Nick Fury had gone off the grid.
Coulson told them the SHIELD Director’s GPS had gone out mid-morning three days prior, and not a thing had been heard from him since. None of the Avengers, given their current predicament, could agree to whether this was a good thing or a bad thing.
“He’s on a Black Ops mission,” Tony stated the obvious. “I think it’s what he does with his vacation time. Imagine that guy’s call to a travel agent: ‘Does it have a war zone?’”
“’I’d like twenty-four hours to defeat the terrorists, please,’” Clint joined in gruff, ornery tones. “’Do these events occur in real-time?’”
They cracked up in unison.
Natasha rolled her eyes. “You guys sure are funny. And if he’s actually in serious danger…?”
This, of course, was probable. Still Tony shrugged. “Fury’s a big boy. If he’s in trouble, he’ll find a way to let us know.”
The others were uneasy. The undercurrent of guilt in the room was only marginally outweighed by the other undercurrent of relief. With the way things had been going for the past few days, the absence of Fury’s all-seeing eye felt like a miraculous blessing.
“What do you make of it, Captain?” Thor asked.
They all turned to Steve who, everyone knew, had the last word when it came to matters such as these.
Steve folded his arms over his broad chest. The lines in his forehead deepened, the chords in his wide neck tensed.
“I think… I agree with Tony,” he answered slowly. “SHIELD are doing everything they can to locate him and if we’re needed they’ll call us in. In the meantime, we’ll keep our eyes and ears open. For now we have to trust that he knows what he’s doing.”
Clint frowned suddenly. “Hey, why don’t I ever get to go on vacation?”
The meeting ended, and there was still an upside. For now at least, they wouldn’t have to explain the Loki Problem.
A month had passed since Loki had become an Avenger.
To an unofficial capacity. Until further notice, Tony kept reminding himself.
The team had surrounded the Trickster God on the roof of a derelict warehouse in lower Manhattan. It had been a particularly clear blue day, and Loki had spent his afternoon rearranging the clouds to spell out rude things in the sky about Thor’s manhood.
The brothers were engaged in intense combat, while the rest of them did little more than watch from the adjacent roofs.
Thor revved up Mjolnir.
“I have warned you not meddle in this realm for the last time, Loki! Now you will pay for this devilry!”
Thor flung the enchanted hammer. Loki hopped out of the way and it boomeranged back into Thor’s hand.
“Too slow, Thor!” Loki called back. Several more images of him appeared and they all danced around to Thor’s confusion.
Thor’s feet scuffed the ground like the hooves of an angry bull.
“It will take more than your tricks to keep me from you! I will not go easy this time!”
Loki snorted. “Ha!”
Thor took a running start and then flew backward ten feet when the real Loki hit him with a bright green blast of energy. Thor landed on his back, chest smoking.
“Do you think we ought to-?” Tony nudged Steve.
“Let’s… give it another minute."
Thor scraped himself up off the cement and swung Mjolinor into a frenzy, building up speed.
“Prepare to do battle, Brother!”
Thor released his hammer, and Loki threw both hands forward in a blinding flash of light.
With a deafening crash the building collapsed, swallowing Thor and Loki into the wreckage.
It had taken several tense hours for the clean-up crew to move enough groaning debris to allow for safe passage.
“We’re coming, Thor,” Steve resolved quietly, and the Avengers followed him down into the dark.
When they got to the sub-basement level they saw light coming from underneath a door. Tiptoeing closer, they heard voices from the other side. With a nod and a silent count of three, Steve kicked it open and they burst into the room.
The Thunder God was sitting on the floor across from them, side by side with his brother, locked in what looked like deep conversation. Thor had one of Loki’s hands clasped between both of his, a pleading expression on his face. Even from a distance, Loki looked like he might have been crying. Both Gods startled at the sight of them.
Loki vanished, and Thor gaped down at his empty hands.
“Uh… you’re safe now,” Tony dropped his palms and switched off his fire-blasters.
Thor looked at them in a way that could only be described as ‘pissed-off’ before warring his features into a look of gratitude.
“My friends, thank you for your rescue. It is a fine thing to have such noble warriors at my side,” he commended, standing. “Let us leave this place.”
They tramped back up in silence, over hunks of wobbling concrete.
The moment they were outside, Thor said something about wishing to breathe the fresh air and walk the city. He told them not to wait for his return.
“It may be a very late hour. Several days, perhaps,” he added. He raised Mjolnir and took flight, disappearing into the darkened sky.
It was only about two hours later when Thor arrived back at the mansion with Loki in tow.
He held a protective arm in front of his younger sibling as they entered the living room where the rest of the team were recovering. The trickster hovered just behind his brother and kept his mouth shut, barely looking at them.
Thor swept challenging eyes around the room.
“My brother has chosen to join our team. He has put his days of villainy behind him, and wishes to fight the good fight. He shall reside in my quarters for now.”
Loki had nodded to them swiftly and followed Thor down the hall to his bedroom.
The others blinked at the sound of the closing door.
After a long moment, Steve cleared his throat. “Well…it’s been a long day. We should talk about this tomorrow.”
They muttered their reluctant assent and went to bed.
Tony didn’t know about the rest of them, but that night he slept with an axe under his pillow.
The memo that came from SHIELD confirmed it.
The morning after Loki’s arrival, a document slid from the fax machine.
‘Effective immediately: Loki Laufeyson will join in consultation and field work with the Avengers team to an unofficial capacity until further notice’.
It revealed nothing else, but Nick Fury’s signature was scribbled at the bottom in pen.
The very-recently-former villain had done little to ingratiate himself to his new teammates in the weeks since. He spent most of his time in the bedroom he shared with Thor, doing whatever he did up there in eerie silence.
When he did venture downstairs, Thor followed him around like a shadow and levelled fearsome stares at anyone who might have looked at him funny. When he engaged in conversation, it was usually to Thor, or to the rest of them by way of Thor. It was never very friendly.
He refused to join them at meal-times and spoke mincingly (to Thor) of the terrible food they stocked. He seldom seemed to eat but had a habit of making all of Tony’s expensive deli cheeses disappear along with entire punnets of strawberries and blackberries, leaving empty biodegradable boxes in the fridge.
He criticized their battle strategies and their structure as a team. He made an insulting remark (to Thor) about Tony’s waistline.
On occasion, he would teleport suddenly into other rooms, seeming to enjoy making everyone jump.
“You will come to know Loki in time,” Thor persisted in telling them. “He is shy.”
The best they got was when, after the second week, he began to materialize in the living room midway through a film, sneak popcorn from the communal bowl and then wink out again the second it finished.
Loki had been good on his word when it came to fighting the good fight though, so far at least. His magic was incredibly useful when you weren’t on the business-end of it, and Tony had to wonder why, during the bad old days, he hadn’t just turned them all into hats.
He stole the show during their face-off with Doctor Doom, catapulting the Latverian and his entire army from the Bronx to the Atlantic Ocean, from what the report said later. The coastguard had failed to apprehend them, but keeping Doom from kidnapping the President during a televised speech was still considered a great victory.
“Hey, you were great back there,” Steve congratulated him afterwards.
“It is hardly remarkable. Everyone knows that Doom dislikes the sea,” he retorted, and retreated back to Thor’s room.
“What the hell does he do up there?” Tony had asked Thor eventually.
Loki’s second and third battles were two of the shortest Tony had ever experienced as an Avenger. The fights were over in less than the time it had taken him to run downstairs and put on his armour.
Bullseye was hurried off in a straightjacket and, if the Red Skull’s daughter had been capable of blushing without facial epidermis, she would have done so as she was led away in handcuffs.
“That was really good work!” Steve insisted, both times.
Loki humphed and shrugged his shoulders.
“Do you really consider these people your great enemies?” he wanted to know. By the tone of his voice, he was slightly insulted.
There was a lot of humming and hawing as they tried to decide whether or not to bring him to his first public appearance.
It was a low-key visit to an elementary school in Queens. A first-grade teacher had won an achievement award for her outreach work, and had written a letter signed by her whole class asking them to come in for a few hours to visit and talk about helping out in the community.
“Little kids,” Tony kept repeating, “Little kids.”
“Maybe he ought to sit this one out,” Steve said finally, to the nods of almost everyone.
But when Loki came down from upstairs alongside Thor, helmet on and ready to go, he thanked Steve pre-emptively for letting him come along. Steve seemed to lose his nerve.
“You don’t need to thank me,” he said, a bit guiltily. “You’re part of the team now. Do us proud.”
They stood shoulder to shoulder in full costume, in front of the class of wide-eyed six-year-olds. They each introduced themselves before Steve made a short speech about taking care of the environment, visiting the elderly and helping out your parents at home.
The children clapped, and the teacher thanked them. She asked if they wouldn’t mind answering some questions before getting to know everyone.
“Go on, you guys,” she said cheerfully to the class. “You’ve been looking forward to this all month!”
The children stared at them shyly. None of them moved a muscle.
“Go on!” she insisted.
After a very long moment, one boy asked Tony if he wore underwear under his suit.
There were a few giggles, then another silence. Children shifted in their seats, chairs creaking.
A little girl in pink overalls with hair the colour of a bright new penny raised her hand.
“Yes?” Steve pointed to her encouragingly.
She turned to Loki and asked, “Did you used to be a bad guy?”
Loki smiled at her in amusement. “Oh, yes. I was very bad.”
There was a soft buzz around the room.
A dark-skinned boy in a Sponge-Bob T-shirt spoke without raising his hand.
“What bad stuff did you do?”
“I mustn’t say,” Loki replied coyly. “It would give you terrible nightmares.”
A dozen arms shot up at once, straining and waving desperately to be called on.
Steve nervously tried to steer the conversation.
“That was in the past, though; Loki’s a good guy now! Which just goes to show that there’s hope for everyone!”
A child shouted, “Did you murder people?”
“I think that’s it for questions!” Steve said loudly.
They were freed to interact with the class.
It turned out that Loki was great with kids. Immediately, a large group formed around him as he sat cross-legged on the carpet to tell them a story. Tony tuned in long enough to make sure it wasn’t about murdering people.
The story was about two princes who lived in a land far away, whose father the King sent them on a journey to defeat a wicked witch. The princes started their journey together but disagreed on how to accomplish the task. They separated, and each faced a different danger along the way.
Thor sat in the circle with the children, watching and listening eagerly. He looked tense when Loki reached a part in the story when one of the brothers went to face the witch alone, and was in grave danger. But the other prince showed up and together they faced her as a strong united force.
Loki was speaking in a low voice, making enunciating shapes with his long fingers.
“The witch raised her staff in the air, summoning her dark powers,” he glanced upwards suggestively.
All of the children looked along with him. A small dark cloud had materialized near the ceiling.
“The sky grew dark and then-!”
For a split second the lights went out. There was a crack of thunder, and tiny lightening bolt flashed high above their heads.
The children shrieked rapturously and jumped in their seats.
Tony had to be impressed with Loki’s storytelling skills. He would have listened to the whole thing himself if he hadn’t had a little boy following him around, kicking and punching his legs, saying that he’d be Iron Man and Tony could be the bad guy.
Just before the time they were meant to go, Loki finished his story to joyful applause. The children swarmed over him, climbing over one another to shout questions at him and touch the horns on his helmet.
Tony gathered it had been a happy ending for the princes of the story, because as soon as they stood up to leave, Thor crushed his brother in a hug that might have left him with bruised ribs.
During his fourth field assignment, Loki had seemed disinterested in joining the fight until Tony was in the middle of being killed by a Deathlok. The cyborg’s hand had shot out quicker than he’d expected and was busily strangling him to death.
Tony had dealt with Deathloks before, but had forgotten how damn strong the things were. The armour around his neck had been crunched and his delicate bones were soon to follow. None of his teammates were close enough to intervene and no matter how hard Tony tried to point his repulsors in the right direction, he couldn’t seem to get his aim straight through the impending blackout.
From the blurry edges of consciousness, he saw Loki step out from the shadow of a shop-front awning and start to chant. The sorcerer held up his palms and a glowing green light pulsed around them.
The metal hands that were crushing Tony’s wind-pipe began to come apart, chink by chink.
Within moments, all of the Deathlok’s individual pieces were at least a foot apart from each other, suspended mid-air. Cogs and circuits and bits of metal circled Tony like a swarm of silver insects- then froze in place.
Gravity hit, and they shot to the earth in a clatter.
From his position on the ground, Loki gave Tony a curt nod.
This time when they thanked him, Loki at least didn’t seem resentful. He may have even betrayed the tiniest hint of a smile when Captain America clapped him on the back.
So all in all, it came as a surprise when, during Loki’s fifth mission, everything went all to hell.
It happened after a morning when the trickster had locked Thor out of his own bedroom, shutting himself away entirely.
The God of Thunder had stalked from room to room and complained to anyone who was near enough to listen.
“My brother is not himself today,” he fretted. “I do not understand why he will not speak to me.”
Steve tried to reassure him. “Try not to take it too personally, Thor. He’s still adjusting to his new life here. I think he’s doing pretty well, considering.”
Tony added, “You should probably get used to it. The guy’s got a permanent big, gold staff up his-”
Red light flashed and the buzzer sounded from the wall-alarms and all of their transponders: the signal that they were needed had gone off.
“Hey, whattaya know!” Clint interrupted them cheerfully, “Time to assemble!”
Doctor Octopus was attempting something at the headquarters of one of the country’s most popular television stations. When they caught up with him he was up on the roof, fiddling with an enormous satellite dish. Spider-man must have been on an out-of-state vacation.
Doc Ock abandoned whatever he was doing when they charged toward him, and with no time to get away, he lifted his eight formidable tentacles and engaged.
They fought him down to ground-level, coming at him from all angles, taking their turns. Tony got in a particularly good shot and felt pleased.
Not long in, though, he noticed that Loki seemed way off his game. He backed away whenever the fight got too close and hung back in the intervals where he’d usually taken to making his moves. He made jerky motions with his hands but didn’t actually make use of his magic.
Something’s wrong, Tony thought, but without any time to reflect on it.
After a few minutes, Ock must have smelled blood in the water. He honed in on the Trickster as their weakest link.
Loki saw it coming and threw an energy blast. He missed, and was punched solidly in the face by a metal octopus arm.
Loki was so dazed by the blow that Ock then took the opportunity to snake a tentacle around his waist and pick him up like he was Mary Jane Watson, scampering up the side of a high-rise.
Not only did Loki fail to magic his way out of Ock’s clutches, he allowed himself to be brought all the way to the very top of the building and then thrown off.
Tony, who had been zipping back and forth, waiting to cut Ock off before he made it to his getaway pod on the rooftop, instead had to make a diving swoop to catch the falling God. By the time he had set Loki down on earth, Ock’s transport had taken off and switched to invisibility mode.
Tony snapped his visor back. “What the hell was that about?”
Loki looked shaken, seeming to forget that he was still clinging on to Tony.
“A miscalculation on my part. Magic is not always the most precise weapon.”
It sounded like a bad lie. If there was one thing that Loki was never bad at, it was lying; he’d built a reputation and several nicknames around the fact.
Something was wrong. Tony was sure of it.
The next morning, there was a cow in the kitchen.
“MOTHERFUCKER!” Tony yelled, and backed into a coat-rack painfully.
The cow didn’t seem to mind the screamed profanity. It chewed and blinked guilelessly at Tony with long eyelashes.
From behind him, Tony heard an amused chuckle. He whirled around.
“You! Why is there a cow on my marble floor?”
There was a plopping sound and, as if on cue, the cow was no longer the only unwanted thing on Tony’s marble floor.
“A practical joke,” Loki replied. “Do you not see the humour in it?”
Even through a mist of rage, Tony noticed something off about him, but Loki turned away before he could decide what. Tony moved in for a closer look and the God deliberately sidestepped him.
Thor appeared, yawning pleasantly. “Good morrow! Brother, it is good to see you join us for our morning meal!”
“Thor, you deal with this!” Tony thumbed furiously at the cow.
Thor perked up even more. “Ah, excellent! The milk will be most fresh in the Mighty Thor’s Cocoa Puffs!”
“Morning, guys- Whoa!”
Clint’s eyes went huge and he stumbled backwards midway through the door. The throw rug bunched under his feet and he landed on his backside.
“You see?” Loki smirked. “Most humorous.”
Loki whisked out of the room looking pleased with himself. Thor was milking the cow straight into his cereal bowl.
“What’s going on?” Clint scowled, getting back on his feet.
“I don’t know,” Tony said. “But I’m making it my business to find out.”
After an hour of problem-solving, they managed to remove the cow. Thor had begged to keep it as a useful pet (Loki’s suggestion, apparently), so it had been moved to the disused stables where Tony kept a few of his less-favoured sports-cars.
With that matter temporarily adjourned, Steve agreed that Loki’s behaviour had been strange enough to warrant investigation, and consented to join Tony in confronting him.
At the end of a lengthy search, they found him in a rarely-entered room at the end of one of the long upstairs corridors. It had been vaguely designed as an office, but had never been claimed as one. Against the wall opposite the door was a narrow couch upholstered in shiny, reddish-brown leather. Loki was curled in a corner of it with his head on the arm-rest and his eyes closed. His green cape was drawn over him like a blanket.
At their intrusion, he sat up straight and threw his cape back over his shoulder with a harassed expression.
“What are you up to in here?” Tony asked suspiciously. He looked around for signs of evil-doing, but could see nothing obviously out of the ordinary.
“Loki, you look terrible,” Steve said with concern.
He did, actually. Now that Tony was able to get a look at him, his skin was pasty and there were dark rings under his eyes. His nostrils were pink and wet-looking.
Loki heaved a sigh.
“I would imagine so,” he responded. “I believe I am ill.”
“Why, what’s- Oh!” Tony backed away a few steps. “Holy crap! Do we need to alert SHIELD? Create a containment zone?”
Loki waved a hand dismissively.
“That will not be necessary. It is a common ailment here on Midgard, I am told. Rife among children especially. It will go in a fortnight or so.”
“So… you have a cold?” Steve tried to clarify.
“Yes, that is it.”
“And you know this because you’ve had them before?”
“It would seem I am prone to them.”
Tony rubbed his goatee. “Huh. That’s… really weird. Does this mean Thor-”
“No,” Loki snapped testily, his first real show of annoyance. “My brother’s physiology is different to mine. He is not susceptible to your human illnesses.”
Deciding to file that bit of information away to examine later, Tony moved on to other pertinent questions.
“Does this have something to do with what happened during the fight yesterday? You barely used your magic at all.”
“I cannot use magic. Not until my health returns. It would be very dangerous.”
“Dangerous?” Steve repeated.
“In my experience, yes. My spells err in ways I cannot fathom. There have been… unruly side-effects,” Loki grimaced at the memory, whatever it was. “You heroes would definitely not approve.”
“But don’t you have healing powers?” Tony backtracked. “I’ve seen you shake off being impaled in like, thirty seconds.”
Loki slowed his speech as though he were talking to a particularly stupid child.
“That is different. I use magic to heal wounds. They do not just heal themselves.”
“So you can’t use magic even a tiny bit, just enough to restore yourself?”
“Not without running the risk of decorating the walls with my innards, no.”
“Well,” said Steve. “Just take it easy until you’re better. We can hold down the-.”
Tony interrupted him peevishly. “Hey wait, you used magic this morning! In the house!”
“No I did not.”
“Oh, that. That was an accident.”
“I did not purposefully channel any spell, but sometimes there are… slips.”
“What? How so?”
“Misfires,” he elaborated. “Uncontrolled bursts.”
“What does that mean, exactly? How does it equate to a cow in my kitchen?”
“Magic can be evoked by will, but it is only ever a contained beast,” the God rubbed his nose irritably. “It is difficult to describe the subtleties to those who do not practice. To begin with…you would…”
Loki trailed off, and then sneezed loudly and abruptly into his hands. He pulled them away and gave his palms a disturbed look.
“Bless you,” said Steve, supplying a neatly folded cloth handkerchief from his pocket. Loki snatched it from him and began delicately wiping his hands and nose.
Tony cleared his throat. “You were saying?”
“Must I explain this all now? You are making me tired,” Loki complained. “It is hardly likely that you would understand, anyway.”
Tony was prepared to keep grilling, but Steve motioned against it with a shake of his head.
“You’re probably right. We’re sorry, Loki. Maybe we should leave you alone now.”
“Oh,” Loki said in a small voice. “I thought perhaps… but it is no matter.”
“I thought,” He fidgeted with the handkerchief. “You might advise a course of action.”
Steve looked to Tony in total bewilderment.
Tony sighed. He grabbed Loki by the elbow and hefted him to his feet.
“Come on,” he grumbled. “Okay, first rule of being sick: let’s ditch the cape and the twenty pounds of armour and find you some comfy pyjamas.”
Thor loomed over Tony. At his full height, he was tall enough to cast a shadow.
“My brother is ill?”
“He has a cold,” Tony rephrased. Thor still looked rather intimidating, so he made sure to add, “Totally harmless. He’ll be fine.”
Bruce jumped like he’d been jolted with electricity. “He’s sick? What are his symptoms, exactly?”
“Cold symptoms. Definitely a cold. He must have picked it up from one of the kids during story-time.”
Bruce still looked unsatisfied. “I’d like to examine him myself, just to confirm.”
Tony might have argued, but Bruce had been especially high-strung of late (never a good thing), so he passed no comment as his fellow scientist hurried out of the room.
“A cold?” Clint echoed. “And we’re having a meeting about this?”
“Yes, we are. From what I gather, there could be… incidents. You remember how he’s magic, right?”
The team all looked in the direction of the living room. The God of Mischief was laid out on the couch under a fleece, channel-surfing.
“What sort of incidents?” asked Natasha.
“Okay, for example: Cow in the kitchen? He didn’t mean to do that.”
“So how do we handle this?”
“Not sure yet. I guess we give it a day or two and see how it pans out.”
They collectively glanced back at the source of the problem. Bruce had returned in a full hazmat suit and was now crouched beside Loki, scanning him like a bomb-disposal expert.
Clint tried to wrap himself around the concept. “So does this sort of mean that like… anything could happen?”
Steve cleared his throat. “Just…let’s try to be prepared.”
They’d been called in to sort out a dust-up between an apparently reformed Magneto and his also-maybe-reformed speedster son Pietro (alias: Quicksilver), whose disagreement over Pietro’s sometimes good/sometimes bad sister (a.k.a., the Scarlet Witch) had resulted in a four-car pile-up and traffic jam on the Upper East Side. The family spat came to a sort-of-okay conclusion some hours later, and the exhausted Avengers were happy to call it a day.
When they returned to the mansion, they found Loki tearing through the kitchen cabinets, pulling things out and tossing them over his shoulder.
“We are out of medicines,” He told them. “Do we have alcohol?”
A few sets of eyes flicked over at Tony.
Tony, feeling indignant, recalled leaving Loki with a full bottle of liquid decongestant and brand new packs of 10 aspirin and 16 Dayquil gel-capsules. “You took all of it already?”
“I did, yes. Are those really the best medicines your healers have concocted?” Loki asked critically. “I have taken far more than the recommended amount, and feel no better.”
“Well, look at it this way: Without it, you’d probably feel worse.”
Loki made a negative sound and kept rummaging. A box of Twining’s Earl Grey Tea flew back and hit Steve between the eyes.
“Ah,” Loki brightened, his arm emerging from the cupboard with one of Tony’s tucked-away bottles of expensive single-malt. He cracked it open and took a long slug.
“Give me that!” Tony dove and snatched the bottle away.
He wasn’t quite prepared for Loki’s slightly crazed, too-bright, enormous-pupiled stare boring down on him. He shrank away somewhat and held the bottle closer to his chest.
Thor stepped between them. He took his brother firmly by the shoulders and spoke in desperation. “Brother, stop this! You are ill! You must rest, not become drunken and pick fights. I beseech thee!"
Loki wrestled himself out of Thor’s grip and let out a small hiss. "Must you always interfere! The healers of Asgard use it to treat similar ailments. Why should I not try it, when all else continues to fail?”
“I would think it unwise, brother. You are in a most foul mood.”
Steve had recovered from being hit with a tea-box and offered rationally, “We were planning to watch a movie together to unwind. Why not join us? It would be a good distraction for you.”
“Thank you for the invitation, but I think I will decline,” Loki said haughtily and stalked away upstairs, leaving them to clean up the mess.
They had taken their usual places (Tony, Steve and Thor sharing the enormous cream leather sofa, Natasha and Bruce on the twin recliners, Clint sprawled out on the rug) and started watching the ‘Muppets Take Manhatten’ on the new widescreen when Loki slipped in quietly and curled up next to Thor. Thor smiled dotingly. He had not liked to think of his brother ill and alone upstairs.
The atmosphere in the room relaxed after a few minutes and soon the Muppets had arrived in New York City. They began singing a song that Tony knew all the words to and secretly loved. Loki, who for half an hour had been resting against Thor’s bicep, suddenly sat up straight and took a sharp breath.
Several things happened at once.
Loki covered his face in his hands and sneezed violently into them. Little greens sparks crackled around his head.
The 152-ich plasma television spun in a circle on its portable base and smashed facedown on the floor.
Thor immediately jumped out of his seat and toed it inquisitively with his boot.
Loki blinked in surprise. “I have felled the television?”
“Do not worry, brother. Tony Stark is very skilled at fixing things. He will mend it”
The device hissed angrily. There was a popping sound, and a little puff of smoke rose from the back. Thor began to stomp on it vigorously.
Loki looked plaintively at Tony.
“Now?” he asked.
Tony rubbed his temples as though it might keep his head from exploding. “I just, just bought that.”
Loki looked like he was about to say something else, then turned his head sharply and sneezed again.
Nothing happened this time, except that they all nearly jumped out of their skins.
“Bless you,” Steve shuddered, and went to get a broom.
“I had a chat with Loki,” Bruce began the meeting, “Who is an extremely intelligent guy by the way. You should all try talking to him more; it’s really to our advantage to have him on the team. Anyhow, I think I’m beginning to understand things a bit more clearly.”
The team, minus Loki, had grouped in one of the lesser-used office rooms to discuss the situation.
“What did you learn?” Steve asked.
“Okay, it might sound like I’m pointing out the obvious, but to put it as bluntly as possible, Loki doesn’t just ‘do’ magic, he is magic,” Bruce grinned in a nerdy way. “Which actually makes a really big difference.”
“I understand the distinction, but-”
“Thor,” Bruce turned to the Thunder God, “you told me that Loki is one of only a handful of true sorcerers among the Nine Realms and that your parents knew his potential from the time he was very young?”
“Aye!” Thor answered proudly. “Our mother said that his gift was most wondrously rare!”
Bruce nodded. “Right, right! So to use it properly still required study and practice, but the raw power to wield and control it was something he was born with- part of his bodily make-up. It’s always switched on. But usually, he can pick and choose how it comes out.”
“If his body is sick, then his magic is sick,” Tony provided hastily, before Bruce could launch into comparisons with power surges or offer to draw a flow chart. “And because it’s such a finely tuned instrument, anything ‘off’ can make it go haywire, even when he’s not calling on it. Like with the TV. And the cow.”
“So what do we do about it?” Clint wanted to know.
Tony had thought about this. He looked everywhere else but at Thor.
“I think we should quarantine him. Send him somewhere by himself, where he can’t do too much damage. Minimize casualties. He must still have hide-outs all over the city. He can go to one of them.”
Natasha of all people sounded torn.
“Doesn’t that seem kind of… mean?”
“Maybe,” Tony admitted. “But it won’t kill him. And he has spent a lot of time in the past kicking our asses into new shapes. I think I’ll be able to sleep at night.”
Thor moved dangerously into Tony’s line of vision.
“You would dare suggest I cast out my own kin, in his hour of-!”
“No!” Steve held up a hand and shook his head. “No. Sorry, Tony. Regardless of the past, he’s Thor’s brother and he’s an Avenger. We look out for our own.”
Tony stared pleadingly at Steve, trying to will him back to sanity with his eyes.
“So what’s your suggestion? That we just do nothing?”
Steve stood firm. “If anything goes wrong, he can fix it in a week or two when he’s back on his feet.”
“He said it’s only really dangerous when he actively tries to use magic, which he promised he wouldn’t do,” Bruce submitted. “The other stuff is unpredictable but basically harmless.”
“Can we vote?” Tony looked around the room. “Because I vote against.”
Clint raised a timid hand. “Sorry, Thor, but I think I’m with Tony. Please don’t hurt me.”
Bruce looked at Tony sadly.
“Tony, you’re a man of science! Don’t you think this presents an interesting opportunity? Neither of us knows a thing about magic- wouldn’t you like to see how this stuff works?”
Not getting the response he wanted, Bruce then established, “I vote he stays, no matter what the consequences to myself.”
Natasha was next to weigh in.
“Bruce is right. Like it or not, he’s an incredibly powerful asset, we’ve seen as much already. If he stays on as a member of the team, we have to learn how to live with him. I know the risks, and I’m willing to accept them.”
Thor’s huge, brawny arms were folded over his chest.
The Thunder God was nearly a foot taller and wider than Tony himself. Tony was starting to see just how much their enemies must have disliked being in the position in which he found himself currently.
“My thanks to you, Bruce Banner and Lady Natasha,” Thor said, positively glowering at Tony, “I would cast my vote in my brother’s favour.”
Steve squared his shoulders. “You know how I feel. I know what it’s like to be the sick kid that gets pushed out of the way, and it’s not nice. I won’t do that to one of my teammates.”
“Fine,” Tony resigned hotly. “But from this moment on, I claim zero responsibility for whatever happens! Seriously! The rest is on you guys!”
Steve smiled his big, warm Captain America smile just for Tony.
“We’re Earth’s mightiest heroes, right? Whatever comes, we’ll handle it.”
Something that Tony had come to learn about living with Loki was that no matter how smart or old he was supposed to be, the execution of seemingly simple decisions and tasks continued to elude him.
His sense of moral logic was confounding, and he did what he wanted. It might have had something to do with being from Asgard, but probably had more to do with being Loki. He grew exasperated when confronted by local customs.
The idea that it wasn’t acceptable to interfere in wide-scope events went straight past him; he had defended his midnight visit to a distasteful presidential hopeful by pointing out that his teammates were also relieved when the man had chosen to resign. The notion that it was unfair to change the outcome of the only game of cards he’d ever played with them by using magic had had trouble registering. He just wasn't interested.
The same could be said for the performance of menial tasks. Being able to use magic to do everything he considered boring had stunted his fluency in earthly technologies.
Early in his tenure as Tony’s new teammate, Tony had found him one rainy afternoon in front of the microwave, trying to fit his cape inside to dry. He’d tried to argue his point with the ‘On’ button and had set a small fire. He mostly ate food that didn’t need to be cooked and did his laundry by hand in the bathtub. He’d been so freaked out by accidentally turning on Banner’s electric toothbrush that he promptly banished it to another realm.
Tony also didn’t trust Loki's temper.
Later that afternoon, when he was fairly sure nobody else was around, Tony snuck toward the kitchen. He’d squirreled another bottle of good scotch behind some cereal that nobody liked. He knew it was bad to drink during the day when they might get called into action, but his nerves were all over the place and his many decanters around the house were either empty or being measured by the eyes of Steve and Natasha.
He tiptoed into the room and froze to the spot. He took one look and knew that this was exactly the sort of thing that turned a man like him to drink.
The kitchen was an explosion of red; spattered across the walls, the floor, and mostly on Loki.
Loki was standing in the middle of the room on the other side of the kitchen island. His pale face was flecked with crimson and the look in his eyes was feral. He held a meat cleaver in one hand. The other hand dripped with what was definitely blood.
Tony turned and prepared to run. This probably wasn’t a great idea, considering that Loki’s other best-known battle skill was throwing knives. Either way, Tony’s foot slid on a wet patch before he reached the hallway and he had to grab the wall to keep from falling. Losing his chance for a head-start, he reached out toward the counter and fumbled for anything resembling a weapon.
“For goodness sake, stop that and assist me!”
Slowly, holding a rolling pin, Tony turned around again.
On a second look, Tony saw that most of the red liquid was not blood. Much of it was dripping down the sides of the kitchen island. At the volcanic centre of the mess was what had once been a can of Classic Tomato soup. It had been cut cleanly in half with what must have been a very powerful blow of the cleaver.
“Oh, Loki,” Tony groaned, willing his heart to stop pounding. “Why can’t you just ask for help?”
“No one was nearby,” Loki grumbled. “I did not expect the task to be so infuriating.”
Tony walked over and saw an array of sharp instruments (a skewer, a boning knife, meat scissors) that had obviously been tried before Loki had decided to chop the can in half.
“You’ve been on earth for how long and you’ve never heard of a can-opener?”
Loki put down the knife reluctantly. “I do not normally need to think of such things.”
Tony turned his attention to Loki’s bleeding hand. Somehow, probably on the side of the can, he’d sliced his thumb. The cut was shallow but bled steadily nonetheless.
Tony turned on the cold tap in the sink. “Hold that under the water. I’ll go get you a band-aid.”
When his thumb was bandaged and he’d changed his clothes and most of the mess had been mopped up, Loki’s mood had gone from hot and irritated to sullen. He sucked on the skin of his hurt thumb while Tony showed him how to use a can opener.
“See? Easy.” Tony demonstrated on a can of Chicken Noodle.
“It said nothing of that in the instructions.”
Tony poured the contents into a bowl and stuck it in the microwave. “You really are a lost little lamb without your powers, aren’t you?”
“Do not push it. I am in no mood.”
Tony regarded Loki’s injury. “So you don’t have healing powers, but you’re still a God. Will that heal up faster for you than it would on me?”
Loki arched an eyebrow. “You are not very subtle, Stark. What you really would like to know is if I am mortally vulnerable in my current state. Why not ask outright?”
The microwave sounded. Tony fetched the steaming bowl with a pot-holder and placed it on the table in front of Loki.
“Don’t touch yet, too hot,” he advised. He sat back down. “So are you?”
Loki lifted his spoon and ran it over his bottom lip, back and forth. He gave Tony a wry smile.
“If you have been thinking of killing me and claiming self-defence, now would be a good time to do it.”
“He’s agreed to let me run some tests,” Banner said brightly at the breakfast table the next day. “So I’ve set up a timer to go off every five minutes in the case that I’m not able to delay it.”
It wasn’t quite eight in the morning and Tony was the only one up, out of bed by virtue of waking to a thudding hangover. His nerves had not allowed him to sleep without the aid of half a bottle of aged whiskey. He’d collapsed into bed and dreamed of the ceiling crashing down on him.
Now he was in his pyjamas with a headache, waiting for his Eggo waffles to pop up. Bruce was dressed in a clean white lab-coat and a pressed shirt, holding a clipboard and clutching his black medical bag.
Tony rubbed his forehead. “You mean you’ll keep hitting the delay until something goes wrong?”
"If something goes wrong, you’ll know about it within five minutes,” Bruce promised. “I think if I play my cards right, I might even get a blood sample.”
Twenty minutes later, the alarm went off in Bruce’s lab.
Tony, having almost made it back to bed, hurried worriedly down the hall.
Already, he thought, to his own disbelief.
It’s happening already…
He flung open the door.
Loki was crouched down on the floor, his face as white as a sheet. He looked up at Tony with a frightened expression.
Tony rushed over and kneeled beside him. Within seconds he gathered that he was looking down at a pile of Banner’s clothes. The clipboard lay abandoned next to it, along with an empty syringe.
“I did not mean it to happen!” Loki insisted, bordering on hysteria. “He… he made to stab me with this instrument, and-” He pointed to the syringe.
Tony then realized what he was actually staring at.
In the middle of the clothing, a brown-and-white spotted guinea pig was chewing absently at the neck of the lab-coat.
“Bruce?” he gaped.
The guinea pig looked at him with tiny bright black eyes and twitched its nose complacently.
Tony’s eyes went back to Loki, who looked at him helplessly.
Tony grabbed him roughly by the shoulders and shook him.
“WHAT DID YOU DO?!”
The Avengers were assembled in the living room an hour later.
Natasha, quick thinking as ever, had put a rush-order on a cage with every related accessory and a large store of food-pellets, which had arrived in record time after she gave the address as, ‘Avengers Mansion’.
It turned out she had a soft spot for small animals. She poked a finger through the bars of the cage, tickling Banner’s furry side.
“Hello, Bruce! Hello! Oh, I know this is wrong, but he’s very cute, isn’t he?”
Banner, for his part, seemed to be acclimating well to his new surroundings, sniffing his way curiously around the cage and paying special attention to the salt lick.
Thor tried to console his brother, who was still very upset.
“Do not blame yourself,” said Thor, pulling Loki closer to him. “You will return him to his form when your strength returns. Banner will hold no grudge against you.”
Loki nodded, but didn’t look very reassured.
“I am sorry for it,” he said quietly. “Banner is among the better of your cohorts. His intelligence as a mortal is highly respectable.”
“I am glad you think so,” Thor said gently. “But Loki, these are our brave comrades. They all are honourable and worthy of respect.”
Tony had just sliced open another cardboard box.
“Hey!” He grinned, having relaxed his attitude on the whole thing, “Hamster ball! Do you think Banner will still Hulk out if we put him in it and watch him roll around?”
Later that day they received the phone-call about Fury.
The feeling of relief that washed over Tony at the news probably indicated something bad about his character.
To consider Fury, it was well within the man’s nature to be secretive and take things on by himself when it suited him to do so. Still, the SHIELD Director’s tracker was embedded pretty deeply in the skin at the back of his neck, so for him to have cut it out again to snuff it must have meant for fairly extreme circumstances.
It was worrying, but in light of recent events, it felt like the least of their troubles. It could sit on the back burner for now.
“We’re not blaming you,” Steve said a few hours later. He gestured to the hole in the ceiling where the chandelier had been, “but-”
“I did not do it!” Loki said fiercely.
Steve, Loki and a white-faced Natasha stood in the dining room. If the Black Widow’s reflexes had been any less quick, she would have been prostrated under two-hundred pounds of bronze and broken crystal.
“Okay, maybe not. But if you did, accidentally-”
Thor appeared in the doorway, investigating the sounds of his brother in distress.
“What is wrong?” He looked down, then up. “Oh.”
“They blame me for everything!” Loki wailed, and flung himself at Thor, burying his face in his brother’s neck.
“I am sure that they do not,” Thor soothed, petting Loki’s head clumsily and giving Steve an apologetic look over the top of it.
“My chandelier!” Tony shrieked on arrival, having heard the commotion.
“This was not my doing,” Loki said stubbornly. “It is the error of poor craftsmen. I have been nowhere near this room.”
This remark only made Tony feel even more uneasy. He had been working under the assumption that the freaky stuff only happened at close range.
He knelt down and picked up a few shards of crystal, letting them fall through his fingers. “It was French…” he whispered. “French and antique.”
Steve put a comforting hand on his shoulder. “I’ll call an electrician. We’ll get you a new one.”
“That did almost land on my head,” Natasha reminded everyone with a scowl.
There was a wasp-like buzz from the exposed wire above and a shower of hot sparks rained down on them.
Thor manoeuvred his brother hastily toward the door, patting him on the back and covering his head.
“Come now, Loki,” he said. “Let us get you back to bed.”
The next morning Thor leaned over the breakfast table to flatten a large hand over Loki’s entire face.
“Thrr,” Loki’s voice came out muffled from under Thor’s palm, “Whuh urr you doing?”
“I am checking to see if you are fevered. As it stands, you are not.”
“Thnn stop doing it.” Loki tugged at Thor’s fingers.
Thor allowed his hand to be removed and roughly cast aside. Loki went back to aggressively slicing his piece of toast. Thor continued to stare at him with furrowed brow, as though he himself were in pain.
“I have seen you ill many times over the years, brother. But never have I known a sickness to interfere with your magic so completely. It troubles me to see you like this.”
“It is this Midgardian strain,” Loki sighed gloomily, setting down his tableware. “I cannot explain it myself. Go and find something to hit if the sight of me bothers you so.”
“I am only concerned for your welfare.”
“As you never tire of reminding me.”
Since Loki’s magic had stopped working and he was no longer able to teleport away whenever he desired, Thor had been indulging in his brother’s company even more than usual. He hovered and worried, poked and prodded. The Asgardians were an interesting spectacle in their interactions with one another, Tony thought. It was a bit like watching two dangerous animals play-fight at the zoo.
That afternoon a furious shouting match broke out over which movie they were going to watch- it had ended in blows. Thor tipped over the couch with Loki still on it and was yanked by the ankles off his feet into a rolling tackle that smashed three lamps, the glass doors of the entertainment center and Steve’s favourite coffee mug in one fell swoop. It was over in a span of two minutes and by the time anyone had arrived to intervene they were picking each other up off the floor.
“Everything okay in here?” Steve asked them, looking down sorrowfully at the remains of his mug.
“All is well,” Loki wiped his nose with the back of his hand, leaving across it a shiny red smear. “My apologies, Thor. I am afraid that my temper has been short of late. ”
“It is I who should be sorry, brother,” said Thor, pulling a long shard of glass out of his forearm. “You are unwell. It is only natural that you should be ill-humoured. I should not have let anger get the better of me. We shall watch ‘Toy Story 2’ as you wished.”
Thor righted the couch and the two of them curled up next to each other. Loki was pressing his nostrils together to stem the blood flow; Thor picked at bits of glass embedded in the skin of his bare arms. The older brother arranged a blanket over both their laps and smiled affectionately, the expression highlighting three long bright fingernail scrapes down the side of his face.
Loki said around his pinched nose, “Thank you, Thor. I really do love these Pixar films.”
“They are very fine indeed!” Thor agreed, cordially adding, “Friends, you all are most welcome to join us.”
“No thanks, big guy,” Tony spoke for the lot. “But you two enjoy yourselves.”
Tony left them unable to decide whether he was weirdly jealous or thankful to be an only child from earth.
Tony Stark was of the attitude that if a problem existed, there was nearly always a solution; you just had to find it. It was the nature of the universe; the exquisite circular synchronicity of biology. The idea that there were things he had no control over didn’t settle with him, either. He was always game for a challenge.
He’d been experimenting (unsuccessfully) with magic-nullifying technology for at least three years, since before he’d known that Thor even had a brother. That introduction had only spurred him on tenfold.
That had been over a year ago now, and none of the schemes or prototypes he’d come up with while bearing Loki in mind were anywhere near usable or at all safe for testing. In fact they were entirely fanciful and a younger Tony would have laughed them out of his sixth-grade science fair.
The problem always came down to the same thing; he didn’t understand magic. He couldn’t; it was sand through his fingers. No matter which freaky books he downloaded the contents of from his stolen entry point into SHIELD’s databases, no matter which villains he studied the every word and gesture of, he knew it was always going to be intangible to him and everything he tried against it compounded the fact.
So far there was nothing he could come up with that didn’t involve locking Loki in an enchanted box or hand-cuffing him permanently to a D-list member of the X-Men. Science simply didn’t apply.
But he would keep trying, to stay out of dodge for a while if nothing else.
After a few solid hours of pacing his work station and coming up with nothing, he decided to distract himself by finishing a repair on the leg of his armour; his personal equivalent to Zen. He could focus on nothing but the clear-cut, analytical movements of placing circuits and wires together until they cooperated to his satisfaction, without a thought for the needs and welfare of cows, guinea pigs or sick tricksters (or anyone else, for that matter).
He’d nearly finished the leg when he was startled by a familiar voice directly behind his ear. Tony jumped a mile and dropped the wrench he’d been holding. It hit the floor with a clang.
“What is this device?” Loki asked, pointing at You. “Is it sentient?”
You shrank away at Loki’s poking finger with an apprehensive coo, and wheeled backward several steps.
“Sort of,” Tony grumped, spinning the chair around. “What gives? How did you get in here? We talked about this. NO MAGIC, we agreed, remember?”
Loki looked amused. “Do not fret. I do not need spells to enter here.”
Tony made a mental note to change all of his very complicated security codes- again.
“And what are you doing here, exactly?”
Loki met him with a boundary-testing look that seemed more impertinent than was really necessary.
“I am bored. I felt a need to walk about. This seems to be one of the more interesting rooms in the house.”
“Yeah, because it’s mine,” Tony said bluntly. “My work space. My sanctuary. Entered by invitation only.”
Loki ran a fingertip down the side of one of the new test suits. He wiped it off on his pyjama bottoms as though cleaning off dust.
“This is where you conduct your little experiments?”
Tony picked up the wrench and tapped it threateningly against his palm. “Yeah, and I’m about to conduct a new one. Care to find out what that might be?”
Loki grinned down at him. “You are funny, Stark. I think you are my favourite.”
“Lucky me,” Tony gloomed.
“I’d like to know more about your science,” Loki said thoughtfully. He tiptoed his fingers over the armour that Tony was working on. “It holds different aspects to my own.”
“You think what you do is science?” Tony snorted.
“Of course,” Loki met him with a sharp look. “It is within the workings of the same universe, is it not? Even if your vision is really so narrow, you still must see that there are infinite forces at work, far beyond even my own understanding.”
Tony felt defensive. “Fine, I don’t necessarily believe in magic. I just don’t know how else to explain the things you do.”
That seemed a satisfactory response.
“Nor do I entirely, and that is good. It would be a sad day, if all there was to know had already been learned. I am chiefly immortal, and still I do not expect to see it.”
Tony recognized the truth in this statement as vast and profound. He couldn’t help leaning into it, awed at the reality of being sat so close to a being that might see the end of time.
Then Loki’s nose twitched. His eyes narrowed slightly.
“NO!” Tony lunged from his chair. He clamped Loki’s nostrils shut with his fingers.
A single green spark popped next to Tony’s ear.
Tony pulled himself up. Still pinching Loki’s nose, he grabbed the Trickster by the elbow and pulled him toward the exit.
“Not in here! Anywhere else, but NOT IN HERE!”
Despite having the physical advantage, Loki was too startled to do anything but move along with him.
Tony was preparing to toss him out on his Godly backside and slam the door in his face, when Loki yelped in a nasal voice, “I’m sorry!”
Tony hesitated in the door-frame, fingers twitching. He let go of Loki’s (wet, gross) nose.
“You are right,” Loki sighed, eyes lowered. “I am a danger to you. I can’t be near… anyone, it seems.”
Tony felt sort of bad. He loosened his grip on Loki’s forearm.
“You can’t come in here. Ever. Especially not now, but,” he bit his lip, “if you want some company, maybe we could go upstairs and watch a movie or something. I’m pretty much done with what I was doing.”
Loki frowned and nodded. “Yes, all right. I would like that.”
This was how Tony came to find himself playing footsie with Loki while watching ‘Some Like it Hot’ on cable. At least Tony was playing footsie; Loki’s feet were probably just cold.
Movies were the only easy conversation point that any of them had been able to find with the trickster so far. Television was new to him. Wherever he’d had been holing himself away before moving in with them, it apparently hadn’t come equipped with either satellite or digital. After a month or so of living with them, he was still as awed as Thor continued to be and Steve had been at first.
The week that Loki moved in, Tony had had to explain to him the functions of the remote (in the hopes it would keep him from breaking it). Loki had all the while stared at it distrustfully as though it were someone else’s wand that might not behave for him in the same way.
He had been taken aback by the concept of different channels and show-times and the idea that some shows were re-runs and others were new. Teaching him how to use Tivo had seemed like a task for another day, so for the first time in years, Tony had gone out and purchased a TV Guide for instruction.
The instant gratification of the DVD-player Loki found particularly thrilling, and he’d been interestedly making his way through their large selection of films. Tony had noticed him favouring animated and classic pictures, so when he saw that Marilyn was on the movie channel, he chose it as something he thought that Loki would like.
While they sat together, the thought crossed Tony’s mind that he was so used to seeing the man next to him laughing evilly on rooftops with things exploding behind him that sharing a blanket and watching black-and-white comedy still seemed pretty surreal.
Yet, it was oddly pleasant. Loki’s sock-covered feet were nestled against Tony’s thigh. During a commercial break, Tony was suddenly emboldened to ask:
“So what made you want to be an Avenger?”
There was pause. A smile tugged at the trickster’s lips. “I have wondered when one of you would ask.”
“Which means you must have thought up a good response by now. I’m not here to judge. Just curious.”
Loki answered simply. “It was time for change. When you have lived as long as I have, change becomes necessary. It is part of living, unless you are like Thor and have no brain at all.”
“So,” Tony sucked in a long breath. “That’s it? Just- wham, bam, villain to hero, just like that? You really are that fickle?”
“To you it must seem so,” Loki shrugged. “Perhaps I was bored. Perhaps I missed my brother’s company. What does it matter, when there is nothing you could do about it either way?”
Tony gathered that the Asgardian-to-English translation for this was: Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
“Did Fury really sign off on you?” he decided to ask anyway.
Tony wanted not to believe him, but with Loki the truths were always more damning than the lies.
“So you just… wanted to?”
“Thor insisted on the benefits of working with a team, the joys of trust, friendship and the like. I could see no downside,” Loki answered. “Either way, I would learn something useful.”
Of course. Either way.
The movie came back on and they stopped speaking.
After the ten minutes it had taken him to relax again and get back into the film, Tony saw that Loki had fallen asleep. He had also at some point inadvertently extended his legs fully across Tony’s lap. He snored lightly through his stuffed up nose.
Tony thought of the soothing peace of his lab and his unfinished work. There were only a few more pieces that needed soldering and then he’d be done.
He tried to move Loki without waking him. The legs weighed a ton and didn’t budge.
Tony sighed to himself. He supposed that work could wait until tomorrow.
He wriggled around until he was lying on the opposite end of the couch, still half-tangled in the trickster’s long limbs with only a shred of the blanket to cover him. Their feet touched in the middle.
Loki’s toe brushed against his and a wicked urge overtook him.
(In all fairness, Tony had been in less intimate positions during sex, so it was only natural for him to be feeling frisky with a hot-albeit-evil God leg-locked against him. And if he was going to be stuck here, at least he could have some fun.)
He pointed his toe at the highest arch of Loki’s foot and began moving it circularly. Loki’s foot twitched in response.
“Yoo-hoo,” Tony said softly. He slid his toe over Loki’s ankle. “Loki. You awake?”
Loki made a furrowed face and snorted. It was really pretty cute. The snoring stalled a few seconds. Tony didn’t move until it started up again.
With a giggle building inside him, Tony rather lewdly stroked the whole of his foot along the length of Loki’s bony ankle and smooth lower calf. He brought it back down teasingly, letting it writhe against the sole of Loki’s foot. For his own amusement he made a mental voice-over of the lecherous things he could be saying if Loki were awake and had a more self-deprecating sense of humour.
Mmm, that’s nice.
You like that do you? You should see what I can do with my other-
With a spasmic jerk, Loki’s foot shot out suddenly and kicked him in his ‘other’.
Tony smothered an unholy yowl into the couch cushion as his mind screamed a thousand profanities. His body went rigid as a board, then perfectly limp and still, all the way down to his toes. He didn’t move an inch until morning.
In his lab the next day, Tony balmed himself with work. He’d had nearly an hour to himself when the phone rang.
“JARVIS, get that. And whoever it is, tell them I’m not in.” he said, but apparently not loudly enough over the sound of the blowtorch. Impatient, Tony switched off the torch and picked up the call himself.
“Unless somebody’s dying, I’m not in,” he told Coulson.
“You’re in. Your old flame Madame Masque has created a hostage scenario at a plastic surgery unit uptown. I thought you might do better alone on this.”
“What do you want me to do?” Tony asked. “Tell her I think that she’s crazy no matter what she looks like on the outside?”
“Be nice. You know how susceptible women can be to flattery. Talk her down.”
Tony pushed back his goggles on his forehead and paused. “You just want her to focus her anger on me and forget about the hostages, don’t you?”
He heard Coulson try not to laugh on the other end of the line. “I just really think that you’re the man for this job.”
“We could come with you, you know,” Steve offered as Tony clomped through the kitchen in his armour.
“No thanks. You stay here and babysit. I’ve got this one.”
Steve nodded reluctantly. “Any word on Fury?”
“Still nothing. Coulson’s got a real bug up his ass about it, too.”
“I don’t think I like not knowing where he is,” Clint admitted. “What if he’s here? What if he’s been hiding behind the walls,” he affected a spooky voice, “…watching?”
Tony knew he would be left to think about that later as he walked the long corridors of the mansion at night, imagining the portraits with their eyes cut out and Fury’s irate one-eyed stare following him on the other side.
“Thanks for the imagery,” he adjusted his helmet. “Gotta go.”
“Call us if things get out of hand,” Steve said, watching him cross the room, still a bit doubtful. “You’re sure this is a solo mission?”
“An unstable woman with low self-esteem who needs to work out her anger by kicking the crap out of someone she used to sleep with?” said Tony, backwards-stepping onto the balcony. “This sounds like a job for Iron Man!”
He snapped on his helmet and shot off into the sky.
He cruised over skyscrapers and made his way uptown. When he knew he was close, he spoke into the HUD.
“JARVIS, Marble Hill Cosmetic Surgeons: coordinates.”
As a response, loud furious white noise hissed in his ears and filled the screen of the HUD blindingly. Tony frantically switched off visual.
“Oh, crap. JARVIS?”
The reply sounded similar to the home stretch of a Pink Floyd album. Tony was forced to switch the AI off completely to keep his ears from ringing.
Several hours later, when he’d made it back to his work-station after a long, painful, semi-successful slog, he called out again. “JARVIS?”
“FWWAAARRRYYYDIDIDI,” the AI responded.
“Never mind. Sleep mode,” Tony said grimly, and watched all of his computer screens dim, just slightly.
The trajectory of Loki’s illness had been to go from bad to worse. His symptoms, which had previously amounted to steady dull misery, had cranked up to wild and out of control.
His nose streamed endlessly; he sniffled every few seconds and blew his nose every few minutes, without ever seeming able to breathe. He burst into sudden explosive fits of sneezing that propelled them all to run and duck for cover.
His mood had soured thoroughly and he snarled whenever Thor tried to bring him food or keep him company. When anyone else came into the room he turned off the television and shielded his face with a book until they left.
Sparks flew. Picture frames flung themselves from the walls and shattered. A vase exploded in a spray of porcelain that left a latticework of tiny cuts down one side of Clint’s face. Though nobody else had as yet been transfigured into an animal or a shoe or a note of music, it was surely just a matter of time.
“I knew this was going to happen,” Tony said darkly, chin resting on his fist at the kitchen table. “I hope you’re happy.”
“We made the right call,” Steve maintained mulishly, though even he was starting to look a little frayed around the edges. “You don’t back out on your teammates.”
Thor nodded at this appreciatively, and scowled at Tony.
There was a muffled sound from the other room. The toaster fired Thor’s Pop Tarts at the ceiling and then burst into flame.
Apart from Thor, they all began to steer clear of him.
Loki seemed to have gotten the hint and maybe even hoped to avoid turmoil himself. The first sign of this had been when he vanished from the living room where he’d basically taken over the couch. The second… well.
Tony had woken in the dead of night, dry-mouthed and disoriented, still kind of drunk and needing rather urgently to pee.
He made a blind stumble of the hallway, a path he’d memorized well enough not to bother with the light-switch. He was halfway to the bathroom when he heard from the direction of Thor’s room the onslaught of one of Loki’s sneezing fits. Upon the last, particularly ferocious sneeze he saw a lightning-flash of green blaze from every crevice of Thor’s bedroom door.
Tony stood where he was for perhaps a minute, then lumbered forward down the hall and propped himself against the wall near Thor’s room.
“Loki?” he hissed at the door.
A muffled voice responded. “Yes.”
“Did something bad just happen?”
“That is relative.”
“But something did happen?”
Tony rubbed a hand vigorously over his whole face. “Okay, okay… Are either of you injured, or…” he sucked in a deep breath. “Do I need to wake everyone up, or can it wait until morning?”
On the other side of the door he heard muted sounds of discussion. There was another long pause, then:
“I would say it can wait.”
“Don’t freak out, but-” Steve held up his hands, “Loki had another accident.”
Tony had been summoned to Thor’s room. He hadn’t bothered to mention the incident of last night and thankfully, it seemed, neither had Thor or Loki.
“Right. I figured as much.”
“It is strange… I feel no different,” said Thor with a shrug.
In a way, he looked no different either. He was exactly himself in every detail, right down to the winged helmet. It was just that he was seven inches tall rather than nearly seven feet. He looked just like an action figure come to life.
Loki reached for a handful of tissues and in the next moment was pressing them against his nose. He jerked forward and sneezed into them, twice.
“He is fine,” Loki sniffled noisily and waved an annoyed hand. He was sitting up in bed, blankets up to his chest, surrounded by about a thousand used tissues. “I will change him back as soon as the chance presents itself.”
“I know, but-,” Steve’s frown deepened. “Thor, are you sure you’re okay? Tony and I are here, and… what can we do for you?”
“Do not worry, friends. I am well. As Loki has said, I will soon be myself again. Until then he and I shall look after each other.”
The other thing chiefly different about Thor was his voice. Normally deep and booming, he now sounded like a cartoon squirrel.
“There is little you can do, unless you plan on creating a habitat for him like Banner’s,” said Loki. His tone aimed for superiority, but was so badly congested that all the ‘N’s’ and ‘T’s’ in the sentence had turned to ‘D’s’. He frowned and blew his nose.
Tony looked around, realizing that this was the first time he’d ever set foot in Thor’s bedroom. He’d never had a reason to, before.
“Have you guys been sleeping in the same bed?” he asked.
Loki’s voice was muffled through the wad of tissues. “Yes. Why?”
“We shared a bed for many years as children. I do not find it strange.”
“You’re not exactly little boys anymore, though. How do you even fit?”
“Well, as you can see,” Loki pointed out, “That will not be a problem now, will it?”
Tony was asleep when the call came through late that night.
He woke to a loud, persistent knocking at his bedroom door. It was Steve.
“Tony, wake up. We’ve got a situation.”
These were Tony’s least favourite words at four in the morning, but they were also the only ones guaranteed to get him out of bed.
Steve, Natasha, Tiny Thor and Loki were in the kitchen dressed in their pyjamas. Steve’s cell phone was on the table, plugged into the surround sound.
“Clint, Tony’s here,” said Steve to the phone. “Can you start from the beginning?”
Clint’s desperate-sounding voice came through.
“Hello? Am I on speaker?” Clint’s voice boomed at maximum volume, nearly vibrating the walls. Everyone clapped their hands over their ears while Tony scrambled to lower the volume.
“We hear you, buddy. What’s the problem?” Tony winced.
Now that the volume was levelled, they could more clearly hear Clint’s laboured breathing, like he’d been running wind-sprints.
“I’m in Asgard.”
There was a long silence. Everyone stared at Loki, who pointedly ignored them.
“Guys? Are you still there?”
Steve cleared his throat. “Is that… are you sure that’s where you are?”
“I’m one-hundred percent sure.”
“Okay,” Steve paused, taking a breath. He folded his arms in front of him as if looking for something to do with his hands. “Are you in immediate danger? Are you hurt?”
“I’m physically okay. Psychologically-”
“Sorry, how are you calling us from another realm?” Tony interrupted.
Clint was prepared for this question, and seemed eager to answer it.
“Remember about two years ago when I went out drinking with Doctor Strange, and I told you it was all pretty chill?”
They did. Tony had always had his suspicions about that night.
Clint went on. “Well, what actually happened was that he got totally hammered and told me a few decades worth of embarrassing stuff. He called me up the next day and basically offered to do me a favour if I kept it to myself.”
“I asked him to enchant my cell phone. So that no matter where I was, I would always get a signal.”
“That,” Tony raised an eyebrow, “is actually a really good idea.”
“It’s why I keep refusing to upgrade.”
Tiny Thor jogged across the table, up to the edge of the cell-phone. He laid his hands down near the receiver and yelled, “In what province of Asgard are you, Clint Barton?”
Clint paused. “Hello? Natasha?”
Tony spoke loudly in the direction of the phone. “Do you know where you are at all? Tell us what you see.”
“Well, I… I’m in a field and… it looks like there’s a farm nearby,” Clint said uncertainly. “I can see this enormous sort of castle thing about…five miles from here? And there are some caves at the edge of a big forest, and these giant scary-looking blue guys have been going in and out of them.”
This last detail had an immediate effect on Loki and Thor. They both took it like a kick in the teeth.
“The Jotunheim! They have infiltrated Asgard?” Thor said, shocked. “How many?”
“Um… Natasha, I’m sorry but I really can’t understand you.”
Loki leaned toward the phone. “You must go to Odin.”
“What?!,” Clint squawked. “You want me to talk to Odin? I don’t want to talk to Odin! No! Guys, you have GOT to get me out of here, now! Loki, whatever you did, just undo it. I don’t care how dangerous you think it is, just-”
“This is important, Barton, listen carefully,” said Loki. “Make your way to the castle. Tell the guards that you are friend to the princes of Asgard. Tell them that you are there at the request of Thor, to bring news of our conquest of Midgard. They will take you to the All-father.”
“Conquest, yes,” snapped Loki. “Be sure to show that you are weak and stupid so that they do not take you for a threat. Tell him that my brother and I have made peace with one another and that we fight side-by-side to protect the realms. When you have his trust, tell Odin that our enemies the Jotuns have infiltrated Asgard.”
There was a lengthy beat on Clint’s end of the line.
“I’m sure you meant to say pretend to be weak and stupid.”
Loki rolled his eyes. “If you prefer.”
Another pause. Even in the static across realms, they could all hear Clint grinding his teeth.
“Fine… just… fine. But I hate this, you know that? I really, really hate this.”
There was an audible click, followed by dial tone.
“Well… I’m sure he’ll call back,” Steve said gravely, and switched off the phone.
Holding a steaming mug of peppermint tea in one hand and a shopping bag in the other, Tony knocked at Thor’s bedroom door early the next day. He heard a grunt on the other side that may have meant ‘come in’, so he did.
Loki was sitting cross-legged on the carpet, hunched over a huge, ancient-looking book. He had a blanket draped around his shoulders and was holding a fistful of Kleenex to his nose, presumably to keep it from dripping on the pages.
“Hello Stark,” he said without looking up. “Have I any new transgressions to answer for?”
“None that I’m aware of,” Tony replied, stepping into the room. The pages of the book were browned with age and written in the most foreign-looking text that Tony had ever seen. “What are you reading?”
“It is the definitive manuscript of Jotunheim. It covers all aspects of life, law and tradition there.”
On closer inspection Tony could see imperfect handwriting and slight smudges of ink. “Must be rare. I’m guessing they don’t have printing presses.”
“Ha!” Loki snorted bitterly, “Precious few of them are even taught to read their own language. They certainly are a backward lot by all accounts so far. It’s rather infuriating.”
Knowing the response he’d get, Tony didn’t bother to ask how Loki had managed to get his hands on such a thing. Instead he held out his offerings.
“I brought presents. And tea,” He set the mug down on the floor beside Loki. “Well, ‘presents’ sounds more exciting than ‘stuff from the drugstore’.”
Loki poked through the contents of the CVS bag. There were various medicines, two boxes of tissues, and a card with a picture of a cute teddy-bear that said, ‘Wishing you a speedy recovery: Get Well Soon’.
“And I mean that sincerely,” Tony accentuated.
Loki fingered the card and smiled slightly, then looked up at him. “That is kind of you, Stark. Thank you.”
Tony had no idea why he felt so pleased. He curbed an urge to pat Loki on the head.
Loki yawned lengthily and stood up, stretching his long arms. He picked up the mug, hefted the book off the floor and made his way to the bed. “I must lie down. I tire so easily. It is frustrating.”
“You should sleep if you can,” Tony agreed, watching him climb into bed and pull the blankets over himself. He glanced over at the nightstand, where they’d set up Thor with a Barbie Dream Bed, blanketed with a linen dinner-napkin.
“He is keeping busy. He has been driving me to frustration with his endless lingering and irksome new voice, so I suggested a pastime that he seemed quite keen to try.”
“Let me guess. Am I going to find him dangling off the end of Mjolnir?”
Loki’s mouth twitched. He shrugged.
Unmoved by Tony’s prompting, he would elaborate no further, except to hint,
“Perhaps you should go and find him. I’d suggest the living room.”
Tony decided to make himself a cup of coffee before going on the hunt for Thor. The twinkle in Loki’s eye had told him he should probably brace himself. Almost to the second that he’d poured the brew into his ‘Certified Genius’ mug, he heard a rattling sound coming from the living room.
Tony entered the room and looked for the source of the sound. It didn’t take long for him to find it.
Thor was inside Banner’s cage. He had fashioned a saddle from what looked like the toe of one of Tony’s expensive leather dress-shoes and had attached it to the guinea pig with a wide elastic hair-band. He was sitting on top of it.
Tony nearly spat out his coffee.
“Are you trying to ride him?” Tony choked out.
Tony came for a closer look, eyebrows raised. “You do know what happens to him when he’s angry, right?”
Thor petted Banner on his fluffy flank.
“He is taking to it most well!” the God announced happily. “I have not broken him in yet, but he learns quickly. He will make a fine steed.”
After a brief failed argument, Tony left them to the sound of the exercise wheel spinning and Thor’s tiny voice calling out, “Ride on, Banner! Ride on!”
Tony spent several hours in the gym that afternoon without even needing to be dragged there first by Steve or his personal trainer. He jogged and squatted and did stomach-crunches until he was sore and soaked in sweat. After a shower, he spent an hour in the library and then went to visit Loki again, this time with books under his arm.
Loki still had the scary-looking Jotun book laid across his lap. He had made remarkable progress through it over the course of the day, and was close to being finished.
Tony laid the stack of books on the side of the bed near Loki’s hips.
“You said you wanted to know more about the kind of science we puny earthlings subscribe to, so I brought you these. For when you’re done with…that.”
There were half a dozen books in total. A couple of popular science books: Hawking, Feynman, Sagan- he’d decided to go with some of the hot stuff. For balance he threw in several dry academic tomes to see which ones Loki would react to most.
“I don’t know if this is what you were interested in or if you’ve already read them. But I personally found them enjoyable.”
Loki’s eyes were alight with interest. He picked up the Hawking and fanned through the pages with his thumb. “I appreciate this, Stark. This is very thoughtful.”
“No problem,” said Tony. The warm swell in his chest felt like a reward.
After the books, Tony realized that Loki might want a journal to take notes in while he read, so he brought him a nice leather-bound one in emerald green. Then he brought a crow-quill pen because he’d remembered Loki preferring them to Biros. When he couldn’t think of anything else related, he brought a pair of slippers. He found himself preparing frequent, unasked-for cups of tea and volunteering to deliver any food or drinks that were going upstairs.
It took a day and a half of this for Tony to admit to himself he’d developed another addictive trait. He was well-known for indulging in urges that were bad for his physical health; it wasn’t that much of a surprise that Loki would end up being one of them. He could be philosophical about it.
So he had a little crush on Loki; so what? It wasn’t his most stupid or dangerous move ever. As long as he didn’t act on it, it barely made his top five.
Loki eventually became suspicious and confronted him. The Teddy bear, apparently, had been the last straw.
Loki held up the cuddly toy, rubbing one of his eyes. “Is there something you want, Stark? You need only ask and I will decide whether or not it is possible.”
Tony paused and thought about how best to answer.
“Sex,” he went with.
“I am being serious.”
“So am I. I’ve been buttering you up with tea and slippers in the hopes that you and I will do the Forbidden Dance.”
This response yielded him a spectacular eye-roll.
“Mmm, I see. Then I suppose I will thank you and leave it at that,” Loki said, and placed the Teddy bear on the pillow next to him. He went back to reading ‘A Brief History of Time’ and didn’t look up again until Tony got tired of standing there watching and left.
The remaining Avengers were gathered in the kitchen. Clint was on the line with news from Asgard.
They asked him about the Jotuns and their actions, since last they’d spoken.
“Nothing much going on, from what I gather. They’re still hiding out in the caves,” Clint answered. “I guess Odin’s been keeping an eye on them, but they haven’t really done anything yet.”
“What have you been up to?” asked Tony.
“Chillin’. Mostly just sitting around the castle, hanging out with Frigga. She keeps showing me baby books. I’ve seen, like, a hundred artists renderings of Thor and Loki in the bathtub together.”
Tony leaned back in his chair. “You know, I bet now that you’re bosom buddies with the King and Queen of Asgard, they’d probably be willing to put you on the midnight train home from the rainbow bridge. Especially if you tell them that their sons asked nicely.”
There was a silence on the other end of the line.
“Yeah, but… Well, I thought maybe I should stick around to monitor the whole Jotun situation until it blows over. Might be important. And, if I’m honest, I’d kind of prefer to stay out of range of Loki’s magic sneezes for now if it’s all the same to you. Unless you desperately need me there?”
“Not as long as you’re happy to stay,” Steve replied.
“I’m cool. It’s really nice here, actually. There was an archery tournament the other day,” Clint said, his voice swelling with excitement. “I obviously impressed, and now I’m like, everybody’s best friend. And they seriously know how to party around here. These guys drink mead with breakfast. And the food! Tonight there’s an outdoor boar-roast.”
“Sounds like you’re doing all right, then. Just try to keep us updated regularly.”
“I will, I promise. Listen, I gotta go, Frigga’s calling me. I’ll call back in a few days,” Clint promised them, then remembered to add, “Oh and hey, Loki? Nice birthmark!”
Loki’s face turned beet-red. He grabbed the cell-phone and demanded, “How does one silence this contraption?”
Though some of his symptoms had begun to die down, the infection had worked its way into Loki’s chest and he had developed a bad cough. It could be heard tearing from him in practically every room of the house. More items of furniture were upended, and the electricity had started to flicker on and off, day and night, in time with his heaving chest.
Tony’s confusing new feelings for the trickster didn’t prevent him from spending the day wishing that Loki had just slithered off to one of his hidey-holes the moment he’d gotten sick and left them all in peace.
“I can’t work like this!” Tony threw a graphics tablet to the floor of his lab in a tantrum, after having had to start his design over for about the millionth time.
Pepper Potts nodded sympathetically. “I’ll order a humidifier.”
“This is the only ‘me’ time I’ve had in days, and nothing works! Everything is a mess! And did I tell you he killed JARVIS?” Tony continued to rant. Pepper, unflappable, was normally an excellent sounding board.
“That does sound frustrating. But since there’s the board meeting tomorrow, which I know you’re attending because I’ve reminded you eight-hundred times since Friday,” his assistant gestured to the six-inch-thick sheaf of Stark Industries paperwork she’d brought over. “You should really use this extra time to look over and sign these.”
“In the dark?” Tony pouted.
A little smile twitched on Pepper’s lips and she handed him a flashlight.
Later he and Steve sat together in the kitchen over cups of coffee, after Pepper had left in high spirits.
“What are we supposed to do about this?” he asked Steve miserably.
They heard Loki hacking from down the hall. He’d gotten back in the habit of spending all his time in the living room, swaddled in blankets, flipping channels and sleeping.
The overhead light sputtered out, and the room went black.
“I don’t know about you,” Steve replied in the darkness. “But I’m going to go make him some chicken soup.”
“You’re looking a bit better,” Tony commented the next evening, after returning from an excruciatingly long Stark Industries board meeting to a mostly empty house.
“I do feel some improvement. Thank you for the steam device,” Loki replied, taking an exploratory breath. His chest still sounded wheezy but not nearly as much like a broken lawnmower.
“Thank Pepper. She’s the one that thought of it.”
In addition to the humidifier, Loki also seemed to benefitting from the medicinal properties of Grandma Rogers’ homemade chicken soup. He looked brighter than he had in days.
In fact he looked good.
Because Tony had gone nearly a full twenty-four hours without doing anything dangerous, he said:
“Hey. Wanna go watch a movie in my room?”
‘Casablanca’ was on, but they weren’t really watching it. They were sprawled out on Tony’s massive bed on top of the blankets, each holding tumbler glasses full of twenty-five year old scotch whiskey. The film was about halfway in and they had already made it most of the way through the bottle.
Tipping his glass from one side to the other and eyeing the gleaming amber fluid against the overhead light, Loki gleefully admonished, “This drink is very strong,” in the way of someone who didn’t often drink.
Tony stretched his arm out decadently to clink his glass against Loki’s. “It’s smooth, baby. Only the best at chez Stark.”
“You are a liberal host, I will give you that.”
Tony was still half in his Armani suit, jacket and shoes off and tie pulled loose. Loki was wearing a pair of borrowed pyjama pants and a thin black thermal shirt. His skin was soft from a recent shower and he smelled of juniper-scented soap and something distinctively Loki-ish.
Tony had a high tolerance for a variety of things; pain, criticism and booze were just a few. With booze, he was always unconsciously working out new levels with which to test himself. He was getting pretty drunk now, that much he could tell as the tingling numbness spread warmly upwards from his abdomen, through the back of his throat and into his brain, dripping down his cerebral cortex. His ruined judgement propelled him blindly toward pleasure.
Tony watched Loki watch the screen and felt a powerful urge taking over him.
A year and some months ago when he’d nearly gotten flattened by Mjolnir for saying (after several dry Martinis), “Thor, your evil brother is hot”, the idea of putting the moves on Loki had been in many ways the self-preservation equivalent to popping a live grenade in his mouth and attempting to swallow it.
But now they were teammates, and the trickster was semi-redeemed, slightly buzzed and laid out comfortably in his bed. Anything seemed possible. And unbidden thoughts of Thor’s evil brother were becoming an increasingly demanding feature of Tony’s daily life.
Loki was swaying slightly sitting up, eyes fixed ahead of him at the television without really seeming to be taking it in. Strands of dark hair fell across his cheeks. Onscreen, Humphrey Bogart was pulling a struggling Ingrid Bergman into his arms, but it was plain to see that she wanted him.
This is happening, Tony decided then and there. He wanted it too much in that moment not to take it. And if he failed, the worst thing that could happen was that he’d be ripped limb from limb by a cantankerous God with impaired judgement. It would probably at least be quick.
He nudged Loki’s shoulder with his own. “Loki.”
Loki turned to him expectantly. His eyes were shiny, unearthly green and a thousand years old. It was almost too much for Tony to bear.
“Screw it,” he said out loud, and planted his lips squarely on Loki’s.
Loki’s mouth went stiff for a few seconds, then suddenly seemed to blossom and went pliant and flower-petal smooth.
The kiss was surprisingly gentle. Their lips touched softly, making feathery movements against each other. Tony leaned over further to level himself so that their foreheads touched, and strands of Loki’s hair brushed against his cheeks. He reached a hand up to tangle his fingers in it and run his thumb along a sharp cheekbone. He could taste the tang of the scotch and something like ions, the mineral flavour of air before a storm. Tony widened his jaw to go deeper. Loki let his famous tongue wander out for a split second before pulling away.
“What are you doing?” he asked, leaning far enough back to give Tony a full stare.
“Kissing you,” he replied. “Because I wanted to.”
“You are quite drunk,” Loki observed, eyebrows raised.
Tony gave an enormous shrug and a little laugh.
“I’m drunk, you’re hot and we’re both good kissers. And you can’t turn me into a bunny-rabbit unless you do it by accident, so,” he spread out his arms like a magician who’d just performed a very good trick. “There you go.”
“You know that I am likely contagious,” was all that Loki could think to say.
“And I’ve got enough alcohol in my system to sterilize a hospital ward.”
“You are most likely right about that,” Loki agreed. He took another sip of whiskey and pulled a face. It brought on a fresh bout of raspy coughing.
The ceiling had begun to spin and Tony’s vision hazed at the edges. The voices of Bogart and Bergman and the sound of Loki coughing were seeping into the whirlpool.
“Let’s sleep,” Tony decided. He scrambled under the blanket fully clothed and held it up, waiting. Loki, recovering himself, eyed him warily but in due course crawled underneath. He turned his back to Tony and curled himself into a ball.
Tony took this as an invitation to wrap an arm around the trickster’s waist and pull him close to his chest. Loki didn’t necessarily encourage it but didn’t stop him either. Tony settled himself against Loki’s frame, familiarizing himself with its bony contours. He could feel the trickster’s heart beating against him, through his ribs. A smile spread slowly across his face, and he hugged Loki closer.
Yes, world, he thought. I am spooning the God of Chaos!
I think he likes it!
And I kissed him!
Sober common sense, take that!
Tony woke alone the next morning to a truly splitting headache. He supposed this must be his rightful comeuppance for trying to out-drink a God.
He swallowed a fistful of Excedrin and made the decision to by no means mention or acknowledge in any way the events of the night before.
To his slight disappointment, it seemed Loki had taken up the same tact.
The trickster also appeared very much the worse for wear. His face looked puffy and tired, like he hadn’t slept very well, and when Tony came into the kitchen he picked up his teacup, nodded at him and walked out.
Tony decided then that he was going out.
Tony loved living at the mansion with his fellow Avengers. They were his only real peers, people as talented and exceptional as himself. They were some of the best friends he’d ever have, and he trusted them with his life.
That said, in order to maintain and nourish that love, sometimes he needed to get away. Every so often he’d wake up bruised from a fight, and follow the first ridiculous whim that came to mind. He’d call Pepper, tell her he needed the jet ready in an hour and leave a vague note on the fridge saying that he’d be back sometime soon, don’t wait around and don’t call unless it’s the border of the apocalypse.
Sometimes he just needed to be Tony Stark, selfish billionaire playboy for the better part of a day and he’d blow off some steam and be fine.
The setting was important, so he decided on his favourite local Casino. However early in the day, it was the sort of place you could go to before noon to find everyone dressed in evening-wear and already half in the bag.
As soon as he arrived he was spotted and surrounded by a bevy of attractive social climbers, both male and female. The women were plentiful and obvious, yanking down the necklines of their elastic dresses to reveal their sizeable rights to his attention. The men (he could tell by a certain twinkle of the eye) informed him through looks and long touches that yes, they’d read the gossip rags and they knew how he liked variety. They all pawed and fawned over him as he ordered drinks for them all to enjoy.
Models, actors, up-and-comers, the beautiful and desperate: they were all so damn eager to please him. That was exactly the problem.
Tony squandered his bets; he lost money at poker but won most of it back accidentally on roulette. He extricated himself from his travelling throng and hid in the VIP bar until they’d dispersed.
A short while later Tony found himself in a corner of the room in close conversation with a tall Eastern-European girl with angular features and shoulder-length black hair. She was telling him about her struggles since moving to New York, how hard it had been to find luck in show business. He realized five minutes in that he’d barely taken in a word she was saying because he’d been too busy imagining what it would be like to have her berating him while wearing an enormous gold helmet.
“Sorry, wait,” he gulped at his scotch. “Did you say you’re an actress?”
“You have vexed me one too many times, Stark. I think it is time you were taught a lesson.”
“More British with the accent. Posh, not cockney. That’s good though. Keep going.”
There was a beat, then: “Did you really think that you and your little friends ever stood a chance against my power? You still exist because I allow for it, and for no other reason.”
“More mean, less angry. Otherwise good, good.”
“I would think you would be grateful.”
Tony grunted, pulling against his restraints, “Oh yeah? And how are you planning on punishing me for my ingratitude?”
Unable to see through the blindfold he was wearing, he hadn’t spotted his captor coming close before saying, “I plan on having my way with you, but not until you pleasure me first. And I plan on making you beg me for it.”
There was a pause, and Tony knew they had come to the end of his hastily written script. No matter. He could improvise from here.
“Untie me and I just might.”
The girl straddled him and removed the scarves that tied him to the hotel room’s four-poster bed. Tony pounced, keeping the blindfold on, careful not to run his hands over any body parts that might shatter the illusion. He felt warm living skin and coarse hair and delicate bone structure. He moved eagerly to enter her but she stopped him.
“Beg me,” she whispered.
Tony rubbed his hard-on desperately against bare skin and gritted his teeth.
“Rrrrgh,” Tony growled and let out a hiss. “Loki, please…”
“Who is Loki?” she asked, after.
“God of Chaos. Prince of Lies. Evil incarnate.”
“He is your ex, then?”
“He’s an ex-something. Alledgedly.”
Confused, she asked, “But you still like him very much?”
She pulled the lush satin sheets around herself and furrowed her brow at the ceiling.
“He sounds very strange.”
Tony smiled against the pillow, rolling to face the other way. “Honey, you have no idea. Ready for another round? I’ve come up with some very in-character lines.”
Her name was Ivanka and Tony would make sure she found work in this town. He also keyed her number into his phone for further potential use.
He returned to the mansion feeling invincible again, shamelessly prepared to look Thor in the eye after spending the better part of a day playing long perverted sex games starring his brother.
Almost the minute he arrived home, Tony heard himself being called from the living room.
“Stark? Is that you?”
“The one and only!” he shouted back.
“How fortunate,” came the response. “Would you mind terribly bringing me a glass of water?”
It was Loki, his voice a small croak.
“Yes, Princess,” called Tony. He grabbed a bottle of mineral water from the fridge and poured it into a glass.
“I’m not wearing my French maid’s uniform, I hope you can forgive-”
Tony stopped in the doorway mid-sentence. All of his good humour bottomed out immediately.
Loki was hunched in a corner of the sofa, shivering under a pile of blankets. His eyes were glassed-over and his cheeks were lividly pink.
Tony went to the couch and sat down next to Loki. Heat radiated off him; Tony laid a hand on his forehead and it burned.
Even worse, there was a weird hectic energy surrounding him, like light-waves rising off tarmac on a scorching summer day. The air there felt crackly and disturbed.
Tony held out the glass gravely. “Here, drink this.”
Loki reached for it with trembling hands. Tony helped him sit up and held it steady while he swallowed it down in one long gulp.
“Thank you,” Loki rasped.
Tony’s head was still spinning. He looked around the room. “Have you been here alone? Where’s Thor?”
“He was here earlier,” Loki said tiredly. “But I fell asleep. When I awoke he was gone.”
Tony felt ill at ease. He couldn’t imagine Thor leaving his brother in such a state. His eyes fell on Banner’s cage.
To his horror, it was empty.
“What about Steve and Natasha?” Tony asked absently.
“I called out for them, but heard no answer.”
“We’ve really got to teach you to use a cell-phone,” Tony grumbled. “Just… hang on. I’ll be right back.”
He came back a minute later with more water, some aspirin, and couple of damp facecloths. He made Loki swallow the pills and tucked one of the cloths against the back of Loki’s neck and the other folded in half over on his forehead.
“Leave those there,” he instructed. “I’ll be back in five minutes.”
Loki opened his eyes halfway, his hazy look unreadable.
Tony squeezed his shoulder gently. “Five minutes” he said. “I promise.”
Tony strode quickly around the mansion.
He went to Steve’s room first. His Cap uniform was still here, hung up against the wall.
“Steve?” he called out, to no response.
Sick with fear, he thought of Loki downstairs with a raging fever, bad magic crackling off him like a live wire.
Steve… Please, Steve, not you too.
Natasha’s room was empty as well. He walked on down the hall in a living nightmare, glancing frantically from room to room, passing one after the other, looking for signs of life.
All of a sudden there was a horrible crunch under Tony’s boot.
He froze. A bolt of terror shot through him. He lifted his foot and looked down.
Scattered on the carpet was the destroyed head of a small porcelain doll. It was hard to tell what it had looked like before he’d stepped on it, but he could make out golden ringlets and blue glass eyes.
The doll’s frilly pinafore dress was red, white and blue, and patterned with tiny white stars.
“Steve?” he whispered.
Tony fell to his knees, picking up pieces of the doll’s broken face with quivering hands. “STEVE!?”
Tony turned around.
Steve was standing behind him. He was wearing his Super-Soldier uniform that he wore when he worked with the Secret Avengers. Natasha peered over his shoulder, trying to decide whether or not Tony had lost his mind.
Steve looked down inquiringly. “You okay?”
“I thought…,” Tony winced, “Never mind.”
Natasha noticed the doll and bent down, snatching it up.
“Hey, that’s mine! What were you doing in my room? You broke it!”
“That was a really rare doll!” Natasha complained, waving the remains at him. “They were hand-painted and given out to the daughters of decorated soldiers at the end of the second World-War. There were fewer than a hundred made, and they’re very hard to come by.”
“You collect dolls?” Tony stuttered.
“I collect World-War II paraphernalia!”
“Look, I’ll do what I can to replace it… never mind about that now. We’ve got much bigger problems.”
“Great,” Natasha sighed dejectedly. “Let me guess.”
An hour later, Thor was pacing furiously back and forth on the kitchen table. His chipmunk-y voice had risen to full volume.
“To think! That you would all leave without word, with Banner and I unfit for such threat, and Loki so ill!” Thor thundered. He clenched his little fists. “I am having trouble forgiving it!”
“Thor,” Natasha began cautiously, “There’s a group called the Shadow Council. A new incarnation of it, called the Masters of Evil-”
“You gave no warning!” Thor objected stoutly. “We Avengers are a team, are we not? We are meant to act as one, and though I could do nothing to help, to inform me of your parting would have helped most greatly!”
Tony, Steve and Natasha shrank in their seats like misbehaved kids in the principal’s office. There wasn’t much they could say to that.
Not long after Steve and Natasha had returned and had gone to check on Loki, Tony had discovered Thor and Bruce at the top of a steep flight of stairs that led down to the basement. They were trapped together in the hamster-ball, stuck between the wall and a shoe. Any strong movement could have caused them to tumble to their doom.
After the initial respite of his rescue, Thor had described the extent of the episode.
“Loki slept for much of the day. I scaled the couch and found him to be burning with fever. I mounted Banner to seek help, but remembered that he moved with a greater speed in his Ball. We journeyed the house but could find no aid. When we travelled the kitchen, disaster fell.”
Thor’s anger was understandable. He had been stuck in a plastic ball with a pooping Guinea pig for three hours, alone and terrified for his brother.
Considering what he’d been up to at the time, Tony felt extraordinarily bad.
“We’re really sorry, Thor,” he said genuinely. “I swear to you, from now on, we won’t let you down again.”
Aspirin, water and continuous bathing with damp cloths had brought Loki’s fever down from scary to high-but-manageable. He slept fitfully on the couch, with all of them taking turns watching over him.
“He’s been pretty out of it,” Steve had told him, when Tony arrived for his shift. “He thought I was Thor for a while. He gave me a hug then backhanded me. Hard.”
“Thorrr,” Loki slurred from the couch.
“I am here, brother!” Thor called, wriggling around unhappily in Tony’s hand.
Thor had needed a lot of convincing that he could not be allowed sit on the pillow beside Loki’s head as he had done in the days before, due to the fact that he would likely be crushed in the process of Loki’s constant tossing and turning.
Tony set Thor on the nightstand and set up his Barbie bed (which Natasha had provided, come to think: Oh, Tony was so on to her). Thor sat at the edge of it with his elbows on his knees and his chin rested on his fists, and seemed to just miserably wait.
Tony didn’t consider himself much of a nursemaid, but he had watched plenty of historical romances and several seasons of ‘Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman’’, so he didn’t think he was completely unqualified to hold a bedside vigil.
Monitoring Loki didn’t actually involve that much fuss. Tony sat in the recliner next to him with a James Ellroy novel on his lap, glancing up from it occasionally. He listened to Loki breathe and mutter deliriously, mostly to ask for Thor or his mother.
Once when he seemed lucid enough, Tony spooned broth at him.
“They shall fall to their knees,” Loki mumbled in a cracked voice, wide over-bright eyes staring at a fixed point on the ceiling.
“Mmm-hmm. I bet they sure will,” said Tony, dipping the spoon toward him. “Here comes the airplaanne…”
With Tony coaxing him, Loki swallowed exactly six spoonfuls of broth and would take no more. He nodded out again quickly and didn’t seem to notice when Tony shoved a digital thermometer into his ear.
“He must have the flu,” concluded Natasha, who had come to take over for Tony a few hours later. “His temperature wouldn’t have gotten so high from just a cold.”
Tony shrugged. “Alien Gods; who knows?”
They both gazed down at the couch.
“I hate to say it, but-” Natasha bit her lip. “This is actually… really very sweet.”
Tony had left the room for less than five minutes to make himself a sandwich, when he’d been certain that Loki was deeply asleep.
By the time he’d returned, Thor was sound asleep on the pillow beside his brother. His muscular folded arms were pressed against Loki’s cheek, hands curled in a tendril of black hair.
“Nauseatingly sweet,” Tony agreed.
“I think I understand him more now,” Natasha said. She didn’t have to specify that she meant Thor.
Tony thought he did, too. Thor had always been a large, boisterous presence in the team, but had seemed to carry a private sadness. Ever since Loki had shown up in their lives, even during the times when he’d been angrily pummelling them, Thor was lighter and happier than Tony had ever seen him.
“Yeah, I know what you mean.”
For a moment they stood together in silence, watching the two Gods sleep peacefully.
“I am really, really sorry about this,” Natasha said. “But from tomorrow, if you need me, I’ll be staying at the Holiday Inn.”
I have been chained to my laptop writing this story like a demon. Thanks so much for reading and commenting and leaving feedback, it totally validates the way I spend my free time :)
The argument was sound. One of them needed to be outside the house, appraised of the situation but out of range of Loki’s off-kilter magic. Steve and Natasha had discussed the matter during their Secret Avengers mission, and had decided Natasha was the obvious candidate.
“Can’t we draw straws?” Tony tried anyway.
Steve shook his head. “Tony, I really need you here.”
Tony thought of the different arguments he might present, the strategies he’d been cooking up for the past week. He felt he needed distance from Loki to work through his increasingly bewildering emotions.
But it seemed that simply by virtue of these plans and his worries, he was far less suited to the task than Natasha with her cool assassin’s objectivity.
So he stayed.
A full day passed without incident. Loki’s fever had abated mostly, rising and dipping within reasonable margins. He was crabby when he woke up and shoved Tony away from him whenever he tried to keep him company. Feeling determined, Tony kept trying. On his fourth attempt, he lost his footing and wound up on his ass at the foot of the couch. He decided to stay there, and they sat in a somewhat companionable silence.
The lights continued to shutter on and off. Neither of them noticed.
Tony had been trying to reach Steve all morning.
The last time they’d spoken had been over the phone, not long after Tony had woken up. Steve said he had an errand to run, that it was important and he’d be back as soon as he could.
That had been four hours ago. In the time that had passed, Tony had fielded multiple phone-calls from Coulson who was back on the warpath about the still-missing Fury and had asked to speak to Steve, then Banner, then Clint, then Thor.
Tony had given a number of creative excuses, but it seemed that in order to allay Coulson’s all too palpable suspicions, Steve’s voice was his great white hope.
Loki was somewhat improved and in not so bad a mood, so Tony didn’t feel too guilty about using him to vent some of his frustration. He was probably being unfair, but he needed to share the weight of his stress. On top of being the source of all his problems, Loki was also the only one around. Thor had splayed his arms over Loki’s forehead that morning and found it not overly hot, so had gone off to give Banner another stern training session.
“Why won’t he pick up his phone?” Tony agonized, walking small circles around the room. “Why is he doing this to me? You do realize this is all your fault, right?”
Loki sniffed. “I would lay more blame on your unhygienic world.”
Tony’s phone began to buzz. He groaned at the caller-ID. “Oh good God, Coulson’s calling again. How are you at impersonating voices?”
“I doubt I would have much of a flair for it.”
Tony let it ring.
After another hour of the phone ringing and Tony cursing, they heard the front door open and shut. Tony breathed a huge sigh of relief when Steve walked in.
“Oh, thank God! You NEED to call Coulson, he’s suspicious as hell and he’s-”
Tony trailed off as Steve marched straight past him as if he weren’t there.
Steve stopped at the couch and knelt down beside Loki. He wore a serious expression.
“I know this may seem sudden, but,” Steve drew in a breath. “When the heart knows, what’s the point in waiting?”
There was a silence.
“Steve?” Tony tried again, to no avail.
It was then that Tony noticed, too late, that Steve was down on one knee.
His friend waved a hand absently. “Not now, Tony.”
Steve cradled one of Loki’s hands in his.
“Loki,” he began. “I am just a man, which must not mean much in the face of a God. I don’t know how much time I have on this earth, but I know who I want to spend it with. If you let me, I would spend every waking moment of this mortal life doing everything I can to make you happy.”
Steve’s eyes welled with passion. Loki went bug-eyed.
“Oh,” he choked out. “That is very nice, Captain. But really, it will not be necessary. I know that you are already rather… busy.”
Loki hazarded a glance at Tony over Steve’s shoulder. Tony loomed there like a brewing storm.
“I want to,” Steve corrected him. “I would do anything- everything I could- to be with you.”
Steve reached into a pocket of his utility belt. His hand emerged holding a tiny black velvet box.
“Loki Laufeyson,” He began to pry the box open. “Would you make me the happiest man in the world and do me the honour of-”
Loki slammed a hand down over the jewellery box, clapping it shut.
“NO!” he and Tony shouted at the same time.
Steve looked hurt. Loki patted his hand nervously.
“Captain… Steve… ” The trickster started. “I must stop you there. As you are aware, I am of Asgard, and we have our ways. Perhaps because of our immortality, our courtships are slow and… complicated.”
“Complicated?” Steve echoed doubtfully.
“Yes. Our marriage rituals dictate numerous tasks and feats of showmanship. Especially as I am royalty,” Loki substantiated. “It would be a grave insult to the throne if these traditions are not carried out forthwith. There are many deeds you would have to perform before we could be wed.”
Steve considered this, and nodded.
“Okay. Whatever it takes, then,” he agreed, standing up straight. He evened his posture in a soldierly stance. “Just tell me where to start.”
“What the HELL?” Tony shouted heatedly, now that he and Loki were alone.
“He is under enchantment. Rejection would only madden him further. This is the best course.”
Steve had bounded out moments ago, in pursuit of a dozen white swans. Tony had no idea how he planned to get hold of them in the middle of New York City, but Steve was gone before he’d had a chance to ask.
“Steve is the best man I know,” Tony gritted his teeth. “And he’s lonely. He has been for decades. Accident or not, I am not going to stand by and watch him be hurt.”
Loki folded his arms. “I admire the Captain. I have no wish to hurt him.”
They stared at each other, at an impasse.
Tony broke the silence. “If you need to send him on wild… swan chases, then fine. But promise me you won’t toy with him.”
“Promises are for fools, Stark. I thought your intelligence less base.”
Tony gave him a black look.
Loki rolled his eyes.
“Yes, fine. But the only way to deal with him is to keep him busy with the relevant tasks. I will be sure not to steer him from his duties as an Avenger. There is very little lying involved,” he added.
They regarded each other.
“So it is just you and I, now.” Loki said ominously.
“Yes,” Tony concurred. “I suppose it is.”
For an admittedly selfish person, Tony was finding himself spread ridiculously thin.
First there were the daily tasks that had overtaken what used to be his free time. He started his day by milking a cow and mucking out the stables, because Thor had begged and pleaded with him to do it.
Banner wasn’t too much trouble, but his cage needed cleaning and his food pellets and water-bottle topped up every day. His salt-lick was already looking thin. And because he couldn’t trust Thor to leave Banner alone for very long, Tony found himself checking in on him regularly.
Thor himself was a problem in the fact that he wouldn’t stay in one place and there was always a danger of stepping on him. Tony also felt a need to transport him whenever possible, because scale-wise, a trip from upstairs to the kitchen took miles.
He wasn’t sure what to feed the gaggle of swans that were now waddling about the Koi pond in his Japanese Zen garden. But as they were now pecking threateningly at the Koi fish (which cost two hundred dollars, individually), he would have to figure something out soon.
Loki was still his biggest concern, and now that Steve had lost his sanity, the two of them had become the greatest consumers of his time.
Steve’s romantic mania only seemed to calm in the presence of the object of his affections, so unless he was busy performing some marriage-related errand, Steve had become a permanent fixture at Loki’s side. As long as Loki was near, Steve was worryingly normal and acted like his usual self, just a lot happier. Loki was being too indulgent for Tony’s liking. They needed constant watching.
Coulson was on guard and still calling. Tony had finally gotten Steve on the phone with him and had regretted it immediately when the first thing Steve said to him was, “Agent Coulson, have you ever been in love?”
Tony stepped out onto the back deck and said, “This is becoming ridiculous.”
Steve and Loki were giggling in the outdoor Jacuzzi, up to their chests in mud.
He’d only left them for a few hours. It had all become too much and Tony had hidden in his lab. He’d been down there for the better part of the day, trying to pretend that he wasn’t wondering what they were up to. However distantly, he’d definitely been hoping for just about anything but this.
Both of them were shirtless and wearing black-rimmed swimmer’s goggles. God knew what they were wearing underneath the mud.
The little flash of guilt in Steve’s eyes was enough to make Tony feel fully up in arms.
“You! Out!” Tony aimed a finger at Loki. “You want to catch pneumonia and kill us all?”
“Don’t worry! It’s warm, it holds in your body-heat,” Steve promised. He waved an inviting hand. “Come on in, it’s nice!”
The consistency of it looked like thin clay, beige in colour, admittedly similar to the mud-masks Tony had received on a weekly basis since he’d gotten his first little forehead line.
“No thanks,” he said flatly. “You do realize this is going to be a nightmare to clean out?”
Steve placated him with a smile. “I know, I know. Don’t worry, I’ll do it myself tomorrow.”
“It’s getting dark out, you know. Don’t you think it might be time to call it a day?”
Steve shook his head. “I can’t, this is part of the courting ritual. I need to bathe for a full day and night in cleansing mud. Some kind of purification thing.”
“Does Steve really need to be more pure?” Tony gave Loki a resonating stare that he hoped conveyed the full expanse of his disapproval.
Loki shrugged. “I do not make the rules.”
“So what happens if he gets called out on a mission before his twenty-four hours is up? Better yet, what if he needs to get out to go pee?”
“Then he must simply start from the beginning, at the next opportunity.”
“Of course. Fine. I’ll be inside.”
Tony stormed back into the living room, sat in a recliner and poured himself a drink. He picked up the day’s newspaper, opened it and immediately slammed it back down again when he saw the headline on page three:
“Beloved Swans Stolen from Central Park by Thief Dressed as Captain America”.
After another unwarranted gym-session, Tony jogged into the living room early the following day to find Steve sitting up on the couch with his legs splayed apart and his head tipped back, emitting a strangely musical sound.
Loki, spread across the furniture, was laying facedown in Steve’s lap.
Tony recoiled, and then was overcome with hysterical rage.
“STEVE!” he roared.
Steve looked up in surprise, blinking.
“WHY? In the LIVING ROOM!” Tony ranted, his chest a bubbling cauldron of fury. “THE LIVING ROOM!”
Loki swivelled to look at him. He looked like death warmed over, but at the sight of Tony’s face he laughed.
Steve continued to look confused. “Did you… need the living room?”
Steve sat up straighter and Tony got a clearer view. Loki was simply laying his head down on Steve’s perfectly decent lap.
Tony blanched. “I… oh.”
Steve’s eyebrows shot up in realization. “Tony!”
Tony toed the carpet. “You can see where I could have drawn that conclusion though, right?”
“You think I would do that in a shared room?” Steve looked deeply offended
“Not you. Him, on the other hand-”
Steve’s mouth hardened. “Tony. That’s my future husband you’re talking about. Watch your mouth.”
Loki giggled until it made him cough. The fever spots were back in his cheeks.
“Loki’s not feeling so well. When I was sick as a kid my mother used to let me lay my head in her lap and she’d sing to me,” Steve enlightened Tony curtly. “I thought it would make him feel better.”
Loki’s coughing turned harsh and his face went even redder.
“Fever’s back up?” Tony observed.
“Yeah, and we’re out of aspirin. I was just going to run to the store to get some.”
With effort, Loki managed to stop coughing. “You need not bother,” he wheezed, “I am fine.”
“I don’t think so,” Steve said firmly, stroking his thumb over a pink cheek. “I’ll be back soon. Be good.”
Steve extricated himself from the couch and moved gingerly for the door. He shot Tony a quick glance over his shoulder.
“Look after him for me?”
Tony gave a fake smile and a thumbs-up.
Oh, how the universe hated him.
Tony went to the fridge and got some Gatorade. By the time he returned, Loki had rolled onto his back like an overturned tortoise and was panting as if he’d had the wind knocked out of him.
Tony slouched down on the couch beside him. “Your immune system really isn’t up to all this, is it?”
Loki continued to breathe heavily. “It would seem not.”
Tony poked the straw sticking out of the sports-drink at Loki’s mouth. When Loki failed to receive it, he poked harder. “Drink this. It’ll help.”
Loki sucked on the straw unenthusiastically. He closed his eyes. “When will this end?”
“Not soon enough.”
Tony indulged a whim and pushed Loki’s hair back where it was sticking to his moist forehead. Loki opened his eyes enough to meet Tony’s.
“I have not defiled the Captain, just so you know. He has only kissed the back of my hand, so far. A slow courtship seems to suit him. ”
Tony could have smacked his own forehead. Of course it did.
He did feel somewhat selfishly comforted, but not as much as he would have liked to.
“He’s just so… happy. I’ve never seen him like this before,” Tony confessed. He looked down at the trickster’s half-open eyes. “He loves you.”
“Perhaps,” Loki granted. “But you mustn’t worry so. I will relieve him of it soon enough.”
“I sure as hell hope so,” Tony said bitterly. “At the rate you’re teetering toward full health, he’ll have jumped through all your hoops and made an honest man of you by the time that happens.”
Loki didn’t respond, consumed as he was by another weary cascade of coughing. He flipped onto his stomach again, muffling his face into the pillow.
Tony reached over and thumped Loki on the back a bit awkwardly until he quieted. After Loki had stilled, he left his hand resting there as if he might have carelessly forgotten it.
“What will he remember, after you reverse the spell?” he asked.
“Quite a lot, I’m afraid.”
Tony tried not to let it faze him. Almost unconsciously, he had begun to stroke small circles over the small of Loki’s back. When Loki didn’t swat him away, he moved his hand underneath the trickster’s shirt, rubbing gently over the overheated skin.
Tony’s cell-phone vibrated. He lifted his hips and felt around his pockets. When he got it out and checked, the caller-ID came up with what he’d recently changed it to read.
Across the line was: ‘Clint Barton-son, Tourist of Asgard’.
“Tony, can you hear me?”
“Yes, what’s going on?”
“This is bad, very bad! The Jotuns didn’t come to Asgard looking for war, they came to use the Bridge!”
“They wish to travel the other realms? Why?” Tiny Thor forced Tony to translate.
“They’re coming to Midgar- uh, earth! Now! They’re after Loki!”
Tony glanced at Loki, on the couch in the other room.
“He killed their King and sold them down the river,” Clint answered. “Surprise, surprise, surprise.”
Tony’s heart began to beat faster. “Do they know where to find him?”
“Not sure, but… we think so. Look, it’s going to happen any minute, you’ve got to get backup, these guys will think nothing of destroying the city and possibly the planet if they can’t get their hands on-”
Clint’s voice was interrupted by a beeping sound.
“Oh crap, my battery!” Clint squealed, and the line went dead.
The first thing Tony did was to scoop up Thor and lock him in Banner’s cage.
Around the raging, high-pitched sounds of protest, he briefed Steve as quickly and accurately as he could over the phone while he ran around the house, taking whatever measures he could to bolster security. It wouldn’t be enough, he was certain of that much, but it was all he could do and it had to be better than nothing.
“Call Natasha, get her here,” he ordered. “Call SHIELD, call whoever you can. This is happening now.”
“I will. I’ll be there. Tony-” Steve’s voice cracked and faltered. “Protect him. Do whatever you have to. Just keep him safe.”
“Yeah,” Tony choked, and hung up.
Loki was in the living room where Tony had left him.
The couch, made from beautiful soft white leather, was littered with food crumbs, cough-drop wrappers and a mountain of crumpled tissues. There was a big red cough-syrup stain on one of the cushions, poorly concealed beneath a throw-pillow.
Tony had picked out the couch on a trip to Milan.
It would probably have to be burned.
“Loki,” he said.
The trickster peeked up at him from under the blankets.
Tony heaved a sigh. “I need to talk to you. Can you shut the TV off?”
“Can it not wait five minutes?” asked Loki.
Reading the look on Tony’s face, Loki sobered and hit the ‘mute’ button on the remote. “What is it? What has happened?”
“The blue guys who want to kill you are outside. I gather you’re acquainted.”
Loki paled slightly. “The Jotuns? They are here?”
“Yeah, about thirty of them. They want to take you back to their home planet and put your head on a pike.”
“I see,” Loki said thoughtfully. He took a tissue from the box on the coffee table, blew his nose lengthily and sighed. “Well then. I suppose I had better go and face them.”
Loki pushed the blankets back and moved to stand up. Tony pushed him right back down again.
“No way in hell,” Tony said. “Loki, you’re sick, you’re burning up, and your magic isn’t working. For the love of God, stay here.”
“But… why would you tell me this, and expect me not to act?” Loki asked incredulously.
“I’m warning you, dumbass! I want you to know what’s happening in case they storm the mansion!”
Loki gazed toward the window and shook his head. “You cannot face them alone. They have you outnumbered and outmatched. The Frost Giants are brutes and not terribly clever, but they are strong, skilled warriors. They rival the Gods in battle.”
“Well, bully for them.”
The trickster pursed his lips and looked at the floor. “Stark, they will kill you.”
“Maybe. But if they get to you it will have to be over my dead body,” Tony said solemnly. He knelt down to eye-level and forced Loki to look at him. “You’re an Avenger now, understand? We take care of our own.”
Loki stared at him with big baleful eyes but said nothing.
Tony got back up and headed for the door. He gave a cautionary look over his shoulder.
“I’m serious- whatever happens, whatever you hear outside- stay right where you are unless I tell you otherwise. If things start to look bad out there and you don’t hear from me, find a place to hide until it’s over. Promise me you’ll do that.”
He was met with more silence. He paused in the doorway.
“Say that you promise!” he barked. “Just say the damn words!”
“I promise,” Loki said hollowly.
Tony nodded, as if it made all the difference in the world, and proceeded down the stairs toward the army of Frost Giants.
Left alone, Loki wrapped his arms around himself.
Promises, he told himself, were for fools.
The Frost Giants were gathered outside the gate. They were cobalt in colour with cheerless red eyes and skin like ridged leather. They held spears and swords as weapons. They were dressed in loin-cloths and were each approximately fifteen feet tall.
Cold radiated from them. Tony could feel it through his suit when he stepped near enough the gate.
One of them, a forbidding creature, spoke for the lot.
“We know that the King-killer waits inside. Do you wish us to tear it down or will you open your gate?”
“Shouldn’t we work out some terms and conditions first?” Tony asked. “Like, if I open the gate, are you going to rip me apart and eat me or do we go inside and have finger-sandwiches, maybe draw up some paperwork?”
The Frost Giants didn’t seem impressed with his stalling. Not his best lines, obviously, but he was under some pressure here and he didn’t actually feel all that quippy.
“We have no interest in you, Mortal. Nor do we care to embattle your world, unless you refuse to give us what we came here for.”
Tony was debating the correct response to this when Steve came running up behind him, dressed in his Captain America uniform. He had to have used one of the secret entrances that Tony was sure he’d locked down.
“I’m here,” he panted. “Backup’s on the way.”
The Jotuns were rapidly losing patience.
“You mortals should value your world more highly,” said the leader. “If you will not do us the courtesy, we will come of our own accord.”
The single Jotun took hold of two bars of the heavily reinforced gate. There was a creaking sound, and with a crack the gate came off its hinges, and was tossed heavily to the ground.
The Jotun took a step onto the paved driveway. “Step aside.”
Tony didn’t move and neither did Steve. The two of them crouched together and readied themselves as the towering army took a united step forward. Tony switched on his repulsors and felt heat in the palms of his hands.
Then a heavy rumble of thunder sounded and everyone froze in place.
Shooting down from the sky, a blazing funnel of multi-coloured light hit the ground on Tony’s side of the gate like a massive lightening bolt, with a deafening blast that sent tremors across the earth.
Tony staggered back and shielded his face. Clouds gathered and were sucked into the tornado of spinning light and force. In the stormy eye of the plume a figure appeared in front of them.
Atop an enormous, rearing eight-legged horse was the King of Asgard.
Clutching him from behind was a second body, dressed in armour and animal hide, a Robin Hood-style feathered cap and a bow and sheath of arrows looped over one shoulder. It was Clint.
The blazing light and roar of sound were sucked back into oblivion, leaving nothing but a circle of smoking, blackened ground in their wake. The great horse trotted forth with its passengers.
The All-father was clothed in furs and robes and gleaming golden armour. He was lion-like, white-haired and white-bearded and, like other paragons of authority that Tony knew, sported an eye-patch. He clutched his famed spear Gungnir in one hand.
Despite looking extremely old, Odin gave off the unmistakable air of a total bad-ass. Tony now much more thoroughly understood all the daddy-issues.
The lead Jotun cocked his head.
“We had thought you might involve yourself, King of Asgard. It would be in the interest of both our worlds if you did not.”
The King’s voice was sombre. “It is you that has interfered where one should not, Warrior. To threaten my family is to declare war on Asgard. Do you think you are prepared for this outcome?”
The Frost Giant showed no emotion. “Our quarrel is not with Asgard. It is a matter of Jotun law that the King-killer be punished thus. The structure of our world relies on it. This would not be avoided by war. You would do right by your people to stand aside and let it be done.”
Odin’s horse hoofed closer still.
“The Aesir will outmatch you in numbers and strength, as we have done before,” said Odin. “A war would be bloody but perhaps not long. You know that the end will not be in your favour. ”
“If that is the case, so be it,” the Jotun replied grimly. He turned toward the mansion.
“LOKI ODINSON!” he shouted. “You will be brought to Jotunheim for your crimes and executed. SHOW YOURSELF!”
The Jotun’s voice rang out, and all was suddenly still and quiet.
Then the front door opened, and Loki stepped out into the diminishing daylight.
“No,” Tony whispered.
Steve moved to run and Tony had to catch him by the arm, knowing that any sudden movement would be enough to kick off a shit-storm.
Loki stalked toward them down the driveway, holding his arms up like a performing magician. He was dressed in pyjama bottoms and a hooded sweatshirt, but miraculously still oozed tons of menace.
“Warriors of Jotunheim!” he chimed. “You have travelled far to have words with me. Speak.”
It was hard to tell from their stony faces, but the Jotuns seemed confused.
The lead warrior spoke boldly. “We do not come for words. For the murder of Laufey, King of the Jotuns, we come for your head!”
Loki swooped around untroubled.
“Ah,” he said. “But in Jotunheim is it not customary by law for the King’s successor to overthrow him by force if he is justified in doing so?”
“What know you of Jotun law?” the leader retorted.
A dazzling smile spread across Loki’s face.
“You see, I am Loki Odinson in name and in upbringing. In blood, I am Loki Laufeyson.”
There was silence among the Frost Giants, followed by an explosion of murmuring.
“So as it would happen,” Loki said, strutting forward. “I am the successor to Laufey’s throne. And I was justified in killing him.”
As he was speaking, to everyone’s amazement, Loki’s arm started to change colour.
In seconds, his whole body had gone a pale, crystalline blue and his eyes turned red as blood. Steam rose from his skin into the chill air and the ground beneath him crackled into patterns of frost.
Just as quickly, he shook it off and changed back again.
The first row of Jotuns huddled together and began to speak in low voices. After a moment they looked up.
“There have long been whispers that the King once fathered a son who was so small and sickly that Laufey disposed of him at birth,” the leader said. “Is this who you claim to be?”
“Yes. As a helpless infant, Laufey abandoned me in the caves to die. I was rescued by Odin and raised in the halls of Asgard. Laufey meant to kill me. I came of age and, as was my right, chose to return the favour.”
The buzz of the crowd grew loud with scandal. Another of the Jotuns piped up.
“You have Jotun blood, that much is clear, but what proof is there that you are Laufey’s son?”
“Of course, there is that. You will find we share a rather distinctive birthmark.”
Proof of this made the Jotuns nod and the Avengers look awkwardly at the ground.
Finally the Jotun leader turned to face the King of Asgard.
“Odin All-father,” he said. “For this to be believed, you would have taken into your home your enemy’s child and raised him as your own son. Is this so?”
The All-father nodded his magnificent head. “Yes. It is so.”
There was another spate of murmuring. The Jotun leader then stepped forward.
“In that case, we accept your claim, Laufey’s son,” he said, and turned to his soldiers to cry out,
“ALL KNEEL BEFORE LOKI, KING OF JOTUNHEIM!”
The Jotuns knelt as one and solemnly chanted, “Hail to our King.”
Loki looked on approvingly until the leader stood again, motioning their troops to do so as well.
“Now we must return home. As true King of Jotunheim, you will come with us and take your rightful place on the throne.”
Loki wrung his hands in apparent despair. “Ah, but alas, I cannot do so.”
“Why not?” The Jotun asked. He did not look happy.
Loki spoke as though each word pained him.
“I have been infected with an earth virus, to which Jotuns are also susceptible,” he explained. “This plague has fraught Midgard for centuries and is highly contagious. If even one Jotun becomes afflicted and takes it back to the home world, all the rest will fall.”
The Jotun leader paused. “What sort of plague?”
“A terrible one,” Loki said.
He dug into the pocket of his pyjama bottoms to pull out a packet of day-time relief cold medicine. He read aloud from the back. “It causes:
Coughing, sneezing, nasal congestion, headache, sore throat, fever, overall weakness and minor aches and pains.”
All went silent.
The Jotuns definitely looked spooked.
“Is it deadly?” The leader asked falteringly.
Loki sounded aggrieved. “There is no cure.”
There came a lengthy pause as the giants studied their new king.
Despite his bravado, Loki looked awful. He was visibly feverish and shivering in his thin clothes. The cold air had gotten his nose running and he was sniffling non-stop. He began to cough ferociously.
The Jotuns looked nervously at one another.
The leader tried to speak politely over Loki’s rattling cough.
“I understand your reasoning, my Lord. But you see, the problem as it stands is that the throne of Jotunheim is in a state of chaos. Both of Laufey’s other sons have defected. Their relationship to one another was… abnormally close, for two brothers.”
“Hmm,” Loki said, still choking and sputtering. “That is rather odd.”
“Well, I do see your predicament,” Loki said agreeably. “I know well that what you require is royal blood to command you. Tell me, what do you suggest?”
“Perhaps,” the lead warrior said skittishly. “As King, you could appoint a new ruler to act in your stead, lest you are ever able to return.”
Loki caught his breath and smiled. “A fine idea! You seem like a most capable leader. What is your name, Warrior?”
The warrior’s cheeks went a darker shade of blue. “I am called Thyrmm.”
“Thrymm, you have shown bravery and reason in a troubled situation, and loyalty to the throne,” Loki commended. “These men trust your decisions. I see no reason that I should not do so as well.”
Thrymm was sheepish. “I am but a warrior.”
“A warrior, yes, but a leader as well. A leader knows to seek peace and justice above all else. Would you fight for these things, for Jotunheim?”
“Yes. Yes, my liege!”
A feeling of excitement began to buzz among the Jotuns. Thrymm looked very emotional.
Loki motioned forward with a flick of his hand. “Warrior Thrymm. Step forth.”
Thrymm did so. Unbade, he knelt before Loki, who reached up to touch the top of his bowed head.
Loki closed his eyes and spoke. “I have long kept a watchful eye on the Land of the Giants from afar, and shall continue to do so. I trust you with the safety of our people, and appoint you ruler in my stead. To an unofficial capacity. Until further notice.”
Loki opened his eyes, as did Thyrmm.
Thrymm bent to kiss the back of Loki’s hand. “I am honoured, my King. I will not disappoint you.”
“I am sure you will not,” Loki nodded. “We will be in contact soon. There are changes I wish to make in regards to the education system, particularly your reading requirements. I shall send a liaison.”
Thrymm and the Jotun army departed through the rainbow bridge, waving goodbye over and over again and staring at Loki like he was Elvis. When they had finally disappeared, Tony’s shoulders sagged with relief.
He walked over and smacked Loki on the back of the head. “I told you to stay inside! You promised!”
Steve clucked his tongue. “I really hope he didn’t catch your cold.”
“From what I have read, I am no longer in the contagious stage,” Loki admitted.
Tony threw up his hands. “But that was your whole argument! You’re such a liar!”
They all turned at the sound of a loud throat-clearing behind them.
Odin’s great horse clopped toward them. Without having to do much of anything, he was a resplendent, awe-inspiring sight.
Loki’s eyes darted around uneasily, looking everywhere else but at his father.
Odin stepped down from his steed and approached him. In a knee-jerk fashion, Loki bowed and fell to one knee.
“All-father,” he whispered.
Odin placed a hand atop Loki’s dark head.
Loki stood up stiffly. The two stood a few feet apart, looking at one another.
Then Odin moved suddenly to bridge the gap between them. He opened his arms and wrapped them around his youngest son. Loki went rigid as a poker and then seemed to melt. He disappeared into Odin’s many furs.
“All is well, my son,” said Odin. “You are safe now.”
Loki stammered, “It is good to see you, Father. I am… I apologize for-”
“There is no need. All is forgiven.”
“But after all I have done?”
“The past is past. Now you fight alongside Thor for the good of the realms, do you not?”
“I, well… yes, I suppose.”
“That is what I have always most desired for you both.”
They broke apart their embrace.
“This world you have conquered together is very fine,” Odin said admiringly, looking around. “Where is Thor?”
“Thor is… detained.”
“Oh. Well, please give him my regards. I must return to Asgard at once. While it is my hope that we will finally have peace with the Jotuns, I must find out how they continue to breach our walls out of Heimdall’s all-sight.”
Loki’s eyes canvassed the ground again.
“I, er… may be able to help with that, Father. Have a mage check the mystic walls in a week or so.”
The All-father turned to go, and then remembered something. He dug into his pelts, unearthed a small leather pouch and handed it to Loki. Inside was a glass jar filled with evil-looking black fluid.
“Your mother wishes you to have this,” Odin explained. “It is an herb remedy from the healers. She says you must drink all of it no matter how bad the taste.”
“You’re Mama’s little Pumpkin!” Clint beamed.
Loki’s eyes shot daggers at him.
To Odin, he said, “Please send Mother my love.”
“I shall,” Odin said, and mounted his unbelievable horse. “Be well, my son.”
In a glorious burst of light, steed rearing and whinnying, the All-father raised his spear to the sky and disappeared.
The Avengers stood outside the mansion for a moment in the quiet. Then they walked back in together just before the helicopter and the military-issue hummers containing five dozen SHIELD agents arrived.
Tony sat down on the couch. It had been a long day.
The trickster flopped next to him seconds later, pulling a blanket up to his chin and kicking Tony’s legs out of the way. Tony scooted down to the far end and watched Loki settle in. He looked exhausted, and his eyes closed almost immediately.
“Loki?” he said, after a moment.
“I’m really glad you’re on our side these days,” he said honestly. “You could teach a master-class in treachery.”
“You are lucky I don’t, Stark,” Loki mumbled thickly, and fell fast asleep.
Loki choked down Frigga’s medicine, which looked and smelled like swamp-water. Then he slept for forty-eight hours. When he came downstairs again, it was morning.
He was dressed fully in his armour with his black hair carefully slicked back. He looked as sharp-eyed and fit as he ever had.
“You are looking hale, brother!” Thor chirped from the table in the kitchen, where he was devouring strips of fried bacon the length of his entire body.
“Yes, Thor. I feel it,” Loki declared. He took a deep clear breath for emphasis, and exhaled cleanly through his nose. “I am recovered at last.”
“This is great news!” Steve broke into an adoring grin. “You look so much better! Have you tried to use your magic?”
“Not as yet,” Loki replied. He cracked his knuckles, generating sparks. “Let us see if it works.”
With a flash of light and a colossal crash, a full-sized Thor fell through the kitchen table, reducing it to splinters.
Banner was next on the list of repairs.
Natasha pushed out her lip a little, wiggling a finger on top of Banner’s furry head. “Aww. I’m going to miss him like this. Do you think we should get a pet?”
They placed the guinea pig in the centre of the Hulk’s containment unit. They also left a blanket, a change of clothes and a pair of giant cut-offs, just in case he woke up in a bad mood.
But it wasn’t the Hulk that emerged from Loki’s reversal spell. They all turned away long enough to let Banner rouse himself and get dressed. When he was ready they opened the doors and greeted him.
“Honestly, I’ve never felt better,” Banner told them, sounding mystified. “I don’t remember details, but I could feel emotion. It was this endless feeling of contentment and peace. Like the opposite of going into Hulk-mode. The exact opposite.”
Indeed, Banner looked better than Tony could recall ever seeing him. There were no dark circles under his eyes or tugs of tension in his facial muscles. He looked like he’d just woken from a long, refreshing sleep.
“Ms. Romanov. I have repaired your collectible. I hope it is to your liking?”
Loki held out the patriotic antique doll, and Natasha took it from his hand. There was no sign of damage on the smooth porcelain face, and every hair and eyelash was in place.
“Thank you,” she said warmly, turning it over in her hands. “I can’t believe how perfect she looks.”
She set the doll down in her lap and looked around the room at all of them. Her look hardened a bit. “I’d still really like to know who took it out of my room and left it in the middle of the floor.”
“My apologies, Lady Natasha. It was I,” said Thor. “I needed it for... things.”
A thought materialized among them and the room fell silent. They all felt slightly sullied.
“That is really quite disgusting, Thor,” said Loki, breaking the silence.
Thor looked a bit confused. Then it dawned on him.
“I did not try to couple with it, if that is what you mean.”
The room relaxed and let out a deep breath.
The idea had been, as Thor explained, that strapping the doll to Banner while strutting him about the cage would help to teach good balance, as it had been the perfect size.
“And had I wished to lay with one of the Lady Natasha’s dolls, I would not have chosen that one for its looks,” he added defensively. “There were many others that were far more fine.”
“I guess everything’s been put right now,” Steve said at last, with a happy sigh.
Tony wasn’t spying. He just happened to be in the doorway of the next room. And because it really didn’t seem like an appropriate moment, he’d decided not to announce his presence.
“I’ve been waiting to tell you how handsome you look all day,” Steve whispered. He put a hand on the small of Loki’s back and drew him close. “Can I have you to myself for a while?”
Tony knew, mathematically, that he was out of their line of sight. But Loki’s eyes lingered on the doorway a second too long.
He pulled himself fully against the adjoining wall, unable to see but still within earshot.
He heard sounds of kissing. It went on for a torturous minute and then broke apart audibly.
“Steve,” Loki took a breath. “We must speak. Could we find a place to be alone?”
Steve’s face was ashen when he came down alone from upstairs two hours later.
Tony felt instinctively bad, but he had to ask. “So, are you still…?”
“No,” Steve answered in ghostly voice. “I guess that… I don’t think that I… no, I’m not.”
“You have nothing to feel bad about, Steve,” Natasha told him in that clear, sure way of hers that made everything she said sound like the absolute truth. “Whatever you felt, it was magic. Accidental. And whatever you’re feeling now will pass.”
“Try and take something good from it if you can,” Bruce affirmed compassionately.
“Thank you, but there’s no need to worry. I’m fine. It’s good to have my mind put back the way it’s supposed to be,” Steve assured them.
The tension eased gradually and soon they were joking around about the nearly future Mrs. Steve Rogers razing Bloomingdales to the ground for not having the perfect white wedding dress in his measurements.
But later, when Tony saw him alone down the other end of the hallway shoving something back into his coat pocket, he thought that Steve just looked sad.
With the entire team returned to form, they decided it might be time to turn their attentions to Fury.
They each went off in separate directions that employed their different strengths.
Wondering why nobody else had done so already, Tony cornered Loki to ask him whether he knew any location spells.
Loki examined his fingernails. “What would make you think that I care whether or not he is found?”
“I don’t know. I thought maybe it was time you be brought onto the team to a more… official capacity.”
Loki’s eyes flickered up at him. “Who is to say that he would agree to it?”
“Isn’t he the one who took you on in the first place?”
“Yes,” Loki acknowledged. “But convincing him to consent on a permanent basis may not be as easy to uphold.”
Tony felt something like a chill creep over him. “Why would that be? How did you get him to sign off to begin with?”
“I told him to.”
“What do you mean?”
“I can be very persuasive,” Loki wore a thin smile. “I will show you.”
With that, Loki abruptly disappeared. Tony sat where he was for a moment to see if he’d come back. He didn’t. It was odd, but then again Loki wasn’t exactly renowned for his perfectly normal behaviour.
Tony stood up eventually and decided to get on with his day. He stretched, feeling restless and itching for something to do.
He decided to go burn down the garage.
He was unscrewing the safety cap on the first of three cans of gasoline when he felt a finger tap his shoulder. His eyes met Loki’s and he dropped the can to the ground and cursed. Gasoline sloshed over his shoes.
“You can do that?” Tony asked a few minutes later, panting and patting his chest. All of the blood had drained from his face.
“It takes a bit of finessing. But yes.”
“So this is how Fury signed off on you?”
Loki gave him a long hard look. “Are you truly so surprised?”
Tony shook his head dizzily, yet he had never felt as sober. He took several deep, swallowing breaths to get a hold of himself.
“I don’t care what the hell Fury says,” he avowed. “We definitely, definitely want you on our side and not on the other.”
“And if he rejects the idea?” Loki sounded sceptical. “I am only able to sway him for certain lengths of time.”
“Fury’s not totally the boss of us,” Tony answered. “If we all say you’re on the team, you’re on the team.”
Loki’s mouth was pinched in a frown. “Do you think this would be the feeling amongst everyone?”
“Yes,” Tony said, feeling sure that he was telling the truth. “We want you to stay. If it’s what you want.”
Loki looked beyond Tony toward the house wearing a distant expression. The he looked down at the ground and nodded. “Yes.”
“Well that’s it, then. And there’s nothing Fury can say to change it.”
They stood silent for a moment, the air thick between them. They hadn’t really been alone together in a while, Tony realized. He had to break the tension.
“So… do you think you can find him?”
“Good, that’s great. Where do we start?”
Loki turned around sharply and started walking. He headed up the hill toward the back yard. Over his shoulder he called out,
“Tell me, where have we been keeping the cow?”
Not long after, there followed a dramatic scene which involved a lot of blood-curdling screams, violence with a milk bucket and a showdown with a nude, hysterical Fury crouched behind a Ferrari throwing wrenches at them until he was eventually talked down.
A minute after, they heard shouting from across the yard. Steve, who had been out the whole time, was running across the lawn, holding up his phone.
“Fury’s GPS is back on!” he was calling. “He’s here in the city! They’re locking down his coordinates and-”
Steve stopped in his tracks and nearly tripped. His face turned a furious pink.
Wheeling around and shielding his face, Steve brought the phone back to his ear.
“Hello, Agent Coulson? There’s been a development. We… know where Fury is. It is very good news. No, we won’t require back-up or transport. He, um…he’s not far. ”
“I have milked Nick Fury,” Tony slumped down on the couch, defeated. “I will require years of therapy and never recover.”
“Look on the bright side,” Clint shrugged. “I bet from now on he doesn’t call us half as much as he used to. Did anyone else notice in hindsight that that cow had a patch over one eye?”
“No. But thanks for pointing that out.”
“No problem. Oh God, wait,” Clint’s eyes bulged suddenly. “Did you drink the milk?”
Steve rocked back and forth in his seat. “I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to talk about it.”
For distraction, they held a group meeting (minus Loki) on the validity of keeping the trickster on as an official member of the team. They were all in agreement about where they thought he belonged, and Thor fairly glowed with happiness by the time they’d finished voting.
“Who wants to present this to Fury?” Tony asked at the end.
They all looked at Steve.
“Well,” Steve rocked on his heel. “I don’t know. Maybe we could send him an e-mail.”
The next morning, the fax machine started up.
The print-out read:
Effective immediately: Loki Laufeyson will join the Avengers team officially as a permanent member under certain provisions that you will receive forthwith.
Do not contact this office without information of imminent threat.
Fury’s signature at the bottom was considerably shaky.
“Congratulations,” Tony said to the trickster, who read through the document blandly.
“Hmm, yes,” Loki said, nodding fractionally before handing it over to Steve.
The fax machine sounded again, sucking in blank paper, and began to print. After a much denser printing, another page was spat out.
The memo was entitled: ‘Provisions: Page 1 of 87’.
They watched the table shake and the pages begin to pile up.
“I think we need more paper,” said Steve after several minutes. “I’ll go and find a pack.”
“If I lived in Asgard,” Clint patted his stomach, “I would be so fat.”
Normally square-ish and muscular, the archer had in fact grown a little doughy around the middle in the time that had passed.
“Had you the opportunity to meet Volstagg the Voluminous?” Thor asked, sitting across from him at the newly replaced kitchen table, relishing the conversation.
“Yeah, we hung out all the time! And that’s totally what I would look like if I lived there.”
Thor looked misty-eyed. “I remember many a great feast.”
“Boar,” Clint daydreamed, causing both of their mouths to water.
“You both are like hogs,” Loki announced primly. He was at that moment preparing himself a spare lunch of thinly buttered bread, cheese and grapes.
Clint gave Loki a sympathetic look. “Dude, I think you really need a vacation.”
Leaning back in his chair, Clint turned toward the rest of them to announce, “We should all go together! You guys would love it! We should try to plan a long weekend sometime when no one’s attacking earth.”
“Sounds nice. I’m down,” Tony assented, earning himself a dirty look from the trickster.
Clint noticed and grinned impishly. He pulled a scroll from the depths of his new dragon-hide leather satchel, unrolling it.
“You know, I did bring back a few souvenirs,” he said. He flashed the parchment in front of Loki’s face. “Like this!”
Loki’s eyes widened. He made to grab it but Clint skipped away, holding the paper high above his head.
Sensing opportunity, Tony helped block the trickster, craning his neck to look at Clint’s prize.
“What is it?” he called.
“Thor and Loki in little dresses.”
“I do not remember this event,” Thor puzzled. “Were we very drunk?”
Clint tossed the scroll to Tony. On thick canvas paper was a beautifully detailed portrait of a grinning blond child holding a dark-haired baby on his lap. Little Thor was wearing a heavily embroidered gold tunic with ruffles and Loki wore what could only be described as a long frilly dress.
“Ah!” Thor smiled, looking fond. “This is what Aesir children wear when they are given their twelfth-moon ceremony. This would be the day of Loki’s.”
Tony howled with laughter.
“You guys are adorable.”
Clint handed Thor the remaining scrolls. “Your Mom wanted you guys to have some pictures to remind you of home.”
Tony nodded ecstatically. “This one’s going over the fireplace. JARVIS, take dimensions and tell Miss Potts to order a gilt frame.”
“Certainly, sir,” the fully restored AI responded.
Thor flipped through the pages, welling up a little. “Thank you, Clint Barton, for bringing me these treasured memories. I shall cherish them always.”
“Give those here, NOW!” Loki demanded, and snatched at them until Thor was forced to place Mjolnir on top of them and let that be the end of it.
Things carried on, sort of as usual, but with a few minor adjustments.
Banner had signed up for spin classes and developed a taste for salty food. Thor walked around the mansion hugging everyone and lifting them off their feet because he could. Clint had to be talked out of drinking beer at breakfast time, and Natasha tried a little harder to look tough. Steve managed to simultaneously not speak to Loki much at all, yet hang longingly on his every word.
Tony just tried not to notice.
Loki became more sociable. He butted in on conversations, argued over which movies they would watch and often got his way by threatening to curse them all thricely. At dinner, he criticized their table manners, despite the fact that he occasionally stole food right off the end of Tony’s fork.
He also caused mischief.
A package arrived on the doorstep one morning, addressed to Thor. The Thunder God, who did not receive much mail and could not recall having placed any orders, was surprised. He took it inside and shook the box next to his ear. Hearing nothing, he opened it curiously. It breathed a single hot blast of flame.
Soot-covered and scorched, the Thunder God laughed heartily at this. He threw an arm around Loki and squeezed hard enough to lift the trickster an inch or two sideways off the floor.
“You have fooled me well, brother! A very good jest!” he complimented. “It is good to see you are back to your old self!”
After Clint had run screaming from his personal bathroom with his pants half-down, trailed by a swarm of bees that had been enchanted to replace the water in the toilet bowl when it flushed, Thor tried to explain.
“You are very lucky, friends,” Thor informed them. “Loki has taken a great liking to you to be playing so many tricks. It is how he shows affection.”
“I liked him better when he was evil,” Clint grumbled, still unable to sit properly.
Then one day, Loki disappeared.
He left without a trace. At first they thought it was one of his jokes, but when he didn’t pop out of anywhere cackling at the end of the first day, a sense of unease crept over them. Now he had been gone for days.
In his absence Thor ripped the house apart, searching it top to bottom. He flew the skies looking downward and on foot he walked the neighbourhood, calling out his brother’s name and questioning passers-by. He spent a whole night curled on the ruined, germ-infested couch, weeping into the cushions, and had eventually jumped up and destroyed the guilty item of furniture with mighty blows of his hammer.
Bruce, Clint and Natasha helped Thor look. They were quiet about it and tried not to exchange looks with one another.
Steve was drawn and silent. His demeanour indicated a crippling migraine. He mostly disappeared, too.
Tony was furiously angry and spent a lot of time in the gym unprompted, running at a high speed until his legs felt dead.
The trickster reappeared early on the following Monday, after having been gone for a four-day weekend. Tony was the only one awake when Loki walked quietly through the front door as if he’d just gotten back from popping out to the shop.
He was dressed in the only other outfit Tony had ever seen him wear that wasn’t pyjamas or gold, green and black armour plus cape. A dark green scarf, an old-fashioned black tailored coat with a green silk waistcoat underneath and black pipe-legged trousers; the sort of thing someone might wear to see an orchestra perform.
Tony sloshed coffee onto his lap, jumping up from his seat on the recliner.
“Loki! Oh my God, holy shit! Where the hell have you been?!”
Loki shrugged out of his coat and went about hanging it on the rack.
“I went to visit Professor Hawking,” he replied simply. His eyes then narrowed accusingly. “You did not tell me of his condition.”
“I paid the man a visit,” Loki expanded. “I wished to speak with him about his theories. And it was certainly rather awkward when I appeared in his quarters and did not realize for some time that he was screaming. You might have said something beforehand.”
Tony’s mouth had gone dry from hanging open. His voice came out squeaky.
“How was I supposed to know you were planning on stalking him?!”
“It was not stalking. I did not loom in the bushes to watch him undress,” Loki corrected haughtily. “And it did turn out well in the end. We had a wonderful time together after I repaired his speech and mobility.”
Tony’s heart froze. “No. Loki, no. You didn’t!”
Loki narrowed his eyes impatiently. “Of course I did. It would have taken hours to get anywhere talking through machines. And of course he did seem quite pleased.”
“Oh God,” Tony said into his hands.
“It was a very fine weekend,” Loki carried on decisively. “We talked for many hours about life and the universe, then drank a great deal of alcohol and ran about the streets. In the early morning of the third day we jumped the fence of his unpleasant neighbour and cast eggs upon the house.”
Tony continued to struggle. “Loki, it’s…it’s nice that you gave the guy his health back, but you have to think beyond that. He’s the figurehead for the disabled!”
“You need not worry so, the man is no fool. He plans to keep up the front in public, and continue his charity work. And here,” Loki offered. “I had him personalize your copy of the book.”
Tony perked at it for half a second but then shook his head, coming back to the original issue.
“Don’t give it to me now. I’m too pissed off at you. You didn’t even tell us you were going. Thor’s been hysterical. This is very, very uncool.”
“I made my choice on a whim,” Loki shrugged. “My brother should not expect so much. He ought to know differently.”
“Well,” Tony folded his arms, “If you’re going to be an Avenger, you’re going to have to know differently. Its fine if you need to go do things on your own, but you’re going to have to tell us you’re doing it so we know what’s what. Isn’t that fair enough?”
“I suppose,” Loki said slowly, looking past him.
Since they were alone now and soon enough they wouldn’t be, Tony decided that this was as good a time as any to go about setting some things straight.
“Look. I’ve been wanting to talk to you,” Tony took in a breath to get started, “about that night that we got drunk and pretended to watch ‘Casablanca’.”
Loki’s expression became guarded. He gave an expectant look, making clear that if Tony was going to bring it up, he would have to do the talking.
Tony continued. “What I wanted to say is I’m sorry.”
Loki settled his shoulders and tipped his head back. He looked distinctly unimpressed.
“I very much doubt that,” he assessed. “You are a terrible liar.”
And wouldn’t he be the one to know.
“Fine, I’m not sorry,” Tony admitted sourly. “But I want us both to forget about it. I don’t want this awkward ‘Dawson’s Creek’ love triangle bullshit screwing up my team.”
“What is Dawson?” Loki asked crossly.
“Never mind! The point is that this is getting in the way of our work. Steve’s a mess over you. He’s been mooning around like a lovesick schoolgirl. You need to do something about it.”
Loki gave him an appraising look. “I could manipulate his mind, if that is what you would have me do.”
Tempting as it was, Tony said, “No. That’s not how this is going to work. If you really want to be here, you have to do what needs to be done to make things right. Steve likes you, I like you and you like yourself. That doesn’t work. So dump Steve, forget me,” Tony lividly looked him up and down, “and keep your damn costume on, because that’s what we’re here for!”
Suddenly, in two long-legged steps, Loki had crossed the room and was invading his space.
“Those that I allow to touch me do not simply ‘forget’,” Loki growled hotly, pinning him down with fierce green eyes. “And neither do I.”
Tony’s wretched body was betraying him. Impulsively, he grabbed Loki’s long-fingered hand and pressed it roughly against him where he was already straining his zipper.
“Oh yeah?” he sneered. “Remind me.”
Loki looked hot in the face and a tiny bit shocked, but allowed his hand to remain where it was.
“You are bold to the point of suicide, Stark. What I ought to do is make it stay like that for a week and emit flame.”
Tony cocked his head back. “Would you have to jiggle it around to do that?”
Loki slammed him against the wall.
All at once they were kissing and groping and ripping at each other’s clothing. Loki’s waistcoat lost all it’s buttons, and Tony’s ‘Master of Reality’ tour t-shirt was shredded down the middle. They kissed with tongue and teeth, hard enough to bruise. Loki’s one-handed grip on Tony’s shoulder felt powerful enough to break him in half; his other hand yanked at Tony’s zipper.
The sound of quick footsteps made them both stop and turn their heads.
For a fraction of a second, Tony caught a flash of Steve’s back disappearing around the corner.
Tony pulled himself out of the culpable position, losing his impetus. Well, half of his impetus. “Oh crap,” he whined.
Loki gave an impassive look and leaned back against the wall. Tony’s morals tugged him back and forth.
Loki said, “Go on.”
They looked at each other briefly. Tony nodded.
He started to walk, then wheeled himself back around.
“Here, give me that,” Tony grabbed the signed copy of the most renowned work by a living author and held it in front of himself where necessary. He ran off after Steve.
Finding Steve actually took him well over an hour. For a big guy, he was good at staying hidden when he wanted to be.
Tony found his first traces of Steve in the gym. Steve had been lining up the punching bags again. So far he’d beaten the stuffing out of two of them and had left them abandoned on the floor.
The lights were on in the sauna, and the windows were fogged up. Tony stripped down to his boxer shorts and stepped inside.
He found Steve sitting on a bench, a towel around his waist, letting the steam cloud over him. He was still as a statue even when Tony came over to him. He stared straight ahead at nothing.
Tony sat down awkwardly next to him. To shake off the unbearable silence, Tony commenced speaking.
“Hey. What you saw back there. It wasn’t what you-”
Steve spoke, still not looking at him, cutting him off. “I think we both know what it was.”
“Ok, I’m an asshole,” Tony replied. “I think with my dick. Thanks for being the first to let me know.”
“You like him,” Steve said tonelessly.
It was an unexpected gut-punch. Tony stumbled after it.
“No. I mean, kind of, but-”
“I could tell,” Steve charged on swiftly. “From before… what happened to me, I could tell. It’s this look you get around him. And you talk about him a lot when you’ve had too much to drink.”
“Oh,” Tony said, looking down.
“You have things in common, it makes sense. I’m not angry with you for it.”
Tony tried to gather himself. Okay. He was used to putting on brave false fronts. He could roll with this.
“Believe it or not, Rogers, I do in fact put this team front and center on my priority list. Whatever my wants are, I’ve learned to control them within margins.”
“I know all about that,” said Steve. “You learn a lot about self-control in the army.”
After what felt like a long moment Tony asked, “So where does this leave us?”
Steve took a long time to answer.
“Loki is undeniably a very great asset to the Avengers. He’s also… a terrible idea.”
Tony nodded. He couldn’t help but agree.
Steve continued. “To be honest, half of me feels like having my heart crushed by him, again, would be a blessing.”
Tony nodded again in sympathy. “I get that.”
A dam had broken between them, and Steve was letting the words flood out of him now.
“It’s not like it was with the spell,” he told Tony. “What I feel now is… it’s not tunnel-vision, like it was, but… I haven’t had these kinds of feelings for anyone since Peggy. I didn’t know if I ever would. I know it sounds crazy, but I love him for bringing that out of me again.”
Tony smarted at the use of the word. “Is that all there is to it, though?”
“I honestly don’t know. I just know that I feel something for him.”
Tony let the weight of that settle heavily.
“You’re more worthy of him than I am,” Tony acknowledged, after a fashion. “My lifespan is a flash in the pan next to either of yours.”
Steve’s eyes went wide, extremely serious.
“Tony, I don’t want this to come between us. I know we’ve butted heads in the past, but you helped bring me off a ledge once. You’ve been a true friend to me and no matter what, I won’t squander that. Not for anything. If that means stepping aside-”
“That is noble of you, Captain,” a velvety voice cut in quietly. “But you know what a hedonist Stark is. I hope you don’t expect him to return the favour.”
Both of them halted and turned.
From a far corner of the room, through the mist, a tall lean figure stepped into view.
Loki was wearing nothing but a towel around his hips, long limbs glistening with condensation and hair wet enough to suggest that he’d been there for some time.
His eyes twinkled.
“In Asgard,” Loki told them, “Romantic disputes are often settled by an armed duel in the public yard, to be watched by all. Such fights do not necessarily have to be to the death; although those ones were always my favourite.”
Loki winked at them and fluttered his eyelashes. He then disappeared in a swirling mist of green.
There was a lengthy moment’s pause.
“He is such a prick,” Tony uttered in amazement.
Momentarily, Steve nodded.
A week later Clint was standing in front of the French windows in the living room, lifting the curtains back.
“Guys, look! It’s snowing!”
The team gathered behind him to watch the first few fat flakes of snow descend on the withered grass outside. A thin white coat began to accumulate on the bare branches of the trees.
It was the first performance of winter in New York, and from hereon the snow would come in flurries and drifts that would chill the air and coat the concrete until springtime.
The alarms went off an hour later, while the snow still fell. Doctor Octopus was back in action and up to no good, and this time he’d joined forces with Hammerhead for what was sure to be for the Avengers a belated team-up with their friendly neighbourhood Spider-man.
The Avengers suited up quickly and ran for their transport.
“Loki, wait!” Steve called, atypically the last to leave the house.
He was holding up a green garment that flapped in the wind. He jogged over to the trickster and wrapped it around his neck. “Scarf.”
“I don’t know. He’s already wearing a ton of leather. He’ll overheat and sweat and get a chill,” Natasha disputed.
Steve shook his head, disagreeing. “You Russians never get cold. He needs to stay warm.”
“Good thing he already has a hat,” Clint quipped at the still-present horns that Loki insisted were not classically villainous.
“Loki and I have endured much harsher climes than these, have we not?” Thor asked worriedly. “Would you require my cape, brother?”
“Outdoor temperature isn’t much of a factor when it comes to getting sick,” Bruce informed them all in a teacherly fashion. “It’s exposure to viruses you want him to avoid.”
“Hmm. What do you say, Stark?” Loki asked, peeking over at him with clever green eyes.
Tony gave the trickster a thorough look, holding his gaze as they stepped onto the ramp of the Quinjet.
“I think you do what you want, so it really doesn’t matter what I say,” he said after a moment, raising his eyebrows.
It looked as though Tony had hit on the right answer.
Loki’s lips curved upward at the corners. “I suppose that I will have to choose for myself, then.”
Eventually, he did.
Chapter 8: Epilogue
It was hard to say exactly when the transition had occurred, but over the course of a few weeks, Tony’s bedroom had now become Loki’s as well. Loki’s excuse, if it was one, was that Tony’s bed was bigger and more comfortable than Thor’s.
There was also the fact that he had been sleeping there most nights, anyway. It had just sort of happened, and Tony didn’t mind.
The trickster’s few possessions had appeared on his shelves one day without a mention of it from either of them and were now integrated in with his own. They had become Tony’s favourite things in the room to look at, though his interior decorator had freaked out big-time and insisted that tallow-fat candles, animal skulls, and jars of mysterious fluid did not go with modern Art Deco.
He’d certainly never had a cape hanging in his closet before.
Tony had never been big on sharing, but he found that it was nice to have someone to talk to and watch movies with during the evening when he needed to unwind. Before, his bed had been the functional place that he fell down drunk into at the end of the day and shooed strangers out of on occasion. Now it was a versatile hang-out spot that also happened to be perfect for ending nightly conversations on a high note.
Having someone to sleep next to was also a previously unexplored novelty. It had turned out that (behind closed doors) Loki liked hugs and demanded to be held every night until he fell asleep, and also for the first half-hour of the morning before getting up. He definitely liked to spoon.
During the day, away from his bedroom, Tony had found himself grinning all the time.
Loki had allowed Tony to buy him more people-clothes. Though he still preferred his armor, he made concessions for activities such as being taken out to dinner, or the time Tony convinced him to go bowling. The outfit he wore most around the house was an enormous moss-colored sweater and a pair of fitted black jeans that made him look somewhere between an art-school student and a Medieval poet. It suited him, Tony thought.
This was what he was wearing when he returned from the library carrying yet another great stack of books. Tony was under the blankets waiting for him, playing ‘Angry Birds’ on his phone.
“Steve’s on a date,” Tony announced. “He’s gotten back on the horse.”
Loki’s eyes widened. “Oh. I had thought that such relations were all but unheard of on Midgard?”
Tony cringed and lost his round.
It was his own fault, really. Loki was still behind on earthly turns of phrase and, as Tony was finding out more and more, the other realms got up to some pretty freaky stuff.
“A human date,” Tony went ahead quickly. “Well, mostly human. He has a bionic arm.”
The trickster perched on the edge of the bed. He looked at Tony sideways, appearing thoughtful. “That is good to hear.”
Then Loki pulled his sweater off to reveal his pale back and chest and climbed over to stretch out beside him, piling the books on his lap.
“Don’t start reading,” Tony told him, pinging at the touch-screen. “I’ve been customizing a certain piece of equipment all day that you are definitely going to like. You’re going to be my first and only test-subject. It is going to be awesome. Just let me finish this next round.”
Loki looked interested. “I think I like the sound of this. Do not make me wait for long.”
Tony had almost beaten his high score when he was startled half to death by an enormous sneeze next to him. He dropped the phone and nearly fell off his side of the bed.
Loki blinked at him; Tony gazed back with huge, horror-struck eyes.
Loki gave a small sniffle and gestured to the books. “There is dust.”
Tony lunged over and seized Loki by the chin, turning his head back and forth, then up, then down. He pushed the trickster’s head all the way back and peered up his nose.
“You better sure as hell hope so!” Tony blustered. “Because if I find out you’ve been out playing in the puddles or riding on public transport-”
“I have not. Do not take me for a fool, Stark.”
“Well good, then,” Tony fell back against the pillows, sulking. “Because just so you know, the next time you get sick I am locking you in an enchanted box with Leech, from the X-Men.”
“That is rather harsh,” Loki reproached, putting his book down. The trickster turned over and laid his head on Tony’s pillow, bringing their faces close. He pretended to pout. “You would not take care of me?”
Tony chided him with a look of exasperation and reached a hand out to stroke down the side of his face. Then he moved in quick and trapped the trickster in his arms. He gave Loki a light kiss, and his most wayward, wanton grin.
“Oh, I’ll take care of you, all right,” Tony promised him, and rolled them both over.
P.S.: Sequel now posted! The further adventures of Tony, Loki and the Avengers in:
This fic has been translated to Chinese by the lovely Sefiroth, available here:
The cutest thing ever, by the fabulously talented Squidbiscuit, whose work can be found here: http://squidbiscuit.deviantart.com/
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