Cross-posted to AO3.

He cannot recall the way Muninn's black-tipped feather tore at his insides when they forced it into his body, how he screamed himself hoarse and fought against those who held him down, the desperate tone to his cries when he invoked the name of the All Father as they ripped away his magics, his birthright, everything that made him him. But he supposes that was rather the point.

The stares of disgust, of rage, of black amusement when Thor's pathetic little team finds him. He remembers those well.

The prison in which they throw him bears a striking resemblance to the first one, the odd glass alloy cage meant to hold another. He knows not what Thor tells them, if he details the humiliating sentence meted out by Odin Spear-Shaker, an effective neutering where death would have been kinder. Loki Laufeyson, the would-be usurper, little more than the sum of his failures and gaping schisms, rendered as mortal as the rest of the squealing vermin on this little mud ball and doomed to live the rest of his life as such.

Surely they are seated around a table at this very moment, a democracy of righteousness and ridiculous pretend names (Captain America – how positively droll), deciding his fate. Thor will reason on his behalf like the fool he is, and the others will use Loki's charge against the Earth as rebuttal. He is a war criminal. The humans have their moments of clarity in matters such as these and there will be no asylum for him.

He touches the wall, presses his fingers to it and relishes the coolness of the glass. It is far too hot in here, and his temples bear sweat. His hair sticks to his jaw, the back of his neck, and it is uncomfortable. He does not like the feeling. He has never felt this before; his body has always been cold.

The doors slide open and the man dressed in black – Nick Fury, of S.H.I.E.L.D – strides in, shoulders straight and with all the smug impudence one can imbue a single eyeball. At least Odin had the decency to feign respect for his enemies.

"So, here we are," Fury says, and Loki ponders the many ways he could dress the man in his own intestines. "Didn't expect to see you again so soon. Or at all.

Loki smiles with all his teeth. "Asgardian justice is not what it once was, I suppose. So tell me, boot, what is to be this ant's fate? I imagine it will be something terribly painful under the guise of being humane. Do you intend to make me suffer for my many crimes?"

Fury says nothing, seemingly content to stand in silence and stare. It causes Loki's skin to do something peculiar. He twitches and scratches at a complaint that does not exist, finds himself restless. The cage is not small, but neither is it big, and the desire to pace from one side to the other is nearly overwhelming. They are not in the air this time; he wonders what would happen now if he "so much as scratched this glass".

He presses, because that is what he does, immortal or not. "And how is Agent Barton? I must say, I do rather miss his company. Now there is a mind to which I can relate. Does your little organization do extensive psychological testing, Director? If not, it may behoove you to start."

Anger, or its crippled brother, flares briefly in Fury's single eye, which leads Loki to take in the scars that peak from beneath the patch he wears over the other. The raised lines are intriguing, almost as if they were tattooed into the skin. He wonders if there is an eye still lurking under that leather sheath, or if there is a dark abyss that aches with envy for something to fill it.

The tilt of Fury's head dares Loki to continue, and in the name of self-preservation he says nothing else. He does hope Fury can read everything else he would like to say on his face. Judging by the downturn of Fury's mouth, he can.

"You killed a lot of people, you know. A lot of people. That kind of loss of life -"

"Spare me your sanctimonious babble, Director," Loki hisses, wishing for his scepter more than anything. "How many people have you killed in your tenure with S.H.I.E.L.D? How many has your spy woman killed? Between just the two of you, there is an ocean of blood. And your hulking beast? Have you counted the bodies it has left in its wake? Shall I enumerate to you the death toll of which my brother was once so very proud? The hands of you and yours are just as stained as mine, perhaps more. You are not my better, you are not my keeper, and you are certainly not my father, so do not stand before me and recount my offenses without acknowledging your own."

Halfway through his speech, he realizes he is not speaking to Fury at all. These are the words built up over time, caked with disappointment, ice, and jötun blood, and he hadn't said them when he had the chance. He stood in front of the All Father, silent, unable to force the words out, and oh, how deeply would they have cut if he had. But he couldn't, and they forced Muninn's feather into him anyway.

It hardly matters. Death is coming for him and soon he will be in Hel's half-rotten embrace.

The doors open again and Thor steps through, red cape billowing behind him and making him look every bit the king he should not be.

"Brother," Thor says, smiling wide. "There will be no execution."

He takes back his conservative estimate of the humans' intelligence. If this is the way they choose to act against someone who has done them so much wrong, then they deserve everything they get.

They do not talk to him. They do not look at him. They do not acknowledge his existence.

The tower that belongs to Tony Stark, the place where they captured him after he lost his bid for the Earth, is large enough that he can avoid them altogether. He accidentally comes across Barton when he is sure they are all asleep, and cannot help himself when he orders Barton to fetch him a glass of water like a good dog. It ends poorly, of course, and it takes him a week to recover. Now the pace of his utterly mortal heart quickens whenever he thinks about the eyes that watch him from the many high, invisible perches the tower has to offer. He is never truly alone in that regard.

This is his sentence: cooperation. The Avengers will not kill him; instead, they intend to use him for information about the other worlds and the many beings that may have Earth in their sights, in particular the lover of Death.

In return for his services, he is granted a room that is little more than a cell, bare except for a bed and a small light. He spends most of his time there, aimless, and refuses Thor's invitations to join his people during mealtimes or to watch the television. Thor was never one to observe uncomfortable situations and seems to forget more often than not why his mortal friends refuse to accept Loki into their ranks.

He is without purpose, without his magic, and thinks of Asgard more than he cares to admit. When Thor (far too often) breaks down his door and cheerily announces they will reminisce on their childhood escapades, Loki thinks of the way the cosmos glinted off Frigga's hair and misses the songs she sang when she wove her tapestries. There are moments when he would give anything to sit at her feet with his head on her knee, the way he had done as a boy, and whisper to her his transgressions. Once over a platter of sandwiches, he considers apologizing and asking for Thor's forgiveness, but the substance between the slices of bread - peanut butter, Thor tells him - stays his tongue.

The weeks pass, the Avengers assemble, and Loki spends the time in his room staring at his hands as if he could conjure magic with his will alone. Except for the times he is with Fury.

He is lying on his very uncomfortable bed and longing absently for a distraction when the doors slide open. Loki closes his eyes and swallows his annoyance. It has only been a day since he last spoke with Fury and Hill about the flight capabilities of the Chitauri vehicles. He has no desire to speak to them so soon. Or ever again.

"Hi, honey, I'm h- Oh my god, is this Hell?"

Eyes opening, Loki sits up and finds Tony Stark standing in the doorway, surveying the room with an expression of horror. Even his beard seems offended.

"This is Hell, isn't it," Stark continues, stepping inside without permission. "I expected a lot more fire. Brimstone. Hitler. You know, but this - this is doing terrible things to my soul. Why aren't there windows? I'm pretty sure I designed every room to have windows, and I know for a fact I would never build a room like this, because it's, like, 9x9 of soul-crushing fail and has no windows. How haven't you gone completely insane? -er. Insaner. More insane. I'm starting to lose it and I haven't been here more than two minutes. Seriously, where are the windows?"

Loki blinks. "Do you not have need to breathe?"

Stark startles, eyes wide, and shakes his shoulders until they fall loose. "What? Oh, no, I've been awake for three days or so. No big deal. Except I've been banned from consuming any more Red Bull until my liver can take it - and let's face it, it's fine, it's steel at this point - so, yeah. Bit jumpy. Crashing. Nothing new. You have no books. Or TV. No books, TV, or windows. Christ, I know serial killer-rapists in solitary who have it better. Come on, up, up, up."

Before he can stop himself, or perhaps charge at Stark to get him out of Loki's space, he is on his feet, but his tongue finds itself quickly. "Do notaddress me so informally, you little pissant. Unless you are part of the interrogation unit, get ou-"

"Sorry there, Prancer." Stark scratches his fingers through his hair rapidly, like a small rodent, and hums, still focused on the tragedy of Loki's windowless room. "But I got something I want you and your magic fingers to take a look at. Lab field trip time. I'll even spring for pizza. Sushi? You look like a sushi kind of guy."

Loki can count on one hand the times he has been rendered completely speechless. The first was the mess with Sleipnir; the last was being beaten into the ground repeatedly by a slathering beast. That he cannot find his tongue in the face of Tony Stark's manic invitation just serves as a reminder of how long he has been holed up in this room.

"Seriously, though, can we leave? I don't know how much longer I can stand it. Actually, if you're attached to that bed sheet I'd take it with you, because I'm destroying this place and installing a window room as soon as we walk out the door. Just - wall to wall, floor to ceiling windows. It'll probably be a giant "KICK ME" sign for all the other super villains out there - is that the PC term? Super villain? - but it'd be a step in the right direction of erasing this room from existence." Stark drops his arm and shifts his weight, finally turning his full attention on Loki. He squints. "Who dressed you?"

"Stark," Loki snaps, and there is an aching pressure building between his eyes. "If you have reason to speak with m -"

"Because you look like a goddamn GQ cover model and it's kind of making me re-adjust my entire world view. Look at that bone structure. Oh my god, I need a Red Bull. Or a jäger. A jägerbomb. " Stark scrubs at his eyes and then points straight at Loki, as if he has the right. The last person to point at Loki in such an impertinent manner had the offending finger severed. "Ready? Bringing the sheet with you? No? Don't blame you; it was pissing me off too. JARVIS, send the demolition crew and the builder bots to our resident god's hellhole. I want this thing gone and window-fied by the time he gets back."

From the ether comes a voice. "The room is to be made entirely of windows, sir? "

Startled, Loki looks around to find the source and finds nothing. Perhaps it is another member of S.H.I.E.L.D, another set of eyes determined to pin him down and watch him squirm. Stark doesn't seem bothered.

"JARVIS, the guy's been living in a sardine can the past four months. Unless - Hey, Cheekbones McEvil, do you like not having windows? Is that a thing, or do windows work for you? They must, right? You loved tossing me out of one."

There are a million ways to answer and all of them are unavailable options at the moment. The ridiculous name alone would cost Stark his insignificant life. How dare this mortal sweep in, uninvited, and make demands of -

"Eh, we'll discuss it later," Stark says airily, waving his hand and walking out of the room. "Let's just go before I carve a gun out of the drywall and shoot myself."

Loki stares after him and is unsuccessful in his attempts to school his features into something less… bewildered. He can feel the strain of the muscles in his forehead as they lift his brows nearly to his hairline, the slackness of his mouth.

"I have no business with you, Stark. I am not some child that craves entertainment or attention," Loki hisses, stepping into a quick pace to keep up. The hallways are gilded by sunlight, far too reminiscent of Asgard, and his eyes stray to the large wall of windows before he can stop himself. The view of the city looks so very different during the day; it is more impressive at night, seen only when he slinks about in the darkness, taking to the shadows for cover. For all that humanity lacks in the ways of knowledge and strength, they are capable of impressive things. They would have made terrific slaves.

Stark turns his head slightly and snorts. "No? The whole Chitauri death dragon planes weren't you going 'Thor! Thor, hey Thor, over here! Lookit me, Thor, buddy, look! Hey, Thor!'?"

"I would chain you to a rock and have the crows peck at your insolent ton-"

"Yeah, probably," Stark says, waving off the threat. "Thor's told me about all the shenanigans you get up to back home. I didn't believe half of it, hell, I Wiki'd the blood eagle thing because why, and it turns out the big guy wasn't just telling tall tales. What ever happened to good old-fashioned torture, like the rack or the… thing with the bamboo spears, I don't know, whatever. The spine and lungs thing just seems like so much effort."

Loki stares at the back of his head, unable to process what exactly Stark is babbling about. Perhaps this is why he felt no fear when Loki invaded his tower the first time, and instead of appealing to his humanity Stark offered him a drink. He is armored by the fact that, outside of the suit, he has no armor. There is no chink to be found. "You have no self-preservation instincts whatsoever."

"I have no idea what that even means, plus you don't have a disco stick for me to ride anymore so I'm not too worried." They reach the bottom of a flight of stairs and Stark pushes open a glass door, arms thrown wide. "Daddy's home! Granted, daddy's only been gone for, like, ten minutes, but he's back!"

"Welcome back, sir. We missed you so," the voice from before says dryly.

"Cyber wedgie, JARVIS," Stark says, pointing at the ceiling. "Don't think I won't."

Loki has no recollection of traveling so far through the tower, cannot recall how they got to where they are, and it unnerves him more than he would like to admit. Stark's quick tongue could rival his own; a terrifying prospect.

He stops in the doorway and surveys the room, which appears to be a very large workshop, somewhat similar to the smithy shops in Asgard in that there is a lot of metal. There the similarities end. Sleek, shiny creations lift various appendages as if they were limbs or heads, giving the impression of life where there is none. On the many tables that are strewn throughout the room are half-formed things, unfinished works that are still beautiful despite their deformities, but they are scattered and piled carelessly as if they were no longer needed or wanted.

Loki sucks in a breath. There is no magic, no alchemy here. This is all the product of one man's mind.

"JARVIS, has the demolition derby arrived at Chez Loki?" Stark casts about for something, raking a hand through his hair until it stands wild. He taps the surface of the table, sending a ripple outward as if it were water, and images made of blue light come to life beneath his touch. He drags them from the table and tosses them into the air.

"The demolition began 5.43 minutes ago, sir. The builder units are awaiting your specifications," the voice says, and Stark hums, lifting his fingers to where his false images hang in the air and moving pieces around, dragging, flinging, calling up numbers and plugging them into equations while blueprints blossom in empty space. Loki watches, rapt, and misses his magic as keenly as he would a limb.

"Hey, Jafar, you want a loft in there? What about a breakfast bar?"

"Are all prisoners of S.H.I.E.L.D treated with such generosity, or are my cheekbones simply that wonderful?" Loki inquires, unable to inject any sort of flatness into his tone; his attention is held too fiercely by Stark's airborne designs. "How is this done? It isn't magic."

"I've blinded you with science, huh?" Stark flicks one of the blueprints, which explodes into shards of light that disperse into nothing. "Multi-touch technology made better by Stark magic. Mix heat-seeking contact recognition into things and people start in with the 'holy crap it's like Minority Report' and 'Tony Stark's a wizard'. Not actual magic, although I'm sure 46% of the planet thinks I'm straight out of Hogwarts. It's really just a question of how good the marriage is between math and mind. For me? It's a really good marriage, with lots of hot, kinky sex. Soul mates. Renewing the vows every four or five days, that sort of thing."

Loki remembers conjuring illusions so grand and detailed that those in Asgard believed them to be real. A bit of fun, here and there. Hardly useful. Stark's science, however, is a marvel.

"This is the technology that built your empire," he muses aloud, and Stark pauses.

"Uh, this is the technology that built my empire." Stark taps his temple, then thrusts his arm out and gestures to the rest of the workroom. "Well, my father pioneered a bunch of incredible shit, but mine is the brain that made the suit, the disco ball in my chest, a new element, and a whole bevy of ridiculous things that would make your pretty eyes weep with awe. Oh, right, sushi. I promised you sushi. You like spicy or savory? This is an important question. Your entire raw fish experience depends on it."

Stark's rambling is meant to deflect, but Loki hears the hitch in his voice, the underlying… anger? Resentment? Inadequacy? Perhaps there is a chink to be found in Stark after all. "You don't like to mention your father. Is it because so many of the wonders of your mind were dependent on his?"

The workroom as a whole seems to still and Stark's eyes shutter, glassy with a façade made of steel masquerading as gossamer.

Loki cannot help the smirk that curls his lips. "Have I struck a nerve? How far into the shadow of his throne do you sit? It seems to me, Stark, that for all your mind and math you are nothing more than a pretender to your father's crown."

Once when he was a child, his mother whispered you do not know when it is enough and brushed her fingers over the bruise on his cheek put there by Thor's friends, not Loki's friends, and he hid his shame in her shoulder. He was not as strong nor as fast as the others, a fact of which they lived to remind him, and the only armor he had to shield himself with was his words. Whatever they said about him he would return tenfold.

Trouble is, armor crafted of words does not protect against fists.

There are other types of armor, of course. While Stark's red and gold suit stands proudly in a glass case, invisible plates of steel and stone and flame slide down over every bit of Stark, curving over his shoulders, his lithe arms, all forming a phalanx at the center of him, protecting his glowing core and the frail, beating muscle to the side of it. Where Loki had believed there to be an exploitable weakness, there is none.

"Hmm." Stark's eyes ride the edge of danger and Loki's traitorous heart skips a beat at the sight of them. "You know, it's interesting and sort of stupidly telling on your part, you bringing up dads and thrones and pretending. See, your brother may be a Norse god and all that implies, but all it took was a couple of Four Loko and some nachos before he spilled the entire sob story. Want me to bust out all the interesting tidbits about your dad? Oh, but which one do I even talk about? The not-so-jolly blue giant or the douchetastic pirate? Because no matter how much you think you have on me, I'll come back a thousand fold. You won't even know what hit you and then I'll have to bathe in Thor's tears when you're nothing but a green smear on the floor, and they'll say, "Hey, remember that guy who tried to break the world? Turns out daddy never hugged him enough." So unless you want me to halt construction on your new, awesome cathedral of windows, take the father talk and shove it. Capisce?"

The skin of his palms splits beneath his fingernails and he wishes that instead of coddling him his mother would have taught him how to cultivate a stronger shield against his foes. There is no escape from Stark's words; he has no sway over the man.

He expects Stark to crow about his advantage and looks around for something sharp to carve out Stark's throat, but instead Stark waves his hand absently and says, "JARVIS, put an order in at Shabu. We want everything off the sushi menu. And that weird onion soup appetizer they have at hibachi places - I'm craving it, and, dammit, now I want hibachi."

"Would you like me to buy out the restaurant, sir?" The voice inquires sweetly, and Stark's lips twitch.

"That was only once, and I ended up giving it back. Forget the hibachi, it's only good when they're making it in front of you. I love when they flip the shrimp tails into their hats and make volcanoes out of onions. Just the sushi menu this time. And the soup. You like onions? Are there onions in Asgard?"

Loki swallows hard, curling his hand into a fist. He wants to break something. Stark's face is perfectly within range. "Yes."

"Look," Stark huffs, "it's nothing personal. I don't like to talk about Papa Stark, all right? You don't bring him up, I won't bring up your exponentially shittier family. We know nothing about each other's… stuff. Which may have to do with people who might be of the patriarchal persuasion. Maybe. Probably not. We going to have a problem with this?"

It is more of a kindness than he would expect from anyone. "… A problem with what?"

"Exactly," Stark says. "While JARVIS puts the order in, come here and take a look at this."

Nimble fingers slide the designs of Loki's soon to be cathedral of windows to the side, where they wink out of existence and - oh, they are back, smaller and more defined on the glass computer screen. Stark taps another screen, searches through a folder, and tosses another set of prints into the air. Loki squints to see it, pieces together lines with lines, ignores the tiny sets of equations and focuses on the image itself.

"Your flying machine," Loki says, leaning back. "Not that I'm not enjoying my time away from - how did you refer to it, Stark? '9x9 of soul-crushing fail', was it? - but why would you show me, of all people, the designs for your new fortress when I was the one who orchestrated and enjoyed the destruction of the old one? And believe me, I very much enjoyed it."

Stark does something complicated with his fingers and the prints bloat and merge until the image is not a two-dimensional design, but a three-dimensional model. It is enormous and takes up a good portion of the workroom. Stark flicks his wrist and the model spins, sleek and beautiful from every angle.

"Actually, of all people, you're exactly who I should show this to." Pause. "JARVIS, ETA for the sushi?"

"14.1 minutes, sir, although I feel it is my duty to remind you that Shabu usually does not deliver. The owner was quite annoyed," the voice says.

Stark grins. "Good thing I'm such a generous tipper."

From wherever it is, perhaps everywhere, the voice practically radiates smugness. "Very generous, sir."

Stark ambles around a table to stand at Loki's side, taking up all of the space for such a short and compact man. Stark's hand brushes Loki's as it lifts and slows the turning of the model, guiding it with a finger so they can see every detail. "See, thing is, you got inside. You used Hawkeye to exploit all of its weaknesses, but even more than that, you exploited our own from the inside. And because I'm Fury's favorite - that was sarcasm, by the way - I get the dubious honor of making him a new one. One where the runways aren't in front of the fucking engines."

"You want me to help you build your impenetrable flying fortress."

"Got it in one," Stark agrees. "I'm going to be building this stupid thing from the point of view of a hero. A hero consultant. Uh, someone who isn't evil and flies around saving things. Which means I'm going to maybe miss a thing or two." Or ten. "That's where you come in."

So, not generosity at all. Stark's kindness comes at a price, just like everything else. Odin's love in exchange for the possibility of a truce; Loki's existence in exchange for information; Loki's help in creating something in exchange for… a comfortable place of residence, new knowledge, and food called sushi. There are, perhaps, worse prices.

"May I remind you that the last time I "got in" I killed your beloved Coulson and dropped Thor from the sky?" Coulson had been brave, he will admit, but it was Thor's look of utter shock as the red button was pushed that he'll cherish until the end of his days.

"Coulson's fine, t'was only a flesh wound, which means he blasted you through a wall and lived to tell the tale. And I'm pretty sure that drop was the equivalent to a roller coaster ride to your brother. We took him to a Six Flags a couple of months back and he rode The Scream, like, eighteen times in a row. Kids loved him. Thought he was one of the characters walking around. Does he ever take off the armor or is that just a Jane privilege? Not that the cape's gonna make anyone bat an eyelash in this city."

There is a knock at the glass door, but Stark keeps talking.

"So, how good are you with compressible dynamics?" Stark doesn't wait for an answer and instead moves for the door, taking three large bags from Captain America, who appears to be very confused.

"Tony -" Captain America hisses, his eyes narrowing. The Captain may be a large man, but without his ridiculous costume he seems rather small. In his innocuous white shirt and brown trousers, he looks like the world's largest child.

"You didn't try to pay the delivery guy, right? It was paid in full. What am I talking about, of course you did. Did he take your money or did he burst into tears and ask you to sign his autograph shirt? And yeah, I had to look up some terms from your heyday because I honestly don't know how to deal with you when you say things like 'swell' and 'girl dizzy'." Stark shifts the bags to hold them comfortably.

Captain America reaches out to take Stark by the shoulder. "Tony, what the hell are you doing? Fury's having a conniption - Clint's starting to carve arrows out of the furniture, and the whole tower's on lockdown. He wasn't in his room -"

"Cell," Stark butts in with an odd smile, and Captain America jerks back in surprise. So does Loki.

"Tony -"

"His cell. Let's call it what it is. Was. It's being taken care of. I'm not even sure what it was doing there in the first place because I honestly don't remember it being there, which means Fury's been playing Bob The Builder in my own home behind my back and now I'm imagining him in overalls singing 'Can we fix it? Yes we can', and I will never unsee that."

"He's killed people."

Loki's skin itches, but he holds himself still, at war with the desires to fight, to hide, to throw something. He has killed people. So very many people. But so has Thor. And their Black Widow.

"So've I," Stark says, and for all that they are spoken quietly the words ring through the air like the strike of a hammer against iron, and Loki nearly chokes on his own tongue. "In fact, I've killed a lot of people. So have you. So have the rest of us. My body count completely obliterates his, but you're here bringing me sushi, and we have movie nights, and we fight together, and you made me really bad eggs this morning but I still ate them, remember that? But we just shoved him in a windowless cell and forgot about him. Riddle me this, mon Capitan: why the double standard?"

Captain America opens his mouth, no doubt a grand retort hanging on his lips, but says nothing. Loki knows almost nothing about the man, has only fought him the once, but he knows the Captain is quite steadfast in his beliefs in honor and justice the way Loki is about vengeance. To be called a hypocrite in defense of a criminal must feel like a physical blow.

Loki stares at Stark and doesn't know what to think.

Finally, Captain America straightens with a tight nod. "I hope you know what you're doing, Tony."

"I'll swing by the gym later and you can punch me through a wall." Stark kicks the door shut on whatever the good captain is about to say and comes back. "So, do you do math? Like, at all? I get you're all mojo'd out these days, but you didn't rely entirely on your mystic whateverthehell, did you? I'm starting you off with California rolls, by the way. If you've been living off mutton and ale and bread and whatever gods dine on then we're starting with mild and working our way up."

Stark roots around in one of the bags. Beyond him, still standing at the door, is Captain America. Loki lifts his hand and waggles his fingers. He would go so far as to mime stabbing Stark while his back is turned, just to see the horrified expression on the Captain's face, but suddenly there is a platter of colorful cylinders shoved into his hands.

"You defended me."

"Kinda. So, this is the Western knock-off. Still good. Good place to start. Where the fuck are the soups. But yeah, compressible dynamics. Math. You good with math?"

Loki takes one of the little cylinders and rubs his thumb against the cool, sticky plant that binds the thing together, then slides it onto his tongue and chews. It's… not unpleasant. Mild, as Stark said, and refreshing. There is a burst of flavor, something that could be meat, and it disappears into cool vegetables and some gummy form of rice.

"Awesome, right? Wait until you try the spicy tuna maki." Stark reaches over and takes one of the sushi off the platter and pops it into his mouth. "So, math?"

"In Asgard, we… those who build rely on similar equations, I suppose. I'm honestly not sure. I found it easier to simply conjure." Loki eats another sushi as Stark, with a triumphant noise, withdraws a small container from the bag and places it on the table by Loki's arm. Another container is lifted from the bag and Stark takes off the top, tosses it somewhere behind him, and begins drinking straight from the bowl.

"Ah, fuck, hot. It's not the same without those giant little spoons." Stark continues drinking despite his obvious discomfort. "I'm guessing you're a fast learner, yeah? Shit, I think I burned my tongue. Do you have algebra on Asgard, maybe trig? I'd ask Thor but I'm terrified of the answers I'd get. I asked him about the magic space tree thing once and he started drawing football plays on the living room walls and singing a song about a woman with three tits, and there were pop tarts all over the floor, and I really don't think I could handle that a second time. So, quick and easy, let's give this a whirl."

Loki glowers and uncaps the container, inhaling a light, tangy odor. He brings the bowl to his mouth, blowing to cool it, and takes a sip. It's very good. "You do not need to treat me as if I am only one step ahead of that idiot in intelligence, Stark. I'm sure I can solve your equations without issue."

"All right, Rudolph," Stark says, tossing his empty soup bowl down and bringing up another false screen of light, tapping rapidly on it. "Find X." Stark slides the image over to him, fingers pinning it down to the table, trapping naught but air and offering it as an olive branch. Whatever darkens Stark's eyes when their gazes meet is not pity, not blame, and there are drops of onion soup in his ridiculous beard.

Loki slowly reaches over to tap the little X that is revealed once Stark lifts his thumb away and says, "I found it."

There is a moment of silence, a beat, a breath, and for an instant Loki thinks he has hit enough, and then it's broken by Stark's amused cackling.

"Oh, this is going to be spectacular."

There is something stunning about mathematics. It's clean and unambiguous, all angles and curves and equations.

Stark gives him books - "we'll start you off with freshman geometry and work our way up. Study hard, there will be a quiz, number two pencils only" - that he reads from cover to cover, loses himself in the winsome curves of parabolas and writes in the margins to test his knowledge, begins drawing the universe with numbers, lines, and angles in place of words, spells, and blood oaths.

He finds himself wandering the tower often, gaze on the walls, the ceilings, the floors, the creases that separate them, and sees Stark's hand in all of it. The spires and halls of Asgard were built by men who had their orders. Loki had taken those halls for granted during his tenure on Asgard; they were always there, as if they had simply appeared one day out of nothing, and there seemed no point in questioning their existence. But unlike those whose hands shaped the kingdom in which the royal family dwells, Stark does it because he can. He sees, covets, creates, and then moves onto the next wonder.

The math follows Loki everywhere now, superimposes itself over every surface, every line, every angle, the way magic once did, the way Stark's floating schematics do now. His magic would sear his fingertips, would dredge up flame in his very core and burn him, but math is an effortless beauty rendered in ice and cold logic. It's becoming apparent why mathematics fascinate Stark. There is no equivocating; there is only absolute truth.

"You seem unburdened these days, brother," Thor says as Loki stands in the middle of one of Stark's many entertainment rooms, and surveys a visible beam that runs diagonally from the ceiling to a point in the wall.

"Don't call me that," Loki mutters absently.

He feels Thor amble up to stand beside him. "What are you looking at, brother?"

There is no arguing with the oaf. "That." The beam is perfectly engineered and beautiful in the way that an exposed bone is beautiful, pure against rot and flesh, but it has no actual purpose. It isn't holding the wall up. It's simply there, lovely and out of place.

Thor says nothing for a moment, then ventures, "it is a worthy… object."

"It's not worthy at all, you imbecile. It serves no purpose," Loki says, and wonders at Stark constructing it at all. "There is nothing efficient about it, so I don't understand why it was built in the first place."

"Perhaps it's simply for decoration," is Thor's brilliant rejoinder. "I have flipped through many catalogues that advertise furnishings, and more often than not there are useless things cluttering the set-up, filling space for the sake of it. I have learned much from my time spent on Midgard. There is a land called IKEA, brother, and it is home to an assortment of useless things. Would you like to learn about abstract structures? Jane has enumerated the many ways in which "modern décor" is tacky and overpriced."

The exposed beam is not nearly as interesting as the way Thor softens the name of the woman who changed him. It is almost as if the other words in his sentence act as a buffer, protecting her from whatever evils Loki had promised to befall her that day on the Bifrost, and he turns to the man he once gladly called 'brother'.


Thor flashes him a smile so bright it would rival any star hanging in the highest boughs of Yggdrasil. "Jane. I met her when… I suppose you already know. You were watching, but… Jane is… She is the most…" Words fail him, as they often do, and finally he settles on a gentle, "I am in love, brother."

Thor has been in love before. Many times before. The maidens of Asgard, beautiful and graceful and all of them fierce warriors, seek his favor through battle and wine, never stumbling or shy, and he loves each and every one of them. Until the next one comes along, of course. Loki cannot imagine this venture with 'Jane' will be any different, but there is something terrifyingly content in Thor's expression that he almost cannot begrudge.

"I intend to bring her home," Thor says quietly, but proudly. "I wish for father and mother to meet her. I wish for her to see the realm she will someday rule."

Loki sucks in a breath. None of the others had ever graced the table of Odin Spear-Shaker and the Lady Frigga, let alone had any sort of hope of being queen. "You cannot be serious."

"Jane is kind, fair, and braver than any maiden I have met, all this without the knowledge of combat and war. She knows so much, much more than most people on this world. She - she is so smart, brother, so terribly clever; I think you would find her worthy. And… she saved me. She took me into her life without expectation, without care for my title or my many feats. I have never met another like her and I do not wish to. She is my chosen."

That never would have been Loki's fate. Thor would have been king with the perfect queen he chose for himself, the favor of Asgard buoying his throne. And Loki would have still been in his shadow, given some maiden, some young girl who would never understand the workings of his mind or his heart, in order to satisfy some social contract, a treaty between Odin and some other noble.

There is an ugly sort of fire that burns cold in his gut at the very thought of what awaited him had he not discovered his parentage. The change in the atmosphere is palpable, and he wants to reach up and pull that foolish beam down from the wall and stab Thor right through the chest cavity with it, feel the plaster and wood press through flesh and blood and bone, color Thor's golden locks a bright, wet red.

Except he can't. His weak, mortal arms are not strong enough to tear the beam down, and Thor would stop the attempt on his life as easy as one swats away an insect.

Thor pauses, sensing the change. "Brother -"

"Do not call me that!" Loki shouts, the words clawing their way out of his throat. "I am not your brother. I am nothing to you, you - why did you even bring me here, if not to answer for my crimes? Why did you stay Fury's hand? Execution would have been preferable to this - this half-life, where I am supposed to - to, what, be grateful for the scraps I am given in return for your S.H.I.E.L.D taking all there is of me?"

The blue glass of Thor's eyes threatens to shatter under the weight of his words, and oh, how Loki wants to see it happen, wants to crush the shards under his heel until they are nothing but unwanted ice crystals scattered upon the floor. Then, and only then, will Thor understand.

"Yourfathershould have left me where he found me instead of parade me around the warm halls of Asgard, a precious artifact with only one use." His eyes burn and he blinks rapidly. "He should have let me die in the Jötun glaciers."

Had he his magic, he would pull the world around him and hide, slip through the air like a shadow, but all he is able to do is whirl on his heels and walk away, ignoring Thor's increasingly desperate pleas for him to come back. At least the idiot knows not to follow him.

He throws open the door to the roof of the tower and inhales the frigid air gratefully, closes his eyes at the way the wind and cold bites at him, cooling his heated cheeks far more quickly than with which his mortal body is comfortable. Once his body would have relished the chill, would have recognized it as natural, and his eyes would have bled crimson and his flesh made the color of the sea, and the man he once called father would have…

Loki drops his head into his hands and breathes in slowly.

There is no home for him now. After all he has done, after all he has wrought, Frigga will never again look at him with love in her eyes. He thinks of the jötun who'd struck her, his brave and beautiful queen who stood strong against invaders and drew the first blade in order to protect what was hers. The people of Asgard will never accept him, if they ever did, the raven-haired child in a family of gold. He remembers the gossip, how the fidelity of Odin's wife was called into question by those who spoke in jealous, hateful whispers, those he targeted with tricks and shadow and deceit, and wonders if they would still spew their envy and vitriol at the queen for having passed off a frost giant as a prince of Asgard. Probably. Grasping, covetous little ingrates.

Exhaling sharply through his nose, Loki drops his hands and lifts his head.

He stops. Stares.

The Black Widow stares back.

He swallows hard and tilts his chin up, moving across the sleek floor of the roof and gracefully throwing his legs over to sit on the edge, scant feet away from her, holding her gaze all the while until he averts his eyes to stare out at the cityscape, as if that had been his reason for being here all along. She is nothing but another presence, a peasant, one to ignore or bend to his will should he so choose. He resolutely does not think of how she played him for a fool, how he threatened her with all she feared and believed she would be crushed in his grasp. How she turned around with a smirk and thanked him for his cooperation.

Tension coils in his spine, his arms, and he grits his teeth and keeps his eyes straight ahead, and burns a hole in the roof of the building that stands below the tower. He calculates its angles, its depth, its height, and does not look at her.

The Widow says nothing.

He opens his mouth to suck in the cold air, but the moment his lips part he says, "I am not apologizing."

"I didn't ask you to." She sounds like she is very much enjoying his discomfort. He would, if he were in her place.

"Good." He does not look at her. "Because there is nothing to apologize for. I did what I wanted -"

"And still failed," the Widow says, and Loki snarls but does not negate the claim. "You didn't say anything that wasn't true."

He didn't. Every little crumb of information that Barton's spelled tongue had spilled about his teammate, her weaknesses, her past, was the truth. Her ledger was red, gushing. His, however, is even worse.

"I'm not apologizing," he says again.

They sit in silence for a few moments longer until the rustle of fabric alerts movement, and the Widow gets down from the ledge. "Interesting," she murmurs.

He says nothing, just listens to her footsteps fade and the door open.

"Before I forget." He doesn't turn, and she doesn't let that deter her from speaking. She knows she has his full attention. "If you ever attempt to attack this planet or me and mine again? I will kill you. Slowly. Intimately. In every way you fear and in every way you didn't know to fear. This isn't a bargain, it's a promise. You mewling quim."

The door shuts.

He clasps his hands together in his lap. If they are trembling, there is no one around to tell him. Except the door opens and there is a different set of footsteps, of rustling fabric, a new presence at his side.

"Your hands are shaking," Stark points out, and Loki's left hand and right hand grip each other tightly to keep from wringing Stark's neck. "Yeah, I have those days too."

Stark settles and swings his legs absently over the edge, as if he were walking on air, and then points.

"Hey, check it out. That building right there? No, the one to the right of it. With the stupid roof design. Look at it. See that… thing? Whatever that's supposed to be. I think it's supposed to be parabolic, but it's just a disgrace. See how it intersects the line of symmetry at a 73 degree angle? Pretty sure it should be 45 degrees. How fucking dumb is that."

It should mean nothing, a simple platitude disguised, but…

It helps.

"I - Oh. Well. Look what crawled out of his hole."

Bored, Loki looks up from his hot chocolate, a beverage so wondrous he would believe it to be even above Asgardian mead, and freezes. The last time he crossed paths with Barton he was left to recover alone in his cell with only the constant beeping of the intravenous machine for company. Despite the apologies the S.H.I.E.L.D doctor attempted to assuage him with, he's quite sure the beeping was intended as psychological warfare.

Barton stands in the doorway, arms crossed, wearing an expression that would flay a lesser creature alive. Loki had been on the other end of it once before, and then he tapped the scepter over Barton's heart and watched as the look faded into blank obedience.

"You really think you deserve hot chocolate," Barton says lightly, a grin pulling at his lips that spells certain peril.

Loki clutches the mug to him and glances to his left where the open doorway leads to the dining room, a quick exit should he need one.

Barton snorts. "It's your lucky day. I'm under strict orders not to touch one hair on your head. But a guy's gotta wonder how literal those orders are. There are a lot of things I can touch that aren't anywhere near your head."

The heat from his drink burns through the ceramic to his palms. "If you are waiting for me to beg for your forgiveness, you will be waiting for a very long time."

The moment stretches between them, taut, inhaling as if to scream, and then Barton saunters into the kitchen, grabs himself a bottle of ale, and takes the seat opposite Loki. He sprawls in his chair, comfortable with his advantage. "I'd expect it of you, you know. You're the kind of guy who'll do anything to get what he wants, like beg for forgiveness. Use all the available tools. Then stab us right in the back."

"You are quite right," Loki agrees. "Take yourself, for instance. One little tap to your chest and you were mine to use, to discard when I was done with you. You were the best kind of tool available, little hawk, and I did what I wanted with you." He frowns as Barton opens his mouth, most likely to deliver some kind of threat, and cuts him off. "Do not act as though you wouldn't do the same. As though you haven't done the same."

"I didn't try to take over the world."

"No, but there was Budapest, wasn't there? Smaller scale, yes, but no less devastating."

"Yeah, except I won that one."

"… Yes, you did."

It may be the closest to an apology that he can voice. Not even Odin was granted a pardon, not that Loki was granted one either.

Barton hums. "So, you're human now."

The words grate on Loki, but he nods once. "I am."

"Sucks, doesn't it?"

This planet's vernacular is so peculiar. He enjoys the variations of phrases and expletives that Fury unleashes when Loki cannot supply the answers he wants, that Stark invents when things do not go his way. Humans can be quite creative when they want to be. "Yes. It does. It's as if I am not myself."

It takes him a moment of studying Barton's satisfied smirk before he realizes what he said.

"Good," Barton says quietly, low. "Good."

"Sweet, gentle motherfucking, flag-waving Christ, I hope all my board members die horrible deaths." Stark enters the kitchen the way he enters every place: loudly and dramatically, stealing all of the air from the room. "Like, I want to turn on the news and see their cars upside-down on the highway. On fire. Being eaten by giant, radioactive chipmunks."

Loki stares. Stark opens up the cooling unit - refrigerator, he reminds himself - and pulls out a plastic bottle of water. Frowning, Stark shoves it back inside and withdraws a carton of cranberry juice instead. He opens it, tips his head, and drinks straight from the carton, throat bobbing attractively.

"Got a UTI, Stark?" Barton inquires sweetly, and Stark holds up his middle finger in reply without pausing in slaking his thirst.

Finally, Stark lowers the carton with a sigh and puts it back into the refrigerator. He turns, sees the two of them sitting at the table, and purses his lips. "So… this is a thing that is happening. Thanks for not getting blood all over my nice kitchen, by the way. I applaud how you're keeping your hate for each other and your numerous mental issues at bay."

Loki snorts. "Attempting to appear sane takes somuch energy. Your thanks are appreciated."

Stark's lips split in a grin, his eyes bright with amusement and lack of sleep. "Ruh-roh, Shaggy. Someone's out in full force today."

"Raiding 'Tasha's stash of cocoa, too."

Loki stares down at his hot chocolate, which apparently belongs to the Widow. He may not live out the night.

"Eh, I won't tell if you won't. I've been dodging her for weeks since the knife thing." At Loki's blank look, Stark clarifies, "I maybe possibly perhaps melted her favorite knife by accident. And then I made her a replacement. A better one. With a detonator built in. She threw it at my face."

"You don't know the history with that knife," Barton says, reaching out and snatching Loki's mug, draining the rest of the hot chocolate in one smooth swallow. "If it had ever come down to her saving me or that knife, she would've been seriously fucking torn."

Barton hands Loki back the empty mug. Once upon a time, Loki would have made Barton eatit as punishment for his disrespect. Then perhaps tied him to a stone and let the cave beasts have at him. "That was mine."

"Doesn't it suck when people take things without permission?" Barton asks, baring his teeth in a chocolaty smile.

A sudden weight makes itself known on Loki's shoulder. Where his armor once would have made it impossible to feel, the thin material of his shirt does nothing to protect him from it. The touch is… grounding, and suddenly it is too much of a temptation to simply lean back into the body standing behind his and soak it in.

"No guilt trips, Barton, this is a guilt trip-free zone." The hand on his shoulder squeezes, fingers biting softly into his clavicle, and Loki swallows down a startled gasp. "Anyway, come down to the lab with me - no, not you, Barton, not after last time, I'm still trying to get the scorch marks out of the wall from last time - I have something I want you to see."

Stark's hand slips away, thumb brushing against the rim of his ear, surely an accident, and setting off a shiver at the base of his spine. Has it truly been so long since he was last touched?

He shakes the feeling of need off and shrugs. "Perhaps I do not wish to go. I was quite content here, making conversation with the good agent here."

"… Come with me and I'll tell Natasha it was Barton who drank her cocoa."


"Deal." He rises fluidly, feeling hot eyes on him, and instead turns his attention to Barton, who has traded in his skin-flaying glare for a pout that would shame any spoiled child. "Agent Barton, thank you for this lovely chat."

Barton snickers. "Hey, no problem. Let's do it again never."


"All right, Khloe and Lamarr, save it." Stark throws a casual arm around Loki, encircling his arms and waist, and steers him out of the kitchen. "So, I started the prelims on the helicarrier and I wanted your input. How are you doing with… wait, I can't even remember. What were you on last time I saw you? Geometry?"

"I'm currently reading about Riemannian manifold," Loki says.

Stark stops, which forces Loki to as well. "That is sort of not exactly what I… wait, what? Why? How did you get from geometry to -"

"It is interesting." It is. Humans put so much stock in explanation, and their math is all the more beautiful for it. In a world made up of a million different languages, math is the only true tongue that can be spoken by all. There is nothing of the ways of Asgard here: no one needs to demonstrate their abilities and be accepted by rote. Here, it must be earned; it must be provable. "And I have grown bored of the math you wished for me to learn. It is… too small. Child's play. I do not wish to build with it; that is your job, Stark, but… I wish to learn more from it. I found more books in your library."

Grinning, Stark starts them on their journey to the laboratory again, pressing Loki against his side as if his status of a wealthy genius grants him the privilege. Would he be so free with his camaraderie if he knew he was half-embracing not a god but a monster?

"I have a library?" Stark asks cheerfully. "With actual books? That have actual pages? Methinks it's time to convert it all to digital. I'll have to get you a StarkPad. So, tell me about Riemannian manifold. Interested in differentials, I see."

Loki frowns and allows himself to be ushered into the lab. It is quite amazing that he never notices the path they take to get here when Stark is blathering about absolutely nothing. "I'm not. I was reading about physics and became side-tracked."

"Physics, hm? Go on. Dazzle me." Stark brings up his screens and tosses them into the air with a deft flick of his wrist.

Loki moves around a table and steps over a pile of discarded scraps of metal and paper, following the movement of the screens with his eyes. Explained magic. "What do you wish to know?"

"I don't wish to know anything. I already know everything."

"The ego on you," Loki mutters, and Stark sniggers.

"You want to talk egos? Sorry, I seem to have forgotten, but who tried to burn down New York with his creepy robot dog army?"

Reaching up, Loki brushes his fingers against a blue edge, which sings and ripples at his touch, intuitive, inquisitive. It is as if everything built by the hands of Stark is actually alive. "The Chitauri are not robot dogs."

"It was like someone took some Dobermans, mated them with those jackal things from the second Mummy movie, and stuck 'em on hovercrafts," Stark says, makes a face at something on one of the screens, and sits back with a huff. "JARVIS, run simulation 84-E and see if you can find the discrepancy in the sequence."

"Running simulation 84-E, sir, and I also have a message from Bruce Banner, dated today, from world time zone UTC+8," the voice that lives in the mansion announces, for all intents and purposes a ghost, and Stark smiles brightly.

"Brucie!" To Loki, he says, "We're science bros. It's a thing. All righty, JARVIS, play it for me."

The air is suddenly filled with loud noise, but it is faint, as if it is too far away to truly be heard. Background noise, Loki realizes, like the sound of the television in a room late at night when he wanders the hallways, catching only whispers and yet the loudest thing he knows. Another moment of this, and then the man who is also a beast begins to speak.

Hey, Tony. I'm going to make this quick. I know how your attention span gets.

"Hah!" Stark chortles. "Oh, Bruce, baby, come back to me."

Caught wind of some very interesting things happening where you are. Nat- The Spider keeps me informed when she can. You are a strange man, Tony, with even stranger bedfellows. I'll be away for a few months or so. There's a village nearby with an outbreak of cholera, in need of a doctor. I think I might just know the right man for the job. I'll try to keep off the airwaves, but depending on the severity of these cases I may need your help in getting my hands on some Doxycycline. There are a lot of kids there, or so I've been told. The grin on Stark's face softens until his teeth are covered entirely, his mouth stretched a short distance but made more genuine. Loki's chest tightens. "You got it, Dr. Banner."

Call me if things start getting… out of hand. Say hi to the others for me. Stay safe. I'll see you at some point. The sound cuts out from the recording and the lab seems eerily quiet, even with the various machines and computers running. Stark stares out at nothing, his sharp eyes unfocused, suddenly no longer in the laboratory. Perhaps in a remote village aiding a friend in caring for sick children, the sole provider of medicine. Then the moment passes and Stark smiles.

"You know, I hate to say it, but he's a good one. A good friend. Took me forty years to find one that wasn't on the Stark Industries payroll first, but… He's a good one."

Loki does not know what that is like. Even as a prince of Asgard, there were none for him to call friend. People did not flock to him the way they did Thor. There was no one who shared his passions, his amusements, his predilection for mischief, his love for learning.

Perhaps… Asgard was never meant to be his home. How different would things have been if Odin had instead given him to Midgard?

"And there'll be nothing from the peanut gallery over there about the Hulk," Stark continues, procuring a typing apparatus as thin as a sheet of paper and shaking it in Loki's direction. "Because then I'll have to bring up the time he remodeled my penthouse floor with you."

Loki makes a face. "I'd rather you didn't."

Stark snaps his fingers and points at Loki, as if promising that it will never come up. It wasn't, after all, his finest moment.

"So, you've been keeping busy in the library I didn't know existed." Tapping the keys quickly, some strand of numbers appears in the air. "JARVIS, add this to the simulation, would you?"

"For you, sir, anything." The ghost sounds amused.

Stark grins, wide and bright, perhaps the most real thing in this space of machinery. "JARVIS, you spoil me."

"I fully take the blame." Dry as bone, as nuanced as any other sentient creature.

Loki turns. "Is it… alive?"

"Is what?" Stark picks up a small tool, a pen without the need for ink, and begins drawing in the air, looping lines and hard angles sketched out as if the world were his parchment.

"Your… your ghost."

It startles a laugh out of Stark, and Loki would be offended but it is genuine amusement and not mockery. "JARVIS the friendly ghost. Close enough. He's… how would you describe yourself, JARVIS?"

"A glorified babysitter, sir."

"That was one time and you promised to delete it from your memory cache."

"I am artificial intelligence, Mr. Laufeyson. A computer program. I run the internal systems of the tower, as well as the Iron Man suit." If Loki did not know it was a machine speaking, he would have believed the voice to be fond. No, it isfond. It is sophisticated in that it thinks for itself. A learning machine.

"He's selling himself short," Stark says. "I'd be lost without him."

"You'd be dead without me, sir."

Stark points at the ceiling, acknowledging the point. "JARVIS has saved my ass so many times. Helped me create a new element in order to save said ass from actual death." Stark taps the glowing orb in his chest. "The stupid thing keeping me alive was also killing me. Without JARVIS, yeah, very dead."

It is something of which Loki doesn't want to consider. To deprive the world of such a mind… "And the orb? It is your power source?"

Tilting his head, Stark graces Loki with an odd smile, cast in shadow and twisted, a facsimile. "Why so interested?"

"You cannot believe I could stand against you as I am now, Stark. I am mortal now. Powerless."

The false smile splits, widens into a schism, and it looks so wrong on that face. His is a canvas meant to paint humor and wonder, sarcasm and knowledge. This dark, broken thing that stares at Loki cuts him to the core, freezes him. After a moment, Loki is able to place what he sees in Stark's eyes and he wants to erase it. He cannot feel Muninn's feather in him, wherever it is, blocking the memory of his magic, but he has never been more aware of its hold over him. He would know every spell in the universe, force it all inside of him, if it meant erasing the fear in Stark's eyes.

He pulls himself up short and swallows back the tide that rises inside of him. "It was those who were powerless that made the attempts on your life."

"Got it in one," Stark says cheerfully, completely devoid of cheer. "See, when you were all reindeer'd up with your Gandalf stick, I knew what I was dealing with. That's the thing about villains: they wear who they are on the outside. Especially you immortals. You know what you're getting when Thor prances around in his cape. It's the people you know, the people you trust that you don't… can't. Humans tend to keep their monsters on the inside."

It is a strange notion to want to find whoever betrayed Stark, pull their spines out through their throats. Those he has actively wished death upon have been people he knew. "Do the people of this world have any redeeming qualities, or was I right to rain destruction upon them?"

Stark gives him a look. "We have our moments where we truly suck, I'll give you that, but that doesn't give anyone the right to make a judgment call like that. I hate Hammer Tech with the fury of a thousand burning suns, but I can't just go over and level their HQ. As much as I might want to. I dream about it sometimes. It'd be epic."

Loki bares his teeth in a grin. "You certainly can. With your technology and cunning, no one would stop you."

Turning back to his screens, Stark's lips press into a thin line, smiling as if it pains him. "I've filled my destruct-o quota, believe me. I'm done with that racket."

Loki has heard about Stark's former employment as a weapons manufacturer, although he very much doubts it had been Stark's original intention. The man may have a sly streak big enough to rival Loki's own, but there is no taste for actual destruction there. The only one Stark wants to destroy is Stark himself. Which leaves someone else to have pulled the strings.

"Who was it?" He will not be deterred.

"Doesn't matter much now," Stark says, the corners of his eyes pulling tight. "He's dead. But he had been… as pretty close to a father as I've ever had. My actual father doesn't count; he wasn't fit to be a dad to begin with. But Obie… if you forget that he completely sold me out and tried to kill me in the shittiest way possible, he wasn't too bad as fathers go."

A moment of silence stretches tight between them, and then Stark flashes him a large, overly-bright smile. "Why the long face?"

"No," Loki murmurs, and looks back to the screens, allows Stark another moment to put his armor back on. "I was just thinking… we have much in common, Stark, you and I. More than I expected."

There is so much more here than Loki expected. The stories he wants to hear from Stark about his creations, the discussions about physics he wants to have, the sliver of skin that's pulled across Stark's carotid and over his jaw, right at the edge of his beard, that he wants to bite.

Oh. Well, that is somewhat unexpected.


Startled out of his very unwelcome thoughts, Loki blinks. "What?"

"My name is Tony. Unless you're Clint, at which point my name is 'Asshat'." Stark grins at him, genuine, and gestures to the lab around him. With the sweep of his arm comes a veritable army of images and screens and equations and promise, all limned in blue, a perfect match to the glowing orb that peaks out from his shirt.

Loki tightens his mouth around the smile that threatens to form. "You said you had something to show me."

Tony beams, eyes sparkling. "I'd rather hear about your sudden, burgeoning love for physics. Chop chop, Dr. Evil, hit me with everything you've got."

"I doubt you could handle my everything." He may not be able to contain the smile for long; Tony crows exultantly and applauds his jibe. "I only know the basics of physics."

"We'll fill in the gaps as we go. That's pretty much how physics works, anyway."

They use the color spectrum to calculate the stars. How quaint.

He stretches out along the floor, the sunshine a warm hand cupping his cheek, and reads from the machine glass Tony had given him. The place that holds all Midgardian knowledge is called Wikipedia; Tony promised he wouldn't want for information and suggested he try something called "link-hopping" to expand his understanding of context. It's proving quite interesting, although he does occasionally run across articles with things like "DAVE IS A HOMO", quickly taken care of by the voice that lives in the air.

Tony wasn't jesting when he promised Loki's room would be made entirely of windows. His glass cage provides an amazing view, hangs above the city like a bubble, and affords him privacy by growing dark at his command. It's an interesting design. Surprisingly, it does not make him feel vulnerable; it feels like flying.

He link-hops from red shift to the Sloan Digital Sky Survey to its main monetary contributor, Stark Industries. His heart skips once at the name, and he slides the machine glass away with a growl.


Just when he thinks he has a handle on the man, Tony does something outrageous, unexpected, helpful, insane, incredible…

He curls up and closes his eyes against the sunlight.

When he had attacked the city, the Avengers fought back with fists and shield and rage. Tony offered him a drink, banter, and reason. And now he offers math, his technology, his trust.

There were never men like Tony on Asgard, or in any of the realms upon which he's stumbled. It is the next battle, or a throne, or power that anyone craves; he, himself, has fallen prey to this. Tony has all this and more, wants for nothing, could be seen as a god among the people of this planet, and instead finds joy in his laboratory, soldering metals and creating elements. Knowledge. Creation. A challenge.

Men like Tony Stark do not exist. Tony Stark is, for all intents and purposes, a universal anomaly.

The metal suit is quite possibly one of the most wonderful things Loki has seen. He turns onto his back and hums, fingers spreading out against the sun-warmed glass. The machines that reached out like sycophants to remove it from Tony's fragile body, peeling his armor away so that he could face Loki exposed, vulnerable, and yet another waited for him in the wings of his room, called to him somehow and saving him from a messy end upon the pavement below. Flight capabilities. The "repulsor" technology. The way it connects to the ghost in the tower, as well as the glowing object that resides in Tony's chest.

The corners of his mouth pull into a reluctant smile, a thrill singing in his breast.

"My senses indicate your resting heartbeat is well above normal, and that you are perhaps experiencing tachycardia," the air announces suddenly. "Are you unwell, Mr. Laufeyson?"

He opens his eyes. "What interest have you in my heart, ghost?"

"Sir has tasked me with monitoring the well-being of all those who reside in the tower, including you." The voice comes from everywhere, the ceiling, the floor, the walls, the very air itself. Tony's greatest impossible creation: an intelligent consciousness that has emotions. And tone.

The ghost sounds disapproving. Judgmental.

"You do not like that I am here."

"I do not feel anything about it either way."

Loki sits and tilts his head toward the ceiling, a gesture of acknowledgement when one hears a voice coming from the air. "Not even a machine can lie to the god of lies."

"But you are not the god of lies. Since your return from Asgard, you are not the god of anything."

Loki says nothing, but the desire to throw something is startling in its urgency. It ebbs as soon as it comes. The ghost speaks the truth.

There is the briefest of hesitations, and then, "I do not understand Mr. Stark's motives in having you here."

"On that we can agree," Loki mutters, dropping his gaze. "While the others see me rightfully as the villain to their merry band, he treats me as he would an… equal."

"He treats all of us as such, even me," the ghost says. "It is his way. To him, I am not a creation, but a friend."

Loki slips back to the floor and spreads his arms, eyes sliding shut. "And is he your friend, ghost?"

His question is met with silence.

"He is your friend," Loki says decisively, head tipping back to catch the sunlight, the bare whisper of a memory, Tony in the lab and laughing at something the ghost says, gesturing for Loki to come and look at an equation, further proof of understanding the world around them. "He is your creator. Your father. Your brother. Your family. To him, you are the math, but you are more than the math."

Had anyone told him scant months ago that he would be reassuring artificial intelligence, a ghost in a living tower, of its existence he would have laughed. And killed them. Instead he pictures Tony's fingers, always on the move and twitching with the need to do, and imagines them sliding over his skin, up the creases of his hips, down his thighs, and inhales on a smile. Oh, to have those hands on him, to have them build him up from ice and ruin into something beautiful, a room of windows, impenetrable metal armor, a carefully crafted California roll.

"Your heart rate is again elevated," the ghost comments, and Loki's mouth parts around his teeth in a grin.

"So it is." His heart pounds like a war drum, and his body feels looser and more decadent than it has in a long time. Malleable. Would Tony spread him wide and pierce him at his core? Or would those fingers, that glib tongue, that quick mouth cover him in equations and theorems, stun him with logic and heat until he had no choice but to accept the invasion? A shiver wracks his entire body, at odds with the sun's warmth, and he relishes the sensation. It has been so long since he's lain with another, and none of them were as worthy as Tony Stark.

Loki chuckles, tongue darting out to wet his lips. He will have him. A new goal, then, for this new chapter in his life.

"I do hate to interrupt," the ghost says dryly, "but Director Fury and Agent Hill have arrived for your scheduled -"

A loud shriek breaks the relative quiet, startling Loki into sitting up. He knows that alarm, has heard it at random times both day and night, and he also knows that Fury and his pet agent will not be visiting him today. Their attention will be elsewhere.

"Who is it," Loki growls, getting to his feet and moving to the windows, squinting through the glare of the sun to try and - there. Someone is flying above the cityscape, though not the seamless flight born of actually having the ability. There is an apparatus on it, propelling it, yet not the same technology Tony uses to pilot his suit. It is graceless in the air. He sneers at it, pressing a fist to the glass. Pathetic.

It is joined by another, and then even more, until they are a flock, unleashing blasts of electricity and fire onto the city below. Something explodes in flame and sound, and the tower trembles.

Iron Man soars into view, carrying Captain America, Thor following them. They disappear behind a building. A faint roar penetrates the window, the unmistakable battle cry of the Hulk, which means it is loose in the city, with the Widow and Hawkeye no doubt too far behind. No, the Widow will be on foot. Hawkeye will need the height advantage. Loki will not forget that exploding arrow so soon.

"Who is it!" Loki demands, pounding on the glass once.

"My scanners cannot pinpoint the origin of the assailants. I am being blocked," the ghost says, apologetic. Loki growls but says nothing, instead forces his paltry mortal eyesight to be better than it is. He sees the angle of attack, the relative motion between these flying things and the atmosphere, the lift coefficient. And the more he watches, the more he notices a pattern, and the more he notices that none of the Avengers have caught on yet.

"Ghost, connect me to Tony."

"Perhaps it would behoove you to relocate to the lab," the ghost suggests pointedly. "There is a security breach on the third floor and I will be initiating a lockdown."

Cursing, Loki sprints away from the window and out of the room. He keeps close to the walls in case the invader is making its way up to the higher floors of the tower, but he is still too vulnerable. Muninn's feather does not budge, wherever it is, preventing him from slipping into shadow.

He does not wait for the elevator, bypassing it completely to take the stairs, running up, and up, and up, ignoring the protest in his thighs, before finally bursting into Tony's penthouse suite. There are several doors, all leading to unknown destinations. He curses again. All those times Tony led him to the laboratory and he never once paid attention to the door, too focused on the lush mouth and the fractured genius babble that came from it.

"I am truly a fool," Loki gasps out, eyes flicking between two doors.

The ghost takes pity on him. "The furthest to your left."

When he reaches the bottom of the staircase, the door clicks open on its own, courtesy of invisible fingers, and he pushes through, immediately opening his arms wide. "Ghost, bring up your visuals of the battle. I must speak with Tony."

Perhaps it is the gravity of the situation, as the ghost does as it is commanded and the air becomes alive with blue light. He hardly knows where to look first, too much motion to piece together, too much information, constantly shifting, flowing into new data, forcing him to begin batting away the excess screens and images, tossing them to the other side of the laboratory until he finds the one that matters.

He reaches out and touches the image of Tony's face, washed out by what must be the lights in the suit. "Tony. Tony, tell me your bragging has merit and your technology allows you to hear me."

Tony's mouth twitches. "Oh, hello, dear. 'm afraid I'll have to stay at the office late tonight. You know how it is."

"I do not understand most of what you say and I tend to ignore the rest of it. Have you discovered who is attacking?" There is a noise outside the lab, muffled by the glass walls, and he grits his teeth, willing Tony to pay attention. "I have noticed something about the flight patterns of these things. It is not - it is wrong. Fake."

"Yeah, I know what you're seeing. This Doom character. It's like the Tin Man on steroids. If the Tin Man's mother -"

"Not the time, Iron Man!" It is the Captain. This is a team-wide communication. "Loki, go ahead. What can you tell us?"

"You must understand, you are fighting a -"

Something in his shoulder cracks unpleasantly when he's thrown into the far wall, hitting the concrete hard and then dropping unforgivingly to the floor. He groans, tries to shake off the throb that radiates down his entire arm, and struggles to his feet. Standing in the room, somehow slipping past the ghost, is one of the creatures, cased in metal armor somehow both more elegant and vulgar than Tony's iron suit. It stands tall, clad in a green costume marked by a green hooded cape, and it burns to see his own color of choice used so tastelessly.

"I, too, know the desire to destroy what isn't yours," Loki grits out, hand pressed against his injured shoulder. The bone feels out of place. He will need to set it the way he's seen countless warriors do, hard and fast against a wall, if he wishes to have some immediate mobility. "But I will not let you destroy what is his."

The hood slips away, revealing a face made of steel.

"Loki? C'mon, Dasher, don't be like th -"


Loki stares. "Ghost! Ghost, I need a weapon!"

There is no answer.

"Tony!" He stumbles back against a counter, tripping over a box of scrap, and staggers around it to put something between him and Doom. "Tony, your ghost is not -"

One by one, the screens disperse from the air, winking out like candle flame, followed by the other machines in the laboratory, the computers, and the overhead lights. There are no windows to illuminate the area; there is no light, except for a dim excuse that must be for emergencies.

He is alone here. Trapped. Powerless.

Doom is utterly terrifying, silhouetted and cutting an unforgiving figure. He looks like the monsters that feature heavily in bedtime stories, the ones that come to eat naughty children in the night and grind their bones to powder.


With a mechanical gurgle, Doom falls forward and slams into the floor, revealing the outline of someone standing behind where he had been, arms raised with what appears to be a metal bar clutched in small hands.

"… Loki, right?" It is a woman who lowers the iron bar. She does not release it. Instead, she looks down at it and grips it tighter. "What the hell does he make in this lab?"

He stares. "You are Jane Foster."

"And you really can't call down that giant metal thing that you sicced on us in New Mexico, right? Because of the… Damn. We could really use it right now." She steps forward, barely illuminated by the emergency lighting, and runs a trembling hand through her hair. "I was… I came to visit Thor, and when the security alarm was tripped - You know what? Forget it. We need to get out of here."

Jane Foster. She could hardly be considered any kind of warrior, not with her bird-like frame and wide eyes, but she stands firm and fearless, her weapon held close. Intelligent, beautiful, kind, and without fear. She will, no doubt, pass the tests. She will make a good queen.

"I am not leaving Tony's work in the hands of this - May I borrow your metal bar?" His arm screams at him for even thinking about it. "Actually, I need you to bash his skull in until he is destroyed."

"How about no," Jane growls. "I've seen that movie: I walk right up to him, thinking he's dead, and he grabs my ankle and punches a hole through my face. We need to go now. The Avengers will come and -"

" - by the time they arrive the repulsor technology will be gone!" He lifts his eyes to the ceiling and hisses, "Ghost! What is its na - JARVIS. JARVIS, can you hear me?"

No answer. It must be blocked somehow. Doom undoubtedly weaseled his way into the tower's circuits, cutting off JARVIS and assuming control. What does that mean for Tony's armor, then, if the internal power source has been terminated?

Usurper, Loki thinks darkly, a pang of guilt stabbing him at the thought of how Frigga must have felt upon seeing frost giants enter Odin's private chambers.

"We need to -" Jane shrieks, suddenly thrown several feet away, landing on top of a table with a loud crash. The metal bar goes flying.

Loki growls, turning quickly to face Doom head-on, then casts about for something else. If that metal bar had been enough to fell Doom, then gods know what other helpful weapons Stark has lying about. There is nothing within reach, however, and his injured arm throbs with agony. "You will regret touching her."

A great metal arm swings out, fist catching him in the gut, and he careens into another table. Why does Tony insist on having so many tables? Something metallic crashes down around him when he hits the floor, spare parts and debris, and he coughs wetly, tastes copper on his tongue. He is bleeding, perhaps even dying, his frail body at the mercy of this metal monster.

"Jane," he groans, spitting out blood.

Jane does not reply. If she is dead, Thor will undoubtedly burn this planet down in his rage. For some reason, it pains him to think of Thor suffering such a loss. It pains him to think of this planet's destruction. The world has become somewhat dear to him, like the tapestries Frigga weaves: intricate, colorful, and annoying in that they are all over the place but to take them down would be a terrible mistake.

"Odin." It is getting hard to speak through the pain. "Odin, please. I know you are watching."

He grits his teeth and pushes to his knees, holding himself up with his remaining arm, biting down a sob at the pain. Something is broken inside of him, spilling hot blood over his ruined organs, and his vision begins to cloud curiously at the edges. This pathetic feeling of defeat and pain is death for mortals. He is dying.

Beyond him, somewhere in the laboratory, Doom moves things around loudly. A soft blue light spreads over the floor, run-off from Tony's floating screens, which means Doom has access. It will be mere minutes before he walks away with the repulsor technology, JARVIS, and whatever other secrets Tony keeps. Should they defeat the flying things destroying the city, the Avengers may be enough to stop him.

"Odin, please."

He is begging. On his knees. This is no longer about Loki, but about -

A large weight slams onto his back, forcing him again to the floor, and Doom grinds his foot down. Loki cannot contain the cry that punches its way out of him, garbled with the pain from his injuries, both internal and external, jarring.

YOU WILL STAY RIGHT THERE, SUPPLICANT AND SCRAPING, RIGHT WHERE YOU BELONG. IT IS IN YOUR NATURE TO CRAVE SUBJUGATION, Doom says, his mechanical voice far away, filtered through metal and spider's web. Loki's body begins to panic as it shuts down, crushed like an ant under a large metal boot, and his tattered mind rebels at the sound of his own words used against him.

He spares a thought for Jane, the future queen of Asgard, lying somewhere in the laboratory, hurt, possibly dead, and wishes he could have seen her crowned. She would have been beautiful, burnished in copper and silver, standing next to her king, her husband-to-be, while the whole of the court and the people watched with bated breath as they exchanged vows, as Odin proclaimed her sovereign. She will be the balance, he thinks, this girl, with the stars in her eyes and math on her tongue. She is so smart, brother, so clever. And brave. In the darkness, with a found weapon, she had also been brave.

And then he thinks of quick fingers, an even quicker tongue, and a room of windows overlooking a city made of math, made just for him. One more equation, he thinks. The first one. The one that he didn't solve.

(Defeat at the hands of Odin Spear-Shaker + The Fall / betrayal² ) + insanity * Thanos's dominion - √lack of purpose (Avengers * hope) = X.

All right, Rudolph. Find X. "Father!" He screams, and hidden deep inside him Muninn's feather makes itself known, the quill breaking, and suddenly he knows.

It is no strain to encase the feather in ice, to hold it just above his diaphragm and have it serve as a cold reminder of what will happen should he attempt anything so foolish again. From the core of it leaks the sinuous greeting of his magic, slipping as quietly as a drug into his blood, into his nervous system, buoying his mortal form into what it once was. He can feel the stretch of his muscles, his bones, solidifying until the foot grinding into his spine is more of an annoyance than anything.

He pushes up against Doom, hand opening and fingers curling around a dagger built of the coldest ice he can conjure, stabbing through metal and wire. Doom bellows and staggers back, and Loki slides easily to his feet. He snaps his arm out, forcing the bone back into the socket, and flexes his hand thoughtfully. Perhaps he will allow himself to be subjected to Tony's tests. He wants to know the equations behind what he can do.

YOU- Doom cries, large arm winding back for a punch, or to electrocute Loki, perhaps, and he splits Doom's target into eighths. Sixteenths. Loki's copies laugh at the incredulous expression on Doom's metal face, at the way his arm falters, unsure where to strike first.

"You come where you are not invited, intent on destruction, and blathering about glory. Do you not know what happens to those such as yourself? Do you not know what they will do to you?" All sixteen of him ask, the magic singing through him, all of him. "I know glory, Doom, and you are not it."


In an instant, Loki is whole again and he moves quickly (γ = (1 − v2/c2)−1/2 in which Loki is v) to stab Doom through the throat with a blade of ice. As Doom's hulking frame falls back, Loki holds onto his weapon, relishing the cold, and hops onto Doom's chest, crouched over him should Doom feel the need to try and get up again.

"Hypocrisy," Loki murmurs, twisting the blade. Sparks fly out from where the metal grinds against the ice. "Do you hear me, Doom? Do not hide behind your clones. Face me as you are."

He wills away the blade and Doom's robotic copy slumps over, dead.

"Mr. Laufeyson."

Loki smiles and tilts his chin as the lights flicker on. "Ghost. You are a useless thing and I have no need for you."

"The internal systems of the tower are back online," JARVIS says, sounding quite amused. "Before I went down, I took the liberty of issuing a lockdown. Director Fury and Agent Hill are currently waiting to be released from your room. Shall I?"

It startles a laugh out of him. "I think they deserve some more time, perhaps to contemplate the view of the city. Is it not stunning from my room?"

"It is," JARVIS agrees. "I am unable to reach Mr. Stark. When I became compromised, the Iron Man suit initiated its back-up program, emancipating me from potentially interfering. I do not know how the Avengers are faring."

Jane Foster groans and weakly lifts a hand to her head. "Ow."

"Jane," Loki says, and she peers up at him through a wince. There is blood in her hair. Doom's copy is blessed to have died by Loki's hands; Thor would never have been so merciful. "Are you badly injured?"

"I don't think so, except ow." Her words are not slurred and she does not appear to be hemorrhaging into her brain. "Is he dead?"

Loki kicks the copy's head. "Yes."

"Good. Bastard." Jane squints at him. "Something's different."

He smiles and inhales deeply, breathes in the scents of the laboratory, the world around him, and feels complete. Everything has been muted for so long; it's as if he's been in perpetual night.

For a moment, he feels a gentle weight on his shoulder, the back of his neck, and he closes his eyes and revels in it. It feels like forgiveness. It feels like my son.Exhaling, Loki opens his eyes and smiles. "JARVIS, please make sure Ms. Foster takes care of her injury. There are other things that need my attention."

He does not wait for an answer and instead throws himself into the nearest shadow, becoming as fluid as a running river, as time, pushing, pushing, pushing, the fastest he's ever been, the fastest anything has ever been. He is speed. He is laminar flow incarnate. He is a variable so profound that his equation will never be grasped, not even by the brightest mind.

The shadows spill him onto the roof of a building and he steps confidently into the sunshine, onto the edge. Below, the city is awash with fire.

"Oh fuck."

Loki turns and finds himself to be a target. He lifts his hands innocently and smiles brightly at Hawkeye, whose grip on his arrow does not waver. "Hello, agent. We must stop running into each other like this."

"Why are you all mojo'd up?" Hawkeye demands without so much as a twitch of his fingers.

Loki can appreciate mastery. "Your control is exquisite."

"Hey, thanks. Now answer the question before I bury this in your pretty face."

"Asgardian justice is as it ever was," he says cryptically, knowing Hawkeye will not understand and enjoying his look of confusion. "How many are you dealing with?"

Still glaring in mistrust, Hawkeye opens his mouth to answer, then stops, spins around, and is too late to let loose the arrow he holds.

Loki is faster, Loki is v, and the Doom bot topples backwards gracelessly, six blades of ice buried in its joints and brain. Or where he assumes the computer chips are. With a muttered curse, Hawkeye re-adjusts his hold on the arrow and nods once in thanks before moving to stand on the edge with him.

"We started off with thirty-eight. I think we're down to four."

"Diversionary tactics," Loki sniffs. "The real target was Tony's technology."


"Easily managed. Now keep an eye out, little hawk: the adults will take it from here." As he steps off the ledge, Hawkeye's arrow misses him and Loki laughs all the way down.

The streets of the city are pandemonium, the math completely disrupted. He forces himself to ignore it and instead closes his eyes, building his own equations up from inside, leaking them out slowly, a rotational vortex that grows and grows and grows.


He smiles without opening his eyes and tilts his head back. "Brother! Herd them my way and keep Iron Man from coming too close!"

One of the things he so loves about Thor is his inability to deny Loki anything, especially when prefaced by being called "brother", so Loki does not have to look to know Thor is doing as asked, using Mjolnir to concentrate the remaining Doom bots into his streamline, rotate, rotate, capture, rotate, a child's flower ring, a cyclone found on the highest plateau of Jötunheim.

His magic snares one bot, then two, and then the remaining one, and he relishes their conflicting programming, their shouts about malfunctioning, about ice, about errors, and brings them down with a mighty sweep of his arm, magic acting as an extension, and Thor slips under to bash them all to their base components.

"Brother," Thor says quietly, smiling, hair whipping around him like a wild thing.

Loki exhales and the magic contracts, the winds slowing, the ice melting away; he smiles back. "Brother."

"Holy cow." Loki can't help the smirk he can feel stretching his lips at the expression of sheer awe on Captain America's face. "That was… that was something. But aren't you… I didn't think you could do magic anymore."

"It is a new day, Captain," Thor announces jovially, placing a hand on Loki's shoulder. "And my brother stands with us now."

"I stand where I want to stand, Thor." Loki lifts his chin and catches sight of red and gold on the roof of a building, the colors he will carry from now on. Iron Man lifts its arm in a wave, or perhaps simply a signal for attention; it is one he will answer gladly. "Thor, I do believe a Miss Jane F -"

"JANE!" Thor cries, launching immediately into the air and disappearing behind a line of skyscrapers.

Captain America scratches his head. "Huh. Well. Uh. Thanks, Loki. We, uh. Thank you."

"Captain." Loki inclines his head, then catches sight of the Widow approaches, black vans and men and women in SHIELD uniforms collating behind her. She wears a curious smirk. "The cavalry has arrived, I see. I leave them to you, Captain. You are this team's leader, are you not?"

Blinking, the Captain looks up at the building on which Iron Man stands and grins. "Better places to be, I take it."

"How astute." Nick Fury steps out of one of the vans and Loki knows he cannot slip away quite yet. "Hello, Director."

Fury's mouth twitches, signifying nothing of what goes on behind that eye patch. "So, here we are."

"Here we are," he echoes, and cannot help but glance up when red and gold catch the sun, blinding him, washing him in gilded light.

It has taken months to get to this point, to where Loki can be in Fury's presence and not wish immediate death upon him. Perhaps it shows on his face. Perhaps now that he has found something to fight for, Fury will grant him a pardon. A boon. Something.

"You'll be debriefed with the others," is what he says, and Loki thinks of all the times he has heard the other's complaints echo through the tower about debriefings. This may be the only olive branch he will ever receive from the hand of Nick Fury. He is not fool enough to reject it.

"I look forward to it." He is the god of lies for a reason. "Now, please excuse me, won't you?"

He trickles up to the rooftop where Iron Man sits. As soon as he is solid, Tony lifts the helmet off and squints against the brightness of the sun. Loki wills away his own helm, breathing in the smells of smoke and victory, tilting his head back at the behest of the wind. It feels wonderful through his hair, on his cheeks.

"Tower still standing?" Tony asks, lifting a metal hand to shield his eyes. Loki folds himself down beside him, legs dangling over the edge.

"Your lab is a bit of a mess." Loki pauses, allows his mouth to curl to show all is well in Tony's home. "But then it is a mess on any given day, so it is fine. JARVIS is fine. There is a dead robot copy of Doom on the floor."

"I can't wait to cannibalize that fucker right down to his circuit board!" Tony crows, then pauses. "So. That whole icy vortex of wind and death thing. That was hot."

"I think you'll find it was quite cold."

Tony laughs. "Don't try that coy shit with me. You can't bullshit a bullshitter. You know what I mean. It was pret-ty spectacular. How'd you juice up again? I thought daddy pulled the plug."

Loki stares out at the city, his city, his world, full of equations and beauty and terrible people, and then turns to watch the sun catch the flecks of gold in Tony's eyes. "I found X."

He regrets it the moment he says it. There is too much sentiment in that deceptively simple sentence, too much implication. His voice is soft and unguarded and he hadn't planned for this. He had contented himself with the plan to have Tony's body and pleasure, but he never factored in anything beyond that. There are too many variables, too many ways to be rejected, and the friendship they've built over the last few months, over sushi and math and shared traumas, will not withstand it.

He has ruined this. Tony refuses to even look at him.

"I still owe you a drink, you know."

Loki closes his eyes, steels himself against the wild pounding of his heart, and opens them to find Tony's gaze fixed on him.

Just when he thinks he has a handle on the man.

"You do."

"I do," Tony agrees, grinning. He shifts so his back is to Loki, and then he lies back, head resting on Loki's thigh like it belongs there and the rest of him stretched out all over Loki's space. "So, I'm thinking you and me, some scotch, maybe a physics problem or two, rooftop rendezvous… it'll be like a study date. Emphasis on the date. Very high school."

"I must confess, I listen to perhaps 40% of what you say."

"That's 30% more than everyone else." Tony closes his eyes and hums. "Oh, hey, so I've got a bit of a confession to make too."

No matter how hidden beneath the layers of innocuity it is, there is something serious about that declaration. But Loki waves his free hand for Tony to continue.

"The helicarrier? Or at least my needing your help with it…?"

Loki sighs. "A lie."

At least Tony has the decency to sound contrite. "Yeah, pretty much. Sorry. I just kind of wanted an excuse to get you out of that fucking room. Seemed like a good idea at the time."

"Why do it at all? Why not leave me there?" Loki is not angry, not really. He has reaped more benefits since Tony invaded his little room that day than he ever imagined, but he is curious.

Tony does not answer for a long moment, just lies with his head against Loki's thigh, eyes staring straight at nothing. But then he moves, his arm, his hand, reaching up slightly. "Because I know what it's like to want a second chance."

Loki bypasses the metal hand on offer and instead tentatively rests his palm over the glowing triangle in the suit. Tony immediately places his hand over it and launches into a tirade about the structural integrity of some of the buildings around them, pointing out the errors with his free hand, because no one in their right mind would construct something like that using that angle for the support beams, Loki, no one, I mean, look at the math, it would serve them right if they got kicked the fuck over in the next battle…

He tunes out most of what Tony says and presses down slightly into the humming core beneath his hand, lifting his chin to watch the city.

A bird explodes into the air from the commotion below, its wingspan grand against the backdrop of the endless sky. Loki cannot tell if it is black in color or simply silhouetted by the sun, but he knows the sound of its cries and the answering tug just above his diaphragm. He inclines his head respectfully.

You will not be disappointed again.

Tony rambles about paraboloids and presses his fingers between Loki's absently as he talks, and Muninn rises until Loki cannot see it for the sun, and is gone as if it had never been.