A/N: Thanks for your patience during my lack of internet. It's working right now, but I don't know how long that will last. Plus I have the mother of all sinus infections, and I feel like my skull is full of water. T_T Hopefully that will pass soon so I can go back to be being more productive for you guys.
ALSO! Forgot to mention last time: the awesometastic Stoft has provided another illustration that you all need to lavish with love!
stoft. deviantart. com/#/d493bgt
Just delete the spaces. You know the drill. :)
Keep up the awesome, guys! You rock. ^_^
"He left a dead rat in my shoe."
Tony looked up from his breakfast. He had graduated from the neck brace days ago, but he was still careful not to move his neck anymore than necessary, which was quite a bit more difficult now that he was sitting at the dining room table and not propped up on a dozen pillows. He smiled across the table at Steve and handed Loki another tiny piece of bacon. The cat was curled up by his plate and purring – "Honestly, neither of you have any manners," Pepper had protested – eyes a sly pair of slits that stared at Steve almost smugly.
"Who?" Tony asked, playing dumb. "Him?" He gestured at the cat, who wore a look of amusement that really only ought to be on a human's face.
The look Steve gave him was long-suffering but distantly amused. "Well, it was either him or Thor," he said wryly. "Neither would surprise me."
Tony laughed. "Consider it a gift," he said. "I hear that's how they show affection."
"Cats or gods?"
"Neither would surprise me."
Loki purred more forcibly and nuzzled at Tony's hand.
"Alright, alright!" Tony sighed with mock exasperation. He handed Loki the rest of his bacon, and the cat looked at him with eyes squinted into happy slits. Tony smiled and ruffled the fur on top of Loki's head.
"Are you seriously hand-feeding him?" Steve asked, mouth slightly agape.
"Aww, come on, look how happy he is!" Tony scratched a finger under Loki's chin. Tony was talking in that baby-voice again, and Loki would have back-handed – back-pawed? – him for it if he weren't in such a good mood.
His skin had tingled with magic when he had awakened that morning. It was still a pittance compared to the power he was used to wielding, but at least now he knew for certain that his magic would return. Another week or so, and he could return home to his plotting.
Except that "home" did not seem like the right noun, for some reason. If he could speak, Loki would have cursed. Was he that starved for company that he actually enjoyed being a house pet? That was pathetic on so many levels.
For his part, Steve just looked borderline horrified. "He's the spawn of Satan," he said.
Hmm. Loki had heard that an awful lot since dropping to Midgard, but really, if he thought about it, it was more likely that Satan was his spawn. It would explain quite a bit, actually.
The clank of dishes roused Loki from his thoughts, and he looked up to see Tony clearing the table. He still moved stiffly, wincing every once in a while when he jarred sore muscles. Loki remembered then that Tony was an ordinary human with no super-strength or super-healing to protect and preserve his fragile mortal body. The other Avengers were all "meta-human" and survived off their brawn or mutations or scientific enhancements or whatever-the-Hel-else. So what set Tony apart from all those other mortals who sat at home, watching the Avengers on the news from inside their sad, short-lived little bubbles?
"How are you feeling?" Steve asked, interrupting Loki's train of thought.
"Never better," Tony answered unconvincingly. "Why do you ask?"
Loki rolled his eyes at that bit of macho posturing. Sometimes Tony was not so different from Thor, a fact that Loki found unusually irksome. From his answering sigh, Steve was less than impressed himself.
"The Hulk used you for batting practice. By all rights, you're lucky to be alive."
"Well, hallelujah, then," Tony answered dryly, now focused on rinsing his dishes.
Steve sighed and did not ask further. He gave Loki a sour, distrusting look as he left the room. Mentally, Loki threw him the finger.
Loki had just come out of the litter box – he and the humans had compromised with an enclosed one for privacy – when he found Tony in the workshop for the first time since the Avengers' spat with the Hulk. Pepper had insisted that spending hours bent over his desk or some device was bad for Tony's still-healing neck, and she and his other patsies would likely scold him for doing so now. For his part, Loki did not see the point, since – for him, at least – boredom was even less conducive to any sort of recovery.
Loki meowed to let Tony know he was there. He had sneaked up on the human often enough and, while it was amusing to watch him jump, he didn't want to give his already fragile body a heart-attack. Tony smiled and called him over, so Loki jumped onto his lap and stared at him until the human remembered that it was his duty to pet him.
"Don't tell Pepper, okay?" he said, smoothing one hand down Loki's spine.
Loki scoffed as best he could in cat form. It sounded like a sneeze.
Tony stared at the nearest computer screen and pecked at a few keys with one hand. Loki squinted into the computer's glow and watched what looked like a blueprint for the infamous iron suit fill up the screen. Loki darted a sidelong glance at Tony before hunkering down to stare at the screen and watch him work. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Loki scanned through the names of people who would kill for the information Tony was unwittingly sharing, going through the suit piece by piece, tweaking, adjusting, deleting.
Where before Tony would talk to himself or his robots as he worked, he directed his mindless observations and questions at Loki, who wondered if all the babbling were really a necessary part of the creative process. At the very least, it gave the Trickster some context.
Both jumped when the door swung open and a large shadow filled the door frame. Thor shut the door gently behind him and offered Tony an apologetic smile.
"Pepper says to stop tinkering," he said. Thor approached, darting a wary look at Loki that was returned with a glare.
Tony blew out a sigh that bordered on a groan. He looked down at Loki. "See?" he muttered to the cat.
Loki's evil chuckle came out as a purr. When next he looked at Thor, it was to see his brother staring at him like he had sprouted a second head (and he would know, since an experiment gone wrong a few centuries ago had made him do just that). Tony did not seem to notice.
"Tell Pepper that I'm a big boy and can decide my own bed time."
Thor folded his arms across his chest. "I am not your courier," he admonished.
Loki narrowed his eyes at the sense of deja vu. He had said those exact words many times; whenever Thor and Odin were at odds, they would try to send their messages to each other through Loki or Frigga, and neither of them would have it. The look Thor gave him indicated that he had chosen those words on purpose. He was probably trying to goad Loki into reverting to his natural form. Thor was hardly a master of manipulation, and Loki would have laughed if he could.
Tony rolled his eyes and returned to work, ignoring the frown that earned him from Thor.
"You'll aggravate your injury."
Loki silently applauded the glare Tony shot Thor. "Trust me, there will be far more aggravation if I'm just sitting around doing nothing." Under his breath he muttered something about not being made of glass. Despite his obvious irritation, his hand was still gentle against Loki's fur.
"Pepper says to read a book."
That earned Thor another eye-roll. "That's not the point," Tony muttered. "I have ideas. Too many ideas."
Inwardly, Loki smiled ruefully. He knew the feeling all too well.
"Loki used to say that," Thor murmured. Loki looked at his brother sharply and saw that there was a bemused crease between his eyebrows. Thor met Loki's look with a challenging one of his own.
The hand petting Loki stopped. "What?"
When Thor spoke, it was slowly, as though he were weighing each word. "When my brother was little," he said, "he used to take everything apart and then put it back together, sometimes the way it was but oftentimes with some... 'improvements'. He said it was not enough to know that something worked; he wanted to know how it worked. His mind always seemed so full of ideas and theories."
Loki looked first at Thor and then at the human, wondering how Tony would take the comparison. With the ghost of a smile, Tony nodded. "Yeah, I... I was the same way," he said softly. He seemed more bemused than alarmed or insulted, and Loki let out a breath he did not know he was holding.
Thor looked at his brother, and Loki could read his thoughts clear as day. Do you remember those days? that look asked.
Of course I do, Loki wanted to shout. But it wasn't half so idyllic as you seem to remember!
Then again... everything had seemed so much simpler back then. He blew out a sigh and rested his chin on his paws.
"Sometimes you two are very much alike."
Loki's ears flattened, and he bristled. They were nothing alike!
He would have called Thor a fool if he could speak.
Tony was silent, staring off at nothing. His hand had automatically resumed its petting, and Loki felt his muscles relax at the feather-light touch.
"Try not to work too late," Thor relented, half-turning towards the door. "If I can promise the Lady Pepper you won't, she will not be quite so cross with you. Or with me."
Tony smiled and hummed an affirmative, bending over his desk again. Loki watched Thor leave and walk up the stairs on heavy steps.
Loki hardly dared to blink, green eyes wide and intent on the surprisingly nimble movements of Tony's fingers. Blueprints for a suit upgrade flashed by in 2D and 3D, casting a blue glow across Tony's face and reflecting off dark irises. Even though Loki was only beginning to understand the alien technology of Midgard, as he watched Tony work, he began to realize and grudgingly admit to himself that Tony Stark was a genius even by Aesir standards. Loki understood the basics of the mechanics, but there were so many little touches and flourishes that transformed a piece of weapons technology into a work of art. He had not understood all that had gone into the iron suit before, and he found himself impressed despite himself. He wondered how a human so severely handicapped by Midgard's medieval knowledge and technology could create something like this.
And finally, finally, Loki saw that Tony Stark was not by nature a man of brawn but of intellect, and that he had used that intellect to put himself on the same level as warriors like Thor and Captain America. Without that suit, without that brain, Tony Stark was wholly and regrettably human, no super strength or genetic mutation to set him above his kin.
It was Tony's mind and will that set him above his peers, not any super-strength or mutant powers.
Loki looked up to study Tony's face, heavily lined with the intensity of his concentration even as his lips moved automatically. Loki realized that – maybe – Thor was right and that, lesser creature though he was, Tony Stark was in essence a kindred spirit.
Change a few key events here and there, and Tony's life might have been Loki's, all told.
This Iron Man was the closest thing to an intellectual and physical equal that Loki had encountered in centuries. Something thrilled in the pit of Loki's stomach at the thought, something dangerously close to hope, but Loki clamped it down and pushed the thought of it into the back corners of his mind.
He was merely hiding here long enough to regain his magic, not to make friends, and certainly not to moon over one of Thor's friends.
The very thought repulsed him, and Loki turned and leaped from the desk in his disgust. He couldn't remember the last time he had been in a different form this long, and it was starting to wear on Loki's already frayed sanity. Tony stopped his mumblings long enough to watch Loki head for the stairs.
"Hey, kitty," he called. "Where you going?"
Loki ignored him and found some dark, isolated corner to curl up in.