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Lead Me Not into Temptation; I Can Find the Way Myself

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Sometimes, Tony Stark was deeply impressed with the smallest things, the elegant little details, of his own achievements. Like how genuinely alarmed JARVIS sounded, how subtle and nuanced a voice has to be to communicate that kind of rising-panic in such a convincing, near-human way.

And in a polite English accent, too. Damn I’m a genius, he thought.

Sir, I really wouldn’t recommend you-!

BOOM.

Things got significantly fuzzier after that. Mostly white-out, but for a few minutes, beneath the quiet and the smothering silence and the serenity, there was something like exploding, crackling color: better than LSD, better than any upper he’d ever done. It was the intellectual high of a lifetime, with wave-functions unfolding and his fingers pulling them apart by manipulating a web of interwoven lines of force and life and existence itself––funny how he’d never seen them before. It seemed so obvious, then.

In the silence.

Silent and white as the view of an avalanche hitting just before it blocked out all the light. White as sun-bleached bone or a very clean funeral shroud. White like silence under the brightest light in the middle of densest fog. The phrase obscuris vera involvens would only occur to him much later, as he thought about how liars and masters of obfuscation like himself knew truth better than anyone, better than they knew their lovers, or their enemies, because to a good liar, the truth is both those things.

Everything was clear in that silence, cold as snow and sharp as the line between life and death. Tony hadn’t quite understood, until then, why white was the color of death in some cultures. Suddenly comprehending that idea so much better possibly should have been unsettling to him, but the intellectual high obscured all fear in a riot of adrenaline.

It was peace and chaos all wrapped up in one and he rode it far as he could, seeing shards of something iridescent, broken, ghostly: like snowflakes, like shattered glass, and like water tumbling down a cliff-face.

He saw a shadow, too.

In the end, all he’d really remember clearly would be that shadow: the rest a blur of dream-like color and strange soundlessness. The shadow was something breaking, or not yet broken, going to be broken, snapped in two between earth and... earth and...

Oh. Is that a tree? It has earth in it. Neat.

Somewhere cold was far off in one direction, and another place warmer but more improbable was only a little closer. What the actual fuck is-

Then something jarred it, the strings he’d been manipulating like they were his personal orchestra of universal constants and angles and force, and he their maestro, seemed to recall themselves and rebel, tightening around him, dragging him back down, back into the white-out, but the colour was gone this time, replaced by stifling numbness, and that was most terrifying of all, because then the silence really did feel a bit like death. Like shattered bones. Like the ending of all things.

 

~~

 

Tony woke to the sounds of sirens outside and Obie’s voice reassuring Pepper. Someone’s hand was on his arm, squeezing only a little, like it couldn’t be helped.

He opened his eyes and blinked a bit at how dark the room seemed. Then he realized the slightly itching sensation over the skin of his arms, collarbone, neck, and face, was from ceiling-debris. Most of the lights were broken, burnt out, or both––even the LED-based ones, which just shouldn’t be possible. “I’m fine,” he said, only a little unevenly. He could feel both of them jump, even without looking. He’d have felt it even without Pepper’s grip tightening further on his arm all of a sudden. “I’m only a little concussed, I’ll bet.”

“Tony Stark,” Pepper said, in her most dangerous tone, worry only making it waver a little––which made it honestly even more ominous, because when Pepper was hurt, she could get damned calculating under her instinctive façade of panic. “What the hell did you think you were doing?!”

Tony stared up at her. Her eyes were red, but not quite glassy. She was beyond tears, she was so pissed off. Well shit. “It was an experiment.”

“On what?!”

The mad inventor could hear the continued punctuation-abuse, and winced a little. “Well. I might’ve maybe nicked something from Reed’s lab on that little visit to New York the other day,” he said. “It was interesting, and pretty small, and giving off some of the weirdest combinations of rare particles-”

Tony.

“Pep,” he said, a bit quieter, in his most reassuring ‘I know’ voice. “I’m fine. There was no way anyone might have known it might sort of––did it actually explode?”

“Not as such, sir, though the odds of something going awry capable of sending you flying across the room into the nearest wall were calculated at 48% probability, as I believe I mentioned before.”

“Not helping, JARVIS.” Tony sat up gingerly, so none of the large shards of broken glass around him would do anything like slice him open due to haste. If there was one thing he had experience in, after years of mad science, from having grown up as the son of Howard Stark, it was coping with the aftermath of a lab catastrophe. He blinked a little, squinting toward where the golfball-sized chunk of inexplicable matter he’d been playing with had once been. “S’bright.”

“You okay, Tony?”

“Fine. Why?”

“I can barely see in here, with all the lights broken except the hallway ones.”

Tony blinked, wondering if maybe he did have a bit more than just a mild concussion, but he wasn’t too dizzy, no head-wound, barely even any bruised or tender spots when he casually ran a hand through his hair to check. “You’re right. Don’t listen to me, I’m only a little concussed, promise.” The air around where that little trinket had been (the table and floor below it seemed not pushed out or cracked like an explosion hit but somehow warped and weirdly iridescent) shimmered a bit. He could see flickers across the vague glow, electric but yet not, semi-transparent. Strings he thought, and shook his head a bit, then groaned because it hurt. Yep, there’s the concussion. Now instead of color he had a dark spinny room and occasional black spots dancing in his vision. He could hear an EMS unit trudging down the stairs.

“Another experiment, Mr. Stark?”

“Yeah, Mike,” he muttered. “I’m fine, I’m fine.” He tried, and failed, to wave off the two paramedics. He supposed it should be worrisome that he recognized both of them, at this point and was on a first-name basis with them as well. Maybe he really should tone it down a little...

Nah.

“Oh, Pep, call Mr. Fantastic and tell him I’m sorry for nicking one of his villain-confiscated things. He gets mad when non-superhero guys touch his stuff, and I know he’s worked out how I got to it by now, the brilliant bastard.”

Obie stepped forward as Tony was gently aided to his feet.

“See, barely that dizzy. So long as I don’t make too many abrupt head-movements or any-”

“Tony.”

The inventor turned a bit sharply away from where Mike had been checking his pupils with what Tony would never call anything but a penlight, then grimaced. “Ow.”

“Easy, kiddo.” He rested a hand on Tony’s shoulder, gripping tightly. “I need you to promise you’ll knock this shit off for the next week. We need you for that demo overseas, and you know it.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll be fine. My coolest new experimental subject seems to have, uh...” He glanced over, eyebrows raised, to find the colors fading a bit, or maybe just sinking into the material around it, because in a couple places the not-quite-melted sections of metal worktable looked almost opalescent now. “Well, it’s left the building.”

“What was it anyhow?” Obie asked, curious.

“You know, I don’t have a damn clue,” Tony said, more than a little put out.

“Maybe it’s not for us mere mortal men to know,” his godfather said.

The inventor frowned just a little, eyebrows drawing down. “Screw that. I just want more of it. It was giving off these intermittent little bursts of something disconcertingly like tachyons, which should sort of not be possible, and-”

“Tony. Let them check you out, and take it easy for a few days, yeah?” Obie shot him an amiable, warning sort of look that always made the younger man more uneasy than he’d admit. A number of things about Obie did that, though; he was a good man, but just had a side that was a bit more... salesman-slick than even Tony had ever managed to quite stomach. That was why Obie did the selling, really; it was his element.

And inventing, showmanship, and being a flashy bastard were all Tony’s.

“I’m concussed, and my lab needs repairing so it’s back in operation, shiny and perfect, when I get back from that little demo. Don’t worry about it,” Tony assured, with a hint of a slightly warmer smile. “I’ll be too busy with that to wreak too much more havoc.”

“That’s m’boy.” The older man patted his shoulder a bit, and left him to the mercy of medical experts once more.

 

~~

 

“From what Pepper described, I think you must be mistaken. That sample? Tony Stark, I was conducting experiments on it just this morning.”

For a moment, the billionaire inventor was a bit stunned, but he recovered quickly. Tachyons or otherwise faster-than-light particles. Probable minor effects on space-time, but this? Working off of pure instinct, he said, “Go see if it’s still were you put it, Reed.”

“Of course it is. I put it right––” A significant pause followed. Then Dr. Reed Richards gave a low, breathless exclamation: “That is just fascinating. I have to run scans-”

“Me too. It did something weird to all nearby materials when it not-exploded. They’ve got a psychedelic color-scheme all of a sudden, among other things. I’ll send you any findings.”

“Tony.” Reed sounded suddenly concerned. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah, Doc. I’m dandy. Well, bruised and battered, but fine.”

“Listen, Tony, I don’t know how or even where Doom got that artifact, but it wasn’t of this world. And as someone who’s suffered––effects from otherworldly things... Well, I’m concerned.”

“I did think of that, especially since you got it from a guy who double-majored in mechanical engineering and sorcery, and you’re––well, Mr. Fantastic. They’re running my blood work, and I’ve not got any discernible superpowers yet. It was giving off weird energy and particles, but none of it was harmful radiation, though, so that’s not too much of a concern. I had JARVIS scanning the whole time, and my calculations from initial readings were flawless, because they were mine.”

Reed made a sound in equal measures exasperated and resigned. “Just be careful, Stark.”

“Sure, sure. Careful. After all, I’m only traveling to a war zone next week. I’ll be as safe now as I’ll be then.”

“This is why we never got on at school.”

“That and your prim, uptight TA ass didn’t like my crazy rock-and-roll lifestyle.”

“Take care, Tony.”

“Goodnight, Reed.”

 

~~

 

Then he went to Afghanistan. Then the Ten Rings attacked his convoy and one of his own weapons nearly killed him, leaving potentially lethal memento-shrapnel behind. Then a doctor called Yinsen expanded the hole in his chest enough to stick an electromagnet into it and keep the shrapnel suspended a little less lethally: less likely to sink into vital places and put him through a slow and agonizing death.

And then Tony Stark woke up cold, weak and terrified in a cave with so very, very many of his illusions shattered. When his eyes flew open, he saw a seemingly familiar shadow––black and green and falling technicolor opalescent shards of––just before he fully regained awareness, and felt a tug under his skin when it vanished, leaving strange glimpses of iridescent lines interwoven all around him. They faded fast. Fucking strings, he thought, then tried to work out what he meant and failed.

Then the pain fully registered through the post-surgery drug-haze and brought him sharply to full consciousness. He hurt. His chest, his ribcage alone, felt more broken than anything else ever had––and he’d not lived an uneventful life that’d left him unscarred, really, despite having been born with a few silver spoons in his mouth. He could smell cold desert air, blood, machinery and smoke. His mouth was even more dry than the desert air.

You know, he thought, as he pulled the narrow tubing from his nose, aiming his internal monologue at something outside himself for the first time in about two decades. It might have been the first and only time he’d ever done it really hoping for any answer even if it was “fuck you” pure and simple. It’s a real pity I don’t believe in gods or devils. I could use a savior, or a deal-broker. Distantly he thought of Obie, salesman-slick and able to talk absolutely anyone into absolutely anything, and it eased his panic just a little as he stayed still, heard someone moving nearby, humming a tune, and possibly shaving by the sound of it. I learned from the best when it comes to bargaining, even. If any of you bastards want to make a modern man of science with a towering intellect and genius IQ feel shame-faced, here’s your chance. I dare you, even.

He tried to roll over a bit, to reach for a cup nearby that he had to hope had water in it. Cables fixed disturbingly to something very solid in the region of his abdomen halted him sharply.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

Then he found out about the shrapnel, the magnet, and Yinsen.

Soon after that, he found out just how much weaponry the Ten Rings had with his name all over it. He started to discover just how much harm his inventions were doing that he never would’ve intended them to. He’d never worried about that, before. He’d stuck to his guns––quite literally––and gotten defensive and abrasive, in sickly-sweet polite tones, toward anyone who challenged him on that subject. Tony Stark realized with abrupt clarity, that weapons he had built to be smart, to take out enemy soldiers in ruthless, bloody, and horrible ways, really were creating horrors against good people.

Things were all too terribly clear after that. And he planned to keep that sharpness, that clarity of vision, for the rest of his life if he could, whether his life might end in less than a week, or drag on for another century or so somehow.

 

~~

 

Yinsen declared the Ten Rings to be Tony Stark’s loyal customers, and their atrocities a major part of his legacy, and that stung. It stung his pride, his ego, and settled deep in his skull, uncomfortable as thorns.

Tony realized that he’d dismissed talk of excessive civilian casualties as over-sympathetic hippy whinging over theoretical people––like they did about global warming (which he’d fix in a week as soon as it started to bother him, but not a moment sooner) or conspiracy theories.

It wasn’t the deaths that bothered him. Tony was an ironmonger; he kew all about how to efficiently disable or kill anyone who could be labeled an enemy combatant.

He’d thought of himself as a killer before, off-handedly; it was only natural, once the press had started calling him the Merchant of Death. He’d been pretty proud of that title, for a long while now.

He knew how to handle every weapon Stark Industries had put out in the past decade, could wield them all with a respectable degree of lethal precision, and he’d designed every loving inch of them. Of course he’d spent years imagining how to increase numbers of enemy casualties––translated roughly: blow their brains out, make a bullet smart enough to aim itself at their hearts, take them out at the knees so they can’t get to their weapons in time, or even make sure that even if the blast didn’t kill them, the shrapnel would be enough to cripple them on the field at the very least.

It had been satisfying work. The thought of that past satisfaction didn’t make him queasy, even now, which he found at once disconcerting and bitterly familiar. He was Tony Stark, after all; his heart could only bleed so far, and lately it’d been doing that a bit too literally, so clearly he’d used up his reserves there. Shame still wasn’t in his vocabulary. But intelligence was, and this cluster-fuck of Stark weapons, in the hands of unfriendly forces, screamed of idiocy.

It was a mess. It was disorganized. It was clumsy and how hadn’t anyone else noticed this and fixed it yet? This shit didn’t look subtle enough it should’ve evaded detection for so long. Not with how many languages people spoke in this cave system, how many different cultures from all over seemed to converge here, from all over the world: he’d thought them just mercenaries at first, but there was a camaraderie that suggested a shared sense of loyalty––he’d been watching.

Tony Stark’s legacy shouldn’t be a scandalous loss of so many Stark weapons into enemy hands: and that would be easy to arrange with just a couple photos. Talk about a black mark on the company record, especially in the current political climate wherein terrorists were the new communists, but worse. Stark Industries wouldn’t go out with a bang that way, no blaze of glory, that way, it wouldn’t die; but it would sink into a swamp and have to be rebuilt and redeemed, but would never fully shake off the mud.

Because the Stark legacy shouldn’t be about being the sleazy businessman. That’s what he had Obadiah for; he sold to the businesses and the military while Tony won over the rest of the world with visions of a brilliant future. Tony Stark was the mad inventor, the problem-solver, the genius, the devil’s advocate of practicality both mocking and infuriatingly accurate in his assessment of flaws, whether those flaws were his own or otherwise, even. He was both golden boy and satyr, depending on who was watching and what he wanted them to see, but to do that effectively he had to know where he really stood, where the bodies were buried, where to toe the line. He’d slipped up, he’d been blind, he’d left it to other people presuming their eyes and ears could serve as his own, and he’d been dead wrong, to have wound up in these caves surrounded by his own weaponry, himself and weapons alike at the mercy of the wrong damn men.

He didn’t feel shame, or regret––he would later, probably, if he lived long enough, but not now––not while he needed to figure out if he wanted to survive this, and how to do it if the answer might be yes. No tears, no guilt: he just felt like a blind idiot for letting things get so out of hand, so out of his own control. Looking at Yinsen, and recalling dozens of storied he’d dismissed before as conspiracy theories, concerning groups like the Ten Rings and where they got their guns, he thought, These are not the people I was supposed to hurt. They didn’t earn this. He rested a hand over the mess of metal and wires on his chest. Even enemies deserve better than this sort of––this damned mess. Torn flesh, torn meat, torn nerves: it wasn’t all clean casualties as he’d planned on and imagined, and what sort of ridiculous pig-headed optimism had that been? He could have kicked himself for being so short-sighted as to believe military men and salesmen would think like him: quick, clean, and efficient.

All or nothing, Stark. You gave them all, he thought, and they’ve done nothing much with it except dig deeper holes in other countries and leave things out where our enemies could get their hands on ‘em. Good for business: not for the world. So what good, genius, have you really done? The answer was a resounding: not much.

A particularly bitter voice in the very back of his head suggested with the sheer number of people killed inventively by his weapons, he’d probably had some little slowing effect on the global overpopulation problem, which could be considered almost a positive. Tony was used to that voice; he ignored it for now, the way he usually did.

If not more weapons to hand off to government and military to do all the fighting, Tony, what do you want to build? Do you even know?

He thought about it. Weapons for me to clean up this mess with. And promise of a future bright enough to distract people while I do some real problem-solving.

Bright future.

Bright...

“Dad you were brilliant,” he muttered, starting to grin, “for a dreamer––but I can still build what you never could, and that’s good enough for me, right now. And my dreams are more achievable than yours: you watch.” Then he started pulling apart missiles, tearing out precious grams of palladium, while he thought about the world and his own broken world-view, and how to fix both.

 

~~

 

Putting together the arc reactor, Tony started to wonder if he was already going a little stir-crazy. He’d be certain Yinsen was asleep, but would see the profile of a tall, thin figure watching him in his peripheral vision. When he’d turn to look, there would be no one there. There often wouldn’t even be enough contrasting light and shadow in that direction to infer where his brain had gotten the idea from.

It had happened several times, more disconcerting each time.

He didn’t mention it to the doctor. No point, really.

When he finally had the palladium he needed, and Yinsen helped him shape it, and he brought forth light from the darkness of the cave with the clean blue hum of the arc reactor, Tony couldn’t help but smile, just a little. “Screw you, Prometheus,” he muttered.

“Oh, I wouldn’t bother,” said a slightly droll, not-quite-English voice. “Trust me, I’ve some idea where he’s been.”

Tony jerked and looked up, meeting the eyes of a tall, slender man dressed in a long dark coat, and black and green leathers with brassy-gold hints of armor. The green of his clothing, however rich and vivid, couldn’t match his eyes. Fuck, Tony thought. I was doing so well on the tamped-down-lunacy front. “Great. Hallucinations: I was wondering when those would start,” he said, less than thrilled.

This particular hallucination looked amused to be called such, and stepped closer, examining the arc reactor thoughtfully. “I had wondered what you had intended to do with the palladium.” His voice was smooth as his looks. He had sleek, short dark hair, pale skin, and an air of casual calculatedness about him that gave the impression he was always improvising, but never unplanned or un-deliberate, with his every movement. “Your work is surprisingly impressive, Mr. Stark, for a mortal.”

Tony stared hard, trying to figure out how the hell his brain had gotten quite this warped, yet oddly mundane and linear. At least the man was attractive, but sadly it didn’t seem this hallucination would wind up being fun enough for anything to be done about that. “My subconscious has gotten a bit boring since I was last on any decent drugs, I think. You’re not even a reptile.”

“I’m no dream,” the hallucination said, “no mirage or illusion––this time.” A flicker of a smile. “I’m here because I found evidence of something rather strange, and of pertinent interest to me, while traveling between worlds one day. You sent some impressive shockwaves up into the ether, I must say, and as a god of chaos I know all about that sort of thing, trust me.” A reassuring little smile graced his features, looking a bit innocent and boyishly charming.

Okay, Tony thought. Very pretty hallucination claiming to be a god. Maybe the old subconscious hasn’t lost all it’s weird-factor yet. “God of chaos,” he repeated, disbelief more than evident.

“Chaos, mischief, and lies.” His smile widened. “My name is Loki Odinson.”

It occurred to the mad inventor that Loki was a fine, fine actor. The innocence was believable, and if Tony hadn’t been such a good liar himself, and thus able to see the care with which that façade was presented and detect the nuanced phrasing, he might almost buy it. Almost. Barely. He was also a genius, too, and had to factor that in. “Your name sounds familiar.”

Loki’s smile only brightened, like he was thrilled to hear it.

“You’re still way too unreal here, sweetheart.”

“You know, most mortals who go calling for any sort of god or devil are looking as much for judgement as salvation,” said the god of lies.

Tony’s lips twitched. “I’ll make my own judgements, thanks.”

“Will you?” The trickster leaned over the table, smile fading in favor of innocent-looking curiosity. He rested his weight on his fingertips where they pressed on the worktop. He had elegant hands, with long fingers, but they weren’t perfectly smooth. Tony idly wondered about gods with calluses, and how was that even supposed to make sense? Then Loki leaned in still closer, and asked, “Or do you imagine those closest to you and give their theoretical perspectives more weight than your own? You yourself might otherwise be untroubled, but you trust them, perhaps even love them, and they’re better at sympathy, at pity, and at human emotions than you are most of the time anyway, are they not?”

“Ouch. You don’t pull punches, do you?” The inventor felt genuinely uneasy all of a sudden. “I thought you were the god of lies.”

“I’m merely admiring the ones you seem so fond of telling yourself.”

“I don’t think I like you.”

“You do.”

Tony considered, uneasy. There was something about the way this guy moved and spoke that was a bit too new, and yet also too old-world, for him to be comfortable with, because it was enough to make him ask himself whether maybe he might not be hallucinating, and if there might in fact a charming god of lies standing in front of him, trying to make a his brilliant, atheistic modern genius self look a bit shame-faced. “Why are you here?”

Loki smiled again, and vanished in a flicker of deep emerald shadows, not quite like smoke. Tony blinked, and could have sworn he saw a strange cat’s-cradle of interweaving lines where usually-invisible strings had briefly caught the light.

Tony then heard Yinsen’s footsteps approaching, and focused in on the doctor, and on explaining the arc reactor’s various uses: keeping himself alive, being easier to cart around than a damn car battery, and maybe capable of getting them a way out of here, with a bit of work.

Towards the end of his explanation, Yinsen asked, "How did you manage those?" and pointed at something on the worktop.

"Manage wha-" Tony stopped. Where the god of mischief's fingertips had touched the worktop, they had left behind something resembling scorch-marks, creating the ghost-image of those long fingers. "You know," the inventor heard himself saying with perfect sincerity, "I have no idea."

After the good doctor was asleep that night, Tony made a close study of those scorch marks, including a bit of basic chemical analysis, as best he could with such a  relatively limited tool-kit in the chemistry department.

The smoky-looking residue that left ghostly outlines of the god’s fingers couldn’t have been formed by the soldering tools, or in fact any of the tools he’d used on the arc reactor. It wasn’t a true smoke-stain, and seemed as though it had been applied like wood stain rather than any means more fiery. It was odorless, hadn’t actually damaged the surface of the table, and couldn’t be scratched off even by putting a decent little gouge in the surface.

Well then. Let’s start contemplating what the impossible variables really are, here, he thought. And work out what’s actually true. The devil’s in the details.

He frowned. Or the god of mischief might be, apparently.

 

~~

 

After that first apparent hallucination, he dreamed about the not-explosion in the lab. He dreamt of blinding white, but couldn’t reach that pinnacle of understanding he’d briefly felt the last time. He dreamt of falling shards of something brilliant and iridescent that seemed to have shattered some distance away in time as much as physical proximity.

Something bright, something breaking, falling into a rift where the omnipresent threads of reality were frayed and torn.

Hey wait a minute, those big chunks of material look pretty familiar, actually.

Just like the sample he’d not-exploded.

Then the smothering white kicked in and turned into a dream about near-drowning, which had gotten pretty common after the torture, given there’d been water-boarding.

He woke up muffling a scream, shaking and sweating in the cold. Desert cold: dry and rasping. He felt a warm hand on his forehead and jerked, intending to turn and look, but somehow not managing it, like his muscles forgot to obey halfway through.

“Your dreams have a disconcertingly prophetic tone to them,” said a voice that might, or might not, have been Yinsen, “do they not?”

“What?”

“You said something about a bridge.”

Tony ran a hand over his face, trying to focus and stop trembling. “Didn’t see a bridge. Didn’t even think of one. What bridge?”

The hand on his brow stroked his hair a little. It was nice. “You spoke of what you did not dream, then. What did you dream of?”

“Drowning.”

“Before that.”

Tony again tried to turn his head and look at the speaker, and this time caught a glimpse and jerked away. “Jesus fuck, it’s you again.”

“Just a devil in the dark.”

“I thought you were a god, not a devil.”

“That would depend on how Christian you are.”

“Atheist.”

A flash of white teeth caught what faint light was given off by the dimmed lamps in the cave, from near the doorway on the other side of the room. “Then I’m whatever you might classify me as.”

Tony shook his head a little. “Why’re you curious about my dream?”

“Because you don’t strike me as a magic-user, but you very nearly were in that dream. I could feel it. Those dreams were initially how I tracked down your relative geographic location on this little world of yours.”

Tony shook his head. “Magic, as a term, still offends me. I don’t care what they say about fucking Doom.”

“As a god, pardon me for not caring whether I offend an atheist.”

The inventor gave an amused snort at that, despite himself. “It was all white. And I couldn’t do anything with the strings—I keep seeing them now and then, though.”

“Hmm. I did wonder if exposure had altered your perception in any way.”

“Why are you here?”

“I’m in need of distraction, and potentially a few souvenirs to take home and wreak a little mayhem with. There are so many trinkets like that, scattered about Midgard. It’s like the universe is conspiring to put you all in a state of perpetual war over the toys of gods and celestials.”

“We do perpetual warfare fine without your help.”

“Well, you would know.”

Tony winced. “I set myself up for that.”

“Yes you did.” The god of mischief shifted, turning his head as though he heard something in the distance, and swore. “I must go.” He rested a hand on Tony’s brow again with a murmur, and the human fell into deep, gloriously dreamless sleep for the first time in weeks.

 

~~

 

Loki next appeared after the incident wherein Yinsen had been threatened with torture by means of a burning coal, and Tony was not in a very civil or overly chatty mood. He glanced up at the god suddenly seated across from him, this time in a formal suit with dark green jacket and a moderately ostentatious green-and-gold scarf.

“I’m busy,” Tony bit out.

“And I’m still unable to discern the origins of the particular inter-dimensional anomaly I discovered which led me to you in the first place,” the trickster mused lightly. He was a bit snappish as well, then: his expression cold and his prior playfulness considerably more diluted. Lovely.

“What’s got you so touchy? Go on, see if you’ve a better excuse than me,” Tony challenged, not looking up from his work with the soldering iron.

Loki snorted. “I have nothing to share with you, mortal.”

“Ooh, it must be embarrassing, then. Family problems? That’s always what it is with gods, right? When it’s not torrid romance with a-” He paused there. “Well.”

Changing the subject sharply, the trickster began, "I was traveling a familiar path between worlds--returning home, in fact--when I discovered an unexpected divergent new path, narrow and bitingly fresh, uncomfortably close to my home. It led me to Midgard, and to you, and now to here, from that unexpected and now-volatile little crossroads. That same path goes seemingly without aim in a dozen lesser directions, all tracing back to you. Now: how did you do that, I wonder?"

The inventor stayed silent for a few long moments, his head full of white fog and the sensation of too-tight strings coiling tight, cutting into him, dragging him back down away from... from things he couldn’t quite recall. Strange, drug-trip sort of things. Like a world that didn’t look like a planet in the branches of a psychedelic tree sort of thing. "Not intentionally. You sure it was me?"

"Yes, quite sure. It was quite a metaphysical tangle, and a fair amount of oddly-warped space-time."

Tony looked up at that. "How oddly?"

The god smirked. "Still think you're hallucinating?"

"Jury's out. How'd you wind up here in this cave? If I were too easy to find, I’d be in a helicopter out of here by now."

"You broke through a dimensional barrier, briefly. You're lucky to be alive, and mostly intact." He glanced idly at the glow of the arc reactor. "Even I haven't worked out how to blaze new paths quite so effectively, however accidental your success. It took me some time to trace the anomaly back to its source, and by then you were already collecting palladium and I was curious enough to see what mad and potentially self-destructive actions you might attempt next, with that."

“Incidentally: you’re implying with all of this that you’re an alien?”

“I’m not from earth, yes. My civilization is advanced significantly beyond any of those here, and has been so for millennia. I did visit along with my kin, for a time. We inspired religions in what’s now Scandinavia, before christianity developed.”

Arthur C. Clarke, eat your heart out, Tony mused. “Let’s pretend, for the moment, that I’ve suspended disbelief. Now, you’re saying I created a wormhole? I couldn't detect anything anywhere near that cool from any of JARVIS’s readings."

"Something rather less simplistic than that quaint little concept. It's not accessible to most mortals, but that's mostly because magic has never been quite so prevalent and potent here as elsewhere in the nine realms."

"Magic. You really are sticking to this story that you're a magical alien. Are you fucking kidding me?"

"Disillusionment is all well and good, Mr. Stark, and your race has done quite well since they abandoned superstition in favor of what you call science. You still haven't caught up with your gods, to whom science and magic are one and the same thing." Loki offered a grin.

"Says the 'god of lies' who can't trail-blaze half so well as when I supposedly did it on accident." He smiled at the sharp glare that earned him and turned back to his work. "Irreverent is my middle name, sweetheart; calling yourself a god might as well paint a target on your face reading 'aim offensiveness here' or something."

“Irreverence is no excuse to underestimate me, especially for a man sharp as you hope you are,” Loki shot back, smiling sweetly. It was a predatory, unsettling, and dangerously beautiful look on him. “I’m able to come and go here without stirring guards, without your friend noticing anything I don’t wish him to, and you yourself have watched me disappear into thin air. Who knows what more dangerous tricks I might have up my sleeve,” he warned, voice cool.

“Like?” Tony asked, just before his life flashed before his eyes in the form of a dagger moving at remarkable speed, and glowing dark green as though it were engulfed in flames. The dagger in question went past his face so close that it nearly singed the tip of his nose and his face could feel prickling heat and the way the air stirred with its passage. It landed in the nearest section of cave wall with a decisive ka-chunk. Tony knew just how solid that stone was, and for the dagger to be strong enough, and moving fast enough, to pierce it, made him swallow tightly. “Oh.” Something occurred to him. “Scandinavia... Scandi... you mean the fucking vikings! Well, no wonder you have such nice cheekbones. And can do that with a dagger.” He turned his head, facing the god again and looking him quickly up and down. “Your armor last time didn’t look too viking, though. You have a horned helmet hidden away somewhere?”

The trickster shot him an unimpressed look, and gestured with one hand.

All the hairs on the back of Tony’s neck stood up as he heard, and felt, the dagger whip back past his head, just as fast as before, to be caught neatly by the graceful hands of one god of lies and mischief. He shivered at the lingering sensation left from it passing so close to his right ear.That shouldn’t be so attractive. Why is that so attractive? I don’t even like blades: they’re... uh... primitive. Or something.

“I’m a liar and a trickster, Mr. Stark. I know that torture and fear tactics are the least effective way to get accurate information from a sentient creature, as compared to relative civility, at least in most cases,” Loki said calmly. “That said, vikings respected me for many reasons.”

Tony’s tongue darted quickly over his slightly-chapped lower lip. “Well. You have my attention.”

“Good. Now, curious though I am about your aforementioned trail-blazing, I tracked down the origins of the artifact central to the disturbance you caused, and am aware no further samples of such a thing have been found by the scientist you pilfered it from, as of yet,” Loki said. “There are other interesting things that your friends have found, which are of similar interest to me; however, the precautions that Dr. Richards and his companions take to keep unwanted visitors out of their home, storage facilities, and laboratories are quite impressive. It’s almost as though they have fought gods before.” He raised his eyebrows pointedly in a silent question.

The inventor mused on the subjects of one Doctor Doom, the Skrulls, and a few other threats he knew the Fantastic Four had faced since they started the superhero gig just over a year ago. “Close. They had to learn quick, and it pays for them to be paranoid, at this point, let’s say.” Then he caught up with Loki’s suggestion. “You said you were looking to snag a souvenir?” he asked, voice cool.

Loki smiled: the wide and charming one again, only a little less innocent this time. “Oh, just one or two interesting baubles, perhaps, yes.”

“What do you want with them?”

“Mischief, of course.”

Tony’s eyes narrowed. “If you’re after some of the shit Reed Richards has in storage, you’re out for something more like mayhem than mischief.”

Loki’s smile shone like a knife, brighter still with a hint of surprise; although the outright mirth from their first meeting had yet to return. “Nothing you need worry about, Mr. Stark. Foreign politics, let us say.”

“So, let’s see. You’re a trickster god, and thus sort of untrustworthy, and you want what from me, again?”

“You did challenge any nearby gods or devils to offer you a deal, salvation, or both,” the god of lies reminded. “I can offer you many things.”

“Uh-huh. And you want access to a collection of things that have come close to doing things like leveling cities, if not destroying the planet,” Tony mused, then gave an impressed whistle. “Well, pardon me for thinking you’re something of a wolf in moderately tasteful intergalactic pimp’s clothing.” He set down his work carefully. "What I need, is a way out of here. I can manage that on my own, thanks."

"Oh, I'm certain that you can. What of your friend, however?"

"He'll stick to the plan."

The god smiled thin and cool, but there was something less harsh about it, in the way the wickedly mocking look in his eyes seemed to fade, like he wanted to be amused by Tony’s folly, but couldn’t quite manage it somehow. "As you say," he responded lightly.

The inventor considered. “You’re desperate, aren’t you?”

“Is that not frequently the state of any good liar? You yourself seem quite aware.”

“Yeah. I’m a professional liar with a lot of natural talent.” Tony cocked his head a bit. “You could always ask for help with your problem instead of bargaining for weapons to blow it up with.”

“I’m not quite so desperate as to go wheedling with mortals for their sympathy and aid, giving them say in what actions I might take. It is not a matter any of you could have effect upon, in any case.”

“Try me.”

Loki shot him a glare. “I do not share secrets lightly.”

“No one would believe me if I told them, anyway.”

The trickster snorted. “True, but nevertheless, I must decline.”

“You know, you’re a bastard, but I don’t hate you. I’d even offer you a drink if I had anything decent on-hand,” Tony said, his gaze very steady. “You at least want to tell me who you’re out to kill? I might settle for that.”

“My enemies. Asgard’s enemies. The enemies.”

“You know, I’ve been trying to do that my entire life, and it never fucking stops.”

“You conduct warfare. I conduct trickery. These are different games.”

“Not really. No more than believable lies aren’t just a different version of the same game compared to artfully selective omission.”

Something in Loki’s eyes glittered. "I must admit, for a mortal, you're actually attention-worthy.”

“You really have condescension down to an art-form.”

“It comes with the territory. It is such a pity you won’t let me aid you so.” He gestured at the cave around them. “You are, however, entertaining. So much so that I’m willing to offer you this: the next time you find yourself at your wit's end, do let me know, by prayer or other such means. I'm inclined to watch, at the very least, or cut a deal if you’re lucky."

"Not a chance."

"There is always chance. That's the game, Mr. Stark: a crooked one, but the only game in town."

“Different versions are different sorts of crooked. Yours doesn’t suit me. Look at where I am, look at how many of my weapons are in the hands of people who are my enemies,” Tonys said, low and dangerously calm. “I’m not giving out volatile weaponry without knowing what I’m handing it over for at the least––not anymore––and even then, my agreement would depend very heavily on the answer. You’re tricky, probably trickier than me by a long shot even, so the odds of me believing you are slim already, so you’d have to be either really honest or really convincing, and you don’t look like you’re up for either just now.”

Loki’s expression darkened. “Goodnight, Mr. Stark.”

“Wait, one more question! You’ll seriously hear it if I pray to you? Seriously?”

“Magic.”

The inventor grimaced and muttered under his breath as the devilish god vanished again, leaving behind the same smoke-like shadowy after-image, and the impression of strings pulled taught, interwoven into new and stranger shape, then reverted to their previous position, only a little altered, though how so, Tony couldn’t begin to describe.

 

~~

 

Not too long after that, the suit was done, and Yinsen didn’t follow the plan.

Then Tony escaped, went home, and put a stop to all of Stark Industries’ weapons production. He built another suit, far more elegant, and nearly got killed by ice-related design flaws, which he fixed. He began using it to destroy all Stark Industries weapons technologies he could find which had been stolen, or smuggled, or otherwise given over to parties he never would have agreed with, if he had been consulted.

Tony Stark also stopped waiting to be consulted before he gutted his company, his customers, and their webs of connections and omissions, of all their secrets.

Obadiah’s secrets in particular appeared to be worth killing for, and he made a less than valiant attempt on Pepper’s life as a result. Tony arranged for his death accordingly, in an improvised, hasty, and near-lethal fashion.

Then he declared himself to be Iron Man in front of the entire press corps not too terribly long after that.

Time passed. Politics became messier. Wars ground to a halt. Iron Man seemed to successfully privatize world peace, until that rat Vanko showed up.

And Tony Stark was dying. And he couldn’t stop it.

He asked the charming Miss Romanov, “If this were your last birthday party you were ever gonna have, how would you celebrate it?”

And she answered, “I’d do whatever I wanted to do. With whoever I wanted to do it with.” She then walked away, and left him to think.

Whoever he wanted.

Tony eyed his martini, and thought about the last time he was dying, in a cave, and pulling himself out of it. He thought about everything that had happened there. He remembered that one of them was a god, and presumably immortal-ish, and he remembered how badly in need of a stiff drink that god of lies had seemed.

Given the S.H.I.E.L.D. files he’d hacked after finding the name “Thor, God of Thunder and Prince of Asgard” mentioned very briefly in the Avengers Initiative folder one Nick Fury had given him, Tony had a few theories as to why that was.

Well. He was at his wit’s end. And Loki had wanted to watch.

It was, he decided, a sufficiently bad idea to tide him over for a while. Maybe. It was the devil he knew, as opposed to whatever unknowable (but doubtlessly regrettable) madness he’d get up to if he went through with this party idea.

“JARVIS? Call Pepper, have her cancel the party. Tell her I have a date.”

“Should I specify with whom, sir?”

“Only if she asks, and even then only if she’s insistent about it,” Tony said, smiling a bit faintly. “And then tell her I said I’m having drinks with the Devil, and that there’s no need to be jealous. It’s business, not pleasure.” Only a little bit of a lie: Loki was damned pretty, but Pepper... He had too many things to say to her. And one trickster god couldn’t shake that. Surely.

“Will you be summoning Satan here, sir?”

“Hmm. No. Best do this closer to better and more voluminous liquor reserves.”

Chapter Text

With the party cancelled, and everyone but the mad genius himself sent home, and even Pepper out of the place, busy as she was dealing with the resultant press and news coverage, Tony Stark stepped behind his private bar and said aloud, “So. Loki, if you’re still paying the slightest attention, I might be considering making a deal.”

It took just over a minute and a half before he got any response. Then there was a sound like metal wings unfurling and then re-folding in on themselves. Standing beside the nearest barstool, facing Tony, the trickster appeared. He looked haggard, harrowed, and harrowing. There were dark circles around his eyes, his already pale complexion looked outright unhealthy, possibly even frosty, and his previously short, sleek hair was now more like a bristling mane from a rock opera or an anime, but it somehow didn’t look unserious on him. He wasn’t in full armor, but seemed more armored than last time, though the outfit was otherwise similar to the one he’d first met Tony in, back in the cave.

The inventor tried and failed not to look a bit shocked. He finished off the last half of his martini in one gulp. “Well. You look like you got dragged backwards through a frozen hell."

"You look like you're dying."

They regarded each other in stony silence for nearly a full minute.

"I don't suppose you've got any desire to maybe cut another deal?"

"You want an extension?*" Loki’s smile was cold, his mirth blacker and rather more cruel than before. "Now that's costly."

"I want a solution. Different thing."

"Ah, yes." The trickster's eyes glittered. There was more madness there, this time. Something decidedly wrong. Off-balance. Unhinged.

Shattered, even, maybe. Whatever had done it, whatever Loki had seen or whoever had fucked with him: if it still existed, or still lived, then Tony hoped he’d never cross paths with it. "You sure you're okay?"

"Far from it." There was a freezing edge to his words, decidedly defensive. "You want a deal?" The unpleasant smile from long ago returned, albeit more charred and cracked this time. "Then let's cut a deal."

“You want a drink? You look like you need one even worse than last time. Several, maybe.”

Loki reached out and casually passed his hand through the stem of Tony’s martini glass illustratively.

The inventor’s brow furrowed. “Ah. Live Model Decoy? Hologram?”

“Projection. Illusion. I’m not able to be here physically, given I’m roughly half a universe away from here. God or no, there are distances I simply can’t travel physically in a near-instantaneous manner.” He began to grin slowly. “Unless I’ve some other aid, some other resource or resources.”

Tony hummed, thoughtful. “From the looks of things, you didn’t win the last game you were at when we chatted the first few times, Rock of Ages. Don’t tell me you’re still barking up the mass-destruction tree.”

The trickster’s expression smoothed into a mask, save for bleak rage flaring out between the cracks. So many cracks, what the hell happened to you? “Do you just generally lack any basic instincts for self-preservation, Anthony Stark?”

“Meh. I’m dying anyway.”

“Why go out of your way to hasten it?”

“Might as well go down in flames, right? And call me Tony, for fuck’s sake.” He poured himself some scotch as he spoke. It was looking like he’d need it before this conversation was over. He then stepped around the bar, to join Loki’s apparition on the other side of it. “I need something new and replicable and not hazardous to my health to put in here-” He tapped his arc reactor audibly. “-instead of palladium.”

“I’d suspected that the effects of neutron-damage on such a core would make palladium rather hazardous to your health in the long term,” Loki said thoughtfully.

The inventor blinked, a bit surprised. “How did you-”

“Advanced civilization, I might have mentioned. Your ancestors would have considered that glowing circle of light in your chest to be witchcraft, you know.”

“Where’s the line, then, between this and your magic tricks?”

“There isn’t one.”

“You need to visit my lab sometime, when I’ve got scanners running.”

“What I need, are a few certain resources, before I can return to anywhere remotely near the nine realms again,” Loki said sweetly, but his smile was all teeth and no mirth.

“Then I need details, because at least my current suffering has a definite expiration date coming up. Yours doesn’t, by the looks of it. Not without help.”

The trickster nodded. “I could use your aid in securing a particular position for the talented scientist Erik Selvig within S.H.I.E.L.D.’s research and development sector. To that end, I can expedite my plans and ease my current array of burdens with...” He gave a thoughtful hum, his expression distant and calculating for a brief moment. “I can make do with temporary access to their systems in order to gently pave the way for him there, your secrecy, and your non-interference with his work whilst he is there.”

Tony blinked a few times quickly. “Sure you don’t want to maybe think about it a bit longer, figure out if that’s what you really want?”

“I’ve had a lot of time to think about this, Stark. You’re merely offering me a means of expediting it, and decreasing my chances of getting caught.”

“Tony,” the inventor corrected. “And what do you want Selvig doing?”

“I want him to work on a project they’re afraid to reveal to you: one of your father’s more valuable finds. I have some connection to it, and with Selvig working on exploiting its power, I can reach out from this end of space and pull myself back into the branches of Yggdrasil.”

“Yiggy whatnow?”

“The world tree. There are nine realms connected by its life-force, including two of mine, and this one of yours.”

“Oh yeah. Cosmology thing: it came up when I googled your name.”

The god of lies didn’t even blink. “Your response to my offer, in exchange for providing a solution to the source of your blood-poisoning?”

Tony considered. “Why don’t they want me in on that project?”

“I’ll show you the files when we reach the point of getting into their systems as previously mentioned. It has to do with an extraterrestrial artifact.”

“Which you want to exploit. How are you connected to it, exactly?”

“It was once Odin’s, and I studied it a great deal in my youth.”

“Odin... oh, right. Your dad.”

Loki’s eyes narrowed. “Thor’s,” he corrected.

“Then call me Tony,” the inventor shot back, unthinking.

The god said nothing, stepping away a short distance, arms folded behind his back. “I still have no answer.”

“I’m considering,” Tony said, low and thoughtful. “Is it a weapon?”

“Anything is a weapon when given to a sufficiently creative person. I may as well ask if that reactor in your chest is a weapon, or the armor you power with it.” He turned, eyebrows raised a little. “If I guess rightly, you’ve improved the design. What do you do with it, I wonder? Right wrongs? Earn redemption?”

“Redemption is a sucker’s game,” the inventor said flatly. “I’m cleaning up the mess left behind after I killed my godfather who sent me to that desert to die in the first place by putting a price on my head. I’m not so blind as I was, and I’m showing it. That’s sufficient for me.”

Loki turned to face him fully again, looking almost thoughtful: a little of the crazy abated by a small fraction. “Interesting.”

“I tend to be. Stick around, I put on a helluva show.”

A low chuckle from the god of chaos. “So, Tony Stark, do I.”

“So close, but really, is my surname still necessary?”

“I’ve yet to criticize your touches of dramatic flair.”

That startled a small laugh from the inventor, though the amusement faded as Loki stalked back toward him. Tony had to hastily remind himself that the god of mischief was not actually physically present. God, he moves like a panther. Focus, Tony, focus, do not look at his hips. Keep eye contact, for fuck’s sake. It was of no help that Loki didn’t stop until his apparition-self stood just a bit too close. He loomed. It wasn’t as daunting as it should’ve been; or, if it was daunting, Tony didn’t find that itself unappealing at all, which might be worse.

"You're much more cooperative this time, I note. I begin to think it's rather more than your slow death eating away at you."

"You're not wrong." Conscience. Libido. Near-concern for you, which is just a bit fucked up, all things considered, you insane alien bastard.

Loki offered a slightly different smile, slightly saner, but more calculating and focused in a way that made that no more comforting. “Do tell.”

The inventor shrugged. "A guy can learn a lot from complicated machines by studying them once they're broken."

For a moment, Loki’s anger seemed about to take over, but to Tony’s surprise, the trickster then laughed loud and long, his voice rough as a raven's, like his laugh hadn’t seen proper use in a long, long while.

Tony swallowed tightly. That shouldn't make his breath catch, but as disastrously bad ideas went, this one, this trickster, was absolutely magnificent. There was so much wrong, so much hatred and so little mercy. It was like seeing a panther in the wild and being torn between sheer awe, and the general panic that comes from seeing just how big its claws and teeth really are. At the same time, the trickster god was cracked open, and it seemed like it might be easy to reach in and start figuring out how he really worked.

"Would you then seek to repair me?" the god mocked.

"No," Tony said, without hesitation. "No, not a chance."

At that, the trickster cocked his head a bit to one side, amused and genuinely intrigued. "Afraid?"

"Yeah, duh, but that's incidental."

"Then tell me."

"Tell you what?"

"And also why," he added, his focus entirely on the inventor now.

Tony had to think about it, proud that his hand didn't shake as he lifted his scotch to his lips again, draining most of it. "People are self-repairing in an evolutionary manner. Why would I try to fix you? I just keep wondering what you'll turn into next."

A low hum, almost a purr: thoughtful, as he looked Tony over head to toe appraisingly, his expression an unreadable mask. Some more sincere amusement returned to him. "I could kill you, from here. I'd not even need to touch you. I could poison you with a word, a gesture, and an effort of will."

"I got that impression, but what would be the point? I'm already dying of a different poison, and you’ll be out of your hell faster with my help than without."

A genuinely amused smirk, then. "I begin to think you almost like me."

Oh god, I do. Tony made a face. "You're interesting." His every muscle froze at the feel of those long, cold fingers trailing up from his collarbone, across his throat, to cup his jaw. He shuddered, and managed to stifle a slightly indecent noise, because it was like being molested by the physical embodiment of a terror-induced adrenaline rush in a manner that wasn't nearly as uncomfortable as it should've been. "Nice trick, for somebody half a universe away," he muttered, in a tone just a bit less steady than he’d been aiming for, as those fingers and their phantom touch retreated.

"And don't you wish I weren't," he said, with a slightly taunting lilt.

At that, despite the shiver that rolled down his spine and the disconcerting tingles of mixed fear and... not-fear, Tony narrowed his eyes in a glare. "Not a chance."

"Oh no?" Still light, almost playful, if not for the knife-edge smile and the sense of something crueler still beneath the surface. "Not even a little?"

"Not a bit." The inventor swallowed tightly. "I pulled up your file from S.H.I.E.L.D., since we last met."

The god laughed, low and careless, but his eyes remained fixed on the inventor, his focus unwavering now. "Didn't like what you found?"

"Well, as a general rule, leveling a small town and trying to murder one's brother and his friends is a bit sketchy, yeah."

And there it was, wasn't it? That briefly-restored amusement shattered entirely and all that was left was an animal in pain. Scorched and blackened anger, and hurt, sharp teeth bared in warning, those green eyes like crystalline poison. "You know nothing of what you speak."

"I know a bit." He went so far as to wink.

"That war-mongering idiot was too much a danger to himself and others, and they would have handed him a throne." He grinned widely. "Unlike you, who already had one, and look how well you did when you were so blissfully unaware of the horrors that you never paused to consider."

Tony winced, a flinty flash of his own anger--and since when was it still so easy as that to spark?--clawing its way back to the surface. "And what's your story, princess? At least when I set about putting a stop to my inventions, my responsibilities being used to fuel war machines, I didn't go out of my way to try and destroy innocent people that the war-mongers happened to be fond of just to rub further salt in their wounds. That’s both a bad PR move, and not a good way to retain power––not anymore than torture is a good way to get sincerity from someone. And I know you know that one." 

Again the trickster laughed, a flicker of surprise in his expression, but this time the sound was low and tenderly threatening: soft violence and bleak humor. "Oh, you're good."

Disturbingly, the inventor found himself smiling cold and sweet and horrible: showing a part of himself he hadn't quite known too well (or had failed to fully recognize, possibly accidental, likely not): strange and familiar. It was almost serene, this ruthlessness; then he realized that he hadn’t felt this since hatching his first round of survival plans in that damn cave. His smile sharpened just a little further at the thought, and he said, "You ain't seen nothin' yet, sweetheart."

There was a feverishly bright flash of something in the god's expression then, something raw and starved and heated--then he straightened, and took a very deliberate half-step back, hiding it all behind a cooler, more composed, close-lipped smile; although the look in his eyes was shrewd and openly suspicious. Nice try, was heavily implied by it.

The inventor was jarred by the sudden drop in tension, feeling a bit put out. I wasn't done, was his first thought, slightly petulant, followed shortly by a more suspicious: Did he do that on purpose? Did I just get played? But no, there was a wariness about the trickster that hadn't been there before--at least, not aimed at Tony.

"Do you then accept the terms of the proposed deal, Tony?"

He really had been thinking about it, before that--whatever had just happened for a few moments there. Life versus death, being sensible versus handing a trickster god access to a powerful alien artifact S.H.I.E.L.D. didn't want Tony to know they were messing with, doubtlessly because they wanted to weaponize it and knew he wouldn’t approve, and would probably find a way to make sure they couldn’t. It was that last part that cinched it really, as the god of lies doubtlessly knew it would. Fuck those guys. Fuck. Those. Guys. They deserve a trickster god of chaos sicced on them. "You help me fix this-" He tapped the circle of light on his chest. "-you don't hurt anyone of mine and you doubtlessly know just the people I mean, and you keep your mayhem off my planet."

Loki smiled again, wide and pretty and maddening: the sort of smile someone gives while making you somehow tighten your own thumbscrews, as he tells you how marvelous a job your doing, in tones dark and sweet as arsenic-laced molasses. "I can offer you the first two, but mayhem is not wholly within my means to control and you know it, my status as a chaos deity notwithstanding, particularly if I arrive suddenly on earth in the midst of a heavily militarized and well-armed facility, with intent to retrieve Odin's lost treasure from agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," he said, warm and charming.

Tony snorted. "That's an excuse."

"A fair one. You know mayhem will ensue. It’s inevitable."

"Still just an excuse," Tony muttered, now sizing the god up a bit. Think you could take him, Tony? No, not likely, especially not alone, sad to say, but with all of S.H.I.E.L.D. behind you, and Fury still daydreaming about a superhero top-secret boyband... maybe. Want to find out? Well now there is a bad idea, for you. The thought made his heart race, probably getting him just that little bit closer to death while he was still so chock-full of palladium. "Fine. The first three conditions obeing accepted, I propose a new fourth one: I get two copies and/or snapshots of every single S.H.I.E.L.D. file, program, or system you edit––one before you make any change or changes, one after you're done. I won’t undo any of the changes, but I’ll use that data however I please."

"Interesting," the trickster said. "I can agree to those terms."

"So can I."

"Then we have a deal," Loki said, an proffered his hand.

Tony shook it, finding the spectral contact to be a bit less freezing this time, though not quite warm. "I was right about the frozen hell, wasn't I?"

"You have no idea," the god deadpanned.

 

~~

 

Tony already knew his way around S.H.I.E.L.D.’s security. With the trickster over his shoulder, watching closely, he wondered just how good the guy––er, god––thought he was at this sort of thing. He didn’t get the feeling this archaic-seeming “mage” handled computer systems much; and yet...

"I can take it from here."

The inventor turned, intending to maintain an expression of aloof disbelief, and instead jumped slightly. The trickster's image was flickering in and out like a candle flame and his expression was one of intense focus, his mouth a thin, pale line. "Holy shit."

"I'm dividing my attention at present. If not for the seal I placed on you in that cave, I'd not be here at all."

"You sorta aren't here--wait you put a what on me?"

"I couldn't be bothered to pay attention to you all the bloody time. I forged something of a weak connection to you. Weak, but flexible enough to have a good deal of reach, apparently, for it stretched far indeed to reach me here. I do love when I find I’ve built better than I knew.” A strange grimace disrupted his mask for an instant. “In most cases." He reached out a ghostly hand and rested it in––quite literally: sinking in until his fingers went through and under the keys––the keyboard, then seemed to tweak something with the tiniest gesture. He cocked his head, curious despite the strain showing on his features. "The computing language you use is very similar to something developed in Babylon back when this world was more advanced in the magic department. They also used it for calculations, and manipulation of certain natural forces."

"Linux is like something Babylonian. You can't be serious. What sort of forces?"

"Weather, and the manipulation of manmade waterways. Natural waterways tend to be a bit more self-possessed, you see. Your artificial intelligence system, what was the name––JARVIS? Do start recording this, won’t you? Copies were requested."

“Recording now, sir.”

“My thanks.”

"You are fucking unreal." Tony's jaw then dropped as the screens in front of him began flying rapidly from window-to-window, program-to-program, pausing occasionally at password prompts, whereupon a small window would appear showing what looked like a view from the Matrix, but with Norse runes and other less identifiable squiggles rather than the usual jumble of numbers and more familiar characters. "What the hell are you even doing? How the shit––how––?"

"Shut up," Loki snapped, his voice low in the manner of someone trying very hard not to shout, his eyes falling shut and his head drooping forward a little. The flickering rapidity of action across the screen slowed a bit and while it wasn't audible––the bastard had pride, you had to give him that––Loki was visibly having a bit of difficulty breathing quite so slow and calm as he'd been managing to do before. He swore under his breath and for a moment flickered almost entirely out of view. Just before he faded out, his mask clearly cracked into an expression of agony and the beginnings of a scream.

"Loki? Shit. Can you even still hear...” A flicker of green and shadow. Tony blinked. “Problems back in the land of the physical, I take it?" Tony asked, managing not to sound half so unnerved as he felt. Then he winced sharply with a pained gasp as a freezing, vice-like and bruising grip seized his left forearm hard enough that he swore he could almost feel his bones creak. “Jesus fuck––OW.

It took a few seconds for Loki's gripping hand, and most of the rest of his form, to become visible again, as he seemed to regain a little more focus. He looked more gaunt for the effort, and went straight through from pale to nearly-ice-blue. His touch was painfully icy, even through Tony's shirt-sleeve. "Please, do shut up. I have enough trouble keeping them out of my head with only one distraction at a time, let alone two: yourself and these machines."

Belatedly, Tony glanced at his computer screens, and let out a low whistle at the apparent progress. "You're still quick, though, focus notwithstanding."

"I've had time to plan," Loki said, his voice a rasp. "Much time. Enough to craft several viral language-cracking spells, key-anticipatory and adaptive. The third worked."

Tony shivered a little. "I noticed you seem to be more prepared than the average boyscout. You're not gonna explain what just happened are you?"

"Not a chance."

"I figured. You might've mentioned you were being tortured."

"It makes me no less a villain and a liar. Pardon me for making the mistake of thinking you above such easily-manipulated sympathy."

The inventor considered. "You know, you have a point. I'd have suspected you of playing to my own experience, and probably lying."

"I had thought so."

"Why? You hardly know me."

"Your thought-patterns are similar to another's I've gotten to know quite well in the past."

"A god's?"

"A god's," the trickster concurred, his tone entirely lacking inflection, and his expression a careful blank.

"Can I have my arm back?"

Glancing down quickly, the god of chaos absently let him go and returned his attention to the monitors, which he began manipulating more normally, with a flick of fingers across the touch-screen, moving things about with apparent ease. His illusion-self’s intermittent abilities to affect things physically was increasingly impressive. "It's good to see so many of the old code-cracking tricks still work, even on systems so much more advanced than Babylon."

"Any other civilizations here on earth with early computing languages and presumably mechanical or magical means to use them I might not know about?"

"One or two, yes. Of course, there was not a one left after the Celestials' last visit right around the time Babylon fell."

"Wait, the what?"

"It's a very long story. They created most all sentient races in the nine realms and many other worlds throughout this galaxy, and possibly others. It's to do with their children, you see," Loki murmured, eyes scanning the screen. “And those races they did not make themselves, they still do meddle with and develop a little.”

Tony kept staring at him, not even glancing at the graceful pale hand moving over his multi-touch display panels. "You've got blood running down your face."

"You have a hole in your chest."

The inventor blinked. "Well. Yeah."

"Sorry, I thought we were making observations on the staggeringly obvious."

"Fuck you, too."

"I'm hardly in the mood. Aha!" Loki then smiled suddenly, something pale blue on the screen right in front of him making his smile look impossibly whiter, and his eyes both brighter and more empty. "There you are, my friend," he said softly, almost reverently, clearly not talking to Tony.

The inventor turned his head to look at the screen, seeing the glowing blue cube displayed on it, and raised his eyebrows. "That's new. What is-" He stopped, as Loki flicked his fingers and one of the other displays shifted closer to him, catching his attention. The screen showed notes his father had taken from studying the weird blue cube, what the organization Hydra had been using it for, and the staggering destructiveness of weapons created from it. "S.H.I.E.L.D. is screwing with this?

"Oh, they have only just remembered it. My brother's visit has been of interest to many smaller departments and groups within S.H.I.E.L.D., and they've gotten quite interested in this little artifact again, all of a sudden. Their own scientists are fairly talented, enough that their experiments upon it have created sufficient ripple-effects in every direction through a few different dimensions. That has been enough to get the attention of people far off who make a living off rare finds like potential sources of unlimited power and potential energy. They've been talking about it too, and that talk now gets attention all over the place from even more dangerous persons. There are worse and more terrible things out there than a few mere gods, I'll have you know."

"No offense, but I'd already gotten that impression." He scanned Loki up and down pointedly.

The trickster's eyes narrowed as he shot the inventor a withering glare, but his voice was fairly light as he responded, "I suppose that's fair."

“Yyyep.” A few minutes passed in oddly comfortable silence as they both sifted through vast amounts of data. “Oh, did you ever find out how I did that trail-blazing thing with that piece of... Well, did you find out what it was, either, for that matter?”

Loki cleared his throat. “I have a few theories. Two dull, one disturbing. I’ve not had time to collect much further evidence, as I’m sure you understand.” He changed tones a bit, sounding more airy and casual, “Unrelated: your father was a good friend of one Nicholas Fury, did you know?”

Tony twitched, jarred a bit by the change in tone and subject matter alike. “What?”

“He was a founding member of the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization, according to some interesting information Director Fury has been revisiting, pulling from very old archives. There is a box of your father’s possessions in his keeping, which he has mentioned to an old friend within hearing of a monitoring apparatus he must not have been aware of––recently installed.” Loki shuffled through a bit more information. “He’s also interested in the effects of palladium poisoning all of a sudden. He’s had S.H.I.E.L.D. chemists work on something to abate the symptoms. He knows more than he’s letting––” Loki halted on an old photograph, one of a large diorama of the 1972 Stark expo. He cocked his head slightly to one side, something like recognition flickering in his eyes. “Interesting. Oh, interesting, no wonder you couldn’t work it out. It’s not been discovered on this planet yet, for him to leave––well, it’s not been discovered in practice rather than theory.” He waved a hand vaguely.

“What?”

“You need supplies,” Loki said flatly, snapping his fingers. He summoned an illusion: a face-sized sphere, semi-transparent, with layers of other smaller spheres within it. Slowly, the layers began to thin in places, grow denser in others.

Tony was staring at the illusion. “JARVIS? Scan that. Model it. Take it apart.”

“Yes, sir.”

By the time Loki’s illusion was complete, and the atomic structure clear as day to the mad inventor’s eye, Tony was on his feet, staring at it with rapt intensity.

“He’s right, Mr. Stark. The element he’s modeled does not match any known material on earth. It is entirely new,” JARVIS observed.

“Not entirely,” Loki all but whispered, low and thoughtful, an odd faraway expression on his face.

“Also, it would be capable of serving the same purpose as a palladium core, without the ill-effects on your health. It is, however, impossible to synthesize.”

The devil and the faustian inventor looked up in unison, meeting each other’s stare on the way back down. They smiled terrifying smiles at a another.

“You know what you have to do, I take it, Mr. Stark.”

“Tony.”

The god rolled his eyes.

“I do.” Tony waved in JARVIS’ direction. “3-D model, identical structure, now.” His lazily gesturing hand turned palm expectantly up, without glancing away from Loki’s end of the bargain, just in time for the requested projection to appear, cradled by his fingertips. He held it up beside the original. “I’ll need to put holes in a few walls.”

Loki smirked a little. “I daresay you will.”

Glancing up at his expression, a bit surprised by the genuine cerebral thrill of brilliant brain-storming he saw there, and how distinctly un-calculated the trickster’s expression was in those few moments, Tony couldn’t help but muse, “You know, I’m starting to think you almost like me, Loki."

The god of mischief hummed thoughtfully. “As much as one can like an enemy.”

“We don’t have to be enemies.”

“We will be,” Loki said, his expression smooth and unreadable, and his voice again devoid of inflection. It was impossible to tell whether he thought positively or negatively on the matter.

“This is going to blow up in my face, isn’t it?”

Loki only smirked, but didn’t look like he disagreed in the least. “Your model is accurate.” He vanished his own, meeting the inventor’s gaze steadily. “I must ask: why do you feign for them? I can’t help but wonder.”

“Feign?”

“You don’t care that you’ve killed so many. You care that it wasn’t done properly, or at all cleanly.” He tilted his head, just slightly.

“What would you know about it?”

“I nearly destroyed a planet.”

Tony blinked at that. “Nearly?”

“I was interrupted by my brother’s sympathetic nature.”

“I take it there were plenty of people there?”

“Every one of them with a hatred for Asgard. And my brother provoked them, inciting another war, destroyed a carefully arranged peace with his stubborn pride beyond my abilities to reign him in, and overturned a cauldron-full of boiling resentment by being utterly tactless and stupid. They wanted war, because the last time, we won, and left them with nothing but their ice for company. We stripped them of their greatest advancements, and I believe those who knew the secrets of designing and building them were...dealt with, in some way, for little was rebuilt in all the time since then. We rendered their civilization toothless and not in over a millennia have they recovered from it.” A crooked smile. “In their place, do you not think only insatiable rage would grow within their hearts?”

“Sounds a bit like how our second World War started, yeah.” Tony considered. “So you decided to take them all out in one fell swoop.”

“I believe you once gave credence to a similar concept: a weapon that need only be fired the once.” His eyes narrowed. “And your newest weapons: are they half so efficient?”

Tony gave a thoughtful hum. “No offense, but taking them out in one single shot doesn’t leave much room for finesse. It’s a childish fear-reaction: too simple, really. ‘Oh, just make it go away.’” He raised an eyebrow pointedly. “Yeah, sure. Make them go away. Don’t face them, don’t cope with them as deserving life just as much you and yours, despite their being your enemy.” He shrugged. “I look at my enemies and I see myself, and there’s just some shit I won’t subject them to.” He tapped at the arc reactor absently, rather than deliberately, stopping as soon as he noticed himself doing it.

“And yet you then shoot at them from within your armor?”

“Well, I don’t like myself much.” His self-deprecating grin was all too sincere.

Loki crossed his arms over his chest. “Hmm.”

“What?”

“You say that, but you’re more fond of me than you’ll admit.” His smile was unkind, and brittle. “We are... not dissimilar, in numerous ways.”

“Yeah, I noticed. You’re practically a walking embodiment of every bad idea I’ve ever had that didn’t involve alcohol, and some of the ones that did,” Tony said blithely. “I like bad ideas and I’m addicted to all my faults. You work it out.”

“And you live in constant fear that those closest to you will work out just how shy of the mark you fall where precious ‘humanity’ is concerned,” Loki mused.

The inventor winced, eyes narrowing, but said nothing.

“You walk a fine line between being vital to your world, and being outcast from it. How long before you build them up so far, make them just self-sufficient enough, that their love won’t be enough to counter-balance fear of what they can never understand, fear of the unknown future you’re propelling them toward––far from their comfort zones, and all of those boring, familiar things, so that they have to unlearn and relearn constantly to keep up with your advances until they simply can’t and give up, or else they resent you and struggle to drag you backwards and down into their duller, more primitive existence with righteous fervor? How long before you reach the top of that hill, and the weight of the world you’ve pushed toward that pinnacle rolls backwards and flattens you?”

For a long few moments, Tony stared, his own expression tight with anger, but otherwise reserved. There was a wealth of pain visible in his eyes, and more than enough ferocity and stubbornness to endure it, conquer it. “Is there a point to this?”

“That we needn’t be enemies,” Loki said, with a mocking quicksilver smile. “Not if you aren’t playing hero, Tony.”

Heart pounding, Tony was forced to consider. And he did. Because he had to admit the trickster had a few good points there. Then he smiled thinly, sharper than an obsidian scalpel and just as elegant, just as precise. “That might’ve happened to you, with some of yours, but I’ve got a time limit you don’t. I can time it so that when I do finally die, it’ll be explosive enough to send that boulder up further, to land wherever I damn well want it aimed.” He shrugged. “Unless I manage to crack the key to immortality along the way somewhere, but I’ll cross that bridge if and when I come to it. Promise you’ll be waiting for me, so we can watch the show as it all burns down?”

There was that flash of something again: mixed disbelief, distrust, and something more vulnerable, something torn and hungry. “Mayhap I will be,” he said, and it might have been as much threat as promise.

“About that: you mentioned they’re trying to get in your head. Why?”

“I’m a valuable commodity; given my prior experience with the tesseract and my connection to it as a prince of Asgard, I can wield it even from a great distance, as no others within this region of space can.”

“You think you can keep them out long enough?”

“The leader of the Chitauri imagines that his mages might unmake me,” Loki said, quietly snarling amusement in every syllable. “I’ve already been unmaking myself for ages now, and I saw far worse in my fall from Asgard than they could ever inflict upon my scarred psyche. Your concern, however, is touching.”

“I just want to know for sure that when you come back, it’ll at least be you. I prefer the devil I know, y’know?”

Loki bowed his head a little. “Goodnight, Tony.”

“Good luck plotting the demise of everyone around you in whatever frozen hell you’re in,” Tony countered. “If you blow them all up, I’ll owe you a drink.”

A faint, bleakly amused smile tugged at Loki’s mouth just before he vanished altogether.

Tony slowly exhaled a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding, shaking a little with the shocks of adrenaline pumping through him as tension left his muscles. He knew he should feel guilty for quite how easily the god could affect him, distract his attention and make him think of––things other than Pepper, for instance. It wasn’t fair, given he was this close to telling her that he’d been in love with her for ages and needed her like he needed breathing.

Loki wasn’t the sort anyone might really need, Tony thought. Loki was more of a walking disaster.

There was just something a bit too thrilling about getting close to something so ferocious, so bone-chilling and powerful and dangerously shattered. It left him chilled and nearly shaking like a particularly good time spent in the suit--funny how both examples tended to involve Tony almost getting himself killed.

Loki had a lot of everything, essentially, that he knew Pepper didn’t like about a certain Tony Stark: everything he kept under the surface, kept away from her, because Pepper was good, really truly good, and loved him anyway, and that was enough to take his breath away just thinking about. And she was sensible, practical, cautious, tactful, and without her in his life Tony suspected he’d be dead in a week.

And now, thanks to Loki the god of lies, he had more than a week left of life to look forward to. How fucked up was that?

“JARVIS? Get a list together. Time to do some hasty renovations,” Tony heard himself saying, as he contemplated the angel who kept him going, and the devil who reminded him that he’d always been faithless, and offered to make room for him down in some strange hell of his––or their––own making. It’s a good thing I never had religion, he thought. This bullshit alone is more than enough moral conflict than I’ve ever needed in my life.

 

~~

 

By the time Pepper found him at around ten o’clock the next morning, he’d already knocked out a few sections of wall and floor at various points throughout the house, and was halfway through constructing the particle-accelerator he’d need to make his life-saving new element. Pepper was a bit distressed by all of this.

“Tony––you, what the hell are you doing?”

“To be fair, knowing me, and being sufficiently––fully, in fact––sober at the moment to know this, I’m pretty sure the repairs for this will still cost significantly less that the ones we’d probably have needed if I hadn’t cancelled the party.”

“You have a whole R&D department-”

“Yeah, with the rest of the R&D team insisting that taking a sledgehammer to an inconvenient wall is unprofessional or something. Hand me that level, will you?”

She did, without giving it much thought, but her stare was stony, and her voice was flat and unamused. “Tony.”

“Just a bit––” He turned, looking around, picked up a half-disarranged circle of red white and blue, and shoved it under the segment he was working on. He measured again. “Yes. Perfectly level.”

Tony.”

He looked up then, with an innocently curious expression. “Yeah?”

“What is this?”

“Oh. Just something I’m building to prevent myself dying of heavy-metal poisoning within the next few days. Also, I found out dear ol’ dad was buddies with the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., did you know? You’d think he’d be nicer to me.”

“Keep you from––” She gaped at him. “Is this––oh my god, this is what the omelette was about. And Italy and the company and––you are out of your mind, Tony!

“I know, I’m sorry about that, mostly, when I’m not being proud of how brilliant some of my insanity is, but I’m willing to get better if you’ll help me a bit, we can work on a few subtle cues-”

Subtle doesn’t cut it with you. Will you put that wrench down for a fucking second?” she snapped, finally just edging into beyond-pissed-off territory.

He did, and settled his hands over it where it rested on the unfinished machine currently between them. “Yes?”

She stared at him, her face and eyes both red as she looked torn between scratching his eyes out, or breaking him with a word the way she was slowly realizing that she could, or just collapsing on the floor in a heap. “You can’t do this to me, Tony,” she said, in brittle but steely tones. “You can’t. I’ll just––I can’t do this,” she said, sharply, tears fell, but her anger only increased. “I should hurt you, but I can’t do that either.”

Tony dropped down, slid under the heavy machinery in the way, and stood up on the other side, reaching for her arm, not gripping tightly, just resting his hand there, so she could pull away and slap him if she wanted to. He knew he’d deserve it. “Pepper, please, I-”

She hissed, “I’m not––I’ve tried to tell you that you mean something to me, but you do these things-” Cutting off, she moved to pull away but hesitated when Tony moved with her, his hand still just touching, pleading, letting her pull away so he was left  cupping her wrist: not quite letting go, not restraining her either.

“Listen. Please,” he said, quiet and just stilted enough to give away his unease, and how much effort it took to get the words out, “I just got to the point, right here, right now, that I’m not afraid to tell you I’m in love with you, because I knew it would only hurt you worse when I died if I did. I’m––I’m sorry. Please give me a chance to prove I’m maybe not quite as much an asshole as I am a genius.”

“But you are,” she said, automatically, but when his brow furrowed she gripped his hand tightly. “You’re an ass. And you’d be lost without me.” She stepped just a little closer. “And I need you, too. Without you, I’d have nothing.”

“You’d have Stark Industries.”

“I’d have your father’s company and your inventions, but without you they’re all dull, do you realize that?”

“That’s a new take on it. I thought they were what made me interesting, and made my personality flaws more tolerable.”

“Well, maybe JARVIS does that second part.”

“Hey.”

“Tony, I think you owe me sooo much right now. How could you hide that you were dying from not just me, but everyone! Because Happy or Rhodey would’ve had the sense to tell me, and we could’ve helped with-”

“Hey,” Tony said, a little more gently.

“What?” she snapped.

“Want to help me synthesize a new element no human’s ever managed to make or even lay eyes on before, at least here on earth?”

Pepper blinked, wiping at her eyes a bit. “And that’ll save you? Tony, what’s been going on? Tell me. Explain, with words.”

He pulled her hand down to rest over the arc reactor. “Palladium core. Guess what metal I have way too much of in my bloodstream right now?”

She swallowed tightly. “My god.”

Tony rested his forehead against hers. “I finally have something to replace the palladium with, that will work.”

“You discovered a new element.”

“Ah, well.” He made a face. “Not quite, but close enough, because I’ll still be first to make it. Someone beat me to the discovering bit.” He fumbled for an excuse, and promptly made one up. “Dad worked it out first, the bastard,” he said, sounding torn between resentment and reluctant appreciation. It was easy to fake; he did it in speeches and interviews all the time.

“Pardon me for not resenting him beating you to it.”

Tony smiled a bit, very faintly. “Just don’t thank him or any-” He fell quiet as she pulled him down into a kiss and––oh, she was just lovely. She tasted like apricot, white wine and a bit like that lavender-laced Earl Grey tea she was so fond of, and like warm and human and Pepper, yes, god I love you.

Then she pulled back. “You taste like tin and burnt teflon. We really need to fix that, Tony.”

He laughed, because what else could he possibly do? “Help me?”

“Where do I start, Mr. Stark?” she asked, in her most subtly assertive, professional, and business-like voice, and if she kept using it like that with her mouth close to his and that teasing half-smile, all future business dealings were going to become a lot more fun, or a lot more awkward, or both. Probably both.

“I love you,” he said, quiet because the words were intense enough they might break something in him if he tried to be any louder.

“Love you too. Now fix it so I get to keep you longer. Come on.”

He smiled, and obediently explained to her the next fifteen things on his list, as he gave her an overview of the machinery involved. She kept up, as she always did, and mocked him, and sassed him, and generally warmed him right through.

You’re going to live, he thought. You got another chance. Don’t fuck up. Don’t fuck up. Don’t fuck up, Tony Stark.

Chapter Text

Chaos still ensued even after Tony fixed the matter of his own slow death by metal poisoning, but how was he supposed to know Vanko wasn’t really dead? Or that trying to transport his armor cross-country would get the Mark II confiscated by a mercenary group operating in the quasi-legal realm between government-owned military-industrial complex, and the sort of mercenary groups like Blackwater/Academi who seemed to still be kicking around, such that they were able to fork it over to the military with only Rhodey’s quick-thinking and unique Stark-related qualifications (also a burlap sack and a good poker face) keeping the arc-reactor in it from getting into the wrong hands too.
Not that Tony didn’t wonder if Rhodey getting the Hammer Industries-pimped War Machine armor (which it took him a few months to hand back over willingly, and only because Tony promised to upgrade it) hadn’t been a major motivator for all that.

After the final Vanko incident setting fire to a good portion of the Stark Expo, things almost sort of quieted––insofar as anything in the average day-to-day life of Tony mother-fucking Stark could ever be considered relatively quiet.

 

~~

 

Seven, almost eight months passed, during which Tony Stark managed not to fuck up too much, or too badly, so far as he could tell. He built a tower and powered it with arc-reactor-based technology so brilliant he felt almost blinded by it. He was still in a mostly-steady relationship and the monogamy thing wasn’t nearly as hard as he’d expected. He hadn’t gone on any major chaotic drinking binges in at least––well, three months if that incident in Bangladesh counted, but really, Rhodey had dared him, and he knew the risks involved in doing something like that.

And so, freshly returned from successful installation of his tech, with his tower alight brighter than Christmas, Pepper mocking him and calling him on his bullshit, and the night looking like it was going very well, Agent Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D. was one of the last people on earth whom he didn’t actually hate, but whom he still did not want to see, or even hear from, until at least noon two days from this glowing moment of pure awesome.

Coulson still barged in anyway.

It went downhill from there. 12% of a moment, indeed.

Tony just counted himself lucky that he had been too busy lamenting the loss of said moment and looking at the other displays to quite notice the most vital one right at his elbow until both Coulson (first name: Agent. No question.) and Pepper had their backs to him. Then he did look, and suddenly all the lingering euphoria and petulance drained out of him in favor of mixed anger, panic, and shell-shock. He stared at Loki’s image on the screen, the basic intro information about the tesseract that he already knew because of Loki, and the body count so far associated with Loki’s arrival at, and escape from, one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s more ground-based HQs.

“You. Complete. Asshole,” he bit out, through clenched teeth, and for the life of him, he couldn’t work out if he’d aimed it more at the god of mischief, or at himself. Then a faint whooshing sound and a flash of blue-white light to his right, too nearby, made him stand very still.

“I believe humanity has a parable suited to this, on the subject of scorpions,” said a slightly rasping voice from the general direction of the bar. “And while I’ve not blown up any from that frozen hell just yet, I would still greatly appreciate a drink, if you’re feeling hospitable.”

“You’re back from hell for two days and rack up a body count of over 50,” Tony observed coldly. “You’re overstepping from mischief into mayhem quite a lot.”

“It’s my nature to overstep. I’m sure you, of all people, understand.”

The inventor lifted his gaze and turned slowly to face the god sitting at his bar.

Just like in the last bits of security footage from the base he destroyed, Loki looked even worse than the last time they’d met. He looked haggard, the circles about his eyes so dark they looked deeply bruised, his lips dry and cracked, and amusement nowhere in his expression: only cool appraisal. “You look well,” the god mused.

“I’d say I wish I could say the same, but I’m still getting past the initial reaction of being extremely pissed off to the point my vision is almost blurry.”

“If it helps, the energy released by the tesseract upon my arrival would have leveled more than that single base had it been in any of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s other secure locations,” Loki said, and shrugged. “I took the utilitarian route. Only perhaps a dozen in that body count were killed by hand.”

“On an unrelated note, Fury delivered my dad’s stuff here, and I took a good look through it. You realized he’d left me a map of the element I needed for the reactor core with that diorama, you son of a bitch,” he said, with less genuine heat.

“Trickster,” Loki reminded.

“Yeah. I know. I was irritated, but not surprised.” Tony folded his hands behind his back, slowly approaching the god of mischief. “Nice glowstick. What’s it for?”

“Oh, this and that.”

“You can teleport. Why not teleport out of that base?”

“I needed personnel.”

“You couldn’t take them with you?”

The god looked amused. “Your observational skills are refreshing.”

“You look like shit.”

“I never said your vocabulary was equally charming. With reason.” Loki stared at him hard for a few moments. “No drink, then?”

“I don’t know. How much like my enemy are you feeling at the moment?”

The trickster considered. “Just enough that I trust your good sense not to attempt to poison me. For the moment, that’s all I care for.”

“And?”

“Pardon?”

“You’re not here just for a drink. What do you want this time?” Tony asked; although he still then rounded the bar as he did so, and proceeded to rummage about behind it.

Loki turned to follow him with his gaze, his expression still a mask. “Some of my magic lingers about your person. I’m here to retrieve it.”

“Not keeping an ear out for me anymore? I’m hurt.”

“I need all of the reserves I can get, at this point. I’ve run out.”

Tony froze just before pouring scotch over ice. “That can happen, then?”

“Yes. I require time to recover, but reclaiming old spells can expedite that process to a respectable extent.”

“What took it?” He poured the drink, and passed it over.

“Three guesses, first two don’t count,” Loki muttered. Seeing Tony’s flicker of understanding (lacking pity, or even sympathy: just practical, shrewd assessment) he continued, “I had run out of other gambits by which to actually convince them that they had broken me.” He shrugged stiffly and took a long sip of the scotch. “This is pretty good.”

“Thanks. And yeah, you seem to get a kick out of being underestimated. This isn’t a just a jailbreak, though. Not if you needed personnel.”

“In the morning, I will be your enemy, Mr. Stark. For the moment, pardon me for not wishing to kill the only person I’ve conversed with in the past year capable of keeping up with me in a battle of wits.” He shot the inventor a cold look. “Although I did hope you might have the sense to give the heroics a rest.”

“What do you have against heroes anyway?”

“Aside from Thor still being hailed as one?” Loki snorted. “Heroes of his sort, and to an only slightly lesser extent, yours too, pursue some of the most futile and optimistic goals. It’s not loathing, really; it’s exasperation.” He said that, but there was a bitter poison in his stare: a lingering resentment.

Tony considered. “You used to be one.”

“Trickster. Hardly.”

“Stylistic differences aside, you performed heroic acts, you helped people on occasion, particularly kids now and then from what I’ve read, and you’re selfish and an ass, but you solved problems no one else could. Right?”

Loki shook his head. “I’m tiring of this already.”

“It’s not suggesting in the least that you’re a better person because of it or anything. You didn’t do it because you wanted to be good; I do get that.”

The trickster glanced at him sharply.

“You wanted the attention, you wanted to show off, you enjoyed manipulating people, and it was an area of expertise you’d always be able to trump Thor at effortlessly, which for you, had to be quite a boon.”

“Is this going to wander into Freudian territory?”

“How do you know Freud?”

“I’ve been sifting through the minds of my new personnel, of recent.”

It occurred to Tony to glance at the scepter. “They gave you a substitute for your magic once they thought you were broken enough. They think you’re working for them.” He turned back to Loki. “What do they want?”

“The same as S.H.I.E.L.D., the same as you, and the same as Asgard once Heimdall gets around to sharing the news of my return,” Loki chimed, his smile vicious. “They all want the shiny little bauble they think themselves capable of exploiting.”

“They’re capable of exploiting it: not just Asgard and your spear-providers.”

“For weapons, perhaps. Rather dull, if you ask me. Predictable.”

“For you. I’d have to fucking live with it,” Tony snapped.

Loki observed him with a little more interest. “As would I. If humanity keeps the tesseract, what do you think will happen to my dear self?” He smiled horribly. “I’m not keen to hand it over to any of you. Not in the least.”

“But to them?”

The god made a noncommittal noise as he drained his glass.

Tony felt the urge to punch him, but decided against it. One of the first traits listed in Loki’s file, which he’d caught before the god of lies arrived, had been new to Tony: bulletproof. And if bullets couldn’t do much to harm that pretty face, the mad inventor was sure that his fist wouldn’t––not without the suit, in any case. Really should finish work on the Mark VII.

“No more attempts to lure me out of the dark up your sleeve?” Loki drawled, shooting him an unimpressed look. “Really, I expected better of you.”

“I can’t say the same, I guess. I knew this would blow up in my face eventually; you’d never have agreed to the deal otherwise. And I sure as hell can’t say you didn’t warn me.” Tony held up the bottle: an offer for a refill.

Loki nodded and pushed his glass back Tony’s way. “If you don’t mind.”

Filling first Loki’s glass, then a second for himself, the inventor examined the source of his anger. “Hah. I figured out why I’m pissed off at you.”

“Hm?”

“I like you. And we’re going to have to kick your lily white ass. Maybe even kill you. If we kill you, and we’ll probably try, I won’t have any interesting gods to torment down here, anymore.”

Loki gave an amused snort and raised his glass in a toast. “I’d only be disappointed in you if you made no such attempt.”

Tony met the god’s glass with his own, the gentle chime of fine glass oddly light-hearted in sound compared to the subject matter of their conversation. After they drank, he said, “I haven’t made a toast to a war starting since I left that damn cave, you know.”

The trickster smiled crookedly, and a bit smugly. It looked unfairly good on him. “I had a feeling.”

“Ever wish we’d met under different circumstances?” The question left him without his permission and Tony wanted to bite through his tongue for the slip.

Loki’s eyebrows raised as he held the mad inventor’s stare steadily. “Yes.”

Shit. So many bad ideas. Before he could look away, Loki caught his attention again by asking, “How is it suiting you, being human for the sake of others?”

“How’d it suit you being Thor’s conscience for a few thousand years?”

The god of mischief actually almost choked on his drink. He set the glass aside, laughing helplessly, even as his hand left his glass to rest at his lower back, which was clearly a problem area: injured recently. The trickster’s laugh was loud, brash and had a slight near-hysterical edge to go with how crazy and damaged he looked fresh out of hell, but it was sincere, off-guard, and shook his whole body with it, and his cracked smile looked more whole, and more lovely, just for those few moments.

Tony swallowed thickly. He’d thought the tall, dark and dangerous quality had been his biggest weakness where Loki was concerned, but no, no. It was this. Laughter suited him, particularly this half-shocked, slightly mischief-laced laugh. He’d been pretty, even gorgeous before, but this––this was unfairly breathtaking. No self-acclaimed villain, not evil-doer and enemy of his, should be able to laugh like that, and look beautiful even with the psychopathy still showing around the edges.

Loki wiped at the corner of one eye as he recovered himself. “Ha. You caught me entirely off-guard with that, Tony. Bravo.”

And he should not, not feel a bit warmed to be called that again. Tony, what the fuck is wrong with you? Over seven months you’ve been doing fine on the monogamy front, and the temptation to indulge hasn’t registered at all for the past four until seriously now, of all times? At the same time, the inventor wasn’t as surprised as he thought maybe he should be. He’d known this one was a problem from the start. “What’s so funny?”

“I’ve been called many things over the millennia. Innumerable, really. But never has any individual ever suggested I might qualify as anyone’s conscience.”

“Well, you did mention trying to reign him in a bit where war-like actions were concerned. That and a number of other little things––well, I just get the feeling this is the first war you’ve actively planned on starting.”

Loki stilled, staring, wary and a little disconcerted.

The inventor grinned. “Thought so.”

Opening his mouth, the god of lies, Loki Silver-tongue, hesitated, and shut it again, then finished the rest of his drink in two quick swallows, and set the glass down. “You, are a greater weapon than anything you’ve ever designed,” he said, colder than dry ice and about as potentially damaging. It threatened to cause frostbite.

Tony’s brow furrowed, not sure he could work out how that transition had just happened: from warm laugh, to glacial terseness. It didn’t quite compute, but then, he’d known Loki was off his rocker from the start, and his insanity had only seemed to snowball from there as time went on. Sincerely confused, Tony asked, “Um. What?”

The trickster momentarily shot him a look of blatant disbelief, then slowly shook his head. “You are maddening, do you know this?”

“I’ve been told. What’d I do this time?”

Loki pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger and took a slow, deep breath. “Forget it. Consider it to be from the intergalactic portal-jumping equivalent of... jet-lag, I think is the term?” He rose to his feet. “If I may ask, can you come here, please? I can remove the seal I’ve left on you.”

Hesitantly, Tony circled the bar and came to stand before the god of mischief. “Is this going to sting?” He tried and failed not to think about how this was the closest he’d ever been to the trickster, and only the first time touch between them had been––well, invited.

“No.” Loki reached out and touched two fingers to the human’s chest just below the dip of his collarbones and sucked in a breath.

The inventor shivered and for a moment the world went a bit technicolor and he could see––for the first time outside the cave, and several dreams he’d had over the years about that incident with the not-exploded alien artifact in his lab––those damn strings again. Before he could stop himself he gripped Loki’s wrist and asked sharply, “What’s the connection between your magic and these strings?” He gestured with his free hand, reaching out for the things this time, feeling a faint hum where his fingers passed through them, just before they faded. Huh. He’d never actually tried to touch them before; they were usually more out of reach.

The trickster looked taken aback. “You can see them?”

“Intermittently. Not all the time. Ever since the whole...” He gestured vaguely. “Well, the trail-blazing incident that did a lot of damage to my lab and got your attention the first time around.”

“Intermittently?”

“Well. Whenever I’ve seen you do magic, I’ve seen them. And during or shortly after particular dreams.” He didn’t mention that over time the vague dreams had come to include the god of mischief in them, falling with that cloud of shattered, iridescent glass-like shards of––of whatever had not-exploded in his lab that one time. “Like the one... the dream you said sounded a little prophetic, for example.”

“I never asked: what did that material you experimented on look like?”

“Crystalline, but also slightly fibrous, jagged edges that looked like they’d been scorched or melted so they weren’t razor-sharp, iridescent and glowing a bit. It flickered like a particularly communicative cuttlefish between shades of yellow, blue, gold-red, pink, and and pale green. It was an almost opalescent effect, in fact, and why are you looking at me like that?”

For a moment, Loki wore an expression that could only be described as poleaxed. “Has any more of this material ever been found?” He sounded almost a bit strangled. It was worrisome.

“A bit, here and there, but the other specimens have had a weird tendency to spontaneously jump a bit forward or backward in time, relative position in space, or both, to an irritating degree until no one could find them. They stopped appearing altogether about four months ago.”

The god of mischief was staring at him very hard. “And you destroyed one of them?”

“Sort of. Accidentally.” Tony’s eyebrows raised slowly. “You’ve finally worked out what they are, haven’t you? Well, were? Hard to get your tenses right with material like that.”

“It was a shard of the rainbow bridge,” Loki said tonelessly. “No wonder you created such drastic...” He trailed off, eyes narrowed in almost exasperated bemusement, edged in disbelief. “How you survived it, with your mind intact, I may never understand.”

“Wait, rainbow bridge? The one from the file?”

“I broke it shortly before I fell.”

“Well, yeah, but you didn’t do that until months after I was in the cave with-” He stopped, palm slapping dryly against his forehead with his free hand; subconsciously, his other hand had curled around Loki’s wrist a bit more gently, thumb now absently trailing across the narrow strip of tender skin of the inside of the god’s wrist, barely left exposed by sleeves and gauntlets, as he spoke. “Time distortion. What the hell happened when that thing shattered? What did you even fall into that-”

“None of your business,” Loki snapped abruptly, and his expression darkened again as he abruptly tugged free of Tony’s grasp.

The inventor was disturbed a little by the way he halfway reached-out before he could catch himself, and let his hand drop with exaggerated carelessness as soon as he noticed it.

The trickster then took a slow, deep breath, pulling his composure back together with an unusually visible effort, like he couldn’t altogether hide his consternation, or his somewhat inexplicable (when Tony thought about it later) desire to restrain it. “You no longer bear any traces of my magic. Consider our prior connections dissolved, if you wish.”

“Why would I? So far you’re probably my favorite villain, if that’s still what you plan to be,” Tony said.

Loki shot him a glare. “Pardon?”

“You think I’d have a drink with any of the others, if I could help it?” The inventor shook his head. “No way in hell.”

The god of mischief shook his head. “This will not make me easier to fight.”

“It won’t make it too much harder, either. You know my policy, where enemies are concerned, Loki.”

“Even now?”

“Yep. And I maintain: you’re so far my favorite. Your body count over just the past few years is almost on par with mine, even.”

With a reluctant half-smile, Loki stepped back. “Goodnight, Tony Stark. And good hunting.” His smile widened, then, showing teeth.

Tony matched it. “I won’t hold back.”

“I would only be let down if you did.” Then the glow of the scepter increased, forming something like a focused whirlwind of light around him, engulfing him for a moment. When it spun out, shrank, and faded, the god was gone.

The inventor ran both hands over his face, trying to make them stop shaking suddenly. He was angry at himself, and at the god of fucking mischief, and at the way he’d wanted to reach out again, and touch Loki again, just to see if something might happen. There are bad ideas, Tony, and there are outright suicidal ones that will hurt people you love. Draw the line somewhere, holy shit, man. The thought savored strongly of bitterness, and a bit of self-loathing. Shouldn’t want––the thought got no farther. He couldn’t even work out what he wanted: whether it was a fight, or something requiring no weapons or even clothing but probably still just as violent. Then the guilt hit; because Pepper, and because Loki being fucking insane and out to screw over possibly the whole planet. Tony groaned, exasperated with himself. “Fuck. Just... fuck.”

 

~~

 

Tony Stark spent several hours pouring over the information Coulson had brought for him. He skimmed Thor’s and Loki’s files, but they were more than a little familiar. So was all the documentation on the tesseract, except for some of Selvig’s newer, more classified notes about what sort of experimental proddings upon the thing he’d been at lately, which was enlightening; they showed the scientist had some minor obsession with the tesseract’s being a portal to the other end of... well, wherever Loki had made his glorious return from. Then he reviewed the footage from Loki’s arrival via tesseract. Like all S.H.I.E.L.D. security feeds, it was almost never stored just locally, but sent to their remote servers in real time, which Tony was quite grateful for.

He was intrigued by the prospect of getting to watch the way Loki, his personal hallucination and/or demonic figure, really was around other people, for once.

Now this should be interesting.

After watching the explosive burst of poisonous-looking blue energy, and Loki rising from it looking more like the devil himself than at any previous point in his acquaintance with one Tony Stark, it occurred to the mad inventor that jet-lag would hardly begin to cover it.

Loki’s eyes were keen regardless, scanning the room, seeking out faces he knew and making note of their positions.

“Sir! Please, put down the spear!”

The trickster still hadn’t said a word, still was breathing a little shallowly, but there was a familiar sardonic air to the way that he lifted the scepter in his hand as though previously unaware that it had been there, made a show of briefly examining it, and again focused his attention on Nick Fury, just before baring his teeth and setting off an energy-based blast that shook the room. Then the gunfire started, and yes, it did look like Loki was bullet-proof, as he launched himself at the first shooter, hurled small daggers into the throats of two others, blasted a lab technician trying to send out a distress signal of some kind, and cut down the nearest agent aiming another weapon at him. For a full minute, he did not halt or hesitate in his movements, and when he at last stood still, a violent storm of motion brought to a graceful halt with all the timing of a musician or a dancer, waiting for the next cue, most of the people in the room were down for the count.

Mayhem, he said, Tony thought. Not unavoidable, but still more than necessary. He wasn’t surprised. Not really. Of all that he might expect of Loki at this point, restraint of violent impulses once a fight started, wasn’t among them.

In the video Loki focused on the best remaining semi-upright S.H.I.E.L.D. agent––Barton, according to the notes––stopped his gun, and then poked him gently in the chest, after which the soldier became very suspiciously cooperative. He did the same to another, and finished in time to interrupt Nick Fury’s attempt at a hasty departure with the tesseract in hand.

“Please don’t,” the god of lies said, his voice jarringly polite and almost gentle, though it developed a little edge as he turned and added, “I still need that.”

“This doesn’t have to get any messier.”

“Of course it does.” Now that edge became an outright provocation. “I’ve come too far for anything else.” Back straight, shoulders squared, and showmanship visible in every line of him, he declared calmly, “I am Loki, of Asgard, and I am burdened with glorious purpose.”

Tony made a thoughtful noise, leaning back a bit, his weight back on his heels. He thinks you’re just another villain, that he’s heard this speech before a hundred times, and you’re playing him like a violin.

“Loki,” Selvig interrupted, sounding surprised and almost relieved, like he thought this could possibly be a good thing. “Brother of Thor!”

The look the god of chaos shot that man would’ve made even a berserker feel a wee bit sheepish.

“We have no quarrel with your people,” Fury said smoothly.

“An ant,” Loki chimed, “has no quarrel, with a boot.”

“You planning to step on us?”

Loki donned an approximation of a smile, with his voice and teeth, but little more. “I come with glad tidings, of a world made free.”

You’re selling them, Tony thought.

“Free from what?”

“Freedom.”

The change in Fury’s posture at that, turning more stubborn and more soldier, was a testament to how strong a chord he’d struck. Sold. And by the brief, far more sincere brightening of Loki’s grin, the trickster knew it. Tony could almost see the cogs turning, see him reach for that same tender spot and press it harder.

“Freedom is life’s great lie,” he espoused. “Once you accept that, in your heart-” He pivoted, reached out with his scepter to do to Selvig precisely what he’d done to the two S.H.I.E.L.D. agents that made them so placid. “You will know peace.”

He’d make a killing as a bible salesman.

“Yeah, you say peace. I kinda think you mean the other thing.”

“Sir, Director Fury is stalling. This place is about to blow, and drop over a hundred feet of rock on us,” Barton said. “He means to bury us.”

“Like the pharaohs of old,” Fury concurred.

“He’s right.” And there was Selvig, just as cooperative. Just like they really were Loki’s own personnel. “The portal is collapsing in on itself. There may be two minutes before this goes critical.”

Utterly unsurprised, Loki turned to Barton. “Well then.”

And the soldier shot Nick Fury down.

Then they walked out, Barton snagging the tesseract and handing it to Selvig, and both men helping the exhausted-looking god when he momentarily staggered, revealing just how much of a show, how much bluffing, he’d been doing.

Tony paused it and swept his fingers across the screen, sending it flying across two more displays at different points in the room to rest on one just over his right shoulder. He ran a hand through his hair, thinking, reflecting.

He knew just a few things S.H.I.E.L.D. didn’t, after all, and so he had doubts. He had doubts that the trickster had meant a word he said.

The bit about freedom was obviously a lie. It savored of a man who would be a cult-leader, and Loki didn’t strike him as the sort to go for that––much. Okay, so maybe it would appeal to the guy, but he was going about it oddly: artificial means to ensnare himself loyal lieutenants, which couldn’t be permanent, scaring the bejeesus out of Nick Fury by suggesting he was there to free the world from freedom...

Then Tony recalled Loki’s explanation of the planet he’d tried to destroy, to end an impending war destined to last for centuries. They wanted war, because the last time, we won, and left them with nothing... the trickster had said, his eyes dark with anger and dread conviction. We rendered their civilization toothless. In their place, do you not think only insatiable rage would grow within their hearts?

Those weren’t the words of someone who thought hostile takeover of another planet would really work out––such words wouldn’t occur to them, even in jest.

They tortured you. They almost broke you. You tricked them into trusting you, and into thinking they could manipulate you into being their pawn, he thought. They gave you a weapon and sent you here. Now what? What are you doing?

 

~~

 

The answer to that question was, apparently: pissing everyone off.

That was Tony’s official interpretation of the incident in Germany, in any case. Seeing a Norse god thoroughly thrash Captain America had been pretty entertaining, though. It was almost a pity he’d have to stop it so soon. Time for some mood music, to distract him from just how hard his heart was pounding.

“Agent Romanov, did you miss me?”

And cue the AC/DC.

Also cue the 40’s super-soldier looking confused and alarmed, and Loki’s focus shifting away from contemplating how to further put said soldier to shame.

Tony aimed one blast squarely at the trickster’s chest and the other less so, deliberately sending that scepter flying. It was actually pretty satisfying, that Loki looked genuinely surprised to be knocked back hard enough to crack the stone step he landed on. Or maybe he was just surprised Tony had deliberately timed his shots to aim the god of lies’ injuries right at edges of those steps, knowing they’d dig into his back where it would hurt most.

Rising from the crouch he’d landed in, Tony bristled with weapons and aggression. His voice was as fiercely steady and clear as his head suddenly felt. “Make your move, Reindeer Games,” he challenged, aware of the HUD’s noting Captain America coming to stand at his flank, shield again in hand.

Loki eyed them both with a perfectly unreadable expression, and raised both hands in a gesture of surrender, his armor seeming to evaporate, leaving him in the garb he’d worn when he’d visited Tony for a drink the prior night.

Warily, Tony let his armor’s metaphorical feathers smooth down, and lowered his hands. “Good move. The helmet was in questionable taste anyway.

“I could say the same of your musical accompaniment,” Loki countered blithely.

Behind the mask, the inventor half-smirked.

Without taking his eyes off the trickster, Cap stepped in a bit closer and greeted, still sounding a bit out of breath, “Mr. Stark.”

Tony nodded just slightly in his direction. “Captain.

 

~~

 

Loki strolled silently, placidly into the quinjet and sat down. He then even, almost mockingly to Tony’s eye, strapped himself in at Natasha’s sharp suggestion. He then settled in and ignored all of them, until Fury or whoever Natasha was talking to over her headset, said something that made her beckon the captain away.

His helmet under one arm, standing near enough to be considered suspicious of their captive’s motives, Tony said, “Nice trick with the armor. I see you’re getting a bit of your mojo back.”

The trickster met his gaze with a hint of a smirk, and inclined his head just a fraction. “Not much.”

Tony nodded.

“Nice shot,” Loki added, tilting his head back, with those poison-green eyes of his falling shut.

“Nice frankly suspicious capitulation.”

“Are you disappointed?”

The inventor frowned. “Only a little.”

The god of mischief gave a quiet, amused snort.

“Having a nice chat over there, boys?” Natasha called.

“Your man of iron has a strange fascination with horned helmets,” Loki called back, droll and dripping condescension. “I would almost go so far as to say indecent.”

“You’re an ass,” Tony muttered.

“Only because you’re my favorite,” Loki said, scarcely audible.

The inventor couldn’t help but smirk at that, feeling all too warmed by it.

“Tony, stop baiting the super-villain and move to the middle of the plane so the weight of your armor won’t make this take-off any trickier,” Black Widow responded.

Rolling his eyes, Tony obeyed.

 

~~

 

Things seemed to be going pretty well, after that. He’d even gotten to enjoy ruffling the recently-thawed caricature of American patriotism a bit.

Then the lighting started, and Loki sat up to take notice a bit, looking suddenly much more alert. That was a bit of a red flag.

“What’s the matter?” Cap asked him. “Scared of a little lightning?”

“I’m not overly fond of what follows,” Loki responded. Tony didn’t blame him, given that not long after that Thor flew in, grabbed him by the throat, and dove out of the plane into the goddamn storm.

At some point in the process, sure, Thor might’ve knocked Iron Man on his ass, but that wasn’t what mattered. Not like Tony followed him as much to get a bit of his own back as out of curiosity and intent to drag Loki back to the jet.

Finding them was tricky, but catching Thor right in what appeared to be the middle of a very serious sentence, was frankly priceless.

And oh, did Blondie ever look pissed. “Do not touch me again.”

“Then don’t take my stuff.” As soon as Tony said it, he felt the sudden desire to kick himself. Paging Dr. Freud: Tony Stark needs therapy, clearly. He hastily added, “We had him prisoner, and were doing fine, you know.”

“You have no idea what you are dealing with.”

That earned the thunder god one of his biggest, most threatening Tony Stark grins. Neither do you, he thought, but said, much more airily, “Shakespeare in the Park?” He gestured widely and projected like any genuine actor, “Dost mother know you weareth her drapes?”

“This is beyond you, metal man. Loki will face Asgardian justice.”

“If he gives up the cube, then he’s all yours. Until then?” His mask lowered. “Stay out of my way. Tourist.

And that was how the fight started.

 

~~

 

Emerging from the smoking, splintery wreckage by means of flight, Tony reached the plateau he’d last seen Loki on before the others, as Thor and Cap headed their way on foot, looking for signs of Loki’s anticipated hasty departure.

Tony was a bit disturbed to find the god of mischief lounging comfortably on a rocky outcropping with a fantastic view of the battle site, looking for all the world like he needed nothing more than a bucket of popcorn to make his evening more perfect. He even beamed widely at Tony in an almost sincere fashion.

Methinks the deity doth not protest enough,” the inventor said, his tone now edging towards openly hostile. He landed, then, and flipped up the faceplate as he crossed his arms over his chest. “You want us to have you caught.”

The trickster had the nerve to say nothing, and flutter his eyelashes coquettishly, resting a hand over his heart as if to imply, Who? Me?

“So what if we don’t bother? What if we just... let you go?”

“Your charming companions wouldn’t allow that.”

Tony had to concede that. He flicked on his comm. “Romanov? I found him. Sending you our location.”

Loki beamed at him again. “Will you tell them I went so willingly?”

“Don’t think I’ll have to; Thor and Cap will remember not hearing any explosions.” He held out a hand and was surprised when Loki took it, letting Tony help him to his feet. He winced a little. “How’s your back?”

“Seeing a lot of abuse tonight. See the long, thin gouges in the rock over there?” He pointed. “I didn’t land well.”

“Well, you did try to kill Thor the last time you saw him, right?”

“Those were the days,” Loki muttered, letting Tony’s gauntlet go and dusting himself off.

Getting on the comm again because Captain America was sounding very put out about not knowing his location, Tony said, “Cap? I found him back on pride rock over here; he never left. Tell sparky of the windblown locks to bring you by.”

Chapter Text

Handing Loki over to a small battalion of overly weapon-laden guards in goggles and very nearly full S.W.A.T. gear had made Tony want to laugh. It took a lot of effort not to. Then he got delayed in his arrival at the little meet-and-greet with the rest of earth’s (and one of Asgard’s? Did that even count?) mightiest heroes thanks to the arrival of his suit’s travel unit, complete with spare parts, repair equipment, and a bit more of JARVIS than could fit into his pocket.

It wasn’t until he asked Bruce Banner, after that little party, that he found out they’d all got to see Fury and Loki bickering via live feed.

“Oh, dude, I can’t miss that! I must see this.”

“You’re awfully excited.”

“Have you seen how crazy that Loki guy is?” Tony half-lied with ease. “He’s a twisted little bastard, and Fury thought he could seriously interrogate him?”

Bruce shook his head at him with a bit of a laugh. “Alright, fine, I’ll pull it up on one of the displays.”

Tony made sure to get all of his equipment unpacked, and systems running, before he paused to start the video: no need to seem overeager; although he then lost focus on the outside world for a bit once it started. Because this? This was pure Loki, god of lies and mischief, in his element: master in the art of reeeally fucking with you.

This was that Loki, looking interested in a condescendingly polite manner as he let Fury threaten him: explaining the mechanisms of his prison, and concluding decisively with, “Ant,” as he gestured at Loki, and, “Boot,” as he turned back to the controls. Sensing the S.H.I.E.L.D. director’s rant had ended, the trickster started his own little show.

“It’s an impressive cage,” he said, with a flourishing gesture around himself as he back-stepped, to stand in the center of the well-lit little prison. Had anyone else noticed how much it looked like a stage, or other performance platform? “Not meant, I think, for me,” he concluded with a playful smile.

“Built for something much stronger than you.”

“Oh, I’ve heard.” Tony could see the trickster steadying his aim, ready to cut and cut deep, even striking an audience he couldn’t see. It seemed likely enough that he could sense their eyes on him, to judge by how his head turned toward camera 3, seeming to stare right through the head of whoever might be watching.

“A mindless beast, who makes play he’s still a man,” he said, reminding everyone  again that the large deathtrap of a cage he resided in had originally been designed for the the harmless-looking, charming Bruce Banner they trusted to look for the cube for them. And didn’t that just say more about Fury than it did Banner? “How desperate are you, that you call on such lost creatures to defend you?” Tony could all but hear the creak of Captain America’s underlying self-doubt being pried up, and Thor’s heart cracking just a little even as his anger burned.

“How desperate am I?” Fury stepped closer.

Loki’s expression relaxed into something more passive, more focused: patient, calculating, and unimpressed, smiling only when he knew it would most bother the man, while he listened.

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

Ooh, it burns you to have come so close.” And wasn’t that just the bitchiest expression Loki had ever displayed before mortal men to date. “To have the tesseract. To have power––unlimited power––and for what?” he asked, expression calm and his tone calling Fury’s unspoken bluff, giving the director just the slightest sense of the sharpness of the creature he was dealing with. Then the mad, distinctly psychotic little smile returned, though his warm, gentle tone of condescension lingered. “A warm light for all mankind to share?” Then he turned cold again, the transition perfectly smooth, like a surgeon’s wielding of a scalpel. “Only then to be reminded what real power is.” Accusation, pure and simple. Beautifully done.

Fury backed down, and wisely so. “Well let me know if ‘real power’ wants a magazine or something.”

The video ended.

Tony became aware that Dr. Bruce Banner was watching him closely. The inventor had kept his expression unmoved, save for the intensity of his stare. Then again, for Tony Stark to sit so perfectly still and silent for more than a minute would have disconcerted anyone who knew him. Luckily, Bruce didn’t yet.

“You alright, there?”

The inventor nodded. “Thor give us any hints about who or what he wants to bring and/or send through that portal with him?”

“An army called the Chitauri. He’s letting them in, supposedly so they’ll take over the earth in exchange for the tesseract.”

Tony’s blood ran cold. “Ah.” He recalled Loki’s voice, from months before, The leader of the Chitauri imagines that his mages might unmake me... Somehow that confirmation, that he was bringing them here, was enough to make him suddenly doubt a bit. It made him wonder if this was really just Loki in the mad god’s head for them to deal with. He’d been so himself on tape, and over drinks, but he knew Tony. He knew Tony was watching and how to act to Tony’s expectations, probably. He’d thought Loki would use the portal against the Chitauri somehow, but how that would work with them invading earth, he didn’t know. He wasn’t sure he wanted to find out, but knew he was going to. Doubts were bound to sink in; it’s a wonder it’s taken you this long, genius, you know all about erring on the side of Murphy’s Law.

“Have you actually heard of them before?” Bruce asked cautiously.

The inventor offered his best dismissive smile. “Are you kidding?”

“You looked like you knew something.”

“Just that even with that much iridium, any army he’s calling in will come through at a trickle,” Tony said idly. “Struck me as odd, that.”

“I’ll tell you what I told the others, Stark, if you don’t mind: try not to focus on Loki. That guy’s brain is a bag of cats.”

The inventor shot him an amused look. “Nice.” He clapped his hands. “Now, lets get this show on the road.”

 

~~

 

Once they had the scanning setup done, he’d gotten Captain America pissed at him again––really, it was too easy, and the flash-frozen super-soldier needed to loosen up and get that flagpole out of his ass––Tony managed a hasty retreat to a more private corridor for a while, and called Pepper.

She picked up the phone and immediately said, “I thought you’d be busy playing with your new super-friends.”

“Yeah, well, the flag-boy is irritated with me, Natasha is still giving me the cold shoulder, and Dr. Banner is almost disconcertingly zen,” he said, his voice not quite as cheerful as it should’ve sounded.

“Tony? Are you alright?”

The mad inventor rubbed his free hand over his face. “It’s complicated. Just––talk to me for about five minutes. I need to hear your voice for a bit.” I have to hope you can chase Loki’s out in just five minutes.

“Wow. You’re giving me a full five minutes of undivided listening? Real listening? I don’t know where to even start.”

He smiled a little. He loved Pepper, for being able to make him smile even when he was starting to genuinely feel like shit. “Anything. Start with your favorite foods, your birthday, and any other allergies you might not have mentioned or suspect I forgot.”

She laughed at him, then took a breath and just started talking. She told him about another gallery opening, two big-shots she’d had to cut down to size for thinking they could metaphorically muscle her into overpaying for their company’s support on something or other. Tony closed his eyes and listened, just let her voice sink into his brain and distract him from the hurricane of half-panicked thoughts he’d been ignoring for over an hour now since Bruce had uttered the word “Chitauri” to him. He managed to forget, just briefly, how hard he was mentally kicking himself and why he needed kicking. It was brief, as he knew it would be, but he so needed it.

“Now, it’s been five minutes, and I’ve been talking,” Pepper concluded. “You plan to tell me what this is all about?”

Tony sighed. “It’s not anything to do with the super-friends. It’s another thing, from––years back.” He considered. “Before we met,” he lied, coming up with it all on the spot, “I’ve had JARVIS hacking all of S.H.I.E.L.D., reaching all the things I couldn’t get to remotely before. He found something about someone I know. He’s a crazy guy, crazy, but I liked him a lot. Like him? Liked him? It’s tricky to tell right now. He, uh, got mixed up with some unsavories, which is why S.H.I.E.L.D. had a file for him. They hurt him, real bad. Aghanistan-level of bad or worse, and he came back, but––now it looks like he might be working for them. Like they might have really broken him, but he’s a better liar than even I am, and I can’t tell. I don’t think they could’ve, I don’t think he is, but I’m biased and I’m really wondering how much of my opinion might really be based on the fact I want certain things to be true.” He felt he should get an Oscar for that one. Then he realized he was suggesting to himself that he should get an award for lying to his girlfriend and grimaced. No. Bad. Stoppit. Genius or no, there were plenty of things he was bad at.

“Oh god, Tony, I’m so sorry. Is he––is he mixed up with what you’re doing now?”

“It’s suspected he might be providing personnel to one of the guys our villain put under mind-control,” he lied, starting to feel even worse as the lies progressed, and she believed them.

“Do you––do you have any reason to think he’s not against you?”

Tony closed his eyes, thought back on every conversation he’d ever had with one god of mischief. “I make him laugh, still. Really laugh,” he mused, and for some reason recalled, You, are a greater weapon than anything you’ve ever designed... 

“You had a crush on him, didn’t you?”

The inventor should’ve known he could only hide so much behind setting- and position-based lies. Of course she’d noticed this. “If that’s the word for it-”

“By which I mean you’d so tap that, hard, and more than once.”

“Well, when you put it that way,” Tony muttered. “Uhm. Yeah, I did.”

“You do?” she asked gently.

“I don’t want to,” Tony said quietly, sharply, “but I still do. Fuck everything.”

“Tony, thank you for telling me the truth on this. I was really afraid you’d try to lie about––this sort of thing.”

Oh cruel irony, the inventor thought, and began silently swearing.

“You’re good to me, you know you are,” Pepper continued. “I trust you to know what to do if he isn’t trustworthy.”

“He’s never been trustworthy,” Tony intoned gravely.

“But you still like him.”

“I like––” He sighed. “I... I like a lot of things that are bad for me. I mean, I love adrenaline as much as the next thrill-seeker, but it’s more than that. He’s dangerous, he lies, he could kill me with his bare hands, and he might. And he still...” He swallowed tightly. “You can guess.”

“Your sex drive does seem to enjoy adrenaline as much as the rest of you,” she responded, her tone gentle. “What first caught your attention about him?”

“He’s pretty. Almost as pretty as you when he looks sane, but given he’s probably a psychopath, his crazier looks get him a minus-five from the overall score, and he wears those a lot, lately.”

“What else, Tony? You never angst just because someone is pretty, or you’d never get anything done.”

“Yeah, yeah. Especially with you around.”

“Save the flattery for later when you’re on your knees for me, Tony. What else?”

God I love this woman. “He’s brilliant, and he’s broken with all sorts of jagged edges, and he can see right through me. And I can see almost as well through him. We have... we have the same sort of walls we’ve put up. You know the ones, but his are––interestingly engineered.”

“I can see that appealing to you.”

“Not as much as you do,” he said strongly. “I don’t think––” He wanted to say something along the lines of I don’t think I could love him, it would just be sex, but realized with abrupt clarity that not only was that a lie he’d been telling himself for some time, but he clearly also had another, even bigger problem, not at all unrelated. Because he was lying for Loki, to Pepper, and he couldn’t... Oh my god.

“Tony?”

He opened his mouth, then closed it again. The only person he could ask about this was the very last person on earth he could possibly ask about this, because Pepper was now part of it. “I was trying to say I could never trust him, but realized I sort of did, and that’s why I feel like shit,” he lied; it was a passable excuse, and he did almost fall for that trap, but not quite. He sighed deeply. “That bastard.”

“Feel better though?”

“Not that much.”

“But you’re Okay?”

No. Not at all. “I’ll be okay, Pep,” he said, and this was the lie he’d gotten best at over the past seven months. He could likely say it even as he was being stabbed to death and still sound light, sincere, affectionate, and convincing. “Thanks. I love you. You’re amazing.”

“Go finish saving the world,” she chided. “I’ll be here when you come back.”

“Okay.”

“I love you, Tony. Be safe.”

“I’ll try,” he said, pretty sincere this time. “I’m definitely working on it.”

 

~~

 

Not too long after that, all hell broke loose as Clint Barton and an assortment of other soldiers dressed as S.H.I.E.L.D. agents attacked the helicarrier, destroyed two of its engines, extracted Loki, and left. Well, most of them left. The Barton guy was subject to a bit of what Natasha affectionately referred to as “cognitive recalibration” and was recuperating somewhere on-board.

While she had been busy with that during the debacle, Tony had been repairing an engine, and got nearly shredded when he succeeded.

In the end, Tony felt most of it amounted to the usual “a bunch of soldiers had been mowed down by other soldiers” with a few notable additions. The Hulk had been lured into attacking a plane, and been sent hurtling to the ground. Thor had been dropped too, by his adoptive brother, who tricked him into leaping into the cage meant for the Hulk. Loki had also stabbed Agent Phil Coulson through the chest with that spear of his.

Up until then, Tony had given Loki’s body count much the same treatment he’d given his own: separated into the categories ‘actually accidental’, ‘this occurred by means of that which I put in motion’, and ‘killed by hand.’ He continued to do so, but found that one particular death, Coulson’s, had more weight to it. I’d just been getting to know the guy. Because Pepper told me all he’d done to keep her safe when Obadiah wanted her dead. She was his friend. He might’ve eventually counted as one of mine. He’d been late on that one.

People who belonged to Tony Stark, in the sense that he considered them sacrifice-worthy to a morally questionable extent, included Pepper, Rhodey, Happy, JARVIS (yes, he’d officially given his AI personhood by this point), and very few others. He would burn cities to the ground for them if he had to. He only hoped none of them would find out that not only would he be willing to do so, he’d be capable.

Because Tony knew none of them would like knowing that; well, except that it doubtlessly wouldn’t surprise JARVIS, at least.

He considered Loki, and reminded himself that since Coulson had taken Pepper from his penthouse just a few days ago, the god of mischief had been the primary focus of his thoughts. That just couldn’t be healthy. He kept doing it anyway.

He’d always sort of liked Loki. Hah. Understatement. Before all this, they’d crossed paths only those handful of times, and every time they had clawed at each other, leaving deep scratches that ached for days. Tony had never been able to begrudge the god for that because it was a strange and novel sort of thrill for someone so different from him––in appearance, temperament, home life, planets of origin, culture, etc––to be both brilliant enough, and similar enough to him, to see through him. It was even more novel for someone like that to be dangerously attractive, and prone to games of mind-fuckery, which Tony was unduly turned on by.

There hadn’t been any occasion he’d spent in Loki’s company without wanting to take the crazy god apart: mentally, emotionally, and physically/sexually ohgodyes. And half the time Loki sunk his claws in, Tony could only think, harder, come on, is that all you’ve got? Also probably not healthy. That hadn’t stopped him having occasional dreams about the god of mischief (over the months since their little deal-brokering) that left him hot and bothered and very happy that he often shared a bed with Pepper, who seemed to really not mind being woken up in the middle of the night if it was for some particularly good sex. And it had always been good after that particular sort of inspiration, which should’ve been a clue.

On a subject in a similar vein: as Pepper had correctly noted, Tony had a thing for the guy a bit more than strictly wanting to jump his bones––almost, in fact, a crush. Pepper: who knew his habits, the flavors of kink he liked, the flavors he knew all about but had only tried once or twice to see what the fuss was about, the sort of people he tended to gravitate toward, how much he considered the occasional mind-game a turn-on, and how rare it was for his attraction to go deeper than sexual to such an extent that it could unnerve him.

He could count the number of times he’d been in love, or thought he’d been in love, on one hand. It was this fourth and most inconvenient occasion, which he still wasn’t sure qualified for the list, that was so far the most distressing.

Because he realized, at some point, that if he’d been forced to condemn someone to death, and it had fallen down to choosing between Phil Coulson, who might have been his friend and who was a man he’d felt able to trust, and Loki Odinson, he wouldn’t have picked Coulson.

Because he wasn’t done with Loki. Not even close.

And that...

Well. That, was probably going to get him killed. But what a way to go.

 

~~

 

Tony Stark sat through Nick Fury clumsily manipulating himself and Steve Rogers with bloody (in the very literal sense) Captain America trading cards, Coulson’s death, the idea (or ideals) behind the Avengers initiative, and all the rest, as long as he could stomach it. Then he left.

He was only a little surprised when Captain America, Steve Rogers the wonder-boy, followed after him. He was a little more surprised when Steve seemed inclined to persuade him to go after Loki, for the both of them to see this through to the end.

“I won’t march into Fury’s fight for him,” Tony said sharply.

“Neither will I. He’s got the same blood on his hands that Loki does, but right now we’ve gotta put that behind us, and get this done,” Steve countered. “Now. Loki needs a power source, we can put together a list-”

“He made it personal.” Oh you son of a bitch, you knew I liked him almost as much as Natasha on my best-S.H.I.E.L.D.-agents-ever list. You wanted me as pissed off at you as everyone else. You’re really starting to do a great job.

“That’s not the point,” Steve dismissed.

“That is the point. That’s Loki’s point. He hit us all right where we live. Why?”

“To tear us apart.”

“We were more likely to do that if he hadn’t been a force for us to unify against. You and I wouldn’t be having this conversation. You’d still be fully convinced––mostly correctly––that I’m a careless and reckless asshole with all the money and privilege in the world, and I’d still get a kick out of pissing you off because you’re everything people have wanted me to be that I could never stomach, Mr. Golden-boy. We wouldn’t be this focused.”

“You’re not making sense.”

“I know, right?”

“He wants us to fight him? All of us?”

“He has to beat someone symbolic-seeming, and the Avengers are that all over. To prove he could win this, win the earth, he’d need a battle like this.” At least, to someone unfamiliar with the way life fucking works down here on earth, defeating earth’s mightiest champions would look like something that had to be done to secure a win. Tony was buzzing with it now. “He’ll want to beat us, and he’ll need to be seen doing it, because he’s doing this for an audience.”

“Right. I caught his act in Stuttgart.”

“That was just the preview,” Tony said, feet moving now, restless energy pulling at him as his mind whirled. “This is opening night and Loki-” He turned to face Steve again. “-Loki’s a full-tilt diva. He wants flowers, he wants parades he wants a monument built to the skies with his name plastered-” He stopped. “Son of a bitch.”

 

~~

 

He hadn’t thought it could really be so easy as shooting the device and having done with it, but he had to give it a shot. Sometimes the simplest weak-spots are the ones more arrogant planners overlook; he’d learned that the hard way a few times, himself, but it looked like Loki’s persistent paranoia was still serving him well.

The look Loki gave him from the balcony, as he landed in the heavily-damaged Mark VI was tricky to read. If he squinted, it could be anything from smugness to sheer apathy. Ignoring the fact his innards felt suddenly made of lead, Tony strutted inside, shedding armor along the way, and making himself remember to breathe normally.

“Please tell me you’re going to appeal to my humanity.”

“Why? You’ve never appealed to mine, and that’s worked out fine for both of us so far, for the most part.”

Loki smirked at that. “True enough, presuming you survive the day.”

“I could say the same of you, sweetheart. You have been busy pissing off all of the most powerful people on the planet, and you’ve been doing a great job. Drink?”

“Is this to stall me?” He was striding closer still, coming to stand a few feet from the base of the stairs, watching Tony curiously.

“Nah, for that I’d start stripping away my clothing and offer to suck you off. Seriously, drink or no drink? I’m having one.” While behind the bar, he slipped on the Mark VII homing bracelets.

The trickster seemed momentarily off-balanced by that comment, blinking a bit. “Did you just proposition me?”

“No, I said that if I wanted to stall you, then I’d proposition you. Or maybe I’d proposition you regardless if you weren’t about to open a portal to set a bunch of unkind alien beasties upon New York, and I weren’t already in a mostly-stable monogamous relationship that’s working out well so far.” He set down the glass he’d fetched, dropped in some ice, poured some scotch, his words unceasing throughout. “So, really, when you lose your war today, do keep in touch, since I’m bound to screw up to such an extent she can’t forgive me anymore, eventually. Then I’m all yours, if you like, and probably even more morally compromised a bit, which you seem to like pretty well.”

Loki stared, looking at the inventor as though he’d lost his mind. “Funny, you don’t look like you have any visible major head injuries. I must have mistaken you for a man of sense.”

“You’d never make that mistake. You know me too well. And I know you too well.”

“You know only a little of me, mortal.”

“Maybe, but part of what I know is that you plan to lose, and spectacularly. I’m just trying to work out where you’ve planned to have the explosives come in.”

Loki tilted his head back, appraising Tony shrewdly. “How are you so certain?”

“You brought the portal to me. Here. New York, where we can all fucking see it and work out how to take it down while mowing down the army as it trickles in.” He gestured with his drink, stepping out from behind the bar. “You’ve had some time to kick back and recover enough of your magic for some pretty spiffy illusions by now, I’ll bet, and you’ve got it power-boosted by the glowstick of destiny there. If you really wanted to catch us off guard and win a glorious battle, you’d take that shit to the North Pole where we’d never detect it, with all the atmospheric interference there, then cloak your army, then bring them down for a big flashy reveal across multiple major cities around the world.” He looked at the god of mischief closely, and realized the god was trying very hard not to laugh. Tony shot him one of his most frightening smiles. “Good to see it’s definitely you we’re dealing with.”

Loki’s brow furrowed a little. “I’m surprised you didn’t take the easy route.”

“The what?”

“You’d find me forgivable if my actions weren’t my own.”

“Maybe, I guess, but I’d have to find a way to kill you. You wouldn’t forgive me for anything less than that, I don’t think.”

The trickster’s eyebrows raised. “I suppose not.”

Tony finished his scotch in one swallow, set the glass aside and strolled toward him. “You’re still an ass. You still killed way more people than necessary, mostly to frighten people because you like it, and to make your brother feel even more guilty and angry both.”

“Yet you still do not seem to hate or fear me.” There was something akin to wonder in the trickster’s voice, then. His expression wasn’t masked, but it was still impossible to read.

“Yeah, I don’t. Fear doesn’t bother me. My own amorality used to bother me, but I think you, along with a few other factors, have been wearing that away over the past year or so, without me noticing.” A shrug. “There’s right, there’s wrong, there’s horrible, there’s unforgivable, there’s good, and there’s you.” He folded his arms behind his back, walking down the steps slowly, holding Loki’s gaze the whole time and thinking quietly, I’m insane, I’m insane, I’m insane. “You could show up covered in strangers’ blood and I wouldn’t be able to find it in me muster up any hatred for you. You’ve pissed me off, same as you pissed of the rest of them, good job there, but I still like you. You’re still my favorite even though I currently want to hurl you through a wall. And also: you still could’ve just asked.”

Loki barked out a startled laugh.

“Seriously.”

“You can’t possibly mean that seriously.”

“Well, genius, I do. You’re the god of lies; tell me I’m lying.”

The trickster stared at him a bit more sharply. His fingers moved, and Tony saw familiar iridescent strings, just for a moment. “You aren’t,” he said, at a loss.

“Yeah. Because I’m capable of being pretty convincing when I want to be. I could’ve probably gotten S.H.I.E.L.D on your side, still made this look sufficiently like a spectacle to keep any audiences fooled, and done a slightly more tidy job, mortality-wise.” He shrugged. “On a related note, and just to make things perfectly clear, let me add, ‘Congratulations: you’re not allowed to hurt yourself overmuch, because you fall under the terms of our deal.’” You’re one of mine, now. Obviously.

Loki gaped at him, just for a moment. “You––you’re a lunatic,” he said.

Tony stepped closer. “Yep. You’re just now working that out?” Another step.

“Why would you do this to yourself?” he snapped.

“You asking me?”

“Who else?”

“There are two of us in the room, here.”

Loki opened his mouth to speak, then shut it, because Tony was standing very close. The trickster didn’t back away, but there was something stiff and reluctant in his stillness. “You are the most maddening creature I have ever known, and I myself have been driving people mad for millennia, Tony.”

“You like it.” The inventor reached up, slid his hand through Loki’s hair, and under that leather armor’s high collar, to cup the back of the trickster’s neck and pull him down into a kiss, because he’d wanted to do it from the moment he’d first met the madman, and he didn’t know if he’d get the chance again. Loki’s spine went stiff, but his mouth responded almost involuntarily, lips parting, tongue soon darting into Tony’s mouth as he made a low, desperately wanting noise, and his free non-spear-wielding hand tangled in the mad inventor’s hair, holding him close at first, then changing the angle to deepen the kiss still further.

Tony thought vaguely, oh, that tongue, holy fuck, and was left clinging to the lapels of Loki’s outfit for dear life, his knees going a bit weak, as the god of mischief viciously claimed his mouth, drinking him down like he was Loki’s last taste of water he’d have before 40 years lost in some desert.

It was good. Very good. Beautiful. And terribly unfair, because it also didn’t last anywhere near long enough. Loki pulled back sharply. “You need your armor.”

“You are a mood-killer.”

You are in a monogamous relationship with someone, I recall you mentioning, and I don’t recall that being me. The mood was bound to kill itself with your guilt any minute. Put on your armor, or I will throw you out the window.”

“Ouch,” Tony groaned. “JARVIS?”

“I really must insist on at least another ten minutes, sir, before the Mark VII is ready for launch.”

“I told you to skip the––wait. Throw me out the window.”

“We’ve already established that you’re utterly mad, Tony. Now you’re just trying too hard,” Loki snapped.

“Do we have ten minutes?”

“No.”

“Since I sort of gave him personhood, JARVIS has a tendency to be overcautious; I think he needs a push. See these?” He raised a hand, showing a bracelet. “Throw me out the window, Loki. You know that you want to, and it’ll look better for your show anyway.”

The god glared at him. “If you get yourself killed, I will make certain my daughter is unkind to you from the moment you set foot in the afterlife. She’s queen there.”

“And you’re only a prince? Man, your family is-hkgh.”

At which point Loki defenestrated him, and then immediately ducked, so that the Mark VII missed him by only a hair as it launched and followed Tony out the window, and opened up to wrap around him in time for Iron Man to notable not crush any of the civilian populace.

Soaring back up to hover in front of the now-broken window where Loki seemed to be watching him almost boredly, Tony said, “Did I mention I was still pissed off at you?

“Yes, I recall.”

Phil Coulson, you stabbed him through the chest, right?

“He wasn’t one of yours.”

You knew he was close, though.

“Well, yes.”

I figured.” Tony blasted him with a fully-charged uni-beam, sending the god flying through the far wall of the room. Then the building shook, the sky opened and it began to rain extraterrestrials. To himself, he muttered, “Oh shit. Army. Right.”

And that was how the war started.

 

~~

 

In the end, after the Chitauri armada had been nuked, the portal closed, and the Avengers came a’calling, they found that Loki hadn’t managed to get more than a few feet from the crater the Hulk had put him in. He didn’t otherwise look too badly off, if only by the standards of someone who recovered pretty quickly from having his spine shattered. Tony suspected that he’d used up most of what magic reserves he’d had left on those repairs, or they would never have caught him.

The god of mischief looked a bit chagrined, and exhausted, and like he’d gotten nothing he hadn’t deserved. “If it’s all the same to you,” he rasped, then tried and failed to push himself up further, giving a ragged sigh, “I’ll have that drink now.”

“Maybe later,” Tony said. The others glared at him a bit. “What?”

 

~~

 

After schawarma, and getting out of the armor, and a very long shower, and a brief call to a moderately hysterical and incandescently angry Pepper Potts, Tony made his way into the little secure holding facility they’d locked the god of lies up in.

He may have surreptitiously hacked all the security cameras before he showed up, making sure JARVIS would be able to alter, edit, and otherwise generally screw with the footage of all this, and destroy the audio outright.

The deity in question looked a bit thin and pale even by his usual standards, but the bruises and cuts were already gone as if they’d never been. He was cuffed with large, heavy metal manacles that looked both vaguely medieval, and very precisely made out of futuristic metal alloys that Tony was already dying to get samples of.

Loki was also strapped into a chair.

All of this was only visible thanks to the security camera. No glass walls this time: just foot-thick solid steel with a few feet of stone behind every wall, like a bank vault.

“No walking about the room privileges?” Tony asked the guard.

“They just finished interrogating him on the Chitauri. We haven’t been given leave to let him up yet.”

“How did he piss of Fury even further?

“I believe he insulted Director Fury’s mother.”

“Of course he did. Let me in.”

“Mr. Stark, I’m not authorized-”

“Avenger,” he said sharply, pointing at his own face. “Totally authorized. Come on, I hurled a nuclear missile through a rip in time and space this morning to save your ass and everyone else’s. You really gonna pull this? Really?”

Needless to say, they eventually let him in.

“I will have you know this visit to your planet has done more damage to my spine than any trips to the rest of the worlds in the nine realms,” Loki started off with.

“I thought they planned to gag you. I was even looking forward to it.”

“Thor will need your aid in repairing it a bit. It may have gotten damaged slightly when I stabbed him earlier.”

“Incidentally, the footage from that camera is being doctored in real time, and the audio just outright cut off. So we can actually talk.” Tony found the chair Fury had upended on his way out, returned it to an upright position, and sat down on it in front of Loki. “So.”

Loki raised his eyebrows, his expression otherwise bland.

“You’ll be imprisoned, likely.”

“Oh yes, doubtlessly.”

“Indefinitely?”

“The details of the actual sentence may vary. If I’m given leave to speak in my own defense, I can doubtlessly persuade them to lower it, but even then, the effectiveness of my persuasion abilities would be limited depending on the presence of certain adoptive kin.”

Tony nodded sagely. “Couple centuries?”

“At least.” He sounded unconcerned.

“So you’ll be out in a few months?”

Loki chuckled. “They need me. I’m the best mage they’ve ever had, and I have access to places no one else can reach. Yes, I do believe I should be out within no more than a year.”

Tony nodded. “Good, good.”

“Is it?”

The inventor blinked.

Loki shot him an exasperated look. “You really are thick, despite being quite possibly the most brilliant mortal I have ever met.”

“What?”

“Don’t wait for me, whether your current relationship lasts or no,” Loki said quietly, through gritted teeth. He exhaled slowly, then took a slow, deep breath. “By the Norns, there really is no way to say that that doesn’t sound...”

“Cheesy?”

“That’s a terrible word.”

“Suits it, though.”

“Enjoy what stability you have, is my point. Asgard operates on a different scale, where the passage of time is concerned. I can joke about this, but in truth if I do not get out within the first six months, it may be years before something happens disastrous enough they need me out of chains and back to solving the problems no one else can, thus giving me another chance to escape. I can promise you nothing.” He cleared his throat quietly. “It is strange and uncomfortable enough that I find myself wishing that I could.”

The phrase, What if I don’t want stable? crossed Tony’s mind, but he didn’t utter it. “Look, the fact that I want you aside, I meant what I said about the deal, alright? I genuinely like you, and yeah, you qualify. So, you need sanctuary? You have it, if you manage to get out. I won’t, ah, do––that again.”

“Pity,” Loki said, eyes a bit dark.

“Stop that.”

The god of mischief smirked. “Fine, fine.”

“But you... um.”

“Yes. I desire you. I’d ask what gave me away, but I think we both know the answer.” He tilted his chin up. “I’m not inclined to be second-best however.”

“It’s not ranking. This is––you’re both even, really, in that sense... in the how-much-I-want sense. It’s timing, and the fact I keep my promises, and I’ve made my promises to her, before this.” And the thought of hurting Pepper, or anyone hurting her, makes me sick and enraged all at once. “That and the fact that neither of you tend to share, from what I can tell.”

“You do?”

For a moment, Tony’s pupils dilated at the sudden mental image of both tall, long-limbed, fucking gorgeous people in his bed: red hair and black spread out on his pillows, color contrasts between freckles and pale skin, both in reach for him to just... Tony cleared his throat. “Not when, uhm––not for anything other than casual sex, no strings attached. I hadn’t, ah, even considered that an option here, actually, for which I should be ashamed. That said, given that I’ll now never get that image out of my head, I don’t know whether I should thank you or try to kill you.”

Loki chuckled quietly at that. “I will not apologize.”

Tony looked at him for a long moment, his expression open enough he could tell the god of mischief was a bit disarmed by it. “I’d prefer that you come back at some point, though, whether I can have you or not. You’re one of the most amazing and brilliant and never-boring people I’ve ever met in my life––even though you’re one of the biggest assholes, too; it’s not like I’m much better.”

“I will try,” he said quietly. “Well. Presuming I’m not executed outright either, obviously.”

“Is that a legit concern?”

“Only a little, but I have so many plans to get around that or free of it as makes no odds. I presume Odin is not so foolish as to leave me with so few options. When it comes down to ruthlessness and cleverness, not even he can keep me pinned into the place he wants and expects me to be in, particularly on the occasion my life may be on the line.”

Tony shook his head, rising to his feet. “See you around, then.” He paused, in what looked to the camera as though he were whispering a parting shot in Loki’s ear, but he in truth pressed a light kiss above the corner of the trickster’s jaw. Then he stepped away, with herculean effort, heading for the door.

“Good luck to you, Tony.”

“And you, Loki,” he called back, over his shoulder. The sound of the door closing behind him genuinely stung.

Chapter Text

Pepper eventually forgave him scaring her half to death by manually redirecting a nuclear missile through the portal to destroy the Chitauri armada. It helped that Tony had the leverage of The Missed Phone Call from the brink of his near-death.

Things went smoothly after that––or as smooth as possible, in the life of one Anthony Stark, in a post-Chitauri world. Shit still hit the fan with alarming regularity, and no matter how he tried to distance himself from it, he still wound up in the blast radius in one way or another. There were plenty of times he thought he’d never be able to get up again, let alone put the Iron Man armor back on. There were similar times wherein he felt incredibly alone, fearing Pepper really wouldn’t be able to forgive him that time around. He very rarely felt that he merited forgiveness.

Especially after the series of particularly awful events that led him to quit drinking, full-stop, rehab and everything. That had been a miserable few months, while he’d adjusted to that.

It helped that JARVIS was A) on board with the whole sobering-up plan, and B) a goddamn sneaky bastard who had Tony in his pocket (by virtue of literally being in Tony’s pocket all the time) and wasn’t hesitant to exert his powers as such. If he didn’t feel such mixed paternal love and near-bromantic appreciation for the screwball AI, there would’ve been some real problems, there.

Things improved after that, by leaps and bounds. It was nearly saccharine, for a while there, until the leader of the Ten Rings went about trying to collapse the American government and kill the president, and Extremis got involved and Tony sacrificed a bit more of his humanity without the slightest hesitation.

After that, Pepper had gotten a bit more distant. He couldn’t blame her. That whole incident brought out facets of himself he’d rarely ever allowed to surface enough for most people to see. If someone knew what to look for, they could sometimes tell that Tony had that steely, absolutely ruthless core to him, despite otherwise wearing hero-like trappings. Pepper, though, hadn’t let herself suspect. Tony knew she hadn’t.

He was only considered a hero because people called him so, and he let them. He’d never done much with the express goal of keeping that title, never changed himself to become more heroic; he’d just been himself: protecting his own, taking care of the wreckage his weapons had created, and trying to fix some of the places his own mistakes or ignorance had laid waste to. If it came down to himself versus the world, however, there was more than a little part of Tony Stark that was more than capable of making the world regret it––especially if they threatened the people he’d claimed as his because he loved them, because most of the time they were better people than him and should be saved because of how goddamned important that was. They meant more to him than a billion others, and he knew that to be irrational, unethical, selfish, and all sorts of morally questionable.

But it wasn’t like alcohol. It wasn’t like selling weapons. This was no addiction, no habit; it was part of his core nature, his truest self, and he’d come to terms with that a long time ago. He could pretend it wasn’t there, for the sake of others, right up until the moment it was all he could see.

He’d frightened Pepper. He’d made a sacrifice play she either couldn’t understand, or didn’t want to, because he’d chosen her. And people died. A lot of them.

It fell apart a bit, after that. She stayed with Stark Industries. She stayed his good friend. She couldn’t be his lover.

He didn’t give in to the urge to drink.

He didn’t even give in to the urge to pray either, not even knowing the one he wanted to get answer from would understand better any any other being he could think of. Because it had been over a year and he hadn’t seen or heard from the god of mischief––hadn’t even heard a word about him except when he’d asked Thor and been informed that Loki was still imprisoned. Then Thor had gone back home after a while, with Jane Foster.

Jane returned alone, unwilling to talk about it for a very long while.

Nothing since then, and that was four months back.

So Tony faced his demons alone. He knew that he needed to. That didn’t make it any better, or any easier or less painful.

He came out of it. He got better. He eventually settled into the fact that he still had a good life going for him: wonderful friends, more money than he knew what to do with, and those along with a talent for building elaborate tinker-toys meant he’d managed to help out a few people, now and then. He was still daily beating a disease that some never recover from, let along acknowledge. And he’d been lucky...

Very lucky.

With his heart a mystery to everyone around him, he carried on with the show. He was, after all, nothing if not Tony goddamn Stark.

“I have a good life.”*

His bed remained empty, though whenever he caught a glimpse of someone with dark hair and green eyes he wished it weren’t. Pepper had left him with an appreciation for the more intimate aspects of intimacy and he missed those things, which casual flings couldn’t have managed. And Tony Stark was not a man inclined to settle for anything less, anything false, compared to what he genuinely desired.

This time, Tony knew exactly what he wanted. It was irrational, impossible, potentially lethal, and insane, but he wanted nevertheless. The inventor wanted to reach out and take hold, and not let go this time, and see if he would be allowed, and for how long, to have. But he remembered what Loki had told him about time passing in Asgard, and about waiting. It didn’t help. Not like Tony had ever been good at doing precisely what anyone told him to do, ever in his life.

 

~~

 

On the anniversary of his father’s death that year, Pepper asked him about the old friend he’d mentioned, the one he’d admitted to wanting while they were together.

“I remember. What about him?”

“You never talked about him again. I take it he was––the way you were afraid that he was, then?”

Tony considered. “No. No, he wasn’t.”

“Then why––why didn’t you ever talk about him?”

For a long moment, he thought over the pros and cons of various excuses. “I want to answer that, but to really answer it, I have to tell you a story you’re going to be really angry with me about.”

“Tony if you––if you and he, uhm-”

“We didn’t. Nothing like that.” He made a face. “Not much, anyway. I may have kissed him once to prove a point before all was said and done, but he threw me out a window right after, so that was it. There wouldn’t have been anything further even if he hadn’t, both because I didn’t want to hurt you, and he didn’t want to be my second choice. No, this story I need to tell you is longer, more complicated, and possibly even worse.”

She looked at him shrewdly. “You’ve been lying to me.”

“Um. Yeah.”

“You really should stop that.”

“You know I can’t.”

Pepper sighed, and moved from her chair to come sit next to him on the couch. “Start talking.”

“You’re going to elbow me.”

“Probably. For every lie you told me about whatever this is.”

“Well. I’ll have broken ribs in five minutes at that rate.”

“Fine. I’ll just have Clint challenge you to a surprise sparring session soon. He owes me a couple favors.”

Tony grimaced. “Well, it started with the guy.”

“Does he get a name?”

“And here’s where it gets complicated. Lie #1: everything I told you about how I knew him, JARVIS finding that information, all of that, was, uh, fabricated.”

“I’m going to kill you.”

“Hear me out! I told you those lies so I wouldn’t have to explain that the guy in question was named Loki, which would’ve complicated the story even worse.”

A long pause followed. “Loki. Are you... You mean ‘Loki’ as in, Loki the god of mischief and lies, who was the reason you had to steer a nuke by hand at an alien armada?”

“It gets more complicated. The bits about him getting mixed up with some unsavories and tortured and my general confusion and doubts? Those were true.”

“I should damn well  hope so!”

Tony winced. “Yeah. Well. The unsavories in question were the Chitauri. He may have arranged the invasion so his brother and whoever he could stir up or otherwise piss off down here on earth––most likely me and S.H.I.E.L.D. were the main focus, the Avengers as a whole were just sort of a bonus––would blow them to shit. I told you he was fucking crazy: that was true, too.”

“But you knew him before all that?”

The inventor nodded.

“How?”

“I did warn you it gets more complicated.”

And then he told her about it. All of it: the not-explosion, the strings, the dreams, Afghanistan, the reactor-core deal, the way Loki had dropped in right after she left the tower when the whole tesseract debacle arrived on their doorstep, watching Loki on security footage, Bruce telling him about the Chitauri, Coulson getting killed, and the final showdown in the tower.
She let him talk, let him stop the story there right after the defenestration, and watched his face carefully for a few long moments after. “You really fell for him hard, didn’t you?”

Tony frowned. “I crushed hard, I have to admit, though I hate that term. You have to know, Pepper, you have to, that you came first. You still almost always come first. Even without us being, an ‘us’ or anything––you’re family. You are my rock, Pepper Potts, and I love you helplessly for that, even if not, y’know, romantically since that didn’t work out super-well.”

She leaned her head on his shoulder. “I know, and I love you too. It scares me a bit, sometimes: a lot, just more recently.”

Tony couldn’t meet her eye, then. He knew what he’d see. He didn’t need that approbation right now. “I know.”

“You’re––I can’t say you’re wrong, and you’re not crazy because of this––moral issue; there are much better and more valid reasons to call you a crazy person than that, because you usually do right, and you know what the general consensus on ‘what is right’ is for the average person compared to yourself, you just sometimes sort of ignore it and go with what you feel, and what you yourself need.” She glanced at him hesitantly. “You’re just more ruthless than I’m capable of being, or comfortable with,” Pepper said quietly. “It’s just... you. And I never tried to get to know that part of you because it scares me. I’m sorry for that.”

“Don’t be. Just because you’re the not-broken party here-”

“That’s not––” She took a breath. “That’s not what I’m trying to say. I was trying to...” Shaking her head, Pepper sighed. “I’m saying he didn’t have any of that hesitation. He’s one of few people other than trained assassins or other S.H.I.E.L.D. agents of our acquaintance who would have that quality, and from what you’re telling me, he’s very intelligent. I can see why he would appeal to you, even just from that.”

“Well. He’s also a bit psychopathic...”

“And on occasion, genius-boy, you’re a little ‘high-functioning sociopath’ when you’re acting most yourself,” she teased lightly.

“Fine. Quote British television at me. Are you my Watson or are you not-my-housekeeper?”

“Tony, you can go back to being contrite now.”

He smirked a little, shaking his head. “I can’t, because he’d make a great Moriarty: devastating in a good Westwood suit, too.”

The redhead rolled her eyes at him, but smiled a little. “What happened after the invasion wrapped up?”

“The Avengers went out for schawarma.”

“And?”

“I called you.”

“Tony.”

“Fine. Fine. I hacked S.H.I.E.L.D. security feeds to be sure of private conversation and went to visit him in his cell.”

“And?”

“I told him that if he got out, because let’s face it and admit we all know he’ll be out as soon as they need him or he escapes or probably both, that I’d like to see him again. Not even as––not romantically, even. Just. I’d want to see him again.” He ran a hand through his hair. “He, ah, told me not to wait up, given his lifespan and how time passes in Asgard, but put a one-year estimate on his escape time-table and said he’d try if he could.”

“It’s been about a year––a bit more, really.”

“Yeah.”

“And...”

“And nothing. That’s it.” Tony shot her a self-deprecating half-smile. “Naught.”

She nodded, brow furrowed in concern. “I’m sorry, Tony.”

“Nothing to be sorry about.” The fingers of his right hand stretched, then curled into a fist, without his notice, as he thought, I might have held on. I might have given you up, but I couldn’t, and I didn’t. And so now I don’t have either of you. That’s just it. That’s just life. It’s fine; it’s life. Better than the alternative by a long-shot, I’ll tell you that. He half-smiled, a bit bitterly. “It would’ve been a terrible idea, anyway.”

“Tony, I––I haven’t seen you like this.”

“Like what?”

Pepper took hold of his hand, pulled it into both of hers and massaged his fingers until they relaxed. “You’re crazy,” she said lightly.

“I know that.”

“Yeah. You just still find new ways to surprise me with how crazy. You love him, a little, don’t you?”

Tony snorted. “Barely knew him.”

“Liar.”

At that, he smiled faintly. “Well, yeah.”

“You think he felt––or feels––the same?”

“He’s a better liar than me. For all I know, he was just hedging his bets on the ability to use me later.”

Pepper nodded a little. “You don’t think so, though.”

“It would be easier if I could, yeah.”

“What do you think, then?”

“I think, at the time, he was compromised. He wanted me, about as much as I wanted him, because I understood him, and I don’t think anyone else did, and he’d just escaped his own personal Afghanistan. We had a lot of potential energy. In practice, we’d likely self-destruct.”

“Yes, because that possibility has stopped you before,” she muttered, sarcastic.

“True.” Tony smiled faintly. “Not him, either. It just comes down to time. I’m––I’d still be interested. I am still interested. Between what I learned from falling for you, and from what potential I glimpsed while with him––other options or other people who’ve been interested in starting more than a one-night stand all just seem boring.” His eyes fell shut. “Not so sure time in another prison, in Asgard with other gods and all, left him feeling anywhere near the same way. I’m not even sure where he is right now, let alone what the hell that lunatic might be thinking. At this rate, I probably won’t see him again, even, Pep. Best not to dwell on it.”

“But if he did show up?”

“Well. I’d have to try to keep ahold of him. Obviously.”

“Good. I thought you were going to go stoic and apathetic on me, and shrug it off or something,” she teased.

“Nah. I’d at least want to get him in bed. He’s six-foot-three of tall, dark and crazy, after all. And a god. And his tongue––well.”

Pepper elbowed him. “Stop that.”

“Hey, I only got the one kiss, let me enjoy the recollection.”

She rolled her eyes at him. “Only you, Tony, could get away with shit like this.”

“It’s part of my charm?”

“Charm. Kinder word than I was thinking of.”

“Shhh, don’t ruin it.”

“Too late.”

“No, no, shhh, it’s fine, I’m brilliant and charming and witty.”

“You’re brilliant, and annoying, and ridiculous.”

“Now I’m just depressed.”

“Tony.”

“Let’s watch a movie. Pick something.”

Pepper sighed, rolling her eyes one final time. “Alright, fine. Dogma?”

“Acceptable. JARVIS? Roll it, please?”

 

~~

 

He ran into Jane Foster in the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier the week after that.

And he couldn’t help but think about her, and about Asgard, and all the relevant points of interest, deity-wise, connected tangentially to both.

In the end, he would blame Pepper for his even asking, after nearly a full five minutes of perfectly tolerable genius-y science small-talk, “Look, I’m sorry to bring this up, but about the whole trip to Asgard-”

“I don’t want to talk about Thor,” she said lightly, smiling just sharply enough to be a warning, though it softened a little as she seemed to recall she was talking to someone who had actually known the Aesir, too. “Sorry, I know he’s still a part of your team. It’s just been–––interesting, given public interest in me because of him.”

“I get that; I know I’ve, ah, caused a lot of problems that way for people in my life, too. Sorry.”

“Not where I’m concerned. Nice try, though.”

Tony snorted. “Damn, shot down before I could even try.”

She laughed at him a little. “Must be novel for you.”

“Lately? Well, I am single, but that’s neither here nor there.”

“Oh, yeah, I heard about that. I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be. My own fault, and kind of inevitable,” the inventor said, waving off her concern. “We’re both fine, and probably get on better, at this point. She has fewer heart-attacks because of me now, if only a little, and I’m fine with that.”

Jane continued to look concerned, but nodded a little. “Again, I’m sorry for the sort of––ah, auto-defensiveness. Thor is, uh, probably planning to come back. I’m not sure when, but he will. It wasn’t just me he was here for.”

“That’s good. We could use him, yeah.” He offered a thin sort of smile. “I was sort of wondering about his brother, though. He still under lockup?”

The astrophysicist hesitated only a little. “While we were there, yes,” she said, a little carefully. “I did speak with him some, though. It’s funny, I thought it was strange, but he sort of asked about you.”

It took an effort, but Tony managed not to react much, externally, other than raising his eyebrows and asking, “Really?” On the inside, his stomach seemed to be attempting a fairly good impression of the contents of a cement mixer.

“Yeah.” She shot him a curious look. “I didn’t hear much about how it was for the rest of you, when he tried to bring the whole alien invasion to New York. He didn’t mess with you like he did Hawkeye or anything, did he?”

“No,” Tony said, shaking his head a little. “No, nothing like that.” He might’ve cringed. “How’d I even come up in conversation, anyway?”

“Well. I’d never gotten to meet him after whole part where he tried to kill all of us during the whole debacle in New Mexico when we all first met Thor, and he’s Thor’s brother, and I was visiting for some fairly familial reasons as well as scientific, so I wanted to at least talk with him,” she said. A bit warily, she glanced around the lab at a few things on the walls.

Not the whole truth, Tony noted. Interesting. “I can see that,” he responded lightly.

“Well––come on, let’s get some coffee and sit down for this like civilized people. I’m going a little stir-crazy in this lab anyway.”

The inventor had a feeling it was more to do with some of the more interesting subject matter on the walls––like the mugshots of a rather dichromatic-looking fellow labeled Malekith the Accursed and some rather interesting diagrams of a phenomenon that didn’t look quite like an Einstein-Rosen bridge, and wondered what they all had to do with her recent trip to Asgard, but didn’t question. Not yet, anyway. “Sure, sure,” he said, and let her lead him to the nearest break room.

The coffee was awful. Tony drank it anyway, because he was jet-lagged, and needed something to do with his hands to keep from grabbing the lovely, polite Dr. Jane Foster by the lapels of her jacket and asking a few sharp and probably impolite questions. “So Loki was needed out of his usual prison cell while you were there?” he asked, before he could stop himself.

Jane froze, shooting him a disconcerted look. “Well. Yes. There was a bit of a war with some dark elves. I was a bit possessed after a certain point, and a lot of it gets pretty blurry for me to remember as a result after that started, but before that quite took over, I did have a talk with him. How did you know?”

“Well, he left earth shackled and gagged so he couldn’t use any of his magic. If  he was talking, I presume they needed him to do a few tricks or something.”

She nodded. “Yes, I remember them putting one back on him in the end, there.” Her brow furrowed and she looked down at her coffee with a slight frown. “Loki was––both more polite than I expected, and more unnerving. With most people there, in Asgard, it felt a bit like they were looking through me, mostly because so many of them I met are a few thousand years old or something ridiculous, but they still seemed close to human. They still seemed like they were astute, but still comfortably flawed, and like they could see through some of my actions, but I could still surprise them as much as anyone. It wasn’t like they could read my mind.” She made a face a bit, then let it smooth out as she met Tony’s gaze. “With Loki, it was more like he could if he wanted to, but he just saw no reason for it most of the time, so the best bet around him was to be boring so he’d not look too closely, but I got him talking about the bi-frost and how it works, and he was just brilliant, and could explain so much that everyone else was either vague about because they didn’t really know, or cagey about trying to explain. If I didn’t feel like every conversation after that with him had been his way of slowly dissecting the rest of my mind, I might even say he was likable.”

Tony smirked a little, amused. “He does that, yeah.”

She shot him a curious look. “You sound like you know him a bit. Well––more than the others. More than me, maybe.”

“I talked with him a bit.”

Jane nodded a little, smiling faintly. “Oh. You’re dissecting me, too, then. That’s what it is. I was trying to work out quite what was different about this conversation than ones we’ve had before.”

“Only a little. I try to be polite and not-obvious about it.”

“You’re more subtle than him, yeah.”

“Then he was probably trying to unnerve you,” the inventor said, shrugging. “From the sound of it, he succeeded.”

She considered. “You know, that would make a lot of sense, actually. That bastard is just––he’s crazy. Well, obviously he’s crazy, he tried to take over the earth.” She snorted, then looked at Tony a little more shrewdly. “I was talking to him a bit about that, and asked if he really thought it would work, but couldn’t get a straight answer from him. He didn’t say yes, which I thought was weird, but he seemed amused that I’d asked, and wanted to draw out the whole discussion for fun.”

Tony nodded a little, hiding his faint half-smile behind his coffee cup as he took another sip.

Jane wasn’t quite fooled by that one. “Do you think he did?”

Willing to concede rather than feign ignorance, the inventor admitted, “No, he really didn’t.” His voice was low and slightly amused, but certain.

“How are you so sure?”

“Why do you think he asked about me, and what did he ask?”

She narrowed her eyes at him a little. “Why do you want to know?”

“I’m vain. And he’s interesting.” Both statements were true. They just also weren’t really the answer, but they were simpler and more believable.

Jane seemed to accept them. “I still don’t know why he asked, I didn’t have time to give it much thought before getting possessed. Anyway, it started when I asked what he’d thought of the Avengers, and he said something about staying out of range of the Hulk in future, but that most of the rest of you, with one exception, were of relatively little interest. Then he asked if I knew you at all, and I told him we’d had a few discussions about my theories on the rainbow bridge not long before I’d left for Asgard. He asked if you were well, which caught me a little off-guard.” She shrugged. “I told him that you were, that Pepper Potts was still keeping you in line from what I could tell, and that it was a bit weird that he should ask.”

Tony nodded. “He say anything to that?”

“Yes. Your turn, though, Tony. How are you so sure he didn’t really think his plans to take over would work?”

The inventor sighed. “Because he’s too smart to use such a stupid strategy. I called him on it before the invasion, about how he should’ve just stolen the power-source and taken it somewhere like the north pole where we’d never detect the radiation and other crazy effects due to all the electromagnetic and other interference up there. Then he could’ve gotten the whole armada, or most of it, through, and attacked multiple cities worldwide all at once. He’s from Asgard, for fuck’s sake; they clearly know a thing or two about strategy, and him in particular since he’s a bit less––well, direct and brute-force than Thor, let’s say.”

Jane’s eyebrows raised. “You really called him out on that?”

He nodded.

“And he didn’t kill you?”

“Well, he tried very hard not to laugh, we argued a bit, and eventually he threw me out a window, but during the argument I pretty well confirmed that he was playing to lose. He didn’t want the earth, he just wanted a war, and to use earth’s defenses to wipe out the Chitauri for him.” He shrugged. “Now you.”

Jane shook her head at him wonderingly. “You must be out of your mind. No wonder he seemed to sound like he actually likes you.”

Irrationally, Tony felt the urge to beam in a proud and cocky fashion at that. He resisted, but only just, and cleared his throat quietly, managing to sound casual and near-deadpan as he responded, “Of course he does. I’m Tony Stark and he’s clearly got good taste. Come on, now, answer my question.”

She snorted at him. “You like him. My god, you actually like him.”

“He’s my favorite villain. I’m allowed to have a favorite.”

“Why is he your favorite?”

“You still haven’t answered me.”

“Yes, but I don’t have any guarantee you’ll actually answer any more of mine after I’ve answered yours. Come on, Tony.”

Tony frowned, a number of responses going through his head along the lines of, Do I ask why you like Thor? which was way too much of a giveaway to, you’ve seen him so clearly you’re aware of how delicious he looks which she probably wouldn’t take too seriously, to because I want to take him apart which was... actually almost tolerable. “He’s my favorite because he outwitted us; he genuinely did, me included for the most part, and if he hadn’t fucked up at the end by getting his spine shattered by the Hulk, we’d never have stood a chance trying to catch him. He’s not just challenging, he’s interesting. So call him a worthy opponent and call me insane, but either way...” He raised his eyebrows pointedly.

Jane nodded a little, her expression carefully blank except a slight glitter of something like curiosity in her gaze. “He didn’t say anything much at first, like he wanted the conversation to sort of naturally trail off, but I wanted to know why he’d asked, because I figured it might be good to know if he’d be targeting you specifically in the future if he ever got loose. We all suspected he would, as soon as they got him out of that tree.”

“Tree?”

“One question at a time.”

Tony snorted, but gestured for her to continue.

“He was watching Thor at the time, trying to look like he wasn’t paying attention to me. I asked if he’d fallen for your seductive wiles or something.” She smirked a little. “He said ‘almost’ and walked off. I thought he was trying to get a reaction out of me, but I’m starting to wonder.”

“Only almost?” the inventor sighed, in tones of mock-lament.

“Tony, were you flirting with Loki?”

“Well. Yeah. Are you surprised?”
She considered. “I suppose not.”

“Good: I’d otherwise have to lose some respect for you.”

Jane shook her head at him. “But you weren’t really interested?”

“I never said that.”

At that, her eyes widened a little. “You were with Pepper, though.”

“I was interested, but not available.”

“Now you’re available and still interested?”

“Maybe.”

Eyebrows raised, Jane took a long sip from her coffee. “Well. That’s unexpected. Wouldn’t that be tricky with him being a villain, and sort of a god and everything?”

“Well, you’d be more informed on the logistics of the latter, presuming things ever advanced even half that far, which is pretty questionable,” Tony said offhandedly, “but the villain bit? He’s more sort of chaotic neutral, with a tendency to really want to screw over Thor whenever he gets the chance, so far as I can tell.”

“I guess I can see that,” Jane muttered.

“Just between us, Jane, what do you think the chances are of him, well, getting out on a more permanent basis?”

Her expression turned a bit apologetic. “I’m not sure. They kept him on close watch, under close guard as often as possible. They chained him up, sealed his mouth and locked him away again before I left. He’s... sort of sealed away into a tree until an Aesir sheds a tear for him, which doesn’t look likely, to be frank. They only needed him to get access to the world of the Dark Elves. Nothing more.”

Tony nodded thoughtfully. “So I shouldn’t wait up, is what you’re saying.”

“I’m saying I don’t know, but from personal experience––even when they promise to return, they can be limited by other factors. If there’s one thing I learned while I was there, it’s that the gods are still about as crazy as we are, and have judgement just as questionable.” Her expression turned a little pained and she couldn’t meet his eye, just for a few moments.

“I’m sorry.”

She smiled a little, cool and self-deprecating and sad. “So am I. Especially if you’re even a little serious about this.” She met his stare again, reading his expression shrewdly. “You are, aren’t you?”

The mad inventor shrugged it off with one of his best devil-may-care smiles. “Well. It was a long-shot anyhow. Probably crazy to even consider.”

“You like being crazy, though.”

“I do,” he conceded.

“Tony... don’t go waiting around for god. Trust me on that much. You’d––well, as you said, if it got half so far as my own experiences, you’d uh, probably stand a better chance than I did in some regards I’d rather not talk about––family ones––but Loki’s got a long sentence to serve there, and they’re really angry about the whole attempted-genocide thing as well as the treason, attempts to kill Thor, and the body-count he racked up on earth, which is supposed to be under a certain degree of Asgardian protection. I know he’s tricky, and sly, and disconcertingly brilliant, but I’d think he’d have found a way to get out of there by now, if he could.”

Tony nodded, recalling, if I do not get out within the first six months, it may be years... I can promise you nothing. “Maybe.” He shook his head a little, and changed the subject to the anomalies he’d seen mapped out on the lab walls.

“Yeah, those are based on the rift Loki opened to get us to the Dark World. I made him explain it to me a bit. My memory, as I mentioned, gets blurred after a certain point, though, so recalling the explanations and mapping out the concepts is getting tricky.”

“Tell me more about the rift, then,” Tony said, not letting his thoughts linger overlong on Loki for the rest of the conversation. It almost worked. Almost.

He did succeed more frequently at the exercise in the days and weeks after that.

After a while, he didn’t think about it much, with the exception of an increasingly vivid erotic dream life. He could even convince himself for long stretches of time that he wasn’t waiting for something, someone, suitably amazing. When he couldn’t convince himself, he called himself an idiot. That didn’t help, either.

 

~~

 

So overall, it came as a bit of shock when, just a month later, with charred armor, helmet missing, and a lot of blood all over him (plenty of it his own), Loki Odinson appeared in the middle of the Malibu house’s private lab, where Tony had been tinkering. The inventor stared, and the wrench in his hand slipped out of his grasp to land with a metallic clatter on the floor. “Holy fuckin’ shit.”

Leaning heavily on an unfamiliar staff, hair a bit shorter but still wild as last time in that inexplicably elegant way (because god forbid even an epic battle should mess up his hair overmuch) the god of lies and mischief raised his head slowly and met Tony’s gaze in a manner far more steady than the way he stood. “Hello.”

Tony leapt belatedly to his feet, heading over. “What the hell happened to you?”

“I do not. Appreciate. Being conned,” Loki snarled, and then swayed worryingly.

Tony grabbed one of the god of mischief’s arms and drew it across his shoulders. “Hey, no falling, in that armor and with the added weight of the blood you’re soaked in, I’d have to put on one of the suits to get you back off the floor. Can you walk?”

The trickster nodded vaguely. “With aid. Thank you.”

“You’re not dying are you?” Tony said gravely.

“I occasionally thank people without being forced; don’t sound so shocked. Shall we move now, before I collapse and further bleed all over your floor?”

“Alright, yeah, come on. I have a bed in the corner.” It took them a couple of minutes but he managed to get Loki there, at which point the god of mischief sat down heavily, and tugged off the remains of his cape, tossing them aside. He started on his armor, from there, as Tony grabbed a nearby stool and sat down to watch him curiously.

“Someone actually conned you? I mean... you?

“Yes. It’s rather complicated.” He shed gauntlets, bandolier, outer coat, and chest piece, stacking them in an only incidentally neat fashion on the floor near the corner of the bed. The fact the leather beneath all that still looked torn to shit was pretty impressive. “And you may need to, just perhaps, prepare a response force; the Avengers would be a good start, but you will likely need more than even them.” He went to remove the leather vest he wore and it caught, stuck on something at his lower back. He reached back, and wrenched something free with a grimace and an unpleasant wet and cracking sound. He then held up the thing––what looked like a strangely stylized shuriken––and glared at it for a moment, then tossed it aside onto the pile of his clothing.

“Woah, wait, what now?”

“There is a would-be demigod called Thanos. The Chitauri served under him.”
“I already don’t like the sound of this.” Then he made a slightly disconcerted noise, because with the remaining bits of shredded leather removed, he could see just how much blood had soaked through Loki’s green undershirt. He’d had some warning: the long gashes in the leather and all, but still. “My god, it’s like fucking christmas.” All red and green.

“Your observational skills are keen as ever. Do you have any relatively narrow pliers or similar tools? I exerted the last of my remaining magic reserves to get here-” He narrowed his eyes. “-and to track down your sorry hide, such that I can’t remove all of this shrapnel by magic, but I’m far too impatient to leave all of it in situ while recovering from that.”

“Yeah, give me a minute.” Tony darted away behind a section of work tables. Rustling and clanking sounds followed. He emerged with what looked like a large, industrial first-aid kit, and returned to Loki, dragging the stool closer. “Bruce came up with these for Avengers-level day to day potential injuries.” He flicked it open, sanitized his hands briefly, and unwrapped a few sterile tools. “Point me to shrapnel. I’m a bit of an expert on it.” He tapped the arc reactor casually.

Loki offered an odd, crooked half-smile, and removed his shirt.

It was at that point Tony inconveniently realized he had a half-naked god in his bed. Not the bed he’d prefer, as those upstairs were way better for... things, and the fact Loki was exhausted and bloody and wounded was not the sexiest of situations, but the fact remained: he’d now seen Loki’s bare skin from the waist up, and apart from the blood and the bruising it looked glorious. “I’ve imagined a few versions of this scenario before, but rest assured, you weren’t bleeding this profusely in any of them. And for this to work out you might want to be on this stool, actually, so you’re in a less awkward twisty position.”

Surprisingly obedient, the god of mischief maneuvered himself to the recommended new perch, his back to Tony, who perched on the bed.

“You could be part porcupine. Seriously, there’s at least eight things here.”

“Do get started then, won’t you?”

“Right, right. First one. Countdown needed?”

“Just do it.” He barely even twitched at the first bit of debris removal.

“Something explode?”

“Yes. I was nearby.”

“I guessed as much. It wouldn’t otherwise make sense for chunks like this to have gotten through all the leather, and your cape was all sort of scorched. Second one, might be a bit crunchy.” He pulled it out and made a disconcerted noise.

Loki’s breath hitched a moment, then he let out a breath. “That’s why I could still taste blood, then.”

“This... this is three inches long.”

“Yes. Moving on.”

“I don’t know what’s in the water up there in Asgard, but I want some.”

The god of mischief snorted. “It’s apples, actually. Not in the water, but in Asgard. We have to eat at least one every, oh, century or so.”

“So you’re saying I should raid the fruit bowls if I ever visit?”

Loki cleared his throat. “It is unlikely they would be left in reach. It’s considered criminal for them to be given to a mortal without particular ceremonial gestures, such as passing a test of courage at Odin’s whim.”

“Third one, hard to get a grip on, this will be tricky. So, trials?”

“Yes. Did Dr. Foster never mention?” He hissed.

“Sorry, you caught me a bit off-guard there.” He set aside that piece on the tray from the first aid kit, along with the rest. “She kinda hasn’t talked about her trip in too much detail, particularly where Thor was concerned, though when I asked about you she was a little more forthcoming. You’re, ah, sort of implying she failed?”

“Yes.”

“Ouch. That had to be a mess.”

“Thor was rather disconsolate, yes. Luckily, I’m more fond of overcast skies than most in Asgard.”

Tony shook his head a little. “Also: how’d you get out of the tree?”

“I used some of my natural Jotunn abilities to affect its health, and cause it to shed leaves. One of them hit Heimdall in the eye, causing him to shed a tear: shot in the dark, but it worked.”

“Nice. Also: fourth one here.” It came out easier, not quite as impressive as the others. “And fifth.” Similarly anticlimactic.

“You asked Jane Foster about me?”

“Well, Thor wasn’t available. Who else would I get news from Asgard from?”

Loki hummed thoughtfully. “From her description, you sounded occupied.”

It took a moment for Tony to puzzle that one out. Then he recalled Jane’s comment, He asked if you were well... I told him that you were, that Pepper Potts was still keeping you in line from what I could tell, and that it was a bit weird that he should ask. “I told you I’d like to see you again independent of that. In any case that, ah, ceased to be a factor about five months ago. I did explain everything to her, about you. She thinks we’re both insane, but she wasn’t surprised.” He cleared his throat a little. “You sounded like you had trouble finding me. I thought you had some sort of location-spell type mojo for stuff like that, though; Thor’s mentioned it.”

“I tried, but you’ve changed in a way I found difficult to pin down.” He twitched. “There’s another splinter, there.”

“Yeah, working on it. And yeah, I’ve changed a bit, nothing too drasssst-–ic well, no, I guess Extremis rebuilding my entire body from scratch with some genetic rewriting might sort of qualify.”

“What?” Loki sounded disconcerted.

“Programmable virus sort of thing. The arc reactor might be a little more neatly integrated into my whole system, incidentally. Long story.”

“Apparently,” Loki muttered.

“Yours first. The Thanos guy?”

“He anticipated that it was not my intention to hand over the tesseract, by some means. Possibly he’s just that irritatingly astute, but I’m reluctant to give that credit to anyone who has such an irrational and occasionally tempestuous case of romantic adoration for the physical manifestation of Death.”

“Wow. Seriously? Only a few more, by the way.”

“He was the one whose forces found me after my fall. He knew of me, and asked about the tesseract, then handed me into the Chitauri’s care.”

“Knowing you’d generally fuck everyone over for spite’s sake, including the Chitauri themselves?”

“It was a test. He sent us to test earth, and you passed. It was also a test of the Chitauri, who were relatively recent additions to his militia. They failed the test of handling me correctly, as he guessed they would, and of giving earth a sound thrashing, which was more of an open question. As a result, he now has an interest in your planet. It seems he has intentions to visit.”

Tony’s hands stilled. “That doesn’t sound good. You, ah, just sharing the good news? I somehow doubt it.”

“I’ll fight alongside heros if I have to, if only to make him burn.”

The mad inventor deliberately ignored the way that base viciousness in Loki’s voice sent a not-unpleasant shiver down his spine, and removed two smaller bits of shrapnel before eyeing the last one, which he’d avoided so far because it looked the worst. “One more, and it’s not gonna be pleasant.”

“Yes, I’ve been very aware of that one.”

“That’s unfortunate. Ready?”

Loki nodded.

Tony got a good grip on the severely twisted bit of metal, tugged experimentally and felt hard resistance. “Shit. It’s caught on bone.”

“Trust me, I’ve noticed.” His voice was terse. “Get on with it.”

It took nearly half a minute of turning it and pulling in a few different directions before it came loose. “You are one tough son of a bitch. Any other hard to reach places compromised? Below the belt, maybe?”

“There were other bodies between myself and the blast, blocking most of the debris that might otherwise have otherwise hit me anywhere from the hips down.”

Tony tried and failed not feel a bit put out that he’d most likely not get to see Loki’s ass too that night, then. “I think you just don’t want to remove your pants.” And then all thoughts of disappointment vanished abruptly, because the god of mischief moved with remarkable speed to pin him to the mattress, causing him to drop the forceps, which landed with a nearly comical little crashing noise in the open first-aid kit. Tony tried to come up with another comment and failed, because Loki was doing the looming thing again, this time in close proximity and stripped to the waist, which made it even more effective at robbing him of coherent thought than usual. Yeah, words were looking thin on the ground.

Loki examined him closely, his expression that irritatingly smooth mask again. It made him look like he was considering Tony-dissection more than anything else: whether in a culinary or surgical sense seemed uncertain. “What else has changed, I wonder?” he mused, low and curious.

“Well. Lemme think. Hard to think with––uh. There’s no longer any alcohol in the house. Sorry if that disappoints.”

The god’s eyebrows raised, and he tilted his head a bit to one side. “Interesting. Nothing else?”

“Um. A lot of things, but uh...” Not how much I want you. I missed you this time, the whole damn time, and it doesn’t make sense because I’ve never had you in my life more than an hour or two at a time, and I really did love Pepper, still do, just––not like I seem to irrationally want you. Tony swallowed thickly, realizing he was a hero, yeah, but still far, far too cowardly to come out and say that. Condense it. This is Loki. He can read you. “You know, I think I missed you.”

Loki’s eyes widened a fraction. “Did you?”

“Yeah.” He offered a faint, slightly embarrassed smile.

The god of mischief’s brow furrowed. “You hardly know me.”

“And I still know you better than most people where you’re from.”

At that, Loki’s expression softened, just a little, though his eyes remained sharp and a bit shrewd. “You do. I know you do, and it drives me mad.”

“You were already mad.”

“You know what I mean,” the trickster murmured.

“How do you do this every time by the way?” Tony asked, a bit exasperated with himself by this point.

“Do what?”

“Not the pinning me to a bed, or things would’ve gone pretty different for us, I think, right off the bat. I mean. Every time you show up, every time you drop in, since the damn cave, I can’t focus on anything else when you’re in a room, and most of the time I want you so badly it’s almost ridiculous, and a bit terrifying. Every. Damn. Time. Even when I try not to.”

Loki considered, leaning in closer, resting his forehead against the mortal’s. His eyes fell shut. “I have tried, and failed miserably, to shake off my irrational desire for you. Your words have replayed in my head countless times, even changed my perspective on some matters. You must know how rare that is. Few beings, immortal or otherwise, of any race can claim to have such power as that over one such as me.”

Tony almost hesitantly reached up, running a hand through Loki’s hair. “So... do I get to keep you for a while this time? Or, uh, try to? Test run?”

The trickster shivered slightly. “I––yes. For a time. Perhaps we can see how impossible this really is––or should be––”

“We’re both impossible on our own anyhow,” the inventor reminded. “Maybe two impossibles put together can make a highly probable?”

Loki smirked faintly. “Hm. That has actually been common in my experience, I suppose, but not like this.”

“I’m novel even to a trickster deity older than christianity. You’re so good for my ego, sometimes.”

“Don’t get used to that.

“I won’t. We’re both pretty good at cutting each other down, but we need that, really, done really well for preference. Well, I know I need that, just to keep focused and functional a lot of the time, but maybe we can see about applying something similar to you. I mean, really: you are a god, and I’ve generally got the ego of one. Who else is going to keep us in check?” He then fell quiet at the brush of Loki’s lips against his own: unhesitant, exploratory, possessive. The inventor made a small and broken sound, pressing up into the contact, seeking more––always more. When Loki provided, one hand coming to hold Tony’s jaw firmly and tilt his head back further as that silver-tongue slipped into his mouth and utterly laid claim to him, Tony couldn’t help but shudder, his hands coming up to grip the tricksters’s upper arms hard.

And when they parted, neither of them could seem to pull away very far and instead lingered, breathing each other in.

“Yes,” Loki intoned, “I would be willing to accept accommodations here on earth for the duration of the upcoming war at the least, on the grounds that you come with them, with or without clothing.”

“Perfect. Excellent. Yeah,” Tony panted, grinning. Then he glanced down between them and cleared hit throat. “So...”

“I am not exactly in peak physical health at the moment. I’ve still got rather less blood in my system than is every healthy. I very much want to enjoy fucking you, so it’s rather best to let all of my more miserable internal injuries heal.”

The mad inventor managed to smother the slightly indecent noise those words threatened to pull from him. He instead aimed for blithe: “You could probably still take down a battalion of armed guards in thirty seconds, though, couldn’t you, you crazy bastard?”

“Not so easily. There is a key difference between fighting to survive, and doing something far more––hm, enjoyable.” He shifted away and sprawled out on the bed between Tony and the wall, smirking slightly at the inventor’s faint whimper of dismay. He then seemed rather more surprised than Tony felt was altogether merited, when Tony moved up the bed to sprawl out next to him, after setting the first aid kit and relevant bits aside on the nearest table.

“This should be awkward, shouldn’t it? This whole thing, given it’s been... How long since you got carted off to Asgard?”

Loki gave a hum, his eyes falling shut. “Yes, it should. And over a year, though by how far I may have lost track. I was attempting to keep distracted. It didn’t altogether work.” He cleared his throat. “I take it your previous...”

“She’s around, but yeah, like I said: not a factor in that sense for a few months now. Pepper... She, ah, had trouble getting her head around my decision-making process where her life is concerned, and still doesn’t quite know how to react to the idea that I’d let twenty or more other people die without hesitation rather than let anyone take her away.”

The god made a quiet, understanding sound. “Sounds like my ex-wife.”

Tony blinked at that. Well, I did know he had a daughter; this shouldn’t really come as a surprise, I guess. “How so?”

“She is, at heart, a moral creature. I have never been. I thought she knew, and I was quite sorely mistaken.”

“Ah. Long story, then.”

“Yes.” Loki’s voice sounded increasingly low, and tired.

“Heh. It took the two of us longer to get traction than the Avengers.”

The god of mischief smiled a little, but was clearly more that halfway asleep by that point, his exhaustion more than evident.

Tony considered asking if he were at all cold, in order to offer a blanket, then realized that could get into So, speaking of touchy subjects, you’re a frost-giant; how’s that working out for you? territory. He reached over the headboard where he kept fresh-folded blankets stacked and pulled one down, covering them both with it and using that as an excuse to get closer. He was a little stunned when Loki made a soft noise and pulled him closer still, tangling up with him, but didn’t complain. He hadn’t expected to fall asleep there, but nor had he given thought to how he might extricate himself; by the time it occurred to him to consider, he was too drowsy to plan out such an extrication anyway.

 

~~

 

Waking up with a half-naked god of mischief pressed close against his back was a novel sensation, but not one Tony found himself averse to. Not in the least. Especially when JARVIS announced the time, incidentally revealing they’d both passed out for almost a full ten hours, because the sound of the AI caused Loki to give a growl of protest and try to hide his face against Tony’s neck. It bordered on adorable, even as it sent prickles of awareness skittering over his skin.

“How’d I sleep so long?” Tony muttered.

“Most likely the forty-eight hours of work in your lab before that, sir.”

“Right. Right.” He started to pull the blanket over his head, not ready to face full consciousness yet.

Then Loki stirred a bit, seeming to wake a little more fully and bit at the tender skin just below the inventor's ear, near the corner of his jaw, and Tony found himself abruptly wide awake because lips teeth pressure Loki and okay, awake clearly did not mean coherent, but that was fine. More than fine.

“Good morning to you too,” he muttered.

The god hummed against his skin, hands moving: one sliding under the inventor’s shirt and the other pulling at his hip, so his ass met with––well, good morning, indeed, oh fuck. “That’s got to be uncomfortable in leather pants. I recommend you remove them, and let me make that better, post-haste.”

“In good time.” Loki’s tongue darted out, and along with his teeth did maddening things to the shell of Tony’s ear: alternating between ghost-light, and sharp enough to almost sting. His hand on the inventor’s hip drifted lower to assess the state of Tony’s arousal through his jeans, and caressed appreciatively upon finding Tony already rock hard.

“Gyghh––fuck. You don’t waste time, do you?”

“Given how long I’ve wanted you?” He flicked open the front of Tony’s jeans easily. “How long I’ve wanted to have you shuddering with want, breathless, writhing beneath me as I fuck you? No, I’d not say it’s a matter of wasting time.” His hand gripped Tony’s length and stroked. “I want to take a bit of the edge off, so that in the next round, I can draw it out properly until you forget your own name, but still remember how to beg. Good plan?”

A distinctly incoherent few syllables escaped Tony’s throat. “I’m fine with this, yeah, just––” He pressed back harder against Loki’s arousal, earning a low groan from the god of mischief. “-don’t fucking stop touching me.”

Loki didn’t. Instead he kept up a litany of positively filthy whispers close to the inventor’s ear, in that gravel-and-velvet voice that was just a bit richer than his defensive vitriol where Tony had heard it previously, and a bit more breathless, and his hand kept stroking, figuring out precisely how Tony liked it remarkably fast.

It lasted until Loki seemed unable to help rutting against him a little, seeking friction, and telling Tony in no uncertain terms, “Come for me, Tony; I want to see you break for me, want to hear you-”

At that point, Tony’s vision went white for a second as he came hard, making a thorough mess of the sheets. He’d made a breathless strangled noise somewhere along the way, which may or may not have consisted of two syllables remarkably similar to “loh” and “kee” respectively. He caught his breath for a few moments, feeling Loki tuck him back into his jeans and re-button them, then thought leather pants must go, immediately turned in Loki’s grasp and rolled the trickster onto his back. “You are still wearing pants.”

“So are you.”

“Not the point.” Tony then kissed him hard, getting distracted by that incredible mouth for a while, though not enough to keep his wandering hands from making quick, detailed assessments of the fastenings of Loki’s pants––overcomplicated, just like the rest of the outfit, but as a genius and sex expert both, Tony decided they were far from unworkable and managed to have them undone and his hands down them in less than a full minute. His hands even got pleasantly trapped for a while under Loki, caught between the trickster god’s fabulous ass and the still-not-off-enough leather of those pants. It was glorious, Loki squirming just a little when Tony squeezed, gasping when the inventor ground their hips together hard.

Tony’s mouth trailed down that long neck to the trickster’s almost delicate-looking collarbones, and then down, down, down further, slow as he could. For every inch he moved down Loki’s body, he sought three inches of progress on the trouser-removal front. By the time he was nuzzling at the tender skin between navel and hip bone, the dread clothing was gone, and he could run his hands all along Loki’s inner thighs, teasing until Loki made a terse, frustrated noise. Then Tony mentally crossed off line #25 on his bucket-list: find out what a god’s cock tastes like and make it worth it.

As the inventor swallowed him whole, Loki’s hips arched off the bed, and would have done so further if not for Tony’s arms holding them down. The trickster made low growling noises now and then that trailed off into something not unlike a moan, but every now and then those stopped and little breathless half-syllables would escape his lips while his whole body shook. Tony really couldn’t decide which he liked more. He remained wholly focused upon making the god of mischief fall apart, until Loki came with a muffled groan, his fingers tangled in the inventor’s hair, tightening their grip a little when Tony swallowed around him.

Tony removed his t-shirt and settled on the trickster’s chest comfortably, admiring how much less pale Loki looked, and how much more relaxed. “You look good sweaty and messy like this. This should happen more.”

Loki’s eyes fell open. “I want to taste you and see if I can make you scream just with use of my mouth, and then fuck you through the mattress as soon as you have your breath back.”

The inventor’s teeth dragged across his lower lip. “You know, I think you are the best bad idea ever.”

 

~~

 

Rather understandably, they didn’t manage to leave the bed for another few hours, after which they took far longer than necessary in the shower, before finally calling up the rest of the Avengers where the whole Thanos issue was concerned.

“I needn’t be involved.”

“I thought you wanted to take part, if only to burn this guy?”

The trickster nodded. “Unlike you, they will suspect me of seeking redemption.”

Tony gave an amused snort despite himself. “Fuck ‘em.”

“I’ve got the only Avenger I’ve had that sort of interest in right here, as you’re well aware,” Loki responded, sarcasm positively dripping.

“You don’t want to help me scandalize them? Seriously?”

The trickster looked suddenly thoughtful, then smiled, thoroughly vicious. “Oh, I see.” He pulled Tony closer. “They’re hardly ready for the both of us, I think.”

“They aren’t. At all. Come on, let’s go start a war.”

Loki grinned, wide and just a little psychotic. “This, Tony Stark, is why you are my favorite.”

“Favorite enemy?”

“Occasionally.”

“Favorite mortal?”

“True.”

“Favorite...”

“Tony.”

“Loki?”

“Let’s go scandalize some heroes.”

“Excellent plan.”

 

~~

 

The rest of the Avengers were understandably a little perturbed to see Loki again. Particularly without him being in chains or any other restraints. The fact he was brought in by Tony Stark who had a very impressive few hickeys on the back of his neck (to match the one the god of mischief sported near the base of his throat) and was acting a bit unusually cheerful, was even less reassuring.

“Weren’t you locked up in a tree or something?” Clint asked blithely.

“I was let out early for both good behavior, and being too damned useful to keep locked away all the time,” Loki responded. “Thor can be very persuasively intimidating to legal representatives when it comes to someone like Jane Foster being in trouble. She was, at the time. Long story.” He shrugged. “Also, the conditions of my sentence were met.” He offered a thoroughly unpleasant smile. “To the chagrin of all but me.”

“I think I heard the bit about the ‘dark elves’ incidents,” Natasha commented. “No one mentioned you were involved.”

“Wait, some of that was on earth?” Tony asked, shooting Loki a slight glare.

“I’m a talented mage and illusionist, and those that didn’t work on could still be persuaded it was in their best interests to omit mention of me. I was not altogether free of certain, only slightly more portable, prison-like bonds, and was thus still taken back to Asgard in the end, in any case.” He smirked. “For a while.”

“And now you’re here, asking for help or something?” Steve asked.

“I’m not asking, I’m warning, and offering aid, respectively. It’s fairly generous of me to do so, given that your planet will be the battle-ground in this upcoming little conflict. You weren’t the only ones conned in the process of my, hmm, seeking closure with the Chitauri, let’s say.”

“It that what you’re calling it?” Clint asked. “Seriously?”

“Yes, not that it’s really your business as to why.”

“To be fair, it was our planet in the crossfire, and us you conned,” Bruce pointed out gently, shooting the god of lies a warning look.

Loki held his gaze without flinching, but there was a tension in his posture and expression that hadn’t been present before Bruce had spoken. “True enough.”

“You could start with Thanos,” Tony recommended.

With determination, Loki didn’t away from Bruce until the other man blinked. Then he glanced at Tony briefly, only to then focus on his own fingernails, examining them as he spoke. “When I fell from Asgard, before meeting almost any of you––one exception––it was through a quite unseemly tear in time and space caused by my weaponization of the bi-frost with intent to destroy a planet. That rift was created when Thor interrupted the attempt by destroying the bi-frost; it was a real mess.”

“Pardon our lack of sympathy ‘destroyer of worlds’,” Clint muttered.

“If I wanted your sympathy I’d have it. I’m talented that way. Now if I may continue?”

Hawkeye waved him on.

“I fell through a particularly unpleasant void, and from there into a completely different region of space. I used what remaining powers I had to make my descent and crash into the local floating-city non-lethal, but I was still all sorts of broken upon landing. I’d landed in a complex run by a would-be demigod known as Thanos. He had been aware of the tesseract, back on earth, being stirred to life by human experimentation, and he knew of me. He knew that as a son of Odin, I’d be familiar with the tesseract, and offered me power and leadership opportunity accordingly, then tossed me into the care of the Chitauri leader, whose job it was to find a way to do to me something similar to... well, what I did to you, Agent Barton. As a mage, I’m more resistant to that, so they were less comfortable with the degree of control they had over me.” His smile was very unkind. “It took them a long, fairly miserable while.”

Loki continued, “They thus spent several months working on that, until I managed to expend all of my magic in a last-ditch attempt to appear as close to broken as possible, and it seemed to work.” His lips twitched. “I was then given a weapon, some intriguing ancient arcane knowledge, and put in a position to access the tesseract. You all know how it went from there. What I was not aware of until recent was that Thanos had been testing both the Chitauri, and earth, by sending my charming self to screw with all of you. The Chitauri failed and what remains of them are now the very lowest-ranking canon-fodder in his militia. Earth won, and so he’s now inclined to... further test your worthiness, as it were. This will involve a good deal of destruction and chaos, as you can doubtlessly imagine.”

“We can,” Natasha said carefully. “But you expect us to believe this? And that you weren’t in control of your own actions?”

A laugh escaped Loki before he could stop it: sharp and bitter and hateful. “I never said that at all. Of course I was in control of my own actions. I planned to lure the most dangerous persons I could find together and aim them at the Chitauri to get even. My only genuine mistake, in the end, was getting severe enough internal bleeding, spinal injuries, other broken bones, et cetera, that I lacked sufficient power to escape imprisonment at the very end.”

“Uh, Tony, can I ask you something?” Steve said slowly.

“Yeah, this is what I was sort of talking around at the time,” the inventor said, anticipating the question already. The others, Loki included, shot him looks. He aimed his answer mostly at Loki, “I may’ve suggested, while we were working out where you’d gone after the helicarrier near-crash debacle, that we would’ve been more likely to be torn apart team-wise, if you hadn’t made yourself a force for us to unify against. I’d sort of worked out by then that you were putting on a show to the Chitauri’s expectations with intent to get back at them and all.”

That’s why you only half made sense,” Steve muttered, as though that had bothered him quietly for months.

“How did you know he had a grudge against the Chitauri, Tony?” Natasha asked, astute as she ever was.

“Well, I knew he was being held captive and tortured... how many months before that?” He turned to Loki.

“Just shy of eight months by the rather unwieldy mostly-Roman calendar Midgard uses these days,” the god answered.

“Right. Natasha, you might remember that as the time I was dying of palladium poisoning, if that helps.”

The entire table was very, very quiet for several seconds.

Loki beamed, and Tony merely looked thoughtfully amused.

“Wait,” Clint said, the strength of his need to comment on any and all things overcoming the sheer weight of incredulity that had everyone else still in shock. “You knew him?” He pointed at Loki. “Before all that?”

“Yeah. We’d met a few times.” He carefully ignored how the god of mischief at his right actually covered his mouth with a hand, managing to look mostly serious even as he tried very hard not to laugh.

“When?” Steve snapped, looking caught between anger and sheer bafflement.

“Which time?” Tony asked.

“You should start with the first one, I’d think,” Bruce suggested. He was taking it better than most of them, his voice merely exasperated, rather than irate. Of them all, he was the most unsurprised, and thus almost amused.

“Oh. Well, that was about when I was building my first miniaturized version of the arc reactor in a cave in Afghanistan,” Tony said, tapping loudly on the circle of light in the middle of his chest. He then made a pacifying gesture. “Look, it’s really a very long story, and pretty complicated.”

“A brief summary might be something like: time-distorting matter destroyed recklessly by Tony created an inter-dimensional sort of anomaly which I discovered by accident while traveling hidden paths along the branches of Yggdrasil and found interesting, which became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy because the matter he’d destroyed was from the rainbow bridge breaking, which hadn’t happened yet at that time, and was caused by my actions and Thor’s,” Loki explained. “I did mention that rip in time and space I fell into? It wasn’t the only anomaly in that general region at the time, and shards of the rainbow bridge and the bi-frost must have hit on some interesting ones.”

“Uhm. What?” Steve managed, eloquently.

“To quote a great man, ‘wibbly wobbly, timey-wimey stuff’ if that helps,” Tony offered cheerfully.

“Don’t bring the Doctor into this,” Clint growled, jabbing an accusing finger at him. “Why didn’t you mention this before? Like when he was clearly planning on attacking us?!”

“Because I really, really didn’t want to explain the whole thing,” Tony said, droll. “And knowing all that I did about that didn’t actually help much. He still threw me out a window and all.”

“You asked me to,” Loki muttered.

“Not the point.”

“You asked?” Steve’s exasperation-levels reached new heights.

“Tony,” Natasha said, her voice very low and dangerous, “is this anything to do with your reaction to the items of your father’s that Fury left with you?”

“Uhm.” Tony fidgeted. “Did I mention you’re terrifying sometimes when you manage to work out shit like that?”

“I was going to say impressive,” Loki muttered.

“Of course you were,” the inventor sighed.

“What reaction?” Clint asked.

“We stuck around a while as he made irritable noises at us, one of Howard Stark’s old film reels playing on the projector,” Natasha mused. “Just before we left, he may have shouted something like ‘that god-like son of a bitch knew goddammit’ loud enough we could hear it through the floor. It was followed by some loud crashing noises. We’d presumed at the time that he meant Howard Stark, but now I reconsider.” She shot Loki a look.

Everyone else at the table aside from the inventor, the trickster, and the super-spy, was a bit confused by that one.

“Not altogether wrong,” Loki suggested.

“He knew Howard had left me all the clues I needed to figure out the new element for the arc reactor core and didn’t mention it,” Tony said, in low, resentful tones.

“Well, why would I guide you to a free source of information you were willing to bargain with me for instead?” the trickster shot back.

“Yeah, yeah, I know. Still a dick move.”

“You made a deal with him?” Clint cut in. “Seriously? Seriously?

“Did you think she was suggesting I’m in possession of any altruistic impulses?” Loki asked, sounding positively aghast at the idea.

“Well, okay, that wouldn’t make sense, admittedly,” the archer conceded.

“What did you get out of it, Loki?” Natasha asked, light and gentle and cutting.

The inventor and god of lies both froze, exchanging eloquent looks.

“Uh, well. He’s a dick, did I mention?” Tony said.

“I prefer ‘shrewd negotiator’ thank you.”

“Just out with it, guys,” Bruce suggested, with a polite smile that was somehow scarier than some of Loki’s craziest.

Tony could almost feel the twitch of sudden tension from Loki and coughed to get Bruce to look on him instead. “Well. Uhm.”

“Access to a few S.H.I.E.L.D. resources and databases, and a strict non-interference agreement with Tony wherein Erik Selvig’s work with S.H.I.E.L.D. was concerned. I needed Selvig to be the primary candidate for research into the tesseract, as I already knew enough of him, via my own trips to earth around the time of Thor’s banishment, that I could get something of a small hook in his psyche to guide his research in particular directions, now and then,” Loki explained smoothly. “I would have been able to pull strings even without Tony’s help, but the deal we arranged expedited matters for me such that I could put more of my focus on myself and my captors, and thus better make arrangements for a much of their armada to be potentially destroyed when the opportunity might arise.”

“I made him collect all data he planned to alter for JARVIS to store before he altered it, and after, as he did it,” Tony said. “I took what precautions I could, but I was missing key info as to the full scope of his plans for some reason.”

“Because informing you I planned to stage a failed but still catastrophic alien invasion over New York would have made things much more ethically palatable for you,” Loki countered, sarcastic as he could, which was quite a bit.

“It might have, because I could’ve helped make it less lethal for a lot of the non-combatants involved, and significantly more flashy,” Tony shot back.

“Er, Tony?” Steve said. “Do we need to have the ‘acceptable destruction levels’ discussion again?”

“I keep telling you it’s futile,” Bruce said gently.

“He’s probably right,” Loki suggested.

“Hey! You, princess, are in no position to talk-”

“I’m not ever mistaken for a hero, darling, but I am an expert on the subject of heroics and heroism, given I’m a prince of Asgard,” Loki countered, smiling sharply. “Heroism is a bit of a big thing there.”

Tony sat back a bit in his chair, arms crossed over his chest. “Touché.”

There was a brief pause.

“Tony, I want you to know you are very lucky that I like you just enough I don’t plan to slit your throat in your sleep over this,” Natasha said, her voice calm, though the look in her eyes was all steel and ice.

“I appreciate the lack of assassination attempt, thank you. I won’t do it again––probably, maybe. I’ll try? Anyway, more on that later. Let’s get back to the main reason we’re here: Thanos, how about that guy?” Tony reminded all concerned, in his best announcer-voice.

“He’s inclined to come to earth and bring you all into his empire,” Loki said.

“And we can’t catch him in the crossfire between the Skrulls and Kree who also want to do the same?” Natasha suggested.

“The Kree just suffered a crippling attack from his forces, and the Skrulls are busy trying to take advantage of that,” Loki said gravely. “He is, very unfortunately, quite a brilliant strategist.”

“And he conned the god of lies, too,” Clint mused. “That had to sting.”

“You have no idea,” Loki said, a bit of familiar psychosis in both his voice and expression alike: perfect for causing the hind-brains of most sane-ish sentient beings to twitch and scream, flee, flee!

“I get the feeling you’re not just here to inform us of this and get on your merry way,” Natasha suggested.

“No. It’s my personal goal to focus my attentions on Thanos. Ultimately I would like to rip out his spine and beat the remainder of him to a pulp with it, but I’m willing to be more practical about the means by which I actually kill him. I’m also willing to act as ally to the earth because I know my own limitations, you need all the help you can get-” His demeanor then dropped from droll, straight into damned: icy and flat tones, paired with a savage glare that could have set fire to the room if there’d been enough dry timber around. “-and I want Thanos screaming and burning by my own hands.” He took a breath, relaxing again behind the illusion of placid aloofness. “That is my one condition: he dies, and I get first slice at the very least. Provide me that, and I will be a most cooperative resource for your cause.”

“We can’t trust you,” Clint said. “Not half so far as I can throw you.”

“Then don’t trust me,” Loki shot back. “Surely you, given you work for S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Barton, are more than used to working with persons you don’t trust. Do try and be professional.”

“I’m going to kill you,” the archer growled.

“Aww, that’s how he shows he likes you,” Tony crooned.

“Shut it, Stark!”

“He’s right, Clint,” Natasha said, almost gently, her gaze still fixed on Loki. “Same as anyone else who’s ever pretended to like him, we need to take into account that he’s useful.”

Tony shot her a slightly incredulous look, but the trickster god only smiled in a manner that might’ve been warm if not for the excess of teeth and the way it didn’t quite reach his eyes. As a result, the smile was roughly two-parts benign and one-part axe-murderer.

“Oh, well done, Agent Romanov, I’m sure you would’ve hit me right in the insecurities with that one, if you’d bothered aiming for them better. As it stands, Agent Barton, has she smoothed your feathers enough by establishing that she’s on your side more than mine, by appearing to send that half-hearted barb my way?” He maintained the cheshire-cat-from-hell smile while holding Natasha’s steady glare. When she at last rolled her eyes, he said something very quickly in a language no one at the table other than Natasha showed any sign of recognizing, let alone understanding.

She replied, in conciliatory-sounding tones, in the same language with a slight nod in his direction, eyeing him a little more shrewdly, but in a way Tony was learning to recognize as the way she tended to look at people she had decided were interesting as well as a threat; with Natasha, someone being an enemy or a threat was nothing compared to the degree to which she considered them workable, and at a guess, she’d just put Loki’s ranking on that scale closer to the cooperation end than the pure-manipulation-and-mind-games end.

“I hate it when people do that,” Clint muttered.

“Then you’re in the wrong line of work,” Bruce responded.

“Tell me about it.”

“So,” Steve cut in. “Loki? What should we be expecting, and when?”

The god of mischief steepled his hands where they rested on the table, in a manner that somehow failed to look ridiculous. “Very good question.”

 

~~

 

Tony managed to extricate himself from the meeting by the time they were getting Fury on video conference. Loki had escaped about ten minutes before then, and he found the god of mischief in the shared kitchen of Avenger’s tower, drinking tea and looking only a little more harmless for it. His suit jacket was draped over a barstool, and he was left in his immaculately-tailored shirt of dark emerald, and his jade-and-gold tie. To any more unsuspecting mortal he would’ve looked like nothing so much as an actor, or perhaps just slightly eccentric royalty if they were particularly observant and keen.

To one Tony Stark, he looked... well, edible. But that had been the case since day one, really.

Loki glanced up as the inventor strode into the kitchen and came to a halt in front of him, pressed close as the hot cup of tea in Loki’s hand, between them, would comfortably allow. Smiling faintly and setting the cup aside, Loki smoothed his hands down Tony’s back as the inventor closed the space he hadn’t been able to with the cup in the way. The trickster’s hands settled on Tony’s lower back, fingers digging in, somewhere between stroking, scratching, and applying some form of massage.

Tony leaned his weight on his hands, which had settled on either side of Loki’s hips, on the granite counter the god had already been leaning back against, and tilted his head up. “Having fun?”

“Some. They are moderately entertaining to bait, I will admit.”

“What’d you say to Natasha earlier anyhow?”

“Nothing,” Loki said innocently.

“C’mon.”

“I made a technique-related suggestion.”

“Bastard,” Tony muttered, but fell quiet when the trickster leaned down the necessary few inches to kiss him: unhurried, though it deepened quickly, heated and just enough of the right kind of dirty to get them both breathing a bit less steadily without actually threatening to bring them to the point of rutting against each other in the middle of the kitchen; although both of them were weighing the pros and cons, there, particularly as Loki’s hands caressed lower, with a thoughtful, proprietary squeeze. Tony groaned a little, pushing closer, one hand on Loki’s neck, rough thumb stroking the tender spot he’d discovered near the god of mischief’s right ear that got the most beautiful noises out of him when bitten and sucked. Loki shivered in response and made a growling, pleased sound low in his throat.

About then was when they both heard someone in the doorway make a strangled vocalization that sounded like nothing so much as a kicked quail.

Breaking their lip-lock long enough to turn and shoot equally annoyed glares in the direction of their unwanted audience, they were met with the sight of a scandalized, mortified, and mauve-faced Steve Rogers, who seemed to be frozen in place out of sheer shock and horror.

Tony bit his lip to restrain his own laughter, but Loki had no such compunction and burst into honest-to-god manic giggling at the sight, which escalated until it shook his entire body and he hid his face against the side of Tony’s neck. The inventor also lost it himself as a result, his eyes watering a bit as he tried and utterly failed to stop or restrain his sniggering in any way.

Steve opened his mouth, then closed it, clearly not even knowing where to start, particularly given his embarrassment still outweighed his genuine ire.

“What the hell is-” Clint’s head appeared beside Cap’s shoulder in the doorway and he made a bit of a face. “I knew it. You’re both assholes, and Tony you’re also a whore. Cap? Come on, sit down on the couch until the major effects of traumatization wear off.”

“Not in the kitchen at least, Tony, we’ve been over this!” Steve managed, snapping back to himself as Clint dragged him away down the hall.

“Yes, mother,” Tony called. He then gave in and started sniggering again, leaning on Loki heavily. “Oh, man, the timing!”

“I know!” Loki wheezed, then dissolved into low giggling again before deliberately slowing, and trying to catch his breath. When he did manage to stop, he found the mad inventor looking at him warmly, thoughtfully. “What?”

“Still having trouble believing you’re still here.”

Eyes downcast for a moment, Loki pressed his forehead to Tony’s. “I am. Presuming you still don’t mind my staying despite how––entertainingly volatile that might prove to be.” He glanced pointedly in the general direction of the doorway.

“Yeah. It’s sort of what I do, actually.” He gestured around them. “These insane people didn’t always live here, it just sort of happened.” He hesitated, “that said, they don’t, ah, hold my interest like you do.”

“I’m not easy to live with.”

“We’ll figure that out. Here or Malibu better for you?”

“I get the feeling that central operations will wind up being here.”

“Hmm. Last time you were in my penthouse a lot of things got broken.”

“You asked to be thrown out the window.”

“Yeah. You enjoyed it.”

“So did you, insane and brilliant as you are,” Loki murmured, cupping Tony’s jaw, thumb dragging across his lower lip. “I wanted you so badly, by then. I didn’t have the benefit of another lover to distract me.”

Tony swallowed thickly. “Falling for her was slow, sort of––convenient, but I’d already fell for her before I met you. It wasn’t lacking in intensity or anything even in the end, but she didn’t affect me like you do. I was afraid because I didn’t want to hurt her, and if you’d stepped close enough or asked me for this then, I would have anyway. I’m-”

Loki kissed him, warm and close, almost chaste, to shut him up. “I know. Poor timing, worlds of distance-”

“What I’m saying is––I’m reckless but usually right and brilliant too, and so I’ve decided: you have me,” Tony said. “And if you can still stand me by the end of this war and we’re both still alive, I’d really like to still have you.”

The trickster ran his hand through his lover’s hair. “Trial by fire, then?”

“Suits us, I think. We both have a habit of bringing in wars with us, after all.”

“I can’t be a hero. I never go to war for unselfish reasons.”

“I don’t want you to be a fucking hero any more than you expect me to actually behave like a real one. I want you.

“We’ll see,” Loki said. “If you can still stand me, in the end.”

Tony pulled him down by the front of his shirt, into another kiss, deeper and rather more languid, savoring the closeness for a few long minutes, until someone cleared their throat pointedly, from the other doorway. Not stopping, the inventor sent a rude hand gesture in the general direction of the sound.

“I will use a fire extinguisher,” Natasha warned lightly.

They parted reluctantly.

“What?” Tony snapped, as Loki shot her a cool, slightly annoyed look.

“You already traumatized Steve. Do you really want Bruce irritated about certain things happening near food preparation areas?” she suggested.

“Um,” Tony said, all eloquence.

“So, upstairs,” Loki muttered quickly.

“You’re really unnerved by him, aren’t you?” Tony mused.

“He shattered my spine without trying very hard. And I am a god.”

“Fair enough. Thanks for the heads up, Tasha.”

She rolled her eyes and waved them off toward the elevator to Tony’s penthouse.

“Steve is more worried about food-preparation areas than I am. JARVIS keeps things pretty well disinfected,” Bruce commented. He’d paused in place when Natasha had stopped in the doorway and held up a hand to halt him. Now he joined her.

“Yeah, but you’re the one Loki genuinely doesn’t want to piss off, particularly in any sort of enclosed space,” the spy pointed out.

“So, I take it the hickeys didn’t lie?”

“They did not.”

“How worried are we about this, really?”

“Hmm. He’s been well-disposed enough toward Tony that even after crossing paths with him on multiple occasions over more than a year’s time, the worst he’s done to Tony himself was hurl him out of a window, and most of us have survived worse than that.”

“There was the whole alien invasion thing.”

Natasha shrugged. “If he’s busy getting laid, I think he might not genuinely get up to evil machinations on that sort of scale too often, unless Tony really, reeeally screws up and winds up a target of pseudo-divine wrath...”

“Psycho-divine, maybe.”

“Bag of cats, yes. One of the most accurate things you have ever said. Anyway: general mischief and bizarre circumstances and problems? Yes, things could get interesting, and occasionally terrifying if another of his enemies show up, the way all of our enemies eventually do-”

“God forbid they hold a convention.”

“I’m sure they will at some point. That aside, if he does seem intent to stick around at least for this little war, we should think of it as like keeping a very large and terrifying house-cat. He’ll keep the smaller day-to-day threats scared shitless of coming anywhere near the tower, that’s for sure,” Natasha pointed out. “Especially the first time one of them makes the mistake of crashing through the windows while he’s around. They’ll go down in flames pretty impressively, I’d think.”

Bruce snorted. “Are we taking this too well?”

“We’ve been living in this tower seeing all sorts of crazy shit for a full year at least, now,” the spy theorized. “I just think we’ve just lost the ability to be surprised. And Steve is more than traumatized enough for all of us, I think. Poor man.”

The chemist shrugged. “Yeah. We’d probably need Loki somehow keeping in touch for this most recent epic cluster-war, anyway, so this could work to that end. All else fails, if the worst happens, I’m sure we could work out a way to make his death look like an accident in the middle of said cluster-war.”

“Why Bruce, are you suggesting we consider assassinating a prince?”

“I’ve been living with you too long. You’re rubbing off on me. And that would still be ‘in case of epic back-stabbing what-the-fuckery’ sort of backup plan. I don’t want do do it, really, fun as he may be to take down a notch via smashing.”

Natasha nodded. “Agreed. I don’t want to kill him either. He’s sort of interesting when his psychosis is aimed at other people.”

“Yeah, there is that. I can see why Asgard keeps him. If they’re angry enough at a threatening party to throw Loki at them, the resulting blood-spray is probably deeply satisfying to watch from a safe distance.”

“Keeping Clint from getting himself killed trying to provoke the god of chaos will be a fun exercise.”

“I leave that to you, madam. You’re the expert.”

“Coward.”

“Only a little.”

 

~~

 

 

“I’ll have to return to Asgard at some point soon,” Loki murmured.

“Won’t they try to arrest you again?”

“Most likely. They won’t succeed. Particularly given that I plan to drown them in sense of duty and honor, with a fair dose of guilt, to bring them to join the war effort.”

“You’re having fun with that idea aren’t you?

“Oh yes. They’ll all be a bit shocked, doubtlessly.”

“I should rig you up with a spy camera; we could record it for posterity.”

Loki snorted. “I somehow doubt the feasibility of this.”

“Let me guess: magic will somehow cause interference?”

“Odin’s ravens are frightfully observant, and attracted to even the smallest hint of shining glass they might pluck away. Frigga has gotten them to ignore most decorative jewels and so forth, but they still go after some things. Small camera lenses included, I get the feeling.”

“You’re saying you’d be mobbed by large birds?”

“Not a dignified way to make an entrance in court, let’s say.”

Tony chuckled at that. “Fine, fine. No camera then.”

“It’s easier to misdirect without any unaccounted-for interruptions.”

“Misdirect. Planning to steal something while you’re there?”

“Hardly steal. They’re always available to any citizen of Asgard.”

“What are?”

Loki hummed moving down Tony’s body to lick at the renewed mark he’d left on the mad inventor’s neck. “Later.”

“You’re insatiable. Haaahhh hands god yes your hands.”

 

~~

 

The god of mischief had, by that point, lived a very long time, and had had several loves, but none quite like this; none brilliant enough to outshine stars, or rival him in the ability to pull something from nothing and build light from out of the dark; none he’d ever looked on jealously, unable to have, and still thought this one, this one deserves life more than most any in Asgard, who do have so much of it. Perhaps that was something unique to becoming attached to a mortal, but whether he could keep ahold of this one or not, whether he survived this next war or not, he wanted to know that this one wouldn’t fade away in a few mere decades: not Tony Stark, who was all too perfectly broken, yet a fixer and builder of things, a talented liar, and a man capable of so very much good and ill alike.

It was a selfish desire, really. Loki wanted more time to observe, to see what might happen next, with this one. Especially now that he had this mortal for the time being, and the thought of losing him to, hm, mere mortality, seemed outright unthinkable. It had been trying enough, while imprisoned, finding out just how disturbing and outright painful the thought what if he is gone before I can be free of this truly was for him to face. Months of solitude had brought him to terms with that much, at least: the degree to which Tony Stark had impressed him and left a mark upon him with seemingly little effort, and how much he wanted the mortal genius as a result.

So yes. He would bring Asgard into the war. If he managed to vanish an apple or two up his sleeve while there, that too would suit his purposes nicely.

Good and necessary as such plans were, they were soon far from his mind for the present, though.

His thoughts on such matters, however vague and peripheral (given that they were merely a revisit of established plans) couldn’t help but trail off abruptly as he pulled back from his activities between Tony’s legs, unable to further resist the way the inventor kept pleading under his breath and all but shaking; although the sound of protest Tony made when Loki’s mouth left his cock was quite gratifying.

“Your mouth will be the death of me,” the inventor groaned.

“If so, you’ll at least enjoy it. Turn,” Loki commanded, low and sure, picking up the bottle on the nightstand Tony had made a point of putting in reach earlier, and making efficient use of the sufficiently slippery contents as Tony rolled onto his stomach. The god of mischief leaned over him, pressing close to his back as he slid an arm under his lover to lift up his hips, while his knees pushed Tony’s legs a bit further apart.

Tony was beyond thought at this point. The application of that silver tongue about his person generally had that effect. There were a number of very eloquent, absolutely filthy utterances he might have liked to make at the feel of Loki pressing into him slow enough he knew it was just to make him writhe, and writhe he did, but the broken-off syllables that escaped him were nothing like words.

“Kneel up,” Loki rasped, pulling at him, and Tony moved with him, kneeling up and gripping the top of the bed’s headboard to hold himself up as the trickster’s hands moved over him slow and possessive, hips still.

Soon Tony pushed back against him with a decisive grind, grinning to hear Loki’s breath catch. “Keep touching, but for fuck’s sake I need you moving.”

Loki’s hands settled on the inventor’s thighs, moving them a bit further apart before bucking his hips forward hard, sinking in to the hilt and making Tony give a choked-off gasp. “Tell me precisely what you want,” he said, voice all smoke and honey. “How hard, how fast, how much do you want to feel it tomorrow, Tony?” He started a slow, lazy pace: enough to get them friction without bringing enough relief to satisfy.

“Ghhfuck.” Tony arched back, making a noise when Loki hit that perfect angle, and felt the god grip his hips hard, holding him right in place, striking that bit of perfection every time now. “Yes, there. Deep as you can, but drag it out if you think you can handle it,” he bit out, half-plea and half-growl, like it was being torn from him. He let his head loll back onto Loki’s shoulder. “However––hhngh––ever much I ache tomorrow, it’s just all the more incentive I’ll have to pound you even harder the next time ‘round.”

“Perfect,” purred the trickster, smiling against his lover’s neck, and proceeded to deliver as requested.

Tony lost track of things pretty thoroughly after that. It was all closeness and heat and when Loki dragged out sex, he made slow synonymous with merciless. Every stroke was deep, unhurried, putting as much pressure and friction as possible across the bundle of nerves that made Tony try in vain to thrust back against him for more force, more everything. His body demanded release, but the rest of him wanted this to last as long as he could stand.

“Say the word,” Loki panted, close to his ear. “Can you last, Tony?”

“Keep going. Just. God, Loki,” he moaned. “C’n last.”

“You don’t need my hand stroking you? I love the feel of you, all velvet and hot, and I know you’re hard and wanting for it. I could feel and taste just how close you were earlier.”

Tony gave a faint, broken noise, and started swearing in three languages: a litany of encouragements and descriptive phrases English might have had trouble keeping up with. He was almost trembling now, painfully on edge.

“Close, aren’t you? Oh, tight, you’re trying so hard to last, so beautifully, Tony,” Loki panted. “But now, I just want to see how much you can take.” His fingers ghosted down from Tony’s hip, and lower, just lightly caressing the length of Tony’s cock: not enough, not even close.

“Ohgodohgodohgod,” Tony breathed, not even quite a whisper, shaking in anticipation. “Harder, Loki. Now, please.”

“Yesss,” the trickster hissed, sounding more than a little compromised himself as he took Tony’s length in hand, and sharply picked up the pace of his thrusts, stroking in time with them. He groaned at the way the inventor’s body tightened so quickly, and how Tony’s ragged cry broke off with a whimper as he came. If not for the god’s arm wrapping about his waist, Tony thought he might have collapsed altogether. Instead he was kept close as Loki’s hand released him in favor of resting over Tony’s on the headboard for support as he pulled more small, near-uncertain sounds from Tony with each thrust: over-sensitized flesh caught on the edge between pleasure and pain until Loki too came with a shuddering gasp, and they less than gracefully collapsed onto the bed in a moderately sticky heap.

Tony wasn’t altogether sure where Loki had gotten the damp rag, but he was fine with it, and made a low, sated hum as it moved over his skin, then retreated, along with the trickster, which Tony was more against. Upon Loki’s return, Tony said firmly,  with what scant breath he’d regained, “I need to keep you.”

Loki chuckled at him, and pulled the sheets over them both. “I was thinking much the same, darling.”

“You still didn’t tell me what you’re stealing.”

“The two subjects aren’t unrelated.”

“Wha?”

“Sleep, Tony.”

“Nn––no wait.” He pushed himself up enough to maneuver a bit and sprawl across Loki’s chest. “You, ah, said something about trials for that, though?”

“You qualify, so far as I’m concerned, and I’m already criminal, so I might as well act like one, I think.” Loki fell quiet then as Tony kissed him.

Pulling back, the inventor said, “You’re the best bad idea ever, and you come up with even more bad ideas almost as brilliant. God, no wonder I think I love you.”

Laughing, Loki tugged him down for another kiss.

As far as life went for one Tony Stark, the best way to start a war was to end a chase and get to have his prize for a good while before the explosions started. The war would come. The Avengers and their allies would wreak devastation on the enemy with the aid of an enraged god, which would doubtlessly wind up being one for the books, and then...

Then Tony and his personal devil, his god of lies and mischief, would get to start writing an entirely new story.