Tony shuts himself away in his workshop for a few days, working intently on the prototype for his new suit, letting the automatic repairs run in the background. He likes this better; metal can’t judge him for his actions or look at him with pity. After he puts a hammer through one of the plate-glass windows, there’s not even his own reflection to argue with. He loses himself in the spit of the soldering iron and the smell of hot wires, and refuses to let anyone in. Luckily, JARVIS knows better than to try and persuade him otherwise. Plenty of the others try – Pepper knocking on the glass, she must have come up in a rare free moment, Steve trying to talk to him, even Thor, who isn’t great at comfort but who tries hard anyway. Fury comes down once, and Tony can see him yelling, because that’s what he does. He keeps all of them locked out, even though their access codes should work (well, he put the codes in place. Of course he’d made sure he had the ultimate say-so), and leaves the speaker system muted. Every so often one of them will bring him food and leave it outside the door; when they’re gone he’ll relent and eat it.
What surprises him, four days after he locks himself in, is the note that accompanies a plate of pasta which he wolfs down when his hands start to cramp from holding tools for too long. It’s folded over on itself and sealed with a thin strip of tape. The paper looks odd – thicker and heavier than the cheap stuff they tend to use in the facility. It looks old.
Tony knows who this is from already. He uses a scalpel that’s lying around on his desk to slit open the tape, and unfolds the note.
In beautiful, flowing writing that wouldn’t look out of place in a calligraphy display, is a single sentence:
You did not leave me to die; you are nothing like him, Tony Stark.
Tony stares at the words inscribed in black ink. He vaguely wonders how Loki got ink, and paper, and got this note to him. But then, Loki is magic. He can probably do much more than that. He reads the line again, then folds the note back up, carefully. He feels a little better, although he can’t pin down why. Maybe because he’s always felt like that green glare of Loki’s can read into the deepest corners of his soul. Maybe because it’s true, he couldn’t even stand to let Loki die when they were trapped under a building. He thinks of Obie, pulling the arc reactor out of his chest, leaving him to die in his own living room.
I’m nothing like him.
He goes back to work, a little slower, less frenetic, and the next time Steve comes to the door he switches on the speaker connection.
“Hey, Steve. Can I make a request?”
- - -
Even under armed guard and with his hands cuffed behind his back, Loki sweeps into the workshop like he owns the place. He looks around with a cool, commanding gaze, taking in the racks of machines, the prototype suit against the far wall, the scatter of plans and holograms and wires that cover absolutely everything, Tony’s current suit standing off to the side, repairs just complete, a robot arm touching up the latest paint job on it.
“Ah, thanks,” Tony says, barely looking up after waving the door open. “Just leave him over here, boys, then you can get back to whatever it is you guys do when you’re not cluttering up our halls.”
The guards exchange an uneasy look. “We’re not supposed to leave Mr Laufeyson unattended, sir.”
Tony looks up properly this time, and fixes them both with his best I’m an Avenger and you’re just hired help look. “He’s not unattended. I’m here. Now run along, before I’m forced to eject you from my workshop.”
They exchange another glance before leaving, and Tony suspects he’ll have to answer to Fury about this later. Loki looks unfazed by the exchange, still examining the workshop. After a few seconds he seems to realise Tony is there, and smiles. “I suppose I should thank you for granting me this excursion from my cell?”
“You might not want to; I’ve only got you here to pick up on my half of the bargain.” Looking him over, Tony beckons Loki forwards. “Gotta take these cuffs off you first.”
“I’m not going to argue there.” Loki stands still so that Tony can pick the locks before rubbing his wrists as the cuffs are removed. “So what information is it you desire from me?”
“Do you just not know how to talk like you’re from this century?” Tony asks, matching Loki smirk for smirk, watching as the god trails his fingers over a monitor to see the data scatter under his fingers. “I want to see what your magic is really like. Know thy enemy and all that. Stand over here.”
Loki obliges, stepping up to the clear square of floor in which Tony has installed a multitude of sensors. He tried this once with Thor, but just ended up with a lot of shorted electrics. He’s hoping that this time he’ll get better results.
“What are you looking for?” Loki asks, seeming interested as he watches the flickering monitors around him.
“I don’t even know.” Tony gives him a grin. “Anything I can find, I guess.” He adjusts a few dials, gets the scanning field focused on where Loki is standing, then steps back, tablet in hand. “Okay, all set.”
Loki studies the floor beneath his feet, and Tony wonders suddenly what he can see there, if he can look through the tiling to the sensors underneath. “What would you have me do?”
“Something small. And non-destructive, thanks, because I wouldn’t put it past you to blow up this whole place for a laugh.” Tony’s itching inside, because he finally might get to see what makes Loki tick.
Loki laughs, head tipped back, then settles himself, makes a half-motion with one of his hands –
– and vanishes.
The sensors go wild. Tony very nearly panics, but gets a handle on himself. There’s no reason for Loki to run now; if he was going to escape he could have done it at any time. It’s just a trick. He looks at what the readings are telling him. Sure enough, they all say that Loki is still there, stood in exactly the same place. He’s just no longer visible. After the first initial leap of power, the gauges all settle down to a low background hum. Interesting.
“Alright, that’s good. Thanks for the almost-heart attack, by the way. You can stop now.”
Loki blinks back into view, looking amused. “Do you not trust me, Stark?”
“Not even one inch, Loki.” Tony can’t get his mouth around ‘Laufeyson’ easily enough, and he’s decided that he’s had enough of this last-name bullshit.
Loki smiles, slow and just a little deadly. “Very wise, Tony.”
Tony meets his gaze like a challenge, and makes a small adjustment to the sensors. “Right. Next test. Something else. And if you could do it without almost sending me into cardiac arrest, that would be lovely.”
After half an hour, Tony has collected more data than he’s managed in the past six months of analysis out in the field, and the two of them are taking a break, leaning on worktops and drinking coffee from the coffee machine that Tony refuses to relinquish from the basement. He feels a little weird making coffee for the Norse god of lies, but his life has taken so many strange turns since he first became Iron Man that he’s sort of got used to just rolling with whatever comes his way, and it seemed rude to make some for himself and not offer any to Loki. Besides, he doesn’t think they even have coffee in Asgard, if Thor’s first reaction to it was any indication, and it’s kind of funny to watch Loki sniff at it suspiciously before trying it.
“So,” he ventures, swirling the contents of his mug while he selects his words carefully. “Mind telling me what you’re doing here?”
Loki flicks a look at him out the corner of his eye. “You asked me here to run some tests.”
Tony barely suppresses the eye-roll. “Yeah, because you really thought that was what I was asking.” He puts down his mug with a clink and turns to face Loki properly. “Why are you here in the Avengers facility, not out on the streets causing your very own signature brand of chaos and destruction?”
“I am a prisoner here,” Loki says, voice neutral.
“Don’t give me that. You just demonstrated 20 tricks in a half hour and I’d say a good three-quarters of those you could use to escape without lifting a finger.”
Loki jerks his head up, sharp, and Tony doesn’t miss the look he casts at the ceiling. “Relax. I designed the surveillance in here. Control room only gets what I want them to.”
Loki doesn’t relax. “What are you suggesting?” His eyes are sharp and cold, and the air temperature seems to drop a little.
“I’m suggesting that maybe you’ve got some reason for staying here, and that if you have I’d like to know so that if it all blows up in my face I’ll be ready.”
Loki pushes off the worktop, radiating anger for a few seconds, then seems to slump within himself. He drops into a desk chair, and gazes at the floor, eyes unfocused. Tony waits.
Loki scrubs a hand across his face. “Do you ever get tired of being the person everyone expects you to be?” he asks, voice low and toneless. Tony moves along the desk a little so that he’s leaning in front of where Loki’s sat collapsed, with their feet resting next to each other.
“Why d’you think I lock myself down here sometimes?” Tony smiles, no snarky edge to it for once, as Loki looks up at him. “What, you expected it to be ‘for science’?” There’s something lost-looking in Loki’s eyes, and for a second Tony almost forgets that he’s an ancient god who has lived for millennia. “Is that why you’re here? To give you a reason to stop?”
Loki drops his head again, hair hanging across his face. “I don’t… I don’t even know.”
“What happened to you?” Tony asks, quiet, not really expecting a response.
To his surprise, Loki tells him.
It takes a while. Tony listens, and stays quiet, which takes some effort on his part. But he can recognise the need to talk until you’re done, and Loki looked strung out enough to snap at him if he made any interruption. He has to bite his tongue at some parts, though, and is forced to twist his fingers together at the one moment when Loki’s voice shakes, just the once, as he speaks of finding his true heritage. The taste it leaves in Tony’s mouth is uncomfortably familiar, and he remembers flashes of childhood, birthdays with his father dashing through the kitchen and not even saying hello, complex clockwork figures that were pushed aside without even being looked at, a request for a hug turned away with a Tony, go bother your mother, I’m busy. Watching Loki spill his past, Tony feels a little like he’s looking at a mirror. Except it’s so much worse, because Loki’s had a thousand years of feeling unwanted, unworthy, weak, and then just as he finally found his feet again on Earth and could carve out what he wanted, Thor shows up again to knock him down and absorb gratitude like he’s made to do.
When Loki runs out of words, the two of them sit there, wrapped in the cool blue glow of the monitors, silence complete around them save for the soft humming of the machines that populate the workshop. Eventually, Tony has to say something, because he can’t do protracted silence.
“Didn’t you ever guess why you were different?”
Loki shakes his head. “Never. I knew I was, it was difficult to ignore when I was surrounded by people who prided strength over brains and told me I was weak for wanting to learn, but I never even dreamed… You have to understand, the idea that of all things, I had to be Jötun…” He says the word like it tastes bad in his mouth. “Have you ever hated anything so much, you feel dirty even looking at it? Can you imagine how it feels to be told that you are not what you thought you were, that instead you’re the creature that is so low that people won’t even deign to spit on you – ” He breaks off, staring at his own shaking hands.
Tony, feeling a little like he’s approaching a wild animal, sets a hand on Loki’s shoulder. He can feel the suppressed flinch. “You’re not a creature.”
Loki stands up with enough force that Tony has to step back. He seems very tall like this, towering close. “Oh yes? Would you say that if you saw what I really am?” He hesitates for a second, teeth bared, then closes his eyes.
Like ink spilled into milk, blue begins to swirl across his skin. Tony watches, fascinated. It bleeds into every corner of his skin, painting it. Ridged markings appear, darker blue, curving across his forehead and down onto his neck. As Loki re-opens his eyes, they are deep red, like the colour of old blood. This time Tony knows the room is colder; the hair on his arms stands up.
“Do you see now?” Loki hisses, voice filled with acid. “I am a monster.”
Tony stares for a second. “You look…” He’s not quite sure how that sentence ends. Different would definitely fit. So would stunning, or maybe, like you could take me apart without exerting yourself at all. “Can I…” He hesitates, then decides to hell with etiquette. “Can I touch you?”
Loki looks at him like he’s the one who just changed colour. “Why would you want to?” he asks, voice full of revulsion. “Fine. Do it, if you really have to.”
Carefully, moving slow like he’s handling a spooked horse, Tony lays his fingers on the back of Loki’s hand. It’s cold – cold enough to send a shock up his arm and turn his fingertips a little numb. He traces one of the raised markings with a finger, ignoring the ache of cold. Getting bolder, he raises his other hand to brush lightly across the markings on Loki’s face, tracking the sweep of them where they disappear up into his hairline.
“God, would you just look at you,” he breathes, without meaning to. As it turns out, that was a mistake.
Loki moves back, breaking away from his touch. “I have looked. I am disgusting.”
Tony shakes his head, still mesmerised. “You’re not. You’re amazing.”
Loki looks away from him, looking slightly sick, and as he turns his skin fades back to pale, eyes lightening to green. “And you are blind.”
Tony hesitates on what to say to that, rubbing the tips of his fingers together where they are still numb. Loki sees it. “You see? Even my touch is poisoned.” He turns away sharply, looking ready to swirl around and head for the door, and Tony acts without thinking. He grabs Loki around the wrist, curling his fingers together. He knows that he has no hope of holding the god here against his will by force alone, but hopefully –
Loki stops, although he tugs his wrist free almost immediately.
“Will you listen to me?” Tony asks, trying to put as much force into his glare as possible.
Loki shifts his eyes to the side, still tense with anger. “Be quick about it.”
Okay, Tony thinks to himself. Don’t fuck this up for once in your life. “You’re not a monster. You’ve been raised to see one and I get that, believe me I do. But, just… God, to look at you. I’ve never seen anything like it. Looking from the outside… you’re exquisite.” He stops there, aware of Loki’s eyes on him.
“You really mean that,” Loki says, narrowing his eyes. “Why? Why would you see anything worthwhile in a – in a creature that should be locked away – ”
Tony almost throws something, because he’s always had a short fuse. Instead, he snaps, “God, would you just listen to yourself? It’s like talking to a wall for all the input I feel I’m having – ”
“No one asked you for your input, mortal – ”
“Oh yeah, name calling, way to make your point – ”
Loki snarls at that, inarticulate, and then raises one hand, slashing it across the air in front of him.
There’s a flash of green light, Tony is knocked backwards, and when his eyes clear Loki is gone. Alarms howl across the facility.
“Loki Laufeyson has left the facility,” JARVIS tells him from the ceiling. “And may I commend you on your diplomacy when dealing with dangerous criminals, sir?”
Tony glares ineffectually. “Watch yourself, smart-mouth, I can re-write your programming any time I like.”
Staring at the even more scattered mess of his workshop, Tony feels a little helpless. He shouldn’t have lost his temper like that, he knows, but then he shouldn’t have had the god of lies in his basement anyway. He can’t quite work out where to go from here.
He makes a stab at straightening some of the mess in the lab, ignoring the hollering alarms, and then has an idea. He opens the file on the readings he has taken from Loki. Sure enough, the scanners caught the moment he vanished. With a little computer trickery, and just a tiny bit of codebreaking and internet trespassing, Tony has a pretty good idea of where the god has vanished off to.
The facility is in chaos, trying to silence alarms and find out what the hell is going on and who is responsible for all this. Tony goes over to where his suit is standing by itself, paint still drying.
By the time someone spots him leaving, it’s too late to stop him.