It’s Loki that finds him in the middle of the Afghan desert – finds him bloody and dehydrated, finds him suffering from heatstroke and the trauma of his escape. The edges of his mind are frayed; his thoughts cycle constantly between a desire for home, grief for Yinsen, and the need for revenge on whomever sold his weapons to those monsters. His scars run deep and are both physical and psychological. He’s a torn, tattered mess – almost delirious with pain and exhaustion. He doesn’t know how long he’s been walking for or how much longer he can survive under the blistering heat of the sun. All he knows is that he refuses to give up; Tony Stark would not die anonymously in the middle of the desert, not when there was still so much for him to do.
Then Loki finds him. He drags Tony to his feet from where he has collapsed and smiles (all teeth like a shark or a tiger or a wolf) and transports them to just outside Tony’s home in Malibu. He presses a cup to Tony’s lips and he devours the water greedily, not sure if this is an illusion or a miracle but praying it is the latter. When the water is gone Loki grips Tony’s chin between long, dexterous and strong fingers and says, “You owe me a debt Anthony Edward Stark. One day I will be back to collect it.”
Loki disappears and Tony stumbles towards his home. JARVIS immediately calls Pepper and Rhodey as Tony drinks more water before taking a long hot bath. At some point he falls asleep and is awakened by Pepper throwing her arms around him. He panics, thinking he is back in the cave, and suddenly Pepper is the one floundering in the bath with Tony towering over her stark naked. He laughs as he collapses to his knees, hysterical with relief and fighting tears. Pepper kneels beside him and wraps him first in a towel and then her arms. She’s soaking wet and Tony laughs again because she just looks so ridiculous that he can’t help himself. They stay like that – occasionally giggling or sniffing back tears – until Rhodey arrives and marshals Tony into pyjamas. Then they hug and Rhodey guides him to the sofa to ask him how he’d managed to escape. Tony shakes his head, feigns amnesia. He knows they will accept that more easily than magic.
The next day a press conference is called. Tony thanks the military for their daring rescue and declines to give details of the operation or his capture. When he prepares to drop the bomb that his company will no longer be making weapons, he spots him. His eyes are drawn to the back of the room, to the man in an expensive suit and green and gold scarf. Tony stares because really? A scarf in Malibu? Then their eyes meet and Tony’s mouth goes dry. He rushes from the podium to the back of the room, thoughtlessly shoving aside journalists, but when he gets there his saviour is gone. He searches for him desperately but there is no trace of the mysterious man. He jumps when Obie puts a hand on his shoulder and asks if he’s alright. He forces a smile, makes a joke, and leaves the rest of the conference to Obie.
The next few days Tony spends locked in his workshop trying to find a rational explanation for what happened to him. He uses law enforcement databases and Google to search for the man who saved him but both receive zero hits. He scours science journals and military files for research on teleportation but this search also proves futile. He racks his brain for clues of who the man might be, why he would save him, why he would show up at his press conference, how he could appear and disappear seemingly at will. When inspiration fails to strike Tony distracts himself by creating a new and more permanent Arch Reactor and by reviewing the design of the suit he used to escape his kidnappers.
During this time he receives a string of visits from people claiming to be worried about him and his mental health. He smiles and tells them he’s fine, tells them that working is helping him to recover and that he’s working on something big. They continue to look worried but also give him his space. Pepper, Rhodey, Obie – they are the people who know him best and know that he is in his element when he is surrounded by machines and schematics. They know he hates to talk feelings and that he would much rather converse with robots than people; so none of them press him to go to therapy and instead allow him to work and search for his mystery man in peace.
Late one night, said mystery man appears to Tony in his workshop. He deftly plucks the bottle of scotch from Tony’s hand and sets it aside. Tony stares at him, surprised and slightly drunk. He’s not quite sure if Loki is an alcohol-fuelled delusion or if he’s just going crazy. He tells Loki this and the man laughs. He caresses Tony’s jaw and asks if he feels like an illusion. Tony replies that dreams can feel very real. Loki grins as he says that if this was Tony’s dream there would be far more naked women involved. Tony concedes the point before asking who Loki is. What he is.
“I am Loki of Asgard. I am a sorcerer and a friend and I bring you grave news.” Loki tells him that there is a traitor in his midst. Someone he would never suspect, someone who he cherishes and trusts. He tells him he needs to find the traitor before it is too late.
Tony doesn’t believe him at first. He demands to know how Loki acquired his information; he wants proof and straight answers not hints and riddles. Loki leans against the wall dressed in leather and metal and smiles at him sardonically. He tells Tony that he is a god and that he can do as he pleases; Tony should be grateful for his warning. Tony asks why he didn’t warn him about Afghanistan but Loki just continues to smile. Tony throws a nearby spanner at him hoping to knock the look from his face. Loki easily bats the tool aside then disappears. He reappears behind Tony and whispers in his ear that he now owes him two favours, before leaving the workshop in a shimmer of golden light.
The next day Tony reviews the security footage. Loki is not a drunken hallucination. He is very real and so is his insinuation that one of Tony’s friends is a traitor. Wanting to prove the self-proclaimed god wrong Tony hacks into the Stark Industries server. He finds Obie’s ghost drive with relative ease and immediately reaches for the scotch. He drinks until he passes out, hoping that this is just another dream and that when he wakes he will be in bed with a nameless fling and not have shrapnel creeping slowly towards his heart. He’s not that lucky.
Tony doesn’t know what to do with this new information. He doesn’t know how far the conspiracy goes; Obie could have brought Pepper or Rhodey or Happy into his plans - paid them off to keep an eye on him whilst Obie sold his weapons under the table. They could have all been in on it from the beginning, playing the part of his friends whilst quietly stabbing him in the back. Loki hadn’t implied that there were multiple traitors but that meant nothing. The thought that all their concern, all their kind words, was fake makes his skin crawl and his hand reach again for the bottle of scotch.
Then the news reports start. The terrorists are alive and are using his weapons. Tony feels guilt and a horrible sense of responsibility for the deaths of all those innocent people. Those are his weapons they’re using – weapons sold to them by a man Tony once trusted and loved. He wants to make the guilt go away, wants to stop the pain in his chest which isn’t caused by the intrusion of the Arc Reactor; so he builds a new suit, a new weapon that only he can use. The construction helps him to forget about Obie’s betrayal even though the man himself is never far from Tony’s mind. Tony is monitoring Obie closely, waiting for him to make a move. He’s watching and waiting to see if the man will mark anyone else as a traitor or if he will lead Tony to anymore of the weapons which he sold under the table. So far he has done neither, but there is still time for him to reveal more of his hand.
By the time the suit is operational Tony has constructed a plan. First he’ll destroy the terrorists and their weapons, and then he’ll turn Obie over to the police. He has gathered enough evidence to bury the man and is ready to do so now that he is certain Obie acted alone. Obie was the only traitor, the sole mastermind behind the plot to kill Tony, and Tony is finally prepared to bring him to justice. Tony flies to Afghanistan certain that when he returns everything will be as he left it, that the nightmare will soon end and justice will be done.
When he returns to Malibu Obie has fled, all his files have been corrupted, and Pepper is dead. She’d known something was wrong for weeks, that Tony was locking her out of his life for a reason other than PTSD. She’d convinced someone at Stark Industries to help her find out what had spooked him, and together they’d discovered Obie’s ghost drive. Unfortunately her activities had alerted Obie that something was up and when he’d realised that she knew his secret he’d killed her and destroyed Tony’s evidence. However, Obie had been too late to stop Pepper’s accomplice from handing a copy of the evidence to Agent Coulson of the ridiculously named government agency. Obie’s secret was out and he’d fled before Coulson could apprehend him for terrorism and industrial espionage. His parting gift to Tony was a trashed workshop and Pepper’s lifeless body.
Loki appears to Tony (trembling with fury and grief as he holds Pepper close, her blood smeared across the suit) in the desolation of his workshop and Tony rages at him, demands to know why the supposed god saved him and not Pepper. Loki is calm in the face of Tony’s wrath. He tells him that such questions are not important. The real question Tony should be asking himself is: are you going to let Obadiah Stane get away with this?
Tony stares at him silently. He gently lays down Pepper’s body and closes her eyes. Then he brings down the faceplate and blasts his way out of his workshop.
He could leave Obie to the authorities. He should leave him to be apprehended by Agent Coulson and processed by the criminal justice system. But Obie killed Pepper, and Tony’s already drenched in the blood of the innocent and the guilty alike – one more death on his conscious means nothing to him now.
He finds Obie easily enough. He drags him away from people who can become casualties and witnesses and throws him to the ground. He toys with him, lets him think he has a chance of escaping, before quashing that hope. He stands over him in his suit, foot crushing the man’s ribs, and lifts his faceplate. He lets Obie know who he is and why he’s doing this (because he loved Pepper, maybe, and Obie took her before he could say goodbye or apologise for ever thinking she’d betray him and for being a shit boss and for a million other things that Tony can’t put into words).
“For Pepper,” he says solemnly before firing the repulsor blast right into Obie’s face. Then he steps back and considers his grisly work.
When Tony looks up Loki is stood opposite him. He’s smiling – proud and happy and slightly crazed. He asks if it felt good, if getting revenge made him feel better. Tony doesn’t answer because he doesn’t know and isn’t sure if he wants to know. Instead he asks Loki what his game is – why did he save him, what does he have to gain from this?
“Do you know what the difference between a hero and a villain is? The hero is always in pain. They’re in pain because they can never get their revenge. They can never deliver the punishment their enemy deserves. They’re restrained by notions of truth and justice, by worry about casualties and innocents. Every death is a blow to them, every life ruined another burden they must carry. Their lives are a continuous battle because there will always be pain and suffering and death and they must carry it all. A villain, however, does as they please. They’re free of consequences and care and, thus, pain. They are free, unrestrained by laws and expectations. They are their own men and can achieve their revenge whenever they please. And now, Anthony Edward Stark, you have a choice. Will you be a hero or a villain?”
“Which are you?”
Loki chuckles. “Is that not obvious?”
Tony supposes that it is. Loki is no hero – but then neither is he. He is the Merchant of Death, a maker of weapons and the ruiner of lives. He could choose to be a hero, to fight to clear his conscious and his debt. Or he could take the easy way out...
Tony’s not an idiot. He knows he’s being manipulated. He’s been manipulated since Loki saved him in Afghanistan. He’s been a game piece that hasn’t even realised that it was part of a game. Not until the end. Not until it’s too late.
Tony knows he has a choice. But he also knows that the right choice is the wrong choice and vice versa. Loki has played the game well and Tony can’t help but admire that just a little bit. Still, Pepper’s dead and Tony’s sure that’s partly Loki’s fault. Now that Obie is gone it would be so easy to place all the blame on Loki, to make him the villain and an outlet for all of Tony’s grief and wrath. It would be a lie though because Tony knows Pepper’s death is on him too and he needs to accept that. Tony knows enough about heroes to know that they should never be born out of a need to bury their own guilt because, one way or another, those heroes always end up becoming the villains. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t – even if he tries to play the hero it’s inevitable that at some point he’ll slip, he’ll let someone get close and see the monster behind the mask and he’ll have to kill them to bury all his previous crimes. He’ll be a villain in denial, a man constantly doing good in order to distract the general populace from noticing the destruction that courts him. It’s what he’s been doing all his adult life: the humanitarian projects he’s established to justify the damage caused by his weapons are his attempts to balance the scales. It’s only now that he’s starting to realise the scales can’t be balanced, not in any way that is remotely meaningful. Giving money to charity doesn’t bring back the dead.
The hard truth is that he can’t be the hero he so desperately wants to be. If he’s honest with himself he’s always known his role in life, he’s just never been willing to submit to it. He’s stubborn like that. But now? Now that he has been pushed to the edge and all the illusions and delusions have been ripped away he’s starting to wonder why he ever wanted to be the hero, why he wanted to fight for a love that he was never going to receive – not from Howard, not from Pepper, not from anyone. All his hope that he could be a better person is gone (all his reasons to be a better person are gone) so why should he try? It’s finally time for him to stop fighting nature (or nurture, maybe) and accept who he is. He’s a villain – he always has been and always will be. And Tony’s surprisingly alright with that because he’s finally found someone who won’t judge him for being himself; who wants to be his friend and help guide him through the changes ahead. He’s found Loki (more correctly, Loki’s found him) and Tony doesn’t think the self-proclaimed god intends to leave him before he’s finished playing his unnamed game. Tony’s sure he plans to stay until the bitter end so that he can bask in the light of the fireworks and revel in the chaos and know that he was the catalyst of it all. It’s what Tony would do if he was in Loki’s position.
“Have you made your decision?” Loki enquires, his lips still curled mischievously.
“Yeah,” Tony breathes. “Yeah, I have.”
“And I’ve decided that I want to bend you over my desk and fuck you until you scream.”
Suddenly there’s fire in Loki’s eyes and Tony is on his back with the god hovering above him. “Do not play games with me Stark; you will not win,” Loki hisses, his face incredibly close to Tony’s.
“It’s not the winning that’s important but the taking part.”
“Do you honestly believe that?” Loki mocks.
“No,” Tony admits, “but I don’t let people tell me what to do; which I suppose is part of the reason I’m a villain.” He flashes his devil-may-care grin before turning serious. “I wasn’t joking about the fucking part by the way. It’s been one hell of a day and I could use a little carnal comfort.” He frowns as a thought occurs to him. “I didn’t misread the signs did I? Because I could have sworn I sensed sexual tension in our previous encounters. I’m usually quite good at detecting when people want to do me but I suppose you being magic might have thrown me off so if this is all a misunderstanding and you’re not actually all that into me then-”
Tony is cut off by Loki’s lips smashing into his own. He groans and reaches for Loki’s ass and is disappointed when sensation is restricted by his gauntlets. He drags his hands up Loki’s sides, eliciting a savage growl from deep within the god’s throat that stirs Tony’s libido more than the sane part of his mind tells him it should. He suddenly wants out of his suit; he wants to be naked and sweaty with Loki’s mouth all over him. He wants sex and the chance to forget for a minute that when this is over he’s going to have to face the press and Agent Coulson, he’s going to have to rebuild his workshop and try to salvage his backup files, he’s going to have to work out in what direction he wants to take his company and his life, he’s going to have to bury Pepper. It’s all too much for him right now – he’s just murdered Obie, his friend and father-figure, in retaliation for Pepper’s death; he needs a distraction and he knows that Loki is more than willing to give him one.
Loki sits back to breathe, his brilliant green eyes full to the brim with lust and desire. He licks his lips hungrily and Tony takes hold of the god’s fabulous hips. He needs something to steady himself so that he doesn’t fall into the temptation to dry hump his way to orgasm. Loki smiles down at him sardonically, as if he knows Tony’s thoughts and is amused by them.
“I do not play the passive role,” Loki whispers huskily. “If anyone is to be ‘fucked’ this day it shall be you Stark.”
“Okay,” Tony swallows. “Okay, I can live with that. So, we’re doing this then? Your place or mine? We might be better at yours because my place is a crime scene and it would look really bad if they found me there and I’m not sure if I want my new villain status revealed so soon.”
“I only allow those who have sworn fealty to me to enter my home.”
“No offense,” Tony says with all the sincerity he can muster in his current position, “but I’ve just undergone another existential crisis and I don’t really think I should be committing to anything right now. Plus, I don’t do commitment. I’m down with being friends with benefits but swearing fealty? Yeah, not going to happen.”
Loki’s brow creases in confusion. “What are friends with benefits?”
Tony smirks. “The benefit is sex.”
An answering smirk slowly spreads across Loki’s lips. “I suppose I might bend the rules for a friend, especially one who is already in my debt.”
Before Tony can contemplate the repercussions of that statement Loki’s mouth is once more on his and all his attention is focused on the sly tongue pushing past his lips. Tony moans wantonly and tightens his grip on Loki’s hips. Then the world shifts around him and he finds himself in an unfamiliar room. Loki disentangles himself from Tony’s grasping limbs and rises to his feet. He then holds out a hand for Tony. The engineer dubiously accepts the help and is rather surprised when Loki pulls him up as if he weighs next to nothing. Tony files that piece of information away for later consideration and focuses on his surroundings. The king-sized bed in the middle of the room advertises the room’s function and his reason for being brought there.
Tony grins as Loki once again invades his personal space in search of his lips. “I’m going to need some help removing the suit,” he says between ravenous kisses.
“Of course,” Loki purrs with his wolf’s grin. “What are friends for?”