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Tipping the Scales

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Tony hated ship wrecks, especially when they occurred in the middle of the ocean. The huge, twisted, smoking hunk of metal that had just broken the surface wasn't even a boat. It was some sort of plane, but not the usual ones he would see flying overhead. The scent of blood reached him in moments and he cursed silently. It wouldn't be long before the circling started.

Tony swept his tail from side to side in broad, strong strokes that sent him shooting through the water and toward the remains of the aircraft. His whip-like tail fin trailed behind him, a dangerous warning to other predators. This was shortfin mako territory, though, and they wouldn't be held off for long. As impressive as it was that they could go for months at a time without food, the sharks flew into a feeding frenzy as soon as food was available again. If Tony couldn't get whoever was in that aircraft to safety soon, they'd make a tasty snack.

The glass of the cockpit was cracked, spider-webbing across so tightly that he couldn't see the other side. He gave it a shove with both hands but it held strong. He cursed again. Of course these humans had to use reinforced glass for this particular craft. The two shorter fins that extended on either side from just above his hips twitched in irritation. Tony rearranged the satchel slung across his body and moved to the door at the side of the craft. He'd barely reached it when the entire thing was blown straight off its hinges to shoot out across the depths. Tony blinked.

In the doorway, foot still raised from kicking out the door, was a human male with short-cut blonde hair. His clothes were tight but looked thick and had a white star emblazoned upon the chest. Some sort of breathing apparatus covered the lower half of his face and goggles were over his eyes. He also looked just as surprised to see Tony as Tony was to see him. He made some sort of noise in exclamation, but humans weren't designed for underwater communication and it was lost before there was ever a hope of Tony getting the message.

"We need to move," Tony said instead. "The mako will be here any moment. It is not safe for you. It is not safe for anyone."

He pointed away into the darkness of the water, toward the city of his people. They would be safe there. The human just looked confused, though, and squinted in that direction. Moments later, another human popped up behind him. This one also wore a mask to breath but had long, black hair that drifted in the current like the tendrils of a jellyfish and piercing green eyes. The newcomer felt different, somehow, though Tony couldn't quite put his finger on it. He watched as the man pulled the mask away from his mouth to speak.

"Repeat yourself. They cannot understand you and I could not hear you from where I was."

Tony perked up. It would make things worlds easier if there was one among them who could actually understand him.

"It's not safe here. We need to move before the mako swarm. How many of there are you? How many are hurt?"

"Only one," the man answered his last question first, "but there are six of us in total and only three will be able to keep up with any competence."

Tony winced, glancing around them.

"Then we do the best we can. Where is your injured?"

The man eyed him for a long moment before replacing his mask and speaking to the blonde over what could only be a com unit. Tony was honestly surprised it still worked under these conditions. Then they were both moving to the side as another blond, this time with longer hair and even more muscles, floated forward carrying a woman clad entirely in black leather. Even in the water, the blood clung to her face and hair. The man holding her pulled his mask away as soon as he was close.

"She was in the cockpit when we were struck. She will need medical attention."

Tony nodded, running a critical eye over her.

"That can be arranged. Here, let me take her. Whichever of you are the better swimmers, help those who aren't. If this turns into a chase, we're as good as dead. The mako aren't to be outrun and I won't be able to fight off more than a couple of them at a time."

The black haired man and the blond exchanged a glance before the human female was passed over. Tony moved away a bit with her in his arms so the others could exit the craft, two more human males exiting behind them.

"Let's get moving."

He swam toward his city, knowing it would be the closest safe place, and prayed they would get there in time. He would catch Hell for bringing in outsiders, sure, but it wasn't like he couldn't handle the heat. Besides, he couldn't just leave them to die. If nothing else, Pepper would agree with him on that. Much to his surprise and pleasure, all three of the men he'd interacted with in the doorway were able to keep up with him just fine. The short-haired blond struggled but it was well-enough. Their other two companions were being pulled along by the ones who had known Tony's language. They did as well as anyone could expect with the horribly streamlined, two legged form of a human.

Nearly a full minute passed with them zipping through the water before something brushed against the red scales of Tony's tail. He jerked away, twisting in the water and snapping his razor-sharp teeth aggressively. His eyes fell on the smaller man with bare arms whose hand was still extended toward where he had been. The black haired man smacked his companion over the side of the head before pulling aside his own mask.

"My apologies. We don't keep Clint around for his brains. You have my word he won't touch you again."

"See that he doesn't."

Disturbed but trying not to show it, Tony turned to swim on. He hated it when people touched his tail. Hated it. Among his people it was a sign of close affection but growing up only Jarvis and Obie had shown such affection for him. Now they were both dead, Obie by Tony's own hand. He could tolerate the gesture from Rhodey or Pepper, but only just. There was no way he was going to tolerate it from a stranger. At least the human had touched him on his thick, main tail and not his pelvic fins. Those were much more sensitive.

The last time someone had touched Tony's pelvic fics had been before that whole debacle with the Ten Rings. That was just sad. He should find someone, go to a party and pick up some random tail to have a fun night with. Except, he wanted desperately to rub at the arc reactor embedded in his chest, there were reasons why he didn't do that anymore. He shifted the woman in his arms a bit, casting a glance over his shoulder to check on the group following him. Behind them, dark shadows moved at the edge of the blackness. Tony cursed.

"Fuckin' party crashers." He slowed just enough to draw level with the black-haired human with the green eyes. He sent the woman floating over. "Keep heading straight. Help will find you." His eyes darted over his shoulder. "I'll handle this."

Hopefully, if miracles really did exist, he might also survive long enough for back up to get there. That was, of course, if back up even bothered to come. It was entirely possible that they might decide the mako were too dangerous to deal with, especially if the sharks were in high numbers. Turning around in a maneuver a human never would have managed to pull off, Tony headed back the way they'd come. He charged the incoming sharks at top speed, stopping on a dime just as their images started to take more solid shape. His tail flew forward, cracking like a whip across the nose of the first shark.

It was an attack meant to stun but not to kill. Tony usually only used it for hunting fish. He really wished he'd brought his armor with him. He might actually stand a chance then. Tony twisted to get underneath the belly of another of the makos, sinking his teeth into the soft flesh there and giving the other sharks an extra, fresher target. He wasn't quite fast enough getting away, though, and another shark caught his arm at the elbow, yanking him through the water and slicing in deep. Tony sank his own teeth into the shark's nose, knowing the sensitive pores there would scream out in protest.

Fucking Hell, but that hurt like a bitch. Tony cradled his arm close to his body, hoping it was a wound he'd actually be able to heal from but knowing the chances of such were slim at best. The water all around him was turning red with blood, obscuring his vision if he stopped moving for even a second. He could taste it heavy on his tongue with every breath. There was no way he'd make it long enough for back up to arrive. Tony hoped, at least, that the humans would be found in time to live.

A flash of green lit up the water behind him and Tony spun in place, staring in wide-eyed wonder at the mako shark that had just been blasted out of the way. Barely ten feet away, the black-haired human grinned at him from behind his mask before turning and blasting another shark with what could only be magic. Past him, the one with long blond hair was using a hammer to drive the sharks off. Tony felt the smile grow on his lips as his pelvic fins twitched with the surge of adrenalin pulsing through him. He rejoined the fight heartily, darting between sharks and distracting them to make them easier targets.

It was a dangerous job, but not one he was unprepared for. He was able to avoid any additional injuries past a few glancing nips for several long minutes before an evasive maneuver sent him straight into one of the tails belonging to one of the powerful predators. It turned before Tony could even blink and sank its teeth into his side. He gasped, nearly gagging on all the blood in the water, and the gills along his ribs worked frantically. At least two of his three gills on the left side had been torn to shreds.

Tony barely registered the action when the shark was sliced cleanly in two by more green magic but he definitely noticed the lessening on pressure on his side. The black haired man was beside him in moments, pulling the sharks jaws apart and casting the carcass aside. Tony gasped for water, his body trying desperately to process it with his decreased ability to function. His gaze met emerald eyes and held there, transfixed.

"I just wanted to help," he managed, just before the darkness of unconsciousness consumed him.

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The first thing Tony noticed upon waking up was that the water didn't taste right. It was lighter, crisper than he was used to and that was just strange. The second thing he noticed was even stranger. He wasn't in any pain. He blinked his eyes open, immediately looking down at his arm and stomach. The skin and scales that he knew had been ripped apart were now flawless. There was a bit of redness around where he knew the shark's teeth had sunk into him, but that was it. As if that wasn't odd enough, he really shouldn't be able to see so clearly. The only place he'd ever been able to see things this clearly was in certain tropical waters.

A dull tapping noise drew Tony's off to the side where a human in a white coat smiled at him before jotting something down on a clipboard. What was most alarming about the whole situation was the fact that there was a glass wall between them. Twisting around, Tony could tell there was glass surrounding him on every side. A ladder led up the side of the tank to the metal seal at the top. Several small tubes were attached at various points, pumping in and pulling out water to keep it fresh. The fact that they clearly wanted him to stay alive did nothing to quell the panic that bubbled up within him. The entire tank was no more than ten feet wide and ten feet tall at its widest points. His tail had to curl to the side just so he would fit.

He would hear a beeping noise from the other side of the glass that was quickly picking up in speed. The humans in white coats seemed alarmed by the sounds and began darting back and forth, yelling at each other. Tony could barely spare any brainpower on them as he tried to keep his heartrate under control. Memories of his time with the Ten Rings ran rampant through his mind. Being captured, being confined, it was everything that haunted him at night. The shriek of metal-on-metal was the only warning he got before there was a huge splash of someone entering the tank with him.

Tony pressed himself against the glass as the bubbles cleared to reveal the black haired man from the crash. His green eyes found Tony and he reached a hand out toward him. Tony only pressed himself back further, the spines down his back folding closer to this skin. He bared his teeth at the intruder.

"Are you alright?"

"What do you want from me?"

The man looked surprised.

"Nothing. You were injured quite severely trying to help us. We simply wanted to return the favor. Dr. Cho's techniques for regenerating tissue are unparalleled."

Tony still didn't take the hand extended toward him.

"When can I leave?"

The hand was withdrawn and the man ducked up briefly to take a breath of air before coming back down.

"We didn't mean to frighten you. It's just that Dr. Cho has never worked with someone of your…species before." A pause for another breath. "She wanted to make sure the treatment would actually work."

"We generally try to avoid interactions with humans if we can." He wrinkled his nose. "Historically, you don't react very well."

The man laughed.

"Then I suppose it's a good thing I'm not human then, isn't it?" He swept a bow as best he could while immersed in the water. "I am Loki, of Asgard. I am one of the Jotunar by birth, though."

He swam upwards again to catch a breath and Tony gestured for him to continue. He followed Loki to the surface and popped his head up above the water, too.

"Can you understand me like this, too?"

Tony's words were pitched higher, with longer notes for each syllable. It was similar to a dolphin, he supposed, to most human ears. Underwater his people sounded more like whales. Loki's lips quirked upward in a smirk.

"I can understand you any way you speak, one of the gifts of the Aesir." Loki didn't sound particularly happy about it. "What's your name?"

Tony let himself sink just a little bit until the water covered his nose. He gazed at Loki for a long moment before surfacing again.

"Tony. Tony Stark."

Loki grinned at him.

"Well met, Tony Stark. Dr. Cho tells me that your DNA is unlike any yet known humanoid they have samples of, including the ones I have brought her from other worlds. She had to call in a consultant."

Tony wasn't entirely sure he was comfortable with this line of talk.

"What did you find out?"

If they were going to experiment on him or something he'd rather have all the information he could.

"I can see the worry on your face, but you needn't. They needed to look at and understand your DNA in order for Dr. Cho to be able to calibrate her machines correctly. She usually only works with people, though, so she called in Dr. Clerkin. He's a rather famous marine biologist with a specialization in sharks. He's discovered over two dozen new species of shark in the past couple of years."

"Yeah, well, the last time I woke up stuck in a tank my hosts weren't all that…accommodating. So forgive me if I don't take your placations at face value."

Loki's eyebrows rose, actually looking alarmed. Those emerald eyes darted over Tony's form as through looking for injury. Tony supposed he didn't need to look much farther than the arc reactor in his chest, Tony's souvenir from his last stint in captivity. Loki's lips pinched tight at the corners in what was clearly displeasure.

"Excuse me for a moment, if you would."

He was out of the tank and climbing down the ladder along the side before Tony could even react. At least he'd left the lid of the tank open.

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"I hope you can forgive us for the delay. Dr. Clerkin was insistent that we get you back into salt water. Apparently that isn't something easy to obtain in such…quantities. "

Tony couldn't stop staring out at the behemoth of a pool they had moved him to. There were even patches of coral and seaweed, rocks, and islands breaking up the environment. He hadn't really looked around but he was pretty sure he could see the top of a ship mast poking out from near the other side of the room. Loki sat at the end of a pier extended over the water, his bare feet hanging over the edge to dip in the water and his pants rolled up to his knees.

"Where did-How-What is this place?"

Loki grinned.

"It was the training area for the Avengers, our team. I terraformed it to better suit your needs."

Tony twisted around to look at him again instead of out over the water. The tip of his crimson-scaled tail brushed against the actual sand that covered the pool's bottom. It wasn't the ocean, didn't have quite the same flavor, but damn if it wasn't close.

"It hasn't even been two hours."

Loki wiggled his fingers in the genius's direction, swirls of green flowing around his hand.

"I'm quite talented."

If it were anyone else Tony would make a quip about how they were apparently also modest but, really, in the face of things? Loki deserved the brag however much he damn well pleased.

"Magic?" Tony's nose wrinkled a bit. "I'm more for science, but…definitely impressive."

Loki looked smug, but also a bit surprised.

"You are a scientist?"

"Engineering, chemistry, physics, all that good stuff. My people are very good at that sort of thing," he shot Loki a sideways look, "and I'm the best. I just wish I could get you back in my lab. I haven't encountered a lot of magic users before and only one that so much as even approached your level from what I've seen so far. I'd love to be able to get some scans."

Loki frowned and cocked his head to the side in a thoughtful manner.

"We have kept you against your will, though it was with the best of intentions. I suppose a few scans would be agreeable. I have always had a love of learning about other cultures, though, and would enjoy learning of yours as well."

Tony winced.

"Sorry, that's, uh, not gonna be possible. Even taking you guys to the city to save your lives was going to get me in a ton of trouble. Showing up with an outsider…it's not good."

Loki nodded.

"You've been burnt before."

"There's a reason there are only enough of us to populate one city, the few outlying factions not withstanding." Tony turned his gaze out over the water again, not really seeing the landscaping anymore. "We used to have settlements all throughout the seas. That was years ago, centuries. Before the Golden Ones showed up. With our numbers so dwindled it became easier for the others of the sea to pick us off even more. Sharks, giant squids, the creatures far more dangerous than those…It is forbidden to the leave the city alone."

"And yet you were alone when you came to our aid and it would have been bad news for us if you hadn't."

Tony shrugged.

"I'm not generally one for following the rules. I needed to go out and get some materials for a project. If I waited for permission I wouldn't have gotten any of it for months. I didn't have that kind of time to spare."

"Ah, that reminds me." Loki reached around behind him to lift a shoulder bag off of the dock. He held it out to Tony. "I believe this is yours."

Tony grabbed at the bag excitedly.

"My things!" His gaze darted down and to the side, unable to look at Loki. He'd have to wait for the man to leave before he could activate the tracker he always carried with him. "Thank you. For everything."

"I assure you, the pleasure is mine."

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Loki made surprisingly excellent company. He visited Tony often over the three days the genius had been in the human compound. They talked about all sorts of things. Tony was extremely interested in the science that humans had been coming up with, though none of their technology seemed able to rival that of his own species. With a few exceptions, of course. They spoke of Loki's team and the various villains they fought. Loki seemed to have a particular distaste for a dictator known as Dr. Doom. Tony thought it was a ridiculous name to start with.

Loki didn't speak much of his childhood and neither did Tony, but they each expressed enough for the other to know it hadn't been pleasant. Tony told Loki about JARVIS instead, and about Pepper and Rhodey. He spoke of his three electric eel hybrid helper bots who often made more of a mess than they actually helped. Loki seemed fascinated by every word, speaking in turn of his own magic and the various masters he had studied under. They talked for hours, only ever pausing when Loki went to go fetch something or someone else came in to join the conversation.

Dr. Cho and Dr. "Please, call me Paul" Clerkin had visited as well, along with the other Avengers. They weren't so bad, Tony supposed. In another world, perhaps, Tony could even see them all being friends. The whole super hero thing threw him for a bit of a loop but, hey, he wore a suit of armor so who was he to judge? Unfortunately, he would have to return to the city sooner rather than later. He was pushing it already, he knew. Rhodey would be coming for him.

"When can I go?" he asked when Dr. Cho and Paul came for his next check-up, Loki not budging from his perch on the dock.

"Ideally," Dr. Cho bit her lip, "I'd like to continue observing you for at least another week. This is just such uncharted territory. I understand you need to be getting back, though. I'm sure you're being missed at home. Perhaps just one more day? There's no way you'd agree to meet at a particular place in, say, a month's time is there? So I could check and make sure everything is holding steady?"

Tony cracked a wry grin at her.

"Yeah…I'm gonna be put on lock down the second I turn back up. They're not gonna let me out of their sight for ages." He chuckled. "Especially Pepper. She's gonna be pissed. She does this thing when she gets mad, puffs out and flexes her quills. It's terrifying, I assure you."

"I'd just hate to send you back and have something go wrong." He was touched by how genuinely worried she sounded. "If you start having any complications you must send word to us, okay? We'll meet you on whatever terms we have to but you need to promise me you'll get in touch."

"I promise," Tony said with a smile.

She didn't have to know he was lying through his teeth. It was all just as well, anyway, since only a few hours later Rhodey was busting through the roof in the War Hammer armor and scooping Tony out of the water without even bothering with his usual taunts to the enemy. It was only thanks to Loki throwing up a wall of magic just in time that Rhodey didn't manage to blow the entire place sky high.

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"I said I was fine," Tony groused as he batted the hands away from himself. "I've been poked and prodded enough in the past few days. I don't need it here, too."

The doctor looked skeptical, but backed off anyway. That might have been more to do with Tony flashing his teeth, though, than the doctor actually giving him the all-clear. Rhodey floated in the water off to one side, arms crossed in front of him and tail flicking with agitation.

"I should go back and flay them alive," he growled. "And you! What were you thinking going off on your own like that, Tones? Were the Ten Rings not enough for you?"

"You should do no such thing," Tony growled right back. "You have no idea what happened. They were only trying to help."

"Right." Rhodey snorted. "By kidnapping you."

"They didn't kidnap me!" Tony thundered, rage boiling over. Most days he was glad for Rhodey's protective streak, relieved by the confirmation that the other really did care about him, but right now he was just irritated by it. "They crashed and Natasha got hurt and there were makos in the area. I couldn't let them get killed."

"And then they asked if maybe you'd like to sleep over? Well, guess what, Tones? You forgot to call Mom and Dad before you ran off with those killers!"

"Okay, first of all, that analogy is so wrong I'm not even going to touch it. Second, that's now how it happened!"

"Then you better tell me how it did happen because it seems like all I'm hearing from you is a whole lot of denials and not a lot of explanation."

Tony ran a hand through his hair before dragging it over his face. He hated talking about his injuries, especially with Rhodey.

"I may have, possibly, gotten a little bit hurt while trying to get them away from the area."

Rhodey arched one dark brow.

"A little bit?"

Tony scowled.

"The mako caught up with us and I got bitten. They got me on my arm and on my side." Rhodey's face looked stricken and Tony hurried to continue before he could interrupt. "The humans took me with them so they could heal me. Look," he held out his arms and spun around to put himself on display. "Do you see any scars? They've got this machine that regenerates tissue and Dr. Cho even let me look at the specs of it. I'm betting I can absolutely recreate it out of our material. Can't use land materials, of course, they couldn't withstand the environment. Not to mention-"

"Tony," Rhodey cut him off. He came closer, settled a hand on the genius's shoulder. "They didn't hurt you? At all? It's okay if they did. You can tell me. I know after…after the Ten Rings I didn't react as well as I could have. I should have been there for you more and I'm so sorry for that but never doubt that I love you, okay? I've got your back."

"I'm flattered, Rhodey, really, but I'm afraid I-"

"Tony."

"Yeah. You, too."

There was a long silence between them before Rhodey finally spoke again.

"You're really okay?"

"Yeah, Rhodey. They were…nice. I liked them. I-" He cut himself off, pausing. "Do you ever wish things were different? That we weren't so…isolated?"

"Don't." Rhodey's tone of voice left no room for argument. "Don't even go there. You got lucky, Tones. Okay? This time. Just because they didn't hurt you doesn't mean they weren't going to or that every other one of those legged savages wouldn't jump at the chance to cut you open and see what was inside. We're better off here, together, where we can protect each other."

Tony looked away.

"Is Pepper mad?"

"Furious." He could hear the grin in Rhodey's voice. "But she's also been worried sick. We're glad to have you back, Tones."

"Yeah," he said halfheartedly, unable to say whether or not he truly meant the words. "Me too."

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Tony locked himself away in his lab as soon as physically possible. It was like everything that anyone did was suddenly irritating to him. Even Happy, who was just about the mildest person he'd ever met. He ate and slept only when it became absolutely necessary, left only to perform updates and maintenance on the security features that protected New Atlantis, the city he called home. With half a dozen guards watching his back as well as his every move it was the most inter-personal connection he had in the two months he'd been back. Even Pepper had stopped trying to get him to go to the company meetings.

He didn't remember feeling this dissatisfied before. Before the Ten Rings his life had been all about finding out exactly how shallow a deep sea creature could be. Sex, parties, mingling with the jellyfish, Tony had done it all. Then he'd been taken by the Ten Rings and betrayed by Obie. His entire life had been turned upside down so he'd turned right with it, gone from a party animal to a public defender practically overnight. He'd built the first Iron Thresher armor and never looked back. Things had been good, been awesome even…all the way up until he'd been shown that there was even more potential in the world than he'd believed.

Loki and the others had been so…vibrant. Tony loved his friends, truly, but there was always a disconnect. Rhodey had to balance his friendship with Tony against his obligations to the Guard. Pepper and Happy were both on his payroll, Pepper always exasperated with him. They'd always been there for Tony when he needed them and he'd never doubted their affection. It was just that the surface dwellers hadn't had any obligation to him. There was no reason for them not to treat him like an experiment and a captive and yet they'd gone out of their way in order to make sure he was comfortable. Loki had spent hours just sitting and conversing with him, discussing science and magic and strategy. They'd stayed carefully clear of culture and anything that could lead to something Tony couldn't reveal.

Even though Tony had known it had to end eventually, that hadn't stopped him from getting attached. It was a problem he'd encountered many a time over the years and it always ended the same way. Tony never got to keep the things he was attached to. His parents, Jarvis, Obie, he'd lost all of them. Even though he'd constantly told himself it was only temporary his heart, the one no one seemed to believe Tony had, still hoped. He cursed and lashed his tail back and forth with irritation.

"Sir, if I may."

Tony pouted for only a moment before letting his shoulders droop.

"Go ahead, J."

"According to my observations over the last couple of months, something seems to be causing you a great amount of distress. While I have witnessed efforts by Ms. Potts to get you to talk about it you have refused to."

"There better be a point in there somewhere and you better get to it fast."

"I only wished to inquire if you might be willing to tell me. I desire only to be of assistance."

Tony smiled sadly.

"I don't think that's going to be something you can manage here, buddy. Nothing to be done."

There was a moment of silence, enough for Tony to actually glance over at the upper corner of the ceiling where JARVIS's main circuits were for this room.

"Forgive me for saying, Sir, but it appears you have a malfunction. You are giving up without appearing to try in the slightest."

Tony's tail flicked again.

"Don't get sassy with your dry humor, JARV. I don't appreciate it. And there's no point in trying to achieve something you're never gonna get." His voice dropped, his shoulders slumping. "No point wishing for something you can't have."

When JARVIS spoke again, his tone had softened.

"What happened, Sir? What happened while you were with the humans?"

Emerald green eyes and a wry smirk flashed through Tony's mind.

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To be continued…