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The timeline starts in a fall of glass. The world slows when Loki appears in front of him, teeth bared, and all Tony can think is, Shit, I’m vulnerable, because he isn’t in his suit, just a shirt and jeans and then Loki’s hands are on him, bruises for tomorrow, he thinks as the world speeds up like whiplash and there’s a staggering loss of gravity, the pain of a window smashing against his spine and Loki laughs as Tony stares up at the suddenly blue sky, shit, I’m vulnerable.

Definite bruises for tomorrow because Tony doesn’t hit the ground, scooped roughly out of the air by Cap in the transport like some sort of awful militarized fairy tale, and how is this his life.

How isn’t it.

Loki captured is a vibratingly calm Loki in a cell while Thor glowers at everyone, running his hands through his hair until Fury lets him see his brother and Tony starts to breathe.

They watch on a bank of monitors as Thor and Loki almost come to blows, but Tony says, “Asgardian male bonding in captivity, caught by cameras for the first time ever, this should be documented with a British accent,” and Steve says, “Great, let ‘em bring down the whole building,” and Tony says, “Well, we are missing a window now, the architectural line is all fucked up, might as well start from scratch.”

It takes broken furniture, some gouges in the wall, and Steve almost grabbing his shield before the brothers calm down, Thor’s hand on Loki’s shoulder, Loki gripping his wrist and they talk, hunched like lifelong affectionate adversaries.

“A misunderstanding,” Thor says later.

Clint looks comical in his disbelief and Natasha sighs, but Tony doesn’t let things pass without words and lots of them.

“You mean, destruction on a scale even I’m jealous of and possible death, dismemberment, all the nasty things covered by insurance, not to mention the stuff that’s not, you wouldn’t believe the things insurance won’t pay out for,” – he makes a motion, rolling, a long list of unbelievable shit – “like streets razed by magic and a maniacal evil genius with jazz hands. Fuck, I could build something that could do that and it still wouldn’t be as fucking fancy, the point is ‘misunderstanding’ is putting it lightly, big guy, or I’m mistaken. And I’d take that bet.”

He stops, nursing his sore shoulder, rubbing at it as Bruce murmurs, “It should be biologically impossible for you to talk so much without breathing,” and Thor’s pouting, which means physically pouting with Mjölnir and maybe Tony shouldn’t have opened his mouth. It happens.

“Misunderstanding,” Thor insists, “surely this is the correct term, even here on Midgard, when there is—“

If Tony didn’t know better, he’d think Thor was fucking with him and he must move without realizing it because Steve is suddenly there, hands out.

“No, Thor, we know the word. It just seems a damn bit—“

Unbalanced,” Clint says, pointing an arrow at Thor and Thor frowns, all upset thunder, and there’s about to be an argument.

And Tony’s been thrown out a window already today, he likes his reckless high-flying antics and adrenaline rushes, but he’s good for today, forced base jumping (“falling, Tony, you were falling,” Steve yelled over the chop of the transport) wasn’t on his agenda, so he takes a step back. He feels the faint hum of his arc reactor, remembers the drop of utter weightlessness, and the panicked idea that the only thing holding him together was the metal in his chest.

He watches Loki on the video feed.

He remembers how he suddenly appeared. Fingers grabbing him, hurling him like a penny.

He tugs at the hem of his shirt and sees the splotches on his skin in long finger shapes. Bruises for tomorrow.

Thor’s arguing in the background, “He is my brother, he will—“

Loki runs a hand over the blank wall, pressing his palm to the paint.

No, that’s not all you are, you aren’t just Thor’s brother, Tony decides, fingertips on the monitor, next to Loki’s shadow. “Jarvis, start a file. On the Stark server. Map his body and characteristics for recognition. I want a full work-up and a tracking program in place. If his damn nose twitches, I want to know where the hell he’s going,” he says under the sounds of the escalating argument. “Treat this like a hellacious episode of ‘Bewitched,’” and Jarvis replies, “Of course, sir, and I’ll change the definition of ‘fraternization’ in the dictionary.”

Research, Jarvis. And we’ll mess with the ‘magic’ later.”

“Archiving all episodes of ‘Bewitched’ off our main server. You want to know why he’s so magical?”

“Don’t sound so excited, Yente, no matchmaking, there’s too many fucking people in the house, it’s distracting you. Enemy reconnaissance. Science versus magic, it’s an actual thing and—what the fuck, I’m not explaining it to you now. I know where you live.”

“I know where you sleep, sir.”

“I don’t sleep.”

He watches Loki as Loki glances around, cool and nonchalant.

You know, don’t you, working out how to break out and it’d only take a snap of your fingers, he thinks. Loki tilts his head as if he’s heard something.

Then Coulson appears in the cell and the trickster smiles slow as if it’s a sunny day in the neighborhood.

It’s like perfect engineering, that smile, Tony can read genius in the lazy curve, whether the smile is manufactured or not, and he recognizes it: it feels like any time Tony’s seen the lines come together to form the whole, that instant moment of sheer thought and power, everything is so very easy, blood rushing to light up all the points of his body, I am a motherfucking god, and now, now he’s staring at a motherfucking god who tossed him out a window, and maybe he has glass embedded in his brain.

Tony thinks, Shit, I’m vulnerable.

-

It’s a bad habit. He has many and he thinks Pepper keeps a list somewhere, possibly for insurance purposes, but he doesn’t care: driving too fast, drinking, letting his mouth go, barnstorming (Steve’s word choice), showing off, divebombing, ignoring his injuries, not sleeping, losing whole days, offending people, and tapping his fingers against his arc reactor as he thinks.

That one isn’t so bad until he ends up covered in grease and Pepper wrinkles her nose, but hey, sometimes the only way he can think is when he’s up to his shoulders in an engine, blasting apart the pieces in his head, yelling at Jarvis to change the song or up the volume because it’s not loud enough if things aren’t shaking around him.

He’s locked everyone out of the workshop (“Tony, you gotta stop doing that,” Steve again, like a damn Disney character with his eyes and conscience); suddenly, everything goes quiet and he hears his fingers tapping on his arc reactor.

“What the hell, Jarvis—“

“Your new pet is on his way.”

Pet. Pet. Tony scrambles to think if he’s adopted anything lately and if he did why did Pepper let him.

“This pet—“

“Is walking towards the garage, accompanied by an armed guard and his brother.”

Oh, fuck, brothers, and Tony’s lost now, still shaking off the layers of his concentration over the new stabilizers for the suit and how to better improve the team’s comm over sizeable distances and how to make perfect scrambled eggs and wait, the issue at hand is brothers.

And the words “armed guard.”

Loki.

“Oh, fuck,” Tony says, dropping his head only to encounter unyielding metal. “Ow, motherfucking cocksucker motherfucker, shit, sonuvabitch!”

“My friend!” Thor crows, fist pounding on the glass door. “You have a unique way with words.”

“Jarvis, a timely notification isn’t beyond your parameters,” Tony snipes, “and the door, if you please.”

“He didn’t twitch his nose,” Jarvis replies as the door clicks and Thor pushes through before Tony can berate his own AI.

“What is this parade,” Tony says instead, annoyed, “it’s not Thanksgiving yet and I haven’t prepared any of the traditional hostilities, those take time slaving over a hot stove, what kind of shitty host do you think I am.”

“So I throw you out a window and you survive,” Loki says, smirking. “You have intriguing qualities.”

“I bounce back,” Tony says, eyes in slits. “You should think twice about how to kill me next time.”

“I shall, I have the time,” Loki says, smirk thinning, and Thor laughs, “My brother wanted to meet those who captured him.”

Tony calculates his accuracy percentage in throwing a wrench and how quickly he can reach the bright red gauntlet on the table two steps behind him and four steps over to fire a repulsor. “Enemy reconnaissance.”

Thor scowls. “No. I would speak with you about that at a later time.”

Loki is taking everything in, a hand hovering as if he wants to touch, and the pride (conceit, confidence, arrogance, he’s memorized the thesaurus) in Tony takes over, he wonders what Loki would understand of the technology, for all Thor doesn’t ask questions and simply takes it all in huge, booming strides.

“Your harnessing of power is impressive,” Loki murmurs and Tony looks at him to find Loki staring at his arc reactor glowing under his shirt. “The question is can you control it.”

He smiles, a different one from the surveillance monitor, and Tony snaps, “The question is can you understand it.”

Thor pokes at a socket wrench and Loki’s smile doesn’t change, but Tony feels it, a challenge, so he casually steps away, not taking his eyes off Loki, to pick up the gauntlet, letting it power up with the familiar buzz.

Loki inclines his head, as if this is some sort of introduction. “Stark.”

“At least you can read the name on the tin,” Tony says without thinking and Loki laughs, throat long, and the buzzing in the gauntlet meets the hum of the reactor in his chest, like a defibrillator.

-

For the sake of the furniture, Thor is away, engrossed in a Nicktoons marathon, and Tony yet again blesses the inventors of television and upper tier cable channels.

Fury grits his teeth and explains that keeping an eye on Loki might be best if they were all keeping an eye on Loki, especially Loki’s brother and Tony says, “Oh, that big guy, y’know, the one who shouts and carries a giant hammer and causes freak thunderstorms when he can’t watch TV which only makes it worse ‘cause the reception gets shot to shit, it’s a vicious cycle,” and Fury glares at him with that stony gargoyle face, so Tony puts his hands up (I’m innocent, man, inn-o-cent) and says, “The more eyes the merrier, I get it,” and Fury gets that expression like he will rip Tony’s possibly damaged liver from his body through his esophagus if he wants to and his fingers even spasm like they can already feel the viscera.

Tony likes Fury in those moments. They’re fun.

“We have enough damn weapons, hell, some of you are weapons,” Fury says and Tony waits for a ‘no offense,’ but one isn’t forthcoming, “and your so-called ‘enemy reconnaissance’ theory while sound,” – Steve nods, like an exhausted old soldier – “is merely that.”

“What, sound?”

Pushing a paper around the table with one finger, Tony glances at everyone else and they’re looking wherever they can except at each other or Fury.

“But my theories are a collective thing of beauty, a joy forever—“ he says to see what happens, because his theory is sound and not a bit paranoid, having an evil genius wandering around with nothing to do but collect damning information and once in a while laugh maniacally is not what Tony had in mind when he agreed to this superhero equivalent of Menudo. Which says disturbing things about his pop culture trivia because they aren’t pubescent boys dancing and singing on stage, though it’s possible they should be, with impressive displays of hand-eye coordination and small weapons-grade fireworks, except for Natasha, who’d slit everyone’s throats first.

Unless Tony can talk her into karaoke.

“What’s to stop him from destroying the building anyway,” Bruce says and Tony thinks he sounds a little like a sad sack, Eeyore Banner, ladies and gentlemen, and what the hell is that attitude, that’s just not cricket.

“Then what’s the point in fighting him? What’s the point of getting into my suit and Steve dressing up like an overly-patriotic male model and someone coaxing you into getting angry about a hangnail? Clint and Natasha might as well go hunting for sport or bird-watching,” Tony says, “’cause apparently, the fight’s already lost.” He pumps a fist. “Go team.”

Fury sighs as Clint takes the paper from him and starts folding it. “I understand the situation, Tony, but if you want to be paranoid—“

“I prefer smart. Logical. Tactically brilliant.”

“I wouldn’t mind the target practice,” Clint says, flattening a fold with his thumbnail, “hypothetical, of course, no need for anyone to get the stick up their asses twisted in their fucking panties,” and Natasha nods with a gleam in her eye Tony simultaneously likes and fears.

“Think of it as enemy reconnaissance from our side,” Fury says, as if he’s being patient, hand going palm-down on the table, as if closing the issue. “Go team.

Jarvis is tracking Loki, every whim of body movement and REM sleep and whatever the hell else a magically-charged god does in black and green leather all day.

But Jarvis can’t see into Loki’s head.

And Tony wants to know what goes on in there.

Clint throws a paper airplane and it hits Tony in the temple.

“Fine,” he says. “Can’t we just get a puppy.”

Fury blinks and Steve smiles like he’s just gotten a shiny new bike with a basket and streamers, as if this is the easiest thing they’ve gotten Tony to do all year and without a lot of talking, fuck them, he randomly wants to climb into his suit and take off to Miami for a proper Cuban sandwich, maybe a few flashing disco lights and throbbing bass.

Thor chooses that moment to appear and Tony half-expects Loki to be in tow, like a dangerous newly-adopted puppy, but no trickster steps into existence as Thor says, “Is there an agreement?”

He sounds so hopeful; it’s a curious thing, such bright shining hope on this giant of a god, everything about him thundering, especially the heart he wears on his sleeve. Fury nods and Thor grins, contagiously because Tony wipes his own grin off his face as Clint says, “Agreement, o thunderer, so let’s go break a few things,” and Thor laughs, “Yes, my friend, a small celebration is in order. I shall fetch my brother.”

It’s a testament to everyone’s professionalism and training and superpoweredness that no one flinches or tenses, but Natasha’s eyes narrow as if she’s scented blood.

A small celebration might destroy at least two floors of the building; a small celebration with Thor and Loki might drop the building and Tony can’t bring himself to care. Miami’s looking pretty good. Bet the weather’s nice.

He vanishes off to an empty room, spinning around to find a TV, he knows they’re everywhere, he demanded them be everywhere—oh, there’s one. “Jarvis, the feed.”

“He certainly is magical, sir.”

“Oh good god, Jarvis, shut the hell up.”

Loki stares at the ceiling in his cell, fingers curled as he writes in the air, loops and slashes of letters, but it isn’t English, Tony can’t read it, then Thor shoulders into frame, talking with his hands.

Big sunny smile, Thor the golden boy excited to have his brother with him, their definition of ‘dangerous’ completely lost to time and multidimensional space and Tony notices the years, millennia, Thor would say, strung between the two gods. The three previous battles, Loki had ignored Thor even as Thor yelled his name until he said something to Loki, Tony thought he’d heard ‘I am sorry,’ and Loki said, ‘No, Thor, you will be sorry.’ Then something exploded in a fireball next to Tony, everything descended back into chaos, Loki charging forward to single out Thor. In a crater of asphalt, a broken water main spraying cold water, the two fought themselves almost exhausted, Thor calling him brother the entire time and Loki angrily hissing, ‘Stop calling me that.

He wonders what that’s like, to have someone who hates you and loves you in equal measure until they can barely look at you or look away from you.

When he blinks, the room is empty and Jarvis says, “He twitched. Thor and Barton are escorting him to the living area.”

Tony grumbles under his breath and taps his fingers on his reactor, thinks about what it’s like to have the attention of someone who feels so deeply.

-

“Stark,” Loki says and it makes Tony jerk, almost spilling his scotch.

“Since we’re doing this villain exchange program, there’s a bathroom or coffee maker around every corner, accessory after the fact charges multiplying like rabbits, and you can call me Tony. Or His Majesty,” he says, lofty, because it doesn’t matter. “His Eminence. Always liked that one.”

“His Immense Ass,” Clint says from somewhere.

Loki smirks, gaze flicking up, and Tony doesn’t want to look to see if Clint’s dangling from the ceiling. He’s too busy being concerned that Loki’s holding a knife, taking the sharp blade to some poor unsuspecting fruit and he shouldn’t worry because Natasha’s sitting on a stool at the counter, watching him, she could probably kill him in some ridiculous way with the stool before Loki could even use the knife or spin up his magic.

Some part of Tony wants to see that, an arena fight, all speed and reflexes because Thor told him once Loki uses knives when he isn’t using magic, and dammit it all to hell, this isn’t how this works.

In his head, he sounds like a noir detective, the gangster and the dame going at it head to head with their own versions of tommy guns, so he says, “What’s your angle, bub.”

“No angle, unless you wish to discuss the merits of 45 degrees versus any other,” Loki says, putting down the knife to pass a handful of apple slices to Natasha.

“You understand the vernacular, so I’m sure you already know what I mean when I say I don’t trust you any further’n I could throw you,” Tony retorts as he steals the knife and a slice of kiwi which could be poisoned, poison touch, that’d be something, but Loki’s watching him. “Which would be pretty far, I suppose, with the suit, and a possible reprogramming of balance and weight distribution and—hey, you fucking threw me out a window, so maybe we’re even. But I don’t trust you. And I don’t even trust you enough to point out that that was a joke, you made a Midgardian joke. A nerdy one, but a joke.”

Natasha snorts, an apple slice crunching in her mouth, and she waves a hand. “Surveillance should always be this easy and awkwardly entertaining.”

Tony feels like a school kid, no one asked you, but he doesn’t say anything because for some reason he can’t shut up in front of Loki, well, he can’t shut up more than usual and he glares at the trickster.

“You probably break a lot of windows,” Loki says smoothly. “That wasn’t the first time, was it.”

And again, no one asked you, he’s sullen in his scotch and his fingers are sticky from fruit cut up by the enemy with his own kitchen knife, what the fuck is going on here.

“I’m in a nightmare, aren’t I? I’ve been kidnapped and drugged and this is torture,” he says. “Brainwashing.”

With another graceful wave, Natasha disappears. “Talk him to death, Tony. It’ll work out fine.”

“Drugging and torturing and brainwashing, oh my,” he calls after her and when he turns back to his scotch, Loki is considering him, maybe the same look Pepper says Tony gets when he’s staring at wiring schematics and energy flow. “You don’t get to destroy anything in here, around here, of here, at here, or other assorted prepositional phrases relating to ‘here’,” he says to dissuade any ideas of criminal activity, as if he’s some sort of damn Boy Scout, right, Steve tells him daily what laws or morals he’s breaking, ‘the trash can is over there, Tony, surely you can throw that far.’

“I’m sure your level of destruction is equal to mine,” Loki says, leaning on his hands, and his eyes are green, Tony’s never noticed that, too distracted by hurled debris and flashes of light that explode on contact. “It must be messy to be in such a suit, or awe-inspiring. All that control at your fingertips, or do you just speak and things happen? Like magic.”

“Your magic is different from my science,” Tony says, somewhat offended because there is a difference and he’s going to learn it, decipher it, maybe Loki will be his guinea pig and fuck no, just no.

“They are twins, Tony,” Loki says. “You have formulas. I have words. How are you so different from me?”

“Oh, you are good,” Tony admits, chuckling dark into his glass.

Loki smiles, as if he’s happy in some covert way, and Tony can see the little boy Thor talked about to Tony one night, drunk off his ass and his big hands shaped whole stories as his face went from happy-go-lucky to stern stoic with each childhood memory. Thor put his head in his hands and said, You would like him, Tony Stark. You would have. The way he was.

He wonders what it feels like to be stabbed in the back, so deep the knife hits your heart.

“We are different,” he says and Loki frowns, eyes going cold.

The trickster goes back to his cell at night and Tony doesn’t try to let it go to his head, the thin line between hero and villain, how easily he could shoot someone down instead of saving them.

He has the suit and the glowing evidence of a heart and that might be all he has.

“Jarvis, new file.”

“Science versus magic, comparisons and contrasts?”

“You are fucking obsessed. It’s creeping me out.”

“I’m here to serve, sir.”

“No, apparently, you’re here to fucking eavesdrop and stalk me—wait, I programmed you that way, didn’t I. I’m stalking myself. I am a menace to myself. So that’s what Rhodey meant.”

“If you say so. New file.”

“Tomorrow.”

Bruises for tomorrow, he thinks.

-

“There must be some kinda way outta here,” Tony mutters, rubbing at his eye and Steve frowns at his sandwich.

“What?”

“Said the joker to the thief.”

“There are some days when you are just completely unintelligible,” Steve replies, but he makes it sound like a compliment, so Tony takes it that way.

“Thanks, man, I appreciate it, more than you know. Maybe I’ll give you a medal. Or make you one. A medal. Out of metal. ”

Steve stares at him and Tony purses his lips, thinking. “At least you don’t cut the crusts off.”

“Okay, Tony, really—“

“The wide-eyed kid from the 40’s who eats Wonder Bread for the vitamins and cuts the crusts off. It’s like the American dream from a more wholesome time come to life, you wholesome All-American boy, you. Better’n sliced bread. Ha, bread.”

Reaching out, Steve tries to get a hand on Tony’s forehead, but Tony dodges him, almost spilling his coffee, Steve saying, “Have you lost your mind?”

“Maybe. I always knew it’d come to this one day. Shit, I should’ve made a will. I leave everything you to, Steve baby, you need to be corrupted in some way. Money’ll do it. Right fucking fast. I guar-an-tee.”

Those blue eyes squint. “When did you last sleep.”

“If you want it to be a question, you need to have the inflection on the end of the sentence, Cap, to infer the question mark.”

“You mean imply.”

“Well, fuck-a-doodle-doo,” Tony says because honestly, he thinks he slept maybe 41 hours ago, maybe, give or take twelve here and there or there. It’s not his fault, it’s not, and he hears himself repeating it, “It’s not my fault.”

“Oh, and whose is it then.”

“You mother hen,” Tony says, grinning, and Steve laughs quickly, then recovers, all stern soldier.

He doesn’t want to say it’s their newest houseguest, the nefarious one with the fiendishly long fingers and wickedly long throat and evilly pale skin, that devilish smile that implies a bed-bound kind of criminality Tony wouldn’t mind being involved in, another genius possibly on par with himself and together, they’d think of all kinds of ways to pass the time. With a thesaurus handy, obviously.

“And without hurting any fucking innocent civilians,” he says under his breath, then Steve nudges him.

“Go sleep.”

“No, and you can’t make me.”

“I’ll carry you if I have to. I can and I will. Embarrass the hell outta you.”

“You’re not my real dad,” Tony retorts, smirking petulant, but something in Steve’s expression changes. “Oh, hell, Steve, I didn’t—“

“No, no, I’m sorry, Tony. I—Howard—he should’ve—”

“Forget it.” He punches Steve in the shoulder. “No worries.”

“I was looking for you,” Loki says, appearing out of thin air or maybe just from around the corner and almost giving Tony a heart attack, which he doesn’t fucking need, thank you very much.

Stop trying to kill me!” Tony shouts. “Fuck! Jarvis! What did I tell you!” and Jarvis is suspiciously silent as Steve stands, snatching up his plate.

“I’ll go find…someone, no, I mean, something to do, I have new charcoal…somewhere,” he says, “ah, Tony, go sleep.”

Loki smirks and Tony wants to punch him.

“You haven’t been sleeping?”

Clint stampedes into the room, arrow notched and drawn, and Bruce is right behind him, looking innocuous in his scientist normalcy, he might hurt a fly if he cloned it into himself or grafted it, Jeff Goldblum style, whatever.

“Someone being murdered in here?” Clint asks. “Shit, I hope it’s Tony.”

“Fuck you, go away, you fucker,” Tony orders and Clint trains his aim on the blue of the reactor, “Nah, I’m trailing the Evil Overlord here—“

“With great ability, you almost don’t make a sound,” Loki says.

The face Clint makes is this ain’t sugar someone has shit in my cereal, that’s the only way Tony can take it and the offended marksman blurts, “’Great’? ‘Great’? I’ll have you know I’m the best, baby, the very fucking best and you should be grateful to be tailed by the best in the known universe, especially when I kill you quickly and mercifully without a sound, the last think you’ll ever have is ‘golly gee whiz, Barton’s pretty spectacular, hot damn he’s merciful, I didn’t hear or feel a thing’—“

“We heard you yell, Tony,” Bruce explains hastily, glancing between the three of them.

Tony might kill them all. Just for fun. He could afford a hell of a defense team. No jury would convict him. Except he’s willingly living in this nuthouse. Temporary insanity of the homicidal impulse kind.

Evil’s looking pretty good right about now.

“I yell all the time. I’m fine. Bruce, go make a grilled cheese over a Bunsen burner. Clint, go shoot yourself in the foot. Then the head. Don’t miss.”

“Fine, fuckhead, see if I save your tincan ass next time.”

“You wound me,” Tony says, dramatic swooning wrist to his forehead, flipping him off.

“Oh, just you wait, I will.”

Flipping Tony the bird with grand flourish, Clint glides out of the room, dragging Bruce with him, and Tony waves them out, turns to see Loki standing there, arms crossed, eyebrows up.

“This is better than a traveling circus,” the trickster says.

“You have circuses—circusii—no, circuses, definitely circuses,” Tony says, he must be tripping on no sleep, he feels like his tongue is growing, oh, he has a question to finish, “in the hallowed halls of Asgard?”

“Fine and jolly jesters!” Thor yells from the other room, honestly, what are the acoustics in here, Tony needs to check on the schematics for this place, why the hell did he allow it to be built this way, this is his insane asylum, it needs to have his specifications, so people can’t just be yelling about jesters— “Hold the phone, you’re wearing jeans.”

Jeans, boots, a soft green long-sleeve shirt, and dammit, Pepper must have dressed Loki, she put him in motherfucking green, like his eyes and his godly leathers, Tony needs to fire her and kill everyone and burn the place to the ground to cover it up and this crazy enemy with the magical spirit fingers is standing here in what looks like a spectacular outfit.

“Since when do we clothe our prisoners like a glossy out of a J. Crew catalog?” he says, way too loudly. Loki’s mouth twists, as if he’s uncertain, the lines of his body tense, fight-or-flight. “You object to the term ‘prisoner’? Or is it J. Crew.”

Tony means it to be snarky, a few degrees cold, but it comes out like he honestly wants to know.

Loki shakes his head. “No, you captured—I was captured and thus, I am a prisoner.” He pauses, shoving his hands in his pockets. “I’ve been one before.”

“Keep the hands where I can see ‘em, Bob Fosse,” Tony says and Loki looks even more uncomfortable, but he does what Tony says, spreading his palms open.

“I can do magic without my hands,” Loki says, like a threat or maybe just a playful ultimatum, but something in Tony’s brain sparks broken, he thinks, Oh, I bet you can.

“You were looking for me,” Tony replies, gesturing, back on track let’s go, “what’d you want.”

“Our discussion the other day was cut short,” Loki starts with a smirk, “my magic versus your science, quite the competition in destruction,” then he pauses again, gaze going past Tony.

Thor stands in the doorway, watching them. “Is there trouble here?” he asks and Tony opens his mouth to reply, then he realizes Thor is asking Loki about him.

“Wait, what.“

“There is no trouble, brother,” Loki says, expression flat, and Thor comes fully into the room, nodding as if he’s thinking it over. He plops a heavy hand onto Tony’s shoulder as soon as he’s close.

“I know you do not trust him yet, Tony Stark,” Thor says, booms rather, “but if—“

Thor, it’s alright,” Loki cuts him off as Tony surreptitiously tries to get away from the strong grip. “We’re talking about the science here on Midgard.”

“Science,” Thor repeats, voice suspicious, and his fingers squeeze into the meat of Tony’s shoulder a little.

Tony might just lose his shit.

Loki sighs, sounding so human, Tony feels it like an ache, like the hum of his arc reactor.

“We shall have to continue our talk tomorrow, I think,” Loki says, almost embarrassed and apologetic. Tony can’t tell if he’s lying or not, but it does feel as if something has been interrupted or cracked.

Thor lets go of Tony, giving him a little pat before turning away as if he expects Loki to follow.

And Tony lets out a breath, forgetting he shouldn’t close his eyes with the god of mischief in his presence.

Skim of fingers on his wrist and he startles, eyes catching Loki leaning towards him.

“You should take the Captain’s advice.”

“Nah, I’ve got better things to do,” Tony says, and it’s not a lie, but it could be and hey, who cares. “Beef up security obviously, Evil Overlord. Anyone can just waltz right in here.”

“Very well,” Loki says, that smirk again. Now Tony wants to sleep just to spite this bastard.

Damn it to hell and back in a huge fruit basket with stupid ribbons.

Then Loki and Thor are gone and Tony says, “A little warning next time, Jarvis?”

“You had Captain Rogers with you. You were safe, sir.”

“Not what I fucking asked. “

-

There’s an alarm trying to shred his eardrums, possibly from inside his head, and he registers Steve racing down the hallway, he’d know those urgent footsteps anywhere, like a super serum cavorting woodland creature, wait, alarm.

Nothing like the scream of alarms in the morning, he thinks a few minutes later and Clint says, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” and Tony says on an exhale, “Smells like…vic’try.”

No time for a cup of joe and Tony’s irritated at being decaffeinated, grumbling inside the suit and Cap keeps cutting in on the comm, “Shut up, Iron Man, quiet, shut up.”

“Oh, look, enemies,” Tony says because he does have something to say since hey, there are enemies.

Or just one giant one, like a disgruntled, stomping haunted suit of armor and he hears Thor say, “The Destroyer,” before a huge metal arm sweeps the thunder god off the street and against a nearby building.

“Shit.”

Black Widow swings into action, expression grim, which should scare the shit out of Tony, but he’s okay so far, and Cap charges ahead, shield in front of him as Hulk, in that green color that reminds Tony of something highly unnatural, lands next to him with a loud growl.

It’s all a blur after that, avoiding being swatted out of the sky like a mosquito and Tony’s starting to really get pissed off, then Hawkeye shoots an arrow into its face and the whole fucking thing collapses, shedding pieces of metal like broken chain mail and Cap takes a deep breath—

Then the pieces of metal get up, coalesce, and stand; they’re staring at an army of relatively smaller gleaming suits of armor and Hulk roars in frustration as Hawkeye hisses, “Fuck, cousins of yours, Iron Man? This ain’t no time for a family reunion, man, I’ve got my shows to go watch.”

“This is not the Destroyer,” Thor says, his blonde hair gone gray with crushed concrete dust, and Tony mutters, “That helps.”

“Sir, Loki has disappeared,” Jarvis says in Tony’s ear. “I’m scanning for him now.”

And Tony’s HUD lights up as a tall dark figure materializes nearby and that silky smooth voice Tony’s been coveting broadcasts over the comm. “Aim for the head.”

“We did that already and look what—“ Captain America stops abruptly. “Who is this. Identify yourself.”

Tony’s staring at Loki as his display frantically tries to categorize the trickster, Jarvis’s collected information uploading at a dizzying rate. Loki looks like he’s steaming in the air, until Tony blinks and realizes he’s blue under his Asgardian armor and the vapors aren’t heat, they’re cold.

“Loki, you—“ Thor says and Loki interrupts, “The smaller ones should not continue the regeneration process, unless they keep falling smaller and smaller.”

“Then we crush ‘em like roaches,” Hawkeye says gleefully, “I fucking hope that happens. I’ve always wanted to see Widow impale someone with a stiletto. Heel, not knife.”

“Those are my other boots,” Widow purrs and Tony laughs so hard he almost can’t hear Cap telling them to focus.

The army doesn’t attack in tandem like a phalanx, instead splitting off into individual soldiers as if they have separate minds of their own and all chatter dies. Tony watches two jagged spears of ice form in Loki’s hands before he darts forward and impales an enemy armor in the chest to stop it moving so he can stab it in the face.

“Nice dance moves,” he says and Loki smirks, then everyone’s scattering to mop up the mess.

Sometimes Tony goes completely zen, all thoughtless ease and palms out to fire in tune with his heartbeat and sheer fall-flying and he’s murmuring into the comm, “Step one-two, step one-two, advance, grab your girl ‘round the waist, do-si-do do-si-do, step one-two, step one-two, kick ball change, and dip, now tango.” Hawkeye begins humming what sounds like a waltz and strangely, it helps, everyone moving to the rhythm, Thor hammering an enemy to the ground with an effective sweep and catching Widow out of the air as she jumps, Hulk smashing two robots together like a Three Stooges movie, and Loki freezes one, letting Cap shatter it with a well-placed shield throw.

They’re a well-oiled machine waltzing in three-four time, carnage in the time signature, demolition between the measures and Tony has that lightheaded sensation, I am a motherfucking god.

Then it’s over with a satisfying last crunch and a street lamp topples sideways. He takes a moment to actually waltz a few steps, going tiptoe in the suit on the quick two-three part of the count, “Natasha, honor me with a dance, my precious fiery-haired assassin.”

She smiles daintily and instead stabs a tiny throwing knife into his shoulder where it doesn’t do any damage except he’ll have to fix the damn hole.

“Someone at the scrap heap is making a fortune today,” he says, “they’ll live like me,” then a chopper vwup-vwup-vwups its way overhead as Coulson says, “Just sweep it all into the trucks,” as, right on cue, black painted dump trucks trundle down the street towards them.

“Aw, c’mon, Dad, this isn’t part of my chores,” he retorts, “I’m not even getting an allowance for this,” and Hawkeye pipes up, “Yeah, homework’s done, gotta get back to my TV.”

Clean,” Coulson snaps, “I have a prisoner to escort back to his cell and when I get back, I want this place spotless. Whoever broke that vase is gonna pay for it. It was ugly, but it had sentimental value.”

There’s an awkward pause, everyone shuffling around as Loki stands alone on a precarious fault line of fractured asphalt. He’s still a deep blue and now Tony has the chance to see lines scrolling on his skin, like raised tattoos; his eyes are blood red, staring out bright from all the blue and black.

It’s fucking beautiful, a work of art Tony’s never seen before, and he’s holding his breath as his HUD maps everything about Loki in this new state, then Loki sighs and his skin slip-shifts back to flawless pale, eyes light green.

A work of fucking art, Indy, he belongs in a museum.

Loki gives a sardonic wave to the helicopter, staring up as its shadow envelops him.

With a grunt, Hulk grabs a few Jolly Green Giant handfuls of metal and heads for a truck as the helicopter lowers gingerly, the skids hovering as four armed guards hop out and surround Loki, gun barrels trained tight on him. He calmly puts his hands in front of him and a guard zipties his wrists together as Coulson steps close, saying something to him, yelling more like it from what Tony can tell, mouth angry and wide.

The guy helped save the fucking day. Sort of. Maybe. It’s possible. Sleight of hand. A trick of the light.

Tony’s about to stride over and talk some circles around Coulson, but Cap’s voice comes over the comm.

“Tony.”

His real name in a battle aftermath coming from Mr. Stick To The Code Names This Isn’t A Damn Joke himself and that stops him in his tracks. He turns to see Cap shake his head.

“Not now.”

The chopper lifts with the guards, Coulson, and Loki secure in its belly, and it swoops away as Thor smashes metal into more manageable sizes.

“Anyone know a sea shanty. Work song,” Tony says, kicking at what used to be a helmet maybe or a head, he’s not sure and it’s kind of disturbing. “I’ve been working on the railroad?”

For some reason, he feels defeated, as if they’ve lost instead of won.

-

“What a disgustingly horrible plan of attack. The person responsible should feel humiliated,” Loki says.

Natasha and Clint squint at him in unison, a pair of vultures or hyenas, Tony’s briefly distracted trying to decide which, maybe vicious jungle cats readying to pounce, he can see them flexing their claws, tongues tracing their sharp teeth, jaws about to snap at the black-and-green parrot perched in their midst—

“Not yours,” Loki amends with a huff. “Theirs.”

“And you would’ve done better,” Steve says, pure soldier in his tone, calculating. “If I remember correctly, your plans are usually overly complex resulting in a myriad of fatal flaws causing everything to go to hell in one fell swoop.”

Tony blinks, surprised, and so does Loki, licking his lips before he slowly says, “A likely accurate and embarrassing assessment, Captain Rogers. I didn’t know you enjoyed my overly complex plans with their myriad of fatal flaws.”

“Huge fan right here, might just ask for your autograph,” Tony butts in, absentminded, still somewhat stuck in his National Geographic daydream except the jungle cats are staring at him now, “wait, I said that out loud, didn’t I. You know you shouldn’t let me do that, talk out loud, I know I keep things interesting, but—“

“What’s the problem with the plan,” Steve continues, “aside from the copious amounts of gratuitous destruction, which I should think would be a plus.”

“It’s very sloppy, one single enemy, out in the open,” Loki says, gesturing at the video of the battle.

Thor gives him a long troubled look, one Tony can’t interpret, and says, “It looked like the Destroyer at first, Loki.”

Loki appears uneasy, then his body schools itself. “I’ve learned from past mistakes,” he murmurs, then raises his voice. “The defense mechanism of breaking one large enemy into an army is clever—“

“Since it recovers to become the attack instead of the defense,” Steve strings along and Loki finishes, “But then there is no control from their side. The battle is over before it’s begun.” He pauses as the video runs, showing a mass of wreckage converging at once, flashes of light and disorder. “Chaos.”

“You would know,” Clint says snidely, “that’s your job.”

Tony’s pondering Loki, listening to the tap-tap-tap until he realizes it’s him and his bad habit, fingers on his reactor.

“Unless you wanted chaos,” he says and Loki’s eyes cut to him.

“Yes. Was this all a distraction?” The trickster god looks like a professor, back in jeans and boots and another long-sleeve shirt he’s pushed up to his elbows and Tony watches the line of his forearms, the way he twists his wrists waiting for an answer.

“No,” Fury says, “nothing else occurred.” His tone is considering. Loki nods as if this is an answer itself, then leans against the wall like he might melt into it, brushing a hand through his hair.

“Maybe an experiment,” Loki says, “A…a test.”

Silence around the room, the video on a loop and Tony thinks, That was informative, then a whole building of lightbulbs flick on in his head. “Anyone thinking what I’m thinking?”

“Consulting villain,” Clint replies, whistling, and Tony shoots him with finger guns.

Fury surveys them, his eye not giving anything away. “You want him to review and consult on our favorite bad guys—“

“Yeah, our BFFs, those vicious bitches, some of ‘em don’t even call or send flowers,” Clint says and Tony joins him, “Or chocolates.”

“The kind with liquor.”

“Who doesn’t need a rum ball now and then.”

Fury points a finger, shut the hell up.

“Like chess. Predict their movements first,” Steve says. “Coordinate better tactical plans, help our fighting efficiency…”

“Productivity through the roof,” Tony says. “Not to mention maybe more vacation time, fucking finally, better health benefits since we’ll be so productive and efficient and healthy, no one likes being beaten to a pulp every Wednesday unless you’re into that sort of thing and if that’s the case, I think we need to lay down some ground rules, establish some safe words, wash all the leather—“

Thor looks skeptical and Loki’s staring at them all with a smirk expressing his full belief that he succeeded somewhere along the way and they’ve lost their minds according to plan.

Steve opens his mouth, hesitates, says, “Keep being evil.” He clears his throat. “Just be evil for us.”

“Get on with yo bad self,” Tony says, then freezes. “I said that out loud as well and I shouldn’t have said it in my head either. Never mind, pushing on moving forward, hey look, something shiny, and now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go blow something up with an acetylene torch.”

“Somewhere in this rambling discussion, I think I should be offended,” Loki says, glaring, each word measured and weighed and Tony remembers the window against his spine.

“You don’t frighten me, pal,” he says.

“Do you want me to.”

“Wanna try, let’s try.”

“You have a large amount of windows, Tony,” Loki says, smiling a little, just a curve to his lips, curling his hands and those fingers were on Tony, throwing him like an empty soda can.

Fury barks, “Stop with the kissy-faces,” so Tony blows Fury a kiss and asks Loki, “Do I have to pay a quarter to get the magic fingers or can you turn him into a hedgehog on the spot?”

“One question, Loki,” Steve says, still serious in the face of Tony’s scattered words. “You were…different today. What was that, if you don’t mind explaining.”

Only you could worry about being rude to the supervillain, Tony thinks. Thank God you’re on our side.

He’s glad Steve asked because he’s been dying of curiosity, actually itching with it until he thought he might scratch his skin away and bleed everywhere, Thor didn’t mention this side of Loki. They know he’s a shapeshifter; once he was fifty feet tall and it was rather disconcerting for Tony to think of divebombing him in the crotch, which was only a passing fancy since some of it was scientific curiosity on his part and all kinds of wrong on every other part.

Curiosity is going to get him in trouble one day. Tony isn’t sure he’s going to mind when it happens.

Loki’s watching Thor, silent communication passing between them and Thor looks mildly intrigued too, along with slight heartbreak, his golden light diminished.

“I was raised as a son of Odin. But I am not the same race as Thor,” Loki says stiffly. “I am Jotun, a Frost Giant, the monsters—the natural enemies of Asgard. That was my true nature.”

A short, simple speech, but to Tony, each word seems to tear hooks out of Loki, small lacerating pieces dragged from him all over his body though as he stands there with contempt. It’s not an admission of an exploitable weakness to his captors; it’s a glimpse of a past he wants forgotten. It’s deeply uncomfortable, Tony can see the pain in his eyes, in the way his arms and jaw tense.

“You could make ice sculptures for birthdays and holidays,” he says, mouth shooting off without him at an impressive trajectory of stupidity.

Hands fisted at his sides and fiery death promises in his gaze, Loki replies, “Your lack of self-preservation is astounding,” and immediately, Tony feels like the biggest asshole.

“It is a wonder to behold,” he admits.

Thor stands, almost knocking over his chair, they need better furniture to accommodate him, and Bruce too when he hasn’t come down from his Hulk stature, at least the doorways are wide and tall enough, and these are the mundanities Tony worries about while he’s being a colossal jackass and an insensitive bastard, it’s quite the feat.

“Come, brother, let us find some food.” Thor shields Loki with his body, pushing him out of the room.

The others start to disperse, murmuring about random things, and Fury shoots him a look like a sniper scope, Tony would be dead with a bullet between the eyes if the man was a rifle.

He plunks his head on the table, then a hand pushes on the nape of his neck, as if he should beat his head into the table a few more times.

Steve says, “Tony, I’m only going to say this once: you’re my best friend, but sometimes I think I might kill you in your sleep. For the greater good.”

“Take a ticket and get in line.”

He hears a huff of laughter, Steve’s palm brushing over his back, then he’s alone.

Figures.

He was mean to a supervillain. Mission accomplished.

He needs to wallow in his bastardness.

When he finally drags himself out of the conference room, the house sounds abnormally quiet, as if he’s been abandoned and deserted and that should be just about right.

Then a voice, low. Thor. “Father would be proud of you, Loki. You have shown great honor and wisdom this day.”

Loki is standing close to his brother, arms crossed. “No, Thor, you are mistaken. Father would not be proud.” He stalks away, head bowed.

Tony blows out a breath, slow between his teeth.

Shit, I’m vulnerable.

-

Tony spends the day definitely not sleeping and absolutely waiting for the other shoe to drop.

He knows something’s going to go wrong at any moment, because that’s what happens: it all goes to shit in a second and Tony’s usually standing right in the middle of it and then he’s just covered in shit.

It’s quite possible the blue glowy thing in his chest is an easier target than his head. Steve has his bullseye shield, but Steve can also remove himself from his bullseye shield.

The reactor hums and Tony hums to it and he waits.

The god of mischief is somewhere in the building, perhaps pouting, and he grew up with Thor who is awfully physical at pouting, those two’s emotional scales are like choosing between sound and mute, really loud or off.

He’s been honestly surprised to realize he’s still human and he’s stayed that way all day; he figured a pissed-off snap of fingers would be in order and everyone would be planarians, sliding around in their own slime and attempting to procreate by splitting themselves in half. Tony imagines cutting off his head and then there’d be two of him and the world would be a better place.

It’d pass the time.

No, instead, it’s quiet until he hears a series of small explosions getting louder with each repetition, he should really go see what’s going on, but the building isn’t shaking yet and he’s busy hiding out or being depressed or introspective or something.

Drunk would be nice.

There’s a noise like a doorbell, what is that, and he glances at the door of the workshop to see Coulson, pressing on the glass with a serenely annoyed look on his face. Jarvis has obviously felt it essential to give him a doorbell there, wherever Coulson’s fingertip is pushing, and maybe Loki’s reprogrammed Jarvis somehow to be a little more dickish.

He gets up and unlocks the door. “O mildly glorious great one, you’ve deigned to descend to the depths to grace me with your incandescent presence—“

“Spare me, Stark. You know why I’m here.”

“I do? I do. Sure. Of course. I’m completely prescient.“

Stark,” Coulson warns and somewhere in his expression is the promise of a taser. “This is about Loki.”

Jarvis says, “He’s upstairs, being supervised by his brother and Miss Romanoff.”

“Thanks, Jarvis. You’ve been useful. For once. Don’t get cocky,” Tony calls.

“You’ve been tracking Loki and extrapolating data about him. We wondered what you think about this…criminal rehabilitation.”

Something inside Tony clenches. The phrase is unfair somehow, it’s wrong, all wrong, shot through with wrong because yeah, Loki’s the guy who kind of tore down three buildings a month ago and ruined a bunch of streets, destroyed almost a whole fleet of cop cars which was actually sort of amusing, took out a few city blocks by making the billboard advertisements come to life, that giant underwear model had a brutal left hook, possibly because Tony was distracted by her ginormous cleavage—anyway, his chaos was always fascinating, like an experiment in a really fucking big lab, like he was trying to shake up the system, if he were human and younger, he’d be like a sullen teenager out to make mischief just for the hell of it, a hellion raising some fucking hell, maybe for the attention and the pretty explosions, and without all the occasions for death and dismemberment, he’s like Tony was as a teenager, except Tony had access to money and resources to make pretty explosions without the damn magic.

And he’s adopted. Which didn’t sit well, Tony can see that, especially when your adopted family keeps trying to kill off your blood relatives and you don’t know the difference until much, much later. And his father might not be Father of the Millennium, Tony hasn’t gotten that far in his research, but Tony knows a thing or two about that.

He’s feeling fucking sorry for the supervillain who fried all his wires and left him bruised inside the suit like a turtle trapped on its back, and that one time Tony tried to ‘apprehend’ one of his shadowy doubles only to almost smash into the side of a building, and that one time when he had to rebuild his suit because he was missing three panels from that underwear model, and then there was that one time when he threw Tony out a window.

“Criminal rehabilitation,” Tony echoes and it still doesn’t taste good.

He is in trouble. See, there goes the other shoe.

“Yes, the proposal yesterday for ‘consulting villain’ is a good one, but the question at hand is—“

“Once a crazy, magically-enhanced supervillain, always a crazy, magically-enhanced supervillain?”

Coulson’s mouth smiles, if that’s what it is. “Perhaps.”

“He did help out with the metallic Russian nesting dolls.”

Jarvis says, “Matroyshka.”

“Fuck you, Jarvis.”

“Maybe he needs the proper environment—“

“What, to grow into a good kid surrounded by a new family that loves and accepts him just the way he is? Do we all get matching sweaters? Hell, you writing this PSA on your own or did someone else throw that shit together for you? This is your brain on drugs, Coulson, any questions.”

The agent goes very still and Tony raises an eyebrow, mentally bracing himself, but then he talks because he can.

“I do think the ‘consulting villain’ is a good idea and a pretty shitty administrative title, but not because of your so-called ‘criminal rehabilitation.’ This isn’t a work placement, asshole, and this isn’t some bizarre after school special. If he’s a villain, then he’s a villain; we’ve got him captured now and if he makes a break for it, we’ll find him. We keep him under lock and key, so be it, Thor will cry copious tears and cause a lot of power outages, but hey, victory will be ours. How many times you think Richards lets Doom get away with shit and how many times is it just really shitty luck. Yeah, a lot of these fights we can end quick and easy and everyone’s happy and good has triumphed in the world once more, rainbows and glitter and puppies abound. But yeah, there’s still a lot of fucking evil out there to destroy and if Loki’s a good guy now to help us, then he’s a good guy now to help us. Like we’re going to change his mind on whether he’s fucking insane on our side or if he’s fucking insane on his own side. If he’s a manipulative little shit, then whatever, we’ll handle that too, I thought that’s what this ‘organization’ was for. This isn’t brainwashing or hypnosis or therapy through crochet. We deal with it by either kicking his ass or listening to what he has to say about kicking someone else’s ass. Now, fuck you, you sonuvabitch, get out of my garage, I need a huuuuuge fucking drink, preferably big enough to drown in.”

“It’s Pandora’s Box, Stark, and you’re leaving the lid wide open.”

“I thought Pandora already opened that box, unless she got a new and improved one, that’s the point. What does everyone else think? I’m not alone in this, am I.”

Coulson smiles sweetly. “No, you’re not. I just thought I’d ask your opinion.”

Tony glares because Loki isn’t the manipulative little shit around here, the guy they’re working with is.

“Use your powers for good, not evil,” he parrots and Coulson shrugs.

“Maybe.”

“Run along, creepy g-man, run along.”

“Because you asked nicely.”

“Get out.”

Coulson disappears as Tony’s searching for a glass and his scotch. Then he thinks of something and shit, why didn’t he think of that earlier.

“Jarvis, that was Coulson, right. Not Loki all dressed up as Coulson with nowhere else to go except to come here and torture me, right? Right?”

“That was Agent Coulson, sir.”

Tony thinks a minute longer. “Just ‘cause I say so and not ‘cause it would be really fun and fascinating, let’s get Loki down here and have him shift, see if you can track him in whatever form he’s in.”

“Shall I fetch him?”

“No, for fuck’s sake, no ‘fetching’ and hey, no, stoppit, stop it, no ‘summoning’ either, shit on a stick.”

Too late, he hears Jarvis’s voice ringing out upstairs, Loki, would you be so good as to stop by Tony’s workshop, he’d like a word with you.

“You’re not a damn butler, Jarvis.” How was an AI ever a good idea, Tony should’ve invented Skynet. “And you asked him to be good. He might take offense. Again.”

“He’s headed this way, sir.”

“Jarvis, you’re a pain in my ass.”

“Happy to oblige.”

Footsteps, and Tony snaps his fingers at his computer panels. “Wake up, babies, wake up, I’ve got a treat for you—“

Knuckles on the glass; without looking, Tony waves Loki in, bringing up the files he wants and discarding the ones he doesn’t.

“I’ve been summoned here,” Loki says and Tony sighs louder than he means to.

“Yeah, Jarvis is a bit—he doesn’t listen to me.”

“I was to understand that’s what he does. That’s what you created him for?”

Tony smirks. “Like everything in creation does whatever it’s supposed to.”

When he finally looks away from the panels, Loki is staring at the naked car engine Tony was staring at only twenty minutes ago while he waited for the secrets of the universe to fall out of it, but Loki’s expression is different, open and curious and unselfconsciously, he ducks down to see the other side of the engine at a different angle.

“Did you want to continue our discussion?”

Tony’s brain is a traitor to the cause because he thinks, Yeah, I finally get to talk to you, then he fucking says it, “Yeah, I finally get to talk to you.”

He needs new wiring. Period. Just something rerouting his brain and his mouth so it takes a lot longer for news to travel because this is patently ridiculous. He could perform brain surgery on himself, he’s pretty sure.

Loki doesn’t smile, just wears a wary expression that appears to be second nature.

“Yes, so it would seem,” he says, “but perhaps you’re having doubts.”

“Doubts?”

The wariness turns to something amused, something bitter and Loki’s eyes are bright, as if he’s about to be careless, Tony knows that look, he knows how it feels under his own skin.

“Doubts. It’s possible you have an idea this isn’t what it seems. Maybe I was too easily captured. Maybe I knew what reconciliation with Thor would mean for myself and for your team. Thor has a big heart with an immense capacity for forgiveness; maybe I’m manipulating my brother and our familial bond.”

Tony stands stock-still, waiting, this is not what he had in mind.

“I could be using the poor, pathetic story of my origins to manipulate you and the others into feeling pity or, even greater, sympathy. I could be docile on the surface, patient underneath, lying in wait like a merciless animal; I only need my chance, then I will break free and rip out people’s throats, I will knock over this building and this city like a child’s toy, I will bring this world to its knees.”

He walks closer and Tony isn’t frightened, he’s almost hypnotized; in the back of his mind, he thinks of a small animal being swayed by a large cobra, caught in the shade of the snake’s hood, unaware that it’s time to die.

His eyes are so green.

“I have just enough freedom to roam these halls and learn everyone’s characteristics and weaknesses, the few strengths you mortals have. I have seen your technology and I want to learn more, so maybe I come to you, flatter your intellect and let you teach me. I help save the day a few times, plan your strategies, earn victories. I would join a team.”

Loki licks his lips, thinking, and Tony’s running hot, all his blood flowing fast to his brain and limbs in preparation for an attack.

“I could make friends, exploit emotional responses and I have nothing but time.”

Tilting his head, Loki watches Tony. Tony watches the pulse in his throat.

“I could turn everyone into hedgehogs, as you requested. I could melt this entire city or raise the oceans or coax the cracks in the earth along. Your science versus my magic. How much destruction do you think I could cause before you could stop me.”

Then for the sheer fuckery of it, Loki smiles, like a little boy with candy.

Oh, you are good, lord have mercy, Tony thinks.

“I could do all that,” he replies, easy. “You’re talking to a weapons manufacturer, well, ex-weapons manufacturer. The Merchant of Death, which still has an amazing ring to it.”

Loki’s studying him, silent.

“No, seriously, that’s what they called me, the press is always good for an interesting job title, I even considered putting that on business cards but Pepper said no, she thought it made me sound like a psychotic assassin.” Tony dismisses that with a sneer and a wave.

“Of course, now I’m living under a roof with two assassins, there’s a good chance they’re both psychotic, and a scientist who experimented on himself to be Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Big As A Green House Hyde, and to tell you the truth, I don’t know why he’s green, if you’re messing about with chemicals, you should be able to control the color. Then there’s the American military’s own super serum super soldier, poster boy of a bygone era, back when people punched Hitler instead of using highly-sophisticated, highly-expensive weapons systems to shoot someone they can’t even see, and then they super-media-ed that super soldier into becoming the living, breathing icon of our sweet American ideals, you’ve met him, looks like a goody-two-shoes, a big, muscley, looming goody-two-shoes with the Disney eyes. And lest we forget, the Norse god who talks loudly, drinks more than twenty of myself combined and has a hammer he loves to use on someone’s skull because it makes him deliriously happy. And the thunder thing. Giddy as a meteorologist with five perfect storms about to converge over some poor Midwestern town.”

He stops to breathe and marvel at how this is his life.

How isn’t it.

“Then there’s you,” he continues, “the god of mischief, the trickster, you could talk circles around me if you wanted and turn us all into earthworms just because you were bored or become someone and/or something else for shits and giggles…hey, buddy, I get it, I do, I really do and I want to do that too, up to and including the talking circles ‘cause maybe I’d talk myself out of talking. Anyway, you gotta understand: we’re all dangerous.”

He steps closer to Loki because he can, because he’s intimidating when he wants to be, you can either sleep through board meetings or you can make ‘em dance.

“If you wanna do everything you listed out, have at it. In fact, Fury would shoot me and burn my body, but I’d admire your nefarious plan and tell you take ‘em out at the knees, then go for the jugular. But since it’d be me and my powerfully unhinged friends, I’d still admire your nefarious plan, then protect my knees and my jugular and work to take you down. You want doubts? Fine, you’ve got doubts. You want us to not trust you? Okay. I can not trust you for as long as you want. It’s a two-way street. We haven’t killed you yet. We haven’t trussed you up like a turkey and tortured you. I’ve heard rumors about a big-ass snake and poison.”

Loki says, “As I said earlier, your lack of self-preservation is astounding.”

“My arrogance makes up for it.”

Tony doesn’t say part of him wants Loki to try it, let them accept him and then betray them. It would only make the fighting worse, the injuries bloodier. Higher stakes with sky-high victories or gutter-junk defeats and you gotta understand, they’re all dangerous.

Vengeance is mine, he thinks.

In the blink of an eye, he’s surrounded by eight Lokis and before he can react, one of them crowds into his space. Quick as a strike, an arm slips around Tony’s waist and pulls them flush together, as if they’re going to dance. Pressing fingertips to Tony’s jaw, this Loki pushes a little to tip his head, then traces the line of Tony’s neck, there, right where a freed vein and arterial spray would leave Tony bleeding out all over the floor of his workshop.

He smiles, the one from the surveillance monitor, the one Tony first saw.

They sway together for a moment, bodies clutched warm, then Loki is gone, him and all his ghosts, and Tony stumbles backwards.

Upstairs, Thor booms out, “Loki, come see this device!” and Bruce and Pepper’s voices murmur in response as Loki says, “Yes, brother, what is it?”

Tony can’t find his pulse.

Please tell me you got that, Jarvis.”

“Yes, sir, it was quite memorable.”

“No color commentary, just tell me you could track him.”

“His signature split eight ways, causing them to be fainter than the whole, but there was one wavelength stronger than the rest, suggesting the real Loki.”

“Great. And which—“

“The real one, sir. Lucky you.”

He feels sort of dizzy and in his head, he can hear Pepper: sit down, Tony, put your head between your knees.

Where’s his damn drink.

“Everyone fucking testing my damn patience today,” he mutters under his breath.

-

That night, the promise of a Godfather marathon brings everyone to the couches in front of the TV and Thor must have said something to Coulson since Loki’s there too, tucked into a corner of the far couch from Tony, long legs stretched out in front of him.

Steve, Loki, and Thor are immediately engrossed, even though Steve’s seen it before, it was an early part of Tony’s continuing crash course on contemporary pop culture; it makes Tony proud that Steve loves such an icon of modern filmmaking, he could probably do something heartwarmingly patriotic and Steve would tell him to sit down and shut up or he’ll make Tony sleep with the fishes otherwise.

They’ve barely made it past Connie’s wedding, following Hagen to California before Steve has to pause the movie for a little disciplinary chat because Clint knows the movie by heart, quoting it verbatim, and Bruce is about to hulk out with annoyance. Thor almost knocks Clint off his perch on the back of the couch and Clint’s loudly expounding on the greatness of Coppola, that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, when his face goes white and he shuts his mouth with a snap.

Reflex fast, Loki has Clint pinned in place, staring him down, but he isn’t Loki, he’s shifted into Michael Corleone in his military dress browns. In Al Pacino’s intensely measured tone, he asks Clint to allow the story to unfold in peace. Clint glares back, “fuck you, Corleone, you ain’t even part of the family, college boy,” tension rising between them, but Tony’s laughing, he can barely breathe.

“Don’t spoil it for them, Clint, or I’ll have Jarvis clean out your porn,” Pepper says and Clint flips everyone off, rolling his eyes as Loki shifts back with a smirk. Natasha takes the chaotic opportunity to steal the remote from Steve. She restarts the movie and turns the volume up.

Tony surreptitiously searches about for a tablet, he always has one or two in the living quarters, where the hell, ah—Pepper hands it to him, “stop squirming, Tony,” so he angles it away from everyone else and checks in with Jarvis, fingers flying like a mad man.

Yes, Jarvis can follow Loki in a different form; the signature scrambles, but underneath it in the white noise is Loki’s, flowing along like his heartbeat.

He still wants to see if the form has to be humanoid for Jarvis to follow it or can it be alien or animal, vegetable, mineral, cheesecake, whatever, and it’s possible he’s becoming obsessed.

Or he’s already obsessed and getting worse.

When he puts the tablet down, the studio guy is screaming about the horse head and Loki’s watching Tony from the dark, flickers from the television changing the shadows around him.

The look on his face is cat in the cream, a kind of did you get what you wanted, and Tony really is obsessed, then the alarm is crashing over their heads like a bombing raid.

Coulson darts into the room as if he’s a summoned demon. “Hit the streets, boys and girls. Pepper, ma’am, if you please—“

They’re scrambling, orderly disorder, no one trips over their feet, Thor vaulting the couch, Clint and Natasha disappearing like smoke, and Tony casts a glance back. Loki’s on his feet, hands in his pockets, the movie’s shifting colors washing over him and Steve grabs Tony’s elbow, tugging, “Tony.”

“Loki, you’re with me,” Coulson orders; Steve freezes, Tony tensing at their sudden stop in momentum. “It’s your lucky day. Follow Pepper to master control. Looks like we’ll need your consultation skills after all.”

Tony grins and Steve’s grinning too at Pepper waving Loki forward with her efficient urgency.

Then it’s stepping into the suit, watching everyone transform into their grim, dangerous selves and flying out over the nighttime city to find some ass to kick.

Everyone signs in over the comm: Hawkeye, Widow, Cap, Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, Coulson, Fury, Pepper in the background and then Tony hears that voice again. Loki.

“Be evil,” he says and Cap sighs as Thor says, “I wish all of us a good battle.”

They spy the enemy. Another huge armor, like the last one, though this one is bigger and Tony swings close to it, “permission to buzz the tower,” Hawkeye replying, “Permission granted,” and Fury cuts in, “Enemy reconnaissance, Iron Man, tell us what you see.”

Of fucking course, he thinks, smirking.

His view is patched into the operations feed. The armor is put together in a stronger pattern this time, more like a proper robot, and the metal looks to be a new alloy. Tony fires an experimental shot to see how it lands, and it lands really damn well in that it skids off the surface and pisses off the robot.

“Oho, shit.”

“Hmm, a tough fucker,” Hawkeye says and Loki says, “This one shouldn’t collapse like the other. The manufacture of its body would make it too difficult to—“

They’re fighting in the dark; for all the city’s light pollution, it’s still night and Tony is losing teammates in the shadows, he has to look for the colors of their uniforms (or skin, ha, Hulk, ha fucking ha) and Widow’s dressed in black, so the HUD’s doing a lot of the work for him.

Loki and Fury talk their way through an ever-changing analysis, the depressing upshot of which is that this looks like another test run as Hawkeye aims for any chinks he can find, Cap is distracting the wide sweeping hands as Hulk and Thor hammer away at its limbs, Widow climbs it to see what she can see, jamming in knives as she goes.

“Aim for the head,” she and Loki say simultaneously, like an echo, like nostalgia of when Loki stepped into the combat last time.

“No, bring it down,” Tony says with a flash of understanding, “then cut off its damn head.”

“New plan,” Captain America confirms and everyone swings into action, attempting to herd it where it won’t do too much damage, more than it’s already caused because having this thing topple over isn’t going to be pretty.

At some point when Tony isn’t looking, it all gets shot to hell. Only Thor and Hulk have made a dent in the thing, literally, so Hawkeye and Widow are searching for other means of destruction, detonation of some kind most likely, and Tony’s standing on the street, firing up at the robot out of sheer frustration, “fall down, you metal-assed bastard, stub your toe or something,” then there’s an ominous whirring sound ratcheting up to a whine and the robot unleashes a beam right at Tony’s feet, slicing the asphalt like a precision laser power tool.

To his infinite fucking anger, Cap skids in front of him, shield out, about the catch the next blast as the whine spins high again and almost instantaneously, Fury’s yelling over the comm, “Loki, you do not have fucking permission—“

The trickster emerges out of the dark to block Cap, stance wide and hands out, a bright wall-sized force field forming at the robot as the blast comes—

—that creaking sound, like steel and masonry, and Tony sees Loki and Cap kneeling twisted and crooked in the street before the lights are blotted out—

—pain everywhere, his body hurts and he can taste blood and it’s pitch black inside his suit except for his reactor, no HUD, no comm, and everything’s heavy, he’s trapped, he can hear his breath, he can taste blood

—sickening movement, side to side, someone moving his limbs for him, he’s still in the suit, maybe he’s been fried into the wires, grafted to it, oh fuck he can’t see—

—it feels like a building fell on him and this is what failure feels like, he wonders if his father will be worried, then he remembers his father doesn’t like him except as some sort of brilliant creation, does his father know his name, how can Steve have gotten along with Howard, they worked together, it’s weird, it’s sad, Steve knew his father better than he—

“A building fell on you,” Pepper tells him, her face puffy from crying, and he squints, pokes her cheek and she yelps.

“Stop crying, why’re you crying, I’m indestructible, Pep,” he explains to her because she should know better. “You’re a big girl, you should know better.”

“Shut up, Mr. Stark,” she says, and she must be angry with him, now he’ll have to have her buy herself something nice for all his assholery she puts up with.

He tries to sit up and she helps him, which he loves her for, and he sees he’s in his bedroom at the Tower, in his pajamas and covered in bandages. “It’s not so bad?”

“Bruised ribs, other cuts and bruises in various places,” she replies, hands waving over him like little birds, “a nice shiner, small concussion, and you bit your tongue.”

That’s what that pain is in his mouth. “Good to know. Steve? Wait, and—wait—“

Loki was there. Saving Steve. Who was saving Tony.

“Loki?”

She smiles, rueful on her pretty face, and Tony grins so maybe she’ll cheer up. “They’re about the same as you. You should see the battle video.”

“Did we cut off its head and piss down its neck?”

“How did you know? Clint almost did just that.”

“Dammit, I wanted to do that.”

He makes a gesture, gotta get up, and it ain’t pleasant, but he’s out of bed and almost to the door when Pepper says, “Tony, pajamas.”

“You don’t think they’ll like ‘em?”

This time, she smiles, his gal Pepper, and says, “I like ‘em and Coulson will like ‘em, but don’t you want to cut a more dashing figure? Injured hero who tried to sacrifice himself to save the day? You want to look like a building fell on you and it doesn’t matter.”

“Never leave me,” he says fervently and she laughs, muffled as she wanders into his closet, re-emerging with his favorite jeans and an Iron Man t-shirt and his best sneakers.

Yeah, she’s the one who’s been providing Loki with street clothes. He knew it.

“You gonna keep putting Loki in green?” he asks offhand.

Pepper smirks, holy crap, she learned that from him, he’s corrupted her, and says, “He likes the color.”

“Uh-huh.”

He escorts her to the living room and not the other way around, nope not at all, and the place is deserted except for Steve, who’s rewinding a section of the fight, from what Tony can tell.

“You work too hard, Captain America,” Tony says. “I hear a building fell on us, but I don’t believe it. Fear mongering. Lazy scare tactics.”

Steve’s got an arm in a sling, bruises on his cheekbone and Tony can see the bandages under his shirt as he stands. When he moves to hug Tony, he limps.

“Tony, you’re stupid, do you know how stupid you are? A complete jackass,” Steve says, not letting Tony go and Tony laughs into the hug, ignoring his aching ribs.

“Takes one to know one, jackass.”

Steve laughs, but he’s still so serious. “How you feelin’?”

“Like I’m Tony Stark, so basically, the greatest man alive.”

“Greatest,” Steve says, eyebrow going up and Pepper snorts.

“That’s unladylike, y’know, and yeah, I said ‘greatest,’ not ‘best’.”

“I’ll heal faster than you.”

“Ease up on the competition! You work too damn hard,” Tony says, attempting to flop down onto the couch, but he ends up easing himself into a pseudo-comfortable position like he’s 90. “So. We look good on camera? Tell me, Mr. DeMille, was the lighting okay?”

They watch the video and it’s like Tony remembers: sheer pounding frustration, all of them working like hell to take down the shiny metal fucker and Steve’s talking him through it until the beam goes off.

Tony feels helpless again, watching as Steve darts in with his shield, that big ol’ beautiful bullseye, and the beam powering sound is terrible, he can almost feel it in his teeth like a hateful vibration, then Loki is there, unprotected in his civilian clothes, creating a wall for the three of them.

The beam hits Loki’s wall, ricochets and explodes in a huge burst, tossing them to the ground, and Tony’s made a fist, banging his knuckles against his knee; he sees himself on the ground, trying to stand, Steve and Loki preparing for the next blast, but the building next to them is sliding sideways. Steve instinctively covers his body with his shield and Loki stares as if he’s entranced, then he makes a gesture and as the building comes down, it partially erupts up and out, a detonation wave pushing away.

He immediately understands the decision, the physics.

“He minimized the damage, forced the building off us,” Steve says, low. “Sorta. But the combination of the interrupted blast and the building collapse helped knock the enemy over.”

“Like extreme insanity bowling,” Tony says.

Pointing at a faint shuddering shine in the rubble where the three of them should be, Steve says, “He was trying to hold another field around us, somehow.” The light goes out and the bricks tumble and slide. “Didn’t completely work.”

“Where is he?”

Steve smiles. “Coulson gave him a room. Up here. With us.” Then he frowns, his steely I’m not pleased about this expression. “It’s reinforced somehow, he didn’t give me all the details, but it’s still a prison cell, Tony, just a nicer one.”

“Does Loki know?”

“Yeah, Coulson informed him of it. Had me there with him.”

Tony nods because, of course. He wishes he had been in on that stupid fucking conversation.

“Which way.”

“Left, then go until you see the guard,” Steve says and he looks ashamed, so Tony squeezes his arm.

“It’s okay, Cap. I’ll welcome him to the neighborhood.”

He’s standing, well, he’s working to standing, well, he’s considering working to standing and Steve says, “You’re kinda transparent, Tony. You know that, right? The others don’t know you like I do, so they haven’t noticed yet, and I don’t think he’s noticed yet, but. You do talk a lot.”

All the breath leaves Tony on an exhale and he can’t seem to inhale. “My good sir, whatever do you mean.”

But Steve just smiles, that gooey grin that disgruntles Tony in so many ways. “Go on, welcoming committee. You got a lasagna or a pie to take over to him?”

“Don’t you have work to do? You’re the responsible adult around here, not me.”

“Do we need to have ‘The Talk’, Tony? I’m not buying you condoms.”

I’m walking away right now. Don’t show your ugly mug in this neighborhood again.”

-

Left, and go until he sees the guard and sure enough, there’s a guard and this is technically his place, Tony should probably see to it that there aren’t armed guards annoying his friends and endangering various home furnishings with their boots and weapons, but it might be somewhat hypocritical considering who his friends are, annoying and endangering things themselves.

The door’s open and he gives the guard a snooty once over because he can. The guard ignores him.

“Yeah, I gotta talk to Coulson,” he mutters, then remembers he’s probably not alone.

Loki’s sitting on his bed, propped against pillows, jeans, shirt (black this time, Pepper either gets a fabulous raise or a stern talking-to), a book in his hands. He hasn’t noticed Tony and Tony really gets a look at him.

He’s beat up pretty bad, cuts on his face, a black eye blacker than Tony’s, almost shut. Bandages under his clothes too, around his torso, and down one leg.

Both his wrists are wrapped and his fingers look swollen. Tony pictures him from the video, hands out, casting to shield them all, blowing apart a building in the split-second before it collapsed.

He’s still otherworldly, still stunning in this muted state, the bruises sharp on his pale skin, cuts severe with his dark hair and when he glances up, Tony notices his mouth is dark red, as if he’d been punched.

“Did somebody punch you?” Tony blurts and Loki’s hand goes to his lips, feeling gingerly.

“No, I think it’s a combination of falling bricks and my own teeth.” He gives a small smile. “A danger to myself and others.”

“I’ve been called that before. And I bit my tongue,” Tony states because it’s information Loki needs.

Loki laughs, then winces as his fingers curl.

“Can’t you…ice yourself?” Tony asks. “And that was a dumb fucking question, your frost nature probably doesn’t affect your actual physical makeup, wouldn’t help reduce the swelling—“

“No, it won’t work. I’ll have to heal the slow way.”

“Does that mean you’ve tried?” Tony asks, it comes out dirty and filthy, and Tony looks anything but innocent, but he’s prepared to defend himself as an actual scientist of some sketchy sort.

“Yes,” Loki confesses, slick, with a full-on grin, idly flipping pages in the book. “The Captain punched me in the chest,” his hand moves carefully, indicating a double punch to the solar plexus. “And the lovely assassin clipped my jaw with her boot. After your mad scientist tossed me against a wall.”

“The precincts,” Tony says, trying to ignore how odd it is to discuss criminal activities with that particular criminal who is currently somewhat on their side. Loki attacking six police stations at once to create panic and chaos, evacuated due to the scare, which made the whole mess an enormously huge fucking mess and one precinct exploded in a cloud of dust, as Tony’s teammates went to beat him into the ground.

For some reason, Tony’s nervous, why is he nervous, he’s the genius billionaire philanthropist playboy, emphasis on all of them, but yeah, the playboy, and shit, he shouldn’t be nervous, he’s not twelve.

This guy can just about out-smooth him, twisted and sleek.

He says the first thing he thinks of: “If you shift, do your injuries shift with you?”

His brain isn’t allowed to make the decisions anymore.

Loki’s smile vanishes entirely. “A few months ago, you and Hawkeye shot me—Clint, as he said—I was shot and I had deep wounds…” He gestures at his ribs. “I bled quite a bit. At the hospital, I was a young adult male, victim of street crime.”

“Mugging?”

The trickster nods, which might be a lie, Tony can’t tell, but he doesn’t care.

“Why throw me out a window?” he asks because he’ll take the honesty if he can get it, or the constructed lies too, like fantastic deranged mythology, it all might be a lie, but whatever. He does remember Loki bruised and battered disappearing outside the police station; he does remember when he and Clint fired at the same time, and seeing blood on the concrete afterwards.

“Why do you throw anything out a window?” Loki replies. “It’s fun.”

“But, c’mon…me.”

With a sigh, Loki pulls his legs in, an almost defensive move. “To destroy a team or small fighting force, systematically remove each member one by one. I wasn’t expecting you to be Tony Stark, without your battle armor.”

His eyes gleam. “I’d caught you. Alone. So vulnerable.”

Holy shit.

His expression is mocking, what else you got for me is how Tony hears it in his head.

“Why didn’t you just turn that robot armor thing into a bunny?” It’s a sincere question, if you can do magic, why not abuse it for your own damn safety.

“I actually have self-preservation,” Loki say wryly, “but I didn’t have a lot of time,” and Tony hasn’t forgotten this is the god of mischief, the guy who slips into shadows and loves chaos because it feeds his intellect and his issues and he hasn’t forgotten, he knows someone like that, a kid he knew a long time ago.

He’s stepped closer, his mind singing step into my parlor, it all depends on who’s the spider and who’s the fly, and he doesn’t care, he doesn’t care at all, especially when Loki leans in and says, “You haven’t asked the question.”

“Which one.”

The air around them, vibrates, crackling, and there’s a faint light in Loki’s palms.

Tony feels like he’s falling, they’re losing control.

“You haven’t asked me why,” Loki says.

“Why this,” Tony says and Loki smiles, so fucking slow.

“Why should I help you when I’m the villain. I could say it’s all a matter of perspective. Maybe you’re the villain and I’m the hero. Maybe this city is tired of all your flashiness, your destruction. Maybe this city is tired of heroes and villains. They know there’s good and there’s evil and it’s out there, but maybe they want it.”

Tony’s listening, fuck. “They want the death and pain?”

“You need the dark, don’t you. Otherwise.”

“It’s too sunny.”

Loki snaps the book shut. “Or perhaps I was bored. Mischief and chaos are easy. I remember fighting by my brother’s side.” He closes his eyes. “I remember when our victories were just. I remember how well we fought together and how much we celebrated.”

Before the blood-soaked nightmares, Tony thinks. He drinks to keep those away, being trapped in a cave, watching his friend die at his feet, yards away from freedom. Putting away a trusted family friend. Having the world come after you.

Not having a father.

“But you won’t believe me,” Loki says, “whatever I say. You’ll have to guess why. And continue guessing.”

His smile is coy, but Tony can see something else.

Those swollen, curved fingers catch his chin and Tony realizes how warm Loki is, warmed by the blood from his injuries, then Loki kisses him.

Tony isn’t going to miss this; he kisses back, hand finding Loki’s neck, he slides his bruised tongue over that red mouth and Loki makes a pained noise, but doesn’t let go, he pulls them together, the kiss going heavy and long and Tony might do horrible catastrophic things to have a kiss like this again.

Then Loki’s pulled away, fingers careful in Tony’s hair.

“They will try to manipulate this,” Loki says, licking his lips as if he can taste Tony, then Tony parses what he said, darkly shocked, but Loki’s saying, “They manipulate my brother and me into controlling each other. They will manipulate this.”

“Hey, Loki, if you’ve got a minute,” Steve says, knocking on the door. “I’d like your opinion on the—uh, ohhh.”

Loki gives Tony a small push with his fists, hiding a wince, and he stands, smoothes down his shirt, the little wrinkles where Tony had held him.

“Yes, Captain, I’d like to see the footage of our unfortunate incident,” he says, as if it’s a regular day.

“I, uh, I’m sorry, was—“ Steve says, eyes wide, and Tony thinks Steve’s adorable when he’s flustered, usually, but it’s jarring this time, as if reality has suddenly dropped unexpectedly on everyone’s doorstep.

“I hope you aren’t in much pain,” Loki says. “The building was heavier than I expected.”

He grins and Steve laughs under his breath.

“Clint was disappointed you didn’t take out the entire block and make it snow cotton candy or something crazy,” Steve replies. “I don’t know what he was talking about.”

“I’ll keep that in mind for next time.”

They’ve forgotten Tony, making their crooked way out into the hall.

Tony listens to their voices, Steve warm and serious, making a deadpan joke, and Loki laughs, the sound breaking as they turn out of earshot.

He hangs his head, staring at the bruises on his hands, feeling like he did when he was six and alone.

-

The battle is on a sickening loop, though Tony’s kind of mesmerized by the bright flashes and Natasha detonating a charge to remove the robot’s head, though he could do without seeing Clint standing in the crater, preparing to piss all over the robot.

Everyone is accounted for except Thor and Loki, left talking somewhere else around headquarters, and Tony thinks of Loki saying, They manipulate my brother and me into controlling each other.

“So this isn’t exactly a damn democracy,” Fury says, “but I’d like everyone’s opinion on the previous night’s mission.”

“He could be using it to his advantage,” Bruce says, out of nowhere, and Tony’s impressed.

“Why, Bruce, you diabolical—“

“It is possible this is all an intricate, convoluted scheme, I mean, you defend two of your enemies, sustain extensive injuries, and then they take you in, but.” Bruce stops, spreading his fingers on the table. “But I think if we believed that, we’d be the ones with the intricate, convoluted scheme.”

“You’re saying we should trust him,” Clint says, slowly like he needs to understand each word. “Trust the guy we tried to kill months ago, with an overwhelming sense of being right and totally righteous.” He throws the metal horns, mouthing rock on.

Fury and Coulson give him a look.

Tony’s already voiced his opinion not only to his babysitter, but also to the object of this discussion and he won’t step in until it’s necessary because it seems obvious, it’s obvious to him, and they’re all dangerous, this is what they do, they fight how they can for what they’ve got.

Natasha is studying her nails, foot swinging to a beat she hears in her head, and Tony knows she has no qualms, she joined this group, she trusts at a particular level she understands and knows on her own.

Steve has that expression, the one Tony loves to the ends of the earth, his listen or I will kick your ass ‘round the block and back expression because he’s got something to say.

“We could go back and forth about this. Should we, shouldn’t we, what if this or that, he might do XYZ and then we’d be in the shit. But after a while, it’s all academic. What if Bruce lost his mind and tore us to pieces. What if Coulson decided to shoot us all in the head.”

“Clint might accidentally on purpose shoot someone,” Tony murmurs.

“That was only the one time, that one fucking time, and you got in the way, dickface. That’s why your tincan ass is armored.”

“Thor might drink too much, forget how strong he is and try to pitch a car off the building.”

Steve ignores them. “At some point, you have to trust.”

Like he did with the military. Because he’s the guy who dives on grenades.

“And if the fallout comes, you deal with it,” Steve finishes in the bright quiet.

Tony nods. “In a bomb shelter. With pints of Ben & Jerry’s and You’ve Got Mail on repeat.”

Clint stares at him for a second, says, “Why not Heat,” as Steve rubs at his eyes, hiding a tired smile and Tony’s a badass motherfucker, he’s won.

“Fine, Heat.”

“Léon,” Natasha contributes.

“That’s only because you’re an assassin,” Tony reasons and she shakes her head, “That’s because of Gary Oldman,” and Pepper says, “Mmm, exactly.”

“Goodfellas,” Steve says.

“Steve, I never should’ve gotten you into mafia movies.” Tony smirks and Steve glares at him because Captain America doesn’t want to encourage anyone.

“Casino then.”

“The English Patient,” Bruce says tentatively.

“Bruce knows his cin-e-ma! A romantic!”

Clint groans, head in his hands, “I don’t wanna picture Bruce hulked out and crying over the damn English Patient.”

“Trust—“ Fury rumbles and Bruce says, “We aren’t going to do trust exercises again, are we?”

Fuck no with an extra dollop of fuck no,” Clint says and Pepper says, “No, the damage control was—“

Tony knows where this is going, he shouldn’t be having this discussion since he’s slightly dented the definition of ‘fraternization,’ he knows where this will end up.

“Hell, we’ve all got issues, not only trust, a therapist would love us, our group therapy sessions would be legendary and I’m one to talk, hey, I’m talking, imagine that, but yeah, listen to Steve, what Steve said. Trust. Solidarity. Book club on Thursdays.”

“Thursday is comedy night on NBC,” Clint points out.

“Tuesdays, book club on Tuesdays followed by pizza. So. Trust. Alright.”

“Dazed and Confused.”

Everyone turns.

“Coulson. I am shocked,” Tony says, “a man of depth and great film taste.”

Trust,” Fury says again threateningly, “if everyone can shut the fuck up for a minute, there was a purpose for this damn meeting besides my listening to all your inane shit. Now. Are we all in some sort of fucking agreement.”

“Yeah, we probably should’ve had Loki and Thor in here, since we trust him, right.”

If Tony can see the knife, he’s going to twist it, because he can and because he’s a bastard, no lie.

Fury and Coulson sigh in unison, they’ve been working together way too long, Tony should send them on all-expenses paid vacations. Away. Far away.

“We didn’t finish The Godfather,” Steve hazards.

“Someone muffle Barton,” Bruce says and then everyone’s on their feet, arguing about the Best Movie Snack until Pepper mentions calling the deli on the corner for cannolis.

Resolution passed.

Tony’s nerves come back in full force and he thinks, They will manipulate this.

He licks his lips.

Thor laughs, “Yes, my friends, I wish to discover what happens to Don Corleone. He is a mighty man. This history of your city is interesting!” and Bruce begins explaining how it isn’t proper history and the ins-and-outs of the mob, Steve hanging on every word until Clint interrupts with facts about the majesty of Scorsese. Natasha is discussing knives with Loki, Pepper on the phone ordering sandwiches and cannolis, then she spots Tony, waving him over.

“Tony, you all right?” she asks as she hangs up.

“Why, do I look wrong?”

“Are you in pain? You can take painkillers, unless you’ve been drinking. If you’ve been drinking, I’m going to murder you and—“

He smiles, lightheaded, because this isn’t a Disney family feature, he and Loki and Steve are beaten all to hell, someone out there is determined to ruin their workplace safety record and their day, and the decision to trust a supervillain was easy, like he sort of wanted. They’re about to watch The Godfather.

Then they’ll all go to bed, it’ll be another day and after that kiss, he’s not just obsessed anymore.

He’s, he’s—

“Pep, I’m fine. My pride hurts.”

“Nothing will ever fix that,” she says and he wiggles his eyebrows at her.

“Saucy.”

“One of my best features,” she says, squeezing his arm. “Let me find your drugs.”

“I’ll drown my hurts in Sicilian pastries.”

Natasha is starting the movie over from the beginning and Steve yells, “Tony! C’mon.”

He looks for Loki and he’s not a teenager, he’s not a blushing anything, he’s a grown man in control; one kiss, a pretty mind-blowing kiss and what the shit, Tony’s been working way too hard obviously to take care of other things; he doesn’t pine, he doesn’t yearn, theirs is not a torrid forbidden love affair.

This isn’t the fucking English Patient.

There, his black eye and bandaged wrists and how he hides his injuries. His smirk.

Loki returns his look, follows Tony with his gaze and fuck, Tony is in control.

The team silently gives Loki, Steve, and Tony space to sprawl according to their “distinguished battle wounds, you have earned much glory and pride,” as Thor says, arms spread wide as if he wants to crown them. Loki sits with his brother, as if he’s not sure he’s welcome anywhere else and Steve joins them. The three of them take up a whole couch themselves and Tony spies the sneaky smile on Steve’s face.

“You fucker,” Tony whispers, passing to the other couch and Steve replies, “Responsible adult.”

He has to sit in the dark and watch the bloody tale of the Corleone family and want.

Pepper gives him his painkillers, so Tony lets himself float, waiting for the cannoli.

He’s woken by a hand on his face and a hand on his knee and the television is flickering through Godfather II.

It’s Pepper, gently saying his name, “Tony, c’mon, wake up.”

“Why.”

“So you can go to bed.”

“’Cause that makes so much sense.”

“It will in the morning,” she says drily and he knows better than to argue, well, some of the time.

Natasha is yawning, fiddling with the remote and Steve is hovering over a sleeping Bruce, whispering at him because they’ve all woken Bruce the wrong way at least once; it’s like a rite of passage, there’s a nice new wall behind them to attest to it.

Voices from the bar area, Thor and Clint drunkenly telling stories, though Thor seems to be singing through his, a lilt to his words, each sentence is a little tune.

Loki is asleep, fallen against pillows, his hands and wrists cradled against his chest and Tony tries to be inconspicuous, making a quiet beeline to him. He hunches down to Loki’s level, grunting with the drugged pain in his ribs, his ankles a bit shaky, and before he realizes it, he’s mirroring Pepper, a hand on Loki’s face, a hand on his knee, “Loki.”

Green eyes open, focus on him and Tony smiles. “Bedtime for good boys and girls.”

“Good?”

“Is that offensive,” Tony says, rolling his eyes. “And here I thought you’d be upset I was calling you a girl.”

A half-smile and Loki says, “I’ve been a woman before,” and holy fuck to the high heavens, Tony is not quite awake and on the fun medications and that is almost too much for him, he’s about to fall over.

“That’s, uh, that’s nice,” he says oh-so intelligently, leaning back to let Loki maneuver his way to standing. Pepper and Natasha are deep in conversation, making a path together towards their bedrooms. Steve has gotten Bruce on his feet, “c’mon c’mon c’mon, why are you this heavy in your human form, I’ve only got one arm right now, Banner, work with me here.”

Clint says, “No, you did not, the fuck you did,” and Thor replies, “Oh, but I did, Clint Barton, I assure you, one swing, four enemies.”

“It’s true,” Loki says as he and Tony walk by, “I was there.” Clint gapes at them, Tony thinks he looks like a monkey, then Loki says, “But he really only hit two and when they fell over, they knocked out the other two, so—“

“Brother, stop lying,” Thor says, laughing, spilling his mead, and Loki waves at him with a sly grin.

“I was there, Thor, I remember,” he calls, heading to the hallway. Tony’s room is the other way; surreally, he isn’t sure what to do and Loki hesitates. They watch each other for a moment, then Loki turns to go.

Tony follows.

They walk in silence because Tony’s half-asleep and on drugs and he really wants Loki to direct this so that Tony can match him. Loki’s the type who thinks fast and acts fast and takes what he wants, but he’s waiting, keeping himself in a holding pattern. Tony isn’t sure what he’s waiting for.

“Escorting the prisoner back to his cell?” Loki asks as they get close to his door; the armed guard is gone, thank fuck, Tony might have to punch the poor slob’s lights out—which isn’t the issue, hell, if he’s doing this, then everyone’s going to know.

“Fraternizing with the enemy,” he replies, going for a winning smile. Loki returns it, a variation all his own with that kick of mischief.

He reaches out and Tony catches his arm halfway, thumb rubbing over the wrapping on his wrist.

“Am I the enemy?”

“Are you?”

Those eyes flash, then Tony kisses him, unhurried, all the time in the world kisses, lost in the dim light, and Loki keeps making those noises, pain and want, pushing at Tony’s mouth until they can’t breathe.

Loki traces the purple-black around Tony’s eye, making him hiss, kissing the sound out of his mouth.

They have bad luck and poor timing, battered from head to toe, each touch presses on a hard bruise, Loki’s hands reflexively tightening.

“You look like hell,” he says.

“Same to you, pal,” Tony retorts, glaring, “you’ve taken too damn well to the vernacular, our ways should be mysterious to you,” but Loki just smirks and disappears into his room, closing the door.

A little light goes on over the lintel, a tiny red speck. Tony remembers: reinforced. What in the blue hell.

He wanders down to his own bedroom, trying not to think that this was some sort of freakish, chaste first date.

Think fast, act fast.

He thinks, They will manipulate this.

He falls asleep and doesn’t dream.

-

Laptop in front of her, Pepper’s half-watching Bruce, Natasha and Thor play poker; they’re betting with M&Ms and Thor has a bowl of Reese’s Pieces he’s eating out of as they play, as if he didn’t eat Natasha’s weight in breakfast foods three hours ago; he doesn’t look hung over in the slightest, which makes Tony burn with jealousy and that doesn’t help his ribs.

Clint’s disappeared somewhere, probably to croon over his weapons or shoot things, though it’s possible he’ll simply drop from the ceiling at some point to scare the living shit out of everyone for the fun of it, “gotta practice, gotta stay sharp, you wouldn’t know anything about that, would you, any of you, fucking slackers.”

Steve’s cornered Loki again for more strategizing, analytical reasoning and battle tactics, who knows, they could be playing Battleship or Risk or Stratego.

Global Thermonuclear War.

At one point, Tony referred to Jarvis as WOPR, but Jarvis wouldn’t respond and it became very annoying pretty damn quick.

This is quickly becoming a typical day.

“Jarvis.”

“Yes, sir. Are you in a good mood today?”

“Why.”

“Just asking, as is polite.”

“Polite, my ass.”

“I would never, sir.”

He’s gone over his Stark business with Pepper including a mountain of things he needs to talk over with Rhodey; now, he’s back in his workshop because he’s not hiding, not again, not ever, please, it has nothing to do with the ex-ish supervillain upstairs currently walking around like a living clothing ad, looking for Tony when he enters the room, it has nothing to do with Tony’s best friend spending big chunks of time with said ex-ish supervillain and no, he’s not imagining them talking about him.

He’s not paranoid.

He just needs to think.

The panels wake up for him like happy little data puppies and he’s soon engrossed in digging around security’s tech files because ‘reinforced’ is stuck in his brain like a railroad spike, it won’t go away until he knows.

There’s a lot of tech he runs across that looks interesting, if only for research and corruption purposes, so he has Jarvis file it away for later. And of course, he finds and copies all the information they’ve gathered about each member of the team, down to the tests run on Mjölnir and Bruce’s serum and Clint’s bow specifications; these go on his personal server. When he finds the tiny ant trail stealing bits and crumbs from his file on Loki, he cuts it off with his own virtual magnifying glass.

S.H.I.E.L.D. can collect their own damn information.

Then he finds his goldmine with all the appropriate attached specs, modifications, and variations. It makes him grit his teeth.

‘Reinforced’ means a dampener, experimental tech being tested to diminish the effects and usage of magic and/or superpowers.

Being tested. On Loki.

Tony remembers the vibrations of the air, the muted glow of Loki’s palms and the door was open. It must lock down completely when the door is closed. Meaning the immortal is practically mortal in the ‘safe’ confines of the room.

A prison cell. Just a nicer one.

“Dammit.”

He gets it, Coulson enforcing security for the good of the group, protection against any and all slip-ups, but if that’s the case, they should each have dampeners, well, those who actually have superpowers.

At least they can’t stop Tony. Genius and money go a long way, baby.

Coulson’s offsite, securing pieces of the enemy armor from the other night for testing, for Bruce to mess with, Tony to break down and twist to hell and back. He’ll have to discuss the ‘reinforcement’ with the agent because “Coulson, it’s highly likely you’re paranoid, buddy, have you looked into getting a nice prescription for Valium.”

He still needs to think, so he dives into the engine again, “Jarvis, music,” a heavy bass riff kicks in and his mind splits, tuning like the metal under his hands.

Tony is all fucked up, which he hasn’t been since Pepper, and that was different, that was two people defining a relationship that already existed only to discover they liked it the way it was, not the way they were trying to make it.

This is, this is Tony struck sideways and gone. This is Tony wanting to know what’s in Loki’s head, what all he can do, how much destruction can he cause for Tony, how many calamitous days can they have.

This is Tony wanting to see what Loki will give, truth or lies or heart attacks.

This is Tony fascinated by the trickster’s genius, the chaos at his fingertips. This is Tony wanting to match Loki. This is Tony wanting to know.

This is freefall, like the minutes ticking by in adrenaline when Tony’s flying in the suit and, high over the earth, he lets everything stop.

This is potential like a suspended hydrogen bomb and Loki’s kinetic energy powering Tony’s arc reactor, he feels it hum in his chest.

Tony is the type to think fast, act fast and he takes what he wants, and they’re really a pair here, they’re greedy, slick sons of bitches, but they keep circling each other, loitering in limbo.

It’s starting to make Tony’s blood prickle through his body, around his heart like the lingering shrapnel held in place, in his belly like a craving for alcohol.

It’s starting to make him want to push.

He’s tapping on his reactor in rhythm to the drums when Loki knocks on the glass.

“Why’d you do it,” he asks as soon as Loki steps in, the music dying.

Loki’s hands aren’t as swollen, though his knuckles are bruised and rounded and Tony watches his hands as he waits.

“Why did I do everything before this?”

“Yeah, being the villain.”

“Being the villain.” It’s interesting how Loki pronounces the word, smoothing it like cream.

He has to do something, so he goes back to the engine, bringing up the block’s diagram virtually to hang in the air and Loki’s momentarily distracted.

Tony opened his mouth and now they need a moment. What’s happened to him. He used to be such a simple guy: self-loathing, confident, an asshole of the first degree.

This is potential on a massive scale, kinetic energy unchecked, his curiosity out to kill him in a single, genius stroke. Freefall.

Loki says, “Everything in Asgard is golden. Home of the gods. It’s glittering gold everywhere, even our apples are golden. Father is the king, a mighty warrior, undisputed. He sits on his golden throne and directs everyone and Thor is his son: golden, mighty, undisputed.”

His voice doesn’t shake.

“I love my father. I love my brother. They are both fools,” Loki says, tone dropping hazardous. “Father doesn’t listen. Thor trusts too easily and loves too much. It’s easy to break them and who doesn’t want to break something they love, even for just a moment.”

He takes a breath, rattling angry.

“No one trusts you because you know too much, you see too much, they’re frightened of you and too stupid to know why, so they hate you. It shouldn’t matter; you have your brother who will defend you to his death. But you don’t belong, you never have, and you never truly will, you aren’t equal and you aren’t even blood. You aren’t golden. Mighty. Undisputed.”

He’s the Loki they first captured, vibratingly calm, danger spiraling through him like a dead man’s curve and Tony can only watch, not blink, as he shifts, skin going blue, eyes blazing out bright.

“You don’t know if you’re a son or a weapon, created for some despicable future use. An endgame. In the meantime, you’ve been killing off your own kind for centuries. The monster killing the monsters. Kill your real father for your adopted father, the father who didn’t tell you of your hated origins. Fight your brother, bring him down low so he will see you are the monster, he will understand how you exist and how foolish he is. He might, but it’s too late. You’ve broken everything and your father does not listen. No one knows you. So what’s left for you.”

He bares his teeth and Tony’s never seen someone hold fury like that, like a spring-loaded dagger aimed at your heart.

“Revenge,” Tony says. “Explosions. Breaking everything else.”

“I am not an angry child who needs attention!” Loki yells, looming over Tony and Tony isn’t going to back down, he’s been captivated by Loki since their first fight, interested in this new brand of hellion spitfire, regardless and because of overly complex planning and a penchant for dramatic destructive gestures, he drags Tony in like no one else, a whirlpool Tony could drown in.

Tony remembers the window hitting his spine.

“No, you’re not, I think we’ve both been through that phase. My father rarely knew I existed and for a span of a few years, I thought he didn’t know my name. Golden, mighty, undisputed, he built like a obsessive freak and created like a fiend and it wasn’t until years after he’d died and I’d almost died a few times that he told me I was his best creation. Like fatherhood is a single act of inspiration. Revenge is what helps you remember you actually exist. It means you aren’t equal and you won’t ever be. You’re smarter than that, how could you ever be equal.”

Tony grins, biting and bitter because he knows and he knew it and no one listened, hey, let’s just talk Loki down, guys, have Thor talk to him, y’know, a little brotherly bonding over some daiquiris.

“You want revenge? Revenge is when you mow down the people who kidnapped you and tried to kill you with your own fucking weapons, so you give back to the community with your own fucking weapons. Build a motherfucking suit of armor and blow shit up, blow all those assholes to smithereens. Privatize world peace and control it, make it your own ‘cause yeah, that’s what gets you up in the morning. Have bad ideas and act on them, then you’re only a good guy ‘cause you’re taking out other bad guys. You think I’m any flavor of good? Philosophical debate of the day. Discuss.”

Loki stares at him and Tony thinks part of them is lying, it’s not the whole story and they might never uncover the whole story.

Two liars maybe falling fast and the cold is growing in the room; the virtual engine build stutters and disappears. Something cracks with a sharp snap, then another, another, escalating.

But Tony doesn’t look away.

“You lie,” Loki says.

You lie,” Tony replies. “You think I’ve got this glowy thing in my chest ‘cause I like jewelry? If you’ve ever had an easy chance of killing someone, this is it. Just pop that baby out and I’ll die. Given to me with tender loving care by those sonsuvbitches I killed for using my fucking weapons with my fucking name on them. Go on, touch it. You wanna break something, you’ve been so quiet lately, it’s gotta be frustrating, sometimes you just gotta break something, so go ahead. I lack self-preservation, so just fucking try.”

The room is shaking, minor earthquake, nothing exciting, just Tony picking a fight with a stupidly powered god because he wants to know. He wants to push.

Red gaze like blood, Loki puts a hand on the reactor, flat, palm pressing hard. The cold hits the metal, feeding into the center of Tony, the humming louder in his head, about to rattle his teeth and oh, shit, this could be messy, this could hurt, this hurts, traveling through his body, firing along his wounds like liquid pain, he can’t breathe, he can’t, can’t

Staggering loss of gravity, the world speeds up like whiplash and he’s alone, gasping on his knees.

Tony coughs and coughs and coughs and surveys the damage.

The ceiling is cracked, one long split; every piece of glass has fine spider crazing along its surface, a few lights are burnt black and there are two sets of footprints frostburned into the floor.

“Loki has returned to his quarters and locked himself in, sir.”

Reinforced. Dampening himself. With an armed guard outside.

Nodding, Tony coughs again, dizzy as he drags in air. “Okay okay okay. Uh, gimme a minute, then we’ll clean this up, gotta—gotta find a broom, or a mop, we got any of those down here, Jarvis?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Strike that from the record, got it? Just—if you recorded that, it goes on my private server.”

He wants to know if he turned blue from the cold. He stays kneeling, hands shaking, feeling his pulse. The reactor gives off its comforting color, proof that Tony Stark has a heart.

All great scientists experiment on themselves.

Tony looks at the ceiling, tracing the crack. He counts backwards from fifty.

“Captain Rogers is headed your direction.”

“Ohhhh, fuck.”

“Tony. Tony!”

“Timing, Jarvis, you need to learn the fine art of timing,” Tony says, getting to his feet. The door unlocks, then shatters when Steve tries to open it.

“I didn’t do that—and what the hell happened to you, oh god,” Steve says, crunching over glass and Tony waves him off, “I know, I know, I know.”

“Tony, what—“

“I was nosy,” Tony says.

“Nosy?” Steve’s staring at him like he’s about to sign him into an insane asylum, rubbing at Tony’s arms, checking his pupils until Tony smacks him away. “Nosy.”

“I…asked a question.”

Steve’s a smart guy, one of the best and brightest; he notices the cold, the broken things, Tony possibly admitting to stupidity.

“You antagonized Loki,” he says on a long exhale.

“What! No. Antagonized? You make it sound like I’m a bully.”

He gets this look in return, “I think the word you’re searching for is ‘dickhead’,” Tony supplies helpfully and the look doubles.

“You aren’t…a dickhead,” Steve says, “you’re just…”

“Me.”

Steve’s arm around his shoulders, like Steve isn’t furtively checking Tony’s pulse, they perch precariously on the edge of the worktable and it wobbles under their weight, but this isn’t the first room that’s needed to be ‘refurbished’ as Pepper puts it. Tony’s recovering from his self-preservation test, warmer than he was and the reactor hums like normal.

“Did he do this to you,” Steve says as if he’s figuring a way around it, but there isn’t a way around it, Tony wanted to know, Tony wants, and that’s the long and short of it.

“You mean does this cancel out everything else?” He gestures at the two of them, their wounds, which are healing faster on Steve, damn him; at the last months, the balancing act on the edge of a knife.

Steve nods.

“No.”

Steve makes a fist, then uncurls his fingers, one at a time. “I still think things are…good. I think they will be.” He takes a breath. “This is your call.”

“You love me.”

“Yeah.”

“Then things are good.”

They sit there for a while, Steve’s elbow bumping his arm.

“You know what you’re doing?”

Tony has a hard time lying to those blue eyes and that boyishness, his eagerness and urgent need to be a good friend, but Tony doesn’t need to lie.

“I always know what I’m doing,” he says.

Steve snorts a laugh, “Sure you do.”

“I do, I’m insulted, how dare you, sir, pistols at dawn, and who introduced you to the Wonders of Modern Music, I know what I’m doing.”

“All bluster, big man,” Steve says. “But throwing yourself off a building to see if you can fly isn’t the best idea.”

“Of course it is. That’s why there’s ‘little jets’ in my boots, remember, I think we’ve had this discussion, the ‘little jets’ help—“

“If you get yourself hurt, or he hurts you—“

“Oh hell no, we are not having this discussion, you should be more worried that we blow up the Tower with the awesome, stupendous power of our—“

“TONY. Stop there.” With an aggrieved expression, Steve closes his eyes, shaking his head. “Responsible adult doesn’t need to know the details.”

“Doesn’t matter. He’s scurried off to protect himself from me and himself or to go about plotting our gruesome demise. Since we’re all about trust lately.”

Steve’s mouth quirks, twisted in thought. “You threw yourself off the building already.”

“It’s possible I hit the ground. Face first.”

“Yeurgh.”

“Responsible adult helps me clean. Not clean myself off the bloody, disgusting spot of asphalt of this metaphorical scenario because honestly, you can just leave me there in a pile of human jello unless you’d like to scoop me up in a bucket and put me in a jar as a warning to all the others—responsible adult helps me clean the workshop.”

“Don’t you have robots for this.”

Loki doesn’t leave his room, even when Thor bangs on the door, almost destroying the doorway; instead, he hisses at his brother, then lets him in and they talk or pout or whatever, no one can tell and for the most part, no one notices, especially when Clint does drop from the ceiling almost in the middle of a pizza, grinning like he’s stolen something.

Except Coulson, eagle-eyed bastard. And Tony tells him what he thinks about the fucking reinforcement, how if he wants to reinforce something, he should fucking structurally reinforce Tony’s workshop because it’s falling apart in there, one little chain reaction from a torch and his workshop is collapsing at the seams, “go reinforce that, and look at Bruce’s lab, the guy has chemicals and expensive as shit equipment, all that glass, don’t give me bullshit about how he’s only growing mold.”

He’s so worked up he forgets to mention the armed guard. So that’s a fight for another day. Tony’s contrary, he’s looking forward to it.

That night, Loki emerges for food and to watch Natasha and Pepper play Mortal Kombat, which quickly descends into a round robin tournament battle.

But he doesn’t look at Tony.

-

Tony leaves.

He’s a liar falling fast, all fucked up and he has to get out, so he leaves. He puts on his favorite jeans, shirt, sneakers, baseball cap, his favorite sunglasses, motorcycle jacket, just a regular Joe, and he hits the streets.

He has to stop thinking. He walks for blocks, staring at the city’s canyons.

He should’ve brought Steve, the kid from Brooklyn, they could’ve wandered the city as it is now with Steve carrying the city as it was then in his head.

But Tony needs this, the noise, the smell, the traffic. He remembers what it’s like to stop waiting and he buys coffee to keep that singing high-speed feeling. He doesn’t know what he’s doing anymore.

He hears Thor, drunken Thor telling him, You would have liked my brother.

Thor knew, even back then, they’re a pair, a match made to collide. Tony stares up to see the sky past the buildings.

Today would be a good flying day. Scale the Empire State Building. Play King Kong, with the chest-beating and maybe some Tarzan yodeling. Freefall and let everything stop.

There’s a sudden scream of tires, cars slamming into each other next to him on the street and oh look, an accident in NYC, la-di-da, but then there’s more, screeching metal and a high whine, ratcheting up.

A blast of light, fireballs, people screaming as the robot advances up the street towards Tony. A new one, a fucking new one, he thought they were done with this shit, he’s momentarily blinded, sunlight glancing off the body of it.

He’s dialing in, “Get the fuck down here, we’ve got someone who wants to play!”

“Deploying now,” Fury yells.

That ratcheting sound, spinning furious, he can feel it in his mouth, in his chest, then another beam slices a swath out of the street.

And he’s the idiot without his armor, it’s not like he walks around all day every day in his suit, he doesn’t even have his briefcase armor on him, but for shit’s sake, c’mon, he’s first on the scene and he can’t do anything.

Enemy reconnaissance.

Tony holds up his phone, recording the robot, sending the live feed to master control and Fury’s saying, “We’re getting it, we see it, we see it,” as a transport swarms over head, Thor and Widow jumping together, Hawkeye following behind, Hulk with his huge fists clenched, then Cap last with his big ol’ beautiful bullseye.

Abruptly, Loki’s there, grabbing his arm hard, saying his name, “Tony, Tony,” and Tony thinks, Bruises for tomorrow, then he realizes.

Loki.

“We need to go,” Loki says, voice dark and urgent, “Tony, we—“

The robot lashes out, striking cars out of its path and a yellow taxi careens through the air at them like a heat-seeking missile, Tony can read the license plate as Loki yanks him backwards against his chest—

—they’re in Tony’s bedroom, a booming below them in the streets. Tony laughs, high and surprised, but Loki’s holding his breath.

“Holy fu—Loki, you, what, what, FAC-3314.”

“You left,” Loki says, angry and bemused, and Tony’s saying, “License plate, I got the number of that bitch of a cab,” then Loki shakes him, “You left.”

“Well, yeah, I left, I kinda sorta fucked things up with, with you, and we don’t all like boredom, we don’t just stay cooped up in our gilded little cage, we can leave—“ Tony rambles to a stop because Loki can’t leave, of course he can, he has the physical ability, but then he’s treated like he’s escaping and he just teleported out to get to Tony, he—

You left,” Tony says, sounding so very smart. Loki glares at him, taking a step back, and Tony’s messed up once already, he won’t do it again, he gets Loki by the collar.

Everything be damned, he thinks fast and acts fast and takes what he wants.

He kisses Loki, doesn’t let him get away, until Loki starts to kiss back, open-mouthed, Tony’s hand in his hair and Loki’s fingers in the waistband of Tony’s jeans, skimming warm over his skin, then there’s a detonation down in the city.

“We have to get down there,” Tony says and Loki frowns.

“A foolish decision, since you are still injured—“

“Like you’re not, I wasn’t the idiot who showed up for the last dance in just his Levi’s—“

“Sir, you need to hear this,” Jarvis interrupts; there’s a bad screech of feedback and the horrible sounds of erupting rubble, Cap saying, “This is the real thing, guys, I think it’s carrying something a lot bigger’n a laser beam.”

We have to get down there.”

Adrenaline and they’re running, Loki veering off, Tony headed for his suit, stepping into it is like coming home, especially with his wounds, metal covering them and he says, “Alright, Daddy’s home.”

Loki in his Asgardian armor, all those blacks and greens. He gives Tony a little smile before putting a hand over the lit triangle, over the reactor, then they’re on the street and a broken gargoyle forces them to duck.

“Don’t you ever tell anyone you did that,” Tony says, “I can fly,” and Hawkeye says, “Who did what now. And you’re late to the fucking party, man, didja bring the chips and salsa?”

“Nah, I brought the stripper—“

“I am not a stripper,” Loki retorts.

“—so didja bring the beer?”

“BYOB, dude, should’ve read your evite.”

“On your three, Hulk,” Captain America says.

Tony flies up to get clear of the mess. He wants to see this thing up close and personal like he hasn’t for the last two fights.

“Run interference,” he says. He gets a chorus back, then he’s speeding upwards towards the head, dodging a deadly sweep of an arm, the flat of a hand, and that grinding sound of the beam powering, he’s spinning, then he’s at the robot’s shoulder.

The armor is a mixture of the first two attempts; it’s layered like it can be broken down and he says, “Shit, I dunno where it’s keeping any possible missiles—“

“Maybe in its ass,” Hawkeye says and Tony keeps talking, “But this one’s built like the first go-round. Collapsible maybe.”

“Let us take off its head,” Thor chimes in, his hammer makes a terrible wrecking somewhere below Tony as Hulk grunts in agreement.

A flare on the street as Loki says, “Brother, water and fire,” and Thor laughs into the comm.

“Yes, Loki, yes, you first.”

Wait, if there’s explosive ordnance—“

Tony hovers, imagining being an irritating-as-fuck hornet, swooping as well as he can to see the head, then there’s a fracturing traveling from the ground.

Loki’s stabbing the legs with ice, the cold spreading fast through the metal like a time-lapse freeze and Tony watches it come, hoarfrost in a deep white-blue color.

“How very festive.”

“Iron Man, move away,” Thor says politely, then there’s a rumble overhead; Thor’s talking to Mjölnir in Old Norse. The hairs on Tony’s neck stand on end, he shoots off to the side, next to Neoclassical pillar, a great pressure is rushing in and down on them—

A whipcrack of lighting strikes the frozen robot, thunder smashing like vengeance and the robot snaps to a halt, the air around it fizzling, then another streak of lightning and the lights in the head spark, big embers falling to the street.

“Fireworks! You sure know what to get a lady,” Hawkeye crows, then the grinding begins again, the beam fires, carving three cars into something like modern art.

“Shit, well, that stopped it, but it didn’t stop it,” Tony says, “Widow, hitch a ride and let’s see if we can crack this egg.”

She says, “Stairs on your six,” he swings to get her as she scales a nearby fire escape.

He’s carrying her back up when the robot stirs, parts of it still crackling, and now Tony’s pissed off.

“Loki, just turn this fucking thing into a hamster!”

“What is your fascination with things being turned into animals?” comes Loki’s curious response, as if he’s not on a city street with damage everywhere, he’s actually expecting an academic answer.

Hulk throws Hawkeye, who ricochets off a window onto the flexing fingers of the robot’s hand. “He has sick, sick preferences. One time at the zoo, we lost him near the anteaters and it was—“

“What do you see,” Cap calls.

“A hamster waiting to happen.”

“Guinea pig,” Hulk says, maybe as a suggestion.

“I don’t think it will work that way—“ Loki says and Tony glances down, the black and green with the red-white-blue, both of them staring up.

Widow slides out of his grasp, onto the shoulder, scaling the neck; there’s a gap, tiny, he sees it when she sees it, and he pries it open for her. She slips through, knife in hand.

“’Cause a weaponized and/or radioactive giant hamster would be so much better. Imagine killing a giant hamster! Think of the children!” Clint says, ripping a panel on the hand apart, pulling at wiring.

Thor grunts, “I do not know of this animal.”

“A bunny without the big ears and fluffy tail,” Pepper explains over the comm and Tony grins, “That’s a gerbil.”

A small explosion rocks the entire structure, Hawkeye yelling with unholy glee as the hand breaks off underneath him and he rides it down to the ground, waving wires around his head like a lasso, before Hulk catches him.

“An 8.5,” Tony says, half-listening for Widow as he balances on the swaying shoulder, “and the judge from Croatia gives you a 7.25.”

“C’mon, Mary Lou, let’s see you get a perfect 10.”

“Just wait for my floor routine.”

“Iron Man,” Widow’s saying, “you need to see—“

Something is whirring, the air spinning fast around them with the thick smell of ozone and heated metal and Tony’s HUD starts flashing WARNING WARNING.

Fury says something, Cap and Loki repeating it, and Tony yells, “Everyone get back, get back! Natasha, let’s go, we gotta go, I think the bouncer’s coming—“

She clambers out, face white, running towards him, red hair streaming behind her, then the world implodes.

-

It’s dark except for the lights of his suit and they aren’t much help in the thick black.

Something stirs against him. Natasha.

“Tony,” she whispers, “we are not dead, we are not in the city and you might want to dim your lights.”

“Okay, tone it down,” he says, switching the suit to run on backup power, and he opens the mask to look around.

A cave and he shudders, he’s not having flashbacks, not here, not now, a fucking cave, but the ground looks like concrete.

Huh.

A bunker. They’re in a bunker. He smells gasoline, motor oil, the musty dirt odor of underground. He takes a step back and runs into something hard.

The robot, they’re with the robot in an underground bunker somewhere that is not New York. They’ve fucking teleported.

“See, see, I told him, science versus magic, anything he can do, I can do better, just wait ‘till I get back, sure as shit, I’ll show that Sailor Moon bastard anyone can teleport—“

“I think it used all its energy,” Natasha says, “or the trip drained it. I don’t see any other forms of power, batteries or anything. And I’m sure Loki will be happy to start a new S.H.I.E.L.D. project with you.”

“There wasn’t a control panel in—you aren’t supposed to know who I’m talking about.”

Natasha smiles, as if she feels a small semblance of pity for him, but he knows it’s sarcasm. “I can observe you without you knowing, Tony, remember. I was your assistant.”

“Overpaid assistant, you damn spy.”

“Name-calling suggests a lack of imagination and intelligence.”

Echoing out of the dark are footsteps, then voices, and Tony’s seen this 80’s TV show, they’re probably in the desert with a giant weapon in a huge hiding place with the bad guys coming, most likely with ridiculously large guns, but he and Natasha are pretty safe because the bullets always miss, “seriously, is this Airwolf? Fury, if you’re listening, I wanna buy Airwolf. The helicopter, not the show. S.H.I.E.L.D. expense.”

He’s humming the theme song to himself as Natasha tugs on his arm and they slip into the darkness behind the robot, of all things.

“I don’t think I could be a test pilot loner who lives in a weird log cabin with priceless paintings and wildlife that flocks to listen to my cello playing,” Tony says, “no wonder he’s a loner, it’s just bizarre, and Jarvis should be keeping tabs on us, Loki can fucking teleport, any minute now someone should be here or no one gets to go to Disney World.”

They wait, the voices talking closer, then Natasha says, “Stay.”

“I am not your pet labradoodle,” Tony hisses, but she’s already gone. He flips the mask down to trace her on his display, only to watch her efficiently stalk all three men as they enter the large cavern.

He feels kind of pointless, standing around in his suit, that damn song stuck in his head and his bruises coming back to life until he realizes he can’t hear Natasha.

Their comms don’t work.

He’s in a fucking suit of armor, he’s not in a lot of danger from these idiots with their water pistols, so he steps out of the shadows, says, “This isn’t Cinderella’s Castle and it sure as hell ain’t Epcot, I was promised The Haunted Mansion, what kind of vacation is this?”

Sure enough, twitchy guys with twitchy guns and they’re staring at him like he’s a fucking Transformer or something, so he pushes his voice, “I am Optimus Prime, do my bidding, lead me to the Allspark.”

Instead, the guy on the right fires, so Tony keeps walking because that’s a surefire way of scaring the shit out of someone, besides, gunfire tickles, sort of, tiny reverberations inside the suit.

Natasha takes out the two that aren’t shooting, Tony smacks the one that is and she rolls her eyes at him.

“You consume too much media,” she says.

“You don’t consume enough, look at you with your chicken legs.”

“Girlish figure and all that.”

Then from behind them, someone yells, “HALT!” and really, it’s an 80’s TV show, oh goody.

Natasha does something fancy that makes Tony grin, something involving a taser net or something and the guy goes down with a yell of surprise, it’s awesome, “did I design that toy, and if I didn’t, I’m really pissed I didn’t, why do you get all the good toys?”

“You are a giant walking toy and because I’m a good girl.”

There’s a hallway leading off of the cavern, fluorescent bulbs suspended and flickering, so Tony powers up his suit all the way as they leave the metal terror in its cavern home. It’s actually more of a tunnel, big enough for trucks, tire marks on the concrete, transmission fluid, someone needs a mechanic.

“So place your bets, Natasha: American, foreign, military, ex-military, crazy insane person with money and a Ph.D?”

“American. Not military. Crazy insane person with money. Educated, Master’s. Engineering. Good contacts with bad people,” she says without hesitation.

Tony nods. “And that is why you’re scary.”

She raises an eyebrow.

“Also how you can kill a guy with your ankles.”

She seems to like that better.

Long straight tunnel, no turns, wide, definitely good for trucks carrying something heavy, the cavern was probably used to construct their shiny robot friend, piece it together, and Tony thinks of all the times he’s sat in his workshop with his older creations, his suit hanging so he can modify it, music going, virtually testing each component before using it, going over the iterations, Steve laughing about his ruined wifebeaters, c’mon, man, you need a break; and like now, sometimes he’s back in the cave, Yinsen telling him stories while the metal heats—

“A student. Master’s, Engineering. Working on his Ph.D. Someone hired him or blackmailed him, kidnap, whatever. Someone else has the money and the good contacts with bad people. The test runs, abandoning each one for scrap afterwards…It’s just a kid,” Tony says, his brain flooded because he knows he’s right, this is so much fucking worse. Natasha stiffens, staring at him for a moment before she nods.

Tony’s furious. If someone’s taken this brilliant kid to use for their own weaponized purposes, he’ll beat the son of a bitch until he doesn’t have a face or maybe even limbs, blow up his little hideout here with 80’s-style excessive fireballs, Rambo big. If it’s just a kid with too much intelligence and time on his hands, Tony will mourn because he knows what it’s like, building to destroy, Stark Industries, right there on every grenade launcher and multi-missile weapon system, how can I tear down the world in the best way possible with the biggest bang ever.

More bang for your buck.

An inventor like this, he wants to meet this kid and he remembers Coulson saying, Criminal rehabilitation, but this is different, Loki’s different, his brother’s an Avenger and—

They manipulate me and my brother into controlling each other. They will manipulate this.

Tony’s said fuck it, I don’t give a flyin’ fuck before and gone for broke in the absolutely wrong direction. Rhodey tried to throttle him into the ground with his own tech, just to stop him.

It’s all potential. It’s all a choice.

Tony will mourn.

He hopes he’s helped Loki make his choice.

“Tony,” Natasha says. “Tony.”

“Yeah.”

She pats his mask and points. To the left is darkness, maybe more tunnel. To the right are more lights which lead to what appears to be a series of rooms and this definitely has the look of a lost military bunker, the government’s probably giving them away wholesale.

“Let’s get a room,” Tony says. Natasha mimes stabbing him between the eyes.

Inside, the rooms turn out to be blank offices. Natasha’s assessing the ceiling; he sees it immediately: underground here, the air has to be piped in.

Air vents.

Her expression is firm; she points and he nods. Her fingers flash silver with her little throwing knives, then he picks her up, handing her to the ceiling; she pushes aside a tile and disappears.

Might as well see if anyone’s home.

He can maneuver through the doorways without hitting anything and he pictures guards with guns or RPGs traipsing around. Filing cabinets, abandoned desks, scattered papers, his display is recording everything; maybe Fury can get more information from this later, if he sweet-talks Tony out of it.

After they get out of here or someone comes to fetch them like lost puppies. Missing: one stunningly brilliant, handsome, suave billionaire, answers to Mr. Perfect or simply Tony; one blazing hot assassin who will kill you on the spot for being anything close to resembling an asshat and does not respond to Sweetcheeks.

A few dead computer monitors, not connected to towers, then he turns a corner and finds the control room. “Tell me we aren’t under a dam or something, that’s been done, very cliché. Clashes with my pop culture sensibilities.”

High-tech, monitors abloom with menus and streams of data and these are some real beauties. Tony smirks, his healing black eye twinging.

“So c’mere, kiddies, tell Santa what you want for Christmas,” he says, removing his gauntlets and helmet, this is going to be a joy. “Are you naughty or nice.”

-

He doesn’t know how long he’s there, massaging algorithms and peeking up virtual skirts, but Natasha eventually returns, making noise so he knows she’s there.

“The vents didn’t go far, but this is strangely unguarded,” she says. “It’s uncomfortable.”

“Maybe they’re all out having a cold one. It’s five o’clock somewhere.”

“The guards mentioned a ‘backup silo’.”

“Silo. Great,” Tony mutters, pulling up the blueprints and ta-da, blueprints and schematics and specs, my oh my.

The bunker looks like a twig; they’re at one end with tunnels branching out three ways where they came from. “Two silos and whatever that is—fuck, does that mean there’s two metal asses?”

Hey, if you can build one, why not build several.

A light starts blinking near Natasha’s elbow where’s she bent to look at the monitors with him.

“Do not tell me that’s a fucking self-destruct,” he says, typing fast. “This whole thing is ludicrous.”

A screen flips to a video feed. They watch three trucks roll through the dust towards the camera.

“Looks like someone finally came to take care of their property.”

“Where is that camera, where are you, sonuvabitch, where are you, just tell me where you are—“

At the third not-silo, a bright stream of sunlight like an open door and the trucks are heading down the tunnel towards the junction.

“Did we trip an alarm?”

She shakes her head. “I didn’t see any, unless you did something here.”

“You say that like I could’ve done something questionable,” he says, mock offended and a different voice replies, “It’s highly likely. Hawkeye says you probably have broken something by now.”

Loki stands in the shadows and damn if Tony’s heart doesn’t skip, maybe the shrapnel too, at least his reactor can’t give anything away.

Natasha huffs like she should’ve heard him teleport into the room, hands on her hips. “Backup?”

“Following the trucks. I brought everyone a few miles outside of the site,” Loki says, sounding more and more like he’s suited to their Midgardian speech and Tony wonders why Thor hasn’t absorbed it like Loki has, maybe it’s something in how Thor bounds his way through the world, the happy-go-lucky warrior with the huge smile who is purely and wholly himself, while Loki is the consummate mimic, holding who he is so tightly deep down, he can be whomever he needs to be on the surface.

The layers, get past the layers to the broken little mirror, that’s what Tony wants to find: who Loki is, like how he pronounces certain words and how he looks when he’s asleep.

“Everyone?” Natasha asks. Tony imagines them standing in a circle, holding onto Loki, like some sort of screwy transit system, and he laughs.

“Do we need to sign up for metrocards with you? I don’t think you fall under the jurisdiction of the city transit authority, but—“ Then he realizes he’s talking as if Loki’s the subway, riding Loki, and he chokes, Natasha and Loki staring at him as if they’re concerned for his mental health.

He’s concerned for his mental health, shit.

Never mind, let’s go greet our guests. Did anyone get the ham out of the oven? The hors d’oeuvers are on the counter and the jello mold should have set nicely. I even bought the festive toothpicks with the little colored wrappers...”

They’re still staring at him, then Natasha waves a hand, whatever, let’s go.

“Ladies first.”

She rolls her eyes again, flipping a knife in her fingers as she goes. Gathering up his gauntlets, Tony snaps them back into place, relishing in the hum stringing his whole suit and reactor together, then Loki stops him, palm on the chest plate, fingers spread wide. He frowns, as if he’s got something to say.

Instead, he kisses Tony, they’re kissing in an underground bunker with a computer bank of bad news behind them, numerous enemy targets ahead of them and the rest of the team ready to charge in like the cavalry.

Tony doesn’t care. He’s kissing Loki like he’s been stolen from the battlefield a hundred times over, like he’s missed Loki every minute he’s been down here and some part of him thinks it’s true, he was waiting for this magical clown to find him, even though he’s not a fucking damsel in distress.

“I’m not a fucking damsel in distress,” he states and Loki laughs into his mouth.

“Are you sure.”

He bites Loki, “pretty damn sure,” then Loki bites him back mid-word and the kiss shoots dark, Tony losing oxygen fast.

Loud laughter, a smashing noise echo somewhere in the tunnel; Loki pulls away, “I think that is my brother.” He sighs against Tony, picks up the helmet.

Tony steals a last kiss before fitting his helmet on; when his display comes online, he watches the lights illuminate Loki, the trickster’s expression solemn.

“Let’s go,” he says, clenching and unclenching his metallic fingers.

They head out, side by side, chasing the sounds of fighting and gunfire and Thor yelling, “What kind of battle is this, I am not a child in a sparring session!” Guards slumped against the walls of the tunnel and Thor’s bleeding from a cut on his face, but he grins, the red running down into the gold of his beard.

“My brother, come, you must join the fight. It’s very refreshing though these warriors lack any sort of prowess. And Tony Stark, I am happy to have you back!”

“I don’t remember him being this giddy in a fight,” Tony murmurs.

Loki laughs, throwing a knife into the thigh of a guard charging at them. “He prefers multiple foes, it helps him” – another knife into the throat and the guard goes down, buckling at the knees – “show off.”

“I do not show off!” Thor shouts, taking off towards the junction, Mjölnir slamming into a Kevlar-covered chest and the guard falls with a gurgle as Thor is already swinging at a new target.

Backup silo. No guards until now.

The comm hisses, Tony’s link not recovered completely from the severance, so Captain America’s words shift, “There’s more on their way.”

“The trucks drive in at Area 3,” Tony says, because, obviously, “there are two fucking silos.”

The rest of the tunnel. The blueprints showed a second silo.

“I’m so brilliant, I’m stupid—“

“Speak for yourself, Einstein,” Hawkeye says. “Wait a minute.”

“We didn’t check the second silo. This is the backup, we landed in the backup. Emergency protocol on the schematics. The robot shuts down, gets badly damaged, it doesn’t self-destruct, it teleports back here. One silo to build it, one silo to store it.”

There’s the sound of something hitting Cap’s shield as he says, “But why not store it where you built it.”

“Because you’re going to build another,” Loki starts and Tony finishes, “But you haven’t yet ‘cause you’ve been fucking perfecting it.”

Hulk roars and Tony hesitates at more bursts of gunfire. “Cap, you okay in there? Me, Loki and Thor’ll go check the other silo.”

“Yes, yeah,” Cap says.

Darkness, Tony’s muttering, “I’m not a flashlight,” then Loki says something in a language Tony doesn’t know and the lights overhead spark flickering, then stay on.

“He likes to show off,” Thor says and Tony laughs, running crooked, Loki saying, “I can shrink you, brother.”

“Lies, Loki, lies.”

The second silo is the build site, cluttered, messy, weapons and metal everywhere. To Tony, it looks like a build in progress.

“Fury, we need to secure this now.”

“We have a situation,” Widow whispers.

“Kill ‘em with your ankles,” Tony says, but she doesn’t reply.

More bad news.

“Can you get us into the shadows,” Tony asks. Loki nods; hands on Tony and Thor’s shoulders, and Tony remembers the sensation, like a wavering.

They’re in Area 3, sunlight brutally bright in the dark of the room. Cap, Widow, Hawkeye and Hulk have been rounded up, surrounded by more hired guards, damn mercenaries.

A man in a pinstriped suit holds a gun to a kid’s head, arm tight across his windpipe.

College-age kid. Tony sometimes hates it when he’s right.

The man is saying, “Yet another failure. And this time, it brings company. I think I will shoot you, Aubrey.”

“He’s lying,” Loki whispers.

Tony orders, “Loki will jump in, jump everyone out, and while the dumbasses are shooting, Hawkeye, you take out the guy with the gun. Alive. Thor, you and me, we’ll clean up the stragglers.”

Hawkeye nods, fingers curling.

“On three.”

Pure fucking chaos. Just the way Tony likes it.

Loki here, there, everyone gone, rematerializing and there are spurts of bullets and the sing of an arrow.

The man slumps to the floor, howling, arrow shaft sticking out of his shoulder and Thor and Tony smack around the guards for a little while.

The kid grabs the gun, and Cap’s talking him down, “Alright, it’s okay.”

“Badass motherfuckers,” Tony says, “that is what we are.”

Hawkeye grins, “Hell to the yes.”

The man is sobbing at Hulk’s feet, babbling incomprehensible, his words running together.

The kid is practically falling all over himself, thanking them, “this guy, he’s crazy, take over the world crazy, wanted me to build shit for him. He took me from my dorm, man, I haven’t been let out in months, kept like a fuckin’ prisoner, like Gitmo or some shit, he wanted me to keep fuckin’ buildin’, man, he had all these ideas—“

Loki says, “You lie, too.”

Silence around the man’s confused animalistic crying.

Then the kid laughs, laughs, this torn sound Tony’s never heard before.

“You, you’re good,” the kid says to Loki, then before anyone can move, he turns and shoots the man in the back twice, the cry cutting off cleanly. “Of course, you’re right. This moronic cocksucker couldn’t even set his DVR to record America’s Next Top Model. I had to do it for him, dumb motherfucker. He had the money, yeah, but I, I have the brains.”

The rule is keep ‘em talkin’, keep ‘em talkin’.

“Yeah, but your creations sucked ass,” Tony says, “overly complex designs with a myriad of fatal flaws,” and Loki sighs.

“No, you’re not gonna live that down, but anyway, kid, c’mon, what the fuck. Tell me you’ve got an insanely good monologue for this.”

“Iron Man. The man himself. The answer should be sooooo obvious,” the kid says, flicking the gun up quick to aim at Tony.

He pulls the trigger, bullet ricocheting off the chest panel, just below the triangle.

You. I wanna be you. I mean, look at you. Genius intellect. Billionaire. Weapons manufacturer. Built yourself into your own fucking weapon. You’ve got it all and I want it all. Dude, you’re like me. Except you’ve hit your peak and I’m just starting out. And, wow, the plans I have, it’s all about imagination. Boy, I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals.”

The kid steps close, tapping the barrel on the light of the reactor.

Proof that Tony Stark has a heart and it’s fucking breaking.

He could crush this kid’s head.

Widow steps on silent tiptoe, knife at the kid’s throat. “You will step away.”

“Whatever you say, sexy.” Big ol’ smile, the kid follows her backwards, staying under the blade. He hands over the gun without hesitation as Widow pickpockets a second gun from his waistband at the small of his back. Tony turns his palm over, repulsor down, and she lets him go.

“Now, let’s talk turkey.” The kid claps once, then spreads his palms. “You’ve seen what I can do, what I can build, pretty much on my own, didn’t get much fucking help, fuck, Harold had such shitty employees, so here’s, here’s what I wanna do: apprentice. To you.”

His smile grows, shit-eating grin. “This doesn’t have to be like a Star Wars thing, you ain’t no Jedi and I ain’t no padawan. Nah, this’d be more like an internship. Side by side—“

“We rule the galaxy?” Tony’s nauseated, this kid even kind of talks like him.

“Not as father and son, I can’t handle that familial shit any more, my old man’s this librarian type, thinks I hung the moon, constantly smothering me, but you and me, I think that’d work out quite nicely. All you need is smarts and a give-‘em-hell attitude. And money. Yeah?”

“No.”

The kid’s face crumples, eyes going wide and they’re bloodshot, he hasn’t slept in a day at least. “What did you say to me.”

“No.”

“That isn’t what you’re supposed to say.”

Everyone tightens their half-circle. Tony is waiting, yet again, fucking furious.

“What was I supposed to say.”

Yes, motherfucker! Yes. This is not how it works! I built this, everything, for you! LOOK AT ME. I’m you. You were supposed to say yes and—“

“What, hug you? Welcome you to the family? Buy you a puppy?”

Glaring, the kid says, “No, not even close.” He kneels, jerking a gun from his boot and pointing it at Tony, déjà vu.

Cap’s gone stone soldier, about to pounce, but the kid says, “You. You were supposed to accept me.”

Then he shoots himself in the head.

-

“I just want to fucking sleep,” Tony says, “leave me the fuck alone.”

Fury puts his palms up in unusual surrender as Tony steps out of the suit, forgets, and rubs at his bad eye, “ouch, ow, motherfucker.”

No one’s tried to talk to him besides Fury. Pepper hugged him as best she can when he’s Iron Man, whispering her years of friendship in his ear, tears in her eyes as she kissed his helmet-free forehead. Steve’s trailing him around now and everyone else has politely disappeared.

He wants a fucking drink.

The scotch warms him, but he still feels sick, so he only takes a few sips, it’s not settling him like it usually does. Next to him at the bar, Steve opens his mouth, then closes it.

Captain America hugs Tony because he can’t think of anything to say.

Tony pats him on the shoulder, “go beat the shit outta the punching bag, get outta here.” Steve sighs, walks away and muffled, he hears Steve talking to someone, tone low and bleak, like this is a funeral—

When he looks around, Loki’s standing in the doorway.

“How did you know,” Tony says, “how could you possibly know.”

Loki glances down. “God of mischief, god of lies. I can tell.”

Makes sense, Tony decides, makes a lot of perfect sense. “Handy that. Like a lie detector. Must be a barrel o’ laughs.”

“Unless you want the truth. Then you have to use trickery.”

“Mischief.”

“Fun,” Loki says with a half-smile.

“Fun.”

Those green eyes watching him carefully, and Tony fucking needs, which makes him panic in overdrive, shaking, so he reaches out and pulls Loki in for a kiss.

He wants, he thinks he can have, Loki licking into his mouth, slow, so slow Tony tries to push with teeth, but Loki says, “Tony.”

And Tony realizes the adrenaline’s gone, he’s fucked six ways to Sunday and about to collapse.

Hand on his wrist, Loki guides Tony to his bedroom, no fucking guard in sight, quietly shutting the door and Tony sways in place. He grabs onto the closest thing, Loki, he says, “Loki.”

“Sleep.”

“Best idea ever.”

He crawls onto the mattress, feeling hands on his ankles, Loki taking off his shoes, he hates sleeping in his clothes, but then the bed dips and Tony rolls to meet him, curving against him and maybe Tony is losing his mind.

Feels that way.

He thinks, Reinforced.

An arm around his shoulders, Loki smells clean and blinding, like space or physics or when Tony reaffirms his own brilliance.

Maybe he’s losing his mind.

It’s way too fucking sunny. He wakes, it must be late morning, sun coming in the windows, so he says, “Jarvis, shut the damn curtains.” They slide obediently closed and he sighs in the beautiful semi-darkness.

There’s a hand on his belly when he moves and Loki is still asleep, hair coming down around his temples, the bruise on his eye a discolored yellow, but he’s healing fast too, like Steve, poor Tony the regular mortal has to heal normally.

A mortal watching an immortal sleep.

A work of art.

What is he doing.

“Besides letting life cockblock me,” he mutters. Loki’s fingers curl in his shirt, he slept in his clothes, then he remembers: the silos, the kid, the gunshot and blood-skull-brains sprayed on the concrete and everyone’s horrified faces.

Guilt slams into him like a rocket he took once from a Stark launcher, proximity explosion, and he flashes to crawling out of the rubble.

The kid’s still dead.

“Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck.” His body jerks in self-defense. “Fuck fuck fuck fucking fuck.

He tries to take a breath and can’t. Loki’s snapped awake, holding him down, the hand on his stomach pressing him hard into the bed.

“Tony.”

“Loki, let go of me, shit—“

“Stop.”

He tries to take a breath and can now, and Loki straddles him, leaning away to keep his full weight off Tony.

Worse than anything, he just stays there, not moving under Loki for who knows how long, because what on earth can he possibly say to make this better; Tony knew it, a kid, like him, different background, but still, like him, and his path was broken and crooked and he made the killing choice, to kill and be killed, and all he had was hero-worship.

“I don’t—“

I don’t know, I don’t have any idea, I don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t have anything, I don’t know who I should be.

Loki doesn’t speak, hands on Tony’s ribs, as if he’s feeling Tony breathe. The window hitting his spine, glass everywhere, gravity and he was vulnerable, he still is as Loki says, “Revenge?”

“Breaking everything.”

“Philosophical debate of the day.”

Tony nods.

“The boy wasn’t you,” Loki says. “He was more like me.”

No, because Loki’s different. Loki’s made a choice.

And it isn’t what ended in a bunker with a bullet trepanning a skull.

He puts Loki’s hand on the arc reactor. “You wanna try again?”

Loki shakes his head.

Potential. Kinetic energy. Loki’s made a choice and he isn’t killing Tony.

“He wasn’t you either.”

Everyone makes a choice.

Staring up at the trickster, Tony wants to know. He’s done waiting.

So he doesn’t.

Palm curving around the nape of Loki’s neck, he pulls and Loki goes and Tony kisses him, plain and clear and this won’t be doubted, this won’t be taken back, trust issues and all, he wants to know.

Loki’s back to being a civilian in those clothes that are frustrating Tony, one of those soft shirts and nothing under his jeans, Tony might cry, “you’re learning a lot of the right things here on Midgard,” he says, Loki’s tongue skipping along Tony’s jaw as he laughs.

“I thought you would talk your way through this,” Loki says, like he’s confessing; “wait, do you fantasize about me talking through sex,” Tony asks, but Loki doesn’t reply, grin hot and sharp against Tony’s skin because he’s gotten Tony naked and now Tony has to talk.

He does, giving instructions, especially about the contents of the nightstand drawer, and oh that right there, exactly right there, until Loki puts a teasing hand over his mouth and he sucks a finger in his mouth, biting; then he can talk again, in a steady stream of filth and fevered thoughts and Loki’s laughing so Tony can’t grasp him, “stop laughing, bastard, I can’t—if you’re laughing.” Loki talks too, that silver-smooth tongue, quicksilver and fast, Tony’s met his match and fuck but Tony doesn’t mind, it might burn them down.

Tony’s voice so shot through until finally he can’t talk, he can’t even form words, asphasia due to sex, Loki talking for him until their thoughts and tongues are reduced to nothing, because Tony’s surrounded by Loki, he remembers the eight Lokis and shivers, but there’s one, only one, green eyes almost lost to black pupil, he pushes into Loki’s rhythm, a match made to collide.

Made to think fast and act fast and take what they want, Tony’s a greedy bastard who will take it all and demand more and Loki says yes.

This is something Tony would do unthinkable, devastating things to keep, the plans he would make are awful and immense.

Loki says yes.

Two liars falling fast and somewhere here they’re telling the truth.

When the pleasure hits Loki, he doesn’t look immortal, he looks so human, Tony feels lucky. Stupidly lucky and happy.

Worth revenge.

It drags Tony over the edge with him.

Dazed, he licks over Loki’s stomach, licks again to feel him shake. A hand in his hair and Tony follows it to kiss Loki, and he smells like sweat and Tony.

“You,” he says, “are not fucking real.”

Loki grins, wolfish – it absolutely delights Tony, then Loki shifts and he’s a woman, oh holy hell, Loki looking up at him with those eyes, long black hair, soft feminine curves, breathtaking, Tony’s so happy he’s a lover not a fighter, “good god, you have huge tits,” he says, “yes, yes you do,” but even female, Loki’s taller than Tony, “why do you—no.”

Everything else is very much yes and Tony grins, wolfish, and Loki licks his lips like something completely obscene.

They smile like an unholy alliance, Tony laughing under his breath as he slips between Loki’s thighs, propped up on his hands so he can see the trickster.

“Mischief,” Tony says.

“Fun,” Loki replies.

Then someone tries to beat down the door.

“Brother! You must try this breakfast pastry! There is cream. These belong on Asgard, I wish to take some home to Mother,” Thor says in the hallway.

“Your childhood must’ve been fascinating,” Tony says, “he just appears, doesn’t he, wait, he can’t teleport, that’s worse ‘cause he’s—“

“Stop talking, Tony.” Loki in his female form is Loki fucking amazing as an angry woman, Tony would be terrified to face down Loki when he’s in a vengeful mood as a woman.

Thor knocks again, fist flat on the door, “Loki!”

The handle turns, “no no no no—“, Thor strides into the room and Tony topples off the side of the bed, ass smacking on the floor.

A genius billionaire philanthropist wouldn’t be caught in this compromising position, sprawled naked. A playboy would, well, it’s occurred, Tony’s kind of proud of some of those; here with Loki, yes, apparently, in a surreal way Tony can’t wrap his head around and he’s enjoying it. He grins, snarky.

Thor is out-and-out glaring at them, but Loki just slides out of bed, wrapping the sheets around him as he stands, Tony distracted by how the fabric slips along his curves, except he misses Loki’s lithe male lines too, he’s torn, this is difficult, extremely torn as Loki says in his rich smoky feminine voice, “Good morning, Thor. What kind of pastries are these? Divine, I would imagine.”

“You are female again, brother,” he says, tone too quiet, that warrior stoic stern. “And you are in his room, Tony Stark. Undressed.”

“Yeah,” Tony says. “So this happened.”

Thor’s fingers twitch, like when he’s calling Mjölnir, and Tony was at least dressed when he went through a window last time.

“When I asked you to trust Loki, this is not what I meant,” Thor pronounces as if he’s decreeing it. Loki laughs, the same laugh, just that little bit higher.

“There’s a Midgardian saying, brother,” he says, somehow making a toga from the sheets and he pats Thor on the arm like he isn’t afraid of losing a limb, “’be careful what you wish for.’”

“I am sure I didn’t wish—“

“Hi, Thor, hello, good morning, everything’s fine, breakfast sounds amazing, did Pepper get the pastries, she basically bought this bakery a few blocks away just to make sure they’d continue making their beignets, heaven on earth, Asgard on earth? I’m not exactly sure how that works,” Tony talks to distract, putting on his boxers, jeans, shirt over his head and when he takes a breath to keep talking, he smells Loki—he’s put on Loki’s shirt and Thor really might smite him.

Holding his toga together with a disinterested hand, Loki pads over to Tony on the way to the bathroom, then stops with a deliberate smile before he kisses Tony, all those curves pressed in tight and life might actually be worth living.

With a loud huff, Thor says, “I will speak with you about this later,” addressing Tony with complete threat in every word and he wonders if Thor’s even more protective of Loki in his female form, but Tony’s feeling reckless, he’s feeling a little more like himself, so he winds an arm around Loki’s waist, hand possessive on the swell of hip, and says, “Sure thing, big guy.”

Thor walks out backwards, still glaring, the door shutting behind him with a slam.

Tony squints. “You didn’t lock the door.”

“I forgot,” Loki says with a smirk. “The reinforcement. This room ruins my control on my magic.”

“But you’re a woman—“ Tony starts and Loki shifts back to his male self, Tony can feel those lines everywhere, breathtaking.

“Some of it works, some of it doesn’t,” Loki says innocently.

Oh, you are so fucking good, Tony thinks. He says, “Next time, lock the damn door,” then he stops because he’s said ‘next time,’ a somewhat unfamiliar phrase, at least since Pepper, and he’s so fucked up like he hasn’t been since Pepper, he’s expecting things, he’s going further, falling out of windows and not caring.

“Next time, I will,” Loki promises airily, shedding the sheets, headed to the shower, lean stretches of pale skin, and Tony is so very glad each room has its own private bathroom, if there’s a world where Tony Stark can’t afford a bathroom for each bedroom, then that isn’t a world Tony Stark wants to live in.

A new landspeed record, Tony naked again, chasing the fucking god of fucking mischief and Loki likes very hot water.

The breakfast pastries are divine. After some sulking, Thor is simply Thor again, when Clint says, “C’mon, Thor, I hereby challenge you to Mario Kart. Be a man and face me on the battlefield, by which I mean a drug-induced cartoonish racetrack. Eat my fucking dust.”

“I will force you to consume my dusty wake, mortal. And there will be no cheating this time.”

“Thor, buddy, c’mon, me cheat?”

“I wish to hoard these turtle shells and use them all at once to smash you into the ground.”

No one notices anything.

Loki smirks.

-

Steve finds Tony on the couch, tablet glowing at him as he goes over the specs of the robot armor things.

It might be guilt, it might be mourning, it might be scientific curiosity.

Tony might be punishing himself.

But Steve plops down next to him, pushing his way into Tony’s little bubble like he does. Tony blames all those years of Captain America worship before he met Steve.

In conclusion, he blames Steve.

“Yes, sir, Captain, sir, bored playing with your shield, sir?” Tony asks because innuendo is how he shows he cares, like a twisted Hallmark card.

Steve smiles before he can school his expression. “Thor came to talk to me.”

Tony doesn’t need to punish himself, the universe will do it for him.

“In five words or less, what’d he say.”

“You were naked with Loki.” He doesn’t stop to count, he just says it.

“And that’s five words,” Tony says. “And rumors are nasty things. And there’s a good chance it’s true. Vegas odds. You can stop looking at me like that. Any time now. Now. Now?”

“I don’t know what Fury’s gonna say when he finds out,” Steve says, hand hovering like he’s asking for a minute, “but I don’t care. Well, to the extent that I care what happens to you ‘cause I’d rather not find you with Mjölnir stuck in your head or wake up to a Tony-shaped ice cube—“

“Steve, forget the ice—“

Caves and Tony are like ice and Steve, plastered with warning signs, DO NOT ENTER; Tony stops him, giving his held-out hand a high five. “Alright, you know me, I’ve done some stupid things.”

Steve nods.

“You weren’t supposed to agree.”

“But, Tony, you have—“

But at some point, you have to trust,” Tony says, shining a grin, never let things get too heavy, “and deal with the fallout by eating Rocky Road and watching The Untouchables on repeat.”

“Do you realize how many of those movies De Niro is in?”

“This isn’t a stupid thing, Steve,” Tony admits.

“I know. I can tell.”

“’Cause you’re Captain America.”

“No, ‘cause you’ve done some stupid things and I can tell the difference.”

“Creepy. Jarvis, Steve is a stalker. Act accordingly.”

“Yes, sir. I can revoke certain of his privileges.”

Steve punches Tony in the shoulder and there’s a high-pitched, piercing scream from the kitchen, then another, they’re scrambling off the couch, Steve jumping it like a hurdle and Tony is so damn jealous as he runs.

In the kitchen, there are six Lokis, and Clint, crouching like an crazed lethal ninja, eyes huge, a butcher knife in each hand.

You almost made me have a flying shit!” Clint yells, with a savage swish of the blades.

Tony cracks up, earning him another swish of cutlery, “What the hell’s a—“

“He walked in, then another him walked in, then him again, a fucking parade of Lokis and they each talked to me, Hi, Clint, Hello, Clint, it’s Wednesday, Clint. I am fucking scarred for the rest of my ever-lovin’ life.”

Oh, it hurts, Tony’s laughing and it hurts and Steve’s trying to hold him up as all the Lokis disappear like vapor.

“That was you screaming,” Steve says, words almost indistinguishable in laughter and Tony’s almost wheezing, he can hardly talk, “You could kill people with that scream.”

The real Loki saunters in, serene as a lake. Clint makes some hiiiiii-yaaaaahhh sound like a bad kung fu movie, waving the knives at him, drawing a bead on the trickster as Loki neatly avoids him to pick through the apples.

Tony thinks he’s crying, he thinks Steve’s crying and eventually, they’ll calm down, Tony is so grateful this isn’t an everyday occurrence or they’d die.

Steve is honest-to-God sniffling. Tony takes a breath, still chuckling through it, and Loki sidles over, expression curious, as if they’re seeing something captivating he isn’t seeing.

“Bastard, you need to come with a warning sticker, a disclaimer or something, I think Steve might expire.”

Loki gives a little courtly bow. “Captain, I would never—“

Waving him off, Steve says, “This is better’n coffee,” as Loki tosses him an apple.

“Blasphemy, you blasphemer,” Tony says. “Take it back, heathen.”

“Coffee sounds delicious,” Loki says, intrigued; Tony’s about to discourage him, they would be well and truly in deep apocalyptic trouble if a caffeinated Loki becomes the issue he thinks it will, but Loki drops a kiss on his mouth, and they have an audience, Tony doesn’t have time to tense because Loki takes another kiss, stretching it longer. Had to happen some time. This is an actual thing. He’s too old for that furtive, secretive shit. And he’s not exactly restrained in matters of…anything, so Tony makes the kiss a little messy, they have an audience after all.

Steve’s laughter takes on an I-knew-it tone, dark and conniving.

“What. the. shiiiiiiit,” Clint says.

Tony breaks away, Loki’s mouth good and red, and Loki clears his throat, says, “May I borrow one of those knives? I’d like to cut my apple. Also, coffee.”

Clint’s eyes narrow and he sights down a blade at each of them in turn. “Scarred. For life. I ain’t adverse to a little boy toy of my own, but PDAs, people, PD motherfuckin’ As. I don’t need to spend the rest of my days in this house carrying a fire extinguisher because I will use it as I see fit.” He stares at nothing briefly as if he’s imagining spraying random people with it or maybe beating them, Tony hopes it’s the first one.

“Just because you aren’t a romantic, Clint,” Natasha says out of the blue, she’s just there like a ghost; sadly, Tony’s gotten used to it.

As if there’s more to that story, Clint glares, intones, “This has ruined my day. Steve, it’s your fault. I blame you.”

“Hey, what’d I do?”

In conclusion, blame Steve.

Yawning, Thor walks in, still wearing the pajamas Pepper bought him, dark blue with little thunderbolts everywhere, though he insists on being shirtless. “What is occurring in here?”

“A fine and jolly jester has come to amuse us, brother,” Loki says, pointing at Clint who flips the knives in a series of complicated maneuvers, the blades flashing, then he abandons the whole enterprise with an odd hiss as if he’s a ferret.

“PDA payback’s a bitch!”

Entertainment gone as Clint escapes with another hiss, Thor notices Loki and Tony, and he sets his jaw. “Yes, we still must discuss what I will do to you if my brother is damaged in any way,” he says.

Steve chokes, doubling over in a fit of coughing.

Natasha pounds him once on the back with a well-placed fist and Steve groans in pain, but she’s turned her attention back to Loki and Tony.

From the kitchen counter, Loki smiles at her, surrendering a knife and a pear for her, and she nods with a little half-smile in return, stealing one of Loki’s apple slices.

Balancing on a stool, she says, “Talk him to death, Tony. It’ll work out fine.”

Nostalgia from early in the timeline, Tony worried about this supervillain in his kitchen with his fruit and knives. Natasha had made her decision then.

No wonder she looked bored all the time.

Bruce shows up, looking like he hasn’t slept, shirt and hair askew, glasses crooked. Clint’s voice floats down from the ceiling.

“Hey, broccoli, weigh in on the Loki-Tony issue.”

“What issue,” Bruce says, running a hand through his hair. It should be disturbing how they reply to Clint’s invectives and nicknames like nothing new.

If Clint were visible, he’d probably make an obscene gesture, but all he says is, “They’re buddies. Together. Or something. Maybe they’re just fucking, gotta get rid of aggression, I bet it’s kinky, all hero-villain, very dom/sub, hey, who’s the—“

Barton.” Steve could easily tear the building down, he looks like he might, as if Clint is a yowling cat lost in a wall. Tony could help. Loki is conjuring little flames in his palm and snuffing them out, over and over, like he has ideas. Clint might need that fire extinguisher after all.

“Or maybe like high school, some real hormonal pining Romeo and Juliet shit. A live-action version of The English Patient, Bruce, all for you, pal.”

“The English Patient is already live-action,” Bruce points out. “And whatever. If one of them kills us as collateral damage after a lovers’ quarrel, I only hope it’ll be quick or I’ll be angry. I might have to crush their heads together for their stupidity. Has anyone seen my highlighters? A brand-new pack in different colors. And three of my Schlenk flasks. Barton, if you’ve built another homemade still in your bedroom, I will crush your head. Potatoes don’t make for good alcohol. I think I’ve told you this before. What is your attention span. Gnat?”

Mild-mannered Bruce Banner, Tony has to love him.

Clint’s presence is glowering, they can feel it.

“Fury finds out on his own,” Steve rasps, still laughing a little under his breath.

Tony agrees.

Especially when Coulson finds him on the couch, tablet glowing at him as he separates the robot specs into V1, V2, and V3. The specs are impressive, something he would’ve created at fifteen; the kid was close to something else, something suitably accomplished and jaw-dropping; he had the ambition and the drive, he saw what he wanted and he tried to take it.

Tony closes his eyes, rests his head in his hands. That might be a headache forming.

“1. You move yourself completely to a new bedroom for your fraternizing activities. 2. I redecorate your bedroom for safety in a strange and likely voyeuristic way. Or 3. you simply decide to go without protection for the team,” the agent says without preamble.

“This is the weirdest sex talk we’ve ever had, Dad.”

Coulson doesn’t blink.

“Hello to you, Coulson. Fine weather we’re having, Coulson. Did you shoot someone today, Coulson.”

“Not yet, I haven’t met my quota. Want to help me out with that.”

“Yeah, go find Clint, he was losing his mind earlier.”

“While I would dearly love to shoot Clint—“

“You’ll never take me alive, copper!”

“He’s gotta stop doing that,” Coulson says.

“So shoot him.”

“Maybe later. I am here to discuss your…association with Loki and what needs to be done to ensure the continuing safety of the team.”

Tony acts like he’s parsing that out just for the hell of it.

“A little birdie told me,” Coulson expounds patiently.

“You did not fucking hack Jarvis. No one hacks my AI.” That is a headache forming, a raging, homicidal one. “I’ll need to call Pepper to have her arrange a meeting with my lawyers.”

This time, Coulson blinks. “For what.”

“I’m sure I can settle with Fury out of court after I murder you, little shit, it shouldn’t be hard, I’ll make it look like we all killed you, Agatha Christie style. Smart woman. Always gave me great ways to kill someone properly.”

“It wasn’t Jarvis.”

“Great, I get to kill a teammate. Exciting day today. I need to check my agenda and clear out some time. ‘Torture and homicide.’ My day is set.”

“Fury finds out on his own.”

“Why.”

“Everyone needs their little amusements. Tony, I have nothing to say about you and Loki, considering what may or may not be going on with Natasha, Clint, and Pepper—“

“WHAT.”

Tony might break down and cry in front of this bastard he works with, or his headache might kill him first, or he’ll just do something lewd to Loki in front of Thor because suicide by Norse god would be a new one for the record books, it’d look great on his tombstone, maybe he could do one of those video tombstones, ‘whatever you do, don’t piss off a weirdly jealous and overprotective Norse god or you will take a giant mythical hammer to the head, though you won’t feel it when it hits you between the eyes, now run along and have a great life, don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.’

Oh, he needs to call Pepper and arrange a meeting with his lawyers to get pertinent information out of her about this situation he’s been sorely, distressingly unaware of.

“I really want to know what you know about that, but we’re in the middle of a damn fine conversation, aren’t we, Agent, so I’d like to wrap this portion up so we can get on to the gossiping.”

He likes making shadowy government agents smile because it means he’s right or he’s brilliant or he’s fucking devious, usually all three, but right now, he’s feeling a mite vindictive.

“At the present time, no particular arrangements have been made; Coulson, you know me, I tend to follow my dick wherever it leads me and it’s lead me to the ex-ish supervillain. I don’t foresee that we’ll do a lot of talking in the future about the reinforcement of bedrooms, in a ‘your place or mine’ sense. ‘Sides, what’re you going to do, reinforce the entire couple of floors of living accommodations for the team, including and up to shared common areas and flat-ish available surfaces? Horizontal or vertical.”

Coulson has it in him to look vaguely horrified, as if he hadn’t considered that.

“Christening, Coulson, c’mon, it’s something that has to be done,” Tony says matter-of-factly.

This is an actual thing, but Tony himself isn’t sure completely where he stands, or sits or lies down-with-on-under, other assorted prepositional phrases relating to Loki, but he thinks the sex is just the beginning.

One hand raised as if he’s half-surrendering, Loki enters the room, circling the couch, putting a finger to his lips. He moves like a predator, easy inherent grace and he’s dangerous, so fucking dangerous, Tony can almost taste it, he wants to memorize each line and curve and angle of the trickster, maybe he can learn Loki’s equations, taste and touch and ink on skin, solve for x.

He has an idea what he wants.

Head tipped back, Loki follows a seam in the ceiling, then his fingers shoot a thick spark, like lightning.

And Clint smashes down through the tile in a flurry of debris, dust and anger.

“You fucker. You fucking shithead, revenge is sweet, asshat, really fucking sweet and mighty tasty,” he threatens, fist punching Loki in the chest with each word, “just you wait, just you fucking wait.”

“I will. I’d like for you to try.”

The marksman stalks away. Loki smiles to himself, his fingers crackling with energy.

“Do I get paid for helping you with your pest problem?”

Without waiting for an answer, he pushes a hand into Tony’s hair, palming his jaw, residual static electricity shivering into Tony, he feels his reactor hum, then Loki leaves. “Thor, come spar with me, brother. I need a good fight.”

Tony has an excellent idea what he wants.

He sure as shit isn’t going to tell Coulson. The man should’ve figured out what he thinks about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s little experiment and maybe Tony will kill him on principle.

“I won’t kill you now,” he informs the agent. “I will wait to kill you. First, I need information, because I know at heart, you’re a gossipy bitch.”

Coulson sighs. “I’m glad to see you’re keeping an eye on Loki. I see the criminal rehabilitation has gone well.”

“Get out, g-man,” Tony spits, suddenly furious, he fucking hates that phrase. “Get the fuck out.”

The V1, V2, and V3 specs are begging at him, beautiful destructive drawings and concepts, I built this for you, you were supposed to say yes.

He stares at the schematics, breaking down the flaws and as a thought experiment, fixing everything he can find. He pulls the kid’s file: Aubrey White; age 20; blonde hair, blue eyes, 5’10”, 165 lbs; genius-level IQ, excellent grades through school, two papers for engineering journals; born in Winston-Salem, NC, grew up in Sante Fe, NM; had a pet when he was little, a dog named Toby; mother died in car accident three years after divorce when Aubrey was five; father librarian in Santa Fe. No siblings.

Tony is mourning.

Steve brings him a sandwich, balancing the plate on Tony’s head, but he doesn’t say anything, just sandwich, plate on the head, then he wanders off again, rubbing at his knuckles, probably to go destroy another punching bag.

Book in hand, Loki comes back, takes the plate off Tony’s head and splits the sandwich in two, giving Tony the other half. He stretches out on the couch, quiet invitation, feet in Tony’s lap and Tony eats his half of the sandwich, absently massaging Loki’s ankle while the V3 designs stare hatefully at him.

-

Tony knows what he wants.

He demands to be the god of sex if Loki’s the god of mischief, but Loki retorts that there’d have to be a lot more sex for that to happen first.

“Oh, that’s right, you’re the god of lies too,” Tony says.

They frighten Clint whenever they can and fuck whenever they can and sometimes those two activities become synonymous because they’re evil, highly-intelligent, greedy sons of bitches.

Steve and Loki become sparring buddies; Tony finds them hanging out, Steve drawing, Loki reading and he’s suspicious that they’ve been talking about him. It’s making him nervous.

Natasha talks stealth with Loki and Bruce explains chemistry to the trickster until Loki attempts to create a compound that terrifies Bruce; no one knows what it does except Bruce, Loki, and Fury. Later, Tony discovers S.H.I.E.L.D. files with crazy names on the servers containing Bruce’s formulas based on Loki’s suggestions.

Fury mutters, “Everybody be thankful he’s on our side.”

Clint and Loki just try to kill each other. It’s nothing new. Typical.

Tony works too much, doesn’t sleep, doesn’t eat, lets Pepper and Steve talk at him. Loki makes his tools vanish one day; that fight lasts two days and thirteen hours, ending with Thor and Mjölnir and a liberal smashing of various condiments. Clint claimed he was held hostage by the “fucking batshit insanity up in here.”

Pepper keeps buying Loki clothes and Tony despairs for his sanity and his blood pressure, it cannot be good for a man his age to be dealing with blood flow here and there.

It’s all normal and bizarre and they might be a verb that starts with a D and ends with an ’-ating’ and Tony might be full-blown panicking, so he takes three days off to get drunk and stay drunk and pick verbal fights with people, then takes an extra day to take the suit and fly to Miami. Where he gets sick and promptly flies back.

Loki ignores him for about three weeks with a concentration so complete, Tony understands why he was so good as a supervillain.

He remembers wondering what it would be like to have the attention of someone who feels so deeply.

Tony knows what he wants the day the alarms go off in a bank and three of them are dispatched: him, Loki, and Black Widow. There’s an unknown number of bank robbers, wearing black clothing, zombie masks and assault rifles. Terrified hostages everywhere, a pregnant woman, an elderly couple, three children, a man with a severe asthma attack gasping on the floor.

Widow slips their sight, tracking to count four robbers and Tony does the heavy lifting.

Loki is the silent, dark intimidation with carefully sharp magic usage until one of the robbers steps forward; after shouting crude verbal abuses at them, the hostages weeping and shaking in the background with their bruises and visceral fear, one of the robbers steps forward, rifle pointed at Loki, and says, “I know you.”

Power cracks in the air, Loki’s eyes going flat and brutal.

“Yeah, yeah, I know you. You blew up the police stations. Really impressive, man, spec-tac-u-lar, just a fuckin’ beautiful piece o’ work. I ain’t seen nuthin’ like that on the news in a long-ass time and I laughed so hard I almost choked on my beer. Just ‘bout bust a gut. It’s guys like you that give guys like us hope. So what’re you doin’ with these bozos? Fuckin’ do-gooders. You a merc? You moonlightin’, waitin’ for some really fuckin’ excellent work? ‘Cause I’m sure we could find you some.”

In the suit, Tony breaks out in a cold sweat, I built this for you, and the rage is coming fast and thick, like how blood looks sometimes when it’s shed. He has to wait so no one gets hurt and it’s death come slowly.

A single breath and Loki shifts into a mirror image of the robber, black clothes, zombie mask, assault rifle, the way this shitbrick stands, favoring his right knee a little.

“And what’re you waitin’ for, huh,” this robber Loki says, his voice and accent a pure echo of the robber.

The guy goes stock-still and the bank is silent except the throb of the gathered police force outside and murmur of onlookers.

“What’re you waitin’ for. The big score, what a pipe dream. The last one so you can get outta here, maybe you can track down that bitch of an ex-wife and get your kid back, huh. You’d gladly torture and kill a thousand people to get your little girl back, fuuuck, you even like listenin’ to people scream ‘cause they’re screamin’ at you, they’re screamin’ for your mercy, like you’re some fuckin’ almighty god. And with the take from this, you will be a god. These puny fuckin’ people don’t matter. But guess what. You think to yourself, when you’ve got all that money, you’re gonna want more. And who needs these stupid assholes you got on your team, huh? You planned this, you’re takin’ the hits, you’re the one who deserves this ‘cause they ain’t got kids, they ain’t got nuthin’, they just want the money.”

The robber raises his gun, sighting down the barrel and Loki stalks towards him.

Natasha’s whispering, “Oh god, Tony—“

He’s gone completely cold, watching Loki like he was, like he used to be, maybe they’d all forgotten how cataclysmic he can be, not just dangerous, but world-breaking.

“Take out the two in the back, Widow,” he says, not acknowledging the flares prickling along his spine in fear.

“But what happens when you find your little girl. After all the killin’ and stealin’. You think she’s gonna be happy to see you? You think she’s gonna be proud of her old man? You think she’s gonna love you? ‘Cause you’re gonna buy her toys, everything under the sun, the moon, the fuckin’ stars, a unicorn. A felon on the run with his daughter, she’ll slow you down. So what’re you really gonna do, boyo, what’s it gonna be. Maybe you should just kill a few people, to feel better, y’know? That pregnant woman reminds of your wife carrying your daughter. You gonna kill someone in front of her. So what’re you gonna do.”

The robber adjusts his aim. “You can’t do this to me,” he says, “how’d you—how do you know, you can’t—you don’t fuckin’—“

He squeezes the trigger and Loki shoots him in the chest, then swiftly turns and shoots the second robber standing petrified by the bank counter.

“Two confirmed down,” Widow says.

“Four,” Tony says.

Loki shifts back, pulling the mask off the ringleader. The robber has a huge scar running across the bridge of his nose and the scar flickers on Loki’s face.

“You,” is all the guy says.

Medics and cops swarm the building. The robbers live, headed to life in prison.

At the Tower, Tony is almost running as soon as he steps out of the suit, and he finds Loki in his bedroom, changing out of his armor. Tony shuts the door, locks it for good measure because he doesn’t know what’s about to happen.

“Loki, I, what, what,” he says, feeling like he did when they were almost hit by that cab, maybe this is what it feels like to be hit by a cab.

The trickster is shaking, his teeth rattling a little, and Tony can’t tell if it’s adrenaline or anger or power or fear; he grabs Loki’s shoulders, holding on, trying to anchor him or something.

“I’ve never seen—“ he starts, but Loki interrupts.

“I figured a distraction would be best. Surprise and fear usually work.” Loki winces. “Sometimes characteristics bleed into my shapeshifting.”

“But that was…”

Heartbreaking. He didn’t know Loki could take on anything like that.

“No wonder you’re insane,” Tony murmurs, “fuck, I said that out loud,” and Loki gives a sharp laugh.

“The debriefing. I will have some explaining to do, so we should get there before Fury decides to murder me in creative ways.”

“Nah,” Tony says, “you’re fucking hazardous and I caught you half-naked. I’m still feeling some adrenaline, so.”

When Loki kisses him, it’s hard and their teeth knock together, but it doesn’t matter.

They fuck like it’s the first time.

They’re presentable at the debriefing, but Loki’s eyes shine with something keen and darkly satisfied.

Fury shouts and yells and then backhand-compliments them, it’s all a bit confusing, like most debriefings.

Tony never imagined anything like this, he might have glass stuck in his brain.

He knows what he wants the day Loki and Thor vanish completely from the Tower. They’re gone, no trace of them leaving, their things left scattered like everyone else’s, they’re all grown adults, but not exactly tidy.

Loki and Tony’s possessions have been migrating between two bedrooms, Coulson raising his eyebrows around Tony, but Tony flips him off and moves on because this is a manhunt, or godhunt, or something slightly strange.

“Tony, where did they go,” Coulson says. “Loki must’ve mentioned it to you…whenever you ‘saw’ him last.”

They will manipulate this.

“Run for your life, g-man.”

Steve doesn’t have to fetch his shield, but it’s a close thing.

“Fuck!” Tony yells on the second day of the brothers’ disappearance.

Thor didn’t have his ‘discussion’ with Tony about how he will devise a death fitting for the one who hurts his beloved brother; Tony’s read mythology, he knows how inventive the gods can be, he’s talked about the rumors concerning Loki’s other ‘mischiefs’ and Thor’s ‘exploits’, he most certainly doesn’t want to hang from a tree while a snake drips venom on him and a raven eats his liver after they decide the tree thing isn’t working and he’s chained to a rock, maybe sacrificed as live sushi to some sea monster because he didn’t want to have sex with Loki as a swan or something, all of that stuff is a fucking mess.

Loki’s brother has gotten used to seeing Tony and Loki together, little touches and Tony’s lascivious expression in public places and Clint’s altogether obscene drawings he leaves on the fridge – that lasts until Tony uses Clint’s bow to shoot one of Clint’s arrows through a note on Clint’s bed (never mind how many tries it took him to do it) with veiled threats about information concerning Natasha and Pepper.

Which he still doesn’t have.

The brothers are gone, Jarvis can’t track them, he can’t fucking find them, “they might not be in this realm, sir.”

“OH REALLY, YOU SONUVABITCH, THAT’S JUST GREAT, JARVIS, A BIG HELP, ASSHOLE, THANK YOU.”

Tony isn’t going crazy, he’s not. Thor regularly makes trips to Asgard since he has princely duties and the Tower is eerily quiet while he’s gone, but Loki doesn’t go for reasons that destroyed one of the couches, the chocolate leather one Tony liked so much, couches shouldn’t burn like that.

Loki doesn’t go, his eyes almost black with memories; he spends those days sparring with Steve, or he and Clint attempt to kill each other with training-adapted ammunition and magic, or he looks lost, creating little firestorms in his palms until Tony gets him behind a locked door and goes to his knees.

Three days, and Tony has enough money to buy a clue, but he can’t because there isn’t any information available, no one knows. Fury’s almost exhausted every avenue. The brothers weren’t fighting; Thor wasn’t due to travel home; they aren’t vacationing in Vegas or the south of France.

Pepper says, “Keep looking, Tony.”

He puts his head on her shoulder and she pets him, says, “Keep looking.” She cancels all his appointments, bans him from any Stark work that she can’t handle herself, which is scarily most of it, and makes sure he changes clothes, “you are not going to wander around looking like a cheap Halloween costume. Shower, change, the whole nine yards, maybe go for an extra ten and look alive.”

Four days, and people have started avoiding Tony, he hasn’t figured out why yet. It’s like a grand mystery. He also hasn’t slept.

He’s built a miniature of the V1 robot, working to see how it collapses and what calls the other pieces to create copies. In another few hours, it’ll have a functioning laser.

It’s possible he’s forgotten to eat. The half-cup of soup at his elbow looks congealed and dodgy and he doesn’t remember when it walked into his workshop.

Steve stares at him.

Tony might also be drinking, scotch in his hand, glass slippery with grease, as the music sways filthy, I want to be someone else or I’ll explode.

“Tony.”

“Cap.”

“When did you last sleep.”

“It was a dark and stormy night, Steve.”

With a frown, Steve finds a chair away from anything risky-looking and pulls out his sketchpad.

He sketches in short bursts of scratching sounds and Tony decides Radiohead might be a little dramatic for him, he ain’t cryin’ in his beer; he lets the song die out before switching to something else.

Metal fits together in stunning ways, heat and sparks and Tony loses himself in the feel, the virtual display hovering within reach; occasionally, he flicks his fingers and spins the V1 3-D rendering.

He wasn’t you, Loki said, he was like me.

Four days and some hours, somehow Tony feels feverish, his brain swollen, his skin hot, his eyes burn with the hum of the arc reactor and he can hear it inside his skull.

A tear of paper, Steve sketching quiet with his fingertips blackened by charcoal.

A skim over the metal and Tony’s brain clicks: Thor and Loki in the hallway, talking low, heads bent together, Tony thinking how thick their bond is, blood or not, they are brothers; Tony thinking he isn’t jealous of something he can’t know, he wants something that weighted and heavy with Loki though; he’s caught Loki watching Steve laugh, how Steve knows what to say to Tony to talk him off his pedestal of pure crazy, the boy from Brooklyn with the big heart and fast smile.

They’re learning, they will learn, they will always be learning because Tony knows what he wants.

Thor and Loki in the hallway, talking low, heads bent together, dark and blonde, “I remember them talking,” Tony says. “They must’ve left right after then. Poof.”

Steve’s mouth is open in surprise, he’s dragged his arm across the pad, black streaks. “So they left. They weren’t taken.”

You left, Loki said, and Tony realized, You left.

Loki left just when Tony knows what he wants. He hasn’t talked about it, really said anything of substance because he’s always talking and he does say what he means, most people just gloss over it all or don’t stop to parse him or think he’s a bastard so they don’t pay attention. He always talking, why the hell not, he’s thinking stuff, why not say it, but it shouldn’t take a weird alien abduction or whatever the fuck this is for Tony to actually talk.

It shouldn’t take extremes.

His whole life is extremes. Sadness, loneliness, confusion, anger, confidence, fuck-you-too, survival, money, CEO, genius, faster-than-you, inventor, I-can-fly, cool guys don’t look at explosions, media whore, pop culture consumer, friend, hero worship, Iron Man, fights and injuries and death and destruction.

His sheets smell like Loki.

Fuck a duck!” Clint yells upstairs.

Then Pepper’s yelling for Tony, for Steve, “get up here now!

Tony’s ditching tools left and right like he’s breaking off bits of bone, the V1 miniature falling off the worktable still glowing with welds, and he trips over a cable, shoulder slamming against the doorway. On the stairs, Steve’s stopped to wait for him.

Coulson’s on his cell. Natasha has blood on her hands and Pepper is handing Bruce towels where he’s kneeling, his glasses about to fall off his startled face.

Thor and Loki are in a heap on the floor, Thor clutching his brother as if he’s been carrying him for miles or millennia.

“Greetings, my friends,” he says hoarsely.

Loki doesn’t speak. His eyes roll back in his head.

“Fuck, he passed out,” Clint says, Steve darting forward to help separate the brothers, their armor slick red.

“Tony Stark,” Thor calls with a tired chuckle. “I have something to return to you.”

Tony slides on his knees next to them; Thor tips sideways, and Tony braces instinctively, catching Loki around his chest, taking his weight off the thunder god.

Thor is beaten, huge bruises and cuts, sweat and exhaustion, he’s breathing as if he has extensive wounds along his side and Steve’s talking him through the evident pain as he and Clint get Thor to his feet, acting as crutches, headed for the infirmary.

Holding Loki, Tony can feel him breathing, thank fuck, but he doesn’t look beaten, he looks battered, like someone beat the living daylights out of him and then didn’t stop, just kept pummeling him and there’s blood everywhere, it’s soaking into Tony’s jeans, trickling along the floor—

Bruce doesn’t say a word, he simply takes his glasses off, growls and hulks out, gigantic hands held out to pick up Loki. He goes to the infirmary with the unconscious trickster and Tony goes over to the bar.

Drinking, for all intents and purposes, is the best thing to do at the moment.

Pepper is talking to him, but he can’t hear her, the words swimming around her.

He sleeps in his bed in his bloody jeans, wakes to ruined sheets and a fear he can feel as sharp as the metal fragments in his chest.

Tony knows what he wants.

Loki’s awake for a span of ten minutes and Tony’s there. He rubs his thumb over Loki’s pulse and Loki smirks, so Tony kisses him to teach him a lesson. He tastes blood, but it doesn’t matter, he chases the taste with his tongue carefully until he only tastes Loki, then Loki needs to do important things like breathe and heal and yeah, breathe.

His hands aren’t as torn up since Loki remembered his gloves, and Tony does not sound like a worried mother, he will blow up whoever says that, he does love a good explosion, it’s not like Loki wandered out into the snow without his gloves. Fingers catch the hem of Tony’s shirt, give a little tug, so Tony sits down.

“Well, that was unexpected,” Fury says from across the room, folding a newspaper. “Has the definition of ‘fraternization’ changed or did what happened just actually happen.”

“Oh, it happened,” Tony says, still a little drunk, a little asleep. “So there you go.”

Fury watches him, that one fierce eye, then Tony says, “Guess all I needed was a little kinky shapeshifting.”

“Tony, shut the fuck up. I needed to know about this…relationship as it is relevant fucking information, but I absolutely don’t need the details. Coulson wanted his little amusement, I’m sure,” Fury says.

He better not be psychic, Tony thinks.

“This is…” Fury hesitates. “Helpful. He can keep an eye on you.”

“What.”

“Oh yeah, between the two of you, you’re the worst,” the director says, looking for the crossword. He digs a pen out of his pocket, clicks it. Randomly, Tony wants to see him kill someone with it. Maybe him, as a way to end this conversation. “This doesn’t mean I’m sending you two off on some damn vacation to a beach resort.”

“Ummm.”

“Now if you two argue or disagree, even something as stupid as what color to paint the baby’s room, and you two cause a ruckus, I will step in and separate you like toddlers who need a fucking timeout ‘cause I will not let this building go up like fireworks on New Year’s over a petty argument if someone’s feeling unappreciated or fucking insecure.”

Fury’s filling out the squares for an across clue and staring at Tony at the same time, since the man is clearly superhuman.

“This isn’t—“ Tony says, but he doesn’t know what it isn’t.

“Isn’t what. Acquaintance, association, casual fling, fuck buddies, friends with benefits, relationship, I don’t give a shit. No explosions, no giant hamsters, no one ends up as a puddle of goo, no weapons of mass destruction.” He strikes through a clue. “Natasha, Clint, and Pepper haven’t maimed anyone over their whatever the fuck that is.”

“Everyone knows but me. I should just blow this popsicle stand. And then blow it up,” Tony says between his teeth. “With the really good shit. Lots of big boom.”

Unruffled, Fury counts blocks and writes in letters.

“Six letter word for someone who doesn’t listen to what I say,” he states.

“Fucked,” Tony replies.

“Always knew you were smart.”

Then Fury leaves, possibly on his way to crush someone else’s soul.

When they ask Thor what happened, he says, “We were hunting.”

“Hunting?” Pepper asks, handing him the Oreos.

Abashed, like a little kid who just wanted to go on an adventure, Thor takes the cookies, says, “Yes, it was necessary.

“And what happened to Loki,” Steve demands.

Thor is immediately saddened, his expression bereft. “We were reckless.”

Steve wipes a hand over his mouth, as if he’s about to say something he’ll regret and Tony says, “Reckless.”

“Yes, we were not careful in battle—“

“We know the word, Thor,” Pepper says and crunches into a sympathy Oreo with him.

“Unbalanced,” Clint says. He mopes without his archenemy around to try to kill 24/7.

Tony sits with Loki, the stupid fucker who heals faster than Tony ever will.

He asks, “Where did you go, Loki?”

Loki licks his lips. “Jotunheim.”

Fuck if Loki did wander out into the snow with his gloves. He recognizes the name; one night, they kicked off the sheets and stared at the ceiling and Loki started talking about Asgard, about fighting alongside Thor in Jotunheim, before he knew the broken truth. About the cold and the snow and the glacial walls everywhere. Everything was ice and it was treacherous. Once upon a time, Thor wanted to wipe them out, maybe because they frightened Loki as a child, those monsters everyone whispered about.

Jotunheim.

The home of his ancestors.

Tony wants to know why, but he can’t ask. Not yet.

The day Loki is released from the infirmary, Tony takes Loki to his bedroom, no reinforcement, if Loki wants to shatter the mirrors and make wind tunnels or whatever, he can.

Gingerly, Loki sits on the edge of the bed.

Standing, Tony has to look down at him, the green eyes and black hair and pale skin, the easy curves of his features. This is like the first time, the cuts and bruises. He takes a deep breath.

“No lies,” he says.

A quick look of surprise. Loki says, “I lie—“

“But sometimes you tell the truth. I lie—“

“But sometimes you tell the truth.”

They’re smirking at each other because they’re made to collide; Tony can’t keep hovering, so he sits next to him, and they lean against each other, shoulders together.

“I talk, and I. You left. Fuck, I just,” Tony begins, but he can’t say it. He can’t say he needs this to be real, not just some sort of warped mirror, a casual reflection; he needs it like Pepper and Steve, how they know him and don’t care about his issues and mildly ignore it when he’s an insensitive bastard or colossal jackass, except more, on a different level; he needs this deeper thing, past anything else, all the bullshit and distrust and talking. “Is this—I mean, is this what—this how you…shit, never mind, I don’t. Is this.”

A staggering loss of gravity.

Loki says, “Real. Yes.”

Great minds think alike.

“What about your evil rep.”

“Whatever happens, someone will want revenge,” Loki teases.

“Explosions.”

Like a string of ideas all coming together, Tony has the distinct feeling they might end up on the other sides of something someday and he doesn’t know what he’ll do except try.

He will do unthinkable, devastating things to keep this, the plans he will make are awful and immense.

Tony bites his smirk and Loki bites him back.

-

Thor says, “My brother is like he was before our misunderstanding.”

“There’s that word again, I don’t think it means what you think it means,” Tony says as he casts a careful glance around for Mjölnir.

“Still, he is like he was. I missed him.” The blonde god grins. “Although he tries to tell me too much of your activities, Tony Stark.”

“Well, fuck. It’s payback, since I’ve heard about your various ‘achievements.’”

Thor laughs and laughs and laughs, then cuffs Tony on the shoulder. “Fine and jolly jester!”

Steve, Loki, and Thor start their own kind of fight club with no end to the depraved laughter and Thor booming, “You can hit harder than that! I am grieving and embarrassed for you!”

Tony might eventually abandon V1, V2, and V3, but not yet. In a fit of boredom, Loki makes the miniature V1 come to life, then accidentally forgets about it until Tony smashes it to pieces with a ball-peen hammer.

Steve and Loki are talking about him. Pepper too. He thinks the three of them meet for lunch somewhere in the city, but Jarvis refuses to tell him where. Jarvis is most likely feeding them information. “Jarvis, you fucking turncoat.”

He needs new friends, a new AI and a new Loki, whatever Loki is, they don’t do labels, as Tony tells Coulson just to piss him off when the agent curtly explains he needs to update their records.

“Why are you in a tuxedo, Stark.”

“Some gala, I don’t pay attention, Pepper just points and I go, then drink until I can find someone to insult, it’s actually a lot of fun, easier than shooting up the joint and dealing with the ensuing paperwork. So, update records, huh. Like what, emergency contacts?” Tony says, feeling catty.

“Mr. Stark,” says that rich smoky voice. The stunning dark-haired woman, green eyes, all long legs, dangerous curves and a slightly more dangerous smile, poses in the doorway in a dark green dress Tony knows Pepper bought, definitely out of spite with a healthy sense of vengeance, maybe because he’s been asking Jarvis to snoop on her weird love triangle dating game thingamabob. “Excuse me, Agent Coulson, I believe Mr. Stark’s time is currently spoken for.”

Tony does a quick dance step over to Loki. “Still need to update our records, Coulson?”

Loki laughs, Tony copping a feel as they go and Coulson calls after them, “That’s not funny!”

Clint almost has a heart attack as they leave, “Now he’s a woman, sweet singing fuck on a rope!

Thor restrains Clint, saying, “You will not ogle my brother when he is in his female form. I will snap your neck like a tiny, tiny twig.”

“Oh, fantastic, those shoes match so well, I’m glad they fit,” Natasha says with her little smile. “Just don’t break a heel.”

“You’re borrowing shoes from Natasha?”

“Stilettos, so I can stab someone if the opportunity presents itself,” Loki says.

“You have a curfew,” Steve and Pepper say in unison.

“You two desperately need a hobby. Knitting. Frisbee golf. Porn.”

Steve sighs. “Don’t destroy anything. Please.”

He’s a genius billionaire philanthropist; he’s an ex-ish supervillain; together, they fight crime. Or commit crime. Maybe. Sometimes. Slightly. It’s a matter of perspective. And not Steve’s perspective, if you ask Steve, Tony already commits so many crimes, Steve might abandon all hope.

In bed, Tony admits that Loki’s overly complex plans were intriguing and on occasion, he might’ve felt something akin to sadness they didn’t come to fruition. In a hypothetical world.

Enemy target profiles are drawn up by Loki and Fury, with Steve’s second opinion coming as a seal of approval. Inventions/gadgets/weapons/those strange shiny doodads are turned over to Tony, unless they’re chemical in nature, then Bruce smiles this unholy smile and everyone worries about gas masks.

When Loki and Tony fight, or rather when Loki’s wrong and Tony’s right, or Loki picks a fight with Tony, or maybe Tony hasn’t had any sleep, he’s been busy working, no, he’s only had one scotch maybe two, no one is counting, all hell breaks loose. Thor takes his brother’s side, regardless, weirdly jealous and overprotective as usual; Steve and Pepper take Tony’s side, oddly like they’re Tony’s parents, which concerns him, to be honest; Bruce moderates until he has to leave to calm down; Clint and Natasha silently bet on who resorts to violence first and/or what kind of magic Loki will unleash.

Who doesn’t want to break something they love, even for just a moment.

At some point, they will continue their discussion on science versus magic, Tony will have Jarvis’s mapping Loki’s spells as he does them, since they are different, just because Loki can blast Clint all the way across the room with his bare hands and Tony needs his gauntlets to do it doesn’t mean anything except to show that Loki’s lazy.

The reinforcement of Loki’s bedroom stays and they still migrate between rooms. The guard disappears. It doesn’t matter.

It’s all normal and bizarre and they might be dating. Horrors.

Tony thinks, Shit, I’m vulnerable.

He won’t ever forget the feeling of the window hitting his spine. Loki unknowingly runs fingers along the spot; it makes Tony press against him.

-

Tony completes the final version of the V3 robot. He does it alone in his workshop and builds a miniature like he did with the finals of V1 and V2.

No music, just the noise of his tools, Jarvis helping with the specs and he can feel the hum of his arc reactor.

When he’s done, he’s sweaty and shaking. He’s gotten all three to work the way they were designed to; the lasers have cut infinity symbols into his worktable.

He stares at the miniatures for two hours as they await his instructions.

“Jarvis.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Bury these specs deep. Somewhere dark.”

“I will throw them down the metaphorical well.”

“You do that.”

His fingers are bleeding.

He doesn’t explain and Loki doesn’t ask. But Tony hasn’t asked about Jotunheim yet.

He will. Eventually.

-

The timeline starts in a fall of glass.

Two liars falling fast and maybe they’ll keep each other honest.

Somewhere here they’re telling the truth.