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The Prestige

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„Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called "The Pledge". The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course... it probably isn't. The second act is called "The Turn". The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn't clap yet. Because making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call "The Prestige".“ (Cutter, in The Prestige (2006))

 

The way they caught Loki did not sit right with Tony Stark. Of course he was happy in a way, and relieved, everyone was happy, and relieved. One more supervillain tucked safely away in a SHIELD cell dozens of feet under the ground, bound with magic-repressing manacles, ready to be shipped off by Tor to the magic space Viking place, put him in a cell there, throw away the key. Phew.

Of course, there had been New York, but what Loki had pulled off after the alien invasion had managed to make Tony not any less nervous.

At first, after Thor had brought him to Asgard, there had been no news at all, which was good news, in anyone’s opinion.

And then, Jane had told them that the trickster was dead – having sacrificed himself to save her of all people, what the actual fuck? – but, you know, whatever.

And then, about a year after that, Loki had pulled the first trick.

And then the next.

And then the next.

And then the next.

Four times, he had shown his face on Earth, and each time, he had stolen something. And slowly, reluctantly, Tony had come to realise that maybe, just maybe, New York hadn’t given them the full picture of what Loki could do. Like teleportation. Or cloning himself. Or being caught in a bank robbery, only to have all the guards and policemen dance to a musical tune coming from nowhere while he was walking away, laughing. Only one time of the four, Loki had let it come to an actual fight, and at that occasion, he had proven to be a vicious bastard in hand to hand combat. Don’t get Tony even started on those knifes. Those pain-in-the-ass-sometimes-literally knifes.

And then there was what Loki actually fought for. Breaking into SHIELD and stealing information and an alien artefact found after the Chitauri invasion and that nobody even understood… made sense. Breaking into the Louvre only to steal an ancient piece of string less so, but, hell, who knew what that was good for. Maybe Loki had planned to hang himself and only this string could do it – and wouldn’t that be a weight off some people’s chests. Nobody ever found out exactly what he stole from Wakanda, but it probably had to do with vibranium. T’Challa was furious in any case, and Tony hadn’t even been there to see it and make bad pussy jokes, since he was, at the time, busy being kidnapped by alien mercenaries and all.

No fun times.

Well, parts of the kidnapping had been funny. If you squinted. Long enough.

And at least Tony had returned with a fucking spaceship, and Earth – or at least, Stark Industries – had a better chance now than ever at doing the whole interstellar travel soon.

But the Swiss clock?

Like – it was just a clock. A very good clock, from what Tony had heard, but still. What on earth – or maybe not Earth, because there were long stretches of time they saw and heard nothing of Loki at all and who knew where he was then and what he was doing – was Loki planning that involved a rare and improbably precise clock from the Middle Ages?

He had even gone to great lengths, stealing this one. Musical with dancing guards and showdown between him and the Avengers in Geneva and everything, and Gods, Tony was so glad not to have missed this at least. If only for the thank-you chocolate.

But still, all that trouble. For a clock.

And then, after once more months had passed without any news on Tall, Dark and Brooding, Loki had reappeared, out of nowhere, in Central Park, looking like he had had a close encounter with the Hulk. No, scratch that, he had looked better after the Hulk. He had not been bleeding, for instance. Like, profusely, from several wounds. With bruises everywhere. His clothes singed. Smoking a bit. Swaying on his feet.

He had still put up a fight. He had still been a pain in the ass.

Majorly.

 

So, yeah, sure, it had been relieving to finally see him go down. Get knocked out cold. He had even stayed unconscious long enough for SHIELD to put those manacles on him – courtesy of Dr. Strange, the guy who doesn’t need a secret identity because nobody would guess that to be his real name. Everyone let go of a breath they hadn’t even known they’d been holding when Loki woke up in his cell and it became clear very quickly that this time, he couldn’t escape.

But.

It didn’t sit quite right with Tony Stark.

Maybe it was just disappointing, he thought, walking down the bland corridor to the bland elevator that would take him and Nat down several stories to another bland corridor at the end of which was a bland but highly secured cell. It was an anti-climax. All that trouble, and then some other guy – or gal – had done all the real work for them. They had just picked up the pieces.

Maybe it didn’t feel fair.

Well, screw fair. Loki didn’t do fair. And he’d given them enough trouble until the end.

‘Reasonable amount of money for your thoughts?’ Nat asked as they stood in the elevator.

‘Fuck, Nat, I’ve been already a billionaire when I still shat my pants’ said Tony. ‘How the hell should I know what a reasonable amount of money is?’

She snorted. ‘True that.’

‘Catching him was far too easy’ said Tony then.

‘Mhm, yeah, reminds you of the helicarrier, doesn’t it?’ said Nat, and the elevator had arrived to more blandness. ‘Sure is overkill though, getting beaten to a pulp just so you can pretend to get caught’

‘Yeah, no’ Tony agreed. ‘That’s probably not it. Still – makes you wonder who he has pissed off that much.’

‘Yup’ Nat said. ‘Makes you wonder who to send the fruit basket to.’

 

Loki was sitting on the bench of his cell, hunched over and supporting his elbows on his legs. He was looking significantly better now than only a few hours ago, and Tony began to trust the security of the cell less and less. There was something about Rudolph’s posture he didn’t like. He couldn’t point his finger on it but he definitely didn’t like it.

But they were running out of time in any case.

‘So, Reindeer Games’ said Tony, wondering how long the energy barrier between them would hold if Loki started to test it again. It had held before.

But Loki had hammered on it with broken arms then, and his arms didn’t look broken anymore.

‘You sure heal up quickly.’

Loki didn’t lift his head.

‘Care to tell us who tenderised you for us? You know, so that we can thank them?’

‘Someone much stronger’ said Loki after a pause, and his voice sounded almost sweet. ‘And much more competent.’

He looked up at Tony with a smile.

‘That’s what you are’ said he. ‘Always the… Scavengers.’

‘Hahah. Word-play. Hilarious.’

It had been a bit funny, Tony had to admit.

But he didn’t like Loki’s smile. Nat shot Tony a glance and Tony knew what she was concerned about. Loki barely looked exhausted anymore.

Suddenly, Tony wondered whether it was that inconvenient after all that Thor would show up any minute, take the trickster off their hands before they had time to interrogate him, finally find out what was going on – because there was no relying on Thor in that respect, Blondy had the weirdest priorities about questions to be asked (Why did you pretend to be dead? Why won’t you still call me ‘brother’?) and papa Odin didn’t share what he knew. Which was why they were here in the first place, after the usual SHIELD interrogators had taken their turn.

‘Why the clock?’ Tony asked.

Loki cocked his head.

‘All the other stuff, okay, it’s weird, but I get it’ said Tony. ‘But why the clock?’

Nat had taken her turn, and like Odin hadn’t shared what she had found out. This time, she was only here for observation (maybe also to get Tony’s ass to safety, if necessary).

‘To tell the time of course’ said Loki.

‘And you couldn’t do that with like, any other clock?’

‘Why shouldn’t I do it with exactly that one?’ Loki replied.

‘And why the fucking musical? How did you even pull that off, without your glow-stick of destiny?’

Loki raised an eyebrow.

‘Oh, I know of a few very catching tunes, that’s all. I could hum one if you liked.’

‘No, thank you.’

‘Pied Piper of Hamelin ring a bell? I used a flute that time, but I remember the melody well, I’m sure I could-‘

‘They’ll fill your cell with poison gas if you only so much as produce two consecutive harmonious tones, you know?’

‘Why do people always think that seduction is reduced to harmony?-’

‘What are you planning?’ Tony said that stop that line of conversation. It was making him jumpy (the musical thing truly had been a bit creepy, if hilarious).

‘Becoming the ruler of Midgard, and your cruel deaths.’

‘Bullshit’ Tony said.

Loki’s grin grew wider.

‘You found me out’ said he. ‘Your cruel death isn’t something I’d have to plan. I could ensure that while being drunken and dazzled.’

Probably, Tony thought.

‘I’m still alive so that makes you a liar, my dear friend’ said he nevertheless.

‘Oh, my, Loki a liar?’ Loki dropped his mouth open and widened his eyes. The next moment, he looked completely serious again, and that fast change was creepy. ‘You consider yourselves far more important than you are.’

‘So what IS important then?’ Nat asked, breaking her promise not to interfere.

‘Telling the time’ Loki said.

And then he sniffed, narrowed his eyes.

‘What is it, Rudolph?’ asked Tony.

‘Why, this underground facility suddenly smells so much dumber’ said Loki, his eyebrows arched. As an afterthought, he added, ‘Oh, that would explain it. Thor has arrived.’

 

 

‘Thor has finished the negotiations with SHIELD for Loki’s release’ Coulson said. ‘Or, more precisely, for certain conditions concerning Loki’s release.’

‘Negotiations? Actual negotiations?’ Tony asked. ‘As in, I give you something, you give me something?’

‘Oh, yes’ Coulson said with a certain joy.

‘So, how badly did you rip him off?’

Coulson gave Tony that small polite smile.

‘We are trying to maintain friendly relations with Asgard, Tony’

‘Yeah, so how badly did you rip him off?’

Coulson chuckled a bit.

‘You should rather be interested in what he wanted from us in return’

‘Enlighten me, Shaun of the Dead’

‘Shaun is actually one of the few people in that movie who doesn’t get turned into a zombie.’

Coulson turned to the coffee maker. Thor had gone downstairs to see Loki and Fury and Nat had gone with him to keep an eye on the two, and Tony wondered, sitting on the edge of the conference table of one of the many bland SHIELD meeting rooms (seriously, what was wrong with a bit of decoration? A picture of a motorcycle here and there… an ACDC poster…), whether it wasn’t depressing to come back from the dead only to drink terrible SHIELD meeting room coffee.

‘Apparently, Asgard is caught up in inter-realm politics, and Loki is at the centre of it’

‘Shocking’

‘I know, right?’ Coulson said and stirred his terrible coffee. Really, did that count as wasting your second chance at life to let shit like this touch your lips?

‘As it seems, he has stolen an object of interest in the realm called Vanaheim’

‘Loki a thief? Never!’

‘And the elves have demanded to have him handed over’ said Coulson and drank. He actually drank. Without flinching. Maybe a zombie after all. ‘Odin seems to be in no position to refuse’

‘Interesting’ said Tony. ‘But what does it have to do with us?’

‘The Bifrost is still being repaired’ Coulson said. ‘Some realms are already connected to it, others, like Vanaheim, are cut off’

‘So the question is, how to get there’ said Tony.

‘Exactly’ said Coulson lifting his glass as if to toast him. Was being toasted with SHIELD meeting room coffee enough of an insult to demand retributions? After all, even Nat’s only comment on it had been that she could menstruate better stuff than this.

‘And that’s where we come in’

‘Do we?’

‘Oh yes’ said Coulson, and smiled. ‘Or rather…’

And at that moment, Tony understood.

‘No’

‘Tony…’

‘NO!’

‘Hear me out…’

‘No! No, no, no, no, no!’ Tony underlined his words with his finger. ‘No way in hell am I going to give you my ship to ship a trickster! No way in hell am I going to give you my ship at all!’

‘Tony…’

‘Prisoner transport for annoying tricksters is so not what I fought my way back to Earth for! And don’t even get me started on how you’re using stuff as leverage that belongs to another!’

That had probably sweetened the deal for SHIELD even more – get rid of the trickster, get an awful lot of rare materials and information from Asgard AND finally get their hands on Tony’s tech! He had NOT sat in that solitary cell for weeks for that, he had NOT almost lost all his hope of ever getting back for that, he had not broken up with Pepper in the fallout for that! Gods, he hadn’t even really gone back to space since his return because it still triggered so much fear. He had a SPACE SHIP and he was too scared to use it!

Probably another sign that Pepper was right and he was going crazy.

‘You wouldn’t even have to steer it-‘

‘HELL, no! Coulson, I attribute your proposition to temporary insanity caused by dangerously inferior coffee, it’s poisoning your brain. If zombie brains can be poisoned. Seriously, have your taste buds never come back from the dead? Is drinking that vile brew compensating for eating rotting carcasses like the ghoul you are? ‘Cause, honestly, I can see no other reason-‘

‘Stark!’

‘Oh, so now we’re suddenly back to Stark?’

‘I’m sure we can come to an agreement.’

 

 

They did.

Stark ripped SHIELD off badly of course (I mean, they had already admitted they had promised Thor something only Tony could grant, so it was their own fault, really), but still felt robbed in a vague way once the deal was done.

Maybe it was just the knowledge he would have to step into that ship again, worse, let someone else penetrate those corridors, worse, let Loki do it (in a way). The kitchen and community room, the small med-bay, the living quarters, the command centre, the holding cells. It had been Tony’s (well, not originally of course, but he had made it his). And now he checked the tech, swiped the dust from the counters for other people, knowing that Thor would even have to take the steering wheel for a while, and Tony hated it.

Apparently, it was not only the fact that Tony had a space ship that was so attractive for Asgard, but it was the specific kind of space ship he had, and wasn’t that peachy. With specific technology that Thor could use, and boost, so to travel… slightly more quickly than even usually possible with ridiculously advanced alien technology.

Apparently, without the Bifrost to help, Vanaheim wasn’t around the corner.

You live and learn.

You live and squirm at the thought of letting Thor drive your car, let alone this sweet baby.

So, no, despite all the concessions SHIELD had had to make, Tony was not super-happy, waiting on the air field next to the open ramp of the Iron Mantis, as he called it.

‘Added a few chains, huh?’ he asked as Thor arrived with Loki, Steve and Nat in tow. Bruce would sit this out on account of the probability of him wreaking the ship and killing them all in any kind of moderately dangerous situation, and Clint would sit this one out on account of the probability of him killing Loki if he was forced to stay in the same building with the trickster for any prolonged period of time. The whole situation was in any case a bit reminiscent of that day in the Central Park when Blondy had taken Emovillain back to Viking land. Loki was wearing the same chains, wrapped around his hands and connected to a collar on his neck. He was wearing the same muzzle.

‘What is with you and the Hannibal Lecter references anyway?’

‘I know not this Hannibal Lecter you talk about’ said Thor, looking weary and impatient. ‘But my brother was in far too light chains when I arrived.’

‘Light maybe, but they were magic repressing’ Tony said.

‘Not repressing enough’ said Thor. ‘My brother had almost eroded them completely by the time I put the new manacles on him. The old ones crumbled as soon as I opened them. Had I come only an hour later, Loki would have been free’

‘Oh’ said Tony, and eyed Loki who had a rather amused and predatory glint in his eyes. Tony was pretty sure the trickster was grinning under his muzzle. ‘So I was totally right about that bad gut feeling in your cell’

Loki shrugged and his eyes laughed even more.

‘Yeah, I know what you wanna say’ Tony said. ‘Gutting would have probably had a lot to do with it’

He turned to Blondy.

‘So, Steve the stage magician is all talk and no show, go figure. I guess the muzzle is there to repress his magic too then? Not simply a cruel Viking way of preventing the prisoner from speaking in his own defence at trial? That was what I assumed first, no offense’

Thor nodded gravely.

‘As long as sound can escape Loki’s lips, we are not safe, I’m afraid. Odin had and the Vanir will have other and less brute means to contain him, but for now, we are reduced to this’

At the mention of the Vanir, something changed in Loki’s face and Tony wondered whether Rudolph had ever been informed of the destination of his trip.

Only now, Loki also eyed the Iron Mantis, taking the details of the ship in with interest.

And then he seemed to understand something.

And Tony could watch the exact moment when Loki’s face fell.

It didn’t show much, but the amusement definitely vanished from his eyes. And when Thor tugged at his chain to make him go on, he stayed rooted on the spot.

‘What is it, Brother?’ asked Thor and turned back to him.

Slowly and very distinctly, Loki shook his head, staring his brother in the eyes.

Thor sighed.

‘I know you don’t want to face Vanir justice, Brother, but don’t think you would fare so much better in Asgard. And remember, it were your own actions that brought you here.’

Loki shook his head again.

‘It grieves me that even now, you’re determined to act like a coward’

The trickster raised an eyebrow, then shook his head a third time.

‘I don’t have time for your whining’ Thor said and pulled at Loki’s chains. Loki visibly resisted but had to eventually yield to his brother’s superior strength and stumbled forward. ‘The Vanir have asked for you and so you they will have.’

Thor dragged him on, and Loki kept pulling back.

‘Oh, this is going to be fun’ Nat murmured. ‘I can tell’