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my life with the thrill kill cult

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September 15, 2013

"I thought--… See, Thor said you’d been thrown for a loop by this guy named Thanos and were an eensy bit over-stimulated when you showed up to bust on Earth. Those weren’t his exact words. I can’t actually imagine Thor managing ‘eensy bit’ – 'bust on'? Possi--"

Tony's rambling ends in an Oof as Loki stamps the air from his lungs with the sole of his boot.

"Silence yourself, human," Loki says.

Tony tries, brain still rattling on a trillion miles a second. He's been talking since he came to, but that hasn't slowed down his thinking. He's been thinking things like "Where am I?" and "What is Thor's more effeminate sibling planning to do with me?" and "Who dresses like that, really? People hunting vampires, maybe. I wonder if Loki hunts vampires?" and "Stay in Asgard, they said. Accept our gratitude, they said. See the sights, they said."

The Avengers arrived in Asgard answering Odin's call for aid when the combined forces of the fire demon Surtur and the dwarves of Svartálfaheimr scattered the armies of the Æsir, a tactical entanglement best resolved by the skills of a small, covert strike force. Covert ended when Bruce Hulked out, but the Avengers devastated the dwarven chain of command. Odin's army rallied to drive back the opposing forces in the ensuing chaos.

A vacation in the Realm Eternal sounded like just the thing after fighting a round of grueling warfare. Loki alone resented the mortals taking their ease in his family's home.

Tony may have made Loki the butt of his jokes three or four too many times. Possibly he shouldn't have asked Loki if Thor still kept his muzzle and leash around or if Loki had been housebroken.

Now he's on the cold floor of gods know where (only one does – this guy), breathing heavy because he just took an anvil to the stomach. He's positive Loki would rue the day if he hadn't cleverly nabbed the Iron Man link up off Tony while he was unconscious.

"—but, seriously, Loki. All you've done since I've arrived here - in the conscious and self-aware sense of arrived - has been standing here trying to kill me with your disapproving eyebrows. I have faced many disapproving eyebrows, sir, and I lie unvanquished."

Loki crouches beside him, eyebrows at sharp angles, his pale eyes angry. He takes Tony by the chin, turning Tony's head to the side so they're face to face.

"You dare mock me?"

Tony's own brow scrunches up, all puzzlement.

"Yes. I dare mock you. Are you just realizing that now?"

A noise of frustration and a sharp slap that snaps Tony's head in the other direction and then Loki forces himself to his feet, whirling and pacing two steps away to regain his temper.

"Oh," Tony says. "I get it, now. That pisses you off. Don't take it personally, man. I mock everyone. Some people – not you – but some people find it loveable."

Loki casts his gaze back to the human on the floor, scrutinizing him more closely.

"Your compatriots grant me grudging respect. I sense their fear, their uneasiness, when they stand in my presence. Yet you, the weakest among them – the most fragile, dare to treat me with dismissal."

"I sense an ongoing theme with you. Self-esteem is not your strong point."

Tony's delight at being right is dimmed by the ensuing scuffle. He rolls and springs to his feet, but Loki catches the hem of his shirt and hauls him back. Tony's yelp is cut short by Loki's arm jerked against his throat. Loki has him in a headlock until his vision starts to go black at the edges. Tony's hands scramble against the body-armor grade leather of Loki's coat while figments of all the hurt Iron Man would lay on Loki flicker through Tony's mind unrealized.

The Jötunn relaxes his crushing hold and Tony staggers away to catch his breath, reeling on his feet but not falling. Adrenaline screams in Tony's veins; his gaze flickers to his empty wrist. He forgets about Iron Man after that because reality dictates he can only work with what he has.

"I am sorry," he offers. He refrains from the rest of the sentence and it hangs half-formed in intonation. There's no conclusion to that apology Loki would like to hear.

"You're sorry?" Loki prompts, patient as a viper.

Damn it.

"I'm sorry that I am fundamentally incapable of being impressed by your posturing, being myself a professional posturer."

Loki's Adam's apple bobs beneath his steely expression. Tony wonders what to call an Adam's apple on a non-human hominoid, and also, fleetingly, if gorillas or chimpanzees have Adam's apples or if that's something about the voice box, but he doesn't know because they have so much hair.

"I vote for the option where you don't kill me. You'd get blood all over this truly charming—Where exactly are we?"

Loki's lips press to a thinner line, but he makes the decision not to kill Tony Stark and incur his brother's wrath and his parent’s disapproval. His mind made up, his countenance relaxes. He has other ways of hurting the human. He smiles sweetly, eyes glinting with cheer, savoring his plans.

"The retreat of the Allfather. A retreat of my family. Thor and I often played here as boys, where the apples hang golden in the orchards and every night we feast on lamb and boar. But when the Allfather abides in court this place is closed up. No one here but you and I."

"Wow, that sounds great. The feasting. The apples. Are they actually made out of gold, like, the skins? Because I would be interested in patenting that."

Loki answers with a chuckle and beckons Tony with his fingers as he exits the antechamber they stand in, luring him deeper into the mansion. Tony follows obediently, picking up decorating tips from the furnishings and filing them under 'Ways to incorporate more metal into my living room.' He knows he is decidedly unsafe and, while it's certainly possible Loki may be bringing him to the kitchen for a cuppa, the inward direction of their travel is not promising anything except new, in no way delightful agonies. Tony's throat is still two sizes too small and his muscles burn when he breathes.

Loki makes an elegant descent into the waiting embrace of a deep seated chair in an opulent reception hall. Tony pauses, instincts shouting at the top of their lungs. Loki's eyes narrow. Then, Tony is Elsewhere.

He's naked. That's not new, or unusual. He's shed at least twenty pounds of muscle, though, and he's no longer hung, which is a crime. Loki, on the other hand, is larger than life, with curved, brass horns gleaming on his helm. He is as statuesque as his cold expression is inhuman.

He holds a knife. It is a very small knife and a very wicked knife, serrated like shark's teeth.

The rest is white, the bold, sterile white of porcelain toilets and default internet browser backgrounds.

If Tony were Steve or Thor or Natasha or Clint he would man or woman up to this. He'd grit his teeth and take it. He wouldn't give Loki the pleasure. If he was Bruce, well, he wouldn't be in this situation; Loki is so polite to Bruce he's like a kindergartner tiptoeing past the monster under his bed on the way back from the bathroom.

Tony's Tony Stark, though, and quiet dignity is not his response to this situation. Not through Loki's blows. Not when his blood splatters the white, white world with scarlet and pools a dark, gory crimson. Neither time he spits a violently dislodged tooth onto the floor. No. Tony screams, he cusses "Fuck!" and "Shitfuck!" and "Damn, damn, damn" and he moans and he whimpers while Loki spews venom and spits invectives and does his worst.

Tony doesn't plead. Tony's not going to plead. Tony's not feeling a pleading kind of vibe. He's hurting. God, yes, fuck, he's hurting. And here Tony thought he knew a few things about pain. It's worse than anything his captors in Afghanistan imagined inflicting on him in their most depraved nightmares and worse than when the when the arc reactor was leaking poison into his blood. Tony's not going to plead because this is not real, and even when the knife's teeth are tickling his tearing skin he knows it's not real. The hole gaping in his chest where his arc reactor used to be proves that. Loki is just blowing off steam and Tony's making it worse by not pleading but it's sort of a compromise: he's not gonna plead, but he's making enough noise for Loki to get his rocks off, down to pathetic, mewling whines and shuddering sobs…

Tony wakes up.

He's sprawled gracelessly on the skins that carpet the hall and his body's still crying to him a memory of pain. The pain slowly resolves itself into the aches he already had and a couple new complaints from dropping like a sack of bricks to an unwelcoming floor, although Loki's torture still plays like flashes of Saw in his mind – pictures of unthinkable body horror.

Loki's chin rests on his hand and his expression is somber. He exhibits no pleasure, no prideful gloating.

They're a long time silent, Tony still picking up the fragments of shattered composure and Loki for all the world a granite edifice.

Tony hates silences. They start to work their way under his skin like—No. Bad metaphor. Too soon. Too much. But the silence? That is still annoying.

"You're not a wetwork guy, are you?"

Loki flinches back, eyes coming into focus. He's looking at Tony now, when before he must have been somewhere else inside his own head.

"It's not about the mutilation. I mean, yes, you did Cuisinart a man's eyelids off and you did just . . ." As he hesitates, the desert dryness of Tony's mouth foregrounds itself in his attention. He focuses. "You're chasing the thrill. As far as it goes. Until you're dizzy. Until your whole body's electric like Broadway or downtown Tokyo. And then, fwp, that's it. Moment's gone. And now it's wide and hollow and you drink and it's like sunshine in a glass and next is the embarrassing YouTube videos of what you did last night racking up eight million hits and you're like 'Fuck, never doing that again.' Until, as Katy Perry wisely prognosticated, next Friday night."

Tony's watching Loki close, watching the Jötunn's face change between glimmers of understanding and lulls of perplexity. Loki's a bright guy, though, and he's grasped the thesis Tony was constructing. Tony knows because Loki gets all pissy.

"I'm not you. How dare you? You insolent worm."

"Your pattern of emphasis begs to differ."

Loki breathes through nose, the rush of air audible in the stillness of his father's empty house. Tony gets the inkling it's not quite safe to talk yet and, miracle of miracles, he holds his tongue – just this once.

Loki leaps up and storms from the room in a flurry of coat and flapping cape.

Tony is okay with that. He'd say he is very okay with that.

Tony curls up on his side. He shuts his eyes. He listens to his own breathing and the faintest hum of the arc reactor in his chest, all but imperceptible.

He is not okay. Maybe, later, he'll be more like okay. Later, when he can't see his small intestine snaking through a pool of his own cooling blood on the back of his eyelids.

Tony rouses himself to action after he collects himself. He has no desire for Loki to find him again. He would actually be okay with never seeing Loki ever again in his whole life.

He lets himself out of the mansion. Asgard lies verdant before him, magnificent halls rising above the trees and the hall of Odin in the distance, gleaming spires touching the clear sky.

Tony's not a back to nature kind of guy. He doesn't camp, he does not 'rough it', but Asgard is a clement and welcoming country. Loki and whichever other bad apples aside, it's peopled by proud but ultimately approachable Asgardians. It's not even a problem to get a ride back to Asgard.

On a horse. But, okay, Tony can manage that.

He flinches with terror when Thor claps him on the shoulder and asks where he's been, but forces a grin and gives a glowing review of Thor's beautiful country. Thor is so fantastically obtuse.

He pleads 'so sorry to end his vacation early,' and 'science never sleeps but there's no coffee in Asgard' and 'busy, busy, busy!'

Natasha catches on. She's good like that. She's also big on privacy. Tony makes his tesseract-powered escape to California and Pepper and Jarvis and a good long cry alone in his darkened room until the pain is something less than the fresh burn accompanying the remembered obliteration of the - already - patchy integrity of his cyborg body.


January 8, 2014

Loki stands with his hands folded behind his back in Tony Stark's living room, looking out across the wide blue sea. The computer butler that allowed him entry assured him Stark would be down momentarily, and politely implored him not to incur property damage.

Loki is thin on options, today, and it's the need to be where no one, neither his brother nor SHIELD, will think to look for him that has brought him here to test his luck.

Stark comes down the stairs barefooted, marginally unkempt and irate, clearly paranoid. He cocks his head to the side and waits for it, just watching the Jötunn.

"I needed somewhere to lay low. My brother is furious with me. I took his form and slept with his human woman as well as one of our compatriots."

"And you're in my house why?"

"Because you understand."

That gives Stark pause. He straightens up and blinks away sleep bleariness – except paranoia recaptures him and he goes still, fixing Loki with a suspicious glare.

Loki only smiles.

"You're frightened. Of me."

Stark scoffs, into motion at once, gesturing for Loki to take a seat on the couch and heading across the floor and up the short flight of stairs to the wet bar, calling back:

"Nah. Nothing a few drinks won't fix. What's your poison?"

Loki situates himself.

"Your human alcohol is pitifully weak compared to the meads of Asgard."

Tony ransacks the bar and returns to plant a bottle of Rumpleminze on the table in front of Loki and takes his own seat as far away as actually possible on the extraordinarily long couch.

"I have stronger liquor but none of it is minty and refreshing. You look like a guy in need of minty refreshment."

Loki can't stand how Stark prattles on and on about nothing, voice like the buzzing of a fly. He takes up the bottle and unscrews the cap. The scent of peppermint is immediate and staunch. The liquor is deceptively cool on the tongue. Weak, yes, but such is the way of the fermented materials of Earth. Pure human alcohol would not rival the stock of Asgard's breweries.

He thinks back to the other drink Stark mixed for him, over an Earth year ago.

His body had been wrecked by the Hulk's brutal assault. He had never known such pain, and the drink did little to ease it once the excitement had worn away. The Avengers milled around the room, murmuring lowly to each other as they took stock of one another's injuries. His fool brother was dictating the terms of his arrest and deportation. The clever human woman was on the phone, juggling Thor and her superiors and their respective demands.

"Do you really think it's a good idea to hand him over to a SHIELD security team for transportation? We should escort him ourselves," the star-spangled golden boy said. He reminded Loki of Thor, too good to be true – everyone's darling just by walking through the door.

"I want to go home," Loki had interjected, clearly and firmly. His head was spinning with galactic and chthonic secrets – with tortures and promises of power. Asgard would be a sweet balm to him. He sensed everything would become clearer if he could only return home and lay his head in his mother's lap.

Only his mother is blessed with the gift to sing away his nightmares.

"—Whoa there, cowboy."

Stark's grating voice breaks through Loki's reverie. Loki pulls a face and raises the bottle to his lips, then realizes he's put the entire thing down already. He frowns and abandons it on the table.

"More."

----

Four bottles later, Loki has attained a comfortable degree of intoxication. Truthfully he has rarely turned to intoxicants to ease his mind, and if it can be helped he does so only in the privacy of his own rooms. He associates drinking with Thor and Volstagg and slovenly excess. He associates his own drunkenness with their mocking. Even Hogun grins at him, which from Hogun might as well be a punchline.

Oh, Loki may be too addled to be offended when drunk, but he remembers their insults when he wakes.

Drink is a welcome respite, today. Although he may have been brought home safely, and although he has spent many hours under the tutelage of his father trying to make sense of the places out of time and the alien horrors Thanos exposed him to, there are still too many moments where wrong and right are backwards and upside down and Loki's passions take strange shapes.

Here in Stark's mansion his torment has dissipated, drowned by liquid liberators with names like Bacardi and Pernod.

"That's a grand slam!" Stark congratulates when Loki sets bottle five down amid his many-colored set. Stark, drunk too, is grinning ear to ear. Stark has topped off one already-open bottle and he's taken a couple inches off a second.

Tony Stark is not a peer, and Loki thinks nothing of it.

"What is it you do to amuse yourself?" Loki asks. He's acquainted with what humans in general do; their little passions and quaint manners. Stark is a different animal from the rest of rabble, both brighter and fiercer.

"Iron Man. Car restoration. End poverty, malnutrition and starvation through a diverse portfolio of technological initiatives. Disaster relief. Iron Man. Also, Iron Man."

Loki remembers Barton briefing him on the woman in Tony Stark's life and her value as an asset to Iron Man, Stark Industries and SHIELD. He considers correcting Stark on the omission, but that road would surely lead to a wearisome tirade on the resources Stark will recruit to destroy him if he harms her.

"How benevolent a creature."

"I was." Stark pauses, extending an accusatory index finger beside his raised glass. "Until you."

Loki weighs the accusation against the combined threat of being drunk and being within the likely hornet’s nest of weapons technology that is Stark mansion. Stark sounds matter of fact, not threatening. Loki doesn't intend to underestimate this human a second time, but Stark's eyelids are droopy.

"Until I besieged New York, or until you came to the aid of Asgard in her hour of need?"

Stark sits up, anger contorting his expression.

"Fuck you. That's when."

Loki's brows rise toward his hairline.

"We've never fucked. Unless you were truly forgettable."

"You come into my house and you…" Stark's voice dissolves into a drunken mumble. His pique passes and he takes a sullen drink. "You killed Phil. You dumped an army on us. I'd given up developing newer, deadlier weapons tech, 'til you."

Loki fears he's brought the rather pleasant mood down. Stark's body has never fully relaxed, but his muscles are tight again, poised for fighting or fleeing despite a reaction time handicapped by liquor. His empty glass hits the table with a sharp, loud smack. His emotive lips flex in changing displays of ire and discomfort.

Loki softens both his voice and his expression, playing the peacemaker – a role he's perfected growing up with a brother as combustible and as gullible as Thor.

"I will not harm you tonight."

Stark's glassy eyed, suspicious squint is still acute no matter that his blood plasma is diluted by fermented grains.

"You have my word," Loki says, more softly and more sweetly yet.

"Great." Stark's voice is flat.

"Gullibility is clearly not your strong suit. Come here."

"Creep says what?"

Loki grasps the taunt with 'What?' on the tip of his tongue. No matter. He's adroit at the long game.

"I have done you such injury my mere presence causes you agonies. I wish to abide here with you a little while. Oh, only a few days. But it's not my purpose to swamp your home in fear and paranoia. Come closer; find that I mean you no harm."

Annoyance bleeds into Stark's suspicion. The man rises, wobbling perceptibly. Loki marvels at the frailty of humans, at the weakness of Stark's well developed human muscles. The device in his chest that confounded Loki's influence glows a soft blue through the fabric of his shirt, advertising what small and fragile power separates the Iron Man from his mortality.

Loki smiles as Stark comes to stand over him, glaring down; defiance on display.

He pulls Stark into his lap, grip firm as the human succumbs despite a burst of frantic strength. He's hot like a low burning flame on Loki's thighs and where his back presses against Loki's chest. Loki has always run cold.

Loki studies his countenance in quarter profile. Stark's eyes bug, face frozen in horror. The palpable fear conjures memories of hoarse screams and a masterwork of vivid reds on a white canvas. Stark has gone rigid. His frail human body trembles – a rabbit caught in a snare. Loki makes soothing sounds that work no change.

"Don't fear me," Loki commands in a whisper, though he little desires to see his words take effect. Tony Stark's terror is exquisite. How beautifully it counterpoises his arrogance.

Stark is hyperventilating. He swoons, but remains conscious. Loki watches his mind working behind his eyes as by plate and bolt he reconstructs his self-control.

With one arm across Stark's chest still binding him fast, Loki's fingers encroach beneath Stark's shirt. They tease against the tensed muscles like plucking harp strings. Stark withstands it, gaze hardening at the corners of his eyes although his body heaves for air. Loki breathes in the stench of his fear, a certain subtle and pleasing aroma.

"How powerful instinct," he says. "How intimate death."

Stark's throat creaks a long groan. Stark's body goes slack, sinking into Loki's tightening embrace. Loki's grinning with triumph and his hand caresses soothing circles on Stark's stomach.

"'M'ma kill you, y' bastard," Stark complains drunkenly. His eyes squeeze shut, fighting off visions of violence, but Loki's certain they're of the past submission.

Loki shifts beneath the human. One of Stark's knees rests on the outside of Loki's. Loki hooks his other knee underneath Stark's remaining knee. Stark straddles him now, albeit in reverse, hips open atop Loki's in an attitude that conjures recent memories of the mortal Jane Foster and of Sif. Fucking has its time and place, but terror can be so much more rewarding.

Stark grunts discomfort and his breathing picks up, but he looks more inconvenienced than horrified.

"Adrenaline running thin?" Loki asks.

Stark grunts, again.

"You. Are a bad man."

"I. Am a god."

"Are not."

Loki digs his fingernails into Stark's skin, but just a little. Stark's abdomen tightens, but doesn't flinch. Loki fears the moment is over and, sighing, slackens his grasp. There's suddenly a lot of wiggling, squirming, shifting human clambering simultaneously onto and off of him. Irked, Loki gives the drunk a helpful shove. Stark somehow situates himself beside him on the couch, stretched out on his back, a leg hanging off. To call his position 'ungainly' would understate the pose.

Stark may be breathing heavy, but he has his fear under command and Loki abruptly discovers himself bored.

"Sure," Stark says, as if in response to something, then, "You can stay."

"I suppose that's something," Loki murmurs. What, he couldn't presently say.

----

Pepper isn't strictly surprised upon her unannounced entrance to the Stark and Potts California home. There's a raven haired bombshell on the couch with a glass of red wine, buoyant breasts on display in a classy little sleeveless black number. The woman doesn't worry her, and neither does the probability that Tony disappeared into the house and forgot about a guest that he likely only left around to look at in the first place. She was just looking forward to not being Professional Potts today after a hectic week in five countries.

She lets that go, too, CEO smile flashing into place.

"Hello. I'm Pepper Potts."

"Loretta Nash." The woman's smile is stunning, dimples and perfect teeth.

"Has Mr. Stark kept you waiting long, Ms. Nash?"

Pepper feels for the woman as worry clouds her eyes.

"I don't want to be an ungrateful guest, but he disappeared downstairs over two hours ago…"

Pepper smiles her utmost charming, CEO, 'six page spread in Time magazine' smile.

"I promise I will only be five minutes."

Head spinning with a slew of reprimands, searching her thoughts for just the right one, Pepper heads down to Tony's man cave, spying him surrounded with 3D models of Iron Man's hand and wrist. He turns his head with a boyish grin that melts her woman parts but not her CEO parts when she stalks in. Jarvis has obviously warned him of the incoming hostile.

"Don't be cute with me. You've left a woman sitting by herself in our living room for at least two hours."

"That is a man," Tony says.

"Do not tell me you are that insensitive to transgender women."

"He's not transgender," Tony says. "That's Loki." He racks his brain a second, spinning his index finger in a circle. "God of whatever."

Now, Pepper is surprised. She's halted half a tic before her eyes betray bewilderment.

"Do not tell me we are harboring an inter-dimensional criminal in our living room."

"Then I won't tell you we’re harboring an inter-dimensional criminal in our living room. How was Kyoto, Hinschu, Ruhr, Baku and Medina?"

"Evil god in the living room."

"He's not evil. He's persnickety."

"Do I need to hire a sitter for you when I'm out of the country?"

"Do we know a sixteen year old girl with that level of security clearance?"

"You hate Loki. Loki did terrible, terrible things." She doesn't say 'to you'; that's too sensitive and uncertain a territory for Tony and has been since he returned from Asgard. She worries about brainwashing. She thinks about Phil.

Suddenly she's sick and upset and it's showing. Then she's in Tony's arms. He smells like motor oil and aftershave and sweat and the first thing in her life that's truly mattered.

"Pep."

"Explain it to me."

"He's a stuck up, megalomaniacal, overprivileged six year old. I get him."

"He's dangerous, violent, malicious, and he kills people."

"I kill people."

"You kill bad people," Pepper whispers, voice no longer trustworthy.

Tony kisses her. It doesn't make everything better, but he's gentle and she loves him like her heart's too big for her chest.

When they reach the top of the stairs, arms around each other's waists, Loki, still gloriously buxom, says "That was not five minutes."

"My apologies, Ms. Nash," Pepper soothes. She hates him. She genuinely hates him. It's cold and sharp inside her. "Are you enjoying California?"

"There's art," he purrs, "and I seem to find my way into all the right parties."

"I'm feeling like dining out," Tony announces. "Jarvis, secure my table at Savory."

"Toodles," Loki demurs.

"I'm thinking all of us dining out and you in something even more expensive and revealing."

Tony yips when Pepper pinches him.

Pepper knows the number of Tony's woman-on-each-arm entrances have been severely diminished in the past two years. He's preening for the paparazzi. The sound of shutters snapping is background noise to Pepper at this point in her career.

"So," Pepper says at the table. "Do you come to Earth often?"

"There's no better place to slum. You can invariably catch a murder and a movie within eight blocks of each other."

Tony grins.

"Also, we have shuffleboard."

"I'm afraid I'm not familiar with 'shuffleboard'."

"It's all the rage with the kids."

"By 'the kids', he means eighty year olds," Pepper supplies.

"Loki's gotta be, what? Earth standard years, please."

Loki gestures vaguely with her wine glass.

"I think two thousand and something."

Pepper has decided to stop trying to delineate Loki's gender.

"Plenty old enough for shuffleboard," Tony approves.

"So, you've watched our population explode," Pepper says, bringing a serious tone to the conversation.

"Catastrophically, yes," Loki says.

Pepper savors a bite of fish, contemplating the nearly unimaginable span of Loki's life, her mind chasing possibilities. She smiles.

"Maybe you can offer us some advice on a sustainable trajectory of development for the human future. As someone who specializes in re-imagining infrastructure and exploring waste free technological alternatives I find reviewing human history and cultural diversity offers surprising but underutilized ecological strategies – but I'm sure reading history and living it are two different things," Pepper says.

"I would have ample advice to give if your planet submitted to my rule." Pepper knows Loki is serious, and the hatred she harbors slices a stinging cut through her good mood. But Loki looks like she'll go on, so Pepper waits while Loki takes a bite and considers. "I'm not sure anything I can say would surprise you. Clannishness has always been your species' weakness. You'll kill one another over the color of the clothing you wear. Nowadays you're leaving countries to mob rule and voting the most beautiful, best spoken and most incompetent and unqualified people into authority that the world has ever seen." Loki sits back in her chair, attentive to Pepper, contemplating her. "Your lives are short, your attentions shorter, your passions stupefy you, your memories are selective and fallible and you're obsessed with reproduction to the point of madness."

"It helps to hear it from somebody else," Pepper says.

"It sounds like I'm in the running for the most human human on the entire human planet," Tony says. "I'll definitely win. I win at everything."

"We're having babies?" Pepper asks.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa," Tony says.

Tony promptly empties his glass of wine and casts a furtive glance at the sommelier, who, ever attentive, appears at his elbow to refill his selection for this course.

"I'm slightly too busy for babies this month, but I think I can work something in around September."

"Babies are tiny factories of poop, vomit and screaming. I have an idea: let's rent other people's babies when the mood takes us."

"I was mother, once," Loki reminisces.

Tony becomes intensely more interested in Loki's breasts until Pepper swats him with her napkin.

Later that night, at home and in bed, where Pepper and Tony are wearing absolutely nothing and after a rambunctious bout of sex, Pepper is tucked close beside Tony, the sweat and scent of their bodies mingling. She traces circles on the arc reactor with her fingertip. Consensus between them resolved that their sex life wouldn't offer Loki fodder for mischief or malfeasance.

"If you're Loki hiding under an illusion, after a performance like that you can be my boyfriend on the side," Pepper teases Tony. She'd be outraged if he actually was Loki, but only at Loki.

Tony and Pepper are practicing casual exclusivity. Tony's wild playboy days may have outlasted Pepper's wild college days, but neither one of them is closed to the possibility of sudden, new, exciting sexual opportunities to be negotiated at a future date.

Tony's fingers are twined in Pepper's hair.

"I would have texted you. 'Oh, hey, Pep, persnickety god crashing at our place.' But I got Fury-noia."

"You live dangerously," Pepper murmurs, nibbling at Tony's ear. "I, by extension, live dangerously. But I'm not seeing me in prison orange."

"It would bring out your hair."

"Not in a flattering way."

"I'm making you a something."

"Oooh, a something. I love somethings."

"I know you love somethings. Especially tasteful somethings. I hope you like red."

Pepper filters her thoughts for pertinent evidence, recalling the display from this afternoon and the slender fingers of a glove. Her hatred of Loki is a bitter taste at the back of her mouth. Suddenly, she's afraid.

"Tony. No."

"It's amazing, Pep. Flying is…incredible. I want you to have that. And, honestly, I worry. I want you to have it if a plane's crashing, or an earthquake hits, or the world's ending…"

Pepper turns her face against his skin, closing damp eyes. She picks her head up, finally, when they've both drifted closer to sleep and meets his eyes.

"No weapons. No missiles, no lasers… Just… No weapons. Promise?"

Tony nods. Pepper trusts him.

"I promise."

June 26, 2014

The wall behind Iron Man is crushed by the armor’s impact. Cement and dust rain down on its helmet. Iron Man shoves himself out of the impact crater, instantly in the air and bull rushing a gloating Loki. They crash into the broad side of a bus, its steel frame crumpling around them. Loki’s limbs are tangled in the twisted metal. Tony sees the violent sneer on Loki’s features in between the impact of Iron Man’s fist. Loki plants both feet against his chestplate and kicks him away, Iron Man’s thrusters firing to take him aloft and spare the suit and Tony another crash.

"Iron Man, you still with Loki?" Cap’s voice asks, voice rolling through Iron Man’s helmet.

"Just lost physical contact. Can’t confirm he’s not mobile," Tony warns, cutting his thrusters and landing on his feet while Loki – or a double – rises to his. Iron Man holds his arms out, inviting the Jötunn to initiate, scanners engaged in an area sweep.

Loki attacks from behind, the double flickering out of existence. The butt of his staff drives into the small of Iron Man’s back, leaving a dent where the armor should be the most flexible.

Iron Man blasts himself backward; another armor on body collision. If Iron Man can feel him, Tony can trust its sensors. Loki’s not good enough to fake an impact yet.

"Got him," Tony reports.

Iron Man wheels around and grabs the Jötunn with both hands, rocketing into the air.

"This is going to hurt you and it’s not going to hurt me," Tony warns. Then they’re plummeting back to earth from perilous heights at high speed, Iron Man buffeted from the pavement-shattering impact by a comfy god pillow. The staff goes clattering away across the pavement.

Loki screams. He’s furious, now – as if he wasn’t already. He flips Iron Man over, reversing their positions, and grabs Iron Man by the head with both hands. Iron Man’s helm is being smashed into the ground over and over again, view screen flickering wildly with the brutality of the assault.

Tony’s gotta risk losing him, at this rate, and presses Iron Man’s palms to Loki’s chest. A burst of thrusters on full sends Loki soaring while Iron Man picks himself up from the pavement.

"Disengaged," Tony transmits. It’s been like this for going on ten minutes – not cat and mouse; more like cat and dog.

The idea has been to keep Loki separated from his new best pal Dormammu. Dormammu is a real character. His head is - literally - on fire. He goes by nicknames like "the Eater of Souls" and is super old. Tony thinks he’s a way better candidate for the title of "god" than Loki and said so. Loki disagreed, physically.

Iron Man is up one staff. Which is cool from a bling perspective because this one has a floaty, glowy ball suspended weightless among the flourishes that crown it. Iron Man flicks it with his finger; it bobs but doesn’t go anywhere. He suspects it's the focus for the blasts Loki's been shooting from this thing. He can't wait to take the whole assemblage apart.

"Hand that back," Loki, or a double of Loki, demands, appearing beside him.

"Playground rules," Tony says. "Finders keepers. Losers suck it."

Tony beats a tactical, victorious retreat, staff in possession. Loki has a score of talents but flight is not one of them.

"Loki's on the loose but I've got his neat-o toy. I'm gonna stash this sucker someplace secure and meet up at your co-ords."

"Copy that, Iron Man. Get the lead out," Hawkeye says. Tony guesses Cap's doing something manly, physical and extremely dangerous.

January 13, 2015

Dormammu has been banished back to the Dark Dimension where he plots his dark, dark schemes and dreams his dark, goth kid dreams. That's what Tony figures people like him get up to, anyway. Tony thinks he came out the winner in all that because Thor let him keep Loki's staff. It's a wealth of minor - to Æsir, but freaking awesome, to Tony Stark - secrets. He's finally got a handle on how the Æsir conjure the floating towers of Asgard. Conjuration isn't part of the equation.

Asgard treats Earth a lot like the Vulcan nanny state treated Earth after First Contact in the history of the United Federation of Planets, but Thor's trust in Tony gives Tony the warm fuzzies even if that trust is tinged with patronization.

Seven months later, Tony has all but forgotten about the staff. So when he walks into his well-lit living room at Stark Tower, throws himself down on the couch to catch some TV and catches a dark figure looming outside the window out of the corner of his eye he jumps out of his skin. The jeebies do not subside when he recognizes Loki, whose grin gleams white against the backdrop of night.

Tony makes a gesture toward the balcony door. Loki enters, as proud and assuming as ever.

"So, how'd you manage that? Flight, or teleportation?"

A long climb or landing a jump from an airplane would have set off the alarms. Probably. Most likely. Tony's guessing teleportation because it did seem like Loki was unusually spry during his last outing seven months ago and Tony didn't see any levitating.

"Teleportation," Loki confirms. "My encounter with Thanos opened my mind to my untapped and limitless potential."

"Untapped I buy. Limitless I'll put on layaway."

Loki is calm, sober, focused and unresponsive to the slight.

"I come for what's mine."

"Sorry – aren't you the limitless potential guy, or did I confuse you with the somebody else who was just talking? My house. My stick. And we're on my watch; and my watch says it's TV time."

Loki's jaw clenches. Tony beams. Loki's expression of displeasure passes and he grudgingly joins Tony on the couch. Tony ignores the thrill running up his spine with Loki close enough to catch hold of him and taps the couch beside him to turn it into a remote; Jarvis calibrates the touch surface accordingly. Tony's keen to catch the news tonight. There's a feature on the latest Stark green initiatives and he loves to listen to people praise him.

Two thousand and something or not, Loki's sullen pout leaves him looking like a little kid as he glowers at the television, indignant but clearly aware of the level of effort required for a forceful entry to Stark Tower's vault premises.

"Thor says your dad pulled the old 'strip your powers and banish you to earth as a hobo.' That must have sucked," Tony says while the news anchors talk weather.

"It sucked," Loki says.

"And now you're back in the act but you're looking for that little extra oomph that stick'll give you because you put some of your power in it. My bet is you're gonna burn it up to get back to Asgard or a nice vacation spot somewhere…tropical? I can't see you tanning."

"I can't tan – and more or less. Will you give it to me or must I take it from you?"

"Get over it, ET. Suck it up and phone home."

Loki's expression curdles.

"No."

"Shh, this is the part about me."

It's not the best feature Tony's earned. He criticizes the newscaster when the man gets a technical detail wrong. Exposure is exposure but savvy investors may raise an eyebrow at the shoddy exposé – a pawn in the chess game of business that Pepper plays better than Tony, but it's the coordination of a hundred dance steps that moves product and opens doors and frontiers. Pepper's in Chicago, but the station will be hearing from her people about the slip up. Tony expects a retraction at the end of the program.

"My staff, now?" Loki asks.

Tony turns to look at him, their gazes locking.

"Say please."

The widening of Loki's eyes and flaring of his pupils reminds Tony that Loki is sort of, kind of, almost a sociopath.

"Okay, fine, don't say please," Tony defers. He's itching to make a fight out of it. Iron Man's a thought away, the interior décor and structural integrity of the top eight floors are chump change with the money Tony has to burn and Loki's a rocking dirty fighter.

SHIELD would get involved, though, and the US military, and possibly other Avengers if they're in town, and falling debris would put innocent lives at risk. So, as great exercise as that would be it's a no go.

"Arm wrestle you for it," Tony redirects gleefully, watching Loki's eyes roll.

"Fine," the Jötunn compromises sourly. "You're as thick headed as my fool brother."

Tony knows Loki's on the same page of the same book of stupid, reckless thrills but they keep it to arm wrestling, which Loki becomes competitive at despite every verbal and non-verbal demonstration of just how beneath him it really is. Loki wins best nine out of eleven, because he keeps demanding "Again" until Iron Man's servos are blown.

December 3, 2015

"There's a catch," Iron Man says.

"Of course there's a catch." Loki scoffs.

"You have to trust me. Completely trust me. You have to accept I know what I'm doing, and you have to do exactly what I say."

In the moment that Loki hesitates his pale, sensitive eyes are open encyclopedias of covert schemes, deadly alliances of convenience and childhood fears of abandonment. It could be genuine vulnerability or a move in the game – a sham.

Iron Man doesn't ask.

"I trust you," Loki surrenders with difficulty and regret. The god he is is neither the god of trust nor fidelity.

"Right. I need you to hold that portal from the other side. I don't care what it takes. But I swear to you – I swear -- I will bring you back alive. Understood?"

The tightening of Loki's fist on his scepter is all that betrays him. He fears being lost in the Negative Zone. He entertains selling Earth to Annihilus, but he's not ready to risk selling Asgard in the bargain. Annihilus' vigor to conquer until there are no sentient beings left free to oppose him has married Loki and the Avengers' interests this day. Loki is not completely certain of his ability to fight off a battalion of the insectoid swarm in martial combat. That is Thor's aptitude and pleasure – but nevermind that because Annihilus has laid Thor low.

Stark swears the whole thing is amenable to a technological solution and that he is the man to supply that solution if time and resources permit. So everyone is playing to their strengths. The Wasp is robbing key bits of tech from pertinent equipment, Black Widow is lifting the larger articles in demand, and Captain America, Scarlet Witch and War Machine are combating the alien itself with the aid of an enraged Sif and the Warriors Three. Rescue is containing the situation as best as it can be contained, preserving the precious lives of the powerless and lowly.

Loki is for all intents and purposes nigh invulnerable. He's also popularly considered expendable. Oh, the other Avengers would offer their condolences to Thor’s family and their regret for their suffering would be genuine, yes. But his death? His death would weigh as nothing to their hearts. Except Tony Stark's. Even that remains a dangerous 'Maybe'.

The fight is like no battle Loki has ever engaged in unaided. The odds are against him. He is as often Jötunn as Æsir in aspect, the wretched insects immune to the cold of background radiation warmed space but not the corrupting touch of absolute zero by Laufey's son. He deceives them, shatters them, is blasted by their beams and crushed by their blows and returns these insults with eldritch blasts, devastating impacts of fists and staff and the stabs of three concealed blades.

Iron Man blasts past him, overhead, deeper into the ship, carrying Loki doesn't know what. Loki curses an ancient oath, battling on. He's at the point of exhaustion and fighting for his life. Dead insectoids litter the shuttle bay where the portal to Earth has been erected.

The power cuts. The ship goes silent except for the nervous clattering of insect feet in the dark. The portal disappears.

Loki screams; he swears curses old when the world was young and in his rage he finds the strength to kill ever more of the things.

Iron Man appears, chest glowing, eyes and extremities glowing too.

"You swore you'd bring me back!" Loki snarls, eyes red and rune etched skin blue. His mind roils with the tortures he has planned for this traitorous human during the sojourn in the Negative Zone.

Iron Man lands before the raging Jötunn, no enviable place to be.

"Chill out, cool breeze. I am not without a plan."

"You have no plan."

"I'm working out the fine details of my plan."

Loki's blue skin fades toward creamy white peach. He strikes the ground with his staff for a sharp, attention demanding clang.

"You have no idea the breed of tyrants who will come to salvage a ship dead in this star ocean."

"But I bet you the Alfa Romeo Pandion not one of them is as good looking as you and me."

Loki ignores the human and turns to the portal, approaching the device, heart afire with resentment.

"Can we fix it?"

"Sure. The question is 'Can we fix it in six hours?' because that's when this well-armed, fantabulously engineered fleet I went all Independence Day on explodes."

"I'm certain, now: I truly despise you. I need you to know that."

"Did you say something? Because all I heard was 'waaaaah'."

Stark is already wrists deep in the wall beside the portal. Loki hisses but leaves it be and takes to examining its external trappings. Loki is a brilliant being and Tony Stark is…intelligent, if Loki has to admit it. He need not do so again. At least, vocally.

The definition of bootstrapping later, they step into the blinding light of Earth's mother star. Iron Man's helmet closes and Loki hears only one side of the ensuing conversation.

"Fleet is going the way of the Hindenburg. Annihilus still up and kicking? . . . Brava. Kudos. Honey Nut Cheerios. That's news I wanted to hear. Make all the news like that. . . . Yeah. He's with me. I'll let him know."

Loki's eyes have only just adjusted to the bright of day. Tony's helm opens again and he's got a terse, apologetic expression on.

"Jan says Thor's in a bad way. Other people are also in a bad way, but it's stretching credulity that you'll even shed a tear for dear big bro."

Loki imagines his brother lying pale and wrecked, invigorated by human life support, waiting to be returned to Asgard where healing stones will be laid upon him and mother will sit vigil at his bedside until he awakes. His expression is one of distaste.

"I don't intend to pine beside his unconscious body as grist for human gossip."

Iron Man shrugs.

"Whatever bastes your turkey." A grin plays on the human’s lips, his gaze looking Loki up and down. "You held down the fort back there. Who’da thunk you were a fort-holding guy?"

Loki scoffs, gleaming chitin and blazing, searing rays of light too fresh in his memory.

"I am in pain, I am exhausted, and if a single person tries to ply me with his appreciation I will make an extra effort to be sick on his clothes for the bile of my gut is all I have left to spare."

Iron Man laughs.

"That was touching, man. But a hero's work is never done and I gotta get to damage control. Don't be a stranger. Let's smoke a victory blunt in the Jacuzzi sometime – Hold up. Do you melt? No. Don't answer. I'm on the clock."

A wink and Iron Man's gone into the smoke-choked blue.

Loki has no obligations and no one to celebrate with. He walks the streets of wrecked Beijing. He is benevolent in a negligent way, not seeking out those trapped, not keeping an ear opened for cries, but tossing debris off crippled civilians, wrenching the door off a car with a woman sobbing inside. All the while he wonders how far it is to get out of this devastation and back to civilization.

He's covered in his own blood and insectoid ichor and when he's tired of walking he kicks in a door and finds running water in a stranger's home. He enters the small bathroom, shower nozzle free standing between the sink and the toilet. With cool water pouring over his fatigued, naked body he lathers soap thick on his skin and shampoo thicker in his hair. He can forget how base and harsh the substances are for the sheer bliss of being cleansed of the fight.

His garments he cleanses, too, and he hangs them to dry in the living room, listening to the distant wail of emergency sirens and wall-rattling vibrations of helicopter blades as he lies restless on some human's couch.

His predicament is inescapable. He kòu tóu'd to Tony Stark. Pitiful, whimpering, screaming, bleeding, trembling, smart mouthed, oh-so-mortal Tony Stark.

That is a personal low.

It served his purposes at the time, but that fact offers no comfort. Tony is not Loki's brother, to be entertained when convenient, ignored when inconvenient and pranked and tortured for sport. Each time Loki tests the bonds of Thor's fraternity he goes one, two, five steps farther than the last time. Each time Thor welcomes him home into his embrace.

Not so Stark. Stark with his quick smiles and expression riddled brow, silver tongue and clever fingers only tolerates Loki. Only tolerates, despite Loki's vastly superior resources, constitution and abilities. Even when Loki had him writhing and wailing with his body ripped open, ribs exposed, gurgling blood Tony Stark was tolerating him. A defeated man would have simpered and begged and pleaded for his life, offered all his worldly things and pledged his very soul to have an end to such agonies.

Not Stark. He indulged and defied Loki in a singular display of staggering egotism.

And what after? Concessions and acts of friendship. But Loki does not mistake these for lenience. Stark would sooner be confined to perpetual tortures than give leeway to an insufferable slight against him. Loki can see the lines that must not be crossed, a map of thin bright breaking points.

Interference with Pepper Potts is one of them. The death of an Avenger is another. A spree of serial murders, not just the odd collateral death, is a third.

Loki's gut, his intuition tells him these chinks in Stark's esteem of him waiting to be exploited are left visible for a purpose. The deadliest part of Stark, the dark knot inside that allows him to kill for a cause, would relish Loki overstepping one unspoken rule. Beings like Loki and Tony Stark are always hungry for the next challenge, the next peak to surmount, the next horizon to breach—

…beings like Loki and Tony Stark. Not so very different.

January 30, 2017

Tony Stark stands at the foot of the stairs to Asgard's high dais in jeans and t-shirt, flanked by armed Æsir. Asgard's king sits in state, resplendent in golden armor and the deceased Allfather's staff of office in hand. He frowns at the mortal who dares approach him; next, a gloating smile.

"Have you come to threaten me?"

Tony looks taken aback, clasping his hand to his arc reactor.

"No, I came to negotiate with you."

"Leave us," Loki commands, raising his voice for all to hear.

The hall is vacated in an orderly fashion. As the Æsir leave, Tony trots up the steps, appreciating the trappings of the high hall; the patterns incised on the gleaming floor and scrollwork of the massive throne. He's seen all this before, but it's been years.

Loki awaits the moment Tony reaches the foot of the stairs to the high seat. A smirk plays along his lips.

"Kneel, mortal. I am king."

Tony does a quick calculation of the odds in his head, sees a glimmer of advantage and grasps it, dropping to his knees.

"Better," Loki says.

Tony shuffles forward, surmounting the stairs knee by knee to the throne, before a suddenly baffled Loki. He achieves its foot and now he's pouting up at Asgard's king from between his thighs.

"Please surrender the throne of Asgard? Pretty, pretty please?"

Loki hisses disapproval.

"You're not kneeling right."

"Two knees, one floor. That's the basic definition of kneeling."

"You knew what I meant when I told you to kneel. It's implicit in my tone of voice."

"I'm on the spectrum, dude. Sometimes you have to spell these things out to me."

"What spectrum?"

"Oh, come on. It was implicit in the tone of my voice."

The staff smacks the floor; a sound of Loki's pique, but Loki sees a lost cause and disentangles himself from Tony's game of words. He focuses, instead, on his right to rule and his argument for holding the throne. He knows Tony will hear him out without bias. Loki speaks as to an appointed counselor. His voice is harsh with grief.

"What king would Thor make when he chooses Midgardians over his own people? He was dallying on Earth when our father perished to Surtur. Now I am king of Asgard, as is my right."

"Thor wants to argue that," Tony says. "Especially the 'dallying.' But forget about Thor. This is between you and me – and between you and me you're not king material."

Rage widens Loki's eyes and clenches his teeth and he spits: "You dare!"

Tony just nods along.

"Do you seriously want to plant your ass on a throne for the next thousand years? Micromanagement is, let me tell you, a bitch. You're a slave to your smart phone, you have to give all the right people face time and if anything goes wrong, no matter how completely unrelated it is to you, it's your fault."

"Only a foolish cur would compare administrating the enterprises of mortals to ruling the Realm Eternal."

Tony's answer is a cheeky ear to ear grin. Loki fruitlessly glares him down until he finally concedes with a heavy sigh, gaze wandering toward the hall's high ceilings.

"Someone has to clean this place. Once every five hundred days."

"And if you hold court and they fucked the job up? Pie on your face. Worse, if this place comes under siege your people will expect you to be out there on the front line rep’ing the crown. You come off like more of a 'do it from behind' kind of guy to me."

Loki smirks a languorous smirk and Tony plays innocent, eyelashes batting. Loki's moment of pleasure evaporates just as quickly, expression stormy.

"I can't just walk away from the throne. It is my throne and my responsibility and it will be again if Thor gets himself killed in some idiot venture."

Tony props his elbows between Loki's legs on the edge of Asgard's gigantic throne, resting his chin on his hands and frowning in thought. Tony watches Loki's thoughts veer into naughtier and naughtier places. He recognizes that look from the mirror. He adjusts his smile to flirtatious to nudge things in the right direction. Tony personally makes unpalatable decisions way more easily when Pepper is getting naughty with him.

"You'd have to throw some kind of throne-handy-over shindig. But, face it, that ceremony will be at least half about you and what a great guy you are for maintaining the line of succession. You'll come out looking good, you won't have to brawl with Thor, the teeming masses will sleep easy—…" Tony is silenced as Loki presses a shushing fingertip to Tony's lips.

All is quiet in the throne room.

It's the silence of cavernous spaces, its weight enormous.

The faintest prickle of fear tickles Tony, but it's not Tony's life Loki desires.

"Rise," Loki says, voice a whisper.

Tony stands, going from inches in front of the bulge of Loki's black trousers to standing a foot above the seated king.

They study each other warily. The moment has become something neither is quite prepared to articulate. Tony's breathing fast; he thinks Loki is, too. Tony's got Pepper on his mind. Tony'd bet the only person on Loki's mind is Tony.

He likes to think that's an effect he has on people.

"…starting to get awkward," Tony finally says.

Loki looks away sharply and presses his lips together.

"I'm just gonna go let the guys know," Tony goes on. "You know. Let Thor know that we've got this worked out. You've probably got a ceremony to plan. Hey. You know who's great at planning awesome public events? My best gal Pepper Potts. Why don't we get her in on this? Little human spontaneity and charm? She is spectacular at negotiating awkward situations. You'd think she's a goddess herself."

"Do whatever you want," Loki snaps.

Tony makes a sweeping bow and beats a retreat, flashing charm at the guards posted outside the doors of the throne room on his way to where the fuming god of thunder waits at the outskirts of Asgard.

Let me talk to Loki, Thor, Tony'd said. I know what's running through his head.

You don't think my brother mad? Thor roared, anger and grief fueling his temper.

Give me one shot at this. Please? We already know how this will turn out if you bully your way in there and treat him like a little kid. People die.

Tony would like to think he turned out right about everything…except for that one teeny-tiny unexpected detail that cropped up.

----

Pepper smacks Tony with a pillow that he catches up in his arm and cuddles while rocking back and forth on the bed like a gleeful child.

"I'm not lying. I'm not even exaggerating. The man is totally hot for me."

"He wouldn't be the first man who's hot for you. Or the seventeenth," Pepper points out. "So I think what you're trying to tell me is you like him back."

Tony's high spirits batten down like a ship of the line in a gale.

"The man's responsible for what was unequivocally the worst hour of my entire life."

Tony's voice is quieter than his voice ever is and Pepper's dampens, too.

"He killed Phil. And he killed a lot of other people that maybe we didn't know but that somebody loved, that people mourned."

"I sort of told him you'd put together this coronation thing for him and Thor. It was one of those 'Pepper, save me' moments," Tony says. "I blame you. For all the 'saving me' you always do."

Pepper shivers, looking away from Tony into the bright, sunny sky beyond their window. She squints against its light. A now-familiar instinct tells her there's work out there for Rescue even now. She takes her leisure at others' peril. There may never be a day when Rescue and Iron Man aren't in demand.

"…I can do that," she hears herself saying. She reins her attention back to the present and Tony and the room they share naked together. "I'll do it," she confirms. "Asgard's watched Thor and Loki butt heads for hundreds and hundreds of years. If they need one thing, it's re-branding. I happen to know something about branding."

Tony climbs over pillows and bed sheets to draw the woman he loves into a languorous kiss, thumb brushing the so-soft skin of her areola, tongue drinking her like rare nectar. He flirts with her like summer and hard candy.

"Rock his socks off, Pep-tastic."

----

Loki Odinson surrendered his father's throne. Not to a conquering army, not in defeat nor in disgrace, but to his brother, Thor Odinson, first born son of Odin, late king of the Realm Eternal.

The Æsir are yoiking and reciting sagas, they're all dancing springleik or the men are dancing halling as the music moves them. The mead flows generously and the meat is succulent. Thor is jubilant and well pleased with his brother. Loki is fit to consider himself over-stimulated. He is fed up with being wooed by buxom maidens and has fed well on boar, but he couldn't possibly eat another bite.

The Avengers are among the audience, enjoying themselves to the extent each sees fit. Loki is interested in only one of them. To demonstrate that in mixed company would be a faux pas. He turns his attention instead to the hostess of tonight's festivities. All manner of folk wish to dance with the woman bedecked in shells and bangles and silks from earth, but Loki sweeps her from the dance floor with a well-placed touch to her waist and they retire to a balcony overlooking the raucous merriment inside.

"Ms. Nash. I didn't expect to see you here," Virginia Potts flirts with practiced ease to Loki's male form.

Loki hates her in the depths of his gut. She stands between him and what he wishes to acquire.

She could be physically ruined forever with a careless slap of his hand. He keeps in mind the spider web of catastrophic fault lines surrounding the heart of Tony Stark, instead.

"Some would say I owe you this smooth transition," Loki says.

"People say anything and everything," Potts says. "Peace in Asgard means peace on Earth. I did what I needed to do to make the coronation a success."

"At the behest of Tony Stark. It was his will you put into action."

Potts' laugh is the laughter of a woman smitten, her gaze momentarily distracted by visions of love. Her earrings jingle as she shakes her head and she fixes Loki with coy, amused eyes.

"If this event was Tony's bash the Æsir in there would be playing beer pong and doing body shots."

Loki's mood darkens further at the mention of Iron Man's name.

"I particularly disliked the honor guard bearing my standards dropping to their knees in succession as my brother passed."

"Thank you," Potts says. "The repetition will bury the idea in people's minds that there won't be any more sudden regime changes – whether or not that's true."

"I'm no longer in the mood for sovereignty. Maybe some other time, or somewhere else," Loki muses, voice ripe with implications.

Something hardens about the woman, not any one thing, but a combined impression from her poise, her eyes and the set of her jaw.

"Tony and I didn't relieve you of the crown of Asgard for you to turn your attention to Earth."

"You are in no position to dictate to me. Do you have your armor hidden under your skirts?"

"That would be in bad taste," Potts says. There's as much vinegar in her voice as there's been in Loki's as she changes subjects. "We seem to have surprisingly similar tastes."

It would be useless to demur. Loki despises the idea of this little human holding something over him as much as he despises her in the first place. Honesty is the better weapon.

"I had every reason to suspect he told you."

"I don't want to drag this out, so I'm going to tell you where you stand. Tony and I are people who believe in second chances, but you have a bad credit history. If I was a bank considering approving a loan and, in this metaphor, the loan is Tony, I would look at your credit score and decline you."

Loki turns away from her, pacing to the balcony's edge. Asgard spreads out before him, moonbeams glittering off the leaves of her forests. She belongs to him – to him just as dearly as to Thor. He knows intimately the power of her armies and succulence of her riches.

"I do not ask," he warns the woman, or the lands. "I take."

Virginia Potts steps forward to stand beside him, mimicking his posture in a way that riles him.

"I remember, when I was nine, this girl, Emily, took my Hello Kitty eraser. You probably don't know Hello Kitty. She's a little white cat with a bow on her forehead. She's anthropomorphic – you know, walks on two legs. I had a huge Hello Kitty thing when I was nine. And the stupid thing about an eraser is you use it up erasing things, anyway. But, wow, I was mad. So, I started a rumor – but not about Emily. I started a rumor about the biggest, meanest girl in third grade. And I made sure everybody believed Emily had started it."

Loki's lips curl back from his teeth, forehead twisted in a scowl.

"If one more human compares itself to me…"

Potts' smile is as flirty as when they first found themselves alone.

"Xenocide so that nothing else alive looks anything like you? You would actually beat out Tony for narcissism. I would be impressed. And, also, dead."

"What's your point?" Loki challenges.

Potts squints as if scrutinizing her own motives, and as if she can find them in a closer observation of Loki.

"Tony likes me. And Tony likes you. And that makes me wonder what we have in common. That's all."

Loki takes care not to betray the swell of lust that this confirmation of Stark's interest stirs inside him. The desire to overpower and ensnare Stark has haunted both Loki's waking thoughts and his fevered dreams.

Loki offers his hand to the woman. She rests hers upon it – a courtly gesture. Loki knows one thing Tony sees in her. He sees it clearly, too and it's evinced in every aspect of Thor's coronation.

"You are a ruler of men," Loki surmises. "Legions of your species organize their actions to your whim. Your edicts shape the course of nations. A queen in everything but name."

"I hate you," Potts confesses; it's candid, like she's landing a one-liner. "A lot."

Loki grins and then bows suavely, pressing his cool lips to her knuckles.

"I detest you," he murmurs against them, looking up at her beneath his brow. "I absolutely detest you."

He straightens and she withdraws her hand. They stand like statuary, postures perfect and gazes locked. Virginia relaxes her shoulders, first, glancing away toward the party and Tony, then back to Odin's second son.

"This isn't a zero sum game. There's more than enough Tony to go around. I see him in there trying to charm the skirt off a valkyrie."

"Do you let him have other women?" Loki wonders aloud.

"No. But I let him seduce other women – up 'til."

Loki's interest grows more keen.

"And men?"

"Tony hasn't had sex with a man since he was much younger. But I think, for Tony, seducing men is just as fun as seducing women," Virginia says with no apology.

That bodes ill. Loki refuses to admit to himself how ill that bodes. He hears nothing but honesty in Virginia Potts' assessment. It's a dark day that Loki heeds a warning from a human woman, but he's gone to greater lengths to spare himself from losing face.

Loki leaves Virginia on the balcony without another word, striding back into the festivities where so very many of his people are keen to talk to him about nothing so they will 'remember when.'

----

Pepper waits until they've returned to Earth and home before she'll say anything about Loki, even though Tony's begging becomes pesky way before that. Pepper can only take so many unsubtle prompts like "So what did you and Loki talk about?" and "It's not fair to talk about me behind my back and not tell me what you said behind my back" before Pepper wants to gently, lovingly throttle him.

It's not like he doesn't know better than to have this conversation anywhere near the other Avengers or any Æsir. He just likes getting a rise out of her.

"You were right," she relents at last. Tony has tackled her onto their couch, his arms wrapped around her waist. Despite all her previous annoyance, she takes pleasure in indulging him, now.

"How was I right? In one hundred words or more."

Pepper exaggerates her long suffering sigh.

"Loki was not subtle about wanting in your Ninja Turtles boxers," she says, tugging at Tony's waistband.

She wishes Tony had picked somebody completely different, more human and less famously erratic to explore a thing on the side with. Tony never makes the safe call; he lives at extremes.

"Loki can't have me in my Ninja Turtles boxers. I'll have to change my boxers. I get a vibe that ninja turtles would confuse him."

Pepper admits to herself that it couldn't be anybody else but Loki as she scrapes for the strength to accept what Tony's saying underneath the banter. Loki's a racecar, and a train wreck, and has extremely expensive tastes. He's a banquet of everything bad for Tony that Tony can't live without.

"God forbid he took your pants off and couldn't find your penis because of Donatello," Pepper teases, spoon feeding Tony junk food.

Her thoughts are a mess of possible dangers, repercussions and criminal trials for aiding and abetting if Loki goes off the deep end. Just another day at the office, she tells herself. She pretends to believe it.

"This is our first non-threesome extra relationship thing," Tony says. Somebody has to say it. Pepper marvels that it was Tony; that he's incorporated her interests into his far enough that attentiveness peeks through his obsession of the moment. Her heart shifts gears and they're sidelined by kissing for almost two minutes.

There have only been two threesomes. They worked. Pepper doesn't know how Loki can possibly work, but after seventeen years of knowing Tony Stark, Pepper's learned not to fight Tony's passion.

In her three years as Rescue, she's learned to chase the danger and she's realized her own power to control and contain the danger.

Tony was onto something when he engineered Rescue Mark I. Flying changed everything. That special perspective of the world from a distance and every distance attainable under her own power soon bled into Pepper's approach to every other aspect of her life.

"I need you to be careful," Pepper tells him.

Her intonation is empty of imperative. She's not kidding herself: he won't be careful. She'd just regret not telling him, later. Something in her head likes to pretend warnings of clear and present danger make Tony safer, like spells or charms.

Tony's optimism-rich, eager smile wins a smile out of Pepper.

She'll be okay with this, because it's transparent this is happening no matter what.

May 14, 2017

"I want to go with you."

Thor tracks back to the beginning of the conversation; then to the beginning of the day. He thinks back a month, then a year, just to err on the side of caution. The only red flag raising itself is that Loki has been spectacularly well behaved, giving advice at moments of greatest necessity and staying out of the way when he would only be an impediment.

"A warrior of your caliber would be welcome in the fight to save Earth," Thor enthuses, heart light at the prospect of his brother finally sharing his vision of humans as creatures of incredible and dear value to be sustained at Asgard's expense if called for. He can't be completely sure Loki has no ulterior motive, but he takes heart and enjoyment from Loki's agreeableness despite himself.

They leave Asgard together, her throne left well defended by their boon companions. The Æsir, after all, prefer rulers who seek to glorify the Realm Eternal with their confidence, foresight and prowess.

----

"There's a place for you in the Avengers, Loki. If you want it," the human Nexus Wanda Maximoff says, smile playing on her ruby lips.

"Did you arrange things that way, Witch?" Loki asks sincerely. She is most alike him of all the Avengers – no, of all the mortal beings that live. He feels it when they stand near one another. No ordinary mortal, Wanda Maximoff, but a seething wellspring of magic. The greatest source on Midgard, he privately knows. Every lay line and node sings her name.

"Do you see a hex sphere wobbling around us?" she chides.

"You undersell yourself," Loki corrects. "But if you let me whisper in your ear…" She does. She is fearless. "I see in you a protégé."

Wanda's laughter draws the others' attention. She covers her lips with one hand and waves them away with the other. Loki is delighted to have Iron Man's eyes linger on them longer than the others. Not that Loki can say precisely where Iron Man's gaze lies when his helm conceals his face, but he makes an educated guess it's not on Wanda, who Stark has shown no especial inclinations toward.

"I'm honored. But I have an itch that the price you'd charge to teach me is steeper than I'm willing to pay."

Loki rolls his eyes.

"Greatness is invaluable," he says, but kisses her on the cheek and leaves her. As long as she's untrained she poses no threat to him. If she's trained by a human, he doubts she'll pose a threat to him any time in the near future. Anything else is not worth worrying about this decade.

Loki hopes for only one thing out of all this. He could petition the Scarlet Witch to fulfill his fantasy, or enchant his own solution, but that would be turning gold to brass. Loki's desires find form in a teasing taunt.

"Nice of you to come mingle with the commoners in our outrageously destructive rabble rampage."

Loki turns. Here's Iron Man, his helmet up, grin smirking on his lips.

"Some mornings you wake up and realize you haven't blown anything up this month," Loki dismisses.

"That must happen to you a lot more often when you're not out instigating. Where've you been? You've left Earth surprisingly unmolested."

"There are eight other realms to Yggdrasil, Stark," Loki says.

"I just can't work up feelings about them," Stark says. "They're so…me-less."

Loki knows the feeling exactly. The unfortunate truth is it gets him nowhere. So many other people share the sentiment – the great lot of those more common and completely dismissed by Stark.

How far they've come from Stark threatening him in Stark Tower, Loki dismissing the man's prattle as so many empty words. Loki had been less knowledgeable, then.

Not younger. The Realm Eternal may lull its people into complacency and relative arrogance but Loki had still seen much of the best and worst of the realms by that time. And yet, it seems as if everything is moving faster. The universe has risen to a tipping point where all its powers collide and divide in cataclysmic rhythm. Loki, and Tony Stark, and every other being has been forced to grow and change or has been obliterated in the fray. These escalating events have shaped Loki into a man who despairs of understanding himself. He has lost hope, too, of being understood by any other since the day Surtur sent his father to Valhalla.

Loki has any number of things to say to the Iron Man but all of them would expose him.

"Wanna catch dinner at my place?" Stark asks. "Pepper's at a world summit in Cairo suing for peace and I hate eating with nobody to listen to me talk."

"Why not?" Loki says with a shrug. He broadcasts neither his relief nor his desire.

----

"…are you even paying attention?" Tony demands of the Jötunn sharing his high-rise condo. Since Stark Tower became Avengers Tower he's relied on the top three floors of another New York roost he bought out to satisfy his need for alone time with just him and his machines.

"Not even a little," Loki avows sweetly.

Tony huffs…and tosses the contents of his drink on Loki.

"En garde, ye vandal."

Loki's pale eyes go so wide that it's two minutes before Tony's done rolling with laughter.

"I've gotta be some kind of superstar with you not gut-stabbing me right here," Tony says ebulliently.

Tony is silenced by Loki's lips, the stronger, taller man on him in a sudden, unexpected fit of passion. Tony capitulates. They kiss like men starving for cool water or exotic balms. They kiss open-mouthed with slippery tongues.

"And that's how they do it in St. Louis…" Tony mutters, not bothering to make sense with Loki hovering close, the atmosphere electric.

Loki stinks like a bar. Because Tony doused him in gin and tonic.

"You small minded, self-crazed, hedonistic peon," Loki swears angrily.

The kissing that ensues paints Tony oblivious to Loki's denigration. Tony's hands discover the discrepancies between Loki's garments and the contours of the god's hard body. There is no one and nothing else on Tony's mind while he navigates Loki's mouth, thrilled by the cool strokes of the Jötunn's tongue, Loki's body below 20 degrees Celsius.

"Say you wanna fuck me," Tony begs.

Something about that halts Loki up. The Jötunn goes still, one hand fisted in Tony's shirt and the other under his clothes.

"--…okay," Tony says. "Or don't."

"You mock me," Loki snaps, withdrawing bodily.

Tony misses his hands already, cool although they are.

"Constantly," Tony confesses glibly. "You have a hamster-short memory."

Loki is trembling. Tony's gonna bet 'with rage.' That's a five alarm fire, right there, because a pissed off Loki can level a city block or seven before effort has to be exerted.

"…not mocking you. Not now. This is a mimicry free zone. All vocally adroit passerines shot on sight."

The minutes tick by in silence before the final vestiges of Loki's anger seep away. Tony remains still and calm the whole time. It's basically a record for him. He'd double-check with Jarvis but he's suspicious that would set Loki off again.

"What do I meant to you, Tony Stark?" Loki demands lowly.

Tony's confounded by the question. He doesn't do existential. He does arithmetical, and algebraic, and logarithmic, ad infinitum, but he's into quantities, not qualities.

"Uh," Tony says.

Loki abruptly rises, snarling down at his gin soaked garments. He stays like that, infuriated but immobile.

"It has occurred to me that you need to learn to chill the fuck out," Tony says. Tony is 127% sure he's right.

Loki's collapse is like the topple of an overloaded bookshelf: open pages littered everywhere. Tony can see how tired he is; how peaked and wan; how hollow and hungry.

"So, I heard this joke about two tubas and a tambourine…" Tony bluffs with just enough pretense of content for Loki to turn his head and a crease to form between his eyes.

Tony kisses him a second time. This time it's softer and more certain – passion drunk and more involving.

----

Loki has taken many lovers. Some Æsir, some stranger and more fabulous. Sucking, licking, sliding body to body, writhing and moaning aren't new territories to Odin's younger son. He's left his essence in females, or something like them, and harbored a second life inside his own ancient body until parturition.

Never has lust left him less alone or better loved.

Now he is tangled in Tony Stark, a human he could crush the life from. They are clothed, but Loki sees a time when they'll be bared to each other, sex organs turgid. The bump and grind is not the appeal. Stark's involvement in the gloriously sweaty mess is the thing that matters.

They lose clothing piece by piece. Loki's palms glide over the soft give of Tony's body, muscle taut but skin pliant. His fingertips dig into Tony's ass and Tony's thighs flex against Loki's body. Loki's thumb sweeps against the skin and stubble of Tony's cheek. Tony groans, body arching against the Jötunn's.

"How about I fuck you?" Tony challenges saucily, sliding a hot hand between Loki's thighs, fingertips exploiting sleek, sensitive flesh amidst dark curls.

"A single tense of my sphincter would crush your cock," Loki advises in time with the gentle rolling of his hips.

"How about I not fuck you?" Tony mutters, but his hand doesn't go anywhere but deeper, the human driven to discover and explore.

They roll from the couch onto the floor, Loki taking the brunt of the landing. Their legs are twined. Their mouths suckle at each other's flesh in a magnificent merger of mutual intent and sensuality.

The arc reactor digs against Loki's chest. Loki thinks on Tony's death and how short and full of violence Tony's life will be in the end.

"Sad little mortal," Loki says coolly in the midst of their passion.

"If you're talking, I'm doing it wrong," Tony says, pressing his thumb against the thin skin at the rim of Loki's bellybutton and dragging a slow, distracting circle.

----

Tony has a cock inside him. It's thick and cool on his fevered skin. Tony's milking the situation with shifts of his weight and clenches of his Kegel muscle. He has a fucking boss pelvic floor, because he cares about the parts of himself he uses to get him and Pepper off.

Loki has an angel's face, too perfectly angular to be mortal. The arc reactor bathes his pale skin in a ghostly blue glow. His thrusts bear intractable power and Tony's body gives up more and more. His gaze sears Tony with his fierce, possessive desire.

Tony's fingers claw at Loki's back, but fail to leave marks. He gasps and groans as his hips are worked for all they're worth. Loki's gaze lies steady upon him, devouring, and demanding nothing less than all Tony has.

Tony has memories, faint now, of a cruel, jagged knife and Loki's rage. They’re buried amid memories of battles waged and Loki's stunning elegance in curve-hugging dresses, a box of snapshots of the good times and the very worst.

Tony's pants are getting heavy and his vision is blurring. Loki catches a bead of sweat running down Tony's brow with a feline lick. The floor is hard through the carpet under Tony's back but Loki is granite and ice.

Loki's taking something Tony wants to give, and Tony wants to give more and give generously. He presses his mouth to Loki's skin, laps and sucks at his body like ice-cream. Loki tastes like a cold snap, like the crisp air of winter, like cool, clean water – nothing like a man.

Loki gathers Tony against him, sliding in and out of him at a furious pace, Tony's skin is raw from friction but is soothed by Loki's low temperature. Loki's grasp is fearsome and possessive; Tony's adrenaline quickened heart hammers beside the arc reactor. Loki comes buried inside him with a satisfied exhalation.

Tony is a breathless wreck in Loki's arms. Light-headed and still horny, he coaxes and begs him with hands and lips and thick, needful noises. Loki's heavy cock slips free of Tony's body and he holds Tony's hips against his stomach until Tony's humped out an orgasm hot, sticky and six kinds of messy. Tony moans his gratitude, becoming boneless in the Jötunn's arms, exhaustion catching up and taking over. Loki cradles him jealously as he pants and heaves for oxygen – as his blindingly dizzy head floats back toward the real world.

A hand of Tony's is stroking through Loki's long, feathery hair, letting strands slide against the delicate skin between his fingers. Tony's voice is a hoarse whisper.

"You better tell me I was worth it."

"You weren't even remotely worth it," Loki agrees.

(Wait.)

Tony's not even keeping score. He's too preoccupied tracking fingers over the varied muscles of Loki's shoulder and back and waist. Loki is slender, but strong as vibranium. And then there's his face: composed and seeking, spent and yearning, young and timeless.

His mouth is drawn, his cheeks sharp. The faintest lines are etched under his eyes.

Tony looks old compared to Loki. Life has riddled his face with furrows, records of hard lived reckless abandon.

"Now what?" Loki asks.

"I have a private chef," Tony offers. "I am fully willing to lick honey off your cut body."

A sorrowful and listless look leaves Loki's features peaked.

"This can be fun," Tony says. "I swear right there we were almost having fun. Naked fun."

"I don't know what I expected," Loki says, sounding peevish.

Tony rubs reassuringly at Loki's strong chest.

"You're overthinking it, again," he says. "I know a thing or two about overthinking. I'm always thinking. Never under – sometimes over."

"What is 'it'?" Loki hisses viciously, eyes narrowing.

"Right now? It's sort of like having sex with an angry mountain lion."

Loki remains rebelliously angry. Tony does him the honor of sobering up. His expression grows grim, his dark-eyed gaze penetrating.

"'It' is where we go from here. I could promise you all kinds of things – many if not all of which would be doable. They don't mean shit if we're not hanging around each other next month. Are we in love? Hell, I don't know. I happen to know something about commitment, though. I appreciate that you came and knocked some heads together with the Avengers to get in my pants. I'm willing to try this out, as long as you and Pepper don't claw each other's eyes out."

Loki drops his gaze, the blue in his eyes vibrant from the reflection of the arc reactor's light. The Jötunn nods pensively. He looks back up at Tony. A smile creeps onto his lips.

"You said something about honey."

"I did."

----

Pepper returns from Cairo to find Tony hanging out on the couch with Loki Odinson's head in his lap, Tony's fingers trailing through Loki's locks.

"Can I keep it?" Tony asks, eyes too big for his age.

Pepper experiences a pang – not of jealousy, but of rage. She sees her anger echoed in the glint of Loki's eyes. It's not like her, but it's exactly like him.

She knew this could happen. She guessed this would happen. So why is she storming into the depths of the condo, slamming a door behind her?

Because the heart is fickle, and Loki bodily attached to Tony is overwhelming. She is whelmed and then some.

Tony comes running after. That does not a happy Pepper make. It's hard enough to breathe around the anger inside her without throwing other equally heady emotions into the slew.

"—don't say anything," Pepper demands, wiping at dewy eyes with the butt of her palm.

"Can I say other things besides the A word?" Tony asks.

Pepper's anger contorts, turning inward. He voice is unsteady with emotion.

"I wasn't going to have a reaction. There was planned no-reaction-having. I need a do over. Can I re- come in the door?"

"Okay. Sure. I'm game for that," Tony says so sincerely that Pepper cracks a smile. The smile becomes laughter and Tony looks pleased.

Soon Tony's tussling naked with her, their usual flavor of welcome home. He teases and tickles and nips and licks and his hands are everywhere. Pepper's intimately aware of the man she loves as he drives deep between the apex of her thighs, passage eased by the slippery fluid of her eager cunt.

And then there's the man she doesn't love. At the door. She thinks he's seen a lot of people have sex in two thousand and some-odd years, though, and after the initial burn of embarrassment cools on her cheeks she forgets about everything but being wrapped up in Tony. As her consciousness rouses from orgasm three, brought on by Tony sucking and lapping at her cunt and his ticklish goatee, she's aware of the tilt of a non-participant's extra weight toward the starboard side of the bed.

She lies exposed, flushed face and shoulders wreathed in the ringlets of her hair, breasts heavy enough to fall toward her sides and peaked with hard little nipples, a soft muscle tone on her body and her belly button a dip in her abdomen. Her sex is swollen and hot from Tony's very physical admiration.

"Loki," she says, by way of hello. Her stomach is turned upside down, but in a nervy way, not a nauseous one.

"I suppose you're rather lovely," Loki grudges coolly. "Not as lovely as I am, of course."

"I compensate for it with all the not-evil I do," Pepper promises.

Tony grins cheekily.

"You can do each other's hair."

That doesn't settle it, not by a mile, but maybe because of three orgasms Pepper's feeling tolerant of Loki intruding into her life.

"And I could borrow her dresses, except she makes them up in her head," Pepper says.

"Not all of them," Loki corrects. "But my breasts are so much bigger."

"Then I can borrow your dresses," Tony says. "They'll be big enough up front to hold my manly chesticles."

Pepper giggles and Loki wrinkles his nose.

June, 2017 – September, 2018

Loki wants to go to the symphony. Tony gets them front row seats to the New York Philharmonic but will not promise not to cause a scene mid- Tchaikovsky if the boredom overwhelms him. Loki goes under another face.

Loki shakes Tony's arm during Symphony No. 4, 3rd movement, until Tony reluctantly rouses from slumber. Loki leans in, breath and lips commanding attention while tickling Tony's ear.

"How they move in unison," he marvels. "How they slave for their master who holds only a slender stick."

Tony gazes sidelong at the fly of Loki's trousers.

"You have my permission to masturbate," he says. That would be something interesting.

Loki turns to study the humans who populate the audience, before murmuring again to Tony.

"I have to wonder if they would even notice. Music stupefies your species. An audience of a thousand or more, all oafishly rapt to the vibrations of wood and metal."

Tony does not understand why Loki woke him up for this.

"Just like you, I prefer audiences of thousands who are oafishly rapt to me."

But that gets Tony's mind to ticking. Twenty-one seconds later and he's up on the stage, the conductor astounded and appalled but more willing to hand over his baton than to cause a scene and throw off his performers.

Tony mic checks the audience.

"Thank you, that was Tony Stark conducting Twinkle in Toes. Drinks after at Club Coca-Cola. I'm buying."

Then he plants one on the lips of the bewildered director, and he leans in and he whispers "You're a pal, party for your people – real professionals – on me – call my people."

Loki's eyes are wide and wild, his smile hungry, as Tony returns to his seat beside him.

"My public loves me," Tony gloats.

"And when they hate you, no one dares say a word," Loki whispers feverishly.

They stroll together in Central Park under dawn's breaking light, off the paths and unconcerned with anything but each other's close proximity.

Loki shoves Tony against a tree so hard Tony's suit jacket grows bark.

Loki does a little kneeling for once in his life, Tony's fly unzipped and the waistband of his boxers pulled down under his dick.

Tony is seriously into Loki's blowjobs. It's like fucking a bowl of ice-cream, and Loki's tongue and lips and the light scrape of his teeth are so possessive and demanding the world disappears and passes Tony by until Loki at long lasts suffers him to come.

----

Pepper and Loki are having breakfast on the porch of the Potts-Stark California home. The scent of salt, sound of sea birds and the crashing of waves soothe the tension that can run hot like a live wire between them. Tony is sleeping in.

"Is it completely okay for you to be eating outside?" Pepper asks. She's not positive Loki cares about keeping Tony's cover as much as she cares about Loki keeping Tony's cover.

"There's nothing to worry about," Loki assuages. "My power has veiled me from the sight of the great and the ancient. We needn't fear the surveillance of SHIELD or the US government or the conniving little humans that imagine they can steal Tony's secrets."

Pepper's mind is set at ease. She's seen Nick Fury or Natasha compete with the great and the ancient, but she's actually pretty sure neither of them personally makes a habit of hiding out in Tony's bushes.

Pepper feels at ease to pursue some of the questions familiarity with Loki has raised while they share a five star breakfast from Tony's five star robot kitchen assembly line.

"I've been surprised how much of what we've seen in Asgard has turned out to be technology that humans can use, but some of what you're doing and what Wanda does is actually magic, right?"

"In the sense that it's perpetrated entirely through our willpower; but in the strictest sense we're talking about biomechanical processes."

Pepper squints and quirks her head to the side to think about that. Then she nods and takes a sip of her cappuccino.

"I'm not actually interested in this, but if I had the time to practice I could actually master some of these techniques myself, right? There's a man, Dr. Strange. Somehow I got that impression from him."

"I've met him," Loki says. "And yes: with a long time and devoted practice. It could take the rest of your life, but you'd probably end up extending that."

"Huh," Pepper says. She catches herself smiling. That's okay, actually. If she and Loki are going to share Tony like this she doesn't want to waste her energy or her time disliking him more than - on principle of some of the callous things he does - she has to. "How long did it take you to learn?"

"I'm learning constantly," Loki admits. He stares a quiet moment at his half-finished food, then meets her eyes. "My sorcery is nothing compared to the power wielded by my father." His voice takes on a strangely desperate quality. "When I was very small, he'd show me such marvels. He would unleash a flock of ravens from the toss of a handful of sand, or shapeshift into a great snake and climb the highest trees only to return to the ground as a great eagle. Thor never appreciated these things. He cared only for stories of battle."

Pepper receives the sudden intuition that Loki hasn't spoken about any of this in years, or even in literal ages of man. She sets her fork down and gives him her full attention.

He flourishes under it.

"After I gave birth to my son I put him in my father's care and hoped he'd take to father's magic, but it turned out to be beyond him."

"Why was that?"

"I'm afraid Sleipnir is a stallion. Exceptional, but encumbered by his father's species."

Pepper needs Loki to run that by her again.

"So, your son is a horse?"

"Yes. There's a story in there about incautious dealings with shifting my shape and the pranks of young gods."

"That must be some story," Pepper says, and she's fascinated by how candid Loki is about it. She has a sneaking suspicion that Loki doesn't place sleeping with a horse on too distinct a gradient from sleeping with a human, but she doesn't follow up on it.

----

"This is my best idea ever," Tony crows from inside Iron Man.

"You look ridiculous," Loki says, but Loki's naked anyway. His body is excited no matter how preposterous an idea this is on the surface.

Tony has modified the codpiece of the Mark X with a gleaming, solid metal approximation of a cock.

Iron Man's fingers are smooth, interlocking plate metal that stroke strange sensations against Loki's skin. The armor is surprisingly light, but of course it must be for energy conservation under propulsion.

Loki is decadently sprawled on Tony's king size bed, on his 700 thread count sheets, teasing his own nipple between his fingertips.

Tony climbs the bed, mattress sinking under the added weight, crawling above him.

"—take the helmet off. The helmet looks…constipated," Loki complains.

"My helmet does not look constipated. It looks fierce. Like a tiger," Tony objects.

Loki reaches up to touch the helmet, Jarvis unlocking it and the ugly thing lifted off Loki's lover. Loki sets it aside, mischievously smiling his approval. Tony's hair is mussed from time inside the helm.

"Okay, cold stuff. Now you're getting it," Tony exalts, shifting down – lowering Iron Man against Loki's body.

The makeshift-cock pressed alongside Loki's stiffening erection is smooth and hard and strange. It rubs alongside Loki's, long strokes of a firm rod of considerable diameter. Loki is two thousand years old, but making love to Iron Man is like nothing he's ever done. His fingers follow expertly manufactured planes of metal to their points of articulation. As Iron Man's body shifts against Loki's in the undulations of enthused foreplay, the plates ripple like the scales of a snake or a dragon. Tony grasps him and delights his skin with the gentlest propulsion. When Loki's body parts for him, for that interesting appendage, Loki sucks at Tony's lower lip and gasps from the girth and the impressive power behind the Iron Man prosthetic's mechanical hips.

"Incredible," Loki says with a contented exhalation.

"Interesting choice of word," Tony says. "I like to know the things that go in my ass are at least remotely credible."

A smile touches the corners of Loki's lips. The god is contented in this moment and in his contentment vulnerable. Tony has grown addicted to the childish wonder Loki is capable of. He wants to be causing it all the time. Loki's moodiness and malaise space these moments far apart.

Loki's throat catches in pleasured whimpers and for once Tony makes Loki work for it. Iron Man's doing all the heavy pumping – and the pumping is hard and heavy – but Tony's working up the sweat of a light workout. (Admittedly, the suit is well cooled.)

That leaves Tony's mind un-addled enough to catch Loki's fantastic orgasm face. His brow is drawn, his eyes open wide, pupils blown, and gaze sightless; his head thrown back, his body rockomg and his sensitive mouth gaping as he swallows at the air.

They are both well pleased.

----

Tony and Pepper will have a February wedding. Tony is the one who needs everything perfect, because he wants San Bushmen out on the hunt stopping to watch him get married on their cell phone screens in Southern Africa.

But Tony doesn't know anything about dresses. It actually took him several years to grasp the attention-grabbing advantage of learning to dress himself.

So, Loki won't attend, but she's a part of picking out the gown. The demands of Pepper's job have left her bereft of a better girlfriend. Natasha's handling bridesmaid duties, but she's in the Ukraine until the week of.

"That is not the skirt," Loki – Loretta, Pepper calls her when the breasts are out (always so out) – chides. "She might as well cover herself in confetti."

The designer is expensive and sassy and her sense of humor is a good fit for the harsh mistress Loretta invariably is.

"Tulle is out," she concedes, turning her attention to other avenues.

Loretta touches a display dress standing nearby.

"Corded lace is too heavy. This isn't 1860. I remember 1860. It was like 1970 but with less breathing, more heat exhaustion and the same amount of syncope, though for very different reasons."

The designer laughs. She has absolutely no idea.

"My opinion doesn't matter here, does it?" Pepper asks rhetorically, but it's a world of fun to be cooed over by attentive women and have her body lavished with expensive fabric. Ninety percent of the time she's exhaustively in control of her wardrobe.

"This is the one," Loretta dictates at last. "What's all this called?"

"Keyhole bodice, mermaid silhouette, corset back closure, bubble hem train," says the designer.

"This, but the entire waist is going to be a cascade of diamonds from her right side to her left side hip. We're going to need at least three hundred diamonds; more for your hair." Loretta chews her lower lip, eyes narrowed. The designer is momentarily overwhelmed by her intensity, startling with a fear she must feel inexplicable. "Tony will machine cut them to my specifications. We're not holding a human arts and crafts show. --I'm seeing nude makeup. We have natural beauty to work with."

"And are you the bridesmaid?" the designer asks tentatively.

"No," Loretta says. Her expression grows stony. "Fuck. She's too much of a redhead. Maybe we can shave and wig her."

"Black works for her," Pepper points out.

Loretta takes a second to reflect before marshaling her command of the gradually more nervous designer.

"She's right. We need the bridesmaid in all black – and enough of a skirt to distract from that hair."

They leave six thousand dollars in cash for the designer to begin work on the dress.

Pepper feels fantastic.

----

Tony winces as Pepper goes on yelling. Loki, on the other hand, is paying careful attention to his fingernails like they're the most damned fascinating artifacts in the history of time.

"—and what if Tony had died? What would you have done then? You can't do things like this."

Loki's brows are very high on his forehead, and he looks up skeptically from beneath them.

"That's not strictly true."

Pepper pitches a designer vase at him with dead aim. Loki winces reflexively as it bounces off his head to shatter on the floor without losing his fascination with his fingernails.

"You had no problem when we did motorcycle racing. I think if Loki has taken an interest in windsurfing it's alright for us to explore the possibilities inherent to windsurfing."

"Not in a hurricane! And certainly not in a class 5 Severe Tropical Cyclone!" Pepper rails.

"You should have seen the waves," Loki says. "They were . . . You actually would have had to see them."

"I saw the waves, Loki. I took Rescue to Fiji."

"Uh, double-standard," Tony objects. "Why do you get to be in a tropical cyclone and I don't get to be in a tropical cyclone?"

"Because I was not literally in . . ." Pepper's lost it. She surrenders, breathing heavy.

She can only accuse Tony of so much, because he had Iron Man on his back. On the other hand, Iron Man is incapable of flying safely in winds upward of a hundred and fifty miles per hour.

Tony participated in the rescue effort as soon as the monstrous, churning titan of wind and water made landfall. Loki, having no better or readier source of excitement, actually did too.

That restricts Pepper's outrage to personal risk taking instead of gross negligence toward civilian life.

But this isn't the first outrageously dangerous stunt Loki's followed Tony's unchecked exuberance or Tony's followed Loki's devious imagination into.

People have come too close to dying for Pepper's comfort.

And Tony has come too close.

----

"I love that look," Tony tells Loki after he follows his brother on an outing with the Avengers to crush an upstart metahuman villain. "The blue look. Do the blue look for me."

Loki freezes, but not ice blue. Tony doesn't miss the horror in the Jötunn's expression. He files that one away in his memory.

"I'd rather not," Loki says dismissively.

Tony's bad at taking a hint when his curiosity has the best of him. In his own way, he's expressing his concern, but his biggest concern is figuring out that expression.

"Come on. You look awesome. You come out with those rad tats. It's actually kind of metal."

Loki sneers.

"What about a Jötunn is so damned interesting? Their brutish, quarrelsome lack of culture? Their carnivory of hominoids? Their frozen, ugly homeworld?"

"Okay, okay," Tony relents.

Loki's voice is steely.

"Never mention it again."

October 11, 2018

The body of Natalia Romanova lies at wrong angles.

Thirty seconds ago, she'd been vicious and vivacious, fighting with feline agility, deploying bullets and explosions – the sinuous conductor of a deadly symphony.

Now, the Black Widow is still and dead.

Loki is electric with the rush of victory. Times enough in the past the Widow interfered with Loki's machinations. Despite her bare humanity she made her mark as an adversary of beings far above her station.

Not again. Not anymore.

The Widow had the privilege of being the only living being standing between Loki and his prey.

Loki leaves the Widow in the hospital's hallway and comes to the man lying in traction within the ward. A soldier, once, this brave specimen. Now he lives a wretched hybrid of man and ceaselessly, ineffectually toiling machines. Loki ends his life less cruelly than the Widow's, albeit more slowly, suffocating him with a hand crushing his trachea. The room dims preternaturally dark; light cannot abide here. Chill mists weave spectral patterns in the gloom. A phylactery hangs suspended on a rusted chain about Loki's neck.

Loki's only regret is that the Widow died too suddenly for him to incant before her, too.

----

Clint rushes toward Natasha only to stop short of her crumpled body. He's a man who has made the acquaintance of too many hard realities.

It's Steve who reaches her first, who drops down to one knee beside her, peers at her keenly despite what his senses tell him and then respectfully closes her eyes.

"Loki did this," Steve says. Everyone knows he's addressing Thor.

"I see no alternative explanation," Thor says. It's matter-of-fact, but a step out of sync with reality. Wanda puts her hand on Thor's shoulder, squeezing it both by way of reassurance and in order to draw him into the horrific present.

Tony is afforded the allowance of Iron Man's expressionless mask. He can smirk, and rage, and cry and scowl cloistered from his allies. Coincidental, then, that at this moment, of all moments, his stony expression is the mirror of his alter ego.

Steve stands. He looks at Clint; then he looks at Thor.

"I'm sorry. I really am. I don't see how any of us can promise Loki will live this one down."

"I would not ask you to take that vow, Captain," Thor says.

Nobody's looking at Iron Man. Why would they be? Tony has that to protect him. His mind's alight with thoughts of the Jötunn he's taken to his bed: Loki's pride, his entitlement, his fury, his madness . . . and his loneliness, his yearning, his passion – even his affection, sweetness and humor.

In the months since Loki and Tony first lay together – over a year now – Loki has shown every side of himself, consistent only in his capriciousness.

Steve hands down marching orders.

"We see Loki? All bets are off. I don't care what it takes to take him down. This is a murder spree. Looks like it ends when we end it."

Steve's talking sense. Natasha is dead and cold and growing rigid. Tony knows this woman. She's a good woman. She's all business and her business is building a better world, a better tomorrow from broken parts.

She was.

Pepper and Natasha are co-conspirators in a no-nonsense approach to world order.

Were.

Natasha looked beautiful as a bridesmaid at a wedding filled with laughter.

Had.

"Let us press on," Thor says soberly. "Time is running out for Loki's next victim and we know not who he next seeks."

----

It's the Wasp that blasts through the chain of Loki's amulet, sending it clattering across the sidewalk, bouncing three long strikes and skittering to the feet of Thor, who swipes it up.

Possible? Yes. Probable? Not remotely.

That's Scarlet Witch's specialty.

Loki screams in rage. His voice is drowned out by the inferno of a Parisian apartment building roaring behind them.

Rescue is inside it. She's in no danger from the flames, but the firemen and civilians cut off from the outside world by collapsed floors and ceiling beams can't say the same.

Thor wraps the phylactery's broken chain around the handle of Mjölnir, speaking words of power that enshroud him in darkness, imbuing him with the powers of Loki's half dead daughter, Hel, ruler of the blackest deeps of the Asgardian underworld.

Captain America has seized hold of Loki in his moment of infuriated distraction, decking the god with a phenomenal punch that staggers the Jötunn to his knees.

Thor's vow to them rings in Tony's head. I will be the one to do it.

It's not that Loki has Tony's stamp of approval. Not with the string of heroic humans he's been harvesting, all potential einherjar – the immortal soldiers who will rise at Ragnarök – if their troth was pledged to Germanic heathenry.

Hel wants to corrupt them and utilize them to conquer Valhalla, but deformed as she is, half fair maiden and half rotting corpse, she cannot sojourn to Earth to do her own work. It's all bad news for both Asgard and Earth, and Natasha is dead and nobody knows if she's been enslaved to Hel.

It's not a vote for Loki's cause that sends Iron Man barreling into Loki, crashing through the blackened wall of the burning building with him while Thor's blow impacts empty pavement. It's not the bestowal of forgiveness that fires his thrusters, either. It's a memory of lying in a darkened room, bodies nude, arc reactor casting a dim glow on their skin, and Loki's eyes so bright, so joyful, but his smile weak, and sad and shy; Tony pressing his lips to that smile and the world dissolving.

Tony can't hear anything through the crackling and snapping of fire except for the usually taciturn Hawkeye swearing "Iron Man! What the hell was that?" in a voice choked with vengeful rage inside his helmet. Loki lies underneath him, face contorted with the pain and discomfort of being engulfed in flames.

"You didn't deserve that, you didn't deserve to be saved," Tony yells over the fire, to Loki and Loki alone. He rolls off the Jötunn and hauls him to his feet and to an area of scorched floor relatively fire free. Loki's hair is smoldering, but he's made of sterner stuff than humans in the most literal sense.

Loki is solemn, sober and serious. His eyes search Iron Man's expressionless helmet, perhaps in the hope of estimating where he now stands with the man inside the red armor.

He rests his hand on Iron Man's chest. They stand in silence while Captain America's saying "Iron Man. Come in. Iron Man! What's going on in there?"

Stories above them a floor collapses in a cacophony of splitting, cinder spitting wood against more of the same.

The sound of impending danger moves Tony to action. His thrusters fire, lifting him away from Loki through a hole in the floor.

"I lost him," he lies. "He's gone. I'm looking for survivors." That last part's true. He hears Rescue racing out above him, who knows who in her arms. There are people here in mortal danger, even though Loki won't be harvesting any stalwart firemen to Hel's army, today.

----

"You lied to us," Wanda says. The Avengers are gathered in plain clothes in Avengers Tower, the threat averted and Hel's phylactery still in Thor's possession. "Loki didn't gather the magic to teleport until after you told us you lost him."

Tony's glad that Wanda didn't point that out at the time. The raging fire provided a fantastic obstacle between the Avengers and Loki's escape. With Iron Man and Rescue the only two active Avengers completely fireproof, nobody came bursting in to rain on Loki's escape.

Tony feels pretty shitty. Pepper covered him. Pepper covered him, and Pepper is no longer here. She's gone. She is elsewhere.

That hurts deep. That's a hell of a lot of self-recrimination.

"I did lie to you. After I man-tackled Loki. That's a thing that happened."

Tony's looking into the faces of his friends. They aren't welcoming faces. They're critical faces, brows all screwed up and frowns abounding. Clint's standing by the window, looking out and looking down and not looking at Tony at all.

"I want to know what's going on," Steve says. "And I want to know now."

Tony lifts a brow. Everybody here seems agreed on that. Steve, Janet, Thor, and Wanda, and even Bruce (who wasn't in Paris, but is a fixture at the tower when the outside world's too hot). . . . It's hard to say what Clint thinks, but Tony can make an educated guess.

"I love him." Tony hears his own voice but it's like somebody else is talking. "I'm in love with him. We have sex. It clouded my judgment when we were off on the whole 'killing Loki' thing."

Silence prevails.

"You . . . and my brother," Thor says.

"This better not be some kind of sick joke," Steve swears.

"My jokes are funny; they're not 'sick'," Tony says.

Clint is extremely still.

"Get out," Janet says.

"Kind of own the--…" Tony stops. "Know what? Never mind."

"How long?" Thor demands, before Tony is out the door.

"A year," Tony says without looking back at them. "Longer. Forever. Fuck, I don't know."

Nobody stops him from making an exit, now. It's a long elevator ride down to the first floor.

"I've called a cab, Tony," Jarvis tells him in the elevator.

"I wanna walk," Tony says. "Clear my head. Call it off."

Jarvis is obedient. He's known everything, from the start, and every step of the way. Tony imagines Jarvis' access to Avengers Tower may be severely restricted in the near future – not to mention his own.

Tony's only thinking about Pepper as he walks the city streets, ignoring the recognition and the odd request for an autograph from civilian bystanders. A few children and two adults shadow him in his travels. He knows, but he doesn't give them a minute's time. Eventually they fall away.

Tony could be having self-harm impulses right now, but he's not. There's no making this up down that exit route.

Later he stops at a payphone and dials Pepper's cell. She doesn't pick up. He cusses and kicks the phone booth and stubs his toe and ends up a few blocks away sitting next to a vagrant.

"You're Tony Stark," the woman says. "Seen you in the news."

"What's new with you?" Tony asks.

"I could use some change to make a jug," she says. "Gimmie cash and I'll bring you something."

Tony has cash and he hands over his wallet, thinking about nothing. The woman comes back with two bottles of whiskey. They drink together. She's schizophrenic and her parents are dead but she's got medication from her recent stint at the institution. It's running out day by day.

"It's a real bitch," she says. "Think this economy's gonna turn around?"

"Expenditure cascades," Tony slurs, pointing his bottle toward her. "It's all made up. Permaculture's the thing, see. Whoever controls the food. We've gotta take it back. Back . . . –oh, shit, gimmie my ID back. Keep the cash. Better be careful."

"Not my first time around this block, son," she says, pressing Tony's wallet into his hand, cash already tucked away somewhere under all the layers of her clothes. "I can refill my prescription with this much."

"Can you read?" Tony asks.

"Well enough for the papers," the vagrant says.

They have to accost seven pedestrians before they acquire both paper and a writing utensil, but Tony leaves her with an internet address and a password that Jarvis will respond to.

"Look," Tony says. "Keep it to yourself. Hand the goods out, not the pass. I can't bail out every single person. I have actually calculated my ability to bail out every single person and it's 'No.' I'm not the solution to the one-percent. I have to put my money into the infrastructure." He squints into the glassy eye of his whiskey bottle, then grins at the vagrant. "It's a mess. It's a real fucking mess."

She smiles an old, chewed up smile run through life's thresher three too many times and disappears into the alleys.

Tony wonders what Pepper's doing.

----

"I don't know if he's coming back."

Tony frowns, gaze fixed on the view from his window and the city beneath.

Pepper sighs, studying her husband's back. He's been like this for months, disassociating himself at strange moments, as far from her as if he was a different animal – another species.

"Thor did try to kill him," Pepper says. It's the best explanation for Loki's absence. If Asgard is against him, it's a rare refuge that's truly safe.

"And you hate him like burning," Tony says.

Pepper's annoyance is matched only by her silence. Tony's right.

Pepper doesn't hate Loki all the time. She can think about Loki without emoting. She can imagine his face and entertain the idea of his presence. It's when the flashbacks drag her out of time to stand beside Phillip's grave or Natasha's grave that she hates Loki – a clear, pure hatred like a fire.

"I didn't choose to hate him," Pepper says.

"Of course you didn't. He chose for everybody to hate him – except me. His last big trick."

Pepper can hear the frown in Tony's voice.

Pepper can't make this right. She's powerless to banish the spectre of Loki from Tony's thoughts and desires. A long time ago, at first, she had that power and she chose not to exercise it. Over the days and months it slipped through her fingers like shredded satin.

Tony will brighten up, later tonight. He'll smile, even laugh, and they'll go to bed together, two bodies as tangled as climbing roses.

Pepper's not sure when she'll tell Tony about the pregnancy, because he's not ready for that. She's not afraid he'll bail on her. She's thought about it awhile and realized her fear is very different.

She's afraid he'll give the baby everything, and then he'll disappear – fading like dew under the sun.

Tony should have realized that she's pregnant at least three weeks ago. Pepper doesn't think it's denial as much as Tony's had himself on pause for the past nine months: hold and repeat. She's pissed at him when she thinks about things like, hello, she's known him for almost twenty years and Loki had him -- really had him – for one.

Tony's not like that, though. He gives everything six hundred percent.

That includes Pepper. It doesn't include the baby, yet.

Their baby crept into her womb and hung on three months before she realized her implant had stopped putting out a deterrent. No helping that. It's much too late to say "No, baby, we don't have time and we don't have space for you. Go away." Pepper would hate herself is she did. Short of a disaster the baby's coming, ready or not.

April 23, 2019

Pepper is not inconsolable.

Tony's thankful that Pepper is consolable. It's statistics. When they get down to it, they drew the short lot.

Tony didn't have as much time as Pepper to think little Potts-Stark thoughts. His industrious brain never fully articulated the proverbial pitter-patter of tiny feet.

Pepper lost the baby. With the amount of radiation, physical trauma, toxins and flat out dark magic they've both been exposed to it was a miracle their gametes made a grasping go at new life. The miscarriage was sudden – completely unexpected; the precise cause of loss undetermined.

In the end, Tony's hung up on it longer, because he wasn't aware of either the possibilities or the risks. Pepper read all the websites, and the manuals, and she participated in all the message boards. Tony was the one left sitting thinking "Oh my god. What happened?" while Pepper understood exactly what happened in thorough medical detail.

"I didn't even know you were pregnant," Tony says for the seventy-ninth time in the middle of a re-watch of Manimal.

"We can adopt," Pepper says. "When you're ready. If you're ready, and I'm ready."

June, 2019 – January, 2021

"Would you even tell me if you were in contact with my brother?" Thor asks.

"Sure. Maybe. No. Yes. Pasta," Tony says. He shakes his head. "I'm not in contact with your bother. I've got nothing. He's steered clear of me and mine."

Tony pauses, looking at Thor with new eyes.

"Would you tell me if you were in contact with your brother?"

"Not if he asked me not to tell you otherwise," Thor says.

Tony does not enjoy the silence between them that follows. He scowls at his coffee. Damn coffee. All brown. And caffeinated. And sexy.

"Good. Okay. That goes for me, too."

Steve has never treated him exactly the same. Tony doesn't think it's homophobia. Loyalty and not abetting a murderer are just big things for Steve. Luckily the Avengers' roster has been rounded out by the Black Panther, Vision, Spider-Woman, Iron Fist and Mockingbird, whom Ronin – once Hawkeye – has taken as a lover. While his duty is still first and foremost to the Air Force where he most recently serves as a brigadier general, War Machine still works closely with them all. Steve is busy managing personalities.

Iron Man's is not necessarily the most discordant.

"How could you have been with my brother and honored your obligation to Pepper? In what way was your infidelity not betrayal to your wife but also to Loki?" Thor asks, another time.

"Compartmentalization," Tony answers. "Exhibit A, Loki. Exhibit B, Pepper. How can you go to an art gallery and like two paintings? How can you be a fan of two different TV shows? How can you protect Asgard and also Earth?"

Thor silently contemplates these things.

"Tell me that you loved my brother," he says, finally.

"I love your brother."

Tony purses his lips, catching it after the fact.

Thor treats him differently, now. There's respect, but a kind of wary concern. Tony can't tell if Thor's concerned for him, or concerned for his absentee brother.

"I am indebted to you, Tony. I wished not to banish my brother to his daughter's realm," Thor confesses in a later moment of candor.

Clint is a professional. It doesn't touch their working relationship but Clint shows no sign of ever forgiving Tony.

Since their friendship first formed in 1986, Rhodey has always practiced quiet discretion when Tony is doing something illegal or insane. This is different. Jim never says it but it's written in the way he looks at Tony, as if they're strangers. Jim has never expected Tony to think or act like a soldier, but he believed despite that that Tony would make the right choices when innocent lives were at risk

Tony doesn't see much of Rhodes, now, and when they make time for each other it's out of habit.

"Loki, man?" Rhodey says finally, standing next to the pool table with a beer in his hand. He isn't looking at Tony when he says it, just squinting at the tip chalk.

Tony pauses from lining up his shot, gaze jumping to his friend.

"Yeah," he confirms. For everything that Jim would be thinking, the answer is yes.

They stand like that, Rhodey turning over if anything else needs to be said and Tony waiting like it's his execution.

"Okay," the general finally concedes. It's all as bad as Rhodey already knew it was, and Tony knows they're never going back to the way things were.

They get back to the game and they don't mention it again.

Then there's Bruce. He's been on the periphery of it all from the beginning, but he understands the most about rage and psychiatric instability. He probably has a better bead on some parts of Loki than Tony ever did, and owing to Loki's mild phobia Bruce never really talked to the guy.

Bruce forgave Tony before Thor did, and it's never a conversation.

February 16, 2021

Loki is waiting in Tony's California home, standing in the same place, holding the same pose as seven years ago.

Not a single feature of Loki has changed.

Tony has changed, though. Grey hairs stand out in his dark hair, salting his goatee. He's more careworn than ever, most of it by way of rough handling.

The first thing Tony says is:

"I need you to go away so that I can be a good person."

Loki remains. He comes to Tony, taking Tony's hand in his. His palm is cool and Tony's blood hot. The Jötunn is haunted by the same intensity as ever. Tony wonders what an exorcism on a god would run.

"I don't regret a single thing," Loki says. "I killed her, and I loved it. She never really stood a chance. She wasn't willing to risk the bystanders."

"No," Tony says. It's not a disagreement, but an objection to Loki himself – his continued presence and his touch.

Loki's mood colors with disquiet.

"You won't reject me."

"Here I am rejecting you. True story."

Tony would love to submit. Nothing would bring him better comfort than Loki's kisses. Nothing satisfies like the mad, voracious challenge of Loki. It's different with Pepper.

Each day of Tony's life, Tony's mortality looms near. There won't be a child. Nothing small and precious to cuddle and to cultivate into carrying on the Potts-Stark name. Loki's going to be it. Someday all that will be left of Tony Stark will be the memory lodged in Loki's brain.

Loki doesn't believe what he's hearing. Tony knows, because if Loki believed it, something would definitely give. His expression would change.

That isn't happening.

"You destroyed the respect my wife and every single friend I had had for me like you're a paper shredder. I've climbed uphill to win that back," Tony says.

"Only my esteem matters," Loki vows zealously.

Tony drops Loki's hand. He restlessly pushes his fingers through his hair, scowling.

"How can I go out there and be Iron Man and let them count on me and still love you?"

There's a heaviness on Tony right here, the man dragged down by the years and his nausea and the memory of his disbelieving teammates. He can picture each of their expressions perfectly, like he took a photograph.

"It's as easy as you say," Loki says. He takes a step forward into Tony's space. His lips are near. His eyes rest on Tony's lips, their shared body language potent with possibilities: fragments of poetry; fictions spun from fairytale; dark, sparse tales of horror. "Is it impossible for you to imagine why I would battle to fulfill my daughter's desires?

Tony fights the truth as long as he can, but Loki is patient. Tony finally relents.

"No."

Tony knows he's betraying Natasha's memory, but he knows, also, that Loki is tainted by insanity. He grapples against immorality but in the end he comes face to face with the facts: He's known Loki's a killer for as long as he's loved him.

The air is too thick to breathe.

Still standing too close, Loki reaches inside his coat and produces an apple, gleaming gold, from his inner pocket.

"You look old, Tony."

Tony can see his own reflection in the flawless, polished fruit. He makes an effort and ignores it.

"Humans get old. The warranty runs out. Parts break. We go into the ground."

"Not you."

"Husbands and wives do it together," Tony says. "They fall apart one piece at a time. Cells senesce. Inflammation builds up. Pepper's done breast cancer . . . My heart's not so great."

"Eat it!" Loki snaps. "She's had you. She's consuming you. You'd let her mortality devour you!"

Loki is shaking. Tony moves closer to him, making promises with his lips against Loki's about loving him all the ways he knows how.

Tears have swollen in Loki's eyes. The god's fear chokes the air.

Tony takes the apple from the Jötunn's hand.

"If I eat this, you do something for me."

"Please," Loki implores him, a hive of fervent need.

Tony softens his voice but his words are still a wrecking ball.

"I want to see your face."

Words tear from Loki, taking strips of his defenses with them:

"Yes. Yes. Yes, I will. For gods' sake, eat the damn apple!"

The Hesperidian fruit of Idun's orchards tastes like staring into the sun. It tastes blinding white. Its' sweet summer juices are a trail of yellow bricks to a viridian city down the rabbit hole of Tony's throat. Tony sees nuances of color in the world outside him he's only seen when he's high; now he sees through stronger eyes than that. He eats the fruit down to the core, bits through the stiff column and ingests the last juicy pieces.

Loki cleaves to him, kisses the taste from his lips, plumbing Tony's mouth with his tongue. For the first time in Tony's history his flesh is as electric and powerful as the arc reactor. They hum in harmonious resonance.

----

When their kissing has left them gasping for air and Loki remembers his promise, Loki doesn't understand why Tony wants what Tony has asked of him. Loki's lungs press against the part of him that's sick inside as he breathes. There is tension, no longer brimming tears, taut underneath his eyes.

The years have acclimated him to resisting his father's dark and primordial power that changed the base nature of his infant body, an occult renaming. Odin heard the secret name not even Loki knows in the cries of the abandoned child, called him Odinson in the silent language from before time. Loki was re-wrought, but from the same glacial blue ice.

What is Æsir falls away. Etchings lace his skin, the history of a frozen race written on his body. His eyes are swamps of carnelian. The ambient humidity becomes a faint rime on his skin. His teeth are wrong – shoveled shards of ice.

Tony lays hands upon him, unfastening fabric; undressing him gently. Loki stands exposed, upper body bare, emotions tumultuous in his smooth cut breast.

Tony's fingertips travel the esoteric patterns of Loki's body.

Why, Loki asks himself, would Tony wish to look upon the face of a monster? The question becomes too overwhelming.

"Have you had your fill of gawking?" he demands, voice icicles of a different kind.

"Don't be scared," Tony whispers.

Loki flinches as if struck. Suddenly he's aware of his muscles, tense at every plane, ligaments strained. Hoarfrost crusts the edges of his eyelids.

"You mean to unmake what is Æsir in me," he growls: an accusation.

"Be okay with this," Tony says soft. Tony leaves a kiss on Loki's collarbone.

Rage froths and boils over despite the tundra of Loki's body. Loki's face contorts. He yells.

"They're beasts! Animals are better! I could freeze you and feast! Crush your frozen organs in my maw!"

"You made up a monster," Tony says. Loki can comprehend neither how he can be so calm nor how he can be so wretchedly stupid. "It's just a story," Tony says. He's speaking slowly and articulately. "Nothing's wrong."

Tony stands by while Loki wrecks his furniture. The couch is thrown halfway through the wall. The coffee table is hefted and dashed to splinters on the floor. A chair flies through the plate glass window, landing on the concrete porch under the sun.

Loki rounds on Tony, and goes still.

Tony comes to him, the kiss Loki finds on his lips chaste but lingering.

Suddenly, kissing is barely enough. Suddenly Loki's hands are on Tony, Tony's body fire under his hands and skin prickling into a thousand pebbles. Tony leads him by the hand to his bed. Tony sits astride him, breathing heavy, shivering around Loki's deep blue, frigid cock.

What races from Loki is cold water. It leaks down his length, warming in the tight, hot cavern of Tony's body.

Afterward, and after permafrost fades to skin, Loki swaddles the man in blankets. He can do nothing more to warm him but hold them close to Tony's body with his embrace.

"I've had my fill of gawking, now," Tony says. He sounds exhausted. Loki couldn't estimate the calories Tony burned to save his body from frostbite.

Loki doesn't apologize. It isn't in his nature, anyway, for he is a king: a lovely bully.

March, 2021 - ∞

It's not a secret this time.

Of course, it was never a secret from Pepper. Tony has no secrets from Pepper and he doesn't want any.

"I want to be human, and age gracefully, and have a centennial and call it a wrap, Tony," she tells him when he's coaxed, cajoled and pressured Loki into stealing apples for Pepper if she'll eat them.

He coaxes, cajoles and pressures Pepper, but she stands up to it better. Low self-esteem is not a thing for Pepper.

"You shouldn't take advantage of him like that," Pepper warns.

"Wait. What? I'm taking advantage of him?" Tony says. That's the words he uses, but Pepper hears the self-castigation in the intonation.

"I won't always be around to keep you in check," she reminds him, gently as she can.

It throws a wrench in the Avengers for about three months. Steve tells him to just not show up if he can't keep his priorities straight. Tony tells Steve off. Thor is paternalistic with warnings about Tony losing hold of his humanity, spelling a doom where Tony no longer hurts for those Loki injures. Tony asks Thor if he's seriously saying that he is going to be a bad influence on Loki.

Natasha would know exactly how the cards were spread. Natasha's dead.

Wanda takes Tony aside in private and promises to do what she can to preserve his humanity without bringing him closer to death, if there must be an intervention.

Loki is boyishly delighted to know of their quarreling. The earful Thor gives him has the opposite of its intended effect.

Tony stays up some nights, when he's alone, staring out the window at a world that's now racing ahead while leaving him behind, kept awake by the terror of where Loki might be and who Loki might hurt.

He hates the chance and loves the rush.

There's no happy ending. Not for anybody. The edges are frayed, the jigsaw pieces ill fitting, the world coarse to the soul. Loki ever half-mad, Tony ever half-human and Pepper ever dignified, though greying and slowly gravitating toward the world beyond the veil . . .

But the moments of happiness that fall in between the jagged snarls of chaos are sublime.