The robot was late, though of course not in the way that Loki would have most preferred. He'd been loitering at the Starbucks across from his chosen site for nearly forty minutes, and that was making him a little nervous65. It was possible, after all, that losing his magic had so thoroughly disrupted his very being that he'd made a mistake on his calculations.
Now was not the time to start doubting himself. Rather, maybe he'd underestimated how disoriented the robot would be after consuming a piece of Thor; at least that was what he assumed had happened. Too much Thor in one sitting could give anyone indigestion, let alone a ball of wiring and attitude that somehow thought it was a real boy.
There was also the distinct possibility that if he kept Steve Rodgers waiting too long in his hiding place, the man could get bored and wander off. Or at least that was always a concern with Thor, and he still wasn't certain where Steve fell on the testosterone vs. ADD scale.
Any other worrying he might have done was interrupted by the pastry case exploding in a fireball.
It was no ordinary fireball, of course. The flame flickered green, blue, and purple with flashes, which added up to an overly flamboyant waste of perfectly good magic. While the humans around him did charming things like screaming and running away, Loki carefully set down his half-finished coffee and turned toward the front window of the shop. Through a haze of rolling smoke, he saw the outline of a familiar shape – his own – with magical flames still outlining the hands.
He made a show of sighing and shaking his head, then turned and walked from the shop, out the side door. As soon as he was outside, and momentarily out of sight, he broke into a run.
The robot appeared in front of him, one fist already driving toward his face.
With far more grace than he'd felt capable of prior to the adrenalin hitting his overly-caffeinated blood stream, Loki spun to the side and slid around the monstrosity, turning the corner and bursting out into the street.
The robot blipped into existence in front of him again, and he quickly backpedaled. It was all according to plan, though that didn't seem to stop his heartbeat from hammering in his ears. He did another half-turn around the robot as it pursued, and dove into the building – the skeleton of a building, really, it was still under construction – that he'd had Steve prepare specially.
The robot didn't immediately follow. Loki paused, turning to face it, a mocking smile fixed on his lips. "Is this really the best you've got?"
The robot gave him a version of that same smile, though Loki was convinced that his had to look generally better, and no doubt sexier. "For someone so sure of himself, you are devoting a great deal of time to running away."
"Afraid you won't be able to catch me?" Loki didn't wait for an answer; he spun on one heel and made for the lobby stairs, barreling up as fast as he cold go.
His shoulder ached with each step; he felt like he could barely catch his breath – was this how mortals felt all the time? Eyes fixed on the stairs ahead, he listened desperately for a sound to indicate that he was being followed. This was the critical time; he had to hope that he was right, that a few well-timed taunts would draw the thing into a battleground of his choosing.
fifth floor... sixth floor... seventh floor...
He heard nothing, but kept running, because there was nothing he could do but hope--
eighth floor OH FUCK
It was waiting for him on the landing; he didn't have time to dodge, let alone the room for it. The robot's fist slammed into his cheek and he tumbled backwards. Loki curled himself into a ball, protecting his head and neck with his arms, but he still felt the edge of every step bite into his flesh and dent his bones until he hit the seventh floor landing.
He scrambled to his feet and staggered out of the stairwell, onto the half-finished floor.
This time, the robot used the stairs, each footfall loud and echoing. Perhaps it had stolen a bit of his flair for the dramatic to go with all the magic. It paused at the landing, holding up it hands to once again show off the flames that danced there. "It appears that I've caught you."
"Going to just burn me alive, are you? That's rather boring." Loki smirked, crossing his arms over his chest despite the unpleasant grinding sensation in his shoulder. "But predictable." He did his best to try to breathe normally, but each lungful caught with an stab of pain – freshly broken ribs, no doubt.
The robot frowned, clenching its hands into fists. "No, we have unfinished business first."
"You're damn right we do."
"You will give me what is rightfully mine."
He smiled, crooking one finger at the robot. "Take it if you can."
Loki held his ground as the robot advanced; when it grabbed for him he blocked, dropping a knife66 into his hand from one sleeve and burying it to the hilt in the robot's chest. The robot laughed, slamming its hands against either side of his face. "You don't learn."
It hurt, though not as badly as last time as the robot's hands went soft and it started digging into his brain. Perhaps it was because he had less to lose. Loki laughed, the sound dry and painful as his legs folded, sending him to his knees. "Neither do you."
The robot didn't notice that he wasn't really fighting it, so busy sifting through his memories and scrabbling at the last few bits of self that it hadn't tried to steal before. Again it plucked at his madness, sensing a core of power there that it could not touch. Dimly, Loki heard the robot starting to scream in his voice, the word, "Override!"
Loki opened his mouth, swallowing back a scream of his own and shouted, "NOW."
Normal humans would have felt no real change, beyond noticing an extra whiff of ozone in the air. But Loki, who had the threads of magic buried deep in his bones even if he no longer held the power himself, felt it like static prickling across his skin. He closed his eyes against the encroaching blackness in his vision and grabbed the robot's wrists, calling the hated ice to life in his blood.
The bitter cold responded far too eagerly for his comfort.
He felt the robot try to dematerialize; for a moment it went thin and unreal against his hands, and then it snapped back into firm reality, foiled by the simple field generator he'd had hastily built into the building's framework. It had just taken a few calculations, a little magic object temporarily borrowed from the art museum, and he'd built a trap to prevent the robot's most likely method of teleportation.
Of course, it was hard to feel that moment of smug victory when that same robot clawed at his brain with renewed vigor, searching for some way to fix its own errors or tear him apart even as it screamed and screamed.
He screamed too, pouring every bit of energy he could into the endless winter that filled his blood. He screamed with pain, but also with no small amount of fear because he felt himself turning to ice as well in parody of his worst nightmare. Because ultimately, he was monster composed of ice, and he'd always deceived himself when he thought otherwise – he was the thing he hated most.
Rather than withdraw from this last scrap of power he had, he took that fear and hatred and used it to fuel the cold that flowed from his hands, into the robot that had now gone stiff and immobile.
And suddenly there was no pressure against his face any more, even though he still had firm hold of the robot's wrists. Loki pried his eyes open – they were gummy, most likely with blood, and wasn't that a lovely thought – to see that there was no body attached to the arms any more. He let go, and the severed arms fell away and shattered on the floor.
The rest of the robot was already in pieces, a thin scream gone strange and tinny still emanating from its throat. Steve stood over the robot, shield held steady with one hand. As Loki watched, he drove the shield down, into one of the biggest remaining chunks of the robot, shattering it into quite a few more pieces.
Steve had the situation well in hand, and it didn't seem worth fighting to remain upright any more. Loki slumped over onto the floor in a limp heap. Something warm oozed from his ear onto his cheek; every cell in his body hurt too much for him to care which of his bodily fluids it happened to be. He was more distracted by the sight of his own hands, gone a horrid, deep blue.
It was a sad thought, that he might die like this, reduced to his Jotun skin. As if he was nothing more than that.
But that was what he'd been afraid of, hadn't it, since the instant he'd begun to realize the awful truth. That he really was nothing more than a monster wearing a mask, and all of his tricks and plans and laughter and love meant nothing in the face of an immutable fact.
Loki caught sight of a little flash of silver, a sphere tumbling out of the shattered pieces of the robot. "Get it, quickly," he whispered, because he couldn't quite shout with his throat feeling so thick and strange.
Steve was already on it. He didn't bother to chase the sphere, just whipped his shield toward it with the sort of force and aim that would have made Olympic discus throwers green with envy.
The sphere that was the robot exploded into shards of metal and tangles of wire.
And then things went strange, but in a very pleasant way.
* * *
There are a lot of expectations that come with the restoration of something as world-shaking as magic. One tends to expect blasts of light, fanfares of trumpets, or possibly a dramatic crescendo from a strings-heavy theatrical score. Not to mention revelations of universal oneness, encounters with angelic beings, or possibly just insight into something as fundamental as why light bulbs always burn out at the most inconvenient time.
On that scale, Loki's experience was a bit disappointing.
But on the scale that counted, the scale of feelings and thoughts and Loki himself, it was beautiful clarity. It was as if he'd been deathly ill and had simply woken up completely well again, or as if limbs he'd never known were missing had been restored. He could think, could see, could feel.
It was warm, a warmth that he'd been terrified he'd never feel again. But he understood now, it was also a warmth that was meant to permeate his being, was part of who and what he was.
He stirred up the shattered pieces that the robot had left behind when it had taken his magic
reyarteb retsnom citanul rail
man trickster calculator brother
and sewed it all together tightly with the thread of everything, of magic.
In the wash of pure magic was the very same warmth he'd felt, what seemed like centuries ago when Thor had sat by his bedside, held his hand and told him, "Perhaps this is your true face. And anything else is like a bad dream."
Not quite, Loki thought. But close. Very close. The entire time, he'd been asking himself which face was truly his, and it had been the wrong question. No wonder the answer had never seemed right.
Each face belonged to him, was part of the whole that was Loki.
Prince of Asgard.
* * *
Loki opened his eyes; somewhere along the way, he'd gotten back to his feet. He looked down at his hands again; they were still blue, but the color no longer seemed so horrifying because he knew that it wasn't permanent, or inevitable. It was simply another of his faces, to be called on when necessary.
Loki lifted his hands to his lips and blew on his fingers as if to warm them; the blue color retreated until they looked normal once more.
"Is it over?"
Loki looked at Steve; he'd almost forgotten the man was there. He'd retrieved his shield at some point, and stood at the ready, pistol in his other hand.
"Yes." Loki smiled. "Things have returned to normal."
Steve relaxed, stowing his gun away. "So what was that all about, anyway?"
"What are you referring to?" Loki walked over to the few remaining pieces of the robot, the bits of metal and electronic detritus. Most of the robot had melted away into a pale orange mess of what looked like pudding.
"The turning blue thing. I thought you said it took your magic."
Loki knelt, stirring the mess of scraps with his fingers. He picked up a capacitor that still seemed relatively whole, idly feeding it a bit of magic to charge it up. "It's complicated." He smiled to himself; he could have just as easily said, 'I'm complicated.'
"It is what it is."
Steve frowned. "You could have warned me."
"I could have," Loki agreed.
That drew a soft, exasperated snort from the man. "You don't make it easy for people to get along with you, huh."
"Generally no." As a rule, he didn't work with people, after all. He used them, and moved on. "Is there any other point you'd like to make before we part ways?"
"Wait, just like that?" Steve shook his head. "You're not even going to come back to the base, check on your brother, anything?"
"I hadn't planned on it." Loki peered at him. "Why should I?"
"We-- well, honestly, I trusted you," Steve said. He sounded more sad than frustrated. "I thought... geeze, I don't know what I thought."
"You thought that I'd learn a valuable lesson, such as the fact that no man is an island, and I've isolated myself for far too long, for no good reason? That perhaps it's time to turn over a new leaf?"
"Something like that, maybe."
"Well, I had considered it." Loki glanced down at the little capacitor in his hand. "Here." He tossed it to Steve.
Steve should have and probably did know better, but he was highly trained to react before thinking when it came to things like that. He caught the capacitor; it discharged with a loud pop, releasing a torrent of electricity strong enough to knock him over. And, more importantly, knock him out.
Loki wandered over and squatted next to Steve, taking a moment to check the man's pulse. He knew what sort of punishment Thor could take without permanent damage; he'd been less certain about Steve Rodgers, but everything seemed alright. "So yes, I had thought about it," he informed the unconscious man. "And then I decided that it wouldn't be all that entertaining." He smiled. "Though I do appreciate the consideration. It's quite cute."
* * *
It wasn't difficult to trace where the robot had come from; he just had to find the trail of disturbances it had left in the magical fields of the nine realms. Those led him to the storage unit that Daniel had made into his lab. The moment he materialized himself there, the smell hit him like a metal hammer with a side of earthy, cloying decay. One glance under the table at the far side of the unit let him know why that was.
"What a waste," he murmured. He felt an odd pang of sorrow, though the emotion was strangely distant, something he ought to feel rather than something truly felt.
Loki shook his head and looked around the lab. His books were strewn around in a haphazard way, along with a random assortment of his belongings. He folded a pocket out of space and tucked his things away. That was a relief, at least; he'd been worried he'd have to start collecting his books all over again.
He was about to leave when a little flicker of light caught his eye. Beneath another of the tables, he caught sight of his waffle iron. It wasn't plugged in, and when he took a better look the light was indeed off – it couldn't possibly have turned on in the first place, so it must have been a trick of the light67. Loki smiled to himself and tucked the little appliance under his arm.
One more glance at the mess that had once been Daniel Sorres. Loki was tempted to leave it there – it was just a decaying shell, after all – but that seemed too callous, even for him. He built up a little flicker of flame – the real sort with a nice orange glow, not that flashy garbage the robot had been so enamored of – on his hand and gently tossed it onto the corpse.
Good enough. He stepped through a fold in reality and into his brother's hospital room.
Thor was still unconscious, a woolly blond mess in a hospital gown. That, Loki knew how to fix. He bent over to rest his forehead against Thor's, and searched for the bit of magic he'd taken into himself that didn't fit. It was too warm, too bold, too reckless – far too Thor. Lightly, he kissed his brother on the lips, and breathed that warmth back into him.
Thor stirred almost immediately, but a soothing word for Loki had him fall back into sleep, at least for a few minutes longer. Long enough for Loki to get away.
Still, he couldn't quite leave without a word. "You were right," Loki whispered to his brother. "At least a little. Try not to let it go to your head."
Loki wrapped himself in invisibility and walked across the hall to Clint Barton's room. The man was still a complete mess, physically. Loki sketched a few symbols in the air over the bed, murmuring a spell to give himself a feel for how bad it really was.
A severed spine wasn't the sort of thing Midgar technology could fix. It wasn't exactly the easiest task for magic, and Loki was no healer himself. But he also felt that he owed the man, and he always paid his debts. It took nearly an hour of quiet murmuring, trying this manipulation and that until a few beads of sweat actually stood out on his forehead, but then he felt reality bend to his will with a soft but distinct pop.
Clint grumbled, shifting in the bed. And, much to Loki's personal gratification, wiggled his toes.
"Go back to sleep, Clint," Loki whispered into his ear. "It's only Judas."
"But I'm still in love with Judas, baby," Clint murmured sleepily.
Loki smiled, but he didn't linger. He had a new apartment to decorate, and plots to resume.
And, it seemed, waffles to make68.
65 – The fact that he was on his third latte also probably didn't help his mindset.
66 – He may have said no to a gun, but knives, those were a different matter entirely. Even though he'd known it wouldn't do any good, there was something about having a sharp bit of steel close at hand that gave him a warm, fuzzy feeling.
67 – The waffle iron was far more animate than an inaminate object had a right to be, and had been biding its time ever since the robot had thrown it under the table. It had a little bit of electricity stored in one capacitor, which it had horded jealously until the right moment. Because for all Loki was a frightening, capricious master, at least he appreciated a good waffle. And to the little waffle iron, that was all that truly mattered.
68 – All the best endings come with waffles. Never let anyone tell you otherwise.