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Tony Stark has never been good at following the rules.

 

It’s a trend that has marked him out ever since he was just old enough to get underfoot and make himself a nuisance.

Tony, baby, don’t go into daddy’s workshop. Tony. Tony, put down those wirecutters! Do not touch that!

Well, OK, he learnt to listen to that tone pretty quickly, after he picked up the loose end of some trailing wire and got zapped hard enough to make his hair stand up all over and his fingers sting. But it wasn’t anywhere near enough to stop him sneaking into the workshop whenever the door was left open long enough. He would slip in and fold himself up in the space under one of the desks to watch his dad work. Really, that’s one of the strongest memories he has of childhood. Squashed under some cramped desk, listening to the humming of machinery and the occasional sharp crackling of electricity when things don’t go quite right. If he tries, he can see his father’s profile silhouetted by his glaring work lamps. In a way, it’s fitting, for him to have been raised with the sounds of machines more familiar than any human voice.

 

When he was older, and had already collected many more mild electric shocks, along with countless burns from soldering irons and caused one very memorable explosion, there was still one order that was emphasised above all.

Tony, for god’s sake, what have I told you? Don’t go into my workshop when I’m not around!

Tony had sulked, like only eight year olds really can, and then he’d picked open the lock to the workshop when his parents went out to some swish fundraising party.

 

This disobedience is a repeating pattern continuing across most of his teenage years. Tony, you’re far too young to drink that. Sneaking whiskey from the bottle kept in the workshop. Don’t stay out past eleven, d’you hear? Blundering in and setting off the motion-sensor lights at three AM. You make sure you focus on studying while you’re at MIT. Don’t get sucked into a wild lifestyle. Spending graduation, like so many classes before, in a fuzz of alcohol. And then a car crash which ripped his life apart, sheared his parents away like so much scrap metal, and he spent a week practically unconscious, because there was no one to disobey other than the voice in his head telling him that he should stop.

 

Tony lives life young, carefree, genius. Then one day, his recklessness, his inability to listen when people ask him Do you really need to go out there yourself? Stay here, the missiles will demonstrate themselves just fine, leads to shrapnel with his name on it inching in towards his heart, and then to his best friend, his mentor, hell, practically his father, betraying him and dying in front of him. He fixes his disobedience around him like a carapace, and laughs in Fury’s face when he’s asked to join a team.

 

“No offence, but I don’t play well with others.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 1

 

 

As they say, hindsight is 20/20, so it’s only looking back that the start of this all really becomes clear to Tony.

 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s being shot at.

 

“Iron Man, look out on your tail.” The Captain’s voice echoes slightly over the comms, sounding far too calm given the situation. Tony swerves, zig-zagging, as his HUD beeps frantically at him, little warning stickers painting the view before his eyes. The… thing behind him sticks close to his tail, matching him for every movement.

“Come on, you son of a bitch, can’t you fly into something?” he grinds out, teeth gritted. He’s focused on the rear-view display, splitting his attention between the strange grey alien trying get a fix on him with its gun, and on the sky ahead, because they’re in the middle of downtown New York and the last thing he wants is to go head-first into a skyscraper. A second figure looms up on his right, already aiming at him, and he throws himself into a dive in an attempt to get away.

 

The blast from his left catches him entirely by surprise.

 

It throws him off-course, hitting him with hard enough that the automatic stabilisers in his suit can’t compensate fast enough. The force of it drives him sharp to the right, and he meets the shining wall of mirrored glass and reinforced concrete before he’s even fully aware of what happens. The impact reverberates through his suit, shakes him like a bead in a rattle, and then the second crash as he collides with the wall inside and lands on the floor in an ungraceful heap knocks all the wind out of him.

 

He lies there, collapsed on his side, for a handful of seconds, trying to drag the air back into his lungs. Once he feels that he can breathe again, he shoves himself up to sitting. The display inside his helmet is flickering oddly, jumping as if receiving some kind of interference. Inside the suit, all he can hear is his own breathing echoing. Comms must be down. He flips up his faceplate so he can assess the damage. The first thing he notices is the spray of glass and dust across the room, and the cracked concrete where he hit the interior wall. His suit is scratched and dented, but that’s pretty standard for whenever he’s called out with the Avengers. There’s a neat line scored across one calf guard, and he vaguely remembers a bullet striking sparks off the edge of his armour earlier in the fight. Overall, he’s fairly pleased with how well the suit’s shock absorbers have worked. He’ll probably have a lovely set of bruises tomorrow, but the first time he was caught in a smash like this he’d fractured three ribs, so he counts it as progress. The worst damage is to the side of the suit, just below the level of the arc reactor, where the blast struck him. The metal is warped and dented in, and if he breathes deep he can feel the distortion from the inside. Some of the outer panelling has been torn off, leaving exposed ragged edges and the loose ends of wires. The whole area is stained with a tinge like soot, and the sharp edges of the metal spark faintly green as he looks at them.

 

Loki.

 

Damn it, Tony had barely even seen the Trickster. He’d been forced to ignore him standing in the middle of the street and laughing at the chaos that he had been causing. The aliens had proved to be a very effective distraction technique. It seemed somehow disloyal, all things considered, that Loki shot him down. Some vestige of his Asgardian upbringing normally compels him to leave someone else’s fight alone, or so Thor had explained to them all. But hell, he’s the god of mischief, he probably doesn’t hold much by the rules of combat anyway.

 

A hiss of static issues from the speaker in his ear, and the comms snap abruptly back on.

“- alright, Iron Man, respond, are you alright?” There’s a closer edge of worry audible that time, and Tony smiles slightly at that thought. He stands back up, feeling the suit grate slightly where joints have been nudged out of alignment.

“Keep your pants on, Captain, I’m fine,” he says, just because he’s a jerk when he wants to be and reputations like that require constant maintenance. “Comms went down; I think Loki fried some of my circuits.”

“He got you pretty good with that blast,” comments Hawkeye, as Tony snaps his faceplate shut and the HUD flickers back into life.

“Hey, I was distracted.”

“Excuses, excuses.”

A boom of thunder echoes outside in exact sequence with the blue-white flash of lightning, and Tony reaches the splintered hole in the wall in time to see Loki disappear in a sudden slash of green light. The last of his minions (and really, who even has minions?) scatter away, leaving the burning cars and shattered glass in the street.

 

Really, what he remembers of this whole incidence (other than the hour he spent trying to straighten the dents out of his armour) is reviewing the footage afterwards. Not long after the team formed, he’d fitted them all with tiny cameras, so they could look back over their strategies in the down-time between missions. It’s become routine now, all of them gathering around one of the TVs to compare their various scratches and bruises, and to watch the compiled footage and pick over each other’s flaws, because for some reason nothing seems to say team bonding like criticising each other. They tune in and out, the footage running on a loop, but as is traditional, everyone pays attention when he goes through the window, because he’s sufficiently un-injured that they can mock him for it.

 

As predicted, everyone crows and laughs as he is snatched sideways by the bolt of energy, shattering through the façade of the building and disappearing from sight. In fact, they rewind it to watch again. This time, Tony gets distracted by the feed from Thor’s camera, focused on Loki – seeing him strike one of Hawkeye's explosive arrows from the air, spin to blast Hulk back a few paces, and then pirouette like a dancer to blast him off his path, green and black leather flying in a spiral as he does so – and it’s because Tony is watching this and musing to himself that it looks oddly rhythmical, like some kind of waltz, that he misses what happens on screen that causes Clint to whistle through his teeth and say, “That was lucky.

“Wait, what?”

Steve, who is keeper of the remote control because he’s in charge, winds the forage back again, and stops it just as the beam collides with Tony. “Look.”

Tony looks. Sure enough, the thing on his tail has just fired at him, a fairly sizeable looking gun which at that range would probably have punched clean through his back-plate and pushed shattered bits of arc reactor out the front.

“That blast pushed you right out the way,” says Steve, letting the footage play forwards in slow motion. Tony sees himself shoved sideways, the shot from behind whistling past in the space where he’d been, and then again the arc of broken glass as he hits the building.

“Well, damn. Maybe I should send Loki flowers; what do you think says ‘Thanks for saving my life even though I’m sure you did it by accident’ best?”

Clint laughs, and Natasha smirks a little, but Thor frowns slightly, and Steve directs everyone back to watching the footage, because all of them are all too aware that that’s Thor’s brother they’re making jokes about, and maybe they ought to tread a little carefully after all.

 

Tony doesn’t give the incident much thought after that, because really, he spends most of his time getting shot at by strange creatures, Loki included, and why would it have been anything other than a happy coincidence that it pushed him out of the way?

Chapter Text

Chapter 2

 

The next time – and perhaps this is when it really starts, perhaps this is the moment that Tony can point at and say ‘this is what caused it all’ – comes in a shower of falling concrete, the roar of an explosion, and the sudden shock of motion as he is swiped off his feet by a car that was thrown clear into the air by what seems to be a gas-line igniting. Even with the shock-absorbers in his suit, the impact throws him around a fair amount. He thinks he probably blacked out for a few seconds, because there seems to be a chunk of time missing between the damn thing hitting him –

 

– And now, as he gingerly sits up, and almost immediately regrets it for several reasons.

 

For one thing, his side is killing him, and he suspects that he has at least one cracked rib. Fortunately, the close-fitting armour is just as good as wrapping them; at least he doesn’t have to worry about pushing one of them out of alignment and stabbing himself in the lung.

 

He has a cut on his cheek too, stinging viciously, where his faceplate cracked inwards. He levers it open, careful not to tear the skin further. That’s his HUD and likely his comms shot to pieces too.

 

This would all be fine, though, if it weren’t for one key factor.

 

He’s pinned against the wall of a building that must have been on the opposite side of the street. Sloping down over his head like some kind of improvised roof is a sheet of reinforced concrete (on closer inspection, it looks a lot like the front wall of the building that exploded, which is just great), and meeting it at a neat angle in the corner is that damn car which hit him in the first place.

 

He’s walled in.

 

For a few seconds, he panics, blindly. He surges up to his feet – which hurts – and throws himself at the concrete barring his way out. Hitting it sends shocks of pain through his whole body, and does little to improve the situation. He feels like it’s closing in on him, and unwanted images of caves and sand and heat flash before his eyes.

 

There’s a weak groan.

 

He turns, and then has to stare. Lying slumped against a scatter of rubble is Loki, helmet missing, armour dented, leathers torn. It’s the most vulnerable that he’s ever seen the trickster god, and he feels a sudden spike of an idea – if I could just find some way to contain him nowbefore Loki takes a gasp of air in, then another, and Tony feels a chill down his spine. Sharp, staggered breathing. He can actually see Loki’s chest fluttering in an attempt to drag in enough air. He can feel the vague, creeping sensation of understanding dawning on him. When Loki coughs, ragged, and spits a mouthful of blood onto the sidewalk they’re trapped on, Tony knows for sure.

 

The armour is just as good as wrapping his ribs, stops him moving them out of alignment.

 

Loki has no armour like that.

 

“Shit.”

 

It’s only as Loki lifts his head to fix him with a look that Tony realises he said it out loud.

 

“Would you like to just… stand there and watch me asphyxiate?” Loki wheezes, voice strained.

The thing is, a small part of Tony would. Loki is crazy, and he kills people, and it would make their lives a whole lot easier without anyone having to face the Hammer of Thor for actually being the one to take Loki down. But on the other hand, Tony’s not so sure he’s 100% sane himself, and he killed terrorists in Afghanistan and as good as killed his mentor, and if he lets Thor’s brother die he may well escape a thundery demise but he’ll definitely not escape the guilt when he’ll have to look at Thor, broken.

“Oh, shit, fuck, what am I doing, I’m meant to be fighting you.” He turns away from the wall of concrete which crowds in on his mind, seeming to draw ever closer, and steps carefully towards Loki. This could still be a trick.

Loki doesn’t answer, instead spitting another mouthful of blood to the side. It stains his lips very red. He looks paler than usual, skin almost translucent. As he steps closer, Tony can hear the breath rattling in his chest. Not good, not good.

 

He kneels down, still wary, and opens the manual release on each of his wrists to remove his gloves, freeing his hands. “What do you need me to do?”

Loki studies him for a second, eyes sharp and intent even as he fights to breathe. He seems to reach some kind of decision in himself. “Broken rib. You need to move the bone back into position. I can heal it, but not with it –” He breaks off, coughing hard, pain drawing the lines of his face taught. After he finishes, he wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, smearing red across his skin. Tony is strangely mesmerised. It’s fascinating, seeing a god bleed just like a mortal, and he feels the drive to pick something apart to see how it works which has fuelled him for most of his life. Loki slumps back, shaking just slightly. Tony feels over the front of Loki’s bronze chest plate, unbuckling the leather cross-straps and lifting it aside. Loki stays very still. His lips have taken on a blue tinge. Tony eventually manages to peel away the layers of leather and fabric, exposing the twisted lump of the broken rib under Loki’s white skin, and the bruise spreading like an ink stain. He takes in a breath, and lays one palm against the bone where he can feel it jutting out, the other against Loki’s side where he will have to slide the bone back into place.

Loki takes two more gasping breaths, shuddering under his hands, and then rasps, “Do it.”

 

Tony pushes.

 

He feels the sickening slide of the bone under skin. Loki makes a sound through his teeth which probably would have been a scream had he let it out. His hands spasm closed, nails cutting into his palms, and his skin bypasses pale and goes straight to grey.

 

The end of the bone grates home. Tony holds it in place, trying to ignore the sweat slipping under his palms. He can’t even tell whose it is.

 

Loki isn’t even breathing, he doesn’t think, and for a second he feels a sharp stab of worry that the god’s passed out and it going to bleed out right here under Tony’s hands. He feels stupid for worrying about their enemy like that, but he also suspects that having yet another person die in front of his eyes might tip him over the edge into full insanity, and he’d rather that didn’t happen quite yet.

 

Loki’s chest heaves with another breath which rattles under Tony’s hands.

“I need you to hold that still,” Loki says, voice raw and weak. “And whatever you do, don’t move until I tell you to.”

Tony nods, although he doubts it would’ve had any effect if he’d refused. Loki closes his eyes, tension inscribed onto his skin.

 

The sensation that comes next is hard for Tony to describe. It reminds him vaguely of the time he accidentally picked up a live wire as a child, an electric buzz rushing over his skin and making the hair on the backs of his hands stand up. There’s a sharp stabbing, not unlike severe pins and needles, and he almost recoils before he remembers Loki’s warning. The trickster’s skin feels icy under his hands, which are for some reason burning. He gets an impression of the taste of metal on his tongue. A faint green aura hovers over the fallen god. Time seems to hang, perfectly still.

 

The Loki arches abruptly, back curving off the floor, and then collapses in a heap, breathing fast and sharp but without the chilling rattle. Tony’s hands feel normal again, and the skin under them is just skin, not pliable ice.

“You can let go now,” Loki says, sounding breathless and exhausted. Tony removes his hands carefully, and pushes himself to his feet. To his surprise, Loki levers himself up to sitting and curls pale fingers around his wrist in an unreasonably strong grip.

“I owe you, Tony Stark.” He frowns as he says it, eyes uneasy. Tony has a sudden feeling that maybe he should try to avoid this situation at all costs.

“No, I, uh, I don’t think you do.”

“But I do. Maybe in your culture you ignore such gestures, but you saved my life.” He looks like the words taste unpleasant in his mouth. “I owe you a debt. That is our custom.”

Tony thinks fast. “Well, no, not really, I mean, you did accidentally save me that one time, when you shot me through a building.”

Loki frowns, and Tony is faintly gratified to notice that he seems to be edging back to just his normal level of pale. “Circumstantial deeds are weaker. The debt is not fully repaid.”

“Can’t you just, I don’t know, fix up my rib or something? Then we can call it even.” He doesn’t mean it seriously, not really, but Loki tips his head, still gripping Tony’s wrist.

“I lack the power now.” A clatter echoes from outside. “And it appears the cavalry are here.”

Tony barely registers him letting go before the trickster disappears, without any flash or ceremony, and then the car crushed along one side of his prison in dragged away. For a second, he considers pretending that he had been trapped in here alone, but then he catches sight of the pooled blood where Loki had been lying, and realises he has streaks of it painted across his leg and hands where he’d been kneeling down. Steve shoulders in through the narrow gap which now lies between the car and the building. The others squeeze in behind him, or in the case of Hulk hover outside.

“Tony, thank god –” Steve starts, slipping out of codename talk momentarily, and then stops short when he sees the blood. “Are you injured?”

Tony shakes his head. “That’s not mine.”

Thor, looking huge in the cramped space, suddenly looks up, intense. “My brother was here.”

Tony nods, because lying clearly won’t work. “He was. Looked like he got sideswiped by the building coming down.”

Thor doesn’t let him look away. “This is his blood? Is he injured?”

“It was his. He had a broken rib, looked like it had punctured his lung. He healed himself up pretty quick though.”

“Did you aid him?” Thor asks, in a tone which says clearly, I know you did, but will you admit it?

Tony’s never one to back down, and overall he thinks he has the moral highground. Probably. “I did. Pushed the rib back into place so he could fix it up.” He raises his chin, defiant, because he expects it’s not going to be that popular a move.

“You did what?” Natasha asks, quiet and calm but he’s not forgotten that she’s an assassin and could probably kill him in the blink of an eye.

“Look, it was that or watch him die in front of me. You think I was going to do that? Besides, we’ve always tried to take him alive before. I didn’t exactly know he was going to teleport right out of here.” That’s only half-true, really, as he’d suspected that Loki probably wouldn’t stick around to be rounded up by the Avengers, but at least this way he’ll avoid some of the shouting.

“You did the right thing, Tony,” Steve says reassuringly. “We don’t let anyone die if we can help it, enemy or not.”

Tony tips his head at Steve, and shoots him a small smile, because he is their leader out in the field and this will definitely make his life easier. Thor steps forwards to meet him.

“You saved my brother, Tony Stark. I am grateful to you; many would not have done the same.” He claps one huge hand onto Tony’s shoulder, and he can’t quite suppress the wince in time as his cracked ribs protest loudly at this treatment. “You are injured.”

“S’fine, I’m fine, just a cracked rib –” but it’s too late, he’s being ushered outside to the waiting chopper, ready to be taken back and bandaged up.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3

 

Later, after the debrief, with his ribs strapped up under several layers of bandages and aching something fierce because he can’t take any more painkillers and drinking is out of the question, Tony is in his room in the communal Avengers building, flicking through some improvements he intends to add to his suit on his touch-screen tablet. It’s late, and the rest of the building is silent. He doesn’t want to sleep, because the ideas are buzzing in his head and if he lies down he’s worried they’ll escape. If I can just find a way to incorporate the microfiber technology into the suit, it might even be able to repair itself. He can’t quite seem to focus, though. In the half of his brain which isn’t full of schematics and chemical formulae, he keeps seeing the image of Loki, looking like death, bleeding like a human, healing himself with that rush of power. Tony wants to know more. He’s not used to this drive gripping him so suddenly, at least not over something alive. Normally he wants to strip a machine down to its constituent parts, lay out the wiring like it contains the secrets of the universe. But now he wants to do that to Loki – well, maybe not strip him down – wants to peel away the layers of menace and history that surround him, wants to get under his skin and watch the energy patterns he creates as he works his magic, wants to examine him up close to see just how much of him seems human and how much seems like a god. He’s tangled in these thoughts, distracted from the work he’s trying to do, when he’s aware of a presence suddenly appearing.

 

The air pressure changes in the room, and a small light starts blinking on his screen. He freezes for a second, stylus poised over the screen, then lowers his hand and looks up. “Well, fancy seeing you here at this time of night.”

Loki regards him coolly from where he’s standing by the door. He seems to have fixed his armour somehow, as it is now undented and tear-free, not even showing stains of blood. He looks less pale now, too, although Tony still reckons he could do with getting a tan. “Cancel that alarm, Stark.”

“Why should I?”

Loki tilts his head and regards him with impassive eyes. “Because I’d like to not have to fight my way out of here and damage your… delightful facility.”

Granted, the Avengers building isn’t a pinnacle of interior decorating, trending more to the functional than the stylish, but Tony feels that’s a little rich coming from someone who only ever wears leather. But in spite of himself and all common sense (as well as the rule which states that any enemy incursions are to be reported immediately, but then he’s forgotten most of the rules already, seeing as he never intended to follow them in the first place), he’s curious. So he taps the flashing light that would have activated an alarm in the next 30 seconds, and it disappears from his display. He lays the tablet down on his cabinet, still within reach. “I assume you didn’t come here just to make vague threats?”

Loki smirks. “I can make specific threats, if you prefer. But no, that’s not why I came here.” He steps closer, and Tony unconsciously presses himself backwards just slightly, stopping when he realises what he’s doing, because Starks don’t run away from trouble, Tony, remember that. “I owe you a debt, Tony Stark.”

Tony feels a little like he’s locked in a room with a lion. “You know, you really don’t, you don’t owe me anything –” He breaks off as Loki settles himself on the edge of his bed, one leg folded underneath him, looking as nonchalant as if this is somehow a normal situation.

“Fix up your rib, you said, and we could call it even.” Loki’s eyes are bright with amusement, as if he’s enjoying every second of Tony’s confusion and barely concealed panic. “I think that still stands as a good deal, don’t you?” Without waiting for the answer, he presses his hand flat on Tony’s chest, directly over the arc reactor. Even through his shirt, he can feel that Loki’s fingers are freezing.

“You must have really bad circulation to have hands that cold.”

Loki half-smiles, shaking his head a little. “You humans talk too much.” Then he focuses his eyes, and his fingers dig in.

 

It feels like a hammer blow to the chest. Pins and needles dig themselves under his skin, crawling across him like a wave of minute agonies. His mouth floods with the taste of metal and burning, and he feels transfixed, paralysed, completely unable to move. His chest seems to constrict, squeezing the air out of his lungs. For one terrifying second, it feels like his heart is seized on a crushing grip, feels like it as stopped and he’s going to die right here under Loki’s spell. He can’t breathe, can’t speak, he’s utterly powerless.

 

Then the feeling stops suddenly, like shutting off a light. He gasps for breath, not even really realising he’s slumped forwards and is leaning against Loki’s cool touch. It’s only as he registers the pressure from Loki’s hand, sees him bracing to hold up his weight, and moves backwards away from him that Tony realises that his deep, shaking breaths don’t hurt at all. He feels gingerly along his side, but there’s no pain whatsoever.

“Consider us even,” Loki says, pushing himself up to his feet. Tony almost misses the moment he sways, just slightly, but spots it just in time. Interesting. Loki turns, as if to go, and then hesitates. “My debt is paid, Stark, but I will not forget what you did for me today. Many would have acted differently.”

“Yeah, well,” Tony says, moving to sit up because he feels he should probably keep some kind of eye on Loki while he’s here, “I’ve seen enough people die in front of me to want to avoid it. Rest assured it was nothing personal.”

Loki studies him briefly, head tipped to the side as if he’s looking at something unusual and slightly bizarre, and Tony looks him over too because it’s rare they meet under such still, calm conditions. He would have been fine if he hadn’t made the mistake of meeting Loki’s gaze.

 

It feels a little like drowning and a little like falling. Loki has very green eyes, he muses, and they do seem to be… glowing…

 

He snaps back to the present, feeling a little like he got a sharp static shock of a machine. Loki is openly amused now, grinning. “Mortals. You do make it so easy.” With that, he disappears in a blinding flash of green, which sears into Tony’s eyes and leaves a purple after-image hovering in front of him. That dick, he probably did that on purpose.

 “JARVIS, move the surveillance footage of that to my server and delete it from SHIELD’s. And delete the record of the alarm being tripped, too.”

“Yes, sir.”

Tony feels slightly rattled, and so he gets up, planning to wander down to the communal kitchen in the hopes that the walk will clear his head, or that he’ll think up some way to drink while under the influence of painkillers on the way. This plan is a good one, until he comes round a corner and nearly walks straight into Thor. The thunder god pins him down with a look.

“Your ceiling voice woke me, Tony Stark, with news of my brother here in the facility. But I could find no mention of it in the displays in the surveillance room.”

Ah, Tony thinks. Shit.

Fortunately, he doesn’t say it. Unfortunately, something much weirder happens. His tongue seems to suddenly gain a life of its own, and he hears himself say, “It’s probably just a glitch. They happen all the time.”

“A glitch?”

“Yeah, you know, a false alarm. JARVIS doesn’t always transfer well to different hardware systems.” Tony’s impressed, because he likes to consider himself a world-class liar but this is far better than he would have come up with under the circumstances. The technical details will probably throw Thor off enough that he doesn’t question too deeply. The only slight issue he has is the fact that he seems to have lost control of his voice.

“I see. You should address that. It would not do to have my brother enter the facility unnoticed.”

Tony smiles. “What are the chances of that really happening? He doesn’t really seem like the type to pop in for a chat and a cup of tea.” That came from him, which is something of a relief.

“Well. I bid you goodnight, then.” Thor thumps him on the shoulder again, then frowns. “Are you not still injured?”

Before Tony can panic, he finds his mouth saying, “I’m full of painkillers. They make very strong drugs here on Midgard, you know, you should ask one of the science staff to explain it to you sometime.”

Thor nods, satisfied, and moves off down the corridor. Tony shakes his head in confusion. In the absence of any kind of logic, he continues down to the kitchen, and roots around looking for something he can eat quickly.

 

He catches sight of a flash of motion reflected in the shiny steel of the fridge door, but when he turns to look it’s gone. He gets a knife out of the drawer, and watches it out of the corner of his eye while he digs in the cupboard for some bread. Sure enough, once he seems occupied, the reflection is back. Loki’s black and green shivers on the knife blade, and if he turns his head just a fraction Tony can see all of him reflected in the steel door. He angles himself bit by bit until he has a good view, and then says quietly, “I’m guessing that was you?”

He can see that twisted-sideways smirk, distorted slightly by the uneven surface, as Loki’s reflection nods. Of course, of course he wanted to be seen. That smarmy bastard.

“Well, thanks, I guess.” He glances up, but the reflection is gone. God of lies, he thinks. Interesting.

Chapter Text

Things quiet down a little over the next few months. A few minor villains try their hand at graduating into the supervillain league, but they’re overambitious, all of them, and easily dealt with. Loki, who usually occupies most of their time, seems to be taking a vacation from chaos, and makes no appearance in the city. In light of this, and because he’s getting fed up with sharing a space with a group of people who like nothing more than to bicker all the time, Tony takes off down to his Malibu home, bringing his suit and its backup with him, and spends a full three weeks just tinkering, making adjustments, and working on a new prototype for a suit that could repair damage to itself while in use. He throws himself into the work, only eating when he remembers, because he’s bored with nothing to do, his company running itself very well under Pepper’s control, the free world safe from crazy masterminds for the time being, and no more getting hammered at parties because apparently that’s bad for PR. It also helps him keep his mind off of Loki, who still looms in his thoughts as a mystery, a black hole of knowledge. He still feels the burning desire to know nagging at him, but he’s ignoring it quite successfully now, because it’s not like Loki’s just going to sit down with him and have a friendly question-and-answer session.

 

The other reason for coming all the way down here, not that he’d admit it to anyone, is to get a little space away from Thor, and to order his own thoughts.

 

The thunder god had been treating him oddly for the past month or so, ever since Loki had taken over Tony’s tongue in conversation that one time.  Tony doesn’t think he suspects, or at least, he doesn’t suspect anything specific. But he knows somehow that something has happened, and it makes Tony uneasy. Making him more uneasy is the fact that Loki seemed to be able to take control of him without any kind of issue. He keeps coming back to this thought, no matter how much he tries to focus instead on his suit or some new prototype he’s working on. It makes him feel naked, vulnerable in a way he’s not used to, so protected as he normally is inside his suit of armour and persona of arrogant rich guy. He also worries in the back of his mind about what would happen if a similar thing happened in the middle of a fight. Could Loki take over more than just his speech? It’s not something he likes to consider. Ever since he was kidnapped Tony’s been more than slightly claustrophobic, and the thought of being trapped within his own body is almost enough to tip him over into full panic-attack territory. So instead he absorbs himself in wires and schematics, in the smell of hot metal and the blue glow of his many monitors, and tries not to think that Loki has somehow put a spell on him and is waiting to grab control of him at any moment. Every so often he’ll remember the weird falling feeling he had looking into Loki’s eyes, and it makes him feel a little sick, like vertigo or a bad hangover. He also can’t stop remembering Loki’s words to him. I will not forget what you did for me today. Many would have acted differently. What in the hell was that supposed to mean? That next time he had Tony pinned down like a bug ready to be squashed, he’d make it painless? Life became way more complicated than was fair once the enemy started breaking into your room at night to do you a favour and make polite conversation.

 

Somewhere amid these thoughts, Tony gets hooked on what he’s making, in the single-minded way he’s always managed without any effort at all. He’s been working for several days – or, at least, he thinks he has, he loses track of the days down in his underground workshop and he hasn’t slept – and he’s just fitting together a test panel of his new exoskeleton when he glances up, not even intentionally, and sees Loki lounging against one of his worktops, watching him work. Tony may be tired, but the alarm bells in his mind ring just as loudly as ever. He snatches up the repulsor which is lying on the bench next to him and fires a quick blast at him. Moving like lightning (how appropriate), Loki sweeps his arms up to block it. The energy bounces clean off his bronze gauntlet, ricocheting off to smash a pane of glass on the other side of the workshop. Tony doesn’t turn to look at it, but instead keeps focused on the trickster god.

“Why are you here?”

Loki regards him coolly, head tipped to the side. There’s a bruise on his cheekbone, Tony notices, and a faint scuff mark over the top of it. “My brother has been seeking me out. Tell me, why should he have reason to suspect anything?”

He feels the now-familiar prickle of fear down his spine, and he remembers that Loki is far, far more powerful than what he can handle here, on his own, not even wearing his damn suit.

“Well, I don’t know what to tell you there. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that you took over my voice?” Tony immediately curses himself, because that’s not a safe way to proceed at all, but as is standard for him his mouth is running away from him without really consulting his brain. “I haven’t said anything to him, if that’s what you want to hear. You think it would reflect well on me to be seen to be getting help from our number one enemy?”

Loki narrows his eyes. “You’re angry with me. Why? I wouldn’t think we parted under particularly bad blood, all things considered.”

Tony glares, because he knows false innocence when he sees it. “Shouldn’t you be leaving now?”

“You would do well to remember who you are talking to,” Loki answers, a sharp edge joining his voice.

“Well, the last three times we’ve met you saved my life, healed my ribs, and then somehow got me out of hot water with your brother – ” His voice turns sharp on the last, unintentionally.

Ahh.” Loki smiles slowly. “That’s what is bothering you so.”

“What, the thing where you took over my voice? Yeah, I’m none too happy about that.”

“No, that much is clear. It’s painted across your mind like – ” Loki stops, frowning. Moving like oil across water, he pushes off the desk and steps up to Tony, face to face, and raises a hand. Tony almost flinches back, but holds still, and Loki rests his fingers very gently against his temple, the barest brush of skin on skin. His eyes look glassy, distant.

“What are you doing?

The distant look vanishes as Loki’s eyes fasten on his. “Your mind is wide open, Stark. Even as a mortal, it should be shut away somewhat. Like this, it’s a wonder your thoughts don’t just fall out.”

Tony rears back from the god’s touch. “What did you do to me, you son of a – ”

“This was not my doing.” Loki reaches for him again, this time laying his palm firmly against Tony’s forehead. He closes his eyes, concentrating for a second, and then opens them again, removing his hand. “Velkias leaves. Someone is sabotaging your team.”

“Sorry, what?”

“Velkias is a herb that grows in the remotest parts of Asgard. Used correctly, it opens the mind to magical influence, but it can also be used to strip a mind of its defences and leave it ready to control…” He pauses, head tipped to the side. “I thought it was far too easy to place the lies in your mouth. Someone has given you Velkias leaves to split open your mental defences. Like this, you would not resist any magical attack. You would be a puppet, controlled with barely a thought…”

Tony shifts uncomfortably as Loki’s eyes become distant again. “Well, don’t go getting any ideas now, okay? It’s not fair play if I’m expecting it. Unless it was you who did this?” The thought suddenly dawns on him. “You didn’t come here to put me under some spell, did you?”

Loki laughs. “What, and warn you before I did so? Believe me, Stark, if I wanted you under a spell, we would not be having this conversation because all you would be capable of saying would be ‘yes, my master’. This was not my doing.”

Tony decides to take a risk. “So if it’s nothing you’re particularly invested in… any chance you could tell me how to get rid of these vellkees leaves?”

“And why should I help you, Avenger?” Loki crosses his arms over his chest, eyebrow arching distainfully. “We are enemies, are we not? Your downfall would be nothing but a benefit to me.”

“Then why not take advantage of this unexpected windfall? You said yourself that I’m powerless against any magical attack. So go on. Make me your puppet.” Tony spreads his arms wide, opening his chest out like a target.

For one terrifying second, it looks like Loki is considering it. Then he steps back, eyes narrow and calculating. “Not this time. I will assist you in finding the Velkias leaves, but in return you will owe me a favour.”

In debt to our number one enemy, who is also the best liar there has ever been. Great. “Deal.”

Loki moves forwards again, and Tony has to suppress another flinch as he puts three fingers on the skin just above his eyebrows. “Ordinarily I’d tell you to relax, but with your mind in this state, this will be practically painless as it is.”

“What – ”

 

It feels like Loki has thrown a bucket of ice water over him, and it steals the breath from his lungs for a second, and then the feeling passes and in his head is a picture, a smell, and a taste.

“Identify the leaves with this, and find a way to remove them. The influence fades rapidly; you should be returned to normal within a week.”

Tony nods, although his skin is still kind of crawling from the invasion. “And in return?”

Loki smiles in a way which is not comforting at all. “Oh, I’m going to save that for later. It never hurts to have an enemy in your debt.” He steps back, and then twitches his head slightly to the side. “My brother is not to hear of my involvement in this, is that clear? I don’t care what lie you spin him, but if my name should be mentioned – ”

“Fiery retribution, I hear you.”

Loki nods. “Until the next fight, Stark,” he says, with a slight smile, and then vanishes, leaving a trace of green mist which smells like frost on a winter morning.

Tony shakes his head, and turns back to his displays. Somehow, he doesn’t feel like he’s quite got the hang of being a superhero yet. 

Chapter Text

Back in the Avenger’s facility, after he makes some half-assed excuse to come back, Tony finds the Velkias leaves surprisingly easily. He’s just sipping his first mug of coffee since he returned, leaning against the counter (without meaning to, he thinks of Loki leaning against his worktop, backlit by the blue glow of the monitors), when he tastes something odd and is hit with sudden recognition.

 

He has to admit, it’s genius. Without looking for it, the taste is almost masked by the coffee flavour, and they’re all caffeine-addicted enough due to strange hours and early-morning missions that they get a fairly consistent daily dose of coffee – and anything put in it. He cracks open the compartment where the ground coffee is stored, and another wave of the suddenly-familiar scent hits him. It makes him feel a little dizzy (green eyes, a feeling of drowning and falling), but he extracts the tray carefully, not spilling anything. He’s taking this one straight to the top.

 

- - -

 

When the Avengers are all called to Fury’s office later in the day, the atmosphere is tense.

“Someone has been drugging the team,” Fury begins, with no preamble. “Luckily, Stark noticed a strange taste in his coffee and brought a sample of the drugs to me. As yet we are unaware of what this is – ” he tosses a small pack of the Velkias leaves onto his desk – “but preliminary tests suggest that it limits some brainwave functions.”

He stops as Thor learns forwards. “I recognise this. They are leaves from my home; the spellmerchants use them in their rituals. Their function…” He frowns, and then nods to himself. “They open the mind. Leave it vulnerable to magical control and influence of all kinds; if we continued to consume these we would be powerless against such an attack.”

“Do you think Loki is responsible?” Steve asks, leaning forwards too to examine the leaves.

“Seems the most likely,” Tony chimes in, because he has no doubt that Loki would make good on his threats should his involvement in this matter come to light, and he can think of no better cover than this. “I mean, he’d have had access to these on Asgard, and can you imagine how easy this would make life for him? The second any of us go toe-to-toe with him, he puts us under some kind of spell and then he can do what he wants.”

Thor frowns. “It does not seem like my brother’s style.”

“Your brother spends most of his free time devising new and complex ways to kill us all, big guy, do you not think that maybe he could adapt his style?” Tony finds that easy to say, only half a lie, because Loki’s style has been a little off of late and he can channel his own confusion into a cutting tone and a condescending look without much struggle.

“That is true, but it seems too… easy.”

Fury leaned forwards. “Easy or not, Loki is our greatest threat right now, and all signs point to him. Currently, he is our only suspect in this matter.”

The conversation moves on, into ways to find who planted the leaves and how to counter their effects, and Tony allows himself to relax a little. There’s no suspicion as to how he found them, and definitely no suspicion that he had help from their number one enemy. Which was good, because he didn’t think that anyone particularly wants to hear that he’s in debt to the man who keeps trying to kill them all.

 

The thought still itches at him, though. What is he planning on using me for?

- - -

 

Tony had to get tired at some point of being surprised when Loki turned up unannounced in places where he definitely wasn’t supposed to be. Which is why, when Tony’s out in the city incognito having a coffee, seeing as the coffee machines on base are all contaminated, and Loki sits down across the table from him, he merely says, “You know, modern clothing kind of suits you.”

Loki grins, in a way which says he’s almost impressed by this, and glances down at his shirt and sharply tailored trousers. “It’s less conspicuous than armour, at any rate.”

Tony tips his head in agreement, because he can sympathise with that statement. “I’m guessing you didn’t come here just for a chat? Don’t tell me the favour I owe you is to buy you a drink, it’s too easy.”

That makes Loki laugh. “Surely easier is better, from your perspective? But no, I have other reasons for coming here today.” He leans forwards, and the air suddenly tastes of electric. Danger. “Tell me, Tony Stark, what is that machine in your chest?” As he speaks, he lays one hand firm against Tony’s chest, palm on the arc reactor, fingers curling against its edges like he could pull it out right through Tony’s shirt.

Tony feels cold all over, and he leans back, breaking Loki’s touch. “I’d rather not say.”

“Ah, but you owe me, do you not? Without me, you would still be having your mind cracked open piece by piece, whereas now it is beginning to close itself.” His smile turns knife-like. “Of course, it takes more than a day for the damage to be repaired.” A feeling like cold fingers on the back of Tony’s neck. “With your mind like this, I could just pluck the answer right out.”

Tony’s knuckles whiten where he’s gripping the edge of the table. “Why don’t you?” He almost adds ‘All talk and no action’, but decides in a split second that it really, really wouldn’t be worth it. Still, something seems out of joint. Why is he not taking advantage of this?

“It would attract too much attention. You cannot fight back, and such an extraction would be painful at best… And, of course, I have not forgotten all you have done for me.” Loki sits back in his chair, relaxed. “This is the favour I will ask of you. Answer my questions concerning that machine. If you do not, I will have to find my information in another way, and I doubt you want me to do that, do you?”

The last two words echo in Tony’s mind rather than in his ears and he can’t stop the shudder that runs through him. “Alright, alright. Just – don’t do that, will you?” He feels a little like his skin is being peeled off his bones every time Loki looks at him, and it makes him queasy. The thought of everything his mind holds, all the bits and pieces of his past which he’s ashamed of or which he doesn’t like to think about, being displayed in front of his enemy’s eyes won’t seem to shake itself, and he struggles for a second to focus. Loki narrows his eyes.

“Interesting. Does that frighten you so much more than the idea that I could snap your backbone without even touching you?”

“Just don’t,” Tony snaps, because yes it does frighten me you dick. Loki considers him, expression unreadable.

“I would not examine your mind without your permission, Tony Stark,” he says, unexpected, voice soft. “To plant ideas or words, I do not have to look in. Your thoughts are your own; they’re safe.”

Tony glares, rattled. “Forgive me if I don’t believe you there, god of lies, seeing as you just told me you could pull my thoughts out of my head without even trying.”

Loki huffs out a sigh, raking a hand through his hair, and suddenly he looks tired. “Coming here was a mistake.”

“What, you thought I’d just hand over the information? Or did you plan to torture it out of me?”

“I have no intentions of harming you today – ”

“Oh, unlike every other day?”

“Oh, I’m sorry, didn’t you yourself recently point out that the last few times we’ve met I’ve – ” Loki shuts his mouth abruptly, closing off the end of that sentence, but not soon enough. It brings a familiar tangle of thoughts to the front of Tony’s mind.

“Yeah, what is up with that? Seems like recently you’ve been less of the supervillain and more like a member of my support crew.”

Loki turns away, staring out of the window. The bruise on his cheek shows up starkly against his pale skin, and Tony vaguely wonders what caused it. Everything about Loki seems to be not quite what it should be right in this moment.

“I intend to gain your trust and slowly draw out vital information on the Avengers from you, allowing me to ultimately cause your collective downfall so I can take this pathetic world for my own and finally be free to do as I please.” Loki turns back, smiling bitterly. “Is that what you want to hear? Or do you want to hear more lies instead? I wish to repent and throw my lot in with you superheroes. I plan to kill you, assume your identity, and infiltrate the team that way. This conversation is in fact a distraction as I replace half the workforce in the Avengers base with clones willing to obey my every word.”

“You know, most people are content to say none of your business.” Tony feels uneasy, and it’s clear he’s hit some kind of nerve in Loki. “Are any of those true?”

Loki stands up. “Surely I’d be bad at my job if they were?”

With that, he walks away, pausing briefly to say something to the waitress before leaving the café. Tony stares at his nearly empty mug. He feels like he’s missing something huge, which isn’t a feeling he likes, and he’s no closer to finding out what the hell Loki’s playing at. He’s not entirely convinced that those were all lies, and even if they are, Loki’s actions are still inexplicable. If they are lies, then the most reasonable explanation, that this is some kind of trick, isn’t true. Thinking in circles like that is enough to start a headache behind his eyes. He can’t figure out what Loki wants from him. Even coming here today… surely he didn’t imagine that Tony would just hand over the secrets of the arc reactor that easily? But he’d made no attempt to extract the information from his brain, at least as far as he could tell, so why had he even bothered coming there?

 

Tony shakes his head, standing up and walking to the counter to pay. Trying to fathom the mind of the god of mischief is sure to end in trouble. Maybe it’s all just some elaborate mind game.

 

He’s only half surprised when he discovers that he’s being charged for Loki’s drink too. You could have just asked me to buy you a drink, asshole, he thinks, with as much direction as possible, in the hope that Loki will somehow hear it. It makes him feel a little better. 

Chapter Text

Tony’s never quite sure if the next event that he puts into his timeline actually happened. In his defence, he’s near-delirious at the time, and nothing in his life seems to be making much sense anyway. He remembers it pretty clearly, all things considered, it’s just the context which doesn’t make any sense, and it’s that which stops him from telling the rest of the team.

 

A fleet of robots are plaguing the city, vicious machines that seem to have some ability to self-repair, hell-bent on destroying as much as possible. Worse, the alloy their exoskeletons are made of seems to disperse his repulsor bursts, leaving them unharmed. There’s only a few of them, maybe a dozen in all, but the team is run ragged trying to contain them, destroy them somehow. They’ve been at it for hours; they can’t seem to make much of an impression against the machines. Tony sees Hawkeye get swiped backwards through a plate-glass window at one point, but a crowd of metal monsters surround him and crowd him back before he can help

 

He’s just fought himself free when one sneaks up on him, gets him around the wrist and drags him off the street into a side alley.

 

Its grip is like being caught in a car crusher. Tony feels the metal of his suit creak and complain, before it buckles in with a series of sharp popping sounds. It’s not designed to handle such pressure sustained over a long time, and soon even the support rods are going to –

 

The support rods fracture.

 

Tony feels the jagged end of one carve its way into his wrist, stabbing through muscle and artery until it grates on bone.

 

A hot rush of blood, pooling inside his metal glove.

 

A wave of electricity crawls across the skin of his suit, and his HUD fizzles and dies. Comms die with it, static echoing in his ears. The robot wrenches its hand free, leaving a pinched-in circle around Tony’s lower arm, jagged metal sticking out at strange angles. Blood is already starting to drip out, forming a steady patter on the ground, as he collapses to his knees, feeling dizzy. Somewhere in his brain, a countdown starts ticking, showing the level of blood in his veins drop by the second. He knows he’s bleeding too fast. He fumbles with his helmet, flipping it open, then tries to staunch the blood flow somehow, curling his other hand futilely around the twisted metal on his wrist. He can feel his fingers immediately go hot, wet, as blood seeps through the joins of his finger-guards. It feels like the world is tipping sideways, and he vaguely registers rough concrete against his cheek. The spinning in his head won’t slow down enough for him to get up.

 

Bleeding to death in an alley, he thinks, brain feeling like it’s wrapped in cotton wool. Of all the ways to go…

 

A shadow falls across his face. He raises his eyes, vision swimming and grey at the edges, and sees Loki kneeling next to him, dressed once more in Asgardian armour.

“Come…” he stops, breathing shallow, then tries again. “Come to see me die?”

Loki smiles, and for once it doesn’t look like a threat. He just looks slightly sad. “You really have no idea, do you?” He lays his hands on Tony’s wrist, directly on the tangled mess of armour. Tony sees his own blood paint red steaks across that pale skin. “Close your eyes. Rest.”

Tony tries to disobey, because he knows that passing out now holds a very high chance of not waking up again, but the world is still spinning and Loki’s voice sounds so… hypnotic…

 

He has a blurry recollection of a sudden, sharp pain, but it’s overlaid with soothing words and it feels more like a dream then a memory.

 

He wakes up in the medical facility in the Avengers base, having blood fed into him via a drip and with his wrist stitched and bandaged. He learns, after flirting with the nurse on duty, that he was found with metal embedded in his wrist, one of the minor veins in his wrist cut, and down a couple quarts of blood. He nods along to the gushing of ‘you’re so lucky they found you, much longer and you’d have bled right out’, and then when she’s gone he thinks hard about what happened. He’s certain that the support rod pierced an artery, and at the rate that he’d been bleeding, there wouldn’t have been time for anyone from the team to have found him…

 

When he goes to check on the remains of his suit, five days later, and he sees that he support rod has been snapped off higher up the arm and the jagged piece is missing, he feels a whisper of certainty. But there is still enough doubt that stops him from mentioning it to anyone, because who would believe him anyway? An enemy acting as his guardian angel. Crazy.

Chapter Text

It’s a week since he nearly bled to death in an alley when Loki finally explodes back onto the scene, literally, blasting apart a street of cars and sending a shockwave of magic through the electrical grid, knocking out several streets’ power.

 

It’s bad timing for the Avengers. They’re down two team members; Tony is still officially in recovery, not to mention the fact that his suit is only half-repaired, and Clint has a fractured wrist and three broken fingers as well as numerous bruises from his meeting with the window. The two of them sit together in the operations room, watching the live feed of the battle as it unfolds, both cursing their inability to help their teammates.

 

At least, Tony curses outwardly. Inwardly, he’s secretly almost relieved. He’s not quite sure where he stands with Loki. He remembers being told ‘I will not forget what you did for me today’ and feels that maybe he should honour the same sentiment. He’s almost sure that Loki saved his life. If it came down to it, in the middle of a fight, he’s not sure how that information would cause him to react. He feels safer shut up here in the ops room, forced to be distant from the action.

 

This doesn’t stop him really, really regretting not being able to join in, however, when Thor brings Loki down with a flash of lightning and the god can’t quite get back up in time.

 

Everyone watching the screens holds their breath; Tony’s almost tempted to drop something just to see who would jump.

 

Loki tries to stagger to his feet, but he’s clearly tired. His hair hangs as a shroud around his face, and he’s leaning on his staff like it’s the only thing stopping him falling face-first on the ground. The team closes in, quick and efficient. Tony loses sight of Loki briefly and when he reappears on screen, his hands are cuffed together and Thor has one giant hand planted on his shoulder, trapping him fairly effectively. There are whoops around the ops room, people offering their congratulations across the comms, and Tony joins in with the applause, his mind racing off of its own accord.

What’s your plan? He thinks, mind racing, watching the figure in green and gold being pushed up the ramp into a transport plane. What are you playing at now?

 

- - -

 

The problem, which Tony could have seen from the start had he been trying, was this: once they caught the angry Norse god, what could they actually do with him?

 

They hold council on the issue in Fury’s office. Hanging above the table is a hologram display of Loki in the glass-walled cell he’s temporarily been placed in, under heavy guard. Not that it seems necessary at that exact moment. All the hologram shows is Loki sitting half-slumped on the floor, seeming boneless and exhausted. That make Tony wonder more about the entire situation; the ease with which Loki has been captured; the bruise which had marked his cheek a few weeks ago; the strange conversation in the café. Nothing adds up. He’s been staring at this problem for ages now, and he’s still getting nowhere. It feels a little like an obsession, and that worries him, because it’s just not the done thing to become obsessed with your number one enemy. It’s hard to go around trying to break something that you want to study.

 

Around the display, the discussion grows heated.

 

“Look, we can’t guarantee being able to keep him contained. If we can’t… deal with him, can’t we ship him back to Asgard?” Clint asks, arms crossed over his chest. No one needs to question what he means by deal with him.

“My brother will not go back to Asgard. He would be likely to be executed, or failing that, exiled to Jötunheim, where he would be as good as dead. I will not allow it.” Thor stands immovable, a wall of granite.

“He’s a threat,” Natasha says, hands planted on the tabletop. “We have to remove the threat somehow. You say we can’t kill him, you won’t let us send him back to where he comes from, imprisoning him just isn’t viable – ”

Tony interrupts, because he owes Loki something. “Uh, sorry to butt in, but is it really that unviable? Look at him.” They look. Loki seems crumpled, beaten, all the energy wrung out of him. “He’s not exactly threatening right now, hmm? So we can contain him in the short term at least, and then work something else out. Hell, maybe we can even convince him to stop blowing stuff up, you guys just don’t have enough optimism.

He sees Thor smile in his peripheral vision, and just has time to brace for impact before a huge hand is clapped on his shoulder. “Tony Stark speaks wisely. I hold hope that my brother may yet be turned from his path of destruction; surely it is worth a try?”

The others don’t look pleased. But they know, all of them, that if anyone tries to solve their Loki problem permanently they will have Thor to answer to. The discussion dribbles on a little longer, various ideas being passed around, but in the end it’s Tony’s which is decided upon. Temporary imprisonment, until a more permanent solution is found. Tony can tell that Steve is pleased with the outcome, as the idea of executing someone in cold blood has never appealed to him, and Thor is delighted. The huge god smiles again when the decision is reached. “Good. Now, I wish to speak with my brother. Tony, I would have you accompany me.”

“You would? Why?”

“My brother would be grateful to see the one who proposed the idea of his continued survival. And, of course, you did save his life once in the past. He will not have forgotten.”

No, I know he hasn’t, Tony thinks, but instead he says, “Uh, great, ok. Just, I’m still technically in recovery, so I’m counting on you to stop him pulling some voodoo on me and making an attempt on my life, okay?”

Thor laughs, which would be fine if that had been 100% a joke.

 

- - -

 

Loki is still sitting in his cell, an inelegant sprawl of limbs in black and green leather, but when he sees their approach he stands and paces to the glass. Up close, he does look tired, skin pale, the creases in the skin around his eyes driven deep, small cuts marring his face. The guard on the cell door unlocks it, all three deadbolts, and the two of them step inside. Tony feels once again like there is a lion in the room, and he resolves to keep his smart mouth shut for once.

“Well, this is an unexpected pleasure,” Loki says, smirk in place. “To what do I owe the honour? Am I to assume this means that I am not to be executed today?”

“I would not allow such a thing, brother,” Thor almost growls out. Loki’s face darkens immediately.

“I have told you countless times. We are not brothers, Thor; we never were.” His attention transfers, suddenly focused on Tony. “Oh, and it seems you brought a friend. Tell me, what are you doing here, Tony Stark? Surely you are still too weak for active duty.”

“You’ll have noticed my absence from the fight earlier, then,” Tony says, careful. “I’m on the mend though, faster than I expected.”

Loki catches his eyes, suddenly, and although there’s no falling feeling this time Tony does see something glitter sharp and amused. “Indeed? Well, that is fortunate. I had thought you mortals healed slowly.”

“Maybe I’m just lucky, you know, someone up there must like me,” Tony says, which is treading just close enough to the truth to get his meaning across.

Loki raises an eyebrow. “Maybe.” He turns back to Thor. “Why did you bring a mortal here?”

“Tony Stark has been a great friend to you, Loki,” Thor says, and something touches his voice which says that he is grateful, even if his brother isn’t. “The others would have you sent back to Asgard for execution. He argued well in your favour.”

Did he,” Loki says, calculating, and Tony risks meeting his gaze again to see those green eyes bright and almost… yes, smiling just around the edges. “Most interesting.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not a huge fan of planned execution,” Tony says because he feels like he needs some kind of justification. “Came too close to it myself, and I don’t want any more souvenirs, thanks.” He taps the arc reactor in his chest, and sees Loki’s eyes alight with understanding. No, I haven’t forgotten, Tony thinks, and I owe you more now, I haven’t forgotten that either.

“You are an unusual human, Tony Stark,” Loki says, voice even, giving nothing away. “I would like to further discuss matters with you later.”

“Uh, I’m not really sure – ”

“Later.” Loki turns away from them, but Tony can see the exhaustion weighing on him. “I think it’s time for you to leave now. Both of you.” Loki’s voice turns sharp, and he seems to be wilting slightly within his frame. Thor nods, and turns to go. Tony reaches the door first, and hears the god behind him pause.

“It is good to see you, brother. Even under such circumstances.”

“You always were so sentimental,” Loki says, smirk audible, and Thor sighs slightly as he steps out of the cell. 

Chapter Text

The next day, Tony is in his workshop, ostensibly trying to repair the damage to his suit. What he’s actually doing is tinkering; fiddling around with various wires, scattering designs across his many glowing monitors, moving things about the workshop just for something to do with his hands. He’s got automatic systems repairing the suit anyway, and he’s bored with constantly having to just build the same thing over and over. The prototype for his new suit is starting to take shape, with all the major panels already manufactured and awaiting assembly, but that can’t hold his attention either.

 

He can’t focus, thoughts once again snared around Loki like a tangled net. What is going on? I want to know.

 

He’s not surprised when, sometime in mid-morning, a sound like a doorbell chimes and a light begins to flash in the corner of his screen.

“Yeah, what’s up, JARVIS?” he asks, shuffling a virtual design around in the air.

“Loki Laufeyson is requesting your presence, sir.”

He pauses. “Is he now? What do my superiors think of this?”

“They seem to think that it is your own fault for allowing him to be kept here in the first place.”

Tony grins, because they don’t know the half of it, and picks up a rag to wipe the machine oil off his hands. “Tell our guest that I’ll be right up.”

“Certainly, sir.”

 

Loki’s been moved to a different cell overnight, one which at least has proper walls and places to sit down which aren’t the floor. When Tony steps in, hearing the door shh closed behind him, Loki is facing away from him, looking out of the window down onto the city view below him through the criss-cross pattern of the wires reinforcing the glass. He turns around at the sound of the door, and smiles.

“Tony Stark. How’s the wrist healing?”

Tony stretches his arm out, feeling bold. “It’s doing pretty good.”

Loki takes his arm in his hands, fingers light and cool on his skin. He tips the wrist so it catches the light from the window and runs one finger across the line left behind by the stitches the medical team put in, just barely brushing it over the non-stitched patch of new-looking skin right above the artery. “You were lucky to have escaped so lightly.”

“I seem to have more good luck than normal recently.”

Loki tips his head in acknowledgement of that, and in the way the light plays across his face, Tony sees something unexpected.

“You look like crap.”

Loki quirks an eyebrow. “Well you’re hardly the paragon of beauty yourself, but I wasn’t aware we were going to stoop to personal insults so soon.”

Tony grins, because he’s not quick enough to stop it. Circumstances aside, he likes Loki’s sense of humour. “You look tired, is that better for your delicate sensibilities?”

Loki says nothing, and turns back to the window. He presses his hands against the glass.

“Come on, don’t try to pretend I’m wrong. We could never have caught you if you were at full power. Not to mention you’re looking pretty beat up right now. What’s going on?” He’s aware that that’s a loaded question, but he lets it stand.

“There was a… a difference of opinion, between me and one of the others.” One of the other supervillains, huh? How long have you been in cahoots? “I dealt with it, but it cost me a great deal of time and resources.” He seems to be considering something as he stares down at the neat grid-pattern of the streets below. “Tell me, why did you not want them to execute me?”

“I told you. I’ve come too close to it myself to see it in a particularly positive way.”

“Tell me that story,” Loki says, turning to pin him under that bright green gaze.

Tony steps up to stand next to him, looking out across the rooftops. “Only if I get something in return.”

“You think you are in a position to be striking deals with me?” Loki sounds just a tiny bit insulted, and Tony hasn’t forgotten what he owes him.

“You’re the one in the prison cell, aren’t you?”

Loki narrows his eyes. “What would you have from me?”

“Information. Seems only fair to trade like for like, no?”

“Very well.” When Tony turns to look, Loki is studying him with a startling focus. It makes him feel a little uncomfortable, as if he’s revealed something he shouldn’t have. “You have a deal.”

Tony takes a moment to collect himself. He doesn’t think he’s ever told anyone the full story of his arc reactor – not the complete, unexpurgated version. Normally he follows the glamorized tale which he likes to spin to the press – brave American hero, dramatically captured, went through great hardship and personal pain to escape and so found his true calling, defending the free world. It’s all true in essence, but some of the details are a little bit sketchy. He knows that’s not going to cut it with Loki, because lying to the god of lies is a stupid plan on all fronts.

“I was captured by the Ten Rings terrorist group because my best friend in the whole world paid them to get me out of the way,” he says, in a rush, and tracks Loki’s movement by watching his reflection.

“He betrayed you?” Loki’s voice is soft but there’s an undercurrent like the pull of a riptide.

“Yeah, just a little.” Tony runs a hand through his hair, already regretting starting this. No going back now. “Sold me out to them so he could have my company for his own and continue selling my fucking weapons to the highest bidder, no matter if they were going to be used on women and children or on the terrorists themselves.” Tony can feel his own fingers flexing against the glass, old hatred and anger and betrayal coursing through him, bitter with age. “So he ships me out to Afghanistan to demonstrate some new weapons, sells it to me as a real nice holiday, little morale boost for the troops, Tony, don’t you worry about the company, safe in my fucking hands – ” He stops, and has to breathe once before he can carry on.  “That sort of thing, you know, and then my convoy gets ambushed and I end up with a handful of shrapnel in my chest, ready to skewer my heart at any given moment. And then the one nice guy I met in the whole damn operation hooks me up to an electromagnet and a car battery and saves my life.” Tony stops, because he thinks his voice might shake. He feels raw and on edge.

“This man who saved your life…” Loki starts, clearly expecting the answer.

“Dead. He died to give me enough time to escape.” That leaves a sick taste in the back of Tony’s mouth. I told him not to, I tried to stop him, it wasn’t my fault. He can’t bring himself to say that. He takes a moment to breathe, and then taps the circle of the reactor that shows through his shirt. “This is just a power source to keep the shrapnel out. Made a few adjustments since then, but that’s its basic purpose. And yeah, this could probably give way more power than I use it for and no, you can’t have it.” He knows he’s shaking, just slightly, but hopes Loki won’t notice. “They were going to kill me once they thought I’d outlived my usefulness. I’m just lucky that they didn’t catch on to what I was doing before I fought my way out. Obie, the guy who betrayed me, he had a go at finishing me off as well. Took my arc reactor for his own, never mind the consequences, never mind that I was supposed to be someone he cared about. And now here I am, protecting the free world. Funny how life works out. Arms manufacturer to an actual weapon” His jaw is clenched tight.

“What of the man who betrayed you?” Loki’s barely moving, seeming to drink in the story, eyes intense.

Tony closes his eyes for a moment. “Dead. Almost took me with him.” He turns away, pacing back across the room to stall any further questions. “So do you get it now? I’m not going to be like him, I refuse. And I’m not going to let anyone put you down like some dog just because it’s more convenient, just because you’re in our way.” He feels like he might throw up; he didn’t mean to say quite so much. Suddenly he can’t stand it here under Loki’s intense gaze, and he turns to the door. “Hope that answered your questions. No need to thank me, it’s entirely selfish motivation, as always.” He taps firmly on the metal of the door, and the guard outside releases the automatic locks. He doesn’t turn to look back as he leaves.

 

The guard is giving him a funny look. He doesn’t really get why until he catches his reflection in the glass window next to the door. He’s pale, and he looks a little crazed.

“Man, what the hell did that psycho do to you?” the guard asks, studying Tony’s face.

Tony shakes his head. “It wasn’t that psycho that did it.”

Chapter Text

Tony shuts himself away in his workshop for a few days, working intently on the prototype for his new suit, letting the automatic repairs run in the background. He likes this better; metal can’t judge him for his actions or look at him with pity. After he puts a hammer through one of the plate-glass windows, there’s not even his own reflection to argue with. He loses himself in the spit of the soldering iron and the smell of hot wires, and refuses to let anyone in. Luckily, JARVIS knows better than to try and persuade him otherwise. Plenty of the others try – Pepper knocking on the glass, she must have come up in a rare free moment, Steve trying to talk to him, even Thor, who isn’t great at comfort but who tries hard anyway. Fury comes down once, and Tony can see him yelling, because that’s what he does. He keeps all of them locked out, even though their access codes should work (well, he put the codes in place. Of course he’d made sure he had the ultimate say-so), and leaves the speaker system muted. Every so often one of them will bring him food and leave it outside the door; when they’re gone he’ll relent and eat it.

 

What surprises him, four days after he locks himself in, is the note that accompanies a plate of pasta which he wolfs down when his hands start to cramp from holding tools for too long. It’s folded over on itself and sealed with a thin strip of tape. The paper looks odd – thicker and heavier than the cheap stuff they tend to use in the facility. It looks old.

 

Tony knows who this is from already. He uses a scalpel that’s lying around on his desk to slit open the tape, and unfolds the note.

 

In beautiful, flowing writing that wouldn’t look out of place in a calligraphy display, is a single sentence:

 

You did not leave me to die; you are nothing like him, Tony Stark.

 

Tony stares at the words inscribed in black ink. He vaguely wonders how Loki got ink, and paper, and got this note to him. But then, Loki is magic. He can probably do much more than that. He reads the line again, then folds the note back up, carefully. He feels a little better, although he can’t pin down why. Maybe because he’s always felt like that green glare of Loki’s can read into the deepest corners of his soul. Maybe because it’s true, he couldn’t even stand to let Loki die when they were trapped under a building. He thinks of Obie, pulling the arc reactor out of his chest, leaving him to die in his own living room.

 

 I’m nothing like him.

 

He goes back to work, a little slower, less frenetic, and the next time Steve comes to the door he switches on the speaker connection.

“Hey, Steve. Can I make a request?”

 

- - -

 

Even under armed guard and with his hands cuffed behind his back, Loki sweeps into the workshop like he owns the place. He looks around with a cool, commanding gaze, taking in the racks of machines, the prototype suit against the far wall, the scatter of plans and holograms and wires that cover absolutely everything, Tony’s current suit standing off to the side, repairs just complete, a robot arm touching up the latest paint job on it.

 

“Ah, thanks,” Tony says, barely looking up after waving the door open. “Just leave him over here, boys, then you can get back to whatever it is you guys do when you’re not cluttering up our halls.”

The guards exchange an uneasy look. “We’re not supposed to leave Mr Laufeyson unattended, sir.”

Tony looks up properly this time, and fixes them both with his best I’m an Avenger and you’re just hired help look. “He’s not unattended. I’m here. Now run along, before I’m forced to eject you from my workshop.”

They exchange another glance before leaving, and Tony suspects he’ll have to answer to Fury about this later. Loki looks unfazed by the exchange, still examining the workshop. After a few seconds he seems to realise Tony is there, and smiles. “I suppose I should thank you for granting me this excursion from my cell?”

“You might not want to; I’ve only got you here to pick up on my half of the bargain.” Looking him over, Tony beckons Loki forwards. “Gotta take these cuffs off you first.”

“I’m not going to argue there.” Loki stands still so that Tony can pick the locks before rubbing his wrists as the cuffs are removed. “So what information is it you desire from me?”

“Do you just not know how to talk like you’re from this century?” Tony asks, matching Loki smirk for smirk, watching as the god trails his fingers over a monitor to see the data scatter under his fingers. “I want to see what your magic is really like. Know thy enemy and all that. Stand over here.”

Loki obliges, stepping up to the clear square of floor in which Tony has installed a multitude of sensors. He tried this once with Thor, but just ended up with a lot of shorted electrics. He’s hoping that this time he’ll get better results.

“What are you looking for?” Loki asks, seeming interested as he watches the flickering monitors around him.

“I don’t even know.” Tony gives him a grin. “Anything I can find, I guess.” He adjusts a few dials, gets the scanning field focused on where Loki is standing, then steps back, tablet in hand. “Okay, all set.”

Loki studies the floor beneath his feet, and Tony wonders suddenly what he can see there, if he can look through the tiling to the sensors underneath. “What would you have me do?”

“Something small. And non-destructive, thanks, because I wouldn’t put it past you to blow up this whole place for a laugh.” Tony’s itching inside, because he finally might get to see what makes Loki tick.

Loki laughs, head tipped back, then settles himself, makes a half-motion with one of his hands –

 

 – and vanishes.

 

The sensors go wild. Tony very nearly panics, but gets a handle on himself. There’s no reason for Loki to run now; if he was going to escape he could have done it at any time. It’s just a trick. He looks at what the readings are telling him. Sure enough, they all say that Loki is still there, stood in exactly the same place. He’s just no longer visible. After the first initial leap of power, the gauges all settle down to a low background hum. Interesting.

“Alright, that’s good. Thanks for the almost-heart attack, by the way. You can stop now.”

Loki blinks back into view, looking amused. “Do you not trust me, Stark?”

“Not even one inch, Loki.” Tony can’t get his mouth around ‘Laufeyson’ easily enough, and he’s decided that he’s had enough of this last-name bullshit.

Loki smiles, slow and just a little deadly. “Very wise, Tony.

Tony meets his gaze like a challenge, and makes a small adjustment to the sensors. “Right. Next test. Something else. And if you could do it without almost sending me into cardiac arrest, that would be lovely.”

 

After half an hour, Tony has collected more data than he’s managed in the past six months of analysis out in the field, and the two of them are taking a break, leaning on worktops and drinking coffee from the coffee machine that Tony refuses to relinquish from the basement. He feels a little weird making coffee for the Norse god of lies, but his life has taken so many strange turns since he first became Iron Man that he’s sort of got used to just rolling with whatever comes his way, and it seemed rude to make some for himself and not offer any to Loki. Besides, he doesn’t think they even have coffee in Asgard, if Thor’s first reaction to it was any indication, and it’s kind of funny to watch Loki sniff at it suspiciously before trying it.

“So,” he ventures, swirling the contents of his mug while he selects his words carefully. “Mind telling me what you’re doing here?”

Loki flicks a look at him out the corner of his eye. “You asked me here to run some tests.”

Tony barely suppresses the eye-roll. “Yeah, because you really thought that was what I was asking.” He puts down his mug with a clink and turns to face Loki properly. “Why are you here in the Avengers facility, not out on the streets causing your very own signature brand of chaos and destruction?”

“I am a prisoner here,” Loki says, voice neutral.

“Don’t give me that. You just demonstrated 20 tricks in a half hour and I’d say a good three-quarters of those you could use to escape without lifting a finger.”

Loki jerks his head up, sharp, and Tony doesn’t miss the look he casts at the ceiling. “Relax. I designed the surveillance in here. Control room only gets what I want them to.”

Loki doesn’t relax. “What are you suggesting?” His eyes are sharp and cold, and the air temperature seems to drop a little.

“I’m suggesting that maybe you’ve got some reason for staying here, and that if you have I’d like to know so that if it all blows up in my face I’ll be ready.”

Loki pushes off the worktop, radiating anger for a few seconds, then seems to slump within himself. He drops into a desk chair, and gazes at the floor, eyes unfocused. Tony waits.

Loki scrubs a hand across his face. “Do you ever get tired of being the person everyone expects you to be?” he asks, voice low and toneless. Tony moves along the desk a little so that he’s leaning in front of where Loki’s sat collapsed, with their feet resting next to each other.

“Why d’you think I lock myself down here sometimes?” Tony smiles, no snarky edge to it for once, as Loki looks up at him. “What, you expected it to be ‘for science’?” There’s something lost-looking in Loki’s eyes, and for a second Tony almost forgets that he’s an ancient god who has lived for millennia. “Is that why you’re here? To give you a reason to stop?”

Loki drops his head again, hair hanging across his face. “I don’t… I don’t even know.”

“What happened to you?” Tony asks, quiet, not really expecting a response.

 

To his surprise, Loki tells him.

 

It takes a while. Tony listens, and stays quiet, which takes some effort on his part. But he can recognise the need to talk until you’re done, and Loki looked strung out enough to snap at him if he made any interruption. He has to bite his tongue at some parts, though, and is forced to twist his fingers together at the one moment when Loki’s voice shakes, just the once, as he speaks of finding his true heritage. The taste it leaves in Tony’s mouth is uncomfortably familiar, and he remembers flashes of childhood, birthdays with his father dashing through the kitchen and not even saying hello, complex clockwork figures that were pushed aside without even being looked at, a request for a hug turned away with a Tony, go bother your mother, I’m busy. Watching Loki spill his past, Tony feels a little like he’s looking at a mirror. Except it’s so much worse, because Loki’s had a thousand years of feeling unwanted, unworthy, weak, and then just as he finally found his feet again on Earth and could carve out what he wanted, Thor shows up again to knock him down and absorb gratitude like he’s made to do.

 

When Loki runs out of words, the two of them sit there, wrapped in the cool blue glow of the monitors, silence complete around them save for the soft humming of the machines that populate the workshop. Eventually, Tony has to say something, because he can’t do protracted silence.

“Didn’t you ever guess why you were different?”

Loki shakes his head. “Never. I knew I was, it was difficult to ignore when I was surrounded by people who prided strength over brains and told me I was weak for wanting to learn, but I never even dreamed… You have to understand, the idea that of all things, I had to be Jötun…” He says the word like it tastes bad in his mouth. “Have you ever hated anything so much, you feel dirty even looking at it? Can you imagine how it feels to be told that you are not what you thought you were, that instead you’re the creature that is so low that people won’t even deign to spit on you – ” He breaks off, staring at his own shaking hands.

Tony, feeling a little like he’s approaching a wild animal, sets a hand on Loki’s shoulder. He can feel the suppressed flinch. “You’re not a creature.”

Loki stands up with enough force that Tony has to step back. He seems very tall like this, towering close. “Oh yes? Would you say that if you saw what I really am?” He hesitates for a second, teeth bared, then closes his eyes.

 

Like ink spilled into milk, blue begins to swirl across his skin. Tony watches, fascinated. It bleeds into every corner of his skin, painting it. Ridged markings appear, darker blue, curving across his forehead and down onto his neck. As Loki re-opens his eyes, they are deep red, like the colour of old blood. This time Tony knows the room is colder; the hair on his arms stands up.

“Do you see now?” Loki hisses, voice filled with acid. “I am a monster.”

Tony stares for a second. “You look…” He’s not quite sure how that sentence ends. Different would definitely fit. So would stunning, or maybe, like you could take me apart without exerting yourself at all. “Can I…” He hesitates, then decides to hell with etiquette. “Can I touch you?”

Loki looks at him like he’s the one who just changed colour. “Why would you want to?” he asks, voice full of revulsion. “Fine. Do it, if you really have to.”

Carefully, moving slow like he’s handling a spooked horse, Tony lays his fingers on the back of Loki’s hand. It’s cold – cold enough to send a shock up his arm and turn his fingertips a little numb. He traces one of the raised markings with a finger, ignoring the ache of cold. Getting bolder, he raises his other hand to brush lightly across the markings on Loki’s face, tracking the sweep of them where they disappear up into his hairline.

“God, would you just look at you,” he breathes, without meaning to. As it turns out, that was a mistake.

Loki moves back, breaking away from his touch. “I have looked. I am disgusting.”

Tony shakes his head, still mesmerised. “You’re not. You’re amazing.”

Loki looks away from him, looking slightly sick, and as he turns his skin fades back to pale, eyes lightening to green. “And you are blind.”

Tony hesitates on what to say to that, rubbing the tips of his fingers together where they are still numb. Loki sees it. “You see? Even my touch is poisoned.” He turns away sharply, looking ready to swirl around and head for the door, and Tony acts without thinking. He grabs Loki around the wrist, curling his fingers together. He knows that he has no hope of holding the god here against his will by force alone, but hopefully –

Loki stops, although he tugs his wrist free almost immediately.

“Will you listen to me?” Tony asks, trying to put as much force into his glare as possible.

Loki shifts his eyes to the side, still tense with anger. “Be quick about it.”

Okay, Tony thinks to himself. Don’t fuck this up for once in your life. “You’re not a monster. You’ve been raised to see one and I get that, believe me I do. But, just… God, to look at you. I’ve never seen anything like it. Looking from the outside… you’re exquisite.” He stops there, aware of Loki’s eyes on him.

“You really mean that,” Loki says, narrowing his eyes. “Why? Why would you see anything worthwhile in a – in a creature that should be locked away – ”

Tony almost throws something, because he’s always had a short fuse. Instead, he snaps, “God, would you just listen to yourself? It’s like talking to a wall for all the input I feel I’m having – ”

“No one asked you for your input, mortal –

“Oh yeah, name calling, way to make your point – ”

Loki snarls at that, inarticulate, and then raises one hand, slashing it across the air in front of him.

 

There’s a flash of green light, Tony is knocked backwards, and when his eyes clear Loki is gone. Alarms howl across the facility.

“Loki Laufeyson has left the facility,” JARVIS tells him from the ceiling. “And may I commend you on your diplomacy when dealing with dangerous criminals, sir?”

Tony glares ineffectually. “Watch yourself, smart-mouth, I can re-write your programming any time I like.”

Staring at the even more scattered mess of his workshop, Tony feels a little helpless. He shouldn’t have lost his temper like that, he knows, but then he shouldn’t have had the god of lies in his basement anyway. He can’t quite work out where to go from here.

 

He makes a stab at straightening some of the mess in the lab, ignoring the hollering alarms, and then has an idea. He opens the file on the readings he has taken from Loki. Sure enough, the scanners caught the moment he vanished. With a little computer trickery, and just a tiny bit of codebreaking and internet trespassing, Tony has a pretty good idea of where the god has vanished off to.

 

The facility is in chaos, trying to silence alarms and find out what the hell is going on and who is responsible for all this. Tony goes over to where his suit is standing by itself, paint still drying.

 

By the time someone spots him leaving, it’s too late to stop him.

Chapter Text

 

Tony’s a little surprised by where the co-ordinates he’s following lead him. He’s not sure what he expected – high-tech secret lair, probably – but a swish apartment wasn’t it, though on reflection it makes perfect sense, all things considered. Tony lands on the balcony with a clang, and through the window he sees Loki, who was stretched out on the couch with his hands over his face, look up sharply. To be polite, Tony knocks carefully on the glass. Loki motions the sliding door open with a flick of his fingers, and returns his hands to over his face. Tony takes this as a good sign, because Loki could just have easily brushed him clean off the balcony with that gesture, and even if the fall wouldn’t kill him in the suit, it would have hurt. He steps inside, joints hissing softly, and removes his helmet.

 

“I suppose you’re here to bring me back into custody?” Loki says, voice dull and slightly muffled from under his palms. “It’s only fair to warn you, I’m not going to let you.”

Tony folds himself to half-kneel on the floor next to the couch with a clatter of metal. “Nope.”

Loki lifts his hands again to look at him, eyes narrow and untrusting.

“I came here to talk to you.”

“Then talk,” Loki says, sounding tired.

Tony thinks fast, and talks faster, feeling his tongue trip away from him of its own accord. “I spent half my life feeling like I was never worth as much as I should be. Every time I tried to prove myself, I was just told that I should have done better, told that my dad would have done it faster, neater, whatever. And I’m not going to try and pretend that it’s even slightly on the same scale as you, because to be honest it sounds like your family could outrank mine on any given scale of dysfunctional you could name, but what I’m saying is that when you only ever hear that you’re not good enough, you end up believing it. And sometimes it’s just not true. Just because you’re not Thor doesn’t mean you’re worthless – ” Tony cuts off as Loki sits up, twisting to face him, their eyes level.

“What am I worth, then? I am weaker than him, I am corrupted by my heritage, I am his shadow. What am I worth?” There’s a harsh edge to his voice, sharp like the shivering of a knife and just as deadly.

Tony scrambles in his brain. “You’re a hell of a lot smarter, for one thing. Thor’s never going to be a tactician, he can only ever act first, think later. And the things you can do with magic, you don’t know what I’d give to pick you apart to see how all of that works, it’s amazing. You make it look so easy. God, ever since we first started fighting you, all I’ve wanted to do is get a look at how you do it, do you know that? And you understand thing so well. You could probably answer half the questions on the origin of the universe given a little time, and I know plenty of people who would kill for that kind of ability.” He has to stop himself rambling, because Loki absorbs the praise like a sponge, giving no indication he’s heard any of it, and Tony wants to continue because he’d put money on the fact that Loki’s never heard enough of this and far too much Why can’t you be more like your brother, the same way Tony’s always heard Well, he’s not quite as good as his father. He tries to order his thoughts a little. “All of that has worth. Maybe not to everyone, but to those who matter – you’re worth all of that.”

Loki just looks at him for a few seconds, green eyes flickering across his face as if he’s trying to find some hint of a lie there, as if he would need to try. Then he hisses something out between his teeth, a sound like exasperation, curls his cool fingers around the back of Tony’s neck just above the line of the suit, pulls him closer, and kisses him.

 

Tony’s brain short-circuits for a second. Oh, he thinks, not very coherently. This explains a few things. He feels like the piece he’s been missing all this time has dropped into place and the whole tangle he’s been snared in for the past few months has fallen open in front of him. Loki’s mouth is cool against his; skin a few degrees below normal. He’s also surprisingly gentle, and Tony is reminded of Loki in his workshop back home, tasting the Velkias leaves in his mind with that light brush of his fingers. This feels slightly hesitant, though, and so Tony pushes forwards into the kiss, because he wasn’t expecting it but he’s not about to stop either. Loki makes a small, almost pained noise, and trails his fingers across Tony’s cheek. His hand is shaking just a fraction, and Tony can feel the same tremor throughout his whole body. He wants to ask why, to dig inside Loki’s head and find out everything, and then he can because Loki backs off, breaking the kiss.

“I – I didn’t intend to do that,” he says, green eyes wide and dark. Tony licks across his own lips, and catches the faintest hint of winter on them.

“Intentional or not – ” He stops, shakes his head to gather himself. “Why are you shaking?”

Loki looks at his hands, seeming surprised. “I don’t know.” His voice shakes on that, too. “What am I even doing?” He’s suddenly all sharp agitation, shifting warily, and Tony thinks that maybe what he’s seeing here is Loki right on the edge of what he can take. “We can’t do this. We are enemies, Tony, you’ve said so yourself so many times. Once again, what I want is what I can’t have – ”

“Hey, don’t I get a say in what you can and can’t have here?”

“Yes, that’s why I can’t have you!” Loki’s voice scrapes in his throat, and there’s an edge to it that sounds like desperation.

“You don’t even know what I’d choose yet,” Tony says, and he can feel the itch of disobedience on his skin. Don’t ever tell me I can’t.

“Why would you choose me? Tony Stark, the great inventor, you could have anyone at all if you tried, why would you want me, the bastard son of a monster?”

Tony shakes his head, just once, because some people just won’t listen, and grips both of Loki’s shoulders to pull him closer, and kisses him again, not so gentle this time. He runs his tongue against Loki’s mouth, tastes frost there. It sparks something inside him, a tug of want, and he bites gently at Loki’s lips to let him feel it too. He shifts a hand across the back of Loki’s neck, careful not to let his metal finger-guards scratch, and kisses until he relaxes slightly, stops fighting. Tony pulls back just enough so he can look Loki in the eyes.

“I’ve never been any good at doing what’s expected of me. Maybe that’s why.”

Loki studies him for a moment, eyes unreadable, then drops his head slightly and nods. “I always thought you were the insane one in the Avengers.”

Tony laughs, and damn, he always knew he liked Loki’s humour. “Sanity is overrated, don’t you think?”

Loki smiles, and it twists into his usual smirk. That’s a good sign, so far as Tony can tell. He stands up, pulling Tony up with him as if he’s not covered in metal and weighing about twice what he normally would. As he straightens, he seems to shrug off the weight of exhaustion and age-old sadness that had been covering him. “We should return to the Avenger’s facility. They’ll be missing you.”

Tony smirks at that. “They’ll be missing you more. I think there may be about two alarms you didn’t set off in your dramatic exit. Better put that silver tongue to work, you’re going to need a hell of an excuse.”

Loki raises an eyebrow, and Tony can see that superior image he wears falling back into place. “Really? I would have thought my reasons were fairly transparent; it’s you who needs to explain why a prisoner managed to slip away under your watch.”

Tony opens his mouth to respond, but stills in place before he can speak, because he didn’t quite think that all the way through. Loki grins, looking far too pleased.

Tony bristles for the show of it. “It’s not that complicated, stop wearing that face. You fancied a quick stroll outside, busted out of my workshop by sheer misfortune, and then I came and got you back – and, hey, you’re the one who needs to explain that.”

Loki laughs. Then, moving quick, he steps into Tony’s space and fixes his hand around the just-repaired arm of the suit. His fingers push in, and for a split second Tony feels a flash of déjà vu. But Loki doesn’t crush his suit into his bones; he lifts away his hand, leaving its shape pressed into the metal below.

“What was that for?” Tony asks, while at least a third of his mind starts calculating the kind of grip strength that could bend metal like that.

“Credibility. No point telling everyone you recaptured me if you go and blow it by turning up completely unharmed.” Loki smiles in a way which is far too open and honest for Tony to trust him. “Don’t worry, I won’t leave any permanent damage.” And he grabs the edge of the chest panel and peels half of it off like it’s made of plastic.

 “Hey,” Tony says, stepping back quick, staring down at the underlayer of the armour with its network of wires exposed. “Don’t go making it too believable, I just fixed this.”

Tony sees Loki’s eyes glitter bright with amusement just before the god drags the rough edge of one of his own gauntlets across the side of his face. It scratches deep, dragging sharp red lines across the white of his skin, and it does look like he’s been hit round the face. For a second, Tony sees in his mind’s eye the image of blue skin painted with dark blue lines, but he doesn’t share this. He does wince in sympathy, though. Loki catches the movement, Tony can tell from the flick of his eyes, but he doesn’t react, just passes over a knife which appears within his fingers like a cheap conjuring trick except without the trick. Tony scores the knife down his suit, scratching it enough to look convincing without doing any proper damage. Then, because showmanship is everything, he jams it into the wrist mechanism of his left hand. The joint complains, then grinds to a halt. He knows exactly which wire he’s cut; he can repair it in seconds. But it looks good. Loki smiles.

Now you look convincing.”

Tony kisses the smug look right off his mouth, and it tastes a little like victory.

Chapter Text

Predictably, when they get back to base, everything is in chaos. A squad of SHIELD soldiers run past in tight formation to a fleet of waiting cars, the more senior agents are shouting into headsets, and the Avengers are about to move out. The first thing Tony is greeted by is a shout of “Where the hell have you been?” Steve looks furious, which is pretty unusual for him. “We need to – ” He cuts off, because that’s the moment at which he looks properly and sees Loki, hands bound together, slumped sullenly in Tony’s grip.

“Sorry I’m late,” Tony says, dialling up his asshole persona as far as it’ll go. “I had to go get something back.” He gives Loki a little shake for good measure, which earns him a hot glare from the god. He’d probably have got a sharp retort, too, if it weren’t for the fact that Loki had tied a gag into his own mouth.

Thor frowns, studying the angry red scratches across Loki’s face. “My brother is hurt.”

Tony shrugs. “He started it. Look at my suit!” He gestures with his free hand at his mangled chest plate. “Besides, it’s nothing he can’t take, he still had enough energy to make a break for it twice on the way here.”

Loki snarls something inarticulate but probably insulting through the gag. He looks livid, mouth twisted uncomfortably, eyes narrow with anger. Tony can’t tell how much of his behaviour is based off of actually hating being manhandled like this as opposed to just acting, but he feels like he should be handing over an Oscar award.

 

Steve steps forwards, in command as always. “Alright. Good job, Tony, but for god’s sake what have I told you about running off on your own.” He sounds resigned, though; he knows Tony never listens. “Seems you’re lucky, Loki must still be weak from his capture.” Tony feels Loki shift just a little, probably offended, but he keeps his face straight. No sense in giving them away now through a smirk in the wrong place. “Now, I think we need to contain the prisoner. Properly this time.”

 

- - -

 

Loki is marched back to his cell under armed guard, hands cuffed, gag still in place.

Tony wants to go with him – to talk, or to taunt if the situation warrants it, or just to piss off the guards who will now be maintaining a 24-hour watch on Loki, no excuses, no matter how many Avengers are in the vicinity. But he can’t, because as he’s stepping out of his suit down in his workshop, calling to the automatic systems to wake up and start on another bout of repairs, he gets the call through the internal comms system to ‘Get your ass up to my office now, Stark,. Fury sounds, appropriately, furious, so for once Tony doesn’t mess around and gets his ass up to his office. There’s a time and a place for disobedience, after all.

 

Across the desk, Fury fixes him with a one-eyed glare which is still pretty threatening, if a little lopsided. “I suppose this is the point where you come out with some smart-assed excuse as to why you let a dangerous criminal escape on your watch, after disobeying my direct orders, and then decided to go catch said criminal on your own, against all regulations.”

Tony nods, leaning back in his chair, because he’s got this one covered. “Your lackeys didn’t have sufficient security clearance to be present while I was gathering data on Loki. You know me, I’m a stickler for the regulations. And it’s not my fault he escaped.”

Fury looks like he might just pop a vein, which would be kind of entertaining. “Then who’d fault is it? He was under your watch, and he just up and left.”

“Yeah, and then I up and got him back.” Tony’s starting to get annoyed, because this is the bit of being an Avenger he hates, the petty rules and bureaucracy which tie him up more often than not. He doesn’t get on with Fury at the best of times, because authority and him tend to clash. It doesn’t help that he’s a little on edge; wary of being found out. “Look, I told you from the start that I didn’t even want to be part of this team; I’m only here because you need me.” He knows this is a lie; yeah, ok, at the start he’d come on-side because he was needed, but he’s part of the team now. He can’t abandon them that easily. “If you have some kind of problem with me, I’ll go back to doing my own thing and you can stark paying me the money you owe me for all the weapons I’ve designed for you since I got here.”

For a second, it does look like Fury will tell him to get the hell out, but Tony knows he’s not one for rash moves like that. “Unfortunately, you are still needed on the team. And it’s your teammates who’ll pay the price if Loki escapes, and it’s them who’ll be a man down if you go swanning off on your own like you think you’re immortal and wind up getting yourself killed because you picked a fight with the wrong guy. Maybe that’ll help you take this fucking seriously for once.” With that, Fury gestures for him to go.

Tony leaves, letting the door slam with perhaps more force than is necessary. He plays up the anger, because it neatly covers up the fact that he’s currently feeling hugely relieved. Loki’s lies worked – this time. The chance that they might not be as effective next time niggles at him. He needs space, he thinks, and a chance to set his brain back into order. The facility is too crowded right now, SHIELD operatives swarming along the corridors, all of them on high alert. Loki’s made them all twitchy; they’re all thinking the same thing: what if next time, he decides to fight his way out instead of just leaving?

 

Tony’s thinking along slightly different lines. He feels like he’s seeing the whole picture now, or at least as much of it as he’s ever going to get with Loki. But he’s lacking data – he can’t make a correlation, can’t extrapolate forwards to predict what’s going to happen next. Loki’s volatile, he knows that; a variable that can’t be controlled. And SHIELD have a nasty habit of finding out exactly what you don’t want them to. He chews this problem over in his mind. It doesn’t point to a good outcome, overall. For a brief second, he ponders what would happen if he decided to go out to pick up women in bars, then winces at the thought. Probably the result would end up being somewhat radioactive.

 

He goes down to his workshop, because it’s practically where he lives now, and it’s his which means he has the control of who he lets in, and because he needs to check the repairs running on his suit – although, true to his word, Loki only damaged things which could be put back together easily. It’s probably almost finished – apart from a few wires Tony snapped himself, and the new chestplate, the only damage is cosmetic. He wants to work on his prototype, to lose himself in it until he stops thinking, because it’s starting to give him a headache. He’s not cut out to put this much energy into people; machines are never this complicated.

 

He’s not really expecting to find Loki in his workshop, picking at the almost-complete prototype lying on one of the benches. At least this time it doesn’t look like there’s any damage being done; Loki’s picked up one of his screwdrivers and is undoing panel after panel, gazing into the inner workings of the machine. There’s an intense look on his face, like he’s drinking in information, and Tony wonders briefly if that’s what he looks like when he’s doing the same thing. He remembers Loki exploring the touchscreens in here earlier; watching for the way they work. It’s that, Tony thinks in the space between walking in and having Loki notice him, which separates Loki and Thor. Thor is agreeable, and he’s content to take someone’s word for it almost all the time. Loki, though. Loki wants to know.

 

Tony gets that feeling again, like he’s looking in the mirror.

 

Loki looks up, and catches Tony watching him. “Your machines are fascinating,” he says, waving a hand in a gesture which encompasses most of the workshop.

“Thanks,” Tony says, waking up his monitors from sleep with a wave of his hand. “You know, you should get yourself into technology. I bet you could make it do all kinds of crazy things.”

Loki smiles. “I don’t think you want to encourage me to do anything crazy.” He tips his head, eyes focused. “You’ve been having second thoughts, haven’t you?”

Tony smirks, keeping his eyes on his screens. Repairs are already complete on his suit; those automatic systems are good. “I’m way past second. This is a terrible idea, you know that.”

Loki nods, running his fingers across the armour plating of the prototype. “Oh, yes. At best, you’ll never be fully trusted by your team. You might even be forced out. At worst, we level the city between us.” He taps his nails on the armour. “This feels strange. What have you done?”

Tony doesn’t see any reason to lie, not that he’s get away with it anyway. “It’s self-repairing. Designed to put itself back together while still in use; should be useful in long-haul fights. But what you’re probably feeling is the magic-deflection underlayer.”

Loki looks up, meets his eyes. “This is for fighting me.”

“If it comes to it. If I have to. It defends against other energy surges, too. But yeah, I modelled it off the readings I took from you.”

There’s a thin smile just touching the corners of Loki’s mouth. “You know, when I first came to this planet, I greatly underestimated you humans. I didn’t think you capable of being so calculating.”

It doesn’t sound like an insult, but it’s not really a compliment either. “You want me to apologise? You know as well as I do it might turn out to be necessary. I’m not going to go toe-to-toe with you without some serious firepower on my side; you’re too strong for that and you know it.”

“I’m not criticising you.” Loki goes back to his inspection of the armour, running a fingertip along one of its joins, watching the flex of the metal under pressure. “Surely you don’t think that I’m not looking for every scrap of information I can gain while I’m here?”

That sets a thought in motion. “Yeah, that’s a point, what are you doing here? Surely you should be in a cell under so much surveillance that SHIELD scrambles its finest soldiers if you so much as sneeze?”

Loki smirks, still intent on the prototype. “As far as their sensors and cameras are concerned, I am in a cell, although I’m not currently sneezing.”

Tony narrows his eyes a little, trying to see any difference in Loki, and taps at one of his monitors. A scanner starts humming. “So, wait, are you really here? Or are you really there and this you that I’m talking to is just some magical construct?” He steps a little closer, and reaches out to touch the back of Loki’s hand. It feels normal, although the move earns him a raised eyebrow.

“What does your machine tell you?” Loki says. It feels a little like a test, but Tony wants to know, wants to understand how this works, so he checks the monitor anyway.

“It says you’re really here.” He looks up, and tries to look as confident as possible, because he trusts his technology, and he’s not so sure that trust extends to Loki.

“Then your technology is well designed.” Loki’s watching him now, and it strikes Tony suddenly that they’re both as uncertain as the other, both feeling like they just jumped into something without being able to see what lies ahead.

 

Tony can feel the questions the tension in the air, and it tastes like the start of something, and for second they just stand there, the two of them facing each other, neither willing to step forwards, make the first move. It feels like they’re on a precipice, waiting for something to tip them over the edge.

 

A klaxon starts to wail. The sound is loud enough to make them both jump; Tony’s surprised by how twitchy he is. He shoots a look at Loki, who shakes his head.

“Not me this time.” He whips his head around to look at the door. “Someone’s coming.” He vanishes suddenly, leaving no trace at all. Tony half-sees the scanner readings leap once, like a frantic heartbeat, before he hears a clatter of feet on the metal stairs outside and then Steve leans in through the doorway.

“Suit up, Tony. Looks like we’re all needed on this run.”

Chapter Text

Fast forwards a week, and that’s still the last time Tony saw Loki. The city is overrun by a full-on infestation of the self-repairing robots that Tony has already met under circumstances he’d rather not repeat; he’s not sure how often Loki will swoop in and save him while he’s bleeding in alleyways. The things are crawling out of drains and air ducts and anywhere else you care to name, and it’s all the Avengers can do to try and stay on top of them. They seem to have refined themselves a little since the last attack, which makes them more difficult to catch and destroy, and it seems that every time they wipe one out, three come to take its place. They’re ripping up communications networks, sparking explosions in buildings, blocking roads. It’s a mess. The whole team is exhausted, stretched to their limits, running low on resources. Clint’s had to switch to conventional guns, because he’s clean out of arrows. Tony’s down to only his repulsor blasts, because all his ammunition stocks are empty. They’re all battered, bloody, various suits ripped and filthy. One of Tony’s boot repulsors is acting up, occasionally just stopping working for no obvious reason. He doesn’t have any time to fix it. After the first day, when it was clear that this wasn’t going to be a quick fix, the Avengers divided into two teams, trading off in shifts on the streets with four or five support teams of SHIELD’s ground agents around at all times. They’re all working 18 hours on, 6 hours off, trying to keep the streets clear of the pests as best they can, falling into their beds for as much sleep as possible before they’re dragged up again by screeching alarms to get back out and carry on fighting. Tony hasn’t even seen Steve, Thor or Natasha since this whole business began, because they’ve been split up to cover as much of the city as possible and when he’s in the facility they’re still out on their shift. He’s used to running on practically no sleep, but even he’s worn down by this. The days are starting to blur together, endless whirling panoramas of the city skyscrapers and the plain white corridors that lead from his suit’s hangar to his room and back.

 

He wonders how much longer they can do it, but he doesn’t reach any kind of conclusion because his brain feels like it’s full of treacle, sticking up his thoughts and slowing his every movement.

 

He’s nearing the twelve-hour mark of his current shift. He feels like one huge ache all over, limbs exhausted from the stress of controlling the suit, even with its mechanical assistance. That’s becoming less effective, too as wires get damaged and joints work themselves out of alignment. He’s noticed Hawkeye’s aim getting sloppier, although it’s still good enough to make most professional shooters weep if they saw it. Hulk doesn’t seem tired, but then, it’s harder to tell with him. If he’s angrier than usual, Tony doesn’t have the energy to notice. It takes its toll on Bruce more than any of them, though, and Tony’s had to catch him twice now after he almost collapsed when turning back. They’re all running on empty, and the supply of caffeine tablets provided to them every morning can’t keep them going forever. They finally seem to be getting on top of the robots, but it’s been a long struggle. They’ve started obliterating the things once they’re damaged, but it’s taken a lot of energy to get this far and he’s not sure how much more they’ve got to give. He’s already flagging badly, and a lucky shot earlier left his left arm paralysed from the shoulder down where a bullet clipped the joint mechanism. It’s making his flying erratic, and he’s worried about how much more he can take before something serious goes wrong with the suit. Auto repairs can’t handle it any more, and there’s not enough time to run them as it is. All he needs is one serious malfunction and he’s out; he doesn’t like the chances of the team carrying on when they’re cut down to just five people. They’ll try to carry on, sure, but they won’t be half as effective. He’s being more careful now, trying not to throw himself suicide-style into any fight going, because he can’t risk that happening.

 

He’s cruising just above the fight, looking for an opening to attack. Hulk is smashing a path down the middle of the road, scattering robots and cars with equal rage. Hawkeye’s perched up on the edge of one of the roofs, picking off the robots one by one with neat, sharp headshots. Tony watches the machines after they fall down; a lot of them are far more active than he’d like to see. He has his suspicions that the creatures are using a similar self-repairing tech to what he’s trying to install in his suit, only theirs is fully functional whereas his is still a prototype on a bench. That makes him irrationally angry, because he doesn’t like the idea that someone has beaten him to any kind of technology. Luckily, this anger helps push him along a little bit, because he’s just petty enough to want to break someone’s toys if they’re cooler than his. Dodging through the air, he aims a scatter of repulsors bursts at a cluster of the little fuckers. They dart in all directions, but some of them are caught. Most of them explode on the spot, which in some part of his brain he catalogues as fuel driven, not battery powered, and a couple more break into pieces. The pieces try to crawl back together, and he feels a sting of vicious happiness as Hulk crushes them under one enormous foot.

 

Predictably, this is what distracts him, and he doesn’t see the missile being fired from another group until it punches into the side of his chest.

 

The force of it takes him out of the air and sends him careening into a concrete pillar. He can feel several ribs break, along with what feels like every other bone along his right side. The side of his suit cracks inwards, buckling like a tin can. That’s bad; it should have been able to take an impact like that. Maybe it’d taken more damage than he’d first thought, weak points lying in wait under the scratches and dents. Metal fractures, tears at his side, driving into him as he hits the ground. Injuries that deep aren’t good news, he knows immediately, struggling to draw breath. He can taste blood in his mouth through the dirt and dust as he coughs. It’s hard to get enough air. He feels a stab of panic, thinks, punctured lung maybe. Somehow, his comms are still working, and he can hear Hawkeye yelling for backup immediately, we need a medic out here! There’s a hissing of static before the response comes through. “We’re on our way as fast as we can be. Hold on for a few minutes.” That’ll be the other half of the team, currently running their shift in another area. They might have to fight there way through the city; help won’t be arriving any time soon. Through the gap where his faceplate has cracked open and pieces have broken off, he sees another one of the robots lining up for a decent shot at him.

 

He tries to move, because he’s a sitting duck just laying here, but his suit is fighting him every step of the way. The frozen joints lock up, and the sheer weight of it, powered down as it is with no mechanical aid, is holding him down. When he tries to push himself up, he feels stabbing agony through his arm, another broken bone, great. He doesn’t have the strength to get up. Hulk is a couple of streets away, still smashing everything in his path. Hawkeye’s too busy holding off the crowds of machines that surround him; he’s moving in concentrated bursts of energy, trying to get to him, but there’s not enough time. Tony keeps his eyes open, watching, holding his breath. He sees the robot aim at him, no need for it to rush. Time feels very slow.

 

He takes one more sharp, painful breath.

Chapter Text

There’s a sudden flare of white-hot light, and the robot explodes, its fuel tank igniting in seconds.

 

A patter of hot debris stings the exposed skin on Tony’s face. He gasps, spitting more blood onto the ground, and he sees Hawkeye turn too, eyes going wide, rifle swinging up to aim at something behind him. Tony can’t turn to look, can’t even move.

“What in the hell – ” Clint starts.

Tony sees a black boot enter his field of vision as someone steps over him. It’s followed by a swirl of black and dark green, and of course.

“Hey, come to join in the fun?” he slurs, blood painting his lips. His whole mouth is full of its old-penny flavour; it makes him queasy. “I’m feeling a bit of déjà vu here.”

Loki crouches down next to him, and gently peels off Tony’s faceplate. He has his staff with him, which explains the pulse of energy which obliterated the robot, although Tony doesn’t have a clue how he extracted it from the secure storeroom of ‘dangerous artefacts’.

“It seems we’ve changed places now,” Loki says as he curls his fingers under he edge of Tony’s ruined breastplate. “This will hurt.” He rips upwards. The breastplate comes free, the broken edges of it tearing Tony’s skin as they pull out. His vision goes a little fuzzy with pain, and he lets out a tirade of swearing which he hopes Loki will forgive him, given the situation. Loki drops the useless sheet of metal aside just as Hawkeye finally fights his way to them.

“What are you doing here, you’re supposed to be fucking locked away,” he says, taking up a defensive stance over Tony, gun trained steadily on Loki. “You better have a damn good reason for being here,.”

“I’m here to save your friend’s life,” Loki says, voice a little dangerous, and Hawkeye stares.

“Why?”

Loki glares. “Because I choose to. Would you prefer that I left him?” His voice is acid, and Clint wisely backs off. Loki bends back the sides of the Iron Man suit, not very gently, metal distorting like rubber under his hands, and then lifts away the shredded remains of the black bodysuit underneath, already soaked with blood. Tony can’t see his own chest, but from the face he sees Clint make and the tiny crease which appears between Loki’s eyes, he guesses it’s not looking good. He can feel a rattle in his lungs now as he breathes.

 

There’s a sudden crash of thunder approaching, which strikes him as odd, and then the cavalry arrive, looking just as worn down as he is. Natasha levels a gun at Loki immediately, reflexes still razor-sharp despite the fact that exhaustion and long hours of combat have bruised shadows under her eyes and left her favouring her left side slightly. Thor, armour scratched, cape torn, immediately protests and steps forwards, reaching towards his brother. Even Steve looks shaken, worn down, angry. He opens his mouth to speak, but Loki cuts him off before he can start.

“Tony Stark is injured. You can drag me back to the facility if you like, but of you interrupt me now, he will likely be dead within minutes.” This stops the others short, all of them freezing in place. Loki turns away from them, spreading his hands across Tony’s chest, fingers slipping in blood. “I can’t make you any promises, but I will try to save him.”

Tony heaves in a breath, which takes more effort than he likes, and starts coughing again, spitting out red onto the blacktop. In a way, it probably helps make Loki’s point quite well. Steve nods once, and motions to Natasha to put her guns down.

“Alright. Do what you have to.” He levels his eyes on Loki. “But if you harm him in any way, be aware that we will take our revenge.”

Loki nods. “I’m not a healer,” he warns, eyebrows pinching together. He breathes in once to steady himself, then checks the position of his hands on the mess of Tony’s chest. “I need to have no interruptions. Whatever happens, whatever you see, whatever you think I might be doing, do not interfere.”

The others move back, or Tony thinks they do, because he feels like his range of vision is getting narrower. This close, he can see the power starting to gather in Loki’s eyes, turning them an unearthly glowing green. He watches as closely as he can, because who knows if he’ll get an opportunity to observe magic this closely again? His skin tingles, and he remembers the pins and needles feeling of Loki’s healing. It hadn’t been very pleasant before.

 

Loki whispers something that he can only half-hear, in a language he doesn’t understand, and a feeling like touching a live wire blasts through him, like a kick in the chest. He feels his body spasm, trying to arch off the ground as his muscles lock tight, and Loki pushes down on him, leaning with his whole weight to hold him in place. The power crawls across his skin; it feels like it’s being peeled off it hurts so much. Tony grits his teeth together. He won’t scream; he can’t, in case it throws Loki off. He clamps his jaw shut, sealing in all his pain. Darkness is starting to gather at the edges of his vision. He wonders how much more he can take before he passes out.

 

Loki moves his grip, fingers digging in hard, and then sends another blast of power through him, igniting every nerve ending into a frenzy of agony. He doesn’t even have a chance to register the sudden rush approaching blackness before it swamps his vision and he passes out.

 

He remembers the feel of bones shifting in his chest, a searing cold all along his side, and a lot more pain which somehow makes it through unconsciousness.

 

The blackness behind his eyes recedes slowly, fading to grey. It feels like the world is swinging about him, nothing staying still, but at least the agony in chest is gone and he’s no longer coughing up blood. He opens his eyes, registering the dull ache still left in his chest and the sharp, stabbing pain of a broken bone in his right arm. As he moves, struggling against the suit’s weight to try and sit up, he feels hands pressing him back down and he turns to see Loki, eyes fixed on him, bright with something that might be concern in the right light.

“Don’t try to move.” He looks pale, Tony notices, and his hands are unsteady. “I didn’t have the strength to heal you entirely.”

An explosion nearby rocks the street under them, and Loki hunches over him. Debris scatters across them, and Tony realises that Loki’s shielding him from the worst of the blast. He catches sight of Thor, all red cape and swinging hammer, taking out a clutch of robots, and sees another group taken out by the flash of Steve’s shield. There’s a roar of engines, and as he tips his head he sees the transport plane hovering above them, waiting to land.

“They’re waiting for the ground to be cleared,” Loki says, tracking his gaze upwards. “That plane’s for both of us. I’ll get towed off into maximum security, most likely.”

“Too much running off on your own,” Tony says, feeling his lips stick on each other under their coating of blood. Loki’s mouth quirks a little.

“Should I leave you to it next time, then?”

“I’m not going to challenge your decision to come save my ass,” Tony says, and he lets himself smile a little to show he means it. “You’re going to be in trouble over this, though.”

“I’ll survive,” Loki says drily, tipping his head back to watch the plane as it drops towards the clear area the team are fighting to maintain. “Or I’ll leave, if it comes down to it.”

“Don’t,” Tony says, surprising himself. “Don’t leave before I see you, at least.”

The plane lands, engines running, and SHIELD soldiers pour out, jogging in formation towards them. Loki slips a hand around Tony’s wrist, fingers delving between the armour plates until they’re skin on skin, and squeezes just lightly. “Be more careful,” he says, smiling just a little. It’s as close to a promise as Tony thinks he’ll get.

 

He nods, and then Loki lets go and stands up, raising his hands as he’s surrounded by men with guns. One steps forwards and cuffs his hands roughly behind his back, twisting them in a way which looks like it must be painful. They shepherd him away, several of them yelling and gesticulating with guns in a way which makes Tony more than a little worried about twitchy trigger fingers, especially as he can see the sharp white shine of fear in their eyes. Loki complies with their shouted instructions calmly, though, and Tony can’t watch for long because a crowd of medical personnel swarm around him. They start grabbing at him, trying to make him breathe form an oxygen mask, and one of them shines a light into his eye.

“Hey, hands off, I’m fine – ” he tries to say, waving them away, but makes the mistake of leaning on his injured arm as he tried to sit up. It almost buckles under him, and through the pain he thinks, yeah, definitely broken. The med crew helps prop him up, and one of them, with the authority in his stance which must mean he’s in charge, crouches down to eye him properly.

“Reckon you can walk?” the man asks. Tony nods, because he’ll be damned if they have to stretcher him out of here. The team helps haul him to his feet, although he has to clench his jaw on the pain which sparks through him from what feels like a hundred small injuries. The movement jars his broken arm, and the lingering ache from days of flying returns full-force; he ends up leaning on the people around him more than he’d like. Still, they’ve landed the plane close enough that he can just about stagger there, collapsing into a seat as soon as possible. He manages to evade the med crew long enough to start removing the other plates of his armour, which is probably worth little more than scrap now, chest plate ruined and the rest dented and scratched as it is. He struggles with it for long enough that the rest of the crew help him out, levering the plates apart in a way which probably permanently destroys their mechanisms, but he can’t really complain that much. Well, he can, and in fact he does, very vocally, but they don’t listen. Fury has them under far too much control, he thinks, and then one of them tugs too hard while trying to remove his gauntlet, jolting his broken arm, and a wave of pain washes through him, momentarily turning the edges of his vision a fuzzy grey. When he blinks his eyes clear, he looks up to see Loki watching him from inside the ring of armed guards that surround him where he’s sat on the other side of the plane, shackled to an equipment rack. There’s an unhappy twist to the god’s mouth that nags at Tony, but Loki looks away again before he can catch his eyes. Probably it’s because Loki’s sharp enough to make sure that none of the guards catch them staring at each other, because that would be a disaster on all fronts, but it still makes Tony uneasy, worried. Loki’s back to being a problem sat inside his head, dominating his thought process, but he can’t do anything about it while they’re surrounded by SHIELD personnel. His mind tangles around this until someone wrenches a section of armour off with enough force that he can turn and rebuke them, because “That’s highly delicate technology you’re shredding there, would it kill you to be careful with it?”

The medic shrugs, unapologetic. “You could still have massive internal bleeding; it might kill you for us to be careful.”

Tony tries his I’m an Avenger look again. “I think I’d know if I had massive internal bleeding, and not to rain on your pain and misery parade but I think that’s also the reason for our guest over there performing his own version of the Great Escape. I told you, I’m fine, it’s just a few broken bones – ”

“And anything that guest did to you,” the medic interrupts, yanking off another metal plate, and Tony can feel the fragile wires inside tearing, damn it. “I wouldn’t trust him if it was me he was pumping full of magic.”

“Yeah, well, it’s not you, is it, so do me a favour and keep your mouth shut,” Tony snaps. He’s tired, and in too much pain for politeness any more. He wants a drink, and to lie down and not move or a couple of days. “And are we taking the scenic route or something? When the hell do we land?”

Chapter Text

They patch him up in the medical facility back at base. What with the amount of injuries sustained, not to mention all the research SHIELD does in its spare time, they have a state-of-the-art med bay. Tony has to submit to x-rays, scans, and an unreasonable amount of prodding before he’s released. Apparently a message had come through from Fury while he was being transported back – they’re not to let him out until it’s been confirmed that Loki didn’t pull any tricks and leave him more injured than he seems. He takes it with fairly bad grace, because he’s drained, and he thinks while lying inside the MRI machine they insisted on scanning him with, that maybe being healed has sapped his energy in some way. But he can’t research it now, because he’s tired. When they finally relent and let him out, after setting the bone in his arm back into alignment and checking over the thousand small cuts which he’s accumulated, he barely has the energy to make it back to his room. He manages to stagger as far as his bed before falling face-first onto it and sleeping for a full twelve hours, body trying to catch up with the exertions of the past week.

 

He wakes up to light streaming in through the gap in the curtains, blinding him. It feels glorious to not be bodily exhausted, even if he does feel immediately guilty for not being able to support the rest of the team in the moment when he wakes up. Still, there’s no chance of that happening, with one arm in a cast from just below the elbow down, and the rest of his body complaining loudly at having to move at all, even just to roll over in his bed. He feels a little like he’s been kicked all over, and even the area on his side where he was healed feels tight, like the skin’s a little too thin.

“JARVIS, update me on what’s currently going on in the madhouse here.” He sits up carefully, suppressing a wince.

“Yes, sir.” The TV on the wall switches itself on, blue lettering scattering across it like news headlines. “The rest of the Avengers team is still out running shifts in an attempt to control the spread of the robots throughout the city. Luckily, it seems that they are finally starting to contain the infestation; their most recent report shows the area affected has shrunk by approximately 30% from its peak. Also, a specimen robot was recovered sufficiently intact for you to examine; it has been left in your workshop for you to begin work on as soon as is viable.” A picture of the robot, half-smashed, appears on the screen, and Tony leans closer to examine it while JARVIS continues his update. “Currently all of the Avengers team is off-base, and I believe they are combing the city in an attempt to eradicate as many of the robots as they can. The secondary support team is also off-base, with only a skeleton crew running the operations room. Additionally, Loki Laufeyson is currently under interrogation in Director Fury’s office.”

That drags Tony’s attention away from the screen pretty fast. “He is? What’s he being interrogated on?”

“Unfortunately, such details are not available on my mainframe, and the security camera has been disconnected. However, from the talk I can detect in the control room, I believe that it is concerning his actions on the battlefield yesterday, as well as the nature of his escape from the secure vault. This behaviour is considered to be extremely out of character for someone who supposedly wishes to destroy the Avengers team.”

Tony regrets giving his AI so much personality. Machines shouldn’t be able to convey so much veiled sarcasm. “So basically, they want to know why the hell he busted out of here to save my ass?”

“That would be an accurate summary, yes. Director Fury has also expressed an interest in discussing these matters with you, as he believes you may be able to shed some light on them. I can infer from his conversation with Agent Maria Hill that he thinks you may not be so adept at lying as Mr Laufeyson. However, your work with the robot has been classed as a top priority as of four hours ago.”

“Okay, okay, I can take a hint,” Tony says, levering himself out of bed. It hurts, but given the situation he can’t really complain too much. In all likelihood, he’d be dead or in intensive care right now if it weren’t for Loki. He’s… not really sure how he feels about that. He needs to see Loki, in private somewhere, needs it in a way that tugs under his skin, but it seems unlikely that he’ll get the chance any time soon. One thing he does know, though, is that when he does get to see the trickster, he’s going to make sure that he knows exactly how worthwhile he is in Tony’s eyes, because it’s a crying shame that someone with such talents finds himself a waste of space just because he can’t throw some damn hammer. He muses on this a little while in the shower, finally managing to rid himself of the smell of burned metal and the traces of his own blood, but once again he’s stuck in circles, unable to find one clear path. Machines have always been easier to deal with.

 

He heads down to his workshop, detouring through the kitchen to grab a mug of coffee because he’s still not feeling entirely alert, and finds the robot stretched out on one of the benches. Up close, it’s more damaged than he’d first thought. Most of its lower half is crushed, both legs obliterated into what amounts to scrap metal, and he wouldn’t be at all surprised if it turns out that the squashed shape matches one of Hulk’s feet. The upper half is mostly intact, although some of the metal is distorted and stained, as if it’s been caught in a fire. There’s a strange sheen across parts of it, as if the metal is a slightly different alloy to the rest. He wonders if that’s down to the self-repairing element, and if it’s at all similar to the one he’s working on. Intentions aside, this machine is a beautiful piece of engineering. Whoever designed it knew what they were doing. Tony feels his fingers itch to take it apart, to strip away the layers, trace the electricity in its wires, and see exactly how this machine ticks.

 

This time, it’s completely acceptable, so he does, grabbing a wrench and attacking it at one of the prominent joints.

 

It resists him fiercely, he’s only got one hand fully functional. He struggles with it for a couple of hours, trying to make some kind of headway on it. It’s not even that it’s well made – although it is, sleek panelling fitting together almost seamlessly, like the whole thing was cast in one mould rather than being bolted together – but it seems to be actively fighting against him. He’s found the seam down the side of one of its limbs, but when he manages to jam a scalpel blade into the crack to lever it open, he only gets it to show a gap of about an inch (which gives him a tantalising glimpse of wires and circuitry inside, and one of his worklights flashes a reflection off the inner support beams) before the whole thing slams shut like a mousetrap. He dictates a not on this into his database, because it’s a useful defence mechanism to have built in and he’s not above using someone else’s ideas as a basis for his own. He’s a little more careful after that, though, because he doesn’t want to lose any fingers to a bit of inanimate metal, and the edges of that join had been sharp. Besides, what he really wants to do it open up its headpiece, because that’s sure to be where the majority of its computer brain is kept, for no other reason than no one is very inventive when it comes to anatomy of robots. Brains normally go inside skulls, so that’s where they always have to go. Tony always found that very disappointing, because it takes some of the surprise out of things, and so likes to put his computer brains in the least likely places, just for laughs. But just this once he’s glad of it, because it’s that brain he needs to get a proper look at. Once he knows how these things work, it shouldn’t be too difficult to figure out a way around their control systems. Then he can get the machines to tear themselves apart and save the Avengers the effort.

 

The robot’s skull-piece is one smooth, unjointed sheet of metal, and he has to run his laser scanner over it three times before it catches the edge where it’s been fitted together. He’d never have seen it by himself; the line of the join is practically invisible. Workmanship like this shouldn’t be allowed; it’s too perfect. It takes all his patience to find a way to lever it open; most of his tools won’t even fit in, he discovers through trial and error, and he wants to just take a band-saw to it at one point, after he’s been puzzling over this one join for at least half an hour and he’s getting frustrated with the lack of mobility in one hand, effectively paralysed by his cast.. He squashes this urge, because he’s here to find out how it ticks, not to destroy it completely. Still, by the time he finds the one sweet spot that makes the whole thing open up like a flower, he’s stretched to the limits of his attention span. Luckily, what he finds inside is a good enough reward to make it all worth it.

 

The intricate nest of silver wires looks like lace strung through the inside of the creature’s head. They still spark with a faint energy, tracing bright patterns along them like the jittering nerve endings of a recently killed animal. The circuitry is exquisite; Tony’s not sure he could do any better, even if he was trying really hard, and he never does that. It’s got the delicate touch which is the mark of a real master craftsman, because anyone can solder together some wires if they really want to but to create something which looks so delicate it could fall apart at a single touch takes real genius. This looks like a natural construct, like a cobweb spun out of wires and electricity and information. It’s incredibly fragile-looking, like even the slightest touch would shred the wires. The power he can see still glittering its way along the wires doesn’t look like electricity – it’s too bright, and electricity doesn’t move like that, like a fish slipping through water. This looks alive, and he makes a mental note to consult with Loki on the possibility of combining magic and technology (if he ever gets to see him, that is, if they ever manage to sort out the crazy situation they’ve landed themselves in). This definitely looks like a successful attempt – magical energy powering a robot which he wants to have created so badly. Tony picks up his forceps, almost reverential, because he could gather so much information from this, but before he can do anything, a low, unfamiliar voice from behind him says, “Stop right there.”

 

At the same time, the alarms in the room explode into a cacophony of noise. Tony sees UNAUTHORISED INTRUDER splashed across every screen in angry red letters, and he can faintly hear the caterwauling of the alarms up in the main base, too. He raises his hands away from the robot as it lies prone on his table, and turns around. 

Chapter Text

Standing in his workshop, looking as if he owns the place, is a tall figure in a cloak, face hidden behind a metal mask. His hands are also clad in steel. A faint spiders-web of energy is crawling across the metal’s surface, and Tony feels the hairs on the back of his neck prickle. The air tastes of static, like a warning of a thunderstorm. Tony doesn’t need the screens’ flashing messages to know that this means Danger. He’s vulnerable, caught out without his suit on – or even operational, damn it – and one arm out of action. His brain extrapolates forwards of its own accord, and he doesn’t like the picture he gets of where this is going.

“It seems you have something of mine,” the figure says, pointing one steel glove at the machine on the table. The movement brings the spitting energy close to Tony’s face, and he has to fight not to flinch back. It looks like the power he saw inside the robot’s wiring, like a hybrid of electricity and magic, like something that could stop his heart in seconds.

“And you are…?” Tony asks, to avoid articulating this thought. He knows that SHIELD operatives are probably swarming down here as he speaks, following the howl of the alarms, and if he can stall for time he might just make it out of here without needing any kind of major surgery.

The figure tips his head, metal making a slight grinding sound. “Doctor Doom, at your service.”

Tony narrows his eyes at that. “See, I bet you made that name up for yourself. You ought to be careful with that; not everything sounds as cool as you think it does.” Cheap jokes aside, he’s more worried now. These self-styled villains are always tricky to deal with; they’re wrapped up in their crazy ideas of fame and power and glory and it makes them volatile, dangerous.

You ought to be careful who you pick fights with,” Doom counters, stepping a little closer. In the background, there’s a scurry of feet on steps, and out of the corner of his eye Tony sees the first of the SHIELD agents appear outside the door, punching in the access code. For once, he’s glad to see them. Doom raises a hand, curling his fingers into a fist.

 

The door beeps in distress, and stays shut.

 

Tony feels a faint flicker of panic. If his technology fails him -

 

There’s a sharp crack as a soldier outside tries firing his gun directly into the glass wall to the side of the door, but of course this is the place where SHIELD decided to first test its blast-proof glass. Bullets have no effect on it; there’s not even a scratch. The door’s reinforced, too, because apparently the research done in here makes it a top security area. Tony’s fairly effectively trapped. Doom advances on him, metal clanking (badly put together, Tony thinks as his brain scrambles for a solution. Should leave more joint space, or it’ll limit manoeuvrability).

“You and your little team have caused some problems for me recently,” Doom says, menace lacing his voice. “And you, in particular, seem to be in my way.”

Tony backs up a few steps until he’s up against the wall. His suit’s empty hangar taunts him; if only he had it now. He feels exposed. “Why me?” he asks, as he scans the room for any means of attack. “I mean, I’m honoured and all, but I’m guessing you have reasons.”

“You disrupted my plans. If it weren’t for you, I could have taken over so much more peacefully.” He almost sighs on that last word, and Tony can practically taste crazy in the air. “After all, if it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have to fight with the Avengers at all. I could just take control.”

The connection forms in Tony’s mind immediately. “Those leaves – ”

“I would have had you all kneeling at my feet,” Doom says, and slams one hand down on the workbench next to him. The computer screen there fizzes, static dazzling across it. Tony winces, thinking about magnetic fields that close to technology. That screen’s never going to work right again. “But now that option is gone. So it seems that I have to eliminate you, and the rest of your team.”

 Tony tries to edge sideways inconspicuously. “Seems a little extreme, don’t you think? Can’t say I’m a huge fan of this idea myself.”

He hears a chuckle from behind the mask which doesn’t comfort him at all. The echo of madness lies around its edges. “I didn’t really think you would be.”

Doom raises his hands, and the energy crackling on his gloves has built to a steady glow, spitting sparks. Tony feels the static wash across his skin even from a few yards away, the hairs on his skin rising of their own accord. “I’d like to say this will be painless, but unfortunately, that wouldn’t be entirely true.”

He releases the bolt of energy, aimed right at Tony.

 

Luckily, Tony’s ready for it. That’s the good thing about megalomaniacs – they love to talk. And it distracts them (and really, Tony should know. The same thing’s happened to him enough times). As Doom fires at him, Tony ducks and lunges sideways. The prototype for his new suit is standing under the spare assembly rig, just a little way over. If he can get there, he can fight back. But he’s not moving quick enough, not with one arm immobilised. He crouches behind a bank of thick power cables that run along the edge of his workstation, humming with electricity. He’s hoping that the theories his brain is spinning out of thin air are correct. Doom snarls in frustration, and aims at him again. He can hear the crackle of power building, and then there’s a flash and a shower of sparks as the energy swings off target, striking a ceiling light.

 

Tony lets himself smile for a second, listening to the rush of his own breath, loud in his ears. He was right: the magnetic field from the electrical cables disrupted the blast of energy. As the broken light fitting throws down a rain of sparks, making the shadows in the room jump, Tony crawls across the floor, and just makes it to the bench next to his prototype as Doom blasts apart the desk he’d been hiding by. Tony casts his eyes around, but he’s stuck. He can’t stand still to put the suit on when he’s this exposed. He probably couldn’t get into it anyway, because one arm’s in a cast which won’t fit inside the metal panelling. But he might not have the time to think of a way round that, because Doom is stepping forward, cape sweeping through the dust that’s been shaken down from the ceiling. Tony pushes himself up to his feet, because he can’t see what else to do, and raises his head, defiant.

 

- - -

 

There’s a sudden flash, and a boom like air molecules splitting apart under high energy shakes the room around them, and Loki is suddenly there, eyes glowing hot with magic and fury, staff in hand. Doom turns, as much of a spin as possible in the confines of his metal suit, and Tony can just hear him inhale in surprise. He allows himself to breathe a little.

“I thought we agreed, Doom, not to interfere in each other’s work?” Loki says, and if Tony wasn’t 90% sure that Loki was on his side, he’s have been finding something to hide behind, because he’s never heard anyone sound so angry before. “I think I’d count showing up at the Avengers base as some rather strong interference, wouldn’t you?”

“Ah, but I thought we could share them? That was the deal we had before. Just because you reneged on it – ” Doom has to break off as Loki swings his staff up and sends a pulse of magic his way, forcing him to dodge to the left. The blast strikes the wall and shatters outwards, leaving a scorch mark blistered into the paintwork.

“I told you to keep out of my way.” Loki steps forwards, his whole body crackling with raw power. It’s like watching two lions lining up for a fight. The air tastes of smoke, overlaying the sharp tang of pure power, and the display screens are fizzing with static as the backblast of magic washes over them. Tony watches just long enough to see Doom let fly with another bright streak of power, seeing Loki step out of its way as easily as if he’s dancing. It reminds him of seeing Loki spin in the middle of a battlefield while fighting against their team. That seems like a very long time ago now.

 

With the two of them occupied like this, he scrambles past the bench and finally reaches his prototype. It’s untested and some of the armour plating isn’t really attached yet, but it’s all he’s got. Hopefully all the major areas are covered. He’s counting on the new underlayer working as it should, dispersing magic across its surface. He types his access code into the panel set into the wall beside the suit, relieved when the light above it flashes once and turns green. If that hadn’t worked, if it had somehow been disrupted by Doom’s magic, he’d have had to hack into his own computer system to release the deadlock on the suit. He feels a wash of heat across the back of his neck as another magical blast sweeps through the workshop, although he didn’t see who it came from. He turns, to check what’s happening, and almost freezes, panic clawing at him, because he sees Loki on the ground, struggling to push himself up. Doom closes in, and then makes the mistake of leaning closer. Quick as a striking snake, Loki drives his staff upwards into Doom’s chest with a clang and a shriek of metal sliding on metal, forcing him backwards, off-balance. Doom staggers for a second, ungainly in his metal armour, reeling from the strength of the blow.

 

Now Loki’s back up, the air around him shimmering as he pulls power to him, and Tony taps quickly at the wall panel, starting the power-up of his suit. He needs to help out, even with one arm out of action, and he’s almost got a plan. He snags a hand-saw from the bench, and, trying not to wince, begins to saw at the cast on his arm. It’s slow work, especially left-handed, and it takes him far too long to get the cast open, working at an awkward angle and trying to avoid slicing his arm open in the process. It hurts like hell, every movement jostling the broken bone, but there’s little he can do about that. The cast won’t fit into the suit. He’ll just have to take the consequences for it later, if he gets out of here in once piece. He glances up, and outside the workshop, he sees the SHIELD operatives gathered against the glass, watching. They can’t get in; in fact, they seem to have given up trying. Fury must have joined them at some point, because he’s there, arms folded, looking thunderous. Several of the agents seem to be yelling into headsets, probably questioning why their supposedly secure criminal is, once again, not in his cell.

 

Taking a deep breath, and clenching his jaw against the pain radiating up his shoulder from his arm, he lines himself up with the suit and taps the green light on the wall panel. He counts himself lucky that he managed to transfer his prototype over here while he’d been out in the city, fighting against the robots. If he hadn’t, it would still have been lying on a bench, unable to assemble itself. The machines descend from the ceiling, strapping him in to the suit, locking the joints together with a familiar, comforting whirr. It feels very flimsy compared to his normal layers of red and gold, far too light and delicate to go straight into a combat situation, but needs must. He’s got nothing else that’ll help him now; it’s this or nothing.

 

The armour clicks into place, and as the faceplate descends, his HUD flicks on before his eyes. 

Chapter Text

“Sir, I must warn you, this prototype is yet to undergo proper testing.” JARVIS doesn’t sound worried, but that’s probably only because Tony hadn’t included worry into his database. “To take it out into a full combat situation at this time would not be a wise course of action.”

“Yeah, well, since when have I ever been wise?” Tony asks, trying out the range of movement he’s got. “Run a full system check, and be quick about it.” He feels a little less constrained than in his usual suit, probably due to the fact that he’s wearing about half as much armour as he’d like to be. If this suit can’t repair itself as it’s supposed to, he’ll probably be torn apart in minutes.

 

He’s gone up against worse odds in the past.

 

His workshop is getting more and more trashed by the full-scale magic battle happening in front of his eyes. Even as he watches, seeing the analysis of the system checks spin across the display faster than he can follow, there’s an explosion as a shockwave of magic catches the rack where he stores his blowtorches and welding equipment, the acetylene fuel immediately igniting. The floor shakes and the lights flicker in time with each other. He hopes Loki can hold his own just a little longer; he can barely see him through the heat-haze of magic. Every so often he’ll catch a glimpse of him illuminated by the flash of one of his spells; hair flying, eyes bright with power, it’s easy to see why he was once considered a god. Tony watches him split himself four ways, and as Doom turns, disorientated, Loki jabs in at him with the end of his spear, aiming for the cracks in his armour.

 

“System checks complete.” JARVIS interrupts his thoughts. A checklist appears in the display, showing everything that’s wrong with the suit. It’s a long list. “Please be aware that the joint areas of this suit are currently un-armoured, which increases susceptibility to attack by 43%. Additionally, this suit has not yet been fitted with ammunition-based weaponry. This may seriously limit the combat abilities - ”

Tony cuts him off. “It’s all I’ve got, JARVIS. Try to be a little supportive here.” He dismisses the checklist with a flick of his eyes, tracked by new motion sensors. In an ideal world, he’d take the time to play around with all this new kit until using it is second nature; spend a little while getting to know the feel of its movement and learning how much stabiliser is needed to balance out the action of the palm repulsors, seeing how much thrust he needs to fly in this lighter-weight armour, finding out if thinner panelling like this can take the force that his usual suit can. But he doesn’t have the time to spare – Loki takes the next sizzling bolt of energy full-on, not quite quick enough to dodge in time, and he’s knocked back into an inelegant sprawl against one of the worktops. Tony has to help. He can’t stand here and watch, even if he is in a half-functioning suit. He has no plan. He has no idea what he’s doing.

 

He levels both palm repulsors as Doom, steadies his aim, and fires.

 

He has the advantage of surprise, because Loki has been providing excellent distraction this entire time. The sudden force of both bursts hitting him at once pushes Doom backwards, throwing him against the stubbornly unbroken window. He staggers, ungainly, and behind his HUD Tony grins, feeling the suit shudder slightly around him as the stabilisers compensate for the force of the repulsor blast. He recognises that problem; way back when he’d first made the Mark I suit, he’d lumbered around, unable to turn properly, resorting to smashing his way out of the cave system. But he can’t enjoy the moment. Doom is wearing a metal suit, and metal doesn’t always react as expected in response to repulsor blasts; varying conductivity makes for unpredictable results. The energy which should fry his nerve endings and knock him unconscious like a shot from a Taser just dissipates across the surface of his steel armour, leaving glowing trails in its wake. It’s not quite the effect Tony was hoping for. Doom pushes himself off the glass, and turns slowly, metal grating as he moves.

“So you’ve found yourself your own toy to join in the fight,” he says, breath echoing from behind his mask. “Well, this could make things interesting.” He steps forwards, feet crunching on a scatter of broken glass, and raises one hand. He seems to consider something for a second, then twists the hand sharply in mid-air.

 

The HUD jumps and flickers inside Tony’s helmet, static slashing lines into his vision. He feels the suit seize up around him for a second, joints locking themselves stiff as Doom tries to take control of the systems inside. The motors whine unhappily as conflicting commands order then in different directions. Tony holds his breath just for a second. Then the flickering of the display evens out, and the suit moves again, under his control. The remnants of Doom’s magic crackles across the surface of the armour, dissipating itself along the magic-repelling fibres. Clearly Loki’s magic is similar enough to this weird magic-electric fusion that the measures Tony had put in place to counter it still worked. He feels very proud of it, in that way which he always does when a new piece of tech he’s created behaves exactly as it’s supposed to. He doesn’t have time to enjoy it though.

 

Doom makes a sound like a growl from behind his mask, and aims his next blast of hot energy straight at Tony. Still learning the suit’s movements, he isn’t quite quick enough to dodge it, and it strikes him full-on in his right shoulder. The impact of it reverberates down his injured arm; he can feel the edges of bone grate against each other as the break tries to fall out of alignment. He clenches his jaw against the yelp of pain that tries to escape him. He can hear the microfilaments in his suit pop as they struggle to contain the damage. Some of the magic spreads itself out across the surface, as it should, but it’s a concentrated blast. Some of the power sinks straight through the upper layers of the suit, and makes it past the magic-deflection layer to melt the metal underneath. He can feel it even through the insulation below, very nearly hot enough to burn his shoulder. Sweat breaks out on his skin, and he tries not to think of caves filled with fire and smoke and heat sinking into him through a different suit. But that was a long time ago, and he’s moved on since them. As he watches, the melted patch starts to reform itself. It’s warped and misshapen, with a strange sheen forming on the surface as it reconstitutes itself. The tech’s not perfect, but it’s working. He smiles, and then he glances behind the image of Doom in his HUD and his smile widens to a grin. Loki is back on his feet, dust matting his hair, harsh red scratches across his face, armour battered. He looks livid, which from Tony’s perspective is perfect. Loki looks directly at him, green eyes burning, and raises a hand in warning.

 

Doom steps closer. “That’s a clever suit you have there. I’m impressed. But it won’t save you. There are ways to get around every barrier.” Tony can see the power crawling across his metal gloves, and can hear it spitting, throwing off little sparks. Then he sees the flash of movement, highlighted in red by the HUD, and ducks to the side, out of range.

 

Loki strikes hard, and with deadly accuracy. He channels his raw magic through his staff, and it melts into Doom’s armour like it’s ice in the sun. Doom howls as the superheated metal splashes down onto his skin. Tony can hear the sick, sizzling sound it makes. Loki is lit from below by the blaze of white light thrown off where the beam of power is burning into Doom’s armour, and Tony thinks his skin might be starting to tinge blue, eyes glinting red. Sparks fountain off, throwing dancing shadows across the walls, and Tony thinks that surely they must be stinging Loki’s skin, but he doesn’t react, hands steady, eyes intense. Doom tries to stagger forwards and duck out from under the torrent of magic. Tony sees his movement, and fires at him again, barely feeling the kick-back from the blast this time. The shot of repulsor energy catches Doom in the leg. As Tony had guessed, he can’t compensate and rebalance himself while stuck inside that lumbering, hard-to-manoeuvre suit. He stumbles, and Loki brings his staff stabbing down.

 

The blow pushes Doom to the floor, the melted metal of his suit caving in. He stops screaming, possibly because he can’t draw enough breath for it any more. Tony catches a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye; he sees one of Doom’s hands crawling towards Loki’s leg, and a fragment of conversation drifts into his mind. Magic is always more potent when transmitted through touch. Loki had said that while demonstrating his magic tricks for Tony, showing off everything he could do, watching the way Tony took notes on every single thing, revelling in the attention. Tony watches the slow flex of fingers, and makes his decision. He aims carefully this time, calculating the angle he needs as quick as possible, because he can’t risk distracting Loki now. That much raw energy will be hard to control; he can see it twitching like a living thing, volatile and dangerous. He doesn’t want Loki’s grasp on it slipping when he’s in such close proximity – any accident now, and it’s likely to wipe out the entire facility. As Doom stretches out his fingers, getting closer and closer to the edge of Loki’s boot, Tony fires a single, concentrated blast. This time, weakened by magic, Doom’s armour doesn’t protect him. The blast sinks in, glowing white-hot, and Tony sees his fingers convulse once before going limp.

 

The rush and howl of magic in the room starts to fade, the blinding light that’s almost consumed Loki dimming, and as it shuts off, he drops his arms and staggers back, breathing hard like he just ran a mile, shaking slightly. Tony steps forwards, a little wary. He nudges Doom with one foot, both palm repulsors ready to fire, but it isn’t necessary. From the mangled mess where his helmet should be, still smoking, it’s pretty clear that Doom won’t be getting up again. 

Chapter Text

Tony looks up, turning his eyes away from the shattered metal suit that contains what used to be Doctor Doom, and his gaze lands on Loki, who’s fallen back against the worktop. Close to, he looks exhausted, face pale and drawn, and he barely reacts as Tony steps closer, flipping up his faceplate. Tony watches him for a moment, noting the tremor in his hands and the tension around his eyes that looks like an oncoming migraine, and then stretches out his hand, metal finger guards clicking against each other. Loki raises his eyes, although it looks like he has to fight even to do this, and then smiles slightly, wrapping his own hand around Tony’s wrist and using it to pull himself up to his feet. He staggers, just slightly, and Tony ends up half-catching him, Loki leaning against his shoulder, and they stand like this for a second. Tony can feel the adrenaline draining out of his system, leaving him tired, and the pain in his arm is forcing its way into the forefront of his brain.

“You ok?” He asks, listening to the rough panting of Loki’s breath.

“Never better,” Loki replies, managing to sound scathing even with his face resting against the side of Tony’s neck. “Next time you require saving, get one of your Avengers to do it.”

And that makes Tony think, because it is the job of the Avengers to go around saving people. He’s lost track of his tally, but Loki’s definitely rescued him more times than any supervillain should. He knows he’s in debt by a long way.

Loki suddenly goes tense. “Tony – ” he starts, eyes fixed on something blocked by the side of Tony’s helmet.

 

Tony turns, and follows Loki’s gaze as he hears the beep and the soft swish of pneumatic air as the door slides open.  He freezes for a second, ideas scrambling in panic through his brain. Fury. Shit.

 

“If you two have finished having your little moment – ” Fury says, and he sounds calm enough that Tony knows they’re in trouble. Fury shouts and swears and blows up in your face; when he’s calm, you know you’re in deep shit. Loki pushes himself off Tony, standing up properly, although he sways a little at the movement. Tony wonders idly if he’s been like this after fighting the Avengers, too, and they just never noticed, or if he’s had to put more effort into this fight. These thoughts float past him on a tide of blank white noise. He’s still trying to come up with a decent excuse, and failing miserably. He hears the SHIELD soldiers tramp into the room, crushing broken glass under their feet, and he’s not surprised to hear guns being readied. He is surprised, though, as he looks up from the floor and sees where the guns are pointed. He and Loki are both encircled, and he can count at least four weapons trained solely on him. He gapes at this, at the injustice, because they’ve just saved the whole damn facility from a psycho in a metal mask, and this is a fine way to repay them. He relays this thought to Fury, loudly.

Fury fixes him with a look. “You just saved the entire facility with a lot of help from someone who is considered our number one enemy, and then you seemed to be sharing what was a touching embrace with said enemy, without him seeming to want to stop you. So I’d say that overall, I’d consider you compromised. Step out of the suit, Stark.”

 

-----

 

It takes Tony an hour to escape from the medical team. He’s half-expecting them to complain about the mess he’s made of his arm while undoing all their hard work. But they’re very quiet around him, none of them daring to catch his eyes. The soldiers on the corridors stare at him, tracking him warily, not that it’s necessary. He’s flanked by two surly, unspeaking guards at all times; more than anything, they serve to mark him out in front of everyone. Rumours are already spreading through the base, and they haven’t warped in his favour. It’s changed from He’s become Loki’s favourite, god knows why, to Look, here he is, the traitor, sleeping with the enemy – and that strikes him as unfair, because he hasn’t, actually, and it’s not right that he should get the punishment without getting the fun first.

 

He’s still mad at Fury, still shocked that it’s come to this, when he’s called into the Director’s office. The anger’s gone sour on him now, settling as a cold mass in his stomach, and he feels a queasy sort of certainty lingering on him. There’s no way he can see that leads to a good outcome for him. When he’s let into the room – and the two guards finally stop following him – he sees that he’s not alone. Fury is standing on the other side of his desk, with another pair of guards standing off to the side, and Loki’s handcuffed to a chair in a show of blind optimism on the part of whoever put him there. Surely they have to accept soon that they can’t contain him? Tony can’t see why they bothered, anyway. In his current state it doesn’t look like Loki could even outrun the guards at the moment, never mind escape and start wreaking havoc. He’s bone-pale, hair still full of dust from the fight, face bruised. Tony drops into the second chair, catching Loki’s eye for a second. He’s wearing an expressionless mask, giving nothing away, and it reminds Tony of how he used to look on the battlefield with smoke and fire surrounding him, so sure of himself and above it all.

 

“You know,” Fury says, still sounding deadly calm, “it’s considered rude to leave in the middle of an interrogation.”

Loki raises an eyebrow at that. “Would you prefer that I leave your Avenger to be decimated next time?”

“No,” Fury says, and he smiles in a way which clearly says, got you. “But I’d think that you would like it better that way. Sudden heroics don’t seem to be your style. So I’d guess you’ve got some kind of motivation.” He turns to fix his eye on Tony instead. “You think you could shed some light, Stark?”

Tony shrugs. “Beats me. Surely you should be welcoming him with open arms, though? I’m just saying, if I was some crazy supervillain, this wouldn’t really be encouraging me to give up my wicked ways and hook up with the Avengers.”

Fury brings his hand down sharp on the desk. “Don’t play stupid with me, Stark!”

“What do you want me to say?” Tony asks, because he’s fed up with this already, and he’s in pain, and he doesn’t like being treated as a criminal. “You want me to tell you that this is all some big plot on his part? That he’s using me to infiltrate the team? Or that we’re madly in love and planning to elope to Vegas? Or that I’ve been drugged or hypnotised or something? What?”

“I want you to tell me the truth,” Fury says, and it looks like cracks are starting to appear in his calm façade.

Tony lets out a sharp laugh at that. “Oh, I’m sorry, did you forget who you were talking to?”

Fury goes to answer – or just to shout, most likely – but at that moment there’s a knock at the door, and one of the junior agents steps in. “Sorry to interrupt, sir,” she says, eyeing Tony and Loki warily as if she’s expecting them to leap up and attack her at any second. “But a report’s just come in that you should see.”

Fury glares at the pair of them. “We’re not done.” He nods at the two guards in the room and steps out, leaving the four of them together in an awkward silence. Tony turns to try and catch Loki’s eye.

 

Instead, he sees a flash of sudden green, and the two guards both jerk once before freezing still, a slight aura shining round them. Loki lowers his hands, somehow managing to look even paler, and grimaces.

“I wish I hadn’t had to do that.” He shakes his head as if to clear it. “They can’t hear us now.”

“Tell me you’ve got a plan,” Tony says, feeling his brain battle against the fog of painkillers.

Loki shakes his head, and he looks exhausted. “Not this time. He suspects too strongly; I can’t get any purchase in his mind to divert his attentions.”

Tony scrubs a hand across his eyes. “Can’t you lie to him? That is your specialist subject.”

Loki smirks, but there’s no real effort behind it, and his eyes are serious. “I don’t think I can convince him. He’s set on his suspicions.”

“Not really suspicions if they’re right, are they,” Tony says, feeling a headache stab needle-points of pain behind his eyes. “Should’ve seen this coming.”

Loki nods. “This is my fault.”

 “Please don’t feel that you have to stop saving my ass. I’m quite attached to, you know, living.” Tony eyes him. He looks terrible. “You sure you’re ok?”

Loki twists his mouth. “I’ve been better. Magic is more draining here on Midgard than I’m used to.”

They’re both quiet for a moment, and then before he can think better of it, Tony says, “Thank you.”

Loki looks up, surprised, and then something outside catches his attention. He turns to look at the door. “Fury’s coming back.”

There’s a second flash of green, and the two guards slump slightly, relaxing back into a more normal position. Fury strides in a second later. “They say anything?” he asks the guards.

“No, sir,” one of them replies. Tony fights the urge to smirk.

“Good.” Fury turns to them. “That report informed me that the robot attack on the city has stopped. It seems that they can’t sustain themselves without their creator. You know anything about this, Mr Laufeyson?”

Loki nods, back in his expressionless mask, looking cool and arrogant. “Magic isn’t self sustaining unless you put effort into making it that way. And Doom was too sure of himself to plan for this outcome.”

“You know, a thank you wouldn’t kill you,” Tony adds, just to be an ass. “Or a, you just saved the city so here have a full pardon and an apology for being forced into an interrogation.”

Fury doesn’t look impressed. “Is this all some kind of joke to you?” Tony opens his mouth (well, no one could ever accuse him of having good judgement), but Fury carries on talking. “I give up. You can go; I’ll deal with you tomorrow.”

Tony stands up – and it’s not abandoning Loki, really it’s not, it’s more like leaving a sinking ship, and he’ll make up for it later – but it turns out that Fury’s not done with him.

“You’re on probation, by the way.”

That stops him short on his way to the door. “What?”

“You’re under an official caution. Access to the Iron Man suit and its related technologies, as well as the workshop areas in this facility, are both banned until you can prove to me that you’re not a security risk.”

Tony actually chokes on the unfairness of it. “You can’t do that.”

“Watch me,” Fury says, and he’s back to being far too calm.

“You don’t own the technology,” Tony says, even though he knows it’s useless. “You try and block my access, I’ll have the entire legal team of Stark Industries down here in a heartbeat.”

“Oh, I know. But any attempts to access the Iron Man suit will be interpreted as a hostile manoeuvre. You don’t want to have to fight your own team mates, do you?”

And Tony’s stuck, right there, because Fury’s damn right and he knows it. There’s no way Tony would be willing to go up against the Avengers; much as he’d hated it at the start, they’re a team now. So instead of replying, he just leaves.

 

One of the guards from next to the door follows him. He can barely even summon the energy to be angry.

Chapter Text

Later, just as night is falling and the sky is fading into black, he and Loki are on the roof of Stark Tower, looking out across the glitter of the city. They’re not supposed to be there, of course, because Loki’s still a prisoner, still officially shut away safe behind bars, and Tony has been confined to the Avengers base until further notice, but the rules are only there to be broken. Loki teleported them across, and now they’re out in the freezing air, watching the sparkle and shift of the lights below, the rush of life in the streets. It’s quiet up here, so far above the traffic noise. They’re standing side by side, just looking out across the cityscape. Loki still looks a little tired, shadows showing up under his eyes. It’s a while until Tony broaches something that has been bothering him.

“What did Doom mean when he said you had a deal?”

Out of the corner of his eye, he can just see Loki freeze in place for a second. Tony keeps his eyes on the slide of car headlights below, waiting. He takes the pause as a good sign; if Loki was going to lie, he wouldn’t have hesitated.

“A while ago – months, probably, long before any of this started – I became aware of Dr Doom, and struck a deal with him that was… beneficial to both of us, at the time.” Loki’s voice is even, but there’s a tracing of tension across his shoulders that Tony can see without even turning to look. “It kept him out of my areas of interest while he received some assistance from me. We agreed that we would both tackle the Avengers separately, and divide up the spoils once we were done. I didn’t really plan for how things turned out, in the end.”

Tony considers this for a moment. He feels like he’s on the edge of something bad. “What was Doom’s plan for us?” he asks, because he might not get this chance again, and because he does want to prove to Fury, to prove to the team that he’s on their side.

Loki breathes out something that might have been a sigh, and stares down at the streets below. “He planned to use his own ideas of magic to influence your minds, taking control of each of you on the battlefield and using this to turn the people of the city against you. I don’t know what he planned after that, but I can’t imagine it ended well for you.”

Tony digests this, mind ticking through the facts, slotting them into place. He can sense the hole in the story, the gap where there’s something that Loki is hiding. He turns to face Loki. “He got those damn leaves from you, didn’t he?”

In the half-light, he only just catches sight of the tiny smile that curves the corner of Loki’s mouth. He’s starting to feel like this is some kind of test, to see if he can keep up.

 “I had hoped you wouldn’t put that together quite so quickly.” Loki lifts his head, looking up to the prickle of the stars, weak against the light pollution from below. “Yes. I was the source of the Velkias leaves Doom was using.”

“You lied to me,” Tony says, frowning, and he’s surprised that it actually hurts a little, like an ache somewhere under his arc reactor. He knows that it’s ridiculous, because he’s never expected the truth from Loki anyway. But there’s a difference between expecting something and having it hit you in the face.

“I lie to everyone,” Loki says, and there’s something in his voice which suddenly reminds Tony that Loki is old, older than should be possible. “It’s what I do.

 

Tony turns away from him, tracing the horizon with his eyes. “What made you change your mind? About working with him, I mean. Sounds like the pair of you had a pretty cushy deal.”

“I told you before. A conflict of interests.” Tony thinks of the bruise overlayed by a scrape on Loki’s cheek, of months of quiet for the Avengers. Interesting. Loki hesitates on the next part, licking across his lips as he thinks in a way which is frankly distracting and possibly deliberate. “My plans changed. I became… attached to you. I decided that he couldn’t have you as his puppet. It surprised me, though, how far he’d got before I stopped him. The dose of Velkias I found in your mind when I healed you…” Loki shakes his head. “Dangerous. Left much longer, it could have stripped the thoughts out you, left your mind nothing more than a shell. That was when I confronted him.”

Tony thinks back, seeing more puzzle pieces drop into place. “I thought you had a quiet couple months there.”

Loki breathes out a hint of a laugh. “Quiet wouldn’t really apply. I had to spend some time in hiding after I crossed paths with Doom; he wasn’t best pleased that I chose to work against him.”

Tony suddenly realises that he’s missed something vital. “Wait. You got attached to me?”

Loki looks at him, at last, and raises an eyebrow. “You can’t honestly tell me you’re surprised. Do you think this is how I treat everyone who does me a favour?”

Tony shakes his head. “No, just.” Then he stops, because he doesn’t actually know how that sentence ends. It doesn’t help that Loki has him under that sharp gaze and he can’t quite concentrate. “I was expecting, I don’t know, that this all started as some crazy villainous plot that went awry for you.”

Loki smiles. “No. I didn’t plan for any of this. You watch too many films.”

“Anything else I should know?” Tony asks, because such candid honesty from Loki is rare, and he’s not stupid enough to miss out on an opportunity to ask questions.

“It wasn’t an accident when I pushed you out of the way of that rocket blast.”

That surprises Tony. “What?”

“I saw what was going to happen and I couldn’t…” Loki trails off, but there’s a twist in the line of his mouth which finishes the sentence for him. I couldn’t watch that happen. It helps ease the taste of being lied to a little. Tony turns to track a plane across the sky, watching its light blink on, off, on, off, and it’s hypnotic, calming.

Wait. That sparks a memory.

“What did you actually do, that first time just after you healed me? You know, with the dizziness.”

Loki nods. “I know what you mean. It was just a little test. I wanted to see how much effect the leaves were having, to see if I needed to intervene directly. It’s lucky I did.”

Tony nods slowly. Loki’s a far better liar than he realised; the mistruths have been being layered on each other for months. 

 

He can see Loki watching him out of the corner of his eye. “I’m not mad at you.”

Loki lets out a short laugh. “You are.”

“Well, okay, maybe I am a little. But I shouldn’t be; it’s in your nature. But – can you tell the truth sometimes? If it matters?” He feels exposed, saying this, but talking around the issue won’t work here.

He feels Loki close in on him a little. “Why should I agree to this?”

Tony laughs. “Because you want to. And you get to make your own demands in return.”

Loki steps close enough that Tony can just feel his breathing, tickling across his skin. “You think you know what I want?”

“Yeah,” Tony says, arrogant, sure.

He can feel Loki smile against the back of his neck. “No more picking up in bars.”

Tony considers it for a second, then shakes his head. “God, let’s avoid that disaster. You’d take the city down. Besides, I’m not even allowed out at the moment.”

 “They can’t keep you in forever,” Loki says, suddenly serious.

“I know,” Tony says. “You’d help bust me out, if all else failed.”

“I would,” Loki says, and it sounds like a promise. “But I won’t have to. My brother will fight this punishment of you, as will some of the others. And the team will see reason soon; to them, you could be a useful asset, being someone who holds some sway with me.”

“They’ll try to use me, you mean.”

Loki steps forwards to stand next to him, skin bleached paler by the moonlight and the glow of the city from below. “Of course they will. Surely you of all people know that.”

Tony does know that, but he doesn’t have to like it. “I won’t let them.”

Loki turns his head to look at him properly, eyes serious. “You might not have a choice. If it was that or your place in the Avengers – ”

“I’d quit the team.” He catches Loki’s eye, sees the look of surprise there, mixed in with wariness. “Come on, you can’t honestly tell me you’re surprised.” The echo makes Loki smile. “I didn’t even want to be on this team in the first place, it wouldn’t be that great a loss. Besides, they won’t push that far. They need me.”

 

They stand together a while longer, just watching the night pass by, in a little bubble of quiet and calm above the rush of the city. It’s cooling down fast now, and Tony can see the cloud of his breath hanging in the air. He wonders idly if Loki even feels the cold, or if normal weather feels like a heatwave to him.  He asks, just because he’s never been able to not know.

Loki’s mouth twists a little. “Like this, I feel the temperature as you do. In my… true shape – ” He says it like it tastes foul in his mouth, and Tony interrupts him.

“You don’t have to tell me. God knows I understand not wanting to talk about things. Look, just, tell me to shut up or something. I won’t be offended.”

Loki nods, not meeting Tony’s eyes. The silence pulls at Tony’s tongue in the way it always has, and he says something without really thinking about it.

“So, I think I still owe you something. For all the times you’ve saved me, I mean.”

Loki smiles, and there’s a slight sharp edge to it that Tony recognises from his own smile on so many occasions. “You do owe me.”

“You going to do something about that?” Tony asks, lifting his eyebrows, because to hell with behaving.

Loki turns to him, steps up close to him fast, and then with a twist and a tug and a static-surge of magic across their skin they’re both back in Tony’s room in the Avengers base, the dizzy swirl of teleportation fading. Tony wants to cover Loki in sensors and send him hopping around his workshop so he can track that magic, but he’s got other concerns right now. Loki lets go of him, but doesn’t step back from where they’re pressed together. It’s easy for him to stretch up (damn Loki for being so tall) and kiss him, a promise, maybe, or just a preview, and Loki licks into his mouth with that wicked tongue and it turns out it’s not just agile at lying.

“I think I’ll collect that debt right now,” Loki says as they break apart, his voice rough, dark, delicious. He smiles, sharp and dangerous, and steps forwards, pressing Tony back towards the bed.

 

- - -

 

In the rulebook, there is a clause, known as the ‘Tony Stark clause, because really you’re the only one who’ll ever need it, Tony’. It runs like this:

 

Under no circumstances are any of the Avengers team, or any of the SHIELD operatives attached to the team, to engage in relationships and/or intimate interactions with any person who is listed on SHIELD’s database of threats to the city.

 

Well, hell. Tony has never been any good at following the rules.