It's not that Loki has a problem with other super-villains engaging the Avengers. He claims no monopoly over their attention – why should he? It is not as if he has a vested concern for any of his nemeses. And, he has to admit, that it is sometimes nice for them to be kept busy by the others while he is finalizing his schemes.
No, Loki simply wants the Avengers conquered. The details of whom, how, and when matter not. Unless, of course, said details interfere with Loki's plans. Then, well, then none can fault him for protecting his own interests.
Loki has always been exceptionally good at lying to himself.
The first time doesn't really count.
He had meant this plot only as a simple research project, an experiment to see how mortals would react. There had been no intention of turning it into a battle.
After all, surely SHIELD has more pressing tasks for their precious Avengers than cleaning up after a criminal who whimsically decided to turn a New York street into candy land. They have faced the god of mischief enough times to know the difference between Loki's schemes of true chaos and the mostly harmless pranks pulled to relieve boredom, and this is obviously one of the latter.
Apparently, though, he had overestimated the competence of the security agency, a feat he thought impossible given his already low opinion of them. Not half an hour after the buildings and vehicles along Fifth Avenue were converted into various sweets and desserts, he hears the telling thrum of the Iron Man thrusters, and, given Dr. Banner's current residency in the Avenger Tower, it is a safe assumption that the green monster is not far behind.
Half a minute later, Stark is hovering in front of the balcony Loki is perched on.
"You're missing the little orange men, Willy Wonka," Stark quips.
Loki is unconcerned. "If it matters so much to you, I am sure there are several mortals I could use to remedy the situation."
"I don't suppose there would be any point in threatening you to turn it back?" There is unmasked glee in Stark's tone, and Loki knows that the billionaire is itching for this to turn into a conflict.
He doesn't disappoint. "You think to fight me on your own?" The amusement and superiority in his voice is palpable. "You truly believe that will go well?"
The man in the suit shrugs. "Not completely alone." There is a roar down the street, and the Hulk bursts onto the scene. "You remember my friend, I'm sure. He left a rather impressive indent in my floor the last time the two of you disagreed."
Loki's grin becomes tight. "I had rather anticipated we might be civil about this. So be it." Without further warning, a fireball bursts from his palm, knocking Stark into the building across.
Shame. He had really been hoping to avoid the needless destruction this time.
Fifth Avenue did boast of the most delightful assortment of shops, after all.
Seeing Stark tossed through windows does nothing for the Hulk's anger, but Loki has learned from the previous encounter. By the time the monster is at the balcony, Loki has surrounded him with clones, while he, himself, is hidden safely out of arms reach. The god waits for the Hulk to turn his back, and, when he does, shoots a powerful beam of energy that has the creature flying face-first into a nearby pile of ice-cream, his bellow cut off by a mouthful of the self-same dessert.
He does not expect the fall to incapacitate the doctor; he simply wanted to create enough time to examine the shroud of rain clouds that had formed above him. The unexpected formation of clouds almost guarantees the presence of the Thunderer, and Loki cannot but help to be taken aback.
"The All-Father sent you for this?"
Thor, who lands on Loki's balcony, does not get the opportunity to respond. Stark has returned and is shouting, "Bruce?"
The former brothers turn in unison toward the mound of ice cream Banner has yet to pick himself out of. Thor leaps to the ground, turning the creature over so that all three of them can see that the green eyes are shut and the chest barely moving.
"What is the matter with him?"
It is strange to see the creature – the only member of the Avengers to physically best him one-on-one – motionless.
"What manner of trickery did you use upon him, brother?" And there is warning in Thor's voice, warning and threat.
"Surely, if I had known how to defeat the monster, I would have done so before today," Loki scoffs, joining the two Avengers on the ground. "He's probably taking a nap, useless mortal that he—"
Except Thor is grabbing the lapels of his tunic and slamming him into a wall of chocolate. "I swear to you, Loki, if you do not tell me—"
"He's allergic to milk," Stark says softly, almost to himself, in the manner of someone who has just come upon a startling realization. "Bruce has anaphylaxis, because you," he turns an accusing glare onto the god of mischief, "fed him ice-cream!"
"Ana—" Thor begins, his mouth forming around the unfamiliar word, and Stark impatiently explains:
"—phylaxis. It's a severe allergic reaction that prompts rapid immune response which means, for Bruce, that he can't digest milk products without asphyxiating."
Thor still looks confused, and a small part of Loki's mind wants to tell Stark that words with more than three syllables are wholly unknown to his elder brother. The more dominant part of Loki, however, is incredulous. "You mean to tell me," he says slowly. Softly. Dangerously. "That all I had to do was give the beast a little milk?"
Stark, for once, is in no humor to banter and makes to blast him with his thrusters.
"Not even you can think this my fault," Loki exclaims, an expression of amusement and delighted entertainment dancing across his visage. "We have not such afflictions in Asgard, and the creature did not come accompanied with a manual detailing 'Green Monster. Super strong. Keep away from milk.'"
Thor's interruption saves him from having to dodge Stark's attack.
"His breathing is slowing!"
Starks is kneeling at his friend's side within seconds. "We need him to regurgitate the ice cream. It'll give us some time to retrieve his EpiPen."
Loki's smile falters as the severity of the situation finally strikes him. "He's dying?"
"No, not breathing is his usual state," Stark retorts, but the sarcasm is drowned by the overwhelming worry.
Loki doesn't wait. He shoves his way past both Thor and Stark, and, though he can feels Stark's outrage at his actions, ignores it in favor of the magic that is bubbling at the surface of his skin. He thinks he hears Thor stopping Stark from interfering, but at this point, he is completely focused on the being in front of him, on forcing the contents of its stomach to balloon upwards, on impeding the efforts of the antibodies rushing to attack.
When he emerges from his trance, it is to the sound of heaving, the feel of Thor's arms holding him steady, and the sight of grudging gratitude in Stark's face.
"You saved –"
"I am well aware," Loki interjects haughtily, "of my own actions, mortal. I do nothing that is not deliberate."
"Loki." It is just his name, but the green-eyed god has always been able to read Thor, and the optimism and hope encompassed in that one word is nauseating.
He spins out of the blond god's half embrace to face those blue eyes.
"Oh, do wipe that expression of your face, brother. When I defeat you, I want there to be no doubt that the cause was my skill alone. I will not have it attributed to luck or good fortune," Loki drawls in a manner befitting an ancient prince.
Before he can have time to really consider the irrationality behind his actions (because he can distinctly recall Tyr once teaching him and Thor that one's enemies deserve no sympathy), he offers a stiff "Farewell" and transports away.
He tells himself that the cheese-less pizza and get well card he has delivered to Banner later that night is nothing more than a trick to mess with the Avenger's minds.
The second time, Loki would swear to the grave, was completely and utterly self-serving.
He had chosen to reside in Minneapolis because it is nice. Suitably cold. Inhabited by friendly folk too polite to push where they are unwanted. And, most importantly, it is out of the way and nothing of import ever happened there.
Which is why, when he returns from a trip to New York to find the street his apartment building on swarming with SHIELD agents and wreckage he is more than a little upset.
The fact that his apartment building has not been touched is irrelevant.
This is his city, his haven, and is it really so much to ask that it be left in peace?
"What is going on here?"
He imbues the words with a trace of persuasion and power, and the SHIELD agent who has the misfortune of being closest to him soon finds that there is nothing in the world he wants to do more than answer the kind gentleman's questions.
"We are trying to track an agent. She was tracking a target across the city, and, unfortunately, lost her comm during the chase. We think she followed him into the sewage tunnels, but it's been ten hours, and Black Widow still hasn't surfaced."
Loki's focus zeroes. "Did you say Black Widow?"
"That's right," the agent confirms.
"And it's been ten hours?" Loki repeats, his tone incredulous.
Immediately, his magic is stretching, probing the surrounding areas, examining each life force, until… there. Got it.
And suddenly it is no wonder that the government workers have been unable to locate her.
To think, he had been defeated by such ineptitude!
The idiots are in the wrong city.
He spares one last comment to the agent before ducking into an alleyway to teleport away: "You might want to try St. Paul."
A second later he is standing in a dark sewage tunnel. The first thing he registers is the abysmal scent surrounding him. The second thing is the roundhouse kick aimed for his head.
Even as he is dancing away from the blow, he chastises, "You did not actually expect that to be effective?"
He thinks he sees her wince as her foot returns to the ground, but her response is flat and emotionless as is her normal wont. "I didn't think it could hurt. Are you here to kill me?"
It is not posed as a question. It is more of a trifling curiosity.
"Is Barton close?"
He can tell she is confused by the non sequitur.
"Would that change your answer?"
"It might." Loki pauses long enough to cause her discomfort and then smiles wolfishly. "If I wanted you dead, my dear, you would be."
"I thought you might want to subject me to some new, unimaginable form of death," she says offhandedly, but, he notes, she does not argue the intent of the statement.
His smile grows more chilling. "Unimaginable? I think not. I have already told you exactly how you will die."
He watches her freeze, savors the way the memory overtakes her.
"Slowly, intimately, in every way he knows you fear," he murmurs softly, reminding.
Then, his tone is light, and he takes a step toward her. "Shall we go?"
Immediately, her arms are coming up to defend her, and there is an undeniable grimace of pain when she steps back on her left foot, which explains why she has not yet escaped this horrid stench. She tries to draw attention away by speaking, "You say things like that, and then expect me to follow you? What do you want, Loki?"
"Is it not obvious? You are lost, and I, gentleman that I am, am offering transportation."
"I don't need your help. Go."
"I will do no such thing." If he sounds amused, it is mainly because he is. "I have just explained why I will not leave you here to die—"
"I wouldn't die, not with SHIELD searching for me."
"And they are doing a marvelous job of it," he replies, disdain and contempt for the governmental organization's ineffectiveness made painfully clear. "It has been how long, exactly?"
"They will be here soon," she grounds out. They both know it is a last ditched attempt to maintain some sort of dignity, but Loki makes no move to suppress the smile or subdue the obvious mirth playing across his face.
When she finally capitulates, he can tell it is only because her knee is wobbling, and there is no possible way it would support her stance for more than a few more minutes. "I'm not letting you use magic on me," she informs. "There will be no apparition—or whatever you call it—happening today."
He wants to ask her if she really thinks she would be able to stop him, should he press his point, but he decides her admitting defeat is victory enough for now. And the odor is genuinely starting to make him feel ill.
He closes his eyes, pooling his magic in preparation to blast a hole through the ceiling.
"Stop!" Green eyes snap open. "You can't do that! There are people up there. Civilians. Just lead me to an exit."
He is glaring at her. How dare she assume any right to make demands of him?
But he can also recognize the thinness of her lips, the set of her shoulders, the crossing of her arms, because he has seen this posture on Thor one too many times to think she might be dissuaded from any course of action she has determined. The nearest exit is only a quarter mile away, anyway.
He tells himself that it is not justification.
There is a disapproving, almost-pained countenance about him as they walk. Romanov, talented reader that she is, picks up on it.
"You're the one who offered to help—"
"A lapse in judgment I assure you I am reevaluating."
"I'm not stopping you. I don't enjoy the company of megalomaniac, mass murderers—"
"Can we not be courteous, at the very least? We are, I think, above such childish name-calling."
"You called me a mewling quim."
Oh. Right. "I did do that. It was unnecessary."
She raises an eyebrow, "Are you saying you made a mistake?"
"I'm saying," he says sharply, because he will never admit fault to a creature so below him, "that given the range of insults I have at my disposal, the use of such a base and uncreative slur was unfortunate. Nothing more.
"And I might remind you that my plans do not necessitate you being unharmed. Only alive."
The smugness is almost instantly replaced by her usual blankness.
The remainder is walked in silence. When they reach the exit, he pauses while helping her up through the hole.
"Might you tell me whom you pursued down here?"
"Looking for a new partner?" She asks wryly.
He wants to meet the criminal, certainly. However, it is far more likely that said criminal would find himself being thrown out a window for harming one of the Avengers – he really means infringing upon Loki's plans – than in a partnership with the demigod.
Both take a deep breath upon exiting the sewers. Then, she turns to him, hesitantly.
"I suppose this is it."
"Rather." He replies stiffly. "This changes nothing. I have no desire to enter into your ledger."
She nods. He has nothing more to say so he magics himself away.
Besides, he has new plans with a petty criminal and a high-rise window this evening.
The third time finds a piqued Loki sneaking through a damp, dark tunnel.
The location is doing nothing to palliate his annoyance. Because, really, isn't having a lair hidden away in a leaky mountainside just a little cliché?
He passes a room full of robotic fighters and can't stop himself from wincing.
He no longer wonders why SHIELD was so ill equipped to handle his form of villainy when he first arrived. If this was the quality of criminals they had to deal with before him, he marvels that SHIELD felt the need to exist at all.
There is no difficulty in finding the holding cell.
Apparently, it is standard practice in this god-forsaken, idiotic realm to hold prisoners in the very center of fortified compounds. Because, obviously, that is not the first place anyone with a half decent mind would think to check.
Is the entire planet lacking in any form of subtlety?
It would certainly explain why his sometimes-brother was so damned fond of the place. Thor had never been adept at discerning hidden meanings; living on a planet that lacked any type of finesse would undoubtedly appeal to his inner nature.
On the topic of appealing to his erstwhile brother, he turns an aggravated scowl onto the unconscious brunette slumped over the small cot.
"I hope you appreciate," he says loftily as he approaches Jane Foster, "the inconvenience you have caused me. Despite popular belief, I do not enjoy scampering about caverns and retrieving the irresponsible imbecile's playthings."
"This has nothing to do," he adds rather peevishly as he loosens the bonds around her, "with any form of sentimentality. It just so happens that my schemes necessitate your survival."
He overlooks the white-hot fury coursing through his veins. Because he certainly does not feel anger that someone had the audacity to even think to cause injury to Thor, it definitely does not infuriate him to think that he may not have made it clear enough that Thor and, therefore, Thor's are under his protection, and he absolutely did not spend the journey here imagining the many painful tortures he will use upon the crook who came up with this half-baked scheme.
"I don't suppose you might consider waking?"
Unsurprisingly, she does not respond. But he is drawing the line here, for he has never deigned to carry a mortal woman and has no plans of changing that.
"Whatever notions you might have of the Aesir's capacity patience due to your unfortunate familiarity with the asinine lout and his proclivity for charging blindly into situations are patently false. Do not think you can outlast me."
Whether it is the speech or the brush of Loki's hands healing the bruises on her wrists and ankles that make the difference, the woman stirs. Loki's fingers stay at her wrist, and she turns toward him, her eyes fluttering open, and voice groggy:
Loki regains his senses. "Decidedly not."
He takes a perverse pleasure at the way she freezes at his voice, recognizable from his many appearances on the television, relishes in the fear present in her eyes when they snap open.
"This is not how I would have preferred meeting you, but I suppose one makes do. I have been planning to introduce myself to you for some time now."
She tenses at his purred words.
She is quiet for a long moment, and then, "Isn't the whole secret lair in a cave a little overdone?"
He almost doesn't stop himself from gawking, because he can easily remember those very words running through his mind but ten minutes ago.
She is continuing, "He never thought you would actually do it, you know. He argued every time SHIELD came to spirit me away because you had been sighted, said that he knew you, that, despite your many faults, even you would not sink so low as to use me as bait."
He blinks. She thought… Oh. Oh. He does not know whether to be comforted or irritated that Thor still believed in him, though the warmth in his chest certainly seems to indicate the former. He chose to indicate the latter, however, saying stiffly, "Thor has a lamentable tendency to believe the best of people."
"I suppose," He can hear the anger, as her volume elevates, "you plan to disabuse him—"
He is suddenly behind her, hand covering her mouth to muffle her words, lips at her ear. "Do keep your voice down, Dr. Foster. If you give away my presence, I will leave you behind."
"Leave me behind?" She repeats in a choked voice once he releases her. "What, you're rescuing—?"
"I believe that is what it is called, yes," he says acerbically. "Now, if you are finished displaying your no-doubt, impressive talent for stating the obvious, I have no desire to remain in this dank, oppressive excuse of a hideout any longer. I assume you are capable of walking?"
She gingerly gets to her feet, testing her muscles, and then nods.
"Good. Stay close. Do not touch anything, and do not bother me with inane conversation."
She follows his orders for ten minutes, a good nine minutes longer than Thor would have been, but, finally, just as he is leading them around the last bend, "Why are we sneaking? Can't you just transport us out? Or, at least turn us invisible or something… You're supposed to be some sort of master sorcerer." The last part is added almost defiantly.
"Your host apparently possesses at least a modicum of intellect. This entire place is rigged with sensing devices and power blockers, and while I am most capable of overwhelming them, I see no purpose in wasting the energy. I will leave such brutish and clumsy methods to Thor and his group of playmates."
Her eyes flash. "You shouldn't insult him. He always defends you to the others, almost punched Tony the last time he said something."
"You think to lecture me?" He is bemused. "What do I care for Thor and his pathetic nostalgia?"
"You care enough to have come all this way to save me!"
Brown locks with green, both gazes probing and strong. Abruptly, Loki turns away. "Come. We are at the boundary."
Without waiting for her affirmation, he pulls her into his side and transports them to the middle of her apartment. Immediately, upon landing, he cloaks himself from unwanted eyes, and, to the Avengers, who are gathered in her apartment looking for clues, it is as if Jane Foster appeared in their midst alone.
He stays to watch the reunion. Stark gets to her first, berating her for worrying pepper, though why she ought to feel guilty over worrying a spice is beyond him. Thor, in his emotional fervor, twirls her so carelessly that, were it not for Loki's quick movement of one of the ceiling lights, she might have injured herself. Rogers' welcome is more subdued but still undeniably warm. Even Barton and Romanov have upturned lips, an unwarranted display of emotion for the two agents. Banner is noticeably absent, though that has been happening more often than not as of late.
It is an hour later, after Foster has related the events leading to her escape, and Thor has stepped out to the balcony for some air, when it happens.
"I know you are here." His voice is low, as quiet as Loki as ever heard it. "And I ask that you show yourself so I may thank you properly."
"Spare me your gratitude, Thor." Loki materializes in the shadows, away from the door so that none might glimpse him. "I desire it not."
"I would give it, anyway. Without her—"
"Why her?" Loki can't stop himself, and what he really means is what's so special about her that you would choose to protect her people against your own brother?
The surprise is honest, and so is Thor's reply. "Because she reminded me of you. You were the one person to not defer to my position, the one person I did not have to be Thor the prince and warrior around, the one person I could trust to tell me his true thoughts. After my banishment, she did much the same, and I needed that familiarity."
Loki does not trust himself to respond. His throat is caught in his chest, and these are not memories he wishes to revisit.
"What you did—"
"Was not done for you." Loki's response is automatic. Instinctive.
"Then why?" Loki does not answer, so Thor presses on. "Come now, Loki. I may have left it unacknowledged in the past, but you ought to know how much I have always appreciated your overprotectiveness. You think me oblivious of the many times you have stepped in because you feared, and perhaps rightly so, that if I involved myself in my usual inattentive manner I might be harmed?"
Thor's hand is cupping his cheek, now, and Loki is not unaware that this is the closest they have been for many years. "Silvertongue you may be, brother, but I know you. Know who you are, and it is not this monster you attempt to pass yourself off as."
"We are not brothers." It is spoken in a hiss, but lacking the malice and bite it is usually accompanied with.
Thor shrugs. "Think what you may. You will always be my brother."
Then Loki is stepping back, the near-tender countenance replaced with his customary haughty sneer. Thor, to his credit, does not fight it, and his final words are simple and sincere.
Their gazes meet, and Loki inclines his head in acknowledgement, if only barely. A second later the god of lies vanishes.
The fourth time it happened…
The fourth time it happened, Loki begins to question why he wants to rule a realm of reckless, imbecilic mortals in the first place.
He has already experienced enough years attempting to direct his reckless, imbecilic idiot of a not-brother, thank you very much, and could not, for the life of him, imagine why he might want to repeat the rather pointless exercise with a bunch of foolhardy and careless people who seemed to court death on a whim and would eventually succumb to their mortality, anyways.
After all, Loki likes to think himself a rational being most of the time.
That being said, this is obviously not one of them.
Because there is no rational thought process that could result in him flinging himself into a crumbling building, no sensible explanation for his staying in previously described collapsing building for any period of time, and no reasonable justification for his standing in said not-going-to-be-a-structure-for-much-longer with any intention of communicating with a dazed Captain America.
He supposes communicating might be a strong euphemism.
What he really wants to do is shout and scream and lecture at the stunned captain, and then, after reassuring himself that the blond being he saw dart into the building right before it detonated is not Thor, release the not-stress and not-irritation—for why would this affect him so?—bubbling within him by smashing something. Preferably the something that determined demolishing an edifice that was soon to contain one of Thor's shieldmates was a good idea. But if he ran into any of the SHIELD agents who sent the captain into the building in the first place… well, he isn't going to picky.
Oh. Well. Hm. That was disturbingly Thor-ish of him.
He decides not to ponder the rather significant effects his time in this miserable realm was having upon his sanity, and instead turns to the muddled superhero, his volume significantly louder than his usual wont.
"I don't suppose you might tell me why you chose to voluntary enter a building you knew was about to explode?"
The last words are shrill. His sarcasm has always increased proportionally to his anxiety.
"Are you not considered the most responsible of your little playgroup? It is a small wonder Thor still finds it reasonable to dive headfirst into conflict – I am surprised he has not yet thought to wander into battle without his armor given the fine example you are offering."
"Thought Clint was inside—"
The Captain attempts, but Loki will have none of it.
"If you think any excuse your pathetically inferior mind can formulate will appease me you are sorely mistaken. Therefore, if you value your life, you will stay silent."
He ends with a scowl – a rather impressive one, he might add – which seems to be entirely lost upon the baffled blond, who is blinking up at him with stunned blue eyes:
"No, the other god with the power to prevent a building from crushing you and sustain coherent dialogue—" he stops because there is something flickering at the edge of his consciousness, and you have got to be kidding, "all-the-while retaining a thorough enough grasp of his surroundings to notice a master-spy trying to sneak up on him – if you shoot that arrow at me, Barton, I will plunge this building on the both of you, I do so swear!"
He senses the jaw drop (he generally maintains a heightened sense of awareness for Barton), and would almost be pleased at the rare emotional display from the generally apathetic agent if his presence did not complicate things so thoroughly.
"What-? Loki? –The hell are you doing here?"
"Strange." The demigod comments lightly, turning to face the spluttering agent. "I remember you being far more articulate when last we shared company."
It is mean, Loki knows. But if he is to be stuck in this disagreeable position, he has no plans on making it easy for the other two, especially now that he has ascertained that neither will suffer any permanent damages.
Given the tightness of Barton's grip on his bow, he is succeeding.
Captain Rodgers also notices and intercedes: "What're you doing here, Loki?"
Even if he were not Liesmith, Loki would not tell the truth. That he had mixed Thor with the undead soldier is embarrassing enough. To admit the split-second fear that struck him when he saw the building he thought Thor in crashing down is humiliation beyond bearing.
Instead, he prevaricates, "You looked like you needed some back-up—"
"Back up? What, are there more of you?" Rodgers is looking around warily.
Loki's responding grin is toothy. "There are no others like me."
"Reusing lines already?" Barton snorts. "I thought you were supposed to be some sort of word master."
"None of which," Rodgers picks himself off the ground, sending a disapproving look to his argumentative compatriot, "explains why you are here."
"Think of me as a concerned neighbor."
"Neighbor? You're not even from this planet—"
"My concern is boundless," Loki responds smoothly.
He is enjoying goading Barton far more than he probably should, given the lack of challenge the agent is offering. Barton is succumbing even more easily than Thor, who is renowned across the nine realms for his inability to control his temper.
The super soldier, might, perhaps, be more deserving of his title as most sensible of the avengers than Loki originally gave him credit for as he seems to sense that Barton is one snide quip away from shooting an arrow into the demigods eye and hastily suggests that they leave.
For a second, Loki almost feels a flicker of unbidden affection for the soldier, who plays the role of the diplomat Loki assumed for so many years. Almost.
Then, Barton is speaking, his arms crossed stubbornly, and the near-moment is gone. "I am not following him anywhere."
Loki turns a disdainful sneer upon his former minion, "There would be no purpose in abducting you. If I wanted you out of the way, I would kill you."
"And we're just expected to trust the words of the supposed god of lies, are we?" Barton ripostes, and Loki begins to wonder if the spy is going to attack his every utterance. He understands the agent is miffed; Loki is not exactly thrilled with the situation, but he is growing weary of Barton's continued distrust.
So, it seems, has Rogers. "Enough. Clint, I can't think of any other reason why he would be here. I say we trust him and get out of here before Hill calls Thor in."
Clint looks rebellious for a short second, but he yields: "You're the Captain."
Loki, meanwhile, is distracted. "Thor is here?"
"We had him on stand-by."
Lovely. Just wonderful. Because it is not demeaning enough, already.
It would be in his best interests to simply leave. Spare himself the ignominy and mortification and teleport away.
Except he is the only thing keeping this building erect. While the super soldier might possibly be able to withstand its crumbling, Barton certainly would not.
And Thor likes Barton.
When he finally decides to lead them out, it is not because, Loki convinces himself, doing otherwise might result in an upset Thor. Loki enjoys upsetting Thor. He delights in Thor's pain. He just requires Barton for the eventual death of Romanov. That is all.
They near the exit, and Thor's booming voice demanding to be allowed in is unmistakable.
Loki freezes. His green eyes are momentarily arrested with a cross of affection and bitterness.
Barton, of course, misreads it entirely.
"Scared of seeing big brother?"
"Hardly," Loki derides, reassuming his accustomed contempt. "But if I am forced to suffer another of his deplorable expressions of hope at my redemption I will claw out my own eyes."
"All right..." The captain appeases, "There's no need to be melodramatic—"
"Oh, no, no. I am stating a fact. I would rather rip out my eyes than see such offensive sentimentality on the oaf's face."
The resulting mood is, at least, suitably somber.
Then, Loki is moving the debris from the exit door, and the three are stepping out. The moment they are clear, Loki ends his spell, and the building collapses behind them.
At once, Thor is upon them. "Brother—"
Loki lifts a hand. "Not a word, Thor. There are better uses for my time than abusing you with insults you could not hope to understand, much as I enjoy doing so."
"Do not be absurd." He reaches under his armor, and pulls out a ball of black fur that slowly uncurls himself. "There was a kitten. I am fond of kittens. Think no more of it."
Thor is fighting a smile. When he reaches out to pet the animal, though, he is completely solemn. "A handsome creature, to be sure, brother. He shall be a most loyal and noble companion."
"Undoubtedly." The response is imperious.
Barton, Rodgers, and the surrounding SHIELD agents are watching the exchange, bug-eyed.
"I, too, am fond of kittens. Perhaps I might be allowed to visit?"
Thor has always been a poor liar. Thor has no predilection for felines.
Knowing it is a falsehood, however, does not prevent Loki from appreciating Thor's most recent attempt of his never-ending quest to reach out to the dark haired prince.
The warm feeling in his chest certainly does not hurt either.
"Perhaps," he acknowledges, and Thor's face alights with joy.
He transports away in a haze of green smoke. If there is a small smile tugging at his lips as he does so, does it really matter?
The fifth time, though Loki will deny it tooth and nail should anyone ever have the temerity to suggest it, takes the god of mischief off-guard.
"I was wondering when you were going to show up."
Stark was – and there really was no other word for the way he was sitting – lounging on a stone slab looking far too comfortable for a man who had spent fourteen hours in the custody of a supposedly dangerous terrorist cell.
Then again, given the quality of criminals this unfortunate planet produces, perhaps his relatively functional condition is to be expected.
"No need to look so surprised, Severus Snape," Stark smirks, leaning back against the wall, the very picture of relaxation, despite the bruises coloring his face and the unnatural bent of his left arm. "You've more or less gotten all the others, I figured it was my turn.
Loki had organized several impressive distractions in the surrounding area to empty the base of the majority of its inhabitants precisely so he could avoid any sort of welcome. Trust Stark to throw his plans into the wind.
"So what's the excuse this time? It's Mommy's birthday tomorrow, and you don't want to ruin it by forcing Thor to return to Earth so he can join in my search party?"
"No," he manages, because how in the Allfather's name did Stark guess that?
"Then what? Your ability to concoct stories is legendary, Loki Silvertongue, so regale me."
There is an arched eyebrow, and Loki is tempted beyond measure to wipe the smugness of his archenemy's face. Instead, he holds himself stiffly, and says in the most regally lofty manner he can manage:
"I am under no obligation to explain my actions to you, mortal."
Loki prides himself on the arrogance of his sneer and the impressiveness of his glare – the two together have been known to reduce gods into quivering messes. With Stark, however, nothing of the sort occurs. In fact, if anything, the human's amusement increases.
"Fine," he draws out the word mockingly. "Can we teleport out, then? I have a date with Pepper tonight, and this is nothing compared to what she will do to me if I'm late."
Loki's eyes sweep over the injured Stark. He has heard much about this Pepper woman, and can't help but think she would be an invaluable ally, given how fearful the Avengers seem to be of her. After all, any person who could manage Tony Stark for more than a few days must be force to be reckoned with.
Stark is finally beginning to grow uncomfortable by Loki's unyielding silence, squirming a little under the observation. Loki lets him fidget for a few seconds more, before drawling condescendingly:
"Yes, you would think it that easy. Magic is not something to be ordered about. It requires precision, control, and strength from the wielder beyond anything you could ever comprehend—"
Stark interrupts, rolling his eyes, "Lowly life form that I am, I won't appreciate the skill needed to do what you are about to. Yeah. Got it."
"You understand nothing," Loki snarls. "Mortal bodies are barely meant for teleporting when healthy. Injured as you are, you would not survive a journey through the void, and my knowledge of the healing arts is not sufficient enough to attempt such action."
Understanding dawns upon Stark's face.
As if he had a choice in the matter, Loki scorns.
The human lifts himself off his chair, wincing as his torso stretches. He somehow succeeds in making a limp seem nonchalant, though, and, steps later, he is at the cell door. He reaches down and pulls something out of his sock that he sticks into the lock. It clicks open.
"So are we going or what?"
It is only years of practice from sitting in court and participating in diplomatic negotiations that keep the demigod from showing a reaction. He is beginning to fully appreciate Thor's method, because he would much rather be hitting Stark than taking the deep, calming breath he is currently inhaling.
"You could have left." The words are flat.
"And deny you the satisfaction of this moment. I wouldn't."
Loki knows Stark wants him to explode, wants him to demand why, if the lock could be picked, Stark did not stage an escape attempt on his own. He is not the god of mischief, however, because he is unaware of when he is being provoked. So, he bites his tongue and leads Stark down the halls toward one of the base's garages.
"Can you even drive one of those?" The billionaire questions dubiously.
They are standing in the garage, Loki having taken out the two unfortunate guards stationed at the doorway, staring at the many jeeps parked within.
Loki turns up a nose. "What need have I for such primitive means of transportation?"
"I'll take that as a no."
"I am continuously impressed by your powers of deduction, Stark."
"Then try this one on for size. Why are you still here? It doesn't take two to drive a car. You can go."
Loki is struck speechless, because it never crossed his mind that this might be on the table.
"Unless," Stark is continuing, and, if Loki had any confidence in humanity's ability to be cunning, he would swear the self-called genius' words are sly, "you think I might encounter some patrols while escaping? I am in no state to fight."
Loki musters up his remaining dignity and takes the olive branch, "Yes, I think there is high chance your escape may be intercepted. I should stay."
He overlooks the responding smirk.
For all Stark is known for his incessant bantering, the mortal is surprisingly quiet on the journey. And Loki, accustomed as he is to journeys with Thor and the Warriors Three's relentless chatter, finds himself bored.
"This thing," he glances at the vehicle distastefully, "is incapable of moving any faster? It is a wonder you mortals have time for anything, if you waste so much of it moving from place to place."
"Not a fan of road trips?"
Stark is silent, a wholly unknown state for him. He is staring resolutely at the road ahead, but every few seconds, his eyes flicker to the demigod next to him, as if wavering on whether to answer. Then:
"I used to love them when I was a kid, though." His tone is wry, but there is something hidden under the cynicism that Loki cannot identify. "For my eighth birthday, my mom had planned this camping trip up in the mountains. It was a six-hour drive to get there, and I was beyond excited. Not for the camping itself, understand, but for the drive up there. Long car rides were the only time I knew I would have my father's undivided attention. He couldn't really walk out of a moving car, you know?"
Loki is suddenly very still. Because he knows the undertone, has used that combination of self-deprecating pity enough to recognize it in someone else's voice.
"What happened?" The words come out involuntarily, and his customary dulcet tenor is dry and hoarse.
Stark's response is blasé, but his fingers are tight on the steering wheel and his shoulders tense. "There was a last-minute lead on Captain America's possible location, so he canceled. How could an eight year old boy compete with saintly Steve Rogers?"
He is remembering why Stark is his least favorite of the Avengers. The man reminds Loki far too much of himself, and the similarity isn't due to his sarcastic tongue or exasperating ability to get under people's skins. It is because all of the above is simply an act to mask the wounded fragility and sensitive vulnerability hidden beneath, because the arrogant indifference both project so well is nothing more than a cover for their deep-rooted insecurities.
Neither talks for the remainder of the journey. After such an admission, there is hardly any more for Stark to say, and Loki fears that if he begins, he will be unable to prevent the flow of words and emotions from pouring out.
Finally, "We're, uh, we're almost there."
Loki is motionless.
Stark hesitates. "Listen. I get it." It is odd to hear such sincerity coming from the generally irreverent human. "Growing up as a constant disappointment, living your entire life in someone else's shadow, trying to measure up to this paragon or perfection and always falling short. I've been there—"
"How dare you." The interruption is frigid, the tone so icy that even Stark, who has thus far seemed impervious to the demigod, shudders. "You dare mock me, you pathetic—"
"That's not what I'm doing!" Stark shouts, running a frustrated hand through his hair. "I'm just saying… if you had a Ob—I mean, a Pepper or a Rhodey… if things were different… well, for what it's worth, I think we could have gotten along."
Oh. This is… unanticipated.
"Sentiment," he murmurs, almost offhandedly, and Stark looks more than a little nervous. Given their former dealings, it is, perhaps, understandable. Abruptly, he smirks. "I could never befriend one so beneath me."
Stark immediately relaxes. "Maybe. Then again, you were once friends with Thor, and I like to think I am more intelligent than he."
Loki smiles. Stark always was the most skilled of the Avengers at verbal sparring.
They are nearing the SHIELD camp-out, and Loki straightens, readying himself to teleport.
"Hey!" There is a mischievous glint in Stark's eyes, but the words are earnest. "I still owe you that drink. Feel free to collect it at your convenience."
Green meet brown, and their gazes lock. Loki offers a short nod and is gone.
It is a Wednesday, a few months later.
The Avengers are sprawled across couches in Stark Tower when it happens. One second there is nothing. The next, Loki is standing in their midst, wearing casual Asgardian clothing, and holding a black kitten in his arms.
In an instant, the group, minus Thor and Stark, are on their feet, in a fighting stance.
Loki, meanwhile, is the very personification of insouciance. "You might want to have your security revamped."
Stark shrugs helplessly. "What're you going to do? Performance issues."
Loki grins. "I can imagine." He strolls past Thor, on his way to the bar, and drops the cat into the blond's lap. "If it's all the same to you, I'll have that drink now."
The rest of the Avengers stare in disbelief as Stark joins the demigod, engaging him in light banter.
Even with his back to him, Loki can feel Thor beaming.
He cannot bring himself to mind.