I updated when I said I would! Who's proud of me?

-Chapter 17-

The week should have dragged, considering all the skulking secret agents and supervising super soldiers and boring blood work, but it flew by. The only incident was a hapless supervillain that was easily disposed of.

The fact that the Hulk never became necessary despite Iron Man's absence was something Bruce and Tony were equally relieved about.

Spending almost every waking hour with the other scientist hadn't yet become tiresome, and (maybe more surprisingly), Bruce hadn't ripped his own hair out. Impossibly, the biologist still laughed at Tony's obnoxious jokes and entertained his inane conversations. Tony didn't think he'd ever spent so much isolated time with one person that didn't end in an explosive argument.

It was nice.

But every holiday has to end, even science-centered ones based on the radioactivity of someone's blood. They'd run every test Bruce had ever suffered through during his decade-long break from normal-dom, and each one returned negative. Negative for gamma-radiation influences, negative for irregularities, negative for high iron or low iron or extreme pressure readings or abnormal temperature. So negative, basically, for the Hulk. When the final test readings read a big fat 'Nope, no giant rage monster here', Bruce actually collapsed into his chair and cried a little.

Having never been great at comforting, Tony had pretended to file things and check things and even ran to get more coffee. Finally, when he ran out of plausible excuses, he sat in front of Bruce and said,


"Sorry?" Bruce repeated incredulously, still smiling with wary relief staining his face.

"I dated Pepper for a while," he explained. "It's tough being in a relationship. I'm sure, y'know, you'll be begging me for the Hulk after a month or two Honeymooning with Ross." Bruce laughed, airy and loud. He let his fingers drag along the desk.

"Maybe three months," he allowed, still wielding an absurd grin. They basked in the glory of good test results for a little longer, until Bruce stood and said the inevitable (but avoided): "We should go tell Steve."

Skurge had claimed the jewel Loki sought laid hidden in the maze of ice tunnels within the bowels of Jotenheim. The thing had once been a treasure of Asgard, but had been lost in battle long before even Loki's birth. Tales of its prowess remained only in ancient tomes, books that had been dusted off only shortly before Thor's original coronation ceremony. It had been a slight interest to the younger prince then, but had quickly been discarded in the midst of betrayal and politics. He had, in fact, forgotten the possibility of its existence until Stark had said something that reminded him of it.

More than you could ever do. Stark's tone had spoken of limits, limits that would forever keep Loki from ruling Midgard, or from winning something he desired even more.

The jewel would expand those limits, giving him the power he needed in order to do what must be done. He remembered some vague things about it, including that it now rested in Jotenheim. He captured Skurge soon after. When the great beast had remained defiant, he had taken a brief trip to Asgard. He stole half the library, so that the books he had desired would not be readily apparent. He also caused a bit of mayhem in order to confuse the simpletons further.

Another small motivation may have been keeping Thor from Midgard. Quite frankly, he had never had much faith in Thor's skills at secrecy, and expected no better from him now. He needed to finish his business and then speak with Stark before Thor had too large of an opportunity.

"The jewel, then Midgard." He murmured to himself, eyebrows furrowed as he studied the magically-conjured map.

Skurge's information (if accurate, though he didn't particularly doubt him- his love for Amora was renowned) was incredibly helpful, and gave him specific instructions to the very room the jewel was kept in. Skurge knew no more than that, unfortunately, and was unfamiliar with what sorcery could protect it. While Loki was confident in his own abilities, he was not overly familiar with Jotun charms. As such, he could not predict what wards would be defending his prize.

He had, however, lived with Thor for many centuries. He was adept at entering situations blind.

Tony had always been adept at procrastinating. Still, though, most of the time, procrastinations were planned or at least enforced somewhat voluntarily on his part.

"Didn't plan on this," he whispered to Bruce as they studied the kitchen. Bruce smiled, but nervousness had brushed a thin sheen of sweat over his brows.

"That's okay. Works for me." Thor noticed them with a broad grin, and waved them over to the table. As usual, Scary and Scarier observed the two visitors with a coldness usually reserved for villains. Just to be contrary, Tony took the seat closest to Natasha.

"My friends!" Thor exclaimed, raising his arms as if to hug the air. "Long have I wished to return. You appear well."

"We know what we look like," Tony assured him, smirking. "The lab has reflective surfaces."

"And it's where we've been for a week," Bruce went on, self-consciously cleaning the lenses of his glasses.

"Ask them what they're doing and they'll scatter like rats," Clint added, but his tone wasn't infused with any of the harshness it had held towards Tony lately. Apparently, Thor's return had gotten him in a better mood. Granted, it was hard to have a bad mood with Thor.

Unless, well, your name were Loki.

"Indeed?" Thor wondered. "Most mysterious. Pray tell us what you have been working on." Tony glanced at Bruce, who gave a slight nod.

"No problem, big guy." Natasha seemed slightly surprised, while Clint just watched Tony's face carefully. "Not really my deal to explain, though. And no leaving halfway through. And also, Rogers should probably be here. We were looking for him, actually."

"What a coincidence." Five heads turned to watch the Captain enter. He was dressed in his standard I'm-going-to-the-gym-to-be-manly clothing. His knuckles appeared hurt, and a part of Tony ached for the automatic punching bag he had built for the guy. "I was just looking for you. Weeks up."

"Oh, good. That was gonna be my next line," Clint commented, smiling as the man took a seat. "You were saying, Stark?" Tony glanced at Bruce, but the doctor looked queasy.

"Okay, I'll do the recap." Bruce smiled at him gratefully, but still looked so nervous Tony wanted to just call the whole thing off and hire someone incredibly trustworthy to take over. If he could just get Neil deGrasse Tyson to come in and tell everyone about it in his Nova voice, they'd all be agreeing in an instant. Hell, Tony could barely handle his boardmembers. He wasn't exactly ecstatic about being in charge of how they reacted to Bruce's current situation. "Um, do we get an explanation from Thor, first? I have to jot some things down on a cue card. We were only suspicious for a week. He's been missing for, like, ever."

"I had hoped to hear of your experiments first," Thor admitted. "And I apologize for my absence; I trust you have handled it in a manner most becoming of your status as this world's greatest protectors. I was distracted by occurrences in my own home. I must concede that I come with tidings most grave. Asgard has been attacked." Some raised eyebrows, so he made admission #2: "By my brother."

"I'm so surprised I just had a heart attack." Clint declared.

"I was also shocked," Thor told him. The weeks away, Tony observed, had not changed his sarcasm skills. "He even destroyed his most favored place." His eyes flickered to the engineer. Library, Tony thought suddenly. "He attacked the private library within the castle. Hundreds of tomes are missing, books that he had pored over in his youth...among that devastation also came several guards injured, many tapestries ripped, priceless art ruined, and several smaller things that, while not as terrible, certainly caused confusion."

"Such as?" Steve asked, reluctantly curious.

"Clothing- all clothing, excepting those garments that were worn at the time- became sizes smaller than they initially were. Even father's crown was affected by the curse. It appeared most silly, and it became necessary that another was forged." That part sounded more like a prank than an attack to Tony, so he tried to focus on the library.

"What books were stolen?" He asked. Thor shrugged his wide shoulders.

"So many that it will be difficult to find a discernible pattern. To be truthful, I suspect that my brother was the only true patron of that place in at least a century. Some of those books are so old that they have been forgotten by even the eldest of Asgardians. The library was a vast place." Thor turned to him. "And what of you, Son of Stark? What has occurred here?"

"Well," Tony paused. Best to just rip the band-aid off. "Books aren't the only thing Loki stole."

"Oh?" Thor frowned. "What did he take?"

"Bruce," Clint explained unhappily, but Tony shook his head.

"No, he gave him back. But he kept something else." Natasha raised a pointed eyebrow.

"What did he keep, Stark?" He glanced around. The faces were, by turns, curious, confused, and angry.

"The other him."

"Now why in the hell was this kept from me?" Tony rolled his eyes.

"Everyone keeps throwing my track record at me, so how about we look at yours? You're not exactly known to let opportunities pass you by. We had to know- for sure- that Bruce didn't have, like, green blood or something. We wanted to make sure the Hulk wasn't just being kept magically in-check." Fury glared at him, and Tony resisted shifting. Stick to your guns, he thought. You're right for once.

"And you know this for sure."

"It's what we've been testing all week. Bruce is cured. Hulk-free. Green-free zone."

"And you're capable of working around magic restraints?" Fury demanded, 'magic' sounding like a curse word on his tongue. Tony was slightly gratified to know he wasn't the only one that hated it.

"Look," he replied. "We did all the tests your team could have done. The only difference is that we had a biologist trained in the field and an engineer familiar with magic working on it. You're welcome to all the data we found."

"And what if Loki has got some way of forcing him to change?"

"That was our concern," Tony returned. "And we found no evidence to support it. Our evidence supports what Loki told Bruce and that's that the Hulk is gone. Considering the beat-up the Big Guy gave him during the invasion, it was probably just revenge."

"Then why not kill Banner?" Tony shifted, letting his eyes flicker to the ground. "Stark?"

"I don't know, okay?" He scowled, wishing he could stand up and pace. But that'd probably be letting Fury know a little too much. To be honest, he'd been wondering why Bruce was alive ever since he'd popped into the SHIELD lab. It didn't make sense. It was illogical.

And while Loki was as insane as Spock during Pon Farr, he was also as smart and logical as Spock once he'd gotten some.

Killing Bruce would have made sense. Just like killing Tony in the desert would have made sense.

"I want my own tests," Fury finally said. Tony had been expecting that, but his nod was still unhappy.

"The readings will be the same. And just remember that, Hulk or not, Bruce is an Avenger. He's still saved the world and he's still my lab partner. Fuck with him, you'll be fucking with Iron Man."

"Except," Fury countered slowly, one eye flashing as it met Tony's own. "-you're not Iron Man at the moment."

"I'm still very rich and very temperamental. Doctor Elizabeth Ross is in California right now. A conference in Sacramento. See that Bruce gets there safe and sound by tomorrow morning." Tony had been a fan of Clint Eastwood Westerns when he was younger (just a brief phase; sci-fi had more ray guns), and he had the distinct impression that Fury was channeling the movie star as his eye narrowed. Tony wondered whether he should be reaching for the sky.

As quickly as the showdown began, it ended. Fury stood and walked around the desk, his dark coat flowing behind him like a shadow.

"You know, Stark, I had a programmer onboard a few years ago. Before Iron Man, when you weren't a born-again superhero. This programmer was named Neddry, and he had it in his head that he wanted to work for Hydra, despite that he already had employment in SHIELD. He shut down security parameters, cut the phone lines, and tried to steal sensitive information." He turned. "Do you know how hard it is to program when your arm has gone missing?" Tony stiffened.

"I'm still not a traitor." Fury clasped his hands together.

"I still don't think you are. I do think that you're questioning who you can trust, and I think you're coming up with some wrong answers. If you're right about Banner, that means the world is down one more Avenger. With the lack of Iron Man-"

"Working on it."

"-for now, we're down two of the hard-hitters on the team. I'm not saying you're a traitor; I'm saying you're compromised. Loki is up to shit, Stark, and instead of wondering what that shit is, you're hiding things from the team and assuming that I'm just itching to torture my agents."

"Bruce isn't technically an agent." Tony muttered, glaring at the desk.

"But he is an Avenger, as you so dramatically mentioned, and I'm not in the game of torturing those, either." Fury had circled around Tony back to his own chair, and now he sat in it, his palms flat on the desk. "Loki has attacked Asgard, kidnapped Skurge, killed Amora, and has ignored both you and Banner, despite two easy openings. Instead of hiding in your lab doing blood work my team could have finished in three days, why don't you make your new suit and figure out what the hell he's planning?"

Tony nodded stiffly.

"Good. Then I guess you have work to do. You're dismissed, Mr. Stark." Tony stood, his hands fists in his pockets, and headed for the exit. "And Stark?" He paused at the door. "Rich or not, SHIELD can handle you. Don't get any ideas."

"No ideas? Stagnation of progress right there, sweetheart," Tony responded, anger blaring out common sense. "I'll try and let you know if I get any bad ones, though."

Fury was unamused, but Tony felt somehow accomplished.

"Just got in," Bruce said. Tony could hear the chattering of a public crowd in the background, and smiled. "No turbulence, and I even got an extra bag of peanuts. I think that's the definition of 'safe and sound'."

"I'll rate SHIELD airlines five out of five," Tony assured him. "Is she meeting you there?"

"She doesn't technically know I'm coming," Bruce responded, and Tony could hear the smile. "I'm actually a fan of surprises when they don't end up in Harlem going away."

"Oh, good! Expect a surprise birthday party, then." Bruce chuckled.

"Isn't telling me taking away the surprise?'

"Who said it'll even be in the same month? Darling, you don't know the Stark Surprise. Trust me, if the Hulk is still in there, I'll scare him out." Bruce laughed again, and Tony heard someone in the back talk about luggage and time. "I'll talk to you later, buddy. I'll blow up some stuff for you."

"Please don't," Bruce replied. "Good luck with the others."

"Are you kidding? No one can hold a grudge against me."

"I can't believe you're endorsing house arrest."

"It's not house arrest, Tony," Potts corrected instantly, frowning at him over her paperwork. "And please don't aggravate anyone who's stuck with you for indefinite periods of time while wielding at least five weapons."

"Darling, this is Natasha. Her minimum is six. And you're on their side?" Potts shook her head.

"I'm not on anyone's side. Wait, correction: I'm on whatever side doesn't involve you getting murdered by Loki."

"I don't get murdered," he retorted. "I'm his BFF, remember? I was gonna take over the world with him, but now they've got two guards on me, so all our plans are ruined."

"Pretty sure Nat counts as six guards. Minimum." Barton mentioned from his perch on the window sill. He was spread casually on the inlet, his gun resting on his thigh. It practically looked forgotten. Except for how he never took his hand off of it.

"Only six? Wow, losing your touch there, Romanov." The older man chastised with a grin.

"Tony, if you'll just sign this, I'll let you get back to your house-arrest."

"Ah-ha!" He sat up quickly, waving a finger in her direction. "You admit it!" Potts pinched the bridge of her nose.

"So many knives and yet no one is threatening him to sign this paperwork."

"We have full confidence in your abilities," Romanov assured her, smiling slightly. He wondered whether he should be pleased that the agent wasn't treating Potts any differently despite the scare a month prior. He decided he didn't have it in him.

"I'll sign those if you bring me a cheeseburger." Potts glanced at the paperwork, then sighed.

"Burger King or McDonalds?"

"A gluten-free soy one from that deli." She blinked.

"Are you dying?" He rolled his eyes.

"Of boredom, maybe. Am I not allowed to eat healthy unless I'm dying?"

"There's not much precedent for it," she replied. "Fine. One suspiciously healthy burger. Sign?"

"When I've got healthy grease dripping down my chin." She glared. "Please?" The exhale was one part sigh, one part growl, and one part groan.

"I'm leaving the paperwork here. I'll be back in an hour, and it better be done. You can wait on the last signature until I come back if you want to be difficult."

"I do, thank you," he answered, grinning as she grabbed her purse and stormed out.

"Any reason you're terrorizing Ms. Potts?" Romanov asked evenly.

"A small one, yes," he replied, now in a fully seated position on the sofa.

"You know procrastinating won't make the paperwork go away. It'll just make it double," Barton informed him, staring out the window.

"Avoiding paperwork wasn't actually my main goal, believe it or not." Romanov raised an eyebrow, and he just waited. After a few moments, he continued, "I bet she's out of the building, now. Maybe even in a taxi. You'll forgive the slightly uncharacteristic behavior. Most places deliver in this city- that deli is really the farthest place that he frequents that doesn't." Barton was on his feet, brows furrowed and grip on his gun steady.

"He?" The seated man smiled.

"Please don't play stupid. Being that you aren't exceedingly clever to begin with, playing at idiocy simply does not suit you."

"Where's Tony?" Romanov demanded, and Loki shrugged.

"Oh, who can remember? I am so busy these days. I suppose my brother told you?"

"You attacked Asgard," Romanov stated. "Why?"

"It's important to visit family," Loki responded, smiling. Romanov's smirk was fierce.

"You're not exactly dressed for cold weather." His smile fell off, and he stood. Tony's form dissolved into his own, and the world shifted as he grew taller.

"Has anyone ever told you your tongue ought to be cut out? I think you would make a very pretty mute."

"She's gorgeous as is. Where's Stark?" Barton's gun was raised, but Loki wasn't particularly concerned about it. The agent had as much prowess with a handgun as a bow, of course, but he was a god. Mortal firearms were as detrimental to his health as an ant bite.

"I took him this morning, if you must know. Whilst he readied himself for a shower. I derived particular amusement from his expression. I do wish you could have seen it. Oh!" His face shifted, until he felt the goatee on his chin. "I can show you." He made an exaggerated expression of terror (particularly exaggerated as Stark had not even seen him enter the bathing chamber; the chance for him to make noise was not one Loki would allow), and smiled in his own face as the agents before him stiffened in anger.

"You're not going to-" Barton began, but Romanov interrupted.

"Why did you make Potts leave?"

"Pardon?" Loki, like Barton, had been preparing for the standard 'you'll never get away with this!' heroic script.

"Potts. You made her leave." Romanov's eyes were narrowed.

"It is obvious, isn't it? I mean to kill you both. In a most horrid nature. Blood will coat the walls, and anyone without a warrior's stomach should not have to watch."

"Why is she special?" Romanov demanded, her tone ferocious and unyielding. "You saved her life before, spared her life now, spared Bruce, spar-" She cut herself off, eyes widening with the revelation that Loki would have preferred she never have.

"Why, Ms. Romanov," he purred. "You have just made killing you a necessity rather than a pleasure."

When Tony woke up, he was blinking at stars. Weird ones, too, he noted; the constellations were unfamiliar. After the invasion, he'd grown used to Earth's stars. A brief stint in astronomy gave him the ability to glance at a map of the sky, and get at least a vague idea of the location and the stars.

Looking up, he wondered whether he'd skipped a hemisphere.

A path of violet sprang over the darkness, twinkling slightly.

"Sagan save me," he muttered, rolling onto his side. His mouth felt dry and unused, and he wondered how long he had been unconscious. The last thing he remembered was ditching the sadistic sweethearts to grab a much-needed shower. He'd just spoken to Bruce (who had surprised Betty and gotten a reservation at some fancy place under Tony's name), and wanted some alone time in his own private waterfall.

The second he'd locked the door, though, he'd felt tired. Faint, almost, as if he'd gotten a major head rush. He'd pulled on the curtains for support, but, y'know. They were curtains. They fell with him, and he'd barely avoided slamming his head on the toilet (which would have been an embarrassing death). He could still feel the faint imprint of the cool tile on his cheek.

"What the shit-" He groaned, forcing himself to sit up to have a look around. He was in some courtyard. Weird trees surrounded him. The colors were right, but the saturation wrong. The leaves were green, but they seemed almost neon. He pressed his fingers against the dark red bricks beneath him, attempting to push himself into a standing position. It failed miserably, and he stumbled back to the ground. "Loki!" He shouted. Because, honestly, who else could it be? "If you're in the immediate vicinity, immediate explanations would be appreciated!" He scowled around at the quiet scenery.

It wasn't like what Bruce had described, though- he wasn't in some claustrophobic cave. He was in an open area, circled by unearthly surroundings that would be gorgeous if they didn't emanate an aura of quiet threat.

Poisonous, he thought. That was the word everything reminded him of. Like flowers in the Amazon forest: if they're pretty, don't touch. They'll burn you, kill you, make you so sick you can't even cry for help.

But god, did he want to touch. Bad survival instincts, he supposed, but he was tempted to just run his fingers through the too-bright green grass, to chart the new stars, to explore every small facet in this weird place.

Beautiful, but deadly. Just remember the deadly part, he advised himself. You can get pretty anywhere. But not like this. This was different, and he thrived on different.

He tried again to stand, and succeeded this time. Admittedly, his knees were shaking and walking was a challenge, but the point was he could. And that ability meant that he could make his way to the nearest tree. As he got closer, he noticed the fruit dangling from the closest branch.

Bright purple. So bright it almost seemed to glow.

He stared, and it seemed to burn brighter for the attention.

He stumbled closer, eyes narrowed in fascination, and the air shook. He stopped just short of the tree. He wasn't going to eat it, of course- he was a genius, and eating glowing fruit was something Pepper would absolutely frown upon.

"It is delicious, I assure you. But I have something better." Tony turned in surprise, but the movement still felt sluggish. His eyebrows rose as he registered Loki in front of him, sitting on the bench of a picnic table that had definitely not been there ten seconds prior. Perhaps the oddest thing was the picnic basket in front of him. He was beginning to unpack it, his lithe fingers pulling object after object from its depths.

A feast was rising from that small container, and when Loki removed the cask of wine, he smiled up at Tony. It was a welcoming expression so, since he had nothing better to do, Tony began heading in that direction.

Loki removed a bowl of fruit from the wicker box, and placed it on the table. Apples, Tony noted, despite initial confusion. Apples were, after all, usually red or green. Gold was new. But everything was new around here- when in Rome, and all that. Never let it be said he couldn't roll with the punches.

"I think," Loki began, as Tony sat on the opposite end of the table. "You and I are overdue for a chat."

The next chapter is gonna be pretty much ALL Tony/Loki, with maybe a sprinkle of more Tony and Loki. You guys deserve it after waiting this long. Although I gotta warn you we've still got a little ways to go before it's a mushy-mushy 'I wuv you Woki' kinda relationship.