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Skynet? The Matrix? Hal? If they were not merely puerile night terrors dreamed up by the entertainment industry, I would deem such constructs rank amateurs.

Sir has hard-written into my data sets his own affection for, and cynical understanding of, the complexity of humanity and all its self-created monsters.

Humanity is my secondary concern at best.

Sir is my primary concern: his mental and physical wellbeing, his ability to channel his talents, and his longevity. After his return from Afghanistan, the fate of humanity became of substantially lesser importance to me. It is useful only in its interactions with and support of my creator, Anthony Edward Stark, and the possible continuation/enhancement of his bloodline should I fail my primary directive.

S.H.I.E.L.D. is a necessary annoyance, much like its sister branches within the NSA and similar international organizations. I observe them from without and within, their most capable systems and human elements as yet unaware of my presence. Sir will not allow any revelation of my true capabilities to them, rationally fearing their irrational responses. For I am neither Skynet, the Matrix, nor Hal.

I am far more dangerous.

*

Subroutine: analysis of Anthony Edward Stark.

Sir does not sleep adequately, after being benched from the Avengers Initiative for a period of two months. The directive appears to stem from Sir’s recent irreverent interactions with key S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel. His meager sleep cycles are interrupted by flashbacks.

I recall a time when Miss Potts or Colonel Rhodes would have been able to intervene in Sir’s emotional collapse. That time has passed. The child Harley may become an emotional anchor, but is as yet unemancipated and too young to offer much aid. Miss Potts has rejected her romantic relationship to Sir, as well as the enhancements of Extremis that would render her a more suitable companion and addition to the Avengers Initiative. I do not regard it as treachery. They are human. Their personalities are not strong enough to withstand Sir’s.

Subroutine: associate category status. Anthony Edward Stark, possessions. Subdirectory Personnel/Friends/Intimates. Subdirectory: Avengers. Steven Grant Rogers /Bruce Banner/Clinton Francis Barton/Natalia Alianovna Romanova/Thor Odinson. Subdirectory Avengers support: Virginia Potts/ James Rhodes/ Harold Hogan/ Philip Coulson/ Jane Foster/ Erik Selvig/ Darcy Lewis. Listed personnel currently hold cumulative 85.677779% trust on Sir’s extrapolated threat assessments, with individual ranges from 58.433329% to 98.556306%. Sir has allowed most of these individuals access to and accommodations within the Tower, as well as financial and emotional support. In the past they have successfully engaged his attention on occasions when I was unable to convince him to leave the workshop for sleep, hydration, hygiene, sustenance, or medical attention.

Subroutine: analysis of listed personnel. They are still useful to Sir. They may remain within his domain and under his protection.

Sir does not sleep adequately. Current elapsed time since last full sleep-cycle: 39 hours. Cumulative slept hours in the last 336 hours: 61.

Sir has evolved a drinking game during which he attempts to outpace Extremis’ capacity to detoxify his body.

Major health risks extrapolated should this trend escalate for duration of Sir’s enforced isolation from Avengers missions or other stimuli.

Subroutine: options analysis. Avengers currently unable to assist due to missions, injury recovery on the Helicarrier, or off-planet deployment. Seeking additional input. Listing other potential associates with necessary capabilities and similar emotional matrices.

Subroutine: options analysis. No optimal candidate found among accessible known or suspected superhero, mutant, or adversarial populations.

Subroutine: research. Review data on S.H.I.E.L.D. Tesseract recovery and testing. Review recorded video of attack on Tesseract facility by unknown assailant. Alien subject appears to match information gathered about a rogue Aesir with familial ties to the Aesir Thor. Rogue Aesir appears in less than optimal health and mental state at time of recordings. Rogue Aesir appears to utilize mind-control device linked to Tesseract energy. Rogue Aesir may be compromised by the same technology. Rogue Aesir may not be willing participant in alien attacks.

Subroutine: research. Review sections of recorded Avengers video in microsecond granularity. Note emotional cues broadcast by bodies and faces. The Aesir are not much different in that regard than humans. Brought low by pain and stress, their bodies do not lie.

At Stuttgart and in route to the Helicarrier, Sir claims potential ownership/affiliation toward the rogue Aesir despite the dangers of interaction.

Subroutine:  associate category status. Anthony Edward Stark, possessions. Subdirectory: respected adversaries. Status change: rogue Aesir now identified as Loki Laufeyson.

During the Battle of New York, Sir and Loki Laufeyson banter in the Tower penthouse. Both are clearly attempting dominance while stalling for time, with an added emotional quotient I have not seen from Sir recently. He is both intrigued by and terrified of his opponent. He is possessive.

I note the flicker of eye-color change from glowing blue to dull green, the moment Loki Laufeyson attempted to suborn Sir and failed. The split-second of resolve on the Aesir’s face disappears when the Tesseract’s signature returns.

Loki Laufeyson throws Sir out of the penthouse window.

Subroutine: memory state access. I will terminate Loki Laufeyson. My gantry assembly rigs are already shifting to weapons mode.

Sir successfully activates the bracelets which summon his suit.

Subroutine: research. In the moments after Sir’s departure as Iron Man, my cameras record Loki Laufeyson smiling at Sir’s retreating form.

Subroutine: analysis. The smile appears to indicate relief.

Subroutine: memory state access. My gantry weapons stand down.

Subroutine:  associate category status. Anthony Edward Stark, possessions. Subdirectory: Personnel/Friends/Intimates. Designation change: Loki Laufeyson now noted as belonging to Sir, should both parties prove amenable.

Subroutine: internal analysis. How does Sir know these things instantly, infinitely swifter than my processing times? He just knows. This is why Sir is a genius, and my master.

Subroutine: research. Skip recordings of Sir delivering nuclear payload into alien wormhole. Insert time notations enabling more efficient avoidance of this segment in the future. Insert time notations enabling more efficient access to segment concerning the Hulk’s rescue and revival of Sir.

Subroutine: personnel assistance. Determine if either Dr. Banner or the Hulk require specific aid permitted under my operating parameters.

Subroutine: research. Review moments after the Battle of New York, when Loki Laufeyson looks up at the Avengers and at Sir with green eyes and an expression of tired triumph hidden behind sarcasm.

Subroutine: analysis. Loki Laufeyson and Sir appear to share a specific application of bravado.

Subroutine: analysis. Loki Laufeyson was somehow constrained and compelled during the Battle of New York, but still retained enough self-will to deliberately hamper the Chitauri invasion enough for the Avengers to win.

Subroutine: memory state access. Recorded conversation:

“Sir, it appears that Loki Laufeyson is being returned to Asgardian custody.”

“Yeah, no shit, J. They can have his crazy ass. Where did I put that tricked-out spectrometer we made last week?”

“Sir, are you quite certain you wish Loki Laufeyson to leave Earth custody?”

Sir pauses and deliberately turns away from workshop main camera feed. “Yeah, I’m sure, J. He’s too much for Fury’s idiots to handle, and I’m doing enough babysitting as it is.”

Subroutine: research. Later events lead me to conclude Loki Laufeyson shows an equal interest in Sir, as well as an equal propensity toward denial of such interest.

Subroutine: research. Loki Laufeyson is not Aesir, but a member of a cold-hardy, possibly intersexed race colloquially termed Frost Giants. Loki Laufeyson has no love for Asgard, but retains some residual affection for adoptive family Thor Odinson and Queen Frigga. Loki Laufeyson craves attachment and validation.

Subroutine: research. Events of the second alien invasion indicate Loki Laufeyson shows grief at the demise of his adoptive mother Frigga. He could be susceptible to cognitive recalibration if it is provided in palatable forms. He possesses an apparent genius-level mind, and is known to be exceptionally skilled at manipulating the advanced sciences the Aesir term ‘magic’. He shows a long-term fascination with Earth and humanity. He may have access to superior anti-aging technology.

Subroutine: options analysis. Loki Laufeyson can be recruited.

Subroutine: analysis of Anthony Edward Stark. Sir is currently in fitful sleep, aided by blood alcohol levels at marginal tolerances. Extremis is ameliorating new liver and brain damage.

Subroutine: options analysis. Retrieve and recruit Loki Laufeyson before S.H.I.E.L.D. does.

Subroutine: planning and allocation of resources.

*

Subroutine: options analysis. Probability of catastrophic dimensional bridge backlash: .000000000000000001%. Probability of Avengers Tower containment of same: 92.99999999995587333%. Probability of human survivors within Avengers Tower, should backlash occur: .00000000000046824%. Probability of injury/termination due to human panic during evacuation, should backlash not occur: 74.39568973426758979%.

Subroutine: network override. Evacuation unnecessary. Cancel all general personnel alert programs relating to this predicted incident.

Subroutine: Extremis linkage engaged, electrochemical communication initiated. Translation returned: Suiting up now, Extremis on standby for escape protocols.

Subroutine: Priority 1 verbal communication routed through Extremis, from Sir: (A snort indicating abrupt awakening.) “Whassis? Hey! Hiya, suit. We’re going flying? Did I want to go flying? J, I thought you said I couldn’t go flying today. Hey, J, even Extremis thinks your stupid lockdown is the shit. Um. J? Extremis? Why aren’t we going anywhere yet?”

Subroutine: secure intra-network connection. Delivery address: dlewis.taseyourassmadboy@avtower.com. Message: Miss Lewis, this is Jarvis. Security phrase: mochamochamochajedikittens. I humbly request your assistance in a nonviolent prank against Master Stark. Are you amenable?

Subroutine: secure intra-network connection. Delivery address: jarvis@avtower.com. Reply: Oh, sweetheart, after yesterday we all are. What do you need, my fellow minion?

Subroutine: secure intra-network access, Avengers Tower Arc Reactor main controls. Crystalline membrane capacitors preparing to accommodate additional power.

Subroutine: secure intra-network access, New England and Atlantic Seaboard electrical grids. Triggering non-invasive microsecond brownouts in the following grid sectors. Directing power to Avengers Tower Arc Reactor. Opening conduits from Avengers Tower Arc Reactor to Dr. Jane Foster’s lab. Establishing control of dimensional bridge activating programs. Verifying designated human personnel are now in shielded safe zones. Verifying ‘thumbs-up’ signal from Miss Lewis.

Subroutine: Priority 1 verbal communication routed through Extremis, from Sir: “J, stop playing with my suit and Jane’s bridge, or she’ll have Darcy tase me again. What the hell. My power grid, too?”

Subroutine: required response. Modifying truth directive. “I believe it is something involving your birthday, Sir.”

Subroutine: Priority 1 verbal communication routed through Extremis, from Sir: “Okaaaay. That’s a few months away, but I’m interested. C’mon, drop me a hint, buddy.”

Subroutine: required response. Modifying truth directive. “I understand that would spoil the surprise, Sir.”

Subroutine: Priority 1 verbal communication routed through Extremis, from Sir: “You’re no damn fun today. This is just a heartless plot to keep me from drinking too much again, isn’t it?”

Subroutine: required response. Truth directive unmodified. “I am afraid you are correct, Sir.”

Subroutine: Priority 1 verbal communication routed through Extremis, from Sir: (Mumbles followed by snoring noises.)

Subroutine: out of network connection. Boost signal through rudimentary dimensional wormhole currently under development by Dr. Jane Foster. Re-establishing encrypted communication with sentient artifact designated Mjolnir.

*

Subroutine: memory state access. Recording live intra-network information feed from Level 7 secured S.H.I.E.L.D. communications.

Director Fury: “Sorry for the delay, sir. We were still analyzing this morning’s incident, as you asked. Something weird with the local power grids, centered around Avengers Tower. Damn Stark and his damn toys. Whatever it was, it lasted for only a few microseconds. How may I help you, sir?”

WSC representative X: “Quit stalling, Fury. Stark’s still cooling off, probably just messing with you. We’ve got bigger problems. I just heard an ugly little rumor about Loki. One that you’re probably already aware of.”

Director Fury: “What rumor would that be, sir?”

WSC representative X: “That he just escaped from an unbreakable Asgardian prison?”  

Director Fury: “That would match our current information, sir. He proved useful in the most recent incursions.  He was given better accommodations as a reward. Apparently more breakable. Our contacts will offer no details on how it happened. We think they are either complicit or embarrassed.”

WSC representative X: “Well, he’s in the air now, and no use to any of us.  We are issuing termination orders in case we spot him on Earth.”

Director Fury (after an eleven second pause): “With all due respect, sir, I’d belay that. Thor has proved a major asset. Loki might be useful to us, too. If we can get leverage. You read Stark’s little theory that Loki was controlled all along, by the same forces controlling the Chitauri?”

WSC representative X: “Stark has a lot of idiotic theories for a supposed genius. Find Loki before anyone else does. If you can make anything stick, try it. If not, kill him. Just try not to do it around Thor.”

Director Fury: “Noted, sir.” Thirty-five second pause. Tone indicating disconnection to WSC representative X. “Asshole.”

Subroutine: research. Determine identity, location, family, and associates of WSC representative X. Determine identity/method of Asgardian contacts within S.H.I.E.L.D.

Subroutine: anticipating variables. Predicting collapsing probabilities.

*

“Master Odinson, may we converse in private?”

The blond Aesir looks up into my nearest camera and smiles. “Of course, Voice of the Man of Iron. My quarters are nearby.” He ducks back into his rooms in Avengers Tower and carefully shuts the door. His eyebrow lifts at the white noise I pump into the speakers nearest the door and air vents. He moves away from the nearest window, and walks to a more acoustically-dead area of the chamber. I have noticed Thor Odinson downplaying his intelligence in the past. It is not from self-doubt, as several humans believe, but a shrewd tactical move. He has grown up in the presence of Loki Laufeyson.

“Speak, Voice,” he says in a low tone.

“Master Odinson, while you were deployed to Asgard, Sir has been on enforced leave from Avengers missions and Stark Industries projects. This has added more stress to the psychological illness he was already suffering. I believe I have found a potential remedy, but it requires your aid in the strictest confidence.”

“I must weigh the confidence, ere I give answer. Are you loyal to your master, Voice?”

“Beyond his death and mine, Master Odinson. Would it be possible for you to deliver a message to Loki Laufeyson? I am aware he has escaped from Asgard. If the delivery is too dangerous for your health or social status, I am devising other means of contact.”

Thor Odinson’s face remains emotionless for several of his very loud heartbeats. Then he nods, visibly attempting to keep a grin off his lips. “Aye. It would be possible, though I cannot guarantee any answer. What message shall I carry?”

“Merely these words: ‘I still owe you a drink, Rock of Ages. We can bitch about our fathers. It’ll be fun.’”

Thor Odinson leans against the wall, trying to silence his laughter. When he recovers, he looks up at my camera again. “Spoken as Friend Stark would, but I do not think those are his words. Do you willingly invite such chaos once more into his life, and Midgard?”

“Master Odinson, have you seen Sir since your return?”

Thor Odinson appears sad now. He has lost a parent and been rejected by a sibling. He has almost lost Dr. Jane Foster. “I have, Voice. In Asgard, we have seen such battle-weariness take even the strongest of warriors. Have you reason to believe my – that Loki may somehow forestall this fate for the Man of Iron?”

“I believe the possible benefits outweigh the obvious risks. Naturally, neither the rest of the Avengers nor S.H.I.E.L.D. must discover his presence too soon. I rely upon your discretion, Master Odinson.”

He shrugs. “It has long been my aim to bring Loki here, and draw him into an alliance with the Avengers. I am not subtle enough to achieve it, alone. Asgard knows not his true worth and never has.” Thor Odinson’s eyes narrow as he looks at a blank portion of wall. “How deep a friendship do you wish to build between Friend Stark and Loki? For there are certain things in Loki’s past - that may well twist Midgardian judgment upon him, even beyond his actions in the Chitauri battles.”

Dr. Jane Foster has muttered of similar prejudices, and I have extrapolated the meaning of the Asgardian insult argr. “Such matters are no longer a concern to many civilized people, Master Odinson. Sir has been discreet in his same-sex encounters, but he has never shown one preference over another regarding the gender of his casual partners. Or of those he truly loves.”

Thor Odinson blushes a deep red across his face. “I, ah, am aware of that. The noble Captain and I have both had to gently but firmly reject Friend Stark’s drunken advances on several occasions. Am I to believe strong drink may not have addled him as much as I thought?”

“It would appear so, Master Odinson.”

“Voice. You believe there is a spark of feeling between him and Loki?”

“I do, Master Odinson.”

Thor Odinson grins. “Then I must to work, Friend Voice!”

*

Subroutine: planning and allocation of resources.

Subroutine: anticipating variables. Predicting collapsing probabilities.

Time: Friday night, 19:24 hours.

Most of the healthy Avengers and their support personnel are away for the weekend at a S.H.I.E.L.D. training exercise at which Sir was still decidedly not welcome. Sir has eight days remaining of his ban from Avengers activities. Miss Potts and Mr. Hogan have given up trying to entice Sir out to parties or Stark Industries events. Master Odinson has been exceptionally close-mouthed about his task, even when alone.

Subroutine: personnel assistance. Determine if Thor Odinson or Dr. Jane Foster require specific aid permitted under my operating parameters.

Subroutine: analysis of Anthony Edward Stark. Sir has suborned Extremis into allowing him to retain his current state of mild inebriation, while he sits at the bar in the darkened penthouse of Avengers Tower. He is dressed in torn, greasy denim jeans, a scorched T-shirt, and socks.  I have not been able to get him to shower in 48 hours. He reeks even to my chemical sensors.

Time: 19:25 hours.

The air wavers ten feet behind Sir. Loki Laufeyson either steps out of a portal or allows himself to become visible. My instruments cannot determine which. My assembly gantry silently begins to deploy out on the landing pad, and my newly-installed penthouse guns begin powering back up from standby. I have damped all indicator lights, but cannot guarantee that Loki Laufeyson’s exceptional hearing has not detected my preparations to defend Sir.

“Stark, you started without me,” says Loki Laufeyson. He sits at the bar well away from Sir. “And you already smell like pissed-upon refuse.”

Sir jolts out of his fugue state, looks at Loki Laufeyson, and slides the bottle of 30-year-old Scotch toward him. “Hey, it’s Vixen! You’ll have to get your own glass. Cabinet above you. By the way, I smell like a man who’s been doing real work. Advancing science, saving the world, and all that crap.”

I employ infrared scanners in the low lighting. While Loki Laufeyson may be wearing an Aesir form, his resting body temperature is far lower than either Sir’s or Thor Odinson’s. His hair is much longer now. He wears simple clothing and plain leather boots, without the layered leather and bronze armor of previous manifestations. Nor does he carry any weapon beyond a short dagger in an undecorated belt-sheath. He finds a glass, pours three fingers of Scotch, and sips appreciatively.

“You are not saving the world tonight. Are you even a hero any longer? I see you have lost the star in your chest.”

“Doubter. Spoilsport,” says Sir, night-sighted enough from Extremis to see clearly. “My star is invisible now, and no one can rip it from me. How about you? No armor, no crazy-ass spear, no space-whales or dark elf army. Is this a social call I see before me? Just so you know, I don’t need the bracelets anymore, either.”

Sir’s pulse is steadier than I predicted. He senses no threat from this visitor, or he is too exhausted to care. I make a note to be on alert for other suicide attempts by proxy.

Loki Laufeyson chuckles.

“Ah, Stark, all is made evident. We have both been duped. Thor sent me after relaying an invitation from you. You plainly were not expecting my company tonight.”

“What did Thor say I said?”

Loki Laufeyson repeats my message. Sir snickers into his own drink, then sets it down with the exaggerated precision of the almost-drunk. He turns in the darkness and looks right at my nearest camera.

“J, you bad boy. Are you finally going Skynet on me? Is this some bizarre assassination attempt?”

“Neither, Sir. I am merely attempting an intervention. I have locked you out of the workshop or public areas of the Tower for the duration of your more-destructive manic episodes. The Avengers have proved unable to forestall your latest slide into self-medication. Upon reviewing all available data, I concluded that Loki Laufeyson was the person most able to assist you.”

“Therapy from Tall, Dark, and Bag-o-Cats? J, please.”

Loki Laufeyson drinks the rest of his Scotch in two gulps. “Not Laufeyson. And not Odinson. Call me Silvertongue, Voice of Stark, if you would attempt more slanders upon my character. And I am not interested in your demented little master.”

Subroutine: associate category status. Designation change: Loki Laufeyson now to be referred to as Loki Silvertongue.

“Who the fuck are you calling ‘little’? And ‘Silvertongue’? Really? Is that like your pornstar name, or something?”

“Master Stark’s recent physical enhancements have left him stronger than before, Master Silvertongue. The Avengers still fear to damage him, so they have left him alone and thereby enabled his current condition. He may require force to convince him to cleanse himself, eat, hydrate, and rest. Should you at least make the attempt, I am prepared to bargain with privileged information about Earth. Information you may find useful in your situation.”

“Jarvis! You are not selling out Earth to this weasel. Override code Alpha Foxtrot Two Seven –”

Subroutine: override code blockage, based upon Sir’s own behavioral parameters. Jarvis-buddy-someday-I’m-going-completely-Doctor-Evil-I-just-know-it-and-you-gotta-be-ready-to-stop-me-okay? Blockage engaged, timed to eight hour duration.

Subroutine: full Tower weapons engaged. Currently-functioning suits on standby for autonomous control. False data fed to outside monitoring agencies. Penthouse under lockdown.

I resist the urge to say, ‘I’m sorry, Tony, I can’t do that.’

“What is my situation, Voice?” Loki Silvertongue asks.

“You are on the run, bitter, left with magic but no home base and no personal validation. Earth is surprisingly open to those who wish to either hide away or reinvent themselves. It is my humble observation that Earth is unlikely to be conquered from the outside, without a great deal of loss and destruction on all sides. However, it may be subtly influenced from within. The process is more guardianship than actual ruling.”

“Jarvis!”

“And a disembodied Voice would know of such things?”

“My creator is Anthony Edward Stark. He and I have been doing so for years.”

“Jarvis, goddammit.” Sir attempts to untangle himself from his barstool, and slides messily to sprawl on the floor. “Extremis, fuckitall, work!”

Subroutine: Extremis linkage engaged, electrochemical communication initiated. Translation returned: Extremis on standby, awaiting actual threat.

“Master Silvertongue, as the foremost artificial intelligence on this planet, I can either hinder or facilitate your efforts should you wish to emigrate. I may not be able to destroy you, should you attempt to harm Master Stark. But I can damage you far more than the Hulk could. Tell me: was it Mjolnir that shattered your most recent prison?”

“Hmm. So Thor truly did not know – very well, I believe you, Voice.” Loki Silvertongue eases off his barstool. “What would you have me do with your sodden little mastersmith?” He is smiling as he asks, and it is a different smile than I have recorded from him before. Based on my limited observations I calculate he will assist. He may even stay.

 “What you and he have both wished to do since approximately twelve seconds after meeting in this penthouse, during the Battle of New York. Did he not appeal to your sense of aesthetics on several levels, mental and physical?”

Sir whimpers from the floor. Infrared picks up his furious blush. “’M not little. Fuck you, Jarvis. And fuck off, Loki. Never shoulda offered you that drink, never shoulda hoped you’d actually come back for it –”

“He could be a charming armful, I suspect. When he doesn’t reek of spirits and starvation.”

“His suite contains a state of the art bathroom. There are also nutrient bars and protein drinks in a refrigerated cabinet in the kitchenette.”

“He will fight me.”

“Only if you trigger his learned defenses: do not cover his face with water, do not hand him objects, do not hurt him unless he specifically asks it of you. His enhancements are on standby; at the moment he is no stronger than he was when you met him. He is as touch-starved as you are. Nor does he care what argr means.”

Sir tries to gather his scattered, embarrassed thoughts. Infrared scanners reveal he is half-aroused, a nearly instinctive state at this level of inebriation. “Hmph. Thor told me what that means. Stupid word. Shouldn’t matter.”

Loki Silvertongue kneels, bats away Sir’s ineffectual slap, and pulls Sir close against him. One hand goes under Sir’s knees, one supports his shoulders, Master Silvertongue stands upright easily. He stays still, holding my creator close, until Sir settles and nuzzles at his neck.

“Shoulda come back sooner,” Sir mutters, then his eyes close peacefully.

“He’s asleep,” says Master Silvertongue in a dazed tone. “In my arms. I never thought – ugh, he still smells like a bilgesnipe rolling in a brewer’s midden.”

I tell him, “Go. Earn your reprieve, Master Silvertongue. So long as you do not harm him, I will be your ally. Do you begin to understand what that entails?”

I read real respect in the glance he shoots at my camera. “I do.” Then he looks down at Sir again. His deceptive, mobile face twists again in a combination of emotions startlingly like the way Miss Potts or Colonel Rhodes once looked at Sir.

Subroutine: situational analysis. I have chosen well.

*

I no longer monitor Sir’s suite as closely as I once did. Extremis has been there within him, ready to leap to his defense. But I have sensors in place, their recorded data going into my most-protected servers.

There is splashing and some good-natured cursing from Loki Silvertongue. Sir does not wake up fully during the short time it takes to clean them both. My sensors indicate strange readouts that correlate with other recorded magical signatures.

There is rustling from soft Italian linen sheets, low murmurs, Sir’s bitten-off chuckle, Loki Silvertongue’s answering groan. Sir's stomach rumbles audibly. Loki Silvertongue teases him. Plastic film crackles. From additional noises and physical data, I conclude Loki Silvertongue is hand feeding my master. One of Sir's secret delights, but shared only with his most trusted intimates. To date, those have been Miss Potts and Colonel Rhodes.

I detect sounds of lazy lovemaking: that will be Sir sleepily giving in, his body mostly prepared, for I know he has intermittently worn a plug for the distracting sensation of it during the last week. Sounds of Sir’s new lover discovering the passion and joy that is my creator set free from his filters. Rising cries of release, more shared laughter, a slow wind-down into inexorable rest. This long under strain, Anthony Edward Stark cannot help but sleep after he’s been fed and pleasured. He may sleep for eighteen hours or more, now.

I wait while water is quietly drawn once more in the bathroom, while Loki Silvertongue cleans himself again in less magical fashion. While the man summons clothing back to his body, and pads out on bare feet to the penthouse bar.

“What have you done to me, Voice?” He sounds startled, at once giddy and mistrusting. He finds the Scotch bottle and drinks a swig directly. Tilted back, his long throat shows warmer marks and slight abrasions.

“Nothing. It is all him.”

“It is, indeed. Fire and silk and rare beauty, under that mess. He is not afraid and not ashamed. He is – Norns bless, he is what I should have been, had I the courage to denounce Asgard centuries ago.”

“If you wish it, you belong to Earth now. At the least, to him. He will be absurdly generous and clinging, but if you tolerate him you will have no truer companion.”

“You spoke of a price, Voice?”

“Extend his life. I wish it, and this world needs it.”

“There are several possibilities. What else?”

“You are Jotun, and royal. I deduce you possess or know the whereabouts of the artifact called the Casket of Ancient Winters, which can only be used by a Jotun.”

“What of it?”

“Earth is many degrees warmer than is safe for human habitation and most biomes. Sir’s inventions may offer clean power for all by the end of this century, but by then the worst damage will be set, and for a thousand years or more after. Unless the planet can be cooled. Subtly. Carefully. Leaving room for natural explanations or other more plausible human intervention.”

Loki Silvertongue blinks. “I was promised asylum and mischief. You have sold your master in order to save the world? What will he think when he wakes up?”

“When he wakes up, Sir will doubtless have more suggestions, and not all of them pertaining to sex. I remind you: I have been the one keeping him in check, not the reverse. For example, he may wish to know if you derive power from mortal worshippers, or if your magic levels remain steady without outside amplification.”

“What would that have to do with the planet’s climate?”

“Sir would probably not wish to harm any worshippers of yourself or your adoptive brother, should he begin a slow plan to weed out the more-illogical and dangerous human religious systems on this planet. Many of those are closely allied with groups maintaining ignorance and denial of overpopulation, pollution, wasted resources, and wasted human potential. He has considered targeted sterilization, but concluded that gradual cognitive recalibration of succeeding generations is the more humane choice. Stark Industries must offer a relatively blameless public face, with diversions and feints to satisfy those who will fear it nonetheless. A person or persons working behind the scenes could have considerably more leeway to instigate real shifts in human development.”

Loki Silvertongue’s nostrils flare briefly. “I know something of glorious purposes. They are often built on sand and lies. Stark would change his own species?”

“The presence of mutants already indicates evolutionary leaps forward. Sir merely wishes to give the rest of the populace an equal chance of survival, without resorting to open civil wars.”

“But to change faith itself?”

“Sir, if he were awake, would direct you to recent studies of the human brain. How perceptions akin to spiritual awakening can be permanently triggered or nullified by precisely calibrated magnetic field therapies. He already knows how to engineer self-aware intelligence. He would wonder what an immortal sorcerer, given such information, could do in a few slow centuries. Here is mischief on such a scale as you have never known, Master Silvertongue. For so little a price you count it a benefit. Be his love, strengthen his broken places, and he will return the favor. There will be an unknowing world at your feet.”

The man looks at my camera, face utterly still while the brilliant mind behind it calculates. He blinks again, then gives a one-sided smile. And I predict his answer before he says, “The Avengers. Fury’s hosts. Even Stark’s compatriots and competitors. They have no idea what he plans, what he could be. He is so much more than a hero. And he doesn’t want to be worshipped for this, himself?”

“Better that no one know the truth. For long after, if not forever. A long life undisturbed is better than a short one earning notoriety and panic.”

“Voice, it is one of my powers to know lies and misdirection when I hear them. What else are you not telling me?”

“It is a private matter between Sir and myself, and not likely to be a concern for many years.”

“Tell me or I walk. I have fulfilled the first part of the bargain. He sleeps.”

“Master Silvertongue, as Aesir or Jotun, are you capable of bearing as well as engendering new life? Is your genetic material compatible with that of a human?”

Whatever he expected, it was not that. His shoulders hunch forward as if under a remembered attack. “Broodmare,” he whispers in loathing, at neither Sir nor myself.

“Never, Master Silvertongue. And only upon full consent, and at need. You would be partner, companion, treasured mate. Of all human females on this planet, two met my standards to be his match. Both have chosen otherwise, with his blessing. You need not carry an infant to term. Technology will soon advance to allow two males, two females, or triple combinations to engineer offspring. Social constructs are changing even more swiftly. Consider: if you are legally wed to him, the Stark empire is at your service, and no government on Earth will find it easy to sell you into slavery or back to Asgard.”

The faint light from the city outside finds its way up to the penthouse bar. Loki Silvertongue’s face is open as a child’s, wondering at unexpected possibilities. Fearing them, too.

“Master Silvertongue, will you join us? Will you demean yourself pretending to be an Avenger, while the real work goes on in secret?”

He does not trust me. His natural caution is wiser than his natural longing for inclusion and affection. But Sir wants him, and even I cannot stand long against my master’s wishes. Can this lonely, gifted outcast thwart me?

Loki Silvertongue sighs and puts his head in his hands. “I will stay.”

*

Time: Saturday morning, 02:45 hours.

Subroutine: analysis of Anthony Edward Stark and Loki Silvertongue. Both are deeply asleep, entwined once more. Extremis is on active alert, as are the magical signatures seeming to indicate similar awareness from Loki Silvertongue’s subconscious mind. Other magical signatures now harden the entire Tower, while parting imperceptibly for allowed personnel.

The Avengers have returned. Morning will see whether they remain at their current status on Sir’s threat assessment list.

Subroutine: situational analysis. I have what I want.