No one had seen any sign of Loki since his initial mysterious reappearance in downtown Manhattan. Thor also mysteriously reappeared on Earth shortly after, to rejoin the Avengers and decidedly not talk about what had happened on Asgard with him or his brother, except to confirm that the Tesseract was secure. Loki hadn't been observed with a new scepter, and there had yet to be another alien invasion, but he was still a supervillain. SHIELD was on high alert for three months.
Which was when the new season of Project Runway started airing, and one of the designers strutting his stuff in the opening, boldly declaring, "I'll show you mortals how to make it work," set off every facial recognition program SHIELD had.
It helped that he was clearly credited as Loki Laufeyson, age 1,053, Asgard, the Nine Realms.
"I haven't designed professionally, per se," Loki admitted in his first interview, "but I have several centuries of experience in fashioning garments, and one of my gowns was once worn by the Queen of Asgard."
"'Tis true," Thor confirmed. He had showed little interest in television before. Now he was glued to the Lifetime channel for several hours every week (the other Avengers having failed to convince him that reruns were exactly the same thing, content-wise, even if the commercials were different.) "She wore the dress to several family dinners. It was not really suitable for public occasions...it was the first garment Loki ever tried constructing with his magic, when he was but an apprentice sorcerer, and the fabric had a tendency to spontaneously change color and texture and opacity. Mother was quite enamored of it, however."
The other Avengers all gawped at him. "So Loki can make clothes with magic?" Steve asked finally.
"Oh, aye," Thor said, surprised by their surprise. "As his powers improved he found it simpler to craft his own costumes, when Asgardian garb did not suit his tastes. From where else did you think he produced the coat he wore when he...er..."
"Re-enacted War of the Worlds in New York City?" Tony supplied. "I dunno...guess I thought he picked it up at Supervillains R Us? Or else Hot Topic..."
On the show Loki wore stripped-down versions of his regalia, minus the armor plating but keeping the majority of layers and buckles. Though for his first live appearance on an afternoon talk show he came out in simple black slacks and a green silk shirt, relaxed back on the host's couch with his legs spread and smiling easily. "It was my publicist's idea," he said. (Tony, watching the broadcast afterwards at the SHIELD debriefing, mouthed, Publicist???—somehow managing to shape all three questions marks with his lips) as Loki continued, "She thought appearing on a reality show might, shall we say, humanize me? To those who are only familiar with my previous work."
The host laughed slightly and edged further back in her own seat. She looked more than anything relieved when the Avengers burst into the studio and Loki vanished in a puff of green smoke.
On Project Runway itself the other contestants spent the first week confused. "Okay, I don't want to be dissing on people I've barely met," confessed Gabriella, age 26, from Chicago, "but dressing up like that—it's just in poor taste, you know? I mean, not the leather, the leather's cool—but the whole supervillain fanclub thing, you know, I just don't think that's right—"
This lasted up until their first day together in the workroom, when Loki frowned down at the five yards of black pleather that was all he had been able to afford from Mood with the limited budget, then snapped his fingers and turned it into four yards of premium dyed leather and another yard of opalescent snakeskin.
Two of the designers quit on the spot. Maryann, mother of two from Hoboken, shook her head at the interview camera and said that they shouldn't have bothered applying at all if they hadn't expected serious competition. "We've all got our own special talents; we're all here to win."
Loki won the first three challenges handily; the judges had hardly a single negative word to say about his creations, either to his face or in their private post-runway discussions.
At the evaluations at the end of the fourth challenge, another of that week's top three designers happened to mutter, in the middle of explaining to the judges how he had cut the chiffon to reveal the patterns of the satin moire underneath, "—Not that it matters anyway, since I can't make diamonds out of thin air—"
"What was that?" Heidi Klum asked, cocking her head.
"—Nothing, sorry," Jerome said, but backstage he started yelling, "I came on this show to compete with other designers, not magicians who don't even know how to sew—"
The music went dissonant to ramp up the tension as the editors cross-cut to the other designers, all huddled together on one couch looking like they were debating running for their lives or just wetting their stylish pants. Then it cut back to Loki, sitting alone in the middle of the other couch and looking as serenely assured as a supervillain about to blow up the moon, as he inquired, "Are you questioning my ability to manipulate simple materials?"
But Jerome was running on post-fashion-show nerves and sleep deprivation and even Tim Gunn's soothing mien failed to stop him from shouting, "You don't even use a sewing machine! You just wave at stuff and it all comes together and sure it looks great, but that's costumes, that's not fashion! It's not something real people could even wear, if you weren't there to magic it on them! Not like you could mass-market any of it, since most of your s**t doesn't even have f*.*.*g seams—without the superpowers you couldn't make a g*.*.*m pencil skirt—!"
The camerawork got a little shaky after that, as even the intrepid cameramen beat a hasty retreat, along with the rest of the designers, ushered from the area by Tim Gunn, who kept between them and the argument as if he could shield them from sorcery with his impeccable pinstripes. The long distance shot showed Jerome standing alone in the room, and Loki still sitting on the couch, gazing up at him while Jerome slowly turned the color of a man realizing he was potentially about to be turned into a newt.
At last Loki raised an eyebrow and remarked, "An intriguing challenge, human."
The next episode was the unconventional materials challenge, with the designers let loose on a gardening store. Loki bypassed the tarps and burlap sacks to braid a halter-top out of varying colors of garden hose, with a skirt made of layered rubber plant leaves drying in different shades of brown, all meticulously hand-sewn. He was still knotting on the last of these when Tim Gunn collected designers and models to go down to the runway show.
"Well, those don't look like diamonds," Heidi joked. "And I would wear that top—is that really rubber?"
From the first show of the season, Heidi Klum was the only judge among the regulars or guests who was at all willing to criticize Loki's designs. She was quick to praise, but neither did she hesitate to say, "I look at it and I don't get it. What party is this woman going to, that's appropriate for a leather cocktail dress?"
Even the Avengers stared when they watched her evaluations during what had become their weekly TV night. Especially when Heidi kept giving them with a distinct failure to disintegrate or spontaneously combust on camera, even when Loki glared at her. "Is she perhaps a sorceress as well?" Thor inquired. "She could have her own spells of protection against Loki's."
"No, she's a model," Bruce said.
"And an actress," Clint said.
"...Are we sure she doesn't dabble in the black arts?" Tony said. "I mean, four kids and still looking like that..."
"Maybe we should get SHIELD on it," Steve said, and Tony didn't even try to argue he'd been joking. Mostly. Sort of.
Oddly enough, working with his hands seemed to motivate Loki to even more complex designs. Either he was showing off his godly talents with a needle and thread, or else he found the constraints of materials and construction creatively inspiring. His next piece had every other designer across the workroom staring at the table they had mutually agreed to allot entirely to the supervillain.
"You know he's still going to be in the top three," Gabriella complained in the candid interview. "It's like they don't even care that he overuses those stupid straps, just because they're afraid if they kick him off he'll level New York again."
Natasha shook her head. "Nah, she's just jealous. I'd wear that look."
Clint gave her pathetically betrayed puppy eyes. "Tasha!"
"Come on, why deny it?" Tony said. "He may be a psychotic super-criminal, but he's definitely got style."
"Why, 'tis much like the gown Loki had me don when we went to reclaim my hammer from the giant Thrym!" Thor exclaimed during the runway walk. "Only that one covered more of my legs and arms."
His fellow Avengers mutually decided to wait until after the episode was over to ask, but Steve coughed and said, "Well, it would be difficult to cover less...
Up on the SHIELD helicarrier, Nick Fury was much less partial to Loki's solid design aesthetic. "What is this show still doing on the air?"
"Well, it's one of the Lifetime network's big rating successes," Maria Hill said. "And Heidi Klum is something of an entertainment juggernaut in the area of women's programming. Plus as reality TV goes it's one of the more valid competitive—"
"I meant," Fury said, "why is a known supervillain still appearing on my TV on a weekly basis?"
"...Because Loki hasn't been eliminated yet?"
Fury glared. Hill said hastily, "Sorry, sir—we've talked to Lifetime about pulling the broadcasts, but their ratings are up over 1,200% since last year. We've been trying to get an injunction, but there've been...snags."
Hill gulped. Fury was not a man used to hearing the word 'snags'. Nor was she herself especially practiced in saying it. "The red-tape has been, er, stickier than usual, according to Agent Coulson. There keep being unexpected hold-ups in processing the paperwork. Coulson thinks it's. Um. Jinxed."
Fury stared at her. "Jinxed?"
"That was exactly how he put it, yes." And wasn't it so convenient that Phil wasn't here to explain this himself? Really milking part-time medical leave for all it was worth. "He suspects it might be due to...magic. In particular the same magic that kept every report of Loki from reaching us when they actually were filming the program." Maria had done several of those interviews herself, and had believed the contestants who swore they had broken the nondisclosure agreement to try to report Loki to the appropriate authorities. Several claimed they had talked to government representatives. Not all of whom had had suspiciously British accents, but still...
"If the injunction's not coming through..."
"Should I change the helicarrier's course for the Lifetime Network's headquarters, sir?"
Fury gave it a good minute of contemplation before sighing. "No. With those kinds of ratings we won't be able to afford the negative publicity. But if we can't get the show off the air, we can at least get information. Bring in Heidi Klum."
(This request later went down in the annals of SHIELD as the third decision Fury came to regret. No one actually knew what the previous two were, or why this one was added to that rarified list. All that was known for sure was that:
1) Heidi Klum had repeated what she had already told numerous journalists, talk show hosts, and fashion mavens, that Loki had not blackmailed them to get on the show but entered the competition fairly, albeit without specifying his exact identity until after his acceptance;
2) The network was currently uninformed as to his present whereabouts;
3) He had not in fact killed, maimed, or permanently transformed any Project Runway staff or participants during his tenure on it;
4) No one involved with the show was permitted to disclose who the final three contestants were or whether Loki was one of them, to anyone, up to and including SHIELD directors;
5) Fury started wearing more colors under his black leather trenchcoat.)
The next challenge Loki shockingly did not win. He had immunity from his previous victory so there was no chance of him being eliminated, and his elegantly tailored but severe blue pantsuit seemed ideal for the businesswear challenge. When Loki was included in the list of designers Heidi read off, those contestants listed with him were already grinning or frowning as they stepped forward, assuming they were in the top or bottom three. So when Heidi told them their scores qualified them to move onto the next round and dismissed them from the runway, there was an unrehearsed gasp from nearly all present. The music screeched to a dramatic halt as every eye and camera turned to the supervillain.
Loki failed to make good TV however; he didn't even shrug, just turned and filed off the runway. The other passing contestants trailed after him at a safe distance. The camera lingered on this procession before swinging back to the judges, where Nina Garcia, Michael Kors, and guest judge Scarlett Johansson were all surreptitiously pulling their chairs back from where they'd scooted them away from Heidi.
Meanwhile in the Avengers tower, Earth's mightiest heroes spent the rest of the judging trying to convince Thor not to put Mjolnir through Tony's 60" plasma screen, for the insult to his family's honor and/or fashion sense.
The next week's episode began with the other designers discussing Loki's loss as they left their apartments (Loki did not room with them, instead appearing outside Parsons every morning.) Counter to their speculation, Loki joined the rest of the competitors before the runway for Heidi to present the challenge, though he was even more expressionlessly focused than usual. The cuts didn't linger on him for long, as if the cameramen were concerned his brooding glare might melt their lenses.
When Tim Gunn visited the workroom that round, rather than quickly assuring Loki that his look was amazing and moving onto the next designer, he paused to contemplate his mannequin, finally shook his head and said, "I have to admit, I'm worried about this look. Maybe if that silk drapery over the arm was in auburn or fuchsia instead of crimson? I don't know many women who want to go out looking like they've been recently dismembered..."
Loki didn't respond, not even to give Tim Gunn donkey ears or transmogrify his hands into his namesake. But god of mischief did appear in a private interview session for the first time since the premiere, arms folded across his chest as he said, "I don't know what I'm doing—I don't even know what I'm doing here. I can't even rule a runway, much less a planet!"
He looked embarrassingly close to tears, and Tony put the TV on mute before Thor picked up his hammer again, remarking, "So what's his problem? Deadline stress finally getting to him?"
"I believe," Thor said, looking uncomfortably damp-eyed himself, "that it is due to last week's challenge, and what that woman Maryann said about his design."
"What, that it was a killer ice queen look?" Clint asked. "But that was a compliment!"
"And with the color palette he was assigned it was practically inevitable," Bruce put in. "All those winter blues..."
"I but wish that my brother had not been assigned such a selection of mascara," Thor said, as gravely as he said things like 'I am protector of this world' or 'You shall not pass' (at least in Tony's head).
On TV, Jerome approached Loki's workbench, and Tony switched on the sound again in time to hear the designer say, "Come on, man—uh, alien—you've got to get it together. Just because they didn't get your style doesn't mean you have to listen to them! Go for what feels right, in here," and he reached out and slapped Loki on the chest, his purple-polished nails clicking on the gold crescent.
Loki stared down at the smaller man, either forebodingly or else astonished. At last he said, "You realize that this is a competition; the failure of your challengers assists your own success."
"Yeah," Jerome said, "but I'm also an artist, and I know art when I see it. And that," and he waved at Loki's gray and scarlet draped gown, "is a work of art. ...Creepy weird disturbing art, but yeah, art."
The judges agreed, once again giving Loki the win. (It helped that Bruce Campbell was the guest judge, thanks to a mysterious mix-up with his and Naomi Campbell's schedules.)
Two weeks later the competition was down to five, due to be winnowed down to the final three. In the private interviews the designers were torn between excitement and nerves. Maryann enthused, "I can't believe we've all come this far!" while Gabriella shook her head, "I can't believe we all survived!"
The competition was intense, but Loki pulled out all the stops on his avant-garde gown. Nina Garcia did an actual double-take as it came down the runway, and in the TV room of the Avengers Tower, Tony whistled. "Well, that's guarding the avant, all right..."
"He's got to be using magic to hold up that skirt," Bruce remarked.
"Nope," Clint said, squinting at the HD screen. "It's done with fishing line attached to the hat—look, you can see it catch the light..."
Thor atypically had no comment, but stared so intently his eyes began to water. Or else that was for another reason, because when the judges asked Loki about his inspiration, the supervillain looked down, bizarrely demure, and muttered to his boots that it was personal—something he thought he might not see again, so wanted to remember.
Thor nodded, dashing the tears from his eyes. "Indeed, 'tis the very spitting image of Asgard's palace! Save that the palace is not a garment, of course."
"This would be amazing if you were doing special effects for the next Star Wars," Michael Kors said, "but it's a little costume-y, don't you think? Especially with that sculpted gold bodice—very Ed Wood goes to the prom."
"I like it," Nina Garcia shocked everyone by saying. "It's certainly different. And the silk textures contrast beautifully with the leather underpinnings."
"It's beautiful, truly fit for a queen," Heidi said cheerfully. "And any woman would feel like a queen wearing it."
The judges' post-critique debate was fierce, but in the end Loki was the first sent to Fashion Week, followed by Gabriella and Maryann. Jerome was sent home with the faint consolation that the judges were looking forward to seeing what he would do next, as his skills as a designer continued to develop. Upon leaving the runway, he and the other designers, along with Tim Gunn and the entire viewing audience, were shocked when Loki stood up from his couch and told his rival, apparently sincerely, "I'm sorry you won't be joining us at Fashion Week."
But no one was more surprised than Loki himself when Jerome answered this by throwing his arms around Loki, squeezing as he sniffled, "Me, too, alien! You better knock 'em dead—figuratively, I mean—so I know I wouldn't have had a chance anyway."
"Indeed you never did," Loki said, with a teasing and astonishingly uncreepy smirk, and squeezed him back.
(After the credits rolled, Thor rewound back to that hug several times, and forbade Tony to delete the episode. "But that guy Jerome's not even blond?" Tony remarked, but didn't argue for the sake of keeping the Tivo un-hammered; it had a few reruns of Adam West's Batman that he hadn't gotten the chance to watch yet.)
The next week's interim episode featured Tim Gunn traveling to various locales across the nation to visit the final designers and evaluate their progress. Their last stop was a Manhattan alley. "This is the address," Tim said into the camera as he surveyed the dirty brick wall before them, "but it seems like nobody's home; maybe we should go—"
A bright green flash momentarily washed out the video; when it came back into focus Tim was standing in an obviously different location. Loki stepped into frame and said politely, "Welcome to my lair, Tim."
Tim Gunn swallowed, then adjusted his cufflinks and replied, looking around at the thick stone walls, "Thank you, it seems like a lovely abode. Very cozy."
"Forgive the theatrics," Loki said, "but I prefer to keep my address private. The price of infamy, you know. By the way, if I may have that SHIELD tracker?" and he held out his hand.
To Tim Gunn's credit, he didn't flinch, only smiled wryly, undid his left cufflink and passed it over.
Loki crushed the device between his fingers with a single pathetic spark. "This place is—if you'll forgive the pun—shielded from any transmissions," he said, "but can't be too careful. Don't worry," and he smiled at the camera, or rather the cameraman behind it—the camerawork had gotten decidedly unsteady—"I'll return you both to your original location once the interview is done. Now, you wish to see how my work progresses?"
To not spoil the final runway show, they only gave a few teasing shots of Loki's pieces in progress, intercut with Tim looking thoughtful and saying, "Oh, yes, I see! I absolutely love this shade of red—but are you sure about the green feathers? Obviously the styling is going to be critical, to pull this off..."
After the workroom tour, Tim sat with Loki at a table and shared a pot of tea and scones—"Delicious, are they not? I only recently discovered clotted cream, in a teahouse outside Devonshire."
"You're rather well-traveled, considering all you've managed to do in the last month," Tim observed.
"Well, I can't spend all my time down here scheming and sewing," Loki said, chuckling.
"Is Loki flirting with Tim Gunn?" Tony asked, his voice precisely poised between rhetorical and incredulous.
"Those walls look familiar..." Clint muttered.
"So, Loki," Tim asked, "are you down here all by yourself?"
Loki's rhetorically flirtatious tone dropped away into the cold abyss suddenly visible in his eyes. "In spite of the practice sharing space at Parsons, I find I do my best work alone," he said.
Since no one would call Tim Gunn socially inept, internet forums later agreed that he was in possession of balls of solid fashion-forward steel, as he casually remarked, "But you do have family on Earth, don't you?"
"Yes!" Thor hollered at the TV set. The other Avengers held their breath, waiting for Tim Gunn to be reduced to his component atoms, as the shot zoomed back to a wide angle several precautionary meters away from the table.
But Loki just put down his teacup and said stiffly, "I'd rather not talk about it."
"Ah-hah!" Clint exclaimed, snapping his fingers at the concrete arch visible behind Loki. "That's where I helped Loki set up base, when he had the cube—I know where that is!"
So to Thor's dismay they turned off the rest of the broadcast to mobilize SHIELD and conduct a raid.
Of course the episode had been shot the week before, and the underground facility was entirely cleared out of clothes and materials as well as any supervillainous equipment. All that remained was the table where Loki had served Tim Gunn. On the table was a covered plate of scones and a note on folded parchment, written in spidery, elaborate cursive, which Bruce dutifully read off, "'Jam and clotted cream can be found in the mini-fridge under the table. See you at Fashion Week, Loki'."
Thor looked about to cry. Steve patted his back and bent down to check under the table for a trap, but there was only the promised fridge, with a jar of raspberry preserves and a bowl of cream.
"Wow, these are really good scones," Tony mumbled around a mouthful.
"I bet, if you like arsenic," Clint said.
"'P.S. The scones are not poisoned'," Bruce read.
Tony spread on cream and took another bite. "Wonder where he got these—do you think he can bake as well as he sews?"
"Maybe we should monitor the upcoming roster on the Food Network," Natasha said. Everyone looked to see if she was joking, but her face gave away nothing—except maybe to Clint, but if so he wasn't telling. He also refused to eat a scone, which was good because there were only five.
The Avengers didn't have to wait until the finale to see Loki's show, as SHIELD secured them all tickets to the Project Runway show at Fashion Week. The only stipulation was that being on mission, they had to attend in full uniform, and thus put up with the crowd's critiques—"Honey, cat-suits went out with the '70s, and black is all wrong for the season." "The silver's classy, but covering up those biceps is a sin..." "I love the vintage design, but those colors? So literal!"
Bruce merited less comment, as the crowd was slower to identify him, and also no one could bear look at his rumpled and ten-year-old suit long enough to pass judgment. Before he could be recognized, Tony Stark's introduction drew the scrutiny off him and the rest of his teammates.
Tony had secured the spot of guest judge for the show finals. He appeared in mirror shades and broad pinstripes in reds and golds to match his work suit, and the crowd went wild as he was introduced. When they settled, the first finalist designer, Gabriella, came out to introduce her show, a collection of classy if traditional evening wear. She was followed by Maryann with a delightful array of casual knits in playful colors.
Loki's show was last, and the Avengers braced themselves as the lights dimmed, then came back up to reveal Loki standing center-stage in full leathers and gold armor, complete with outrageous helmet. There was a moment of awed and/or terrified and/or horrified silence.
Then a deafening crack of thunder boomed as a large silver hammer hurtled from the back of the hall, at the exact moment that Loki bowed to the crowd, so the hammer passed harmlessly between his helmet's horns.
The crowd gasped as Mjolnir swung around like a boomerang, reversing its trajectory. Loki did not flinch, but rather straightened up in time to allow the hammer pass through his—or rather his illusion's—patiently smiling head without barely a ripple.
"Told you," Clint remarked from the back row.
"Indeed," Thor said, as his hammer swooped around the hall to return to his outstretched hand. "But as I understood it, we desired to be sure."
"So now you know," said a voice behind them, and they spun to see a second Loki frowning at them in a put-upon way. "Will you let me get on with my show?"
"Sorry, brother," Thor muttered.
"Don't apologize to the supervillain!" Clint protested, pulling up his bow. Loki's illusion behind them winked out just in time for Hawkeye's arrow to shoot through him and embed in the wall, as the illusion on stage coughed politely to reclaim the audience's attention.
"This collection is dedicated to those without whom this show could not have happened at all," Loki said. "Regardless of how I felt at the time, I've come to appreciate the charms of this city, and I am glad it was preserved—even if I was the one it had to be preserved from!" He paused long enough to elicit an uneasily forced titter from the crowd, smiled and finished, "So, without further ado, I present the Valiant Collection."
Loki bowed again and vanished as the music started up, rising horns over the requisite heavy beat, more classical than the usual runway fare. The first dress that came out showed clear influences from Loki's own costume, and disappointment might have flitted through Nina Garcia's eyes at the unoriginality—but the unexpected old-fashioned charm and bright primaries of the next outfit had them widening again.
The collection's theme quickly became apparent. Even those in the crowd at the wrong angle to look at the Avengers in back to compare was familiar enough with the team to get the references. The colors alone made it obvious, even without the other cues. The showroom was dark enough to hide Bruce's blush at the green dress with its full-bodied ruff lending a broad-shouldered silhouette to the willowy model, and Clint rolling his eyes at the short purple-and-black number. Tony, unabashed as ever, wolf-whistled when the model in the Iron Man dress strutted out, gold embroidery gleaming over the sculpted scarlet satin.
The final black gown caused some confused murmuring, though the Avengers took one look at the bodice, paneled to resemble leather pleats, and the single strap cutting across the shoulder in echo of the sweep of hair hiding the model's left eye, and heroically suppressed their reactions. Tony had it the worst, since as a judge the cameras kept focusing on him, and Fury would make him pay for any giggling caught on film.
The applause afterwards brought down the house, and the Avengers joined in. In the interviews outside the showroom, Thor enthusiastically declared, "I am most impressed and gratified by my brother's work; the other designers fashioned most becoming clothes, but none with such range and versatility as Loki's collection."
Even Clint admitted, "Okay, I still hate the guy, but it's a solid show, really hangs together."
To avoid spoilers before the airing of the final episode, the grand prize was awarded in private, following deliberation between the judges. Tony made a fashion statement of his own, showing up at Parsons in his full Iron Man suit. The other Avengers were waiting right outside the door as the three finalists were called onto the runway for the last time.
It was a gamble, they knew. If Loki was as smart as he was supposed to be, he'd never come in person (or godhood, or whichever.) On the other hand, if his ego was as big as it also was supposed to be, then (as Tony said at the mission briefing) he was in the bag along with all the cats.
Tony wasn't the only one to tense when Loki appeared on the catwalk between Maryann and Gabriella in a puff of green smoke. Even without dramatic music yet edited in, the pressure was on as the three finalists faced the judges. Only Heidi Klum seemed unaware of the atmosphere as she bestowed general praise on all three of them for their efforts on the show and talked about looking forward to their future developments.
At last she took a breath, studied the three designers for a suitably dramatic pause, and finally pronounced, "Maryann, you are the winner of Project Runway."
"What travesty is this!" Thor roared, bursting through the doors ahead of schedule with his face doing a dynamite impression of a thundercloud. "How dare you overlook the work of a son of Odin?"
"For the record," Tony said quickly, "I voted for your brother," (which claim was later corroborated by the clips of the judges' discussion that aired on the finale. Though Tony's main argument reflected less a belief in Loki's fashion sense and more the fervent desire not to have to rebuild New York again.)
Gabriella and Maryann had leapt off the catwalk and scrambled under it upon Thor's entrance, and Michael Kors and Nina Garcia took refuge behind their chairs. Heidi Klum stayed sitting in hers. She blinked at the thunder god and said, "His show was gorgeous, but not the most wearable—also rather faddish, with the superhero theme, and fashion is about setting trends, not following them, don't you think? Maryann's knitwear is original, and marketable straight off the runway."
"Put down that hammer," Loki snapped, jumping down from the runway to swat at Thor. "It was a fair competition. If I cared so greatly about winning it, I could have just enchanted the judges, you know."
Michael and Nina ducked back behind their chairs. Tony tapped his arc reactor and smirked, and Heidi merely arched a perfect eyebrow.
"...Most of the judges," Loki amended.
Thor had lowered Mjolnir but was staring down at his arm where Loki had smacked him. "Brother?" His hand lashed out like lightning to close around Loki's arm, gripping rather than passing through illusion. "You're here!"
"Yes," Loki said, in a manner that clearly appended a 'you fool' without him needing to say it aloud. Instead he looked over the other Avengers spilling into the room after Thor, a faint smile quirking his lips as he said, "So you are here to exact your retribution? Very well." He tugged his arm out of Thor's surprised grasp to turn to the catwalk and say to the woman peeping up like a cautious prairie dog behind it, "Congratulations, Maryann. You were a worthy opponent, and I hope your line proves successful."
Then Loki faced to the Avengers, lowered himself to his knees and tilted back his chin to bare his neck, vulnerable despite the layers of armor elsewhere. "Do your worst."
The Avengers stared at him. Finally Steve said, "We're not going to just—execute you!"
"We're the good guys," Tony said. "We're going to arrest you, give you a fair trial, all that jazz—anyone remember the Miranda Rights? Anyone know if we actually have to read them to an interstellar supervillain...?"
"I thought you were heroes, not base cowards," Loki sneered. "Are you not the Avengers? Is your commitment to vengeance so faint?"
"Man's got a point," Clint said, starting to pull up his bow with an arrow ready, only to stop when Natasha put a hand on his arm and nodded meaningfully at the surrounding cameras, focused on them from every angle.
If Loki's lip curled any more it would turn inside out. "So you will simply take the insult of having your warrior garb turned into feminine ornament?"
"Insult?" Steve, Clint, and Heidi all repeated in the same puzzled tone.
Thor gazed down on his erstwhile sibling with soggy-eyed compassion, put his hand on Loki's shoulder as he swore, "Brother, I would not allow them to harm you outside of combat, no matter what insult you offered."
"Especially not on reality TV," Tony muttered. "Way too cliché, even for me."
"What was the insult, again?" Bruce asked.
Loki glanced at the cameras, then back at the Avengers and their distinct lack of vengeance. Then he shoved off Thor's hand, snarling at his brother as he got back to his feet, "Must you ruin everything?!"
"I? But I only mean to protect you—"
"Protect me from my own victory? I was well-prepared to shed a little blood to stain your honor!"
"Wait, that was your villainous master plan? To give us a bad rap by turning our costumes into kickass gowns and then having us beat you up on national television?" Tony shook his head. "You should stick to the fashion, you're actually good at that."
Loki blinked mid-scowl. "You...see merit in my designs?"
"They're pretty badass," Natasha said. "I'd wear most of them."
"As would I," Heidi Klum agreed.
"Next time I get accidentally transformed into a woman, I'm totally going to rock that Hawkeye dress," Clint said.
"I've already got a tailor making me that awesome suit you designed for the mens' wear challenge," Tony confessed.
"They're a little risque sometimes, but mostly very nice," Steve said, and Bruce chimed in, "Actually I was wondering if you could design something on the Other Guy's scale, getting bored with nothing but torn slacks and boxers..."
"Proper attire would greatly enhance the Hulk's image," Nina Garcia put in from behind her chair. "I recommend a narrow neckline and looser sleeves to de-emphasize the bulky shoulders."
"But make sure you color-coordinate with the green, or it will be a disaster," Michael Kors added from behind his own.
"You should know I have long admired your skill in such aesthetics, brother," Thor said. "I was honored that you interpreted my armor with such stylish grace."
Loki, regarding Bruce with a thoughtful gleam in his eye, broke off to glare reflexively at Thor, but his ire was lacking a good 95% of its usual vitriol. "You're all just saying this because you think if I'm designing clothes I won't have time to design another invasion."
"I am not," Thor protested, injured.
"No, what would give you that idea?" Clint denied.
"Well, yeah," Tony said.
"Ridiculous," Heidi Klum said. "If you have the time management skills to make all ten of those dresses in the last two months by yourself, you could certainly both design and try to take over the planet as a hobby."
"—But we'd rather you didn't," Steve said.
"And you'd have more time for clothes if you laid off the world domination," Tony said. "Besides, how many alien soldiers or super-powered criminals do you know who really appreciate a nice bit of draping or properly tailored trousers?"
"What say you, brother?" Thor asked, eyes sparkling like sequins on a disco ensemble.
Loki sulkily turned away from that sparkle, but his gaze slid to Bruce and lingered for a moment on his ill-fitted suit in compulsive contemplation, before finally he sighed and said, "I shall consider it."
And that was how Loki (after a sensational trial, a stint in a magic-warded prison, and three seasons of Lifetime's award-winning hit reality series Paroled: The Journey from Supervillain to Superhero) became the official fashion designer for the Avengers.