Disclaimer: I don't own The Avengers or any characters therein.

Warning: Minor spoilers for the movie.


To Thine Own Self Be True

Overall, it hadn't been the best week ever. Not that they weren't happy to see Thor again, but they would have been happier if he has shown up at sometime other than 5 am. And they would have been even happier if he'd shown up for some reason other than telling them that his brother had broken out of his "rehabilitation facility" on Asgard.

"So you're telling me," Tony had said, "that with all of your fancy super-advanced technology, you can't keep one guy locked up?"

"Be fair, Tony," Steve had admonished in an entirely too reasonable tone. "How many times has Magneto escaped so far?"

Well, it was nice to know that it wasn't only human supervillains who had a knack for breaking out of supposedly inescapable prisons.

Of course, it had only gotten worse from there. Loki had not only escaped, he had somehow managed to find his way to Earth. And once they'd succeeded in apprehending him, they'd been all ready to pack him off back to Asgard when Thor explained apologetically that the "breaking" part of Loki's breaking out had been rather literal. As in, the security system on the only containment facility Asgard had with a chance of holding Loki was, to use the Midgardian expression, "completely busted." And so, Thor had asked, would his good and noble friends mind watching over his wayward brother just for the few days repairs would take?


So that was how Bruce Banner had ended up sitting on a chair outside the specially-reinforced cell, trying to keep one eye on Loki and one on his copy of National Geographic. The cell was built to similar specifications as the one that had been on the helicarrier, though it couldn't be dropped through the floor, for the simple reason that there was solid rock below the floor. Their prisoner seemed completely unconcerned about the fact that he was a prisoner, and was lying sprawled out on the bed with his arms behind his head, staring at the ceiling.

This worried Bruce. He lay on his bed staring at the ceiling when he was planning, and Loki planning was the absolute last thing they needed. Well, actually, Loki escaping was the absolute last thing they needed, but the one was likely to lead to the other.

Bruce flipped another couple of pages without really absorbing the information on them, then peered up over the top of the magazine. Loki wasn't staring at the ceiling anymore.

Loki was staring at him.

"You know," the Asgardian said conversationally, "this really is quite a spacious cell."

"I'll be sure to convey your compliments to the housekeeping department," Bruce responded, trying to give the impression that he was only half paying attention.

"It's rather larger than necessary to accommodate a human, or Asgardian," Loki continued blithely. "If one didn't know better, one would think it hadn't been built for me-or Magneto, or Doom, or any of those other puny villains you humans are so worried about-at all."

Bruce gave no answer to this. Loki had made a similar comment about the containment cell on the helicarrier, but the carrier was just for transport. It was temporary, whereas the Avengers' headquarters was where he lived all the time. It was one thing to build an emergency containment room in a (to the Hulk) fragile metal contraption flying 30,000 feet above the earth, and quite another to build one in his home.

"One might hypothesize that it had been built for someone quite a bit larger. Someone with, shall we say, a more...hulking build?"

Bruce remained silent, but was uncomfortably aware that Loki was still gazing steadily at him. He'd been staring at the ceiling for the past three hours, he could probably continue staring at Bruce for the next three. In hopes that it would get him to look somewhere else so that Bruce could concentrate on his magazine, he said, "So what?"

"'So what'? Is that really all you have to say?" Loki sat up, one forearm resting on a knee. He looked completely relaxed, but Bruce knew better than to be fooled. Loki could look completely relaxed while preparing to blow up the moon. "Does Stark have a lovely reinforced cell like this? Or Romanoff, or Rogers? Or is this special treatment reserved only for the estimable Dr. Bruce Banner?"

"I don't want to hurt my friends. It doesn't bother me."

"Oh, but it should." Loki stood up and approached the window. He moved slowly, almost lazily; the word that jumped immediately into Bruce's head was "saunter." "After all, you're supposed to be a member of the team, aren't you? A trusted comrade, a brother-in-arms. That's what they tell you, anyway." He was standing right on the other side of the window now, and he trailed his fingers across the bulletproof glass, leaving lines of frost behind. "So why all this?"

"The Hulk is dangerous."

The corners of Loki's mouth curved up in the most un-reassuring smile Bruce had ever seen. "Yes, he is. And they know it, and it changes the way they act around you, doesn't it? When Stark makes one of his bitingly sarcastic comments to Romanoff or Barton, everyone chuckles at him, but they tense up when he does it to you. They give him warning glances, careful Tony, don't upset him, he might Hulk out on us."

Bruce swallowed. He knew he shouldn't let it get to him. Loki was just pushing his buttons, that was what Loki did, but...damned if he wasn't right. There were times when he got the sense that the others were walking on eggshells around him, deliberately holding themselves back for fear of setting him off.

"And if you display any visible sign of anger, they step back, their fingers twitch towards their weapons. They don't do that with each other, do they? When they argue with each other, they give as good as they get and don't back down, because they know that they aren't a threat to each other. They know that-" and here the grin widened "-barring some form of mind control, they know that they would never hurt each other. But they can't be as sure of you, so any spark of indignation is treated as a threat. You aren't one of them, Banner, you aren't like them, and you know it."

This has to be magic, Bruce thought, this has to be telepathy or something. But it wasn't. He wasn't sure how he could be so certain of that, but he was. There was no energy or magic or chemical behind this, it was just words. And words have no power that the listener doesn't choose to give them. And why should he give any power to Loki's words at all? The guy's unofficial title was Liesmith, for crying out loud. He forged untruths the way a master smith forged swords, sharp shining things that would slip past all your defenses and leave you bleeding if you gave them half a chance. But memories were rising unbidden to the forefront of Bruce's mind, the times he'd glared or snapped at his teammates and seen their stances shift, like they were getting ready for things to get ugly. Somewhere in the back of his mind, a voice was whispering, Not fair. It's not fair.

"You aren't a hero like the others; you're not a knight in shining armor. You're a monster, and even though the heroes may take you in and treat you like you're one of them, you know you're not and they know you're not, so why bother trying?"

"Because they're my friends." And because he feels like he should go on the offensive, he adds, "not that I would expect you to understand that."

"Friends, really?" Loki gave voice to a soft, low laugh. "And how do these great friends of yours treat the real you? What emotion do you see on their faces when you transform? I don't mean in battle, when they tell you to Hulk out to make their fight easier. I mean the times when you do it on your own and not at Fury's command. What do you see on their faces then?"

Bruce remained silent until Loki prompted, "Well?" And Bruce answered because there was no way he could look into those dark eyes and not answer. "Fear."

"Fear. Yes. Now tell me, Banner, is that the reaction a man should have to seeing his friend's true self? If you look upon someone's innermost face and feel fear, are you really their friend?"

No, that voice inside him said. And that's not fair. I can't help what I am. They don't know how hard it is, to live like this, they have no right to judge me, to look down on me, it makes me so-

"So you keep yourself a prisoner inside your own skin. You do everything you can to keep the real you locked down tight, and you try so damn hard to pretend it isn't there and you're just like everyone else. Except you aren't, and you know, deep down somewhere, that someday the prison of your skin won't be enough. And they know it too, so they build this for you. Because the real you is dangerous-"

"Stop," Bruce said, because the voice in his head was starting to echo Loki's voice, and as Loki's near-whisper became more intense, the voice in his head grew louder and angrier...

"-It's ugly, it needs to be contained and controlled-"

"Stop!" His heart rate was speeding up, his breathing was getting shallower, he could practically feel the adrenaline flooding into his veins-

"-But it's still a useful tool, so why not let you believe you have a place among them-"

"I SAID STOP!" His fist clenched, seemingly of its own accord, and flew out towards the window that separated him from the Asgardian. And oh God, that fist was swelling, bulging, turning green...

Bruce pulled back at the last moment, and his fist hovered an inch away from the glass. Loki hadn't ducked, hadn't so much as flinched, even though the blow was clearly aimed at his face. Bruce took a deep breath, willing himself to calm down, and felt a swell of relief as his hand returned to its normal size and color.

"So you were trying to bait me," he said. "You were hoping I'd bust through the glass so you could escape."

"Not at all," Loki replied, altogether too cheerfully. "This cell was made for you, and they wouldn't build you a prison that couldn't withstand the Hulk's strength. Even Fury's not that stupid."

"Then why?"

"Why, I simply wanted to have a little chat. Man to man. Or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say..." Loki's appearance shifted in an instant. He no longer looked even remotely human. His skin was a deep blue, and his eyes were red as fire. "...Monster to monster."

"I'm not a monster," Bruce protested, although he didn't sound nearly as confident as he'd hoped to.

Loki re-established his disguise, and chuckled. "Yes, just keep telling yourself that, Doctor Banner."

The trickster god's laughter followed Bruce down the hall as he stalked off to find someone to take over the rest of his guard shift.


A/N: This is my first try writing anything for the Avengers, so hopefully it turned out okay. The title is from one of Shakespeare's plays (Hamlet, I think?)