There are some people in the universe that don't learn. Others do, but learn precisely the wrong sort of lesson.
Loki couldn't help but consider that particular bit of wisdom as he eyed the split-level rental home that Daniel Sorres had taken as his residence, thanks to a little financial help from his parents. Daniel had given him the address without protest as soon as he'd confirmed their meeting. This had given Loki plenty of time to assess just what sort of suburban hell hole the man had landed in. There was a little skate park that looked practically unused, and a central playground where everything was padded with foam, including the ground around the equipment. Old ladies walked tiny, fluffy dogs8 down the sidewalks. Housewives watered their flower boxes and waved at Loki in an overly friendly way as he walked by.
There was even a cheery little welcome sign for the neighborhood, which Loki decided would need to be hit by a drunk driver at the earliest possible opportunity.
The place seemed tailor made to be the testing ground for chaos and destruction, and he couldn't help but wonder if Daniel had ended up here for just that reason. He hadn't thought the man capable, but perhaps a little prison time could really change things.
There was a wreath on Daniel's front door, but it was for the wrong season – autumn instead of spring. Loki rang the doorbell, listening to the sound of footsteps pounding up the stairs in the house, a muffled crash, a curse, and then the door was yanked open.
He smiled brightly, "Daniel! So good to see you again!"
Daniel hesitated, then pasted a smile on to his face that was a stiff copy of Loki's. "I'm glad that you could make it on such short notice," he said. "Would you like to come in?"
"Of course." Loki followed the man inside and pointedly pretended not to notice the potted plant that had been knocked over in the little entrance hallway.
Daniel hurriedly stood it back up, took two steps, then shuffled back and scooped as much of the dirt as possible back into the pot. "Would you... would you like something to drink? And eat? I made brownies. And I have tea, and milk, and lemonade, and water."
"Please. Water is fine, but a brownie sounds nice."
To the kitchen they went; Loki soon had a glass of water, into which five ice cubes had been very precisely counted by Daniel. The man had just begun to cut up the pan of brownies, using a tape measure to keep the lines straight, when he paused and stopped, clutching the knife in his hand a little too hard. "I went to prison, you know," he said.
"I know. I was sorry to hear that."
"You didn't go to prison."
"Oh, I was going to. But when you work in Defense, you know, you start making friends in high places. I bribed may way out of it." The lie was smooth, easy, and in line with the character he'd built up already. Surreptitiously, Loki passed his hand over the water glass, just to make certain Daniel hadn't gotten ideas and slipped anything in to it.
"Oh." The knife relaxed for a moment, lowering back toward the brownie pan, before being clutched again. "Why didn't you bribe my way out of it?"
"I didn't have enough money," Loki said. "And logically, with only enough money for one person, I was going to rescue myself."
"Oh." Again the knife relaxed. "That does make sense. I understand." He cut another line of brownies, then was up and clutching the knife in front of him again. "But why didn't you write?"
Loki let his eyes go wide and innocent, allowing some of his bemusement at the surreal conversation show through. "I didn't think you'd want to hear from me."
"Oh." And Daniel turned back to the brownies. "That makes sense too. But I would have liked to."
"I'll keep that in mind for next time," Loki murmured.
"I'm sorry you had such a hard time," Loki said.
"Thank you." Daniel finished cutting the brownies into precise three by three inch squares, then transferred one onto a plate and held it out to Loki.
"Looks good." Loki nibbled delicately at one corner of the brownie, his knees going a little weak. Not because he was some sort of chocolate addict, but more because for all his quirks and faults, Daniel could bake9. Though he seemed to more regard it as an interesting sort of chemistry experiment than as a way to hand out bliss. "Now, I don't mean to rush out little reunion, my friend, but you sounded quite excited about your new designs..."
Daniel's expression perked up visibly at the word 'friend.' "Really? I mean... yes. It's all in the basement. Please, this way." Brownie plate balanced easily on his water glass, Loki followed.
The basement was wood-paneled and had hideous shag carpeting. It was the sort of place that really wanted a Foosball table and couple of drunken frat boys playing Halo. Instead, there were folding tables and workbenches set up everywhere, covered with computers and wiring and other gadgets, including an oscilloscope with a large green and black display10.
"And you've only been here a few days? Impressive," Loki said.
"Oh, this is all nothing." Daniel dismissed most of the tables with a flick of his fingers. "This is what I wanted to show you." Smiling like a proud parent showing off a drooling baby, he held up a little metal sphere the size of a grapefruit, which a spaghetti-like mass of wires coming from it and hooked into a series of computers. "I thought, what went wrong last time was something in the robot's brain. So I'd make the brain first, and once that was right, the body would be easy enough to construct. So if it goes all crazy again, it can't just run around and break things."
But that, Loki thought, was sort of the entire point. "Want to show me how it works?"
Daniel grinned. "Here... I've got it hooked in with the computers so I could finish programming it, but also so I can talk to it. It can't pass the Turing test yet, but I bet it'll get there soon." He gave Loki a hopeful look. "Just basic stuff for now, you can talk to it if you like by typing."
Loki did just that, having a bland and undeniably robotic conversation with the thing via the keyboard. It did give him a sense of the depth of what Daniel had created – an electronic brain much more sophisticated than the last one, and that had a lot of potential for fun. "Mind if I try to tweak a few things, maybe help this little AI along a bit?"
Daniel beamed. "Of course not! I was hoping you'd have some ideas, since I'm still missing something..."
Loki nodded. "Oh, and can I have another brownie?"
"I'll get you one!" And Daniel thundered up the stairs, plate in hand.
Loki put down the keyboard and gave the little metal-grapefruit-brain a narrow-eyed look. "At this rate, we'll never get anywhere."
He didn't need to pull up schematics, or talk to Daniel's sad attempt at a programmed personality more to understand it. That wasn't the way magic worked. In its most raw form, magic was pure will, pure life, and pure chaos – all things that Loki possessed in abundance personally, which was why he was so good at what he did. Magic was a way of telling the universe just what you wanted it to be, and then when it protested that your desire was an impossibility, slapping the universe and telling it to go make you a cup of coffee because you were busy and didn't have time for all this arguing11.
And this was why Loki understood magic on a fundamental level that escaped most sorcerers until they either died or went completely mad at the realization that the Abyss does stare back, and not only that, it wants to have tea and a sandwich and maybe play a round of miniature golf while you're out and about anyway.
Which in turn was why he could do the sorts of things he did. The sort of thing he was doing at that very moment.
Loki snapped his fingers, the magic surging up like raw volcanic heat in his blood. It made a pure, glimmering spark at the end of his finger, and then leaped into the silver grapefruit. The jolt of that power transfer left Loki's arm numb and tingling.
And then Loki did the exact same thing he'd done to the other robot, and spoke one word in the voice of deep command that could shatter the speed of light or for just a moment force two entangled electrons to spin in the exact same direction: "Live."
The other robot had responded the way most anything does when suddenly exploding into sentience – sheer, joy-filled chaotic and unthinking life. But the old robot compared to the new was like an amoeba compared to a human. And just like a human, the new robot mentally awoke, took in the beauty and glory and strangeness of its surroundings, and distinctly thought: Well that's nice, but I want MORE.
It reached through that split-second magical connection between it and Loki, and it took more.
Loki wasn't sure what had happened, but suddenly he was on his hands and knees, fingers clutching at that hideous carpet, and all of the basement lights went blinding white and then blew out. It felt like someone had punched a hole in his ribcage and was clawing at his heart, and he could barely breathe over the absolute agony. He responded instinctively, building a shield with the last weak gasps of his magic – weak? when had his magic become weak, like it was bleeding to death, bleeding out – and throwing everything away.
Everything in the basement crashed into the walls.
But it worked. The pain stopped. And it was strange, but the sudden absence of the pain rather than the pain itself threw him into unconsciousness.
Daniel came thundering down the steps. "Lawrence? Lawrence? What happened?" He clawed his phone from his pocket and turned the screen on, using that as a light. He couldn't begin to take in the absolute destruction. He ran to Lawrence's still form and checked for a pulse, fumbling at the man's neck. Relieved that he still lived, his next thought was for his invention, his new crowning achievement. He found the little silver sphere half buried in the wreckage, wires still hooked up to several monitors.
One of the monitors flickered into life, the display jittering. It said: SHIELD COMES. WE MUST ESCAPE.
Daniel searched for a keyboard, but the only one he could find had been broken in half. He checked the monitor again.
LEAVE EVERYTHING AND TAKE ONLY ME. YOU ONLY NEED ME. The display said now. HURRY.
It was that, Daniel realized, or go back to prison for breaking parole. And they would no doubt confiscate the robot brain. And he knew with sudden clarity that he couldn't let that happen. Because whatever Lawrence had done, it had worked. The silver sphere was strangely warm in his hands, and it was probably own nerves, but he could have sworn he felt a little heartbeat against his skin.
He disconnected the device and stuffed it into his jacket. For a moment, he thought about trying to drag Lawrence outside, get him in to the car. But it would take too long, and, well... Lawrence certainly wouldn't do the same for him.
It was dark. That in and of itself didn't bother Loki one bit. Rather, it was the way every muscle in his body ached, the way his heartbeat sounded irregular to his own ears, and the way he felt so weak and dizzy that he couldn't even consider the idea of standing. He'd felt like this once before, but it had taken being stabbed four times in a battle and losing most of his blood before Thor had dragged him out of there.
And he certainly hoped that wasn't the case this time. And why was he thinking about his stupid big brother now, anyway?
Either way, he needed to escape. That sort of explosion was bound to have attracted some attention. Painfully, Loki crawled toward the stairs, slowly pulling himself up them. "Daniel?" he croaked.
At the top of the stairs, he paused for a little nap. If he thought about it like that, he could pretend the sudden cessation of consciousness was his idea. But when he opened his eyes again, he felt a little stronger, a little better, and he managed to get to his feet with a minimum of wobbling. He felt for his magic again, and it was there, but weak and distant; he was going to have to leave under his own power.
He walked into the front room, squinting at the sunlight streaming in the windows and raising his hand to shade his eyes
and then suddenly the window was in pieces and there was an arrow sprouting from his shoulder.
Loki looked down at the arrow, poking at it cautiously with one finger because it didn't really hurt, like his nerves were just on strike after what he'd already put them through. Bone and something else grated in his shoulder. And then there was blood. Lots of blood. Which he supposed proved that he still had something left to bleed, despite how he felt.
"Shit," Loki said.
Then he dropped gracelessly to the floor, sucked under into inky black non-feeling for the third time in an hour.
8 – The sort that normally make headlines for eating their deceased owners.
9 – In at least four alternate realities, Daniel had comforted himself with an oven instead of a calculator, and had ended up a world-famous pastry chef. And in a fifth reality, Daniel had teamed up with Loki to control the world via cupcakes decorated to look like robots, their plan ultimately being foiled by the Avengers buying up all the fondant and shooting it into the Sun.
10 – While obsolete, an old oscilloscope is required equipment in every mad scientist's lab due to union rules.
11 – Actually, it was nothing like that, but that was the way Loki had once tried to explain it to Thor, because magic as a whole just does not make sense to anyone who hasn't got its exultant power coursing through their blood.