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Reciprocity

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Steve remembered exactly how it had happened in clear and vivid detail:  Thor’s return to earth six months after the Battle of New York.  The disturbing things he told them in the presence of Fury and Coulson.  The even-more unsettling memory of what Thor told them about Loki when the SHIELD agents had left to report to the World Security Council and Thor got drunk and grief-stricken and guilt-ridden still had the power to chill Steve’s soul.  

But he still had a hard time believing how Thor’s second return to Earth several weeks later, his brother in tow, had led to the sight before his eyes:  the supervillain who had tried to destroy Manhattan sprawled comfortably on a sofa in the largest living room on the communal floor of Stark Tower, watching an enormous television screen.

Loki hadn’t bothered to look in his direction but one corner of his mouth had curled up in a half-smile.  So, he was aware of Steve’s presence, and typically planned to play some kind of game.

Loki’s return had been expected, but the change in him had been immediately obvious.  He’d looked healthy, his hair shorter and well groomed.  The dark circles beneath his eyes had been gone, and he no longer had that emaciated ravenous look to him.

Most importantly, that unhinged look in his eyes was gone.  Not only did he actually look sane, he appeared to be comfortable with Thor’s presence right beside him.  Given Thor’s drunken confidences, that had all made sense to Steve, and he immediately realized that, if everything Thor said was true, Loki could be a crucial asset in the fight to come.

Still, Steve had thought Loki would spend all of his time on the helicarrier or secluded in some underground SHIELD bunker, working with the best of earth’s scientists on weapons to fight the upcoming war.  Yes, he’d understood the terms of Loki’s parole, but he’d assumed that the requirement that guaranteed Loki had to be always in Steve’s or Fury’s presence, unless given specific and limited permission to be elsewhere, meant that Fury would be taking point on making sure the alien toed the line. 

And yes, Loki spent significant chunks of time in the World Security Council’s undisclosed locations.  But in between, he was confined to Stark’s tower.  When he wasn’t helping Tony in his work he spent most of his time in the communal areas, making snarky comments and indulging in random practical jokes, such as when a TV comedy show starring all of them in embarrassing costumes and situations appeared on every television screen in the communal areas in Stark Tower.  Fortunately, Loki hadn’t broadcast those shows to the greater world.  Then there was the time when he gave various appliances – some of which Steve had yet to master – entirely different functions, such as when the microwave, in addition to cooking food, transformed it into strangely shaped animal figurines.  Still edible, but disturbing to look at, particularly when it was Chinese leftovers all mushed together.

Steve stepped closer, but Loki didn’t turn his attention from the television.  He was dressed casually in black pants and a green shirt made of some kind of shiny silky clingy material.  Inhumanly pale long-fingered hands were laced together over his abdomen.  The channels on the huge screen were switching themselves with great rapidity without benefit of remote control, pausing occasionally to focus on vapid-looking people selling various wares, multiple incidents of explosions and shootings, impassioned people in courtrooms or hospitals, with the occasional glimpses of lions and tigers and bears.  Loki was taking this all in with a look of utter boredom and disdain on his finely sculpted face. 

Steve settled down in a nearby armchair and didn’t bother to look at the television.  Stark liked to “channel switch” too; an action Steve found incredibly irritating and distracting.  He focused his gaze on Loki instead.  He was here on a mission.  He had a plan; he’d worked out exactly what he intended to say. 

The Asgardian’s – or was it the Jotunn’s? – smile widened barely perceptibly.  Steve repressed a sigh. 

Loki drawled without once glancing in his direction, “Do you enjoy staring at me so much you plan to do it all day?”

Steve huffed a tiny noise, and was instantly irritated by the smirk that touched Loki’s lips and disappeared.  The television paused on some kind of talk show.  A darkhaired man was interviewing a couch-ful of celebrities, none of whom Steve recognized, who were apparently promoting a new movie as there was now a clip of some gigantic lizard pulverizing Manhattan while the brunette actress seated to the male lead’s right uttered an ear-piercing scream on screen.  Steve was surprised these kinds of movies were so popular – didn’t people get enough of this sort of thing in real life?  There’d been that attack of Doombots just last Wednesday.  He had a sudden urge to watch something frothy and musical.  Where were the Fred Astaires and Ginger Rogers of this era?  Sure, there were a lot of dancers out there, but the styles and sounds were alienating and he couldn’t watch for long.

Loki waited several seconds longer without looking at him, then twitched a finger and the TV went black.

Steve put aside his uncomfortable feeling about watching Loki watch a fictional account of a monster doing precisely what Loki had attempted when he’d first visited earth, and decided not to comment; his imagination had Stark filling in that dialogue all too clearly.  Any commentary he might add wouldn’t help him achieve today’s goal.  Instead, he found himself saying, “Can’t you find anything you want to watch?”

“Your puerile attempts at entertainment fail to amuse on even the lowest level.  But, by all means,”  Loki turned his head and looked over his shoulder with a bright smile, then gestured at the remote control reposing on the coffee table, “Indulge.”

Steve had recently worked out how to call up movies on demand, and for a moment he considered finding one of his favorites from the 1930s.  Then common sense took over – Loki would doubtless spend his time making mocking comments, like he always did, and he’d rather enjoy his favorite movies without that sort of distraction.  “No thank you.  For all that it’s great to have a movie screen in your living room, there isn’t a whole lot worth watching these days,” Steve admitted readily.  Loki huffed a genuine laugh and sat up. 

He regarded Steve curiously.  “So you do not enjoy your television.”

“It’s not mine,” Steve started, then stopped at Loki’s discerning look.

“No, I expect not.  Your human societies evolve so rapidly.  I expect this would not be to your taste.” 

Despite himself, Steve felt a small pang at the gently barbed remark, like the tiniest cut, immediately noticed but not truly felt until later.  “A lot of it isn’t,” he admitted readily.  “But there’s so much variety that I can find a lot of good things to watch.”

Loki leaned slightly forward, hands on knees, and fixed him with a bright-eyed gaze.  “You appear to be here on a mission.”

Steve frequently felt he was too transparent.   “I’d like you to join us every so often for meals.   We’re having Chinese food tonight and we occasionally watch movies.”

“How dull.”  Loki waved at the TV.  “I can do that here.”  A smile curled his lips.  “Would you like me to take charge of the leftovers?”  Steve repressed a shudder and Loki tilted his head.  “Much as I would like to join all of you in your no-doubt scintillating evening, I must offer my apologies.  I already have plans.”

“You know, you don’t need to eat your meals in your rooms all the time.  It’d be nice if you joined us for dinner every once in awhile.”

“That does sound dreary.  I enjoy not being forced to suffer through Thor’s table manners.  Or perhaps you’re implying my brother is still away?”  He offered Steve an effortlessly artless smile. 

“Thor’s still in New Mexico.  So if that’s your reason for refusing – ”

“As I mentioned, I do have other plans.  I will not be staying in my suite, however.  I will be having dinner elsewhere.”

Steve gave him a hard look and determined to quiz JARVIS at the first opportunity as to whether Loki had found a loophole in the bespelled requirements of his parole:  he was confined to certain designated areas in Stark Tower or whatever locale Fury took him to on their top secret jaunts, and, on the occasions he was outside, he had to be either be in Steve’s or Fury’s presence. “You know you’re not supposed to leave the Tower without me or Fury accompanying you.” 

Loki waved a careless gesture.  “I do not plan to leave the Tower.”

“So you plan to eat right here?”  Loki gave him a non-committal smile, and Steve decided to abandon the topic and bring up the next step of his plan.  “All right.  Anyway, I wanted to talk to you about tomorrow.  I’d like you to join me – I had some ideas for things we could do.”

Loki made an amused sound.  “Another one of your little projects?  I thought I was to have a holiday from my construction work.  A ‘day off’, it’s called, is it not?”

“Yes, it is a day off.  Unless an emergency occurs.”

Loki smiled.  “Of course.  Your realm seems to have attracted a great deal of interest from other parties since you started playing with Odin’s toys.”

Tony, Steve knew, would have been all over that, and he knew exactly how Fury and Coulson would have responded to casual discussion about whatever it was they were all working on.  But he could see by the gleam in Loki’s eyes the intended point of that comment was to distract him from his goal, so he persevered.  “You’re doing great work on the Gianelli tower.  It’s hard to believe the repairs are almost complete.”  Loki smiled with pleasure at the praise, but his eyes narrowed an instant later.  He had the look of one anticipating poison behind kind words.  “I mean it.  Seeing how quickly you’re getting everything rebuilt – I would never have believed such a thing possible.”

Loki made a dismissive gesture.  “Many things seem impossible to your Midgardian way of thinking,” Loki said patronizingly.

“We’re learning quickly,” Steve replied.  “But tomorrow is still free.  I was thinking you might like to see more of the city from the ground level.  Sunday’s a perfect day for that.  There are outdoor concerts and plays, art exhibits.  A lot going on.  We could go for a walk.  See a game or go to a museum.  Have a good meal.”

Loki’s expression had changed to polite doubt that any of those activities could possibly interest him.  “And what else?” Loki gave him a ‘waiting for the punchline’ patient look. 

“I thought you might like to get out of the Tower with nothing specific planned.”

“An excursion.  Out among the peasants.”  Loki grinned at the sour look on Steve’s face.

“Mr. Loki?”  Steve resisted the impulse to glance toward the ceiling, which he had done so often in the early days every time he’d heard JARVIS speak. 

“Yes?” Loki said, managing to pack a ton of arrogance and aristocracy into one syllable.

“The dinner you ordered has arrived.”

“Thank you, JARVIS,” he said, in the ‘speaking to servants’ tone Steve had once heard from a rich woman outside a department store giving instructions to her chauffeur about when to return.  Loki got up.

“So you ordered takeout?” Steve asked.

But he was speaking to empty air.  Loki had vanished, with just the hint of a chuckle fading away behind him.

Steve unclenched his fists.  His attempts to get Loki to play nice with others had so far borne no fruit.  “JARVIS, where did Loki go?”

“Mr. Loki is currently in the Stark Industries formal dining room.”  Did he imagine it, or did JARVIS sound just a little bit irritated?

Steve hadn’t heard of that dining room before, but of course a rich guy like Tony would need one of those.  Probably several of those.  He wasn’t surprised he’d never been there before because Tony, without the motivation of Pepper’s badgering, avoided like the plague any of the portions of his Tower set aside for the running of his business.  “And where is that?” 

 

A minute later Steve was in the nearest elevator and heading sixty-three floors down, considering whether Loki had found a loophole.  A formal dining room was still a communal space, and, yes, technically within Loki’s limits.  Even if it was nowhere near the other parts of the tower Loki had access to. 

He noticed the vaguest hint of pressure at his temples, like the first indication that a bad headache was on its way.  He didn’t get those anymore.  Not since before the serum.  But if he did, he was sure Loki would be the cause of most of them, the occasional slime creature or attack of Doombots aside.  It was moments like these, having just seen the cause of so much death and destruction lying on Tony’s sofa like he owned the place, that made Steve feel, more than usual, that he‘d woken up in a world he just didn’t understand.

Particularly when he’d heard the reasons behind the death and destruction and realized this new world he had awakened into had expanded greatly beyond their planet, and the danger approaching from somewhere far out in space, which had first laid its hands on Loki, was even now approaching to do far worse to their world.

This moment – and others like it – were the end result of complicated negotiations between Asgard and the World Security Council.  Negotiations which had started with Thor’s dramatic arrival at Avenger’s Tower six months after the Battle of New York, now nearly a year ago.

Thor, wearing his armor, had appeared without warning on the rooftop of Stark’s tower.  Only he, Tony, and Bruce had been present that night, Natasha and Clint being off on some secret mission.  Thor had been intense and serious, and the reasons became quickly clear.  He’d begun by explaining that his father had regained enough magical strength to send him here alone.  Tony had immediately broken in to quiz him on specifics, but Thor had managed the seemingly impossible: he’d gotten Tony to shut up.  He’d requested they use their recording devices to share his news with Midgard’s King.  Thor had been uncertain as to who that personage might be, so left the details up to Nick Fury.  Tony hadn’t bothered to put in a call to Fury, but he’d shown up a short time later anyway, accompanied by a miraculously resurrected Coulson.  Some time had to be wasted in explaining to all of them just exactly how the Son of Coul had survived Loki’s assault.  Thor had been delighted and had proposed a feast to celebrate, but he had quickly returned to his mission and told them about Loki’s fate and Asgard’s plans.

He described in raw and compelling detail the unimaginably lethal space alien who had pulled Loki from the depths of space and turned him into his own weapon, and horrifyingly worse, that warlord’s obsession with death, with genocide, with the destruction of all life everywhere. 

Thor had ignored Tony’s numerous attempts to interrupt and explained that, upon their initial return to Asgard, Loki had been entrusted to their healers.  He had now, Thor assured them, been healed of his madness, and with various magical safeguards in place to ensure his behavior, had been helping with the repair of the Bifrost. 

Steve remembered how stunned he’d been when Thor told them that his father had determined that Loki would return to earth on a type of parole; that the work on the Bifrost had now reached the point where he felt Loki’s abilities could best be used on Midgard.  He proposed to send Loki to aid in Jane Foster’s work and that of any other Midgardian sorcerer who possessed sufficient skill to complete an Einstein-Rosen bridge.  The completion of this bridge and its programming to the location of the Bifrost would create a resonance which would stimulate the growth of the Bifrost and, if all went well, create a stable connection between their realms.  At that point, Asgard could send armies to earth at will.

In addition, once that work was complete, Loki could aid them with their defenses by helping them design specific weaponry to prepare for a war with the warlord who had sent Loki to earth in the first place.   Asgard, also, was working on strengthening its own defenses with the use of the Tesseract and other such relics.  Lastly, whenever he wasn’t working on either of those goals, Loki had also been commanded to make reparations to Midgard (Thor called it “weregeld”, but it sounded like reparations to Steve). 

Tony had used a lot more words, many of them profane, to say the same thing he had:  how could they possibly trust Loki to do any of that?   Thor had explained that, though their healers felt he was ready, they had decided to make certain of his loyalty by requiring him to swear a magically-coerced vow to do no harm to anyone overtly or covertly.  There was a long list of other requirements as well, on making reparations and following orders.  Last of all, Thor had made it very clear that in turn Midgard was to vow to keep Loki safe from all harm or imprisonment. 

Tony had quizzed Thor about possible loopholes but Thor had been blithely confident that in no possible way would Loki be able to cause any trouble on Midgard.   Tony and Steve had both been less certain of Odin’s abilities to keep anyone like Loki contained, but Thor hadn’t stayed for any more questions, and had left as abruptly as he had arrived. 

Thor had returned a few weeks later, again with no advance notice.  This time he had Loki in tow, along with some additional Asgardians, mostly older men in fancy robes, all deferential to Thor.  The older ones in robes had been introduced as counselors and diplomats.   The younger ones, all dressed in armor even more outlandish than Thor’s, were called Einherjar, a term Loki had helpfully translated as “security”. 

Loki and Tony had immediately begun insulting each other.  Minutes later the SHIELD agents Tony had grudgingly allowed to take up residence on another floor of his tower had shown up, a SHIELD helicopter had landed on the roof, and Thor, Loki, and all the Asgardians had been whisked away.  Tony had amused himself tracking them down to some super secret sanctuary in the Alps, but then had gotten busy with another one of his projects. 

The Asgardians had returned several days later.  Thor’s muddled explanation as to what had happened while they were gone had been interrupted so many times by Loki giving him a condescending smile and saying in a patronizing tone, “What was their quaint term?  ‘Ultra Top Secret’?” It had taken Tony a full 15 minutes to find out everything he wanted to know. 

Steve had been highly skeptical at first, and still was not totally convinced that Loki himself had been under the influence of another being’s mind, certain that Loki could never truly make reparations for all the deaths he had caused.  But so far Loki had done everything he had been required to do.  The Einstein–Rosen bridge had been completed a few weeks ago and Loki had explained it was anticipated that in a mere few months the Bifrost would be fully regenerated and the gateway would be opened.   The next phase of the project had started immediately, and Loki had divided his time between Fury’s undisclosed locations for weapons development, and Stark Tower.

And, while in New York, he had begun work on making on-the-ground reparations by helping with the work to reconstruct the damaged portions of Manhattan, already well underway before his arrival.

Loki had made a start with providing endless quantities of top notch building materials literally out of nowhere, and the building equipment to go with it, all at first glance appearing to be identical to ordinary construction equipment, but on use turned out to be better, faster, and more efficient.

Reconstructing what he had destroyed was only the beginning.  Though there were Wall Street bigwigs tearing their hair out over a sudden influx of money to every charity in the city, and a concurrent scandal over the sudden drop in the price of gold because of the sudden availability of gold from several newly discovered sources in every part of the globe due to some new technology, and despite politicians and the IRS talking about investigations into money laundering and other, darker financial scandals, and reporters salivating over the prospect of big stories, and an army of lawyers creating chaos of their own, somehow the money and services got to those who needed it.

Steve was fine with that.

And so far Loki had been doing a good job repairing the damage and destruction he and his army had caused.  Any concerns they had about how to pull off having the source of all this destruction publicly visible help fix it had vanished early on.  All-father Odin had worked some magic, with Loki’s assistance, and, as Loki put it, “cast a spell”, and as Tony put it, “hacked into”, every facial recognition program on the planet to make cameras blind to Loki’s presence, seeing someone entirely different instead.  To top it off, every photo of Loki online or off, from the sharp clear images from Stuttgart, to blurred cell phone distance shots of someone dressed in a melodramatic green and gold costume wearing some ridiculous horned helmet at the top of Stark’s tower, showed someone who maybe looked a lot like Loki, but when focused on showed someone else entirely. 

The most disturbing part was, no one seemed to notice, other than the other Avengers and certain SHIELD agents such as Fury and Coulson.  Unsurprisingly, Nick Fury seemed perfectly comfortable with the deception and secrecy.  That didn’t apply to its source, however.  When he’d first visited Stark Tower while Loki was in residence the veins on his head had throbbed so visibly that Steve worried he might have a stroke.  But Fury had managed, with obvious difficulty, to restrain himself from physically attacking the source of his rage.  Despite that source greeting him with a predatory smirk.

The elevator arrived on the 28th floor, and Steve stepped out into a tastefully appointed antechamber.  Pepper’s doing, no doubt, through a choice of some business designer.  The door to the executive dining room didn’t want to open for him at first, but he used an override Tony had given him and walked right in like he was taking command of a unit ready to raid a HYDRA stronghold.

The long elegant room screamed money in its every detail.  Loki was seated at the end of a long table made of some rich warm-toned wood, wine goblet in hand, several different wine bottles lined up on a small table to the side.  At least fifteen dishes were arrayed in front of him.  He was currently sampling something that looked like Steve’s mother’s green Jell-O salad – that is, if she’d been able to make Jell-O in an egg shape and put something that looked like weeds inside it.

Loki looked up at him, unsurprised, and smiled the smile of a perfect host.  He gestured to the seat beside him, and Steve walked to it along the length of a long table, which would have easily accommodated 20 people. 

Steve stopped, rested his hands on the back of the chair, and stared at one small plate after another.   “What on earth is that?” he asked dubiously.  None of the dishes contained anything he’d define as food.  Loki grinned and moved on to a dish composed of something about the size of a potato chip, only flat and filigreed, which was connected to an amorphous yellow blob by a fancy toothpick.  A square cube of fried something completed the combination.   Loki lifted a fork to his mouth and took a delicate bite, half closing his eyes in pleasure. “Is that supposed to be food?”

Loki swallowed a second bite and gave him a beatific smile.  “Care to join me, Captain?”

Steve sat down in the indicated chair.  Loki politely passed a dish over and lifted his hand invitingly.  Steve studied something which looked like a mound of bubble bath foam with a few nut-shaped things stuck randomly in place, a heap of what looked like half a crumbled sugar cookie, an orange flower and something that looked like parsley.

“Is it safe for humans to eat Asgardian food?”

Loki displayed his teeth.  “Asgardian cuisine, on the whole, is on the basic side.  If you want good cuisine, go to Alfheim.  This is Midgardian food.”

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Steve said suspiciously, using a chopstick to poke at something which looked like a collection of translucent pale orange marbles presented in a fancy red spoon.  “Where did you get it?”

Loki gave him condescending smile.  “I choose to patronize only those establishments which serve nobility.  Not peasants.”  He looked entirely too pleased with himself at the expression Steve knew had crossed his face.

“What is this?”  Steve pointed out something which looked like an empty potato shell, a congealed orange block of something, with what looked like it might have been bacon at some point stuck to the side.

“It’s called ‘Eggs Benedict’.”  Loki gently moved it to Steve’s side of the table.  Steve contemplated it.  It didn’t resemble whatsoever any eggs he had ever seen.  Steve picked up a fork.  Recalling the raw liver he had to eat as a treatment for anemia, he figured it couldn’t be any worse than that.   He gamely took a bite. 

It wasn’t bad.

It wasn’t good either, but he kept eating, thinking it was ridiculous to take something this trivial as a challenge.  But nothing was ever simple with Loki.

The food went down easily and he relaxed slightly, realizing his body had automatically tensed in anticipation of his stomach rejecting the food, remembering how he had had to be so very careful of what he ate before the serum because of his stomach problems.  And what a revelation that had been, on how almost all the ailments he’d suffered before the experiment could now be cured quickly and easily!  For all the faults he found in his new time, medicine was not one of them.

Loki watched, expressionless, then took a bite of something pale pink with a green wrapping.  He smiled with pleasure at the taste.

“You sure don’t like the same things your brother does,” Steve commented casually. 

Loki pasted a bemused expression on his face.  “My brother, the connoisseur.”  He took a second bite of whatever it was he was eating.

Steve decided he might as well continue his train of thought. “Steaks, potatoes, burgers, that sort of thing.”

“You forgot to mention the delectable ‘pop tart’,” Loki observed dryly.

“Those too.”

“Asgardian cuisine runs heavily to such things. Roasts, root vegetables.  Various apple dishes.   Meat in bread, such as your burgers, is something he frequently eats at ho—On Asgard.”

“I guess he’s not into trying anything new,” Steve said, making a mental note of what Loki had almost said.  He took a bite of something vinegary Loki had just offered him.  If this was a test, he planned to pass it.  “Have you thought about joining me tomorrow?”

“Is this one of your ‘honorable orders’?”  Bitterness danced below the surface of Loki’s casual tone.

That had been the Asgardian term for orders that Loki was compelled by the spellwork to follow to the letter.  It had felt a bit too much like slavery to Steve, but no one else had objected, and Barton, for one, had wholeheartedly approved.  “No.  It’s not.  It’s like I said earlier.  I just thought you might enjoy getting out of the tower for once, do something different.”  Loki still looked as if he were looking for a ‘catch’.”   

“That’s all,” Steve said. “Just a day out.”

Loki gave a short, amused laugh, and his expression lost its hard edge.  “You’re incapable of guile.  I accept your offer.”

Steve found a big smile had crossed his face.  Loki passed him something sweet, and offered a glass of wine, both of which he was surprised to find he enjoyed.  He lifted his glass, considering making a toast like he’d seen Pepper do, when the door swung open, and Stark headed in their direction with the inexorable force of a hurricane.  He was glaring so hard Steve was reminded of cartoon characters with steam coming out of their ears. 

Stark stopped, surveyed the table, and, seemingly despite himself, smirked.  “Chef Montañés must have had a coronary when you asked him for delivery.”

“Chef who?” Steve asked.

Tony ignored him, being occupied with a staredown with Loki, and for some reason brandishing a StarkPhone as if it were a personal enemy.  “You might think you can dick around with my stuff with impunity since it’s not technically against the rules but I figure if you can find a loophole I can find a bigger one.”

“Oooh, a challenge!”  Loki straightened up from a casual pose, eyes bright.

JARVIS broke in, “The proprietor of EBBA, a molecular gastronomy restaurant.”

Steve automatically looked at the ceiling.  “A what?”  Sometimes when Steve got answers he felt he knew less than he had to start with.

“Molecular gastronomy is a subdiscipline of food science that seeks to investigate the physical and chemical transformations of ingredients that occur in cooking…”  JARVIS continued his technical description of exactly what molecular gastronomy was, but Steve had stopped paying attention.  His focus was entirely on Stark and Loki.  Stark, uncharacteristically, had fallen silent.  But that was only because he was busy eating. He had picked up the nearest dish, taken a bite, then set it down.  Steve watched bemused, as Stark proceeded to do the same with the next one.  And the one after that.  Stark ran his finger through the bath-foam dish, brought it up to his mouth, licked it, and, without removing his index finger from his mouth, gave Loki a filthy stare which made Steve very uncomfortable.   He made his way through all the dishes, varying his routine between taking sample bites or digging his fingers into the dishes Loki had already sampled, while making approving moans or ick sounds.  He set the last plate down and stared challengingly at Loki.  Loki widened his eyes and brightened his smile in return.

 “Tony,” Steve started hesitantly.  “Do you even know what you’re eating?”

“Hey, I figure since Snape here ordered a meal from the most expensive restaurant in NY – several meals, actually – on my dime I really ought to get the chance to taste what I paid for.  And not even a word of thanks.”  He gave Loki another glare. 

“Thank you,” Loki oozed sincerity, “for having a name which convinced them to deliver my dinner.”

“Which they never do.  There’s a waiting list months long just to get in the place.”

“Unless your name is Tony Stark,” Loki observed and Tony grinned.

“True.”  Tony began studying the wine bottles.  He picked up one which was nearly empty.  “Oh, you would.”  Steve could see the label, Chateau Lafitte.  “Just count yourself lucky you didn’t steal any of the better stuff from my cellar,” he concluded with a fierce warning glare.

“What did this dinner cost, exactly?” Steve asked.  And forgot what he was saying when Loki picked up a piece of half-eaten food Tony had just put down, popped it in his mouth, and made a pleased sound.

Tony gaped. “Really?  You eat food other people have already bitten into?” 

Loki was doing the same to one of the dishes Tony had dragged his fingers through.  He looked up with false innocence.  “I am accustomed to Thor’s table manners.  I assure you, yours are no worse.”

Stark huffed and dropped his StarkPhone by Loki’s plate.  “JARVIS, call me.”  An instant later, the phone on the table began playing what, to Steve, sounded like a pleasant love song about a girl named Mandy.  He could understand the words – which was entirely the opposite of Stark’s usual taste for loud and incoherent music.  “Barry Manilow?” Stark said.  “Really?”

Loki tilted his head back.  “I was assured that this song met your very high standards.”

Tony choked.  “By who?  My high standards in what?  Vegas schmaltz?  Now.  I want to be sure you know, I can fix this myself.  But I want you to do it, and tell me how you did it.  In detail.”

Loki smiled brightly.  “I’ve taken up an interest in your science.”  At Tony’s threatening expression, Loki gave a tiny put-upon sigh and waved a gesture at the phone.

“JARVIS, call me again,” Stark ordered.

The usual cacophony of Tony’s preferred music filled the room.  Stark gave Loki a satisfied smile.  “Now you’ve finished your dinner – “ this, despite the fact that half the plates still had food on them – “You’re coming with me upstairs and you’ll show me how you did this.  Step by step.  Answering all my questions.  Truthfully.  And accurately.”

“I’ll be very happy to – “ Steve shot him a suspicious look.  “ – however, you won’t be able to duplicate it.”

“Remember the terms of the contract.”  Tony struck a showman’s pose.  “You must obey any ‘honorable order’ by assisting us in any way to defend our realm, yadda yadda yadda.  This is an ‘honorable order’.” 

The scowl that crossed Loki’s face vanished quickly, replaced with one of condescension.  “I will follow your orders to the letter,” he cooed. “You still won’t be able to duplicate it.”

“Just watch me.  It’s time for our magic lesson, Gandalf’s Evil Twin.  Show me how you did this, explain the mechanics, and I’ll figure out the rest,” Tony said. 

Loki got to his feet, followed Tony to the door, and murmured, “Presumptuous mortal.”  Tony barked a laugh, then paused for half a second and said to Steve over his shoulder, “To answer your question:  with the wine, about $20,000.”

“What question?”  Steve felt at a total loss.

“How much Loki’s dinner cost.  Good thing for him he didn’t steal the really expensive wine,” Tony said, the door shutting behind him as Steve sputtered in shock.  He looked at the remains of the dinner left on the table, and the half-full bottles of wine.

Very costly wine.

Typical Loki.  Every single time he got back from his stays at Fury’s undisclosed locations, they could expect a heightened level of annoying practical jokes.  Loki always appeared tightly wound after those times away – his posture stiff, with the occasional dark expression crossing his face, instantly replaced with blankness or sarcasm.  Then, after pulling a prank or two, he seemed to relax.

Most recently, he had hacked into some kind of real life video game which had loads of people wandering all over the place, looking to ‘catch’ creatures they could only see on their phones.  Except Loki had rigged it so that at random times these creatures had manifested as illusions that everyone could see.  Even worse, sometimes he caused actual treasure in the form of gold and jewels to appear in locations in city parks, creating general chaos.  Loki had gotten a good laugh out of that one.

The second time Loki had pulled a prank convinced Steve that this was a pattern, not a coincidence.  He’d found Loki alone later that day and had asked him outright, “Is Fury – or anyone else - mistreating you?”

Loki had stared at him, looking so plainly astonished that Steve thought that had to be the first honest expression he’d seen on his face.  Then Loki said sarcastically, “Why, soldier, you make me think for an instant you care about my fate.”

Steve pinned him with a hard stare.  “Has he found some way to circumvent the rule that you can’t be harmed?”

Loki’s expression had turned brittle.  “The only mistreatment I am subject to is Fury’s charming personality.” 

But his eyes seemed to indicate otherwise, and Steve had persisted.  “You can tell me.  I won’t put up with anyone being abused.”

Loki’s eyes darkened.  “Fury can no more break the terms of the spell than I can.  He was no more successful than Barton was in his attempt to harm me.”  He smirked at that memory, and Steve managed not to smile himself.  Barton hadn’t been back in the tower since Loki’s return.  Even though he had been fully briefed that Loki was to be welcomed as a guest and warned of the consequences, upon seeing Loki he’d fired three arrows in quick succession at point blank range before anyone could make a move to stop him.  The arrows had immediately turned into butterflies and fluttered around Barton’s head in a distracting dance.  Loki’s delighted laugh had enraged the archer to such an extent that he’d physically attacked him only to be thrown back by some kind of invisible force shield.  Barton, cursing, had stormed out of the Tower and hadn’t been back since, though he still joined the team on official business.

Steve still wasn't convinced there was nothing going on – Loki, after all, had implied Fury had tried to harm him – but Loki had put a stop to their conversation by stalking out of the room.

Thor had been asked, on one of his visits, if he could put a stop to this behavior.  Thor had just grinned and explained, “Loki has always been given to such jests when he found events too tedious or slow for his liking.  Or,” his expression had darkened, “when he took offense at another’s words or actions.  Many a man has rued a careless comment to my brother.”

In other words, Loki was blowing off steam.  Steve thought about the preferred ways soldiers blew off steam and figured as long as the pranks Loki pulled remained relatively harmless he’d overlook it.  He had a sneaking suspicion no one could do anything about it anyway. 

Steve sighed and shook his head.  He collected all the bottles which still contained some wine and headed to the elevator.  Natasha preferred vodka, but she might appreciate a good - or at least extremely expensive - wine.