Tony was buried under a pile of rubble. He would have been more annoyed about this, but at least rubble was kind of manly; Cap was pinned in place by a historic cast iron lamppost bent around him, and that was at least fifty percent more embarrassing.
Hawkeye was collecting spent arrows, and Tony had lost track of Widow - which was par for the course - and Hulk - which was worrying.
Which left Thor fighting Loki. That was never a good combination.
Worse, there was an upturned car right in Tony's line of fire. He was slowly digging himself out, but in between moving chunks of broken masonry he threw barbs at Loki, little insults and jabs. Just enough to keep Loki's attention divided, keep his sharp tongue aimed at Tony so he was too distracted to rip Thor's heart into tiny shreds and jump up and down on the pieces. Again.
(The way Loki treated Thor was further evidence for Tony's private theory that sometimes, family was the worst thing that could happen to a good guy. He'd only made the mistake of telling Thor that once, and fortunately he'd been in his armor at the time or it could have ended with broken bones.)
"Your hounds are defeated, Thor," Loki sneered, amid the sounds of hand-to-hand combat. "Will you lay down your arms? Or--"
"Better a hound than a son of a bitch," Tony chipped in before that 'or' could get out. He saw something go blasting overhead, and quickly aimed upwards, blowing the falling masonry to bits before more of it could fall on him. "Come on now, what did that building ever do to you? That's just mean."
"Does he never shut up?" Loki demanded.
"No," Thor said, which, hey. There was a grunt and a noise like someone had hit the ground hard. "Loki, stop this madness, please--"
"Madness?" Loki gave a bitter-sounding laugh. "The only madness, Thor, was that it took me so long to be rid of you."
He sounded like he was about to launch into another speech of the brutal heart-stomping variety, and Tony grimaced, gathering his strength. With one last shove he wrenched himself free of the debris and jetted up past the toppled car blocking his view. Loki must have been the one who got thrown; he was sprawled on the road a good ten yards from Thor with his helmet and his latest fancy wizard staff by his side.
Tony raised his voice. "Hey, asshole, you're not the only one with issues. Daddy didn't love you, boo-hoo, I've been there and you don't see me trying to conquer planets. So you never got enough hugs as a kid, so what. No one cares."
Loki flinched and looked up at him. Tony braced for an attack but Loki didn't touch the staff or helm; his face just kind of... crumpled. "Do you think I don't know that? Believe me, if there's one thing I've learned, it's that I stand alone. I've had lifetimes to have that lesson etched under my skin." His voice was rising to a shout, words bitten off. "Taken out when useful, then cast aside because the very wits that saved Asgard serve as proof of my aberration. And every time, my reward was only to be shunned. Strange Loki, unnatural Loki, Loki the interloper! Just a stray beast Odin stole on a whim. He should have had me banished with the rest of the monsters!"
Tony hovered in the air, his savage satisfaction withered into dismay. He'd wanted Loki's attention. Well, he had it all right. Every shredded, agonized bit of it. It wasn't what Loki was saying so much as the sound of it - so violently raw and exposed - that kept him from attacking. "Good god," he said into the comms, bleakly, "I think this is what it feels like to kick a puppy."
"A rabid puppy," Clint muttered, but he sounded uneasy.
"But of course Odin can keep a monster if he wishes; he need not follow his own laws. Law of Asgard - they may as well call it the Law of Loki. Anyone else may commit whatever crime they see fit, but my slightest infraction and let the wrath of Odin fall upon my shoulders! Oh, and what laughs we had at my punishments, how entertained the people were by my pain! They called me a prince, but I was nothing more than a jester."
Loki was visibly shaking, face twisted in anguish. He climbed to his feet, hands clenched in fists and staff forgotten on the ground. "I was foolish enough to think there was a way out. I disappeared into the void and I should have been free of it. Do you know what lurks between worlds? Monsters the likes of which even I am almost worthy of. Sights that would reduce your weak minds to a crawling, gibbering wreck. Oh, how I prayed to be saved! And for the first time in my life, my prayers were answered." He gave a horrible parody of a smile, bared teeth and tear-filled eyes. "I was ready to be so grateful. Ready to forgive all the lies because I thought they had come for me."
"Loki," Thor said brokenly. "We thought you were dead. You must believe--"
Loki whirled on him, cape flaring outwards. "You left me there!" It was nothing less than a scream.
Thor visibly flinched and Tony did too, choking back a strangled sound. The tiny movement was apparently enough to draw Loki's attention back to him.
"You would have laughed to see me, I'm sure." Loki's laugh sounded more like a sob, bleak and fragmented. "I was a pitiful, sniveling dog, so desperate for a scrap of affection. And the ones who found me, they may as well have been Asgardians - they had their purposes and their punishments, quick to have me dance to their strings. So I did what I had to, as I always do and always will. I stand alone. Don't you dare act like I don't know that!"
Tony opened his mouth and then closed it helplessly. He was good with sarcasm, that was easy. This... he wasn't prepared for this. He could hear Natasha mutter something in Russian; she didn't sound any happier than he felt.
Loki gave that terrible, teeth-bared smile again. "So give me your puerile punishments. You're no different than any other. But remember that I still win. Because at least when you are flogging me for this latest trespass, you will look at me. You will look at me. I will not be invisible." He stepped forward, screaming again. "Look at me!"
Oh, god. That hit a little too close to home. It was a stupid, dangerous risk, but Tony popped his faceplate open and met Loki's eyes without the mask between them.
He couldn't think of anything to say. It felt like something was lodged in his throat. This... this was all fucked up. It was easier when Loki was an evil son-of-a-bitch, not this shattered, chronic wound.
"Loki," Thor repeated. He was standing with his hands by his sides, looking lost. "You know we never meant you any harm. If, if we joked a little much, sometimes, it was never meant to be at your expense."
"It was never at anything but my expense!" Loki snarled incredulously. He scooped up the staff and charged at Thor, quick and fluid.
Tony didn't stop to think. He slammed on his jets, hurtling in between them, and landed with an ungentle thump. He should fire, he was supposed to fire, but he grabbed Loki and swung him into what was possibly the world's most awkward robotic hug.
"Let go," Loki gasped, struggling. It was pretty futile; the Iron Man armor was a match for his strength and he couldn't get leverage. But he sounded scared and that wasn't-- it wasn't supposed to be a threat.
"It's okay," Tony said, hating how uncertain his voice was. What was the protocol for hugging deranged supervillains? He settled for stiffly rubbing Loki's back. "It's okay. I'm not hurting you."
Steve's voice came over the comms. "Iron Man, I hope you know what you're doing."
Shut up, Tony thought fiercely. And no, no, he had no idea what he was doing, but he got the feeling no one really did where Loki was concerned. Good god. This was nothing like what Thor had led them to believe. "It's okay," he repeated, still rubbing Loki's back, over the green cape. Before he could stop himself, he blurted, "What did they do to you?"
Loki stopped struggling abruptly; Tony heard a clatter as the wizard staff (he couldn't think of it as anything else) dropped to the ground. Then Loki seemed to collapse, actually literally crying on his shoulder and okay, Tony was calling it right there, this was officially the most surreal fucking moment of his entire life.
Mercifully, no one said anything on the comms.
"Um," he said, loosening his grip on Loki and patting him on the back. "There, there." He looked desperately over Loki's shoulder at Thor, hoping for a little help.
Thor looked pretty devastated - so much for avoiding the heart-stomping - but he started to approach, and if Tony could hand over his armful of sobbing demigod he'd feel a lot better about... whatever had just happened. Except, the second Thor's hand touched Loki's shoulder, Loki fucking yelped and dropped straight out of Tony's grasp. In just moments he'd swept Thor's legs out from under him, rolled out of the way and come up in a crouch with a knife in each hand. He was completely white, breathing in shallow gasps, and he looked impossibly young. Vulnerable.
Thor got up and started to move; Tony grabbed him and pulled him back sharply. "Stop, can't you see he's terrified?"
Clint said, very calmly, "I've got a clear shot."
"No, Jesus Christ, everybody just stop." Tony tried to catch his breath. His pulse was racing, some weird kind of sympathetic panic thing. This was wrong, this was all wrong. He took his helmet the rest of the way off and quietly hoped that Loki didn't throw a knife at his face. That would be just his luck.
Loki's eyes were darting everywhere but focussing on nothing, eyebrows furrowed together in fright and confusion. Even his knives were trembling.
"Loki," Tony said carefully. He edged in front of Thor, because that was half of the problem right there. "Loki, listen to me. You're on Earth. Midgard." This was where he'd say something like, 'no one's going to hurt you', but he couldn't in good conscience promise that. "Loki, listen to the sound of my voice. Just breathe, okay. In through the nose. Out through the mouth." He demonstrated it himself, and it helped to ease a little of the residual fear in his gut. "In through the nose. Out through the mouth."
He half-expected an arrow to come flying out of the air regardless, but Clint didn't take the shot and no one seemed inclined to order him to. Whether that was out of a sense of fair play or weird guilt, who knew.
"Just breathe," he said again, keeping his voice steady. "Focus on me. In through the nose. Out through the mouth." He kept repeating it, palms facing the ground, non-threatening.
Gradually, it seemed to sink in. The knives slowly lowered. Loki was still pale but looked a little more focussed, more present. He sounded more like himself when he spoke, admittedly with a crack in his voice. "I know how to breathe, you idiot."
Tony was startled into a clipped bark of laughter. In that pause, Thor tried to step around him, reaching out a hand, speaking up again. "Brother, I swear to you, if you come home--"
Loki's eyes snapped towards Thor and a series of expressions flashed across his face. Hurt, mortification, despair. And then the little bastard up and vanished, Thor's hand still outstretched towards him.
"Okay," Tony said, as Thor's arm dropped. "Am I drunk? Is this a drunk dream? Because I'm going to need somebody to tell me if I'm dreaming."
"No, but that's exactly what I'd say if you were dreaming," Natasha said, emerging from whatever dark corner she'd been skulking in. Clint was swinging down the fire escape of the building across the road, bow slung across his back.
Tony turned to Thor. "You mind telling us what the fuck just happened here? Because it seems like you might have left out a thing or two about your brother. Like the fact that he's goddamn Carrie."
"I know not who that is," Thor said with a frown, "but you cannot heed everything Loki says. He has always been overly sensitive. I confess, there were jokes... but he never said they did him harm. If he'd told us, of course we would have stopped."
"Oh my god," Tony said. That was so naive it was actually physically painful. "Of course he didn't tell you, why on earth would he do that? You'd already written him off as just being sensitive. I cannot, I literally cannot believe what I am hearing. Did that sound like someone who was making shit up to you? No, don't answer that. Somebody else say something, I need to scrub this conversation from my brain."
Before Thor could argue, Clint raised a hand. "I'll have a go. Hey, Tony, I don't know if anyone told you, but we shoot people, we don't make them cry!"
Tony threw his hands in the air. "I didn't know that was going to happen! I trash-talk him all the time, he's never cried before."
"Guys?" Steve called a little plaintively, and they all turned to look. He was still wedged behind wrought iron, not quite strong enough to bend it on his own. "While this is fascinating and all, I could use a little help?"
"Right." Tony sighed, and paused long enough to pick up Loki's abandoned wizard staff, because he was going to test the hell out of that. "Someone find Hulk. Tell Bruce that I've got dibs on the new lab toy." He waggled the staff and then trudged over to help get Steve out.
By the time Tony hit the sack that night, he was ready to sleep for a week. Secretly, he was almost - almost - a little relieved that Pepper was out of town, because he was pretty sure he was even too tired for sex, and that was just no good for his image. (Also, any time Pepper was out of town when psychopaths or unstable demigods attacked was a good day, because it was infinitely easier to fight knowing that she was safe.)
Unfortunately, just as he was drifting off, Jarvis spoke up. "Sir, I'm afraid you have a visitor in the main room."
"What," Tony said. He rolled over and groaned. "Why would you let someone in at this time of night? You are so fired. I'm going to wipe you from the servers and install Windows."
"There's no need for that kind of language," Jarvis said reprovingly. "I didn't let him in. Mister Laufeyson arrived by his own means."
Lauf-- oh, god. "Oh, god."
"Indeed, sir. May I suggest some tactical precautions?"
"Yeah, yeah, I'm on it." Tony dragged himself out of bed and got the homing cuffs out of his top drawer. He debated getting dressed, but dammit, if Loki was going to turn up uninvited in the middle of the night, he deserved to be greeted by someone in boxers and an undershirt. "Send me a suit if it looks like things are going south. Like, if he throws me out a window again, that's probably a good time."
"Should I alert the other Avengers, sir?"
Tony hesitated longer than he should. He thought of the damage wreaked during the day, and how they really, really needed to get Loki arrested and under control again. And then he said, "No. Not unless something goes wrong. More wrong than him being in my penthouse, I mean."
There was an almost audible frown. "If you say so, sir."
"Don't you give me that disapproving schoolteacher voice. It's like you don't trust my judgment. I'll have you know, I have excellent judgment." Tony paused by the door. "Now hush, Daddy has to go get himself killed."
He opened the bedroom door and walked out, calling the lights up. Loki turned, dressed in just his black leathers this time without the full regalia on top. He'd apparently been staring out the windows, probably fantasizing about throwing Tony through them again. His expression was frustratingly inscrutable. Tony raised his eyebrows, resisting the urge to rub at the electronic bracelets on his wrists.
"Bit late for a social call?"
Loki just stared at him.
After a pause, Tony said, "Okay, so we're going with the creepy silence angle. No problem. I've been told I can talk more than enough for two. Shall I do both sides of the conversation? 'Hi, Loki, fancy meeting you here. What have you been up to lately?' 'Oh, nothing much, Tony, just blowing up one of your favorite cities, modeling ancient Norse fetish-wear, the usual.'"
"You have no fear of me," Loki said abruptly. "You never did. Why is that?"
Tony laughed, because fifty percent of the time he faced Loki he was crap-his-pants terrified, and the other fifty percent was only because he was soaring on too much adrenaline to feel much of anything but the rush. "Yeah, I don't really do fear. It's a personal quirk, I have a few of those. I also talk to my robots, make inappropriate comments about Captain America's ass, and I hate people handing me things directly."
Loki stared at him some more.
"Captain America's got a really great ass," Tony said helpfully. "I don't know if you've noticed."
"I can't say that I had, no." Loki wandered away from the window, looking around the room with what was apparently complete disinterest.
"And he comes from a time when sodomy was illegal, so he gets all pink and disturbed if you point it out." This thread of conversation wasn't really going anywhere. He wasn't switching to Natasha's cleavage; it would probably turn out that she had the place bugged. "So, seen any good movies lately?"
Loki stopped and gave him a sharp look. "I don't want your pity."
"Well, that's good, because I don't really do pity, either. Call it another quirk."
"Then what was..." Loki gestured vaguely, frowning and - good heavens, actually shifting on his feet.
"This is amazing," Tony said. "I'm actually the least uncomfortable person in a conversation about feelings. I need to write this in my diary. No, I need to tweet it. The world needs to know. Maybe I should hold a press conference. That might be overkill. Do you think that's overkill?"
Loki hissed impatiently. "Do not mock me, mortal."
Tony ignored the little voice in his head that was screaming about his imminent death, and instead said, "Oh, please. All I ever do is mock you. You must have noticed that by now."
"Perhaps I thought you would realize your error. Even insects are capable of learning, although it seems to be beyond your abilities."
"There we go!" Tony crowed, punching the air. "I knew that feisty was still in there somewhere. Now tell me how you're going to crush us all under your heel. It'll make you feel better, I promise."
Loki took two steps towards him, eyes blazing. "I should rip out your tongue and feed it to you--"
Tony smiled brightly to cover up the way his veins washed icy cold. He was going to die, he was going to die bloody and screaming before Jarvis could get the suit here, and it would be all his own fault, and he just couldn't help himself. "I'm sorry, you were asking about the thing before, with the arms. We call it a hug. It's a sign of nonaggression, kind of a comfort thing, physical contact, although probably not that comforting when the arms are made of steel, well, gold-titanium alloy. More of a wire mother than cloth mother, I guess you never ran that experiment on Asgard."
"I know what an embrace is," Loki gritted out, and his self-control was kind of amazing, really, because by the look on his face he should have tossed Tony through the window at least five minutes back.
"Are you sure? Because the way you were talking today I thought maybe you'd never had one, I don't know, it sounds like the Asgardians treated you pretty much like shit."
Loki rocked back on his heels slightly, startled, and bam, Tony was back in the game. But then Loki fixed him with a demanding, almost desperate look and said, "But why?"
Tony wanted really badly to just crack another joke. He had at least three on the tip of his tongue. But he swallowed, and looked away, and said, "My dad never looked at me."
His voice actually held pretty steady, that was something.
"So I kind of-- I know, a little, that whole invisible--" He risked looking back at Loki, who was staring at him thoughtfully. He didn't like it; it was the kind of look that seemed to see right through him. He was too tired to handle being looked at like that. "Plus it really pissed off the rest of the team, and that's always entertaining."
"You know," Loki said, still giving him that watchful, intent look, "I could choose to be offended that you dare compare yourself to me."
"Nah. I'm much better looking than you. You're too tall, for a start. It's the twenty-first century, women don't like men who tower over them."
Something in Loki seemed to relax a little. "I don't believe they prefer undressed slobs with half a beard."
"Hey. Now I'm offended. My goatee is very stylish. And if you show up in the middle of the night, undressed is what you get." Tony looked him up and down. "Don't tell me you sleep in that. Actually, don't tell me what you sleep in at all, that's a kind of inappropriate I'm just not ready to go to on a first date."
"Not from what I've heard," Loki murmured, raising an eyebrow.
Tony raised his index finger. "Ah, true, but that's different. You and me, baby, I want our first time to be special."
Loki's lip curled with something that could be disdain or could be amusement, it was hard to tell. Maybe even both.
"So." Tony leaned against the wall and folded his arms across his chest. "I answered your question, will you answer one of mine?"
"If you wanted to deal, you should have done it before you gave me your answer."
"Humor me." He'd already got the answer from Thor - he'd spent quite a while this evening getting answers out of Thor, some of which had painted a pretty different picture of life in Asgard than he'd first imagined - but he wanted to hear what Loki would say. "That thing you said today, the flogging, that was, what, a figure of speech?"
"Obviously," Loki said, rolling his eyes. "I'm not a boy caught gambling with the guards. You needn't fear. If Thor manages to drag me back again, it'll be nothing so simple as a flogging. I assure you, your thirst for my blood will be well slaked."
Well, that... wasn't exactly what he'd meant, but he guessed it answered the question. A little too well. Tony was starting to think that their whole standard practice of letting Thor's people deal with Loki needed a little revision.
It wasn't that Loki didn't deserve a solid ass-kicking, and it definitely wasn't that Tony didn't want to see it happen. But there was ass-kicking, and there was... whatever else was happening. Maybe he'd just been reading too many of Bruce's Amnesty International pamphlets, but this whole situation didn't sit right with him.
It had occurred to him that Loki could be playing him. Not the stuff from earlier in the day, but now, with a bit of time to cool off - yeah, it was possible. And yet...
"You don't seem pleased," Loki observed, eyes narrowed with something predatory.
Tony smiled humorlessly. "Who, me? I'm thrilled. Doing a little dance, on the inside."
Loki looked at him a moment longer, then turned away with a scoff. "You mortals are weak."
"So you've said." Tony uncrossed his arms and reached up to scratch his chin. So many retorts to choose from, but he should probably pretend to think tactically about how he wanted this conversation to go. In detail more specific than 'not ending in fiery death'. "I have another question."
"You haven't offered me anything for it," Loki said smoothly. Sharklike.
There was absolutely no way he was going to give Loki free rein to set the terms. Tony shook his head, going to the bar. "Well, then. Scotch?"
Loki cocked his head, considering. "I'll take the drink, but I need to hear your question."
"Sounds reasonable." Tony set up two glasses; poured into them. This might actually qualify as the longest conversation he'd ever had with Loki without someone throwing a punch. (A sarcastic voice in the back of his mind suggested it might be the longest conversation anyone had ever had with Loki without someone throwing a punch, at least in recent years.) If he wanted to keep it that way, he'd have to choose his questions carefully. Keep Loki interested.
"Okay," he said as Loki approached. He put one glass up on the bar for Loki and took the other himself. He took a sip, letting the warmth brace him. "So, there are myths about you guys - Norse gods." He couldn't quite call them 'gods' with a straight face and he caught the flicker of irritation that meant Loki had noticed. "Ancient stories passed down through the ages, all that jazz. My question is, how much truth is in those stories, and how much is just... fairytales from people who couldn't understand what they were dealing with?"
Loki started to drink, then broke out coughing and set the glass back down with a grimace. "Why would you drink that?"
"It might be an acquired taste," Tony admitted, hiding a grin. "Too much for you?"
Loki eyed him with irritation, and then the scotch with a similar look. After a pause, he said, "I'm simply unaccustomed. Mead is sweeter."
Tony froze in place for a moment as genius struck. He put his scotch down and surveyed the contents of the bar. "Sweeter, huh?"
"Yes, that's what I said. Are you deaf as well as simple?"
Tony grinned. He got out his cocktail mixer and started adding ingredients. Ice, amaretto, sambucca... This was the best kind of genius: it was either going to end in catastrophe or in sheer awesome. "Loki, my cranky friend, I am about to introduce you to something wonderful."
He'd finished adding ingredients and was halfway through shaking when he realized that hadn't gotten a snide response. He glanced up to see the frowning, slightly confused look on Loki's face.
Loki opened his mouth, then seemed to shake himself. "You know, you could just as easily ask Thor about the stories. It's a waste of my time."
"Yeah," Tony said slowly, drawing it out for effect. "But I mentioned the legend about him dressing up as Freya and he kind of... stormed off."
As hoped, Loki smirked in genuine amusement. "Ah, well. I can confirm that that one, at least, is more-or-less true. And a very fetching bride he made."
"That doesn't answer my question," Tony pointed out. He bypassed the shot glasses and pulled out a couple of highballs, banking on the fact that Loki wouldn't know any better. "Let's see, sweet for you..." in a nice, full glass, "and some extra flavor for me." 'Extra flavor' being extra orange juice to water it down.
If Loki saw through the trick, he gave no indication. He simply picked up his glass and waited for Tony to take a drink before tasting his own. Apparently it was a pleasant surprise; he raised his eyebrows and drank some more, draining half the glass.
"Sweeter?" Tony asked cheerfully.
"Acceptable," Loki conceded. Operation Get Loki Smashed was officially under way.
Hopefully he wasn't an angry drunk.
The next day, Tony slid into the meeting only ten minutes late, which by his standards was practically early. He stifled a yawn and waved apologies at Steve's disapproving sigh. "I know, I know, I'm late. Loki stopped by last night, I didn't get a lot of sleep."
Thor made a disgruntled noise and a few people rolled their eyes; Tony sat up straighter. "Oh. No, I mean, Loki actually stopped by, I'm not kidding."
"And you... didn't sleep," Bruce said slowly.
"Oh, good grief, not like that." Tony glared at him from behind his sunglasses. "Give me some credit."
Natasha gave a very staged cough. When he glanced at her, she nodded at his hands. Puzzled, Tony stared at them - and then he saw his wrists peeking out of his sleeves, the rubbed-red marks on them. Like handcuff marks. He sighed and took the homing cuffs out of his pocket, tossing them onto the table with a clatter. "For the armor. In case he tried to kill me? Good heavens, am I the only person here without his mind in the gutter?"
There was a delicate pause; apparently no one wanted to touch that straight line. Pity.
Thor leaned forward, looking concerned. "Are you injured?"
"No." Tony rubbed his forehead. "I might be a little hungover. I was watering my drinks down pretty heavily, you know. Your brother's got a liver of steel."
"You--" Steve took a breath. "Okay. I think you need to run us through this from the beginning."
Tony gave them a selectively edited account. Loki showed up to insult him, Loki was lonely, Loki didn't want to admit it. Sniping at each other while getting progressively drunker. How fucking difficult it was to get a damn demigod drunk and talkative. He left out the part about Loki falling asleep with him and waking up screaming. He left out all the cuddling, too. It seemed... personal.
"He could have come to me," Thor said quietly, looking hurt.
"That's exactly why..." Tony sighed. He really, really didn't need to be the target of a jealous thunder god. "Natasha, you're a girl, explain it to him."
Natasha gave him a lethal, unimpressed look. Bruce was the one who actually spoke up. "Thor, Loki can't come to you because he knows you love him and he doesn't know how to handle it. Tony doesn't like him, so he's not a threat. No offense, Tony."
"None taken. But, uh, you missed all the excitement yesterday, how did you...?"
"I saw the preliminary report," Bruce said mildly. "Once he referred to himself as a monster, it was pretty obvious."
"You should have called us in, Tony." Steve was giving one of his 'this is serious' frowns. "We don't need to psycho-analyze Loki, we need to capture--"
"Ooh, psycho-analyze, you know I love those fifty dollar words." Tony smiled because underneath he was tensing up; this was about to be the part of the meeting with all the shouting and arguing.
"We need to capture him," Steve repeated, with emphasis, "and get him off our world."
"See, that's where I actually disagree."
Thor and Steve started to argue at the same time; Tony leaned back in his chair and waited them out. It seemed like Thor won the coin toss, and he glowered at Tony.
"My brother belongs on Asgard. You cannot keep him from us."
"Keeping him from you is not the problem. It's the part where he escapes again and you can't keep him from us that troubles me." Tony glanced around; he could see Bruce's mind working, probably already figuring out where he was going with this.
"That won't happen this time," Thor said obstinately. "He will be appropriately punished and then--"
"No, see, that is exactly the problem." Tony took his sunglasses off and slammed them onto the table. "I am not cleaning up the mess he makes on my planet when you lot -" and that came out with a bit more vitriol than he intended, "- screw him up again."
Actually, the whole thing was louder and sharper than he intended, which he mostly figured out by the way everyone was staring at him, but come on. Asgard had had their chance with Loki - more than one - and each time it was Earth that wound up paying the price.
"We need a better option," he said emphatically. "Or he's just going to keep getting worse."
"So... what?" Clint finally spoke up, and Tony watched him carefully. Clint's reaction was the one he was most worried about, after Thor's; they'd all suffered at Loki's hands but Clint had had his whole mind stolen and that wasn't just something you moved past. "You're on Loki's side now?"
"My god, no," Tony said fervently. "I'm on the side of 'let's stop him taking out his daddy issues on every major metropolis in North America'."
"We can't just ignore what he's done," Steve said, never mind that that wasn't what Tony was suggesting at all.
It was okay, though. He'd prepared for that argument. He gave his very best 'fuck you' smile, because this was a nasty tactic and he just didn't care. "You know, you're right. Sorry, Bruce, Ms. Romanov. It was great having you on the team, best of luck in your future endeavors, you know how it goes. In fact if you want to be thorough, Steve, you could probably try to get me on criminal negligence for some of the stuff Obadiah did with my company, I mean, it's a little trumped-up but let's not hold back."
Bruce gave a wry smile; Natasha looked speculative.
Steve scowled, indignant and a little angry. "That's not what I meant, and you know it--"
Natasha gave a noncommittal hum. "He has a point. Sometimes alternative methods can be... advantageous." She looked at Tony then, studying him. "But are you sure you're being objective?"
Tony snorted. "Of course I'm not being objective. Have I ever struck you as someone objective? But I am smart, and I'm telling you, if we keep just shipping him back to Asgard, he's going to keep on coming back angrier and meaner."
There was a brief lull while everyone chewed on that. Finally Steve looked across the table at Clint. "Any thoughts?"
Clint was silent for a long time. He didn't look pleased. Finally, looking a little like it killed him to say it, he said, "I'm not in love with the idea, but... stopping him is more important than revenge."
"Yes, thank you, that is exactly what I'm saying." Tony looked at Steve expectantly. "Come on, Captain. Think big picture here."
Steve drummed his fingers on the table. "It's... worth thinking about, at least," he admitted. "There's still the issue of actually capturing Loki, though. We're putting the cart before the horse, a bit."
Tony shrugged; he wanted his groundwork laid before that happened, because once Loki was caught there was a limited window before Thor swept him off to Asgard. And speaking of - "Thor?
"It is true we bear some responsibility for the fate of your realm." Thor frowned deeply. "I must think upon what you have said today."
Well, it was a start. A pretty good start, actually. Tony let out a breath. "That's all I want. Just think about it."
And in the meantime, he could lay his own plans.