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Catch and Release

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If this had been anything simple, maybe it really would have begun at the beginning, when Loki crashed S.H.I.E.L.D.’s tesseract party with a dramatic entrance, dragging himself to Earth from somewhere entirely else (they still didn’t actually quite know where it had been, precisely––just that it was possibly as mind-bogglingly far away as the opposite arm of humanity's native galaxy, and that it was apparently cold and dark and nightmarishly horrible) using that little blue box of pure power. Maybe Tony would’ve had the sense to notice earlier on that it wasn’t just in terms of megalomania that they had turns of thought in common, he and the god of lies, and taken greater pains not to be charmed by it, and the whole fiasco could have been averted altogether. Of course, a lot of things would be very different if either of them had better impulse-control in the bad-decisions departments, and if the clusters of chaotic events in their respective lives had been any less staggeringly complicated.

 

~~

 

With the invasion foiled, Tony took apart Selvig’s machine slowly, because something was bothering him. Several somethings were bothering him, but this one involved a brilliant and unique bit of technology and so it seemed somehow more comfortingly familiar, and like something he could solve without getting blackout drunk and having long, long talks with Pepper and Rhodey about existential angst and newly cosmic-levels of paranoia and nightmares he might have to look forward to after all this. After the Chitauri had fallen, Tony had been in a sort of fugue for the remaining hours of the day until Pepper had persuaded S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and JARVIS to coordinate Tony's return to a base camp, crash landing, and subsequent sedation. He had not been allowed near his badly-damaged suits again since, by JARVIS. But... So much was still left.

The whole city had to finish clearing things up, patching everyone up. Tony and Bruce were left finishing a few final tests on the tesseract and Loki and Thor, and some of their weaponry and armour, for scientific curiosity’s sake, before they would all escort Thor back out of the shadows and into the daylight the day after, allowing the tall blond viking god to take himself and his brother home safely.

After that, Pepper would be able to get back home (Tony thought of her being in reach as his own version of arriving at home, in any case) either by bullying S.H.I.E.L.D. into upping her security clearance, or by bribing her way into one of their helicopters. The city was a hive of repair activity, and Tony’s poor battered tower was at the heart of it. It made travel difficult, unless you could fly around in a suit of armor, which she had declined when Tony offered to send one to pick her up.

He realized what it was about the machine that bothered him sometime around midnight. He then spent most of the next few hours hunting down a traumatized physicist. Getting past the nurses was the trickiest part, but he did manage it.

Thor was speaking quietly with the still-ghostly-pale Dr. Erik Selvig when Tony appeared in the doorway of the private medical suite looking sleep-deprived and fiercely intent. It wasn’t surprising to find the god there; he’d been watching over his mortal friend since the fighting had stopped.

To Tony's eye, it seemed possible Erik might be freshly awoken from a nightmare. The mad inventor waited for Thor to notice him and trail off (the god been saying something about a woman named Jane; Tony didn’t care) before asking sharply, “Why was the portal only a third of the size that it could’ve been?”

Dr. Selvig’s brows furrowed. “What?”

Tony took one long step into the room, letting the door swing closed behind him with a muffled snap. “The amount of iridium you had, and all the potential possessed by that machine, that portal should’ve been bigger. Much bigger.”

“I think I... before telling me to start it, Loki made a few adjustments to it,” Selvig said. “He said it would stabilize the situation, balance it for what he needed of it.”

Tony Stark suddenly felt like a fool. “I wasn’t actually expecting him to use the tower, and open the portal there, you know,” he said quietly. “He got his scepter back, and it’s clearly powerful enough that it could’ve kick-started your machine as well as my tower’s power sources. Even disregarding that, he could’ve stolen the power-cell Stark tower uses and run with it. Either way, I just expected he’d bring the army down on us there for the sheer showmanship. I didn’t think he’d still be opening the thing, not by the time I finally got there in heavily damaged armor. Did something stall him?”

“I don’t know," said the doctor. "I just got the orders, back at his base, to pack up and be ready. We were taken straight to your tower.”

“Where was the base?” Tony asked sharply

Selvig told him.

The inventor looked at Thor, who appeared troubled. “Penny for your thoughts, big guy?”

“My brother––does nothing by halves. When he last sought to wipe out a world, he nearly succeeded and only failed to underestimate what lengths I would go to, in order to stop him from committing an unforgivable crime that he somehow did not think I would consider to be a very great loss,” the thunderer said slowly. “He nearly destroyed their planet. He has always been––he does things in great sweeping gestures. He persuades people to trust him, to go along with whatever he wishes them to. He does not... he does not usually make things obvious, which has been puzzling me since my arrival here, because he was not very subtle at all. I worry for his sanity as I always have, for my brother has always been mad to degrees very common for wildmages, but admittedly this worry has grown acutely deeper just of recent.”

“Unless he’s playing a different game than he’s let on,” Tony murmured.

“What could that possibly be?” Thor snapped.

“I don’t know. The times don’t add up. By the time I got my suit operational enough to leave the helicarrier and arrive at the tower, I was thinking that I’d be late for the party. I thought an army would be dropping from the sky already, having gathered their forces like a sanely practical bunch, and letting Loki lead them to the first target of conquest. And on the other side of that portal, there were ships, and those soldiers of theirs on their little scooters weren’t troubled by being in empty space so they had shields or are a race capable of surviving a vacuum, because they weren’t waiting around on-world anywhere. Loki could’ve kicked off the machine on the international space-station, and opened a portal above it, sending them down from space. We would’ve had no chance to close the portal, and if he’d opened it to full width, those ships would have fit through, bringing far greater numbers down on top of us all at once. We would’ve been massacred. Instead, he opened a narrower portal, within our reach, in a populated area, conveniently at my house where my new armor was, and he was waiting for me. He didn’t play this to win at all, so what’s losing get for him that winning couldn’t?”

“Away from the Chitauri and the Other?” Selvig suggested.

“Other?” Tony asked flatly.

“He was... I don’t think he was mentioned, but the tesseract showed me things. He was... he had some connection to Loki, and wanted the tesseract. He worked for someone else as well, though, wanted the cube for... I think it was Thanos?”

Thor inhaled sharply. “Repeat that?”

“I believe it was Thanos. That feels-” Selvig rubbed at the side of his head. “It was his ambition, his desire for the tesseract, that made him visible. He knew a lot about it, but had never been near it before, as Loki had, and hadn’t seen just how to tap into its power as Loki had, so he couldn’t control it from such a distance, but if he could’ve been given it, he could’ve done... anything. Recreated the whole of reality,” Selvig murmured, sounding half-dazed but all too certain. Then he shook his head sharply. “I’m sorry, what was I saying?”

The thunderer rested a hand on his arm. “You require rest, my friend. S.H.I.E.L.D. has promised to bring a doctor capable of loosening the tesseract’s hold on your mind, so that it may no longer whisper through you.”

“What did I say this time?” he asked, nervously.

“Much. I cannot explain why it is important, just now. I must seek audience with my brother.”

“Because that’s gone well so far,” Tony remarked dryly.

Thor shot him a glare, which the inventor ignored.

“Sorry to disturb you, Dr. Selvig,” Tony said, opening the door. He waved for Thor to follow him out, and with visible reluctance, the tall blond god did so.

Shutting the door again behind them, the inventor said, “Let me talk to you brother. You keep an eye on him from somewhere out of sight, and if you see any sign he’s recovered enough of his magic to try escaping, or anything else, then you have them fill the room with knockout gas so he can be re-muzzled. You’re the only one who knows him well enough, and knows his tricks well enough, to have a chance of spotting that, but he knows you too well to let you see it if he knows you’re watching. He’d hide the trick just out of your line of sight, and there would be nothing we could do to prevent him escaping, or possibly killing whoever is in there with him unmuzzled. Got it?”

After staring at him appraisingly for a long moment, Thor nodded. “You are afraid, this time.”

“It’s been a long few days, Sparky. I’m the best Earth has, okay? I’m the genius so ahead of the curve it’s ridiculous, and I’m the smartest, trickiest fucker with enough ruthless streak to stand a chance against this sort of thing, and if I’m in over my head, there’s no fallback right now: game over. S.H.I.E.L.D. can’t handle it without me and they might even admit to it one day. After me, the next resort is trying to find out where Reed Richards and rest of his Fantastic Quartet vanished to a month back in that incident with a mutant called Gateway and a Super-Skrull, and if they still can’t be found, our next-reliably-locatable hope is a guy called Doctor Doom, and he’d still have to collaborate with some pompous ass with the ludicrous job-title ‘Sorcerer Supreme’ if he wanted to have any hope of survival. Now that said: I’ve met ‘em both and that just won’t fuckin’ work out without Doom taking over most of the world somehow." He then made a show of shrugging this off. "So, yeah, no pressure or anything; nothing to stress out over at all, right? So you can understand why, at this point, I’m a bit stretched thin and not looking forward to finding out that nuking the Chitauri by hand maybe still wasn’t enough to protect my planet from whatever or whoever it was that tortured your brother, and also to protect everyone I’ve ever known and ever loved, who are all fragile and could be gone in a blink if I fuck up!” He realized he was just shy of yelling and took a few, very deliberate deep breaths. “Right. Okay. Let’s-” He stopped when the god grabbed his arm. He didn’t have much choice: that grip still was unfairly strong.

“Are you sure that you are in a state to challenge my brother?”

“Are you kidding?” Tony turned his gaze sharply back to Thor’s. “I’m pissed off, I’m terrified, I’m tired and nearing the end of my rope, and everything I care about is potentially under threat, here. I’ve never been more dangerous than I am right now. Let me go, or I’ll find a way to break you. God or no, I’ll find a way or I’ll make one.”

Thor held his stare, taken aback, and gently let him go. “I see.”

“No, you really don’t,” Tony warned softly. “And hope you never do.”

“If that’s true, then you are indeed more than fit to question my brother, I think. Possibly more so than I, presently.” His expression was sobered, and mournful. “I no longer know him and he no longer wishes to be known to me, while I am too familiar and know not how to change that.”

“Yeah. I got that impression.” Tony turned away again, stalking down the hall.

 

~~

 

Thor watched the camera feeds into the cell, gaze flicking over different camera-angles now and then. He stood with one hand over a switch that would fill the air of the room with sedatives safe enough for a human, but also still potent enough even for the likes of Loki. Maria Hill stood behind him, also watching, and occasionally murmuring quietly into her S.H.I.E.L.D.-issue comm device, in contrast to the Stark Industries earpiece the thunder god now wore, allowing him (so he had been assured) a more unfiltered audio feed than Stark felt comfortable sharing with S.H.I.E.L.D. intelligence. Thor's private theory that Tony Stark might be a mage was quietly born, that day.

Tony strode into Loki's cell with a small key. “So. Let’s chat.”

The trickster was in a heavy steel chair, wrists and ankles chained but not bound to the chair. They connected up to a collar about his throat. The muzzle was a separate piece from the rest and, they had been told, equally vital as all the rest in its own right. Or it would be, once Loki looked a bit less freshly-thrashed and had some of his magic back. He’d been forced into reliance on the tesseract-bound scepter instead of his own magic reserves, according to Thor, because the trip to Earth via tesseract had depleted all of his magic reserves. Only while resting in the helicarrier had he recovered enough to manipulate light again, and create illusions, but Thor and other S.H.I.E.L.D. magic resources both insisted, at Tony’s pressing inquiries, that manipulation of light required the least energy of almost any other tricks. Loki was masterful enough at it to seem as though he were teleporting even when he wasn’t. Thor estimated Loki wouldn’t be capable of teleportation again for another four days.

They were all still taking few chances, until then: hence, the muzzle.

Well, all except Tony, who knew about a dozen ways to escape the room the Trickster was in with nothing but wit alone, a bit of metal the size of the little key in his hand (easy to use as part of a lock pick along with wire that might be yanked from the innards of one of the two security cameras vulnerable enough to take apart) and a single well-timed power surge through the right part of the surveillance systems. He also knew that Loki would probably have a few tricks better than his own, as well as the added resource of centuries-honed trickiness in using the capability to create complex illusions. Even so, he strode over, pulled up a chair in from of Loki’s, stepped a bit closer and reached out to unlock the muzzle Loki wore.

Catching it when it fell away, Tony took a half-step back, counted to three, and set the thing on the bare wood table in the middle of the room. “So you don’t need to escape in order to get what you want out of this, I see. Good. Duly noted.”

Loki’s eyebrows raised and he donned an intrigued expression that might almost have been innocent- or unaware-seeming if not for how his eyes narrowed just a little as he watched the inventor sit down across from him. He didn’t say a word.

“And you don’t need to talk, yet, yeah, but I’m asking you to, because I know you lost your little war on purpose, and I’m impressed, but also considering killing you before anyone in this base can stop me,” Tony said softly.

“That would be more convincing, were they not listening.”

“Hacked the sound feeds,” the inventor said. “They’re getting an edited version. I covered that ahead of time with JARVIS what statements to overlay instead of threats or other questionable things I figured it might good to have contingency plans in place for, if I decide to say them. It’s a pretty comprehensive list.”

The trickster’s cool green eyes glittered, and he rested his elbows on the edge of the chair’s arms as he sat up a bit, leaning a little forward almost conspiratorially, hands settled lightly together between the chair arms, as though the heavy chains were made of lightweight plastic he could barely feel. “You have my attention.”

Tony examined that pale, still slightly bruised face for a long moment. “What have you got planned for Thanos and the Other?”

All the wicked mirth drained from Loki’s expression. “Who told you of them?”

“Well, y'know, what with Selvig still having bouts of ‘lost time’ when he talks about certain subjects, a curious genius like myself can't help but put a few key pieces together. It's a knack I've got, called 'asking all the wrong questions.' I'm sure you know a thing or two about it yourself."

"Only perpetually. What is it to do with the piteous Selvig?"

"Things the tesseract was ‘showing’ him seem to have stuck, but they have a sort of mind of their own. Whatever it is, in the tesseract itself, that he keeps 'tuning in' to––well, I think it was scared out of its mind of Thanos. He wanted it, and you conned him into thinking you’d give it to him. Now you’re here, off to home and hearth to be securely incarcerated until you figure out a way to escape, because the quiet and the lack of things to do will drive you crazy, after all this. And it certainly won’t help with the nightmares from what they did to you.”

“So you do still dream of caves and blood?” the trickster shot back.

“Yeah. And being very carefully brought a hair’s breadth from drowning, again and again, until my stomach was full of water and I thought I’d never get all of it out of my lungs, and was so irrationally panicked about that, my coughing worsened almost until it was as much blood as air. I was lucky to have a doctor on hand to bring me back down; I’m not sure you did,” Tony said, slow and deliberate, despite having never before described those key details to anyone else. “And let’s not get started on the humiliation bits. You?”

“Stripped of all coverings, subjected to ice for the amusement of my tormentors, who then applied fire, electricity, and occasional plasma for experimental purposes. It was not until I was fully categorized, assessed and recorded––insofar as my species, genetic and epigenetic makeup, the contents of my blood, my physical limitations, my capacity to take pain, and my recuperative powers––that they bothered to ask for my name. After that, I was ‘allowed’ what their masters judged to be a more 'luxurious' recovery from my long fall, in that I was spoken to instead of around, for a time,” Loki shot back, his voice flat, cold, and without inflection. “It was an upgrade from biological specimen, to potentially useful tool.”

Tony nodded slowly. “They’d not seen your sort before?”

“Aesir, Thanos knew already. I am not Aesir, and was therefore less familiar. So he let the Other, the breeder and engineer of the whole race of the Chitauri, see if any of my blood or my powers might be compatible and useful to add to his collection of traits to give to his soldiers. All tissue samples of mine were in a laboratory at the heart of that armada, I did make certain.”

“I’m glad I don’t have to look forward to any armies with bits of cloned DNA from you in them,” the inventor said, with grave sincerity. “One of you, and whole, is still more than enough.”

“Oh, you have no idea,” Loki mused.

“Not yet, yeah, I know.” Tony leaned back against his own seat a bit. The challenge-you-to-be-as-sincere-about-torture-as-me gambit had worked better than expected. He’d thought it might drag a bit longer, but the trickster seemed not only aware of the gambit, but like he might also be aware of how much he needed to speak of it aloud, to acknowledge it. Neither of them offered pity or sympathy to the other, only cold understanding and shrewd assessment. It should have been uncomfortable but instead, the clinical regard on both sides made it somehow easier than it would have been otherwise, if anyone had tried to comfort one or the other of them. “But that leaves those two big ones still on your shit list. And you on your way home.”

“Asgard knows an important resource when they see one, or they would have disposed of me long ago no matter how sentimentally Thor might have regarded me. I have never been the favored prince, but few problems existed within Asgard itself, and the other realms, that Thor’s particular confrontational style alone could fix.”

“Well, they won’t execute you, I got that, but they also won’t let you go easy.”

Loki smiled bright and sharp, but it did not reach his eyes. “I am capable of immense patience.”

“What’s Thanos?”

“A Titan.”

“A what?”

The trickster rolled his eyes. “They’re from your solar system. In fact, they’re a very old offshoot of human genetic stock, albeit with a lot of alteration; although, I wouldn’t blame them if they’re still keeping to themselves, waiting for all of you to catch up to their culture and technological advances.”

Tony rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah, I’m working on it. What are they?”

“They are not very unlike Aesir. Very powerful. Very advanced technology; and yet while they do not make very much use of higher magics, they have a respect for it and understand it fairly well for how young they still are as a race, compared to those in Asgard. They’re also very, very long-lived. Almost immortal.”

“And Thanos is one of them?”

“Sort of. He is not quite so... perfect, as most of his kin, in appearance. And he has very morbid fascinations. He was banished from amongst them long ago. Since then, he has very nearly destroyed several races on multiple occasions, at one point destroyed two thirds of all life in the universe, and almost successfully unmade all reality once. Luckily, in both latter cases, most of those lives unmade in the unreality storms were later re-made as the fabric of reality was re-woved by an ancient Warlock of an unusually selfless bent.”

Tony took a deep breath. “That... sounds pretty bad.”

“You have a few years before he is of concern to you all directly. Loss of the Chitauri and his faint connection to the tesseract both, will cripple his ability to travel vast distances for quite some while, and he is far, far away from the nine realms,” Loki offered. “You have time to prepare.”

“As do you?”

The god's smile switched back on. “Mayhap so.”

“And the Other? He was connected to that scepter of yours.”

“Which the lovely Agent Romanov pushed through the unique energy shield around the portal-generating device,” Loki added with a shrug. “That cut off all sorts of interesting connections wrapped up in that scepter.”

“Including some to you?”

The trickster tilted his head a little. “You’re quite sharp, Mr. Stark.”

“You were under observation.”

“All the while, yes. Did you expect them to rely on the loyalty and the good word of a god of lies without any means of collateral or insurance that I would not make new allies and turn on them instead?”

“Would you have asked for help if they hadn’t?”

“Not from the likes of Earth.”

“Where’d you go before delivering Selvig to my tower?”

“None of your business, man of Earth.”

“They saw you go wherever that was.”

“They did.”

"They didn't stop you."

"They could not have, after a certain point."

Tony slowly raised his eyebrows pointedly in silent questioning.

Loki said nothing for over a full minute, neither smiling nor unsmiling, to an unnervingly stoic degree.

“You don’t get to avoid this one.”

“You’re now too inclined to value what knowledge tidbits I might have mercy and wicked whim enough to share with you, to continue threatening to kill me now, Stark." His eyes glittered with unkind mirth. "Same as Asgard. So don't be tedious.”

The inventor shrugged and gave a curt nod. “That doesn’t mean I lack leverage with you. You just said that Earth has roughly three years before Thanos maybe comes around to see just how we managed to be the ally you needed to foil his tesseract plans, even while wasting a lot of our energies on you and your games. What’s to stop us allying against you and all of Asgard in exchange for the Earth being mostly left alone?”

Loki looked surprised and curious and a bit wary. “You can hardly trust him.”

“Of course not, but we’ve got a couple of ways we might contact... the Titans, you said? They probably know the Kree, if they’re as you described, because they’d be a good source of trade, and have probably been the main source of Kree assurance that the Skrulls won’t take the Earth by any direct and obvious routes, which has been hinted at by our main Kree ambassador. We let Thanos have you, and wreck your city a bit, then we let the Titans take care of their own on a more permanent basis this time, which just little old me alone could persuade them was their duty, once we get them listening and I ensure that we can't be ignored. You aren’t the only silver-tongued liar here, Loki.”

“Apparently not,” the trickster murmured, his eyes narrowed. “You are correct, in that they know the Kree, and are on stable diplomatic footing with them after resolution of their initial military clashing when they surprised each other at a Kree Outpost near Uranus, which caused them to settle on the moon of Titan in the first place. The Titans also know of Odin, and respect him well. They do some prosperous trade with Asgard some of the other realms, on rare occasion that they have resources we might desire.”

“Sounds like they have the more raw end of the deal, but if Asgard is weakened by Thanos, they might see it as opportunity to revive that market, since you’ll need aid with repairs and there they will be, dangerous and grinning at you.”

“Hmm.” Loki folded his chained arms across his chest. “The Queen of Nornheim might overthrow Odin, then. She would not miss such a chance. If he were too busy fighting to safeguard the certain parts of the Odinforce from the likes of Thanos, she might even entrap him, keep him as figurehead bound to his powers and Yggdrasil as he is now, but without the freedom to act, speak, and travel as he wishes. She would not hesitate to make that conquest one of many, without Odin to stop her.”

“Could you?”

“You presume I would still be present?”

“Your home would be under threat. Last time you thought that was the case, I hear you almost destroyed a whole planet. How are you supposed to enjoy making miserable the people who made you what you are if they’re all dead, and how are you supposed to rule them from the shadows through trickery when they need a good reality check now and then, if the kingdom turns to ashes?”

“You think those my plans?”

“Call it an inspired guess.”

“Thanos’ death will be mine to deliver. I care not where or when it happens, nor with whom I might have to ally, so long as mine is the last face he sees, and I am the one who separates his head from his neck, in the end.”

“So ally with us.”

The trickster hummed. “No, I think n-”

“Then I look forward to destroying you later.”

“Let me finish, you impatient man,” Loki sighed. “I will not ally myself with the Avengers, nor S.H.I.E.L.D., nor any organization on your world; however, I offer you, Tony Stark, my solemn word that you will know when Thanos’ arrival is due, and that I will be your ally when that time comes.”

Tony’s eyebrows raised slowly. “Allies share plans, you know. And information, and resources. That’s part of the fine print here. You don’t pull disappearing acts or fail to explain the reasons behind your actions to me, from the moment you know he’s coming and inform me of it, until he’s dead at your feet.” He slipped into deal-brokering mode faster than he’d expected of himself, given his limbs still felt almost tingly with shock. The god of lies really knew how to maneuver, and it was fairly brilliant: keeping S.H.I.E.L.D. out, putting Tony in a position of veto power over what the rest of the Avengers did and didn’t need to know. “Also, you accept input and modify plans when it’s important, unless you can come up with better alternative options.”

Loki nodded. “I can accept those terms, but again, only from you.”

“Clearly, you’re a man of discerning tastes,” Tony mock-preened, but felt his skin grow a bit warm at the casually blatant and leering head-to-toe appraisal that the trickster god aimed at him in response. It was a disconcerting moment, suddenly realizing that his enemy/future-temporary-ally was actually quite good-looking, and somehow wore his bone-deep exhaustion in such a way that he moved with all the lazy elegance of a panther in a sunbeam, in order to execute the performance-art of their conversation this whole while. In fact, Loki's stare was intent in way that caused the pain-gaunt lines of his cheekbones to give his whole expression a singularly lean and hungry look, which seemed to be having an alarming affect on Tony's libido. The inventor had genuinely been too pissed off and occupied before to really notice the acute sexual tension hanging in the air, more than fleetingly and absurdly sarcastic in his own fearful acknowledgement of the potential temptations no one needed to know he could be tempted by.

As a professional lifelong hedonist and billionaire, Tony Stark saw temptation absolutely everywhere, but most of its advertising was unappealing to his very refined (and mostly healthy in regards to respecting the common dignity of individual humans to life, liberty, and the pursuit of good drinks in strange places) tastes in day to day life––except when the temptation in question was too fine for Tony to resist. In this case, between the haggard exhaustion etched into every line of the god's posture and expression alongside flirtation suggesting that Loki might be potentially be making this play out of more desperation than Tony would be comfortable with, and the inventor's firm conviction that he wasn't anywhere near to liking this god enough to offer that fringe benefit anytime soon, if ever, no matter how tempting the nickname Silvertongue might be? For once, resistance was surprisingly easy for Tony, despite the high-quality seductive factors in effect being successfully tempting, artfully presented, and a gloriously terrible idea: “Down, boy. I’m taken.”

The trickster snorted, amused, but raised both hands, palms-forward, in a gesture of harmlessness. Lie though it was, it let the momentary sexual tension fade out and the air seemed to grow three times lighter and easier to breathe through. “We have a deal, then, Tony Stark?”

“I think we might. Your brother might just try to kill me once I leave here, though.”

“He should know better, but diplomacy has never been his strongest point, and particularly not the dirtier tricks necessary to achieve the sort of ends you here sought to achieve.”

“I guess, for the sake of argument, let’s assume maybe you’re still incarcerated in Asgard when this contract kicks in?” Tony inquired.

“I am bound to my word, and may contact you via dream-walking, though the distance will make it an effort. They cannot prevent my mind wandering as it will while I sleep, imprisoned or no. Once informed, you may request they release me for the completion of my sworn duty.”

“How will they make sure you come back home when you’re done?”

“Nothing that would hinder me from my purpose.”

“Where’d you go before delivering Selvig to my tower?”

“You may ask me that again when Thanos’ arrival is imminent, and the terms here laid out become active.”

Tony stood slowly, and proffered a hand. “Well then, Loki, you have a deal, if you still find it acceptable.”

Loki extended his own, and shook it. “Yes, I accept your terms.”

Tony bowed his head a little. “I look forward to seeing how they’ll play out.” Releasing the trickster’s hand, he stepped back, and picked up the metal muzzle again. “You got the wrong key from my sleeve, by the way.”

“What is it a key to, actually? I’m curious.” Loki held it up between his fore- and middle-fingers.

“My car.” He plucked it from Loki’s hand lightly, and pulled the key for the muzzle from another pocket along the way. “Lean back, please, or your brother with use knockout gas on us both.”

Loki winced at that. “I had wondered what that contingency plan was.” He did, however, lean back and glare at the muzzle as Tony lifted it.

“You saying I should’ve opened with that threat?”

“It would not have made me more amenable to you. Particularly given that nightmares were mentioned early in our conversation as well.”

The inventor frowned a bit at that. “Yeah, that’d be a bit clumsy.” He then replaced the muzzle and locked it. “You are an evil rotten bastard. Glad you’re wise enough to catch on that you're not the only one in the room.” He winked, then turned and left, gripping the cold metal key to the muzzle tight in his hand.

 

~~

 

The future-alliance should’ve been the start of it. That was certainly where they both got a feel for each other’s cleverness, but there wasn’t quite respect there. There was wariness and disbelief and frightening competence on both sides. They were competent, but jaded enough to not even acknowledge something within themselves like a hope-born thirst for a mind able to keep up with and challenge their own, all the time––let alone that they might find that thirst less acute in one another’s presence.

So it wasn’t the start. Not quite yet.

Time passed. Pepper moved into Tony’s house. The Mandarin debacle erupted. He sacrificed all of his armor in exchange for a bit of peace with the woman he loved, and who loved him. He designed a way to reverse-engineer and safely remove Extremis from her system, then got the arc reactor removed from his own chest, and replaced with a bit more metal in the places his ribcage hadn’t benefited from the reactor’s presence. Muscle and sinew took a while longer to recover.

Everyone heard about the next Thor-related debacle to happen, saw footage of battles involving the thunderer, and the brilliant Dr. Foster, and a tall lithe figure in green and gold with even longer wild black hair than before. Tony watched the footage curiously. He was almost disappointed when neither of the two gods dropped by for a drink after it was over. Then he found out Loki had escaped all bonds at some point, and vanished into thin air once the nine realms were saved.

Tony wasn’t surprised by that part at all. Still disappointed by a lack of visit.

By the time two years were up, he and Pepper were still loving, but had grown distant. They had slipped into being friends again, almost without noticing, as Tony became absorbed in diplomatic and technological preparations for a certain Mad Titan. She still pulled him back to earth when he needed it, sometimes literally, but there was less and less sex, and then they were both at a gala and looking other people up and down with interest before their eyes met and there was sudden awkwardness.

“I love you,” Pepper said softly.

“I love you, too, Pep.”

“This...”

“You won’t lose me. Not ever.”

She smiled at him warmly. “You’d be lost without me.”

“I would.”

A long pause followed.

“I, uh, already have an apartment,” she said softly.

“I noticed longer trips away.”

“How... how is this our break-up?” Pepper sputtered, caught between laughter and something softer and sadder. “I always imagined we’d just... explode or something. Chaos! Destruction! Horror!”

“Because I could never hurt you like that, and you figured that out a while ago. I have hurt you, and been an ass, and sometimes I know I’ve been horrible, but I––I’ve been terrified of losing you for a long time.”

“Are you still?”

“Whenever the world is in danger, yeah. What else do you think I really keep fighting for, when I’m at my most cynical and self-loathing and hopeless?”

She smiled at him softly. “Me too.”

He pulled her close and kissed her forehead. “Never stop being part of my life.”

“Same to you, asshole; you’re supposed to be the genius whose brilliance my company is riding on,” she shot back, every inch the offended CEO.

He laughed, and she did too.

 

~~

 

Loki started making appearances on Earth about eight months before the three-year anniversary of his promised alliance with Tony Stark.

It was minor stuff, at first––or seemed like it, at a glance. Shortly after a Loki-related appearance or several within sights of the right shady organised crime circles in several Chinese cities, S.H.I.E.L.D. was subject to a series of attacks from numerous for-hire criminal organisations worldwide, all of whom sought to steal secure databases belonging to S.H.I.E.L.D., compromising them in increasingly vast sweeps, further obscuring their primary goals.

Tony was distracted by other rumors, mostly just within S.H.I.E.L.D., especially the ones suggesting that the Chinese company who purchased the remains of AIM, after the Extremis debacle and legal proceedings completed, might have some deep criminal connections. Tony remembered seeing their new CEO talking to Pepper at a gala a few months back: Sasha Ling, pretty and reserved, standing next to her mother Mei, who was darker and lacked her daughter’s lighter brown-grey eyes and faint dusting of freckles, but still smiled more often and seemed more animated.

Pepper said they had seemed sharp, and quite competent.

Tony wondered how deep they might be in the shadier end of the wheelings and dealings at work, behind the curtained-off songs and dances of PR appearances and charity galas.

S.H.I.E.L.D. was keeping more than a few suspicious eyes on the new AIM accordingly, muttering about the Ten Rings possibly being less dead than expected. The resulting paranoia afflicted Tony’s brain with a similar itch, which his own research couldn't exactly assuage satisfactorily. Suspicious holes in press release stories began to form unnerving patterns.

Meanwhile, members of the Hand went on a string of unusually high-profile thefts of artifacts and rare mineral resources around the globe that suggested they were getting paid very well for their services indeed, to the point they had apparently been able to afford some very nasty technological upgrades. Several of the artifacts they stole made Dr. Stephen Strange so uncomfortable that he informed the Avengers, telling them that he suspected the recent arrival of a being not of their universe, somewhere on Earth. He was convinced the artifacts related to an old spell, barely hinted of in books, for a resource of unlimited power.

That was all well and good, but still mostly rumors.

Then, finally, right on that eight-months-til-anniversary mark, came evidence too loud to miss, aimed with precision.

It came in the form of footage pulled from the records of a mostly-decimated Doom-bot that had been found in the wake of a raid on a hideout of the Hand in a town not far from the border of Latveria. That the Hand had apparently had a clash with Doom suggested they didn’t have much to worry about from Doom getting new contracts with them too soon, it seemed. Then S.H.I.E.L.D. handed it over to Tony Stark after their own methods of data extraction failed. Within five minutes, the inventor had JARVIS steadily reconstructing and decrypting the information recorded by the doom-bot in the final hour and a half before it lost its body and had its self-repair mechanisms very deliberately fried by some energy that none of the available experts recognised easily, and which Tony had about four different theories about so far. The footage showed the bot following a pair of lieutenants from the Hand into a location, and taking a particular object or two while the ninjas of the Hand subdued all occupants of the laboratory. The objects he collected glowed strangely, and were placed in a small but thickly armored and insulated briefcase. They looked like small shards of something.

The Doom-bot emerged from the location, and had been discussing cover-up and evidence removal with one of the Hand raid-leaders when something cut off feed to the body of the bot abruptly, with a sound of shearing metal and someone’s horrified yelling for backup in Japanese.

The bot-head located its body, and started commanding it when it suddenly became unresponsive, and was shattered to pieces. The one presumably responsible for that feat then strode over to stand before the head. The figure appeared tall and lean, and dressed in dark leather, with heavy boots. Audio was choppy, but the voice that said, “Impressive indeed, Doctor,” was still recognizable, just like the face visible when the voice’s owner crouched beside the robotic head and turned it to face himself. “Repairing yourself, altering. Very adaptable.” Then a flicker of light, at all the key points of repair mechanisms, all of which ground to a halt. “You’re watching now, are you not, Dr. Doom? Terribly sorry, but these objects are not meant for you or yours.” Loki’s smile was bright and wild and gleeful, just before he killed the rest of the electronics throughout the robot, but didn’t damage more than 70% of the bot's memory storage.

Tony had no plans to give the head back to the messenger, after watching that recording with the odd girl––even, if not especially, for a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent––who had delivered it, while she continued to stare at him creepily. He fast-forwarded through most of it, but lingered on the last few minutes. As soon as the clip ended, Tony burst out laughing.

“My, uh, commanding officer, I guess, said you knew that guy?”

“Yeah. Listen, Agent... sorry, what was your name?”

“I’m a, uh, civilian contractor,” she corrected. “I’m Skye.”

“Right. And who is your commanding officer?”

She thought about it. “Maria Hill.”

“Lie.”

“Well, they told me to lie.”

“Fair enough.” Tony tapped the screen. “You’re looking at the Norse god of lies who brought an alien invasion to New York.”

“They, uh, mentioned that, too. How the mighty have fallen?”

“I think he’s been around a while, before this; though I dunno how long. This is just him letting himself get caught. Any idea what those things were that he nicked off Doom and the Hand?”

“Not much. The Hand keeps most of their stuff off digital records, and they never leave a paper trail. I dunno how they do it.”

“You know who got around Doom’s encryption? Last time S.H.I.E.L.D. gave up and handed things over to me before they got anywhere near as far into his security as you guys managed to crack before me, with this one.” He tapped the screen for emphasis.

“That’d be me.” She grinned at him broadly.

Tony nodded at her. “Good work. He’s a tricky son of a bitch.”

“Think you can find out more about this guy’s, uh, magical zapping energies from one of his robot heads though?” she asked.

“I’ll let you know if I have any luck.”

“Thanks. Can I just...” She raised a hand as though to gesture, then dropped it. “I was gonna ask for an autograph, but actually can I seriously just hug you?” Skye said very quickly, like the words were afraid of going unsaid at all if she stopped or slowed.

Tony snorted. “Yeah, sure.”

“Really?” she all but squeaked, but was squeezing him around the waist before he could actually confirm.

The inventor squeezed back lightly. As expected, she did the awkward-lingering thing. She also might be slowly inhaling his scent where her nose touched his shoulder and that––well, she was more subtle than most about it, at least. After a few seconds of humoring her further, he patted her shoulder-blade. “You can let go now.”

“You’re really huggable,” she muttered.

“Please let go?” Tony tried.

She did so, blushing a bit. “Sorry. I––I’m just a really big fan.”

“I get that a lot.”

“I’m sure you do, and, sorry, I’ll just... go.” She waved at him and backed out of the lab slowly. The door shut and there was a muffled high-pitched squee emitted behind it shortly after, followed by her partner (S.H.I.E.L.D. buddy system, probably an actual agent) complaining loudly that she could’ve burst his eardrum for fuck’s sake.

Tony chuckled a little and turned back to the footage. “So you’re back from outer space?” he asked the video lightly.

A flicker on the screen: green-gold from otherwise black-and-white footage. Very disconcerting.

Tony rubbed at his eyes and looked back at it.

“I am, actually, yes,” said a voice just to his left.

The inventor nearly jumped out of his skin. “Jesus FUCK could you warn a guy?!”

“Where would be the fun in that?” Loki all but purred. He looked healthier than he had even in Germany, or on the Helicarrier, when he’d been at his most clean and composed in Tony’s memory up until then. His eyes were bright and his expression seemed less stiff, full as it was of faint smugness and recent mirth. “You look well, Stark.”

“Call me Tony,” the inventor corrected automatically. “Don’t tell me it’s doomsday already. You’re looking far too cheerful for that, and I’ll suspect you’ve secretly switched sides if you keep that up.”

“No, not quite. I have been keeping eye and ear out, and my daughter sweeps the skies in her own ways, but has had no visions or premonitions regarding the time of Thanos’ eventual arrival, as of yet.”

“So you’re here why?”

“You owe me a drink, and if we are to eventually be allies, I need to be aware of your strengths and weaknesses, which have, from what I’ve been able to tell so far, changed quite a lot since we last met,” Loki explained.

Tony gave an amused huff. “Locator spell in the footage, targeting me?”

The trickster nodded. “Of course. A quite literal ‘for your eyes only’ as it were.”

“At some point, I’d really like an explanation as to how that doesn’t break physics,” Tony drawled. “And if you want a drink, the penthouse upstairs still has the best view, and the best-stocked bar. I’m sure you remember where your crater was, up there, and lack the patience to take an elevator.”

“Both true,” the god conceded, and teleported them up.

To Tony, the sensation was of being enveloped in something darkly whirling, spinning, full of cold vapor and wind, just for a second, before it pulled back, and the room around them was his penthouse. He watched Loki take in the remodeled aesthetics with mild interest. It was then that the inventor noticed the lack of full armor, and that the god was actually in a black suit of Earthly style and impeccable cut, with a green shirt, top two buttons open, and a bit of folded gold silk in the jacket’s breast pocket, bringing attention to the fairly subtle, thin traceries of gold-and-green embroidery on the lapels. There was something, though... “Did you... did you actually go to my tailor?”

“He is not yours alone, and I find that he does fine work.”

“From someone who can magic up their own custom duds, that’s gotta be complimentary for him,” Tony mused.

“He deserves it.” Though even as Loki said it, he slipped off the jacket while striding over toward the bar, letting it hang off his forefinger a moment before vanishing it and perching on one barstool, ignored Tony moving back behind the bar, in favor of rolling up his sleeves casually.

Tony carefully did not stare at long pale fingers and green silk. “Have a particular drink in mind? Found any you like while loitering around Earth?”

“I am inclined to see what you think I might like.”

“Hmm. I need a few hints. Sweet or dry?”

“Either, but not too sweet.”

“Sour or bitter?”

“Both, or bitter, not sour alone.”

“Nice. Fruit?”

“I’m not averse.”

Tony nodded, and crouched, opening a small freezer under the bar and pulled a slightly frosty bottle from it, as well as a chilled highball glass and two ice cubes, which he dropped into the glass musically. Then he added a slice of lime a couple more pieces of ice, pushing down with a spoon so the ice forced out a bit of lime juice. He poured a shot of the only gin he’d ever liked over it, and roughly two shots of the Metaxa from the freezer, then a splash of pomegranate juice to fill the glass within a finger’s width of the brim. Lastly he got a sprig of rosemary, twisted it so the leaves bruised, and dropped it in as garnish. “Try this on.” After a brief stir, careful not to let the garnish sink, he slid the glass over to Loki, then made one for himself with a dash of bitters and a little less rosemary.

Loki sampled it lightly, eyebrows lifting a little. “This is quite excellent, actually.”

“I just made it up.”

The trickster nodded. “You improvise quite well.”

“All the better because I know the ingredients. Ally.” He smiled sweetly.

Loki seemed amused, though his half-smile was a little self-deprecating. “I suppose I should have seen that coming.”

“I think you did.”

“I did.”

Tony put away the ingredients in question, and strode around the bar. “So. What’s in the pot to look forward to cooking in the months ahead?”

“Your world is not exactly unprotected. Your primary sorcerer is more respectable than his reputation led me to believe, though I’d never give him the satisfaction of hearing me suggest as much. The number of abnormally powerful protective beings has increased substantially just in the past two years. The team of humans with powerful mutations, what are they called again?”

“The Brotherhood?”

“No, no: the moral ones.”

“Oh, the X-men.”

“Yes. They’re quite promising, as groups of heroes go. They work well now, with only a few of them jaded, but enough to keep them alive and for the younger members to strengthen and grow with most every possible advantage to develop their powers and their loyalties.”

“Do I... do I hear nostalgia?”

“I was once young and a fool. It is easier, being a fool. That is all.”

“Yeah, tell me about it,” Tony muttered. “It’s more fun, though, being less innocent and going further, becoming more.”

“Yes, there is indeed that,” Loki mused. “I had restrained more that I had realized, attempting to be that which I am not naturally inclined to be, for the sake of others.” He grimaced very faintly for a moment. “Others who were more my fools than I had ever actually wished them to be.”

Mundus vult decipi,” Tony intoned.

The trickster made an amused sound, and sipped again from his drink.

Tony, too, had a bit more of his own. “Better than I expected, actually,” he mused, swirling it a little.

Loki nodded.

“You had a fallout with Thor?”

“That could well be the understatement of the decade.”

“Well, I mean a more recent revelation-y one. You’re all thoughtful and contemplative on it, and it’s a bit oddly open for you.”

“Know your ingredients,” Loki chided.

“Yeah, how aware is Thor of this one?”

“He now believes that there is nothing left of the brother he knows in me, and that’s at once a deep relief and a sore disappointment.”

Tony mulled that over. “Huh. Well, at least he stopped trying to save you?”

“Yes, finally,” the trickster sighed, rolling his eyes.

“That really fucked with you, didn’t it?”

“I don’t need saving from what I’ve always been, but never had reason to be very sincere and open about because I happened to care and had been tricked into being ashamed of so many aspects of my nature that come to me because of what I am, as well as who I am. I loved those parts of myself for their cleverness, their usefulness, and because they helped me to survive despite being raised in, and living for so long in, an environment naturally hostile toward frost Jotunn, though I did not for most of that time know that I was one,” Loki explained in brief, clipped tones. “Add that to your formulae.”

“He did mention you were adopted, but uh, not a different species?”

“Different species implies a lack of biological compatibility. Many Aesir have some old Jotunn ancestry. It’s the particular elemental tribe––the ice specialization––and all that they did to their world, Jotunnheim, and tried to do to others like Midgard, which makes them so distant that most of the realms wish frost Jotunn into being lesser and animal. Really, I don’t blame them. Laufey was an utter fool who seemed to have no idea how much wealth and knowledge and power was wiped out and how many cities and people were eradicated when all of Jotunnheim was iced over by his father, and was too proud to consider the horror anything but some grand victory. I only hope my other parent from that world had more sense, but may never know for certain. Aside from my small size, I was also abandoned as an infant because she supposedly committed some treachery and was executed not long after my birth.”

“Wow, that’s... pretty fucked up,” Tony said, after a long pause.

“Quite.” Loki’s lips curved in bitter amusement.

“No clue what they considered treasonous there?”

“They did not keep records.”

“What, seriously?”

“Laufey and his followers were a cult of brutish force. Other Jotunns, even others of ice to make the journey from Nifleheim back to the main home-world of their race, were not so. To judge all Jotunns by their example would be as much a disservice as to judge all of planet Earth based on Germany during your second World War.”

“Ouch. Jeez. And they wiped everyone else out?”

“With an artifact that accompanied myself, amongst other spoils of war, to Asgard when their war with Jotunnheim’s conquerors was over,” Loki added. “It contains as much potential power as the tesseract, but a more limited range of applications: cold, ice, and darkness, mostly.”

“Charming.”

“Not at all.”

“So Odin still has that?”

Loki hummed noncommittally.

“That’s so not a yes.”

“It isn’t,” the trickster conceded.

“Who has it?”

The trickster said nothing, slowly finishing his drink and setting the glass aside.

You have it!”

“I am... aware of its location, and may or may not still have access to it for emergency purposes,” he offered.

“Where?”

“Nifleheim. With some distant relatives and one less distant one. It’s––not important,” Loki said quickly.

“Relatives.”

“Yes.”

“I assume one is Hel?”

Loki nodded.

“The others... newly discovered?”

“It’s really not important,” the trickster said quickly. “I would prefer not to discuss it, actually, as I’m still reeling a bit from all of it, but I should be more than fine after a month or so to process.” He leaned back against the counter. “Though this, at least, is far easier and more natural to accept than the initial ‘you are adopted and a Jotunn from the line of kings who wiped out all that was once interesting and powerful in Jotunnheim with one fool’s ambition and an artifact he could not hope to control the wielding of’ revelation. It’s actually strengthening, rather than foundation-shattering. I’ll be fine.” He shot the inventor a defiant glare and was a bit surprised to find the mortal already accepting the news with a bemused but thoughtful nod.

“Alright. Yeah. You look better than when I last saw you, by a long shot, so I’ll take you at your word on it for now, but at some point I’m going to ask about it further. Not soon. I can’t drop it entirely, though, because it’s just too shiny and interesting. You know how it is.”

Loki nodded lightly. “I suppose so.”

They stared at each other for a slightly too-long moment.

Tony realized just how kind of stunning the trickster’s cheekbones really were, and cleared his throat. “So. What updates do you need on news down here, since we’re looking at Earth being the battle-field if things don’t go our way?”

“Your weak points are still mostly those closest to you? Your ‘girlfriend’-” he said the word like he’d gotten the same no, calling someone’s girlfriend ‘his woman’ really is rude with unsavory implications here on Earth, speech that Thor had, and still felt bitter about the whole thing “-your childhood friend with his own armor, your old friend who has also been your bodyguard, and your AI?”

Tony blinked. Most people forgot JARVIS counted as a person on his list. The fact Loki assumed it without being told was... interesting. “Yeah. She’s not my girlfriend at this point, though. She moved out a few months back. She’s still one of the most important people in my life, just––not romantically.”

Loki nodded thoughtfully. “Noted.”

Tony resisted the urge to glance at the trickster’s collarbones. “So Thor has sort of lost hope in you, in a way that suggests he believes the aspects of you that he remembers most fondly were your true self, when in fact a lot of that was feigned or mocking and he just never realized... but he still knows about our ally deal.”

“Right.”

“He’s also still an Avenger. He even stays here for a couple weeks at a time, every month or two, when he’s not home or in New Mexico.”

“I’m aware.”

“How’s that gonna go, oh ye escaped convict?”

Loki snorted. “He cannot make any attempts to capture me while the terms of our agreement apply. Shortly after that, no doubt we may run into problems, but I plan to enjoy making him miserable should that occur.”

“You think he might just let you go?”

The trickster shot him an incredulous look. “Suddenly I wonder how I ever mistook you for a creature of sense.”

“Look, he’ll be an Avenger. You’ll be our ally. There will be time when we aren’t all busy preparing because a lot of us are still mostly mortal and we need mundane things like food, sleep and downtime to recover from shit if we get injured. Use that to your advantage, maybe? It’s not like you’ll have another forced peace like this to try and make him see sense one last time before you give up on him entirely too.”

“I’ve already given up on him,” Loki snapped.

“No, you haven’t, or his trying to ‘save’ you wouldn’t have affected you even half as much,” Tony shot back. “Accept that, and either give up without a fight, or show him just how stupid he’s been for millennia to earn every bit of the tidal wave of exasperation that hits you whenever you have to deal with him these days.”

The trickster god rose to his feet suddenly, invading Tony’s space. “Do not. Presume. To advise me. In this,” he said very slowly, his tone hard and cold.

Tony considered his options. “Fine. I won’t say another word about it tonight.”

Eyes narrowing, Loki all but snarled. “Not ever.”

“Look, Loki, this reaction you're having here is further evidence you need to deal with this, because you two are going to clash in close company unless you have a plan in place for how to deal with it that isn’t ‘ignore it until it can’t be ignored, then lash out’ like you’ve been doing,” Tony said, calm and clear, every syllable enunciated with stern deliberation. “You picked me to be your advocate on this planet when you decided to offer an alliance, and that means killing or maiming me, or even just traumatizing me, before you can keep your word, isn’t something you can do right now.” He saw the surprise flicker in the trickster’s stare for a moment and continued, “Yeah, Harry Potter, I read all the fine print, and Thor was happy to tell me all the ways I might have an upper hand here that you wouldn’t be inclined to tell me yourself, concerning the oaths that can naturally bind Jotunn and Aesir alike. So unless, as we agreed, you have better options to offer instead of my suggestions, you might want to seriously consider modifying your plans.”

Loki held his stare for a long moment, breathing slow and controlled, and still leaning too close, his hands resting on the bar out to either side of them both. “Thor is all too willing to believe in the lies used, before my fall, on myself and him alike, and on the rest of Asgard, when I still wished for them to be kinder to me, or otherwise be forced to at least accept me. I lost any true desire for such things over a millennia ago when I fully embraced my contrary and amoral nature, and that façade saw only sarcastic use since then––a mockery, a parody, of the old lies and the old games, delivered with wry humor when it was necessary to be more civil than I truly felt. He has had centuries during which he did not notice that I was not this less bitter, less twisted and more ethical brother he remembers even now. He prefers the lie, and has already mourned that lie’s death.”

“Then maybe show him what actually murdered it so he stops believing it was you and that you’re an unrecognizable cipher with a familiar face,” Tony suggested. “Just what you told me here, about Jotunns, reminds me of enough similar crazy shit humans have done over and over again in our own history, that’s still causing us problems. I’ve been lucky to have a few really good friends who liked me enough, despite my being a ridiculously privileged white boy, to tell me what it’s really been like for them to struggle against nonsensical prejudices that people have against them for no reason other than their sex, their skin-color, or both, and I’ve made an effort to be sure they don’t think it’s their responsibility to teach everyone like me, when all we should need are eyes to see, an understanding of other people as complex and valuable with motives we cannot presume to know at a glance, and a penchant for doubt, to see that something like that is so wrong as it really is. So I get why you don’t want to have to teach him; yeah, he should have gotten the memo long before now, but he’s had his world-view shaken a few times since then. I think going back to Asgard might have dulled the effectiveness of what he learned before, but he’s more vulnerable to reason when he’s out of that context and I know you’ve seen that. Hell, give me a little material to work with, and I can probably manipulate him into thinking it’s his idea when realization finally hits, or I can just inflict it on him via bluntness, but if you’re hostile to the idea of even giving him another chance, it still won’t work out.”

“You’re asking if this would be enough for me to forgive him: for him to realize all of his wrongs,” Loki said slowly.

“It would make the prospect of working with both of you less of a headache if you had a heart filled with sufficient quantities of kittens and rainbows for easily providing forgiveness, but that’s not what I’m expecting, no. I just need you to be satisfied that he’s kicking himself enough for being stupid, that you can handle being around him while he’s looking contrite or apologetic or emotional at all, without having to threaten or attack something to still feel like you’re in control and appropriately angry.”

Loki pushed himself back from the bar and Tony, straightening up a little, looking almost startled, like he was seriously caught off-guard.

“What?”

“That...” The trickster shook his head slowly. “You scarcely know me.” He sounded disbelieving, yet uncertain.

“I’m perspicacious.”

“Yes... I think you are.”

“I think you know a useful resource when you see one.”

Loki continued to stare at him.

“You’re really not used to someone reading you, are you?”

“As you say: Asgard has a stagnant culture. They are at a comfortable plateau for the advancements of magic and technology, our population does not age and few die, so it has become natural for fewer people to have children, so fewer among us experience and recall the harrowing learning experience of raising such a strange creature as a being like ourselves in earliest stages, who will possess a new and unique understanding of the world around them, ever-changing and growing more complex as they develop, and few understand that thinking of people as still being full of unknowns and mysteries is the only way to truly understand and comprehend their actions and motivations. This does not make a culture full of people who can easily fathom a creature like me, particularly to this extent. There are some, but usually only the wisest: the very old, and the very young.”

“That... sounds really boring.”

“It was, once I had learned all of the history of all the realms, and all of the magic in all of the libraries, and many books that I should not have actually been able to find, let alone memorize,” Loki concurred. “Then I began to take control, began to take pleasure in my dissatisfaction with the way things are there, and people began to distrust me, as I became more myself. After that, I traveled a great deal. Sometimes, if I thought it might amuse, I took Thor, with or without his friends.”

“My god, you’re a DM,” Tony gasped in tones of mock-horror.

“What?”

“It’s a... game reference.” He briefly considered trying to explain Dungeons & Dragons to the god of mischief and had to swallow a hysterical laugh at the thought alone of how that might play out. Thus, explaining that DM stood for ‘Dungeon Master’ was also not an option. It put him in mind of Loki wearing the sort of leather outfit that even Asgard would question and that––that should be a thought under the ‘never again’ column but Tony filed it away in ‘for later consideration’ instead. Totally on accident. Totally. “It’s uh... the person in a particular style of game on this planet, who designs a quest, a campaign, or an adventure, and leads a party of people through it, without actually being the leader of the party. Usually their part in the quest itself is as another member of the party not center-stage, if at all, but that’s a sort of avatar of theirs–part of the game as much as any events in the quest, which was, like I said, the DM’s design.”

Loki blinked. “Oh. Well, yes, that would be an apt comparison.”

Tony bit his lip at the image of the trickster leading a D&D game. He would be a complete dick, too, and deliberately mess with people... but to do that in real life, Loki would’ve been risking life and limb alongside Thor, without the total control over all of the venture that a DM would have by means of role-play. It sounded potentially interesting enough to pass the centuries playing around with. “No wonder you got a reputation for being a manipulative dick, just saying.”

The trickster shrugged languidly and returned to his bar stool. “By the time I had such a reputation, I was quite proud of it.”

“Like silver-tongue?” Tony asked, before he could stop himself.

Loki chuckled. “Yes, quite.”

“I do have to ask about the horse-”

“No. I have never been pregnant, nor have I ever given birth,” the trickster snarled.

“Sorry. Sorry. I had to.”

“I will never forgive Sif for starting that horrible rumor on this planet.”

Tony sniggered.

“I will end you,” Loki intoned gravely.

Tony laughed harder. “Oh fuck, don’t use memes I can’t take it!”

Smirking a bit, Loki leaned back against the counter with the air of a cat in a sunbeam as the inventor regained his composure. “I must take my leave of you, soon. I have been busy, whiling away the time between preparations for war.”

“Yeah, I remember. What were those shard-things on the tape?”

“Something that shouldn’t be on Earth. I’m curious as to their origins as much as you may be, if not more.”

“Is it to do with Strange talking about something ‘From Beyond’ that showed up recently?”

Loki froze, looking like realization had suddenly dawned. “He said what?”

“Oh, are you out of the loop?” Tony sounded a bit smug. “Which keyword there got your attention.”

“Someone ‘From Beyond’?”

“I said something. Why do you think it’s someone?”

“Because I’ve dealt with Beyonders before. They were more direct in giving me insights into the workings of the tesseract, when I first studied it, than Odin’s writings on the subject.” He gestured vaguely. “I might have been choosing to do the taboo thing and went to the people who taught him how to make it to ask, rather than Odin himself, and then blamed it on the quality of his pedantic writings. It was a bit of a debacle when I returned home,” Loki explained.

“Wait, he didn’t abuse the English language and ‘Beyonder’ is actually a legitimate name of some people ‘From Beyond’? Are you shitting me?” Tony groaned.

“It would explain a great deal, if one of their kind were recently arrived here. Did Strange know where they might have landed?”

“He said something about a crash site near Mongolia.”

Loki leapt to his feet and swore, rubbing his hands together. “I need to go. I have to find out which one of them is missing, because if it’s who I think it is, his mother knows of me and will find a way to blame this upon myself. I have a bit much to do before dying a horrible death between worlds and dimensions with creatures of the void gnawing through my organs because of that woman.” He seized Tony’s face. “You’ve been very informative, and challenging, and interesting. Thank you.” He then kissed the inventor firmly on the lips, like it was a perfectly normal farewell between acquaintances who have tried to kill each other and are still sort of enemies, then vanished almost before pulling away.

Tony remained very still, his empty glass in hand, for a long few seconds.

Slowly, he realized that the other thing he was feeling, aside from shock, was a short catalogue of disappointments: at how brief the kiss had been, that there hadn’t even been tongue, and at the abrupt end of the conversation.

“Oh shit,” he sighed aloud into the now-empty penthouse.

That was when it really started.

 

~~

 

Loki didn’t show up anywhere for about a week, recongizably. It was a strangely peaceful week all around.

When Loki did return, he was in full armor, albeit with many holes in it, and dents, scuffs, and even a bit that was burnt. It was clear that some, but by no means most, of the bloodstains weren’t from his own wounds. His eyes were blazing with anger and he seemed to aggressively radiate cold as he stormed through Tony’s lab toward the mortal inventor who was by now looking up at him in surprise and mild, instinctive fear for his life. When the trickster stopped, he stood on the other side of Tony’s work table, a bunch of pieces of armor stacked between them, and rested both hands on the edge of the work surface. Leaning over the table, Loki snapped out, “You did not mention an arch-nemesis of yours with a Makluan dragon at his command, Anthony Stark, and if you have any other gross oversights you’ve perhaps left for me, do please throw suspense to the four winds in favor of keeping your throat and entrails intact!

Tony blinked a few times, shook his head as if to clear it, and said, low and calm, “What the actual fuck are you even talking about?”

“The Ten. Rings,” Loki hissed. “They were the ones your godfather hired to kill you, and they have continued to be a thorn in your side as you try to cleanse the world of your murder-easing arsenals of weaponry. Your own long-term arch-nemesis. Do keep up, Stark!”

“Yes, but they were––” He hesitated. “Wait. You’re saying they’re deeper than AIM. You’re saying they’re still around. Even S.H.I.E.L.D. is 80-90% sure that they were wiped out, and the remaining members and bits of their organization still alive and free scattered to join other radical militant groups.”

Loki’s seething anger banked a bit as he studied the inventor’s face closely. Then he looked exasperated. “By the Norns, you really only know about the farce.”

“The farce was targeting me a lot, and hurt Happy, and––you don’t just mean the Mandarin and Aldrich Killian, do you?”

The trickster slowly shook his head. “I mean the Ten Rings. Their flag has been in use and pictured in S.H.I.E.L.D. evidence logs for ten years as they grew, before Aldrich Killian even created AIM. It just requires a reverse-image search, you dunce, I’m not from this planet and I thought of-”

“Wait. When did S.H.I.E.L.D. add that feature to their archives?”

“I may have manipulated a few algorithms to suit my purpose-”

Tony held up a hand. “You reprogrammed S.H.I.E.L.D. temporarily. Where did you learn to program?”

“I read quickly, and a lot of the mathematics involved are slightly similar to the concepts of animated illusions and maneuvering wave-forms of light particles under certain conditions, which I’ve been able to do since I was a child. What part of ‘advanced civilization’ has yet to get through to you?” Loki scathed.

“I ask because this leads direct to me asking why you kissed me last time you were here and how averse you’d be to doing it again, for a longer period of time, and without clothing, because your intelligence is making me hard,” Tony riposted.

The trickster blinked at that. “Pardon?”

“Well, also, you’re gorgeous, but you hacked S.H.I.E.L.D. and mapped out the history of an intelligent and highly organized criminal organization that’s been conning me since I first heard of them, and that––that yes is a major turn-on. Just saying. If you’re interested, later.”

Loki nodded thoughtfully. “So, then, S.H.I.E.L.D. really does believe that their leader ‘M’ has been a sort of illusion, as the Mandarin was, all the while?”

“I’m gonna go with a strong ‘yeah probably’ on that.”

“Then he is truly a talented creature. More so than I’d credited him with before now. No small wonder he thought ahead to ambush me as soon as I made any appearance near his personal stronghold,” Loki mused.

“He ambushed you? Wait––you said a dragon?”

“Survivor of an old empire from the world of Kakaranathara, in the Maklu star system. One of few left in this part of the galaxy now, possibly the last,” Loki said. “They’re a reptilian race, strong and clever, masters of powerful magics on par with mine, particularly shape-shifting, and telepathy almost strong enough to challenge my personal shields.” He tapped at his left temple. “He is kept mostly catatonic by the Ten Rings’ leader, and when woken after a dose of a certain herbal mixture I may have gotten a sample of, he can apparently be commanded by a telepathic bond. The telepathy of his ‘master’ is not quite so strong as the dragon’s latent power, but his bond to the dragon is old and profound, such that it would surprise me if his mind does not have more than his own memories in it, any longer. This, Stark, is a worthier adversary for you than Killian could have hoped to be. More powerful, more shrewd, and with an empire to lose on par with your own.”

“You sound like you’re enjoying the idea.”

“I’m admiring another artist’s work. He has great potential.”

“What else?”

“Ancient alien technology. As an aside, I do not think the fallen Beyonder is still in their possession. Even before the incident with the dragon, I was able to detect no trace of his presence at any of the Ten Rings’ bases I checked. That said, I think it a strong possibility that the ‘Ten Rings’ of their namesake relate to alien artifacts based on Makluan technology.”

“Could you mark the bases out on a map real quick? I... might have a pertinent interest in checking out what else they have.”

“Shall I start with the ones that have impressive stockpiles of your weapons?”

Tony looked at him sharply. He touched a piece of armor on the table. “Pack up.” The pieces of armor rose like a small swarm back over to one of the display units n the far wall, where they arranged themselves into an only slightly battered, but recognizable Iron Man suit. “JARVIS? World map projection, lower lights to 40%.”

Staring at Loki in the glow of the map, Tony said, “Please show me.”

“I suppose I might do you that favor.” Loki sounded curious, and a little predatory. He reached out over the map with one fingertip and tapped several locations, narrowing down the precise coordinates when prompted by the map’s interface. “This is their main stronghold, oldest and most well-fortified.” He tapped it twice. “Beware of dragon. I recommend that you perhaps do not tell S.H.I.E.L.D. about that one––at least, not right away. It would seem suspicious of you to suddenly know it, in any case. The place is well hidden, despite its long history, in plain sight. These two-” He revisited two of the dots. “-have a great deal of Stark Industries technology, some of it is altered.” He glanced up at the Inventor’s face through the projected light. “I might even go so far as to say they advanced your original designs, in the time since you stopped manufacturing some of the larger missiles, among other things.”

Tony’s jaw tightened. “That shouldn’t be possible.”

“It wouldn’t be, if not for this one.” Loki added one last dot to the map. “When you shut down your weapons manufacture, the machines which made your parts had to be destroyed, refitted, sold, or quietly ‘vanished’. I believe Stane must have preferred a combination of the latter two options, to judge by how much equipment, and in such excellent condition, they have for continuing to build and only slightly alter your weapons designs.”

Exhaling heavily through his teeth, Tony glared down at the location. “How heavily fortified are they?”

“Are you asking if you could take that one out alone?”

“What do you think?”

The trickster hummed. “You could. They were barely aware of my visit, but unconcerned until I provoked that reptile. I am a known quantity to them, to some extent: a strange god, with a recent penchant for being nosey and peripatetic, but not allied with the likes of their enemies... yet.” He offered the inventor a thoughtful look. “They are near a larger manufacturing district, so that the amount of smoke and other byproducts they emit are not very notable or unusual for the area. They are lightly defended, no nuclear waste or radioactive materials in use. They are deep enough within mainland China to feel securely surrounded, but not far enough from the sea and other routes of trade to make their business tricky, and they possess excellent governmental connections keeping them safe from prying eyes local and foreign. Their government contacts believe the operation is Russian but supplying Chinese interests, the workers believe the company is Chinese, the soldiers who have barracks there, and all of the management, are from the Ten Rings. The last thing they might expect would be an abrupt ambush. I recommend just before midnight, when there is a brief cool-down time for the equipment before the pre-dawn shift arrives to start things back up.”

“Thank you,” Tony said, low and cool. “That gives me a few hours, then.”

Loki stepped around the table toward him, to stand slightly behind him almost as though to look over his shoulder. Tony felt long, cool fingers trace down his throat and shut his eyes, too angry to quite enjoy it like he’d wanted to earlier, but not so far gone that it wasn’t still pleasant. He leaned into the caress just a little.

Then, cool and soft by his ear, lips and breath almost tickling, the trickster whispered, “Yes, if you were wondering, I am interested, Tony. Another time.”

“Looking forward to it.”

“I as well. Enjoy your vengeance.”

Tony felt, rather than saw, when the god of lies vanished.

He stared at the map for a long few moments. “JARVIS, prep me a suit. I think... I think it’s time to test-drive the new hulk-buster model, and what better way than by smashing a bunch of things?”

“Right away, sir.”

 

~~

 

“Stark, do you want to tell me why there have been high-ranking Chinese government officials screaming about terrorist attacks from the west in my ear for the past three hours?” Fury roared down the phone line.

“Relax, the official news all over the place around there is that it was a bad deal with the Russian mob, and they arrested a few of their own who were making money off of keeping interest away from the place. JARVIS has been monitoring and updating a news ticker about it for me.”

“Stark!”

“Why didn’t you tell me how much older the Ten Rings is than AIM?”

A long pause followed. “It was suspected, but not fully verified.”

“But you didn’t think to mention it.”

“I had a feeling you’d do something like this!”

“I have a few more interesting points on my map of their strongholds, Fury, that aren’t anywhere in any of your files. This one today had all the weapons-manufacturing factory equipment Stane ‘cleaned out’ when I turned my company policy on its head a while back, and they’ve been in good use, and maintained, all this time. This one was mine, Fury, and I’ll share the rest if you’re man enough to admit you couldn’t hold that one against me even if you wanted to, or even if you tried.”

A sharp intake of breath, followed by an exasperated partial exhale, followed. Then the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. asked curtly, “How many others?”

“Six more,” Tony said, not counting the main one, the one with the ‘Here there be Dragon’ note next to it. “Two more have big stockpiles this one was supplying and maintaining. We take them out fast, before they have time to prepare for us. Within 24 hours, and we can put the Ten Rings into a position they can’t help but expose more of themselves just to survive. We can mortally wound a shadow you’ve been chasing for almost two decades, Fury, if you let me lead this initiative.”

A long, thoughtful pause followed. “How did you find them, Stark?”

“It’s a long story, and I’m not inclined to get into it. It’s taken me a while to get all this lined up, without them catching on until just now that I even know they still exist, and they still might not quite know the truth of that quite yet, for certain,” he explained, lying only a little. “I might have made a lot of effort to be mistaken for the Hulk. Yes, I’ve already apologized to Bruce, and no, he doesn’t have a problem doing it himself on one of these other locations if you and I can agree on it.”

“Send me your map.”

He sent a copy to Fury: one lacking any trace of their dragon-guarded main stronghold.

“Hold please.”

Tony patiently waited about fifteen minutes, humming his own hold music as Fury doubtlessly scrambled together a hasty strategy meeting with Agent Hill and a few others. Tony examined his nails, thought briefly about Loki’s hands on his neck, which wasn’t as unnerving a thought as it was when his only prior memory of it involved strangling and defenestration––especially since the caress was only a little more arousing than the other memory, these days.

He snapped back out of his thoughts when Fury came back onto the line. “Get your ass back here to New York, we’re getting this done before tomorrow is up.”

“I congratulate you on this example of great decision-making.”

“Like that’s actually a compliment coming from you, Stark. You still just outside Beijing?”

“Actually, I’m in another province now. Stopped for Dim-Sum.”

“Just get your ass back here.”

“As soon as I pay my check,” Tony promised sweetly. “Bye!” He hung up, not even letting Fury finish swearing at him.

 

~~

 

After a week of warfare and the rest of the Ten Rings going deep, deep underground, further than he or S.H.I.E.L.D. could follow or even keep tabs on, Tony returned to the penthouse of Avengers tower exhausted and a bit haggard, in dire need of shower and shave. He paused at the sight of something odd draped over the back of his couch and stared at it until he slowly realized it was a very bloodied bit of Loki’s usual armored outer-war.

Padding closer on near-silent bare feet, Tony regarded the mess occupying the seat-cushions of his couch.

Loki was in bad shape, this time, to judge by the sluggishly-healing deep wounds on his sides, the dried bloody traces of smaller healed-wounds over the rest of him, and a lot of colorful, deep bruising; he was stripped only to the waist. The less-bloodied half of his main outer coat was under his back, providing a little protection for the fabric from the blood he was still leaking a bit of. The rest of his armor was scattered on the floor, thankfully away from any rugs. The trickster had one arm draped over his eyes as though light from the windows offended him, but at Tony’s approach he lifted it enough to reveal one bloodshot eye. “Skrulls know me too well, these days,” he rasped, by way of explanation.

“Apparently so, if their weapons can slow your usual healing.”

The god muttered something only half-comprehensible under his breath.

“Sleep it off. I’ve been at war with M for a week, and I smell like I spent most of that time in armor, so I’m going to shower and pass the fuck out accordingly. When you’re a bit more upright, you’re welcome to the shower and anything in the fridge up here. If any other Avengers drop by, maybe hide, I guess. G’night.”

“Sleep well,” Loki mumbled. It then sounded like he tried to roll over a bit and wound up in more pain than intended, hastily returning to his prior position, only to hiss as the haste compounded his discomfort still further.

Tony shook his head a bit and headed for the shower.

It was only halfway through scrubbing the machine grease and other debris out of his hair that Tony realized the god of lies and mischief felt safe hiding in Avengers tower while gravely wounded, and some of the greater implications thereof. It was probably due to the future-alliance agreement they had making Tony’s penthouse official neutral ground, but it was still a bit disconcerting. He was being relied upon, he realized, as a safe place for a convicted interplanetary criminal mastermind to hide when vulnerable.

How is this my life?

While rinsing his hair, something else occurred to him. “Hey, JARVIS?” He heard a faint reply through the spray and belatedly remembered to lift his head out of it. “You didn’t mention he was here, I noticed.”

“He seemed disoriented on his arrival, as though unsure quite where he was, then swore a great deal when I spoke to him. He stated that he had not intended to arrive here again, and that his teleportation must have been interfered with, sending him to the last location he’d been on Earth rather than the one he was aiming for directly. He politely requested that no one know of his presence, and stated that he wouldn’t stay very long. I believed that truly his intent, as he took care to leave little evidence even cleaning his rather extensive wounds, so I refrained from interrupting your business abroad or any of the calls that you were occupied with on your way here.”

“Why did he fall on the couch, if he’d planned to leave?”

“He mentioned a mild poison in his system, and I ran a few scans. His temperature was near freezing, and I informed him of as much, at which point he lost his balance somewhat. I advised him that teleportation while in his current state did not seem advisable, and he reluctantly agreed, and made his way to the nearest horizontal surface he might stretch out upon.”

“Poison. I guess they do know him a bit too well. How’s he doing on the scans?”

“His body temperature seems to fluctuate between near-freezing, and fever, with alarming frequency. Given the lack of available knowledge for ice-Jotunn physiology that we have on hand, I do not know what to make of that. His heart-rate slows when his fever drops, and flutters quickly when he is too warm. His sweat does not seem to occur when his temperature drops are severe enough to change his coloration-”

Tony shook water from his ears. “Sorry, repeat that? Color change?”

“When his temperature drops to below 3º Celsius, his skin changes color, yes.”

“I was not aware that was a thing.”

“Also eye-color.”

“Got video?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Huh. I’ll have to check that out.”

“Was I wrong to allow him this access to the penthouse, sir?”

“No, JARVIS, you did good. He’s... an ally. Or will be. Tense is uncertain.”

“Are you at all uncertain about his intentions?”

“Well, yeah, but not against me in particular; not for a while yet, anyway. It goes without saying that keeping the others away while he’s around is what we’re doing though, right?”

“Of course, sir.”

“Then yeah. I guess he’s clear for visits like this.”

“You sound surprised by this.”

“It wasn’t exactly what I signed up for.”

“Neither was flirtation with mad gods.”

“Singular. Just... just the one, so far.”

“Of course, sir. I apologize for not acknowledging your flirtation to be of monotheistic inclinations.”

“You’re a riot, JARVIS,” Tony deadpanned, unamused, as he turned off the water and stepped out of the shower.

 

~~

 

Tony didn’t sleep too well, mostly due to feeling stiff and sore, and having so much fresh fire and violence in his memory, flickering behind his eyes as he tried to find rest, find enough peace in his own head to let go, just enough to sleep.

He did eventually manage a few good solid hours in, after dawn. He slept past ten, and woke to the delicious sensation of hands moving over his back with a touch that seemed to drain all the tension and pain and bruised aches from his muscles, leaving him to groan softly with bone-deep satisfaction. Then, a bit belatedly, he realized he was on his stomach and someone was straddling his hips. Then those hands reached back and ran down his legs too, and he made another helplessly relieved noise. “I don’t know what you’re doing, but it’s amazing,” he groaned, as the touch ran back up his thighs to his hips, to drop to his outstretched hands and run up and down his aching arms before settling particular focus on his shoulders.

“I am being polite,” Loki said.

“Mm?”

“I think it only polite to see to it you are relaxed and comfortable before I inquire whether or not I may fuck you through the mattress,” the trickster offered in light, cheerful tones.

Tony may have shuddered and been suddenly wide awake and fully aware and also very, very hard in his boxers. The weight of Loki over him maintaining pressure between his stomach and the sheets was an added distraction. Very unfair, all around. “I want you to,” Tony said, a little roughly, as he sat up a bit, his weight on his forearms, arching up a little as Loki’s body settled over him close and smooth and surprisingly warm for a so-called frost-giant. Recalling the footage he’d watched, of pale skin darkening to blue and those startling red eyes, Tony’s breath quickened a little, recalling exactly what Loki was––god, alien, beautifully monstrous when angry, and unfairly beautiful when too cold somehow, and brilliantly clever too––and feeling all too greedily inclined to touch all of it.

“Think you can handle a god, Tony?” Loki whispered hot against his ear.

“I’d like to find out what else your hands can do, yeah.”

The trickster took hold of his chin in graceful fingers and turned Tony’s head until the inventor’s mouth was in reach at the opportune angle for him to capture. Tony hummed into the contact and parted his lips eagerly, his tongue sliding lewdly past Loki’s shortly after as that polished silver set out to conquer him––and that was when his brain shut off except for intense focus on the marvelous things Loki’s mouth was capable of.

By the time they parted, Tony was panting a little, and moving his hips a bit, just for a bit of friction. “Your tongue really might be the most dangerous part of you, and I’m saying that compared to your eyes and your abs, which are some serious competition, but I’m wiling to withhold final judgement until I’ve become more acquainted with all that you keep in your pants.”

Loki chuckled, low and dark, against his mouth. “Well, let’s set about that.” He slid off Tony’s hips to stand beside the bed, his fingers tugging at numerous buckles on the over-complicated leather pants that usually accompanied his armor.

Taking in the view, Tony slid his boxers off in the same movement that he pushed the sheets down the bed and kicked them out of the way, before sitting up and taking in the view as the trickster finally slid those pants down. Okay, his tongue has seriously stiff competition, he thought, and managed not to either giggle or roll his eyes at his brain’s own choice of words. He slid to the edge of the bed as Loki stepped out of his pants, abandoning them on the floor. Those legs really go on forever, too, sweet mother of science. When the god stepped close enough for their legs to touch, Tony glanced down at the impressive offering before him and smirked a little, grabbing Loki’s hips and bringing his head down.

He heard the sharp intake of breath from Loki over him, at the feel of clever lips wrapping around the head of his cock, soon followed by suction and flicking tongue. Tony felt long-fingered hands slide into his hair and grip firmly, but not enough to steer him, not demanding, even as the inventor slid down the god’s length tortuously slow, forcing his throat to relax like it hadn’t in years as he managed to take Loki to the base, his nose brushing the trickster’s groin. Breathing slowly, he pulled back a little, and swallowed once, then twice more, hearing Loki give a harsh gasp in surprise and pleasure.

“I really am inclined to fuck you properly,” the trickster breathed.

Tony shot him a wicked look, even as his cock throbbed appreciatively at the thought. He started to pull back, slow, then sucked hard and pulled Loki closer by one hip, sinking back down with a long, appreciative hum.

Loki’s hips bucked despite himself and he thrust into wet heat so good he couldn’t help but do it again, only to give a hissing groan as Tony dragged the slightest hint of teeth up along his base, making his eyes almost roll back in his head. “Fuck, Tony,” he panted, and rolled his hips again, harder.

The inventor met his stare again and let him feel teasing, fricative pressure from the flat of his tongue as he dragged back up, and went pliant as the trickster pulled him back down sharply, not quite all the way, breathing hard and uneven. Tony swallowed hard, one hand now playing with the trickster’s balls, and Loki began fucking into his mouth in shallow, fast thrusts, until Tony thought his jaw might actually give out for a few hazy minutes; although the sounds Loki made were exquisitely worth it. Then the trickster came hard, forcing Tony to swallow quickly, which pulled a pretty and utterly incoherent noise from Loki’s throat, before the fingers in Tony’s hair tightened their grip decisively and tugged his mouth away.

“Like you gods don’t have a ridiculous recovery time. I swear if I hear one more brag about that from Doc-”

“If you utter her name, I will leave you like this immediately.”

Tony snorted. “Touché.” He sat up and back, scooting away from the edge, smirking as Loki leaned over the bed to follow him until they were both taking up the middle of the mattress, and the trickster settled between his legs once he’d steered them a bit so Tony’s head rested against the headboard lightly. “I’m not done with you yet, y’see.”

“I could say the same.” As he leaned forward, Tony felt that yes, the ridiculously quick recovery time was not unique to Aesir, but pretty much an across-the-board godly perk, now hot and slick against his hip.

“You certainly could, but why when this is an option?” He caught that mouth with his own again, the kiss deep and wet and all the right kinds of filthy this time as Loki pushed the mad inventor’s legs apart and slid long hands up his inner thighs. Tony arched his hips a bit into it and in the next second had time to wonder when and where Loki had gotten lube, before he gave up on any thoughts even half so coherent because he’d been right to think Loki’s hands seemed dangerously talented. He surged into the kiss with renewed hunger and few small moans as two long fingers did things to his prostate that he hadn’t realized were quite possible, but oh so good.

“So very eager,” the god murmured, their lips still touching. “I begin to suspect you’ve thought about this before.”

“Only––only about seven or eight times,” Tony panted. “You––hands, fucking brilliant,” he groaned.

“I’m going to have to remove them, now.”

Tony managed not to whimper, but it was a near thing. He considered requesting a fourth, but after a quick glance down between their bodies, the inventor was fine with trading fingers for something even more fun, and he had no doubt whatsoever that Loki really knew how to use it. “How do you want me?”

The trickster’s teeth dragged across his lower lip and his fingers executed a complicated fricative gesture all pressure, twist, force, push against Tony’s prostate to earn one more shuddering moan before his hand reluctantly retreated, settling instead on his own cock. “I think I want to watch your face as you’re fucked senseless,” he purred, settling on his knees and dragging Tony’s hips up along his thighs until the inventor’s ass met his lap, trapping his erection between the inventor’s cheeks briefly. “Brace your forearms against the headboard behind you.”

Tony felt exposed and overpowered as he obeyed the order, and it shouldn’t be so exquisitely good, but it really, really was. He used the leverage to roll his body and hips against Loki hard, and enjoyed the way Loki’s eyes darkened and the grip on his hips became almost bruising, before the trickster let one hand relax and slide between them, guiding him to press against Tony’s entrance, barely the head slipping in.

“Do that again,” the trickster challenged.

Breathless, Tony did, hard and controlled so that Loki’s cock drove into him hard and slick in one rolling motion that had them both making ragged, pleased sounds. Then Loki seized him by the ass and began fucking him in earnest: rough and deep. And Tony was left gasping by it, trying to roll with it, keep up a little counter-rocking of his own, and the results had him almost seeing stars.

He could hear utterly raw lust in Loki’s voice as the god gripped the top of the headboard with one hand and changed the angle of Tony’s hips with the other so the next few thrusts made the inventor almost scream. The trickster’s litany of obscene encouragement telling him to come finally drove him over the edge not long after, with another sharp cry, followed by a series of softer ones as Loki rode him through it, and past it, and into what should’ve been discomfort but Tony just shuddered with it, wondering how long Loki could keep this up. Hours? Days? The thought alone made him breathless. Another time. After I’ve seen you come like this. Tony tightened deliberately around the trickster’s length, biting hard at Loki’s neck as he felt the god shudder and break rhythm for a moment. Not letting him recover, Tony growled, “I want to feel you come, Loki, give me all you’ve got.”

With a broken moan, the trickster thrust twice more and came hard, his whole body shaking and wrecked, green eyes sharp and glassy and his pale face a little pink from exertion along those pretty cheekbones.

“You’re a gorgeous mess, you know,” Tony panted, and tugged at his shoulder. “C’mon, lay down.”

Eventually they settled on the bed side by side, catching their breaths. Loki absently gestured, removing all uncomfortable stickiness from them.

“That’s fuckin’ useful.”

“It has proven one of the most sensible spells I’ve ever learned, yes.”

Tony snorted, amused. “You, are a really good fuck.”

Loki made a slightly smug noise of contentment.

“And in twenty minutes, I want to fuck you over the side of this bed. I’m curious how much of a mess I can get you to make on my sheets.”

The trickster stretched a bit with a thoughtful hum. “I wouldn’t be averse to this.”

Even with the sense that he was making horrible life-decisions, Tony was extremely happy with that answer. “Excellent.”

“Alternately, of course, I could improve your recovery time with magic.”

The inventor’s mouth went dry. This is the very best bad decision.

 

~~

 

Tony had imagined, at first, that waking up naked with a former-/current-/pseudo-arch-nemesis in his bed might be a bit awkward at some point, and started out with a plan or two for how to avoid it. After about round four, though, when he’d managed to fuck Loki through three straight orgasms after figuring out a convenient trick of timing regarding the trickster’s recuperative capabilities (and that was when he’d discovered that the god had a thing for being held hard against the agonizing edge between too-good and too-much) Tony concluded that the pair of them were both a bit too shameless for the usual awkwardness Tony was used to with a lot of one-night stands. In fact, to be quite honest, the mad inventor was hoping to skip it, and perhaps wake up to Loki-the-insatiable starting another round of creative, mind-melting sex. He might have even been looking forward to it.

He hadn’t counted on his real life interrupting his sexual encounters with the god of mischief before it was even nine in the morning. On a Sunday.

Pepper, to judge by the stunned, bemused, and strangely resigned look on her face where she stood in the doorway with a tablet in one hand and stylus in the other, hadn’t expected to interrupt any more-epic-than-usual-sexcapades, either; although, Tony mused, her look might be less shocked if there had been sex going on, instead of a slightly sleepy mad genius being spooned by an (admittedly hard against his ass before he fully woke at the sound of the door opening) attractive but slightly sleep-mussed god of lies and mischief. Both brilliant men blinked blearily at her, then woke up a bit more and tensed slightly, but did not move.

“Well, this is new even for you, Tony. You’re Loki, if I remember your mugshots correctly?” Pepper asked, light and professional.

“Yes,” the god replied, watching her warily, but with curiosity.

“I need Tony from you, given I have his company to run,” she said simply. “If you don’t mind disentangling?”

It occurred to the mad inventor that Loki was still hard. And it was beginning to affect him, even as he felt a foreign sensation akin to actual acute embarrassment. Really, the idea that Pepper being Pepper at him might be a contributing factor actually made Tony really, really want to do something like roll his hips back encouragingly to see how the god might react. “Give us half an hour.”

“Tony,” she warned.

“Do you want me to be able to focus?”

Pepper’s eyes narrowed. The look she gave him was unimpressed and irate.

“Fifteen,” Loki offered, with a wink. “He may not remember his own name, for a short while after, however.”

Tony turned his head and shot the trickster a dubious look. “I’m not that easy.”

The god only beamed at him beatifically.

“No really.”

“Trust me.”

Intrigued and challenging, Tony turned an imploring look Pepper’s way.

She might have been a bit flushed, but after clearing her throat, her voice remained quite even as she said, “Fifteen minutes. Twenty, tops, or I’m coming back in.”

“With or without your clothing?” Loki inquired lightly, sounding interested.

Tony made a noise that defied translation.

Pepper’s blush deepened. “Maybe on a special occasion,” she said, still crisp and unflappable. “Nice try, though.” She shut the door quickly.

“You are evil,” the inventor groaned.

“I think you like a bit of evil in your bed,” Loki mused. “And in you.”

Tony licked his lips at the feel of Loki’s fingers pressing into him. “I’m going to guess you were a teenager when you learned the spell for magic lube.”

“And it’s been useful ever since,” the trickster concurred. “As well as this.”

The sensation that followed––slick and improbable and deep and sudden––left the mortal gasping harshly. “Holy shit, holy––just––fuck do that again!”

“Magic is a wonderful thing, is it not, Tony?”

“I’m increasingly f––fffuck––yes, ‘s wonderful.”

Loki chuckled and pulled his fingers back, then bit not-reassuringly at Tony’s neck when the inventor whimpered at the loss. Rolling Tony onto his stomach and pulling his hips up, the trickster then pushed into him, rough and fast and good, while his still-slick hand wrapped firmly around the inventor’s cock.

Pliant and writhing a bit shamelessly, Tony tried and failed to catch his breath as the god fucked into him hard and relentless, clever fingers stroking him tight and slick and perfect to unravel him inside and out. “Fuck, Loki, so good, please, oh fuck.”

“Much though I like to take my time with you, do you know how good it is to take you apart like this, as you desperately cling to control even as it melts out of you, Tony?” the god hissed in his ear. “You feel it, don’t you? Slipping away as you take a pounding from a god you once defeated, now at my mercy––what little I may have.”

A groan escaped Tony’s throat. “You have any?” he managed, barely, his voice uneven as his breath came in ragged, shallow gasps.

“I’m merciful enough not to stop and leave you like this, am I not?”

“You’d f-f-fucking better be,” the inventor shot back, even as he shuddered.

“I could leave you this desperate for me to fill,” Loki added, tugging Tony’s hips back harder, changing the angle to strike that little bit deeper. “This hungry, this full of need for release, with no relief.”

“Don’t––mmh––don’t. You. Dare,” the inventor managed. He made a slightly panicked noise when Loki’s hand on his cock slowed, lingering wrapped around the head. Then the trickster murmured something indecipherable against the skin of his shoulder before closing that clever mouth over the spot and sucking hard, speeding up his pace. Tony gave a startled half-scream, because he felt that tongue and suction on his shoulder, but also an identical sensation on the head of his cock, while fingers stroked down his length slow and tight-gripping.

The inventor came so hard he saw stars for a moment. He was dimly aware of Loki following not too long after, but it took him a long moment to recover, his whole body still shaking a little. “Magic. Is cheating,” he said after several long seconds of heavy-breathing once they halted.

“As though you wouldn’t if you could,” Loki chuckled.

“B’side the point. JARVIS? Timer?”

“Nine and a half minutes exactly, sir.”

“Fuck, you’re good,” Tony groaned, and slowly collapsed down onto the mattress again, face-down.

“Your CEO awaits, I believe,” the trickster reminded.

The inventor shot a glare his way. “You. Evil.”

Loki grinned, pliant and sated for the time being. “I was actually inclined to agree last night, with your assessment of my temperament as selfish and chaotic-neutral.”

Tony muttered half-coherent syllables into his sheets, not bothering with actual words when petulant gibberish would suffice; however, he did manage to pry himself out of bed and make his way to the bathroom, smirking a little at the brush of Loki’s fingers along his lower back before he stepped away, and the increasingly familiar prickle of magic across his skin: soothing sore muscles, and banishing uncomfortable stickiness.

There really were far too many perks to bedding a god.

 

~~

 

Five minutes later, Tony emerged from the bedroom to find Pepper on the couch, arguing with someone in rapid-fire French. He smirked a bit appreciatively and leaned against the back of the couch to wait. She eyed him a bit suspiciously, as though expecting to see some obvious outward signs of recent indecencies, but aside from the biting- and suction-inflicted bruising up one side of his neck from last night, the mad inventor was otherwise no worse than usual: Black Sabbath t-shirt, designer jeans, hair artfully mussed rather than rucked up from sleep and recent sexy-times.

She finished her argument with a foreign investor with a few curt demands, and then hung up, cutting off their slightly panicked-sounding reply. “So. Is it imminent alien threat time, or is this a pre-contractual visit?”

“It’s catch-up-on-Earth’s-defenses pre-gaming, as it were.”

“With sex.”

“Yeah, that’s a new addition but, uh, not unwelcome.”

“And he stayed the night?” She raised an eyebrow.

“Well, we might’ve, ah, barely stopped at dawn. More sort of mutually collapsed unable to move, or think very coherently, let alone string words together into tricky things like sensible phrases,” the inventor admitted, rubbing the back of this neck. “And I was sort of hoping to get in another round or two in the morning, with some success, so far.”

“He really got to you in under...” She re-assessed his state of dress and estimated about five minutes of rapid personal grooming. “Ten or eleven minutes?”

Tony cleared his throat. “He’s really good. Really, really good.”

Pepper looked deeply amused. “So I should’ve interrupted you, and been conveniently naked?”

The inventor’s eyes glazed over and he opened his mouth to respond, but no sounds came out. Then they did, and it wasn’t quite coherent: “Urngh... I... words.”

She nodded thoughtfully, blushing only a little. “I wouldn’t, not really, but thank you for the fantasy fodder; I’ll have to take some time to properly appreciate it later.”

“You’re evil too,” Tony all but whimpered.

That caused her to giggle at him outright, and his ensuing frown only exacerbated it further.

“It’s not that funny.”

Wiping the corner of her eye, she sighed, “You’re insane.”

“You knew that before I hired you.”

“At least you were sane enough to eventually make me your boss.” She picked up her tablet and selected a few things. “Electronic signatures, please, and we need to discuss your schedule for the next two weeks. I wouldn’t have dropped in today if I didn’t have a feeling you’d already forgotten about your design consult with S.H.I.E.L.D. and Dr. Connors.”

Already speed-reading the documents, Tony sighed. She was right; he’d forgotten. “Has he still got the, ah...” He gestured at his arm left arm and face with the tablet. “The ‘skin condition’ he said was nothing we should worry about last time?”

“Dr. Connors has gotten rid of the lizard DNA, yes,” Pepper confirmed. “He’s also been working with Selvig, lately, and they seem to get on well.”

Tony tried not to imagine them trading horror stories. It was actually a pretty amusing scene, as it played out in his head. I have been robbed of my full sentience and reverted to a base animal state by forces I thought I could control, says the lizard-man. That’s cute, boy, but I was enslaved by mind-control to an evil god, and stared into an unholy abyss no mortal should ever witness, and was given grand and horrifying visions by a source of limitless power that warped my psyche. Now, about the layers of this material you’ve created that allows grip on nearly any surface save teflon: how do you prevent inconvenient particulate interference? the Scandinavian physicist would inquire. Well, it’s based on a sort of dynamic hyper-extension, which is why it has to be able to peel up like this to detach. It’s based on the feet of geckos...

“You’re lost in your head and haven’t heard the last eight things I’ve said,” Pepper sighed suddenly.

“Sorry. Lizards and physicists. You were saying?”

She rolled her eyes, and tapped the tablet. “You’re done signing?”

“Yeah.”

“Then pull up the calendar and you read it off to me, and I’ll tell you the rest.”

“Your ability to force me to pay attention to mundane life details through clever presentational tricks remains a marvel,” he muttered.

“You love it. Now read.”

Reluctantly, he did.

 

~~

 

Loki had vanished by the time Pepper left, which didn’t surprise Tony much in the least, but the god reappeared with a few bruises and some more organic samples of some strange herbal-mix he’d nicked from somewhere in the Ten Rings’ main stronghold, which he demanded Tony set about making Bruce break down the components of, and recreate if possible. Recreation would turn out tricky, since a few of the compounds were complete unknowns, but seeing their molecular structure and some of their properties later the god of lies would give them ridiculous-sounding names that Tony would claim had to have been made up, but that wasn’t the point. The main point was that the trickster delivered a resource, and they argued a bit over the physics that had to be involved with a reptile of the size and relative mass Loki described being able to shape-shift into a much smaller and less conspicuous (human-like, for instance) shape, and they wound up making out on the couch like teenagers for a long while before Tony flipped the god onto the floor and fucked him less than ten feet from the same spot the Hulk had shattered Loki’s spine a few years before. It had been rough and hot and Tony had scratches and bites all over him the next day, because the trickster hadn’t been about to let them stop at one round.

And then three weeks later when he returned for Bruce’s results and named the unknown compounds, claiming they were mystical, it somehow devolved into Tony being pushed up against glass the god had once thrown him through, being taken with his bare ass visible to anyone within range with a decent set of binoculars because he hadn’t had the breath to ask JARVIS to put the glass on Privacy Mode. He was surprised and almost a little disappointed that no enterprising paparazzi managed to hold out hope against the notorious Stark anti-press-and-unwanted-public-exposure measures and captured some of those pictures for the papers.

It became a pattern. That wasn’t to say that they had sex every single time Loki appeared, which became a frequent enough occurrence on its own, but it was at least 80% of the time. And it was good. Really good.

Really, it was a marvel that it took anyone over two months to catch on that something was up.

It started with an Avengers mission that had started out reconnaissance in the stealth suit, flying low through a mountain range looking for a possible Hydra outpost hidden in the area, since it was suspected they’d be opening doors wide to accommodate the arrival of something large being delivered to them by The Hand, and had turned into a near-massacre as whatever was meant to be delivered managed to break out on the delivery bay before the doors quite shut, and it had turned out to be someone not-quite Asgardian who was really really pissed.

Thor––when he’d shown up just ahead of the rest of the cavalry as Tony tried to avoid capture and figure out if the big axe-wielding guy, who was wearing a bit more fur amongst his leather and armor than any Aesir Tony had yet seen, was friend or foe––identified the guy as Skurge. By ‘identify’, Tony meant he’d bellowed it like an accusation and a war-cry and hurled himself at the guy. Chaos had ensued.

As though summoned by it, a figure in green appeared and grabbed Skurge by the scruff of the neck, blasting Thor onto his back briefly with a blast of green-glowing energy. “Open those doors,” Loki snarled, watching his adoptive brother leap back up to his feet and hesitate at the sight of him.

“Lie-smith?” the massive alien viking inquired, sounding wary, but not violent.

“Open them, please.”

“Loki! This is not yours to interfere with!” Thor shouted.

The trickster ignored him, watching Skurge pull back one muscled arm and hurl his axe at the heavy doors of Hydra’s outpost. They creaked and bowed as the axe-head pierced them, and stuck fast, the blade landing right in the center where the two heavy steel vault-like doors pressed together, axe parallel to their seam.

“Bring me my axe, trickster, and those doors will open,” he mocked.

Loki rolled his eyes and waved a hand.

The axe twisted slightly with a sound of screaming metal, then yanked back, pulling the doors open and forcing Thor and Iron Man to step back or be hit by them as they flew by; Loki deflected them with another hand-wave, as Skurge caught his axe and grinned widely, just before he and the trickster god both vanished.

Thor swore impressively just before panicked cries escaped the base and big scary weapons––old tesseract-based ones, the good stuff, to Tony’s chagrin––began shooting at them from the exposed passageway leading down into Hydra’s base.

“C’mon, buddy, we got other fish to fry!” the inventor shouted, tugging sharply at the thunder god’s cape to bring him to one knee for a moment, as a shot passed over him that might have otherwise hit his pretty bearded face.

“Of course,” Thor muttered, grudgingly, but then whirled his hammer and hurled himself through the burst-open doors. A blinding blaze of lightning and a deafening thunder-clap fit to make the earth shake for a hundred yards around, followed shortly after that.

“Tony, Thor seems unusually disturbed, and we’ve lost our lock on the big thing you two were fighting,” Natasha said over the comms. “What just happened?”

“Apparently the big thing’s name is Skurge, and he and Thor might have some violent history, because he doesn’t even go after Loki with quite that bloodthirst,” the inventor recounted. “Speaking of, guess who teleported him who-the-fuck knows where?”

“You’re kidding,” Clint snapped, over the same channel. “What the fuck was he doing out there?”

Tony suspected he might be under some sort of observation, but given Loki also seemed to know Skurge, without the same violent-hate response Thor had, he did actually think it more likely that the trickster might have been keeping an eye out for Skurge, too, lately. “I think he and Skurge aren’t exactly friends, but the big guy liked him way better than me, and I was offering, like, amnesty or something, even while he was trying to cut my face off.”

“No clues where they might have gone?” Cap asked.

“Not a bit. Looks like Thor’s cleared most of the tesseract-based weapons they put near the entrance in anticipation of a siege. I’m going in after Sparky McAngryFace.”

“We’ll be there in five to get your asses out of trouble,” Clint shot back.

“Looking forward to it. You sitting this one out, Bruce?”

“Waiting to see what you find, and if you’re more likely to need medical attention after this than any help from the other guy before it’s over,” the chemist responded.

“Fair enough. Looks like a fifty-fifty shot, so far,” Tony remarked, as he dove into the fray with a whooping cry.

In the end, they did need the other guy, because it turned out that about half a mile under the surface was where they were building their shiny, new, never-before-seen-above-ground Dreadnaughts, which looked like the Anton Vanko Iron Man rip-offs as re-imagined by the same demented imagination that thought land-and-sea transports that looked like be-tentacled skulls in a sickly green aesthetic were a good idea. They were mean, green, angular, and the masks a bit skeletal somehow in style. They were also as big as Obie’s prototype rip-off had been, too, and a few of them had one or both hands taken up by big drilling-type machinery bit that looked very reliably German-engineered.

“WE NEED SOMEONE MORE ANGRY AND GREEN THAN THESE GUYS!” Tony shouted over the comms, sending images to their backup. Then he began a lot of ducking, rolling, and occasional dragging Thor out of a tricky position by means of the god’s surprisingly sturdy cape.

“Seriously, what’s your cape made of, anyway?”

“Not anyone’s drapes,” Thor shot back, making Tony laugh as he set a uni-beam through two of the heavy metal monstrous parodies of his own sleek, elegant Iron Man perfection. Was he biased? Yes. Was he also angry that they were copying his tech so he didn’t care? Oh, hell yes.

Of course, the Hulk in a subterranean environment, even a pretty sturdy German-engineered one, turned out to be a tricky situation all is own, twenty minutes later.

“Retreat, retreat!” Tony kept shouting. “No, really, Thor, dammit, come on!” He picked up Natasha and Clint along the way, while Thor managed to grab their star-spangled Captain America, in a mad flight toward the moonlit entryway they’d initially descended from. The Hulk followed them, sounding still enraged, but also a little distressed, almost falling behind. Depositing the assassin and the archer at the entrance, Tony dove back to help him out, despite the Thunder god reaching out to attempt to stop him.

“That’s why I don’t wear a cape!” he snapped over the comms. A short while later, he zoomed just past the Hulk and turned around. “C’mon, I’ve seen you jump before, what’s stopping you, big guy?” He powered up his thrusters, his palms on the green giant’s mid-back.

“Too far.”

“Trust me, okay? Would I be here if it was?”

“You do stupid things sometimes,” the Hulk responded bluntly.

“Yeah, well, I’m helping you with this one.” He gripped just around the big guy’s ribcage, right under the shoulder blades, calculating all the angles in his head. “Now!C’mon!”

The Hulk leapt and Tony engaged thrusters in his boots at full power, pushing the big green body ahead of him, and sending them both flying out of the place a scant fifteen seconds before total collapse.

They landed ten yards from the others, who had wisely scattered away from the entrance to either side, Tony flipping off the Hulk’s back and skidding a bit further before tumbling to a halt, laying sprawled out on his back, breathing hard.

“See? Totally knew what I was doing,” he panted.

The Hulk laughed at him.

Hours later, when they were all showered and most of them had decided to sleep, Tony was still too buzzed with adrenaline and curiosity, and Natasha was still re-adjusting to the time difference after a recent mission on the other side of the world, so they were both drinking coffee in the kitchen at three in the morning in companionable quiet. Until Natasha got a mischievous look and smirked at him over the edge of her coffee mug.

“I’m curious, Tony,” she said.

“About?”

“Well, you’re not bringing any flings around the tower, but you’re here more often than elsewhere most of the time, lately. No one is bringing themselves by, that we’ve seen, and I’d have noticed. You still sleep here, when you do sleep. And yet, those teeth- and suction-marks on your neck haven’t faded over the past few weeks, even the days I was away recently, so much as... migrated.” She sipped her coffee. “So who do I know with the ability to get into the tower without tripping any alarms, or using anything obvious like elevators or helicopters?”

“A lot of people, these days,” Tony muttered. “Seriously, if I weren’t a genius and practically a technomage, I’d start feeling almost inadequate with all the ridiculously super-powered upstarts in the local tri-state area alone.”

“And which one are you sleeping with recently?” she asked, light and playful.

“I’m insulted that your assumption isn’t even plural.”

She made an amused sound, but her eyes remained a bit shrewdly assessing. “Teeth marks are so far consistently the same, just slightly relocated. They’re a bit wider than marks Pepper used to leave, and some of them are situated frequently enough near the nape of your neck at angles to suggest to me your lover enjoys topping, and you enjoy him doing it?”

“You’re creepy, I want you to know,” the inventor muttered.

“How long has he been around, Tony?”

“Oh, just a while.”

“Is he any good?”

Clearing his throat, Tony admitted, “Fuck yes, he’s good.”

“You think he’s manipulating you?”

“With sex? Have you met me?”

She laughed a little. “Fair enough.”

“The sex is a fringe benefit. Once the... war bit and alliance bit is over, I won’t be expecting a stab in the back any less because I happen to be a good lay.”

“Good.” She nodded thoughtfully. “I recall overhearing Dr. Foster-”

“Yes. And she’s got nothing to brag about compared to magic, because even when I was fucking fourteen I never recuperated so fast.”

The assassin laughed loud and long, gripping his shoulder for support as he beamed at her smugly. He patted her on the shoulder lightly until she regained her composure.

“Would you share him?” she asked, her tone sultry, but with a wary caution in the way her eyes read his expression.

“With you?” He let his teeth drag along his lower lip as he took her in from head to toe not for the first, and certainly not for the last, time. “I’d die happy.”

She snorted and swatted his hand away from her shoulder, even as she still leaned a bit against his. “You’re a lunatic.”

“I’m brilliant.”

“You’re a brilliant lunatic, but still a lunatic. Just be careful.”

“This isn’t a romance,” Tony offered. “I promise.”

She nodded thoughtfully, but there was a hint of doubt in her expression.

“It takes more than amazing sex to win me over,” he protested.

“I think you’re already in it for more than the sex,” she countered. “Be careful.”

Tony shook his head at her, dismissive and unbelieving. “It’s not like I trust him.”

“Take it from an expert, Tony,” Natasha said softly, “It can be the ones you know well enough to never trust, but enjoy nevertheless, who can get to you when you least expect it. Don’t get yourself killed by him, in the end.” She kissed his cheek, sisterly affectionate and casual, then finished her coffee and strode out, setting her mug in the sink as she went.

The mad inventor considered her warning, and all he’d learned about a certain Bucky Barnes over the past couple of years, and shook his head. It wasn’t like that. Really, it wasn’t.

 

~~

 

Loki reappeared three days later in Tony’s private lab, where the inventor was tweaking one of the more delicate components of a new disruption-field he planned to incorporate into most of his active-use armor.

“Thor says Skurge is an ally to some Asgardian exile?” Tony greeted.

“Yes, Amora. She is an old friend of mine, which is to say that having her owe me favors has always proven to be beneficial, and she knows me fairly well, of old,” Loki replied easily. “She is an enchantress, and has in the past held an unhealthy infatuation, to the point of near-obsession, with Thor.”

“Ah, so his reaction to Skurge was more to do with her than him? ‘Bad touch’ et cetera?” the mad mortal asked lightly, not looking up from his work again, though he was highly aware of the god stalking slowly toward him.

“Yes, quite. Skurge is powerful, but very much in her thrall. He is almost her pet more than her partner, but it suits the pair of them well enough, most of the time. She has changed, with time, though Thor has had little opportunity to notice, aside from the fact her attempts to possess him by trickery and mind control have ceased over the past half-century or so.”

“You took him though. Why?” Tony asked lightly.

“A favor. She and I have frequent trade in them.”

The inventor looked at him then, and raised an eyebrow. “Is she cute?”

Loki snorted. “She’s lovely enough to behold, but I have always found it difficult to be attracted to people desperate to lay with Thor.”

“Fair enough,” the inventor mused. He didn’t even flinch when the trickster vanished and reappeared close at his right. He did note, with appreciation, that the god was only wearing a black muscle shirt akin to his own, and ridiculously well-tailored black denim jeans.

“Whatever are you making this time?”

Tony grinned, aimed it at him, and fired.

Loki cringed, not with just his face, but his entire body, away from the prickling-electric-ozone sensation/smell that rolled over him like a wave.

“Wow, you were wearing illusions. You’re a bit beat to shit. Why hide it? Not like I haven’t seen you hurt before, at this point.”

The trickster shuddered and shook off the short-term effects of the low-powered blast, the illusions creeping back into place to cover scattered, but deep bruises along the left side of his body and his left arm. “That was deeply unpleasant, and please never attempt that again,” he intoned gravely.

“Not fun?”

“Awful,” Loki almost sputtered. “Almost outright sickening.”

“You still didn’t answer my question.”

Meeting his gaze, the god of lies hissed, “I was going to request that you have me over this table as hard as you might manage, and did not wish you to hold back, just knowing that I happened to be slightly injured.”

Tony licked his lips. “I can still do that.”

“First, explain that device in your hands.”

“It nullifies or disrupts magic at close range; that was the lowest setting, mostly good for short shocks that can mess with illusions and some thinner barriers, but can also deflect or even nullify some projectiles if they’re made up of magic or being moved by it.” As he set the device aside, Tony found the trickster suddenly in his face, leaning in close. “Like it?”

“Not at all,” Loki growled, “but your cleverness in designing it? That, I do appreciate.” For emphasis, he rocked his hips against the inventor’s. “Just as I do appreciate a challenge, Mr. Stark.”

Tony smiled, slow and sly. “That’s good. Because I am one.”

It was a long, long night from there.