Tony is walking up the hallway to his lab in Stark Tower.
He’s sipping a coffee and trying not to think about the fiasco that was last night, the fiasco that involved scotch and Loki and scotch and Pepper and scotch and pies and also scotch.
Most of all, he’s trying not to imagine or even wonder about what Pepper and Loki might have been doing while he and everyone else were still at the restaurant cleaning pie off the walls and the floor and the ceiling and the light fixtures and the furniture under the watchful eye of an absolutely livid Nick Fury.
“Get some work done,” he mutters, showing one of his eyes to the security scanner outside his lab. “That’s the ticket.”
The scanner lights up and beeps, the door slides open, and Tony enters his lab.
Bruce is there at his laptop, which isn’t unusual. He’s there most of the time nowadays, and Tony wonders if the man ever sleeps.
No, the unusual part is that everyone else is there too, crowded around the laptop, heads bent close together, looking at something on the screen: Clint, Natasha, Steve, Thor, and –
“Fucking Loki!” Tony says without even thinking about it.
Every head snaps up in unison to stare at him, and is it his imagination or do they all look really guilty about something? Well, maybe everyone but Loki. He looks like the cat who’s had the cream.
“Oh, shit. Did I say that out loud? Sorry, my bad.”
Tony realizes that he can hear faint singing.
A woman’s voice, singing a cappella: “…try to understand…”
It’s a familiar voice…
“…try to understand…”
…and it’s coming from the laptop.
Bruce reaches out and pretty much slams the laptop shut.
Tony takes a sip of coffee, waits a beat.
“So… what’s up, kids?”
“Just… working,” Bruce says vaguely.
“Working,” Tony repeats. “I see. And, uh, what’re you working on, if you don’t mind me asking?”
He moves closer to the desk, and Bruce actually picks up the laptop and holds it tightly against his chest.
“Formulas,” Bruce says vaguely.
Natasha and Clint exchange a look.
Steve looks at the walls, the floor, anywhere but at Tony.
Thor is grinning from ear to ear.
Loki is carefully studying his fingernails and looking insufferably smug.
Tony’s eyes narrow.
“How come everyone’s acting so squirrelly? I get the funniest feeling that it’s not because Thor lost his damn mind and decided it would be really cool to give his psychotic little brother a tour of the top secret facilities.”
There is a very long silence.
“OK. Fine. You’re gonna play it that way? Cool. Hey JARVIS, put whatever the hell they were just looking at up on the main screen.”
“Sir, Mister Odinson is here,” JARVIS says absolutely apropos of nothing.
“Yeah I’d noticed, but thanks for the hot tip anyway,” he replies.
“Sir… Mister Odinson is here,” JARVIS repeats with emphasis.
Now Tony is losing patience.
“What the fuck, JARVIS? Are you going computer senile? Put it on the fucking screen!”
“Yes, sir,” JARVIS says, sounding resigned.
It’s a YouTube video.
A YouTube video titled “Pepper Potts sighting at Whole Foods”. The freeze-frame shows Pepper standing in a grocery store aisle, a little shopping basket over one arm.
The date and time stamp tells him that it was posted earlier today.
“Expand and play.”
The video blooms into full screen and goes dark, loading.
And then it flows into life.
Pepper has a little shopping basket over one arm, and she appears to be almost dancing down the supermarket aisle.
The video has that jerky quality of video taken with a cell phone, and a male voice says, “Oh my God, it is her! What’s she doing?”
The person taking the video moves closer, and now Tony can see that Pepper’s got ear buds in her ears and is singing along with something, obviously oblivious to the fact that she’s being videoed:
“‘Come on home girl,’ he said with a smile,’” she sings. She grabs something off one of the shelves and puts it in her basket. “‘I cast my spell of love on you, a woman from a child.’”
She’s reached the frozen food section.
“But try to understand, try to understand.” She opens one of the freezer doors and reaches for a carton of chocolate ice cream. “Ohhhh, ohhhh, try, try to understand, try try try and understand,” She adds another carton of chocolate ice cream to her basket. “He’s a magic man, oh yeah.” She turns, heading off in another direction, still singing. “Oooo he got the magic hands – ”
The video abruptly ends.
Tony turns around, and everyone is suddenly moving and talking at once.
“Tony, don’t – “ Steve says, holding his hands up as if to stop him from charging forward.
“There’s lots of fragile stuff in here,” Bruce reminds him.
He’s still clutching the laptop to his chest as if he fears that Tony might snatch it away from him and use it to smash up everything in sight, starting with Loki's head. Which is actually beginning to seem like a really awesome idea, now that Tony thinks about it.
Clint and Natasha go over to him. “Come on, Tony, let’s go for a walk,” Clint says, and Natasha takes his arm.
Tony shrugs her off.
He’s glaring at Loki with clear intent to do harm and JARVIS suddenly says, “Sir, Mister Odinson is here,” and now Tony recognizes his words as the reminder-slash-warning that they are.
He takes a deep breath, collecting himself. When he finally speaks, his voice is very, very quiet.
“Goddammit, I want every single one of you out of my fucking lab.” He points. “Including you, Banner, you fucker. Get out!”
Everyone is still staring at him.
“Now!” he shouts.
Steve, Natasha, Clint and Bruce all file out silently, not meeting his eye. Bruce is still cradling his laptop protectively against his chest.
Thor spreads his hands wide, and his booming voice is full of cheer. “Tony Stark, my friend, if you will allow me to – ”
“Get. Out.” Tony grates out, and Thor’s face falls. The enormous God of Thunder looks absurdly like a kicked puppy.
“Come, my brother,” he says, clapping a huge hand on Loki’s shoulder. “We shall go look for happier pursuits!”
For the first time, Loki speaks: “I can think of one right now.”
Something inside Tony’s head just snaps.
He throws his cup of coffee at Loki, missing, hitting the wall instead. He follows it with a random beaker snatched from a lab bench, but this misses too because he’s so enraged that he can’t even see straight let alone aim with any degree of accuracy.
Thor turns around slowly.
“You are not yourself, my friend, and so I will forgive this,” he says magnanimously.
“That’s mighty big of you, Thor,” Tony snaps. “Now you and your fucking brother can fuck right the fuck off!”
As Thor leads Loki away, Tony can hear him murmuring, “It is not well done of you to taunt and provoke him so, brother.”
“But Thor, it is so much fun!”
“Fun,” Tony repeats under his breath. “Jesus.”
Several hours later, Tony leaves his lab and goes down to one of the floors he’s set aside for The Avengers’ operations. As the elevator dings and the doors open, he can hear the sound of conversation and laughter.
Frowning, he makes his way to the dining room where he finds everyone – fucking Loki included – seated at the table. There are cartons of Chinese takeout everywhere and several open bottles of wine on the table.
For a moment, he just stands there taking it all in: Steve’s boyish laughter, the way Clint and Natasha seem to lean into each other, Bruce’s amused little smile as he dips his chopsticks into one of the takeout cartons, Thor’s great jolly booming laugh, and Loki’s hands moving sinuously as he talks, gold glinting at his wrists.
I need a fucking drink, he thinks.
Thor finally notices him standing there.
“Tony Stark!” he booms, grinning hugely, and everyone falls silent and looks up at Tony a bit guiltily.
“We are well met indeed!” the god continues heartily. “Come join us at table, for we are feasting on such delicacies as have never been seen on Asgard!”
“I need a fucking drink,” he says, and begins to move toward the wet bar in the corner.
Thor rises to his feet. He grabs an empty wineglass in one hand and a bottle in the other.
“Our most grateful thanks to the author of this feast,” he booms as he fills the glass. He offers it to Tony with a grin. “Truly we are appreciative of your most generous bounty!” and that’s when Tony remembers that when they’re in residence at Stark Tower, The Avengers’ food budget comes directly out of one of his many bank accounts.
Everyone is looking up at him now.
“Thank you, Tony,” Natasha finally says, and lowers her eyes demurely in a way that lets him know she’s playing him and that furthermore, she knows that he knows it.
“Yeah, thanks, Tony,” Clint agrees, and toasts Tony with his wineglass.
“It was delicious,” Bruce adds. “Thank you.”
“Great food! Thanks, Tony,” Steve puts in.
And then Loki smoothly comes to his feet, wineglass in hand.
“My most sincere gratitude, Tony Stark,” he says in that silky voice of his. “Your hospitality is beyond reproach, for rarely have I been feasted so well in all of the Nine Realms as I have under your roof this very evening.”
Well, shit, they don’t call this guy ‘Silvertongue’ for nothing, do they? Tony thinks, and his brain immediately supplies him with a mental picture that will require at least three bottles of scotch to erase.
Thor is still offering Tony the wineglass expectantly, and he suddenly realizes that he really can’t angrily storm out now without looking like the biggest prick ever.
And so he gives in as gracefully as he possibly can, even though he’s not a man who usually gives in at all, let alone gracefully.
He walks over to Thor and takes the wineglass.
“Yeah, hail fellow well met or whatever,” he says with as much enthusiasm as he can muster under the circumstances. “And… uh… glad everyone’s enjoying the food.”
Loki resumes his seat, a small smile playing at the corners of his mouth.
Natasha smiles warmly at Tony. “We ordered you cold sesame noodles and kung pao chicken,” she tells him happily.
“With extra sauce,” Clint adds.
“And two egg rolls, extra crispy,” Steve says.
“Hot and sour soup, too,” Bruce puts in.
All of his favorites.
Tony knows when he’s been beaten.
Grudgingly, he sinks down into the empty chair that had been left for him between Steve and Bruce and helps himself to the food.
“What, you guys didn’t order any pie?” he suddenly asks, and everyone – Loki included – bursts into laughter.
Dinner is over, and Steve and Bruce are clearing the table.
Thor is laughing about something that Natasha has said while Clint smiles fondly at them both.
Tony goes to the wet bar and finally makes himself that scotch he’s been wanting all evening.
“Tony Stark,” Loki’s voice murmurs behind him, making him jump despite himself. “I would speak with you.”
Tony turns around, scotch in hand.
“Yeah, so… speak. No one’s stopping you, and hey, self-expression doesn’t exactly seem to be one of your problems anyway.”
He sips his scotch and waits expectantly.
“Does this situation not seem… odd… to you?”
“Which part? The ‘Avengers Letting A Deranged Murderous Psychopath Hang Out In Our Inner Sanctum’ part or the ‘Deranged Murderous Psychopath Is Also Fucking My Ex-Girlfriend’ part?”
“Mmm. The first one,” Loki replies, refusing to rise to the bait. Tony is vaguely disappointed by this.
“You’re Thor’s little brother,” Tony says with a shrug.
“My brother is not my concern. He has an endless capacity for love and therefore an enormous capacity for forgiveness. His behavior does not surprise me. It is the others who puzzle me.”
“Yeah, well, no one’s really gonna try to tell him what he can and can’t do. You know, that whole God of Thunder thing he’s got going on.”
“If that were the case, then they would grudgingly tolerate my company. But no, they seem to be welcoming me with open arms. Do you truly not find that odd?”
Tony frowns and sips his scotch, thinking.
“The beast believes me unstable, possibly insane. Your Captain America has compared me to your race’s greatest monster, Hitler. I have said unforgivable things to the Black Widow, and I possessed the Hawk’s mind and forced him to acts which he found intolerable. And yet…” Loki shrugs, and the gesture seems to say, so you see.
“You’re being manipulated,” Tony says, and he has to admit to himself that it makes sense.
“Very neatly so, yes. Or so I am beginning to believe.”
“To what end?”
Loki frowns. “I am not yet certain.”
“So why tell me?” Tony asks, sipping his scotch.
“I had thought that the answer is obvious. Out of everyone here, you and I would appear to be the only two who are not, as you say here on Midgard, ‘in on it’.”
Tony is staring down at his scotch, frowning, thinking.
“I’m being manipulated too,” he finally says. “Good cop, bad cop. I’m the bad cop, in case you’re wondering.”
“I am unfamiliar with that metaphor.”
“Yeah, OK, it’s like this – “
“Hey, Tony,” Natasha calls from across the room. “You should tell Loki about that time you blew up John Mayer!”
“That was an accident!” Tony says immediately in his best indignant tone, and waits a beat. “Mostly. Partly. Maybe. And anyway, he got better.”
“Think on what I have said, Tony Stark,” Loki says softly, and walks away.
“I’m thinking, all right,” Tony murmurs.
He watches as Loki rejoins the group at the table. Bruce and Steve are passing around fortune cookies. Clint smiles and offers Loki a cup of coffee. Natasha says something that Tony can’t hear, something that makes Loki smile in a most unsettling way. And over it all, the sound of Thor’s booming laugh.
“JARVIS, I’m gonna need a favor,” Tony says quietly.
“Hack SHIELD’s servers for me. Find out what the fuck is actually going on around here.”
“Sir, it is possible that there will be no electronic record. An operation such as Mr. Laufeyson is suggesting would be most top secret, as the danger should he somehow learn of said operation is incalculable.”
“Yeah, I figured you’d say that. Be a dear and try it anyway, OK?”
“Of course, sir.”
Tony sips his scotch and waits.