It all started with the tiger.
Well, no. If Tony were being scrupulously fair (which he usually wasn't,) he could admit that it all started with the bikes.
He'd figured -- quite reasonably, he thought -- that now that they were officially a thing, the Avengers needed a better way to get around. The Quinjet was handy and all, and some of the members of their team (the cool ones, anyway) could fly, but there were times when taking a jet just wasn't very practical. It would be handy to have a way to get around on the ground -- tight city streets, underground tunnels, that sort of thing.
So he'd thrown himself into the project and turned out a set of, if he could be so bold, beautifully customized motorcycles for each of the Avengers. He'd combined a childhood love of automotives with some of the proprietary Iron Man technology to build a set of wheels that would be nearly indestructible, yet light and powerful enough to pull some really ripping accelerations when they needed to get somewhere in a hurry; yet balanced and suspended well enough to ride over almost any kind of rough terrain, from snow and ice to burning rubble.
And, having gone that far, of course he was going to give each one a magnificent custom paint job (well, okay, not with his own hands; he'd invented a custom-paint-job robot to do the work, patent pending.) With Steve's, he'd taken the opportunity to prove that the corny red, white and blue "stars and stripes" motif could so look cool when applied in long curving flourishes with glittering flash. Bruce's was a deep forest green (although he harbored some doubts about the proposed 'indestructibility' of the bike if the Hulk got his paws on it;) Clint's a glowing black-and-purple that didn't make him look at all like a teletubby; Natasha's simply a sleek black with small red accents.
Thor's bike was the biggest of all (well, it would have to be, to carry him) and proudly decked out in a scheme of red and gold. It was the most elaborate of the set (actually, it was originally going to be Tony's before he'd decided he wanted his bike to have more Iron Man suit integration capability and converted it to Thor's instead) with an intricate lightning motif picked out in gold against the glittering crimson flanks. All topped with an abstract representation of his fancy hammer in chrome.
Yeah, if Tony didn't mind saying so himself (and he didn't,) he'd outdone himself this time.
The team was as enthusiastic about their gifts as Tony could have hoped. He'd expected some resistance from the modern-culturally-challenged duo of the set, but apparently motorcycles had been enough of a thing in the 1940s (although nowhere near as cool as Tony's, of course) that Steve already knew how to ride one. Thor was a bit more of a challenge, but he loved the idea of the bike immediately, and was a surprisingly quick study when it came to picking up the mechanics of how to drive it.
"Truly, this is a magnificent creation, Man of Iron!" Thor had said, with one of his trademark beaming styles. "I had wondered at the lack of steeds on this realm, but now I see you have other methods of conveyance that are equally fine." (Which Tony almost took as his cue to light off because hey, no, his quad-engine glycerin-feed nitro-boost titanium-framed beauties were not equal to any moronic knock-kneed flea-bitten horse, thank you very much.)
Even if he did complain about how the motorcycle seat threatened to 'unman' him. Tony told him to suck it up.
It wasn't too long before the Avengers got a chance to try out their new toys. Within a week, the very special alarm sounded in Fury's headquarters that warned them a certain pain-in-the-ass, magic-wielding bundle of neuroses had been spotted again on Earth. In Queens, no less, while the Helicarrier was hours away circling over Tampa; so rather than wait to rendezvous with SHIELD, the Avengers assembled and hit the tarmac on their new set of wheels.
Once they reached him, it didn't actually take them too much time to take Loki down; he'd only gotten halfway through what appeared to be a summoning spell involving lots and lots of green ooze before the Avengers roared up and busted the party. It made the front page of the Bugle, with a truly impressive freeze-frame photo taken by some aspiring young journalist with a real talent at getting action shots. In the photograph, Thor stood astride his wickedly cool bike, halfway through a banked turn. One massive arm reached out to the side and held his bratty supervillain brother almost by the scruff of his neck, hand fisted in Loki's cloak near his shoulders as he dragged him away from his summoning circle of oozy death.
It was a masterpiece of PR, Tony thought and said (because when did he refrain from saying aloud anything he was thinking) later as they all admired the clipping on the Avengers trophy wall. "And image," he pronounced to his bemused-yet-satisfied teammates, "is half the battle. Nobody ever won a war with vespas and ratty uniforms, am I right Cap or am I right? It's not just about doing good, it's about looking good while you do it, and nothing says 'looking good' like a sweet ride."
In the weeks to come, Tony was going to live to regret those words.
Loki disappeared from his special holding cell within a day (scratch prototype sixty-eight off the list; back to the drawing board) but they didn't have even a week to miss him before the special alarm went off again. Tony suited up while the others dashed down to the garage level, and slapped on the comm channel. "Talk to me, O Fearless Leader," he said.
The voice that came back over the comm was a weird mixture of exasperation and vibrating fury. "We haven't gotten any positive visual IDs yet, but half the trains in the New York metro system are running backwards."
"Uh." Tony blinked, the HUD projections scattering in response to the movement. "As in, going to stops in the wrong order?"
"No, as in the trains are going backwards, with Satanic messages in the canned announcements and all," Fury snarled. "We've put a stop on all the trains that we still have control over, but at this rate the subway system is going to be reduced to metal hamburger in an hour. Get down there!"
Underground stations and subway tunnels were not really the best arena for the Avengers to do battle; Tony and Hawkeye needed long lines-of-sight and open space, and Thor really did best outdoors. But there were still six of them to one of Loki, which Tony figured was more than good enough odds, at least until Loki showed up in the deserted Grand Central station riding a fucking giant tiger.
(Actually it was a liger, not a tiger, a bizarre cross-species composite cat that the Stockholm Zoo reported missing in the days to come, and apparently they really did grow to be fifteen feet long. That was no excuse for the armor, nor the blue-glowing eyes. Nor the army of giant mutated sewer rats that poured out of the tunnels after him, shrieking little unholy shrieks and spitting fire.)
The battle that followed was short and messy, but Tony strongly objected to calling it a defeat. It wasn't a defeat, the Avengers just staged a prudent tactical retreat to regroup their forces and strategize a new tactic to defeat their foe. And when they went back into battle, more cautiously this time and with asbestos-coated knee-high boots, Loki had already gone. That was the same as a victory, right?
Not according to the Bugle, apparently. The "special edition" that hit the stands the next day was in full color, with an admittedly really cinematic shot of Loki astride his giant, glowing lion-tiger amalgamated animal. Tony was not usually a fan of the villain look but come on, the conglomeration critter did look pretty damn cool in the photo, its mouth open in a roar that bared fangs as long as his hand, with an unearthly blue glow reflecting off the carefully molded bronze metal armor decorating its head and shoulders and flanks. Loki's head and shoulders were visible from this angle, a manic grin twisting his face as he shot a bolt of green something at Clint and Cap, both of whom were beating a hasty undignified retreat.
Okay, fair was fair, and Tony was willing to admit they'd just got schooled in cool.
Thor didn't take it well. That was no surprise; there were two things that never failed to upset Thor, and they were Loki and defeat. (And bees. Three things.) Getting their asses kicked by Loki was guaranteed a two-day thunderstorm at least. But what Tony hadn't anticipated was the subject of Thor's outburst.
"Perjuries and lies!" Thor roared as he paced. He whirled around and jabbed his finger at the offending newspaper. "I was told -- nay, assured by Jane Foster and many others, that the cats of Midgard were of too small a size to be ridden as steeds! Wherefore these calumnies?!"
It fell to Steve to try and soothe their ruffled God of Thunder, mostly because Tony was taking the opportunity to record this little performance because seriously, who talked like that. "Jane was mostly right," he said. "You won't find any of the big cats at a pet store, Thor. They're very rare."
"Yeah, a freaky hybrid monster-cat for your freaky brother," Tony chipped in.
He knew Thor was upset when he didn't even take offense at Tony's slandering his crazy kid brother -- but then, Thor was clearly feeling the sting right now of being one-upped by said little brother. Even Tony, who was an only child, could see that. Thor barrelled right past the editorial commentary and latched right on the important part: "Where, then, can they be found?"
"Um, in zoos mostly," Steve said, obviously a little overwhelmed by the avalanche that was Thor. "You know -- zoological preservation societies? But I'm pretty sure most zoos don't have tiger-lion hybrids, Thor --"
"Is there one of these societies here in this city, or must we travel?" Thor demanded. "If you don your suit, and I call Mjolnir, we can make excellent time!"
Steve sighed. "There's one in New York -- actually there's a couple," he said. "If it will make you feel better, we can go down to Prospect Park to check them out, and you can see for yourself that even the lions and tigers they have there aren't large enough to ride."
The rain ceased and the clouds parted as Thor's face brightened in a smile, demonstrating yet again that where the Avengers were concerned poetic metaphor was fucked. "A quest!" Thor exclaimed, throwing his arms wide. "Let us visit these stables, then, and find a mount worthy of the Avengers to ride --"
"Thor, they're not stables, it's a zoo, I already told you --"
"To the stables!"
And just like that, it was Avengers Field Trip. Tony decided to bring the suit, just in case Thor starting measuring up any of the giraffes for saddles.
What happened next was entirely a question of bad timing. Loki's, not theirs. Tony was always a fan of putting the blame where it belonged, especially if that was on other people.
Tony had no idea whether the Bronx Zoo had already been on Loki's to-destroy list, or whether he'd been on his way to commit mayhem elsewhere and made a detour on spotting his brother and the Avengers there. Either way they'd only been at the zoo for an hour, tormenting the animals and driving the staff to an early grave through drink, before Loki crashed the party.
All of the cages and enclosures mysteriously unlocked themselves, and wildlife and livestock big and small poured into the walkways with a collective screeching howl. Amongst the chaos appeared Loki, still on his freaky fusion feline, gathering a collection of motley befanged wildlife to his beck and call as he went. Not really as dangerous as, say, an army of robots or aliens (or alien robots. Or zombies) but they were hampered by the knowledge that America's foremost hero team wasn't supposed to be in the business of moving entire species off the "endangered' list by default.
Things might have gone very differently, if Thor had not just at that moment been standing next to the elephant rides. As it was he took only a moment to survey the wave of mayhem rolling in his direction before a look of unholy glee overcame his face. He yanked the reins away from the stunned park attendant and swung himself up onto the elephant's neck with a ululating war cry.
What was normally a perfectly peaceable and phlegmatic disposition on the part of the elephant (a necessity to letting small children and Asgardian gods ride them) was quickly overcome by a judicious spark of electricity jumping from Mjolnir to the elephant's flank; and with a startled bray and trumpeting, Thor found himself leading the first elephant cavalry seen in the world in over a thousand years. Hannibal would have shed a tear of joy to see it.
The Bugle's intrepid action photographer (who went only by the initials P.P., which caused Tony to do a double take and make sure Pepper hadn't unexpectedly taken up photography as a hobby) got what was really an excellent shot: the elephant with its trunk raised and ears flapping as it pounded along, Thor clinging to the back of its neck with Mjolnir raised high and tiny arcs of lightning seething from its head. Loki's miscegenated monster mount was entirely outclassed (and outweighed,) and the combo cat had done credit to the loyalty of felines everywhere by dumping its master on his horned helmet and fleeing in the opposite direction as fast as possible.
Despite the property damage and onslaught of complaints, both by the zookeepers and animal preservation societies all over the world, Tony was inclined to count this one as a win.
(Thor pouted for a week on learning he couldn't keep the elephant, though.)
They hadn't managed to bring Loki into custody this time (which was a shame; Tony had really high hopes for prototype restraint system sixty-nine.) Not a peep was heard from him for the next two weeks, but none of them really held out any hopes that he was gone for good.
Sure enough, on the fifteenth day after the zoo incident (Tony knew this for sure because Clint had put up a "It has been X days since our planet was invaded by a crazy space sorcerer" sign in the Avengers lounge) Loki made his reappearance. The special alarm was going crazy, but it was really rather redundant since they could just look out the windows of Stark Tower to see it.
Somehow -- and Tony would have done several very undignified and questionably moral things to find out just how he'd done it -- Loki had gotten hold of a dragon.
The citizens of New York City were pretty jaded to begin with, and the last year or so of superpowered incidents had only continued their desensitization to unusual events. The huge scale-winged lizard currently flying in lazy spirals over Brooklyn, however, was enough to get the attention of the most jaded of city-dwellers. Crowds of people watched out the windows, or lined rooftops to get a front-row seat to the event; some of them held up cell phones to capture pictures or videos, while a few enterprising souls had brought out popcorn.
All in all, the sight of their favorite green-eyed pest riding a ten-meter fairytale feature through the skies of New York might just have been the best entertainment the city had seen in a year. The Avengers had, of course, come out in response to the the alarm, but rather than flying immediately into battle formation they took a few minutes to stand around and admire the life-scale (hah) export from Skyrim.
"I don't know, it doesn't exactly look like what I imagined a dragon would," Steve critiqued. "I mean, obviously it's all artist's interpretation, but when I think 'dragon' I think something a little more 'Saint George And,' and a little bit less... snakey."
"Nay, this is a true specimen of wyrm, though it is not native to this realm," Thor said. "I know not how Loki managed to bend it to his will, let alone transport it to Midgard. Such beasts have not been seen here for many thousands of years."
"It could be more like a Chinese dragon," Clint offered helpfully. "Those are pretty snakey."
"Yeah, but they don't have wings though," Steve shot back. "Which just makes them fancy snakes if you ask me. A dragon isn't a real dragon unless it can fly and this one does."
"Yeah, but how does it fly?" Tony wondered. "I mean the aerodynamics of this thing are just ridiculous, there is no way its wingspan should be able to support its weight." He itched to get the thing into a laboratory (not that he had any labs large enough to house it; would it be more time-efficient to build a new giant one, or find a way to chop the dragon into lab-manageable pieces?) to study its anatomy. It was almost tempting enough to make Tony reconsider his aversion to that horror of all horrors, the soft sciences.
"Magic?" Steve guessed.
That set Tony off. "Okay, don't just say magic, that's not helpful at all, that's as bad as 'it runs on electricity' when looking at a circuit board; you might as well just say 'it runs on physics' for all the detail it provides --"
"You know, it's a shame he's stuck on this whole supervillain gig," Clint remarked, heedless of Tony's budding magic-pisses-me-off rant. "If he can dig up honest-to-God dragons on demand, he could make a fortune doing a tour at all the sci-fi conventions around the country."
"If we're all done with the geek fanboy club," Natasha cut in, "shouldn't we be spending less time standing around admiring the overgrown lizard and more time killing it?"
"No appreciation for the myriad amazements of the universe," Tony mourned. "No sense of wonder at all. Is it because she's Russian, or because she's a girl?"
It was very lucky for Tony that he happened to be wearing his armor just then.
"Lady Romanov has the right of it," Thor cautioned them. "It would be folly to approach a great wyrm with anything less than battle in mind. They are notoriously temperamental beasts, ill-disposed and destructive, and I cannot imagine how far Loki had fallen to seek to tame one for his own nefarious deeds."
"Yeah, temperamental and awesome," Clint said, and Steve and Tony agreed.
"You're just jealous because your little brother one-upped your elephant," Tony accused him.
The object of their discussion (and not-so subtle admiration) picked that moment to land with an earsplitting crunch of cables on the Brooklyn Bridge, shrieked in a tone that shattered car windows in a three-block radius, and ate a bus.
The Avengers spent the rest of the afternoon chasing Loki and his dragon from island to island, while the mythical beast bellowed and flapped its leathery wings and strafed the bridges with blasts of fire. All the while Loki rode on its back like a WETA Studios refugee at a rodeo, laughing his head off at their futile attempts to stop him.
The Bugle made great headlines of the whole thing, with a spectacular photograph of the dragon mid-breath with its wings spread out in a dramatic backwing with Loki's horned silhouette visible at the crest of its neck. And Tony swore to God that the Bugle's photographer had to be some kind of magician himself, because he'd gotten an angle in this picture that Tony knew from personal experience you could only capture mid-air. He'd appreciate the photo more if the accompanying headline hadn't called the Avengers a parasitic menace to society (with superfluous punctuation, no less; Tony wasn't exactly an english major but even he could take pity on the common exclamation mark.)
J. Jonah Jameson, Tony decided, was a dick, and The Bugle was way overdue for a leveraged buyout. He'd put his legal department on it, as soon as they got untangled from the whole zoo incident. And the paternity suit thing.
The storm of tongue-lashing they got from Fury was bad enough, but Tony would still have taken two over the more literal storm that broke over Stark Tower that night. (Seriously, who thought it had been a good idea to give weather controlling powers to a guy with the conflict resolution skills of a four-year old?)
Thor stalked around the penthouse level of Tony's tower, an evildoer-smiting scowl on his face as the rest of the Avengers tried to talk some sense into him. Tony, not really considering himself part of the sense-making portion of the team, was mostly sitting this one out -- lounging in a corner and adding dragon-repelling capabilities to prototype magical restraint system sixty-nine.
"This shall not stand!" the God of Thunder... well, thundered. "Loki cannot be permitted to get away with this outrage! Justice -- aye, and honor as well, the honor of Asgard as well as that of Earth -- demands reparation!"
"Come off it, Point Break," Tony said from his corner. "You're still just sore that 'Loki's dragon' is trending now on tumblr and 'Thor's not."
Thor leveled his hammer and a scowl at Tony. "Make not light of this matter, Stark," he rumbled ominously. "Did you not say yourself that a hero's task is to inspire as well as to act? It bodes not well for this world if the impressionable mortals of midgard find themselves wooed unknowingly by the false glamor of evil!"
"Yes, I understand, and you're right that we have to set an example," Steve said in a tone that was half-pleading and half-placating. "But sometimes that means knowing when to take the higher road, Thor."
"By his acts, my brother has lain down a challenge that must be answered!" Thor shouted.
"Look, you can't just keep escalating things, Thor," Steve said with some exasperation. "The last time we did, he brought out a dragon. If you keep on challenging him, who knows what he'll come up with next? The collateral damage is something we've got to keep in mind here."
"Besides, I can't really see how you could top a dragon," Clint added ruthlessly to the debate. "I mean, come on. Where do you even go after that?"
"I shall think of something!" Thor proclaimed. He whirled to face Tony. "Stark! You must assist me in this matter. Your ingenuity and craft is unmatched. What can you produce that would best my brother's sorcerous arts?"
"Whoa, hey, don't drag me into this," Tony said indignantly. "Totally obvious and completely warranted flattery aside, I am not part of your little sibling rivalry showdown."
"Are you not?" Thor said, and sometimes Tony forgot that despite how big and overblown he was, Thor could be really damn perceptive. "It was your metal steeds that Loki first disparaged, was it not? And surely you would not wish to concede that his sorcerous arts can create marvels greater than your own Midgardian engineering?"
Tony stared at his teammate indignantly. Steve took the opportunity to harangue Thor further, because Steve was apparently everybody's mom. "Look, we need to worry about stopping Loki's plans and bringing him into custody for good," Steve said. "This really isn't the time for swaggering one-upmanship contests about who has the better car. We can't just --"
"I'm assuming you want something that flies," Tony interrupted him thoughtfully.
Thor turned back to him, expression brightening. "Indeed! In order to do battle with Loki's mid-air mount, it must!" he said eagerly.
Steve clutched at his hair. "You can already fly!" he said helplessly.
"Yeah, but he can't fly and shoot at the same time," Tony said. A fundamental flaw in Thor's battle strategy, he'd always thought, but then not everyone could be as cool as him. "So we're talking self-propelled flight. We'll want something with hovering capability as well, I'm guessing, as well as its own independant ammo source..."
"I can't believe you're actually considering this," Steve groaned. "Tony, you can't -- there is no way SHIELD is going to authorize this, you realize?"
Tony grinned, and the ray of light that came out from behind the clouds at just that moment made it sparkle. "Sorry, Cap, but you need to live a little. I don't need SHIELD's authorization to build an awesome new prototype; I am their primary distributor of awesome."
"So you will assist me, Stark?" Thor said with delight. "Wondrous news! No doubt that between the two of us, we can come up with a plan that will more than countervail Loki's tricks! What great strategy do you have in mind?"
"Thor, my man," Tony said, clapping him on the shoulder. "What are your feelings on zeppelins?"
One week later, after the incident that the media had dubbed the Balloon Battle of Brooklyn Bay (and anything with that much superfluous alliteration really needed to be dragged out and shot, to Tony's mind; they weren't nearly as clever as, say, him) Tony stood back from the trophy wall to survey the effect of the new framed, hanging newspaper article. He really was going to just have to track down this P.P. person and hire him as a Stark Industries publicist full-time.
The mysterious photographer had managed to get a truly panoramic shot of the Avengers engaged with Loki over the harbor, the dragon engaged in some desperate aerial maneuvers while it struggled in vain to avoid the small fleet of missiles belching forth from Thor's new airborne war machine. Making the missiles themselves shaped like zeppelin had been, Tony decided, a touch of genius. It might not have been the most practical thing he designed, but it was damn cool.
It had been worth it, even if the work crews were going to be scraping neon green glow-in-the-dark paint off the Statue of Liberty for the next six months.
Loki got away again, which Tony took rather philosophically. The Avengers were less sanguine; Thor because he was clearly full to bursting with swaggering one-upmanship, the others because they were still convinced this was all going to blow up in their face at some point. (That was all part of the development process, Tony kept telling them, but they never listened.) Loki had gone to ground after being shot out of the air over the New York Harbor and hadn't been seen since; it didn't take a genius to figure out that he was holing up somewhere, planning his next move.
"I'm telling you, this was a mistake," Steve moaned, because apparently Steve held down the position of Team Wet Blanket as well as Team Mom. "We're playing his game by responding to his challenges in kind. Now he's got to raise the stakes again, and who knows what he'll come up with next?"
Tony threw a paper airplane at him (a perfect paper model of the Quinjet, actually; Tony never did anything by halves) and bounced it off his chest. "Come off it," he advised him. "I still think Loki hit his ceiling with the dragon. I mean, come on, it's a freaking dragon -- and we already beat it. What can Loki possibly come up with that could top that?"
Famous last words; the special alarm began to go off. Steve gave Tony a reproachful I told you so look, and then the two of them ran to suit up.
It was already night outside, which took them by surprise; normally Loki liked his grand entrances to have as much visibility as possible. But as they skidding to a stop on the concrete launching pad on the roof of Stark Tower, it became immediately obvious why Loki'd chosen night for his backdrop this time.
Weaving through the towers of downtown Manhatten was... it was... all right, there was no good way to say this, Tony conceeded grumpily. It was a fucking flying shark.
And not just any shark. A giant shark, the size of a building which had been uprooted and put on its side and sent swimming through the air over New York City. Except if the building had fins. And a tail. And a set of twin high-focus, high-density lasers mounted on each side of the shark's head, leaving burnt trails of destruction every time it swept its bleary-eyed, primordial gaze from left to right.
Riding on the shark's back, scaly-toed claws digging into the giant leather saddle strapped to the selachimorph's torso was -- well, Tony wasn't quite as up on his precambrian paleontology as he might could have been, but he was fairly sure that monster qualified as a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Or possibly a velociraptor, if a very, very big one. The lizard king tipped back its head and roared with triumph, and as it did so a belch of sooty flame erupted from its lips, lighting up the night.
Riding on its back -- yes, on top of the flame-breathing dinosaur on top of the giant flying laser shark -- was Loki. A spotlight that came from nowhere seemed to center on him, cruising serenely atop the concatenation of horrors he'd somehow mustered, struck into a thoughtful pose and with a guitar slung across his chest.
As all of New York plus the Avengers watched, transfixed with horror, Loki lowered his outstretched arms to the guitar strings and played one overwhelming, spectacular, thousand-times-magnified sick chord.
The Avengers stepped back, properly humbled, and Tony wheeled to face his blond Asgardian teammate. "You lose," he said, pointing one finger at the thunder god's chest. "Sorry, Thor, but you're beat."
Thor sighed in depressed resignation.
And that was the end of that contest.