Someone hovered over him in the darkness.
Barely rising from indistinct dreams, Tony didn’t stir as the bed dipped under the weight of another.
"Wake up, Stark," a silky voice murmured. "I have need of you."
Even half-asleep, Tony registered the voice as familiar. He wasn’t sure it belonged in his bedroom, though. There was an edge to it, a whisper of a threat that made him think of suiting up. Still, it was late, his bed was warm and thinking was too much effort. Letting it go, he began to drift back off to sleep.
"Stark." A cool hand closed on his shoulder, squeezing firmly. "You have five seconds before I—"
"Just—tell me about it in the morning," Tony muttered, shifting to hook his leg around theirs and pull them in close. A heavy weight toppled into his arms with an oath of surprise. "Sleep now."
God save him from chatty one night stands. Pushing his face down into the warm crook of a neck, Tony sighed and slid his fingers over the lean curve of their waist. Breathing deeply, he caught the faint scent of soap and the earthy richness of leather.
That didn’t seem right.
And hadn’t he gone to bed alone?
Pushing himself up on his elbows, Tony blinked until the person he was in bed with swam into focus.
"Why, sleeping with the enemy," Loki said archly. "How scandalous. What will the Avengers think?" He was sprawled elegantly amongst the blankets. Tony's blankets. His face had been—
To his credit, Tony managed to remain calm. Mostly calm.
"Did you come here to kill me?"
Loki sat up in one movement, running a hand through his hair. His eyes were very green and very amused. It was the same way a cat looked at the mouse in its paws; dinner and a game, all in one.
"Not today. I came here to give you a message." He made it sound like he was bestowing a gift. Like hell. Tony made a face.
"And what, you couldn't just email me?"
Loki frowned faintly. "I prefer a more personal touch."
"Well, mission accomplished," Tony replied, not even trying to keep the irritation out of his voice. "Because that was a pretty personal touch just then. Can you get the hell out of my bed?"
A thought occurred to him then and he quickly checked the blankets for any horse heads, snakes, corpses and so on. Loki's idea of a message could mean anything; the guy was completely nuts. But he was also Thor's younger brother, a sorcerer and a tricky bastard to boot. There were all kinds of reasons not to tangle with Loki. Plus with no suit and nothing but a pair of sweatpants for protection, Tony was kind of at a disadvantage.
God, he needed a drink.
He felt Loki's eyes on him as he walked out into the hall, automatically heading for the living room but mainly just needing to stop seeing Loki sitting in his bed. Tony Stark prided himself on being able to rapidly adapt to high-stress situations, but that one was right outside his comfort zone.
"JARVIS. What's the time?"
"Three fifty-eight in the morning, sir. I trust that you are aware that your guest is on SHIELD's top ten most wanted list?"
"Stating the obvious, JARVIS."
"Oh? Where do I rank?" Loki asked from behind him, finally out of his bed. He seemed to be posing his question to the ceiling, which improved Tony's mood slightly.
"Yes, sir. Loki Laufeyson is currently ranked as SHIELD's third most wanted super-powered criminal."
"I see." Loki's expression pinched with annoyance, his mouth thinning into a foreboding line.
"Villain not as super as it used to be?" Tony inquired mildly. "There's pills for that."
That earned him a dirty look, but surprisingly Loki didn't bother making a death threat. It made him wonder exactly what the hell was going on. He didn’t seem to be there for a fight, which didn’t exactly sit well with Tony. The last few years had been nothing but plots and battles where Loki was concerned. But a night visit? That was a new one.
"So exactly what is this message?" he asked as he reached the living room, making a beeline for the couch. That his tablet was located under the cushion there was just a happy coincidence. Maybe he'd have time to contact the others if this little visit went south. Barring that, it might make a decent head-bashing object.
Declining to answer right away Loki studied the room with veiled interest, noting the high ceiling and wide-spanning windows before casting an eye over the décor. His lips twitched oddly, but he made no comment.
To Tony, Loki looked like an antique or something out of a movie. Maybe it was all the black and green leather, or the hints of gold glinting at his throat and wrists. At least he'd showed up without the helmet on. Asgardian fashion was flashy, but those horns had given him nightmares about goats for a whole week after he first appeared.
Loki didn't take a seat, instead moving toward the darkened windows. Dawn wasn't for a few hours yet, but he seemed to find something out there worth looking at.
"You didn't hear this from me, Stark. Let me make that perfectly clear to you."
Loki didn't speak with any particular inflection or threat present in his voice. Then again, Tony thought, he didn't really need to when he was standing in his living room and had probably been watching him sleep. That was more than a little creepy.
"The Avengers are attending a fundraising function tonight, yes? Thor will be there. A woman will approach him." His expression tightened and grew cold. "She is fair-haired, with green eyes. She favours the same colour in clothing. You know her as Amora the Enchantress. Do not let her near him, his food or his drink. I'd suggest you keep him from attending at all, but I know my—I know Thor. So I'm telling you."
Tony stared at Loki for a long moment.
"You're doing your brother a favour?" he said incredulously. "Look, sorry if I don't believe you—"
"It is of no consequence whether you believe me or not," Loki replied sharply. "You will do this. Fail, and I will pull that glowing device out of your chest and feed it to you. Do you understand?"
Tony knew if he told Loki exactly where he could jam his little message he'd probably make good on his threat. So refusing wasn't an option. Still, taking orders from one of the out-and-out bad guys like some kind of obedient lackey? Hell no.
"If I do this, what are you going to give me in return?"
Loki blinked, just once. "Why, the gift of your continued existence, of course."
"Yeah, sorry but that's not—" But of course he had vanished. Not even a puff of smoke or a villainous cackle left in his wake. Just gone. Tony scowled.
"I hate magic."
Reaching for his tablet, he composed a quick email to Pepper.
Anonymous tip received for tonight's charity benefit…
It didn't take much elaboration to get his point across. Pepper would make the arrangements. Sending the email, he put the tablet down and sat back, scrubbing a hand over his face.
Beware blondes in green.
Well if nothing else, he mused, attending the benefit just became a little more appealing.
Sixteen hours, one Iron Man suit and an axe-wielding maniac later, Tony decided he was going to murder Loki and make it look like an accident.
One of the downsides of keeping the Iron Man technology tightly under wraps was that when his suit was damaged beyond repair, it was up to Tony himself to make a new one.
On one hand, he could install a few new upgrades he'd been thinking about.
On the other, screw Loki.
He could use the other suits in the meantime, but the heart of the matter was that his favourite suit had been totalled by a guy with an axe. A goddamn axe. It was more than insulting. At least Clint and Steve had the crap kicked out of them too, which shouldn't have comforted him as much as it did. They were both back at Avengers HQ, somewhere Tony knew he should probably be. He'd been practically living there in the first few months, but with the team set up and communication devices in full working order, keeping close just wasn't as imperative as it used to be.
So when he could, he did his repairs at home in his workshop. It was dim and cool there, surrounding him with the familiar smell of motor oil, heavy wiring and car leather. Sometimes he just went there to think.
Other times, he went there to escape. Tony would be the first to admit that going from being a lone wolf to a part of the noisiest, most colourful group of skilled powerhouses, assassins and scientists had been difficult. Not that he'd trade in being an Avenger for anything; he loved his work and they were a damn good team. Better than he'd ever thought they'd become, if he was honest.
He was methodically sorting through the salvaged parts of his destroyed suit, minding his sore ribs as he bent over the two piles when the hair on the back of his neck stood up. Adrenaline flooded his veins and he swung around hard, a fistful of components jutting between his fingers like a crude set of brass knuckles.
"And you have the gall to come back here—holy shit."
Loki tried for his usual untouchable disdain, but it was ruined by the blood painting a red curtain down one half of his face. The other side was bone white, and his eyes were glassy. One shoulder slumped down at an unnatural angle, obviously dislocated.
"Be a dear and pop this in for me, would you?"
Tony stared. "You look like hammered shit." He dropped his handful of parts on the worktable with a clatter and approached Loki cautiously, still half-wondering if this was some kind of elaborate trap. But the more he studied Loki the more he doubted it; his expression was tense with barely-suppressed pain and he looked like he was about to drop at any second. The arrogant asshole Tony knew and fought semi-regularly beside Thor would never stoop this low.
"Thank you for your pertinent observation, crude though it may be," Loki managed to grate in reply, head lowering. Blood dripped off his chin, bright droplets hitting the smooth concrete. "Really Stark, loathe as I am to admit it, I require assistance."
Tony didn't doubt it. "I don't really—why did you—no okay, you're right, that can wait." He shook himself off. "Tell me what to do."
Loki told him.
Getting him out of all his leather to properly get to his shoulder was the trickiest part. With armour plating and unfamiliar fastenings to contend with Tony quickly gave up and reached for his hand-held laser cutter, ignoring Loki's protests. As if he didn't have an entire wardrobe of the exact same outfit somewhere. He leaned Loki against the worktable and got to work, wondering just what the hell he thought he was doing. So much for his plan for vengeance. Then again, it was never a bad thing to have a sorcerer in your debt.
Tony swore when he finally lifted the armour free, revealing the unnatural bulge of bone under skin, badly displaced. Loki glanced at it and arched an eyebrow at Tony's pinched expression.
"Please do me the courtesy of fainting after the shoulder is back in," Loki said dryly.
"Please do me the courtesy of shutting the hell up," Tony replied, taking Loki's wrist in hand and bending it upward, starting the process of putting his shoulder back in.
It took longer than he'd expected, and it wasn't pretty. To his credit though, Loki stayed silent the entire time, but sweat dotted his brow and his jaw was clenched hard enough to almost break a tooth. Two cycles of rotating the arm later, Tony heard a nauseating pop as the joint realigned and Loki released a long breath of painful relief.
"That was unpleasant," he murmured, and Tony snorted in reply. Loki straightened up from the worktable and gingerly prodded the newly-relocated shoulder, only to start listing dangerously to one side. He quickly caught himself, blinking in confusion.
"Head injury, remember?" Tony supplied helpfully. "A pretty bad one by my guess."
"It's a small cut, nothing more."
"Really? Because you just teleported to an Avenger's house looking for help."
Loki's mouth compressed into a pale line. "If you'd simply dealt with Skurge and Amora like I told you I wouldn't have been in this situation, would I?"
"That blonde bitch and her axe-wielding bodyguard?" Tony asked, taken aback. "That's who did you in?"
"Did me—you should know that I came out the victor in that little scuffle." The green glow of magic surrounded Loki's hand, and he touched his fingers to the top of his head. So he could heal wounds but he couldn't fix a dislocated bone without help. Interesting.
"For the record, you told me to keep a woman away from Thor, not take out a homicidal boulder with legs while she runs for the hills. I did my part."
Loki gave him an odd look. "I suppose you did."
An awkward silence fell as Tony waited for him to do his disappearing act. But nothing happened. Loki just stood there casually wiping blood off his face.
The guy was kind of a mess. Stripped to the waist, his pale skin was streaked with blood from face to neck, his shoulder swollen. Below that, well. Tony wasn't enough of a paragon that he didn't let his eyes wander a little. Thor's little brother was no slouch in the looks department, though he'd never really had a chance to stop and look before. It was usually all death threats and freaky magical hijinks.
Now that there were no death threats and it seemed implied that Loki's visits were off the record, Tony decided he didn't mind the view.
"Aren't you going to leave?" he asked eventually. "Or should I put out the good silver?"
Loki made a moue of distaste. "Your attempts at wit do you no favours, Stark." But his expression shifted. "I am grateful for your assistance." The word sounded rusty on his tongue.
Tony shrugged. "If you were really grateful you'd give me the schematics for Doctor Doom's latest Doombot upgrade, but hey. You're welcome. Just don't get me killed next time you go against us and we'll call it even."
Loki's mouth curved wickedly. "Best to not make promises I can't keep. Farewell."
This time there was a wash of green energy when he vanished, a ragged tear of dimensional fire swallowing him up.
Tony threw a wrench at it.
Three weeks later Loki opened a box of ice with a big fancy name and turned as blue as a smurf.
The Avengers battled to get it closed before New York went through a localised ice age, and eventually succeeded. Loki was brought down with a bolt of lightning so fierce that SHIELD was able to genuinely apprehend him for the first time ever.
That was when Thor was called back to Asgard.
For a guy who had just taken down a major player in the magical global terrorism game, Nick Fury looked mighty pissed.
"He won't talk," Fury said flatly. "With the drugs we're pumping him to suppress his magic, we can't even beat it out of him or he'll haemorrhage all over the floor."
Tony stared into his scotch disinterestedly. "Isn't that what you wanted?"
"What I want, Stark, is intel. Loki’s a shrewd bastard, and he knows more about the other so-called 'supervillains' than SHIELD could hope to learn in a lifetime." Fury looked grim. "We need what's in his head, not his corpse. What we don't need is Thor coming back from Asgard as our enemy if he finds out Loki died in custody."
Steve leaned forward over the table, reaching for one of Loki's dossiers. With his mask pushed back, Tony could see how tired he looked. Steve Rogers, feeling the strain. That was a new one. But they were short on people and it had been a tough few days.
Banner had taken off to guest speak as a gamma radiation expert at some conference in Prague – citing something about strengthening ties with foreign nations, education and learning and so forth. Tony just hoped no-one pissed him off while he was there. Widow had gone with him, thank god, but that only left Hawkeye, Cap and himself manning the Avengers fort for a few days.
"I don't know why you thought we could make him talk," Steve said reprovingly. "We have nothing he wants. His only goal has been to make trouble for Thor, and Thor's not even here. And we can't give Loki his brother, or the hammer, or Odin's crown or whatever it is he wants. We're beating our heads on a brick wall with this guy." He sighed. "If we can't cut him loose…"
Tony's eyes narrowed. "I didn't think the Avengers were about cold-blooded execution, Steve."
Steve's head jerked around and he opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. What could he say? Their hands were tied.
Fury's single eye was cold. "What do you propose we do, Stark? Make him pinky swear to be good? This guy is chaos incarnate. I don't want to risk interstellar war by killing him, but the only other alternative is we keep him here, flooded with drugs and restrained in a padded room for the rest of his life. And I think we both know how long his kind live."
Tony found himself clenching his jaw harder than he meant to, and took a quick gulp of scotch to cover it. It burned the whole way down. Shit.
The glass hit the table with a clunk and he stood, grabbing a dossier from the table and tucking it into his suit jacket.
"Well if we're out of options, I'll talk to him."
Steve stared at him in disbelief, but Fury shrugged.
"Just don't get your fool ass killed," he advised Tony. "He seems doped to the gills, but he's screwed us over before." Resigned as he was, Fury looked like he was open to suggestions. Had to be, Tony thought, if he was going to let him in a cell with Loki Laufeyson, SHIELD's third most dangerous super-powered criminal. What did they even base that on, anyway?
Tony was already heading for the door when Steve piped up.
"Want me to go with you?"
"Nah. If he is putting on an act, with my track record of pissing people off I'll need someone to write me a great eulogy."
Steve actually started to get up from the table. "You know, I think I might come anyway."
Tony rolled his eyes. "I'm kidding, lighten up. You're starting to turn into Rhodey. I'll be back in half an hour, tops."
He was off and down the hall before Steve could do his crumply-eyebrow worried thing, leaving him and Fury to keep brainstorming on ideas of what to do with their captive. Everyone knew SHIELD wasn't equipped to house someone of Loki's calibre; drugging him with whatever experimental chemical they'd designed was really just their attempt to cup their hands around a live grenade. When Loki escaped –and he would escape– he'd take half of the SHIELD base down before he was done.
But they couldn't kill him, either. Thor had a lot of issues with his brother, and he sure didn't like all the attempts Loki made on his life but even Tony Stark, only child and selfish asshole could see that Thor would crack the world in half if he came back to find a corpse instead of a brother. Asgard might even sanction it, who knew. Odin still considered Loki his son, by all accounts.
Strange as it might seem, having Loki captured was more of a problem than letting him run amok. Fury probably missed the days of cars blowing up and snow in summer.
It was a long walk down to the interrogation cell, with a lot of security checkpoints along the way. Most of the SHIELD agents recognised him on sight and let him through, though not without a few wondering looks. No Kevlar, no weapon, no…Steve, they probably thought. One did not simply walk in to visit Loki, he thought wryly.
Agent Coulson was walking out just as Tony arrived at the door. The guy had one hell of a poker face on, but he was smiling a little, which Tony was pretty sure was a really bad sign. Coulson's faint smiles usually preceded horrible threats toward his person.
"Did you get anything?"
"Not yet. But I can be patient. No word from Asgard?" Tony shook his head.
"Nothing yet. I guess Odin's not really the kind to toss a coin on his son's life."
"We've had him two weeks. Odin needs to work faster," Coulson said, straightening the cuff of one sleeve. He nodded at the door. "Are you going in?"
"Figured I'd try my luck. Maybe I can piss him off enough to spill something."
Coulson nodded. "If anyone can do it, it's you."
Tony raised his eyebrows. "I see what you did there, Coulson. Don't think I didn't."
"Have a good afternoon, Mr Stark." He turned and headed down the way Tony had come.
"Have fun polishing your taser!" Tony called down the hall after him, grinning. The checkpoint door slammed before he could hear any comeback. Winding that guy up was too much fun. Likely to get him killed one day, but fun.
The two agents by the door to Loki's cell were armed and looking decidedly unhappy to be there. Then again, should anything go south they would probably be the first to die. They were the red-shirts of SHIELD, poor bastards.
"Feel free to lock the door behind me," Tony said as they buzzed him in.
"We had orders to do it anyway, sir," the one on the left said flatly. "Also, if upon your exit you appear mentally or physically compromised in any way, shape or form we are authorised to use deadly force on you, by order of Director Fury."
Well, it figured. "You know what you guys need? Faith," Tony told them. "Faith and a valium or two. Seriously guys, I'm worried about your blood pressure. Embrace death like an old friend, and all that."
They both paled. Tony was still chuckling to himself as he walked into the cell and shut the door behind him. His visits to SHIELD headquarters were usually boring. He had to make the most of these moments.
"Welcome to my humble abode," said a thin voice. "I'd offer you tea, but I'm a little tied up."
If Loki had looked like shit the last time Tony saw him, he had to be at death's door now. Strapped to an examination table tilted upright, he was bound eight times with thick titanium-woven Kevlar straps. He was bound at ankle, calf, thigh, waist, wrist, upper arm, neck, and forehead. There was a drip hung on either side of him, intravenously administering a steady dose of a black liquid that had to be the drug dampening his magic. Fat needles were jammed into the veins at the crook of each elbow, with faint spider-webs of black tracery fanning out from the puncture wounds.
Loki himself was the sickly shade of clotted cream, his eyes fully dilated and appearing as black as the drug that flooded his body. Curving around from his back was a large snaking burn that looked like thin, twisted vines; a parting gift from Thor's bolt of lightning. They'd completely stripped him but for a pair of papery hospital pants, the kind they made you wear pre-op.
Behind his carefully measured expression, Tony was appalled. He didn't know what he'd expected, but it hadn't been this. If Thor could see him now…
"Well this is a whole new spin on the naughty corner," Tony murmured, walking up to the table. "I've seen roadkill in a better state than you. But on the upside, your shoulder looks great."
Loki's eyes rolled slowly until they were able to fix on him. Impossibly, he managed something approaching a smirk.
"Yes, well," he rasped. "Lucky for me, their little concoction makes me bleed like a stuck pig if I'm injured. I'd bruise off a fingerprint right now."
"Really?" Tony prodded Loki's bare chest. Sure enough, a fist-sized bruise instantly blossomed under his touch, pulpy and black with blood. "Uh. Whoops."
Loki hissed in a breath, but didn't bother yelling. Tony was surprised to find he actually felt kind of bad.
"Are you here to make me talk, too? They all want me to talk."
Tony shook his head. "No, no, you actually have this really posh, kind of irritating voice, you know?" He pulled out the file in his jacket and flipped it open. "I like the sound of my voice much better."
"Of course you do." Loki's eyes slid heavenward, then closed. "What do you have there?"
"Your file. It's smaller than I thought it would be." Loki's eyes opened a slit and glared at him. Heh. That joke was never going to get old. "So why'd you turn blue when you opened that magic ice box?"
"It's not in the file?"
"And you didn't ask Thor."
Tony snorted. "We've all decided it's in our best interests not to ask Thor anything about you. He gets a bit testy."
"Of course. He feels shame," Loki said distantly. Tony frowned.
"Thor isn't ashamed of you. He wants his brother back and he can't have him. Why? Because you verbally disowned him and keep trying to kill him. That's enough to put a strain on any guy. We've all got certain things we keep to ourselves." Wasn't that the truth. For Tony, it was his dad, or Obadiah. For Steve, it was Bucky. And Thor had Loki. Poor bastard. Tony could pity him sometimes.
"Perhaps my changing skin colour is something I wish to keep to myself." Loki was watching him intently now, gauging his reaction carefully. "Perhaps it is none of your business."
"Perhaps you're too chicken-shit to talk about it," Tony challenged. Then he shrugged. "But hey, whatever. It's not like telling me would get you free or anything. To be honest I don't think there's anything you could say that would make SHIELD cut you loose."
He could almost hear Fury's teeth grinding from the surveillance room after he said that. But Loki was too smart to cajole into fessing up. Hard truth was hard truth; SHIELD would never let him go. Not unless it was to Asgard, for execution. They just couldn't take the chance.
Loki didn't reply to that, instead running his eyes over Tony, head to foot, foot to head. They eventually dropped to his chest and lingered.
"I could tell you about the Casket of Ancient Winters, however. If you tell me about your—"
"Piercing?" Tony cut in with a smile. "Sure, I can tell you about that." But while his voice was easy-going, his eyes were lasers as they bore into Loki's. Don't mention the arc reactor, they said. "But not today. Today, I want to read you the fragmented story of Loki Laufeyson, so-called God of Mischief and SHIELD's third ranked most dangerous super-powered criminal."
Loki paused, the edge of his eyebrow lifting questioningly. "I should think that if nothing else, I know myself. But speak, if it pleases you."
Tony strayed closer, settling his hip against the metal edge of the table Loki was strapped to. Pulling the paperclip from the top of a sheaf of system printouts watermarked TOP SECRET, Tony grabbed the table remote from its magnetised cradle and hit the button to swing it flat again, putting Loki on his back.
"Better?" Bending to slip the control back under the table and out of Loki's miniscule reach, Tony deftly pushed the paperclip in his hand around one soft plastic IV tube, pinching it shut. He rose easily and smiled down at Loki, who was looking at him oddly. He did a lot of that, really.
"Yes, this is…better," he replied haltingly. He seemed to catch himself then, and scowled. "I can feel my feet again, at least."
"Then I'll begin," Tony replied, glancing through the files. "According to SHIELD, Loki's first appearance on Earth was in April 2012, though reports do implicate him in the appearance of unregistered weapons technology in New Mexico over a year prior to his physical appearance on Earth. See: Odinson, Thor. See: Destro— Oh wait, sorry, sorry. Oh hey, let's find the part where you and I first met. A very windy day, if I remember." His pointed glance was met with a thin smile. Asshole.
Tony was pretty sure his time went well beyond the half hour he'd promised Steve, but no one came after him. Likely, they were all crowded the console listening to him read out classified information, but it wasn't anything Loki didn't already know. Like he'd said, he knew himself. So he continued, and if the bruise on Loki's chest began getting smaller and smaller, well, he didn't comment on it.
Tony was just beginning to read out the part about the fate of the Tesseract when Loki vanished. Dropping the file in surprise, he whirled around to call the muscle at the door. That was when Loki flashed into sight again, a hair's breadth away. He leaned in toward Tony.
"Thank you for the story," Loki whispered against his ear, and slid a dagger into Tony's stomach.
Time seemed to hang suspended for a long moment, though only a second or two probably passed. Loki's lips were icy against his skin. Then Tony felt the spreading warmth of his own blood start flooding out of him, and his hands couldn't keep it all in.
Loki had—that son of a bitch had—
Well, he thought as Loki pulled the dagger out and vanished in a roar of green fire, he probably should have expected this. Tony staggered back against the wall and slid down it, clutching his stomach as the door burst open.
"Nobody panic, but I think I've been stabbed," he heard himself say before the world swirled out of sight, and everything went dark.
Life was a series of quick snatches of consciousness for a while. Tony didn’t remember a lot. Yelling. The smell of antiseptic. The bright light of an operating theatre. Oxygen. Steve’s face, white as chalk. The steady beep of a heart rate monitor. Tears on Pepper’s cheeks.
Nick Fury and Thor.
“…one lucky bastard….missed every vital organ…”
Tony remembered Thor looking down at him then, a question burning in his blue eyes. He fell asleep again before he could figure out what it was.
The next thing he was really aware of, Tony was waking up in his suite at the Avengers mansion. He felt like he’d been roofied into next year; his head throbbed with a dull ache and his mouth was completely dry. There also seemed to be an IV in his arm. Great.
“JARVIS,” he managed to rasp. “What’s been happening?”
“You were stabbed, sir.”
“I hadn’t noticed.” Grunting, Tony tried to push himself into a semi-upright position. A tight bloom of pain in his abdomen warned him against it, but he tried anyway. “I mean how long have I been out, who’s in the mansion, what happened to Loki? Is SHIELD okay?”
“You have been in the Avengers mansion approximately twelve hours, sir. It was deemed best to keep you under surveillance after SHIELD’s medical team operated. By Captain Rogers’ order, you were moved here approximately thirty-six hours after your injury occurred.” JARVIS went on to fill him in on the rest. By the time he had finished Tony was wide-awake.
He’d been treated at SHIELD headquarters after Loki vanished, but Steve hadn’t let them tinker with the arc reactor, or scan it. Then he’d been moved to the mansion as soon as he was stable and Fury had officially released him. Steve freaking Rogers. Tony owed him a solid.
Currently the only people in the mansion were Steve and Thor, who had returned while he’d been out. No use haggling over extradition details when the criminal had done the bolt, Tony thought wryly.
And Loki. Loki had simply vanished into the ether. Surveillance had shown him teleporting out of the cell, only to return a scant second later and bury a knife in his guts. After that, there’d been no reports of his activity. Made sense. He was probably licking his wounds somewhere and laughing himself sick over his parting gift.
“JARVIS, next time I try to do something stupid for the greater good, gas me into submission.”
“I assume you would prefer a non-lethal dose.”
“Don’t get cute.” Pushing the blankets back, Tony pushed aside his fetching hospital gown and took a look at the damage. Under the gauze pad it was no more than four inches across, neatly stitched. “Well that’s nothing to brag about.”
Feeling too tired to do much more, Tony sank back against the pillows, blinking up at the ceiling. He was thinking about sleeping again when there was a knock on the door.
“Tony? JARVIS said you’re awake. Can I come in?” It was Steve, sounding for all the world like he was about to ask for a cup of sugar. The shadow of footsteps moved in the light spilling under the door.
“Sure, my bedpan needs changing anyway.”
The door opened, and Steve stuck his head in. “You don’t have a bedpan.”
“Well this just got awkward,” Tony replied. Steve shook his head and entered the room, balancing a small tray of items in one hand. One bare foot kicked the door closed as he flicked the light on, blinding Tony for a few seconds. Steve ignored his protests and sat the tray at the foot of the bed, turning back to loom over Tony. His expression was not friendly.
“You,” Steve said, “are the dumbest genius I’ve ever met. How do you feel?”
“Thirsty, sore, tired, embarrassed. Take your pick.”
Steve took the glass from his nightstand and disappeared into the ensuite. When he came back, Tony eagerly took the glass and drank deeply. He felt like he must have been mouth-breathing for hours. Two white pills were pressed into his hand while he drank, and he tossed them down with the last few gulps.
Steve was eyeing him speculatively when he finished, swiping the back of his wrist across his mouth. He sat on the edge of the bed, passing the empty glass from one hand to the other.
“What happened, Tony?”
“Loki stabbed me,” Tony replied, shrugging. “There’s no mystery to it, really.”
Steve’s eyes darkened. “Actually, there is.”
He flicked something at him, a small metal something that bounced off his chest. Tony didn’t need to look at it to know it was his paperclip.
“Figured you’d want that back before Fury saw it.”
Tony blinked. “So, he doesn’t…”
Steve shook his head. “No. He just thinks Loki pulled one over SHIELD again.” His mouth twitched slightly. “Actually, I think he made a joke about Loki stabbing you just to shut you up.”
“And now you’re laughing at my pain. Classy.” Tony watched Steve’s mouth twitch again, before reluctantly curving up into a smile. That was better. “Hey, want to see my stitches?”
“Are you twelve? Besides, I already saw.” Scandalised, Tony pulled the blankets up to his chin. Steve actually rolled his eyes.
“On the operating table, Tony. Did you think I was going to leave you alone? I know how you get when SHIELD ask to poke at your ‘piercing’. Speaking of which, how did Loki know about it?”
So he had been in the surveillance room, after all. Steve didn’t miss a trick. Tony weighed up whether to tell him. Or rather, how much to tell him. He trusted Steve with his life, but Loki had already proved himself to be crazier than a shithouse rat. Tony didn’t want him to go after Steve for any reason.
“Remember the charity benefit? Thor’s blonde bombshell and the axe guy? Loki was the anonymous tip,” Tony admitted.
Steve’s eyebrows flew up. “Loki?”
“I know, I know. Apparently the blonde, Amora, she was going to mojo Thor with something. Loki woke me up at some ungodly hour to tell me. That’s when he saw the arc reactor.” Tony rubbed his eyes tiredly. “Steve, I don’t know what I’m in the middle of here. I’m just trying to stop people from getting killed.”
“So you sprung Loki from his cell? That’s a little counter-productive if you ask me.”
Tony shrugged, picking the paperclip up. The metal was cold. “He was already building a resistance to the drug. It took just over an hour on a reduced dose and he had enough magic to get out of there.”
“So you thought, what, why wait?”
“I thought if I got him out, he might not reduce SHIELD headquarters to a smoking wreckage. I’d like to point out in my defence that I was right. Loki didn’t attack them.”
Steve flushed, his eyes sparking with anger. “No, he just tried to kill you. Tony, he’s a mad dog. He lives for destruction. Why are you trying to befriend him?”
“Befri—Steve, I was reducing collateral damage, how can you even think for a second that—”
“Loki talked to you, Tony. He offered you information about the casket.” Steve sat back, raking a hand through his hair. “Coulson reported that Loki hadn’t said a single word to any SHIELD agent who tried to interrogate him. Not just about intel. About anything. Then you walked in and he suddenly got chatty.”
“Well hey, I am Iron Man. He knows me. Maybe he was just a little shy around the agents.” Truth was, Tony hadn’t known about Loki’s little vow of silence. If he thought about it, he had no idea what to do about the knowledge that Loki had seemed open to the idea of sharing information with him. Not SHIELD, but him.
Steve sighed. “Don’t joke about this. Just—he put a knife in you, Tony. When I got in there I thought—” He broke off, his eyes fixed on the wall. A muscle in his jaw jumped as he swallowed. Tony clapped a hand around his forearm, giving it a rough squeeze.
“Yeah. Me too, for a second,” he admitted. “Not my best plan, actually.”
Steve nodded, not quite looking at him yet. “I’ll say. Thor wanted to talk to you, by the way. I didn’t tell him about the paperclip. It turns out that Odin wasn’t much use after all; he wanted Loki imprisoned, not executed. SHIELD wouldn’t have let him go for that. So maybe you did the right thing, after all.” He stood up and collected his tray, handing something to Tony. “Thought you might need this. Though technically you’re not supposed to work for a while.”
Tony took the tablet from Steve. “You’re my favourite super-soldier, Steve Rogers,” he told him. “Really. Thanks for having my back.”
Steve laughed. “Yeah, well, I tore the ass out of the new uniform you made for me. I felt bad.”
“How does that even happen?” Tony exclaimed, dismayed. “The fibres are reinforced—you know what, it doesn’t matter. I’m an invalid, I’m tired, and I don’t need to think about your bare ass right now.”
“Stay off the intra-net then. Get some sleep.” Steve wandered out, forgetting to turn off the light as he left. Unbelievable. Had he just said ‘intra net’? Good old Steve.
“JARVIS, lights.” The room descended into darkness. Tony blinked blindly up at the ceiling for a while, worrying the paperclip between his fingers.
Whatever else had happened back in the SHIELD cell, Tony Stark knew one thing. Loki had singled him out for some reason. Whether it was to seek help from, give anonymous tips to or outright try to kill, he’d set his sights on Tony. Which meant for the safety of all involved, namely himself, he had some work to do.
“JARVIS, open new file. Transfer all data from recent energy scans as reference items.”
“What would you like to call this file?”
Tony thought about it.
Two days later, it was roughly two-thirty in the morning and Tony was scrawling equations on a huge digital whiteboard in his suite, free of an IV and allowed to wear actual pants. He was still medically confined to Avengers HQ, but it was a second home to him anyway and he was allowed to work in the weapons lab during daylight hours. Life was pretty good for the stab victim.
Well, reasonably good, Tony thought as he straightened up, trying not to scratch at the healing skin of his stomach. It ached and itched and Steve had cut him off the good painkillers a day ago. Something about promising Pepper, which was just crap.
Tapping his cheek thoughtfully as he stepped back and ran an eye over his work, Tony decided he’d probably done enough for the day. Night. Whatever.
“JARVIS, what do you think?”
“By my calculations this will be feasible, sir. When would you like to put it into effect?”
“Not sure yet. I might check it again in the morning, see if I can’t fortify it somehow. Seems flimsy.”
“As flimsy as air itself,” JARVIS agreed. Tony rolled his eyes and put the stylus down, lifting his shirt to absently scratch around his stitches.
“Less humour, JARVIS. I’m the funny one, remember?”
“You never let me forget, sir.”
“Uh-huh. That’ll be all.” Padding over to the ensuite, he turned the cold water on and splashed his face and neck, wondering if his work was going to pay off. These things were a little outside his realm of expertise, but he was learning.
He’d just dried his face and was heading for the bed when a soft, deliberate footstep sounded behind him. All the hair stood up on the back of his neck. Well. Two guesses for who that could be. Shit.
“Sir.” JARVIS knew.
“Leave it,” Tony ordered tightly. He turned slowly to face Loki. “Avengers HQ this time? Hell of a place to finish what you started, if you don’t mind me saying.”
Loki’s eyes were heavy-lidded jade as he studied Tony, his mouth an unamused line. Back in his sectioned green-and-black leather duster and tall black boots, his engraved bronze vambraces gripping his forearms, it looked like SHIELD had never happened to him. Approaching slowly, Loki seemed to loom over Tony from his height advantage. Or maybe it was a trick of the light.
“Finish what I started?” he repeated slowly, tasting the words. “Quite the contrary. You did me a great service that day. It’s only fitting I return the favour, isn’t it?” He cast an eye around the room, taking in everything with a hawklike intensity. Tony found himself backing away by small degrees.
“Hey you know what, I’m a generous guy, how about we just call that one a freebie and you get the hell out of here?” Tony suggested. “In fact, I’d actually really appreciate it if you just clicked your heels three times and never appeared in my bedroom again.”
Loki’s expression didn’t change, but his eyes darkened slightly. Tony thought he seemed confused.
“You’d refuse my offer without even hearing it? I thought you were smarter than that.” At his sides, Loki’s fingers sparked briefly with small arcs of green energy. Tony didn’t like that look of that at all.
“I enjoy living, Loki,” he replied. “Believe it or not, in my experience you’re not really conducive to that.” He stepped back as Loki’s mouth tightened, feeling the wall press smooth and cool against his shoulders. “So call me whatever you like but I’ll be sitting back here, breathing and not bleeding from a stab wound, and you can go on plotting my demise from a distance.”
Green eyes slitted calculatingly for a brief second, and then Loki began to smile.
“My little knife trick has you this upset? Why, you’d think I’ve never tried to harm you before.”
Tony blinked and suddenly Loki was up in his face, white palms pressed to the wall on either side of him, bracketing his body so he couldn’t move. This close, Tony was staring almost directly at Loki’s mouth, which had a knowing tilt to it.
Tony cursed silently. Even though Loki was slighter and physically weaker than Thor, he still had Tony outmatched for height and strength. Out of his suit and still healing, Tony didn’t present any threat at all. And Loki knew it.
“I have to say, for one who has worked alone as long as I, the prospect that one such as you might provide me aid is…intriguing,” Loki murmured, his breath cool where it touched his skin. Tony squeezed his eyes shut briefly, praying this wasn’t going to end in blood again. But Loki didn’t seem interested in violence.
He leaned in slowly, his lips lightly grazing the curve of Tony’s cheekbone before finding the sensitive shell of his ear.
“I find myself compelled to return the favour,” he breathed. “And I can be generous indeed. Why would you waste the opportunity?”
Tony swallowed hard, staring blindly into the white column of Loki’s throat. Licking his lips desperately, he tried to think. It was actually really hard to think. He was breathing against pale skin, palms pressed to armour and all he could smell was leather and ozone and oh shit that felt like a tongue and everything was just getting way out of hand.
“I want you to get out of here,” Tony gasped out, “and you’ve got ten seconds to do it. JARVIS, wake our friendly neighbourhood thunder god.”
“Already done, sir.”
Loki reared backward like he’d been struck, stunned and furious as his head whipped around toward the door. Thor would soon be barrelling down the corridors toward them, and they both knew it.
Then Loki’s attention snapped back to him, and his gaze was all he needed to pin Tony back to the wall. His face was a mask, but his eyes blazed. With what, Tony had no idea.
“So you would summon him. Very well.” The corner of Loki’s mouth jerked and he looked like he wanted to add something more, but slamming doors down the hall and the heavy pound of footsteps preceded Thor’s arrival. Loki’s eyes were black with emotion, seething with misgivings, and when he lifted his hand there was a wickedly curved dagger in it.
Thor threw the door open, Mjölnir in hand, just in time to see Loki throw it at Tony’s face.
The dagger buried itself deep in the plaster beside Tony’s head, less than half an inch from his temple. A few strands of dark hair drifted to the floor. His heart pounded with fright. Shit. Shit.
Loki just smiled thinly. “Oh, don’t sound so upset, Thor. You know I never miss my mark.”
Thor’s eyes narrowed with uncertainty as he glanced between them.
“What game are you playing, Loki?” he demanded. “Why have you come here?” He had obviously been asleep when JARVIS called; his hair was in crazed ringlets and a seam of pillow-print ran down one cheek. He was also wearing nothing but a pair of crimson boxer shorts. Somehow to Tony he still looked damn formidable.
But not to Loki. He barely even glanced at his brother. Stepping back, he let his gaze linger on Tony for a moment before turning away.
“It is no longer of any consequence,” he replied stiffly. Iridescent green magic limned his silhouette. “A momentary lapse in judgement. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do. Farewell.”
“Brother, wait—” Thor lurched forward, one hand outstretched, but Loki was gone. He looked bereft for a moment, staring at the space his brother had occupied. But he recovered quickly enough. Clearing his throat, Thor strode over to Tony.
“Are you well?”
“That’s a great question.” Tony slid away from the dagger in the wall and turned to look at it, rubbing at the side of his head. A small clump of hair came away in his fingers. “Oh, oh god. Thor, is there a bald spot on my head? Did Loki just give me a bald spot?”
But Thor was pulling the dagger out of the wall, his large hand engulfing the hilt. If you could call it that. It was a sneaky little curved thing with no guard; essentially it was all one ornate piece of metal, polished to a high sheen and likely sharper than Loki’s tongue. Thor stared at it where it rested in the palm of his hand. He frowned.
“Loki never misses his mark,” he said to himself, his voice low. Thor’s eyes seemed to brighten a little. “Something is greatly amiss with my brother, Tony Stark.”
“That’s fascinating,” Tony said irritably, headed for a mirror. “JARVIS, initiate Deadlock. Here and at home.”
“Deadlock initiating. Estimated completion time, ten seconds.”
“Deadlock?” Thor questioned from the other room. Tony examined the side of his head in the ensuite mirror. It was nothing some strategic combing couldn’t fix, he decided, satisfied.
“Yeah,” he replied. “It’s a charged local field that blocks teleportation within a certain radius. I’m fairly sure it works, but I won’t know until it’s tested in the field. It’s based off all Loki’s stats.”
“Deadlock is now live.”
Tony felt his ears pop at the same time that Thor lifted Mjölnir to stare at it oddly, flexing his fingers around the haft. Well, something had just happened. Thor cautiously swung the hammer, electricity crackling warningly around it. He frowned at Tony.
“Mjölnir reacts unfavourably to your science.” He spoke the word like it tasted foul.
“Mjölnir can suck it up and deal,” Tony replied. “I’d rather have a hammer on the fritz than your brother creeping on me in the middle of the night.”
Thor gave him a strange look. “I am told that Loki offered you information while I was in Asgard. About the Casket of Ancient Winters. While I am confident it would not have been anything my father or I would not already know, it is…odd, that he should offer you anything at all.”
Inviting himself to sit on the end of Tony’s bed, Thor put the hammer down and leaned forward on his knees. He made for an interesting sight, half naked in Tony’s bedroom, looking as rumpled and confused as he did. Not that it gave him any ideas or anything.
“He wanted to trade information, actually.” Tony tugged down the neck of his shirt, showing the cold blue gleam of the arc reactor. “He asked about this.”
“Loki cares not for science,” Thor replied, shaking his head. “There would be no benefit in that for him. Unless he was merely curious, which I have my suspicions about.” Blue eyes met his steadily. “You let him out, didn’t you?”
He might as well get it over with, he thought dismally. Yeah Thor, I set your maniac brother free to spare a few lives which might not mean anything if or when he next tries to over the world, so hey, my bad. That would go down a treat.
But it seemed that Thor took his silence for a tacit confession. Nodding grimly to himself, he stood up and clapped a hand on Tony’s shoulder.
“Thank you,” he said sincerely, surprising Tony. “For doing what I could not. My hopes are foolish, I know, but Loki is my brother and while I was the one who defeated him that day, I did not wish death upon him. I swore to look after him, as an older brother must. It didn’t mean much until I realised how dark his path had become.”
Thor’s eyes lowered, and he pulled away, affecting a terrible smile. It was the saddest damn thing Tony had ever seen.
“But my guilt is not your concern,” he said firmly, straightening. “All the same, you have my thanks for setting him free before the mortals could do more damage.”
“Uh-huh,” Tony said. “You just remember that when he turns us all into snakes.”
That made Thor laugh a little. “Loki despises snakes. More like he would turn us into field mice, and set cats upon us.”
Tony blinked. “Oh, well that’s so much better. I’ll sleep soundly tonight. Thanks, big guy.”
“You are welcome,” Thor said easily, leaning down to pick up his hammer. “Though I think that Loki favours you now, or did. He’s quite deft with a blade, as you know.” He headed for the door, leaving the dagger in question on Tony’s bed.
“Thor, what the hell are you talking about? He tried to gut me.”
“Loki never misses his mark,” Thor said meaningfully. His eyes were vibrant as he smiled. “Yet his dagger pierced nothing more than skin and muscle. I can think of one reason why he might have wounded the mortal who disobeyed his own kind to set him free.”
He left Tony standing there, pondering his words long after he’d left. Thor had some huge soft spots where it came to his brother, so he couldn’t put too much stock in his blind faith. But he’d raised an important question, and Tony was worried he’d found an answer he hadn’t thought of before.
Had Loki returned to stab him, not because he was a traitorous, ungrateful little prick, but because he didn’t want him implicated in the escape?
It made a strange kind of sense. After all, who would suspect the guy bleeding to death on the floor of helping a madman get loose? Even if Steve hadn’t pocketed the paperclip, it was likely they’d have put it down to Loki’s residual magic allowing him to move it himself. Even mind control. But no one at SHIELD would have suspected that he had done it on purpose. After all, he’d been stabbed. He was an Avenger.
Maybe it was the lack of sleep talking, but something about it rang true to him. Goddamn it, it made sense. Especially with Loki’s reappearance earlier. Which meant…
Which meant he’d just told their most powerful nemesis to stick his confusingly arousing overtures of friendship straight up his ass.
If he thought about it, this was a perfect addition to his track record of abysmal attempts to do the right thing.
“Laugh, Tony,” he advised himself. “Laugh or you might actually cry this time.”
With nothing else to do, he decided bed was the best option. Before he turned in he put the dagger on his desk, where it was sure to remind him to properly examine it in the morning. Later in the morning, anyway. Three o’clock had come and gone a while ago. But that was fine. The teleport shield was complete, security was assured and life went on, even if he was mentally kicking his own ass.
It was just as he was starting to drift off that he wondered what would have happened if he hadn’t turned Loki down. Were Thor’s hopes misplaced? Probably. Maybe things had just worked out the way they were supposed to. The bad guys stayed bad, the good guys rejected their hands-on advances and sicced their older brothers onto them. The world kept turning.
Still, he thought hazily, it seemed like he might have missed something amazing.
The sun was barely creeping over the horizon when Tony’s phone went off, scaring the hell out of him so badly he bolted upright and threw his pillow across the room by accident.
“Note to self, change ringtone to…not AC/DC,” he muttered blearily, staggering out of bed to grab it off his desk. “Stark here, and this had better be good.”
“Good morning, Mr Stark. Isn’t it a fantastic morning? I sure hope I didn’t wake you.” Nick Fury sounded like he was mad enough to chew lead and spit bullets, which made his polite greeting sound all the more deranged. “We had a break-in last night from our old friend Mr Laufeyson.”
Tony rubbed at his eyes, half-sitting on the corner of the desk while he tried to make his brain function.
“Loki dropped by? Let me guess, he took the magic ice box. I told you to send it back to Asgard, Fury. You knew this was coming.”
There was silence on the line for a brief second. Tony imagined Fury was pinching the bridge of his nose, or maybe bursting a vein somewhere.
“He replaced it with a bar fridge, Stark.”
“That’s what I said, don’t make me repeat it.”
Tony started laughing. A bar fridge. Loki had actually pranked SHIELD.
“Well that was generous,” he wheezed finally, wiping his eyes. “What do you want me to do about it? On two hours sleep, no less.”
“Nothing,” Fury replied flatly. “Just keep an eye out for more icy shit in summer, and check around for anything out of place over there. If he’s been here, it’s not a stretch to think he’s been checking in on the Avengers too.”
Wasn’t that the truth. Tony tipped his head back and stared wearily at the ceiling.
“Why can’t you people just email me these things?”
“I just like to hear the sound of your voice,” Fury replied, and Tony knew he was probably snapping a pencil in his fist at that exact moment. “I’ll be in touch.”
The phone beeped the disconnection. Tony dropped it down on a pile of papers spread across the desk, wincing slightly when it clanged against the dagger he’d left there. Damn it. The last thing he needed was to have to replace his phone.
It dawned on Tony then that he hadn’t left any papers on his desk. Paper was too easily lost, he’d been working with the digital whiteboard for weeks…
Sliding off the desk, he turned and spread the paper out. There was roughly thirty of them; designs and notes on huge pieces of thin project paper—some pieces actually looked a lot like his original sketch of the suit he and Yinsen had built in Gulmira, until he laid them out on the floor. That was when he understood.
“JARVIS,” he said hoarsely, unable to take his eyes off it. His heart was pounding. “Scan everything. Put it on my private server. I want this secure.”
Tony turned back to the desk, noticing a thick piece of paper folded in half. It had been sitting under the dagger. Opening it, he quickly scanned the contents. It didn’t say much.
It didn’t need to.
Thus, our business is concluded.
P.S: What was that tingling I felt when I teleported in?
“That son of a bitch,” Tony breathed, a huge smile breaking over his face. “That crafty goddamn son of a bitch.”
He didn’t care that Deadlock hadn’t worked; he could do a diagnostic later. He didn’t even care that Loki had the casket back again. Tony only cared about one thing in that moment, and it was laid out on the floor at his feet.
“Title for this project, sir?”
Tony didn’t even think.
“Schematics: Doombot Beta.”
He had work to do.
The world did keep turning, after all.
Loki vanished from the public eye entirely, taking his casket to places unknown. Tony healed and Iron Man soon took to the air again; his meteor trail blazing across the night sky of New York. The Avengers fought bad guys, Nick Fury gave himself an ulcer, and Thor disapproved of Deadlock 2.0 being installed everywhere he wanted to be.
It was business as usual, and business was good.
“Maybe it’s like, a creepy villain courting gift,” Clint suggested, waving the half-eaten burger in his hand for emphasis. He wiped his mouth and sucked sauce off his thumb, watching Tony study the faceplate of his Doombot prototype. “Maybe you’re married now. Hey, do you think this makes you the wife?”
“I do look great in a dress,” Tony said absently, holding the plate to the light. “But I think you’re wrong. Does this look like it’s smiling to you?” Pulling down his helmet, he reached for the welder.
Sitting backwards on an office chair, Clint spun it around and shuffled himself along the floor, getting away from the sparks. After a few quick touches Tony pushed the welding mask back up again surveyed his work. Clint chewed enthusiastically and pointed at him.
“I’m just saying, Loki sold out Doom for you. What else could it mean?”
“No honour among thieves, I guess.”
“Loki repaid a debt, dude. He’s like Thor; he doesn’t like shit hanging over his head. You gotta do better than that.”
“Maybe Doom told him he looked fat in leather.” Clint nearly choked at that.
Smiling, Tony crossed the room, pulling off his welding gloves and tossing them down on the worktable. He was due for a break. When he wasn’t out on missions he’d been working on the Doombot infiltrator at Avengers HQ for the last eight weeks, studying the schematics before going ahead to build a double-agent they might be able to send back to Doom’s base of operations.
Somewhere during that time Clint broke a finger out in the field and had been benched from active duty. Fury had actually confiscated every bow and arrow he had to ensure he obeyed. Apparently it was only natural that Clint would then use his newfound free time to give Tony shit about the origins of his latest project.
“We haven’t seen him in over two months. I bet he’s planning something huge, like subliminal messages in the TV or something.” Shoving himself back toward Tony, he pedalled his legs like an eager crab to wheel his chair around. “It’s what I’d do.”
“This from the guy who spent most of yesterday trying to convince JARVIS he was HAL-9000,” Tony reminded him, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “And then when he gave in and called you ‘Dave’ you panicked and slept the night with Banner.”
“No homo, dude. I slept on the floor,” Clint stressed. “Besides, JARVIS did the voice and everything.” He leaned forward, grinning. “Hey, what do you say we make Thor watch all the Terminator movies?”
Tony snorted loudly. “Yeah, because he can’t possibly hate technology enough.”
Clint shrugged. “I just feel like JARVIS could be giving him the creeps a lot more than he is.”
Unwilling to dignify that with a reply, Tony shook his head and made a mental note to tell Thor not to watch anything suggested by one Clint ‘Hawkeye’ Barton. He’d only just convinced Thor that Deadlock wasn’t as morbid as it sounded, and it would only rebound any attempts to teleport into HQ. Now that it actually worked, anyway, instead of tingling or whatever Loki had experienced when he had dropped off the schematics.
“Hey, maybe he’s dead.”
“Who? Tony asked. “Thor?”
“Loki. It’d explain the radio silence. But I doubt even Doom could get the drop on that guy,” Clint replied, yawning. He got out of the chair. “Anyway, I’m out. I feel a post-lunch nap coming on. Good luck with 007 here.”
“Don’t name my Doombot before I do,” Tony complained. “There’s rules. Breaking of various champagne bottles, and so on.”
“Uh-huh.” Clint didn’t even try to look apologetic as he headed for the elevator.
“If you see Steve up there tell him I put three new pairs of Captain America pants in his room, and that if he rips the ass out of them again I will post the video of him mistaking the TV remote for his cell phone on the internet.” Embarrassing a national icon was far outweighed by the irritation of being stuck mending endless pairs of bright blue pants like some kind of sweatshop worker.
“Seriously, again?” Clint laughed just before the doors slid shut, carrying him up to civilisation.
“Alone at last,” Tony muttered, sliding his chair around and scrubbing a hand over his eyes. He couldn’t really recall the last time he had more than four hours sleep. Building the Doombot, perfecting Deadlock and patrolling the city as Iron Man had been occupying most of his day and night.
Steve had been telling him to cut back on a patrols to get some rest, but Tony had yet to take health advice with any sort of civility. If he was honest with himself though, he wasn’t sure why he was circling the city for hours at a time. There was almost zero criminal activity lately.
Maybe he’s dead.
Maybe he was. Bad things happened to bad people too, sometimes. But the life and death of Loki Laufeyson was for Thor to worry about. Tony had enough on his plate. Still, it was the not knowing that got under his skin. The nagging sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop. It was just as likely that the Doombot was a diversion to keep them occupied while something entirely different went down.
But it was all speculation, and Tony didn’t like speculating. Not one bit.
Time would tell eventually.
Another month passed. Life went on. The city was briefly held hostage by gamma clones. Tony completed the Doombot infiltrator. Thor was called back to Asgard for a week while Odin slept.
Loki remained in hiding all the while.
Three weeks after his return from Asgard, Thor was helping Tony re-tile part of the roof after one of Hulk’s more energetic romps around the house.
Well if he was honest, Thor was tiling it and Tony was just handing him tools and drinking a beer. Despite being heir to the throne of Asgard, Thor actually liked to help out around the place. He couldn’t cook worth a damn, but hand him a dish towel and he’d help clean up with the best of them. Tony just put it down to the big guy’s enthusiasm for everything in general.
“Does this look sufficient to you, Tony Stark?” Thor wiped his forehead and surveyed their handiwork. A long, rust-coloured streak of brick dust marred one cheek. Tony decided he wasn’t going to tell him about it.
“I guess we’ll find out when it rains. But it looks good,” he offered, shrugging. “To be honest, I know jack about roofing. I’m just up here to escape while Coulson does his rounds. Beer?”
Thor nodded and Tony passed one across, fingers wet with condensation. Together they reclined back against the mild slope of the roof, a comfortable silence falling between them as they drank.
It had been a warm day, not too hot for summer and the sun was just beginning to set. It lent a reddish cast to the sky, highlighting the skyline around them. With the traffic noise drifting away and the tiles warm beneath his skin, Tony actually found himself relaxing for the first time in weeks. It was a good feeling.
“It has been too long,” Thor said quietly, eventually breaking the silence. “I fear he is plotting something terrible.”
At his side, Tony narrowed his eyes at the sunset, taking a long pull from his beer. Since the night Loki had shown up and Thor had realised that Tony had set him free, the Asgardian had been under the impression that he knew what Loki was up to, or that he’d kept in touch somehow.
Of course, he didn’t come out and say it directly, but Tony could tell by the way Thor’s eyes sometimes drifted to his stomach, tracing the scar he couldn’t see. Loki’s scar, his eyes said. Tony wondered what it was like to miss someone that badly and know they’d sooner befriend your teammate than spit on you.
“Thor, he’s always plotting something,” Tony pointed out. “And every time we beat his ass into the ground. Let him do his worst.”
Thor frowned. “I do not think we have seen his worst. Not yet. My concern is that you are somehow a part of his plan.”
“That again?” Tony groaned. “Let it go, I’m telling you. He said it himself; he’s done with me. The end. Back to business. That stuff before, he was probably just bored and looking to play in your sandbox for a while.” He drained his beer while Thor frowned at him.
“Loki is a cunning and treacherous foe. Do not underestimate him.”
“Oh, that’s rich, coming from you,” Tony snorted. “All you ever do is underestimate him. All he has to do is turn those pretty green eyes on you and you’re a puddle of big ol’ brotherly love. He plays you every time, you poor sap.”
Okay and maybe that was a little harsh, Tony thought as Thor’s face flushed, his eyes stricken and angry. He watched the so-called thunder god pack up his tools with jerky movements and thought about feeling guilty, but dismissed it. It was all true; Loki was Thor’s enemy and his greatest weakness, all in one. They all knew that.
“What could you know about the bonds of family, Tony Stark?” Thor challenged, his eyes dark. “You do not have one.”
“Ouch,” Tony said steadily, a smile twisting the corner of his mouth. “You’re right. Maybe I should ask Loki what it’s like next time I see him.”
Thor turned and stalked away back over the rise of the roof, shoulders hunched like something was hunting him. Probably his own guilt, Tony thought unkindly.
He stared out at the fading light of the sunset for a moment before he cursed softly, the fire seeping out of him. Good job, Tony, he told himself in disgust. There he went again, prodding at open wounds just because he could. Thor hadn’t deserved that, why had he even said that?
Well, at least he gave as good as he got, Tony thought with a short, humourless laugh. He hadn’t quite expected a zinger like that to come from his old pal Thor. It wasn’t in his nature to snap back like that. But he’d provoked it, and if he thought about it, it was the blunt honesty that had made it sting. Just a little. How could he begrudge Thor for trying to hold onto what family he had? He couldn’t, plain and simple.
Rolling to his feet in one motion, he pushed the entire conversation out of his head. Night was falling, and there was a city to patrol. A big, strangely peaceful city.
But when there was no major crime, who did the Avengers avenge?
Another week passed, and the bravest thing any of the Avengers did was submit to each being auctioned off as a date for a night to raise money.
Steve Rogers went for no less than one-hundred and fifty-three grand.
When it happened, it came out of nowhere.
Tony was doing a few peaceful laps over the city, the rush of traffic and the glow of orange lights blurring into long stretches of colour far below. The night was still, the air was a rippling rush around the suit, and he was feeling pretty damn zen about things.
He was flying high near the outskirts of Central Park when an immense spear of ice punched high into the sky, jutting at crazy angles as it grew teeth and edges. It shot up so fast Tony didn’t even realise he was on a collision course until his proximity alert wailed at him.
“Sweet mother of balls!” he blurted out, banking hard to the left to avoid it. He sheared off a decent sno-cone’s worth of ice as he did so, cutting it entirely too fine for his liking. Looking down, he took in the lay of the land under him, pulling upright to hover over a field filled with colourful, flashing lights.
It was a carnival, or something like one. Cotton candy, popcorn and a Ferris wheel, that kind of thing. Kids and parents wandering stalls. Clowns in bright paint. Music. Screams of delight. The HUD in the suit blinked and flashed as his sensors took it all in, data streams forming a list to the edge of his vision.
“A carnival,” Tony groaned. “A carnival nearby and someone taking icy pot-shots at me from the bushes. Great. No danger of collateral damage in that whatsoever.”
Plumes of green fire shot up from near the base of the icy tower, which was shrouded by trees. Tony counted his lucky stars that it was coming from just beyond the fringes of the carnival. Dodging each blast of magic as it shot up in the sky he swooped in low, trying to get a look at who was doing the damage. Ice didn’t always mean Loki, and the only person he’d seen use that green fire bullshit was—
Okay, this was bad.
In the midst of clashing axes and staffs and bolts of power flying every which way, Tony felt his insides turn queerly cold.
There were four of them fighting – or to be more accurate, three of them fighting and one just plain trying to stay alive. He whirled in the centre of them, staff raised high, the grass frosted over by a great sheet of ice that reflected the magic as it sparked and struck off him. He moved like oil on water, each movement flowing into the next as he delivered blow after deadly blow, but he was outnumbered and his opponents weren’t the type to go down easy. Not even close.
It looked like it was a very bad day to be Loki Laufeyson.
“What did you do?” Tony muttered to himself, watching them try to tear him apart.
Villains fighting villains. This wasn’t in the rule book. But with that carnival so close…he couldn’t sit by. He was on the channel to all Avengers before he could even properly register what he was doing.
“Avengers!” he barked. “We have multiple super-powered criminals waging war on each other outside a carnival in Central Park. I have a positive ID on Loki, Amora, Skurge and Doctor Doom. This is a priority one alert. If you’re receiving this—”
“Iron Man, stand down.” The voice burst over the channel, unwelcome and most definitely uninvited. “Let ‘em fight.”
Tony grit his teeth. “Fury, what the hell are you talking about? There’s a few hundred people out there—”
“Which you’re going to evacuate,” Fury replied, sounding tinny over the speaker. “Just leave our powerful friends to their devices. It’s not every day they do our job for us.”
“What? Not a chance in hell.” Terminating the transmission, he switched to a secondary channel. “Avengers, assemble!”
There was no response on all points. A red wash of notifications filled the HUD.
“Looks like your line’s busy, Mr Stark.”
Inside the suit, Tony seethed. “You’re jamming me?! God damn it, Fury, don’t force my hand.”
“I think it’s the other way around. The helicarrier is on your six. SHIELD is in position. Get the civilians out, Stark.”
Far below Tony, Loki looked like he was starting to tire. He didn’t even think any of them had noticed him up there, or if they did they didn’t care. They were converging on him with weapons and magic and Loki was giving as good as he got, but no one could last forever. Not even that crafty bastard.
Shit. Shit. Even if he went down there he’d likely just get his ass kicked too, and the carnival might get hit by a wayward blast of something. He couldn’t contact the others, and Fury was looming in the sky like a damn thundercloud, watching his every move.
Was this it then? Did he let Loki die? No one would really blame him. Civilians first, and all that. Fury would back him one-hundred per cent. These weren’t innocents fighting. Each one of them had done their fair share of dark deeds. Loki was no different to Doom or Amora. Selfish, self-serving and power-hungry. The only difference was that Loki had betrayed one of them to repay a debt to him.
Was that enough? No. Hell no.
Then why the hell did it feel so wrong?
Because you’re going to watch an execution, a voice told him, whispering from the back of his conscience. When they’ve beaten him down they’re going to execute him, and you’ll be the guy who watched it happen.
He was Iron Man. He fought the bad guys. Even when sometimes, he wasn’t sure he was going to make it out alive.
“Sir,” JARVIS prompted quietly.
Beneath him, Loki staggered and fell to one knee. Three daggers flew from his hands. Only one hit its target. Skurge paused to pull it out of his chest, and lifted his axe high. Loki split in three and vanished. Three. Just three.
Iron Man fought the bad guys.
Who were the bad guys?
“Don’t do it, Stark,” Fury warned, steel in his voice.
Tony closed his eyes.
Shit. He’d done stupider things for less.
His eyes opened.
“JARVIS! Initiate remote activation of DOS Mark 1. On the double, if you don’t mind. Divert power to uni-beam, charge to maximum.” Heart pounding in his chest, he grinned at the video link that flashed up on the HUD. “Sorry Fury, I guess you’re on crowd control duty.”
Fury’s glare should have melted his helmet. “Do you have any idea what you’re doing?”
Tony laughed madly. “None at all. Speak well of me, Director.” He cut the feed entirely and blocked all channels, turning his gaze down to the icy battlefield.
“DOS Mark 1 activated. ETA is two minutes, sir. Uni-beam at sixty-three per cent.”
“Leave the counter up. Re-classify Loki Laufeyson as ‘civilian’ in all targeting protocol. Activate remote Deadlock to a roaming radius of half a mile. Missiles up, JARVIS. Locking on.”
“Fire in the hole, sir.”
Tony grinned fiercely as Skurge came into view, his enormous axe reflecting moonlight and magic as it spun overhead. Oh, this was going to be sweet.
He felt the reverberating punch as the shoulder-mounted live arms discharged, sparing only a second to direct power and follow them down. Three hit Skurge hard, aiming straight for his wrists. Asgardians were strong, but they still needed working hands to hold their weapons. Judging by the roar of rage and pain Tony heard, Skurge no longer had that luxury.
The remaining five missiles struck Doom at all joints and sent him flying backwards into the trees. Tony wasn’t sure if he was a Doombot or not, so rendering him immobile for a few minutes was the best he could do.
Amora and Loki leapt backward from each other to stare in shock and bewilderment. They spotted him at the same time, two sets of very different green eyes wide with, hilariously, the exact same expression in them. Four hands glowed with magic.
“Well there goes my element of surprise,” he remarked to himself. “Time for the main event.” He flew in hard, getting off a few flares to confuse Amora and widen the gap between her and Loki. He landed hard, shattering the frozen ground under his boots.
“All right you kids, get off my lawn.” He had the pleasure of seeing Amora try to teleport somewhere, but under Deadlock the best she managed was a flicker or two. Realising she was stuck, she gave a scream of rage.
“You dare?! Skurge! Get up, I need you!” But Skurge looked like he was out of the game for a while, clutching his own wrists to cover what had to be a few splintered bones. All the same, he struggled to his feet. Obedient little— Tony’s thought broke off as he ducked a staff to the face. Loki’s staff.
Even grey with exhaustion, his eyes burning toxic green in his face, it seemed Loki still had some fight in him. Like a wild animal, Tony thought. Savaging anything that came near. Just how long had they been fighting?
“Watch it, jackass,” Tony yelled as ducked another blow. “What the hell is wrong with you?” He deflected another blow with his forearm, jumping back out of range. Watching them both, Amora smiled secretly.
“Come now, Iron Man,” she cajoled gently, sidling up to him. “Surely the enemy of my enemy is my friend? Help me dispose of the Liesmith. He has been allowed to run rampant for far…too…long…”
Was it just him, or was she suddenly really, really pretty? Tony blinked hard as her eyes seemed to widen into deep green pools, drinking him in until they were all he could see. There was a spark of something buried deep within them, he thought. Maybe…maybe he could follow it down…
Clanggg! A staff belted his helmet again, this time swung like Loki was trying for a home run.
“Wake up, you utter moron,” Loki spat. He seemed to have realised what was happening. “Don’t look into her eyes!”
“Urgg,” Tony said intelligently, feeing like he’d been doused in cold water. He shoved her hard, barely hearing her squawk of indignation. “I’m up, I’m up!”
“Good,” Loki replied, looking haggard. “Because so is Victor’s toy.” Tony turned in time to see Doom – or, as it turned out, a Doombot – come stalking back into the clearing, half his hood ripped away to reveal the metallic skull plate beneath. Self-repairing bastards.
Fortunately, that was also the moment DOS Mark 1 landed. The approaching Doombot froze, sensors going wild as it gained readings off it.
“Doombot, what is your identification?”
DOS Mark 1 -short for Double-Oh-Seven, as Hawkeye had lovingly dubbed it- took a bow.
“Bond. James Bond. Would you prefer to be shaken or stirred?”
Tony blinked. That sounded like Clint’s voice.
The Doombot just bleated electronically at him, identification and logic functions clashing. DOS decided for him, stepping forward in one smooth movement, electricity crackling around it. Tony left them to it; the uni-beam had fully charged and he had an executioner to take down.
He turned to Loki. “Can you handle Magical Barbie here?”
Loki nodded silently, but he looked grim. Damn, but he was pale. Thinner, too, like something had drained the life clean out of him. But he was tough, Tony reminded himself, turning away as Skurge approached, looking eight feet tall and ready to suck the marrow from his bones. Besides, he had bigger things to worry about.
With three on three, the fight seemed fair at first. Tony could only concentrate on Skurge most of the time; even injured, he still managed to swing that axe around like a crazed lumberjack on speed. Tony dodged what he could and fired when he had a decent trajectory, but he couldn’t get enough of a lock to use the uni-beam. So the fight went on. And on.
No help came. Whether Fury was jamming everything and putting a media blackout on the area, Tony didn’t know, but it became clear that he wasn’t going to be getting any help from the other Avengers. It was just him, his double-agent Doombot, and Loki.
“DOS Mark 1 at thirty per cent capacity. Logic function disabled. Doombot attempting to hack system.” JARVIS’s voice was not music to his ears. If the Doombot re-routed DOS’ logic and friend/foe recognition system they might as well kiss their asses goodbye then and there.
“Shit!” Tony cursed. He was out of time. Then Skurge stormed toward him, axe aloft, blood streaming down his forearms. Wide open. “Uni-beam, full power. Hit it!”
A blue-white torrent of pure concussive energy shot out of the repulsor transmitter in his chest, right over his arc reactor. Even with his stabilisers on full, Tony still barely kept his footing on the ice as the beam slammed straight into Skurge, the energy completely enveloping him at close range. Tony kept the juice up as long as he could, while the power gauge on the HUD slowly ran down. But he needed to know Skurge had been dropped.
“Sir, DOS Mark 1 is now offline. I strongly suggest a reboot—”
“If it’s compromised we’d be setting ourselves up for a world of hurt, JARVIS,” Tony grated. Glancing over at Loki and Amora, he saw them both still standing in combat, even if Loki did look like he was about to keel over.
The suit had been depleted enough. He wouldn’t be using the uni-beam again. Cutting power, he hit the spotlight in the suit. If Skurge had managed to block that somehow—
He hadn’t. Tony stared.
“Good God, that’s a mess.” He turned to the blonde woman, still trading magical blasts with Loki. “Hey, Enchantress, I made your bodyguard into paste. My bad.”
Startled, Amora turned long enough to spot Skurge. The blood rushed from her face, leaving her just stunned enough that she didn’t see Loki summon the Casket of Ancient Winters until he shot her full in the face with it. He didn’t let up until she was no more than a green-and-blonde smear inside a huge wedge of ice, frozen deep inside its grip.
Panting, completely spent, Loki collapsed to his knees as the casket swirled out of sight.
“And then there was one,” Tony said to himself, turning to face the Doombot.
It was in pieces. DOS Mark 1 was casually straightening its torn cape. It froze when it noticed Tony staring.
“Sir,” JARVIS said, straightening. “Might I suggest that the next time you build an advanced AI drone, you put its neural simulator on a server not directly connected to mine?”
Tony blinked. Okay. So. It seemed that DOS was JARVIS. Which meant that JARVIS had uploaded himself into DOS and destroyed a Doombot. Because suddenly that was a thing he could do.
“JARVIS, are you intending to take over the world?”
“No, sir.” He sounded affronted by the very idea.
“Cool. Just checking.” He popped his faceplate up. “If you’re done going all T-800 for the night, could you send it home for me? Last thing I need is Fury getting his government mitts on it.”
“Of course.” Jetpacks flaring gold, DOS/JARVIS took to the sky. Tony watched it go with a disconnected sense of curiosity. Saved by JARVIS, huh? Like his life couldn’t get any crazier. But on the upside, at least he’d be able to scare the absolute shit out of Clint whenever he wanted.
Turning to Loki, Tony walked over to him, the weight of the suit breaking the ice underfoot. He was still sitting where he’d sank moments ago, hands trembling with exhaustion, his eyes two brilliant green torches in a deathly pale face. He looked nothing like the confident asshole who’d shown up in his bedroom four months ago.
Powering down Deadlock to restore some energy to the suit, Tony extended a hand to help him up. He didn’t take it. Hell, Loki barely even looked up.
“What could you possibly want now?” Loki asked, his voice almost completely gone. “I tire of being in your debt, Stark. It’s like to get me killed.” He cut a narrow glance at him, his mouth a tense line.
“That’s opposed to me not saving your life, and you getting killed anyway?” he said sceptically. Typical. “Sure, whatever. Here’s a piece of advice – stop pissing off powerful crazy people like Amora and Doom!”
“I could have handled them,” Loki said darkly. “The last thing I want or need is the likes of you, a mortal, coming to my aid.”
“You didn’t mind before.”
“I mind now.” Struggling to get his limbs to coordinate, Loki stood by slow degrees. In the end, he was at an even height with Tony in the suit, staring him dead in the eye. “Do not labour under the misapprehension that my earlier offer still stands.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “You think I flew on in here because of some ulterior motive? I figured Doom was riding your ass because you gave me the schematics. Hey, if I was wrong, just consider it a freebie. I really don’t care. So get that through your thick Asgardian head.”
Loki flinched. “I am not—”
But his outburst was swallowed by the high screech of ice shattering, and a flash of green magic shot free of the icy prison Amora had been locked inside. Her open palms spewed a green hail of bullet-like projectiles in all directions, quite a few of which Tony took to the suit as Loki erected a thin shield around himself.
“Well, it’s been lovely,” said Amora as she awkwardly gathered up Skurge’s remains, “but I have a bodyguard to put back together again. And I think you, Iron Man, have a few screeching mortals to save…don’t you? Best be off, then.” Light enveloped her body before he could properly process that he’d taken down Deadlock –idiot!– and then she was gone, teleported away.
The suit sparked warningly in a few places as he tested it, and he realised his boot-mounted repulsors were down for the count. Damn it.
“I hate magic,” he muttered, stamping his boots ineffectually. “Guess I’m hitching a ride home tonight.”
“Stark,” Loki said faintly from behind him. “You…might want to move quickly.”
Tony turned, and, following his line of sight looked for the problem. It didn’t appear immediately; at least, not until he heard the deep crack of something heavy beginning to break.
“The ice,” Loki said, limping over and pointing at the icy tower Tony had almost flown into before. “That spire is going to fall.”
Dread punched deep into his stomach. “Right on the carnival that SHIELD didn’t fucking evacuate—” He started running toward it, mentally calculating the speed of the fall versus wind strength and distance to the carnival. If it fell in one piece it was—goddamnit—it was going to hit the Ferris wheel head on. A Ferris wheel full of kids. They couldn’t even run—
And he couldn’t fly. The uni-beam was offline. All he had left were the two forearm guns and his palm repulsors, and they didn’t have the pressure to knock it back the other way. Tony slammed his faceplate back down.
“Iron Man to SHIELD helicarrier, come in! Fury, you’ve got to take down that tower of ice, if it goes it’s going to smash the Ferris wheel—Fury come in! Fire the guns!”
“Negative,” Fury replied, sounding like he’d aged ten years. “Helicarrier ammunition…is too powerful. You know it is. We’d take out more than the ice. Channels are now clear to assemble your team, but Thor is in New Mexico.” There was a small pause. “Iron Man…”
“Don’t even say it,” he snarled, sprinting as hard as he could for the ice. “Thanks for nothing, you sack of bureaucratic shit.” He killed the channel just as he came to the base of the ice, which was shearing off great chunks of it as it teetered slightly, cracks running in all directions. But Tony could see it. When it broke, the angle of the break was going to send it just where he didn’t want it to go.
Planting his hands against it, bracing himself and knowing that the suit’s power wasn’t enough to stop it completely, Tony pushed.
The wailing siren that came out of the helicarrier’s speakers began then, floodlights searching the carnival. People screamed as the evacuation alert sounded, probably thinking World War III was upon them. Seeing that goliath descend from the sky would have put the fear of God into any unsuspecting person.
Pushing his boots deep into the icy ground for grip, Tony bore down hard against the ice, but he could already feel the groaning fractures spread through it. Being seventy feet high and as wide as a small house, it was going to go down hard. With the suit as de-powered as it was, Tony didn’t have anywhere near his usual strength. If he’d had the capability of flight this wouldn’t even be an issue, he thought, grunting as it shifted toward him again. Had she planned it that way?
It only occurred to him as the ice began its final break that he was on the wrong side of it. When it came down, it was coming down on him as well. Then he felt the hydraulics of the suit burst as they met and then exceeded their limit, fluid leaking inside the armour, and the strength went out of him completely.
“Well, this is a hell of a way to go,” he murmured as the ice came down on him. Tony closed his eyes.
The fall halted with a screech of ice on ice.
“Must I do everything?” a strained voice said in his ear. Tony jerked and looked to the side where Loki had his hands braced on the ice, shoving with whatever strength he had left. Strong, Tony thought dazedly, like he’d never realised it before. Of course he was—he wasn’t anything close to human. And he was helping.
Adrenaline flooded his veins and Tony dug his feet in again, pushing for all he was worth. But he was no good. The suit’s strength-enhancing capabilities were shot.
“I can’t push—but I can shoot the other side. Loki, can you hold it?”
Loki bared his teeth, eyes squeezed shut as he put his shoulder into it.
“Make it fast, Stark. I’m out of magic.”
“Fast as I can,” Tony promised him, snapping the frosted faceplate up so he could see. Letting go he skidded around to the other side of the ice, trying not to hear Loki’s exhausted roar as he held his position, taking the full weight of it. Diverting all power to his hand repulsors, diverting everything he had left, Tony fired off round after round at close range.
Ice flew in all directions, but he kept going. With enough ice dug out from this side, Loki could push it away from the crowd. So Tony chipped away at it, even as the repulsors guttered and died, like a candle flame running out of wick to consume. When they died off completely, he dug with his hands, ripping off one vambrace to use as a shovel. When it dented beyond repair and fell apart, he started kicking inside the massive gouge. It had to work. It had to.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of listening to Loki’s laboured breathing, the crunch of ice shifting position sounded in Tony’s ears like music. And the tower came tumbling his way once again, but this time there was nothing to hold it back.
A hand grabbed his just as the damn thing broke into three huge pieces, yanking him hard out of the way—too hard, as he hit the icy ground, and another weight hit him full on the chest. Loki. Then light exploded from his hands and they shot away from the crumbling spire, skidding over ice and rocks.
In the end, the crumbling ice fell on nothing more than trees and the destroyed remains of a Doombot. The carnival was untouched.
Tony and Loki eventually skidded to a halt near the cordoned fence-line of the carnival, somewhere down near the food stalls. Yanking off his helmet with numb fingers, Tony gasped up at the night sky.
“Did you just surf me to safety?”
Loki, still splayed across his chest, made an indistinct hand motion. Tony thought it said ‘yes’.
“What happened to being out of magic?”
Loki lifted his head just enough to level him with a look. Tony swallowed.
“Yeah okay, good point.” Twisting his hips to the side, he unloaded Loki onto his back next to him, where he fell in a boneless puddle of limbs.
Unable to think of anything to say, Tony just stared up at the sky, trying to catch his breath. At his side, Loki seemed to be doing the same. He thought about asking him why he’d just bothered to save a bunch of humans he didn’t even care about, but there didn’t seem much point in it. Not yet. He’d done it, and that was enough. Plus it was probably another of his attempts to make sure they stayed even.
After what felt like a few hours, but was probably only a matter of minutes, a bunch of small heads filled his field of vision.
“Hey Iron Man, your helmet fell off.”
“Hi Loki! You’re bad.”
“Iron Man, do you want my popcorn?”
“That puddle looks like pee.”
Tony squinted up at them. Damn kids. “That’s hydraulic fluid, so no, I have not peed myself. Help me sit up.” It took five kids and one extremely nervous teenaged popcorn vendor to shove him upright, but they did it. Tony turned and eyed Loki, who was white as a sheet and glaring at the sky for all he was worth.
“You can’t move, can you?”
Loki’s mouth pulled down into a scowl. “Not…as yet.”
Snorting at that, Tony reached over and grabbed his arm, but he was struggling just as badly. With nothing to power it, the suit was ungainly and made moving hell. But luckily he had a small army of kids who seemed to have no fear, and together they all got behind him and pushed Loki into a sitting position.
“Get your sticky little hands off me,” Loki hissed, but there was nothing in it. That was probably due to the fact that he looked like he was about to keel over and die.
“Move along, kids,” a familiar voice ushered from a few feet away. Agent Coulson. “The siren sounded. Go find your parents.”
“Fuck the police!” one kid yelled back, but the whole herd ran giggling back into the carnival, whispering fiercely to each other as they went. Beside him, Tony heard Loki huff a small, almost amused breath.
Looking distinctly unimpressed, Coulson stared down at them both. Tony knew his armour was wrecked, again, pock-marked with magical bullet holes, missing pieces and dented and scratched all over. Plus he wasn’t sure but he thought maybe one of those kids just stole his busted helmet.
Loki’s knuckles were smeared with blood and his hair hung in lank tendrils across his face, which was looking almost emaciated by the toll the magic drain had taken on him. Huge shadows gathered under his eyes, which were almost feverishly green. His leathers were half shredded again, naturally, and dusted with ice. To sum it up, they both looked like shit.
“Come to throw us in the clink?” Tony asked dryly. “Let me be the first to say that you’ll regret it if you try.”
Coulson regarded him steadily. “My orders are to apprehend you, if convenient.” He shifted slightly, his eyes swinging from Tony to Loki and back again. “Unfortunately, this is the age of the Internet, to which a lot of amateur video footage has just been uploaded. Specifically, of one of our most dangerous criminals saving a carnival of children, right alongside Iron Man himself.”
Loki scowled up at him. “A circumstantial deed, nothing more.”
Coulson gave them a bland smile. “All the same, SHIELD doesn’t need the media attention. Not yet. Have a good night, gentlemen.” Turning on his heel, he walked away back the way he’d come, pausing only to snap a few pictures of the shattered ice tower on his phone.
Well, that had gone better than expected. Tony was still alive, still free, even if he had wrecked another suit. At least this one could be repaired. And Thor would be all over him like a rash when he heard he’d just saved his brother’s ass from the fire. Life was actually pretty good, all things considered.
“So, you’re a pretty incompetent bad guy right now,” Tony noted, blinking out at the piles of slush and ice. “Getting your ass beat by the other super-powered crims, then saving a bunch of kids in a Ferris wheel.”
“Don’t remind me,” Loki said hoarsely, clearing his throat. “Though I do maintain that I could have handled them without your interference.”
“Well. I guess we’ll never know,” Tony said diplomatically, even if he wasn’t able to hold down his sceptical smile.
“Indeed,” Loki said coolly. He seemed to hunch forward a little, staring at his legs like he wasn’t sure if he could get them to move just yet. Watching him, Tony was struck by an idea.
“They’ve been chasing you this whole time, haven’t they? It’s why it’s been so quiet here.” It would explain a lot. The eerily peaceful city, Loki’s continued absence, Doom’s withdrawal from the area. Loki nodded shortly.
“Yes. Amora managed to successfully place a locator spell on me, which I haven’t had time to sit down and break. I’ve been leaping from continent to continent with her in pursuit for three and a half months. Doom joined the chase once he decided it was indeed I who copied his schematics.” Loki’s eyes slitted. “With no evidence, mind you. Until tonight, I suppose.”
Manually releasing the suit, Tony pulled it to pieces and began the long process of detaching himself from it. Loki picked up one of the shoulder guards and turned it in his hands, pressing his fingers inside it with an air of grudging curiosity.
In fact, Tony noticed as he struggled out of it, Loki picked up quite a few parts and studied them as they fell around him. When his fingers became wet with hydraulic fluid he sniffed it once, then sucked a drop off his thumb. That was when Tony accidentally dropped his chest-plate on his own foot.
In the end Tony got out of it all, down to just the lined black bodysuit and thin-soled boots. Loki’s eyes followed every seam of it, but returned to the arc reactor repeatedly. Well he was nothing like Thor in that respect, Tony thought wryly. Science and technology actually seemed to intrigue him.
“Tell me what it does,” Loki demanded suddenly, folding his legs under him and getting to his feet. He only stumbled once. “You did swear to tell me, back in that wretched cell.”
Tony paused, then shrugged. “It keeps me alive,” he said without looking at him. “But I think you already knew that. There’s nothing more to tell.”
“There is always more to tell.”
“Well, I don’t trust you enough to tell it.”
Loki fell silent at that, but he didn’t seem to take offence. When Tony had piled his discarded armour high, a question seemed to rush out of him like he couldn’t hold it in.
“Would you—have need of a sorcerer?”
Tony shot him a disbelieving look. “Oh, come on. I didn’t come down in the last shower. You hate us!”
Loki swallowed. It was the first time Tony had seen him look anything approaching nervous.
“Yes,” he admitted, then shook his head angrily. “No. It’s—complicated. Things are not as they once were. I am hunted by the same foes that would see you dead, Stark. To this end…”
“You want to work with us,” he said slowly, “but not as an Avenger. You want protection, too.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Loki spat acidly. “Protection? You—”
“The Deadlock,” Tony cut in loudly, completely overriding him. “You saw it in action. That’s why you’re doing this. You need somewhere to rest. You’re dead on your feet—if they hit you again like this they’d kill you three times before you hit the dirt, and you know it.”
Chest heaving, eyes wide, Loki’s mouth opened to refute him, but nothing came out. Eventually his green eyes turned dull, and his shoulders sagged as if an enormous weight had settled upon them. Huffing a small, bitter breath of a laugh, Loki swept him a courtly bow.
“I thank you for your services tonight, Tony Stark,” he said steadily, like all the life hadn’t just gone out of him. Then he spun smartly on one heel and began walking out into the darkness. Probably to his death, really.
Tony let him get halfway across the slush-filled field before he called out.
“You know, that wasn’t actually a no!”
Loki stopped dead in his tracks before cursing fluidly in some foreign tongue. Tony was pretty sure he heard his name in there.
Glancing back over his shoulder, he eyed the awestruck kids lining the cordoned fence.
“Any of you guys got a phone I can borrow? Free piece of armour for anyone who—okay, okay don’t throw them at me. Jeez.”
Dialling up Avengers HQ’s main line, he winked as Loki came striding back, looking annoyed.
Okay, he thought cheerfully as Natasha picked up, this was going to be fun.
As was to be expected, the proposal of Loki temporarily moving into the mansion did not go down well.
Clint did a spit-take and all but climbed onto a chair screaming and pointing, but Tony mostly put that down to DOS-JARVIS walking past the living room and telling him to use a coaster earlier in the night.
Natasha, Bruce and Steve were a united trio of disapproval and anger. Then it became a less-united trio of Natasha, Hulk and Steve, and everything was a little loud and green for a while. Tony did what he could to talk them around, using words like common enemy and sharing information and grow some balls – not you, Widow. But with no Thor in his corner, it had just been Tony’s arguments against theirs, and the news broadcast of what had happened earlier in the night.
For his part, Loki had simply watched the entire spectacle from the other side of the room, arms crossed and leaning on a wall for support. His expression gave nothing away.
“So he pushed over an ice block that he made, big fuckin’ deal,” said Clint. He pointed at Loki. “How the hell am I supposed to sleep knowing he might come and slit my throat in the night?”
“Clint, you think everyone is out to slit your throat in the night,” Tony reminded him. “Including Natasha. Look, guys, I’m not telling you to trust him. But he’s known how to get in here for months now, and he hasn’t killed us yet. Plus he’s given us good information in the past. Amora attacking at the benefit, the Doombot, any of this ringing a bell?”
“Don’t like magic,” Hulk growled stubbornly. “Hulk smash stupid magician.”
“This is what Fury originally wanted,” Natasha said, her eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “Information. We just didn’t need to torture him to get it.” But Steve just shook his head, his eyes dark.
“Somehow I don’t think he’s just going to spill all his secrets. Are you, Loki?”
At the mention of his name, Loki tilted his head and regarded Steve intently.
“Why, that depends, Captain.”
Steve’s jaw worked. “On what?”
Loki studied the flaking blood on his knuckles. “On whether or not the SHIELD agents on HYDRA’s payroll manage to reverse your serum before I can tell you my…secrets.”
Everybody stared. Even Clint had nothing to say to that. Steve paled slightly, then shook his head.
“That’s not true. HYDRA haven’t managed to get that close – we’d have known. You’re lying,” he said harshly.
Loki smiled down at his nails. “Am I?” He raised his eyes to give Steve a sly look. “You see, Captain Rogers, when you’re stalking your enemy, one must always be aware of those that might strike from the shadows and steal your kill. To use your Midgardian vernacular…I have my fingers in a lot of pies.”
When Steve fell silent at that, stunned by the implications of spies inside SHIELD, Tony knew the decision had already been made. The others would fall into line, and Thor’s return would cement the new plan. It was reflected on their faces, from Hulk’s scowl of irritation to Natasha’s speculatively pursed lips.
“Cheer up, Avengers,” Loki said soothingly. “If I decide to renege on my deal, Thor will be the first to die.”
Clint actually brightened slightly. “That’s true.”
And so it became the Avengers featuring the God of Mischief…for a limited time only.
Loki entered his designated room that night and didn’t come out the next morning. Or the one after that. No one protested.
Thor tried to barge in once he’d heard the news, earning a horribly blistered palm when he touched the doorknob. Tony treated it with burn cream while his friend laughed and admitted he probably should have seen it coming.
They found the double-agents working in SHIELD. Nick Fury was very silent and very still as they were marched into the back of an armoured van, black bags over their heads and arms bound behind their backs.
Tony had watched them go. “So what’s going to happen now?”
“Don’t ask stupid questions, Mr Stark.”
By his side, Steve just swallowed and turned away.
That afternoon, they decided Loki could stay at the mansion until Amora and Doom had been dealt with.
“I’m just saying, it’s been four days and he hasn’t come out. Doesn’t he need to eat?” Steve’s face was pinched with grudging concern. “Should we…get him a sandwich?”
For all his earlier reservations about letting Loki into the mansion, Steve had changed his tune slightly. Having your life indirectly saved apparently had that effect. Tony could appreciate that, but he’d learned to be wary of anyone offering no-strings help. Loki included. Living under their roof while he broke the locator spell just didn’t seem like an equal trade for the crucial information he had given Steve, and Tony found himself still waiting for the punch line.
“Yeah Steve, go bake him a pie. I’m sure he’ll love that.”
Smiling to himself at the annoyed ‘tsk’ he received for that, Tony pulled out the power core from inside DOS, setting it on the table while he unscrewed the port inside the chest cavity.
The readings JARVIS had provided after he’d disconnected from the Doombot had showed a slight power fluctuation upon connect and disconnect. Minor repair work, really – for all Doom’s self-proclaimed genius, his creations weren’t exactly a modern marvel. Not to him, anyway.
Steve dropped a newspaper on the worktable. “Maybe you should bake one,” he suggested. “According to this, you and Loki are best friends now.”
Tony quickly scanned the front page article while he cleaned the ports with an oiled cloth. He snorted loudly when he saw the dry nickname of ‘the odd couple’ – really, couldn’t they have done better than that? – and put down the cloth, grabbing the paper to read in more detail.
’In a stunning display of teamwork, Iron Man and the city’s own walking natural disaster zone Loki (pictured) worked in tandem to rescue a carnival of citizens from a chilly demise, nearly forfeiting their lives in the process.’
To the right was a large, slightly over-sharpened photo of Loki bracing the ice with all his strength, his eyes glowing an unholy green. No magic my ass, Tony thought with a shake of his head. Behind Loki in the photo, his repulsor blast from the other side of the ice backlit him to look like some kind of avenging angel. It was actually a pretty good shot, even if Tony wasn’t exactly in it.
“Chilly demise? Really? Sounds like something from a b-grade movie.” He started to give the paper back to Steve before he thought better of it, instead tossing it to DUM-E, who naturally missed completely. “Put that over on the table.”
“Thor said the door is magically warded against him, but he keeps burning himself trying anyway,” Steve sighed. “Reminds me of those mouse experiments, you know? For the sake of his hands, could you at least try and get Loki out of his room for half an hour?”
“Why do I have to do it?” Tony replied, inspecting either end of the power core with a frown. “You could do it.”
“He likes you,” Steve said bluntly. “Don’t even try to pretend you don’t know that. He might have his reasons for trading off information with the Avengers, but I think he wants you to like him.”
Tony barked a short laugh. “Why do I have a mental image of him leaving dead birds on my doormat? Steve, he doesn’t like me, he just doesn’t hate me and with the recent spate of shit going wrong for him, I don’t know—Amora put it best; the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Also, remember, he stabbed me that one time.”
“Would you stop milking that?” Steve complained. “Thor said it was just a love tap, anyway. Just go make sure he’s alive, would you? Do it for your ol’ pal Captain America.”
Tony gave him a dirty look. “Don’t bring my childhood fixation on you into this.”
“I’ll let you touch my shield,” Steve cajoled, waggling his eyebrows.
“Good God.” Tony knew when he’d lost. There was really no defence against Steve Rogers when he tried his hand at awkward innuendo. “Fine, I’ll do it.”
“Thanks, Tony,” he said gratefully. “Really.”
“Yeah, yeah. But if you really wanted results you should’ve said you’d spit-polish my helmet.”
Predictably, Steve went absolutely crimson. But he was trying not to laugh at the same time, which Tony counted as a win in his books. He couldn’t get him to say anything worse than ‘ass’ and ‘damn’, but he had hope that the 21st century could corrupt Steve eventually. With a little help from him, of course.
“I think I saw that in an internet comic last week,” Steve offered, shaking his head. “Seriously though, thanks. I’m more concerned about Thor than anything. He just looks so hangdog lately.”
Wasn’t that the truth. Every time Tony had seen their resident thunder god in the halls he’d looked like someone had just stolen his lunch money.
“I think he had some idealistic delusions about what Loki staying in the mansion might mean for their little falling-out,” Tony replied with a shrug. “Which is probably why Loki has done his damndest to disappoint him.”
Pushing the power core back into DOS’s chest, Tony connected it at either end and put the chest plate back in place, snapping it back into position and tightening a few screws at each corner.
“JARVIS, connect up and gimme a quick diagnostic.”
“Yes, sir.” DOS’s eyes lit up yellow as connection was established, and then he was moving on his own, joints all working at the same time.
For someone as self-aware of his own genius as Tony was, he was still in mild disbelief that his household AI could walk and talk of his own accord. JARVIS just took it all in his stride. He couldn’t connect anymore unless Tony expressly told him he could, and even then his combat protocol was completely disabled. But just seeing him do a lap around the table seemed like something out of a sci-fi movie.
“Diagnostic scan complete. Power fluctuation no longer present. Well done, sir.”
“Cool. Disconnect from DOS and shut down the workshop for me. We’re done for the day.”
Steve walked as far as the main hall with him, until his better judgement kicked in and he diverted toward the kitchen, begging off with some excuse about it being 8pm and not having eaten dinner yet. Tony couldn’t really blame him, but he cursed anyway.
So it was that he found Thor leaning on the wall opposite Loki’s door, frowning contemplatively. Both his hands were wrapped in thick white bandages. He straightened up when he saw Tony, then bizarrely hid his hands behind his back.
“Steve told me,” Tony said by way of a greeting. “Wanna tell me why you’re doing this to yourself?”
Thor’s mouth opened, but he closed it almost immediately, crossing his arms over his chest defensively.
“If I don’t, he’ll think I do not care. I would rather withstand a few burns than give him cause to think such a thing,” he said, his jaw set at a stubborn angle. “My hands will heal.”
In that instant Tony felt a swell of affection for his teammate. His dogged persistence was charming, in a futile, hopeless kind of way. Some of the grudging resentment he’d felt about coming to shake Loki out of his cave dissolved. While he’d been in his workshop, refining DOS and repairing his suit, Thor had been knocking at a door he knew wouldn’t be answered. And then knocking again anyway.
“You’re a good guy, Thor,” Tony surprised himself by saying. “But you blame yourself more than I think you deserve. Loki knows that and he’s just enough of an asshole to let you steep in it. Go see Jane or something. Have some actual fun.”
Thor looked hesitant. “I…have not seen Jane for some days now,” he confessed. “Perhaps a short visit?”
“That sounds like a great idea. Say hi for me.”
“I will do that, Tony Stark.” Turning to head down the hall, Thor suddenly halted and looked back over his shoulder. “Darcy has expressed an interest in you, also. Might I send her your regards?”
“Thor, she tried to list me on Facebook as her grandfather.”
Thor looked amused. “I shall tell her you have taken great offence to her light-hearted jest.”
“Do that.” Tony watched him go, absently noting how his bandage-swathed hands clashed with his red mantle. Steve hadn’t bothered to separate his fingers. Guess he really was sick of playing nurse. Now there was a mental image.
When he was gone Tony turned back to the door to Loki’s bedroom. Four and a half days had passed, and not a sound from within. Half of him wondered if he’d escaped through the window. The other half suspected he’d died in there. But the magic still held, and JARVIS had detected nothing so Tony was left with one option.
Pulling off his shoe, he threw it at the door as hard as he could. It struck wood with a sharp bang and bounced off harmlessly. Interesting.
Smoothing out the newspaper he’d bought with him, Tony knelt down, pulled out his pen and scrawled ‘stop being a greasy hermit’ along the top of their article. Then he slid the whole thing under the door as far as he could.
Job done, he thought cheerfully, putting his shoe back on. Then he turned around and headed to his room to shower. No one could say he hadn’t extended the olive branch. Thor had finally left the mansion, Steve wouldn’t give him his disappointed look, and Tony would still get to spend his evening in relative peace. The small detail of Loki never actually leaving his room would just prove Tony’s point for him. Maybe they’d all finally leave him be and stop pretending they were BFFs.
Half an hour later Tony was freshly showered and wandering barefoot into the kitchen, absently scratching his scar while he reviewed preliminary blueprints on his tablet. Jets weren’t really his forte, but they were no harder than anything else he’d developed.
Steve looked up as he walked in, wordlessly filling a bowl with something from a pan on the stove. He slid it Tony’s way across the bench, a fork quickly following.
“I made way too much,” was Steve’s explanation. “And you eat way too little. Scotch is not a food group. There’s more in the pan if you want it, just wash up when you’re done. I’m hitting the shower.”
Tony stuck a fork into what looked like a delicious mess of pasta and chicken, among other things. “Hey I eat fine, I just don’t always remember to do it regularly. There’s a difference.”
“Uh-huh,” Steve replied, already disappearing down the hallway. “Sure there is. Hey, did you hear from Loki?”
“Not a peep,” Tony replied cheerfully. “Guess your little theory was wrong. Have fun in the shower, Cap.”
“Okay!” Steve called back, making Tony lose his forkful of pasta. Well, all right then.
After Steve was gone, Tony began to feel just how quiet it really was for once. With the common areas all deserted, he felt the silence begin to seep straight into his bones. It wasn’t a bad thing, really, but he was used to someone being around at any given time. But Monday night at the mansion wasn’t exactly party central, and the others didn’t work on the same hours he did.
So he ate in relative silence, perched on a bar stool at the kitchen bench, possessed by a ridiculous appetite while he prodded at his tablet and made some quick notes on propulsion versus optimal landing speed. Hey, some people knitted, but Tony Stark made jets for fun.
After dinner he poured himself a scotch in pure defiance of Steve’s ‘food group’ comment and headed out to the balcony. The nights were getting cold lately, but the sky was clear and brilliant with stars. It wasn’t his turn to patrol, but Tony still felt the longing pull to be up there anyway, high as hell with the city just a wash of lights under his feet. For all that the Avengers were about their duty to protecting the people, given half a chance Tony would spend most of his days suited up, just flying around.
“Finally done with your Doombot?”
Tony turned around to find Banner standing in the doorway, reading glasses in one hand and what was probably a self-help book in the other. He was smiling hesitantly, not looking quite at home talking to him casually. Tony understood that. Bruce had been the least vocal about Loki moving into the mansion but he’d been as pissed off as the rest of them, convinced it was a horrible idea. Since then they’d been living with Hulk.
“Welcome back,” Tony greeted, raising his glass in a mock-toast. “Please tell me you’re over the mean and green. Thor’s not here to patch the ceiling if you’re feeling smash-y.”
Bruce gave him a crooked smile. “I think I’ve got it under control for now. I just wanted to check in with you, make sure everything’s okay.” He hesitated. “Clint tried to start a betting pool on how long it would take you to get stabbed again.”
Tony took a long sip of his scotch. “Really. How much did you lay down?”
“Ten dollars.” Banner shrugged. “I think you’ll be okay.”
“C’mon, I piss you off as much as I do everyone else,” Tony scoffed. “What do you really think?”
“I think if he wasn’t holed up in his bedroom you’d be floating face-down in the pool by now.”
“Ye of little faith,” Tony quipped, draining his glass. “Steve thinks he likes me.”
Bruce just gave him a patient look. “It’s not impossible, but I think he likes the teleport shield you invented a lot more than he likes you. He doesn’t think much of humans, Tony. He never will. He’s dangerous, and you should keep that in mind.”
When Tony only raised an eyebrow in reply, Bruce looked abashed.
“That was a bit preachy of me, wasn’t it? Considering, you know. Me.” Walking back into the house, Tony clapped the other man on the shoulder as he went.
“Trust me, I’m not in danger of mistaking him for a possible ally. That’s Thor and Steve’s shtick.” Putting his glass in the kitchen sink, Tony turned and gave Banner a shrug. “Thanks for the concern though.”
Still obviously uncomfortable, Banner nodded and said his goodbyes, leaving Tony to ponder what he’d said. Why did everyone think that it was him who was eager to get Loki on the team, or have him stay long-term? He saw the benefit in getting information from him, just like Fury had. And he was going to help them take down Doom and Amora, not necessarily in that order.
It was all strictly business.
Well no, Tony amended, remembering a cool mouth on his ear.
But it was mostly business.
Another day passed. Clint set up a secondary betting pool on whether or not Loki had climbed out the window and left for shits and giggles.
Tony threw a hundred down on him still being in the mansion just to see Thor beam at him.
“Sir, there is such a thing as too much maintenance. The hand repulsors are in optimum condition.”
“I know that, JARVIS. I’m just checking the replacement.”
“Well, you’re being very anal about it.”
“Wash your mouth out,” Tony replied, unfazed. “And please don’t ever say the word ‘anal’ again. It just sounds dirty when you use it.”
It was a typical late Wednesday night for Tony, three floors beneath the Avengers mansion in his workshop. If he was honest with himself he didn’t have much reason to be down there, other than he couldn’t sleep and didn’t have to patrol. Again. He couldn’t prove it yet, but he had his suspicions that Steve was dicking around with the roster.
Either way, it meant that instead of fighting whatever crime was out there, Tony was reclined in his office chair doing hand exercises with the detached gauntlet from his suit like he had some kind of purpose in mind for it.
“And you called me a greasy hermit,” Loki commented from behind him. “I rather think it’s quite the reverse, don’t you?”
For the first time Tony silently damned his inherent, irresistible charm. He swung around slowly in his chair to face Loki.
He was standing just inside the doorway to the workshop, pale fingers resting on the doorframe. He looked tired, Tony decided, but still a lot more rested than he’d looked five days ago.
He also looked smaller, in a manner of speaking. In place of his usual bulky armour and leather, he was wearing a dark green linen shirt that had a shallow ‘v’ of undone laces at the throat. A quick glance at his legs showed black suede and boots. It looked like some of the clothes Thor favoured when he wasn’t in his armour, not that he would ever mention that.
Tony wasn’t sure what to make of this new casual Loki, with his damp hair falling around his face and his distractingly white throat on display. So he just returned to flexing his hand inside the red gauntlet, checking for any catches in the joint movement.
“I use a specially designed joint lubricant for the armour, not grease,” he replied, turning his hand palm up and working his armoured fingers into a fist. “And I haven’t been hiding for nearly six days.”
“I had a spell to break,” Loki said curtly. “Social courtesies could wait.”
“What about food?”
Tony frowned. “What, the furniture?”
Pushing off the wall abruptly, Loki strode toward him. To Tony he looked a lot like he was stalking his prey, but refused to feel nervous about it, instead focussing his attention on the wrist joint of the gauntlet, slicking oil inside it with his free hand to take the faint grind out of it. It didn’t need it, but—
Two hands settled on his shoulders, firm and cool. Long fingers fit themselves over the curve of muscle and bone, thumbs lightly pressing into either side of his spine. Tony’s brain scrambled. He wasn’t sure why; there was nothing intimate about it. But he was suddenly coming up empty for reasons why Loki would willingly lay hands on him.
“You would do well to remember who I am, Stark,” Loki murmured, and his thumbs flexed hard into the tense muscle along Tony’s shoulders. “Perhaps my presence here in your very secure underground room should give you an idea of how resourceful I can be.”
That was true; the elevator shouldn’t have opened for him. He couldn’t teleport, either. Thor had once said Loki was stealthy enough that even their gatekeeper on Asgard couldn’t see him when he didn’t want to be seen. Tony had just assumed he teleported everywhere.
“So you’re telling me you didn’t eat the furniture?” Impressed? Who was impressed? Not Tony Stark. “Then I guess if you’ve broken that locator spell, you’ve got your magic back and Amora can’t find you anymore. Which means you’ll be on your way soon, right?”
To that, Loki made a low, thoughtful sound. “Oh, I don’t know about that.”
The hands in Tony’s peripheral vision were suddenly limned in a green glow, and he felt the presence of something he couldn’t quite explain begin to seep beneath his skin. It felt like razor wire wrapped in silk; a goddamn hair’s breadth away from lethal. Tony’s heart began pounding double time as the sensation spread through his chest, fanning out like skeletal fingers, searching or exploring or maybe just trying to scare the absolute hell out of him.
Behind him, Loki inhaled sharply through his nose and bent down over Tony’s shoulder, staring at his chest as though he saw something other than a blue glow beneath a black tank top.
“So that’s it, then. I had wondered.” The sensation vanished, and Loki’s magic faded. “There are metal shards around your heart.”
Tony had the strangest feeling of being naked, like something important had been stripped from him when he hadn’t been paying attention. Some of the Avengers didn’t even know that much about him. All they knew was that if the arc reactor came out, he was on a countdown until a new one was put in. But no one had just pulled the secret straight from his chest like so much useless information.
“It’s shrapnel,” Tony snapped, standing up in a rush. Pulling off the gauntlet, he stalked over to where the suit lay in its hangar, adding it to the dismantled pieces. His whole chest felt cold and raw. “And you could have just asked me.”
Loki looked faintly amused. “Yes, but then I would have to trust you to be honest.”
“Of the two of us, you’re the one they call Liesmith,” Tony replied flatly. “Keep your magic fingers to yourself from now on.” Feeling tense and angrier than he could rationally explain away, he started packing away his tools in quick, deft movements.
It was an old ritual, one he didn’t need to think about, but he kept his eyes on it as he stored away oily rags, screwdrivers and spanners, sweeping the rest of his things into the deep drawer beneath the worktable and locking it with a hard turn of the handle.
“How did you come by them? Were you attacked?” Loki asked from beside him, still pushing. Didn’t he know—did he just not give a damn that he was on thin ice? Of course not, Tony thought blackly. He was no threat. All the same, he wasn’t about to tell the tale of Obadiah Stane’s machinations. Or his untimely end.
“Tell you what,” he said suddenly, mouth curving in a hard smile. “I’ll tell you how I got them when you tell me why you start turning blue from the hands up when you use that Casket of Ancient Snow. No, actually, I’ve changed my mind. Why don’t you show me?”
“Casket of Ancient Winters,” Loki corrected automatically, but his voice was brittle. “And I refuse.”
Tony shrugged. “Then I guess you’re shit out of luck. JARVIS, get the lights. I’m done.” Wiping his hands off on a towel, he tossed it down on the table as the overhead fluorescent lights blinked out one by one, leaving only the dim red emergency floor lights to show him the way out.
“I’ve upset you,” Loki said carefully; a dark shadow to his right. “That was not my—”
“Intention? Yeah, it was, Loki. You're good at pushing buttons, and you succeeded. So now you can take your magic and your manipulations, and kindly get the hell out.”
Tony heard a sharply indrawn breath at that, but it was the hand on his bare arm that really got his attention. It was cold as ice.
“Stark,” Loki said quietly, “I cannot leave yet. The spell is broken but my magic is…far from fully recovered. You would send me to die?”
He stood in front of Tony, barring his exit, and as Tony paused to digest that a second hand lifted to encircle his other arm. The temperature shock lifted goosebumps all over his arms, made the back of his neck prickle. But he couldn’t see a damn thing, and somehow he knew if he had JARVIS turn on the lights, Loki wouldn’t take it kindly.
“Were I of true Jotun descent, this would burn you terribly,” Loki said, and one hand slid up his arm, leaving a frigid trail of sensation in its wake. “But I am of mixed blood. After the war, Odin took my infant self for a bargaining chip and raised me like a son. A disappointing son, but a son nonetheless. All was well, until a frost giant’s touch undid a lifelong secret and my skin bled from Aesir pale to Jotun blue.”
Tony looked down at his arms, but saw nothing more than the darkened silhouette of a hand curled around his bicep. But the cold was proof enough for him. Loki was crossing a line in the sand Tony didn’t remember drawing, but he felt animosity begin to give way for the truth.
“You burn like this,” Loki whispered suddenly, and Tony felt like he’d closed the gap between them slightly. “To me, now, your skin is as a furnace.”
He swallowed. “Does it hurt?”
“No. Yes. As much as I hurt you, I imagine. How much do I hurt you, Stark?”
Tony had no idea what he was doing when he lifted his hand to Loki’s cheek in the darkness, pressing his fingers against skin scored with markings he’d only seen magnified on the HUD. His eyes turned red like that, too, he remembered absently. Tony felt the brush of eyelashes across his palm as he moved his hand from one side of his face to the other, feeling like he was brushing his fingers against a sculpture of ice. But his skin was dry, firm and yielding against the press of Tony’s hand.
Turning into the cradle of his palm almost hungrily, Loki sighed a breath that felt like the purest gust of winter against Tony’s face.
“You’re cold. Your skin actually emits a chill,” Tony said, hearing his voice thicken in his own ears. “But it doesn’t hurt. Loki, has anyone else ever…”
“No,” came the reply, voice smooth and low. “I despise this form.”
Tony heard the shifting rasp of cloth as Loki moved, and he let his hand drop down to the long column of his throat, tried to imagine the rich, deep blue of it. But he couldn’t. It just seemed to damn surreal, even for him.
He started slightly as a splayed star of ice –no, fingers– pressed over his heart.
“I took from you without permission.”
“Let me turn on the lights.”
“I’ve seen you before.”
“Then you have seen more than enough.”
“Oh, come o—”
An icy mouth stopped the rest of his protest, soft and wet and freezing against Tony’s lips.
Seeming as stunned as he was, Tony heard Loki made a whisper-soft sound of pain and want against his mouth, at which point Tony decided to hell with it and pulled Loki’s body flush against his, coaxing his mouth open and proceeding to give his tongue the weirdest case of frostbite he could manage.
Thor is going to kill me, he thought desperately as Loki’s hands slid under his shirt and up his back, making him grunt in surprise. But it wasn’t enough to stop because oh God, SHIELD’s third most wanted super-powered criminal was sucking on his tongue and Tony’s lips were going numb but it felt damn good and he’d never been all that great at denying himself anything.
Pushing the thought from his head Tony slid his hand up into a mess of long damp hair, his mouth dropping to find the sleek cold column of Loki’s throat.
Then the elevator door pinged and Clint walked into the room, activating the sensor lights in the entrance.
“Hey Tony, JARVIS said you…why are you looking at me like that?”
Tony managed to catch himself before he staggered, his arms full of nothing more than air. Loki had completely vanished, leaving him feeling like he might have just had the craziest hallucination of his life. That is, if he hadn’t been shivering like hell and—ah, damn it.
Staring at him, Clint slowly started backing into the elevator.
“Yeah awesome, so…I’ll just come back when you’re not sporting a raging hard-on in the dark by yourself. Bye.” The elevator swallowed him up again, leaving Tony to contemplate how best to bribe Clint into not telling Natasha or Steve about what he’d just come across.
“He couldn’t have just made us both invisible or something,” Tony grumbled, prodding at his lips gingerly. They felt cold and bruised, and his tongue tingled strangely in his mouth. “JARVIS, did you get any of that?”
Tony didn’t even need to think about it.
“Delete tonight’s surveillance. Let’s keep this strictly off the record.”
“Already done, sir.”
Now he just had to figure out exactly what the hell had just happened, and what it all meant. But first…a hot shower.
Somehow he just didn’t think cold water was going to have an effect.
After the incident in the workshop, Loki vanished into his room again.
Completely thrown for a loop, Tony had been left to think up a clever cover story for Clint that didn't involve a freezing cold make-out session with their resident god of mischief. Somewhere between 'I did not turn DOS into a sexbot' and 'doing maintenance on my suit does not get me hard' Tony gave up and allowed himself be blackmailed into making a new quiver of custom arrows; ones that fired sildenafil citrate straight into the bloodstream.
Why Clint thought it might someday be prudent to give his enemy an instant boner was beyond Tony, but it had shut him up nicely and beyond that he really couldn't bring himself to care.
JARVIS’s readings said that Loki had simply holed himself up in his room again. Tony didn't push it. Somehow he thought that whole moment had been a lot weirder for Loki than it had been for him, and bothering a freaked out sorcerer just didn't sound like a good idea.
So life went on, Tony kept honing his suit's capabilities, and Thor didn't try to kill him for sullying his wayward, more-than-slightly-psychotic younger brother.
It was just another night spent flying the friendly skies of New York. Iron Man had finally been pulled out of the hat for patrol duty, much to Steve's displeasure. Apparently he thought Tony hadn't been sleeping enough. Whatever. This was where Iron Man belonged. High in the sky.
Flying for his freaking life.
"Shit! Shit! Shit! Thor come in, you big blond bastard! I've got three Doombots on my ass and—ooh make that two, that's gotta hurt." Tony banked hard to the right and arched straight up into a tight loop, coming up behind the remaining Doombot and firing hard at the jetpacks with a few quick repulsor blasts. One of them wobbled, and hey, progress.
"Hey, hey Odinson, wherever you are, put down the crossword puzzle and give me some backup here!" Thor was en route and Tony knew it, but it made him feel better to curse him some.
Seeing one of the Doombots spin onto its back mid-air, Tony tried to drop off some altitude, but the electricity still hit the suit with a sharp crackle that made the HUD wash with static like analogue TV in a storm. It corrected itself just in time for Tony to see the other Doombot fire off three more blasts in his direction, striking him hard on the chest-plate.
"Yeowch!" he hooted, laughing despite the red warnings that lit up on the HUD. "Oh, oh that was just mean, Doomy. I'm starting to think you don't like me."
Knowing the Doombots transmitted back to Doctor Doom gave him free reign to say whatever was on his mind, knowing Victor was sitting back somewhere frothing at the bit. Tony thought it was price he had to pay for sending robots instead of fighting his enemies himself.
"Did you know that –whoa, close but no cigar, buddy- there's an exploitable weakness in the Doombots?" Swooping upright, he watched his two targets mirror him, obviously gearing up to pull out the big guns.
"There is no such weakness!" Doombot #1 barked at him. Tony laughed.
"Uh, yeah there is. It's a little something I like to call 'holy crap, look behind you'!"
The Doombots scoffed at him. "You fool, we are not so gullible!"
They prepared to fire on him. At close range like they were, it wasn't going to tickle.
"These are poor odds, indeed."
Tony had the immense pleasure of seeing the two 'bots spin mid-air just in time to have Thor belt one into the other so hard that pieces of metal went flying everywhere. As he'd predicted, the jetpack fuel tanks were compromised in an instant, causing both Doombots to explode together in a single giant fireball. A metal-plated head actually shot off like a firecracker and went spiralling down into the river below.
In Thor's hand, Mjölnir crawled with electricity. His eyes were flinty as he watched the scattered remains of the Doombots sink into the water. Then he turned to Tony.
"I was doing no crossword puzzle."
Tony snorted inside his helmet as they descended to the surface of the water, running a quick scan of the entry point of the Doombot wreckage. Thor followed, poking at the communicator in his ear. He'd never quite gotten used to the thing, but at least it was working. The last three prototypes had all been fried every time Thor summoned lightning.
"I was releasing tension, big guy. Don't take it personally."
Thor frowned. "Captain Rogers did tell you to take a partner on your patrol," he reminded Tony. "You would not have been in that situation had you done so."
"Yeah, but then you wouldn't have been able to come rushing to my rescue. You've been down on your damsel in distress quota this month. I was just helping out."
"You are passing strange, Tony Stark," Thor told him, but he was smiling. "And far too bearded to be a maiden."
"What, you don't like hairy women? Wow, Thor. That's…so shallow." Popping up his faceplate he watched Thor give a bark of laughter as he twisted to affix his hammer to his belt.
He was still watching when a robotic arm grabbed Tony's armoured leg and pulled him under the water.
The river poured into his suit through the open faceplate and he sank like a stone with only half a breath of air in his lungs. But the real problem was the green-glowing Doombot hand that was clamped around his thigh, squeezing hard enough to bend the metal inward around his leg. Agony and green light shot through his thigh as it pulled him deeper below, and he felt the internal joints in the leg of the suit rupture.
Trying desperately not to scream and waste his air, Tony clenched his teeth and stared up at the surface as it faded from view in the dark water.
Before he could even manually aim his repulsors at the glowing arm dragging him under, the water above exploded with a great cloud of bubbles and a strong hand gripped his shoulder. Thor.
Panic and relief ignited inside Tony in tandem. He needed air desperately and—oh god, that's what beard feels like, he thought woefully as Thor breathed a hot lungful of air into his mouth before diving down to give the arm a glancing blow with Mjölnir, sending it shooting off into the water. The outer layer of his thigh armour went with it, but Tony didn't care. Firing his boots, he shot past the surface like a cork out of a bottle, hovering high above it as water poured out every joint of the suit.
His thigh was a fierce, hot ache inside the bent metal, but he managed to land on the dock without jarring it too badly. Thor burst out of the water a moment later, landing in front of where Tony sat running diagnostics on his suit's busted leg.
Just once he'd like to come out of a battle without his suit needing a semi-major repair, he thought in resignation. Or worse, a complete rebuild. Actually in light of recent battles, this probably wasn't so bad.
"Is your leg broken?" Thor asked in concern, kneeling down to stare at the crumpled metal. "It looks fiercely painful."
It was pinched inward in the perfect shape of one skeletal Doombot hand, ripples of metal curving down toward it. His leg was screaming beneath it, and he could feel the warmth of blood pooling inside the suit. One of the parallel rods in the exoskeleton had split and stabbed him in the leg, maybe. He wouldn't know until he got the suit off. That was going to be all kinds of fun.
"I don't think so, but it hurts like a bitch," he grunted, completing the diagnostic and popping the faceplate back up. "Nice save, by the way. What the hell grabbed me? Doombots aren't usually that strong."
Thor held up a limp Doombot hand, stripped to rods and wires. The full green glow was gone, but it still sparked dangerously with greenish light. Tony was surprised to find he could easily tell the colour of the magic was too bright to be Loki's.
"An unholy alliance of science and magic," Thor declared darkly. "It seems that Enchantress is still in league with Victor von Doom. My brother must be informed."
"Are you sure? Doom gets up to some mystical crap too, when he's in the mood."
"This is Amora's work, of that I am certain. But Loki will be able to confirm it when I give this to him."
To Tony, Thor looked a little too happy to have a legitimate reason to see his brother. He was oddly reminded of a dog playing fetch with a stick. Here, here, I have something you'll like, you like me now right? It made Tony feel inexplicably guilty. Which was stupid, really. No one controlled who Loki spent his time with.
Tony squinted at Thor. "Thanks for the air back in the river," he said, his mouth quirking at the corner. "Very, uh, generous of you."
Thor actually beamed at him. "You are indeed welcome, Tony Stark. If you would like to brag, I would not be averse to this."
"Pepper was right; I am a terrible influence." Bending his good leg, Tony tried to get himself upright but it took Thor slinging an arm around his metal shoulders before he could stand on his own.
"Can you fly like this?"
"Yeah. Landing in the hangar is going to be fun, though."
"No thanks, Thor. The last thing I need to see is a picture of you carrying me home splashed over the front page of the news." Firing his boots again, he rose a few feet in the air. "Race you back?"
Thor gave him a disapproving look. "I really don't think that is a wise course of—" Swinging his hammer he took off like a red and silver bullet, laughing his head off. "Loser is doomed to Hel!"
"You dirty cheater!" Tony yelled at his retreating back, and shot after him.
The race back to the mansion ended in Thor hitting the hangar floor face-first after Tony fired a mild repulsor blast at his shoulder the moment he knew he was about to lose. Falling on top of Thor while in the suit was just sheer petty revenge; an act Tony immediately regretted when he jarred his injured thigh.
Once Thor also saw the blood seeping through the busted metal he was good enough to stop kidney-punching the suit and call for help.
The next twenty minutes were simultaneously hilarious and frustrating. Natasha and Steve fumbled around under JARVIS’s instructions trying to find all the manual releases in the Iron Man suit before he lost too much blood, which resulted in a lot of uncomfortable hands in places Tony wasn't entirely sure he wanted them. But they couldn't put him in the gantry because of the leg, so he put up with it.
They had him down to just the ruined leg piece and his bodysuit when Loki apparently came to see what all the shouting and swearing was about. Tony barely saw him slink in out the corner of his eye; just a dark shape leaning against the far wall, watching with sharp eyes. A spectator. Great.
"Just lie back and think of alcohol," Steve was advising him, a laser cutter clenched between his teeth as he peered at the seams between the metal. "Lots and lots of alcohol."
"Get away from my dick with that, Steve," Tony ordered, blinking away stars. "I can do this myself, just let me—"
"Damn it. Natasha, will you—"
"Nope." She reached for the manual side release on the calf before removing the boot, which was all wrong, why was no one listening to the genius creator of the suit? Oh, he'd lost a bit of blood, he must be off his tree. Assholes, Tony thought unkindly, head thunking back against the concrete floor. More stars filtered across his vision.
Thor looked woeful. "I should not have raced you back. Nor hit you so many times knowing your leg pained you," he said, and gripped Tony's forearm. "Forgive me."
"Yeah, yeah," Tony said wearily. "It's really not bleeding that much. Don't read me my last rites or anything."
The others spent another five minutes arguing about which part of the leg to tackle first, while Thor produced a skin of ale from under his mantle somewhere and poured it into his mouth while the others weren't looking. Tony decided he actually liked Thor a lot.
"Well I don't know how to get it off without getting out a chainsaw," Steve said finally, sitting back. Natasha shrugged and took the miniature laser cutter from him, squinting at it.
"Besides, even if we broke the leg piece apart we might end up nicking his femoral artery during removal, depending on how deep he's got that metal stabbed in his thigh." Natasha had a real knack for stating horrible truths like she was discussing the weather.
Reaching out for the tools scattered around him, Tony picked up a large wrench and stared at it blankly. Maybe some levering pressure would—wait, no, he'd just end up with a broken leg to boot. When he cautiously flexed the muscles his nerves lit up with pain, but it hurt the most somewhere toward the inner thigh. That's where he was bleeding from, but without being able to see if he had something embedded inside his leg, he could tear it up pretty badly if he moved the armour.
Letting his arm fall slack, the wrench hit the concrete at the same moment he glanced over and met Loki's eyes. The amused look in them told Tony all he needed to know.
"You could do it, couldn't you?"
Everyone turned to stare at Loki – especially Thor, who apparently hadn't realised he was there if the poleaxed look on his face was any indication. But Loki didn't spare any of them a glance; he just watched Tony, a razor smile curving up the corners of his mouth.
"I could," he agreed, pushing off the wall and approaching Tony where he lay. "If I wanted to."
Loki was without his armour again, he noticed, just wearing simple black on black. It made his eyes look startlingly green against the monochrome shades of his skin and hair. Or maybe that was just Tony's blood loss talking. In fact, yeah, it was probably the blood loss.
"Please tell us you want to help," Steve said bluntly, shifting away so that Loki had more room. "I will personally punch Thor in the crotch if you will get this thing off Tony."
Everyone stared. Steve stared back stubbornly. Finally Loki cleared his throat.
"Oh Captain, my Captain," he replied dryly, a hand on his heart. "Thank you, but I need no such incentive to render assistance this time. Stark has earned this."
On Tony's other side, Thor looked down at his hands for a moment and moved right away from his brother. In fact he disappeared from Tony's peripheral vision altogether, but that might have had something to do with the steel dagger in Loki's hand.
"Haven't we danced to this tune before? Like, twice?" Tony quipped, but his heart wasn't in it. Still, he held up the wrench in his hand warningly. "Just know that I'm also armed and dangerous."
"And bordering on anaemic," Natasha muttered. "Let him do what he needs to."
Kneeling down beside his leg, Loki reached out and deftly slit a hole in the hip of Tony's bodysuit. To his unending relief the dagger vanished just as quickly as it had appeared, but he was immediately on edge again as long fingers slid inside the opening he'd made, pressing down against the bare skin beneath.
"What are you going to do?" Tony asked warily, his thoughts darting in all directions, fingers reflexively clenching around the wrench in his hand. Loki just stared into middle-distance for a moment, head tilted as though listening for something. The eyes that slowly locked with his were burning green with gathering magic. Tony's thigh hummed with it then, and he felt the now-familiar threads of it working down through his leg, seeking the damage.
"There is no metal in his leg," Loki said distractedly, his brow creasing slightly. "The wound is odd."
"How odd?" Tony asked calmly. "Tell me what we're talking about here."
Loki just looked at him. In that instant Tony's whole arm twitched, contorting against his will. His hand spasmodically clenching the wrench, Tony watched with distant horror as he swung it up and clubbed Loki in the side of the head as hard as he could.
The impact reverberated up his arm –his green-glowing arm– and he heard something crunch. Blood flew from the wrench as he pulled it back, gasping, only to watch it come down on Loki's head again before anyone could so much as understand what was happening. Least of all Tony.
As the wrench came away dark with blood once again, stunned green eyes stared into his, already growing dull and dark. Loki seemed to take forever to fall. But in the end, his head lowered, the caved-in side of his skull weeping gore.
Oh my God he's dead, he's dead, I killed him, I killed Loki—
But two strong hands slammed Tony's shoulders back down to the concrete as Loki braced himself there, gasping raggedly. The wrench was then ripped out of his hand, his wrists pressed down to the ground above his head. Tony saw Steve bearing down on them with all his strength, Natasha throwing herself down on his free leg to do the same. His body—no, it wasn't his body, something was happening to it—
"What's happening? Why is he doing this?" Steve panted, grunting as he strained to hold his arms down. "Why is he so damn strong?"
"Tony Stark is enthralled," Loki snarled, "and someone has whispered to his bones that I am to die at any cost."
His eyes rolling uncontrollably, Tony could only catch quick glimpses of the people around him. His entire body had gone nuts; even his teeth ground ineffectually like they wanted to tear Loki's throat out. He couldn't speak, he could barely breathe—but he could see, and what he saw was his friends holding him restrained as Loki rolled up his sleeves and began tearing apart the metal around his thigh with his bare hands. Agony ripped through his leg, spine arching ineffectually off the ground while his fingers formed claws that couldn't gouge out Loki's eyes.
Oh God, I'm still in here, he thought as Thor forced him back down with a palm on his ribs. He was panicking and he knew it, locked inside his own traitorous skin. Don't kill me, it's not me, I wouldn't do this.
"There is sorcery in his eyes, brother," Thor said suddenly, bending over him and holding his chin still with one strong hand. "I see the emerald taint of Amora's magic. The spell has enslaved his entire body. Loki, your head…can this not wait until you are well?"
"No," was the curt reply, sharp over the screech of cold metal forcibly bending. The hum of the laser cutter followed it. "Hold him down, Thor. I must strip the spell from his marrow before it takes his mind."
Above him somewhere, Steve swore. "Can he survive that? Like—this? He's been bleeding."
"Worry less about Tony and more about the concussed sorcerer trying to help him," Natasha said flatly, bodily holding his thrashing leg down. "I can see inside his head from here, Rogers."
"Loki is a true master of magic. He can do this." The certainty in Thor's voice was almost humbling, and Tony felt the hands on his injured thigh go still for the briefest of moments. Then fingers plunged into the gash in his leg, seeking bone to begin the spell.
"Oh my God," Steve whispered shakily as Tony howled inside his mind, senseless with pain.
"He will be in agony," Loki said, his voice quenched of all inflection. "I must grip the cursed bone and chase the corruption with my magic—"
"Can't we at least knock him out?" Natasha said, her voice fraying as she watched.
"He will be rendered insensate soon enough."
"Loki!" Steve protested. "You know he didn't mean for this – let him have some peace. Wouldn't it make things easier?"
Tony's vision began to white out at the edges, sweat dripping back into his hair. He heard his breathing through the ringing in his ears; thick, slow and laboured, hissing in and out through clenched teeth. He'd been close to death before, but this…this had to be hell.
"If I wanted easier I'd have killed him," Loki said coldly. "In light of that, you should thank me for the great mercy I am showing him. Now give me silence. This is delicate work, and he might yet die from the strain of it if I'm not careful."
Tony was staring at the shrinking field of his vision when something shifted inside his leg. He knew enough of his surroundings to know Steve was telling him to hold on, and then his bones ignited.
It turned out he was able to scream, after all.
Honestly, after what he passed out from he didn't expect to wake up at all. But he did.
When Tony opened his eyes again, he was staring at his darkened bedroom ceiling. His skin was bare, there were blankets pulled to his chest, and he felt as whole and healthy as he ever had. A quick fumble around at his leg told him there wasn't even a mark left behind.
"What the hell?" he muttered. "JARVIS, lights."
His bedroom instantly flooded with light, leaving him squinting as his eyes tried to adjust. It was almost like he'd had some kind of hallucination. He was halfway to convincing himself he'd drank too much when he turned to get up and saw Loki sitting in a chair beside his bed, watching him.
He looked completely normal, too. Green shirt this time, black pants, boots. Damp hair falling loose and clear eyes bright with calculation. One elbow was propped on the arm of the chair, his fist casually cushioning his cheek. Loki just regarded him silently, seeming content to wait for him to act.
Tony couldn't think of a single thing to say. He just sat there on the edge of the bed, sheets pooled in his lap, and stared. Then Loki's other hand moved slightly, and Tony saw the ruined Doombot arm in his grasp, its metal skeletal fingers hanging limply.
It still sparked green at the joints.
He didn't remember getting from his bed to the ensuite. But for an instant he'd remembered smashed shards of Loki's skull fly from the wrench and then he was being violently sick in the toilet, stomach heaving as it emptied the little he'd eaten that night. It seemed to go on forever. Eventually he just sat back against the wall feeling shaky and raw, barely even registering the cold tiles under his bare ass.
So that had happened then, Tony thought, tasting bile. The Doombot hand that had grabbed him and pulled him under the water had stuck a spell inside his bones. Amora and Doom had turned him into a puppet to kill Loki. If he'd been inside the suit, if he'd been Iron Man…hell, maybe he'd have just died. Loki would have killed him in an instant if he'd been a real threat. What would that have gained Amora? One less Avenger, maybe, but more importantly Loki would have been forced to leave the mansion. Out into the open again, and fair game to hunt. So they'd made him into a pawn in their little game.
"I hate magic," he muttered to himself, pressing the heel of his palms to his eyes. "Nothing but trouble."
"Oh, it's not all bad," Loki said idly from the doorway. "Look at how good you feel after an ordeal that should have killed you." He leaned on the doorjamb slightly, studying the exposed line of his side. Right, the naked thing. Tony couldn't bring himself to care.
"Yeah, sure, thanks for saving me from a curse I got because of you," he said bitterly. "You're a real pal."
Loki twitched slightly, almost recoiling. Then he just curled his lip and turned away in disdain.
Tony watched the empty doorway for a while, but he heard nothing. Gone, then. Whatever. Why had Loki even been sitting there in the dark anyway? What if the mojo had still been on him and he'd tried to kill him? And okay, yeah, maybe he was overestimating his ability to kick wholesale ass, but Loki watching him sleep didn't make a whole lot of sense either.
He brushed his teeth and showered while he thought it over. Hadn't Loki said it would have been easier to just kill him? Considering he'd been changed into some kind of death-dealing zombie, Tony was surprised Loki hadn't reached straight for his daggers again. But he'd saved his ass instead, nursing a massive skull fracture the entire time. Then he'd healed them both up, not that Tony was lucid for that part. That was…yeah.
Hello there, guilt, Tony thought dryly as he stared at himself in the mirror. Long time, no see.
Wrapping a towel about his waist he walked back into his bedroom, resolving to put some pants on and go find Loki. Contrary to popular opinion he wasn't above apologising for being a dick, or at least admitting he had in fact been one. Pulling on a pair of sweatpants and a plain t-shirt Tony headed for the door, hitting the lights as he went.
Something told him he was either going to be back in five minutes annoyed and slightly injured, or this was going to take a while.
"Oh my God, Thor, again? I'm starting to think you like pain."
Thor was sitting in the hallway outside Loki's door, staring at his burned hands grimly. Tony didn't know what to make of the seriousness in his face – usually he just looked sad and brooding. He didn't have time to think about it though as his big blond friend jumped to his feet at the sound of Tony's voice, hurrying over to pull him into the bear hug to end all bear hugs.
"Tony Stark," Thor said thickly, "I feared the worst. Are you well?" Pulling back to hold Tony at arm's length, Thor searched his face in concern.
"I'm fine," he replied with a slight shrug. "A little pissed off, but generally okay. Did Loki tell you I died in my sleep or something?"
Thor shook his head. "Loki tells me nothing. It is simply surprising to see you so healthy now, when only a handful of hours ago you were white as snow, with your own blood a great pool around you. In the end Loki took no thanks for his efforts, instead choosing to relay you to your room. I suspect he worried for you, as we all did."
Oh, great. "Turn the knife a little more, Thor, I didn't quite feel that."
Thor frowned at him but he seemed to quickly dismiss the comment, moving down the hallway away from Tony.
"Forgive me, I must attend to other matters. Please give my brother my regards."
"Yeah, will do."
Assuming he lets me in, Tony thought as he reached out, rapping sharply on the doorframe. Like hell he was touching that door; Thor was definitely a cautionary tale in that respect. Hopefully he was going to get his hands salved again. Nurse Steve was going to love that.
He started slightly as the door unlatched, slipping open a crack to reveal dim light inside. But Tony didn't trust it, not one bit.
"Can I come in?" It never hurt to be polite when dealing with an offended sorcerer. Tony heard something like a sigh come from inside the bedroom.
"Well now, I don't know. Can you?"
Ah, hell. Tony reached out and pushed the door open with light fingertips, walking into the room. The door closed with an ominous click behind him. Loki lowered his hand out of the vague motion it had made, not even looking up from the notes he was writing in what looked like the oldest journal in existence. He stood at the desk, lips moving silently over words Tony was sure he couldn't understand. He looked completely absorbed in it, so for lack of anything else to do while he was being ignored, Tony cast an eye around the room.
It was on the second floor, like his own, but sparsely furnished with a large wooden desk, a low-slung king-sized bed, a fifty-inch wall-mounted television and a huge set of drawers against the far wall. Loki hadn't done anything to the room's effects; in fact the only sign of life Tony could find in the room was the journal on the desk and a faint dent in one of the pillows on the bed.
"Nice to see you've made a home of the place," Tony commented, sitting himself on the end of the bed. "It's cozy."
"Spare me your incredible wit, Stark. I simply cannot fathom it." Making a few final notes, Loki put his pen down and vanished the entire book with a swift motion of his hand. When he looked up, his narrow gaze was dark.
"Have you not had your fill of me tonight? Given your reaction earlier, I believe I am correct in assuming you blame me for tonight's misfortune. But if I am wrong, why, please do enlighten me." Leaning back against the desk, Loki pinned him with angry green eyes. Tony could have winced.
"Wow, you're crabby. But I get it," he said hastily, before Loki could verbally flay him alive. "I just, I flipped out a little, before. At you. I shouldn't have done that." Was he always this bad at getting his point across, or was it just harder when he was being stared at like he was an insect?
"You were an ungrateful wretch." If anything, Loki looked even more incensed. "You're lucky I didn't kill you for what you did to me tonight."
Why didn't you? The question was there, begging to be asked, but Tony forced himself to ignore it. He doubted Loki would answer him, anyway. Besides, looking a gift Loki in the mouth was a sure-fire way to get something vital bitten off.
"I am grateful," he insisted. "Really. Thank you for breaking the…spell. Or curse. Whatever it was. I'm not really up to date on my 'methods of magical control' studies."
It was a crappy show of gratitude and he knew it, but somehow Tony didn't think it mattered. Loki wasn't the type to really forgive anyone anything, and he got the feeling that what had been a minor outburst on his part had actually been a big slap in the face to the guy who had saved his ass. Considering Loki didn't save anyone, ever, he was probably currently reaffirming his original idea that helping save lives was pretty unprofitable in the long run.
Sure enough, Loki just turned away.
"You can leave now," he said calmly, his eyes turned to the desk again. The bedroom door unlatched again with a quiet creak, and Tony clenched his jaw. Summarily dismissed, thank you for visiting, don't come again. Wow.
He wasn't supposed to care, really. Loki was just using them for his own ends. The Avengers were using him for the same. Things like gratitude and being an asshole and saying sorry weren't supposed to factor into any part of their arrangement. Tony knew he could say as much and walk the hell on out, and that would be fine. The line in the sand would be redrawn before anything more came of—of whatever was going on.
The night in the workshop had blurred that line for Tony. Loki didn't even seem to remember it. And maybe it was just one more string for him to pull later when he was bored, but Tony remembered one thing about that moment in the dark.
He'd made a deal.
"I had a friend, up until few years ago," he said quietly. Loki frowned and glanced sharply at him, but Tony put up a placating hand. "Just—hear me out. He was a mentor, I guess you could say. He pushed me along after my parents died and took care of Stark Industries. Since I was seventeen years old, I relied on that man. I trusted that man."
It shouldn't have been this hard to talk about it, Tony thought. But maybe that was because he'd never really tried to. He didn't owe Loki this, not really, but somehow he found himself spilling the tale all the same.
"The shrapnel in my chest actually came from one of my own weapons. My trusted friend, this man that I'd known longer than even my own father, paid a lot of money so that the Ten Rings would blow up a military convoy with me in it. Luckily they only half killed me before they realised who I was." He let out a short, humourless laugh and shook his head. "Thank God for greedy terrorists."
Tony knew Loki was studying him intently; he could feel the eyes on the top of his head as he stared down at his hands. Pulling a deep, fortifying breath into his lungs he stood abruptly, scrubbing a hand through his hair.
"Anyway, good talk," he said, turning for the door. Bailing? Who was bailing? Exiting strategically was what he was doing. "A little late on the explanation maybe, but hey—"
"Did you kill him?" Loki asked quietly, and Tony stopped moving toward the door.
"You have a real knack for asking shitty questions, has anyone ever told you that?" he told Loki tiredly. Turning back to face him, Tony gave a jerky shrug. "Yeah, I killed him. Mostly. Technically you could say Pepper did, but don't tell her that or she'll have a fit."
Loki just nodded, seeming almost distracted. Then something clicked behind Tony, and he turned to see the door had closed again. Huh.
"You know, I was going to go…"
"Let me see it." Loki approached him almost carefully, but his eyes were almost steely where they fixed on the dim circle of light showing through his t-shirt. Tony watched him lift his hands and press them on either side of the arc reactor, fingers splayed wide. The faint warmth of his hands soaked through into his chest, and Tony swallowed.
Loki's eyes flitted up to his. "I have seen it before."
"Then I guess you've seen more than enough." The words had the intended effect; Loki's lips gained a faint curve to them.
"Shall I turn off the light, then?"
Tony snorted softly. "Are we remembering what happened last time we were in the dark together?" he asked, taking Loki's hands off his chest. "Crazy lapses in judgement ensued. I'm supposed to be a good little Avenger. No fraternising with the enemy."
Tilting his head slightly, Loki regarded him through narrowed green eyes. Unfortunately for Tony's willpower, the action exposed the sleek column of his neck in such a way that his eyes immediately fell there and traced the shadows of it, all faintly corded tendons and pale skin and damn it, why was he trying to be a good little Avenger, anyway?
"Fraternising," Loki repeated sourly, hands falling back to his sides. "Charming. Still, I suppose you have a point."
"Yeah, I totally do," he agreed, reaching out and pressing his fingertips to the skin just under Loki's jaw. "Clearly we should not be doing things like this."
Tony traced carefully down over one of those tendons around to the curve of his shoulder, his eyes following the motion. There his fingers ended up tucked just under the loose neckline of Loki's shirt, where the laces had parted it wide. It would be easy to slip his hand under there completely, to skim all the lines and shadows he found underneath.
Cool breath touched his wrist as Loki looked down at his hand, eyes hooded and lips parted. When he spoke, his voice was rich and low with meaning.
"I would have your mouth on me, Tony Stark."
"Where?" Tony's voice was shot with the whiskey-burn of arousal. Loki's eyes flared.
He didn't need to be told twice. Tony had his mouth on that pale throat before the word was fully out of Loki's mouth, trailing suckling, biting kisses down the strong length of it. Audibly groaning at the taste of salt and clean warm skin on his tongue, a pulse throbbing hot and alive under his lips, Tony barely felt the breath in his ear until a tongue darted in to taste the shell of it, lips wet and warm on the outer curve.
"Shit," he gasped against Loki's shoulder. "Okay, I need you out of those clothes right now." Pulling the shirt out of his waistband, Tony suddenly had a handful of lean, flat muscle and curving bone in the form of Loki's bare hips. They rocked into his grip at the first touch of bare skin, scattering Tony's intentions completely.
"In time," Loki murmured, his long fingers kneading hard into the taut muscles of Tony's back. He hissed quietly at the painful pleasure of it. "But first I would like your tongue in my mouth again, I think."
Tony was pretty sure he'd never been more turned on in his life. Loki wanted—yeah, okay, he decided as he mouthed along the curve of his jaw, finding warm and covetous lips part to fit to his, this was actually no time to be thinking.
The night slid by in long, hungry stretches of sensation. Of slick skin and hot breath, bitten-back groans and the rhythmic, aching rock of flesh meeting flesh. Loki was lithe and almost vicious with desire as Tony moved beneath him; he controlled the pace with each punishing roll of his hips but allowed his mouth to be tugged and bitten red until both of them were gasping with need.
Tony took whatever he could in his hands and mouth, barely feeling the sharpness of teeth on his skin or the painful pressure of inhumanly strong fingers on his wrists. It was raw and hot and good and he wanted it all. He swallowed Loki's sigh when they came, Tony's release completely stripped from him as the lean body above him shook and arched with its climax, still rocking above him long afterward, letting him take his time.
Later, when he was feeling the sweat dry on his skin and the soreness begin to creep into his muscles, Tony stared up at the ceiling and thought about going back to his own room. Sleeping in Loki's bed just didn't seem really in line with their current…whatever. Plus it'd be just his luck that Thor would return to his post outside and he'd end up being throttled by an angry blond god with scorched hands.
Turning his head, he snorted softly at the sight of Loki face-down in the sheets, arms thrown up above his head. He looked well-used and worn out, with his long hair sticking out everywhere in sweaty tendrils and a very visible hickey on his neck. Tony couldn't help but feel a little impressed with himself.
Almost as if sensing the attention Loki stretched hard beside him, letting out a weary exhale into the pillow. Tony stilled when he felt an ankle cross his calf beneath the sheets and stay there.
Ah, damn it.
"Sneak out closer to dawn," Loki muttered tiredly beside him. Turning his head slightly, he regarded Tony with one gleaming green eye. "After all, I may want you again in an hour."
Oh. Well. Tony might be feeling a little achy and sore, and maybe the wrath of Thor was looming in the back of his mind, but suddenly he was feeling really damn comfortable.
"Okay but I feel like I should warn you, my arc reactor glows pretty bright in the dark. JARVIS, lights." The room instantly descended into pitch darkness, but it was lit by the cool blue glow in his chest. "See, it's uh, it's probably going to piss you off."
Loki's face was all shadows and blue light as he considered the arc reactor. Tony didn't want to admit it even to himself, but it was more off-putting than just seeing the damn thing in broad daylight. He never had gotten around to designing a cover for it…
The sheets rustled as Loki shifted closer, pulling his pillow with him. Slumping back face-down on the mattress like a dropped corpse, he simply slung his arm across Tony's chest and went right off to sleep again. The light of the arc reactor was completely snuffed out, and there was now a line of naked skin pressed against his.
Tony blinked at the new arrangement. "That's…pretty effective, actually."
Loki just grunted something into the pillow. Somehow that rare lack of eloquence was a little bit endearing, though Tony would die before he ever admitted it. He put it down to good humour in the afterglow.
Closing his eyes, he hooked his ankle over Loki's and nodded off to sleep, weirdly content with the state of things.
Fifteen minutes later he had an incredible idea on how to fight Amora's magic and jumped out of bed looking for a pen and paper.
Loki shot him in the ass with a bright green something and rolled over with a curse.
Tony figured he deserved that.
In between being Iron Man and a member of the Avengers, it was easy for Tony to sometimes forget he was also the CEO of Stark Industries.
Since the inception of their little band of heroes he'd been on indefinite leave from all of the day-to-day business, but occasionally (read: whenever he couldn't put it off any longer) Pepper would hunt him down and throw paper at him until he cracked and gave in.
It just happened to be one of those nights. Still, Tony counted it as a win that he'd made her visit him at the mansion. While he was working on his new magic-blocking device –so far it had no name, and Clint was banned from coming up with ideas after he'd beaten Tony to the punch with DOS– he'd been all but living out of the sub-level workshop for the last three days.
Pepper, long used to his crazy hours and hermit tendencies when he was working on something big, decided that coming to him was the path of least resistance. This was kind of hilarious to Tony, considering so far she'd been darting glances around like a paranoid basket-case on LSD. He didn't have to ask who she was looking out for.
"I need these signed before tomorrow, so if you stop to read them I might actually scream." Perched on the edge of the couch, she slid a few documents across the low coffee table to him. Nobody could say he hadn't been at least trying to be a human being; he'd come up to the living room to meet her.
"Why can't I read them? It's my company. You could have me cancelling Christmas holidays for all I know."
"Tony—oh, don't even joke with me," Pepper sighed, handing another sheaf of paper over to him. "Your 'extended vacation' with the Avengers is driving me insane as it is. The media team needs a bigger budget, by the way. That's on page twelve."
While Tony was scratching his signature across the paper, Pepper cast another uneasy glance over her shoulder.
"I can't believe you made me come here," she muttered, taking a few documents back from him and stacking them neatly.
Tony felt a hand cramp coming on. "Why, what, you've been here before. Avengers headquarters. Big deal."
"Which is fine, except now you have a psychopath living here," she hissed back under her breath.
"Now that's no way to talk about Natasha," Tony admonished, smiling when she glared at him. "Loki's not so bad. He keeps to himself. Well, mostly."
It had been a few days since Tony had woken up on the floor beside Loki's bed, naked, freezing and surrounded by his preliminary plans for the magic-blocking device. He'd stuck around long enough to put his clothes back on and gather up his notes, figuring Loki wasn't exactly a morning person. Tony had left him tangled in the sheets with the strangest punch of guilt low in his stomach. Which, really, what the hell? It wasn't like he'd bailed on a one night stand; they lived in the same damn house.
Still, Tony had been working on his designs in the workshop since then and Loki hadn't shown his face down there even once. He wasn't stupid enough to think he was the cause of it – more likely this was just Loki being his usual antisocial self. Probably. It was kind of hard to tell.
"I can't understand how you feel safe with him living here," Pepper was saying, a worried little crease appearing between her brows. "I know I don't."
"Well, that's why Thor is standing guard," Tony reminded her, jerking his chin over at the other couch. "Or in this case, lying down."
Since it had become pretty clear that Thor was Loki's social kryptonite, Steve had asked Thor to keep close while Pepper was visiting the mansion. Thor had watched them hand paperwork back and forth for precisely twenty minutes before he stretched out on the couch and fell asleep, Mjölnir tucked up beside him.
"He's napping," she pointed out. Tony shrugged.
"Hey, he put in a big day today. Hulk wanted to test his resistance to lightning down in the arena. I think Thor did a rotator cuff or something swinging that hammer around. And now Banner smells like burnt hair." Tony signed off on the contract he held, scanning his eyes across it as he did so. "I can't believe I'm signing on paper. It feels so prehistoric."
He trusted that Pepper would have looked over every detail already, but it never hurt to keep up to date on what was happening in the company. Irritating journalists had a habit of springing out of the bushes asking random questions, so it paid to know what was going on at any given time.
"Well we're about a quarter of the way there," Pepper said after a moment, flicking through the stack of unsigned papers. "Should I get JARVIS to order some dinner? It's past eight—oh!" She broke off with a strangled gasp.
Tony looked up in time to see Pepper pull her shoe off and throw it, beaning Thor right in the head. He snorted awake with a start.
"I say thee nay, villain!" he bellowed, hammer held aloft. Then he spotted the shoe in his lap. "What has happened?"
Tony stared at Pepper, who had flushed red.
"Pepper, as your boss and your friend, I hope you know you can tell me when you feel a psychotic break coming on."
"No—Tony, it's him," she whispered, staring past his shoulder. "He's here."
Tony turned and followed her gaze. Sure enough, Loki was striding toward them, seemingly uncaring that Thor was sprawled out sleepily on the couch holding a woman's shoe in one hand and Mjölnir in the other. His vivid eyes were locked on Tony, and Tony alone.
"You said he wouldn't come here while Thor was around," Pepper said accusingly, her pen clenched in a white-knuckled fist. Tony didn't know what to say. He did usually avoid Thor like the plague.
"Ah yes, but that would make me predictable," said Loki. The sharp curve of his mouth was wicked. "And I simply can't have that."
Abruptly veering away from Tony, he approached where Pepper sat and glanced at the pile of files and papers she had stacked around her. Loki's eyes narrowed slightly.
"Well, this does look tedious," he commented. Pepper's eyes were wide as he leaned down over her shoulder –close, Tony noticed with no small amount of alarm, he was actually standing really close– and studied some of the signed contracts from just behind her shoulder.
"I could assist you, Miss Potts, in speeding up this little…chore."
Pepper swallowed and pointedly stared at the coffee table. To turn her head would probably brush Loki's cheek with her lips and, shit, Tony realised he didn't like the idea of that at all.
"Exactly why would you help?" she asked the table, eyes bewildered.
Thor sat forward slightly on the opposite couch as Loki smiled, his eyes flicking to Tony and lingering there.
"I can be generous…as Stark can attest."
Tony felt Thor's eyes settle on him like a lead weight and very carefully leaned back in his chair, affecting total ease and casual amusement. No mild panic in there whatsoever.
Luckily Pepper saved the day, clearing her throat slightly and gesturing at the paper.
"As you can see, unless you want to forge Tony's signature there's nothing really to be done," she explained, and damn if she didn't sound completely composed. Was this how she'd fooled Obadiah?
"Hmm," Loki said, mouth inches from her ear, and from the flush on Pepper's cheeks Tony could tell she'd felt that rolling hum all the way through her skin. Tony began to feel singularly turned on and jealous as hell. Was this—was this some kind of passive aggressive punishment? Why wasn't Thor doing anything? Damn that sleepy sack of beard. Some use he was.
Loki reached toward one of the signed papers then, stretching past Pepper's shoulder. He pressed his fingers flat against the fresh ink of Tony's signature and dragged them down over it, coming away with something held between his fingers. Something black with thin lines and sharp edges—oh.
"Oh," Pepper breathed, watching Tony's signature held captured between Loki's elegant fingers. "You pulled it off the paper, how—"
"One moment," Loki said absently, vanishing the ink. Then he pressed his palms to the stack of unsigned documents and contracts. They flashed green once; just a brief, bright spark of magic. "And now you are finished."
Pepper all but leapt on the contracts, leafing through them with the speed of a veteran pen-pusher.
"Oh my god, they're all – and they don't all look the same either, they're…these actually look original. Tony, look! They're all signed!" Sure enough, the paper she held up for his inspection bore his signature. "I don't have to spend all night here—this is great. With this extra time I can work on the agenda for the board meeting and take the auditor through in the morning."
"Yeah, that's great," Tony agreed, nonplussed. Just what the hell was going on?
Turning slightly, Pepper actually smiled at Loki.
"Thank you, Mr Laufeyson."
Loki's answering smile was a flash of sharp white teeth.
"I would prefer you called me Loki. And you are quite welcome."
Crafty asshole, Tony thought as he saw Pepper flush slightly. He had her pegged from the start. Time. Pepper valued time and anything that could save her some earned her instant approval. Even if the help came from Loki, apparently.
"You are so fickle," Tony told her, irrationally annoyed. "What happened to 'eww, no, a psychopath—'"
Pepper's glare nearly stripped the skin off his face. "I may have been a little harsh."
"Perhaps not," Loki shrugged, unaffected. "I have given Midgardians no reason to put aside their fear and mistrust. And I should hardly think a small kindness such as this would change that."
Pepper made a thoughtful sound. "You're actually…not what I expected. When you aren't blowing things up and stabbing Tony, you're quite civil."
Loki inclined his head slightly, a wry smile curving his lips. The look he gave Pepper spoke volumes.
"Long have I been told that my true talent lies in my tongue."
Pepper's entire demeanour changed in that second. It was like watching a train-wreck in slow motion. Her cheeks pinked, her eyes flickered helplessly to Loki's lips and back to his eyes, and worst of all she tucked her hair over her ear. That was her thing, Tony knew it was her thing because he used to make her do that.
Ten minutes. Not even ten minutes and Loki had her completely revising her opinion of him. That silver-tongued son of a bitch. It was payback. It had to be payback.
Across the table Thor made a small huffing breath and frowned, shooting Tony a telling look. Well thank God, Tony thought tightly. Thor knew what the score was as far as Loki's behaviour was concerned, even if he didn't know that it was pissing Tony off. It meant he wasn't going completely crazy.
"How is your progress on the device you wish to build?" Thor asked Tony then, gingerly rotating his shoulder. Yeah, he'd definitely done something to it when he sparred with Hulk.
Grateful for the distraction, Tony turned and angled himself toward Thor, purposely giving Pepper and Loki his back. Besides, this was his favourite topic of the day.
"Good so far. It's going to be a lot like the Deadlock in essence, projecting a localised field of magic-repulsing energy that will pretty much invert back upon the point of origin," Tony explained, watching Thor's brow wrinkle as he tried to translate what he was saying.
"You say it will rebound magic back upon the user?"
Tony beamed. "In theory, yeah. Of course, I've gotta factor in Mjölnir's key energy signature so it doesn't interfere with it…hey, you want to come down to the workshop with me now so I can scan it? I've got some time, now that Loki's just cleared my evening. It'll give us a chance to catch up. I've got some of that imported ale down in the bar fridge, too."
Suck that, Tony thought cheerfully as he saw Loki's expression tighten in his peripheral vision. Thor was all smiles, apparently as eager to get out of there as he was. Which was kind of strange, since he'd been all but stalking Loki's bedroom door since he arrived.
"I would very much like that," Thor said. "We have not shared a drink nor talked properly in some days. I could—"
"Ah, but someone must escort Miss Potts to her driver," Loki interrupted smoothly. "And if Captain Rogers' words are to be heeded…"
Thor gave a grumbling sigh. "I did swear," he said heavily, like it had been a task of utmost importance. The look he gave Tony was genuinely apologetic. "Another time, then."
Pepper checked her watch and started packing everything into her briefcase, shaking her head wordlessly to herself. Snapping it closed, she straightened and smiled at Tony.
"Good luck with your project. I'll keep you informed if anything else arises."
"Uh-huh. That'll be all, Miss Potts."
Pepper rolled her eyes. "I think that's 'Boss' to you right now." Her smile was fond. "Goodnight, Mr Stark."
Tony snorted softly and watched her leave, nodding to Thor as he walked her out. Ordinarily he'd do it, but as luck would have it he had a pissed off-looking sorcerer to deal with just then.
The second they left the room completely Tony turned on Loki.
"You're an asshole—" he started angrily, only to take a hasty step back as a long-fingered hand planted itself over his arc reactor, shoving him back towards the couch.
Tony wasn't having any of that. Grabbing Loki's wrist as he fell he pulled hard and spun them, actually catching the taller man by surprise and sending him sprawling amongst the cushions. Tony landed on top of him with an unapologetic thump that spared Loki none of his weight.
"You don't show your face for days and then you do that?" Tony said, planting his hands on either side of Loki's head. "I get the whole cry for attention, really, but—"
Loki stretched up and caught his mouth before he could say more, drawing him into a punishing kiss that was all sharp teeth and darting tongue, fingers clenched tightly in his hair so he couldn't draw away. When Loki yanked him back just far enough for him to speak, Tony could taste the words in his own mouth.
"I do not take kindly to being ignored, Stark," he hissed. "And when I seek you out only to be passed over in favour of my brother I—"
"Flirt with my ex-girlfriend, yeah, good plan," Tony shot back, hips twisting to make room between Loki's thighs as they rose on either side of him. "You were trying to piss me off."
"So were you." Hands slid down inside the back of Tony's jeans, cool and strong as they curved to fit over skin and muscle. "But I have you now."
"You sound pretty sure of yourself," Tony challenged, trying not to react as he felt fingers dip dangerously close to somewhere they shouldn't be – not in the Avengers common area, anyway. "What if I changed my mind?"
Loki's eyes were dark with anger and want as they glared up at him, only to scrunch closed as Tony abruptly ground his hips down into Loki's. The grip on his ass flexed and pulled, guiding him down and holding him flush there as the body under him rocked up in response. And that, yeah, okay maybe Tony could forgive him after all.
"If the hot and—ah—rigid state of you right now is any indication," Loki murmured into his mouth, inhaling sharply as Tony rolled his hips, "you haven't changed your mind at all. Or have you? I could leave now, have an end to it."
"Could you, though?" Tony asked roughly, dropping his mouth to the exposed jut of Loki's collarbone where it rose above the askew line of his shirt. Tony slicked it with his tongue and sucked hard on the pale flesh, teeth grazing the bone. Loki let out a nearly soundless groan beneath him.
"I did not say it would be a simple matter." Dragging his hands out of Tony's jeans and up under his t-shirt, mapping the dip of his spine, Loki dug his fingernails in slightly and dragged them back down. "Hm. I like having your weight upon me. I want to feel you like this."
Oh Jesus, Tony thought helplessly, he was not going to embarrass himself in the living room, was he?
"Yeah?" he panted. God he knew how to use his hands. "What else—tell me what else you want."
Those same skilful hands slipped over his hips before crossing to his stomach, splayed fingers greedily sliding up over his chest, rucking his shirt up as they moved. Tony felt cool fingertips draw a perfect circle around the edge of his arc reactor, saw the fascinated heat in Loki's green eyes.
"I want to follow the seam of this with my tongue. I feel the energy in it. I want to feel it under my lips when I give you release." Breathing shallowly, Loki's lips parted almost in anticipation as he stared at the glowing circle. "I want you to see my eyes reflected by it—I want it to be the only thing you see as you come rapturously undone in my hands."
Tony's mouth was completely dry. He stared down at Loki and tried to think of things like words and witty responses and yeah, no, that wasn't happening.
"Oh," Tony said, clearing his throat when he heard the ragged edge of his voice. "Yeah, that could be a thing. That you could do." He watched the smile as it brightened Loki's eyes, saw the intentions reflected there. No, not intentions. Promises. He'd meant every word he'd said.
In that moment Tony couldn't help but wonder what all Loki's curiosity, all his mischief and lust and random whims with him were all about. It baffled him. Straight-up sex he could understand. Tony had been paying in that kind of coin most of his adult life. But when you could be this hot for a person and still smile like that, it…Tony hadn't seen that a whole lot. It kind of figured it would be in the last place he looked. But the question kept teasing him; why?
"I can't quite figure you out," Tony admitted, owning up to his thoughts with a rueful quirk of his mouth. "You didn't need to—you already had our agreement, you know. About staying here until Amora and Doom were taken care of. So what are you doing?"
Loki tilted his head slightly, his brows twitching upward in mild surprise. The air started to cool between them and Tony felt fingers stroke back down his sides almost absently.
"Asking the Liesmith for answers." Loki sounded strangely distant. Tony's eyes traced the movement of his lips as they relaxed out of their amused curve. "Does that really seem like a wise course of action to you?"
He'd really expected as much by way of reply. Meaning, no answer at all. It didn't faze him. Tony just shrugged, pushing a wayward strand of hair off Loki's forehead.
"I'm the guy who interrupted a fight between three of the Avengers' enemies. Wise courses of action aren't really my forte."
A last ditch argument, maybe, but it wasn't a burning question to him. Loki did whatever he wanted. Tony was content enough to let him keep his secrets. He didn't have any illusions that their…mutual attraction, as it were, would continue past the point that they dealt with Doom and Amora.
As Loki lay thoughtful and silent beneath him, Tony started to wonder if he should move before Thor came back to find them tangled together on the couch. He was less than certain of the kind of reaction he'd get to his involvement with Loki, but it seemed like the kind of topic you had to ease into with Thor. Preferably after a few drinks. Drinks laced with valium.
Sliding down a little, Tony planted his knees and sat up on his haunches, offering Loki his hand to pull him up.
"I should probably get back down to the lab."
"Of course," Loki agreed, taking his hand and allowing himself to be tugged into a sitting position. "Perhaps I will join you later. I'm sure there is much knowledge to be gained by…scanning me." The gleam in his eyes said it all, really.
Tony just nodded seriously. "Yeah definitely, getting a read on your magic would give me an idea of how strong I need the barrier to be for it to be one hundred percent effective." He let Loki get halfway to looking pissy before he added, "For maximum results I'll need you completely naked."
Loki blinked. "Well, naturally."
"Also, there's this oil down in the workshop that sharpens up the scanner's readings when I apply it to the subject," said Tony as he watched Loki's eyes drop to his mouth and back up again. "How do you feel about me slicking you up from head to foot? I should warn you though, it can be a little…probing."
"Allow a Midgardian such as yourself to put your hands anywhere you please?" His eyes burned with the implication. "That is asking a lot, indeed. And I'm not completely convinced that you've earned it."
Tony let his hands slide up Loki's thighs, which were still splayed on either side of him. He stopped just shy of the obvious swell of Loki's arousal, thumbs rubbing teasingly close through the thin hide of his pants. The heat of him soaked into Tony's palms as Loki shot him a narrowed look, a fierce hunger glittering beneath dark eyelashes. On anyone else the look might have been considered sexy. On Loki, it was like Tony could already feel teeth and tongue dragging hot lines across his skin.
"It's all in the name of science," Tony said, leaning in until they almost shared breath. "You wouldn't want to deny science, would you?"
"Hm. I suppose as long as science makes it worth my while, I could be persuaded." Loki closed the distance between them.
The kiss they shared wasn't the frantic clash of a moment ago. It was slower, more familiar; Tony felt the wicked edge of his smile shift against his, welcomed the rough velvet stroke of Loki's tongue deep into his mouth as Tony pressed him back down into the cushions. It filled him with a sharp thrill of disbelief when Loki carelessly allowed it, tugging him down without breaking the kiss, pulling their bodies flush together.
Tony's hands instinctively gripped his hips and pulled him in, feeling fingers sift into his hair in turn, angling his head just so. He inhaled leather and soap, tasted the warm salt tang of damp skin as Loki finally slid his mouth free, panting lightly, his forehead pressed to Tony's cheek. He lingered there a moment, warm breath gusting against his throat.
Eventually Loki lifted his head to meet his gaze. There Tony saw something dark and almost fractured in the green eyes staring up at him.
"It is no trick," Loki said suddenly, and his grip turned almost crushing on the back of Tony's neck. "I desire you. The turn of your thoughts, the dart of your gaze. I want your cry in my mouth and the taste of your pleasure under my tongue. That is why I do…what I do. I want, Stark. And by the Nine, I mean to have you."
It was an admission he hadn't expected to receive. Not from Loki. But there it was, laid out between them; succinct and staggering in what was going unsaid – the possessive squeeze of his hand, the wrecked tightness of his voice. It sounded like truth because it sounded like it hurt, like it had been torn from him by the roots. It was honesty and the one they called Liesmith had given it to him.
"That's good," Tony said roughly, feeling like he'd been wrung out and revived in the space of a breath. "Because I mean to let you. A lot."
But before Tony could say any more, Loki tensed and broke apart in his hands, his form crumbling into a whirlwind of black moths. They flew apart and vanished together, ribbons of light surrounding them as they disappeared. Tony blinked at the empty couch in disbelief, already feeling colder in his wake.
"Was it something I said?"
Thor walked into the living room again, obviously done seeing Pepper off and taking on board her laundry list of 'warning signs that Tony was about to collapse from exhaustion' or whatever it was she'd been emailing around when they first all moved in. Taking long strides that were clearly a beeline to the kitchen, he barely even glanced around to see if Loki was still there.
"Painkillers are in the top cupboard," Tony grumbled as he passed by, sitting up and angling himself so that nothing untoward was in easy view. Thor just nodded, jaw tightening as he shifted his shoulder. Once the imminent danger had passed, Tony turned back around, mentally mapping the quickest way to his room. He desperately needed to think.
Clint stood on the far side of the oversized coffee table, eating a banana in silence. His eyes were very wide.
Tony decided that the best way to approach this awkward situation was with casual maturity.
"What did you see?"
"Nick Fury's death by cardiac arrest."
Damn it. Well, Tony thought in resignation, at least he could explain the awkward workshop moment now, without looking like some kind of technophile deviant.
Taking a huge, traumatised bite of his banana, Clint chewed in thoughtful silence for a moment.
"Who puts it in?"
The question came from so far out of left field that Tony was struck speechless for a moment. Of all the things he expected him to say, that was definitely not it.
"Really, Barton? That's your first question. Not 'how could you fraternise with the enemy' or 'how long has this been going on' or 'have you been compromised'? You want to know who puts it in?"
"What?" he shot back, hunching his shoulders defensively. "I'm in fuckin' shock here, trying not to look at the tent you're pitching and Jesus man, Loki? How are you even still alive? You should be…clawed half to death, or glowing in the dark or something."
Stalking closer, Clint gave him a narrow-eyed look. It was the look he got just before he shot down something big. It was also a look that was kept entirely above shoulder level. Tony shifted uneasily.
"What, what are you staring at? I'm fine."
"Yeah…you are. Oh my god, you put it in, didn't you?" Barton rocked back on his heels in disbelief. Then he turned a little green. "Oh Jesus Christ, shit, fuck, that banana is repeating on me. I gotta go. Does Banner still keep the hardcore sedatives taped under the s-bend in his bathroom?"
Tony sighed. "Probably. Listen—"
"Oh don't worry, I'm taking it to the grave. The grave."
"Good, because if you do tell Thor I'll have JARVIS undress you in your sleep."
"Tony Stark, you're a son of a bitch."
He shrugged. "I've been spending time with Loki. It was bound to rub off eventually."
"Don't make me think about rubbing off." Clint moved as if to exit stage left as quickly as he could, then paused to give Tony a look. "Seriously though…Loki? I know the guy sort of saved your life and all a few days ago, but damn. He's still one of our biggest enemies, isn't he?"
Tony scratched his neck. That was the million dollar question, wasn't it? He didn't have an answer for Clint any more than he had one for himself. Loki didn't exactly advertise his thoughts for everyone to see. All they could do was err on the side of caution.
"Let's just say I wouldn't be giving him a communicator," he said heavily. "Whatever's going on with me and Loki, let's just keep it off the record, okay? It won't impact on anything. The mission still stays the same. Neutralise Amora and von Doom, deal with Loki later if he returns to his regularly scheduled mayhem. Easy."
Clint's expression shifted slightly, but he didn't comment on the 'easy' part. Tony actually appreciated that a lot. Mistakes were his forte and all, but at least he wasn't having his face rubbed in his past history of screw-ups. Besides, unfounded trust was one thing Tony Stark didn't just hand out in spades, and the others knew it. Barton included. Loki was still very much a threat, and he'd probably return to being one once all this truce business was over and done with.
Which made Tony wonder for the first time; exactly what was he doing with Loki?
It was a question to which he just didn't have an answer. Not yet, anyway.
When Clint left to dose himself on Banner's drug stash or whatever it was he'd implied he was off to do, Tony sat in the empty living room and thought about his options.
He could go down to the workshop and continue with his project. It was only early by his body clock – there was plenty of work to be done and he could lose himself in it for a while.
Alternatively, he could go to Loki's room and finish what they'd started before their interruption. But after Clint's reaction, Tony wasn't sure he should. Maybe it was all just another mistake. One that might cost him in the end. A responsible man would go down there and tell Loki that it had been a bit of fun, but it wouldn't be repeated. It was a conflict of interest and a risk to the Avengers.
A responsible man.
Tony knew he was in deep shit.
In the end Tony had his mind made up for him on how to spend the rest of his night. Right as he was thinking of stealing a bottle of scotch and getting hypothermic and drunk out on the balcony, a call came in from SHIELD about a possible Doombot sighting over New York.
With Thor still nursing his shoulder and Tony the only other flight-capable Avenger on the team, he’d suited-up and hit the skies with no small amount of relief at being called out into the field for the night. Kicking some shiny metal ass for a few hours would clear his head. From all accounts, it was just the one Doombot; probably scouting for Loki, if anything.
Or it was a horrible trap. His thigh twitched with the memory of the curse still fresh in his mind. But really, who played the same trick twice? That was just tacky.
Tony figured he could hedge his bets and just fly on out there. He needed the air time in the rebuilt Iron Man suit. Besides, the partially-completed magic barrier could detect incoming magic at this stage, even if he couldn’t deflect it from the suit. That part was still in process back at his workshop, but he knew he was close to completion. With the Doombot hand still sparking with magic, he’d had a prime sample to experiment on, even if he couldn’t touch the damn thing without lead-lined gloves.
He did a few lazy laps of the city, jetboots firing their familiar bright streak across the night sky. The HUD lit with information, feeding him stats about the surrounding buildings and pointing out anything of note. A few people below took photos, a mugger dropped a woman’s handbag and ran for it and a few drunk teenagers gave him the finger. Typical night, really.
“JARVIS, can you find me that Doombot? Hook into DOS’s wavelength scanner, see if you can give me something.” Maybe it had gone for a beer. Tony could go for a beer.
I want, Stark. And by the Nine, I mean to have you.
Not even an hour ago, he’d been hip-flush against Loki in full view of anyone who might walk by, listening to his voice speak those words. Those damn words.
Loki had no business saying things like that to him. It was Loki. He was one of the bad guys; a liar, a trickster, a sorcerer, and a whole other list of things Tony could name. Nearly immortal creatures of immense goddamn magical –magical!- power had no business getting attached to Tony Stark. And Tony…Tony screwed everything up more often than not. Sometimes he could fix it, sometimes he couldn’t. And a real, actual involvement with the so-called God of Mischief was definitely something he would screw up.
Not to mention it was the biggest conflict of interest in the history of the Avengers. Loki’s play for world domination had been the thing that created them as a team. Tony couldn’t just…and Loki sure as hell wouldn’t…
Why was he even thinking about it? It was impossible.
It is no trick.
Realising he was flying too fast to pick up any readings, he slowed down and drew himself to a halt, hovering over New York’s very own Stark Tower.
“Sir, my scanners indicate no Doombot presence in the city. DOS cannot find a like signature in the wider area either. It would seem you have the night off.”
“I don’t want the night off,” Tony muttered to himself. He wanted to stay as far away from Avengers HQ as possible. “Is there any action in this town right now?”
“Nothing that would require the presence of Iron Man. Do give the local police force something to do.”
“Don’t sass me, JARVIS.”
“I would never, sir.”
Continuing to fly around the city in aimless circles, Tony weighed up whether it was worth staying out for another few hours to see if this phantom Doombot showed up again. He wasn’t really that conscientious but it would give him an excuse…one that Steve would see right through, probably.
“JARVIS, where’s Loki right now?”
“He is in his bedroom, sir. Shall I patch through a communication feed?”
Tony blinked at the offer. Each room in the mansion was connected to a communications network, but it was rarely used unless JARVIS was broadcasting an emergency message. Well, that wasn’t strictly true; Tony had used it once to ask Steve to make him a sandwich while he was in the kitchen. But use it to talk to Loki? About what?
“…sure, do it.”
Tony watched the HUD fill with the connecting signal and then minimise to the top left of the display, allowing his propulsors to lower him to the roof of Stark Tower, overlooking the city.
“Connection successful, sir. Transmitting.”
Great. And now Tony suddenly couldn’t think of a damn thing to say. An awkward pause stretched over the comms, until a sigh washed over the speaker by his ear.
“Pardon me if I’m mistaken, but isn’t a silent call punctuated only by heavy breathing considered somewhat unsavoury?” Loki sounded put-upon, but no more than he usually did. Tony imagined him idly thumbing through his weird ancient journal and scowled out at nothing.
“I think the effect is ruined when you actually know it’s me,” Tony pointed out, then smiled. “Why, were you clutching your pearls?”
“I don’t—did you want something, Stark? This may come as quite a shock but I do actually have matters to attend to.” Tony made a face.
“Huh. I figured you just brooded in there and fantasized about me.”
“Of course you did.” The complete lack of surprise present in his tone said a lot for a guy who’d only been technically living with him for less than a fortnight. Then again, Tony Stark had a reputation, didn’t he? Might as well play into it.
“Yeah. Well. What are you wearing?”
What followed could only be described as a disbelieving silence. Tony had to bite down on his lip to keep his laughter at bay. Unable to stay still he fired his boots and took to the sky again, taking the suit through a few lazy loops. There was almost no breeze and it was a clear, cold winter’s night. Perfect for flying, really.
“I’m not wearing anything, at present.”
Oh. Now there was a mental image.
“Loki, I am shocked. I didn’t know you had nudist tendencies.”
“I just bathed,” Loki replied crossly, and Tony heard the rustle of fabric. Was he getting dressed? Drying off? Maybe he was just sliding between the sheets.
Tony remembered those sheets; specifically, he remembered how they’d looked twisted about the pale lines of Loki’s thighs and hips while he slept. He’d seen that right before he’d made his quick getaway the morning after. It made him think of Loki a few hours ago, breaking apart into a hundred dark moths; suddenly intangible, unable to be held onto.
“So hey, Barton kind of saw us tonight.”
“I am aware. I heard his enthusiastic masticating from across the room.”
“Mas—” Tony started to repeat in horror before his brain kicked in. “You know, you could just say chewing and spare me the heart attack. And why didn’t you say anything? You took off pretty fast when Thor came back. Why is Barton any different?”
Swooping in low over the river, Tony saw his scanners flicker briefly and then go back to zero activity. Huh. Curving back around, he headed in the direction he’d just come, gaining altitude again. Nothing. Where the hell had the bastard gone?
“It’s not my secret,” Loki was saying, his voice muffled like he was talking through fabric, or against a pillow. Maybe he was pulling a shirt on. “My avoidance of Thor would be the same whether we were simply discussing the weather or I had you bent over the back of that ghastly lounge.”
So Loki didn’t care about anyone finding out? Tony supposed he shouldn’t be surprised; Loki didn’t usually give a damn about what anyone thought. It was that stellar quality that made him such a bitch to fight against. He did whatever he wanted, and what he wanted usually wasn’t very nice.
“You came out in the first place knowing he was there. And funny you should talk about bending me over things, since so far—Jesus Christ!!”
Tony’s entire HUD exploded with feedback right before the missing Doombot smashed into his side, tackling him out of the sky in a wild tangle of metal limbs. The velocity of the attack took them both through the side of a building, shearing out huge chunks of office space before Tony diverted his repulsors away from it, driving them through plate glass and cement before sending them hurtling out into the middle of a dog park.
Hard-packed dirt was his only comfort as he slammed chest-first into the ground, the Doombot radiating electricity as it drove its hands into every joint in the armour it could find. Pain exploded through Tony’s ribs but it was only the shock of impact; Iron Man was all but immune to electricity thanks to Thor’s efforts with Mjölnir.
“Oh no you don’t,” Tony grunted as the Doombot reached for his helmet, rotating his shoulder-mounted guns and firing. The blast sent it hurtling back just far enough that Tony could get to his feet and take to the sky again; no way was he having another goddamn battle in civilian territory. He shot straight up like a living bottle rocket and kept going, the city falling away beneath him.
“What is happening?” Loki’s voice lashed his ear like a whip. “Stark.”
Any reply Tony would have made was completely waylaid by the volley of concussive blasts being fired upon him from below. He didn’t know whether to be glad it was following him or pissed that it was actually landing decent hits on the suit.
“JARVIS, change battle classification,” he barked, swearing as the suit jolted with another hit. “Notify of incoming aerial attacks only. Initiate feint manoeuvre protocol six-oh-nine.”
“Here we go,” Tony said grimly. “Loki, if I’m not back online in five, send Steve out with a spatula. JARVIS, cut all power.”
“Stark, what—” The audio feed cut.
The HUD went blank. All sensors went silent.
Iron Man dropped like a stone.
The exact moment that the effortless glide of the machinery around him became a dead weight with him locked inside was never a good feeling. What was a good feeling was seeing the Doombot loop over and follow him down for the kill. That was the funny thing about Victor von Doom’s robot replicas of himself—you could still trick them by simply being insane. It was kind of funny to Tony, considering.
The Iron Man suit was two hundred feet from cold flat earth when the uni-beam achieved maximum power in the shortest amount of time possible and all systems came back online with a rush of light and sound.
The Doombot’s glowing yellow eyes couldn’t register horror, but Tony liked to think it was still there, somewhere. Yanking the Doombot in for one hell of a hug, Tony shot them high into the air again, feeling the wind burn around them.
“Well this has been disappointing,” Tony said. “Stealth capabilities aside, Doom, you’re bringing nothing new to the table for me. No wonder you teamed up with Enchantress.” He fired the uni-beam straight through the chest of the Doombot, feeling it punch clean through the chest plate and out the other side. The jetpacks caught and ignited, obliterating the rest of the ‘bot and hurling Tony backward, hilariously, still holding two intact robotic arms and nothing else.
“Put your hands together for Doctor Doom and his second rate attempts to take down Iron Man,” he said cheerfully, tossing them up into the air and frying him with the palm repulsors. “JARVIS, patch me through to Loki again.”
“The energy signature of Loki Laufeyson is no longer present within Avengers Headquarters, sir.” That stopped him cold.
“That’s impossible,” Tony said flatly. Was he screwing around with his magic again? “Try it again.”
“Nil signature found. Commence wider area search?”
Tony pulled up hard as his sensors picked up a flash of green below. It was there and gone in an instant, but he was pretty sure of what he’d just seen on the roof of Stark Tower. He knew the colour of that magic. Huh.
“That was what I thought it was, right?”
“He does seem quite invested in you, sir.”
Tony rolled his eyes, turning and heading home at an easy glide.
“He’s invested in himself, JARVIS. Last time I fought a Doombot I got cursed and split his head open with a wrench. Can’t blame him for not wanting a repeat performance of that.”
“If you say so, sir, then it must be true.”
“Shut up, JARVIS. Let’s get out of here. I could use a scotch.” Picking up the pace, Tony blitzed toward HQ with the satisfaction of a job well done humming in his veins.
Whatever Loki had been thinking when he left the sanctuary of the mansion, Tony had no idea. Part of him liked the idea that he’d come out in concern, but truth was it was probably the least likely reason for the appearance. Maybe he was just getting ready to make his move. Loki looked like he was just about up to full strength again, by Tony’s estimate.
He really just didn’t see any reason in entertaining stupid thoughts when Loki was going to make his exit soon, no matter what startling declarations Loki might make between then and now. It just wasn’t worth it.
So he told himself, anyway.
“The suit’s not looking too bad for once,” Steve commented, tipping his head at the gantry as it plucked pieces from Tony’s body, pulling them back to reassemble as an empty suit. Tony had no particular reason for making it do that, other than it looked cooler when it was all in one piece. He was all about the presentation.
“What can I say? Doom’s just not putting the big ones in anymore. Ow—ow, pinching! Pinching!” The gantry bleated at him and re-calibrated before trying again. This time the thigh plate came off without a hitch. Tony had put up with the discomfort a grand total of five times before he came up with the customised undersuit, but sometimes the dismantler’s claws still caught places claws just weren’t meant to catch.
“SHIELD had you monitored via satellite for the duration of that little skirmish,” Steve informed him, crossing his arms. He didn’t look too pleased. “Tony, you purposely dropped twenty thousand feet in a free fall.”
“The quickest way to charge the uni-beam is to kill power to non-critical suit functions. I needed it charged fast,” Tony replied, shrugging. He stepped out of the gantry, tugging at the undersuit. At Steve’s unhappy look, he grinned. “Relax. I knew what I was doing.”
“Yeah, but did you have to get in close with the Doombot? Last week you ended up cursed. We all know Doom and Amora are probably still in cahoots—do you want to go insane again?”
“I can detect magic from the suit now,” Tony reminded him, heading for the door. If Steve got up a full head of steam with the nagging, he was definitely going to need a drink. “I know you’re getting on in years, Cap, but you do remember I’m in the process of completing a near-total defence for it, right? It’s genius, really. I don’t like to toot my own horn but this is some of my best work in passive peripheral weaponry. Once it’s installed in my suit, I’ll have the means to—”
“Stop talking,” Steve interrupted, rubbing his temple. He scowled. “Okay, I get it. Steve’s old and doesn’t understand complex technology. Nice diversion. God, Tony, it’s like you’re allergic to someone giving an actual damn about you.”
“No I’m not,” Tony said, blinking. He stared at the elevator doors. “You’re just harshing my buzz. It was a good fight. Leave it at that. Also, did you just say cahoots?”
Steve sighed behind him. “Is that out-dated too?”
Tony grinning as the doors opened, walking in backwards so Steve could see his face.
“No, but it’s cooler to say they’re in bed together. Can you picture it? You’re picturing it right now, aren’t you? Look at those pink cheeks.” He hit the workshop level as Steve followed him in, probably just to give him more hell.
“I’m not picturing it,” came the predictable reply. Tony snorted openly, only to abruptly stagger as Steve pushed him into the wall. “Hah.”
“For a guy so concerned about my welfare, you have a strange way of—” He shoulder-barged Steve into the other side of the elevator. “Oh, Rogers, tell me you saw that coming.” He had Steve pressed face-first against the wall of the elevator, arm locked into the small of his back.
“I let you have that one.”
“Like hell you did.”
“Oh yeah?” Spinning effortlessly out of the hold, grinning like a maniac, Steve drove his shoulder into Tony’s stomach and hauled him clean off the ground, suspending him there like a trophy. “Say I let you, Tony, and I might put you down.”
“Is your shoulder made of granite?” Tony grunted, hanging upside-down and staring at his ass. “Put me down, you child.”
“Nope.” Laughter made his voice warm. “Say it. I’m not—ouch! Tony.”
“What? It’s right in my face.”
The elevator pinged as it hit the workshop floor, the doors sliding open in a soundless glide. Steve walked them both out and set Tony on his feet, smiling like an idiot. Stepping back and rubbing his stomach, Tony just waited for the blood to run back out of his head. At least Steve was in a great mood now, he thought with grudging amusement. Roughhousing. He’d have to remember that.
“Are you going to work on your magic thing? What are you going to call it, anyway?”
“Not sure yet.” Tony headed for the minibar, struggling to yank the undersuit’s zip with his fingers as he walked. It felt like it was jammed. “Maybe it doesn’t need one. It’s going to be integrated into the Deadlock, anyway. It’s based on my initial plans for it; inverting particles and unique energy signatures when they come under the radiating field. If my calculations are accurate, it should stop magical blasts before they can even summon the energy for one.”
“It will cripple magical movement and projectiles? So its purpose is twofold.” Steve looked impressed, which was always nice to see. Tony poured a scotch for both of them and slid one along the bench toward him, flashing him a grin as he caught it the second it toppled off the edge. He tossed it down like water, the bastard.
“If you’re going to drink my expensive scotch like that I am going to cut you back to eight dollar boxed wine.”
Steve smiled. “No you won’t.”
“No, I won’t,” he admitted, toasting him. He downed his almost as fast, barely wincing at the burn as it hit the back of his throat. “You staying or going? I need a shower.”
“Going,” Steve replied ruefully, sending the tumbler skidding back toward him. “Weekly meeting with Fury. Natasha and Clint are coming to do their monthly SHIELD check-in as well. Looks like it’s just you, Thor and Bruce.” He hesitated. “And Loki.”
“Have fun,” he replied, not taking that bait, oh hell no. “Tell Fury I’ll write his name in the sky next time.”
Tony watched him turn to go, but Steve didn’t immediately start walking.
“Has Loki given us any more intel since…you know, HYDRA? And the Doombot plans, I mean.”
“He hasn’t said anything to me.” Not about that, anyway.
“Thor’s stopped trying to get his attention, you know,” Steve said. The look he gave Tony was direct. “You’re the only one he’ll give the time of day to. I’d like you to see if Loki will give us any more information, maybe drop some clues about what his plan of attack is for Amora and Doctor Doom.”
“No freeloaders at Avengers headquarters, huh?” Tony smiled, saluting. “Okay. But if I stagger into your room tonight with a dagger in my—”
“Goodnight, Tony. The scissors are in the top drawer if your zipper is stuck again.”
“That only happened once,” he called back with irritated amusement, pulling at the neck of the suit. Steve just waved over his shoulder without looking back, rounding the corner and disappearing back toward the elevator. The muted bell of the doors signalled his exit. Tony wondered why he’d bothered to come down at all. Then again, outside of Avengers business he hadn’t seen Steve a whole lot lately. The thought made him realise just how much time he’d devoted to creating his newest device and stewing over Loki. When the hell had that happened?
Maybe they could do lunch tomorrow or something, Tony thought, grappling with the zipper as he headed for the shower at the back of the workshop. He hadn’t gotten out of the mansion lately apart from scouting, anyway.
His shower was quick and to the point, seeing as it was cramped, only had one showerhead and his elbow always banged the glass when he—well, anyway, his shower was short. Tony emerged five minutes later with wet hair, unbuttoned jeans and a sore elbow to find Loki holding up one of his prototype Iron Man helmets, his green eyes narrowed in thought.
“Are you fondling my helmet?” he asked casually, throwing his towel over one of the spare worktables as he approached. “Buy me a drink first.”
“I think not,” Loki replied disinterestedly, a narrow palm stroking over the golden faceplate. He flipped it over and studied the interior as though he was searching for something. What he hoped to find amongst padding, the darkened HUD and some speakers was a mystery to Tony.
“Steve wants more of your evil villain secrets, by the way. Got any juicy gossip?”
“Villain,” Loki repeated, like the word tasted bad. “And no, I do not. Although the clumsy girl behind the counter at the café Doctor Banner likes to frequent is trying to get a blood sample from him. I suspect that’s just SHIELD, however.”
“That wouldn’t surprise me,” Tony said, shaking his head. “In fact, I bet it’s just Fury wearing a wig. JARVIS, relay a message to Banner. Gently.”
“Of course, sir.”
Tony nudged Loki in the side. “How do you get your intel, anyway?”
“Oh, it’s chapter seven in the ‘Evil Villain Handbook’,” Loki replied sourly. “Didn’t you know?”
“Okay, okay. I watched a lot of TV as a kid, sue me. What’s the correct term? Super-powered criminal?”
“Of which I am currently ranked third? I think not.”
Touchy. Tony decided to leave that path of conversation untrodden, just in case he got any ideas about bumping himself back up to first place. They really didn’t need that kind of hell on their plates again.
Continuing past Loki, he made his way back to his main worktable and woke up the systems, interactive holograms blinking to life one by one. In the centre of his bench was a palm-sized portable Deadlock, newly-fitted with what Tony had calculated to be a fully-effective magic dampening barrier. So far it had killed off the magic that sparked around the rogue Doombot hand that had cursed him, but he wouldn’t be able to put it through its paces until he came against a real, organic foe.
The question was on the tip of his tongue as he glanced over at Loki, who seemed to be having a party of one with his helmet. Tony frowned.
“How did you leave Avengers headquarters with the Deadlock muting your ability to teleport?”
Setting down the helmet, Loki arched a single dark eyebrow, heading toward him. Black on black again, Tony noted absently. He’d discarded his armour completely since he’d entered the mansion. No metal, no leather, just soft suede and whisper-thin linen. He was a walking white flag that smelled like soap and warm skin. Tony blinked and glanced down at the device.
“I can feel it inside me, of course,” Loki replied smoothly, casting an eye to the ceiling. “It only projects to the outer boundary of the premises. As long as I walk through that, the suffocating press of your Deadlock releases me, and I am free to travel.”
“So you decided to ‘travel’ to Stark Tower and watch me destroy a Doombot?”
“I did not appreciate the abrupt termination of our conversation.” Stepping around the edge of the workbench, he stopped just shy of brushing Tony’s side, frowning down at the device. “I take it that this is what occupies your time.”
“Yeah, but it’s just about operational now. It’s not fitted, obviously, but it should do the trick.”
“I need to test it on someone,” Tony admitted, giving Loki a sideways glance. “You don’t know any sorcerers that might be willing to take off their shirt and let me expose them to potentially dangerous levels of magic-killing radiation, do you?”
Loki smiled. “And incidentally give you a rod for my own back?” he replied, amused. “I like you, Stark, but not that much.”
“It should only feel like a magnified version of the Deadlock,” Tony argued, turning toward him. “And it’s not permanent. I just need to know it’ll work on someone with your magnitude of strength. Because if it does, then it’s definitely going to work on Amora.”
Loki narrowed his eyes at his blatant use of flattery, but looked like he was considering it. Tony moved in for the kill.
“If it freaks you out though, Thor’s going to let me scan his hammer, which I guess is just as good. JARVIS, could you let our bearded thunder god know I’m down in the workshop?”
Oh, and there was the evil eye he’d been missing all this time.
“Belay that, Machine,” Loki ordered, and tugged his shirt off over his head. “Stark’s transparent efforts to goad me aside, I do want this device to cripple Enchantress. An ensorcelled hammer is a poor shade of the magical current that runs through a living opponent.”
“Oh, I completely agree,” Tony replied, his eyes tracing the line where soft hide met the pale jut of Loki’s hipbones. “I have no ulterior motive for making you partially undress in front of me.”
That apparently didn’t dignify a reply, which Tony couldn’t exactly fault. Moving over to the open area behind the worktables, he gestured for Loki to follow him, positioning him in the centre of the open space. Maybe this wouldn’t blow every circuit in the mansion, but it never hurt to be too careful. Science trying to repress magic – Loki’s magic, at that – might just end in some kind of horrible fireball of failure.
Loki bore the manhandling with ill grace, but didn’t complain vocally. His enormous scowl and death-promising glare said it all, though. It kept Tony’s hands to himself while he measured the distance from scanners to subject, walking his unhappy lab rat back a few paces until he had him perfectly centred.
“Okay, that should do it,” he decided finally. “You’ll just need to stand there while I fire up the device, then hold relatively still while the scanners take all the readings.”
Loki crossed his arms tightly, then uncrossed them, fists clenching by his sides.
“If this results in any side-effects that are detrimental to my magic, you won’t have the chance to rue this day,” he swore, and damned if he didn’t sound like the old Loki; the one who used to try to kill the Avengers on an almost weekly basis. Realising that made it even more surreal when it hit Tony that Loki was actually nervous about what was going to happen. No one liked to be powerless, he guessed, and Loki prided himself on the strength of his magic.
But he was letting Tony strip it from him, all the same. Which meant he either hated Amora that much, or he trusted Tony not to accidentally kill him or cripple his magic forever. He wasn’t sure that to do with the gut-tightening rush of warmth that idea evoked, and Loki sure as hell didn’t look like reassurances were going to do anything, so Tony just hurried back to the device and connected it to JARVIS’s systems, giving him access to the controls. Then he returned to Loki’s side.
“Why have you come back?” Loki asked tightly, his brow knitting. Tony just shrugged.
“Well, I’m not magical, am I? The scanners can take me out of the equation afterward. To them, I might as well be a devastatingly handsome chair.” Reaching out, Tony placed a palm over Loki’s heart. Sure enough, it was galloping beneath his ribs. “If you’re really not okay with this though, it’s fine. Just say so.”
“Do you think me afraid?” he snapped, green eyes flashing. “Of you? Of this piece of metal you’ve made? Even without my magic your skull would still crumble like chalk in my hands. You’d be a fool to cross me, Stark. Just get on with it.” Jerking back from the press of Tony’s hand, looking for all the world like a caged animal, Loki set his jaw, hunched his shoulders in and waited.
Right. Well, okay then.
“JARVIS, hit it,” Tony directed, taking a long step back. “Give it a radiating field of twenty feet. Power to one hundred percent, key to his signature. Go.”
“Device is online, sir. Activating radiating shield in three, two, one. Anti-magic barrier is in effect. Scanners are now recording.”
Even if JARVIS hadn’t rattled off the initiation, even if Tony’s ears hadn’t popped like the room had been pressurised, he’d have still been able to mark the moment the device activated. It was in the rush of colour from Loki’s face, and the slight widening of his eyes. It was in his disbelieving stare at his upturned palm while whatever he was trying to summon up failed to even spark at his fingertips.
“Well,” Loki said finally, with calculated steadiness, “I’d say that it works. Congratulations, Stark. You’ve just attenuated the God of Mischief. Now take your readings.”
Tony barely heard him; the words themselves registered, but there was something else taking his attention up. Something Loki hadn’t noticed yet.
“This—okay, this wasn’t part of my calculations,” Tony said carefully, turning his eyes up to the ceiling, then back down, fixing on Loki’s wide eyes. “I didn’t realise, or I’d have warned you first. I’m sorry.”
Loki’s lips parted, his eyes narrowing. “What have you done?”
But he didn’t need a response, since by then the inversion of his magic was entirely complete, and Loki could see that his ivory-pale skin had taken on the deep blue of an evening sky, his eyes burning bright crimson and sick with horror at his unwilling transformation.
Tony dropped his eyes to the floor, then back to the ceiling. Taking without asking, he thought suddenly. Stripping secrets from skin and bones. Shit, shit. He’d trusted him to—and Tony hadn’t even realised. Of course the shape-shifting was magic, he thought savagely. Of course it could be snuffed out like everything else.
“Too disgusted to look at me, Stark?” Loki asked flatly as Tony’s eyes flickered to the floor again, and oh, that was dangerous ground there. “And to think, this was the truth under the lie the entire time you were in my bed. Does it frighten you? This cold Jotun skin?” His tone turned cruel, his tongue like a razor in his mouth. “Was it only good enough when the lights were turned off?”
“What—I’m not looking because you wouldn’t let me last time, remember?” Tony reminded Loki’s boots with a scowl, his heart hammering in his chest. He wanted to look up. He knew he was going to look up, and if he did Loki was probably going to scratch his eyes out for it. God damn it. “Can I look? I’m not going to turn to stone. I have zero problem with your blue skin, Loki. I’m serious.”
Loki just scoffed. “I’m colder than even the grave, and you see no problem with me? Perhaps your reputation is mired in truth; you will rut with anything that moves.”
Tony thought about being offended by that, but instead just settled for snorting loudly.
“Okay, I’m going to chalk that one up to transformational panic, because you just insulted yourself.” Lifting his head, he shrugged as Loki all but bristled at him and stepped forward, bringing himself close enough to the scored skin in front of him that he could feel the chill it radiated.
“You know, I was always more of a winter kind of guy, anyway. What are these?” His fingertip traced one raised, curving line from one side of Loki’s chest to the other. “Are they symbolic? A coming of age thing? Or are they hereditary?” He lifted his eyes to Loki’s. “Do you even know?”
Loki looked like he wanted to throttle him. Tony knew that look. But when it glittered in ruby-red eyes like that, his throat convulsing slightly as his hands twitched at his sides, Tony knew he wasn’t going to strike. Not yet, anyway. It was just a question of when he’d take his curiosity too far.
“I’ve worn this skin but a handful of times,” Loki replied stiffly. He didn’t look down at himself. “I slew the Jotun king, who was my father by blood. There was no time to ask him such questions. If they have any meaning, then I am ignorant of it and happy to remain so. I have no love of this form.”
Tony studied his arms, marked with the same curved lines running parallel to each other. Circling smooth blue skin –actually blue, clean and deep and even– that radiated a muted kind of cold. Tony knew he could touch it without getting some kind of frostbite; he knew he could put his mouth to that skin and taste snow. The breath that touched his cheek was a blizzard trapped in a sentence.
“What interests you so?”
Tony shot Loki a brief, disbelieving glance. “Have you seen you? Steve would have a field day if he was down here right now.” There were three convex lines marching down his chest, long and perfectly spaced. Were they like tiger stripes? Were they a warning, or a mark of his bloodline? How had this not driven Loki crazy with curiosity?
“Captain Rogers?” Loki said sharply, pouncing on his comment. “Why?”
“Because,” Tony said absently, straightening to study the crown-like sweep of markings scoring his brow. “He sketches. You know. He likes art. Hell, right now I could probably understand what he’s been talking about. Is the touching making you uncomfortable? I can stop. I should probably stop, you look like you want to murder me. God, your eyes are spectacular. JARVIS, what colour is that?”
“According to the 1955 colour list, sir, that is Lust. Hex Triplet designation E62020.”
Tony raised an eyebrow at Loki. “You know, I could comment on that—”
“But you’re not going to.”
“No, I am not.”
At Tony’s back, the sensors pinged the completion of their scan, whirring overhead as they took their calculations and mitigated his presence in the equations and power fluctuations. If there was one thing they’d learned a workaround for, it was the arc reactor. Though it was still hell to get through a metal detector at an airport. Thank god for private jets.
Loki glanced up at the ceiling. “It’s done, then. Switch off your device.”
“You heard the man, JARVIS.”
“Yes, sir. Power down in twenty seconds.”
“That wasn’t so hard, right?” Tony said cheerfully, clasping light hands to either side of Loki’s neck. “Unexpected blue skin notwithstanding, I’d say that was pretty textbook. How you doing?”
“I’m fine,” he replied, but there was a downturned quirk of his mouth, and he was still rigidly staring straight ahead. “You will use this against me one day, will you not?”
Tony squeezed his shoulders lightly, feeling the shock of cold seep into his palms. It was the first leap into the pool, headfirst, no gradual slide. It was falling. And Tony always fell far and landed hard. Too hard, more often than not.
“I got tired of fighting you a while ago, believe it or not,” Tony said quietly. “We all did. But if you give us a reason to suit up, then yeah. I’ll hit you with everything I’ve got.”
Unbelievably, the admission actually made him smile. “Oh, good. I was concerned that our liaison had made you soft.”
“Anything but that,” Tony replied dryly, giving him a pointed look. “Besides, I’m pretty sure I could take you in a fair fight.”
Loki laughed at that, full-throated and delighted. Which, yeah, it was kind of funny in an aggravating, not-a-chance-in-hell kind of way. But it had cheered him right up, so Tony figured he could wear the ridicule just this once.
Besides, it made the element of surprise all the sweeter when Tony stretched up and kissed his laughing mouth as hard as he could, pressing himself against his freezing skin before the device switched off and he returned to pale-and-green elegance. The cold lips against his parted hungrily, seeking the vital warmth of his mouth even though Tony was sure it hurt him on some level, his temperature as low as it was.
“You burn,” Loki muttered against his mouth, fingers bunching in his shirt and finding skin. “I could take you like this.”
“Where there’s a will there’s a way,” Tony replied, though seriously there were some alarming scenarios coming to mind. Alarming because he didn’t actually mind the idea, not one bit.
“Perhaps in the warmer months, with the air a stifling blanket upon your overheated skin,” Loki hummed, the muscles in his back rippling as Tony’s hands found the dip of his spine. “You could lay your hands wherever it pleased you.”
Oh, God. “Wouldn’t that hurt you?”
“Yes.” Loki pressed his lips to the juncture of Tony’s neck. “But not enough to dissuade me. You shouldn’t have shown such interest.”
“I have no regrets,” he replied honestly, tilting his head slightly. “But summer is five months away. You think we’ll still be—whoa, okay, bad touch, cold—uh, doing this then?”
And wasn’t that the million dollar question? Tony didn’t like to push the idea of commitment at the best of times, since it was usually being pushed on him and not the other way around. But there was something about sleeping with a known war criminal, a sorcerer and Thor’s younger brother that just kind of made it relevant to his interests. Those interests namely including staying alive and not being thrown into jail.
And maybe he’d gotten used to the idea of Loki becoming something semi-permanent in his life. Which was hilarious in its own right; when did Tony Stark get that attached to anyone?
“I suppose we’ll simply have to find out,” Loki murmured. Tony looked over in time to see the blue of his skin lightening, fading back into his usual pale tones. Then the blazing red of his eyes drained into clear and vivid green, the skin under his palms warming like a statue coming to life, firm and alive in his hands.
“Would you look at that,” he commented, half-smiling as he watched magic gather in Loki’s eyes, reflecting light for an instant before it vanished, settling wherever magic went inside him. “The power’s back on.”
Loki just smiled. “Shall we continue this upstairs?”
“You read my mind.”
The alarm was bellowing through the PA system.
“INTRUDER. LOCKDOWN IN PROGRESS.”
“INTRUDER. LOCKDOWN IN PROGRESS.”
“INTRUDER. LOCKDOWN IN PROGRESS.”
“Jesus shit!” Tony jolted awake in bed, half asleep and grasping blindly for a pair of pants. His bedroom was lit with red. “JARVIS? JARVIS what the hell is going on?”
JARVIS managed to let out a series of clicks and stuttering whirs.
“INTRUDER. LOCKDOWN IN PROGRESS.”
“Computer, initiate emergency protocol three-oh-seven-seven-tango-sierra-nine. Reboot systems! JARVIS, wake your ass up, I need you!”
Jerking his jeans up over his hips, he hastily buttoned them while the household security systems went through a hard reset and JARVIS crawled out of whatever feedback loop had glitched his processor. Tony’s head was spinning. What the hell could have made its way in past all their defences?
And…where was Loki?
Tony blinked stupidly at the rumpled sheets of his bed, the alarms fading in his ears. He was sore and there was what felt like a reasonably deep scratch mark on his back, so he hadn’t hallucinated the hour before they’d fallen asleep. So where was he? Why hadn’t Loki woken him?
“Don’t reach for the obvious answer yet,” he told himself, but there was a cold lump in his stomach that refused to melt. “JARVIS, give me something. Workshop, labs, armoury, hangar – have they been broken into?”
JARVIS came to with a roar of static over the comm system.
“All are uncompromised, sir. Deadlock is offline; status, currently reinitialising. Origin of unauthorised energy signature is coming from Thor’s suite.”
“Oh my god.” Tony leapt for the door, grabbing something from his desk before launching himself out into the hallway. “Do we have positive ID on the energy signature? Where is everyone? Is Thor okay?”
“Thor is unharmed. Present vital signs are strong and healthy. Current available Avengers in headquarters are Doctor Bruce Banner,” JARVIS dutifully replied as Tony ran full tilt toward the elevator, intent on taking it straight down to the hangar. Like it or not he knew he was no use to anyone bare-skinned. Then JARVIS piped up again.
“Positive identification confirmed. Energy signature is super-powered criminal designation #5: Amora, AKA, Enchantress.”
Tony felt his stomach bottom out. Amora. JARVIS’s systems stuttered again, bleeping oddly overhead.
“JARVIS, shit, what?!”
“Second energy signature confirmed. Super-powered criminal designation #3: Loki Laufeyson.”
Oh, god. Thor and Loki against Amora? They’d total the entire building.
“JARVIS, give me audio while I get to the suit.” At the very least he could keep an ear on what was happening. Should he wake Banner for this? The alarms only went to his room for a reason – no one liked to needlessly startle the good doctor.
“Connection successful, sir. Transmitting one-sided audio.” Hopefully it wouldn’t be all ye olde threats and maybe something he could understand—
“Oh, darling, I know this wasn’t the plan, but you’re so just insufferably slow.” Amora sounded sulky and put-out, but it was the satisfied afterthought complaint of someone who had already taken what they wanted. “You promised me, Loki. I thought you knew better than to cheat the Enchantress.”
“I promised you the Avengers, in my own time,” Loki was snarling, whisper-soft. “I’ve invested too much in this to have you ruin it all now. I have them eating out of the palm of my hand.”
Tony skidded to a halt, panting. Ruin it all—
Oh, Jesus Christ.
Amora hissed. “You promised me the thunderer. You promised me Thor. You failed to deliver. Now, I take the only part that matters.”
“I’m taking his soul. Good evening, Liesmith.”
The audio crackled harshly with her departure because naturally, the Deadlock was incapacitated. Thank you, Victor von Doom, Tony thought tiredly.
Played for a complete and total fool.
That was a new one.
“Sir, the Deadlock is back in effect. Enchantress is no longer within the buil—”
“Shut up, JARVIS. Just…shut up. I know.”
If nothing else, Tony had to give Loki credit for the long con. He’d probably been building that one up since the first tip-off.
“Fuck!” Tony swore, turning on his heel. Rage kindled hot and slow in his chest, whiting out the edges of his vision. “No, no, not today, you lying son of a bitch. Not in my house. Not this time.”
“Sir,” JARVIS intoned, snapping to attention. If there was anything he understood, it was what to do when Tony Stark got angry. “Orders.”
“Give me a code green on Bruce Banner,” he spat, marching back toward the bedroom wing. “Give me DOS, now. Release AI combat restriction system to one-hundred percent. Licence to kill is in effect. I want the Dual Deadlock, I want my portable suit, and I want Loki’s god damned lying tongue stapled to my wall.”
Raking his hair off his face, Tony held up the knife Loki had once slid into his stomach. Maybe tonight he’d give it back.
“Assemble the Avengers.”
Tony Stark was no stranger to deceit.
Or betrayal, for that matter. He’d been there, he’d done that, he’d moved on and learned his lessons well. Tony hadn’t survived as long as he had by trusting every pretty face and every smooth line delivered to him. He’d learned to doubt the extended hand of friendship – at least until he’d done every background check known to man.
The memory of the gaping hole in his chest left, quite literally, by a man who had been like a second father to him was all the reminder he’d needed that sometimes things weren’t what they seemed. Not everyone was out to get into Tony Stark’s good graces.
He’d thought he knew that.
Oh, but Loki was a damn good performer. He deserved one hell of an award for pulling this one over them all, he really did. And as Tony stood in front of the closed door to Thor’s room, rage and dread burning together like a coal in his chest, he decided he was going to see to it personally that Loki got one.
JARVIS had disconnected from the household maintenance system to initiate DOS and get the suit. The house was silent around him and Tony wasn’t sure if Loki was still inside or if he’d teleported after Amora; plans ruined, maybe, but his revenge had been sweet enough if what Tony had heard was true. In all likelihood he had vanished into the night. Job done, fun had, his brother defeated once and for all. Tony just had to walk right in and see for himself.
But he hesitated.
Deep down, Tony knew he didn’t want to open the door and see what his willingness to overlook the truth had done to his friend. He’d told Thor to stop being a fool. What had happened to telling himself?
Waiting was just going to make things worse. Time to face the music, he thought grimly, straightening his shoulders as he reached out and opened the door. Show time.
First order of business, he thought rapidly as he stepped inside, was to check Thor. Pulse, breathing, reactive pupils, brain activity later when JARVIS was on hand. Colour. Temperature. Make sure he was going to be okay because this was Thor and they never did get to sit down for that drink—
Thor was in bed, blankets pulled to his chest like he’d been sound asleep when the attack happened. But his blue eyes were open, vacantly blank and staring up at the ceiling. His face was slack and pallid.
He looked like he’d died long before Tony had stepped into the room.
“Oh, don’t you dare, Odinson.” Lurching forward, heart in his throat, Tony put his ear to Thor’s chest and listened for a heartbeat. It was there, impossibly; JARVIS had been right. His vitals were okay. His skin was cool but not cold, and his heart thumped slow and steady. A little sluggish, maybe—but he was alive and breathing and thank god.
“Thor. Time to wake up, buddy. C’mon.” He shook his shoulders, searching Thor’s face for any indication of consciousness, any reaction at all. Amora had said she was taking his soul. Thor’s soul? What was a body without a soul? Tony had never really bought into spiritualism or religion, but it was kind of common knowledge that without a soul, a body was a corpse. But Thor wasn’t dead.
He was just…empty.
“Did you even see it coming?” Tony asked his friend, sitting heavily on the side of the bed. Reaching out, he closed Thor’s eyes with two light fingertips. They opened again, just slightly, enough to show a sliver of white beneath golden lashes. Jesus. Tony swallowed back a sour rush of saliva and wondered if he was actually about to vomit.
“He didn’t see it coming. Thor has always been oblivious to his own vulnerability.”
Tony didn’t look up, didn’t have to. Because of course. Loki probably still thought he could pull this off.
“What the hell happened? JARVIS woke me—said Amora got in. The systems were fried,” he said harshly, standing up in a rush and turning to face Loki. “You…shit. What happened to you?”
Leaning against the far wall, Loki shrugged stiffly. His hand was pressed tightly to his side, but blood still trickled steadily over his fingers.
“Nothing that hasn’t happened before,” he replied, but his green eyes were glassy and they wouldn’t leave Thor’s face. “Nothing that won’t happen again. You can’t wake him, you know. You can’t see it, but I can.”
“See what?” Tony asked roughly, completely thrown. Loki was bleeding – there had been a fight? How much had he missed in those brief minutes?
“That what lies there, warm and breathing, is still no more than the empty meat and bones of him. No better than discarded clothing. Thor is not there. She has him, and she’ll use him. Change him. Warp everything he was. He’s as good as dead.” Loki’s eyes slipped closed, and he smiled faintly. “And he was always so worried that I’d be the end of him. He never saw her coming.”
Tony turned back to Thor, heat prickling in his eyes. Standing up carefully, he straightened the sheets around him and wondered just what the hell he’d allowed to happen.
“Did you help her do this?” Tony asked, and the tremble in his voice was pure wrath. But it sounded like grief, too, and it was enough to convince Loki.
Loki, who pulled his hand away from his bleeding side to show the blistered, gaping wound in his side. Tony winced but held his ground. It was thin ice, here.
“I’ve always been her rival, you see. Thor has always been our end goal, for very different reasons.” Stepping away from the wall, Loki wobbled slightly but caught himself almost immediately. He closed the distance between himself and the bed where Thor’s body lay, eyes hooded and expression indecipherable. “This was not the end he deserved. I had so very many plans…”
Ignoring that, Tony faced Loki head-on. “You didn’t wake me, you went to Thor’s room by yourself, you let her get away and you’re trying to tell me you didn’t help her?”
That struck a raw nerve. Tony could almost taste the moment of impact as Loki’s head jerked up, his eyes glittering coldly. Clarity returned to his face in a rush.
“I am not in league with that vicious harpy,” Loki spat, his face leeching of colour. “Wake you? To what end? You’re useless unarmoured and time was of the essence. She’d already harvested his soul by the time I arrived. I tried to grab it and she shot me.” Turning away, shoulders stiff, Loki clenched his hand back around his side and hissed. “Had I chased her, Skurge would have been waiting on the other side to finish the job. Even you can agree I am of more value alive. I made the right decision.”
It was a good story. It might even be true, Tony thought as he watched Loki skirt the bed, coming to stand in front of him. Flesh and blood and screaming bitter innocence, where all evidence should point to the contrary. Truth and lies. That was how he did it. Enough truth to be believed sewn together with enough lies to be a comfort because Tony would want to believe what he said. And by the end Loki would walk away the victor in all of this.
Because maybe the Avengers would find Amora, would find Doom. Maybe they’d be taken care of, leaving Loki the only big name on the chessboard.
Or maybe with the trust he’d gained from the Avengers, he’d be in the perfect position to kill them all one by one, and cement his ties to Doom and Amora, two of the few forces around that could almost match him blow for blow.
Maybe they’d all go down together. Either way, Loki still won.
Except for one tiny detail.
“You know it’s funny, because I actually believe you,” Tony told him, linking his hands behind his back and carefully stretching his arms out. “You wouldn’t have wanted Amora to take him like that. You’d want him to feel it, and Thor can’t appreciate the severity of his situation when he’s been taken down in his sleep. No, you’d want him alive, kicking and screaming bloody murder.”
“You presume to know me. How endearing. But in this I suppose you are correct,” Loki replied. “This is not how I would have done this deed.”
Tony sighed, nodding tiredly. Taking a short step forward, he reached one hand out to Loki’s bleeding side. “You gonna let me take a look at that?”
Loki’s expression tightened minutely. “It will heal,” he said, pulling away from the outstretched fingers. “I don’t require your assistance.”
Tony smiled faintly, following him. “I thought you’d say that,” he said, and jammed the dagger hilt-deep into Loki’s unprotected stomach.
Crying out once, hoarsely, Loki hunched forward over the dagger, staring at Tony in horror as threads of his magic started to burn away, taking the illusion of his blistered wound with it.
“Stark…” His name was a ragged plea if ever Tony had heard one.
“It was a good story, you know, but the details are where it’s at. That much blood smells, and you didn’t. But hey, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…well.” He twisted the dagger sharply. Loki’s eyes rolled helplessly, and he bit through his own lip to contain his cry. But Tony was pure steel. “No one fools me twice, you treacherous son of a bitch.”
Green eyes blazed down at him, mute with fury and terrible pain combined. They slowly bled into a vivid shade of red, and Tony knew he’d won as the skin under his hands turned ice cold.
“Sir,” JARVIS intoned behind him, the heavy footstep of DOS indicating he’d done as asked. “The Dual Deadlock is in effect. Doctor Banner, if you would please hold onto this, I must assist Mr Stark.”
“I hate being right,” Banner muttered as JARVIS entered the room, palms up and sparking with pure electricity. Pulling the dagger out, Tony pushed Loki toward JARVIS and didn’t bother to watch as a lethal current was pulsed through his body, smelling burnt hair and the wet coppery tang of blood. He really should have worn his armour, Tony thought absently, rubbing his fingers together. They were slick with blood. Fitting, under the circumstances, only it wasn’t Loki he was thinking of.
“You need me, Stark,” Loki slurred, now locked within the prison of JARVIS’s arms. Of course it would take more than a humanly lethal dose for him. “You’ll never…find her without me. Kill me, and you lose whatever hope you had of…making Thor whole again. You need one with the powers of a god.”
Tony glanced back over his shoulder. He felt hollow now, and cold.
“Banner, do you see any gods in this room?”
“No, I don’t.” Bruce Banner was holding the Dual Deadlock between his hands. “I just see a frost giant.”
Loki snarled wordlessly at them both, a far cry from the eloquent sorcerer of a moment ago. JARVIS jolted him again. This time he actually went limp, sagging over the restraining metal arms. Dark blue blood dripped onto the floor.
“Did he just die?” Banner asked JARVIS, squinting at his captive.
“His vital signs are still strong, Doctor. He will awaken again soon, judging by the resilience of this form.” JARVIS turned to Tony. “Sir, Captain Rogers is en route, with Agents Barton and Romanov. Shall I take Mr Laufeyson to be restrained in a holding cell?”
Tony was watching Thor. He was white as a sheet, his hair a shock of gold against his skin. It was an unnatural sleep, even he could tell. Thor had never been so quiet or so still in his life, he’d bet.
“Tony.” Bruce took a careful step forward. Tony started.
“Huh? Yeah JARVIS, take him. Keep the Dual Deadlock in the room at all times. Full restraints, 24-hour surveillance. He shouldn’t be a threat with his magic stripped from him, but I don’t want to take any chances.” They’d taken enough as it was, and look where it had gotten them.
JARVIS left without another word, folding Loki’s bulk over one shoulder and taking the Dual Deadlock from Banner with his free hand. Handy, having him mobile like that. Maybe he deserved a remodelled suit, something a little more Iron Man and a little less von Doom. He’d need a new project to work on now anyway.
“So he’s gone? Thor, I mean,” Banner said, breaking the silence as he approached the bed. He was barefoot and had a serious case of bed-head. “Or was Loki telling the truth about there still being hope?”
“As galling as it is to admit, I have absolutely no idea,” Tony replied, scrubbing his hands over his face. Think, Stark. “This kind of magical warfare, it’s frankly out of my league. Souls, Banner. Can you believe it? Before I even go into the real-world implications of them even being a real, tangible thing that can be stolen, I don’t even know what they’re made of, how to track them—and Amora could be entire galaxies away by now. He’s so far out of our reach, and I…” His words dried up in his throat, but Banner had him covered.
“You were too busy in bed with Loki to doubt his motives,” Bruce said slowly. Tony went rigid, but he continued on. “That’s some nice artwork on your back there. Did Thor know?”
Tony’s mouth twitched upward, but it wasn’t a happy smile. “Thor didn’t know anything about anything, poor bastard. Loki was pulling my strings, waiting for me to come up with something to cripple Amora’s magic before he turned on us. Yet somehow they were working together the entire time. Villains, huh? Go figure.”
“I get that it was a plot. I do. But you and Loki…Steve will be obligated to act on this, you know,” Bruce said quietly, his eyes pensive. “You might not want to be here when they arrive.”
“Doctor, are you offering to cover for me?” Tony asked wryly. He wondered if his smile looked as painful as it felt. “Thanks, but I’ll wear this one. I have to; if I leave I can’t figure out how to get the readings I need. And something tells me Loki isn’t going to play nice this time. I’m not giving up on Thor just yet.”
“You’re blaming yourself.”
“Yeah, well. I helped do this, Banner. I’ve got to fix it—”
“But Steve’s not going to give you the chance,” Bruce interjected patiently. His eyes were sympathetic. “Tony, don’t you get it? You’re compromised.”
He flinched. “No, I’m not. I’m…god, I’m angry.”
Bruce smiled crookedly at him. “I hear that. But that’s not going to help you, and it sure won’t help Thor. Don’t wallow in your self-pity. We’ve all screwed up, gotten people hurt. We’re as good at that as we are at anything else we do. Loki has played us all before. Some of us more than once. We’ve come through worse than this.”
“Have we?” Oh, that was bleak.
“Yeah.” Bruce looked serious. “Because we have a chance to save Thor. We just need to figure out a plan. Even if that plan involves some…less than clean methods. You know what I’m referring to.”
“The Dual Deadlock means Loki can withstand torture and still have his magic repressed,” Tony said, and refused to feel horrified about it. “Fury’s going to want that, bad.”
“Just a little,” Banner agreed. He removed his fingertips from Thor’s pulse, shaking his head. “We’ll have to get him wired to a drip and a feeding tube. It’ll be at least a few months before his muscles really begin to show signs of atrophy, but we should keep an eye on him anyway.”
“Stay with him until the others arrive?” Tony asked. “I need to get JARVIS reconnected to the household system and backup my plans in case Fury tries to hack us. He won’t get in, but he might just crash the system again.”
That reminded him. Doom had done a number on the entire network, the crafty asshole. No wonder his Doombots hadn’t been newly upgraded – he’d been working on something completely different. Why he’d help Amora get to Thor though…since when did Doom give a damn about Thor?
He could always ask Loki, he thought self-deprecatingly. Loki wouldn’t possibly spin a web of solid gold bullshit. Not to mention toss in a few overt come-ons and some fantastic sex to really throw him off the scent.
Shaking off that train of thought, Tony headed for the door. Maybe he couldn’t get Thor back immediately, but he’d started all of this, and he was going to make sure he finished it. Amora would go down for this.
No matter what it took.