Title: The Game
Characters/Pairings: Tony, Loki, the whole Team Stark crew eventually, and some familiar friends in passing. Hints of Tony/Pepper and it could be taken as a Frostiron prequel of sorts, but there's not a major focus on pairings. Still, I suppose there's a Frostiron tint to it.
Rating: Somewhere in the PG-13 area. Hopefully.
Warnings: Violence to come, games of cat and mouse and a good deal of insanity.
Summary: Sometimes, the greatest enemy you've got is the one you can imagine seeing the next morning in the mirror. Filling up a prompt—Tony Stark and Loki as Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty archetypes. I diverted from the prompt a little, but only in attempting to make this fit as seamlessly into movie canon as possible. Theoretically, it won't come off as an AU. You guys will have to let me know how I do at the end of things.
Dedication: Here's to Defenestration-and-more at Tumblr for the glorious prompt and equally glorious Frostiron fics, and, of course, to my dearest, for acting as beta and making sure I don't completely screw up Tony Stark. I might as well cross-post this all over the place, I suppose; I am rather fond of feedback.
Disclaimer: All characters belong to Marvel; unfortunately, even the idea of Sherlockian archetypes is not mine. I'm just here to play.
It may be wrong, but here in this memoir that will never see the light of day, I must confess that I am glad that slimy man is gone. That's a terrible thing to say, a terrible, dark thing, but when I think of finding Tony there on the sand, staring up at the sky with that blank look on his face, I know it can't be anything but true.
It was like Afghanistan all over again. That sense that he saw things that I couldn't touch, even if I wanted nothing more than to be there for him. It's not that he pushed me away. It's just that he'll never tell me exactly what happened. Not all of it.
Hasn't he been through enough?
It seems like every time he triumphs over something, there's something else trying to knock him down. But I can only do what I can. I'm not helpless, and Tony lets me help him more than anyone knows. More than he would want anyone to know.
Ha. It's a good thing I'm never getting this published.
But even with how much he confides in me, there are some things that he will never share. I know this. There are some things that he cares about me too much to share with me. I know that too. Sometimes I wish he would think more about himself than me. Or well. More about his well-being. He already thinks about himself plenty, thank you very much.
Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that that means that the story I'm putting down here won't be entirely accurate. I can only put down what I've researched and uncovered, and what Tony's told me, of course. I wasn't there to witness everything, despite my best efforts. But I think it's the closest thing to the full story that exists.
Even if nobody will read it, I feel better for the fact that it's here. Even if I'llnever read it again, it's better that it exists here. I don't think it's a story that should ever be forgotten.
It's a story of a man who matched Tony's genius step for step.
But I'm starting my story in the middle of things, and that's just sloppy storytelling. God knows I've scoffed at enough reporters for it; I should take my own advice to avoid being too hypocritical. I have plenty of my own vices. Hypocrisy isn't going to be added to the list.
From the beginning, then.
— Virginia "Pepper" Potts
Tony Stark, billionaire playboy philanthropist, metaphorically ducked an unfortunately very real henpecking. He was distracted by the schematics on the screen, the very beginnings of the self-sustaining energy he'd stated he was going to dabble in instead of weapons, that Stark Industries would produce instead of killing devices.
So far, he was making good on that promise. He hadn't touched a weapon in months, not the schematics, not the pieces, and certainly not the finished product. He rather thought the world should have been proud of him.
No weapons, only sustainable energy (which he was gratified in a way to find involved just as many accidental explosions as weapons building at times). It was a fascinating enough task, at least, one that could and did draw all of his rather formidable genius to solve. But solving it he was. He had the pieces, the plans, the know-how. It was just a matter of solving.
(Except for the Mark VII model of his suit, but the Iron Man suit wasn't a weapon, his suit was him, and it was still in its early stages regardless, though he had high hopes for this one.)
They should've been proud of him.
"Are you listening to me?"
Pepper didn't sound proud of him.
Tony finally looked up from his screens, blinking as if coming back to himself after wherever his thoughts had led him. Down paths of numbers and formulae, ideas both ridiculous and comprehensive that he would makework—
Pepper just seemed relieved to have his attention on her, finally.
"I need to go over a few things with you," Pepper said. Judging by the huffy tone and the way her hands were planted on her hips, it wasn't the first time either.
But he was so close to a breakthrough. If he just tweaked the number of kJ produced in the first stage—
"'M busy," he muttered, turning his eyes back to his screens—
Only for Pepper to step in between him and the screens, hands on her hips. She took a very deliberate, deep breath, slowly getting her admittedly formidable temper under control, so when she next spoke, her voice was flat.
"When did you last eat?"
Tony made a face, but she was still in the way of his key formulae.
"Within the past 24 hours 'recently'?" Pepper asked—far too shrewdly, Tony thought. So he didn't deign to give this one an answer.
Pepper, unfortunately, knew him well enough to know that meant she was absolutely correct.
"Honestly, Tony, I'm not going to write your obituary if you die by forgetting to eat." A huff and she stepped away from the screen.
Tony was distracted enough by this new topic of conversation that he followed her, formulae not forgotten but temporarily set aside.
"How embarrassing would that be?" Pepper continued, striding towards the door to Tony's workshop.
Tony followed, because—"You'd write my obituary otherwise?"
She scoffed, but managed to successfully lead him up the stairs. And when they were in a more properly livable room (instead of covered in technology and forgotten coffee cups), she turned to tell him, "No. So don't die—" if her voice wavered at that, because she still remembered Obadiah, sheremembered and it'd only been a few months since—she quickly continued with a better sense of humor, "because you're not getting one from me."
Tony offered a faintly pained grin, almost more of a grimace, really, as if he knew the path her thoughts had taken. And his response was what first came to mind, as per usual with him. "What about my biography?"
She gave him an incredulous look for his troubles. "Who says you need a biography?"
"Who wouldn't? It'd be a bestseller, top of the charts. Who wouldn't want to read about, well, me?" He gave her his most charming look, spreading his hands imploringly, which Pepper blew off with that special Pepper skill.
Tony arched an eyebrow at that, but before he could speak again, she continued, "You hardly need anything else that could inflate your ego."
As she spoke, Pepper began to walk, clearly intending to go get some actualwork done, but Tony acted quickly, stepping forward to slip his arm around her waist, depending as always on that reckless charm of his.
"The Man Behind the Iron Man by Virginia Potts." He tilted his head as if he could see it already.
She wrinkled her nose. "That's awful."
Tony had never pretended to be a writer (he was a scientist, he didn't really dabble in the arts), so he was effectively unbothered by the criticism. "That's why you'll be writing it."
Pepper looked at him for a long moment. And then her lips twitched, barely suppressing a smile. "Well…" she said slowly, meeting his eyes. "I suppose I'm the only one who could write a full, unbiased, entirely accurate account."
Tony's face went through some interesting expressions, from glee at her acceptance to a rather strangled look at "full" and "unbiased" and "entirely accurate".
"On second thought—"
"Virginia Potts, biographer," Pepper spoke over him, musingly. "I like the sound of that."
Tony could see a battle lost before the fight even began, and while he wasn't one to give up on a good fight, this was Pepper. Pepper always won. It was maybe her superpower, which he thought was starkly unfair.
She just offered him that particular smile of hers that was one of the things that let her always win and pulled out of his grasp. "Anyway, as I said, you should go eat dinner. I have actual work to do."
"Actual work?" Tony looked at her incredulously. "And what am I doing?"
"Playing with new toys." She grinned at him, patting his arm. "If I come back and you haven't eaten anything, I'm putting that you're a manchild into your biography."
Tony stared after her as she sauntered out, and muttered under his breath a little.
"Shall I order dinner, sir?" JARVIS interrupted his mutterings, and Tony threw a glance at the ceiling for appearances' sake.
"Where were you to defend me against that defamation of character?" he asked.
"What defamation of character, sir?" came the response from the AI, and Tony made a face. It was in good humor, though, that he exclaimed, "Betrayed by my own creation!"
He supposed dinner couldn't hurt, so he did order JARVIS to order something in (something Italian and pasta-y, to which JARVIS had asked if he should add 'pasta-y' to his dictionary) and sat heavily on the couch.
He supposed it couldn't hurt to eat a little something before returning to work. Now that his concentration had been broken, anyway.
And then Tony's brow furrowed.
There was a newspaper on his coffee table.
Paper didn't tend to last long anywhere Tony Stark worked; he found it outdated and slow, preferring tablets and keyboards any day. So a newspaper was a rare sight, and he reached over to pick it up despite himself, curious. The date was, peculiarly, from the month before, so he had no idea where it had come from. He would have noticed it before, surely. Maybe Pepper had brought it with her and had forgotten it there? An outdated newspaper, right, that seemed likely. Or maybe she left it there to try to remind Tony to keep up with the outside world, instead of his own little world.
He had no idea; Pepper was a hard woman to read sometimes.
Just as he was musing on how much easier it would be to just flick on the television and get his news that way, his eye was caught by a picture on the third page, even as he flipped through. Tony paused, opening the newspaper properly, and looking closer.
The article seemed to be about a new professor at Stanford—"Youngest professor to join the Institute for Computational and Mathematical Engineering faculty" blah blah blah. Now that he glanced at it, it wasn't that interesting after all. But it was the picture that had first caught his eye, and it was the picture he studied now.
The man did look young; he didn't look like he could've been more 30, at a generous estimate. The picture had caught his profile, but it still outlined narrow features and a youthful face.
Tony made a face at his clothing—a scarf and a suit ensemble? Please—before tossing the newspaper aside. It'd just been a passing thing to catch his interest; with a brain like his, it happened all the time.
So he ignored it, pushing the picture, the headline—Genius Mathematicians Come in All Ages, pah, cheesy—to the back of his mind. It wasn't the first time (well, it was, that was the point of the article), but it wasn't the first time someone had done something "unusual" or "outstanding". If he'd thought some hoity toity mathematician could challenge him, perhaps he'd paid it some mind.
But he didn't.
Nor did he pay any mind to the man's name as he let the newspaper settle on the couch beside him, still open to that peculiar picture, except that it sounded distinctly French.
In fact, he'd forgotten completely by the time Pepper stalked back into his workshop a few hours later with a container of cold pasta in one hand that he had also forgotten about entirely.
On occasion, Tony spared a thought for the Avengers Initiative. After all, he'd very nearly been a part of it—but he'd also been alerted when it'd been scrapped like a bad piece of metal, too weak to be used. It looked strong on the outside, but a single hit in the right place would cause it to snap.
Metalworking was the closest Tony got to art.
Tony was a man of science, of numbers and facts and formulae, but it had been stated again and again that his Iron Man suit was a work of art—enough so that they'd want the suit, but not him.
Which was ridiculous. The suit was him.
The thoughts he spared for said initiative were generally a little bit bitter (not that anyone could blame him, truly; he'd basically been told he wasn't good enough for the team, right?), but also a little curious. Because if there was one thing Tony was good at, it was thinking big, impossible things.
A group of Earth's mightiest heroes was a big, impossible thing. That was probably why it had been scrapped, but he didn't like the idea of a daring idea going to waste. And that was probably why he kept tabs on the Avengers Initiative.
It wasn't as though he went out of his way for the information, but he couldn't deny that if it was there, he would take a look at it. The justification worked for him—even though a good portion of him knew that there was very little information that wasn't already at his fingertips.
But the justification was enough, and so he pushed aside his work on energy cells for the moment.
"JARVIS, what has our angry, green friend been up to?" he asked musingly, reclining in his chair and toying absently with a screwdriver. He wasn't sure why there had been a screwdriver on his desk, but it'd probably been there for a reason that he would recall in an hour or two.
"Sir, it appears as though he was invited to a convention on gamma radiation in France," came the prompt response. Tony rather loved having the world at his fingertips at times.
But that interested him. "Ah—"
"He declined," JARVIS continued, as if to stomp out any of Tony's interest immediately.
That was boring. He supposed, in a way, he understood. Couldn't control it, didn't want to hurt people, etcetera, etcetera. But it was a personal affront to all of his sensibilities, how a man could sit in some remote corner of the world when he had more to offer than that.
Or maybe he was just waiting for something interesting to happen for the Avengers, and Bruce Banner was someone he was depending on to turn out very interesting indeed.
"What about the others?" he finally asked, flicking his screens to life before him, screensavers dissolving into diagrams. He could get some work done while he waited for the gossip, because that was really all it was. Gossip.
Superhero gossip. But gossip all the same.
"Steve Rogers remains where he was the last time you decided you wished to spy on him." If an AI could sound reproachful, JARVIS managed it.
Tony just made a face at the room—he didn't feel the need to look up like so many of his visitors, as JARVIS was simply a presence that was always around.
"No comments from the peanut gallery. If I want cheesy remarks and a sense of guilt I'd watch daytime television."
"Of course, sir," JARVIS responded smoothly, and Tony rolled his eyes skyward briefly.
It was easier to banter with his AI than to allow his attention to be snagged by the great, almighty Captain America, who was doing little more than skulking about his room. Ladies and gentlemen, the great man his father always wished he'd been.
Tony scoffed, but before he could dwell further, JARVIS, dependable as always, had continued with a distraction.
"Clint Barton, codename Hawkeye, appears to be scheduled to appear at a convention here in California."
…That was curious. Not that he had information on Hawkeye; hacking into SHIELD had always been laughably easy. It'd only be a matter of time before he got caught, of course, but for now he intended to make good use of it. If gossip counted as good use, anyway. He thought it did, and that was really the only opinion that mattered.
Tony tilted his head. "What sort of convention?"
"It appears to deal with dimensional geometry, sir."
Barton appearing at a meeting for math nerds. Now that was strange.
"And I wasn't invited?" Tony finally responded, barely seeing the diagrams before him.
"Would you have gone if you had been, sir?" JARVIS' voice almost sounded reproachful again, and Tony sighed. Guilt-tripped by his AI. This was what his life had become. Not that he sounded at all regretful when he did respond.
"Probably not. It sounded boring. But now it sounds a lot more interesting. JARVIS, I want the location and the time for the cube con."
It was probably nothing, but it wasn't like Tony to not make use of interesting information. At the very least, it'd be a bit of excitement. He'd been far too good, just working on the self-sustainable energy—
He cleared his throat. "And the rest?"
JARVIS didn't know where Natasha was, same as the week before. That wasn't that surprising either; keeping tabs on a master spy was apparently harder than it sounded, especially when said spy was the Black Widow.
Thor was…well. He only had the vaguest of information on him, even within SHIELD's files, but apparently Thor was not around.
Putting it lightly.
Which left only Iron Man.
Tony drummed his fingers on his desk absently. An interesting little diversion, but in the end, that's all it was. His work was more interesting than the so-called superheroes were, and—well, that wasn't really sad, since he tended to focus on the work that was interesting, but still.
"Superheroes, JARVIS," he muttered sardonically, changing a few numbers where they clearly stuck out as wrong. "Who needs them."
He was hardly a hero, and he did alright, after all—
And Tony completely missed JARVIS' response, brow furrowing as he leaned forward to peer more closely at the screen.
"Hang on…" No, something was off here, and if there was anything Tony was always aware of, it was his own systems. With a frown and a quick shortcut, he pulled up the base coding of the programs he was currently working on. Something, something, something—
If someone was hacking into Stark Industry tech, into his own tech, he'd be having words with them. After he shut them down.
He didn't really bother to think of the hypocrisy in that, considering what he'd just been doing. Dwelling wasn't really his style anyway.
And so he scanned the technology with a surprising amount of patience (or maybe not so surprising, to those who really understood how he worked), bit by bit, line by line. And after a few delicate minutes, Tony stopped and his expression was just a little bit too vicious.
"Gotcha, you little—"
His expression narrowed a little as his lips pursed. "JARVIS, track the location of this. I need to know where this is coming from."
Whoever it was, it was a talented hacker, that much couldn't be denied. To be able to hack into his tech took a great deal of skill, and Tony was far from thrilled that it had happened in the first place. He studied the job more intently as JARVIS began the tracing.
He'd probably isolated the issue before any major information had been accessed, but it wasn't like he kept any really important files where they could be so easily accessed anyway. Still, there was information on these servers, and Tony took challenges like this very seriously.
And it was a challenge, of that he was sure.
Because there was a certain delicateness about it, he thought. It might have been a strange thought to anyone else, but to Tony Stark, who understood technology like very few people could, it meant a great deal. It was a lot like a technological fingerprint. This was a very distinctive job, which perhaps meant he would be able to use that to track whoever had done this down—
Tony blinked, looking up for a moment. "…That's impossible. The signature is right there."
"The fact remains that it leads to no computer, sir."
Well then. Tony leaned back in his chair for a brief moment, thinking. If it had happened, then it couldn't be impossible. Which meant that something else had to be the case, however improbable it seemed. Thus resolved, he snapped his fingers as he sat up.
He hadn't been planning on sleeping that night anyway.
"JARVIS, we've got work to do."
When Loki arrived on Midgard, it was entirely of his own volition.
He was not one to dive into a conflict without a shred of information, however; no, Loki was not his would-be, pathetic brother, Thor, presuming that diving in and swinging what was nothing more than a piece of enchanted metal on a stick would get him anywhere.
No, he was not Thor.
And so he observed.
And he observed one thing in particular. Humans enjoyed patterns. They broke down what was hardly categorical at all and then they categorized it. It was quaint, in an entertaining way. It also made them all the easier to manipulate.
So long as he fit into one of those categories (or multiple, it mattered not to him), he would be overlooked. He would be categorized and left as well enough. It was if he was not able to be categorized that he would catch attention, which was interesting and noteworthy for when he wanted to catch attention, but not yet, not yet, he had plans yet to lay.
So he took himself apart and reassembled himself by categories—young, attractive, yes well, he could not be blamed for being vain. Clever—that one was required for what he had planned, though again, he would prefer to not be taken as stupid. Human—and this was the most entertaining, for what should have been tricky indeed was a simple matter.
In order to be categorized as human, Loki merely needed to act as one.
And how simple was it, to infiltrate an entire society as if he was one of them! How simple to forge an identity for himself, to gain himself entrance to the most prestigious of human resources, to build a career, to create a newname.
Like all self-aware gods, Loki was more than conscious of the associations with his name. A name was a powerful thing, and he was not so eager to cast off the many meanings that had been tied to it. The beauty of crafting his own identity, he mused, was that he was given the opportunity to make it absolutely flawless.
While he was most often associated with fire (and recently, bitterly, with ice), he had always been fonder of the association with air. Air was whimsical but also less malleable than fire; he enjoyed the association with something that could truly not be tamed.
'Air' it was, then. Lopt. Or, in another language, éventer. If nothing else, the wordplay amused him well enough.
That was the thing about false identities. One could craft them to be perfect. Certainly much better than false identities cast upon a helpless child, one who could not have known any better…
Regardless, it was all too simple for him to build his identity. Why, one could argue that it was hardly a lie if he was simply shifting his identity ever so slightly, couldn't one?
Luke Eventer, mathematician, professor, harmless but talented.
With such a thing set, he could continue.
Loki was excellent at observation, and he was excellent at plotting. Selvig was a loose thread that begged to be quietly unwound—so he did. Of course the clever astrophysicist would inspect the Tesseract. Of course.
This was worth taking a look.
There were so many things worth taking a look, taking apart until there was nothing left to be unknown.
Slowly, of course; it would not do to be too quickly known in this game.
And it should not have been doubted that Loki was playing a game. Not even when he smirked at the camera, head angled just so, and accepted congratulations for his new, remarkable position as a math professor at such a prestigious university.
Especially not then.
Whoever was hacking into his systems was good, that was for sure.
The thing was, Tony was so much better. JARVIS' trace might have failed, but Tony was the one to program JARVIS, all of his quirks and charm, all the product of a brilliant mind and a number of late nights (if it could be called a late night when one never slept at all).
There was very little JARVIS could not do, not after so much work, and so much effort, until the machine could literally think for itself—but what JARVIS could not do, often times Tony could.
He could now, the systems of his computer spread before him, laid naked before his eyes to pick through at his leisure. He'd long ago pinned down the hacker—now it was a matter of following to the source. And as he'd proven with the Avengers Initiative, there was no information that he could not access, not when he reached for it with clever, creating fingers.
The expression on his face was less a grin than a triumphant baring of his teeth.
Honestly, trying to hack into Stark Industries. That was just egocentrism courting recklessness.
If that description sounded familiar to Tony, he ignored it. He had direction now.
He'd gotten crazy places with far less than that.
And it was time to be just a little bit crazy.