Tony ran and felt the wind in his hair, and thought that this was what it meant to be free.
He felt unfettered in a way that he never had as a younger man with a reputation to build and a blinding, roaring, ravenous need to prove himself against his father. Now the awards had been won and the media convinced, and the perks of the high-life no longer mattered. Strange bedfellows and raunchy encounters in nightclubs did not lure as exciting or mysterious as they once had, and champagne networking parties and business exchanges that took place in strip-clubs had become work obligations rather than fun.
The change of feeling was Tony’s little secret, and he took pains to ensure no one noticed.
He had recently stopped trying to make himself look younger and focused instead on looking hot for the rest of his life. He had more than once been voted World’s Most Eligible Bachelor, and People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive. He didn’t need to impress the world, the world was already impressed. He had done his adventure-seeking: gone swimming with sharks, tested extreme sports and jumped headlong out of planes. These days he took most of his thrills with the Avengers.
And now he also had Loki- Trickster, Prince of Asgard, God of Chaos- who provided him with challenges, mysteries and reasons to prove himself on almost an everyday basis.
He had taken to jogging outdoors. He hadn’t been having any wild beach parties lately (what with the easily-angered, magically-powerful boyfriend and all), and much of the time he’d been getting outside was when he was in his Iron Man suit. The fresh air and sunlight felt necessary, as did the little spells of alone-time. As much as he found himself enjoying it, sharing a bedroom with someone had swung the balance of ‘Tony-time’ off-kilter. It wasn’t that Loki was clingy (in fact he was the opposite to a point that sometimes worried); it was just that sharing a house with six other people meant for very little time to oneself.
Tony wasn’t crazy about exercise and needed to be shouted at and flogged into core-strength and weight-training, but running he actually liked. It was rhythmic and relaxing, and allowed him to switch off the constant whir of his brain.
He’d chosen a smallish local park that wasn’t much more than a swing-set or two, a bike path and a baseball pitch, and so far, touch wood, nobody had recognized him. He could watch ordinary people with their picnics and toddlers and ballgames and pretend to be one of them. It was a charming slice of normality in his otherwise extremely abnormal life.
Today he was making a conscious effort to clear his head. Loki had been sullen the night before and had refused to talk about whatever it was that was bothering him. He had seemed worried, and Tony found that to be a lot more upsetting than if he had just seemed angry. Tony knew that Loki kept secrets, and had made a decision early on to let it stay that way. But he hated not knowing when something seemed to be going on.
“You can talk to me, you know,” Tony had told him as they lay in bed together, trying to lean over far enough for Loki to see him, though the trickster was rolled on his side to face the wall. “I might even be able to help.”
“Perhaps,” Loki had noted quietly, but still had chosen not to.
Tony’s otherworldly boyfriend had taken the world by storm by switching from super-villain to super-hero overnight and joining the Avengers, a little over six months ago. Everyone wanted to know more about the Asgardian Trickster God who used sorcery as his weapon and had that dark, sexy thing going on.
Loki was a public enigma and would remain so for as long as he felt like it. He rarely spoke more than a word or two during interviews, and much of what he did say was vague or misleading. It just made the press focus on him all the more. Past-Tony would have been annoyed that someone else was siphoning off his limelight; instead he opened the papers and felt a giddy little tittering of pride.
Keeping their relationship out of the media hadn’t been as difficult as one may have supposed. The fact that there was so much buzz and speculation revolving around Loki at the moment meant that sneaking around was mandatory if they didn’t want to be hounded and followed everywhere they went.
So far they had been successful. They did go out together often enough, but Loki wasn’t one for public displays of affection unless the mood caught him, and Tony had been sneaking around behind the back of the press his entire life and was skilled at it. Their outings came across the same as when he went out for coffee with Steve or to the bars with Clint. There had only been one very close call.
After an intense mission, in the heat of a good win, Tony had seen no one around but his teammates and had impulsively pulled Loki in for a kiss. They were promptly interrupted by the sound of photographs snapping behind them. A reporter started shrieking and pleaded to know whether or not they were dating. Feeling cornered and seeing very few options, Tony was just about ready to snap out a ‘yes’ and deal with the consequences, but Loki had already started making out with Steve.
“You know nothing of Asgardian custom, do you, Mortal?” Loki called over his shoulder, lips smacking. Steve’s eyes were open and huge. “This is how we celebrate victory!”
He then went on to thoroughly kiss Clint, then Banner, then Natasha, then Thor. After that, he kissed the reporter and the camera-man, and bid them a very good day.
Making his way along the bike path, Tony was rounding on his third lap, making good time and burning calories. Having a boyfriend had also heightened his sense of vanity in what felt like a positive, productive way. When you were dating a God, you wanted to look good.
Tony was feeling so Zen that at first he didn’t notice the disturbance in the air above him some twenty feet ahead. A sizzling white-noise sound attracted his attention, then a shimmer in the air caught his eye.
All of a sudden there was a greenish blip in the atmosphere and, a few feet above Tony’s head, a wide dimensionless hole like the flipping on of a television screen seemed to open out of thin air: a rip in the temporal fabric. White light blazed from it, scalding Tony’s pupils, and then Loki came flying out at him like he’d been shot from a cannon.
The trickster hit the ground in a spray of grass and sod, barreling straight into Tony’s knees and taking Tony down with him. They rolled and skidded several feet and finally came to a halt on the baseball pitch.
Stunned, Tony lay where he was for a moment before turning his head and spitting out a mouthful of sand. He tried to push himself up on his elbows and failed. Loki was already standing dizzily, staggering to one side. He fell down again, and grabbed Tony by the arm.
Tony’s vision came into focus and he saw that Loki’s cape was shredded and stained with big dark patches and that his armor was thoroughly mangled. He looked like he’d been put through a blender. His face was streaked red and coated in dirt and he was panting and gasping for breath. His big green eyes were all pupils.
“Stark,” Loki rasped, spitting a bright mouthful of blood.
People had stopped what they were doing and had started to watch. Children put down their Frisbees and parents snatched up their toddlers. A small crowd began to form around the baseball pitch to observe what might have been from their perspective some sort of bloody fight to the death between a teleporting Norse God and a jogger.
“FUCK!” Tony shouted, forgetting the toddlers. “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!”
Intent on stopping the world from spinning, Loki grabbed Tony by the shoulders to steady himself. Then he yanked Tony’s shirt collar until they were both on their feet. His eyes rolled around in their sockets until finally settling on Tony’s. They glittered hot with panic.
“Loki!” Tony yelped in fright, reaching out for him.
Loki’s hand shot out and caught Tony by the wrist in a vice-like grip. He pried Tony’s fingers open and shoved something into them. It felt square and fuzzy and slightly rounded on top.
Tony’s mind spasmed. “Loki?”
Eyes burning holes in him, Loki grabbed Tony by the shoulders and shook him.
“Propose to me, Stark!” he screamed. “NOW!”
For a second, Loki’s death-grip was the only thing that kept him from falling over again.
“What?” Tony blurted. He glanced down. Sure enough, a black ring box sat atop his palm. “Here? Like this? Now?”
“Yes, yes, now, do it now! Now! Immediately!”
The crowd around them had grown larger. Families were curiously staring, munching hot-dogs.
Loki gave Tony a quick sharp kick in the shin, and he fell to one knee. Tony’s open hand was shaking so hard that the box jumped out of it. Quick as a cat, Loki snapped it up and set it back where it had been, and opened the box himself. Then he slapped Tony once across the face.
The slap did the trick.
Obediently, not really comprehending the words that were tumbling out of his mouth, Tony held the box up and said,
Loki’s face smashed into his crushingly in a slimy, gritty, blood-flavoured kiss. Tony felt a crackle of magic pass between their lips.
Loki then took the ring from the box, pinched Tony’s fingers around it and slid it over his own finger.
“Yes,” he hissed out, with a heavy, satisfied sigh.
Tony’s knee was on an ant-hill. He wouldn’t notice the itch for some time. There was an unsure smatter of applause from their audience. Somewhere, somebody cheered.
Loki fell down to his knees next to Tony, panting. He coughed out another mouthful of blood and spat it into the dirt.
“That,” he gasped, “was very nearly a disaster.”
Tony had no idea what that meant.
Loki looked at him dizzily and grinned. He then began to hysterically laugh. The people watching had stopped clapping but kept looking. Some were taking pictures with their phones.
Tony’s brand new fiancée continued to cackle insanely like Tony hadn’t seen him do since his super-villain days. He threw his head back and held out his arms.
“HOW DO YOU LIKE THAT, DOOM!” he sang to the sky.
Then Loki fell forward, turned faintly green and threw up down the front of his tunic.
In the distance, Tony could hear sirens.
Lifting Loki to his feet, getting covered in body fluids, Tony jogged them both away as quickly as he could.
And this was how Tony Stark, five times voted World’s Most Eligible Bachelor, came to be engaged.
Loki leaned his head unhappily against the car window.
“Please slow down,” he moaned, sounding woozy. Tony had been driving like a maniac, probably because he felt like he’d lost his mind somewhere back in the park, and might be being chased by the hounds of hell.
Tony eased off the accelerator and Loki relaxed enough to close his eyes, grimacing whenever they hit a pot-hole. He swayed a little and his head drooped.
“Hey!” Tony said, grabbing Loki’s arm reflexively and giving him a shake, “You gonna pass out on me?”
“I do hope so,” he heard Loki say softly.
They didn’t speak much for the rest of the journey, except when Loki asked him to pull over in order to vomit into a sewer grate. There was a bloody imprint on the window where his head had been before.
Loki seemed a bit sharper after that and started to chant quietly to himself in words Tony couldn’t understand. Tony could tell that the trickster was working spells to heal himself, which was overall good but Tony hated watching it. Unless Loki was sick with certain ailments or had depleted huge stores of his power, he was able to repair broken bones and impalements and most varieties of grievous bodily injury with his magic. Totally great of course, except that he’d done it for Tony once and holy shit did it hurt. Loki may have had a higher threshold for pain than he did, but it was still uncomfortable for Tony to think about.
Horns were honking at him to speed up, as Loki’s bones were cracking loudly and painfully back into place where he’d broken several of them. Tony ground his teeth at the sound and tried to focus on the road.
By the time they arrived back at the Avengers Mansion, the worst of Loki’s injuries were healed. He still limped on his way to the door and continued to look queasy. Once they were inside Tony helped yank him out of his blood-and-vomit spattered tunic, only to find the layer of clothing beneath it even bloodier. However, it was a relief to see that the skin under the tears in the fabric didn’t show even so much as a scratch. .
Tony lugged Loki over to the newish mocha suede couch in the living room, sat him down and brought him a facecloth and a glass of water. For himself, he filled a tumbler glass to the brim with scotch and slugged it down in one go while Loki wiped the blood from his face.
“Doom became angry,” Loki eventually explained.
“I can see that,” Tony answered grimly, refilling his tumbler.
“I did deal out a fair few shots of my own,” Loki snipped in his own defense.
“Not enough, by the looks of it.”
“Doom is also a sorcerer,” Loki justified, deepening into the couch. “It makes him harder for me to oppose, especially as I was not expecting to engage in violence.”
Tony threw back his glass and wiped his mouth. He poured another. “Speaking of engagements-”
He was cut short when Captain America, Black Widow and Hawkeye entered the room in costume. Banner was in his human form dressed in regular clothes, but all signs pointed to him having recently Hulked out.
“Hey there, Hot-lips,” Clint greeted Loki from across the room. “We just had a totally great victory. Wanna, y’know?”
“You guys did miss a heck of a mission,” Steve said pleasantly, ready to tell them all about it, but taking one look stopped him dead in his tracks. “Whoah. You okay, Loki? You don’t look so good.”
“It’s been a rough day,” Tony provided dryly. “Did I tell you we’re getting married?”
Steve’s eyes widened further. He took a moment to speak, and his voice came out cracking. “Oh. Congratulations?”
“No way!” Clint boomed sensationally. “Who’s gonna wear the dress?”
“He is!” Tony pointed. Loki gave a little shrug.
Thor, God of Thunder, was notably absent, and Tony couldn’t help but wonder briefly at the whereabouts of Loki’s protective older brother.
“Loki has something he wants to say about it,” Tony offered, staring hard at the trickster.
Loki glared at him, but with a sigh he said, “Yes. I am afraid it may not be the most simple of joyous occasions.”
“Oh really?” snapped Tony.
“I know why!” Steve butted in eagerly. “Tony, you’ve still got to perform all those Asgardian courting deeds, am I right?”
Steve, who had once upon a time worked diligently to complete half a dozen or so of these deeds, was the voice of experience. Tony remembered having had a look at the list of tasks he’d been given to accomplish and feeling exceedingly sorry for Steve. He’d also been under the assumption that the whole thing had been another one of Loki’s tricks.
Loki nodded. Tony’s eyes expanded. “Wait. Those are for real?”
“Of course,” Loki returned, as if it was obvious. “How else would one prove themselves deserving of royalty?”
“That list was like a hundred pages long!”
“It is written in large penmanship.”
“One of the jobs on there was eating the heart of a Sea Monster!”
“There is nothing to say that it cannot be cooked,” Loki said helpfully. “I am told it is not so bad. And they are less difficult to capture than you would think.”
“I AM NOT DOING THIS!”
Loki looked offended. “You are the one who proposed.”
Steve spoke over them. “Guys, please. Cool it. I think it sounds like time for a team meeting. Everyone go in the kitchen. I’ll find Thor.”
Steve took a while getting back, but when he did he was trailed by Thor. The usually amiable Thunder God wore a stern expression, and Tony could only assume that Steve had brought him up to speed.
“You might need some catching up, Thor,” Steve said, contradicting Tony’s guess as they both took seats around the table. “Loki and Tony are-”
“I know of this,” Thor said shortly, looking only at his brother. “I know of all of it.”
It was barely perceptible to the untrained eye, but to Tony, Loki looked immensely uncomfortable.
“How about you tell us what’s going on?” Tony drilled Loki impatiently.
Loki gave Tony a long look. Then, turning to the group he said, “It is true. In order to marry me, Stark must perform a variety of tasks to prove himself worthy. But I am afraid there is still more to it than that.”
At this Thor made an angry snorting sound and slammed the table with his fist, jouncing it into everyone’s stomachs.
After a deep breath, Loki began to explain.
“A year ago, when I was still inclined toward darker purposes, I did something rather rash,” he told them. “During a card game with some of my cohorts, after consuming far too much alcohol, I wagered myself in a contract.”
Tony blinked a few times.
“Wagered yourself? What do you mean, 'wagered yourself?’”
At the same time, Steve said,
“Namor, Mephisto and Doom,” Loki answered Steve first. To Tony he said, “I wagered my hand. Obviously.”
“Your hand? In marriage?”
Tony felt tempted to pull out clumps of his own hair.
“And you just thought to tell me this NOW?”
“I had forgotten,” Loki sniffed, looking a bit hurt at Tony’s yelling. “I was extremely intoxicated at the time. The last I remember was retching over the card table and falling from my seat. I was very ill for days.”
“You forgot,” Tony muttered, pacing around, flapping his hands. “Understandable. Trivial detail.”
“Though I may have been upright and speaking, I was quite thoroughly unconscious at the time, I assure you,” Loki said tartly. “I retained no memory of the exchange until it emerged during today’s conversation with Doom.”
“Okay,” said Steve. “Let’s start there, then.”
Loki cleared his throat and regaled them his story.
“Yesterday I received a communication from Doom,” he began. “He said he wished to speak on matters of unfinished business. It seemed probable that I would have left loose ends with Doom, so I agreed to meet. This afternoon I travelled to Latveria, only to be knocked over the head from behind by a minion the moment I arrived.”
“This is what you get up to while I’m taking my afternoon jog?” Tony crowed, in utter despair.
Loki ignored him. “When I woke I was strapped to a table. Doom was taking my measurements, apparently for specific Latverian wedding attire. He has been busy this past year, and was quite convinced he had won me.”
“But he hadn’t?” Banner asked specifically.
Loki grinned this time. “Apparently, even in my state of drunkenness, I did manage to trick him. Half of the tasks on the list I had given him were false.”
“Loki!” Steve couldn’t help but scold.
Loki gave a small shrug. “Were he as smart as he thinks he is, he could have easily approached the All-father and asked to see the rightful list.”
“So that’s why he kicked your ass,” Tony said a bit meanly. It would be worth a night on the couch for the infuriated look he received from Loki.
“As a matter of fact,” Loki spat back. “The moment he attacked me was when I told him about you.”
Steve interrupted them before a lovers’ tiff could break out.
“Loki, tell me more about this contract,” he requested. “What does it say about helping out the contestants?”
What the contract said exactly was this:
‘I, Loki Laufeyson, do commit to wed the first suitor to pass all tests of Asgardian courting law if the deeds are done within twelve moons’ time. Permission to court must be granted by myself or by Odin All-father within up to the eleventh moon beforehand. Magic may not be used in the completion of any task. My own personal help or interference will not be allowed in the completion of tasks, by punishment of forfeit.
Competitors must provide proof of their completion of deeds, and will be watched by the All-sight of Heimdall the Gate-keeper to prevent cheating. If more than one contender should complete all tasks within the allotted time, a duel shall take place to decide the victor.”
There followed a short disclaimer waiving responsibility for death or dismemberment that should occur as a result of courting. At the bottom of the contract was Loki’s signature, in blood.
“’Within up to the eleventh moon’?,” Tony quoted. “So is that what the rush was about today? Did I just make the deadline?”
Loki nodded. “By a hair.”
“You wrote all this while you were drunk?” Tony dropped the paper and scowled.
Loki frowned at it ruefully. “In drink I am steady to a point, but prone to overconfidence.”
“I think stupidity is more like it!”
Steve held a hand up. “Let’s try and focus. The contract doesn’t say anything against helping out a contestant.”
“Except for Loki,” Bruce made sure to put in. “It says Loki can’t help or interfere on anyone’s behalf.”
“So no magic for us,” Natasha concluded with a frown.
“You can’t help me?” Tony said petulantly. “Can you even root for me?”
“Of course I will root for you. I may have to be subtle about it though.”
Steve tried to set the conversation back on course. “Okay, so no Loki. But the rest of us will help you. The others may have a head-start, but, with the five of us behind you. I think that could make a really big difference.”
From across the room, Thor said, “Four.”
All of them turned toward the Thunder God.
Steve’s face fell slightly. “Four? You… don’t want to help?”
Thor looked uncomfortable. He crossed his big arms and looked down.
“I am sorry, friends, but I cannot join you in this,” he mumbled. “I, too, have entered in my claim.”
Tony watched Loki bubble for a second before boiling. Then the trickster’s face went purple, and his whole body began to tremble.
“You… You have done WHAT?”
Thor looked up snappishly and jutted his square chin.
“I am doing this to protect you, Loki! Your actions have been foolish! You have left me no choice!”
Loki leapt to his feet, stalking toward Thor and pointing a finger at him.
“NO! I refuse! I have accepted no offer from you! I do not consent!”
Thor remained dignified. “Father has given his permission, and that is as good as yours. Also,” Thor added, “He is most displeased with you.”
Loki seemed to be losing it.
“I will not have it, Thor! You will rescind your claim!”
But Thor’s will was not to be budged.
“I will not yield here, brother,” he said, trying to be gentle. “This you must accept. I refuse to allow such fiends to have you without a fight.”
Loki pitched a hissy fit. He stamped his feet, and looked close to tears of frustration.
“No! No, no, no! I would prefer to marry Doom!”
Thor didn’t seem at all troubled. “You are just saying that. Do not fear, brother. I am here to defend your virtue. You will come to see.”
Tony decided to intervene before Loki either got himself thumped with Thor’s mythical hammer or went ahead and magically zapped his big brother off the face of the planet. Tony caught him by the elbow and pulled him to sit on the couch beside him.
“Shhhh, calm, Loki, calm. Deep breaths,” Tony took one himself and rubbed Loki’s back and neck in a way that he hoped was soothing. “Think of a waterfall. Calm.”
Loki stopped shaking and didn’t lash out at him, but it was like stroking an angry cat; the claws could pop back out at any second. Mostly for Loki’s sake, Tony interjected.
“Thor, you know how Loki and I are together, right? If anyone’s gonna be stuck marrying him, it should probably be me.”
Thor smiled. “Do not worry, Tony Stark. I will end the marriage to my brother and return him to you once the proper two moons beyond the ceremony have passed.”
“That’s if you win,” Tony replied crisply, going off Thor’s cockiness a bit.
“Oh, I shall.”
“This is better,” Steve broke in. “With both of your hats in the ring we stand a better chance of wearing down the others. I think we need to come up with a plan. Let’s get to know our enemy.”
At the suggestion of Banner, they decided to make visual aids.
On a massive corkboard, they rolled out five long strips of blank paper and pinned on each a picture of a potential suitor, including Tony and Thor. Banner put on his glasses and took up a marker-pen, standing at the board while the rest of them sat.
“Doctor Doom,” he called out first. They took down the relevant facts.
Victor Von Doom, Lord of Latveria, was basically a man-shaped body of metal coating a burned-out husk of flesh. His defining physical characteristic was his triangular facial grill-plate. He wore a green hooded cape and other accents of green. He spoke in the third person, and was known for constantly shaking his fist. The sorcerer was also the trickster’s most personal former accomplice.
“Doom would have me as his concubine,” fretted Loki, frantically chewing at his black fingernails. “He wishes to humiliate me.”
Namor, King of Atlantis, was next. The Sea King was suave with slicked black hair and pointy eyebrows, and preferred to be bare-legged and bare-chested. Also known as the Sub-Mariner, he was currently a member of the X-Men.
“He fights for the good guys; he can’t be all that bad,” Steve said, trying to stay upbeat.
Loki shook his head negatively. “That is what he wishes you to think.”
Mephisto was an overlord of Hel. He was red-skinned, rocked the Goth look and was often mistaken for Satan. He was known for his knack at capturing souls.
“He is beneath me,” Loki sneered in disgust. “His idea of villainy is to play practical jokes on Spider-Man.”
“I have a question,” said Clint, raising his hand unnecessarily, after the first round of notes had been taken. “No offense, but why are all these guys so desperate to marry you?”
Loki looked at the archer with grim impatience. As if it were perfectly obvious, he stated,
“To take over the Realms, of course.”
The more they listened, the more it seemed that Loki had a point. Each suitor already had his own throne in his own domain, and to marry a world-ruling King (and Loki technically was one) who was also second-in-line to the throne of Asgard would effectively mean bridging a number of gaps toward taking over the universe.
“And being that I have taken lodgings on Midgard, it is possible that any one of them would choose to start their takeover here,” Loki finished his argument, letting out a breath.
Bruce was tapping his marker-pen against his palm, looking off, thinking. “Okay,” he said. “Tony, try not to let this offend you; this is purely a hypothetical. But Loki, if you did have to, you know, marry one of them-?”
Loki shook his head.
“Doom would have me in chains at the foot of his throne,” he answered. “And by Latverian law, as his betrothed, I would have to oblige him in this at least three times a week.”
“He would neglect me. And he is a cad.”
“He is terrible in bed.”
Tony rubbed his eyes with his thumbs. “Honey? I think we really need to have a talk later.”
“It will not come to this!” Thor shouted, banging his fist on the only available surface: the wall. “I will not allow it! I will marry you, brother, if it is to be my last act!”
“Stop saying that, Thor!” Loki shrieked.
“Loki!” Steve said loudly before things could escalate. “I want a copy of that list of deeds, ASAP. The others have had a year and we’ve got a month. I think that we better get started.”