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Blood and Iron

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The first time Loki appeared in Tony’s living room, his first reaction was a few moments of stunned disbelief. In his defense, he had been extremely distracted by thrust and vector calculations related to the Mark 39, so it took him a moment to realize he was no longer alone. The second moment was taken up by the dawning realization that the figure in front of him was not the product of a lack of sleep and shitty dreams. In the third moment Tony almost killed himself by leaping over the back of his couch, getting as far from Loki as possible while still keeping the bastard in sight.

“JARVIS!”

“A suit is inbound, sir.” Tony started edging towards the stairs leading down to his laboratory. A guy lets his guard down for one second in the privacy of his enormous seaside mansion, and look what happens.

“Calm yourself, Stark. I mean you no harm. I am here to talk,” Loki said, holding his hands up and away from his body. He was wearing simple dark green shirt with his leather duster, only the barest glint of metal at his throat. No armor or weapons in sight, but Tony knew well how fast that could change.

“Fuck that! The last time we had a conversation I almost ended up a gooey stain on a New York sidewalk. JARVIS, notify SHIELD that I have an intruder.”

Loki scowled at the ceiling, trying to pinpoint just who or what Tony was talking to. “I do wish you wouldn’t.”

“Well, no one cares what you want, Professor Snape. You’re supposed to be in Asgard, anyway, so why are you here? Did they let you out early? Couldn’t have been for good behavior.” Tony finally heard the dulcet tones of one his autonomous suits stomping up the stairs. “Hear that? If you really want to talk, Loki, do it fast. Or do it slow, I don’t care, that will give me chance to kick your ass myself. As soon as my suit finally gets here. Move your tin plated ass already!” He shouted towards the stairs. “My stellar wit and conversational skills aren’t going to keep him distracted much longer.”

“I am here to ask for your help.”

Tony started to laugh but trailed off when he saw the seriousness written in the grim line of Loki’s mouth. The moment was surreal: a picturesque but not terribly warming fire was burning in the fireplace (it was SoCal, after all, even at Christmas it was T-shirt weather), stockings for no particular person were hanging from the mantle, and a supervillain was asking for help in his living room. He pinched himself to make extra sure he wasn't dreaming. “Nope. Whatever it is, no, no way.”

“Even if it has to do with the safety of your precious realm?”

“So far, you have been the biggest danger to the safety of my precious realm,” Tony pointed out. “You and your overrated army. Oh good, you’re finally here. Guard position, Loki of Asgard.” Mark 36 took position next to Tony, gears whirring as he suddenly bristled with armaments. “Good boy,” he said with a silent sigh of relief, praying that Loki hadn’t noticed that his hands had been shaking.

“That army is precisely the threat I’m here to discuss. Keep the…automaton, call off your dogs, and we can talk.”

“Automaton? Look, the only one of those that is going to happen is that I am keeping the suit. There are a dozen more just like it waiting for one wrong move. JARVIS, how long until backup arrives?”

“Unfortunately, sir, the closest SHIELD operatives are in New Mexico, so it will be some hours before they arrive. I could call the police, if you wish.”

Loki smirked. Tony thought about shooting him on principle but he had just finished decorating for the holidays, even though it was just a tree and some stockings and he'd actually paid someone to do it it for him. “Fine. Talk if that’s really what you came here to do, then get the hell out of here. Better yet, just skip ahead to getting the hell out of here, because I’m not going to help you. Besides, the Chitauri were defeated. They all dropped dead when I blew up their mothership. Or maybe you didn’t know that, since that was right around the time the Hulk was using you to remodel my floor.” Tony took pleasure at the sour look that replaced the smirk.

“You are a fool if you believe that is the end of the matter. The Chitauri are locusts. They were created for war, and like locusts, the death of a few will do nothing to deter the rest. They are a weapon that was pointed at Earth for a purpose.” Loki turned his gaze from Tony to study the rest of the room, apparently unconcerned about turning his back the Iron Man suit that was tracking his movements with enough firepower to destroy a small city. “That purpose was not fulfilled nor eliminated by my defeat. They will return, and this time, in greater numbers.”

Tony’s palms began to sweat. “Yeah? Why should I believe you?”

Loki looked back at him, his gaze knowing. “You already believe me. You went through the portal, you saw them. Your night terrors are not memories, but premonitions.”

Tony went cold. “What do you know about my nightmares?”

“Your troubles are written on your face for all to see, Stark. It takes no particular genius to see that you sleep but poorly, and instead spend your time building new and better weapons.” Loki gestured to the suit. "You fear the Chitauri's return as well."

"What would the Chitauri want from Earth so badly that they’d come back after we destroyed them the first time?”

“The Tesseract. My staff. And me.”

“You?” Tony barked out a laugh. “Not to impressed with your performance, eh? So what do you think I can do about it?”

The intensity in Loki's eyes was at odds with Loki’s carefully nonthreatening posture. “You defeated the Chitauri once. Help me do it again.”

For the second time that night Tony was speechless. Into this sudden silence came the mundane sound of the doorbell. It was so unexpected that Tony didn’t recognize it until JARVIS said, “Sir, the police are at the door.”

“What? Why? I didn’t tell you to call the police.” He didn’t want to take his eyes off Loki for a second because he had a feeling that he would disappear as soon as he looked away, but the pounding on the door was sounding pretty insistent. “Goddammit, I’m coming!”

Tony threw open the door and scowled at the men in uniform. “I’m fine, false alarm, you can go now,” and slammed it shut again, but it was too late. Loki was gone. “Fuck. “ With a sigh, he opened the door again on the two startled cops. “I’m sorry for being so rude, gentlemen. Is there anything else I can do for you?” A selfie and two autographs later, Tony closed the door again.

“JARVIS, pull up all the research you can find on the Chitauri.” After filling up a mug with a solid four fingers of whiskey topped off by stale coffee, he sat down at his desk as information began scrolling across his computer screen. He had a feeling that sleep was not on the agenda tonight.

______________________________________

Tony spent the next three days holed up in his lab, reviewing all of the existing research on the Chitauri and conducting his own on a few pieces of technology he managed to get his hands on. On the fourth day, JARVIS turned off his power and refused to turn it back on until he showered, ate something that didn’t come out of a bag, and went outside. They negotiated on sleeping, since every time Tony drifted off he always woke up sweating from nightmares.

After his shower, Tony flipped through the stack of invites by the door and found a party happening that night, some kind of Hollywood thing. Perfect. They usually served food at these shindigs, right? That would count as a real meal.

Six hours later, as Tony was stumbling home with a beautiful lady on each arm, his only defense that he tried to consume as many canapes as alcoholic beverages, but the hors d’ouevres were so small, and the drinks so strong. He was the victim in all of this, really.

“JARVIS! Open the door!” Tony shouted. One of the girls giggled. “I don’t even know if I have a key for this place.” He peered vaguely at his key ring before realizing hey, it was really hard to see his keys. Was the power out? He was struggling to think why that was such a weird idea when the door finally opened.

“After you, ladies,” Tony gestured, leaning against the open door frame so he didn’t fall over. “JARVIS! Lights! What the hell?”

“Your machine objected to my presence, so I silenced it.” The low voice from the shadows of his living room made his blood run cold, chasing away the pleasant alcohol-induced warmth.

“Oh shit. Uh, ladies, party canceled, time to head home. Here, have the Ferrari.” Tony shoved the girls outside, tossing one of them the keys and slamming the door behind them.

“What the fuck, Loki? Business hours are 9 to 5 and by appointment only.” The room suddenly grew bright enough to see, a gold-tinged light that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. Loki was standing by the wall of windows that faced out onto the Pacific, apparently watching the reflection of the moon on the waves. Tony closed one eye, trying to focus on the figure in his living room.

“Have you considered my proposal?”

“Now is really a bad time. If you could come back later…” Tony really wanted a cup of coffee but was afraid to try to walk across the room lest he betray how very inebriated he was. Was there a point to getting the suit? Trying to operate deadly machinery seemed like a bad idea and Loki seemed to be on his best behavior. For now.

“No. If you will not assist me, I am going to have to move ahead with other plans. Decide, Stark.”

“Uh...” Tony tried to concentrate and keep the room from spinning. “First turn JARVIS back on, and he better be running normally because nobody, but nobody, fucks with my AI.”

“Very well.” Loki made a small gesture with one hand and the gold light was replaced by the familiar glow of electricity.

“Sir, should I contact-“

“Don’t worry about it, JARVIS. Probably wouldn’t do any good anyway.” Tony made his way carefully to the couch and sat down gratefully, firing up his tablet. He scrolled through his notes to give himself time to think, but he already knew there wasn’t much there. Most of what he’d uncovered was interesting from a scientific perspective but did nothing to really corroborate Loki’s argument that the Chitauri were still a threat.

Tony jumped when he felt a whisper of air across his neck and found Loki suddenly behind him, peering over his shoulder. “Hey! Personal space, please. Also, wear a fucking bell, Christ.” Tony tried not to show how much having Loki behind him made his back crawl.

“Stark. You are inebriated.”

“Maybe a little, but –“ He barely had time to register the feel of two cool fingers pressed against his temple before they were gone again, leaving behind a cool tingle that gave Tony goosebumps. Tony spun around swinging. “Hey, hands off!”

Loki backed away with his hands up. “Calm yourself, Stark. I have no intention of killing you, now or in the foreseeable future.”

“Pardon me if I have a hard time believing that.” Tony forced himself to put the tablet down gently instead of throwing it at Loki. “JARVIS, start some coffee please." Now that the room wasn't spinning anymore, Tony noticed that 'Asguardian Casual' was the theme of Loki's attire again today, with another dark green tunic over dark pants and tall black boots. "So why do you care if the Chitauri come back to invade Earth? Hell, why wouldn’t you be helping them? For that matter, how do I know you’re not helping them?” Tony peeled off his suit jacket and set it on the couch beside him, then ran his hands over his face. The transition from spinning drunk to stone cold sober was disorienting, but the lack of nausea was a plus.

Loki crossed his arms and leaned against the mantle, eyeing Stark thoughtfully. “Tell me this, Stark. The men who held you captive, are they alive today?” At Loki's movement, Tony's gaze was drawn to the open neck of Loki's shirt. The smooth skin of his chest that was revealed there made Tony's heart beat a little faster.

“How did you – oh right, Barton.” Tony forced his eyes up to meet Loki’s uncomfortably sharp gaze. “No, no they are not.”

“Did you kill them?”

“Some of them. Someone else killed the rest of them. Why?”

“Are you glad they are dead?”

“I mean…well, I know I am supposed to say that I wish they could have been reformed, made a better life for themselves, blah blah, but yeah, I am glad they are dead.” Tony walked to the bar to pour himself some coffee to give himself something to do besides stand there and be flayed alive by Loki’s gaze. Five years later and he still hated talking about the Ten Rings, and hated that he hated it.

“Why?”

“So I can sleep at night. So they can’t hurt anyone else. Because – well, just because.” Tony caught himself running a hand over his arc reactor, and forced his hand down to pick up his coffee. “So are you going to answer my question or not? Because if this is a tit-for-tat thing, you owe me a lot of questions.”

“I did answer your question.”

“But –“ Loki just raised an eyebrow, so Tony just filed the information away for later. “Fine, whatever. So why me? The Hulk kicked a lot of Chitauri ass, too. Or Steve. We all had a pretty high body count.”

“You’ve been through the portal. The Chitauri operate in the cold airlessness of space. Shall we send in your good Captain or the Black Widow, perhaps, and watch them asphyxiate? As for your ‘Hulk,’ I need more than just brute strength to defeat the Chitauri and their master.” Loki pushed off the mantle and began idly pacing, turning to study one of Tony's abstract sculptures.

At the mention of the portal Tony had to close his eyes and concentrate on breathing normally to avoid the panic attack he could feel coming. He suddenly craved the burn of alcohol with a ferocity that scared him. Instead he took a sip of coffee and tried to slow the pounding of his heart. “’Their master’? I thought you were their master,” he forced out with as normal a voice as he could manage.

“No. There is another,” Loki bit out.

“More powerful than you?” Tony asked, just be an ass. Sure enough, Loki turned another glare on him, and his fingers twitched before tightening into a fist.

“More powerful than I was,” Loki countered. “Shall I demonstrate?” Green light began to coalesce in one palm.

“Chill out, hotshot. So what’s your big plan?” The sudden adrenaline rush of the panic attack drained away as quickly as it came, leaving Tony exhausted. He poured himself another cup of coffee and tilted the pot towards Loki. “Want some? You look tired.”

Loki waved the offer off impatiently. “Without the Tesseract it will take the Chitauri quite some time to find another way to this part of the universe. Years. Perhaps even more than a decade. But I wish to destroy them before they ever get here.”

It took Tony a moment to process that. “You are going to steal the Tesseract – again – and attack them?” He said incredulously. “You and what army?”

“You, Stark. You are the army. As you saw, the Chitauri have a rather significant weakness. If we strike quickly, we can exploit that weakness.”

Tony took a sip as his mind raced. He was suspicious at how simple the plan sounded. Open a portal, fly through, destroy a bunch of motherships, come home. “And what will you be doing while I fight an army of Chitauri?”

“I will be eliminating the Chitauri’s masters.”

“Right, those guys. Who are…?”

“One is Thanos, known as the Mad Titan. I never learned the name of the other. Thanos must die to preserve the safety of these realms. The other…well. He must die, and it will not be a pleasant death.” The edge in Loki’s voice was a little bit terrifying.

Tony was quiet for a moment, staring into his cup. “There’s this story my mom told me a long time ago, it’s a fable or parable or something. So there’s this scorpion and a mouse or a frog or maybe even a turtle, I don’t remember which. Anyway, they have to cross this river and the scorpion can’t swim, right? So he asks the other guy for a ride. The frog or whatever hesitates, because it’s a scorpion, and the scorpion says, ‘Don’t worry, if I sting you we will both drown, right? And that would be stupid.’ So they get halfway across and sure enough, the scorpion stings him, and when the frog asks why, the scorpion says, ‘it is my nature,’ and they both die.” He drained his cup and set it down. “So what I am asking is, why should I trust you?”

Loki’s gaze was steady. “We also have a parable. A father is advising his son before he goes into battle, and the father says, ‘my son, how would you fight if you knew you were destined to be killed?’ The son says, ‘I would take as many enemies as possible with me as I fall.’ The father then says, ‘how would you fight if you knew that you would not be killed?’ To which the son answers, ‘Then I would not hesitate, but would always be where the fighting is thickest.’ The father says, ‘In every battle, one of two things will happen: you will either fall, or you will not. Therefore you should be bold, because nothing can kill a man if it is not time for him to die, and nothing will save a man if his time has come. To die in flight is the worst death of all.’”

Tony sighed. “Are you constitutionally unable to answer a question directly, or is it just a hobby?”

“I have answered all of your questions, Stark,” Loki said with a smile. “That you do not like the form that my answers take is no fault of mine."

“Then why do I feel as if there’s something you’re not telling me?”

Loki shrugged, an eloquent gesture that said both I don't know and I don't care. “What is your answer?”

There was a long quiet after that. Finally, Tony rubbed his eyes and scrubbed his hands through his hair. “I am so going to regret this. Fine, yes, I’m in. But for fuck’s sake, don’t stab me in the back, ok? If I’m going to die because of poor decision-making, I’d rather it be in a drunken orgy. Also, I’m not going to help you steal the Tesseract,” He added, pointing at Loki for emphasis.

A slow grin curved Loki’s mouth. “You would be of no use anyway.” That smile made Tony stare, because it was probably the first time he’d seen genuine amusement on Loki’s features. It was a good look.

“If you say so. Hey, before you vanish again-” But it was too late, Loki was already gone. Tony scowled. "We are going to have to talk about this disappearing act you do. It's like being hung up on, but in person," he said to the empty room.

"Sir, I feel I must caution you-"

"I know, JARVIS. Keep this on the down low, for now. If there is the slightest chance that Loki is telling the truth I have to do this."

That night, Tony spent a long time thinking about this plan of Loki’s, trying to figure out all of the ways Loki could be setting him up. He also updated his will and dictated a "If I disappear, here's what probably happened" email to JARVIS. But every time he tried to concentrate the image of the Chitauri mothership exploding kept playing itself over and over in his head. Tonight, for the first time since New York, Tony didn’t dream.

Chapter Text

The next time Loki showed up unannounced, it was his turn to be speechless.

“What in Hel’s name are you doing?” He had to speak loudly to be heard the over obnoxious Christmas music echoing in Tony’s garage.

“Oh. Hi. I was just about to do a test for my latest design, an autonomous propulsion suit. Wanna watch?” Tony bounced a little on his toes, as if excited to have an audience. His good humor was both suspicious and entertaining.

Loki gestured for him to go ahead and leaned against a table, arms folded. Tony swayed his head to the music again and at some verse, significant only to him, held one arm up and one arm out towards the table behind Loki in a dramatic gesture. Loki glanced around but nothing happened.

“Shut up,” Tony warned before Loki could say anything. After a repeat of the gesture did nothing, Tony cursed to himself and tapped his forearm. The next time he tried the gesture, a piece of the disassembled suit on the table whirred to life and flew towards him. Tony got his hand out just in time to keep the armor from hitting him in the face, but when it expanded to cover his forearm and became a thruster gauntlet he looked at Loki triumphantly. Loki raised an eyebrow at Tony’s boyish enthusiasm.

“I think we got this, send them all,” Tony said confidently. Another piece flew towards him, and Tony intercepted it with his arm. Another hit his knee and expanded to become a greave, covering his lower leg. The third piece, however, flew past his shoulder and embedded itself in the wall behind him, and the fourth ricocheted off of a piece of machinery and skittered along the floor. “Ok, they might be coming a little fast, slow it down it down just a – “ Tony ducked as another piece flew at his head. “A little bit,” he finished, and managed to catch one piece on his thigh while another knocked over a motorcycle across the room. The backplate knocked Tony off his feet and he barely kept himself from falling on his face by using his thrusters. “Cool it, will you, JARVIS?” Tony scowled as he regained his feet. He saw Loki’s shoulders shaking out of the corner of his eye, but the rest of the suit assembled itself without further collateral damage, until a flying faceplate hit the turntable and the music died with a screech.

Loki picked up the faceplate and handed it to Tony instead of waiting for it to take to the air again. “Lest it damage that pretty face of yours.”

“Awww you think I’m-” The words were lost as the forgotten suit piece that had embedded itself into the wall behind Tony came to life and knocked him into a backflip, armor flying as he landed heavily on the concrete floor.

“As always, sir, it’s a great pleasure watching you work,” JARVIS said dryly over the intercom. Tony lay on the floor for a minute, trying to get his breath back. Loki appeared above him.

“I must concur. That was truly a singular pleasure,” Loki said, eyes still sparking with laughter. Tony accepted Loki’s hand to get back to his feet and tried not to think about the urge he’d had to pull those smiling lips down for a kiss.

“Cut filming, DUM-E. Glad you enjoyed the show. I’ve been working on this for the past, um –“ Tony looked down at the clock on the computer and tried to remember the last time he’d slept.

 “76 hours, sir,” JARVIS supplied.

“What he said. To what do I owe the pleasure? You have news?” Tony started typing up notes as Loki wandered around the garage that also served as his laboratory and gym, idly running his long fingers over Tony’s tools and spare parts. He paused to examine the suits Tony had displayed along one wall, ranging from the suit he’d built in Afghanistan to the Mark VII from the Battle of New York.

“I have also been working since I left, but I have nothing as impressive to show for it. Asgard’s library has no equal for the knowledge it contains, but finding information there is…time consuming.”

“Particularly when you’re trying not to get caught, I would imagine. So you’ve been hitting the books all this time?” He replayed the film of the test, surprised to see that he’d caught Loki’s arrival on tape. Playing it back in slow-motion, he saw a green-gold rip in the air appear right before Loki did. Interesting.

“It seemed wise to learn more of our foe before we engage him,” Loki said as he turned away from the suits to study Tony’s collection of motorcycles. Tony forced his eyes and mind back to his work and prayed that Loki wouldn’t throw a leg over that sleek black Harley he was looking at because he would not be responsible for his actions.

“Well, if you’re bored and looking for something exciting to do, I might be able to help you with that.” Tony winced at the phrasing but kept going and hoped Loki didn’t notice. “I think it would be right up your alley.”

“Go on.”

“First, I have something for you.” Loki scowled as Stark rummaged through his desk. “Here.” Loki took the slightly larger than palm sized device and stared at it with an air of puzzlement. “It’s a cell phone,” Stark said helpfully.

“I know what it is, Stark. What I don’t understand is why you are giving it to me.”

“Because it’s probably the most useful invention in human history since the printing press? For us to communicate when we aren’t co-located? Also, if you are a fan of information, let me tell you about a little thing called the internet.” He took it from Loki and showed him how to turn it on. “I was tweaking mine the other day and thought I would build you one as well. It runs on Stark satellites so you can use it anywhere. On Earth, anywhere on Earth,” he clarified. “I already programmed my number into it.”

Loki’s face had a look of reluctant interest. “You have my appreciation, Stark.” With a twist of his wrist the phone disappeared. “I will have to return the favor another time.”

“So I’ve been working on upgrading my suits – well, you saw some of what I’ve been doing, but mostly I’ve been trying to figure out whole breathable air thing, that’s pretty aggravating – but the easiest problem to solve is to improve my firepower. The last thing that I used to blow up the Chitauri mothership was nuclear, so I want to get my hands on some weapons grade uranium. Understandably, most governments frown on that stuff being in the hands of private individuals, so I can’t buy it. It would take waaay too much time and effort to make my own, so…” With a wide grin, Stark pulled up a map and highlighted a city somewhere on the other side of the planet. “We steal some.”

Loki laughed. “’We?’” He watched as Stark zoomed in on what looked like a military base, highlighting certain buildings.

“Yes, we. Don’t act like you don’t want to, this is totally your thing. I can’t do it alone, showing up there as Iron Man would cause all sorts of international bullshit to happen, wars and whatnot, and I’m not in that line of work anymore. This requires sneaky.” Stark poked Loki in the chest. Loki looked down at the offending finger with a raised eyebrow and it was hastily withdrawn. “You are the sneaky one.”

Loki had to give him that. “Fine. But you’re coming with me.”

And that was how both of them ended up in the back woods of Iran, standing on a hill surrounding by dust and scrub studying an Iranian military base. Stark had spent a couple of hours showing Loki all of the intel that he had stolen from various government agencies, to which Loki only replied with thoughtful ‘hmmms’ and finally, “Let’s go take a look.” He stood and held out a hand to Tony, who just stared at it.

“Well, I’m not ready to go right now. I’m not going to invade an Iranian military base in my sweatpants.” Tony felt his skin prickle as Loki’s gaze swept over him as if just noticing that he was half-dressed but forced himself to not react.

“Very well, make your preparations. How long will it take?”

The answer was ‘not long enough for Tony’s peace of mind,’ but here they were. The scenery looked a lot like Afghanistan but more mountainous, so that was not really helping Tony’s mindset much. He felt naked and vulnerable without his suit and really wished he was running on more than adrenaline and caffeine. He’d brought his gauntlets and a bulletproof vest, but mostly his plan was to be behind Loki if bullets started flying.

“So, are you going to like fly us inside, or…?” Tony asked after a few minutes of studying the security perimeter, which was, as expected, mostly made of tall concrete walls with barbed wire and watchtowers.

“I don’t fly,” Loki said scornfully. “We will take that vehicle.” Loki pointed to a plume of dust rising in the distance.

“You can teleport us to the other side of the planet but we have to hijack a car to get across that wall?” Tony said incredulously. That earned him a sideways glance and a quirk of the lips from Loki.


“Are you saying you don’t trust me, Stark?”

Commandeering the vehicle was easy, of course. When not on the receiving end of Loki’s strength, it was rather fun to watch him throw people around. Tony looted their bodies for anything particularly useful – a map of the compound would have been nice - and got behind the wheel.

“What now?”

“Just drive and leave the rest to me.”

Loki’s smile just grew wider as Tony cursed but obeyed. Driving to that checkpoint with the heavily armed guards with nothing but Loki’s vague assurances was the one of the craziest things Tony has ever done. Lately.  As they slowed to a stop, Loki leaned over to speak to the guard out of Tony’s window. Tony froze at the sudden lapful of god, and then was shocked to hear fluid Persian coming from Loki’s mouth.  Tony tried to play it cool, but when the guard stepped back and opened the gate Tony knew that he must be failing because Loki’s smirk was getting insufferable.

“You speak Persian now?” Tony hissed as he navigated the facility. As part of the prep work Tony had identified the most likely spots where they would store the weapons grade uranium. There were three possibilities on this particular base, so Tony hoped that he picked the right one first so they could get the fuck out of here already.

“Of course, Stark. I can speak any language. Or did you think that English was really my native tongue?”

Of course, what they needed was not, in fact, at the first place they looked. After three hours of searching, Tony was beginning to worry that his stolen intel was wrong and there wasn’t any covertly enriched uranium here at all. They finally found it in the lowest subbasement of the installation, which made sense if you were afraid that American satellites could somehow sense it from space.

Loki handled the guards while Tony disabled the pathetically antiquated security system. As he was gingerly opening the storage container, Tony was just starting to feel good about this project when a klaxon began to wail and yellow lights flash.

“Well, fuck.” Tony began to move as fast as he dared.

“I thought you disabled the alarm?” Loki shouted, searching for the source of the noise.

“I disabled the security alarm. I didn’t think about the safety alarm!”

Loki found the loudspeaker system and ripped it out of the ceiling, restoring the room to blessed quiet, but the warning lights were still strobing annoyingly. “So much for stealth. Does that imply that they would be evacuating instead of searching for us?”

“Hopefully.” Tony said as he fished out the last of the uranium.  Closing the case, he turned to Loki expectantly. “So, you can zap us out of here, right?”

“No. Whatever energy this material is giving off is unexpectedly interfering with my abilities.”

“Great.” Tony cursed. And then groaned as he tried to lift the case. “Also, you are probably going to have to carry this. It’s gotta weigh like 300 pounds now.”

Loki raised an eyebrow and picked it up like it was a basket of clothes. As they retraced their steps to their stolen vehicle, Tony tried to be optimistic that no one had noticed the radiation warning and yellow hazard lights. But when Loki put down the uranium as they stepped outside, he wasn’t surprised to see them surrounded by soldiers and scientists armed with hazmat suits. Loki was studying them thoughtfully as one of them shouted something through a loudspeaker.

“So, think you can talk your way out of this one?” Tony asked after Loki shouted a response to the irate Iranians.

“I doubt it. Besides, where’s the fun in that?” Loki murmured, and with a gesture all of the lights went out in a shower of sparks. Tony hit the deck as bullets started flying, but in the light of the moon and muzzle fire he could see Loki was wading into the fray.  It wasn’t a long battle. Loki fought with the grace of a dancer and a seemingly unending supply of knives, a fighting style unlike anything Tony had ever seen. He was smooth and fast and vicious, and had incapacitated everyone before they had time to reload their rifles. It was impressive and more than a little hot. Tony refused to feel guilty about enjoying the show.

When everything went quiet, Tony stood and brushed the dirt off his clothes. “Have you had your fun? Can we go now?”

“Certainly.” Loki put a hand on Tony’s shoulder and between blinks they were back in his LA home.

“What the fuck?! You said-” Loki only laughed as he carried the uranium to Tony’s lab. “You’re an asshole, Loki!” Tony shouted as he followed him down the stairs, discarding his gauntlets and vest along the way. Stooping, he opened up the safe in the floor that he had modified and lined with lead to store the stolen goods.

“You’re welcome, Stark. I hope this is sufficient for your needs.”

“Depends. I don’t suppose you would happen to know how many motherships I’m going to need to nuke?” With the uranium safely put away, Tony debated running the numbers on his latest idea for a more efficient propulsion system, since his suits were going to be carrying extra weight, but decided he’d worked enough for one day. Looking at the clock, he realized that though it was the middle of the night in Iran, the sun was just barely going down here. “I’m going to have dinner and a drink, care to join me?”

Loki gave a short nod and followed Tony back upstairs as JARVIS called the closest decent Thai place and ordered two of all Tony’s favorite dishes. “Unfortunately, I was given little information regarding the army I was to lead. It was almost as if they didn’t trust me,” Loki said dryly as he discarded his leather duster and began to unbuckle his armor, tossing it carelessly on the couch.

“Once I finalize the design – and I think I’m close – I can build a new suit about every twelve to fourteen days. What kind of timeline are we looking at?” Tony grabbed the bottle of whiskey and a glass and sat down with a sigh of relief. Had it really only been – he checked his phone – four hours since they’d left? God it felt like they had been there all night. “JARVIS, can we have some tunes? Volume six, please. And light up the fire, Iran was chilly.”

“I do not know. Would that the things I need could be acquired so easily.” Tony picked up each piece of armor as it came off, admiring the unusual metallurgy and intricate designs of the vambraces and spaulder while trying to ignore the fact that tall, dark, and sinister was undressing in his living room. While the armor had seen some wear, there wasn’t even so much as a fresh ding or dent in the metal to show that it had been recently subjected to a hail of bullets.

“Do these designs not compromise the strength of the metal?”

“No. It was forged by dwarves.”

“Dwarves,” Tony repeated. “Well, naturally.” He glanced up to see that the imposing layers of metal and leather were gone, leaving Loki in a close fitting black shirt and dark pants as he went to Tony’s liquor collection, his attention catching on an ornately etched decanter. Tony’s eyes wandered over the long, lean lines of Loki’s back and legs, lingering on an unexpectedly nice ass since Loki wasn’t looking.  As Loki opened the decanter, he took one smell and laughed. “Why do you have Asgardian grog?”

“Thor sent it after New York.” Tony watched him take a cautious sip. “I spilled some on the counter once and it scarred the marble, so I decided against drinking any.”

Loki set the decanter and two shot glasses on the table and took a seat across from Tony.  “Probably for the best. I’m not sure what it would do to a human. Thor and his idiot cronies would drink this when mead or ale wasn’t strong enough.”

“Is that why you’re drinking it?”

“Yes.  This is a drinking game among the soldiers of Asgard, a way to while away long hours.” Loki slid one of the shot glasses over to Tony. “It is, naturally, one of Thor’s favorites, because he loves talking of himself and has never had a secret worth keeping.”

Not like you, Tony thought as Loki filled up each glass. It made him wonder what Loki was hoping to accomplish, and that thought made him realize that it was probably really stupid to get drunk around Loki. In more ways than one.

“The rules are simple: you answer a question, or you drink. The game lasts as long as the alcohol does. No lies and do not ever repeat what you learn.” Loki filled up his shot glass with the grog and Tony’s with whiskey.

Any questions?”

“Any.” Loki’s lips quirked. “I would recommend specific questions, lest I be tempted to vague answers just to vex you.”

“Alright, but if you start asking suspicious questions about Earth’s defenses the deal’s off.”

“Duly noted.”

“And I go first.” Loki gestured and sat back into the couch, looking a bit smug. Challenge accepted, Tony thought, swallowing his own grin. He hadn’t lost a drinking game since he was 16. This was going to be interesting, and was going to be a hell of a story if he ever got to tell it.

“So what's your sign?"  Tony laughed as Loki's eyes darkened with puzzlement.  "Just kidding.  Inquiring minds want to know: how did you escape Asgard?”

“I never went to Asgard.  Due to Thor’s stubborn ignorance of how sorcery works, there was a split second as we left Midgard when I wasn't bound.  Escaping was as easy as walking out a door.”

“Huh.” He could see why Loki was so pleased with himself.  "Wish I could have seen Thor's face when he arrived without you."

"It was everything one could hope for."Loki smiled wickedly.

Tony had to laugh.  "You followed him there just to watch his reaction? You're such a dick."

Loki acknowledged the compliment and gestured to Tony’s glass. “Now take a drink.”

“What? The asker takes a drink if the other guy answers? You didn’t mention that, you tricksy Hobbit.” But Tony took his shot and poured another anyway.

“You can quit whenever you want,” Loki said patronizingly.

“Ask your question, asshole,” Tony said with a smile, toeing off his shoes and socks to put his feet on the coffee table. 

“What is the purpose of the device in your chest?”

“Barton didn’t know that? My LiteBrite here keeps me alive.” Loki didn’t move but Tony could see that his gaze sharpened with sudden interest.

“How?”

Tony shook his head and tsked. “Drink. I never said I wouldn’t give vague answers.”

Loki did so while Tony considered his next question. “Does everyone on Asgard know how to,” Tony gestured a bit, not wanting to say the words because despite everything it still sounded ridiculous. “Do magic?”

Loki snorted. “No. It is a skill rarely taught and even more rarely mastered. I learned from my mother, and she taught only a handful of students.”

“Sir, your food has arrived,” JARVIS announced moments before the doorbell rang.

“Thanks JARVIS.” Tony paid the delivery man and came back up with two armfuls of Thai food. “Here you go. Spicy and not spicy.” He took his shot as he unpacked the plastic bags, hiding his grin as Loki investigated each dish carefully. Just the short walk to the door made Tony grateful that he’d thought to order something. See, this was why he was in Mensa.

“So how does that device keep you alive?” Loki asked as he ate, handling chopsticks like he was born to them. Tony watched him for a moment, struck by the sense of unreality.  Loki was eating Thai food. In his living room.  What the fuck am I doing? Tony thought suddenly. How did we get from 'don't kill me' to 'pass the Pad Thai' in less than a month? 

"Stark?"  

"Huh?"  Tony blinked and realized he had been staring. "Oh.  First off, it’s called an arc reactor. I have a lot of shrapnel in my chest from Afghanistan, all of it too small or too dangerously placed to try to remove. This bad boy keeps them from migrating to my heart and slowly shredding it.” For a moment there was only the quiet growl of a Massive Attack bass line and the hissing of the fire as they ate. Tony thought hard about his next question. “Thor mentioned you were adopted. What’s that story?”

Loki flinched. He drank again and sat the glass back down with exaggerated carefulness, then continued to eat.  So it’s like that, eh? Tony filed that away.

“What happened in Afghanistan?” Loki asked. 

Now it was Tony’s turn to scowl. He’d only ever told Rhodey the full story, in that first dazed, half-dead confusion after he was found. He couldn’t really remember what he’d said, but since then there had evolved an unspoken agreement to never talk about it again. Even Pepper only had the Cliff’s Notes version.

No. He wasn’t drunk enough for that yet. He took his shot instead and avoided looking at Loki’s too-sharp gaze. “According to Thor, there is a lot of missing time between when you left Asgard and then showed up here. Where did you go?”

Loki started to reach for his glass, but stopped. His grip on the chopsticks changed, as if he intended to stab someone with them. “I was found, and I was...tortured,” he said tightly. “At first for their curiosity, then amusement, and then in order to bend me to their will.” Loki’s smiled was thin and terrible, and the chopsticks splintered. “Which did not turn out so well for them, but I wish to repay them for their efforts anyway.”

Tony took his shot thoughtfully but without comment. He wondered if Thor had any idea.

“Have you told anyone that we are working together?”

Tony suddenly lost his appetite. “No,” he sighed, putting down his chopsticks. “I couldn’t figure out any way that wouldn’t end in disaster.” Not that he felt good about the decision. But he’d always been an “ask for forgiveness instead of permission” type of person anyway, so why change now, right?  He was lost in thought for a moment before he remembered it was his turn to ask a question. His eyes landed on Loki’s fancy dwarven armor. “Hey, why don't you have anything like Thor’s hammer? Is it a first born son thing?”

“I was to inherit Gungnir, Odin’s spear, when Thor took the throne.” The curtness in Loki’s voice spoke volumes. “Why did you create Iron Man?”

Tony sat back on the couch, curiosity piqued. Why was Loki so interested in him? He’d honestly thought Loki was going to try to subtly pump him for information about SHIELD or Thor, not ask him a bunch of personal questions. Especially since he had to already know most of this stuff.   “Well, first to escape a bunch of terrorists. Second, I was interested in the challenge. The prototype was terrible, and I knew I could do better. Then the situation kind of snowballed from there; once I had it, I couldn’t not use it.” Loki’s only response was to raise his eyebrows as he continued eating. Tony wondered if Loki had expected some kind of “save the world” thing like Steve would say, or maybe Natasha’s quest for atonement. “So your thing is the spear? I just watched you kill like fifty people with knives.”

Loki rolled his eyes. “Thor decided early that the hammer was his favored weapon. I chose my weapons accordingly – the knife brings me inside his guard and the spear keeps me out of his reach.”

Tony saluted that wisdom with his glass. “Well I can’t attest to your skills with a spear, but you are a damn fine knife fighter.”

“I know,” Loki said with a half-smile. “Why did you decide to reveal that you were the Iron Man?”

“Cuz I’m an arrogant asshole and I wanted all the credit, of course. If you haven’t noticed, subtlety isn’t my thing,” Tony answered breezily. He was glad for the alcohol, because this level of introspection would have been impossible had he been completely sober. Nosy Asgardian bastard.  Was he even feeling that liquor?

Loki raised an eyebrow. “The real reason, Stark, or you drink.”

“Fuck.” Tony sighed and scratched his jaw, shifting positions on the couch. “When I got back from Afghanistan I felt like all I could see when I looked around me was pity. Poor rich boy Tony Stark, blown to shit in Afghanistan then comes home crazy and drives his business into the ground. I was forced out of my own damn company and my – well, suffice to say, that pity is what I hated more than anything else. So…yeah.” He finished lamely, feeling uncomfortably exposed. He almost wished he had taken the shot instead, but his nose was getting numb and that was a bad sign. “So how about that adoption thing, Loki?”

“Damn you to Hel, Tony Stark,” Loki said, with narrowed eyes but without much heat as he took two shots in a row. “What happened in Afghanistan?”

“Don’t you already know? It’s practically public knowledge.” Loki only raised an eyebrow. Tony took a considering look at his bottle of whiskey and realized he had lost count of the number of shots he’d had. Loki’s bottle was looking even more anemic, but you couldn’t really tell it to look at him. Tony sighed and bit the bullet. “Well the official story is that my caravan was attacked and I was held for ransom until I escaped. But that doesn’t really say it all, does it? Doesn’t describe the feeling you get when you are talking to someone who is here one minute, and dead the next. The disorientation of all of the noise and activity. That was the first time I had ever been close to that much violence. Pampered rich boy, you know?” Tony laughed humorlessly. “As close to a prince as America gets. After the first explosion I could barely hear anything. I knew people were yelling at me but I didn’t know what they were saying, or what to do. I thought, I should help, right? I built these things, guns and rockets and shit, but then I realize that while I knew how they worked, I didn’t know how to use any of them. Then I got blown up by a rocket with my own goddamn name on it.” His grip tightened on the whiskey bottle. “I woke up in a cave being yelled at in a language I didn’t understand and I was hardwired up to a car battery. They had kidnapped a doctor, killed his family, to save my life so that I could build weapons for them. Ironic, really, because everything in that cave that could kill someone was made by Stark Industries, so I was already building weapons for them. Despite having every reason to hate me, the doctor became my friend and helped me build the first Iron Man suit. His name was Yinsen.” Tony studied the fire, looking everywhere but at Loki. It was easier to talk if he could pretend that he wasn’t there. “He died while we were escaping. He said…well, anyway. In the end, he’s why I stopped selling weapons of mass destruction. Why the hell do you want to know all of this, anyway?”

He looked over to see that Loki was lost in thought, tapping a long finger idly on the rim of his glass. After a moment, Loki’s gaze focused on him with an intensity that made Tony shiver. “No one else knows what we know, do they, Anthony Stark? What it is like to live your life strong, powerful, sure of the world and your place in it, only for someone to take that all away from you and show you how weak you really are.”

Tony's throat got tight and he couldn't find any words, so he simply saluted and downed his shot like it was medicine. Another silence fell and stretched on as the warmth of unwise amounts of alcohol worked its magic. Loki was watching the fire, so Tony took the opportunity to stare inappropriately and appreciate the golden glow that the fire lent to Loki’s otherwise pale skin. Tony had no idea what was going through Loki’s head, but his hands were tracing idle patterns on the almost empty bottle of alcohol.

“Can I see it?” Tony jerked his eyes up guiltily from where he had been thinking about how those hands would feel on his skin. For a wild moment he wondered if Loki had been reading his mind but then he realized that he was probably talking about the arc reactor.

“Uh…sure, I guess.” He pulled his shirt off, feeling self-conscious as Loki studied it. “Why does it interest you so much?”

“Magic and what you call electricity are very similar. To a sorcerer, what you have in your chest is an unending source of magic. Not terribly strong, or sophisticated, compared to the Tesseract,” he clarified when Tony protested, “but impressive nonetheless. It is also the only thing I’ve found that was able to turn aside the magic of the mind gem in my staff.” He leaned across the table and touched careful fingertips to the glass casing.

“That should cost you another drink,” Tony joked lamely, his heart pounding at Loki’s nearness. He watched Loki’s mouth curve and wished desperately to feel those lips on him. He sat very still as Loki’s fingers trailed up his chest and neck, making him shiver.

“Do you want to kiss me, Stark?”

“Oh yeah,” he answered without thinking.

“Then do it.” The words were barely out of Loki’s mouth as Tony shoved the table aside and slid onto Loki’s lap, his knees bracketing the other man’s slender hips. For all that Tony wanted everything and wanted it now, he forced himself to start slow. He reveled in Loki’s sharp intake of breath when he brushed his lips over the sensitive spot where throat met jaw; this close, Loki smelled of thunderstorms. Apparently impatient, Loki turned his head to capture Tony’s mouth with his own, and the rightness of it made Tony groan. As one kiss bled into the next, Tony’s hands tangled in Loki’s long dark hair while Loki ran his nails lightly down Tony’s back. One hand came up to fist in Tony’s hair, pulling his head back so Loki could bite his neck.

“Oh fuck!” Tony hissed and his hips jerked involuntarily, grinding himself against the hardness beneath him. Loki held him still with an arm around his hips and surged underneath him, breath coming heavy and fast in his ear. Tony fought to pull Loki’s shirt up, wanting to feel his skin under his hands, feeling Loki’s appreciative moan rumble in his chest. For a few long, hot moments they moved together on the couch, every touch fanning an ache that was growing painfully sharp.

“More?” Tony managed, unsure if it were a question or a plea. At Loki’s sharp nod, Tony fumbled at their pants, growing frustrated at the unfamiliar fastening of Loki’s. Eventually they were both freed and Tony’s mouth watered at the long line of Loki’s cock. Next time, he promised himself as he took them both in hand and began to stroke.

Loki’s head fell back against the couch. His grip on Tony’s thighs was deliciously painful as he chased his climax. Tony was almost undone at the sight of Loki underneath him, but he didn’t want to miss a thing so he gritted his teeth against the pleasure, trying to hold on. Thankfully it wasn’t long before Loki’s hips lost their rhythm, stuttering against Tony’s.

When he came, cursing helplessly in an unknown tongue, Tony followed him over the edge with a grateful moan. For long moments afterward it seemed they were both unwilling or unable to move as breaths and heartbeats slowed.

“So is this normally how this game ends?” Tony said finally.

Loki huffed out a laugh against Tony’s temple. “Not in my experience.”

“So who won?”

“I believe we both won.”

Tony sat up grabbed a discarded shirt to wipe his hand off. When he turned back, the rest of their mess was gone. “That seems like a flagrant misuse of your power,” he said after a pause.

“I disagree. It was one of the first spells I mastered.”

“Oh, I would imagine.”

“For blood,” Loki clarified, as Tony climbed off Loki to stagger across the room for some water and to wash his face. By the time he finished, Loki was standing by the stairs to Tony’s bedroom and watching him with heavily lidded eyes.

“This is a terrible idea,” Tony said as he slid his hands under Loki’s shirt, pulling it over his head.

Loki freed his hands from the sleeves and framed the arc reactor on Tony’s chest before sliding up to cup his jaw. “Yes. Should I go?”

“Hell, no.”

Chapter Text

When Loki returned to Earth some days later, he summoned his phone and was surprised when it started to vibrate in his hands and chime repeatedly. Apparently in his absence Tony had been attempting to communicate.

“Why’d you sneak out while I was asleep? I was going to make breakfast.”

“Well, by make I mean have other people make for me. Do you eat breakfast?”

“What is Asgard food like?”

“How about coffee? Thor likes coffee”

One was too unintelligible for Loki to understand what Tony was trying to say. “Sorry about last night, I think I sat on my phone. Stupid touch screen.”

Loki checked the time. It had only been a few days since he’d last seen Stark, but Loki had to admit to a small tug of curiosity as to what Tony was doing.

“Well, hello handsome. What brings you to Chez Stark today?” Tony spun around in his chair, dismissing the 3D schematics he’d been working on.

“I come bearing gifts.”

Tony was surprised. “I didn’t give you the phone because I expected something in return.”

“I know. If you had, I wouldn’t have accepted it. However, it has proven more useful than I think even you had anticipated, so I wanted to give you something in return.” Loki gestured and a reddish gold chest plate appeared in his hands. He handed it to Tony and produced two matching spaulders. Now Tony was floored. The plate and shoulder guards were an exact match for his suit, but had an elegant etched design that was clearly done by the same craftsmen who had made Loki’s armor.

“Holy shit, Loki, did you bring me dwarven armor?” Tony studied each piece carefully, running his fingers over the intricate designs. The alloy wasn’t familiar to Tony, but he had a feeling it was a lot more durable than what Tony was using in his suit now. Plus, it was way classy. He’d have to figure out some way to show it off without revealing where he got it.

“Yes,” Loki said, clearly pleased with Tony’s reaction. “You reminded me that I was owed favors from the dwarves on Nidavellir, so I had this forged while they were working on something for me. When we fight together, you shall have the best armor in the Nine Realms.”

Tony wanted to argue that he already had the best armor in the Nine Realms – really, could the dwarves forge something that could fly? – but he understood Loki’s point. “Thank you, Loki. I am honored.” And somewhat touched. And confused. It was a little hard to take this gift at face value and not wonder if it was going to bite him in the ass one day, but it was still very thoughtful.

Tony cleared off a space on one of his work tables and set the armor out carefully. “Well, it’s...uh, before noon, apparently, so that counts as breakfast time. Want something to eat?”

At Loki’s careless shrug, Tony had JARVIS order breakfast from a nearby bakery and worked customizing his new chest plate so that it would integrate with the suit’s electronics until the food arrived, explaining each step to a surprisingly curious Loki. When he started laying the food out he was surprised to see how much he ordered, but as Loki began to eat he wondered if he had bought enough. “Well, given my vast experience in watching you eat, you consume as much as Thor, but you certainly don’t do it as fast.”

Loki rolled his eyes as he speared another strawberry. “Thor eats as if someone is going to take his food away from him. I’d be surprised if he actually tastes anything that he inhales.”

Tony set his plate in the sink and turned on the television, scrolling idly through the news channels. In the middle of some fluff piece, every channel went black and was replaced by the image of an ominous, bearded man, standing in front a row of kneeling men wearing robes and turbans. Tony froze. He must have made an involuntary sound, because Loki looked up at him in concern.

“Stark?”

“Some people call me a terrorist,” the man on the screen intoned as assault rifles filled the screen. The sound of gunshot drew Loki’s eyes, and the kneeling men collapsed. “I consider myself a teacher.”

Tony couldn’t tear his eyes away from the screen, but Loki spent most of his time watching Tony. The images that flickered across the screen were largely meaningless to him, but he could see that Tony’s hands were shaking. When the video was over, Tony finally turned away and was gripping the counter so hard his knuckles were white. His face was pale and he was sweating and struggling to breathe.

Loki had seen this before. On Asgard they called it battle shock. Loki continued to eat his food calmly, not looking directly at Tony, but he began to talk, keeping his voice low and soothing. He wasn’t even sure what he was saying, but he kept talking, trying to give Tony something to focus on besides what was happening in his head. After a while, he could see Tony begin to relax, and some color returned to his face. Finally, he relaxed his death grip and poured himself a cup of coffee with a generous dollop of whisky.

“So I convinced Thor that the only way to get his bloody hammer back was to sneak into the giant’s house dressed as a woman,” Loki finished, raising his voice to be heard over the sound of Tony’s reluctant laughter. “He had to wear a veil so thick he could barely see because he refused to shave his beard.”

“Couldn’t you have smuggled him in there with an illusion or something?”

Loki’s smile was evil. “Perhaps, but where’s the fun in that?” Tony had backed away from the edge of a panic attack, but the easy mood of the morning was gone. Loki tipped his head towards the television screen, which was now muted. “What was the meaning of that?”

“That was a threat. Some douchebag called the Mandarin has been committing terrorist attacks and now he’s threatening to escalate.”

Loki frowned. “What do you mean, terrorist?”

Tony stared at him for a moment as if he wasn’t sure Loki was being serious before he explained. The conversation that developed from there led pretty quickly to military tactics and strategy, and it wasn’t long before Tony realized he was way out of depth on this topic.

“Okay, okay, okay,” Tony held up his hands in surrender. “You’re right, it’s a really fuzzy concept that could apply to a lot of things. The important thing is that no one can figure out how who this guy is or how he is doing these attacks.”

“I see. What are his demands?”

“Demands? You saw the video, he didn’t make any demands, just threats.”

“Then you have to ask yourself what he wants. Clearly he wants something to go through this much effort.”

Tony just stared, as if in all of his moral outrage he had never asked himself so simple a question. “The whole point of a terrorist is to create terror.”

“That seems to be a shortsighted assumption, but perhaps. If all he seems to want is to create fear, then proceed very cautiously. Once you make a man afraid, you can control him.” In the quiet that followed, Tony’s phone rang.

“I have to take this,” Tony said apologetically. Loki bowed and turned to leave. “Rhodey! Yeah, of course I saw it...”

_______________________________

The next time Loki appeared in Tony’s home in California, he almost fell into the sea thundering hundreds of feet below. He stared at the total destruction of the house for long minutes before going to Tony’s tower in New York. Once there, however, he knew immediately that it was empty and had been so for weeks. He checked his phone, but there were no new messages since Tony had texted him three days ago.

“That Mandarin bastard got one of my friends.”

“Do not let him goad you into doing anything foolish.”

“Me? Never”

“JARVIS,” Loki said aloud, disturbing the unnatural quiet of the room that should have filled with Stark’s talkative energy. “Where is Tony Stark?”

“I don’t know, sir.” Loki’s insides went queerly cold at the information. He glanced down at his phone again before sending it away. If Stark was capable of being reached by phone, JARVIS would know where he was. But surely if Tony was dead, this…machine… would know that as well?

“Where was he the last time you did know?”

“Tennessee.”

“What in the name of Hel –“ Loki stopped and rubbed his eyes. “Tell me everything.”

Jarvis started by showing him the video of Tony threatening the Mandarin and giving out the address of his home in California, then showing him the footage – captured from above – of Tony’s house exploding and sliding into the ocean. Loki cursed long and fluently in many different languages at Stark’s impetuousness.

“His last transmission was when his suit ran out of power.”

“When was that?”

“25 hours, 47 minutes ago.”

“Show me where, specifically.”

The AI obligingly pulled up a map and highlighted Tony’s last flight trajectory and where he landed. Loki took a moment to orient himself, and stepped sideways, coming out of the dark paths knee deep in a snow in a dark forest.

“What were you doing here, Stark?” Loki started walking towards the closest town, searching under the trees for signs of Tony. Loki barely felt the cold, but he feared a human would not fare so well, particularly if Tony had been injured in the attack on his home.  As he searched he was struck with a queer feeling, one he had not felt in hundreds of years. Like someone calling his name in a crowded room, or from a great distance away. He stopped, mentally exploring the sensation before he recognized it.

Someone was praying to him.

Oh shit what is this bitch shit there are two of them fuck Loki I really wish you were here or maybe like the whole crew how are they melting shit with their bare hands? It took Loki seconds to find Stark.

“Is that all you’ve got?” He heard a grating voice say, and turned to see a woman approaching, a woman who appeared to be consumed with fire. Flames licked at the ceiling from the inferno behind her. “A cheap trick and cheesy one-liner?”

“What is this, Stark?” He hissed. Tony almost fell over at his sudden appearance but recovered quickly, grabbing Loki’s wrist.

“Sweetheart, that could be the name of my autobiography!” Tony shouted over his shoulder, and pulled them both out the back door and behind cover. The building exploded, and Tony slumped in relief until they heard laughter coming from the rubble. Looking up, Loki saw the woman, slightly dimmer now, digging herself out from under a fallen wall. Loki threw a knife, and as she gurgled around the blade in her throat Loki grabbed her and disappeared.

Long moments later he returned, cursing vigorously. “What in Hel have you gotten yourself into, Tony Stark?”

Tony came over to where Loki was examining his hands. The skin on his palms and fingers was red and blistered, bleeding in some parts. “Holy shit, Loki, what did you do? That chick was made of like molten lava and you what, shook hands with her?”

“I just saved your life, perhaps this entire wretched town, and these,” he said, holding up his hands, “are the only thanks I get?”

“You’re right, I’m a dick. I’m sorry, thank you for saving me.” Tony curtseyed while Loki rolled his eyes. “You’re my hero. There, is that better? Where did you take her?”

Loki smiled. “Jotunheim. Home of the Frost Giants.”

Tony gaped. “Frost…giants?”

“It is a world of darkness, ice, and snow, inhabited by creatures that control ice at will.” Loki looked mildly regretful. “I only wish I could have stayed to watch the show.”

Behind them they heard the shriek of stressed metal and turned to see a water tower tilting dangerously.  “Right. There were two of them,” Tony said vaguely as the metal struts gave way. Loki seized him and braced them as the tower collapsed, dumping hundreds of thousands of gallons on top of them.

When the deluge passed, Loki wiped the water off his face with a low growl. Loki had been irritated before, mostly at Tony, but now he was livid. He hated getting wet. He waded through the debris and searched for the culprit, kicking metal beams aside.  He sensed more than saw the man approach, his mind like fingernails on a chalkboard.

At first, the man looked like any other.  Then his eyes began to glow orange, and the glow spread under his skin.  "Tony Stark!"  He roared.  "I want my goddamn file. Where is it?” 

"Finders keepers, asshole!" Tony shouted.  As he came closer, Loki could see that the man was giving off heat, enough to steam the water as he walked through it. Loki flexed his fingers, feeling the stretch of quickly healing blisters, but before he could move Tony blasted the man in the face with repulsor.  The man went down and stayed down, his face a bloody hole.

Loki growled and kicked the man in the ribs. “I hate being wet.”

“Yeah, especially when it’s this cold. I’m freezing.” Tony searched through the man’s pockets, coming up with a pair of keys. When he straightened up, he noticed that he was distinctly warmer. And drier.

“I told you that spell has many uses,” Loki commented. “Now, tell me what in Hel is going on here.”

As Loki half-listened to Stark’s story, he was glad that his still painful hands and Stark’s adrenaline-fueled monologue prevented him from any ill-considered displays of affection. Seeing the remains of Stark’s home, watching the replay and imagining him inside as the missiles hit and the building collapsed, had shaken Loki to his core. Stark, for all of his brilliant mind and powerful machines, was still a human and fragile in ways Loki barely understood. 

Stark must have noticed that Loki was lost in his own thoughts because he stopped. “I’m rambling. I haven’t slept in a while, so I’m not sure I’m making sense. I need to grab some things and then we – um…Can you, uh, stay? I could really use your help.”

“That is unwise,” Loki said. “I would lend you my aid, but I am still a wanted criminal on this world and,” Loki counted silently on his fingers, “three, perhaps four, others. I also have matters to attend to. But if truly you need me, I will come.”

“How? How did you even find me here in the first place?”

“You prayed to me,” Loki said, ignoring Tony’s look of astonishment as he took his hand and turned it over, pushing his sleeve up past his wrist. Loki traced his sigil on it, which glowed green for a moment before vanishing. “Simply touch this area and think of me.”

“Did you just put a spell on me? Again?” Tony said incredulously, staring at his arm. “I feel violated.”

Loki raised an eyebrow and used his grip on Tony’s arm to pull him in close, and tipped up his chin with his other hand. “I just placed myself at your beck and call, Stark. Show some appreciation.”

“Right, right. So I can use it for anything, hmm?” Tony pulled him down for a kiss. "You know, you'd make an excellent delivery service if you decide to stop being a supervillain."

“Preferably when you are in mortal danger,” Loki said, suppressing a smile. “Like the sort you will be in if you don’t stop talking.”

“Roger that,” Tony said, but Loki was already gone.

 

Tony’s plea came later that night.

Loki god I hope this works or else I’m going to look like an idiot sending Rhodey away I’m really out of my league here

“What now?” Loki asked as he appeared next to Tony.

Tony jumped. “Christ! You are going to give me a heart attack. Also, thank God. My closest suit got hit by a truck and none of the others have arrived yet, and this place is crawling with Men on Fire. Plus my ex-girlfriend is here somewhere and so is the President and –“

Loki put a hand over Tony’s mouth. “Breathe.” Tony nodded his head and after a moment seemed to relax. “What is the priority?” Tony pointed over his head. Loki glanced over the top of the container box they were stooped behind and saw a man in a metal suit suspended in the air, conspicuously lit by floodlights.

“I will free him. You find the woman. Agreed?”

“Agreed.” Looking back at Tony, he turned Tony’s face to examine his black eye, touching it with careful fingers. “Yeah I got a shiner and a few boo-boos.  Kiss it and make it better?”

“My talents do not lie in that direction, I’m afraid.” But he did press a quick kiss to Tony’s lips before releasing him and straightening. Loki studied the scene as he summoned his armor. For a moment Loki gleamed with gold and green light and when it faded, bronzed metal shone across his chest and shoulders, curling up to protect his neck and wrapping his arms to the wrist. Tony whistled low.

“That’s damn sexy.”

Loki smiled. “I know.” Then he disappeared. A moment later, one of the floodlights exploded in a shower of sparks, and men started shouting. Tony waited for the rush of footsteps to fade, and started searching.

Loki rather quickly discovered that the fastest way to kill these strange fiery people was direct damage to the brain, so he stopped sending knives through hearts and sent them through eyes instead. Some inexplicably exploded on death, which was proving very aggravating, Loki reflected as he picked himself up off the ground for the third time. He had no idea how much time had passed, but he had not gotten very far in rescuing the man suspended above him so he hoped Tony was making good use of his time.

A muted roaring sound from above made his opponent glance up, giving Loki a chance to put a knife through the back of his neck. Loki looked up to see dozens of Iron Man suits hovering above the shipyard.

“You must be very pleased with yourself, Stark,” Loki muttered, and set himself to freeing the president from his chains, ignoring the explosions around him as the suits joined the fray. Loki transported him, suit and all, to the steps of the White House.

“What the-“ the man started when he saw Loki clearly for the first time.

“Thank me later,” Loki said, and vanished.

When he returned to the shipyard, he was not at all surprised to see it on fire and collapsing. Unfortunately, with all of the suits flying around he couldn’t tell where Tony was, until he spotted him across the ship, cornered by a glowing man who was screaming, “I am the Mandarin!”

“Good,” Loki said, appearing behind him. “I’ve been looking for you.”

The man turned on him with a growl, and Loki unleashed the power of the Casket of Ancient Winters, coating him in ice until none of the red glow inside could be seen. He sent the casket away and helped Tony stand.

“Whew, cold hands! What was that? Is he dead?”

“Long story, and I don’t think so.” If Tony had seen Loki’s skin change, he was smart enough not to say anything. The ice started cracking behind them when a woman emerged from the burning rubble and swung at the frozen body with four feet of rebar like she was going for a home run. The ice shattered and the man inside flew backwards to hit the wall behind him. Tony and Loki watched in surprise as the woman threw the rebar into the air and heel kicked it, impaling the man through the center of the head.  The glow inside him flickered and died.

The woman turned and looked at Tony as if in a daze. “Uh, Pepper?” Tony said, holding his hands up soothingly. As the ominous orange light glowing inside the woman began to fade, Tony pulled her into a relieved embrace. “Jesus Christ, I thought you were dead! Are you ok?”

“Why? Because I fell 200 feet into a blazing inferno? Surprisingly, I’m fine.” Pepper was looking around with disbelief at the blazing inferno, and then noticed the dozen or so surviving Iron Man suits hovering above them, awaiting new commands. “We should probably get out of here, right?” As if to punctuate the question, a crane on the other side of the compound surrendered to the blaze with a thundering crash.

“She’s got a good point. Can you get us out of here?”

Pepper looked back to Tony and then seemed to notice Loki for the first time. “Wait, is that –“

The transition from flaming barge to the quiet of Stark Tower was sufficiently shocking that Tony was able to shepherd her down to the infirmary before she finished the thought.

“How are you feeling?” Tony asked as JARVIS took her vital signs.

“Surprisingly good,” she answered, studying her hands. No ominous red glow to be seen. JARVIS seemed to be agreeing with her, since all of her vitals were flashing a reassuring green. “So why is –“

“First things first, Pepper. I want to make sure you’re not going to go nuclear in the middle of New York before I figure out how to reverse the serum. Then I will explain why Earth Public Enemy Number 1 is in my living room.” Tony took blood and DNA samples and set JARVIS to scanning them. Between this information and the equation Rebecca had shown him, it shouldn’t be too difficult to -

“He saved your life tonight, didn’t he?” Tony looked up at her in surprise.

“Not just mine, and not for the first time,” he said, minimizing the analysis programs so he could face her. “If I tried to explain it, the situation would sound screwy, but I promise he’s here to help.”

She studied his face for long moments. As always, he wondered what she saw there, because he could never tell what she was thinking. “Ok, I’m going to trust you,” she said finally, putting her hands on his to still their nervous movements. “I probably couldn’t stop you, anyway.”

“Well, you could make me feel really guilty, or tell Dad on me. But you won’t regret it.” He squeezed her hands, then rolled across the floor to the medicine cabinet. “For now, I think you should have a sedative to help you sleep and keep your system stable. I saw enough of what’s-her-bitch’s research that –“

“Tony.”

“What?”

“When was the last time you slept?”

Tony started to count, then gave up when he realized he was taking too long to answer. “You know I do my best work when I’m sleep deprived.”

“Not on me you don’t. JARVIS, lock down his systems until he’s slept at least six hours.”

“Don’t listen to her, JARVIS! Whose name is on this tower anyway?” He protested as she slid off the exam table.

“Tony, listen. I can’t tell you how I know, but I am going to be fine. So I’m going to get a shower, and then I’m going to sleep for a week. JARVIS can monitor me from my room.” She kissed him on the cheek and Tony’s throat got tight. They were terrible as a couple, but she was still one of his people and she’d almost died today. “Get some rest, Tony.”

“Right. You too, Pepper.”

Tony wheeled himself back and forth across the infirmary before accepting the fact that even if he wanted to, nothing could really be accomplished until JARVIS was done with the DNA results. So he turned the lights out and went back upstairs, surprised to see that Loki was still there, staring out the window over the glittering lights of New York. As he drew closer, Tony noticed he had changed into dark green loose linen shirt showed off the pale line of his throat and surprisingly broad shoulders. Tony had fond memories of holding on to those shoulders less than a week ago.

“Hey, does it weird you out that you were pounded into the floor like right…” Tony looked around and took two steps to the left. “Here? Just a few months ago?”

“Does it disturb you that I threw you out of…” He examined the wall of windows in front of them. “That window, just a few months ago?”

“Point taken. Thank you for saving my life today. Well, mine and Pepper’s and the President’s, I guess.”

Loki waved away his thanks. “I’m sure you will have a chance to return the favor.”

“I wonder how long it’s going to take before Director Fury calls me. I am going to have a lot of awkward questions to answer,” Tony said with a grimace, wishing for a drink to wash the thought down.

“You will likely also be seeing Thor soon. I was using too much power for it to escape the attention of Asgard, despite my best efforts.” That explained Loki’s pensive mood, Tony thought. Or maybe he had as many bad memories about New York as Tony did. Those, at least, were better at night because you couldn’t see the destruction that encircled Tony’s tower like a moat. They still hadn’t cleared all the debris away yet to begin rebuilding, so every morning it was a depressing reminder. 

“Frankly, I’m surprised that we haven’t seen him before now. The fact that you’d escaped seems like something he should have mentioned,” Tony commented, turning away from the window. He sat in one of the chairs facing the empty fireplace, putting his feet up on the coffee table with a sigh of relief.

“I’m sure Asgard has had more important things for their brightest son to do than be a messenger to Earth. Besides, it would have been an unacceptable loss of face; far better to wait until I had been found.” Loki sat in the other chair and lit the fireplace with a snap of his fingers, which burned merrily without the benefit of logs or other fuel. 

“True.” Tony sighed. “I’m already not looking forward to trying to explain why you rescued the President.”

“Simply deny everything.”

“Yeah, ok. ‘Why was Loki there?’ ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Why did he rescue the president?’ ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Did you know he was there?’ ‘Nope, I certainly didn’t see a six foot tall wanted criminal god tossing people around like dolls.’” Tony scowled. “Not only is it implausible, but I’ll sound like an idiot. I’m already going to have to lie my ass off to keep Pepper’s name out of it as much as possible.”

“No doubt they’ll think it is part of some inscrutable yet diabolical plot on my part to take over the world.” Loki smiled thinly, then looked over to see Tony squinting at him suspiciously.

“But it isn’t…is it?”

Loki laughed and stretched, sinking lower in his chair. “If I had truly wanted to take over your world, Stark, I would have done it last time.”

“What do you mean?” Tony tried force his eyes away from the narrow strip of skin that had been revealed right above the waist of Loki’s pants. The play of firelight off the muscles there was tantalizing, creating hollows in his hip bones that begged to be explored.

“I should be insulted that you have to ask. Can you not come up with half a dozen better plans? In fact, the real challenge should be to come up with a worse one.”

“Hmmm.” Tony slid off his chair and knelt in front of Loki’s, finally putting his mouth on the strip of skin were his eyes had been. “So what’s next then? The Tesseract?” Tony pushed Loki’s shirt up so he could reach more, and Loki obligingly pulled it over his head.

“Yes. I have two tasks yet before we can annihilate the Chitauri. One is to retrieve the Tesseract, which is locked away in a vault on Asgard.” Loki’s hands came down to stroke through Tony’s hair.

“Ouch. Good luck with that.” Tony bit Loki’s side lightly and ran his palms over the thighs framing him.

To his surprise, Loki put his hands over Tony’s, stilling their movement. “The other is to retrieve the scepter given to me by the Chitauri’s ruler.” Tony grew still at these words and looked up to see Loki watching him, his face carefully neutral but his eyes wary. “It is more than a powerful weapon. It was the tool through which I was to lead the Chitauri because it allowed me to control them.  With it, I can force them to turn on each other.”

Tony rested his head on Loki’s thigh and was silent for a long time. “I assume you are telling me this because you want my help in getting it back.”

Loki tilted his head in assent.

“That is…I don’t know if I can do that, Loki. Agreeing to help you in this crazy shit is one thing, because that’s just on me, but helping you get that thing back from SHIELD, that’s betraying Steve, Clint, Natasha…I just can’t do that.”

Loki chose his words carefully as he ran his fingers over the scars on Tony’s hands. “I understand. But what if I told you that SHIELD itself no longer had it?”

“What? What makes you think that?”

“I have searched every SHIELD facility I could find. The scepter has a strong, distinctive energy signature. It was nowhere.”

“What if SHIELD has just buried it too deep for you find?”

“That is certainly a possibility.” His tone said it was a remote possibility. Loki turned Tony’s hand over and traced idle patterns on his inner wrist, making him shiver pleasantly.  The spelled sigil there throbbed with warmth, a sensation that went straight to Tony's groin. 

“Who could have possibly taken it?”

Loki shrugged. “I do not know. That is why I need your help.” He leaned forward to kiss Tony, then slid down in his seat and wrapped one leg around Tony’s back to tug him closer, a slow smile curving his mouth.

“Well, I’ll bring it up and see what happens,” Tony said, running his hands over the tempting expanse of Loki’s chest before starting in on the laces of his pants, his goal already hardening under his fingertips. “But for now, I’ve been ordered to get some sleep and I need something to help me relax.”

Chapter Text

The obnoxious ringing of his phone pulled Tony out of the deepest sleep he’d had in days. “It’s Director Fury, sir,” JARVIS said quietly, and Tony cursed. Honestly, Tony thought that he’d have more time. Fury must have had his people working double time once he’d gotten the call from the President. With a groan he grabbed his tablet and walked out to his bedroom, closing the door on the war criminal still sleeping in his bed.

“Director Fury! So pleasant to hear from you. I hope you are having a wonderful holiday season.” Tony thought regretfully of his Christmas tree at the bottom of the Pacific. He hadn’t bothered to decorate in New York since he’d planned to spend the entire winter in California.

On the screen, Fury held up a helmet, half-melted but unmistakably one of Tony’s. Alas, poor Mark-22, Tony thought, I knew him well. “Care to guess where we found this?”

“Well, you know how kids are, you do your best to raise them right but –“

“Cut the shit, Tony.  I’ve called a meeting of the Avengers this afternoon, at SHIELD headquarters. I suggest you be there and have a good goddamn explanation for this.”

“Aye-aye, Captain.” Tony turned off the tablet and tossed it across the table. With a sigh he searched for coffee beans, hoping they hadn’t gone too stale in the months since he’d left. According to the clock, he’d gotten an unheard-of seven hours of sleep but his head felt clouded by strange nightmares he could barely remember now. Strange beasts and miles and miles of endless snow and ice. At least it was a change from his usual fare of being lost in cold, empty space surrounded only by the accusing dead.  Yay.

“JARVIS, how’s Pepper doing?”

“Still sleeping, sir, and all of her vital signs are stable.”

“Good. Order us something for breakfast, you know what she likes. And make sure you get coffee, I have a feeling this stuff is going to be terrible,” he said as he ground up the beans he found in the minifridge.

Loki found him staring into his coffee cup, trying to decide if he needed the caffeine enough to keep drinking the foul tasting stuff or if he should wait the seemingly interminable half hour JARVIS said it would take for the delivery to get here. “Oh, hey. Coffee?” He said brightly, offering his cup to Loki.

Loki looked at it suspiciously before taking a careful sip. His face relaxed. “Hmm. Tolerable.” He turned away from Tony muttering something about aliens to find the clothes they’d discarded last night.

“I got the call from Fury. I’m being called onto the carpet this afternoon.”

“Good luck with that,” Loki murmured in his ear, making him jump.

“You’ve got to stop doing that to me, I have a weak heart.” But Tony smiled and turned to press a kiss to Loki’s jaw. Loki dipped his head and pressed their lips together. As one kiss bled into the next, Loki framed Stark’s jaw with his hands, holding his head still as he slowly took the other man apart with his mouth. It seemed as if Loki was content to stand there all morning, drawing out one deeply drugging kiss to the next, to the point that JARVIS had to repeat himself before Tony heard him.

“Sir, Ms. Potts is awake.”

“Okay, okay, got it,” Tony said, reluctantly stepping back. Loki caught his hand as it trailed away and rubbed a thumb over his wrist. The mark Loki had made there flared briefly. The touch, slow and gentle, made Tony shiver. Tony saw a small smile curve Loki’s lips as he did it again.

“I should go. I have hesitated long enough. I must retrieve the Tesseract, or all of our work will be for naught. If I am very lucky, I will return from Asgard quickly,” Loki said, releasing Tony’s hand. “If I am not, I may not return from Asgard at all.”

Tony swallowed around the lump in his throat. “Stay for breakfast?”

“Tempting. More than you know.” Loki curled his hand around Tony’s neck and pulled him close again. Loki slanted his lips across Tony’s and licked into his mouth, the kiss long, slow, and thorough. Tony had just enough time to feel the satisfying length of Loki’s body against his own before it was gone.

_______________________________
 

Needless to say, by the time Tony waltzed into the conference room at SHIELD headquarters, he was really not in the mood for this. After Loki left, he’d only just gotten started on reverse engineering the Extremis serum when JARVIS had flashed an alert for this meeting. Plus, during the night the last of his straggling suits finally showed up and they needed some serious repairs, all of which he was more interested in doing than getting bitched at by Nick Fury.

“Hello, everyone. Rhodey! Fancy seeing you again, I didn’t realize you were invited to this. Nat, you’re looking well. Overthrown any governments lately? Steve, I hope you’re keeping busy. Maria, good to see you again. Where’s Clint and Bruce?” Tony sat at the table between Colonel Rhodes and Natasha, spinning a little in the generic office chair. “Did you guys get new chairs? These are nice.”

“Clint’s on leave and Bruce is still on that sabbatical. Fury didn’t think we needed to bring them in for this,” Maria answered absently, concentrating on the tablet in front of her.

“Where is Fury?”

“He had to track down our guest.”

“Guest?” Tony hadn’t even finished speaking when Fury walked in, followed closely by Thor.

“Thor!” Tony stood and reached out a hand. Thor shook it before taking a seat, looking absurdly incongruous in the SHIELD conference room with his shining silver armor. “What’s happening, big guy?”

“Thor will have a chance to talk, but now that everyone is here let’s take this from the top, shall we? We should all be aware that we are here to discuss the events in Miami last night.” As Fury walked around to the end of the conference table Maria flipped a switch and the room went dark, and after a moment a screen lit up. “Here’s what SHIELD knows,” Fury said, giving Tony a Look. “Colonel Rhodes tells us that he was captured while on mission to find the Mandarin and was forced from his suit at approximately 1500 hours yesterday. Shortly afterwards he met up with Tony Stark at the Mandarin’s headquarters in Florida, where they discovered that the man who has presented himself as the Mandarin was in fact a fraud. That should all be in the briefing papers you received before the meeting so we’re not going to go into that again.”

“I didn’t get any –“ Natasha kicked him under the table and Tony shut up.

“At 1630 Stark calls the Vice President regarding the plan as it was revealed by one Trevor Slatterly, aka the Mandarin. The VP has already been taken into custody and is currently being questioned for his involvement. Then at 1730 hours the President was taken from Air Force One by someone wearing the Iron Patriot suit. Iron Man rescued the other 13 passengers of the plane before it crashed off the Florida coast. At this point, Colonel Rhodes reports that he and Stark split up so that Rhodes could call in reinforcements while Stark attempts to find where the President was taken. The next time we see POTUS is at 2000 hours on this damaged oil tanker.” Fury flashed up a screen capture from the footage Killian had taken before everything started blowing up. “Our analysts were able to find this glimpse of Stark on the barge’s security footage shortly before all of the security cameras mysteriously went out at the same time.” There was a five second film clip of Stark scurrying behind some shipping crates before he goes off screen. Fury turns off the monitor and the lights go up. “After that, we have no fucking clue what happens. The President can’t see shit because he’s strung up 100 feet off the ground.  All he can say is that he heard a lot of gunfire and saw at least a dozen Iron Man suits flying around before he is inexplicably rescued and deposited on the White House lawn by, of all the goddamn people in the universe, Loki.

“So. Tony. Is there anything you would like to add?”

Just because he didn't want to do this didn't mean he wasn't ready to.  Tony pulled his tablet out of his laptop case, turned it on, and slid it across the table. A display flickered to life in the middle of the conference table, a holographic projection of all of his notes on Mandarin and Extremis. “Well since you asked politely, here’s what I know, starting when my house blew up.” Tony walked them through almost everything from the past week, including how he tracked the Mandarin signal to Miami and how Killian was using a serum to turn people into human IEDs. “I’m working on reverse engineering the formula right now because when this shit works, it turns people into, I don’t know, like fire demons. I’m not talking Carrie-style firestarters, these guys can actually breathe fire.”

Looking around the table, only Rhodey was nodding in agreement, everyone else had a skeptical look on their faces. “We are literally sitting at a table with the actual God of Thunder and you’re giving me shit when I tell you that these people breathe fire?” Tony said incredulously.

“It’s true,” Rhodey supplied. “Almost took my head off.”

“All of that is very good to know, but why in the hell was Loki there?” Fury demanded.

“Hell if I know! Was he involved in the plot? I don’t know. Was he working against Killian and Mandarin for some reason? I don’t know. I thought he was in Asgard like everyone else. All I can say is that I didn’t see him rescue the President because I was trying to find Pepper, and by the time we went to look for him he was gone. Don’t give me that disappointed look, Steve. I didn’t even vote for the guy.”

“Loki escaped from Asgard some time ago. We’ve been searching the Nine Realms for him since, but this is the first sign of him we’ve seen. I apologize for not warning you sooner, but I truly believed that he would not dare return to Midga- Earth.” Thor looked understandably troubled.

“It does seems like this would be the last- well, second to last,” Tony amended, glancing at Thor, “place he would go.”  The first being Asgard, of course.  Which is where he was right now.  Tony busied himself by shuffling papers so that the thought wouldn't show on his face. 

“We do have his spear,” Natasha pointed out. “I imagine that’s something he would like back.”

“True. Whatever happened to that?” Tony spun around to see Fury’s reaction, and wasn’t disappointed when the man’s face went carefully blank.

“I don’t think that is relevant to the point here,” Fury said shortly. “The spear is secure. I want to know why Loki was there, and what he is planning.”

“We thought the Tesseract was secure but Loki took it and destroyed the entire base as he left. Then he almost took down a Helicarrier with only enough men to fill a single quinjet. If the spear is what brought Loki back to Earth, that could be our chance, maybe our only chance, to catch him,” Steve pointed out.

“We have taken all necessary precautions to protect the spear,” Fury repeated. Tony could tell by the look on Steve’s face that he wasn’t buying that, and even Natasha had a thin line between her eyebrows, which for her was practically a scowl. “But the spear is not in Miami, and Loki was.”

“I hate to point out that we are not going to be able to figure out Loki’s plan from one data point. Other than securing the spear, unfortunately we are simply going to have to wait and see what he does next.”

“Lady Natasha is right. I would stay on Earth lest Loki return, but with no further information I am afraid my responsibilities draw me elsewhere. The Nine Realms have been in chaos since the destruction of the Bifrost, and we have only recently been able to rebuild it with the Tesseract.”

“You can’t stay?” Tony was mildly disappointed. He had hoped to pick Thor’s brain about his little brother and finally get the goods on that adoption story. “You know, I still have-“ Wait, Loki drank all of that. “-Haven’t had a chance to spar with you again, now that I’ve made some suit upgrades,” he finished.

Thor laughed. “Your offer is enticing indeed, Tony Stark. Another time, perhaps.” He stood. “I have provided Sir Fury with a means to contact Asgard if Loki appears again. Good day, friends.” With a brief bow, he turned to leave. At a nod from Director Fury, Maria followed him out.

“Let me show you out, I was hoping to ask you…” Her voice trailed off as they moved down the hallway, leaving an awkward silence in the conference room. Fury was studying Tony as if he thought Tony was hiding something, which, to be fair, he was. Natasha was studying Fury as if he were hiding something, which he almost certainly was. Steve looked troubled and Rhodey looked uncomfortable.

“Well, I have already sent you everything I have on the Mandarin, including my statement or after action report or whatever you guys call it, so I’m out.” Tony stood and collected his tablet and laptop bag. “Director, if you have any other questions, you know where to find me. I have a lot of suits to repair waiting for me at Stark Tower. Rhodey, let me know if you need any help repairing Iron Patriot. If you go to Hammer Tech to fix it, I swear to God I’ll find a way to paint it pink. Steve, Nat, until next time.”

To his surprise, Natasha stood up as well. “I’ll walk with you.”

“My pleasure.” Tony offered her his arm and left, feeling Fury glaring a hole in his back. “How are you doing, Ms. Romanov?”

“Quite well, Mr. Stark. I have been helping SHIELD interrogate Vice President Rodriguez and the entertaining Mr. Slatterly.”

“Oh, I can imagine. When I tried to get information from him it was like interviewing a toddler with ADD.” Tony pulled out his phone. No new messages. I guess even Loki can’t break into Asgard in just a few hours, Tony mused, and texted a quick “call me” to Steve.

“That sums it up. But while I was doing some background research, I came across something odd that I wanted to ask you about.”

Natasha sounded relaxed and friendly. The hair on the back of Tony’s neck went up and his heart started beating faster. “I’m all ears.”

“A few weeks ago a call came in from your LA home requesting backup from SHIELD, a request that was cancelled only a few minutes later.”

“Oh yeah.” Fuck. He’d forgotten about that. “I’ve been programming JARVIS to do automatic threat detection and we had a false alarm.”

She made a thoughtful hmm. “A suspicious mind might think that it was Loki offering you some kind of deal. As we have seen, he can be very...persuasive.”

Tony laughed, hopefully convincingly. “No. He did not show up at my home and he didn’t put a mind whammy on me.” I think. “If he had, you would have known it. My house would have blown up a lot sooner than it did.”

“I’d like to think so. I’m glad that Clint is off the grid right now, he doesn’t need this kind of news.”

Tony winced internally at the guilt trip. Clint was still visiting the SHIELD therapist as a requirement to return to active duty because of what Loki had done. Thankfully at that moment the elevator dinged, offering him an escape from the interrogation. “Me, too. I’d do everything in my power to keep anyone from hurting any of my friends ever again,” Tony said truthfully, holding Natasha’s gaze.

After a long moment, she nodded and hit the button to close the door. “Me, too.”

The flight home felt unusually short, probably because Tony spent the entire time trying to decide if he’d convinced Natasha that he wasn’t working with Loki or if he should just go ahead and move to Siberia now to save himself some trouble.

Back in Stark Tower his surviving suits were lined up in his living room like a modern day Terra Cotta army, many of them looking rather worse for wear. He was absurdly glad for that; repairing suits was a soothing pastime. He checked in on Pepper, who had decided to work from the suite she still had in Stark Tower, and then on the modeling program that was developing possible antidotes to the Extremis serum. So far JARVIS had found two formulations that would merit further testing and was at work fabricating them.

So when Steve finally called a few hours later, Tony was hammering dents out of a back plate and avoiding calls from the press, who had somehow found out about his involvement in Miami and were currently swarming the tower waiting for him to emerge. Tony took off his gloves and hit speakerphone.

“You think Fury is hiding something, don’t you,” Tony said, grabbing the phone and wheeling across his lab to get a drink from the fridge.

“Yes. But he’s not the only one, is he, Tony?”

Et tu, Steve? Tony thought. “I have no idea what you are talking about.” Tony winced at the long silence that followed.

“Promise me you’re not working with Loki,” he said finally.

“I’m not working with Loki,” Tony recited dutifully, chugging water.

“And that whatever you are up to, you’re not putting anyone in danger.”

“I’m not putting anyone else in danger.”

“Anyone ‘else’? Tony, what are you -“

“Don’t worry about it, Steve, I’m a big boy,” Tony interrupted. “If I need help, I’ll ask for it." 

“You'll ask for help?  Like you did in LA, or in Tennessee, or in Miami?" 

Tony banged his head on his desk as quietly as possible and chose to ignore that completely accurate point. "Right now I feel like we should be worried that Fury clearly has no idea where Loki’s scepter is.”

"I will look into that. You should stay away from SHIELD for a while.”

“You mean you will have Natasha look into it since it will probably involve computers.”

“Is there anything else, Tony?” Steve sounded impatient.

“Why, you got a hot date?"  When Steve didn't immediately respond, Tony gasped, scandalized. "You do!  Who is she? Where did you two meet?  When are you going to introduce us?  I'd be more than happy to be your best man, you don't even have to ask."

"Enough, Tony," Steve said, but it sounded like he was smiling.

"But seriously, how are things, Cap? Life treating you well in DC? The new headquarters are nice.”

“I keep busy. You?”

“Well, you know. Things got a little hot just recently.”

“I heard. You should have called for backup, Tony,” he said sternly. There was a long silence while Tony tried to figure out how to ask what had been on his mind for a few days. “What is it? Come on, out with it, Tony.”

“Do you ever wonder about Loki?”

“Like what?”

“Like what he was actually doing here? Not this time, of course, it will be a long time before we figure that out, but last time. I mean, if you had an extraterrestrial army and were trying to take over the world, where would you land it?”

“Certainly not New York. If he had done the same thing in DC, or in the middle of Kansas, things would have gone a lot differently.”

“Yeah, true. But blowing up the White House is so 1996.”

“What does that – never mind. Why do you ask? Does it have something to do with what happened in Miami?”

“Why? What have you heard?”

Another sigh. “Alright, fine. I’ll leave it alone. For now.  Be careful, okay? You know Fury is going to be keeping his eye on you from here on out.”

“Thanks, Cap.” Tony hung up, suspicions confirmed. Loki was right; something was rotten in the state of Denmark.

Chapter Text

Loki already knew that infiltrating the palace was laughably simple, even under the watchful eye of Heimdall. The weapons vault, however, was another story. As prince, and then as king, the wards on the vault had let him pass unchallenged. But he strongly suspected that had changed as soon as the Tesseract was secured inside, if not earlier. Now the wards were much more sophisticated than when he had circumvented them to sneak a couple of Jotun inside. There was no weakness to exploit, no sloppiness to capitalize on. Mother had really outdone herself. 

So Loki assumed the guise of a palace guard and spent every possible moment studying the spells standing between him and the Tesseract.  In that time, he learned a great many uninteresting details about the daily lives of Einherjar, but more importantly, he came to two conclusions. First, that he was not likely going to be able to steal the Tesseract without a great deal of bloodshed and fireworks, making him wonder if he should have brought Stark along after all.  Perhaps with experimentation and time, he could find a way to bypass the security, but he was only going to be able to try this once.  Second, spending time in Asgard was excrutiating. The entire city, and the palace in particular, felt…complacent. Dull.  Compared to the unending cycle of creation and destruction, the energy and enthusiasm, of Midgard, Asgard was a self-righteous tomb. Perhaps that was what came from living such short, mayfly lives, he mused.  There was no time to waste with -

Loki staggered sideways as an unexpected weight threw him off balance.  His fellow guard caught himself just before he fell to the ground, having fallen asleep while standing outside the door of the vault.  The man, boy, really, stuttered apologies as he stooped to pick up his spear then stopped and blinked at Loki in surprise. Looking down at himself, Loki cursed and reached for the guardsmen but he had already sprinted down the hall screaming for reinforcements.  Loki hesitated, unwilling to retreat when he could feel the Tesseract on the other side of one elaborately carved door. 

In that moment of indecision, Einherjar flooded the corridor, each eager for the glory of defeating Asgard's fallen prince, and he no longer had the time to escape.  Loki waded through the guards like a bear beset by a pack of dogs, defeating each one easily but afraid that he would fall under the weight of the pack.  He fought with a single-minded focus, wanting only enough time to be able to cast the spells he needed without being stabbed in the back while doing so.

With a shout of triumph, he slammed the last guard against the wall and let him fall, turning to see that the Einherjar had not, in fact, been defeated, they had retreated. 

Thor’s obnoxious toadies had arrived.  Most of them, at least.  Volstagg was glowering, Fandral looked surprised, and if looks could kill, well, Sif would have killed him a long time ago.  Hogun was conspicuously absent.

“Loki! You would dare show your face here again?” Volstagg bellowed, drawing his axe. 

“My friends,” Loki said with a slight bow and bitter smile.  “It is a pleasure, as always, but I’m afraid I must go.”

“You will not escape justice this time, you ergi snake,” Sif snarled, and attacked.  She was strong and fast but predictable.  After hundreds of years of fighting alongside them all, Loki had memorized their moves like a choreographed dance. She lunged with her sword but Loki had already vanished and dodged, leaving an illusion in his wake.  She pierced only empty air. But apparently she too had learned some of Loki’s tricks; she immediately ducked and lashed out with her shield, forcing him to reveal himself.  A creak of leather warned that Volstagg had entered the fray and Loki barely stepped aside in time to avoid the battleax.  A pulse of magic continued the ax’s momentum and it embedded itself in the marble floor.  Loki kicked him hard in the chest while he was off balance, sending the bulky brute flying into the slender Fandral and knocking them both to the floor.  

Sensing rather than seeing the attack, Loki struck behind him with his elbow just as Sif swung at his unarmored side with her shield.  She fell back with a curse and Loki hissed as he felt at least one rib crack.  He spun around to face her, circling so that the wall was at his back.

“You couldn’t just stay away, could you?  You have to come back and try to ruin things.  It’s your nature, you monster,” Sif spat, adjusting her grip on her sword.

“As usual, your charm and grace is breathtaking, Sif,” Loki said with a mirthless grin, summoning his daggers.  “Tell me, where is Thor?  Is he away visiting his human paramour again?”

The barb hit home, and Sif swung her blade at him in rage. Loki darted in close, seizing her wrist in one hand and burying his blade in her underarm, where her armor was weakest. He twisted the blade on the way out, partially severing the muscles and tendons and nicking the artery there.

“Temper, temper, Sif,” he mocked.  She stepped backwards, almost tripping over the body of a guard, and tried and failed to raise her shield.  Blood dripped from her wrist, and from the hate in her eyes, Loki realized that she would rather bleed to death than yield.  Volstagg had finally freed his ax and he advanced warily with Fandral at his side.  Loki doubled himself, then did it again and again until the corridor was filled with echoes of himself.  The warriors hesitated, and Loki took the chance to pull the roof down on their heads.

“You fools,” Loki said, his words echoed by a dozen voices.  “You think you can defeat me?” Loki used his power to seize the wreckage on the floor and throwing it at them, forcing them to retreat.  “You are nothing without Thor, you miserable cretins.”  He summoned his knives and sent them flying, laughing when he heard Fandral’s cry of pain. “What, after all these years of insults and insinuations, you have nothing to say to me now?” 

They had regrouped at the far end of the corridor; the bodies and debris on the floor around Loki made it hard to maneuver.  Sif and Volstagg were staring at Loki as if he’d gone mad and one side Fandral’s face was a curtain of blood.  Loki curled his fingers, gathering power for another attack, when he saw Sif lower her sword and look past his shoulder.

“Loki.” He had time to turn and see the bitter rage in Odin’s eye before a searing blast from Odin’s spear hit him in the chest and everything went black.

------------------------------------

“It’s time,” one of the Einherjar said, without ceremony. He held up a pair of shackles, the elaborately bespelled pair that Loki had worn on Earth when Thor had attempted to bring him back to Asgard. “Are you going to do it, or shall I?”

Loki held his hand out, scowling. The guard tossed them through the spellwall at Loki’s feet. He stared at the insolent guard before stooping to pick them up. As he closed them around his wrists, his eyes promised revenge. Far from being cowed by Loki’s glare, the guard smirked. “That’s not all of them,” he said, throwing a pair of fetters on the floor as well.

“You’re joking,” Loki said flatly.

“King’s orders.”

Loki gritted his teeth. His pride insisted that he refuse, but his sanity demanded an end to the waiting. By his count, it had already been four weeks since he had woken up in this cell and in all that time Odin had refused his demands for an audience.

Once that galling task was done, he gestured as wide as the shackles would allow. “Shall we?”

“One last thing.” Loki had to move closer to see what the guard was holding now.

A collar. Odin would have Loki collared like an animal. Like a monster.

“No. I will not.”  At that, more Einherjar stepped into the light, many with their weapons already drawn.  Loki heard one mutter "filthy seidrmenn" and another hissed "ragr" and spat on the floor.  Loki slammed his fists against the spell wall, sending sparks flying and startling half of them into taking a step backwards.  "Step inside and say that again, nidingr,"  he growled, ignoring the pain radiating down his arms.  "I will kill you with these chains, if I must."

“Put it on or we will force you.” The guards seemed delighted by the prospect.   Between the golden shimmer of the spellwall and the darkness of the outside corridor, Loki couldn’t see the rest of the Einherjar but he had no doubt they were there and eager to avenge themselves for their fallen comrades.

“Go to Hel.” Loki braced himself as they swarmed into his cell. He fought as best he could, but without weapons or magic, and already chained, there was little he could do. He did, however, manage to break the insolent guard’s nose, and if the one who insulted him lived it would only be through the swift intervention of the healers. Soon enough, however, they had forced the collar around his throat and a set of chains encircled his waist, all linked together by still more spelled steel. By the time they released him there were so many chains on him that he was forced to wonder if Odin planned to throw him into Asgard’s waters to drown under the weight of them all.

“No muzzle this time?” He asked sardonically as they led him out of his cell, making way for the healers to get to the fallen guards.

“The King instructed that you were to be able to speak in your own defense.”  

“So there is to be a trial, then?” He rattled his chains. “It would seem that Odin has already decided my fate.”

The guard shrugged sullenly, and gestured for Loki to move. Which he did, walking as best as he was able given the fetters when he was suddenly pulled up short. Looking back, he realized that he was also leashed, with two guards holding a length of chain attached at his waist.  Their smirks said they had tripped him on purpose.  His sudden rage was so hot that his vision grew red. He breathed through the impulse to attack the guards again, suddenly wanting nothing more than to find Odin and wrap these chains around the old man’s neck until he begged for mercy. He forced it all down, gathered what remnants of dignity he had, and led the – two, six, ten – Einherjar that had been sent to escort him to Odin.

When they reached the throne room Loki was relieved, despite himself, to see that it was all but deserted. At least Odin hadn’t planned on making a show of these proceedings. Of course, he thought, the old bastard wants to bury me and forget I ever lived. The less witnesses for that, the better.

The queen was there, though. Loki forced himself to meet her gaze. The disappointment in her eyes was like a physical blow.

“Oh, Loki,” she sighed.

Loki forced a smile around the tightness in his chest. “Hello, Mother. Have I made you proud?”

“Please, don’t make this worse,” Frigga said quietly, her nervous hands betraying the calm in her voice.

Loki’s sarcastic smile slipped to a wry twist of his lips. “Define ‘worse.’”

“Enough,” Odin commanded. “I will speak to the prisoner alone.”

Alone was apparently a relative term, because only Frigga left. The guards holding his chains allowed him to approach the throne. For a few long moments, he stared at the man who had raised him. “Is this where I plead for forgiveness?” He said finally.

“Is that what you have to say in your defense? Do you not truly feel the gravity of your crimes? Wherever you go there is war, ruin, and death. All because Loki desires a throne.”

As if he hadn’t been raised in the shadow of said throne, promised it for centuries. As if he hadn’t sat upon it for a few short days before he was betrayed and left to rot on a rock in space, at the mercy of creatures that had no concept of kindness. “It is my birthright,” Loki finally managed, barely able to speak around the anger. 

“Your birthright,” Odin bit out, “was to die. As a child. Cast out onto a frozen rock. If I had not taken you in, you would not be here to hate me.”

Ingrate, Odin's tone proclaimed.  Would that I had left you there.  Loki’s hands were fisted so tight in his shackles that his wrists ached. “Fine. If I am for the axe, then for mercy’s sake, just swing it. It is clear that there are no words I could say that will change the fate you have decided for me.”

Odin sat back in the throne. “Frigga is the only reason you’re still alive, and you will never see her again. You will spend the rest of your days in the dungeons.”

To hear Odin say it, to hear the finality of it and the self-satisfaction in the old man’s voice, was an almost physical blow. So that was it, then. He was truly to be locked away and forgotten, left in the dungeons with the dregs of the Nine Realms. Unlike Thor, there was to be no exile, no possibility of redemption.  He would spend more years in this prison than he had even spent hours on Earth.

The guards had begun pulling him away before Loki found his voice again. “And what of Thor? You’ll make that witless oaf king while I rot in chains?”

“Thor must strive to undo the damage you have done. He will bring order to the Nine Realms and then, yes. He will be king.”

The look in Odin’s eyes made it clear that there was nothing more to say. Loki finally let the Einherjar drag him away, seething.

Chapter Text

“So are you really ready for this?” Tony asked, scooting his chair across the floor to where Pepper lay in her hospital bed. “You know, you could keep your powers and be a superhero.”

Pepper laughed. “Yeah, the past few years have been so relaxing and peaceful for you. Who wouldn’t want that job?”

At that moment a knock sounded on the door and a nurse came in. “It’s time,” he announced cheerfully, brandishing a syringe.

“Seriously, though. If we do this, there’s no going back.” Tony warned as the man emptied a syringe full of sedative into the IV line.

“Good. I don’t want to have that responsibility. Being CEO of Stark Industries is more than enough.” Pepper glanced over to see Tony staring off into space. When he noticed her watching him, his gaze focused and he smiled. She laid a hand on his cheek and then put a hand over his heart. “You know, while we are here, you could probably get the shrapnel taken out now. Why don't you? You can still be Iron Man without it.”

Tony ran an absent hand over his arc reactor, wondering why the thought left him reluctant. “I think...because I need it to remind me. It's easy to get carried away with how much power I have, just like I did before Afghanistan. I need it to remind me that I'm not a god, I'm just a man.” But Loki doesn't want to remember that, Tony suddenly realized. He wants to forget, and he thinks that killing the people who did that to him will make it all go away. The thought made him inexpressibly sad, so much so that he had to look down at his hands and swallow thickly so that he could speak normally. When he looked up Pepper was watching him with sympathy.

“The great Tony Stark is trying to stay humble?” She teased gently.

Tony forced a smile. “Can you imagine what I'd be like if I didn't?”

“I don't have to imagine, I know. It would be like five years ago but with a lot more explosions.”

“Touche.” Pepper’s eyes started getting droopy so Tony ran a hand over her hair and let the nurse wheel her away.

The past week of waiting to hear from Loki had been making Tony feel like a moody teenager. The process of reversing the Extremis serum had been infuriatingly unhelpful at distracting him, since it was a few hours of work followed by many more hours of JARVIS running computer simulations to make sure it didn’t accidently melt Pepper from the inside out or something. Fury had been calling to check on his progress; apparently during the cleanup of the President’s funeral pyre SHIELD had managed to find a number of Killian’s fiery minions and they were proving problematic to detain. In the meantime, he had finished repairing his suits, and had even searched through the rubble of his house in LA to find the armor that Loki had given him. Which had been a bitch; it had fallen to the bottom of the Pacific along with the rest of his home and was buried under a couple of tons of concrete and scrap metal. But although he had dug it up from under one of his Porsches it didn’t have so much as a scratch. Right now it was propped up against the bar in his kitchen, waiting for Tony to get around to designing a suit for it. The uranium had been placed inside some retrofitted rockets and strapped to the back of a half a dozen suits, making them look as if they were wearing jetpacks. Not aesthetically pleasing, but it was both terrifying and thrilling to realize that he had more nuclear weapons that most of the countries on Earth sitting in his garage.

They kept Pepper in the hospital for a few days to check her reaction to Tony’s serum, but it had been well designed. By the time she left, she was normal human again by every measure they could think to check. So when Fury’s call came in, Tony was in his lab, picking apart an underwater rebreather to see how he could modify it for use in airless environments.

“Good morning, Director,” Tony answered, putting him on speaker.

“Tony, it’s almost five in the afternoon.”

“Good afternoon, Director,” Tony said without missing a beat. “How can I help you today? If anything else has gone wrong, I didn’t do it.”

“No, no problems. I am calling to tell you that Thor dropped by today. Loki has been recaptured. Apparently he was caught trying to break into their weapon’s vault, probably going after the Tesseract again. Ballsy bastard.”

Tony put his tools down and stared at the rebreather. Then he slowly pushed the whole useless piece of shit across the table until it all clattered to the floor.

“Tony? Did you hear me?”

“Yeah. Thanks for letting me know.” He hung up the phone and studied the gleaming phalanxes of Iron Man suits, then threw his chair at the wall and left.

That night, the nightmares returned.

_____________________________

It’s not as if this is my first brush with crushing disappointment, Tony reasoned to himself as he stared at the ceiling and tried to come up with a compelling reason to get out of bed. The thing with Stane, for example. Wait, bad example.  That had sent him into an alcohol-soaked depression that almost cost him his best friend. Pepper’s last goodbye.  He’d handled that one like a champ, mostly because he’d seen it coming. With a groan he stuck his head under his pillow to block out the obnoxious light of morning.

So far the only good arguments had come from his bladder.  He passed on the idea of food, nothing in him wanted to eat.  Coffee seemed like a lot of work, and even the booze felt too far away.  Work could just go fuck itself.  What was the point? To make more money that he didn’t need?  To take down Bad Guy Number Two while five more popped up like world’s worst whack-a-mole?

“Sir, Ms. Potts is calling.”

“Nope.  I’m sick. Make up something good.  But not so good she will check up on me.”  On the other hand, maybe he would see if Fury had anything interesting going on.  The prospect of blowing something up had its appeal, he could get dressed for that.

“Ms. Potts left a message, sir.  Shall I play it for you?”

“Whatever.” 

Pepper’s voice came over the intercom speakers, sounding aggravatingly cheerful. “Good morning, Tony!  I wanted to remind you about the energy expo tonight.  China is sending some high level energy officials so this is our chance to get the foot in the door in Asia, so you better be there and you better not fuck it up or I’m replacing all your alcohol with flat Pepsi.”  Well that’s a good reason to get out of bed. Who wouldn’t be excited about another day plugging away at the Sisyphean task of schilling clean energy?  For a moment he imagined what Loki’s plan would be for reducing the world’s dependence on coal and oil.  Blow up oil rigs? Steal it all in a Carmen San Diego-esque caper? Nah, not devious enough.  

Tony ran a thumb over the spot on his wrist and thought he felt a throb of warmth. Are you there Loki? It’s me, Margaret. Nothing.  Earth to Loki, come in, Loki. Tony sighed.

The bladder won the fight, of course, so Tony forced himself to go through the motions. Shower. Shave.  Get dressed.  Meet with Pepper about the Chinese proposal.  Hide in the bathroom when it got to be too much, the plaster a smile on and dive back in.

Rinse.

Repeat.

Fake it ‘til you make it, Tony.

           

A couple of days later, Tony was watching the sun set over the city, standing on the roof Loki used to open the portal.  He kicked the gravel aimlessly, wondering if he should put a memorial plaque up or if that would be too arrogant.  In a fit of optimism he had invited the team up for movie night – he had planned on billing SHIELD for a team-building exercise – but trying to keep up his game face got too exhausting so he made his escape.

He put a hand over the mark. I’m going crazy here, Loki.  The only bright spot he could name was that he hadn’t had a panic attack in public lately, but that was probably because he avoided being in public as much as possible. The nightmares don’t stop, and they are getting worse. Not exactly something he could confess to his friends.  When he did sleep, he woke screaming from dreams where he was endlessly falling through space, cold and struggling to breathe, so lonely that he thought the pain of it would break him in half.  Other nights he was back in the cave in Afghanistan, as if his life since then had been the dream.  Sometimes it was the good dreams that were the worst, when he dreamed of long limbs tangled with his and woke alone, throat choked with sadness.

A week after that, Tony was curled up in the corner of his lab, shaking from the aftermath of an anxiety attack. Jesus fuck, Loki, how do you keep it together?  After all you’ve been through you should be curled up right next to me. At this rate I feel like the next crisis is going to send me straight to the looney bin.  In a moment of weakness he called Steve, but in the end he couldn’t bring himself to deal with the man’s too-sincere concern so he hung up before Steve could answer. 

Two months after Loki left, Tony finally designed a suit that would go well with the armor plating Loki had given him.  The overall look ended up being more steampunk than something Loki or Thor would wear, but who cares, steampunk was hip. And it still had enough firepower to reduce any critics to coleslaw.  Wish you were here to see this, Tony thought absently, running his thumb over Loki’s mark while admiring his handiwork.  I think you’d like it.   Tony decided to display the suit down in his lab, since that was where he was spending most of his time these days.

He started cleaning up and putting away his tools, his mind wandering.  He smiled at the thought of showing up in Asgard with dwarven armor.  I apologize for crashing the party, Your Highness, but you see, I did wear my best suit.  Nah, if he showed up in Asgard he’d be there to break Loki out of jail.  His smile widened trying to imagine the look on Loki’s face as he stepped through a hole in his cell. “I’m here to rescue you, Princess.”

He sighed and slammed the lid on his tool box harder than was strictly necessary.  Like that was going to happen. Second star on the right and fly straight on ‘til morning, Tony thought sarcastically.  Might as well build my own – wait.

“JARVIS, that lady that Thor was mooning over the first time he was here.  What was her deal again?”

“Dr. Jane Foster, sir?” Tony grabbed his phone and scrolled the information on her that JARVIS pulled up. 

“Hmmm.  Astrophysicist, eh?  Any idea where she is right now?”

“Public records show that she is currently working London.” 

He stared off into space, tapping his phone against his hand idly, then started drafting an email. He didn’t so much have an idea as an ambition, but Ms. Foster might have what he needed to form –gasp!- a plan.    

 --------------------------

These days the brilliant mass of stars and galaxies that graced the skies at night held nothing but dread for him, but Loki forced himself to ignore their hateful beauty and focus on his goal. His target. His prey.  Since here, at least, he can create a perfect world, Stark stands next to him, his faceplate open to stare down at the pitiful worm below them.

“This the guy?”  Stark nudged the Other with his foot.  Loki’s daggers pinned it like an ugly butterfly to the stone of the asteroid that served as the Mad Titan’s anteroom.  In the blue light of Loki’s staff, its blood looked black, oozing slowly out of dozens of wounds.

“Yes.”  

“Hmm.  Well, wrap it up, the big guy is trying to get away.”

Loki smiled, and thrust the spear down until it hit rock.  The Other shuddered and died.

“Loki? What are you doing?”  Frigga’s concerned voice interrupted his concentration, and with a sigh he let the illusion go and turned to face her. 

“It is not important.”  The queen was smiling gently, but the concern in her eyes was just as strong as it was last time she’d seen him.

“Does that make you feel better?”  She asked.  “Imagining that you are somewhere else?”

“It certainly can’t make me feel worse.”

“Cast enough illusions and you risk forgetting what is real,” she warned.

Loki laughed bitterly.  “Precisely.”  Turning away from the concerned figure of his mother, he saw the guards herding new captives into the dungeons.  “Odin continues to bring me new friends.  How thoughtful.”

“The books I sent, do they not interest you?”

“Is that how I am to while away eternity? Reading?”

“I’ve done everything in my power to make you comfortable, Loki.”  Loki glanced around his cell.  Furniture. Belongings. Books.  Everything one could want, except privacy. Or freedom. Or companionship.

“Indeed.”  Loki leaned closer to the concerned figure of the woman who’d raised him.  “Tell me, does Odin share your concern? Does Thor?  It must be so inconvenient, them asking after me day and night.”  Loki shook his head in mock sympathy.

“You know full well it was your actions that brought you here,” she said sternly. “What of the lives you took on Earth?”

“With all due respect, mother, you know nothing about what happened on Earth.” The words were bitter on his tongue.  Above all others, he wished he could be truthful to Frigga.  She had ever been his confessor and confidant, but even if she believed him, Odin would not.  It was far too late for explanations, and he would not bend his neck to Odin and beg the old man to listen.  Instead he walked away, unable to look at her as he spoke lest she see more in his eyes than he wanted.

“You quest to become a king, but a true king admits his faults.  Your father-”

He’s not my father!” Loki roared, turning on her.  “He has made that abundantly clear.”

Frigga drew back slightly and her lips tightened.  “Then am I not your mother?”

Her pained look threatened to break him.  He started to talk, swallowed, and tried again. “You’re not,” he said finally.

But the words were forced and Frigga heard the lie.  “You’re always so perceptive about everyone but yourself.  You will always be my son.”

 Loki had to look away from the sadness in her eyes an changed the subject. “I would beg a boon of you, before you go.” Loki held out Stark’s phone, though it pained him to give it up.  “There was a man on Earth who was kind enough to gift me this. I should like to return it to him, since it will avail me little here.” 

“How would I find him? Perhaps Thor could-“

“No! Do not bring Thor into this.  Simply send the device to Earth, and the man will find it.”

 The image of his mother studied him for long minutes, knowing him well enough to see that he was hiding something, and also well enough to know that he wouldn’t speak of it. “Oh, Loki.  Why must you be so stubborn?” She sighed finally.  Despite himself, Loki reached for her, but his hand passed through hers and she vanished.

--------------------------

Tony was walking through a scale model hologram of SHIELD’s latest helicarrier design when he heard his phone chime and felt it buzz in his pocket.  He pulled it out absently as he finished making his final recommendations on how to modify the engines to maximize lift and prevent the kind of shit that almost made the last helicarrier fall out of the sky. 

When he saw who the text was from, his heart began thudding so painfully that he felt dizzy.  He put the phone down and concentrated on breathing, trying not to ruin his two week streak of avoiding anxiety attacks.  Very deliberately he saved all of his files and sent everything back to Fury, then straightened up his lab and refreshed his cup of coffee.  Taking a seat, he took a deep breath and picked his phone up again.

By now you must know that my mission on Asgard did not go as planned.  I have kept my head but still lost my life; I am to spend eternity in Asgard’s dungeon.  I have arranged to have this device returned to Earth so that you may still attempt prepare Midgard for the return of the Chitauri.”

“JARVIS, turn on GPS location for Loki’s phone.” Loki’s phone was pinging in the same backwater town in New Mexico where Thor had first appeared years ago.  “File me a flight plan, JARVIS, looks like I’m taking a trip to New Mexico.”

A few hours later, Tony was thankful for using his own GPS technology that allowed him to find a cell phone in the middle of the desert, because if he’d had to use the commercial bullshit he would have been here for hours trying to find that thing.

The amount of information on Loki’s phone once it was plugged in and charging was surprising, given the relatively short amount of time he’d had it.  There reams of photo and video files and an intriguingly extensive browser history.  Tony was amused but unsurprised to see that Loki had done internet searches of himself, as well as Tony, SHIELD and the other Avengers.  There were hits where Loki had looked up some of Tony’s movie references, but other than that Tony was disappointed to find very little in those files that gave him more insight into Loki’s personality. Moving to the photo files, he found that there were scores taken of pages filled with Loki’s spiky handwriting.   Zooming in, Tony found references to the Tesseract, the Chitauri, Thanos, and something called the Infinity Gems.  There were also quite a few filled with complex diagrams with the word ‘Bifrost’ underlined at the top.  Tony dragged everything to a folder to peruse later.

Scrolling through the video files, Tony opened the most recent one.  Loki’s face filled most of the screen.

“Hello, Stark.” Loki’s lips quirked.  “Welcome to the finest dungeon in the Nine Realms.”  The camera turned to pan slowly around a small, sparsely appointed room, two walls of which seemed to be made of nothing but sparkly gold light.  “This is to be my home for the foreseeable future.  But I do not wish for all that I know to be locked away with me, so I have sent you copies of my journal with everything that may be of use to you.  I have also included information as to the construction of the Bifrost.  Perhaps with this information your world will no longer be at the mercy of others.”  Loki looked away for a moment, and when he looked back his eyes were bleak. “As for the dark days, you are not alone in your suffering.  Take courage from the knowledge that tempered steel is far stronger than untested metal. The pain cannot last forever.”  Loki’s sad smile here made Tony’s throat ache. “Though I may not be able to respond, Stark, I am listening.”

  Tony put his head in his hands, his breathing shaky.  After a moment, he cleared his throat, wiped his eyes, and got to work.

--------------------------

Loki had tried once more to become interested in one of the books Frigga had smuggled to him, but he was finding it difficult to concentrate.  After a few tries he gave up on reading and stretched out on the bed, trying not to wish for Stark to contact him again.  Stark’s rambling monologues had become almost his sole source of contact with the outside world.  Even his guards no longer responded to his taunts.

A sudden clamor from down the hall broke into his thoughts and the Einherjar normally stationed in front of Loki’s cell went running towards the commotion.

They never returned.  Instead, a steady flow of former inmates began streaming past Loki’s cell.  Loki approached to the nearly invisible barrier that formed two walls of his cell, and noticed that only one of the escaping prisoners wasn’t fleeing with the rest. 

They studied each other for a long moment.  The beast was one he had never seen before, hulking and horned, covered in better armor than most.  Out of a face covered in ritualistic tattoos were blue eyes that were bright with an unexpected intelligence.  For a moment, it raised its fist as if to break through Loki’s wall, but he must have seen something in Loki that made him think better of it.  It wasn’t until it turned away that Loki realized he had been holding his breath.

As it walked off, some spiteful impulse made him say, “You might want to take the stairs to the left.”  He wouldn’t get to see the fun this creature had planned, but the battle that was spreading through the dungeon was already more entertainment than he’d had in weeks.

After that, it didn’t take long for Thor’s toadies to dive into the fray.  He picked up the book again and settled down to where he would have a good view.  Within the walls of his cell his magic was more than adequate to dull the noisome sounds of battle, so when Thor arrived, Loki felt more than heard his landing.

This was the first time he’d seen Thor since he’d attempted to drag Loki back to Asgard in disgrace.  He looked weary. Pacifying the Nine Realms and earning their undying loyalty must be tiring, Loki thought scathingly. Let’s trade.

Thor was searching for stray escapees when they all felt something impact the palace from above.  Dust rained from the ceiling as the stone walls of the dungeon shook.  Clearly, this was far more than just a prison break. 

 

The next two days were boringly normal.  Other than having slightly fewer neighbors, there was no sign of the jailbreak. If asked, Loki would have said that the worst part of being imprisoned would have been the lack of freedom, but he was quickly finding that it was the lack of information that was driving him crazy.

He was rereading a history of Nuspelheim for the third time when the approach of an Einherjar caught his eye.  The man bowed deeply, sending a chill up Loki’s spine.

“I’ve been instructed to tell you that Queen Frigga is dead.  She was killed in combat defending Asgard.  Her funeral and cremation were held last night.”

Loki froze.  Ice spread from his heart, through his hands, to his fingers, which were suddenly numb. All he could manage was a stiff nod, which the guardsman rightly took as a dismissal.  He carefully put the book down – one of Frigga’s, of course – and stood. He took a step forward, but realized that there was nowhere to go, and there never would be.  He clenched his fists, and with a pulse of magic shattered the furniture closest to him.

You will never see her again,” Odin had said.  His breathing was fast and shallow; Loki was drowning.  Suddenly he was desperate for air, for the sky above him, for dirt under his feet, but he was trapped.  Again.  Trapped and helpless.

He went mad.  He screamed until his throat was raw.  Finely crafted furniture became kindling, anything that was breakable was shattered in his rage. Finally, exhausted, he fell against the wall and slid to the floor, hands bloody from striking the walls and his feet shredded from broken glass.

“You are our son, and we, your family.”

“Then am I not your mother?”

“You’re not.”

Something broke in Loki in that moment and in its place, a cold ball of hatred formed.   Thor could barely look at him.  Odin had cast him aside and then buried him.  They had let Frigga be killed, and then denied him the right to attend her funeral.  As for Asgard itself, it seemed content to forget it ever had a second son.  The only person who could have any claim to his loyalty was worlds away, forbidden to him because of Odin.      

Loki screamed again, renewed fury burning him from the inside out.  Uncontrolled magic surged, straining at the containment spells and reducing the remaining wood to splinters.

Chapter Text

“Go away, Thor.” Loki didn’t even look up from his book as Thor approached his cell. The guards usually stationed outside bowed and left at Thor’s nod.  

“I would speak with you.”

Loki made a show of finishing his page and slowly putting the book down. “Why? Have you come to gloat? To mock?” He gestured around him.  "If I got any lower, I believe I would fall from Asgard all together. Again."

Thor's jaw tensed but he didn't respond to Loki's barb.  After a moment he narrowed his eyes. “Enough, Loki.  No more illusions.”

Unseen, Loki raised an eyebrow. Apparently today was the day Thor would no longer fall for that. Curious. After a long moment he allowed his illusion to unravel, no longer interested in keeping up pretenses. The image of Loki standing before Thor shimmered and disappeared, revealing the destruction of his cell. Loki sat, pale and disheveled, amid the papers, broken glass, and bloody footprints that littered the floor.

“Now you see me, brother,” Loki said, voice raw. “What do you want?  Has there been another death, this one of such consequence that it merited the mighty Thor as the messenger boy?”     

Thor ignored this as well, his face unreadable as he walked slowly around the cell to where Loki was sitting. “I have come to give you a chance to avenge Mother.”

The intensity of pain Loki at the mention of Frigga felt surprised him; he'd hoped he was done feeling for a while.  He looked away until he was confident he was in control again. “Go on."

“You must seek vengeance as much as I do. You help me escape Asgard, and I will grant it to you. Vengeance. And afterward, this cell.”

Escape Asgard? Loki’s eyes narrowed. What are you…ah. After a moment he chuckled, his eyes scornful. Like father, like son. Content for me to be locked away until you might have use of me. “You must be truly desperate to come to me for help. What makes you think you can trust me?”  But despite himself, hope was stirring for the first time since he'd woken up in this Fates-damned dungeon.

Thor turned away, pacing. “I don’t. But Mother did.” Thor paused, but seemed to come to a decision.  He faced Loki again, looking him in the eye with grim determination. “But you should know that when we fought each other in the past, I did so with a glimmer of hope that my brother was still in there somewhere.” Loki’s steady gaze burned as Thor continued. “That hope no longer exists to protect you. You betray me, and I will kill you.”

“Hmmm.” Loki smiled thinly around the cold ball of hate in his heart. They both knew that he would accept, and that there was no way Loki was returning to prison without a fight. Who would die along the way remained to be seen. “When do we start?”

Hours later, when Loki felt the spell walls of his cell come down, the first heady rush of freedom managed to raise his spirits. Perhaps when he escaped Thor’s suspicious gaze – and he would – he would return to Earth, to Stark, rather than gamble for the Tesseract yet again. When Thanos inevitably arrived, they -

“Loki, wait.” Thor pulled him out of his thoughts with a hand on his arm. “You will need this.” He reached behind him and Loki almost smiled.

“You’ve brought me my –“ He stopped as handcuffs whirred and cycled tight around his wrists, stifling his power yet again. There was murder in his eyes when he looked up at Thor, but Thor only smiled smugly and turned away. Loki was silent as Thor led them through the back corridors of the palace, deserted in the small hours of the morning. He knew the paths as well as Thor; as children they had often crept down these halls past servants and soldiers to get a forbidden peek at the dungeon. Loki forced the memories away.

Without warning Thor stopped and Loki saw that they had come across a squad of guards. He heard a ringing thud, and looked down to see that Thor had dropped his hammer. “Is that really a good idea?”

“No killing,” Thor said, and started towards the guards. Loki twisted his wrists inside the hated cuffs, chafing at the restraints that forced him to watch while Thor fought. As Thor slammed the last guard’s head into a column, Loki saw one struggle to his feet and flee. Stooping, he snatched a knife from a fallen guardsman, but Thor took it out of his hands before he could throw it.

“He’ll sound the alarm!”

“No. Killing.” Thor repeated, and turned away. Loki grabbed his arm.

“If we are caught, I will be executed,” Loki said, his eyes hard. “My blood will be on your hands, and this mysterious mission of yours will fail. Have a care that you understand what your priority is, for the sake of the latter if the former means nothing to you.” Thor met his stony gaze and after a moment, looked away with a small nod.

They continued onto a little-used entrance of the palace and there they waited, Thor clearly trying to not pace nervously and failing more often than not.

Loki saw why soon enough. Thor had been irritatingly silent about this scheme of his, but apparently it involved his mortal woman. Jane.

As she approached she was staring at him with disbelief. “You’re-“

“Loki. You may have heard of me.”

Her only response was to swing at him, but Loki caught her wrist before the blow landed. He smiled at the martial light in her eyes, and she pulled her hand back with a snarl. As he studied her, this woman he had never met but knew so much about, his grin began to fade. There was a power inside her, a power that called to him much like the Tesseract did. But where the Tesseract’s power felt clear and direct, with the clarity of purpose of a well-honed sword, the power curled up inside this human was ugly, dark as old blood and whispered of death and decay. Loki craved it and was repelled by it with an intensity that scared him.  Jane backed away towards Thor, clearly unnerved by the look on Loki's face.

Across the room, he heard the sound of soldiers and a cry of discovery, and Loki forced his gaze away. Behind him, he heard Thor and Sif spoke quietly and Thor turned and strode away. As Loki turned to follow he was halted by a blade that appeared under his chin.

Sif scowled at him down its length. “Betray him and I will kill you.”

“You will try, Sif,” Loki said calmly, raising an eyebrow as he met her eyes. “By the way, I see your arm has healed well.” After a moment of infuriated silence she lifted her blade and turned to face the squad of palace guards heading towards them.

As they entered the throne room, Loki was astonished at the level of destruction. At least he knew now what had shaken the palace to its foundation. A ship of an alien design had pierced outside wall of the palace, tumbling massive stone columns that had stood for millennia. Though the bodies had long since been removed, dark stains on the floor spoke to the battle had been fought here.  At the far end, Loki could that the throne itself was completely destroyed.  I suppose Odin will have to sit in judgement on the floor, Loki thought, lips quirking.

As they approached the enemy ship, Loki saw that Volstagg was waiting for them. “I will give you as much time as I can,” he said, drawing his ax. 

“Thank you, my friend,” Thor said simply. As they passed him, Volstagg stopped Loki with a massive hand to his chest.

“If you even think about betraying him…” he rumbled, eyes glaring under bushy red eyebrows.

“You’ll kill me?” Loki suggested. “Evidently, there will be a line.” Loki shrugged off his hand and followed Thor and Jane inside the alien vehicle.

The escape from the palace was a fiasco best forgotten. After untold damage to Asgard’s infrastructure and public art, Thor actually managed to draw the pursuit away from themselves with a moderately clever diversion.  Not the most subtle plan, but effective.

“I must admit, I’m impressed,” Loki commented as he watched half a dozen Asgardian Drekkar speed off after the alien airship.

“I’m glad you’re pleased,” Thor said shortly as he carefully set Jane down in the bow of the ship.  She had collapsed during their escape, and clung to consciousness by a thread. “Now, do as you promised, and take us to your secret pathway.” Loki bowed, and took the helm, ignoring signs and sounds of renewed pursuit. He swung the vehicle over the lake, guiding them less by memory and more by instinct. He’d discovered that dark paths between worlds were opened easiest in places where the worlds were the closest, and the closest point between Svartalfheim and Asgard was located in a tiny cave high in a rocky crag overlooking the water. From the ground, it looked like a mere shadow, not a cave. There was no way to reach it without flying.

For most, that is. Loki had first reached it by climbing up to it out of sheer, bloody-minded determination.

As they continued to pick up speed, Loki saw Thor looking at him nervously. He smiled at Thor’s concern. The speed wasn’t necessary, it was just fun to make Thor sweat. “If it were easy, everyone would do it,” he said, and went faster.

“Are you mad?” Thor had to shout to be heard over the wind. Thor crouched over Jane, as if he could shield her from their possible fiery collision with the rock wall, but Loki’s aim was impeccable. The sides of the ship scraped sparks from the walls as they flew inside, and Loki twisted space and time at just the right moment for them to not impact the back wall of the cave.

The airship skidded to a stop on a dark, dusty plain. He slowed the vehicle down to idle and moved to where Thor was brushing the hair from Jane’s face. She had finally lost consciousness sometime during their mad flight over the water. “Now, I think it’s time you told me what we are really doing here, and why she has the power to destroy the Nine Realms at her fingertips.”

 

For much of the voyage through the desolate wastelands of Svartalfheim, the ship was quiet as Loki steered them through and around ruins of ancient alien ships, some of which he recognized as Aesir in origin. Once he got tired of examining this dead world, he turned his gaze to Thor, who was sitting with Jane’s head in his lap. Loki felt his lip curl, but swallowed his words. Who was he, now, to mock Thor for his wayward affections? Though had Stark been the one to discover the Aether, he would have died before allowing another to take a blade meant for him. He probably would also have destroyed quite a bit in the process of discovering how it worked. And Foster calls herself a scientist, he thought with dry amusement.

Thor must have seen Loki looking at Jane, because he shifted protectively and scowled. Loki rolled his eyes and leaned against the tiller, causing the ship to tilt and forcing Thor to brace himself or fall on his face.

“Oops,” he said belatedly, when Thor glared at him.

Thor stood and clenched his fists. “I know you crave the power Jane wields, Loki. But you will stay away from her.”

 “As usual, brother, you know miserably little about anything.

“Is it not true that you returned to Asgard in pursuit of the Tesseract? And that you have been on Earth in search of your staff?  Despite your defeat, you still dream of ruling Earth.”

Loki’s laugh had little to do with humor.  “So true.  Tell me, what are the mighty Thor’s dreams?  Shall you take this woman to wife and live out her scant years on Earth? Bring her to Asgard so that she might bloom and perish like a flower? Choose wisely, that you might honor Mother’s sacrifice.”

Thor’s face went pale, then flushed with anger. “You think you alone loved Mother? You had her tricks, but I had her trust.”

“Trust?” Loki said dangerously, hands tightening on the tiller. “Was that her last expression? Trust?”

“And what help were you in your cell?” Thor’s voice rose and he stalked towards Loki.

“Exactly. Remember to thank Odin for putting me there.”

Thor grabbed him by his duster and shoved him back against the tiller, causing the ship to rock alarmingly. “You know damn well what you did to deserve the dungeon. Do you still deny the pain you’ve caused?” Thor raised his fist.

“Do you?” Loki spat, eyes daring Thor to hit him. “I must live with the knowledge that I was helpless to save Mother. You, however, must live with the fact that you could have saved her, but failed to.”

They stared at each other for a long minute before Thor lowered his arm.  “Mother died defending Asgard,” he said, backing away. “I will not disrespect her memory by fighting with you.”

Loki raised an eyebrow as he straightened.  “So she accomplished in death what she could not in life?”

Thor studied him, then shook his head in resignation before turning away.  “Just drive, Loki.”

 They had continued on through the seemingly endless wreckage before Jane suddenly opened her eyes and sat up. Even in the dim, cloudy light of this world Loki could see that her eyes were not her own – they were solid black.   “Malekith.” The sound of her voice made his skin crawl. 

“Jane?” Thor said with relief. Loki looked at him sharply. Whatever was speaking through her was not Jane.

She ignored him, and turned to where a ship was starting to descend through the cloud cover. He stopped the ship and they approached the rest of the way on foot, surveying the clearing where the ship landed from behind a hillock.  A small squad of Dark Elf soldiers left the vehicle and began to approach them. Striding in the center of the group was the horned beast from the dungeon and Malekith himself. 

“All right. Are you ready?”

“I am,” Loki answered. At Thor’s nod, climbed to the top of the hill, silhouetting themselves against the perpetual twilight. The small band in front of them stopped. “You know, this plan of yours is going to get us killed.”

“Yes, possibly," Thor said cheerfully.

Loki turned to Thor and presented his manacled wrists. Thor hesitated. “You still don’t trust me, brother?” Loki said sarcastically.

Thor snorted. “Would you?” But he still disengaged the mechanism that held the shackles closed.

Loki rubbed his wrists gratefully as the cuffs fell away, then drew a long bladed dagger from the small of his back. “No, I wouldn’t,” he said and stabbed Thor in the stomach. The surprise in Thor’s face was as real as Loki’s knife. “It was an idiotic plan anyway,” he continued and shoved Thor down the hill.

“No!” Loki heard Jane shout, and she raced past him to where Thor had rolled to a stop.

Loki stalked closer while Thor struggled to stand. “Did you really think I was so stupid? That I would follow you into battle?” He kicked Thor in the head, flipping him over with the force of the blow.  Thor reached a hand out to call for Mjolnir. With a growl, Loki ground his heel on Thor’s hand, hearing bones snap, and Mjolnir flew past and skidded to a halt behind them. As Jane cried out again and threw herself on top of Thor, Loki sneered and left them both behind.

“Malekith!” Loki shouted as the Dark Elves drew closer. At this distance, Loki could see that something had ruined half of Malekith’s face. He hoped it had been Frigga. “I am Loki, son of Frigga.” With a feeling of savage joy, he summoned his knives and sent them flying towards Malekith and his pet monster. “And I am here to kill you.”

“Loki, no! Don't-” He heard Thor shout behind him as the monster moved impossibly fast, batting the knives out of the air as it strode towards Loki. With a snarl, Loki shoved at it with his magic, but the beast only stumbled slightly and continued forward. Retreating, he took a precious second to focus on the ground at its feet, turning it to quicksand. As it struggled to keep stay upright Loki threw a knife at the thinner armor at its neck. The blade landed, but the beast didn’t seem to notice; it plucked the knife out and the wound closed without even spilling blood. For the first time Loki felt a thread of fear as he fought to keep the beast at bay, mired in quicksand.

Out of the corner of his eye Loki saw Jane rise into the air and a red, oily mist began to pour from her eyes and throat, moving in ribbons through the air to converge on Malekith’s outstretched palm. Mjolnir flew to Thor’s hand. Loki had just enough time to throw an arm over his eyes before he heard lightning rip through the air. For a moment the pressure built, the lightning growing brighter and brighter until with a clap of thunder the Aether exploded, created a small mushroom cloud of dust and debris. Even before the air cleared, Loki could sense that Thor’s power had accomplished nothing. All around them, what appeared to be small pieces of shattered red glass began to rise from the dirt and speed toward Malekith, as if eager to be home.

Malekith’s monster took advantage of Loki’s distraction to unclip something from its belt and toss it at him. Loki instinctively flung the grenade away from him with a pulse of magic, but as it exploded it created a sucking vortex.  For moments, for years, it took all of Loki’s strength to not be pulled off his feet.  Despite himself, it inexorably dragged him backwards, inch by inch, until it finally closed with a loud whump.  Loki dropped to his knees with relief, hands shaking from effort.  With a roar of triumph, the beast freed itself from Loki’s trap and backhanded him, sending him flying.  It approached as Loki climbed to his feet, but turned away at a call from Malekith, who was returning to his ship.  The beast and half of the Dark Elf soldiers joined him while the rest converged on Thor.

Loki cursed in frustration as Thor ignored the Dark Elves to pursue Malekith.  He started to follow but stopped as he realized that he had been surrounded by the soldiers. They circled him like wolves, seeking a weakness. Loki eyed them warily as he drew his dagger and set his feet.

The attack, when it came, was fast but not fast enough. Loki spun and dodged, blocking a wild swing before thrusting his blade into an unprotected throat. Blood soaked into a ground greedy for moisture as Loki let the body drop. The rest drew their weapons, dark ungainly swords that only made them slower. Loki blocked the first blade with his vanguards and summoned another dagger, slicing the creature’s throat and kicking it away as another attacked him from behind. The blade slid by as the Elf miscalculated, and Loki’s dagger was buried in its chest before it could recover. To its credit, the final Elf didn’t run, though its three compatriots had died in so many minutes. It fell as well, staining Loki’s sleeves with thick black blood.

He cleaned the gore off his blades and sent them away, scowling up at Malekith’s ship as it vanished in the clouds. The beast was still here, though. Loki’s smile was all teeth as he spotted it punching Thor into the ground. Loki picked up one of the Dark Elves’ oddly shaped swords and started walking.

Thankfully, it was too busy hitting Thor to notice Loki approaching from behind. I can relate, Loki reflected as he thrust his borrowed weapon through the creature's back until it would go no further. It stumbled a step before turning to face Loki. On its savage face was perhaps a look of surprise.

Then, with a growl, it grabbed Loki’s shoulders and pulled him forward, impaling him on the blade jutting from its chest.

Loki heard Thor shout something, but the sound was very far away. After the flash of pain as the blade punched through his armor, the wound felt queerly cold. Shock, Loki thought distantly. Hello, old friend. The beast’s eyes were triumphant as he thrust Loki away.

Despite himself Loki cried out as he hit the ground. Somehow, the feeling of the blade sliding back out hurt even worse. As the creature drew closer, apparently unconcerned by the sword embedded in its barrel chest, Loki could only lie there and feel his life pumping away.

“See you in hell, monster,” Loki whispered hoarsely. At the sudden sound of frenzied beeping, the beast looked down to see that Loki had activated one of its grenades. It had enough time to fumble at it in panic before the device exploded in a fury of arcing orange light. Loki was glad to see that the beast’s death looked and sounded very painful before he let his head fall back into the dirt. He was struggling to breathe through the blood filling his lungs when Thor appeared beside him.

“No. No, no, no,” Thor whispered as he gathered Loki into his lap. Loki could only groan as the movement jostled his wound. “Damn it, you fool.”

“I know, I’m a fool,” Loki said weakly. He tried to gather his thoughts but the pain and a growing lassitude made it hard to think.

“Stay with me.” Thor gathered him closer, as if he could keep him alive through strength alone. Sentiment, Loki thought. Try as he might, Thor did still care.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Loki could barely hear himself. Stark. Where was Stark? His vision was growing dim at the edges, but he struggled to stay awake as his thoughts cast out for Tony.

“Shh, it’s okay. It’s all right. I’ll tell Father what you did here today.”

“I didn’t do it for him,” Loki managed reproachfully before the darkness pulled him under.

---------------------

Tony was in the middle of a conference call with Pepper and members of the Chinese National Energy Administration when a pain in his chest stole his breath. His ears rang and spots appeared in his vision as collapsed, almost falling out of his chair. His arc reactor buzzed and flickered alarmingly.

“Tony? Tony? Are you there?” Pepper’s voice was increasingly concerned but Tony could only wheeze as he struggled to breathe. His vision grew dark and narrowed, and Pepper’s voice grew far away.

Stark? A dark ashy sky flickered behind Tony’s eyes before he lost consciousness.

Chapter Text

The first thing Tony noticed when he woke up was soreness in his chest, as though he had been punched right in the arc reactor.  The sensation made him cough, which made him groan as his ribs complained at the sudden movement.  He felt like he’d been run over while he’d been unconscious.

“Tony?” He opened his eyes to see Pepper sitting next to him, looking concerned.

“Holy shit, Pep. What happened?”  He rubbed his hands across his forehead, trying to remember the last thing he saw before he collapsed.  Tony looked down at the arc reactor but it was glowing and humming  as if nothing had happened. 

“No one knows.  I called 911 for you and came as soon as I could. And…”  Pepper got that look on her face when she has bad news to tell him but doesn’t know how to start.

“What? What is it?”

“There’s been another alien attack.  In London.”

Tony’s heart dropped.  “The Chitauri?” He struggled to sit up, feeling a sharp pang at his wrist when he leaned on it.  

“I don’t think so.” Tony only stared at her blankly.  She pulled up the news images on her phone, showing him video clip, taken from some distance away, of a skyscraper sized ship hovering over Greenwich.  It appeared to be alone.  

He collapsed back onto the hospital bed, suddenly exhausted.  “I lose consciousness for a few hours and the world goes to shit,” he said finally. “Well, tell Fury I’m going to have to take a sick day.”  He closed his eyes and pretended to fall asleep until Pepper tiptoed out to take a call. He opened his eyes when she pulled the curtain closed behind her and drew his arm out from under the blanket.  Pushing down the stupid plastic hospital bracelet, he stared at the livid red mark on his wrist. Loki’s once invisible rune was now an angry burn, like a brand.  Loki’s voice echoed in his head, calling his name with an edge of desperation.  Tony swallowed around the fear and nausea and concentrated on breathing, staring at the pulse monitor and willing the numbers to go down before a nurse barged in.

For a long time Tony tried not to think about what that meant, listening only to the intermittent beep of the heart monitor and the muted noise of a New York emergency room. But mostly he failed.

Now that he was conscious it didn't take long before Tony was wheeled into the nicest room in the hospital and was finally able to watch the news.  Initial reports were little more than uneducated guesses, frustrating Tony with their idiocy.  Tony pulled out his tablet to find that videos of the event were almost breaking the internet and the conspiracy theory nuts were out in droves.  The video quality varied, but in some of them the figure of Thor fighting some dark figure was unmistakable, even without the flashes of lightning to give him away.  Tony spent an hour with JARVIS scouring all available footage but saw no sign of Loki.  He did, however, see Jane and Erik Selvig hovering around the edges of the battle.  He looked forward to hearing that story.

For the rest of the day, various doctors wandered through and tried to convince him that he’d had a heart attack.  Tony made all the right noises at all the right times, especially when Pepper or Rhodey was around, but he knew differently.  Not that he could say so, of course. A heart attack wouldn’t have made his arc reactor flicker and dim. Wouldn’t have made him hallucinate, or burn what looked like a crooked L on his arm. Something had happened to Loki.  Whatever it was it had somehow manifested through Loki’s spell as Tony’s near death experience, burning out the spell like an overloaded circuit in the process. 

You didn’t need to be a genius to interpret the signs.  Loki was probably dead.  The only question was how, and what did Thor and these fucking aliens have to do with it? 

Tony turned off the television with a sigh and stared at the ceiling. He had not realized how much he had relied on his link to Loki to stay sane until it was gone.  Until he was gone.   It felt like grasping at straws, in retrospect; using a sorcerous link to a dangerous, if sexy, supervillain as a Dear Abby confessional whenever he felt lonely.  Clearly he needed better coping mechanisms.  At least he still had alcohol as a fallback plan.

He wondered what the story was.  Did these guys attack Asgard first, and Loki die trapped in his cell?  Just the thought made Tony sick.  Did they release him so that he could fight?  Did he escape and was killed in the attempt?  He would probably find out the story about the aliens, but if Thor didn’t bring up Loki it would be a difficult topic to introduce.  “Hey, Thor!  How about those crazy aliens, eh?  On an unrelated note, how’s your little brother?”  Right.  Or maybe he could ask Erik, that would go over well.

Goddammit.

 Tony got fed up with the hospital after another day of confused doctors and insisted on leaving, with or without the damn EKG machine strapped to his chest.  He couldn’t stare at those four walls any longer, and everything on the television was still uninformed hysterics about the events in London.  Against his best efforts, Rhodey insisted on offering him a ride and stayed for a few hours after, until Tony managed to get him to leave by pleading exhaustion.  When he was finally alone he grabbed a blanket and a bottle of whiskey and sat out on his balcony, watching night fall over New York.  At some point he managed to drag himself inside and pass out on the couch.  The sun woke him up bright and early the next day, very much against his will, so he drank half a pot of coffee and forced himself to finally answer the voicemails he'd been ignoring.

“I am sorry to bother you, but–" Three work calls from Pepper. Tony promised himself he would return those soon. 

“Tony, I heard what happened.  I wish I could get up there to visit, but SHIELD wants me nearby in case one of these things lands in DC.  I hope you’re ok.” Two calls from Steve.  Tony sent him a text message.

“Enough already.  Walk it off and get down here.” Fury was clearly concerned for his health, Tony thought with a glimmer of amusement.  “We’re having a debriefing session about the attack in London and I imagine you’ll be interested.”  Tony replayed the message and realized that the meeting was for tomorrow.  He sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose.  The hangover headache spiked to migraine territory at the thought of having to see everyone. 

“Mr. Stark!  This is Jane.  I just got all of your emails and messages, but I’ve been kind of busy lately.  I think you might have seen the news…? Anyway, I’ll be in DC talking to SHIELD in a few days so I hope I can talk to you there.”  That one was a few days old. Looks like the SHIELD meeting was going to be his best chance to find out what happened to Loki, so he was going even if he still felt hammered shit.

 ***

“Hey, Tony!  I didn’t think you’d be here today.  How’s the ticker?”

For the first time in what felt like months, Tony’s smile was genuine.   “Hey, Clint.  Back from vacation? It’s been long enough, you lazy bum.  You look good.”

And it was true.  The last time Tony had seen him, stress and tension had lined his face and darkness haunted his gaze.  Now he looked years younger.  Tony wondered if Clint knew that Loki was dead.  “Yeah, I finally ran out of leave,” Clint grinned.  “Guess you’re here to find out what the hell happened in London?  We’re going to have a full house.”

“I’m sure.”

Tony followed Clint to the briefing room and wasn’t surprised to see that every chair was taken.  All of the usual suspects were there, along with Jane and Erik close to the front of the room and at least a dozen people Tony figured were European security officials. 

When Steve saw him, Tony figured he must looked bad because the man stood and offered him his chair.  “Sit, Steve.  I’m not an invalid.”  But Steve still talked someone bring in a chair from another room and managed to squeeze it in somehow.  Tony surrendered and sat.  “So what are we waiting for?”

“Nick was hoping Thor would come, but he hasn’t showed up yet,” Natasha answered.  “Looks like he got tired of waiting.” Tony craned his neck to see that Nick had just walked in the door just before the lights got dim and the briefing started.

The Europeans went first. They clearly didn’t know much that couldn’t have been learned from watching the videos on the internet, but they did contribute information about the enemy combatants that had been killed in the attack.  Other officials presented on their attempted countermeasures, which, after a lot of hedging, they admitted had been mostly useless.  One pilot did have an interesting story to tell, though; Tony imagined that guy was very grateful for his helmet cam or he would have been a laughingstock for the rest of his life.

Finally Jane stood up, shuffling her papers nervously as they pulled up her presentation.  She spoke for the longest.  Tony would have to admit that by this point he was only listening with half an ear as she spoke, until she commented that the alien invaders were known to Asgardians as “Dark Elves” and hailed from some place called Svartalfheim.  Tony massaged his temples, feeling a sudden sense of unreality.  How was this his life now? Fucking Dark Elves, you’ve got to be kidding me.

Loki’s presence in the story was brief.  Tony sat very still during the scant retelling of the facts – they escaped Asgard and he was killed in battle.  Body was later recovered and taken to Asgard.

“Excuse me,” Tony muttered as she was wrapping up, making his way through the crowded room as fast as possible.  Once he got to the bathroom he splashed water on his face and stared at the sink until his hands stopped shaking and the tightness in his chest eased.  Eventually he forced himself to look in the mirror.

Yep, he still looked like warmed over death.  Dark circles from lack of sleep? Check. Hollow cheeks and unhealthy complexion? Check.  A steady diet of caffeine and alcohol will do that.  Tony sighed and pulled the sleeve up on his shirt.  The redness had gone down some, but he could tell that the mark would scar.  At some point he was going to have to make up a good story, but for now he figured he could get away with long sleeves and wide watch bands. 

For a while Tony weighed the benefits of going back into the conference room versus just bailing out, and eventually decided that he’d heard all he came for and texted his driver to pick him up out front. 

 If he had been paying attention, he may have made his escape, but as it was Jane ambushed him in the entranceway.  “Mr. Stark!  I’m glad I caught you, I saw you in the room but then you disappeared.  Did you get my voicemail?  I’m sorry I missed your calls, but I’ve been…um…”

“Out of town?” Tony supplied dryly.

Jane laughed, flushing a bit.  “Sure, yeah.  So I am still very interested in sitting down with you to discuss the Bifrost.  You said you had some new information?”

Right.  Tony’s half-cocked dream of swooping in to rescue Loki.  “Yeah, the Bifrost.  You know, I don’t think now’s a good time, with all the stuff with London and all-"

“Now would actually be a great time! SHIELD even said that they would help pay for it.  When I mentioned that you had expressed interest, they pretty much gave us a blank check.  We should make as much progress as possible before they change their mind.”  Jane grinned, clearly excited by the prospect.  Tony felt tired just looking at her. 

“Ok, sure,” Tony said gamely.  “It would be easiest if you just came by Stark Tower sometime next week.  What is your schedule like?”

Jane fumbled in her bag for a pocket calendar, covered with scribbled writing and stuffed with notes.  “I’ve had to start writing it all down,” she muttered and she paged through it.  “I have a lot of meetings here in DC this week, but it looks like next week I’m free.  Before all of this happened I was pretty much working on my own again, so I don’t have a job to go back to,” she said with a shrug.

“Perfect.  I’ll bring you to New York next week and we will go over everything.” Tony forced himself to smile and comment at appropriate parts of her ensuing excited rambling.  Perhaps having other scientists around would help shake him out of his funk, though it was hard to get enthusiastic about the Bifrost now that Loki was…well. Anyway.  Before too long, someone else pulled Jane’s attention away and Tony was able to leave without being rude.

“Where to, sir?” His new driver asked as they pulled away from SHIELD headquarters.  Happy was still on forced medical leave, enjoying the beaches of LA instead of the dubious charms of the east coast in early spring.  Tony didn’t even know this guy’s name, and didn’t really care to find out.

Tony fished out a bottle of whiskey from the minifridge under the seat.  “Stark Tower, Jeeves.  Let’s get a burger on the way home, too.” Something to soak up the copious amounts of alcohol he was about to drink.

So Loki had sacrificed himself to save Thor and avenge his mother.  Tony had to toast him for going out in style before cursing him for being a heroic asshole.

Tony spent the rest of that week in an unproductive, self-pitying alcoholic daze.  He binge watched Netflix to avoid the news and ordered food and alcohol whenever stores ran low.  He didn’t shave and barely changed clothes and avoided the lab and the memories like the plague.  Once a day he forced himself to return phone calls, if only to avoid having someone visit.  Only JARVIS’s reminder that Jane and Erik would be arriving soon prompted Tony to shower and have a cleaning service come through.  He dug up Loki’s notes and his own work on the problem, refreshing his memory and trying to drudge up a little enthusiasm.  He set aside a whole floor for them to work on, complete with living spaces and a fully stocked fridge, and practiced his smile in the mirror.

On the first day of their arrival Tony spent a few hours with them going over everything.  By comparing notes, they discovered pretty quickly that the reason he’d hit a dead end on his own was because he’d been calculating everything based on the Tesseract’s energy signatures.  Once they started using the recordings Jane had made of the Bifrost’s unique energy outputs the equations started making more sense.  That was more or less when Tony lost the ability to even fake interest.  Even with Loki’s notes much of the work on building something like a Bifrost on Earth was still in the purely theoretical phase, and Tony preferred problems that he could solve with a torque wrench.  Or a missile.  Once he realized that the next step was going to involve a significant amount of number crunching, Tony gave them access to his computer processors and drifted back to his own life.  He forced himself to meet with Pepper and catch up on everything he’d been avoiding since he woke up in the hospital.  He called Steve for no particular reason, and met Rhodey for drinks.  He showed his face at parties and conventions and charity galas, but always went to bed alone and woke up screaming.

___________________________

Loki woke suddenly and rolled to his side, violently coughing up the blood that had collected in his lungs.  The pain in his chest as he retched was excruciating; he hadn’t been in this much pain since – well, it had been less than a year since that wretched creature had tried to slam him through the floor.   And then it had only been a few weeks before that when the Other had taught him how much abuse his body could withstand and still live. That he had survived this, though, seemed impossible. Should have been impossible. 

He wiped the blood from his mouth and lay back on the ground, clawing past leather and linen stiff and sticky with drying blood to find the still raw wound in his chest.  He could feel himself healing, like thousands of ants were crawling through his chest and under his skin. Breathing was difficult; he could hear the whistling of his lungs as he fought for air.  Casting out with his thoughts, he could tell that Thor and the woman were gone, but he had no idea how long he had been unconscious.

Loki stayed there for a long while, thoughts racing as he concentrated on breathing and not coughing as he continued to heal.  As far as Thor, and therefore Asgard, was concerned, Loki was dead.  In that regard, he was in a marginally better spot than he had been before his capture.  But he still had unfinished business, on Earth and in Asgard.  Perhaps he would go to Earth first, Loki reflected.  He was not terribly eager to return to Asgard just yet.

While he lay there, he felt and heard the thundering crash of the Bifrost opening in the distance.

Chapter Text

Odin was studying at the shattered remains of his throne as the guard approached.  “I’m sorry, my liege.  I’ve returned from the Dark World with news.”

The king turned.  He looked as if he had aged centuries since Frigga’s death.  “Thor?”

“There was no sign of Thor, or the weapon, but…” The guard hesitated. 

“What?”

“We found a body.”

Odin’s gaze darkened.  “Loki.” 

The guard bowed an assent.  “We brought it...him...back.”

“Show me.”

The guard bowed deeply and turned to lead Odin into the bowels of the palace, stopping at the door to the makeshift morgue.  Behind him, he heard Odin’s footsteps slow as he approached the stone bier where the body rested.

“Oh, Loki,” Odin murmured, just barely loud enough to hear. Loki followed his gaze to the body.  Though he had created the illusion, it still gave him a chill to look at himself lying there, his skin cold and grey, his clothes stiff with blood.  Knowing how close it came to being reality. He looked away to Odin and was surprised to see his eyes glistening in the dim light. 

Loki cleared his throat. “Your orders, my liege?” he asked.

Odin sighed deeply. “We will give him the honors we give any warrior who dies in battle.  Frigga would have insisted up on it, and despite everything, he was a son of Asgard.”  He reached out to lay a hand on Loki’s head.

Of course, at his touch the illusion was dispelled.

“Very touching,” Loki growled, striking Odin from behind.  “You just saved your life, old man." 

----------------------------

The trip all the way down to DC was probably unnecessary, but it seemed like a good idea to get out of New York.  Plus, it was a beautiful early spring evening and the cherry trees were already starting to blossom.  He’d almost forgotten that Steve had been trying to track down Loki’s staff, but was unsurprised when Steve confirmed that the staff had gone missing shortly after the Battle of New York.

“Natasha said she was going to keep following the trail, but from what she could see it was shipped from one facility and just never arrived at another.”  Steve grimaced as if he were personally responsible.

“So no idea who has it or where it is?”

“Not yet, but Nat says we are close.”  Something in Steve's voice made Tony glance at him, but the man seemed to be studying the Lincoln Memorial; the spotlights were just starting to flicker on as the sky took on shades of red and purple. 

Tony sighed.  He knew he should care more about the loss of a dangerous, powerful artifact, but he didn’t really.  An artifact like that was bound to show up sooner or later, right? Then there would be shooting and flying and shouting and the whole nine yards.  He could wait.

“We’ll figure it out, Tony,” Steve said, misinterpreting Tony’s sigh. He put a hand on Tony’s shoulder.  Tony forced a smile in response. 

“Yeah, well, just keep me posted.  So how’s life with SHIELD?”  When Tony’s phone buzzed in his pocket he pulled it out absently, then didn’t hear Steve’s answer at all as he stared at the screen.

“Tony?”

“Huh? What?” Tony looked up to see that he had stopped walking.

“Is something wrong?”

“Sorry Steve, I have to head back.  Give me a call later, yeah?”  Tony began unlocking the suitcase that held his suit, forcing himself not to fumble in his haste.

“Yeah, ok.  See you later,” Steve said, but Tony was already a quickly fading light in the sky. 

Tony made it back to New York in record time and was shedding his suit before he had even properly landed, stumbling as one of the boots was slow to disengage.  “Loki?” He called out cautiously, hoping that Jane and Erik were still occupied down in the lab.  There was a fire in the grate but no sign of Loki himself. “JARVIS, what the f-“

“Hello, Stark.”  A tall shadow unfolded itself from the couch.

“Holy fuck, Loki!” Tony stared.  Even in the rosy light of the fire, Loki looked wan and tired, but otherwise ok.  Coming around the couch he touched Loki’s shoulder hesitantly, still fearing disappointment.  When he didn’t disappear in a flash of green and gold, Tony’s legs failed him and he sat down heavily.  His heart started pounding and he broke into a sweat.

 “God fucking dammit.” Tony didn’t see Loki’s look of confusion as he pushed off the couch and stumbled towards the balcony, suddenly feeling like he couldn’t breathe. Once outside he shivered in the chill air, leaning against the railing and trying to suck in air around the vise in his chest. After a few minutes the dizziness forced him to sit, using the cool glass at his back to try to ground himself.

 He heard Loki join him a few minutes later, but didn’t open his eyes until the worst of it had passed.  “Welcome back,” he said with a ghost of a smile. “Rumor was that you were dead.”

Loki loosened the laces of his tunic and pulled it down.   The smooth skin of his chest was marred by an ugly red scar, long as his palm and a finger width thick, right below his sternum. 

“Holy fuck, how did you live through that?”  Tony leaned forward to trace it with a still shaky hand.

Loki covered Tony’s hand with his own, squeezing lightly.  “I don’t know.”

Tony pulled his hand free and tugged up the sleeve on his shirt to show Loki the still shiny burn on his wrist.  Loki took his hand and stared silently at the mark for long moments.  “I’m not a doctor, but I think at roughly the same time I had something like a heart attack.”  He rubbed his other hand across his chest, still feeling a phantom ache. “However, I am a scientist, and I think they may have been related.”

“This…I think you saved my life, Stark.”  Loki said finally.  “I should have died.  Perhaps I did.  But I woke up, and I think you are why.”

“What happened? I mean, I heard most of it, I think.  From Jane Foster, of all people.”

Loki sighed and stood, using his grip on Tony’s hand to pull him up as well.  “An unpleasant tale, from start to finish.  First, I would greet you properly, and for that, let us go inside.”

 “That’s right, you did just get out of prison.  I’m surprised you haven’t just thrown me over your shoul-whoa!” Tony took a moment to admire Loki’s ass from this angle before struggling to get down. Loki’s arm might as well have been made of rebar for all that it gave. Tony expected to be thrown onto the bed and had a comment about the lack of windows already prepared, but instead Loki set him down on his feet.  

Loki put a hand under his chin, tilting his head up so that green eyes met brown. “Thank you, Stark.”  Tony tilted his head in an unspoken question, and Loki trailed his hand down Tony’s arm to his wrist.  “I don’t think you realize how much reaching out to me had become a habit for you.  You allowed me into your thoughts for months, sometimes consciously, sometimes less so.”  When Tony looked away, his face hot, Loki ran his lips over the curve of Tony’s ear. “Do not be discomfited.  The touch of your mind was often my only lifeline in a time of loneliness and despair.”

The kiss that followed was devastating in its gentleness.  Bit by bit, something inside Tony relaxed.  Tension drained out of his shoulders. With Loki, he realized, he didn’t have to try.  Didn’t have to be Tony Stark, Billionaire Playboy ™.  He didn’t even have to pretend to have his shit together, because Loki didn’t care.  He’d been inside Tony’s head for months, for some pretty dark, ugly months, and he still wanted him, broken bits and all. It felt like putting down a weight he’d forgotten he had, and the feeling was intoxicating. Giddying.

When Loki pulled away, Tony realized he was grinning like a loon. “Getting sappy on me, Loki?”

That got him thrown onto the bed, but Tony was laughing and peeling himself out of his flight suit before he stopped bouncing.

 

The next morning Tony stretched and rolled over, only to find himself alone.  He started to walk out of the bedroom before doing a U-turn when he remembered that he had guests that weren’t Loki wandering around the tower.  After pulling on pants and meandering by the kitchen for coffee, he eventually found Loki standing on the roof staring up at the sky, hair whipping around his face in the mid-morning breeze.  Tony joined him, sipping his coffee to keep warm. 

“Prison?” Tony said after a few minutes of silence. Loki just nodded shortly. He could sympathize.  After getting out of the cave he’d had a thing about being inside for too long, too.  “Life without parole, eh? Seems harsh. In solitary, no less.”

“Did Thor ever speak of why he was banished to Earth?”

“Just the broad strokes. Defied dear old dad, started a war, sent to Earth to learn a lesson.” Tony glanced at Loki out of the corner of his eye. “Is there more?”   

Loki's eyes were remote as he stared over the skyline. “Thor starts a war with Jotunheim, Asgard’s ancient enemy, and kills who knows how many while we are there.  He is banished to Earth.  Not imprisoned, but banished. Made mortal and sent to make a new life here.  I come to Earth, and…well.” Loki gestures at the city spread out before them. “I am sentenced to spend the rest of my life in a dungeon.  No possibility of redemption. Unlike Thor, I was to have many thousands of years to repent my sins without the petty distractions that come with freedom or the curse of mortality.  Odin is nothing if not fair-handed, yes?”  Loki smiled thinly at the look on Tony’s face.

“No shit.”  Tony took a sip of coffee.  “Did you tell him about, you know. All of the other shit? About Thanos?”  The scornful look Loki gave him spoke volumes.  Tony could have guessed that, the prideful bastard.

“Are you going to tell anyone about it when this is all over with?”

“I’m not looking for forgiveness, Stark,” Loki said tightly.

“I know that.  But that means you are always going to be the bad guy. You’re always going to be running.”

“Yes, I’ll be in everyone’s good graces until the next time.” Loki’s mouth flattened. “You think these people are your friends now, your allies, but what happens when you do something they don’t agree with?  If they find out that we have been working together, sleeping together?  Do you think they will stand by you?  If you are lucky, they will let you explain yourself.  Perhaps they will even listen.  Or perhaps they will call you a monster, betray you and leave you to die.”

Tony studied Loki’s face, at all of the old pain written there.  “Still. If we tell people what we’re doing, it could go a long way towards clearing your name.”

Loki shook his head.  “You can’t wash blood off your hands with still more blood.”

“Jesus Christ, Loki, I give in.  I’m just trying to cheer you up!” Tony burst out, trying not to have an existential crisis.  All he had wanted was some morning sex, for crying out loud.

Loki laughed at that, the tension bleeding away from his posture.  He turned to face Tony and dipped his head down for a kiss, chasing the taste of coffee with his tongue.  “My apologies. Let us start anew.  Good morning, Stark.”

“Well, it was.  Now I’m trying not to feel like my whole life is a lie,” Tony complained, banging his head against the wall of muscle that was Loki’s chest.  Loki put his hands on Tony’s hips and pulled him in close, blocking him from the worst of the wind. 

“Do not let my words cause you to doubt yourself.  You are a good man.”

Tony barked out a laugh.  “You’re thinking of Steve.”

“Captain Rogers is a man of principle. They are not always the same thing.”

“Thor, then.”

That made Loki roll his eyes.  “Hardly.  Thor is beloved because he has no malice in his heart.  He does good when it occurs to him, or when it coincides with what he wished to do already.  Should he ever learn to hate…”  Loki shrugged.

Tony whistled with awe. “And I thought I was a cynical bastard. Be still my heart.”  He pressed a kiss to Loki's jaw and pulled out of his loose embrace.  “C’mon, let’s go inside.  I have something to show you down in the lab.”  Tony went back to the roof access door, turning to hold it open for no one, as it turned out.  Grumbling, he went down the five flights of stairs, only to see Loki already studying the suit he’d made with his gift.

“This is magnificent,” Loki said once Tony entered the key code to get inside.

“First of all, if you teleport everywhere instead of walking you’re going to get fat,” Tony said as he joined him. “Second, thank you.”  If he hadn’t been afraid of answering awkward questions, this bad boy would have been upstairs for all to see.  Though he’d built other suits since this one, he still considered it his masterpiece.  “It’s fully functional, too.  As much firepower as any of my other suits.”

Loki turned to face him, an enigmatic smile on his face.   “You are an unparalleled craftsman, Tony Stark.”

“Yeah,” he sighed happily. “But wait, there’s more.”  He crossed the lab to an unassuming door on the far end, where a security camera scanned Tony’s face before the door slid open.  The fact that he had thirty-something autonomous suits in this room along with a safe storing very illegal nuclear-tipped rockets was not something he wanted the casual visitor to notice. 

“Will this be enough for our mission?” He asked innocently.  The sight of light gleaming off his robot army was an imposing sight, especially when as one they all turned their heads towards Tony, awaiting commands. Well, that part was maybe a little creepy, but still.  Badass.

“If it is not, then our mission was doomed from the start,” Loki said as he joined him.  A cool hand trailed up Tony's spine, making him shiver.

“So I still need to-“  His words dried up when he turned around and saw the hot look in Loki’s eyes.  Blood instantly rushed south and began filling his cock. “Yeah? Now?” Tony asked, swallowing thickly.

Loki’s slow smile at that was downright predatory.

“Come and get it, then,” Tony said, pulling at the knot in his sweatpants.  Loki hooked a hand behind Tony’s neck and pulled him in roughly, his mouth a devouring heat. Tony shivered again as his naked chest pressed against Loki’s leather and armor, still chilled from being outside, and buried his hands in long dark hair.  Loki made a deep throated hum as he backed Tony into a work table.  Tony fumbled behind him so he could lift himself onto the table, wrapping his legs around Loki’s hips.  The resulting friction was all white-hot pleasure, driving every thought from Tony’s head except more.  The kiss grew hotter, more desperate, as Loki’s clever hands found Tony’s cock, sliding under the loose waistband of his sweatpants.

“Here?” Tony managed, mouthing along Loki’s jaw and dragging his fingernails across the nape of his neck.  A bed would be nice, but at this point Tony was more than ready for Loki to fuck him hard and dirty and fast against the wall if necessary.

“Yes,” Loki said, voice low and rough with arousal. He spun Tony around so he could brace himself on the table and roughly pushed clothing out of the way.    

“Wait, I don’t have any – oh, there it is. Oh, god yes.” Tony’s head dropped to his arms as Loki slid a long finger inside.  For long, achingly good moments he pushed back on the fingers stroking in and out, occasionally grazing the spot that made sparks fly behind his eyelids.  Loki’s other hand moved over Tony restlessly, stroking his cock, grazing nails down the length of Tony’s spine and over his scalp, all the while that impossibly hot voice murmured in languages Tony didn’t understand.

“Now?”

“Yes, please and thank you,” Tony answered on a long groan as Loki pushed inside, slowly and carefully until Tony could feel the cool press of leather on the back of his thighs.  As Loki leaned over to settle his hands in Tony’s, light glinted off his bronzed metal vambraces and his duster brushed Tony’s bare thighs.  The feel of Loki’s armor as he pressed himself against the long line of Tony’s back was pushing buttons Tony didn’t know he had.  Loki seemed to feel it too, biting Tony’s shoulder as he allowed himself a few hard thrusts before holding himself deep inside.

“Oh don’t stop,” Tony said with a strangled groan, pushing back against Loki, helplessly searching for more.  Loki answered with slow, measured thrusts that made Tony’s aching need twist tighter, quickening enough to draw long moans out of Tony before slowing down again. Finally, finally it seemed that Loki was getting close to the edge, after keeping Tony there for what felt like ages; his thrusts quickened and his breath rasped as he struggled to keep control. 

“I want to keep you like this forever,” Loki breathed in Tony’s ear, his voice ragged.  “Helpless with pleasure, surrounded by your weapons of destruction.  That brilliant mind focused only on how good I can make you feel.” He pressed a kiss on the damp, salty skin between Tony’s throat and shoulder and then set his teeth there, biting lightly.  The slight pain was enough to push Tony over the edge, his body shaking with the force of it.

At that, Loki’s control finally snapped. Rising up, he braced one arm across Tony’s back and pounded into Tony hard and fast before following him over.  His hips stuttered and he pressed as deep as he could, coming in long, painfully good pulses.  For a moment he rested his head against Tony’s back as he chased the aftershocks, then he gingerly withdrew.

After that, all Tony really wanted to do was slide in a boneless heap down to the floor, but he braced himself against the table as he pulled his pants back up and drew Loki down for another kiss.  “So now I know.  You’ve got a thing for my Iron Man suits, you kinky bastard.”

He felt Loki’s smile against his lips. “And you for my armor.”

“Well, yes.  But if you didn’t know that already you haven’t been paying attention.” His knees were still feeling a little shaky so Tony climbed up to sit on the table again, making a mental note to pick his tools off the floor.  To his surprise, Loki fitted himself between Tony's knees again and ran careful fingertips over his arc reactor.  After a moment Tony just leaned back and let Loki study it to his leisure. “So you never did tell me what happened.” Tony ventured.  “Were you able to get the Tesseract around all of the avenging and dying?”

“That and more,” Loki said with satisfaction.  “The only thing I lack is the spear, but now with the Tesseract locating it will be child’s play.”

“Hmm.  What’s the rush?  Steve said yesterday that SHIELD hadn’t located it yet, so we’ve got some time right?”

“The more time we waste the more time they have to prepare for our counterattack.”

Tony frowned.  “Well, they don’t even know we’re coming.  Also, we’ve lost months already, I don’t think a day or two is going to change much.  Besides, you just got out of jail.  You should relax before we travel halfway across the universe to wage war on an alien race,” he said, poking Loki in the chest.

“I was raised in Asgard.  Waging war is how we relax,” Loki said seriously, but there was a suspicious quirk to his lips.  “Very well.  Finish your preparations and then you can show me how humans relax.”

“Well, you’ve already nailed one or two ways-"

Other ways.”

 

The next morning Tony woke to a disappointingly empty bed again.  “Goddammit, am I ever going to get any wake-up sex?” He complained as he kicked his way out from under the covers. With a sigh he pulled on some clothes and wandered to the kitchen only to come to a stop, stunned and speechless.

Jane was sitting at the table eating cereal while absorbed in a book while Loki was leaning nude against the counter, sipping coffee with a thoughtful expression.  When he noticed Tony staring, eyes darting between Jane and Loki, he smirked.  Tony’s eyes narrowed and promised retribution as he figured it out.

“She can’t see you, can she?” Tony hissed, covering the sound by noisily making his own cup of coffee.  Loki shook his head.

“Good morning, Tony!”  Jane said brightly as she looked up, then her eyes darted down to his neck and shoulders.  “Looks like you had a fun night.”

In his defense, Tony wouldn’t have gone red if Loki hadn’t been standing next to him, laughing silently.  He’d given as good as he’d gotten, but any marks he’d made on Loki were long gone. 

“Um, yeah. Sure did.  So you’re up early, right?  Or am I up early?” Tony kicked Loki and dodged the counterattack by walking over to the table.

“Both, I guess.  Thor got called away last night and I couldn’t sleep, so I’ve been reviewing everything on Einstein-Rosen bridges and trying to connect the dots with the notes you gave us.”

Tony really wanted to know what was going through Loki’s mind right now, but he didn’t dare turn around to look at him.  “Any progress?”

“Some.  I had hoped that Thor could be more help, but he didn’t know the mechanics of how the Bifrost works.  He couldn’t even decipher Loki’s notes, but I didn’t really have high hopes.”

“You showed him the notes I gave you?”  Tony went cold inside but tried to act casual.

“Yeah.  He got really quiet and seemed sad.  Guess I should have thought about that before I said anything.”

Tony made a non-committal noise, his mind racing. “Any luck so far?”

“Yes, actually!” Jane’s eyes lit up.  “Enough that we should be able to start computer simulations in the next week.”

“Excellent!” Tony slapped his palms down on the table and stood.  “Let me know when you get to that stage, I’d love to look at your equations. I gotta go do a thing.”

“Tony!  What a rude thing to say about a lady,” Jane grinned, her eyes sparkling with mischief.

If she had known Stark better, she would have realized that something was wrong when his only response was a chuckle and a wave as he left.  Loki had anticipated him and was waiting in the bedroom, already fully dressed.

When Tony closed the door he stood there for a moment.  “I feel like we have a big problem, but I don’t know why or what it might be.”

“Your instincts are sound.  Thor would immediately recognize my handwriting, of course, and wonder why you have anything written by me.”

“And after everything in Miami, it is going to look very suspicious.  So what would Thor do?  If he thinks you are dead…” 

“If Thor suspected that you and I are or were working together, his first thought would be to make sure I was dead.  But I’ve covered my tracks well, there is nothing to discover in Asgard.  The only person who could –fuck!”  Loki disappeared and then just as suddenly reappeared. “No.  If he went where I think he went, the damage is done.” 

“What-“ Tony started but Loki cut him off with an impatient gesture.  

“We have to assume that Thor knows or suspects I am alive still.  What then?” The fact that Loki was staring a hole in the floor made Tony think that was the question wasn’t aimed at him.  Loki’s devious mind was probably miles ahead of Tony’s, who was admittedly a “cut the knot” kind of guy.  

“Why wouldn’t he come and confront me?”

“He likely thinks that I have you enthralled.  Confronting you directly would let me know that he knows.  No, he would likely go to one of your friends.”

“Steve.  Who knows that I’ve been asking questions about your staff.”

At that, Loki’s eyes grew hard and the air began to thrum with power until Tony’s teeth ached.  Loki’s fists were clenched and sparks of green and gold were gathering around him.  “I swear to the Fates if Thor has managed to interfere in my affairs one more time –“

“Loki, wait! Hello!”  Tony waved his arms to get Loki’s attention.  “If they are going after the staff, we have to beat them to it.” 

“I will find it with the Tesseract.”  Loki made some sort of gesture and then out of nowhere had the Tesseract in his palm, glowing an innocent blue.  Tony couldn’t look at it without shuddering.  So much suffering because of that deceptive little cube.

 “I’ll go suit up.”

 “Tony.”  He stopped at the serious tone in Loki’s voice.  “If Thor and Steve are there, there will likely be others.  Are you prepared to challenge your friends for this?” 

Tony sighed, his insides filling with dread at the thought.  He kind of always suspected he'd be the one to fuck up the whole Avengers thing, but frankly even he had thought it would take longer.  "Am I prepared? No.  Will I? Yeah.  It would be cowardly of me to stay here, and of all my very well-documented personality flaws, being a coward isn't on the list.  I was an idiot to think we could do this without anyone noticing." 

Loki nodded once and held out his hand. "Let's get started then."

Chapter Text

“Well, shit,” Tony said as he watched the chaos.  Loki had brought them to a cliff in the middle of a steep mountain range, still topped with snow. Below them was a thickly wooded forest with an old-school citadel built on a hill in the center of the valley; JARVIS informed him that they were in rural Sokovia, an old Soviet satellite state.  Steve and the others had been fighting for some time before they got here, judging from splintered trees and bodies littering the snowy ground.  But whoever owned this citadel clearly did not intend to give up without a fight because armored personnel carriers and tanks were still pouring out of underground bunkers, even as their soldiers were getting mowed down like hay.  Periodically a flash of lightning would highlight Thor’s location on the battlefield and Tony could hear the Hulk roaring even over the sound of battle.  Either one of those could be the reason why Loki was scowling.

“Looks like we were right,” Tony ventured after they stood there for a moment.

“Yes.”

“I don’t recognize the weapons they are using.”  They almost looked like Star Wars laser guns, spitting flashes of blue light instead of bullets.  

“They are drawing on the energy of the staff,” Loki said.  “They are also using it to power a shield around the fortress.” 

In his ear, JARVIS confirmed Loki’s observation. “Sir, this technology is well beyond anything we’ve seen before.”

“You sound impressed.”  Tony studied the battle, feeling torn.  On the one hand, his friends were fighting, and it looked like they could use some help.  On the other hand, it wasn’t as if he’d been invited to the party.  Tony sighed.

“I didn’t expect humans to be able to harness its energy at all.”  

“I guess us mudbloods can get it right sometimes.”  Though the tree cover was hiding much of the battle, Tony could track the locations of the Avengers by the explosions.  They were slowly but inexorably advancing on the fortress.  Tony scanned through short range comm frequencies before he found the one they were using, listening to the chatter.  “Hey, how did you not notice this place when you were looking for the staff before?”

Loki eyed him sourly. “Enough talk.  We must retrieve the staff before your friends do.  Eliminate the resistance and I will deal with the shield.”  Tony laughed and took off.  As he approached the citadel, the large cannons that had been firing into the forest aimed their barrels towards him and to his surprise, a small squad of soldiers took to the air in pursuit.

“JARVIS, give me the goods on these guys.”  Tony flew quick circles around the men, easily dodging their attempts to shoot him down.  “Do those guns look like Chitauri technology to you?”

“You are correct, sir.  Their repulsor technology bears the same energy signature as Loki’s staff, but these small arms bear more than a superficial resemblance to those recovered from the Battle of New York.”

“Interesting.”  He didn’t know what it meant, but it didn’t really matter at this second.  Whoever these guys were, they lumbered around in the air like walruses.  The surface-to-air cannons were more vexing; they were not difficult to avoid, but the energy shield was preventing him from returning fire.

“Come on, Loki, we don't have all day.”  He looped back around to the cliff where he’d left him, and came to a stop in mid-air.  “Well, shit,” he said again. 

 

As Stark flew off, Loki blocked out the noise of the battle below to concentrate on the shield. Likely invisible to Tony and anyone else, to Loki it appeared as a shimmering blue veil hugging the walls of the central building of fortress, not unlike the shield that had protected the portal device in New York.   It was not an unimpressive working, for humans, but easy enough to defeat. They had only thought to shield the building from above, not thinking than anyone could penetrate the solid rock that the fortress was built on.

So focused was he on locating the source of the shielding that he did not notice Thor’s approach until he landed behind him with a thump and explosion of snow.  

Loki!” Thor roared. Loki gritted his teeth and began to gather his power.  “I should have known.  This has all the marks of your doing.”  He lifted his hammer to the sky, summoning lightning and sending a crackling bolt towards Loki.   

Loki batted it aside and it shattered a tree on the hillside. “Enough, Thor.  What I do here has nothing to do with you.” With blast of raw power he struck Thor, sending him flying backwards through the trees. 

“No, Loki.  Your business here is over.  You have betrayed me for the last time.” Thor climbed back to his feet and readjusted his grip on his hammer.  He leapt at Loki, only to bring his hammer down on the stony ground as the illusion shimmered and vanished.

“I did not betray you, Thor,” Loki snarled from his new position.  “That your idiotic plan failed was no fault of mine.  You assumed that magic was only good for tricks and illusions, and that it could be destroyed by strength alone.” Thor and Loki circled each other like snapping wolves. 

“You let me think you were dead!”  Thor swung at him and Loki ducked under his arm, coming in to strike Thor across the jaw hard enough to snap his head back before spinning out of his reach.

“That I all but bled my life away in that dismal realm was no trick.  I have the scars to prove it.  But Hel would not take me.  When I awoke, think you that I should have returned to my cell to live out the rest of my days?” Loki spat on the ground in contempt. “Never.” 

“I am taking you back to Asgard,” Thor growled, raising his hammer. 

“No.  Not until I have truly breathed and bled my last.  I have let you best me too many times already, Thor.” 

Let me-“  

“When first we fought, did you really think that your might was such that you could defeat me with the power of the throne on my side? The same power Odin used to banish you?”  Loki laughed derisively and disappeared.  Thor whirled around in search of him as his voice continued from seemingly nowhere.  “Of course you did.  Your arrogance is insufferable.  But it will not happen again.”

“No more tricks, Loki.  Face me!”

Tricks?” Loki spat, reappearing at the cliff’s edge.  Behind him Iron Man hovered, but Loki had only eyes for Thor.  “Yes, Thor, let us speak of tricks.  Tell me, what really has all of your power?  What calls down lightning?  Not you.  Without your toy you are nothing.  When last did you win a battle without it? Let us fight hand to hand, with only the strength at our disposal, and see who has the power and who has only tricks.”

Loki’s goading worked.  With a roar Thor swung and threw his hammer. In a flash Loki spun away and opened a rip in space where he had been standing.  The hammer vanished.  

Inside his suit Tony gaped.  To say that Thor was shocked was an understatement.

“Now we will learn how long it takes for Mjolnir to return to Earth from Vanaheim.” Loki’s grin was all teeth as he approached Thor.  Thor swung at him but found only another illusion.

Loki appeared behind him, wrapping an arm around his throat and sliding a dagger between his ribs. “Let’s see, how did you put it?  Oh, yes. ‘When we fought each other in the past, I did so with a glimmer of hope that my brother was still in there somewhere.  That hope no longer exists to protect you.’”  Loki’s voice in Thor’s ear was low and deadly and so full of rage that it shook.  “The next time we come to blows, it will not end until one of us is dead.”   He threw Thor to the ground and stalked to where Tony was hovering just past the cliff’s edge.  Raising his hands, a green gold light surrounded him and after a moment Tony saw pale blue sparks erupt around the citadel and disappear.

“Sir, the shield is down,” JARVIS reported.  Tony hesitated a moment, but at the look in Loki’s eyes he sped back towards the fortress.  He zoomed along the hallways, battering hapless soldiers out of his way and blaring evacuation warnings as he sped towards the energy signature of Loki’s staff.  

Behind him, Loki heard Thor get to his feet with a muttered curse.  "Loki-"

“If your friends still fight in the valley, I would advise them to move to higher ground.”  Loki’s voice was calm now, icy.  He was barely listening as Thor shouted warnings through a hidden communicator to his friends, waiting to see the fiery blaze of Stark leaving the building.  When Iron Man took to the sky again, with the tell-tale blue of Loki’s staff a spark reflecting off his armor, Loki turned back to Thor.

“Now watch, brother.”  In the center of the valley the noise of battle had grown quiet. After a moment, Thor became aware of a low hum that grew louder until he could feel it vibrating in his bones.  The air on the cliff was tinged with the smell of ozone and felt heavy, a tangible pressure on Thor's skin.

"Loki, don't!" He tried to press his way to the edge of the cliff but the closer he came to Loki the harder it was to move, until it felt like he was trying to walk through the mountain itself.  

Loki heard him but the sound came from very far away and seemed very unimportant.  "Hush, Thor," he said absently, heart pounding with exhilaration as he concentrated on controlling the rush of power lest it burn him up from the inside out.  Below them, the citadel and the outthrust of granite it was built on shivered.  Cracks appeared in the roof and along the walls as bricks and mortar sloughed off the sides.  The whole building began to slide sideways and Thor realized that the rock underneath it was melting, moving with the slow inexorability of lava and crushing everything in its path.  Trucks and tanks were pushed aside or engulfed and trees that had stood for hundreds of years snapped like dry sticks.  In minutes, the entire fortification had been reduced to a flat field of solid rock on the valley floor. 

Loki turned to face Thor.  “Do you understand now?  I have no designs on your precious Earth, but if you try to thwart me again I will destroy everything.”  Then he disappeared.

Still hovering over the valley, Tony looked down at the devastation with mingled horror and awe.  Loki hadn’t been kidding when he said that he hadn’t brought his A-game last time.  Over the comms, Tony could hear Steve directing the frantic evacuation of enemy soldiers.  Apparently the literal collapse of their headquarters were motivating a great deal of them to surrender.  “JARVIS, can you locate the other Avengers?”  

“No one appears to have been harmed, sir.  Thor was able to warn them in time.”

“Good,” Tony said.  “But I wish I had taken more time to figure out who in the hell those people were before Loki flattened the place.”  He didn’t need to look around to know that Loki was gone.  After that show, he would have made a dramatic exit, too.  He resigned himself to a long flight home and turned west.

“Tony!  I can see you up there.  Can you hear me?” Steve’s voice came through the comms he forgot to turn off.   Tony reluctantly stopped, pulling up to hover at the edge of the valley. 

“Hey, Steve.  Looks like you decided to have a party and didn’t invite me.”

“You didn’t give us much choice, Tony.  You lied to me.”  Steve’s disappointed, chastising tone started to put Tony’s back up, but he tried to keep a lid on his temper.

“It’s for a good cause.  Isn’t that SHIELD’s party line?”

“A good cause? It’s fucking Loki!” Tony winced as Clint exploded.  “Did you forget that I had him riding around in my head for days?  Whatever he told you is a lie.  He’s using you like a puppet.”

Tony sighed and looked at the staff in his hands, trying to find the right words.  “Nuh uh you guys” was his first instinct but seemed rather juvenile.  

“I don’t know what you and Loki are doing, but we are going to stop you,” Steve said finally.  “Please don’t make us do that.”

“If you don’t know what we’re doing, why do you know we need to be stopped?” Tony snapped.  “What if, and I’m just spitballing ideas here, you gave me the fucking benefit of the doubt that I know what I’m doing?”

“Tony, you know that Loki can control people –“

“You can stop there.  I was in the same fight you were, and if I recall correctly, I’m the one who almost died to stop him.  I didn’t hear any of you questioning my judgement then.  So I’m done listening to it now.  You do what you gotta do, Steve, and I’ll do the same, and at the end of the day…we’ll just see what happens.”  Tony turned off the comm link and found the team’s quinjet, parked halfway up a mountain.  He turned it into a fireball and left. 

           

He had just passed over central Europe when he got a call from Rhodey.  He cursed his own stupidity.  Steve and the rest were stuck in Sokovia until they could get a ride home, but the entire rest of SHIELD was only a few hours from New York. 

He had barely picked up the call before Rhodey was yelling at him.  “You wanna explain why Cap had SHIELD order me to keep you on lockdown at the tower?”

“Sorry Rhodey but I can’t get into it right now.  You’re just going to have to trust me to know what I’m doing.”

“Tony, he said you’re working with Loki.  You…you haven’t-“

“Gone all Dark Side on you?” Tony finished.  “Of course not.  It’s a long story that I don’t think anyone is going to believe without some evidence, so I have to see this through and then I’ll explain everything.”

“Well I’ll fly as slowly as I can get away with.  It better be a good damn story.”

Tony hung up. “JARVIS, is Loki in the tower?”

Yes, sir.”

“Put me through, please.” After a moment JARVIS patched him through the tower intercom. “Loki?”

“Yes?”

“You might want to come get me, because we are going to have company very soon.” Tony started to land but was only halfway to the ground when Loki all but tackled him mid-air and then they were landing with a thump on the roof of Stark Tower.

Tony lifted his visor as Loki climbed off him.  “Well, that was certainly an impressive show you put on,” he commented, letting Loki pull him to his feet.  “But you left without your glowstick.  Also, Steve called in reinforcements and they are going to be here in maybe thirty minutes. If we’re going to do this, it’s going to have to be now. Otherwise this tower is going to be under siege.”

Loki’s smile was thin as he took the staff. “I agree.  Thor will not remain cowed for long and is surprisingly resourceful when it comes to frustrating me.”

“Are you up to it?  Seems like you might have spent a lot of mojo back there, turning a building into melted butter like that.”

“I’m fine,” Loki said shortly.

Tony took off his helmet and disengaged the armor, stepping out of it as it folded itself into a briefcase.  “Alright. I’ll meet you in the lab.”

Of course, Loki was already there by the time Tony got there, especially since Tony took the time to get some water and food first.  He crammed the last half of his sandwich in his mouth on the elevator, determined not to make war on an extraterrestrial army on an empty stomach. Again. 

Once again he came down to find Loki studying the Asgard suit. Tony came up beside him and punched in the code to the display case, which opened with a quiet whirr. “Looks like I’ll get to try this bad boy out today.”

Loki didn’t respond.  He seemed troublingly distracted, not in the kind of mindset Tony would have wished with what they were about to do.  He put a hand on Loki's arm.  “Are you ok?  Did that thing with Thor throw you for a loop or something?”

The arm under his hand tensed as Loki clenched his fists then looked down at his hands. He opened his mouth to speak but hesitated and finally shook his head.  “I’m fine, Stark.”

Tony was unconvinced but he let it drop.  After his conversation with Steve and now knowing that asshole dragged Rhodey into this, he was more than ready to start blowing shit up.  Instead he started pushing his work tables out of the way, clearing a space in the middle of his lab.

“So where are we doing this?  How much room do you need for this portal?”

“Anywhere is fine.  We have no particular size requirements.”

“Alright, we can do this right here then.  Wait – is there a chance this thing is going to blow a hole in my tower?”

Loki paused. “Perhaps outside is better.”

“Yeah, outside is better.” 

He opened up his storage room and flicked on the lights. “Up and at’em, boys.”  Tony moved to the side as his suits began filing out of the storage room to fill up the lab.  “No, go follow Uncle Loki outside.”  He made shooing motions and Loki, with a roll of his eyes, led them upstairs.

“Sir, you have company.  Colonel Rhodes is approaching. He is also trying to call.  Shall I let him through?

“No, JARVIS, I don’t have time to try to explain.  How much time do we have?”

At current speeds, approximately seven minutes.

Tony opened up his Asgard suit and stepped inside.  “Alright, give me a countdown,” he said as soon as the HUD activated.  He joined Loki upstairs, who was looking extra villain-y standing in front of Tony’s robot army.

“Were you aware that someone is approaching your tower?”

Tony opened his mask up and took a few deep breaths, trying to still his nerves.  Ye gods, it wasn’t even noon yet. This day had turned to shit really quickly. “Yeah, yeah, I’m on it. It’s those reinforcements Steve called in. Dick. Alright, here’s a communicator.” He handed Loki the earbud sized device, helping him fit it to his ear.  “It’s not good for multidimensional telepathic communication or anything, but it probably won’t try to kill you if it gets fried.  Or if I do.”  Loki accepted it and gingerly put it in his ear. “Ready?”

Loki nodded once, features grim.

“What’s the plan?”

“I had hoped to have time to observe our adversaries before engaging them, but the interference of Thor and your allies is forcing our hand.”

“So we wing it. That's about as far as I usually get in the planning process anyway.” Tony closed his mask again. “Open your portal, Loki, and let’s finally do this.”

Chapter Text

In retrospect, Tony thought, he may have mentally underprepared for a mission where he was literally facing his worst nightmare. It was even worse than he had imagined. 

“Don’t puke in the suit. Don’t puke in the suit.” he chanted, squeezing his eyes tight against the dizzying expanse of stars in front of them.  He felt a moment of disorientation when he opened his eyes, expecting to see the barren rock from his nightmares, littered with the bodies of his friends.  Instead he saw Loki studying the asteroid field that surrounded them, eyes narrowed in concentration.  The sight of Loki grounded him and he was able to take a deep breath, then another, until the panic attack receded.  Blue dots started flashing up on his HUD as his suits followed them through the portal, hovering around them in a loose formation. Tony tried not to stare longingly at the portal behind him - sunny skies and the comfort of a well stocked bar on one side, cold empty space and the possibility of dying far from home on the other. 

He sighed and walked away from temptation. “So where's the party?” 

“The Chitauri army is arrayed in a rough sphere around Thanos’s throne.  There are six remaining control ships.”  Loki pointed to seemingly random areas in the space around them, but when JARVIS ran analysis on the light patterns Tony found them. Zooming in on the closest, Tony made an involuntary sound of dismay when the lights of the ship were temporarily blocked out by a circling Leviathan.

“Those fucking guys,” he muttered.  “I hate those things.”  He felt Loki clap a hand on his shoulder.

“You only have to hold them off long enough to destroy the control ships or until I defeat the Other.  He will be near Thanos’s throne, there.” Loki gestured at something directly in front of them.

“Right, so what is this guy Thanos going to be doing while you are killing his buddy?”

Loki grimaced.  "Unfortunately it seems that Thanos is not here.  I'd intended to wait for the most advantageous time to strike, but..."

"Yeah, winging it. Dammit. But we are still going to-"

"Of course.  You can kill a snake by cutting off its head, but cutting off its body works just as well."  Loki was obscured momentarily behind a glow of gold as he summoned his armor.  In his hands the Chitauri spear lengthened, the wickedly curved points at the end becoming longer and more lethal.  He spun it a couple of times, reacquainting himself with its heft.  “Unfortunately, the Other will have to die a lot swifter than I would like, but once he is dead I can deal with what remains of the Chitauri.”     

“Sounds goo-oh god, not the helmet again.” Tony gave an exaggerated shudder and heard more than felt Loki hit him in the ass with the spear. “Alright ladies and gents, let’s move out and get this over with. I can’t take looking at that hat much longer.”       

Loki watched Stark’s army split up and quickly disappear into the darkness as he closed the portal and sent the Tesseract away.  He could feel the presence of the Other from across this cluttered asteroid field, its aura yellow and sickly, like pus and wound rot.  Hate and anger and fear, some of it left over from the battle in the valley, made bile burn the back of his throat.  As much of him wanted to flee that slimy presence as wanted to destroy it, and the conflict made him hesitate before he could force himself onward.

He emerged from the dark paths directly in front of the Other.  The satisfaction in its smile as it turned to face him made chills go down his spine. 

 “Ah, the little prince finally returns. I’ve been waiting for you."

___________________________

“Sir, Mark-57 squads 1, 4, and 5 are in position,” JARVIS reported in his ear.  “However, the rest are encountering unexpected activity and are awaiting further instruction.” 

“Tune in to Mark-57L.”  Tony’s HUD screen filled with the undulating, menacing forms of circling Leviathan.  His plan had been to have his robot army approach the control ships almost completely powered down, hoping to get within strike range by looking like space debris.  That wasn’t going to work if there were enough active Chitauri to block his missile or to notice that the suit wasn’t another hunk of rock.  But if he could blow up half of the control ships before the fight got kinetic, that wasn’t the worst case scenario. 

“Alright.  Have Charlie, Mike, and Victor send off their payloads and have everyone join the party once they’re done.  Juliet, Papa, and Oscar are the priority now – everyone else is tasked to make sure they get close enough to blow the ships.  One shot one kill – we don’t have unlimited ammo out here.”

“And as for yourself, sir?”

Tony was torn.  He should stay and fight with his suits because the control ships were ultimately his mission.  But everything in him wanted to find Loki.  “Find me a good vantage point in all this mess,” he said finally.  “But not too far from Loki’s location in case he needs backup.”

“Yes, sir.  Also, Mark-57M has released the missile.” 

“Well tune me in, JARVIS.  I don’t want to miss the show.” The flash of blue light and ensuing explosion were just as he remembered.  Tony felt a glow of happiness all the way to his fingertips.

“Mark-57C has released its missile.”  Tony watched that one too.

“Mark-57V has released its missile.”  Nope, never going to get old.  He was going to make this the screensaver for every single screen in the Tower.  “Squads 2 and 6 have engaged the enemy. Squad 3 still approaching the target.”

“Three down, three to go, Loki!” He crowed as he sped to where his beautiful shiny children were shredding Chitauri.    

___________________________

“You must be eager to die, then, to have been awaiting my return,” Loki returned.  He reached for the power in the staff, then his own power, but they both lay stubbornly dormant.  Fear coiled around his chest and squeezed. 

“You speak of your foolish quest for vengeance?”  The Other laughed, guttural and raspy. “Do you really think coming here was your idea? You have brought everything we required of you: the Tesseract, the mind gem, as well as Earth’s greatest warrior.  You have performed well.”

Performed well.  "No." Loki recoiled from the thought, heart pounding. “No! Your hold on me was broken!” Without seeming to move, the Other was suddenly in front of him, its six-fingered hand tight around Loki’s throat.  His other hand pulled the staff from Loki’s suddenly nerveless fingers.

“Your freedom was a lie. Every step you took to come here was because I willed it. You will never escape me,” it hissed, fingers tightening.  The tip of the spear carved a thin line in his cheek as Loki felt it slithering in his mind, trying to sap his will.  Loki thrust his  dagger into the Other’s arm and twisted, stumbling as he was suddenly released.  It laughed again as it struck him with the staff, driving him to his knees. Its heavy hand came down on the back of his head, forcing it down. Loki gritted his teeth and tried to stand but pain glanced through his skull, making him gasp.

“You will always kneel to me,” it said. “You thought you had cut your strings, but you will never sever them all. I own you.  He owns you. Now give me the Tesseract.”

 “Even as we speak the human is destroying your army,” Loki gritted out.  He tried to summon another knife but the memory of how to do so was suddenly slippery, stolen by the Other.  His neck ached from struggling against it’s grip, but his limbs no longer obeyed him. “I will kill you, and then I am coming for Thanos.”

“No,” it said, amused at Loki’s defiance. “You are a dog that has forgotten its master. I will flay you to the bone again if that is what it takes.” Loki’s whole body shuddered.  The chitinous Chitauri had been curious about a creature with bones, and had not been loath to cut through skin and muscle to investigate.  With no sense of pain, they had not understood why he screamed his throat raw as they dissected him.  “You will break much faster the second time and the human will be trapped here. He will tire, and the Chitauri will rip him apart.  Thanos will have the mind gem and the Tesseract, and then he will sacrifice Earth and Asgard to his Lady.”

Light flashed and then Loki could see it, the golden palace of Asgard a shattered husk, streets ruined and the Bifrost shattered anew.  Stark’s tower, toppled, and Stark himself dying alone in the coldness of space. Millions of humans and Aesir died in waves while Thanos and his Lady looked on, passionless. “And you, pitiful wretch, will watch it all.”

“Three down, three to go, Loki!” Stark’s voice rang in his ear, slightly tinny but tinged with victory.  It was like cold water to his senses, and Loki was able to wrench himself away from the Other and struggle to his feet.

“St-” Against his will, Loki’s throat closed around the words of warning.

“Silence.  I would not have you deny the Chitauri their revenge.”

___________________________

Tony would have cheered when the fourth control ship vanished in a flash of light and debris, but it had taken eight suits and a way more hands-on approach than Tony would have liked in order to get M-57J (codename Juliet) close enough to release her missile.  And the fighting was only getting worse as a seemingly unending stream of Chitauri replaced each one that was killed.

Tony looked at the clock and saw that it had only been twenty minutes since they came through the portal.  Was that a long time?  Surely Loki could have killed one measly mini-boss in twenty minutes.

He resolved to give him five more minutes and was swallowed by a Leviathan.

___________________________

Loki blinked.  He was standing in a memory of Stark’s lab, the one that had been destroyed months ago. Holiday music offended his ears and colorful lights were flashing where they were draped over one of Stark’s robots. Stark himself was commenting about something at his computer before turning around, and the speed with which his look of welcome turned to disgust made Loki’s stomach turn.

“What-what are you?” Glancing down he saw with horror that his hands were blue, marked with raised lines and dark nails.  Nausea rose as Loki tried to find words. Despite himself Loki reached out, only to see Stark back away.  “No, don’t touch me. You could have told me what you were from the beginning.  Why didn’t you?  How could you let me-” He stopped and shook his head.  “Go away, Loki.  I better not ever see you again.”

Lies, Loki thought, a little desperately.  That didn’t happen.  That will never happen.

 “Look at you,” Thor mocked. They were standing on the shattered remnants of the Bifrost.  A cold wind tugged at him, as if trying to push him off the edge and into the abyss below them.  “Odin’s little foundling. Mother never loved you, you know.  She taught you sorcery out of pity when it became clear that you were a failure as a warrior.  Much good it did you.” Thor circled him, eyes hard and voice cold. “Pathetic.” He leaned over to whisper in Loki's ear. “We knew where you were when you fell, Frost Giant.  We just didn’t care.”

Loki closed his eyes. Lies, he thought again.   His head ached from fighting against the Other’s control, but it felt like fighting the tide.  Each moment he could feel more of himself slipping away.

He felt the weight of chains trying to drag him to the ground.  Odin sat back in the throne, face impassive.  “Frigga is the only reason you’re still alive, and you will never see her again.  You will spend the rest of your days in the dungeons.”

Give me the Tesseract!

Closing his eyes didn’t help.  Images seared themselves in his thoughts.

Hanging above an abyss, pain above him, death below.  Thor lets go first, and Loki falls forever.

Heimdall and Odin watching him scream and bleed, and turning away.

“Because I-I am the monster who parents tell their children about at night?”

Frigga choking on blood, eyes accusatory.

Loki cried out as he hit the ground.  Somehow, the feeling of the blade sliding back out hurt even worse.  Thor walks away without looking back.  Loki bleeds out alone, drowning in blood and dust.

Stark fighting for his life, surrounded by Chitauri. A vicious blow cracks the arc reactor, and it flickers and dies.

Once the human dies, there is nothing left for you. Give up. Give me the Tesseract.

As if summoned, his voice cut through the illusions. “So, hey, Loki.  We’re getting a bit swamped out here, if you’re going to do something about the Chitauri that’d be gre- ow! Son of a bitch!” 

“Stark! I-” He managed and then he was lost again.  Pain flashed and stole his words.  Loki has his hand around Stark’s throat and is dragging him towards a wall of windows.  Below them, war and chaos have engulfed the city. “Loki, please, don’t do this!” Stark begged, and inside Loki said no, please, don’t do this.  Then the glass shatters, and Stark screams all the way down and Loki is screaming too.

“He will not save you,” the Other growled, growing angry at Loki’s resistance. “But if you give me the Tesseract, he could stand at your side instead of dying.  You could save his life.”

___________________________

The panic in Loki’s voice made a chill go down Tony's spine. A glancing blow from a Chitauri's blaster spun him around, and without conscious thought he destroyed it while zooming in on Loki’s position on his HUD, using the communicator as a homing beacon.

Stark! I- The words played on repeat in his head.  Anything that could make Loki sound like that was terrifying.  “How long until we reach him?” JARVIS zoomed out to show him their relative positions.  Tony cursed as he saw that the fight with the Chitauri had drawn him farther away from Loki than he’d realized.  His HUD flashed a new message every few minutes as another suit was destroyed, and he realized that it had been fifteen minutes since he’d last checked. Goddammit, he should have realized a long time ago that something had gone very wrong with the plan.

“Hold on, Loki. I’m coming.”  But as he approached the signal, he slowed because to all appearances he was speeding towards an empty rock.  The beacon showed clearly on his HUD but there was no one there.

Tony’s stomach dropped. If Loki had lost the communicator, they were so fu-

Something slammed into him and sent him rolling across the asteroid, kicking up dust.  He came up on his feet and skidded to a stop, repulsors ready. In front of him there was a blue woman wearing a purple body suit, armed with what looked like a pair of sharp sticks and a look of hate that seemed surprisingly virulent considering they’d never met before.

“JARVIS? What am I looking at?”

“Sir, her weapons appear to be electrified and she seems to have significant cybernetic enhancements. As her species is unknown, I can only specu-”

“Blue cyborg with zappy sticks. Got it. Bring it, Smurfette! I don't have all day!” He called out, waving for her to come on.  He waited until she started to run at him and hit her with both repulsors, but with inhuman reflexes she flipped out of the blast zone and landed on him, trying to drive the two sharpened batons past his armor.  Thankfully – and god did Tony owe Loki a blow job for these – they impacted on the dwarven metal and skittered off, leaving gouges in the titanium armor as they passed. Tony saw the surge in electricity on his HUD and realized that if either had struck skin it would have turned him into beef jerky, even aside from the stabbing and bleeding.

“Nice try, bitch, but you're no Thor."  He took advantage of her proximity to land a few satisfying punches before she backflipped out of his reach, kicking him in the jaw as she went.  With a flick of her wrist the two sticks became one long staff and she ran at him again.  This time when he fired at her she turned her metal shoulder into it and the blast glanced off.  Tony raised his arms to block but she went low at the last minute to sweep his legs, and to his surprise Tony went down, landing on his back with a jarring thump.  She tried again to drive her staff through his armor, but Tony caught her staff, its electricity fizzling harmlessly off grounded circuits. 

They struggled for a moment and then with a snarl he snapped one end of the spear off and fired his boots to blast away from her.  She tossed aside the broken end of her spear and changed her grip on the remaining baton, body tensed.  Tony fired at her again without much hope and sure enough, she dodged them easily, eyeing him like a cat waiting for a bird to land.  

Every minute that ticked on his HUD was grating on Tony’s nerves.  Loki’s beacon was signaling clear and strong on this rock that the cyborg was so intent on keeping him away from, and his army was being slowly but surely whittled down.  “Goddammit, I don’t have time for this. JARVIS, analyze her fight patterns.” He fired at her, wasting precious ammunition while JARVIS did his thing, and then next time she did some acrobatic flippy bullshit he tackled her, carrying her across the asteroid field before pulling up sharply right before he impacted.  Momentum slammed her into the surface, throwing up a cloud of dust.

Despite what was clearly some broken limbs, she started to crawl out of the impact crater, still holding her stupid zappy stick.  “Oh no you don’t,” Tony said and aimed his last two shoulder-mounted rockets at her.  This time she stayed down. “Sit. Stay,” he ordered.

___________________________

Sif held a sword to his throat, close enough that he could feel the bite of his blade.  “You speak of the good of Asgard, but you have always been jealous of Thor.  The unneeded son. The unwanted.  You deserve a traitor’s death.”  As the blade drew back, it became an executioner’s ax in Thor’s hands.

Loki's hands ached from beating on the thick, reinforced glass.  On the other side, Tony flipped open a lid and, with a smile, pushed a red button, and Loki was falling. 

Give me the Tesseract and this will stop.

No!  

It had been weeks since the guard came with news of his mother’s death.  That had been the last time he’d heard another person’s voice.  The guards ignored him, Stark was silent, and no one else had decided to grace him with their presence.  After the first week, he'd even grown tired of talking to himself.  He sat in the silent, shattered ruins of his cell and realized that he’d been forgotten.

Distantly, he felt the impact of something heavy shake the ground. The walls of the cell wavered, illusion unraveling.  For a moment he blinked at the Other, wondering if he had finally lost his sense of reality after all.  Then, quick as a snake, he struck, breaking the Other's grip on him and burying a knife in its stomach, once, twice, until on the third time it lodged on something and stuck. After that, Loki used his fists.  There was no grace in his movements, no style, only the savagery of a trapped animal as he bore the Other to the ground and punched him until his hands were bleeding. A wave of magic, like roaring wind, exploded outward, and every hunk of rock in a hundred yard radius disintegrated.  Tony braced himself, arms up to protect his head from the hail of rocks pelting his suit.

“Loki?”  Tony approached cautiously.

“Stay out of this,” Loki snarled.  When he looked up, his eyes blazed a crystal blue as he sent Stark stumbling backwards with a blast of magic. 

Tony was speechless.  He never thought - shit, what had Nat said about cognitive recalibration?  Tony didn't even know if he had enough firepower left to knock Loki out. He watched warily, heart in his throat, as Loki staggered to his feet and picked up the spear.  Don't shoot me, he prayed. Please don't make me shoot you.

 But Loki seemed to have forgotten about him as he set the tip of the spear against the Other’s chest. “When I am done, Thanos and the Chitauri will be no more than debris and bad memories,” Loki hissed.

It laughed wetly through blood and broken bone.  “You think the Chitauri are the only army He commands? Fool.  The Titan is coming.  You can’t stop him.”

“No?” Loki began to lean on the spear, and he felt the punch the moment it pierced the Other’s chest plate and started sliding through skin and flesh.  “We’ll see.  Well, I will.  You, I am going to kill with the very tool you used to enslave me.” He leaned on it harder.  “I see now why you described pain as sweet,” he said as the wickedly curved tip of the blade sank deeper.  “It certainly seems that way when you are on the other side of it.”

Eventually the creature stopped screeching and writhing. Loki pulled the spear free and looked at the corpse.

He felt nothing.  The Other’s greasy trail still lingered in his mind, making him question his own memories, his own thoughts.  His throat felt raw from remembered screams and suddenly he swayed, exhausted. He may have actually sat down in the blood pooling at his feet if Stark hadn’t shown up beside him with a steadying hand. 

The light in the staff flared, and in Tony’s HUD he watched the Chitauri retreat.  JARVIS automatically pulled up the feed from Mark-57Z, and Tony watched as the Chitauri turned on each other, mowing themselves down at point-blank range.  The Leviathans turned to attack their control ships, tearing at them with their serrated metal jaws until they hit a critical element and everything went still and dark.  

Tony turned off the feed and looked down at the body at their feet.  The face was unrecognizable as such, and the spear had made a pretty sizable hole in its chest. He turned to Loki. To his relief, the terrifying blue was gone, but Loki was very pale, lips tight and eyes bruised.  He was holding himself gingerly, as if he ached all over, but the only wound Tony could see was a thin scratch on his face and the bloody knuckles, both of which were almost healed.  “So this guy looks pretty dead,” He said after a while, nudged it with the toe of his boot.  

“Indeed.”   

“I thought you would be happier.”

“So did I.” 

Tony gave Loki a long time to elaborate before he spoke up. “So…anything you want to share with the class? What happened?”

The look on Loki’s face when he asked that was something Tony never wanted to see again. He looked…lost.  Defeated.  Tony swallowed around the lump in his throat. “It looked like it got inside your head again,” he ventured.

Loki wouldn't look at him. “It said it never left.”

“What? Like…like it's been controlling you this whole time?” Tony got sick at the thought. “Do you believe that?”

 “Agent Barton proved that the staff’s control could be broken.  When I crawled out of the hole your pet monster put me in, I thought it had been.  But what if…” What if everything, from their first words to their first kiss to now had been orchestrated to lead them into this trap?  The threat of throwing up in his suit almost became a reality again as Tony realized that if he had been having sex with someone who was mind-controlled that meant he had been- what if Loki hadn’t actually wanted to –

“Sir, your heart rate is becoming alarmingly high.”  JARVIS’s voice cut through the roaring in his ears. Tony focused on breathing for a moment, trying to clear his thoughts.  Not for the first time, he wished he had an alcohol dispenser in his suits.

“What if he just said that to screw with you?”  Tony said hopefully, after he could speak without his voice shaking.  "You also died, which should have been like...reinstalling an OS, right?"  God that sounded stupid. He really wanted to take off his helmet and look at Loki with his own eyes, but the temperature and oxygen readouts said that the atmosphere on this rock were not conducive to his well-being. 

Loki ran a weary hand over his face.  “I don’t know.  If it is not true, then I was foolish enough to play right into its hands, a shame of a different sort.” He was quiet for a while.  “Ultimately, there is no way to know, and that is something I will have to make peace with.  I will have to be satisfied with the knowledge that it is moot, because he is dead and his army is destroyed.”  

"True." Tony looked back down at the body at their feet. “Either way, looks like they underestimated you.” 

Loki finally looked up.  “No. They underestimated you. They may have anticipated one warrior, but you brought an army.”

“Hey, I’m not the one who made this asshole into a shish kabob. If he was controlling you, he sure did a shit job setting us up. I mean, I destroyed half their army before they knew I was here, and I imagine things would have turned out a lot differently if Thanos had been here after all.”

Loki turned that over in his mind for a while, and the tense line of his shoulders eased a little. “That’s true.”

They both turned as they heard something land behind them.  The cyborg limped towards them, her steps becoming smoother and limbs straighter as she approached. Her organic right arm hung at a grotesque angle, clearly dislocated, but with a curl of her lip she hit it with her metal fist and it popped back into its socket.  Her metal arm was blackened and wires were exposed, but apparently it was still fully functional as she tightened her grip on her baton. "You," she spat, looking at Loki with disdain. "The puling sorcerer.  You defile my father's throne room with your presence." 

“Goddammit, what is she, a Terminator? Die already!”  Tony raised his hand but Loki stopped him. 

"Nebula," he returned mockingly. "I see that Gamora is not here.  Thanos sent her out on another mission and left you here to babysit?"

That seemed to touch a nerve, because she lashed out a Loki with a cry of rage. Loki caught her wrist and touched the staff to her chest. She twitched, and after a moment her inky black eyes faded to blue.

 “You will continue to repair yourself.  Wait here, and when Thanos returns, kill him,” he ordered.  The woman inclined her head in acknowledgement and stood in silence.  They all stared at each other for a moment until Loki rolled his eyes. "Don't wait here. Wait by his throne." Wordless, the woman turned on her heel and started climbing a floating staircase that Tony just now noticed.

“Devious,” Tony commented. “Who is that, by the way? I feel like you should have mentioned her before we got here.”

“Thanos’s adopted daughter. She is rarely here.  Thanos must be displeased with her.”

“You just…mind-controlled her to kill her own father?”  Tony was appalled, then he remembered how many times she tried to stab him. Then he was just conflicted.

Loki’s sideways glance was a masterpiece of irony. “You don’t know how much she hates him.”

“Huh. Still.”  Tony decided to leave this particular part out of his report to SHIELD.  If he got to give a report instead of a debriefing or an interrogation or whatever happened to people that SHIELD arrested.  

At that moment, the first of Tony's suits returned, landing heavily as one of the thrusters gave out at the last second.  One by one they returned until his HUD showed that they were all back.  Out of the thirty-three suits - not counting Tony's - only seven remained, and all of them had varying degrees of damage.  Even the suit he had on would probably need to be scrapped; only the parts that Loki had given him were unscathed.  His left leg even had teeth marks, fuck you very much Leviathans.  Looking at them, Tony got chills thinking about what would have happened had Loki's fight with the Other lasted much longer.

Or if he'd been defeated.

Christ. Definitely time for drink. He turned to Loki, who looked as if the staff was the only thing keeping him upright.  "Got enough mojo to get us home?" 

Loki nodded tiredly, and in a moment the portal opened, the light eye-wateringly bright after the dimness of this god-forsaken rock.  If he hadn't been surrounded by a titanium exoskeleton, Tony might have fallen over as a wave of relief made his knees week.  He offered Loki his arm, smiling as he saw Loki calculating whether the odds of falling over were worth the indignity of accepting help and deciding in favor of the latter. 

"Let's go, Loki."

As they stepped through the portal, the only reason why Tony didn’t expect to see a crowd of angry superheroes in his living room when they returned was only because Tony hadn’t thought much beyond killing Chitauri.  If he had thought about it, he might have planned something better than showing up in the middle of them all and saying, “Oh. Hey.”

Chapter Text

Tony hadn’t realized how much Loki had been leaning on him as they came through the portal until he straightened and the weight was gone.  They must have interrupted an argument because Rhodey and Steve were facing each other, Rhodey with his hands up in the air like he had been making a point and Steve with his arms crossed and jaw clenched.  Nat was leaning against the back of the couch, ever the mediator.  Thor was the first one to notice them, looking angry as a thundercloud, his hands still empty.  

Loki’s lip curled. “Mjolnir still hasn’t returned? Pity.” Turning to Tony, he clapped him on the back and gave him a little shove towards the waiting Avengers. “Enjoy this, Stark.” And then he was gone.

“You son of a bitch,” Tony swore. He took off his helmet to breath some sweet, sweet Earth air. “So, you guys got here really fast.”

“Surprised because you blew up our jet?” Nat said dryly.  “We had a spare.”

“Fast? Tony, it’s been four hours since Colonel Rhodes watched you vanish through a portal,” Steve said tightly. “Where did you go?”

“Four hours? No, it’s only been…" Tony looked down at his wrist, which was blank because he was still wearing his suit. "JARVIS help me out here.”

“Sir, four hours and seventeen minutes have passed on Earth since you departed.”

Tony looked at the clock and whistled.  “Weird.  Well, for the record, we were only in outer space saving Earth from another alien invasion for like, an hour.  Guess it really is all relative.”

“Tony, if you don’t explain what the hell is going on, I swear to God I’m going to-“

“Going to do what, Cap?” Tony raised an eyebrow.

 “No one is going to do anything, right boys? We are all just going to sit down like reasonable people,” Natasha said with a significant look at Steve and Tony, “and you are going to explain everything. With sources and footnotes, preferably.”

“Right now? Because I could do it right now, I guess, but I’ll be a lot more convincing in like, an hour.” JARVIS had probably already started uploading all of the cam feeds, but it would take a bit to parse the important parts.  

Natasha looked at Steve, who looked like he was ready to take a bite out of his shield in sheer anger. “Just…ok, fine.  We'll wait.” Steve said.

Tony bit back an angry retort and said “Thanks, Captain,” with as much civility as he could muster as he stepped out of his suit. “You guys make yourselves comfortable. More comfortable,” he amended, when he realized that Bruce was asleep on his couch and Nat had already poured herself a glass of vodka. “I’m going to take a shower, get coffee, and order food.  Anyone else want anything? No? Suit yourselves.”

 

True to his word, an hour later on the dot Tony was waiting for them in one of his conference rooms, tapping his fingers impatiently on his desk.  He may have had one or five cups of coffee in the past hour, flavored with generous amounts of whiskey.  Even after taking the hour to get his feet back under him, he couldn’t get blue eyes out of his mind, and it was making him anxious.  Jittery with more than just caffeine.

“Ok here’s the deal,” he started as they all sat. 

“Wait, please,” Steve said.  “I think we should bring Fury in.  Can you patch him in?”

Tony ground his teeth.  “Of course you told Fury.  What a good soldier you are.” Steve’s nostrils flared and he leaned forward like he was going to argue with him, but Tony cut him off.  "It's fine, I'm calling him.”  A few taps on his tablet and in moments Fury was looking out at them from the projector screen, like he had been waiting for Tony’s call. 

“Tony. Welcome back to Earth.”

“Well, thanks, Nick.  It’s a pleasure to be here. Can we get started?”

“By all means.”

“A little before Christmas last year Loki approached me with a plan to destroy the Chitauri once and for all.” Tony stared at the screen and deliberately ignored the narrow-eyed look Natasha was giving him.  “It took a while, but eventually I was convinced of his sincerity and agreed to help.  My part in the mission was to destroy six remaining Chitauri control ships – as you might recall from my report at the time, there was only one ship involved with the Battle of New York.”  He pulled up the video footage of the four ships he blew up, playing the explosions in slow motion for his own benefit.  “Meanwhile, Loki’s job was to take out the leadership, the ones that gave him the spear and sent him to Earth in the first place.  Because we were…rushed by circumstances, we missed the chance to get the big guy, someone he called Thanos.  We did get his second in command though.”  Tony brought up a picture of the Other’s very dead body.  “Sorry I don’t have a ‘before’ picture.  Once he was dead, Loki used the staff to take out the remaining ships.”  Tony showed the footage of the Chitauri destroying themselves, cobbled together from multiple suit feeds.  “There. Satisfied? This was our nefarious scheme.  To destroy the Chitauri before they could come back to destroy us. Tesseract to get us there, Chitauri staff to make sure we got them all.”  Tony tossed the tablet down on the table.  "Questions?"

The room was quiet for a long while.  Nat’s face, of course, revealed nothing. Thor was rubbing a hand along his jaw, staring into the distance with a troubled look.  Bruce was cleaning his glasses and Steve was drumming his fingers on the table.

Fury was the first one to speak up.  “Stark, this is the second time in six months that you’ve engaged in solo vigilante action against a superpowered threat.  You do realize that is why SHIELD exists, right? Are you trying to put us out of a job?”

“With all due respect, Director Fury, I don’t think outer space is part of SHIELD’s AO. Yet.  I did what I had to do.”

"With Loki.  You did what you had to do, with Loki. Want to explain what the hell you were thinking?" 

"I was thinking that even when you have three certified scientific geniuses working on the problem, we weren't solving interstellar travel fast enough.  Loki could get us there.  Also, it was Loki's plan.  I wasn't working with Loki, Loki was working with me."   Fury looked severely unimpressed.

"Whatever you were doing, you knew that Loki was a criminal.  There will be consequences for this, Tony."

"What are you going to do, throw me in Gitmo? Haul me up in front of Congress again?" Tony snapped, standing and leaning over the desk. "For the record, Director, the US District Courts are still deciding whether the US even has the jurisdiction to prosecute aliens. Loki was extradited before he was ever prosecuted, and since I'm not from Asgard I don't give a flying fuck what his criminal status is there.  So the worst you can stick me with is colluding with a suspected criminal, and I'd like to see you try."   Director Fury glared at him but Tony refused to look away.

Finally Fury sat back and crossed his arms. “I would like a copy of this footage in my inbox as soon as possible, Tony.  Expect more questions.”  The screen went black.

"I don't like being threatened," Tony muttered as he sat back down. 

“So why was Loki suddenly interested in destroying his own army?” Steve said into the tense silence. 

Tony took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “Loki…was not sent to Earth by choice,” Tony said, knowing that Loki would want him to say as little as possible, especially to Thor. “I guess he wanted to let them know how he felt about that.”

 “He told you this? And you believed him?”  If anything, Steve seemed angrier now that Tony had explained.

“Yeah, I did,” Tony snapped, defensive.  “Think about it.  One, you said it yourself, Steve, if he had opened his portal almost anywhere else he could have had the whole Chitauri army on Earth before anyone knew about it.  Two, you all saw what he did in Sokovia.  Did you see any evidence of that kind of power when he was here before?”  He looked around the table, seeing a combination of furrowed brows and skepticism.  “He threw the fight on purpose.”

Thor stood up suddenly and left the room.  Tony could see indentions in his wood table from where Thor had been gripping it so tightly.

 “So you believed him because he screwed up?”

“Well, yeah.” Tony scowled.  Trust Nat to make it sound stupid.

“Did you ever think that it could have been a trap?”

“Of course, Steve, I’m not a fucking moron.”

“But you did it anyway.”

“I did.  And I don’t know why you still seem to have such a problem with it.  Or do I need to review the part where I saved the Earth again?”

Steve sighed.  “You could have told us, Tony.”

“Yeah?” Tony gestured around the table. “This is exactly what I thought would happen if I came to you about this. ‘Hey guys, Loki said he can help us defeat the Chitauri once and for all.’” Then he pitched his voice ridiculously low. “’Now Tony, you know we can’t trust Loki.’ ‘But Steve, I think this offer is legit, we should do it.’  ‘How do you know you can trust him?’ ‘Well, I can’t but frankly, if there is a tiny possibility that he is telling the truth we have to take it.’ Etc etc until everyone but you and Loki have died of old age and nothing gets done.  And maybe one day they show up near the moon and we’re all fucked!”  Tony blew out a breath and looked down at the table for a moment, trying to put the lid back on his anger.  “None of you saw what I saw on the other side of the portal.  Not one.  Except him.  And he lived it for months.  So he comes to me and says that we can end it all?  Of course I said yes.”

“I’m not saying that going after the Chitauri was a bad call.  But you didn’t have to do it alone, Tony,” Steve said quietly.

“Of course I did! Who else could do it? You got something in that spandex suit that’s going to help you stay alive in space?”

Steve studied him for a moment before glancing around the table.  “Could we have the room?”

Tony waited until everyone filed out before pushing his chair back to stand. “I’m not going to apologize, Steve, I –“

“Tony.”

“What?”

“When I say that you should have told us, I mean that we were worried about you.

Tony stopped. “What?” He repeated stupidly.

“Do you think we haven’t noticed that you’ve been barely keeping it together? You’ve looked like shit for a long time, but you won’t ask for help.  You shoot us down when we try to offer it.  Now we find out that you’ve been dealing with – with Miami, and now this,” Steve said, gesturing to the frozen screenshot of a Leviathan, “and you didn’t think you could come to us? Any one of us?  For God’s sake, is this why you had a heart attack?”

Tony looked away. “I didn’t think you would understand.”

“You’re right, we probably wouldn’t have.  But you could have made us understand so that at least you would have had someone watching your back. What if you had died out there?  The only thing we would know is that you were working with Loki, and then you would have just vanished. Christ!” Steve ran his hands through his hair.  “Clint was nearly catatonic on the ride home, afraid that somehow Loki had taken over your mind.  You know you have people that care about you, right?  Not the money, nice building, or the fancy gadgets, but you. As a person.”

Suddenly the room felt too small.  Tony grabbed for his coffee/whiskey, but he had finished it without noticing.  So he started to pace, putting the whole length of the table between them.  “I didn’t – I was just…” The words from his nightmares were stuck in his head. You could have saved us.  Why didn’t you do more?  He forced himself to stop moving and look Steve in the eye.  “I had to do it, Steve. I had to do it so I could – I could sleep at night and get up in the morning.  I couldn’t take the chance than anyone would try to stop me.”  

Steve studied him for a long time, and for once, knew when to back off. “Ok, Tony.  I'm going to go. We’ll talk later.”  

Tony's shoulders slumped with relief and he gave a short laugh. Jesus Christ, I hope not. 

Rhodey slipped inside the door before it closed as Steve left the conference room.  He came to where Tony had his head resting on the back of an office chair, staring at his feet. “Hey, Tony, are you ok?”

Tony felt a warm hand on the center of his back and let out a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding.  “Yeah, Rhodey.  I’ll be fine.”

“Good.”  Tony felt a pat on his back.  “I was worried.” Then Rhodey punched him in the arm hard enough to bruise. “That was for Miami.  You send me off to call in the National Guard and ask Loki to watch your back? Not cool, Tony. Also, you went to blow up a bunch of space aliens and you didn’t even invite me! You know I was pissed that I missed out on New York.”

Tony winced and rubbed his shoulder. “In my defense, Loki can teleport and is bulletproof. You didn’t even have your suit.”

Rhodey scowled.  “You didn’t either, and I am at least trained in firearms and close combat.  I didn’t make Colonel wearing that damn suit, you know.”

“I’m not going to apologize for wanting you to be safe. That asshat already had Pepper, I wasn’t going to let him have both of my favorite people.  As for space aliens, I wasn’t going to drag anyone else into my possibly disastrously bad idea.”

“Since when? You still owe me.”

“Alright, alright.  Add it to my tally, you know I’m good for it.”

“I know.  I’m glad you’re ok.  You know you’re supposed to call me when you go haring off to do stupid shit.”  His voice was light but his eyes were serious, and Tony felt like an even worse excuse for a person.

“I’m sorry, Rhodey.”

“Good.  I’ll talk to you later.”  Tony followed him out of the conference room and jumped when he noticed that Natasha was waiting for him, arms crossed and lips tight.

“Oh, God. Don’t kill me.”

“You lied to me.”  Her voice was carefully neutral.  Was that good or bad?  He couldn’t see any weapons, but that didn’t mean anything.

“Yeah, but not about the important stuff.  Loki didn’t put a mind whammy on me, and I was just trying to protect my friends.”

“I understand why you did what you did, Tony.  But it’s going to take Clint a long time, if ever, to forgive you.  Which means I have to be mad at you for a while, too.”

Tony ground the heels of his hands into his eyes. “I know. I-“ He stopped.  There wasn’t really anything he could add that would change anything.  He was sorry, and it was for a good cause, but in the end he had still chosen to ally himself with the man that turned Clint into a soulless puppet.  Even though Loki had himself been someone else’s soulless puppet at the time.  “If there’s anything – “ he tried again.

Nat watched him flounder for a while before taking pity on him.  “He’ll be fine.  It might be good for him.  He finally took the plunge to retire, which he’s been talking about for years, and I haven’t heard him curse in so many languages since the good old days.”

Tony barked out a laugh. “Great.  Well then you’re welcome.”

“Take care of yourself, Tony.  I’ll see you around.”

“Bye, Nat.”  He watched her walk to the elevator, feeling both sad and relieved that he was by himself again. For lack of anything better to do, he actually cleaned up the conference room, grabbing his coffee cup and his tablet before going back upstairs.

When he returned to his living room, he was surprised to see that Thor was still there, staring out over the city as Loki liked to do. “Thor! I thought you had left a long time ago.”

Thor turned and smiled, but his eyes had shadows in them.  “I wanted to make amends for being the cause of strife between you and your captain. It was my doing that led us to the battle in the valley, and I regret my impetuousness.”

Tony was surprised. “Don’t apologize, Thor.  I know you were only doing what you thought was right.  We all were.”

“Including Loki?”

Tony opened his mouth and closed it again. “I don’t know that Loki really works that way,” he said finally. “He thought that it needed to be done, so he did it. Right and wrong isn't really his style.”

If Thor was expecting to hear that Loki had turned over a new good-guy leaf, he showed no signs of disappointment at Tony’s answer. He nodded once.  “Aye, you see him truly. Though he’d never admit it, he has Father’s shrewdness, while I have our mother’s softer heart.”  He looked unspeakably sad.  Tony’s chest ached for his friend, and for a moment he wondered if he should give the bigger man a hug.  But before he could decide Thor looked up and clapped a hand on his shoulder.  “Stark, please tell me what you know.  Why does my brother – why did he…” Thor turned back to look at the destruction of the city, frustrated that he couldn’t find the words he wanted.  “What happened to him?”

“I can’t betray his confidence any more than I already have,” Tony said helplessly. “I can ask him if I can tell you, but that's all unless he tells you himself.”

Thor was clearly saddened at that, but he nodded shortly. "You are right. If he trusts you, you must keep faith with him. But you have at least confirmed that all is not as it seems. Thank you for the hope that my brother is not dead to me.”

Tony was glad Thor wasn’t looking at him when he said that.  Thor was really underestimating Loki’s feelings on the matter. “Thor, can I ask...Loki isn't Asgardian, is he?

“Aesir,” Thor corrected. Then he shook his head slowly.

“Then what –“

“That is my brother's secret that I must keep for him,” Thor said. “Perhaps he will tell you, in time.”

“Great. So now we sit here staring at each other to keep another man's secrets. What are we going to do, play pinochle? Never mind," Tony said, waving off Thor's incipient question. "Pinochle is in no way interesting.”  They stood in silence for a moment. “So Mjolnir’s still not back yet?”

“It will return presently.  I can feel that it is close.”

Tony glanced at the huge panes of glass lining his living room. “Then, um, let's step outside, shall we?” The sun was almost below the horizon and was cast long shadows below them.  The streets were already dark, lit only by street lamps, and only the top of the tallest buildings were gilded by the last rays of sunlight.  Tony wondered if Mjolnir would look like a shooting star as it returned to Earth.

 “Hey, why do you call me Stark? My name is Tony.”

“Your name is not Stark?”

“Well it is. Tony Stark.  Here on Earth only the most pretentious assholes go by only one name. But most people call me Tony.”

Thor looked thoughtful. “Toh-nee. Tony. Stark is a warrior's name. Tony is a fine name for a man, but Stark is the name of a man who can rain destruction from the sky.”

“Oh.” Tony was a little stunned by that.  Is that how Loki saw him, too? “Well, hard to argue with that. I'll take it.”  He looked back out over the city and saw the first star come out as the sun slid past the horizon.  Wait, that wasn’t a star.

Thor caught Mjolnir out of the air almost absently, even though Tony could feel the heat coming off it from where it had plowed through Earth’s atmosphere.  Thor set it down by his feet and leaned on the railing.  “Did Loki gift you the armor inside?”

Tony blinked for a minute at the change of subject.  “You mean on my suit? You noticed that, huh? Yeah, he gave it to me. As a thank-you.  For a cell phone.”

Thor’s eyebrows drew together at the mention of the cell phone.  Then he straightened and turned to face Tony. “This is dwarven,” he said, gesturing to his vambraces. “And these,” pointing to the circles on the front of his armor, and then to the bit that crossed his chest. “And the chain mail to protect my arms and my helm, when I chose to wear it.”

“Ok…”

“I am the crown prince of Asgard.  The only person who wears more dwarven armor than I is the Allfather.”  He looked at Tony expectantly.

“Yeah, Loki only has the…Wait, what are you trying to say?” Tony’s heart felt like it was going to jump out of his chest.  Did Thor know that he and Loki –

Thor turned away to pick up his hammer. “I am glad Loki has you as a brother in arms. I pray you will be a more faithful companion than I was.” Tony winced a little at the word brother, but let Thor crush him in a hug.  “Now that Mjolnir has returned, I would return to Asgard.”

“Of course, big guy.  It was good to see you.” Tony held out a hand.

Thor looked at the hand for a moment before remembering that he was supposed to shake it. “And you as well.”

Tony watched him fly away for a moment, lost in thought for a moment before he turned to go back inside.  “Ok, enough of this. Where’s my booze.”

---------------------------------

Loki heard Thor coming as soon as he entered the throne room.  Only his stride could ring with such arrogance as he came down the hall of columns. He heard the moment that Thor saw him on the throne because the steps faltered and continued much more slowly.

“Hello, Thor,” Loki said as he opened his eyes. Thor didn’t look as surprised as Loki thought he would.  Perhaps he was getting predictable.  They stared at each other for long minutes before Loki broke the silence.  “Let me guess – you came to report to Odin that I am alive.  Let me assure you that he knows.”  Thor was still silent, eyes unreadable.  His jaw was working in the way that meant he was trying not to lose his temper.

Loki decided to help him with that. “I understand that you would normally start with ‘Father’ at this point, but I will accept ‘my King.’”

“Where is he?” Thor said finally.

“Safe.  Sleeping.”  More long minutes of silence passed until Loki lost his patience. “What are you still doing here, Thor? Odin sleeps. Your friends have been exiled. Mother is dead. The one you called your brother is dead.  There is nothing for you here.”

“Is my brother truly dead?”

Loki tapped his fingers thoughtfully on Gungnir.  “I see.  Stark has convinced you that I am not the black-hearted villain you took me for, and now you feel…guilty? Ashamed? And wish to make amends. You perhaps envisioned us resurrecting our relationship like a phoenix from the ashes.” Loki watched Thor’s eyes darken with every bitter word until he was forced to look away.  Satisfied, he sat back in the throne. “That will never happen.  Do you know why?”

“Mother.”

“Yes.  That she died was fate.  I do not truly blame you for that. But that I was denied my right to honor her life and her death at her funeral was a choice, and that, I will never forgive you, or Odin, for.  Do you understand?”

“Yes.” 

“You could not even show me the respect of telling me yourself.” Loki hated how raw those words were, but it was too late to swallow them.

“No.”

Loki waited, but Thor didn’t move.  “You may leave now. The Bifrost awaits you.  Midgard awaits you.”

“Not yet.” He took a deep breath and looked back up at Loki.  “I…I owe you an apology. In truth, if ever you envied me, I envied you as well.  I may have been Father’s favorite, but you…you were the clever one, and he always admired you for it.  I always knew you would make a better king than I.  You followed me, but you were always two steps ahead of me, ahead of us all.  I never understood your tr - your magic,” Thor amended when Loki’s eyes flashed warningly, “and I feared it. I was jealous of the bond it gave you with Mother that I could never share.  But most of all, I am ashamed of how easy it was to believe the worst of you, brother. I should not have been so quick to think you a villain. I suspected not all was as it seemed when you appeared on Midgard, but I lost sight of the quest for truth in the fight to defeat you.  Nor did I speak of my suspicions to Father. Perhaps had I-“ He stopped and shook his head. “It is of no matter now.  For all of this, I am truly sorry.  I failed you not only as a brother, but as a warrior, and a fellow citizen of Asgard.”    

At the end of his speech, Loki remained silent, studying him with a faint line between his brows.  When Loki never responded, Thor’s face became shuttered. “I would take my leave of you, my king.” When Loki made no protest, he bowed and left, his slow footsteps echoing heavily.

Loki stayed there for a long time, staring at nothing, stunned speechless.

---------------------------------

Hours later, when he was able to rouse himself, Loki found Stark reclining outside on a sofa chair that he had dragged out on his balcony.  There was enough chill in the air that he had brought a blanket and a bottle of whiskey and was in turns staring at the stars and at his phone.

Loki hesitated as he approached, but Tony’s smile of welcome was unshadowed by doubt or regret. “Hey, hot stuff.  Care to join me?  You’ve gotta get your own chair though.”

Loki smirked and picked Stark up and set him on his feet, then took his place in the chair. Tony stared at him in disbelief. “Seriously? Taking my chair does not count as getting your own, asshole.”

“How so?”

“You could pick up the sofa with one hand and I had to drag this all the way out here by myself!” Loki shrugged. “Well, fuck that, I’m not doing it again.”  He sat down in Loki’s lap and wiggled until he was comfortable. The height difference was just enough that Loki’s shoulder made a good head rest.  “But you’re not getting any of my whiskey.”

Out of the corner of his eye Tony saw Loki produce a familiar crystal decanter. 

“Ha, nice.  You came prepared. So what the hell happened to you? You look like I feel.”

“Which would be?” Loki’s voice rumbled pleasantly against Tony’s back as he reached around him to pour some eye-wateringly strong alcohol into a glass.

“Like you got hit by a bus made of feelings,” Tony said with disgust and took a sip of whisky.

Loki made a noncommittal noise and took a long sip of his drink as well. “Thor…apologized.”

“Huh.  So did Steve, sort of.  Made me feel like a right asshole, the asshole.” Tony hesitated for a moment. “Do you, uh, want to talk about it?”

“No.”

Thank God. “Ok.” They sat in comfortable silence for a while before Tony spoke again. “Hey, why do you call me Stark and not Tony?”

“Because Tony is the name of a small, irritating animal.” Loki tapped a finger to his lips thoughtfully.  “But now that you mention it...”

“Never mind. Everyone’s a comedian,” Tony muttered darkly.  He took a deep breath and a fortifying sip of whiskey. “I need to ask you something.”

He felt Loki’s body tense under his. “Ask.”

“You knew what happened to me in Afghanistan before we ever started that drinking contest, didn’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Is that why you told me about…about what happened with the Other? Because you knew I’d sympathize, that it would make me trust you?”

The moment stretched until Tony wanted to scream from the tension. “Yes,” Loki eventually said, voice remote. 

“Was it true?”

Loki drained his glass. “Every word of it, and more.” 

“Is that also why you slept with me? So I would trust you?”

“No.” This time the answer was swift. Loki twisted beneath him, and long fingers captured Tony’s chin and turned his head.  Loki’s eyes were intense, almost angry. “No. Above all things, that I truly desired you is something I do not doubt, and nor should you.”

Tony studied him and nodded once. “Ok.” He pressed his lips to Loki’s, then brushed them over his cheek.  Apparently satisfied, Loki settled back down, this time sliding one hand under Tony’s blanket and shirt to rest a hand possessively on his chest.  Tony put his hand on top of it, and felt Loki relax.

Maybe they were due for another drinking contest, to see what Thor had said, or perhaps to pry the secret of Loki’s birth out of him, or even to get the full story of how exactly he got his hands on the Tesseract.  But not today.  After the conversation with Steve, Tony felt raw, full of enough jagged edges to cut himself on.  Pepper, bless her, would be trying to get him to talk about it.  It would rapidly turn into a fight because Tony hasn’t talked about his feelings in 42 years and wasn’t planning to – maybe was not even capable of – starting now.  Loki, however, seemed content to sit and drink in silence, for which Tony was devoutly thankful.

“Cheers,” he said suddenly, tapping his glass against Loki’s.

“To what?”

“Unhealthy coping mechanisms that involve killing things.”

Loki laughed. “Skål.”