Nate drummed his fingers idly on the tabletop, staring at the man across from him with narrowed eyes.
Well, he was a 'man' in the loose sense of the term, anyway, even if he wasn’t precisely human. Nate had eyes, and he followed the news, because you never knew when it might play into a con; he'd be a pretty poor mastermind if he had somehow missed the similarity between the face in front of him and the madman who'd instigated the recent events in New York.
Funny thing, though. His visitor’s eyes looked green in the brewpub’s overhead lighting. Nate could have sworn they'd looked blue on the news.
"Just to make sure I've understood you correctly," he said, careful to place no particular emphasis on any of the words. "You want to hire my team to rehabilitate your reputation."
The being calling himself Loki stared back, eyebrows arched. "I had heard that your team was capable of feats of an extraordinarily devious nature. Did I choose wrongly in coming here?"
His voice was as mild as Nate's, but Nate could hear the challenge buried in the words. A well-set hook; though he must have known someone with Nate's reputation would see it coming. So he was what, counting on Nate's ego to keep him interested? Was his own ego simply that large? Or was it more along the lines of a test?
Regardless of the reasoning, there could only be one safe answer.
"Ah, no, no, we can do the job," Nate assured him. "I was just surprised to be asked in the first place. According to some texts, you're the 'originator of deceits'-- in other words, the original con artist. What could you possibly need our merely human help for?"
"Oh, there's nothing mere about your team, Mr. Ford. Modesty ill becomes you," Loki replied calmly, even a little smugly at the recognition, linking his fingers together and leaning in toward the table. "But in answer to your question-- having the ability to do a thing does not guarantee availability."
"Meaning you can only efficiently play so many roles at once," Nate concluded, nodding as a few more puzzle pieces slotted into place. "As I'm sure you've already realized what would be the simplest method of upgrading your image. Look, it's a truism of this business that you can't con an honest man. And from what I've gathered from the news-- what you see is pretty much what you get with Thor. Am I wrong in assuming that he, and his new superpowered buddies, are the primary audience you have in mind?"
"Not... the only intended audience. But a significant portion of it, yes." Loki nodded.
Nate had been afraid of that. That also meant fooling Tony Stark and what he guessed were at least two intelligence community professionals; and that would add at least another order of magnitude to the difficulty. Nate might not be able to resist a good challenge, but he'd prefer not to make his team a target if there were appropriately epic fallout.
He swallowed. "Then you already know, whatever we pull off? Is going to have to be real. You're going to have to make it real, or you'll be even worse off than before, and it won't be our fault."
Loki's nostrils flared, and his expression soured, but as the seconds passed by and he failed to blast Nate where he sat for the presumption, Nate relaxed a little more.
Maybe there was something to the so-called 'brainwashing' explanation Loki had given for his culpability in the vaguely framed 'incident' he'd mentioned while still pretending to be a regular client. Neurolinguistics was one thing, but outright brainwashing, he'd usually discount as unlikely. But who knew what was possible with 'magic' involved?
"As you said, Mr. Ford, I'm the 'originator of deceits'. Or as your people might put it, the 'god of lies'. Stop repeating the obvious, and tell me how you would accomplish such a task."
"You need them to believe that this powerful enemy is coming-- related to those aliens from New York, I'm assuming?-- and that they will need to follow your plan to defeat him. But even without your, ah, track record, the average person won't just follow any guy who says his strategy is best. Highly skilled people like the Avengers who have reason to doubt will be even harder to convince. And by the time you get through to them, I'm guessing the Earth will already be doomed."
"Yes, yes. I asked you to stop repeating the obvious," Loki replied, dryly.
"So, what we're going to have to do is give them a reason to trust you," Nate continued, waving the interruption away. "You're going to have to perform a feat-- or, more likely, a series of feats-- so unambiguously beneficial to humanity that they will automatically start thinking of your skills and intentions in a positive context."
"So what am I to do, then? Enforce world peace?" Loki sounded unimpressed.
Nate waved that away, too; anything involving people submitting to Loki was a non-starter after Germany. "No, no. Grand ideals are well and good, but you need something a little more visceral for your purposes."
It would be quite possibly the riskiest, largest-scale job the team had ever pulled. Stealing a small country was one thing, or pulling off a mythical job like the White Rabbit; playing on the stage of the gods was something else altogether. But with the whole world in danger....
How could he possibly turn it down? Loki would just ask someone else-- or try to pull it off without any mitigating human input. And that was a much more frightening prospect, in Nate's opinion.
"What we need is something for you to fight, to defeat, to start them thinking of you as a savior. So when the real enemy comes, that's what they'll remember, not the invasion.
"What we need," he concluded, "is to steal ourselves a supervillain."