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The Truth Beyond the Darkness

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‘’Shit,’’ Tony mumbles. His vision blacked out for a second there, but everything is reloading now. Dust is everywhere, and it’s hard to see anyone, but his armour signals heat signatures. Everyone is still alive, it seems, even if they may be injured.

‘’Status,’’ he hears Steve croak through the comm. ‘’Everyone, answer me.’’

There are affirmations of everyone but Hulk – his angry grunt doesn’t count for Tony, because grunting is not a status report or he’d do it like that every time – and Loki.

‘’Loki?’’ he hears Thor ask, but before anyone can do anything, another blast comes straight at them.

‘’Watch out!’’ Tony exclaims, and Strange reacts just in time to create a shield around them.

‘’We can’t see them,’’ he grunts. ‘’There’s no light. Does anyone have eyes on anything?’’

‘’Negative,’’ Steve says.

There’s a whir from War Machine. ‘’Blast fried my vision. I’m blind. Tony, is the Iron Man suit still operable?’’

‘’Not for you,’’ Tony says quickly, noticing where Rhodey’s thoughts are likely to be going.

Rhodey sighs. ‘’Please tell me you aren’t actually in the suit, Tony. Please, please, tell me that.’’

Tony flies away quickly, scanning for Loki’s form at the same time. ‘’Sure thing, platypus. I’m not actually in the suit. There.’’ He ignores the team’s sighs and exclamations. ‘’Look, I’d love to discuss this with you, but we’ve got bigger things to worry about. I’m going to get Loki and then we’ll take on Freya, alright? You can lecture me later.’’ He disables his comm., so the others won’t hear him.

And then he sees Loki, a still form lying on the ground. Tony curses inwardly and crouches near the fallen god. ‘’Loki,’’ he whispers, an armoured hand hanging above the pale face. ‘’Loki, not the time for beauty naps now. Wake up!’’

‘’Oh, he will,’’ a female voice says. Freya’s eyes are burning, her long red hair waving behind her. ‘’Just in time to see me kill you. Again. And then it’ll be his turn.’’

‘’What did we ever do to you?’’ Tony snarls, and takes a shot at her.

‘’Tony, status!’’ he hears Steve say, but ignores him.

Freya ducks his shot. She bares her teeth like an animal, and Frey appears behind her. ‘’I hate Thor and Loki!’’ she shouts. ‘’Thor has always ignored me, and Loki tormented me. I am Vanir! I am the Queen of the Elves! I deserve respect! I deserve my necklaces back! I should not to have to bargain, like a commoner!’’

Tony gets away just in time before her magic smacks him down. He does not manage to evade a second spell, however, and his suit disassembles around him, sending him crashing to the ground.

Then she looms above him. In the distance, Tony can see Frey checking on Loki, binding his hands again with the rope that turn green as soon as they’re around him. The colour of Loki’s skin leaves, turning to a deep blue instead.

‘’You’re an elf,’’ Freya says to him, ‘’And I am your Queen. Give me my necklace.’’

‘’I don’t have it,’’ Tony says.

‘’You are a liar, but that does not matter. I will rip it from your dead body.’’ Then she turns to Frey. ‘’Is our dearest Trickster god awake? I want to kill his companion in front of his eyes.’’

Tony holds up his hands. ‘’Wait!’’ he says, mind going a thousand miles a minute. ‘’Wait. Only I know where the necklace is. I hid it. You won’t ever find it without me.’’

‘’I can spare your life,’’ she says, apparently not much interested, ‘’But I won’t spare Loki’s. Not even for the necklace. It’s the last straw, but I do not need it to protect me from elven magic. Not now that I am stronger than them.’’

Tony blinks. ‘’It protects against elven magic?’’ he says. It would explain a lot, but he had too little data to gather that earlier. And it also doesn’t explain why Freya would want it so badly. ‘’Why the heck are you after it, then? Why go to so much trouble?’’

Freya smiles. ‘’Asgard is weak, now, and Thor and Loki are the remaining heirs of Odin. Frey and I can rebuild Asgard, and we won’t be second-hand gods anymore. We will be the protectors of the nine realms. The elves won’t like it, of course, but we can ward them off. With the necklace, not one elf will be able to return us to Alfheim and force us to leave Asgard alone. You are fiery little creatures, when you want to be, you know. I do not underestimate that.’’

‘’You utter fool,’’ Loki snarls from behind, apparently having woken up. Tony was a bit fixated on Freya to be paying much attention to Frey, honestly. ‘’You want to rebuild Asgard? You want protection? Against the elves, no less? No realm will ever follow you, not a single one of them.’’

Frey holds Loki down with thick elven gloves, apparently unbothered by the cold. He is staring at Tony, though, and Tony unwillingly shivers. There’s something about the Vanir King that bothers him, but he’s not sure what it is.

Tony uses the moment to roll under Freya and kick her legs from under her. She is not prepared for it, already having thought herself the victor, and she goes down with a cry. Tony is without a suit, though, and his only option is magic. He remembers the uncoordinated feeling of it, and ends up with a fire ball glowing steadily in his hand. He’s not sure how he even did that, or even if it’s what he meant, but Tony is a very good improviser.

He aims at Frey first. ‘’Let him go,’’ he says, biting through the pain as his arm resists. Frey takes a look at Tony’s injured arm, and then at him again, face unreadable.

‘’This is your natural form,’’ he says, thoughtfully.

Tony waves the fire ball at him, but when Freya moves, he shoots it at her instead. She goes down with a cry again, unconscious. ‘’I can definitely do that again,’’ Tony threatens, but he’s not so sure he can. His relationship with magic is a bit unstable, at the moment.

Loki struggles, but Frey is still a god, and holds him down. ‘’Your name is Egil, isn’t it?’’ the king asks him, and Tony stills.

‘’How do you know that?’’ he asks suspiciously.

Frey shrugs, and releases Loki, all of a sudden, the rope falling away and turning a natural colour again. Loki turns back into his Aesir form immediately, and stands in front of Tony, as if shielding him.

Frey takes a step forward. ‘’Explain yourself,’’ Loki hisses. Frey throws him the rope.

‘’Bind Freya. We can talk this over. The three of us, and Thor. He used to be my friend – this is a new age for the nine realms. Maybe we can all start over, and I can explain.’’

‘’Why don’t you explain now?’’ Tony says, as Loki holds the rope in his hands, looking at it with misgiving. ‘’How do you know my name? Why are you doing this at all?’’

Frey takes another step, and then he’s right in front of Loki and Tony. ‘’I know your name,’’ Frey says, ‘’because your mother told it to me when she told me had given birth to my illegitimate child.’’

‘’What the heck?’’ Tony says, stunned.

‘’I am your father,’’ Frey tells him.

~*~

‘’I don’t buy this stuff,’’ Tony tells Loki. ‘’I watched Star Wars, okay. I am not a Luke Skywalker, and Frey is definitely not a Darth Vader. He is lying, I know it.’’

Loki merely raises his eyebrows at him. ‘’I will pretend you said anything useful,’’ he says. ‘’Everything he says makes sense. Golden eyes are indeed unusual among the elves. Besides, if you are really Frey’s bastard, your mother would have felt the urgency to flee. Bastard children are frowned upon, you know. Especially if they’re royal. It’s not unusual to hear of murdered bastard children in some of the realms.’’

Tony puts his head in his hands and allows himself to wallow in self-pity. ‘’Do you know what this means, Loki? This means we’ve got five out of nine races covered, just the two of us. That must be a record, right?’’

Loki smiles at him wryly. ‘’I imagine.’’

‘’Why are you not freaking out about this?’’ Tony demands.

Loki shrugs. ‘’Frey just stopped Freya partly out of a fatherly duty to you. I apologize if I’m not very upset about our continued safety.’’

Tony sits down on the couch next to Loki. ‘’This is the guy who sold us out to his sister,’’ Tony points out. ‘’This is a guy whose spaceship we stole and then we shot down another one with him in it. He didn’t even glance at me the first time we met him. I’m sorry if I find it a little hard to believe he has my best interests at heart!’’

Loki lays a hand on Tony’s arm. The wound is still jagged, but not hurting, as Tony’s still in his natural form. The other Avengers, after Loki conjured away all the dust, had been told that everything would be explained later. Tony’s still not sure what to explain without giving away his secret.

They have to go to the debrief, it’s supposed to start right now. But Tony just takes a deep breath and buries himself into Loki’s chest, for the moment. He doesn’t know what to say, and he doesn’t know how to say it, and he doesn’t know if he wants to say anything at all. For a moment, he just wants to be Tony, regardless of where he’s from. Whether he’s Vanir, or elven, or human. Whether Loki’s from Asgard or Jotunheim. He just wants them to be like this, for now – two people, keeping out the world together.

And then he breathes out, rises, and shifts back, closing his eyes as the pain rushes back. Loki watches him with shadowed eyes, but makes no comment.

Tony walks out of the room as a human, acutely feeling it may be the last time ever.

~*~

‘’I think we need an explanation,’’ says Bruce, after a tense silence of a few seconds. Everyone who was in the fight – if one can call it that, with all Avengers minus Tony and Loki incapacitated – is sitting there, looking expectantly at Tony. Frey is sitting there as well, golden eyes focused on Tony with an intenseness that makes him uncomfortable.

Like the businessman he is, though, Tony doesn’t show anything.

Freya is in one of the few cells Tony has built into the new Avengers Compound. It’s probably more the magic-restraining rope that keeps her there, though. FRIDAY is keeping tabs on her.

Tony gives a fleeting smile, but doesn’t manage to keep it on. ‘’The necklace is protection against elves. Freya wants to rebuild Asgard and leave Alfheim. Frey turned on her. There’s your explanation.’’

Steve isn’t satisfied, though. ‘’That doesn’t explain what happened on Alfheim.’’

‘’And why were you able to pilot the Iron Man suit, when you’re obviously still hurt?’’ Rhodey adds to the questions.

Tony sighs. ‘’Look, I can’t give you all the answers. I just can’t. Trust me.’’

Steve stands up, and there’s something in his eyes. ‘’Tony, listen to me. When we said that we could rebuild the Avengers, we agreed that we had to trust each other. And I trust you. But there’s obviously something you are not telling us. What happened before, that was on both of us, we can’t deny that. But if you really meant it, when you said we could start this over, then you should tell us.’’

The alarms sound again.

‘’FRIDAY? What is it?’’ Tony asks, as the Avengers all jump up. Frey just looks around with an amused look.

‘’The spaceship Frey and Freya came with is being hijacked, boss,’’ she answers. ‘’Pulling up footage now.’’

‘’No need for that,’’ says Loki. ‘’It must be Birger.’’

~*~

Loki sends disapproving glances at Tony, but his lover seems to ignore them. He doesn’t think it’s the best idea for Tony to come along, but Rogers and he are, and Tony just can’t accept the fact that staying behind might be better.

But Tony is not a child, and Loki will not treat him as such, so he will let him come.

The ship is still there when they arrive ten minutes after the warning. Loki smiles: Birger may be an accomplished magician, but he’s not familiar with off-world territories. Once, Birger betrayed him with the dwarf convoy on Alfheim, and now he’s betrayed them with the necklace. Loki is not feeling very kind, at the moment.

‘’Get out of the ship!’’ Rogers yells at it, creeping towards it.

‘’I’ll go take a look,’’ Tony says, and before Loki can protest, he’s entering the space ship. Loki curses and moves to follow him.

They find Birger, maniacally pressing any button he can seem to find. When he hears them enter, he throws up his hands in defeat. ‘’Fine! It’s fine. It was a long shot. Whatever.’’

‘’Not your best plan, Birger,’’ Loki tells him casually. He is ready to fight Birger, if need be, but the elf seems more defeated than everything.

Birger sags down. ‘’I made this necklace,’’ he says. ‘’I did. When Freya first came to Alverbyen, she wasn’t that good a magician. I helped her, like I first helped you, Loki. She wanted an insurance that she would never be betrayed. I just want to find the other necklace, as well. There’s so much power if they’re brought together. You can’t blame me for that, can you?’’

‘’I never needed your help with magic,’’ Loki says.

Birger smiles softly. ‘’But you needed a friend.’’

‘’Why steal it?’’ Tony asks. ‘’Why betray our trust?’’

‘’Loki was never going to forgive me anyway,’’ Birger says. ‘’There was never trust in me. I figured I could leave with the necklace and regain my place in Alverbyen. I didn’t have any heinous plans.’’

Loki huffs at the elf. ‘’Betraying me twice is not the way to regain anyone’s trust.’’

‘’I know you won’t forgive me,’’ Birger shrugs. ‘’I helped your friend save your life, but that didn’t seem to impress you, so I won’t try again. You are going to take me back now?’’

‘’We should go back,’’ Steve says. ‘’I imagine there’s a lot to talk about.’’

~*~

And so they bring in Birger. The Compound is still lit up with lights when they return, night having already fallen.

‘’I don’t think a day’s ever been this long,’’ Tony complains to Loki, who just shakes his head at him with an amused smile. He’s in his mortal form, as they’re surrounded by his teammates. Then he drops the recaptured necklace on the table, still shining as softly as when they first found it.

Frey signals to it. ‘’It’s the first necklace that Freya made,’’ he says. ‘’She just went to Alverbyen. One of the elves tried to attack her. There’s a small rebellion on Alfheim, you know. Not many, but a few elves don’t trust us. Freya wanted to ensure no elf would ever harm her, and she made the necklace to protect herself. Then she made a second one, to protect herself from any Vanir. She doesn’t trust anyone anymore, these days. Not even me, completely. But she gave up the Vanir one to Odin, quite some time ago, when she was afraid he would attack Alfheim, as a token of our alliance with him.’’

Tony sees Thor and Loki share a look. ‘’The Allfather has never planned an attack on Alfheim,’’ Thor says pensively.

Frey shrugs. ‘’I couldn’t imagine why, but Freya… she’s not the same as she once was. First, she just wanted to protect Alfheim, and became paranoid about it. Now, she has ambitions that reach beyond the elves. I am not the same, mind you: I like the elves well enough.’’ He turns a knowing glance to Tony, who just blinks at him. ‘’I went with her, because she is my sister. And, frankly, you threw quite some elves from Alverbyen. I am not one that lets casual murder of my people slip, so I went with her. But I must confess I understand your reasoning.’’

‘’What happened to the necklace we found?’’ Loki asks.

‘’She gave it to Thanos,’’ Frey says. ‘’To keep him away.’’

Loki puts his hands in his thigh. ‘’If Thanos wanted to attack, a necklace wouldn’t have stopped him from doing it.’’

‘’I advised against it,’’ Frey remarks. ‘’But she was afraid, just like when she gave the other necklace to Odin. And then when Asgard fell, she saw a chance and changed her mind. The elves obviously would feel betrayed if she left, even if I stayed. The necklace returning to her was something she didn’t expect, but something she felt she needed. She was overjoyed when I told her you had it. That she could torment Loki while getting it back was just the cherry on top, according to my sister.’’

‘’Why are you telling us all of this?’’ Bruce asks.

‘’I have my reasons,’’ Frey says. ‘’Family is one of the most important things to the Vanir, seeing as there aren’t much of my race left. But some things are more sacred than my sister’s wellbeing. I don’t plan to leave the elves, and I don’t plan to take Asgard.’’

‘’Why the sudden change of heart?’’ Strange asks, then.

Frey raises his eyebrows. ‘’I never had a change of heart. I just realized a few things I didn’t see before.’’

Tony holds up his hands. ‘’Guys. Just stop it, okay? This whole thing all has to do with one thing, and I’m afraid it’s me. Steve was right – I told you I wanted to rebuild the Avengers. I still do, because I think the world needs heroes. And I told you that we needed to trust each other for it to work. I just didn’t think it was relevant for you, but given all of this stuff… it has become relevant. And I’ll need to accept that it is relevant.’’

‘’We already know you and Loki are sleeping together,’’ Rhodey says. ‘’That’s okay, man. We’re happy for you.’’

Tony blinks. ‘’That’s not what I was going to say.’’

The alarms go off again.

‘’I give up,’’ Tony says.