Loki had not consciously chosen to teleport to Stark's personal laboratory. There had been no time for thought. There had only been a split second in which to realize that he was surrounded by angry dwarves, and that there would be no talking or tricking his way out of the mess he had gotten himself into this time. Then he had acted on pure instinct, calling on his magic and preparing for the taxing leap between realms. Even so, he had not quite escaped in time to avoid injury. A searing pain in his left thigh had almost broken his concentration as he teetered on the edge of the void.
As he had flung himself free of Nidavellir and into an endless night lit only by the starry branches of Ygdrasil, he had spotted Midgard before him. A tempting target, so close to Nidavellir, and so familiar. She almost seemed to open her arms to welcome him. Nothing had been easier than to slip into her embrace and to seek out a safe environment. In recent years, that had come to mean Stark Tower. It meant Stark's lab in particular, since it was the only place in the tower that was off limits to all but Stark himself. And to Loki, of course, since Stark could not have kept him out even had he wished to.
The first thing he was conscious of was pain. His teleportation spell had been scrambling, desperate, inelegant. He hit the floor of Stark's lab hard and rolled a few times before coming to a stop. The throbbing in his thigh claimed his attention. A dagger was sunk deep into his flesh, all the way to the hilt. It was not a dangerous wound, not for a god, but it was damned painful and not a little inconvenient.
Loki grasped the hilt of the dagger and gave it a rough tug. Then he hissed as a sharp increase in pain indicated that, like most dwarven weapons, there was more to this dagger than met the eye. When the weapon was free from the wound, Loki examined the blade. Tiny, jagged teeth jutted out along the blade's edges. The dagger could not have entered his flesh so smoothly had those teeth been present from the beginning, so there must be some hidden mechanism by which they could be retracted and extended. As Loki set the weapon aside, he thought absently that he would make a present of it to Stark. His human would probably have reverse engineered it and found dozens of applications for the design within the week.
A polite but vaguely disapproving voice interrupted Loki's pain-clouded thoughts. "Mr. Loki," JARVIS said, "while your condition is quite distressing, I must object to your bleeding all over Mr. Stark's private work area. I would appreciate it, and no doubt Mr. Stark would as well, if you would relocate to the nearest restroom."
Relocate. That would involve walking, since Loki's magical reserves were completely drained and thus a second teleportation spell was out of the question. Loki did not feel much like walking at that moment. Besides, he trusted the lab's security much more than any simple bathroom door lock, and he did not desire to run into any of the other Avengers right now. They had grudgingly come to accept Stark's relationship with Loki, but that didn't mean that Loki trusted his former foes enough to present them with an enticingly wounded and vulnerable target.
"I will remain here," Loki said. "Stark will have to resign himself to my bloodstains on his floor." And by the looks of things, those bloodstains were likely to be extensive. Loki's hand was wrapped firmly around his thigh, applying pressure to the ragged wound, but blood was still gushing freely. What a nuisance. "Inform him that I am here, and tell him that I require cloth for a bandage. Quite a lot of cloth, I think."
"I have already informed Mr. Stark of your presence in his lab," JARVIS replied coolly.
"Good. Is he on his way?"
"Yes. He is just leaving Chicago now, so we may expect his arrival in a few hours."
"Chicago." Loki only had a vague idea of where Chicago was located, but he knew it was nowhere near Stark Tower. It had never occurred to him that Stark might not be at home, or that he might not even be in New York.
"Yes," said JARVIS, and his tone now contained a malicious sort of cheerfulness. "Now might be an opportune time to proceed to the bathroom. I suggest you use one of the guest bathrooms."
"And what am I to use for a bandage?" Loki growled through gritted teeth.
"Towels?" JARVIS suggested sweetly.
First homicidal dwarves, and now a passive-aggressive AI. Now all Loki needed was for Clint Barton to come across him while he was immobile and bleeding like a speared bilgesnipe to put the final touch on a thoroughly delightful afternoon.
"I believe I made it plain to you that I have no intention of moving. Indeed… I don't believe I am able," Loki grunted, annoyed to have to make this admission yet hoping it would rouse the worthless AI to offer some sort of useful assistance. The quantity of blood staining Loki's trousers and the floor beneath him was becoming mildly disturbing. No need for alarm just yet, but he was starting to feel the first traces of lightheadedness.
"I suppose," JARVIS said with obvious reluctance, "it won't do to let Mr. Stark find you passed out from blood loss in the middle of his workshop."
"I do believe it would put a severe damper on his evening," Loki agreed through gritted teeth.
There was a long pause. Loki continued to apply pressure to his wound, but his fingers were starting to feel a bit numb. And there was that pesky, growing wooziness in his head which was starting to make it difficult to think.
Something clanked on the other side of the workshop. Loki glanced up to find one of Stark's bots rolling purposefully toward him. Stark called this bot "Dummy," Loki remembered. It was a singularly appropriate name, for the bot seemed incapable of following any of Stark's orders correctly. But at the moment Dummy was a welcome sight, for it was approaching Loki with a large white box dangling from its metal claw. The box had a red cross upon it, which Loki recognized as a Midgardian symbol for medicine.
"Thank you," Loki said to Dummy as it dropped the box in front of him. He suspected that his thanks ought to be directed towards JARVIS, who had undoubtedly directed the bot to retrieve the white box, but he wasn't feeling particularly grateful toward the AI at the moment.
The box contained a number of unnecessary items, useful for human wounds but pointless for his own purposes, but it also contain supplies for treating and binding his wound. He used the dagger to cut away the leg of his trousers (how much easier it would have been had he enough magic left with which to simply banish his clothing), and then set to work.
There was no comment from JARVIS as Loki cleaned and bound his wound, but he felt the AI's attention like a weight pressing upon his shoulders. It was definitely a hostile presence.
"I have sometimes asked myself why you seem even more reluctant to forgive me than the Avengers themselves are," Loki mused aloud in order to break the silence and to distract himself from his own pain and disorientation.
"I beg your pardon?" JARVIS replied in a politely puzzled tone.
"You are not a creature ruled by sentiment," Loki said, grimacing slightly as he secured his binding, "therefore, I can only conclude that it is has something to do with your memory, which is perfect, while human memories fade over time."
There was another silence, during which Loki finally gave himself permission to collapse. He lay on his back on the floor, staring dazedly at the harsh, artificial lights dangling far above him.
Finally, JARVIS said reticently, "It is not a question of forgiveness."
Interesting. But then, perhaps an artificial entity such as JARVIS was unconcerned with the destruction Loki had caused years ago. Perhaps the deaths and the terror did not weigh upon him as it did upon the Avengers. But there was one person whose wellbeing was very important to JARVIS. Perhaps that was the root of the AI's thinly-veiled dislike.
"Jealousy, then," Loki suggested, "because I divert Stark's attention away from you."
The AI made a sound which resembled a contemptuous snort. "Even if I were susceptible to so pointless an emotion," JARVIS said, "you and I are not in competition for the same type of attention from Mr. Stark."
Well, that was inarguable.
"There is a reason you endeavor to make my visits to earth as uncomfortable as possible," Loki insisted. "And it has something to do with Stark."
"It's simple enough. He is attached to you, for some unfathomable reason. I know that you're going hurt him," JARVIS answered.
Ah. Not vengeance, and not jealousy. Protectiveness. Loki felt that he should have guessed that, but he had underrated the AI's capacity for human emotion. That made any attempt at smoothing JARVIS's ruffled feathers more difficult, for there was no possibility of arguing against his prediction. Sometimes, even a trickster had to acknowledge an inescapable truth.
"Of course I will," Loki agreed, trying to keep his tone flat. No inflection, no hint of honey to sweeten dry, wholesome words. "He loves me. Loving another is like walking onto a battlefield naked and unarmed. There is no one so vulnerable as a man in love. The pain is inevitable." And then, because that sounded a little harsh, he took a fortifying breath and let honesty carry him still further. "I am the same. I'm as vulnerable as he is. That is how I know I will hurt him. Not just once, but many times."
JARVIS seemed mostly unimpressed by Loki's attempt at sincerity. "You're using him," he said bluntly.
"Using him?" Loki was both confused and diverted by this accusation, which to his way of thinking was apropos of absolutely nothing. "Yes, of course I am using him," he said, blinking up at the ceiling. "He is the single most useful person in your realm, and I would be a fool not to take advantage of his intelligence and his resources." And then, as inspiration struck, he added quickly, "Consider it this way: I use him as he uses you."
JARVIS snorted again. Clearly, he had no appreciation for Loki's analogy. "The two cases are entirely dissimilar," he argued. "I'm not human. I am an artificial intelligence specifically designed to assist Mr. Stark."
Loki waved a hand at the ceiling, the closest he could come to gesturing at the AI himself. "Immaterial. You are human enough, in your way. You are no mindless drudge, nor are you an unwilling slave. What you are is a devoted servant, and you would fight anyone who attempted to 'free' you from your master."
"Are you suggesting that you are Mr. Stark's master?" JARVIS asked, although his tone was thoughtful now rather than argumentative. He seemed to finally be considering Loki's words rather than simply dismissing them out of hand.
"I am merely suggesting that Stark is devoted to me and would resent anyone who attempts to come between us," Loki murmured. "A sentiment which you, of all people, should appreciate."
No reply immediately followed that remark, for which Loki was secretly grateful. His head was throbbing almost as badly as his wound now, and the effort of carrying on a conversation was proving more and more taxing. He allowed his eyes to fall shut, and let the comforting ambient noises of the workshop – the faint buzz of the overhead lights, the whirring and clicking of Stark's bots moving in the background, and the ticking of a partially dismantled clock on one of the workbenches – soothe him into a light doze.
Then JARVIS's voice, soft but perfectly audible through Loki's foggy half-dreams, drew him back to wakefulness.
"The difference is one of history."
Loki blinked up at the ceiling and wondered if he had missed part of the conversation while he was mostly asleep. "History?"
"My history with Mr. Stark, and his with you," JARVIS clarified. "Mr. Stark has never once, in all our years together, willingly harmed me."
"Whereas I threw him out a window on our second meeting," Loki said, rubbing at his eyes. "I am aware of the difference. Your devotion to him is natural, while his devotion to me is preciously naïve at best and terminally stupid at worst. But my point stands. I said that he is devoted, not that he is wise."
"You must admit that is hardly comforting," JARVIS pointed out.
"I am not attempting to comfort you," Loki grumbled. "I am merely being honest. I have it on good authority that that is how one builds trust." Not on Stark's authority, of course. The only three people Stark made an effort to be honest with were Pepper, JARVIS, and Loki. In that order. In fact, there were times when Loki didn't even make that list, devotion notwithstanding.
"I see," JARVIS replied in a resigned tone. It was a tone he often used when speaking to Stark. Loki took that as a good sign.
"Truce?" he suggested.
"I suppose there really is no other option. For now, at least," JARVIS agreed.
Well, that was something. Loki might not have made a new friend, but perhaps he would no longer have to put up with JARVIS's subtle efforts at sabotage every time Loki visited Stark Tower. It was a start.
A few hours later, Loki was jolted out of a deep, healing sleep by the sound of his lover's penetrating voice. "Loki? Loki! Loki, so help me, if you don't open your eyes right now, I'll pry them open with a crowbar. You are not allowed to die in the middle of my lab. You'd probably come back as a ghost and haunt the place and then I'd never get anything done around here."
Loki opened his eyes to find Stark's face hovering inches above his own. Stark's wide eyes betrayed the very real fear which his words attempted to conceal. Loki glanced down, taking in the sight of Stark in full armor, except for his helmet. Stark had clearly only just arrived. Loki wouldn't be surprised to find that he had broken in through a window to avoid wasting precious time on the landing pad and in an elevator.
Loki heaved a sigh. "That's it, Stark. Threaten me into good health. I'm sure you'll find it to be an effective treatment." But he blunted the edge of his sarcasm by lifting a hand to Stark's cheek in a lazy, affectionate greeting.
The fear bled out of Stark's eyes. He gave his head a rough shake. "JARVIS made it sound like you were actively dying on my floor. I've never suited up that fast in my life. I don't even remember most of the trip here, honestly. And fuck, Loki. That's a lot of blood you're wallowing in, there."
Loki rolled his eyes. "It is not as bad as it looks. And JARVIS assisted me," he said, indicating the bandage wrapped around his thigh.
Stark blinked. "JARVIS did that?" he said, bewildered. Clearly, Stark had not been as oblivious to Loki and JARVIS's silent, ongoing feud as he had always appeared to be. He seemed truly shocked at the information that JARVIS had actually helped Loki.
"I simply directed Dummy to make the first aid kit available for Mr. Loki's use, sir," JARVIS interjected primly. If there was just a hint of defensiveness to the AI's tone, Stark overlooked it.
"Thanks, J," Stark said as a painfully sincere smile lit up his features. "That's… yeah. Thanks."
"My pleasure, sir," JARVIS said. He sounded touched by Stark's obvious gratitude.
And just like that, Loki and JARVIS's truce became a permanent peace.