Every now and then Tony did voluntarily go to bed, even when Pepper didn't make him. It was the middle of the morning, but he'd been up for two days straight, so he didn't care what time it was. It was as he walked out of the bathroom into his room he wished he had stayed in his lab. The first thing Tony noticed was that Loki was even paler than before the trip to Asgard with much longer, messier hair, the second was when Loki smiled at him, there were definitely fangs showing.
"I thought you were supposed to be in a cell?" he said, going for nonchalant. "Daddy leave the keys under the mat or something?"
"Oh I was," Loki replied, smile growing wider, "but dear daddy," those two words were stressed in a way Tony understood all too well, "forgot what else he'd put in there."
Tony did not like the sound of it.
"So you escaped and came here?" he asked, playing for time, because he was sure JARVIS would be alerting SHIELD as they spoke. "Not enough fun, happening things going on in the other eight realms?"
"So it would seem," Loki replied, walking closer.
Tony held his ground mostly, because there wasn't really anywhere to go. He knew Loki was faster than him and if he ran he was definitely dead. The new suit was not yet combat ready and he was pretty sure hitting Loki in the back of the head with a glove wasn't going to cut it.
"You're looking pale, not been getting any sun lately?"
"Oh I think that would be an unfortunate idea now," Loki replied; "more than a little unpleasant. I've never been fond of sunburn."
Given that he was a genius, Tony was coming to some obvious conclusions. Before New York he would have scoffed, but after battling an alien army and a demi-god, the nightmares were enough to convince him many things he had once scoffed at might be real.
"And you chose to visit me because of my famous wit and charm. You just couldn't stay away? I mean I can see the appeal, but really you should have called first, I'm a little busy."
Loki's eyes almost looked like they were glittering.
"I thought I'd come for that drink," Loki told him, smiling again in a very unsettling manner.
The fangs really were very, very obvious.
"Well, why didn't you say right away?" Tony responded, really hoping that didn't mean what he thought it did. "We should go downstairs to the bar where I keep the good stuff."
"Oh the good stuff is right here," Loki said and before Tony could react he found himself shoved up against the wall and held fast.
Now Loki had been strong and fast last time they had met, but, this time, Tony had barely seen the demi-god move. With an arm shoved against his throat he could hardly breathe, let alone get away.
"Things lurk in the dark, Man of Iron," Loki said; "things that are legend even to the Aesir and Odin is getting forgetful in his old age. It must have been starving and it was weak, but I had been under the hands of the AllFather's interrogators and I had no defences. It fed on me for weeks, building its strength from mine, and I thought to die, but even that was not granted to me."
Loki was only an inch from him, looking right into his eyes and Tony could see pain etched into those now pale orbs.
"I survived, again," Loki whispered to him, showing sharp, lethal fangs in a half snarl. "It bled me almost dry, but in that time my magic recovered, leaching from it without it even knowing. It was just enough and when it came to kill me, my instincts would not let it. It tried so hard, tried to rip me to pieces, but my magic ripped back. Days later I woke up like this covered in its blood."
"So you decided to come eat me? How avant-garde."
Sometimes Tony wished his brain would kick in before his mouth, because that was just asking for trouble.
Loki laughed and, without any further preamble, Tony found his head pushed to one side.
"Wait, let's talk..." was as far as he got before those very sharp fangs sliced into his vulnerable skin.
He grunted with pain and tried to call out, but his body failed him as an incredibly powerful mind slammed into his own. At first it was possibly the most powerful sexual overload he had ever felt. His cock swelled and he arched towards Loki without being able to do a thing about it, but it was an illusion. Somehow he knew it was false and his mind smashed through it even as his body writhed. Then all that was left was the intellect of the madman.
It was complete chaos. Like a maelstrom buffeting his mind as thoughts, images, memories that were not his own ripped at his consciousness. His sanity threatened to shatter under the onslaught, but Tony Stark was not called a genius for nothing. Instead of caving under the pressure, he tried to assimilate the knowledge pouring into him and fought back with everything in his own head.
Of course he could not win; he wasn't sure either of them could, but it was his body that gave out first. In the barrage of crazy his human frailty came in to play and blackness covered his consciousness. Everything was shut off in an instant and he knew no more.
"Ow," Tony said as he opened his eyes.
"Tony," Pepper was by his side and leaning over him in a second.
He blinked at her.
"Just stay still, the medical staff are coming," Pepper told him.
He blinked again and realised he was lying on the bedroom floor. His head was pounding, but other than that he actually felt kind of okay. Heedless of Pepper's words, he sat up. The room looped the loop in a very nauseating way.
"I told you to stay still," Pepper said, sounding less than sympathetic as he did his very best not to throw up.
"What happened?" he asked and then his neck twinged.
It all came back in a flood.
"Loki, that son of a bitch," he said, glaring around the room.
Tony looked up to find Clint standing behind Pepper and Steve was only a few feet behind him. Apparently at least some of the Avengers had assembled in his bedroom. He tried to move again, but this time it wasn't the room that rebelled, it was his brain as flashes of something zipped through his mind like a fire.
"Tony, Tony look at me," Pepper told him.
He did his best and blinked owlishly at her again.
"I'm fine," he lied, just as a hoard of people in white coats arrived.
That was the end of any sensible conversation. He ended up being dragged down to the medical facilities and examined as well as being barraged with questions. He even answered most of them truthfully. What he kept to himself was the whole mind sharing thing, because he wanted to figure that out before he let anyone else poke around inside his skull.
"I really hate doctors," Tony said as he finally walked back onto his own floor with Pepper close behind him.
"No you don't," she countered, "you just hate them poking you."
"You have two puncture marks in your neck that are almost healed already; they needed to make sure it wasn't Extremis."
Tony sat down.
"You know I wouldn't have tested it on myself if I didn't think it was ready," he pointed out. "That batch had a life of one day and it fixed up my chest just like it was supposed to."
When he had been working on stabilising Pepper's Extremis, he had hit on the idea of using it as a short term healing agent. It had worked exceptionally well and his most trusted medical staff had it on standby for Avengers-related emergencies, but it still had far too much weaponisable potential for him to let anyone know about it, even SHIELD. SHIELD had been told the almost miraculous rebuilding of his chest had been achieved with stem cell regrowth and plastic surgery.
Pepper came and sat down next to him.
"They still had to check," she said.
"And Bruce has samples of anything Loki left behind," Tony assured her, "but he's a vampire and there's far too much magic around these days. I'm really, really beginning to hate magic."
The fact that there were ideas about magic he had never considered flying around in his brain wasn't overly settling. If he could have tracked them down and made use of them it would have been better, but he didn't have all of Loki's memories, or even enough to put together anything practical. What he had was a glimpse into chaos with some interesting nuggets of information thrown in.
When Pepper placed a hand on his leg he took a deep breath; it was time to come clean. If there was one person he did not lie to, even by omission, it was Pepper, not anymore.
"I left something out," he admitted and immediately had all her attention.
"Tell me," was all she replied.
"When Loki bit me I saw inside his head."
Pepper looked calm on the outside, but her posture stiffened just a little and for a fraction of a second there was light in the centre of her eyes. There was no danger of her exploding or beginning to glow anymore unless she had been seriously hurt, but Extremis did show just occasionally under duress. Her grip on his leg was just a little bit too strong as well, but he didn't let that bother him.
"I got things from him and I know he got things from me," he admitted.
"Then we have to change everything, every safety protocol, every password ..."
He took her hand.
"JARVIS has already done it," he explained; "I gave him instructions when I had five minutes alone after I was taken to medical. But that's not the reason I'm telling you. The kid got a really bum deal and that's what he is, not much more than a boy as far as Asgard are concerned, early twenties in our terms at most and, wow, what a mind."
"Tony, you sound like you admire him."
"I do," he replied perfectly honestly; "he has an intellect like you wouldn't believe. Don't get me wrong, Loki is batshit; he's so far past insane he's in his own little universe, but I wish I had known him before. I think I get why Thor wants his brother back."
"Do you think you can help him?" Pepper asked in a very careful tone.
At that Tony gave her a smile and shook his head.
"Not my area," he replied and he did regret that; "he's all rage and hate and chaos. Don't worry, if I see him again I will shoot first and ask questions later. Now I know what is going on inside his head I think he's more dangerous than I did before."
"But you feel sorry for him?"
As usual Pepper saw to the heart of the matter and he nodded again.
"You remember I told you Thor said Loki was adopted?" he asked and it was Pepper's turn to nod. "What Thor didn't say is that Loki isn't even the same species as the rest of his family. He a Jotun, a Frost Giant, Thor's people's mortal enemies; they talk about them like we talk about the boogieman. Loki was brought up his whole life thinking he was an Asgardian and then, just as Thor was kicked out to Earth for killing Jotun he finds out he's one of the enemy. That whole thing in New Mexico, that was Loki trying to prove he was still his dad's son. He killed his own natural father to prove his loyalty."
"You sound like you understand."
Tony smiled sadly.
"I did some pretty whacky things to get my dad's attention."
"But you didn't kill people," Pepper was fast to point out.
"I wasn't a god," Tony replied.
"Do you know everything about him?" was the next question.
Now Tony shook his head.
"No, some things are clear, others are just impressions, but all this is what his rage is focused on; it was right there."
Pepper nodded and squeezed his hand.
"So is that all?"
Tony really wished it was.
"No," he said, "the worst bit comes next. Loki was suicidal, he let himself fall into this huge void and that's where the chaos started. I don't know what he saw; I'm not even sure he does, but it unscrewed whatever screws he had left. Then he crash landed among the Chitrauri who tortured him until he started saying yes to whatever they wanted. He was vulnerable and weak and their commander found a way into his mind. Somehow he managed to pull himself together so he wasn't a complete lunatic, but it's a veneer over the storm inside. He's a thousand times more dangerous than I could ever have imagined, because he's terrifyingly intelligent, but that intellect is sitting on top of fear and rage and hate."
He looked up into Pepper's eyes.
"If that hate had really been aimed at us," he said, "I don't think there would be anything of this planet left."
"But New York," Pepper said.
"A means to an end," Tony revealed. "Loki doesn't really care about us at all; not even this last visit. He's focused on Asgard and his dad and Thor and someone else that I didn't quite get. The whole invasion was just to get him back to Asgard and away from the Chitauri so he could regroup his strength. I think he'd still be there if it wasn't for this vampire thing. He ran because he thought it would be one step too far, that his dad would have no choice but to execute him."
"You have to tell SHIELD," Pepper said.
"And have them lock me up because they think I'm compromised," he shot back; "no way. The person I really need to talk to is Thor."
"But Thor is in Asgard."
"Yeah, but I doubt for long."
As if Tony's words were prophetic, Thor appeared at the tower the next morning. SHIELD has sent word the Thunderer had returned, so everyone was waiting in the lounge for their resident demi-god. It was not the first time Thor had been back since taking Loki to Asgard, but it was the first in a time of crisis.
"Greetings, Friends," Thor said smiling, but nowhere near as broadly as Tony had come to expect.
"Hey, Thor," he greeted, along with similar acknowledgements from the others.
"Tony, I am sorry my brother has caused you pain once more," Thor turned to him and spoke with all the earnestness of a prince.
"It wasn't that much pain," Tony replied, making light of it, "but care to tell us what happened. He was a little different, if you know what I mean."
"This may take some time, shall we not sit down?" the demi-god asked.
The seating area had been enlarged in the refurbishment, so they all quickly found seats.
"The field is yours, Thor," Steve encouraged.
"My father has been gathering evidence over these past months ready for Loki's trial," Thor began after taking a deep breath, "and he was almost ready to proceed, however, he believed there was information Loki was refusing to give."
"Loki mentioned something about interrogators," Tony put in.
Thor appeared a little surprised, but nodded again.
"They are sorcerers of the mind," Thor replied; "not as powerful as someone like Loki, but very skilled in their craft. My father believed that there was no way Loki could be restored to us without bringing all of his dealings into the light, however, my brother has a very strong mind."
No one needed to tell Tony that.
"They couldn't get in?" Clint asked, the distaste clear in his voice.
"My father ordered Loki from his usual cell to one in the dungeons," Thor continued after giving the affirmative. "He believed that with time alone in the darkness Loki might reconsider before my father was forced to pronounce sentence."
"But there was something else in there," Tony said.
"Aye," Thor replied. "There was but one cell warded in a way that could contain a sorcerer as powerful as my brother. It should have been empty; where the creature came from no one can tell. We found its remains after Loki broke apart the door and escaped."
"How the hell did he do that if the cell was supposed to contain him?" Clint demanded.
At that Thor appeared vaguely embarrassed.
"We do not know," Thor explained, "but my father believes this creature may have made Loki even more powerful."
"Shit," was Clint's heartfelt opinion.
"He said it was feeding on him in the cell for weeks," Tony decided to step in.
"He told you that?" Thor sounded surprised.
"Yeah, he was very chatty," he replied. "How come no one checked?"
"He was to be completely alone," Thor replied. "You must understand, Friends, we are far hardier than you. Weeks without sustenance to us are as like days would be to you. My father intended that when Loki was returned to his usual cell he would be weak and hungry, but little worse for the experience."
Tony really didn't like the idea of locking up a prisoner with no food for even a day, but knowing how dangerous Loki was, he could understand the motivation.
"Do you know where Loki is now?" Natasha asked with her usual businesslike approach.
"Unfortunately no, My Friends," Thor said. "Heimdall was able to see Loki's escape and progress to Midgard, but once he had taken blood, this strengthened his magic so he was able to hide himself from Heimdall's sight. I have come with instructions from my father to do all that is necessary to find Loki and once again bring him to justice."
"Are you sure you can contain him?" Bruce asked.
"I have bonds made by the AllFather's own hands," Thor replied; "we shall not underestimate him again."
The discussion then dissolved into tactics of tracking Loki down, but Tony couldn't help thinking it would not be that easy.