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Loki and Toni’s Excellent Adventure in World Saving

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Sometimes, Manhattan chokes Toni.

All the sleek lines, all the glass and steel and sharply cut people make her want to heave, to maybe hide away in her bed and cry a little because she’s a futurist, but she’s also a girl somewhere underneath, and sometimes a girl needs clutter and old things and… pretty things, okay?

So here she is, far, far from Manhattan’s future-today life, strolling down a random street in New York, bags in each hand, window shopping for things she doesn’t need.

She’s already bought a bunch of thirty dollar jeans to ruin in the workshop without making Pepper cringe, and a pair of candle holders that her interior designer will probably use to try and kill herself with because they are kitschy and bulky and cheap and they don’t fit in Stark Tower at all.

And now she’s going to have ice-cream. And no-one is going to take pictures of her doing it and no villain is going to try and set the world on fire and no stock crash will call her away. She’s wearing bug-eye shades, her hair is in a loose bun and there isn’t a speck of make-up on her face. The arc reactor is carefully taped up under her clothes and she’s wearing jeans and flip flops and a t-shirt. It’s as undercover as she ever gets.

But really, if the trick of getting places you’re not supposed to go is looking like you belong, then the trick of disappearing is going places you’re not supposed to be. No-one expects Antonia Stark to be shopping in five-dollar flip flops, so that’s exactly what she’s doing.

Someone (Steve, probably) is going to give her hell about the security risk later, but she turned thirty-eight without him to hover over her and she’s got her brain and a tweaked taser in her purse. What else does she need?

Nothing, that’s what.

Ever since the space invasion six months ago, she’s had work shoved down her throat at all hours. SHIELD wants better tech, the Avengers want new toys, the world wants Iron Woman and her investors wants Toni Fucking Stark. She’s been running herself ragged and, despite what nasty people (cough, Pepper, cough) claim, she does possess enough self-awareness to know it.

She just usually ignores that knowledge in favor of building things that will shut all her critics up in sheer, dumbstruck awe.

She’s gotten better about that, lately, though. It’s the whole stable-ish thing she’s got going. The new and improved Toni Stark. Less promiscuous and self-destructive, just as brilliant, just as mouthy and a lot less drugged up.

And not dying. That definitely makes the list.

But, good girl or not, sleep is still not her favorite past time, so here she is, on a Tuesday afternoon, reviving a little tradition she hasn’t indulged in in years.

Shopping. Like a semi-regular, thirty-something woman who isn’t a superhero in her spare time. And her work time. And any time that’s not covered by spare time and work time. She might need a vacation, actually.

A display catches her attention just then, stuffed to the ceiling with lovely, sugary, pastel-y cupcakes with all sorts of girly decorations. Butterflies. Flowers. Hearts. They’re pink and yellow and green and baby blue and there’s glitter on some. They’re utterly ridiculous.

Obviously, Toni wants one.

She turns fully to take in the display of sugar-coma-inducing goodness when something in the glass flashes bright green.

And maybe it’s ridiculous, but six months with Bruce Banner’s anger management issues have conditioned all of the Avengers to react to green like a bull does to red, so Toni whirls around, muscles tensing and…

Wow.

There’s a woman standing in front of the display window across the street. It’s full of stuffed toys and cute little onesies and babyhats and other fuzzy, adorable things Toni will never need. But that’s not the interesting part, nosir.

That’d be the woman.

She’s tall. Ridiculously tall, especially with the addition of five inch heels that would make Pepper weep with envy. Black hair cascades down her back in perfect curls, the way it never, ever does in real life. Toni knows. Many a stylist has tried to achieve a similar effect with her rat’s nest of hair. None have succeeded. The green she saw is the woman’s dress, a short, flowing thing with three-quarter sleeves and an empire waist, flaring out elegantly. It stops about half an inch below the woman’s admittedly absolutely, annoyingly, obscenely perfect ass, teasing with the promise of the next gust of wind and –

It’s probably taped down. At least, it would be if Toni were the one wearing it. You do not wear dresses that scandalous without a bit of good old tape to help you out.

But, tape or no tape, that woman is a knock-out. And the men passing her by are all proving it by staring stupidly and craning their necks like teenagers. As Toni watches, the woman keeps shifting from one leg to the other, jutting out hips and folding her arms behind her back to push out her chest.

Teasing. Playing. And all the while studying the baby clothing in the window with chilling intensity.

Toni stands staring for a minute before the woman raises her head and their gazes briefly meet in the baby-shop’s window.

For a moment, Toni considers pressing the panic button in her jeans. Then she considers walking away.

But really, when has she ever done the smart thing?

So she tightens her grip on her bags and makes her way across the street to lean against the window the brunette is still staring into.

“Bad day?” she asks, watching a guy in a sports jacket run smack into an elderly lady because he’s so busy checking out the supermodel he just passed.

An eyebrow rises elegantly. Green eyes flash. “What makes you say that?”

Rolling her shoulders, Toni makes a so-so motion with one hand. “You’re playing pick-me-up.”

The second eyebrow joins the first. “I beg your pardon?”

“This game you’re playing? Where you make men go nuts and pretend you don’t notice? I do that sometimes when I have a bad day. And you are definitely doing it now.”

“I’m not doing anything,” the taller woman rebukes disdainfully.

Toni sighs. “In the past minute, I’ve watched no less than three men walk into that mailbox over there because they were too busy staring at your ass to watch where they’re going.”

The woman’s lips twitch. Gotcha.

“So I ask again, Loki: Bad day?”

She isn’t sure what she expected the trickster to do when she called him by name, but jumping half out of her – his? – skin definitely wasn’t it.

Of course Loki wouldn’t be Loki if she didn’t have herself back together faster than Toni can blink. “So you do recognize me, Stark. I had wondered.”

She checks her reflection in the window once and then casually turns away. Too casually. Toni looks at the onesies and then at the god (goddess, theoretically, at the moment) and wonders.

“Your eyes stay the same,” she offers, off-handedly.

“Nevertheless I am currently female. Most people would use that as an identifier, rather than eye color.”

Pointing to her own chest, Toni snorts. “Not most people.”

“Obviously. You should be running from me.”

Shrugging again, Toni pouts a little. Yeah. Probably. But in the six months since he invited a space army to Earth, Loki has been a surprisingly good boy. Odin let him off pretty much scot free because, according to Asgardian law, there’d been no crime. Trying to end Jotunheim had been punished aplenty by falling into the void between worlds and whatever Loki had done on Earth had happened before there had been an official treaty in place.

And because Odin said Loki was to go free, SHIELD can’t do shit about it. As a sort of community service, Loki has been saddled with rebuilding the Bifrost, but that’s it. A slap on the wrist, nothing more. Fury reportedly pitched a shit fit that was heard throughout the entirety of HQ. Half a dozen agents had to be removed from the conference room in tears. One of them quit on the spot. Toni is still trying to get her hands on the security feed, but so far, without success.

Even now, months after Thor dropped by to give them the verdict, Fury and most of SHIELD are still, pardon the pun, furious about it. Toni isn’t sure if it’s Loki’s lack of punishment that pisses them off, or the fact that they have to bow to someone else’s ruling. Her money is on the second more than the first, really.

Thor seems relieved he won’t be making visits to whatever Asgard calls a jail anytime soon and Natasha, of all people, is surprisingly quiet about the whole thing. Clint grinds his teeth a lot, Coulson has only bland looks to offer on the subject and Steve is being Steve, the same way Bruce is being Bruce, only more annoying. Toni, who has identified with the god since day one and on far too many levels, has wisely kept her mouth shut.

She was the one that got closest to him, in Stark Tower. She offered him a drink and she stood less than two feet from him as he ranted and raved. She saw the look in his eyes. She remembers it, from that day, and from a shard of mirror hung on a damp wall in a cave in Afghanistan.

People forget, far too easily, that before Toni became Iron Woman, she was a bombed out shell of a human being. And before that, she was the Merchant of Death, the Corpse Bride, the world’s biggest death dealer. Toni understands moral ambiguity, perhaps better than anyone.

Loki is a liar and a thief, but he’s not a murderer. He’s not a ruler. She has no idea what he wanted, but she knows the Earth wasn’t it. Every day he doesn’t open a black hole in the sky and let the world get sucked into it proves her right.

And now here he is, a she, walking around New York, causing the kind of mischief Toni can absolutely get behind. The fun kind.

So yeah, maybe she should run. Maybe that’s exactly what Loki wants. Or maybe that’s just what he wants to want, the same was Toni wants to be hated because it’s better than being disappointed by those that love her and then leave anyway.

“I’m having a cupcake. Would you like one? My treat.”

Loki stares at her for a very long time, before shaking her raven mane (yes, Toni is calling it that. There is no other way to describe that much, hair that black) and laughing. “You keep surprising me, Stark. I’m not sure I like it.”

Snorting, Toni pushes away from the window. “Liar.”

With a smirk, Loki inclines her head, taking it as a compliment.

“Besides, you never did collect on that drink. I owe you one.”

She thinks that might do the trick, but Loki still doesn’t move. She rolls her eyes. “Fine. Look. I’m having a girls’ day out. Just me and ridiculous shopping and sugar-loaded baked goods. Because I’m having a shitty week and I deserve it. Since you obviously have a bad day, you’re welcome to join me. I read somewhere that girls’ days out are supposed to involve more than one girl anyway.”

She frowns a bit because, no, why do you ask, she isn’t very good at normal and never has been. But she watched Sex and the City for a long time. Because Pep made her. That’s her story and she’s sticking to it.

Again, something like surprise crosses Loki’s face. Oh, Toni’s just batting a hundred today. “Am I a girl?” she asks because, of course, a simple statement is beneath a god.

Toni has no idea how people believed that Thor and Loki are blood related for over a thousand years.

“Let’s see,” she drawls. “Tits, legs, indoor plumbing, yep, you’re a girl today.”

For the longest time, Loki just looks. “You do not mind my shapeshifting.”

Toni blinks. “Well, no. Why would I? Girl, boy, it’s all the same. And you’re fucking gorgeous either way, so stop fishing for compliments and get a move on before Doom decides to blow up Manhattan while we’re standing here. You may not age, but I sure do.”

Finally, finally, Loki stops stalling and crosses the street in a few, long strides, her legs looking absolutely perfect, her hair swaying in time with her hips. Toni jogs after her in fire-engine red flop flops and ridiculous sunglasses and suddenly feels like an ugly duckling.

That’s what she gets for inviting a super villain cum super model to have lunch with her she guesses.

+

Inside the little shop, Loki sits with her legs crossed at the knee, making the kid behind the counter almost die from rapid blood drain to the crotch. Toni snorts and slouches in the other chair, shoving her shades into her hair.

They don’t talk until they’ve placed their orders and the kid’s stumbled away, muttering to himself, bright red in the face. And even then, conversation doesn’t really happen until Toni asks, “So, would it be dumb of me to ask what you’ve been up to since you tried to end the world?”

Tact? What is this thing you speak of?

Loki doesn’t smile, but it’s a close thing for a moment before she manages to tame the expression into a smug little smirk.

“I am sure you know all about that.”

“You mean the sordid details of your trial and how you stomped out in a fit of pique because Odin still doesn’t recognize you as anything but an errant child? Yeah, Thor gave us all a play by play. I meant after, actually, but…. What?”

“Did Thor actually say that?”

Oh. Crap. Issues. Loki has issues and Toni should have kept her mouth shut and now she’s going to end up a big, fat smear of Stark in this nice little bakery and that is going to be all she wrote. Nice going, Toni. One of these days she’s going to invent that brain-mouth filter.

If she lives long enough.

“Noooo? Not in so many words, I mean, but… isn’t that what you were doing? With the whole,” she makes an exploding motion with both hands. “I mean, right?”

Loki laughs. It’s a loud, full belly laugh that doesn’t sound choked at all, nosir, and it makes Toni go very, very still, because, shit. And then the god (goddess? God.) shakes her head and gasps for air and asks, “How is it that you figure out in months what my lovely kin has not managed to decipher in lifetimes?”

Toni should shut up. Toni should walk away. Loki is the enemy, is unstable, is a little bitch even when she’s a he. Loki tried to kill them all and end the world. Loki might kill her now. Loki doesn’t deserve to sit at nice tables having cupcakes with heart-shaped sprinkles. Loki doesn’t deserve to have Toni’s heart aching for her. Loki doesn’t deserve a lot of things.

But neither does Toni.

And she’s still here. Having heart-shaped sprinkles on her cupcake.

So she doesn’t wonder why Loki is here, now, today, like this. She doesn’t wonder why she’s so open, so raw. She doesn’t wonder about the baby clothes.

That’s a lie. Of course she does. She’s a genius. Her brain never stops. She wonders, but she doesn’t use it.

She just says, “I’m sorry,” because Jesus, hasn’t anyone looked at Loki? Just looked?

Ever?

The guy needs a hug more than he needs a muzzle and world domination. And despite the fact that there’s history there, despite their being enemies, officially, Toni gets Loki the way she’s only ever got machines before.

And maybe she’s right, maybe this, these two words are all Loki ever needed, maybe he looks at Toni and sees something he understands, too. Maybe they’re both far, far too similar.

Maybe they’re both lonely.

Whatever the reason, whatever the motivation, when Loki is done almost laughing tears because it has to be Toni fucking Stark that sees through her, she whispers, “I’m pregnant.”

And Toni doesn’t flinch, doesn’t bat an eyelash, just puts it all together, female shape, bitter smile, baby clothes, flaring, flowing dresses and wistful looks and says, “I know.”

+

It’s weird.

In a way, it’s the weirdest thing Toni has ever done, sitting here, eating cupcakes with a god who is currently a goddess, has tried to kill her, caused billions in damages to the city and is knocked up.

There was that one time with the donkey, the pineapple and the tutu in Mexico, but… no. This is definitely weirder. Also, Toni is sober now and she definitely wasn’t with the donkey business.

Yet, here she is, sipping coffee and picking at a pale pink cupcake while Loki Liesmith sits across from her, dunking her baby-blue cupcake into her disgusting herbal tea and trying not to make appreciative noises.

“Are those cravings or are you always that much of a freak?” Toni finds herself asking and, for a second, Loki spears her with a glare that reminds her that yes, tried to end the world less than a year ago. And no, isn’t actually reformed, just…

“Hey, what are you up to? Aside from…” she waves a hand vaguely at Loki’s midsection.

“I am not ‘up to’ anything,” the god answers, snappishly.

“And I should believe that, why?”

“Because I am tired and with child?” comes the arch suggestion.

Toni could ask what ‘tired’ is supposed to mean, but she knows already. Loki has had a long few years and he already looked like death warmed over during the Battle of Manhattan. And now he’s (okay, too weird, she is) pregnant. How did that happen anyway?

Toni could ask. But she won’t because they are both geniuses and they don’t need to have conversations about the obvious. That’s what Toni loves most about Bruce, to be honest. She can trust him to keep up without needing to have all those long talks normal people need to have to bridge the gaps.

Loki keeps up, too. Hell, Loki could probably run circles around her.

So instead Toni asks, “Why are you telling me all this?”

“Why did you come up to me on the street?”

“Had to make sure you weren’t about to cause mass destruction, didn’t I?”

This time it’s Loki who calls Toni out by saying, “Liar.”

Surprisingly, though, she lets it drop. “Out of everyone I talked to on Earth, you were the only one who saw the endgame. You were the only one who understood that there was…”

“No way to win your fight?” Toni offers because, yeah, she remembers that. Between booze and panic, she remembers some big, smart line about there being no version where Loki wins.

She’d say it was there for all the world to see, right in his eyes, but she’s long since gotten used to the world being utterly blind. Thor guessed at some of his brother’s plans, she suspects, but only because he’s had a long, long time to learn.

“No satisfactory conclusion to the events,” Loki corrects, primly.

A laugh escapes Toni, small but honest. It surprises them both, she thinks.

“I knew,” she admits for no reason she can figure, “Even when you were trying to put the whammy on me, I knew that you and I could get along. I…”

Life being what it is, her phone chooses that moment to start wailing the horrible ringtone she assigned to Avengers business. Which means she can’t ignore it. She grabs the phone from her purse, finds coordinates on the screen and curses, low and heartfelt.

“I gotta run, apparently. I…” she stands, throws a few bills on the table and then turns to face Loki, still sitting perfectly still, perfectly poised. “We should finish this some other time.”

“You would meet me again?” Loki asks, sounding amused at the deranged human in front of her.

Shrugging, Toni nods. “You haven’t tried to kill me today. And you’re decent conversation.” She flashes her best grin at that, perfect media-smile, Stark charm practically oozing from every pore.

This might be crazy, but Toni routinely takes to the sky in a metal suit and expects to not fly, not fall. Crazy is what she puts on her cornflakes.

“See ya!” she hollers in the end, already on her way to the door, not giving Loki a chance to answer.

She finds Happy parked two blocks down and throws her bags into the trunk, grabs her suitcase suit and kicks it into action. Thirty seconds later she’s online and in the air, laughing with the thrill of it, arms spread wide.

“Guys,” she calls, “I’m here. Where’s the party?”

Steve grunts over comms, Natasha mutters something in Russian and Coulson, ever effective, fills her in in less than three sentences.

Here goes nothing.

+

The next morning, bone- tired from fighting something that looked like mutated giant squids but probably wasn’t really for most of the afternoon and night, Toni wakes to JARVIS’s dulcet tones, rolls over and buries her head under a pillow.

She is trying to figure out if Pepper will bust her ass if she just stays in bed when she suddenly remembers –

“Jesus fuck, did that actually happen? JARVIS, did that happen?”

I am unsure what you are referring to, Miss Stark,” JARVIS politely declares, so she waves him off, slumps face-first into her bed again and thinks that yes, she actually did have lunch with Loki.

And she liked it.

She rolls onto her back with a sigh, brain already booting because sticking her head in the sand never worked out before, so she’ll pull on her big girl panties and deal. To the ceiling she says, “Did you get the conversation yesterday?”

You were carrying your phone, Miss Stark,” JARVIS points out, which is a polite way of telling her that obviously he did, why is she asking stupid questions again? One of these days, Toni will take away his ability to snark at her.

Right after she fixes the gaping hole in her chest, cures herself of promiscuity and stops being an ass to people just because she can.

“I want a risk analysis and anything you can glean from the conversation that might concern Project: Doomsday.”

Very well. Would you like me to hypothesize?

She hesitates for a moment, then nods. “Might as well. Anything you can come up with goes into the project. The risk analysis, too. And see if you can pull footage from the area, see which way Loki came and went. Then bury whatever you find. Don’t need SHIELD on our asses for this.”

JARVIS gives her another affirmative and then turns his attention inward to do what she’s asked him to – because Toni doesn’t order JARVIS and she never has. She built him piece by piece, code string by code string, gave him sentience, gave him the ability to learn, to decide. JARVIS is as human as anything can get without being born and she made him. She doesn’t order him. Ever.

Instead she rolls groggily to her feet and stumbles down into the living area, where nothing remains of the destruction Loki and the Hulk caused there only a few months ago. She almost kept the hole in the ground just to be an ass, but Bruce has killer puppy-dog eyes.

By the time she reaches the kitchen, the coffee is almost done percolating and Dummy greets her with the newspaper, which she dumps on the counter, and a waffle iron.

“A waffle iron, Dummy?”

He chirps at her, swings his arm a bit, waits for her to take it. “Are you telling me to eat or are you glitching again?”

More chirping. Then he rolls away. Toni puts the waffle iron on top of the newspaper and rubs at her forehead. She loves all her little homemade friends. She does. But Dummy and You are the results of a two-week bender and a lot of spite. She still can’t figure out some of the codes she programmed into them, smashed out of her skull and in a piss poor mood because no-one at MIT took a scrawny fifteen-year-old girl with chopped-off hair and a chip on her shoulder seriously.

She pours herself a cup of black ambrosia and sits, tapping bitten-down nails against the counter. She calls up a screen on the nearest glass surface and checks her e-mails. Work, work, work, spam and a painfully correctly worded e-mail from Steve asking if she has time this weekend to ‘do something’.

She ignores all important communications, tells Steve that she ‘does something’ all the time and could he please be more specific, and then settles down to stare into the middle-distance and plot.

Project: Doomsday, she thinks, takes a scalding sip of her coffee. It’s her very own project, locked away as deeply as the Iron Woman designs and specs, but a lot newer than those. Doomsday didn’t exist until the first time she got a breather after the Chitauri.

The first time she sat down without hurting all over and thought the events through, she came up with a lot of things that everyone else missed, apparently. She can’t blame them, few people see things the way she does, all laid out in patterns and designs. Plus, it’d been a busy few days.

But there were things, glaringly obvious things, that, even six months later, no-one has taken the time to put together. Hence the project. It’s a collection of random information and ideas, just brain farts that she hopes she will one day turn into a weapon to fight magic.

Because yes, she swore she’d never build weapons again, swore she was done, but she knows that they haven’t seen the last of invading aliens and Toni needs, more than any oath, to keep the people she loves safe.

Because the things everyone else failed to notice are these:

Loki fell without the scepter and then showed up on Earth with it in his hands, doing things that had even Thor gaping. And it interacted with the cube. That means that someone built the scepter for Loki. Someone possessing skills and powers that no-one in Asgard can match. Someone who can draw on a power similar enough to the Tesseract to link with it. Someone who Loki has not mentioned with a single word, which means the god is either covering for them, or afraid to talk.

Since Loki doesn’t cover for anyone… well.

Then there was Toni’s little jaunt at the wrong end of the universe. She saw that ship and it was monstrous. She thought she ended it when she let go of the nuke, but reviewing JARIVS’s footage from the suit, which has battle protocols that automatically record life signs, tells a different story. She destroyed a ship, out there. Not the ship.

There were other life signs in that vast, empty space and there were many. In the few seconds she spent out there with the suit still operational, JARVIS recorded literally millions of life signs. An army. An army bigger than anything anyone on Earth has ever dreamed of.

And Toni went and poked it with a big, fat nuke.

And then there’s Loki. Who was far, far too careful with whom he killed. Those men at the SHIELD base? All but three died in the cave-in. Suspiciously low death count for a pissed-off god. He just took the two most capable men in the room and left.

Then Stuttgart. The man he needed the eyeball from. The cop car, which got upended without anyone dying. On the helicarrier he didn’t touch anyone. Clint shot out one turbine and then fed a virus into another. Why not shoot out both and make sure the thing really goes down? Why not take out the bridge? Why sneak around instead of a full on assault? Why not teleport the fuck out of there and not bother with SHIELD at all?

Coulson.

Coulson almost died. But Coulson aimed an experimental weapon designed from magic at Loki.

Later. In the city. Teasing and taunts and explosions. There were many, many deaths that day and yes, all of those are indirectly Loki’s fault. But directly? None. Nada. Zilch. Toni went through hours and hours of footage and couldn’t find Loki killing a single civilian directly.

It’s almost like he was going out of his way to not murder any more people than necessary. Like he was, what, keeping an escape route available? Trying not to turn them completely against him? Keeping his options open?

So there is someone that gave Loki a weapon he couldn’t have forged for himself, one that he only used to kill when he had to, and there is any army in space, big enough to turn this world to ash.

Worrying.

But what really scares Toni?

Back then, and now?

Was the expression in Loki’s eyes when she told him there was no version where he won, right over there, by the windows. Which, in hindsight, wasn’t the best place to taunt a god.

It wasn’t fear she saw there, although that was there, too. No, what she saw, when she told him that he couldn’t win, was a bitter, sinking satisfaction.

He knew.

All the time, when he let himself be caught too easily, when he played them, when he made great speeches, he knew there was no way for him to win. And that expression, that glimmer of sharp, angry determination and resignation, that was far, far too familiar.

Toni has worn that look in a cave in Afghanistan. It’s the look of someone who knows they’re done for, but still intends to make the fuckers pay.

And Loki’s version of that look wasn’t directed at her and their little band of misfit toys. It was directed at whoever gave him that scepter.

The same person she probably made a bit peeved. She’d say she regrets committing what amounts to nuclear genocide, but Toni has never been burdened with an overabundance of conscience. Does she like that she had to do it? No. Does she lose sleep over it? No. She spent twenty years building weapons for humans to slaughter each other with. She’s not going to cry over murdering the things that tried to take over her planet.

But if Toni is right, then they’re coming back. With more people. And angrier than before. And when that happens, she plans to be prepared.

And Loki… there’s a reason she walked up the god yesterday. Just like there’s a reason Loki showed up in a random part of town yesterday, and just so happened to catch Toni’s eye.

As much as Toni believes Loki to have been genuine with her, there was calculation there, because it’s Loki, and Loki is always calculating. When she appeared on that street, she was probably planning… how many steps ahead? Three? Five? And Toni? Around how many corners did she plan when she walked up to the god?

She takes another sip of her coffee and leans back in her seat, eyes closed. It’s been a long, long time since she’s met anyone that could think on her level, could predict her.

That’s not arrogance. That’s fact.

And it’s turning Toni on.

+

Two days after that she is ruining a three thousand dollar dress by sitting cross-legged in her office chair, pretending to be signing papers when really, she’s doodling in the margins of a semi-important new contract.

Pepper is a couple thousand miles away, so that’s okay. Toni’s new PA, a no-nonsense woman of about fifty, has far too much respect for Toni to yell her into doing her work, or else.

Really, she thought she’d be done with all the office-sitting and contract-signing after she gave Pepper her company.

“It’s not fair,” she grouses, coming up with about seventeen more useful ways to spend her time right now, while she finishes another doodle of the arc reactor and then throws in a sloppy signature just so she can claim she’s actually working.

To reward herself, she checks her e-mail for anything interesting. Steve again, asking if she wants to go to some gallery opening with him since he has tickets. She frowns, looks up the gallery and yep, she owns half of the art there. And she is certainly not going to the opening after having weaseled out of it already when Pepper brought it up last week. She types a quick message back telling Steve to ask her if he wants to see some gallery because chances are she has art in it and he can get in for free, and to take Pep, since she loves the stuff and is probably going to the opening anyway. They can be each other’s annoyingly perfect arm candy.

Once that is done, she waffles between more procrastination and more paperwork. Choices, choices.

There’s a knock on the door just then and Marjorie (yes, Pepper actually found someone named Marjorie for the sole purpose of making Toni’s life harder than it is) enters, a small box in her hand.

“For me?” Toni asks, batting her lashes. “You didn’t have to, sweetheart.”

Marjorie’s Look isn’t half as good as Pepper’s. Toni says so. “This just arrived for you, Miss Stark. I suggest you open it soon, since I suspect in contains perishables. I will collect your paperwork in an hour.”

She smiles, puts the box down and walks out. Toni blinks. Okay. So maybe Marjorie will yell her into doing her work. Huh.

Also, she sounds like JARVIS. Maybe she’s an android? Nah. Toni didn’t build her, and Lord knows, no-one else could. She shrugs, flicks her pen to the far corner of her perversely large desk and grabs the box.

It’s small, pink, and has a little bow around it. Toni looks for a note but there’s nothing there. She’d check for explosives or something, but neither JARVIS nor security at the front entrance noticed anything, so she figures she’ll be fine. Or dead. Either way, she won’t care much.

She tugs at the bow, drops it carelessly to one side and opens the box. And stares. And stares. And stares.

There’s no card.

There doesn’t need to be.

Because in gold on green icing on top of a delicious looking cupcake, there is a phone number spelled out.

+

“Is the cupcake poisoned?” Toni asks, as soon as Loki answers on the third ring.

The god snorts delicately, apparently still female. Toni wonders, briefly, if she can actually change back to male while she’s got one in the oven. Huh. Interesting question. “Please. Poison is far too plebeian for my tastes.”

It’s Toni’s turn to snort. “Let me see. Sneaky, tricky, likes to plot from behind the scenes, lies a lot… sorry, but poison seems right up your alley, buddy.”

“The cupcake is not poisoned,” Loki says instead of answering, like it annoys her to spell it out.

“And you want me to just trust your word?” Toni wants to know, tracing the edges of the little box with one ragged fingernail.

A moment of silence. Then. “Yes.”

Shrugging, Toni picks up the cupcake, licks her lips and takes a huge bite. There’s more silence on the other end as she chews and then Loki says, “I have no idea whether you are stupid or brave, Stark.”

Sucking icing from her teeth, Toni grins. “I am one of the five smartest people on the planet. I think you’ll have to go with brave. So, likelihood of me keeling over dead from this?”

“Minimal. Unless you have allergies no-one knows about,” Loki admits.

Toni waits for her to say more, but it doesn’t come. “Did I pass your test?”

“I am not sure yet.”

“Okay then.” And because Loki is waiting for something and Toni really is a little bit stupid, she adds, “Lunch?”

+

They meet in a coffee shop twenty minutes from Stark Tower, because Toni is reckless and a little bit stupid, not fucking dumb. She does not need Nick Fury yelling at her before… ever, actually. She has JARVIS slip into SHIELD’s systems and conveniently blank her out for long enough to lose sight of her because yes, she knows they’re misappropriating surveillance equipment to follow her and no, she doesn’t usually care.

She screws with them anyway at least once a week, though. Keeps them humble.

Once JARVIS tells her she’s clear, she changes directions and makes it to the coffee shop just after the lunch crowd starts to disperse. Loki is sitting at the very back, hands wrapped around what is probably more weird tea, an assortment of pastries on the table in front of her. Toni gets a coffee for herself and joins her, slipping into the booth with a smile hello.

The god is dressed down today and in black pants and a green blouse. She’s also wearing flats, which is probably a good thing for Toni’s ego, should they get up at some point. Maria Stark was a tiny thing, and Toni is her daughter in that, if not much else.

“What the hell are we doing?” she asks after a minute of sitting quietly next to a god, waiting. Because this is a game and they both know it.

Loki’s lips quirk. “I believe this particular social convention is called ‘having lunch’.”

Toni gives her her own version of the Look. Surprisingly, it actually sort of works, because the other woman admits, “I don’t know.”

“You’re the one who sent me baked goods and a phone number.”

“You’re the one that invited me to lunch. Twice.”

“You’re the one that didn’t disintegrate me the moment you lay eyes on me.”

“You’re the one that didn’t call the Avengers to lock me up in your tower the moment you lay eyes on me.”

“You’re the one…,” Toni huffs, “You’re willing to play this ad absurdum, aren’t you?”

This time, she gets a full-blown smirk. “Yes.”

The smirk does things to Toni’s insides, so she looks away, sips her coffee and eventually asks with more calculation that is audible in her voice, “How’s the Nudger?”

“I bed your pardon?”

“You know, you could just say ‘what’ like everyone else.”

“I have manners.”

“This is New York. No-one has manners. Besides, I think attempted wholesale destruction frees you from common courtesy.”

“You are a planet of heathens.”

“Did you know that your religion is referred to as pagan in most parts of the world?”

“I could kill your with my little finger.”

“I’d go down ruining your nailjob.”

“What is a nudger, Stark?”

“Call me Toni. And read Twilight. I was asking how the baby is.”

Toni does not miss the way Loki’s cool gaze sweeps the entire room before answering, “Fine. I am hardly eight weeks along. There is not much to tell yet.”

Toni blinks at that. “Have you done this before?”

“In this life, once before. Sleipnir remains in Asgard.”

In this life?”

No-one does contempt quite as well as Loki. Toni suspects it’s the eyebrows. And the posh accent, too. The combination is frightening. “You have known my oaf of a brother for over six months, have known of him for longer, and you have yet to read up on our mythology?”

Testily, Toni shoots back, “I was a bit busy trying to save the world. From you.”

Loki scowls, sips her tea with icy efficiency and then offers, “It’s a girl.”

Toni smiles, congratulates her and doesn’t ask how she knows if she’s only eight weeks along. It’s probably magic. This is Loki after all. She works on her coffee as she leans back and replays the conversation in her head. By her count, there were at least three times where Loki should have walked out/tried to incinerate her/ started yelling threats.

She’s taken none of them.

Toni knows why she’s here. Because there’s a file buried on her servers that spells out doom for all of mankind, or something equally dramatic. And, if she’s honest, because she’s slightly unhinged and has never been able to resist a puzzle, especially not one as complex as the god across from her. It doesn’t hurt that she finds herself genuinely enjoying their verbal battles as long as they don’t end in real battles. It’s hard to find anyone that can truly match Toni Stark at her best, running off at the mouth at two hundred miles an hour.

Yes, she knows why she’s here. The question is: Why is Loki?

She has ideas, sure, but the baby thing…. Loki is giving her too much information to make her think this is just a con. Or maybe that is the con.

“So, what have you been up to? You dodged the question last time.”

“Perhaps I did not wish to answer.”

“Really? Sorry. Missed the cue. So, what have you been up to?”

“You have a very big mouth, for such a puny mortal.”

“That’s what she said.”

Loki’s lips quirk again. It’s unfair how good that makes her look. “You are vulgar.”

“You are trying to change the subject.”

“Did you know that is actually is possible to strangle someone with their intestines? It’s all in the technique.”

The passing busboy gives Loki a horrified look and squeaks a little. Toni snorts into her coffee. “The pregnancy hormones have kicked in then, yeah?”

She says it just loud enough for the kid to hear. Maybe, if she’s lucky, he won’t call the cops because he fears for his life.

Loki pouts. “You ruined my fun.”

“That was fun? Wow. You really didn’t get out a lot, back in good old Asgard, did you?”

“Coming from Antonia Stark, the world’s most infamous hermit.”

“Hey, I wasn’t always a hermit. I used to go out. A lot. Like, enough for several lifetimes. I’m cashing in on that now. More important things to do, if you know what I mean.”

“Ah, yes. What did you call it? ‘Avenging the Earth’?”

Cringing, Toni admits, “Okay. Not my best moment. Don’t quote me on that, it sounds horrible out of context.”

“Not only out of it,” Loki argues.

“You’re a real bitch, did you know that?” It’s official. Toni has no sense of self-preservation.

And Loki, apparently, has no normal reactions to anything, because she laughs. “Thank you.” Then, abruptly, she sobers.

“I have been preparing,” she says and whatever doubts Toni had about why they are here, disappear like expensive booze on one of her bad days.

“For whoever is waiting at the other end of that portal,” she offers, putting her coffee down to fold her hands, rest her chin on them. Attentive. In her pocket, JARVIS is recording every word they say. Above their heads, he’s watching through every camera this place has.

People keep calling JARVIS creepy, but they always think getting away from him is as easy as leaving Toni’s home. It doesn’t give her a lot of faith in humanity as a whole’s survival skill.

Head cocked, birdlike, to one side, the other woman nods. “I should have expected that you would be the one to figure it out,” she murmurs, mostly to herself. Then, louder, “You used to build weapons.”

“Yes.” Toni Stark used to build weapons because that’s what Daddy did and that’s what the world said she should do. It’s funny. All the women she knows complain about being compared to their mothers, or of turning into them. To Toni, Maria is a vague smudge of memory in the background of her childhood, smelling of sherry, expensive perfume and old hopes.

Front and center has always been Howard. She looks like him, she’s smart like him, she talks and walks and thinks like him. He’s the one everyone has always compared her to, the one she decided, at the age of thirteen, to beat, even if it killed her.

And hey, look, it almost did. Booze and sex and drugs and terrorists.

She wonders, sometimes, purely as a mental exercise, how different her life would be if she’d inherited her mother’s straight, black hair and light brown eyes, instead of Howard’s brown on brown. If her eyes were rounder, her lips fuller. If she’d liked dolls, growing up, instead of tools.

If the world had compared her to her mother, not her father, she might be in a very different place right now.

Boring. Irrelevant. Drink it away and move on.

“What made you stop?”

Note to self. Loki does not pull punches.

A million answers. The press answer, the one for Pepper and Rhodey, the truth Toni whispers only to JARVIS. The truth she doesn’t even tell him. In the end, all she tells Loki, all she gives the god is, “Actions have consequences.”

It expresses nothing and, at the same time, everything.

“I assume you have been… working on the problem?”

The problem. Right. Alien invasion. Loki makes it sound like an annoying rash, nothing more.

“A little.”

“You failed. Because you know nothing of magic.”

Involuntarily, Toni’s eyes narrow. “Are you calling me stupid?”

“Limited, perhaps. But I would not be here if I did not think you have potential, Stark.”

That… was almost a compliment. Sort of. Toni huffs and folds her arms under her chest, one eyebrow arched. Waiting.

Loki stares back for a minute before standing abruptly and ordering (ordering!), “Follow me.”

She grabs one of the pastries on the table and starts stalking away, munching on it like she hasn’t got a care in the world. Toni seriously considers not following. For all of two seconds.

Then she scrambles to her feet (in a dignified way, thank you very much) and hurries to catch up to the god with the unfairly long legs.

Curiosity killed the cat, Ma’am,” JARVIS says in her purse, his voice barely audible as they burst onto a busy New York street. Toni guesses his words more than she hears them.

“Satisfaction brought it back,” she murmurs, mostly to herself.

A few feet ahead, a man bumps into Loki and almost makes her drop her pastry. She hisses, glares and then turns as if to rip off his head and possibly used it as a bowling ball. Then her expression sours, like she just imagined something disgusting, and she drops the pastry she just defended ferociously into the nearest trash bin.

It’s ridiculous to watch and Toni has to bite back a giggle or two because, seriously, god anyone?

“Hormones have kicked in then,” she says, wisely only after she’s got the giggle under control.

Loki glares so hard she almost sprains something. Still doesn’t smite Toni where she stands, though.

This is getting far too interesting.

+

They take a cab to wherever they’re going, and it’s almost ridiculous how normal it feels. Super villains take cabs. Who knew?

Toni spends a minute fiddling with her phone to make sure JARVIS makes sure there are blind spots wherever they go because, why, yes, JARVIS is hacked into traffic cameras, too, why do you ask?

In Toni’s defense, he sort of did that one himself when he decided she needed to be supervised at all times. In no way it she responsible for her super intelligent AI hacking his way into every computer system in the northern hemisphere he can get a hold of just because he’s a bit insanely devoted to her.

“Who’s the wizard behind the curtain?” she asks, once she’s done making sure she’ll still be an Avenger when she gets back to the Tower.

“He is far worse than that,” Loki answers, making a motion toward the driver. The plexiglass between the front and back row flashes green briefly. Toni assumes it’s supposed to prevent eavesdropping.

Her eyebrows hit her hairline for a different reason though. “You’ve read the Wizard of Oz but not the Twilight series? Who does your book recs, woman?”

“I did not read that book,” Loki says and then sort of grimaces.

“Oh my god,” Toni calls, a bit too loud for the confined space. “You watched the movie! I didn’t even know you knew how to operate a TV! Oh, this is hilarious. The god of mischief watches children’s classics in her free time!”

“I know perfectly well how to use Earth technology.”

“Yeah, if you can point your staff at it and fry it.”

“I could point my staff at you,” the god suggests, dryly and at least half serious.

Toni does the eyebrow-tango. “Dir-rty,” she sings, tongue behind her teeth.

Loki rolls her big, green eyes. “You are utterly ridiculous.”

“Your face is ridiculous.”

“Do you want to die?”

“I told you, I’d ruin your manicure.”

“I could live with that if it meant getting rid of your inane chatter.”

“Awww. You like it.”

“I do not.”

“Yes, you do. Because I can keep up with you.”

“You have a high opinion of yourself.”

“Why does everyone say that like it’s a bad thing?”

“Because it will get you killed?”

“Aaaand we’re back at the staff metaphor. Baby, you can aim your staff at me anytime. Although I don’t think you have it right now. Do you carry it in your purse?” Toni doesn’t bother elaborating which staff she is talking about, thank you very much. It’s not the one Loki has been carrying the few times he’s been sighted since he came back to Earth after his community service in Asgard.

“Are you aware that you are sexually propositioning your arch enemy?”

“Arch, schmarch. Now who has a high opinion of themselves?”

“I don’t want to say his name,” Loki suddenly derails and Toni almost gets whiplash, but catches up.

“Why?”

If looks could speak, this one would write a novel on how incompetent Toni is. “Names have power, Stark.”

“So do guns,” Toni points out, reasonably. “Still like to play with them, though.”

With a sudden movement, Loki grabs Toni’s wrist, wrenching it toward her. For a moment, Toni thinks the god if going to fling her out of the driving car, or something equally dramatic and deadly. Or maybe rip her hand clean off.

Instead she twists it, palm up, and starts writing in it, ‘wiping’ the palm clean after every letter. It’s sort of adorable, actually. Toni used to play this game when she was, what… five?

Still, she pays attention and puts together letters like a good first-grader. T – H – A – N – O – S.

“So it’s okay to write it but not to say it out loud? Doesn’t writing have more power than sonic waves?”

“My hands don’t contain magic right now, Stark, unlike my voice.”

“Your voice is magic? Seriously?” So many ways to turn that dirty. So many.

She gets a sideways look as Loki drops her hand rudely. “God of lies, Stark, try to keep up.”

Oh. Okay. That.

“You can call me Toni, you know? Since we’re besties now.”

“He is… more powerful than anything I have ever seen. I know of no-one that could successfully stand against him, especially not while he has the Chitauri at his beck and call.”

Involuntarily, Toni shivers. Partly because ‘no-one Loki knows’ includes Odin, who is supposedly the most powerful thing since… well, ever. But mostly because of the Chitauri. Because of that army that’s still waiting somewhere, out there.

Toni didn’t just see it. She felt it. And it felt wrong. That entire part of space felt twisted, upside down and inside out. It was like M.C. Escher meets LSD on a bad trip. Perverted, somehow, but that implies that it was right at some point in time, and Toni does not believe that anything about that place was ever right. Euclid certainly never came by that piece of space.

“You saw it,” Loki observes, far too calmly. “You know.”

Toni exhales. “Yes.”

The cab halts.

+

Loki lives – or at least occasionally stays in - in a studio apartment in a run-down part of town, with more square footage than you can shake a stick at. Toni doesn’t for a moment believe that this is her only, or even her preferred hide out. There are a living and sleeping area, and a kitchen. It looks like whoever installed the furniture had necessity at the forefront of their mind, rather than prettiness.

It’s functional, much like Toni’s own spaces, with a few personal touches. Candles, mostly, and books. There are a lot of books.

But that’s all shunted off into one corner of the whole floor Loki occupies. The rest is, for lack of a better word, a lab.

Nothing like what Toni would call a lab, of course. Too few computers, not enough cables, wires and metal parts. But a lab nonetheless. A magic lab.

There are more books scattered about, all kinds of herbs and liquids in little glass bottles. There are metal parts, upon closer inspection, and a computer setup in the far corner, but the whole thing still seems like something out of a movie. Too fucking weird.

“Am I right in assuming that you want us to work together to find a way to stop… hey, can I say his name?”

“Obviously. You do not have an ounce of magic in you, Stark.”

Somehow, that sounds like an insult. “Okay. So. Thanos. We stop him. How?”

“Obliteration,” Loki calls over her shoulder as she starts pulling out things to make… tea. What else. “We have to find a way to utterly obliterate him. Scatter his atoms across the branches of Yggdrasil.”

“Wow. You haven’t got a major hate-on for this guy, do you?”

Loki’s hands stop moving and her gaze, even from across half the room, is searing, cold. “He is in love with death.”

Opening her mouth to quip something about goths and emos, Toni gets cut off. “I am being literal, Stark. He is in love with the physical manifestation of death and she is not adverse to his advances. Merely killing him will do nothing to stop him. I need to find a way to erase him from existence.”

Look at that, the French had it right all along. Death actually is female. Then the rest of that statement catches up with her and something runs down Toni’s spine, cold and scaly. “You’re scared.”

It’s not a question. She can see it, hear it. There’s a god standing across from her, and she’s scared out of her fucking mind.

“Of course I am. Fear keeps you alive. I am not so stupid as to ignore something that could kill me.”

There’s an implied as should you in there somewhere. Toni shrugs and kicks off her heels. This might take a few hours. Months. Possibly years. “I’ve never known when to back the fuck off.”

“And look where it has got you.”

“I’m still alive.”

“You’re in a super villain’s lair.”

“That sounds ridiculous. And also, answer me this: If I were any more prone to fear, would I be here? Or would I have called SHIELD down on your head days ago? You be scared, if it makes you smart. I’ve always thought best with my ass on fire.”

For a long, long minute, Loki stares. Just stares. Doesn’t blink, doesn’t move, doesn’t even breathes. Just looks at Toni like she’s stripping her to the bone, to the soul.

Then she nods. “You’re right.”

Wow. That must have cost her. Toni is magnanimous enough to just smirk and then strip out of her suit jacket, making her way over to the lab space barefoot. “What have you got so far?”

Loki appears next to her like, well, magic, grabs a pile of notes (eugh, paper) out of a huge stack of them and hands them over. Toni expects her to say something, explain maybe, but all she gets is an expectant look.

Great. A test. Toni just loves those.

She shoves the rest of the stack down the long table and jumps onto it, feet dangling. She wishes she had a gum to pop as she starts flicking through the sheets. At first, she can’t make heads or tails of the notes, but there’s a rhythm to the equations, a certain familiarity. Velocity. Matter. Even if there are unfamiliar symbols scattered all over, the basic ideas behind them are still the same. Science. And magic, she guesses. Always with the magic.

After a few minutes, though, she thinks she has enough of the patterns figured out to get the gist of what she’s reading. “You’re trying to, what, find a way to store energy long term?”

“I have absolutely no desire,” Loki drawls, “To be close when I wipe that creature out of existence.”

“Understandable. Help me out here,” Toni orders, putting the papers down between them and digging a random pen out of the mess she made when she sat down. She circles a few of the symbols in ball point. “What do those mean?”

“Can’t you figure it out?” Needling.

“I could. It’d take a few hours, though. Stop playing games and help a girl out, will you?”

For a moment, silence, then, suddenly, Loki’s laughing, head thrown back, full-blown belly laugh. It’s unfair how much it turns Toni on. “What?” she snaps, a little defensively.

“You…,” still laughing, “…. You just told me to stop playing games. Pardon me for finding that utterly hilarious.”

Rolling her eyes, Toni waves the papers in the other woman’s face. “Spit out that thesaurus, Shakespeare, and get a move on. At this rate, you’ll pop your kid before we get anywhere.”

Loki’s hand flutters to her stomach and that, more than anything else that’s happened in the past few hours, strikes Toni as strange. She hasn’t batted an eyelash at Loki switching genders, figures the god won’t turn back until the kid’s born, but this… hand over a pregnant stomach. It’s so female. Or rather, so protective.

It seems at odds with Loki’s normal behavior. Maybe that’s why the single movement makes Toni ache, fierce and low, and swallow back a sudden flood of… something.

They’re on a deadline here.

“Well,” she says, only half paying attention to what’s leaving her mouth. “Fuck.”

Loki snorts, somehow making even that sound unfairly elegant. Too much exposure to gods makes Toni feel like a troll. Good to know.

+

Two hours later Toni has chewed through the ball point pen she snagged and Loki has worked her way through an entire pot of tea. Toni has the theory down, more or less. She thinks. Loki might just be smarter than her, even if she is never, ever, not on pain of death, going to admit it.

“Basically, you have the energy, but you lack a container. Preferably something you can fire at the guy and watch blow up from a safe distance. Right?”

“Yes.”

It’s a sign of how far she’s come in the past few years that Toni doesn’t just lose herself in the excitement of creating, but actually thinks beforehand. Thinks about what she’s about to do. She is about to help Loki, who tried to end the world only half a year ago, build a weapon. Not only that, but a weapon that marries technology to magic.

Something that, if done right (and between the two of them you can be damn well sure it will be) will be unstoppable. Undefeatable. Unopposable.

A lot of ‘un’s.

Worse than anything she has built in twenty years of being the Merchant of Death. And she’ll give it to Loki.

“Promise me,” she blurts, a bit too fast, too loud. “Promise me, that if I help you do this, you will never use it against Earth.”

Head cocked, Loki considers her for a moment, then asks, very blandly, “You would take my word?”

A shrug. “I’d take a signed contract, too, or, hey, do you have magical oaths, or something? But yeah, I’ll take your word. Also, the whole ‘avenge the world’ thing? Still totally goes, even if it’s lame.”

“You would have my word and threaten me in the same breath?” She looks more amused than pissed, luckily. Smear on the pavement is not a good look on Toni, but neither is backing down, so she just sits there. Waiting.

Loki looks a bit disgruntled, probably at a loophole closing, but in the end she sighs. “I give you my word that I will never use whatever weaponry you and I design together, against this planet or its inhabitants.”

Melting into a puddle of relief would be undignified, so Toni settles for pulling her purse closer and laying her phone on the table between them. “JARVIS, buddy, you here?”

Miss Stark,” he answers. Loki blinks.

“Hook yourself into Loki’s systems, will you. And any surveillance in a five block radius. And take the power grid, too, because we’re going to be using juice. Pull up Doomsday and organize moving all related hardware here, ASAP. Anything else?”

She looks at Loki, but it’s the AI that answers. “May I suggest monitoring SHIELD communications as well as local law enforcement in case you draw attention to your experimentation?

“Do it,” Toni agrees and then really wishes she had enough hardware on herself to at least draw up a few holograms, but that’ll have to wait. Instead she moves toward the few computers Loki has. They all start beeping and blinking at her happily as she gets close. Can’t trump JARVIS.

“Who is that?”

Sitting down, Toni waves a hand. “Loki, JARVIS. JARVIS, Loki.”

Pleased to meet you, Ma’am. Or would you prefer I refer to you as Sir?

Since Loki makes no move to answer, Toni grins. “He’s my AI – Artificial Intelligence. I built him. He runs… everything for me.”

“And he is… inside your phone?”

It figures, that the first thing to throw Loki about modern technology is the idea of global networking. Admittedly, though, JARVIS is sort of five steps up from that. And two to the left.

“He’s in everything I build.”

She says ‘build’ instead of ‘own’ and lets that stand, leaves it for Loki to either figure out or miss the obvious clue, the way everyone else always does. She goes back to watching the screens in front of her boot, flashing a Welcome Miss Stark that makes Loki take a step closer, curious.

“Okay,” Toni says, rubbing her hands together in flee. “Let’s get building.”

+

At three in the morning, thirteen hours after she went off grid, Toni pulls JARVIS off all of Loki’s systems and finds herself a cab that takes her halfway across town. From there, she calls her driver – not Happy, Happy belongs to Pepper these days. They split friends and employees when they split the company, which means that Toni got Rhodey and Pep got Happy.

It’s a sucky deal, because Rhodey is never around and Happy is a great guy, but what can you do when your secretary turned technically-boss, who also happens to be your best friend in all the world, decides that’s how it’ll go.

To be fair, Pepper accepted seventy perfect of the paperwork duties in the Agreement, but Toni never did paperwork even when she should have, so.

When the driver gets there, she pulls up the privacy partition and proceeds to mess herself up and then try to fix it. That’s the trick in trying to look like you just got laid. Don’t look like you just got laid. Look like you just got laid and then tried to hide it.

Toni has been honing this technique since she was fifteen. Sometimes, illicit love affairs are a great cover for the really insane things she gets up to. Although, she figures, building weapons of mass destruction with a possibly clinically insane god of chaos is a new record, even for her.

She knows how to pull the show off. She throws her hair around for a bit, then finger-combs it into a messy bun that she fixates with a linty make-up brush from her purse. She hitches the skirt of her dress up around her waist, then shoves it back down, overdoes fixing her bra so her tits half spill out and then puts on a new coat of lipstick.

Steve or Thor won’t put the clues together, but Natasha or Bruce or Clint definitely will, so she should be good.

She’d rub at her cheeks, make herself look flushed, but she’s still high from twelve hours spent with someone whose mind might just be the most brilliant puzzle she ever got her hands on. She’s flushed enough.

Aaaand, as expected, the entire Avengers team is waiting for her on the common floor just below her private floor. She’d have gone straight up, if she’d thought it would get her around the inquisition, but she knows better.

“Up so late?” she asks, blinking at Steve’s puppy-dog glower. The question is ridiculous because between the six of them they have the most fucked-up sleep patterns the world has ever seen.

Bruce and Steve barely sleep at all because they don’t need it, Natasha and Clint can sleep hanging upside down from a ceiling if they have to, so they cat-nap at all hours but rarely ever sleep, Toni doesn’t sleep if it can be at all avoided and Thor… well. She’s not sure Thor sleeps at all. Ever. Do gods need sleep?

“Where were you?” Steve.

Toni rolls her eyes, followed closely by Clint and Natasha, who don’t look like they give a rat’s ass.

“Did I miss my curfew, Dad?”

“You just disappeared!”

“I didn’t disappear. I texted you that I was going to be MIA for a while.”

“Yes. Three hours after you disappeared.”

“I was busy.” Yeah, she sounds really mature here, but she’s getting a bit peeved. Steve means well and he worries, but she’s a grown woman who survived so far without anyone to hold her hand. She survived in a male dominated, ass-backwards industry of snobs and Yalies. She survived Afghanistan without anyone to hold her hand. What the hell does he think New York can throw at her?

And okay, so maybe she’s technically actually doing something incredibly stupid, but fuck, she hates it when people get up in her business, questioning her decisions. Questioning her dedication or something. As if dedication is what Toni lacks.

It’s the objects of said dedication that are sketchy, never the dedication itself.

“With what?”

She could refuse to answer. She could say it nicely. She could, she could, she could. But as much as she adores Steve, he is not her fucking father. “Booty call,” she drawls, with a bit too much edge to it. “Has your vocab caught up to that yet? Booty call means I found someone to fuck me stupid. Well, less intelligent at any rate. I don’t think anyone could fuck me stupid. But you should have seen the dick on that guy, now that was impressive. I’d have been home earlier, but I couldn’t walk, and then we did it again and – “

“Toni!” Steve is beet red, hands thrown in the air, backing away. Clint is full out laughing, Natasha and Bruce are making faces that say they want to be and Coulson (hey, where did Coulson come from?) isn’t even twitching. Thor is roaring with laughter.

At least someone is having fun.

“That was absolutely unnecessary, Toni!!”

“Trust, Cap,” she snaps, spins on her heel and marches back into the elevator. She has simulations to run and a bottle of thirty-year-old scotch to crack. As she stalks off, she pointedly ignores the little voice in her head (the one that sounds like Rhodey) telling her that he shouldn’t trust her, because she’s in a figurative bed with the enemy.

But the thing is, she doesn’t think Loki is the enemy. Doesn’t think this is a game. They both came to the same conclusion, separately, that they need each other for whatever is coming for them. Loki is knocked-up and scared and Toni is suicidal and angry. It’s a good combination.

Behind her, Clint says something about, “That went well, you are never getting laid.” Toni chooses to ignore it because she seriously does not want to know what her going MIA has to do with Steve getting laid. She shudders at the mental image that produces and quickly tucks it away under trauma I do not need.

And keeps walking.

The elevator is about to whoosh shut when Bruce slips inside, slinging an arm around her shoulders and pulling her close. Once the guy gets over the ridiculous idea that you should be scared of him, he turns surprisingly touchy-feely.

She thinks that might just be touch deprivation, but what does she know. Bruce is her science bro and he’s also the best teddy bear in the entire world. They cuddle. She has no regrets

“You didn’t screw anyone,” he says, as soon as the doors are fully closed, still holding her to his side.

“You sound very sure,” she hedges, because she’s not stupid enough to ask ‘how can you tell?’.

“This,” he waves a hand at her face, “Is not your ‘got laid’ face. This is your ‘got creative’ face. Wanna share with the class?”

She bites her lip. “Okay. So. Off-site project,” she allows. “It’s huge. But… give me a few weeks, okay. I’ll let you in on it when it’s time. For now it’s all just theory anyway.”

Bruce frowns, but he relents because he knows the value of secrecy, of having your own space. “Why off-site?”

“Potential for a big boom.”

“Is it dangerous?”

Now, there’s a ridiculous question. “Yes.”

Bruce hums and she knows that he wants to ask more questions, but all he does it nudge her off the elevator. “Movie?”

She hesitates because she really wants to get into the lab, but she’s actually kind of hungry, so… “Let me grab something to eat and change out of this crap.”

“Change. I’ll get your food. Meet you in the den.”

Just like that. She watches him walk away for a moment and then, on impulse, she skitters after him and wraps an arm around his neck from behind, pulls until he’s turned around enough for her to press a quick kiss to his lips. “I love you to the point of stupidity, thought you should know.”

Because Bruce is, legit, the most awesome human being Toni has met in her life. He’s all goodness and patience and smarts and if she weren’t absolutely sure she’d ruin him, she’d be all over him like white on rice. One of these days, she’ll set him and Pep up and they’ll make her feel ugly and petty and inferior and then they’ll have gorgeous, perfect, kind babies and Toni will ruin them all.

He smiles at her idiotic expression, soft and amused and yeah, she wants to snuggle him and feed him and give him deadly things to play with.

“Oh god, are you two going to fuck now? Because I can come back later?” Clint offers from somewhere behind them.

Toni rolls her eyes at Bruce and lets him go. “Bromance, birdboy,” she says. “Bromance. Of which Bruce and I have a truly epic one, which will not be ruined with sex. Because where there is sex there is booze and where there is booze there is Toni Stark doing socially unacceptable things on tape and then there’s screaming and reporters and tears and possibly lawsuits and it never ends well. So get over it, already.”

Clint rolls his eyes right back. “Babe,” he drawls, only because it sets her teeth on edge, “I know you like to think you’re so butch, but even you can’t pass for a bro. You’ve got the balls, but you lack the dick.”

Bruce is trying hard to keep a straight face, the douche. He always stands by and watches when Clint and Toni go at it, like it’s better than reality TV. Toni slaps her purse and jacket into his chest, trusting him to catch them as she lets go, reaches behind her and pulls down the zipper of her dress. A single, smooth and practiced movement has the fabric pooling at her heels, leaving her in a truly magnificent set of deep burgundy, lace underwear.

Bruce eeps. Clint leers. “Does this,” she asks, brushing a hand down her front, intentionally teasing, “look very butch to you, Legolas?”

“Looks sorta like porn,” Clint mutters, a bit glassy-eyed and hell yeah, she’s still got it. His eyes stick to her tits for a few seconds before focusing on the reactor. “Cyborg porn.”

And that… could hurt in about a million ways, if she would let it. Instead she smirks and bends, sloooowly, to step out of the dress and pick it up. She’s flashing Bruce a whole lot of ass and Clint practically all there is to her tits, but they both make noises, so it’s all great.

Then, suddenly, she straightens, throws the dress over one shoulder, grabs her stuff back from Bruce and cackles. The spell is broken.

Clint splutters and Bruce rubs a hand over his eyes. “Toni,” he whines.

“Oh, put it in the spank bank, big guy,” she advises, patting him on the chest as she turns to get some clothes on.

Clint looks like someone kicked him in the nuts. In a good way. Possibly. Butch, what?

She wins. She absolutely, definitely wins.

Doesn’t mean she isn’t evil enough to not put a little bit of extra sway into her hips as she goes.

+

By the time Toni has taken a quick shower and changed into workshop clothes, the boys have taken over the living room, with Matrix on the big screen. That means Bruce won the fight.

He’s sprawled on the big couch, legs akimbo in ways he didn’t allow himself a few months ago and yeah, Toni is sort of proud of how far she’s worn the guy down by generally being a handsy, fearless bitch.

Clint is perched on an armchair – literally. He sits on the back, knees up to his chin. She has no idea how he a) balances and b) keeps the damn chair from tipping over backwards, but she guesses if everyone gets to have a superpower, that can be his.

She sinks down next to Bruce, grabs the plate of sandwiches he put on the coffee table for her and plasters herself to his side. Okay, so maybe he’s not the only one who’s a little touch starved. Sue her.

Her last stable relationship (six weeks trying desperately to be in love with her best friend don’t count) was Obie. Obie who ruffled her hair and hugged her and put a hand on the small of her back to guide her, who patted her shoulder and squeezed her hand and sometimes let her climb him like a tree and make pretend.

Obie, who paid terrorists to rip the heart out of her and then did it himself when they couldn’t.

She pushes herself into Bruce’s side a bit too hard at that and he shifts, frowns down at her suddenly. “Toni?”

“Shellhead?” Clint echoes, slipping down from his perch into the seat proper.

“Fine,” she defends, waving a hand at them and shoving Obie back down in the box he belongs in, buried under several tons of issues and solid denial. And because they know her too well for that to work, she diverts, diverts, diverts, asks, “Why are you still here anyway? Don’t you have a secret super ninja agent to defile?”

“Are you talking about Tasha or Phil?”

She cocks her eyebrow at him. “Seriously? Everyone knows the three of you do kinky shit together.” The bastard just smirks while Bruce, the dear, chokes on nothing but air. Seriously, how did he not figure this out when Natasha and Clint brought Coulson home from medical and hovered over him like mother hens for an entire month. He had to send them on a mission in the freaking African jungle to get them to back off.

But apparently he didn’t because he’s going sort of blue in the face from trying not to cough like an idiot and eyeballing Clint at the same time with a sort of you broke my brain look.

Clint licks his lips, once, ridiculously not sexy, and then pouts. “Does that mean you want me to go? Are you kicking me out? I thought we had a thing here, seriously, but you’re being mean now. Bruce, tell her she’s being mean.”

“Uhm.”

“You broke him,” Toni points out. “He hadn’t caught on to the Boss Ninja Triad of Doom actually being, you know, a thing.”

“I thought you made that up,” Bruce defends.

“Technically…” Clint stops just long enough for Bruce to perk up, hope in his expression. “You’re the one that broke him.”

Bruce slumps.

Toni pats him on the shoulder consolingly, congratulates herself on a diversion well executed and asks, “No, but seriously, why are you hanging with us, when you’ve got sex on legs waiting for you.”

Clint shakes his head, expression suddenly downcast and exaggeratedly hangdog. “It’s their taste in movies,” he confesses quietly. “It’s horrible. I want to gouge my eyes out after ten minutes.”

“That bad?”

“Last week we watched…” he pauses for a dramatic full body shudder, “The Dreamers.”

Bruce blinks. “That wasn’t bad. I like Eva Green in that one.”

Toni snorts. “Of course you do. She’s naked a lot.” She turns her attention to Clint, who’s still laying it on thick. “Awww,” she coos, “you poor, mistreated baby. Did they make you watch movies where nothing blows up?”

He nods, lower lip jutting out.

“Was it existentialist?”

More nodding.

“Come here,” she orders and he practically throws himself at her, burying his face in her neck and shaking all over. He’s also lying half on top of Bruce, who grunts and tries to shove him off.

Toni smacks him in the arm. “Don’t hurt him. Can’t you see he’s suffering? They made him watch artsy movies, Bruce! No amount of hot threesome sex in the world can make up for artsy movies!”

Clint whimpers in agreement and kindly curls his legs so he’s off Bruce and more or less fully in Toni’s lap. For a long moment, the only sounds are his quiet whimpers and the soothing noises Toni makes as she strokes his hair.

Bruce rubs his temple. “You two are horrible people.”

More silence.

Then Clint licks a long strip up Toni’s neck and she sort of loses it and dissolves into a giggling heap of idiocy and sleep deprivation and possibly leftover adrenaline from playing bombs with Loki all day. Clint joins her and they turn into a puddle of hilarious goo on the couch while Bruce watches with a deer-in-headlights expression, obviously torn between joining in and running the hell away.

Toni closes her eyes. Inhales. Files this moment away deep, deep in her brain for rainy days. Then she blinks back into reality and starts poking Clint so he’ll get off of her.

He does, eventually, once he can breathe again, and plants his ass on her other side. Bruce reluctantly slips his arm back around her shoulders and starts rewinding the movie.

They’re all three grinning like idiots.

This whole ‘being part of a team’ thing? Turns out it’s not so bad after all.

+

A week after she makes her deal with Loki, Toni gets ambushed. By Pepper and goddamn Steve Rogers of all people.

She probably shouldn’t have avoided him for the past few days, but damn, siccing Pep on her? Low-fucking-blow, especially since he just doesn’t seem to be able to accept that they are not the besties he wants them to be.

He’s gorgeous and fantastic and good and pure and all things apple pie, yes, but he’s also the icon Howard compared her to all her life. Her father missed Steve for the rest of his life after the Capsicle sank and Toni and her mother might as well have been shadows in their own home.

And Toni knows that every time the guy looks at her, he sees some weird combination of her father and his lost love. She’s remembers Aunt Peggy, even if only vaguely. She also remembers how people used to compliment Aunt Peggy how much her daughter looked like her whenever they were out together.

Dark hair, dark eyes, red lips. Toni at thirty-eight looks like a copy of Peggy Carter during the war. Add to that her last name and all Steve ever sees when he looks at her is memories.

Toni’s spent a lot of her life chasing after ghosts and impossible things, trying to fill round holes with square pegs. She’d like to think she learned at least a thing or two from that.

“Pep,” she greets, as soon as she lays eyes on the two, waiting for her in front of the door leading to her workshop. “Missed you.”

She hugs the redhead because since Pepper’s taken over SI for good, they see far too little of each other and, when Toni doesn’t try to make herself be in love with her, Pepper is her best friend; has been for a very long time.

Pepper hugs her back and then tucks away her phone, giving her attention to Toni. “Steve says you’ve been acting weird.”

Of course he has. Toni rolls her eyes. “Yeah, well, Steve shoves his nose places it shouldn’t be,” she answers, smiling sweetly at the man in question as he scowls at her from where he’s standing next to Pepper, sort of ignored.

“We’re a team, Toni, and it’s my duty to make sure everyone is on track. You’ve been acting strange for the past week.”

Keying open the door, Toni leads the way into the workshop. And if JARVIS almost closes the door on the good Captain, well, she has nothing to do with that at all.

“Sure,” she finally says, throwing herself into a chair, “We’re a team. But unlike you, we can’t all spend our days lying around and moping. Some of us have companies to run, things to build, suits to repair and a public to appease. Get a life, Cap, maybe then you’ll keep out of mine.”

“Toni,” Pepper says, and it’s not a threat. Simply a reminder. Don’t burn bridges you might still need.

Rubbing at her temple, Toni sighs. “Look, Pep, he’s mother-henning. I don’t need a nanny. I have JARVIS for that.”

Thank you for that, Miss Stark,” JARVIS pipes up from the speakers and Steve jumps, which just goes to show how much the man is not compatible with her life.

The second day after meeting him, Loki was having conversations with JARVIS and comparing Steve to Loki is probably not something she should be doing. She closes her eyes. When she opens them, Pepper looks less worried and more bemused, figuring out that this is mostly just a case of personalities clashing.

Toni is a twenty-first century woman and Steve a man from the forties. Even when he’s not actively trying to throw himself on top of her to protect her from flying shrapnel, he’s still looking out for her as if she needs it. It’s annoying.

And it’s getting in the way of her clandestine foray into super-villain-ish behavior.

Steve finally finds it in himself to say something semi-useful. “I just worry about you, Toni. You’ve been out at all hours lately, having…affairs, and it’s… irregular. I’m sorry. I guess I’m still not used to how the world works now. Back in my day, you took a girl out before you… took her home.”

“Not back in your day, Cap.”

Steve shuffles his feet, looks away, sticks his hands in his pockets like a naughty school boy. Great. Now Toni feels like she kicked a puppy. A sad puppy.

“I get it,” she allows. “And thanks for worrying, I guess. But when I say it’s good, you need to believe that it is, Ca-Steve. And don’t go behind my back to bring in Pep again. She’s got better things to do.”

“Than babysit you? It’s my purpose in life,” Pepper throws in and then waves a hand at Steve. “Would you mind giving us a few minutes, Mr. Rogers? I’d like to speak with Toni. And then I have to get back to work.”

He blushes, mumbles something, and politely gets the hell out. Toni resists the urge to throw a wrench after him. Barely.

“That man is a total himbo.”

“Not everyone speaks fluid Stark, Toni.”

“No, that’s the problem. He does speak Stark. But it’s the wrong Stark. It’s Howard Stark, not Toni Stark and I think I am screwing up that metaphor. Am I screwing up your metaphor, Pep?”

“I don’t think there are any metaphors here, actually,” Pep corrects and then scoots her ass onto the work table and sort of tangles her legs with Toni’s. “You don’t seem to get along very well. Despite the way he looks at you.”

“Himbo,” Toni defends, consciously choosing to ignore that last bit. Because Steve and Thor are both sort of giant golden retrievers, only Steve angsts more and doesn’t have the whole Norse god thing going for him.

For a moment she thinks Pep is going to tell her off, but then the other woman just sighs. “He still insists on calling me Miss Potts.”

“I think you scare him,” Toni confesses, for no reason she can discern.

“I think he has trouble letting go of everything he’s ever known.” And yeah, sort of. It’s understandable, but neither Toni nor Pepper are patient enough or good enough to put up with it for more than so long. They’re twenty-first century women with perfectly manicured nails for claws and words for weapons and they bit, scratched and fought their way to where they are today. Chivalry didn’t just die. It was women like them who killed it and danced on its grave.

They’re both quiet for a while, Toni fiddling with a tablet she pulled out of nowhere, Pepper checking her e-mails, her feet planted at the edge of Toni’s chair. It’s comfortable.

Then, eventually, Pepper asks, “You’re not dying, are you?”

Toni flinches because, okay, yes, not her best week. In her defense, she was dying.

“Because Steve says you randomly disappear and the last time you did that, you were dying and you gave me your company and I’m still trying to sort that mess out, so please don’t start another?”

“Aww, come on, when do I ever cause…okay. No. I can’t even say that with a straight face. I apologized for that, didn’t I?”

“Yes, you did. And you bought me some very nice shoes to make it up to me. And earrings.”

“I did.”

Pepper hums. “You did. They’re sapphires. I look spectacular in sapphires.”

“That you do. Do they match the shoes?”

Pepper taps her toes against Toni’s thigh, drawing her attention to the pale salmon colored shoes, all shiny and with an adorable ankle strap. “I’m still looking for an outfit that matches both,” she adds, admiring the shoes.

Huh. “When you find it, charge it to my card, yeah?”

“I was planning on it.” She smirks and stands, ruffling Toni’s hair because it will make Toni squirm. Once she’s tucked her skirt back into place, she straightens and asks, very politely, “Will that be all, Miss Stark?”

Toni grins and smacks her on the ass because she can and it’s revenge for the hair. Also, it doesn’t count as sexual harassment anymore when the harrasseé is signing your paychecks.

Or something.

“That will be all, Miss Potts.”

Pepper jumps, laughs and stalks off on deadly heels, stopping only once, by the door, to say, “Toni?”

“Mhm?”

“Please don’t do anything stupid, okay? It makes me ruin my make-up.”

Toni looks her dead in the eye and smiles because it’s as close to promising as she can get without saying the words. And she won’t say the words because she hates breaking promises to Pepper.

Runny make-up doesn’t go with her complexion at all.

Pepper waits for a moment, then nods.

+

“How likely is this to blow up in our faces and scar us horribly and forever?” Toni asks conversationally, pointing at the small cube sitting on the lab table between her and Loki.

They’ve been working on it for the past week, designing a container in the perfect shape to hold magic, with a trigger set on a time delay. There are runes carved along the edges, containment and stability and whatever else Loki thought was necessary. Toni has heard more about runes in the last few days than she ever wanted to in her life.

It’s done now, the height of both their engineering abilities and Loki is about to infuse it with magic to see if it’ll hold.

“Not very,” Loki answers, tracing one edge with a single digit. “It won’t kill us.”

“Not what I was asking,” Toni points out and takes a few steps back. Then, on second thought, crosses the room to stand at the far wall. Magic. You never know what you get. You reach into the hat expecting a rabbit and instead a rabid alligator clamps onto your hand. Or something.

Loki is the alligator in this metaphor.

The god closes her eyes, takes a deep breath and starts doing something, because her fingers on the cube are slowly starting to glow bright green. Not scepter-blue, which is reassuring.

After a few moments, the runes pick up the glow, standing out in stark relief against the dark metal. Inside, under currents of electricity meant to contain the magic, Toni imagines a ball of power forming.

Loki finally pulls her hand away from the prototype and presses the little button on the side that activates the countdown. A second later, she pops into existence next to Toni. A second after that, their toy makes a noise like a rubberduck’s squeaker under water and the green light Loki just poured into the cube starts seeping out all over the place. The whole thing glows green and sparks start coming off it, sizzling and dancing.

A minutes after that, the box gives a final pop and a shudder and that’s all she wrote.

Not even an explosion. Just quiet, soundless fizzing-out. “That sort of makes me want to cry,” Toni announces because at least when things blow up there’s something to watch.

And no, she didn’t really expect their first attempt at this to work out, but, damn. That display of failure was just… sad. Small and pitiful and sad.

“On the plus side,” Loki announces as she sweeps across the lap to start dissembling their prototype, “You did not get disfigured by shrapnel.”

There is that.

+

Somewhere along the line, movie nights became a Thing. Not just the ones Bruce and Toni have, which are crashed by Clint most of the time but actual team movie night. Or rather Team Movie Nights of Awesome, as the archer has taken to calling them. Natasha smacks him for it a lot. It doesn’t stop him.

The three of them, Clint, Bruce and Toni still have their own movie nights with a regularity that’s actually surprising for Toni, but now there’s the official Thursday night movie night with mandatory attendance of the whole team.

They only get a pass when there’s an actual threat to fight and only Coulson and Fury can declare something a threat, as Toni learned when she tried to weasel out of the first Team Movie Night of Awesome by claiming she needed to reinvent the microwave right now or bad things would happen. Coulson muttered something about team building and tasers and everyone getting along, it’s like herding cats, and dragged her out of her lab.

So here they are, all stacked on various horizontal surfaces, watching a movie. Toni has no idea what movie, since she has work pulled up on an end table and is trying to figure out why shit keeps exploding into her and Loki’s faces.

Yesterday she escaped disfigurement by shrapnel by about half an inch. It’s getting annoying.

Bruce is next to her with his own work, or rather magazine. He’s reading on a Stark Tablet, ignoring the way Toni has her legs half in his lap. He’s an awesome pillow. It has been established. Thor is sitting on the other end of the couch, munching popcorn by the fistful, asking painful questions.

“For what purpose does he wave his hands like this?”

“That’s just a Captain Jack Sparrow thing, Thor,” Clint offers from where he’s sitting on the floor, his back against Coulson’s legs, Natasha’s head in his lap.

“Is there something wrong with him?” That’s Steve, Toni notes absently, who asks fewer questions than Thor, but they’re often just as outlandish.

Last week he made her try to explain lolcats to him. And then the Nyan cat. And when she told him they were just for shits and giggles he just looked at her with big, Captain-y eyes and said, “Its body is a Pop Tart.”

Thor heard that last part, of course, because the universe hates Toni, and somehow got JARVIS to play that damn video on every screen on the Avengers floors for an entire day. Bruce was close to hulking out by the time Toni came home and overrode Thor’s order to the AI. One of these days, someone needs to talk to the god about his Pop Tart obsession. Toni plans to set up cameras and flee the room. Possibly the state.

“Personally,” she answers a quick glance at the screen to confirm that yes, they’re watching Pirates of the Caribbean, “I think good old Jack is simply gay as Christmas tinsel and suffers from an early but severe case of limp wrist syndrome.”

Natasha makes a pretty moue. “Pity,” she observes, sounding as detached as always. Still, Toni is pretty sure that’s a joke.

“Or he’s crazy,” Clint throws in.

“Being gay and being crazy do not preclude each other, Batron,” Coulson pipes up and then, very pointedly, pats Clint on the head, as if to say, you should know.

Clint twists enough to beam up at the man dementedly, dislodging Natasha from his lap. She pinches him as punishment, hard enough to make him yelp and then corrects, “Technically bisexual.”

She might be referring to Jack Sparrow. She’s probably not.

Steve is slowly but surely turning red again. They should have named him Captain Blush.

“He’s definitely into Elizabeth,” Bruce points out, turning a page in his magazine before pausing in his reading to watch Jack run from cannibals.

“And Will,” Toni adds.

“And Barbossa.”

Everyone looks at Clint.

“What? I know you haven’t seen the third movie yet, but guys, there’s total chemistry. Did you not see that showdown in the first?”

“You are a sick, sick puppy,” Toni kindly informs him before going back to her math.

“Woof.”

Steve excuses himself to get some more snacks. Thor hollers after him to bring Pop Tarts and Clint starts singing “Nyanyanyanyanyanyan,” under his breath until Natasha pinches him again, in a decidedly less friendly spot.

“Children,” Coulson sighs.

“Are you sending them to bed if they misbehave?”

Another sigh. “No, Stark. I’ll send them to your workshop.”

Before Toni can come up with a retort, Thor swallows a mouthful of popcorn and says, “I believe his posture and carriage are a cunning way for the good Captain to deceive and confuse his enemies in battle so he may smite them more easily.”

Bruce makes an aborted snort and mouths ‘smite’ at Toni, who makes a face like the wrath of god and mimes slashing something with a sword, while, across the room, Clint asks, “What do horses have to do with it?”

+

Sometimes, when she’s feeding magic into their little bombs, Loki’s skin shimmers blue. Once, when she looks up from her work for a moment, her eyes flash the red of Toni’s suit, of her lipstick, of blood.

She wants to ask, but she remembers Thor describing Frost Giants to a fascinated Clint a few weeks ago and keeps her mouth shut. She doesn’t think Loki would appreciate Toni asking her to turn into her true form, please, Toni wants to look at it, study it. To trace those faint patterns she can sometimes make out, blue on blue.

According to Thor, Loki hates what she is underneath. From the way he talks, the blonde god and his brother (sister) were both raised to believe that Jotuns are monsters.

Toni tries to imagine finding out that you are what you’ve been told all your life is the monster in your closet. Then she remembers that she doesn’t have to imagine at all. Been there, done that, lost the t-shirt in a fight.

It’s ironic, really, how they both have something blue to show for it. Except, not really, because Toni’s blue was forced on her. She built the reactor, but only after Yinsen shoved a bunch of wires and electricity into her body, shoved that thing into her, mutilated her so his jailers could torture her better.

Reflexively, her hand clutches at the reactor even now, years later. She made it hers, she made it herself, but someone shoved it in there without her permission.

Loki’s blue wasn’t forced on her. Loki’s blue is the truth. It’s her other form, the gorgeous black and green one, that’s the lie, the violation. Odin made Loki pink and shiny, changed his son’s shape, his looks, his whole body. And Loki didn’t have any more say in it than Toni did.

“Gotta stop identifying with him,” she mutters to herself, hand still rubbing at her chest.

I believe it may already be too late for that, Miss Stark,” JARVIS supplies helpfully from the ceiling.

+

Toni doesn’t even notice how long she and Loki have been working together until, one day, Loki shows up in a tank top instead of her usual loose clothes (which Toni suspects she wears because they make her feel safe, rather than to hide) and there’s a distinct bump there.

And not the ‘look, I had a big lunch’ bump. More the ‘I am four months pregnant and thin as a stick’ bump.

Toni stares. She can’t help it. This is Loki, god of mischief, with a baby growing inside of her (him, technically). A real, actual baby and now Toni can see.

She stares until Loki puts a hand over her navel and growls fiercely. “Stark,” she snarls.

“Sorry, sorry,” Toni backs off, hands in the air. “It’s just…”

“Yes?”

“You’re pregnant.”

There goes the eyebrow. “A very astute observation. Did you hit your head?”

“Is that concern I hear?”

“Purely in the interest of saving the universe, I assure you.”

“Mhm, you say the sweetest things, honeybunch.” She blows Loki a kiss because it will drive her nuts and then blurts, pretty much without wanting to, “Can you feel her yet? I mean… is it too early?”

Something in Loki’s expression softens to a degree Toni has yet to see. “I could feel her from the moment of conception on. But if you’re asking if she’s kicking yet, then no.”

Biting her lip, Toni weighs the pros and cons of asking her next question and then goes ahead and does it anyway. “I’m kinda dying to ask… the father? I mean, there has to be one, right? Unless there’s a spell for impregnating yourself, or hey, can you clone yourself? Like, make those illusions real? Because I have been accused of narcissism, but that would be, wow! I mean. Can you? Clone yourself?”

“I take it back,” Loki says after a moment of awkward silence.

“What?”

“The concern. There is obviously nothing left to be concerned over. Your brain has turned to straw.”

“At least it’s pretty straw,” Toni snaps, which, what?

She huffs and crosses her arms and then waits because they’ve had more than one weird conversation over the past… wow, two months, really? Loki takes a while to answer sometimes, but if you can outwait the snapping and snarking, she’ll actually answer. Most of the time, she’s even telling the truth, which still strikes Toni as somewhat awe-inspiring.

“He is a mortal. I don’t remember his name.”

Toni blinks. And blinks again. “Are you saying you got frisky, turned yourself into a chick, had a one night stand and forgot to use a condom?”

Loki snarls, glowers and makes a motion with one hand that looks a lot like she’s preparing to gut Toni. So Toni adds, “It’s like we were separated at birth.”

And then she ducks really fast.

+

“Nope,” she observes, as #14, the prototype Toni has taken to calling Bob for no other reason than that Loki hates it, blows up.

Bob makes a sound like a fart, fizzles and bursts into his component parts.

“How long?” Loki asks, frowning furiously.

Thirty-four and a half seconds until the first readable burst of energy escaped the prototype, Miss Liesmith.” JARVIS supplies. “Forty-seven from when you first started feeding power into it.

“We could lob it at the guy really fast?” Toni suggests, causing the god to redirect her glare. Onto her. “Just saying.”

“Fully powering a bomb big enough to eradicate him would take me hours, Stark, possibly days. There will be nothing fast about the process.”

Toni goggles a bit at how much power Loki must possess to feed a bomb that big, then shakes off her metaphorical hard-on to say, “Hey, we’ll get it. We’re up from five seconds to over thirty. We’re doing something right. And we both knew this wasn’t going to be a walk in the park.”

Loki looks at her, steady and straight on. For the longest moment, Toni doesn’t get why. Then she realizes she put a hand on the taller woman’s arm. Fighting the impulse to draw the appendage back before it becomes a bloody stump, she pats the arm once, twice, then retreats calmly to the other end of the lab.

Once a safe distance away from the hormone ridden god, she relaxes, “Back to the drawing board, I guess.”

+

“Eugh,” Toni mutters, checking her phone and finding a text she really doesn’t need right now.

Movie night it says, with a complicated array of smiley faces after it that she’s given up on trying to decipher. She’s sure Clint only adds those because he likes the idea of confusing people with emoticons.

Movie night means team building. Team building means an entire evening spent with Captain Righteous, who, admittedly, has gotten his panties untwisted, finally, but still. Toni isn’t exactly a fan.

She’s also spent the past eight hours on what she thought might finally turn into a workable prototype, only to have the entire thing melt down to a heap of scrap within moments of getting in touch with Loki’s magic. Forget thirty-four and a half seconds, this one literally fell apart within two seconds of Loki starting her lightshow.

She’s frustrated, bitchy, under-caffeinated and seriously starting to doubt her own genius, which is never a good thing.

“What is it?” Loki asks from across the room where she’s curled up with a heap of notes and one of Toni’s tablets, a bunch of pillows stuffed behind her back, making her belly look even more impressive than it already is at five months. Toni shrugs and tells her.

The god looks thoughtful for a moment before offering, “You should go.”

Not the reaction Toni was hoping for, but she nods. “Right. Act normal. Throw off suspicion. Got it.”

She forces herself to put down her tools and starts packing in, leaving Loki a skeleton version of JARVIS that’s separate from his main servers. She’s started doing that a few weeks ago and so far, Loki hasn’t tried to end the world with JARVIS’s help. In fact, Toni is pretty sure that the god likes her bitchy AI.

When she looks back up at her lab-buddy, there is an expression on Loki’s face that Toni cannot, for the life of her, place. It fades quickly, eyes shuttering, lips thinning and Toni thinks oh.

Figures that someone who’s been lied to and kept in the dark for the better part of a thousand years doesn’t like being a dirty little secret. But then, Toni’s not the one that tried to end the world.

…Toni’s just the one that works with the person who tried to end the world. Toni’s the one who walks across the room to throw herself onto the sofa next to the person who tried to end the world and says, “Wanna come?”

Snorting out loud is a rare thing for Loki, but this does the trick. “You cannot be serious,” she exclaims, falling back on her default Shakespeare mode, the way she does when she’s surprised or unsure of a situation.

“Imagine it,” Toni commands, nudging the god’s thigh with her toes. Loki glowers and shoves her foot away like it’s poisonous. “You and me, walking in the front door, the rest of the team just sitting there, staring like idiots. I bet we could get Steve to faint if we try hard enough. We might have to make out in front of him, but can you imagine it? Captain America passes out from hot lesbian action between god of mischief and Iron Woman… oh, the headline.”

“What?” Loki demands, “In the nine realms’ name makes you think I would voluntarily kiss you, Toni?”

Toni blinks at her and, because she can, pulls her legs back up onto the couch and parks them exactly half an inch away from the god. “Everyone wants to kiss me,” she says, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “I’m Toni fucking Stark.”

Then she drops the bull and shrugs. “Look, I’m sorry, but this is how it is. Once we have something solid to offer, the others will listen, but now they’d only let Fury lock you in a box somewhere and that wouldn’t help anyone, right?”

She hates how she sounds tired, even to her own ears, but those are the facts. Almost three months of working together haven’t changed anything. They aren’t any closer to finding a way to merge technology and magic than they were on day one. It’s starting to wear on both of them, especially with Loki’s stomach as a constant reminder of how little time they have left.

It’s weird, how they silently agree on that. Their weapon needs to be finished by the time the baby comes. Because, because, because.

Toni has no idea why. Just like she has no idea why she’s taken to picking up breakfast for two on her way over and actually remembers Loki’s favorites, or why she still hides from cameras all the time. Or why she has Loki’s number saved in her phone under her real name and sometimes finds herself watching the god for reasons that have nothing to do with her being unnaturally hot and pregnant and everything with her being Loki, the person who’s far, far too similar to herself.

But there it is.

She stands abruptly, rolling to her feet with too much speed. When she almost falls, Loki’s hand is there, on her arm, steadying her. Like that’s the kind of thing they do for each other. Like the very same contact didn’t almost make Toni lose a limb a few short weeks ago.

On impulse – stupid, stupid impulse – Toni bends around that hand, tangles her fingers in Loki’s black-as-sin curls and presses a tiny, close-mouthed kiss to her lips.

By the time she pulls back half a second later, Loki’s eyes have gone wide as saucers and her eyebrows are already drawing together for the godly shitfit she’s about to throw, so Toni chirps, “See, everyone wants a piece of this!”

She runs a hand down her front to illustrate and then practically sprints for the door, never looking back. Chicken shit, she tells herself and doesn’t really care.

She just kissed Loki. She just kissed Loki. She just kissed Loki.

What the fuck is she doing?

+

Things Toni Stark does when faced with having done something very, very stupid and potentially deadly?

One, lock herself into her lab.

Two, break out the booze.

Three, invent stuff.

Alternately, blow stuff up.

She’s taken care of one and two and is working her way toward three. The problem with her and Loki’s little Project: Boom (Toni’s title, in case you didn’t realize) is that they can’t find any material that works as a container for magic. Either the material is conductive and the magic disperses, or it’s neutral and the magic… corrodes, for lack of a better word. Shape, trigger mechanism, they’ve got all that figured out. Had it figured out weeks ago.

But the material is causing Toni no end of trouble. But it’s the safe kind of trouble, the kind that occupies her brain and keeps her awake and makes her feel like she’s flying when she finally cracks it wide open.

It’s better than the I-just-kissed-a-god-Jesus-fuck type of trouble.

So obviously Toni changes into jeans and a t-shirt, down three glasses of expensive-as-fuck whiskey and then gets to work.

She pulls up all schematics and experimental data JARVIS has pulled from their work in the past three months and explodes the lines of scrolling text and models all over her workshop. She puts herself right into the middle of it, glass in hand, and stares, running numbers, probabilities, risks and costs and rates of corrosion almost without blinking.

In bits and bursts, she writes formulas into thin air, discards them, varies them, pushes them to the side. Soon, the entire room is floating with half finished equations, more than half of which contain the symbols she’s stolen from Loki over the past few months.

There are crosses and swirls, simplified suns and moons and star constellations, squiggles and whorls and lines, interspersed with good old mathematics and physics, numbers and square roots and percentages and graphs. It looks like an ADD child’s version of algebra and it frustrates Toni to no end as she flings another calculation toward the far wall, where it glows bright blue briefly, before settling next to half a dozen other ideas that didn’t work.

Elements don’t work. Woods don’t work. Glass doesn’t work, neither do synthetic fibers. They’re down to combining elements now and nothing seems to work out.

“God damn,” Toni snarls, smashes a hand through a schematic of something she played with years ago – a sound bomb. The little toy Obie used on her was an offshoot of that project and just looking at the sketches now still makes her want to scream, makes her want to retch and curl into a little ball in a corner somewhere, safe and untouchable and and…

She takes a long gulp from her glass, grabs a pad, starts stripping the schematics with quick swipes of her fingers until there’s only the shell left. She can work with that. She can work with the thing that almost killed her.

She’s used to that, isn’t she, used to death, to making it with her hands and now she’s quoting Buffy and she’s getting a tiny bit manic, she knows, she is self aware enough to feel those episodes coming, so she slams back another drink, this one straight from the bottle, and locks up all the useless, screaming parts of herself because she has to. If she’s going to get anything out of her own manic brilliance, she needs to lock away Toni and be only Stark.

Yes, there’s a distinction. Why do you ask?

“Clint wanted to talk to you.”

Toni jumps half out of her skin, drops the tablet, fumbles the bottle while catching the tablet and then pretty much falls on her face in a heap of indignity.

“Impressive,” Natasha says from where she’s leaning against the wall next to the air vent she came out of.

Toni is vaguely grateful for having decided to sit on the floor and not a chair earlier. “I hate you,” she grumbles and then, “Wait, what?”

The assassin walks closer, leaning against a nearby workbench and raises an eyebrow. Toni has the ridiculous thought that Loki does it better and bites down on it. Hard.

“I said, Clint wanted to talk to you.”

“Why isn’t he?”

“Because you walked straight past him into your bedroom and then past him again down here, initiated a lockdown and haven’t been answering your phone since.”

Uhm.

Toni winces, then frowns. “Okay. So, are you here to beat me up for being mean to your boyfriend?”

Natasha snorts as inelegantly as she ever does anything, which is to say, not very, which means Toni is immensely jealous and not a little turned on. There are wires crossed, somewhere. She’s aware.

“I’ve been elected,” the redhead says and then, because she’s already used up her allotted words for the week, she tilts her head to one side and falls silent.

“Elected by whom to do what?” Toni asks, because she’s awesome that way.

“By the team. To come and talk to you.”

Ahh. So Toni acts weird and they send the only other female team member in to talk to her because the fact that they both have ovaries obviously makes them friends. Sisterhood of female something or other. Apparently, the boys haven’t noticed that, with the exception of Pepper, all the people Toni would dare call friends are male. Or that Natasha and her get on like candles and curtains, or some other, equally bad combination.

It’s not that they don’t like each other. They do. But from a distance. It’s just that they’re both alpha bitches and there isn’t enough space in the world for two like them, so they stay away from each other to avoid any catfights. Especially the physical ones because Toni is well aware that she’d lose those eleven times out of ten.

They work together when they have to and occasionally share a moment of sheer female exasperation, but they’re not friends. Allies, yes. Team mates, yes. But neither of them wants to be BFFs with the other and that’s a good thing.

The world is better off for it, at any rate.

Still, it’s been over ten weeks of Toni randomly dropping off the radar, and even though she keeps up with all her work through sheer stubborn willpower, she’s surprised that SHIELD hasn’t gotten involved by now. Usually, they think the color of her panties concerns them. But then they have been busy recently, what with those random viruses attacking their system without rhyme or reason… Now if only Toni knew anything about that, anything at all.

She manages to keep the sly smirk from reaching her face. Barely.

“So talk to me,” she offers instead, blandly. If she had a dollar for every time someone’s come down here to give her a speech about her behavior, she’d be rich (again) and the world would be half a dozen technological revolutions poorer.

Speaking off people coming down here. She gives a belated clap and snap of her fingers and the projections all around the two women fade away as JARVIS takes control of them. Then she says, “Buddy, look into the air vents.”

JARVIS gives an affirmative. He’ll look. He’ll install safety measures. And he won’t activate them unless there’s an emergency. Toni has long since learned that leaving the Avengers with a relatively simple way to get to her makes them more willing to leave her alone when she wants to be. Total isolation makes them, and especially Steve, twitchy.

So she leaves the vents for Clint and Natasha and they leave her alone. It’s one of the many weird, potentially psychotic ways the team has worked out for themselves.

Once that’s taken care of, she gives her full attention to the assassin, who stands still, arms crossed under her breasts. After a long moment she says, “Ask for help when it gets too much.”

More important than the two of them liking each other, is this: They get each other.

Toni smiles with too many teeth, just for a moment, basking in the knowledge that she’s not being underestimated or shunted aside as ‘Howard’s daughter’ for once. Natasha sees her. So few people do.

Loki.

Yeah. No. Not thinking about that.

Better focus on the world’s shortest pep-talk.

“I will. What’d he want?”

“Who?”

“Clint.”

“Movie night.”

This is why Toni needs a Pepper in her life. And JARVIS. And possibly an army of PAs. She flat out forgot about promising to watch the Lord of the Rings trilogy with Clint last weekend. Whoops.

“What’s with that anyway?” she asks, mostly out of curiosity. “Your boy keeps crashing Bruce’s and my science bro time even though we have his redonkulous movie nights now, and you have yet to murder either of us with your thighs. Trouble in paradise a trois?”

She expects many reactions to her question. Like a knife to the forehead, maybe. She doesn’t expect for Natasha to sit down on the floor a few feet away from Toni, legs folded neatly under her, hands on her thighs.

“It’s none of your business,” the redhead says, and then, in direct contradiction to her words, she offers, “Clint sometimes runs when people get too close to him. Don’t read too much into it.”

There’s a threat in there somewhere, because this is Natasha talking, but mostly Toni hears fondness. She knows better than to say that out loud, though.

“How’s he… how are both them doing anyway? With the whole… Loki thing?”

That one isn’t just curiosity. That one’s pretty much blind panic.

Natasha doesn’t move a muscle before saying, “Phil and Clint are both soldiers enough to know that it was war. They are… alright.”

Toni frowns because, okay, yes, she gets how that applies to Coulson. He walked up to Loki with a Big Fucking Gun in hand and he lost the fight. But what Loki did to Clint and Selvig was a lot less straight forward. He took their minds. He twisted them. He made them do things…

“Are you saying that being under Loki’s spell was like a soldier obeying bad orders?” That’d be one coping mechanism, Toni guesses. Certainly better for the liver than all of hers.

Natasha’s smile says she just performed a neat trick. “Yes. Why do you ask?”

“His virtue’s safe with me, you know?” Toni blurts the first thing that comes to mind and then holds her breath, hoping desperately that the other woman will let it drop.

“I know,” she confirms and then asks, eyes narrowed, “Why is that, exactly?”

“I don’t really do that anymore, since…,” she bites her lip hard and swipes her fingers across the tablet in her lap, feigning business.

Since Afghanistan. Since the cave. Since. Since. She doesn’t look at Natasha because of what she might find in the other woman’s eyes. Understanding. Worse, pity.

Instead she shrugs in a belated attempt at nonchalance. “What doesn’t kill you, right?”

She blinks. Frowns. Looks down at her arc reactor, shining through the washed out black of her AC/DC shirt. Looks up at Natasha. She needs something that is neither conductive nor corrosive to magic. Something unlike everything this world has ever seen. Something new.

“Son of a bitch,” she breathes, drops the bottle and the tablet on the floor and rolls to her feet. “JARVIS. Run the simulations again, using V as the main material. Calculate the amounts we would need if it works and then give me requirements. Lock down everything here and find me in R&D when you’re done.”

She walks out with a distracted wave toward Natasha as they part ways outside the lab. “Toni!” the other woman calls after her when Toni is about to slip into the elevator. “Remember what I said.”

Toni nods, waves a hand vaguely and then abruptly stops, slamming her elbow into the doors to keep them open. “We just had a heart to heart, didn’t we?” she asks, a bit wide-eyed.

Natasha is too well trained to shift uncomfortably, but she really, really wants to. “Yes.”

“Does that mean we have to be friends?”

“No!” the assassin grimaces and Toni exhales sharply.

“Thank god.”

She steps back, lets the doors snap shut, and starts rattling off things for JARVIS to find for her.

+

She doesn’t build a particle accelerator in her basement this time. She just uses the one already set up in R&D to synthesize massive amounts of vibranium.

Thirty-eight hours later, she’s lugging a container full of the stuff up the stairs leading to Loki’s lab. She hasn’t showered, hasn’t eaten, has only sobered up because she didn’t have time to drink and not slept a wink. She’s rank, tired, hungry and frankly exhausted, on top of being bummed about taking so long to figure it out and also, the fact that Howard Fucking Stark gets to save the day. Again.

She slams into the apartment with zero patience and absolutely no thought wasted on what happened the last time she was here because she’s been busy and she figured it out and fuck the rest, Toni is in the zone, Toni is the queen of fucking everything, Toni is the head bitch in charge of all science everywhere.

She feels like it, too, right until a weight slams into her from the right, making her drop the heavy box, which lands with a dull thud that shakes the window panes. She hits the wall with her back first and feels Loki’s hands close around her wrists, pinning them in place by her shoulders. Toni shoves against them, automatically, and finds she can’t move and inch. Finds a god pressed against her, hot and bothered and angry.

Finds herself far too turned on by the whole thing, really.

“What was that?” the irate god snarls, face half an inch from Toni’s own.

Toni blinks at her stupidly, unable to think anything beyond, ‘pretty eyes’ and ‘hot’ and ‘damn’. In her defense, she hasn’t slept in something over two days. But eventually her brain reboots and she figures out what Loki’s talking about.

“A kiss,” she answers, arching against the other woman, knee to shoulder, the god’s heavy belly in between. She shudders as Loki meets her body’s pressure with her own, squeezes her wrists tighter. Her green eyes glow with anger and there’s a scent in the air around them, ozone and grass, that Toni has come to know means magic. Means that Loki is about to snap and blow something up.

Someone.

Her.

She remembers New York in ruins, a square in Stuttgart blown to bits, and bites her lip. Here’s a secret: Toni didn’t build weapons just because Howard did. She also built them because there’s nothing quite as fascinating as destruction wrought by capable hands and this has been coming for months, let’s be serious here, Toni has had to cross her legs every time Loki did something insane and brilliant ever since the cupcakes and she can admit it. She owns it. She’s a whore for adrenaline and power and things with the potential to obliterate her.

She shudders again, lets her head drop back against the wall as Loki leans in even closer, their faces less than a hair’s breadth apart now. So close. Toni will blame this on the lack of sleep. She will blame it on the high from finding a solution, finally. She will blame it on Loki being fuck hot, dangerous and completely unfair.

She licks her lips, tastes blood, realizes she bit too hard. Her teeth stain red with her grin.

“Is this a game to you?” Loki asks, voice calmer. Smoother. Deadlier. Her croon is almost as low as when she is a he, almost as infuriatingly enthralling.

Toni’s circuits are fried enough to simply say, “Everything’s a game.” She bucks, shoulderblades against the wall, shoves her hips forward and it’s only because Loki is pregnant and protecting her midsection that Toni gets the leverage she needs to shove the god off and slip around her.

She slithers a few steps away, spins in place, bounces on her toes like a boxer priming for a hit. Throwing it, taking it, deoes it matter?

“Everything’s a fucking game, keep up, I thought you knew this, what else would be worth climbing into a tin can and saving the world, god, seriously!”

Loki is silent, still standing where Toni left her. Toni herself is swaying, punch drunk on exhaustion and adrenaline. The last time she felt like this, she was falling through space, destruction blooming above her like a flower in the sky.

After an age, Loki tilts her head to one side, curiosity shining from her gaze, bright, alight, and free of that all-consuming rage again. She’s tucked it away, deep down, where the hurt lives, Toni guesses.

She thinks that maybe Loki didn’t know that Toni knows. A game. That’s all anything ever is. It’s life and death and the threat of boredom, which is infinitely worse, and they’ll play to the blood, to the bone, because they play for keeps, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a game. Everything is a game. Always. It’s the only way to live. It’s the only thing worth risking everything for.

It’s the reason Steve and Toni will never get along. Steve doesn’t play. Steve doesn’t even know there is a game. He can’t see the board, can’t see the game pieces, the trick questions and traps and moves.

“Yes,” Loki says, and Toni realizes she said all that out loud and then it doesn’t matter because Loki is on her.

On her and riding her to the ground and, oh yes, this was a long time coming, this was inevitable because this is a game and Loki is as close to a match as Toni has ever found and, and, and.

The god of mischief is straddling her thighs and pressing into her mouth, fingers tangling in her hair, free hand wrapping around her throat, power, control, leash.

“Why,” Loki asks, between nips and bites, “do you insist on continuing to surprise me?”

“Curveball,” Toni gasps into pale, pale skin. “Keeps the game interesting.”

Loki laughs.

+

Later, much later, Toni pulls out her mental list of Life Accomplishments That Should Never Make the Papers, also titled Toni Stark’s Very Dirty Biography and crosses the following items off her bucket list. One, sleeping with a god. Two, sleeping with a pregnant woman. Three, sleeping with someone who doesn’t just not mind when she whispers dirty, brainy things in bed, but actually answers in kind.

Afterwards, staring at the ceiling above the suspiciously comfortable futon Loki keeps behind the sofa, her fingers itch for a cigarette and a wrench and soft, pliable skin.

And hey, turns out gods do, in fact, need sleep. Even if not for long because the spot beside her has long since gone cold.

“What is this?” Loki asks, carrying the heavy box Toni completely forgot about over and dropping it on the floor next to the futon, sitting down by Toni’s knees, naked and beautiful and unashamed.

If Toni had any sort of skill with a pencil outside the realm of sketching machines, she’d draw Loki just like this, nude, fucked-out and proud down to the marrow of her bones.

Then, because she’s getting to sappy, she rolls onto her side, purposely nudging the small of the god’s back with her knee. Loki arches like a cat and groans. By month six, there is nothing Toni won’t be able to negotiate for a backrub.

That’s planning. Why is she planning the future?

To distract herself, she answers the question, “The answer to our little dilemma. According to all simulations, this is it.”

Loki unclasps the lid and pulls it aside, looks at the fine, silver-grey powder inside. “What is it?”

“Vibranium,” Toni answers. “Originally won from meteors that crashed here a couple thousand years back. Pretty much the rarest thing there is. Well, was. Until I synthesized it.”

Loki’s eyebrows hitch up. “You created an element not from this world, using materials of this world?”

“Recreated,” Toni admits, grumpily. “My old man developed the formula for it, but he didn’t have the tech to make it happen. Howard Fucking Stark, saving the day from beyond the grave.”

That might have sounded bitter. She’s not sure until the other woman observes, “You sound angry.”

After a moment of consideration, Toni rolls back onto her belly and tells the pillow under her cheek, “I was supposed to be a boy. Anthony Edward Stark. They had it all figured out. Boy to take over the company, to follow in daddy’s footsteps. Only someone screwed up because I came out a girl and suddenly, Antonia, not Anthony. Howard didn’t take too well to that.”

“He resented you.” Not a question.

“When he wasn’t busy trying to make me into something I wasn’t, yeah. Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do. I love building shit, and blowing it up and… I love it. But he never cared about that. He just told me to stop playing and get my ass into the workshop with him. He didn’t let me choose, just told me how it was going to be. And I tried so hard to please him, but when I did, he’d just look at me, just look, and I knew that no matter what I did, no matter that I created a sentient fucking AI at the age of fifteen, it was never enough. Because at the back of his mind, he always thought a boy would have done better.”

She laughs quietly, wryly. “Do you know why I spell my name with an ‘i’? I never did, as a kid. Always with a ‘y’, because I hated the girly ‘i’. Never was a pretty kind of girl, even growing up. Always a grease monkey. But Howard liked it. He liked the ‘y’, liked how, on paper, it looked like he had the boy he always wanted.”

She wraps her arms around the pillow, squeezes. “But it was a lie, so I changed it just to piss him off.”

That, and she crashed his Bentley into a wall, but that’s neither here nor there. Loki mhms. “Is it harmful?”

“No.”

She digs one hand into the heavy, metal powder, like shavings, only more solid, lets it run through her fingers like sand. Her eyes are closed, but there is a green glow coming from below her lids.

For a moment, everything vibrates.

When she opens her eyes again, she’s smirking, slow and dangerous and pleased. She puts the box back together and magics it out of the way. Then she pushes Toni further into the pillows and licks a long, wet stripe along her collarbone.

+

“You suck at sneaking,” Bruce says, in a perfectly normal tone of voice that scares the shit out of Toni and just about makes her climb out of her own skin in surprise, too.

He’s sitting on one of the stylish sofas in the lobby, that she had placed there for the express purpose of watching people and mocking them when she has a bad day. Apparently, Bruce has been using them to Toni-watch. At two in the morning. In the dark.

She imagines this is what sneaking in after curfew to find your parents sitting in your bedroom with Disapproving Looks is like. Not that he’d know anything about it. Perk of raising yourself, she guesses.

“Jesus. Fucking. Christ,” she curses belatedly, hand to her chest, mechanical heart somewhere in the general region of in her throat. “Scare a girl half to fucking death, why fucking don’t you. Fuck!”

“We should start a swear jar,” the guy has the gall to muse. “You and Clint would be broke within a week.”

“Clint would be broke long before me, thank you very much, billionaire here, why does no-one remember that?”

“Because we love you for your brain and sparkling personality, not your money?”

She flips him off. “Screw you, you’re all living in my Tower and honestly, I have yet to see rent, so shut it.”

Bruce rolls his eyes and gets up, not starting his spiel about ‘paying her back’ again. She takes that as a sign of how far he’s come under her tender tutelage. He starts steering Toni toward her private elevator without fanfare instead. “JARVIS says you haven’t slept in almost three days,” he announces as soon as the doors close.

“Two and a half, max. Traitor,” she informs the ceiling.

“The guys from R&D say you destroyed half of the fifty-seventh floor and then took off with a box of loot.”

“I built that floor, I can destroy it if I want to and it wasn’t loot, it was vibranium, which, please, don’t tell Fury, he’ll make me make him tons of that stuff and it’s expensive.”

Very expensive, actually. As in, it’s a good thing she’s a billionaire, even if no-one ever remembers that.

“And Coulson called to tell me you went MIA again and could I please put a leash on you, it’s getting annoying.”

“Kinky.”

“Toni,” Bruce answers and that’s the tone, the one he gets when he’s not angry, exactly, but she’s doing something stupid and he wants her to stop, now please.

She’s surprised it took this long, to be honest. She started expecting this conversation somewhere around week two. Although her money was on Steve breaking first. She should have known it would be Bruce. For all that Steve is their glorious, spangled, tight-panted leader, Bruce is the one that actually knows Toni, followed by Clint and then the others. Steve is… Steve is actually at the bottom of that list, after Coulson and even Fury and yes, that’s her fault, she knows, but she doesn’t want to change it. She likes the Capsicle at arm’s length.

“It’s Loki,” she says and studies her hands very hard. She needs a manicure. Definitely. “JARVIS, make a note, mani-pedi before work tomorrow.”

“Loki?” Bruce finally asks, sounding doubtful. “You’ve been working on something to fight Loki?”

Since they officially haven’t seen hair nor hide of the god since Manhattan went ‘spoldy way back when, his doubt is justified. He’s also pretty damn smart and Toni thinks he’s asking more because he hopes that’s what it is than because he believes it.

Bruce, Toni keeps forgetting, is just about as smart as she is. Guns in mouth aside, he’s just not nearly as suicidal as she is.

“Working on something with Loki,” she corrects him, gently. It occurs to her that she should have waited until they’re out of the cramped elevator space to break the news that she’s collaborating with the enemy to him of all people, but she’s not afraid. Suicidal, like she said. She also trusts Bruce and really, they keep having meaningful conversations in elevators and nothing has happened yet, she’s not a smear on the wall, so.

So.

Bruce groans like he saw that coming, rubs a hand over his face, skews his glasses and takes them off to polish them because that’s what he does when he really wants to go green and beat shit up because it would be easier than working through it. There’s another Buffy reference in there somewhere, but Toni valiantly bites it back and says, surprisingly seriously, “I know what I’m doing.”

“Toni,” Bruce sighs. “Half the time you don’t even know what day it is.”

“Tuesday,” she answers, then scrunches up her nose, thinking, because it might be...., “Wednesday?”

He puts his glasses back on and gives her a Look. “It’s Friday, Toni.”

Oh. “Well, that explains why Pep’s been blowing up my voicemail. There was a thing with a presentation at a place. Yesterday. Probably. JARVIS, change that note. Send Pepper to a mani-pedi and forget me. I only make the ladies at the shop cry anyway because the grease never comes out of my cuticles.”

She buffs her nails on her shirt ineffectively, drops her hand, gives the big guy a sheepish grin. She thinks she might have just proved his point. Unintentionally. Whoops.

The elevator opens and she guesses that means she got saved by the ding, so she gets the hell out and starts speed-walking to the bar because she’s not getting sleep and she’s not having this conversation sober. Booze is a must. She pours two glasses even though Bruce won’t drink it. That’s okay. She’ll drink it for him.

Then she promptly downs both of them and pours more. Functioning alcoholic, go and look it up. Preferably somewhere far away from her.

Bruce, being the big, fat meany that he is, pulls both the glasses out from under her nose and says, in that same tone again, “Toni.”

“I know what I’m doing,” she repeats.

He starts to ask a question, then shuts his mouth, reluctantly lets her have one of the drinks and tries again. “Does this have to do with the Chitauri? Or are you possessed?”

“Would I know if I were possessed?” She wants to know, mostly rhetorically, mostly to stall. Bruce just waits and this is the part where she remembers, yet again, that she isn’t the only genius on the block and apparently, Bruce can put two and two together and get five, too, even if the rest of the world can’t.

Huh.

“Yes,” she answers in the end, because… Well. Because.

“You think they’ll try again,” he surmises, in a tone that isn’t a question and thus requires no answer. “Loki could have his own agenda.”

Snorting, Toni toasts him and downs a hundred bucks of booze in one go. “Of course she does.”

“She?”

“Oh, yeah, didn’t I mention that? Loki’s a chick now. Apparently, that’s a thing.”

“Loki… is female.” Poor guy, looks a bit blindsided. “As in…”

“Grew a vag,” Toni supplies because when in doubt, be crude. “It’s awesome.”

A beat of silence. “The vagina or the fact that Loki grew it?”

That might be a trick question. “Yes?”

“To-ni,” he groans, and wow, she never knew her name had that many syllables. “You’re sleeping with hi---her?”

She grimaces. “Uhm. Well. I don’t know if that’s the correct tense, technically. It only happened this once. Unless you count orgasms, then it was definitely more than once because let me tell you, they aren’t kidding when they call Loki ‘Silvertongue’, it’s a thing, okay, a thing of beauty and…”

She trails off awkwardly because Bruce has his eyes closed and is breathing very carefully, which usually heralds either an epic temper tantrum of the green kind… or, well, that’s pretty much it. When Bruce looks like this, everyone’s immediate future is green.

So she takes a deep breath and pulls up her big girl panties so hard they pinch. “JARVIS, give Bruce access to Project: Punk’d. Usual restrictions apply.”

She listens to the AI confirm her order while Bruce gets himself cooled down, looking at her with his eyes still a solid brown. “Project: Punk’d?”

Hand waving between them, she shrugs. “Loki has her agenda, I have mine. JARVIS has been taking readings every time she uses magic. I have a few prototypes up my sleeve for when our agendas stop matching up.”

Because they will. Because Toni is not naïve. Because Toni left her ability to trust blindly somewhere in the sand, in the cave, in the living room where Obie pulled her heart from her chest and laughed in her ear while he did it, low and dirty and intimate.

Because Loki is in this for her own ass and Toni is in this… okay, for her own ass. And the rest of the world. But mostly her own ass. She’s an egoist. She’s never denied that, never tried to hide it. She cares for other people only for as long as doing so pleases her.

Which is pretty much the same as everyone else on this damn planet, but Toni doesn’t lie about it, or write poems, or put rings on people’s fingers and promise forever without meaning it.

Loki wants Thanos gone. Toni wants Thanos gone. Somewhere along the line, Thanos will be gone and then… she knows what will happen.

She knows.

She doesn’t want it to, she’s pretty sure of that. Because she likes Loki, likes the sniping and the banter and the danger just under the skin, likes how Loki is even better at this game than she is and challenges her at every turn.

She likes that.

But that doesn’t mean she believes in happy endings. This is stolen time, she’s well aware of it. Loki will help Toni kill Thanos and then she’ll have her baby and then… business as usual. Toni Stark has no illusions of keeping a god’s interest for longer than a few months.

Fairy tales got left behind too, somewhere along the road, long before Afghanistan. Happily ever after happens to other people. People who don’t have hearts of iron and enough guns to blow up the world. People who weren’t screw-ups from the moment they popped out betwixt their mother’s thighs the wrong gender.

Something of that thought process must show on her face, because suddenly Bruce gets that look, the one normal people get around hurt kittens and kicked puppies. The one that says, wow, you are one damaged lady.

Before she can snap at him, though, he shakes his head fondly and mumbles, “Don’t know whether to be proud of you for outsmarting the god of lies, or scared.”

For her or of her? She doesn’t ask. Knows the answer anyway. It sounds bitter when she laughs, but, for the third time, she offers, “I know what I’m doing.”

Maybe someday someone will believe that when she says it.

“And do me a favor? Keep this on the DL for now. This’ll never work out with Fury panting down my neck like the control freak pirate he is.”

She has no idea whether it’s trust in her or distrust in Fury (none of them have forgiven him for the stunt he pulled with Coulson, especially not Coulson, who loved those cards) that makes Bruce nods but he does.

Toni knows to take what she can get.

+

She crashes for fifteen hours, gets a long shower, puts in a few hours at the office to appease a Pepper on the warpath and then drops by Bruce’s private lab to find him ass-deep in Punk’d, as she expected.

She changes out of her work clothes, scattering them like a trail of breadcrumbs through her loft for Dummy to pick up and puts on jeans and a tank top instead, twisting up her hair as she goes.

Half an hour later she pushes open the door to Loki’s lab to find the god bent over, one hand clutching at the edge of a table, the other on her stomach, eyes closed. The only thing that keeps Toni from flying into a panic is the look on her face, something grotesquely torn between elation and horror.

“Loki?” she asks from the doorway, knowing better than to corner a potentially hurt trickster.

“She’s moving,” Loki supplies after a moment, her voice low enough to be almost indistinguishable from her male one.

“Uhm… isn’t that a good thing?”

The glare that earns her is poisonous. “It means I am running out of time, Stark,” she spits, every consonant a weapon.

Toni’s mouth, already open to protest, snaps shut. Right. Thanos needs to go kaboom before baby can go hello. Despite knowing better, she starts moving toward Loki, hands empty at her sides, harmless, harmless. By the time she’s three feet away, the other woman has straightened up and smoothed her shirt back down to cover a sliver of exposed skin.

For the longest second, Toni’s hand hovers in the air between them, above the baby bump. She’s never touched it intentionally, she realizes. Even when they were screwing each other’s brains out, she sort of… avoided it.

Her hand drops. “You know I’ll help, right?”

She’s pretty sure the only reason Loki kisses her like she’s drowning is to shut her up.

+

Somewhere along the line, Toni started leaving a few changes of clothing with Loki. Work clothes, mostly. It makes sense since she tends to show up in couture and if she ruins too many outfits, Pepper will murder her.

So it’s only practical. Stop reading into it.

She breezes into the loft, kisses Loki hello because she can and makes her way over to the box containing her stuff, stripping off her blouse as she goes.

Then, halfway between here and there, a god suddenly pops up in front of her, hand outstretched, going for the arc reactor. Toni flinches violently, body already moving to twist into herself, to try and get away because she wears her heart outside her body and people touching it has never led to good things before, it’s a reflex, it’s survival instinct, it’s necessary because it hurts and it kills her and –

Loki pulls back.

She pulls back, palms spread outward, no danger, see? Like Toni is a skittish animal.

“What purpose does it serve?” she asks, politely, evenly. She’s not going to apologize, but Toni doesn’t want her to. There’s something strangely respectful in the way the god backs off, eyes lowered briefly. Like she understands.

Yeah, Toni really needs to stop identifying with Loki.

“Like you don’t know,” she snorts, finishes pulling off her blouse and fiddling with one of her bra straps just because. “You had Clint for a week.”

A shrug, immodest. “I know that it keeps you alive, no more. The Hawk did not know its exact function.”

Toni cocks her head, considers the other woman for a moment. Then offers, “Trade you.”

Loki hesitates, then nods.

“Which form is the real you?”

Finally lowering her hands, the god flicks her fingers at her own chest. “This is as real as the male form you have seen. I can wear other people’s faces, but those are stolen. In this form, gender is fluid.”

“And the other one?”

Loki smirks. “My turn. What does this do?”

She taps a perfectly manicured nail against the arc reactor, a reflection of what she tried in the Tower to so long ago. Sometimes, Toni imagines what it would have been like, belonging to Loki so completely. Most of the time, she really doesn’t.

“Keeps a bunch of shrapnel out of my heart.” She smiles and it’s not a nice thing. “They blew me up with my own bomb.”

“How does it feel?”

She shakes her head. “What about the other form? The blue one?”

The god frowns and it strikes Toni that they’re still standing in the middle of the room, like they’re facing off. In a way, they are. Nothing like matching verbal wits with the god of lies, really. Even if that god suddenly looks less than amused.

“The form of a monster. Did Thor tell you about it?”

Shaking her head, Toni confesses, “You turn blue sometimes, when you focus on your magic too much. It’s gorgeous.”

The god snorts, disbelieving, angry even. “There is nothing gorgeous about being a monster.”

“Sure there is,” Toni corrects, but, sensing that she’s about the get defenestrated or worse, shrugs. “But I won’t bug you about it if you don’t want me to. I’d like to see it though, one day.”

There is something in Loki’s green eyes that Toni can’t quite identify, half hidden under the anger, the disgust. Toni knows a bit about self-hatred, but the god before her takes the cake. So damaged, so lovely, so dangerous. She’s always been far too fascinated with things that can kill her.

But since a change in subject is in order, she asks, “How does what feel?”

She can tell Loki wants to argue, wants to rage, but Toni is taking a page out of Pep’s book by simply not playing. Loki seems to see that, too, because after a minute of silent staring, she shakes herself free of the impending rage. Or maybe she simply tucks it out of sight, deep down, where all the old wrongs fester.

Darkly, she drawls, “The knowledge that it took your own creation to defeat you.”

Toni gasps quietly. She’s never considered….How does it feel? Horrible, is her first impulse. But also darkly, bitterly satisfying. They needed something she built with her own two hands in order to even try and kill her. And they still failed.

“Heady,” she admits, almost unwillingly. “Good.”

Loki laughs, head thrown back, mouth open. “A shame,” she offers, “that you were born mortal. You would have made such a delightful god.”

“Darling,” Toni drawls with heat curling in her belly because this entire conversation is turning her strangely on, all the vulnerability and bravado, all the rage folded neatly away and used to make brilliant and terrible things. They are far too alike for this world to survive them, Toni thinks, and invades Loki’s space to start walking her backwards toward the couch. She smirks, drawing on that part of her she keeps buried these days, the part that was proud of being called the Merchant of Death, Death’s Bride. The part of her that loved knowing that her name was on every bomb in the civilized world.

“Who says I’m not?”

The backs of Loki’s knees hit the couch and she lowers herself down, only a little clumsily. Toni kneels before her in the V of her legs, licks her lips. “After all, I got you, didn’t I?”

Loki trails a finger around the edges of the reactor and then up and up until she pushes her thumb into Toni’s open mouth. Her smirk matches Toni’s as she murmurs, “Indeed.”

+

This week, Toni gets to choose the movie and she chooses Terminator II because a) the first one sucks b) there are two people in dire need of pop culture knowledge on the team and c) she just likes to torture people.

“Arnie? Seriously, Arnie?” Clint looks like she’s personally insulted him, his mother, and his bow.

“Yes.”

“The series was okay,” Bruce points out from where he’s managed to snatch a chair this week, far away from Thor’s exuberant gestures and Toni’s cold feet in search of warmth. Bastard.

“You just have a crush on Summer Glau.”

“Dude,” Clint throws in, “She looks like she’s twelve.”

“She makes a convincing robot,” Natasha points out and Toni’s gears get stuck for a moment because Natasha Romanov just admitted to watching a campy scifi show. Toni’s inner nerd is waving a flag and dancing the jig.

“There is a series?” Steve asks from his seat next to Toni, offering her the popcorn bowl with a smile. She wants to pat him on his head. On his actual head. In a non-dirty way. There is something wrong with her.

Keeping half an eye on the crappy special effects, Toni hums. “More movies, too.”

“We should watch them sometime,” he suggests, still smiling at her like a hopeful puppy.

She hums again, chewing. “Next week, same time,” she tells him, winks.

His expression falls briefly, but then he nods and offers her the bowl again. When she shakes her head, he buries his head in it and refuses to meet her gaze anymore. Bruce sighs explosively. Weird.

Where’s Thor when you need him to distract everyone?

“Hey, Coulson. Why does Thor get out of this?”

“He’s gone home.”

“Is ‘home’ code for ‘to screw his very smart and pretty girlfriend’ or for, you know ‘Asgard’?”

She gets death glare #7 for her efforts and awards herself five points.

“Hey,” Clint pipes up, “Which one is the next one? The one with the chick or with Batman?”

“Chick-inator,” Toni answers. “Who do you think would win, Arnie or Batman?”

Most of the people in the room look at her funny. Bruce asks, “Terminator Arnie or actual Arnie?”

Oh yeah. He can pretend that he’s a scientific scientist who sciences all he wants, but the geek will out every single time.

“Actual. Terminator Arnie would cream Batman.”

“Not if Batman had his tool belt,” Clint argues, a very severe expression on his face. Something explodes on-screen. No-one is paying attention.

“What’s he going to do? Abseil Arnie to death?”

“It’s not what kind of tools you have, Stark. It’s how you use them!”

Toni wolf whistles and rolls her tongue behind her teeth in the most obscene way she can manage.

Coulson rubs his forehead as Clint waggles his eyebrows. “Do you two have to turn every conversation dirty?”

Steve briefly nods his head in agreement and then buries his head back in the popcorn bowl.

“I’m sorry,” Toni asks, “Were you here for the stimulating discussion of Arnie vs. Batman? If so, stick around for the encore: Astronaut vs. Caveman.”

“Let me guess, you’re backing the Astronaut,” Clint snipes.

“Obviously. I’m a futurist.”

“You just want his too-ools,” he sing-songs.

“Yes,” Bruce belatedly answers Coulson’s question just as Natasha starts smacking Clint. “They really do.”

+

Doom Bots are boring.

And yes, that’s Toni’s scientific fucking opinion, why do you ask?

They’re vicious and half magic, half technology, and they pack a mean punch, but once you have figured out their weak spots, it’s just a question of pinning them down long enough to yank their wiring and scatter the pieces into the Hudson.

In other words, boring.

Toni and the rest of the Fearless Superhero Squad have been terminating the critters for almost two hours. For some reason, Doom has decided that quantity is better than quality and flooded Manhattan with at least a hundred of the damn things.

They figured out early on that the Bots are meant to be a distraction, so SHIELD placed teams in all critical locations and, lo and behold, they took down one of Doom’s flesh-and-bone goon squads half an hour ago. Caught red-handed trying to steal some valuable artifact, blah, blah. Toni stopped listening after the initial announcement.

Since then, it’s been grueling, mindless slogging through cranky robots. The whole thing would go a lot faster if Thor were here but the guy’s been back in Asgard for almost three weeks now, doing princely things.

Toni’s actually starting to miss the guy. Okay, so she mostly misses his throwing arm and the way he can turn everyone utterly speechless during the Team Movie Nights of Awesome. And yes, she will kill Clint for making her use that stupidass title.

“Where’s some lightning when you need it?” Toni grumbles, smacking another Bot into an already ruined shop front and pouting behind her faceplate.

“I can’t believe I’m actually saying this,” Clint chimes in, “But I wish I had something other than my bow and one handgun.”

“I thought the exploding arrowheads worked?” Cap pipes up, just as his shield goes flying again. Toni pointedly looks the other way because she doesn’t care how cool it is, that damn thing violates the laws of physics and thus sets her teeth on edge.

“I only had twenty-five of those,” Hawkeye responds and they all take a moment to appreciate that the guy who never misses used all twenty-five of his exploding arrows and there are still at least that many Bots flying around. Toni is starting to sort of hate Doom.

“You could always try it Hulk style,” she suggests, grabbing another of the things by the scruff and flinging it at the guy in question, who happily squeezes it into a pulp of metal and sparking wires, grinning toothily as he does.

“Hulk smash,” he clarifies for Toni as he uses the freshly squeezed Bot to shoot another one out of the sky.

“Waste not, want not,” Toni mutters.

“I don’t think I have the upper body strength for it,” Clint admits. “What do you think, you fuck-ugly can of scrap?” he asks idly, followed by the sounds of a rapid gunfire and then a cheerful, “Buh-bye, sucker. Tell your mechanical momma I said hello.”

“The Incredible Hawkeye,” Toni laughs. “Making ‘your momma’ jokes since… how old are you anyway?”

“Less chatter,” Cap tries, not for the first time, to reign them in without much success. The pitfalls of working with assassins and scientists instead of soldiers. Toni is not very sympathetic.

“Sure, Cap. A lady never tells her age, Stark, hasn’t anyone told you that?” Then, totally irreverent, Clint shoots another Bot dead with a handgun, which should not be possible, and asks, “Do you think I could ride one of those things?”

Toni is about to tell him exactly why riding a tin can built by an unhinged super villain is a bad idea when something slams into her from behind and she gets slammed into a nearby building.

Ouch.

She tries to slow her impact down by twisting to get the repulsors into place but doesn’t quite manage, taking the brunt of her own weight on her right shoulder. Weak spot. The HUD flickers in front of her eyes and for a horrible, horrible moment, Toni is in freefall without knowing how exactly this happened, how she got there, or even who shot her out of the sky.

Then, darkness.

+

Waking up is never Toni’s favorite time of day, less so when there are beeping machines and white ceilings to greet her.

She’s in a hospital.

For a moment, something wickedly spiteful rears its head somewhere in the general region of her chest. Tried again. Failed again. Toni Fucking Stark prevails.

And then she realizes that she’s in a hospital.

Fuck.

Her first impulse is to check between her boobs for the reactor, which is exactly where she left it, thank god. Her second is to pull the IV from her hand and get the fuck out of there because she hates hospitals and she hates doctors and she hates people doing things to her body that she hasn’t agreed to. The last time she woke up with a car battery hooked up between her boobs and she’s still not entirely over that. So.

“Shh,” a voice says, somewhere above and to her right, “leave that alone, Toni.”

Steve. That’s Steve. Toni relaxes marginally and finally opens her eyes just as he grabs her hand, smoothes the tape back down over the needle in her skin.

“You’re just fine, calm down.”

She thinks she snarls at him, but maybe not because he looks ridiculously sappy and not appropriately scared. “The fuck?”

With a mildly disapproving look, he provides an explanation. “You fell. The Hulk caught you before you hit the ground, but the force made you pass out anyway and we couldn’t get you out of your suit.”

She cringes. “You pried it off, didn’t you?” It’d certainly explain why her body feels like she got run over a couple of times.

“You were unconscious!” Steve almost yells, squeezing her hand too tightly.

“So you tore apart a few million dollars of unique equipment?” She’s protective of her suit. Sue her. Also, she can practically feel where every single metal plate dug into her skin when they wrenched them off. Getting her out of the suit without knowing where the manual releases are is not fun. Maybe she should have shown someone other than Bruce, but there are those trust issues, rearing their heads again. Which makes her feel stupid. Which makes her feel pissed. Which makes her yell at Steve for being worried about her.

“We didn’t know what kind of damage you’d taken.”

“JARVIS could have run diagnostics.”

“The thing wasn’t responding!”

Toni stops. She just stops. Because Steve just called JARVIS a thing, which is technically the appropriate term, but absolutely not, because JARVIS understands sarcasm and he worries and he mother-hens and he’s the best friend Toni has even if she had to build him herself. And she did build him, and teach him. Language and concepts and ideas and how to defend himself and how to hide himself and how to be smarter than anyone else and how to never get caught. She taught him all that like you teach a baby how to walk and talk and play hide and seek and Steve just called him a thing and the first thing she thinks isn’t, oh, it’s on. No, the first thing she thinks of is Loki, lounging on the futon in her lab, staring at the ceiling and having a conversation about the inanities of Earth’s entertainment with JARVIS without batting an eyelash.

The second thing she thinks is, why am I comparing Steve to Loki? Again? The third is a heartfelt, uh-oh.

“JARVIS is not a thing,” she snarls, far too late.

“You’re impossible,” he grinds out between clenched teeth and then, still holding her hand – too tightly, ow – he snaps, “Go out with me.”

Wait.

“What?”

“Go out with me.”

“As in, on a date?”

He still looks pissed. “Yes.”

Huh. Well, it explains a few things. Like asking if she’s free on the weekend and inviting her to that opening and Clint’s comments and facepalming and all the aggressive pigtail pulling. Steve was flirting with her. Steve was 1940s flirting with her.

Whatever. It’s not happening.

“Nice delivery there. Maybe tone down the homicidal rage a little bit?”

“Toni,” he says, low and warningly, in his Captain America Says So Voice. “You drive me up the wall, but I…”

“You don’t want to go out with me,” she tells him, fast, before he can tell her what he feels. It’d all be lies and confusion anyway.

Stubborn set of jaw? Check. Angry glint in his eyes? Check. “You can’t know what I want.”

Toni finally wrenches her hand free, folds her fingers around her arc reactor and closes her eyes so she doesn’t have to see the damn hospital ceiling. Where are the annoying doctors when you need one anyway? “You want Peggy, with her dark hair and pretty face and red lipstick. You want Howard, with his brilliant brain and his crazy ideas. You want what you’ve lost. You don’t want me.”

Saying that should hurt, she thinks, like ripping her heart out of her chest – again – because Toni has loved Captain America for longer than she’s hated him. Surprisingly, though, all she feels is a dull throb that she’s going to attribute to her injuries.

It’s weird.

“You don’t know what I want,” Steve repeats, sounding calm, all of a sudden. She cracks one eyes open to find him sitting with his elbows on his knees beside her bed, hands on his face. “It’s not… this is not about who you look like, Toni. And you don’t remind me of Howard. Not anymore.”

He says the last part very quietly and Toni feels sorry, from the bottom of her heart, suddenly, that she can’t just be stupidly in love with the guy, the way she’s supposed to be. Steve would be so much easier than anything she’s been up to recently.

Loki.

Shit.

“Maybe I don’t remind you of my old man,” she admits. “But you remind me.” Steve looks up from his study of the floor. “All my life, I watched him run around looking for you. Talking about you. Staring at pictures of you while he got drunk. Do you have any idea how hard I tried to get him to notice me? To look at me the way he looked at your pictures, just once? The old guy loved you, far more than he ever loved me, Steve.”

She licks her lips. “I can be your teammate. Hell, I can even be your friend. But I can’t date you, Cap.”

He makes a wounded noise that she ignores to add a weak, “Sorry.”

Then she rolls onto her side and curls into herself, pretending to be asleep until, long minutes later, Steve gets up and walks away.

+

Apparently, one little concussion is all it takes to get Thor back down to Earth. Fury wired him that the team is down a heavy hitter and pronto, instant god of thunder. He marches into her room like the giant, unstoppable thing he is and slobbers all over her like the golden retriever he somehow also is, wishing her well in his complicated god-speak.

How the hell is it that Loki speaks perfectly normal, if posh, English, and Thor sounds like Shakespeare’s slightly demented sockpuppet? But he glares the SHIELD goon that tries to make her sit in a wheelchair into submission.

“The shield maiden of Midgard shall not be treated like the infirm. She shall wear her wounds with pride and her head held high, as befits one of her status and glory in battle.”

Then he forcibly hooks her arm into his and leads her out the door and yeah, okay, Thor’s kind of a dork, but also very awesome. There is a nurse waiting outside her room with her prescription pills, but Thor just grabs them out of her hands and keeps walking.

Outside, he looks around and then passes her over to Pepper with another monologue. Pepper hurries her into the car and then scolds Toni until she’s blue in the face for being careless and reckless and scaring her and Toni points out that she suffers from nothing more than a concussion, a sprained shoulder and a whole bunch of bruises that come from Steve being overzealous in getting the suit off of her. Which she has not forgiven him for because as long as she focuses on that, she doesn’t have to be mortified at how he’s apparently crushing on her. And has been for a while.

Pepper purses her lips and tells Happy to ‘just drive’.

They drop Toni off at the Tower with strict orders of bedrest and paperwork and then jet off to the airport. Toni gets nothing out of her former PA except thirty minutes of ranting and still it settles something inside of her. Pepper. Yelling. It’s more familiar than anything else that’s happened in the past… oh, two years?

As soon as she makes it into the lobby, Bruce and Clint are flanking her, steering her straight toward her private elevator and, okay, Toni can catch a hint when it’s thrown in her face repeatedly and at high velocity. “You’re herding me. Why are you herding me?”

They have been since the hospital. She’ll blame not noticing earlier on the concussion.

In a move that makes her wonder how Clint survived a single day, much less years as a super secret ninja, he snags her arm, pulls her off kilter and asks, very loudly, “Do you like Chinese?”

Toni stops, twists out of his hold and pokes him in the cheek.

“Ow,” he yowls, jumping out of reach, holding his cheek. “You don’t go around poking people, Stark!”

“Are you an imposter?” Toni asks, only half joking.

“Why the hell would I be an imposter?”

“Because I asked why you’re herding me and you tried to distract me. By asking me if I like Chinese. We had Chinese three days ago.”

He shrugs. “Maybe you changed your mind since then?”

“You’re a pretty pathetic super secret ninja,” Toni observes. Clint pouts. She has painkillers as an excuse, what’s his?

Shaking her head, she turns to Bruce instead. “Why are you herding me?”

“Uhm.”

“Thai?” Clint asks.

“Did someone blow up my Tower? Did you break the internet? Did you touch my coffee machine? What?!” Her voices rises toward the end but she’s fucking entitled because she’s being herded like some retarded lemming and they’re stalling and she hurts because someone ripped her suit off her and she kind of wants to puke and what the fuck.

“Steve,” Clint blurts.

What?”

He actually winces. “You kind off… broke him, actually. He’s mopey and angry and bitchin’ at everyone and we thought it might be a good idea to keep you two apart until… you know.”

“Until he learns to deal with a girl telling him no?” Toni asks archly, hands on her hips. She’s glad it’s late and the lobby is empty.

“Yes?” It sounds like a question.

“And why, exactly, does that translate into steering me like I’m retarded?”

“Steve is really grumpy.”

“So instead of locking him into the gym and telling him to get over it, you drag the girl with the concussion all over the place like idiots, on the off chance that I, what, go running after him to pour salt on his metaphorical boo-boos?”

“Yes?”

“You do realize that if you’d left me alone, nothing at all would have happened, right?”

“Toni,” Bruce cautions long enough for Clint to get in something other than ‘yes’.

“You told the man he reminds you of your father, Stark. That’s kind of a low blow. We wanted to make sure there are no further incidents until he’s less likely to punch out someone’s wall in a delayed teenage angst attack. Or something. Natasha said it a lot better.”

“Natasha is in on this?”

He scratches his head. “Well, no. She said we’re idiots. But you didn’t see the guy. You really got him.”

“He’d been a dick to me since the first time we met.”

Clint just about swallows his tongue. Bruce eeps. “He’s crushing on you, Toni,” he say in the same tone of voice you use for, And this is a spoon. The round end goes into your mouth.

Fuck spoons and, wait, wait, what? Everyone knows that Captain Dicksicle is hot for her?

“Fuck this,” she mutters, because her head hurts and her brain hurts and everything hurts and these people are supposed to be superheroes but they’re really a bunch of highschoolers. Junior High, actually. At the most. And if Toni, of all people, notices, that means it’s bad. There’s a reason she doesn’t play well with others and she remembers what that reason is, now. It’s people. They’re messy and complicated and illogical and far, far too fragile.

“Tell Steve he can get his emo on wherever. I’m outta here.”

With that she spins on her heel and marches right back out the door, hailing a cab and driving away before Clint can catch up with her. Bruce, she notices, doesn’t even try. He lingers at the entrance, watching her go with worried eyes.

Fucking A. Now they’ve driven her out of her own home. She rubs her forehead, closes her eyes and tells JARVIS to black her out.

+

She’s between taxis, trying to find another one to take her to Loki’s lab, the way she has for months, when a feeling like sizzling grease climbs up her spine and a cold hand clamps down on her arm, dragging her sideways and then updownaround.

She lands on the floor with her gut in her throat and bile in her mouth, breathing hard. Loki stands above her, an icy expression on her regal features.

“You are not seriously injured,” she says, curtly, more a question than a statement. “You were out on your own.”

“I kind of ran off,” Toni manages between deep, deep breaths, trying to sort out her insides and, if at all possible, not puke on the god’s shoes. “But yeah, concussion. Sprain. Bruises.”

Loki doesn’t answer. Her face, if possible, grows colder.

After a few minutes of sitting on the floor in a heap, Toni’s higher brain functions slowly come back online. She’s with Loki. In the lab. Loki popped up and teleported her. Apparently, teleporting and a concussion don’t go well together. She makes a mental note, moves on. Loki picked her up. Loki is glaring at her with icy intensity.

Loki isn’t talking.

Loki picked her up.

Loki asked about her injuries.

Loki knew she wasn’t badly hurt before coming to pick her up.

“You were worried about me.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” comes the prompt answer. “I simply need you alive for a little while longer.”

And that… does things to Toni’s stomach that she will also blame on the concussion, so she blurts, “Steve is crushing on me.”

The force of Loki’s glare practically sizzles off the upper layers of Toni’s epidermis. “I don’t share,” she growls, so low and ferocious that Toni isn’t sure whether to be turned on or seriously fucking terrified.

Naturally, she deflects. “Oh, so this is a thing? Like, I mean, a thing, with you and me and the sex and the… a thing that warrants possessive displays of… possessiveness? Because I wasn’t sure and there was never actually a memo and I mean, who doesn’t want Captain America on their dance card…”

She trails off round about there because she can’t even pretend, not now. Steve is like this festering wound in her side that overlaps with the scar that’s good old Dad and it’s just… big. And painful. Adjectives fail.

Loki snarls, a vicious, angry thing, all bared teeth and suddenly Toni remembers that Thor said something about wolves once, in connection with his wayward brother and yeah, she can see that. Far too well.

“I do not share, Stark,” the god repeats, slow and careful, syllables clearly separate, like gunshots. Toni knows all about gunshots. Gutshots. Look, she rhymed.

Concussion. Shut up.

Fact is, she thought they were just screwing and now here’s Steve, wanting babies and puppies from her, and here’s Loki, wanting what? monogamy from her? Loki, who likes to wrap her hand around Toni’s neck when they kiss and squeeze, just a little harder than is polite. Loki who knows about how pretty explosions are and tells Toni she should be a god of fire and machines. Loki who opens Toni up and shows her what lies inside, points out all the possibilities that make shivers run down Toni’s spine. That Loki, that very same, impossibly coldhot Loki, is staking a claim like Toni is some sort of new toy, something shiny and rare and desirable, maybe. Something to be owned.

And it should piss Toni off like Steve’s ridiculous crush pisses her off, but it doesn’t because she thought she didn’t but she does and she’s not making any sense at all.

But. But.

Loki is claiming her.

Loki wants her.

She doesn’t answer fast enough, apparently, because Loki has to prove she’s superior in every way by pulling Toni to her feet with only one hand, like she’s righting something as simple as a chair, not almost a hundred and twenty pounds of curvy female with extra metal parts. She puts Toni on her feet and then, before she can catch her balance, presses their mouths together, hitches their hips close and eats Toni alive.

Toni stands very still for a moment, flailing her arms only a little. Then she gives in, thinking how they end far too many conversations like this lately. It’s almost like they’re using sex to escape talking about important things. Like emotions.

But Toni would never do that and it’s not like Loki’s damaged in a lot of the same ways Toni is and kind of copes in the same ways, too.

No, your honor, no sex was ever used to suppress inherent feelings of worthlessness, insufficiency or freakishness. At all. Ever.

Right.

Fuck.

+

Perhaps it’s the concussion, but it’s more likely that Toni’s simply raw from the emotional upheaval of getting injured, having her suit ripped up, having JARVIS called a thing, finding out Steve’s hate-on for her is actually a hard-on and then getting waylaid by her friends who have suddenly turned into the kind of dicks that blame a woman for saying no to a man.

Or perhaps it’s simply that Loki came looking for her, even if she’d probably deny it to the death, and then laid a claim on her with tongue and teeth and snarled words. Just thinking about it still sends memory-sparks down Toni’s spine.

A pregnant woman should not be this skilled at angry sex.

Whatever it is, lying in the semi-dark of midnight in New York, Toni finally dares to reach out that hand, to finish that aborted gesture from days ago.

Loki’s belly is taut and strangely hard and soft at the same time under her palm. And warm. It seems far too warm. Strange. The rest of the god is always cool to the touch.

She can’t help it. When Loki doesn’t immediately rip off her hand, she pokes the belly. And prods a little. And makes faces at it.

Eventually, Loki snorts delicately. “You behave like a child with a new toy,” she observes, somewhat snidely, but not actually unkindly.

Here’s a secret: It’s possible to fuck the meanness right out of the god of lies. You only have to try hard enough.

Toni shrugs, rolls onto her back and keeps her hands to herself. “I’ve never actually been around anyone who’s pregnant before.”

“Surely some friends…”

She shakes her head. “Nah. Not really the friends type, me. Or the baby type. I actually had that taken care of when I was twenty-five. Permanently.” She mimes cutting something.

Loki actually twists onto her side, head in hand so she can loom over Toni. “You had someone remove you ability to have children?” She sounds aghast.

Toni shrugs. “Guess I knew, even back then, that I’d make a shitty mother. I mean, can you imagine me raising a kid? It’d be…” she shakes her head.

Toni is terrified of being a parent like her father but, secretly, she is even more terrified of being a parent like her mother: pale grey in the background, unwilling, unable, or simply too numbed by sherry and society parties to give a fuck about her child. Because Toni’s biggest fuckups have been and always will be, not the things she does, but the things she doesn’t do.

Like thinking about where all her bombs go. Like telling anyone she’s dying. Like considering the consequences of her actions.

Loki frowns, unfairly prettily. “My children are always and forever doomed,” she confesses, looking Toni straight in the eye. “But I cannot imagine not having them.”

She cradles her belly, not protectively, but gently. Softly. Holding.

It’s Toni’s turn to frown, because she had a father who labeled her as a lost cause the moment he saw her vag where a dick should have been and she knows it’s not a nice thing to grow up with. “You can’t know that.”

Eyebrow. “You still have not read up on our lore, have you?”

“Have you read up on Twilight by now?” Toni shoots back, earning her the second eyebrow and a load of silence.

Loki waits for her to sigh and shake her head before going on. “The lives of the aesir are cyclical. We are born, we live, and come Ragnarok, we all die, only to be born again. We do not retain our full memories but there are… glimpses. Hints.” The semi-amused expression morphs into something utterly blank. “No matter what I do, the outcome is always the same. My children are always reviled and hated for their parentage.”

“It can’t really be…” Toni tries, only to get cut off.

“It is. It always is. No matter what I do, no matter which path I choose, I am the villain and my children suffer for my imagined crimes.” The god doesn’t even sound angry. Just very, very cold. Hard, in the same way she did during the Chitauri disaster when they talked in the Tower. Loki sounded just like this when he told Toni that he had an army. The world was going to burn and in his voice was nothing but certainty, hard and immovable. It pissed Toni off then, and even more so now.

“Determinism. Now there’s a cheery thought.”

“’Cheery’ is not the term I would use.”

“How about ‘convenient’?” Toni tries, snidely. “Can’t change it anyway, so why try? Why not throw people out of windows and be done with it?”

She’s being aggressive. She knows it. She can see it coming from half a mile off, but Loki’s attitude is making her angry like whoa, zero to sixty in less than a second, and there’s nothing she can do about it. It must show on her face because Loki sits, less graceful than a month ago. It puts some distance between them.

“You are being childish,” she observes. “I am merely stating facts.”

“You’re stating an excuse to not even try anymore.”

It’s impressive, really, how fast and how totally Loki’s face can lock down, back to that mask Toni first saw almost a year ago, on Fury’s big boat. The mask of a man intent on destroying the planet. It makes Toni feel very small and very cold.

“What do you know, little mortal, of what I try and do not try? I have attempted to escape my own fate since the dawn of time and nothing I have done has ever changed the outcome.” There’s no bitterness there, just the ice, just the certainty.

Toni rolls to her feel, almost lands ass over teakettle and starts grabbing her clothes. “Bullshit,” she says. “This is complete and utter bullshit.”

It matters what you do, how you try. It matters which way you chooses and how you do things. It matters. It has to matter because if it doesn’t, then all the shit that’s happened to Toni was just random. It wasn’t deserved, it wasn’t there to make her make herself better, it just happened and it means nothing and if everything means nothing, she might as well put on her suit and sink herself in the Atlantic with the engines off. Things, decisions, choices (walking out of that cave and fixing things), it has to matter. It has to.

She’s dressing so fast her hands are shaking because she needs to get out of here, needs to get out, get away from that idea, from the look on Loki’s face, needs to get away from because if she doesn’t, if she doesn’t. She’ll break down and cry, a tiny little heap of broken Stark on the floor and she can’t, can’t, can’t. She allots herself two hours after every major crisis to break down and this isn’t it, she can’t, not now. Can’t, can’t, can’t.

She has to go, she’s a busy woman, she has a world to save and an energy problem to fix and maybe puppies to carry across the street and old ladies to kiss and she needs to do those things because they matter. Because she did a bad thing and if she redeems herself enough, she’ll…. It matters. It will matter. What she does now. What she tries to undo. It’s not redemption because she doesn’t believe in that. She’s a futurist. The only thing she believes in is making things better and so that’s what she does.

And it matters.

“You are being ridiculous,” Loki observes, still in that bland, polite tone that really doesn’t hide her fury.

“Your face is ridiculous,” Toni snaps back, because there is a naked god with a baby bump sitting in the middle of rumpled sheets calling her ridiculous and that’s just… she giggles. Bites her lip.

“Careful,” comes the warning, like Loki read her mind and Toni remembers how, a few hours ago, they were teasing each other about caring and now here they are and Toni is so angry with Loki for giving up like that, for just lying back and taking it, like nothing matters, but it does. It has to. Afghanistan… it has to.

“Of what? Your face? Sorry, but unless you’re going to cut me with your cheekbones, I don’t see how this is a threat.”

“Stark,” Loki’s growling now. Hey, look, anger! Toni grins, the phantom taste of blood already in her mouth, a sound like bombs going off ringing in her ears. Part of Toni wants to lunge and throw the first punch. Part of her wants whatever the god will do to her then because there’s an explosion sitting in her chest, waiting to happen, something bright and brutal, just waiting to rip through her and out into the world, and isn’t that the perfect metaphor.

Toni is the perfect bomb.

And she wants someone to push the big, red button because here she is, body too small, skin too tight, with something churning inside of her, helpless and nameless and angry. Toni gets so angry.

But nothing of that makes it to the surface. All that shows is a smile like broken glass. “That’s my name, don’t wear it out, sweetheart!”

“You do realize I’m a moment away from murdering you, yes?”

“What are you going to do? Defenestrate me again?”

“The thought is tempting, yes.”

“Great. Good to know where we stand.”

“I am not the one suddenly behaving like a lunatic.”

Almost vibrating out of her skin, Toni does what she does best. She keeps prodding, keeps poking, keeps the lighter on the fuse. She doesn’t even know why. She just knows that she has to.

“No, you’re the one who blames their shit on fate and fuck the rest. No wonder your kids end up as monsters and outcast with you raising them, teaching them they have no chance!”

It’s a cruel thing to say because Toni knows that Loki loves that baby in her belly, but no-one has ever accused Toni Stark of being kind when she’s helpless. And right now? She’s feeling as helpless as she ever did in that cave.

Loki raises a hand and Toni has a split second to think, oh fuck, or maybe that’s, oh, yes, as she takes in the god’s expression, pure rage, and then –

- she’s standing in the middle of a dirty, abandoned alley at the far end of New York, her jeans only half done up, shirt in hand and no shoes.

Fuck.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

Fuck.

+

Of course the others are still awake when she gets back and of course they’re sitting in her damn living room, staring at her like she’s covered in moonlight and sparkles when she comes stomping in, her hair a mess, her make-up ruined, barefoot and only half dressed, still feeling like all her edges are showing wickedly sharp, catching the light in the New York darkness.

“We were worried about you,” Bruce says before anyone else (Steve) can start laying into her for walking out on them with a concussion and no phone on her. Good old Bruce, eternal peacekeeper. One day, when she has a lot of time on her hands, she’ll find out if he’s always been this way or if the Hulk taught him that.

“Bully for you,” she snarls, marching straight to the bar, pours herself a drink, downs it, foregoes the glass for the second drink and takes a long swig directly from the bottle. That’s more like it. Somewhere below the arc reactor, a roaring monster starts settling back into its place.

“Toni?” That’s still Bruce, who suddenly sounds very worried because, yeah, okay, he probably figured out who she went to after she stomped off and having her come home and crawl into a bottle after seeing Loki probably doesn’t bode well for the world.

Except that Loki isn’t going to go out and take out her anger with Toni on unsuspecting humans. Toni has no idea why, but she’s sure of that. Loki didn’t even take her anger with Toni out on Toni, just zapped her away.

“Shitty fucking day,” she supplies, means, don’t get your panties in a twist, no homicidal gods on the streets. Bruce relaxes marginally.

“What the hell happened to you, Stark?” Clint fills in the silence, backed up by Natasha’s, “You look like roadkill.”

Toni points at the redhead, smirks and says, “Bitch.”

Behind her, Thor looked mildly put-upon and Steve glowers. Which, now that she knows is his version of a love-sick-puppy look, kind of makes her want to gag. And anyway, this is all his fault. If he hadn’t acted like a dick, she wouldn’t have run off to see Loki in the state she’s in and maybe that fight would never have happened. Toni usually has thicker skin than this.

A god telling her nothing she does matters even the slightest bit should not be enough to send her into a tailspin. Except. Shitty fucking day.

She shakes her head and when she looks back up at the peanut gallery, they actually look worried, which, wow. Clint and Bruce she kind of expected, but the others not so much.

“Stark?” Natasha asks, talking half a step forward. Or maybe everyone else takes half a step back because this is clearly ovary-territory, didn’t you know. Chauvinist pigs.

Toni waves her off because if the other woman comes any closer, she may cry on her, or maybe punch her, and neither of those things will do. “Relax guys. New York is still standing, everything is peachy keen, ignore the madwoman with the bottle.”

She toasts them. “And get out of my home.”

“What happened?”

“I had a big, fat fight with my girlfriend, what do you think happened?”

She snorts and sort of shoves past Natasha on her way to the lab. Which can be put on lockdown. Yay.

Steve chokes, Clint makes noises, Thor is confused (default setting, seriously) and Bruce, who is the only one who knows who the girlfriend is, asks, “About what?”

Good question.

“Philosophy,” Toni snaps and, grabbing another bottle as she goes, gets the hell out of there.

+

You shouldn’t drink with a concussion.

Toni heard that somewhere (Pepper) once, so after her rapid fire self medication in front of the entire team, she actually stands in front of the bottles she snagged, a mournful expression on her face. For five whole minutes.

She wants to get drunk.

She needs to get drunk.

Because she just freaked the fuck out over the most ridiculous thing and she doesn’t care what anyone (Pepper, who would have guessed?) say about time for healing and natural reactions. It’s been almost three years. She should not be having fucking flashbacks anymore. It’s over. It’s done. Everyone that ever saw her in that cave, that knows how weak she was, how pathetic, is dead. She killed most of them herself.

It should be okay.

But when Loki started her whole spiel about determinism and rebirth, she freaked. Loudly, explosively, viciously. The way she does most things. Why? Because she’s rationalized Afghanistan by telling herself she deserved what happened for being a fucktart. By convincing herself that she can undo all the bad that happened with the good she’s doing now. Save ten innocents, get one nightmare less this week.

Logic is what keeps Toni going, always has. Logic and numbers and reasons. She needs to know how things work and if there isn’t a proper explanation, she makes one. And this was hers. And then there was Loki, who is a god, who is real and she said all those things Toni cannot compute, cannot refute because it’s a god saying them and…

If a primitive program is faced with data it cannot assimilate into its known patterns, something will blow up. In this case, Toni Stark’s head. Boom.

She freaked out. And now she’s standing here, thinking it through instead of getting absolutely blitzed and she thinks this might be growing up, might be this responsibility shit everyone keeps yelling at her about. And, like poison, the thought slithers in: What does it matter if you grow up now, if nothing you do ever matters at all?

She really needs to get drunk now.

She doesn’t.

She goes online, she finds a collection of Norse Myths and she downloads it onto a tablet (manually to give her hands something to do). Then she sits her ass down and actually reads and that’s so unlike her that she actually needs to stop and wonder for a moment.

On the far table, the bottles beckon. In her chest, something throbs and shifts. Toni gets down to reading.

+

Her first thought while reading Loki’s Story as Told by Someone Who Wasn’t There is, I really hope this is made up.

Her second is, shit, and after that it devolves.

She hopes that the whole half dead thing is a metaphor, because if Loki’s bouncing baby girl is actually born half dead, Toni foresees a definite problem with zombie cults springing up all over the place.

She reads about Sleipnir and Fenrir and Jormungandr and Vali and Nari, about Angrboda and Sigyn and Odin and Thor and dwarves and a mouth sewn shut, of snakes and poison and chains and caves.

Eventually, she comes to the conclusion that she owes Loki an apology for the comment about not being fit to raise her own children. Shortly after that, she realizes that she wants to punch Thor and Odin both in the face because, Jesus on a stick, if this had been her, if this were her life, her children, you can damn well bet Toni wouldn’t have taken a thousand years to go nuts and try to blow up a planet.

And it definitely wouldn’t have been the planet of an enemy, but her home world.

She tries to imagine what Loki described, being endlessly reborn, knowing but not really knowing. Having hunches. And running head first, arms spread wide, into the same traps, the same knives as before.

It makes her feel pretty damn helpless.

+

“Toni, this is Pepper. Steve just called me and told me that, apparently, you had a fight with your girlfriend and that he’s sorry he didn’t know you were in a relationship. Toni, you don’t do relationships. And you don’t have a girlfriend. Please call me. I’m worried.”

Toni stares at the speakers JARVIS used to relay that message. “JAR,” she says after a moment, “Call Pep when it’s morning on her coast. Tell her that I’m fine, that I’ll explain, but not right now. Tell her not to come here, please. I just… not right now. And tell her, tell her that I love her and that she can whack me later for being stupid and I promise I’m not dying. You got that?”

I do, Miss Stark.

“Good.”

+

It’s almost sunrise when Toni emerges from her workroom in search of something. To distract her from her own thoughts, her memories, and that deep, heavy ball of compassion and pity rolling around her stomach.

Afghanistan and Loki’s children haunt her, all for nothing, all without sense or rhyme or reason. All just happening and there’s nothing she can do to fix it.

Toni hates nothing more than being helpless.

Like she was in that cave.

Like she is now.

“You look like something chewed you up and spat you out,” Clint says quietly from where he’s perched on top of a bookshelf. She doesn’t even jump, which just goes to show how crazy her life is these days.

And she made it even crazier by adding a god to the mix. Why is that again?

“Thanks,” she answers, tries a smarmy camera-grin and gives up halfway there. “Shouldn’t you be in bed like a good little Robin Hood?”

“Tasha and Phil were watching The Fountain. I needed to get away before I started clawing at my own eyes.”

She snorts, walks past him to the kitchen and pours herself a cup of stone cold coffee before sitting down at the counter. Dummy whirs over, presents his claw for a few pats, then wheels back into the darkness.

“Seriously, though. You look like shit. And you don’t smell like a bar, so it’s kind of freaking me out, to be honest.” He’s there suddenly, across the counter, tapping his fingers on the marble surface, half-smirk in place despite the hour.

“Join the club,” she mutters, then takes him in, tired eyes, lines around his face, hiding in her living room at the asscrack of dawn. “Are we friends?” she blurts before she can stop herself and then flinches, looks away.

Her head hurts really, really much.

Clint cocks his head to one side. “Are you going to kick me out if I say no? Because I can’t go back down there before I’m absolutely certain that movie is over. It makes no sense!

Yeah, ok. Toni isn’t very good at people, but neither is Clint, and she thinks that means that yes, they are friends, why is she being such a maudlin idiot.

“Do you believe in free will?”

“As in Team Free Will? Have you been watching Supernatural again?”

“I don’t watch that show,” she defends, although it lacks her usual vigor.

“Su-ure. Whatever you say, Stark.” He’s smirking. Damn him.

“Pepper is a lying liar who lies and her pants should be perpetually on fire because I do not watch that show, no matter what she says. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”

For a moment, Clint looks pensive. Then he says, “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the lovely Miss Potts in anything other than skirts.”

Toni blinks. “She wears those jean-shorts sometimes. They’re really short.”

There’s a moment of silence. Then Clint offers, “Sometimes I’m really glad you’re a dyke.”

“Bisexual, technically, and keep your labels to yourself.”

More silence. Then, “Why do you ask?”

She shrugs as he nimbly jumps on the counter, sitting cross-legged right in front of her. “It’s like this, right? If we have free will, then our actions matter. What we do matters because we could just as well not do it. So when I go out and save the world, that matters. On some cosmic scale or something. It matters. And if we don’t have free will and it’s all planned from the word go, then it doesn’t matter and I can fly a hundred nukes into space and it’s not going to change a single damn thing because doing it isn’t my decision and it can’t make up for all the shit I did before. That means I’m just a shitty fuck-up of a person because that’s what I was meant to be and there’s no fixing it. End of story, everyone go home.”

This time, the silence stretches until it becomes uncomfortable while he scratches his head awkwardly. “Is this about your…Despicable Me days?”

She laughs half-heartedly, at him and his phrasing and the fact that he’s comparing her life to a kids’ movie. “Nope,” she tells him. “It’s about Afghanistan.”

And wow, that is so weird to say because she’s never talked about it before, not to anyone. And certainly not voluntarily. Pepper and Rhodey tried, and Obie, too, before she killed him. But she never said a word. Everything that happened in that cave died in that cave and sometimes Toni thinks she did, too. What came out certainly isn’t the same as what went in.

Rebirth.

Maybe Loki and gang aren’t the only ones that live cyclical lives. She scrubs a hand through her hair. It’s way too late for this, she thinks, and looks back up at Clint, who is inching away from her, an oh shit look on his face.

“Do you want me to get uhm… Pepper? No? Tasha maybe? Or…” he’s frantically trying to come up with more females he could throw at her and she knows why.

“They didn’t rape me,” she says, abruptly, making him freeze with half his ass off the counter. He actually wavers for a moment and she thinks he might fall and it’s ridiculous but she’s not laughing. “Everyone always assumes they did and I never correct them, but they didn’t.” Her smile is a dark thing on her face. “They didn’t have to.”

“Shit,” he says, “Do you really think you want to tell me this? I mean, me? I’m not exactly…” He waves his hands in the air in a gesture that can either mean ‘curvy’ or ‘stable enough to be considered a help to anyone’.

She thinks that’s why she likes the guy so much.

“I mean, that’s what rape is about, isn’t it? About control. About taking it away. But they’d already shoved a giant magnet between my tits and hooked it to a car battery, how much more control were they going to take from me, right?”

She pauses, waits for him to run. He doesn’t. He just sits there, ass half in the air, frozen and stupid looking and she closes her eyes. “The boss guy liked to threaten me with it, though. After the water boarding and the hot coals and all that shit. He’d come down to our cell and he’d tell me, in detail, what he would do to me. Here’s the bed, and this is the chain I’d use to tie you up, and this is the knife I’d cut your clothes off with. On and on he went because he loved the sound of his fucking voice and there was nothing I could do because, hey, car battery.”

Eyes opening, she shrugs. “He didn’t have to rape me. He already had all the control.”

“You killed him. With a giant ass robot,” Clint points out, eyes narrowed with something she’s too tired to identify. He scoots closer again, now that the emosplosion seems to be over and done with.

“Yeah. And I saved the world half a dozen times over since that and it was my decision, right? I mean, I decide to put on the suit. I control it. I…”

Matter. What she does matters. What she is matters. Because she took her control back and no fucking deity writing fiction in a big book somewhere is going to take that away from her ever again.

“I don’t know,” Clint suddenly says, shrugging, nudging her arm with his knee. “About free will and all that shit. Who controls the universe. But… I think it matters that we try, you know? I’m not exactly a stand-up person, at least not until recently. Bow for hire and all that crap. But I try, for Nat and Phil, and I think that matters. That I try.”

For a long time, Toni chews on her lip, thinking. Trying. She’s the queen of fucking trying.

And failing, too. Less often lately, but still. She inhales deeply. “So, this is going to sound stupid, but… can I cry on you? Just a little bit? Because I’ve had a shitty fucking day and everything went wrong and I think I just… opened up or something, and I really need to cry now.”

He looks like he’s freaking out, but he asks, “Does that mean we’re done talking?”

Toni nods. “God, yes. Done. Absolutely done. Never happen again, Girl Scout’s honor.”

“I really doubt they let you into the Girl Scouts, Toni.”

“I think I have shares, that’s just as good.”

“The Girl Scouts don’t have shares.”

“Damnation.”

“Okay.”

“Okay, what?”

“Okay, you can cry on me. But keep the snot away from me and don’t expect me to pat your back, or anything. That shit’s too girly for me.”

Toni laughs even though it’s a crappy joke, and then she sobs and then she leans her forehead against his knee and cries on him.

She isn’t even sure what she’s crying for, but there it is and it feels good, actually, despite the pounding headache and the burning eyes.

Clint just sort of stares at the ceiling and really doesn’t pat her back, but that’s okay, because he doesn’t pull his knee away either. When she wakes the next morning, blurry-eyed and sore, she’s in her bed, stripped down to her panties and with a message on her phone that consists of nothing but lecherous smiley faces.

+

Toni despises pointless websurfing. Jumping from link to link, messing about on Wikipedia just for shits and giggles, trolling blogs, crashing annoying little fansites. It’s a horrible, time-sucking waste of electricity.

That said, she occasionally does it when she’s totally wiped out, idea-wise.

It’s been almost ten hours since Clint put her to bed after she snotted on his pants in the kitchen. It’s the second most awkward thing that ever happened to Toni.

And no, she’s not telling you what the number one is.

She blew her nose. Then she made her way down the workshop and did what she should have done in the first place. She stuck her head into the sand. The metaphorical sand. The kind that’s made up of all kinds of futuristic projects and construction ideas for a magical bomb that will save the world.

And then her mind went blank because she still has that concussion and she hasn’t slept in months, it feels like. Being unconscious in a SHIELD hospital does not count.

So now she’s surfing the web. And she hates it, staring bleary-eyed at the screen, clicking link after link and trying to abandon the screen and get back to work but never managing.

She stops on a site that sells all kinds of designer shit for babies. Stares at the blue and pink and candy yellow striped background. Stares at a load of onesies that say things like ‘My Mom’s the Best’ and ‘Daddy’s Girl’ and ‘Don’t Look at Me, My Mom Dressed Me Like This’.

Clicks another button. Lands on plain onesies in all colors of the rainbow, baby blue to Barbie pink and back.

She didn’t know they came in all those colors. And really, why would she. Toni Stark is never going to be a mother and she’s made a point of not being maudlin about it. It was her choice. And it was the right fucking one.

She orders a pastel green one, the color of mint and soft moss, with butterflies stitched onto one side in pale blue. It reminds her of the grass and the sky, of ridiculously sentimental things.

She tags it as an express order and goes back to clicking random links until she gets to toddler gear. Half brain-dead, she skims over a raving review (probably fake) for a heavy winter coat in pint size. There’s something about great insulation due to two layers, blah, blah.

Toni clicks another button.

Stops.

Goes backwards.

Stares.

Two layer insulation.

“JARVIS?”

Yes, Ma’am?

“I am fucking stupid. Make a note of that, have it put on business cards, on my tombstone, I don’t really care, how could I have been so stupid? I have the biggest brain in this entire hemisphere and I am fucking stupid, I should give MIT back my doctorates, at least my first, the engineering one, this is ridiculous, why didn’t you tell me I’m this stupid?”

I am afraid I am not currently following your through process, Miss Stark.

She snorts. “Course you aren’t. You’re smart, that’s how I built you, you’re brilliant and this is basic, it’s stupid, it’s primary school, except not, it’s kindergarten. Jesus.”

Without a backward glance at the website, she abandons the computer to stand in the middle of the room. “Okay. Pull up the schematics from attempts three through thirteen, strip the outer layers, come on, yeah, just like that. Now blow them up for me and color code it, exactly.”

I am afraid I still don’t understand.”

“JARVIS, buddy, we’re building a bomb. And this time, it’s going to actually work.”

+

Toni marches into Loki’s lab with a lot more gusto than she feels and smacks a pale lilac gift bag on the table in front of the god, who looks like she isn’t quite sure which way to twist when she goes about snapping Toni’s neck.

Left, right, left, right. Choices, choices.

Clearly, Toni better talk fast.

“This is for you, don’t read into it, I obviously need a shrink, but that’s okay, because I think I’ve solved the problem we’ve been having with the, you know, blowing up and stuff. Disfigurement via shrapnel and all that. I think. The sims work in any case and, uhm, could we forget about me little nervous breakdown the other day because you sort of hit all the buttons and I may have had a good cry since then. There is no digital evidence of it, I made sure of that, but it happened, I was there and now it’s over and I’m all about the mature and grown up shit now, with the trying and the not denying that I maybe have a teensy-weeny little case of PTSD. Possibly. And here, have a working bomb.”

She pushes a button on her phone, uploading JARVIS’s simulations onto the skeleton version of himself that she left with Loki. A 3D model of a prototype pops into existence between them and Toni takes a deep breath and then holds it because this could go either way.

Loki might forgive her. Or she might blast her into eternity in itty-bitty Toni-bits, which would be bad. A smart person probably would have apologized properly. Said the actual words, for one. But. But, but, but, this is Toni and she doesn’t do apologies, doesn’t even do remorse. Or regret. Or guilt.

Move on. Make yourself better.

Pretend whatever hurt you never happened and you didn’t cry on your teammate like a little girl.

She thinks that Loki might understand that.

When the silence gets too loud and Toni’s kind of starting to turn blue from holding her breath, waiting for Loki, she adds, “Also, that thing I said about you raising kids? That was me being a defensive bitch and lashing out, just FYI. You’ll make a great mom. Dad. Whatever. What do your kids call you anyway? Maddy? Dommy? Uhh, that sounds kinky. What are you…?”

Slowly, Loki extends one arm, pushing the gift bag aside without a glance, palm extending toward Toni. Might be going for her neck. Maybe her tongue. Toni is fairly certain a large percentage of the people who know her have daydreamed about ripping out her tongue.

She holds her breath again and waits, but the touch never comes. Instead Loki grasps the hologram and sends it spinning, staring fixedly at it.

“You added a second shell,” she observes after a moment.

Uhm. O-kay.

“Yeah. Actually… sort of. We have vibranium as a non-magic-conductive material for the shell, right? But the test versions still blow up on us, or, lately, fizzle out. It’s because something about the V doesn’t just repel magic, is also…dissolves it for lack of a better word. That’s why the fizzing instead of the boom. The magic inside the bomb erodes, at least according to our readings, right?”

A nod.

“So we need the magic inside the V, but not touching it. And we’ve played with electricity before. An electric current to keep the magic in, which didn’t work because enough magic overwhelms the current and sort of… reverses it. That’s why machines explode when you get hormonal, but anyway, in low doses the electricity works to repel magic. It’s like they’re magnets with the same polarity. You can’t put them together.

“So, brilliant bitch that I am, I combined the two. Now there are two outer casings of vibranium, with electricity flowing between them. The charge is strong enough that the ‘dead zone’ between that current and the magical current includes the inner layer of V. The V contains the magic and the electricity keeps the magic far enough away from the V that it doesn’t erode. Best of both worlds. Of course, I haven’t actually tried it, seeing as I was missing my handy magic-charger, but, well? What do you think?”

“This is what you did after you ran out of here?”

Toni considers pointing out that she didn’t run so much as she was magically dumped, but decides against it. If Loki hadn’t zapped her across town, she would have run. It’s what she does.

“That, and I may or may not have angsted on Clint for a little bit, but we’re not talking about that.” She scratches at her temple, tucks a loose curl behind her ear, wishes, not for the first time, that she had her long hair back.

The Ten Rings chopped her hair off to almost nothing and it’s just now getting down to her shoulders again. She hates the reminder whenever she looks in the mirror. Another thing they took.

Another thing she had to fight, tooth and nail, to reclaim.

“Hawkeye?”

“Yes?”

“You are friends?”

“Yes?”

“He is well?”

Welcome to the Twilight Zone! Toni shrugs, unwilling to give away more than necessary about Clint. He’s got issues with Loki, obviously, seeing as how he leaves the room whenever the wayward god is brought up. Toni feels actually bad about it. “Yeah,” she says in the end. “I guess.”

Loki narrows her eyes briefly, then nods, seeming content. It surprises Toni, who asks, “Why do you care?”

Silvertongue or not, there is an awkward, not at all smooth, break when Loki turns her attention back to the hologram before offering a belated, “I did spend a week inside his mind, Toni.” Then she adds, “You have combined the two faulty attempts into one.”

Obviously, they are changing the subject. Go figure. “Yeah. I mean, both sort of do the same thing in different ways and they added up nicely.”

“They make up for each other’s weaknesses,” Loki agrees. “Despite not seeming compatible at first. Vibranium is not especially conductive to traditional electricity, if I remember correctly.”

She’s looking up now, meeting Toni’s gaze, green on brown. Somehow, Toni’s pretty sure they’re not exactly talking about the bomb anymore.

Huh.

+

Half an hour later, when Toni’s already busy with metal and wiring and blowtorches, Loki looks into the gift bag.

And looks.

And looks.

And then pulls it closed again and neatly folds the edges over before tucking it into an out of the way corner with a little smile on her face.

Toni has no idea why, but her poor, damaged heart sort of grows three sizes in her chest.

Something’s happening here, but she has no idea what it is.

Or maybe she doesn’t want to know. Shut up, nobody asked you.

+

Toni is up to her elbows in techno guts while Loki, sitting only a few feet away (recent development, no, we’re not reading into it), is working out some magical snag and chewing on her pen with abandon. Her free hand is under the table and Toni knows, without looking, that she’s cupping her belly like it’s in danger of falling off.

JARVIS occasionally chirps something when Toni gets too close to frying the circuitry and Loki grumbles every now and then and stops working to run a problem by Toni. Half the time she can’t actually help, but just talking out loud helps the god.

It’s their usual tableau when working at Loki’s lab and they fall into it easily after all those months. It feels natural, like working with Bruce, only better, because Toni actually learns stuff from Loki, and doesn’t have to watch what she does so as not to piss anyone off.

Sure, it would probably be healthier, but pissing off a Norse god and potentially getting killed is more fun than pissing off a friend that could potentially turn into a rage monster, ruin the equipment and then guilt trip about it for weeks on end.

Yes, it’s screwed up. No, Toni does not care.

Working with Loki like this is comfortable.

And freaky. But mostly comfortable.

So of course that’s when Loki’s head jerks up like a bloodhound catching a scent and JARVIS suddenly warns, “Miss Stark, I am detecting intruders in the hall-.”

And by then it’s already too late because the wooden front door explodes inward in a hail of splinters and Thor comes marching through, hammer swinging, the rest of the Avengers only half a step behind.

“Loki! I have detected your magic upon this building! Show your-“

Toni really, really hopes JARVIS is recording this because the look on Thor’s face when he spies girl-Loki and Toni sitting peacefully next to each other at the same work bench, can only be called gob-smacked. It’s a good look on the god.

The kind of look that you fondly remember for the rest of your life and pull back up whenever you need a good laugh.

That is to say, Thor looks like naked monkeys are dancing the jig in front of him. With hats. In high heels. And sunglasses. And possibly two heads apiece.

The expressions of the rest of the Avengers aren’t quite as entertaining. Steve looks furious, Bruce looks painfully amused, Natasha and Coulson look blank, which is their version of murderous and Clint actually does look blank, which is weird.

They’re also all sort of eyeballing Loki, who, while female, is still definitely recognizable as Loki, at least in this context. Toni expects someone to make a comment, but that would be either Bruce or Clint and Bruce knew already and Clint… Clint doesn’t look like he’s up for wisecracks at the moment. He just stares at Loki, his jaw set and his hands clenching around his bow.

The woman herself is frowning and smirking at the same time, which is interesting. Toni mostly just wants to disappear completely.

“I thought you were not followed, Toni,” the god, the female one, finally says. She calls Toni by her name intentionally, Toni bets.

Steve’s scowl deepens. Bruce makes a sort of constipated face. Thor isn’t blinking. Before Toni can defend her wounded pride, Coulson takes half a step forward. “You leave blank spaces when you hide from us. SHIELD is fully capable of following those blank spaces, if given enough time and incentive.”

“And what incentive did you have, after almost four months?”

The agent smiles blandly at her, which she takes to mean there wasn’t actually incentive so much as they just figured out how to trail her and went for it, though he’s never going to admit that.

She also just sort of admitted that she’s been meeting with Loki for four months. Paradoxically, it makes everyone relax, just a fraction. She guesses it’s because she hasn’t murdered them all in their sleep yet, or something.

Whatever. The whole situation is strange. Toni expected there to be fighting the second the Avengers finally caught on, but there isn’t. She guesses they came here out of curiosity and then Thor detected Loki’s wards and everyone got a bit overzealous stormed the place, only to find the two of them working peacefully. It probably also helps that Loki didn’t so much as twitch toward a weapon. And now here they are, staring at each other like idiots.

“My life sucks,” Toni observes, very succinctly, just as Steve takes half a step forward and asks, very curtly, “Could you please put down the… whatever it is you have in your hands?”

Toni looks down at the trigger mechanism she was fiddling with. Then back up at Steve. “Seriously? You think I’m going to, what? Blow you up? Really?”

“You are obviously collaborating with Loki, who is in disguise, what do you think I think, Stark?!”

Okay, so maybe everyone but Steve relaxed a bit. The man is as perceptive as a rock some days.

And back to last names, are they? Toni smiles and it’s not necessarily a nice smile.

“I think,” she drawls, slowly and carefully, like she’s speaking to a particularly dumb toddler, “That I have been ‘collaborating’ with Loki – kudos for the big word, by the way, did that hurt? – for more than three months and so far, neither me, nor she, nor you, or anyone else has died and hey, look, Loki isn’t attacking you like a psychotic bondage freak!”

She’d say more (unfriendly, pointless things, mostly, she can admit), but Loki interrupts. “I resent that description,” she throws out, a studiously bored expression on her face.

Toni smirks at her, “Sorry, but as long as you wear body armor made from leather, I call you a bondage freak. I mean, half those straps don’t even have a purpose and it looks like you’re wearing a seatbelt, seriously.”

Loki opens her mouth.

“Ah-ah, don’t even. I know you’re not insulted by the ‘psychotic’, don’t pretend you are. You like it when people are afraid of you.”

Yes, they’re playing their audience. Yes, it’s cheap. No, it’s not really working anyway, since Steve just snaps Toni’s last name again. Toni’s eyes narrow and she can see Bruce sort of wincing out of the corner of her eye, because he recognizes that look, even if Cap’n Mighty doesn’t.

It’s Black Widow, surprisingly, who cuts the bossman off before he can make Toni blow her top. “Why?” she asks, very calmly. She’s fingering her guns while she talks, but Toni appreciates the effort. She remembers, suddenly, that Natasha was one of the people who never really seemed upset with Loki getting off easy after what he did. Toni guesses the Russian knows, better than more, the value of being given a chance by the enemy.

She shrugs, turns to look at Loki, who shrugs back. Leaves the playing field to her. She meets Coulson’s gaze next, not entirely on accident and finds a spark of what she’s looking for there.

“You know,” she observes, with more calm than she’s feeling. He doesn’t answer, so she keeps talking. “I know I’m a genius and everything, but SHIELD is big, and you have computers I built, and you guys do eventually figure stuff out. You know. About what’s out there, about the Chitauri. They’ll come knocking again, bigger, badder and angrier than before. You know.”

After a moment of frigid silence, during which Clint shifts from foot to foot, Thor bounces on his heels and Steve just looks homicidal, Coulson nods. “Dr. Banner was so kind as to point out a few observations.”

Toni gapes, not quite managing to hide her surprise. Bruce just shrugs at her when she throws him a look, and she smiles. Trust good old Bruce to find a way to help her even without actually helping her. He took Toni’s observation to Fury and Coulson, paving the way for her and Loki.

She owes him a gift basket. One filled with dangerous biochemical components, delicate equipment and half a dozen puzzles for him to play with. And possibly her never-gonna-happen firstborn.

Neither of their resident blond muscle mountains notices the byplay, but Loki does, inclining her head in silent thanks. Bruce looks a bit uncomfortable, but he nods back.

“What do our enemies have to do with the truce between you and my sister?” Thor finally booms, bored with the riddles.

If she’s honest, Toni is impressed with his switching of pronouns and titles. She didn’t expect that kind of acceptance from the giant lug of a god. But then, he does love his sibling to the point of obsession.

Loki snorts and folds her hands under her chin delicately. Playing it up. “Surely even you understand what the return of the Chitauri means, Thor.”

Thor opens his mouth. Predictably, Loki is faster, “They will return and they will burn this planet to the ground for the defeat dealt to them at the hands of Iron Woman and your little team.”

Toni rolls her eyes but doesn’t say anything. She watches Clint instead, who’s grinding his teeth hard enough for her to see. Coulson seems fine with the situation, but then he attacked an enemy and got beaten, fair and square. He’s the kind of guy to actually respect that. He’s also the kind of guy who can tuck his personal opinion so deep down, you wouldn’t find it with a flashlight and a map. And he’s smart enough to notice the same thing Toni did, when she watched the tapes of his fight with the god.

Loki stabbed him in the kidneys. Not the heart, the kidneys. That’s a painful death, but also a slow one. And really, dealing an enemy a slow death in his own territory, where help is close enough to save him, is the kind of stupid move Loki simply does not make.

Toni was right, all those months ago. Even while he was giving them hell, Loki was careful not to burn too many bridges.

Except with Clint.

Clint looks like he can’t decide whether to hurl or start shooting. Toni looks away, guilt stabbing in her belly. Clint is her friend. And she’s kind of fucking his worst nightmare.

“And why would you care what happens to this planet?” Steve bites in Loki’s direction. “You tried to end it yourself not too long ago.”

“Right,” Toni jumps in, “And there’s no such thing as second chances, right?”

Natasha used to be a Russian assassin. Clint used to be a mercenary. Bruce used to use cars for footballs. Thor used to wear his ass on his shoulders. Toni used to build weapons to blow the world to bits. Hell, even Steve is on his second chance, in a way.

Third, if you count him becoming Mr. Buff and getting de-thawed as two chances.

“He tried to kill us!”

“Did she?”

“Yes,” Coulson asks, one eyebrow raised perfectly. “Did you?”

Loki sneers and everyone in the room, bar Thor and Cap, maybe, knows that even if she didn’t, Loki would never admit it. Toni has been spending most of her waking hours with her for months and still not a word of confession or apology has crossed Loki’s lips. Toni doesn’t need it. Toni doesn’t want it. She’s a futurist, not a historian. She doesn’t give a flying fuck about yesterday.

And the rest of the Avengers wouldn’t buy it anyway. So instead of ‘sorry’ Loki says, “I need this planet intact and to keep it that way, I need Stark’s expertise in certain areas, just as she needs mine. It’s a compromise.”

“Why would you need this planet ‘intact’?” For a goody-two-shoes, Steve sneers surprisingly well. And a lot. And Toni is getting really, really tired of all his judging. From the very first time they met, he’s been laying judgment after judgment on her. She’s female so she shouldn’t fight. She’s a Stark, so she should be like Howard. She’s arrogant, so she has to be unfeeling and a failure as a human being. She’s smart, so she can’t be kind. She’s independent and comfortable with herself, so she’s a whore. She gets that this world is kind of overwhelming him and that he’s just trying to make it fit by applying old frameworks to this new, scary world, but someday soon, she is going to punch him in his ridiculously pretty, all-American face.

Right now, she bites her lip hard and then opens her mouth to cut. Him. Down.

Unfortunately, Loki beats her to the punch.

When the door blew open, Toni stood up out of sheer reflex. Loki didn’t. She does now, slowly, dramatically, because that’s who she is, growing behind the workbench like a rising titan.

Or a beach ball popping out of the water.

Silence.

Toni has the weird urge to look around for passing tumbleweeds and even Coulson looks surprised.

Then, at the exact same moment, the Norse siblings start talking. Loki’s, “I cannot very well take this child back to Asgard,” is more or less drowned out by Thor’s booming, “You are with child! This is a joyous occasion!”

Loki snarls, wordlessly, and raises a hand as if to claw her brother’s eyes out. Thor, wisely, takes half a step back. Then he catches himself and asks, “Why would you not take your child home, sister?”

“Why would I? So you can take her away from me like you did Sleipnir? So Odin can treat her like an animal? Like a monster?! So she can be reviled and spat on for her parentage? Give me one good reason, brother, why I would subject my daughter to Asgard’s idea of love!”

For a moment, everyone holds very, very still. Even Toni, who has known Loki for months, has never seen her like this. The god is livid with anger where before, she’s only ever been cold. She was actually yelling just then, and she never yells.

Thor apparently understands the significance of that, too, because he looks like Loki just ripped his guts out with her bare hands and showed them to him. Toni, who actually likes the giant goofball most of the time, feels something like satisfaction curl in her gut anyway.

Still she looks away, more for her own sake than his privacy, finds Coulson looking intrigued and Natasha looking… softer than usual, even if only for a second. Bruce looks sympathetic, mainly because he doesn’t do pity, but probably really wants to, right now. Clint hasn’t moved at all, hasn’t so much as blinked. Steve, on the other hand, looks as gobsmacked as Thor, all open and gaping, defenseless.

It’s never fun to hear your enemy is just as fucked in the head as everyone else and in serious need of a hug. Or two. Or a million billion, to make up for a thousand years of Odin’s shitty parenting. Toni found Asgard a lot more fascinating before she read the myths.

Of course, Loki being Loki, doesn’t give anyone time to digest what she just said. Instead she pulls all the masks back up and asks, in a voice as cold as that blue, blue skin she hides, “Why would I expose my child to that? Asgard is not an option and neither is Jotunheim. Where else, beyond those two worlds, could I raise any child of mine? Midgard is, for the duration of my daughter’s stay here, quite safe, I assure you. From me, and from those who would seek to destroy it. That is why I need Stark. The Chitauri’s leader is not going to win.”

She doesn’t cross her arms or anything like that because that would be defensive, but damn if she doesn’t manage to look absolutely ‘take that, bitches’ anyway.

Toni can’t help the, “Burn,” that escapes her. It’s low, but apparently still audible, because Clint suddenly makes a noise somewhere between a scream and a grunt, turns on his heel, and marches out.

Her first instinct is to run after him because, somehow, this is her mess. Without Toni, Clint and Loki would have never ended up in this room together. Loki might still be the badass monster she’s like everyone to believe she is and Clint might still be trying to shoot her in the eye and he would probably be fine with that.

Reason number twenty-seven Toni doesn’t do relationships: People get hurt.

Fuck.

But she can’t run after Clint because there’s this growing up thing again, this responsibility thing and if she leaves now, the Avengers will tear Loki limb from limb (or at least try to arrest her again and that worked so well the last time they tried), and there will be no bomb and Thanos will take over the world and really? Toni would look absolutely whorish in Princess Leia’s slave costume.

If she survived the initial world-ending, that is.

Which she probably wouldn’t.

Also, she likes Loki, which is probably the stupidest fucking thing she has ever done.

“Look,” she interrupts the brewing tension, “Let me lay out the facts for everyone. You don’t like Loki.”

Preemptively, she raises a hand toward Thor. “Yes, I know, you actually do. Shut up.”

“You don’t like Loki because Loki was a pissant the last time you saw her – him. I hate pronouns. Couldn’t we have a general pronoun, like we have a general definite article? Maybe I should write my senator. He just loves me.” She doesn’t even bother grinning winsomely because really, the snark is just reflex at this point and no-one is amused. “He took Clint and Erik mind-hostage, he shiv’d Coulson, he called Natasha something I still haven’t had the time to look up, but I’m pretty sure it was sexists, which, irony like whoa. Thor got beaten up, Steve got beaten up, Bruce got a bit used, shit went down, Manhattan looks like someone threw a tantrum and no, Brucie, I don’t mean you, don’t look at me like that.

“Point is, Loki is a shit.”

Loki proves that by smirking.

“I could list a dozen different ways she actually isn’t,” – Loki’s smirk falls - , “But I like my heart inside my ribcage and those hormones are not to be taken lightly, let me tell you. Fact is, Loki needs this world to raise her kid. And for that, she needs to find a way to get rid of Thanos – that’s the bad guy’s name, by the way, Thor, don’t use it, apparently it’s magic - when he comes knocking. She can’t do that alone. That’s why she found me and why she made me an offer and why we’re here. Loki needs us. That’s the good thing about egoistic assholes. You can always trust them to save their own skins first.

“Steve, everyone, this is Loki, saving her skin. And before you all jump on her for using and abusing us, we need her too, because there’s a big, bad monster heading our way and I know that nothing we have can stop him. But with my magic fingers and Loki’s magic… well, magic, we almost have a solution. In fact, you just interrupted the production of what will, hopefully, finally, be a working prototype. So. I wasn’t going to make a speech. Crap. Anyway. Loki needs us. We need Loki. And really, she hasn’t done anything naughty since she got out of detention with Daddy Dearest so give her the benefit of the fucking doubt and stop glaring at me like you want to set my panties on fire, Jesus, Dicksicle, I get it. You don’t like me. You don’t like Loki. Guess what, you’re gonna have to suck it up.”

Toni breathes. Long, deep inhales. Wow. Oxygen sure is neat.

She looks at everyone only to be met with a whole bunch of blank, disgruntled or amused faces. Blank being the two SHIELD agents left, disgruntled being Steve and amused being Loki and Bruce, the latter of which is getting a kick out of this.

Coulson runs a hand over his head. “This is going to be so much paperwork,” he mutters to himself and then, even quieter, “We are doomed.”

Then Loki cocks her head to one side and studies Toni like she just did a neat trick. “You knew,” she finally says and Toni blames the lack of oxygen to the brain for taking a moment to figure that one out.

“That you popped up on that street on purpose, wearing a maternity dress you didn’t need yet and staring at a baby store window like it was the gateway to the Playboy Mansion? Yes. Haven’t I told you, I’m a genius.”

“And you still went along with it.”

Toni shrugs, spreads her arms a little, palms out. “Got what I wanted, didn’t I?”

She could say more. Doesn’t. Loki gives her a nod. Thor lowers his hammer and grins. Steve sort of slumps, shield drooping like a sad little Frisbee. Toni might be a tad hysterical, she thinks, but not really. It’s weird. This should be all adrenaline and shouting and fighting, but fact is, she’s right. She knows she’s right. And everyone else knows it too. Bruce paved the way for her, in a way, and Loki paved the way for herself by behaving ever since her return to earth. Thor just wants everyone to be a happy family. Coulson is made of stone cold logic before everything else and Steve, while angry and irrational, also knows what compromise means, better than Toni ever has.

Plus, he wouldn’t hit a pregnant woman if she were standing over him with an axe and a grudge.

This is it.

The great showdown Toni has been dreading for months, the clash of the titans. It’s over. There’s something bigger than either of them coming and if they want to beat it, they have to work together. End of story.

Except for one thing.

“Now,” Toni says into the awkward silence, “you kids play nice. I have to run after Clint and maybe, possibly, grovel so he will ever talk to me again, much less be my movie snuggle buddy.”

She grimaces.

Toni hates groveling.

+

She doesn’t actually need JARVIS to tell her Clint fled to the roof, but she makes him help her anyway. Clint sits with his legs dangling over the edge, clenching and unclenching his hands rhythmically around his bow.

She wonders why, exactly, the team followed her in full uniform when they didn’t know what was coming, but she knows the answer. Paranoia is a powerful motivator for these people.

She plops down next to him gracelessly and simply says, “I’m sorry.”

He snorts humorlessly. “Never thought I’d live to see the day the great Toni Stark apologizes to anyone, much less little old me.”

She punches him in the shoulder. “Hey, I apologize. When I do something wrong. It just doesn’t happen very often.”

“You keep telling yourself that.”

She runs a hand through her hair, gets her fingers tangled in a scrunchy, pulls it out. It’s green. Loki’s. When did she start wearing Loki’s stuff?

“Loki fucked you over. I get that. I do. And here I am, making nice with her. That’s got to piss you off, so I apologized.”

He gives her a sideways look and she notices he’s not clenching his fists quite as hard. “You can’t even say the word again, can you?” he asks, and then goes on before she can protest, “It’s not that.”

“Not what?”

“That he… she… fuck, I’ll help you write that letter.” He taps his comm unit, which was apparently on the whole time, and then turns it off. “That he fucked me over. I mean, he did, but not the way you think and I just…”

Frowning and trying not to let it show, she asks, faux cheerful, “This is revenge for me snotting on your pants, isn’t it?”

He shakes his head, but not really at her. “What you said, about control, that’s true. And Loki took that from me and made me his Renfield, or what the fuck ever and I should hate him for it. Do hate him for it. But….”

And we’re back to clenching and unclenching and clenching and unclenching.

“I could feel him, you know?” He looks at her, tries to gage if she’s still listening. She is. “He was like, this feeling, at the back of my head. That voice, telling me what to do, when I was doing something right or wrong. Praising me when I was a good soldier. But it was more than that. I could feel how badly he was hurting and how he needed to do this right, to prove himself. How fucking hungry he was, for just about anything. And I know those feelings. I know…”

He trails off, unhappy, agitated, and Toni just wants to laugh. “You too, huh?”

He jerks a bit at that. She just bumps his shoulder with hers, says, “Shitty childhood, parents of the year, pathological desire to please and, at the same time, antagonize everything and everyone. Did I nail that?”

Apparently, they all identify with the screwed up Norse god in the maternity dress. Go figure.

Clint just grunts and stares intensely at the traffic ten stories below.

“That’s not what your SHIELD psych-evals say, though,” she argues after a bit, only for argument’s sake. “Not that I read those. Obviously.”

He bumps her shoulder back, lips twitching a little. “Of course you don’t. I didn’t really think telling them the truth was conductive to my continued freedom.”

“Yeah. Telling SHIELD you have a soft spot for the guy that kind of enslaved you for a week probably isn’t the way to go.”

Unless you’re Toni Stark, apparently, because that’s what she did, except without the enslavement.

“So, you don’t hate the guy?”

“More like I hate that I don’t hate him.” He stares down at the street for a moment, “I mean, he’s a fucking asshole and he got a lot of people killed, but it’s not like my ass is lily white, is it?”

Clint used to kill for money. Loki kills for fun. Toni can’t really tell the difference from where she’s sitting, and apparently neither can Clint.

“Still like to put an arrow through his eye socket, though.”

Toni makes a face. “Yeah. Please don’t?”

He makes a face right back. “You’re fucking her, aren’t you?”

Yeah. She’s totally ignoring that comment. “Think you two can sort of not kill each other? Just a little bit?”

Instead of answering, Clint lets himself suddenly fall backward, getting his legs up and over at the last moment and impossibly landing on his feet, hands spread at his sides. Damn acrobats. If Toni tried that, she’d land ten floors down as pavement-cake.

“Let’s negotiate sex tapes,” he demands. When Toni just blinks at him, he rolls his eyes, “Of you and the smokin’ god that suddenly grew a vag. Told you, you’re a dyke. It’s hot.”

“Bisexual,” Toni repeats, for the tenth time at least. “And keep your labels to yourself. Still.”

He sticks his tongue out at her and then offers her a hand up. She swings her legs around and takes it, letting him pull her to her feet. She sort of smacks into him, thanks to the fact that the man’s got the arms of a god. On impulse, she decides to make the most of it and says, “Hold on,” before standing on tiptoe and hugging him.

He hugs her back for a whole second before ordering her to let go. “If I grow a vag, I’ll let Nat kill you. She has thighs of death.”

Chuckling, Toni releases him. “What a way to go,” she observes.

They’re not really back to normal, despite the bantering and harassment, but the chances of Clint trying to put an arrow into Loki are relatively slim for now. If he’s ever given the order, Clint will do his job, but other than that, Toni figures they’re okay. Not good, but okay.

That’s enough for Toni.

+

The scenario Toni returns to is not the one she left, which is probably a good thing because she missed the serious conversation and possibly the yelling. She can still guess what happened, though.

Bruce is mostly on her side, Coulson is coldly logical, and Loki is playing nice. None of that matters, though, since Thor just got his brother back and if Thor gets something in his head, the measly humans can’t really stop him.

So Thor probably decided to be besties with Loki and everyone else better fall in line before the wrath of god (literally) helps them along.

It’d piss Toni off, but it sort of works for her. Steve looks half angry, half resigned and Natasha is glowering fiercely, for Coulson’s sake, and Clint’s too, probably. That’s when Toni realizes that Clint told her his little secret before he told either of his lovers.

Oh yeah, Natasha is definitely going to kill her with her thighs of death.

Carefully, Toni takes a step away from Clint where he’s leaning in the doorway, surveying the scene. Bruce and Loki are the first to notice them. Bruce gives them a little grin, while Loki makes a face like it’s the apocalypse and tries to get away from her brother, who’s looming over her and talking with his hands, hammer swinging wildly.

“JARVIS,” Toni mutters, quietly. “You better have all this on camera. I want to know how it went.”

JARVIS beeps a confirmative and Clint snorts. “Movie night material?”

“Sure,” Toni answers, then shoves him toward the Black Widow and Coulson. “I think you got some confessing to do,” she declares. “Maybe tell Phil what I said? It goes for him, too.”

Clint laughs. “You really can’t say the word again, can you?”

She huffs, points him toward his lovers. “Go!”

He laughs again, finally attracting the attention of most people in the room. Natasha loses some of her glower of death and Coulson relaxes a fraction. How the hell the three of them work, Toni will never understand. But she can see that they do and that’s good enough for her.

Maybe she and Clint can trade sex tapes, though. She’s sort of curious.

“For what it’s worth, Stark,” Clint mutters, slinging a quick arm over her shoulders and squeezing, “I’m with you on this. Saving the world is good enough for me to hold off on the shooting.”

Then he lets her go.

Six Avengers plus their handler. Bruce and Thor are on Toni’s side. With Clint on board, they have the majority on the issue and Natasha and Coulson might back down. Good to know.

“I will not allow you to drag me through town like a heathen, Thor. Get off me!” Loki suddenly barks and Toni gives herself whiplash trying to figure out what the hell is going on.

Loki is standing at the far end of the room, arms crossed under her ever more impressive cleavage, glaring daggers at the other god, who’s still looming over her, grinning like a clown. A very big, violent and grotesque clown.

She makes to jog over there, only for Steve to grab her arm and halt her. “I don’t think you should get between them,” he says and he sounds almost even. Almost polite.

She has to give him credit for that, at least. Once it’s pointed out to him, he does try to reign in his dickery.

“Sorry. Gotta,” she says, though, shrugging off his hold. “What’s up guys?” she asks when she’s a safe ten feet from the gods.

Loki sniffs and Thor turns to face her, almost taking out a computer with his hammer. Forget about the bull in the china shop. Thor is way worse. “I have been informed that it is customary on Midgard for friends and family to express their joy over a new life by giving tokens of appreciation to the parents to be, so that their child may have all it needs and grow into a strong and mighty warrior.”

Right. Toni runs that through her Norse god translator and comes up with, “I overheard Jane and Darcy talking about things to give to a pregnant woman and I want in.”

“For that purpose, we shall visit the merchant known by the name of Toisorus!”

“Toiso… Toys’R’Us? You want us to drag Loki to Toys’R’Us? After you just found out that she’s on Earth, hooking up with the good guys, and up the duff? Now? You want to…” Toni rubs her forehead. “Why am I even asking, you’re Thor, of course you do.”

Loki makes a sound much like a growl. Toni thinks she might want to be saved, but really, has she met her brother? All Toni does is mutter, “You are so inappropriate, good god.” And then, “JAR? Record that, will you?”

Loki hisses, “Traitor.”

Thor beams. “Fabulous. We shall depart now so that we may avoid the dangerous phenomenon known as rush hour. Once we arrive, I shall find the perfect gift to prove to my sister that I love her and shall always thus, and that I will be a better uncle for my niece that I have ever been to my nephew, for as much as it pains me to admit, I have been remiss in my duties. Sleipnir is a magnificent stallion, but I fear that Father might have acted rashly in making him his war steed. I shall inform him of my thoughts when I next return home. And I will, of course, carry news of this joyous growth of our family back to our parents, so that they, too, may rejoice.”

Loki looks like she’d rather eat crow than have Odin find out she’s up the duff, but she obviously bites her tongue.

So Toni speaks for her. “So fucking inappropriate. Really.”

Thor nods, beams, tucks his hammer away and grabs both their arms. “You shall accompany us, Woman of Iron, so that I may assess your worth as a possible mate to my sister and mother to my niece.” He suddenly stops in the process of dragging the two women out the door. “Although you and I will have words about how you have kept my sibling from me all these months when you knew I wished for nothing more than reconciliation.”

Toni makes a noise that only vaguely manages to convey her horror at what Thor just said. Somewhere behind her, Clint and Bruce are politely trying to hold back their laughter and doing a really shitty job of it.

“Assholes,” she calls over her shoulder just as Thor starts jerking again and, Jesus, really, puny mortal here, ouch!

“Watch it!” And then, “Hold on, did he just say ‘mother’?” She can practically feel the blood draining from her face. Mother?

Loki grunts next to her, ignoring the fact that Toni is about to fucking faint. “I should murder him. Not even the Allfather could fault me for such an action,” she snaps.

Toni just blinks and then stumbles as Thor gives her another jerk.

Mother!?!

+

So no, the Avengers aren’t entirely okay with Loki being one of the good guys. Which is fine, because Loki isn’t entirely okay with being one of the good guys either.

They go toy shopping with Thor and get banned from Toys’R’Us for life. Hug testing all the stuffed animals, loudly complaining over the fact that they are inferior to Asgardian toys, and then smashing a display of robodogs because they startle you is not appropriate behavior. Toni thinks they might still have gotten away with it, if Thor hadn’t tried to cover up his mistake by claiming the animated dogs were obviously possessed by evil spirits and needed to be destroyed. Loki’s derisive running commentary did not help at all. Nor did the crying salesgirls left in her wake.

Toni doubts she will ever be able to look at a stuffed animal again. She also made it a point to reprogram all her little friends the moment they get home. They now announce themselves clearly when entering a room and stay the hell away from Thor.

While Toni got traumatized for life, Clint more or less spilled the beans to Coulson and Natasha, who still look blank a lot but have stopped fingering their weapons at this point.

Over the next few weeks, Steve sulks quietly in corners. Bruce and Clint start a betting pool on all sorts of ridiculous things and Fury screams until his voice snaps and then bows to necessity and lets Toni and Loki get back to building their bomb.

Toni doesn’t buy Bruce a gift basket. She just builds him his own private lab at the Tower, right next to hers, with the same privileges and access levels as Pepper. Only Toni can trump that. Bruce blushes and stutters and tries to refuse, but, “You are my friend, Brucie, and you’re the reason SHIELD isn’t currently trying to kick down the doors and lock me and Loki away forever. Take it and shut up.”

Loki stays at her loft, but starts spending time around Toni’s lab. She seems to get on with Bruce, as long as they stick to science, and everyone else learns to keep their mouth shut and deal when the god is around.

No-one, except Thor, is really happy with the forced BFFness, but there it is. They start having meetings about Thanos during which everyone is tense and annoyed and doesn’t want to be there. Except Thor.

Thor is perpetually happy and a divine dork and he gives Toni headaches.

She keeps waiting for everything to blow up in their faces, the first two weeks. For Loki to decide she has better chances alone than under SHIELD’s aegis, for Fury to try and be an asshat and lock Loki up again. For Steve to blow a fuse or for Coulson to repay the stabbing and for Doom to throw them a very explosive baby shower.

It doesn’t happen. None of it.

There isn’t even a little fistfight. Nothing. Tempers run high and people scream but there is no physical violence. Not even a little bit. Toni is pretty sure there would be, if Loki weren’t pregnant, but she’s so obviously got a passenger that no-one dares.

That, and the two major antagonists (Clint and Toni herself) are kind of not playing ball. Toni is happy as a clam, getting her cake and eating it, too. The only thing that somewhat dims her enjoyment of everyone squirming is Pepper, who yells at her for a record seventy-two minutes before getting off her case.

Clint mostly stays out of Loki’s way, still torn between sympathy and hate. Loki asks about him sometimes, but leaves him be. She, better than most, understands what losing control does to some people and what she did to Clint didn’t just make him lose it. It ripped his control right out of him and made him a passenger in his own body.

Over time, the whole situation just sort of… settles, until it’s almost normal to find Loki at the breakfast table, discussing physics with Bruce and Toni and trying to avoid Thor’s enthusiastic hugs, and no-one much flinches anymore when Loki throws a hissy fit and threatens to kill everyone in a moment of hormonal imbalance.

It’s the weirdest shit Toni has ever seen.

And that includes pregnant Loki’s increasingly fucked up behavior. Seriously. Apparently, the hormones really are an issue and not just good for jokes, because the god goes from horny sex kitten to sadistic fuck and back at the speed of light. And somehow she takes it all out on Toni instead of any of the other potential victims, which surprises them all. The abuse, the horniness, the weird cravings. All of it on top of the frustration that stems from their bomb still not being up to snuff.

They’re definitely on the right track now, but it’s still a slow process and with every kick or nudge from the baby, Loki gets more irritable until she snarls bitter poison at Toni, only to pin her to the nearest wall five minutes later. There are bruises on Toni’s wrists and hickeys all the way down from her neck to her ladybits and instead of apologies, Loki gives her magical formulas and Toni hurts, some mornings. All over. But she hurts good and she knows that when she makes a dirty joke about things blowing up, there is someone there who will laugh with her, just the slightest bit unhinged.

And sometimes, when she’s all fucked out, Loki will put a hand over Toni’s arc reactor in the dark, spreading her fingers to cover the warm metal and say, “They could not kill you,” like a sort of compliment. Like a prayer, almost. Those are the nights Toni sleeps soundest.

The rest of the time, she just sort of takes it all, the good, the bad, the crazy, and gobbles it up like some hungry third world child, grabs it with both hands and holds on tight.

Occasionally, her gaze will land on the gift bag still stored under a workbench and she’ll think of what’s inside, green and butterflies. She usually finds something very important to do right about then because. Because.

It’s the baby thing. Toni made her choice long ago and she’s okay with that, really, she is, but there’s still that little clock ticking away somewhere in her body, telling her that it’s high time she do something for the continued survival of her species. That’s the only reason Loki’s baby bump does things to her.

Nothing to do with how Loki calls her a god sometimes, or how she looks at Toni like she knows she’s dangerous, the way you look at a knife, at a gun aimed at your head. Nothing to do with that at all. It’s just what Loki’s carrying around. Just the baby.

Only that.

Nothing more.

Nothing at all.

Nothing -

“Toni? Can I talk to you?”

Toni freezes halfway to the door, cursing herself for not being quieter because she’s known this conversation was coming for a while and she really, really doesn’t want to have it.

Too late now.

She turns on her heel, sends Steve her brightest smile, hoping to maybe confound him long enough to get the hell out of dodge. But this is Steve, so he just matches all ten thousand watts of her and does his awkward foot shuffle dance before asking, “Do you have a few minutes?”

Strangle him or pat him on the head? Choices, choices. In lieu of deciding, Toni demurely folds her hands behind her back and fakes patience.

“Sure! Shoot.”

Steve rubs a hand over the back of his head and looks at her through his lashes. Pat and then strangle? People keep telling her to compromise. Somehow she doesn’t think this is what they have in mind.

“I… it’s about Loki.”

She smiles wryly because, yeah, duh. Steve has kept his mouth shut these past few weeks, but his opinion of the situation is clear. His opinion of Loki is clear.

Toni gets it. She does. His crush is having hot lesbian sex with the former enemy. It’d put a bunch in her panties, too, but the whole thing is getting exhausting. Clint and Coulson, the only two people with any actual rights to grudges, stopped glaring at the god of lies about a week ago. Only Steve is still holding out in his fortress of righteousness.

Still, Toni is a good girl and restricts herself to, “I figured,” because, hey, it’s a free country. Whatever. Steve is not her father and his opinion has no bearing on her. “But if you’re going to tell me to stay away from her, don’t bother.”

“I… no. I wanted to apologize for how I’ve been acting in regards to… us. I don’t have very much experience with… romance and I have been informed that I was taking things… badly.”

Huh? She thought this was about Loki, not his crush on Toni. What does Loki have to do with that? And while she’s at it, Toni wonders whether it was Pep or Bruce that told the guy to back off on the belligerent attitude and accept a ‘no’ for an answer. Her money’s on Pep, personally. Bruce is too patient with these things.

“Who was it?” she asks anyway and to her endless surprise, Steve answers, “Coulson.”

Wait. What?

“Coulson?” He nods. “Told you to back off of me?” He nods again. Toni feels a bit faint.

“Okay then. Apology accepted,” she finally manages and turns to get the hell out of here.

Of course, Steve is faster. “Toni!” he calls after her, jogs a few steps to catch up. “About Loki.”

She groans. Loudly. Okay, here they go. “No, I know it’s none of my business. But I… please be careful? I’m afraid of what’s going to happen when Loki doesn’t need us anymore. Second chances are nice, but you have to actually want them to take them.”

He smiles crookedly, like he’s speaking from experience and Toni finds her lips quirking up in an annoyed smile. “I know that.”

And she does. There’s still a project named Punk’d somewhere in JARVIS’s recesses. So what if she hasn’t looked at it in weeks, hasn’t wanted to. It exists. She knows that this is all temporary. That Loki won’t stick around. That the baby won’t stay. She knows.

“Loki and I play the same game, Cap. We both know the rules.”

He chuckles, humorlessly. “I don’t know how you can be so careless all the time and still… it’s not a game, Toni.”

She chuckles, too, when she tells him, “Yes it is.”

Shaking his head, arms crossed, he asks with a small grimace, “Does he… she at least love you back?”

Toni blinks. “Being loved ‘back’ implies you already love someone,” she corrects.

It’s Steve’s turn to blink right back at her. “Stark, Loki is basically all you talk about. And you spend all your time with her. You buy her things.”

“We’re trying to build a bomb to save the world!”

“I thought you finally managed a working prototype last week?”

“We did, but…”

“Toni,” he starts again, so serious, always so serious, and then Bruce is suddenly there, taking him by the arm, saying, “Can you help me out for a moment, Steve?”

Steve, being the good guy he is, nods and lets himself be distracted long enough for Bruce to flick his hand at Toni in a gogogo motion, followed by a quick grin.

Toni has, legit and absolutely, the most awesome friends on the planet.

She runs. She runs, ignores Steve calling after her belatedly, takes a sharp turn and skids into the elevator, more or less. Once there, she has JARVIS close the door immediately and leans back against the wall, eyes on the ceiling.

In love with Loki.

How ridiculous.

So what if Loki is interesting. And smart. And gets her. And plays her games. So what if she’s gorgeous and they’ve been having amazing as hell sex for months and Toni never gets tired of the way the god speaks or flicks her wrists or growls or drinks tea all the time.

So what if she buys baby things sometimes and has a few ideas for converting Diaper Genies into something that actually works instead of only marginally reduces the baby-poop smell.

So what if Loki trailing her fingers over Toni’s arm sends electricity sparking down her spine.

So what if she still has Loki’s voice in her ear, sometimes late at night, telling her what a shame it is that she’s only mortal, only this. What if there is something like regret in that voice when Toni imagines it?

So what if she wants Loki to stay.

So what if…

“JARVIS?”

Yes?

“Am I in…,” she chokes, “in love with Loki?”

Silence. Then, “I do not believe my systems are complex enough to assess such an inherently human condition as being in love, Miss Stark.”

That’s JARVIS’s way of telling her that he’s tactfully not going to answer because she won’t like what he has to say.

Also, she’s asking her AI to tell her what she feels. She bites back on a sudden bark of laughter that would probably end with her crying and bangs her head against the wall, once, twice, thrice.

In love with Loki. In love at all.

Not just the baby, not just the bomb, but the whole package. All of it. All of Loki.

She rolls the thought around in her head, twists it this way and that, tries to find a flaw in it. By the time she’s done, the elevator has long since reached the ground floor and only JARVIS’s overrides are keeping anyone from opening the doors and finding their employer in a heap on the floor, biting her lip in thought.

Eventually, the AI tactfully dings a few times as a reminder of where she is and she startles back to reality.

“Well,” she says into the silence after a moment, “Fuck me.”

Then she scrambles to her feet and takes off toward the garage at a dead run.

+

Loki is sitting cross-legged on the sofa when Toni comes storming in. Thor has taken up residency on one of the lab chairs and, judging by his wild gesturing, is regaling his sister with stories of the Avengers’ shenanigans.

Loki looks like she can’t decide whether to fall asleep or set him on fire.

Toni solves that problem by slamming the door open, pointing straight at the blond god and demanding, “You. Out. I need to talk to your sister.”

“What are you…”

“Out!” she repeats, “Or I will make it so no store in the entirety of the continental US sells Pop Tarts to you anymore!”

Thor scrams.

“And Canada, too, if you try lurking around!” she hollers after him and then closes the door behind him with a bang, shoves his chair out of her way and marches over to Loki, who has straightened and is watching her like an interesting (if mad) specimen. Toni pushes against the god’s shoulders until she unfolds her legs and is half lying back. Then she plants herself smack on the taller woman’s legs and says, “I’ll be your shield.”

Loki raises one eyebrow, making Toni roll her eyes because she knows the other woman knows what she’s saying. “That’s what you want. That’s why you found me. Not only because you needed help building the bomb, but because you need a shield. You need someone to stand between you and your baby and Thanos. You need a shield. And I’ll be it.”

Something flashes across Loki’s face and Toni knows she’s surprised the god again.

“Why?” she asks.

Okay. Now for the hard part. Close your eyes and get it out, Stark.

Deep breath.

“Because I’m in love with you. Because I want you to stay. Because I want to build you bombs with your name on them and kiss you stupid and help you raise your baby, which is ridiculous, because I never wanted kids and I might not even be good at it, but I want to try because you drive me up the wall in all the good ways and the bad ways, too, and I don’t want you to stop. I don’t want you to turn back into All-hail-King-Nutcase and start killing people again. I want to keep picking your brains until the day I die because it’s brilliant and twisted and wicked and amazing and I want… I want you.”

She stops talking, stops breathing, just sits there, eyes closed, and waits for the verdict, for the inevitably let-down, the yelling and the hurt. Maybe she shouldn’t have come here, shouldn’t have spilled the beans, but she’s Toni Fucking Stark and she never backs down, even if it hurts.

Silence grows and stretches and after a while without getting shoved off and turned into Toni-pulp, she dares open one eye. Loki is staring straight at her, a not entirely pleased expression on her face.

It’s unexpected enough for Toni to open both eyes properly and cock her head to one side in question.

“You keep surprising me, Toni,” Loki finally tells her. “Every time I think I have you figured out, have learned what there is to learn about you, you surprise me anew. You know that I would use you as a shield and sword and yet here you are, baring your soul to me.”

Toni shrugs, feeling almost abashed and hating it. She doesn’t do abashed. “Cards on the table,” she shrugs. “Also, you did notice the ‘in love with you’ part, right? Irrationally dumb acts of devotion come with the territory, or so I’m told.”

Loki mhms in response and says very quietly and carefully, like she’s giving away something precious, “No-one has ever, in all my years, wanted me. My skills, my magic, my body, but not me. But here you are.”

Toni thought she got rid of that painful, aching thing called hope after Afghanistan. Thought she cut it out of herself when Obie took her heart from her. Apparently, she was wrong, because she asks, childish and open, “Does that mean you’ll stay?”

For the longest time, the god studies Toni’s face like she’s never seen it before. “I’ll return to my male form as soon as Hel is born.”

Toni shrugs, a little giddy because that wasn’t a ‘no’, it wasn’t, she was there, she heard it, that was not a ‘no’. “I like dick, as long as it’s attached to the right person. Haven’t actually done it since Afghanistan, but I’m up for it.”

“I won’t age.”

“So I’ll build myself a fountain of youth. Or, failing that, finally reverse engineer Steve’s serum. It’s about time someone did that anyway.”

Loki’s lips quirk. “Such arrogance,” she says, tailing one hand up Toni’s side to rest it on her arc reactor. Coming from Loki, that insult always sounds like a compliment.

“It’s not arrogance when it’s true.”

That earns her a laugh. “You are beautiful, Antonia Stark. Brilliant. And I would keep you, if I could. But I will not be a hero for you.”

Threading their fingers together, Toni licks her lips. “I’m not a hero.”

“I tried to end the world.”

Okay. Enough is enough. Toni rolls her eyes as hard as she can. “Yes. And you’re not sorry, so stop milking it. Tell me you’re in or go ahead and break my heart, but do it before you pop the kid!”

With not entirely surprising speed, Loki’s free hand shoots out to grab Toni’s hair at the nape of her neck, tangle her fingers in it and pull her down until their foreheads bump together, too hard to be comfortable. For the longest time, they stare at each other, brown on green, the hand in her hair keeping Toni there. As if she’d want to be anywhere else.

Then Loki’s grip tightens to the point of pain and she laughs, half shaking her head against Toni’s.

Toni waits for a beat, then two, and finally allows herself to laugh, too.

“I’m scared,” the god whispers in the end, right between one bout of slightly hysterical laughter and the next. Toni nods. She gets it. She does. They both have too many issues, too many scars, and Loki is agreeing to stay, to let herself be tethered to Toni and the potential for new hurt, new scars is so big.

But she’s here anyway, because she has nowhere else to go, because Toni asked, because Thor is here, because, because. Because she wants to. Choices.

“I’m not,” Toni answers, because she isn’t, because she never is, because she throws herself off rooftops and expects to fly instead of fall. Because she’s always been a bit suicidal and Loki is just enough like dying for her to fall in love with.

“You should be,” Loki warns, accusingly. Toni bites her lip and shakes her head so hard that Loki either has to let her go or rip out her hair.

When the hand releases her, she grabs it on its descent and pulls it between them, threading their finger together. It’s a completely ridiculous and sappy thing to do and it’s not like them at all, that she finds herself muttering, “Bombs. Bombs with your name on them.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I want to build you bombs. With your name on them.”

“I appreciate the sentiment,” Loki drawls, reclaiming first her hand and then her hold on Toni’s hair, pulling her back down.

Toni resists the kiss just long enough to murmur, “I know you do.”

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Epilogue

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When Loki is eight months along, cranky as hell, and absolutely done with being pregnant, Thanos finally makes his appearance. He interrupts a full-on screaming match between Toni and Loki about whether Hel is an appropriate name for a little girl on Earth, or if it would be smarter and kinder to name the kid Helen.

Toni is all for Helen, Loki is dead set against any compromises. Toni has almost talked her around to her way of thinking with Helen of Troy, when every alarm claxon on this side of the Atlantic ocean starts blaring and blinking and generally making it impossible to have a proper fight.

For a few hours, Earth fumbles to get up its defenses until Loki stops being grumpy and finishes loading their bomb. She sends it up to the Chitauri’s army with her sincerest regards and a smile like razor blades on her face.

Two minutes later, an explosion of red and orange and green blooms in the sky. And if there’s a bit more pyrotechnics than strictly necessary, well, then that’s okay and no-one can prove Loki put them there just for Toni.

And if they end up having awkward, pregnant, non-flexible celebration sex in a supply closet at SHIELD while bits of the enemy are still burning above them, then that’s okay, too, because they deserve it.

Only then Clint somehow manages to get his hands on the surveillance tapes before Toni has the chance to delete them and it ends in tears because Loki is a vicious, viscous bitch.

The only reason she doesn’t use Clint’s own intestines to hang him from the topmost point of the Tower is that fact that, just when she gets down to business, little Hel(en) starts kicking up a storm and they all get sidetracked by cooing and staring at the god’s weirdly moving belly while Toni and Thor get sent on a craving run for, of all things, cupcakes.

With heart shaped sprinkles on top.

There’s a slight possibility that Toni goes a bit gooey on the inside.

And, strangely, she’s really kind of okay with that.

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The End

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