Chapter 1: Gaunt
Steve does the unplanned and unthinkable, and finds out.
The slap echoes hollowly in the destroyed penthouse.
Loki doesn’t flinch. Steve the slapper does.
There is something wrong when hand met cheek. Visual appraisal doesn’t match tactile information.
The cheek – Loki’s cheek – is sunken.
Chapter 2: Ordeal
Steve tries to find out more from what has apparently been less.
“Tell… Tell us what happened with you. What happened after you fell from that rainbow bridge Thor talked about,” Steve demands. His eyes burn with anger – but for a different person, now, an unknown person, one who could make that frightened look briefly appear on that self-claimed god like nothing and nobody else could, here on earth – or even on Asgard for that matter, if Loki’s reaction to Thor is to be believed.
The Avengers have targeted the wrong person.
Chapter 3: Fever
Even someone as resourceful as Loki is could fall.
Odin sent forth a set of magic-supprescent shackles, including a mouthguard, with his ravens.
Thor reluctantly applies them on his brother.
It marks the last time the said brother is more or less healthy.
Deep in the bowels of the helicarrier, in a similar glass cage to the one the self-proclaimed god was once imprisoned, battered and bony frame, no longer concealed in illusions, is racked with silent shivers.
And then the delirious mumbles begin….
Chapter 4: Dual
Having two sets of family doesn't mean having a family. Tony understands that well.
“You said… he’s adopted?” Tony asks tentatively, as his unreadable eyes are glued to the CCTV footage of Loki’s cage.
On Thor’s affirmation, he asks in a quieter voice, “His real family, are they still alive?”
One denial later, the inventor curses softly. “Two families, eh? Ha, but he still has nobody. Never imagined I’d call him a poor sod after all this.”
And, in a yet-softer tone barely audible even to his own ears, he mutters, “Same like me, huh? Everything and nothing.”
Chapter 5: Terrific
Steve is pretty good at this, when needed.
Natasha has been sent ahead to infiltrate her own workplace. Tony and JARVIS are monitoring every CCTV and hacking through every automatic door on the way. Bruce is keeping Clint distracted with formulae for various arrowheads. Meanwhile, Steve will be the battering ram and the pack mule for the end job.
After all, Doctor Erskin told him to be a good man, not a good soldier. Disobeying command for the right reason isn’t a new thing for him.
He is very, very good in this, in fact.
Chapter 6: Fix
It's the second time ever that the Avengers are unanimous in their opinion of something, and the topic is just as grim as the first instance was.
Seen much closer, Loki’s condition is much worse than the best hidden camera could ever describe.
He is barely lucid, even when Bruce takes blood samples from him before attaching various machines and drops to his person. All the gashes and breakages visible on his all-too-pale skin, painted colourfully with bruises and maybe other things, even makes Clint lose some of the edge of fury in his every action – silent, never speaking, after he’s found out what he’s been kept away from all this time.
The team Nick Fury cobbled together at a last minute is for once unanimous in their decision: Enemy or not, Loki’s condition cannot be left this way.
Especially when Bruce and Tony the ex-Ten-Ring prisoner find some things on the battered body that are too new, that signify something very, very foul happening in SHIELD’s own ranks.
Chapter 7: Convict
Tony doesn't need any formal education in law to defend one who cannot defend himself. Even when the defendee has recently participated in an extraterrestrial armed invasion that wrecked New York.
“All right, Director, did you perform some medical check up on him after he’d been slapped into those restrains? And I don’t mean medical experiment, y’know."
"Well, we’ve got laws, don’t we?"
"Oh I know he’s not an American. But he’s on American soil, and everything he or his army destroyed belongeds to the old US of A. So?"
"Well, sir, even the worst serial killer has the right to at least some basic medical care before, during and after a verdict has been passed down, and they deserve not to be experimented on. What makes this different? Lokes hasn’t even been passed through the court yet, sham judgement or not. And don’t give me that shit about him being extraterrestrial or something, kay-kay?”
Tony chirps to the furious bellow heard clearly through the phone’s speaker, each time. His eyes, though, seen by the guests in his ruined tower only, speaks a very different tone.
Chapter 8: Castle
The second face-to-face encounter between Tony and Loki goes a lot differently, compared to its predecessor.
The bleary green eyes open slowly, blink in incomprehension, then widen in alarm.
Tony grins down at the man laid out on the hospital bed on the twenty-sixth floor, surrounded by various medical apparatus.
“Hi hi Lokes,” he chirps. “How’re you? Still feels like being put through the grinder? Need anything? World domination isn’t on the menu, though. You’re in my home, by the way; please don’t ruin it further. We need this place standing and functional to hide in, after all. S’not a palace, certainly, but good enough for a kip, eh?”
Chapter 9: Calculation
Steve is belabouring under a wrong calculation. Tony fixes it.
“Mister Stark, we can’t possibly depend on your generocity forever,” Steve begins. “SHIELD may be mad with us, and for a good reason; but maybe, if I clear the problem to Director Fury, we can come out at last? We’ve been leeching offof you for three months, while you’re also rebuilding the tower. It must’ve cost a pretty penny, regardless of however rich you are. It’s… wrong. We need to pull our weights, too. It’s not safe, either, to put all the eggs in one basket, so to say.”
In answer, silently for once, Tony prints out sheets of weekly revenue and net profit from his conglomerate, and also those of their total expenses for the same span of time.
Steve shuts up.
Chapter 10: Flirt
Women or men, terran or extraterrestrial, friend or former enemy, Tony really doesn't differentiate in everything, including – or maybe, especially – in his specialty.
“Been teasing Capcicle, haven’t you?” Tony, grinning madly, puts an arm round a boneless – although thankfully not literally boneless – Loki draped on the couch of their common floor. “Now I know for sure that you’re recovering well, indeed. Take care you’re not sent back to the medical floor, though. Unless you love that place that much, huh? Oh, and Pepper’s out of the option!”
Chapter 11: Lump
Tony highly appreciates beautiful everything, including beautiful sleep. Sadly, Loki is not of the same mind.
“Lokiiiiii!” Tony whines from under his hill of blankets, while trying to save the said blankets from a pair of cruel, grabby hands. “I’m resting. I never bothered you when you’re in bed, you know! Now let me be.”
The mission to sabotage the STRIKE teams that keep trying to retrieve Loki – and capture the Avengers purportedly to be questioned – that he undertook qquite recently was done under a relentless barrage of sleet in the middle of a harsh winter. So now Tony really, really appreciates a good warm bed under a mountain of warm blankets.
And somebody is thankless enough to disturb him in his precious haven.
Chapter 12: Apple
Eve and Adam in the Garden, reenacted for certain.
The temptation of an apple.
Bruce is interested in the golden-hued apple-like fruit that Loki's silently proffering him.
A shruggy facial expression of a lifted eyebrow answers him, followed by a curious – in both senses of the word – mixture between question and explanation:
“Do you have a spouse, intended, or close relative or friend to share this with? One that you cannot part with or live without? Preferably such close person that does not have anywhere else to go, anyone else to miss.
"This will make you healthy for a long, long time, although I doubt you can get rid of the green beast using this. One bite is already good enough to make you full, and it can stay fresh for long periods of time even after that, as long as you wrap it well in the leaves I shall provide you.
"So, you can share it with whoever that person is – or maybe more than one person – within this year or the next. Do not bother to share it with those who are already here, however. I am going to give them one each, after this.”
Chapter 13: Baby
An adoptee now adopts. Not so shocking. But when the adoptee is a certain someone….
“Loki… whose children are those?!” Pepper squawks.
The addressee himself is parked casually on the couch that’s by now is informally designated as “Loki’s seat” on the common floor. And a wicker basket containing a pair of sleeping human infants is indeed nestled in his lap.
But, in answer to her, he just raises an eyebrow.
Chapter 14: Acute
Not every history that repeats itself is a bad thing.
“Loki… this situation, your situation, it’s not condusive at all for raising a child, let alone children. Do you even know how to raise babies? You’ve got servants to take care of things at home, don’t you?”
Steve and Pepper tag-team the self-proclaimed god… who hasn’t talked about being a god or about being a king of the whole earth for this past year.
The answer they receive is simple and, in a way, quite to the point that it shuts them up like they’d just been treated to a solid sucker punch to the gut:
“I was adopted during a war.”
Chapter 15: Lush
Denying one's race and nature only goes so far when comfort and safety are in the line, sometimes.
The forest is a green patch in the snow-covered landscape.
“You sure you’d like to live here? With those babies?” Pepper is highly sceptical and concerned, looking between the verdant foliage and the man standing nearby, holding a – thankfully well-covered – wicker basket containing two sleeping babies. “This place is cold for most of the year, you know, and it’s pretty far from even the nearest civilisation.”
But, as if emphasising a point she should have caught on, the green-eyed new father just nods again at the expanse of evergreen.
Well, she must admit, the place at least looks pretty and alive.
Chapter 16: Bleeding
Loki doesn't mean it, but chaos happens anyway.
A lucky STRIKE team, by virtue of catching Loki while he happens to be alone with his adoptive children in the Central Park, manages to put a few bullets on different parts of his body.
It's thankfully not fatal or incapacitating for the Jötun Asgardian.
But still, those wounds bathe him in red….
And he chooses to crash in front of Pepper just outside of the elevator on the common floor of Tony’s tower.
Well, home sweet home… maybe….
Chapter 17: Hemlock
Revenge comes in many different ways. Revenge messages, likewise. And Loki is plenty creative to execute a unique one.
Tony has the gall to forbid Loki from returning to his forest home, or even going anywhere alone outside of the private spaces on the tower.
Remembering the near misses his tiny, helpless charges suffered during the fray with the STRIKE team, Loki acquiesces, very, very grudgingly. To fill his abundant free time, he chooses to grow plants… of just one kind… that is usually used to honour dead people in funeral rights somewhere on Midgard…
“Oh, my, clever, Lokes. You wanna send those leaves to the STRIKE team?” How gleeful Tony is….
Chapter 18: Limp
Clint follows Loki's bloody footsteps, literally.
Clint comes home to the tower severely bleeding, as well.
By now Pepper is quite tempted to put a sign saying “Blood is not allowed on the carpet” over the main doors of Stark Tower, now tentatively renamed Avengers Tower. The severity of clint’s leg wound buries her annoyed snarkiness deep, though.
The best medical equipment Tony has judges that Clint will lose the leg, or at least the muscles on his bullet-bredded calf, and Tony’s jack-of-all-trades physician nails the coffin shut; though, thankfully, just figuratively.
Chapter 19: Conflict
When desire wars with necessity, an undecided Clint is the casualty.
“I could heal your leg, if you would let me.”
The offer – Loki’s offer – rings in Clint’s ears, haunting his every waking, lucid second.
What does that puppet master – or is that puppet mock master? – want as payment? Is there any nefarious, probably long-term hidden goal that twisted thing wishes to achieve by doing this?
But otherwise, could Clint himself live and work and all with a lame leg? What would he do if his enemies came a-calling? He managed to escape this time only by sheer luck and desperation!
Chapter 20: Freeze
An epic showdown with a rival super sniper is interrupted and ended so summarily by a third party. What a wound to one's pride! Worse to Clint, it's Loki who does that.
Clint’s would-be assassin has been found out, and caught. And, true to his quality as a top-mark sniper, his assigned murderer – or maimer? – is yet another top-mark sniper, by the code-name of Winter Soldier.
He is pleased – and, secretly, relieved – that at least one of his enemies is down. He is much less than pleased, however, to find out that Loki is the one who has downed the opposite assassin sniper, by literally freezing the said assassin solid. From afar no less, which is usually Clint’s type of warfare; without the literal freezing part, of course.
Chapter 21: Luxurious
Sometimes, one needs an alone time, in whatever way possible. Tony is not an exception to that.
But not in the way most people would think. Oh, definitely not.
Clint is not speaking with Natasha, because Natasha begged Loki to heal him.
Steve is not speaking with Pepper, because she advocated for the by-now-unfrozen Winter Soldier to be remanded to the authorities, while the blank-eyed assassin turned out to be Bucky Barnes, his life-long and best friend.
Loki is not speaking with Thor, who is newly back from Asgard and trying so hard to apologise to him for blindly adhering to SHIELD’s demand to leave him in their custody earlier.
Bruce is hiding from all the tensions by locking himself in his lab, with his newly retrieved sweetheart Betty Ross.
Erik and Jane are sequestered in their own lab for the same reason, and so is their assistant Darcy….
Well, what an awesome coincidence! Now Tony can snoop and spy on SHIELD-that-may-not-be-entirely-SHIELD to his heart’s content, aided just by his faithful AI companion and best buddy and butler and advisor JARVIS. No Clint and Natasha to critique him about his snoopy activities, no Pepper and Steve and Brucey to nag him to rest, no Loki and his kiddies to torment him, no booming-voiced Thor to distract him, and no trio of alien-dude-detector scientists – and assistant scientist – either to divert his attention from his new job! It’s a very, very, very good gift that they’ve inadvertently given him, it’s certainly rare and grand, and Tony would like to bask in it.
Chapter 22: Cosmetic
Tony uncovers something very, very shocking.
Natasha said the Winter Soldier helped train her. All those years ago. Before she joined SHIELD. And then SHIELD used the Winter Soldier to incapacitate Clint?!?
It smells fishy to her. It smells fishy to Tony, too.
And now, Tony unearths a very, very fishy titbit deep in SHIELD’s files. It refers – in however vague a term – to Zola, HYDRA’s leading scientist, being employed by SHIELD after his capture all those decades ago.
The Avengers wonder: What differs SHIELD from HYDRA, then? The world doesn’t need a pretty face to mask some rotting core in its protectors!
Chapter 23: Mother
Darcy did her homework, she did! It's unfortunate for Loki, though.
“Hey, Lokes, Thor told me about youuu,” Darcy chirps as she skips into the kitchen area on Loki’s floor. She stops by the mobile cradle that holds the cooing twins, set on the wide, sturdy kitchen counter, and reaches in a hand to play with them.
Continuing whimsically with her tangent, she says, “You know what? Legends never said you’re abandoned. Erik told me many things, after Thor almost literally fell down on us, and he said nothing about any kind of adoption, s’ept for some blood-brother kind of thing, and I checked it all, too, in all the legend books and websites. You ever met your mom and dad on the other side and asked them why they threw you out? I think Thor said something about confronting some blue giants… Mom’s Laufey and Dad’s Farbauti, if I remember it right… right? So, how were they?”
And, on his way to get out a full pan from the oven, Loki freezes, before fainting.
He has killed one who could have been Frigga to him in another life.
Chapter 24: Cannon
Steve Rogers was a soldier in a war, more than half a century ago. And now he is reminding the world that the arm-wieldin skills he got from that time have not frozen off of him in the intervening years.
“Erm, Cap? That’s quite a big launcher you’ve got there. I don’t think we’ve got a good enough training hall in the tower for that,” Clint ventures out, eyes wide, fixed on the humongous thing perched on Steve’s shoulder.
A thin, mirthless smile answers the flabbergasted inquiry, but Steve is otherwise silent, as he has been ever since he found out about his best friend – his brother in everything except by blood – being weaponised in all senses of the word and, later, about HYDRA’s involvement in SHIELD.
He needn’t explain himself, all the same. The next person or team who tries to take Bucky away from him now knows what he is prepared to do.
Chapter 25: Ray
Score 1 for magic, but score 1 for tech, too.
Bruce and Betty, in joint research with Erik and Jane, also with long-distance, discreet advice from Henry “Hank” Pym – the particle-matter expert who has been in SHIELD’s scopes longer than the Avengers have except probably for Tony – and, wonder of all wonders, Loki the mischievous but oh-so-intelligent-and-insightful recluse, have discovered a new type of “light” that is both useful and surprisingly safe on its own. The light costs energy; but with Tony and his arc reactors there, none of the researchers is worried about that one downside.
This particular beam is not made for destroying cities, nor for building supersoldiers, nor for imaging hidden things, and neither for cutting fine lines in things and people. No, its use is more mundane, more dangerous, and more bizarre than those, all at once.
Because, something that amuses Loki the git to no end, this particular thing, which shines in different colours when exposed to different objects in different conditions, serves to find cracks in what people call “reality” and guide the user through the otherwise unseen and unsensed passageways… for one that is not a mage, that is, as Loki smugly informs the rest of them.