The debriefing after Iron Man’s too-close encounter with falling debris from a collapsing building was one that would be whispered about by S.H.I.E.L.D. staff for years, much to Director Fury’s considerable chagrin. Something about super-villains and illicit affairs lit up gossip circles like nothing else.
It started with Natasha’s report, “It seems Loki has done something to Stark.”
“I was under the impression that his injuries were minor.”
“Yes, but they shouldn’t have been, sir. One moment... Here.”
An alert popped up on one of the nearest touch-screens. Fury tapped on it, reviewed the images of the crater, the girder, and some of Tony Stark’s bloodstained armor. “And Loki showed up out of nowhere for this?”
“Thor contacted him, apparently. The god of chaos and mischief has a cellphone.” She sounded amused. “According to Stark, Loki didn’t heal him––not directly.”
That gave the old spy considerable pause. “Any other surprises I should be aware of?”
“Loki agreed to be debriefed,” Natasha said, with a trace more amusement than the information merited: she was holding something back.
“Romanov,” he warned.
“They’re on their way into the jet now. See you soon, darling.” She hung up.
Sometimes that little Russian assassin really did get on his nerves.
Tony went to the med bay swiftly enough, and was apparently feeling well enough to fend off any attempts by personnel to get a blood sample from him. He was also grinning like it was Christmas, which Fury always considered a bad sign. He decided to keep this briefing out of the usual spartan interview rooms. Stark was less likely to bolt here, and if he acted out too much, his distraction would let someone get that sample.
“Mr. Stark. You’re looking well, all things considered.”
A laugh of mixed irritation and elation rattled up from the mad inventor’s now-bandaged chest, where the bones of his ribcage still needed support to prevent them puncturing––or re-puncturing––one of his lungs if he happened to make any too-sudden movements. “So I keep hearing, yeah.”
“I’ve seen where they pulled you out from, Stark, and you’re not the first man I’ve ever met with remarkable recovery-time from damage that should have proven lethal, but I’ve also seen you injured seriously before, and I distinctly don’t recall you recovering quite so fast back then,” Fury challenged.
“It’s––something a bit new, yeah.” He flashed a too-quick grin. “Tell ‘em to quit trying to poke me with one of those things. I gave a sample to Bruce already, and he’s processing it in his lab at the tower. Fuck off!”
“You do know what caused this change, then?”
“Yeah, I do. It was a gift.” He grinned again, like a cat that had gotten the cream, the canary, and feline worship re-established in Egypt without all that being-mummified-alive business. “I suppose I ought to mention that it should be kept quiet on, ah, interplanetary diplomatic grounds.”
Fury’s eyebrows raised, though the rest of his expression remained supremely unimpressed. “Really now?”
“It might’ve been stolen from someone in Asgard––not that I knew that at first.” He gave it a bit of thought. “Well... I knew it had been gotten by mildly illicit means, but I thought it was just a bit of trickery and a rigged bet. I found out today that there might’ve been a bit more severe law-breaking involved than that.”
“Asgard,” Fury repeated.
Tony gave another laugh, and this time the disbelief in it was clearly discernible, and it was clear that not all of his breathlessness was due to cracked ribs. He was still grinning like a mad thing. “Yeah. I know. It’s sort of insane. I should’ve probably been more suspicious of alien foodstuffs, I guess.”
“When did you consume said foodstuffs?” Fury inquired, already planning a way to signal for restraints and sedatives if necessary, and possibly a stomach pump.
“Over a month ago,” Tony reported cheerfully, clearly catching onto his train of thought. “All that’s left are the after-effects.”
“Which left you able to survive nearly being impaled on, and crushed under, debris from a collapsed bank building?”
“Yeah.” Tony folded his arms over his chest. “I kind of like the sound of ‘the Immortal Tony Stark’, don’t you?”
A muscle in the general vicinity of Nick Fury’s right eye twitched, and the old spy could feel a headache coming on. “I don’t recall this particular clause in that contract you have with Loki, Mr. Stark.”
“It’s not in there.” Tony’s expression became just a little more guarded then, but his smile lingered: a bit of teeth and sharpness edging every word. “Like I said, Nick: it was a gift.”
“An illegal gift, most likely stolen, which you claim could be cause for a diplomatic incident,” Fury reminded.
“Just keep the info away from Thor, is all I’m really saying. Loki won’t exactly be advertising it around, especially while he’s still on parole. And hey! You all get to keep me around to invent shiny new toys, and new materials that stretch enough for Bruce to no longer have to worry about constantly losing his pants!”
“Why, exactly, would the former enemy of the Avengers, and earth in general, be inspired to gift you with a sort of immortality, Mr. Stark?”
Tony smiled slow and closed-lipped and smug. “I trust him, these days, Nick. I’m not saying you should, but know that I’m not in danger here––no more than I want to be.”
“Are you suggesting that the rest of us are?” Fury inquired, with his characteristic delicacy.
“No. He’s decided that S.H.I.E.L.D. is interesting, I think,” the inventor mused. “More interesting to keep around than to destroy, at least––but that doesn’t mean I’d trust him not to stir you all up like stabbing a stick into an anthill.” He shrugged, careful not to jostle any of his injuries. “Just don’t get too worked up over this. It’ll only amuse the guy.”
“You act like you know him pretty well, these days.”
“Maybe I do.”
“He’s an accomplished liar, Mr. Stark.”
“So am I, Nick.” Tony’s eyes narrowed and he offered a toothy shit-eating grin. “Which is why talking with you is always interesting.” He twisted away from another nurse with a syringe, getting to his feet to dodge the second nurse who had been waiting for an opening while he was distracted. Tony pulled on a T-shirt quickly. “You really haven’t worked it out, have you?” he sounded amused.
Fury sighed. “Not as of yet, apparently.”
“Then you should probably debrief Loki before he changes his mind.”
Shaking his head, Fury turned on his heel and headed for the interrogation rooms, deliberately ignoring the way Tony Stark followed close on his heels.
“What would you say your preferred surname is, these days, Loki?” Natasha inquired, playing the warm-up act game for Loki’s debriefing.
Loki smiled at her without much malice. He’d been fond of her in a peculiar sort of way, after that little incident with her in the helicarrier. “I find that Lie-smith avoids any potentially ire-provoking reminders of familial matters”
Natasha added that to his file. “Noted.” She looked up at him a little more shrewdly then. “You’re looking pleased with yourself.”
“I’m in a good mood.”
“Last time you looked quite that content, our conversation became unpleasant very quickly, Mr. Lie-smith.”
“I won’t hold you to any formalities, Agent Romanov. You may call me whatever you like,” Loki assured.
“You won’t win any points with me that way.”
“I’m aware. You’ll pardon me for not sharing your disdain. I must admit, that aside from Tony, you are by far my favorite Midgardian liar. You’re very, very good: better than anyone I can think of in Asgard aside from myself and my adoptive kin.”
She tilted her head slightly, and peripherally noticed a small red light flicker on over the one-way glass to their left: a silent signal that they were being watched now, and listened to, by ears on the other side of the glass. “I still didn’t fool you, though.”
“No, but you did quite surprise me. I was sincerely shocked by your performance.”
“You still managed to fool me,” she reminded, eyes narrowed. “Sending me to provoke Dr. Banner just in time for all the arguing to really heat up.”
“Yes, but more bothersome to you was that you were rather more affected by my lies than I was by yours; although you hid it very well,” the god of lies complimented.
“Were they lies? Just another twisted little game?” Natasha mused.
“I always like to see how far I can push,” Loki said, with a careless shrug. “With you, it was quite a Sisyphean task. Even when I did strike nerves, and knew I had, your responses were all feigned––and masterfully so. I admit, it was frustrating, having to pull out all the stops just for one mortal. You remained quiet and calm underneath, the few barbs with any effect held in suspension until the fighting was done. I suppose they never really sink for you, until you’re left alone with your own thoughts for a bit too long afterwards.”
Natasha’s lips twitched, caught somewhere between a disapproving moue and a smirk before giving up and remaining unexpressive as the rest of her features. “You’re not pushing too hard now, I notice. This is more banter than actual needling.”
“Why would I push now of all times? It’s much more interesting to just be polite, now that most of the people here have no idea how to respond when I cease pushing, and cease tugging at every little crack and fissure in their psychological and emotional armor.” He arched an eyebrow pointedly. “You are an exception, of course. As always, it seems.”
“And when that gets too dull for you?”
Loki shrugged. “I will go elsewhere for a while. I have plenty of travel options, these days, as you might have noticed, and plenty of irons in the fire far from here.”
“What about Tony?” she asked, more quietly. “When you grow bored with him, what then, Lie-smith?”
The god of mischief’s expression smoothed into a mask again at that. “I think you’ve already worked out that I do not believe myself capable of growing bored with Tony Stark.”
“Your sort live an awful long time, though. People change. You certainly have, from what Thor has told us,” Natasha challenged.
Loki’s expression darkened a little: cracks in the mask. “I’m aware,” was all he said, low and dangerous.
“Aware of what, precisely?” she pushed further.
The god of lies smiled a small, broken and jagged-edged little smile, not showing his teeth this time. “I am not what I was. I’m quite insane, ruthless, occasionally impulsive, and there are times when I simply do not know when to stop.” He steepled his hands on the table in front of him, and leaned over them. “I am a monster, Agent Romanov, as I’m sure you’ve noticed; however, I am not actually dead mentally or emotionally, nor am I half so far-gone as I was when we first met. I have a few projects in place, to keep the abyss at bay for a while.”
“And Tony Stark is one of them?”
“No. He frequently makes me forget all about them,” Loki said, voice cool but surprisingly soft. “At times, he even causes me to very nearly forget that there is an abyss there at all. That is much, much more valuable to me.”
Natasha stared at him, unmoving, for several long seconds. “You could be lying.”
“Possibly,” he admitted.
“You might be manipulating us.”
“Oh, good, never forget that.”
“That said, I’m not at all sure how that would explain why you seem to have given him strength and recuperative powers on par with your own,” Natasha mused.
“I do believe that’s Fury’s cue to join us, is it not?” Loki inquired, and the door began to open before he’d quite finished the sentence. He grinned brightly in response, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes.
“It seems so,” Natasha admitted.
Fury merely eyed the god of mischief for a long moment, before stepping up to the table. “Agent Romanov, you are dismissed.”
“Quickly, before you leave, Agent Romanov: I was considering getting Agent Barton a sort of gift, as a peace offering. Suggestions?” Loki inquired, his expression bright with a look that, on anyone else, might’ve looked like innocent curiosity.
Natasha let out a small, shocked and bitter laugh before she could stop it. “I believe all he wants from you is a chance to put an arrow through your eye socket, Mr. Lie-smith.”
“Pity. I have such sensitive eyes, it really just wouldn’t do,” the god of lies sighed.
Shaking her head at him, Natasha left the room, biting her lip to keep from laughing further. Once out, she rounded the corner to find Tony still standing at the one-way glass, his arms folded across his chest and an unreadable look on his face. She strolled up beside him, and he glanced at her briefly before again fixing his stare on Loki.
“So,” he muttered. “Any thoughts?”
“I think he likes you,” Natasha deadpanned.
Tony sniggered a little, then fell quiet as Fury at last took his seat across the table from Loki and opened one of the two dossiers he’d brought in with him. He unclipped a stack of photos and laid them out between himself and the god of mischief: images of the crater Tony had been pulled out of.
Loki scanned them briefly, his expression a perfect mask, and met Fury’s stare evenly. “You have actual questions, I presume?”
“A number of them, but I’m not even sure where to start, here, Mr. Lie-smith.”
“I would recommend the beginning. You still had a number of unanswered questions when we last met, too. Have you worked out any of those?”
“Some.” The S.H.I.E.L.D. agent tapped his thumb twice on the edge of the table. “You don’t exactly seem as though you’re looking for redemption, I notice.”
Loki snorted. “I have lived far too long for that. I will not say it is impossible to achieve, but I will say that it’s a rare thing, and only people sufficiently blind to the greater scheme of things can fully appreciate it. You’re quite correct: I’m not after redemption.”
“That said, you’re playing down your insanity these days. Were you hoping to seem as though you’d recovered, or reformed?”
The god considered. “Calling me reformed would be a mistake. I wouldn’t recommend trusting me, if I were you. I’m not one of your heroes, and I never will be.”
“You’ve gotten rather fond of one of our heroes.”
Loki’s grin flashed, wicked and bright, with a quick laugh behind it. “I would hesitate to call him yours.”
“Would you say he’s yours, then?”
The god tilted his head, considering his words visibly for a moment. “Only to the same extent that I might be considered his. We’re both very self-possessed people, on most good days. That said, I don’t exactly go stealing apples from the goddess of youth for anyone else.”
Fury looked a bit genuinely surprised at that. “I get the feeling that’s not exactly the sort of gesture that Asgard itself would be inclined to support.”
“I’m of Asgard, but I am hardly limited to it,” Loki countered.
“Even when you’re on parole?”
The god of mischief smiled in a way Fury was rather more familiar with: a bit of condescension, a lot of malice, and an edge of something just mad enough to set most men’s hind-brains a-quiver with alarm. “Do you really intend to threaten me with this?”
At Natasha’s side, Tony cursed.
“I’ve given it consideration,” Fury said, non-committal, watching Loki closely.
“It would do you no good,” the god said simply, his tone changing instantly to light and airy, his expression blank again as he made a show of examining his fingernails. “We have a few things in common, you and I, Director Fury.”
“Do we?” the spy asked, sounding unimpressed.
“We perform very unpleasant, but necessary tasks when it is required of us. In your case, it is your career and your passion. You also feel duty-bound to keep your world safe. In my case, I am valuable as a facilitator with a great deal of information and resources within my reach that no one else can get. Asgard needs my capabilities more so than they need an excuse to lock me away or execute me. Neither of us, even when we are disliked or disapproved of by those of higher rank and status, can be truly gotten rid of. All great civilizations need a few monsters they can use for unsavory but necessary tasks.”
“And here I thought our civilization was little more to you than an anthill.”
Loki grinned, wide and shameless and purely himself. “You really shouldn’t let me get to you, you know. I’m one of the galaxy’s finest liars, and if I’m set against you, all that you hear from me is precisely what I want you to hear. You believe what I want you to believe.” He leaned forward a little. “If I want you to believe that I am a power-hungry would-be despot, then you will believe that I am. If I want you to believe that I desire to rule the earth, then you will believe that I do. If I want you to believe that I somehow lost the ability to vanish into thin air just in time for your heroes to capture me, then you will believe that you have beaten me, and won the war.”
Fury’s expression was stony then. “Then why should I believe a word you say now, Mr. Lie-smith?”
“Because my words lie, but my actions are as honest as anyone’s. I cannot fake every single action all the time, especially not of recent. Everything verbal is obfuscation, but what do you know of my actions?” Loki inquired. “You have been watching me, lately. I know that you have.”
“When you let us. I recall your other obfuscation-related skills, of a nonverbal sort.” Fury rested his elbows on the table and took a long look at the god. “With only a few exceptions, I’m more interested in what you haven’t done.”
Loki clapped his hands once, looking terribly excited. “Now you’re getting it! Just think like a half-psychotic mage a few thousand years of age, with the ability to shape-shift, create illusions, and talk my way out of anything: then marvel at the sheer number of things I could’ve done by now, but haven’t!” He spread his hands, each palm-up like the the cups of a well-balanced scale. “And what have you learned?”
“Your show of restraint so far is much appreciated,” Fury said, voice full of sarcasm.
“The interesting thing about anthills, you know, is quite how complicated and intricate they actually are, when viewed at the proper scale,” Loki mused, seemingly out of nowhere. “There’s enough of interest in one of them that destroying it all in one go, with a single swift application of boot for instance, seems a bit of a waste.”
Fury glanced at the one-way glass, where he knew Tony Stark stood watching, then looked back at Loki. “You want me to believe that you’ve decided the earth is more interesting as it is, than it might be if you wiped out all we’ve built and replaced it with something of yours?” he prompted, only a little mocking.
Loki shrugged easily. “I also have rather greater matters to attend to, of recent, and they take up a great deal of my time.”
“I seem to recall you mentioning a grave threat to not only earth, but Asgard, too, before you were carried off in chains.”
Loki pulled out a card from seemingly nowhere, and passed it across the table to Fury, who picked in up curiously. “Thanos?” he read.
“For––complicated reasons related to my magic and his, my uttering his name aloud is a bad idea. In short: it invites him to look my way, and cancels out the wards I have put in place to obscure his sight,” Loki said simply. “I heartily recommend that you pray to whatever god or else you have worth praying to, in the hopes that you will never meet him,” Loki said quietly. “I wish I hadn’t.”
“You really expect us to believe he would come for us, and not just head straight for you? The tesseract isn’t here anymore. It’s back in Asgard. What do we have that would be of any interest to him?”
“Heroes,” Loki said simply. “He mentioned once that fewer deaths earn him such sweet smiles as those of heroes.” There was a coldness to his look now, an edge of something haunted. “I commend your ability to bring together a group of such strange and powerful creatures to such spectacular effect, Nick Fury. I only hope that you and yours will be ready to do still more when the time comes, should I fail to find some means of preventing his arrival rather than merely delaying it.”
“And why should we think you will be on our side instead of his?” Fury asked.
“Because I have this advice for you: if I appear to be on his side, in actions as well as words, I recommend you tell Thor and the rest of Asgard to kill me with all haste,” Loki said simply. “I trust myself only a little farther than you trust me, in this matter. I am not a hero or a soldier: I am a god and a mage and a trickster. You would do well not to turn your back on me in a firefight.”
“You would let them kill you?”
“If there’s anything of me still left at that point, then yes. I would try to.”
Fury stared him down again, for nearly a full minute. “He was not in control of you before, when you attacked our little planet here.”
“No. That whole performance was my own work, done by my own volition,” Loki confirmed. “I believe I mentioned that when I was locked in your vault here, too. It does not mean he cannot control me far more than I like when he is in closer proximity.”
“You were very candid with Mr. Stark even then, as I recall.”
“He’s more interesting than you are.” Loki shrugged. “And far more attractive. No offense meant.”
“None taken,” Fury said, with frank sincerity.
Loki sat back in his chair and stretched a bit. “If we’re quite done, here, I suspect I have some more talking to do, where my lover is concerned. I believe he’s waiting for me over there.” He gestured toward the one-way glass without glancing at it, his forefinger aimed straight at Tony’s heart.
Fury arched an eyebrow at him as he swept up the photos, and the card with Thanos’ name on it, back into the dossier between them, and snapped it shut. “I’d recommend having that conversation once you’re out of my base. I’m sure there are things that our microphones don’t need to pick up.”
Loki smirked, and stood up to follow Fury out.
Natasha glanced at Tony carefully, saw a hint of something storm-like behind his mask.
Tony took a deep breath and turned to face them as they rounded the corner of the interrogation block. Loki met his eyes immediately with a slightly tired smile. Fury was looking at him as though trying to dissect him with his stare, which the inventor ignored. Tony crossed his arms over his chest and shot Loki a look he was sure he’d learned from Pepper at some point. Judging by the mild chagrin that crossed Loki’s features, it had the intended effect: implying very strongly, you’re damn right, you have some talking to do.
“You’re done with us then, Nicky?” Tony inquired lightly, looking at Fury with a bitter half-smile: as grating as possible.
“Consider yourselves dismissed.”
“And thank you for your cooperation,” Natasha added, half-mockingly.
Loki snorted and shot her an amused look, however briefly, before he let Tony’s hand on his lower back steer him away from S.H.I.E.L.D.’s lower levels. “To begin with, I’m sorry,” he said quietly.
“Not fully clarifying the full list of reasons that monster terrifies me,” Loki said.
Tony took a deep breath, and let it out, his thumb idly brushing back and forth across Loki’s spine a few times as he considered his words. “I’m not altogether fond of the idea of Thor or any of them putting you down like a rabid dog.”
“Given that you’re mine, I can’t help but feel like that should be my job, if ever it comes down to that.”
Loki’s breath hitched sharply enough to send a painful spasm through his chest. “What––what did you just-”
“Is this really the place for-” Tony stopped when Loki took firm hold of his shoulders and the world started to spin. When it stopped, they stood in his living room, at the Malibu house, and Loki was staring at him with very wide eyes. “Well. That solves that problem, at least.”
“Tony. Can you please repeat what you just said a moment ago? I can’t have heard you correctly,” the god of mischief insisted.
“Your hearing is usually pretty good.”
“Please,” Loki snapped.
Tony stepped closer, until they were scarcely an inch apart, and settled a hand over the back of Loki’s neck. “You’re mine, Loki. I owe you a debt I don’t think I could ever really repay-”
“But don’t-” The god of mischief’s words cut off as Tony’s finger pressed over his lips.
“You gave me life. You can’t blame me for being just insane enough that I don’t want to leave your death to someone else, if you’re desperate enough to ask for it.”
The god swallowed thickly, looking frankly stunned. “How in all the realms do you keep doing that?” he breathed against Tony’s hand.
“Doing what?” the engineer asked, removing his finger and letting his free hand drift down to Loki’s waist.
“Surprising me. Astounding me. Making my heart ache with how much I adore you,” Loki said, barely louder than a whisper, looking utterly lost.
“How else am I going to keep you around?” Tony countered, low and warm as he felt Loki’s arms settle around him to pull him closer. He tangled his finger’s in the taller man’s dark hair.
“Never stop,” Loki muttered, his eyes squeezing shut. “Never stop questioning me, challenging me, frightening me and humbling me. You’re terribly good at all of it.”
“I’ll do my best if you do,” the mad human promised.
“Agreed,” the mad god replied, only a bit brokenly, and kissed him with no little desperation.
S.H.I.E.L.D.’s records on the god of mischief declared him to be reformed, which was bullshit, really, in Tony’s opinion. Loki wasn’t reformed. He had just advanced and refined his art-form. What sort of trickster would he be, after all, if he couldn’t persuade people to trust him? He hadn’t quite gotten the hang of remorse, in regards to some of his past actions, but others, it was clear enough to Tony at least, didn’t sit easily with him in quiet moments.
There was still a sort of evil in him––or, rather a ruthless, callous facet to him that made him capable of evil things, which Tony understood better than most––and he still carried a fair amount of madness. The only real difference, which might be mistaken for reform, was that he’d decided that his future would be far more interesting with Earth still in it, rather than without.
Loki might never fully recover from all he’d seen when he fell, or the betrayals he’d felt, but he would be far less interesting and less sharp without those jagged edges. Tony chuckled when anyone suggested Thor’s brother might be a “good guy” of a sort; but then, Tony laughed when people called he himself that, too. Iron Man still sometimes snorted derisively when people called him a hero, so long as he wasn’t in front of the press.
Jagged edges were something Tony had some of himself. They just happened to fit into Loki’s like two pieces from a jigsaw puzzle, if each piece happened to consist of something as complicated as a three-dimensional fractal.
“They think you’ve reformed,” he said, when Loki walked into the lab. He smirked at the shocked, utterly sincere burst of laughter that earned from the Norse god.