As prisons went, the little cell that SHIELD had set aside for him was quite comfortable. There was a bed and a sink and a toilet that looked disturbingly like a little soup tureen, and they gave him reading material when he asked. Though apparently by the orders of Agent Romanoff, no matter what he asked for, all he got were issues of a knitting magazine24. There was also the random way the lights turned off and on, and the awful music that played loudly at intervals he hadn't yet mapped out. He assumed that these things were supposed to "soften him up" and probably would have worked nicely on a human prisoner. As it was, he considered them minor annoyances that he could easily ignore while he calculated square roots or did chess problems in his head to pass the time.
What annoyed him most was the shoes. Or rather, lack thereof. He fully understood why they'd relieved him of his clothing and given him a boring black jumpsuit to wear instead. His shirt had been shredded and his jacket had been soaked in blood. But they'd also taken his shoes, and there was really no excuse for that since he'd just gotten them polished.
But Loki was patient, even as low-level boredom began to gnaw at the edges of his already shaky sanity. And he also knew that in the basement of SHIELD was perhaps the safest place he could be while his magic recovered. While he trusted his mental capabilities to get him out of most trouble, it was easier to just not have to worry about, say, former colleagues wanting to murder him when he was in a weakened state. Not when he had Thor hovering protectively over him, poking his head in the doorway at all sorts of bizarre hours and supplying him with contraband.
Except that there was a problem, a rather ugly wrinkle in the cardigan of Loki's life.
After three days, his magic was no stronger. It hadn't weakened any further, which he supposed was a relief, but it was still barely a flicker of its former self. And that was disturbing, since he still had no explanation for it. He could tell that his shoulder was healing almost as rapidly as it should from the unending itch emanating from the wound, but on a normal day that wouldn't have taxed his reserves.
Which only lead to the conclusion that he hadn't had a normal day since his visit with Daniel.
The door to his little cell opened. To his surprise, it was neither his brother or the lovely Agent Romanoff. Instead, it was two large men that appeared to have no necks. They indicated that his presence was requested by putting him in a head lock and frog-marching him down the hallway, then unceremoniously shoving him through a door.
The new room was a classic interrogation set up, mirrored glass covering one wall, a bare light overhead, and a simple metal table with two uncomfortable chairs. In one chair, Agent Romanoff sat.
Loki carefully brushed himself off and straightened his jumpsuit, then cracked his neck. "If you wanted to see me, dearest, you had but to ask."
There was a flicker in her eyes this time, one that he was beginning to identify as amusement. For a human, she was very good at playing her cards close to her chest. "I think I just did." She waved at the seat across from her, "Please."
Loki sat down, slouching into a posture that managed to be nine parts casual and one part seductive yet dangerous while in a chair specifically designed to prevent both25. "And what can I do for you today?"
She slid a folder across the table to him. "Explain this."
He flipped through it negligently with one hand. "Robberies. Looks like someone's being naughty." He smiled. "Come now, Agent Romanoff... there was plenty of naughtiness in the world before I came around. It's rather improbable that all of it is my fault."
She took the folder back. "Shipment of carbon nanotubes. Fiberoptic wiring. Cell cultures. What do these things have in common?"
"They're all things that I'm utterly uninterested in?"
She leaned forward a little over the table. "I find it hard to believe there's anything you're uninterested in."
That got a laugh from him. "Goodness, you've had your little profilers working overtime on me, haven't you." He flicked his fingers. "I'm a magician, not a... carbon nanotube-ologist. Sounds as if someone is making something, but I couldn't begin to guess what." This was, of course, a blatant yet incredibly well-told lie. Loki had a lot of guesses churning through his mind, and most of them were utterly hilarious yet fascinating in a sort of horrifying way. If nothing else, he had little doubt that anything with the word "nano" attached to it had something to do with either Dr. Doom or Daniel, and considering whose basement he'd recently been unconscious in, he was definitely leaning more toward the latter.
"Things would go much better for you if you'd help us."
"No, I think things would go much better for you. I seem to be doing quite all right for myself at the moment."
"I could find somewhere far, far away to send your brother, and come up with something for him to do there that would keep him busy for weeks."
"I imagine so. And then you'd get to have some lovely conversations with him when he got back." Loki shrugged one shoulder. "At this point, you might as well let me go. You'd spend less on knitting magazines."
"Not going to happen."
He planted his good hand on the table and stood in one quick movement, leaning forward. It was gratifying to see Agent Romanoff jump, the movement so small that he wouldn't have noticed if he hadn't been looking for it. "Then is there really any more for us to discuss? I've got a fascinating article on wooden versus steel needles that's just begging to be read."
"I decide when you go back to your cell, and I'm not done with you yet."
"As you like." Loki began pacing slowly around the room, stopping by the mirror to lean on it, tilting his forehead to rest again the cool glass. He could practically feel Thor breathing on the other side of it. "Since we've established I don't know anything about these robberies, what would you like to talk about?"
"I don't think we've established anything of the sort."
"Potato, po-tah-to... except they're not really at all the same, because only an idiot speaks that way." Loki smiled. "You humans have the most quaint little idioms."
"How's your magic?" Agent Romanoff asked, lips tilting slightly with a hint of smugness.
"Quite well, thank you. It's healing my shoulder nicely."
"You still haven't explained why you haven't escaped."
He walked over to the table, tracing his fingers on the top, then leaned over it to look her in the eye. "Maybe you ought to be asking yourself what I might want from your adorable little campfire club, that I'm staying here and putting up with the horrors of fluorescent lighting and those rubbery, microwaved fish sandwiches you keep sending me."
That put her back into frowning mode. Which made his smile just a little bit more smug. He swung back down into his chair, this time arranging his posture for an extra added dash of insolence. "While we're talking, I do have a question." She didn't acknowledge he'd even spoken, so he continued blithely on. "You are here simply all hours of the night. Now, obviously I don't have the option of doing something better with my time, but don't you have a family? A husband and children in some sort of tiresome house made of bricks? Perhaps parents to go visit?"
There it was, just a flicker when he mentioned parents. A lesser observer would have missed it; he almost did. After a long pause, she said, "I don't think it's any of your business. If you looked up the word friend in the dictionary, Loki, we'd be the exact opposite."
"I'm hurt. We certainly spend enough time together. And you're quite charming. I was thinking of knitting you a sweater. Something green."
Agent Romanoff stood and walked over to the door, knocking on it. "Take our guest back to his room," she said, then gave Loki the sort of look normally reserved for gnats and cat vomit. "Remember, it's rude not to tip the staff." And then it was no-neck men and being dragged down the hall and shoved back into the little room.
She hadn't been nearly that sarcastic before. Loki felt gratified, knowing that he'd managed to really annoy her this time.
But back to the matter at hand, the robberies that were most likely to do with Daniel and therefore whatever his current problem happened to be. After a moment of consideration, Loki picked up one of the magazines26 and began carefully shredding the pages, separating out individual words that could represent runes will enough. With the slips of paper scattered around him, he sat cross-legged on the floor and reached deep inside himself to find the remaining shred of magic he had. It complained like a two-year-old being told to go to bed, but he forced a small bit of it to surface and blew it through the papers.
The ache in his shoulder intensified in response; he ignored the pain and watched the papers moving as if stirred by an invisible wind: car insurance, mirror, men's socks, hamburger helper, hemorrhoids27 were the ones that came up.
Loki swept his hand through the papers, gathering them up and crumpling them into a ball, then leaned against the wall, one knee propped up, elbow on knee. He rubbed at his chin lightly with his fingers, considering all the possibilities. It all led to one conclusion: Daniel, what did you do to me? Or what did I do to myself, with your help?
"Your brother," Natasha said, "is a self-satisfied jerk." What she didn't add was that at times, he reminded her eerily of Tony Stark, just with a British accent and a little more effort at hiding his cream filling of complete and utter smug.
Thor shrugged. "He's also a god."
"Same thing." Thor gave her a vaguely offended look before she added, "Present company excepted."
"I can only tell you what I have told you before. He's not going to say anything he doesn't want you to hear. He's always been like that. Maybe if you could get him angry enough, he might say something by accident..." Thor shook his head. He'd only seen Loki that upset once, and he didn't really want to go into that awful mental place again. "I don't think that would be a good idea."
"Then what do you suggest?"
"I don't know... let him go?"
"Because having him running around in the outside world has worked so well for us in the past." Natasha shook her head. "Either he wants to be in here for his own reasons, in which case we don't want him to be here. Or he's just telling us that so you'll tell us to let him go and then he escapes, but he should be able to do that on his own." Her head started to hurt; she realized a moment later that she was pulling on her own hair with both hands.
"He has that effect on people," Thor said.
She made her fingers let go one at a time.
"Take my advice. Don't try to out think him. I made the attempt once, when we were young, and made something in my brain break. I woke up three days later with a mighty headache and no pants, on top of a glacier. I have no idea how I got there."
"That's not something I want to contemplate." She shook her head. "But letting him go...?"
"If he wants us to let him go, then there is something he wishes to do, correct? So if we let him go, we can follow and find out what is happening."
"That's actually a good point. Other than the fact that we've never had success following him in a past. Because of the whole..." she waved her hands, wiggling her fingers to indicate magic "thing."
"There is something different this time," Thor said. "I think that there truly is something wrong with him."
"There are a lot of things wrong with your brother."
He ignored her. "And he won't tell me. But if I can figure it out, then I can help him get better."
Natasha made a mental note to pass that little bit of information along to Steve, just to make sure he knew he might have to step in and intervene. Making Loki better in any sense of the word was not in their best interest. He was already far too good at everything he did already. But she also had to admit that there was merit to Thor's idea, as hair-brained as it sounded. "I'll talk to the director and see what he thinks."
24 – And this was fine by him. He learned how to knit a zipperfoot, and then he tore the magazine to shreds and used the papers to construct a code book that ultimately translated out to two acts from Henry V with all of the lines scrambled. He was quite confident that it gave some cryptographer a headache for days.
25 – Part of this was a question of bone structure and flexibility, but it was mostly about attitude. One could say that Loki had been born irresistible to even the most stubborn pieces of furniture, and they seemed oddly eager to bend to his whim. With a whim ranging anywhere from saucy to insubordinate to innocuous, there was a lot of bending to be done.
26 – He'd already read it from cover to cover and decided he didn't really care about the varieties of synthetic wool, and the sudoku puzzle in the back had only been good for about five minutes of entertainment.
27 – Well, you try to find a decent representation of reversed kenaz in a knitting magazine. I dare you.