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on your baddest (best) behavior

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"You see a mousetrap, I see free cheese and a fucking challenge." - Scroobius Pip

***

Tony was sure he’d imagined it. Pretty sure. He’d been up for 28 hours. It was likely Friday. He was almost certain it was Friday. Probably.

He’d blocked the windows on the workshop level of the tower on purpose because he didn’t want to know what time it was. If something was that important, JARVIS would let him know. Or Pepper. She’d offered to leave S.I. when things didn’t work out, but Tony had asked her if she really wanted to, and she’d said no. No hesitation at all. Which was a relief to both of them; to Tony because she was utterly indispensable as CEO and to Pepper because she loved her job. Turned out she loved it more when she could date someone who kept normal hours, didn’t almost get himself killed every couple of weeks, or have nightmares that scared the ever-loving shit out of her, but hey. That’s the way the ball bounces.

Love didn’t have to mean engagement rings. After all, Tony loved Rhodey too. And Happy, come to think of it, and he couldn’t commit to either of them romantically either.

It was tangled and messy and weird for a while but now it was over, and Pep was dating an accountant at Jones Lang Lasalle. They worked out together and liked going to the market for fresh fish and vegetables and cooking Japanese food. Tony refrained from saying anything harsh about the guy. Mostly. Except sometimes about his hair. What? Pep posted a lot of double selfies on Instagram. She looked happy in all of them.

So Tony had no clue what time it was and he was tired, but even tired, he didn’t see things. Even drunk, he didn’t (usually) see things. So he wrote off the six-foot shimmer he thought he’d seen in the corner as bleed from the screens fucking with his vision, and figured he maybe ought to turn in.

***

The next time it happened, there was no fatigue or tech-prompted tired-eye issue to blame it on.

At nearly noon, Tony was as well-rested as he got these days and suitably caffeinated; he’d even had breakfast. Something shimmered in the edge of his vision, and when he turned, it was still there. He held his breath, staring, and it slowly turned grey, shifted into a blur of colors, then solidified.

And fuck if it wasn’t Loki, standing there in a pale shirt, dark pants, hair loose. No armor or battle garb. Just Loki, patting his own chest and examining his hands.

Tony’s heart jumped into his throat and he took a breath to alert JARVIS to rouse the team, if JARVIS wasn’t picking this up (was it a projection? a gaseous form?) but Loki was on him quickly and cool fingers pressed against his lips, even before he could summon the suit.

“Hear me first, Stark,” Loki said, brows knitted, his voice a desperate plea, not the arrogant command Tony had been expecting. “I mean you no harm.”

“What do you want?” Tony hissed against the fingertips, and Loki lowered them slowly.

“I have an objective to fulfill, not a threat.”

“Glorious purpose?” Tony scoffed, drawing his head back to grab a breath. His suit was two feet away. And he didn’t even need the wristbands to call it anymore, so he wasn’t really concerned. Okay, he was maybe 15 percent concerned. “Didn’t log enough murder and mayhem the last time?”

“It is not...that,” Loki said, swallowing. “It is...I am here to atone.”

“Well, we can do that. I’ll call Fury and you can atone in Supermax.”

Loki squinted at him.

“It’s a kind of very unpleasant jail,” Tony clarified, heartbeat slowing to something near normal. If Loki had wanted to stab him with something, he’d have done the deed by now. “You know, where you belong. Though I think a SHIELD facility might be even more unpleasant.”

“I am jailed.”

Tony raised an eyebrow, folding his arms. “You look pretty free-range to me.”

“My essence is jailed, on Asgard.”

“What the hell’s this, then?” Tony gestured at him, poked at his shoulder. “Not your essence? You’re solid-state. JARVIS, do you see this guy? Loki’s here.”

“Sir?” came the voice of JARVIS. “My sensors detect the DNA and life signs of a human being.”

“Not a demigod?”

God,” Loki muttered, with a scowl.

“Semantics.” Tony waved a hand. “Not the same biosignature you get when you scan Thor?”

“We are not the same,” said Loki.

“Right, adopted. I get it. Are you guys different species, or what?” Loki made a face. “Not being speciesist. Alien and Predator both have their charms. Not that Thor’s an asshole,” Tony said pointedly.

“I detect standard human biological readings, Sir, including density and life signs, but…” JARVIS paused. “But I am unable to obtain visual confirmation. Shall I alert the team that we have an invisible guest?”

Loki was furiously shaking his head. “Hmm,” Tony said. “Hold off, JARVIS. Disregard for now. Just log and monitor our guest’s location. So. About your uh, humanity…”

Loki stared at him. “It is complicated. This is a mortal form. I will earn my eventual release, and the reunion of this form and my essence through atonement here, on Midgard.”

Tony picked up the nearest object, just to do something with his hands. It was a ruler. “And this atonement consists of…”

Loki sighed. “I am to grant you boons.”

“...boons.” Tony repeated.

“This is correct.”

“So like, three wishes,” Tony said. “Did somebody rub a lamp?”

Loki pursed his lips. “Not quite. Favors. The number required is unclear.”

Tony squeezed the ruler. “Well, I’m not really predisposed towards helping you out, gotta say.”

“It is my penance, sent down from Odin himself. To teach me humility and charity. I will not be freed when I complete the task, but will have no chance of ever earning my freedom without it. I am bound from harming anyone on this realm in pursuance of this goal, and I cannot leave until I have atoned.” Loki recited, expression a combination of pissed-off and pathetic.

He really didn’t seem to like this world very much when he wasn’t trying to rule it, but was definitely too smart to insult it at this point. The guy was pretty transparent, Tony thought. Still, if this was on the level, he was pretty sure Loki would lose his shit sometime soon or cop to secretly being desperate for dear old dad's approval (okay, that was a stretch, but it takes one to know one,) and Tony couldn’t wait to see that, especially if he really was human and not magical. What was he gonna do, punch a wall?

Other humans really didn’t scare Tony anymore. He’d already seen the worst humanity had to offer. He shrugged. If Loki had to pass out some sort of oddball boon-wishes to get out of their hair, he might as well get on with it. “Fine. Start with Hawkeye. You pissed him off the most, so I hope you don’t mind being a volunteer target. Or you can magically...something-or-other; make him a bottomless quiver, maybe.” He shrugged.

“It is not so simple. My magic has limits in this form; I am bound from complex spells.”

Tony shrugged. Loki could appear at will in front of him, and that seemed complex enough. “Maybe you can give me all the gold in Fort Knox, or create me an AI to handle my computing processes. Whoops! I’m already a billionaire. Whoa, I did that already. I don’t need any favors from you; talk to the other Avengers.”

“But it must be you,” Loki mumbled.

“What?”

“You,” Loki said, more forcefully. “I can appear to only one human, and you were chosen by Odin.”

“Me? Why?”

“Because I could not defeat you.” Loki gestured at Tony’s chest, and Tony remembered the reassuring tink of the sceptre against his arc reactor.

“You technically couldn’t defeat any of us,” Tony said with a grin. “Not to rub it in.”

Loki fixed him with a glare, breathing through his nose. Tony could tell he wanted to punch a wall already. Or Tony. Or maybe push him out of a window for a second time. He folded his arms again and waited.

“That was among Odin’s conditions,” Loki said. “It must be you.”

Tony shook his head. He really was the worst choice. Like he’d said, he didn’t need anything. Natasha, on the other hand, had a sprained wrist from a recent battle. She and Clint shared a floor and basically lived in the tower like ninjas; Tony saw them once a week, if that. “Okay. Natasha, you remember her. Red hair, ninja skills. I believe you called her names.”

“I do.”

“She has a minor injury. Why don’t you heal it?” Tony said.

“As I have said, that is not a boon for you,” Loki said. “I cannot.”

“We...I need her to fight alongside me, and she’s a member of the team, so yeah, it’s one for me. Call it a favor.”

Loki shook his head. “I cannot. I am not able to bring favor to another. And you should not speak of this to others. They cannot see me. They are likely to think you mad.”

“Eh, they already do. So what are the other parameters here?” Tony dragged a thumb over his goatee, frustrated, because this was some Disney princess crap. If Loki couldn’t heal Natasha, he definitely couldn’t fix Banner, either. “See, because these wishes…” Tony watched Loki’s mouth form the word boons “Boons, fine...there isn’t really a history of good outcomes from things like that. I ask for my cat Fluffy from childhood back and he appears and he’s a murderous zombie cat from the cursed pet cemetery or something.” He watched Loki roll his eyes. “And I don’t have a lot of confidence in you not fucking things up on purpose.”

“Suffice it to say that the conditions do not allow me to trick or harm you in any way, and I cannot lie to you,” Loki said, and then tilted his head with a tiny smile. “Though as I told you, my magic is present, though limited. Would you like me to bring back your kitten?”

“I never had a kitten,” Tony said. “It was a hypothetical. But come on, I know mythology. Wish for a giant cock, wake up with a four-foot mutated rooster in your pants. No thanks.”

Loki rolled himself up, and seemed even taller. “I have sworn I cannot -- and will not -- harm you or deceive you.”

“Right, well, god of lies. That condition must be agony for you.” Tony sat on a stool in front of his workbench and gave a dismissive wave. “Okay. Well, I’ll think of...something. Come back in a week.”

Loki hesitated. “I must also remain in your near company until all the boons are granted.”

“You serious?” Tony gave him a withering look. “Any more conditions? Do you come with a listing of side effects? Constant irritation? Unusual or worsening mood changes? Urge to smash?”

“I may not use magic to benefit myself, and for others, some things are not possible to grant. I cannot bring peace to the world, for example; I know this is something mortals often wish for.”

“Yeah,” Tony said. He had to admit he hadn’t thought of ‘world peace’ yet, but that was a good one. He’d tried to privatize that himself. It had resulted in unusual or worsening mood changes, among other things.

“If peace were that simple, the gods would have granted this long ago. There are too many conflicting essences involved.”

“But you can bring a pet cat back from the dead.”

“From Valhalla.” Loki nodded. “I believe I could.”

“What about a person?” Tony eyed Loki.

“A mortal being, even a Midgardian, is not as simple as a beast. It would break the cycle of life and death. It would cause you harm, even if you can’t see it.”

Tony stared at Loki. There was an insult in there, but he actually sounded reasonable. Besides, who would he bring back, if he could? His mother...Yinsen...really, he could make a list. Agent, maybe? Tony swallowed. “Okay. That. I understand that. Monkey’s Paw.”

“I do not understand.”

“It’s a story about a couple who wished for their dead son back, and he came back wrong. Like the cat thing, actually.” Tony attempted demented air claws, making a face to match.

“Ah,” Loki frowned.

“So, right. I’ll think about it. But I have work to do, so…” Tony gestured, and Loki sat down on the leather chair a few feet away and crossed one leg over the other. “JARVIS, protocol 422.” That meant constant surveillance, immediate deployment of a tranq dart from one of several origin points with heat sensors keyed never to target Tony himself if he was in danger, and an Avengers full alert if someone was a threat. It was something he’d begun work on after Stane had turned out to be a traitorous, murdering bastard and completed when he fixed up the place after the battle. JARVIS didn’t have to be able to “see” Loki to keep him in his sights, so to speak.

“Yes, sir,” JARVIS replied.

Tony glanced at Loki, who was fiddling with the fabric on his trouser knee, looking aggrieved at being a lowly human, and stuck with him, of all people. This was going to be just great.

“Could you maybe…” Tony began. “Disappear?” Loki shimmered again, color to grey, and stayed that way, like a humanoid-shaped smudge on the chair. “Oh, no, wait, that’s creepy. Like Casper the Unfriendly Ghost.” Loki reappeared, looking smug, and Tony didn’t need that, either.

Eventually, however, Tony became engrossed in his project, which involved additional shielding for the arc reactor powering the building. Sort of a quantum-level Faraday cage. It’s not that he forgot Loki was there, exactly, but Loki wasn’t moving around much, just waiting, apparently, for some special boon idea to strike, so Tony ignored him. Though he wondered if Asgardian tech wasn't advanced in some way he was unaware of, since Loki seemed uninterested in Tony's work. It was...discomfiting, in a way. Not that he expected Loki to be impressed, or whatever.

“Dummy, sustenance,” Tony said, and a few minutes later, a robotic arm extended a smoothie his way. Dummy was no Pepper, but he could construct an edible shake from a programmed recipe. Tony watched Loki fidget, “Did you want one of these? On second thought, I should have asked you to magic up a steak and arugula salad for me. As a boon.”

“As you have said,” Loki stated, “you are a wealthy man. You do not need me to ‘magic up’ food for you.”

“I really don’t understand the conditions,” Tony said, sipping, but remembered that Loki said he had a human form. His fingers had certainly felt human, after all, not that Thor didn’t also have the human touch when you shook his hand; it wasn’t like the guy carried electric current or a halo or some shit. “But you eat, right? Dummy, whack up another one of these for our villainous guest.” The bot whirred and offered an amenable chirp.

When Dummy returned, Tony took the smoothie, thrust it into Loki’s hands, and watched him poke it with a straw before taking a drink. He made a face, but fuck Loki, these had pineapple and coconut; they weren’t half-bad. He waited for the inevitable bitching.

Loki paused, and surprised him: “This was kind of you, Stark. You might have let me starve.”

“Don’t mention it,” Tony said, returning to work and pointedly ignoring his guest. He really hoped Loki would get bored, give up, and fuck off.

The dinner hour rolled around and passed, and when Tony looked in Loki’s direction again, he was slumped in the chair, head lolling to his shoulder. Tony picked up his phone and snapped a photo, but the chair appeared to be empty. “Huh. Bummer.” That would have been great for Instagram. Loki blinked awake and looked pissed again, as if remembering where he was, and what an onerous burden it was to have to think of something beneficial to do. Tony glanced at his watch. “Hungry?”

Loki glared at him. “Yes.”

“Chinese?” After a pause, Tony clarified. “I suppose you don’t know if you like Chinese food, but you will, because it’s delicious. But you know what's even better? Thai.” He ordered a meal via JARVIS and headed for the elevator. “Well? Coming?”

Loki sighed and followed.

“Hey, this wasn’t my brilliant idea, sport,” Tony said. “In fact, didn’t Odin realize that it would be a pain in my ass to accommodate your atonement?”

Loki slumped against the back wall of the elevator. “I did not have time to question his aims in full, before being sent here with my instructions.”

“If you’re supposed to be learning charity, why am I the one paying for the food?”

Loki was quiet. Tony supposed that was better than him trying to have the last word. He’d enjoy that while it lasted.

***

Tony met his gaze after they’d devoured the meal, (Loki had caught on with chopsticks pretty quickly, and though Thai food didn't need chopsticks, it was fun to watch). Loki pushed away the remnants and leaned back in his chair at the table in Tony’s suite.

“So, you liked that, am I right?”

Loki stared at Tony as if he wasn’t sure why he would care, so offered a noncommittal shrug. “It was adequate.”

“Well, try not to fall over yourself with thank-yous. I’m still thinking about throwing you out.”

“Why would you do that when I am here to atone by rewarding you?”

Tony regarded him steadily. “Because you make me profoundly uncomfortable and I’d rather you not hang around, human or not.” He wadded up a napkin and Loki ducked, letting it sail over his head.

“Stark, I did not request this.”

“Fine, so go home to your essence and...merge back into it and serve your time.”

“I am…” Tony watched the bob of Loki’s throat. “Trapped here. As Thor once was.”

Well, Thor hadn’t haunted anyone, as far as Tony knew. He shrugged one shoulder again and stretched, yawning. “Right. Hitting the sack now. See you on the flipside, Voldemort.”

Loki stood and trailed behind him, and Tony stopped and spun. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“As I have said, I must remain in your close company until I’ve fulfilled the conditions Odin has set forth for me.”

Wow. Like this couldn’t get worse. “Is Odin punishing me? Is this like an Icarus fable? I left the atmosphere a couple of times, so was that something that pisses gods off? Okay, so maybe I’ve done it like...four times, so he’s saddling me with you to teach me a lesson, right?”

“I am sure that is not his intent,” Loki said, talking through an answering yawn that seemed to catch him unaware. Maybe gods didn’t do that, normally. “But I must keep you in sight.”

Tony huffed as Loki followed him to his bedroom. “Fine. Hell with it, I’m beat. You cannot watch me piss. That’s an Earthman rule.”

Tony lost his pants, and still in his t-shirt and boxers, went to the bathroom after Loki emerged from it and did his thing, scrubbed cool water over his face and patted it dry. He eyed himself in the mirror. He wasn’t undressing completely with Loki in the room; he trusted JARVIS to poison-dart the motherfucker if he got violent, but there was a limit to how vulnerable he’d allow himself to be. On the other hand, if Loki had to be in his company, Tony doubted Odin would be amused if he ended up hurt or dead at Loki’s hand, so maybe sleeping in the same room was as safe as could be. He emerged to see Loki sitting on his bed looking pale, his shoes off.

“Oh. No. That’s not happening, Loki. Not bunking with you.”

Loki looked outraged. “You would allow a guest to slumber on the floor?”

Tony grinned. “You’re supposed to learn humility, right?” Loki blinked at him. “Yank those chairs together,” Tony said, indicating the two leather chairs by the window. “Stretch out there. I’m not in the mood to spoon.”

Grumbling, Loki arranged the tufted black Barcelona chairs to face and abut each other and lowered himself across them. He had to draw up his long legs to fit, and he grumpily punched at one of the toss pillows before tucking it under his neck. Feeling charitable, Tony pulled out one of the drawers under his bed and produced a silk-edged ruby blanket that he wadded up and tossed across the room. “There. And if you snore, I’m throwing something heavier.”

Loki narrowed his eyes as he gripped the material and Tony laughed. The guy had an epic bitchface.

“JARVIS, lights at five percent.”

***

Loki awoke to the sound of a talking alarm, speaking of the weather as words and film appeared on the window to his side. He pushed the blanket away and stretched, feeling a sharp, hot spike of pain in his neck from the way he’d slept folded into himself. He attempted to heal the ache, but the effort failed, probably because it was for him and not the human. His powers were unpredictable in this situation. He wished fervently for a healing stone. Why would Odin do this to him?

Being mortal...was terrible.

He knew that Odin had visited a similar trial upon Thor, but at least Thor wasn’t required to do much of anything when stranded and mortal. He’d been banished, that was all. Leave it to the Allfather to make Loki's trial more difficult, but of course, he'd taken part in an attack on Earth, not Jotunheim. Right.

It didn’t help that Loki felt weakened and nauseated out of Stark’s company. He'd confirmed this last night when the man had performed his nightly ablutions in the other room. He glanced at the huge bed and found it empty. Panicked and wobbly, Loki came to his feet and headed for the door just as it opened; it was Stark with a closed carafe and cups. “Coffee,” Stark muttered, his voice scratchy. Loki took a deep, calming, mortal breath as Stark’s presence swept away the sickened feeling. Odin, knowing too well that Loki would rather do anything than stay tethered to a former enemy, had clearly done this on purpose.

Loki grudgingly admired his foresight. It seems Odin knew Loki better than he’d assumed. Even if he favored Thor.

“You have brought…” Loki took the mugs from his hand; they passed over to the table by the chairs, and Stark poured two cups.

“Coffee,” Stark repeated, and tossed his head back, gulping. “Okay, better.”

Loki sipped at the black liquid. It was rich and strong, and almost too hot, but it appealed to his human taste buds in an odd way. “It is bitter.”

“Some people like cream and sugar,” Tony said. “I don’t.”

Loki nodded and sank down into one of the chairs he’d slept in. Pushing back the other, Stark sat, cradling the cup between his knees as he leaned forward.

“Now that we’re both heading towards human for the day, let’s figure out how to get rid of you. No offense. Yeah, well, some offense.” Stark’s mouth twisted.

“It’s not as if I want to be here either,” Loki said indignantly. “Svartalfheim would have been far worse, but I do not wish to be your shadow any longer than necessary.”

“Yeah, I get that. I have a meeting with legal in an hour...signing some documents Potts sent over, and then...I don’t know. You think about some boons in the meantime. Unless you can clone me and send the clone to sign shit while I go to the workshop.” Stark raised an optimistic eyebrow as he poured a second cup of coffee for himself and paused before topping off Loki’s.

Loki shook his head. That wasn’t possible. His magic couldn’t even extend to duplicating his own image at the moment. He could do only minor things. He stared at his cup, clouded it with cream, added a touch of sweet, and sipped. Too cloying. He grimaced.

“Cute. Yeah, okay, I see that you’re here to,” Stark made quotation signs in the air, “help me but are of absolutely no practical use.”

Loki scowled, fighting the returning uneasy feeling as Stark set his down his empty cup and left the room to clean up and dress.

***

Loki had only the clothes on his back, which had materialized when he’d been sent to Midgard.

Tony caught his look of distaste at the rumpled ensemble when Loki looked at them after emerging from the shower in his spare robe, sighed, and angled his head toward the closet. Loki donned a dark red shirt and a pair of trousers to suit him. They weren’t built the same, but the clothes fit, more or less, and Tony wondered if Loki had used some of his minor magic ability to do alterations.

“Hey now, put those back the way you found them later,” he said.

“I will obtain my own clothing,” Loki said, through gritted teeth.

“Yeah, you brought Asgardian Express for incidentals, right? I can just imagine the invisible man strolling into Bloomies. JARVIS, room view.” A panel on the window showed the inside of the room, and Tony standing alone. “Huh. At least you don’t look like the headless horseman wearing my clothes.”

“The illusion extends to any items that I wear or hold,” Loki explained. If he took the guy through a clothing store, Loki could take things as he walked, but that scenario wasn’t something Tony really wanted to engineer for his benefit. He could afford to replace whatever Loki took from him easily enough, after all. Loki lifted his cup and drank a sip of the cooling coffee but it didn’t appear on the video screen either. Tony held up the white dress shirt Loki had been wearing yesterday and it looked normal on the same monitor.

“Trippy,” said Tony. He went to the mirror and adjusted his collar, deciding not to wear a tie.

***

Stark pointedly ignored Loki at the legal office on the 23rd floor, remaining stonefaced even when he moved the counsel’s pen for the third time.

“Goddammit,” Tony muttered when they were back in the elevator.

“You possess remarkable control, Stark,” Loki mused. “I had expected you to start shouting at me.”

“Okay, talking to an invisible demigod when I’m in the presence of someone who can write up commitment papers and hand them to the board isn’t a good plan.”

“Certainly not,” Loki nodded. “And once again, I am a god.”

"Hmm," Tony said.

"And a prince of Asgard."

“Not at the moment, you’re not. More like an annoying, slightly clingy, amateur magician.” They alighted on Stark’s home floor. “So, are you getting the hang of this mortal thing? Feel like being subjugated yet?”

“Pfft,” Loki replied, waving a hand.

“I’m not mad at you, by the way. I can’t stand lawyers.”

Loki laughed.

***

Tony thought he’d get some dedicated work time in for the remainder of the afternoon; Loki was pretty good at keeping his trap shut while Tony focused on projects, if yesterday hadn’t been a fluke. He’d settled in to focus on a thruster issue when a call to assemble sounded via JARVIS, and he headed for the balcony to suit up.

Loki followed.

“No. You’d just get in the way. Plus, hello? Human? You could be seriously hurt.” Tony really wasn’t unduly concerned about Loki’s general welfare, but who knew what kind of chain of events could be set off in Asgard if Loki were injured or worse. Loki looked stricken at the thought of not coming along, and Tony could see his breath grow labored through the scroll of the HUD as the rest of the suit formed around him.

“Fine,” Tony said, and clanked into the living room. He grabbed a motorcycle helmet off the table near the door and passed it to Loki. “Put that on.”

“It is armor?” Loki asked, donning the helmet, and Iron Man shook his head, servos sounding.

“Nope, but it’ll keep the bugs out of your teeth.” And wasn’t that how Loki viewed people, anyway? Like bugs? Well, enjoy, he thought. He grabbed Loki, tucked him against his chest, and flew off towards Tompkins Square Park.

The problem this time was a terrorist attack; the claim was Ten Rings, but who the hell knew, and as much as Tony hated Ten Rings, these guys were more disorganized. Still, there was disorganized, and there was disorganized with flamethrowers, and these people had flamethrowers. Clint downed two of the crew holding a scantily-swimsuited Miss New York hostage as Hulk spirited her out of the line of fire and shielded her from the attackers.

Tony told himself he’d watch King Kong later. Probably the Jessica Lange version.

The helmet he was wearing had a HUD and JARVIS monitoring its location on a closed channel. As far as Tony knew, Loki was still invisibly huddled behind the SHIELD SUV where he’d been deposited, avoiding the crossfire. Even if the terrorists weren’t aiming well, it would be pretty easy for Loki to be torched. From his silence and the way he seemed to cower, Tony could tell he was well aware of that possibility.

“Shit,” Tony cursed, as JARVIS tracked rounds from four separate directions. So the offenders weren’t just shooting flames, but .50 caliber automatic ordnance as well. He registered the rapid staccato rattle of steel on titanium and gold as he turned, and heard Loki gasp in his ear.

“Stark!”

“You down?” Tony asked, and Loki was silent. “Loki?”

“Look to your right, and up to your left,” came a strained reply after a few seconds. Tony watched a terrorist drop from a tree with a bloodcurdling scream, and another run, stumbling and slapping at his legs, surrounded by what looked like a murky cloud. Holding up his gauntlets, Tony pegged them both with tranq darts and watched them both still as the cloud lifted from each and headed forward and towards his six.

“Nailed one!” Tony heard Hawkeye say behind him, and when another man emerged from behind the temporary grandstand with a hoisted M60, swatting the darkened air around his head, Tony took him down too.

***

“Hornets,” Fury said at the debrief. “All of the suspects had multiple stings.”

“Mess with the bull, get the horn...ets,” Clint said, making a longhorn sign with his hand. “Too soon?”

“Too lame,” Tony corrected, and Clint smirked and made a different sign with his hand. Loki let loose a snicker and Tony considered Fury’s reaction if he ever found out Tony had brought an invisible villain into headquarters. His ass would be grass, for sure. It made him smile.

“That was certainly fortuitous timing for a hornet attack,” Fury mused.

“Maybe they’re counterterror hornets,” Natasha chimed in on the tele-feed. “Talk to Homeland Security.” Cap, dialed in from his cross-country road trip from a motel in Omaha, nodded solemnly.

Bruce snorted and Tony shook his head. “I am never bringing more than a three ounce bottle of scotch through airport security again.”

“Dude, do you even fly commercially?” Clint nudged Tony’s elbow.

“No, but theoretically…”

“Dismissed,” Fury told them. As Tony clanked out of headquarters, Loki rose from his leaning perch against a filing cabinet and followed.

***

Tony turned down an offer from Clint to grab a meal with Natasha and Bruce and headed back to the tower, Loki holding fast to the back of his armor, arms clinging desperately, wrapped tightly around his waist. Tony only shifted and almost lost him once. But he totally would have caught him. It wasn’t like Loki got a free pass just because he’d helped out. Once. Tony dropped him on the balcony and doubled back to let the machinery strip off the Iron Man armor. He made a beeline for the bar and felt a spike of déjà vu as he poured a drink and Loki settled onto a barstool across from him, but he couldn’t miss the fact that Loki’s hands were shaking this time, and the sweat along his hairline probably wasn’t due entirely to the motorcycle helmet.

“Good job with the bugs, Radagast,” Tony said, lifting his glass in a small salute.

Loki shrugged. “It was a boon to assist you. A simple conjuring.”

Tony nodded slowly. “Was it enough?”

“Apparently not.” Loki looked into his highball glass, distraught. “I had thought it might be sufficient to offer some benevolence to you in battle, but I was also helping myself; I wanted it to end quickly because our separation caused me pain. And because I feared for my life.” He looked away, obviously angry at himself. “I could not do more with these limited powers.”

“It was, uh, very helpful, though,” Tony assured him, after a long moment, noting the nasty scratches on Loki’s wrist, where he’d probably scraped it on the ground. “Really. Nice work.”

Loki sipped his drink and Tony thought he looked contemplative as he switched on the television to watch basketball. Seemingly uninterested in what was on the screen, Loki picked out two books from the shelf and sank into a chair to read.

He was surprisingly mellow most of the time, Tony thought. He’d hand him that. He guessed Loki’s usual pain-in-the-assdom probably didn’t suit his objectives, or Odin’s objectives either. If Tony pushed Loki out the window for being annoying, he wasn’t likely to survive, after all.

Tony supposed that Loki’s adoptive dad was more into grounding the kids than knocking them around.

Thirty minutes later, scotch or no, Tony was still keyed up from the scene at the park. He remembered his earlier plan and called up the 1970s King Kong. He noticed Loki tilting his head to see the screen from his chair, and shrugging, waved him over to the sofa for a better view.

“Do such creatures exist on this realm?” Loki asked, halfway in.

“Not anymore. This is an old flick,” Tony replied, polishing off his drink.

Loki laughed after a long moment. “Liar.”

“You’d know. Monster movies are metaphors,” Tony said, “You should have studied films instead of reading the history entries on Earthapedia before you invaded. You would have learned more about us that way. The most recent King Kong sucks and the first King Kong is actually better, but I have a nostalgic attachment to this one; I saw it as a kid. Want another drink?”

Loki nodded. “I would.”

“Your turn to fetch. Bottle’s still out. Don’t poison me.”

Loki huffed and took their glasses to the bar. “What do these film monsters symbolize?”

“Different things,” Tony said. “This one is the touching tale of a guy from a small town who follows a pretty girl to the big city, goes into showbiz, climbs to great heights, and leaves his mark.”

“I do not think that’s correct,” Loki said, joining Tony on the sofa and handing him his second single-malt. “It is about innocence lost.”

“Maybe? Or it’s a Jungian archetype and the hero has to rescue the girl to free his anima. Or it’s just an excuse to make a cool movie with a giant gorilla.”

“He is a giant misunderstood gorilla,” said Loki.

“That too,” Tony said. “Drink up. We’ll watch the original after this one.”

***

Waking up on the sofa wasn’t unusual. Waking up on the sofa after passing out during a double creature feature with Dalwhinnie dry-mouth and a raging hard-on wasn’t, either. Finding said boner nestled under the cheek of a conked-out, customarily-corrupt fallen immortal alien, on the other hand…

Tony checked his watch. 3:28. He tried to will his cock down, but that never worked. Next, he attempted to slide one leg to the floor in an effort to get out from under Loki before he stirred, but that wasn’t successful, either. Frantic hands gripped his thighs and Loki looked up at him. Well, at his face first, before his gaze dropped to the front of Tony’s pants in the flickering dark.

“Hey, so…” Tony shifted his hip, yawning. Fuck it, everybody who had wood had morning wood sometimes. “I’ll just be going to bed. I’m hungry, you? Yeah, later we’ll order some bagels or someth-” he choked off the end of the sentence when Loki tightened slim fingers around his legs and dropped his face into Tony’s crotch.

“What are you doing?” he hissed. “Are you...sniffing me?”

Looking up again, Loki’s eyes glittered with something that Tony sleepily identified as lust. Fuck, he was still drunk, and so was Merlin, apparently. “Stark,” Loki murmured. “I have considered a boon.”

“I don’t even want to know how your mind works.”

Loki cocked a brow and shifted his chin right along the curve of Tony’s dick.

“What? Nope. You’d enjoy it way too much. You don’t get the boons, here. It doesn’t work that way.”

His objection was met with a scoff. “You are not my usual sort, mortal.”

“And yet you’re offering to get me off.”

Loki licked his lower lip, slowly, and offered a lazy grin. “I’m curious.”

Tony paused. “Maybe I don’t trust you not to bite it off.”

“I did not suggest I would use my mouth,” Loki said. “But you have obviously assumed so, and you are thinking you would enjoy this.”

And hell if that wasn’t true.

Okay, it wasn’t like Tony had even thought about Loki since he’d seen him the last time, except in a “what an evil asshole Thor’s brother is,” way, but hey, Tony had crossed triplets off his bucket list and an alien god, well, that was a coup, right? Or at least an alien. That might make a good story one day. This one time, Loki blew me. It’s not like he could tell anybody, though. Alright, you know what? He would definitely tell Rhodey.

But Tony shook his head, because he knew his own anything-goes mind, and while Loki was undoubtedly worse, this was a Very Bad Idea. “You’re not serious. I’m being punk’d.”

Loki frowned. “I am most serious.” His hands smoothed up the sides of Tony’s hips to his waist and his fingers tripped to the top button before he stopped, waiting. A flicker of something...was that hesitation? Did Loki even do hesitation?

Fuck it, if he was going to put the offer out there like that, it would be rude to decline. Loki could have been doing this because he was bored, or because his essence was in prison, and it's not like he had a lot of other options when he was essentially presence-shackled to Tony 24/7, or to piss off dear old dad, but...you know, he could relate to some of those, actually. Tony nodded, and Loki smiled, quick and sly, then leaned to lick the metal button before dragging down his zipper.

“So weird,” Tony muttered, but that was the last complete word he managed to get out before Loki shoved his pants down to his thighs with an impatient answering groan, because damn. Damn it, Loki was good at this...the firm pressure under the head as he stroked, the wet warmth of his mouth enveloping him after that, even the rhythm was working for him. Tony unclenched the defensive fists he’d made across his chest and tentatively reached out, pushing one hand into the soft fall of Loki’s dark hair. Loki rewarded him with a hard suck as he pulled down with his hand, and Tony gasped. This wouldn’t take long, apparently.

Loki smirked up, as well as he could smirk with his mouth otherwise occupied, and Tony dropped his head back to the arm of the sofa and groaned. Loki traced his balls with nimble fingers and he felt them tighten. “Loki,” Tony bit off a warning.

Loki made an affirmative sound, and Tony bit back a sound of his own as he came hard, watching Loki’s eyelids flutter shut. “Jesus.”

Tony came down, breathing hard, and shifted on the sofa before reaching out to drag his knuckles over Loki’s fly. The least he could do was return the favor.

“No,” Loki said.

“Why not?” Tony said, and god, he’d totally sobered up. Loki was probably pissy because his selfless blowjob hadn’t made him disappear from this plane. “Come on. Want a hand at least? Let me give you an ol’ fashioned.”

“I am fine,” Loki said, and Tony rolled his eyes before standing and shuffling his trousers up.

“God, you’re a snob.” Tony scrubbed at an eye with the heel of his hand. “Fine. I’m going to bed.”

Loki stood and went first, situating himself on the chairs. Fine, whatever, Tony thought. It’s not like he wanted to cuddle.

But that blowjob? A++. Astronomical, you might say.

***

Okay, Tony had chest-pounding, silent-scream-variety nightmares less than once every couple of weeks now, that he remembered anyway. Since he’d had somebody else around, he’d hoped that it wouldn’t happen, but it...had happened even with Pepper wrapped tight around his back in bed, so there was that.

He was falling, falling fast, and conscious as he watched the hole over the earth contract and finally wink out, leaving him in the blackness of space, his breath loud inside the armored helmet. He knew JARVIS couldn’t hear him here and he couldn’t speak anyway; his lungs were heavy and he knew, he knew that he should conserve as much air as he could. He had maybe half a minute before he’d be sucking at carbon dioxide, thankfully blacking out. He’d suffocate here, floating in endless black like a winked-out star turned to flotsam, cradled by gravity to orbit the earth like a decommissioned satellite. Pep and Rhodey silently watched as an empty coffin is lowered into the earth. Meanwhile, his body would rot slowly in the vacuum if at all, another piece of space junk...

Tony gasped awake, heart pounding like a jackhammer, and startled backward at a figure leaning over the bed.

“Fuck,” Tony muttered, eyes adjusting to the low light, hand to his chest. “Loki.”

“Are you unwell?”

“Nightmare. PTSD. It’s just…” Tony didn’t want to explain what had caused it, but he also did. “When I...when I sent the bomb into the atmosphere after the Chitauri attack…”

Loki looked vexed. He ought to, Tony thought. Yeah, he had nightmares about the cave sometimes, wires and water and the taste of his own stale sweat. But this one was mostly his fault, anyway.

Loki sat on the edge of the bed. “I am sorry.”

“No, you’re not.” Tony said, and Loki looked at the dark outside the window instead. He wasn’t sure gods had nightmares. “You’re sorry you lost. You’re only here because you want a lighter sentence.”

“I am,” Loki admitted. “But I was forced into…”

“Yeah, being forced to atone for your misdeeds isn’t really atoning.”

Loki shook his head and turned to face him. “It’s far more complicated than that.” Tony pressed the back of his hand to his eyes. “Could I try to soothe these episodes so you might sleep in peace?”

Tony snorted. “Don’t think that’s possible. Didn’t you say you couldn’t even shake the crick in your neck?”

“The inability to help myself with magic is by design, and I don’t have all of the resources I’m used to,” Loki conceded ruefully, “but a spell for restful sleep is simple.”

“Right, keep piling on the boons and maybe sometime one’ll stick,” Tony shook his head and began to sit up. “I should get back to the workshop anyway.”

“It is still dark,” Loki said, ignoring his jibe. He reached out and pressed a hand to the center of Tony’s chest, over the arc reactor, and Tony flinched.

“Don’t. Don’t touch that.”

***

“Will you show me this armor?” Loki asked softly, casting his gaze over Stark’s torso.

“What?”

“The iron shield over your chest. The armor that the sceptre could not pierce.”

Stark laughed. “And why would I do that? Hey, Loki, check out my vulnerabilities. Come on, get a good, close look so you can stab me better next time.”

Loki regarded him with disdain. Stark distrusted him still. “I would not.”

“Sure.” Stark rolled his eyes.

“Stark, do you not think I would be punished far worse by the Allfather for injuring the...mortal,” Loki managed to say the word without too much disdain, given the situation in which he found himself, “...that I am supposed to aid?” And at that moment, Loki realized that Odin had trusted him not to hurt this fragile being, this enemy that had vexed him so on their last meeting. Trusted him to want to atone instead of to destroy again. Loki felt as if he'd been punched.

Stark was silent for a long while. “It isn’t armor.”

“I would like to see it.”

“Why?”

Loki was exasperated. “Because I am curious.”

Stark shrugged under him, perhaps remembering the way Loki had expressed his curiosity earlier. The hint of a smile appeared, and Loki knew for certain that did remember. “Curiosity killed the cat, Loki.”

Loki looked at him blankly.

“...but minor Asgardian magic could technically bring him back. From Valhalla. Or so I hear.” Stark shrugged. “Ahh, go ahead. I’d say ‘do your worst,’ but you know, don’t.”

Loki peeled up the bottom edge of the black t-shirt, revealing the arc reactor beneath it. “It is tiny,” he said.

“Hey, It’s not the size of the wave, it’s the motion in the ocean,” Stark quipped. “But it’s actually not that small. I mean, in relation to the organs and all.” He gave Loki a joking, smoldering look.

“I meant that I had thought it sheathed your chest.”

“No, your aim just sucked when you tapped me. Whoops. A couple of inches to the left and I’d have been mind-controlled, building you tesseract-powered Real Dolls or whatever.”

Loki moved to touch the device and this time Stark let him, expressionless. “This is powered...by tesseract energy?”

“No,” Stark said. “It’s a very unique element.”

“Why is it embedded in your flesh, if it is not armor to protect you? It’s ringed with scars.”

“It powers the suits,” Stark said, and that...smelled like half of a lie. “Well, it’s actually just backup power, so don’t get any ideas.”

“I would not-” Loki began, indignant. He was being truthful. He had no plans to harm this man.

“Yeah, yeah, not at the moment.” Stark said, and reached over to turn out the bedside light by hand instead of asking JARVIS. The cool light of the arc reactor shone upward for a moment, before Stark reached up and pulled his shirt down.

“Might I try, though? To calm your sleep? It would be a boon,” Loki said, softer this time, and waited for a nod. He slipped both hands to the sides of Stark’s face, thumbs resting along the hinge of his jaw, and concentrated, feeling the familiar, pleasurable tickle of magic energy rise from within through his fingertips. He lifted them away, finding his hands damp from traces of night terror sweat lingering in Stark’s hair. “See if that isn’t better,” he said, but Stark was already asleep.

***

Tony took a deep breath, and turned to face the window, sheets tangling his legs. He cracked his eyes to peer at a deep blue sky outside, and no Loki to be seen. He glanced around; the chairs were back where they had been two days ago, and his dark trousers and red shirt were laid across one of them.

“JARVIS?”

“Good afternoon, Sir. It’s currently 12:22pm. The temperature is now sixty-three degrees Fahrenheit. The forecast calls for clear and sunny skies for the remainder of the day.”

“When did our invisible guest leave?”

“Heat and heart rate register disappeared from my databanks at 7:44 am.”

“When did I fall asleep?” Tony asked.

“Approximately two hours earlier, Sir,” JARVIS replied.

Tony leaned back into the pillows and noticed that the ones on the other side of the bed had been disturbed, the bedcovers drawn back. So the bastard had slept there after working his no-nightmare mojo. His lips quirked. He couldn’t blame the guy for that, frankly.

He guessed that Loki was really gone. Maybe because the “restful sleep” spell was selfless? Or maybe because it was an attempt to fix some of the damage Loki had done on his last trip to Midgard. Or maybe Odin had changed his mind. There was no way to know.

At any rate, if Tony didn’t have another invasion-related nightmare, that would be a positive outcome, and as long as Loki’s essence was still jailed, he didn’t suppose he was much of a threat. He waved at the display panel set in the window.

“JARVIS, call up video from Loki’s time here.” Though Loki apparently didn't turn up on recordings or film, there had to be something glitchy there, some kind of incontrovertible proof that Tony wasn't, well, nuts.

There was a pause. “Sir, the video files appear to have been tampered with. The effect resembles magnetic damage.” A staticky recorded feed appeared on the window monitor.

“Huh,” Tony said, scratching at the edge of his goatee. “Figures.”

***

Tony was pretty sure JARVIS was wrong. It happened.

He scanned himself every month without fail, on a schedule saved by the AI. “No traces of shrapnel, Sir.”

“Run it again.”

JARVIS did, without complaint. “The same result is evident. The shrapnel in your chest cavity is no longer present.”

Tony stepped out of the resonator and sat down hard on the stool in his workshop and pulled up the x-ray files, then another from the previous scan. The arc reactor and its housing were identical; no change there, but the tiny glowing bits of jagged metal he’d become used to seeing were...gone. Just disappeared.

“Are they somewhere else?” Tony murmured.

“Sir?”

“Have the fragments migrated internally...somehow?” Even as the words left his lips, he knew that wasn’t possible. It wasn’t like he’d just passed the damned things like kidney stones. He winced, half-laughing at that horrible sensory image.

If I may?” JARVIS interrupted.

Tony looked up.

“I do perform a weekly cursory scan of your person if you are on the premises, Sir.”

“You know extended exposure to x-rays is harmful, right, Jarv?”

“The radiation risk is minimal, considering the corresponding stakes.” JARVIS didn’t sound sorry at all. “Data shows the shrapnel’s presence prior to the arrival of your visitor from Asgard, and...this is the first scan afterward.”

“Huh.” Tony slid the heel of his hand over his chest.

He guessed that Loki had thought of another boon while he’d been here, been able to somehow see the purpose of the arc reactor. At any rate, it must have been enough for his purposes.

And while he still thought about falling to earth in the light of day, which made him catch his breath, hold back the rise of bile in his gut -- that hadn’t changed -- Tony hadn’t had a nightmare in two weeks.

That night, he did have a dream, though: Loki had returned, slipping into his room at the crack of dawn, with a sack of poppy seed bagels.

“What the fuck do you want now?” Tony asked.

“Just paying a little visit,” Loki replied. “I know you don’t mind.”

“So you’re...what, free now?”

“No. I tricked you, Stark. Imprisoned, I used a spell to free myself in human form and return to Earth in the hope that the Allfather would appreciate my initiative. He did, but I serve my time still.”

“So that was all you?” Tony said. “Why bother with me instead of raising hell somewhere else?”

“As I’ve told you before, there are things about you that made me curious when we spoke in your Tower the first time. And I wanted that drink.”

“And sex, apparently.”

“Why do you think I came back this time?” Loki answered in the dream, smirking obnoxiously. "You're slightly more entertaining than prison."

"Wow. You really need to work on your sweet talk."

Loki shrugged and turned into Jessica Lange, then disappeared into a puff of smoke.

Tony woke up with a hard-on, groaning into his pillow as he turned over.

***

In his cell, Loki watched the retreating form of Odin, parting words echoing in the antechamber.

He’d succeeded, but he’d known that, or he’d still be in the humans’ realm. It wasn’t enough; he had to atone further...to the mortal city he’d devastated, to Thor, to Asgard for what he’d done. But he’d accomplished what Odin had expected of him, and he felt his heart lighten with the gruff words of approval. The scale of the task had seemed so small -- to serve a fragile human. To apologize with deeds, with limited magic. It had seemed a challenge unworthy of the abilities of a god.

Loki let out a breath in the empty room and looked down at the sharp scraps of metal nestled in his palm. He poked at them with a finger, and then brushed his hands together and made them disappear.

For good.