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Dangerous Animals

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It started, so far as Loki Farbautisson was convinced, with the interruption of a charming evening spent plotting for the future with the acting CEO of his company, Miss Virginia “Pepper” Potts. At least, so far as the public was convinced, their relationship was purely that of engineer/mascot/official innovator and CEO. They were working to keep their private life private, if only to protect Pepper’s already jeopardized reputation, caused by her advancement from serving as his full-time personal assistant (who thus directly or indirectly performed 2/3 of his CEO duties already) to (officially) full-time CEO with Loki as her officially unofficial co-regent.

Loki didn’t care a whit about what the public or the press said about himself personally, but he was always fiercely protective of his own, and Pepper more than qualified. If anything, he considered himself to belong to her, these days. He even had plans to show her that throughout the evening, on various surfaces throughout the penthouse; thus Loki was deeply displeased by Agent Coulson’s phone call. He was even more annoyed by his so-far-successful one-man invasion of the tower.

“You have reached Loki Farbautisson’s Live Model Decoy, please leave a message,” he said in light tones comparable to the politest “Mind the Gap” messages one might hear in the London underground. Despite being American by birth, being shipped to a series of prestigious English private schools from a very early age (more on the ocean-wide gulf between sides on the father-son relations front later) had left him with a slight English accent, which he had found it very useful to emphasize when he returned to the U.S. to attend school at MIT at age 16, and found that his voice, with the accent, was very effective for getting attractive people to remove their trousers/skirts/underwear very quickly. So it had stuck.

“This is urgent,” said the irate S.H.I.E.L.D. agent on the line.

“Then leave it urgently,” Loki countered, in the same low, soothing and near-robotic tones.

The elevator opened, revealing a rather put-out Agent Coulson.

“Security Breach!” Loki gasped, mock-scandalized.

It was all downhill from there.

 

~~

 

Once he had dropped off Pepper for her flight, Coulson returned to Forbisson tower.

“Your name really is Phil?” Loki inquired, his face lit in shades of blue and green from the several tablet-screens around him at various levels of his reach. JARVIS supported all but the largest three, which were settled in a fan-arrangement on the worktable in front of the mad engineer. They showed information about the Tesseract. The files on the other Avengers had been pushed away to the upper right and left corners. The two remaining middle screens were all about the two primary citizens of Asgard that S.H.I.E.L.D. now had experience with: Thor Odinsson and Anton “Tony” Howartsson.

“And yours was originally Loki Forbisson,” Coulson countered.

“Unrelated,” Loki muttered, two fingers tapping a complex, absent-minded rhythm on the little circle of light over his heart. Ages ago, Loki had reverted to his grandfather’s name, from before immigration services had incorrectly transcribed it. Mostly he had done it to annoy his father. Now it mostly annoyed Loki himself, because despite all of his fame, he still had to spell his name to most people he called on the phone, and their secretaries were at least as bad as immigration services had been in the very early 1900’s, on a consistent basis.

“Tell me more about this Anton figure. His name sounds slightly less Norsk than expected.” Loki chuckled to himself for a moment and mused, “At least he’s practical enough not to let it detract from his dramatic flair. Imagine if he’d gone ahead and said, ‘I am Tony, of Asgard, and I am burdened with glorious purpose.’ instead of ‘I am Anton, of Asgard, and I am burdened with glorious purpose––but please do call me Tony.’” He snorted. “And people think I’m one for drama.”

“You are,” the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent said, not missing a beat. “He visited earth around the time his cousin Thor was banished here. When he recounted it to us, Thor at first assumed that 'Anton' had just come and gone after feeding him a phony story about Odin being dead, but it seems that after telling Thor of his father’s death, Howartsson took in a bit of the local culture for a couple of nights. He pretended to be a valet long enough to steal a Lamborghini and have a bit of fun with it, as well as two supermodels of different genders. Everyone he spoke to that got a name out of him called him Tony. Thor apparently calls him that, too. Norsk-sounding or no, it’s apparently his name.”

Loki snorted. “Pity he decided to go the villain route: he sounds like he might be more interesting than half this team Fury’s got in mind for the Avengers deal. Seriously: we have an archer? What is this, the Dark Ages?”

Coulson shot him a look.

Loki glanced at it, recalled a certain threat involving a taser and Super-Nanny, and cleared his throat. “Back to the main subject: what do we know about this guy’s motives?”

“According to Thor’s associates, it was mentioned that he’s the son of Thor’s uncle. The myths apparently missed the part wherein Odin All-Father had a younger brother. Then again, he apparently died in the late stages of a centuries-long war with so-called ‘Frost Giants’-”

“Jotunns,” Loki corrected idly. “The icy variety tended to be from Nifleheim, but not all of them are really that gigantic...” He turned his head and caught Coulson’s surprised look. “I researched a good deal of Norwegian culture for the sake of perpetuating paternal annoyance.”

“Your dedication to that pursuit never ceases to astound me,” the agent deadpanned. “As I was saying, there was a war, and Anton’s father was killed, while he was still an infant. Odin formally adopted him, raising him as his own son. Mythology suggests Anton is a trickster: god of mischief, lies, and chaos. He’s very intelligent, ambitious, and selfish.”

Loki hummed thoughtfully, examining the god’s visage with shrewd appraisal. Security footage from his chaotic arrival and the theft of the tesseract had successfully been broadcast to remote S.H.I.E.L.D. servers. “He looks like he was dragged backwards through a freezing hell. Dark circles under his eyes, a bit of gauntness to him, and that rictus of a grin looks more than a little cracked. I think we’re missing a few puzzle-pieces.”

“Thor seemed to defeat him after our last encounter with Asgardians, if Jane Foster is to be believed,” Coulson mused. “It’s possible he escaped incarceration by difficult means.”

“Viking punishments leave a bit less of the body fully intact,” Loki said softly. “And his lungs don’t seem to be sticking out of his ribcage, to judge by his movements. No visible marks on his face from the acid of snake venom, no marks at his neck from a bit of gallows-swinging. Dear Phillip, I’m not sure it’s Asgard that he’s escaping.”

“Of course not. He’s escaping us, and if you ever call me that again you will wake up three days later somewhere extremely inconvenient without any identification or resources beyond a pair of pants,” Coulson deadpanned. “That aside: you're suggesting that he might have escaped the Asgardian justice system and has been spending his time elsewhere ‘til recent?”

“He’s still in once piece, and iced over a bit, but otherwise well-preserved. Furthermore, his powers are apparently intact to the point that he is bullet-proof and supernaturally strong, so it's clear that he wasn’t banished like Thor,” Loki muttered. “Also, he arrived via the Tesseract. Whatever place that goes to, I don’t think Asgard is it. It wouldn’t make sense strategically, diplomatically...” Loki waved a hand vaguely. “No, no, this is something new.”

Coulson stared at Loki a bit, sidelong. “You seem to have a real interest in Howartsson. Any reason why?”

“You’re still here watching me,” Loki responded, with a threatening grin. “I’ll be doing a bit more digging into the rest soon enough. Had enough lurking over my shoulder for the night?”

The agent snorted, knowing he’d used up his forthcoming-with-information points for the evening, where the mad inventor was concerned. “Goodnight, Mr. Farbautisson.”

“G’night, Phil,” Loki countered, momentarily switching to an accent that wouldn’t have been out-of-place on Leave It To Beaver.

Coulson shook his head, idly musing that the world had missed its opportunity to get a great actor when it gifted Loki Farbautisson with engineering and mathematical genius, and an obsession with the inner workings of things: mostly machines and physics, but also people on occasion, with just enough adeptness to frighten the unwary. When Loki bothered to pause from his usual multitasking on up to six different things at once and really focused on a single person, the results were sometimes startling.

Phil was glad to have mostly avoided that scrutiny so far. He got enough of that shit from Agent Romanov.

 

~~

 

Anton was intrigued by the Avengers, before he even heard their catchy little moniker: World’s Mightiest Heroes. The “man out of time” was rather dull, but the tall genius in the flashy green-and-gold armor was terribly interesting, and clearly had no respect for Captain America.

“Did you just call me ‘Jafar’?” the trickster inquired, amused.

Loki turned from the Captain and gestured vaguely to his own chin. “Your beard. If you were to just grow it out a bit longer, at the end of your chin, you would resemble a cultural icon of ours by the same name.”

“Why are you talking to him?” Steve Rogers hissed.

Loki ignored him.

Anton arched an eyebrow. “I’m already a cultural icon of yours.”

“And a villain, for the nonce,” Loki returned. “Making the comparison of yourself to a corrupt advisor to a naive sultan a rather apt comparison.”

The god of mischief snorted. “And you’re the hero?”

The mad inventor smiled a crooked, moderately condescending and aggressive smile. “Obviously not.” And oh, that made Anton well and truly curious, in ways that only vaguely related to his burden of glorious purpose. That was dangerous. And appealing. And appealingly dangerous.

Then the charming banter was all interrupted by an all-too-familiar rumble of thunder, and Anton’s expression darkened considerably.

Steve’s brow furrowed. “You’re not afraid of a bit of lighting, are you?”

“I’m not too fond of what tends to come along with it,” Anton retorted.

Loki’s eyebrows raised. “Your kin have impressive response-time. That’s kind of them.”

Anton shot him a glare, unamused now. “Little more than kin and less than kind.”

The mad inventor raised an eyebrow. “You had time to read Shakespeare whilst here, then? Seems odd you would bother with the literature of mere ants.”

The god of mischief smirked briefly, just a quick flash of oh, you’re good before the quinjet’s hatch fell open and the god of thunder dragged his cousin away by his throat.

“Awful timing,” Loki muttered, fixing his helmet back on.

“Wait, we need a plan of attack!”

“Oh, I have a plan,” the inventor said, mock-gravely. His face-mask lowered, eyes aglow, “It's to attack.” Then he leapt out and into the air.

Steve huffed. “Great. He’s even worse than his dad.”

 

~~

 

Anton wheezed with the force of the impact, skidding along dirt and stone where Thor threw him.

“Where is the tesseract?” Thor snapped.

Laughing half-breathlessly, Anton rasped out, “Oh, I missed you too.”

“Do I look to be in a gaming mood?” the thunderer snapped.

“You should be thanking me. My guess is you’ve been pining for this place since the loss of the rainbow bridge: your charming holiday retreat, complete with drinks and easily impressed mortal women,” Anton countered, sitting up with a bit of an effort. “And thanks to me, Odinsson, you’ve been sent back for another visit. Lighten up, sit back, relax.” He didn’t resist, just continued to grin maddeningly, as Thor seized the front of his collar and yanked him back up into a standing position. He stared into the thunder god’s face as the anger cracked around the edges, showing something more raw and vulnerable. It almost made the trickster's own smile waver a little.

Almost, but not quite.

“I had thought you dead.”

Anton snorted. “Yes, it’s a pity I missed my own eulogy; perhaps I should’ve returned from the icy wastes at the edge of the galaxy sooner. Did you mourn for me, honey?”

“We all did,” Thor protested. “Father is-”

Your father. Not mine, I don't think. I don’t count as a citizen to him anymore, apparently, so I somehow doubt that 'adopted son' is still on the table either,” Anton snapped.  Seeing Thor’s disbelief, he continued, “He’s a damned mage as well as a warrior, Thor. You know I wasn’t out of his reach when I fell, even with him fresh from the Odin-sleep. He made no attempt to reach out to me. He just looked on. I think he was afraid to, judging by his looks.”

“I cannot believe-”

“Don’t patronize me!”

“Had I the power, I would have prevented your fall myself, regardless of what you would accuse father of!” Thor shouted. “I have always loved you as my brother. We were raised together. We played and fought together, and save each other’s lives. Do you remember none of that? Do you care so little about it?”

Anton felt a hissing at the edges of his mind, like the sliding of sand across desert dunes as the wind changed. “I remember standing always in your shadow,” he said coldly. “No matter what I achieved with my studies, with the advances I made with my magic that even Odin hadn’t managed to think up yet, I was still never worthy enough to get the same esteem that was heaped on you from all parties kin or otherwise.” He started pressing forward then, pleased when Thor backed away instinctively, step for step with him. “And yet when you were gone and your father fell into his sleep, mother pleaded with me to take the throne, and I stood as rightful king of Asgard––left to clean up your mess in the form of your war with Jotunnheim. And for the actions I took then, the ones based on all the scant lessons from the man I’d called my father, when he so deigned to speak to me on matters of leadership––infrequent: so strong was his misplaced faith in his brasher, more idiotically brave son, and so confident was he that his half frost-giant nephew would never stand close to the throne––I was banished for daring to value the efficient over the optimistic. I had found a weapon we would only ever have to fire off once, and then never fear war with the Jotunns again. Perhaps that’s what frightened your father such that he left me to fall into the horror-filled void between worlds, perhaps it was something else: regardless, I am done with being in anyone’s shadow.”

Thor found himself backed up against the nearest rock face. “Anton, I’m so-”

“No. You're not sorry yet,” the trickster snapped. “I would have been heir to the throne in Jotunnheim if your father had not taken me from there. Don’t you recall what he used to tell us, Thor? That we were both of us born to be kings? Well, I can hardly have my rightful throne now, can I? A bit of Asgard-saving regicide does sort of preclude that, so I suppose I’ll have to make my own way, same as I’ve always done.” He laughed, an odd bluish light flickering in his eyes. “They seem to be more a fan of that here in Midgard than back where you call home.”

“You would take this world I love as recompense for your imagined slights?”

Anton winced. “Your faith in Odin is still pretty strong, isn’t it? That’s so pathetic, Thor. You should know by now that he’s just as riddled with faults as we are.”

“This world is under my protection. Your anger at myself and Odin will not change that,” Thor warned.

“Of course not,” Anton said, his tone flippant and his grin fixed firmly back into the ‘on’ position. “But I don’t see you doing too great a job at that, my dearest cousin. These humans are killing each other all over the place, while you’re just standing here threatening little old me: your adopted little brother, who you don’t dare take seriously.” He laughed, high and bitter. “I think they could stand someone to take on over, for a while. Someone capable of organization and planning, to really advance them as far as they can be advanced.”

“You think yourself above them?”

Anton snorted, openly condescending. “Well, yeah. I thought that was obvious.”

“You miss the point of ruling,” Thor scolded. “The throne would suit you ill.”

“You have always been blind to the simple truths of how people really work,” Anton snarled. “You have not seen what I have. You should know that I’ve grown a lot since you last saw me, cousin Thor, in my exile. I’ve gained knowledge of things you could never imagine. I’ve seen the true power of the tesseract, in fact, and you just wait to see what I can do with it.”

“Who showed you this power?” the thunder god demanded. “Who controls the would-be king?”

“I am a king!”

“Not here, cousin!” Thor stepped forward and seized his shoulder again. “You give up the tesseract and this poisonous dream.” His voice took on an openly pleading note, then. “You come home. Please.”

The trickster god laughed, high and mocking, spreading his arms wide, hands palm-up and decidedly empty. “I don’t even have it.” He laughed further at Thor’s darkened expression, grin wide and almost as maddening as it was outright mad. “You know you need it to take me home, but I’ve sent it off. I don’t even know where it is now.”

“You listen well, cousin-” Thor started, cut-off by a streak of blue-white light and gold-and-green metal of a roughly humanoid shape, knocking him soundly off the rocky outcropping and sending the thunder god crashing to the ground a good distance away.

“Well.” Anton smiled broadly, head tilted curiously. “Now I’m listening.”

 

~~

 

Returning to his feet after the crash landing, Thor stared up unto the glowing eye-slits of the Iron Man’s gold faceplate. “Do not touch me again,” he warned gravely.

The face-plate rose. “Well then, I recommend you don’t go stealing my rightful prisoner. Shameful, really: you didn’t even stop to say ‘hello, thanks for capturing the villain, let’s talk diplomacy and incarceration options.’”

“You have no idea what you’re dealing with,” Thor growled.

“A bad renaissance fair costume with a viking theme?” Loki challenged. “Dost thine mother know your costume hath ruined her draperies?”

“Tony will face Asgardian justice.”

“Way to credit us with being your equals,” Loki chimed. “A shining example of diplomatic excellence, truly. Should your charming cousin simply give up the cube to us, you’re free to strangle him at your leisure. Until then-” The mask snapped back down, and that cultured voice took on an ominous metallic harmonic. “I recommend you keep out of my way.

Thor clearly had no intention to do that, if the sudden smell of ozone and the way he started to swing that hammer, and Loki braced himself even as he turned and prepared to seek out where their quarry had run to, but the force of Mjolnir slamming into his back was still more than impressive, nearly knocking the breath out of him even through his suit. Upon landing, the mad inventor growled, “I’ve always wanted to punch a god. Not that this was the one I was expecting...” He returned to his feet swiftly and launched first two one-two-punch blasts form the arc reactor, then himself after them. Thor knocked aside the first, dodged the second, then fell when Loki hit him with more force than the average freight train. The hammer fell from the thunderer’s grip in the midst of it, and he rolled away toward it as Loki continued to blast him with hit after hit.

Then Thor summoned his hammer back to his hand, and brought down lighting with it, aimed straight at Iron Man.

Even prepared as he was for it, the lighting still knocked Loki back a few paces and set his armor rattling. When it stopped, he straightened up slowly. “JARVIS? Still with us?”

“Yes, sir. And suit power levels are at 400% capacity.”

Slowly, the mad inventor began to grin, wild enough that without the faceplate down, the god of thunder might have almost mistook the mortal for something more fey than human. “Well. How about that.” His hands hummed with power as he sent some of Thor’s force right back at him, and leapt into action before the god of thunder even got his feet back on the ground. Already careening at him, however, made it difficult to dodge that hammer being flung at him with more than impressive force, and Loki nearly didn’t manage it, but caught the thunder god about the waist nevertheless, carrying him back toward that rocky outcropping and proceeding to scrape Thor across it, doing his level best to bring the god of thunder’s head more down to earth by shoving it face-first into rock.

It worked out fine, until the god managed to get a bit of leverage and change their direction, causing them to inflict still more damage to the nearby trees before they again hurtled into the forest floor, where they both leapt back to their feet. When the god proceeded to hurl a punch, Loki was amused by the idea right until it actually snapped his head back and set him back a pace. “Bloody vikings,” he muttered and launched a swing of his own, grinning when Thor seized first one arm, then the other. “Perfect. Now hold still,” he muttered, not over the external speakers.

The uni-beam charged up in record time and sent the god of thunder hurtling back across the clearing that their rough landing had created. Then the hammer slammed into Loki’s chest again, dangerously near the arc reactor, and floored him. The weight on his chest, according to the suit’s sensors, was not too significant. Loki thus found it distinctly worrying that he couldn’t sit up with it on his chest.

Thor strolled up to him, glaring down fierce and war-like.

“I see why the vikings liked you,” Loki sniped, externally audible as well as internally this time. The hammer rose to Thor’s hand in a snap, but just before the thunderer could swing it down on Loki’s face, the inventor activated thrusters and blasted right out from under him, arced back around and landed a satisfactory kick across the thunder god’s face just before a vibranium shield struck first Thor, then Iron Man, catching their attention.

“That’s enough,” Steve called. He leapt from his heroic pose atop a nearby row of fallen trees and approached them. “What’s your business here?” he asked, the question aimed at Thor.

“I’m here to put an end to to my cousin’s schemes.”

“Then prove it,” Captain America said, “and put the hammer down.”

Loki winced. “Bad phrasing!” he shouted, powering up his thrusters.

“You want me to put the hammer down?!” Thor roared.

The god leapt forward, the star-spangled soldier crouched under his shield, and Loki launched himself clear of the blast radius just before the hammer fell, thought the force of the blast still disrupted his flight path. “JARVIS? I take it our trickster god is long gone?”

“No, sir. Energy readings still detect Howartsson in the same position he was before the fight began, save that he appears to be lounging.”

Loki turned his head, focusing his attention on the god of mischief, who offered him a cheerful wave. “I sense that the deity doth not protest enough.”

Very good,” rang the amused god’s voice over his comm. At least, Loki hoped it was his comm: better to think the frequency was hacked, rather than his brain. “You’re more clever than I honestly expected for a mortal, darling.

“How flattering,” Loki deadpanned. He heard Cap calling from the ground and glanced down.

Your intermixed patriotism and guilt complexes are calling,” Anton’s voice sing-songed.

“And your inner diva is showing,” Loki countered, just before hovering back down to earth, standing an equal distance from the god and the super-soldier alike. “Your cousin is enjoying the show,” Loki pointed out cheerfully. “That’s polite of him: the not-running-away part, anyway.”

“He wishes to be caught,” Thor muttered. “But why?”

“Only one way to find out,” Loki mused.

“And what’s that?” Steve asked sharply.

“We have to take him in, of course.” The mad inventor retracted his face mask. “It’s lose-lose either way: either he escapes if we leave him, or we give him the satisfaction of succeeding in some sort of Xanatos gambit by getting brought to S.H.I.E.L.D. by our charming selves.” Loki clicked his tongue. “At least we’d know where we stand, once he’s brought in. You, Goldilocks,” he said to Thor, “might want to join us. I think Captain Patriotism and I have made it clear enough you won’t be able to best us both in a brawl outright, and I believe you even parted on rather good terms with the last S.H.I.E.L.D. agent you met: Coulson, right?”

Thor considered. “You are on the side of S.H.I.E.L.D.?”

“Well, he is,” Loki jerked his head in Steve’s direction. “I’m still just a consultant, albeit a rather vital one.” He flashed a quick, sharpish grin.

The thunder god’s brow furrowed, but he nodded nevertheless. “I will join you, and we will discuss the matter of my brother further. He states that he has sent the tesseract away, and does not know where it now lies.”

“Hmm.” Loki’s eyes narrowed. “Interesting. I wonder how he plans to get it back.”

Thor looked half-amused and half-disconcerted. “You sound a bit like him, sir knight.”

A laugh escaped the inventor’s throat before he could stop it. “Cap here is your white knight. I’m Loki, and I’m rather something else.” He proffered a hand.

Thor shook it with some hesitation, then turned to Steve, and shook his hand as well.

“Steve Rogers,” Captain America introduced.

“I am Thor Odinsson. Now, let us return to my cousin.”

“Does he really go by ‘Tony’ rather than Anton?” Loki asked.

Thor blinked. “Yes, he does. He started encouraging the change about two hundred years ago, in fact.”

“How... Anglicized,” Loki muttered.

“With that accent, you’re one to talk,” Steve countered.

“I don’t have an accent,” the inventor drawled. “This is just how words in English sound when pronounced properly.” He then held out his arm to the soldier in a welcoming gesture, like a Victorian gentleman to his lady. “Care for a lift, or do you plan to run after us, my dear?”

Steve frowned. “Don’t call me that,” he said, but reluctantly took the mad inventor’s arm regardless, and clung on for dear life when they took off, Thor following soon after.

 

~~

 

Once aboard the helicarrier, Loki spent some time watching the trickster god on bits of hacked security footage. He snorted at the rather pointlessly over-armored guards constantly surrounding him. Those bits of armor wouldn’t stop Anton from ripping them apart if he chose to, and the inventor knew it.

“Sent the tesseract away...” Loki murmured, and flicked up a few documents on the other side of the tablet’s screen. “S.H.I.E.L.D. agent compromised, seemingly under some form of mind control...” He clicked his tongue again. “Mind-controlled henchmen: that’s one way to get things done right by doing them yourself, without bothering to even get out of bed. I wonder how strong the link is.”

The lab door opened. A high-ranking agent, Maria Hill Loki thought her name was, called to him from the doorway. “Mr. Farbautisson?”

“Meeting time, I suppose,” Loki murmured.

“Fury wants all of you tuned in to the footage, as he talks to Anton.”

Loki hummed. “Tell him not to wait up. I’m watching and listening, but I’ve got a few more things on my plate. Give me five or ten minutes.”

She reluctantly assented and left him.

He continued flicking through bits of information about the incident in Germany, and what was stolen, compared it to his own tesseract notes and only half-listened to Fury explain exactly how the trickster god’s current accommodations might prove lethal, if deemed necessary. Loki didn’t focus again until he heard the trickster’s voice.

“It’s an impressive cage, yes,” Anton mused. “Don’t think it was really built with me in mind, however well it may suit the purpose.”

“It was built for something a lot stronger than you,” Fury said.

Anton smiled, wide and wicked, with just enough of something darker to set off alarms in the average mammalian hind-brain: jagged edges and a disconcerting coldness where that smile utterly failed to reach his eyes. “Oh, I heard.” He laughed, just a little, under his breath. “Something about a mindless rage monster, under a thin veneer of calm, making play that he’s still a man.” He shook his head. “You must be desperate, calling on such lost and broken creatures to defend you. What might you be driven to by it?”

Watching, Loki thought, It’s not the desperation he’s getting off on. It’s that he knows Fury thinks it is. He’s getting off on the deception. With a thoughtful hum, Loki pulled up the footage from the theft of the tesseract, focusing this time on the trickster god’s expression, his eyes narrowing. Blue, he thought. His eyes change, from blue to brown, like something else keeps peering out now and then: he gets more dramatic not long after each flicker.

“You threaten my world with war,” Fury said. “You steal a force you can't hope to control. You talk about peace and you kill 'cause it's fun. So yes, you have made me very desperate. You might not be glad that you did.”

Loki made a low, thoughtful noise, transferring the broadcast to his phone, an earpiece in his ear as he rose to his feet and started strolling toward the round table on the helicarrier’s bridge. As he sauntered down the hall, he kept listening, and watching.

“Oh, it must really burn you,” Anton said, voice low and still amused to the point of grating on Fury’s nerves to the utmost. “It would, I think: knowing you were so close, with that little cube: so close to having power––unlimited power. And what for, I wonder? Something tells me it wasn’t just a warm little light for all mankind to share. At least not for long, before reminding them what real power is.” Just as he had when Banner was mentioned, the trickster god again glanced at one of the cameras: not the same one. Loki wasn’t watching from quite the same angle as the rest of the Avengers, given he’d hacked his feed, and for a moment Anton seemed to meet his gaze. It was enough to bring Loki momentarily to a halt.

“Oh,” he muttered, recalling his own suspicions about S.H.I.E.L.D. and the tesseract, which had started as soon as he realized they’d been trying to tap unlimited energy resources without consulting the current king of clean-energy tech until it was stolen, and they’d needed the king’s Iron Man alter-ego to help fetch it. “You’re very good. Quite the showman. Quite the puppet-master.” He pulled the earpiece from his ear just as Fury offered the pithy parting words, “Well, just let me know if real power wants a magazine or something.

Loki didn’t hear the trickster god jokingly request WIRED magazine. It might have given him pause, considering the newest issue had an extensive interview in it from the CEO of Forbisson Industries.

The mad inventor was a bit occupied, listening in on the meeting he was missing in preparation for making his entrance to face the rest of the acting members (whether they knew they were or not) under the umbrella of the Avengers Initiative, for the first time.

Thor, what’s his play?

Tony has an army, called the Chitauri. They're not of Asgard or any world known. He means to lead them against your people. They will win him the Earth. In return, I suspect, for the Tesseract.

An army. From outer space.

From Bruce: “Tony the Norse God” still gets me every time.

Loki tuned out again, looking back to the footage of the trickster god, who was staring right at him again: or making it look as though he were. Rationally, the inventor knew that shouldn’t send a strange thrill up his spine; such things really didn’t make his I do not have a death wish case any easier to present to people. Nevertheless, there was something to this: staring down an opponent this interesting, this clever, and this––dementedly playful.

I don't think we should be focusing on our friend Tony here, though. That guy's brain is a bag of cats. You can smell crazy on him.

Loki smiled, and kept walking.

 

~~

 

In his cage, Anton sat in contemplation. The sharpness of the mad inventor had surprised him so far. Wards the mage had placed about his person detected the direction and frequency with which he was watched, and could identify the watcher if Tony had met them before. So he really could, quite literally, feel the human genius’s eyes on him, intermittently, from directions that tended to differ: leaping from camera to camera at the same erratic, intuitive pace as the leaps of logic in Loki’s mind.

In another time, another place, with different stakes, Anton would’ve enjoyed chasing that one. Through the numb cold he’d felt since falling into the void, Anton felt a flicker of something more heated than the usual crackle of anger and searing snicker-snap of plans forming and re-forming in his mind as events unfolded around him.

The inventor, so far, hadn’t deviated from any of the paths Anton had anticipated he might take, despite being increasingly aware of the nature of Anton’s manipulation. There was no cause for worry––not yet.

 

~~

 

Loki was distracted from his musings on the god of chaos and mischief by the unsettling, though not entirely unexpected, discovery of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s “Phase 2” weapons, and the designs that were in progress under the umbrella of that little project. Upon discovering it, he said something calm and banter-like to Bruce Banner and slipped out of the lab for a few minutes.

Tapping his fingers against the arc reactor in his chest, he thought about terrorists armed with his weapons. He thought about Obadiah, too, and how he’d kept S.H.I.E.L.D.’s secretive order records on the books right next to the Ten Rings, on that ghost drive of his. He thought about Vanko, and keeping metaphorical toothpaste in the tube where the arc reactor technology was concerned––where all of his weapons were concerned. He thought about the tesseract in a similar way.

A warm light for all mankind to share, he recalled, and cursed the trickster god for being damnably right. He didn’t trust S.H.I.E.L.D. with the arc reactor; why the hell would he trust them with something like the tesseract? It was all weaponization opportunities, in one form or another.

He called Pepper. Pepper could calm him down.

“Loki?”

“Hey,” he said, low and a bit hoarse. “Bad day. People weaponizing things they shouldn’t. Talk to me.”

“The arc reactor?”

“No. The alien one.”

“Well... we knew they might be as soon as they mentioned it.”

Loki smiled a little, appreciative of how quick she caught on. “And there’s a trickster god flirting with me,” he said, before he could stop himself.

Pepper cleared her throat. “Loki,” she warned quietly.

“It’s––” He hesitated. It didn’t bother him, per se. It didn’t even really unnerve him. It lit up the same parts of his brain that other bad ideas tended to: driving a hot-rod too fast on Highway One along the cliffs, pulling an Icarus in the Mark II despite JARVIS’ warnings about ice, racing his own hot rod in Spain when he thought he was dying. “It’s not good,” he said, wishing he could sound more certain of it.

“I’ll kill him if he touches you,” she said flatly.

Loki paled. “Bad idea. I don’t think I even know a way to kill this one. Not yet, anyhow. It’d take a lot of planning.”

“I’m better at planning than you are,” she said. “I’m better organized.”

Loki closed his eyes. “You are,” he said, his tone light and perfectly deceptive. It was unfair, truly, for her to be so terribly good to him, and for him. It was unfair to her, that she couldn’t send the same thrill up his spine as meeting the eyes of a trickster god over surveillance footage had. No matter how much he knew she could hurt him, manipulate him, use him, he also knew her well enough to know that she never would. She didn’t have the edge of insanity or the conviction. It bothered Loki to think that these qualities made for less chemistry between them, rather than more; looking himself in the mirror most mornings was tricky enough. He didn’t need this tacked on: knowing that because he was capable of lying to her, because he did have those jagged edges to his insanity, he would hurt her long before she hurt him. And he was too selfish to stop this before he managed it. “I’m just creeped out by his staring, mostly. Don’t worry, though. He’s in a cage.”

Pepper hummed. “You’re worried.”

“I’m furious,” he corrected. “And annoyed. And concerned, a bit, yes. The weapons thing... you know the weapons thing.”

“I do,” she said softly. “Do what you’re good at, Loki: misdirect.”

Slowly, the mad inventor began to smile. “You say the most perfect things sometimes, do you know that?”

“Go get ‘em, Tiger,” she said. “I’m still waiting for you to come back.” Lowering her voice, so he was suddenly aware she must be in public but still felt a need to tell him this, she added, “and I’ve got a set of cuffs waiting for you, when you do.”

Loki’s teeth dragged across his lower lip. Lack of insanity on par with his own or no, they were very good for each other in a number of ways, sometimes. “Oh really?”

“And I reinforced the bedposts. You won’t break anything this time.”

“You complete me,” the inventor sighed.

“Get your work done,” Pepper said simply. “Then come back to me.” A hesitation. “Promise me you’ll come back.”

And there it was: this was why he’d absolutely had to perfect the art of lying to Pepper. Especially after Vanko. Especially when worrying started to hurt her more and more. Easily, and in warm, playful tones, he lied, “You know I’m all yours. I’ll be back, Pep, I promise.”

“You’d better be.”

They said their goodbyes, and Loki took a deep breath, returning to the lab. He couldn’t help but think to himself, Any more bad ideas?

So a few minute later, he prodded Bruce Banner with something pointy.

“You really have got a lid on it, haven't you? What's your secret? Mellow jazz? Bongo drums? Huge bag of weed?”

And when Steve Rogers asked, “Are you nuts?”

Loki replied, “Officially, the jury is out, but most agree that the line between madness and genius is very narrow...”

Then the arguing started, and as soon as Natasha stepped in to join them, Loki knew she’d been talking to Tony––and when had he started thinking of the trickster as Tony?––because she was too confident, too abruptly focused on Bruce, and Bruce was too close to Anton’s tesseract-based scepter.

Oh shit, he realized. We’re distracted. We’re vulnerable. Even as he thought it, he couldn’t quite stop himself from shooting barbs at Captain-fucking-America, who had just uttered the phrase, “You know, you may not be a threat, but you better stop pretending to be a hero.”

Loki almost laughed, but his tongue loosed poison first: “A hero like you, then? You’re a lab rat painted up in patriotism. Everything actually special about you, Steve Rogers,  came out of a bottle,” he hissed.

“Put on the suit,” Steve said coldly.

“I’ll need to in a second, clearly. Have you noticed it yet?”

“What are you-”

“QUIET!” Loki shouted, with more volume than anyone would have generally expected from him. The room fell silent. “We’ve been made, everyone. Congratulations. Fury, get to the bridge. Bruce, keep calm and carry on. Natasha, your boyfriend is most likely about to make a reappearance.”

“He’s not-”

“I am NOT actually interested,” Loki interrupted. Then the first explosion shook the helicarrier. “Thor, your cousin is brilliant and I hate him,” Loki shouted over the resulting din of alarms.

 

~~

 

Chaos then, predictably, ensued.

Taking stock afterward, battered and bruised as he was from his work on getting a crucial one of the helicarrier’s engines back in working order with the rather dubious aid of the less-than-technical Captain America, Loki couldn’t help but be impressed and enraged all at once. “I do not like,” he said, “being out-maneuvered.”

“Well tough shit,” Natasha muttered. “This one managed it.”

Loki’s eyes narrowed. “Not for long.” He stalked out of the med-bay where they had appraised his condition and declared him to be bruised with a bit of whiplash, but nothing more. He hadn’t wanted to be there, but had been pressed, and he was more than glad to be released from the nurse’s custody.

He was even more irritated when Steve followed him, but managed to keep it mostly contained throughout the forced conversation, right up until Steve asked, “Is this the first time you’ve lost a soldier?”

“We,” Loki said dangerously, “are NOT soldiers.” A pause. “You might be, but the rest of us aren’t. Not myself, not Banner, and even Natasha is more spy than really soldier. We don’t cheerfully volunteer for other people’s wars, and I sure as hell won’t volunteer to fight for Fury in this one. What of you, Yankee Doodle?”

“I’m not marching in for Fury. He's got the same blood on his hands as Anton. Right now we've got to put that aside and get this done.”

Loki considered, anger providing him a convenient anchor for his otherwise chaotic thoughts. He glanced at the smear of blood Phil Coulson had left on the wall. Phil had been... not a friend. He was a friend to Pepper, though. The S.H.I.E.L.D. agent had likely saved her life at least once during that whole debacle with Obadiah––or he’d tried to, at least. Pepper liked him. And now Loki was going to have to tell her that her favorite S.H.I.E.L.D. agent had been killed in cold blood.

Then again, he thought. You killed plenty of men who stood between you and your way out, when it came right down to it. The thought savored of bitterness. “Personal,” he said softly. “He made it personal: for all of us.” He clicked his tongue. “You want to stop him. I want to stop him. Natasha and that archer of hers will be up for it, likely. That redhead is more protective than we give her credit for.” He folded his arms. “Thor will chase his cousin. That goes without saying. That’s a respectable force already...” But not enough, he thought. Bruce would join in, though. He knew it. The “other guy” wasn’t done with them yet.

“Would you fight with us?” Steve asked.

“Yeah,” Loki muttered. “Yeah, I would. No way I could sit this one out, Cap.” He shook his head, thinking quickly now. “He wants to beat us and he wants to be seen doing it. He wants an audience. We have to factor that in.”

“Right, I caught his act at Stuttengard,” Steve said.

“Yeah. That's just a preview, this will be opening night. Tony is a full-tilt diva. He wants flowers, he wants parades, he wants a monument built in the skies with his name plastered-” Realization dawned. “Son of a bitch.”

 

~~

 

Loki wasn’t surprised to find Anton waiting for him on the balcony of his penthouse at the top of Forbisson Tower. He was, however, made uneasy by how appealing the god’s arrogant smirk was: life, he decided with finality, was simply not fair.

“Please tell me you’re going to appeal to my humanity,” Tony chimed. “You of all people might almost pull it off.”

Loki considered. “I’m not the best representative for that. Of the Avengers, your best example for that sort of thing would be Captain America. I’m known more for my appeal to people’s greed and lust, honestly.”

“No wonder I like you,” Tony purred.

At that, the inventor felt a disconcertingly not-unpleasant chill run down his spine. “If anything, I plan to threaten you.”

“No need to be bitter, Loki,” the god of mischief chided.

“Regardless of need, I do tend to be bitter. I’m sure you’ve noticed,” Loki shot back. 

“Are you thus the token satyr of... did you just suggest you call yourselves ‘The Avengers’?”

“Oh yes,” Loki concurred. “I think the official tagline is ‘earth’s mightiest heroes’, that sort of thing.” After securing the bracelets for the Mark VIII onto his wrists surreptitiously, he began pouring a bit of scotch. “Care for a drink, Tony?”

“Only if you promise to use more than liquor to try and stall me.”

“Not stall,” the inventor corrected. “Just threaten.”

Tony stalked closer still. “I’ve met your Avengers. I still don’t see what I’m meant to be afraid of.”

“It does take us a long while to get traction, I admit,” Loki mused. “But I’m sure you’re more than aware what it is you’re up against: your cousin the demi-god-” He smiled at the huff the trickster gave in response to that. “-a super soldier, a living legend who kind of lives up to the legend; a man with breath-taking anger management issues; a couple of master assassins, and you––well, it seems you've managed to piss off every single one of them.”

“That was the plan,” Tony assured.

“You did it well, admittedly,” Loki said. “Interesting choice, given that you can’t win, and you know it.”

The trickster god held his gaze for a long few moments, shrewd and appraising. Then he laughed, his slow steps at last halting. “I have a considerable army.”

“I alone can take out a considerable army. I have little doubt that even just on his own, the Hulk can take out several, terrestrial or otherwise.” Loki took a sip of scotch and licked his lips, strolling up to Anton. “You’re sure you don’t want that drink?”

For a moment, the trickster god seemed to give it serious consideration. Then his infuriating smile returned. “You listed all of the Avengers but yourself, I notice. You did not value that agent I killed the way that the rest of them do. If anything, you value him on someone else’s behalf, but that’s still enough to make you thoroughly vengeful concerning his death, I suppose.”

It clicked in Loki’s head: this trickster had gone after Coulson to engineer his own defeat. “True,” Loki said. “And you valued him as a puzzle-piece: a way to bring us all down upon you. You intend to lose.”

Tony was suddenly too close. Far too close: less than an inch away, and the air around him was very cold. “You’re terribly clever, son of Farbauti.” He chuckled. “Funny enough: I know a Jotunn by that name.”

“And I know a good deal of mortals named Howard,” Loki countered dryly, pronouncing the name so that the ‘d’ sounded more like a ‘t’, standing his ground and keeping his gaze on the god of mischief’s eyes with determination: no wandering to lips, or chest, or hips. No wandering at all. “That means little.” He tensed a bit as the god’s fingers trailed along his jaw, then down the column of his throat. He also tried not to notice the prickling shivers that touch sent down his spine.

Of course the god of lies noticed. “You’re a terrible temptation, Loki Farbautisson.”

“Not enough to prevent your little false invasion,” Loki mused.

“No. Appealing as you may be, I do value a lot of things far higher.” He grinned. “That said, I would love to have you.” His scepter darted forward, aiming to tap right over Loki’s heart. “Especially to keep your fellow Avengers occupied as you work to destroy them at my command.”

Clink.

A pause. Tony tried again.

Clink.

“That usually works,” Tony muttered.

“Well, as I understand it, performance issues are nothing to be ashkhh-” Loki’s words cut off abruptly when the god of mischief gripped his throat hard in one hand and squeezed. Loki choked.

“If I only had the time, I would make you beg,” Tony growled.

The mad inventor grinned despite the pain, cursing himself a fool for flirting back even as he purred, “I might let you, if you got on your knees and asked nicely.”

The god of mischief snorted. “I kneel for no mere mortal. Your arrogance is astonishing, though.”

“You should talk.” Loki’s grin widened further. “And I’m not a ‘mere’ anything, Tony.” Before the god of lies could reply, though, he quickly added, “You’re bluffing us with this invasion. What’s your real game, then? Who else are you conning with this little dance of yours?”

Tony’s eyes flickered, curious and heated. “What would your lady think of your behavior with me, I wonder.” The razor-sharp tip of his scepter traced a circle around the arc reactor, and he smirked when the inventor shivered.

“I doubt she would really be that surprised,” Loki muttered. “It would only be the third-worst thing she’s ever caught me doing.”

“Flirting with a mad and evil god?” Tony suggested.

Being turned on by someone who might kill me just a bit more than I’m turned on by her promise of handcuffs, was on the tip of his tongue, and momentarily sent a fresh flare of self-loathing through him, but not nearly enough to show in his expression. “She wouldn’t even be really and truly shocked if she found me fucking you over the bar.”

“Presumptuous,” the trickster chided.

“Not by much,” Loki countered. “You strike me as being in need of a really good reaming, Tony.”

“Oh, you really are terribly distracting.”

“Not enough though, I take it,” Loki managed, as the grip on his throat tightened and  dragged him closer to the large plate-glass windows.

“Another time, and perhaps it might have been,” Tony mused, and for just a moment those dark eyes flickered with something blue as the tesseract, and Loki couldn’t escape the feeling that it wasn’t just the god of mischief looking out at him.

“Anytime, JARVIS!” Loki shouted. His bracelets started flashing and he heard gears turning, as well as the wall-panel lifting.

“Not today,” Tony snapped. Then he hurled Loki through the window.

Hitting the glass was by far the worst part, because it wasn’t weak glass. Then Loki was in the air falling, tumbling downward, and that was familiar. Falling, he was good at. It made his heart race, cleared his head, made his very bones tingle. He spread his arms wide, palms-down, as the Mark VIII suit clasped about his wrists, shoulders, and legs, then began to unfold further and encase himself within it. He managed to get thrusters online in time to prevent himself landing on a few understandably startled non-combatants; although he did thoroughly ruin their hair and displace a few hats as he launched himself back up along his personal skyscraper, coming to a halt hovering before that broken window.

“Did I ‘piss off’ the Man of Iron as well?” Tony inquired cheerfully.

In reply, Loki blasted him with the uni-beam, sending the god of mischief flying backwards through the main room’s rear wall. “You managed that as soon as you dared to mention Phil. I know a good man when I see one,” he said coldly, “and it royally pisses me off when the men with more good in them than I could ever stomach get killed in order to effect me.”

Then JARVIS reported major activity from the tesseract, and Loki looked up in time to see the portal stretch open and the first wave of Chitauri spilling out from the void beyond it. He felt distinctly chilled, staring up into it. “Army,” he muttered, lining up targets. “Right.”

And then the chaos really got into full swing.

 

~~

 

After the battle, and especially after his brief trip through the portal to deliver a nuclear payload into the heart of the Chitauri armada, Loki’s memory of the events before grabbing and steering that bomb got a bit fuzzy. Mostly he remembered watching the footage afterward, particularly the security footage JARVIS caught on and around the penthouse.

He re-watched the clip of the Hulk beating the living daylights out of Tony more times than he could count. It was eminently satisfying, especially with audio.

I won’t be brutalized by some subhuman creature. I am a god you-

Smash. Smash. Smash.

Loki remained a huge fan of the giant green rage monster. Not least because the Hulk had caught him when he fell, and prevented a really unpleasant landing experience after Loki had tumbled back from the void toward the earth, plummeting like a stone.

He also watched Thor fighting with his cousin, caught a few more instances of blue-flicker in the god of mischief’s gaze throughout. He had JARVIS scan the 24-hour security feed that S.H.I.E.L.D. had placed Tony under since his capture, noting that Thor had bound him with cuffs and––never let it be said the Norse pantheon didn’t have a slightly kinky streak––some sort of muzzle, to prevent the trickster god from casting any inconvenient magics. His AI informed him that even in interrogations, wherein the god was given pen and paper to respond with (which he did, on occasion, with infuriatingly vague and mocking results) and was provoked in ways that had brought that flicker out before, no further flashes of blue had appeared in the time lapsed after the application of those magic-dampening restraints.

Thor had said that the shackles about his cousin’s wrist cut off all connection to magics outside Tony’s own skin. The muzzle prevented him casting any spells with the magic within him alone.

It had been just over twenty-four hours after the battle.

Loki had spoken to Pepper over the phone not long after arriving back at S.H.I.E.L.D.’s more ground-based HQ with the rest of the team, and knew she was on her way to join them. He estimated that he had an hour to kill before facing her grief concerning Phil Coulson, and her inevitable rage and horror when he would inevitably tell her how he had put a stop to it all, with that bomb. He knew that it wouldn’t go well. He also couldn’t help but feel stung, that she hadn’t answered when he called, in those last moments before things exploded, then went dark.

Any more bad ideas?

With the manipulation of a few security protocols, he made his way to Tony’s cell without ever appearing on the camera footage: the thirty seconds or so of footage before he strode past any given camera was repeated, where footage of his passage should have been. At least, until he actually reached the trickster god’s cell: those cameras there got full two-minute loops.

Tony was in a cage not terribly dissimilar to the one he’d been in on the helicarrier, a bit less reinforced. It made sense, given that the Asgardian restraints had left Tony mostly harmless. In theory.

Loki knew better. He had asked Thor about frost Jotunns not long after the thunder god had joined their little top-secret boy band. He had been establishing what the trickster god might be capable of. Apparently, Thor assumed that the ice-related abilities that came with Tony’s mixed heritage would be restricted by the cuffs and the muzzle, just like anything else. 

Except that the way Thor had described that cold being transferred by contact with the skin suggested that without moving or speaking, the trickster god might drop his temperature severely enough to compromise the integrity of his bonds, and break free of them.

“Enjoying your time away from the watchful eye of your master?” Loki asked, by way of greeting.

Tony’s eyes narrowed, his expression very dark.

“Whoever it was isn’t able to look out through your eyes anymore, it looks like. If you wanted to be handcuffed and gagged, really, you should’ve just asked.”

The god of mischief stood, and strode over to the glass wall. He tilted his head to one side in silent questioning.

“You sat there and let us catch you. I’ve seen the footage of your little dance with Thor and Agent Coulson: you can teleport short distances, probably long ones too if you really need to. And now here you are: waiting patiently to go home, rather than breaking out with a bit of ice and brute strength.”

For a moment, Tony almost looked amused. He shook his head, looking Loki up and down with shrewd interest.

The mad inventor rolled his eyes. “The gag ruins it, sweetheart. I prefer my lovers vocal. Also: not murderous super-villains. Sorry to break it to you.”

Tony raised his bound hands, and pressed  one palm, only a bit awkwardly, flat against the glass. Words appeared on it, as though written by a pen under the skin: Take advice from a mage: do not question too closely what lies in that abyss.

Loki’s eyes narrowed. “I got a glimpse.”

The god of mischief nodded, and the first lines of words vanished, soon replaced by more: So I can see. I’m surprised it didn’t leave you gibbering.

“It’s not the first dark place I’ve blown up.” He tapped his chest, just hard enough for his fingernail to click audibly against the arc reactor. “If anything, it was easier than the first time. No caves to claw my way out of, and this time someone caught be before I crash-landed. Also, the armor has improved since the first model.”

The god stared at him for a long moment, palm blank as his expression. Then more words: You are concealing this meeting.

Loki nodded.

Why?

“I know you didn’t really want the earth,” the inventor said. “But I’m hardly going to tell them that. I’m inclined to let them hate you as a shallow, one-dimensional sort of villain. I don’t want them working on bigger, badder nuclear deterrents to aim at whoever it was on the other side of that portal.” He stepped just a little closer to the glass. “So tell me: how likely is it that he will follow?”

The trickster considered. He will not. He considers me lost, and is too far to bring his forces to earth anytime soon. Blank, once Loki finished reading, then more appeared: Much though it might amuse him to destroy or take over earth, it is not temptation enough to take him from his main quest for power. Blank again, briefly. He will remember earth, but even this defeat will not provoke him to come straight for you. There are other cubes out there, and he will seek them first.

Loki nodded, his eyes narrowed. “Interesting. I’m curious why you sought to be captured, then. And why you’re still here. Plans within plans?”

Even from behind the muzzle, it was clear that Tony was smirking. His dark eyes were bright with mirth. I never said he was the only one I met with, in the void. And not only Chitauri traversed it, whilst it was open.

“Ah,” the inventor said. “A two-man con. Interesting. A friend?”

The trickster merely rolled his eyes in response.

“Someone who either wants something you have access to, then,” Loki mused, “or who already owes you a favor or two, and is in your debt. Possibly both.”

Tony only shrugged. He watched the mortal with unnerving intensity, as he watched all of his interrogators, but it was a bit different this time: less orchestrated, more like a tennis match, or possibly a pop quiz.

The inventor considered. “You want me to think I’ve struck on something. And you’re not enjoying yourself the way you did with Fury, making him think, incorrectly, that you were getting off on his pain.” He hummed. “Why be more sincere with me?”

You interest me, the trickster’s palm read. Even amongst gods, there aren’t many who can keep up with me. Wiped blank, then continued. You can almost tell when I’m not lying, where most would stumble over disbelief.

“And in stumbling, they fall for your tricks,” Loki concluded. This was why Natasha had trouble getting a consistent read on this one. Tony was not a liar the way that spies are liars: he’s a magician, a showman, a con artist with a real creative streak and a morbid sense of humor. Loki knew all about those games, because he played them every day. He felt a flicker of something heated, and regretful, and angered all at once. Meeting Bruce had been meeting someone whose scientific genius could match his own, and it had been a breath of fresh air: someone who spoke his language at the same pace he did. It had eased a tense little bit of loneliness and frustration he hadn’t even known was there. And now this damned trickster god was pulling something similar, yet something worse and more tempting: this one spoke his language in a still more comprehensive way, and seemed more than willing to use it to say filthy things into his ear while fucking him, given the chance. It really wasn’t fair. “It’s a real pity you’re a villain.”

It’s a pity you’re dependent upon heroism to assuage guilt you want to believe that you feel, for the lives you’ve destroyed with your legacy, Tony countered.

Loki winced. “Whereas you clearly have no problem looking your reflection in the eye, knowing what you are and what you’ve done?”

The trickster’s expression darkened again. You know nothing.

“Is that the real reason you won’t break out the easy way, before your trial and incarceration?” Loki goaded. “It is, isn’t it? You can’t stand it, can you? Knowing you’re a monster suited you fine before you found out that monster wasn’t all Aesir.” He smiled to see how thoroughly that had pissed Tony off, how much more cracked the trickster’s mask had suddenly gotten.

Both hands flat against the glass now. Your quest to protect your world with that suit of armor is a futile one. You will never be enough, you will never improve enough lives to make up for all those your technology has destroyed, and will continue to destroy. Blank, then more: You desperately try to convince yourself that you wish to repent and improve, but you hardly cared about collateral damage before your own weapon backfired on you. You fight to prove yourself not to others for you never cared about them; your struggle is to convince yourself that you feel guilt like any other human, rather than the apathy of a monster like the one who sent you into the desert to die.

Loki had never wanted to shoot someone more in his life, and his fingers stretched and flexed, itching for his gauntlets. After a few breaths, he came up with a suitable counter-attack. “And you are struggling to convince yourself that you don’t need the approval you’ve craved all your life. You want to prove it by injuring the hearts of those you wanted that approval from in the first place, even the one who didn’t actually ever mean to hurt you. You’re so desperate to cut yourself off from them, and prove to yourself that you never needed them, that you’ll burn your own house down around your ears and lose every chance you might’ve ever had to ease or even outright end the pain of rejection.”

Ice formed around the trickster god’s hands: just a thin layer of frost, but Loki could feel the temperature of the whole room dropping, could see the bluish cast to Tony’s skin and the way those brown eyes bled over to red. I should kill you for your insolence.

“And give me the satisfaction of both being right, and ruining your prior plans to not escape yet?” Loki mused. “Oh yes, brilliant.”

Tony stared at him for a long moment, the blue and red theme fading.

The mad inventor crossed his arms over his chest. “As someone who harassed his own father to an early grave,” Loki said sharply, ignoring the pang of old guilt (You idiot, always telling me not to drive drunk! Why did you let me get to you enough to forget your own advice? It was just another fight, not even a big one, why-) and stepping closer once more. “I’d recommend you reconsider the plans you made while in that abyss, if I were you. Think of the poor decision-making you made the last time you were so angry.” He shook his head. “Thor updated our files on you, you see, and it’s a fun read, but I can’t help but wonder why you thought Odin hadn’t destroyed all of Jotunnheim himself ages ago, since he invented the bi-frost and knew its potential all along. Didn’t it seem clear that if that he thought that a viable option, he’d have done it himself?”

You should leave, Tony’s palms read. With haste.

Loki paused, after a close examination of the trickster’s expression. “You shouldn’t. Yet. Well... depending on a few things. Do you think they’ll let you get a word in edgewise in Asgard, before they sentence you?”

Tony pulled his hands away from the glass: frost melting as he did so. Clearly, he was done talking.

“Just a thought,” Loki said, his voice holding no trace of the sudden nerve-tingling urge to flee he felt. “Best of luck to you.” He inclined his head a little and started to back away. Just before turning his back on the trickster, and because he couldn’t resist, the inventor called, “And I still owe you a drink.” Then left.

By the time the security overrides switched off, and the footage of Tony in his cage was once more in real-time, the trickster was back in the place he had been before Loki entered, and there was little trace of any ice on the glass, though a hairline crack had appeared in it due to stress from the abrupt temperature-change.

It wouldn’t be noticed until the trickster had already been taken back to Asgard.

 

~~

 

Pepper wasn’t just mad about the bomb. She was caught between dauntingly livid incandescent rage, acute hurt, and something close to outright panic. “You what?!

Loki winced a little. “There wasn’t another option.”

“There’s always another option other than ‘grab hold of a nuke and follow it through a rip in space-time!” she shouted, her face going red, the color starting to creep down the back of her neck: bad sign, in this case, paired with that expression. “I thought you had gotten past this, Loki. I really thought-” She cut off, running a hand over her hair: it was pulled back, sleek and business-like and immaculate as she always was even as she clearly felt less so. “I don’t understand how you go from the calm state you’re in now, to how damned reckless you can be as soon as you wrap yourself in machinery: cars, or the suit, or your lab, or the suit-”

“Pepper, please,” he said, resting his hands gently on her shoulders.

They twitched at his touch, not quite a flinch, but it stung nevertheless. “You know I care about you, Loki, but I don’t know how long I can keep doing this. Not as we are, not––not when it was bad enough before we made the whole transition to... to... being an us.” She crumpled a little, then and leaned in to rest her forehead against his chest. “You scare me. Every time you go out in the suit, these days, you scare me.”

“I wish you would just trust me,” Loki sighed.

“I do. And that’s why I’m afraid. Because I don’t trust that many people, you know I don’t, not really. I trust you to be Loki Farbautisson, because I know you, and that’s why I worry.”

The inventor took a slow, deep breath, pulling her closer. “I’m too much, again.”

“Don’t sound like that. I just––I can only reel you in so far before I know that what I’m asking is both unfair and unrealistic.”

“If I look in your jacket, I’m going to find that line in a set of flash-cards, aren’t I?”

“Asshole,” she muttered. “Yes. Not all of us improvise everything  just off the cuff. Not when we know we need to mean it. And the timing is awful and I’m glad you’re alive but I want to strangle you.”

“There, that sounds less rehearsed,” Loki murmured, tilting her face up. “How long?”

“You knew, didn’t you, that we were coming to this,” she said, voice thick. “You’ve got that self-deprecating look again. Don’t––please don’t think this is because you aren’t––because you aren’t... Shit, I didn’t get to those cards.”

The inventor’s expression cracked a little. “I trust you to tell me when I’m not giving enough; that’s how this started. You make me better, when you’re with me, Pep.”

“You’re more than enough,” Pepper said softly. “You’re wonderful. And amazing. And I need you, you know I do, but this––”

“Another way to say ‘more than enough’ is to call it what it is: too much.”

Pepper sighed. “I’m not like you. I don’t thrive on being overwhelmed and having to adapt. I need plans. I need to be able to cope with expectations. I could barely cope with ‘my boss is all I have for a family and the only real friend I have who sees right through me and he might die the next time he goes off in his armored suit.’ Add in ‘and when he does, I’m going to lose the man I love and wanted to spend the rest of my life with’ and I just––I tried, I’m still trying, but you’re telling me you flew a nuclear weapon into an alien armada by hand and... God, Loki, we need to talk about this more when I don’t need to have you really close right now, because I do love you, and you’re alive, and I need this more than I need to yell at you right now.”

Loki closed his eyes and tucked her head under his chin. “I’m sorry.”

“You’re sorry you hurt me,” she said. “You’re not sorry that you did it.”

Consummate impulsive liar that he could be, Loki put in the necessary effort to let slip an honest answer: “You’re right,” he said. “You’re absolutely right.” He swallowed tightly. “At least I managed the monogamy part without a hitch, though.”

She laughed against his collarbones, a bit brokenly. “Yes. Thank you for that.”

“It was easy,” he said. “You made it easy.”

“God, that’s flattering, coming from you,” she bit back.

Loki smiled, managing not to collapse in on himself for a while longer, while he still had her with him, even knowing that after tonight he really wouldn’t––not like this, in any case. And it was because he wasn’t sorry enough, because he wasn’t quite close enough to being human as well as a genius––not in the way Pepper needed him to be. Not in the way anyone ever needed him to be. It always stung: being too much and not enough, to people he loved. There was a reason he’d given up on monogamy early on, and why it had taken someone as special as Pepper to make him want to try it again. “Want a drink?”

“Yes, but that would require you letting go, so no.”

“Not if I have JARVIS open a bottle of wine and pour it.”

She huffed. “Okay.” She lifted her head. “But let’s go to the couch with it.”

Couch. Not bed. He knew immediately where this was and was not going to go, based on past experience. Loki tried and failed not to be disappointed at the chance to experience the combination of Pepper, handcuffs, I’m-glad-you’re-alive- and This-is-the-last-time-sex all at once. That would’ve been one for the books, he was sure. “All right, then.”

They settled into the cushions, and talked about Phil Coulson. He asked about the cellist. Pepper sighed and said she would give her a call. They talked about S.H.I.E.L.D., and the Avengers, Loki mapping out their personality flaws at great length to make her laugh.

“What about your bad guy?” she asked. “The one who was flirting with you?”

“He defenestrated me. We’ll need to look into some major repairs and renovations to the tower, by the way. Broken windows are the least of its problems.”

She snorted. “What did you say to him that made him throw you out a window?”

Nothing half so bad as what I said to him once we won, he thought. “He tried to do to me what he did to archer-boy: the brainwashing thing. It didn’t work, thanks to the arc reactor, and I may have suggested that he had performance issues.”

Pepper giggled, even as she shook her head. “You didn’t.”

“I did,” Loki insisted.

“You would, I guess.” The initial angry red flush was long gone, replaced by the faintest pink high on her cheeks and the bridge of her nose, from the alcohol. She looked lovely, and Loki had scarcely wanted to stop time more at any other point in his life, just to keep this a while longer.

“You don’t approve,” Loki suggested.

“Not entirely. But I still hope the security footage caught to look on his face for posterity.”

Loki made a mental note to erase that footage from any databases Pepper had access to. He planned to keep a copy on his ghost drive, though. He didn’t bother to think much about why. He was too fixated on the flirting-back he’d done in that footage. “His ‘magic’ for lack of a better word interfered with the cameras.” He shot JARVIS’ nearest camera a play along or I will reprogram you with a mallet look. “While he was trying to mind-control me, anyhow. Once he got beat up a bit, they came back online. Lucky, too.” He chuckled darkly. “Otherwise we wouldn’t have a recording of the Hulk shaking him around like a rag doll, pummeling him into the floor.”

She laughed, high and pretty.

And Loki felt his heart break, far beneath all his armor. “I don’t want to give you up,” he said quietly.

“I don’t want to give you up either,” she said, turning to look him in the eye again as his arms tightened around her waist. “But I don’t want you to stop being the man I love, just to appease me. You’re too good, the way you are.”

He tried to see any hint of her usual tics indicating dishonesty, and felt his throat tighten when he didn’t find them. “You’re better. You’re always better.”

She snorted. “You’re supposed to be the genius. I didn’t settle for you. I wanted you. Still want you.”

Loki hid his face against the side of her neck. “So you’re saying break-up sex tomorrow. I recommend clearing the rest of your plans for the day to accommodate it.”

A low hum escaped her throat. “Yeah. Yeah, I think we’ll both need that.”

It took an effort, but he didn’t ask about the handcuffs. “Okay,” he said. “Okay.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Anton Howartsson never really liked a lot of Asgardian law. As a general rule, he treated laws the way he treated common etiquette: breakable in uncivil company, or when one could be certain of not getting caught. Also, on the off chance one does get caught, have a contingency plan to make it look as forgivable as possible. In order to achieve the latter, it’s best to know the ins and outs of the law and the entire legal system involved.

Thus, he was very well-prepared to defend his actions; however, in all likelihood, that was why they had not removed his muzzle.

He waited patiently for his list of wrongdoings to be hashed out: first from the All-Father, who stared at his nephew with a mixture of disappointment, grief, and something just broken enough to look like affection regardless, even as he accused Tony of genocide. Then from the warriors three, who accused him of the anticipated counts of treason as well. Thor gravely, and with apparent reluctance, listed crimes he had committed in Midgard: attempted murder of Thor himself, successful murder and/or manslaughter committed against (in total) roughly one hundred and fifty mortals once the dust settled and rescue teams on earth had completed their duties and gotten a body count, attempted hostile takeover of a world under Asgard’s protection, and general wreaking merry havoc.

Tony waited.

The prosecution, his accusers, save for Odin, spoke of the wider effects of his misdeeds. Thor was more hesitant than the others, save for listing the damages done to his precious earth and its inhabitants; he made no speculation concerning Tony’s motivations. The warriors three, and character witnesses of good standing in Asgard’s royal court, were not so restrained, and accused the younger prince of jealousy, spite, insanity, and intent to destroy all that was good.

Tony found that part most amusing. He waited.

As the court ignored his presence, and spoke of moving on to his sentencing with apparent haste, Odin protested.

“My son,” he said flatly, “has the right to speak in his own defense.”

Tony tried and failed to hide his surprise at being called––well, that. All things considered. He was warmed, but as much out of anger as anything else.

A flurry of protests followed, mostly concerning how dangerous it would be to allow the trickster god that. As a mage, he might well escape under his own power, they argued, the moment he had access to his magic again, which was coexistent with Tony’s ability to speak at all.

Tony closed his eyes, and wove illusion into his skin from underneath; he wouldn’t let them see him as that sort of monster just yet. Then his temperature, and that of the air around him, dropped like a stone. The sudden temperature change to very near absolute zero, so quickly, caused the metal over his mouth to hiss, and crackle. With perfect ease, Tony reached up and took hold of it. With one hard squeeze, the device shattered, and its silencing wards went with it. “It’s so very good to know how trusted I am,” he said, projecting his voice with the ease of an actor, his tone flat and biting, cold as his skin.

Heavy silence fell in the courtroom.

Tony broke his shackles just as easily, with a flick of the wrist, and rose to his feet with carefree ease, to stand up straight on the moderately tall dais he’d been placed upon earlier. The guards nearest him stepped back warily, raising their weapons. “If I wanted to escape, I would have done so ages ago,” Tony said flatly. “The same goes for me killing anyone in my immediate vicinity, too; it’s not like it would’ve been hard.” He raised his head and met Odin’s gaze. “I would explain myself, if I may.” He then turned his eyes to those who had protested giving him leave to speak. They had curiously vanished into the crowd, all save Sif, and Heimdall, who glared at him in stony silence.

Taking the silence as tacit permission, the trickster god nodded gravely. “Thank you. Now... to start, I would address your charge, All-Father: that of the destruction of a good deal of a large continent in Jotunnheim along with many of its inhabitants, and the destruction of the bi-frost.” He raised his chin. “Firstly, there are no laws in Asgard against killing frost giants, no matter whether it be two, or two thousand of them at a time. In fact, there are only a number of charming diplomatic loopholes placed by the court after peace was declared with them, which allow any citizen of Asgard to avoid standing trial if accused of almost any crime by a Jotunn court. Those loopholes are almost as questionable as the lack of accountability itself, of course, if you seek to suggest that Jotunns are to be treated equally, in the eyes of Asgardian law, with Aesir. I recommend revision of the law after my trial, but for my damage to their world, I couldn’t, of course, be punished retroactively even then.” He eyed the reaction of the crowd absently, saw mostly approval form all but the very naive and the very young, who were, of course, horrified, as all children are when they discover that the universe is a terrible and unfair place.

“There are laws higher than those of Asgard, Anton,” Odin interrupted.

“Yes, but I think they’re currently more concerned with the one who delivered me to Midgard all of a sudden, from the depths of a certain abyss,” Tony countered in light, airy tones, raising a hand to point at Odin with a wide smile and a wink, as though the All-Father had almost pulled one over on him. “More on that later.”

“Move on to the destruction of the rainbow bridge, then,” Odin prompted.

“That was my intention,” Tony said lightly, with a shrug. “And neatly brings me to my Second point: I personally doubt that most citizens of Asgard are half so concerned about the damage done to hated enemies they still tell horror stories about to keep their children in their beds at night, as they are the destruction of the rainbow bridge, which it was never my personal intention to cause. It would have run down on its own, after their planet was destroyed, and would have required some minor repairs, but nothing more. Dear Thor’s sympathy for the people of Jotunnheim was most commendable, most compassionate, of course. And it was he who stopped the building of the bi-frost with a few well-placed hammer blows.”

Murmurs arose from the crowd.

Tony’s smile was wide and brilliant. “That said, I of course regret the haste and lack of foresight in my actions,” he continued: only a bit of a lie. He was annoyed with his past self, and with a certain mortal of his recent acquaintance, for being so maddeningly spot-on. “It was pointed out to me recently that the convenient solution of destroying all of Jotunnheim must have already occurred to you, All-Father, given that you designed the functions of the bi-frost, and if you had wanted them removed from existence, instead of more mercifully seeking to neutralize them as a threat so that they would continue to leave us alone of their own volition, then you’d have done it a long time ago.” He couldn’t restrain a slight wince even as he said it. A few of the old war-veterans in the crowd made somewhat displeased noises at the idea.

Thor’s brow furrowed. “Who pointed it out?”

“Your astuteness, while infrequent, is still pretty ill-timed when it does make a brief appearance,” Tony muttered, not quite under his breath. “A mortal. I will say no more of it.”

More murmurs rose from the crowd, then, increasingly curious.

“The mortals of earth,” Odin said, quieting the general susurrus, “are under the protection of Asgard, Anton. You have killed a very great many of them, directly and indirectly alike.”

Tony nodded, donning a grave mien. “I have. I did it of my own volition, with deliberate forethought and malicious intent. I won’t dispute this.”

“Why did you do it?” Odin said.

“Because I was doing what I’m best at, of course: being a liar, and indirect, and not so much falling into depravity as sauntering vaguely downwards,” Tony asserted. “I was performing a role assigned to me by a creature stronger and more war-like than you have ever been, All-Father.” His smile returned in force. “What I’ve done is make sure that only one hundred and fifty mortals perished, instead of thousands, if not millions, should the tesseract have made it into his hands. Furthermore, I managed it while making sure he wouldn’t have anyone to blame but myself: not Asgard, not even earth, really. So you may now thank me for preventing war with the banished Thanos of Titan and all of his forces.”

Shivers of reaction rippled through the crowd, whispers far more hushed and frightful than they had been before.

“Good thing, too,” Tony mused. “Given that his gauntlet still resides in your vault, All-Father, and in his exile, he’s regained sufficient power to take it back, should he so wish it. If you’re going to bring up any new subject with the prosecutors of legal action for laws higher than those of Asgard, then I think Thanos looking for cosmic cubes like your little lost tesseract might be more important.”

The whispers grew louder, until Odin’s staff struck the ground three times: all sound dropping into silence by the third strike.

Tony spread his arms wide, hands forward with palms open. “It was just a bit of fun, but you’re all very welcome, regardless,” he said, bowing low with every ounce of dramatic flair in his possession, then promptly vanished from the courtroom, and indeed from the realm of Asgard entirely.

Predictably, chaos erupted in the courtroom.

 

~~

 

It is possible for Asgardian justice to convict a criminal even after they have done something as uncouth as flee the courtroom, and manage to avoid recapture. And so they did, but not over-hastily. This was mostly at Thor’s insistence, for he desperately wanted to find reason to believe his brother was not wholly lost to him, as Tony had known he would be. There was also insistence from Queen Frigga, and to some lesser extent Odin too, if only because the All-Father and his wife were damnably curious about their adoptive son’s actions and generally worried about Thanos, as Tony had known that they would be.

They closely examined Tony’s actions in Midgard. Frigga even made a diplomatic visit to S.H.I.E.L.D. with two impartial mages and her son Thor, to review the available security footage, and question the Avengers (those interviews conducted, understandably, far from S.H.I.E.L.D.’s eyes and ears) individually about Tony and the invasion he brought.

The most fruitful interview, Tony would not have been surprised to note, was from one Loki Fatbautisson, who also allowed them access to security footage he’d surreptitiously removed from S.H.I.E.L.D. servers. As a result, Frigga and one of her traveling companions went so far as to invite him to Asgard, which he accepted with his characteristic impulsiveness. Twenty-four hours later he called Pepper from BumFuck-Egypt, New Mexico with quite possibly the worst hangover of his entire alcohol-laden life, while Thor quietly tried (and mostly failed) not to laugh at him when his back was turned.

After that, it did not take long for sentencing to take place.

Thus, when he re-appeared by his uncle’s hearth three days after his abrupt exit from the courtroom, Tony simply inquired, “They decided against execution, I take it?” He flinched to find the pointy end of the All-Father’s scepter immediately at his throat, pinning him firmly against the mantle.

“Just so,” Odin said, low and dangerous.

“What sentence,” the younger trickster managed, his voice still mostly even despite the slight pressure against his larynx, “or sentences, did I then receive?”

The All-Father held his gaze steadily. “I may ignore the court decision entirely based on your answer to one simple question, Tony.”

“Yes?”

“Who did you bring into the mortal realm along with the Chitauri?”

Tony’s lips twitched. “To be fair, he didn’t stay long. He’s not still on earth. I made certain,” he said quickly.

“Who. Was. It?” Odin demanded, slow and staccato, his expression deathly calm.

“Malekith,” Tony snapped at last. “He already owed me one favor, and I saw no reason not to double his debt to me.”

“You made no deals with him.”

Tony snorted. “None that actually occurred He was to seek me out if I could not escape Asgard again, but I hadn’t expected my restraints to be so easy to shuck off. Given that my escape was successful, and that you cannot keep me here even now without slitting my throat first, his debt to me still stands at two sizable favors.” He offered the malicious parody of a smile. He didn’t care to mention that he might have been planing to waive those debts and offering Malekith the Casket of Ancient Winters in exchange for the dark elf acting as liason to help him make a deal with, and eventually release, Surtur; in any case, he’d begun to reconsider, if only a little, but no one need know that either––particularly not Malekith. “I thought you’d be proud. I learned tricks like that from you, y’know.”

Odin lowered his scepter from his adoptive son’s throat. “So you did,” he said softly. “Though I often wish you had not.”

“Well, I was already in Thor’s shadow all my life,” Tony mused. “No reason I shouldn’t go rooting around in other things you tend to try and keep in the dark.”

The All-Father took a deep, calming breath, though his eyes burned with ire. “Your impudence has only increased, I note.”

“I respect you less,” Tony countered flatly, “where I once worshipped you almost as blindly as Thor, even as I learned how to lie to you and trick you to keep in your infrequently displayed good graces. Funny I never noticed all your flaws before.”

“Tony,” Odin said quietly. “Despite what you may think, I am more than glad to see you alive.”

“You let me fall,” Tony snapped, every syllable leaden with anger.

“You let go,” Odin said sharply. “Had you held on, had you desire to live and to stay with your kin who do still love you, my heart would have been far less broken.”

Tony hesitated. “What?” He shook his head to clear it. “Don’t lie to a liar, father. Especially not one who has known you since birth and learned all your best tricks in the vain hope of ever impressing you half so much as the smallest triumph of Thor ever did. You didn’t decide to honor my choice. You hesitated to reach out because something scared you off.

“You looked very much like your father,” Odin said sharply. “And he made a similar choice, once. I did not heed his choice, for which he never forgave me. I had already wronged you too far to risk making that mistake as well.”

At that, Tony stopped. Almost half the fight drained out of him entirely. “What sort of choice?” he asked, suspicious, but less aggressive. “What sort... why has no one never told me of anything like this?”

“I’ve told you how he died,” Odin explained, “but not of either of the two times that he almost died before that. In that regard, I have been remiss.” His expression was one of genuine regret. He let go of Tony’s shoulder. “Sit with me, my son. Please.”

After a long few moments of staring, Tony asked quietly, “My sentence?”

“Contempt of court and reckless endangerment of multiple realms,” the All-Father said. “Your other crimes, presuming you do not continue wantonly murdering large populaces, be they mortal, Aesir, Jotunn or otherwise, were declared beyond the court’s authority to determine, given the complex diplomatic matters involved. Your punishment, therefore, fall to me to decide; however, I would speak with you before making my final decisions in that regard.”

Tony stared a bit longer. “You’re admitting that you made a mistake,” he said flatly. It sounded almost like a question, so palpable was his lingering incredulity.

“I am admitting that I have made many. And I am also apologizing. For far too long I have looked at you and seen your father. I should not have let my own grief distort my view of you, not for an instant, let alone for many years. I am sorry, my son.”

Seemingly knocked back on his heels, Tony folded his arms across his chest, then lifted one hand, thumb flicking back and forth across his lips as he stared down Asgard’s patriarch. Tony’s expression utterly masked, he said softly, “Let us speak frankly, then... father.”

 

~~

 

Loki waited for Pepper to ask him about the New Mexico incident. He knew it was bothering her. He’d vanished so thoroughly that even S.H.I.E.L.D. hadn’t been able to find him, after doing little more than leave her a voicemail along the lines of, “Iron Man has an appointment with the advanced technology of a bunch of Norse gods, and a lot of their mead afterwards. I’ll be back soon, Pep. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”

What else was one supposed to do when a redheaded bombshell of a Norse deity explained that her favorite type of magic involves a lot of really great sex and suggests that after getting a tour of Asgard with her queen, she might be inclined to show him a few tricks? Of course, Loki had decided to be polite and not mention the bit where Freya crawled into his lap and whispered in his ear that she hadn’t sampled mortal men in far too long. Yes, best to leave that part out, even if it was still so far the only bed he’d crawled into since they had broken up: that was impressive, by Loki’s standards.

His initial tour of Asgard with Frigga as guide had made his fingers itch for some of his scanners, but even without them, he’d gotten more than a few ideas. And he might have pocketed a small piece of the broken rainbow bridge to examine more closely later.

But really, when it came right down to it, the best part of the trip had been having the Norse goddess of sex and fertility slowly take him apart in her bed. She’d found the concept of condoms hilarious, too, but luckily agreed to let him use them. They’d subsequently gone through almost two boxes of them, because apparently one of the benefits of her unique skill-set included giving him recovery time better than he’d had even at age fourteen.

All things considered, a very good and worthwhile venture.

“I give,” Pepper snapped. “Why the hell were you in the middle of a small town in New Mexico without your armor or most any of your gadgets except the cellphone you’d powered off, why was Thor with you, and why did you have a battle-axe?”

“Souvenir,” Loki said. “And Thor’s mom likes me better than the other Avengers aside from Thor, apparently. She was asking about her son-”

“Thor?”

“The other one. The adopted one.”

“The one who flirted with you, then threw you out a window.”

“Yep.”

Pepper stared at him. “You went to Asgard.”

“Special one-day pass for a visiting mortal. Apparently that’s a thing.” Loki shrugged it off casually. “Cellphone service isn’t inter-planetary; however. I’ll have to work on that.”

She sighed at him. “Only you, Loki.”

“We can only hope. I dare not think what might have happened if any other reckless mortals were given that much Asgardian mead,” he called after her. “They didn’t believe me when I said I had the liver of a concrete elephant; I think I still impressed them.”

“Not for long if you keep this up! You’re mortal too, you know.”

Loki winced. “Working on that.”

She laughed at him before shutting the door behind her, leaving him frowning to himself in her wake.

 

~~

 

After hours talking with more bitter honesty between them than Tony recalled having since his childhood, the two tricksters, elder and younger, came to an understanding.

Publicly, it would be announced that Tony had completed an ordeal of a delicate diplomatic nature after leaving the courtroom, and had one more yet to complete. In reality, he had two tasks set for him by the All-Father, and would be watched closely while he conducted them. Tony was to aid in rebuilding the rainbow bridge (his official second ordeal)  and when not doing that, live in Midgard. He would be freed of his obligations once the rainbow bridge was repaired, and (per Odin’s second provision) once he persuaded––sans magical interference––a mortal to champion his release from parole, knowing all that Tony had done to deserve Asgard keeping a close eye on him, as well as wards under his skin to make sure they would know if he broke any of the rules laid out for him.

In the process, Tony was not to kill––accidentally or otherwise, any of the sentient races who considered themselves part of the nine realms, including humans and Jotunns. He was also not to incite any wars, massacres, murders, torture, military coups, large scale political upheavals, or bloody revolutions. Along with the stinging-fresh wards about his wrists, Tony would be watched by eyes he could not escape, this time: for while Heimdall could not always see him, Odin’s ravens always could, when they so chose to look.

“Aw, you don’t trust me?” Tony teased.

“Not until you stop committing murder on a grand scale to achieve your ends. You might not have actually attempted to destroy a planet with this last one, but the pattern remains disturbing nevertheless.”

Tony snorted. “Fine, fine. Challenge accepted.”

 

~~

 

Some hours later, after Odin and Frigga had discussed the matter with their elder son, Thor managed to approach his cousin without the trickster making an abrupt, at times rudely so, vanishing exit.

“You did not truly seek to rule the earth, then?”

Tony rolled his eyes. “Ruling a world would require me to take responsibility for it. That’s really just not my style, brother,” he said flatly, openly ignoring the look of mixed shock and bemusement that lit Thor’s face at being called that. Tony then rose to his feet, dusting off his blood-red robes, and placed a finger under Thor’s chin, pushing up to close the thunder god’s gaping mouth. “One day, I can hope you’ll be more of a challenge to lie to.”

He then strolled away, leaving the thunder god to stare after him.

 

~~

 

A god of mischief can only be contained and kept mostly-obedient for so long––even on a vastly complex intellectual challenge such as rebuilding the rainbow bridge. Tony had always had a knack for infernal devices, and practical arrangements as well. It was all very like spell-weaving to him: just a bit more mathematical and enduring, as well as less chaotic. “It’s all about taming forces that tend toward entropy,” he had said, several times in past month and a half, when asked about it by Thor, or indeed most anyone with a bit of curiosity as to what in the nine realms he was doing with a quarter-ton of strangely iridescent stones arranged into strange sigils along the last hundred yards of the rainbow bridge.

Getting those stones had been the real problem: mined from the same illustrious quarry as the Norn Stones, they were incredibly powerful artifacts with bloodstained histories, all. There were nearly a hundred of them.

More than halfway through collecting them, there was an incident in Muspellheim with one of Surtur’s many offspring that left him all but breathing fire himself. He managed to abscond with his treasures regardless, but rather than heading straight to his chambers to lick his wounds and heal properly, Tony cast a tiring spell that managed to at least stop the bleeding and get rid of the larger pieces of shrapnel in his flesh, then proceeded to give in to impulse.

After all, the bridge wasn’t the only challenge Odin had set out, as terms for his get-out-of-incarceration-free card: he had to charm a mortal capable of understanding him, and Tony had a few possible candidates in mind, one of which clearly stood out from the rest.

So the god of mischief reappeared in Midgard, less than dozen feet from the place the Hulk had knocked him senseless and left him broken, perched on one of Loki Farbautisson’s barstools, and said, “You mentioned owing me a drink.”

He smiled wide and charming at how, on the other side of the bar, Loki nearly jumped out of his skin. The mortal was dressed in a pair of well-tailored black denim trousers, a leather belt with his company logo on the brassy-gold buckle, and apparently nothing else, and had been about to open a frost-covered bottle of an extremely fine vintage of Metaxa, which Loki had just enough presence of mind (and love of the liquor, honestly) to keep from dropping. The stream of colorful expletives in English, Norwegian, French and Spanish were mostly-coherent, but seemed to describe highly unlikely sexually deviant acts that Tony’s ancestors wouldn’t have been able to manage even had they been were highly flexible trained acrobats.

Then Loki noticed that the god of mischief was in full armor (sans that moderately ridiculous helmet––because whoever had told him those horns were anything but ridiculous had clearly out-pranked the prankster on a whole new level) and that the armor in question seemed to be battered and smoking, with a few heavily damaged sections either torn away or badly dented. After a shudder of chilling adrenaline rolled through his system with abruptness, cooling his head as only the prospect of imminent death ever could, Loki managed to straighten his spine, take a steadying breath and step back up to the bar with casual ease. In retrospect, Loki supposed that it should have been something of a red flag for him when all of the myriad responses he considered and rejected, a flat No wasn’t among them, and neither was Get out of my house; instead, he merely said, “You do look as though you might need one.” He arched an eyebrow and plucked another glass to set beside his own without taking his eyes off of the god. He then also plucked the homing bracelets for the Mark VII about his wrists before finally opening the Metaxa.

Tony folded his arms on the bar-top and leaned over it, turning up the arrogance of his grin a few notches. “Oh, darling, it’s like you don’t trust me or something.” His eyes, which had already done a fair bit of wandering over all that smooth, pale skin, settled on the arc reactor in the center of Loki’s chest with interest.

“I don’t,” Loki said simply. “And you hardly trust me, either. As well you shouldn’t: in fact, I’m astounded that you even dared make an appearance.”

“I did a quick spell to verify you were alone up here: no other Avengers tonight.”

“That won’t keep you safe. Oh, JARVIS? Initiate Mischief Management lockdown parameters.”

The god of mischief wasn’t too disturbed by the calm reply from the artificial intelligence (“Of course, sir. Shall I set off any alarms, as well?” to which Loki said, “Not yet, no.”) but he was deeply, deeply disturbed by the way that his entire body abruptly prickled with pins and needles, as though all of his limbs had lost circulation, burningly half-regained it, then just went numb half-numb: the non-physical half of his self-perception abruptly gone silent. Tony went deathly still. “What. Have. You. Done?!”

Loki smiled, wide and fierce and full of sharp white teeth. “I’ve done my research. It took me a full month after my little trip to Asgard-” He didn’t miss the momentary widening of the trickster’s eyes at that. “-working with Dr. Strange and the occult specialists at S.H.I.E.L.D., but I managed to design a limited-range field disruptor that affects energies some might identify as ‘magic’ in nature. I set up a few different locations about the tower that I theorized you might make an appearance in.”

“I can still rip out your throat before you can-” He stopped, noting that the mad inventor’s bracelets had started to show little flashing red lights.

“I invite you to see how far you get when I’m fully armed, but you’re injured and sans magic, Tony of Asgard.”

“I was thinking of coming up with an alias, you know: a secret identity,” Tony interjected, words falling with intent to distract while his mind reeled, looking for options and levers and escape routes. “Something a bit less viking, so I fit in a bit more around town. Maybe ‘Stark’ for the surname.”

“Because you’re stark-raving mad?” Loki inquired.

“Tell me ‘Anthony Stark’ doesn’t have a charming ring to it?”

“It doesn’t,” the inventor protested. “And really, you take my mother’s maiden name? What’s wrong with you?”

“It’s more honest than yours, Farbautisson.”

“And you began valuing honesty... when?” Loki shot back. He capped the Metaxa and because he couldn’t help but display overconfidence in the face of someone who could easily destroy him, he strode around the bar and right up to the god of mischief to hand off the long-promised drink with an air of cold, resentful courtesy. The wiser thing would’ve been to throw it at him, or capture him now while he had the chance. It would’ve been the psychologically healthier, cautious and practical thing; however, few had ever accused Loki of being cautious, or wise to what might adversely affect his health. Far too often, the inventor liked to deliberately pursue bad ideas: they were more interesting. More distracting. Loki wasn’t averse to distraction, on tonight of all nights.

Tony let his eyes wander with open appreciation as he watched Loki move: straight-backed but not stiff, confident but not puffed up with bluster. Loki Farbautisson was all elegance, with the grace of an actor both naturally talented and long-practiced. Tony accepted the drink and lifted it to his lips raising an eyebrow at the rich, heady fragrance: more savory than any mead, and complex, with notes of oak and ripe fruit. “What is this?”

“Metaxa,” Loki said, his expression an unreadable mask as he took a long, slow drink of his own: savoring it, and letting the burn keep him focused. Unfortunately, the rich flavors and stomach-warming heat did nothing to dampen the visceral, predatory awareness he had of the trickster god’s every move. “So it only took you... two months to get out from whatever lock and key they had you under?”

“Two days,” Tony corrected, eyes snapping open again. The dark look––mixed suspicion, cold ire of a calculative nature, and just a hint of carefully restrained hunger––on the inventor’s face made his mouth run dry. “I waited until the opportune moment to chill my restraints until they were more easily shattered than glass. Once free to speak, despite the court’s protests, I made my case, and won it.”

Shooting the god an arch look, Loki hummed thoughtfully. “I don’t think it counts as winning when you’re wearing a different kind of shackle.” He nodded at the god of lies’ sleeves, one of which was torn from wrist to elbow, exposing the marks on his forearms: Odin’s wards of inherent distrust. “I don’t recall seeing those curling out from under the cuffs Thor put on you while I was watching. And look, now that you’re increasingly angry, the lines flicker a little and almost glow in a couple of spots.”

“I’m on parole,” Tony said flatly. “Stop ruining my fun.”

“You arrived in my house at one in the morning in full armor, lightly scorched,” the inventor countered. “I was enjoying a peaceful night up until now; surely if my peace can be a bit ruined, your fun can go down with it.”

“Don’t lie to the god of lies.”

Loki’s lips twitched. So perhaps tonight would’ve been his one-year anniversary with Pepper if he hadn’t fucked it up so royally. And perhaps he’d been opening a new bottle of Metaxa because he’d already drained the last fourth of an older bottle he’d had in the cabinet. He was only barely buzzed, thanks to a naturally high tolerance and a liver already well used to this sort of abuse. He was not drunk enough to be able to blame the alcohol for this almost-friendly drink with a super-villain. Not by far, and he well knew it. “No, I suppose you lie to yourself enough that my adding to it is really superfluous. How’s Thor doing?”

The amusement again puffed out of Tony’s expression like a small candle in a strong breeze. “You think your brashness will prevent you being cut-down by someone with centuries of experience dealing with other lying, cowardly con-men like yourself?”

“Tell me you can do better than that.” Loki reached over the bar, seemingly unaware of how it brought him within arm’s reach of the god of mischief, and grabbed the bottle. He refilled both of their near-empty glasses. “I get worse from the press. They were even pretty classy about it; they called me the Merchant of Death for a long while. Some still do.”

“I cans see that. You’re not still selling your arms, but you’re certainly inspiring an arms race amongst all the enemies of not only you and yours, but the world as a whole,” Tony mused. “Perhaps it should be changed to the Engineer of Death, Death’s Pet Inventor. I’m sure your borrowed innovations are responsible for some of the scars you’re wearing, not least of all your... piercing.” He glanced pointedly at the arc reactor. “Very pretty, but not purely decorative, I think.”

This time it was Loki’s turn to look grave and wholly unamused. He said not a word.

“Oh, did I strike a nerve?” Tony reached out, then, and nearly managed to touch that little circle of light.

Loki’s hand snapped out and stopped him short by a few inches, gripping the god’s wrist hard enough to badly bruise a normal human and at the same time setting down his drink with a sharp clack on the bar, almost but not quite spilling some of the last few drops. His expression was pure, calm and calculated wrath. “Don’t.” The wall-panel behind him lifted, but his suit didn’t quite launch. It was warning enough: the suit could be on him enough to protect him from the punch the god of mischief might throw in less than two seconds, at this short distance.

Tony pivoted his body toward Loki’s and tugged sharply, dragging the inventor a few inches closer to his barstool. “Or what?” He set his own drink down without dropping the mad inventor’s gaze.

The last of Loki’s good sense told him to make a tactical retreat, and so he grudgingly stepped back, just out of the god of mischief’s reach again. “I think I’ve made that clear enough. I would say I’m sorry to disappoint, but it would be insincere.” As he raised his drink to his lips again, he couldn’t resist a parting shot. “And here I thought Freya was the most desperate among you for a taste of something mortal.”

For just a moment, Tony looked almost bemused. Then realization struck, along with slow-burning ire.

“What, were you hoping for my shagging-a-deity cherry?” Loki deadpanned.

Now Tony was off the stool and drew closer with obvious aggressive intent, hissing, “You would do well to know your place, you short-lived little primate.”

“See?” Loki said, just enough alcohol in his system for his impulsive verbosity to overtake the front-lines of his survival instincts. “Terribly desperate.” He couldn’t help but grin maliciously as the god again wrapped a hand about his throat. Anger. Yes. Getting under your skin, breaking through to that rage I can see boiling away in there, desperate to set the world on fire. He didn’t think about the fact that he recognized that burning because he’d seen it in the mirror most mornings for a long time after the incident in Afghanistan. The smell of blood and smoke that hung about the god of mischief, combined with the tang of coconut-metal on his tongue that he associated with his adrenaline rushes, made him think of death and violence and all of the times in his life he’d felt most insane and most terrified and enraged and alive. So he let the god get in a step closer with intent to intimidate, then tucked one of his legs between Tony’s at an angle to push at the side of one knee, off-balancing as Natasha had made him learn the hard way in sparring practice. Then with awareness of leverage born of over a million little practical engineering applications, Loki pushed with his hip, pivoted on his other heel, and slammed the rather startled god of mischief back against his bar, their bodies pressed together from sternum to knees.

Tony’s grip on the mortal’s neck loosened for a number of reasons: foremost was surprise, followed very closely by lust and alarm. Loki, for a mortal, was very quick: forcing the trickster’s throat-clasping hand away with an elbow and curling his thumb to press hard at the tender skin where corner of jaw met throat, the rest of his fingers digging into Tony’s nape hard enough to pull a sound from low in the trickster’s throat. Oh, Tony thought distantly, Oh, aren’t you gorgeous.

Head spinning (mostly at the combined power-trip and overactivity of his adrenal system, but the alcohol was also a minor player) and heart pounding, Loki leaned more of his weight into the embrace, making sure the edge of the bar dug into Tony’s back, forcing the god to arch a bit against him, head tilting back just a little. “You look startled,” Loki purred, voice low, polished accent marred by lust that made it sound like gravel and velvet. “Is that because I’ve managed to do this to you, or because you’re letting me?” Before the god could answer, or indeed give it much thought, Loki’s teeth were at his throat. Then it was also lips, followed pressure-teeth-tongue all together, pulling a low and appreciative noise from deep in Tony’s chest.

The god of mischief shuddered despite himself and muttered a curse in old Norsk. Mortals were not supposed to be this distracting, this overwhelming. They shouldn’t smell like evergreen forests, coconut, metal and spice in such a fine way that it could further blur his thoughts while that mouth at his neck and the hands slipping under his cloak and down his sides to grip his ass momentarily turned his silver tongue to lead––except for the increasingly steady stream of expletives tumbling from his lips. The exhausting battle and near-death experience in Muspellheim, Tony thought vaguely, must’ve had more of an effect on his state of mind than he’d thought. So had not getting laid since he’d fallen into the abyss, really: that always saw terrible effects on his decision-making abilities.

Then Loki’s mouth bit and licked its way slowly up to the tender skin below his ear while the mad inventor’s hips performed an impressive undulating motion, pulling an incoherent few syllables from the god of mischief and hurtling his train of thought off the tracks altogether.

“You’re wearing far too much armor,” Loki growled, hands moving with reluctance from Tony’s behind, experimentally tugging at the the occasional strap or buckle. “Remove it.”

“Easier with magic,” Tony suggested, sounding breathless, but his eyes were very bright and sharp. “Let me show you.”

Loki shot him an unimpressed look, ripped away both of his belts where they had already been cut up a bit, and with a sharp tug send the god of mischief’s cloak to the floor, amused that the god of mischief relaxed arms and shoulders to help facilitate the removal. Then he slipped a hand between Tony’s legs, feeling the hard length of him through the fabric of his trousers, and said coolly, “The rest, Tony.” It wasn’t a question, but his mouth, hovering very close to the trickster’s, almost was.

Taking the hint, the trickster’s dexterous pick-pocket hands began to made short work of the rest of his armor until he was stripped to the waist and unable to prevent his hips jerking against Loki’s hand. And when he tilted his head up to get a taste of that distracting mouth, the inventor maddeningly evaded him, not letting him get much more than fleeting pressure and occasional teeth. “Quit that, and come here.

“I knew you were in need of a good fucking,” Loki purred. “Look at you: god of mischief, god of lies––ancient and ageless and I’ve almost got you writhing.”

Tony’s eyes snapped open. “Don’t push it.”

“I think you want me to,” the inventor shot back. “I think you want me to push until I have you gripping the countertop for dear life as I fuck you until your legs can barely hold you up any longer.” He caught the god of lies’ mouth in a fiercely aggressive, power-struggle of a kiss before either of them could utter another word. He groaned into it as Tony began to fight back in earnest: slippery and pushy, maddening and skillful and Oh, god, silver-tongue: very apt, Loki couldn’t help but think. Knocked back on his heels a bit, Loki got more drunk off that kiss, and Tony’s writhing, than he’d gotten on all the liquor in his system. Then the god of mischief broke away, not far, lips still touching.

“You’re not the only one who needs something tonight, then,” Tony hissed, and rolled his hips with a slow grind, putting almost painfully sweet pressure against Loki’s cock, making the inventor moan prettily and buck against him. “Despite her reputation, Freya doesn’t generally go for taken men. How long since she left you?”

Loki’ s head abruptly cleared, but so brittle and deep-rooted was his anger-response that he used a couple of dirty tricks he had never quite perfected in the sparring ring against Natasha or Clint, but it seemed second-nature now, with such motivation. He brought the god of mischief crashing to the floor, not at all gently. Tony struggled along the way, and heard a distinct crack when his elbow stuck bone, but still the god of mischief was mildly stunned to find himself outmaneuvered, if only barely. Two highball glasses of surprisingly strong mortal liquor, combined with his earlier blood loss and exhaustion, combined with his subdued magic, had apparently been his downfall.

They landed with Tony on his front, chin stung from impact with the floor, and his arms caught by Loki’s in an impressive savate-based hold, giving the god of mischief no leverage to speak of. If he’d been able to focus, and use his full strength, it wouldn’t have mattered, but Loki released the hold a little (in a way the professional assassins would have face-palmed at) to lean down and bite hard at the side of Tony’s neck. Luckily, the tactic worked and Tony arched up into the contact rather than bothering to struggle.

Upon getting a not-protesting noise from that, Loki settled for pinning the god of mischief’s hands out in front of them with one hand, sliding the other down Tony’s side to his hip. Tucking his fingers under the trickster’s abdomen, Loki said softly, “Hips up.”

“Ask nicely,” Tony snapped back, moving to pull a hand free.

Loki’s grip tightened. “I want your hips up so I can wrap my had around your cock. Are you really going to complain?”

Tony considered. He was, however, starting to regain his senses, and his ego protested a great deal. “Yes.”

“Then clearly, you have the wrong man for the night,” Loki said coldly, and pulled back, sitting up.

The god of mischief’s muscles stiffened at the sudden disappearance of that decidedly appealing heat source (so much warmer than himself, made him think of ice melting) and he pushed himself up, weight on his forearms and turned in place to stare up at the frankly infuriating mortal, but couldn’t quite force himself to move further in the direction of away. Tony wanted. Badly.

Loki, with knees still braced on either side of the mad god’s thighs, watched, and folded his arms over his chest. “You’re right: I could really use this, Tony,” he said, low and sharp. “You just have to admit to yourself that what you really want tonight is for a mere mortal mad genius to have you mewling on the floor of this penthouse.” Taunting. Challenging. Hungry.

Tony turned and glared at him. “You’re not making me desire it any-” his voice cracked a bit at the feel of Loki’s long, warm hand curling around his neck and pulling, slow but not gentle. He tensed, not following.

“Don’t lie to a liar, Tony. Come here,” Loki demanded.

“I’m not sure I want to give you the satisfaction,” Tony snarled.

Loki leaned in closer again, planting one hand on the floor for support. “I don’t know why not. I’ll be very good to you.”

“I told you not to l-”

“You know I’m not lying,” the inventor interrupted, anger in his tone again this time, just for a moment, before he donned a truly infuriating smirk. “Consider it a form of worship, however reluctant.” His free hand trailed a light touch up along his bruised side. “You really think I want to give you peace of mind? A sense of well-being? The feeling, even for a while, that you aren’t alone? I’m not exactly feeling well-disposed toward you: last time we met you’d just killed a friend of the people I consider mine.”

Tony snorted. “Sentiment.”

“No,” Loki promised. “Not here. This, darling, is purely about sex. And that’s what I’m offering. I make you come so hard you won’t be able to see straight. Thus you get a little what you need––and you clearly need it: without my armor I managed to pin you to my floor, and I’m not one of the Avengers expert in hand-to-hand combat––while I-”

“Your damned tech-”

“Really? Oh, do stroke my ego further, why don’t you?”

Tony twisted, and had Loki flat on his back, struggling to breathe against the hard press of fingers on either side of his trachea, applying enough pressure the inventor could feel the promise of acutely painful bruising of the skin just under his larynx. “You are a vain, arrogant little insect, you know.”

Unable to reply verbally, Loki merely glared, even as his lips curled in the parody of a smile, just to be contrary. When the god loosened his grip a little, the inventor gasped sharply, then immediately let out a laugh. “And you want me so very badly anyway, because insect or no, I’ve gotten under your skin just as much as you’ve gotten under mine.”

The god of mischief considered, shrewd and appraising now. “I should kill you.”

“You do that,” Loki rasped, “and you’ll never get to see what I might try next.”

Tony snorted. “What makes you think I want to know?”

“You’re still letting me talk instead of tearing out my throat. Obviously.”

Leaning down, reapplying pressure and enjoying the new perspective on Loki’s discomfort, the god of lies purred, “And you like it: that I could kill you.”  He pressed a palm flat over the arc reactor, smiling thinly when the inventor made a half-pained snarl of a sound at the sharp pang of cold Tony sent through it. A bit of frost formed around the edges. “Danger fetishes are often lethal for creatures fragile as you.”

Loki couldn’t speak. The cold was searing, caught between pain and numbness. His lungs, still struggling for air, exacerbated the problem. Even if Tony let up on strangling him, the inventor wasn’t sure he’d be actually be able to gasp for air if he tried. He didn’t close his eyes, and didn’t look away: more stubborn than he was genius, and that was saying something.

Tony sat back on his heels, glaring down at the strange, utterly incomprehensible mortal under him, feeling a mixture of acute anger, desire, and maddening curiosity. This, he decided, was not the night to pursue this: he was too shaken by near-death, too worn down. Surely retreat would be safest. The god of mischief looked away, then, scanning the ceiling. “JARVIS, was it?”

“Yes, Mr. Stark?”

At that, Tony couldn’t help but smirk. “That’s just got such a nice ring to it. You’re an artificial intelligence system with control over the various technologies this building is riddled with, yes?”

“Correct, sir.”

“Turn off that Mischief Management,” Tony said. “Loki would do it himself, but is somewhat robbed of his voice. If you take too terribly long, I might rob him of it permanently.” He chilled the metal around the arc reactor still a little further.

Loki made an understandably muffled, choking, half-hissing sound.

“Shall I, Mr. Farbautisson?” After a moment, the AI added, “Knock on the floor once for no, twice for yes.”

Glaring up into Tony’s eyes, Loki reluctantly knocked once, then twice on the floor.

“Good choice,” the god of lies purred, leaning down to press a brief kiss over his slightly-blue lips, then bit at them not-quite gently. Then Tony inhaled sharply as the air in the room changed, became more charged, and magic flooded back through his awareness like a monsoon over parched land. He was left dizzy with it, and released Loki’s throat. He even pulled the cold back out of him, too, and was close enough to taste the ragged, moaning gasp for air the mad inventor gave in response. “Good, isn’t it?”

“Not dying tends to be,” Loki coughed, voice a stubbornly loud whisper: both broken-sounding and defiant. “You’re an asshole.”

Pinning Loki’s hands over his head and straddling Loki’s hips with enough hip-wriggle that he was able to watch the human’s pupils widen a little in arousal, the trickster purred, “I thought that was what you were after, unless you’ve changed your mind.” Leaving, he decided, would just be dull. And no one had ever accused Anton Howartsson of undue caution when something shiny worth coveting happened to be in reach.

For a moment, the human’s expression was a study in ‘you can’t possibly be serious.’ Then the god of lies lowered his head to lick between Loki’s collarbones, and rolled his hips again, and Loki silently accused his libido of  outrageous calumny for how quickly it again began to respond. From half-frozen near-death to hot-blooded arousal in record time: Loki Farbautisson in a nutshell, ladies and gentlemen. “You’re really not helping with the danger fetish,” he managed. “Not at all.”

“Good. I want you to really appreciate that, while I ride you.”

And oh yes, that sent a shudder down Loki’s spine. “Nearest supply of lube and condoms is in the drawer of that coffee table over there,” he said quickly, pointing.

Tony arched an eyebrow.

“My official title is genius billionaire playboy philanthropist, when out of the armor. I earned every bit of it.”

The god of mischief hummed against his throat. “Then I do hope you’ll impress.” With a flick of the wrist, he summoned the requested items from the drawer.

Loki eyed the phenomenon with interest, muttering about readings and warping bits of space under his breath until, with another gesture, Tony divested them both of the rest of their clothing, at which point the inventor was mostly distracted from matters mathematical––especially when Tony’s cock rubbed against his own: hot and silken enough to make his hips buck. “Let go of my hands.” At the god’s openly suspicious look, Loki sighed. “I’ll make it worth your while,” he said quickly, talking fast as he tended to when a certain edge of desperation hit, and he was nearing desperation faster than he cared to admit. “Let me touch... please.”

“That’s better,” Tony purred. “I might. Tell me what you’ll do with them if I let go, and I’ll consider.”

“Well,” Loki said softly, his voice smoother now that his throat was starting to recall how to work properly. “I plan to open you up, find the best angles to make you incoherent, and proceed to see how close I can get you to coming before my cock even takes part in the proceedings. How’s that?”

Wordlessly, Tony released Loki’s hands.

The inventor sat up, weight resting back on one elbow, and tugged the god of mischief’s head down for another biting kiss, teasing this time, evading attempts to deepen it far enough he lost track of himself as before, especially while his free hand darted out to grab the lube, flicking the lid open one-handed with the ease of long practice, upending it over his palm with a flick of his wrist, squeezing, then set the open bottle down as far to the side (hopefully out of harm’s reach) and let the liquid in his palm slide down to coat his fingers.

He took his weight off of his elbow with an effort, and smirked to feel Tony curl an arm about his waist to keep him close, then put that freed hand to use between their bodies, gripping Tony’s cock with it while his more slippery hand touched the base of his spine and trailed down, down, to press lightly against the prize he sought, rubbing across the opening but not yet pressing in as he let the god of mischief frot against his hand.

“Fucking tease,” Tony hissed, breaking the kiss and biting at Loki’s lower lip.

Loki chuckled and slid a bit lower, until the god straddled his waist rather than his hips. One hand gripping the trickster’s hip, Loki slipped two fingers into him with the other, slow enough to earn a low sound of frustration. “Patience,” he purred, then he curved his fingers, smirking at the little shiver through Tony’s body as Loki pressed hard against his sweet spot, then began doing just as he’d promised: slowly, thoroughly and not very gently fucking the god of mischief with his fingers, pulling low sounds from him, stretching him. “Gorgeous,” he breathed as Tony resorted to resting his forearms on either side of Loki’s head to hold himself up. Loki’s less occupied hand tugged at the back of his knee, bringing that charming ass a bit higher even as Tony’s shoulders began to slump.

The change of angle made the god of mischief’s back arch and another blue streak to escape his lips, this time muttered gutturally in English, close to Loki’s ear: a litany of filth, encouragement and promises that made the inventor shudder.

As a result, Loki turned his head and bit down where the god of mischief’s neck and shoulder met, while adding a third finger and picking up the pace, adding in the occasional maddening twist that made Tony’s hips jerk toward his hand shamelessly, seeking more. Oh, those hips would be the death of him, but what a way to go. Loki’s dry hand teased, dragging slowly along Tony’s perineum before cupping the trickster’s balls in one long, firm and maddening stroke,  making Tony’s breath hitch and a broken “Ffffyes just fuck me,” to escape the god of mischief’s lips. Then he groaned at the inventor’s hands left him.

Applying condom and lube to himself with haste that quite possibly beat his previous speed record, Loki rested his weight back on one forearm again for a bit of leverage and guided his cock to Tony’s entrance, pressing in just enough to make them both groan. “Down,” he said, voice rough with lust and bruises, then hissed when the trickster obeyed, and slid down his length swiftly enough to take his breath away. “oh, fuck–––yes.”

“That’s the idea,” Tony panted, and tangled his fingers in the inventor’s slightly long hair, right at the nape, and forcing Loki’s head to tilt back before Tony lowered his mouth to plunder that of the human now thrusting up to meet his every move as he began to wickedly rise and fall. Every snap of his hips had a bit of rotation at the end, dragging Lok’s cock hard against his prostate, and still harder once the mad inventor caught up, matching his rhythm, and changed his angle to accommodate.

The god of mischief shuddered and kept going, breaking the kiss to pant against Loki’s neck as the inventor arched up closer, seeking more contact, until they were both aware of little more than skin on skin and breath on skin, pull and push, hands and mouths scratching and desperate. When Tony fell apart, he left marks with teeth and nails as he shuddered, breathless and lost, making increasingly softer sounds as Loki rode him through it with those long-fingered hands guiding his hips hard to keep their rise-and-fall rolling. The inventor was persistent, unrelenting, and gorgeous when he came because that immaculate control just shattered.

Shoulders shaking just slightly, weight on his hands and elbows, Tony regained himself enough to watch with open fascination as the mortal slowly fell back to earth, those brilliant green eyes falling open again to meet his. “You really are too damn pretty,” Tony panted. Loki laughed: pure amusement and contentment this time, bitter edge momentarily fallen off along with the masks. It suited him beautifully, and the god of mischief couldn’t help but lean in to feel the softer, more playful curve of those lips against his own. To his surprise, the inventor played along, fingers playing along the nape of Tony’s neck even as they pulled him closer, deepened the kiss.

It was a long time before they parted again, and only then did it occur to Loki that it was more than a little strange, all things considered, for them to be almost gentle all of a sudden.

Clearly reading that realization in the inventor’s expression, Tony smiled with a mixture of genuine amusement and just the slightest return to his more usual bitterness, gave a breath of laughter, and said, “Thanks for the drink, Loki dear. You have excellent taste––” He licked along Loki’s lower lip once, quickly. “-that much is clear.” Then the god of mischief and lies promptly vanished.

“Flashy son of bitch,” Loki muttered, his head falling back with a thud only slightly muted by the thick, fluffy rug between his skull and the hardwood floor. A thought occurred to him, as he realized just how much he didn’t want to move. “JARVIS, where are my jeans?”

“They vanished entirely from the premises along with Mr. Howartsson and his armor. Oh, also your belt, sir.”

“Typical, really, for a god of mischief, I guess,” Loki muttered, rubbing his hands over his face. In truth, he felt fantastic, albeit chagrinned and bonelessly exhausted. With an effort, he tugged a neatly-folded blanket off the nearest chair, covered himself with it, and fell asleep there on the floor, determined not to contemplate possible repercussions at least until the afterglow faded, which might well last into next week, based on the quality of his satisfaction and exhaustion both.

 

~~

 

Loki awoke late (but oh, not late enough, in his mind) to the sound of a shoe tapping on the nearest bit of hardwood floor. He knew that sound. He knew who was wearing that shoe, and was even mostly certain it was one of her pairs by Louis Vuitton: they just sounded demurely domineering when she tapped them like that.

Blearily, the inventor opened one eye, and it wandered from the shoe, up the long and familiar leg above it, to the pencil-skirt, tasteful white blouse, lovely breasts under the white blouse, until it at last settled its stare on Pepper’s face. “Hello.”

She snorted at him. “JARVIS tell me I have no one to kick out, at least.”

Loki groaned, starting to pull the blanket over his head. “I was ambushed.”

“Actually, if JARVIS’ usual moderately-offended-that-he-aided-your-poor-decision-making snark is to be believed, you did the ambushing. He’s being cagey about pronouns, though, and is that...” She then spotted the bottle of lube, cap still open, set down at the foot of the nearest chair. “Yep. Been a while since you brought in a man, hasn’t it? Not one of the housemates I hope?”

“Oh yes,” Loki chirped with mock-glee, only a bit muffled by the blanket. “It was an incredible threesome with Natasha’s pet archer and the blushing virgin antique soldier. I’d be happy to show you the footage.” He immediately made a mental note to destroy the footage as soon as humanly, or even inhumanly, possible.

“I ask because I saw the bites you’re sporting,” she said. “You don’t usually go for the sort who would do that to someone they hardly know. We even discussed it at one point.”

Personal, Loki thought, amused, then just a little disturbed. Last time he’d accused the god of mischief of really making things personal, he’d been talking about Phil Coulson’s death. The comparison, he decided, was distastefully morbid even by Loki Farbautisson’s highly unconventional standards. “We don’t generally get on,” he said vaguely.

Pepper’s eyes narrowed. “You’re evading. It’s always evasion when you don’t just shrug it off with the most offensive joke possible. You forget I know you.”

Loki muttered something incoherent into the blanket, then flinched when she kicked his shin. “Ow. I knew it was the damn red Louis Vuitton ones! Sharp little bastards.”

“Talk to me, Loki.”

“You’re being pushy!”

“I have to be, with you,” she chided. “Come on. You’re practically sulking.”

Loki snorted and lifted his head, his face emerging from the blanket again. “Coffee.” The he realized the was already holding a mug, clearly for him. “Oh. Well.” He sat up, legs folded not quite into lotus position. He even let the blanket cover most of his shame from the hips down as he accepted the coffee gratefully. “You’re a good person, Pepper Potts,” he said with feeling.

“Just drink it and gain some coherency.”

Loki nodded, and did so. “It’s nothing to worry about,” he said, once halfway done.

“You left your favorite liquor out overnight, with the lid off.”

His eyes widened in sudden horror. “Did you-”

“It’s closed, and back in your freezer,” Pepper sighed.

“Thank you,” Loki said, and finished the last half-mug in three large swallows.

“Who was he?”

“Well, um... you’re sure you want to know?”

Pepper raised an eyebrow. “So I know who this is?”

Loki winced. “Dammit. Caffeine––kicking in––too slow.”

“Loki,” she said, low and warning in just the way she knew made him twitch with the most acute discomfort possible.

“It was the fucking trickster god,” he snapped quickly.

Pepper slowly raised an eyebrow, holding his gaze for several long seconds, then glancing pointedly at what Loki assumed to be an impressive collection of bite marks where his neck and shoulder met, before meeting his eye again. “You fucked a super-villain who tried to bring an alien invasion force into New York.”

“Yes,” Loki said quietly. “Sort of accidentally on purpose.” He was slowly turning the cup in his hands, around and around, without seemingly being aware of it as he watched her face cautiously.

After a long silence, Pepper snorted, half-amused and half-exasperated. “You’re insane.”

“You knew that before you even worked for me,” Loki muttered.

“Very true, but let it never be said that you don’t innovate, even in the insanity department––no, make that especially in the insanity department.” She shot him a wry, slightly concerned look. “You’re fine? All in one piece?”

Loki considered. “For the moment, yes. I think he likes me.” He sounded only a little uneasy about that. Two of his favorite pastimes, aside from those related to science and engineering, included sex and risking his life a bit while doing something reckless. Sex with the god of mischief was all that, with a bit of scientific curiosity and morbid fascination thrown in. No combination so winning as that could be anything less than lethal, Loki was dead certain.

Pepper raised her eyebrows. “You think he’ll be back?”

I hope so, was Loki’s first thought, and that, more than anything else within the past strange twenty-four hours, deeply disturbed him.

Seeing the expression on his face, Pepper grew more concerned. “Loki?”

“I think,” the inventor said slowly, “that this was a bad idea.”

Pepper appeared horrified. “Are you dying again?”

“What?!”

“You just admitted to making a mistake. If you cook me an omelette next, that’s it, I’m taking you to the hospital unless you can prove you’re not dying from some obscure poisoning or-”

“Pep!” Loki interrupted sharply. “I’m not. Really, I’m fine... physically.” He frowned.

“Oh god,” she murmured. “You like him.”

“I can’t stand him,” Loki said automatically, then hesitated. “Well. I can. When he’s not wearing much clothing, and when he’s putting that mouth to some good use...”

Pepper coughed.

Loki glanced at her sheepishly, the way he knew tended to earn him a couple of forgiveness points most of the time. He cleared his throat. “Like I said, we sort of don’t get on well. Conversationally, we get along about as well as a pair of surgeons trying to autopsy each other to death with oversized scalpels.”

“But?” Pepper prompted.

“The sex was great?”

She shot him an arch, distinctly unimpressed look.

Loki’s lips twitched. It occurred to him that conversing with Pepper like this was lighthearted because he was letting her affect him. He let her in early on, and designated her one of the few people whose disapproval mattered enough to make him almost (but usually not quite) capable of feeling embarrassment now and then. He’d held the door open for her. The rest of the world, he challenged to work it out for themselves because if they weren’t bright enough to get in, he probably wasn’t interested. It then occurred to him that by his second one-on-one conversation with Tony, the door hadn’t been a barrier to the god of mischief. Nor had the land-mines, for that matter. The god just barged in, and ran his fingers through all sorts of places Loki kept behind closed doors for good reason. And he’d done the same thing to Tony, right from the start. “I think I’m terrified of him a bit, actually,” Loki found himself saying slowly, thoughtfully. “Well, the lizard-brain is.” He tapped an area near the base of his skull.

“That’s a healthy, normal response,” Pepper said, comforting.

“He’s... sharp.” Loki set the coffee mug aside without looking at it, right beside the still-conspicuously-present lube bottle, which he also seemed to have forgotten about. “You know how I said we don’t converse civilly?”

Pepper nodded.

“I don’t like things easy, most of the time.”

She frowned, but there was a hint of resignation in her expression as she sat down in the nearest chair and faced him. “Very true.”

Loki ran a hand through his hair. “We sort of tear into each other’s issues: things you know would lead me to punch anyone less lethal in the mouth the moment I got the general gist of what they were in the middle of saying.” He looked up at her with a hint of desperation. “We’re really, freakishly good at it.”

Pepper’s brow furrowed. “Where is this going?”

He already knows me almost better than you do because we do this, he didn’t say. He couldn’t have said it if he tried: not to Pepper. She was a no-weapons zone: his safe place, always. He shook his head with an easy lie of complete ease with himself and the world. “Never mind. He’s likely off in a huff since I tried the Mischief Managed field on him.”

Pepper’s eyes widened. “Seriously?”

“Well, it was that or start off bringing out the Mark VII, but I wasn’t wearing a shirt, and I’ll have you know that chafes.”

“You tried an experimental weapon on him, then screwed on the couch?”

“Floor,” Loki corrected.

Pepper’s nose wrinkled. “Well, I see why he left, then.”

“He had no reason to complain. I was the one laying on it.”

She looked at him for a long moment, then cleared her throat. “That... was an image.”

He grinned fiercely at her. “Want more details?” He obscenely mimed gripping Tony’s hips and added, “I can tell you about the way he felt on my c-”

“THAT is more than I need,” Pepper said loudly. She sighed at him, irritated. “You’re really fine, though?”

“I can de-magic him if he comes back, I’ll wear the homing bracelets more often, and most likely he just knew where to drop in for a quick shag of known-good quality,” Loki deadpanned. “Besides: usually this place is riddled with other Avengers. Unlikely he’ll be back while they’re around.”

Pepper nodded. “Good. Then please shower, for the love of all that is holy, and get dressed. Your plane was supposed to leave half an hour ago.”

Loki considered. “On second thought, I’m traumatized.”

“Loki.” That damn warning-disapproving-evil voice again.

“Fine! Fine! Slave-driver!” He rose to his feet, leaving the blanket where it was to get just a bit of vengeance.

She stared with determination at his eyes and nothing lower than that. “Now, would be good. And keep in mind you’re in a hurry.”

“I am?”

“Yes,” she said sweetly. “JARVIS? Before he deletes it-”

“DON’T SAVE ANYTHING SHE ASKS!” Loki shouted sharply.

“Go shower.”

“I’m going. JARVIS? You know the drill.” Delete from all but my private server, and the ghost drive therein. It was easier to think about the logistics of keeping that particular sex tape away from prying eyes than giving in to any nagging questions like Do I want that again? Regularly, maybe?  Though even that idle speculation was better than the thought that while the god of mischief might be getting to know Loki just as well as Loki did him, as they got under each other’s skin and kept cutting, that didn’t mean Tony actually liked him, or even thought much more of him than he might of any other chess-piece in Avengers tower.

He didn’t like that thought much. Especially since he found himself hoping to cross paths with the trickster again, and almost looking forward to it.

Chapter Text

After the incidents in Muspellheim and his trip to Midgard for a bit of sex, Anton slept for roughly twenty hours, awoke and consumed almost enough food to rival Volstagg’s daily caloric intake, and then made his way back to the remains of the rainbow bridge on foot, walking out of the palace and down through the town proper. It was a long walk, really: several miles, but that hardly bothered him.

What did annoy him was a certain god of thunder. Tony ignored Thor tailing him, barely resisting the urge to remark upon his adoptive brother’s inadequate and poorly executed attempts at stealth.

He strode out to the jagged edge of the rainbow bridge and peered over it as he always did, to prove that he could, and that a little fall through a rift in space and time couldn’t stop the god of mischief from looking into things he very likely shouldn’t. Heimdall turned his head and the pair of them stared at each other for a long moment, as they always did. Tony bowed low, with a mocking smile. Heimdall took the opportunity to turn and walk away to find some other cliff-like vantage point to survey all of the realms from.

Tony then revisited the stones he had already laid out on the surface of the bridge, checking that his prior work had not been meddled with, and the stones remained stuck to the bridge as though they had become a part of it. They formed a complex design, perfectly symmetrical, lines interwoven, forming a shape not altogether unlike humanity’s slightly abstract representations of Mjolnir; all the better, given Tony was to fix what the hammer did break.

He ignored Thor’s footsteps until those familiar boots came to a halt a mere few feet behind him.

“Your stealth leaves a lot to be desired,” Tony said.

“If I had really put an effort into making it difficult for you,” said a voice that was smooth, biting, and decidedly not Thor, “then you might have actually made an effort to slip away from me.”

Tony, still knelt where he had just applied the newest stones, tilted his head up to stare. “Malekith.”

The last dark elf, Malekith the accursed: he was tall and wiry, his ivory hair neatly tied back. His hawkish visage, affected by some of the magic he had used in past, was in a bicolor theme: the right side white as bleached bone, the left like carved ebony, and his eyes were a still darker, more liquid black even than that, though light reflected off them in shades of maroon. “Anton.” He waited for the god of lies to rise to his feet again and face him. “I did lose you for a while, after you collected those stones. I had wished to speak with you then, but found you nowhere I had expected. Not here, not any other frequent haunt of yours from here to Alfheim, or Dvergarheim...” He stepped closer. “Nowhere at all. Where did you go?”

Briefly, Tony weighed the pros and cons of explaining, to Malekith the accursed of all people, the unique Midgardian concept known as a “booty call” but decided it would require too much effort. “I was sleeping with the enemy,” he responded in light, airy tones: carefree as a devil at Mardi Gras.

The dark elf raised a slender brow at that, and shook his head slightly at the god of mischief. “That hardly narrows it down. Or were you really bedding more than two thirds of all the people you’ve ever met?”

Tony just smiled and said nothing.

“Of course not, I suppose; instead you were in bed with a mortal.” He arched an eyebrow. “I do suppose there’s no accounting for taste.”

Unsurprised that Malekith had worked that out, Tony merely shrugged. “He owed me a drink, and who am I to deny a pretty mortal practically begging for it?”

Malekith examined his expression for a moment, shrewd and intent, then looked back at the array of stones on the bridge for a swift change of subject. “They certainly have you hard at work.”

“While I don’t need it personally to travel between realms,” Tony said, “The bridge is useful from a number of strategic standpoints. It suits me to let them believe I do it for Odin, rather than my own convenience.” He reached out to the stones, and for a moment the lot of them lit up and crackled, making the broken bridge rattle underfoot. “I’ve got nearly enough to finish repairs. Very nearly. Have you brought me some perhaps, as part of what you owe me?” His smile was fierce and pitiless.

The dark elf folded his arms over his chest. “Would that perhaps gain me the Casket of Ancient Winters from you, Frost Giant?”

Tony’s grin didn’t fade, but it turned mirthless, murderous and brittle. “No it would not. I would not gift such a weapon for something so minor. I’ve gathered dozens already before half a season has passed. You will have to offer me something much greater than that––especially given that you are already indebted to me.” Tony swept around him, beginning to stroll back toward the rest of Asgard, aware of Malekith silently swearing before pivoting on his heel and following: those longer legs helping him to catch up fast. “I will let you know when I intend to collect on the first two. The latter I leave up to your creativity until I perhaps come up with something suitably world-shattering you might give me in return.”

“You had suggestions for me the last time, but none came to fruition, and you seem to have forgotten the other before you even deigned to tell me of it,” Malekith snapped. “I begin to think you mock me, god of lies.”

“I do as you do: mock all the worlds, and spite them too. You happen to be part of the worlds, sweetheart. Don’t forget that for a moment.” Tony abruptly halted and turned to face the dark elf, standing close, his every word falling slow and with bite. “You owe me two sizable favors, and are sworn to a god. Your must honor such debts just as we do. I need not offer you a single thing in return, and you do know it. Your pride and presumption, given I have twice saved your sorry skin from one nasty fate or another, does not endear your cause to me. Have you forgotten how to manipulate with any finesse whilst in exile? You’re as immortal as I am, or damn close to it: learn some fucking patience.” Beneath them, the remains of the rainbow bridge hummed. “Keep also in mind that you would do well to take care where you follow me. I’m not above letting your pride-” A loud crack. The section of bridge under Malekith’s feet cracked and groaned. “-goeth before-” He made the bridge appear transparent, making Malekith’s muscles twitch, bracing for- “a fall,” Tony concluded, his tone vicious and heavy with dark promise.

Then the cracking stopped, the gaps in the iridescent surface sealed themselves like plastic melting, flattening and cooling; and the world around them seemed suddenly much more quiet, as though holding its breath.

“Understood?” Tony inquired, low and dangerous.

Malekith nodded reluctantly, stiff with unease and resentment both. “As you say: I am in your debt.” He bowed a little, from the waist. “For now. And only for now.”

“Then I do think you should leave this place, Malekith,”

The dark elf sneered a little, but obediently vanished without another word.

Taking a slow, deep breath, Tony turned on his heel and strode back into Asgard. While walking, wind whistling around him as he felt the bridge still humming with power––both his own and a tantalizing amount of the Odinforce intertwined with it––he briefly considered that Malekith might be both contrary and dramatic, and choose to cause some trouble on earth to target the god of mischief’s booty call. The thought was both amusing and irksome in and of itself, mostly due to how predictable it really was––and how very likely, as a result. Malekith would have been watching Tony’s last tête-à-tête with the Avengers on earth, and would have a catalog of their strengths, weaknesses, and sentimental vulnerabilities similar to the most basic one Tony had mapped out in his own mind in the beginning. He might have a chance, if he exploited the right weak spots.

And yet...

Then there was the rather less predictable (thrillingly so, to Tony’s annoyance and mild chagrin) factor of Loki Farbautisson, who had maps within maps within maps: his allies, his own, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s and even more of the god of mischief’s own map than the half-Jotunn was entirely comfortable with. Loki knew more than any mortal should: more than any immortal would credit him with unless they had seen it for themselves.

Tony had seen it from the moment Loki had strolled in to visit him before his return to Asgard, with all of those cameras pointed at them, yet unseeing. I know you didn’t really want the earth, but I’m hardly going to tell them that... I don’t want them working on bigger, badder nuclear deterrents to aim at whoever it was on the other side of that portal. Masterful, and underhanded, and wholly unexpected. The other Avengers were heroes, with the possible exception of a certain assassin, but she didn’t have quite the same volatile mixture of near-unlimited resources, ambition, and reckless (yet not altogether unjustified) overconfidence that the mad inventor called Loki seemed to possess in droves.

Tony was learning to map that oddly fascinating mortal genius, bit by bit. He knew that Loki would know his own weak points, and would have them guarded well, probably against Tony in most cases––and thus was, in all likelihood, prepared quite well to tough it out against powerful mages of an unearthly sort other than the god of mischief, as well.

The god of mischief mulled over the possibilities, beginning to smirk.

“Well,” he mused. “No reason I should miss that little show.” He drew a thick swath of cloaking magics about himself, his second-best: a rare combination of spells that had successfully hidden him at one point or another from not only Heimdall, but the likes of Karnilla herself. He used it as infrequently as possible, so as to prevent his long list of enemies from coming up with ways around it, or through it.

For the first time, he used it almost exclusively for a bit of fun, and returned to Midgard with a loud crackle, still wrapped up tight in thick-woven shadows and whispers.

 

~~

 

Loki was getting a bit annoyed by all this sudden interest in his sex life. Then again, three days after his rather violent-yet-enthusiastic carnal affair with the god of mischief, his bruises had only gotten more colorful as they slowly healed. Well, all healing seemed slow once one sparred with Steve Rogers a few times. That envy for the super-soldier’s healing factor was in part why Loki took every opportunity to instead go up against either of the two more human Avengers. Of course, they were both black-ops trained, which meant he rarely won regardless, but at least when he landed a good punch, it left a mark for longer than thirty seconds.

That particular day, Loki wanted Steve’s healing factor more than ever, if only because it would shut Hawkeye up.

Clint was jeering at his love-bites, asking frankly obnoxious questions, including a playfully-intended suggestion concerning Pepper that earned the archer a dangerous enough glare that he’d actually looked apologetic––if only for about ten seconds.

“Are we here to spar, or would my time be better spent back in my lab testing out modifications to the Mark VII?” He paid for his wit when he had his feet swept out from under him and a kick landed hard enough under his sternum to knock the wind out of him.

“You said JARVIS had a bit over an hour before he finished fabricating those new parts of yours,” Clint chided. “And it’s a harmless sort of question. You’ve shown up with love-bites before, but those are pretty vivid by your standards. Did that one at your collarbone there actually break the skin?”

“Had I known you had such a morbid interest in the coloration and texture of my sex-related skin abrasions, I’d have worn a t-shirt,” Loki spat, leaping to his feet with what Clint maintained was far too much grace for someone with such long limbs and such a narrow frame. “If only to spare you the distraction.”

“You’re one to talk about-AGH!” Clint spun around instinctively, only to find nothing there. “NO parlor tricks, we’ve been over thi-”

With that, Loki was in front of him again, showing off his rather impressive right-hook, and sent the smaller man reeling. “Not much of a trick, really. Just a bit of misdirection. I used to do that to the bigger kids at school,” Loki explained, grinning. “Though admittedly, it was rather harder to arrange, back then, given I had only more primitive means available.” Uncloaking itself, a small drone appeared, hovering near Loki’s left shoulder. It was small, and moved a bit like a cross between a tiny zeppelin and a hummingbird.

Clint glared up at him. “No tech in sparring matches. Period.”

“Then I recommend not accusing Miss Potts of undue violence of an intimate nature against my person,” Loki chided. “JARVIS likes her. This isn’t the first time he’s activated one of the drones to annoy someone who said something unkind about her.”

“JARVIS, please stop helping Loki cheat at sparring,” the arched called up at the ceiling, still not moving from his position on the floor.

“You really were asking for it, Mr. Barton. Pepper is in a perfectly healthy relationship with Mr. Hogan these days, and I won’t stand for slander against her.”

“You sort of generally won’t stand, JARVIS,” Clint suggested. “Lacking any sort of body, and all.” The drone cloaked itself again with a dangerous-sounding little hum. “Alright! Alright! I’m sorry!”

“Apology accepted,” JARVIS responded.

Loki beamed down at him with unrestrained glee.

“Only you, Loki, would program a sarcastic AI with a disturbing prankster streak when it gets annoyed,” Clint growled, getting back to his feet. “Seriously, though. Do we need to have words with someone about your neck, there? It’s not the bites so much as the strangling-bruises that bother me.”

The inventor blinked a little. “Are you... are you suggesting...” He couldn’t form the words. In fact, he gave up on saying anything further and just burst out laughing.

“Nah, I wouldn’t really have ‘the warning talk’ with whoever you’re fucking. That’s on you. Or Pepper: she can be downright terrifying when she wants to be. Redheads, man.”

Loki snorted. “I appreciate the concern. Perhaps I was experimenting?”

“For reasons you don’t need to know anything about,” Clint said, his expression a calm mask, of a sort one might wear in front of a shouting drill sergeant, “I can sort of discern when bruises like that are fro genuine violence and struggle, and when it’s more of a... well, when there’s a bit more willingness on behalf of the strangled.”

With an amused look, Loki went back into a fighting stance with a low wolf-whistle. “You’re quite right. I’m not certain I want to know. If S.H.I.E.L.D. has a training course for that sort of thing, though, I want in.”

Clint’s stance was more like a fencer, his body sideways rather than directly squaring off with Loki’s. “Yours look like you were really trying to keep someone from crushing your larynx. I wouldn’t want that in a woman. I just want to know who to avoid if I wind up on make-sure-you-don’t-do-anything-too-stupid duty at any galas of yours or something.”

“Not a woman,” Loki said. “And somehow I doubt you’re his type, or he yours.” He dodged and blocked a few punches, but couldn’t quite land a few of his own through the archer’s impressive defenses. Then they broke apart again, slowly circling.

“So I’ll mark that off my checklist of ‘things I didn’t need to know about Loki Farbautisson’s love life,’” Clint muttered. “Did you at least give him a black eye?”

Loki snorted. “That would have probably gotten me thrown out a window.”

Back-stepping, the archer shot him a deeply disconcerted look. “Wait, what?”

“Let us say he’s not my usual fare either, I must admit,” Loki mused. “Are you giving up the match, Barton?”

“Who the hell were you shagging who could throw your scrawny-looking––but surprisingly heavy––ass out of a window?”

“So that’s you giving up, then?”

With a grunt of irritation, Clint stepped in closer again, and immediately dodged a flurry of blows and was nearly knocked back by a surprisingly fast kick. He seized hold of the kicking leg and twisted hard enough get a noise of frustration from Loki, who proceeded to deliberately drop, twisting his body and legs to tangle with Barton’s and bring the archer crashing down with a series of curses.

Despite his rather posh appearance, Loki could grapple on the floor better than some members of the KGB, and he fought almost as dirty. He was also limber and prone to twisting and writhing free from his opponent’s grip like a serpent.

It took Clint a good fifteen minutes to get the mad inventor fully pinned down on the mat. “The hell kind of schools did you go to?”

“Private ones wherein I was able to advance quickly enough that all of my classmates were three or more years my senior. Keep in mind that I was small, intellectual, foreign, and pretty,” Loki muttered into the mat, “and I’m sure that you can imagine why I started learning a bit of martial arts at a quite young age.”

Clint panted hard. “Yeah. For someone not actually combat-trained you’re not easy to  get the drop on, sometimes. Again, I’m wondering who you, of all people, would screw who you’d believe to be capable of throwing you-” he stopped. “Loki. Please tell me that what I’m thinking is as crazy and untrue as I hope it is.”

Struggling a bit again against the hold on his arms, Loki snorted when he felt Barton’s grip tighten. “Do you really want all of the dirty details?”

“Only one: did you actually fuck a super-villain?”

Loki deliberately relaxed every muscle in his body, going limp as a dishrag. “Oh, how did you ever learn of my shame?” he sighed, low and droll.

“Don’t shrug this off. I can think of someone who threw you out a window once before. Tell me that’s not who strangled you this time––yet again.”

“Admittedly, defenestration is one of the more bizarre forms of foreplay I’ve ever been subjected to,” Loki mused airily, then suddenly arched and twisted, going from slack to violin-string taut in about half a second. As a result, he threw Clint off-balance enough to loosen the grip on his arms and get Loki himself the benefit of one foot under him, planted flat on the floor, which he promptly used for leverage to send them both rolling clumsily across the mat. Loki managed, just barely, to break free of Clint’s grasp and spring away a few paces.

They stared at each other, panting hard, neither of them quite standing up.

“Loki... this is not funny.”

Oh, but it is, he couldn’t help but think, grinning like the very devil himself. “So you wouldn’t believe me if I said it was Banner?”

Clint made a face. “It wasn’t. He was playing poker with Nat and half that night, but I never needed that image.”

“Yet you prefer the one of me tangled up with the god of mischief who tried to kill me? That’s rather kinkier, I would think.”

“Compared to the Hulk?”
Loki made a face as well, then. “Fair point.”

“Plus, I don’t think you would’ve been fighting Bruce that much.”

“I don’t feel that way about Banner, actually. The man is clearly straighter than you, by far.”

“Hey!”

“Just saying.”

“So it wasn’t the god of mischief?”

With an easy grin, Loki evaded, “You know I only kiss and tell if they’re famous enough to be worth bragging about; I think a Norse god would qualify. The only real exceptions in the case of fame are if their publicists threaten to sue for slander. Or if I wind up having to get a restraining order or paternity test as a result of the torrid affair or affairs in question. That sort of thing.” Or if they might throw me out of a window, he didn’t add, true though it may be. Also, while ‘screwing the god of mischief’ was a feat he wanted to brag about at times, he knew far better than to do so in front of the Avenger who would feel most betrayed by it, given Clint’s justified personal hatred of Anton over that whole mind-control affair.

The concessions one has to make these days, living with other people. Loki shook his head at the thought.

“What about if they might bring down upon you the wrath of a vengeful god?” the archer suggested. “Would that keep your mouth shut, too?”

“Maybe vengeful god make-up sex is worth it?”

“You’re utterly infuriating. I see why Fury can’t stand talking with you directly. I’m not ever getting a straight answer to this, am I?”

“Last night I was quite contently buggering another man. I think that expecting me to provide ‘straightness’ of any sort is rather misguided.”

Clint lost it and cracked up at that.

“You laughed; I therefore have no culpability.”

“If you get thrown out of a window by your lover, I hope JARVIS gets footage. I don’t even care anymore. Just don’t do anything stupid.”

“Oh, never challenge me on that,” Loki said, low and mocking, as he rose to his feet again. “Have you read the S.H.I.E.L.D. files on me?”

Standing back up as well, Clint froze mid-motion and paled. “Shit.”

“That’s right.”

The archer covered his face with a hand. He resisted the urge to say, Don’t try to get in bed with the god of mischief just because I suggested you shouldn’t. Or, if you have already, don’t try to do it again just to be contrary. He knew, deep within his heart, that saying those things would only wind up encouraging the opposite effects he might desire them to have. It took him a few moments to come up with a suitable response. Clint threw his hands in the air in a gesture of surrender. “Fine. Fine! Screw whoever you want. I officially give up on caring. I hear Enchantress likes her men bulkier, but I’m sure you can go chasing that one next on your super-villain list. Maybe you can find out what’s under Doom’s cowl?”

Loki grimaced. “Oh, please. I don’t like blondes and I do have some taste.”

“I dunno. That red and gold theme worn by Anton of Asgard clashes with your usual green-and-gold color-scheme. It’s like fucking Christmas. Tacky, much?”

“This is why I say Banner is straighter than you.”

“Hey!”

“Also, you ogle Steve when he bends over.”

Clint opened his mouth and raised a finger as though to vehemently deny that, then stopped. “Well, who doesn’t?”

“Banner,” Loki said simply. “Also Thor, though I honestly can’t get a read on him at all, other than his fondness for that Jane Foster woman. Aesir are strange.”

“Touché.” Then the archer raised an eyebrow. “I thought you didn’t like blonds?”

“When he’s bent over, I don’t see his hair, now do I?” Loki inquired lightly, turning on his heel and heading out.

Clint nodded. “Makes sense, actually,” he muttered, and followed. “Think Steve made breakfast?”

“I do hope so.”

 

~~

 

In the end, Loki wound up having to skip breakfast because a particular alarm went off on his phone not long after he got out of his shower, causing him to freeze mid-step on his way down the hall. It was an orchestral dramatic cord: dun-dun DUNN! 

JARVIS had chosen it, and Loki found that fact alone just a bit too adorable, so he hadn’t altered it into anything more inconspicuous or outright offensive to passerby, the way he normally set his other alarms.

“I know this music,” he muttered, and picked up the phone for confirmation. Yes, the alert message there confirmed it. Glorious. Nothing like someone attempting to go after Pepper Potts to get the morning off to a brilliant start. “JARVIS, have we got the modifications done on the Mark VII?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then lets get her fired up and ready for takeoff. Put the Avengers on alert and hack the necessary public transport systems, as well as S.H.I.E.L.D.’s charmingly illegal cellphone-and-laptop-camera tracking system to keep close tabs on their first- and second-degree of separation contacts, particularly the ones they’re most fond of. Don’t tell them we’re stalking their friends, but do tell them to save me some pancakes, and that I’ll call them if I need backup.” Loki? Paranoid? He liked to consider it practical; especially after the incident that punched a hole in his chest that he’d had to plug up with an electromagnet and an arc reactor.

“Right away, sir. Tripwire protocols are in effect, and the Avengers will be warned shortly.”

“Thank you, JARVIS.” Striding quickly in the opposite direction he’d started in, Loki made a fast-paced beeline for the elevator, calling Pepper as he went.

Loki!” she hissed by way of greeting, already sounded a bit distraught, and speaking as quietly as she could manage. Bad sign. “I don’t know whether to be relieved, or to kill you for setting off my phone right now!”

“Now, Pep, don’t be alarmed, but I think the building you’re in is on fire, and seems to be under a sort of attack.”

“I know!” she snapped. “We’ve got an attack going on.” A pause. “I’m not in any of your buildings; how did you know the building I’m in is-”

“No time. First impressions, please: list them with haste.”

“Mob of four or five. There might be another acting as a sort of sniper, covering their backs from outside; I saw them hit a police car with something bad. They’re not human, Loki. The things downstairs might not even be really alive.”

“Where are you?”

“Glucose, North wall.”

Loki smiled proudly despite his unease. Glucose. C 6 H 12 O 6. 6th floor, 12th window in from the right on the north-facing side, 6th door down the hall. He did love how adept she was getting at this sort of thing. “Right or left side of the hall?”

“Shit, just get in the suit and get over here!”

“Working on it,” Loki assured, not quite finishing the reply before she hung up. He exited the elevator at a run once it got him down to the lab, and all but dove into the suit as the way opened for him. Seconds later he was in the air and headed for one of the tallest bit of skyline along the coast. He was a streak of shining green and gold against the pale blue sky. “Mischief sensors up?”

“They are online and tracking, sir: detecting some disturbance in the area, registering as magic in nature, but not matching any of our previous scans on either Tony Stark-”

“Please don’t call him that,” Loki muttered.

“-nor those of Steven Strange. What shall I call the god of mischief, then?”

Loki considered. “Sweetcheeks. Call him sweetcheeks. Especially the next time he drops by.” He inwardly cringed at his own implied expectation, and resisted the urge to face-palm whilst in the suit because one, it would break up his aerodynamic profile, and two, it would look utterly ridiculous.

“I would prefer to maintain my dignity instead,” JARVIS drawled, sounding moderately offended. “No offense, of course.”

“I keep telling you it’s vastly overrated.”

“I will continue to take your word for it, sir.”

Rolling his eyes, Loki sighed, “Fine, fine. Call him Lie-smith or something. That’s his least undignified nickname, I think. Just... not Stark. I still maintain that you’re missing out on comedy gold by not calling him ‘Sweetcheeks’, JARVIS.”

“I will happily leave that particular comedic domain to you.”

“The bloody cheek of you sometimes,” Loki muttered. “Do we have a lock on the primary source of the magic, there?”

“Across from the building Miss Potts is in, on the roof. There are lower-level signatures in the building itself: figures physically larger, not registering on infra-red scans. Per data from S.H.I.E.L.D. files concerning magic, this usually indicates-”

“Fakes, or the magical equivalent of drones. Gotta be. Remotely controlled. Get me access to security cameras in there for confirmation?”

“No power in the building, sir.”

Loki sighed. “I hate it when they do that. No fun at all.” He focused on the largest blip on his display and picked up speed. “Let’s run a field test on our magic-banishing modifications, shall we? I want an active field around me before we even make contact. Compensate for speed: radius can start out close to the armor, but once I touch down, I want it spread out like the tentacles of a particularly promiscuous cephalopod.”

“Distasteful imagery aside, I am charging up Mischief Management field now.”

“Good. Very good.” His grin was wide enough to almost hurt his face.

 

~~

 

Sitting on a city bench, casually dressed in an immaculate Italian-cut suit with a blood-red collared shirt and gold-framed sunglasses, the god of mischief watched the building immediately in front of him emit smoke, and heard the occasional loud crashing sound from within, along with a bit of intermittent screaming. Sipping from an oversized Coke Icee with a hollow, plastic sound, he tilted his head back a bit further to stare in the direction of the chaos’ orchestrator. Tony was still thoroughly wrapped up in his special occasion second-best arrangement of cloaking spells for observational purposes, and passerby on the street instinctively walked around him, starting at about a five-foot radius out. The police-tape tied to the nearest lamppost, to the bench itself along its back, to the nearby bus stop sign in front of him, and then back to the lamppost, as well as a single lonely traffic cone he’d placed off to his left, helped them mortals rationalize the act. It also made a slightly less conspicuous aerial profile, just in case.

The average passerby at this point, of course, was fleeing with all haste from the surrounding buildings, usually running, sometimes screaming, but only when something crashed loudly. People in New York had gotten terribly used to improvised evacuations like this, ever since the Chitauri incident. Tony was almost proud.

Really, as the god of chaos, he had to admit Malekith was off to a decent start: simple, direct, guaranteed to get Iron Man’s attention. It was also proof that he’d still rather underestimated the particular Avenger he sought to provoke.

Sipping louder, Tony registered a distant speck appearing overhead, just northwest of Malekith’s position. His lips began to curve into a smirk around the straw. He started a mental countdown: 7... 6... 5... 4...

CRASH––rumblerumbleCRACK. Then a more muffled boom.

“Hmm. Faster than I thought,” Tony mused, and set his drink aside. He pulled a mirror-like surface from thin air and held it at the best angle to avoid glare. Just as he thought,  Malekith’s impressive anti-remote-viewing wards had been compromised already. Grinning, Tony manipulated the spell to give him a good aerial view, all from the comfort of his chosen bench.

Tony hung the resulting picture in front of himself, as though on an invisible wall, and picked up his drink again. Oh yes, he thought. I should’ve sold tickets.

Siiiiiip.

 

~~

 

Of all the things Malekith had anticipated during this little affair, direct attack from overhead by Iron Man was number three on his list, and he handled it well, managing to move with the force and use his own brute strength to redirect it so that he was at least not the only one who left a shallow crater in the large, flat rooftop.

Nowhere on the list, however, did the numbing, pins-and-needles sensation smothering his magic like a candle-snuffer might do to a candle, make any appearance at all.

What. Have. You. DONE?!

“Is that going to be the reaction of every little magician I use this on? How dull,” Iron Man responded, regaining his feet only a bit less quickly than his opponent. “Admittedly, you aren’t who I was expecting. Do you have a name? I rather want to call you ‘Tolkein’s Wet Dream’ but that’s a bit unwieldy, conversationally.”

His reply was a punch to the face hard enough to make his display flicker for a moment. In response, he shot the dark elf back several paces with a repulsor-blast. “Give me an estimated radius for our magic-disruption effectiveness, JARVIS.”

“Fifteen feet, sir. Also, the burly figures in the building across the street have collapsed and ceased to appear on magic-related scans.”

“Perfect,” Loki mused. He then launched himself at the bicolor mage and starting brawling in earnest.

Malekith was as strong as any Aesir, and a bit faster: tricky to keep ahead of, especially given his long reach, ridiculous jumping capabilities, and the fact that whatever his dagger was made of was able to slice through the top layer of Loki’s armor with disconcerting ease when he slashed it down the inventor’s side. An inch closer, or if Loki had been a half-second slower twisting away from it, and it might’ve cut deep enough to endanger his kidney on that side.

“SHIT!” Loki spun away and into the air with an effort, not hovering in one place long enough for the dagger-wielding elf to, too literally, get the jump on him again. It made it only a little trickier for his targeting systems as one shoulder-panel lifted and let loose a furious cloud of small missiles, ever one of them tipped with a green glow. Malekith stood his ground with apparent amusement, then seemed to evaporate into a heavy mist at the last second. Heavy and not wind-guided, Loki discovered as it swept toward him like a black and grey sandstorm. The bombs struck only each other and the rooftop just as Malekith reformed, terribly solid, and hit Loki hard enough in the solar plexus to dent the armor and send him crashing back down to earth.

Tumbling less than gracefully, Loki caught himself before he could quite slide over the edge of the rooftop, his boots’s thrusters slowing him to what might have been an elegant stop if not for how the mad inventor remained doubled-over slightly. “JARVIS, talk to me. He turned into mist!” Loki barked, though his breath came shorter, due to the dented armor. Should’ve known better than to repair torn metal instead of replace it, he chided himself. He’d meant to properly replace it with an improved version, really he had, but had gotten caught up in making Mischief Managed sorts of modifications and hadn’t quite had the time.

“The energy signature for that is not magic in nature; it seems as natural as the god of mischief’s ability to cool a room,” the AI responded as Loki darted, wove, moving through the air as though swimming, keeping out of Malekith’s reach and peppering him with repulsor-blasts while the mage, in turn, hurled a nearly endless amount of throwing knives at him and waited for his chance to get in closer again.

“That’s really fucking inconvenient,” Loki snarled, and winced as a knife hit his armor with surprising force; it was of the same material that the dark elf’s larger dagger was, and pierced his armor too close to the arc reactor for comfort. Then the dark elf managed to catch him by the ankle and swung him in an arc that ended with slamming him into the rooftop hard enough to shake the rest of the roof. Malekith lost grip on the booted ankle when the other foot swung up and blasted him in the face, sending him stumbling back for a few key seconds. Loki leapt to his feet in time to get hit in the face-plate quite hard. Malekith was looking far less immaculate now, his clothing a bit torn here and there, but he was barely even winded, which just wasn’t fair. Knew I should’ve brought a few of the drones, Loki chided himself.

“You know, I was almost worried for a moment,” the dark elf taunted, flexing his fingers with a grin. His gloves were torn to shreds.

“Oh really? I’m flattered.” Loki went in to make a grab, intending to get them both airborne for a while.

“You see,” Malekith growled, catching both of Loki’s forearms in a vice-like grip that slowly tightened, making the metal creak before his fingertips actually punctured it. “I’m so glad your armor is more advanced than your little nickname implies, Iron Man.”

“JARVIS? What’s he on about? Google it or something.”

“Already in progress. Filtering search results for ‘pointed ears’, ‘lore’ and ‘iron’ respectively, I think it’s safe to say we’re dealing with an elf, sir. Possibly a ‘dark elf’ by his color-scheme. Iron has a profound ill-effect on them, if myth is to be believed.”

“Interesting. Fire uni-beam, downward angle. Make sure he doesn’t do anything inconvenient like go flying off the rooftop out of range of the Mischief Management field.”

Then the world went blue-white for a few seconds. Once it dimmed, Loki saw the elf lying prone in a crater about eight feet away, already pulling himself up and looking furious.

“Find me something iron, JARVIS. I’m willing to risk a bit of trust on myth, these days, for some strange reason.”

“The mid-sized satellite dish, sir, at your eight o’clock, is mounted on a long and narrow tower of steel framework with a high iron content.” Loki glanced at the structure and got an idea.

“It looks well-anchored, there.”

“So it seems, yes. Not easy to topple, but your laser should be more than-”

“No need for that. How ductile is it?” The inventor was grinning now, even as another couple of knives stuck in his armor at hip and shoulder.

“Enough that you will need to put an effort into tearing off any pieces like a barbarian, should you attempt such a thing.”

“Oh good.”

“Will that suffice, sir?”

“Let’s find out.” Loki blasted off toward Malekith at top speed, not bothering with elegance, as soon as the dark elf got to his feet. Swerving just slightly, he carried Malekith right into the tower in question, denting one side of it a bit and earning a loud cry of rage and pain from Malekith as the metal tore a bit through the dark elf’s red-and-black garb across his shoulder-blades. Holding the dark elf by the neck so that his spine was perpendicular to the tower and settled nicely against the small dent they’d just put in it, Loki grabbed the top half of the tower and pulled it down hard. The metal screeched and groaned in protest, but didn’t quite snap: perfect for trapping Malekith’s arms against his sides as uncomfortably as possible once Loki had it bent it around him. It wasn’t easy, but the contact with the iron had a nice weakening effect on the dark elf’s strength.

Once done, Loki hovered back to admire the effect: a now rather off-kilter tower holding his opponent in place, legs dangling and kicking in a slightly futile manner. Malekith was swearing in a language Loki had never heard before and struggling madly as only sudden entrapment with a bit of acute agony can inspire. The air around them smelled lightly of burnt skin and overheated metal. The violent movements of Malekith’s struggles caused the narrow tower to creak ominously, despite dark elf’s strength being a bit dulled.

“Now. What is your name, charming sir?” Loki inquired, in mock-polite tones, catching his opponent’s attention.

“I see no reason to give that to you,” the dark elf spat, focusing hard on Loki to distract himself from the burn where his skin met steel.

“And I see no reason to release you. You’re squirming a bit. Uncomfortable? Your shirt did get a few holes in the back from dragging along the rooftop. I imagine that sun-warmed iron must be terribly soothing to your skin: my guess is that it’s also the reason you can’t pull that little misty-trick to get free. How convenient.”

The dark elf hissed: a sound full of pain and resentment in equal measures. “Malekith,” he spat. “I am Malekith the Accursed.”

“Ooh. Charming title. Is it due to what happened to your face there, Checkers?” He gestured vaguely.

The dark elf gave a somewhat undignified snarl.

“Touchy, touchy,” Loki chided. “Now. Why are you here, exactly? If I were you, I would spend my time at renaissance fairs, speaking bad Elizabethan English at women with large bosoms, and getting very frequently laid. I do highly recommend it for you rather than this villain business. It would certainly help you loosen up.”

“You are incredibly irritating, mortal. I’m no longer certain how he stands you.”

Loki titled his head slightly, baffled only for a moment. “Ohhh. Did he put you up to this? Seriously?” How dull.

Malekith snorted. “I am no mere delivery service for any Aesir.”

After a few moments to absorb that, Loki suddenly burst out laughing, not bothering to turn off broadcast to external speakers. “Oh my god. Did you do this to-” He snorted. “Oh, fuck, this is brilliant!” He started laughing again, helplessly.

“Do not you dare mock me!”

“Oh, oh, but I can’t help it. Did he paint your paler half pink or something? Deflower your daughter? Try to destroy your planet and then fall off a bridge? Oh, wait you’re clearly not Jotunn––not even half. Ignore that last bit, then.” He was almost doubled-over, finally managing to restrain his giggling a bit, before forcing himself to straighten up. “Seriously, how did he piss you off?”

“That is no business of yours!”

“Perhaps not. But you somehow thought that going after me would affect him?” Loki burst out laughing again, loud enough to startle pigeons from the rooftop of an adjacent building: mostly due to the acoustics of the street below and the amplification of the suit’s outward sound-system.

Malekith was looking as irritable as a wet cat by this point.

Loki took hold of the metal wrapped around the dark elf’s arms and torso, pulling Malekith up a bit so that their faces were a little closer to level. “Let me explain: I’ve only been with him once, and it was what we here on earth might refer to as an ‘intellectually stimulating hate-fuck.’ We don’t actually like each other, O Malekith the Melodramatic. If you were looking to irritate him in some way, then I’d recommend you go after someone he actually gives two shits about: not someone he bedded the one time because he hates me at the same time that he wants to tear my brain apart like ripping the wings off of a fly. That said: I’ve learned a number of things from surviving a few meetings with him, and given how I strongly suspect that he’s a more powerful mage than you, the tech I’ve developed for keeping him at bay is pretty capable of making you outright miserable.” To illustrate, he released his hold on the warped bits of metal in his gauntleted hand, and Malekith swiftly tilted back again, a bit further this time, the motion halting with a sudden jerk and a disconcerting groan from the metal of the tower as it was stressed still further. “Case in point, I think. Are we clear, my pointy-eared friend?”

The dark elf glared at him. “Clear as crystal.”

“Good. Now, as I understand it, Aesir, Vanir, Fae and presumably your lot too, have this charming convention wherein you actually cannot break a vow when you give your solemn word on it: learned that bit from Thor. To that end, I propose that I will let you free, on a few conditions.”

Malekith glared daggers at him. “The alternative?”

“One of two: I keep you bound in my lab in a magic-dampening field while I wait for Thor’s next trip down at which point I send you away with him to let Asgard lock you up somewhere, or I go find some more iron from the next nearby rooftop and slit your throat with it to save on time and effort. The longer you take to answer, the more I lean toward the latter option.”

The dark elf stared. “You are an Avenger, are you not?”

“Oh, are we famous yet, outside our home planet?”

“As heroes, yes. So the rumors suggest in Asgard.”

“Well, darling.” The Iron Man’s faceplate retracted. “I’m Loki Farbautisson of Earth and I’m not exactly the classic hero type.” His smile was all teeth and his eyes looked green as poison. “You would do well not to assume I have any moral qualms about having your blood on my hands, Malekith. You went after one of mine and I care about people in the category of mine rather more than I tend to care about the rest of the world at large. Luckily, no one’s managed to make me pick between the two yet, but trust me when I say that no matter where you may run, I will find a way to follow and find you or I will make one, and I will then make you into shoes.”

A long silence passed, the dark elf staring down Iron Man, and Iron Man staring down a near-immortal creature older than the Italian renaissance without even seeming to blink, for almost a full minute.

“You will not harm me, or anyone mortal under my protection,” Loki said slowly, tone low and dangerous. “Not directly, nor indirectly. Swear it.”

“I will not harm you or yours, Loki Farbautisson,” Malekith grit out, each syllable sounding forced. He grimaced, the expression dark with hate and disgust. “Neither directly, nor by leading trouble to your door, will I intentionally harm any mortals under your protection: all this, if you release me. You have my sworn word, mortal. I only hope that you may be just this merciless with any gods who cross your path in future.”

“I plan to be,” Loki muttered. “And I believe we are in accord, Malekith.” His faceplate snapping back down, he dragged the dark elf down closer to the ground a bit, and began to unbend the entrapping steel. Not audible to his audience, Loki muttered “Decrease Mischief Management radius to two feet about my person, JARVIS.”

“Yes, sir.”

Malekith inhaled sharply as he felt the first traces of his power returning; although it dimmed for a while as Iron Man leaned in to further unwrap the iron framework from around him. Then it returned again in full once the inventor stepped back.

“You may go,” Loki said gravely.

The dark elf back-stepped. “Your talents and genius are wasted, given how brief your life will doubtlessly be, Farbautisson,” he said. “More is the pity. Given time, I believe that you might well be capable of doing more to harm that trickster than half of Asgard.” He smiled unpleasantly, and vanished into a dense cloud of black mist, swiftly carried away on the wind.

Loki clicked his tongue, feeling more than a little buzzed and overwhelmingly pleased with himself. “JARVIS, I want a plaque to hang on the wall to commemorate this. Something with today’s date, the name of ‘Malekith the Accursed’ and a little engraved portrait of the look on his face once he realized I really might kill him.”

“I’ll work up a rendering for you, sir.”

“Excellent.” Loki snapped the faceplate back down. “Now, I get the feeling Pepper will be glad to know the coast is clear out here.” He took off in the direction of the north-facing side of the building across the street.

 

~~

 

Not even Pepper’s flat-out disapproval of his methods could quite dampen his buzz; although he made the effort to look at least a little chagrinned.
“You’ve been stalking me,” she accused flatly, as they waited for Happy to arrive and pick her up in the Bentley.

“Not really stalking. I just have a few protocols in place for JARVIS to keep running, to alert him if anything particularly disastrous happens within about a quarter-mile of you,” Loki explained. Seeing her unimpressed expression he gestured broadly. “I think it safe to say that my methods have proven themselves here.”

Pepper sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger. “I’m still not altogether comfortable with some all-seeing eye on me at all times, Loki.”

“Better than S.H.I.E.L.D.’s.”

“Not helping, still a bit not good.”

Loki folded his arms across his chest––or rather, he tried to, but found it wasn’t really comfortable in the armor, and so gave up on it quickly. “I’m sorry, Pep, but you are my weak spot, because you are nor merely important to me––you’re vital to me and you always have been. If I don’t watch out for you in one way or another, someone will take advantage of it, and go after you to get to me. That’s what this latest bastard was attempting today, in fact.”

“Did you catch him?”

“Well, I banished him.” He snorted, looking amused. “It was actually a bit of a misunderstanding, to be honest.”

“A misunderstanding,” Pepper repeated in that completely flat ‘you can’t be serious please tell me you’re not serious’ tone she had so perfected around him over the years.

Loki fidgeted. “Well. He thought I was someone’s weak spot, but instead of being direct about it, he went after you first to make sure I’d go down easy.”

She stared at him, openly bemused. “Whose weak spot?”

Another breathless, helplessly amused laugh bubbled up before he could quite stop it. “Tony, god of fucking mischief.”

“And mischievous fucking?” Pepper added.

“Mmm. Oh yes.”

She folded her arms over her chest and looked at him with moderately displeased shrewdness, upon seeing him not quite manage to restrain the occasional mad giggle at the thought of anyone thinking harm done to Loki Farbautisson would affect Tony Howartsson after a single (admittedly spectacular) bout of aggressive fucking.

“Well,” the redhead mused. “Most people don’t hop a dimensional rift just for a booty call. I suppose his suspicions might be justified.”

Loki’s eyebrows raised. “Since when does that nutcase qualify as someone who behaves anything like ‘most people’, Pepper?”

Pepper shrugged. “So he hasn’t made a return appearance then?”

“Thankfully no. I get enough commentary on the current bruises.”

“You could stop wandering about the tower in a tank top.”

“That would be letting them win,” Loki protested.

Hogan pulled up at the curb, then, and Pepper beamed.

Loki reminded himself to be mature and not an idiot for the way that still stung slightly. Yes, she’d only been dating his driver for a week. Yes, they had parted on good terms over a month and a half ago. No, he certainly had no delusional expectations that they would be getting back together anytime soon, or ever, most likely.

And now he was a little depressed.

Pepper touching his face distracted him slightly. “Be safe, Loki.”

“You too, Pep.”

Then she was getting in the passenger seat and being driven away.

Loki stared for a moment before turning his eyes to the wreckage around him. His faceplate snapped back down. “Infra-red scans find anyone the rescue teams might’ve missed, JARVIS?”

“No, sir. The authorities have it all well in hand.”

“Good. I’m starving. Let’s get back to the tower. Are there still pancakes?”

“I don’t think so, sir.”

“Then send a few drones after Barton for good measure and tell Steve how pitifully hungry I am.” He took off, aware of pictures being taken by people in the crowd.

“Of course,” JARVIS said. Then a small alert beeped. “Oh dear.”

Loki halted abruptly. “That’s no good. Talk to me, JARVIS.”

“Scanners are picking up a familiar energy signal, sir.”

“Show me.” Loki turned his head where the arrows in his display indicated, then stared down at the edges of the crowd and zoomed in. “Oh. Well, then.”

“Facial recognition confirms: that is Anton Howartsson.”

“Yes, I worked that out. What’s he doing here, the little bastard?” Loki muttered.

The god of mischief turned his head, staring straight up at Iron Man and giving a cheerful little wave.

Loki was tempted to respond with an extremely rude gesture, but as there were children and their easily-offended parents in the crowd (he remembered what happened last time he’d not taken that into account; his fanmail/hatemail handlers had threatened to go on strike) he restricted himself to miming the action of blowing a kiss, just as his shoulder panels raised, little smart-bombs glittering and locking onto the trickster’s face.

Tony grinned all the brighter, then vanished altogether from all of his scans without so much as a puff of smoke.

“Dammit. JARVIS?”

“Very low level disturbance within a twenty-foot radius of his position, sir. He seems to be cloaking himself by causing his energy to appear diffuse such that it hardly registers.”

“I’ll have to work on that,” Loki muttered, shaking his head. Then he took off properly in the direction of the tower.

“Mr. Barton wishes me to relay a long list of obscene and occasionally absurd insults to you,” JARVIS added.

“Go ahead. I could use the entertainment.”

So he flew home to the sound of a polite British-accented AI giving a dramatic reading of some of Clint Barton’s finer insults. So it wasn’t all bad.

 

~~

 

Upon arrival back at the tower, Loki wheedled Steve into making more pancakes, successfully managed to lock Fury out of the upper levels until he agreed to let Natasha handle his one-on-one S.H.I.E.L.D. debriefing on the bicolor elf incident, and had JARVIS write up his report the vaguest possible language as she questioned him. All in all, his day was, for the most part, going pretty well.

He gave Natasha a brief summary of the events, in between large bites of his second stack of pancakes, with a few careful omissions.

“Your ability to eat like that and remain as thin as you are would be the envy of some women,” Natasha mused.

“Not you, though.”

“No. I could even get more men and women than you at a party with this figure.”

For the umpteenth time, Loki admired the figure in question in a discerning and appreciative matter. “I think you’re right. We should try this sometime. Compare results, find the best of our respective endeavors, organize an orgy...”

Natasha snorted at him. “No.”

“You never agree to any orgy plans,” Loki muttered, with melodramatic petulance, and took a very large bite of blueberry pancake.

“From what I hear, neither do you,” she countered. “Not after the Hyde Park incident when you were 22.”

At that, the inventor paled a bit, both at the recollection, and the sheer discomfort he felt knowing that this information was apparently in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s files. He shuddered, reminding himself to hack in later and erase all such things from anything he could find S.H.I.E.L.D. servers touching. “Accurate. Also, the thoroughness of your research into my past sexual activity is a bit odd, all things considered.” He raised his eyebrows very high.

“I do very thorough reading-up on people I’m to target on a mission,” she said, pulling up JARVIS’ freshly generated report on a nearby tablet and skimming it closely like the adept speed-reader she was. “Don’t feel special. I know things about Barton and Fury both that makes them break out in a cold sweat whenever they recall that I’m armed with such knowledge.”

Loki looked down at the last pancake on his plate and pushed it away. “You’ve killed my appetite. I do hope you’re happy, madam.”

“Thrilled. I hate debriefing you when you have your mouth full. Now, to start: really, Loki? A dark elf?”

“Or a light one that got lightly charred on one side. Hard to tell, really. Either way: wrap him up in iron and he won’t be going anywhere, for future reference.”

“Where did you find that out?”

“Well, he dropped a bit of a hint, and JARVIS typed it into Google.”

Natasha’s eyebrows slowly raised. “This isn’t going to be your new tactic for approaching any enemy that humans built up  myths around, is it?”

“Well, it proved effective.”

The assassin shook her head at him. “Your report is terribly vague about why he was after Pepper. And how he escaped.” She shot him a look. It was terrible and eloquent.

Having already deleted any security footage of the fight on his way home (in a stroke of luck, he’d arrived ahead of the helicopter-mounted news cams for once, so really Pepper had no right to complain about JARVIS keeping watch over her, really) Loki shrugged, and lied with perfect ease: “Tony took him.”

Natasha stilled. “Pardon?”

“He’s back, by the way. Not overtly hostile toward anyone except the elf, for once. Maybe he’s territorial and wants us Avengers to himself?”

The assassin’s eyes narrowed. “Why isn’t this in the report?”

“Because JARVIS is working on a second one that makes overt mention of our old friend the god of mischief. I’m leaving it up to you to decide whether S.H.I.E.L.D. really needs to know.” He held her gaze steadily, perfectly calm. Just like bluffing in a business meeting to the shrewdest of the shrewd.

Natasha considered. “Okay. Explain why you think they shouldn’t know.”

“Seen Thor lately?”

“No.”

“He’s in New Mexico. Has been for about two days.” Loki took a long sip of coffee.

Natasha looked flat out mad now. “You knew Tony was back before this.”

“Yes.” Loki shrugged. “He dropped by for a drink a few nights ago.”

“You’re an idiot.”

“I’m alive, you’ll notice. And all of the penthouse’s windows remain intact, too.”

They stared each other down in silence for over a minute, each wearing a different calm yet sharp expression: Loki’s one of mild interest, Natasha’s one of open suspicion.

“I don’t suppose you want to hear what Thor had to say on the matter?” Loki offered in light tones.

Natasha leaned on the counter, weight on her forearms. “Fine, but you tell me more about the drink-sharing incident after.”

Loki made a noncommittal noise into his coffee as he took another sip. “Tony is apparently on parole, insofar as Asgard is concerned. Their bridge between realms got broken to pieces, as you may recall. Tony has to rebuild it, mostly on his own. There’s some other stipulation too, but Thor was decidedly cagey about it; I’m personally not sure Odin even told him what it was, and I know the god of lies wouldn’t. It sounds like a more delicate sort of mission. Thor says his ‘brother’ has thrown himself into the work on that bridge like a thing possessed.”

“I don’t see why this means S.H.I.E.L.D. shouldn’t be aware that he’s back in the neighborhood, Loki.”

“Consider for a moment the sheer number of people who would like the god of mischief dead, and the fact that Tony doesn’t have an intergalactically outsourced army to cover his back anymore,” Loki began. “Then consider this list of things (according to Thor) that will break Tony’s parole and light him up like Christmas to any magically-inclined eyes so that he can’t hide from any of his appropriately magic-savvy enemies: he cannot commit and/or incite any wars, massacres, murders, torture, military coups, large scale political upheavals, or bloody revolutions. Even killings that, per Asgardian law (keep in mind they’re bloody vikings so that likely covers a lot of ground) would be considered justifiable, he’s not permitted to commit: not against Aesir, humans, Jotunns, or any other race of the nine realms, apparently.” He finished his coffee in one last long sip.

Taking her time to mull it over, watching his face all the while, Natasha gave it some serious thought. “You’re thinking that wouldn’t satisfy Fury.”

“Yes. You’re a bit more expert on his temperament––and, terrifyingly, his past sexual escapades––than I, though, which makes me inclined to trust your judgement here. So your tell me, Natasha: would that be enough for him?”

She folded her arms over her chest and hummed. “I can see some potential diplomatic conflicts. He really isn’t allowed to kill? Not even, for example, in his own defense?”

Loki nodded. “That did seem the gist.”

“Hmm.” Natasha shook her head. “It comes down to whether we want him dead, then doesn’t it? S.H.I.E.L.D. and Fury most likely do, so does the council Fury reports to, I don’t doubt. Asgard left Tony this vulnerable intentionally and they have to know the risks of that. They wouldn’t be very justified coming here for any sort of fiery retribution; it’s doubtlessly part of the challenge of his parole terms that he shouldn’t goad anyone inclined to try an kill him outright by, say, revisiting the city he recently tried to destroy. Earth suffered damages, and if they really do wish to treat us as their equals-”

“It wouldn’t exactly get a court hearing, though, now would it?” Loki interjected. “It would be assassination. No way to pretty that up, even if your lovely self happened to be the one personally performing his exsanguination, Tasha. It would be slaughter of a weakened creature who would appear the martyr for it if he so wished––and if he thought it would hurt us enough, I think you know he’d make that happen––if S.H.I.E.LD. or anyone else tries to kill him before he could even have his one chance to redeem himself.” He sniffed, raising a hand to his brow like a lady about to swoon onto a fainting couch. “Oh, the humanity... Jotunnity... Goddity? That fits him rather well, actually. I’m officially declaring him a goddity.”

“Stop talking,” Natasha said.

“Make me.”

She shot him a truly glacial glare.

Loki looked sheepish, if only for the purpose of moving the conversation forward. He knew she wouldn’t actually be fooled by it, but also that knew him well enough by now to appreciate the effort he made to look and behave more like a normal human than he actually felt like most days. It was his way of being polite––ish.

“You want to give him that chance, then?” Natasha mused.

The inventor shrugged. “I’m fine with it. Not enthused, but not so bothered as you are, I think.”

“Why is that?”

“Why do you think?”

Her gaze lowered to the marks on his neck, shoulder and collarbones pointedly. “Is he a good lay, then?”

“Yes, but I think you gathered that already.”

Her eyebrows raised a little. “You surprise me sometimes, Farbautisson.”

Loki put on his mildest look-how-few-fucks-I-give expression. “I don’t know what you mean, darling.”

“You ever considered becoming a spy?”

“Do I strike you as being overly covert?”

“Hmm. Good point. Subtle? Yes, you are when you want to be. Actually covert? No. Just no.” She leaned forward a bit more. She could get away with it in that sweater: it made her breasts look fine without actually exposing an overflow of cleavage. “I don’t think it was screwing him that persuaded you, though. What did?”

Loki appeared thoughtful, but gave nothing further away. “I knew his game long before the rest of you did, you know.”

“I had a feeling,” Natasha murmured. “Do you still?

“Not really, no. Not until I know a bit more about that second task of his. If he has any other plans, they’re not really to do with much on earth... yet.” He shrugged. “And admittedly, I’m just interested.”

“Interested?” She tilted her head a little.

“I want to see what he’ll do next. Don’t you?”

A small line appeared between her eyebrows, just for a moment. “A little. Not that much, though. You think you’ll even get to see it?

Loki gave a small, quick smile before he could stop himself. He supposed that he should’ve known from the moment Tony had reappeared in his penthouse, but it hadn’t really sunk in until today, when he’d seen the god of mischief playing audience, watching him along with the rest of his usual crowd of admirers. Addictive, isn’t it, Loki mused, having an audience who really gets it? That was the itch under his skin whenever his thoughts drifted to Howartsson. It was dangerous, too; that made it only more tempting. He’d been safe in Pepper’s hands. Now... now maybe he wanted to be unsafe for a while. And he knew that Tony could see that, was interested in it, wanted to see if he could use that as an opportunity pull Loki apart like a science project; Loki had more than a few ideas for how he might turn that idea on its head. “I’ll get to see a bit more,” the mad genius said.

“How can you be sure?”

Loki hummed, recalling the feel of fingers around his throat.

I should kill you.

You do that, he remembered the raggedness of his own words, painful pressure making every syllable painful, but not nearly enough to stop him when he was on a roll, and you’ll never get to see what I might try next.

A smirk tugged at his lips. “He loves an audience, and a show, and he hasn’t decided I’m too dangerous yet,” Loki said simply.

“Is this him or you that we’re describing?” She raised an eyebrow.

“Relax, Tasha. I’ll let you know if I’m in too deep. Or you can go ahead and tell Fury, and they’ll be on him in a clusterfuck of ruinous destruction until either Tony breaks parole and all hell breaks lose as terrible things from all over earth and beyond come running thirsty for his blood with a bunch of potential civilian casualties within a hundred-mile radius of us all, or until someone maybe kills him and we lose an ally in Asgard: a place that’s been protecting this planet longer than Rome has been around, the royal family of which may hold a grudge against us, and oops aren’t they vikings of a bloodthirsty and vengeful sort?” He shrugged casually. “What, I ask you, could possibly go wrong with that?”

At that, the assassin frowned. “Stop masterminding. We all hate it when you do that.”

“But I’m so good at it.”

“Yes, in another life, you’d have made an astonishingly good villain.”

Loki frowned at her slightly, but made no denial.

“Agent Romanov,” JARVIS interrupted, politely as he could. “I have that second report for you, if you would like me to send it to your tablet.”

Natasha didn’t look away from Loki’s eyes, which remained locked with hers, unflinching and calm. The inventor raised his eyebrows in an arch expression. Make your choice, Agent Romanov.

“Delete it, please, JARVIS,” she said quietly. “Thoroughly as you can.”

“Very well, Agent Romanov. Consider it done.”

With only a bit of effort, Loki managed not to smile. “You’re my favorite assassin, you know. Even better than Wade.”

She shook her head at him. “I’ll tell him you said that.”

The inventor winced. “Please don’t. I’ve only just repaired the balcony railing after the last time. And that time he knew Hawkeye was lying about it and did all that anyway.”

Laughing softly, she tucked her tablet under one arm and strolled out. “No promises.”

Watching her go, Loki felt a bit of that warm glow that comes from being a manipulative little bastard and being so very good at it; although it was marred, somewhat, by the itch under his skin. While capable of immense patience on occasion, Loki was never so serenely patient when it came to impulsive little desires. He’d beaten a near-immortal creature of legend before breakfast, found out the god of mischief had been watching, and danced one of his more successful persuasive dances with S.H.I.E.L.D.’s prettiest assassin––and it wasn’t even noon.

He was tingling, reeling with the high of success, and he wanted only more. Particularly, he wanted a certain flavor of more: something that tasted of ice and smoke and other near-death experiences.

It was difficult to remind himself not to rush it. Let the dice fall on their own––rigging them only lets the other conman know more about what you’re up to, and what you really want out of it. Loki didn’t honestly want to think about what his own actions might reveal of him, if he did more than merely wait.

So he descended into the R&D floors and drowned his restless mind in a dozen different things all at once: a new chest plate for the Mark VII, new plans for adaptive variations on the Mischief Management field, and comprehensive dissection of how he might disrupt or disable the surprisingly complex dissipated-energies of cloaked god of mischief. The latter took up a good deal of his time, picking apart the scans as much as he could and still failing to figure out how it even began to work. Oh, he’s good, Loki thought, with no little measure of intermixed admiration and creative angst.

At last, time began to flow by at an almost normal pace again.

 

~~

 

Loki was still down in his workshop late that night, running a few experiments on the odd little throwing knives that had been stuck into his armor by Malekith, when he heard a not-unexpected voice drift over to interrupt his thoughts.

“How exactly did you ‘harrass your own father to an early grave’ as you mentioned before? S.H.I.E.L.D. files are lovingly detailed, but don’t seem to include the source of that guilt of yours. They indicate it was an automobile accident, which is apparently a common death in Midgard these days, and you were miles away from it at the time.”

Loki glanced up in the direction of the trickster’s voice, and found the god of mischief several feet away, laying down on one of his other work tables, this one pushed against the wall opposite him. Tony’s feet were up, crossed at the ankles, heels resting on the wall comfortably. His head dangled off the edge of the table so that he looked at Loki upside-down through those slightly ridiculous sunglasses. The god of mischief was still dressed in that modern Midgardian suit, as well. The inventor didn’t so much as blink, until he returned his gaze to the holograms in front of him that formed a mock-up of atomic structure of the metal Malekith’s throwing knives were made of. “Tell you what,” Loki mused. “I will answer that, if you answer me this: who was your mother?”

A long, cold silence followed. The sunglasses vanished to expose Tony’s irate glare.

Loki ignored it, resizing the hologram’s structure by pulling at opposite corners of it with his fingers, turning it thoughtfully. When the silence did break he was surprised.

“She was called Laufey: king of the Jotunns.”

The inventor blinked. “Didn’t you kill him?

“Her. ‘King’ is not a gender-specific title among Jotunns. And that’s two questions.”

Loki nodded, sending the hologram-model skittering away with a little shove. It drifted away, then vanished entirely. Other lights in the room came up a little, but not too brightly as the inventor stood, stepped around his table stand between it and the god of mischief, leaning back against it with his arms crossed. “I fought with him, whenever we spoke. It had been our habit for years at that point, and we were both really good and turning the screws one each other. That night, he was already half-drunk when it started, and had another drink or two before storming out. I thought he’d be bright enough to call his driver.” Loki’s voice was cool, flat, and inflectionless. “He should’ve known to do that. In the past even drunk, he told me constantly that it was a terrible idea to drive when intoxicated. It had almost killed him before, in fact, and he’d never done it again, until after that last fight of ours.” A shrug: not half so careless as Loki intended it to appear. “I pissed him off enough that he couldn’t wait for our driver. He couldn’t wait to get the hell away from me, apparently.” He met the god of mischief’s stare levelly, his expression  an immaculate and stoic mask from behind which even a hurricane couldn’t have escaped.

Tony stared back with the unwavering curiosity of a cat, only the smallest furrow between his brows. He had his arms folded over his chest, the thumb and forefinger of one hand framing his chin. He said nothing, for a long while.

Staring back all the while, Loki quietly admitted to himself that as well as he could read anyone, and despite being aware that he understood this trickster better than most, he could read nothing of what thoughts might be passing through Tony’s head in the quiet. So he let it lie for minute or two: silent and appraising. Then his lips curved slightly, not quite in humor. “This is quiet, for what seemed like a promising start to an interrogation.”

“You know why I have to ask; that alone should flatter you. With you, guessing doesn’t cut it. It’s novel,” Tony said quietly. “Surely you understand.”

Loki nodded. “Have you worked out what it is that you want from me, yet?” There was his good humor again: good as gallows humor could manage, in any case. It glittered like polished onyx.

The god of mischief slowly began to smirk in return. “Aside from my desire to have you stripped and laid out for me on that table?”

“Asking me about my father hardly gets you any closer to that. If that’s your idea of foreplay, darling, I really don’t think this is going to work.”

Tony let out a low chuckle, his expression still thoughtful. “I could say the same for your question concerning my mother. I don’t hold stock in the mortal they call Freud.”

Loki tilted his head a little. “You’re just a little pop-culture sponge aren’t you; what is with that, exactly? I know you don’t think of this place as just ‘an anthill’ obviously, though that worked well on Fury––but he didn’t hear you mutter a line from Hamlet on your way there. So while you look down your nose at most mortals, and this world at large; and yet you quote Shakespeare, you’ve heard of Freud, you wear a fine Westwood suit while loitering around places that I’m busy beating up people who are irritated with you...”

“The mortal world is not without merit. It is a chaotic place, culture and ideas and people all in constant flux,” Tony began. “Now and then I do desire a place less culturally and ideologically stagnant than Asgard. I forgot that change moves so very much faster here, and more permanently where lives beginning and ending are concerned, than anywhere else in the nine realms––all because you mortals have such short lives. It’s further refreshing, of recent, that you’ve all come so far that I don’t talk over the heads of every single member of your species.” 

“So while Thor was exiled, you sampled our drinks, super models, a fast car and... the theater?” Loki prompted, and perched on the edge of his worktable, just far back enough that his feet no longer touched the floor. He sat with an unconsciously regal sort of air despite how habitually far apart his knees were: back straight, one hand on his left knee. “That last one didn’t make it in the file.”

“I can be in multiple places at once for a few hours at a time,” Tony said simply.

Giving that a bit of thought, Loki pictured more than one Anton Howartsson in his lab and the possibilities thereof. His pupils may have dilated slightly. He cleared his throat. “You still haven’t answered my main question.”

The god of mischief only grinned brightly.

Loki shook his head and repeated, “Have you worked out what you want from me?”

In one fluid and graceful motion, Tony rolled to one side, landed on his feet, and closed the distance between them in just a few strides. He stood between Loki’s knees, with his hands settling flat on the table on either side of the inventor’s hips. “I’m inclined to take you apart,” he said simply. “You’re interesting.”

“So I gathered,” Loki murmured, unruffled and keenly appraising. He leaned in a bit closer as well, deciding to let his good mood carry him here, rather than all the aggression they’d worked through the last time. “You know that’s not going to be a one-sided game. The longer you spend in my company, the deeper under your skin I will get.”

Tony shivered a little. “Presuming you can keep up.”

“Oh, it should be easy if you keep underestimating me.” Loki’s eyes narrowed. “You don’t have a plan at all, do you? No grand machinations, no plans within plans...” He chuckled, only a little breathlessly as the god of mischief’s hands slid under the hem of is shirt to begin sampling the feel of the skin about Loki’s waist. “I had wondered if you might be capable of that: lacking plans.”

“More so than you,” Tony said, his voice low and thoughtful. “You, Loki, are in a perpetual state of planning and plotting.”

“So are you,” the inventor shot back lightly, and pulled his shirt up and over his head, tossing it to one side. “You’re just not casting so far ahead as before.” His fingertips trailed down along the line of Tony’s jaw, then down his neck to his shirt-collar, from whence Loki proceeded straight on to the unbuttoning process. “Interesting, that you clearly had such far-reaching ones before, sitting in your cage while they couldn’t see us.”

The god of mischief shook his head. “You’re guessing.”

“No. I’m really not.” Loki’s smirk widened. “Malekith knew about me. Not just what I fucked you, but right where to go to hit me where I’m vulnerable. He’s been on earth a little while then, clearly, and knew whose strengths and weaknesses he needed to assess: not just mine, most likely, but I was clearly on the list.” The inventor shivered a little when Tony leaned in, licked a long stripe along his throat, and blew on it: chill enough to nearly form a few ice crystals. With an effort, Loki continued, “He was clearly pissed off at you, like you’d taken away all of his toys or something. If you owed him a debt, you’d just have to pay it, but he felt owed regardless, like you’d gone back on pre-established plans.” He opened his mouth to say more, but fell short when the god of lies and mischief fell to one knee between Loki’s legs.

Tony tugged once at the fabric of Loki’s jeans, then gestured them away along with the inventor’s shoes: stripping him bare, just as promised. The inventor’s clothes all fell in a pile just to his left, soon joined by Tony’s own, after another gesture. “You’re not wrong,” he purred. “I unexpectedly came to an understanding of sorts with Odin, let us say.” He leaned in so that his lips lightly brushed Loki’s inner thigh as he spoke. “Plans have shifted––or at least been put on hold.”

Breathing a bit quicker now, Loki struggled not to buck his hips in an effort to get more attention from that mouth; he remembered his prior experiences with it well, and if was that maddening and overwhelming to kiss, he couldn’t wait to find out what else Tony could do with it. “Anything to do with that second task of yours?” he managed, his voice only a little uneven as Tony’s lips inched their way up along his thigh, maddeningly close to where he most wanted them.

“Not altogether,” the god of mischief murmured, moving to Loki’s opposite thigh, close behind the knee and nuzzling slowly up. “I think he threw it into our bargain with the vain hope that I might find redemption here, as Thor has.”

Loki’s brow knit in a combination of frustration and confusion. “Redemption is always a fool’s errand.”

“Is it?” Tony prompted, movements halting.

The inventor’s eyes snapped open. He hadn’t even realized that he’d squeezed them shut, so focused as he was on keeping himself still under the god of mischief’s teasing. “It’s an illusion, or perhaps delusion might be more apt. Wrongs and crimes can’t be absolved or erased by a few good deeds and some self-improvement.”

“So what do you do, then, to cope with your own crimes?” the god of lies mused.

“I improve. That’s all anyone can do: come to terms with the monster in the mirror, and learn to like him, befriend him. Then learn how to work with him, and aim him where that monstrousness might be most useful.”

Something flickered in Tony’s gaze. “It’s not the saving lives that helps you sleep at night, then?”

“Are you kidding?”

Tony smirked, his fingers curling around the base of Loki’s cock, as his tongue licked at the head. The resultant noise the inventor tried and failed so smother, and the way Loki’s hips jerked, were both beautiful and gratifying. Without further warning, the god of mischief swallowed Loki whole.

Loki couldn’t have prevented the ragged moan that escaped him, even had he been inclined to try. His fingers curled around the edge of the worktable, gripping white-knuckled as he fought the urge to shamelessly writhe. He held Tony’s gaze as the god of mischief began to move, those dark eyes lit with mischief and amusement and promise. And oh, the things that look promised made it no easier for Loki to maintain any shred of control; nor did the masterful and entirely unfair things that silver tongue was doing to him all the while.

The god of mischief continued leisurely sucking and moving with Loki’s shallow thrusts into his mouth, but his hands were not idle. While one held Loki’s hips in place, the other reached over and found a bottle of lube in the front pocket of the inventor’s discarded jeans, and a couple of condoms in the back pocket, to Tony’s amusement. He wasn’t altogether comfortable with the realization that Loki had expected this and planned for it, but he wasn’t about to let that stop him. After applying a condom as he recalled Loki doing before (for the sake of avoiding possible argument that might break their mood, more than anything else) Tony proceeded to open the lube and put it into use.

Loki had heard the familiar rustle of foil, and was peripherally aware of what Tony’s hands were getting up to while that mouth worked him, but to say that he was having trouble focusing on  such a thing would be the understatement of the year. So when the god of mischief slipped two fingers into him, slick and warm, Loki’s whole body jerked in surprise, though he managed not to tense up against the slow invasion. He lay back on one elbow, then, still holding Tony’s gaze a steady as he could.

There was a bit of burn and stretch to adjust to. God, how long has it been? crossed the inventor’s mind. Then Tony’s fingers curled and began to rub hard, tight circles against Loki’s prostate, and the inventor couldn’t help but swear as his hips rolled forward, offering better leverage, a better angle, and silently begging for more. Loki swore still more fervently when the god of mischief’s mouth retreated, but was soon quieted when Tony stood, curled his free hand around the nape of Loki’s neck, and pulled the mad inventor into a hungry, domineering kiss, fingers beginning to move in longer and longer strokes, attention still focused on the spot that kept pulling small breathless sounds from Loki’s throat. Adding a third finger had Loki’s exploring hands staggering to a halt long enough to dig his fingertips hard into Tony’s back as the god of mischief leaned over him further. At that point, Loki found he was, in fact, spread out on his own worktable like an offering on an altar. The thought was in equal parts amusing, titillating, and deeply disturbing.

Breaking the kiss abruptly to bite at the darkest still-healing bruise he’d left the first time, at the juncture of Loki’s neck and shoulder, Tony growled, “Tell me what you want.”

“I think you’ve worked it out,” Loki panted, stubborn as ever. Then Tony’s maddening fingers retreated and the inventor swore in three languages, words falling quick and breathless as his head fell back, further exposing his throat.

“It’s not a question,” Tony corrected, his voice low growl, cool and close in Loki’s ear. “It was a command.”

“Do I strike you as particularly obedient?”

The god of mischief chuckled, pulling one of Loki’s legs to hook high around his waist and pressed against his well-slicked opening: enough to let Loki feel it, without offering either of them relief. He held the mad inventor’s hips firmly in place with inhuman strength, keeping them both still. “You strike me as being in need of certain something.”

Loki’s throat tightened around a dry swallow and took a slow, deep breath, coming back to himself just a little. His grin was easy and wicked, almost fey, in contrast with the cool, polished tone he used. “I want you to fuck me, Tony,” he said, arching up as best he could against the god of mischief’s vice-grip. “Slowly, intimately, and hard enough that I’ll feel it for days.”

Tony’s teeth dragged over his lower lip. “Better,” he said, voice gone ragged, and dragged Loki onto his length in one long, unhurried thrust.

The mad inventor hissed in slight discomfort despite efforts to the contrary, because it did sting, and the stretch did ache, but Loki considered himself far beyond caring. When Tony stilled, slightly tense, Loki tugged his head down and bit sharply at the god of lies’ lower lip. “Do it,” he growled. “Stop and I hurt you.”

Before he could even fully process the words, Tony found himself obediently beginning to move, groaning at the feel of it: tight and hot and alive. He caught Loki’s mouth with his again just as the inventor got a firm grip on his ass and used the leverage to meet every thrust with a maddening little grind. Tony moved one of Loki’s legs higher, then took hold of the back of the knee of the other and held it up and out himself, opening the inventor up for him still further and changing the angle. He was rewarded by a half-choked, guttural moan from low in Loki’s chest and a gasp that broke their kiss slightly.

“You’re gorgeous like this,” Tony panted, lowering his head to nip and lick at Loki’s collarbones. “Coming apart at the seams.” His gaze flicked up to meet the inventor’s as his lips and teeth drifted still lower, until he was licking the scarred skin around the edge of the arc reactor. Giving a hum of approval against Loki’s skin, at the tingling, crackling buzz of power he could sense from the little circle of light, he found a spot that sent a shiver up through the inventor’s spine. Adding a bit more force to his thrusts, Tony bit down on that spot: just a sharp little nip, and Loki made an incoherent series of polysyllabic sounds.

Once Loki managed, with a herculean effort, to recall words, or indeed focus for more than a second to focus on anything other than the almost painful desperation creeping up through his body, he bit out. “You have a hand free. Use it.”

“Not your own?”

The mad inventor’s grip on Tony’s ass tightened, loosened enough to caress, then tightened again. “They’re busy.” Then, with obvious reluctance he managed to bit out, “Please, Tony, for fuck’s sake.” Then one of those pickpocket-clever hands began stroking his cock and it didn’t take much before he was seeing stars and falling apart with a muffled cry. He shuddered as Tony rode him through it, and past it, milking him until he was hyper-sensitive and every touch seared, pushing just over the edge from too good to too much.

Boneless and pliant, Loki still managed to jerk Tony closer, by his grip on the god of mischief’s behind, and grind down hard as he snarled in Tony’s ear, “Come for me.”

The feel and the sound of that, along with the fierce expression he’d glimpsed on Loki’s face before the inventor’s lips brushed his ear, combined to drive Tony over the edge with a few more thrusts, gasping as Loki’s muscles clenched around him, deliberately dragging him further into surrender as he came to a shivering, moderately wrecked halt, with those green eyes staring him down all the while.

Oh, this one’s good, the god of mischief thought. I like him.

“Fuck,” Loki panted, eyes falling shut as his head fell back again with quiet ‘thud’ against the tabletop. “You are good.”

Tony smirked a bit at hearing his own thoughts echoed. “On a related note,” he murmured, pulling out of Loki’s body with some reluctance, tying off the condom and tossing it in a nearby trash bin, “I did find it impressive that you managed to tell a bald-faced lie to Malekith the Accursed of all people.”

Loki’s eyes snapped back open. “Pardon?”

“If we truly did not like each other, Loki, then I don’t think this would be half so dangerous,” Tony mused, running his hands down the inventor’s sides from ribcage to hips, enjoying the way Loki moved into the touch only half-consciously.

“You have scarcely begun to imagine how dangerous this might be for you,” Loki responded, smiling cold and challenging. “Unless you actually do dislike me, in which case you’ll be right as rain, with front row seats to watching me crash and burn.”

The god of lies narrowed his eyes at that. “You presume much.”

“It’s a specialty of mine.” He curled one leg around the back of Tony’s. “So is being annoyingly accurate in my assessments.”

Tony was annoyed, and wanted to argue it, but felt it would only weaken his case to even address it directly. I’ve no plans to get attached to you. You’re mortal: thus, even more temporary than most actual people. He didn’t notice his hands tighten their grip on Loki’s hips at the thought. “I’ll be content to prove you wrong.”

“Oh, please do,” Loki said, his eyes suddenly dark. “I would hate to break your heart.”

The god of mischief shot him a disapproving look, and moved to step away.

“Hey.” Loki employed both long legs to keep him in place for a moment. “It’s rude to fuck off and vanish after a fuck that good, you know. Let’s at least have a drink like somewhat civilized hedonists, hmm?”

Tony considered. With a complex gesture, he had them both clean and dressed. “Fine, then. Your way-” he glanced at the nearby elevator. “-or mine?” He held out a hand and wriggled his fingers to indicate magic.

Unfazed by the mystical dress-up game, Loki sat up and arched forward a bid so his body pressed close along Tony’s as he got his feet back under him again. He tapped his phone pocket lightly, reminding JARVIS to get a good scan with it. “Yours. It looks fun.”

The pair vanished from the lab with a low crack, and a bit of red smoke, and reappeared similarly in the penthouse upstairs.

Loki looked thoughtful, eyes sharp and bright and shrewd. “Interesting. Now, how did you actually do that?”

The god of mischief shot him an arch look. “Magic. Obviously.”

“Oh, good, let’s knock out the nomenclature and definitions for this early: what is your magic, Tony? Come here.” He turned, to walk back behind the bar and gestured toward the barstools. “Sit. Did you like the Metaxa or would prefer something new?”

“Any absinthe? I keep hearing about it.”

“I warn you, it’s bitter.”

“My curiosity bids me to ignore your warning.”

Loki flashed him a grin. “JARVIS? Get the cold water drip ready, won’t you?”

“Of course, sir.”

“Good.” The mad inventor ducked behind the bar with the sound of a few opening and shutting cabinets, and rose with two bottles in one hand, and two cups in the other: a highball glass for himself, and a proper absinthe glass with a small container of sugar cubes and an absinthe spoon handily tucked into it. He removed those, and opened the bottle of absinthe. “So. Your magic, from what I can tell, consists of organic means of energy manipulation. Occasionally it can do disconcerting twisting things with space as well, but primarily the basis is more on exotic wavelengths and interesting energy signatures that I’d love to properly understand.” He filled the bulb at the bottom of the glass with absinthe, then arranged sugar cube, spoon, and glass, just as JARVIS got a cold drip started over sugar, from a bit of machinery that popped up from the counter as though grown organically.

Tony watched, amused. “What makes you think I’m inclined to teach you?”

“Perhaps you might get something out of it,” Loki suggested.

“Are you planning to threaten me again?”

Already did that, but I don’t think you noticed, Loki mused silently, his smile one of bitter amusement. “Not this time, no. What do I know that you might wish to know?”

The god of mischief tilted his head to one side slightly. “You would make this an information exchange?”

“It’s a bit less volatile than asking about each other’s parents, as conversational topics go.” The mad inventor shrugged, opening the second bottle of liquor, this one heavily chilled. He paused. “I’m low on ice, actually.”

Tony rolled his eyes and the air around them chilled as he held out a hand over Tony’s glass, and dropped in a few quarter-sized shards of ice into it from a now-blue hand.

Loki watched with open interest, tapping two fingers on his arc reactor absently. “Do you actually feel cold, but just not the discomfort I might feel from it, or does it just not register at all?”

“I feel it,” Tony said. He then nodded at the arc reactor. “Does it pain you?”

“Only if it’s struck or my ribcage is squeezed too tightly, which does more damage to my tissues around the reactor than to the reactor or its casing,” Loki explained. “But otherwise no: not since I stopped using the palladium core has it been painful.”

The god of mischief nodded thoughtfully, and perched on a barstool, leaning on the bar. He offered a knife-like smile. “So. Magic.”

Loki raised en eyebrow. “In exchange for technological information perhaps?”

“Yes. And perhaps culture.”

“You’re on,” the inventor agreed, grinning back just as fierce. “Where do we start?”

Chapter Text

So far as Loki was concerned, this should be considered progress. So far, neither of them had tried to kill each other, and their suitability in matching one another as conversationalists was––disturbingly excellent.

“You really used Palladium for this?” The incredulity in Tony’s voice was palpable. “For how long?”

“Oh, quite a while.”

Tony looked pointedly at the arc reactor in the inventor’s chest, then back up into the expression (half-amused and half-bitter) in those vivid green eyes. “You’re lucky to be alive. Heavy metal poisoning isn’t kind to any race in the nine realms.”

“So you’re saying I should lace your drinks with lead if I think you’re up to something?”

The god of mischief rolled his eyes. “It would take a great deal to-”

“Mercury, then.”

That gave Tony some pause. “It would affect the flavor of the drink far too much, I would think, but that would make me pretty sick.”

They were still in the penthouse, had been for two hours now, talking at great length about magic, physics in general, and to some extent world politics and the degrees of technological advancement in different nations around the world. So the easiest government in the world to topple right now would be...? A snort had followed. You aren’t allowed to bring about any revolutions or military coups anyway, and in any case I’m not answering that. Also, I’m not at all sure I would have an answer for that anyway: that sort of thing doesn’t wind up in the usual sorts of travel guides.

It was, by unspoken accord, Loki’s turn, and his only moderately alcohol-buzzed self had decided that by this point his options were sort of a toss-up between giving a basic explanation of the concepts behind the arc reactor (but not the schematics by any means) or some of his Mischief Managed discoveries. With the god of mischief, he’d decided it would be safer to explain bits about the first smaller model arc reactor he’d built in that cave, when he’d first cracked the riddle of making its energy output as impressive as his father had always hinted that it might be capable of. It was clear enough to him that Tony had enough power resources of his own that building and using an arc reactor would be a) excessive and b) inefficient.

“So you built one of these in a cave?” Tony sounded curious. “With just scraps?”

“Yes. It wasn’t very pretty, or half as elegant as this.” Loki tapped it twice. “But it served the purpose until I could get out of that place.” He finished the last half of his third glass of scotch in one swallow.

“Which you blew up, at least,” Tony murmured.

“Yes, that was... therapeutic,” Loki admitted, then shot Tony a sidelong glance. “What about you?”

The god of mischief smirked, sipping absinthe as he did so. He’d had four glasses by now, and seemed oddly fond of the stuff––more so once Loki had added just a dash of peppermint schnapps to the second one: the result was very... cooling. “I had you all blow it up for me.”

The mad inventor grinned at that, crooked and fearsomely cold. “It’s hard to fault you for that, really.”

“Don’t tell me I’m not your favorite villain anymore,” Tony teased.

“You’re still a villain, Sweetcheeks. The Avengers’ current patron and anti-hero member happening to like you won’t change that.”

The trickster blinked at that. “Please don’t call me that.”

“I promise nothing.”

“And wouldn’t an anti-hero be a villain?”

“Do I seem like a villain?”

“Not really.”

“Do I seem like a hero?”

Tony tilted his head slightly, looking Loki over from head to toe, recalling the look of his armor, the way this one had fought during the invasion of New York. “Yes, at first glance––or at least until you start talking, especially to me maybe, but I doubt you restrain your devil-may-care attitude and misanthropy from most other people either.”

Loki chuckled softly at that. “That is an anti-hero: one who performs heroic acts, but is far from golden, far from the moral high ground, and rather more ruthless. It’s more like being an exceptional problem-solver than purely a savior.”

Something about that made the god of mischief’s brow furrow for a moment before he hid whatever it was behind a crooked half-smile. “Sounds familiar.”

“Honestly, with the exception of the whole Baldur thing, that’s the impression I generally got from your myths, actually,” Loki added.

Tony blinked, his brow furrowing again. “The ‘Baldur thing’?” he inquired.

“Yeah. Supposed to be the brighter son of Odin, as compared to Thor (since they thought you and Odin were blood brothers in a lot of the Eddas) both in intellect and moral superiority. Presumably he solved problems by means other than hitting them with a large hammer.”

Tony snorted, amused. “There is a god called Baldur, and he is something of a hero. Thor was very envious of him, when we were growing up––at times he still is.”

“Funny. Not related to Odin?”

“Well, there is a bit of ambiguity where the identity of his father is concerned, but that’s not one of the rumors I’ve heard.” Tony frowned slightly. “He is only slightly older than Thor, as I recall.”

“Hmm.” Loki shrugged, hoping he hadn’t just laid the groundwork for a potential war of succession or something. “In any case, in the most popular poetic eddas JARVIS found––though they’re a little questionable, given they were actually written 200-300 years after the vikings, by Christians who put a bit of a christian spin on the stories while recounting them––you kill him. Well, sort of.”

Tony raised an eyebrow. “Interesting, how the old stories do get changed with time. The most I’ve done to Baldur was make him forever terrified of mistletoe.”

Loki snorted. “Really?”

“Long story.” The god of mischief waved it off. “Start with the rest of yours.”

“There was mistletoe in it, too, I think. I forgot most of it except the bit at the end with the entrails and the snake. JARVIS?”

“Yes, sir. Shall I recount it?”

“Do please.”

JARVIS did so, lowering a touch-screen with the basic text of the myth displayed. By the end of it, Tony was laughing almost hysterically.

“I take it they’re a bit off?” Loki inquired.

“They think Váli and Narfi are my sons, holy shit!” the god of mischief wheezed, then burst out laughing again, almost doubled over on his barstool as Loki moved back behind the bar to freshen up both of their drinks. “Do you have more of that metaxa, actually?”

“Yes. Done with the absinthe?”

“For now, yes. Thank you.” He giggled again. “Oh, I knew they were confused on the Jormungandr and Fenrir fronts, as well as that damn story about the horse, but these post-christian versions are fantastic.

“There’s one or two versions of his death where you aren’t involved at all, but this one seems the most widely-known version over the past few centuries,” Loki added. While digging about in the mini-fridge under the bar, he snagged a small vial of the pre-emptive hangover cure he and Bruce had formulated after everyone but Steve lost to Natasha in a drinking contest last month. Loki downed it and tossed the vial in the trash before regaining his feet, fresh bottle of liquor in hand.

Tony sniggered. “I think my favorite part is that they honestly think Sigyn would be fond enough of me to try and catch the snake venom.”

“Er... are you actually married, then?”

“No, not anymore. Not for about a millennia.” He shot Loki a look. “Were you really going to get worried about marital fidelity of all things, where your fucking a villain is concerned?”

“Well, so far as I see it, given how much potential divine wrath I might eventually provoke, I should at least keep track of names to avoid, given the chance,” Loki countered, passing the god some metaxa. Loki had a bit of his own, too, though his diluted significantly by tonic water this time as a precaution, given just how buzzed he was already feeling.

After taking a long sip, Tony raised his glass and gestured with it toward the inventor just slightly in acknowledgement. “I can see the practicality of that.”

“So you’ve ruled out the wolf, the snake, the horse, Váli and Narfi... what about Hel?” Loki asked, returning to his own barstool at Tony’s right. “Is she actually your daughter?”

Tony cleared his throat, expression becoming masked again. “Yes, she is.”

Sensing a sensitive subject with the ease of someone who possesses a good deal of emotional and psychological land-mines of his own, the inventor merely nodded and questioned no further.

“Why on earth have you been reading these myths?” Tony asked, after a few moments of silence. “You’re clearly inclined more toward logic, reason, and scientific methodology than what most humans consider to be ‘magical thinking’ of any sort.”  They had already discussed the differences between the magic Tony performed, and the beliefs of most humans who considered magic real, being very disparate things. This is our science, had been Tony’s bottom line. To think that it utterly defies reason is to not give reason enough credit.

“I’m not reading them for the magic. I’m reading them for the personalities. I thought that was obvious,” Loki countered. “So far, given what I’ve seen of you, and of Thor, I can pick through for things that resonate with the way you both are now, and the way you used to be. In the case of Thor, I’ve learned that he’s changed very little, is generally predictable, and likely to stay that way. Of Odin, I’ve worked out that despite how Thor talks about him as the ‘Good King’ or whatever, in that absent-minded way of his, the bottom line is that he’s a tricky bastard about on par with you when he feels it necessary or is in a particularly cruel mood, but with a bit less general distaste for the company of other people, a great deal more political ambition, and a lot more conviction in general.” He sipped his drink and glanced sidelong at the god of mischief, and found he was being watched very closely, with a bit of shrewdness and suspicion. About damned time. Really, now.

“What are you looking to achieve with this?”

Loki shrugged. “From personal experience, I trust no one who claims to be a loving paternal ally, expecting nothing in return. Why wouldn’t I want to know more about the royal family of such a place, and their possible weaknesses?” When he saw a flicker of rage in Tony’s expression he raised a hand, wagging a finger at him. “Ah-ah! No hypocritical anger, now. You can’t be mad a me for this any more than I might get mad at you for hacking S.H.I.E.L.D.’s records concerning me and mine. You tell me how our suspicions about each other really differ: just try it.”

Tony laughed again, low and edged with intermixed ire and chagrin. “Oh, you are good, aren’t you?” He downed his drink in a few long swallows, and set the glass aside, licking his lips and grinning when Loki’s gaze lingered on his mouth.

“You can’t say I didn’t warn you.” The inventor finished his own drink and stood again, leaning into the god of mischief’s space and crowding the barstool. “You think you’re the only one who likes taking interesting people apart?”

The trickster felt a cool shiver down his spine, at the same time that one or two warning alarms went off in his head, because Loki was kissing him again and all he could quite think was Oh fuck yes, and this one and closer. He settled his hands on either side of the inventor’s narrow waist and pulled him in further. Coconut, metal, thyme, and bittersweet metaxa-and-tonic. The kiss was hungry, but not rushed, as Loki took his sweet time with that talented mouth, teasing and countering this time, too stubborn to let himself be overwhelmed by it again.

Dragging it out, Loki settled his hands on the god of mischief’s thighs, thumbs stroking slow circles there as he employed pressure, a bit of suction, and an edge of teeth to the kiss with the mastery of long and varied practice. He kept the kiss going until he could feel Tony’s breath quicken to match his own, and those cool, smooth hands slide under his shirt and caress his skin. Then he tugged Tony’s hips to the edge of the barstool, and made short work of opening those finely-tailored trousers. “I recommend you stand and lean back against the bar.”

Without hesitation, Tony obeyed, though he was smirking. “You’re confident.”

“With good reason,” Loki purred and knelt, one hand already exploring the god of mischief’s cock with maddeningly light touches, while the other further facilitated trouser removal, letting Tony kick them aside and get comfortable. Then Loki began to lick; first the tip for a taste, then slowly worked his way down, down to the base, and still lower to his balls, whereupon he applied some of the same teasing strokes and suction that he’d used on Tony’s mouth not long before, and all the while his long-fingered hand kept up its exploratory stroking along the shaft, twisting a bit at the peak of each stroke.

Tony gripped the counter, already surprised and a bit glad for the support. In part the liquor had him a little dizzied, but more so he was affected by the combined effects of seeing the way this man fought and lied earlier today, the man being captivating company and conversation tantalizingly able to match wits with him, and the maddening way Tony kept feeling torn between anger and pure lust every time the genius reached almost effortlessly under his masks and armor to scratch something there.

All that mad genius visible flashing with greedy brilliance behind that set of gorgeous green eyes, staring up at him as Loki’s clever mouth at last wrapped around him, sucking the head teasingly and then abruptly swallowed him whole––that would have been enough to compromise any man. Add in the fact that apparently the mortal inventor’s skill with words might just be outmatched by what else that mouth seemed capable of, and Tony was lost.

Loki was very good: all suction and swirling tongue, welcoming heat, and wicked tendency to change the pace of his movements when least expected, making sure the trickster never had a chance to get comfortably settled into any particular rhythm. Then the mad inventor started humming low in his throat, his cheeks hollowed, and Tony gave a ragged, gasping little cry despite himself. Loki’s hum turned amused for a moment, one of his hands sliding down from Tony’s hip to his jeans pocket and, Oh good: the trickster had returned those supplies to their proper places. Perfect. He took out the little bottle and it opened with a click.

At that point, Tony was already close, his eyes squeezing shut in the hopes he would maintain his dignity as a deity for several minutes longer. Then Loki’s other hand returned, caressing his balls in a way that earned a low groan, and then sliding past them and back, and the god of mischief belatedly realized just how slick they were, just before two fingers slid into him quick and purposeful. His eyes snapped open and found Loki still staring, slowly releasing hold of the god’s hips with another low hum, that hand instead wandering back along the curve of Tony’s ass, then up to his lower back encouragingly, while the other hand worked quick and merciless little circles across Tony’s prostate.

Accepting the unspoken invitation, Tony tangled a hand in Loki’s hair, at the base of his skull, and used it to guide him as he started to thrust freely into that mouth and oh fuck the man’s fingers were curled in him, dragging hard in perfect time with each thrust and practically making Tony see stars.

When he came, and Loki swallowed around him once, then very deliberately twice more just to make him shudder, Tony started to wonder how long his arms had been shaking, because he really hadn’t noticed it start.

Then Loki stood, pulling a cloth off the counter and wiping his hand, while his body pressed close against the trickster’s front. “Now... If you’re feeling quite up to it,” he challenged lightly, his tone sultry and shameless, “then I would like to have you here, preferably turned around and gripping the counter for me.” He grinned fit to make the devil himself both terrified and uncomfortably aroused.

Tony laughed, just a little breathlessly, and shot him a wary sort of look. “You’re tricky, do you know that?”

“I’ve been told.” Loki examined the god of mischief closely. “When, I wonder, will you stop underestimating me? While the opportunist in me does love it, I must say I was rather hoping for more of a challenge.”

“I could throw you out of the window again,” Tony suggested, only half-joking.

“Dull. It’s been done.” Loki traced a finger along the line of Tony’s jaw.

“You’re all charm suddenly,” the god of mischief scoffed, baldly sarcastic; despite the mocking, his hand had drifted down to unfasten and unzip Loki’s jeans, making the inventor hiss in relief as it took some of the uncomfortable pressure off of his erection. “What makes you think this will help persuade me to turn and offer myself?”

“Very little.” Loki made a low sound in his throat as his jeans were pushed down, and kicked them aside to join Tony’s trousers on the floor. “However, let me just say that I’m really curious to see how quickly I can fuck you straight into another orgasm, given the chance.”

Tony considered, smirked, and slowly turned. “Give it your best shot.”

“As you wish,” Loki murmured, his tone low and hungry and reverent as he gripped Tony’s hips. He pressed close, teeth grazing the nape of Tony’s neck  as he lined himself up. “Now this is the sort of worship I could get into.”

The god of mischief startled a bit at that, but soon had a mouth on his neck, and Loki already pressing into him, slow enough to make them both groan, and coherent thought wasn’t going to happen. “Hnngh, fuck.”

“Oh absolutely,” Loki muttered, and bit harder at his neck. “Let’s get you a bit more incoherent, shall we?”

 

~~

 

After that, Tony’s memory started to blur a bit, mostly because Loki succeeded in his goals effectively enough there against the bar, to leave both of their brilliant minds to turn to pudding for several long minutes, during which they apparently decided more alcohol was necessary, and Tony had brought a large wineskin of Asgardian mead into the mix, which explained a great deal of the blurring.

Following that, he recalled a great deal more sex on nearly every horizontal surface in the penthouse and up against a few of the vertical ones, interrupted by long and increasingly slurred arguments and/or discussions about everything from gamma radiation, to quantum physics, to nanotechnology and mechanical engineering, to how Odin had made the Tesseract, to a who’s who of organized crime on earth compared to a few notable examples from elsewhere in the nine realms, to the mechanics of the rainbow bridge, and the idea of doing neurological studies on Aesir.

Somehow, in the process, they also finished the absinthe, the metaxa, a bottle of scotch, and the entire wineskin of Asgardian mead Tony had happened to have up his sleeve. It was the rather strange and unfamiliar combination of strong Midgardian liquors with the very potent Aesir brew, that Tony blamed for the position he awoke in: namely, covered loosely in a blanket, curled up naked at one end of Loki Farbautisson’s very long leather couch, with a mild hangover. He felt sore, bruised, yet deeply satisfied, despite his slightly aching head. He vaguely, and with some chagrin, recalled that he hadn’t been alone when he’d fallen asleep (the recollection of being comfortably tangled up with the mortal’s long limbs made him uneasy, because it had been... nice? Was “nice” the right word?) and lifted his head to work out where the mad inventor had gone from there, at which point he realized that the noise that had awoken him originated from the elevator. The doors swept open to reveal Loki, dressed only in a pair of black pajama pants, with one hand on a metal cart bearing a large tray with a great deal of food on it.

“I recall how much your people tend to eat, and took precautions to prevent you from roasting me over an improvised fire pit for sustenance,” he said simply, rolling the cart over to Tony and then plopping down on the couch, landing with his head near where Tony’s feet were before the god of mischief had sat up to examine the food offering.

Loki’s long body stretched out along the cushions. He looked pleasantly exhausted, and content as a cat in a sunbeam. His older bruises seemed to be healing well and the (rather fewer) fresh ones were at least in less conspicuous locations this time. “Don’t save any for me: the hangover cure I took works for the headache, but I still can’t stomach food. Working on the formula for that.”

“My thanks,” Tony murmured, a bit surprised, but his ravenous hunger took some precedence over strange musings over Loki’s hospitality, and he proceeded to devour the offered sustenance, which was surprisingly varied and of good quality. When asked, Loki admitted to ordering in, but only because Steve had been so unhelpful.

“You normally make him cook for you?” Tony inquired, amused.

“Yeah. He’s good at it, and enjoys it more than Bruce or Natasha––though on the rare occasion Tasha does cook, it’s good enough bring men to their knees.”

“That does seem her speciality.”

Loki snorted. “Very true.” He stretched a bit and rolled onto his stomach, shooting the now-barren breakfast tray and amused look. “You’re not bad at it yourself, when you’re not wearing that ridiculous helmet and talking about world domination.”

“My helmet is not ridiculous. Especially compared to Thor’s.”

“He has one? I’ve only ever seen him fight with gold hair flying everywhere like a shampoo commercial.”

“It has feathers.”

Loki chuckled. “Of course it does.” He froze slightly when the god of mischief bent down to kiss him, quick and not chaste with just a hint of teeth.

“Thank you, Loki, for the lovely time,” he purred, tone low and predatory.

“Anytime,” the inventor countered, entirely unsurprised when the trickster then vanished. He licked his lips and stretched back out on the couch, face-down. “Oh, bad ideas, bad ideas.” He ran both hands through his hair roughly, back and forth, mussing it all up thoroughly. After several further minutes of self-chastisement, he further slumped and fell into a light doze for an hour or two, still rather worn out from the lack of sleep and the sex marathon both.

When the elevator loudly chimed, Loki snapped awake, old survival instincts along the lines of slept with someone I shouldn’t have + unexpected visitor = panic and hide causing him to nearly jump out of his skin––or would have, if he hadn’t ungracefully tumbled off the couch onto the floor instead. Only once there did he vaguely recall that Tony had already left, after which he dragged himself manfully back up onto the couch, glaring over the back of it at the opening elevator doors.

Rhodey stepped into the room with the caution of a man all too familiar with some of Loki’s old habits. “Natasha mentioned you’d ordered in enough breakfast food to feed at least three supermodels with impressive metabolisms,” he said carefully, eying the room with open suspicion, all too able to see the subtle and not-so-subtle signs of recent... use. “Jesus. There’s no safe surface in here, is there?”

“There are some. Most of the floor, that chair on the left-” Loki pointed at one of the two modern-looking armchairs opposite the couch. “-and most of the barstools: those are, by your prudish definition, ‘safe’ for use.” He glared, tone turning mroe serious. “Did you bring back the suit?”

“Yes. It’s in your lab.”

Taking on a deliberately grating falsetto, Loki quoted, “‘Oh, don’t worry, Loki, it’ll only be a few weeks out! Then I’ll bring her right on back,’ you said. It’s been three months, Rhodey, and not a word from you and your ‘War Machine’ out there! And you always get so angry when I track you down myself-”

“It was a covert mission,” Rhodey insisted.

The mad inventor barked a laugh. “In the suit with the giant fuck-off shoulder-mounted cannon on it? Oh yes, terribly subtle.”

Rhodey rolled his eyes. “Fine. It was still top-secret, whether it happened to be covert or otherwise.”

“You should fill me in. You do know I’ll hack the details later anyway, if you don’t.”

“Which gives me deniability, so guess who isn’t gonna tell you shit,” Rhodey shot back, stepping down into the room proper and heading for the chair Loki had indicated was ‘safe’ compared to most other places in the room. He pulled it closer to the couch, then made a face once he sat down and, gave Loki a closer look-over. “Jesus, man. Did you just really tick someone off?”

“Only the first time. And possibly a bit on the fifth, but that sort of just added to it,” Loki mused, and hummed appreciatively at that little memory. “Most of the bruises aren’t from last night, though...”

“No, I can tell they’re healing, but seriously: I did not need to know you were, ah, into that.” He pointed at his own throat to illustrate his general concern about the strangling.

“I’m not. I just sort of pissed off a god.” He shrugged. “You know how it is.”

Rhodey made a face again, more disturbed than worried this time. “A god... please, please tell me you don’t mean Thor.”

Loki grinned wide and satisfied and evil. “No. Not Thor.”

“And is uh... either this god, or whoever else you decided to be polite enough to bribe with food this morning, still around?”

“Maybe I was just hungry?”

“You’re never that hungry, especially before noon, and especially not having eaten like a normal human the previous few days, which JARVIS confirmed for me on the way up here,” Rhodey chided.

“JARVIS, you traitor,” Loki called out.

“Hardly, sir. I was most appropriately restrained and discrete––unlike your actions within the past 24 hours.”

“Or most of your life, for that matter,” Rhodey muttered.

“Fine. Fine. He left a while ago.”

The colonel raised an eyebrow. “Funny. Everyone else downstairs says they hadn’t been aware of anyone leaving from up here.”

Loki rolled his eyes. “Yes, well, I should hope not.”

Rhodey considered that leading-answer and sighed. “Don’t pull this, Loki.”

“Pull what?”

“A series of leading, suggestive statements followed by one offhand revelation that’s always the source of shock-factor you get the most kick out of. Skip to the end, I’m jet-lagged and just not in the mood.”

“You’re ruining my fun.”

Loki.”

“Fine, uncle Rhodey,” Loki mocked. “Did you at least say hi to mum since your return?”

“I called Pepper once my mission was over, yeah. Just in case she needed me to be prepared to kick your ass again or something.”

Loki snorted. “Don’t go mentioning it to anyone, especially anyone downstairs, but I seem to be having a torrid affair with the Norse god of lies and mischief.”

Rhodey’s eyebrows raised, but more in a mixture of concern and disconcertion than actual surprise. “I’ve heard that title before.”

“Oh, doubtlessly.”

“In a briefing...”

“Of course.”

“It was about the Avengers initiative and the alien invasion around here that I missed out on,” Rhodey finished. “What’s his name––Anton?”

Loki nodded, opening a small door on the enclosed lower section of the nearby metal cart and pulling out a thermos of coffee. He opened it, poured it into the cup-shaped thermos lid and sipped slowly as he watched the gears turn in Rhodey’s head. “He goes by ‘Tony’ actually, as ridiculous as that may sound for a Norse god.”

“You’re not joking. You... you’re having a ‘torrid affair’ with an honest-to-god super-villain,” he said flatly, and rubbed his hands over his face. “This is not a healthy way to get over Pepper, you know.”

Loki snorted. “Oh, no, a different deity helped me out with the actual rebound-fucking there. You missed my trip to Asgard, by the way. Thor’s mother likes me, and so did a charming goddess called Freya.” He hummed wistfully at the memory. “I highly recommend getting worked over by a curvaceous red-haired goddess of sex and fertility the next time you’re in a slump.”

“Yeah, sure, first chance I get,” Rhodey muttered. “Loki, seriously, what do you think you’re doing?”

“Getting laid. Thoroughly. A lot.”

“Yeah, I got that impression from the bottles on the counter, the broken one on the floor and the general... disarray.” He made a face. “Serious, this is only a little more subtle than the incident you got into with that Italian ambassador’s daughter.”

Loki sniggered. “I’d forgotten that one.”

“But that was a one-night stand, not an ‘affair’ of any kind.” Rhodey shot him a look. “You’ve not called anything a ‘torrid affair’ since college. Just flings.”

The mad inventor frowned and took another sip of coffee. Rhodey and Happy were the only two people who had remained in his orbit long enough to pick up on long-term terminology habits like that. He supposed he should be grateful, but just then he was too annoyed with himself for the slip to bother. “Yes. Well.” He cleared his throat.

“And that one didn’t go to well either,” Rhodey reminded.

“He’s not married like she was,” Loki pointed out swiftly, not bothering to mention that he hadn’t actually known that for certain until last night.

“No, he’s just a wanted criminal pretty high up on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s shit-list.”

“Well, so was I for a while, there.”

“They wanted you to join. I get the feeling even if your god of mischief offered-”

“Ha! He’s not mine-” Loki corrected, just a little more sharply than he intended.

“-to join up then he’d be wait what?” Rhodey finished, suddenly processing both Loki’s words and the odd way they’d slipped out, like he’d been trying to bite them off.

“This isn’t a romantic thing,” the inventor said, perfectly cool and composed again, no trace of the slight edge of something a bit restless and uncommonly irritable that had cracked his mask for just half a second. Not mine, not now nor ever. He’s a brilliant near-immortal heartless bastard, don’t even go there. “And I know what I’m doing.” Because I’m a brilliant heartless bastard, too, and mortal enough to know better than to waste my time and energy on something like that. The thought stung a little, but comforted, too.

“Do you? Because if you’ve been in bed with any other villains, I missed it.”

“Given the sheer number of people I’ve shagged over the years, you know there’s a high chance that about 2% of them were then, or have since become, some sort of criminal of a sensational sort.”

“This is more deliberate, though.”

“Yes. Yes it is.” Loki set his coffee aside and crossed his arms over his chest. “He’s... interesting.”

“Loki...” And the exasperation was back in full force.

“Rhodey, he can keep up with me.”

“Loki you can’t just––what do you even mean?”

“He can keep up with me. In conversation. In lies. In discussions of mechanical engineering, experimental physics, and the insides of people’s heads,” Loki said quickly,  though he kept his voice as inflectionless as possible. “He’s brilliant, actually, and you know how I feel about brilliant shiny things: I like getting my hands on them.”

Rhodey was making a face again, the face this time: the “I don’t know whether to be amused, horrified or angry in response to this” face.

“And he’s on parole. He’s not even aloud to kill anyone in his own defense, these days. Thor is in New Mexico acting as his sort of parole officer on earth in case he gets up to anything here, and if Tony breaks parole, it won’t just be Thor after him, because he’ll be lit up brighter than christmas and unable to hide from all of the other people on earth and outside it who also want him dead.” He shrugged. “If that helps.”

“That’s the only sensible-ish part of this so far, excuse-wise. Why haven’t you told S.H.I.E.L.D. and Fury? That sounds like something that should’ve been in my briefing from them.”

“I told a responsible adult,*” Loki protested, “who is also a respectable senior field agent with S.H.I.E.L.D., and she’s agreed with me that the delicate diplomatic nature of Tony’s parole makes it something best not put on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s radar just yet. Not when either killing him, or making him break parole to defend himself, could cause such epic collateral damage.” He poured more coffee.

“So you decided this all makes it okay to screw him?”

“Actually, I’d decided screwing him was fine before I knew about the parole and all of it’s conditions. Even when he mentioned being on parole, I didn’t really believe him, at the time.”

At last, Rhodey gave in to the urge to face-palm.

“You can’t really be that surprised.”

“I wish I could be,” Rhodey sighed. “Okay. So this is... what? Enemies with benefits?”

“More sort of... chaotic neutral fuck-buddies,” Loki suggested.

Rhodey stared at him. “You like him.”

“Have you taken a good look around the penthouse? I think that speaks for itself.”

“That’s not an answer. That’s a suggestion that you enjoy fucking him, which is usually a factor independent of the degree to which you actually ‘like’ a person.” Rhodey’s eyebrows raised. “Although the fact he came back for more in the first place is a bit impressive. He’s the god of what, again?

“Chaos, lies, mischief,” Loki said.

“Uh-hhhuh.” Clicking his tongue, Rhodey leaned back in his chair, looking Loki over in a clinical, matter-of-fact sort of manner. “You like him a lot.”

Loki snorted.

“You just said he could keep up with you in discussing mechanical engineering and experimental physics. You spent time, serious time, talking with this one.”

“I talk to a lot of people. Often I happen to screw them at some point before, after, or on rare and intriguing occasions, during.” The inventor shrugged it off.

“Not since Pepper, I wouldn’t think.”

Loki glared. “How would you really know? You’ve been off playing War Machine for the past 3 months. You missed the relationship collapse and all, so don’t go making that sort of baseless conjecture just-”

“It’s no baseless because I know you, fuckhead. I’m one of few people who has every actually seen you heartbroken.”

A twitch at the corner of Loki’s mouth. Then he took on an effortless air of sheepish repentance: melodramatic and perfectly pitched to the nines for parodying a romantic comedy. “I know, I know. I’m every day amazed that we’ve managed to stand each other this long. I mean... you’re so straight.”

Rhodey frowned. “Not this again...”

“And upstanding and moral and all...”

“Please stop.”

“And you actually serve others instead of yourself all the time. Rhodey, I think you’re my missing half,” Loki said, in mock-tearful tones, placing a hand over his heart. “You... you’re the yang to my yin. You... you complete me, my dearest friend.”

As he always did, Rhodey cracked up, unable to help himself.

Loki sat back, hands curled around his coffee, and laughed a bit with him.

Once they calmed a bit, Rhodey said, “That shouldn’t still be funny.”
“And yet, it is.”

“You ridiculous son of a bitch...” Shaking his head at the mad genius, Rhodey sighed. “Seriously, though. Cut the bullshit. What’s going on?”

Loki looked put out. “One day, I will actually be able to throw off these incessant inquiries about my emotional state.”

“Not since the spectacularly awful end-results of your after-funeral drinking party when we were kids. Then I let things slide with you one other time when I could tell it was a little serious, and it turned out you were dying of palladium poisoning. Do pardon me for being more consistently persistent with you about this shit these days.”

“I’m not hurt this time. I’m not dying.”

“You’re still sore, though, from Pepper. And you’re flirting with someone who tried to kill you.”

“You know, for someone I’ve never slept with-”

“Just get talking.”

Loki sighed. “He started it.”

“When?”

“The first time I met him. He started the flirting.”

“And you flirted back.”

Loki frowned. “Well, yes. This is me we happen to be discussing. And he’s very attractive.”

“And then?”

“Well, then chaos, destruction, defenestration, war and horror happened for a while. He achieved what he’d come to achieve, we won the battle against his army-”

“How exactly does that equal him achieving what he-”

“Don’t interrupt,” Loki chided. “Now, during the last bit before the portal opened, there was a bit more flirting and I was uncomfortably and guiltily turned on.”

“You? Guilt?”

“Shut up. You wanted me to talk, and I’m talking.”

Rhodey smiled, raising both hands in a gesture of harmlessness.

“Between the flirting, and when he threw me out the window in time for the bits with the aliens and the nuclear missile to start, I worked out that he’d intended to lose. That had been his real plan: convoluted as fuck, but that was it. And he knew I’d figured it out. Later we had a sort of conversational showdown over it––which S.H.I.E.L.D. does not know about, and need never know about––wherein we also tore each other apart verbally. It started out disconcertingly arousing again, but then became so outright offensive as to be quite the opposite of a turn-on: he knew where my buttons were, and I knew a fair number of his, and it wasn’t a clean fight. I’ve never wanted to shoot someone more in my life, and that’s saying something.”

“It is,” his friend agreed. “Then what?”

“He got dragged back to Asgard, put on trial, escaped in the middle of the trial. I got sent home to Pepper, and told her about the incident with the nuke, and we broke up the next day. I did a fair bit of drinking after that.”

“I had a feeling. What about the god of mischief?”

“Well, his mother dropped in on ‘Midgard’ here, with a couple of other mages to find out how things had really gone down with Tony here on earth, as an evidence-gathering sort of mission for his court case, apparently. Given that I was the only one who really knew the whole story, I told it to them––barring all the flirting.” He smirked. “Then the hot redhead suggested I get a day-trip to Asgard on her magic expenditure, and good times were most exquisitely had.”

“Stop bragging.”

“Fine, fine. About a month, or a month and a half after that––which was just a few days ago, now––Tony showed up in here for the drink I owed him. It, ah, would’ve been my one-year anniversary with Pepper if I hadn’t fucked things up, there. I was a bit––volatile, at the time.”

“You were Jenga with landmines.”

Loki snorted. “Yes.”

“So...”

“We had a couple drinks, said some horrible things, got into a violent snogging session, said more horrible things, he tried to strangle me and freeze me to death a little, and eventually we hate-fucked on the floor over there.” He gestured.

Rhodey pointedly did not glance in that direction at all whatsoever. “You owe me so many drinks after this conversation.”

“Why? I’m hardly going to hate-fuck you at-”

“I mean because we either go out and get drunk tonight, or you pay actual therapy bills for the traumatic effects of this conversation on my psyche.”

“Fine, fine.” Loki shrugged. “Anyway. The hate-fucking...”

Rhodey put his face in his hands, but didn’t stop him.

“It was good. Really, very good. As far as men I’ve bedded go, he’s at the top of the list outright.”

“He tried to strangle you and freeze you to death,” Rhodey repeated.

“Yes?”

“If that makes the top of your list-”

“That’s not it,” Loki snapped, brittle and irritated. He then bit his tongue, grimacing at the momentary loss of composure. “Shit.”

“I knew it.”

“You, shut the fuck up,” Loki hissed, his expression genuinely dark and angered this time. “This is what I’m trying to avoid, and for good reason.”

“What is ‘this’ exactly?”

Loki ran both hands over his face a couple of times, then folded his arms over his chest again. “I’m aware that this whole affair has been one long bad decision. I’m aware of a lot of things that it is, and is not.” He took a slow, deep breath. “Therefore I’m really, really ticked off that it’s occurred to me more than once that I might want more. Because there’s bad decisions, and there’s genuine idiocy, and I really don’t want to fall into... into the latter.” He cleared his throat and again glared at Rhodey.

“When... when did you first realize that?”

“Halfway through a discussion of quantum tunneling effects in a variety of contexts,” Loki said flatly. “Which was about 3:46am.”

“Do you think he noticed?”

“No. God, no. Do I look dead?”

Rhodey held up a hand. “Hang on.”

“Yes, I know it’s not healthy. I know the mere fact that I can say things like that even just half-seriously is a bad sign. I know this,” Loki said quickly.

“Then what’s the appeal here, Loki? You can get just questionable sex anywhere.”

Because it’s personal, came to mind. He’d relearned to value personal and close and under-his-skin with Pepper; and however funhouse-mirror-reflection the version of personal interaction he had with the god of mischief was in comparison, it still hit him somewhere visceral and intense as it could only be with someone capable of getting past his armor. Casual flings, even ones which included hours of spine-meltingly good sex with a literal goddess of sex, didn’t hit as powerfully; they didn’t ratchet up from merely hard, to outright desperate and raw and breaking. Loki had been fond of that aspect of casual flings for a very, very long time, but not so much lately.

Because he’s brilliant, was another possible answer. The prospect of an intellectual equal was always thrilling in and of itself––finding a promising intellect at least on par with his, if not ahead of his, in the possession of someone who was just as thrilling to converse with as he was to pin down and fuck senseless, which was also just as good as being pinned down and fucked senseless by him... That was a dangerous thing. More than dangerous enough to become an addiction if he wasn’t careful––or perhaps whether he was careful or not.

Loki made a small, thoughtful noise. Voice deceptively light, he mockingly suggested, “He’s... challenging. And impossible. And a puzzle and a genius and really good in bed. Really, what more could I want?”

“Someone human?”

“Optional. He’s close enough––according to Thor, some of us humans on earth are actually part Jotunn and/or Aesir in places. The probability of an alien race having that sort of compatibility makes my head hurt, but the fact remains-”

“Someone... not a super-villain?”

Loki shrugged helplessly. “He does it with style, at least.”

Rhodey sighed. “Someone not quasi-immortal who may or may not be as interested in return, and who very likely might kill you?” he suggested, very quietly.

Loki looked away quickly. “Yes, well, I never claimed this was actually wise.”

“There’s a reason most myths that involve an immortal sexing up a mortal wind up with tragic endings.”

“Unless you’re Zeus.”

“We’re talking about the more realistic and less disturbing sorts of myths where rape doesn’t lead to only positive things, here, and don’t change the subject,” Rhodey shot back. “Seriously, Loki. I don’t see getting into bed with gods working out for you in the long term.”

Loki frowned, considering. “But I want one.”

“No,” Rhodey said flatly.

“Not your choice.”

“It’s just my recommendation. I know you probably won’t listen, which is still annoying, but at least I’ll have the ability to say ‘I told you so’ if you manage to survive long enough for it to be funny in the end.”

At that, the inventor frowned. “Okay, you have a point.”

“The ‘I told you so’ factor, of all things, makes you reconsider?”

“Well...” Loki cleared his throat. “Actually, it’s more complicated than that. Subject change: is it safe to say that in no story you’ve ever heard like this––mortal and immortal, something just a spot more than just a good shag sort of situation––the mortal has actually come out on top in the end? On top meaning: not dead and not shattered. Don’t count vampire novels or I will dangle you over the edge of the balcony by your ankles.”

“Well, there was Ganymede, but he wound up a cup-bearer and Zeus’ butt-boy.”

Loki glared. “So you’re saying that in no story you’ve ever heard like this-”

“-has the mortal come out on top,” Rhodey finished. “But you know I’m not exactly a mythology expert any more than you are: it’s just bits and pieces learned back in school. The real point is that even if you somehow––got more from him, I think you’d get your heart broken before he did. He’s how old? He’s how aware of how short your lifespan looks from his sort of perspective, especially given your habits?”

Squirming slightly at the mention of his own mortality, Loki frowned. “Not fair.”

“Life isn’t. I’m trying to be, by telling you this.”

Loki sighed, shaking his head. Now he was looking at it like a puzzle. He just needed more data, maybe. He didn’t have to get attached in order to plot, but it would give him an outlet if he found himself unduly attached earlier than anticipated. “I suppose you’re right, Rhodey.” he said slowly, with some obvious reluctance.

Rhodey raised an eyebrow, but brightened a little. “Really?”

“Yes. Absolutely. Not feasible,” Loki agreed, his voice only a little distant. “And possibly hasn’t ever really been done before. Not with real style, in any case.”

Slowly, his friend’s expression darkened again. “Wait. Loki, I know that look.”

“What?” Loki put on an expression of utmost innocence.

Rhodey sighed. “Just because something hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to attempt it, Loki. Especially not this, of all things.”

“I have no clue what you’re talking about.”

“Yes you do.”

“No. Not at all.”

Loki.”

“I’ll be fine, Rhodey.” Loki smiled, brighter and easier than he had all morning. “Really. I’m not about to go letting him get too close, not when he’s better at manipulation and possibly more treacherous than Obadiah was.” He examined that thought uneasily and felt his enthusiasm cool suddenly, chilling him nearly to the bone. Very good, he thought, don’t lose sight of that. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean someone isn’t out to fuck you over; it just means you’re in possession of most of the facts.** He offered his old friend a bitter but winning smile. “Trust the fuckhead.”

“You’re going to try something stupid, aren’t you?”

“Several things, yes. How is that any different than usual?”

Rhodey sighed and stood, walking over to muss Loki’s hair. “Give me a head’s up when any major shit is about to go down, okay? I can work on minimizing collateral damage.”

“Stop that.” Loki swatted at his hand. “What are you, my older brother or creepy uncle or something?”

“Older brother, by two months.”

“Fuck you.”

“And I still look younger than you.”

“They only card you and not me at bars because I’m fucking famous and they all know how old I am already!” Loki insisted, poking Rhodey’s chest. He then stood, beaming at the way Rhodey still habitually frowned at their two inches’ height difference. “It’s good to have you back. I’d hug you, but...”

“You’re half-dressed and were fucking the entire night. I’m not touching anything other than your hair because it, at least, looks clean. Don’t correct me if I’m wrong.”

“You’re not wrong,” Loki assured. “Now get out. I’m going to shower and start up the cleaning crew. Drinks tonight?”

“Yep, right at 8pm. Your ass better be here. And not in use by strange deities when I show up.”

“No promises.”

 

~~

 

Given he stood several yards apart from Jane and her colleagues in the middle of an open swath of desert in New Mexico, Thor was feeling quite at peace with the world. The stars overhead blazed brilliantly, and so did Jane’s expression when she found something new, staring up into the cosmic light which always so captivated her. Every now and then, Thor glanced her way, watching her gesture expressively, hearing the rise and fall of her voice, and the voices of the others.

All seemed, to him, to be quite well with the world.

“Thor.”

The god of thunder jumped at the unexpected voice behind him and spun around. “Anton!” He smiled a bit, looking immediately curious. “Whatever are you doing here? I had not expected you to return to Midgard again before my scheduled return.”
“Yes, well.” Tony cleared his throat. “Let us say I was not only here to deliver you for this visitation deal.” He waved a hand vaguely. He was dressed in relatively casual Midgardian clothing––a well-fitted sweater of dark red, a dark belt with a gold buckle, black jeans that were a bit too long and were thus rolled up at the hems to expose red leather boots, and flashy gold-framed sunglasses with brassy lenses––and he looked tired, relaxed, and uneasy all at once.

“Are you well, brother?”

Tony frowned, still not sure how to feel about being called that, most days. The bridges with Thor were less competently mended in some places, as compared to Odin’s, mostly due to Tony’s usual  impatience and unwillingness to slow down his thinking and his words in order to explain to Thor why they needed mending and where. On the one hand, he couldn’t entirely blame Thor for being so unaware; on the other had, after knowing the other man for millennia spent as close kin, Tony was easily frustrated when Thor still couldn’t keep up with his mind. It was the bitterness of a younger sibling: the expectation that the elder, once their personal hero, should be the better and the ones a few steps ahead. “I am well for now,” he said, quite sincerely. Gauging his own mood, and finding himself far more relaxed and steady than he’d felt in ages, he supposed he should take full advantage of it, and get this clearing of the air out of the way.

Tony put his hands in his pockets and tilted his head back as though staring skyward, but behind the shades, his eyes glanced sidelong in the direction of Jane Foster, appraising her more thoughtfully than he really had in past. Not in the least because he and Loki had discussed some of her theories whilst on the subject of the rainbow bridge, and Anton had been forced to admit she really was brilliant, and very close to a few important breakthroughs. “I envy you your outlook, Thor.”

“Pardon?”

“I do, sometimes.” It must be easier, being permanently optimistic by default, he didn’t add.

“What was your business on earth aside from kindly bringing me here?”

“At Odin’s request, I ferried you here,” Tony corrected, but not too harshly.

“Was it to do with your second task?”

Tony frowned. “I hardly have a hammer to go about trying to lift.”

“The hammer was not my trial. It was learning that which was one of my tougher lessons,” Thor said gently.

Anton removed his sunglasses, half-folding them and hanging them at his collar, and shot the taller blond god an only mildly incredulous look. “Oh really?”

“Worthiness was what I was sent here to achieve. What of you, Tony?”

“Your worth is not the same as my worth. Not in value, mind you, but in how you’d measure that value,” Tony said slowly. “Yours is a hero’s worth. Mine is a trickster’s, and I’ve proven my worth at that pretty thoroughly.”

“You have,” Thor mused. “And how has that worked out for you?”

Anton didn’t answer, looking skyward again.

Thor joined him, and for a long minute or two they were quiet.

Distantly, Thor heard Darcy loudly inquire who the random hottie with Thor was. The god of thunder snorted, amused. “You have a fan.”

“Not interested,” Tony muttered, reflexively. He was still pleasantly sore from his exertions with a certain genius billionaire playboy philanthropist, in any case. The thought made him smile faintly, unconsciously.

“She is clever, and has a sharp wit.”

“I’ve already had my share of torrid affairs recently,” Tony said, in the vain hopes of bringing that part of the conversation to a close.

“Not in Midgard?”

Helplessly, Tony started to smirk.

“Tony,” Thor rumbled, warning.

“He knows who I am. I’ve not had to trick this one. Don’t worry about him a bit.”

Thor looked thoroughly bemused at that. “Who?”

“Now that, I will not share.” Tony’s smirk only widened.

Shaking his head, the god of thunder looked skyward again, as a small meteor shower began. They watched for a few long moments. “Do you care for him?”

The corner of Tony’s mouth twitched. “No more than he does for me. It’s not exactly a tender romance.”

Thor snorted. “This does not surprise me.”

“Not that I’m incapable. It’s just boring.”

“Boring?”

“Boring. Dull. Tedious.”

“And to think, of the pair of us, you are the one who has been wed before.”

“Which is precisely why I know this.”

Thor elbowed him. “Lady Sigyn hardly merits such censure.”

“She wasn’t boring,” Tony admitted quietly. “It wasn’t that, with her. It was the shape of everything else around us, while together. Many things just didn’t... work well.”

Thor nodded. “She could not keep up with you. Few of us ever could.”

Tony frowned slightly. “Was always truly so few? Have I always stood that much apart from everyone else?”

“You intimidated most others, I think. Your intellect particularly.”

“And here I thought they just disliked my personality,” Tony mused.

“Well, you did tend to be rude to anyone who failed to impress you in conversation, or respond with appropriate ripostes for your barbs.”

“They shouldn’t have been so boring.”

Thor chuckled softly. “Am I dull too, then?”

“Frequently, but as we are kin, I have learned to appreciate your unique personality by my ability to trick and baffle you. No wonder I became so expert at pranks: how else could I find reason to love you?”

“That’s a cruel thing to say.”

“I say cruel things. I also lie quite a lot. I keep hoping in vain you might get a bit more used to it, at least in casual conversation.” Tony shot him a look. “You know that if my affection for you, even reluctant as it is these days, were just dependent on laughing at you, I would’ve killed you on my return here; because at that point I could not stand you, you were in my way, and nothing was funny.”

“You still laughed.”

“Laughter is barbs, same as words, often worse.”

Thor fell quiet at that. “Worse?”

“Much, much worse, Thor. Especially from a crowd,” he said slowly. “Especially from a crowd of people whose quiet resentment you were previously less aware of, taking glee in your embarrassment and pain.”

Thor recalled more than once incident of that sort, which his cousin had found himself in, and felt a prickle of shame and unease. “I am sorry.”

“And I am full of resentment. I probably will be for a very, very long time. Do consider that before you speak sometimes. Not always, but more often.” He stared skyward, thinking of how long he had been alive, how many years tended to pass quickly in Asgard simply because there was nothing of interest in them, save for the usual constant battling and what nonsense might pass for court intrigue in a place that hadn’t seen any sort of rebellion against the monarchial rulership for well over ten or twenty thousand years. “Do you know, I had forgotten how time passes so differently here?”

“Oh?”

“Yes. A span of time that would feel like mere minutes at home can be easily stretched out until it feels like days. Do you know why that is?”

“No.”

“Change happens here, pretty constantly. The other realms are full of immortals or otherwise long-lived beasties, and they just move sluggishly, if at all. Alfheim has enough populace, culture and diversity that they’re in perpetual change too, but at the speed of erosion compared to earth where lives are shorter. They let their lands behave as they will, at least: droughts and floods included. Asgard, in comparison, is almost in it’s own sort of stasis, unless you’re spending most of your time actively fighting and brawling. Nothing changes: not the people, not their government. We even breed slowly,  seemingly due to magics woven into the very air and water that have influence over such things, meant to keep our population, and our agriculture’s ability to feed them, all optimal. Days pass like minutes when things get dull, which I guess is all well and good when you’re an artist or a warrior, or some such thing.”

“Not so for you?”

“Well, when I spent most of my time studying magic, and fighting alongside you, I hardly noticed. When I went around Alfheim for a few years was when I first saw the drastic sorts of differences from it.” He folded his arms over his chest. “Coming home was stifling. You may recall I spent the next half-century goading you into various quests of questionable and increasingly dangerous nature, often far from home.”

Thor snorted. “Yes, you did. Then you stopped.”

“Yes,” Tony said quietly. “I found new things to read. Histories, older magic volumes that by rights no one in Asgard aside from Odin should have access to...” He shrugged. “That sort of thing. I found things I’d never heard of: stories about Odin that made me recall visits to earth where people called him a trickster, too. Also spells and theories of magic of somewhat dangerous varieties.”

“I do recall that getting you into trouble.”

Tony smiled. “Heh. Yes, a bit. But I also did so much with it: things no one else could. And I saved your sorry hide with a few of those tricks, too, on several occasions.”

“You did, for which I am still grateful.”

“Did you notice though,” Tony murmured, “that when we would get home from a mess like that, one or two people would point out that what I’d done should’ve been impossible, only for you to correct them––and for everyone else to ignore me? I used the sort of powers that could break mountains and tarnish stars, but your deeds were the ones that they chose to sing about.”

Thor considered for a long while. “That was unfair.”

“Oh yes,” Tony agreed. “Deeply.”

Thor looked at him.

Tony looked back.

“Why did you say nothing then?”

“I did, on a few occasions. Usually someone would accuse me of being jealous and spiteful, but really, what else could I’ve been in the face of that? Usually I was shrugged off, or laughed off, or pissed off enough that I just left.”

“I had not realized it before.”

“That people’s favor is inherently tipped your way, and seldom touches mine?”

“I... had noticed it somewhat. I should have taken more care to notice how deeply you might be affected by it.”

Tony pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger, taking a deep  breath to hold in the openly vicious and angry shouting he wanted to do. Then he lifted his head again and, tersely, but not loudly, asked, “Why in Idunn’s name wouldn’t you? Why? Did you think I enjoyed it?”

Thor winced, and opened his mouth, then shut it again. After a few seconds, he met Tony’s gaze again with an effort and said, “I was a fool. And as long as nothing disturbed the air around me to alert me to its presence, I did not go looking for its effect on others. If an issue was not something I could defeat with a hammer and a bit of persistence, I considered it beyond me, and gave it no thought. I... I am trying to improve at this.”

Tony fairly shook with anger, but contained it for the moment. “Your improvement will not undo the past.”

“Nothing will, brother, but we live long lives.” His voice was a bit unsteady. “I only hope to one day be a man you can look upon with respect, rather than censure. I do not do this expressly for you. I do it because now that I am aware of the harm my ignorance has done, it disgusts me, and I genuinely would not be able to stand myself if I did not work toward changing my thoughts and behavior where this is concerned.”

Somewhat to his surprise, Tony felt some of his anger drain away, replaced by an uncomfortably warm and prickling sensation in the back of his throat that he hadn’t felt in centuries. He swallowed tightly, trying to force it to dissipate with minimal success. “I... do hope you will succeed.” His own voice was not quite as calm and collected as he’d wanted it to sound. Then he snorted, amused. “Maybe you’ll even develop a sense of self-preservation and healthy suspicion of other people’s motives.”

“I am learning,” Thor said quietly. “I have learned that here in Midgard, when people talking to me make me suddenly think of my brother, that they are most likely trying to sell me something.”

Tony let out a surprised laugh at that.

“Thor?” Jane called, concerned.

Thor and Tony both turned at the call. Thor gave a reassuring wave and a thumb’s up. Jane frowned at them, but returned to her various scanning devices.

“She may wish to discuss the rainbow bridge with you, sometime,” Thor murmured. “You have always understood its working far better than I.”

Tony smirked a little. “Well. She’s close to a few breakthroughs already.”

The thunderer shot him a look. “You’ve been keeping up with her work?”

“Not really, but-” He hesitated, searched for a word or phrase suitable to describe his affair with Loki, and found no polite ones. “Well, the man I was with last night does. We were discussing the rainbow bridge.”

“You were?” Thor sounded utterly incredulous. “Willingly? With a mortal?”

Tony rolled his eyes. “Is it really so shocking?”

“Yes.”

After a few moments’ consideration, the trickster muttered, “Okay, I can see that.”

“This is very good, however.”

“Is it?” Tony asked, his voice deceptively light. “He is not dull. Who knows what he might build with information from a trickster and master of magic like me. Have you considered that?” When the response he got was a long silence, the god of mischief’s brow furrowed and he turned to find Thor grinning at him like a mad thing. “What the fuck are you smiling at?”

“You just referred to a mortal as ‘not dull’, Tony. You hardly give anyone in Asgard such a compliment as that. You’ve said that of perhaps a dozen people since we first matured and you began to declare everything other than magic to be boring.”

Tony crossed his arms over his chest. “It hardly matters. Yes, he actually has a brain. It’s not like it’ll last him long––especially the way he behaves.”

Thor’s brow furrowed. “That does not bother you?”

A twinge. That was a twinge, in the region of his chest, but the trickster was dead set on ignoring it. “I’ve conversed with this mortal less than half a dozen times, and on two of those occasions we happened to have some really enthusiastic sex.” He ignored the slightly pained and fraternally grossed out expression that crossed Thor’s face at that statement. “That is the full extent of my dealings with him. Nothing more.”

“And in that short time, it seems he has impressed you deeply.”

Tony bristled. “Stop insinuating. It’s annoying.”

Thor’s eyebrows raised. “You’re afraid.”

A half-hysterical laugh bubbled up in Tony’s chest. “What?”

“Is he good to you?”

Another laugh, small and dark this time. “Quite to the contrary. We tend to tear each other apart.” Though as he said it, he recalled drinks and civil conversation, and that Loki hadn’t once set off that accursed Mischief Management field. Then, belatedly, he realized the man hadn’t even been wearing those bracelets connected to his suit of armor and felt something in his brain short-circuit at the realization. Because that... that was interesting/unbelievable/insane/inexplicable. Something must have shown in his expression, to Tony’s dismay, because Thor reached out to try and touch him. The trickster shot him a warning glare.

“You looked... ill, suddenly,” Thor said, hand drawing back.

“It’s nothing,” Tony said, trying to shrug it off. It wouldn’t shrug off. And now it was making his brain itch, because for a man like Loki Farbautisson, dealing with a creature like the god of mischief, the lack of armor and the lack of technological force-field both spoke of something disconcertingly like a show of trust. Still worse, it looked like a subconscious display of trust––like it hadn’t even quite occurred to Loki’s mind. Again, even without the mortal being present, Tony felt the itch of him: getting still further under his skin in ways no one, least of all some mortal, should be capable of. He shook off such thoughts. That way madness lies. “Why exactly, brother, do you think I would be afraid of something in this situation?”

Thor’s expression fell as he glanced toward Jane. “I... I personally am terrified.”

At that, Tony’s stomach turned to lead. No getting attached to a mortal: don’t be that idiot, when clearly your brother is already doing such a fine job of it. Bad. Idea. He shook his head a little to clear it. “I don’t have that degree of interest in him, Thor,” he said coldly.

“From what you have told me, I am not certain why. You seem to share much in common.”

“Well, if Jane Foster harbors any real affection for you, Thor, then I kind of think that could be a good example of a situation wherein like-kind does not necessarily harken to like-kind. Similarity does not-”

“It is more than similarities, I think. If you were not also in some way opposed to him, I doubt you would so enjoy ‘tearing each other apart’ was it?” Thor cut in.

Tony gaped at him. “Holy shit, it’s like you almost had a brain for a moment, there. I am in shock.”

Thor rolled his eyes. “I’ve had to learn some measure of wit to keep up with these people. I can only be the butt of every single joke for so long.”

For a few moments, Tony could only stare. “That... may be the single humblest thing you’ve ever said.”

“Oh good,” Thor mused. “Progress.”

Tony smiled a bit disbelievingly before he could stop himself and shook his head. “Thor, I have to admit––I don’t entirely understand your––” He glanced pointedly at Jane. “-attachment.”

“She... makes me wish to improve myself so that I might keep up with her. She is brilliant, and charming, and not truly impressed by mere shows of strength, except as a novel sort of skill like the ability to juggle. It’s not my strength or valor she values me for. It is only myself, as she sees me. Currently, I think that I amuse her more than anything else, and she still has not entirely forgiven me for how long it took for me to return, so we are not...” He cleared his throat and shot Tony a look. “We are not quite so far in purely physical progress as you have been with your affairs. Given time, however, I might win her regard again. It will be more difficult, especially to regain her trust, but I want to do this. I want to be worth her love.”

Tony blinked a few times, disconcerted. “But––she’s-” He sighed. “This will be heartbreak for you. She is not a hero or a warrior and the trials Asgard would place on her for immortality-”

“Tony,” Thor said quietly. “I’m aware of these things. I have begun to doubt that all the laws in Asgard are righteous ones, and for that I have you to thank.” He turned and looked hard at his brother. “That according to our laws, to the letter of them, someone could unjustly murder you, and stroll out of a courtroom as you did, because of our laws, made me begin to doubt all that I’ve been taught about Asgardian justice. I have already begun work with father to change those laws, and possibly others.”

For a moment, Tony couldn’t move. He felt angered, and chilled, and hurt, and there was that prickling feeling again, stronger this time. He tried to swallow past it and it hurt. Sentiment, he thought, and tried to hate it with every considerable amount of spite in his soul. And he failed: just barely, but the hatred fell short with what was, in his mind, a loud sound like cracking ice. “I... know not what to say to this.”

Thor turned to him and reached out a hand again, slowly, as though to a wild animal that might bolt, and rested it on Tony’s shoulder. “Say nothing. I’m not done improving yet.”

Before he could quite think about it, Tony leaned forward slightly and rested his forehead against Thor’s collarbone, feeling a mixture of no-longer-familiar comfort along with his usual resentment of Thor’s greater height. His arms were still crossed over his chest and seemed unable to move even as Thor pulled him into an actual, honest-to-gods hug, and Tony cursed himself a fool for letting sentimentality do this to him. It will only hurt later, he silently shouted, but the rest of him apparently wasn’t keen on listening, because he shuddered and relaxed in Thor’s for-once-not-suffocating embrace. And for a long few moments he could not find words again, but once he caught his breath and pulled a few shreds of composure back together he managed to lift his head and say, in perfectly calm and slightly mocking tones, “You can let go of me now, Thor.”

“Actually, it’s oddly warm in this desert, despite the lack of sun, and you seem to be radiating cold. I’m quite comfortable.”

“You won’t be once I set your hair on fire.”

Chuckling, Thor released him.

Tony dusted himself off, looking like a cat that missed a landing and was making every effort to silently indicate I meant to do that. He cleared his throat. “Let us never speak of this again.”

“I promise no such thing.”

“Damn,” Tony muttered, smiling faintly when Thor chuckled.

“I must ask... Are you involved in a torrid affair with one of the Avengers, Tony?”

The god of mischief managed, just barely, not to sputter. “What?”

Thor merely held his gaze, wearing an innocent expression.

“What gives you that idea?”

Thor glances down at the trickster’s clothes and smirked. “Belt buckle.”

Glancing down, Tony noticed, so his chagrin, that the belt buckle, not quite large enough to be gaudy, but hardly subtle and understated either, bore the legend: Forbisson Industries. “Oh. Well.” He had forgotten that he’d taken belt and jeans both from Avengers tower after the first occasion he’d fucked the owner of said tower. “Fine. Credit to you. Yes, he’s an Avenger.”

“Farbautisson?”

Tony glared and said nothing.

Thor chuckled slightly. “That does explain why he called asking about the terms of your parole.”

“Of course he did,” the trickster muttered. “Clever bastard.”

“He reminded me of you at times, when I spoke and fought with him before your capture. He understood you far better than the others, I think.”

“He did,” Tony admitted. “He does.”

“Better than I, as well.”

The trickster said nothing for nearly a full minute.

“Tony.”

“What, Thor?”

“Whether or not laws were to change in Asgard, I do not believe he of all people would need them to, to pass the usual trials for a mortal to gain citizenship and immortality. You’ve seen what he’s capable of throwing himself into, carrying a missile of some sort or otherwise.”

“I think your optimism has bled over into sheer insanity again. Don’t be ridiculous.”

“He keeps up with you, doesn’t he?”

Tony crossed his arms over his chest, scowling. After a long, huffing sigh, he muttered, reluctantly, “Yes.”

“Then for fuck’s sake, try and keep him,” Thor said flatly.

Tony shot him a look. “Maybe the mortals are good for your wit, but you’re clearly still an idiot.”

At that, the thunderer only rolled his eyes.

“Ours is not an... affectionate connection,” Tony insisted.

“You discussing scientific subjects such as the workings of the rainbow bridge and Jane’s theories, with a mortal you’ve also been bedding, who you happen to consider ‘not dull’ sounds like your version of affection, actually,” Thor mused.

“I am not incapable of true affection.”

“Really?”

Tony narrowed his eyes. “I do have a daughter, Thor. And I do care about her. Why do you think I worked so hard to learn to travel between realms without the rainbow bridge? It wasn’t originally to visit earth.”

Thor hesitated. “I’m sorry.”

“She’s well, if you were wondering. I went to Helheim, after leaving the courtroom that day. She would not speak to me, of course, but Hecate remains hospitable towards me.”

The thunder nodded at that. “I would like to see her again.”

“She has her own ways back to Asgard, when she might wish to return. I don’t entirely blame her for not wishing to.” He shrugged lightly. “She is a good queen, where she is, and seems to enjoy her work.”

Thor nodded. It was, according to what people wanted to be heard saying rather than what they actually said, an honor for a royal child of a given pantheon to be chosen by death herself to guard their underworld. Tony had truly believed it, long before Hel was chosen, and had been deeply disturbed when much of Asgard seemed disgusted or afraid, as though she might be a source of death rather than a proud guardian of her gate. Thor had notoriously punched a few faces in for words spoken against his niece. “I am glad,” Thor said. “I miss her.”

“Me too.”

They lapsed into another silence for a while.

“Thor! We’re leaving in ten whenever you’re done talking to the hot guy in the tight jeans!” Darcy shouted.

Tony turned enough to offer her a wicked smile, managing to catch the light from the flashlight she’d pointed at them from her distance.

Darcy dropped the flashlight with a muttered, “Jesus Christ!”

Laughing a little, Tony shook his head.

“Think on it, Tony,” Thor suggested.

“No promises,” the trickster muttered, stepping away with a dramatic bow. “Nevertheless, speaking with you has improved my mood for once.”

“Why did you come to me?” Thor inquired.

Tony hesitated, making a face. “I... am not sure. I might have just called you to relay a brief message, but––I have had strange thoughts. One of them was an impulse that perhaps I should speak with you in person, while my mood could support relatively civil conversation of this sort.” It certainly wasn’t an impulse to see you and your mortal love interest and reassure myself that I’m not in the same boat, he thought all of a sudden, and inwardly winced. Damn. He hated it when he caught his own lies to himself quite so clearly.

“You, Tony? Lacking a plan and an ulterior motive?”

“I know, don’t rub it in,” the trickster spat. “I also intended to inform you that my next resource-gathering trip may prove––particularly unpleasant. Do not be surprised if I arrive later than planned to return you to Asgard.”

Thor nodded. “Could you use any aid?”

“No, Thor. It requires subtlety.” He grinned a little. “Goodnight.”

“Goodnight to you, Anton,” Thor replied, just before his cousin vanished with a faint crack and a puff of red smoke.

Strolling back toward the van, he was met by Darcy who gripped his arm and said in low, urgent tones, “Okay, was he a god, too? Because I called next one after you.” She jabbed an accusing finger at him.

“That was my brother, Anton.”

Darcy frowned. “The... the one who tried to kill us all?”

“Yes.”

She considered. “Is he reformed or something?”

Thor chucked. “Hardly. And in any case, it seems he’s currently bedding a man of some considerable interest to him.”

Darcy sighed. “Unfair.” She then raised an eyebrow. “Is the guy cute and are there pictures?”

“I would not be a good judge of that, and I sincerely doubt there is any photographic evidence of their affair.”

“Damn.” Darcy let go of his arm with a huff.

Jane approached them, looking amused. “Let me guess: he’s taken?”

And a bad guy!” Darcy complained. “And maybe a bit gay.”

“Oh?” She shot Thor a look of concern.

“My brother. He seems well, and he is still being kept busy by the terms of his parole,” he explained. Jane, of course, he’d told everything on that subject already.

“Oh. So... was that actually just a social call?”

“He may be late, if his next errand goes as I suspect he believes it will.”

“Oh.” Jane smiled a little, looking down and tucking her hair behind her ear. “Well. I guess that’s good.” She beamed at him a moment, then turned and strolled back over to finish packing up equipment.

Thor nodded at Darcy, and silently joined in the process.

Chapter Text

 

Of all the many, frequently colorful words people loved to use in order to describe the eccentric billionaire inventor Loki Farbautisson, “sentimental” had never been on the usual lists, unless it was put in a sarcastic context. His reputation was aided somewhat, by the fact that his father’s will had included one very public tombstone in a prominent cemetery, for the public to know about, and another much humbler one in a shady corner of Arlington cemetery, with the men and women he’d worked to protect during World War II.

If passerby, on their way to other stones and their own mourning, happened to notice the name on the stone was Neil Forbisson, none of them for a moment thought it might be that Neil Forbisson. Thus his grave was seldom disturbed.

Loki hoped the old man enjoyed the quiet. Even though every year, on the anniversary of Neil’s death, Loki visited, and broke the silence for a bit. He never brought flowers, or anything really.

“Hello, dad,” he muttered, staring over the top of his sunglasses at the stone. After one or two conversations he’d had with deities since the invasion of New York––not only Tony, but the others too, when he’d asked about Thanos and they wound up telling him about Mistress Death as well––Loki felt, for the first time, as though he might not just be talking to himself. It was uncomfortable, so he stopped. “How’s the afterlife?”

Silence greeted him, which was just as well.

“Well, souls exist, apparently,” Loki added, his voice low enough not to get the attention of the nearest group of mourners at a different grave several yards away. “That almost made me worry about you. I have to wonder if your face was red when you found out.” He took a deep breath, reminding himself that weird shit explained by alien gods or no, he didn’t really visit here for his father’s sake.

He visited because it was far better than trying to find a psychotherapist he couldn’t manipulate so easy it wasn’t even fucking funny.

“So. The stable relationship thing didn’t pan out. The superhero gig is still going strong; I even have something of a team, now.” He shoved his hands deep into his coat pockets, his breath steaming slightly in the cool afternoon air. It was cold, and grey out, but thankfully bone-dry. “I met Captain America, and I’m not sure I understand how you ever got along with him. He’s a bit noble and golden for you. I suppose the fact he saved your life a couple of times made that more bearable. I can’t say much of anything against him, in any case. He’s a good guy, through and through. Not like the two of us have ever been.” A bitter smirk tugged at Loki’s lips for a moment.

He inhaled deeply, and let it out. “Yes. I’m avoiding talking about Pepper. She hasn’t really left, not forever. She’s just at arm’s length, again. We work fine that way, but I wish I could’ve kept her closer without doing her more harm than good.” He grimaced. “That’s all you’re getting out of me on that front.”

Loki fell quiet as a family dressed all in black walked past. Knowing himself to be looking well-dressed, but a bit windswept and only a little haggard from sleep deprivation––which was a look that he always seemed to be wearing when the paparazzi caught him out in winter behaving almost like a normal human at a cafe or something––Loki pushed his sunglasses back up the bridge of his nose and flipped his coat’s collar up against the wind. He wore mostly black, too, save for the dark green shirt under his coat, but that was stylistic choice more than anything else; if he looked like he might be dressed almost-respectfully for mourning purposes, that just conveniently made him less conspicuous.

Once they were out of ear-shot, Loki continued, “You never mentioned S.H.I.E.L.D., and I know I said that last time, but I’m still irritated with you about it. God knows what storied you might’ve told Fury about me as a kid; sometime he looks at me like he just knows all about he incident with the palm tree and the Jehovah’s Witness. It’s well and truly unfair.” He folded his arms against his chest, hands tucked in close to his body. “I... We lost one of them. A S.H.I.E.LD. agent, that is. You would’ve gotten on with him famously, I think. He as a good friend to Pepper, and––well, he’s buried around here, too.” He didn’t mention that he knew exactly where. “He was all sort of murdered in cold blood, which––well, I don’t think you ever murdered, that I know of, but I have.” His eyes narrowed as the whispers of shifting sand dunes rolled through his mind, bringing with them flickers of memory he didn’t want to linger on: men crushed in his wake as he’d fought his way out of those caves, the sounds of screaming voices just after he’d set the whole place ablaze but just before he’d managed to blast off and away as fast as he could, the sight of blood on the bits of his armor scattered across the sand that he’d known wasn’t from his own veins. “That said, I didn’t do it for fun.”

Loki made a face. “Okay, so I’m not just here to visit you, this time, let’s say, but you’re a convenient excuse. I’m always in the neighborhood this time of year anyway.” He shifted his weight back to his heels and tilted his head skyward. “Look, I didn’t question your bedroom antics after mum died, so I don’t want to hear a fucking word.” He lowered his head again, staring straight ahead. “Then again, if you knew any of them had maybe committed that sort of murder, no one ever mentioned it.” He rubbed thoughtfully at the line of his jaw. “And you never met anyone like this, either: evil or otherwise. I don’t think he’s altogether evil, per se. He’s just careless, reckless.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I looked through the casualty reports from the alien invasion of New York––you missed out on a spectacular show, there, by the way––and something struck me as a bit odd about them.” He frowned at the tombstone. “You know, I don’t think it’s your corpse I need to talk at about this, actually. No offense.” He smirked. “Not that I ever cared too much about offending you. It was always more disappointing when I didn’t offend.” He stepped closer, ran his fingers across the top of the cold stone. “Sleep well. If you come back from the dead by witchcraft or something––by the way, that’s apparently a thing, if you believe Dr. Strange––then don’t worry; I’ll find a way to pull a Ghostbusters on your arse, father dear.”

Then he strolled away, down the rows, occasionally consulting his phone for directions amidst the labyrinth of stones.

He stopped in front of one and greeted it with, “Your name really was Phil, then. Either that, or you’d had it long enough for them to bury you with it.” He stared at the simple, bland grave marker for a long moment, then shrugged and sat down in front of it, cross legged, pulling a small carton from his pocket.

“Pepper talked about you a lot, the night I told her about you getting stabbed. I believe that it was her way of showing you some sort of respect: by talking about the best memories she had of you.” He opened the top of the carton and pulled out a cigarette. “Well, I honor a man for his little addictions and questionable habits. She said you blamed that cellist of yours for getting you to smoke again, even if only now and then. You liked the brand she smoked, liked being reminded of her by having smoke now and then. Well, I found the brand, and it’s been about nine years since I last had a cigarette. So, cheers.” He raised it as though in a toast, and set the rest of the carton at the base of the stone, closed and tidy-looking as a box of cigarettes could possibly look. Loki pulled a lighter from his pocket, lit the end of the cigarette, puffing gently to get it going. Lowering the lighter, he exhaled a bit of the smoke with a grimace. “Your girlfriend has questionable taste, Phil.”

For a long moment, Loki stared at the tombstone, thinking in a hundred directions at once, as he was wont to do. Is this the first time you’ve ever lost a soldier? The man out of time. Yinsen, come on, with me. You’re going to see your family. The moment he became capable of murdering for reasons other than self-defense. Your quest to protect the world with that suit of armor is a futile one. The bastard who killed over a hundred people in less than a week. And yet...

“I wonder, a bit, how you soldiers and agents really cope with never fully trusting each other. It would seem to be the only way to survive in a place like S.H.I.E.L.D., you know?” He shrugged, returned the cigarette to his lips briefly, despite not really enjoying it. Smoke lingered in the air longer than it might in warmer weather, seemingly bolstered by the more natural fog of his warm breath in the frozen air. “Natasha liked you, got on with you almost as well as she does Hawkeye. You even liked her, but S.H.I.E.L.D. was your master and you’re loyal as a particularly intelligent but unobtrusive sort of hound that’s secretly part coyote or some such thing. She most certainly is not. And I know she’s killed people she didn’t have to.” He frowned slightly, wondering if she’d ever really done it just for fun, or satisfaction: that was the real crux of it.

Wanton destruction is all well and good. And having the excuse that the deaths caused were part of some greater scheme to keep some bastard called Thanos from burning the whole planet to the ground––Loki still raised an eyebrow at that, given how oddly convenient it sounded––was fine. The evidence of strings of influence from that Thanos guy was compelling, a bit, but Tony was also an illusionist. And fond of massively over-complicated plans. The possibility that those flickers of blue had been feigned was higher than Loki would ever be comfortable with. He knew when I was watching, on live feeds. He had to assume I’d watch later, too.

“I don’t want to forgive the guy who killed you, you know. I don’t think what I’ve been doing has anything to do with forgiveness, though.” He frowned a little. “You were good to mine. I respected that––still respect it. Even though you also apparently got a kick out of tazering people if they got too annoying.” After another pull from the cigarette, Loki sighed. “Alright, to be perfectly blunt: I’m fucking the god of mischief who stabbed you through the chest, and I’d say I’m sorry about it, but I’m all sort of not.” He saw a charming elderly widow only a dozen feet away turn her head to glance at him as though sure she must not have heard him right.

Loki smiled as guilelessly as possible at her, and eventually she looked away again. The mad inventor returned his attention to Phil Coulson’s gravestone and continued, significantly quieter, “Anyway. I’m sure that wouldn’t really surprise you. Nothing ever really seemed to manage that honor. It gets worse, but in ways I’m sure also wouldn’t even get a raised eyebrow out of you.” He wasted time finishing the last few long puffs of the cigarette, stubbing it out, and dropping the butt into a handkerchief, which he then rolled up and pocketed. “The problem is that I like him. And I get on with him better than I did you, but I’m aware that’s sort of what he’s good at when he wants to be: easy to get on with. That’s how all liars operate: salesmen especially, but the rest of us too.” He stuck his cold hands back into his pockets. “Not that we’re altogether polite to each other. As good as the sex most certainly is, it’s not good manners and gentleness that led to it happening more than the once. And it’s not what makes me think it will most likely happen again.” He frowned a little. “I’d have considered asking a certain bird-brain how exactly his friends-with-occasional-benefits relationship with Tasha has worked out for him, but given he’s really pissed about that mind-control business, I doubt he’d take it well. So I’m talking to your grave instead, apparently.”

Snorting at himself, Loki added, “My dad’s around here, too, you know. I started telling him the bit about the death tolls, but, well, it’s more pertinent here.” His brow furrowed. “No children. There were a few children wounded, none too severely, but despite all of that large-scale destruction, no one under the age of sixteen actually died. And only a few teenagers made the list, mostly due to their being in cars driving into things out of sheer panic, from what I can tell.” Loki shook his head. “It doesn’t give him much credit, even if it’s not coincidence, but he has a daughter and he played us all like harp-strings, so I can’t say I really believe it was all accidental. I think he’s bat-shit insane, and a monster, and the fact that the shit-eating grin on his face after he stabbed you wasn’t entirely dishonest is still fucking awful... but––I think he’s not the worst monster we’ve dealt with. He’s just––about as bad as I used to be, before Iron Man.” He frowned a bit. “And really? I don’t care what sort of BFG you find, don’t point it at a borderline-psychopathic illusionist and expect him not to take advantage of your blind spots. You had to know you couldn’t really stop him. I still have no idea why the fuck you did that, and sometimes I think you wanted to––that you were pulling a sacrifice move. That you knew we needed a push like Fury did.” He snorted. “And while we got on only moderately well, with my snark and your tazer in the mix, I still would like to be less pissed off at you than to think you pulled a move like that. I have one rule, Phil, after Afghanistan, and it was all about people not getting killed for my sake, even if it wasn’t fully my sake, but the sake of the Avengers. Hell, I was the first Avenger you fuckers courted: it counts.”

A long silence passed, and Loki fell quiet, staring, but not really seeing.

“Thanks for being good to Pepper. And for not actually tazering me despite all the times I know you really wanted to.” Slowly, Loki pulled himself to his feet, shivering a bit with cold by now. “Rest well. And if I find out you’re not actually dead and this was an even worse manipulative Fury-trick than using you as emotional leverage was, I’ll throw you out a window for Thor to try and catch. Alright? Alright. Good.” He didn’t touch the stone again, just nodded sharply, and turned away, headed for the nearest exit gate.

 

~~

 

There was a tracking program JARVIS had been running ever since the night Obadiah Stane was killed. It was slow going, hacking back and back throughout all of Forbisson Industries’ most secure systems, along with those of several large international merchant banks with very “discreet” policies for certain of their customers. Loki frequently had to spend a day or two untangling the messiest of the webs of deceit and cover-up along the way, when even JARVIS couldn’t fully decipher them.

It was over two years of work so far, and still only two-thirds of all Forbisson Industries’ weapons manufactured over the three years before Stane’s death were fully accounted for. The other third had been sold under-the-table by Obadiah, but that alone wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, have hidden them so completely.

Loki had been forced to develop whole new methods to hunt the ghost that stole all of that data from his own company’s archives and systems, and from seemingly every major bank in the world. Much trickier than tracking bits of data from a trail, was extrapolating the existence of a trail from where certain data could not be found.

And that was how Iron Man had first discovered the leader of the Ten Rings, and how incredibly widespread and insidious that organization truly was. All those languages they spoke in the caves, he thought, as he retraced the map that two years of himself and JARVIS decoding and theorizing and extrapolating had gotten them. From Japan, through Siberia, along the old Silk Road, into the middle-east, down into blood-diamond territory in Africa, along the Ivory Coast, through Latin America, up into the United States: Texan border towns, Florida’s coast, Chicago and a few towns around it, Jersey and New York both were practically embroidered with the threads of it, and smaller but more numerous little bases coalesced up through California.

Their leader was just called M. Less like James Bond’s boss, more like the nemesis of Sherlock Holmes, to Loki’s mind. The though made him bristle, because he was an engineer and sometimes-superhero, and this nemesis was clearly his, which made his “M” far more dangerous than a cops-and-robbers game like Sherlock and Moriarty. Their war was before anyone had weapons even half so dangerous as the ones Loki had designed just back when he was a teenager.

And this one, this “M” had not only his smart bombs, but the adaptive systems to control and guide them, his best early cloaking tech, even early forms of his repulsor technology in some of the rockets. It had taken him this long just to find a few of their weapons silos, and now that there was so much less Forbisson material on the market, it would only get trickier to track them from there on, but going in guns a’blazing would likely have about the same effect as teleporting oneself into the middle of the world’s largest hive of killer bees.

After a few hours of applying different strategies, and reluctantly admitting that the end result was always chicken-fried Iron Man, Loki realized he would need backup. Lots of backup––and moderately subtle, for preference.

So he called Fury. Just to be as annoying as possible, he called Fury’s private cell that not even people at Natasha’s level of security clearance knew about.

What the Hell, Farbautisson?

“Will you be my Mycroft?” Loki crooned.

A long silence followed. “I repeat, ‘What the Hell, Farbautisson?!’”

“I found three major weapons silos belonging to the Ten Rings.”

A shorter, more thoughtful silence. “Where?

“They don’t match any in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s records. Even the ones more top-secret than this phone number of yours.”

There are times I’m deeply irritated by you, and simultaneously relieved to find that you’re on our side,” Fury muttered. “What is it you want from S.H.I.E.L.D., Iron Avenger?

Loki made a face. “The Avengers are good at going after gods and major super-villains. This is something a bit more subtle, complex and home-grown.”

Not home-grown. You didn’t find all the records on their leader then, did you?

“What, the ‘M’ person?”

He’s been a thorn in our sides since the late 70’s, Loki.

“Alright, then. What am I missing?”

Get out of the geographic and economic files and into the criminal profiles. Since you insist on invading our secure servers, I suggest you look for ‘The Mandarin’ in there, ridiculous as it sounds.
“No more ridiculous than a Norse god called Tony.”

Point made. Your M here goes by a lot of names, and a lot of guises. For a long while, he’d convinced some of our agents that he was half-English, half-Chinese aristocrat persecuted by the People’s Republic of China over tax issues, going under the questionable alias ‘The Mandarin’ but later agents reported differently. He’s since then appeared as a Saudi Arabian bastard prince, a common con-man from Philadelphia whiter than even you, a Russian mob boss, and a terrorist leader based just outside Pakistan. He’s a bit of a chameleon, that way. Since his first alias got blown up, he’s just been called ‘M’ by most who deal with him.

Loki considered, drumming his fingers on a nearby tablet-computer, then more deliberately tapping it out of sleep mode and absent-mindedly flipping through classified documents, which appeared on a large touch-screen panel in front of him. “He founded the Ten Rings. What’s in the name?”

The part that’s not from earth. Get your research done tonight. Be in my office tomorrow at noon. Decide before then how involved you want your fellow Avengers to be.

Click.

Loki frowned. “You heard the man, JARVIS. Hunt down S.H.I.E.L.D.’s files on the Mandarin, for me.”

“Of course, sir. Estimated time for retrieval and encryption: 30 minutes.”

The mad inventor frowned slightly, irritated as ever when he found missing data, and no instant-gratification means by which to get his hands on it. “Well. I suppose I have a bit of time for a drink, then.”

“Hardly, sir, as Miss Potts is making her way into the building just now.”

“That doesn’t preclude getting a drink.”

“It does today, sir.”

Loki’s frown deepened. “Don’t you even start.” He jabbed an accusing finger at the ceiling for emphasis.

“I should hope you won’t either, after what happened last year. And the year before. And the two years before that saw still even more spectacular property damage-”

Already getting to his feet, Loki cut off his AI, “I get it, I get it. Fine. Initiate reluctant Pepper-approved levels of lockdown on the liquor cabinets if it makes you feel any better.”

From two corners of the room came a series of loud metallic clicks and clunks.

“I maintain that last year wasn’t that bad,” the inventor insisted.

“To be perfectly blunt, sir, I’d say the situation has somewhat changed.”

“Your confidence in me is so heartening, JARVIS,” Loki called back, as the elevator doors closed and he headed up to the penthouse to face Pepper’s intense concern over his first coping-with-dad’s-death-iversary since their breakup. He had a feeling it would be emotionally draining on a bone-deep level.

He was right.

 

~~

 

The last materials-gathering mission had indeed gone on too long, and Anton Howartsson had arrived again in Midgard four days later than planned, looking once more like he’d been dragged backward through a frozen hell, and promptly returned Thor to Asgard. Once there, he spent a bit of time healing himself enough to move around normally without acute discomfort, and trying futilely to not think. About anything. That failing, he sought distraction, and chose the first option that came to mind, without questioning his own possible motives for being so easily lured in by the prospect.

If there was one thing to be learned from learning the knack of appearing suddenly a very long way away from where one has disappeared, it was the value of also having a spell to readily ascertain the state of the place before landing. It was really only good for a few basic details, however; how many people were in the immediate vicinity, their identities if Tony had already met them, whether they might be conscious or not, whether the place happened to be on fire––useful things.

Thus, upon detecting only Loki Farbautisson in the penthouse floor of Avengers tower, Tony made his way there, intending to stroll in from the foyer this time; however, rather unexpectedly, he heard voices: Loki’s, and a woman’s.

“I don’t like this, Loki!”

“You insisted on lingering here; I did warn you there would be repercussions, and you must admit that as far as most of my experiments go, this one is quite harmless.”

“What is it doing now that it’s on?”

“Well, actually it started up about five minutes ago; I only just started turning it up and running the odd test once the field stabilized, causing the light there to-”

“Loki, stop, and tell me what it’s doing.”

“Cloaking you. It’s a new stealth field I’m working on.”

“But you’re looking right at me, so I’m not exactly invisible.”

“Well, I’m not aiming to obscure visual spectrums of light with it yet, but that’s where it may go eventually. Currently you’re invisible to infra-red, most sonar or otherwise echo-locative technologies on the planet, possibly basic tracking or detection magics Strange showed me although I’m still tweaking that a bit, your cellphone is off the grid and-”

“What if I get a call?”

“I presume it will go to voicemail.”

A huff from Pepper.

Tony put on a cloaking spell of his own, with more than a bit of invisibility of a sort, and heard a trilling beep of alarm from a nearby wall console. He frowned at it, and strode closer to the main room in time to see Loki glance at a bit of flashing-red alert in the lower-left corner of a touch-screen computer panel he was using to control the pocket-watch sized field generator on Pepper’s wrist. She was glaring at him in nervous but good-natured exasperation, only for her expression to change as she saw Loki’s expression turn grim at the sight of that alarm.

“What is it?” Pepper asked.

Loki considered for a moment, then smiled thinly, shaking his head a little. With the inventor’s usual mask firmly fixed back in place, it was obvious, at least to the god of lies in the doorway, that his expression before then had been a bit uncommonly open, cracked around the edges. “Avengers business, it looks like,” he lied. “Nothing major, yet, but... well.” He cleared his throat and shot her an apologetic, yet expectant look.

Pepper raised an eyebrow. “You’re sure you should be out risking your life tonight, Loki?”

“I get the distinct feeling that this will be unavoidable,” the inventor countered, stepping out from behind his array of technology to remove the field generator from her wrist and disable it.

Tony blinked at the disconcerting way the air rippled around them both before settling, and his magics registered the presence of one Pepper Potts. He narrowed his eyes a bit at the field generator where Loki set it aside near the computer touch-panels, resolving to study the device a bit closer; although he was then distracted by Pepper pulling Loki into an embrace, one of her hands stroking his hair. It was unexpectedly intimate, and he thought he saw Loki glance up and glare, unseeing, in his general direction for a moment before returning it.

“Don’t do anything stupid, Loki, okay?”

“No promises,” the inventor said, smiling a little, even when Pepper pulled back and smacked his shoulder.

“I’m serious. You keep to your promise even once you get back from fighting whatever it is, alright?”

“I will. JARVIS is on your side regardless,” Loki muttered, glaring ceiling-ward.

“Thank you, JARVIS,” Pepper called out, with genuine affection.

“You’re more than welcome, Miss Potts.”

“Best idea you ever had was him,” Pepper muttered.

“Stop flattering him. He’ll be insufferable for days,” Loki said coldly.

“Sounds familiar.” Pepper put a hand over the inventor’s lips before he could respond with another acerbic remark. “Goodnight, Loki.”

“Goodnight,” he returned, and kissed her forehead briefly. “Now go home.”

She nodded, and strolled away to the elevator, and waved briefly before the doors closed. His back to Tony, facing the elevator, Loki waited until he could hear that she was safely (to some extent) two floors down and out of hearing range, before he said coldly, flatly, with the easy volume of an actor, public speaker and showman: “You should leave, Tony.”

The god of mischief considered. It was obvious, just from the context clues, that something had happened, and Loki’s shields were down. Perhaps if his relationship with the inventor was one of mutual respect, trust and good manners, he might’ve obligingly taken this opportunity to exuent stage left.

It wasn’t. They weren’t. And if Tony had any say at all, it wouldn’t come to that.

Dropping his cloaking spell, Tony strode in from the hall toward Loki’s back. He was in just slightly less than top form himself, with bruising about his throat and a few deep cuts here and there from his fetching of rare relics from Jotunheim––and even if the trip had been easy as a walk in the park, any visit to those icy wastes left him more shaken than he cared to admit, and perhaps a bit more self-loathing. It only made sense for him to look for someone satisfying to have his way with, to ease those tensions.

Instead, what he’d found was an educational, exploration opportunity: the cracks in Loki Farbautisson’s armor open wider than he’d ever seen them before. It was fascinating how still Loki was, how sure his voice was, and how coldly steady his anger at Tony remained, even as the god drew closer, boot-steps audible on the hard floor. “I’m not altogether inclined to. I’d hate to miss this. Also: I couldn’t detect Miss Potts here before I arrived, with the usual detection spells, so your device is in good order, there.”

Loki turned, not enough to face him squarely, but instead from the side, as though they were fencing more than conversing, which might well have been true. “Miss what, dare I ask?”

“You, cracked and raw and open whether you like it or not,” Tony muttered, examining his expression with minute attention. “The pain isn’t new, though. You’re a bit too calm for that.”

The corner of Loki’s mouth curled in a colder parody of a smile than he’d ever shown another living creature. Mostly because with this one, hiding it would’ve been both pointless and unsatisfying. “Well, yes. My father’s death was precisely twenty-four years ago, today.”

Tony’s eyes widened a little, only for a moment. “I see.” He stepped closer.

“You should leave,” Loki said, his voice dropping an octave and growing cold enough that his words should have come with a puff of icy vapor.

At that, Tony’s head tilted a bit further to one side. “Why? Then I’d never find out what you might’ve done next.” He reached out to touch.

Loki flinched back. “Don’t.”

“Why haven’t you summoned your armor, then?” Tony inquired, eyes narrowed. “You have the bracelets on, or did you forget?”

“There is a reason I keep this sort of rage and potential for violence behind masks, and you damn well know it,” Loki snapped. “The last thing I need is an excess of weaponry at the moment. So. Stop.” He then abruptly stepped closer, in a move violent enough to actually startle the god of mischief into leaning away slightly. “I’m not like you; I don’t let out my anger and spite on the unwary or those who just happen to be in the way. I keep it in reserves, for those rare few wastes of oxygen and resources whose purpose in life is in almost all ways opposed to what I hope to achieve by continuing to live and breathe as Loki Farbautisson.” He stepped forward. Tony stepped back. “You are a jester in comparison: an indecisive figure lacking the conviction necessary to choose either extreme, and you instead dance back and forth as it suits you. You are not the enemy I save this for, not now, and I do hope not ever, because despite the fact you’re a chaotic and selfish maniac, I like you enough that I should hope you capable of ignoring my poor manners at present––” Another step forward for the inventor. The god again stepped back. “-for they are the courtesy shown by any animal with a limb caught in a metaphorical steel trap––in favor of recalling that I’m one of few people in your world or mine capable of keeping up with your mind, because that’s the main reason I’ve enjoyed time in your company.” One more step closer, such that there was scarcely a hand’s-width of space between them. “You will not, however, find me willing to humor you tonight with even my usual scant pretense of civility.”

Tony inhaled slowly, deeply, but didn’t step back again. His heart was pounding, as it had no right to; the idea of Loki in this state––pained, full of vitriol, resentful of being seen through, yet still strangely restrained––being a potential danger to him should’ve been laughable, but he could still feel the prickle of adrenaline down his spine; although, perhaps it wasn’t just potential danger causing it. “How do you do that?” Tony asked, his tone curious and borderline-suspicious both.

“Do what, precisely?”

“Keep it reigned in, like that.”

“I let awareness of, and concern for, other people ground me. It keeps my head clear and my perception of reality a little less distorted. It’s the marvel of keeping in context, which I get the feeling you don’t do altogether much, outside your own home.” Loki’s eyes narrowed, then, sharp and intent, eager to scratch at the god just now, to slightly mitigate his own feeling of acutely uncomfortable emotional exposure. “Surely you’re familiar with the feeling. It’s what keeps your lies to Odin careful, I’d guess, and keeps your mother from being cut by your spite.”

Tony’s expression darkened. “Don’t you dare speak of what you don’t know.”

“Oh, but now I do know.”

The god of mischief looked for a place to cut: somewhere vulnerable, somewhere his guard was down, but found nothing so easy this time––not with the inventor already consisting of a raw nerve being slowly burnt up like a candle wick. The good places to scratch were all scratched up already, today: no cracks to grasp or gaps to claw, because the armor was already missing. Less direct attacks it would have to be, then. “It’s good, isn’t it? The anger.” He stepped closer, at an angle, making Loki turn, away a bit, almost like a step in a tango.

“You know it is,” Loki said, staring down, not flinching again now. “You know even better than I do. Mine has always been under lock and key, most days. Let Neil be the angry drunk; I had no desire to be that sort, and so I stifled any traces of it that I might’ve ever had, consciously excising them.” He tilted his head, green eyes dark and all too keen. “Before your fall, my guess is that when you got angry, it was the only way people looked at you other than dismissively, much of the time. Or it made them go away when they might have otherwise stuck around to hurt you worse. Your anger is all about lashing out and burning things down.”

“And yours isn’t?” Tony countered, uncomfortably stung by the accuracy of the mad inventor’s words. “You kept yours under lock and key like you were saving it for a rainy day, like it was something precious and invaluable. It didn’t shame you then, and it doesn’t quite shame you now, no matter how you know it should, given what you’ve done with it.”

“Oh, yes. I’ve killed terrible men. I’ve killed a man that sunk his claws into me for years without me noticing he was perhaps the worst of the lot: the man I always got on with better than my father, and the man who cared for me as an alternate father when the real one died,” Loki recounted in light, airy tones. “I killed him because he sent me to the desert to die, because he threatened Pepper’s life, because he put the lives of thousands of soldiers at risk with weapons I created for the purpose of protecting them. It took me a few tries, but the attempt wherein I disabled his armor by taking advantage of altitude and ice: that was the most satisfying. All the lights went out, and I could hear his muffled scream as he began tumbling back down to earth. Don’t try to make me feel anything like guilt about that; I’ve done quite enough of that myself already.”

Tony half-smiled. “And how, again, are you different from me?”

“I killed terrible men, and the ones I killed closely, intimately, had done me great personal injury,” Loki growled. “What did Phil Coulson do to you?”

Tony hesitated. “You really care?”

Loki nodded. “You could’ve been less lethal with him.”

“You all needed the push, and he walked right in and offered himself as one,” Tony said sharply. “He knew it was futile, even as he did it. It was very nearly as though the man wanted to die.”

“The same could be said of me, at times,” Loki said calmly. “I get into all sorts of situations that should, by rights, kill me. Why do you think we do that, us heroes? Anti- or otherwise.”

“Sentiment. The delusion of redemption-”

“Ah––you know I don’t believe in redemption.”

“I thought this was about heroes.”

Loki smiled unpleasantly. “Good one, you, but don’t change the subject. Why do you think I blew up that dark place that your borrowed army came from, even though it nearly killed me? Why do you think I do what it is that I do?”

Tony remained quiet for a long few moments, his dark eyes boring into Loki’s lighter green ones. “Conviction,” he muttered, with obvious reluctance. “You’re convinced that it need be done.”

“And you can be convinced of so little on that front. I can’t help but wonder why you have this block concerning the general worth of the lives of others. Is it just that you couldn’t see them, and that made it so easy to ignore the screaming? No, no, I think not. It’s a different sort of selective apathy, I think.”

“You think to find some good within me?” Tony mocked.

“I already have, and that’s what puzzles me.”

The god of lies balked for a moment.

“Children,” Loki said. “New York has a very dense population, there were several school buses and many other children in other vehicles or buildings, throughout the city blocks you and the Chitauri destroyed. Not a single one of them had much more than a limp to show for it the next day, despite how many bigger, healthier and wiser adults around them got cut down.”

Tony’s expression was a mask. He said nothing.

Loki examined it, looking weary and irritated and resentful in roughly equal measures. “You’re a strange, strange creature, Tony.”

“You knew that from the start.”

“Do you ever regret it, even a little?”

“Which part?”

“Most of them. The harmful ones.”

Tony considered. “You tell me.”

“As though I could,” Loki all but scoffed. “Every single thing you have said to me, every expression that has crossed your face while I have been watching, has a 50-70% chance of being feigned, despite my natural talent, as a fairly good liar myself, to see through most other liars,” Loki said flatly. “Even the flash of blue light in your eyes now and then throughout the Tesseract debacle might’ve been an illusion. I can believe nothing of you: nothing at all. Where I am concerned, you are an example of where my own conviction may be slightly lacking.”

“Then why be honest with me?” Tony could see only sincerity in him, and was perplexed by it more that he would admit to aloud.

Loki smirked, fierce and bleakly amused. “Because if I lied, you’d know precisely what I’m up to.”

The god of mischief shivered slightly at that: the most accurate assessment of himself he’d ever heard in his life. It appealed both to vanity, and his appreciation of genius. He went to press closer, to touch-

The mad inventor took a half-step back, his expression again guarded.

For a moment, Tony felt a strange sensation, uncomfortable––perhaps even hurt, to some degree. He shot Loki a questioning look, and perhaps it was more open than he might have liked.

Loki snorted. “I’m only human,” he said simply. Anger is safe. Anger is self-sustaining. Anger is strong enough to keep all the rest––all of the weakness––away from the surface; however, at the very moment it breaks...

Tony could read it, and was disconcerted by the way it made his stomach twist. He reached forward just too quickly for Loki to move away again, and seized the front of the inventor’s shirt, tugging him closer with it, “Then you’d better stay angry with me.”

Shuddering a little, forcing himself to focus on the irritation that he’d been touched rather than the flicker of something less violent that the trickster’s words threatened to inspire––my god, he actually gets it; no one ever gets it––Loki almost hesitantly gripped the god of lies’ waist between his hands. “With you, I get the feeling that’s not generally difficult.”

“I’ll do my best,” Tony returned, tilting his chin and pressing up to lick at Loki’s mouth, “I want you.”

“Are you... are you actually wearing my jeans?”

“If you want them back, you’ll have to take them.”

The tip of Loki’s tongue darted across his lower lip, and Tony was close enough to feel it too. “Well, then.” He re-executed the same motion he’d used on their first ‘close encounter’ to pin Tony against the bar, though this time he took the opportunity to send them both tumbling to the floor with it, though somewhere between the trip and the actual fall they changed locations, such that they landed on mattress. Loki looked up, momentarily disoriented. “What-”

“Change of pace,” Tony countered, and pulled him back down into a hungry, outright vicious kiss, hands tangled up in Loki’s hair, tugging just enough to sting.

Loki shuddered, much of his anger draining despite all attempts to maintain it. He needed closeness, needed personal and he needed heat. He broke away from the kiss and bit at Tony’s neck, while his hips rolled in a slow, maddening grind against the god of mischief. Then it occurred to him, vaguely, that while he’d promised Pepper that he wouldn’t drink tonight, this was probably still the more dangerous option. He managed not to laugh and instead moved his mouth higher, bit harder.

Tony’s back arched and he wrapped a leg around one of Loki’s sinfully long ones, gasping at the feel of those teeth, at the faint shake of Loki’s arms on either side of him, and wondered if he might not be making a mistake.

“Now, I wonder,” Loki murmured, shrugging out of his shirt that Tony’s pick-pocket hand had unconsciously unbuttoned without input from the deity’s brain. “Were you hoping to have me angry with you and struggling while you had me, or were you hoping to provoke me into doing slightly violent things to you?”

“Well, I started out wanting to fuck you until you couldn’t walk straight for a week after,” Tony admitted, pausing to pull off his own dark red shirt and toss it aside. “Then you had to go and be magnificent from the moment I arrived-” He rolled Loki under him with little effort, but didn’t restrain him, just watched him intently. “-and now I find that I don’t care. I just want you breathless and falling apart for me.”

Loki made a small, muffled noise in his throat, his eyes wide and dark. The lights in the room were low, such that their faces were primarily lit by the arc reactor between them: blue and ghostly as an unusually bright dawn in Jotunheim.

The thought made Tony shudder and he leaned in closer, the mortal’s warmth sinking into him: flesh and bone and blood, all warmth and heat and frantic heartbeats. “So, Loki, how do you want me?” The god of mischief then arched and hissed a little and Loki’s short fingernails scratched not-gently down his back.

The mad inventor sat up on one elbow and nipped, then sucked at Tony’s earlobe for a moment before growling, low and sure, “Fuck me.” Another nip, another application of suction. “For a start.”

Tony grinned. “You still haven’t gotten your jeans back.”

“You can keep them, so long as you stop wearing them in the next thirty seconds.”

“As you wish,” the god of lies purred, and caught Loki’s mouth with his own.

 

~~

 

Loki woke the next morning feeling oddly refreshed, especially taking into consideration the thin grayish dawn light of a New York dawn coming in through his oversized windows, which indicated it was far, far too early for him to be fully conscious. He managed to stretch and take a deep breath before recalling the events of the previous night, which caused his eyes to snap open and dart around the room warily, but the god of mischief seemed to have left at some point.

Unsure whether to feel relieved about that or not, Loki slumped back onto his pillow and stared at the ceiling for a long few moments. “JARVIS?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Have the files on the Mandarin loaded up for me. I want to review them over breakfast.”

“The files are ready, along with some I discovered relating to several of M’s other aliases and a few that were not explicitly labeled as such, but seemed to be related.”

“And I take it that a god of mischief is notably not lurking around in the building anywhere?”

“Quite right. He got some sort of summon at around 4am.”

Loki blinked at that. A summon? “We have footage?”

“Of course, sir.”

“Good, clear, not any super-hazy mystical interference involved?”

“Yes.”

“JARVIS, I love you.”

“Please get dressed before confessing such things to robotic household staff, Mr. Farbautisson.”

Loki chuckled. “Fine, fine. Set about summoning breakfast while I shower, then.”

 

~~

 

Loki left the “summoning” footage for later, especially once he started digging further into all of the S.H.I.E.L.D. files on his new (well, new in the sense that the bastard previously hadn’t had a name that Loki knew of) near-invisible weapons-mongering nemesis. It got steadily more and more unbelievable, until he finally got to the bit about dragons, gave up, and called Dr. Strange, with whom Loki felt that he’d started to get along increasingly well.

Whether this feeling was at all mutual was anyone’s guess. It amused Loki to no end that he was certain that even Strange himself wasn’t sure about that.

“Hello, Strange.”

My god. Loki Farbautisson awake before noon in any U.S. time zone? I’m shocked and appalled.

Loki rolled his eyes. “Yes, well, yesterday was an unusual sort of day even by my own impressive standards. I’ve got a question for you, because it mentions you’ve faced this guy once before, the both of you going after the same artifact or something.”

That hardly narrows it down.”

“He’s called M. You were the first one to let S.H.I.E.L.D. know that his sort of cartoonish Chinese Mafia cover was an elaborate ruse.”

Oh, that, creature.

“Uh-huh. I have just one question: dragons? Are you fucking serious?”

You have been known to fight alongside a Norse god of thunder from another world, and you question dragons?

Loki sniggered at the absurd realization that he could’ve asked Tony about it. “Yeah, well, I wish I’d thought to ask him about them earlier, then. He’s back in Asgard, I think. You’re saying that in this case, though, it’s the same sort of thing as Thor: myth being the product of some aliens messing with our prehistoric ancestors, et cetera, et cetera?”

Yes, quite. Another region wherein my own varieties of magic begin to overlap with advanced alien technology. How is your progress on furthering that blurring effect, Mr. Farbautisson?

“Well, I apparently disabled most of the magic-related capabilities of a dark elf called Malekith, wrapped him in steel and made him swear not to show his face anywhere near me or mine ever again. That was fun.”

An uncomfortable pause on the other end of the line. “You... beat the snot out of Malekith the Accursed?

“Oh, you’ve heard of him?”

You’re lucky to be alive.

“Your faith in me is touching, really.”

Tell me that wasn’t your first test of the technology.

Loki hesitated. “Well. The first field test of it.”

A long pause on Strange’s end.

Belatedly, Loki realized that other than Strange, he didn’t know anyone else on earth well enough to ask them to come over and test to see if he could render them incapable of using magic. Scarlet Witch was the only other qualified candidate Loki could think of off the top of his head, and she’d eviscerate him just for asking. Loki cleared his throat, but before he could utter an excuse, he got cut-off.

Who on earth did you test it on first?

“Is that important?”

Possibly.”

“Well. Can I say that it isn’t and we just move on?”

A long, ominous silence.

“Look, I’m sorry. You’re my one true magic-buddy, Strange-love, I promise. It was a... complicated affair. Not expected, at the time. I’m very glad it worked, or my guts might be all over the place, but I’d still prefer no one else know much more about it.”

This is sounding less and less harmless.

“I didn’t say it was harmless, I just said not to worry about it.”

That alone is cause for concern.

“Well, the more you look into it, the more you’ll learn about my sex life, and I don’t think either of us would be at all comfortable with that,” Loki said with finality.

A low chuckle. “I should’ve guessed, I suppose. Fine. I shan’t pry, but I would like a chance to review your progress and exchange further theories, at some point.

“Maybe after I poke a sleeping dragon a few times,” Loki mused, scanning more information on the Ten Rings, and M’s ten rings. “Speaking of, I can’t take this name seriously. Please tell me the dragon isn’t actually called ‘Fin Fang Foom’?”

I’m afraid he is.

“I’m starting to wonder if Wade is right,” Loki muttered.

That’s dangerous at the best of times. Right about what, exactly?

“That we live in a comic-book universe.”

Don’t be ridiculous. We at least merit a novel series and some feature-films.

Loki snorted. “That nonsense aside, I’ve no clue what my schedule might be for the near future, and doubtless it will only get more chaotic after today... I’ll ask Pepper to make a day next week for the magnificent intermarriage of science and technology.”

I’ll await her call. Good day to you, Loki.

“And to you, Mr. Wizard.”

Click.

Loki frowned at the data spread out before him. “Magic, technology... and a fucking dragon. Sherlock Holmes, eat your heart out: my villain has a dragon.” He snorted, and started thinking about who, if anyone, he’d want to have along with him for this one. Maybe not all of the Avengers, he mused, but the covert ones, definitely. “JARVIS? Send a text for me to Clint and Natasha, asking if they’re up for a weapons raid on a massive organized crime network with Iron Man. Add in as an afterthought that Fury’s already signed up with me for it.”

Once he left the building, Mark VII bracelets on and field generator up his sleeve in the hopes he could test it by making S.H.I.E.L.D. very annoyed at some point during the day, Loki made it approximately three steps toward his car before vanishing into thin air with an ominous crackling sound and flash of orange-red light.

Happy, standing beside the car, gave a long-suffering sigh and called Pepper. “He’s vanished. No, a bit more effectively than usual this time, and I really don't think he did it on purpose. He looked really disturbed just before disappearing into thin air, actually.”

Chapter Text

In the matter of summonings, Anton Howartsson was possessed of a unique degree of understanding with a certain queen of Nornheim. They were both powerful, sneaky, and creative enough to snare one another with a summon and drag said other to stand before them, even (moreso for the queen than for the trickster, who lacked quite such powerful resources as the Norn Stones) if they had to drag them between realms. Given how mutual the inconvenience was, they long ago had a few agreements carefully arranged concerning a summoning; the first of which was the warning, and a measure of time after it equal to roughly forty-eight seconds by Midgardian standards, during which the one being summoned had a chance to make themselves decent, even if only with a few strong illusions.

When Tony awoke to an all-too familiar red-violet seal hovering off to his left in the dark of Loki Farbautisson’s bedroom, he very quietly swore a blue streak that might have made even Odin blush, then disentangled himself from the mortal genuis’ all-too-comfortable embrace––careful not to wake him––and got to his feet, summoning clothing and armor back into place just before the pool of light around the glowing seal and all its sigils began to coalesce. Tony placed a quick silencing spell around the perimeter, to muffle the inevitable cacophony to ensue when the summoning took him away. The coalescence made shadows over his skin, first thin and delicate, then thickening, until the sight of him was blotted out, all remaining color dragged into the heart of the seal, which then promptly vanished.

With a resounding, crackling boom, Tony landed on stone floor at the foot of a large and familiar throne, gasping slightly, but keeping his feet, much to his summoner’s disappointment. He knew, of course, she had wanted to see him stumble and kneel before her, however briefly. The first time she’d dragged him from another realm using the Norn Stones as well as her own more usual powers, Tony had indeed made that mistake; he had no plans to ever repeat it.

“I was asleep, you know,” the god of mischief bit out.

“Greet me properly, little princeling, or I’ll roast you where you stand,” the lady in the throne before him warned. There were several stone-carved steps between trickster and Queen of Nornheim, and as such she easily loomed over him, and indeed the whole impressive chamber, merely by lifting her chin just so.

Tony cocked his head to one side, folding his arms across his chest. “Dear Queen Karnilla of Nornheim, I do doubt you would waste me so. I’m far more useful uncharred and less annoyed,” he challenged. He would not bow, he would not salute; she was not his queen and if not for one or two millennia more experience and a few particularly potent artifacts in her possession, he would come very close to matching her in mastery of magic. “Why have you called me?”

Karnilla smiled thinly. “Good to see you still so stubbornly defiant toward someone.” She rose to her feet with easy, fluid grace. She wore armor more ceremonial than altogether practical, but she hardly needed armor, especially not with the glow of excess power still rolling off of her from the summoning. It trailed behind her like a cape of ghostly flames as she descended the steps to approach him. Her hair was long and dark, her eyes darker still, and her figure prone to causing men, and some women, to have thoughts just as dark. “I had begun to worry you might have grown tame, little trickster.” She was beautiful, younger than Frigga in appearance but closer to her equal in age than to Tony’s, and taller than the god of mischief by at least two inches without her boots, and closer to four inches with them. “And oh what a pity that would be,” she concluded, as she stood before him with slightly narrowed eyes: shrewd, apprising, dangerously practical and astute. It was not without reason she had ruled an independent kingdom within the same realm as Asgard for so long, unchallenged and troublesome and unconquerable.

The god of mischief held her gaze steadily, reading her in turn, finding suspicion, distrust, and precariously intent curiosity. He offered a wide smile full of teeth. “I am tame as you ever are; less so, perhaps, given how free I am to wander outside my chosen kingdom.”

Karnilla arched a brow at that. “Your chosen kingdom,” she repeated, as though testing the words. “What an interesting phrase. I suppose it only makes sense, you would have to chose one after betraying your given one-”

“Oh, I betrayed my given kingdom shortly after my birth. Only recently did that get made clear, but you haven’t heard?” He grinned fiercely. “Well, I won’t spoil it for you.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “You seem colder than before, Anton.”

“And you seem warmer. Have I at last caught your more tender affections?”

She snorted at him, examining him head-to-toe with a distinctly unimpressed expression. “Hardly.”

“Then you must be really bored, if I’m of such interest to you, all of a sudden.”

“You fell into the void, little trickster.”

Tony fell silent, his expression a careful blank. He raised his eyebrows in a bored but questioning manner.

“I’ve been keeping an eye on the bits and baubles your father has hidden, scattered all across the realms, but so many in Midgard! One might think he well and truly wants to incite them to world-ending wars with such dangerous little civilization-warming gifts,” Karnilla mused. “I hadn’t been able to keep track of the tesseract, however, much to my disappointment. It would be of great benefit to my kingdom: almost a fit weapon against the Odinforce, if such became absolutely necessary one day.”

The trickster felt his skin prickle at the thought of what sort of war might require such a feat. There were times, now and again, that Karnilla was capable of deeply disturbing him, and that little tidbit easily made it into the top ten. “I’m very glad you lost your chance at it, then,” he said dryly.

The queen shot him a glare, reached out across the arm’s length of distance between them, and tapped the underside of his chin with one fingertip, just firmly enough to tip his head back slightly even as he instinctively pulled back with a noise like a snarl. “So instead you sought to fetch it for some other.” She stepped closer, threatening this time. “Furthermore, as the uproar of rumors surrounding your trial suggest, it was that awful legendary half-wit Thanos, who fancies himself in love with one Mistress Death.”

Taking on a thoughtful mien in response to her venom, Tony asked lightly, with deliberate carelessness, “Ooh, you sound nice and spiteful now. Did he jilt you, or did she?”

Karnilla snorted. “I have far better taste in lovers than to lust after a mad Titan or Death herself. While Mistress Death may be lovely to look upon, I prefer my bedmates vocal, as you may recall.”

Tony winced at the memory of incident #47 on their list of reasons why the warning-before-summoning arrangement need be put in place. “Please, don’t remind me. I’d just managed to forget.”

“As I recall you were hardly disgusted.”

“I was also hardly interested,” he shot back.

“Is that meant to be your infamous Silver-tongue at work? I hardly see what all the fuss is about,” Karnilla returned.

“Nor will you. It’s reserved for more captivating personages than yourself,” Tony riposted, droll and bored-sounding. “You’re trying to annoy me into dropping my guard a little, but this is hardly the way to go about it. Try direct questions and catching me in a lie, that might work.”

She glared at him in silence for a long moment, anger darkening her expression considerably. “I do wonder, at times, why I don’t just behead you and spare myself the trouble, trickster.”

“Well, in this case, the All-Father only just retrieved me from the abyss, from a shockingly dangerous and twisted debacle wherein one Thanos was concerned, and I’ve spent some while appearing as well-behaved as it might be possible for me to appear, and not too suspiciously so. Kill me now, and you’re really just asking for violent retaliation from the halls of Asgard, all focused upon you.” His eyebrows slowly raised. “Now will you get to the damn point?”

“You haveindeed been so awfully well-behaved, of late,” Karnilla mused. “I’m hardly the sort to find that reassuring, and if I suspect you have trouble brewing behind your illusory repentance, then you know others are watching even closer, but you hide it well. No one has any idea what trick you’ll pull next. I can’t help but think that you have several somethings up your sleeve and at least one of them is vast in its importance.”

Tony offered a razor-thin smile that did not reach his eyes. “Oh dear, you want an alliance? I’m so flattered.”

She began to circle him, without haste and without apparent concern as to how he might react as two of her fingertips, cooler than those of the average Asgardian, but still warmer than Anton just now, dragged across his left temple. “What all did you bring back from the void, little trickster? To what purpose?” She smiled a little to see the tension in his spine and the stiffness of his shoulders. “I can feel traces of pockmarks and deep hooks, where your dread armor was pierced, and that armor keeps even me out. I have to wonder how much of them was left behind to afflict your little brain.”

As she rounded his other side, Tony’s hand snapped out to seize her wrist before her idle touch could reach his other temple. He turned to glare at her, his anger all made of ice and darkness, and he saw something like disconcertion flare in her gaze as that cold numbed her skin where they touched. “Do not dare,” he snapped. “Not unless you wish me to unleash the knowledge of such horrors upon you, in your turn.” He grinned unpleasantly. “You have to ask yourself how much you really want to see.”

She nodded thoughtfully. “So it was the void, then. Not Thanos’ claws. Is that why you’re so content with Odin’s forgiveness, even after he let you fall–AH!” She pulled her hand away sharply, glaring at him in disbelief as she looked at the skin of her freed wrist, and the fast-healing frostbite thereupon. Confusion marred her brow. “Who are you?”

“You summoned me,” Tony challenged. “I am who I have always been, only a little altered by my recent travels, among other things.”

“No Aesir has a touch like that.”

“I do.” The god of mischief grinned at her, wide and threatening. “You would do well not to underestimate my capabilities, that much is clear. I’m not limited to meeting your expectations, no matter how that might hurt your pride.”

“You play dangerously.”

“Always. It’s one of my many charms.”

Karnilla stepped closer again. “You play with stones from a familiar quarry, as well. To what purpose, I must wonder? Even all gathered together they hardly have a fraction of the Norn Stones’ power.”

“Conduit,” Tony said, without any further elaboration: his only straight answer, and the only one she was likely to get.

At that, the queen paused to consider. “Powered by what?”
The god of mischief’s grin only grew wider. “Now, why should I ruin the surprise?”

“Because I will otherwise pull at your limbs when you least expect it.” She touched his chin again, and this time when he went to pull away, he couldn’t move. “When you hold a knife, or any weapon really, in the presence of a person fragile enough to be killed by it.” She gripped his chin hard. “Do you think I have no connection to those stones you meddle with? The more you toy with them, the more they attune to you, and the more they conduct my power, as I possess the very heart of them.”

Tony’s expression again went utterly blank. “What is it you wish to hear, I wonder? Are you hoping I will confess to some intention to steal the Norn Stones myself for use, or are you hoping I’ll let you in on my secrets for once, and you’ll have cracked me open with all the grace of a heavy club crushing a complex locking mechanism? Oh, how brilliant you must feel,” he drawled, sarcasm dripping.

“Do not test me. What is your game with those stones?”

Making a show of almost petulant reluctance, Tony said sharply, “I’m courting a rather different power source.” It was one of his better lies, not only because it was believable, but because it was actually one of his Plan C options: not the most practical, not very satisfactory, but workable. “If you must know. I plan to conquer one of my would-be conquerors in the process, and precious matriarch of Nornheim you may be, you do not qualify as one who has ever come half so close to conquering me.”

Karnilla sneered a little, but hardly argued. She did, however, notice the array of bite-marks on his neck, and began to smirk. “I did wonder why you were in Midgard, and sleeping there no less. Oh, that is quite charming. You’ve caught one of these so-called ‘Avengers’ then. That does sound like you.”

Tony made sure that the burn of his level, unflinching and wrathful glare did not wane even as he fought the urge to smirk. “I’ve hardly seduced many of my targets. Don’t confuse my methods with yours.”

“I seduce as often as men fall for it, which they so often do, but I hardly let them get close enough to do much about it.” She released his chin to run a fingertip down his throat, over the light bruising left by a certain mad genius of Midgard. “I know better than to let them close. You ought to be careful that you don’t wind up conquered again, in an entirely different manner.”

At that, the god of mischief couldn’t help but sneer. “Do I look like Thor?”

“Not much at all,” Karnilla mused, thoughtful and airy.

Tony managed not to wince, but just barely. “Would you mind letting up on your restraints? I have business to attend to, thanks very much.”

Laughing softly, the queen let him go.

Rolling his shoulders and shaking out his arms briefly, the god of mischief straightened up and rested his weight back on his heels––away from her. “You will not find such an opening again.”

“Oh, I’m aware,” Karnilla mused. “But the look on your face was quite worth it, and you can’t be always on your guard. I do not threaten; I promise, as you know, and as I understand it, even an accidental death caused by your hand will bring the full wrath of every enemy you’ve ever made down upon you.” She waved a dismissive hand at him. “Keep your games out of Nornheim, trickster,” she said, as she always did.

“And you keep your claws out of my schemes, Karnilla,” Tony shot back, as he always did in his turn. Then he vanished by his own means with a louder-than-necessary burst of crackling sound.

 

~~

 

Puzzle pieces, wheels within wheels and plans within plans. Tony stared out over  the edge of the rainbow bridge, deep in thought, as though he could see as far as Heimdall, who’d thankfully had the sense, as was now habit for the watcher these days, to leave the trickster in peace as he worked on repairs.

Not that he was doing such repair work now. No, now he was contemplating angles, leverage, tricks and traps. He had two moderately dangerous challengers in the wings, who might pose him problems later, and one surprisingly thorny challenge right before him. Karnilla would overestimate the mortal’s value, just as Malekith had, but should she choose to do something about it, she would not be half so foolish as the elf had been in all his haste. She knew better than to involve herself directly; she would send some of her subjects, or a monster she had recently ensnared.

And how, the god of mischief mused, would the mortal handle that? As ruthlessly as ever, at a guess, Tony couldn’t help but assume.

That was presuming Karnilla bothered, the trickster acknowledged. It was unlikely; she would want to watch and see if her favorite pain-in-the-ass trickster actually got attached at all, in any genuinely exploitable fashion. For that, she would have to wait and let the games play out further. Her eye would turn toward him more frequently, now, looking for a bond she could send her subjects to trample.

Anton was a master of the play-within-a-play mentality. Karnilla thought herself a voyeur, part of a very small audience, when in fact she was on stage with him. To catch the conscience manipulative vanity of the king queen. It was all a matter of smoke and mirrors, and tricks and traps, all tangled up in his web.

The trickster juggled his plans for each player/chess-piece with ease, pausing here and there to examine the progress to be gleaned from one to the next. It was all well and good until he got to the ones that stung and burned at him: Thor less so than before, but Odin remained less certain, just as Tony’s intentions toward him remained uncertain. The desire to lash out, and cause pain, still lingered, but it had dulled a great deal since his return to Asgard in chains. He couldn’t help but muse, with reluctant admiration, that while Anton the trickster twisted people up and broke them with words, Odin All-Father had a way of rebuilding and strengthening them, while also making them love him for it, in most cases. Damn him.

Factoring Karnilla’s sudden increased scrutiny into his plans did change the shape of them, in several little ways, making the structure overall more precarious, such that the god of mischief couldn’t help but scowl at it. He was insane, and enjoyed a convoluted plan as well as the next mad god, but he was not that impractical.

And then, as it was wont to do, inspiration welled up and the plans coalesced into something new and even more interesting. Bait and switch.

Slowly, Tony began to grin.

“One more cup, then,” he murmured. “One more card, one more variable. Hmm.” He glanced toward earth. “I suppose they can’t all be freebies. I’ll have to make the last one, I think, or find them.”

 

~~

 

A few hours later, the god of lies and mischief appeared in Loki Farbautisson’s private lab in Avengers’ tower. The AI gave a low, but inoffensive alert sound: the digital equivalent of throat-clearing in a warning, pointed fashion.

“Mr. Howartsson-”

“Oh, now now, JARVIS: you’re the only one who calls me Stark, no matter how I plead and cajole. Don’t you give up on me too,” he chimed.

With drollness that bordered on offensive, JARVIS continued, “Mr. Stark, I am authorized to give you two warnings before sounding off every alarm in the tower to indicate your presence here, and initiate Mischief Management protocols and full lockdown to keep you here until your inevitable capture. This is the first of them.”

Tony considered. “And how exactly might I prevent that from occurring?”

“By leaving, or by having Mr. Farbautisson override the commands. You have three-hundred and sixty seconds to choose.”

Touchy, the trickster noted, with some approval. It suited the mad inventor perfectly. “Well, then, if you insist: where exactly is Loki? I can see about bringing him here, if you can give me a place to start.”

A pause. “I am unable to find him at present.”

At that, Tony blinked. “You can’t find him,” he repeated. “Doesn’t he usually have you incorporated into that device that he keeps in his pocket at all times, as well as his various lodgings and workplaces?”

“He does, but the part of my system kept close about Mr. Farbautisson’s person has been unreachable for some hours now. I am aiding the Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D. in attempts to track him down.”

“If I aid in that, do I get a bit more time before you set off the alarms?” Tony offered, hoping the mad inventor had foresight enough to give the AI either protocols relevant to such situations, or the authority to make certain judgement calls independent of its maker.

Every display in the lab, of which there were perhaps a dozen, flickered to life briefly, then turned back off. “If you make any too sudden moves, make any attempts to block my monitoring of you or any of the systems in this room suited to your containment, then you will be trapped here, and you will not be in top shape by the time the Avengers arrive to collect you.”

Tony had never in his very long life considered that mortal machinery might be capable of intimidating him in the least, but he felt himself steadily gaining new respect for JARVIS quite independent of his regard for Loki Farbautisson. While Loki had clearly built JARVIS to particular specifications, incorporating certain quirks allowing for personality, he had also allowed for natural growth, in the way that human intelligence forms naturally by building upon experience and pattern-recognition. The inventor then had the wisdom to let go, and allow JARVIS enough room to grow and develop independently––such that the AI truly, particularly at the present moment, seemed quite alive in its way.

“You have my word that I will not interfere with anything that would mitigate your threats. I merely have some questions, to start off. I don’t even need to touch anything, or use any magic yet,” Tony assured. “How did this all start?”

JARVIS relayed Happy Hogan’s description of how Loki had vanished, seemingly into thin air, whilst looking deeply perturbed by the event as it occurred.

For reasons the god of mischief was not inclined to examine too closely, his pulse quickened, and his vision sharpened as it tended to once adrenaline hit and hit hard. “Did you get any scans?”

“It happened quickly, and I have few such sensors on that part of the building’s exterior. I could glean little; however, S.H.I.E.L.D. was quick to call in their preferred consulting magician-”

Tony snorted.

“-one Doctor Steven Strange.”

That gave the god of mischief momentary pause. The name rang a few distant bells. “Steven Strange,” he muttered. “Loki mentioned Strange before, but I hadn’t given thought to the man...”

“You were distracted by Mr. Farbautisson’s... daring.”

Tilting his head a little, Tony stared ceiling-ward, momentarily caught between being deeply annoyed, and frankly impressed by the concept of an AI capable of such subtle discernment as must be necessary to convey droll sarcasm in such a dry mostly-polite manner. “Stop impressing me. It’s distracting.”

“I will try my level best, Mr. Stark.”

More sarcasm. Damn the thing. “Steven Strange. Does he perhaps go by another title other than ‘Doctor’?”

“He is also called ‘Sorcerer Supreme’ according to his file.”

Tony made a face. “Oh, him. Mortal upstart who impressed some old god-like creatures on the astral plane,” he muttered, rolling his eyes. That said, it’s best to tread carefully around him, he mused silently; although he would never admit as much aloud. “What did he observe?”

“That you were not the culprit, nor anyone from your realm.”

Some of Tony’s inexplicable dismay at last had the decency to change into curiosity and intrigue, then. “Oh, really?”

“He suggested that Mr. Farbautisson was most likely captured by a terrestrial threat armed with extraterrestrial weaponry. The threat in question is a man, a human by all accounts, usually called ‘M’, among other more exotic appellations. Dr. Strange further remarked that M was likely provoked by Mr. Farbautisson’s sudden interest in him. I’ve since found evidence to support this.”

“What sort of evidence?”

“Particular viruses quietly lurking in the communication equipment belonging to Clint Barton and Director Fury, both of whom are recently returned from field missions which took them through M’s territory, leaving them open to being tracked and their digital communications intercepted and infected by the Ten Rings. I am still working with S.H.I.E.L.D.’s systems to eradicate the resultant plague, but keeping myself from becoming afflicted has proven more difficult than anticipated. I will require a good deal of review by Mr. Farbautisson once we find him, to make sure that I am not also compromised.”

“Ten Rings,” Tony mused. “I recall mention of them from certain files of Loki’s, particularly the bits to do with the arc reactor and how it found itself embedded in his chest, right?”

“They were involved, yes.”

Slowly, Tony began to grin. “I suppose Strange tried and failed to track the spell that caught up Farbautisson?”

“Yes.”

“Well, then.” The god of mischief rubbed his hands together and closed his eyes, focusing, as his fingers plucked at invisible, mostly-intangible strings: hidden strings, not accessible to most, but with years of practice and a deep well of natural talent, they could do all sorts of things. Magic was like that. Tony plucked, and listened to them hum, caught one or two and crossed them, tugged them, wove a bit with them. “He’s clearly still got a great deal to learn.”

Uncomfortably aware of the AI watching, scanning, collecting data as he worked, Tony pulled from methods older than the earth, and others far newer and younger, bringing them together and reconciling them while also leaving enough chaos for them to provide just the right dissonance: loud and harsh and bristling. He reached out and tapped someone far away and felt them startle. The dissonance would prevent Strange recognizing from whom that little power-draw love-tap had come from. Then reeling his attention back to a location physically closer to him, Tony’s awareness focused on ground level around Stark Tower, and caught faint whispers of the spell, already looking worn away, but not quite gone, and not worn enough that he couldn’t extrapolate a few things. It was an unusual signature, but not wholly unfamiliar, though furrows of unease marred the trickster’s brow as he recognized it. “JARVIS, I have given my word not to interfere with certain of your systems-”

“You keep your word to mortals and immortals––organic forms of sentience. Your ability to break promises to machines is still unknown,” the AI cut in.

Tony considered. “Actually, I hadn’t thought of that.”

“And I am certain I believe every word that leaves your mouth. It would truly be remiss of me to suspect that might be a dishonest statement.”

The god of mischief snorted. “That jibe was a bit heavy-handed, by your standards. I was about to ask whether there might be a bit of compromised tech around here that you might let me scan instead of scanning you?”

A tablet on the nearest work table flickered to life, dully at first, then bright as it came fully to life. A rather less advanced robot picked it up and carried it over to the trickster, who took it without opening his eyes.

“I have uploaded a file containing an exact copy of all material from Clint Barton’s compromised mobile phone onto it, but left the tablet itself now unable to communicate, wirelessly or otherwise, with any devices in this lab,” JARVIS explained.

The newer spells Tony had brought into the mix were very good at pattern recognition, and they made the god of mischief’s eyes glow like embers when he opened them to stare and began manipulating the tablet, pausing to trace the occasional sigil on the back of it, leaving behind a faint red-gold glow that faded fast. Soon the screen flickered to black, then the myriad colors of a damaged display, and finally a pure burning gold to match Tony’s glowing gaze and fingertips. There, he thought. Not quite as hard as a living brain: even a simple one. Still clever: very clever.

Slowly, the god of mischief began to smile. “Found you.” Then his expression fell as a familiar charge filled the air: draining and prickling and uncomfortable. “Dammit.”

“I strongly recommend that you share that knowledge before you attempt to vanish,” the AI reminded.

“You’re far too good at this,” Tony snapped, finally outright annoyed.

“I’ve had years of experience observing, aiding, and learning from Loki Farbautisson,” JARVIS chided. “I know a great deal about liars, Mr. Stark.”

The trickster was impressed, irritated, and distressed in equal measure. Tucking the still-glowing, spell-infused tablet under one arm, he strode up to a large display panel. “Then get me a map. I haven’t got all day.”

The display lit up with a world map.

Tony eyed it, reconciling it with his own mental map of this planet, and the results of his spellcasting labors. He settled two fingers on the screen, one in the middle of central Europe, the other in the general region of Pakistan. He tugged each finger in opposite directions, zooming in until he could get a better look at the stretches of land between the two points. Twice more he zoomed in, and zoomed in a bit further, until a particular warehouse district, very isolated but suspiciously well-kept, in Syria but not too far from the borders of Iraq and Jordan. There was only one rugged-looking road leading to it: obscure, and not marked in any databases with maps of the region. It was also suspiciously absent from aerial surveys over the past decade. Even now, Stark Industries satellite views had trouble keeping a lock on the area.

“There is a faint sort of illusion field over the place,” JARVIS stated.

“I’m aware. Now that you are, too, and can mostly see through it, you can consider how you plan to mention to the others that you found a possible lead. Can you come up with a clever lie that doesn’t involve me?”

“I did mention making study of Mr. Farbautisson over the years, didn’t I?”

“Good. Let up on that damn field now, will you?”

JARVIS obliged.

Tony huffed slightly, annoyed as a feline prodded out of its perfectly comfortable sunbeam, vanished the tablet up his sleeve, then vanished himself from the lab entirely.

 

~~

 

Upon his landing, shortly after vanishing from the sidewalk outside his own tower in New York, off-balance and a bit nauseous but still with his feet under him and sheer force of will keeping him upright, Loki Farbautisson took in his surroundings and tried to catch his breath. He changed position, settling into a subtle fighting-stance as soon as he remembered how his legs worked.

Dizziness kept him otherwise very still, for fear he would simply fall over otherwise. His stomach lurched, and his head ached.

He was in the middle of a large, mostly-empty warehouse, and he could smell desert: not the same desert that occasionally drifted through his nightmares, but desert nevertheless. No sand dunes too nearby most likely, but a lot of scrub and not much water. The desert air came in through the broken glass of window high on the west wall of the place. Loki could see that while the glass was broken, there were still metal bars there, assuring him that no escape-by-defenestration would be the easiest of actions to take. He uncurled his hands from the fists they had formed at his sides, and stretched his fingers wide before slowly closing them again, more relaxed this time––more in control, just like his breathing.

With slow deliberation, he let his eyes scan the room, and paid attention to how the air felt on his skin. Distantly, it occurred to him that while he could hear and smell desert wind in the air, he couldn’t feel it in the air around him. Then something caught his eye that didn’t sit right: especially not after over a year spent as an Avenger. He’d not been caught up by any of their psychically-talented foes yet, but there was a first time for everything. As his eyes moved but his head remained still, he fixed his gaze just to the left of straight-ahead, and focused on his peripheral vision. That window isn’t broken. It was broken: now it’s not.

“Shit,” Loki muttered, and fumbled for every suggestion he’d ever heard for evading or overcoming psychic influence. It would help, he reflected, if he’d been more than half-listening, and had actually practiced, but he was still Loki Farbautisson, and therefore a ridiculously quick study.

His head filled with equations, mostly obscure, and certainly none to do with his technology. Most of it was astrophysics, borrowed from reports of Dr. Jane Foster’s he’d reluctantly reviewed last week. As he did so, he kept his gaze fixed on distant objects while focusing his actual attention on his peripheral vision. He heard disconcerting laughter from behind him and snorted. “Isn’t cackling in the dark generally passe these days, even by super-villain standards?”

Then it occurred to him: when had it started getting so dark over there? He couldn’t recall, and that disturbed him enough for him to start throwing in schematics for a few of his old hot-rods––just the ones that had been destroyed in Iron Man-related incidents, not any of the current ones––along with all of the math. Thinking in multiple directions at once about three or more subjects was something of a specialty of his, so he wasn’t quite straining himself yet.

“I can’t actually read your mind, you know.”

Loki resisted the urge to feel relieved, and reminded himself not to trust a damn thing anyone said, even while looking them in the eye and almost-believing them. There were very few exceptions to that rule, and it was clear that none of them were present. Loki thus doubted freely. “Pardon me if I don’t take your word for it, since you seem able to make me hallucinate.”

A low laugh. This time, it matched the cultured voice with the impossible-to-place accent, rather than the slightly more unnerving not-quite-human one from moments before––the first laugh had been oddly sibilant, almost reptilian. “You’re very sharp, but that’s hardly surprising. You’re Loki Farbautisson, Iron Man, the genius personally responsible for ‘privatizing world peace’ and all the rest.”

The genius turned to face the voice, or thought he did. His perspective changed, what his eyes saw changed, but there was no feeling of movement, and after so much time spent tuning the Iron Man suit to his every move and gesture, Loki had very keen awareness of his own spatial orientation. He hadn’t moved, but everything else had.

“Oh, you clever son of a bitch,” Loki muttered, this time shredding at the scenery the way he sometimes shredded his way out of some of his nightmares––with echoes of fighting his way out of caves that smelled of smoke and blood. He felt something in the environment around him recoil violently, and reached for it with palms aglow and missiles bristling from his arms and shoulders like a hawk’s feathers standing on end or a cat’s claws extending: the weapons were part of him, he knew them, he knew what they could do and he could use them here too, just watch and s-

It shattered. The whole world of illusion fractured and collapsed with a sound like an infuriated roar: definitely with a bit of inhuman in it, deep and all but hissing.

Loki’s eyes snapped open and he gasped, sitting up sharply and staring around him. He was in a cell, and his limbs were bound, but they hadn’t even removed his suit jacket, let alone unbuttoned his shirt-cuffs to, say, expose what might be worn on his wrists, which made him slowly grin. Then he heard sudden loud and hasty noises down the hall, far too close, and the grin took on a slightly panicked, manic edge.

At some point, Loki would later reflect, people––particularly the Ten Rings––would finally figure out that the very last thing one should do with Iron Man is presume that he can be restrained. And then he’d be royally screwed, but until then? Oh, until then...

The mad genius tugged hard at his left wrist and winced when one or two things twisted in ways they shouldn’t, but he could feel one of the Mark VII bracelets catch on the rope, through his sleeve. He’d added one or two features to them, at Natasha’s suggestion, and he’d never been happier to have taken advice from the Avengers’ resident super-spy and assassin. “JARVIS?”

A low beep from in his pocket. Limited capability, then. Connection to most of his AI’s personality and globe-spanning intellect was gone, along with all other outgoing communications, at a guess. Well, then. Local it is. “Activate the field generator first: all capacities. Unless someone is looking at me with a human eyeball, I want there to at least be some static.” He glanced pointedly at the nearest security camera and its leering, solid red light.

Another low, positive-beep.

Loki shook his head as the air around him felt suddenly depressurized and his ears popped. “Ow.” The security camera’s red light now flickered intermittently, along with the rest of the lights in the room, at first. Well, hiding the thing up his sleeve had turned out to be a good idea. Having it connected by thin wires to the arc reactor, so it seemed, had been a still greater stroke of genius. “I really will have to test that on S.H.I.E.L.D. as planned, someday.”

Promptly, every alarm in the building, and probably all surrounding buildings as well, went off: loud and shrill and painful and impossible to ignore. Loki rolled his eyes.

“Okay. Now, JARVIS, let’s test out the bracelets and their new tricks. Cue small, very focused energy pulse on the left one, angled to hit the rope.”

A low pop followed, along with a burning sensation. Loki bit his tongue as the rope and his sleeve-cuff both caught fire, but the pulse had taken out more than half the width of one rope-coil, and with a few solid yanks he was mobile enough to roll over and smother the flames bodily, but it wasn’t pretty, and did indeed hurt like a bitch.

Straightening quickly, he got his injured arm free and unbound his other one hastily. By the time the doors to his little interrogation cell burst open, Loki had already pulled an ever-present high-tech multi-tool from his trouser pocket, cut himself free of all remaining bonds and positioned himself such that he was behind the left-hand door, which he caught and slowed just before it hit his face.

“He can’t have just vanished!” snapped a now-familiar voice over one of the men’s radios.

Loki smiled brightly. Oh, Mr. M, that’s what you think.

“He hasn’t left the room. Sensors in the doors and at all air vents remained unaffected before you all entered.”

Loki watched the three men slowly proceed into the room, their backs to him, and took this opportunity to slip out the door.

“Errors and loss of connection to sensors in the doors! Follow him!” he heard, faintly, before the doors fully shut. Loki promptly took off at a run, hallway lights and security camera power-lights flickering around him like mad as he passed. He knew they would isolate him with that soon enough, but for the moment, it was causing chaos, which he heartily approved of.

Eventually he realized he was in a warehouse, as the hallucination had suggested, but in a newly-converted administrative portion full of smaller rooms and offices and hallways, rather than a large empty storage space. Engineering and architectural deductive logic took over from there, and he quickly worked out the most important details: where three nearest exits were likely to be, and where the building’s security hub should be: cool, protected, not easy to get to, just southeast of the very heart of the building.

He considered aiming for that, but recalled who he was working with. If it were me, he mused, I’d have one hub for over a dozen buildings, and false ones throughout. Best not to risk it. Loki instead headed for the first-closest exit he could confirm, and ran into a few armed guards upon rounding the corner right in front of it. They could definitely see him, with their shrewd little human eyeballs. The inventor raised his hands in the air and smiled charmingly. “Hello, boys. How are you this evening?” He took two small, seemingly stumbling steps back so he stood in the middle of a four-way intersection of corridors: brutes before him, alarms behind him, and potential escape left and right of him.

They paused, just bemused enough to give Loki time to mutter: “Focused pulse, right wrist, aim for the grenade on the far right one’s hip!”

There was another pop, and Loki dove immediately down the leftward arm of the hall he’d originally emerged from, putting enough distance between himself and the blast to protect him bodily, but his ears were left ringing so loud it made his vision hum blurrily with it in sympathy. He couldn’t even hear himself swearing at first, as he pulled himself to his feet and considered exactly how likely the Ten Rings’ average goons would be to run toward that sort of explosion. He gave himself a thirty-second window to make it to cover outside before being spotted, then ran, leaping over the scattered men, determined to ignore any potential moral qualms until he was out.

Once in the open air, Loki was fairly distressed to find a lack of available cover, so he rounded the nearest corner, and nearly gasped for relief upon spotting a forklift. He leapt into the driver’s seat, found a ratty-looking blanket thereupon, and draped it over his shoulders after shedding his suit-jacket and tucking it out of sight. There were keys in the ignition, which he promptly pocketed. For further effect, he slouched such that it looked like he’d been knocked out by force, his face mostly concealed by the controls he slumped on, and waited.

Two vehicles drove up, and men leapt out of them, perhaps a dozen men. Two were assigned to stay behind with the cars. A couple of them pointed at Loki, and one approached, giving him a quick, appraising look-over. He reported––after briefly putting two fingers on Loki’s neck––a man knocked out, but not dead, and a forklift with keys and keyring missing. It was dark enough outside the warehouse that they could see and smell the blanket, but not quite make out how expensive the shirt under it was.

They moved on, though one of them signaled to a driver, urging him over to pick up their fallen comrade in the forklift.

Loki waited, staying motionless, listening with half an ear to languages he couldn’t understand, though watching through one slightly-open eyelid, he could pick up some of the gist. They had one language in common, and it wasn’t first, or likely even second, for either of them; the resultant cultural and linguistic gaps were made up for with easily-understood, illustrative gestures. The driver opened up the doors, as most of the soldiers rolled in. After assurances from the driver that Loki didn’t look that heavy or that concussed, the driver was left alone and bent to see about how he might go about moving the man in the forklift.

Loki took the opportunity to punch him very hard, albeit a bit clumsily due to the awkward angle, in the throat, and the man stumbled back stiffly, unable to make any noise other than a painful-sounding wet hiss. The backward-stumble put the car between that driver and the line-of-sight of the other one.

Loki opened one eye long enough to verify that the first driver wasn’t going anywhere fast, and seemed to be turning funny colors whilst falling over. More good advice from the super-spy, he reflected, a bit disconcerted by the efficiency of it. For the umpteenth time, he reminded himself to never seriously piss off Natasha.

It took just over a minute for the first driver to become fully horizontal, barely managing small gasps, and for the second driver to get close enough to hear the sounds and thus rush over with a bit more haste. He got between Loki and the man on the ground. Loki rose quietly, and was right behind the second driver by the time the first managed a gesture and an alarmed noise. Loki pulled a gun from the second driver’s belt and leveled it to the back of his neck, letting him feel it settle such that a bullet would go right between two neck vertebrae. “Stay still, and quiet,” he hissed.

The man slowly raised his hands, but there was a careful deliberation to the movement that Loki didn’t trust at all.

So he knocked the guy out with the butt of his own pistol and left him in a heap on the ground. He then eyed the scarcely-breathing man now halfway into the driver’s seat of the large SUV, leveled the gun again, and smiled unpleasantly. “I designed this gun, you know. I know how to use it to its fullest potential, let’s say.”

The man stilled, and let Loki pull him back out of the vehicle. He froze when Loki took hold of his throat, and made a pained sound when the madman squeezed and tugged a bit, but something snapped properly back into place, at which point he sucked in a breath and fell to the ground coughing.

Loki knelt by him. “There are weapons hidden all around the place here. Where?”

The man stared up at him, wide-eyed.

Rolling his eyes, Loki tried again in broken Pashto, then slightly more coherent Russian, which had the man looking still more panicked.

“Oh good,” Loki mused, still in Russian. He had only learned Russian a year and a half ago and wasn’t half so comfortable with it as with most Latin-based languages, but he could get by. “Now you look as though you’ve just pissed yourself in terror, so not only am I right about the weapons, but they are big and important ones. Now, I’m going to ask you two questions, and if you don’t answer, or if you lie, I will shoot you in the face,” he said, all placid politeness and bad accent. “Do you understand?”

The man nodded slowly, reluctantly.

“Are any of the weapons even a little bit radioactive? Even if they haven’t told you, people tend to notice the lead-lined suits and other security measures of that sort. I’m sure you know them.”

After a long moment, clearly sifting through memory with discomfort, the man shook his head an muttered a negative.

“Good. Now, are any of them mine?”

The man gulped visibly, and very slowly nodded an affirmative.

“Good boy.” Loki knocked him out with a little more care than he had the other driver, and arranged him on the ground so as to lessen stress on his damaged throat. Then he muttered, “Lower power to field generator, focus mostly on magic-related blocks, but keep the others up. Keep electronics-interference a little more minimal for the moment.” Once the field tangibly let up a bit, Loki clambered into the SUV and pulled out his mobile, casting a shrewdly appraising eye over the systems incorporated into the rather new-looking vehicle. As suspected, there was a heavily modified GPS system, the usual radios, and also promising-looking screen with real-time display mapping the warehouses and showing where alarms, casualties and other little disturbances were. Nothing so handy as labels like ‘Armory #1’ but still better than he’d hoped. “JARVIS, can you tap into a few of these for me?”

A beep, then the display lit up, displaying a lot of red as JARVIS ran into trouble right off the bat. “Well, I suppose I shouldn’t have expected all of this to be so easy.” He worked silently with his AI for solid 5 minutes before getting into just the security system, which Loki was deeply irritated by; it should’ve taken less than two, for most any other system.

Then, most reassuringly, JARVIS’ voice emerged from the stereo system: “Are you well, Mr. Farbautisson?”

The inventor leaned back in his seat heavily, clinging to the adrenaline rush and endorphines that were helping him ignore his various injuries. He couldn’t succumb to relief––not yet. “Yes, JARVIS, sweetheart, I’m fit as a fiddle.”

“So nearly dead, then?”

“I might be shortly, but you’re to help me with that.” His tone brokered no opposition.

The AI notably hesitated, then reluctantly inquired, “How so?”

Loki grinned. “They have some things of mine. Can you reach out and wake a few of them up for me?”

After a few long seconds of testing, reaching out, JARVIS confirmed that he could, and that there was indeed a good deal of Forbisson Industries technology all around the place. Much of the more advanced computers had their systems as hacked and heavily modified as the SUV’s little computer, if not more so, but that couldn’t stop Loki, not now, and he was already learning how to make them bow to his whims as easily as he could with any other machines.

It took less than five minutes for all Hell broke loose.

 

~~

 

By the time Tony arrived, Loki was half a mile outside the warehouse complex, seated on the roof of that same SUV (now very much battered, dented, scarred and even a bit burnt-looking, with no glass left intact to boot) and watching as the whole complex’s buildings burned to the ground. His suit-jacket had met a horrible fate and fallen in battle, he had a bullet graze on his right side that had cut close enough he’d gotten a little glimpse of rib-bone when he first started dabbing up the blood. The improvised bandages were from the remains of his ridiculously expensive Egyptian cotton shirt. His knees were skinned like a kid’s, except that not many kids wore such expensive well-tailored trousers.

Tony, having arrived beside the vehicle with an air of confidence, caught a glimpse of Loki’s profile from ground level and hesitated. He merely stared for a long few moments, before regaining himself and deftly climbing up the side to sit beside the mad inventor on the roof of the now-hideous SUV.

“JARVIS mentioned that you dropped by with apparent intent to look for something, and it wasn’t me––not at first, in any case,” Loki said coolly, not so much as glancing at him, his tone even and almost casual except for an unusual looseness to it along with the chill, of a sort that only occurred when his usual loud and chaotic mess of thought-trains fell deathly quiet for a while. It was quiet now, except for the crackling of distant flames.

“Yes. I get distracted when someone offers me a challenge, even indirectly.” A long pause. “Their leader escaped?”

“Yes.” Loki didn’t move. He kept his eyes on the flames, his stare intent and unfathomable. His expression wasn’t a mask in any deliberate sort of way, as would have been more usual; instead, it was just naturally calm, slack, and chillingly serene. “Did you find what you were looking for?”

Tony looked away from the inventor, toward the rather impressive conflagration, and considered. “A hypothetical question for you: what’s better than playing two sides against one another?”

That caused the inventor’s brow to furrow, just a little: a ripple in the surface of that oddly placid ferocity. “Hmm.” He narrowed his eyes a little, head tilted. “Three. Playing three against each other.” Loki at last turned his head a little, and met the god of mischief’s dark gaze, one eyebrow arched in silent questioning.

At that, Tony smiled a little. “Precisely.” Then he looked away toward the fire again, and made a broad, sweeping gesture with one hand. Then he glanced at Loki sidelong, very pointedly. “If I may?”

Loki blinked, then blinked again. “Pardon?”

“Well, they’re clearly yours.” Tony shrugged. “I do understand that.” There was a certain chill to his tone. “Just as the other two are very much mine, in lesser ways––but these of yours are very interesting, and promising, and alien enough to be believable for my purposes; so, I’m asking permission to play with them.” He offered a wicked half-smirk, with no little edge of cruelty to it. “I’ll leave the best bits for you, I promise.”

The inventor stared at him for a long moment, his expression still unmasked and yet unreadable until, to his own surprise as much as the trickster’s, Loki found himself slowly, lazily grinning. “You want them to be a smokescreen for something of yours.”

“They’re all smokescreens. At least, it will seem that way for a long while.” Tony was returning that fierce and war-like smile in full force. “It’s no danger to your world directly.”

“Define ‘directly’ for me.”

“Well, for instance, perhaps one of the game pieces is something Malekith wants. He thinks it’s here on earth, and I plan to let him keep thinking that. The thing is: it’s a big, powerful weapon. Might hurl the whole planet into an ice-age for a bit, accidentally, if things go a bit awry. They won’t though.”

“In theory.”

Tony snorted. “In theory,” he conceded.

Loki turned in place slightly, to face him a bit more, and saw the god of mischief’s gaze take in each and every one of his injuries, which he was still ignoring, buzzed and drained and numbly survival-mode as he still was. “What’s in it for you? What’s really in it for you? I need to know that. You know I do.”

“I do.” Tony opened his mouth to say more, then closed it, listening to the wind. “Damn. Those are yours, rather than your nemesis’; at least there’s that.”

The inventor scanned the horizon on all sides, and finally spotted and heard the tell-tale signs of airborne transport, coming in from the southwest. “Lucky they’re upwind. You might not’ve heard them.” He looked at Tony’s face again, and hooked a finger on the mostly-metal collar of the trickster’s armor, tugging the god of mischief forward by it, just a few inches. “I’m considering your offer, but we’re not done discussing this. Not by a long shot.”

Eyes bright, Tony nodded. “Agreed.” He rested a hand lightly over Loki’s waist, and another on his forearm, his touch cool enough to sink into his bones, not at all painfully this time. “Stay in once piece until then for me, Loki dear.” Then he vanished, quiet as a ghost for once. Loki wondered about that, and about how far a vanishing act like that could really send him.

Loki blinked a bit, then turned to glance toward the sounds of aircraft. After a moment, the lack of searing pain on across his side registered, and he rested a hand at his waist. He winced a little, because it still stung, but it was a mere sting rather than burning agony, and it hurt less to breath more deeply. Looking at his arm, he found the burns gone entirely, and flexed his fingers in an experimental fashion: no stiffness, no lingering tenderness. For a long moment, he was too bemused to process it. Then the lights of the anticipated rescue party fixed on his position and the last of his adrenaline rush drained away, and with it his clear-headedness.

By the time they brought him aboard, he was smiling maddeningly and making whatever quips he could manage, to try and cover how exhausted he was, even though he knew damn well that it didn’t fool anyone. He still evaded most medical staff until Bruce finally had enough and approached matters himself.

“Stay where you are,” he said, sharp and professional. “And sit still.”

Loki stared up at him with a child-like wide-eyed expression that would have looked less out of place on the face of any random demon listed in the Lesser Key of Solomon. “Be gentle with me,” he said, fluttering his eyelashes.

Bruce folded his arms across his chest. “Your bandages look like shit.”

“Well they served me very well as a shirt, which was their true calling, but they’ve been brought down by hard times and are struggling to make do,” Loki countered. “The bleeding is mostly stopped, I promise.”

“Off with it.”

“Yes, mum.” Obligingly, Loki unwound the strips of bloodied cotton from about his person until he sat there, stripped to the waist in a pair of trousers that were singed and worn with holes at the knees and a tattered rip along one shin. “Better?”

Bruce started his examination. “Your lack of self-preservation is showing. Where did this even come from?” He prodded the skin beside the cut along Loki’s ribs, which was now shallower and far less awful-looking: no visible bone, no cauterized bits here and there. “A blade?”

“I’m not sure, actually. It’s getting blurry, and one of them kept making me hallucinate,” Loki said, and it was mostly the truth. Mostly. When his utterly blasé tone earned him a mild glare, he lowered his gaze and shuffled his feet slightly. “Sorry, Dr. Banner.”

Rolling his eyes, Bruce told him to stand.

Loki obliged, and let him finish his examination of his front.

“You’re lucky, with all this bruising, that your ribs aren’t cracked.”

“They aren’t?” Loki sounded sincerely surprised. He recalled that particular painful impact against a concrete pillar fairly well. It was the first time he realized getting out of the armored car might have been a questionable tactic, no matter how much more easily he could wield some of his weapons whilst outside it.

He’d made do.

“No. Bruised, yes, maybe one or two light hairline fractures, but it would take a x-ray to be absolutely sure of that.”

Loki fell quiet, determined not to think about any additions to the list of injuries healed by a certain god of mischief––at least, not until he’d slept for half a day, eaten a lot of very unhealthy food, taken some painkillers, and at least one glass of scotch painkillers be damned.

“You’re okay, Loki?” Bruce sounded more genuinely worried by his sudden silence than by any of his myriad injuries so far.

“Getting there,” Loki lied, with an easy, tired smile. “It’s been a very long, and very explosive sort of day.”

Bruce nodded. “Sit. You’re dehydrated as hell. Whatever got your side must’ve been damn sharp for you to lose all the blood your shirt shows that you did, which is the main culprit. Can you drink?”

“Yes. Particularly if the water comes with a bit of whiskey in it.”

“No.”

“Gin?”

“No.”

“It’s medicinal.”

“No it’s not.”

“Fine. I will accept mere water.” He shot the doctor a sidelong look. “Water and maybe pain-killers?”

Bruce nodded.

“Fun ones?”

“You’re not that hurt.”

“Damn.” He smiled a little as Bruce laughed at him and walked off to get water and medication. Loki’s eyes fell shut for a long moment, air moving through the jet, some of it from outside despite tight seals all around. He could smell desert, and feel blood on his hands, sticky up to the wrists. His eyes snapped open and he sat very still, breathing slowly, focusing on monitoring his own thoughts and any discrepancies between what he saw straight ahead, and what he observed from out of the corners of his eyes.

Bruce reappeared, and Loki accepted his offerings with dull thanks.

“You’re sure you’re okay?”

Suddenly too tired for some of his usual masks, Loki shot him the same look he’d worn while staring into the fires of his victory, along with the god of chaos and lies. “Are any of us, really?”

Bruce considered seriously. “Not really. But we get by without destroying too much in public.”

Loki nodded. “I’ll be back to functional levels soon enough. It’ll take me a few days, during which you’ll all see very little of me. And don’t worry: JARVIS will limit my alcohol intake, rest assured; he’s become quite zealous about it.”

The doctor snorted and shook his head. “I shouldn’t find that as comforting as I do, I think.”

“Yes, well. None of the Avengers were picked because we’re mentally stable paragons of normalcy and socially-acceptable behavior.”

“Very true.” Bruce rested a hand on his shoulder. “Keep me posted, though. No one else is half so entertainingly crazy as you, so you’re not allowed to self-destruct on us, you flashy bastard.”

“You’d just be bored stiff without another genius around, admit it.”

“Fine. It’s true. So stay in once piece for us, yeah?”

Loki blinked at the phrasing, but smiled a bit more sincerely nevertheless. “That’s always been the plan.” Once Bruce left, Loki closed his eyes again after only a bit of hesitation. He managed to doze lightly through the rest of the flight without any further disturbing interruptions.

Chapter Text

 

Upon return to Avengers tower, Loki blatantly  ignored any further concerns about his health that anyone cared to voice, in favor of hurling himself into his work, letting it absorb all of his trains of thought in myriad different directions. Pepper had seen this before, and once reassured, in a distracted fashion or no, that he was relatively fine, all things considered, she had gotten a good enough look at him to know that he was closed off, but would open again once he was done rebuilding his systems’ armor, done re-establishing his control over his domain. Only then would he let something, or someone, have a crack at opening him back up.

Accordingly, she told the rest of the Avengers that they shouldn’t be too offended if he seemed to ignore them, even when they only want to help––especially if they only want to help.

“He’s... I think this shook him more than he’ll ever let on,” she said. “His home was compromised.”

“The tower is compromised all the time,” Clint muttered.

“JARVIS isn’t,” Pepper corrected softly.

The others fell silent. The in-house AI had charmed them, as JARVIS always did, by being polite, patient, and just human and sarcastic enough to be lovable, after a fashion. By unspoken and unofficial agreement, AI or no, JARVIS was one of them. Most of them suspected that despite the fact Loki’s banter with their digital butler almost made the pair of them sound like an old married couple, the inventor had a paternal affection of a sort for JARVIS, while also valuing the AI as extension of his own mind: more than once, he’d called JARVIS his conscience in the joking sort of way that indicated it was truer than he thought anyone would really believe.

For JARVIS to be compromised by the same viral hacking that had let the Ten Rings know Iron Man was showing a bit too much interest in them, was chilling, to say the very least.

Pepper tucked an errant strand of hair behind her ear. “He’s rebuilding security from the ground up, for the tower, and especially for JARVIS. Whatever hacked versions of his systems he found out there taught him enough for it to be a major overhaul. He won’t be communicative until he feels in control again. Leave him to that. It’s never easy, but whatever he needs to break himself out of it, he’ll seek out once he feels his work is complete enough.”

And thus the mad genius was left mostly in peace. Mostly.

Steve tried to pester him into eating semi-regular meals, with a roughly 57% success rate, which still impressed Pepper when she heard about it later.

Natasha came in, watched him work for a long while, then asked if she could help. Loki had considered, taking into account how well she’d done with Vanko’s systems, but still declined. He did, however, start talking to her in complete sentences, when she asked what made his new security measures and his new systems so different from the way that they had been before. She let him talk about it for over an hour, occasionally moving something into his reach when it looked as though he might need it. Then she let him be one his explanation was done and she mostly understood.

Clint tried to get in via crawlspaces and ceilings as he was wont to do, and nearly got shredded by some unexpected new counter-measures. He then proceeded into the lab via the door and shouted at Loki for almost getting him killed. Loki had stared at him for a long moment, pausing in his work for the first time for merely communicative purposes, and laughed. “I’ll set them to ignore you in the future, birdy.” The archer snarled at him, and left.

Bruce came in, looked over some of his work, declared biochemistry to be much less of a headache, suggested use of a complex algorithm based on the movement of signals throughout white matter in the brain for a part of the system, and then walked back out. The whole of the lab had an air of too-quiet tension that even he couldn’t stand, but Loki looked determined and focused rather than actually off his rocker, which Bruce accepted as evidence that Pepper was, in fact, just that brilliant at deciphering his fellow mad scientist.

Removing the odd bits of viral infection from some of JARVIS’s less frequently-used systems took him a few hours; none had gotten much further than that, where security updates had been slightly less high-priority. The rest of the massive overhaul of security across the board took a day an a half more. He then extended his attention to Stark Industries and some of the bits of S.H.I.E.L.D. that he felt should only be hackable by himself thanks very much. He upped security less severely on them, at first glance, but left the programming equivalent of trip-wires all over: doors that, once pushed fully open, would silently inform Loki of the intrusion. From there, he could quietly work out the who, where, and why behind the intrusion.

Traps were a specialty of his, in that regard, once he got into the right frame of mind. When he’d used that sort of thinking for purely weapons-manufacture, he had created some things very nearly monstrous––including that temporary-paralysis device Obadiah Stane had used, before pulling the arc reactor from Loki’s chest. There had been others, most of which he’d managed to destroy in brief fits of good sense before letting them see the light of day, or the pleased gleam in Obadiah’s eye.

Befriend the monster in the mirror. Aim him where he will be most useful.

It was comforting to think in those now-familiar terms, while the rest of his mind was flooded with algorithms, programs, debugging, and obscure mathematics. All the noise and chaos, so focused on his goals, was much-needed.

It helped him avoid asking the question Is this real or a trick? and finding himself unable to answer.

There were a whole myriad of experiences Loki’d had, in his time spent as an Avenger, which had done a few of the things M had done. The Avengers had faced down a few psychic sorts. Loki had been puppet to one, but that had been a different sort of loss of control: his mind had been clear, and all too aware, but the rest of him had someone else pulling the strings. Loki had hallucinated before, obviously; being a brilliant youth with a rebellious streak, he’d learned firsthand where a lot of the color and style motifs of psychedelia had come from. He’d even had one psychic make him hallucinate a little, but it had been dream-like and surreal, and when his head had cleared, his head had really cleared. Reality was clearly reality.

The clicking and clattering of keyboard keys trailed off as the last bits started falling together, no puzzles left to solve, no weaving left to do––just implementation––and Loki Farbautisson’s impressive working momentum at last met with resistance. He stood up. “JARVIS? Finish this one up for me, almost but not quite just like the last one.”

“Certainly, sir.”

 

~~

 

It was three in the morning. In about five or six hours, it would officially be three days since his most recent kidnapping.

Clint found Loki calmly arguing with JARVIS, trying to get the stubborn AI to give him access to a particularly fine and ridiculously expensive bottle of scotch he kept squirreled away in a locked-down hidden compartment in one kitchen wall. Loki was looking drained, but still rough-edged, with a predatory sort of alertness about him, like a half-starved wolf. Though, to the archer’s surprise, there were two recently-emptied plates of leftovers in the sink, so Loki must have finished his recent little project.

Without even glancing at the archer, Loki finished his next argument with, “Come on, Hawkeye, help me out, here.”

Clint frowned a bit; he’d been very quiet in his approach, and was more surprised than he’d like to admit by the inventor’s notice of him. “Why should I?”

Loki did look at him then, pain cracking through his expression. “Because I get the feeling you know precisely what it’s like to wake up from someone playing with your head to the point you can’t trust your own senses,” he snapped, his voice brittle. He winced even as he said it, already looking like he regretted the harshness of it.

Clint considered. “I do.”

A long silence followed.

“He was in my head,” Loki said quietly. “It didn’t feel false, at first. I got lucky that it did, that time, but I have no doubt he learned from it, and won’t make that mistake again.”

The archer strode closer, sat down at the table in the breakfast nook, facing Loki. He looked at the other Avenger’s face, shrewdly appraising, for a long few moments. “Hey, JARVIS? Let him have the bottle. I’ll help him drain it, I promise.”

“Mr. Barton, please do not-”

“JARVIS?”

“Yes?”

“There’s a time for everything. This isn’t the time for the point you’re trying to make.” He shot Loki a look. “Now why you have to argue over this after you had the chance to alter-”

“Speaking of tact,” Loki interrupted, eyes narrowed. “That’s incredibly rude to suggest. In any case, this is actually house protocol separate from the rest of his systems, much like the blender and garbage disposal. For this one JARVIS has no direct control except to open the door, or not, but only once asked. It’s expensive scotch I keep there, so he’s used to denying me access if I happen to be already drunk.” His eyes narrowed. “Or, apparently, if he decides I’m unstable.”

“I’m stable, JARVIS. The bottle, please?”

With a sound suspiciously like an electronic sigh of exasperation, the AI let the panel lift and the perfectly-chilled bottle of scotch come out.

Clint snorted at the sheer ostentatiousness of the robotic arm that proffered the bottle like a restaurant waiter might offer wine. “Only you.”

Loki took the bottle with an apparent aloof huff, then met Clint’s gaze, reached into the space in the wall at an angle and pulled out two glasses. He sat down across from the archer. “Thank you.” He opened the bottle, and poured Clint’s, then his own.

They drank in comfortable silence, sipping unhurriedly, for over a minute.

“You shook him off the first time, then?”

Loki nodded.

“What tipped you off?”

“Spatial orientation change didn’t match up with how I knew it should feel and look. There were a few other, more melodramatic little touches before it, but that was the one which made me certain.” His brow furrowed as he finished off his first glass in one slow, appreciative swallow.

Clint looked at him with an expression much like the one Natasha had worn when he first started really waking up from under sparkly red-gold scepter-magic courtesy of the god of mischief: no pity, no anger or sympathy; just steady, matter-of-fact appraisal. “You keep thinking you’re stuck in another one, don’t you?”

Loki’s mouth twisted. “I can’t help but criticize myself. It’s only worse knowing that my senses can be so compromised.” His field generator had been damaged shortly before his escape from the fire; that had left his mind open. Before and after his days of concentrated work, Loki had caught himself asking ‘is this real’ more often than an over-enthusiastic lucid-dreamer-in-training. He’d become hyper-aware of his own movements, and was quickly becoming expert at examining things without looking directly at them.

The archer nodded, and finished off his own glass. He then reached out and poured more for both of them, in equal measure. “You could at least notice the distortion. I couldn’t. Not at all. Not because the illusion was that good––bits of me had just been edited out, and the distortions were along the lines of ‘do not concern yourself with what’s missing here’. Only the useful parts of me were left accessible, but I was still awake. I still made jokes, and some weren’t too bad. I cracked up that bastard Anton once, even.”

Quietly accepting his refilled glass, Loki could only nod. “That sounds frankly terrifying, actually.”

“Yeah. Not good for leaving oneself nightmare-free, but no job I’ve ever had and liked has been the sort you walk away from unscathed.”

“How-” Loki cut himself off, taking a slow breath and forcing the defensive steel from his voice. “How do you manage––well, it comes with some acute paranoia. Beyond my usual, which is impressive in and of itself.”

“I can’t do much about it if I’m being controlled at this point, now can I?” Clint said softly, cold and thoughtful. “It wears off with time. If only for purely rational reasons. I mean, what could anyone accomplish by having hold of me all this time? If they had access to my head, wouldn’t we have noticed and be a lot more frequently compromised by now?” He made a face. “Really, you just learn to make friends with the paranoia: like a seeing eye dog, but really twitchy.”

Smirking a bit at how neatly that paralleled his feelings toward his own monstrousness, Loki nodded. “I’m familiar enough with that sort of concept.”

“I know. You make me look like a heavy sleeper,” Clint muttered. “You still worried I’m a particularly reassuring hallucination?”

Yes, Loki couldn’t help but think. “If I’ve just hallucinated the complete renovation and improvements to all of my security systems, and laid traps for future trespassers, whoever would be responsible for the head trip would possess secrets worth billions to the right people.” He didn’t add much further––like how useful his brain could be to someone like M, just like he’d been a useful little weapon-maker for Obadiah.

“Presuming they can understand and recall what they’re seeing.”

Loki’s eyes narrowed. “He’d understand.”

Clint raised an eyebrow. “Oh hey, I haven’t seen that look in a while.”

“What look?”

“Well, Tasha calls it your ‘I do not like being outmaneuvered’ look,” Clint said, perfectly mimicking Loki’s accent. “I’m not sure what that refers to, though.”

“I said it rather vehemently after the near-crash experience in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s helicarrier, after Anton’s escape. You were unconscious at the time,” Loki said slowly, for some reason finding the inherent comparison between Anton and M irritating. He didn’t want to think about why that might be.

“Is he on par with Anton, god of Xanatos gambits, then?”

“Insofar as intellect? They’re both brilliant, yes, though I’d credit Anton with a bit more sheer creativity, unpredictability, et cetera.” Loki considered. “He does not lack conviction, as Anton does. Quite the opposite.”

Clint’s brow furrowed. “Worse, then?”

“In general? No. To myself particularly, and by extension those around me? Yes. He’s mortal, after all; he knows he certainly doesn’t have all the time in the world, and he’s not fighting for anything either abstract, or grand and flashy. He’s very subtle.”

“So it’s more impersonal, and he’s got objectivity and distance on his side.”

At that, the mad genius smiled a jagged, unpleasant little knife-edge smile. “No. Not anymore.”

A muscle near the corner of Clint’s jaw twitched, though his expression remained otherwise quite controlled. “There are times, Loki, that I’m both glad and worried that you’re on our side.”

“Better than the alternative.”

“But you’d shag people on the alternative side?”

“This again?” Loki asked, his tone flat and exasperated. “I’ve not even got any visible bruises any longer.”

Clint arched an eyebrow. “You specify ‘visible’...”

“Barton,” Loki warned.

“You’re the one who sat in the main section of the plane instead of consenting to the usual medical personnel and getting behind a nice little privacy curtain,” Clint chided.

“You were ogling me!” Loki sounded almost offended, then abruptly switched tones to low mock-concern and added, “You really shouldn’t, I’d be bad for you, birdy-darling.”

The archer made a face. “Ew, not the near-flirting voice. Stop it.”

“You’d think I was your brother or something.” It was a running joke of theirs, because that had become the undercurrent of their friendship: bickering, fraternal, often annoying to an acute degree.

“You’re more sort of our dysfunctional daddy-figure, to the Avengers.”

Loki actually blanched.

“Steve’s the mom, obviously.”

Sputtering, Loki sat further back in his seat, then saw Clint’s shit-eating grin and pointed at him sharply, “Yooou are a sonofabitch!”

“A sonofabitch with an empty glass,” the archer said, in tones of somber lament.

Pouring them both a bit more, Loki settled back into his usual composure. “I didn’t think I had any visible marks honestly.”

“Well, given those two bite marks are on your shoulder blade, it’s not surprising you might not’ve noticed.”

“Thanks,” Loki said, acerbic and droll.

“So it was the same defenestration guy?”

Loki said nothing; he merely drank a bit more scotch and stared, and stared.

“That’s a yes,” Clint concluded, after the silence had drawn out a while.

“I’m creeped out that you’re keeping tabs on my flings.”

“You know, I honestly didn’t think it was the same guy until you got so annoyed by me asking.” He grinned brightly.

“Ass.”

“Your mother.”

Loki rolled his eyes, genuine exasperation showing this time. “Drop it.”

“Oh shit, it’s a bit more than a fling, isn’t it? You don’t usually let them into your bed more than the once, from what I hear at your parties.”

“Drop. It.”

“Now I’m just worried. Is it super-kinky or something?”

Loki considered. “No moreso than my usual.”

“I did notice the, ah, well... you didn’t look like someone had tried to eat you alive this time. I guess that’s an improvement.”

Despite himself, Loki broke out in a fit of quiet laughter he couldn’t quite smother. “Oh, yes. Consider relations improved.”

“Don’t do that. You giggling evilly is never a good sign.”

“That sounded evil?”

“Well. Yeah, a bit.”

“Hm. Noted.” He went to take another sip of scotch.

“Well. I’m now convinced you’re screwing someone evil.”

Loki shot him an odd look. “Based on evil laughter?”

“Well, not just that. The whole way you keep dancing around it while trying to shrug it off as a joke and sort of failing. It’s not Doom is it?”

“God, no. Credit me with better taste than that.”

“You fly around in gaudy green-and-gold armor.”

“You used to wear all purple.”

Clint glared. “I’m from a family of circus performers. What’s your excuse?”

“Touché.”

“That blonde one that keeps chasing Thor while flirting with anyone in range?”

“I don’t like blondes.”

“Not even that one?”

Loki took a moment to recall their last encounter with Amora. He took a moment to recall just how spectacularly her questionable “armor” showed off her cleavage. “She does have frankly amazing-looking breasts.”

“But that’s a no?”

“Are you kidding? I’d brag about tapping that at the first given opportunity, if I somehow survived intact without becoming a magic-bound love slave for her collection.”

Clint almost snorted some very fine scotch out his nose. He coughed. “You bastard!” He coughed a bit more.

Loki beamed. “I’ve no idea what you might mean.”

“So you still haven’t bagged an Asgardian?”

Trick question, Loki mused, recalling red eyes and a web of frost on glass cage walls. He had an easy way around it, though, and it amused him greatly. “I did actually visit Asgard, as I’ve mentioned.”

“I just assumed you were bullshitting.”

“I got an invitation from the lady in the little cadre of mages Frigga brought down for her investigation into the whole alien invasion incident.”

Slowly, Clint’s eyes widened. “NO!”

“Yes.”

“You––I don’t even have words.”

“Did you ever research her name, perchance?”

“No, it didn’t occur to me, really.” Not willing to trust Loki’s word, especially with the inventor grinning so smugly, Clint pulled out his mobile. “Her name was... crud, started with an ‘F’, right?”

“Freya.” He spelled it for him.

Clint googled. He then stared at the screen for a couple seconds too long and slowly lifted his gaze to meet Loki’s. “You motherfucker.”

“I don’t know if she has any children, actually.”

“Yoooou motherfucker. A fertility goddess.”
“Sex goddess.”

“Fuck you, good sir. Fuck you.”

“Not on your life, Barton.”

“Good. That’d be weird, dad.”

Loki shuddered visibly. “Say that again, and you will deeply regret it.”

“Oh?”

“I know where you sleep. And I designed this building, so I also know all of the crawlspaces you use to maneuver through it like the ridiculous creature you are.”

“Well, you’ll never get cobwebs while they’re so well-traveled.”

“I just get the occasional boot-prints near ventilation ducts on the ceiling.”

“That was just the one time-”

“Four-”

“Four times!” Clint frowned. “Fine. I won’t call you that.”

“Thank you, uncle Clint.”

“Bastard.”

“A bastard with an empty glass, you’ll note.”

Clint poured more for himself, then for Loki, who proceeded to cap the bottle and return it to its compartment. Sitting back down, he raised an eyebrow at the archer, daring him to say a word about it. Clint said nothing of the sort, and instead raised his glass. “To mental instability keeping us batshit-crazy Avengers together.”

Loki snorted, but raised his glass in turn, meeting the archer’s with a faint clink. “Cheers.” By silent agreement, they both drained their final glasses all in one go, and parted ways for the evening.

“G’night, man. Don’t let the villain you’re screwing throw you out a window. Or take over anywhere important.”

“Oh but you know how much that turns me on,” Loki deadpanned.

Clint lost it and sputtered a laugh. “Shit. Not fair! You learned your comic delivery from the English!”

“And you were a trained performer. Shame on you, breaking character!”

“Fuck you.”

“Goodnight to you too, birdy.”

 

~~

 

After reviewing his work in the lab, double-checking for any errors or new data from freshly-triggered traps, Loki made his way up to his penthouse. There was enough scotch in his system that he felt a bit warm, and some of the constant barrage in his head was––well, it wasn’t quieter, but it was easier to tune out sections of it so that he had only one or two trains of thought instead of anywhere between four and ten, some of which were screaming.

As soon as the elevator door opened, Loki raised an eyebrow.

Mostly, that was because he could hear JARVIS talking to someone in disapproving tones usually reserved for Clint, or Loki himself, when one of them was being particularly restless and exasperating. Then he heard the low, amused reply and smiled despite himself. Speak of the devil.

“You must admit that I was of some aid, and did not even request a boon.”

“Scarcely four minutes ahead of Mr. Farbautisson reaching us himself.”

“That, my cybernetic friend, is hardly the point.”

“And I believe your request for more time before lockdown procedures and alarm activation was a boon request.”

“It was a question, not a deal. I did not offer to help, initially. I just asked if helping would prolong my stay without resulting in my destruction.”

Loki strolled up behind the couch, barefoot and quiet as a cat, but not quite so quiet as Natasha Romanov. As such, Anton Howartsson was not at all surprised when Loki leaned over the back of the couch and said in his ear, “Stop trying to form a destructive logic loop in my AI.”

“Whyever would I do that?” Tony asked innocently, grinning up at him. He wore a well-fitted red button-down with the top two buttons open. The buttons were gold, of the same hue as the buckle in his belt––which, along with the black denim, was indeed the same that he’d stolen from Loki before.

“Why indeed?”

“Mr. Stark-”

“Dammit,” Loki muttered. He thought he’d finally dissuaded both Tony and JARVIS from using that false surname.

“-was attempting to persuade me to allow him less restricted access to your private lab and the rest of the R&D sections of the tower, Mr. Farbautisson.”

“Of course.” The inventor narrowed his eyes, holding Tony’s gaze all the while.

The god of mischief, for his part, only grinned a little wider. You did not think me tame now did you?

Shaking his head, Loki gracefully pulled himself over the back of the couch and landed only a little less gracefully on the cushions, his head a short distance from Tony’s lap, and the rest of him stretched out until his knees hooked over the arms at the end of the couch. His shut his eyes, the image of lazy unconcern. “You arrived just as I was inclined to sleep, you know.”

“That would be a pity. I have such plans for you.”

Loki’s eyes snapped open, their expression one-part mischief to 5-parts suspicion and shrewdness. “Yes, plans do seem to be your strong point, even though you seem to have an affinity for making them a bit overly convoluted-”

“I’m older than christianity; being straight-forward gets boring fast.”

“Tony.”

The god of mischief looked down at him expectantly.

“I would ask something of you, before we discuss plans. It may sound strange.”

“If this is going to be an awkward confession of-”

“Don’t be an ass,” Loki interrupted. “Not more so than your usual, in any case.”

“Interrupting people is rude, doubly so when they’re your betters.”

Loki smiled broad and empty and insulting. “Aww, now isn’t that notion of superiority just precious.” Before the resulting irritation in the god of mischief’s look could darken much further, Loki said, “I would like you to distort my perception of reality, briefly, if you don’t mind.”

Apparently caught wholly off-guard by that, Tony blinked twice in quick succession, his brow furrowed. “Excuse me?”

“You’re capable of it; you’re an illusionist, and it’s not all tricks of the light. You can affect the mind itself as well, yes?”

Tony nodded, still trying to work out where this was going.

“I n-” Loki winced slightly, and tried again avoiding the word need for as long as possible: “Just something small, but as realistic as you can. My challenge to you is to make it something only you would show me. Something unique.”

“You have anything particular in mind?”

“If I did, that would quite defeat the purpose,” Loki muttered, his eyes falling shut again, a flicker of pain crossing his features before he could stop it. “Even if it’s a nightmare, really. I need something familiar but utterly obscure.”

“Why?”

Loki’s lips quirked. “In exchange for providing it, I’ll tell you my reasons.”

The god of lies appeared thoughtful, his expression very distant. “Anything?”

“Anything at all. For preference, something I’ve seen before, but which wouldn’t be easily understood by anyone watching my life from the outside.” He paused, frowning at how unusually loose his tongue had gotten in that last answer. Suspiciously loose. “Did you just put some-”

“I’m getting a handle on your mind. I might have pressed a bit.”

Loki glared. “Get it over with if you plan to, Howartsson and get out of my head.”

“I can’t get in it, actually. It’s all just surface-noise: mood, and a potential place to plant little suggestions.” He reached out and rested two fingers on the center of Loki’s forehead. “I’m not psychic, but I can give you a quick little dream.”

Then Loki’s perception went dark. Very dark.

He could hear a faint sound: hissing, chittering in the air, like the sound of dry and brittle bones being broken in half by the strike of strange wind-chimes. Light flickered in front of his eyes and they snapped open to see flickering, fading and broken images on the suit’s HUD. He could see a missile and the edge of a vast armada emerging from a single massive ship. JARVIS’ voice said something about thin atmosphere and interference, then cut out.

The blackness was not without stars, very faint, but they seemed to brighten as the HUD grew dimmer, as power in the suit cut out. He could still see everything. Even when the display cut out and his eyes shut, he could see. There was a flash from the distant explosion, and the hissing and chittering grew louder, less dry: bones being chewed through, rather than broken, while other horrible somethings chittered about it.

There were shapes at the edge of the dark, reaching out toward the blast with improbable, grotesque limbs. They were ghost-like and unreal, like they didn’t belong there but were being allowed, because the walls between were too thin. Loki had caught only a brief glimpse of them before, but this time he saw more; he didn’t pass out. Their voices grew louder until they seemed to come from inside his own head.

Loki’s eyes snapped open and he jerked so quickly as to launch himself partially off the couch, not screaming, but just barely. He regained his balance and awareness enough to land in a sitting position, one leg folded up close to his body, and his arms folded tight against his ribs as though fending off deep chills. It was silent after that, except the sound of his ragged breathing as he pulled himself slowly back together.

“I-” Tony started, oddly hesitant. “That wasn’t––I tried to think of anything else, but-”

“No,” Loki said, very quietly. “That was––that was unspeakably horrible, but precisely what I needed, in a way.” He shuddered. “That said: never again.” He pinched the bridge of his nose between forefinger and thumb, steadying his breathing and trying to stop himself shaking like a leaf, to no avail. Not looking at Anton, or indeed at anything in particular, Loki pulled his arms in still tighter and focused on thinking of things other than unspeakable otherwordly monsters.

Again, quiet reigned.

After nearly a full minute, Tony slowly lowered himself to sit on the floor as well, looking at Loki’s stubborn, yet cracked expression; the shaking was less noticeable now. “No one needs that,” he said.

“It suited the purpose.” Loki attempted a smile. It failed. “Painfully, but despite that, once the cosmic horror reaction fades a bit, my head should be clearer than it’s been in days.” He loosened his arms from about himself with an effort and rubbed his hands over his face. “Only you would be able to show me that, knowing I’d seen most of it before. There was some embellishment, and that didn’t help, but-”

“I’m sorry.”

Slowly, Loki lowered his hands and turned his head to stare. “Pardon?”

Tony held his gaze steadily, eyes narrowed a bit. “I’m not saying it twice.”

Loki let out a startled laugh and relaxed a bit further, leaning more of his weight back against the couch. “Fair enough.” He shook his head a little, eyes falling shut. “I’m now sufficiently certain that the past few days haven’t been a prolonged hallucination, though. That, is a good and significant thing. Significantly good, even.”

“A hallucination?” Tony said slowly.

“You know why that organization is called the Ten Rings, right?”

“I gathered they have access to some non-terrestrial tech, yes.”

“Yeah. Adapted into rings that fit human fingers. Apparently, one of them comes with psychic aptitude. Either that or he was a bit psychic to start, but if that were the case I don’t think I would have spotted the frayed edges of it all.” He smirked a little, hollowly. “Yours was more real, in regards to sensation of movement, movement as a natural body rather than a camera on a pivot. That said––he’s a quick learner.”

“Ah,” Tony said.

Loki nodded. “There’s no way in hell he’d have known what I saw through that portal of yours. That much I know. And my own memories of it are––not exactly visited with any sort of frequency, if I can help it.”

The god of mischief nodded. “Your paranoia may never cease to impress me.”

“It’s the only reason I’m still alive, to be fair.”

“I never said that was a flaw.”

Loki shot him a look, amusement starting to crack through the ice. He laughed a little, then did a double-take. It must say a great deal about my state of mind, he mused, that I didn’t find this odd sooner. He examined Tony’s face closely, with intent curiosity. He hadn’t been so close last time. So he saw the dream as he sent it; he must’ve been hit by some of that horror, too because-

“What are you staring at?” Tony asked, a bit amused.

“Oh. Just admiring the color-scheme.” Blue and red: so these are a frost jotunn’s  war-colors.

The temperature in the room abruptly dropped for a moment as Tony belatedly realized what he meant. He flinched, and slowly the temperature started to raise again.

“You don’t have to,” Loki said. “It’s not a bad look.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“After that illusory little trip down memory lane, I think it’s more along the lines of ‘I can’t quite shake off seriousness.’ I’m sure you’re aware of that.” He turned a bit, moving closer subconsciously, all scientific curiosity and appreciation for aesthetically pleasing design evident, coloring his expression. “You have markings on your face that are slightly upraised. Given how familiar I’ve gotten with your skin texture, I can safely say they don’t usually stand out.”

Tony sat very still, caught between reactions of disbelief, viscerally wrenching discomfort, and morbid fascination of a sort that made him curious as to what this mortal was seeing that was so––interesting and not-horrible. “It’s a defense mechanism, insofar as I understand it.”

“Yes. I gathered that from the acute emotional distress that’s provoked it on both occasions I’ve seen,” Loki muttered absently, then slowly raised a hand, palm-forward to indicate harmlessness. “If I may?”

“Frostbite,” Tony warned.

“Do you really want to hurt me?”

The god of mischief hesitated only briefly. “No.”

“Then I don’t think the defense mechanism would do that to me. So, may I?” Loki repeated, not dissuaded in the least.

Tony shifted a bit uncomfortably. “If you must.” He took a deep breath, very quietly, and held it as Loki’s fingertips––hot, almost too hot: not-quite-painful heat––brushed his skin along his cheekbone, then down over those markings, touch lingering a little more, gaining confidence as he remained unhurt.

The inventor’s fingers eventually settled on the corner of Tony’s jaw. In grave and serious tones, he said, “You know, for the sake of science, there is one more thing I’ve honestly been curious about.”

Trying to ignore the distracting not-at-all-unpleasant low burn of Loki’s touch, lessened a bit as the man’s fingers chilled––not apparently enough to deter him, however––Tony gave a suitably aloof-sounding but nonverbal sound indicative of inquiry.

“For science,” Loki began, “I want to know if you taste the same.”

The god of mischief, whose eyes had fallen half-shut, looked up at him sharply. “‘For science,’” he repeated slowly, dripping sarcasm, even as he leaned a bit into Loki’s touch.

“Oh yes,” Loki assured, and leaned in to catch Tony’s mouth.

They both inhaled sharply, even as they pressed closer, deepening the kiss quickly. It was slow, but burning for one and chilling to the other. Loki made a small, appreciative noise, hoping like mad that his tongue wouldn’t go numb from keeping this up, because any detriment to his fully appreciating the mad god’s mouth would be heinously criminal. The cold began to fade as the kiss gained a bit of heat all its own, and the mad inventor couldn’t help but find the idea of having melted someone half-frost giant to be both amusing and incredibly arousing.

Then Tony pulled him down hard, dragging them both down onto the floor, mortal above and god of mischief below. Loki started losing track of things after that: first his own shirt, then Tony’s, and then any and all of his remaining inhibitions, presuming that he had any to start with.

It was an aggressive, breathless and hungry kiss, consuming them as they tugged and ripped at clothes, scratching and ungentle even as they pulled one another closer. There was a frantic edge to them both, this time, trying to chase away the less physically tangible chills of cosmic horrors by losing themselves for a while. No calculation, no deliberation. Loki knew only that more bare skin was very, very necessary, and more friction––a lot more of that. Equally dizzied, Tony had just enough presence of mind to vanish their clothes, and then vanish the both of them from the floor, for them to reappear in Loki’s bed.

Breaking from the kiss, slightly startled, Loki pinned the god of mischief’s arms over his head. “A little warning might be appreciated.”

Tony chuckled, low and breathless, “Rest assured that while we’re up to this, teleportations won’t be kidnapping-related.” He rolled his hips up, one leg tangling around Loki’s, enjoying the way Loki moved to meet him, pressing close, their respective erections trapped between them: the focal point of all the resulting friction.

“Reassuring enough, I suppose,” Loki murmured, lips on the god of lies’ throat.

“Your––nnggh yes don’t stop––your scientific findings?”

“Juniper, with a hint of eucalyptus. Otherwise you still taste about the way you smell: like a forest fire in a snow-bedecked alpine forest.”

“How on earth do you know what that tastes like?”

“I’ve led a very strange but satisfactorily insane life,” Loki countered, and bit at tender skin, still rolling his hips in counterpoint to Tony’s motions.

The trickster made a slightly incoherent sound, and muttered a few curses before trailing off quietly with what sounded distinctly like, “fuck me,” and a faint moan as Loki slowed his pace but put more of his weight behind it.

“Is that a request I hear?” the inventor asked lightly, sounding almost as breathless as the trickster god squirming deliciously beneath him.

“It was a command,” Tony muttered, proud and insistent, even with his higher faculties thoroughly conquered by his libido, and his body pinned under an inexplicable and brilliant mortal genius. He could escape, if he cared to. He could kill, if he cared to. He really, really didn’t care for those two options just then.

“Well, then.” Loki pressed the god’s wrists together, held them down with one hand while the other darted to his nightstand and returned with lubricant. “For once, I’m not averse to following an order. I’ll indulge you.”

Tony growled slightly at that.

“Come now.” The inventor’s clever fingers went to work between them, first on himself in a single motion, then to Tony, pressing in slower, with more deliberation. “You wouldn’t find me half so interesting if I were an altogether obedient and humble mortal.” He caught Tony’s mouth again as his fingers worked him open.

Tony smirked against his mouth and gave a distinctly not-disapproving sound at the maddeningly slow ministrations. It was an effort, hearing those words, not to recall Loki once saying something like this is worship I could get into. He broke from the kiss not long after, a bit more breathless, “Now, for fuck’s sake.”

Loki only grinned, and obliged, his fingers soon replaced by his cock, sliding in slow but not altogether gentle, making them both momentarily breathless. With only the briefest pause to let them both adjust, the inventor started moving, picking up speed, but that was lower in priority than sheer force. The headboard rattled accordingly and the god of mischief made some of the most obscene and glorious sounds Loki had ever heard from him. “My god, you’re amazing,” he muttered, not entirely aware he’d said it aloud.

And so it went, Loki unhurried but also unmerciful, each long stroke harder than he’d let himself be with anyone purely human, and Tony moving a little in counter-point when he could as he slowly cracked and began to fall apart, muttering fervent streams of filth under his breath when he managed to remember how to speak for brief periods: challenging and rough encouragement followed by swearing as the inventor answered each challenge, and the occasional broken-off compliment along the lines of fuck you’re so good don’t stop. The mortal inventor was all heat and force against him, amd moving within him, effectively erasing all thoughts of the void or the frozen wastes of Jotunnheim from his mind quite thoroughly: thawing him, breaking through control to––yes that there. Tony threw his head back with a sound he’d never acknowledge himself to be capable of making.

Biting at the god of mischief’s collarbone, Loki watched as Tony’s orgasm left him gloriously wrecked, and groaned at the sight, as well as the feel of it around him as he kept going, dangerously close to the edge himself as he rode it out, until Tony rolled his hips up just so and shot him a heated look; even loose and pliant post-orgasm, there was dark promise there, a command even.

Loki broke with it, and half-collapsed with the force of it, still holding Tony’s gaze all the while, even when his arms gave out and he released Tony’s wrists in order to rest his weight on his elbows. Then he caught the god of lies’ mouth again, the kiss biting and deep and less than graceful, but good. Very good.

“You still have plans to tell me about,” Loki murmured, when they parted.

“Ten minutes,” Tony muttered. “When my legs work again.”

“You don’t need your legs to talk.”

Tony considered. “True,” he admitted, with drowsy reluctance.

Loki rolled off him with some reluctance and stretched, smirking a bit at the faint sensation of magic over his skin. Convenient method of clean-up. “You want to use my current arch-nemesis in your plans. Start there.”

Moving with all the boneless quality of a particularly relaxed feline, the god of mischief slid closer, one leg hooked around one of Loki’s, his arms folded on the inventor’s chest with his chin resting atop them. “They have artifacts of power. That’s the key thing. You recall Malekith, yes? He wants a certain artifact of power very badly, in order to turn another world––likely this one; that seems to be a pattern––into a freezing one upon which he can resurrect his people. Did I mention he’s the last of his kind?”

“I don’t think so, no.”

“He is, so far as we know, the last. And he had a long-established habit of betraying his own people, along with anyone and everyone else it might be handy to betray, before that particular catastrophe hit.”

“And the artifact he’s after, he believes is on earth somewhere, but in reality you have it,” Loki recalled. “I remember that much, but if he needs a place that’s frozen-”

“Jotunnheim has magic of its own, deep-rooted in the planet itself, as well as in the blood of the remaining frost giants there. It’s not a place resurrections like that could really happen. The other option you’re thinking of is doubtlessly Niflheim, which is where my daughter’s kingdom resides; it’s full of the dead, and they stay dead there unless they deal with her.” His expression was a careful blank.

Loki nodded. “Point taken. So you would have him trying to steal the rings before you could?”

Tony grinned. “No.”

The inventor’s eyebrows raised. “This is about the third party, then?”

“Absolutely. She has artifacts of power that I want to make use of.”

“What do you plan to use them for?”

“Well, to finish up the work I’ve been doing on the rainbow bridge, and to royally piss her off, given I’ve successfully convinced her that I’m seeking the power-source for that little trick here on earth.”

“And you want her thinking you’re after M’s rings,” Loki concluded.

Tony nodded. “Precisely.”

“And you want the elf thinking you’re after the artifact she has?”

Another nod.

Loki gave a thoughtful hum. “He already owes you a debt. Even if he got hold of that one-”

“The Norn Stones.”

“Norn Stones?”

“That’s what I said.”

Shrugging it off for now, Loki continued, “If he could get hold of them for you, you could call his debts repaid, no trade necessary where your box of winter-”

“Casket of-”

“I’m shortening it for my own convenience, I know what it’s called,” Loki counter-interrupted. “The point is: why should he think that would get him closer to his goal, there?”

“Because I like him in my debt, and he thinks he has a further trade to offer me.”

“What trade?”

“One to do with a series of plots and plans I’ve dismissed for the time being.”

“For the time being?”

Tony shot him a warning look.

Loki met it with a cool and unyielding one of his own.

After a long moment, Tony raised his arm, showing off the markings about his forearm and wrist that bound him to pay the debt Odin had charged to him, and prevented him having any murderous sorts of fun. “This, whether you may believe it or not, is something I accepted willingly. I didn’t have to.”

Slowly raising an eyebrow, Loki considered that statement and came to a quick series of conclusions within two seconds: Accepted punishment, rather than avoided it = showed respect for the one doing the punishing = some shaky reconciliation with Odin. He blinked twice. “Ah. Not so set on taking them over again either?”

Tony lowered his arm, his expression masked, and said nothing.

Nodding once to himself as though in confirmation, Loki said, “What do you know about the technology those rings are based on?”

“I know where it’s from. It’s been altered intriguingly, but the basic signature it leaves behind is roughly the same. It’s Makluan technology. They’re not a part of the nine realms, and their world is incredibly distant. They do some rare, occasional trade with Dvargerheim, even Odin isn’t certain what they really exchange, but I made a brief study of them there, before the stolen-gold incident.” The corner of his mouth twitched. The convenient thing about facial hair was that it helped conceal certain faint scars around his mouth from that debacle.

“What are they like, exactly?”

“They have some shape-shifting abilities when at full strength, but it exhausts them quickly. In their natural shape, they’re enormous and lizard-like.”

Loki considered. “Like a dragon, maybe?”

“Yes.”

“They have one.”

“Pardon?”

“The Ten Rings have a dragon. Their leader has some control over it, apparently. Whether that’s just because of the rings, or something further––”

“How long has he been using their technology for that?”

Loki considered. “No one’s fully sure. The Ten Rings have been around for about twenty-five or thirty years.”

“That’s not good.”

“How so?”

“It would start to affect his mind a bit, but also forge a strong connection between himself and the rings. He’s no longer fully human, if he’s had them for that long, and keeping the rings away from him once stolen might prove far more difficult than it sounds.”

Loki snorted. “Inconvenient.” Then, slowly he began to smile. “Not insurmountable, though.” You couldn’t see me, once the field was up. Not with your rings, and not with your security cameras either. Let’s find out what else I can hide from you, dear M.

“You have an idea?”

“I have many ideas. Where shall we start?”

Chapter Text

Loki woke up the next morning. His sheets, and his skin, all smelled like god of lies and he felt an odd pang of something in his chest that he recognized, from when he’d begun sleeping alone after breaking up with Pepper, and waking up with an empty bed. He covered his face with one hand. “Well shit.”

He then shook it off, assured himself there was nothing to be done but ignore it, and took a shower before descending into his lab to work on the last few preparations for his next attempt to wake a sleeping dragon––because that was a bad idea he could actually do something about.

 

~~

 

Over the next week, the Avengers slowly began to theorize that something was a bit amiss, or if not amiss, then definitely being very sneaky.

The first sign was at first very easily overlooked, because it didn’t seem very out of the norm; Loki began to emerge more frequently from his lab. He didn’t make his usual recovery-from-trauma announcement (never an actual announcement: more usually, something tended to explode and leave a respectable section of the lab in pieces, a large fight with Rhodey or Pepper or Steve would ensue, or one of his missions would go frighteningly well to an extent that even Natasha seemed to find disconcerting––and then he’d be fine and back to his usual unflappable, maddening self) and he still spent at least five or six hours of his day in the lab unless Avengers duties called, but he seemed well. He grinned more easily, went back to being made of snark, and if they had all noticed a couple of affectionate-looking bite-marks on his neck that never seemed fade (though they did change location, suggesting they were seeing frequent renewal) then that just further indicated that Loki was back to being his confident, oversexed self again. Surely.

The second sign was the suspicious nature of the still-unusual amounts of time Loki spent in his private labs. Despite his usual open-door policy, those longer hours saw his doors actually locked down entirely, keeping everyone out––in theory; the master assassins were capable of getting in, but it took them several minutes, which was apparently enough time for Loki to be expecting them by the time they came in. The others had to ask JARVIS and Loki for permission to enter, via intercom.

It didn’t occur to them to wonder, at the time, why the large windows between hall and laboratory had been covered with protective shielding that just so happened to block Loki from view by anyone outside his lab. It just seemed to be a likely indicator that Loki’s experiments might cause pain to the eyes of outside observers; he’d done that before.

Being the most security-conscious of the lot, Natasha was the first to quietly break in and check on the resident mad inventor, on day five of this nonsense. She found him looking... disheveled. With hair mussed, clothing rumpled, and a little more color in his face than usual.

“Did you just roll out of bed or something?” she asked.

Loki snorted with an off-kilter smirk, like he knew something she didn’t which clearly made him find the question at least ten times funnier than she did. “There’s a cot in the corner over there for a reason,” he almost-answered.

“Bruce has made curry,” she informed him.

“And you had to break in to tell me this?”

She shrugged. “We both need to keep sharp.”

“Yes, we both have our games. Should be expecting Clint to fall through the ceiling like a bad spy movie soon, too?”

“Maybe when he gets a bit more bored, presuming the city stays quiet.” She looked Loki over quickly, a vertical line indicative of something almost like fret appearing between her eyebrows. Loki still hadn’t looked up from the incomprehensible 3-D image he was examining, and making occasional alterations to. “You alright?”

He offered a smaller, more sincere smile and glanced up at her. “I’m quite well.”

“So you’re saying we need to be worried.”

“Not at all.”

“So you’re saying we need to be very worried. You can’t shut up about Bruce’s curry and usually light up like a kid offered an entire cookie jar when it’s even mentioned.”

Loki’s expression turned momentarily self-deprecating. “It’s not lack of enthusiasm. I was simply in the middle of some very tricky work when you began breaking in.”

She raised an eyebrow, glancing at the hologram. “With this?”

“Among other things. I’ll be out of here shortly, and you know it. Few things in this world can keep me away from Bruce’s cooking. Whoever that woman is who taught him that curry recipe should marry me. Or him. Or Steve. Or you. Someone here in this tower needs to marry that woman.”

“That sounds more like you.” Natasha rolled her eyes at him. “Quit moping down here, then. And fix that just-had-sex bedhead look you’ve got going there, Farbautisson.”

Loki offered a low laugh, though his eyes narrowed at her a little shrewdly. “I’ll be along.” He shoed her out. “Ten minutes.”

Natasha glanced around the lab, feeling the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end suddenly. “Did you hear something?” She then shivered a little as the temperature in the room seemed to drop slightly.

The inventor tutted, not seeming to notice the cold. “Likely a malfunction somewhere. Audio system’s been acting up a bit in here since the most recent explosions.”

“You really should see therapy about your fondness for blowing things up.”

“Begone with thee. I’ll follow soon.”

She shook her head at him. “I think there’s someone else in here.”

“Malfunction,” Loki said. “JARVIS? Run an infra-red scan on the whole lab. How many warm bodies do we have in here?”

“Only you and miss Romanov quite qualify for that description, sir,” the AI confirmed. “There is nothing else above room temperature that is not inanimate.”

Loki smiled, glancing ceiling-ward with an expression of oddly mischievous paternal approval. “Thank you, JARVIS. Miss Romanov? If you will? To finish the last few alterations I need to do something here.” He pulled on a pair of thickly insulated gloves and reached for a pair of goggles.

Natasha took the hint and started to back away out of the lab entirely. “You’d better hope Clint’s patience will last ten minutes.”

“He’s an assassin. Patience is no small part of what he’s about.” He pulled the dark goggled down and grinned. “JARVIS? Close the doors and start repairs.”

As the door snapped shut in front of her, Natasha couldn’t shake the feeling that something had been amiss.

Then it took Loki just over fifteen minutes to free himself from his lab, when he did emerge, he was beaming at them all in a smug manner that had each of them eyeing the nearest known location of a fire extinguisher.

“What have you done now?” Steve asked, his tone flat and resignation-laden.

Loki pulled out a chair at the table, donning his most innocent expression. “Why, my dear Captain, I’ve merely achieved in a short period of time the sort of thing that even some gods might consider impossible. They might even go so far as to bet against me.” He sounded far too amused for his own good. “I’m a very talented man.” He sat down. “Now pass me the curry.”

Natasha, seated as his right, noticed a few red scratches on his shoulders that she hadn’t noticed earlier, down in the lab. “Did science fight back, or something?”

“Heartily,” Loki deadpanned, wearing an unreadable expression. Then he took his first bite of rice and curried lamb and made an indecent sound. “Bruce, marry me.”

“No,” the mad chemist said flatly.

“It can just be a legal thing, we don’t even have to-”

“No, Loki.” Despite himself, Bruce was starting to grin.

“We just keep living in the tower, get a respectable tax break. You date whoever you like, and I bring in whoever I might like that night. But just on paper-”

“The more you ask this, the more I wonder why I cook for you,” Bruce interrupted.

Loki’s expression looked so utterly crestfallen that even Steve giggled at it, the others tried to shrug it off, but not a one of them wasn’t at least smiling.

 

~~

 

The next day, at approximately eleven in the morning, Clint Barton discovered that half of the leftover curry was gone.

With the amount of curry Bruce had cooked, the amount of leftovers they had put away should have tided over even someone with Steve Rogers’ metabolism for at least three meals, so this was actually quite an accomplishment. It was also inexplicable: Thor wasn’t visiting, Steve couldn’t stomach curry before at least eleven, Bruce had run off early that morning without stepping foot in the kitchen, Loki never ate like a normal human two days in a row, let alone one capable of eating that much curry without bursting his skinny stomach, Clint himself was only just freshly woken, and Natasha wouldn’t have been able to finish so much at once. No one else would have access.

Clint stared at this inexplicable anomaly and blinked twice. “JARVIS, do you have security footage of the past eight hours wherein the refrigerator is clearly visible?”

“Yes, Mr. Barton.”

“Can I see it? Fast forward to bits with people in them.”

He watched it. No one had taken the curry.

It had simply vanished.

Clint’s lips formed a thin line and his brow furrowed with concern and confusion. “JARVIS, do we have a poltergeist?”

“I can hardly say, sir. My sensors have not been upgraded with any ghost-detection capabilities,” the AI responded, droll as ever.

So, after eating some of the remaining leftovers, Clint broke into Loki’s lab.

He found the inventor examining a very large world map: another three-dimensional hologram. Red, green and gold markers were scattered across the whole of it, interconnected by a complex web of threads, forming shapes like constellations. One glance at it had Clint thinking of funnel-web spiders.

“Hey. I have a logic puzzle for you.”

“I’m busy.” His voice was low, a little cold.

Clint’s spine instinctively straightened as he recognized Loki’s time-for-war voice. Again, he took a quick look at the map, and began to recognize a few constellations. “Oh. Ten Rings work, then.”

Loki made a noncommittal noise, continuing to slowly walk around the glowing image, his expression dark. “What puzzle?”

“Nothing, really,” Clint admitted, folding his hands behind his back: a soldier’s stance, however unconscious. “Curry vanishing under mysterious circumstances.”

Loki’s brow furrowed. With obvious reluctance, he tore his eyes away from the map and fixed his gaze on the archer. “How is that in any way a puzzle?”

“Because half of it’s gone, and none of us took it. No one took it. JARVIS showed me the footage, too.”

After a long few moments of staring, the mad inventor sniggered. “Oh. That.”

“Was it you?” Clint’s eyes narrowed. “Because that’s a neat trick and I want in.”

“It wasn’t me,” Loki said, quite truthfully. “But consider it harmless-” he cracked, sniggering again. “Fuck. I tried! I tried. Can’t say that with a straight face, apparently.” He covered his mouth with one hand and sucked in a breath to regain his composure. Then he cleared his throat and said, “I had a guest late last night. He’s been helping me test an anti-magic field.”

“Oh. So it was Strange, then.”

“Well yes, I daresay he was,” Loki mused, one corner of his mouth twitching with humor. Yes, because the god of mischief is always a bit strange, but that’s only to be expected. “You know magic types. It’s like they’ve never heard of using a door. I might’ve mentioned Bruce’s curry to my guest.”

“Ah. That asshole.”

“Oh yes.”

“Also: how’s your torrid affair going? I see he’s leaving marks again. Less violent-looking ones, at least.”

“Barton. Do please shut up.” Loki’s expression went from good humor to an inscrutable mask frightfully quick.

“I’m just saying, you seem to be doing well on that front.”

Loki shot him a glare.

“What. He’s gone from trying to break you to trying to advertise something along the lines of ‘dibs!’” He pointed at his own neck to illustrate.

The inventor’s eyes widened a little, but only for a moment before the mask was back in place. He cleared his throat again. “You can leave now.”

“Trouble in paradise?”

“I am trouble,” Loki muttered. And so is he. The thought made an odd sensation prickle through his chest. Briefly, he recalled the sounds and sensation of Obadiah Stane extracting the arc reactor from his chest. He shook off the memory, but not quite enough to keep his heartbeat from quickening. “And I’m not looking for paradise with this one. I thought that much was obvious.”

“You’re always after paradise. You’re a futurist.”

“That paradise isn’t for me,” he said simply, low and thoughtful and startlingly matter-of-fact. “That’s what being a futurist is really about. It’s a place that shouldn’t need me anymore.” He shot Clint a pointed look.

The archer blinked twice, catching up to the deeper waters Loki had derailed the conversation into. If Loki Farbautisson is willing to derail a conversation about a given subject by venturing into somber acknowledgement of his own mortality, then clearly trying to un-derail and get back to the original subject was not about to happen. “I guess I can leave now.”

“Oh yes, I highly recommend it.”

 

~~

 

Clint told the others about the missing curry.

The city was quiet that week, and somehow the lot of them had all decided that Steve needed to see the original Star Wars films, and chosen that night to introduce him to the first of them.

During their chosen intermission two-thirds of the way through it, while preparing more popcorn and generally loitering in the kitchen as domestically as a super-soldier, two assassins, and a mad chemist possibly could, Steve happened to ask, quite innocently, “I can’t help but wonder, with how little we see of him, is it all just time in the lab or is Loki actually seeing someone instead of just going back to random flings?”

Natasha said, “just questionable flings” at precisely the same time Clint said, “Torrid affair” and the two assassins turned in unison to shoot each other questioning looks.

Bruce whistled. “I get the feeling the plot just thickened. You two know something about the, uh...” He gestured vaguely at his neck.

You know who it is!” Clint shouted, his eyes bright with fresh-dawned realization.

“You’re sure it’s the same person? This whole time?” Natasha asked, carefully.

“Yeah. I got the gist that it’s sort of an enemies-with-benefits thing, but it seems––harmless is the wrong word-” He stopped, eyes widening a little. “Wait. Oh god, it’s not... it’s not Dr. Strange. Please tell me it’s not, it can’t. He’s a good guy––mostly kinda sorta. My mind’s eye, it burns!”

“It’s not,” Natasha said flatly. “It’s much worse.” She shot Bruce a look.

He shot her a baffled one in return. “What? I respect his privacy. I didn’t ask.”

“What’s going on?” Steve asked cautiously.

“Loki’s screwing a bad guy and Tasha knows which one.”

“I didn’t know it was more than a fling,” she muttered. “Wait. When did the affair actually start?” Maybe it’s not who I think it is. Please, oh please, was implied.

“Right before that incident with the fairy-tale creature bullshit.”

“Which one?” Bruce asked calmly.

“The Lord of the Rings geek’s wet dream one.”

Natasha rolled her eyes. “Which one?”

“What was he––the fuckin’... Elf! That’s what Loki said he was. It was right before that time with the fucking elf magician, of all things, that went after Pepper and got us all on high alert before Loki just went and wiped the floor with the guy,” Clint said. Then he saw the look on Natasha’s face. “Oh shit. How bad is it?”

The Black Widow considered. “It could be worse.” She took on a carefully inscrutable expression. “That said, I may have to strangle Loki.”

“Oh come on: it’s not nearly that bad,” the inventor in question drawled, from his place in the doorway nearest the red-headed assassin.

Everyone predictably jerked in surprise and turned to stare at him.

Loki flicked off a device on his wrist with a smirk. “Hey, now I can successfully muffle sound with this, to the point I can even sneak up on you, Natasha dear. Tell me I’m not a genius.”

“You’re an idiot,” Natasha shot back flatly, her eyes following him as he stepped further into the kitchen and stood where they could all see him.

“No, I’m just overly fond of very bad ideas.” He held Natasha’s gaze all the while, and folded his arms over his chest. “Well?”

She glanced pointedly in the others’ direction, then fixed her stare on Loki again.

He raised his eyebrows, then took a deep breath. “How inevitable is it, do you think?” he asked, in fast-paced Pashto. It was the only language he knew just enough of to be coherent in, albeit not quite natural- or fluent-sounding, that he was sure Clint didn’t know; although he suspected that Bruce might know a smattering, he was willing to risk him catching on, rather than the archer.

“Fairly. How much longer can you really drag it out before you build up too many lies to cover it?” she returned, in the same language.

Loki grimaced, and switched back to English. “You have a fair point.”

“You’ve been letting him in our house,” Natasha said, low and dangerous, not in English quite yet. “I still may hurt you.”

The inventor considered, returned to the foreign language, “He helped JARVIS find me, when they took me.”

Natasha’s eyes widened. She switched to English. “You’ve got to be kidding.”

“We have an understanding,” Loki said, in English, with a hand gesture suggesting he was smoothing something down. “I have protective measures throughout the tower that can completely incapacitate his magic. Furthermore, JARVIS is highly attuned to his presence these days, and he’s not afraid to lock the guy down and set off all of our alarms. And I do mean all.”

Steve held out the bowl of popcorn to Bruce, who grinned and muttered a “thank you” quietly. Neither of them took their eyes off the show playing out between Loki and Natasha. Clint joined them, sitting on the counter on the other side of Bruce and reaching over for some of the popcorn.

“How long can she just silently stare like that?” Bruce asked.

“Over an hour,” Clint said.

“How concerned should I be about all this?” Steve asked.

“Oh, pretty concerned. I get the feeling we’re all about to be pissed off, outraged, and/or deeply exasperated with Loki’s questionable taste,” Clint said.

“Well put,” Bruce agreed.

“Thank you.”

Both the inventor and the red-haired assassin turned to glare at them.

The peanut gallery fell quiet and gestured for them to continue.

“My god, they’re used to me,” Loki said, sounding genuinely awed. “Jesus fuck, the lot of you must be the maddest group of people on earth, because I know I’m bad, but for you to be willingly acclimated to that just... you out-crazy me!”

“Only a little,” Clint assured, and threw a piece of popcorn at him.

It struck Loki right between the eyes, making him frown. “Stop that.”

“Then out with it, you fucker. Who are you fucking?”

“That’s no reason to be unnecessarily vulgar, when I think we all don't want to imagine this too vividly,” Steve sighed.

“Sure it is,” Loki said, mock-petulant. “Most things are good reason for vulgarity. It’s the only reason I bothered to grow up.”

“You never really grew up,” Bruce countered.

“Conceded,” Loki muttered.

“Well, he grew up enough to be over the age of consent, and old enough to drink,” Clint corrected. “So did I, for that matter.”

“That means nothing,” Steve said flatly.

“Agreed,” Natasha cut in. “Now, are we done bullshitting?”

“Never,” Clint and Loki chorused.

“Shut up, Clint. Don’t encourage him. Loki, are you confessing tonight or not?”

“Whatever it is, it’s bound to hit the fan eventually,” Bruce said.

Loki’s lips formed a moue of thoughtful discomfort. He seriously considered holding out until his plans came to either fruition or ruin, proving whether they were genuinely a mess of bad ideas, or just as brilliant as Loki himself was convinced that they were. He looked over the other Avengers and felt a strange twinge in his chest that reminded him uncomfortably of how bad he’d felt keeping things from Pepper––important ones, like his near-death, and all. He cleared his throat. “Let me preface this by making you all swear not to leak a word of this to anyone connected to S.H.I.E.L.D. who is not actually an Avenger.”

The others sobered a little, and Steve set the popcorn aside.

“Why?” Clint asked.

“It’s a delicate issue, from a diplomatic standpoint,” Loki said simply, his shoulders looking very stiff. “Let’s say he’s on parole, but it’s a volatile thing. If he breaks his parole, there’s a complicated judicial spell bound to him that will light him up to anyone psychic- or magic-sensitive who might have an interest in him––and a lot of people have an interest, let’s say: people who don’t care about any civilians that might be nearby.”

A long pause followed.

“I’m getting a bad feeling about this, Loki,” Steve said.

“I would expect nothing less, Steve. You are our moral compass: straight and true. It’s very grounding, you know,” the inventor said.

“You’re having a torrid affair with ‘Tony’ the god of mischief, aren’t you?” Bruce asked, in perfectly casual tones.

Steve’s eyes opened very, very wide.

Loki froze, staring fixedly at the chemist, caught between disconcertion and awe. “Thank you, Bruce. I think. You’re spot on, there.” He tried and failed to bring himself to see the look on Clint’s face. Then he tried again, with some success.

The archer’s initial disturbed shock was fading into slow-burning anger: the recollection of a grudge he’d been dragging around for a while. “Are you fucking serious?”

The inventor had the decency to look almost sheepish. “Well. It’s pretty serious fucking, to be perfectly honest. Not much more than that.”

“Liar,” Natasha said lightly, in Pashto.

Loki didn’t so much as glance at her, more than willing to ignore the fact she’d just echoed his own internal dialogue, just in a different language.

Clint rubbed a hand over his face. “I’m pissed at you, now.”

“You’re probably right to be,” the inventor acknowledged.

Bruce rested a hand on the archer’s shoulder. “I’ll dent the floor with the bastard again, if you like.”

Despite himself, Clint laughed, a bit shakenly. “Thanks. Yeah, maybe.” Then his brow furrowed and he shot Loki a glare. “You’ve been letting him in our house!”

“To be fair, he could have let himself in at any time regardless,” Loki said. “Now he does so with a lot more caution because he knows I’ve perfected my little anti-magic tricks, and this tower is riddled with said tricks.” He took a deep breath. “Furthermore, if he makes any attempts to harm any of you, in my home––our home, he won’t make it out alive. And he now knows that.”

Clint held his stare, shrewd and challenging. “You’re letting him close enough he could still kill you before you could stop him.” He glanced pointedly at the arc reactor, then back up at the inventor’s face.

“I’m a consenting adult, and so is he. After the initial, hmm, rough start-”

“No details please!” Steve said sharply.

“Seconded,” Bruce muttered.

“As I was saying,” Loki started again, “after that, things shifted a bit. We’re at a stalemate. If he killed me, he’d be breaking his parole, and in a building full of people who I like to think would avenge my death, given our current shared job title, and the fact that I would like to consider you all as something of an extremely dysfunctional extended family, of an adoptive sort.”

“We do care about you, Loki,” Steve said, low and with that strangely humble, kid-from-Brooklyn surety that both was and wasn’t pure soldier. “That’s why we’re concerned. And why Clint is angry at you. And probably why Natasha is considering creative ways to break a few of your bones.”

Loki fidgeted. “Oh god, we’re having a weird touchy-feely bonding moment. Please kill me swiftly, Natasha.” He turned, started to gesture, illustratively as he added, “Can it be that thing you do with your legs all around my neck and your-”

Natasha stepped calmly away from the counter, got into his space, and slapped him very hard across the face.

The inventor reeled a bit. “Okay. Thanks. That made me feel a little less disconcertingly warm-and-fuzzy inside.”

She grabbed his collar and tugged, bringing his focus back to her eyes. “You are an idiot, but I trust you, which is why you don’t have a knife in your brain right now.”

Loki swallowed tightly. “I love you too?”

“That is actually pretty much how she lets you know that she likes you,” Clint said, low and thoughtful, quietly bringing everyone’s attention back to him. Natasha even obligingly stepped out from between the two of them.

The inventor held Clint’s gaze steadily, trying to ignore the fact one side of his face still stung acutely and was starting to throb a bit. After a long few seconds he half-raised his hands. “Not the face?”

Clint snorted and shook his head. “You’re an asshole, Loki.”

“You knew this before we even met.”

“True. Still. Now you’re an asshole sleeping with the bastard who had me under mind control.” He raised an eyebrow slowly, enjoying the inventor’s sudden, very obvious unease. “That said, this all makes a twisted sort of sense.”

“Not to me,” Steve muttered.

“You’re not twisted enough, but we like that about you, Cap; it’s refreshing,” Clint added, not taking his eyes off Loki. He considered the way Loki had danced around this subject so carefully, and how terribly good the mad inventor was at making careful look and sound careless. Despite appearances, despite how he played irresponsible and reckless, the archer knew Loki was a paranoid realist capable of being patient and distrustful and keeping people at a distance. “I’m still going to shoot at him when I next see him.”

“I’m fine with that.”

The archer began to look amused. “Oh, man. Speaking of dysfunctional––you’re one fucked up guy, you know? This just highlights it.”

“I’m a mad genius inventor having a torrid affair with a super-villain,” Loki said slowly, quite deadpan. “Of course I’m fucked up.”

“You guys need to get more creative with your swearing vernacular. I'm bored of the word 'fuck' now,” Steve muttered.

“Get the fuck over it,” Clint and Loki said, in eerie unison. They then shot each other uneasy looks.

“You owe me alcohol,” Clint said, very seriously.

“Conceded.”

“And I get to mock the hell out of you while drinking it.”

“That’s only fair.”

“And you tell me the whole story, so I can blackmail you with it later if I need to. No, Tasha, you can’t have this bit. He owes me.”

Natasha looked a bit put-out.

Loki looked outright ill. “What, ah, what do you really mean by the ‘whole story’ exactly?”

“Not too much explicit detail, obviously. There are plenty of things about your sex life that I am so happy that I’m unaware of, you have no idea. I just want to know all of it: no evasions, no omissions-” He grinned to see the inventor wince sharply at that. “-and no little lily-white lies. You can summarize, but I get to question all I want. I want to know: how did it start, how fucked up is it, and how deep of a mess are you really in?”

For a long few moments, Loki stared back at him, considering. “That’s... steep.”

“Depending on what sort of story we’re looking at,” Clint said, “I might just be handing you an opportunity to mitigate some of my anger, and not just toward you.”

“I don’t care if you’re angry at him; it’s likely best that you remain so,” Loki said sharply. “I’m the one at risk, so long as I’m the only one who doesn’t register him as a threat all the time. The rest of you would do quite well knowing not much more than you do now. You’ll be more on your guard, frankly suspicious, and will not hesitate to use potentially extreme means––just should the worst all sort of happen.” He cleared his throat, glancing at them all quickly, not able to hold any one Avenger’s gaze for very long. “I may... Well, while I’m being so painfully honest, I may as well admit that despite the decidedly non-romantic nature of my interest in the man, I’m still aware that my judgement may be compromised, where he’s concerned.” He winced slightly; even just saying it, just admitting that much, was the psychological equivalent of nails on a chalkboard for him.

“Then you need a second opinion,” Steve said. “Clint’s offering it.”

“And since he plans to hold it over you, he won’t share it unless you deserve to have some of it leaked,” Bruce added.

“Your paranoia may never stop impressing me, y’know,” the archer muttered.

Loki looked at them all, his masks momentarily fled as the world settled around him in such an unexpectedly accepting manner. “I... I can’t argue that.” He swallowed thickly. “You’re on, Cupid.”

“I don’t think you want to be calling me that, all things considered,” Clint shot back.

The inventor grimaced. “You’re quite right.”

“Paging Dr. Freud,” Natasha muttered.

Loki shot her a scandalized look.

She merely raised her eyebrows and offered a cheerful smile.

Terrified, Loki backed away from her and tried, unsuccessfully, to hide behind Steve, who pushed him back toward her like a cat swatting at a mouse, and earning a near-squeak from the surprised inventor. “This is outrageous calumny! Look at her, she’s going to kill me, you bastard! My death will then be on your hands!”

Shaking his head, Steve continued to evade Loki’s attempts to use him as a human shield. “But she looks so happy.”

“Evil happiness. Evil, I say,” Loki proclaimed, in haunted tones. Then he gave up on using Captain America as a shield, and ducked behind the section of counter Clint was still perched on. “So... Legolas.”

“Yes, Tin-man?”

“I can’t do drinks tonight, but next week, in––” He hesitated, trying to think of anywhere he usually went for privacy that Tony hadn’t made an appearance in at some point or another; he was gravely concerned when he realized that he couldn’t, and that the revelation had THIS IS A BAD SIGN written all over it. “-well, in here, I suppose,” he finished lamely.

“Yeah. We’ll be finishing that particular bottle of scotch. And then another bottle.”

“I had a feeling.”

Steve shook his head at them. “We’re surrounded by conspirators, Bruce.”

“Just ignore them. The more irritated or scandalized you get, the more it only encourages them,” the chemist said sagely. “That said: Loki, you’re joining us for the last half of this movie.”

“But I’ve got-”

“Loki. When was the last time you saw the original, not-digitally-remastered version of the first Star Wars film?” Bruce chided.

A long pause followed. “Well, fuck.”

“Good. Come on, then.” Bruce stepped around the counter and offered a hand, helping Loki to his feet. “You’re an ass, by the way.”

“I’ve been told that a lot recently.”

“And you deserve it. Now come on, we’re having a movie night, here.”

As he was tugged out into the hall and toward the home theater, Loki couldn’t help but feel oddly warmed, though he silently swore that he’d never be caught saying such a thing aloud.

 

~~

 

Helheim, located as it was in Niflheim, was a very cold place.

It was only recent news from Asgard, particularly a message from her adoptive uncle Thor, which enlightened Hel as to why the cold had never bothered her. Having Jotunn blood of a frosty sort was certainly convenient, that way.

It was not her heritage that inspired the resentment she felt toward her father. It was something rather older, and more complex. It was personal, and no one dared speak of it in Helheim. She did not hate her father, just as she knew he did not hate her, but she would rather aid his foes than his allies.

The creature kneeling before Death’s altar, and Hel, guardian of this land of the dead, serving as queen, high priestess and sentinel, was a bit of both: enemy, and ally.

“Come to ask for words with your lost brethren again, Malekith?” she asked lightly. Her hair was very dark, and very long, and was the one part of her appearance, other than her clothing, which did not display a bicolor theme. Her left side was smooth, human-looking, not quite pale, and her left eye was jet-black with clear white sclera. By contrast, her right side was darker, fae-looking, with markings on every inch of skin, painting her in shades of blue and black, in designs as elegant as celtic knots; each mark was slightly raised, like those some Jotunns bore, or like scar tissue. Her right eye’s iris was a very pale grey, but the sclera around it was black as polished obsidian.

She had always gotten along well with Malekith; although she thought his coloration a bit dull in comparison to her own, and the way he incorporated it into his wardrobe was more than a little gauche. At least, she had decided as much the first time he had tried to see if flirting with her would have any effect. Shortly afterward, she had given him a glimpse through an open door into Death’s domain, and he had never made that mistake again.

He had also gained a healthy fear of her that day, which he seemed unable to decide whether to respect, resent, or sit in awe of, all of which was clear when he raised his head and met her gaze with his own. “Not this time. I would like to offer you an opportunity to cause trouble.”

“I have many opportunities for that. Most are boring. What makes yours different?” Despite herself, she began to smile. It was a disconcerting sort of smile, not altogether unlike her father’s. What sort of death must bring a ghost such a journey to his rest, the people of Asgard had wondered, when Anton Howartsson’s daughter was chosen by the Norns for the dubious honor of ruling the land of the dead, wherein he must be subject to a lying trickster’s equally mischievous daughter, required trust in the utterly untrustworthy for safe passage? Few of the answers had been kind.

Malekith smiled thinly. “You would have opportunity to rob Anton Howartsson of two great debts, and as a bonus, I would be able to bring you the soul of his mortal lover, if you wish.”

Hel raised an eyebrow. “He’s meddling with mortals again, as well? It mush have come back into fashion; although I suppose his taking one as a lover for, as I believe you’re implying, more than a single night’s bit of fun, would be rather new.” She shrugged waving a hand. “That said, the mortal means little to me. I see no reason to punish him merely for questionable taste; if I intended to do that to people in general, I would have no free time at all. You know I have little interest in such as that, but you mention it regardless. Now, I do wonder why that is.”

The dark elf’s expression grew more somber. “The debts I seek to rob your father of are ones that I owe to him. I also owe the mortal.”

“Oh really?” Hel grinned at that. “How that must have bruised your pride.” She rose to her feet and strolled past him. “Come along.”

With only slight hesitation, Malekith rose to his feet and followed.

“You know I have little affection for my father and would rather undermine him than aid him. This much is true.” She shrugged languidly, guiding him out onto a balcony where she could watch the sky waver. Helheim residing as it did near the southernmost pole of Nifleheim, had a near-constant aurora borealis during the day. At night, however, such bright color was more rare, and the skies were very clear and very dark, save for the moon, and the distant, doomed glow of dying stars.

Malekith glanced skyward politely, then returned his attention to Helheim’s mercurial queen. “I do.”

“You forget that I also have no particular fondness for you, especially any moreso than I do any other sorcerer who asks for my hospitality and for safe passage in and out of my realm,” she said darkly. “So I will make you a deal.” She turned. “You know, or else you would not have come to me with sneaking, gleaming hope in your dull eyes, that death clears all life-debts. You wish to die just long enough to qualify.” Her expression darkened. “You think you might talk me around to this easily? I’m the daughter of a far greater liar and trickster than yourself, little elf. I can see right through men like that.” Her smile was knife-bright as she wrapped a hand around his throat and squeezed, pulling down, until he knelt again, choking this time.

“Here is my deal, darling: I get to send you to death, and retrieve you.” She leaned a little closer. “But just because you had to ask, and because you thought yourself so clever for it, I will take the mortal’s debt, and you will owe it to me along with your wretched excuse for a soul, in exchange for return passage from the land of the dead. Whatever he made you swear to, you will keep to, as though it was still him your debt was owed to.”

Malekith’s expression darkened with rage and pride led him to struggle. “You insult me!”

“Yes,” Hel said. “I do. Far less egregiously than you insult me with your very presumptuousness, as all magicians tend to, upon arrival in my realm. You mistake lack of affection for lack of love, and lack of both you mistake for hate. I have neither, where my father is concerned. We are merely far too much alike.” She laughed a little and released his neck, pushing him back so he rested on his haunches, clutching at his bruised throat. “I don’t have to deal with any of you. I could simply wipe you out for trespassing in this sacred place, but I humor you, and lead you on, until either you bore me, or your pride annoys me, or both.” She crossed her arms over her chest and looked down her nose at him. “Now, little magician: do we have a deal, or do I get to kill you and not bring you back?”

The dark elf felt chilled to his very bones, and nearly afraid. Rubbing at his throat, he rasped, “Yes. We have a deal.” Better that than more permanent death, if only just. Then Hel’s grin became still more disconcerting, and he began to suspect otherwise.

“Very good. It’s very handy, being who I am. Your debts to me last beyond death.” With that, she rested her hands on her hips. “Now, do you want to offer yourself up like a sacrifice for slaughter, or take care of your death yourself?”

Given a long moment to consider, Malekith pulled a long, poisoned dagger from a sheath at his hip, and dragged the blade down the inside of his wrist. Between the poison and the blood loss, he didn’t last long.

All of his debts, save for one, cleared.

 

~~

 

Worlds away, a genius sitting in his lab taking apart a three-dimensional model of a portable Mischief Management field generator, shuddered as though he’d felt a sudden chill. Inexplicably, images flickered across his mind, of a certain bicolor-themed elf he’d beaten up. He shook his head to clear it. “JARVIS? Did something just happen, insofar as psychic or magic interference?” The question had become habitual. Paranoia, thy name is Loki Farbautisson, he thought. Then, for once, he got a positive answer and felt utterly vindicated for all of the negative ones before it.

“Yes, sir, this time. Sensors picked up an energy signature, rather faint, not unlike that of Malekith the Accursed. Levels appear harmless, and not particularly malevolent.”

Then Loki knew, with eerie certainty, that Malekith was dead. It was a strange and uncomfortably baseless sort of knowing. “Magic is so fucking weird. Is this going to happen a lot, or something?”

“I don’t follow, sir. Your leaps of questionable logic are usually just a little more sensible than this.”

Shaking his head, Loki ran his hands over his face. “I think something must’ve happened to Malekith. Just the usual nonsensical magical bullshit I should learn to expect by now.”

“Yes, you should,” Tony said, appearing to his left.

The inventor didn’t even jump this time, just shot the god of mischief a look. “You can only do that silently when you’re already close by. I don’t find this comforting.”

“I dropped by your penthouse for this,” Tony explained, and set down a large bottle of Metaxa on the worktable along with two shot glasses. “Malekith is dead. It’s the nature of the promise he made to you: it creates a weak, thin connection between promise and promise-maker. When the promise-maker dies, the connection snaps like a rubber band, and the party or parties still alive on the other end of it get a snap of feedback.” He frowned thoughtfully. “Death clears all debts that don’t pertain to Death herself, or one of her franchisees.”

“Death Franchisees,” Loki said slowly, “would make an excellent band name.” He examined the god of mischief’s unamused expression. “This really must complicate your plans, then.”

“Severely. I had hoped to manipulate him into stealing the stones, after all.” He began pacing slightly, fingers stretching out, then curling into a fist, repeatedly. “Firstly, I will need to know how that idiot got himself killed. It might be pertinent.”

“Of course it is,” Loki said, shrugging. “Is it possible that queen you mentioned just decided to get rid of your most likely pawn? His debts to you sounded considerable, based on how resentful he was of them.”

“I saved his life twice. He seemed so useful, at the start.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” the inventor muttered, pouring their shots, and promptly draining one. “He was pretty easy for me to take down, when it came down to it, and me just a mere mortal.”

The god of lies snorted, a little amused. “No, you were right about that early on.”

“Right about what?”

“You’re not a ‘mere’ anything, really. I must credit you that.” He stepped over, and took his shot, then poured another. He repeated the process twice more, not without savor, before continuing, “Malekith is a better thief, havoc-wreaker and assassin than he ever was at anything more complex, such as kidnapping someone from a public building during daylight hours on a planet he is no longer very familiar with. He was overconfident and overhasty.”

Loki blinked a bit, still surprised by the offhand compliment. “And you needed a good thief.”

“Yes. I am one, of course, but better he get caught while thinking he was beating me to a prize, than myself get caught on my way to what I actually need.” He shrugged. “I need to take another route, now.”

The inventor nodded. “That does rather shatter the elaborate smoke-screen plan a bit. With three it would work well, or possibly just with Malekith and that queen you mentioned, but my enemies here don’t know a thing about you, or the Norn stones.”

Slowly, Tony began to smile.

“No!” Loki said sharply, narrowing his eyes.

“Why not?”

“For one, you aren’t allowed to start any wars, RE: your parole. For another, trying to manually aim the Ten Rings at someone on a different planet would require far more mind-control than is really feasible. What does M want? He wants the world, and to fuck around with S.H.I.E.L.D. and with heroes like myself, which they’re more than efficient at without those stones. It’s just not quite madly absurd enough, or just plain practical enough, either way, to make for a quality lie. It has to be one or the other, when it comes to things like this.”

The god of lies stared at him for a long moment. “At times, I wonder if you’re reading my mind.”

“Good, it’s not just me.” He shook his head a little, and took another shot of liquor, slow enough to let the taste really linger on his tongue. Seeing the god of mischief start pacing again, he put the cap back on the Metaxa and turned so that he sat on the bench with his back to the work table. “I suppose I’m back to working against the Ten Rings without your resources, then?”

Tony hesitated, turning to shoot him an odd look. “Of course you aren’t.”

Loki’s brow furrowed. “I hardly see what’s in it for you at this point. You’re clearly better off finding another target closer to home for what you were trying there.”

Waving off Loki’s words like so much smoke, Tony rolled his eyes. “Quit being so linear. Honestly. I’m a trickster god, remember?”

“You’re also practical.”

“My jokes are practical. My actual methodology employs a fair bit of madness.”

“The method to your madness, is madness?” Loki drawled.

“It’s just a different sort of juggling act,” Tony mused, picking up a nearby wrench and tossing it in the air like a juggler, causing it to pirouette and flip in the air elaborately before he caught and re-tossed it absent-mindedly, eventually developing a pattern of several similar tricks with occasional elaborations, even while he stared into the middle-distance and some more abstract vision of the world only he could see within it––as though he hardly noticed he was still creating wild patterns of flips and turns with a wrench, after the first twenty or thirty seconds.

For just over a full minute, Loki watched the god of mischief’s thoughtful expression and the lazy flips and arcs of the wrench moving through the air. “I may never fully understand your logic.”

“It comes from living a few thousand years longer than the average mortal. Trust me, I have a bit of a knack for this,” Tony assured, though despite the carefree tone of his voice, his gaze remained fixed on something unknowable in the middle distance and  his expression was still overshadowed by heavy thoughts.

Loki stared, and began to puzzle a little. “Are you seriously looking for an excuse to still help me?”

“Why not?”

“Because this is-” Loki cut himself off, running both hands through his hair. “What is this, exactly?”

Tony caught the wrench, and didn’t toss it back up again. “What’s what?”

The inventor considered, searching for harmless words to indirectly address the thoughts running through his head, and finding none. Unfortunately, his compulsion to lie was also proving less than fully functional. “Right. Okay. Let me put it this way: how is our mutual enmity doing, these days?”

“Oh. That.” Tony dropped the wrench back where he found it and strode back over to Loki’s workbench, coming to a halt right before him, and smiling. “How would you like a patron god?”

A long pause followed. “Pardon?”

“You heard me.”

“Yes, but I don’t follow. Clearly I’m missing something.”

“You’ll be missing more if I don’t get a clear answer. Your left arm, maybe.”

“You want a clear answer, and you’re asking me?

“Don’t try to out-obfuscate a god of lies.”

“Oh god. This is part two of your sentence, isn’t it? It would only make sense: you need to meddle with mortals for some reason, like Thor did, and this is part of it. I swear, the more I hear about Odin the more I understand why all you gods are crazy.”

Tony’s eyes narrowed. “Your astuteness is in equal measures refreshing and really irritating, have I ever mentioned?”

“Once or twice.”

Waving off Loki’s words again, Tony explained, “Yes, a large part of it is to do with that, if you ever feel less than utterly contrary and decide to cooperate. That part of my sentence requires that I have a mortal, one quite aware of who I am and what I’ve recently done to this little planet, champion my release from parole. Yes, that’s involved.”

“But that’s not all?” Loki asked, carefully.

“Don’t ever suspect me of lacking at least three different motives behind anything I do, Farbautisson.”

“So what are they with me?”

“Should I fail to collect the Norn stones, where else am I likely to find powerful magical artifacts capable of manipulating time, matter, reality, et cetera?” The god of lies gestured broadly. “Not like we weren’t already planning to steal a few.”

“You’d need more power than that. You said as much.”

“Then I’ll make it. Power is easy: application is hard. Given the application, the rest is very simple. Mostly.”

“That’s two motives so far.”

“Yes.”

“And the third?”

“I thought it was obvious.”

Loki slowly raised an eyebrow.

“Because I want you.”

The inventor fell silent. “Well, yes, that’s a subject we’ve covered before, but I’d hardly expect you to assist me in this sort of thing just because I’m good in bed.”

“It’s the fact you’re just as good out of it that keeps me coming back. I’m hardly that desperate, Loki, come on.”

“Is this seriously how we’re having this conversation?”

“Loki.”

“What?”

“You still have yet to give me an answer.”

The inventor swallowed tightly. “What exactly does the patron god package come with? Just for clarification.”

“Finally, a show of interest. At this rate I was going to have to smite you just to sate my pride,” Tony muttered. “It comes with me. Clearly.”

“Yes, but usually the term ‘patron god’ applies paternally. Given how good the sex is, and the fact that we both have more than enough daddy issues to give any Freudian an aneurysm, that makes me decidedly uncomfortable. Furthermore, you are a clusterfuck of conflicting interests and variable responses on any given day, so you’ll have to be a little more specific about what ‘it comes with one metric unit of Anton, god of mischief’ actually means in this case.”

“Nothing is easy with you, is it?”

“I’m considered very easy by earth standards, actually. Mind you, less so lately, given that I keep getting distracted by kidnapping attempts both failed and successful, general Avengers business, and having someone in my bed who makes any other potential prospects I’ve still had time to discover seem desperately dull in comparison.” Loki considered that his means to both get the god a bit more off-balance, and get some of his own back for the unexpectedly flattering “mere” comment earlier.

Tony blinked at that. “Well. Pride-smiting is off the agenda then. Keep talking.”

“What is it you’re really asking me for, here? We go from enemies with benefits to––what, exactly?”

The god took a slow, deep breath, and let it out. “I don’t know.”

Loki stared. “Pardon?”
“I like you, and I definitely want to keep having sex with you. I want you to trust me––if only a little, as far as you can make me give my word, maybe. And I want to help you burn your enemies to the ground. This is what I know.”

“You already have the first two parts. If you’re looking for more trust, I think you’re aware that I have a handicap in that department,” Loki said quietly. “It’s the last part I’m stuck on. They’ve done nothing to you.”

“They took you.”

The heaviness of the words made Loki’s chaotic thoughts go suddenly still and almost painfully clear. “Oh.”

Tony was a bit discomfited by how sharp and suspicious the inventor’s expression was. “What?”

“My god, you’re a lunatic.”

“You knew this.”

Loki took hold of the front of the god’s Asgardian causal-wear and pulled him down. “I want your word, on one single thing, before I give you an answer.”

Tony fidgeted. “What?”

“I can withstand many things,” Loki said gravely. “To be perfectly frank, betrayal isn’t one of them––not again. So I want your word to answer me this question honestly: what are your intentions toward me, Anton? To clarify: before I call you any sort of ally, rather than  just an enemy I fall into bed with, I need to know if I’m allied as a pawn to be sacrificed or not.”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I just told you?”

“It’s been clear from the start that I can believe nothing of you. You’re smoke and mirrors, you come and go as you please, and can’t be pinned down in any of your motives that don’t have to do with sex. On the other hand, you can tell when I lie. I just want to be extended that same courtesy, let’s say,” Loki snapped, cold and biting.

“If I were to swear this, and answer, but you didn’t like the answer, I suppose that the alarm systems around here will be less than cooperative should I return.”

“Yeah.” Loki let go, leaning back and resting his elbows on the work table behind him. “Either we maintain status quo, or we don’t. If you’re not inclined to answer, we can stay as we are but don’t go pretending that you feel suddenly altruistic where I’m concerned, because I will not hesitate to hurt you.”

Tony considered. “Oaths of truthfulness are tricky, you know.” When compelled to speak truth, sometimes things come out that even the truth-bound speakers didn’t know before it escaped their lips. It was a concern.

“So are we, Tony.”

The god nodded, arms crossed over his chest as he regarded Loki thoughtfully. “Admittedly, I’m only irritated because of how well you’ve cornered me with this.”

“I gathered.”

“You did just inadvertently reveal mutual interest, though.”

“Enough to listen to you, yes, and offer this chance, but it all still hinges on your answer. I won’t lie and suggest I’m not already a bit compromised, but until I can know for sure you wouldn’t pluck this arc reactor out of my chest like a ripe fruit, or exploit any theoretical attachment to you, all to achieve some ends, I cannot look at you as anything other than an unknown quantity, and I really, really can’t trust you. You know this; you’ve always known this.”

“What of you?”

“I live in a glass box. On a single planet. I can’t teleport, and I’m anchored by my attachments to the dysfunctional people I’ve come to love. My entire life is all here, built from my own ashes with the help of the people who so frequently keep me from destroying myself day to day despite how much of an asshole I am. You know precisely how protective I am of them, and how much they mean to me. I’m already anchored: you know precisely where I’m vulnerable and where to hit me just to make it hurt.”

The god fell quiet, but not for long. “I do. I know you would betray me for them quite easily,” he said, low and edged with anger.

Loki gave a low, exasperated sound. “What are you, thick?”

Tony shot him an odd look.

“This little ultimatum of mine is all that stands between you remaining my enemy, and you becoming someone I would be willing to betray other people for,” Loki said sharply. “Whether you would return that regard or not. I just need an ounce of truth that I can regard as fact, or I can build nothing.”

A long silence followed, neither of them looking away.

“I notice you aren’t lying.”

“I’m not.”

Tony took a deep breath, hesitant, “You have my word that my answer to your next question, whatever it may be, will not be a lie.”

Loki looked surprised, but hid it quickly, along with everything else, behind his best inscrutable mask. “What are your intentions toward me, Tony?”

“I’m not yet entirely certain,” the god found himself saying, “but I have no intention of killing or betraying you or yours to achieve any of my current plans, or any plans in the foreseeable future.” He visibly tried, and failed, to stop there, and continued, “I want to get closer to you, at the same time that I don’t want to find myself damaged by it. You’re one of very few people I have ever met who can genuinely frighten me, and I want to find out why, and what makes you that way. What I really want, Loki, is to take you apart, and be taken apart by you; that’s all that I’m really, deadly sure of.” He did stop then, closing his eyes for a moment to recompose himself before taking on a confrontational expression that would have been more believable if he didn’t move to pull away as though burnt.

Loki caught him, a single hand gripping Tony’s upper arm very tightly, though his stare remained downcast. His expression hadn’t changed, but his jaw had visibly clenched. “Don’t you dare pull away from me now,” he hissed.

“Why not?”

“Because you just read my fucking mind with that. And it’s apparently true for both of us.”

Tony relaxed slowly, waiting for elaboration. “You’re still not lying.”

“You continue to sound so surprised.” Loki met his gaze steadily, just for a moment, before the god of mischief leaned in and kissed him, quite ungently. Matching it, letting his lips part and moaning a little at just how swiftly Tony took advantage and kept it: punishing and insatiable and full of heat. When it broke, briefly, Loki had time to realize that the pressure against his back was from the workbench, which he was apparently  laying on, with the god of lies between his legs. “Wow.”

“I have my moments.”

“You certainly do,” the inventor purred. “Oh, hell, this is revenge for the ten minutes incident isn’t it?”

“Of course it is. JARVIS? Timer.”

“Actually, and my apologies for the interruption, but it seems that Natasha Romanov is again attempting to quietly break in. Along with Clint Barton.”

“Pause the timer,” Tony growled. “And shoot them.”

“I’m not permitted to use any of this tower’s weaponry without either express permission from Mr. Farbautisson, or parameters along the lines of ‘a damned good excuse’ which, to be frank, you have qualified for more than those two S.H.I.E.L.D. agents have, Mr. Stark.”

Tony frowned. “Touchy.”

“He doesn’t like weapons,” Loki muttered, getting his breath back a little. “Patch them through, voice communications only.”

The god of lies stared down at him in mute disbelief.

JARVIS chimed to indicate the start of two-way communication.

“Barton, Romanov, do be darlings for me and fucking stop that,” Loki chimed.

“Wow, you must be up to something if you aren’t even saving your comments for once we’ve finished diligently cracking away at the security systems,” Clint mused.

“I am, actually, which is why I’m strongly recommending that you walk away.”

“Loki. You’ve been in there almost ten straight hours again.”

“I’ll be fine.”

“When will you be done with whatever it is you’re screwing around with?”

“Let’s just say it’s more of a ‘whom’ than a ‘what’ and leave it at that. How much time I take with him is no concern of yours. Now if you’ll excuse me, we’re busy.”

“Are you fucking serious?” Clint snapped.

“Well, I would be seriously fucking if you hadn’t interrupted.”

A sputtering sound from the archer followed.

Then Natasha added, “And on that note: Howartsson, Bruce wants to know how you liked the curry.”

Tony froze, eyes very wide. “What?”

Loki shrugged and gestured, muttering quietly, “Don’t worry about it.”

Clint could be heard walking away down the hall, swearing in four languages.

“Basically, should he make more of it next time?” Natasha inquired lightly.

“Yes, Natasha, you’ve flabbergasted him successfully, good show. Please leave,” the inventor deadpanned.

“I am not flabbergasted,” Tony shot back.

“You so are,” Natasha taunted, her evil grin audible. “Look, I’ll tell him to make an extra serving next time anyway. Safer for all concerned. Also, Bruce mentioned if he ever finds out this sort of thing has happened in one of the more public labs without any major sanitization procedures, he’ll crush both of your skulls with no regrets. Goodnight, boys.”

With a click, the communications cut out.

“What just happened?” Tony sounded slightly lost.

“They worked it out. Well, Natasha did. The others finding out after that was only inevitable. Forget it.” He pulled the god down again. “JARVIS? About that timer.”

“I’ll need an explanation, here,” the god of mischief growled.

“Well, to be honest, Natasha worked it out ages ago, but hadn’t worked out that it happened more than the once. Clint had worked out I was seeing a single person, of questionable origins, with suspicious frequency. It was only a matter of time before they eventually exchanged information. I’m actually rather surprised that it took them so long, but I think it was the curry that cinched it. Why are you looking at me like that?”

“They’re just... fine with this?”

“They trust me, and when it comes down to it, they trust my judgement, despite all they say to the contrary.” Loki shrugged. “It’s a foreign concept to you, I know. That said, I’d still recommend steering clear of them, generally. Whether or not we’re involved, they still have a few qualms with you personally. Clint in particular.”

“So we still can’t hold hands in public?”

“I’ve only seen you in public once, and you vanished shortly after that. Also you’ve never held-” He cut off as the god of mischief’s fingers laced with his, using the oddly non-threatening hold to pin his arms over his head. Loki made a small sound despite himself.

“Save the timer for later. I think I’d prefer to take my time, for this.” Then their clothes vanished and he caught Loki’s mouth again, fervent and harsh, and they gave themselves up for lost.