Chapter 1: Chapter One
It starts as a bet. No, not even that. Something like an unwitting challenge from Thor, when they're all in their cups and Clint starts talking about what each and every supervillain might be like in bed. Everyone has suggestions of their own, but then Thor bangs the table and says:
“None of you can have Loki, for his ass is too tight and his hammer too small!”
Tony decides this is a bit much for brotherly haranguing. “Sounds like you know this first hand,” he drawls, leaning back in his chair because he can't quite sit up any longer. The jibe is obvious enough that the man understands it. Table squealing and turning down where it's being leaned on, Thor stands to his full height. “You can't have him.”
“Look, son, I don't want him. You seem pretty fixed on me wanting him, but I promise you I'd rather have Natasha. I have a thing for redheads, not so much the crazy sorcerer. But then, she's pretty crazy—okay, woah. That was a joke.” He holds his hands up and wheels his chair backwards.
Natasha puts down the bottle she was about to smash to get a sharp edge. “That's what I thought, Mr. Stark. I am also joking.”
None of them are much of a danger to anyone, despite drunken threats from the Russian quarter. It's a free weekend, so who can blame them for relaxing? Tensions had been high and save for a certain man that looked excellent for his age, the Avengers had collectively decided to party Stark style. Minus the pyrotechnics, of course, but Tony always has some near at hand. Always.
He just has to remember where they are.
Thor smiles approvingly at the assassin, clearly finding her attitude to his liking. “You talk too much and you are skinny, Tony Stark. He would never like you. I might also think that the lady in black believes you talk too much and are skinny.”
“Okay, when did this turn into an attack on the only genius in the room?” Tony wheels himself back to the table cautiously and pours another scotch, pushing it to Natasha in silent apology. The look on her face indicates that she believes it to be a ploy to make her even less dangerous, which is also true. “I might add that you're judging me relative to yourself which is hardly fair. You put the meat in meat shield, buddy.”
“My point remains valid,” declares Thor and sits down again, smirking to himself. “My brother may be tight in the britches, but he has good taste.”
Well, that was awkward. “Right, thanks. I'll have you know that only people with good taste line up for me. Meaning none of you.”
The night sort of peters out after that, but something remains in Tony's mind even after he manages to hit his bed and start the process of a good, drunken black-out.
No one tells Tony Stark what he can't have.
That's why he drops with a heavy clang into the street beside Loki and ducks a swing from the villain's newest tool of destruction. It had taken some patience to wait the days and weeks until this incident, all the while planning what he'd say. He takes a blast in the chest and feels like his fillings are close to popping right out of his teeth. Not too much suit damage, so he hisses a step closer.
It's fun. Even after promising Fury that his self-destructive tendencies are well over, Tony Stark still likes to spike the monotony of patrol with some dizzying terror and smooth moves.
“So,” he starts.
Loki is as conversational as a pitbull and lunges at him with his spear. Kind of sloppy, Tony thinks, but he probably isn't used to this kind of approach. The Iron Man suit flips over the god's head and lands on the other side of him.
“Do you want dinner some time? Seriously, it's okay if you say no. I can take rejection.”
The only answer he gets is an indescribable glower and a blast of green in his gut.
“It went well, he's warming up to me,” he tells Thor from his infirmary bed. “He seemed more angry than insane and I figure that's a sign of blossoming affection. I met this one chick in Holland, totally the same deal. Thought she'd rip my head off, and then, well, you know.”
Thor looks at him pityingly.
He tries flowers the next time, but those get thrown down and trodden on almost immediately. After that, every encounter becomes a strange kind of dance with Tony making a crass come-on and Loki rebuffing him violently.
This goes on for months until finally Loki punches him into the concrete of a warehouse roof and stands overtop. “Are you entirely out of your mind?”
“This is progress. You're talking to me,” Tony wheezes, helmet popping open on its own. The only thing he can move are his arms, which won't do that much if all he can shoot are pulsors. Loki jabs the chest of his suit with his spear and Tony lowers his hands carefully. “Talking and not killing. Great!”
“It is your lucky day, Mr. Stark,” said Loki, managing not to look bedraggled in the pouring rain.
“How lucky? 'Friday at eight' lucky?”
The Trickster closes his eyes as if summoning ill-used patience. “I am not killing you because I am curious, the Nine help me. It is almost as though you arrive not to fight, but to fulfill some other purpose. Every time.”
“Yeah, it's called a 'date.' I hear Asgard has those, but if not, just tell me. By the way, it's raining into my helmet.”
Loki snorts and moves away to jump off the roof, cloak snapping gustily. “Perhaps you can take that as a metaphor for my response.”
“So that's a yes?” he calls just as the support team arrives to pry him out of the concrete.
At least he knows he's got Loki's attention. Thor is mildly put out by the news, as if he has an internal wager running on Tony's success rate.
“I still believe you are too skinny to be good enough for him.”
“Hey big guy, maybe he likes 'em waifish.” Tony leans on the fridge with a thermos of caffeinated tar. He'd worked out for hours the previous day, but apparently Thor is blind to it. So much for gaining macho points. “But something's been bothering me, maybe you could help with that.”
“Aren't you going to defend your brother's honor?”
Thor grins and shoves him affectionately. It's a bit like Loki smashing him into that roof, but without the protection of the suit.
“I would be more concerned about your own honor, Tony Stark.”
What the hell is that supposed to mean? Whatever. He settles for working on his coffee and tapping through his phone for classy restaurants. Maybe if he just shows up at one and sits around looking stood up, he'll snare himself a god. Though if he has to be honest with himself, he suspects the only god he'll snare is Dionysus, and only when he's good and liquored.
The Asgardian prince finishes his wholesome breakfast of poptarts and fruit juice, wishes Tony a mighty battle to come, an honorable (if bloody) death, and marches off to do whatever it was he did when he wasn't brawling or drinking. Probably mope about his brother.
Tony can't help but feel a bit of apprehension over Thor's attitude. It felt like being set up for failure.
“You know,” says Clint as he's getting ready to go out, “when Loki looks at you like you're insane, maybe you really are. Maybe you have a problem.”
Tony turns around with a box of ties. “The red or the green? Or is green too much like 'wow your eyes are magnificent'? I don't want to send the wrong signal.”
The archer's face is impassive, then he considers the box. “Black, you could be there for business with black.”
“Done.” Tony works the tie under his collar.
“This is a joke right. A prank.”
“No, it's true love, and I plan to have grandchildren with this man. Of course it's a joke. Thor said I couldn't, and you know what that means. Remember when Fury said I couldn't throw a public party in the “secret” headquarters out east? Yeah, that didn't work out so well for him, did it.” He sounds smug even to his own ears and he tends to be oblivious to any negative qualities in himself, at least on the surface. Clint nods in happy remembrance, reflected in the mirror like a glossy bobblehead.
“He put you in solitary.”
“Yeah, but he didn't take my phone away, so I was in there for about a minute before I busted out like a champ. Always take my phone.” Tony twirls in place and adjusts his suit jacket, adopting the most sedate posture he could manage. “So how do I look?”
“Like a madman. I'll be on the roof opposite, you know the signal.”
They shake hands. Clint smirks wryly and walks away to scout out the restaurant and prepare for possible disaster.
The ride is uneventful. He takes a sportscar and drives himself there, choosing a stunning green Audi solely because Clint didn't want him wearing the green tie. His comm buzzed with amusement from the other end when he pulls into view.
“Keep your pants on, birdie, had to prove a point.”
“Paint a bullseye on your bumper next time, it'd be less obvious.”
He laughs and tosses his keys to someone who looks likely and finds himself a table by the window. When the waiter arrives, he asks for one as deep into the restaurant as possible, ignoring the angry static in his ear.
“Adapt or die, he won't show if there are reporters snapping shots of us from outside. Move down lower or something.”
The static says something positively rude. Tony settles down in the dim light, satisfied that it's both romantic and feature-obscuring. He doesn't give a damn about candid shots being taken of him, but he's positive that secrecy is a better method of snaring Loki. To make him curious.
Chances are Tony's just going to be billing himself for dinner and going home with a pretty girl.
A couple of hours pass uneventfully, Tony meets no pretty girls, and he doesn't get nearly drunk enough. Clint eventually packs up and goes back to the mansion, declaring the entire night a complete waste of his time. Tony sees his point, picking at his papillon noir and losing interest quick. Tenacity in the face of boredom is not his strong suit, but something tells him to stick around a little longer.
The frozen hand holding him in his seat from behind is another thing telling him that.
Chapter 2: Chapter Two
Loki makes an appearance finally, but he plans to turn the tables on Tony. He doesn't appreciate jokes made at his expense.
This one's a little more serious than the previous chapter, I hope I can be forgiven! Making Tony uncomfortable is too delicious an opportunity to pass up.
Tony opens his mouth to let someone on the other end know that the fox is now in the henhouse, though a little later than expected, but Loki picks the comm off him faster than he can speak.
“Found myself some ass,” Tony hears himself say. No, hears Loki say in his voice. His voice, damnit! “Catch you boys in the morning, don't do anything I wouldn't do.”
The comm crunches in the sorcerer's fingers as Loki seats himself across from the stranded Avenger. His smile is ambiguous as he flicks the ruined device into Tony's port glass and sits back to stretch his legs under the table.
“Your move, human.”
Tony hates chess. “You know, I love hearing myself talk, but this is a new experience.”
“You never shut up, it would be something of a feat not to know your voice so well I can replicate it.”
Ouch. He supposes he walked into that. One point to the killer alien, zero to the self-proclaimed hottest man on earth. It isn't a good start, because there's really no safety switch in this situation, and though he has the Mark V suit in the car it's, well, in the car. If only he can figure out the summoning mechanism Thor uses for his hammer...
“So normally when I wine and dine someone, we actually do those things. Did you want something before my sudden and brutal end? My treat.”
Loki watches him until it gets markedly uncomfortable between them and picks up the wine menu. “My pleasure, Mr. Stark.” The way he says that makes Tony never want to find out what gives Loki pleasure. Ever.
As it turns out, some gods have terrible taste in wine and pick the most repugnant red on the menu. It's surely something Thor would admire, and perhaps that's the point. It's a little strange to Tony though, seeing the thin man drinking something he can smell from the other side of the table. Asgardian taste, maybe.
He begins to think they don't have any taste.
“Don't suppose you'll tell me what you were doing in Chicago on Monday?”
Loki ignores the question, filling Tony's glass for him with flair and causing the crushed comm to bob to the surface like a threat. His eyes are on the human as though mentally peeling his skin from his features. Tony keeps his chin up as he reaches for his phone.
“Foolish idea. I thought you'd be smarter, Mr. Stark.”
His hand stops an inch from the lapel of his jacket, hovering. The edges of his reactor choose that moment to start aching and he clenches his teeth to keep his face under control. “Just want to check the weather, that's all. North American obsession, you wouldn't understand.”
The god smiles in that absent and dangerous way he has, standing up with his glass in hand. “There will be a chance of snow, Mr. Stark. Surely you know that.” Loki moves toward him, reaching out with his occupied hand to touch his chin with his knuckles. “Or at least... a low of freezing. Pick up your jacket.”
“No,” Tony says flatly. Reflex.
The slap that comes leaves a trail of ice across his cheek and suddenly the pain from the reactor doesn't seem so great. He leans over the arm of his chair to snag the heavy woolen coat he'd tossed there carelessly hours ago. The alternative is to let the bastard see him flinch. “Funny, I thought you didn't want to make a scene.”
Loki is turned away from the rest of the room, yet alert and seemingly aware of every glance their way. “Midgard is too crude to appreciate any subtlety from me. I don't need to describe what will happen to the worms here should you resist me?”
The breath goes out of Tony then. A public meeting, alone and unarmed had been thrilling, but at the cost of innocent lives? He hadn't thought about that—he never does, he's too caught up in himself. He's silent, watching the comm float lazily in the wine he isn't going to be drinking. The phone he carries is scant inches from his fingertips, but he isn't banking on being able to get that far.
“Does your game no longer please you, human? Is it not as funny as you'd imagined?”
Tony stands up with care, leaning the weight of his arm against the table, hands deliberately placed where they won't get into trouble. “What I find funny is that you're going through all this trouble in order to scare me. So my thought... is that my game is working. You can't help but wonder why I'm insane enough to do this.” He looks up. “Isn't that right?”
That's the thing about Tony's hands. They're rarely what gets him into trouble.
“You know nothing about my thoughts,” hisses Loki, reaching out. He's snakelike in his quickness, but the grip grinding the bones of Tony's hand together is anything but weak. It feels like he has it jammed into a metal press.
“Loosen up, that's the hand I use for—”
The air rushes out of him and all he can see is prickling lights on a wash of shadow. He sees ozone and hears it, beating on his skin and crawling in through his throat--
Then it's cold and quiet. Loki lets go of him and echoing steps crunch away into the chill a moment later. Tony opens his eyes and slides down the cave wall he'd stumbled against. It pulls at his dinner jacket greedily as he moves downward, its icy surface like amorous hands.
“Shit,” is all he can manage, plumes of air rising from him. The magical residue of Loki spreads over his skin, a tingling web of memory and he wishes he can study it, capture it, but it's fading as fast as it spreads. He fumbles for his jacket and jerks his arms into the sleeves, lurching to his feet.
The god is nearby, at the entrance with his hands raised and pressed against a massive sheet of ice blocking the way out. He's pensive, or pretends to be. “I hear you have a history with caves, Mr. Stark.”
“Wow, you can read. Going to regale me with more facts from just about every interview I've done in the last year? Public fucking knowledge.”
If he looks closely at his hands, he can see faint green veins overlaying his own that refuse to fade.
“You're upset, no longer laughing.” Loki gestures to the tight space around them. “Don't find my sense of humor to your liking?”
There's no point in responding. It's about all Tony can do to focus on the light filtering in from the outside world, wherever that is, and ignore the press of claustrophobia. He can't hear guns and the hiss of a soldering flame, but the silence only amplifies the memories. Breathing is hard. A skiff of flaking ice kicks up, then Loki's mouth is by his ear and the man is smiling.
“I'll leave you to your thoughts, then.”
Tony lashes out, consequences bedamned, but his fist meets nothing and swings him around. Unsteady, he aims a kick at the green-eyed crow flapping on the floor of the cave for altitude. There is a blast of raucous laughter from the bird and it launches into the ice and right through, as though it's nothing but water.
It has his phone in its beak.
Chapter 3: Chapter Three
Tony struggles to keep himself alive in the icy cave with no tools at his disposal until S.H.I.E.L.D. arrives. After a strange conversation with Thor, it's verified that Loki's magic is lingering on him.
His joints ache every time he moves. Distantly, he knows this is a good thing, but it's like his life is in fast-forward while his body falls apart in a frozen hole. He stays standing by the ice sheeting as long as he can stay upright, then curls sitting at the base of it. For a while his mind is wintry bright with fear, but that too begins to dull.
The wool helps a bit. Loki had made him take his coat... it's a curious thought, but he can't grasp the threads of it long enough to wonder why.
Pepper would know how to stay warm here. She'd rescue him like she always did. Rescue. Pepper would know...
He remembers to get up and move, though stiffly and with an arthritic gait. Rhymes he never learned from his father tumble through the fog in his head. Distracted, he crouches to study the fiber residue his shoulder had left on the frozen barricade, the wool a tiny blur on its surface. It takes him some time to understand what it is, and it's a trigger flooding panic and heat through his body. His mind is crystalline again, at least for a few minutes.
Tony peels his hands off the ice.
What time has passed, he doesn't know. But there is a tremor against the ice and a blurred dark shaft stood visible from the other side. Drops of blood flash around the impact point—no, points of ruby light. Tony limps back inside the cave and shields his head as the ice blows apart.
The sound of that wall exploding is the sweetest thing he's ever heard.
It's the work of bottomless strength to walk himself out of the cave, triumphant, barely awake. But upright. He wouldn't fall, not from something as stupid as being a little chilled.
“Gonna put a bell on you,” says Clint when he drops a weighted blanket around Tony. “You look like shit, but I figure you're used to that.”
He hears Clint bark sharply that he's blue, people, get the lead outta your asses. I want the temperature on that tin airboat dropped until it's safe to raise it—don't look at me like that, just do it.
Tony insists on walking to the helicopter, though he's unsteady and needing to be steered when he wanders off a few steps. The people bustling over the snow are blurry, erratic. He takes comfort in their presence. It's a good presence, better than a crow and a cave, and it involved plenty of pretty women in full gear. He loves a woman in combat gear.
Clint puts an ugly toque on him. “Donation from Logan.”
“Tell him thanks. Remind me to punch him.”
There's snow on his pant legs when he looks down, but he can't feel the cold of it. Not a great sign. Clint helps him into the carrier with constant chatter and a hand on his back. Tony knows what he's doing, but is grateful for the distraction. “Better put your suit on first before you do that. Step a little higher, lazy bastard—there you go. No, don't sit there, it's reserved for the elderly and pregnant. Drink this.”
“When's the baby due, Clintsy? Thought you've been getting plump.”
Things fade in and out after that. He wakes from his shallow doze, finding the operatives watching him. His extremities prickle and burn, but it isn't overwhelmingly painful: they were handling the warming process well. His brain is still muzzy, but then the undercurrent of panic wasn't buoying it any longer.
“Not going to lose me that easily. Made of iron, remember?”
No one except Tony is amused. He's helped into a respiration mask, the life-giving air warm in his throat. It is thus that the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents successfully shut him up.
When they land, he gets out of the carrier like he'd entered it: on his own. Pepper is on him in an instant, a flurry of shaking hands and sharp questions aimed at anyone in her line of fire. What happened? Is he going to be okay? Why were you so slow coming back? It's been hours!
“Pepper,” he croaks.
She ignores the feeble noise, pushing him off in front of her and out of the cool night air with clipped efficiency. Even the snick of her pumps is weighted with ire.
“Pepper, please, I'm a grown man.”
A gusting sigh from her is all the reply he gets. It's the sigh of a barely-restrained lecture, one that she's planning as they walk but is too polite to attack him with immediately. She'll wait until she feels he's man enough to bear it, or disgraceful enough to need it. He's sure he deserves it this time.
Members of S.H.I.E.L.D. loitering in the foyer to drag him into a debriefing break like waves in front of them. Tony smiles apologetically, trying not to look like too much of a smug asshole. If he's lucky, he can put off the inevitable meeting with Fury for at least a day, and that thought makes everything just a little bit brighter. That is until Pepper fusses him into bed, calls in a team of physicians, and wheels on him.
“How could you do that, Tony? Are you having another episode?”
“Episode? What am I, a mental patient?”
She thinks about this for far longer than he feels is necessary.
“I was going right home, I just sent Clint off ahead of me.” He tries taking a measured, sensible tone. She accuses him of going off half-cocked at least every other day, so this will surely be the best tactic.
She sucks in her cheeks and crosses her arms.
Right, bad tactic.
“There was no way Loki would show up, and look, every time I've done something immensely stupid and/or suicidal I've always lived!”
“But for the grace of God,” Pepper mutters, opening the doors of his recuperation room to let the medics in. “Do what you need to, and please don't follow his orders. He's probably delirious, you can't tell what he might say.”
That was low. Potentially accurate, but low.
The team handles him like some kind of living marionette while Pepper gets ready to leave, her bit said.
“You're a lion tamer, you know that? Watch the chest—hey! Yeah, that's right. Don't stick your fingers there.”
“I see a barely-warm little man fighting the nice doctors, not a lion. In fact, geriatrics have more fire. Enjoy your IV.”
She decides to leave then, but he doesn't miss the relieved slump to her shoulders. Tony smiles a bit when he's sure she won't notice.
He doesn't enjoy the IV in fact, and complains to anyone who comes to visit him. In this case, Thor.
“Do you have monsters with tentacles on Asgard, because we should totally hang out. Ugh, this stings.”
The big blond is big and pensive for now, shaking his head. “There are such creatures in Niflheim, but they would not count you among their number, no matter how many tubes you have inserted into you. I am also noticing that you are talking to keep yourself awake.”
“Bingo. Nobody will bring me coffee, so I need to improvise. Something about fluid levels and being healthy. Come on.”
Thor sits on the side of Tony's bed, creating a gravity well that rivals the Sun's. His hands are laced across a broad knee. “You are stained with magic.”
Tony chuckles, the muscles in his arms flexing as he considers trying to tuck them under the covers. The webbing Loki had left on him hasn't yet faded, and no one had once commented on it—until now. “If that's what we're calling caffeine withdrawal these days. Can we talk about something fun, like women?”
“My brother's work?”
So much for anyone paying him or his conversational suggestions any mind. Maybe he'd get to spit-shine Fury's guns as his next task as less-than-Avenger. “Yeah, I guess. He... teleported us? Or something. This stuff just never wore off. Can't test it since I'm apparently grounded for another day or two, but it's concentrated at my chest.”
He maneuvers himself up to get his back straight and unbuttons his shirt, waiting until Thor leans in close to the reactor to say as smoothly as possible: “You know, at the third nipple.”
The god lifts his eyes slowly and then lowers them, not deigning to reply. He reaches out his hand to trace the radiating green filaments that bunched and seemed to melt into the reactor. Tony feels an electric jolt at the touch.
“It is his aspect,” Thor nods. “When a spell affects the entire body, it weaves such a pattern over the target, like a net. It usually lasts only a second, but here it remains. I am sorry I do not know more. Loki was always the master at...” He's quiet a few heartbeats and Tony fills the silence for him.
“You're the first person to say anything. I'm guessing that's not accidental.”
“Perhaps certain of the Midgardians of the Clan of X may be able to see these traces, but those that are here in this tower seem to be blind to it.”
Maybe he'll treat Logan to that punch earlier than he'd planned and that thought gives him an idea. He grabs vaguely at a nearby console until Thor brings it to him, pulling his shirt right off. He taps at the screen and starts to take pictures. The results are disappointing, not least because the only thing they emphasize is the discoloration on his skin from the cave adventure.
“So much for emailing nudie shots, these are coming up blank. Can't see the juice.”
Thor is watching him the way children watch dogs doing tricks.
“Obviously, Tony Stark. Your recording lenses are like the mortals in this tower: insensitive to magic. This is no surprise, surely?”
When he put it that way. “It's pooling around the reactor, maybe that's what's keeping it around. JARVIS, set up a scan in 34A, I'll be right over.”
“I am not permitted, sir. You are to remain in bed for another 42 hours.”
“Not per—I can't believe this. Hey, Thor, can you go talk to Bruce? He needs to use those magic hacking fingers to give my things back to me. Namely, my AI. Whoever took it over must have been good.”
Thor works his jaw and looks down at his hands, turning them over and tracing veins with a finger. Tony narrows his eyes.
“Bruce did it?”
“He was worried for you most fiercely and felt that hobbling your mist companion would be the firmest way of keeping you safe.”
The yawning chasm of the next two days without either intelligent conversation or coffee splits open in front of Tony. Darkness pours into his soul. He deals with it by flinging his shirt from the bed to the floor and hunkering down under his covers.
Next chapter: Tests are run, certain scientists are spoken to sharply, and Stark Tower becomes the home of a murder. The missing Mark V activates?
Chapter 4: Chapter Four
Tests are run, certain scientists are spoken to sharply, and Stark Tower becomes the home of a murder. The missing Mark V activates?
It's an occasion for the 59th Street Bridge Song and windows flung wide to let the sun pour in. Tony Stark is back in action. He has an oversized thermos of Red Bull, a fistful of cables, and a vexation that can only be solved with judicious application of brains.
“You are in good spirits, sir.”
“Of course I am, I'm no longer Dr. Octopus' sexier clone.”
All in all, the day is set to be good. War Machine has taken over his duties for the time being, after a bit of complaining on Tony's part and more than a bit of fake limping. Rhodey wasn't convinced by the looks of it, but he'd agreed to take over for a week. (He gets his revenge by leaving overly detailed reports about every overturned bicycle rack and petty robbery he comes across on Tony's lab computers.)
A little extra juice, twist of a connector...
“Access now granted to every worldwide satellite, sir. Relaying through S.I. ZIPSAT constellation.”
Tony kicks back and unscrews his thermos, ankles crossed up on a workbench. “That's it. Find daddy his suit.”
His car and its contents had gone missing when he had. No matches for the car in any police records since, and no signal from the boxed suit: something that should have a constant, encrypted beacon. The car he doesn't care about. It isn't modded, and anyway, the color green has soured on him this last little while.
“No matches found.”
“Try harder.” He slams the Red Bull down, pleasant mood winking out. “There's no way that thing's off the radar.”
“Sir, wishful thinking won't --”
He gets up and moves around pointlessly while his brain thrashes through possible explanations and their associated solutions. Hammer is a no, Futurepharm is a no... Loki? Unlikely, he doesn't have the tech. That leaves, what? Clint taking his wheels for a spin and failing to mention it or bring them back?
It bears thinking about. Barton loves a good prank, and he'd messed around like this before, going so far as to fill the radiators in all Tony's cars with pop rocks and baking soda. The situation is more serious than the usual for him, which makes Tony skeptical that he's involved. But still...
“Connect: requesting Clint Barton. Tell him specifically to wear clothes this time.”
“Hey popsicle, I hear you want me naked.”
He doesn't hear Clint walk in or even bridge the space of the room. “Yeah, no. Too early to see that kind of horror show. I'll be quick: did you take my car?”
“Which one, cause I think Natasha was at least a little impressed when I rolled up in that--”
“Clint, I'm serious.”
The archer hops up on his desk, squatting there like a shadow. Tony doesn't hear anything then, either. Maybe a hiss of fabric, it's hard to tell. Might be his own jeans.
“Nope, didn't nick your car. Still missing the suit?”
“Yeah. I'm not worried about deployment, since after the situation with Rhodey, the suits only adhere to me. I was very specific about that little upgrade. Doesn't mean whoever's got it can't pull it apart for study though.”
“If you ask me, Doom has it.”
“Jesus, you're a ray of sunshine. That'd really make my entire life better.”
“Just saying, bud. Guessing you can't track it?”
Tony grunts affirmation, connecting more of the world's news lines into a fine-grained search with a flick of his fingers. The text flashes past, so far nothing but a worthless scramble of letters.
“I should. It's a subtle device, too, not like an 80s antennae jutting out of the shoulder or anything. They'd really have to dig deep.”
Scrolling, blinking, more scrolling. Without warning, JARVIS cuts the feed, leaving pricks of orange light in Tony's eyes where the data had been reflected.
“Mark V Iteration C online. Processing secondary location feed.”
His chest tightens. Online? Impossible, he'd just explained that it was impossible, and he really doesn't need to look like an idiot to the team. Not after the dinner-and-a-cave stunt.
“Fury's gonna shit a tarantula. Traceroute.”
“Destination point unstable.”
“What does that even mean, JARVIS? Not getting any younger, tell me where it is.”
“I am not sure, sir. Results of traces vary. The Mark V is either on Titan or in Mongolia. I am afraid the most likely explanation is radiation interference.”
Clint skips off the desk and lands softly. “How come you can get a reading but you can't trace it back? Come on, supergenius, earn your keep.”
Tony gives him the finger and flicks up a collection of payloads to drop into the suit with his free hand. If one of them takes hold he'll have control, and the hours spent working on these what-if deliveries will be worth it. While building them months before, the chance of needing a digital grappling hook for his own tech seemed slim.
“Slim” isn't what he'd call it right now.
A heartbeat, an intake of breath, and then Clint is dancing in place and pumping the air with his fists.
“That is so cool!”
A feed flicks on, one that Tony designed to monitor and record any injuries within the suit, both to the wearer and to the thing itself. From there, it's simple to transmit the information to medical centers or in this case, his garage. It's a combination of heat and topography imaging, as well as any light entering from the HUD of the outside world through damages.
“Tony, there's a zombie wearing your suit!”
They stand in silence. More accurately: Tony stands in silence and the rate of Clint's excited dancing increases. Spidering his hands out, Tony expands the size and clarity of the feed.
Definitely no way of mistaking the wearer for a living person, no matter how he squints. Maybe he should feel like an idiot for not predicting this possibility, but maybe not. Since when are zombies a viable point of concern when constructing safeties for his suits? It still rankles him for not thinking of it before.
It's hard to look at the feed for an instant, until his eyes adjust to the burst of light radiating from the cracks and peels in the monster's skin. It begins to move, the internal hiss and scrape of metal parts echoing with a cold shiver that lingers.
The feed blinks once, HUD of the suit overlaying the scene. Neither man is surprised to see a run-down warehouse soaked in rust and shadow. The floor is littered with etched sticks that glow fiercely along the patterns cut into the flat of them, and alongside lie broken bones with fresh spiral fractures. As the suit travels, the debris lifts into the air and fuses into a gross approximation of the human form, meat forming on it as soon as the limbs are suspended. From the half-hidden bulks around the space, it's obvious that this isn't the only zombie being given flesh.
Loki walks among them, his gait identifiable even when the rest of him isn't. He flicks his wrists to move the floating undead, coming to intercept the suit's path. His hand lifts to aim at the feed, at the suit, drawing it forward to himself.
“Oh no you aren't,” mutters Tony.
But he is. Loki spreads his arms and the HUD reports the armor mimicking the gesture as if suspended on wire. A beam of something impales the ring that would be lying against Tony's reactor edges. Inside it turns a runestick, nested in the absence-of-light securely.
“Must be what's powering the suit. JARVIS, drop permissions to -rwx------.”
The suit continues to move at Loki's command, engaging weapons and peripherals.
“Sir, magic makes this something of a wasted effort. Clearly that is what this is.”
“Hook me in, this is bullshit.” Tony drags a stool to himself and hunches on it like a vulture while he hammers away at a transparent command line. He follows the trace manually, but it might as well be a spinning compass. He tries taking control remotely, but half of his code either doesn't work or does something completely wrong. Unless it's Loki setting off micromunitions, the timing of his sliding code and the subsequent explosion on the feed is too precise.
He throws up his hands. Dramatics always help him think. “I hate magic!”
Clint is there beside him: lined, sharp-featured, and focused. “Join the club. Nothing going through?”
“Some of it does. Most of it's just evaporating or something. Basic functions stick, but the rest? I'm pretty sure I caused whatever just happened there, and that was definitely not what I was trying to do. Anyway, the suit's only connected fully when powered up, which is why I can do even this much.”
“Why can't you trace if you're connected now?”
“He can't because a wizard did it. There's nothing for it.”
Clint hums and nods. “I'm gonna have to agree with Doctor Who here. You're screwed.”
“Children, daddy's working,” grits Tony, changing seats to a more comfortable office chair.
“You programmed me for ill-timed humor. I do hope you are reflecting on this with uncharacteristic seriousness.”
He isn't built to handle this. He doesn't have the patience. How can he hack through magical interference when he doesn't even know the physics behind it? How can he hack without a babysitter for the other two? Clint won't leave even when he's told to and Tony needs JARVIS notifying him of changes.
He flips up a second comm link.
Bruce turns his glasses over in his fingers, studying the feed while Tony spins in his chair like an impatient schoolboy.
“There is a zombie wearing your armor. Why?”
“Wants to feel pretty,” says Clint. “Armor doesn't do anything to improve Stark's looks, though.”
There's that need for patience again. Tony embarrasses himself by punching at the assassin and missing spectacularly. “The suit won't apply to anyone but me, but obviously the walking dead don't count as anyone. Guess what I'm trying to say is that I didn't plan for zombies.”
Bruce puts his glasses on again, leaning into the feed and peering at it myopically. “So you call me in here to do what exactly?”
“Tell me what's messing up the signal!”
“Same question, Tony. I can't look at invisible particles generated by god-knows-what through a video feed from god-knows-where.”
“But you're, like, really good with that stuff,” says Clint. The physicist snorts.
“Should show Thor this.”
Mjolnir and lab equipment are two things that no one likes to see together. Especially Tony. “Aw man, but he always looks like someone stole his bike whenever Loki's being an evil prick. I'd rather tell Thor I scored with him instead.”
“How'd that go? The scoring. I heard he gave you the cold shoulder.” The dusky man smiles sidelong, baiting.
Tony doesn't dignify it.
Clint does. “Damn Banner, how chilly. Didn't know you had it in you.”
“I'm sure he's had a lot inside him,” grumps Tony, satisfied when color floods Bruce's face. Fourth place runner Tony Stark, coming up to the lead. He forges on. “So while I have you here for this showing of Night of the Living Dead: Screw You Loki edition, let's have a chat about belongings and taking my computers away from me. 'Cause that was a dick move. Right, Clint?”
Bruce appears unmoved to pity, brows lowered to nearly merge with the frames of his eyewear. “If you won't look after your health, I will. If it means hacking JARVIS and taking away holographic control rights, I'll gladly do it every time. You're incredibly irresponsible about your own well-being and it's taxing on the rest of us that care about you.”
There's nothing to say to that, not really. Tony twirls in his chair to face the other way and watch a crow hop around on the balcony outside. It fixes him with the corvid side-eye as if judging him too.
It's awkward between them all until the feed changes. More awkward than the one time he'd woken up in Rhodey's bed with a splitting hangover, in fact. Guilt isn't a comfortable fit for Tony, he doesn't like it. It's messy.
“Hey, something's happening.” Clint spins him back around before he gets too mired in a right proper sulk.
The zombie inside the suit dissolves in reverse of the process Loki is using to build the others, melting away to runestick and broken bone.
But the HUD powers down and disappears without fanfare. Tony sends his modified keyboard into a whirl of star-spinning blue and shoves away to stand by the window. This must be what it feels like to be an undergraduate trying to stumble through a block of code without dotting it with too many infinite loops, he decides. Absolutely goddamned useless. It's a new feeling. He likes it about as much as he likes guilt.
Tony sucks it up and calls for Thor.
The lounge balcony is a better place to complain than inside a small lab room filled with athletic men and no ventilation, even if one of them is a god. Although in Thor's case, it's because one of them is a god. The guy needs serious one-on-one time with a stick of Degree some days.
“Okay, so. Loki stole my stuff and is making brain-eaters out of fancy sticks and Thanksgiving leftovers. That's probably important. Also whatever he's doing makes locating where he is a huge pain in the ass.”
Thor stands while the rest of them lounge properly, leaning his hip on the balcony wall. “Brain-eaters? I do not take your meaning. There are numerous creatures that have been noted to consume brains among the nine realms.” He leans into Clint's whispered commentary. “Ah. Undead? Then Loki is dealing in Hel once again.”
Tony flaps his hand. “See? I told you, he looks like someone stole his bike. A real cute number with a little bell on it, pink wheels.”
“No one stole a thing of mine named Bike.”
“Nevermind. I have the whole thing recorded, I'll show you after. You can probably read the party sticks he's using, come to think of it. Runes.”
A crow flaps down to land by Thor's shoulder.
“I am not well-versed in magic, but at the very least I can identify the basic properties of it. This may help refine your search.”
Clint sits up in his deck chair, dropping his shades down the bridge of his nose. “Guys?”
Tony and Bruce both seize upon the Asgardian's statement, chattering about the possibilities of detecting trace radiation from Thor's future interpretation. For Tony's part, his mind immediately flies to the spiderwebs of green still lacing his body. It's so obvious: if he can find some kind of signature on the webs that can be measured, then he'll have a rock-solid foundation to work with!
“Guys, seriously. Incoming.”
Thor turns around only to be caught in a flapping wall of wings, all of them night-black and screaming. Crows drop down onto the glossy patio and waddle in through the open door, snapping their beaks. Still more stay in the air, clawing and beating the air all around the men. New York is blocked completely from sight, disappearing in a localized tornado of claws and feathers.
“Screw this.” Clint grabs one out of the air and brains it on the ground, jerking back when the thing explodes in a shower of fireworks. Thor manages to do the same with much less grace and his bird ends its days with another dazzling pop.
“LOKI!” he roars.
Bruce sits very quietly in the midst of this with his eyes closed.
“I'm getting my suit,” announces Tony, kicking his way inside and skipping over a swarm of black bodies. At least every other crow took a shot at his ankles.
“A little early for a party, sir.”
The rate of explosions from outside rapidly increases. Someone found their weapon.
The garage is blissfully free of insane birds, even if Tony half-expects to see his display cases filled with them. They aren't, and he gets armored up without incident.
“Gonna be pissed if this is the result of that asshole sitting down for a Hitchcock marathon.” He leaves his faceplate up and paces through rows of parked vehicles to reach a secondary exit.
He stops and backs up. One of the convertibles has its headlights on. A short burst from his boot repulsors and he drops down beside the driver's door—a green door. A very particular kind of green. Say, one he had specially mixed.
Loki's hand snakes out to drag him down by the armored throat and he puts a metal fist through the dash of his own car to catch his balance. The trickster is sitting casually, black shirt unbuttoned to the navel and looking like he's on the way to a night at Absolution. Are those knee-high Docs and black nails?
Tony pries his hand free. “Give me my suit back.”
“Oh I will. I'll make you so hard.”
“I am sure.”
They stare at each other, Loki's grip firm enough to dent his throat armor uncomfortably.
“I didn't mean it like that,” Tony says.
Loki rolls his eyes. “Stop talking, human, you only make it worse.”
“How about 'no.' Does 'no' work for you?” No sense going for the small guns when he's sitting right there and Tony's feeling frost burning across his skin. He queues the biggest thing he's got, but Loki's no longer in the car but behind him and shoving him face first onto the hood. The missile fizzles.
“Let us make a deal. You make it worth my while, perhaps I shall return your entertaining machinery. If you do not amuse me, then I will not return it and will have that much longer to study it. Replicate it.”
“In addition to 'no,' I'd like to add 'fuck you.'”
He throws an elbow up, but Loki is already on the other side of the aisle, taunting him with an insane grin.
“Tch. I returned your tasteless vehicle, and this is such thanks as I receive?”
Walls can be repaired. Tony fires a tantrum of blasts at Loki, following his flitting steps until he's gone entirely. There's nothing but debris and thick clouds of dust where the bastard ought to be standing. Reflected movement along a bar of chrome—Tony spins and fires.
Loki stumbles. It's a lucky shot, grazing his side, but it's ugly and big and most importantly bloody.
“Think about it,” he says and disappears with a condescending flourish.
Next chapter: Magic continues to be frustrating, Loki indulges in his favorite pastime of outrageously large explosions, and Tony decides that immaturity is the best recourse.