"What price would you pay for the secrets of the universe?"
The godling looked at him curiously, his mouth curved at the corner, one pale hand only lightly clenched around his weapon. The tone of the question was light and vicious, the arrogance of someone who thinks he knows the answer, and thinks it makes him better than you. Tony grinned at him, bright and savage, and bent back to his armour with studied nonchalance.
"Depends on who's asking," he answered, levering metal away from wires and protection away from power.
"Really?" Loki murmured, arch and condescending. "You think it matters who's offering, when the product is genuine?"
Tony paused, looking over at him, his arms streaked with oil and sweat, a star shining softly in his hand. He paused, and he smiled, and this smile wasn't so much arch as it was pitying.
"It always matters," he said softly. "Especially when it's genuine." He grinned with all the darkness of a man who'd been betrayed. "Because then you've got to ask: why are they selling it? And why am I the one paying the price?" He shook his head. "Nah. Better to go from first principles. The universe will kick you in the teeth all damn day, but it doesn't lie to you half as often as people do."
And from the expression on Loki's face, he guessed that was a lesson learned far too late, and at far too high a cost.
"You know," whispered a low, mocking voice in his ear, "you're easier to fool than most." Tony spun, staggering with fatigue and almost tripping over Dummy's leading cables, gripping the workbench while he searched blindly for the god.
"Illusion is cheating," he rasped, tired and sore and too damn pissed to deal with this. "If you don't come out right now I'll have JARVIS do a widespread laser search for you, and I promise you you won't like that."
"Tch," Loki sneered, materialising behind him, seated on the bench with one leg raised and his elbow resting casually on his knee. "If you rely on machines to do your seeing for you, you must be blind indeed."
Tony snarled, turning around to grip the man's ankle furiously, fingertips biting a little into bone and flesh to certify they were real. Loki smirked at him, never wincing, and reached out to brush mocking fingertips over his cheek.
"Do you trust everything your machines tell you is real?" the god purred softly. "Stumble blind through the world, and only believe what they show you?"
Tony closed his eyes, turning his head as though to lean into that hand, and then bit suddenly, closing his teeth where a finger ought to have been. They clicked closed on nothing but air, the ankle beneath his hand vanishing in the same second, and Tony smiled bitterly into the darkness behind his eyelids.
"Not everything," he said, to the illusion of a god. "But they don't deliberately lie to me, either."
"Do you know," Loki said bitterly from his perch by the windows, looking down over the sweep of New York with angry, covetous eyes. "I only realised it later. They compare me to you. My brother, all those who look at you sidelong for how you echo me. They think us alike."
Tony winced, his hand tightening on his tumbler. "I know," he said, tossing it back. "Being fair, I kinda helped that along, that time you were trying to destroy the world. Rogers was very nice about not rubbing it in."
"But you're not like me," Loki hissed softly, tracing his reflection with one pale fingertip. "If anyone, you're like Thor. My darling brother, the favoured son. The prince, the power, the lord of kingdoms." He snarled, his hand fisting over the reflected image of his own face. "You're me, had I been him. My nature, in his place. You are ... all I might have been."
Tony stilled, breathing carefully, his muscles tensing slowly beneath his skin. Turning that over, the hate and pain and envy in that. Watching the pale figure by the window, looking out over the kingdom he'd failed to win, sharing confidences with the man who'd helped take it from him.
And then, because fear was something he wasn't going to bend in the face of, not anymore, Tony put his glass down with a quiet click and grinned darkly at the back of Loki's head.
"Yeah," he said quietly, a gauntlet of his own self-knowing flung down between them. "And how much does it bite, huh, that even in his place, I'm still as fucked up as you?"
"... Does it change anything?"
The god's voice was quiet, almost pensive, as he lurked in the corner of the workshop and watched Tony hammer light and metal into something new, something different, something powerful. Tony, his arm aching pleasantly with effort and sweat plastering his hair into his eyes, looked over at him curiously.
"Does what change anything?" he asked, shoving his hair aside with the butt of the hammer. Loki followed the motion, something unfathomable in his eyes.
"Creation," the man said at last, his fingers moving over the worked symbols of his armour in almost fretful motions. "Neither illusion nor destruction. Knowledge used for the making of things. Does it ... change anything, for you?"
Tony blinked, the hand holding the hammer slowly sinking to his side, his brow lowering as he thought about it. His chest felt strange, an emotion blooming there that he didn't quite understand. Did it change anything, making things? Building them, creating them, making them live. Did it ... make anything different?
"Yes," he said, slowly, after a minute. Meeting those dark eyes across the room, finding something heavier there than ever before. "It changes ... it changes everything."
And when Loki looked away, he had a strange sensation of having built something now, of having forged with that answer something ... different.
Dummy warbled cheerfully, leaning his arm up into Tony's, pressing up against his creator with undisguised affection. Tony grinned, entirely unbidden, and ran scarred fingers over familiar metal, smoothing along warm curves with equal affection.
"They don't look like you," Loki noted beside him, something strange in his expression as he watched them. "You love them almost as children, yet they look like you not at all."
Tony snorted without looking up, busy curling his fingers through Dummy's, watching the blue light from JARVIS' projectors follow them. "What do you mean, almost? They're totally my babies. You can tell by how screwed up they are."
"I resemble that remark, sir," JARVIS hummed, relaxed enough in Loki's presence these days to snipe almost normally. "Though I do maintain that my levels of functionality are exponentially advanced of what might have been anticipated, under the circumstances."
Tony grinned, looking up at Loki. "That's his way of telling me he's better than me," he informed the god cheerfully, and then ... paused. Now that he was looking at Loki, there was something wrong there. Something serious, some darkness lurking in the man's eyes. Something pained and wistful as Loki watched Dummy's claws curl in Tony's sweatshirt and hold tight.
Tony blinked, frowning a little as those dark eyes met his, and when he spoke again it was slower and more thoughtful.
"Yeah," he said softly. "They're my kids. They don't look a thing like me, Dummy and You are these butt-ugly little piles of scrap and JARVIS is a server farm the size of an industrial complex and invisible otherwise. But they're my kids, and I'll punch out anyone who says different." A curious pause, and then: "Why do you ask?"
Loki looked away. "Nothing," he said distantly, expressionless. "It was nothing. Just ... an old question, to which I'd thought I'd gotten no answer." He fell silent for a second, and finished so softly that Tony almost missed the last sentence:
"Now I wonder if it was just ... that I didn't listen to it."