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Deception, Fear and Redemption

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They had this rule in Avengers Tower. Well, actually it was less of a rule and more of an unspoken agreement. Not long after the Avengers had moved into the tower, Steve had decided they needed team building exercises. For 'normal' people that meant talking to each other, maybe an occasional game-night. But if you were a super soldier, a pair of deadly spies, a brilliant engineer, a Norse god and a giant green rage monster – or a nerdy scientist, depending on the occasion – all working for one of the most secretive organisations on this planet, you were not allowed to talk about the majority of what you did. The rest of the time they spent together. Talking about the latest battle got old pretty fast. Training with each other was not a viable option either, because aiming for each other's throats did not put anyone at ease. Of course they had to spar. They would be stupid not to, since their missions still contained fifty percent fighting and fifty percent damage control (also mostly by fighting). Still, it was not something they particularly enjoyed.

Therefore, Steve had asked for options where they could come together and relax, aside of semi–regular movie nights. In a fit of wit, meant mostly as a joke, Tony had suggested baking. Surprisingly, that suggestion had not been rejected immediately. After going over a few other options, everybody had agreed to the engineer's initial idea. Henceforth, every Thursday one of them was choosing a recipe and they started throwing flour, butter and eggs at each other. At least if Bruce was not the one choosing. He had the irritating habit to find 'vegetarian' or even 'vegan' recipes he wanted to try. They were pretty good, but that was beside the point. What fun was baking without an occasional food-fight?

The problem at the moment was that their favourite couple of spies was in Cuba, or Leningrad or somewhere else. The information of their whereabouts was classified and for once, Tony had not bothered to hack into the S.H.I.E.L.D. database to discover it. They had been away for the last two weeks. The remaining Avengers had waited and forgone baking Thursday the first week, opting for a movie and take–out instead. Thor had told them that he would have to leave for Asgard in the morning, making it impossible for him to fully savour the fruits of their combined efforts.

The second week, Tony, Bruce and Steve had longingly looked at the kitchen. But nobody had actually voiced his desire to make something.

Yesterday, Wednesday of the third week, after a fight with some vicious aliens that had reminded Tony uncomfortably of the Chitauri, the engineer had ordered ingredients for some cake (sparkling decoration included) from JARVIS, the moment he had left S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters after debriefing.

Nearly three years had passed since Loki’s attempt to govern earth. Three years of nightmares, panic attacks, and reluctantly attended therapy Pepper persuaded him to join, after he nearly lost her in the battle against Aldrich Killian. Tony had turned his life around, had gotten better. At least he had thought so. But today’s attack had brought everything back to the surface. The engineer spent a few hours repairing his suit before crawling into bed shortly before sunrise. Fortunately Pepper had decided to stay in the tower tonight. Her warm, pliant body instinctively turned towards his, helping Tony to ground himself and find some sleep.

When he had woken in the early afternoon, her scent had still lingered, making Tony smile for a second, before the memories assaulted him once again. Taking a deep breath, he forced down the rising anxiety, hopped into a much needed shower and randomly pulled some clothes out of his wardrobe. When he entered the kitchen in jeans and his old Black Sabbath long–sleeve, Pepper was chatting with Steve and Bruce, who were hovering indecisively.

After his first cup of coffee, bless Steve for supplying his drug of choice, Tony decided to grab the bull at its horns. "Guys, I thought that maybe we could ..." Making a vague gesture towards the oven, he couldn't think of a way of how to finish that sentence without implying to go behind the backs of their favourite spies.

"I ... ahm ..." Bruce rubbed his hands nervously. "There were ingredients for frosting in the fridge and I didn't want them to go bad." Tony refrained from mentioning that he had ordered them only yesterday, since things were clearly going into the desired direction.

Steve suggested, "We could make something small. Just so nothing will go bad."

Captain America, the guy raised during the great depression, was swallowing his tongue while proposing a team bonding activity, with only half the team present. How adorable. Tony would not mention this to Clint and Natasha, but if they asked Steve, the Captain would fold like a house of cards and they would all be busted. A glance towards Bruce told him, that his science-brother was well aware of this. Still, he did not seem ready to abandon the idea.

Apparently they all craved ‘normality’ after yesterday’s battle.

Not looking up from her tablet, the only woman in his life who not only knew, but was willing to handle him and his super-hero room-mates, remarked off-handed, "I haven't had Cupcakes in a while."

And so the decision was made. They measured ingredients and pointedly did not talk about how to keep this a secret from their spies. The only ones on their team who knew how to keep something to themselves were Clint and Natasha and well … this was the snake biting its own tail.

The kitchen started to fill with a delicious smell of chocolate and cherries and slowly the three men started to unwind from yesterday’s battle. Steve was currently arranging the little cakes while Bruce applied the frosting. Tony tried mapping out a white star on the blue frosting to create a star-spangled cupcake. Pepper had stolen his first one and now had the slightest smudge of frosting in the corner of her mouth.

During the last hour, something had unclenched in Tony's chest, and he was currently debating with himself if he should approach the CEO of his company, to lick the frosting from her mouth, or if he was safer on this side of the counter, where he could not get any frosting on Pepper's business attire. Tony knew that she would head down to her office eventually, and she was not a fan of messy clothes. Virginia Potts was nothing but impeccable when she was on the clock. Deciding that he could afford to ignore her preferences – he was her employer after all – Tony handed over his half-finished cupcake to Steve and slowly started to circle the counter.

"If you think that I will allow you within a five foot radius of me, Mr. Stark, you are very much mistaken." Pepper told him calmly, while calculating numbers single mindedly. Alright, Tony grinned, Game On! He could practically feel Bruce and Steve smirking behind his back. Every Avenger, yes even Hulk, had learned to adore Pepper as much as Tony did. But, unlike Tony, they all – with maybe Natasha as the only exception – had a healthy amount of fear of her. Not just because she got really hot sometimes.

Pepper Potts was competent, determined and got the job done, no matter what. That attitude was the reason she was able to get every last one of them into a suit to join this fund-raiser or that charity event, with but a raised her eyebrow. God, Tony thought, he really had the hottest girlfriend on this planet (no pun intended here) if she could even bring superheroes to heel. So stalking her in the middle of the common floor, with confectioner's sugar on his shirt and full to the brim with caffeine, made Tony feel positively giddy. He did not even bother to look up when the sky unexpectedly clouded over, announcing the arrival of their very own Thunder god.

Those who landed on the platform, however, were not what any of them had expected. Eight warriors, clad in shining, golden armour with huge swords in their hands, stood around a ninth, slightly smaller figure, hiding it from view. Having worked with the military his entire life, Tony had to admire the precision of their movement when they entered the room, a morose looking Thor on their heels. Steve and Bruce abandoned the kitchen, trading places with Pepper. They would have Tony's back while the CEO of Stark Industries was as far away from any potential danger as possible without drawing attention to her. Tony didn't even have time to ponder who these unexpected guests were, before Thor approached them.

"Greetings my friends," the Thunderer started, but he did not pull them into his accustomed bear hug. Instead, he kept his distance. Formally, he announced, "I am here on behalf of the Allfather. An unexpected situation has arisen with my br… with Loki. I was sent here to verify it."

As if following an unknown choreography, the guards stepped aside, allowing the Avengers present an unrestricted view of their prisoner. Falling several hundred feet, endless hours of fighting and the vast, cold emptiness of space overwhelmed Tony, rooting him on the spot. His mind trapped in the most horrible memories he had been forced to make since Afghanistan made it impossible for him to join the conversation.

With Bruce and Steve as captivated audience, Thor explained, "At the eve prior to Loki's third relocation, he revealed that he is with child. As Allfather, Odin is forced to verify this claim since, if my brother's allegations were true, my father had decided that you would become his next master, Anthony Stark, son of Howard and Maria."

Tony had spent a lot of time and effort to get Thor to call him by his first name. The odd addressing brought the engineer back to the present. The same moment Steve asked, "Thor, what do you mean by 'Loki's next master'?"

Nodding to himself as if he had expected that question, the god explained, "After Loki's misdeeds on Midgard, and another unsuccessful attempt to the throne, our father judged him guilty of treason. Prison was not a suitable punishment any longer since it clearly had no educational effect. Usurpation of the throne of Asgard is the most severe crime in our realm. Our father decided that Loki had to make amends in every one of our realms. From all worlds, one person of influence would claim him as bondsman and he would cater to that person's every whim. After eight years with eight different masters, Loki would be brought back to Asgard to be judged anew. A year might sound like a short time, but this was but a preliminary verdict to see if my brother would be able to learn the error of his ways. Should Loki show remorse, his sentence would be lightened to servitude. He would then be completing it in the realms of Asgard. My brother had had one mistress and one master so far. Tomorrow he was supposed to …"

"Excuse me, Thor," Steve unexpectedly interrupted. "But what you are saying – that Loki is given to different 'masters' and that his sentence will be 'lightened' to servitude – sounds an awful lot like slavery to me."

Entirely oblivious to the sudden tension that seemed to arise in his mortal friends, Thor nodded, "Of course, my friend. A prisoner has no rights while serving punishment. Where would be the sense in that?"

Repulsed, Steve stepped back, and Bruce took up the line of questioning. "Thor, are you telling us, that every 'master' your brother had so far, would have had the right to do with him as he or she saw fit? Does that include corporal punishment?" Bruce voice might have been calm at that point, but even Thor could see the green tint starting to bloom on his skin.

Placating, the god raised his hands. "The societies in the other realms are far more advanced than Midgard. I can assure you, my friends, nobody would chose a disproportionate punishment. Loki is the son of Odin after all." After a second he added only for them to hear, "Officially."

And wasn't that the nicest sentiment? Tony loved Thor, he really did; as much as every other member of his team; for exactly this: blue eyed, naïve conviction that people were inherently good. That they were not stupid, mean, cruel and vicious given the chance. But instead of commenting on the sentiment, the engineer was wrapped up in scrutinizing Loki. While the others were discussing his current sentence and what had brought it on, Tony had taken his time to watch the God of Mischief. What he saw reminded him too much of his own reflection after Afghanistan. Still, not his problem. So Tony turned towards Thor to see where this was heading.

Thor, luckily, had decided to finally come to the point of this impromptu visit. "My brother claims, that you, Man of Iron, forced yourself on him during your time alone in these rooms and that you sired his offspring."

"What?"

~ ᗯ ~

Bruce had to fight the transformation, until Pepper put a calming hand on his shoulder, pulling him back towards the kitchen-block, while Steve started shouting. Thor defended his accusations and Tony … Tony was watching the one they called Liesmith who stood chained and broken between these impressive guards. The god did not even dare to move, he barely breathed, didn't risk looking up. But the longer the shouting lasted, the tenser he became. The moment Steve and Thor agreed that this was all a farce, and that Thor would bring Loki back to Asgard because Tony clearly could not be the sire of his children, the God of Lies made a desperate attempt to break free.

The guards however, had been prepared for the move. Before he could even come close to Tony, they tripped him and hit him on the neck, beating him into submission. Still, Loki crawled the last distance and only thanks to Tony's raised hand – a wordless request for the guards to leave their prisoner alone – did they not drag him back by his chains like the rabid dog he seemed to be. Loki finally came to rest, cowering in front of Tony.

When the human, angry about the lie the god had told about him, grabbed the black hair and pulled his head up roughly, the tormented god wrapped his arms protectively around his middle while whispered nearly inaudible, "Please, I'm begging you. Have mercy." He dared to meet Stark's gaze for one, endless second before dropping his eyes again.

Shit, Tony realized, he really was about to do this.

It was not the mirror image Loki presented, Tony knew that much. Sure he might feel bad for the god, he was not that heartless. But it was not as if Loki had not had this coming. The engineer had even warned him about it the day they had met. It was not even his haggard body that told the billionaire without a shadow of doubt that he had not only been abused, but starved as well. He was a god, clearly he could take it. No, it was his eyes. Eyes that showed an emotion Tony had encountered far too often since he had become Iron Man.

These were the eyes of a parent who held out their child for him to save, knowing that they wouldn't make it. The burning car, the crumbling building, the surroundings didn't matter, the look was always the same. But Iron Man never took the child. It was one of the things he had found himself incapable of doing. Tony always reached for the mother or father, pulling them free, carrying them to safety, because he knew, beyond the shadow of doubt that a parent would never let go of their kid. He had suffered burn marks, broken bones, one time even a concussion. But not once in the past five years had he made a child an orphan by failing to save their mum or dad. He wouldn't start now.

Clutching Loki's hair tighter, letting the anger of why the fuck had he been dragged into this, fill him. He would need this anger, because he most likely would be alone at the end of this day. Yet there really was no other way. Karma's a bitch. Disgusted he pushed Loki away, "Apparently, you are not even free from paternity suits when you are fucking a man. How the hell is this my life!?"

The silence around him was absolute, until Steve asked hoarsely, "What?"

God bless Captain America, always the upstanding citizen, always so trusting when it came to his friends. It pained Tony to destroy that trust. Despite their somewhat rough start, Tony had come to like the man. Steve had taken his loud and brash personality in stride as soon as he had realized that Iron Man would go any length to protect the people on this planet. And all it had taken was a nuclear missile and an unplanned trip to outer space. Now the man's piercing blue eyes bore into his, pleading with him to laugh this off, to reveal the punch-line to a tasteless joke. But Tony couldn't do him this favour, no matter how much he wanted to. Not when it came to children. And all because of this bastard, Loki.

Aiming for nonchalance, Tony gestured at the guards. "Come on, Capsicle, don't act so shocked. Loki's a criminal, a dangerous one if his travelling to earth merits all these warriors. I had an opening because of his performance issues. So I showed him my performance."

Shocked into stupor by that revelation, Thor turned towards him slowly, looking at him half with disgust and half incredulous. And hello, this was a judgemental look Tony could have done without. "You forced yourself on my brother?"

Did only Tony see the minuscule tremble that always ran over Loki's cowered form, whenever Thor called him brother? "Adopted brother. You told us so on your second trip to earth." He replied, raising his chin defiantly. "Or do you really think he defenestrated me because I mouthed off?"

With a roar Thor charged him, but the guards intercepted the god's path. It took four of them to hold Thor back, and only because he tried not very hard. Brokenly he shouted, "We fought alongside each other. I called you my friend!"

'Yeah,' thought Tony, 'clearly you don't know me as well as you thought.' The same seemed to be true for Banner and Rogers, who looked at Tony with ill-concealed contempt. And Pepper was not even looking at him, instead rummaging through their cupboards.

The head guard let go of the first son of Odin and approached Tony with a stoic expression that betrayed none of his thoughts. Politely he offered a black box that came to life as soon as Tony touched it. "By decree of the Allfather, ruler of the nine realms, you, Man of Iron, will be the next master of Loki Liesmith. His life and well-being will be in your hands and you shall treat him as you see fit. His magic is bound by this collar and shall be yours to command, as will his mind and body. The collar also contains a punishing device, activated by this device. Please use it however you see fit. We will return in one year. Since Loki will be the mother of your children, the Allfather has decided that you may make another claim on him until you have no longer need of him. You might be forced to rely on his advice of how to raise the children of a god. Do you accept these rights and responsibilities?"

'Yes, I accept that you are a bastard who willingly hands his prince over to his rapist just because that's what your almighty king demanded!' In an uncharacteristic attempt of diplomatic behaviour, Tony kept his thoughts to himself and said, as respectful as possible, "I accept these rights and responsibilities. My best wishes to your king." 'And now get out of my tower!'

As if able to hear his thoughts, the guards bowed as one, before leaving for the landing platform where they vanished in a flash of light.

~ ᗯ ~

"I need to leave." Thor had a knack for stating the obvious. Turning towards Steve he promised, "I will return should you be in need of me, but …"

Their Captain clearly understood, even when Thor was at loss for words. He put a comforting hand on the Thunder god's shoulder before he turned away.

"I think …" Bruce was next.

"We will leave for our floor." Steve finished needlessly. And no, that look of disappointment on both of their faces left nothing to the imagination.

Well, Tony really couldn't hold it against them. He was a pretty skilled liar after all. Had to be in his position. It seemed that there was at least one thing he had in common with Loki. Yet, somehow he doubted that this boded well for their future. Looking down at the god he was somehow taking custody of, he noticed that he had not moved an inch since Tony had thrown him aside. He still wore the shackles they had put on him for the journey and had not dared to lift his face after his pleading. He cowered into himself when Tony finally approached him.

"Shhhh, it's alright, Reindeer Games, they are gone. Nobody is going to hurt you." He tried to assure the god, but was not convinced that his words registered. To appear as non-threatening as possible he crouched down and gently touched a trembling shoulder. "Come on, let's get you out of these shackles. You need your hands, don't you? Hands are awesome, for eating for example. Are you hungry? You look like you are hungry. Maybe we can order something."

He was rambling and well aware of it. But it was not every day that you got a god dumped in your lap. Or that you were told that said god was the 'mother' of your children. Children? As in more than one? What the hell! Tony had to find out if Loki was alright with having an ultrasound. Were gods even susceptible to this kind of technology?

Tony's train of thought was interrupted, when he finally pulled the shackles off, because the god reached for him as soon as he was free. The engineer had been prepared for many things. Being hit by a curse, or even thrown out of the window again, and the last one really would have really sucked because the wristbands for his suit were not even remotely within reach.

What he definitely had not expected was Loki kissing his hands reverently before pulling them to his clammy forehead. His voice sounded broken and hoarse from disuse. At least Tony hoped it was from disuse and not from too much screaming, because he did not know how to deal with that. Anyway, the God of Mischief coughed once, before whispering urgently as if he expected to be interrupted at any moment. "My life, my magic, everything is yours to command in exchange for the safety of my children. I shall obey you not only in word but also in spirit. From this day on, until you banish me from this realm."

Wow … that was … wow. That was so far from anything Tony had expected that he did not even know how to react to that promise. Yet silence seemed to be exactly the wrong thing in this situation, because the longer it dragged on, the more Loki pulled back again. After a few moments he breathed, barely audible, "Forgive me, Master, for speaking out of turn. Please punish me however you see fit."

Now it was Tony's turn to flinch. Whatever this fucked up situation was, he was clearly in way over his head. And he did not even have his fellow Avengers to ask for advice. Not that he did that very often. Just, right now he could really do with some help. Tony realize how much he had come to rely on these people and with one, stupid decision, he had lost them all.

"JARVIS, cut the feed from this room for the next ten minutes."

"As you wish, Miss Potts."

Turning around, Tony found himself face to face with Pepper, who had a stiff drink in her hand. When was the last time Pepper had made him a drink? Clearly the world was coming to an end. Too drained to question her at the moment, Tony accepted it and fell on the couch beside his newest houseguest. The god did not react to Tony's proximity, did not come closer, but didn't shy away from him either. He seemed withdrawn and resigned after his request for punishment and right now, nobody knew how deal with this situation.

When Tony looked up at Pepper he was prepared for her to shout at him. But instead of venting an anger she certainly had to feel after what she had just learned, she looked thoughtful while typing something into her pad. Her voice was composed when she advised him, "We should go public as soon as possible. We will bend Loki's story a little further, making the sex angry but consensual. We need to think of an angle to assure the public that Loki is not a threat to them. Some might recognize him from the attack. Otherwise there could be a widespread panic and we can't afford that. It will be hard enough to make people believe that a male is carrying your children."

Tony couldn't believe his ears. Pepper was talking as if this was nothing but one of the stunts he pulled on a semi-regular basis. This entire situation was like an open wound and Tony could not help but prod it to see if it would start bleeding again. "Pepper, I just told Odin's guards that I am the father of Loki's children. Is this really all you have to say to that? That we need to make sure that the public won't perceive Loki as a threat? I just confessed to raping a god!"

Finalizing something, maybe the first PR-draft for this story, Pepper looked at him and nodded seriously. "Yes, I know. I heard the story you were going with for these Asgardians and I understand that you didn't have time to come up with something more believable for the Avengers. But I have been with you long enough to accept a few things about you as inevitable: you can be egoistic, narcissistic and lots of times an asshole. But there is one thing I am sure of: You would never, ever force yourself on somebody. The story Loki told is a lie we have to go with, so we will deal with it accordingly."

Whoa, so that's how it felt to be able to breathe. Tony looked at Pepper and took in her no-nonsense attitude, realizing that to her this really was no different from him flirting with a starlet he picked up at a party or dealing with one of the paternity suits that were thrown at him occasionally. The only exception was that this time Tony was the one lying about the father of the baby.

This would influence their relationship, big time, and they both knew it. But Pepper had his back. No matter how much trouble he was in, Pepper always had his back. And in the end that was all that mattered. Together they had managed to argue their way out of every weapons-contract Stark Industries had held after his return from Afghanistan. They had raised a successful business from its ashes. One that was now a leading company in green energy.

"Security feed, back online."

JARVIS' calm tone pulled Tony out of his musings. They would need to do a lot of damage control, with S.H.I.E.L.D. as one of their major concerns. Tony could already see Fury having a conniption over this. Still, he had taken responsibility for these unborn children and he would not back out of it now. He thought of something to say to Pepper, something that would show her how very grateful he was that she was still at his side, despite all the shit he had dumped on her all these years, with this as the icing on the cake. But all words he could think off sounded so empty. He settled on a question instead. "Have I told you lately how much I love you?"

Straightening her skirt, she would have to go to the office after all, Pepper approached Tony with a loving smile. She bent down towards him and whispered into his ear, "No, but after the first media-storm is over, I will let you prove it." She kissed him gently before heading for the elevators.

Before she entered, Tony held her back one last time, "You can't tell anyone, Pepper. You know that, right? We are dealing with gods here and I don't want even the faintest idea, that I could not be the father of these children, out in the universe. Alright?"

Pepper's face clouded over for a heartbeat, but then she straightened again, returning to her calm and collected self, "I understand. See you later, Tony."

~ ᗯ ~