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Playing Both Sides

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Loki is the Liesmith. Loki is the Silvertongue. Loki has slithered his way free from the cutting blades of the dwarves and from the razor-sharp talons of a monstrous eagle with nothing more than the way he twists words to do his bidding. Loki is the cleverest of the gods of Asgard, and before his mind had begun to slip into the recesses of insanity, degree by slow degree, he had been the most cautious, as well.

Loki is all of these things- and yet somehow, his brother’s foolish friends never once question how it is they walk away from the traps he sets, time and time again.

It begins in resentment, of course. In jealousy. It begins in the slights never addressed, in the tiny wantings that have grown to consume his heart. It begins with the desire to make a place for himself, to do things that his brother would never do. To do things that his brother could not do.

But weeks become months, and months become years, and Loki has found that he lies to himself as much as anyone. There have been times when his brother, golden hair matted with blood, lies among the wreckage, and Loki watches only- does not mouth the words of a spell to finish him. There have been times when the man of iron falls to earth, metal scuffed and electricity fled, and Loki has turned from him, as well. He has not put an end to the ridiculously chivalrous captain, nor the green creature, nor the agents that work behind the scenes, pulling strings.

He is bored, the Liesmith tells himself. He is bored, and these games give him ways to pass the time. He wishes for a challenge- for something to split moments from the monstrous slab of eternity into something more memorable.

The god of mischief does not pause to consider that his reasons are not the best of reasons. He does not examine the fact that contradictions riddle his explanations like an infestation of insects.

He only repeats them to himself, and ignores the flaws, and begins to play both sides.

After all, a game without all of the pieces is no game worth playing.

===

“Hold up,” says Tony Stark, and leans across the table where a robot no larger than his hand is trying very hard to assemble a sandwich in peace. He rests his elbows in the path of the ham, and the little construct pauses, adjusts its treads, and moves around the obstruction. “You’re saying our anonymous tipsters are really just the one?”

“Indeed, sir,” Jarvis confirms. “The IP address seems to be consistent with the informant who offered us aid regarding the hostage situation in Chicago.”

Steve Rogers watches as the robot counts out three slices of ham, closes the sandwich, and traverses its maker’s elbows once more to present him with the finished product. “That was- what, six months ago?” He turns the sandwich over in his hands- takes a bite. It’s not a bad sandwich.

“Someone’s got it in for your brother, big guy,” Tony announces, and pats Thor on the arm. “And I think I like him.”

The god of thunder’s expression grows distant, becomes the peculiar mixture of trepidation and concern that surfaces whenever Loki is being discussed. “My brother is ever adept at earning the ire of others,” Thor admits. “But it is usual for him to protect against retaliation. Would that I could fathom how someone has come near enough his secrets to pass them on.”

The robot whirs to a halt, and Bruce Banner considers the panel of buttons along its back- selects turkey and presses it. “An inside job?” he suggests. “An ally he double-crossed, maybe.”

Steve chews thoughtfully and then swallows. “Or a concerned citizen keeping an eye on the situation.”

“Or some minion who got cleaning duty one time too many. Doesn’t matter who it is, does it?” Tony pushes back from the table, absent-mindedly brushes crumbs from his sleeves. “We get what we want, Monsieur Anonymous gets what he wants, everyone’s happy but the nutjob in green. Come on, chop chop- places to be, people to fight. Get that sandwich to go, will you, Banner?”

He is nearly out of the room when he hears Thor’s voice drifting toward him, perplexed and thoughtful. “The task of cleaning is one that my brother’s magic would tend to, surely. I do not imagine that any slight would be the cause of-”

Tony lets the door to the kitchen fall closed behind him.

===

It reminds Loki of the game Midgardians call chess. He has changed the rules, of course- helps himself sometimes to the black pieces and others to the white. On occasion, he unexpectedly puts a pawn taken off the board back into play, or scribbles hints on scraps of paper and slips them to the players who sit across from him.

But for all that, it is a game of strategy- of maneuvering. It is a game he plays against himself, for his adversaries do not know they play at all.

===

“He’s like a five-year-old that just learned how to ride a bike,” says Tony Stark, and he spears a bit of scrambled egg on his fork, examines it closely, and then pops it into his mouth. “You cooked it too long,” he offhandedly informs the little robot whose top is opening up to present a hard-boiled egg to Steve Rogers. “If I wanted rubber, I’d be growing rubber plants in here, and then we’d have it fresh.”

Steve takes the egg, taps it discretely on the edge of his plate to crack it open. “I think I missed the part where Loki in any way resembles a happy child,” he remarks. Despite the words, there is no sarcastic edge; he turns the egg over, considering, as though it has the answer.

“Mommy, daddy, look at me,” says Tony, as he forks up another bite of eggs. “Look what I can do.”

Thor frowns in thought, and the warm arches of his brows draw downward. “My brother does display a fair amount of showmanship,” he accedes. “But I think it unlikely that his motive centers primarily on the need to draw an audience.”

Bruce Banner eyes the controls on the Egg Chef 3009- hesitates a moment before selecting the button for fried and indicating that he wants two. “It does seem a little hard to swallow,” he puts in. “I mean, yeah, he must want someone looking, or else he wouldn’t make his plans so- Well, so-”

“Over the top?” ventures Steve.

“Grandiose?” suggests Thor.

“Patently ridiculous?” asserts Tony.

“-so visible. But there’s better ways to be seen than trying to tear the world apart. You know?” The little egg-maker trundles over to him, and the top peels back, revealing two perfectly fried eggs.

“Sir?” Jarvis interjects. “You will be needed in Central Park. The statues have begun to move in a most unseemly fashion.” The counter opens up and a screen extends; when it flickers on, images of Loki stand before them, mouth open in what seems to be laughter, as below him the storybook characters that line the paths of New York’s most famous park run rampant.

“Guess it’s time to suit up,” Tony advises. “Better get those eggs to go, Banner.”

===

Loki does not know when he has begun orchestrating their encounters from beginning to end, but when he returns in the late afternoon with not the slightest scrap of surprise that he has failed again, the god of mischief comes to realize that the lack of disappointment means something else entirely. It means that perhaps he has not failed, after all. Not truly.

For talking the weapons dealers into the concession in the first place is his role, paving the way with his silver tongue for negotiations that would otherwise have fallen through. Arranging the targets is his task as well, taking care to select structures that are both high-profile and utterly useless. So too is managing laborers to be brought in when his contacts insist the work can not be done- and providing finances more illusory than solid to fund the venture- and maneuvering the entire affair into play, from beginning to end. All of these are things that the Liesmith contributes.

And yet, allowing an early warning to leak from the laboratory in the days leading up to the event is his role, as well. So is ensuring that the security system has just enough cracks to provide a challenge, but not an impenetrable barrier. And if he has also seen to ensuring that a certain news crew on a certain corner catches a flash of him in what the entirety of the Avengers will doubtless consider their good fortune- well. It does not do to leave things to chance.

And so, Loki thinks, as he settles in to begin drafting his newest plan, perhaps hehas failed- but he has succeeded, as well.

The god of mischief reflects, as he begins considering something lively for the early summer, that perhaps playing both sides has benefits he had not previously anticipated. Because for the first time in as long as he can remember, the notion that he has lost this round does not rankle at all.

It is oddly refreshing.

===

“All I’m saying,” Tony Stark says, and flips the switch on the flat, squarish, wheeled robot, “is count the days.”

“Five hundred and sixty eight, sir,” Jarvis interjects smoothly.

Steve Rogers glances up at length, not expecting a number anywhere near as high. A spot in the center of his brow creases slightly when he concentrates, and it does so now. “More than a year,” he muses. “Has it really been that long? We’ve been seeing an awful lot of Loki lately.”

Bruce Banner sits forward, adjusts his glasses with one hand, and presses the button marked “medium brown,” before anyone else can put in an order. A tiny mechanical arm hooks two pieces of bread, butters them evenly, and then slides a slice of cheese between them. “What about when he interrupted that bike marathon by rerouting the cyclists through god knows what realm that was?”

“And what of the incident involving the hall of the city?” presses Thor. “Truly, the commotion that resulted was a sight to behold.”

“Look, I know it was a clusterfuck. I was there, remember?” Tony reaches out absently to knock on the lid of the little robot when it whirs and fails to close properly; he presses it shut manually. “You’re getting a mechanical root canal, buddy,” he promises it. “Close your mouth when you chew.”

“But you’re sure about those figures?” asks Steve. There is no report that he can look over- it is not the age of numbers on paper any longer- and he drums his fingers on the table to compensate for the fact that he wishes he had hold of something in his hands that he could use for visual confirmation.

“Sure as you can get,” Tony tells him blithely, and touches a portion of the table. A grid with numbers splays itself across the surface, as though he has read his teammate’s thoughts, and he absently taps at the display to make a section larger. “No fatalities. No major injuries. Scrapes and bruises, but not so much as a single stitch for five hundred and sixty eight days. If we were talking clothing, we’d be looking at the centerfold for Miss August.”

“Perhaps he has become lax,” says Thor, but the god of thunder has never much been one to hide what he’s feeling, and it shows on his face that he does not believe this to be the case. There is a moment when the second possibility occurs to him- when something in his eyes lights tentatively up with hope.

Bruce begins to smell burning, and he prods gingerly at the little robot still sealed closed, then picks at the seam with his fingernail. “Or maybe he’s not trying to get anyone hurt.” The smell grows worse, and Bruce slips another fingernail into the intervention process. “Uh, Tony? My grilled cheese…”

The green numbers laid out on the table shift into the image of an elephant- a turn-around with what appear to be measurements, as though Tony Stark has recently decided to build such a creature from scratch.

“Sir,” says Jarvis. “It appears as though Loki has kidnapped the animals at the Bronx Zoo. Shall I ready the Mark IX?”

“You got it, Jarvis.” Tony fixes Bruce with a wry, crooked little smile. “You better get that charcoal to go, Banner.”

Bruce wonders if he has worked out the timing intentionally, somehow.

===

In all his many, many years of weaving beautifully told untruths, of picking at the pieces of the lives of others and arranging them to suit his needs, the Liesmith has never found himself in a place quite like this one. Has never outdone himself more thoroughly, though he has known for some time that the lies he tells himself are the most convincing lies of all.

He is not certain when he ceased playing both sides and began a campaign solely against himself. He is not sure when precisely his plans began to undermine the things he thinks he meant to work for all along. He is not entirely aware of when the shift began, of when the path he was on, meant to be rigid and unyielding, formed an angle and began to tilt in this direction.

Loki, god of mischief, cleverest of Asgard, has never before had occasion to consider that he might outsmart himself. Now, as he stands before the door of the man of iron- now, as he raises his fist to knock- now, as he begins to imagine the expression that will cross his brother’s face- he considers it quite closely indeed.