Loki leaned back against the bar, rolling a heavy tumbler between his hands. Watching, idly, as Stark worked the crowd. Watching, rather more avidly, as a woman in silver-blue with swept-up red hair made her way across the room towards their host.
"Don't," came a soft voice, at his elbow, a low hum of warning in it. Loki turned, eyebrow already arching coolly upwards, to meet the barman's brown, heavy gaze.
"Beg pardon?" he asked, softly, and with poison in. The man, Banner, smirked it off, a dark, heavy curl of his lip.
"I said don't," Banner repeated, soft as lead, tipping his head out to where the woman curled her arm around Stark's back and leaned in to whisper in his ear. "That's not for you to mess with. Capisce?"
Loki smirked reflexively, his spine straightening in minute challenge, tamping down the flush of rage. He leaned that little more provocatively against the bar, curling his glass languidly into one hand, and put a touch of challenge into his voice.
"You don't think I should know who my competition is?" he asked, mild as milk. Banner knew as well as anyone what Loki and Tony had been doing, upstairs. Banner knew, and didn't approve. Loki ... got something of a small thrill, from that.
Banner smiled coldly, shaking his head. "It's not like that," he said, and there was a note in it, genuine chastisement, real and sad, that had Loki raising an eyebrow.
"No?" he asked, more lightly, and looked back pointedly as Tony leaned in and pressed a soft, open-mouthed kiss to the woman's cheek. Trailed it gently to her mouth, as his hand curled possessively, or perhaps protectively, at the small of her back. "It certainly looks 'like that'."
He was watching Banner closely, for the response. Sensing something, something worth knowing, something worth finding out about. Something about Stark. Something ... old. And when the shadow crossed Banner's face, a dark, savage thing, he knew he'd been right.
"Yeah," Banner murmured, quiet, inflectionless. "It does, doesn't it?" He smiled. Or something at least like a smile. "Tell you what. Since you're curious, I'll make you a deal. I tell you the story. And in return, you ..."
He trailed off, musingly, dangerously, and Loki raised an eyebrow. "And I what?" he asked, and let the note of willingness slip in. No harm making promises, after all. You know what they said, about what promises were made to be.
Banner looked at him. Long and deep, like he was trying to carve Loki's soul up into the light for a spot-check. Loki didn't flinch. Didn't even drop his smile. And Banner ... shook his head, dark and rueful.
"And in return, you stay away from her, I was going to say," he murmured. "Maybe if I tell you, though, you'll at least figure why you oughta." He tipped his head back over, watching Stark swing her around to talk to his guests, arm still wrapped around her waist. "That's Pepper. She's Tony's partner." He smiled, darkly. "And I mean that purely in the business sense."
Loki did not scoff. Truly, he did not. Banner ignored him, still watching them.
"She used to be his secretary," he went on. "Back when he was legit, the rich man's son. Back when Tony Stark was an honest businessman." And oh, the shaking darkness in his voice. Loki curved closer, on pure instinct. "When Tony was ... When he was declared dead, for those few months after the massacre, she was kept on by Tony's successor. Obadiah Stane. Nobody knew it, at the time, but she wasn't staying there willingly. She'd seen too much. She had something on Stane. And he wasn't planning to let her go."
Loki felt his eyes shutter. Felt the cold, slick ball of ice in his gut, the trembling of remembrance. Suddenly, he wasn't so eager to look at the woman.
"Tony killed Stane. When Tony came back, from where Stane had tried to send him, from what Stane had tried to do to him ... He found Pepper. And he found Stane." The blackest of black smiles, and a glimpse of something in Banner Loki wouldn't have suspected, a shaking core of rage that stunned for the depth of it. "Ain't nobody doesn't know what Tony did to Stane, for that."
No indeed. There was no-one on the eastern seaboard, no-one in their line of work, who didn't know that. The point had been made viscerally, that one did not fuck with Tony Stark, or what was his.
Odin had known, when he sent Loki to scout out the turf. It was why he'd sent Loki, not Thor. It was why he'd sent ... the expendable son.
"Pepper ain't Tony's moll," Banner finished, softly. "He plays it like she is, puts the moves on her in public, like she belongs to him. But she don't. Pepper don't ... She don't do that no more. What was left after Stane ... That's not for her, anymore. But people don't need to know that. So Tony pretends she's his. So people know not to touch her. So no-one ever ... so no-one ever touches her again. Because everyone knows what happens to people who touch Tony's stuff. And he ain't ever gonna let her be hurt again."
Loki, very carefully, brought the tumbler to his lips. Very carefully didn't gulp, didn't try to pull liquid fire to melt the lead ball in his gut, the quiver of old memories, old fears. He brought the glass to his lips, and made sure to drink real, real carefully.
"And does she ... approve, of Tony putting those moves on?" he asked, and it was bland, it was so carefully bland. Loki'd come to play a dangerous game, he knew that, no-one messed with Stark lightly, but ... But it would be good, to know. How dangerous, in what ways. To what consequences. "She doesn't mind?"
Watching Tony's possessive, careful hand in the small of her back, wondering if she'd been given the opportunity to leave Tony, as she hadn't Stane. Carefully, so very carefully, not wondering about his own, more precarious, chances.
Banner turned to him. Turned to look at him, to weigh up the fear Loki made sure was not, in fact, visible in his eyes. Banner turned to him, and smiled softly.
"Tony doesn't do a damn thing that Pepper doesn't approve of," he said, with soft amusement. "And definitely nothin' like that." He shook his head, and eyed Loki with maybe more knowledge than Loki might like. No. With most decidedly more knowledge. "Tony ain't like that," Banner said, softly, and it was almost a reassurance. "He murdered Stane as much for her as for him. Ain't nothing he won't do, to protect them's as his."
Loki tipped him a smile, for a second. For the barest of seconds, as long as he could hold it, before he raised the glass to cover it slipping. Swallowing heavily, turning back to watch Stark lead her up the steps to the office, a soft smile on his face and a careful, guarding hand at her back. Loki hid his face behind his glass, and watched.
But what, he thought, if you ain't his? What then, if you were lying with Tony Stark?