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Only Smile When I Lie

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"Can I come in?" the young man gasps. He's drenched with something that sparkles when he moves, his dark hair slicked to his face. He's pale and shaking and there are strange marks on his cheeks and forehead. And he's standing outside Victor von Doom's castle.

It's snowing, but the cold doesn't seem to be freezing the unhappy-looking young man's sodden clothes and hair.

Victor narrows his eyes. "What are you? Mutant?"

The young man stares at him for a second and then laughs. "My apologies. I'm not having the best day. No, I'm not a mutant. I'm not even a mortal. But I don't expect you to believe that." He staggers and catches himself on the edge of the stone doorway.

Victor frowns. "I've seen stranger things. Where did you come from?"

The young man laughs again, but he doesn't sound at all amused. "Above. Asgard, if you know your Norse Mythology. It's all lies, though not as much as I thought. Oh—"

He stumbles again, and Victor catches him without thinking.

The young man looks up at him with giant, sad eyes with something lurking behind them. "How rude of me not to introduce myself. My name is Loki Laufeyson." His eyes flicker. "Forgive me, I'm still recovering from trying to kill myself." He glances at the white sky pouring snow down on them.

Victor hauls him upright. "My name is Victor von Doom, and I believe more of your story than most mortals might."

Loki seems to suddenly focus on Victor. "I don't mean to be rude, but are you made of metal?"

What a strange little creature to have been plucked from the air, Victor thinks. He shakes his head and offers his arm. "No. But perhaps we can talk more comfortably inside."

If Loki is indeed what he appears to be, Victor may be in luck.

Inside, the glitter on Loki's skin is already dimming, and if Victor were a different man, he would doubt his eyes. As it is, he's simply curious about where exactly Loki came from.

He offers Loki all the hospitality of Latveria, which is to say, not much. Comfort is not something Victor prizes highly, and he has little use for comfort when he spends long nights in his lab, anyhow. He allows Loki the use of one of his showers and a set of clean clothes that are far too big, hoping that is enough to make a god more inclined to be helpful.

When Loki is dry and settled in one of Victor's chairs, he still looks the picture of misery.

"Perhaps you have some explaining to do," Victor suggests, drumming his metal-clad fingers on the arm of his chair. The fire is hot, and he wishes he were alone so he could remove his mask.

Loki smiles thinly. "Perhaps I do. Don't worry, I'm used to having demands for an explanation shouted at me." He straightens his shoulders even more and says, "Well, to begin with, I'm a god." His face twists into something horribly young and bitter. "No. Let me start again. I'm a Jotun."

"I'm not familiar," Victor says. If nothing else, he's intrigued.

Loki stares into the fire for a long moment. "Let me begin at the beginning," he says. "Let me tell you a story. In the beginning, there was a chasm."

Victor listens to the story, to the Norse creation myth from the mouth of a creature who looks like a young man and sounds like an old god in more pain than Victor has known since childhood. He listens to the tale of Loki the monster, brought into Asgard by Odin who was the descendent of Frost Giants. He listens to how the monster fell from the rainbow bridge across the worlds, fell to what he hoped was his death.

"But he landed," Loki says softly. The fire is burning low now. "His fall was cushioned by snow. I wonder, was it fate? Or simply unhappy accident?" He looks at Victor. "I don't know how to be," he says simply.

Victor would laugh in Loki's face, but there was a time when he thought he didn't know how to be, and turning away someone as powerful as Loki would be a mistake.

"If you like," Victor says, "I can try to do something about your face." He gestures at the markings. "Help you blend in here. My magical power is almost certainly sufficient."

Loki's face lights up, the heavy sorrow lifting for a moment. "Oh, you're a witch! So am I."

Victor is about the bristle at the word "witch," but his mother was a witch, and he's not one to be ashamed of what he is. Besides, if this boy is truly a god, "witch" may mean something different to him. Victor has already been trained in the cultural context of Americans; Norse monsters shouldn't be too much more difficult.

"Never mind," Loki says suddenly, gesturing at his face. "It's kind of you, but I think I'll keep it for a while. I've just realized I might need to go some difficult places, and I think it might be easier in this form." He looks exhausted and much younger than—Victor wonders how many thousands of years he is.

Victor nods. "Understood. You're not longer planning to kill yourself?"

"Mm." Loki looks into the embers of the fire again. "I wasn't really planning to before. It just happened." He brightens. "But how can I, when I have this whole new world to play with? You've reminded me of the one thing I love about Midgard: mortals."

Victor suspects this is not as flattering as it sounds, but at least now he can add "suicide prevention" to his resume, possibly right next to "world domination."

"But I've been rude," Loki says. "I've been talking about myself all evening. That's a mistake I rarely make, but you've caught me at a very bad time. Tell me about my gracious host."

Victor considers. There's no reason not to tell this strange, sad god who is he, after all. It hardly matters, when dealing with someone this powerful. "I'm afraid I have no creation myth for you."

Loki laughs, an unnatural, forced sound. "Everyone has a creation myth, no matter where the myth begins. Tell me about your creation."

There are parts of that Victor will never tell anyone. Why tell a stranger any of it? "I discovered magic at a young age, and by the time I reached college, I was very powerful. Perhaps too powerful for my own good. I discovered a road into Hell itself, and, searching for a lost soul, I found myself trapped there. I fought my way out, but not before becoming trapped in the armor I had worn to protect myself there. Finding myself an outcast, I left America and traveled to Europe. I then discovered Latveria and, realizing it had not stable government, offered my services. Now I rule it and its people."

Victor has read Norse myths, albeit a long time ago. Loki Liesmith, he remembers. He wonders which of their stories had more truth in it.

Loki tilts his head to one side. "Interesting. Perhaps someday you can tell me more of it, or tell me again. I'm very impressed that you rule a country, though."

Victor smiles, amused and genuinely charmed. "I'm flattered to have won the favor of a god. Or a Jotun." He pronounces the world in the same rough way Loki did.

Loki blinks at him. "Thank you." He pauses and pulls the over-large shirt around himself. "May I stay the night?" he asks abruptly.

Victor can hardly say no. A chance like this won't come again.

He shows Loki to the lowest bedroom in the castle, right above the dungeon. Then, using his security cameras, he waits until Loki has stopped pacing madly and gone to sleep before he drops the floor from the room and locks Loki in a cell.

Victor is about to send a Doombot to the dungeon to see what he can make of this foreign creature, but he can't look away from the camera. Loki springs to his feet and looks around wildly before laughing and beginning to pace the cell, systematically looking for a way out. Not completely mad, then, despite his fantastic tales and fevered manner. But either not powerful enough or too distracted to escape. The magical wards Victor erected probably help.

Then Loki changes. His body folds in on itself, and when it unfolds, he looks serpentine. There are scales on his face and hands, and he moves in a way a human shouldn't.

Victor is fascinated.

Loki throws himself at the wall, his body coiling and uncoiling as he does so, but the dungeon does not burst. After a few fruitless moments, Loki changes again, shuddering and shaking out his limbs until he is stooped and shaggy, his hair hanging in his face. He prowls the cell then, snarling under his breath.

Victor should be taking notes.

When Loki's prowling yields no results, he stands upright and extends his arms until they become almost wings, moving too fast for human limbs. He rises awkwardly to the ceiling of the cell and moves about looking for an exit, until—

Victor smiles. Loki has seen the camera.

And it only takes a few seconds for him to strike it once with a coiled, talon-like hand, destroying it.

It's time for Victor to pay him a visit, then. Since he still doesn't know the extent of Loki's powers, he uses a Doombot.

When he—or the robot, but it matters little—arrives, Loki looks more human, but not entirely. He smiles brilliantly at Victor when he sees him. The smile looks wrong.

"You look a little deranged, god," Victor says through the Doombot.

"Oh, well done. But this place won't hold me, no matter how powerful you are. I've had a long fall, but I'll be back on my feet before you touch me." He shivers at the edges, bluish and feathery. His hair keeps changing length slightly, Victor notices.

Victor circles him, slowly and carefully, not doubting for a moment that Loki is right. But nonetheless . . . "What shall I do with you now that I have you?" he asks.

Loki keeps smiling his miserable smile ."You'll do what they'll all do soon. You'll burn."

Victor sneers. "I have known fire."

"Oh," Loki says, hushed and gloating, "but there are other ways to burn." The markings on his face become more pronounced.

Victor steps toward him, robotic and unafraid. "What are you, truly? Was your story accurate at all? I ask only so that I may add it to my notes when you become nothing more than another of my experiments."

Loki laughs at blinks at him. "They call me Liesmith. How could you hope to learn the truth from me?"

"They call me Doom."

Loki's shudder must be put on, but Victor isn't sure. "Then I will make you a deal, Doom. Release me and rather than promising to spare your life, I will give you a gift. Not because I fear you, but because you do not fear me. You may be the only one, in these months to come. Do we have a deal?"

Victor is torn between not wanting to let Loki slip through his fingers and wanting to see what a god can offer him. As ever, the idea of immortality rises in his consciousness. But the gifts of gods, especially a god like Loki, are bound to be treacherous.

"What gift?" he asks. "What gift I cannot force from you here?"

"Something I cannot do from here. Sometime you will never forget." Loki smiles. "Something you'll never discover if you choose not to free me."

Loki stays a week. Every day, Victor awakens expecting Loki to be gone, but he's always there, curled up in one of Victor's chairs with a book, making runes in the dust on the shelves, or simply gazing out at the snow. All the while his eyes burn and flicker with what Victor hesitates to call madness.

Victor mostly stays out of Loki's way. He brings him food (or has his Doombots bring him food), the type gods might like. He tells Loki where to find particular books when Loki asks. Mostly he's too fascinated to do anything but watch as this silent, miserable god stalks around his castle, muttering under his breath. Whatever Loki is promising had better be worth the wait.

On the seventh day of his stay, Loki seems more cheerful, or at least more directed. He's wearing an absurd horned helmet when Victor comes into the sitting room in the morning. He's clad in his robes again, and the marks on his face are glowing faintly.

"Did you sleep well?" Victor inquires. I am going to strap you down in my lab if you don't do something interesting soon, he adds in his head.

Loki gets to his feet, smiling. "If all mortals were like you, Victor von Doom, Midgard would be a much more interesting place. Or else it would be in ashes. I think I should be on my way now. I have some thinking to do, and some people to hurt as badly as I can."

Victor considers suggesting that seeking revenge when the pain is still fresh only makes you look weak, but who is he to prevent people from making the same mistakes he did? "Good luck."

"Thank you. Of course," Loki says slowly, "you've been very gracious. And I owe you something, do I not?"

Victor waits.

Loki tilts his head, sizing Victor up. Then he says, "Next time I see you, then, I'll give you a gift." Then he flickers and is gone.

Victor swears under his breath. He should have killed Loki when he had the chance. But no, better to wait until he knows he can.

*

"I had no idea this is what you meant!"

Victor is—was—trying to do battle with the so-called Fantastic Four when Reed collapses more bonelessly than usual on the floor and the other three were suddenly nowhere to be seen.

Loki is wearing something that looks like antlers on his head, and his arms are crossed over his chest. He looks put out. "A debt repaid, Victor."

So now they're on first-name basis, even though all Loki has done so far is drip on Victor's rugs and now ruin his battle.

"You seem angry," Loki says.

Victor clenches his fists and tries very hard not to explode. The police will be here any minute, and while he has diplomatic immunity, he'd rather avoid the questions and admonitions. "I am angry," he grits out. "I didn't ask for you to come here in the middle of my moment of triumph and—and win the battle for me."

Loki blinks and then laughs. This time his laugh sounds much more natural. Victor realizes his face no longer bears markings, either.

"Why Victor," Loki says sweetly, "I had no idea you were so noble. It's enough to remind me of home." He snaps his fingers almost viciously and Reed staggers to his feet.

While Victor is busy dealing with that, Loki disappears again.

Victor's battle with Reed ends as most of them do—in disappointment. He wounds Reed badly enough that it's nearly a victory, but as usual, Reed manages to escape. Next time, Victor is certain, he'll manage to destroy Reed, if not to prove his superiority over the other man.

It's not till Victor is back in his temporary New York hotel room—very expensive, very near the Baxter Building, currently very far from where the police are looking—that Loki reappears.

He's lounging on Victor's bed reading a scientific journal that Victor left out.

"This is fascinating," he says when Victor comes in.

Victor's hands are on his mask, halfway to taking it off, and he stops dead. "Get out," he snaps.

Loki tosses the magazine aside and blinks at Victor. "As far as I can remember, you said you had to wear that suit all the time."

"I lied," Victor says smoothly, crossing the room to put away one of his more delicate apparatuses. "I'm sure you're familiar with the concept. You look well."

Loki shrugs.

"I hear that new group of superheroes is based in New York," Victor presses. "The Avengers. I don't suppose that has anything to do with your timely reappearance? One of them is named Thor, isn't he?"

Loki stiffens, clearly caught. Then he relaxes into a forced smile and says, "No relation."

Victor took the time to read up on Norse mythology, in which that seems to be true. Loki was said to be Odin's blood brother, but nothing more. According to Loki's story, though, he and Thor would be brothers, albeit not by birth. He wonders if that makes Loki and Balder brothers, too. That would prove interesting, given Balder's mythological fate.

"Of course not," Victor says smoothly. "Well, regardless, I don't know why you're in my room."

"Consider us even." Loki's eyes dance in challenge.

"I refuse," Victor says. "I gave you your freedom and your life, and all you've done is make mine more complex."

"You can hardly make me do anything," Loki says carelessly, but he watches Victor warily.

Victor grabs Loki and shoves him against the wall. Brute force likely means nothing to a god, but it can be a placeholder for his other powers. Loki spent enough time in Latveria to know the magic and science Victor has at his disposal.

"Can't I?" Victor whispers.

Loki smiles. "You're just like all the others, then. All powerful men want to get me up against a wall." He presses against Victor as much as he can with his shoulders pinned.

Victor barks out a surprised laugh. "Nothing could be further from my mind. It will take more than what you have to throw me off."

"Is that so?" Loki rolls his hips against Victor, inviting, treacherous. "I could have you in the palm of my hand."

"I have known witches more enchanting," Victor says, "and men cleverer."

"But have you known gods, Victor von Doom?"

"Is that what you are?" Victor sneers, pinning Loki to the wall. "I've read the books, now. The eddas, both prose and poetic. I know what you are." He leans even closer and whispers, "Monster."

Loki shoves Victor hard and wrenches away, snarling, "Oh, I will come through on my half of the deal. Then I'll never have to see your ridiculous suit of armor again." He chuckles. "Oh, I know. What if I give you a weakness for each Avenger? They're coming here, you know. After the holes you put in Mr. Fantastic, I'm not surprised."

Victor appreciates that Loki understands the difference between depowering Reed Richards for him and this. This, he will gladly accept. "Quickly, then," he says, pleased.

Besides, he wants to see Loki battle Thor.

It turns out that part of the battle is very one-sided. Victor notices that no matter how viciously Loki attacks Thor, Thor never hits back with his full strength.

"Brother," Thor says almost immediately. Victor notices that, too. He's busy smashing Iron Man's stand-in heart and bashing Hawkeye's bad knee with Captain America's shield, but he spares the time to catalogue Loki's weaknesses.

"Let me help you," Thor says, and Loki snarls and drives at him with what looks like it's meant to be a killing blow.

"Please, just stop, I've missed you," Thor says, and Loki casts a spell that nearly takes off Captain America's head.

When the battle is done and both sides have retreated to a safe distance, Loki looks furious and shaken. When he speaks, though, his voice is light.

"I need more time away from New York," he says. "I have plans. I'm staying with you."

Against his better judgment, Victor nods assent. He needs time, too. Devising something to take Loki's life-force and using it to achieve immortality won't be impossible, just time-consuming.

Victor reflects that Loki probably thinks his hate for Thor is the same as Victor's hate for Reed Richards. He's wrong. They're not kindred spirits. Victor has more self-confidence and is better at hate.

*

Victor sees little of Loki in the weeks to come. He stays in his lab; Loki stays in the tower. He doesn't know what Loki's doing, but he does know that several magic books have gone missing from the library. No matter, Victor is consumed by his own work.

Then, Loki disappears. Victor only notices when he doesn't appear at dinner—they've been dining together every night, mostly to keep an eye on one another.

Victor finds himself at loose ends for over a week, which is infuriating. He shouldn't miss Loki's presence. The god has been little more than an occasional distraction lately. But he's also intelligent, and he never leaves Victor feeling like the only person in the room capable of higher thought. Besides, he would be very hard for Victor to destroy. It was . . . refreshing.

When Loki returns, he looks harried and tired. "Never try to rule an ungrateful people," he says as he strides unannounced into Victor's lab.

Victor has his own opinions on the matter. "Do you mean Asgard?" he asks.

Loki sighs sharply and sits, then stands immediately. "No. Yes. I suppose. A demon attacked. It wasn't my fault." He says this last as if he's been repeating it for hours.

Victor puts his latest experiment aside carefully. Loki being in here and so tense makes him cautious with his belongings. "It seems you went far out of your way to upset your brother."

"Taking over Asgard was never about Thor," Loki snaps.

Victor recognizes his own lie. Despite the uneasily familiarity that's been forming between the two of them, this shared untruth is what really charms Victor. "Of course not," he says, getting to his feet.

Loki is panting and bright-eyed, and Victor has a hard time telling if it's distress or euphoria. He's glad he's wearing his mask, as he feels much the same. Oh, don't, he tells himself. I'll destroy you, or you'll destroy me. It won't end well. At best, this will be a monumental embarrassment. At worst, they'll wind up caught in one another's orbit.

"I want," he starts. Being consumed with lust would be preferable. At least it's considered respectable, for some mysterious reason.

Loki smiles, inviting and smug, the sparkle in his eyes becoming one of victory. "Yes, my dear Victor?"

A thick current of loathing threads through Victor's other desires. "I want you to leave," he says. It's a weak lie.

Loki's smile becomes a grin. "It's all right to want me," he says, sliding up against Victor. "Everyone does. I just haven't worked out how you want me yet. Don't tell me, though. It'll be a game. What about in your lap, straddling you? I don't imagine you want me to fuck you. You have too much pride, and you're old-fashioned enough to think that matters." His body is warm against Victor's side.

What makes gods weak? The same thing that makes men weak: wanting things. Victor should know. But this is something everyone else always wants and he never does. He could do it. He could fuck Loki and take him apart, piece by piece. He can imagine Loki vulnerable and vicious, and it just—he can't. It's not what he wants.

"Don't flatter yourself," Victor says loftily. "I have no interest in your body, at least for any purposes other than scientific ones."

Loki scoffs. "Nonsense. Everyone always does."

Victor would sooner do most things than articulate that the only interest he has in Loki's body is having the heat of it pressed against his side, preferably with Loki gagged so as not to distract him while he works. Instead, he says, "I have little interest in sex. I have better uses for my time."

Loki pulls away slightly, taking his body heat with him. It's irritating. "Many have said that, but none have meant it. I could change my shape, become a woman."

Victor laughs derisively. "Now you're further from the mark. Other men may dissemble, but Doom means what he says. I have no interest in sleeping with you."

Loki's eyebrows go up like he can't imagine it. "What, not interested in ruling Asgard as my queen, Victor? I'm shocked."

Victor shrugs. "That goes without saying. But I don't want any of it. It doesn't lie within my set of interests. Don't take offense. It's not personal."

Loki stands back, scrutinizing Victor as though something in Victor's armor and mask will explain why Victor has no interest in ravishing him. Prideful bastard. "You must have had lovers," he says finally.

Victor thinks back. Yes. A handful, including college fumbling he would rather forget. "I have," he says. "It was interesting. But not stimulating."

Loki's face does something complicated, perhaps in the moment of realization that Victor is really not going to take his body. Victor isn't sure how much of the expression is relief. He doesn't care to know, because then he might . . . care.

"Excuse me," Loki says after a moment, "but what did you want, before?"

Victor grimaces. "Not that. I've . . . never wanted that. If you're going to laugh, get it out of the way so I can decide how to murder you."

Loki's eyes flash. "I'm not going to laugh. This is—what's wrong with you?" His cheeks flush slightly.

Victor chuckles. Smugness that his plan is working beats out humiliation easily. Loki's fallback resource has failed. "Are you that upset that I won't fuck you? Am I really so attractive? Or do you know no other way of controlling men? Both, perhaps?"

Loki fumes, but he doesn't step away. "You misled me." He looks uncertain, though. "You knew I would think . . ."

"I didn't say you were wrong," Victor says. Because despite his brilliant plan to have something to hold over Loki, he wasn't misleading him. He does want. Just not that. He closes the gap between the two of them, pulls Loki close, and puts his arms around him.

Loki stiffens for a second before relaxing. He leans his head on Victor's shoulder and laughs delightedly. "You want to hold me. Oh, you truly are pathetic."

Victor's fingers tighten around Loki's forearm where they were resting. "Don't try my patience."

Loki nuzzles him a little, experimentally, clearly considering doing just that. Then he says, "Well, if nothing else, I don't mind being held by you. It passes the time well enough. I can make plans while you think about whatever misguided experiment you're going to try to prove yourself to Mr. Fantastic with."

It's the closest Loki is likely to come to asking to date Victor. It's a shock.

"I would enjoy that," Victor says.

*

"I think he's bad for you."

Victor glowers at Namor across the table. There are very few people Victor calls friend, and the list is rapidly becoming shorter. "This is not a conversation we're going to have," Victor says firmly.

Namor frowns and laces his fingers together. "I'm simply pointing out the fact that you've been acting with uncharacteristic impetuosity."

Victor is, in fact, never going to have Namor come to his castle to make secret plans for world domination ever again. "Namor," he snarls. "I'm a grown man. I think I can work with whoever I want."

Namor sips his wine, becoming more infuriating by the minute. "Is that it, then? Are you simply working with him? I have my concerns."

Victor toys with one of the candles on the stone tabletop. Loki has been there for three months. "I don't know what you mean." Loki is his business. He's not going to share him.

"I don't mean to pry—" Namor stops. "Well, no, I do. Victor, are you sleeping with Loki?"

"Certainly not."

Namor narrows his eyes. "Victor. I haven't seen you like this in years. You're thinking of things besides your work. You won't stop talking about him. You're happy--"

"Don't," Victor snaps, alarmed.

Namor snorts. "Victor, this is complete madness. Has he bewitched you? Offered you immorality? He won't follow through on that."

Victor stands. His wristband is flashing a light that indicates a breach in the castle's defenses. "I enjoy being around him. I find him intellectually stimulating and a fascinating companion. He's a challenge. I enjoy it. It's not your business. I believe I have somewhere to be."

He turns and strides from the dining room, ignoring Namor, who calls after him, "This won't end well, Victor! He'll only cause you trouble."

Victor has to admit, when he looks at his monitor and sees what's outside, that Namor may be partially correct.

A blonde woman in a low-cut green outfit is standing in thin air with light emanating from her hands. The light is also green and it's attaching itself to the walls of his castle. Right on cue, the walls tremble.

There's a chance she's an associate of one of his enemies, of course. Morgan le Fay has magic-users on her side. But the ornamentation on her clothing looks Asgardian. Victor considers sending a Doombot, but he'd rather deal with his one personally. He gets outside as quickly as he can.

He's barely out of the door, magic in hand, before he's attacked by a new foe.

The man is bigger than Victor, but slower. Victor just has time to register a massive ax aimed at his head before he dodges and throws a bolt of magic at the attacker. The man is, however temporarily, frozen in place.

Victor straightens his cloak and faces the floating woman.

She laughs. "So this is Loki's mortal lover. Or rather, one of them."

It doesn't sting. Victor checks. Nor should it, as he is not. "You must be Amora."

She smiles, looking pleased from her place in Victor's sky. "Loki's mentioned me? I'm so flattered. He does hate me so, despite the fact that he thinks me useful. After all, I can do so many things he can't." She strikes a pose, hips tilted, chest thrust out.

Victor is angry for Loki without needing to know all the relevant details. "Call off your dog before I deprive him of his head."

"I think not." She aims a finger at the man with the ax and cries, "Skurge, awaken!"

He does, still lumbering and slow, but still armed with the powers of at least, Victor would guess, some sort of demi-god. Victor doesn't want to risk a blow from the ax.

"Do you simply follow her orders, or have you a mind of your own?" he demands, readying another ball of light, this time with a different unpleasant spell in it.

Skurge glares at Victor and lurches for him. "I serve her loyally!" he roars, which confirms Victor's supposition.

Unfortunately for Victor, Skurge is faster than he looks, and the ax catches Victor's leg a glancing blow. Victor stumbles and falls to his knees.

And then Loki is there, as if cut from thin air, standing between Skurge and Victor. He holds out a hand and Skurge is stopped as surely as if by Victor's spell.

"Leave this place," Loki snaps. "This is none of your affair, Enchantress."

"Gladly," Amora says with a flip of her hair. "I only came to see what you were doing, and now I know. Do you really think this pet mortal of yours will last long? He's going to die, and probably not of old age."

There's a storm gathering in the sky, much too rapidly to be natural. Victor notices that Amora's hands are glowing green and he wishes Namor would put in an appearance. He has no doubt that he can defeat this sorceress, but some help getting to his feet would be appreciated.

Before Victor can consider the matter further, Loki has glanced at the sky, glanced at Victor's bloodied leg, and thrown a rapid series of spells at Amora, who screams.

Then then two are shouting and fighting above the ground, furiously casting magic of all colors against the storm-dark sky. Victor feels light-headed. It's probably the blood loss.

"Gods."

Victor turns, wrenching his leg around until he's seated upright on the stones. Namor is standing next to him.

He nods to Victor. "We should get you inside and stitch you up. Doesn't it bother you that you're here bleeding in your courtyard and they're doing that? You're not in the same class."

"I've heard," Victor snaps.

"But you see my point," Namor says, not a question. Victor does not. He's thinking, I need bigger armor.

Above them, the fight has paused and Amora has created what must be a portal.

"Run, then," Loki fumes, as Amora dances further away.

"I see no more shame in running than you do," she shouts back, bringing herself and the portal lower down, inching toward Skurge.

Loki's laugh sounds choked. "You know nothing of the shame Asgard has placed at my feet. You can do anything and get away with it. If you must come chasing after me at home, you could at least have the decency not to lie."

Amora's laugh is cruel. "Home? Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Tell me, does your mortal love you for what Asgard never could? I remember how jealous you used to be of me. I was such a pretty thing. Tell me, does he love your body? Does he love all your bodies?"

"Why should I want to look like you?" Loki spits, his words crowding one another in a rush to wound her. "Why should I want to look like a whore?"

"But you do want it, darling," Amora purrs. "At least half the time." She and Skurge are nearly in the portal's mouth now as it moves around them. "But I need not bother you again," she says. "I simply thought it was high time my Executioner met yours."

Loki bristles far more than Victor imagined he would. Victor, of course, is furious.

"You would compare me to that?" he sneers, dragging himself to his feet. "A near-mindless drone who follows your every command, wrecking artless havoc?"

Amora smiles slowly, the green light now pouring from her hands illuminating her face. The lightning forks the sky above.

"Enjoy him," she says to Loki. "He'll be gone soon." Then she and Skurge are both gone in a swirl of green as the rain starts.

Loki stands perfectly still for a moment, outlined in lightning and darkness in brief succession. Then he turns and strides across the paved courtyard to press himself against Victor's side. Loki seems to have very little concept of personal space.

"We should go inside," Victor says, well aware that they probably aren't going to.

Loki shudders against Victor. "A very impressive storm."

The lightning splits the sky, painting everything briefly white. Almost on top of the lightning, the thunder roars through the sky. Victor has never known a storm like this in Latveria. The climate's all wrong for thunder.

All the light in the sky wrenches sideways, and Victor is nearly afraid. Loki wriggles closer to him as though he doesn't want any part of his body not to be touching Victor's.

"Do all storms remind you of your brother?" Victor asks.

Loki's face goes horribly still in a way that reminds Victor of the day they met. "Oh, you wouldn't believe the things they remind me of." His tone is still light, playful, very much at odds with his face. His knuckles are white, his hand in a fist.

"My apologies," Victor says lightly.

Loki tilts his chin up to the sky and screams. It's not a human sound.

When he's done, Victor's hands are still firmly positioned on the small of his back and his shoulder. "This is your fault," he murmurs. "Heal my leg. As payment." It should be enough to focus Loki and allow Victor to avoid a grievous injury without hurting his pride. He can feel Namor smirking at them.

"Gladly," Loki whispers.

That night, Victor nods off while in his lab, exhausted from the fight and the wound. Later, probably hours later, he half wakes to Loki standing beside him.

"You're going to die," Loki hisses.

Victor wakes the rest of the way. "What have I done now?"

"No," Loki snaps, "I mean, Amora is right. You're mortal, and you lead a dangerous life. One way or another, you're going to die."

You care, Victor realizes. He doesn't say the words, though. That's the difference between the two of them. He touches Loki's cheek with one hand.

"What difference would it make?" he asks.

Loki leans away. "I should never have come calling at your door for aid. Not the first time and not now."

That is answer enough.

"You say I will die," Victor says, "but I have half a dozen plans that end in my immortality." These aren't meaningless words of comfort.

Loki understands. He brightens, his smile faint, the extremely rare genuine one. "Do you? Good. You should share so I can improve them."

Victor laughs and tugs Loki closer. "Unlikely. Doom needs no aid."

Loki buries his face in Victor's chest and makes a sound that's half-laugh, half-sob. It's relief and it's real. Amora is dangerous, then, if she can strip Loki down to true things. Victor wasn't aware that Loki even contained truths.

Victor feels as though he's holding a very rare commodity in his hands. He has some sort of power over Loki, although he doesn't know how much. He's a poor excuse for a scientist and a mage if he doesn't use it.

*

Victor taps his metal-clad fingers against the side of his rented limousine. He's getting stares from the other people in the airport lot, but few men dare look at Doom for too long. And the Avengers can't object to him; he has diplomatic immunity. All he needs know is to know why Loki has demanded to be taken out to dinner. The request is odd, which is the only reason Victor is willing to concede long enough to find out what it really means.

When Loki appears, he's only fifteen minutes late, and he's dressed—Victor doesn't know how to describe it, but it bring the words New and York to mind. If this is Loki's mortal disguise, it's above his haircut's pay-grade.

"Nice scarf," Victor says, opening the limo's door. He doubts Loki took a plane, in which case, this is an absurd meeting-place. He can't figure out Loki's motive.

Loki smiles tightly. "Evening, Victor." He gets into the limo without another word and waits until the car is moving to speak again. "Ask me how my business was."

"Your men's fashion business?" Victor asks.

Loki glares. "Business with the Avengers, if you must know. They were in the Arctic, dealing with some of my . . . kin."

No excuse for the outfit, then. "How did it go?" Victor inquires. He assumes Loki is referring to Frost Giants, but Asgardians have been known to go mad and attack Midgard from time to time. So Victor has gathered.

"Oh," Loki says, waving his hand, "The Avengers banished them back to Jotunheim, but I managed to do a better kind of damage. Do you have any idea how much embarrassing personal information the Avengers are keeping from each other? Or were keeping, I suppose."

"Petty," Victor suggests, dropping his gloved hand to Loki's knee.

"Always," Loki says a little distantly.

After a few tense moments, Victor asks, "Are you hungry?"

Loki relaxes into a smile. "Yes," he says, "very much so."

The restaurant Victor chooses is, of course, good quality, because he always chooses restaurants of good quality. Italian tonight. He catches Loki's nod of approval. Whoever Loki is masquerading as probably eats Italian.

Everything is immensely polite and awkward until their food arrives. Victor is pouring the wine when Loki says, "Do you know what today is?"

Victor nearly spills the wine, because, yes, suddenly he does.

"It's been a year," he says lightly. "Since our first meeting, at least." He knows it was around this time of year, anyhow.

"Yes, the anniversary of many things," Loki says, sitting back and looking pleased.

Attempted suicide and the violent exit from your culture coincide with our anniversary, Victor thinks, and then he realizes he's thought the word anniversary.

"Happy anniversary," he says, because although he'd die if anyone heard him say it, he knows he's equally likely to die if he doesn't placate Loki's ridiculous sense of ritual.

Loki smiles his terrifying, too-bright smile. "Darling! You're too sweet. What did you get me? I'd like a castle."

Victor snorts. "You would, would you? Unlikely." Then he considers and realizes that, yes, that's something he could do. Easily.

Loki leans across the table and takes Victor's wine. After taking a sip, he sets it down too hard. "What are you going to get me?"

Victor smiles. "If you want a castle, you'll have a castle. Give me a year."

Loki nods, placated. "Mine may take a little longer to manifest." He takes his napkin folds it again and again, too quickly for Victor to follow his motions. When he's finished, he hands Victor a little cloth bird.

"What this?" Victor asks.

"A promise."

Victor accepts the bird and the promise and puts them from his mind. He isn't hungry, and he isn't going to take his mask off to eat, so he just watches Loki. Eventually, he says, "What do you want to do tonight?"

"I was hoping you'd take me to bed," Loki says, his eyes bright. "If you can bring yourself to."

This is—part of the game they're playing, but Victor thinks Loki means it. He's known this was coming, but he still hasn't decided how to respond. Victor thinks of Loki's skin against his skin. He still doesn't want Loki, not like that, but he wants him in all the other ways. He wants his body heat, no matter how much of an illusion it is. "I want to hold you while you watch me work," he says.

Loki dabs his mouth with a napkin and gets a bemused little smile on his face. "Victor, do you care for me?"

Victor laughs. "Absurd." This night was all a charade, of course. The dinner, Loki's outfit, the gifts. Playing at being normal. A private joke between two people above such things.

"You do!" Loki says, lighting up wickedly. "That's hilarious!"

"Do you want to get hurt?" Victor snarls.

Loki laughs. "Not tonight, dearest. Oh, I love that I always know what you're thinking."

Victor hides a smile, amused again. "I don't always know what you're thinking. It keeps you interesting. I never know when you're lying. You make collecting data difficult, but eventually I'll have a large enough sample."

"You're pathetic. I love you."

"Case in point."

Loki purses his lips. "Oh, wonderful."

"We'll discuss the matter after dessert," Victor says. He's—oddly pleased. Yes. He identifies the emotion quickly so as to get rid of it quickly.

After dessert, Victor pays, ignoring the look of distress the other patrons throw his mask as they watch the two walk out. He teleports back to Latveria with Loki's arm in his, wondering how far Loki intends to take this date. If Loki wants sex . . . of course Loki wants sex.

So when they arrive, they arrive in the dungeon.

Loki raises his eyebrows. "I haven't missed this place. What are we doing here?"

"My device for extracting your life force is nearly complete," Victor says in partial honesty. It's still missing some vital components.

Betrayal flashes across Loki's face.

"I see," he hisses. "You think you can turn on me, Doom? I could kill you with a word." His hands are clenched in white-knuckled fists.

"Dare I ask?"

Loki's smile is like poison. "Mortal."

That word frightens Loki, but not Victor. When he answers, it's comfort disguised as a retort. "Mortals die," he says softly. "We bleed. We die. But we have no Ragnarok. The fate of our world is never assured."

At the word, Loki's eyes go bright and large.

"Your world," Victor continues, "is full of horrors we need never know. Monsters we will never see. Destruction we will never experience. Not with any certainty."

"Unless I unleash it on you," Loki snaps. He raises his hands and green snakes writhe from his sleeves to bind Victor.

Victor laughs. "You always say it, but you never mean it. I think you're afraid of Ragnarok. Are those stories true? Do you even know? What of Heimdall?"

Loki is pale in the darkness of the dungeon. "He is my death," he says.

"And your lover?"

Loki sneers. "Once. Out of pity. But I don't want to talk about myself. I want to talk about you, my traitorous, powerful friend."

Victor laughs again, because this is so much safer than what Loki wanted when they teleported.

"Don't laugh at me," Loki snarls. "You believe yourself to be powerful? To be godlike in a way no other mortal is? Tell, does the good doctor bleed like any other mortal?" There is suddenly knife in his hand.

"Do it," Victor says. "Do it." Loki won't kill him, he's almost certain. Loki could never kill Thor.

Loki rips the armor off Victor's arm and slashes him with the knife, cutting deep, but not too deep. Victor winces and turns his arm as much as he can with the snakelike ropes still binding him. Blood splashes over the stone floor.

Which begins to glow.

"Oh, damn," Loki says, but that's all he gets out before a ring of brilliant purple magic erupts around Victor, breaking his bonds and twining around him.

"Never attack a magician more powerful than yourself," Victor says smugly. He shoves Loki away from him, up against his least favorite dungeon tapestry.

Loki's shoulders hit the wall with a thump, and he winces. Before he can say anything else, Victor backhands Loki across the face, metal glove tearing Loki's skin.

Loki cries out and brings a hand to his cheek. "Don't. That really hurt."

Something in Victor, probably his damnable honor, makes him pause with his hand raised. If men insult him, he strikes them, but—

"Do you mean it?" he asks.

Loki hides his surprise quickly, but not quickly enough. "Yes." There's a very brief pause. "No."

Victor hits Loki again before he can finish the word. "Good. Now you know better than to antagonize me."

"A sadist minus the sex," Loki muses, panting. "What a rare breed you are."

"I have no need to derive sexual pleasure from hurting you," Victor snaps.

Loki grins, green eyes lit up with unnatural fire. "It's wonderful. You mean that. And you really were going to stop. What are you?"

Victor strikes him again. No one calls Victor Von Doom what. Loki's face receives the full force of Victor's constant, unblunted rage until he sobs out a plea for Victor to stop.

He straightens from a half crouch, panting. "I hate pain," he remarks.

But you like games, Victor thinks. You think you can get me to play the game of hurting you until I have to apologize. You're wrong.

"I'm going to fuck you, if you like," he says dismissively. He can. He has. It may be interesting. Everything about Loki suggests that it will be an educational experience, at least.

Loki smiles. "Are you really? Victor, do you mean it? Oh, you must really be obsessed with me now." He frowns. "Will you take your mask off?" His voice is oddly formal, oddly polite.

Victor considers. He generally doesn't, not in any circumstance, but at least here there's little concern for being vulnerable. Loki is a god. He could crush Victor with or without the armor, if he wanted to. The only concern lies in what Loki will say, then, when he sees Victor's face.

"I'll show you mine if you show me yours," Victor says.

Loki looks surprised, and this time he covers it badly. "Mine?"

"Your true form." Victor crosses his arms, considering all the scornful things Loki can and will say when he removes his mask. This will less the blow, or at least give him a blow to strike in return.

Loki frowns. Then he says, "Metal masks your monstrosity, much as magic does mine."

Loki's verbal dancing won't distract Victor. "Show me."

Loki sighs. "All right, but only because I'm curious about what your 'true form' is."

He changes, his skin becoming cracked with frost. The markings on his face reappear and a deep, brittle blue spreads over his face and hands. His eyes are red. It's how he looked when he first came to Victor, only more.

"There," he says shortly. "One monster for another."

Victor shrugs off the preemptive taunt. "You're impressive this way. You know, it's actually quite beautiful."

"Oh," Loki says in a very small voice, the sound clipped and stunned. As if he genuinely hadn't been expecting anything but disgust. Oh yes, Victor knows this dance.

"Your culture must have some unsettling ideas about Frost Giants," Victor says, feigning ignorance. What he didn't read about, he guessed. He reaches out and touches Loki's cheek, and he can feel the cold radiating off him in waves. But Victor is wearing armor.

"Your turn." Loki sounds choked.

Victor reaches up and tasks his mask off. It feels impossibly heavy in his hands.

Loki looks at him for a long moment, as if he's deciding what to say. Finally, he grins and says, "Oh, you're hideous."

Victor sets his jaw and clenches his fast, feeling every inch of his face, even the parts numb with scars, with horrible intensity.

Loki's grin dissolves and he says more seriously, "I like it, actually. You look interesting. May I kiss you?"

Victor grabs hold of Loki and pulls him into a kiss to hide his own shocked equivalent of Loki's little oh.

This time, when Loki pulls back, his eyes are shining. "What would you like me to be? I can be anything you want."

"I want you," Victor says honestly. He'll learn nothing from a façade.

Loki freezes for just a split second, but then he's back in motion, kissing Victor everywhere, vicious and vulnerable as Victor predicted. He squirms and bites and writhes in his hands, constantly changing his angle of attack. He leaves bite-marks along Victor's jaw, and Victor allows it.

Victor holds Loki roughly, but not roughly enough to upset Loki again. He feels as though he's breaking an ill-mannered horse.

"Tell me what else you want," Loki gasps, when he finally breaks the kiss.

Victor considers. "I want to collar you and chain you to the foot of my throne. I want to keep you as my slave."

"Ohh," Loki says. Then, "You sound as though you mean that." His eyes narrow.

Victor raises his eyebrows at Loki. "I do.>"

"Then it's not sexy," Loki grouses, wriggling in Victor's hands.

Victor laughs and tugs at Loki's hair. "You must be furious that you can't manipulate me with sex."

Loki glares at him, a naked, honest expression of annoyance. "I still find it hard to believe. Can you fuck me? Will you? It's all right if you want to use your hands."

"My body works," Victor snaps. "But no. I won't fuck you. I'd prefer to hold you while you quietly let me get on with my experiments."

"Oh, I hate you," Loki moans.

Yes, Victor thinks, this will work nicely.

*

The next time he sees Loki, they're in New York again. Victor is there for the usual reason—Reed Richards is in danger of possessing important scientific equipment that surpasses Victor's—and Loki is there for a reason more unusual than even Victor would have predicted.

He shows up at Victor's hotel, and he actually knocks. It's past midnight, and Victor isn't wearing his armor. He considers putting it on, but when he looks through the peephole and sees Loki, he doesn't bother. He wonders, briefly, how he got to that point with Loki. It certainly wasn't intentional.

Loki comes inside as soon as Victor opens the door, looking more openly frightened than usual. He's wearing a long, loose robe, different from what he normally wears.

"Victor," he says, his voice clipped and tight.

"Loki," Victor says carefully. "What is it?"

Loki wrings his hands, catches himself, and stops. He's clearly distraught. "I," he says.

Victor waits.

"I need to show you," Loki says. "I can't, otherwise." He raises a hand and darkness spills from it, tinting the air in the dim hotel room. It spreads from Loki's hand until it's everywhere, dimming the scant light until the entire hotel room is dark.

Then the bedside lamp comes on. Loki walks toward Victor across the room, darkness pooling at his feet, his body transformed into that of a dark-haired female. His lips are black and his nails are sharp. He looks like a queen.

"Parlor tricks," Victor says, waving his hand dismissively. A tendril of green smoke wraps itself around his wrist.

Loki's smile falters. "Does nothing impress you?"

As far as Doom has seen, Asgardian magic is all trickery and show. "I'm not Thor," he warns him, remembering the kindness in Thor's face when Loki attacked him with killing force. "I won't try to get it right."

Loki looks him in the eye, proud. The body is like armor. "I've been subjected to mortals' inaccuracies about me for centuries, Victor. You can't hurt me."

Victor remembers Amora and pauses. "Should I call you she?"

Loki blinks, swallows, doesn't speak. Then he says, "I'm pregnant." He bursts into tears.

Victor isn't entirely clear on why he's crying, given that there are about eight hundred possible reasons to choose from, so he goes to him—to her, in case that's why—and holds her. He can feel her belly where it presses against him.

Finally, Victor pulls back and asks carefully, "Is it mine? The myths say you've become pregnant in ways other than the traditional one."

Loki's face contorts with an expression that looks as if it doesn't know whether it wants to be a laugh or a scream.

"No, then," Victor says quickly. Good. "Whose, then?"

Loki sets her jaw. "A mortal. It's complicated. It doesn't matter. It's always someone. It's always something. I ate a heart once and it got me pregnant. No wonder Asgard doesn't want me. Mother of monsters, father of lies, nothing good there at all, except when it's pretending." She looks blank and determined.

Victor preferred the crying. "When I achieve immortality, I'm going to slay your family."

Loki laughs. "I always forget that you're a madman." Her features, at least, are in motion again, so Victor relaxes.

Then she says, "I wish you were Thor."

Victor thinks about that. "Hm."

Loki nestles against Victor's chest. "I didn't mean to say that," she says after a moment.

Victor laughs, sounding upset by accident. "Oh. That's worse." Loki hurting him on purpose is a game. Loki hurting him by accident, hurting with him truths, that's—well, it hurts. It hurts like he's any other mortal with a jealous streak. Knowing he'll always come second to Thor stings, and he promises himself to make certain Loki will always come second to his rivalry with Reed Richards.

"What about Balder?" Victor asks after a moment of Loki's silent, unhappy leaning, thinking of the myths. "Do you wish I were him?"

Loki huffs out a breath. "I don't know. Our relationship is complicated. We're both harbingers of Ragnarok, or so they whisper. They say . . . Heimdall says our deaths are tied up with one another. But Balder's always been so nice to me." She shudders. "Ragnarok. Which I am destined to bring about. I don't know why or how, but I know it will happen."

She buries her face in Victor's chest again.

And your children murder the rest of your family and are killed in turn by them, Victor thinks. Do you know this?

"I'm afraid," Loki says simply after a moment. "Of what I contain"

Those things, Victor thinks, were all true. He's nearly certain.

"Do you want me to do something about the baby?" he asks after another silence.

Loki shakes her head, silent and miserable. Then she says, "Can I stay with you until it comes? It won't be long now. And afterwards, I'll let her mother have her."

Victor nods and strokes Loki's back gingerly, trying to ignore the pointless jealousy. "Of course."

They stay awake all night. Loki sits on Victor's hotel bed, wrapped in blankets. The curtains are still drawn. She's still female.

"Thank you," she says finally.

Victor inclines his head. "Mm."

"If you like," Loki says, "I can try to do something about your face. My magical power is almost certainly sufficient."

Victor is taken off-guard. Somehow he hadn't considered that, not in all his years of knowing Loki and Loki's magical powers. "I'm sure it is," he says carefully.

Loki smiles. "Well? You'd look handsome. Perfection restored. Power unmarred."

Victor finds himself shaking his head before Loki has finished speaking. "No. Leave it. I won't have you interfere."

Loki sighs. "Of course. Your foolish pride won't allow it. As if I didn't already know." She brightens. "I prefer the scars, personally. They give you character."

Victor can't tell if she's joking. But he goes to sit by her till morning as if she'd meant it.

*

Victor conveniently needs runic stones at the same time Loki needs a robot replication of Iron Man's armor, and these two events conveniently coincide with their anniversary. This year, Victor has something less grand than a castle in mind. Loki misused that, anyhow.

After Loki upsets the Avengers sufficiently, the two of them go to dinner on a yacht. Victor isn't sure if it's more or less facetious than their first anniversary dinner. But there is a sunset and there is wine.

"Forgive me for wondering," Victor says when they're halfway through dinner, "but what did you end up doing with that child of yours?"

Loki blinks at him over his wine. "Oh, I'd nearly forgotten. Her name's Tess and I try not to be involved with her life. That's all I know." He waves his hand as if he casts off children every day. He probably does.

"Disturbing," Victor mutters. He can't imagine giving up family so easily, but then again, he's not a god. "Well, I'm glad you dealt with that situation. You're clearly well cut-out for commitment."

"You know," Loki says, "It's somewhat amazing to me that our relationship has lasted this long."

Relationship. Victor examines the word, looking for holes. There are several.

"You've nearly killed me a number of times," he says.

Loki smiles wickedly. "Come now. Nearly gotten you killed. It's not the same thing." His eyes sparkle, green and long-lashed. Victor's stomach flips in a combination of love and fear. Both emotions are deceptive.

"Let me give you something," Victor says. "A token." This is the wrong time, but there will never be a right one.

"I love gifts." Loki leans across the table, expectant and intense. Something is wrong with him, Victor thinks.

Victor takes a little box from his pocket and presents it. No sense being coy about it.

Loki opens the box and his face stills. The tension is, for a second, gone. "A ring," he says. He holds it up to the sunset, and its golden surface shines in the light. The ring is a snake with its tail in its mouth.

"It travels in time," Victor says shortly. "A modified piece of my own time machine. You may find it useful. It only works over brief timespans, because it's small, but—"

"Is this a proposal?" Loki asks. He's looking at the ring strangely. "If so, it's remarkably ill-timed."

"It's just a gift," Victor says irritably, wondering what's keeping Loki's attention elsewhere this time.

Loki says nothing.

"Tell me why you haven't killed me," Victor says abruptly. "You're certainly powerful enough, maddening though I find it. Is it that there you have nothing to gain from it?"

"Precisely," Loki says lightly. He seems distracted. "Or maybe you're useful."

"What I truly mean," Victor says, setting down his wine glass, "is to ask why you have whatever measure of affection you have for me. I ask not out of insecurity, but out of scientific curiosity. Can it be that you've come to love me? Others have, but your reasons are never the reasons of others."

"I don't love," Loki says flatly. "But you have a point. You're nothing. What do you have that the others don't?" Loki sounds thoughtful, as though he believes there may really be something.

Victor considers. The answer, he realizes, might be quite important. He has none of Balder's beauty, and he could never match Thor's raw power. He is not kind or invulnerable or all-knowing.

Finally, Victor says, "I have never asked for your faithfulness, or for your truths. I've never asked you to be a good man, or even a man. I've asked you for resources, powers, armies. I've asked for your presence. But I have not once asked you for something that was beyond your capacity to give. You've never had a chance to fail me without wanting to. That is what I have."

Loki looks at the snake and at Victor. His eyes are horribly bright. Then he says, "Victor, do you care for me?"

Victor sets his jaw. He wonders if, tonight, he can afford honesty. "As it's our anniversary, I'll tell you yes." A compromise.

Loki leans back in his chair, outlined against the rapidly-sinking sun. "If you do, my darling, will you agree to do something for me?"

Victor should have known. He's fiercely pleased. Loki is never boring. "What is it?"

Loki stands, his robes flowing around him, suddenly longer and more archaic-looking. "Just something simple. I've got myself into some trouble, family trouble, and I need you to hold a bowl for me."

Victor frowns. "I'm assuming there's a catch."

The sun is completely gone. Loki is bright and terrible in the darkness, looking out-of-place on the deck of the yacht. "Please," he says, and Victor can see that he's being terrifying because he's afraid.

"I will," Victor says. Damn it. He does care.

Loki's eyes light up. "Oh, yes. I didn't think you would. Meet me at the rocks over there in an hour. It'll be awful."

Before Victor can answer, Loki has disappeared.

Victor spends the next hour pacing the length of the yacht and wondering. Loki is often in trouble, and often with his family, but this sounds more serious. Abrupt, which means Loki was dwelling on it until it came spilling out. He wishes he'd read the myths more recently. He wishes he had an iPhone.

When the hour is up, he commands the captain of the yacht to bring them as close the rocks as possible, which isn't, of course, close enough. When they yacht pulls up, Victor makes the captain go inside. Then he begins stripping off his armor. He thinks he's already agreed to give something up. Giving up his armor and diving into the ice-cold ocean seems a good start.

When he reaches the rock, dripping and shivering, he can see a faint light coming from a little further inland. There's a cave, set deep in the dark rocks across a little strip of sand, and the mouth glows a dim, alarming orange.

"Loki," Victor says in a low voice.

There's no response. He wasn't really expecting one.

He goes into the cave, still trembling from the cold, and sees a horror he should have been prepared for.

Loki is bound in red chains that wrap around his body in a sinuous way chains should not. Victor remembers a myth and looks closely to make sure that they are chains. Above Loki, a serpent hangs suspended from the darkness of the cave ceiling, writhing and—

Loki cries out as venom drips from the snake's fangs onto his face.

On the ground, there is a bowl. Victor picks it up and slowly, deliberately, moves to catch the next drop of venom.

"Who are you?" Loki whispers. He sounds a little delirious with pain.

"Someone who promised you something," Victor says. There has to be a way to improve this situation. He won't stay here. He would suffer for Loki, but he won't give his life to him.

He watches the serpent as the bowl fills slowly. He watches Loki. The venom has left welts on Loki's face, and Victor finds himself comparing them to his own scars.

The venom splashes over Victor's hands, and he winces, but he does not fail.

"Oh," Loki breathes. "Oh, you are perfect."

Then the bowl is full. Victor knows what happens now, but he doesn't want it to. He moves as quickly as he can, sloshing venom from the bowl as he tosses it as far from himself as possible. It seeps into the floor of the cave, scoring the rocks and hissing as it flows.

By the time he moves it back, Loki is sobbing with pain.

Before the bowl is halfway full again, Victor makes a decision.

He throws the bowl to the stones, where it shatters. The venom sloshes and hisses, burning everything in its path. Loki gasps when the next drop of venom hits his face.

Before the serpent's fangs can gather more venom, Victor reaches up and grabs the snake by the back of its head. It rears and twists, trying to bite him, but he holds it fast, wishing he had a rock. No matter. He has his hands. He digs his fingers in as hard as he can, leaning back to avoid the venom flying from the snake's fangs.

Then it falls from the ceiling, shaken free from wherever it was suspended. It's larger than it seemed at first, and it coils around him, making him lose his balance, and with it, his grip. Victor and the snake crash to the ground, the snake's fangs burying themselves in his side.

No armor, he thinks hazily as his fingers fight for purchase on the scales of the serpent. Loki is breathing fast, trying to twist upright and see what's happening.

Victor reaches out, summoning a small amount of magic to bring a stone from the cave's corner to his hand. He succeeds, even as the serpent strikes his side again. Its fangs are very, very long.

It takes Victor nine blows to crush the serpent's head. He counts.

When it finally falls away from him, he's bleeding and too dizzy for it to be natural. The venom has burned great stripes in his skin, and he hates to think what it's doing to his bloodstream. No matter. He gets shakily to his feet and moves to undo Loki's chains. To his surprise, it's not impossible. His hands slip and fumble, though, numb with poison.

"Victor, you idiot," Loki says, weary, scared, fond. As the chains fall away, he gets a better look at Victor's side and takes a sharp breath. "Victor."

Victor shrugs and grips the cave wall for support. "I—" He loses his words as his tongue goes numb.

Loki rushes to his side, the marks on his face already fading. "Let me see." He stoops to Victor's side, cautiously touching the wounds. "I have a spell for this," he says.

Victor tries to say something pithy in response, but he has to lean against the cave wall to avoid falling over. None of his muscles seem to be responding as well as they should be.

"I hope that's enough," Loki mutters. "This is—oh, Victor—" He quiets himself and sends little jets of light from his fingertips into the wound, somewhere between hesitant and panicked.

Victor doesn't remember anything else. The next thing he remembers is waking up on the floor of the cave with his side throbbing and his shirt wet with water that smells of the ocean.

Loki is hovering over him, looking worried. "Victor?"

Victor pulls Loki down to him and buries his face in Loki's hair. "Darling," his whispers, hoping the word is swallowed by the sound of the waves, but not much caring if it isn't.

Loki huffs out a little sound. "You're all right." He pulls back, suddenly skittish for reasons Victor is still too hazy to examine. "Well, then. Well done, us. You've saved me and I've saved you. Let's return to—No, I'll return to the Avengers and see how that's going. You can do what you like."

"Was that your son?" Victor asks, gesturing at the serpent and feeling ridiculous but too giddy to care.

Loki offers a little, tight smile. "No. Probably one of his children, actually. Just a stand-in."

"Like I was?"

Loki's eyes flare and he looks at Victor's torn shirt. "Yes," he hisses. "Oh, you're good at that. You stand in for Thor wonderfully, by the way."

Something is wrong, but Victor doesn't know what, and he's too angry to care. "I came here and risked my life to play your mad little game, to be your myth, and you can't even thank me?"

"I don't thank bugs," Loki says. He's smiling now. He doesn't look happy.

"How dare you?"

"I'm a god," Loki laughs. "I dare. You were useful, but now I'm done with you. I tire of you and your scars."

Victor wishes he didn't have an automatic reaction to that, a reaction of needing his mask, but he does. "You think I can tolerate you any better? You break all that you make, and much of what others do."

This time Loki's smile is wider, his laugh louder. The marks from the venom are completely gone, although the rust-red of the chains still stains his clothes. "You'll never make anything that lasts. Because you're going to die."

Victor sees now, but he can't stop. "At least I don't want to fuck my brother," he snaps.

"Oh," Loki says. The smile goes. Then he says, "You'll never be Reed Richards."

Victor raises his hand to strike Loki.

"Don't!" Loki cries out.

Victor pauses. "Do you mean that?"

"Yes. No."

Before the second word has finished coming out of Loki's mouth, Victor strikes him hard across the side of the face.

Loki glances at Victor with that slightly glazed, focused look. "You're a rare creature, Victor Von Doom."

"I'm not going to die," Victor says.

Loki presses himself against Victor and says nothing, but he's stopped smiling.

*

Victor has a series of unpleasant encounters in the years to come, that look, from the outside, like death. He's going to explain very carefully to Loki that he's all right, but by the time he escapes from Hell, it's too late. Ironically, the thing that frees him is Thor's hammer, falling through the dimensions. It is doing so because Ragarok has come and Asgard has fallen.

Loki spoke very little of Ragnarok, but Victor now knows enough of Thor and his determination to believe that the Asgardians will find a way back. Not all the choices Victor makes in the following months are good ones, though. When he discovers and fails to lift Thor's hammer, he admits to himself that he's a little upset about Loki.

But when Loki returns, it's not quite what Victor expected.

She tries telling him, at first, that she's changed, she's a new woman, she's not going back to her wicked ways. She smiles the whole time she's saying it. It doesn't take very long for Victor to say, "Whose body is that really?"

Thankfully, he's known Loki long enough that the risk he takes is right instead of hurtful, and Loki breaks into a smile.

"Oh, you're clever," she says. "But I do mean it. Parts of it."

"Mm." He lays his hand on her arm, wanting to learn this new, stolen form. "Should I call you she?" he asks. "Assume it to be the same question as when I ask if you truly mind being hit."

She laughs, a little, genuine sound. "Yes. And I swear, this time you can trust me. I'm a new woman."

Victor laughs. "I've never trusted you and likely never will. You're welcome."

Loki presses her new body again his. "You're sweet. By the way, did you get an invitation from Norman Osborn?"

Victor smiles. "I did."

Before the Cabal meets as a group, Victor speaks to Namor to get his impression on the matter. Namor I always skeptical about what surface-dwellers want, but it seems that it fits his purposes as well.

"Who else?" Namor asks. "Who does Osborn consider the elite? Have you any notion?"

"Mm. Loki, at least. I assume you've heard she's alive again."

Namor snorts. "I assumed, when I heard that Asgard had come to Oklahoma. Presumably he had something to do with it."

Victor drums his fingers on the table and considers. "I think not. And even if so, I doubt she truly wishes it there. She's very contrary, especially when it comes to her actual desires."

"What he wants isn't always what he needs, you mean?" Namor asks, rolling his eyes.

"What she wants isn't even what she wants," Victor says impatiently.

Namor pauses and watches Victor with suspicion. "You keep saying 'she.' Did Loki have a sex change?"

"Close enough, for your feeble mind," Victor says, but under his breath.

The Cabal, at first, functions as just what Victor wants it to. Osborn is self-important and brimming with ill-contained madness. Emma Frost would look attractive next to Loki if he decided to chain them both up at the foot of his throne. The Hood isn't in the same league as anyone else there. Namor is, as ever, pleasant to have around until Victor is done with him.

Loki's plan seems to be functioning as well. Her exile of Thor works magnificently, and her manipulation of Balder is flawless.

But the downside to all of this, the part that doesn't function, presents itself all too quickly. The downside is Balder.

Loki comes to Victor at night, always late, and always restless. One night, she won't sit with him. She just sits in the window, looking restless. Magic flickers across her fingers.

"Loki," Victor says. His mask is off, although she is not in her true form.

Loki sighs and turns to him. "I found Thor's breaking point, or at least I must have. And now I've found Balder's. I didn't think I could do that. Do you want to see?"

Victor does not. He nods.

She undoes her shirt to the waist, casually immodest. There are huge, dark bruises ringing her hips. There are scratches across her stomach.

Victor bites back a sound. "He did that?"

Loki's smile is too wide. "Actually, I think the scratches were Norman."

This time, Victor can't bite back a sound. It's a snarl. "I am going to kill that man." No idle threat, and actually part of his plan, but still.

Loki smiles wider. "Oh, yes. I'm quite a precious commodity these days. Now that I'm a woman, and lovely."

Victor can't detect any bitterness in her voice. It's worrying.

"Shall I tell you what Balder did?" she says breathlessly. "He hates me now. So very much. All my plans go so well. And now he enjoys hurting me, although it disgusts him." She's talking too fast, her words clipped. "He made me ride his cock with my hands tied behind my back until he came inside me. Then he turned me over and fingered my ass until I begged him to stop. He left me unsatisfied. And Norman only fucks me with his hand over my mouth, because I say upsetting things. So you see, it's all my fault. Yes, Norman. Most of the Cabal, actually."

Victor feels as though he can't breathe.

Loki slides against him, slipping her shirt off the rest of the way. "Do you like hearing what they do to me?"

Victor tugs her close, removing all sexual intent. "You're not making me aroused; you're making me angry."

Her mouth becomes a thin line. "Could I do something so bad that you wouldn't ever forgive me, Victor?"

Victor considers. "There are a lot of things you could do to hurt or anger me, and I suspect you've been trying them all over the years. You could insult my face. Insult my mother. Insult my intellect, then compare it to Reed Richards'. Attack me. Fail to back me up. Destroy my creations. But none of those would drive me away forever. It's not forgiveness; it's invulnerability."

Loki says nothing, but she won't look straight at Victor, so he knows he's done well.

"Of course, all one needs to do to earn your hatred is adopt you and neglect to mention it," he says.

To her credit, and perhaps only due to the passage of time, she doesn't freeze. "Oh, Victor." She reaches up and runs her hand through his hair idly for a few minutes before speaking again. Of course, she has to try to wound him. "Tell me, how does it feel to belong to a god?"

"You'd know better than I," he says automatically. Doom belongs to no one.

She pulls back a little and purses her lips at him. "You refer to Balder? He only thinks he owns me."

Victor snorts. "I refer to myself."

She chuckles and tucks her head under his chin. "Let's kill Norman and bring Balder to Latveria."

The former isn't successful, but they do try. The latter couldn't please Victor more. He's glad to have the Asgardians—and especially their king—under his watch.

Loki comes to Victor's room later and later at night, despite the fact that they live in the same castle now. He knows she's busy, but it bothers him. Then, one night Loki shows up male again.

Victor asks about his plans and manages to find out that the body was Sif's. He could have guessed that. It's what Loki would do. Stealing the body of one of Thor's lovers to get his attention.

"You know," Victor says, "I'm afraid you've conditioned me to find Sif attractive." He rests his hand on the small of Loki's back as they sit in one of the chilly window-seats.

Loki glares, looking wounded. "Be quiet, or I'll kill you, my love."

Victor laughs. "I don't even find women attractive, let alone Thor's women. Unless that includes you, in which case . . ."

Loki snorts. "Shush. I'm not that pathetic. And I'm not . . . I'm pleased to be back in my proper form. It was time."

It's lucky for you it didn't work, Victor thinks. Because you haven't actually found Thor's breaking point.

"Still," Loki continues, "now people will cease to trust me again. Asgardians are simple. Becoming Sif functioned as it was meant to, and now this will undo all of that. It's frustrating, as a shapeshifter, being controlled by my appearance. For one thing, everyone always assumes I'm an Asgardian."

Victor shrugs. "People always assume I'm white."

Loki pauses for a second and then bursts into surprised laughter. "I feel terrible. I'd forgotten. You probably never forget that I'm a Frost Giant."

"It's difficult," Victor agrees. "I don't know how Asgard manages to forget." He files away the reminder that Loki no longer wants them to.

Most of the Asgardians' stay in Latervia is taken up with Victor and Loki's experiments. Or rather, with Victor's experiments, as Loki is often too busy to participate. Underneath it all is the silent reminder that if this works, Victor could achieve immortality.

One night, Loki comes to Victor as he's studying a book of anatomy in an attempt to draw out the tiny differences in human and Asgardian. He wonders how different Frost Giants are, but he doubts Loki will get him one.

"Victor," Loki says. He drapes himself over Victor from behind. "Victor, pleasure me."

Victor turns and levels a glare at him. "I'm reading."

Loki waves a hand and his clothes disappear. "But I'm asking so nicely. It's been a long day."

There are bruises on his neck that Victor is certain came from fingers, not a mouth. There are also bruises on his thighs and red marks across his stomach.

Victor clenches his first tightly. "Tell me, which of your other lovers left these marks? If it was Balder, I may kill him."

"Oh, I've been everywhere this evening," Loki says casually, coming around to sit on Victor's lap. "I think Norman is becoming a problem. It's almost time to end this."

Loki has not and will not tell Victor how he plans to end it.

"But never mind that," Loki says. "I have an idea. It's very romantic."

Victor waits.

"I think," Loki says, "we should get each other's names tattooed on ourselves." He smiles.

Victor is quite certain Loki is actually losing his mind under the stress, because he doesn't look like he's lying. "What?"

"Yes," Loki says. His clothes come back up around him with a wave of his hand. "As a sign of our love. An eternal reminder of what we are to one another. And I suppose it will be eternal, once your plan works."

Victor is infuriated that he can't tell whether or not Loki is serious. "I won't defile my body to suit your whims."

"Oh," Loki says, his eyes lighting up, "but just think, Victor. You could have something terribly classy. A little rune for my name. No one would even know."

Victor is disgusted to find that he's rather charmed by the idea. Loki has been in his life too long. "And what would you get?"

Loki's smile has reached a somewhat manic size. "There's no rune for Doom, of course. But I could get Ragnarok tattooed on myself. Doom."

Victor sucks in a breath. It's so elegant that he can't say no. "Very well. But we're not going out somewhere. We'd have to leave the country. You'll do it."

"Of course," Loki says.

That's one of the last nice things that happens before all of Victor's plans are dismantled. Loki flees, as he always does, and their alliance is temporarily dismantled as well. No matter. Victor will wait until Loki returns.

But he doesn't. He dies with Asgard. He never told Victor, never warned him, did not leave anything behind.

The first night, Victor cries. The last time he remembers crying is when he scarred his face.

He remembers losing his mother. That's this only pain this is comparable to.

So he does a series of stupid things. He makes several failed clones from the sample he took from Loki. They just make him feel insane. He tries several spells and several avenues to bring Loki back. He nearly dies for his trouble.

Eventually, he stops trying.

*

Eventually, word reaches him that Thor has tried harder. It shouldn't be a shock, after all this time, that Thor has gotten there first and done it better, but it turns out not to matter. Loki is alive.

Loki is a child.

First, no one tells Victor that Loki is alive. When he does find out, he's furious that no one told him, and then irrationally upset that no one had reason to think to. Eventually, he swallows his pride—look what Loki has brought him to—and seeks Loki out.

The boy is in a world between worlds when Victor's spell finds him, not in Asgard as Victor had feared. Good, then. Perhaps they can speak after all. Summing someone from a hell realm is something he's had to become very good at recently.

Loki appears in a swirling blue circle of magic in the center of Victor's floor, looking round and dazzled and missing all of the broken parts Victor saw in him when they first met. Truly a new Loki, then.

Then Victor sees the magpie.

"Oh," he says, because maybe. Maybe.

The boy smiles impishly. "Doom?" he says.

Victor smiles behind the mask, but he realizes he doesn't need the mask on. He's not intimidated by a child. "You call me Victor," he reminds Loki, removing the mask as he says it.

The boy doesn't flinch; he just nods as though he's adding it to his files. "I forgot. But I do remember you. And so does Ikol. Don't you, Ikol?"

Victor fights down a giddy laugh. "Ikol. Not your most subtle joke."

The bird caws, and the sound turns into a laugh. "Says the man who calls himself Doom."

Victor is across the summoning circle and looking for a way to get his hands on the bird before he can think. He winds up with his hand pressed to its back and the other buried in the feathers of its chest.

"It's my name," he says viciously. He wants to hold Loki, but he can't hold a bird and a child. He settles for stroking the soft feathers roughly.

Eventually, Ikol says, "I did promise you a bird."

Victor can't remember what Loki's talking about, but then he does, and then he's furious. "That was years ago!"

The bird sighs. "I had a lot of things to do. Did this hurt you, Victor? Did my death make you cry?"

"If you killed yourself only to finally find a way of hurting me . . ." Victor says viciously.

"No," Ikol says quickly, "but it was a rather pleasant side-effect."

Loki is watching him, head tilted to one side. He gives Doom a brave, challenging little smile. "If you like," he says, "I can change you into a beautiful ironclad swan so you can be with Ikol. Would you like that?"

Victor glares at him furiously. "What do you think?"

Loki looks at Victor impassively. And he asks, "Do you care for me?"

"I," Victor says. He suddenly has nothing else to say.

"It's interesting," Loki continues earnestly, looking up at him. "I don't really know why. I don't think I ever knew. But I know that you do, now. And I care for you."

"You never said so," Victor says lightly. "Never once, in all those years. And then you died without warning me, and you must have had a plan, or you wouldn't have done it, so don't even tell me you didn't see it coming. You could have—have left a note. Something."

Ikol answers for Loki, sounding irritated. "I was very put-upon at the time. I couldn't consider everyone's needs."

"I built you a castle," Victor snarls, wishing he could wring the bird's neck. "I gave you a time-traveling ring. I got your name tattooed on me. And you were put-upon?

Loki's eyes get very round and then very narrow. He's so silent that Victor can hear the wind outside the castle. Then Ikol caws.

"I think," Loki starts. Then he glances at Ikol. "I think, Ikol, that we suddenly have a few more tools at our disposal than we did before."

"Yes, but," Ikol says, clearly having half of a conversation no one else is privy to the details of, "that won't be enough. He's much—and anyhow, I doubt you can stop it. But of course, with the control the tattoo would give us . . ." He turns and fixes one dark eye on Victor. "Maybe."

"Maybe," Loki echoes. He turns to Victor. "Do you want to help us fight fear?"

Victor likes very little of what Loki has just said, least of all tattoo and control, but he's nevertheless intrigued by whatever plan Loki has half-formed, whatever battle is coming. He missed the last one. He won't miss this one.

He crosses his arms and looks at the bird and the boy, thinking of how he'll put them back together into something useful. "I'm curious, naturally. What kind of scientist would I be if I said no?"

"Good," Ikol says, "because the horrors of Asgard are going to be visited upon Midgard, and not by me."

Victor smiles. "I have seen enough horror in my life that I'm not impressed. I have walked the road through Hell itself. I have loved monsters and had my monstrosity loved in return. I am not afraid."

"Victor," Loki says, "I love you."