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Off the Record

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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.

Huh. Leather.

That didn’t seem right.

And hadn’t he gone to bed alone?

"JARVIS, lights."

Pushing himself up on his elbows, Tony blinked until the person he was in bed with swam into focus.

Well, shit.

"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.


"Tell him."

"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.

"All right."

"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.

Hey Pep,

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.

Chapter 2

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.

“Project Deadlock.”

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.

“Loki, no!”

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.”

“A b—”

“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.”

Yes, sir.

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.

As requested.

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.

Chapter 3

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—

Tony stared.

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.

“Fire all.”

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.

“Iron Man?”

“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.

Chapter 4

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.”

Pedantic, then.


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?”

“I ate.”

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.”

“Why, then?”

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?”

Yes, sir.

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.

Chapter 5

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.

Good times.

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."

"I could—"

"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—"

"No, Tony."

"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.

"Uh, no."

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.

Chapter 6

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.

Chapter 7

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.”

Done, sir.”

“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.

Full-stop initiated.

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.




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.


Oh, f—

“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.

Of course.

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.

He’d probably—

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.”

“Yes, sir.

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.”

Chapter 8

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.

Chapter Text

Half an hour later the other Avengers got home and all hell broke loose.

Well, no. Steve broke loose, but it kind of felt like the same thing, somehow. Clint just sank as deep into his chair as he could, looking pale and a little queasy. Natasha was cool and collected throughout Steve’s tirade, watching with interest from the arm of Clint’s chair.

Tony took the full brunt of it in silence. The entire thing. The ‘endangering your teammates’ speech, the ‘think with your head and not what’s in your pants’ speech, the disappointed speech, and finally, the ‘I’m revoking your access to the R&D levels and confiscating your suits’ speech.

They stung about as much as they were intended to, coming from one of his closest friends and the leader of their merry band of superheroes, or whatever they called themselves when they weren’t putting figures from Norse mythology into comas and generally screwing things up.

“I get it, I’m bad for the team image,” Tony said flatly, when Steve finally seemed to run out of steam. “I slept with the enemy. More than that, I was reckless and I let myself believe that he was on our side. But you know what, Rogers? So did you.”

Steve flushed an angry red, but Tony continued before he could speak. Somehow, he knew where this was all heading but damned if he didn’t put up a fight anyway, just to be a difficult prick before the final word was spoken.

“The intel was good,” Tony said, his voice hard. “It saved you, it gave us a weapon against Doom, it stopped Amora from spiking Thor’s drink or whatever at the benefit last year. And you know what? I don’t think you would’ve given a damn if I was riding him into the living room carpet, as long as he played nice and kept feeding us what we needed to know. But suddenly Thor gets caught in the crossfire and I’m the one who compromised the team? That’s rich.”

Steve’s brow creased, blue eyes snapping, but he didn’t answer right away. Casting his eyes to the others, he worked his jaw for a moment while he tried to politely tell them all to get out.

It was Natasha who got the hint first, striding out of the room without a word. JARVIS trained all cameras on Clint until he panicked and followed her. Bruce just cast Tony a strangely intense glance and left last, murmuring about doing some reflex tests on Thor.

When it was just the two of them, Steve finally allowed his shoulders to slump. Tony watched him sink into one of the couch chairs, looking as worn and tired as Tony had ever seen him.

“I’m not doing this to punish you, Tony,” Steve said eventually, looking up at him. “Yes, you fraternised with the enemy, but until you start firing on us I’m never going to believe you’re compromised. But I know you. You’re already planning to do something stupid, aren’t you?”

Tony thought about lying. “I will neither confirm nor deny that,” he said eventually, sitting down heavily beside Steve.

“See, this is why I’m taking your access away. You’re going to go hell for leather trying to get to Amora, and you’ll get yourself killed. Thor’s down. Maybe for good—”

“I won’t let that—”

Maybe for good,” Steve repeated, his voice firm. “But we’re going to sit down and plan this out, and we’re going to act as a team. We’re in this together.” He hesitated, suddenly sheepish. “Well, except you. Because you’re a liability right now.”

Tony gave him a dirty look. “Thanks, Rogers. You really are the wind beneath my wings.”

Steve shrugged. “I just wish I could have been the zipper on your pants.”

Tony barked a startled laugh, surprising them both. Steve blinked back at him.

“Inappropriate workplace topic?” he tried, the corners of his mouth twitching despite everything. Tony stared at him, and then suddenly they were both completely gone, cackling like a couple of hens together in the pre-dawn darkness. It was unbelievably inappropriate to be laughing at anything just then, but stress always found an outlet somehow.

“God, I just—I can’t say I’m surprised that Loki had another agenda,” Steve said eventually, wiping at his eyes. “But Thor doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Not like that. It’s not his M.O.”

Tony shook his head. “My theory is that he got screwed tonight, too,” he said, tipping his face to the ceiling. “Amora is clearly an opportunist, and Doom gave her an opening. But it doesn’t change anything. Loki might not have counted on Thor being taken like that, but he was hatching a plan in here all the same.”

Steve nodded seriously. “Okay. So where does…where do you come into it though?” He stopped short. “Did you just say ‘hatching a plan’?”

“Shut up. And I don’t know.” Tony shrugged. “Could be he just wanted to distract me. I guess we’ll never know where he was heading with that one. I wash my hands of the entire thing.”

Steve looked far too relieved to hear him say that. “So you’re going to let me take your suits? No funny business?”

The idea was almost physically painful. Steve would pack them all into one of the cells and manually lock it down, he knew. He’d put them somewhere even Tony couldn’t hack into. This bird was going to be well and truly grounded.

But Tony had been locked up before.

“Leave me my workshop and you’ve got a deal.”

Steve frowned. “Tony.”

“I need it, Cap. We’ve got to track her somehow, and I already have a sample of her magic down there.” Tony didn’t add that he wouldn’t have a chance in hell of finding her if she’d left Earth; one of the first things any clever person would do when smuggling precious cargo away from the Avengers.

Steve hesitated, but eventually nodded. “Okay.” Then he added, “Fury will be here in under an hour. He’s taking Loki into SHIELD custody.”

“Along with my shiny new Dual Deadlock,” Tony concluded bitterly. Shit. “Naturally. Whatever. Do what you’ve gotta do, and all that. Did you at least tell him we’re keeping Thor?”

“He fought me on it,” Steve admitted, “but I wouldn’t budge. Thor’s one of us. But he said we’re sitting ducks here and I’m inclined to believe him. Doctor Doom got the drop on us tonight. We need tighter security, Tony. Can you work on that first?”

Well, it was a project, and after tonight, probably a time-sensitive one. Tony felt purpose start to finally ground him; he had something to work on, a goal to achieve, and bit by bit they were going to work out a way to find Thor’s soul and cram it back down where it belonged. Besides, the journey of a thousand miles always began with the first casualty, or something.

At any rate, it was a start.

“You bet your star-spangled ass I will,” he promised finally, cracking his knuckles. “Doom rolled my entire system in one hit. That’s embarrassing, and damned if I’m going to be embarrassed by a man in a green dress.”

Steve brightened too, his usual resolute determination returning to him. “And after that, we work together to find Amora and take her down. We get Thor back.”

Tony nodded. “And if we’re lucky, we might even come out of this alive.”

With a sharp, soldierly slap on the shoulder, Steve got up and headed out to do his usual leader thing. Reassurances to the team, checking on Thor, and probably guarding Loki until Fury arrived to cram his blue ass into the back of a SHIELD hummer.

When he was long gone, Tony rolled his eyes to JARVIS’s sensors.

“What do you think?”

I think you have a limited window of opportunity, sir, before Thor’s soul is damaged by Enchantress. I also think it is presently technologically impossible to track her movements.”

It was the same conclusion Tony had come to, but hearing JARVIS say it made the difference. Limited time to act. Amora specialised in mind control, among other things. If she lifted Thor’s soul from his body, what would she do to it while she had it in her possession?

Would she try to put it back after she’d shaped it to her liking?

It wasn’t worth speculating on just yet. Tony had a job to do first, and SHIELD could handle Loki if they had his magic dampened. Banner had assigned himself the role of nursemaid to Thor’s vacant body for now, and Tony didn’t want to see the mess he’d make of Amora if she decided to come back to finish the job.

For now, it was back to business because Tony couldn’t handle anything else just yet. That included speculating on the method of greeting SHIELD was going to give their newest captive, after Tony so graciously delivered him to them on a silver platter.


No. Loki had brought his fate crashing down on his own shoulders. Let Fury peel him like a grape. It was long overdue, no doubt.

Tony had more important things to worry about than the fate of one Loki Laufeyson. And if he slept a little worse for a couple of nights, well.

When did Tony Stark ever sleep soundly?



Avengers headquarters suddenly felt emptier than it ever had.

Everyone agreed that it was quiet and almost tomb-like without Thor’s loud, bellowing affection coming from one room or another. The others mainly started keeping to their own rooms, talking in hushed voices when they met in the halls.

Nick Fury had long been and gone; SHIELD had marched in and wheeled Loki out on a titanium gurney that had him strapped down in so many places that even Fury seemed to recognise his own paranoia. The Dual Deadlock had gone with them, for obvious reasons. At the sight of it, Fury had given Tony a look that he’d only seen on one other man’s face – right after the arc reactor had been disconnected from his chest. Golden goose, that look said.

Tony had locked eyes with Loki just once in that moment, right before he disappeared into the armoured transport. Those impossibly red eyes met his; darker now, and shadowed. Lips moved over soundless words, four of them. Then he was gone, and Tony felt the weight of the arc reactor pull at his chest in a way it hadn’t done for a long time.

It is no trick.

He watched the convoy drive away with unblinking eyes.

After that, he went to his workshop, the only place he still had access to. The hangar, armoury, even the gym and the showers were all barred to him. He’d signed over room access privileges to Steve and JARVIS was completely helpless to argue, given that Tony had directed him. It didn’t matter.

His Iron Man suits, including his prototypes, were all wheeled out by trolley into the largest containment room on the interrogation level. Manually locked, just as Tony expected. He couldn’t get to them; he’d designed those walls to be impenetrable by even Hulk himself. But he didn’t need them.

Tony whiled away the next two weeks upgrading the security systems, fortifying a new Deadlock and a secondary arc reactor-powered Deadlock in case the first one failed. He improved defensive shields, camouflaged security sensors and projected outward heat signature grids to a radius of eight hundred feet. It felt like good, honest work, and it stopped him thinking about anything but the metal in his hands.

He even re-plated DOS, which Steve hadn’t bothered to store away. Tony stripped him down to skeletal wires and exposed his power core, replacing it with an arc reactor instead of the rotten nuclear core Doom preferred. Taking notes of preference from JARVIS and adding in a little of his own personal style, they ended up with a near replica of the Mark IV suit, this time painted in vivid blue and shining chrome. When fully initiated, JARVIS had a blinding white glare that unnerved even Tony.

When he was too tired to work, he cut Banner loose and sat with Thor. Thor, who as it turned out wasn’t as comatose as they’d all assumed. Instinctive muscle memory, Natasha had deemed it the first time Thor sat up and got out of bed. Some things you didn’t need a soul to do, apparently, and eating and using the bathroom were two of them.

Thor had enough low-level brain activity to take care of daily needs, Bruce had eventually decided, and they took out the feeding tube. They officially had a zombie instead of a coma patient, but it was still incredibly heartening to see him moving.

Until he tried to pick up Mjölnir.

It was all the proof they needed that their friend might look like he was back, but he was mute and vacant-eyed and he couldn’t pick up the hammer that had been an extension of his own body for untold years. His soul was really gone.

After that, Tony flew into a frenzy, scanning and replicating the energy from the worn-out Doombot hand, knowing the unique signature was too weak but trying anyway. It failed and failed again, but he kept going. They had to find Amora at any cost, or that sad puppet that used to be their friend might end up being the only reminder they had of Thor Odinson.

Tony refused to let it end like that. If he could invert a magical signature, he could sure as hell find one.

It was just a matter of time.

The call came on a Tuesday, just over three weeks after Thor had lost his soul.

Tony was drinking coffee in the kitchen and trying to teach Thor how to use a spoon correctly when his phone screen lit up: Unknown Caller (but probably SHIELD)

Well, this couldn’t be good. Hitting the receive button, Tony put on his most obnoxious voice.

“Nick Fury, my favourite one-eyed spy. Long time, no see. Please tell me it’s not another bar fridge incident.” Reaching over to Thor, he mimed eating scrambled eggs off the plate. “Like that, see? Oh, you’re hopeless, you can’t eat with the handle end.”

“Stark,” Fury said heavily. He sounded tired and worried. “We need you to come in.”

No, it wasn’t good at all.

Tony took a long gulp of his coffee before replying, feeling the burn of it splash against the back of his throat.

“Can’t. Grounded.” He didn’t even try to inject a note of apology into it. “Talk to Momma Steve. Maybe he can arrange some kind of baby harness-slash-leash thing for me. Bye now.”


“What? Jesus, Fury, what the hell do you want? I’m already working my damned fingers to the bone here trying to develop—”

“He’ll talk,” Fury broke in, terse. “He’ll talk to you. God knows he ain’t gonna talk to us after what we’ve been doing to him; Thor wasn’t kidding about his pain threshold. So get in a car and get over here, and maybe we can pull Thor’s ass out of the fire.”

Well that was tempting. But it was also Loki.

Tony snorted loudly. “Director, I all but stuck an apple in his mouth and gave him to you. If he wants me, it’s preferably butterflied and cooked to perfection. Is that what you promised him?” If Nick Fury ranked the Avengers by usefulness, Tony was reasonably sure he was still somewhere near the top. But against Thor, whose fate had two worlds hanging in the balance? Weapons could be built. You couldn’t build another thunder god.

Beside him, Thor seemed to finally work out how to use his spoon and set about eating his now-cold breakfast. It didn’t faze him, though. Nothing did. This guy, this vacant space had no higher brain functions. His brain was a guttering candle of activity where before it had been a supernova.

“Loki is…not doing so well, Stark. Not anymore. The price of his information was your line of questioning, not ours.” As Tony’s silence continued, Fury swore softly. “Don’t make me beg for this, Stark. We need Odinson back before word reaches Asgard. Do this for him.”

Tony just closed his eyes, feeling sick and old and tired. Of course Loki would ask for him. Tony had turned the knife and now he would too. Asked to go into SHIELD, just like he had last time, when he’d thought he was doing the right thing. Except this time Loki had spent three weeks under SHIELD’s tender love and care, and Tony’s technology was what kept him defenceless.

You will use this against me one day, will you not?

“Stark?” Fury was still on the line. Tony blinked and straightened up in his chair, ignoring the sudden clutch of his throat.

“Loki’s going to want my head, so if I get in there I’m going to need a lot of force behind me. But I can get in there in a few hours.”

“A few—are you walking? Take a suit!”

“Locked up. Do you even listen to Steve’s briefings?” In the corner of his eye Tony watched Thor get hold of his coffee cup and start drinking from it, paying no mind to the taste.

Thor had hated Tony's expensive coffee with an abiding passion. He was all wrong, in so many tiny ways. It wasn’t the dumb-animal stare, or the silence, or the docile and sluggish movements he made. It was the complete absence of everything that had made Thor…well, Thor.

And, inexplicably, in that precise moment Tony knew exactly what he needed to do.

Loki had always been Thor’s biggest weakness. That had always been the case. They were a package deal, tied up in hatred and love and violence. The team had learned to compensate for that.

Abruptly hanging up on Fury, heart hammering in his throat, Tony turned to meet Thor’s blank gaze.

“Want to come for a drive?”

Chapter 9

Tony was halfway to SHIELD’s New York compound, AC/DC blaring out of every speaker in the Porsche when his phone started ringing.

And ringing.

In fact, Tony just watched as Missed Calls: 16 flashed up on the windscreen as he drove, shaking his head.

“Minimise.” There were more important things to think about just then. Things like classic rock anthems, the asshole in the Chevy that was attempting to tailgate him –seriously, how– and Thor starting to look a little green in the passenger seat. Could soulless Norse gods vomit? Maybe he shouldn’t take the corners so fast; the upholstery was custom, after all.

Sir, would you like to speak to Captain Rogers?” JARVIS finally asked as the seventeenth call flashed up, muffling the best part of ‘Thunderstruck’ and totally ruining his own high-pitched rendition of the chorus. “Or shall I block future calls?

“JARVIS, I am clearly torn on the subject, don’t ask me questions right now. Or hey, you could answer it for me, how about that?” Tony put his foot down as the road eased out into clean straight lines, the scenery becoming a blur in the corner of his eye. Beside him, Thor just stared at the air conditioning vent blankly.

I think that Captain Rogers would prefer if he spoke to you, sir. You have directly violated three of the rules you promised to adhere to. Shall I list them?

Tony frowned briefly and thought about driving the car into a ditch. JARVIS could be such an old nag.

“I’m out of Avengers HQ, I stole Thor, and I’m in possession of high level weapons technology. Yeah JARVIS, I get it. Go cry to Fury, he’s the one who pulled me out here.”

Tony felt the suspension groan a little as JARVIS leaned forward in the back, his metal fingers curving over the shoulder of Tony’s seat. His visor was cold white and almost blinding in the dim interior of the car.

Was it imperative that you initialise this mobile unit?

“What? You needed a test run,” Tony told him, abruptly jerking out into the left-hand lane and overtaking a pickup. “And don’t even try to tell me you’re not loving it, either. Look at you, you’re sex on titanium alloy legs, even if my car is almost touching blacktop right now.”

This unit weighs almost five hundred pounds,” JARVIS said primly. “It was not intended for domestic automobile transport.

“‘I’, JARVIS, not ‘this unit’. That there is all you, right down to your freakishly bright optical sensor. Seriously, could you turn that down a little? I feel like I’m looking into the sun.”

Lowering optical sensor brightness to seventy percent.” The visor dimmed slightly, but it was still the world’s scariest flashlight. Maybe he could put a colour filter over it later.

“Judging by Cap’s repeated phone calls he knows exactly where I am. Fury likes him enough that he would have put a call through after I left.” That at least was truth; Fury liked to keep Captain America happy even if he was pissing the rest of them off. They had one of those ‘functional’ work relationships that Tony had never understood.

Taking into account what happened last time you attended SHIELD, Captain Rogers is likely concerned for your welfare.”

“Exactly. All seventeen of those calls boil down to a whole lot of pearl-clutching and anxious reminders to feed Thor at one o’clock or else he starts getting cranky. It’s not a big deal. Now sit back, you’re throwing off the handling.”

JARVIS obeyed silently, probably retreating from the conversation to run more diagnostics on the suit. Tony was okay with that. The suit only gave him as much mobile freedom as Tony wanted him to have; he still answered to all commands given.

Clint, on the other hand, swore up and down that he was going to snap one day and make perfect meaty rosettes out of their internal organs, to which JARVIS had replied that he didn’t have the dexterity for that - yet. Barton had a strange, mutually threatening relationship with Tony’s household AI, but Tony was happy enough to let it go. Who was he to judge what constituted unhealthy interaction?

Not that whatever he and Loki had dabbled in was anything other than a brief mess of lust, violence and adrenaline. Maybe there had been a moment or two in there that felt like it could have been real, but that was just superb acting, really. Nothing to be ashamed of. After all, he’d been played by one of the best. Once.

Deep inside SHIELD’s interrogation cells with three weeks of government hospitality drying on his skin, Loki was probably regretting ever stepping foot inside Avengers Headquarters with a lie on his tongue and a smile on his face.

Turning up the volume on the next track, Tony planted his foot again and tried not to think about what awaited him at the compound.

That went about as well as expected.

It was cold inside the SHIELD base. They weren’t fans of windows or adequate heating, apparently. Paranoid cheapskates. Tony rolled down the sleeves of his shirt and gestured to Thor, who obediently ambled up to him.

The vacant body of Thor Odinson was a far cry from the thunder god they knew and loved. Wearing jeans and a t-shirt instead of the leather and armour he usually favoured, he was somewhat less than intimidating. Without the cape and hammer he looked…small, for such a big guy. Tony didn’t like it.

But Tony didn’t know how to fix it, either, which was why they were all there. What Loki might have to say about the missing soul was anyone’s guess. Last time they’d spoken, he’d been bleeding out and swearing he didn’t have anything to do with it. That was so many shades of bullshit that Tony couldn’t figure out why Fury thought Loki suddenly had a new song to sing.

What had changed?

Incoming,” JARVIS intoned quietly beside him. Tony smiled.

“Old habits die hard, huh?” he said, nudging the suit with his elbow as they rounded the corner. “That’s cute. You can keep doing that.”

“I can always trust you to rustle up an entourage at short notice,” Fury said when Tony walked into the screening area, striding over to them from the security checkpoint. He didn’t look particularly bothered to see Thor – his eye was fixed on the blue-panelled suit at Tony’s shoulder. “Colonel Rhodes?”

JARVIS’s visor shone like a cold star.

I’m afraid not, Director.”

Fury’s eyebrows went up. He turned to Tony. “Mr Stark, you have too much damn time on your hands.”

“Tell that to Steve, he’s the one giving it all to me.”

“So I hear.” They started walking towards the checkpoint, which would open into a series of further checkpoints and doors until they reached the interrogation cells. Tony wondered if the base had been modelled after something out of Get Smart.

“So, how’s our prisoner?” he asked as Fury sent someone scurrying for a visitor access card. “Striking bargains for souls, right? He’s riding that ‘evil magician’ stereotype a little hard, but let’s run with it.” Fury rolled his eye, but Tony shook his head, smile fading. “You know that Loki isn’t going to give me anything he wouldn’t give you. So why the hell am I here?”

Fury scanned the room quickly for prying eyes. “You’re here because he asked for you. He asked for you a week ago, in fact.”

Tony tensed. “Why?” And why had Fury left it an entire week before telling him?

“Because he hit his limit, I guess.” Fury smile wasn’t reassuring. “Maybe he thought we’d let up if he dangled the carrot. But SHIELD agents have a certain sense of pride in their work, do you understand? They’d promised me they could crack him with a few more days.”

Of course. Why give Loki anything he wanted? There was bartering for information with a loaded gun, and then there was pulling it out of him one tooth at a time because hey, the safety was on and there was nothing to fear anymore.

“Did they?” Tony asked, feeling numb. “Did they crack him?”

Fury’s jaw tightened. “He started giving them pointers. When he wasn’t laughing his fool head off, anyway. I don’t know what they put in the water on Asgard, but I want some.” One dark eye bore into Tony’s, frustration written into every line on Fury’s face. “Stark, he is two steps from hell right now, and he won’t give us a damn thing.”

Hadn’t they learned anything from the last time they got their hands on Loki? He didn’t intimidate. He didn’t break. He didn’t—

“Give you what?” Tony asked suddenly, rocking back on his heels. “What exactly have you been asking him for?”

Fury crossed his arms. “The whereabouts of Thor Odinson’s soul. Where Amora is. Doom’s hideout. What do you think we’ve been asking him—”

“Well gee, Fury, I don’t know, maybe you were asking him all kinds of things. I know you; you’re a big picture kind of guy. How much did he tell you about Asgard’s weapons vault?”

Fury went still. “That’s not your concern.”

Tony smiled. It wasn’t a nice smile. “Hey, I can’t blame you; my mind went there too. What if we can’t get Thor’s soul back? What if Asgard moves against Earth because we got their heir to the throne and his brother all broken and brain-damaged? What kind of artillery are we in for here? But you’re missing the point—”

“Tony, goddamnit,” Steve said from across the room, expression darker than a thundercloud. His hair was a mess and he actually looked a little out of breath. “Why do you even have a phone?”

Abruptly switching train of thought, Tony stared at him. “I’m sorry—did you run here?”

“We have a jet,” Steve reminded him crossly, taking in the four of them. Even in civilian clothes he managed to look commanding. “You haven’t gone in yet, then. Good. I’m taking Thor back with me before you get what’s left of him killed.” He blinked at JARVIS. “Why are you…you know what, I don’t even care.”

“Cap, you’re looking a little stressed,” Fury noted, stepping in beside Tony. “But if you’ve come to stand in the way of this you’re going to be sorely disappointed.”

Steve’s expression turned downright black. “Look, Tony can do what he wants. It’s Thor’s body I’m after. No jokes,” he barked before Tony could even open his mouth. “I have had it up to here with this Loki business. Look at where dealing with him got us in the past. Deliver him and Thor up to Asgard. Let them take care of their own.”

Well that sounded final. It also sounded just enough like giving up to get under Tony’s skin.

“No,” he said. “Absolutely not.”

Fury uncrossed his arms. “Gotta say I’m with Stark on this one, Captain. They both stay. We’ve still got some room to move here. Loki did personally ask for Stark. Wouldn’t you say that’s an opening we can exploit?”

Steve shook his head. “No. It’s a trap. It’s always a trap and it’s always going to be a trap. Tony, you’re my friend and a valuable member of the team, but your judgement is in the toilet right now. Give me Thor.”

Without Thor the whole meet would just end up becoming a giant storm of bullshit. Tony had had enough of that. Ignoring the sharp sting of Steve’s truly impressive lack of faith, he shook his head.

“He stays.”

Steve went rigid. “Don’t think I won’t take him, Tony. Even if I have to go through you.”

JARVIS’s shoulders abruptly exploded with an array of guns, all trained on Steve.

Everyone stared. Fury actually had one hand on his sidearm.

JARVIS’s sensors whirred. “Pardon me, but I seem to have a strict set of parameters where threats are concerned.

Inordinately pleased, Tony patted one metal bicep just above the miniaturised plasma grenade launcher.

“Don’t get too excited.” The guns reverted back into the suit. “Just stand there and look amazing while Daddy deals with the angry man.”

Fury sighed, turning back to Steve. “Look, to be clear, I didn’t ask for Odinson’s body to be brought along. But the idea does have some merit. Sorry, Rogers, but when you’re on base you answer to me. Thor stays.”

“But he leaves when I do, right?” Tony prompted. “Because if you get handsy with my date—”

Yes, he leaves with you,” Fury interrupted. “Just try to get me something from Laufeyson before this headache turns into a migraine. Rogers, with me. Stark, we’ll have you on surveillance in the control room.”

Tony thought about it for precisely two seconds. “Take Thor and JARVIS with you. I don’t need them.”

“But you just—” Steve looked like he was either about to strangle Tony or cry. Tony smiled crookedly.

“Could you just trust me?” he asked, and it wasn’t an entirely rhetorical question. “Look, I’ll call for Thor later if I need him. JARVIS, guard him for me. I have an angry fling to talk to.”

Yes, sir.

Steve looked defeated. Or constipated; it was actually getting hard to tell with him. Grabbing the security pass off the armed agent at the checkpoint, Tony headed past them all to enter the interrogation block.

Before the doors slid shut on them, Tony caught Fury’s blank expression as he turned to Steve.

“Did he just say ‘fling’?”

Eight checkpoints, one titanium door and what looked suspiciously like a circa 1999 biometric body scanner later, Tony stood in front of the reinforced door to Loki’s cell.

They’d put him in a different place this time, Tony noted, running his eyes over the keypad, iris scanner and other assortment of devices the security guy ran through to open the door. A lot more in the way of locks, but only one armed guard at the door. Not scared of a break-out, then. That was new.

“Hold on, Mr Stark,” the guard said as the light overhead flashed green and the door unlatched with a loud clang. “We need to vent the room before you can go in. It should only take a few seconds.”

“Are you gassing him in there to keep him quiet?” Tony asked, frowning. It would explain the lack of personnel by the doors. But the guard just shook his head, giving a half-hearted shrug.

“Not my business to ask. We’re just told to vent before anyone goes in there.” Hitting a sequence of buttons on the keypad, which apparently made something happen inside, the guard watched the overhead light flash again and started pulling the door open. “All right, you’re good to go.”

“Aren’t you supposed to tell me now that you’ll shoot me if I come out screaming that I’m king of the world?” This was all just a bit too casual for his tastes.

The man shrugged. “I hear you do that anyway.”

Tony blinked. “Good point. All right, I’m going in.”

Any reply the guard made was muffled by the heavy clang of the door closing behind Tony, sealing him inside. Not that Tony would have heard him at any rate – he was too busy unbuttoning his collar and rolling his sleeves back up. It was hot in there.

“Efficient heat distribution failure,” Tony muttered to himself in the gloom, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the low light. “And crappy lighting. Wow, SHIELD is really rolling out the red carpet. Was there a budget cut?” Walking toward the centre of the room, sweat already beading on his forehead, Tony abruptly reared away from something lining the wall that still emitted heat from a distance of five feet.

“Wall-to-wall radiant heaters, huh. That’s, uh, cosy.” Tony turned toward the vertical-tilted examination table Loki was strapped upright to, stepping around to the other side so he could see him.

“C’mon Loki, where’s your surly welcome? You’re not living up to your best self here…” Tony’s eyes adjusted in the dim light as he reached him.

He got precisely one look at the mess SHIELD had made of Loki Laufeyson before his gorge rose. Tony whipped around in revulsion, making it as far as the other wall and bracing himself there, willing himself not to vomit. God, his skin had—

“Jesus,” Tony said raggedly, pressing his forehead against the wall. Sucking in a desperate gulp of warm air, he scrubbed his face with both hands and tried to get himself under control. “It was only three weeks.”

Loki had called for Tony after two. SHIELD had done that to him instead, turned him into so much blistered skin and meat. Unable to even lift a damned finger to defend himself because of the Deadlock’s influence. The Deadlock that Tony had let SHIELD take with them without any kind of protest.

“Attack of conscience, Stark? How very maudlin,” a rusty voice said from the other side of the upright restraints. Loki sounded a million years old. Tony was shocked he was actually able to speak.

Get ahold of yourself, Stark, he told himself sternly, pushing himself to his full height. Or he’ll use that, too.

“You look like you’ve been spit-roasted. There go my lunch plans.” Casting an eye about for a sink, Tony finally blinked at the assortment of machines lining the wall opposite the heaters. “Huh. A freezer, an ice dispenser, and a bathtub to put it in. Your reward for the information, I assume? Interesting. None of it’s been used.”

Loki’s answering laugh was little more than a rasp in the back of his throat.

“The price was too high, you see.”

“What price was that?” Tony asked flatly, filling a paper cup with ice. He didn’t want to be there. “Just what the hell has Amora got on you that you’d rather go through that than sell her out?” Walking back over to the upright table, he hit the swivel button on the remote and turned Loki back toward him, inwardly steeling himself for the sight of him.

The heaters must have been on for days and days to do what they’d done to Loki’s Jotun skin. With the Deadlock running continuously, his sensitivity to heat would have been excruciatingly high. Where before Tony had seen a smooth expanse of deep blue there was now a ravaged canvass of blistered and cracked skin, so dry and rough that it had broken open like parched earth, oozing dark blood. The blue had gone greyish and pallid; his brilliant red eyes now milky and unfocussed. They hadn’t even bothered with his modesty this time - his only garments were the thick straps holding him against the examination table.

And this was Loki, of Asgard. Of Jotunheim. Of myth and mischief and magic.


Liesmith, Tony reminded himself. An amazing liar. Loki could have avoided everything, all of it if he’d just confessed to SHIELD.

“Well?” Tony prompted roughly. “What stopped you from telling them? Pride?”

“Perhaps I told them everything about Amora’s plans, Stark,” Loki whispered, leaning forward in his bonds. “Perhaps there was simply nothing to tell. And with Thor gone, who was there to believe me?”

Tony didn’t know whether to be incredulous or angry about the unspoken blame there. Ignoring the pointed question completely, he pulled a chip of ice from the cup and pressed it to Loki’s cracked lips. Tony was faintly gratified to see him take it into his mouth, only to watch as he spat it on the ground.

“It’s not your mercy I want. You should have listened to me, Stark,” Loki said hoarsely. He turned unfocussed eyes to Tony, blinking slowly through the film. “She’s had three weeks. Thor has his own resistance to mind control but even his strength is not endless.” He shifted beneath the thick restraint holding his neck down, causing hair to drag across his face in lank tendrils. Dark blood seeped from under the strap where the skin was rubbed raw. It hurt just to look at it, but Loki didn’t seem to notice the pain.

“And what, now you want to tell us where she is?”

“I don’t know where she is,” Loki said coldly, breath wheezing slightly in his throat. Then he paused. “But I do know where she is not.”

“She’s not on Earth,” Tony said, his heart sinking. It had been obvious enough to him, but hearing it made it so much more hopeless. “She skipped the entire planet with Thor’s soul, didn’t she?”

Loki’s smile was a nightmare. “Precisely. Face it, Stark, I’m the only one who can reach her now.”

“There’s no way SHIELD is letting you out.”

“You might.”

Tony laughed. There was nothing remotely funny about the situation but damn it, he just couldn’t help himself. Of course this was why Loki had requested him for ‘questioning’. Of course it was.

“Did they lobotomise you while you were here?” he asked finally, wiping the corner of his eye. “There isn’t one damn reason on this green earth you could give me that would make me even consider springing you from here.” Stretching up, he looked Loki dead in the eyes. “Think about it. You lied to get into headquarters, you lied about why you were there, you lied to me this entire time and now you want me to trust you because—”


“—suddenly you’re pissed that Amora snuck in and ruined your master plan? You want someone to take a leap of faith for you? You came to the wrong—”

I never lied, you fool!” Loki roared at him, the words broken and torn in his throat. His eyes were wide and furious. “Not about that, and not about you. I ran to save my skin and no more. I lied to her, you belligerent, sulking imbecile! If I wanted the Avengers dead I’d have killed you from the start, not given you the only weapon that could destroy my power!” Chest heaving under the restraints, Loki thrashed hard against them like he wanted to attack Tony, paying no heed to the blood dripping down his skin as he tore it.

Tony wasn’t moved. "That’s bullshit. You’ve been high and dry before – why did you scurry to the Avengers? Amora is good but she’s not that good. No, you came with a plan and I want to know what the hell it was.”

“Oh you utter—Amora was after Thor,” Loki said, slowly and painstakingly, like he was talking to a child. His voice was almost gone. “But she was after me first. Why might that be, Stark? Could it be because if I attacked and actually defeated Thor she would have nothing to project her pathetic fantasies onto? What would you do in that situation?”

It was on the tip of his tongue to call to the guard and walk the hell on out of there. Loki had dug his own grave. He’d gambled and he’d lost. Tony didn’t owe him anything. He could just walk out and never look back.

“Well, I’d take out the competition, obviously,” Tony replied, mouth tight. “I’d try to kill you. Great, whatever. It still doesn’t explain why you suddenly want to—”

“Because no one touches him,” Loki snarled, teeth bared. “Not that green-garbed harlot, not her executioner, not Doom, no-one. And now she is entire worlds away with my brother’s soul in her dainty fist, and I am strapped naked to a piece of metal in this forsaken cesspool of a realm!” Straining against the straps again, savaging himself in the process, Loki pinned Tony with a glare that was as much rage as it was pain.

“Temper, temper.” Still, there was a ring of truth to what he’d said. Hard as it was to admit, Loki made some kind of sense; from the very start he’d only come to Tony because Amora had a plan for Thor.

Had the entire last year been nothing more than a silent war between the two of them, neatly veiled under the guise of working together to bring down the Avengers?

No. There was more to it than that. There had to be. There had to be, or—

Or Loki really hadn’t been to blame for what happened to Thor.

Plucking out another chip of ice from the cup, Tony pressed it into Loki’s mouth, this time letting his wet fingers rest against the peeling skin of his jaw. He didn’t spit it out this time, instead simply jerking his head away from Tony’s hand and closing his eyes.

“So it’s all just a pissing contest,” Tony said finally, swirling the melting ice around in the cup. “Some kind of tug-of-war with Thor in the middle. You got in close to us to stop her. She cursed me to attack you. You helped make the Deadlock. She got his soul.” Looking up at Loki, looking at the furious ragged creature he’d become, Tony felt old. Old and tired and sad.

Because it was all just some game, and the only one that had cared had been the one to pay the price.

“You want to get his soul back because you don’t like losing. But you don’t actually give a damn about Thor, do you?”

Loki’s eyes opened, casting Tony a look from under his eyelashes. “Whatever gets the job done, Stark. Don’t bring sentiment into this.”

“It is a little out of character for me, I’ll give you that.” Tony set the cup down and turned to one of the hooded surveillance cameras on the ceiling. “JARVIS, bring him. I want to know for sure.”

Loki’s lip curled, eyes following his to the camera.

“So, you brought the machine with you. Effective, but still a copy of Victor’s design.” Still, his eyes were fixed on the door with no small amount of wariness, though he looked almost entirely worn out just from having their little conversation. “Who have you brought?”

The heavy door clanged hard as it gave way to one person. JARVIS’s silhouette stood to one side, holding the door open. The figure walked into the cell slowly, as if he was lost in a dream.

Tony shrugged. “Just some empty meat and bones.”

Thor –Thor’s body, he reminded himself– walked into the gloom just as the door groaned shut again. JARVIS had remained outside to guard it. Threat level minimum, then.

Loki went rigid as he spotted Thor, craning his head forward as far as he could. His eyes were very wide.

“You restored his soul already?” he croaked in disbelief, whipping his attention back to Tony. “Then what was the purpose of—” His voice abruptly stopped as Thor walked up close enough that Loki could see him clearly.

“Where is Mjölnir?” Loki whispered. Anguished denial twisted his ravaged features. “What is this creature?

Tony honestly hadn’t known exactly what to expect when Loki came face to face with Thor’s soulless body. All he’d had to go on was the instinct that nothing would get under his skin like Thor would. Because it had always been that way for Thor, and everyone had known it. Loki could talk about grudges and debts all day if he wanted, but Tony needed to see it in his face.

Tony got more than he bargained for.

The temperature in the room dropped to ten below freezing in the blink of an eye. Frost climbed over the walls in a thick, glittering layer of white but Tony hardly noticed as Loki’s restraints shattered like they’d been dipped in liquid nitrogen, and then his arms were full of limbs made of burning ice.

“Off me!” Loki snarled, shoving Tony back against the freezer. Somewhere, an alarm was going off. “How dare you, Stark, how dare you bring this wretched thing here!”

Gasping for breath, staggering back from Thor’s body where it stood unconcerned and placid, Loki collapsed hard to his knees. He didn’t even seem aware that he was free as he reared back, red eyes now glowing in the dim. Bloody palm-prints smeared the floor in his wake.

“This ‘wretched thing’ is all we’ve got left if we don’t find the soul,” Tony said remorselessly, driving it home. He had to be sure. “This will be all you have - this walking joke that can’t even eat or get dressed without help. That can’t even pick up Mjölnir because he’s not worthy of it anymore. Tell me you didn’t mean for this to happen to him, Loki. Look him in the eye and say it.” Reaching out, he gave Thor’s shoulder a push, sending him toward Loki’s crouched form.

“That thing is not Thor,” Loki spat, his voice wrecked. “It’s just vacant space, it’s not alive or thinking or capable of recognising a single thing in its useless path. You wouldn’t swear to a mannequin, and neither shall I.” But for all his bluster and rage, he went painfully still and tense as Thor knelt down in front of Loki, as silent and empty-eyed as a doll.

Tony could have told him that one thing Thor’s body could do was mimic actions, that what he was doing then was just mirroring Loki’s position there seated on the floor. But he didn’t. Tony kept his damn mouth shut for once and listened to Loki’s heaving breaths as they thickened into something heavy and raw, like he suffered to be that close to the shell of his brother.

“I did not bring this upon him.” The words were the smallest whisper of a confession, barely reaching Tony’s ears where he stood. But he heard them, and he saw Loki bow his head before Thor’s, until the crown of his head almost touched his bearded chin. “Many things I have done, and will do, but not this. Never this.”

It was enough. Tony had cynicism and mistrust and anger in spades, and Loki had earned more than his fair share of each with some of the stunts he’d pulled, but even he had his limits. No one who looked at Thor the way Loki did just then could have done that to him.

He was halfway to thinking of a course of action when the motion caught his eye. At first he thought Loki had grabbed Thor’s hand and moved it, but Loki’s hands were pressed to the floor like anchors.

No, Thor was moving all by himself when he reached up and clasped a hand to the side of Loki’s face, his fingers splayed over cheek and neck and the curve of his jaw.

Muscle memory, Tony thought as Loki’s head came up, his eyes cloudy and stunned. Do something enough times and the brain unconsciously fills in the blanks when a situation presents itself. Wasn’t that what Bruce and Natasha had said? It made Tony wonder how many times Thor had used that same gesture in the past, before it all went so wrong.

“I’ll kill her,” Loki said faintly, looking Thor dead in the eye. The realisation was dawning in his gaze. “I will have her heart for this.”

From his vantage point Tony saw how carefully he put Thor’s hand back down in his lap. Outside the cell there was a lot of banging going on, but presumably that was JARVIS getting in the way of Steve and Fury. Which meant JARVIS could still hear him.

“You’d better,” Tony said finally, straightening up. He was getting really sick of making these calls. “JARVIS, Deadlock disable protocol seven-seven-delta. Total system override is in effect.”

Overhead, something mechanical buzzed in the ceiling. Tony’s ears popped tellingly. Good.

Loki’s expression went slack with surprise. His poker face had definitely seen better days.

“You’re setting me free.” Tony looked away as Loki struggled to his feet.

“Yeah, well.” He frowned down at the ice-coated cement. “Thor always kept one of those golden apples in the locked box under his bed in case of emergency. You should probably take that with you, once you can teleport. Can’t help you with the clothes, though.”

Something heavy started banging against the door. Tony really hoped it wasn’t JARVIS’s head. Or Steve’s. Fury he could take or leave. Flexing his frostbitten hands discretely, Tony glanced over as Loki’s skin began to shift colour to the pale lines he remembered, even if they were streaked in red. He’d heal soon enough.

“The things I endure to get you within my grasp,” Loki murmured to himself, watching the blue as it was chased off his fingertips. “I had thought often of killing you, Stark. Very creatively, at that. Then again, I suppose you did warn me.”

“Warn you about what?” Tony asked tightly as Loki walked toward him, strangely sure-footed on the frosty ground. Was this how it was going to go, then? Kind of an anticlimactic end for him. He’d always thought there’d be more explosions.

“That if I gave you a reason to doubt me, you would give no quarter.” Loki stopped when he came face to face with Tony. His eyes were green again, burning in his pale face. Bloody streaks ran down his cheeks like tears. “I miscalculated. Underestimated you. That will never happen again.”

The door started shuddering on its enormous hinges as Loki reached a hand toward Tony’s throat. They weren’t going to make it in time.

“It never had to turn out like this,” Tony said, catching the hand before it found his neck. His fingers threaded through Loki’s, ignoring the stickiness of blood, the missing fingernails, the cracked skin. “Believe it or not, you could have trusted me from the beginning.”

Loki was looking at their hands twined together with such a starved bleakness in his eyes that for a moment Tony didn’t think he’d heard what he’d said. But then he abruptly ripped his hand away, his eyes blazing with wrath.

“Trust an Avenger?” he spat, jerking back. “Trust Iron Man? To what end? You were a distraction, Stark, and you almost cost me everything.” His voice turned cold. “I was better off on my own.”

It was funny how even then, with things turning out exactly like they had that Tony still felt the dull punch of hurt at those words. All Tony had done was try to help. That was all he’d ever done. But Loki couldn’t trust him with the simplest truth – that he’d gotten in over his head. If Tony had known about Amora’s ‘deal’ with Loki, if he’d had some kind of idea that Thor might be attacked it could have all been so different.

But it was just all a distraction. A mistake.

“You’re right,” he said simply, watching Loki. “You didn’t need me. Why would you have ever needed me? Look at you, you’ve got it all under control.” His bark of laughter had no humour in it. “You don’t need anyone but yourself.”

Loki took a long step back toward him, magic sparking at his fingertips like he was preparing to strike Tony. But he was bleeding all over and what wasn’t streaked with red was blistered and cracked, still desperately trying to heal over the damage. Even his magic couldn’t do two things at once, and the door was almost broken down.

In the end, revenge served cold seemed like the order of the day. Tony held his breath and watched as Loki cursed and pulled back, the air around his abused body gathering with light.

“Don’t think I am finished with you, Stark,” he said finally, the verdant crackle of his magic reeking of ozone in the confined space. He was already a breath away from teleportation. “When my business with Amora is concluded, I will find you.”

Tony’s mouth twitched. “Honestly, I wouldn’t expect anything less.”

He watched the air around Loki tear to reveal a gaping dark wound and wondered if he would ever see Loki again. All differences aside, he was their only hope for Thor, even if his help was driven by grudges and petty competition. Amora and Skurge could be formidable. They’d proven that already.

“Good luck,” he blurted out, startling himself. Loki froze, half dissolving as the teleportation took him. Tony made himself look him straight in the eye before he vanished. “Don’t lose.”

Loki’s parting reply was swallowed by a screech of metal as the door finally broke down. Then he was gone, vanished in a roar of dimensional fire as he stepped out of existence. SHIELD agents and angry Avengers poured into the cell but Tony barely noticed the shouting and alarms, didn’t feel the hands running over the frostbitten palm-prints on his skin. His entire thought process was alight with those two loaded words, silently mouthed before he escaped the cell.

Trust me.

Asking the impossible again.


Tony felt his hands jerked behind his back, then cold metal as handcuffs were slapped on his wrists. Somewhere, Fury barked orders to his men. Right, the springing a prisoner thing. Federal offences and all that. Pepper was going to give him hell for this one. But Tony knew he’d made the right call this time, and he’d even managed to keep his own personal issues mostly out of it. If he had to be the guy that made the tough call for the greater good, then so be it. He’d wear the punishment this time.

As long as Loki made good on his promise to get Thor’s soul back, Tony would put up with just about anything.

In the meantime he just had to have faith in a brother’s broken bond, a sorcerer’s magic and a liar’s promise.

Piece of cake.

Tony figured he could stand to gamble his hopes on a fool’s chance.

Just this one time.

Chapter 10

As a testament to Fury’s, well, fury over Loki’s unscheduled early release, it took the joint effort of Pepper Potts and one Colonel James Rhodes and entire week and a half to free Tony from SHIELD custody. In Tony’s terms, it might as well have been a year. Usually his legal cock-ups had him back in the world within a few hours.

Not this time. Nick Fury did indeed cave to the pressure, but not because legalities demanded he had to. This was SHIELD; they didn’t answer to anyone but the World Security Council. A shady bunch, in Tony’s estimation, and all the more so for leaving his fate in Fury’s hands. In the end, it had been old-fashioned cajoling and promises that had sprung him, and even Rhodey wouldn’t tell him what they’d been. But his eyes said it all: Tony owed him big time.

While his freedom from custody had been eventually granted, it came with conditions. Conditions that burned in Tony’s gut like coals, but he bore them. He had to.

House arrest was a given. Except this time even Avengers headquarters was closed to him, with SHIELD escorting him straight to his penthouse at Stark Tower. They also took every piece of electronic equipment out. They’d even debated over taking his microwave and toaster, which Tony should have found amusing if he wasn’t essentially watching the walls close in around him.

JARVIS had his AI Core removed from Stark Tower. His automatic functions still worked to regulate power and security wasn’t compromised, but Tony couldn’t talk to him anymore. No, that was wrong; JARVIS couldn’t hear him anymore. The clutch of panic at that was a surprise, but his face was stone as he watched Rhodey follow the SHIELD agents out with the layered panels of JARVIS’s core held carefully between them.

“It’s only until the trial,” Pepper had murmured to him as he watched it go, slipping a warm hand into his. “We’ll get you through this, Tony. Somehow.”

He didn’t look at her. “Yeah.”

The door closing after them sounded like a death knell.

Visitation was off the cards, too. As his power of attorney Pepper was allowed one weekly visit, for no more than one hour. Under armed escort, as if even without all his tech, all his tools, Tony Stark was still somehow going to take out the guard detail staked out by his door and bolt. As if there was even anywhere to go anymore.

Then there was Steve. Steve Rogers. Captain America. Tony wasn’t sure what he should be calling him anymore. Not that he could call him anything, really. After Tony had been apprehended in Loki’s cell, after they’d thumped him down into one of the spare cells, Steve had just stood there in the doorway and looked at him.

Tony had expected tired disappointment. He’d expected holier-than-thou yelling. Maybe even a little cursing. But Steve had been a silent study in bitter resignation and his eyes had been dark as he slammed the door shut between them. Nothing needed to be said; Tony had understood what that sound meant in full. There would be no visits from his old buddy Steve.

It felt almost nostalgic to be down to his two oldest and best friends, and for a while there Tony thought that maybe this was how it should have stayed. He clearly wasn’t a team player. He didn’t consult people before he acted, he did impossibly stupid things with no guarantee of a payoff. The Avengers had been fun for a few years, sure. But even if he could one day go back, Tony wasn’t sure he would. Maybe it would be better for everyone concerned if he just splintered away from them altogether.

He whiled away the lonely days on his balcony, mostly, watching the city go about its daily life. When he couldn’t stand it anymore he read, or watched the news to keep up to date on any criminal activity. Pepper had ensured that the media would be kept in the dark about Tony’s sudden disappearance from the team, citing business development meetings and a brand new focus on Stark Industries. That everyone bought it was a clear testimony to Pepper’s years of expertise in helping clean up his mess.

The trial loomed on the horizon for him; a grim promise from SHIELD that the unauthorised release of one of their most valuable and dangerous prisoners was not going to go unpunished. Tony privately thought that the only reason they hadn’t put a bullet in his brain that day was because he was such a prominent public figure. Because questions would be asked. That had been the hard glint in Fury’s eye, if Tony had read it correctly.

Tony tried not to think about Loki’s continued absence. After he’d disabled the Deadlock Loki had disappeared and hadn’t come back. That had been a month ago. Whether he’d ran to the other end of the universe to lick his wounds or had started hunting Amora made no difference to him. Well, no. That wasn’t quite true – getting Thor’s soul back was still top priority for all of them. But as far as Tony’s personal circumstances went, it didn’t really matter what Loki was doing. He’d made this mess all on his own.

Once SHIELD had gathered their evidence and presented it, Tony could be looking at life imprisonment. With closed proceedings, they could throw away the key and no one would open their goddamn mouths about it. The entire thing was a farce; just a cheap show of good faith so that people like Steve Rogers didn’t cry foul when he was tossed in the deepest pit SHIELD could find without so much as a prison uniform and a bar of soap. And even the best lawyer on the planet couldn’t argue that Tony hadn’t known exactly what he was doing when he let Loki loose. Surveillance had captured it all.

But Tony knew one thing for sure. Thor or no Thor, whether Loki remained missing or not, even with the possibility of prosecuting evidence stacked up around his ears Tony was damn well going to make it as difficult as possible for Nicholas J Fury to lock him away.

And if all else failed, well.

Locking up Tony Stark usually didn’t turn out so well for his captors.

It was Thursday night and Tony was reading over the summons Pepper had delivered to him when Natasha Romanov slung a black-clad leg over his balcony railing.

Tony stared as she swung herself up and over, dropping a SHIELD-issue bag of gear and an assortment of infiltration devices to the stone floor. Her hair was a sweaty red flag against her black suit, and when she pulled off her goggles her eyes were the most unimpressed shade of green Tony had ever seen.

“No,” she said before Tony could even open his mouth. “I got off the elevator ten floors down and climbed up from there.”

“And what are—”

“Answers. I came for answers.”

Tony’s mouth quirked. “You? Or Steve? I’m assuming it was him who sent you here. Or was it Fury? You obviously still dance to his tune, so which is it?”

Natasha’s eyes slitted in consideration but she didn’t seemed fazed, simply turning to pull a length of rope from her bag. Tony stepped out and watched her clip it to the railing, giving it a few hard kicks to make sure it was stable. Then she threw it back over the building.

“I came for myself,” she said evenly, tugging her fingerless gloves down at the wrist. With the rope secure she turned and rested against the railing, arms crossed over her chest. “I know the price of doing terrible deeds for the greater good. I’ve made the hard call before.”

“So have I,” said a strained voice from below the balcony, and Tony watched in surprise as Clint Barton hauled himself up the rope, swinging over the rail with far less grace than Natasha had managed. Barton grinned at him as he caught his breath. “You make one fuckin’ ugly Rapunzel, let me tell you.”

Tony stared. “I’d be offended, but I’m too busy wondering where you keep your quiver in that tight little recon suit.”

The smile he received for that was all teeth. “I left it behind. Too conspicuous. As far as Steve is aware, Nat and I are on a date.”

Tony raised an eyebrow, but the look on Natasha’s face gave nothing away. “So why are you here? Answers? For what?”

Clint pulled a face, raking his fingers through his hair. “About Loki. You and Loki.” He paused, looking like he’d just eaten a lemon dipped in shit, but he continued. “You two were sleeping together, right? But you didn’t let him go because of that. You think he’ll do it, don’t you?”

Tony glanced over to Natasha, who was pulling the rope back up and winding it between her palm and elbow. Her generous mouth was pursed with thought, but her eyes were bright as they studied him intently. It began to occur to him that maybe he had more allies than he originally assumed.

“C’mon inside,” he said, jerking his head toward the warm light of the living area. “But don’t expect much. Even I don’t know what happened.”

“Just don’t say you tripped,” Tony heard Barton mutter behind him, but the rasp of footsteps on stone said they were following him in.

This was…this was good, Tony thought, a little surprised by the loosening knot in his chest. So the Avengers hadn’t just thrown him to the bureaucratic dogs. Well, not all of them. But with Hawkeye and Black Widow in his corner, SHIELD’s own dynamic duo, coupled with Pepper and Rhodey, well. Maybe Tony didn’t need Steve Rogers, after all.

But with the paper in his hand informing him that his trial was going to take place in one week, time was definitely going to tell – and soon.

“Before we get started, I have a question,” Natasha said as they entered the living room, slinging her pack down against the side of one couch.

“Okay, but if this is a sex question, you can save it.”

Natasha gave him a dirty look – and didn’t say another word. She did, however, pull fifty dollars out of her sleeve and give it to Clint, who looked gleeful.

For once, Tony knew better than to ask.

SHIELD’s own judicial chambers were cold, smelling like lacquered wood and polished metal. Seated in the stand for questioning Tony had the perfect vantage point from which to see exactly who SHIELD had allowed in, mentally ticking people off as he went. He’d need to remember, in case everything went south.

The double doors at the back of the room split the audience in two via a wide aisle straight down to where Tony sat. On what he’d decided was ‘his’ side of the room Pepper and Rhodey were seated together, shuffling papers and looking tense. Behind them sat Bruce Banner, who had donned a proper suit for the occasion but looked like he wanted to be anywhere else.

Clint and Natasha were seated behind an indecipherable Agent Coulson, who was no doubt using a tablet to review the evidence that would sink him. Assorted other SHIELD agents were present, and a few suits he didn’t recognise, but all up there were only about thirty people bearing witness to the proceedings.

Tony let his eyes idly wander, but he couldn’t see a familiar blond head anywhere in the gallery. His mouth twisted. Wrangling the roster again so he didn’t have to be present?

His attention was snatched away as Fury took to the centre of the room, his coat flaring as he strode toward Tony. There was nothing to read in his face, but everything in his stance said that he meant business. With two fingers he tapped the microphone clipped to his lapel, turning it on.

"Anthony Edward Stark, you stand accused of aiding and abetting in the escape of Loki Laufeyson from SHIELD custody. How do you plead?”

Fury was wasting no time, Tony observed. There was nothing for it, then. He leaned forward until he was in range of the mounted microphone.


In the gallery, Pepper and Rhodey went rigid. Bruce put his head in his hands. Tony just smiled as Fury pulled a long breath in through his nose, darting a glance at his agents.

“Enter a valid plea, Mr Stark.”

“Why?” Tony challenged, detaching the microphone and taking it with him as he leaned back in the chair. “Everything about this hearing is invalid, your charges are invalid and you’re going to suppress the outcome anyway, so what do you need a plea for?”

Fury’s expression could have been cut from stone. “May the record reflect that the defendant has waived his right to enter a plea. As such, maximum penalties for all charges will be enforced pending the outcome of this hearing.”

Tony’s mouth curled up at the corner as he met Fury’s single glaring eye.

“You couldn’t keep me if you tried. But hey, give it your best shot. I’m open. In fact, I’ll do you a favour and cut to the chase.” Tony raised his voice so that everyone could hear him. “I confess to disabling the Dual Deadlock.”

The gallery erupted with a cacophony of voices speaking at once. Somewhere in it, Tony heard Rhodey swearing long and loud. Pepper looked like she was about to have an aneurism. In front of Tony, Nick Fury’s face had gone slack with surprise. If there was anything he’d expected to come out of Tony’s mouth, that hadn’t been it.

When the gallery was hushed and the protests died down, Tony stood up and leaned over the stand.

“Agent Coulson! Tell me something. When can SHIELD say they hold a prisoner in custody?”

“Mr Stark,” Fury said flatly, raising a forestalling hand to silence Coulson, “do not address the gallery while you’re on the stand.”

Tony’s eyes narrowed. Play the crowd, Stark. “Then you answer me, Director – you’ve got all the answers, right? Or here’s a riddle for you: When is a SHIELD prisoner not a SHIELD prisoner? Can you answer me that one?”

Fury’s nostrils flared angrily. Well, Tony thought pitilessly, if he didn’t want him hijacking his legally suspect legal proceedings, he shouldn’t have put Tony goddamn Stark on the stand.

“I ask the questions here—”

“I’ll tell you when. A SHIELD prisoner isn’t a SHIELD prisoner when he’s held in custody by unregistered, untested, unapproved-by-government Stark Industries technology. Director, I’m sorry but you never had authorisation to remove my property and utilise it. As such, Loki Laufeyson was never held prisoner by you.

Fury went utterly still. So did every SHIELD agent in the gallery. Behind Pepper’s shoulder, a grinning Bruce Banner looked like he was about to throw his bra at Tony. But he wasn’t finished just yet.

“Further to that point, the Dual Deadlock remained my property and therefore was mine to deactivate in order to ban unauthorised use. For the safety of your agents, of course—God knows you get what you pay for, these days. Or—no, I’m sorry I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt here, did you pay me for the beta-phase Dual Deadlock? Miss Potts, do we have a contract of sale?”

Pepper caught his pitch perfectly, fingers tapping at her laptop with practiced ease. Her expression was polite and neutral, but her eyes gleamed with fierce enjoyment.

“Record search reflects no contract of sale between Anthony E. Stark, his companies or government-affiliated response teams, namely, The Avengers Initiative, and the Strategic Homeland Intervention—”

“All right, enough,” barked Fury. “You’ve made your point.” Pepper just gave him a beatific smile and closed her laptop with a click.

At the stand, Tony ran his eyes over the agents lining Fury’s side of the gallery. They looked a little nervous –all bar Coulson, who had to be medicated to look that composed all the time– but caught the tiniest nod from Natasha before he looked back at Fury.

Your move, Tony challenged silently, staring him down. Business and legalities were as boring as hell and if given half a chance he’d rather be working on a new project, but that didn’t mean for a second that he didn’t have the memory and theoretical knowledge of business and federal law to stall Fury until doomsday came.

And Fury knew it.

“Okay Stark, I guess you’ve got me.” Fury spread his hands in defeat. In the corner of his eye Tony saw Natasha and Clint look at each other in consternation. In front of him, Rhodey’s eyes narrowed. At his side, Pepper’s fingers slid inside a briefcase.

Tony suddenly had a very bad feeling.

“You see, the hearing was just to clear my conscience.” Fury smiled at him a little. “Truth is, Stark, I could have put you down the moment you disabled that little device of yours. But I didn’t, because personality clashes aside, you do good work. So I thought I’d put to rest any doubt the audience might have as to your guilt in this matter.” Leaning in toward him a little, Fury inclined his head in a slight bow. “Thank you for confessing at the start of the hearing. Really, that was all I needed to hear.”

The realisation played across the faces of his friends in the gallery, draining blood and fading smiles from faces well-loved. Legalities. Who needed them when you and your entire organisation were above the law?

Played by Nick Fury, Tony thought disparagingly. Well, that was insulting.

“The hearing was just to get me here, wasn’t it?”

“And give me time to prepare if any of your friends decided to do something stupid,” Fury agreed. “You lost us our only bargaining chip if Asgard moves against us, Stark. For all intents and purposes, Thor is dead. But we had Loki. In the event of a breakdown of interrogation like the one we had, if you couldn’t reason with him, Laufeyson was going to be the ticket we needed to escape a war. Until you let him out.” Slamming his hands against the railing between them, Fury glared Tony all the way back down into his seat. “So in this instance I feel extremely justified in ignoring due process and have decided to throw you into a cell until I feel better about the state of the world. Do you have any idea how long that might take? Because I sure don’t.”

Over Fury’s shoulder, Tony saw Bruce Banner start to get to his feet.

“Excuse me, but—”

Fury whipped around. “Doctor Banner, if you even think of painting the town green you should know that I have a small team positioned over the private residence of one Elizabeth Ross. Be assured that your actions here today dictate whether she has a good day, or an extremely bad one.”

Bruce went still and silent, his jaw setting as he glanced at Tony. He sat back down, but his eyes were inhumanly green and seething with rage.

“Do you plan to kill or threaten anyone who disagrees with you?” Rhodey asked tightly. His eyes were cold steel. “Because I have a three o’clock I might need to cancel.”

Oh, Tony knew that voice. That was not a good voice. It seemed to trigger something in Fury, too, because he jerked a little straighter where he stood. His smile was as reassuring as a shark’s.

“Calm down, Colonel Rhodes, no one is going to die today. Tony Stark plans to go quietly for the sake of his loved ones.” Fury turned to him. “Doesn’t he?”

Discreet hands were put on discreet sidearms as SHIELD’s agents seemed to collectively stretch in an identical manner. Bruce looked like he was mentally calculating if he could tear out Fury’s spleen before he alerted his ‘team’ to take action. Pepper and Rhodey seemed to be furiously texting underneath the table, as if any kind of electronic device could send data from that room.

They had him, Tony thought numbly, feeling the truth of it settle into his bones. He had to let them take him. There was no way out of this one. Natasha and Clint had done their best to find him loopholes, they’d removed surveillance for him and even given him a skeleton key for the handcuffs they might slap on him pre-hearing. Pepper and Rhodey had compiled argument after argument in his defence, calling up anyone who was anyone to put pressure enough on SHIELD to let him go. And all of it for nothing. He couldn’t endanger his friends.

Tony leaned forward slowly, placing his hands out for the inevitable restraints.

There were no miracles today.

Fury’s single eye gleamed with satisfaction. “Let the record show that Tony Stark has finally displayed some goddamn common sense. Agent Coulson, please arrange an escort for—”

The double doors at the back of the chamber slammed open.

Tony blinked against the harsher light, but there was no mistaking that silhouette.

His black leather was torn, the hints of green beneath all stained with blood. Red-washed gold glinted at throat and wrist and chest. With a lethally hooked staff in one hand and a woven sack in the other, Loki strode down the aisle with barely a glance spared for the SHIELD agents scrambling to draw their weapons. He did, however, spare Fury a few choice words.

“A gift for you, Director.” The sack in his hand was slung across the floor until it hit Fury’s booted feet with a thump. “Or perhaps a promise. Bear witness to what happens to those who cross me.” The sack unravelled at the seams, green light burning through the hessian to reveal the contents.

Pepper let out a muffled scream. Everyone else just stared in silent shock, until Clint Barton let out a strangely high-pitched bark of laughter.

Fury just leaned down and picked up Skurge’s head by the severed spinal column, turning it over in his hands. He suddenly looked a little pale.

“Oh, it’s quite real,” Loki told him, his teeth bared in something that was more snarl than smile. “Now get out of my way before I ruin my schedule and tear yours off to match.”

Opening his mouth to reply instead of obeying seemed to be a bad move on Fury’s part. Spinning the staff around Loki brutally drove the blunt end between Fury’s ribs, shoving him just enough out of range that the second spin of the hooked staff tore straight through eyepatch and eyelid alike, baring the scarred, white-filmed ruin underneath. Blood rushed out from the torn skin, and Loki took a savage step forward in his direction to make good on his threat.

“Did you find Amora?” Tony blurted out, unable to help himself. He had to know. “Is that why you’re back?”

Loki turned toward him just long enough for some idiot in the back to get a shot off, the bullet striking the back of his head and simply ricocheting back into the gallery.

Pepper screamed again, high and startled.

Tony’s insides went cold at the sight of blood blossoming on the arm of her silk blouse. Just a graze, he thought blankly, watching Rhodey lurch into action and apply pressure, the bullet didn’t go in—

Loki swung around almost leisurely to blow the hapless agent into so many meaty chunks, his blood-soaked staff sending a barrage of verdant magic straight into –and through– the guy’s chest. The resulting spray of gore sent five agents heaving onto the floor.

“Oh, that was cathartic,” Loki murmured, smiling thinly. He cut his eyes across the panicked crowd. “If you value your meaningless lives, do drop your weapons now.”

The clatter of multiple guns hitting tile was unmistakable. By the bench, Fury was struggling upright with what had to be some broken ribs or a cracked sternum, half of his face painted with blood.

“Are you,” Fury wheezed out, “here for revenge?”

Loki’s expression went from savage delight to black rage and back again so fast Tony almost got whiplash. Something had come loose in the god of mischief, something important. Or this was just what bloodlust looked like.

“After a fashion. But you have something I need, first.” Green eyes blazed like stars, boiling with magic and malice as he turned to finally give Tony his full attention.

“I have her running so fast she has neither the time nor inclination to touch his soul,” Loki said, planting his palms on the lacquered wood between them. This close, Tony could see that the red wash over his usually-gold accoutrements was indeed blood. He dripped with it, and none of it belonged to him. “Skurge is dead and Victor remains here. She is alone and desperate, but her magic affords her the means with which to keep running. Much as I once escaped from her, she is now eluding me.” The curl of his lip said exactly what he thought of that, but Tony was distracted by the sharp length of his black-stained nails, by the thinness of his face and the dark hair that fell an extra foot down his back.

Just where had Loki been?

And for how long?

Tony blinked himself out of his thoughts. “You want the Dual Deadlock.”

“No.” Hefting his staff, Loki slammed it lengthways across the stand. Hair and pieces of skin still clung to the wicked edge. “I want you to make this into one.”

Tony wasn’t the type to gape at anything. No, reserved cynicism was more his niche when presented with impossible requests. But he came damn close when it sank in that Loki had swung out of Amora’s trajectory to get Tony to modify a magic staff to shoot anti-magic radiation at a moving foe. Like that was a thing that he could even do and—and wasn’t he on Loki’s shit list along with Fury and his suit-wearing cronies? When the hell had that changed?

“Sir? Should we be shooting him?” Barton asked mildly from somewhere in the gallery. “I mean, it’s not like we need Tony’s tech to capture a crazy-powerful psychotic god with a grudge against us, right?”

Fury was on his feet, leaning hard on Coulson. His scarred eye was a bloody mess but the other was as clear as ever as he stared between Tony and Loki, his mind ticking over.

Loki turned to the injured man. “You never stood a chance against me without your Avengers, Director.” His smile was a thin slash of amusement. “How many stand with you now? The captain is missing and your Hulk is as likely to rend you to pieces as he is to attack me. The essence of Thor lies in troubled sleep, entire dimensions from you. Your skilled assassins can’t help but smell your blood in the water.”

Closing in on Fury, leaving Tony with the staff, Loki’s eyes darted between Coulson and Fury like he didn’t know who to kill first. Using the distraction, Rhodey vaulted the wooden railing between the gallery and the stand, hurrying across to Tony.

“If you let him kill SHIELD’s director you’ll bring a political shitstorm down on all our heads, Tony,” Rhodey whispered fiercely. “Get him to stop!”

“How?” he whispered back. “In case you haven’t noticed, he’s crazy!

“I don’t know! Flash him some ankle!”

“Fla—what does that even mean? I’m not an aging Victorian widow, Rhodey—”

“Look I’m pissed at them like you have no goddamn idea, Tony, but I need you to diffuse this or we’re going to be wading in blood. Settle up with Fury later, but for now you’ve gotta stick a muzzle on that.” One finger stabbed in Loki’s direction, where he circled Fury under the tense eye of SHIELD’s best and brightest. “Preferably before Banner loses all of his shit.” Over Rhodey’s shoulder, Bruce Banner looked like he was having some serious blood pressure problems.


“They almost had me, Rhodey,” Tony said through clenched teeth. “But they did have Loki. For three weeks, they had him. And you want me to tell him to stop? As if he’d even listen?”

Rhodey stared at him blankly for a moment, reading everything he wasn’t saying right there in his eyes. Even Tony didn’t know what he meant, but he knew one thing—

His train of thought dissolved the moment Rhodey pulled out a pistol and jammed the barrel against Tony’s temple.

“Loki, back your crazy shit up, or I’m going to blow my best friend’s head off.”

Loki went rigid, turning slowly to face Tony. To say he looked displeased was an understatement, Tony decided as Rhodey threw a forearm under his chin to brace him there.

“Ah. So the greater good trumps the bonds of friendship.” Loki pulled away from Fury and Coulson, who was sweating bullets but otherwise looked unmoved. At Tony’s side, Rhodey was a tense line of duty. Asshole. What a move to pull.

“Slaughter the ones who put you on the rack. It’s fine. I don’t particularly care,” Rhodey was saying, his voice betraying nothing but steel resolve. “But Fury and SHIELD stay standing, and you can have Tony. Attack them, and I put a bullet in the only guy who can help you.”

“You’re off my Christmas card list,” Tony grunted as Rhodey jerked him upright, partially using his body as a shield as Loki strode back toward him. His fingertips were sparking with some kind of green-black energy.

Oh, for—

“If you kill him I won’t help you,” Tony grated, because screw Thor if it meant Rhodey became collateral damage in the process.

Loki stopped dead. “He’s threatening to kill you, Stark.” His disbelief was palpable.

“Everyone threatens to kill me. Rhodey just has more reason than most.” Tony jerked the restraining forearm down slightly so he could breathe easier. “Make the bargain, Loki, and we can get on with building your staff.”

For a single moment everyone in that room held their breath, waiting for one extremely bloodthirsty, insanely powerful sorcerer of myth to use his reasoning skills and make the right call.

It was without a doubt the longest moment of Tony’s life.

Rage twisted Loki’s features, but it was the emotional instinct of a wild animal that found itself in a cage. Tony knew they’d won from the set of his shoulders alone. Then the spark dancing over Loki’s fingertips went out.

“I accept your terms,” he said slowly, each word pulled from between gritted teeth. “Curse you all.”

Now that sounded like the most honest sentiment Loki had ever expressed, Tony decided as Rhodey let him loose, the gun vanishing back into his waistband.

“I think I need to change my shorts,” Tony heard his friend mutter behind him. He snorted.

“Thank God he doesn’t know you beyond reputation, or he’d know how full of crap you were with that bargain.” Tony paused. “What happened to your overseas deployment, anyway?”

“Special leave to pull your ass out of the fire, what else? I guess the brass still have hope for a renewed contract with Stark Industries.”

“Suck-ups.” Tony picked up the staff in both hands, carefully ignoring the blood and bits of Skurge on the end. How the hell had Loki hacked through his bull neck using it? “An anti-magic magic staff. I must be insane. How do you even insulate—”

“You’ll puzzle it out sooner or later,” Loki said tersely. “For now, we return to your workshop.” The sharp-nailed hand he held out was clearly meant to teleport them both there. Tony found himself extremely uncomfortable with the idea of transport via magic.

“He can’t go,” Bruce said in resignation. He was still sitting in the gallery, but his eyes had returned to their familiar brown. “All his accesses were revoked, all his tech confiscated. Even JARVIS. It’ll take at least twenty-four hours to get everything up and running again.”

Tony didn’t understand the sharp look Loki gave him at that, but he didn’t have time to decipher it as another voice spoke up from the back of the room.

“I can reinstate full access.”

Steve Rogers looked tired but resolute as he made his way down to the front of the chamber, stepping around dropped pistols and a spreading stain of blood. He saw Skurge’s head on the floor and his jaw twitched, but he said nothing until he was standing in front of Tony.

He slid a white access card across the desk. The red ‘A’ stamped on the front made it unmistakable. When Avengers HQ had been officially opened and the passes were handed out, Steve had said that it was ridiculously obvious what they were for. Tony had just laughed at the time, saying if anyone could bypass the mansion’s security then they deserved to join the team. It felt like a hundred years ago now.

“I’ll get everything out of the vault,” Steve tried as the silence stretched, his blue eyes steady on Tony’s.

“No need,” he replied shortly, pushing the card back to him. “I’ll work better in the R&D levels at Stark Tower. Just release JARVIS and all of my tech. I’ll have it picked up in the morning.”

Steve blinked once. “I—okay, I’ll see that it’s done,” he replied, stung. Tony ignored the look and turned to Loki, who was watching the entire exchange with clever eyes. He wasn’t ready to deal with Steve just yet.

“Can you transport live cargo without damaging it in transit? I don’t want to arrive without my legs.”

“You’ll find that I’ve learned a trick or two in my time away,” was all Loki said in reply, extending his hand to Tony once more. “Stark Tower, then.”

Tony hesitated, casting an eye over the rest of the room. Pepper was squeezing her injured arm and whispering frantically to Bruce, who was scribbling down notes for her. Clint and Natasha were collecting discarded guns off the floor, darting him pleased looks despite the teeth skittering across the floor as they moved.

Nick Fury was watching him with a tight jaw and blood drying on his face, but anger seemed to be an afterthought as he glanced between the four of them. As he caught Tony’s gaze, he inclined his head once again. A dignified surrender, probably, in SHIELD’s history books. Tony would take what he could get.

Turning back to Loki, who was watching him with narrowed eyes, he couldn’t help but wonder at the wisdom of choosing the devil you know. Either way, intentionally or not Loki had just saved his ass. And all he wanted in return was a weapon to get his brother’s soul back with. It seemed a fair price to pay, all things considered.

Reaching out, Tony took the pale hand held out to him, knowing that even if it was just a truce, Loki had actually returned. Even if it was as an enemy, a friend or an uneasy ally, his reappearance meant that Tony’s gamble had paid off in full.

It also meant Thor now had a real fighting chance. With his tech and Loki’s magic combined, there wasn’t going to be a single dark corner of the cosmos that Amora could hide in.

So even if the burn of Loki’s gaze still promised retribution when this was all over, even if the curl of his fingers over Tony’s made something lurch inside his chest, they had a goal to focus on, and for the moment that was good enough for him.

He just hoped it was good enough for Thor.

Chapter 11

Tony didn’t like magic.

He respected it, sure, on account of it having kicked his ass on more than one occasion. It had also been responsible for some damn strange missions in the past. But he didn’t like it.

Teleportation, on the other hand, was in a whole different category.

An awesome category.

No sooner had Tony taken Loki’s hand than the entire court room had whirled out of sight. For an instant, the cool hand gripping his had been the only thing his senses could register. Then, just like in the movies, he simply blinked and the world was back again, and he was standing in the balcony-level living area at Stark Tower.

Tony decided right then and there that he was going to make a teleporter. He didn’t care how long it took or how many test apples he sacrificed in the creation of it, he was going to damn well make it happen.

Loki released his hand almost immediately and stepped away from him, his eyes darting around the room. He took in the stripped workstation and lack of anything resembling electronics with sharp interest. The slitted look he shot Tony over his shoulder was calculating.

“SHIELD recognises your capacity to become a threat.”

Tony didn’t bother denying it. Instead he just shrugged, heading for the large storage drawers behind the glass-topped desk. He had a digital drafting mat in there somewhere, he was sure of it.

“SHIELD likes to flex muscle,” he explained, gesturing at the empty desk. “It doesn’t matter; I’ll have everything back by tomorrow. Maybe sooner, depending on how guilty Steve feels.” Pulling the rolled-up mat out of a drawer and fishing out a stylus to match, Tony stood and spread it out across the desk. It had a terabyte of local mass storage embedded in it, which would have to do until JARVIS was back for him to upload to. His 3D holographic interface wasn’t a crutch, but it made things a hell of a lot easier to design.

Hefting the staff in his hand, Loki approached the other side of the desk. Teleportation moment aside, it felt too close for comfort to Tony. Five minutes ago he’d turned a man into chunky soup. But Loki’s eyes just ran over the mat as it blinked to life in a flicker of blue lines, opening a new project file.

“Staff, please.” Tony pointed to the desk. “Preferably without the meat stuck to it.”

Loki’s fist clenched around the staff like he wanted to use it, but the only magic that came out of it was a faint wash of green-gold light that stripped the gore off the twisted, hooked splay of metal that formed the head of the staff. It vaguely reminded Tony of the Lernaean Hydra; three serpentine heads twined together to rear at the apex. Integrating a Deadlock into it without shredding his hands was going to be a challenge.

“Good,” Tony said as Loki laid the staff across the desk. “That’s all I need. Come by in a few days – it should be more than drafts and ideas by then.”

Loki’s eyes sparked at that, but he didn’t reply right away. His mouth was a pale twist of displeasure. Dropping his gaze to the staff, he ran a single black-nailed finger up the length of it.

“This part is uru. I would not suggest tampering with it,” he said shortly, pricking his fingertip against the central ‘head’. The resulting drop of blood gave the brilliant metal a pinkish tinge. “It will not bend, melt, or shatter. Not in any forge you can find here, at least. The rest is malleable enough.”

Tony whistled softly. Uru was the same metal that Mjölnir had been forged from. Good conductor of magic and enchantments, Thor had said. Mjölnir was layered in them. If the central piece was the main core of the staff, he could take the rest apart.

“Where did you get it from?”

“It’s mine,” Loki replied flatly. “Strip it down; I care not. Just make it useful to me. I need Amora crippled of all magic before I take the soul.”

“Why?” Tony asked bluntly, frowning. “Let’s be honest; you’re kind of a powerhouse. Amora is sly and obsessive, and she’s strong enough with her mind control, but she’s no you. I think you could take her.” It wasn’t a compliment, to tell by his tone. Loki didn’t take it as one.

“It’s likely that I could. But if I truly force her hand in combat and she manages to escape again, she will…complicate matters.” A muscle in his jaw jumped. “I can’t have that. Not yet. More than that, you need not know.”

Unsettled by that, Tony watched as Loki stepped back from the desk and turned to eye the afternoon skyline.

Even under the warmer lights of the penthouse, Loki still resembled a reanimated corpse with a leather fetish. What the hell had happened to him? Aside from the blood spattering his body armour, there was a wildness to him that hadn’t been there before. Loki looked savage; thinner and sharper, grown-out and ragged. Tony studied the long sweep of dark hair, his stained nails and the unnatural brightness of his eyes. Had he dipped into strange magic?

Maybe this simply was Loki, beneath the silver tongue and cunning. Destruction, and a seething rage barely reined in.

“Amora is in the grip of a locator spell I cast on her,” Loki said suddenly. “Until she breaks that, she will not try to manipulate Thor’s soul. It should give you at least a week.”

One week. Seven days. One-hundred and sixty-eight hours. Was that panic swelling in his chest?

“You know, and I don’t usually say this, but you might be overestimating my skills just a little. Last I checked, I didn’t have a genie lamp.” His mind was already running through ideas at light speed. “It’s not just a Dual Deadlock, it’s a sometimes Dual Deadlock that shoots radiation and can be used as a magic staff. That’s like developing a weapon out of fire and ice—”

“If you’re going to do nothing but complain, I can always threaten the lives of everyone you care for,” Loki interjected coldly. “Miss Potts, or the brave Colonel Rhodes, perhaps? Even Captain Rogers, who looked at you with such regret. Would a death on your conscience make you work faster and speak less? I can certainly oblige.” Turning one hand palm-up, a crackle of green-black magic gathered in his hand. It looked tainted, spilling like fetid oil across his skin. Yeah, no way had Loki’s magic looked like that before.

“Turn it down a notch, will you? I might not exactly understand why the hell you’re really doing this, but I want Thor back as well.” Tony waited for him to lower his hand before continuing. That magic definitely did not look sanitary. “I’ll come up with something that matches what you need. In the meantime why don’t you go…see a groomer. That should kill a few hours. You look like hell.”

Well that hit a nerve, Tony thought as Loki’s eyes slitted dangerously. The step he took in Tony’s direction looked like it was borrowed from a jungle cat.

“Compared to what, Stark? The last time you saw me, perhaps?” The flash of his teeth could in no way be considered a smile. “Rest assured that I have not forgotten your hand in my imprisonment.”

“I didn’t expect you to.” Tony tapped the stylus against the staff as Loki took another long step toward him, this time circling the edge of the desk. “I bet you also remember who let you out of there. And who still needs to make you a new weapon before you can even think about killing anyone. Including my friends.” Tony tilted his head toward the door. “Now get out of my house. I need to work.”

Outrage twisted Loki’s features for a single, extremely gratifying second, before he rocked back on his heels, his lip curling. They both knew Tony was untouchable until the staff was made. Maybe he’d pay for it later –okay, he’d almost certainly pay for it later– but just then it felt good to be the master of his own domain again.

It was just an irritating technicality that it was Loki’s actions that had gotten him out of that incredibly sticky situation with SHIELD in the first place.

“You know,” he said as Loki’s body lit with power, “that was pretty good timing back there. How did you find me?”

For some reason, that question actually diffused some of Loki’s anger. His mouth twitched upward slightly, and Tony was struck by the abrupt shift from malice to mischief.

“Well, I suppose that answers one question I had,” Loki replied, something entirely untoward lighting his gaze. “You really have no affinity for magic at all, do you?”

Tony thought about that for precisely two seconds before the words ‘locator spell’ and the memory of ice-cold magic seeping into his heart had him patting at his chest in a sudden panic. Oh God, it had been inside him all along, crouching there like a malicious demon, a glittering little GPS from hell—

“That was non-consensual spell-casting, you sick, creeping two-dollar magician,” Tony bit out, his face burning. There was magic in his chest. “Now get it the hell out of me.”

“I think not. I wish you a productive afternoon, Stark,” was all Loki replied with as the energy engulfed him. “Expect me tomorrow.”

“You can’t just—and you’re gone. Great. Damn it.” Well, at least that explained how Loki had teleported straight to his location the night that Doombot had stealth-attacked him. Talk about a privacy violation of the highest order. It didn’t even make sense – why would Loki want to keep tabs on him? Or had he just been trying out a handy new spell after he’d broken the one Amora had cast on him? His version had to be stronger, or else she would have broken it already.

It hit Tony then that with every new truth uncovered behind Loki’s actions, some of his deeds actually started to make even less sense than before. It made him wonder if he’d really revealed anything at all. Maybe he was just fooling himself.

Maybe Loki was letting him.

But that was a mystery to solve at a later date. For the moment, he had work to do.

Tossing the stylus down on the desk, Tony shrugged out of his suit jacket, tugging the knot in his tie loose so he could unbutton the collar. In front of him the staff gleamed innocuously against the glass, its curving blades reflecting the afternoon sunlight.

It didn’t look like something Loki would pick out for himself. It was too simple, too understated. By the time Tony was done with it the entire thing would look considerably different. Except for that immovable bolt of uru, which fascinated him to no end.

Pushing the thought from his mind for the time being, he stared down at the drafting mat. Its blank space and empty grids usually tempted him, but this time he had to be careful. Bringing Amora’s magic down to zero without harming Loki was the goal here. Which meant isolation of energy signatures, accuracy of the radiation pulse, not to mention the deactivation time had to be sped right up so that the staff could quickly revert back to a magic-positive state. A hundred variables ran through his head, each more daunting than the last.

“First thing’s first,” Tony muttered to himself, planting his hands on the desk. “I need a drink, I need some exceptionally greasy fries, I need…”

He needed his workshop, which totally wasn’t happening. Steve might have been willing to give him all his access back, but this wasn’t a job for the Avengers. It wasn’t even a job for Iron Man. This was just Tony Stark, building weapons. That much he’d done before. He didn’t need the Avengers for that.

In fact, it was probably better not to get them involved in this. Not with the way things had been turning out for him lately. Maybe this was the real break he needed. Time away from the Avengers, back in his own space, surrounded by his tech and designing the next big thing in supervillain warfare. Trying to save a life in the most selfish way he knew how.

Old territory, really.

It might even be good for him.

Ten hours, seven impossible designs and a bottle of scotch later, Tony started seriously considering just cloning a new Thor.

Surely it had to be easier.

“Knock knock, asshole! Open the door, I’ve gotta piss.”

Tony jerked awake with a start, knocking an empty bottle to the floor and nearly rolling off the couch before he caught himself. God damn it, it was still dark outside. Who the hell—?

“C’mon, Tony,” said a new voice. Natasha. “I can hack your system but I haven’t had coffee yet. Open up. We’ve brought presents.”

Clint and Natasha. Again, coming to visit. Surely Fury hadn’t sent them. If anything, Fury probably would have told them to steer clear of Loki altogether. Especially after what happened to their trigger-happy agent friend. Not to mention all the threats.

Still, presents? Tony wondered, rubbing sleep from his eyes. What had he gotten, maybe three hours sleep?

“Tony, come on. This stuff is heavy.” Well that had to be Bruce. “Doesn’t anyone have a key?”

What the hell were they all doing? SHIELD personnel could have brought his gear back. Hired grunts were what Tony had expected; the same ones that had stripped his place down to wires. But instead they’d all come to his door, up before the dawn to lend a hand. Or in Clint’s case, use his bathroom.

So much for going it alone, Tony thought, swallowing. So much for that.

“Aren’t you going to answer the door?” a voice said from the shadows gathered by the balcony. Loki was visible only by the inhuman glow of his eyes, which frankly creeped Tony the hell out. How long had he been there?

“You’re early,” he commented by way of greeting. Loki approached slowly, moving silently in the pre-dawn gloom. His silhouette said he was still wearing his armour and leather. Tony hoped he’d at least cleaned off the blood.

“I concluded my business.” Loki’s tone contained a world of secrets. “Get the door, Stark. Or shall I?”

Not in this lifetime, Tony thought as he stood up, tripping slightly on the rolled-up drafting mat he’d been scribbling on. So far every idea had been a total loss, but he didn’t want to tell Loki that. He’d come up with something. Failure just wasn’t acceptable this time.

Hitting the manual open on the elevator doors, Tony scratched his stomach idly as they gave way to the distinctly unimpressed faces of Bruce, Natasha and Clint. They were all holding up a large glittering panel of circuits, wires and lights. Taller than the average person, it was encased in thin crystal, silicone and some good old-fashioned plastic.

It was JARVIS’s heart. Or at least one of them. It was specifically the one that belonged to Stark Tower; the one they’d pulled out to stop Tony from misbehaving during his house arrest. They’d gone and got it released for him.

“Before you start sobbing and thanking us, we’re not being nice,” Clint grunted as they started shuffling out with the AI core. “JARVIS has been acting mighty strange. It’s like he doesn’t know how to talk without you. He shut himself down to basic primary functions. He won’t even stream porn anymore.”

Tony wasn’t surprised. “Figures. After I designed Iron Man I updated his peripheral functions to all go into standby mode if he’d been separated from me for more than three weeks. JARVIS will still recognise friend from foe and his intel comes through, but he essentially becomes a no-frills version of himself.” His mouth kicked up at the disgruntled face Clint made at that. “Barton, don’t tell me you actually miss him.”

“Don’t judge me,” Clint muttered as they shuffled across the room to where the core’s panel was. Darting ahead of them, Tony hit the pressurised panel in several key places to release it from the wall, pulling it open as they approached. The core had to carefully slot into the port, and while precision was their forte, Tony’s stomach still clenched as they angled it just so.

“It’s been quiet,” Bruce said eventually as they heaved the panel fully upright. Tony almost felt a few strands of hair turn grey just watching them. “No Thor, no JARVIS, no you. Steve practically lived in the gym for about a week. It’s just been us, mostly.”

Tony helped them align the panel, listening for the tell-tale click. When it sounded, he gently pushed the core back into the central processor that powered the building, slid the panel shut again, and waited.

Absolutely nothing happened. Natasha went rigid by his side, probably mentally running through every moment from the vault to the penthouse where the core might have taken a hit. Beside her, Clint was giving him a look that equated to a silent scream.

Tony started a little as he realised what had happened. “Okay, in my defence this is the first time I’ve had to do this. Anyone got a phone? I have to call JARVIS.”

“You know he’s not actually a person, right?” Clint asked slowly, looking at Tony like he was insane. Bruce just pulled his old Nokia out of one pocket and handed it over to him.

“Do you want your daisy chains back or what?”

“You watched my porn?”

“JARVIS generates a weekly report of all heavy data usage and the URLs responsible. I got curious.”

Clint looked extremely betrayed by that, which entertained the hell out of Tony. JARVIS could make all the promises of secrecy under the sun, but he couldn’t lie to Tony. Clint had probably believed JARVIS’s promise not to tell a soul.

“Could we possibly waste some more time?” Loki asked coldly from behind them all. “After all, it’s only Thor’s continued existence we need hurry for.”

Clint pulled a Bowie knife out of his waistband and spun around just as Natasha stepped in close, positioned perfectly on Clint’s open side. Bruce, on the other hand, just looked speculative as he studied Loki.

“Oh right, because you’re so concerned?” Clint replied incredulously. “Try covering his blind spot for five fucking years straight, then you might be able to pull the ‘Thor’ card.”

Starting the morning with some fighting words was a pretty ballsy move, Tony decided. Good for the heart rate. Or the undertaker’s paycheque.

“Do not preach of solidarity and brotherhood to me, Agent Barton,” Loki replied, his lip curling. “The blood I’ve spilled over the centuries for Thor’s sake could run an ocean red. So perhaps you should put your knife away before I sheathe it somewhere unpleasant.”

Clint looked like he wanted to argue his point further, but Natasha gave him a sharp look.

“That’s not what we’re here for. And he’s right; we are wasting time.”

Tony dialled Avengers HQ and jammed his thumb into the ‘send’ button, feeling some of the tension seep out of the room as Clint slowly slid the knife back into the waistband of his jeans. That could have gone a lot worse than it did. He straightened as the call connected with a click.

Unfortunately, it didn’t connect to JARVIS.

“Hi, Bruce,” Steve said, sounding ridiculously awake considering how early it was. “What do you need? It’s too early to call through an update. Did something happen?”

Tony’s stomach went rigid. The call was supposed to default to the automated grid; no one picked up incoming calls anymore until JARVIS had processed them. Great.

“Nothing that can’t be fixed by you patching this call through to the main grid, Cap,” he said glibly, ignoring the surprised intake of breath on the line. “And hey, I’d love to chat sometime about these updates Banner is supposed to be giving you, but I’m really on the clock right now.”

“I—” Steve started, but caught himself almost immediately this time. “Yeah, okay. Sure. Patching you through.” The line went dead as the call transferred. Tony used the time to squint at Bruce, who just shrugged unapologetically.

“He’s the one feeding information to Fury,” Bruce said by way of explanation. “And he knows you don’t want him here.”

“When did I ever say that? I never explicitly said that.” Which was entirely true and Tony would defend his story to the death. Hearing the click of the call connecting to the main grid where JARVIS processed incoming calls for assistance, Tony straightened.

Please state the nature of your call,” JARVIS droned automatically. It was a recording, but it was the easiest place to get hold of his voice-activated processes from a remote location.

“JARVIS! Please tell me you missed me,” Tony said, smiling as the others gave him a flat look.

There was a split-second bleep on the line as JARVIS registered Tony’s voice wavelength pattern against his security protocols and restored his system back to full power.

Sir. Your last command was three-point-seven weeks ago. Are you well?

“Better than well. Connect to Stark Tower for me; we’ve got work to do.”

Initiating connection now. It’s good to have you back, sir.”

Tony ended the call just as every light in the room came on, signalling that JARVIS was coming back online in the tower. Good, this was good. It was starting to feel like home again already.

“If JARVIS is back, all you need is your personal tech to get completely up and running, right?” Natasha asked as she pushed up her sleeves, revealing a spring-loaded knife strapped to each forearm. Loki’s eyebrows twitched when he saw them, but he made no comment. Clint just looked depressed.

“A master assassin, reduced to heavy lifting,” he said mournfully. Then he darted a glance at Bruce. “Hey, you don’t suppose—”

“He’d break everything in the vicinity, so no,” Bruce replied, amused. “Besides, I’m here to help Tony. If he wants me.” There was always a small hesitation when Banner offered to help, but it was never anything but completely genuine. Assistance from a radiation expert? Why the hell not? It wasn’t of the mean green gamma variety, but Bruce’s perspective on the problem would help things immeasurably.

“Yes. Yes, I definitely do want you,” Tony said decisively. “Between the two of us we’ll get this done or discover time travel, one of the two. Let’s get started while the others start delivering my tech. Just let me shower and drink a couple of gallons of espresso.”

Bruce nodded. “I’ll activate my old gamma lab. The lead-lined chamber in there should make a good testing room.” Without any further comment he turned and headed for the elevator. Banner’s lab hadn’t been used since Avengers HQ had been built but everything would be just where he left it, if a little dusty from disuse.

Natasha’s eyes were drifting toward the kitchen. Specifically, where the coffee-maker sat on the bench. Beside her, Clint just looked pained. Loki was stonily ignoring them all, his eyes drilling holes in the wall. Tony thought about it for exactly three seconds.

“Okay, Natasha, make me coffee while I’m in the shower and you can help yourself. Barton, the bathroom is over there. Alert JARVIS if you have any problems – and can someone tell Steve to put those super-soldier muscles to reasonable use?” Tony paused as a thought occurred to him. “Speaking of muscles, where’s Thor?”

He saw Loki give the smallest of twitches out of the corner of his eye. Natasha just shrugged.

“Back at headquarters. Steve’s with him.” Well, that made sense.

“Any change?”

She hesitated slightly. “He’s the same, mostly. JARVIS was registering a mild decrease in brain activity before he shut down. Thor’s body…he had a few accidents. We took care of it.”

Tony blinked. “Accidents?”

Natasha’s gaze was steady on his, and very pointedly not looking at Loki. Tony suddenly understood what she meant and felt his stomach drop. Okay, well then they’d just have to work a little faster. If only so he didn’t have to think about their empty-eyed god of thunder losing any more of his dignity. He might not be home at the moment, but it was still Thor.

“Well, if there’s nothing happening in the city, ask Steve to help. Thor can enjoy a change of scenery if we’re all over this way.” At the very least it might scare Loki out of the building for a few hours; having him hover was just going to drive Tony insane.

With the plan for the day settled, everyone split off to go their separate ways. Tony left them to take his shower, his mind racing through possibilities as he moved through the penthouse. The pressure of what he had to do had settled in his chest like a stone, but he was damned if he was going to let it drag him down. Last time he’d felt like this, it had been palladium poisoning and his own life on the line. This time, things were far from hopeless. It was the deadline that was the issue.

Discovering time travel with Bruce Banner suddenly started to seem a lot more viable.

Tony mentally put it on his list of things to do in case of failure.

The day passed in a blur of scans, equations and an exploded view of the Dual Deadlock turned every which way JARVIS could render. Between Tony’s engineering skills and Bruce’s mind for applied radiation and containment, they should have had the staff down on blueprints at the very least.

Instead they had balled up electronic plans, several empty coffee cups and Bruce’s jaw had adopted a very unsettling tic that Tony did not like at all.

“It’s bad, right?” Tony said wearily, leaning against the table. “We could have this done in a couple of months, sure. But six days?”

Bruce ran a hand through his hair and flipped the projection of the staff around again.

“It’s the insulation that’s the problem,” he replied, frowning at the hologram. “Magic isn’t like electricity, or even the Deadlock’s radiating field. There’s no way to kill Amora’s magic without damaging Loki’s every time he uses the damn thing. He’ll be pouring an ocean through a knothole until we can figure out how to insulate the Deadlock component.”

They fell into a weary silence, contemplating the dilemma they were in. Magic was just too much of an unknown factor. Thor had insisted it was just a different kind of science, but whatever it was it had variables and equations Tony had yet to grasp. It broke rules.

“Maybe we should ask Loki,” Bruce suggested, pulling his glasses off to buff them on his sleeve. “He’s the sorcerer, after all.” Tony gave him a long look.

“You saw him, right? Long hair, sharp nails, crazier than a shithouse rat? I don’t know what stopped him from putting his fist through Clint this morning but he doesn’t look like he’d take too kindly to being told we’re out of ideas.”

Most likely Loki would just toss a few scathing remarks his way and threaten to kill them all again. That had been his song and dance from the night before, at least. Besides, Tony didn’t want to hear the fat lady sing right away. There was a way to make this happen; he just didn’t know what it was yet.

“You don’t find it interesting that someone with his ego managed to ask for help?”

Tony frowned. “Are you saying his ego is bigger than mine? Because I’ll have you know, Doctor Banner—”

The door to the lab whooshed open just as Steve strode in, carrying something in his hands. A small metal something that Tony had left in his workshop back at headquarters. Steve had been down amongst his stuff?

“I thought it might help,” Steve said by way of explanation, holding the Dual Deadlock out to Tony. His eyes were steady and sincere, but there was a cautious edge to his voice that Tony had never heard before. “JARVIS told me how to disconnect it.”

“Of course he did,” Tony replied shortly. Frustrated and sleep-deprived was not the best state to be in while dealing with Captain America. “JARVIS registers you as the only other person with authorised access to my workshop.”

Steve frowned minutely and put the Dual Deadlock down on the table.

You programmed him,” he reminded Tony, his voice curt. He nodded to Bruce, who looked like he was trying very hard to pretend he wasn’t listening. “If you need me, call.”

Tony just watched him leave, eyeing the tense set of his shoulders. Broad enough to carry duty, but guilt was something else entirely. Intelligently Tony knew that Steve had just been doing his job. Doing what was right. Making the tough call and going by the book. But none of that did a damn thing to loosen the hard knot in his chest that had formed when Steve had slammed that cell door right in his face.

“He’s your friend,” Bruce said quietly, watching Tony carefully. “Just because you know you’re doing the right thing doesn’t mean Steve understood at the time—”

“Steve’s idea of sacrifice is covering the grenade before it detonates,” Tony replied tightly. “He’s never lost face for anyone, or anything. How would the golden boy know what it’s like to have to—” He went completely still.

That was it.

“Oh my god.”

“What?” Bruce said, paling as Tony went rigid. “What?”

A hundred designs and plans flew through his head, each lending credence to the sudden idea. Lines formed plans and radiation cores, explosives and triggers and a radiating field of, what, about twenty feet? It had to be twenty feet at least but reduce that to ten and Tony could concentrate the radiation, kill it right down to the bones and sinew of a person and yes, yes this would work

“Damn it, Tony, what are you thinking?”

“Grenades!” he blurted out. Adrenaline and inspiration crashed through him in tandem as he pushed away from the table, pacing the length of the lab. His mind was racing through the possibilities.

“Grenades,” Bruce repeated slowly. “You want to give Loki a magic-killing incendiary device?”

“No, no,” Tony said, grinning, “I want to give him twenty. Thirty if I can manage it in time.” He pointed to the Dual Deadlock where it sat on the table. “Think about it, Banner, think tiny little—like I’m talking the size of a golf ball here—Dual Deadlocks that you can throw. With Loki’s ability to teleport before detonation, the radius of the blast isn’t even a problem. Hell, we can probably even attach them to the staff itself for portability…” He threw his hands up. “It’s effective, it cuts the production time down to nothing and it’ll work. Bruce, tell me I’m a genius.”

“You’re a genius,” Bruce said good-naturedly. “But we still need to figure out how concentrated the Deadlock’s energy needs to be in order to instantly incapacitate the target.” He was smiling as he said it though, even sitting a little straighter in his chair as he worked through the idea in his head. Yeah, this was going to work.

Tony ran his hands through his hair as he did another lap of the room, mentally putting together the components that he’d need. Banner had a point about the concentration, but JARVIS had enough of Loki’s data from the time they scanned him that they could estimate how strong it would need to be. They didn’t exactly have Amora on hand to run through a diagnostic to be completely sure.

Well, there was one option they could use for that.

A really terrible option, but desperate times and all that had to count for something, right?

It couldn’t hurt to ask.



Loki looked like he wanted to kill Tony and make a new mantle from his skin.

“So,” he said slowly. “Not only are you telling me that you cannot, in fact, do as I instructed, you’d also like to inflict that accursed contraption on me for a third time?” His nostrils flared with suppressed rage. “As if I haven’t had quite enough of being stripped down and flogged like an animal?”

Tony scratched his neck. Behind Loki, the others suddenly looked extremely busy. Eavesdropping bastards. None of his tech in his penthouse took that long to set up.

“You can actually keep your armour on for this one,” he told Loki with a wince. Naturally, the knowledge seemed to come as a pretty small consolation. “But yeah, that pretty much sums up the situation. I can try to use the old data to project how much it will take to knock her out of the game, but magic is a pain in the ass to predict. I don’t know how effective it will be.”

Tony found himself holding his breath a little as he watched Loki absorb the information, more than a little unsure whether he was just going to punch him in the face for even suggesting it. Changing the plan for the staff had been one thing – that much he could have explained easily. But needing to put Loki through that shit again for Thor’s sake? That was pretty damn steep and Tony knew it.

Last time the Dual Deadlock had been used on Loki, it had been to facilitate his torture. The device Tony had made had been used to cripple all of his defences, reveal a form he hated, and allowed him to be subjected to sickening cruelty. Who the hell would say yes to potentially being exposed to that again?

As the silence stretched, Tony realised he was an asshole for even suggesting it. Desperate times were one thing. But shoving someone headfirst back into an experience like that, even if it was Loki –crazy, tough-as-nails Loki– for the sake of an exact science? It meant that Tony was essentially saying that compared to Thor, Loki was only so much meat and magic. Sanity, skin, power; all expendable when weighed against the god of thunder.

Wasn’t that the exact opposite of what Thor had been trying to show him?

“Actually, you know, let’s just forget it,” he said shortly. They could sort out another solution for the concentration problem, they always did find their way around roadblocks eventually—

“This will be the last time,” Loki said simply, cutting clean across Tony’s train of thought. He was studying his nails with the strangest expression on his face - for a moment it almost looked like loss. But when he lifted his eyes to meet Tony’s the look was gone, and nothing but resolve remained. “I can trust your motives this far, Stark. Do make it count. There is more at stake than you realise.”

There it was again. A hint, a threat to worry at until he could understand what was going on behind the scenes. It was also something Tony couldn’t afford to think about until he’d completed the task at hand. And that meant getting Loki into the gamma lab and hitting him with a dose of magic-killing radiation stronger than any he’d been subjected to so far.

But Loki was willing and ready to go through with it, so he couldn’t hesitate to do what needed to be done.

This will be the last time.

Whatever that meant, Tony would just have to make sure it was worth it.

Chapter 12

Loki was tough.

Everyone knew that. There was a reason he was one of their strongest enemies, and it wasn't solely because of the magic he wielded. He was relentless when he had a goal, like he was driven by an instinctive need to see things through to the end. Even when he lost, he didn’t yield. He just waited.

Tony wasn't sure what drove Loki Laufeyson. But as they all stared through the reinforced window to where the god of mischief was being slammed with agonising doses of Deadlock radiation, Tony felt a chill spread through his chest.

They could not make him stay down.

"Jesus Christ," Bruce whispered as raised the concentration again. He looked ill. At his side, Steve was staring in horrified fascination.

Hell, they all were. It was like watching a car wreck, except the wreckage was a sorcerer, sweat-slick and panting raggedly, every breath a snarl in his throat. Magic dripped from his fingers like jewels, dispersing in the air before it could touch anything. Loki’s eyes were completely obscured by a solid blaze of emerald-black where the energy was unable to be contained, spilling out of his eyes and down his face like blood. He was somehow more terrible for the torment, and even Tony couldn’t help but feel a little awed by the sheer, unmitigated force of will that kept him on his feet every time he took a hit.

They’d been irradiating Loki’s entire body for three hours, and they couldn't fill him with enough radiation in a single hit to stop the magic at the source.

Yeah, Loki was tough.

"Why the hell is this not working?" Clint demanded to know after the tenth increment of radiation had been reached. "The other one worked and this is the same shit. What’s going on?"

"The Dual Deadlock was like a dome full of radiation. It was everywhere," Bruce explained, continuing at Tony's nod. "Think of it as a chamber full of knockout gas. You're surrounded in it and you're going to succumb because it's everywhere. This radiation is more like an injection of sedative. If we don't get the dose right it'll make him tired, but it won't put him down. That's why it's not working.” He hesitated. “It's also entirely possible that his prior exposure to the Dual Deadlock might actually have inoculated him against this method."

"He's becoming immune?" Steve asked sharply. "He can do that?"

"Possibly. We won't know until we successfully disarm him."

Disarm him, Tony thought as he watched Loki pull himself back up again for another shot. That was one word for it.

His phone rang, and Tony backed out of the control room to take it. They weren't going to have any breakthroughs in the next five minutes. He winced as Pepper's photo flashed up on the phone. Maybe this was going to take a little longer than expected.

"Pepper! Sorry I didn't call yesterday—"

"Well thank God you're alive!" Pepper snapped. "By the way, so am I!"

"Oh come on, that was just a graze," he protested. A graze that had nearly stopped his heart, but the more he down-played it the less of a chance she'd have a near-death experience freak out. She'd had enough of those courtesy of him. "You're fine. What was it, two stitches in your arm?"

"Three, actually, and you owe me a new silk blouse."

"You're the one with all my credit card details," he replied agreeably. "Knock yourself out." The silence on the other end of the line was almost tangibly offended, which made him smile. "How are you, Miss Potts?"

"I'm fine," she sighed, relenting. "My arm is in a stupid sling. We're suing SHIELD for reckless endangerment of our acting CEO, by the way. It won't go anywhere, but it makes me feel better knowing Nick Fury is up to his ass in my paperwork."

There was a warming thought. "You know I love you, right?"

"Yes," she replied crisply. "You should also love Rhodey because he took a very angry report back to his commanding officer. He said to say goodbye, but I told him you'd call." It was heavily implied in her tone that he'd either call or lose a hand.

"I will absolutely call."

"Good. Are you making much progress with this magic defence project? Is Loki there? I was going to come over, but I’ve been with PR trying to spin this injury and your prolonged disappearance. What have I missed?"

Tony filled her in on what had happened so far, from his tech returning to the new idea for what they were trying to accomplish. He had a feeling that she zoned out a little during the technical talk, but sharpened up at the mention of Steve arriving at the tower to help.

"Has he forgiven you yet?" she interrupted, stopping Tony dead in his tracks.

"Has he—Pepper, I'm the wounded party here."

"No, you're not," she said patiently. "Steve Rogers is one of your best friends, but he's not one of your oldest, Tony. I am, and if there's one thing I've learned over the years, it's that when I feel guilty about a fight it's almost always your fault. I just apologise to make you stop sulking."

Tony gaped at the wall.

"So you're telling me that my whole adult life is a lie—no, no, I refuse to believe it. Besides, Steve ditched me when I was—"

"Doing something illegal? Possibly endangering people’s lives?" Pepper sighed when he refused to reply. "Look, your intentions might be good but no one knows what's going on in your head except you. Steve is a soldier. Steve has rules. You broke them all, Tony, and you showed you didn't trust him. Go and apologise to your friend."

"But then he wins," Tony objected, "and I look like a reckless asshole!"

"If the shoe fits," Pepper replied dryly. "Listen, I have to go, I have a seven o'clock to get to. Have fun shooting Loki in the face." She hung up before Tony could so much as splutter with indignation.

The shoe absolutely did not fit. Partially, maybe, and only sometimes. The thing with Steve? Definitely not one of those times.

For better or worse he was completely distracted from that train of thought as Bruce tore ass out of the control room, looking like he was going to throw up. Bracing himself on the wall beside Tony, he started shaking his head.

"I can't do this," he said tersely. "Comparatively, if that was gamma radiation...I would have been dead. Ulcerated beyond recognition. I'm not a—he's taking the relative concentration of seventy-eight sieverts. I don't have the stomach for it, Tony. I'm sorry. You need to continue without me."

Well, that was understandable. In retrospect, Tony probably should have thought about that before bringing Banner in to hit the button on a guy as he's dosed with minimally tested radiation. Might bring up all kinds of bad memories.

"Forget about it, Doc," Tony replied, clapping a hand to Bruce's shoulder and squeezing. "Thanks for being my sounding board today. You helped me out." The smile he received was watery at best, but it was good enough.

"Good luck with it. He's taking longer to recover, and it looks like the cumulative effect is taking a toll too, so factor that in when you're measuring a dose."

"Will do. Now beat it," he said, nodding toward the exit. "Check on Thor on your way out, could you?" The last thing they needed was to find out he'd wandered off the edge of the Iron Man landing pad.

Tony returned to the control room to find Natasha, Steve and Clint wearing the grim faces of graveyard nightwatchmen as they stared into the sealed chamber. Inside, Loki was swaying on his feet slightly and he'd turned alarmingly sallow.

“It’s really starting to cost him, but he just won’t stay down,” Clint reported as Tony checked the radiation levels. Bruce hadn’t been kidding: Loki was taking a potent dose. As harmless to non-magical beings as that radiation was supposed to be, Tony felt a twinge of scientific nervousness stir in his chest.

“I don’t think this method is going to work.” Steve sounded almost relieved. “We should stop.”

Ignoring him, Tony stared into the chamber where Loki stood. He was shining with sweat and magic, which seemed to be leaking from him wherever it could. Vapours of it escaped like smoke on each breath and the back of his throat glowed through parted lips. Veins that should be seen as only a faint blue tracery were toxic green on JARVIS’s magnified panels. The radiation was triggering his magic as a defence mechanism, like antibodies surging up against a virus. Bruce had been right – he was building a resistance to it. But given that Amora had felt the Deadlock’s effects before, it only made Loki more perfect for the test.

The question was how much to increase the dosage by without accidentally killing him from the pain. The ability to channel energy and use magic was ingrained deep within him, if the readings were any indication. To stop it entirely at the source could potentially stop his heart if they were using that much Deadlock radiation.

But if the cumulative effect was what was causing the prolonged symptoms, then the faster they got it over and done with, the better.

“Is something the matter?” Loki asked over the speakers, sounding like he had a throat full of glass. Unbelievably, a faint sneer was actually curling his lip. “I thought the purpose of this test was to incapacitate me. Was I mistaken?”

“Asshole,” Clint muttered, but it sounded almost like a compliment. Beside him, Natasha was watching Tony closely. Her sense for when he was about to do something stupid almost rivalled Pepper’s. He opened the channel to the radiation chamber.

“Since you’re feeling so spry, I’d like to double the concentration,” he told Loki. “Do you have any reservations about that?” Through the one-way glass there was no way for Loki to meet Tony’s eyes, but the vicious smile he levelled at the mirrored panel said it all.

“Make your mark. If you can.” His hands crackled with power.

“C’mon—you sound like you’re already at your limit,” Steve argued. In defence of Loki’s health or just to disagree with him, Tony wasn’t sure. “A hit like that could kill you.”

Loki just laughed, the sound rasping and hoarse. But it was genuine and reckless, and Tony could hear the steel beneath it.

“Nothing can kill me. Now do your worst, or let Thor pay the price.”

As far as Loki’s manipulation attempts went, that was almost sloppy. But Steve seemed to realise what he’d been about to stand in the way of and fell back, but his mouth was an unhappy line, his shoulders tense. They all knew Thor would have their heads for what they’d been doing to Loki all afternoon. For what they’d done to him since his soul had been taken. It was just one of those sad situations, really. The ugly side of heroic deeds.

“Brace yourself,” Tony told Loki as raised the Deadlock’s current concentration to double. “This one will hurt.” That barely earned him a reaction.

“You haven’t underestimated me yet, Stark. Don’t start now.”

Tony stared down at the button to engage the shot. It was science, after all. Loki had agreed to it. It needed to be done. All Tony had to do was take the shot and trust that Loki could endure as much as he thought he could. There was no alternative – at least, not one that anyone was willing to allow. Thor had to survive this. Even if the price was as high as the one he was about to pay. It just had to work.

“Let’s do this, then,” Tony said, and reached for the button.

Steve grabbed his wrist.

“Wait,” he said quietly, fingers squeezing tight. Steve’s eyes were fiercely blue and so damn sincere it hurt. “Tony, listen to me. You like him. Or you did. Are you going to be able to live with yourself if you accidentally kill him?”

Like him? It had been two months since Thor lost his soul. Two months since Tony shoved a knife into Loki’s stomach and let him be dragged away by SHIELD. Two months since Steve had looked at him like he didn’t know where his loyalty lay, and now he wanted Tony to stop the test and think about the risk?

God you blow hot and cold, don’t you?” he snapped, refusing to feel sorry when Steve flinched. This was about more than repairing their friendship.

“I just want to make sure you’re not doing this out of some misplaced—”

“No, Steve, stop. Listen, I’m not going to lie here. There’s a twenty-five per cent chance this will kill him or destroy his magic permanently,” Tony stated flatly, knowing Loki could hear him. “Stating the obvious, but that means there’s a seventy-five per cent chance this will actually work. Those are good odds.”

Tony heard Steve’s breath come out in a rush as he hit a button on the control panel, but it was just to deactivate the one-way glass so Loki could see them. Might as well, he thought edgily as Loki’s alien gaze met his. His eyes held nothing but the tainted glitter of his magic.

“But let’s put the decision to the damsel in distress. Loki, you know what the risk is here. If you tell me it’s not worth it we can call it a day right now,” he told him, bracing his arms on the panel. “We can always make the Deadlock grenades on a projected concentration—”

“And get me killed later instead of now if they fail to work? I think not.” Loki glared at Steve. “You’re hindering progress, Captain, and that does me no favours. Interfere again and I’ll shred that merciful heart of yours.”

Steve threw up his hands in the biggest ‘fuck it’ motion Tony had ever seen, his face darker than a thundercloud. But Loki just ignored him, his eyes cutting back to Tony expectantly.

There was no hesitation, no fear of pain or lasting damage or death in Loki’s face. There was just resolve and a rising temper as the delay continued. An impatience to consign himself to a kind of agony that would leave him completely helpless before them. If it worked.

It had to work. It was going to work.

“Can I press the button?” Clint whispered loudly as Loki stepped back onto his mark, pulling a fifty out of his back pocket and pressing it into Tony’s hand. He suspected it was the same one he and Natasha had been betting with. “Just let me have this. Please?”

Steve’s face screwed up into an expression that didn’t know if it was disturbed or outraged. It was actually really unattractive, whatever it was. Before Tony could reply to the offer Natasha pulled Clint back, yanking the money out of Tony’s hand in the same motion.

“That’s my lucky fifty,” she said by way of explanation, driving her knee into Clint’s ass to send him jogging for the exit. “You’ve got this and I’m hungry. We’re going to order dinner.”

“And drink your vodka,” Clint added as he was shoved out the door. “And scale the tower!” The door clanged shut, the vault wheel spinning back into place. Tony wondered if this was the point where most people got a migraine and questioned their life choices. Steve sure seemed to be doing it.

“Are they dating?” Steve asked, his brow wrinkled. “I can never tell.”

Tony shrugged and primed the Deadlock settings for lack of anything else to do with his hands. Inside the chamber, Loki was pacing like a wild animal. They should get this done already.

“Nah. God help them if they date anyone else though.”

“Yeah.” Giving Tony an almost furtive look, Steve nodded to Loki. “Do you want me to go, too?”

“Places to be, Captain?”

“Maybe,” Steve said steadily. “I could find one. If you wanted. Tony, I—”

“Really not the time for this,” Tony said, squinting up at the projected readings JARVIS was managing. Through the panel he waved Loki back to his central position, charging the Deadlock’s concentrated beam up to the desired range in preparation. In the corner of his eye, Steve seemed to deflate a little. Tony’s gut twisted.

Damn it.

“Pepper says it’s my fault.” He paused. “You know. Everything.”

“No, it’s—” Steve’s face crumpled. “I was so worried about doing the right thing that I threw you to the wolves. We’re a team. I’m supposed to have faith in my team.” Raking a hand through his hair, he stared blindly out at the radiation chamber to where Loki stood, ragged and proud. “The bad guy is supposed to stay bad. I thought you were crazy, but…I don’t know. I got it wrong.”

It was funny how the apology Tony thought he’d relish the most was actually the worst thing in the world to hear. Vindication tasted like ashes in his mouth, and wasn’t that just perfect? Pepper had a lot to answer for – right after Tony bought her an enormous bouquet of flowers. And a new silk blouse.

“Let me guess, you had JARVIS pull up all the footage on Loki after he defaulted administrator access to you.” Tony thought about it. “I did delete all the freaky stuff, didn’t I? Which is kind of a shame, really, if you think about it. Those were a bendy couple of nights.”

“Naturally,” Loki muttered from the chamber. “I did all the work.” And apparently the audio channel was still open.

“Bullshit,” Tony argued, unfazed. “You almost head-butted the wall a few times. I was there. That was all me.”

“Funny, I seem to recall rather the opposite.”

“What was that, god of delusion?”

“Does the ring of truth pain your ears, Stark? No? Perhaps the rug-burn on your knees, then.”

“Oh my God, stop talking.” Steve had turned almost purple. “All I saw was the SHIELD footage. Just…shoot the Deadlock, please. Before I shoot myself.” He looked like he was desperate to get blackout drunk as soon as possible. Poor bastard was shit out of luck, Tony thought cheerfully. Through the glass, Loki was eyeing him closely.

“Cutting the audio in five,” Tony informed him. “This is going to be a potent shot, so expect your skin to show a reaction as it’s absorbed. How’s the pain been so far?”

“Manageable,” Loki said, but his mouth was suspiciously tight. “Not desirable. But I can handle far worse if it will yield a result I can use.” It was as much as he’d indicated already, and permission didn’t come any more explicit than that. “Do stop delaying the inevitable.”

That was it then. Steve retreated to the back of the room, leaning against the wall with crossed arms. Before the control panel, Tony checked the levels for optimum efficiency one last time and nodded through the glass. In response, Loki’s magic flared around him like a localised storm, oily-black and sparking green as it bled off his body, evaporating into mist as it left his skin. He was going to take the shot straight in the centre of his chest, right above his heart. The radiation would spread from there, seizing up every channel of energy he used to wield his magic.

“Brace for impact. Engaging Deadlock beam in three, two, one.” He fired.

It slammed into Loki like a battering ram; a blinding white torrent of concentrated Deadlock energy that hit his chest and exploded outward, curling back and obscuring the entire viewing window to such a degree that Steve yanked Tony backwards and covered his head, as if the glass might break and envelop them all. At worst it would probably just kill off the locator spell in Tony’s chest, but Steve didn’t seem to want to take any chances.

“Well, that was a little bigger than I anticipated,” Tony admitted, lifting his head out of Steve’s shoulder to squint at the window. “Thank God for reinforced—Jesus Christ. He’s down. JARVIS, vent the room! Now! I need to get in there!”

Barely hearing Steve’s oath of shock behind him, Tony stared through the glass to where Loki was curled in on himself on the concrete floor, his entire body convulsing and spasming wildly. Hands like claws raked deep trenches in the concrete. There wasn’t even the faintest glimmer of magic around his body. It was a clear success.

Loki’s downward plummeting vital signs said something else had gone terribly wrong.

“Oh my god,” Tony said hoarsely as Loki twitched once, twice and went terrifyingly still. “JARVIS, get me in there now.”

Sir, while the Deadlock radiation is engineered to harm magic only, it is still—”

“Open it!” he snapped, lurching toward the chamber’s door as it obediently clanged a release. His heart was pounding hard enough to hurt as he hauled the door open, shaking off Steve’s restraining hand. “Goddamn it, Rogers, don’t you dare. I’ll be fine.” Then he was out through the door, taking the few short strides to Loki’s side. He dropped hard to his knees, dread cold in the hollow of his throat.

Enveloped in crumpled leather and the sweaty tangle of his own hair, Loki was hunched in on such a painful angle that it almost looked like he’d broken something. The only skin Tony could see was one hand, which was flowing with currents of deep blue.

“Come on,” he whispered as he put a hand on Loki’s shoulder, gently tipping him over onto his back. “Let me see how bad it is.” Don’t be dead.

The loose roll of Loki’s head to one side exposed his neck, which registered a sluggish pulse. Releasing a long breath, Tony quickly slipped his hand up along the curve of one cheekbone, brushing his hair away. The breath that touched his jaw was shallow, but it was steady and even. Loki was still alive. Stripped of magic, unconscious and rippling with blue, but most definitely alive.

“Well, there go ten years off my life I sorely needed,” Tony told his sleeping face, a hard knot of fear loosening in his chest. “Don’t ever do that again.”

In the time it took JARVIS to vent the room and let Steve in, Tony had straightened Loki out of his twisted state and found the buckles on his armoured chest plate, pulling it away to help ease his breathing. No laser-cutter needed that time, he thought as he sat back, fingers running over the leather. Nothing dislocated in the fall, either. He set it aside as the door released the safety lock.

“Well, I hope you’re impotent now because it would serve you right,” Steve snapped at Tony, kneeling down on Loki’s other side. “I can’t believe you sometimes.”

“Sure you can.”

Ignoring that, Steve touched his fingers to Loki’s pulse, then checked his head for trauma with the short, deft movements of a soldier trained in basic first aid. At the first ripple of blue skin that rolled under his palm he hissed and pulled back, staring at his hand.

“Jesus, they don’t call them frost giants for nothing.”

“That’s what—”

“If you finish that sentence and it’s what I think it is, I’m going to lock you in here,” Steve told him firmly, grabbing Loki’s wrist and pulling him upright before folding him carefully over his shoulder. “Let’s get him to a bed so he can sleep this off. It looks like JARVIS got all the readings he needed. Amora isn’t going to know what hit her.”

“Good. I’ll be able to get started on the design tonight.” Opening the doors for Steve so he could carry Loki out of the chamber, Tony eyed the pallor of his cargo as he walked by. “Should he be upside down like that?”

“I don’t know. Let’s just move him before he wakes up.”

“Okay, but don’t bang his head on anything. He’ll blame me.”

They took the elevator back to the penthouse with the intention of dumping him on a couch, until it became clear that Natasha, Bruce and Clint had settled in there with Thor for an evening of television. Stark Tower had evidently become Avengers HQ for a night, which Tony tried and failed to be annoyed about. It defeated the purpose of refusing to move back into the mansion, but it could be good to have some background noise.

Putting Loki in the master bedroom had been Steve’s idea, but Tony didn’t complain. He was going to be working all night anyway. Besides, he figured that complaining about having Loki in his bed at this late stage of the game was a little pointless.

Between them they unloaded Loki onto the bed, stacked his armour on the chair beside the bed and set the temperature control to something reasonably comfortable. Their unconscious patient remained oblivious to all the man-handling, to Steve’s clear relief.

It made sense for Loki to recover where JARVIS could keep an eye on him without the presence of the other Avengers. It was also completely reasonable to assume that he wouldn’t want someone looming over him while he was injured. Tony knew he didn’t have any bedside manner to speak of – he didn’t even know how to fuss over a bullet graze, and that had been Pepper. This was…this made sense. Complete sense.

He made it as far as the living room before he swore, picked up the drafting mats and resigned himself to a night of cramped, two-dimensional blueprint work in his bedroom.

On the upside, at least he wouldn’t have to sit through Clint watching Terminator 3 for the sixth time.

To his surprise, despite the less than ideal working location Tony found himself blitzing his way through the grenade’s preliminary design. Backed by the new data, the buzz of anticipation, of creation in his veins made the hours of frustration earlier seem like a distant memory.

With JARVIS’s calculations and the stripped view of the raw Deadlock ‘cannon’ projected up on the wall for reference, Tony soon had a rough blueprint of the experimental design. Grenades, even ones that exploded with specially-engineered radiation were a cake walk compared to the original magic staff idea. After all, miniaturising an energy reactor that would house enough power to take down a much larger enemy? Old territory right there, and this was no cave in Afghanistan.

Loki slept while Tony worked, completely oblivious to his muttering and JARVIS’s quiet readings. It seemed to be more exhaustion than an injury caused by the last shot of the Deadlock that had him out for so long. Steadily absorbing the kind of hits he’d been taking for almost four hours would drain anyone.

Well, no, Tony amended silently, glancing over at the bed. It would have killed an ordinary person a long time ago. Loki? He’d survived all right, but he also hadn’t registered any magical energy other than the unstable glamour that hid his Jotun skin. It hadn’t stopped rippling, like a stone thrown into still water. It had been one hell of a stone, though.

Tony let him be, spreading his blueprint mats out on the floor and signalling JARVIS as needed. Something told him Loki hadn’t slept like that for a while, maybe a couple of months. Still, seeing him amongst Tony’s sheets like that brought something back from the before the angry, guilty months since Thor lost his soul.

It was how everything had started, if he could put his finger on a single moment in time. The tip-off. A late night visit, and a god of mischief hovering over –and falling into– his bed. It felt like years ago. Times had been easier then.

He’d been in good standing with SHIELD, for one thing. Thor had been strong and boisterous and always willing to share a drink, and Steve had never looked at Tony like he wasn’t certain who he was anymore. And, Loki…well. Loki was the bad guy. But like Steve had said, at some point he’d grown into something else. An uneasy ally, while their goals matched. Then one night he became something entirely different. Ice in his mouth and magic in his veins, and he’d allowed it all to happen. More than allowed it.

Then it was over. Everything changed.

Until Loki came back from the edge of the universe to ask for help. Furious, driven and hauling with him a grudge Tony couldn’t protest, but back to align their goals anyway. That was the part he couldn’t understand. The why of his return. Something didn’t add up, and Tony didn’t know what it was.

It was too late to be thinking about it. The day had been too damn long and there was still too much to get done. Tossing down his stylus and pushing himself to his feet, Tony winced as his ankles cracked in the silence. A cup of coffee, maybe a scotch to bring back and he’d be able to go for another few hours at least.

He’d skirted around the edge of the bed when a hand shot out and grabbed his wrist.

“Holy—god,” Tony ground out, his heart hammering in fright. “Thank you, really, for that brief teaser of what cardiac arrest feels like. I almost went into the light.” Leaning down to squint at Loki, he searched his face for signs of pain. “How you feeling?”

“Take an educated guess,” was the rasped reply. His eyes opened at once, blinking rapidly in the low light. Tony took one look at them and sucked in a breath. Loki noticed. “What is it?”

“Your left eye has reverted back to red,” Tony said cautiously. This was historically the part where Loki got extremely angry at him, and yet he couldn’t stop himself. “Why just one eye? Shouldn’t the whole spell have gone up in smoke when your magic did?”

“Why? For the same reason my nails have taken on a rather unhealthy shade of black, I suspect.” Loki pushed himself up into a sitting position with a groan, his head falling forward for a moment as he collected his bearings. “Your device has been blowing some rather permanent holes in the All-Father’s glamour.”

Tony poured some water from the bedside jug and gave it to him while he thought that over. The Deadlock’s effects would probably weaken a spell, albeit in a pretty ham-fisted manner.

“The shape-shifting spell is Odin’s work?”

“Indeed.” As Loki raised the glass to his mouth and drank deeply, his fingernails caught Tony’s eye. So Loki didn’t exactly stop for a manicure while he was hunting Amora; rather, his last session with the Dual Deadlock in SHIELD’s cell had unravelled part of the spell. That was…

Wait a minute.

“So what you’re saying is that my invention can axe a spell cast by the king of Asgard? Who’s been around since Earth was in diapers?” The shit-eating grin that took over Tony’s face couldn’t have been restrained if he tried. “Can I have that in writing?”

Loki looked like he wanted to smash the glass in his hand and stab Tony in the throat with it. Fortunately, he also looked like he wanted to keel over and die. Tamping down on his glee for the moment Tony took the glass from one unsteady hand and set it down, refilling it for later. That was when Loki seemed to notice exactly where he was, and specifically what he was no longer wearing.

“You disrobed me?” he asked sourly, rubbing a hand over the green fabric of his pourpoint.

“I took off your armour,” Tony corrected, “because you were breathing like a ninety year-old chain smoker. Don’t look at me like you need to show someone on a doll where I touched you.” Loki glowered at him. Tony just glowered right back before he realised he’d gotten completely side-tracked. “Anyway. Magic. Can you use any?”

Loki lifted one hand palm up and stared at it intently.

Nothing happened.

Leaning in close to stare at his palm, Tony felt the beginnings of dread gather in his stomach. It had been almost three hours since he’d been hit. The Deadlock was only supposed to incapacitate for around thirty minutes—

Green light shot him in the face.

Letting out a yell, Tony recoiled from the light so hard he slid off the edge of the bed. Loki watched with interest as Tony quietly picked himself up again, settling back on the edge of the bed with complete dignity. One green eye gleamed with satisfaction.

“Now Stark, do you need to show someone on a doll where the magic touched you?”

“I hate you so much,” Tony said, compulsively rubbing his face and jaw. “JARVIS, back-scan on magical energy readings in prior instances where Loki has been unconscious and factor it into the other data. It was probably too low to catch.”

Yes, sir. Lower frequency scans indicate Loki Laufeyson regained his magical abilities exactly seventeen minutes after exposure to optimum level Deadlock radiation.” Loki managed to look savagely pleased in the three seconds before JARVIS added, “Topical magic readings indicate degradation in the outer layer of energy at the left eye-socket, all fingertips, hairline leading into right side mandible, right thigh, right calf and toes. Degradation appears to be permanent and spreading.

As JARVIS finished rattling off the areas where the spell had holes torn in it, Loki seemed to be completely calm. But his throat bobbed a little too hard when he swallowed and there was a blankness to his face that said those still waters ran pretty goddamn deep just then. It seemed like a kindness to pretend he hadn’t noticed.

“That’ll be all, JARVIS.” Cutting his eyes back to Loki, Tony floundered for a moment. Talk? Don’t talk? Leave? The old, familiar sensation of guilt churned deep in his stomach.

“Rejoice, Stark.” Loki’s voice held no inflection. “You truly are a genius among mortals. Soon all shall know me for what I truly am: a bastard of Jotunheim, and no prince of Asgard.” He narrowed his eyes slightly. “Odin’s lie revealed.”

Before he could talk himself out of it, Tony reached over and brushed Loki’s hair away from his jaw, exposing the right side JARVIS had listed. Sure enough, curving around from his hairline up over the line of his jaw was a smear of deep blue, like someone had dipped three fingers in paint and drawn them across pale skin. There the skin was cold and decorated with the thin, precise markings that proved him Jotun.

Loki slapped his hand away.

“Thor isn’t worth this,” he snarled softly, his mismatched eyes fixed and furiously tear-blind. “Worth this torment, this mockery? Worth chasing some screeching harridan and her prize through worlds and stars and darkness, starved for light and sound for countless cold months, snared in time-spells and anything that might spare her my wrath a few more seconds—and for what?”

Tony stared. “Loki—”

“A home that will not acknowledge me, a father who can’t even claim me? A brother whom after everything I cannot defeat. Nay, instead I chase his captor, intent on bringing the sorceress to heel, knowing that if I fail she strikes a blow on my behalf that even Odin will not forgive.” A tremble of pure helpless rage tore through him, a crackle of raw magic dancing through his shoulders. “If I let her have him, I am weak. If I chase her too desperately, she flees to Asgard as the hero who saved Thor’s soul from my evil machinations. Then what will Asgard see, Stark? With threads of the All-Father’s magic unravelling from my very skin? They will see a monster, and they will see it true.”

Tony barely had time to think words like framed and monster before Loki started shifting to get up, whether it was to stand or leave and quit the whole thing altogether. And he was just so damned angry—

“Stop, stop, stop,” Tony said rapidly, planting his hands down on Loki’s thighs to hold him in place. “Stop and think for a second. Breathe for a minute and just, ow don’t break that I need that wrist.” The pressure of Loki’s grip lessened just slightly, but instead of pulling away from him Tony did the unthinkable and sat on him. Just sat himself right in the lap of a sorcerer who was obviously in the middle of losing his mind. And people said Tony Stark wasn’t brave.

“Stark,” Loki seethed, “you dare—”

“Destroy the spell,” Tony said in a rush. Loki’s eyes widened in disbelief. “I mean it. Tear the whole thing to pieces and make another one. You can do it, you can do anything you damn well want. The Loki I saw today scared the hell out of me with his strength. Now stop whining and crochet yourself a new skin already, because I’m pretty sure your magic is becoming immune to the Deadlock.” Breathing hard, he reached up and placed his hands on Loki’s shoulders and squeezed, almost shaking him. “God, why didn’t you tell me any of this? Amora’s threatening to pin it on you?”

“It didn’t seem pertinent.” Loki sounded numb after his outburst. Then he frowned. “What do you mean, my magic is immune?”

Tony shrugged, silently wondering how to get out of Loki’s lap. “It’s just a theory at this point, but you probably won’t have to worry about the Deadlock soon. Apparently you’re mutating into a beautiful butterfly. Which, for the record, I find highly aggravating.”

Eternally unimpressed by his turns of phrase, Loki didn’t bother to respond to that beyond a thoughtful arch of his eyebrow. Seeing him start to move away, Loki flattened his hands on Tony’s thighs in an entirely unfair reversal of a moment ago.

“It will take me some days to weave a spell so intricate. For the duration of it, I will be exposed.” Tony, who was already trying to formulate plans of attack and contingencies if Amora headed for Asgard, blinked in confusion.

“You mean, blue?” Fingers pinched his leg. Hard. “Okay, okay stop. What are you saying here?”

Loki’s mouth tightened. “I am saying that I haven’t entirely squared matters with Victor, who still remains a threat for the time being. I cannot focus on him and work a spell of that magnitude at the same time.” It looked like it was costing him heavily to admit it, but it was nothing Tony hadn’t heard before. “At the same time, I don’t trust the Avengers not to attempt something foolhardy while I’m occupied.”

Tony frowned. “So you’re not going to redo the spell.” Loki still had a punishing grip on his thighs. “Could you just draw me a picture here? I’m really distracted by those claws of yours near my—”

“I want you watching my back, imbecile.” Loki glared at him. “That is the picture. Give me that time and I will spare your life despite your past transgressions. Do we have a deal?”

So that was what he was angling at? A renegotiation of their original terms. Stark Tower, one week, Tony’s life in exchange for a chance to sew a new Asgardian disguise in case Amora fled there. Clearly Loki hadn’t forgotten his promise to come back and deal with him, but he was willing to wipe the slate clean for this.

The wording was odd though. He didn’t trust the Avengers, but wanted Tony watching out for him? He thought about loopholes and traps but came up glaringly empty-handed. At this point he wasn’t even sure how many more pointless secrets Loki had left.

“Well?” Loki prompted, finally removing his hands only to extend one, clearly expecting a handshake to seal the agreement. “It works in your favour, Stark. Do we have a deal?”

Tony thought about it. “No.”

Loki went rigid. “And why not?” he asked, voice dangerously soft.

“I want something else in exchange.”

He could almost see Loki’s mind whirring away, calculating and churning out new terms that could possibly be more appealing than what he’d offered. What he could actually see was the moment of frustration when Loki realised he had no idea what Tony wanted.

“Speak, then,” he said coldly. “What does Tony Stark want? A promise to leave Midgard alone? Leave Thor be once this is done? Or more experiments and tests to carry out on this immunity I might possess?” He sat up enough to lean into Tony’s space, his gaze flinty. “What is it you want from me?”

Taking the hand Loki had allowed to fall into his lap, Tony pressed it flat to his chest, just to the left of the arc reactor. The look Loki gave him was measured.

“Your heart?”

“Yeah. Can your magic take out the shrapnel?”

Eyeing him carefully, Loki’s hand glowed green against his chest, markedly lacking the slick black sheen of earlier. Tony felt it spread through his ribs and lungs like ice, snaking its way down toward his heart. Loki tilted his head, almost as though listening for something in between heartbeats. He closed his eyes.

“There is a pull there,” he murmured. “I feel it, holding back the metal waiting to penetrate the tissue of your heart. There are so very many…like teeth, sharpened for the feast.” Loki’s eyes opened; deep red and clear green, both of them solemn. He took his hand away. “I’m afraid I cannot give you what you seek.”

The punch of disappointment he felt was unexpected, considering how long he’d accepted the shrapnel as a permanent addition to his body. For a last minute idea, it had put down roots.

“It was worth a shot,” he smiled, making Loki frown oddly. “Your original terms sound good to me. Now, I should probably get back to work.”

“Of course,” Loki replied, subdued as Tony shifted away and stood up, stretching his arms out with a tired sigh. Mentally he ran through his plans for the night. A few more hours to sand off the rough edges of his design, then sleep. Before that, coffee and a scotch, hadn’t that been his earlier idea? It suddenly sounded like an amazing idea. One of his best, really.

“Stark,” Loki said suddenly as he headed for the door. Turning, he saw Loki rising to his feet. His hand was extended again. What a stickler. “This is customary when a bargain is struck, even on Asgard.”

“Hell no, I am not shaking your hand.” Tony made the sign of the cross with two fingers. “I’ve read Harry Potter. It’s not okay. Besides, we didn’t even shake the first time. Verbal agreements are perfectly okay in this day and age.”

Loki’s face darkened. “I am trying to show you that I will uphold my end of this agreement,” he said, very slowly and carefully. “That you may trust me.”


Tony felt the humour drain from his expression. Just because Loki wouldn’t kill him for handing him off to SHIELD didn’t mean he wouldn’t make him pay in every other way imaginable. But that argument wasn’t on the table, and they both knew that score would be settled one day. Loki was flat-out asking for trust before anything else. Assuming nothing. Manipulating nothing. It was as honest an agreement as there was – if Loki kept his side of it.

All Tony had to do was not sell Loki down the river while he was recovering and working out this new spell. The balance was definitely in his favour, which made him wonder if Loki had ever planned to kill him after all. Maybe all he was selling him was peace of mind.

Tony was tired of thinking. “All right,” he said simply, grasping the hand held out to him. “You’ve got a deal.”

Staring down at their hands, for a split-second Loki looked startled, almost dismayed. Then the warm, dry hand in Tony’s squeezed firmly, sending a hard thrill of magic deep into his palm. He pulled back with a curse.

“Are you serious right now?!” he cried, gaping at his stinging palm. Loki just shrugged.

“You lost my locator spell. That was a new one. Oh, and,” he stepped close to Tony, crowding straight into his personal space, “you might find that Victor is aware that I am residing in Stark Tower. Do be on your guard.” The smile he received after that little gem was almost affectionate.

Tony thought about the situation he’d just gotten himself into with a detached sense of disappointment. In himself, mostly.

“So I just signed myself up to play bodyguard for you against Doctor Doom, and in return I get to stay alive?” A sudden flash of realisation hit him. “I bet that’s where you were last night, too – telling him where you were before setting the Avengers up to fight him if he showed up. Am I right?”

Loki smiled. “Let no one call you a fool, Stark. A little slow on the uptake, but quite clever regardless.”


He’d been well and truly played. If it were happening to anyone else Tony would be proclaiming his love and admiration about now. As it was, all he could manage was a sigh. There was no shame in being beaten by the best, right?

“There are so many levels to my complete and utter impotence right now, I’m honestly a little terrified.”

“I know.” Loki actually gave his shoulder a sympathetic squeeze.

“You should probably kiss me right now.”

“I—” The hand was snatched back on reflex, but it was a little gratifying to see Loki’s eyes grow narrow and suspicious. “No. What for?”

“Because this little arrangement,” Tony waved between the two of them, “totally makes you Whitney Houston. Also because I’m a little turned on by this whole spider-web of lies you’ve spun around me, and it’s either this or I put my suit on and shoot you a whole lot. You decide.”

It was a ballsy ultimatum, but it was late, Tony was tired and there was a completely unsavoury rush of horny amusement flooding his veins like adrenaline. Mind games and tricks. Who knew?

“Very well.” Loki’s eyes gleamed as he reached up, running a warm hand down the column of Tony’s throat. Light fingertips traced idle lines down the tendons there before brushing back up to catch his jaw, tipping his head back so their mouths could meet.

Oh yes, this he remembered. The hungry, tugging wet warmth of that mouth on his brought back all the memories; twisted sheets, salt under his tongue and damp skin rocking against his in shades of arc reactor blue. He still smelled the same, like leather and soap and the tang of sweat. The cool brush of long hair under his fingers, enough to twist a hand in, enough to drag Loki’s head back and taste the tender skin beneath his jaw. The sensation of each humid gasp against his ear, bitten back but not quite far enough.

“Suddenly I recall how I became so distracted by you, Stark,” Loki murmured against his mouth, dragging teeth across his lower lip. The look in his eyes could only be described as starving. “No wonder all my plans went awry. What a shame I know better now.”

With one last, punishingly thorough kiss Loki pulled completely away from him, busying himself with straightening his clothing. His eyes very carefully didn’t turn back to Tony.

For his part, Tony was just trying to figure out how he was going to keep his hands to himself for the next week. Great. There was no contingency plan for that. Still, if that remained the biggest problem on his list then he was going to be doing pretty damn good. Doom? Really? Loki was a son of a bitch.

Still, it had been a while since Iron Man had hit the skies and traded blows with a few of the heavy-hitters. Maybe he was due. JARVIS needed the test run, after all.

All in all, the outlook for the future was looking pretty damn bright.

For a week, at least.

Chapter 13

They said forewarned was forearmed, which was why Tony was entirely nonplussed when Doom failed to accept Loki’s invitation to Stark Tower.

Tony spent the first three days of the week furiously making grenades, barely sleeping and compulsively checking with JARVIS for any incoming attacks whenever his stomach so much as cramped. When it became clear that the only thing to come in range of the tower were a bunch of pigeons (actual pigeons, not robots, which Tony had discovered after a sticky incident with his repulsors), he’d finally been able to relax a little. Doom wasn’t exactly the sort to take direction well, after all.

Loki had vanished into the ether - or at least the ether that was the top floor storage level. Apparently working shape-shifting spells was a tricky business that required privacy, though Tony strongly suspected Loki would confine himself just to eat a sandwich. Whatever his reasons for locking himself away, it put an effective damper on any ideas Tony had entertained about pursuing their prior involvement. Such as it had been. There were bigger, angrier fish to fry, and if he was honest those days were over and done with. Like he’d said, Loki knew better now. It was time to move forward.

Two more days went by without incident, and Tony completed a grand total of seven grenades. His fingertips were torn up from more than one slip of the metal casing and there was an impressive burn on his palm courtesy of his soldering iron, but so far each one had been a success. It was taking longer than he liked to assemble them but pairing temperamental Deadlock cores with explosives was a delicate business, even for someone of his exceptional genius. The last thing he needed was for one to detonate early – while still in Loki’s hand, for instance.

Tony’s thoughts often strayed to Thor while he was piecing components together, the movements familiar now despite the added clumsiness of his cut fingers. The others were trying to hide it, probably on Steve’s orders, but JARVIS’s readings and surveillance told him all the truth he needed to know.

Thor’s brain activity was declining rapidly. His vacant body, the part they’d assumed would effortlessly continue on without a soul, was deteriorating. Where before he’d been able to at least grasp a fork and eat, he now had to be fed by hand. He wouldn’t stand unless guided to; couldn’t walk more than ten feet without his legs folding. To say nothing of the other basic functions he was losing. By JARVIS’s estimations, he would enter a total vegetative state within a few days.

Following that, calculated by the rate of degradation total brain death would naturally occur within five to eleven days. Naturally. As if there was anything natural about what had happened to him – what was still happening.

Tony hadn’t told Loki about the state of his brother out of respect for the level of concentration he needed to keep, but it didn’t feel right. Whatever Loki said or did, he still had his hooks buried deep in Thor, hooks he didn’t know how to gouge free. He deserved to know, but at the same time Tony desperately didn’t want to have to see his face when he realised that his brother was dying by slow degrees.

That even if they succeed in getting back Thor’s soul, there might not be a body to return it to.

Sealing the eighth grenade and snapping the casing into place, Tony sat it down beside the others on the work table. They gleamed under the harsh lighting, steel-cased to break open like an egg and irradiate at maximum concentration for exactly three seconds. They’d detonate only after being thrown rather than on a set timer, thanks to the pressure sensor triggers Tony had worked into them. It was the only other precaution he could think to take that might protect Loki if Amora came in close for an attack and he already had a grenade in his hand.

At worst, they’d both end up crippled by an accidental detonation. Loki being Loki, he’d take the shock of it better than Amora would, given his prior experience with the Deadlock. Hypothetically, it should take him even less time to recover.

Was it going to be enough? If Amora managed to damage the soul by hand, and Tony wasn’t going to put a juvenile ‘if I can’t have him no one can’ tantrum past her, it could get ugly.

He was still thinking about it when the windows exploded inward in a great shower of glass and a Doombot flew into his lab.

JARVIS! Panic room protocol nine!” Tony shouted, one arm braced over his eyes as glass skittered everywhere. He might be exposed, but there was no way the Doombot was going to get to Loki. Not with the reinforced titanium plating that had just enclosed every wall, ceiling and floor on the next six floors up.

“Your personal defences leave much to be desired,” the Doombot said, footsteps crunching hard over glass as he approached. “Don’t call for your suit, Mr Stark. Nor your Avengers. I have a proposal for you.”

“For me,” Tony repeated, his mind racing. The ‘bot would kill him before he could put the suit on, and he himself had isolated Stark Tower from the Avengers security grid while he worked. There wasn’t a whole lot he could actually do, but it didn’t need to know that.

“Well. A proposal for the Merchant of Death.” An armoured hand slid across the lab table and picked up one of the Deadlock grenades. It hefted it idly. “You do still answer to the title, don’t you?”


“United States customers only. Shipping’s a bitch.”

“I see.” The pressure trigger clicked in the grenade as the Doombot squeezed it. “Would you like to make an exception for Doctor Doom?”

Tony opened his mouth to tell it exactly what kind of exceptions he’d make for Doctor Doom when the lab’s exhaust vent cover shot off the ceiling and a tornado of black moths blew into the room, swirling around Tony until he couldn’t see a damn thing. A thousand fluttering wings brushed his skin for the briefest of seconds as they passed, moving to coalesce beside him into the form of one furious god.

Furious and pale-skinned, with eyes that blazed a pure, hateful Jotun red. Tony swallowed. If Loki was going for a new psych tactic with those eyes it was damn effective.

“Victor.” A lattice of green energy crawled across his hands.

“Loki,” the Doombot replied calmly. “You’re interfering.” It tossed the grenade into the centre of the room.

Loki—” Tony turned to push him away from the worst of the detonation before it hit, but he knew even as he moved that the grenades had been made too well. The room flashed blue just as an armoured hand caught him by the scruff of his neck, pulling him back toward the broken windows. Tony caught one last look as Loki fell straight to his knees, long hair fallen to obscure his face—

—and then he was weightless over Manhattan, unprotected, pulled by titanium arms across the evening sky.

“Don’t look so upset, Mr Stark. I will only kill you when I’m finished,” a voice intoned beside his cheek, where the cold metal of a faceplate gave way to something much more chilling.


This was Victor von Doom.

Tony Stark wasn’t unfamiliar with fear by any means. But the tense, icy knot that gathered in his chest at that moment told him that there was fear for himself and then there was fear of crushing, helpless failure.

Just then, Tony knew both.

Their flight was short, punctuated with the activation of the same stealth-cloaking that Tony had seen in the upgraded Doombot he’d fought a few months ago. He knew from that experience that the Avengers wouldn’t be able to find him under that kind of tech. Even Iron Man would have trouble recalibrating on the fly for that kind of frequency.

Hanging over Doom’s arm, staring down at the skyscrapers and feeling the wind whip painfully at his cheeks and arms, Tony started to wonder if it might be easier to force Doom to drop him. This high, falling in a straight drop, he wouldn’t feel a thing.

His morbid train of thought was interrupted as Doom decelerated abruptly, sending them both swooping hard through trees and the rough scratch and drag of branches. Tony was released an unforgiving ten feet from the ground, the impact enough to knock the wind out of him as he landed hard on the grass. Whooping in great, ineffectual lungfuls of air he tried to take stock of his situation.

More importantly, their location.

“You’re like a serial killer who revisits his crime scenes, aren’t you?” Tony wheezed as he squinted around the familiar surroundings. There was no carnival tonight. “Central Park isn’t exactly a private place for a chat about heavy arms dealing, and you’re not really dressed for subterfuge.”

Ignoring him, Doom disengaged the jetpack, which deactivated with a mechanical hiss. Bracing one hand against the nearest tree, he seemed to be having trouble catching his breath. Tony felt satisfaction swell in his chest. Doom might –might– scare the piss out of him on a bad day, but just then it looked a lot like he’d been punched in the face by Deadlock radiation.

Figuratively, of course. Doom had come dressed to impress, as always. He was concealed by shining armour from head to foot, which Tony knew from SHIELD’s dossiers featured more than the average plated protection, and covered again with the green tunic and hooded cloak that had become his trademark. What was it with villains and green? Amora, Doom, Loki, had they all been a secret club before things went sour?

“Your work has gone quite well, Mr Stark,” Doom said finally. His eyes were black voids as he stared down at Tony. “Doom has been following your progress with great interest. A method of subjugation for those of great magical strength would be highly desirable to most…gifted individuals.”

Using the tree trunk behind him for support, Tony slowly backed his way up it into a standing position. His ribs ached badly, but just then the pain was the very least of his concerns. Doom wasn’t ranked fourth on SHIELD’s danger list for nothing, and he sure as hell wasn’t known for his patience.

But show him fear?

Not a chance.

“Watching me?” Tony snorted. “Bullshit. Stark Tower and Avengers headquarters aren’t surveillance-friendly. Not even for you, Doc.” Maybe it wasn’t the actual point, but shit, on the other hand it kind of was. If they’d been hacked again Tony was reasonably sure he was going to have a minor breakdown.

“Your efforts of late have been commendable.” Doom actually inclined his head slightly. “You took the crippling collapse of your entire security network quite seriously. But was allowing Captain America to pass word of your progress to SHIELD such a wise move? Doom thinks otherwise.”

If you couldn’t hack one end for information, hack the other. Standard practice, really. Tony swore silently. Steve wouldn’t have given Fury anything more than vid-con updates, nothing technical, but even that would have told Doom more than enough about what Tony was making—what he’d succeeded in making.

And if Doom knew, then Enchantress did too.

It was over. It had been over for days while he’d been obliviously making grenades, thinking of victory and last-minute saves and one final partnership between Loki and himself. Like a complete idiot, Tony had dared to hope that they were in with a chance. That they could save Thor.

Amora had already won. If she knew Loki had been with him the entire week there was no way she would have sat idly by, trying to break some damn locator spell. She’d have torn into Thor’s soul like a kid with a candy bar. Even if she hadn’t, if she knew about the grenades they were all but useless, even in Loki’s hands.

Staring at Doom in the dwindling evening light, Tony wondered for the first time what they were going to tell Jane Foster. Had anyone even told her about Thor? No, of course not. Back to Asgard, maybe. Fighting a new threat, sure. Here, have some new data. Whatever kept the civilians safe and happy.

“What’d she give you, Doom?” Tony asked tiredly. “I just don’t see you playing Cupid for an Asgardian sorceress and trying to kill Loki without getting something in return.”

“A token of Doom’s displeasure, nothing more. Loki knows as much.” Taking a step toward Tony, his outline was drawn in shades of black and silver. “What did Enchantress give? Something thought lost, a long time ago.” Armoured fingers lifted to touch a metal-plated cheek almost absently. “Beyond that, Mr Stark, it is not your concern. I came with a proposal for you.”

Tony couldn’t bring himself to care. Not really. The worst Doom could do at this stage was kill him for refusing, but the longer this was drawn out the sooner Loki would regain consciousness. With a little luck, the fresh locator spell had been strong enough to survive the Deadlock radiation he’d just been caught in. He just hoped that Loki was in a rescuing kind of mood, but given the trap Tony had walked into over Doom in the first place, it probably wasn’t all that likely.

There were still seven completed grenades back at the tower, after all. More than enough for Loki to take and escape with.

“What, what are you offering?” Tony asked finally, as the silence stretched too far. “Just lay it out for me.”

“Very well.” Shadows were gathering as the stars came out, but Doctor Doom’s eyes seemed to shine gold beneath the darkness of his cowl. “Doom offers you Thor Odinson’s soul.”

Tony went still.

For a brief, confusing moment he couldn’t make sense of the offer. Thor’s soul was all they’d wanted. All they needed. It would fix everything – SHIELD would get off Tony’s back, Asgard wouldn’t become a threat, Thor would come back, everything would go back to normal

It would be like the last three months had never happened.

“How?” Tony asked in a controlled voice, his eyes fixed blindly on the leaf-covered ground between them.

“A simple matter. Enchantress wears the Odinson’s soul about her neck, in a pendant of strange blue crystal. Were I to lure her back to Latveria, to my castle, disarming her would be the work of a moment.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “Smashing the crystal will release the soul, sending it hurtling back to its place of origin. You would never even be implicated, Mr Stark.”

Tony stared up at him in disbelief. This, this was—

“Smash the necklace and the soul will just come flying back to his body like—like some kind of mystical boomerang? Is that what you’re telling me?” Even he could hear the slightly wild tone in his voice, but Doom was offering up all the information, all the help they needed to set things right again.

“Indeed. Further, through my design, Enchantress remains ignorant of current events. She will easily flock to Doom in her panic.”

Then there was just one question. The question, really.

“What do you want in return?”

Studying him intently, Doom didn’t reply right away. Instead, he closed most of the distance between them with two long steps, the faint clang of metal on metal the only sound he made. The proximity made him tower over Tony, effectively pinning him against the tree by aura and menace alone. No threat, no attacks, just presence. In that moment, Doom seemed as far from Loki as Loki was from Thor.

“In return I want something of little value to you, but of great importance to me. Something you once gave up without a second thought.” Beneath the wing of his cowl, his eyes glowed like golden torches. “Give me Loki Laufeyson, and you will have your thunder god returned to you.”

Tony waited for the punchline. For something, anything. But Doom just watched his reaction, his cards laid on the table. Those were his terms.


He just wanted Loki.

“How?” he asked numbly. “What are you asking for? Why?”

At that, Doom stepped back, turning with a swirl of green to face the clearing. He was quickly nothing more than a black outline and the glint of metal in the growing dark. He got as far as a felled tree, probably one of the trees Skurge had slammed into during their fight. Back when it had all started to go to hell. Back when he saved Loki’s life.

Lifetimes ago, now.

“I feel the limits of this body pressing on me, Mr Stark. This mortal lifespan, this fallible form. I seek to rectify that. A sorcerer of Loki’s vast power, his immortal flesh—”

“You just knocked him flat in my lab,” Tony interjected, his heart hammering in his chest. “Out like a light. You could have just taken him—”

A gauntleted hand hauled him up the tree by his throat. Doom’s face was inches away from his, close enough that Tony could hear each breath as it whistled through the cut of his faceplate.

“Interruptions sorely try Doom’s patience.”

“Okay,” Tony wheezed. His feet were off the ground. Another inch tighter and his windpipe would collapse. Doom released him without warning, sweeping to the side as Tony crumpled to the ground again, trying not to cough like his life depended on it.

“Loki has outlived his usefulness as my comrade,” Doom barked. “Give him to me, bound by this Deadlock of yours – bound so he may never escape, and you will have what you seek. That is the proposal, Iron Man. You need Thor Odinson. The Avengers need their God of Thunder. Let the end justify the means through which you receive him.”

Before Doom even finished speaking Tony’s mind was already flying through the parameters, the calculations, the radiation levels and how long it would take him to cobble together a final Deadlock strong enough to counteract Loki’s growing immunity, his strength and keep a constant level of irradiation that would last a trip to Latveria, to Doctor Doom’s base of operations.

It could be done, easily. Tony had all the lies on the tip of his tongue, all the delays necessary. Hell, Loki was currently hiding in the top floor; he wouldn’t even realise. Science was far from his strong suit.

The Avengers would applaud it. Doom played a long hand – plenty of time for SHIELD and the others to put spies in place to keep an eye on his growing power, as he did his experiments and whatever else he had in mind for Loki. Nick Fury would probably send him a fruit basket.

It was, far and away, the sweetest deal a supervillain of Doom’s calibre had ever put on the table for them. Staggering in its simplicity: one brother for the other.

Thor, noble and good, would return to the Avengers.

Loki, trickster and traitor, would receive his just desserts.

It was almost poetic, really.

“Well? What say you?” Doom was losing his patience.

Tony blinked. “I hate poetry.”

Like hell he was making the same mistake twice. Maybe they had to start over. Maybe they had to deep-freeze Thor’s body in a Captain America special. Maybe they’d just come at it from a whole different angle. Tony knew one thing for certain; he wasn’t selling Loki out. He could put this one on Thor’s tab – one giant ‘screw you’ to Doctor Doom in the absence of a big fuck-off hammer to say it instead.

“Sorry, Doc. You’ll just have to Frankenstein yourself a new body some other way.”

“A pity.” Doom reached for his throat again, then seemed to think better of it. Tony fought to hide his relief. His throat was already throbbing with a deep ache that was going to bruise up nicely by the next morning.

The distraction was just enough that sudden tug and tear of his t-shirt didn’t register until Doom had already pushed and twisted the arc reactor, yanking it free of its cradle and port with a pressurised hiss.

Holding Tony’s arc reactor in one gauntleted fist, Victor von Doom asked, “are you certain, Mr Stark?”

Cold with barely-restrained dread, Tony slapped a palm over the gaping hole in his chest and held his ground. He wasn’t giving Doom the satisfaction of seeing him panic, no. He’d die first.

“How about I make you a different deal,” Tony suggested, “because I’m a nice guy and I think we can help each other. See, I can’t give you Loki.”


“Won’t.” The amount of steel in his own voice surprised him. “But I’ll trade off with you. I got your schematics, you can have mine. The Dual Deadlock schematics, specifically. In return, you bow out of this race. Leave Amora to us, and you get a shiny new toy to build.”

Doom hefted the arc reactor thoughtfully. The blue glow turned his faceplate to molten silver. “Or I take this and leave you to die.”

Tony shrugged. “Or that.” Sweat ran down his spine like a cold finger. The clock in his head was ticking so loudly he could barely think. “But it won’t catch you a sorcerer.”

Naturally, Doom took an agonisingly long time deliberating over the new terms. Tony was trying to calculate how long the charge in the base of the arc reactor port would last before the shrapnel began to move. Five minutes? Less?

“Doom agrees to your terms,” he said finally. “Send your schematics to the embassy. Unlike Laufeyson, I will honour my end of this agreement. Betray me at your own peril, Mr Stark. I have not moved against the Avengers yet. Do not make me hasten my plans.”

Relief crashed upon him so hard it almost weakened his knees. “Great. Awesome. We have a deal. I’ll email them when I get home.”

“Good,” Doom replied, crushing the arc reactor in his fist. Shattered components fell to the grass with a cascade of dying sparks as he turned away. “Give Loki my regards. If you survive.”

Tony’s knees hit the ground as Doom took to the sky again, the gold energy trail of his escape highlighting the crushed reactor. It was in too many pieces to even think of fixing. There was no time, he thought blankly. Running for help would just elevate his heart rate and kill him faster. There wasn’t a single person around to borrow a phone off. No one knew where he was.

There was no time.

The knowledge came quietly. This was how it was going to end. No heroics, no blaze of glory. Just a heart attack in the quiet darkness of Central Park, surrounded by shitty vegetation and the sound of a clock running down in his head.

Tony slumped back against the base of a tree.

“Well, that's just perfect.”

He’d started furiously throwing pieces of the broken reactor core into the darkness when a blinding shock of green magic opened overhead, and one unpredictable, impossible god of mischief fell out of a hole in the sky.

Loki landed with a tremendous thump beside him, nothing more than a swirl of leather and hair outlined with the bright glow of magic.

“That was unpleasant,” Loki muttered as he sat up, shaking hair out of his eyes. “I had to jump off the tower just to make it through your damned teleportation dampener.” He turned to eye Tony curiously. “Victor left you in one piece, I see.”

Tony stared at him, speechless.

Loki hadn’t given him up for dead. He hadn’t just taken the grenades that had been made so far and followed Amora’s locator spell. By rights, Loki had set it up so that Doom would attack the tower. So that the Avengers could deal with him. That had been his plan all along.

But maybe getting Tony killed in the process hadn’t been.

His throat felt too tight. Meeting Loki’s eyes was out of the question, so he blinked out into the dark, trying to pull himself together. So he’d been caught off-guard. So what? It wasn’t the first time, or even the third. Loki was good at surprising him, even then, as he touched cold fingertips to the hot ache of his neck, following the torn collar of his shirt down to the empty port in his chest.

Loki went completely still the moment his fingers found nothing more than air.


“I know. It’s okay.” What else could he say? He heard Loki pull in a single shuddering breath, trying to reach for calm. It was a little gratifying, actually.

“Where is it?”

“Destroyed.” Tony shifted then, trying to get to his feet. They’d have to teleport to the edge of the Deadlock field and walk the rest of the way in, but the spare would pick up the slack before any damage was done. Assuming they moved in the next ninety seconds.

Beside him Loki was blazing green, pale and freezing where his hand was pressed to Tony’s heart.

“You’re dying,” he said blankly. His glowing eyes were fixed on the empty port with a quiet kind of horror. “I led you to this. You’re dying and—I can’t heal you.”

Tony Stark wasn’t a cruel man by nature. It wasn’t in him to prolong violence or suffering any longer than necessary, being more interested in simply getting results. But in that moment, hearing the strange hitch in Loki’s usually smooth voice, he almost hesitated to speak.


“Don’t bury me just yet.” Tony carefully removed the hand from his chest. “I keep a spare back at Avengers headquarters. The Deadlock is still active there, but—”

He didn’t get to finish his sentence before long arms crushed him in a vice-like embrace, throwing them both into a vortex of brilliant green.

Maybe he didn’t need to hear Loki’s guilt, after all.

When they arrived in the centre of the living room, all hell broke loose.

“Holy smokes!” Steve blurted out, jumping to his feet. Clint threw away his popcorn in a bizarre fear response, showering the rug with it. “What are you two doing?”

“Where is his arc reactor kept?” Loki demanded before Tony could pull in a decent breath.

“What?” Clint asked blankly. “What kind of pop quiz is this?” Natasha just began moving toward the hallway, pulling her socks off as she went.

Tony shrugged off the death-grip Loki had on him and turned around. “JARVIS, unlock the vault. Widow, you’ve got about thirty-six seconds.”

The vault is now open. Good luck, Agent Romanoff.”

Natasha just vaulted the couch one-handed and catapulted herself down the hallway like a bottle-rocket on steroids. She’d always been the only one agile enough to navigate the halls and stairwells while carrying a billion-dollar piece of lifesaving equipment like Tony’s arc reactor.

“Sit your ass down,” Steve said urgently, his eyes showing white as he stared at the port. “Breathe deeply. Everything is fine. Don’t let your heart rate increase. Natasha will be back any second. How long has it been?”

“Longer than I’m comfortable with, Cap,” Tony admitted. He tipped his head back against the back of the couch. “Word to the wise: don’t try to haggle with Doctor Doom.”

Clint tossed himself down beside him, looking tense. “Shit,” he said with heartfelt sincerity. “Can I put my hand in?”

Steve and Loki looked appalled. Tony stared up at the ceiling and tried not to count the seconds.

“Just don’t use your popcorn hand.” If nothing else, it would be a distraction.

Clint’s fingers had just crossed the rim of the port when Loki’s hand shot out and grabbed his wrist, quick as a striking snake. Everyone froze.

“Perhaps another time, Agent Barton.” His voice was controlled – probably a little too controlled, if Clint’s sudden pallor was anything to go by. There was still a lot of wild magic rising off Loki like steam, probably a hangover from the grenade going off in his face earlier. Clint just nodded and pulled his hand back, just in time for Natasha to come sprinting back into the room.

Red hair swinging, grey sweatpants sliding off her hips, she leapt over the other couch and dove straight into his lap, slotting the new reactor home with a metallic click. Tony gave it a hard push and turned it to twelve o’clock, engaging the pressure lock.

Spluttering to life in its new cradle, the familiar hum of energy in his chest was music to his ears. Everyone sighed in relief.

“Nice work,” Tony murmured as Natasha slid off his lap in one movement, looking barely even out of breath. “I’ll have a scan later, but I think there was still a charge in the baseplate. It should have been enough to hold back any shrapnel.” He glanced around. “Where’s Banner?”

“Looking after Thor,” Steve said briefly. “Tell us what the hell happened to you.”

Tony could feel Loki’s gaze drilling into the side of his head. He wanted to know more than anyone, that much was clear. But there was only so much he could say in front of the others – telling them that he might have sold Thor down the river for Loki’s sake wouldn’t go down well, no matter what the outcome ended up being.

So he left it out. Relaying the entire story from Doom’s arrival to showing up at Avengers HQ, he told them everything that had happened to him bar the first offer he’d refused. It wouldn’t serve any purpose, anyway. It occurred to him then that Tony was keeping more secrets than he was comfortable with. Necessary evils were more Loki’s preferred method, not his.

Nobody was happy at the idea of Doom having Tony’s schematics, but given that Loki’s immunity was growing with each exposure it was fast becoming an obsolete device in any case. It was galling, giving JARVIS the order to send the files to the Latverian embassy, but if it meant Doom wouldn’t give Amora any support or intel, it was more than worth it in his eyes.

In the end, there was nothing more they could do. Time had all but run out, and there were no more preparations to be made.

“Then I depart at dawn,” Loki said finally, as the others sat grimly around him. “I took the liberty of sequestering the grenades inside a veil of my own magic. They will serve me well when I face Amora.” There was a strangely grim cast to his features. Tony wondered how certain he was of his success. “This crystal that Victor spoke of, I have seen it. Tomorrow, I shall try to take it.”

Steve scrubbed a hand through his hair. “I don’t like it.” He hesitated only a moment before turning to Loki. “Mjölnir wouldn’t—I mean, could you access it for this?”

Loki’s eyes widened. Even Natasha’s head whipped around. Eventually he just shook his head, one shoulder lifting in a graceful shrug.

“Mjölnir belongs to the worthy,” was all he said. He cast a quick glance down at Tony. “Stark’s efforts will be more useful to me than lightning.”

“What about ground support?” Clint suggested, spreading his hands. “Can’t you funnel her back this way? Nothing like a little safety in numbers.”

“Fury would authorise a team of snipers for this,” Natasha added thoughtfully. “Would a standard armour piercing round shatter that crystal?”

“Fuck, I’ll just go for a coke then,” Clint complained. “Who needs the archer?”

Loki didn’t reply, instead watching them bicker and throw out new ideas at each other with a clouded gaze. Tony watched him from the corner of his eye, wondering what that look meant. Whatever it was, it continued until the others managed to pull a reluctant promise out of him that if he could, he’d drag Amora back down to Earth – literally.

“Thor never fails to inspire loyalty,” Loki murmured as the others splintered off for the night, with Steve calling an end to the meeting so he could brief Banner on what had happened. “Whether or not he is there to see it.”

Tony frowned. “I don’t know, they seemed keen to lend you a hand before Thor’s soul was jacked.”

“So you say.” The conversation died a quick death after that.

They headed down the hallway, Tony heading to his room with every intention of putting an ice pack on his neck and changing his shirt. It had been six weeks since he’d set foot inside headquarters, but it didn’t make much sense to head back to Stark Tower. JARVIS had ordered repairs, the grenades were gone, and there was no super-powered activity going on in the city whatsoever. Maybe word had gotten out that the biggest names in the game were going to war against each other. Who wanted to get caught in that kind of crossfire?

Two steps behind him, Loki followed, completely lost in thought. Tony found himself wondering if the room he’d used to sleep in had been aired out, but he doubted it. Only the designated rooms were regularly cleaned, regardless of whether they were used or not.

“Are you okay?” he finally asked, pulling off the torn remains of his t-shirt. “You’re really down on your threat quota for the night.” Tossing it in the wastebasket, Tony pulled a soft, worn pair of jeans from the wardrobe and a new t-shirt. Not exactly high fashion, but it was just that kind of night.

“I am well,” Loki replied, sounding distracted. Tony glanced over and saw him running a fingertip over the dagger he’d kept on his desk. The look he shot Tony was very green, and very serious. “I’d much like to take this with me.”

It was startling, how much he wanted to refuse. To tell Loki the dagger was his now. In some ways though, it was just a symbol of all the shit that had gone wrong. It was the dagger that had left a scar on Tony, the one that had been thrown at his head in that very bedroom. It was the one that he’d jammed into Loki’s stomach the night Thor had lost his soul.

It seemed oddly fitting that their entire screwed-up relationship could be symbolised in a weapon. Of all things, it was a wicked-edged knife that couldn’t miss its mark.

“It’s yours,” Tony said roughly, turning away. “No need to ask. I’m hitting the shower.”

He spent the duration of it with the hard rush of water drumming on the back of his head, trying to figure out why he felt like he was saying goodbye. Because he thought Loki wasn’t going to make it out alive? No, that wasn’t it. If nothing else, Loki endured. He always did. The sad fact was that Tony knew he’d succeed – he’d get Thor’s soul back, come hell or high water. He’d make it out alive.

Then…well. Then things would go back to how they used to be. Case closed; soul returned, all contact severed.

Tony wasn’t used to letting things go. But this time he knew there just wasn’t any choice.

Maybe it would be better for them both, this way.

This was the best option.

When he emerged from the bathroom he found Loki sitting on the end of his bed, looking as lost as Tony had ever seen him. The dagger was gone already, probably vanished with the grenades. With his head bowed, his hair fell in a dark curtain over one shoulder. It was still a heavy mess, too long from the time spells he’d been caught in while chasing Amora.

“I’ve almost perfected my shape-shifting.” Loki stared at his white palms, his mouth twitching into something that barely qualified as a smile. “But my hands won’t warm, no matter how I try. What do you suppose that says?”

Tony’s stomach tightened uncomfortably. Reassurance, comfort, even goodbyes—none of them were his strong suit. This looked like it was all of them at once.

“It says I don’t need an ice pack anymore, for one thing,” Tony said, tossing his towel down and sitting beside him. “Put them up here for me.” Taking one freezing hand in his, he clasped it carefully to the side of his neck before doing the same to the other. The relief was almost immediate, the cold chasing the ache from his abused muscles, soothing the angry heat out of them. Doom had a hell of a pincer grip on him. He’d have to remember that for next time.

Loki left his hands where Tony had put them, but his eyes had drifted to the arc reactor.

“What did Victor originally offer you?”

Tony very carefully didn’t react. “Nothing.”

Loki’s eyebrows lifted. “Stark, even if I didn’t just feel your pulse jump I’d know you for a liar. Remember to whom you speak.” His eyes met Tony’s, searching them. “I would have the truth from you.”

It was all he could do not to wince. “You can’t just trust that I made the right decision?”

“You almost died for it.”

“It was worth it.”

The words were out before he could catch them, too raw, too honest in the warm air between them. The worst part was that Loki knew it too, even if he didn’t know why. Tony was more than happy to keep that to himself. If this was going to be the last time they spoke as if they weren’t on opposite sides of the fight, he wasn’t going to let his bullshit muddy the waters.

“I suppose it doesn’t matter. It was careless of me not to see that Victor’s wrath included you as much as it did myself.” Loki’s expression soured slightly. “Had I not been so involved in my own affairs I might have predicted his attack.”

Tony shrugged. “I’ve had worse.” He blinked. “Actually, I think you’ve been worse. You know, before.”

“Before,” Loki agreed. Fingers like the coldest touch of winter brushed down the length of Tony’s neck, probably more carefully than they strictly needed to be. Had the removal of his arc reactor shaken him up that badly?

“You know—”

“It’s time I left.” The hands at his throat vanished, somehow leaving Tony colder than before. Loki didn’t look at him as he stood, smoothing down his coat with a practised motion. “I require rest before I teleport out to Amora. For our purposes, Stark, this is where we part ways. For good or ill, our association is done.”

Tony just nodded. “Well, it’s been violent,” he said wryly. “Also, kind of stressful.”

“And painful,” Loki added, pressing a palm to his stomach. “Extremely so, in some cases.”

“Don’t forget surprising.” He got to his feet, a smile teasing the corner of his mouth.

Loki nodded. “Yes, I—”

The kiss Tony caught his mouth in was stolen in the perfect moment, warm lips parted on the next word, completely unsuspecting of the advance. He could feel bad about killing Loki’s self-control tomorrow, he reasoned, slipping his hands around armour and leather to pull him in close. Just then, he wanted something to remember him by – something that hadn’t been tainted by betrayal and anger.

“Don’t,” Loki murmured into his mouth, the word riding on a ragged breath as they parted. “Enough now, Tony Stark. No more.” Still as he spoke, palms like cold brands pressed into the curve of his spine, mapping one last stretch of skin.

“Yeah. I know.” And Tony let his hands drop, one final time. “Good luck.”

Loki nodded. He turned away, in a motion of such finality that it almost hurt to watch. When the hell that had become a problem for him, Tony didn’t know. Maybe this was the first time he hadn’t actively shoved him straight out of his life.

His body lit with magic, spreading over his form in a ripple of green.

“Be well, Stark. May we never meet again.”

Then he was gone, and Tony was alone.

“Goodbye, Loki.”

Chapter 14

In the end, all they could do was wait.

The pretence of normalcy was held up by the patrol roster, though supervillain activity had been minor in the last few weeks. Appearances had to be kept up, even if it was just to remind the city that they were still out there, still keeping an eye on things. While the Avengers would ordinarily be celebrating such a quiet time, without a battle or three there was nothing to take their minds off Thor’s situation and the tense wait for Loki to return.

After talking it through with Steve, Tony moved back into Avengers HQ. It was as much a distraction as it was a necessity, especially after SHIELD cut communications to repair their information leak and upgrade their security systems. The last thing they needed was Doom reading their files like the Sunday paper.

So the suits came back in, the workshop was fired up again and with the exception of Thor it was almost like the clock had been wound right back. It ate up about two days for Tony, which in his eyes was more productive than pacing the control room floor and checking the clock every ten minutes.

Three days after Tony moved back in, Thor’s body collapsed.

Steve had been with him when it happened. Following JARVIS’s danger alert Tony had raced up into the kitchen to find Thor bent in Steve’s arms on the floor, shards of broken plates surrounding them. The uncontrollable twitching of Thor’s legs and Steve’s blood smeared in his hair had scared Tony so badly it had been up to Bruce to take action, pushing him aside to take vitals and help move Thor someplace safe.

It had been the first time in recent memory that Tony had frozen up in a critical moment. Worse, the echo of Doom’s rejected offer still rang in his ears. But Thor wouldn’t have wanted it. That had to be consolation enough.

Six days after Loki had vanished, Bruce and JARVIS diagnosed that Thor’s body had entered a fully comatose state. Steve had left when they debated inserting a feeding tube but Tony had simply stood in silence, the knot in his chest growing leaden with the weight of guilt. At the rate things were going, a feeding tube wasn’t going to matter one way or the other.

Should he have told Loki about Thor’s condition? Would it have helped? It was too late to wonder, but as a week came and went there was nothing to do except second-guess himself and hope to hell his grenades would give Loki enough of an advantage to win.

Tony Stark wasn’t the praying sort, but as Thor’s brain activity slowly began to blink out like streetlights at dawn, he almost wished he was.

Seven days turned into eight, eight days turned into nine.

Thor was dying.

On the final night they sat together in the living room, solemn and pale. The question had been asked, and now it was up to them to answer.

“I’ll do it,” Steve said quietly. “When it’s over. I’ll take the body to the bifrost point.” He swallowed once, mouth twisting like he was going to be sick, but before Tony’s eyes the rigid mask of duty settled back over his features. He wondered how many times Steve had been the bearer of that kind of news.

Across the room, Clint looked like he wanted to punch something, shoot something, yell, swear; action, his entire body screamed. As tired as Tony was, he understood. Hopelessness and furious determination made a bitter cocktail, and he’d been steeping in it for what seemed like months.

“Why are we talking about it now, when he’s still in there, still kicking? He’s not—we can’t fucking bury him before he’s dead.” For all the desperation in his voice, Clint stood stricken as the word flew out of his mouth.

Natasha’s mouth compressed into a frown, but her eyes dropped to the carpet. Steve winced. Bruce just let out a quiet breath, tugging his glasses off. He’d been looking after Thor almost every step of the way. Tony hadn’t fully appreciated the burden of that until that moment, watching his friend rub at tired eyes like he’d been awake for years too long.

“No one wants to plan this,” Bruce said heavily. “But it’s happening, and we need to be prepared for it. He’s not going to get better.”

“It was a miracle he managed to last this long,” Natasha added. Her usually clear gaze was dull with sorrow as she looked up at her partner. “The mission’s over, Clint.”

Tony could have chimed in with his own two cents, could have reassured Barton that they’d done all they could. It had only ever been a long shot, anyway. Loki, Amora, the Deadlock grenades; even before they’d realised Thor’s body was suffering without a soul there hadn’t been much hope that they’d get it back.

Turning, Clint looked to him. Maybe for a crazy last-minute idea, maybe for some daring secret plan. But whatever he saw in Tony’s face, whatever he read there, it drained the last of the rigidity from his spine and the rebellion from his eyes. He sat down hard.

“Odin’s going to want Mjölnir back,” Clint said numbly. Steve nodded.

“I’ll deal with it.”

“And Jane,” Tony said gruffly, surprising himself. “Someone will need to tell her.”

“Coulson will,” Natasha said quickly before Steve could open his mouth again. “They’ve had dealings before. This isn’t just on you, Steve.”

Truth was, it wasn’t on him at all. Sure, being the leader of the Avengers came with a certain amount of responsibility, but this wasn’t his fault. Maybe they’d all known the risks of taking on the title of ‘superhero’, but what happened to Thor hadn’t been the result of a battle. If the security systems had been stronger, if Loki had been honest, if Tony hadn’t been so arrogant and so blind, maybe it would have made a difference. Steve hadn’t had a hand in any of it but there he was, stepping up to the plate anyway.

They spoke quietly for a while longer, sorting out arrangements and assigning duties as they came up with them. Tony, with his knowledge of everything that had taken place, would explain to the Asgardians when the time came. Whether Odin believed him or not was another matter. No parent could be expected to treat the death of their firstborn son with fairness and objectivity. Not even a king.

When the meeting was over, Tony was slow to get to his feet. Steve lingered momentarily despite being up for patrol with Clint, but there was nothing to say.

“It is what it is, Cap. We tried.”

They tried so damn hard. For nothing.

“Have you given up on Loki?” Steve sounded almost reluctant to ask. Tony shook his head.

“He’ll come through,” he said simply. “Too late for Thor, but he’ll make it.” Tony wondered what happened to a soul if it was released without a body to come back to. Did it vanish? Burn out? Maybe it would just become lost, drifting in unfamiliar places like a memory. “I’m out of ideas, Cap. There’s no science, no miracle gadget, no suit or undiscovered element—there’s nothing I can do. It’s a soul. It’s unquantifiable.”

Tony felt a thump as Steve sat back down beside him. A hand clasped the back of his neck, shaking it slightly.

“I know I’ve been a real jerk about you and Loki. No, hear me out,” Steve said as Tony’s mouth opened. “I need to say this. Honestly, I didn’t think we had a chance when Amora took Thor’s soul. I figured him for a goner. We just didn’t have the kind of power to hunt her down. But then you got Loki on side with us, and between the two of you, you gave Thor a fighting chance.”

Tony’s throat was tight. “Yeah, and for what?”

“For what?” His voice was incredulous. “Do you even realise what you’ve done this last year? You turned one of our most dangerous enemies into a potential ally. Loki’s gone from trying to kill us to almost killing himself because you said it needed to be done. He’s been stabbed, locked up, tortured, knocked out, shot full of unsafe radiation God knows how many times—”

“Deadlock radiation is moderately safe—”

“—and he’s still trying to help. If you think he’s only doing it for his brother’s sake then I’m sorry, Tony, but you’re wrong. I can face reality here; we’re going to lose Thor tomorrow. But maybe we haven’t lost everything.”

There was enough self-pity in Tony for him to deny Steve’s words and point out that sure, Loki had gone through hell and back but the majority of it had been due to his own ego, his own refusal to let himself be beaten to the punch. But as he watched his friend struggling to give him some kind of faith, Tony realised Steve had been pinning some kind of hope on Loki, too.

May we never meet again.

But in the end, no hope was better than false hope.

“Wishful thinking, Steve.” Tony stood abruptly, avoiding his friend’s crestfallen gaze. “I’ll watch Thor tonight. It’ll give Banner a chance to get some sleep. Have a good patrol.” He didn’t wait around to hear Steve’s reply.

A clear night, a bottle of good scotch and a vigil to hold.

Tony Stark wasn’t the praying sort, but Thor wouldn’t tell.

“…saved my life more times than I can count. Remember when—no, who am I kidding? You never kept track. I always liked that about you. You never tucked those moments away like favours I didn’t ask for.” Tony took a long swallow from his glass, tipping his head back against the side of the bed. The ceiling was pure white. He could hear the low rasp of Thor’s breathing behind him. “I’m not good at losing. Losing people. Did I ever tell you that?” He blinked slowly, watching the ceiling come into focus. “Course I didn’t.”

Tony knew he was more than a little drunk. The warm swirl of golden light in the room had turned soft and comforting at the edges some time ago, his eyelids grown heavy with each mouthful of scotch. Maybe he shouldn’t have brought the bottle in with him. Maybe he shouldn’t be sitting on the floor of Thor’s bedroom, talking to someone who wasn’t there.

What had Loki called Thor’s body? Empty meat. Empty meat and bones, kept warm just long enough to give them some hope of fixing things. Hope could be good, when it paid off in the end. When it didn’t, despite everything, despite all the blood and sweat and tears, all of the arguments and risks and could kill a person, picking up the pieces afterward. Justifying the useless means.

Remembering when he failed to act.

Doom offers you Thor Odinson’s soul.

When all was said and done, that was going to be a heavy one to carry.

“Loki wouldn’t have been surprised, you know,” he said conversationally. “If I’d made the bargain. He’d be kicking himself for trusting me again, but he wouldn’t have been surprised. I think he’d just chalk it up to me being an asshole for the greater good. He might have even escaped after Doom betrayed Amora. After you got your soul back.” Tony poured another drink with too-careful hands. “I knew all of that and I still couldn’t do it. Couldn’t tell him, either. I’ve got the shining armour, but it doesn’t fit so great on me.”

It wouldn’t have really changed anything, telling Loki. It still would have all ended with Tony drunk and guilty and alone, mulling over every other possibility, every hasty choice.

“Hey,” a voice said softly from the doorway. Natasha, ensconced in an oversized red hoodie, her face clean of makeup. She held up a half-empty bottle of vodka like an entrance ticket. “Stoli?”

Tony gestured grandly to the stretch of plush carpet beside him. “I’m not mixing drinks tonight.”

“More for me.” She was quick to fold herself down beside him, giving his glass a quick tap with the base of her bottle. Her chin jerked toward the bed they were using as a backrest. “Any change?”

“His heart rate started decreasing about an hour ago. Breathing is shallow and laboured.” Tony took a large gulp that burned on the exhale. “Maybe another hour, tops.”

Natasha unscrewed the cap of her bottle and took a pull from it that made Tony dizzy to watch. The burp that followed it frankly startled him, but her smile was a white flash of amusement.

“He always appreciated a good drinker,” she explained, wiping her mouth with the swipe of a thumb. “Our rosters were usually opposite each other, but when you and Steve were on together we’d drink until Bruce and Clint hauled us off to bed.” Her fingernails picked at the label absently. “I taught him how to clean and load a semi-automatic, you know. He told me how to bridle a goat.”

Tony’s mouth twitched. “Important life skills like those are a must. Good for you.”

She hid her smile in the bottle, this time only taking a swig. Silence fell between them but that was okay; it was comfortable, contemplative. Nostalgic, even. Thor had been enormous, impossible and well-loved by all of them in the five years they’d spent as a team. A terrifying, beaming beacon of reliability and friendship.

They were going to miss him.

The clock had just ticked past 2am when Clint walked in, rumpled in sweatpants and a t-shirt, bed hair sticking up at the back. A mug of what smelled like herbal tea was firmly clenched in one hand. Tony almost asked what alternate universe he’d stumbled into when Bruce followed him in carrying a matching mug. Bruce, who looked like he barely remembered what sleep was.

“I thought you were on patrol with Steve,” Tony commented as Clint sat down across from him. “Why do you look like you’ve been sleeping?”

Clint shrugged. “We got to the door and Rogers just called it off for the night.” He elbowed Bruce sharply. “Then this guy interrupted my denial nap with fuckin’ tea and guilt. Like I wasn’t trying to avoid this exact moment.”

Steve walked in, barefoot and looking like he’d just gone thirty rounds with every piece of combat training equipment in the gym. Tony wondered if he’d been trying to avoid it, too. But there they all were, pulled in like metal filings toward the magnet. Meeting in the middle, not wanting to say goodbye but knowing it had to happen anyway.

Tony budged over just enough for Steve to sit on his other side. Refilling his glass, he passed the bottle across. Steve took it with a half-smile of apology, clearly aware that Tony resented sharing good scotch with the only man in the room who couldn’t get drunk.

“To crushing failure,” Tony said dryly, raising his glass in a toast. “To determined women.”

“To help in unexpected places,” Steve said, stubborn as ever. “To trying anyway.”

Clint cleared his throat, raising his tea. “To that time Thor’s mantle went in the wash with all my whites.”

Natasha grinned. “To that time I helped with Thor’s laundry.” She held her bottle high at Clint’s betrayed look.

Bruce just smiled down into his tea. “To Thor.”

“To Thor.”

They drank in remembrance and in farewell, sitting on the carpet like a circle of lost kids not ready to let go. The Avengers.

Behind them, almost like he’d been waiting for permission, Thor exhaled in a quiet sigh. Then there was nothing but silence.

It was over.

Proshchai, tovarisch,” Natasha murmured, bowing her head.

They all flinched as the heart monitor wailed out the flatline. Steve just yanked the plug out of the wall without looking up, his gaze fixed on the carpet. Tony could see his eyes were wet.

“JARVIS, record the time of death,” Tony said, swallowing around the ache in his throat. He got to his feet. “Notify SHIELD of what’s happened.”

Yes, sir. Time of death: 2:16am. Sending official notification to Director Fury now.

Steve shifted on the floor beside him. Reaching out, Tony offered his hand to help him up when a rippling force of sheer presence reverberated through him like a shockwave. Sensations slammed behind his eyes in a disjointed rush; smells, sights, sounds – a pulsing strobe-light of experiences rushing over him like an avalanche.

A whirling starry sky. Green and yellow. A smiling red mouth. Icy cliffs. A bright wash of too-familiar magic.


—console myself? I’ll have his traitor brother’s head on a rusty spike.

Four tall shadows; menacing and huge. Eyes like chips of red glass. Blades of ice crawling over enormous blue arms.


A scream.

Rushing stars blurring into impossible white—

Then the body of Thor Odinson pulled in a raw, wheezing gasp of air and opened its eyes.

No-one moved. No-one spoke.

Pushing himself up with stiff arms, moving like an old man, Thor fought to catch his breath and face them. His blue eyes shone with concern. Actual, real, living concern. Tony had never laid eyes on a sight more welcome.

“My friends…” Thor said hoarsely. “You look truly terrible.”

Steve was on his feet in a flash, gaping. “Oh my god. Are you all right? How do you feel?”

Blinking slowly, Thor rubbed a large hand over his grown-out beard. “Itchy. Hungry. It feels as though it’s been an age—”

“Can I touch you?” Clint burst out, looking ecstatic and terrified at the same time. Tony knew the feeling; he felt like he was still hallucinating. “Say something random. Say something Asgardian like ‘thee’ or ‘treachery.’”

Thor just pulled the bottle of scotch from Steve’s limp fingers and took a swig.

They all lost it in that moment. Just a little. Tony watched his friends practically dogpile their groggy god of thunder, full of smiles and laughter like the last two months had never happened. Thor bore it all with tired grace, even going so far as to answer Clint’s rapid-fire questions in between tugging small electrodes off his chest. Steve was simply taking in the entire scene in wonder, while Natasha perched herself up on the foot of the bed, trying to hand over her vodka as Bruce continued to bat it away from Thor’s reaching fingers.

“No alcohol!” Bruce exclaimed, taking both bottles away. “He just woke up, hasn’t eaten in two days – I won’t allow it.”

“Is that so?” Thor replied, the edge of his mouth curling up. Steve squeezed his shoulder.

“You do need a full medical check-up,” he said seriously. “You’ve been out for a long time.” At Thor’s doubtful look, Steve rasped the back of his hand across Thor’s bristling golden beard. “A razor would come in handy, too. You look like the wolfman.”

Tony was impressed. “Was that a pop culture reference? Snacks for both of you.” That earned him a dry look from the Steve as Bruce bustled around the room, looking perturbed about having to dig up all the medical equipment again. Banner wasn’t exactly a medical doctor, but he knew enough to be their guy. And hey, Thor wouldn’t know any differently. Tony would have been the only backup, and he just didn’t think he was the guy to insert a catheter. They hadn’t actually done that, had they?

“What’s wrong?” Natasha asked as Tony retreated from the group a little, more for air than anything else. “You look pale.”

It would have been easy to ask her right there if she’d seen anything like what he’d experienced the moment before Thor woke up, but seeing even calm, stoic Natasha relaxed and smiling told him everything he needed to know.

Whatever vision that had been, Tony had been the only one to see it.

“It is heartening to see such relief at my awakening,” Thor said finally, raking straggling strands of hair off his face. Some of the joviality drained from his expression. “But I would hear it from you all; what has taken place while I slumbered? Is Midgard safe?”

Tony felt the gazes of the others fall on him, but it was absently noted as he ran through everything he’d seen. He didn’t have extensive knowledge in the area of Thor’s nine realms, but there was only one place that had enormous blue people and jagged cliffs of ice. Loki had definitely been on Jotunheim with Amora when Thor’s soul had been freed.

Loki hadn’t defeated Amora. He’d just smashed her most treasured possession.

Thor was free and alive, but what about Loki? That scream had been his, Tony would bet his suits on it. The blood might have belonged to him as well, if he considered that the soul had been in Loki’s grip when the crystal was broken open.

Four frost giants, one sorceress. Those behemoths didn’t use magic.

Blood. Blood and a scream.

Loki couldn’t make it back to deliver the soul in person. Couldn’t circle around to Earth like they’d made him promise to do. Tony knew what that meant. Knew it because Loki hadn’t known he was on the clock. He hadn’t smashed the crystal for Thor – he’d done it for himself. Making good on his word, worlds and stars away.

Fending for himself now. Best case scenario, he was still alive and fighting.

Worst case—

“Tony?” Steve was making subtle chin-jerking movements toward Thor. Obviously they’d taken a silent vote on who should fill him in.

Thor just looked at him. He was still sitting up in his bed, wrapped in blankets and sheets, his expression drawn in lines of patience and fatigue. But he was awake and alive, and when he’d gone to sleep his brother had been living under their roof like an ally.

“Loki tried to kill me.” Thor smiled a little. “You can say it, Tony Stark. Tell me I was mistaken.”

Tony was surprised to find he could smile back. “Believe it or not, you actually won this round. It was Loki who saved your life.”

They told him the story in bits and pieces, filling in for each other when someone hadn’t been present. Tony explained as best he could the events that had led to Thor waking up, minus a few useless details. No one so much as twitched when he purposefully left out certain intimate moments between himself and Loki. If anything, Clint looked relieved that he didn’t have to relive the memories. Though what he’d been doing in the living room eating a banana in the first place was anyone’s guess.

Thor hung on every word, listening raptly as each of them offered up their version of events. He sighed at Loki’s secrecy, turned cold and grim at the mention of SHIELD. No-one envied Nick Fury that night. Tony owned his part in it regardless, giving Thor everything. Somehow, Thor seemed more concerned with his welfare than Loki’s.

“You had no suit. No protection,” Thor said disapprovingly. “Loki’s enmity is not an easy burden to carry. To walk into that cell unarmed, Tony Stark, would have been madness among even my people.”

“Tony has been more than a little mad where Loki is concerned,” Steve agreed blithely. Bruce and Natasha rolled their eyes, but Thor didn’t notice. “Letting him go like that had Tony thrown in a cell of his own.”

Tony’s part of the story fell flat there, since there wasn’t much to tell about a month of house arrest. Natasha and Clint spoke of their intel-gathering inside SHIELD while Bruce had hidden an emergency suit where SHIELD –and Steve– couldn’t lock it away. Steve’s face as Bruce owned up to that had been priceless. For his part, Steve was quiet and pained as he told of his position between SHIELD and Tony. Leadership versus friendship.

Thor was unmoved. “You should not have abandoned your ally, Captain.”

Steve closed his eyes. “I know.”

“But I forgave him,” Tony offered. “Also, kept a lot of secrets. We had a minor trust-related falling-out. It’s all in the past now, no need to get your guilty face out there, Cap.”

Telling the rest was easy after that. To a degree, anyway – there were things Tony could stand to see on Thor’s face and then there was his expression when they told him how hard Loki had worked himself to perfect the Deadlock grenades with Tony. That much raw, throat-tearing love and anguish was almost crippling to witness. But Thor, he was old friends with it.

“Do you remember anything?” Tony asked when they finally ran out of words. “I don’t know what the physics of it are, but your spirit was out ghosting it up around Amora’s neck for two months. Could you—did you experience anything?” Did you watch the frost giants kill your brother?

“It is difficult to say,” Thor admitted. “I feel as though I was dreaming. But upon waking, when I reach for the memories there’s nothing there.” He watched Tony carefully. “Why do you ask me this?”

“I don’t know, morbid curiosity I guess.” No need to raise the alarm bells just yet, then. “Did you see a welcoming light? Pearly gates? Amora’s cleavage?”

Tony saw Steve give him a long look, but it was Thor who had his attention. He shook his head slightly, shrugging.

“If I recall anything I will tell you,” was all he said in reply. He looked tired. Of all things he could possibly be, Thor was tired. Tony might have gone for a nap himself – well, before Thor’s soul took a shortcut through his head and smeared its memories on him. Now he was legitimately the only person with any idea where Loki was, that Loki was in trouble. Thor clearly couldn’t help yet. How long would it take before he was well enough to use the bifrost? Muscle degradation and the scrambling his brains had taken might put him out for a few weeks, maybe more.

If Loki didn’t have that long, if he couldn’t escape then it was going to be up to them –him- to come up with a way out. By whatever means necessary.

Well, he’d been due for another project.

Might as well save the day.

It started with an email.


I’d like to talk to you about the Avengers Initiative.

I’m just kidding. But by the time you’ve read this sentence, all your files containing keywords like ‘mutation’ and ‘cloning’ and ‘Loki’ will be delivered to JARVIS’s secure server. Turnabout is fair play, right?

If you don’t want your dirty mad scientist fantasies streaming straight to Thor’s communicator, it might be a good idea to lure Amora back to New York as a shiny distraction for him. (Oh yeah, he’s awake by the way.)

Tony Stark

P.S: If you’re having trouble with the Deadlock prototype, try tuning it to 77 relative-sieverts to blow the dust off it, then work backwards. Wear a radiation suit or Doom Jr might be a pipe dream.

While Tony waited for the response and the data package, he worked. He worked hard.

The Deadlock was tuned higher than he’d never taken it, strong and clean enough to cripple Loki, Amora, and possibly even Odin on a power trip. The first time he’d tested it at that level he’d actually felt the new locator spell in his chest burn out like a dying flare. But it was strong, it was good and he’d shoved it clean into JARVIS’s blue and chrome chest like a secret.

Loki’s hooked staff had been left at Stark Tower, and Tony made good use of that, too. In his resolve to create as much anti-magic weaponry as he could, the Deadlock Staff was developed two weeks later, with enough power to flatten Loki himself if he got in the way of it. It was a cold comfort to know that it had only taken double the time Loki had originally given him to develop the staff. Still, it was a dual weapon as it was intended to be, magic and magic-dampening, and the bolt of uru inside it had taken no damage at all. It was some damn fine work and there was no one to see it.

Tony’s arsenal expanded as he worked. One month later, it was a full-blown array of anti-magic assault weapons, grenades, landmines, with the staff and JARVIS at its head. He also threw in a few specialised weapons.

Just in case.

Sir, my mobile unit has gained one hundred pounds since you began modification. My thrusters now require an additional thirty percent power increase to continue performing to standard.”

Tony snapped the external plating back down over one metal bicep, glancing up into a blazing white visor.

“JARVIS, you’re a glowing, full-figured work of art. Stop being bashful.” He rapped his knuckles against the torso. “You have a few million dollars’ worth of new tech inside you, not a rack of lamb.” Still, the thrusters were going to need a little more kick. Tony put it on his mental to-do list as he eyed his workstation. Still no email.

Your compliment reeks of self-congratulation, sir.” JARVIS said peevishly, flexing his arms to calibrate the manoeuvrability.

Beside Tony, Clint looked annoyed. “Did you re-mould his ass?” He said accusingly. “It looks like more of an ass now.” He raised two hands in a confused sort of cupping motion. Tony raised an eyebrow, but JARVIS beat him to a response.

Agent Barton, I assure you that there is no additional ‘junk in my trunk.’ The rear plating remains unmodified.

Clint flushed slightly. Tony just tossed him a clean rag and a worn tin.

“If you’re going to ogle JARVIS, you might as well polish him up. I’m done for now.” He rolled his chair across to his workstation, adding a few notes to the suit’s specs and re-encrypting the files. He was at the tail-end of his busy work, which meant that distractions were becoming few and far between. Testimony to that was him allowing Barton into the workshop to give commentary on things like JARVIS’s ass. Quiet days did strange things to all of them.

Thor was not the raging thunder god Tony had made him out to be in his email. Instead he was sleeping most of his days away, his body trying to recover from the shock and re-adjustment of waking up with all cylinders firing again. The golden apple they’d cut up for him to eat had done most of the job for the physical deterioration, but even it seemed to have trouble healing a displaced mind. Soul. Whatever. Still, every time he awoke he was a little clearer, a little more present.

He was remembering a little more each time, too. A whirl of space. Opening his eyes to see Amora’s hands pulling clear light from his chest, something that had put roots down deep into his body. Darkness and blood. Loki trapped inside a sphere of magic, time accelerating inside it as Amora laughed in his face. Snippets of the chase across the universe. Loki had made it sound like a lonely race, and from Thor’s accounts, it really had been.

As the days turned into weeks, Tony was starting to think that maybe the race had ended for Loki.

“Do you think he’s dead?” he asked abruptly, turning to Barton. He was sitting on the floor at JARVIS’s feet, actually polishing the plates as he’d been told. “Loki, I mean. Thor came back, but he didn’t. What’s your take on that?”

Clint shrugged, dabbing the rag inside the tin of polish. “Hell if I know. I’d have thought he’d at least come back to gloat, or stick it to Thor for being such an easy mark.” He worked his way up the ankle plating. “My guess is he’s either dead, delayed or just being a dick.” The movement of the rag stilled. “Sorry.”

“About what?”

Shaking his head, Barton went back to work. “Nothing. I just figured with you stockpiling seventy kinds of anti-magic shit down here, maybe you were hoping I’d say he’s probably alive.”

Tony refreshed his email. It updated in real time, but it never hurt to check.

“The Deadlock could be useful for future magical attacks. It makes sense to develop it further.”


“Oh, come on,” Tony protested, tossing a spare bolt at Barton’s head. “Don’t try to Dr Phil me here. He’s Loki. He’s a miserable, untrustworthy, lying con artist with more secrets than the Pentagon and SHIELD combined. You think I’m pining, don’t you? I’m not pining. I’m being productive.”

“You’re pining like a little bitch, Tony, and you have a crush on Loki.” Clint tossed the rag down to stab a finger in his direction. “Own your creepy tastes. Accept them. Be one with the boner.”

That was just too much bullshit to seriously address.

“I don’t want to hear you talk about my creepy tastes while you’re stroking robot ankle. How strong are the fumes on that polish?”

“Pretty strong,” Clint admitted. “I think I was trying to say that no one will mind if you actually say you’re worried. Everyone knows you and Loki had some kind of relationship. Except Thor, obviously. Are you even going to tell him you got your freak on with his brother?”

Tony shook his head, feeling strangely unsettled. Relationship. It didn’t sound right. Partnership felt lighter, more comfortable. Anything more than that would sink in his stomach like a stone.

“It’s no longer relevant. Goodbyes were said.” A pretty damn final one, really. Maybe he meant to say he wouldn’t return, even if he won. Maybe the vision was just a red herring.

Clint snorted. “C’mon, as if that obsessive bastard can let anything go without taking over a world or two first.”

If that something held any value to Loki, at least. But their time together had been conditional upon deals and truces, and they didn’t have a need for either anymore. Maybe he was shacked up with Doom right now, laughing at a stupid email.

Maybe he’d never find out what happened.

Tony refreshed his inbox again. Nothing. He picked up Loki’s staff and began tightening the clamps on it. The other alternative was going nuts. Or flying to Latveria. Which was really kind of the same thing.

“Pining,” Clint muttered, now on all fours as he rubbed circles on JARVIS’s calf plating.

“JARVIS, taser please.”

The reverberating screech that followed actually made him feel a little better about life.

“I’m just saying, give yourself a little goatee before you shave it all off. See if you like it.” Tony lifted his cup slightly. “Hey, try this. It’s a new blend.”

Thor took the coffee cup without protest, taking a thoughtful gulp that really should have burned him. The expression on his face was unreadable as he handed the cup back to Tony.

“How is it?” Steve asked curiously over his newspaper. “Is it bad?” Sunday morning with his favourite blond beefcakes was always a cheerful affair. Tony had missed it. More to the point, he’d missed making Thor drink his latest expensive coffee purchase and seeing his face wrinkle up like a dried apple.

“The taste is not unpleasant,” Thor said, surprising them both. “Reminiscent of tilled soil and smoking tar.” They each stared at him.

“Give me that,” Steve said, leaning forward to take the cup from Tony’s hands. He took a sip and immediately coughed. “Oh my god. If hell had a taste, that would be it. Where do you get this stuff?” He handed the cup back to Thor, as if to protect Tony from the taste. Then again, Asgardians. Tony could probably pour lava down his throat and Thor would comment on the texture.

“I have my sources.”

Steve looked like he wanted to call him out on the non-answer when JARVIS interrupted.

Sir, you have mail.” The subtle emphasis on ‘mail’ wasn’t lost on Tony. Leaning forward on the couch slightly, he tried to keep his reaction calm.

“Yeah, what’s the upshot?”

Two new messages. The first is mainly a series of expletives in several foreign languages. I now have a data packet on my secure server.” JARVIS paused, then continued with, “the second message simply says ‘She is here. The cold snap was unexpected.’

Thor put the coffee down with a clank. “Cold snap? She? Who is this message from?”

Tony put his palms up. “Hold on, hold on. JARVIS, scan the area for energy signatures. Check the news. Whatever she’s doing, it’s probably somewhere public.” Turning to Steve and Thor, he said, “before you freak out, just trust me. I’ve lured Amora back so we can end this.”

“End what?” Steve asked, baffled. “Thor’s back, there’s no reason to fight her. Not only that, but he’s not cleared for the field yet. Tony—”

Sir, it appears we have a situation.” JARVIS turned on the television, where already the reports were pouring in. Tony stared up as the screen split across stations, each showing the same live scene from different angles.

“—portal appears to have opened, there seems to be a blizzard blowing out of it—”

“—this reporter is not flying the chopper any closer, but they look to be enormous blue humanoid creatures—”

“—magical battle at the heart of this invasion—”

“—civilians have been warned to stay clear of the area at all costs until this situation is contained.”

There were frost giants on Earth. There were a lot of them. Not four, like the vision had showed him. This was more like sixty. Smack-bang on the rooftop of Madison Square Garden.

And there, right in the centre of the throng was a yellow-haired woman in green, laughing down at a kneeling figure. Two frost giants were practically grinding him into the concrete.

Loki. Just a smear of black and green and red.

But still alive.

“Brother,” Thor whispered, his eyes locked on the tiny figure surrounded on the screen. His face was bone-white, but his eyes were flinty and cold.

Then, he reached out his hand.

“To me, Mjölnir.”

Tony stared as the war hammer burst through every wall between Thor and its resting place, spraying them all with chips of plaster. Steve tackled Tony clear of the furious god just in time for lightning to fill the room with an incredible blaze of light and sound, shattering the windows in and blinding Tony.

“Oh God, my eyes,” Tony muttered into Steve’s shoulder as the light cleared, leaving enormous green spots staining his vision. “No pun intended.”

Steve rolled off Tony and stared at Thor. After so long seeing him in jeans and t-shirts as an empty-eyed body, he carried a truly terrifying presence in full armour. Untouched by the chaos of the room, his red mantle rippled like a war banner. This close, Tony could see his eyes flare with electricity, but his face was pale. Thor was nowhere near up for this.

“My friends,” Thor started, but Tony was already bolting out of the room.

“JARVIS! Prepare the gantry,” he called as he ran for the elevator. “Load the Heat Pack, Deadlock and the staff. Initialise DOS combat mobile unit. Licence to kill is in effect. Friend/Foe classification to include Loki Laufeyson as a friendly. Stick to him like glue. Full bodyguard treatment, JARVIS, you know what I’m talking about.”

Yes, sir. Orders now in effect. Costner Protocol upgraded to priority one.”

Well, he had been itching for a showdown this entire time, Tony thought as he plunged three floors below ground to his workshop. He had the toys, the grudge, and a lot of excess energy after that coffee. He was as primed for a fight as he’d ever be.

He also had a point to prove to a certain god of mischief.

Tony was stepping into the gantry, the suit snapping onto his body when the overhead speakers came on. It was Steve.

Got a bit of a fight on our hands today,” he said grimly. “Coordinates sending now. It’s not our usual extraction, but we’ve got a debt to pay.

Tony’s HUD lit up blue with the incoming feed. He blinked at the frequency readings, then smiled so hard his face hurt.

Steve’s broadcast was transmitting to all points.

Avengers, let’s take ‘em down.

Chapter 15

It had been a long time since they’d fought as a team.

A long time since anything had been big enough to pull them out of the peacetime roster, since something demanded that the entire team suit-up and ready for battle. Tony had been briefly concerned that they might not fall back into old patterns, that they’d strike off each other like flint instead of clicking together like parts of a finely-tuned machine.

He shouldn’t have worried.

Quinjet prepped and exiting hangar bay one now,” Natasha said over the comms. “Main guns are armed. ETA to target is six minutes. Captain America co-piloting. What is Hawkeye’s position?

Black Widow, this is Hawkeye, combat-ready and armed to the teeth. I’m taking the JARVIS express. Position is...a little gay.

This is Banner, and I don’t want to know. Communicator is active, can’t promise it’ll stay that way. About to code green. I’ll see you guys there.

This is Thor. I will scout ahead of the quinjet to assess our Jotun foes. Iron Man will join me, as we are swifter and more agile.”

“That’s what—”

Captain America to team. The bulk of our attack is headed straight for the frost giants. Tony, you have Amora and Loki. Suppressive fire using your Deadlock weapons should keep her contained. Thor, the frost giants. Brief us quickly.

Tony took to the sky as Thor listed their known strengths and weakness, listening with one ear as Steve rattled of counter-attacks and strategic positions for each of them. It was nothing Tony hadn’t already guessed from the size of the frost giants and what he’d learned from Loki himself; that they were big, they were tough and they were cold. Weakness against heat, fire and probably bright lights. A cold, dark planet like the one they lived on could mean their day vision was poorer than Loki’s in that form.

But they were strong. Asgardian-level strength. Ability to summon ice at will and use it as a weapon. Skin that radiated severe cold and would give fourth-degree frostbite if contact was made. To Tony, they were one hell of an icing problem—and nothing he wasn’t ready for.

Alright team,” Steve said tersely as Tony gained altitude, breaking above the high-rise buildings to get a proper view. “Hawkeye, I want you at a distance. Hulk and Thor, you’re the brawlers. Get in there and give them a proper welcome to Earth. Widow, you’ve got the jet. Take your shots carefully – the immediate area is cleared but this is still New York.”

Copy that. I left my nuke in the other jet.”

“Now, that portal is still open—we want to chase them back into it, not close it. Iron Man, you need to secure Loki and take Amora down without killing her. Think you can manage it?

Tony laughed into the comm. “I think I’m going to enjoy trying. Watch her magic, though. Mind games and illusions are a big win with her. Try not to make eye contact.”

I feel like there’s a story here,” Clint commented. “If JARVIS can drop me on the rim of the roof I should be able to pick them off. Has SHIELD been in contact yet?

Nothing yet,” Steve said. “But they know we’re deployed.

Tony didn’t like the sound of that. The last time he’d fought Amora, they’d sat back for so long a tower of ice had nearly crushed a carnival full of kids. Then again, if they were staying quiet then maybe they’d sit this one out entirely. Distancing themselves from the Avengers while they saved an old enemy was probably all they could do. Typical government response.

“So we’re keeping fifty-plus frost giants confined to the roof of Madison Square Garden, putting a gag on Amora and trying to usher them back down the rabbit hole.” Tony’s stomach tightened as the scene came into view. “No problem. I’m going in. Thor, don’t accidentally electrocute me. Especially if I’m yelling the safe word.”

Safe word?” Far on his flank, Thor looked baffled. Clint barked a weird laugh from where he was clinging to JARVIS’s armoured back like a barnacle.

“I’ll explain after. Look alive; I think Papa Smurf just spotted me.” Sure enough, one of the frost giants had noticed his red-and-gold ass high in the sky and was waving an icy spear at him. Great.

Nothing for it then. Big entrance it was.

“JARVIS, you’re off bodyguard duty. Be sure to give them a warm welcome. I mean really warm.”

Of course. Any particular level, sir?

“Set the wave to ‘Firestarter.’ And for the love of God, keep Hawkeye clear of it. Thor, give JARVIS five to thin the herd.”

Aye.” Even on the comms he sounded tired. Hopefully Steve had caught it.

Tony flew in hard for the rooftop, angling himself to come in at Loki’s back where the frost giants were thinnest. Maybe they all wanted to watch Amora torment him before she killed him. Too bad for them - intermission was going to be a red-hot bitch.

He took out the two forcing Loki down first. Foregoing elegance, he targeted eyes and mouths. The shoulder-mounted missiles took care of the rest, exploding heads and freeing Loki from the downward force that had been keeping him on his knees. Tony reached out to grab him before he fell forward, but instead found himself pulling back as Loki hauled himself to his feet and turned, his face pale and stunned.

“Iron Man,” he greeted hoarsely. Blood was dripping into tired green eyes. Out of magic? “I must say, you do have impeccable timing.” The undercurrent of relief in his words almost shook them apart. “I’m afraid it will take more than the two of us to triumph today.”

“Lies and slander. I’ve got this.” Still, those were a lot of frost giants staring at him in an incredibly unfriendly way.

Over Loki’s shoulder, Amora’s upper lip had twitched into a delicate snarl. Her lipstick was smeared at the corner of her mouth, showing a thin trail of blood where her lip had been split. Aside from some frazzled hair and a red welt across her throat, she looked insultingly healthy.

“You again. Darling, do the polite thing and allow Laufeyson to die quickly.” She tilted her head, regarding him coldly. “You couldn’t even keep Skurge down for long. What hope have you against my new army?”

The HUD filled with a line of readings as frost giants crowded up behind her. So far it was just him they’d focussed on. Thor had hung back as asked, and JARVIS was—where was JARVIS?

Whoa, whoa, whoa! INCOMING! SHIT!” Barton screamed wildly over the comms as JARVIS swooped down over the frost giants at high speed, a rippling red wave of pure heat energy pouring out from his palms. Clamped to his back, Barton was firing arrow after arrow ahead of him. Judging by the explosions that resulted, his quiver had a stash of chlorine trifluoride-filled bolts in it. Splattering against the frost giants in huge sprays, JARVIS was igniting the fluid even as the Firestarter baked the skin off them everywhere it touched.

The frost giants roared in pain and rage, leaping away from the onslaught in droves. Some shot bullet-like projectiles of ice in their wake, which melted before they even found a target. Clearly someone had been feeding them out-dated bullshit about Earth’s defences.

Amora was livid. “It’s mere heat, you fools!” she shouted, turning to her flaming army. “Are you not warriors? Form your ranks!” In that instant, Tony saw her fists were clenched tight and sparking with bright magic.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “I think I have something for that.”

When Amora whipped back around to him, spitting mad and glowing, Tony shot her straight in the heart with a dose of Deadlock radiation. Insult to injury, it was a dose delivered by a wide-gauge needle filled with irradiated elephant tranquiliser.

Amora gagged, staring down in horror as veins of magic-eating radiation spread out from her chest, following natural paths that closed every channel of energy in her body. It was the EpiPen from hell and it contained three times the dose Loki had measured out for the grenades. She dropped like a stone, her magic dying like someone had snuffed out a candle. Tony didn’t catch her when she face-planted on the concrete.

Loki stared at him, thunderstruck. “What in the Nine was that?”

Tony snapped up the faceplate. “Science.”

He actually rolled his eyes.

“Whatever, that was cool and you know it. Here, put this in your ear.” Tony held out his spare comms earpiece. Loki took it with careful fingers, working it into his ear with an expression of distaste. He looked wrecked. Bruised across one cheekbone, dried blood crusting a path down the side of his face, shadows pooling under his eyes; he looked like he’d been thrashed for days and kept awake for all of it.

“I can hear Agent Barton screaming obscenities,” Loki said, casting half an eye to the swooping pair, still roasting Jotun ass in a truly spectacular diversion. “Clever, to use heat in such a manner. Wherever did you learn that trick?”

Tony grimaced and slammed his faceplate back down.

“You know I had nothing to do with that.” It wasn’t a topic for the Avengers to overhear in the middle of a battle. For the moment, the frost giants were bolting for the other side of the roof where things were less flammable. To the far right, a dark portal still yawned like a promise. If there were more frost giants out there the situation could get really messy, really fast.

“I know you didn’t,” Loki replied, watching him from the corner of his eye. “After all, it was my idea.”

Tony went still. The readings were still flowing down the HUD, but he wasn’t seeing any of them.

“What?” he croaked.

Loki had the gall to shrug. “I couldn’t be sure you’d believe my intentions, so I planted an idea with my lovely interrogators.” The look he slid Tony was measured. “One must never underestimate the power of sheer, disgusted pity. Thor or not, once you saw me in that state you couldn’t free me fast enough.”

That didn’t make sense. No one, absolutely no one would put themselves through that kind of—

Except of course Loki would.

“You didn’t take the ice,” Tony realised, feeling numb and sick and stupid. “You’d say anything to save your own skin and you didn’t take the ice.”

Loki smiled thinly. “You have a predictably soft heart, sometimes. Now, shall we—”

The punch Tony threw caught Loki on the unblemished side of his jaw, knocking him back onto his ass right beside Amora. On any other day Tony would congratulate himself; he’d finally shocked Loki Laufeyson. Right then, when he was so angry he could barely see.

“So tell me: are you still playing me? Did you put this together as well?” The whole time. One plot after another. It was never going to end. “Hell, you probably sent that goddamn vision. Maybe you even gave Doom the idea to trade you in the park. What else don’t I know? Are you even in trouble right now? Have you made another deal?” Tony laughed as Loki opened his mouth, palm out to forestall his words. “Rhetorical questions, Loki. I don’t actually want to know.”

With jerky movements that had nothing to do with the suit, Tony detached the Deadlock Staff from the magnetised clamp on his back and tossed it at Loki’s feet. Without waiting for a reaction he strode straight toward the frost giants. He was feeling an overwhelming desire to blow things up.

Awkward,” Clint muttered.

Very awkward,” JARVIS agreed, zooming around in a loop to allow Barton a second pass.

“Shut up,” Tony snarled at them, flaring his guns and firing straight into the centre of the Jotun mass. “Let’s just kill things and go home.”

Copy that,” Steve replied, a welcome voice if ever there was one. “We’re at twelve o’clock and coming in low. Did you say something about Doom?”

On the other side of the building, the quinjet descended like a bird of prey and a man in red, white and blue jumped out. Thor landed hard beside Steve, his red mantle a bright splash of colour against the dismal monochrome of the building. He only stumbled slightly as he strode forward, spinning Mjölnir in his grasp like it wasn’t quite familiar to him. Hulk hadn’t arrived to the party yet, but at this point it didn’t matter. Tony was welcoming a good fight.

Unfortunately, it was around then that the frost giants realised they should armour themselves in ice, which also apparently had some kind of ridiculous healing factor on their burns. Great. Because the day couldn’t get any worse.

Tony fought blindly, taking orders as they were called. The ice projectiles weren’t much of a problem for the suit, but the giants themselves were strong and mean. JARVIS and Clint buzzed around like a mutated fly overhead, identifying trouble spots and shooting targets, occasionally collecting arrows back from the dead. Focussed blows seemed to knock the giants flat, but wide-area attacks and hand-to-hand combat wasn’t doing a lot.

Tony was just discovering that via an enormous blue palm over his helmet when the frost giant shuddered and collapsed at his feet.

“Yes, what was that part about Victor?” Loki panted, staff angled and still smoking green. “You paranoid,” he shot two more, “infuriating,” his staff blew out the knees of a third, “mortal?

“Don’t even talk to me right now,” Tony snapped, pulling Loki in close to fire off his shoulder missiles at a massive guy with an axe. He looked like a limited-edition frost giant Skurge. “I’m angry and I feel like an ass. The heat torture thing? Do you know how long I felt guilty about that for?”

“Yes,” Loki grunted and fired off at something under his arm. Tony caught him as the kick threw him back a foot. Flipping out of their accidental embrace, they stood back to back. “Why do you think I told you the truth? Because I enjoy being punched in the mouth?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know anything about you!” Two repulsor blasts sent a couple of frost giants staggering back into Thor’s waiting hammer-blow.

“You know me, Stark. Oft though you likely wish you didn’t.” A shuddering impact against his back said Loki had shot something and connected. “Imagine how peaceful life would be then. Still a hero, still held in high esteem with your peers—”

Hey I esteem him just fine,” Clint said in irritation. “Fuckin’ leprechaun.” Steve barked a surprised laugh into the comms. Even Natasha snorted from the jet.

“I know you’re fishing for compliments, but I’m not biting,” Tony said, spotting three giants coming in to charge. Turning, he grabbed Loki across the chest and blasted high into the air, letting him shoot their eyes out from above. Tony landed them both in the centre of Steve’s battle with another giant, sending them both sprawling by accident. “Sorry, Cap.”

“It’s okay,” Steve coughed, getting to his feet. “This is like fighting Thor. I mean, if we left Thor in the deep freezer for a year.”

“Thought you’d be used to a little ice by now.” Forming a triangle had been a bad move; they were surrounded within seconds. Despite all their arguing, Tony wasn’t sure why Loki hadn’t teleported the hell on out of there, since he had enough magic to shoot down a small Jotun army. Well, he wasn’t going to look a gift sorcerer in the mouth.

This is taking too long,” Natasha said from high overhead, lazily circling with the jet. “Get clear; I’m going to try something.

How clear are we talking here?” Clint asked dubiously. Tony just grabbed Loki and Steve by their body armour and shot up and over the throng, dodging a slew of ice and sleet. The portal was still wide open, still expelling snow and frigid gusts of wind.

Thor, do these guys understand our language?” Natasha was angling the jet over the thickest part of the group. Flashing the landing lights, she was grabbing their attention nicely. Three of them tried jumping to the jet, but she was out of range.

No, but Loki and I can speak on your behalf. What is your message?

Go the fuck home.

With a clang and a pressurised hiss, Natasha jettisoned a thousand gallons of fuel directly on top of the frost giants.

“Oh my god,” Steve said weakly, “tell me this isn’t happening.”

Luckily the Jotuns quickly figured out exactly what had just been dumped on them. Thor called out a warning, but by then it was just a formality – they were already bolting for their snowy portal to home and safety. There was only one hitch in the plan.

They were charging straight over Thor to get there.

“Shit,” Tony swore, landing hard on the other edge of the roof. “They’re going to crush him. He’s already covered in fuel, he can’t use the lightning like that—”

I can try—” Clint started, but JARVIS cut him off.

A single spark of my internal mechanics will ignite an inferno.

Natasha swore. “Loki?

Staring at his brother as he was swept along, soaked in fuel and one inch from being trampled, Loki shook his head. “I can’t teleport yet.” It cost him to say it. Then his jaw firmed. “I will attempt—”

“Get out of my way,” Amora snarled, shoving them all aside. She staggered forward, bleeding unstable magic into the air. “I did not come this far for that tribe of lumbering livestock to—” Light snatched her up in a rippling tear of dimensional energy, depositing her in front of Thor, “kill my only reward for this entire blasted endeavour in the first place!” She raised her arms to the sky.

A tornado of emerald light blanked out the entire rooftop, crackling like wildfire. Using the suit’s stabilisers to combat the backdraft Tony grabbed onto Steve and Loki again, hoping to hell that JARVIS had gotten clear with Clint. He couldn’t see a thing. The HUD had shut off from the interference. This was more than magic – this was a storm of raw, unstable power and he had no idea what it was for.

“She’s trying to take him,” Loki shouted over the wailing wind. His hair whipping across his face. “But that magic will kill them both. Stark, you need to let me go!”

“Can’t do that,” Tony yelled back. “You’ll get yourself killed!”

“If I don’t go then this was all for naught! Would you let Thor perish?”

Tony panted inside the suit, caught between selfishness and stupid, stupid heroics.

“I can’t make that trade,” Tony shouted back, squeezing the staff in Loki’s hand until it engaged. “So I’m going instead.”

Blue light swallowed Loki’s horrified gaze as the Deadlock wiped out his magic. Manually firing the thrusters, Tony shot into the heart of the storm.

There was too much energy in the area to navigate electronically. Removing the faceplate, eyes tearing with the lash of wind across his cheeks, the world was crackling green and burning with the stink of ozone. He couldn’t see Thor, but each step took him deeper toward the source of the power. She was there—she had to be there.

The plates of his armour caught in the unnatural tornado, eroding as they were touched by the edge of fraying magic. The faceplate came back down as the suit registered damage, but it wasn’t going to matter soon enough. He just needed to get to Thor before it disintegrated.

Tony heard it then; a woman’s high scream, distorted by something unnatural. A discordant, two-tone cry too thick with pain to make words. He turned toward it, seeing an arched shape, a flag of yellow hair. A crumpled mass below it. There.

A wall landed in front of him.

Sir.” JARVIS’s voice was almost static, but the armoured shoulders that shielded him from the storm were as solid as ever. “At—service. Navigation is compromised—manual orders. Walk me forward until—has degraded.

It was a protocol, in the end. Priority one in his basic programming, to overrule everything else.

Look after me, buddy.

“We’re gonna make it,” Tony panted, pushing JARVIS forward. Something was howling ahead, and the light was almost too bright to see. Under his hands he felt JARVIS’s plates crumbling like rust-eaten tin. “We’re gonna save Thor, we’re gonna make it. Initialise Deadlock radiating field.”

Initialising.” A shudder ran through his frame. “Deadl—failed. Internal—breached. My apolog—you, sir—” Everything after that was a wash of white noise. But it was okay.

“You did good,” Tony said, but it was mostly to himself. JARVIS was already collapsing, his blue and chrome pieces caught up in the whirling light. “You did real good.”

He stepped into the eye of the storm.

Amora was bursting under the strain of the magic she was channelling, floating a foot off the ground. Her back looked broken by the unnatural arch she was contorted in, raw magic burning out of her eyes and mouth. Then the screaming changed.

“You’ll never take him,” she cried, twitching as she tried to move. “I’ve given—too much.”

“So you’ll kill him?” Tony yelled over the noise. He knelt down to Thor’s side, rolling him over. This close to her, the magic wasn’t corrosive but Thor was barely breathing. Blood was running out of his ear.


“That’s not love! Love would let him go.” He shifted his grip.

“You can’t!” Something snapped inside her body, crunching as she was bent back further, screaming. Her spread arms glowed with burning veins of power. She couldn’t stop it, and it was going to kill her. Magic, forced through the Deadlock’s control-eating radiation. No channels, no direction, just a doorway of raw power she couldn’t close.

Outside of the magic’s core, something was roaring over the wind.

Tony felt the roof tremble. Once, twice. Repeating like a drum.

Boom, boom, boom.

The sound became a shape. A really big shape, actually.

And it was angry.

“MAGIC,” Hulk roared, hurtling toward Amora like an enormous green cannonball. “HULK HATES MAGIC!”

“Oh, Jesus shit.” Tony grabbed Thor and pulled, rolling them both out of the way as Hulk rammed straight into Amora’s screaming form, body-slamming her and all her magic straight into the concrete.

The light blinked out, flickering under Hulk’s cinderblock fists. Across the distance, Tony saw Loki coming toward them at a dead run. Steve was tossing his shield at Hulk, screaming something he couldn’t make out. The quinjet was pulling away at speed, Hawkeye hanging from a suspension rope beneath it.

The light exploded.

Sound became pain. Tony threw himself over Thor and held on as blistering light spread up and out, detonating in an enormous column of sickly green fire. Something slammed into his back; debris or Hulk, he didn’t know. Tony just closed his eyes and grit his teeth, trying to breathe when there wasn’t enough air to pull in.

Two thoughts flew through his mind before the strain took him.

Don’t let this be it.


Then, nothing at all.

Something was pulling at his chest.

“It’s ruined. Get the rest off him.” Cold air touched his legs and arms. “Has SHIELD finished hosing the fuel?”

“Still going. How’s Thor?”

“They broke my leg,” a strained voice said. “Some other things, too, but I will heal.”

Tony let himself drift.

Thor was alive. That was good.

“Hulk sorry for breaking the shield.”

Steve laughed strangely. “It saved your big green ass. It did its job.”

The team was okay. A little beaten, a little sore, but alive. They’d won and they were alive. Tony couldn’t have asked for more, really…

A mouth pressed against the cold shell of his ear.

“Wake up, Stark,” a voice whispered. “I have need of you.”

He knew those words. Inside the drifting warmth Tony reached out for them, but the darkness was already swallowing him up. His consciousness faded a moment later, still wondering why that voice had been shaking.

Six hours later, Tony started awake in the infirmary with a drip in his arm and Steve’s hand pressing him down into the bed.

“Easy,” he said. “You’re okay. We’re all okay.”

“No, it’s—” Tony struggled to pull his mind out of the fog. “Loki?”

Steve shifted slightly.

“He left us, back on the rooftop.” It sounded like an apology. “We don’t know where he went.”

Tony shifted back against the pillows, trying to make sense of that. He mostly failed.


The aftermath of Amora’s attack was minimal, as far as damage was concerned.

The Avengers were fine. Hell, the Avengers were heroes, despite almost setting fire to an iconic piece of New York City. But what the public didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. There was an enormous hole in the roof and the entire thing needed replacing, but Pepper was already negotiating with SHIELD on who paid for what.

Thor had taken himself and his broken leg back to Asgard. The guy needed a holiday after everything that had happened to him, so despite his insistence he’d return in a week Steve forbade him for the entire next month. They’d argued about it, long and loudly, but even Thor couldn’t stand against Steve Rogers when he was adamant.

Hulk didn’t change back for a while, on account of an enormous woman-shaped blister down the length of his body. No one wanted to wish an injury like that on Bruce Banner, so they let him do whatever he liked while he healed up. Mostly he just sat in the saltwater pool, still clutching pieces of Steve’s shattered shield and trying to fit them together again. Tony hadn’t seen it break, but Steve had thrown it to Hulk as protection against the detonation. It had mostly worked.

SHIELD had carted away the corpses of the frost giants, all four that had survived the corrosive magic tornado from hell. Nick Fury said it was for study, but the look on his face said the order came from higher up. Tony didn’t ask, and Fury didn’t elaborate. Whatever it was, ignorance was bliss.

They never found Amora’s body. It was probably for the best.

For his part, Tony healed up and returned to work. JARVIS was insisting he didn’t need a new body built from scratch, but it gave him something to do. Also, Barton had been in a funk about it since he’d pulled a blue helmet out of the debris and asked where his robot partner in crime was. There wasn’t any harm in having JARVIS on the bench in case they needed him, anyway. He’d saved Tony’s life, after all, and anything that distracted Barton from asking questions about Loki was a good thing.


He never came back.

Tony put it at the back of his mind, mostly. With everything wrapped up and happy endings all round, he couldn’t ask for much more from their god of mischief. Steve had told him that Loki had recovered from the Deadlock Staff’s shot almost immediately, but by that point Tony had already vanished into the storm. When Amora’s magic blew entirely it had been Loki who had slammed into him, flinging up a shield to cover him and Thor from the worst of it.

After all that, after everything, who could ask for more?

Yeah, Tony put it at the back of his mind.


Sir, you have a visitor.

Tony stared up at the undercarriage of his Porsche, flashlight caught between his teeth. Oil leaks. In a Porsche. It wasn’t the first time he’d thought about building his own car, but more and more he was starting to think it might be a good idea. It had to beat laying on his back with greasy fingers, eyeballing the car’s oil filter like it had wronged him. What a pain in the ass.


“JARVIS, I said no interruptions. Do you know what that means?”

I must insist.

Pulling the flashlight out of his mouth, he glared up at the engine block. Insist?

“Fine.” He slid the mechanic creeper out from under the car, grabbing his cleaning rag on the way. Maybe next time he had an oil leak he’d think ahead and wear something with sleeves.

When he sat up, Loki was standing in his workshop.

“Hello, Stark.”

Tony stared.

It hadn’t been nearly long enough for it, but it was like seeing a ghost. Six weeks it had been since Amora had blown herself sky high. Six weeks since Loki had vanished like he was never coming back.

He looked…better. Healed. Healthy. The wild length of dark hair Tony had seen on him last was gone, cut back to fall just beneath his shoulders. His face had colour in it again, or at least as much as Loki could claim to possess. His armour was gone, and the lack of it seemed jarringly unfamiliar. But he was still in green linen and black leather, so it was nice to see at least some things never changed.

In his hands Loki was holding a familiar round shield.

“I thought I might return this in one piece,” Loki said as the silence stretched. “I had to pry the pieces from an unpleasant nemesis of mine. Do inform Captain Rogers that he owes me new body armour.”

Well, that explained the outfit. Tony got up slowly, wiping his arms and hands down as a distraction from staring any longer. So it was just a quick stopover, then. For Steve.

“Right. I’ll tell him.” It was the only reply Tony could think to make. Which was amazing, really, considering all the questions that had been crowding his mind since he woke up in Medical with the echo of a voice still whispering in his ear.

Loki nodded once, slowly. As the silence began to fray into something terrible, he straightened his shoulders. “Then I suppose my business is concluded.”

Tony let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding. “I thought you said you had need of me,” he said, the words punching straight through the layered silence. “I guess that was just the concussion talking. I mean, payment was made in full, transaction complete—come on, you know how this goes with us.”

He knew he sounded angry, sounded rough and hurt. He also knew he couldn’t do a damn thing to stop it. But the fight was done, the terms were met. Maybe the best he’d get out of this was that they wouldn’t be active enemies anymore. Maybe he’d just have to make do with that much. Turning away, he tossed the rag down on the workbench, planting his hands on the edge as he stared blindly up at JARVIS’s monitors.

Maybe it was goodbye, but Tony didn’t have to watch it happen.

“My farewell was given the night I took the Deadlock devices and teleported out to Amora,” Loki said curtly. There was a quiet clank behind him as the shield was set down. “I owe you nothing further. The shield is whole again. That was all I—”

Tony spun around. “Don’t give me that bullshit,” he said fiercely, crossing the distance to where Loki stood, tall and tense. “You came back to see me and you know it. If you’re so done, why’d you come here? Why not just spin the shield through Steve’s bedroom window? Why not wake him up in the middle of the night?”

Green eyes narrowed. “What would you have had me do, Stark? Sit there as a nursemaid would, weeping by your bedside? Pacing with your Avengers? Or listening to my brother having his bones set in the next room?” A palm planted itself against his chest, pushing him back a step. Loki followed it with his own. “I am not one of you. Nor shall I ever be.”

Tony pushed the hand off his chest, but didn’t let go. He tugged Loki in with it until they stood flush, matching him glare for glare.

“Just who the hell are you trying to convince?” he challenged. It earned him a silent snarl, but no immediate denial. “There’s no alliance here. No deals. Nothing. There’s just me and you. You don’t want to be an Avenger? I’m not offering you a place. Frankly my damned blood pressure wouldn’t be able to handle it. But you know what I do want?”

Loki’s mouth was tight, his eyes stormy. But they were locked on his like he couldn’t break their gaze even if he wanted to. “What?” he asked harshly. “For I would truly like to know: what does Tony Stark actually want from me?”

The hand that had been trapped in Tony’s was pulled free, lowering to instead clench Tony’s hips hard through his jeans, anchoring him there. As if he might have anywhere else in the world he wanted to stand in that white-hot second.

“Honestly?” he asked, pulling himself so they were eye-to-eye. “I want everything. Everything you’ve got.” Loki’s eyes flared with the arrogance of the demand, just in time for Tony to add, “but right now I’d settle for a kiss.”

Tony didn’t steal it. He could have, as Loki went rigid in his grip, eyes narrowed and lips parted with surprise. Their bodies were pressed together tight enough to hurt, barely an inch of breath-warm space between their mouths—and Tony didn’t steal the kiss.

Loki’s eyes lowered slowly to his mouth, his gaze following the curve of it with almost unbearable intensity. “You will ruin me,” he breathed against Tony’s lips. “I may destroy you.”

Tony just watched him. “All that, from a kiss?”

“No,” Loki replied, his eyes dark and hungry. “From all that will come in the days that follow it. You know better than most what I bring with me. Would you still ask fo—”

“Okay, too much talking,” Tony said, riding clean over his warning label. “Portents of doom later. Right now I need—”

Loki kissed him.

Well, no. It was more than a kiss, by anyone’s standards. Hauled up against the flat planes of Loki’s body, a hand under his ass for balance and another fisted in his hair, this was—this was making out. And the last time Loki’s greedy mouth had bruised his like that, with that much need pulling the breath right out of him, God, Tony had forgotten what it felt like.

It had been too long. Warm skin under his hands, the slick press of his mouth, the taste of him. Hell, even the hard press of his fingers, tugging Tony’s head back and breaking the kiss. He couldn’t get enough.

“I would have you, Stark,” Loki whispered, right against his ear. His breath was hot, his voice almost gone. “Even right here, under cold light, above hard stone. Would that I had the control for such a thing.”

“You know I’d let you,” Tony said, dragging his mouth over the abused flesh of Loki’s throat. His fingers slid beneath soft leather and found the pale jut of hipbones. “But right now I don’t think we’re gonna—” the hips ground up against him, “yeah, no, definitely not going to make it. Bedroom. Teleport?”

Loki was feeling generous enough to oblige.

The next few hours were a study in discovery, re-mapping old territory with lips and hands and tongue, finding new scars, dragging hands over places they hadn’t bothered to touch before, when they both thought they could do it later. Loki didn’t hide the travelling chill of his body when magic rippled like water beneath his skin, hissing a curse instead when Tony chased it with his burning mouth. Neither of them flinched when fingers found raised scars they’d made—old stories, those ones. To Tony, they were just part of one long road.

They gave up the exploration, reluctantly, when the salt of skin and friction was too much. Sliding together, finding a rhythm, to Tony it felt terrifyingly like coming home. It was the thought that pushed him hard over the edge, giving into the building heat and aching need. Loki just arched with him, ivory and green-eyed in the lamplight. His eventual cry was a bitten-off, exultant thing, pressed behind Tony’s ear like a secret.

When they lay twined in sheets afterward, skin touching at wrist and ankle, Tony thought about it.


There was an old saying about where it lay.

Then again, he wasn’t really big on self-analysis.

“You could have your old room back,” Tony said to the ceiling, not even ashamed of how raw his voice was. Beside him, Loki was examining a bite-mark on his bicep with great interest.

“I enjoy this one.” His mouth curved. “You can move into it, if you like.”

“I was here first, vagrant.” Stretching hard, Tony winced as his back twinged. “But I’ll share it if you tell Thor we’re—” his brain stuttered, “is ‘involved’ the word we’d use?”

Loki scoffed, ignoring the question. “You’re a coward.”

“No, I’m clever,” Tony insisted. “See, he can’t bend you into an interesting pretzel shape.”

That earned him a short laugh. “Given the right incentive, Stark, you could bend me any which way you please.”

“I’m too sore for that kind of talk.” Unfortunately. “Look, I’m not telling Thor. We’re friends and we’re co-workers. He’ll ask me things, I know he will.” God, the nightmares that would follow after that. “I’m almost certain the word ‘courting’ will come up. Then I’ll have to tell him we’ve already had squirmy, sweaty, pretty fantastic sex.”

“Oh, flattery now.” Loki was almost vibrating with amusement. Was that what a good mood looked like on him? Tony could almost tell Thor for that face alone. “You see, I know you too.”

They fell into silence after that, mostly because Tony was wracking his brains for some kind of lure to hang in front of Loki so he’d spare him the awkward conversation. Maybe he could get Natasha to make some kind of pamphlet to leave on Thor’s pillow. ‘So, your teammate is screwing your estranged brother.’ That kind of thing.

“I’ll tell him,” Loki said suddenly, rolling onto his side. Tony dragged the sheet up where it had slipped away from his thigh. “Provided you allow me to choose the time. And the method, of course.”

Tony shrugged. “Sure. Just as long as I don’t have to do it.” Loki was no doubt going to give Thor some kind of horrible traumatic experience, but if Tony didn’t see the fallout then hey, it’d just add character.

Satisfied, Loki raked his hair off his face and closed his eyes. Tony watched him contemplatively for a moment, tracing the lines of his features in the muted light. He hadn’t seen Loki relaxed like this since…well, it was practically a lifetime ago. They’d taken the long way and they’d definitely taken the hard way, but it was worth it.

Not to say the road ahead wasn’t going to be difficult as hell – there was still SHIELD to deal with and enemies on both sides of the line, not to mention their own issues and strife. There was also a certain shady Latverian who had a reason to come after them both. Life wasn’t going to be dull, that much was for certain.

“Stop staring at me.”

Tony blinked. “Okay, whatever. JARVIS, get the lights.”

No, life wasn’t bound to be dull at all.

Three minutes later, a voice murmured into the darkness.

“Computer, send Thor all the intimate recordings between Stark and I.”

Yes, Mr Laufeyson. And please, call me JARVIS.

Tony’s eyes snapped open.

“Oh you son of a bitch.”

Chapter 16

Waking up was something Tony usually did all in a rush. Snapping awake still riding the tail-end of an impossible new idea, jolting himself out of a desert nightmare, shooting upright at the sound of the proximity alarm as Fury roared an update before JARVIS could so much as cough – all of it. Tony was great at waking up fully functional and a little crazy, one leg in his jeans and an order for coffee on his lips.

It made sense that the slow, luxurious rise from warm sleep to the waking world would leave him more disconcerted than anything else that had woken him in the last year.

It was early still; dawn was barely starting to penetrate the overnight clouds. Pale light filtered into the room, just enough for Tony to see shadows instead of darkness. The blankets were warm around him, the bedroom was quiet and the rhythmic sound of someone breathing beside him was like a metronome of comfort and peace.

Only, there wasn’t supposed to be someone in the bed beside him.

Tony should be alone.

Memory returned in a slow, lapping tide. Last night. The workshop. A tall form, tense and chipped around the edges. A mended shield; an excuse. Arguments about truth and lies and want. Tangled sheets and bare skin, a mouth sucking bruises along his collarbone. A moan in his ear. Fingers curving around his arms – too hard, too intent on keeping him just where he was. Green eyes burning like unnatural fire.


It was Loki breathing beside him.

Tony turned his head, blinking sleepily in the low light of the room, seeking the loose-limbed figure beside him. Loki was a tall and surprisingly bulky shape in his bed; all legs, shoulders and splayed arms tangled in Egyptian cotton, buried in the forgiving curve of Tony’s pillows. Loki slept on his stomach; whether for comfort or protection he left the hard muscle of his back bare to nothing more than sheets and carefully temperature-controlled air, but the yield of twitching muscle and soft skin of a lean stomach was pressed against the mattress. An old trust issue, probably. Tony understood that well enough – the first month after Obadiah had died he’d slept the exact same way. Arc reactor or vital organs, it was all the same.

Rolling slowly onto his side, Tony caught himself wondering how close he could get to that long lean stretch of flesh before Loki woke up and glared at him for playing the stalker so early in the morning. After all, they’d never done the ‘morning after’ dance. Interruptions, escapes and faux-betrayals had taken care of that.

Strange how so much had happened but somewhere along the way, amidst their fraught intimacy and ferocious loyalty and betrayal they’d missed the slow moments that two people in lo—

Oh, hell no, Tony thought suddenly, cutting himself off. That was a train of thought for next year at least.

Still, it was tempting. It was the idea of sliding through sheets, over the cool space between them to share a pillow and the gentle rasp of skin-warmed blankets, a pale and pliant body pressed into his own in a length of comfortable closeness.

Tony wasn’t a snuggler by nature. Waking up overheated and stuck to someone else wasn’t his idea of a good time. The knowledge didn’t really stop him as he closed the distance, seeking even the cross of an ankle over his, a relaxed hand on the pillow next to his cheek. Something that would tell him Loki wasn’t going to wake up and destroy the world, destroy Thor, vanish into space and cold and darkness and turn the hourglass over again and with it, all of Tony’s trust and faith.

It could happen. Of course it could happen. They’d gone there once before, after all. Tony Stark wouldn’t be enough to tether Loki if he decided another Asgardian crusade was in order. If Amora had survived. Or if Thor broke in roaring disapproval and disappointment, which given the shit Loki had pulled last night was pretty damn likely, really.

Still, in that watery light, squinting out of one sleepy eye Tony’s gaze followed the half-profile of Loki’s face and wanted all of it anyway. All of him. And people had called Tony self-destructive before.

Close enough to share breath across the inches of distance between them, Tony slid his leg out and carefully, gently crossed his ankle over Loki’s.

Sneak out closer to dawn.

It was almost dawn, but the sentiment had to stand for the intentions Tony had. An anchor. Contact. Himself, nearby and trusting against Loki’s side.

He was really overthinking this whole waking up thing. This was why a heart attack alert from Fury was really preferable to a natural wake-up session. Tony didn’t do natural. It made him introspective and frankly kind of sentimental and strange.

Tony was a heartbeat from rolling back in the other direction when Loki pulled in a deep, rib-aching sigh and opened one eye to regard him with drowsy warmth.

“What?” Loki murmured, stretching so hard Tony could almost hear his muscles tense and vibrate like a cat’s. “You look disturbed to see me.” His eyes sharpened slightly. “Would you have preferred that I withdrew to my own chamber?”

There it was, under the possessive feline sprawl – a hint of guarded uncertainty. New ground, new rules. The same thing Tony was grappling with. Morning afters should be easier, shouldn’t they?

“I love you,” Tony said, apropos of nothing. “I—huh. In my bed, I mean. Obviously.” When Loki stared at him, too-close and deep emerald in the dawn light, he added, “and everywhere else too, mostly. I guess. Please just accept this as my incurable habit of sleeptalking and never speak of it again.” Turning back in the other direction, mortified with his lack of protective speech filter, Tony shoved himself back into his previous position in the bed and stared intensely at the wall.

Loki didn’t make a single comment. Whether he was honouring Tony’s request or he actually had nothing to say was a mystery, but the silence was a gift as Tony lay there with his misplaced heart beating oddly beneath his broken-open ribs, wondering when the hell he’d become so afraid of admitting everything he’d always acknowledged – that he didn’t have a lot of people he gave a damn about. Adding Loki to the list shouldn’t be terrifying, considering everything they’d done and been through. The end had happened. Loyalties had been proven. Faith had paid off—

“Precisely how hard are you thinking right now?” Loki murmured behind him, the words descending into a jaw-cracking yawn. “I think I smell something burning.” A warm wall of sleep-relaxed muscle pressed up against his back – a stomach and a chest, using him as a shield, Tony realised, feeling a long arm snake its way over his side until a wide palm and careful fingers could press against his heart. Not the arc reactor. The actual pulsing beat of his heart.

“I’m not burning,” Tony replied to the wall, holding his breath as a mouth pressed to the nape of his neck. “Are you spooning me? I don’t want to be little spoon all the time.”

“Then we shall swap tonight, provided you show me the recording of Thor receiving his gift.” There was a definite edge of evil to Loki’s tone. “I wish to see him suffer.”

“You’re so creepy,” Tony replied, but his mouth was curving and he couldn’t do a damn thing to stop it. “Deal.”

“Good,” Loki said. “With that out of the way, I’d very much like to know one thing.”


“According to Thor—”

"When did you talk to Thor?"

"Before I visited you," Loki said dismissively, like it wasn’t huge news to Tony. "He indicated that the Allfather is intent upon meeting with me once more.” The palm against his heart pressed deep, the nervous edge of nails pricking his chest. “Accompany me?”

Tony blinked, still trying to process the question. “I— Can I wear my suit?”


“Will I be murdered by a protective father figure?”

“Certainly not.”

“Can I sleep in your room?”

“I would have it no other way.”

Tony thought about it for a decent half-minute. “I thought Asgard was only for gods.”

Loki hummed in his ear. “It is.” Teeth lightly teased his earlobe in what Tony knew was a blatant attempt at manipulation. “Come with me.”

Still, an invitation to go to Asgard and meet gods of ancient lore and myth? Who was he to turn down that kind of request?

Tony made a show of shrugging back against him. “Sure.”

Satisfied, Loki made no other comment for a long time. Tony eventually felt his eyelids drift closed in reaction to so much warmth pressed against him – he couldn’t be blamed for it really, it was barely even 6am and he’d had a late night. It had nothing to do with the palm stroking over his chest and stomach, or the knees pressing forward into his. That was just a bonus, really.

Tony was almost asleep when teeth again found the sensitive skin of his neck, teasing lightly and pulling him out of his drowsing.

“Hngg?” he mumbled in question, drifting off again already.

“Tell me, Stark: do you like apples?”

Tony was reasonably sure he answered with something before he fell asleep again, but damned if he knew what it had been.


Chapter Text

Tony wasn’t sure how or when it happened, but somewhere between a horrifying conversation with Thor and the three month anniversary of ‘Amorapocalypse’ (as Barton liked to call it) he found something his room.

Something weird.

Tony was pretty well-acquainted with weird. Weird was walking into the living room to find Natasha holding Steve in a headlock with her thighs. It was Clint sticking Bruce in the ass with his ‘viagrarrows’ (seriously, that name was never going to take off) to trigger his transformation whenever he wanted a good cardio workout. Because being chased by a limping Hulk with a hard-on was apparently how he got his kicks.

So yeah, Tony knew weird.

But there it was, sitting on his vanity. Perfectly aligned with the edge of the benchtop, teeth gleaming under the bathroom lights.

It was a goddamn comb.

For hair.

It wasn’t that Tony was shocked that Loki brushed his hair –honestly, magic could only do so much for what that mess turned into sometimes– or even that it was in his bathroom, where toiletries and hair care products traditionally belonged. Loki never left anything behind. Hell, Tony hadn’t even seen the damn thing before, but there it was.

It was just sitting there. Not in a drawer but on the bench, straight as an arrow, in full view, just…sitting there.

It meant something. It had to mean something.

Tony just didn’t know what it was yet.

Steve found him in the bathroom twenty minutes later, sitting on the rim of the bath and staring into space.

“Tony? JARVIS is worried.” He glanced around the room. “You didn’t get gassed with anything, did you?”

Tony just pointed at the comb. “That.” Reaching out, he grabbed the leg of Steve’s jeans like an anchor. “I don’t know what it means. Is it saying, ‘I’m putting my stuff here, get used to it?’ Or it is more like a test to see if I touch it? What if it’s cursed? What if my hair falls out? Steve, I need my hair. My hair is part of my identity.”

Steve sighed. “It’s just a comb, Tony. Is this some kind of commitment thing?”

It was a valid enough question. Was he having an internal freak-out about it? Had he been squashing it down for so long that seeing the comb snapped something in his brain? Tony didn’t think so; Loki was only there half the time anyway. Nothing much had actually changed in his life. He wasn’t sharing wardrobe space or wrapping up a plate of leftovers each night, for starters.

Sometimes it just meant rolling over in the middle of the night to find a naked sorcerer face-down in his bed. Other times, it was splitting workshop space with a Deadlock between them so Tony didn’t get shot in the ass with magic (again). But most of the time it was just an easy kind of camaraderie – the click of two self-absorbed geniuses with two completely different lives.

Loki had his plots and plans, thankfully directed at Doctor Doom these days instead of the Avengers. Tony had inventions and suits and Iron Man.

But sometimes they crossed over and collaborated; they laid spells on weapons and blocked their ears when they detonated into yodelling snakes. There was also that time when Steve was accidentally caught in the crossfire and grew a tail that spat bullets when he was angry. They experimented and learned that they should probably work alone if they wanted professional results – something about concentration, Loki had said.

The last three months had been light and fun and easy.

Now there was a comb.

Commitment issues.


Tony blinked. “Thanks for the pep talk, Cap. I think we’re good here.”

He wandered out of the bathroom, followed by Steve’s confused gaze.


Tony circled the comb for two more days.

He eyeballed it when he was brushing his teeth. He started laying his stuff out on the other side of the bench. He did everything in his power not to grab it and scream ‘what do you mean?’ and have a nervous breakdown in the bathtub.

Loki had been gone about a week so far, having taken off to wreak havoc on Jotunheim. The faction that had followed Amora to seek revenge for their dead king were probably ass-over in the snow somewhere, begging for forgiveness. That or Loki had just gone to wave the casket at them and laugh. Either was pretty likely. In any case, the prolonged disappearance left Tony trapped in a paranoid hell of his own making.

Two more days after that, he was starting to fidget over Loki’s continued absence.

There was always work to do, things to fight and stupid sci-fi movie nights to be dragged to, but there was a glaringly empty space in his daily life that was supposed to be filled by things like subtle insults, wicked smiles and warm breath on the back of his neck. A hand splayed across the arc reactor. Reckless experiments in the lab. Having his scotch stolen straight out of his hand. Waking up freezing with his bare ass hanging out of the bed, all his blankets yanked away from him.

When Tony went to bed that night, he had all the blankets he could ever want.

He slept like shit.


The next morning, he threw out a load of hair products, cleared out a drawer and laid the comb inside it.

Not a single thing happened in response.


The following days passed uneventfully, if you didn’t count the microwave exploding and taking JARVIS’s kitchen sensor out. Natasha was still apologising for that one, having learned that Barton’s chilli had more kick in it than was strictly safe for consumption.

Tony worked and slept and worked. He also conducted a small recon mission with Natasha to relieve Barton of his viagra-filled arrows, at Bruce Banner’s extremely pained request. He couldn’t stop Barton sticking Bruce with the substituted drug (“at least make it valium, for the love of God”) but it was good enough to minimise property damage for a while.

He was just getting into the swing of his routine when Loki returned. He materialised on the bedroom balcony in the middle of the night, covered in melting ice and trying to stamp it from his boots.

Tony watched him from the bed for a minute, tired and warm in his nest of blankets. Loki was back and being his usual inconsiderate self. Seriously, he wasn’t even trying to be quiet, snarling something in the dim light of the balcony and trying to pull his boots off. Tony had tried telling him he had too many belts and buckles, but there was common sense and then there was vanity. Not that Tony could talk – he had to be literally screwed into his favourite suit.

Well, there was no going back to sleep now, he thought. Pulling himself out of bed, he padded barefoot over to the balcony door and slid it open with a quiet rasp.

“Sorry, we close at seven,” he yawned, tensing at the chill bite of night air. “No admittance.” Tony blinked and tried to focus. “You have ice in your hair. Is this a new look?”

Loki darted him a frustrated glance and pointed to the buckle fastening his armoured chest-plate. “Get that for me. I’m freezing.”

Tony reached out and unsnapped the buckle, working icy leather back through it. “How does that even work?” He pulled the duster off while he was at it, slinging it over the outdoor chairs with a wet slap. “Cold shouldn’t be an issue.”

“It’s an issue when I’m in this form,” Loki grunted, wringing slush from his hair. “My blood is warm and red. I’m quite done with cold and blue for at least a lifetime.” Straightening, slightly out of breath, barefoot and half-undressed on his balcony, Loki finally looked at him with the full force of his attention. “Good evening, Stark.”

Tony’s mouth quirked. “Welcome back. Go take a hot shower and—oh my god.” Gasping under a freezing cold mouth, pulled in close against a damp and unforgiving chest, he had a singular moment of indecision. On the one hand, Loki. On the other, it was nipple-shatteringly cold. But the former won out, like it always did, and Tony shoved his hand up into wet tangles of dark hair and kissed him back as hard as the last two weeks alone demanded.

“You’re very warm,” Loki sighed into his mouth, cold fingers sneaking under his tank and running up the curve of his spine. “I haven’t felt warmth since I left.” Cold palms dragged freezing trails down his back, slowly warming as they went. “Did I pull you from slumber?”

“Nah,” Tony lied, his forehead resting against Loki’s cheek. “Did you do what you needed on Jotunheim? Kill a few frost giants?”

Loki tensed against him slightly. “No,” he said carefully. “But I completed my business all the same.” He pulled away, grimacing as water dripped from his hair. “Return to bed, Stark. I’m soaked.”

“You’re staying?” The question wasn’t needy or insecure; Loki came and went from Avengers HQ, perpetually resisting the idea that it was his home too, now. He’d only just gotten back but Tony never ruled out the possibility that his reappearance was just a quick stopover. “There’s half a pillow and a scrap of blanket with your name on it.”

Loki’s answering laugh was muffled by his shirt as he pulled it over his head, revealing the lean stretch of a hard stomach and the pale jut of a hipbone. Tossing it over the back of Tony’s desk chair, he smiled wickedly as he went to work on the fastenings of his pants.

“I’m staying,” he agreed, pulling off the last of his clothes. Tony didn’t even hide the travelling inventory his eyes took. Loki usually undressed via magic, so chances to watch him undress properly were few and far between. “Though I plan to shower for at least an hour before I join you.”

Tony scratched the seam of the arc reactor while he thought about that. “Well, if you’re going to abuse my water heater you could at least invite me in with you.”

Loki half-stifled a yawn. “You take up too much room.”

“See, I disagree there. I think you take up too much room. I’m perfectly proportioned for my size, beanpole.”

“My frame is broader than yours,” Loki frowned, deliberately squaring his shoulders and pushing his chest out. It was a nice chest, sculpted without being overly muscular. Lean and fast and hard, Loki was built right in all the ways Tony had missed. Not that he was going to admit that while being told he was small.

“Whatever. Just don’t use all my conditioner while you’re in there, Hermione.” Turning to head back into his cooling tangle of soft blankets, Tony was caught off-guard by cold arms wrapping around his chest from behind, tugging him off his feet and swinging him in the direction of the bathroom.

“You can wash my hair,” Loki declared, “and explain to me that undoubtedly insulting reference you just used.”

Tony left himself be hauled toward the shower, his toes brushing the carpet. Going slack to be as much of a dead weight as possible did nothing – he’d figured that one out a while ago. Loki was just too damn strong to be fazed by it.

Showering was a predictably cramped affair, which Loki managed to complain loudly about even while having his scalp firmly massaged with soapy fingers, his eyes heavy-lidded and blissful. Tony gave him the overall plotline of Harry Potter while he was in there, then had to listen to a snobbish ten minute complaint about the fragility of a wooden wand in battle. Tony couldn’t really argue with that – there was an uru-based staff in his workshop that testified to Loki’s knowledge of magical augmentation.

As they dried off, Tony took stock of the lavender smattering of bruises across Loki’s back and legs, frowning as he tried to imagine what had caused them. Frost giants?

“Scaling a cliff face,” Loki replied dismissively, noticing his wandering attention. “My grip slipped.”

“Butterfingers,” Tony murmured, grazing his thumb across a deep purple welt across the rise of Loki’s ass. “Was it worth it?”

“Of course.” The matter-of-fact, smugly satisfied tone of Loki’s voice said volumes. His eyes scanned the bathroom in sudden interest. “I recall leaving a comb here.”

Tony glanced at the vanity. “Oh right, yeah. Hulk wanted a toothpick a week or so ago.”

Loki’s jaw dropped. Actually dropped.

“Stark, there was a protective ward on that comb. It was supposed to stay in your quarters while I was…” He trailed off as Tony grinned at him, pulling the drawer open with a small flourish. The comb lay lonely and pristine at the bottom of the cleared drawer. “You incorrigible liar.”

“Protective ward, huh? Scared something was going to happen to me while you were out of town on business? That’s so sweet.” Tony dodged the outstretched hand that was no doubt going to shove him out of the room, stepping inside Loki’s reach and pressing a kiss to the notch of skin below one pink earlobe, just behind his jaw. The water had been too hot for him, Tony noted as he felt the heat of his skin sink into his mouth, but for one reason or another Loki seemed to like it that way.

“I knew I would be gone a matter of weeks,” Loki explained, trying for an air of flippancy. It was ruined by the tilt of his jaw as he encouraged Tony to explore further. “It was insurance.”

“Okay,” Tony agreed, breathing in soap and shampoo and warm skin as he deliberately rasped his goatee across Loki’s neck. “What else was it? You could have hidden a spell anywhere you liked.”

The response wasn’t immediately forthcoming, but Tony knew patience was definitely a virtue where Loki’s truths were concerned. Drawing away with a stifled yawn, he was pulling on a spare pair of thin sweats to sleep in when Loki plucked the comb from the drawer and enveloped it in a green-gold haze of magic, bright enough that light almost seemed to drip from his fingers.

“It was a placeholder,” Loki said, and lifted his other hand palm-up to rest alongside his glowing hand like the scales of judgement. “You see, I misplaced something of yours on Jotunheim. It was time to retrieve it.”

Tony frowned at his hands. “I never gave you anything.” Did he? Deadlocks and a kiss had been the only thing he could remember giving to Loki before he left to hunt Amora.

Loki narrowed his eyes. His free hand began to glow vivid green. “Don’t be obtuse.”

Before Tony could process the insult and return fire, the magic began to coalesce into a shape. A very familiar, incredibly lethal shape.

Tony knew there was something wrong with being warmed by the sight of a dagger that had once been buried in his stomach, but just then with the light reflecting in Loki’s steady gaze he found didn’t care. Not even a little bit.

Loki had vanished to a world of ice and darkness and enemies to get that dagger back for him. It had just become the single most important inanimate object Tony had ever seen.

The magic from the comb danced through Loki’s body and bloomed around the blade, transferring itself from one object to another in the way that fascinated Tony, making his fingers itch with grudging curiosity.

Putting the comb down on the sink, Loki lifted Tony’s hand and opened it, pressing the hilt of the dagger into his palm and folding his fingers back over it. The grip that squeezed his curled fingers was sure.

“The blade will always find its mark. Now, the hilt will always find your hand.”

The metal in his hand felt warm. For the first time Tony wondered exactly what the dagger had been forged from. Some small instinct told him he already knew. There was only one type of metal that could hold permanent spells of that calibre.

“Are you sure you want to give this to me?”

“I gave it to you long ago.” Loki’s mouth tightened slightly. “Did you not realise it was a gift?”

“You threw it at my head.”

Confusion creased Loki’s face. “I missed on purpose.”

“At my head,” Tony repeated incredulously. “Several strands of hair lost their lives that day. I thought you were just leaving it behind to remind me of how you stuck it in my gut.”

Loki’s expression flickered. A shadow of something unhappy and tired passed across his face.

“I apologise,” he said stiffly. “I didn’t realise it held unpleasant memories for you.” He reached out to take the dagger back. Tony slapped his hand away.

“Get your own.”

Loki frowned. “You needn’t feel obligated to keep it, Stark. I assure you, I’m not offended.” He held his palm out patiently. “I’ll return it to my collection.”

Maybe he wasn’t offended, but there was a clue in the set of his shoulders and the slant of his mouth that said Loki was definitely something, and that something wasn’t good. Tony wasn’t exactly sure what hurt feelings looked like on him but he had an inkling this was coming extremely close. Really not what he’d intended – sort of the polar opposite of what he’d intended, actually.

“It’s mine,” Tony insisted. “I want it, even if it’s full of magic and of incredibly shady origin. Why do you think I kept it through all that shit with Amora and Doom?” His mouth quirked slightly. “I think I thought it was just one from your endless supply. Kept it as my personal souvenir.”

The speculative look Loki gave him seemed to indicate he was debating whether to believe him or not, which Tony found a little offensive considering he wasn’t the one famously known for bullshitting the entire cosmos. Besides, he didn’t do sugar-coating. Not very well, anyway.

“It’s one of a kind, actually,” Loki said eventually, turning away to hang his towel over the rail. “My aim is near perfect. That particular dagger is spelled to never miss when I dare not risk otherwise.” He tilted his head slightly. “Perhaps even then I knew you would become valuable to me.”

“Valuable?” Tony crossed his arms. “You’re not going to sell me for my hide, are you?”

Loki dressed in a brief flare of power. “Stop fishing.”

Tony watched him smooth a hand over the low waistband of his pants, as if he was debating whether to wear them or not. Loki usually preferred to sleep buck naked but at Avengers HQ it tended to result in completely accidental operational breaches of privacy. According to Clint, there was only so much magical ballsack he could see before he turned to illicit drugs and a life of crime.

They headed back out into the bedroom, Tony immediately grateful for the cooler air. Inspecting the dagger as he walked, he tripped on Loki’s discarded pants and nearly gutted himself with it all over again. Loki politely pretended he hadn’t seen it happen, but his mouth was twitching suspiciously.

“So, about that comb,” Tony said casually, trying to pretend his heart wasn’t hammering beneath his ribs. “The very strategically placed comb that you put in my bathroom. Are you moving in?”

Loki frowned, pulling back the blankets on his side. “I already live here.”

“Well, yeah, in a manner of speaking. I thought it was your way of casually moving your stuff in.” It was almost a disappointment to learn otherwise, but hell if he was going to acknowledge that. Putting the dagger down on his desk, Tony backed up to Loki’s side and pointed at it. “Okay, tell me you meant what I think you meant with this thing. How do I make it work?”

Loki gave him a long look. “There’s no incantation,” he said finally. “Hold out your hand and desire it.”

Holding out his hand as instructed, Tony thought hard, imagining the dagger’s hilt thudding against his palm, his own fingers wrapping around it. On the desk, the dagger rattled twice in acknowledgement and shot straight toward him.

Tony had a brief moment of terror as he watched it spin through the air, hoping to hell that he hadn’t just botched it and the blade wasn’t going to stab him in the face. But the dagger obediently smacked hilt-first against his palm, just like his own personal stabby version of Mjölnir. He caught it before it fell, laying it out flat across his hand.

“All right, I might be slightly impressed by this particular application of magic,” Tony admitted, glancing up at Loki. “So it’s mine? I get to keep it? Because take-backs are a dick move on any world.”

“It’s yours,” Loki confirmed, his eyes gleaming. He was so obviously proud of himself. “Though I should warn you that the spells will not work if you attempt to use it against me.”

“It turns off the auto-targeting?” Turning fully toward Loki so he was standing in front of him, Tony lifted the dagger until the point rested in the hollow of his throat. “Guess I’ll have to get in real close then. You know, if I want to properly do you in.” The hands that grabbed his waist and tugged him forward seemed to more than agree with his theoretical murder attempt.

“I recommend an intensive seduction beforehand to keep me sufficiently distracted from your bloodthirsty intent,” Loki said, like that was helpful at all. It had been more than a fortnight since Tony had so much as shared blankets, let alone anything else.

“I think that might distract me more.”

“And thus, my life was spared,” Loki whispered, a hint of laughter in his voice. Pushing the dagger away from his throat, he leaned in and brushed his mouth along the line of Tony’s jaw, catching the faint stubble there and rasping it with his lips. Facial hair jealousy, probably, though it was hard to mind it just then. Thinking office chair thoughts, Tony tossed the dagger over his shoulder, snorting when he heard the tell-tale thud of metal embedding itself in leather. Best present ever, hands down.

It didn’t take long for amused affection to evolve into the gripping hands and hungry kisses Tony had craved for the last two weeks. He’d missed it all; the welcome pressure of a mouth against his, a heartbeat thumping strong and steady under his fingers, the taste of clean skin and salt under his lips. Loki was getting so familiar to him now that he knew every inch of what he’d missed, every scent and taste and sound catalogued and greedily stored away. Maybe it was possessive want, maybe it was just gladness at his return, but as they tangled up the sheets and lost all their pillows Tony couldn’t help but wonder how he could make Loki stay for good.

It was an impossible thought, but he’d always liked to aim high.

“I have a confession to make,” Tony told the curve of Loki’s neck. He really couldn’t be bothered moving from his half-sprawl. “I think I’m having commitment issues.”

Beneath his cheek, Tony felt Loki tense slightly.

“The dagger was a gift, Stark, not a declaration of my intent to wed you.” He paused for a long moment. “Did you bed another in my absence?”

Tony snorted. He couldn’t help it. “I’m not a bored housewife. No, there’s no one else.”

A hand pressed into his shoulder, pushing him onto his back. The eyes that locked with his were dark and swarming with tension. Tony knew he probably could have introduced the topic a little better, but even he was having trouble sorting out truth from confusion. This was far outside his comfort zone.

“We’ve been keeping things pretty relaxed, haven’t we? You do your thing, I do my Avengers thing and we meet in the middle. Usually here, right here in this room. In this bed.” Pressing his fingertips to the glow of the arc reactor, Tony thought hard about how to word what he wanted to say next. “I thought it was enough, but in the last couple of weeks, I don’t know. So I want to ask you something, in all honesty.”

Loki’s expression was fractured, caught somewhere between dread and fury. But he nodded once for Tony to continue, his eyes burning. After that, all Tony could do was ask and hope for the best.

“Do you want to go out to dinner with me sometime?”

For a long second Loki just stared at him, strangely pale. Then he shoved him clear off the bed.

“Your flair for the dramatic does you no favours with me, Stark.”

Shoving himself upright, a little worried he had carpet-burn on his cheek, Tony leaned on the edge of the mattress, his hands up in the universal gesture of surrender.

“No, see, it’s—I’m not joking,” he said rapidly. “I mean out-out. In public. We’ve been playing it safe these last few months, keeping the media in the dark, pretending everything’s like it used to be. I’m sick of reading about how single I am. Why don’t we just yank the cat out of the bag tail-first?” Pulling a pillow off the ground beside him, he tossed it at Loki. It bounced back off his head. Still mad, then.

“That decision was made by you and yours to protect the reputation of the Avengers. Why rebel against it now?” Loki studied him through narrowed eyes as he got back up on the bed, yanking the sheet up from the bottom of the mattress. Grabbing the pillow from the floor, Tony jammed it under his head.

“Maybe I just want to show you off.”

“Maybe you’re lying.”

“You can’t prove anything,” Tony grunted, rolling onto his side. “It was just an idea. JARVIS, get the lights.” The room plunged into full darkness, safe and concealing. But the mattress was still dipping under Loki’s weight as he slid closer, close enough that cool breath touched his cheek.

“Stark.” Fingertips brushed his shoulder. Tony squeezed his eyes shut. How the hell was he supposed to explain when he didn’t even know why he’d asked?

“I refuse to eat raw fish,” Loki said decisively. “I don’t like meat with small bones, tomatoes or that herb you call thyme. I prefer red wine to white and I prefer spirits to both of those. Serve me mead and I will injure you.”

Tony’s eyes sprang open. “You know, I’ve never seen you in a tailored suit. I bet your ass would look fantastic.”

“It always does.” A fingertip trailed over the ball of his shoulder, moving down his arm in an aimless trail to his wrist. It stopped over his pulse point. “You have a habit of admitting truths and recanting them here. I quite clearly recall last time this happened.”

“Lies. God of lies. You don’t know what you’re saying.”


Uh oh.

“You did not just—”

“I did.”

“That’s dirty.” Rolling onto his back with a groan –seriously, Loki always forgot his legs only bent so far– he turned and eyeballed the dark shadow pressed against his side. It wasn’t like Loki to stay so close. Neither of them really did the clinging thing, unless it happened while they were asleep. “You never use my name like that. Been saving it up for a rainy confession?”

“Only if it succeeds.”

“I’m not giving you the leverage without something in return.”

“Are you bartering with me?”

“Only if it succeeds.”

Loki snorted. “What would you want in exchange?”

Tony thought about it. What he could demand in return depended heavily on what the information was worth to Loki, which was unknowable. Still, the game was putting him in a great mood so Tony decided it couldn’t hurt to aim high.

“Become an Avenger.”

Aaaaaaand silence. He grinned up at the ceiling, knowing Loki had just been stunned absolutely speechless. It was important to know he could still do that much.

Truthfully, knowing Loki was still curious about the accidental ‘I love you’ said a whole lot more than knowing what he’d trade for it would tell him. Being the clever bastard he was, Loki would have figured out a while ago just how much truth there had been in the words, which meant there wasn’t much he’d give Tony for them. Making a safe bet like that wasn’t cowardice under those circumstances.

“Setting aside the sheer impossibility of Captain Rogers ever allowing such a thing, you already know I’d rather have my fingernails pulled than join your team.” Loki didn’t sound disappointed or angry, no, he sounded thoughtful as he cupped one hand around the arc reactor’s light. “Do you regret your words that much?”

Turning his head, Tony gave him a dirty look. Loki’s eyes were washed-out blue in the light of the reactor, watchful and calm.

“You’re not getting a knifepoint confession.” Rolling them both over until he could pin Loki down with his weight, Tony pressed a warm kiss to the turned-down curve of his mouth. “You wouldn’t even want one.”

“If it’s true, then I would hear it from you.”

Maybe the commitment issues stemmed from both sides, just a little. Different angles, same meaning, same awkward attempts and bribery and tricks to get the same result. God, they were a messed up pair.

He wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It was true,” Tony said simply. “It’s too early to say it, it was way too early three months ago, but it’s true and it sends me nuts because you’re as easy to hold onto as a wet bar of soap.” Pushing a few strands of hair off Loki’s temple, he lightly tugged on the dark length. “I want you to stick around.”

Loki snorted lightly. “As I said earlier, I already live here. I have no possessions, Stark, beyond a book of old spellwork, my staff and that comb. My clothes are oft magic-based, my weapons tucked inside it. When I came to you, I came with all I could still claim to own.”

Tony stared. “You’re poor? Unbelievable. So much for my alien sugar-daddy.” When hands rose to no doubt cause him some kind of injury, he grabbed them and pressed Loki’s wrists against the mattress, grinning at the iridescent green glare that was being levelled at him. “Guess I’m definitely paying for dinner then.”

“Naturally.” Rotating his wrists slightly, Loki tested his grip but didn’t make any move to get free. “I will warn you, my tastes are expensive.”

“Put out on the first date and we’ll call it even.”

“I could be persuaded.” Loki’s smile was a knowing curve. “If your behaviour is to my liking.”

So it was settled then. Going public. Commitment, at least in the sense of the media getting hold of them. Not literally of course; the paparazzi wouldn’t so much as sneeze in their direction as long as Loki had them in his sight. But it was going to be a hell of a scandal all the same. Steve and Pepper were going to have simultaneous heart attacks when he told them it was time. Fury and the majority of SHIELD would definitely shit a brick over it, which Tony was perfectly happy to facilitate. They’d been getting off scot-free for too long as it was.

“You know, you should probably come with me on a couple of missions,” Tony suggested a while later, listening to Loki adjust his pillow and work out the blankets again. “I don’t see why our dates shouldn’t include blowing some stuff up.” He was startled by the kiss Loki stole in reply, the pressure of his lips there and gone before he could react.

“Truly a mortal after my own heart. Continue in this fashion and you may never be rid of me.”

Tony smiled into the darkness.

“Thanks for the tip.”