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I Need Fire To Fuel My Ashes (But All I Am Is Cold)

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What did she do? They asked, always, wondered, gossiped. What did she offer that allowed her in his heart?

He would have told them. He told her as much, but she hummed her disapproval, combing her fingers through his hair and saying,

"They can't do it as good as I did, anyway."

Which was true, considering all she'd done to entrance him was curse his hair off in retaliation of his shaving the head of her friend/former tumble of Thor. And telling him later that he'd looked prettier than her friend, hairless.

He felt- he feels the wind of Vanaheim fondle his cheeks as he reminisces, listens to the rapid-fire chatter of magical construction and reformation, the possibilities, the creations. He lets them, as he never would in a time far later and colder, lull him into sleep.

 

He wakes to the present, to the quiet and the alone.

 

 

 

It's Loki's shiny new necklace, of all things.

Or, well, it's Loki's shiny old necklace. Incredibly old necklace. Incredibly old and personally important and magically powerful necklace, as it turns out later. To be honest it looked quite mundane to Tony, at least in the .5 second he was able to lay eyes on it before it shattered into a hundred trizillion pieces and showered sparks everywhere(and then it looked spectacular). And who knew Loki carried around with him something that was breakable with anything less than a Jericho missile, anyway? So really, it's totally not Tony's fault that he accidentally sort of turns the necklace to powder with a blast of his repulsors.

The problem is that Loki seems to think otherwise. Along with most of the Avengers team.

 

It's actually not the whole necklace that got destroyed. The leather string remained perfectly whole(and what kind of leather did that, Tony didn't even want to know), but he doubts Loki kept the thing on his neck for the string. The stone didn't even make a sound when it shattered, just modestly fell off the string in pieces like an old, tired piece of fossil saying: "Enough with existence. I'm above this shit." Tony was fully prepared to bring attention to this and defend his point(and his ass) when the god looked up after three petrified seconds of staring disbelievingly down at the glittering shards scattered at his feet. As it was, Tony didn't get a word out, because the expression on that ashen face suggested that reasoning was a highly unwise course of action for the moment. So instead he blurted out:

"Wow. You could scare Hulk right now."

Which, yes he knows, was an even higherly unwise course of action. So unwise that he cringed immediately, expecting multiple death blows, but Loki just looked at him with eyes wide and blank and murderous... then vanished.

It was then that he knew he was screwed(more so than he usually was), because Loki never backed off from a murder opportunity except when he was unsatisfied with the level of gruesomeness involved and intended improvement.

 

 

 

"It is most unfortunate, friend Anthony," Thor says for the fifth time from the couch in their lounge, shaking his head grimly. Since the king of Asgard pulled strings to have the Bifrost fixed with the tesseract and he cemented his position as a permanent member of the Avengers, the purple leftmost couch has become something of an exclusive territory for the god.

"I can make him something ten times shinier." Tony mumbles, and doesn't add, if he lets me live long enough to do that.

"I doubt it is replaceable. It was a gift from his wife, and he cherished it above all things."

Tony perks up at that, an idea forming in his mind.

"Wife?"

"Aye. She is long deceased, and the necklace was the last thing she gave to him."

Right. No bribing Mrs. Loki then. Also, dead wife's last present crushed to powder. How super.

Thor looks up when Tony strides wordlessly past him, heading straight for the elevator.

"What do you intend to do, Anthony?" He calls.

"What sensible citizens do when they have a manic genocidal supervillain out planning their death." He replies, hitting the button to his workshop. "I'm fortifying the tower."

 

Tony spends half a day drawing out blueprints of every single defense mechanism he can think up before he remembers that the villain in question is a magic villain, and can probably penetrate all the booby traps by simply snapping his fingers and teleporting with a poof. He spends the rest of that day bent over the remnants of Loki's magic stone, attempting to somehow piece the shards back together. The only thing he manages to do is to provide possibility for further deterioration by accidentally inhaling the still-present sparks and sneezing all over the pieces, spraying Tony-sneeze everywhere. He gives up slightly over 2AM and goes to sleep mildly impressed with his repulsors; according to Jarvis they managed to blast apart something more structurally stable than a diamond(he is less impressed by the fact that even miracles side with the "Let's terminate Tony yay" group in his life). He has a growing suspicion that his blow wasn't the real reason the stone cracked, not that Loki would listen if he tried. Probably.

He is proven right three hours later when he startles awake to a sudden presence by the couch he is sprawled on, which is creepy as fuck, which is Loki, which is his imminent and painful death staring back at him with intent green eyes.

He tries anyway.

"I think-"

He manages, before Loki flicks his wrist and his lips clamp shut on their own accord. Tony has never missed his teammates more.

"You broke her stone." Loki says, so softly that Tony would have missed the chill in his monotone if not for the complete quiet of the room. Tony notices the string without its stone still hanging around the god's exposed throat, swallows- and suddenly he doesn't have gravity.

New York really is unbearably cold in January, especially so when freefalling from 80 stories up and getting blasted everywhere by the winter air. Good thing Tony faints somewhere along the way.

 

 

 

He wakes up to the sound of Jarvis reciting his vitals. He recalls having summoned the suit somewhere along the fall, great way to test built-in parachutes and all. He forces his eyelids open- oh hello, Pepper's legs, you look just as nice as the last time I saw you. His brain seems to blink awake, preparing itself for the what-kind-of-shitstorm-did-you-put-yourself-in-this-time Pepper speech he knows is about to descend on him. He braces himself, expecting possible maiming

"You should have told me, Tony. I would have listened." He hears Pepper say, tearfully-and oh god, that is even worse than maiming. Tony's first thought is, how did she find out about Loki?, followed closely by she didn't, she thinks I tried to commit suicide, which makes him feel like an incurable asshole.He is one, probably, but being something and feeling like something are different things.

"No, no, it's not like that," He scrambles, or at least attempts to. As it is, he has about 100 times the usual friction between his parched mouth and tongue right now so he ends up hacking like a man twice his age.

"I didn't drop myself, Pep. Loki did." He manages after two cups of water. When he's done recounting the fuss about the necklace, Pepper stands and says,

"I'm alerting SHIELD."

It takes thirty minutes and two more cups of water to dissuade her. But in the end she gives in, sighing her sigh and threatening to run him through with her heels if he puts himself in danger again, she'll end his troubles herself.

By sundown he's up and about and holed in his workshop("You almost died, Tony." "I almost died, Pep. I'm whole and hale now. Mostly."). He buries himself in the calming noise of the speakers pumping out lyrical manpain at full volume and hollers along don't get too close, it's dark inside as he surveys files of his newest project: Save-Tony ver. 5 million. It continues like that for some time, until someone activates override Zero-Alpha-Tango-Tango-Alpha-Tony-Eat-Breakfast and Jarvis shuts down all powers in the workshop. At which point Tony grumbles his way down to Avengers floor smelling of oil and other unbreakfastly  things.

 Fifteen minutes, one Natasha-glare, and one cold shower later, he finds himself munching on organic cereal with his half-awake teammates, mostly present but for Bruce who probably ate three hours ago, the early riser. It's all peaceful and normal until Steve brings up Loki.

 "We need to discuss this, Tony." He says with the kind of earnest concern that prevents assholes from retorting with 'My safety is none of your business, thanks'. But he continues with:

 "I think we should alert SHIELD."

 Which is a no, even to Cap and his puppy eyes.

 "I think this is a personal grudge," Tony says quickly.

 "So it's not like it's our duty to alert them. And I doubt they can offer better protection than Captain America, two deadly ninja assassins, a Norse god, and Hulk."

 "My brother-" Thor starts, looking upset, but someone pinches his thigh for Tony and he stops with a yowl.

 "Captain America, Hulk, Thor, and two competent agents are not enough to keep you safe, not when we're not there while you get thrown through windows." Natash points out, uncrossing her legs.

 "You should come live in my nest." Clint offers.

 "You're right." Steve says to Natasha(hopefully, Tony's seen the state Clint's 'nest' is in, crammed as it is between floors).

 "It's too late when Jarvis alerts us and we wait for the elevator. I think we should have closer living quarters, if only until this clusterfuck's solved."

 "Did he just say fuck?" Clint says, astonished that he and Tony's combined verbal efforts have finally managed to corrupt Steve. He is ignored.

 "Uh, does this mean we're camping together in the living room?"

 "Bruce, g'morning, have a seat here. And that's a good idea, actually. The lounging room's spacious enough."

 "We don't have a lounging room, we have a lounging floor. If we take down these walls separating it into sections and set up lower ones for privacy-"

 "Does anyone want to know what I want to do with my house?"

 "Shh, we're all about job specialization here, man. We do the deciding, you do the building."

 "Asgard votes for co-residency of warriors, Anthony!" Thor announces, thumping his fist on the table and spilling everyone's cereal milk. Steve nods.

 "Matter settled by majority vote, then. Any objections?"

 Clint puts his hand over Tony's mouth. Steve pretends not to see.

 "Good."

 And they all go back to their cereals. Tony stares.

 "Do you need help remodeling?" Bruce asks, making a vague smashing motion with his fists.

 "No."

 "I want a hammock." Clint says.

So Tony finishes his bowl and goes to work on their new habitat pouting and grumbling and secretly excited, because he suddenly has these ideas swimming around in his brain doing somersaults, look at me, look at me, and they're brilliant. Clint follows him into the workshop and peers over his shoulder at the blueprints, making impossible demands that Tony is so making possible. 

 "Is that a turtleneck you're wearing?" Clint asks out of nowhere, in the middle of squealing over the design of his new hammock/nest/bow hanger.

 "I've never seen you wear one before. It's... not polyester. Or wool, or linen. Did you-?"

 "Yep, I made it." Tony confirms grimly.

 "Last night. For the record, stitches suck. But I'm  mostly bulletproof now."

 "This Loki thing's driving you paranoid." Clint breathes, more than a little awed. Tony grins.

 "I don't think that bastard's much for firearms, but better safe than sorry, I guess."

 

 

 

 Loki isn't. Much for firearms, that is. He is, however, most definitely for throwing knives. This is proved when he catches Tony alone in his workshop(two days since his last failed attempt, the well-informed fucker). They both forego all verbal approaches, Loki hurling knives at Tony while Tony hurls himself behind the workbench. The knives simply disappear in midair, and the next moment Loki is throwing them again with deadly accuracy. Tony scarcely has time to say 'unfair' before they hit him.

 And things... things go pretty much as planned, in that his self-made pullover of an armor saves him from being skewered like that poor guy in a pirate roulette game set. Loki's eyebrows shoot up, his mouth forming a reluctantly impressed V. It's the perfect timing for Tony to give his "Behold my brilliance! Now, if you promise to leave my head intact I can make you something awesomer" speech and woo Loki into some basic mercy, except Loki threw the knives with goddamned inhuman power and Tony can't breath all that well from the shock of impact. His ribs would have caved in without the fabric absorbing most of the shock.

 "Impressive." Loki allows mildly, standing over him. He is unhealthily pale, Tony notices, with circles under his eyes like he's the one who spent the last few days fearing for his life. Tony has every reason to believe he is about to be turned into a cockroach and literally squashed under the god's boots, but Thor chooses that moment to arrive through the ceiling, accompanied by his trademark crackle of a lightening.

 "Brother!" He hollers, looking torn between happy and angry.

 Loki throws him a disinterested glance, regards Tony again with a calculating look, and teleports away. Again.

 Tony hates magic.

 

 "You know, I'm starting to think these are less planned murder attempts and more Loki making a grab at my throat whenever he gets frustrated with whatever villainy that's keeping his hands full." Tony grits out.

 "Ow! Nat, those ribs are bruised ribs, please don't crack them further."

 "Then stop talking and breath in. I'm trying to wrap them." Natasha replies dryly, tugging at the bandage for emphasis.

 "Your point is valid, my friend. Loki does not fail twice."

 "Either he doesn't really want Tony dead that much, or he's too busy with something else to pay enough attention." Steve agrees.

 "Well, we can't exactly ask him, can we? Unless we wait for next time."

 "Next time." Tony repeats. It sounds more likely than he'd like.

 

 

 

 It's upon Loki's expected third visit that things start making sense.

 They don't see a hair of Loki for two months("It was momentary anger from grief, Anthony. Surely my brother meant no lasting harm." Tony draws in a breath, fully prepared for an angry yell to put Fury to shame, then keels over when it upsets his still-healing ribs. It happens multiple times.) The Avengers successfully move in to a single floor. It results in some accidental trampling the first few times the alarm goes off in during the night, Steve slurring, "Avengers assemble!" in his pajamas and Clint yelling "Volume down a bit, Cap, you're bursting my eardrums." from the ceiling. By the end of the month, when some ill-mannered villain dares to tear them from their good night's sleep, they just shuffle wordlessly into their uniforms ("That's my underwear, Clint, not your cowl") and set off in a neat line, last person to leave switch off the lights and all. Really, it's all very normal. Avengers normal.

 That is possibly why they start forgetting about Loki.

Shit, we've been forgetting about Loki, Tony thinks, facing Loki in his tower for the third time. Loki is visibly more gaunt and impatient compared to before, and Tony is thinking this might really be it for him when the god growls,

 "Stark, I won't kill you."

 Which, excellent news, but Tony can sniff out a deal coming here. Not that he's complaining, since there are few things that he likes more than his life.

 "I won't kill you if you tell me what you have done to the magic."

 He has done exactly nothing to any magic.

 "I survived it?" he ventures.

 "Do not pretend. You know I speak of Sig- the stone. The magic contained in it is bound to me, the mere destruction of its container should not have been enough to dissipate it! You did something, Stark." Loki snarls, and Tony observes with a healthy amount of fear that if the god gets any more furious he could start steaming like a teakettle.

 "I tried to trace the remains. Nothing. It was as if the magic itself had shattered, evaporated off this realm. I came to think that someone had taken it. Stolen it from under my nose."

 He steps closer menacingly, how villain of him, and Tony's hand closes around the glove part of his suit thankfully located right behind him on the workbench. He's ninety percent sure Loki should have noticed his hand wriggling behind his back in search of it, but something has shaken the god, shaken the cool off him and opened up the desperation beneath. And desperation, Tony knows, makes people overlook things.

 "It can only be you. Where is it? What have you done to it? What-"

 Thump. Loki stops mid-sentence, and looks down at the darts sticking out of his stomach with slight surprise.

"Ha! There you go." Tony says triumphantly, brandishing his glove that now shoots tranquilizer darts loaded to make elephants reel.

Loki drops like a stone.

 

Two minutes later Tony is pacing madly in front of the prone form of Loki, who looks more dead than Tony expected him to look. He'd like to check, except that involves touching and touching is scary.

"Fuck, did I overdose? Hey, hey, don't die, you can't die before you tell Thor it wasn't my fault!" He finally finds the courage to poke carefully at the god with the tip of his toe, keeping the rest of his body as far away as possible. No response. Right, time to tell big brother.

"Jarvis, connect me to interfloor communication."

"Done, sir."

"Anthony!" Tony hears immediately.

"Thor, er, your brother tried to kill me today, again. You know, the usual thing. And you should know that I used absolutely deity-friendly harmless tranquilizer material to-"

There is movement at the periphery of his vision, and Tony whips around so fast that he nearly twists his own spine.

"I didn't kill him!" He exclaims, relieved. Then he realizes that he's about to be sharing space with an alive and awake Loki again, a situation that should be fixed immediately.

"Look, I knocked him out a bit and he's coming around, so please come rescue me and my building as quickly as possible. Thanks."

He ends the call to Thor's "This very instance, Anthony!", picks up the wrench, and commences a carefully executed tactical advance on the groaning Norse god sprawled ungracefully on the floor. Loki goes silent, then opens his eyes a little. Tony jumps like it is the floor beneath his feet that has cracked open.

"Sigyn." Loki says, looking centuries younger in his tranquilizer-induced daze. His face splits into the widest, most genuine grin ever witnessed by Midgardians on his (admittedly) handsome face, and the unexpected show of vulnerability is rather disarming.

"Sigyn." He repeats, reaching out weakly, and Tony makes the mistake of stepping automatically into arm's reach. The extended arm snaps forward like a snake and snatches at his arm, wrenching him down by the wrist. Tony topples over with a startled squeak, flailing his arm-

Loki kisses him.

It says something about Tony's general lack of luck that the window is smashed inwards at that very moment, Thor arriving in a whirl of cape and thunder.

"Anthony!" He cries from amid the raining shards of glass. Then he spots them.

"Anthony?" He says.

Loki drops away from Tony, conveniently passed out again.

 

 -----Change of Pace&Tense-----

 

It wasn't the best of first impressions that she left on him.

He was in his bed and sleeping when it happened. She was also in his bed, and not sleeping. One would think two people would've moved past the first impressions stage before they ended up in a bed together. Loki would argue that for princes- and, apparently, for demented sorceresses- this was occasionally not the case.

He lighted the lamps with a jerk of his hand, and pushed off the inelegant lump of female limbs that had tumbled onto his stomach without warning. Said lump groaned and sat up on the floor, revealing a pair of dark brown eyes once she pushed the hair off her face.

"Sorry, sorry," she rambled, "You have slippery sheets. I didn't plan to wake you."

Loki's eyebrows shot up to his hairline. "Really," he said, halfway awake, "That's... refreshing." It was to his considerable experience that people tended to prefer their partners awake and, well, attentive, for the main event.

The woman looked uncomprehendingly back at him.

Loki rubbed a hand over his eyes, pulling the sheets over his naked torso. "Look, this situation is not unfamiliar to me. So let me assure you that you have opted for the worst possible way to get into bed with me, and I would very much appreciate it if you kindly walked out of my room and off a cliff somewhere before I spelled you into a rat and throttled you." He flopped down onto his pillow.

"What?"

Clearly he had overestimated the intelligence of the kind of woman who thought climbing into his bed unannounced at dawn would result in anything other than violently unpleasant consequences. He sat up again, fast bypassing irritation and arriving on proper anger. "I said, your pathetic attempt at seduction is not working. Disappear. Now."

"Oh!" The sorceress looked relieved, of all things. This was new. "Of course, of course. Very sorry for interrupting your sleep." She scrambled for the door. Loki sighed and raked a hand through his hair as he watched the door shut behind her.

This was when he found that there was in fact no hair on his head. And that he had severely underestimated the madness of the kind of woman who thought climbing into his bed unannounced at dawn would result in anything other than violently unpleasant consequences.

 

The spell didn't bother him. For the first five minutes that he tried to unravel it, that is. Then it frustrated him, and after a good half day of wrestling with the impossibly knotted balding spell put on his head, he was ready to murder the sorceress with his bare hands. But only after applauding her on the sheer amount of malignant effort she'd managed to pour into such a normally simple spell.

It took him four days holed up in his bedroom- he was not going to spell himself a wig just to go outside, this was a matter of pride- before he furiously walked to the mirror and furiously watched his hair regrow in a satisfying amount and speed. It took him another four to recover from the anger, and when he finally was able to think about the spell without feeling an urge to hurl the nearest object at the wall, he began to develop a reluctant respect for the sorceress. Come to think of it, she was exactly the kind of spell-wielder he would love to conspire with for various unprincely activities. It was a pity he would likely not meet her again. He had the sense that a second meeting, if they ever had one, would be quite entertaining.

Though he had to admit, he didn't imagine the woman would collapse a Bifrost.

 

Chapter Text

There were three things that Loki most admired in a person.

The first was competence. Contrary to popular belief, it earned someone a high place in his mental hierarchy to defeat him. Not by brute force, no, never that; he had little care for the boisterous crudeness that the rest of Asgard seemed to favor over use of actual intellect. But defeating him by means of intelligence, by intricately engineered spells, well-worded dialogue, or even outright trickery- it was guaranteed to make Loki salivate.

The second was a tendency towards mayhem in general. The bigger the better. Loki was born to adore chaos. He adored it with the admiring eyes of those who looked upon a towering house of cards, a delicate thing born of effort and precarious balance; except, his were the eyes that saw its vulnerability rather than its beauty, the ones that hungered to collapse it with a deft flick of a finger. It never irked him to see that quality in another.

 The third and lesser known, well, that would be an element of surprise, for he was a consistently curious creature. Nothing like the pleasant shock of disproved expectation to rile up his interest like a bright-eyed cobra snapping to attention.

 Sigyn, bless her, managed all three effortlessly.

 "So this is the spaceport- the bridgeport- the inter-realm passageway-port, whichever is closer. This is the pinnacle of Asgardian magical architecture." were the first words to tumble out of her mouth upon their second encounter. No greetings, no 'honored to be in your presence, my prince', no 'please don't behead me for the previous massacre of your fine hairs, my prince', just... nothing.

 "This." She said again, with poorly disguised disappointment.

 Heimdall quirked an eyebrow from where he was standing ever-patient on his post, but otherwise stayed as he was.

 "This is the pinnacle of magical architecture." Loki said in his stead, automatically- defensively, because while he may not exactly be on amiable terms with its creators, there was no denying that it was an object of extraordinary magical sophistication. Loki himself, after some scrutiny, had grudgingly admitted to having few suggestions for improvement. The structure with its clean-cut efficiency shimmered with a hundred magical signatures of Asgard's finest sorcerers and sorceresses. Name any theory or concept, it had been either already applied or discarded after careful consideration.

 "It's pretty. Very glittery." Sigyn conceded. Loki spluttered with indignation. Pretty?

 "But inefficient." She continued, seemingly lost in her own world as she inspected the ceiling with a critical eye. It was more a rumbling shift and slide of enchanted metal than a ceiling, and the sorceress' slender body tilted dangerously back as she craned her neck for a better view. At least she's not tripping oveed her dress, Loki thought, staring at where the fabric of her loose trousers was tucked into steel-toed boots.

 "A pyramid- not a pyramid, octahedron. Two, three octahedrons overlapping and rotating in sync. That is a lot of effort put into stability. But they require constant monitoring from the focal point so somebody is literally fixated there all the time, otherwise everything flies apart. This level of concentrated stress would have burst a lesser skull, gatekeeper, kudos to you."

 She whirled around to face Loki, thigh-length cloak wrapping around her body like a whip.

 "Why not a dome?"

 Loki frowned. "Because it's impossible." he answered, "A dome would collapse in on itself. The accentuations would be too dispersed for any magic-wielder to be able to use them to keep the spells from converging to the focal point."

 "That's only if you attempt to access and monitor all the spell-chains individually."

 "You suggest they're left to run free, then?"

 "Of course not, don't be annoying. I'm suggesting they are made self-sustaining. An interdependent Malida Web would do that with some alterations."

 "The nature of those spells doesn't allow them any feedback amongst themselves."

 Sigyn tutted. "That's why the spells themselves will have to be rebuilt in a manner that makes it possible. Change the system from its most fundamental. And don't tell me it can't be done, because it can. See? Like this."

 Loki had perhaps two seconds to realize the catastrophe about to descend on them, which he didn't. A few feet to his left the gatekeeper, unable to move or speak, watched with an expression of abject terror more befitting a man watching an armada of battleships advancing on an unsuspecting kitten. Then Sigyn's hand pressed against the nearest wall, a series of soft golden tremors spidered outward from the point of contact-

 "Just- a little melt and twist-"

 Crack.

 Sigyn jerked away from the wall and did her best impression of didn't-touch-anything. It would have been marginally more convincing without the horse-sized distortion behind her.

"Uh." She said, eyes wide.

Another resounding crack, followed by another, then another, then by countless fissures racing all across the ceiling and the walls. From his post at the center of the room Heimdall abandoned his composure and let out a cry of dismay, but the sound was lost as the entire gate groaned and began to crumble down in on itself. Loki barely managed to lift his staff in time for the first cascade of metal chunks.

Fifteen seconds of raining debris later, Loki found himself standing amidst a gigantic heap of shattered metal, holding a hastily conjured ward against the weight of the material piled on top of him.

With a chestful of mad sorceress squirming under his chin.

"I don't do well with wards." She said sheepishly, when Loki looked at her with renewed appall.

She detached herself from his front as soon as it became clear that there was nothing left standing and about to fall, stumbling with impressive speed to where Heimdall was.

"I can fix this." She said desperately to his face. Heimdall appeared to be capable of little more than standing speechless on the utterly demolished remains of what was a moment ago an ancient and crucial part of Asgardian inter-realm travel. "Give me fifteen days. It's not as though you assist more than three travelers annually, and two of them are accidental wanderers, so it must not be that much of a disruption to your routine. You'll just have to stand less imperiously for a few days."

She waved a hand wildly, summoning a flapping piece of parchment. Even from Loki's distance he could see that it was covered with the detailed blueprints of something that was unmistakably the Bifrost. Loki, aware as he was that this was one of those moments where he should save his mirth for later, couldn't help releasing a delighted bark of laughter.

"You expected this?" He said in wonder. "No, no. Let me rephrase. Did you plan this?"

Sigyn paled immediately, realizing how it looked.

"No." She squeaked, so flabbergasted that Loki had half a mind to believe her. The gatekeeper apparently did believe her. Loki suspected the ready acceptance rose more out of tragic past experience than the situational implications of the present.

 "Lady Sigyn," Heidall started, somewhat functional again.

 "Thank you." Sigyn said loudly. "You must be- shaken. It warrants immediate attention from the healers. I'll inform the Allfather myself, you needn't worry, I will take care of everything."

 She grasped Heimdall's elbow imploringly, and the next second he was gone with a small oomph, presumably shipped away to the healers' quarters. Loki watched as she straightened with a hefty sigh of relief.

 "You will inform the Allfather?" He asked, determined not to miss the spectacle. Sigyn's face soured instantly.

 "No. I'll take the path of minimum casualty. I'm going to Lady Frigga."

 Lady and not queen. She was from Vanaheim then, the realm in which his mother had been head sorceress for over a milennium before her marriage.

 "You're mistaken if you think her any more lenient than the Allfather."

 "Trust me, I know. But I was her pupil, so she is aware of my disposition and also of my capability to re-erect the gate to be thrice as efficient. It'll prolong my stay in the realm of the living for another fifteen days, if not anything."

 She rubbed at her face, looking sorry for herself, then peeked at him from between her ink-stained fingers.

 "Were you here to use the Bifrost? Have I hindered your plans?"

 Loki grinned. "Not at all. I was only fulfilling my daily duties as prince."

 "Lazing around, then, in the name of improvised patrol."

 This one knew something about being a prince. Loki felt his smile stretch even broader.

 "Maybe. Will you be visiting the queen now? If so, I have a sudden desire to patrol the corridors along her quarters."

 Sigyn glowered at him. "No. I'll go when I'm sure no nosy royalty will be present to take perverted pleasure in my misery."

 Loki gave her one of his earnestly regretful faces that had never failed to aggravate everyone within the twenty feet radius. Sigyn seemed to need several deep breaths to counteract its power. "Would you go away? The day's waning and I've a Bifrost to build."

 Indeed, without the gate to block their line of sight, they had a lovely view of the glint of sunset on the waters around Asgard. It was time he attended to his daily stack of consultations and research scrolls.

 "Until next time, then." Loki said, this time with genuine regret. Sigyn waved him away without looking.

 

 

 

 Loki visited the sorceress next morning out of curiosity. Whereas she had all but demolished the entire gate in her attempt at demonstrating what was supposed to be reformation, it took more than an average sorceress to mangle the spells so thoroughly with a single touch. The gate had been so heavily warded against both physical and non-physical approach that for one magic-wielder to influence it like that should have been next to impossible. To penetrate that defense, one would have to be more than just powerful. One would have to be unconventional.

 He expected the woman to be intent at work upon his arriving. As it was, she was nowhere to be seen. But the same couldn't be said for her magic. Loki could feel the very ground thrum with its flow, and the realization came after a few tentative steps that the statement was true in the most literal sense. The smooth marble surface in the vicinity of his feet was mottled with spellwork coiling and curving away from him, disgruntled like a living creature by the foreignness of his magic.

 "Well, hello. Whichever trouble brings you here, my prince?"

 The voice came from behind a particularly large hunk of metal. Loki maneuvered around and over the scattered debris with difficulty and discovered some sort of makeshift camp arranged under the shelter of a crooked sheet. Sigyn was there, leaning back in the shade with her palms on the ground.

 "What makes you think I come here from trouble?" He asked, instead of saying shouldn't you be doing something?

 "People don't seek me out without something they want me to fix. Unless you are here to invite me to some feast or banquet or such, in which case you have come to trouble. I'm not going."

 "I bring no invitations, nor any request for favor. I'm merely intrigued."

 "Intrigued?" She repeated, puzzled, then beamed. "Of course. You couldn't resist my brilliance."

 Before Loki could say a word to that she leapt up, rushing into his personal space and dragging him by the arm into a brisk walk. Loki was fairly certain this was not how most people regarded the second prince of Asgard.

 "Forgive me for assuming. I was under the impression that men in this realm were incapable of appreciating things more complicated than wrestling in the mud and howling like a herd of angry cows. Obviously I was wrong. Come here, I just finished the basic preparations for the reconstruction. We have the best and safest view from the bridge, there's barely enough room for my minions here anyway. We must make way for frontline laborers."

 "Minions?" Loki found the wits to ask, even as he stumbled along onto the narrow bridge that connected the circular platform to the cities of Asgard. Sigyn snapped her fingers dramatically. Gold flared up from the ground, shaping itself into clumps of small solid figures that scuttled around on their half-formed feet.

 "Is that-" Loki said incredulously, as he spotted what looked like a miniature golden version of himself strutting around with a sullen scowl on its face.

 "That one is mostly for decor." Sigyn said without a trace of shame. "You're rather easy on the eyes."

"What-" Loki attempted, now more than a little alarmed, but Sigyn ignored him and clapped her hand.

 "To work, to work! We've only a scant fifteen days. I won't have my own creations fail me by being lazy, that is my area of expertise and also the reason I made you in the first place, so you being lazy rather defeats the purpose- and a grand purpose it is, it will lead to one of the more prominent among my many footprints in magical history. Stop fumbling about and move!"

 The woman was an exceptional rambler, Loki would grant her that. They watched as the little golden 'minions' set to work sliding under pieces of metal and lifting them up, wobbling over to what Loki imagines is their designated locations. Beside him Sigyn sat down abruptly on the ground.

 "I'll have to spend the next ten days or so creating their likes, and I am not doing it standing." she explained, "What you see is only the minimum number required to begin building the most basic of the structure. Once I have enough to finish building before our deadline of fifteen days, I'll tend to the more complex parts of the procedure that need my direct attention. You may have a seat beside me and watch if you wish."

 "And when will you weave the spells, if you spend ten days on the dome?"

 Sigyn snorted, an extremely unflattering sound. Loki wondered if the Lady that came before her name was more the product of a truly twisted sense of humor on Vanaheim's part than an actual title.

 "You underestimate my minions. They will build the dome, they will build the spells."

 "They build spells? They are spells."

 "True. They are spells designed to replicate spells. Some of them are spells designed to arrange and link together those replicas. Ornate and highly individual spellcraft, while undoubtedly beautiful, have no place in this new Bifrost. I intend to complete it with a single simple spell multiplied a hundred thousand times. The way they are weaved and twined together is the functioning of the Bifrost, not the spells themselves, so that the gatekeeper will only have to tug on a few right links on the web to achieve complete control instead of accessing every spell simultaneously."

 Loki felt his mouth go dry. It was not an impossible idea, only...

 "I don't know of any spell that is fit for such purpose. And there are few in the Nine Realms that I don't know of."

 Sigyn's eyes danced with glee, a grin threatening to split her face in two. It altogether made for an impression of being mentally unsound that Loki approved of wholeheartedly.

 "That is because there wasn't such a spell until just now. I created it from the remnants of the old Bifrost. Because my magic is fire, prince, and melting is a thing I do."

Loki smiled at that, wide and delighted.

 

 

 

 Loki smiled.

 He had the gall to smile after three near-successful attempts at exiling Tony from his life. Although Tony was not going to comment on this, since he really wouldn't rather go for a fourth. Still, it grated on him like one of those tofu sausages that claimed 'I'm greasy juicy meat!' on the outside and later turned out to be a disgustingly healthy tofu mash. Not that Loki was healthy in any fucking way.

 "I owe you an apology, Stark." Loki offered smoothly. Tony imagined himself saying you owe me three million of those you murderfucker. Being a creature of wild imaginings and weighty actions, all he actually did was to nod stiffly. Thor clasped a hand on Loki's shoulder, looking like he was living in a wholly different emotional dimension than the rest of the room, which was hulk-out murderous. Tony would worry of Bruce hulking out, except he already had and was casting a shadow over Tony's head from where he stood protectively behind him.

 "I acted irrationally and assumed you were the one to destroy the spell held in the stone, when all could have been resolved amicably. You need only allow me to scan you for any trace of magical capabilities and free me of any further suspicions, and I'll be on my way to seek out and extinguish the one who is actually responsible." Loki somehow managed to plant periods between every word from extinguish to responsible with a smile still plastered on his face. Tony wanted to hide behind the couch.

"It will be swift." Loki said unconvincingly, and raised a very familiar staff. Clint whimpered.

 "No." Tony said flatly, eyes glued to the eerie glow of its wickedly curved head. "No staffs are allowed within a mile of me. Put that away."

 To his surprise, Loki vanished the staff.

 "I require contact without the staff to assist me." He warned, and reached out without waiting for an answer.

 A man was truly challenged to embrace the infathomable horrors of life, Tony thought, when he was asked to endure a planet-invading supervillain cradling his head in his hands. The only upside of the entire situation was that nobody had mentioned the kiss yet. Probably because Thor looked like he was yet to recover from the shock and Loki looked like he didn't remember a thing.

 Loki prodded at his face gently with his fingers. Tony prepared himself to announce See? Not a speck of magicky glow in me! Naturally, that was when he realized that yes, he did in fact glow, he seemed to be emitting a faint mist of gold that didn't dissipate when he flails his arms in panic.

 "Would you believe me if I said my great-grandfather was a jellyfish and this has nothing to do with anything remotely approaching magic?" He said in a high-pitched voice that trembled like it was atrophying before the great conspiracy of fate's ill intent. Loki ignored him in favor of leaning forward for a closer look, and Tony mentally applauded him for not jumping to conclusions and thus to highly traumatic outcomes for both parties.

 "You have her magic on you." Loki observed, "But not of you. You clearly have no control. It appears you have... absorbed it as an enchanted artifact might, a substitute for the stone."

 He started thumbing Tony's cheek absently, immersed in thought. Tony figured trying not to freak out was a lost cause by now, which he thought should leave him all zen and accepting but made him sweat some serious bullets instead.

 "This explains how you deflected my knives." Loki continued. "And yes, I know about your little trick with your garments, I hardly expected you to roam around unprotected. Those knives were enchanted to pierce through even your metal armor, yet the spells dissolved the moment they touched you. Thus my presumption that you were a sorcerer of some kind."

 "In case we're not clear, I'm not."

 Loki hummed in agreement. "I will collect the magic and leave."

 "Awesome. Could you stop looking at me like I'm a three-headed lab rat and proceed, then?"

 Loki narrowed his eyes, and the grip on Tony's jaw turned crushing. There were moments when Tony considered his mouth to be a sentient organ on its own that existed for the sole purpose of collaborating with destiny on making his life a short one. This was one of those moments.

 "As we all wish." Loki said, eyes lighting a brighter shade of green. Tony felt a gentle tug on his cheeks much like how Rhodey used to pinch them in college, and the golden hue spread over his skin seemed to gather toward Loki's palms.

 They stayed like that for five minutes.

 "Is it jus me or is this thin nut workin?" Tony managed, muffled by the pressure on his chin. L gritted his teeth visibly, and Natasha shushed Tony. The tugging upped from college buddy to adoring adult.

 It took another five minutes for Loki to snarl in irritation and withdraw his hands.

 "It will not separate from him." He revealed.

 "My life is cursed." Tony announced. No one looked surprised.

 "I will have to stay close until I find a way to retain it. I wish to stay in this tower." Loki said. Now everyone looked surprised. "And before you refuse, consider this: you have been lucky so far that no one with magic has been close enough to Stark to recognize the magic. It is invaluably singular and powerful, and once word spreads that it is no longer in the possession of Loki Laufeyson, you will have sorcerers blasting down your door every morning and night and in between. I can prevent that. You can also be assured that I will not harm Stark, now that I know he hosts it in his body. I would never take such a risk with it."

 Tony nodded. "My brain sees your point. But my everything else is objecting violently and wants you ejected off the planet."

 Loki, the clever bastard, turned to Steve.

"Tony." Steve said, in that coaxing and potentially disapproving tone reserved specifically for stubborn Starks. It signified that whatever battle about to happen was already over. Choice a) resist and surrender with guilt and heartbreak, choice b) surrender now. 

 "Fine." Tony said. He might as well save himself from further emotional tumult, since nobody else was interested in the imminent breakdown of his delicate mental health. "Jarvis will assign a room for him. Just- let's discuss my conditions for this arrangement tomorrow. I seriously need a break. Also booze. Don't you all need booze?" He locked eyes with Clint. "You do."

 He started toward the kitchen, a minor commotion rising behind him as conversation continued between Loki and Steve. Or a fistfight, whatever, Tony was well beyond the point of caring by now. He held on to a vague sense of hope that boozing his way to ER might allow him a peaceful and Lokiless night.

 This, of course, was when a solemn voice intercepted his journey to the land of alcoholized incoherence.

 "Anthony, I would like to assist with the preparation." Thor boomed across the room, failing spectacularly at subtlety. Natasha stopped on her way to the bathroom, turning oh so slowly to stare at him.

 Tony just wanted to be defenestrated already.

Chapter Text

"Anthony." Thor started, hands clasped conspiratorily between them on the marble island.

"You know, I fucking hate it when people call me that." Tony grumbled. "I just really fucking hate it when people boozeblock me with serious talk, period. Can I at least get a bottle before we start this conversation?"

Natasha casually slid a beer glass toward him from the other side of the minibar, its content clear amber and nothing remotely approaching beer.

 "Thanks." Tony said without looking. "And you're welcome to abandon our company anytime. Preferably before I die of embarassment."

"Anthony," Thor said again, ignoring him completely. "I am under no illusion that I have any right to intrude upon your private matters. But I must at least warn you, as a friend and shield-brother. Loki does not love you, and he never will."

Sometimes, Tony thought, even the genius of his intellect was insufficient to grasp the true majesty of the horror that was his life.

"Good." he said curtly.

Thor scowled. "This is no jest. I do not underestimate the might of your mortal love-"

"God." Tony said.

"- but my brother is not only disinclined, he is incapable. He bound his loyalty to Sigyn many centuries ago with a spell, a vow that can't be broken unless he undoes it himself. He could not hurt her, he could not bring ill on her, and he could not look away from her. Now that she is gone, he cannot look anywhere. He hasn't removed the vow still."

Tony had intended to put an end to this tête-à-têteas soon as possible. But curiosity got the better of him, and he said: "Sigyn?"

Thor drummed his finger against the marble, short-nailed fingers soundless against it. "His wife. Formerly one of the head sorceresses of Vanaheim and a visiting consultant in Asgard during her last years. She died in battle against the Frost Giants in Jotunheim." Thor looked away. "It was a foolish scrum that I started. Loki hasn't forgiven me since." He shifted his gaze back to Tony. "And it seems to me that he hasn't forgotten, either."

Tony had some dozens of questions in his head, but he also had the feeling he was maybe about to take advantage of the situation to cross lines Thor normally wouldn't allow to be crossed. So he sighed and tucked away his extreme confusion as to how Loki could possibly mistake a bearded man with his girl.

"Look, I appreciate your concern, but there's really no need. There's just nothing happening, and what you saw, I don't know what crazy prompted Loki to do that but I sure as hell had no part in it. I think he mistook me for someone else. Never in a million lifetimes would I ever even consider debauching your little brother, I promise, I swear, I firmly vow. So forget about it, okay?"

Thor looked at him searchingly for a long moment, then nodded dubiously. He reached out, plucked the glass out of Tony's grasp, and took a long swig. "If you have want for any kind of assistance, my friend, you need only find me." He squeezed Tony's shoulder briefly and walked away. With Tony's drink.

"That was mine." Tony said to the empty stool beside him. Natasha slipped onto it, carrying her own glass of liquor.

"So Loki." She said, crossing her legs and gesturing toward the lounging area.

"No Loki." Tony said. "Not ever Loki, in past, present, future, and alternate reality. Thor misread things."

"Things." There was a glint in her eyes.

"Circumstances. That were entirely involuntary and nonconsensual, which- why are you looking at me like that? I'm the assaulted party here!"

"Assaulted." Natasha said, and Tony was just, he was done.

"Assaulted," he snapped. "As in taken by surprise in a violent and unexpected manner that most unfortunately involved some mouth-to-mouth, a couple daggers aimed at my head, some furniture-breaking, a shattered window-" There was a deafening sound of something shattering from the lounging room, followed by further audio of furniture breaking, daggers being thrown around, and a startled Hawkeye yelping.

"I know that sound." Tony said into the ensuing silence.

The glass was, as expected, no longer in place when they hurried out to inspect the damage. It was strewn in pieces over the floor around a black-feathered bird, and apparently a crow had savage-beaked its way through his bulletproof windows. Tony sensed the remnant of his belief in modern technology shrivel up into a miserable ball and die. His horror of all things otherworldly, however, had flared its wings in the form of a one-eyed talking crow that demanded the attention of the two gods taking residence in the Avengers tower.

"My lords!" It croaked, and hopped onto the upended sofa, flapping its wings and shedding feather everywhere. Tony didn't know much about crows, but he was pretty sure they didn't normally come in the size of albatrosses as this one did.

Loki clucked his tongue where he was seated on the left end of the couch. "Hugin. I thought I made it perfectly clear last time that I don't answer to the Allfather's command anymore." he said casually, skipping all greetings.

"True, true! But not as prince, as sorcerer you are called upon. A consultant."

"Officially disowned, then." Loki observed nonchalantly. If he felt in any way bitter, he was very good at hiding it. Hugin cackled maliciously- nervously? It was difficult to tell.

"Never owned in the first place." Okay, definitely malicious. Asgard was full of such lovely assholes, Tony thought, people and non-people alike. Loki bared his teeth, half-smile, half-grimace. "And what brings the messenger of Odin to ask for my word?"

"The Aether!" Hugin said immediately. Loki visibly tensed, and Natasha cocked her head from where she stood against the wall, unnoticeable as ever in plain sight. Hugin shifted anxiously on his feet. "The Aether is unstable. Chance has brought this realm close to the space it is contained in, close enough that they overlap. Something is leaking from the connection into Midgard. The Allfather asks you, as an obligated member of the Union of Sorcery, to inspect its cause. My prince, you are ordered to accompany him and report back."

Loki hummed, and tapped on the wooden armrest to get Thor's attention. He gestured out the window with his chin. "Go alone, Thor. I will not leave her magic unprotected and free for the taking."

Hugin bristled. "You-"

Thor held out a hand, and the crow fell silent. He stepped entreatingly over to Loki, in that particular earnest manner that inspired soldiers and calmed colleagues and repelled alienated brothers.

"Listen to me, brother. You of all people should understand the danger the Aether poses to all realms. It must not fall to wrong hands, and I've no knowledge or experience in the field of magic. You must go with me."

"And you of all people should understand that there is nothing more important to me than the last of her magic."

There was a brief silence. Judging by the look on Thor's face, Tony guessed it must have been some gigantic verbal dagger of tragic familial history Loki just threw at him.

"I cannot leave without you." Thor said finally, pained.

"I cannot leave without her magic." Loki parroted back. And then he sighed. "But you speak sensibly, astonishing as that is. You're of no help when the Aether is involved, and it will do me little good to have dark elves come knocking on the gates of the Nine Realms with the Aether in hand. I will go, but Stark will accompany us."

Both brothers turned to look at Tony.

"Anthony, you have my sincerest apologies for this inconvenience. You must swear absolute secrecy-"

"He doesn't need to. I will wipe his memory." Loki supplied.

"Do either of you give a shit about where I want to put my body? Considering, you know, that it's mine."

Loki waved his hand dismissively, rising from the couch. Hugin tittered back a few unsteady steps. "It would appear not." Loki said, like he was talking about someone else. He snapped his fingers at Hugin. "Where is it? Is it near?"

"I can lead the way. It is not far." said Hugin. Thor laid a heavy hand on Tony's shoulder.

"Be back by dinner?" Clint joked weakly.

"You better be back by then. It's Tony's turn to cook team dinner." Natasha said.

Bruce shook his head, holding his shredded pants to his belly. "Please don't be back by dinner." he said.

Loki raised an eyebrow at Tony.

"Right. Okay." Tony said. "I gotta treat you people with my very own burned carbonara today, I almost forgot after being nearly assassinated for the third time, having my housed wrecked for the zillionth time, and seeing a talking bird for the first time in my life. That was careless of me."

Steve smiled, which might have been the only bright side of this entire morning. "Be back safe, old man. It sounds like it's an important matter." he said, and clapped Tony lightly on the back. "Thor, none of us can follow?"

Thor shook his head grimly. "It would only hinder Loki, I think. We'll be back soon." He raised Mjolnir, ready to leave through the window. Tony yelped in alarm.

"Just let me get my suit. I'm not dangling off anyone's body parts if I can help it." he said.

 

 

 

They departed on the miniature launching pad connected to Tony's penthouse, with the rest of the Avengers hovering behind with varying degrees of concern on their faces. Tony caught Thor looking at the bag slung over his shoulder, and held back the opening to show Thor the pair of leather shoes sitting in it.

“Rule number one when going out in armor in a non-emergency situation: always bring shoes. I don’t want to walk barefoot if my suit gets accidentally turned to garbage in an accidentally initiated battle. You know that happens a lot.”

It was Hugin that was first to take flight. Thor walked to the edge and turned a hopeful look on Loki, extending a hand. Loki grimaced and placed both his hands on Tony's shoulders, still annoyingly taller than the armor. Tony resolved to stack some extra inches in the pad of his feet. He really didn't like the way people kept staring judgmentally down at him, Nordic deities and supersoldiers be damned.

Thor and Tony both took running leaps off the tower, soaring straight up over the rooftops of the neighboring skyscrapers- actually, Thor soared, and Tony dropped like a stone with Loki hanging off his back like a supremely offended limpet.

"Jesus, what're you made of, concrete?" Tony grunted, fighting the urge to puke as the repulsors adjusted to the sudden increase in weight, bringing them back to safe altitude in a series of gut-wrenching spirals. Loki didn't answer, but Tony suspected he was going to find finger dents on his shoulderplate once they disengaged. Loki's arms crossed over his chestplate squeezed in until the metal creaked.

The flight took just over two and a half hours in full throttle. Tony worried briefly of the landing, but Loki flung himself off Tony's back at the last moment and landed neatly on his feet, driving Tony an additional foot deeper into the soil. It was raining lightly; their destination was a depressingly bare set of buildings standing gray and barren on what was possibly an abandoned construction site.

"I'll leave my lords to attend to the matter." Hugin said nervously, hovering beside Thor's head, and flew off without waiting for an answer. Loki eyed the retreating form of the crow with disdain. His nose twitched a little, a frown settling on his face. "Mimir, this place stinks of dark elves' magic. No wonder he flees."

"Darcy!" Thor called from Tony's left. They all turned to see a young woman in tight jeans and hipster glasses jogging over with a lanky man in tow, who was clutching an armful of metal poles.

“Whoa, long time no see, Jane’s ex!” She shouted, waving enthusiastically. Thor's face crumpled in like Hulk just landed on it. “It’s a great pleasure to be reacquainted with you, Darcy.” He replied once she was within hearing range, looking ten years older and ten weeks deeper into a failing depression therapy. “But why are you here- and where is my Jane?”

They all took a moment to acknowledge the great obvious emphasis on my Jane while Darcy contemplated the question with a purse of her vibrantly painted lips. Behind her the skinny accomplice with some more inches and notably less insanity stared fixedly at Loki, his facial muscles alternating wildly between disbelief and horror.

“We… were asking ourselves the same question, actually. We can do that together now?” Darcy said finally, shrugging in an oh well, better admitted then busted fashion. She pointed at a nearby building. “I’m pretty sure she’s somewhere within the hundred feet radius of that building. It’s where her science poles detected some weird extraterrestrial signals that sent them beeping like my toaster does when bread gets stuck in it. Except it’s probably the kind to burn off more than half side of a sandwich if it goes, you know, boom.”

“Your mortal is on the third floor, near the left corner from where we look.” Loki said, giving a cursory once-over at the building in question. “I suggest we hurry, Thor. She seems to be approaching a sizable gap in space that reeks of old seals. And you,” He leveled a look at Darcy and her minion. "Will stay out of the place. I've no need of distractions."

Darcy looked like she wanted to protest. The uni guy stuffed his poles under one arm and wisely clamped a hand over her mouth.

Inside, the walls and the ceiling and the floor were all nothing but bare concrete. There was a hollow place that opened up to the sky at the center, and Tony could’t decide if the building was still mid-construction or if it had been abandoned three decades ago by an owner with some serious defects in his sense of décor. Possibly both. He would have commented on this, but his eyes caught on a shabby eight-wheeler resting on the ground.

Resting above the ground, to be exact.

Tony did a double take, and yep, still floating. The sound of Thor and Loki’s approaching footsteps echoed in the deserted space, but Tony stumbled forward without waiting because he had to confirm right then that it really was only air filling the space between the ground and the monstrously heavy truck. He was an arm’s reach away from touching the vehicle when an iron grip squeezed around his bicep, holding him back.

“Do not touch it.” Loki said quietly into his ear, then reached out himself and flicked the truck gently with his finger. It shuddered and tipped over with a groan, rotating slowly on the spot in an automobile version of a stationary cartwheel. Thor let out a sound of distress behind them.

“Brother, is this-?”

“Yes. The entire place is perilously connected to another pocket of space.” Loki paused. “This is, I suspect the binding spells containing the Aether are leaking. I recognize some repellent elements in this that are adapted into more recent versions of seals.” He gestured at the truck still spinning before him. He raised his head and frowned contemplatively at the sky framed by the spiral of stairs rising in a square around them, tutted, and said: “I think your scientist just discovered the focal point of this connection. And ripped it wide open, no less. Come, we may even find her yet alive if we hurry.”

Thor was, unsurprisingly, extremely impatient about Loki’s careful navigation up the floors. Loki lead them to and through the corridor of the third story, the building quiet but for the subdued clatter of their footsteps. They passed a doorframe without a door, then another, then another, but Loki walked briskly past all of them without sparing so much as a glance. He came to a stop at the far end of the corridor, looked up and down the empty space before him, said: "Stark, stay here and wait. Thor, follow me.", and took a step forward, disappearing into thin air.

Tony gaped after him.

"Did you just see that?" he said, turning toward Thor, but he was already throwing himself through whatever invisible gate that was before them with an incoherent shout of Jane's name. Tony squinted at the wall, trying to see some indication of something being present between it and him. There seemed to be nothing.

"Fuck. Of course you exclude me from the fun stuff." he muttered, and turned back toward the stairs. At least he had a floating truck to look at.

At the top of the stairs he slipped a little, entirely by chance, and nudged the empty can balanced at the edge into the three-story fall to the side. Tony looked at it as it fell, spiraling in midair, bracing himself for the sharp clack of impact. Except, it disappeared neatly a good ten meters away from the concrete floor.

Tony stared after it, then looked heavenward. Apparently everything else in the building was participating in a fancy morphing of physics while he was doomed to watch from the sidelines. His eyes snapped wide when the same can dropped into existence a dozen feet above him, spinning past and vanishing again at the exact same place it had done so before. Then it did it again. And again.

Tony could just pee himself from the sheer force of the scientifigeekic excitement he was experiencing.

At one point of his observation he reached out in a tranced sort of stupor and plucked the can out of the air, half-expecting his arm to be disintegrated into subatomic particles at first contact. It didn’t. Tony wordlessly reached into his bag and dug out the navy boat shoe that he dearly loved, but not nearly as much as he loved the physical miracle happening before his eyes. He extended his arm and let the shoe go without so much as a moment of hesitation. It dropped obediently and vanished.

It didn’t reappear.

Tony frowned. It wasn’t a spatial loop? He leaned over the railing, straining his neck to see far enough beneath. Something wheezed right past his ear and he jerked to the left instinctively, almost toppling over the railing, then actually toppling over the railing. The faceplate flipped shut automatically as he flailed his way down. Something knocked the air out of his lungs, a sudden change in the air around him.

Tony landed on a hard and unyielding surface with a dull thunk and some sincere gratitude at the cushioned inside of his armor. He struggled onto his elbows just in time to hear the first rumble coming off the rock he was spread on, and he looked up sharply to catch Loki standing on a floating boulder a few dozen meters from him, Thor crouched over the unconscious form of a woman not far away. Loki opened his mouth, but another great rumbling interrupted him, a rupture in silence that exploded in the form of a sudden fracture on their footings. What followed was a chaos of splitting rocks and collisions, a spontaneous earthquake happening beneath Tony's feet that threw him off balance before e could think to turn on his repulsors. When it ended Tony was somehow much farther away from Loki than he was before. The gap between their slabs of rock were too wide now for even Aesir to leap over.

"Thor, she is fine. She is fine, you idiot. Stark, can you hear me?" Loki whisper-snarled across the bottomless fall between them, his voice echoing off the walls of the vast cavelike place they were in. He appeared to be consumed by a violent desire to simultaneously chuck Tony down the opening and remove him as far away as possible from the glaring danger. “Thor, put away Mjolnir- don’t you even think of flying over, you will disrupt the spells. Stark,” Loki called again, drew in an audible breath- Tony could hear the you disobedient little shit implied heavily in the unspoken context- and motioned him closer. Loki’s face was lit by an eerie glow of red that threw color across his cheekbones in an imitation of a flush, and his eyes were wide and quietly desperate. Tony swayed as he rose to his feet. It took him a few seconds to notice that the light reflecting off Loki's face was coming from a source behind himself, and when he did, he turned toward it without thinking.

Two gigantic squares of stone stood before him, one on the other, and a faint red light was leaking from the gap between them. An engraving of unrecognizable letters trailed like chains across the surface of the stones. Tony realized that it could only be the Aether.

He looked back uncertainly at Loki. He could pinpoint the exact moment Loki realized what Tony was about to do.

“No, no, no, Stark.” Loki said, voice growing gradually louder behind Tony’s back as he faced the stone squares again. “Don’t you dare, have you any idea what it is you have before you?”

“Nope.” Tony said absently, taking a few cautious steps closer to the redness seeping from between the stones.

“That is the Aether. You- it will blow you apart. Stop moving, stop, you will upset the balance! Don’t touch it.

Tony did stop, considered the so-called Aether in front of him; it didn’t look that menacing, honestly. And it glowed rather prettily, almost as if- almost as if it was calling to him somehow, beckoning him to come closer, come and take a look, just a look-

Tony turned his head to give a last hesitant look at Loki.

 "Do not touch it." Loki repeated slowly, dangerously, as one might to a starving animal set loose before a dripping slab of steak. On the one hand, Loki. On the other hand, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to set eyes on an exotic piece of deep space technology.

 "I won't." Tony decided. "I'll just... take a peek and back away."

Famous last words.

 

 

 

Tony came to with the alarmingly bearded face of Thor hovering worriedly over him. Thor's jaw worked vigorously in what Tony assumed was inquiries after his state, which Tony couldn't understand a word of thanks to the hardcore pounding going on in his skull.

 "Me." He gasped out, throat gritty and dry. "And my fucking life choices. What happened?"

 "The Aether took advantage of your body." Thor said grimly. The first thing that happened in Tony's brain at that was a dozen lewd comments best left unthought for the sanity of the universe, which of course meant that they barraged into Tony's mind with the collective force of four decades of inadvisable sexual experience backfiring like a Jericho missile. The second thing that happened was a memory, and it came riding on the back of a steadily intensifying headache. Something red he remembered, something bright, something invading. The flash of red striking out like a snake, hitting his armored stomach, climbing up his chest to the exposed skin of his face in frightening speed, an eerie shrill sound like a hundred chips of metal sliding against each other vibrating through the air as the Aether scraped its way across the surface of the suit. And he hadn't even touched the stone structure. The light from the trapped Aether had been so alluring that he couldn't remember he had hands at all, just his eyes straining to catch a better look as he stooped to peer into the gap. Redness had flickered tantalizingly from within, and Tony had pressed his face closer, squinting-

 Okay, maybe he had touched the stone. With his face.

 Tony flexed his limbs and discovered the armor had survived the ordeal mostly unscathed, the joints moving smoothly along to his motion. The body inside was in dire need of some intensive recuperation. Or some de-aging, seriously, he was starting to think he was getting a bit too old for this shit.

 "I really shouldn't have done that." He muttered, groaning as the bruises caused by some unidentifiable impact made themselves known. Loki's head poked into the periphery of his vision, close enough that Tony knew he was kneeling on the slightly damp concrete beside Tony's head. They were outside the building, and the sky was dripping drops of water onto Tony's face.

 "So you are only sporadically insane. I had wondered." said Loki, voice smooth and low and distinctly pissed. Tony tried not to wince and failed. "Obviously I was an idiot for attempting to actively end your life in the first place, seeing as I needed only wait for you to do it yourself."

 "Well, I'd like to point out that I didn't actually die-"

 "Yet." Loki said darkly. Which, fair point.

 "Was that a declaration on your part that you're about to make a fourth go at my throat or...?" Tony gestured helplessly. Loki drew himself up to a stand with a huff and looked down at Tony with a mildly disgusted look. Tony struggled to push himself into a sit, and Thor helped him up with a firm hand on his arm.

 "At least we have the Aether contained in a stable vessel. Loathe as I am to admit it, this is a better outcome than some that I expected. But you must take us to Asgard, Thor. Stark will not last beyond a week without the help of Lady Idunn, and even to me the re-containment of the Aether is a work that will require weeks to complete at least. Call to Heimdall. We'll use the Bifrost." He jerked his head to his left, toward where Jane Foster was conversing quietly with her assistants. "And bid farewell to your woman. Again. Be sure to guard your groin, she is a vicious kicker."

 Thor's face underwent a complicated series of contortions that conveyed fondness, resolve, fear, and despair all in the course of two seconds. It settled on an expression of grim determination befitting a soldier fighting a battle already lost, peppered liberally with the misery of a man about to fail utterly at being a boyfriend. Again, as Loki pointed out, after the unexplained two-year vacancy that in Tony's opinion should have sent anyone less than a saint sauntering off for new pursuits.

 "But brother, you are in exile-"

 "And you have the right to temporarily suspend it, as crown prince of Asgard."

 Loki visibly restrained himself from further commentary. Tony could easily imagine the many dark thoughts flooding Loki's mind that ran along the lines of What did I tell you about doing your studies moron and So much for being the glowing crown prince of Asgard when you don't even know what's in your hands and much, much more. Tony could picture Loki having aneurisms over this kind of things back when the bro-bro code was a mutual thing, trying to shape his wild boar of a brother into something remotely resembling proper royalty and ending up about as successful as he was at Earth invasion. Must have been a tough life.

 They watched as Thor slinked away toward the scientist with a defeated slump to his shoulders. A despondent drizzle of rain trailed him like a shadow, but the patch of ground on which his dearly beloved stood remained completely dry.

 "So..." Tony started, because he was about to be transported to an alien land by means of an alien transport, and he liked to know his theories before they hit him in reality. Also, if he understood right, there was currently a living piece of sketchy magic cohabitating in his body.

 "You will be fine enough once you have Idunn's apples counteracting the effects of the Aether." Loki snapped, clearly unfit for civil conversation. Tony shut up.

 

 Thor returned after a spectacular display of romantic dispute involving a punch to the jaw, a knee to the groin (Thor blocked that one, long survive the noble line of Aesir), and screams that carried through the rapidly thickening blanket of rain. Tony had scooted closer to Loki and his invisible circle of magic-dried earth. Thor looked longingly after the back of Dr. Foster's car driving out of the place, then looked to the sky, blinking against the rain.

"Heimdall!" he bellowed. There was no answer. Beside him Loki tugged Tony closer, wrapping a hand around the arm of his suit.

"You might want to hold on." he advised, face unreadable, "As its builder described, the transport can be-"

The rest of the sentence was cut off by a deafening roar of wind accompanied by a blinding flash of light that surrounded them, sucking them skyward at breakneck speed. Thor went spinning past him and Loki in a whirl of cape and mail, and momentum brought Tony slamming into Loki's body, the metal collar of Loki's coat scraping his bare face.

Whoever had built this Bifrost thing had clearly not understood that actual living things were supposed to use it while actually staying alive. Figures.

 

 

 

Despite the nagging interest frequently distracting his mind, Loki's schedule afforded him only sparse visits to the slowly manifesting Bifrost. By his third the dome was done, a full day ahead of schedule; it was smooth and round but for the frankly ugly hornlike rod sticking out at the top.

"What is that?" Loki asked, pointing an accusatory finger at it.

"That is compromise, Loki." Sigyn answered morosely. Loki didn't remember giving her permission to use his name, which was probably due to the fact that he didn't. "The bridge needs an opening to connect to. It's not too bad."

"It's horrible, is what it is." Loki said firmly. Sigyn stepped on his toes.

After that he didn't manage to squeeze in another visit for the remaining six days. He only heard of the Bifrost's completion from the palace guard sent to invite him to its test operation, immersed as he was in the ongoing project in Vanaheim's smithies that had requested his assistance. He had a fleeting thought of refusing, of sending a personally signed note informing Sigyn that he cannot be bothered to move a step thanks to the grave injury she did to his toes. But he had a feeling that superior maturity was the crucial component of his standing over the sorceress, and so was present while Sigyn did her best to fast-talk her audience into dumbfounded approval.

 "- and transportations are nearly thrice as quick." Sigyn finished proudly, complete with excessive flamboyance and flailing hand gestures. Heimdall and the assembled crowd of palace sorceresses looked suitably impressed. Loki felt suitably skeptical.

 "Well, there is one minor drawback." She admitted, upon meeting the look Loki gave in her direction. "Due to the enhancement in speed of transport, the process is correspondingly more..." She hesitated. Loki didn't yet know much about her, but he was a toothless Bigelsnipe if he couldn't recognize this as the danger siren that it was.

"...stimulating." She finished, meeting nobody's eyes. Then she grabbed at Loki's arm. "Now, time for the test run."

Chapter Text

Loki allowed himself a day after the Bifrost incident to regain his dignity and his sense of balance before strolling up to the sorceress' quarters and knocking on the door.

Sigyn invited him inside readily enough. Loki suspected guilt had some part to play in it, for reducing a healthy unsuspecting man to a pale-faced nausea-riddled walking corpse by the use of a monstrous Bifrost. The sitting room smelled faintly of steel, an almost barren place furnished with a few chairs and a low table. The source of the smell was revealed when Sigyn opened a side door and led him into a temporary workshop filled with spelled weapons.

"I was wondering," he said, and faltered there, unsure how to word has there been any other magical monument you blew up and rebuilt in the past in a socially acceptably way.

"I was wondering also!" Sigyn said brightly, when Loki made no move to continue. She conjured up a long black spear and dropped it onto Loki's lax hands, and squinted at it as he fumbled to catch it before it fell to the floor.

"Perfect. Excellent balance. I knew it, I have an accurate eye."

She snapped her fingers. The weapon turned to liquid in Loki's grasp, twisting into the shape of a small snake that wound itself around Loki's wrist.

"Say hello to Nadr. He'll serve you from now on, if you want." She looked up at his face searchingly. "Unless you prefer swords? I heard you don't particularly like them."

Loki made a distracted sound as he lifted his arm to let the snake climb its way to his upper arm and settle there. "Yes. I mean, no, I don't like swords." He cleared his throat. "But- not that I'm ungrateful in any way, but I'm not sure I've done anything to warrant such a... gift?"

Sigyn fidgeted and gestured at Loki's head. "More like I've done something. You know, to your hair. I may have gone slightly overboard with that spell."

Slightly, Loki thought darkly as he recalled the balding spell.

"I grew back Nal's hair better than before as soon as I found out, but," she tapped the snake on Loki's arm, "I thought you would appreciate something more useful than having sleeker hair?"

"I do." Loki said truthfully. "And I owe an apology to your friend, also. I wasn't thinking clearly when I cursed her like that, even considering the situation was..." he made a complicated hand gesture meant to encompass the disturbing circumstance that was a hammered Thor being found engaging in explicit behavior in public with a giggling sorceress. Behind the curtains in the banquet hall. In front of about half of Odin's court.

"Not the best choice she made." Sigyn agreed grimly.

"But I have to say the spell you put on me was ingenious." Loki said, wanting the conversation steered away from the topic as soon as possible. "Was that related to your area of study?"

"Not much. My specialty is this." She looked around pointedly at the roomful of swords and spears littered about the workshop. "Making weaponry more weaponable. I'm taking commissions for the duration of my stay here. For fun." She hummed and pointed at a plain longsword, "That one's for Baldr. Spelled to sharpen itself. Boring, but efficient." She pointed at another sword. "A simple tracking spell. For... I forgot the name. An unremarkable man with a remarkable purse."

"What of that?" Loki asked, nodding up at the out-of-place yellow dress hanging between a machete and a quiver of arrows.

"The deadliest of them all." Sigyn said dramatically. "Sif's dress."

Loki's mouth dropped open. "Sif wears a dress?" The idea was deadly enough, he guessed. Though the dress itself looked harmless.

"I sense disbelief from you." Sigyn waved a hand. Her tunic and pants glowed briefly and were replaced with the dress in question. "I owe her a favor or twenty, so I put effort into this. Let's see," She produced a dagger from somewhere around her waist. "One," She pulled out another. "Two," Another appeared. "Three." And it went on.

"That's about it." she finally said, after thirteen daggers, two swords, a vaguely pole-like thing, and a small whetstone was removed from the thin garment.

"I offered to make her shoulders launch a couple of these, but she refused." She explained morosely, juggling the knives in her hands. "But there's a special function added to her cleavage region-"

"That is Sif's dress, all right." Loki conceded hastily.

"I don't know if I'll be able to finish it before I leave." Sigyn mused.

"You're leaving with the embassy, correct?"

"Unless I begin a long-term project here, yes. But I suspect that's still at least a circle of seasons away."

"In that case," Loki pried Nadr off him and held the snake out. "Come to think of it, I'm unsure if I do prefer swords."

Nadr hissed and nipped on his knuckles, offended. Sigyn quirked her eyebrows, but before she could say anything he added, with the sunniest smile he could conjure up, "It might take me a cycle of seasons to decide, at least."

An answering smile dawned on Sigyn's face as she understood the insinuation. "And I suppose you'd like to look around a little, too?"

Loki nodded enthusiastically.

"I say you've found the perfect guide." Sigyn said seriously, "Now, there is this security spell I've been working on, that triggers the attacker to do somersaults in six directions before the ward throws them twenty feet into the air..."

So began their unlikely acquaintance. It was an odd pair that they made, more so than Loki expected. Oh, she was just as brilliant as he expected, no doubt about that. But she also turned out to possess a disregard for safety and sanity that rivaled her formidable intelligence. It would have been counteracted by Loki's many centuries of experience functioning as Thor's portable common sense, if only the ideas she came up with weren't so damnedly fascinating.

"This will work." Sigyn said one time, as they stood in the middle of a wasteland in the southern outskirts of the realm. They were surrounded by a mountain of Lynord hide peeled freshly off the bodies.

"But at what cost." Loki groaned, muffled by the hand staunching his bleeding nose. Fighting an enraged herd of carnivorous wildlife armed with only a dagger did that to an Aesir..

Sigyn looked contrite for all of two seconds before a look of determination replaced it. "You're Loki, End, and I'm Sigyn, Victory-bringer. Together we can only end in victory."

"At this rate, I'll be the one to end prematurely and you'll be the only one that lives to see the victory." Loki muttered, as he was dragged off toward the nearest tall tree so they could hoist the hides on the peak and lure the reptile-bird there while Sigyn raided the nest.

"For the advancement of sorcery." Sigyn said solemnly. Loki held out his arms. She stepped on them and reached for the lowest branch.

Loki earned a scar on his shoulder in that incident. Sigyn almost burned off the lower half of her body, because it turned out the mother breathed fire when provoked. Loki had absolutely no complaints. It was but one in the countless insanities they came up with together. Before long, she needed only begin the thread of yet another impossible thought, and he would say, grinning like a loon, "When do we start?" It didn't help matters that she responded to his own suggestions with the same enthusiasm.

It was good times. It was better times than Loki could ever remember having, with occasional adventures, constant experimentation, and excellent company. He learned his way in the complex and often flawed map that was the workings of Sigyn, and she did the same in his. It happened naturally, without disguise or courtesy, defying every standard he'd been accustomed to growing up as a prince. Holding back had no place in their discussions of sorcery and wonders to be. At some point, Loki realized he was spending more time with her than he did with the rest of his family combined. At some point, he realized she knew more about him than anyone did, possibly even his mother, and he was glad for it. At some point, he realized she had stopped counting down to the day she would return to Vanaheim.

At some point, he realized he had a friend.

 

 

 

Asgard was, in general, a large and glittery place. The bridge that connected the Bifrost to the city provided a spectacular view of the architecture, an endless field of golden curves that shone in the evening sun. The doors that opened before them were high enough for a Hulk standing on a Hulk, manned with guards that wore old-fashioned armor made of an unidentifiable alloy. Tony admired the engravings on the path as the docile mare he sat on carried him straight into the heart of the palace, following closely after Thor and Loki.

Before long, deserted halls gave way to a more open space. Marble pillars rose on either side of them, separating the road from the courtyards it passed. Tony could see little Thors in the open, male and female, waving all sorts of pointy objects and bellowing war cries as they charged each other.

"We used to spar here." Thor said wistfully, slowing down so Tony could hear him through the clatter of hooves on stone.

"Uh-huh." Tony responded, distracted by the effort it took to stay upright on his horse. It had been a long time. If his mother hadn't been interested in horses, he would've been slung over somebody else's saddle like a sack.

"Loki is exceptional with a spear." Thor continued, perking up, "He used to wield his like an extension of his limbs. We didn't see nearly enough of him on the training grounds, and it may not be a traditional choice of weapon, but he was the only one who could stand equal to Baldr with a spear-"

He abruptly stopped talking. Tony looked up at him. "Baldr?"

"Our brother. He is in Valhalla now." Thor explained reluctantly.

Tony grimaced, remembering that Valhalla was roughly the equivalent of heaven for Asgard. If heaven only permitted warriors that died in battle through its gates. "Tender subject?" he said.

"Oh, nothing serious." Loki said, steering his horse closer, "Everyone thinks I killed him."

Thor bristled. Because his mouth never knew when to shut up, Tony said, "And they're wrong?"

Loki shrugged. "Does it matter what I say?"

Not a denial, Tony noticed.

"It was Laufey that took his life-" Thor interrupted, looking as if he might burst a vein somewhere vital.

"And it was I that allowed Laufey into the palace." Loki interrupted back. "This is an old discussion, Thor. Let go of it. I see Brana's waiting for us."

True enough, a green-robed woman had emerged from behind one of the pillars, followed by a young girl in plainer clothes. She curtseyed as they approached and dismounted.

"My lords." said the woman, as the girl led the horses away with a whistle.

"Head Healer Brana." Thor acknowledged with a slight nod.

"The Allfather orders you to report to him immediately." She told Thor. "And Loki, I may require your assistance with the assessment of the Aether, so please follow. Lord Stark, you as well." She turned and stepped toward a smaller path branching off from the main road.

 Tony gaped at her in horror as he followed. "I'm not a lord."

 "You are a comrade of prince Thor. It's only respectful."

Tony didn't protest further only because Loki looked ready to munch on popcorn as he looked on with amusement, and Tony was not his personal circus, damn the god's superiority issues.

Brana led them to a nondescript building, which for Asgard meant it was just as golden and shiny as the rest of the city. A spiral of stairs ended in a dimly lit room, and Tony lay down obediently on a slab of stone at the center, following Brana's instructions. It looked like it was directly imported from the sacrificial temples of the ancient Mayan empire. Tony checked surreptitiously for dried blood stains while the healer shuffled about touch-starting things. He promptly forgot about possible threats to his person when a fine layer of golden mist swirled into existence above his body.

 "I can touch it." He breathed, poking a reverent finger of reverence into the mist. "Is tangibility characteristic of the element of this construction or is it purposefully engineered to be touchable, because Loki's magic didn't seem to need to physically manifest to take effect, and it sort of flashes green when he does his stuff which led me to theorize that since it at least partially conveys qualities of both wave and particle as a form of visible light it might- is this the same as that? A variation? How is this thing stabilized enough for me to be able to initiate contact without-"

Brana leveled him with a look that he was used to seeing on Pepper's face, the one that said he was not helping with the Important Stuff and would better shut up before he wasted any more of her time. It was a look of power and scariness. Tony stopped talking.

 He watched the healer work at the magic mist instead. The bottom end of it slowly darkened into a shade of rust, the color pooling so thick near the parts closest to Tony's torso that it looked practically black. Then a lighter gold emerged above the red, crisp and translucent, and a greenish lime surfaced as if following it. Brana's hand hovered inches before the mixture of colors, which swirled like a colorful thunderstorm above a sea of blood.

 "Loki." She called, inquiring, and Tony watched the god cock his head out of the corner of his eyes.

 "You may continue." was the blank reply. Brana braced her palm against the gold-and-green layer and pushed. Tony waited for the magic to slide sideways off the red beneath it, but her hand moved right through the gold, only the green shifting reluctantly along to her manipulation. But even then the green refused to be pushes entirely out. Brana's hand slowed to an involuntary halt when the magic congealed into a murky moss color where it was pressed compact within the leftmost part of the gold.

She gave a few experimental pushes, then detached herself from the jumble of magic when it wouldn't so much as budge. The colors immediately mingled into each other again.

 Brana turned and gave a meaningful look at Loki, who shrugged.

 "The spell seems to be quite literally attached to Stark." Loki explained, "It latched onto him when the container broke, and I could not separate it from him. Even if I could, I doubt it's wise to do so now. I suspect it's accountable for the Aether's failure in taking control of Stark's body, and from what I can see, the Aether's feeding is much slower than I would have expected from what the records say. Detaching the spell may affect the balance of the containment."

 "I see." Brana said, peering contemplatively at the crimson layer of magic that apparently represented the Aether. "The Aether is slow to feed. Lady Idunn's apples will sustain him for a while, but not for long. It must be extracted before the vessel fails."

 "What vessel fails?" Tony asked. Loki and Brana both looked at him, and yeah, if matters hadn't been clear before, they were now.

Someone cleared her throat at the doorway. It was a woman clad in full armor, dark hair pulled into a high ponytail that tumbled down past her shoulders. She was of an imposing height, probably taller than Tony, though she wore flat sandals with straps that spiraled up her toned calves.

“Sif.” Loki said, inclining his head. Sif returned the gesture and fixed her attention on Tony.

“Anthony Stark, I presume.” She said, voice rich and husky. Brana did something with her fingers that sparked an electric tingle down Tony’s sternum, and Tony barely managed to choke out a strangled “Yeah.” as he struggled not to dislodge himself from the slab.

“I am Sif, shield-sister of Thor. I'm to escort you to your room once Brana is done tormenting you with her scrutiny. Brana, the Allfather wishes to speak with you. Loki, you as well.”

“We can go now.” answered the healer, clearing the mist of magic before her with a swipe of her hand. “It’s clear it is indeed the Aether hosted in this body. This is beyond the training of any under my supervision, but I can see the Aether is still near-dormant and will likely remain so for some time. It will have to be re-contained before it collects enough power to attempt true manifestation. I need to consult the Allfather.”

Brana laid a hand briefly on Tony’s shoulder and breezed past with a calm briskness that all medical personnel seemed to possess. She nodded once at Tony by the exit, collected her satchel from the floor, and departed with a brush of chiffon against the doorframe. Loki glanced at Tony with something close to regret and followed her out.

Thumping his head back down onto the stone table, Tony took a moment to cover his eyes with his hands and exhale in a long, pitiful sigh. The adrenaline was wearing off and it had been over forty hours since he last slept. Sif tapped lightly on his wrist, and when he forced open his eyes, she smiled tentatively down at him.

“Forgive me if I overstep, but the wise don't waste energy worrying over things that have left their hands. Brana is the best among out sorceresses. She will find a way soon enough. Meanwhile, I'd like to know more about the man Thor so praises.”

Tony returned her smile and took the hand she offered. She hoisted him all the way to a stand. Whoa, strong- and her wrist was barely thicker than two third of Tony’s. This mortality thing was more unfair than he’d imagined.

“Actually, it’s a relief to see someone smile at me for once, it feels like a lifetime since I saw one of those. And, uh, I’m all for the get-to-know-each-other, but I heard your healer mention something about a vessel failing? Which I’m pretty sure indicates me?”

Sif made a noise of agreement. “The Aether is mostly a thing of legends, but it's rumored to be an elaborate spell of sorts, crafted in the darker parts of the world in a time when Aesir and Vanir were yet to walk the earth. It's said to sustain itself by preying on the life force of living things.” She frowned. “I'm not the best person to be explaining this to you. My expertise is in battle, not sorcery.”

“You’re the only person explaining anything to me. I don’t care as long as you keep talking.”

“Then I talk.” Sif said readily, and handed Tony a goblet of clear liquid. “And you drink. This is made of apples from the garden of Lady Idunn. The Allfather requested them of her when Thor delivered news of your arrival.”

Tony considered the drink in his hands. It looked like apple cider minus the cider, which he hoped tasted better than soda minus the bubbles. He brought it close to his nose and sniffed. “Awesome, magical apple smoothie. What does it do?”

“It makes you immortal.” The goblet stopped halfway to Tony’s mouth. “It also heals the ailing, strengthens the weak, and seals the fate of immortality for Aeisr and Vanir when they come of age. For mortals like you, the effect is but temporary. But so long as you drink constantly you won't age or fall sick. You will have to drink many a goblets if you're to withstand the Aether sucking the life out of your body.”

If Tony had already taken a sip, he would have choked. Actually, he might have puked. He wasn’t sure how much of the nausea showed on his face, but Sif shifted closer with a concerned look so he wasn't doing an overly stellar job of suppressing it.

“Suck the life out of my body?”

"Yes." Sif said, looking like she didn't understand how anyone would be unsettled by the news that a magical artifact of dubious origin was feeding on their life juice.

"Okay." Tony said faintly. "I'll drink." He downed the content of the goblet in one go. "You said something about a room for me?"

Hopefully a bed came with the room. It was possible that he needed to lie down and rethink the direction his life was heading.

 

 

 

"How I've missed this place." Loki said, letting the door slide noiselessly shut behind him. His voice echoed in the empty throne hall. The place was just as cold and just as bleak as he remembered. Taking into account that the last time he was here was for his trial for treason and inter-realm war, it was safe to say the hall was very cold and very bleak indeed. "Though I wonder, isn't it a little cold for Aesir? I wouldn't know."

"Enough with your taunts. I called you to discuss the Aether." Odin said. Loki walked up to the foot of the dais that kept the throne elevated. The Allfather, much like the hall, was the same as when Loki had last seen him. Old and weary. Disappointed. Not regretful at all.

"Oh, but you didn't." Loki brought his heels together like a soldier standing at attention. "I know far less of the Aether than you do, and none of the healers listen to me unless absolutely necessary, anyway. You've already heard of Brana's opinion, you don't have much to hear from me. Did mother tell you to make an attempt at 'resolving' things again?"

Odin didn't answer.

"That would be easy, you know. We only have one question standing in our way. Well, that and a few minor things, like how you didn't tell me I was actually a Frost Giant and was destined from birth to destroy this entire realm. But the one question will do. Mostly." Loki leaned closer. "You let her die. You knew, and let her die. Why?"

Odin continued not to speak.

"A word from you would have prevented it. A word, and you would have saved me. You chose to sit back and watch me suffer. I wish to know the reason."

"If what I explained before I fell to Odinsleep was not enough to assuage your anger, then I have no more to say. Do you not remember?" Odin said finally.

Loki slitted his eyes, making a show of pretending to think. "I remember excuses." he said softly, "I remember betrayal, twice over. Being a son and husband one moment and being neither the next. Pray understand if I don't remember the details from the occasion, I was somewhat surprised by it all."

"Loki-"

"Oh! I remember now. Didn't you mention yourself thinking me a future criminal all along? All the talk about fate and inevitability-"

"I let her die because I saw no other way!" Odin cut in, and he was shouting now, rising off the throne and seeming to swell to twice his size. "Because there is no sacrifice too great, no pain too great to endure, when the realm of Asgard is at stake! You were fated to initiate Ragnarok and bring ruin to this realm, in any future I could see except one- Sigyn would have lived long and hale, in any future except in that one. I am a king and my rule does not let lie a threat to my people. If I have to hurt my son for it, and hurt myself in doing so, then so be it." He sat back heavily. "It was a necessity. There was no other way." He said again, much more quietly.

"A threat." Loki said numbly. "You thought me a threat. You couldn't trust your own son to not start Ragnarok?" He felt his face twist. His teeth ground together. His glamour was slipping, the spell for pale Aesir skin giving way to frosted-over blue in the face of his rage. "But of course, I am not your son. I was never your son. A filthy abandoned Jotun runt, how could you have ever thought me your son?"

" Your blood had no part in this." Odin said sharply, "I wronged you to have kept the truth of your heritage a secret, I admit it, but I wouldn't have trusted Thor with Ragnarok. I wouldn't have trusted myself. Decisions like these are not a matter of personal trust, Loki. They're a matter of eliminating any possibility, however slim."

Loki fought to keep his voice steady. "Excuses." He hissed.

"I see grief blinds you, even after all these years." Odin said heavily.

"As distrust does for you."

"Distrust." A fire leapt into Odin's eyes. "With reason! You murdered a good man for your bitterness, and you blame me for not trusting you with a war that would have ruined us all? You killed Baldr to break my heart, and you have succeeded, Loki, you have succeeded. Baldr was innocent- Sigyn would weep in Valhalla if she knew!"

Silence followed the echo of Odin's shout. Loki could have laughed at his words. He didn't, for fear that he'd be sobbing before the first dry laughter was out of his mouth.

"Baldr was innocent," he said, "And Sigyn was some insufferable abomination? Do me the courtesy of flaunting your hypocrisy elsewhere, Allfather. It makes me rather sick."

Odin cast his gaze downward. "Nothing I say reaches you, it seems." He lamented. "I have lost two sons. One to grief, and one to misdirected rage."

"There is, and was, nothing misdirected about my rage." Loki said cooly. "It's just that some collateral damages can't be avoided. A necessity, so to say. I'm sure you understand the concept." He smiled faintly, though it felt like the last thing he wanted to do.

For a wild moment, Loki thought he would be incinerated on the spot by Gungnir. Odin's fury was palpable in his rigid posture. "If it were not for Frigga-"

"You would what, kill me?" The Allfather was sorely mistaken if he expected the thought to be unsettling. "It'd be a long overdue execution. How late are you- how old am I?"

Odin brought Gungnir down on the dais. "It would do you well to choose your words wisely. If it weren't for the mercy that stirred my blood in those last days of war, you would have been left there, cast out by the Jotuns with nothing to protect you against the cold. Your birthright was to die-"

"My birthright was not to die!" Loki screamed. "It was to live, and light this realm on fire when the time came! You said so yourself. You should have killed me as soon as you saw me. You make me live through this and say it was for mercy?"

He hunched over, short of breath from emotion. When it subsided he straightened and spoke calmly, "If you'll excuse me, I'd rather go and sit in my cell. We don't seem to be resolving anything." The guards would escort him to the dungeons, as was the protocol for the containment of a temporarily excused exile.

Odin didn't look at him as he pointed Gungnir toward the exit in dismissal.

"I once told you and Thor that one of you would ascend to the throne, but that both of you were born to be kings." He said behind Loki when he reached the doors. "I was wrong. You don't understand what it means to choose as a king."

"True. It helps me sleep at night." Loki said, and threw the Aesir glamour back over himself as he left the hall. If the Allfather had taught him one lesson, it was that there was more than one way of being a monster. One could be born a monster; one could choose one's way to being a monster. Loki had learned he was the former, and now, he thought, he had seen the latter, sitting on a throne polished with the blood from millennia of war and sacrifice. It was a fitting lesson for the likes of himself. A useful one, though it may be harsh.

 The only problem was that it came for too heavy a price. Whereas lessons were meant to allow one not to lose things further, this one had left him with nothing further to lose.

Chapter Text

So being held prisoner: Tony knew the drill. Whether it was by a herd of gun-wielding beard-growing terrorists with a proclivity for dunking him repetitively in dirty water, or by a formless alien substance that took hostage of his body by literally taking it as a host, the terms were all the same. Stay docile, and he’d live to see the next day. Stay docile too long, and he’d meet the grisly death that lurked at the end of those next days. Timing was crucial, and if Tony was being honest and not modest at all, he had a superb sense of timing.

In this case, though, the decision of when to launch the counterattack wasn’t in his hands.

After the head healer of Asgard failed to come up an immediate solution to the situation, Tony was passed on to the hands of Odin Allfather, who also failed to come up with a solution. Apparently, should they attempt to extricate the Aether and be anything less than completely successful about it, it might drain Tony’s body and abandon it as a defense mechanism. The key was to keep him alive until the army of sorceresses tasked with the removal and caging of the Aether finished designing a watertight procedure for the extraction. Tony was told it would take three weeks in Earth time at least. He was fine with it. Steve, and Pepper, and Nat, and pretty much everyone back home? Not really. But Tony was fine.

Speaking of fine, being stuck in the middle of an exhilaratingly alien civilization and not being allowed to set a foot outside the palace? That was what was not fine.

As it was, Tony blinked awake on the fifth day of his stay in Asgard about to fall off the foot end of his bed, a remarkable feat considering the thing was wide enough to host an orgy of ten Tonies. He sat up, propping himself against one of the marble bedposts. It had been four days since he had seen Thor, and five since he had seen Loki, who was said to be locked in one of the underground cells. Thor had superficially rainbowed down to Earth to explain Tony’s temporary condition to the rest of the team. Tony had a suspicion that Thor was currently spending his waking hours guarding his loins from a scientess in heels and crying like a heartbroken teen on Hulk’s shoulder.

Tony himself had been spending most of his waking hours lying motionlessly on an examination table while stern-faced sorceresses argued over him in jargon he didn't understand. In his free time he roamed aimlessly along the endless golden corridors of the palace. Sif, for all that she was willing to entertain him with endless tales of battle, had been called for patrols along the borders of the realm shortly after they met. Skirmishes had been frequent throughout Asgard for the past few years, she had explained, and their aftermath hadn’t yet settled.

It had been interesting enough so far poking around on his own. But there were only so many courtyards full of sword-waving people he could stare at before his mind inevitably started wandering, and with strict orders from the king himself not to go beyond certain perimeters, he couldn't even act on his wilder imaginations. Not that rules had ever stopped him, but it seemed best to avoid crossing the most powerful man in the realm.

Today he opted for heading outside to the balconies overlooking the sea. He looked longingly at the various flying transports spraying long trails of foam as they whizzed across the surface. Ambushing hangars, smithies, armories, or any of the like was off-limits, as they were all located well outside the boundaries of the palace.

"Having fun, Stark?"

Tony almost fell over the railing in his haste to turn back. Loki was perched on one of the circular stone tables, hands clasped on crossed legs and smirking that wicked smirk he brought up in occasions of chaos and mass murder.

"I was, but now there's a homicidal villain sitting in front of me." Tony tried to surreptitiously edge closer to the stool he could maybe lift and use as a weapon. Loki slid to his feet and sauntered to the edge of the balcony, leaning on his elbows and looking out at the stretch of water rolling two hundred feet below.

"You're wondering why there are so few people around," he said, "You should excuse them. The impending Convergence is unsettling, I hear, and few are up to relaxing in the sun. Yours is not the only kind afraid of foreign things."

"Convergence?" Tony asked automatically, and hesitated. "Not that it's in any way pleasant to see your face, but wouldn't you be missed in the dungeons? I thought you signed up for indefinite residence there."

The dimming quirk on Loki's lips was the only warning Tony had before the god struck out with the quickness of a viper. His hand passed cleanly through Tony's chest, the wrist connected to Tony's borrowed tunic shimmering with a film of green.

"They won't miss me while I'm still there." Loki leaned back. Illusion. Tony willed his heart to stop beating like it wanted to pop out through his throat. "But I'm bored. The guards are terrible company, and I can't show myself to most people without risking my current status. So here I am, making conversation with the only interesting thing I can afford to talk to."

"And if I run toward the halls screaming that you're cheating on your imprisonment?"

Loki smiled charmingly. "You won't. You're bored, too."

And damn him if Loki wasn't right. Tony crossed his arms.

"Fine. You were talking about a Convergence?"

Loki began to speak, considered something, and stopped. "You know, it seems unfair that I should be entertaining you without getting anything in return. What have you to tell me?"

The thing was, Tony hadn't survived the bloody battlefield that was corporate business by being oblivious to murderous people smiling pleasantly to his face. Loki exuded the atmosphere of a man out for a leisurely stroll, but there was a tightness to his shoulders that stopped Tony from retorting with a careless taunt.

"Okay, one question. Fire." He relented.

"The device in your chest." Loki said immediately. Trust him to zero in on the last thing Tony wanted to discuss out loud.

 "That's a hefty chip you're asking me to hand over. You know it's pretty much the most crucial thing concerning my career as Iron Man, right?"

"Yes. I also know you created it yourself while imprisoned by a group of terrorists by the name of Ten Rings, in Afghanistan. I know it keeps the metal pieces embedded in your chest from piercing your heart, I know it feeds your metal armors, I know that many have attempted- and one succeeded- to steal it. I know you have monopolized the technology and will continue to do so at all costs."

 "Uh." Tony said.

 "Courtesy of Barton. SHIELD has a rather substantial file dedicated to it."

 "If you've read that file, you know almost everything there's to tell. Except how to replicate it, which, as you just pointed out, I'm not telling anyone."

 Loki leaned his cheek on his hand, back curving in a graceful arc. If Tony's eyes wandered a little, it wasn't his fault the poisonous ones always came with the shiniest wrappers. "I want the tale told in your own words. Stories are horridly stale when they're printed in text, don't you think?"

It was a bad, bad idea to rattle off one’s personal details to a superhuman whose idea of fun was likely measured in body counts. A voice in Tony’s head that sounded suspiciously like Steve was telling him to back off, soldier, this ain’t a joke, and Tony had a particular weakness for that voice. In that whenever it told him not to do something, he regressed thirty years and acted contradictory.

"You go first, at least. You baited me."

There was that pleased grin again. Loki drew himself up and walked back to one of the tables, pulling out a stone chair and settling on it. Nine glowing orbs appeared around his head and floated into alignment, laid out in a neat row in the air between them.

"The Convergence is a disruption that arises from the alignment of realms. Think of it as a spear. Every five thousand years, when the positioning is perfect, it rips through the boundaries of the nine realms and pins them together for a brief while." A hole opened on either side of each sphere like an invisible stick had pierced them through. The orbs began to leak through the holes, mingling with one another. "One world spills freely into another, and any creature of abhorrence may sneak its way into brighter worlds. You see how it can be unnerving to some. Asgard takes the matter more seriously than most."

There was that other voice in Tony’s head now, the inner geek, which also made him regress thirty years and be wide-eyed and irrepressibly curious. "Uh-huh. Is that a realm-wide occurrence or does it have a spatial limit?"

"Some areas of a realm are more susceptible to inter-realm transport than others. The Convergence would take effect in one of such areas, I believe."

A horrible thought crossed Tony's mind. "Please don't tell me it'll be New York again."

Loki shrugged. "It is not unlikely."

"Oh, fuck them all." Tony said, outraged. "Can't it ever be somewhere unpopulated? Seventy percent of Earth is oceans, a considerable portion of the land is mountains-"

Loki stood then, looking toward the entrance to the balcony. Tony stopped talking and looked at him warily.

"You're needed elsewhere." Loki said sourly, vanishing the miniature realms and walking toward Tony. It took more will than Tony would've liked to admit to resist stepping back when the god loomed inches from him. Loki touched him lightly on the chest, and a flare of green bloomed and faded on the point of contact. "Come to keep your end of the deal. The guards won't see you when you pass by them."

With that he disappeared. Almost as if on cue, one of the healers rounded the far corner. T suppressed a grimace as he greeted her, knowing he wouldn’t be out for fresh air for the rest of the day.

 

 

 

For a prison cell, Loki's new residence was impressively well furnished. Tony counted two benches, a sofa, and what looked like a reading light posing as a lamp as he approached. Books were littered haphazardly around the tasteful furniture. Loki himself was sprawled inelegantly on a bench, flipping the pages of a book and looking for all the world like he might expire any moment from sheer boredom.

"Having fun?" Tony said dryly. Loki's head snapped up.

"I wasn't expecting you to show up so soon." He closed the book with a snap.

"You said the guards were terrible company." Tony said. "I've come to grace you with mine."

Loki swung his legs down from the bench. "A minute improvement to the guards... and my thoughts." He allowed.

Tony looked around half-heartedly for anything to sit on, found none, and sat down cross-legged on the marble floor. It wasn't exactly pleasant on his trousers-covered butt, but said butt had seen much worse spots to sit on. Like piggyback ride on Hulk's shoulders, or on Clint's secret perch on the left top corner of the Avengers tower that was rigged with twenty different booby traps. At least freezing his ass on cold stone wasn't likely to get him violently mutilated.

 Loki elected to mirror Tony’s gesture and moved down from the bench. He rolled his shoulders languidly, crossing his legs on the pristine white floor. The heel of his boot squeaked against the polished surface.

“I’m due my story.” He looked as gleeful as a child on a Christmas Eve about to get his annual blood sacrifice. Tony drew in a breath. He’d come down to the dungeons out of a curiosity for how things would progress after he kept his end of the exchange, but this part he didn’t like so much. Say too little and Loki would be pissed, but say too much and Tony’s entire planet might be screwed.

“I got it a few years ago. Self-surgery, for the most part, with some help.” He began, testing the waters. "The second biggest shareholder of my company hired terrorists to murder me while I was on a weapons exhibition trip to Afghanistan. Shrapnel got in my chest, but a fellow captive connected me to a car battery and kept them from stabbing my heart. The hired guys decided they could delay the murdering part until after I'd made them a shiny new batch of missiles, I pretended to build said missiles and built an arc reactor and an Iron Man suit instead, and blew everything up as I escaped. This arc reactor inherited the legacy of the car battery, as you know, and fuels the suits. Thanks to that I'm miraculously alive and kicking to this moment, though I have some discomfort in breathing and a hell of a lot of nightmares. End of story."

 Loki considered this. "That shareholder, who if I remember correctly is Obadiah Stane," He ventured, the shrewd bastard.

 "Is irrelevant to the topic. I'm not talking about him." Tony said crisply. Loki narrowed his eyes, displeased.

 "Was he your lover?" He insisted. Tony gaped.

 "What?"

 "I assume that's a no. Cousin, then, or uncle? Unofficial relation by blood?"

 "Godfather. He was just my godfather." Tony ground out. "And that's really none of your fucking business. Kindly fuck off."

For a split second Tony enjoyed the slight surprise on Loki’s face. Surprise, bitch, things bite back when you stab them. And then he remembered reality, and that Loki was one of the least survivable bitches in the multiverse.

Luckily, Loki didn’t seem offended. Instead he seemed intrigued. On second thought, that was probably not a lucky thing at all.

"I see. Another level of privacy, another round of exchange. Do you wish to continue? Stane will be my second ask."

Tony cocked his head. "Another set of questions, you mean?"

Loki spread his hands as if inviting Tony to ask. Tony shifted on the floor, folding up a knee and propping an elbow on it. He drummed his fingers on his chin as he thought.

"Sure. I want to know about the necklace. The one you almost mutilated me over."

"Pick another topic." Loki said curtly.

"Your wife, then." Tony said, watching Loki carefully. "Sigyn, right?"

Loki's face wiped instantly of emotion. "Thor prattled away on things he shouldn't nose in on again. You're treading a dangerous line there, Stark." He warned.

Actually, you told me when you smashed your teeth on mine that one time, Tony resisted the urge to say.

"In that case, back to the necklace. I feel like I deserve to know more about that, circumstances being what they are."

Loki released a long breath. "The necklace it is. It was a gift. From my wife. But something tells me you already know that fact."

Tony nodded encouragingly.

"There isn't much more to tell. I don't know what it is that it was meant to do. I received it prematurely, to keep it for a brief while before she took it back and completed it. I tried to figure out its purpose when she passed, but as things were with most of her unfinished projects, I found only a nonsensical tangle of spells." A light passed in his eyes. "But I could tell it was already a work of unparalleled genius. I daresay I'm quite clever with my magic, but she had the instinct required to hold the essence of sorcery in her hands while I dallied with the more immediately useful aspects of the art. She was the most masterful craftswoman that ever graced the spell-smithies of Vanaheim."

Tony listened without a word as Loki flung himself neatly over the 'dangerous line' he had warned Tony away from. Apparently being asked by somebody else was volatile material, but ranting about it himself with hearts floating in his eyes was fine.

Loki mused on, oblivious to Tony's thoughts, "And not just the spell-smithies. She was the brightest student of Ivalid's eldest before she apprenticed herself to Lady Frigga, Ivalid's eldest being the weaponsmith who crafted Gungnir, the Allfather's spear. She had a habit of randomly gifting people she cherished with weapons she'd personally-"

Judging by the look on his face, Loki had finally remembered himself, expression swiftly turning thunderous. "I didn't ask a thing." Tony said hastily, holding out a placating hand.

Loki eyed him dubiously. “No, I suppose you didn’t. But you’ve heard more than you bargained for. It’s my turn, Stark, and I have some points I’m curious about Stane…”

Tony persevered through Loki’s relentless questioning as the god proceeded to gut Tony of his most personal memories. It was strange. This sort of thing was exactly what Tony never allowed anyone to do. But there was a tugging in his head that hadn’t come to him outside of a lab before, a hungry mix of interest and inevitability that demanded he must figure out the mystery served in front of him. A few uncomfortable confessions was a price he was willing to pay. It made sense, in a way, this curiosity. Loki was as big and twisted a mystery as a scientist could hope to get in a lifetime. But there was an element of familiarity in there too, like leaning too far into a fog-filled mirror and falling in. They were both men that made their own morals. Tony was eager to feel out where Loki had carved his boundaries; he looked into Loki’s eyes and knew that the god shared the sentiment.

So Tony attempted some gutting of his own when his turns came, asking casual questions like: How did it feel to be mind-manipulated by a being far stronger than you, during the Chitauri mess? What did Thanos bait you with? Did Thor betray you first, or did you betray him? To Tony’s surprise, Loki answered most of them. But he shut up like a clam when it came to his wife, or why he committed treason against his dad in the first place. Thor had told the Avengers that Loki was adopted, but he hadn’t mentioned there being any friction over the fact. If anything, Loki had been a relatively responsible prince before he cracked and went apeshit in the blink of an eye. It was what Tony most wanted to stick his head in, but it was also a nut that wouldn’t crack, he could see.

After a dozen rounds of back-and-forth, which Tony later found out had taken most of the night, they ran out of things they were willing to divulge without having a knife to the throat. Tony stood and reluctantly called it a day. That was it for his excuse to visit the resident murderous Shakespearian, then, was it? It wasn't as if a night of mutual interrogation had suddenly made them buddies that visited each other for no reason. Tony wasn't sure if he had that kind of buddies back home.

"Wait." Loki called as he was leaving. "The spell I put on you. The guards are gone for the moment, and if I don't deactivate it now, they won't be able to see you for days."

Tony turned back to face him. "Well, what are you waiting for? Do you need me to get in the cell?"

"There are such things as notifications, Stark. It's a common concept in civilized society." Loki snapped his fingers. Tony would bet six of his backup suits on it being an unnecessary motion meant to show off more than anything. He manfully didn't flinch at the brief sensation of something cold sparking in his chest.

"So it's off me now?" He said, checking himself for signs of discreet magical assault.

Loki picked up a book from the foot of the bench and opened it on his lap. "No. I made it permanent." He began reading.

Tony stared at him for a few seconds, said "Huh," and went back to his room.

 

The next evening he tried to bring a foldable chair to the dungeons- which he always carried around in a compartment in his suit in case of emergency spectacles- and discovered that Asgardian soldiers did not react well to unmanned furniture floating past under their noses. He also discovered that they had a penchant for throwing their spears in random directions when thus provoked, and that he was a faster runner than he had previously thought. Loki found the situation endlessly amusing. The evening after that, Tony wiped the condescension off Loki's face by sprinting past the guards with a stool and not stopping until he reached Loki's cell, at which point he set down the stool gently on the floor and waited for the guards to harass Loki for unauthorized furniture floating.

Tony was frankly astonished that Loki didn't send a giant magic serpent to his rooms to bite off his head.

By unspoken agreement, their conversation after the first day featured less personal things. Tony explained coding intelligence into an incorporeal platform while Loki nodded and said, “Ah, that kind of spell,” to which Tony said, outraged, “It’s not a spell, it’s technology.” Loki spent the rest of that day patiently persuading Tony that yes, it’s technology, and spells are technology also, and how primitive do you have to be to not get that immediately, Stark. Tony might have sulked a little.

Loki, for his part, knew all the secret passageways in this realm and the next, and also in between. “The Bifrost isn’t the only bridge between worlds. There’s one in Asgard not far from here, and a couple more in the west. And what’s the name of the city you mortals have on your other continent? Taipei?” He said, and watched smugly as Tony’s eyes bulged out.

Without visual demonstration to aid him, though, Tony’s descriptions of Earthly things quickly ran out of juice. It was inevitable when Loki did not speak the language of equations, and it wasn’t like Tony could teach him the necessary math in the space of a few days. Soon enough Loki was doing most of the talking while Tony listened on with genuine rapture, for Loki was, as every resource had suggested, an exceptional storyteller. He expertly threaded imagery through breathtaking odyssey, humor through solemnity. He spoke of Nidhoggr, the giant dragon that scratched at the roots of the World-Tree Yggdrasil with vows of vengeance; of Mimir's well that yielded wisdom to all those who drank from it; of the great war between Aesir and Vanir that had led to the death of Mimir the Wise, after whom the well was named.

The narratives grew exquisitely more vivid as days turned to a week and more. Each day when the sorceresses shook their heads and handed him a goblet of apple juice, Tony found himself strolling down to the dungeons instead of retiring to his quarters. Both he and Loki were aware that it had long since stopped being the back-and-forth deal they’d agreed on. Neither were compelled to point it out. Loki spoke, Tony asked questions that in turn delighted and scandalized the god. It was a fair enough exchange, in Tony's opinion.

All in all, Tony was proud to say that he managed not to fuck anything up for the entirety of sixteen days.

"-and so the Allfather sees the future in his dreams, through the hollow eye that he paid Mimir in exchange for his vision." Loki was saying one such day.

 "All right, this is frustrating as hell." Tony groaned, out of the blue. Seeing Loki’s eyes narrow, he hastily added, “Not you, not you. Your stories are fantastic. But a guy needs to stretch his legs once in a while, and they’re still not letting me out of the palace. Which is huge enough, by the way, don't get me wrong, but it's all gold and marble and people shaking weapons and asking me to spar with them. Not the most stimulating stuff for people like me." He breathed out. “What’s taking them so long, anyway?”

 Was that genuine sympathy in Loki’s eyes? He, Tony, or the fucking universe: one or more of these things were going mad. “The healers of Asgard are competent in their field, but their expertise is short-ranged. More versatile spell-makers have long since been driven out to the peripheries of Vanaheim, and they’re few in number now. Sorcery in battle is dishonorable, you see.” Loki spat the word like it offended him. Taking into account his fighting style from New York, which had been fifty percent magic and fifty percent insanity, it wouldn’t be strange if it did.

“But they may find their work easier if they had access to the recording of the ancient rites of Svarthalfheim. It used to be stored in the treasury."

 "Used to?"

 "An aspiring sorcerer appropriated them for academic purposes."

 Tony knew the look on Loki’s face. "That aspiring sorcerer doesn't happen to be sitting in front of me, does he?"

 Loki smiled wickedly. "That I can't say. But I can say I have somewhat less limited knowledge on the sealing of ancient artifacts than the sorceresses currently put to task."

"Right." Tony said slowly. “And said less limited knowledge is being wasted in a cell doing nothing. Do you want your magic back or not? I thought you couldn’t do much to take it back before the Aether’s out of me.”

"Doing nothing? You insult me. I am putting it to use. It’s a private effort, as having twenty useless sorceresses glaring at me with contempt only hinders progress." He hummed thoughtfully. “Though I could use an opportunity to look at you more closely.”

 Tony understood the idea: more heads could sometimes mean nothing better than more distraction. He also understood what Clint had meant when he said fuck you, Tony, but we can’t just sit on the couch and wait for you to save the world alone in your laboratory. Role reversal gave perspective, who knew.

He stood and walked over to the modest lever in the corner that kept up the transparent barrier keeping Loki in. It took effort to pull it down- why did everything weigh two tons in Asgard- but he heard the satisfying buzz as the barrier was deactivated.

 "Out, please."

“What are you doing?” Loki said, sounding like he was talking to himself in front of an intelligent monkey doing tricks in a zoo.

“Presenting an opportunity to look at the subject more closely.” He tilted his head, posture loose, chest and arc reactor unprotected. Offering.

 "As tempting as that is, you know I’m not stepping out without the Allfather's explicit permission. I've no wish for unnecessary complications on my status."

 "Fine. Then I'm going in." Tony informed him, and promptly hoisted himself onto the raised floor of the cell. "I'm bored out of my mind, ergo I can't be trusted to make sound decisions. Now stop looking at me like that and move over for the delicate mortal. I want to sit." Loki pushed himself off the bench. Tony took his place.

 "Are you out of your mind?" Loki said mildly. His eyes darted across the empty corridor, searching for guards and finding none.

 "I just said I am. And I know you want your magic safely back, so you can’t hurt me too badly."

 "I can't hurt you too badly." Loki agreed. "But I could hurt you, not too badly."

 A spidery hand ghosted over Tony's cheek as Loki leaned down and took Tony’s head in his hand. Tony... hadn't put serious thought to that possibility. One, he’d thought they were past that stage of antagonism, and two, boredom really put stress on his fragile rationality. But he definitely should have thought about it more. It was certainly the only thing he could think about now.

Loki moved even closer to Tony, as if to whisper a secret in his ear. His breath was a soft and hair-raisingly present thing on Tony’s skin, blowing puffs of air against it as a hand snaked down Tony’s thigh to grasp lightly at his knee. God, not his knee. Better than his arm, but still a mile away from acceptable loss. Tony tried to repress a shudder.

 Loki snorted a laugh right into Tony's ear.

 He straightened before Tony could finish flinching away from the sound. He grabbed hold of either side of Tony's ribs and lifted him up, releasing him onto his feet outside the cell. A flick of a hand later the lever groaned obediently into position. Loki stood close to the edge like nothing had happened, hands clasped behind his back and eyes glittering with mischief. His mouth was thinned in a way that Tony recognized as barely contained mirth.

 Tony stared at him. "You asshole."

Loki tutted, insufferably gleeful. "Someone had to teach you self-preservation."

"Believe me, many have tried. I’ve heard that's an impossible thing."

“Are your legs shaking?” Loki said innocently. The concern on his face was so sincere than Tony wanted to punch it off.

“Fuck you.”

“I’ll consider it.” Loki snickered. Tony was pretty sure his jaw was on the floor. Okay, now his legs were shaking- there might be a man on Earth who could be unmoved by seeing Loki joke, flirt, and giggle, all in a day, but he wasn’t Tony.

“Uh.” He said eloquently.

“Go and sleep, Stark. I have an updated scan of you now. I will work on it.” A swirl of green materialized beside Loki, shaping itself into a transparent Tony with crimson highlights shifting inside.

“Okay.” Tony allowed a swift exit for himself. He was not running. Or fleeing. It was a strategic retreat.

Despite Loki’s suggestion, Tony didn’t find much sleep that night.

 

 

 

As a generally charming and prudent man with an occasional lapse of good judgment, Loki managed not to succumb to the latter for a full year since he met Sigyn. And when he finally did, it was for a good cause. He had hoped putting his neck out for someone else’s want instead of his own might persuade unknown forces in the world to make it less likely to be severed. As most hopes were, it had turned out to be misguided.

For the moment, at least, his head was mounted securely on his shoulders- though having his mouth stitched shut with steel wire hurt like the seventeen layers of Hel. Despite this biased opinion, Loki thought there could have been more painful and less annoying methods of retribution. But he understood it was more about the sentiment than it was about efficiency, and he had been the one to lose the bet, so he’d deferred to the winning side’s preference without a word of complaint.

That being said, they hadn’t said anything about being tied upside-down to the trunk of a pine while the sun set and the wolves began to howl in the distance. Loki thought it might have something to do with how he’d lost the bet and stolen the prize anyway. As most of his spells required either or both of his mouth and hands, he was beginning to feel a mild concern about the situation.

A branch snapped to his left. He looked toward it, and let out an exhale of relief as he spotted an upside-down Sigyn hurrying near him. She flicked her fingers as she approached, dumping Loki unceremoniously onto his face.

Loki rose unsteadily to his feet. Any protest died on his lips, however, when he saw Sigyn was shaking all over, ashen-faced in the moonlight.

"Sig-" He began, muffled, and winced when it pulled on the stitches.

Sigyn punched him on the jaw.

One might expect a sensible female to resort to slapping to convey her displeasure. As the female in front of Loki was in no way or manner sensible, she swung her fist into Loki's cheek with the full weight of her fury behind it. Both of them curled over immediately, Loki holding his face, Sigyn holding her hand.

A few careful pokes confirmed the blow had mercifully missed his lips. Loki straightened quickly, swiping his fingers over his mouth and easing the wire out of his flesh with a spell.

"I thought you were dead." Sygin's voice was uncharacteristically quiet. There were tears in her eyes. Loki had never been more terrified in his life.

He spat out the ring he'd held in his mouth. It had been conveniently sewn away from reach and thus had stayed undiscovered when the smithymasters searched him for their stolen treasure. The enchanted silver shone through the spit-and-blood gore that covered its surface. Loki cleansed it with yet another spell and held it out.

"You said you needed Vielung's silver."

Sigyn looked down at it. "I don't want it." She gritted out. Loki would suffer her balding spell fifty times over if it made her stop looking at him like that, like he had somehow betrayed her by what, wanting to surprise her with something shiny? This was not how he'd expected her to react.

"It was just a harmless bet. I lost it, true, but I kept the prize." He tried. "For a cheap price."

Judging by the way Sigyn stiffened, it was the wrong thing to say. "Cheap?" She repeated, a tremor in her voice. "You make a bet with the Giant smiths under the southern mountains, who rarely care to distinguish between flattening out steel and flattening out people, you get your mouth stitched shut and they leave you to die, which you would have if I hadn't come here searching for your body- and you call it a cheap price? For a ring?"

Loki understood it wasn't the right time to remind her that the ring was worth more than half the gold in Asgard's palace. "I'm sorry." He said instead.

"Get eaten by wolves." Sigyn turned and stalked back into the forest. Loki watched her go helplessly. He tucked the ring securely away and started after her.

Chapter Text

One of the few things Loki could praise honestly about his brother was that he easily made friends. And kept most of them, somehow. Loki disliked that he couldn't say the same for himself, but it was a pain he'd have to endure for being born to a society comprised mostly of morons.

Nevertheless, since he had recently restarted his habit of making bad decisions, he thought he might as well go all the way and ask Thor for advice.

Thor was sprawled on the shallow stairs leading down to one of the halls, his red cape pooled around the pillar he was resting his back against. It had been something of a conspiracy spot for them since their childhood. The birthplace of many a disaster, just between the two of them; Baldr had not yet come to Asgard to claim his position as a child of Odin.

“So this friend is angry at you and you do not know how to resolve the situation.” Thor summarized, after Loki had spilled the necessary details while being as vague as possible. Loki nodded mutely.

Thor looked around to make sure Frigga was not nearby. "Find him a fine woman to lie with. I guarantee you, it will warm him within a day."

"It's a woman. And she doesn't pursue woman." Loki paused. "I think."

"Then the matter is simpler!" Thor exclaimed, pleased. "Lie with her yourself."

"I'm leaving." Loki said.

Thor grabbed him by the back of the collar as he attempted to rise. Loki flopped back onto his seat, scowling and already devising twenty different curses to hide under his brother's pillow.

They sat together silently for a long moment.

“Flowers?” Thor hazarded. Loki snorted.

"She'd burn them and stuff the ash down my throat."

"A fine dress."

"She has a severely limited understanding of what constitutes 'fine' when it comes to clothing. I doubt she'd notice the effort."

Thor was beginning to look sincerely lost. As what Loki was feeling didn't stray far from the sentiment, he took pity on Thor and shook his head, rising to his feet.

"I'll just go and break down her door, and then think. Might as well do it her style." He inhaled and grimaced. "Go and dunk yourself in a river, Thor. You stink."

"I sparred with Baldr. If only our brother would join us sometime..." He poked Loki rather painfully in the side. Feeling uncharitable, Loki poked him back twice as hard in his ribs. Thor seemed delighted by this reaction, and Loki barely escaped an impromptu brawl by hurrying back up the stairs.

 

To Loki's horror, the next day found him standing at Sigyn's door without a plan of attack, clutching a silver flower in front of him like a shield. As the metal from the ring had been scarcely enough to fashion the tiniest of flowers, he didn't feel much protected by it. He knocked twice. Sigyn opened the door.

"Hello." That was about all of the speech he had prepared.

Sigyn attempted to shut the door in his face. He managed to stick in a foot in the gap before it closed completely.

"I'm sorry!" He cried hastily.

Sigyn threw open the door at this, anger lighting on her face like a hearthfire. "Do you even know why you're saying that?"

In the past, Thor had repeatedly complained to Loki on this pattern of the female speech: asking rhetorical questions serving to shut people up instead of make them speak. The vicarious experience had done nothing to prepare him.

"If you don't, I have a Destroyer to work on, it still won't work without my constantly feeding it energy. I suggest you go."

She averted her eyes.

"Sigyn." Loki said beseechingly. "Would you- look at me. I apologize. I admit I don't know how I've angered you, but if you would tell me, I'd listen."

Sigyn stared adamantly at the embroidery on the left corner of Loki's tunic. After a while she reached out and plucked the flower from his hand. She sighed.

“You’re the one who’s good with words.” She mumbled, still not looking at him. “So do not laugh at me, understood? I’ll have to be blunt. I don’t have any flowery words.”

Loki searched Sigyn’s face, unsure where this was heading. She was fidgeting with the hem of her sleeves.

She drew in a sharp breath. “Don’t ever dare to be hurt for- for something like this." She shook the flower under Loki's nose. "For anything. It’s not worth it, and I don’t want it. You’re important. You’re the only- you’re very important, you have to know.” The tension bled out of her figure. She appeared uncertain, vulnerable. “You’re important.” She repeated.

Loki had no words in his mind that would make a fitting response. But there was something incoherently large straining in his chest¸ and he worked his throat, wanting to give it voice.

“I,” He faltered there. He was suddenly so aware of himself, of Sigyn, of the subtle something between them that he had seen but hadn’t noticed before. He had seen her in sleepclothes on about a hundred occasions. He had seen her scale the walls of the palace in them, spill mead all over the front, and set fire to them while still wearing them in a memorable attempt at drunken weaponcraft.

And now, for the first time of all those hundred times, he noticed they fell just under her knees. The collar sweeped below her collarbones and barely kept her shoulders covered, hopelessly askew, the strings half unclasped. Her face and throat were framed in tousled curls. Loki had laughed with her over the abysmal excuses of poetry that some lovers in the palace sang each other on the balcony, but now, looking at her eyes, he was indeed reminded of stars; he heard quiet rivers in the cadence of her voice, felt steel in the way she forged her will into words.

Lie with her, Thor’s voice echoed frantically in his head in a random, panicked reaction. Lie with her, lie with her. Loki’s mouth was painfully dry. He was going to kill Thor.

He leaned in and kissed Sigyn on the mouth.

They were both frozen for a moment before Loki remembered himself and jerked away. Sigyn was no longer avoiding his eyes. She was gawking open-mouthed and wide-eyed at Loki, whose face was going through all sorts of embarrassing contortions in a futile attempt to appear natural. Loki wished he hadn’t handed over the silver first before his mind decided to cede all reason. He should supposedly have been able to improvise a grounding point from it and open a temporary gateway to another realm. He would’ve gladly thrown himself into the eternally burning flames of Helheim if it meant he didn’t have to stand here now.

“I,” Loki said, again, wracking his brain for something, anything to say. He could find none.

Despite his efforts, she must have seen something in his expression. Loki watched a realization dawn on her, not sure exactly what she had seen, fearing it was something that she found inadequate.

“Well.” She said. And this time she was the one to kiss him.

They tumbled into the room plastered from face to knees, Loki groping blindly behind them to close the door. There was a presence that felt annoyingly like Thor's cheering maniacally in the back of his head, showering sparks everywhere and packing away higher cognition in favor of instincts. Loki realized dimly that Thor's advice had, though convolutedly, turned out to be effective after all.

He was still going to kill Thor. But only after getting him the largest barrel of mead in the history of inebriation.

 

 

 

Loki watched the mortal's receding back until he disappeared up the stairs. He continued to be a mystery to Loki, less so in his endless intriguing qualities and more in that the man was inexplicably familiar to him, each moment of revelation feeling like it was recalled instead of discovered.

He turned toward the other side of the cell, stacking the scattered books on the bench with a wave of his hand. "Mother, please show yourself. Eavesdropping does not befit you."

Frigga's slender form shimmered into focus in front of him.

"I only wished to talk to you. I didn't expect there to be another visitor."

"I usually don't have one. Though Odin keeps sending me company." He nodded toward the line of cells half-filled with fugitives.

Frigga sat on the edge of the bench. Loki paced slowly in front of her, refusing to look at her too closely. He would not be able to maintain his composure should he do so.

"We haven't had the chance to speak properly since," she paused. "The void." He knew she was speaking of his fall into the void, and by extension his spectacular episode of treason. He had been returned to Asgard after the Tesseract incident but his trial had begun immediately after, and he hadn't had the chance to meet personally with anyone before he was exiled from the realm.

"Do you suffer for her still?" Frigga said, regarding him knowingly. "Even knowing she is in Valhalla, happy amid all that she deserves and more?"

"Happy?" He ceased his pacing. "Without me? Knowing I've been left here to rot without her? Clearly you do not know her well."

Both of them knew the accusation to be untrue. Loki tilted his head, dared to look Frigga in the eye.

"Or are you suggesting she would've forgotten me?"

Frigga's gaze dropped to the floor. "Forgive me, my son. That wasn't what I meant to insinuate."

A long breath escaped Loki. "No, it's you who must forgive me. You're not to be blamed."

"You speak as if you blame someone else. Do you still blame your father?"

"Do I blame him," Loki spat. "Who else? Bar myself, of course, for being cursed with the fate that inspired him in the first place. But at least it was not my choice. Odin chose to doom me to this."

"Your father-"

"He's not my father!"

The walls echoed back his shout. Loki wasn't one given to raising his voice, and the aftertaste sat raw in his throat.

"Then am I not your mother?" Frigga said softly.

"Did you know? As he did?"

Loki saw the first crack in her expression then. "I did not. You know this."

He shrugged. "You see why I still have a mother." Frigga's eyes had a film of wetness. Loki refused to crumble. "I will not slovel at Odin's feet and beg for mercy like an abandoned dog. Nor will I laugh and dine with those who call me a monster." He lowered his head. "Perhaps rightly so."

" No one thinks you a monster." Frigga said sharply. Then, quietly: "Come home."

I don't have one, Loki thought. "I'm past the age to be soothed by fallacies, mother." He touched Frigga's outstretched hand with his own and watched them pass through each other with a faint glow. "And past the naivete that would have blinded me to an illusion."

Frigga looked up at him with openly wet eyes. "I've done everything in my power to comfort you."

"So you have." Loki muttered. He turned his back to her. "I appreciate your thoughts. But I would rather be alone now."

He felt a light hand on his back, though it was impossible that an illusion should have weight. "I will see you again." she said. Without looking, Loki knew that she left.

 

 

 

For some reason, Loki was in a subdued mood when Tony next visited him. He watched Tony as he approached, in that distant, critical way that Tony hadn't been at the receiving end of for a while. It was downright unnerving, how solid a mask Loki's face could be. Expressionless, intentless, painted over in an impenetrable layer of disinterest. This was Loki in armor, Tony knew. It was so different from the naked desperation he had worn during the New York invasion, Tony found it hard to believe he had ever thought Loki was himself during the attack.

"Skip the culture lesson today?" Tony suggested, flopping down in front of the god nevertheless.

Loki tilted his head, looking down at Tony from where he was standing near one wall. "You know, you're quite amicable towards me, Stark, considering I caused some hundred casualties in your realm but a year ago." he said. Tony took that as a yes.

"While mind-controlled by a creepy space deity called Thanos, you left that part out. You wouldn't even be in that cell if..." He waved about a hand. He didn't know what exactly it was that Loki had done, except that it was a family matter and was sixty different colors of classified.

"Exile is my sentence for helping the Frost Giants invade the palace before New York." Loki supplied.

Tony whistled. "That's taking authority issues to another level."

"I believe there is a veritable plethora of 'another level's that I've cleared in that aspect." Tony hummed in agreement. "And yet, knowing this, you continue to speak with me. Not because you're afraid or wary of me, but because you're curious of me. Why would that be?"

Tony frowned. "I don't know. You're pretty decent when you want to be." he said cautiously.

"And if someday I decided I don't want to be 'decent'?"

"You lie, you deceive, you stab my back and slit my throat?"

Loki made a frustrated sound. Okay, maybe Tony had said that a little too casually. But really, thanks to his joke of a life, Tony had a danger sensor a million times more refined than the average human's, and it hadn't rang out a peep in the presence of Loki for a long, long while.

Loki sat on the ground, slouching so he was as close to eye-level with Tony as possible. “Lies do not tell lies about the speaker, Stark. It is liars who lie, and deceivers who deceive, and only the strong-hearted dare to reveal their truth. I lie like I breathe. Do not assume a beast does not live beneath my beastly skin, just because I have fair enough words to convince you otherwise.”

Tony leaned back and crossed his legs, chin tilted back that obnoxious inch. Just the way he used to goad an entire roomful of professionals into making a verbal mudfight out of a board meeting.

“Convince me?” he said. “You don’t sound like you’re trying to convince me much. Also, are you seriously trying to convince me you’re a treacherous lying monster, Lokes? Because a) none of that is news, thanks, and b) that would make you an honest liar, which frankly isn’t so much convincing as confusing.”

“I am merely doing you a favor by warning you of the obvious, not baring the bottom of my soul to you.” Oh yes, that was definitely annoyance in Loki’s voice. Tony didn’t know why it thrilled him so much to irritate people, but it was probably related to how it tended to make people slip and reveal something they didn’t intend to. His habit of goading had brought him some cathartic checkmates in the past.

He preferred not to think about how it might also be his painful and unfortunate end one day.

“Blah, I don’t listen to warnings.” He watched Loki's fingers twitch beside his hip, deceptively lax. “I don’t listen to anything people say, in fact. I've had my fair share of advice, and none of it stopped my life from diving headfirst into the fuckhole it’s been through. So rest assured I’m not listening to a single thing you say.” He stood and brushed dust off the back of his pants. He was the one looking down at Loki now. "Besides, you're a liar who says he’s a monster. What am I supposed to think?”

Loki looked vaguely constipated. “You’re a fascinating aggravation. But an aggravation nonetheless.”

“And yours is an aggravating fascination.” Tony retorted, and stuck his tongue out, because one of the few perks of being in Asgard was that nobody thought you had to act like an adult before you had a couple millennia under your belt. "Also, it pains me greatly to say this, but beastly skin? For someone with an ego like yours, I wouldn't have guessed-"

A rumble in the air interrupted him, vibrating through the floor and reaching Tony's feet. A moment of lull, then another quake, stronger and nearer.

"Jarvis." Tony said distractedly, groping around his wrist for his portable gauntlet-turned-wristwatch. Then he remembered he was in Asgard, and that both his AI sidekick and his lifesaver piece of tech were absent. His suit was in his room. Something told him this was not good.

"I don't suppose you know what that was?" Tony asked Loki, who was leaning dangerously close to the thrumming front of his cell, peering around with narrowed eyes.

"I believe I do." Loki bent closer still. "I smell their cold."

"Right. That's not weird at all." Tony muttered.

"And something else- Stark, leave." Loki's voice suddenly turned sharper.

"I can't believe I'm saying this to you of all people," Tony was now frantically tapping his right forearm. He'd implanted the chip somewhere here... "But you're unarmed and locked in a cell, and I see the good ol' fashioned lever's been replaced with some magicky thing that I have no idea how to disen-"

"I can sense powerful dark spells, similar to the one you host in you- it's the Dark Elves. They've come for the Aether."

Tony finally felt out the chip embedded below his elbow and activated it. It hurt like a motherfucker as it broke skin and unfolded down his wrist, closing around his hand and providing an emergency repulsor. "What." He gritted out.

Loki tutted impatiently. "I said, the Dark elves have come for you. And if I'm not mistaken, they can sense the Aether. They know where you are. They'll kill you and take the Aether, so leave."

"Well, I hear I'm durable." The gauntlet finished rolling down to the tips of his fingers, shedding pieces of skin. "I really need to think of a better place to hide this, by the way."

The next instance, Tony was standing in front of a long, thin, and pointy spike of green magic that had spouted out of the ground by his feet and ended less than an inch from his nose. "Good. If they take hold of you and therefore her magic, I will personally see you murdered, slowly and painfully. I'm glad to know you'll last long."

"I'll go now." Tony agreed. Loki withdrew his spell.

"Take the stairs to the left, go straight to the queen. She will know how to conceal you." He said to Tony's retreating back.

The guards were absent when Tony sprinted past their posts at the entrance of the dungeons. He maneuvered around the complicated stairways, heading straight toward his quarters and engaging emergency summons as soon as he came within range of the suit's signal. Advanced alien civilization or not, having no satellites sucked.

The suit landed softly on his back, heavy on the ammo and ready to wipe out a city or two of frosty villains.

"Jarvis Junior?" He tested.

"Present and prepared, sir." said the voice in his suit.

"Awesome. Repulsor standard to sixty, we're going in fast and furious."

He took off with a blast of repulsor charge. From the sky, the heart of the palace seemed unaffected as of yet. The commotion was centered near the section opening to the sea, where a ridiculously large T-shaped airship was spewing out a herd of smaller, faster ones. Tony hung suspended in the air, considering the directions and trying to decide how best to navigate deeper into the palace.

A scream broke his thoughts, ending as abruptly as it had begun. Tony angled himself toward the source that he recognized as the left wing of the healing quarters. There was no door or window in sight, but part of the right side wall looked suspiciously different from the rest.

“Please be a secret door, please be a secret door,” Considering Tony's luck, it was in all likelihood just a paintjob gone wrong. He hurtled toward the wall, two seconds, one second, impact- and he crashed through an explosion of stone and dust, landing in a slightly tattered heap of metal on the other side.

“Oops, not a secret door.” He straightened from his crouch. There were currently about a dozen wide pairs of eyes fixed on him, which, Tony was no stranger to attention, but it was weird to have the majority of that attention come from blood-red eyes attached to the faces of blue skinheads hovering twelve feet in the air. They stood in silence for a petrified moment, staring at each other.

Tony decided to break the ice himself and shot a repulsor beam at the nether regions of the nearest Frost Giant.

The blast was powered enough to obliterate any trace of balls, but for some godforsaken reason it didn’t manage a scratch on the giant's skin. Tony knew this because the repulsor had successfully disintegrated his loincloth to dust, thus leaving Tony with an uninterrupted view of giant, pristine balls.

“My eyes!” he cried pitifully. It broke everyone’s stupor. The targeted giant lunged toward him with a furious growl, not even bothering to cover his private bits- which Tony was rapidly discovering to be an effective combat tactic, since now Tony was the one who had to cover his eyes to guard his sanity. He dodged, right, left, then left again.

The healers were vicious once they recovered from the shock. The invaders were either choking on nothing, or their eyeballs were literally popping out of their heads for no visible reason. Tony stood in the middle of it all and delivered carefully aimed repulsor shots to necks and knee joints. One of the Frost Giants barged past his defense, sweeping him off his feet with a swipe of massive fist.

"Anthony Stark!"

The pointed end of a blade protruded from the chest of the giant about to decapitate Tony. As the body collapsed, the blade- which Tony could now see was the sharp side of a black spear- flew back on its own into the hands of none other than the queen, who was standing by the door that Tony had accidentally dislodged.

Tony wobbled to his feet. There wasn't any Frost Giant left standing. "Excellent timing, er, your highness."

Frigga was at his side in seconds. She took his wrist in hand and began dragging him toward the stairs, all two-hundred-something kilograms of his suited body. The surviving sorceresses shuffled out of their way. "I need you to do as I say, no questions." she whispered. "There is a Destroyer guarding the treasury-"

They reached ground level and burst out of a side door, into a courtyard full of masked humanoids that immediately leveled their guns on them. Only two of them had their faces exposed. One of them appeared to be a bizarre crossbreed between human and ox, and the other looked like he'd had a makeup accident involving a faceful of concealer five tones lighter than his skin.

"Here comes the queen." Chalkyface said in the typical gravelly bass of villains. "And the Aether, too. Kind of you to deliver it to us."

"Okay, I know you said no questions..." Tony said under his breath, readying his miniature missiles. Frigga beat him to it, raising a hand and catching the first round of fire on a transparent barrier of magic.

"Back in here- quick!"

They scrambled back into the building. Frigga tapped the wall with her spear before taking off in the direction of yet another stairway, and whatever she did temporarily stopped the Dark Elves from following after them. They dashed down several flights of stairs, deeper than Tony had ever ventured to go, deeper than the dungeons. The final floor they reached was lit in lamplights on each side of the wall, flickering blue in the dark. They ran to the end of the corridor and turned right.

Tony almost collided with Frigga's back when she stopped. Then he saw the reason she had stopped and blanched.

Dozens of Frost Giants were amassed in front of a high, narrow entrance to a chamber. Standing face-to-face to them was a metal beast of a standing machine, vaguely resembling humans and gathering fire in the hole in its face. Its entire upper torso was glowing with the heat, and Tony wondered why it wouldn't fire at the Frost Giants. They turned toward Tony and Frigga, having heard their approach.

Frigga clutched the arm of Tony's suit. "That is the Destroyer. It guards the royal treasury, and it will not come out of there. But I can send us in. Neither the Jotunns nor the Dark Elves will be able to touch us once we are in the treasury."

Behind them, the Dark Elves arrived on the scene in a clatter of footsteps. Frigga lifted her spear. "Run."

Tony did. He sprinted toward the Frost Giants, boosted by the repulsors on his feet, ducked, swerved, and rolled when he came into contact with one of the Jotunns. He caught a glimpse of Frigga as he did. The queen of Asgard was a formidable fighter with her long black spear and her deadly use of spells, hitting her enemies with crackles of green lightening that immobilized them. A particularly blinding flash of light blinded him for a second, and he stumbled into a giant, who hurled him to the ground. Tony struggled to regain balance, disoriented.

The Frost Giant brought his feet down on Tony's stomach.

All the breath in his lungs left him in a rush. The armor caved under the weight, crushing Tony's right side. Distantly he heard Frigga shout his name. The next moment he was airborne, tossed by an invisible hand past the Frost Giants flocked about him, past the silent metal guard that stood immobile. He bounced and skidded his way across the treasury, and abruptly felt the magic pushing him cease, angry shouts carrying through the haze in his head.

He lost consciousness to the rusty screech of metal beginning to move.