that’s kinda up to you, or your brain at least. This thing roots out the meaty stuff, the memories with meaning. Anything with enough neural pathways to suggest it’s important and revisited often. Usually I’m able to direct things with enough concentration, but as you don’t have anything, ah, in mind I guess you might say, we’ll have to just spin the wheel and take our chances.”
“And if we don’t like what we find?”
“Just remember none of it is real. This will all be, quite literally, a figment of your imagination.”
Tony claps what Rhodey is sure he thinks is a reassuring hand on Loki’s shoulder and gives him a little push.
“Go ahead. Just like we practiced.”
Loki purses his lips at this but doesn’t say anything more. He moves off slowly to the centre of the room.
“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Rhodey murmurs to Tony from the corner of his mouth.
Tony flaps a hand at him but doesn’t answer.
It takes a minute or two for Loki to finish steeling himself, but when he’s ready he turns to face his audience and places the tech to his skin as instructed. Rhodey can just make out the liquid movement of nano tech as it expands outwards from the disc and sends a probing arm into Loki’s hairline.
All four of them glance about the room, but nothing seems to be happening. Rhodey realises he’s been holding his breath.
Tony peers at a handheld display glowing softly in his hands and frowns at what he sees.
“What is it?” Rhodey asks, although he’s almost afraid to.
“Nothing,” Tony assures him. “Just some interference. Lemme just… there.” He stabs a finger at a couple of readouts and the air around them crackles soundlessly. It doesn’t flicker so much as fizz, staticky and pixelated like bad dial up. The kind that asks to have a fist banged against it a couple of times. As though thinking the exact same thing, Tony slaps the flat of his hand against the tablet twice.
That seems to do the trick. Translucent lines coalesce and begin to slide into place, gradually building and connecting around them. Vision’s eyes track the slowly resolving shapes with the crease of a small frown between his brows, and Tony scowls down at the readouts. Rhodey fixes his eyes on Loki at the centre of it all and feels a cold finger of suspicion trail down his back.
The guy looks nervous. He stands as though prepared to fight, or run, or maybe both. Although he holds still his eyes flick around the room, cataloguing every change and movement.
The walls smooth out flat and then crowd closer, the size of the space narrowing to one much smaller than the real space behind. A table appears, then a chair, then a number of screens, trays and consoles. The shining metallic surfaces reflect harsh overhead lighting. The sound of approaching footsteps echoes from beyond an unseen door.
The walls and floor are white. Loki’s breathing is loud.
“Oh shit,” Tony murmurs a fraction of a second before Rhodey can.
“Tony,” Rhodey warns instead.
“I know, I know, turning it off--” Tony’s fingers fly across the readouts, but before he can power the thing down Loki takes matters into his own hands. Literally.
He rips the device from his skin like it’s a poisonous animal and winds his arm back to throw it.
“No no no, wait!” Tony pleads, but he’s too late. As the pictures snap out of existence, the tech is already shattering into tiny fragments against the far wall.
“Aw man,” Tony mutters regretfully.
Loki’s shoulders are heaving, and when he whirls back around from the destruction he’s just wrought the look he turns on Tony is murderous.
“Okay,” Tony hedges, his hands held up. “I should’ve seen that coming. I miscalculated. You’re right to be pissed. But let’s just keep things constructive here.”
Loki stalks towards them both with dark purpose and Tony backs up, pushing Rhodey with him. Rhodey’s groping blindly behind him for something, anything, to defend himself with when the backs of his legs bump into a stack of chairs, bringing him and Tony up short.
“Get out of my way,” Loki growls as he passes them, and the force with which he pushes through the doors they’ve just cleared leaves one of them swinging precariously on damaged hinges.
“Wow,” Tony breathes after a moment of stunned silence. “I think a little bit of pee came out.”
Rhodey takes a deep breath and just shakes his head. How Tony can makes jokes about this sort of shit, he’ll never understand.
Vision approaches them, calm as you like, and gestures towards the route Loki has just taken. “Perhaps I should…”
“Let him go,” Rhodey says. “Maybe just… keep an eye on him.”
When Loki finds them again, he is stiffly formal.
“I apologise for my behaviour,” he tells them, and the room goes so still Rhodey thinks he could hear a pin drop. “I should not have destroyed your equipment, and I am sorry to have alarmed you.”
It’s an awkward second or two before anyone speaks, and it takes an elbow to the ribs for Rhodey to persuade Tony it should be him who does.
“Er,” Tony stutters, “sure. Don’t sweat it.”
“I wish to try again,” Loki continues, then pauses. He lowers his eyes. “If you are amenable.”
Rhodey exchanges a look with Tony, and to his credit the self-professed philanthropist seems to pull himself together.
“I can rig some replacement tech easy enough,” Tony says. “Shouldn’t take long. I think we just need to make some adjustments.”
The breath Rhodey releases eases a knot of tension he’s been carrying since this whole thing blew up. He closes his eyes for just a moment and fortifies himself for the objection he knows he has to make.
“Hold up,” he eventually says. “I’ve gotta ask. Are we sure this is a good idea? I mean, what’s to stop the same thing happening again? We’re not going to learn anything we don’t already know and I’m pretty sure none of us want to revisit that little scene again.”
Loki winces and turns to brood at the windows.
“It won’t happen again,” Tony insists, becoming animated as he thinks. When he sees the dubious look Rhodey’s giving him he railroads it with a slew of chatter. “I’m serious. I don’t usually say this, so enjoy hearing it while you can, but I was going about it all wrong. I ran diagnostics on what data FRIDAY managed to assimilate before the headpiece went to pieces -- which, fine, my bad -- and of course that was the memory it hijacked. It zeroed in on the heavy stuff just like it was programmed to do. I just need to recalibrate so we’re looking at older neural pathways, not just the recent heavy traffic.”
Rhodey steps closer to Tony and lowers his voice, mindful of the vibes Loki’s giving off from the corner of the room.
“And if the rest of the shit he’s got tucked away in there is no better?” he asks pointedly.
Tony puts his back to Loki and matches Rhodey’s soft tone. “Come on,” he wheedles. “This could really work. And anyway, we’ve still got FRIDAY. We were never in any real danger back there.”
Rhodey snorts. “Yeah. You were the picture of cool.” Tony pretends like he hasn’t heard, and Rhodey sobers. “I can’t believe I’m the one telling you this, but you’re playing with fire. Not to mention the guy’s head.”
That’s when Tony cracks a crooked smile. “Then I guess we’re breaking even.”
Rhodey’s pretty sure he doesn’t mean it.
When they come to try again, it’s with a solemn promise from Loki that he will conduct himself with decorum. His words, of course. Tony labours the point and declares he’ll not build more tech if this one goes the same way as the first, and Loki accedes to this with a slight bow of his head as he takes the proffered device.
He doesn’t hesitate at all this time as he presses the metal to his skin, a look of cool determination on his face.
The shapes that begin to form are entirely different this time. Gone are the geometric lines and clearly defined colours. There are no bright whites, edges or sharp outlines.
Instead there is a strobing, pulsing nebula swirling overhead, a meeting of thunder clouds and galaxies in pale hues of light. Snatches of images materialise within the maelstrom, fleeting pictures that hint at more beneath these vague outlines.
Most of it is incomprehensible, but there are impressions Rhodey thinks he recognises, or at least can extrapolate from.
A woman’s face, her smile soft and gentle. Sweeping vistas the likes of which could not occur on Earth. Vast chambers, libraries and armories that have no equivalent in Rhodey’s own experience. Glimpses of battles, disagreements and tender moments that leave him feeling like an eavesdropper, his ears heating as he looks on. And peppered throughout, impressions of what can only be Thor, his beaming face shining with the light of a thousand suns, or else darkened with disapproval, scorn or disappointment.
None of these images last for more than a fraction of a second, and the speed with which they flicker past is enough to make Rhodey feel nauseous.
Rhodey reminds himself that Tony’s tech, as powerful as it is, has a job on its hands it wasn’t designed for. Alien physiology aside, what they’re looking at here is a snapshot of hundreds, if not thousands of years of memory, all of it clamouring for attention. That’s a lot of information to assimilate and parse, some of it well beyond the realms of human experience. It is beautiful for all that, and even if it’s not exactly what they were looking to recreate, it’s a least a testament to the wealth of memory that lays beneath whatever barrier separates it from Loki’s conscious mind.
“Oh cool,” Tony breathes as he takes it all in, and Rhodey agrees. Vision is similarly entranced, reaching out a hand to pass through the projection above him. “Loki, are you getting this?”
Loki does not reply. Rhodey glances to him and sees why -- his eyes are shut, a grimace of pain on his face that he seems to be trying hard to contain. He raises a hand slowly to the side of his head and simply stands there, caught up in something he seems unable to stop.
Tony pulls the plug much faster this time, and almost instantly the room is back in its original state. If anything Loki only grits his teeth harder, bending slightly at the waist as though being assaulted by something unseen.
Vision approaches him cautiously, a hand outstretched behind him to warn his onlookers back. All three of them zero in on the faint aura of weirdness floating just at the edge of their senses, like a creeping shadow that disappears when it’s looked at directly. It’s a heat haze, a shimmering layer of colour that the eye cannot discern. It defies definition, whatever it is, but it’s clear that Loki feels it, and it’s not pleasant.
Rhodey looks on as Vision murmurs something reassuring to Loki where he stands trembling as though enduring something he’d rather not.
Very gently, carefully, Vision moves Loki’s hand over the device at his temple, coaxing him to unpeel the thing from his skin. He does so slowly, eyes still closed, and when the metal comes away he releases a sharp sound of pain.
Vision waits patiently until Loki opens his eyes and lets out a shaky breath, then with trembling fingers drops the device with deliberate care into Vision’s waiting palm.
“Um, all okay over there?” Tony asks a little warily, but doesn’t move to approach.
Rhodey can see what’s about to happen before it does. Loki gulps in two breaths of air, turns abruptly and staggers forward. His outstretched hand hits the wall just in time to catch himself as he retches.
“Oh boy,” Tony says next to Rhodey with a wince.
“Still think this was a good idea?” Rhodey can’t resist saying.
It’s a while before Loki speaks, but when he does it’s with more conviction than his stumbling words would suggest. “There is something… something is wrong.”
“Well yeah, I think we all guessed as much.” Tony’s sarcasm covers a nervousness Rhodey knows he feels. “I’m sorry it didn’t work.”
Loki is emphatic despite his obvious distress. “No, you don’t understand. It’s there. I can feel it all there, but I can’t-- Something is stopping me.”
Rhodey and Tony exchange a brief glance that conveys a myriad of sentiment, none of it necessarily positive.
They’re out of their depth. That much is painfully obvious. But if the gleam in Loki’s eyes is anything to go by, this fact alone is not going to be enough to warrant throwing in the towel.
“I have an idea,” Vision interjects before either Rhodey or Tony can form the right words. He looks Tony square in the face for a long moment, his eyes full of apology, and when Tony returns his gaze his face softens. “You’re not going to like it,” Vision admits, and Rhodey can only pinch the bridge of his nose against the oncoming headache.
Stark is angry with him.
Stark believes he hides this well, or perhap that Vision will be content to take his word for it when he says he’s ‘cool’.
Stark is mistaken. Vision can feel the man’s disapproval radiating from him and he must admit, it pains him.
In hindsight he should have expected this. His full reasoning is in truth far more complicated, but a part of Vision knows this very reaction is why, until now, he has not wanted to risk disclosure. Perhaps that makes him a coward. He’d rather put his faith in Colonel Rhodes’s assessment that he’d just had everyone’s best interests at heart by keeping his indiscretions to himself. That he wished to spare others pain.
Colonel Rhodes is generous in that way. If Vision is honest with himself, he knows what he does is for entirely selfish reasons.
He has abused Stark’s trust in him. That is something the man will have trouble forgiving, even if the misdemeanor itself could be otherwise overlooked.
Stark never did ask him where he would go.
There is some turbulence as they draw near their destination, although with some small adjustments Stark is quick to find a smoother flight path. The jet soon coasts quietly once more, the interior darkening as they enter a bank of slate grey cloud. The weather outside certainly reflects the atmosphere within, even if it no longer buffets them to and fro.
In deliberate contrast to their previous voyage, Loki has chosen to remain standing for this trip. Vision had expected him to want to take in the view as they travelled, but it seems he has been quick to pick up on the unspoken friction between his two escorts. He has said nothing aloud to either Vision or Stark, but his appraising gaze has slid between the two of them throughout their journey. Vision isn’t certain if the wide berth he seems to be giving Stark is intentional or coincidental, but Loki hasn’t otherwise shied from making his interest in the situation known.
He stands now, quiet, one hand bracing against and movement of the craft using one of the handholds above him, his eyes studying Vision where he stands opposite. Vision offers him a wan smile, though his heart’s not really in it.
Loki takes this as an invitation to speak. “You go to much trouble for me,” he says, his words for Vision alone. His voice is pitched low enough that Stark will be unlikely to overhear, but it is no more than that; he is not deliberately seeking to evade Stark’s notice.
They have not outlined the situation to Loki fully, partly out of respect for Stark’s aversion to the topic, and of course he has no real need to know of the specifics. But if they thought Loki would remain ignorant of the tension they are clearly mistaken.
“I intend to do everything in my power to help you,” Vision tells him honestly, and Loki tilts his head to one side.
“Even though it sows discord?”
“Yes. Even then.”
“You are a most curious jailor,” Loki says after a beat, not unkindly.
It still disappoints Vision to hear Loki speak of him like this, though he has patience yet. He suspects Loki does it more to garner a reaction than for any real belief in the team’s dark intentions. Vision leaves the label unchallenged and asks a question of his own.
“You do not expect that anyone would offer you help freely. Why is that?”
Loki averts his eyes, his tone changing. “I have been given little cause to trust in the inherent goodness of those around me. And if what I have gleaned is to be believed, I have small reason to expect largesse.”
“You do not believe you are deserving of help?”
Loki looks at him sidelong but is otherwise silent.
There is a fine line they have all had to tread here, one Vision regrets he may not be balancing as well as he would like. He wishes it were as simple as assuring Loki to the contrary. Not when every move they make must be tempered with pragmatism and poorly disguised caution.
Loki knows they do not trust him, not fully.
Vision recalls an instance from last night’s conversation which, on reflection, has done little to disabuse Loki of this notion.
Having spent several days preparing, they had finally discussed who would travel today, and who would stay behind. Were it up to Vision, he alone would have accompanied Loki to the rendezvous. He hadn’t deluded himself that such a thing would be allowed.
“Oh, I’m going with you. We’ll take the jet. We can travel in style, and bring FRIDAY along for the ride, obviously.”
Loki’s smile had been sharp. “Still don’t trust me, Stark?”
“See, that’s how I know you’re not faking it. You wouldn’t need to ask such a dumb question otherwise.”
What Stark did not say was that these precautions are just as much for Loki’s protection as their own. That with the jet, they have a better chance of avoiding prying eyes. Of effecting a quick getaway if needed. Of having tech on hand if anything were to go wrong with what they have planned.
Loki is perceptive enough to infer this, but that does not mean their mistrust vexes him any less. Vision has also come to realise that Loki has a tendency to take to heart words that others do not necessarily intend as weapons, yet is skilled at concealing the effect.
Stark’s comments about expecting ‘best behaviour’ probably hadn’t helped in that regard, either.
Vision allows his gaze to wander for a moment as he considers his next words.
In the end, Colonel Rhodes had elected to remain behind. Enough baggage on the plane already, he’d said. Vision knows the man would not begrudge the use of his example, even if it’s not something Vision would be impolite enough to discuss in his presence.
“You have never asked how Colonel Rhodes came by his injuries.”
Loki’s full attention is swift to return. “Injuries?” A note of wry humour enters his voice. “Ah. You mean to his legs. I had begun to assume it commonplace to enhance one’s performance by mechanical means.”
Vision isn’t sure that he believes this statement, but he does not say so. “The braces enable him to walk. But he has not always needed them.”
An edge of suspicion creeps into Loki’s words, his body turning slightly in an unconscious tell of discomfort. “Hmm. Now I am almost afraid to know. Nothing of my doing, I would hope.”
The joke may be weak, but Vision is glad of it anyway. The sad smile he summons stretches the pause into significance. “I too have much to atone for,” Vision confides solemnly, and Loki seems to need no more explanation than that.
Loki looks away, seemingly turning this new information over in his mind, and when he meets Vision’s eyes again it is with new understanding and a welcome change of topic.
“You really think this friend of yours can do something?”
“She is a most remarkable young woman. If anyone can help us, I believe she can.”
“And if she can’t?”
Vision smiles. “Then we are no worse off than we were before.”
Loki glances towards Stark’s back, silhouetted as it is against the tumultuous sky. “Are you quite sure about that?” he says.
“We’re here,” Stark calls from the front of the jet, and Vision shares a resigned look with Loki before they begin to touch down.
Gusts of wind are driving the rain hard when the ramp lowers, though FRIDAY has taken care to angle the jet so that they are sheltered from the worst of it. Far from making a dash for cover when they venture out, Vision finds himself required to hang back in the deluge.
Loki stands out in it, quickly becoming soaked to the skin, his face turned up to the pelting cold. When he lowers his head and opens his eyes again to look at Vision, there is something like relief in his expression.
“I’m drowning here,” Stark interrupts gruffly, but not before Loki’s had this small, reclaimed moment. “C’mon.”
Stark jogs ahead to cross the small clearing in which they’ve landed, head down against the weather and arms wrapped around his body. Loki and then Vision follow him more slowly, the former in no particular hurry to escape the open space and the relative freedom it affords. The trees around them sway and creak in the wind, their boughs thick and heavy, the lake they surround visible through a break in otherwise dense forest.
The porch to the cabin shelters a bench and table, a stack of well-seasoned firewood and a threadbare hammock that has seen better days. Stark stamps his feet on the mat at the threshold and scrubs water from his hair before opening the door and going inside. He doesn’t bother to knock.
With an upturned hand, Vision gestures Loki ahead of him and follows.
The interior glows warmly from the light of a fire already crackling in the hearth. The scent of wood smoke and pine lends the place a nostalgic quality that is complemented well by homely furnishings, rugs and wall hangings.
And rising to stand from the small couch opposite is Wanda, her hands intertwined before her, apprehension in her bearing that she tries hard to hide.
“Wanda,” Stark acknowledges her simply with a nod of his head. He moves no further into the room, and Vision pulls the door closed behind them all.
“Stark,” Wanda returns evenly with a slight lift of her chin. Her eyes skip to Vision’s and she offers him a tentative smile.
Vision wants nothing more than to move to her side and offer her the support she will not ask for, but he knows this would be a mistake. Instead he inclines his head to her, and with that small connection she seems to steady her resolve.
“Wanda, this is Loki,” Vision says by way of introduction, and she turns a small but open smile on the man at Vision’s side.
She steps forward, mindful of Stark in her periphery but determined to be friendly, and extends a polite hand towards the Asgardian. “Hi,” she says, projecting more confidence than Vision knows she really feels into her voice.
Loki accepts her hand in his and lifts it, bowing his head slightly to press his lips to her knuckles. “A pleasure,” he says as he releases her, and Wanda’s eyes widen just slightly.
“Oh,” she says, surprised, and flashes Vision a look of pleased embarrassment.
“Figures,” Stark mutters under his breath at their shoulders, then, more loudly: “Anything to drink in this joint?”
Momentarily flustered by this, Wanda stutters. “Um, coffee? I think? In the, uh…”
“Kitchen. Got it.” Stark moves past them all to the cabin’s adjoining room, the sounds of cupboards being searched and crockery being rattled shortly following his departure. Seemingly unaffected by this exchange, Loki moves further into the sitting room to peer at the books lining one wall, and Wanda takes the opportunity to slide her eyes shut.
Vision rests a hand on her shoulder, and when she looks back up at him he gives it an encouraging squeeze. “Hello,” he says to her, brushing a strand of hair behind her ear.
“Hi,” she whispers back with a shy smile.
The cabin is one they have come to before, but likely not one they will visit again after today. It is one of the many meeting places they have used these past months. It is remote and private enough to serve their needs today, and has borne witness to many moments Vision holds dear. They are sacrificing much by choosing to meet here now, but the time they have shared within these walls offers some small, familiar comfort.
“Your journey was a pleasant one, I hope?”
“I arrived last night,” Wanda says with a nod, turning to open a closet set into the wall by the door. She pulls two towels from the shelving there, handing one to Loki who accepts it with a nod of thanks. The second she leaves draped across the arm of the couch, should it be wanted. She doesn’t expand on the subject further than that, both of them mindful of revealing too much of the situation beyond today’s arrangement. “I wasn’t sure how long we would need, so I brought food.”
As though in confirmation, Stark emerges from the kitchen with a bag of chips in hand, the smell of brewing coffee trailing in behind him. He offers the opened end to everyone in the room in turn but doesn’t appear the slightest bit perturbed when each mutely shakes their head in response.
“So,” he says, popping another chip in his mouth, making a show of looking out of the window as he does so. “How much has Vis explained?”
There is to be little by way of small talk, it would seem. This comes as no surprise. Loki stills by the wall, head tipped to one side as he dries his hair, and that same appraising look he carried in the jet returns.
Visibly steeling herself, Wanda turns to Stark. “He’s told me some. Enough to know that you should have called me in before now. And not just me, either.”
The short pause that follows is frosty, but Wanda does not back down. Vision feels a surge of pride that he’s sure must show on his face.
“Perhaps you’d better start by telling me the rest,” she continues. “All of the rest.”
The coffee has been refreshed twice before the story has been told to Wanda’s satisfaction. Vision leaves the talking to Stark, having already given Wanda his own account of recent days, and when she has questions she directs these to Loki who answers her with straightforward courtesy. Wanda appears thoroughly charmed by him, which does little to improve Stark’s mood. Vision suspects that beyond being genuinely respectful, Loki is well aware of this fact.
“Might I ask you a question,” Loki enquires as they approach the end of the tale, and Wanda replies with an easy, “Of course.”
Loki takes a moment to consider his words, perhaps anxious not to offend. “Your… abilities. How do you command them?” Picking up on her momentary hesitation, and after a subtle glance to take in the reactions of the others in the room, he adds, “That is, if it’s not an indelicate question.”
Wanda looks briefly to Vision, and although Stark shifts conspicuously where he perches at the window, whatever she sees in his face prompts her to reply.
“I am not sure I could explain it beyond… intuition? These powers… I was given them. I wasn’t born this way. And I am still learning to control them. They are a part of me, and they come from me, but they are also… other. Foreign, I suppose you might say. It takes concentration and discipline to contain or direct them, but without that they are raw. Pure, somehow. But also terrible.” She sighs self-consciously. “I’m not sure I’m making much sense.”
“Not filling me with confidence here,” Stark contributes.
Loki does not turn to look at him, but the words he speaks over his shoulder are forceful. “Let her speak, Stark.”
The look Wanda returns is grateful but also apprehensive. “I don’t want you to think I would put you in danger,” she hurries to add.
“I do not think that you would,” Loki replies.
“You should also know,” Wanda continues, “there’s a chance I may see more than I mean to. Are you comfortable with that? I don’t want to invade your privacy.”
Vision sees a ghost of indecision that is quickly banished pass across Loki’s face. It is what they are here for, after all.
Wanda extends one of her hands between them, threads of scarlet light dancing between her curling fingers. Loki, attention rapt, gazes at it with something akin to longing.
“This,” Wanda murmurs, watching the play of energy as it bends and arcs. “It can be beautiful. But also frightening.”
Loki breathes in through his nose, his hands moving to close Wanda’s fingers over the power she has summoned. It snuffs out, and she raises her eyes to meet his.
“What aid you could give me would be welcome,” Loki tells her. “And whatever you might see… it would be like you viewing the thoughts of a stranger. I’m quite accustomed to sharing those, I can assure you.”
The sad look Wanda returns at this isn’t quite enough to make Loki look away, but Vision thinks he sees pain there nonetheless.
Wanda insists that they all be comfortable for what she is about to attempt, and to that end furniture is rearranged to suit her needs. She remains seated on the room’s only couch, Loki installed opposite in a high back chair that has been brought over from the cabin’s only bedroom. The coffee table has been pushed to one side so that their knees almost touch, and both Vision and Stark remain a respectful distance from them both.
Loki leans forward with his forearms on his thighs, and Wanda reaches slowly towards him. With a nod of assent, Wanda accepts his permission and begins.
The tendrils that extend from her fingertips are translucent and subtle, coaxed to play about Loki’s temples with only the smallest of movements. Loki’s attention remains fixed on Wanda’s face as she works, although her eyes remain closed. If he feels any discomfort, any sensation at all, he does not reveal this in any way.
After a time, a small frown forms between Wanda’s eyebrows, and with a minute shake of her head she smooths it and pushes on. She gives no other sign beyond that, slipping back into the calm control Vision has witnessed her practise many times before.
Slow minutes tick by. Vision captures Stark’s gaze from where he watches at the window, but the man does not comment on the spectacle before him. The rain continues to beat an uneven, rattling cadence against the panes of glass at his back, the only sound in the room beyond the snap of the fire and the breaths of its four occupants.
For all that Stark watches intently, Vision is almost certain the man is unable to read the delicate changes to her face as Wanda concentrates. But to Vision, each deepening crinkle at the corner of her eye, each fleeting frown and each lift of her brow tells a story.
During their many quiet moments together they have shared much, not least of which has been an exploration of Wanda’s special gifts -- and the source of them, which Vision now carries. They have been careful, their curiosity innocent, tentative and mindful of all they do not yet understand. What drives them to discovery is something unspoken, something shared and nurtured without words to give it form. It is a desire to know their place in the world, to know more of the burdens they carry and, with a most gratifying intimacy, to know more of their innate connection to one another.
That time has lent Vision some insight into the cues that play across Wanda’s expressive face. The tightening of her mouth. The lift of one delicate eyebrow. The flare of her nostrils as she chases some ephemeral thread that evades her reach.
When her left hand begins to tremble finely, Vision isn’t the only one to notice.
Stark straightens meaningfully where he leans by the window, unfolding and then recrossing his arms in a nervous gesture. He flicks his eyes at Vision to indicate the imminent need for an intervention, but it is Loki who stops proceedings.
A tear slips down Wanda’s face and Loki takes her hands gently in his, drawing them away from him. The red tendrils dissipate as he does so and he searches her face, waiting for her to open her eyes. She does so with a shuddering breath but will not meet his eyes, nor the concern and apology she sees there.
“I’m sorry,” she says shakily. “I shouldn’t have… I didn’t mean… I didn’t mean to look.”
“Perhaps we should stop,” Loki offers, and she shakes her head.
“No. I’m okay. I think I can see something. We should keep going.”
Loki purses his lips doubtfully at this, but the determination he sees in Wanda’s eyes must persuade him to acquiesce. “A short break, then.”
Vision thinks she wants to refuse this too, but after a pause Wanda agrees. “Sure.”
She accepts the glass of water Vision brings her and sips it thoughtfully as Loki leans back in his chair. He watches her carefully but does not speak, instead waiting for Wanda to offer insight of her own.
Stark feels no such reluctance and breaks the silence in his usual direct manner.
“So, what’s the lowdown?” he asks. “Any idea what’s causing the problem?”
Wanda considers her answer for a long moment, and when she begins to speak she directs her words not to Stark, but to Loki himself.
“I do not think you have lost anything,” she says slowly, verbalising an emerging train of thought. This at least confirms what they have already discovered, but if Loki feels any measure of relief to hear this he does not make it obvious. “There is a lot I don’t understand and that makes it hard for me to be sure, but there is no emptiness. There’s almost more than I could hope to follow.”
“You feel any of that?” Stark interjects again, this time addressing Loki. “Anything get knocked loose while she was, you know, noodling around in there?”
Wanda’s face pinches into a slight frown to be described like this.
“I saw nothing,” Loki says without censure. “Only… I could feel you there. Your… your presence. But it was faint.”
“And what of the cause of Loki’s difficulties accessing his memory,” Vision asks at last, his own interest getting the better of him. “Were you able to discover anything that might hint at the problem?”
Again Wanda looks to Loki, her words measured carefully as she puzzles out their meaning. “There was something resisting me,” she says. “Something separating what I could sense from the rest of your mind. But…”
“What?” Loki asks, wary.
“I’m not sure it’s something that’s been put there. It feels like… it feels like you.”
Loki frowns at this.
“Is it possible,” Wanda presses, “that this is your mind’s way of protecting itself from something, something you would rather not remember?”
“Are you suggesting that I have done this to myself?” Loki asks, somewhat archly.
“It would not be unheard of,” Vision hurries to add, anxious to deflect the affront he can sense rising. “I understand there to be recorded instances of such conditions, usually in response to severe trauma. No one is doubting that what you are experiencing is real, or questioning your word.”
Thankfully, the clever remark Vision is half expecting does not materialise from Stark. “And let’s face it,” the man says instead in support, “I don’t think any of us are talking about your garden variety repression here. Whatever happened back at base the other day, it was decidedly kooky. The kind of kooky I’ve only seen a couple of times and from a couple of people.”
The fact that those very people are here in the room goes unspoken.
Loki is beginning to look a little disturbed by this possibility, though whether because of the implications or because the topic they have all been skirting around these last few weeks is finally being addressed, Vision is not sure.
Wanda leans forward, her expression gentle. “You already suspected this, didn’t you? You feel it the same as I do. Your power, I mean.”
Loki looks stricken. He shakes his head minutely. “If I am like you, I do not remember how.”
“Then we should keep looking,” Wanda says, sharing her confidence where Loki seems to have misplaced his, for the moment at least. “There was a thread I was following and I could feel something beginning to give. I should be able to find it again. Maybe if I just give it a firmer tug it will start to unravel.”
Wanda is reaching for him again when Loki’s hand shoots out to grasp her wrist, his previous patience seemingly forgotten. She lets out a squeak of surprise, but he has already released her and risen to stand.
“Hey,” Stark says with alarm, rising from where he’s perched on the windowsill. “Go easy--”
Loki cuts him off with an urgent slash of his hand and points a finger to the ceiling, his eyes widening meaningfully. Stark stiffens, and Vision cocks his head to listen. Rain is still pelting hard, the groan of the wind a constant presence behind it. And then closer than this, the softest of scrapes precedes the creak of a board on the porch outside.
The rest happens quickly.
Loki throws himself across the coffee table and tackles Wanda to the ground as the first canister sails in from the kitchen in a shower of fracturing glass. Vision follows his lead, yanking Stark forcefully away from the window before that too explodes inward. Thick and cloying smoke spews from the two canisters now spinning madly on the floor, swiftly filling the room and obscuring everything from view.
The two humans and the Asgardian begin coughing almost at once, and although Vision knows this is a ploy to force them all into the open, he is left with little choice but to herd the three of them towards an escape. He guides Stark ahead of him and locates the others by touch, pulling them close and urging them to stay in contact with one another. He propels them forward as a group to the corner of the room furthest from the door, and with less precision than he would otherwise prefer, breaches the wall beside the hearth with blunt force.
The log cladding shatters under the force he uses, creating a space large enough to pass through, although he is required to brace the remaining timbers with one arm to prevent the structure from coming down around their ears.
He reaches blindly into the fog and snatches at the first collar he can wrap his hand into, tugging whoever it belongs to forward with an urgent “Go!”
When he is confident three people have spilled out past him he follows them, allowing the wall to collapse on itself at his back. He finds Stark, Wanda and Loki on their knees in the sodden grass, each holding an arm across their mouths and choking for air. The seconds he has bought them by avoiding the obvious exits will count for little if he cannot press the advantage, so he leaves them to recover as best they can and rises soundlessly to assess the situation from above.
It is immediately apparent that their situation is dire. Armed personnel swarm the perimeter, surrounding the quinjet some way distant, and more cover the cabin exits and the treeline at the property’s boundary. When they see him they begin to form up, and a team moves to converge on the three incapacitated people at the cabin’s other side. He wastes no time turning to warn them, and instead descends to deal with the closest threat.
It soon becomes obvious that their attackers have no intention of engaging Vision directly. Each group he approaches makes way for him or takes evasive action, forcing him to pursue individual targets rather than take on groups that come to him. The men part around him as he does this, heading towards what they know he is trying to protect.
The first man he tackles he hauls backward with ease, flinging him effortlessly through the air back the way he came. The second gives him pause when his hand passes straight through the armoured shoulder he would grasp.
For a moment, Vision assumes he has phased through the man in his haste to capture him, but this cannot be the case. When he looks more closely, he sees that the driving rain passes through the man too, not a drop turned from its path to the ground.
He allows the apparition to pass and scans the field once more, a terrible understanding taking root in his mind. He is unable to judge from this distance which of the figures he sees are real and which are duplicates, but he supposes this matters little. The confusion they inspire will be enough to overwhelm Vision’s attempts at defence if he allows them to distract him, so he moves instead to close the distance between where he stands and his friends.
He sees that Loki has risen, having already fought off the worst effects of the gas. A ring of surrounding men take aim with their ranged weapons, but before any of them can fire they are propelled backward by surge of Wanda’s power. Two of them wink out of existence, the rest skidding to a stop in the dirt several yards from where they once stood.
She struggles upright to stand, her eyes still streaming, and wreaths herself in dancing colour. “Run!” she commands as she wields it, sending uncoordinated blasts of energy in a defensive pattern around them.
Loki hauls Stark roughly to his feet and yanks the man forward, heading with him for the trees without pausing to look back. Still half-blind himself, Stark brings the gauntlets he has summoned to bear on any movement in their periphery, the repulsor blasts missing their targets by a wide margin but enough to discourage close pursuit.
Vision is moving to cover their retreat when Wanda screams, and he whips around to confront the danger. The ranged weapons the men carry have revealed their purpose, apparently firing small adhesive devices that latch onto the skin. Wanda writhes on the ground, clutching her head, one such device clinging to the fabric of her jacket. She is incapacitated and completely unable to defend herself, assaulted by some unseen agony as a group of men approach, and Vision’s response is almost beyond his control.
The beam he releases slams the nearest attacker back, no doubt killing the man as it does so. He barrels into the rest with all his strength, caring not for the damage he inflicts, knocking back those he can and passing through those he can’t. It is but a minute’s work to dispatch them all, and when he drops the last he feels an unworthy thrum of grim satisfaction.
He drops to his knees at Wanda’s side and lifts her, but if she senses his presence she is unable to respond. She cries out and twists in his arms, and though he fears to harm her more he doesn’t hesitate to pull the cruel, spider-like mechanism from her flesh. An electric bite of pain travels up his arm as he does so and he flings the thing away. Blood begins to pool from the wound it has left behind.
“Vis?” Wanda asks hoarsely, her body now limp and her breaths gasping in the aftermath of the assault.
“I’ve got you,” he assures her, stroking back her hair, rising to his feet with her cradled in his arms.
It is only then that he looks around them both, the field around them now empty of anything but bodies lying prone. It is with foreboding that he understands the consequences of his choice, and the trap he has willingly walked into.
The attack on Wanda was a diversion. And he has allowed it to work.
You didn't really think it was going to be that easy, did you? ;)
I've had to slow my update rate, so apologies for the lengthy wait between chapters. Thank you for sticking with me and continuing to read, and know that your comments nurture my soul.
So, erm, it's been a while? I'm so sorry. Getting back into the swing of writing has been hard, but I fully intend to finish this story. Please stick with me :)
Wet branches hang low and heavy, their waterlogged needles weighing them down and obscuring the view only a few steps ahead. They slap against his face and shoulders as he runs, their wet caress overfamiliar and unwanted, and though he raises his arms to push through the worst of it they slow his progress down.
So too does the man at his back. Stark huffs and stumbles in Loki’s wake, breathless curses adding to the racket he makes as he follows, the urgency of panic seemingly the only force able to propel him at a speed to match Loki’s own.
Were it not for the weapons the man carries on his arms, Loki would have broken from him many minutes back. As it is, the blasts Stark has managed have so far been enough to keep their pursuers at bay.
This is the first thing Loki knows: he is in desperate need of a weapon.
The second is that he has invited this. He has let his guard down. He has trusted. He has hoped. And in payment for that lapse he will be hunted.
He should have tried for escape while he had the chance. He will find a way to end it before they can take him again.
The chill rain continues to sluice down, soaking him to his skin and making every incline treacherous underfoot. Through the pounding in his ears he can hear the distant sounds of pursuit as well as movement up ahead. The lake at their flank is forcing them to head east unless they want to break cover, which does not seem prudent. It is limiting their options and boxing them in. Their pursuers are moving to cut them off.
He will need to force his way through their ranks.
Loki drops to a crouch behind the upended root bole of a windblown tree and scans his immediate surroundings. Stark seems to think this pause is for his benefit, dropping gratefully down beside him in obvious respiratory distress. Loki does not waste time correcting this assumption.
“So,” Stark wheezes after a failed attempt to appear recovered. “That was fun.”
Loki ignores this, focusing his attention on the surrounding trees. A number of large birds explode from the canopy some distance ahead with a clatter of wings, disturbed by an approaching search party. The snap of branches speak of another group tailing from behind.
“Where’s your armour?” Loki asks pointedly.
Stark waves a hand in the air in front of him while he takes three more gulps of air. “Oh, you know,” he says with infuriating, if breathless, flippancy. “On the jet. Where it’s safe. Where I... didn’t think... I’d need it.”
The man raises his left hand palm up to display the gauntlet hugging his forearm, then lets it fall tiredly to the floor. “Got these though,” he supplies. As though that will help them. As though that is all they need against a small army of well-prepared men intent on gunning them down.
Stark leans to cast an anxious look into the trees at their back and ducks back again. “Stupid,” he mutters to himself, pounding a fist into the dirt at his side. He begins to mutter, seemingly admonishing himself for some oversight. Something about incompatibility and unfinished marks. “Shoulda stuck with the tried and tested,” he finishes with.
Loki doesn’t even attempt to interpret this. It’s clear that they must work with what they have, or not at all.
“FRIDAY,” Stark calls out, apropos of nothing. “Sit rep.”
The disembodied voice Stark converses with back at the compound must be speaking to him by some artifice Loki cannot detect. It is clear from the man’s face that whatever she reports is unwelcome, thought that is hardly a surprise.
“They’ve surrounded the jet,” Stark relays after a moment. “FRIDAY’s locked them out, but whatever they’re doing it’s not going to take them long to change that. She doesn’t have full control of her systems.”
So they are alone. Outmanned, outgunned and without backup. Poor odds indeed.
Stark kicks his heel forcefully into the dirt in front of him and releases a sharp profanity.
“You cannot outrun them,” Loki says. The look on Stark’s face suggests he doesn’t appreciate the blunt delivery of this statement, but Loki sees no reason to shy from the facts. The man’s response does however reveal that Stark takes his meaning perfectly.
“And you won’t get far on your own. Not with this many of them. Looks like you’re stuck with me.”
Loki doesn’t bother to argue with this ludicrous statement. When it becomes necessary to split up, the decision will be Loki’s alone. Stark’s confidence in his own abilities is clearly misplaced if he thinks he can prevent Loki from leaving him behind. He has no intention of letting this man slow him down, and he will do what he must. If that means leaving the man to his fate… Well. It is not Stark these soldiers are after, is it?
A line of four armed men emerge from over the rise ahead, their path making directly for the meagre hiding place sheltering Loki and his exhausted companion. They will soon be surrounded, and Loki is loathe to surrender the upper hand.
“You know what would be really handy right about now?” Stark murmurs as he bobs up next to Loki, tracking their pursuers’ approach with keen eyes. “Some of that inexplicable, defying-the-laws-of-physics stuff you used to be so keen on.”
The men sweep back and forth cautiously as they approach, clearly aware that they are closing in on their quarry’s position.
“So how about it?” Stark continues with an elbow to Loki’s ribs. “Any fantastical powers rattling around in there?”
Loki clenches his jaw and edges away from Stark’s over-familiar proximity. “It may have escaped your notice these past few weeks,” he grits out, “but I don’t remember how.” He is trapped here with an imbecile. An imbecile with a death wish.
“Worth a shot,” Stark grumbles with a shrug.
A number of rocks exposed by the ripped up roots of the fallen tree protrude from the ground at Loki’s feet. Loki excavates one and hefts its weight, his thumb running over one tapering edge.
This is more than likely a mistake. Their chances would be much improved if they could effect their escape in silence, but the odds of that seem small. And in the end, Loki would rather take his chances than wait to be ambushed; he sees Stark realise this by the fall of his face.
Before Loki can move far, Stark seizes his arm. “What are you doing?” the man demands, and Loki tugs his arm free.
“What does it look like?” They don’t have time for this.
“You can’t just go barging in there,” Stark says. “We need a plan.”
“I have a plan,” Loki tells him, moving again to rise.
“See, that’s just the sort of thing I say when I don’t.”
Shaking the man off, Loki emerges from the cover of the tree they’ve taken refuge behind and hears his name hissed after him with an accompanying obscenity. He will not remain cowering as his enemies move to surround him. He will repay their hounding with blood.
A flick of his wrist and the rock takes down the first man. The three remaining turn and instantly raise their weapons. They fire.
It is a simple enough thing to dodge the projectiles that are launched at him. Unlike bullets, these are large and ponderous, clumsy to aim and lacking the streamlining and explosive force of lethal ammunition. He advances on the group with a burst of speed that leaves them little time to reload, and when he reaches the nearest target he rips the man’s weapon from his hands. It is weighted enough to serve admirably as a blunt instrument, and he swings it in an upward arc into the jaw of a second target while the first clutches at the hand still wrapped around his throat. The third man is forced to step to one side to bring his weapon to bear, but the body in Loki’s grip proves shield enough. He wrenches his captive around and propels him into his comrade, knocking them both flat. The blows he delivers to their heads neutralise them as threats.
The efficiency with which he has dispatched these men seems to have taken Stark by surprise. The man stands gaping for a moment.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” Stark says on a single exhale. “Yeah… I guess that’ll work.”
This small victory will not give them the advantage for long. The disturbance will undoubtedly have been heard, and they need to press on quickly.
“Don’t just stand there,” Loki hisses. He doesn’t check back to see if Stark follows. Either he keeps up, or Loki will leave him behind.
At the crest of the rise Loki keeps low, anxious not to present a silhouette against what little light penetrates the trees at his back. At the bottom of the slope below he can make out a cluster of men and vehicles, a track leading off from the centre of their temporary encampment to hug the lakeside. Stark joins him at his side and releases a low whistle.
“Heavy duty,” Stark breathes, presumably as a comment on the equipment in evidence. Loki does not reply, instead moving to skirt the ridge and put the danger to his back.
“So listen, I was thinking-- shit.” Stark slips on loose soil as he scrambles to follow, sending a flow of dirt cascading down the slope. He cringes, no doubt aware of the risk of discovery his clumsiness could generate, but quickly regains his footing and does not pause for long. “We should probably start to circle back, see if we can regroup. The jet’s gonna be our best shot, even if it’s crawling with black hats, and I’m kinda thinking the others could use some back up. Probably.”
Does this man ever stop talking?
“And what assistance do you suppose we could possibly offer?” Loki says absently, his concentration focused on listening for threats. He does not avert his course or stop to hear Stark’s reasoning, determined to press on.
“Hey,” Stark challenges. “We’re a team. We don’t leave people behind.”
“A noble sentiment,” Loki replies. He still does not stop or turn.
This offhand remark clearly riles his companion. Stark lurches forward to snare his wrist. Loki snatches it away and turns on him to snarl a warning.
“What’s your problem?” Stark presses, not backing down. “Don’t you care?”
An absurd statement. As if sentiment bears any relation to their current circumstances.
“We are surrounded,” Loki explains, keeping his temper at bay by sheer force of will alone. “What exactly would you have us do?”
“I don’t know!” Stark responds, heedless of the volume of his voice. “But I’m open to suggestions! Where I come from we don’t abandon our friends. We don’t just cut and run!”
If Stark thinks it is that simple, he is mistaken. He is mistaken too if he thinks Loki has not considered every angle. The little witch had been kind to him. He is sorry more for the loss of Vision, for the formidable abilities he possesses. Such an ally would be invaluable. But more than this is the pressing need to be gone from this place, to put as much distance between himself and those that would cause him harm. He cannot allow himself to be captured again. He simply cannot.
“If you keep this up you will draw all of them down on us. I guarantee my odds of escape are more favourable than yours.”
Stark has the effrontery to look repulsed. “You’re a real piece of work, you know that?”
Whatever that is supposed to mean.
Loki turns on his heel and continues on, Stark’s disapproval a loud yet silent presence at his back. It would appear that this is where they will part ways. So be it.
It takes mere seconds for Loki to distance himself from Stark. He skirts the edge of the outcropping they have been inching around, dislodging not a pebble as he goes. Within a few strides he makes it into the dense shelter of a cluster of immature trees, his swift and silent footfalls quickly concealing him among their dark boughs. He absolutely will not slow his pace. It means little to him if Stark does not follow.
He does not get much farther.
A shout of alarm announces they have been spotted, and although Loki initially picks up the pace he soon slows to a halt. A line of men separate themselves from the trees ahead of him, and when he turns his head to check his tracks it’s to see his pursuers clearing the rise some distance behind. He is surrounded this time, and there are more of them, but he does not intend to surrender.
It takes him a moment to realise that it is not him they are heading towards.
Stark, realising he is being pursued, is negotiating a dangerous path towards a sheer cliff edge, looking for a way down that doesn’t exist. In doing so, he is allowing himself to be herded towards capture. Or a swift fall to his death.
Loki cannot help the sound of frustration that escapes him. He turns away, resolute. This is his opportunity, a chance to make his escape while the soldiers are otherwise occupied. He need only wait for the men ahead to pass him, then dart behind their line. He takes two steps. He stops. A fall of rocks dislodged by Stark’s feet clatter with a percussive force that echoes through the trees, drawn out by the sheer distance they have to bounce and fall.
The man is going to get himself killed.
Against his better judgement, Loki reverses his steps. He tells himself he will remain concealed. He is simply going to find a better position from which to assess Stark’s route. He will only intervene if absolutely necessary.
He sees Stark pause to look over his shoulder, then aim a clumsy repulsor blast at one of his pursuers that misses by a wide margin. With the time this move has bought him, he scrambles further towards the steep drop behind him, ducking behind what cover he can as he goes. He starts up a stream of inane chatter that Loki cannot quite believe he is hearing.
Almost at once, it becomes painfully apparent what the man is doing. He is leading the soldiers away from Loki’s position. The ridiculous fool is even taunting them.
There is not much further Stark can go. They will catch him, and they will hurt him. Before he can allow himself to think any more on it, Loki moves.
He is almost a fraction too late.
He sees the danger in a parody of slow motion, his senses heightened and narrowed at the same time. The enemy’s arm raises to fire at Stark’s unprotected flank and he acts without thought. It is a split second’s action to throw himself forward, tackling Stark’s middle and throwing them both over the edge of the drop.
Stark’s monologue is interrupted mid-flow when he is barrelled into, the force of the action knocking his breath from him with an abortive ‘oof’. The freefall lasts only a moment, but it is almost not enough. It takes all of Loki’s strength to wrench them both around as his stomach swoops, his back and shoulder taking the brunt of the impact as they land skidding against the uneven, sloping ground beneath. Jagged rocks tear at his skin as they slide, branches and thorns snatching at his clothing and hair. They hit an outcropping of rock, but rather than slowing their descent it sends them into a chaotic tangle of tumbling rock, blinding dirt and dizzying, painful rolls.
It seems to last an eternity.
He staggers to his feet as soon as they come to a stop, already scanning the ledge above for pursuit. Faces peer down at him, small now with the distance, but it seems the sense Stark lacks prevents them from attempting to follow.
The sound of hacking at his feet draw his attention, and he spares a quick glance to check on his charge.
Stark rolls over and levels an incredulous look at him. It loses some of its heat through the dirt and the cut that’s trickling blood over the man’s right eye. Stark coughs. “You’re crazy, you know that? You are abso-fucking-lutely certifiable.” The man rolls to his side to spit a mouthful of grit onto the ground. The groan he makes sounds more for dramatic effect than for genuine injury.
Whether serious or not, they can spare no time for Stark’s discomfort. With a firm grip that makes the man complain, Loki hauls Stark to his feet and urges him forward.
But the spectacle they have made of themselves has drawn attention. Of course it has. Shouts and running feet converge on them, a solid wall of rock at their back and scant cover to be had ahead. They now have no choice but to fight in the open, and the odds are not stacked in their favour.
With a ferocious shove Loki propels Stark away from him, and before Stark can voice the objection queuing on his lips Loki snarls a command at him.
Perhaps separated, they have some small chance of narrowing the odds for one another. One of them may yet get out of this alive.
Stark stumbles backwards, reluctant to leave, but when he sees the soldiers approaching he is quick to do as instructed. Loki spares the man no more thought. He has done as much as he can.
It goes poorly from there. He launches himself at the nearest target and brings the man down with the force of his landing. Rolling with it, he brings the body up and over as projectiles thud around him. Hurling the body forward then allows him to rise in a single fluid movement, snatching up a fallen weapon as he does so.
More enemies line up for him, and the feral thrill of it is enough to stretch his mouth into a joyless grin. He will take these men down. If he has to, he will kill them all.
He aims without conscious thought at the jugular of the next target, bringing his arm under in an uppercut that will inflict serious damage.
The strength he puts into his swing is what undoes him.
The bulk he anticipates encountering simply isn’t there, his makeshift bludgeon passing straight through the soldier’s bulk as though he is a mere wraith. The momentum and lack of resistance throws off his balance, and he has time to stumble forward by two horrifying steps before something cold and sharp slams into his shoulder blade.
The world flashes from existence in a supernova of blinding, white hot agony.
Thor. Asgard. Painpainpain.
The thrill of seidr coursing through his veins. Centuries of learning, of childhood taunts, of painful lessons and valued secrets. Centuries of memory. Of belonging. Pain.
His father’s smile. His father’s frown. His father’s lies. Betrayal.
The face of his mother.
It is worse than the control of the cuff at his wrist. It is worse even than the tortures of the white room. When it finally, finally, subsides, he is left shaking, panting and weak, his muscles unresponsive and his limbs locked awkwardly against his own body. What only seconds ago held the clarity of purest agony is already lost to him, his thoughts clouded and tangled and hopelessly undone.
He is sprawled on the ground where he has fallen, dirt and debris scattered and gouged where he has struggled. His own forearm seems to flicker and unfocus before his eyes, sometimes clad in what looks to be armour, sometimes swathed in different coloured cloths, at times fading from view entirely. Aftershocks of pain accompany each shift of form and texture and he shudders where he lies.
He can do little to resist them as they move to restrain him, and dazed as he is it takes a long moment for the implications to fully register.
“We have containment,” one of them says over him, a finger pressed to an ear.
He struggles blindly and far too late, incoherent threats and murderous promises queuing behind the gag they’ve clamped between his teeth. They move to lift him but fall still at the sound of an electronic whine.
“Hands off,” Stark says somewhere behind them, though Loki cannot quite turn to see him.
“Stand down, Stark,” the man above Loki says. “This doesn’t concern you.”
“Yeah, I don’t think so. You take my stuff, you make it my business. That and Blair Witching me through the woods.” The click of priming weaponry issues from the small crowd of men surrounding them, but no one moves to fire. The man in charge raises a hand to his comrades to forestall action.
“Who are you guys, anyway?” Stark continues. “Don’t remember extending an invite.”
“An interested party,” the leader says with a smile in his voice. The humour is soon dropped, and Loki’s testing of his bonds is encouraged to cease with the heel of a boot pressing down on the back of his neck. “We’re not here for you. Turn around and we’ll leave you in peace.”
“Not going to work for me. Sorry.”
The pause bodes ill. “Then you make this harder than it needs to be.”
“I get that a lot.”
The man grinding his boot into Loki’s neck gestures to his nearest colleague. “Bring him too.”
Weapons raise again and Loki hears Stark take a step back. “Woah. I think you’re jumping the gun a little here.” A repulsor blast thuds into the ground a few feet away, and men move to encircle the threat. “Back off.”
“I have a different proposal for you. Hand over the gauntlets and things don’t have to get ugly.”
Stark chuffs an incredulous laugh. “You’ve got to be shitting me.”
White hot agony spiders through every nerve and vein Loki possesses, and even without the gag in place the way his lungs seize would prevent any sound.
The clean, pure joy of battle. The scream of horses, the scent of sweat and men, the blood and the mud and glory.
The warm summer’s rain of Asgard. The forests. The meadows.
Once again he is burned from the inside out, the world around him constricting to the pure focus of pain. Behind it all there’s something building in him, some unidentifiable force collecting at his core that threatens to spill over and consume him. He is approaching the edge of that cliff when the pain abruptly stops and he is left limp and heaving for breath.
“You loveless bastard,” Stark’s voice filters to him from very far away. Spots dance at the edge of his vision and he tastes iron.
They haul him upright and drag him between them, and though he tries to will his feet to obey him he has not the strength to lash out or resist them.
It seems they are bringing Stark too. He has given up his gauntlets.
The vehicle they confine him in is plated with armour and reinforced. They pin him face first against the floor of the rear compartment, and one of them presses him down with a hand to his head and a kneecap ground into the small of his back. Then they wreath him in chains.
Stark too is pressed down beside him. It is not long before they are moving.
The shuddering rumble of the vehicle jerking into movement travels through every limb. Stark grunts, jostled by the lurching of the truck, and rolls onto his side until they’re back to back.
Loki feels the man’s fingers trace his wrists and come to rest over the band of metal against his skin.
“Do not make me regret this,” Stark mutters under his breath. With three firm taps and a swipe of his fingertip, the cuff snaps open.
“You know,” Stark says more loudly as he shifts himself upright, the cuff concealed in his hand, “if you’re working for who I think you’re working for, you probably shoulda left me out of this. Just saying.”
The men’s leader gestures towards Loki’s gagged face. “Do you want one of those too, Stark? Because that can be arranged.”
The vehicle takes a corner at some speed, jostling its occupants. The men guarding them hold fast to their handholds to ride out the movement, but Stark makes a show of toppling to one side. He comes to a stop against the legs of the nearest guard, who yanks him upright to push him away.
“Buckle him in,” the guard growls to the other.
The man pushes Stark onto the low bench running the length of the van and secures two belts over his shoulders. As the man clips the last restraint in place, Stark twists and does something to the guard’s ankle. “Now, FRIDAY,” he says as he does.
“What the f--”
The guard drops immediately to the floor with a loud clack of teeth, the weapon in his hands crushed beneath him. His seizing fingers fire three sharp rounds at random as he does. Two of them pierce the bed of the vehicle, causing damage but otherwise harmless to the van's occupants. The third goes wide and hits something vital towards the front of the vehicle, though whether machinery, flesh or both it is impossible to know.
The vehicle swerves violently, throwing the remaining guard off his feet and Loki into the side panel. Screeching rubber fills the air and the van begins to spin. The movement is catastrophically arrested as something large ploughs into the tail end. There’s the crumple of metal and the shatter of glass, then the juddering of a forceful sideways skid. Then there is chaos.
Colours blur together as the world tilts and Loki is thrown forward into momentary weightlessness. The reflexive bracing his limbs want to provide is thwarted by the bindings and there is nothing he can do to shield himself from harm. Debris clatters around him and bodies fall against his. As the compartment tumbles he connects sharply with every protrusion and ridge, the walls, floor and roof becoming lost in a whirling confusion of pain and movement.
He collides with the roof of the van as it finally rolls to a stop, the groan of metal and the hiss of steam competing with the ringing in his ears. A horn blares mournfully. Light streams in from the jagged hole that has been wrenched open in the doors at the back. Up front someone moans.
Loki shifts into a sitting position and winces. A catalogue of injuries vie for his attention and he feels the hot slick of blood at the side of his face. His left shoulder is angled awkwardly where the joint has moved out of alignment, but there is now extra give in the bindings around his torso. With some shifting and no small amount of pain, he is able to slip them down his arms.
His hands are bound behind him and his ankles chained together, so it is with difficulty that he staggers to his feet. He leans cautiously against the vehicle’s side and takes a deep breath in through his nose. With a calculated motion and just enough force, he crunches his shoulder back into joint against the unyielding metal.
It is more painful than he would like to exert pressure on his bindings from there, and by the time he has weakened the metal at his wrists his face has broken into sweat. Once he has freed his hands it is easier to force apart the bindings at his feet, and the muzzle he tugs away with ease. The device embedded in his shoulder blade he rips loose.
He contemplates crushing the thing, but something stops him. An instinct, perhaps. An aversion turned to curiosity. He pockets it.
Still wobbly on his feet, he forces his way through the debris and twisted bodies to the exit wrenched into being. Stark’s arms hang limp from his straps, drops of bright red blood dripping from his fingertips where they swing.
Against his better judgement, Loki pauses. Ripping apart the straps, he lifts Stark’s unresponsive form from his inverted seat and drapes his body across his shoulders. Before he has time to regret his decision, he slips silently into the trees.