Someone hovered over him in the darkness.
Barely rising from indistinct dreams, Tony didn’t stir as the bed dipped under the weight of another.
"Wake up, Stark," a silky voice murmured. "I have need of you."
Even half-asleep, Tony registered the voice as familiar. He wasn’t sure it belonged in his bedroom, though. There was an edge to it, a whisper of a threat that made him think of suiting up. Still, it was late, his bed was warm and thinking was too much effort. Letting it go, he began to drift back off to sleep.
"Stark." A cool hand closed on his shoulder, squeezing firmly. "You have five seconds before I—"
"Just—tell me about it in the morning," Tony muttered, shifting to hook his leg around theirs and pull them in close. A heavy weight toppled into his arms with an oath of surprise. "Sleep now."
God save him from chatty one night stands. Pushing his face down into the warm crook of a neck, Tony sighed and slid his fingers over the lean curve of their waist. Breathing deeply, he caught the faint scent of soap and the earthy richness of leather.
That didn’t seem right.
And hadn’t he gone to bed alone?
Pushing himself up on his elbows, Tony blinked until the person he was in bed with swam into focus.
"Why, sleeping with the enemy," Loki said archly. "How scandalous. What will the Avengers think?" He was sprawled elegantly amongst the blankets. Tony's blankets. His face had been—
To his credit, Tony managed to remain calm. Mostly calm.
"Did you come here to kill me?"
Loki sat up in one movement, running a hand through his hair. His eyes were very green and very amused. It was the same way a cat looked at the mouse in its paws; dinner and a game, all in one.
"Not today. I came here to give you a message." He made it sound like he was bestowing a gift. Like hell. Tony made a face.
"And what, you couldn't just email me?"
Loki frowned faintly. "I prefer a more personal touch."
"Well, mission accomplished," Tony replied, not even trying to keep the irritation out of his voice. "Because that was a pretty personal touch just then. Can you get the hell out of my bed?"
A thought occurred to him then and he quickly checked the blankets for any horse heads, snakes, corpses and so on. Loki's idea of a message could mean anything; the guy was completely nuts. But he was also Thor's younger brother, a sorcerer and a tricky bastard to boot. There were all kinds of reasons not to tangle with Loki. Plus with no suit and nothing but a pair of sweatpants for protection, Tony was kind of at a disadvantage.
God, he needed a drink.
He felt Loki's eyes on him as he walked out into the hall, automatically heading for the living room but mainly just needing to stop seeing Loki sitting in his bed. Tony Stark prided himself on being able to rapidly adapt to high-stress situations, but that one was right outside his comfort zone.
"JARVIS. What's the time?"
"Three fifty-eight in the morning, Sir. I trust that you are aware that your guest is on SHIELD's top ten most wanted list?"
"Stating the obvious, JARVIS."
"Oh? Where do I rank?" Loki asked from behind him, finally out of his bed. He seemed to be posing his question to the ceiling, which improved Tony's mood slightly.
"Yes, Sir. Loki Laufeyson is currently ranked as SHIELD's third most wanted super-powered criminal."
"I see." Loki's expression pinched with annoyance, his mouth thinning into a foreboding line.
"Villain not as super as it used to be?" Tony inquired mildly. "There's pills for that."
That earned him a dirty look, but surprisingly Loki didn't bother making a death threat. It made him wonder exactly what the hell was going on. He didn’t seem to be there for a fight, which didn’t exactly sit well with Tony. The last few years had been nothing but plots and battles where Loki was concerned. But a night visit? That was a new one.
"So exactly what is this message?" he asked as he reached the living room, making a beeline for the couch. That his tablet was located under the cushion there was just a happy coincidence. Maybe he'd have time to contact the others if this little visit went south. Barring that, it might make a decent head-bashing object.
Declining to answer right away Loki studied the room with veiled interest, noting the high ceiling and wide-spanning windows before casting an eye over the décor. His lips twitched oddly, but he made no comment.
To Tony, Loki looked like an antique or something out of a movie. Maybe it was all the black and green leather, or the hints of gold glinting at his throat and wrists. At least he'd showed up without the helmet on. Asgardian fashion was flashy, but those horns had given him nightmares about goats for a whole week after he first appeared.
Loki didn't take a seat, instead moving toward the darkened windows. Dawn wasn't for a few hours yet, but he seemed to find something out there worth looking at.
"You didn't hear this from me, Stark. Let me make that perfectly clear to you."
Loki didn't speak with any particular inflection or threat present in his voice. Then again, Tony thought, he didn't really need to when he was standing in his living room and had probably been watching him sleep. That was more than a little creepy.
"The Avengers are attending a fundraising function tonight, yes? Thor will be there. A woman will approach him." His expression tightened and grew cold. "She is fair-haired, with green eyes. She favours the same colour in clothing. You know her as Amora the Enchantress. Do not let her near him, his food or his drink. I'd suggest you keep him from attending at all, but I know my—I know Thor. So I'm telling you."
Tony stared at Loki for a long moment.
"You're doing your brother a favour?" he said incredulously. "Look, sorry if I don't believe you—"
"It is of no consequence whether you believe me or not," Loki replied sharply. "You will do this. Fail, and I will pull that glowing device out of your chest and feed it to you. Do you understand?"
Tony knew if he told Loki exactly where he could jam his little message he'd probably make good on his threat. So refusing wasn't an option. Still, taking orders from one of the out-and-out bad guys like some kind of obedient lackey? Hell no.
"If I do this, what are you going to give me in return?"
Loki blinked, just once. "Why, the gift of your continued existence, of course."
"Yeah, sorry but that's not—" But of course he had vanished. Not even a puff of smoke or a villainous cackle left in his wake. Just gone. Tony scowled.
"I hate magic."
Reaching for his tablet, he composed a quick email to Pepper.
Anonymous tip received for tonight's charity benefit…
It didn't take much elaboration to get his point across. Pepper would make the arrangements. Sending the email, he put the tablet down and sat back, scrubbing a hand over his face.
Beware blondes in green.
Well if nothing else, he mused, attending the benefit just became a little more appealing.
Sixteen hours, one Iron Man suit and an axe-wielding maniac later, Tony decided he was going to murder Loki and make it look like an accident.
One of the downsides of keeping the Iron Man technology tightly under wraps was that when his suit was damaged beyond repair, it was up to Tony himself to make a new one.
On one hand, he could install a few new upgrades he'd been thinking about.
On the other, screw Loki.
He could use the other suits in the meantime, but the heart of the matter was that his favourite suit had been totalled by a guy with an axe. A goddamn axe. It was more than insulting. At least Clint and Steve had the crap kicked out of them too, which shouldn't have comforted him as much as it did. They were both back at Avengers HQ, somewhere Tony knew he should probably be. He'd been practically living there in the first few months, but with the team set up and communication devices in full working order, keeping close just wasn't as imperative as it used to be.
So when he could, he did his repairs at home in his workshop. It was dim and cool there, surrounding him with the familiar smell of motor oil, heavy wiring and car leather. Sometimes he just went there to think.
Other times, he went there to escape. Tony would be the first to admit that going from being a lone wolf to a part of the noisiest, most colourful group of skilled powerhouses, assassins and scientists had been difficult. Not that he'd trade in being an Avenger for anything; he loved his work and they were a damn good team. Better than he'd ever thought they'd become, if he was honest.
He was methodically sorting through the salvaged parts of his destroyed suit, minding his sore ribs as he bent over the two piles when the hair on the back of his neck stood up. Adrenaline flooded his veins and he swung around hard, a fistful of components jutting between his fingers like a crude set of brass knuckles.
"And you have the gall to come back here—holy shit."
Loki tried for his usual untouchable disdain, but it was ruined by the blood painting a red curtain down one half of his face. The other side was bone white, and his eyes were glassy. One shoulder slumped down at an unnatural angle, obviously dislocated.
"Be a dear and pop this in for me, would you?"
Tony stared. "You look like hammered shit." He dropped his handful of parts on the worktable with a clatter and approached Loki cautiously, still half-wondering if this was some kind of elaborate trap. But the more he studied Loki the more he doubted it; his expression was tense with barely-suppressed pain and he looked like he was about to drop at any second. The arrogant asshole Tony knew and fought semi-regularly beside Thor would never stoop this low.
"Thank you for your pertinent observation, crude though it may be," Loki managed to grate in reply, head lowering. Blood dripped off his chin, bright droplets hitting the smooth concrete. "Really Stark, loathe as I am to admit it, I require assistance."
Tony didn't doubt it. "I don't really—why did you—no okay, you're right, that can wait." He shook himself off. "Tell me what to do."
Loki told him.
Getting him out of all his leather to properly get to his shoulder was the trickiest part. With armour plating and unfamiliar fastenings to contend with Tony quickly gave up and reached for his hand-held laser cutter, ignoring Loki's protests. As if he didn't have an entire wardrobe of the exact same outfit somewhere. He leaned Loki against the worktable and got to work, wondering just what the hell he thought he was doing. So much for his plan for vengeance. Then again, it was never a bad thing to have a sorcerer in your debt.
Tony swore when he finally lifted the armour free, revealing the unnatural bulge of bone under skin, badly displaced. Loki glanced at it and arched an eyebrow at Tony's pinched expression.
"Please do me the courtesy of fainting after the shoulder is back in," Loki said dryly.
"Please do me the courtesy of shutting the hell up," Tony replied, taking Loki's wrist in hand and bending it upward, starting the process of putting his shoulder back in.
It took longer than he'd expected, and it wasn't pretty. To his credit though, Loki stayed silent the entire time, but sweat dotted his brow and his jaw was clenched hard enough to almost break a tooth. Two cycles of rotating the arm later, Tony heard a nauseating pop as the joint realigned and Loki released a long breath of painful relief.
"That was unpleasant," he murmured, and Tony snorted in reply. Loki straightened up from the worktable and gingerly prodded the newly-relocated shoulder, only to start listing dangerously to one side. He quickly caught himself, blinking in confusion.
"Head injury, remember?" Tony supplied helpfully. "A pretty bad one by my guess."
"It's a small cut, nothing more."
"Really? Because you just teleported to an Avenger's house looking for help."
Loki's mouth compressed into a pale line. "If you'd simply dealt with Skurge and Amora like I told you I wouldn't have been in this situation, would I?"
"That blonde bitch and her axe-wielding bodyguard?" Tony asked, taken aback. "That's who did you in?"
"Did me—you should know that I came out the victor in that little scuffle." The green glow of magic surrounded Loki's hand, and he touched his fingers to the top of his head. So he could heal wounds but he couldn't fix a dislocated bone without help. Interesting.
"For the record, you told me to keep a woman away from Thor, not take out a homicidal boulder with legs while she runs for the hills. I did my part."
Loki gave him an odd look. "I suppose you did."
An awkward silence fell as Tony waited for him to do his disappearing act. But nothing happened. Loki just stood there casually wiping blood off his face.
The guy was kind of a mess. Stripped to the waist, his pale skin was streaked with blood from face to neck, his shoulder swollen. Below that, well. Tony wasn't enough of a paragon that he didn't let his eyes wander a little. Thor's little brother was no slouch in the looks department, though he'd never really had a chance to stop and look before. It was usually all death threats and freaky magical hijinks.
Now that there were no death threats and it seemed implied that Loki's visits were off the record, Tony decided he didn't mind the view.
"Aren't you going to leave?" he asked eventually. "Or should I put out the good silver?"
Loki made a moue of distaste. "Your attempts at wit do you no favours, Stark." But his expression shifted. "I am grateful for your assistance." The word sounded rusty on his tongue.
Tony shrugged. "If you were really grateful you'd give me the schematics for Doctor Doom's latest Doombot upgrade, but hey. You're welcome. Just don't get me killed next time you go against us and we'll call it even."
Loki's mouth curved wickedly. "Best to not make promises I can't keep. Farewell."
This time there was a wash of green energy when he vanished, a ragged tear of dimensional fire swallowing him up.
Tony threw a wrench at it.
Three weeks later Loki opened a box of ice with a big fancy name and turned as blue as a smurf.
The Avengers battled to get it closed before New York went through a localised ice age, and eventually succeeded. Loki was brought down with a bolt of lightning so fierce that SHIELD was able to genuinely apprehend him for the first time ever.
That was when Thor was called back to Asgard.
For a guy who had just taken down a major player in the magical global terrorism game, Nick Fury looked mighty pissed.
"He won't talk," Fury said flatly. "With the drugs we're pumping him to suppress his magic, we can't even beat it out of him or he'll haemorrhage all over the floor."
Tony stared into his scotch disinterestedly. "Isn't that what you wanted?"
"What I want, Stark, is intel. Loki’s a shrewd bastard, and he knows more about the other so-called 'supervillains' than SHIELD could hope to learn in a lifetime." Fury looked grim. "We need what's in his head, not his corpse. What we don't need is Thor coming back from Asgard as our enemy if he finds out Loki died in custody."
Steve leaned forward over the table, reaching for one of Loki's dossiers. With his mask pushed back, Tony could see how tired he looked. Steve Rogers, feeling the strain. That was a new one. But they were short on people and it had been a tough few days.
Banner had taken off to guest speak as a gamma radiation expert at some conference in Prague – citing something about strengthening ties with foreign nations, education and learning and so forth. Tony just hoped no-one pissed him off while he was there. Widow had gone with him, thank god, but that only left Hawkeye, Cap and himself manning the Avengers fort for a few days.
"I don't know why you thought we could make him talk," Steve said reprovingly. "We have nothing he wants. His only goal has been to make trouble for Thor, and Thor's not even here. And we can't give Loki his brother, or the hammer, or Odin's crown or whatever it is he wants. We're beating our heads on a brick wall with this guy." He sighed. "If we can't cut him loose…"
Tony's eyes narrowed. "I didn't think the Avengers were about cold-blooded execution, Steve."
Steve's head jerked around and he opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. What could he say? Their hands were tied.
Fury's single eye was cold. "What do you propose we do, Stark? Make him pinky swear to be good? This guy is chaos incarnate. I don't want to risk interstellar war by killing him, but the only other alternative is we keep him here, flooded with drugs and restrained in a padded room for the rest of his life. And I think we both know how long his kind live."
Tony found himself clenching his jaw harder than he meant to, and took a quick gulp of scotch to cover it. It burned the whole way down. Shit.
The glass hit the table with a clunk and he stood, grabbing a dossier from the table and tucking it into his suit jacket.
"Well if we're out of options, I'll talk to him."
Steve stared at him in disbelief, but Fury shrugged.
"Just don't get your fool ass killed," he advised Tony. "He seems doped to the gills, but he's screwed us over before." Resigned as he was, Fury looked like he was open to suggestions. Had to be, Tony thought, if he was going to let him in a cell with Loki Laufeyson, SHIELD's third most dangerous super-powered criminal. What did they even base that on, anyway?
Tony was already heading for the door when Steve piped up.
"Want me to go with you?"
"Nah. If he is putting on an act, with my track record of pissing people off I'll need someone to write me a great eulogy."
Steve actually started to get up from the table. "You know, I think I might come anyway."
Tony rolled his eyes. "I'm kidding, lighten up. You're starting to turn into Rhodey. I'll be back in half an hour, tops."
He was off and down the hall before Steve could do his crumply-eyebrow worried thing, leaving him and Fury to keep brainstorming on ideas of what to do with their captive. Everyone knew SHIELD wasn't equipped to house someone of Loki's calibre; drugging him with whatever experimental chemical they'd designed was really just their attempt to cup their hands around a live grenade. When Loki escaped –and he would escape– he'd take half of the SHIELD base down before he was done.
But they couldn't kill him, either. Thor had a lot of issues with his brother, and he sure didn't like all the attempts Loki made on his life but even Tony Stark, only child and selfish asshole could see that Thor would crack the world in half if he came back to find a corpse instead of a brother. Asgard might even sanction it, who knew. Odin still considered Loki his son, by all accounts.
Strange as it might seem, having Loki captured was more of a problem than letting him run amok. Fury probably missed the days of cars blowing up and snow in summer.
It was a long walk down to the interrogation cell, with a lot of security checkpoints along the way. Most of the SHIELD agents recognised him on sight and let him through, though not without a few wondering looks. No Kevlar, no weapon, no…Steve, they probably thought. One did not simply walk in to visit Loki, he thought wryly.
Agent Coulson was walking out just as Tony arrived at the door. The guy had one hell of a poker face on, but he was smiling a little, which Tony was pretty sure was a really bad sign. Coulson's faint smiles usually preceded horrible threats toward his person.
"Did you get anything?"
"Not yet. But I can be patient. No word from Asgard?" Tony shook his head.
"Nothing yet. I guess Odin's not really the kind to toss a coin on his son's life."
"We've had him two weeks. Odin needs to work faster," Coulson said, straightening the cuff of one sleeve. He nodded at the door. "Are you going in?"
"Figured I'd try my luck. Maybe I can piss him off enough to spill something."
Coulson nodded. "If anyone can do it, it's you."
Tony raised his eyebrows. "I see what you did there, Coulson. Don't think I didn't."
"Have a good afternoon, Mr Stark." He turned and headed down the way Tony had come.
"Have fun polishing your taser!" Tony called down the hall after him, grinning. The checkpoint door slammed before he could hear any comeback. Winding that guy up was too much fun. Likely to get him killed one day, but fun.
The two agents by the door to Loki's cell were armed and looking decidedly unhappy to be there. Then again, should anything go south they would probably be the first to die. They were the red-shirts of SHIELD, poor bastards.
"Feel free to lock the door behind me," Tony said as they buzzed him in.
"We had orders to do it anyway, Sir," the one on the left said flatly. "Also, if upon your exit you appear mentally or physically compromised in any way, shape or form we are authorised to use deadly force on you, by order of Director Fury."
Well, it figured. "You know what you guys need? Faith," Tony told them. "Faith and a valium or two. Seriously guys, I'm worried about your blood pressure. Embrace death like an old friend, and all that."
They both paled. Tony was still chuckling to himself as he walked into the cell and shut the door behind him. His visits to SHIELD headquarters were usually boring. He had to make the most of these moments.
"Welcome to my humble abode," said a thin voice. "I'd offer you tea, but I'm a little tied up."
If Loki had looked like shit the last time Tony saw him, he had to be at death's door now. Strapped to an examination table tilted upright, he was bound eight times with thick titanium-woven Kevlar straps. He was bound at ankle, calf, thigh, waist, wrist, upper arm, neck, and forehead. There was a drip hung on either side of him, intravenously administering a steady dose of a black liquid that had to be the drug dampening his magic. Fat needles were jammed into the veins at the crook of each elbow, with faint spider-webs of black tracery fanning out from the puncture wounds.
Loki himself was the sickly shade of clotted cream, his eyes fully dilated and appearing as black as the drug that flooded his body. Curving around from his back was a large snaking burn that looked like thin, twisted vines; a parting gift from Thor's bolt of lightning. They'd completely stripped him but for a pair of papery hospital pants, the kind they made you wear pre-op.
Behind his carefully measured expression, Tony was appalled. He didn't know what he'd expected, but it hadn't been this. If Thor could see him now…
"Well this is a whole new spin on the naughty corner," Tony murmured, walking up to the table. "I've seen roadkill in a better state than you. But on the upside, your shoulder looks great."
Loki's eyes rolled slowly until they were able to fix on him. Impossibly, he managed something approaching a smirk.
"Yes, well," he rasped. "Lucky for me, their little concoction makes me bleed like a stuck pig if I'm injured. I'd bruise off a fingerprint right now."
"Really?" Tony prodded Loki's bare chest. Sure enough, a fist-sized bruise instantly blossomed under his touch, pulpy and black with blood. "Uh. Whoops."
Loki hissed in a breath, but didn't bother yelling. Tony was surprised to find he actually felt kind of bad.
"Are you here to make me talk, too? They all want me to talk."
Tony shook his head. "No, no, you actually have this really posh, kind of irritating voice, you know?" He pulled out the file in his jacket and flipped it open. "I like the sound of my voice much better."
"Of course you do." Loki's eyes slid heavenward, then closed. "What do you have there?"
"Your file. It's smaller than I thought it would be." Loki's eyes opened a slit and glared at him. Heh. That joke was never going to get old. "So why'd you turn blue when you opened that magic ice box?"
"It's not in the file?"
"And you didn't ask Thor."
Tony snorted. "We've all decided it's in our best interests not to ask Thor anything about you. He gets a bit testy."
"Of course. He feels shame," Loki said distantly. Tony frowned.
"Thor isn't ashamed of you. He wants his brother back and he can't have him. Why? Because you verbally disowned him and keep trying to kill him. That's enough to put a strain on any guy. We've all got certain things we keep to ourselves." Wasn't that the truth. For Tony, it was his dad, or Obadiah. For Steve, it was Bucky. And Thor had Loki. Poor bastard. Tony could pity him sometimes.
"Perhaps my changing skin colour is something I wish to keep to myself." Loki was watching him intently now, gauging his reaction carefully. "Perhaps it is none of your business."
"Perhaps you're too chicken-shit to talk about it," Tony challenged. Then he shrugged. "But hey, whatever. It's not like telling me would get you free or anything. To be honest I don't think there's anything you could say that would make SHIELD cut you loose."
He could almost hear Fury's teeth grinding from the surveillance room after he said that. But Loki was too smart to cajole into fessing up. Hard truth was hard truth; SHIELD would never let him go. Not unless it was to Asgard, for execution. They just couldn't take the chance.
Loki didn't reply to that, instead running his eyes over Tony, head to foot, foot to head. They eventually dropped to his chest and lingered.
"I could tell you about the Casket of Ancient Winters, however. If you tell me about your—"
"Piercing?" Tony cut in with a smile. "Sure, I can tell you about that." But while his voice was easy-going, his eyes were lasers as they bore into Loki's. Don't mention the arc reactor, they said. "But not today. Today, I want to read you the fragmented story of Loki Laufeyson, so-called God of Mischief and SHIELD's third ranked most dangerous super-powered criminal."
Loki paused, the edge of his eyebrow lifting questioningly. "I should think that if nothing else, I know myself. But speak, if it pleases you."
Tony strayed closer, settling his hip against the metal edge of the table Loki was strapped to. Pulling the paperclip from the top of a sheaf of system printouts watermarked TOP SECRET, Tony grabbed the table remote from its magnetised cradle and hit the button to swing it flat again, putting Loki on his back.
"Better?" Bending to slip the control back under the table and out of Loki's miniscule reach, Tony deftly pushed the paperclip in his hand around one soft plastic IV tube, pinching it shut. He rose easily and smiled down at Loki, who was looking at him oddly. He did a lot of that, really.
"Yes, this is…better," he replied haltingly. He seemed to catch himself then, and scowled. "I can feel my feet again, at least."
"Then I'll begin," Tony replied, glancing through the files. "According to SHIELD, Loki's first appearance on Earth was in April 2012, though reports do implicate him in the appearance of unregistered weapons technology in New Mexico over a year prior to his physical appearance on Earth. See: Odinson, Thor. See: Destro— Oh wait, sorry, sorry. Oh hey, let's find the part where you and I first met. A very windy day, if I remember." His pointed glance was met with a thin smile. Asshole.
Tony was pretty sure his time went well beyond the half hour he'd promised Steve, but no one came after him. Likely, they were all crowded the console listening to him read out classified information, but it wasn't anything Loki didn't already know. Like he'd said, he knew himself. So he continued, and if the bruise on Loki's chest began getting smaller and smaller, well, he didn't comment on it.
Tony was just beginning to read out the part about the fate of the Tesseract when Loki vanished. Dropping the file in surprise, he whirled around to call the muscle at the door. That was when Loki flashed into sight again, a hair's breadth away. He leaned in toward Tony.
"Thank you for the story," Loki whispered against his ear, and slid a dagger into Tony's stomach.
Time seem to hang suspended for a long moment, though only a second or two probably passed. Loki's lips were icy against his skin. Then Tony felt the spreading warmth of his own blood start flooding out of him, and his hands couldn't keep it all in.
Loki had—that son of a bitch had—
Well, he thought as Loki pulled the dagger out and vanished in a roar of green fire, he probably should have expected this. Tony staggered back against the wall and slid down it, clutching his stomach as the door burst open.
"Nobody panic, but I think I've been stabbed," he heard himself say before the world swirled out of sight, and everything went dark.