"As your team captain, I am disgusted that you got caught."
Loki looked bored as the younger boy lectured him. Team captain or not, Tony Stark was still beneath him.
"Rogers asked Rhodey to tell me to tell you to stop cheating. All I'm asking is that you get better at it. You stop being an asset to the team, you're off it."
Loki began a retort to that, but Stark spoke over him.
"And don't start with who your father is, Odinson, or I might have to remind you who I am. The Minister of Magic may have influence here but it's nothing compared to what it means to be the genius behind Stark Spellworks."
"Well, I'd like to think that some wizards still respect tradition," Loki said. "I don't know what people see in the spawn of a muggle-born witch and a wizard who turned the most tried and true spells on their heads."
"Did I mention my parents?" Tony growled, eyes darkening. "No, I'm the one you have to worry about. The one who's a master of enchantments, invented the magical multitool, revolutionized broomstick technology. Go ahead, ask Professor Lensherr who he'd rather have on the Slytherin Quidditch team, you or me. But remember to tell him that if I go, I'm taking my brooms with me."
Loki laughed and shook his head, holding up his Firebolt 480. "Stark brooms aren't the best in the world. How do you like to put it? They've still got a few kinks to work out. Besides, all a Quidditch team really needs is a sharp-eyed Seeker on a fast broom. And that is me." Loki leaned forward, smiling. "So I might just take you up on that challenge."
Tony sighed in aggravation. "This is a waste of time. Look, do you enjoy getting caught cheating?"
"So next time do better," Tony said, turning away from the taller fifth year. Great Salazar's ghost, these pissing matches were exhausting. Tony needed the refuge of his workshop.
He strolled down the passage he'd found in his third year. It had been collapsed then, but he'd excavated and reinforced it. He entered the rooms he rented for his private experiments, set down his bag, and clapped his hands. "All right! What are we working on today? Jarvey?"
A large ferret-like creature crawled out of his bag and scrambled across the worktable. "The stabilizing charms on the broomsticks could use some work, sir," the creature spoke. "You may also want to look at building a new wand casing. The more you use the enhanced core, the faster the wood disintegrates, and you have been rather busy recently."
He got completely lost in the wand design, and it was hours later when he looked up to find a small black owl alighting on his worktable.
"What are you doing in here, Dummy? I don't need a mail carrier, I need an extra hand, or possibly a third superintelligent brain. Never could reproduce whatever I did to Jarvey, though."
"I rather enjoy being one-of-a-kind," the enchanted rodent offered. "In any case, it looks as though Dummy already has a letter."
"Ha! You're right. Who's been using my owls without asking?" Tony untied the letter from Dummy's leg and opened it.
It was from Pepper.
The bookish Hufflepuff had taken a liking to him, spirits only knew why. Well, he was Tony Stark, of course, but this wasn't the usual hero worship. She actually seemed to take an interest in what he did and not just who he was.
Something tells me this will find you off school grounds without permission. I won't expect you at chess club, or dinner for that matter, but please do eat, and if you get a chance, remember to do your astronomy essay. I suspect you'll just get Jarvey to write it, but if you do, please don't tell me about it. It hurts my soul. Yours, Pepper Potts.
They had met second year, in the chess club that Pepper had organized. Tony supposed he could see why she spent so much effort socializing with people from other houses - the other Hufflepuff girls of their year, Janet Van Dyne and Darcy Lewis, were "certainly very friendly," as Pepper once put it diplomatically, but they were annoying in the extreme and were rarely seen without each other, except when Janet was on the Quidditch pitch. And they certainly didn't have the patience for wizard's chess.
Tony looked at the letter, looked at his work, and looked at Dummy. He went to the shelves and dug out some owl treats, as well as a stick of Wonka gum to chew as he worked. As far as he was concerned, the stuff was one of the greatest magical inventions that wasn't his.
He gave Dummy the treats, then wrote on the back of the letter: Chess, tomorrow, I promise. I'll handicap myself two pieces, your choice.
He sealed the letter, tied it back on to Dummy's leg, then ruffed up the feathers on the little black owl's head as he said, "Take that back to Pepper and give her a kiss for me, will you? You know she hates that."
Tony smiled to himself and went back to the complex business of wandmaking.
He and Pepper had their promised chess game the next day over lunch. The Hufflepuffs certainly weren't going to argue with having the fabulous Tony Stark sit at their table, and although the other Slytherins glared in their direction, they would never actually say anything against the teenaged billionaire in public. Tony wouldn't let glares stop him from doing anything. The Ministry kept time turners under very strict control, so Tony had to do what he could with the time he had, and chess with Pepper was important.
Tony's chess set was habitually rude in the extreme, only egged on by Jarvey, who, generally speaking, pretended to be a regular idiot jarvey when in the public eye. He was currently in an insult war with Darcy, scrambling around on her head and attempting to steal chicken from her plate.
"Stark, if you don't get your terrible rodent off of me, I will poison your chocolate stash," she whined at him genially.
"Jarvey, get out of Miss Lewis's hair and go bother someone else," Tony said absently as he considered his next move, then relayed orders to his chessmen.
Janet, seated on the far side of Darcy, humphed and said, "If that thing so much as touches me, I will consider it an attempt at sabotage of the Hufflepuff Quidditch team before tonight's game."
"Fine," Tony sighed. "Jarvey, you'd better get back here. These girls are no fun at all." Then he frowned. "Wait, the game is tonight?"
Pepper tutted. "No matter how popular you are, your housemates would not forgive you for flaking out on a Quidditch game. Especially after fraternizing with the enemy over lunch."
Pepper directed her troops, then continued. "For a genius, you certainly look oddly like an idiot child sometimes."
"I'm distractable. It's understandable. I get ideas."
"It's not just that. Your phoenix is named You. Your jarvey is named Jarvey! You really need help with creative naming of things."
"Uh, excuse me but these are my personal things and I'll call them what I want. If you think you can improve the product names Stark Spellworks use for marketing, be my guest. But leave my animals out of it."
Pepper chuckled. "Ah, that distracted you all right. Checkmate."
Tony pretended to look flustered, and actually he hadn't intended to lose. But he did always enjoy the smile on Pepper's face when it happened.
He wasn't surprised. After all, he had been handicapped a queen.
Tony Stark absolutely adored flying.
As far as he was concerned flying was the best thing in the world, and any excuse to be up on his broom was a great one. Playing Quidditch against Hufflepuff was one of the best.
Everyone on the team was at least decent. When Happy could manage to aim the bludger, it hit hard. When Janet had the quaffle, she was near impossible to stop. And getting a shot past Bucky in the Keeper's position was always a challenge. Even the combined force of the legendary chaser pairing of Stark and Romanoff had trouble. The Slytherins worked wonderfully together, Tony drawing all the attention while Natasha appeared seemingly out of nowhere to take the shot. Bucky was not easy prey even then.
But the real prize of the Hufflepuff Quidditch team was their seeker, Clint "Hawkeye" Barton, who always, always, always saw the Snitch first.
Stark prepped his team before the game. Other than Nat, who was a fourth year like him, the whole Slytherin team was both older and taller than him. If it intimidated him, he'd never let it show.
"Odinson," he said, "You know Barton is never going to fall for your illusions. He can tell a Snitch from fairy fire from half a mile. So for once, just focus on catching the thing yourself, all right? Watch Barton; remember, your broom is faster than his."
Loki's mouth tightened, but he nodded.
Tony enjoyed the game immensely. He scored two goals, and helped Natasha get another three. Hufflepuff only scored once, Janet of course. Tony couldn't spare much attention for the Seekers, but he did notice Loki hovering overhead and looking incredibly bored, and Barton even farther up, sitting on his broom almost nonchalant.
The next time Tony spotted Barton he was zipping downward, almost straight down, and he had the Snitch barely after Loki had noticed the motion. The crowd cheered. Loki looked exasperated.
"Your advice was extremely helpful, Stark," he spat as they walked off towards the showers. "Next time I'll do things my way."
Tony shrugged. He had done his part. "You're the sharp-eyed Seeker, practically the team all on your own, isn't that right? If you can't get the job done without a little enhancement, that's no business of mine." Tony smirked.
Loki continued walking, appearing unconcerned. But Tony knew he'd hit his mark.
The next week, Tony made it to chess club. Seven minutes late and trailing ideas for broom charms like a kite has tails, but he made it. Pepper was already playing against a Ravenclaw sixth year, but she waved at him warmly.
Tony sat down across from another Ravenclaw boy in his year; Tony thought his name was Bruce Banner.
"Up for a game, Banner?" Tony asked, pulling out his own chess pieces. "Haven't seen you here much before."
"No, I, uh," Banner stammered. "I keep to myself a lot. Pepper dragged me out. Yeah, a game, sure. Sounds good." He got out his own pieces and they began to set themselves up.
"She'll do that," Tony said, grinning.
Jarvey worked his way out of Tony's book bag, then, hopping up on the table. "You smell like wet dog," he said to Bruce.
Bruce's eyes widened, and then he laughed in a rather strained way.
"Don't take anything Jarvey says personally," Tony reassured the Ravenclaw. "He's much better at pretending to be a dumb animal than I am. Come on, Jarv, don't scare off my prey before I have a chance to play with him."
Tony grinned, and Jarvey darted up onto his shoulder and told Tony, "You've got scrambled eggs in your skull." Then he climbed over Tony's head, mussing up his hair, and perched on the other shoulder to peer at the board.
"Is he just going to sit there and stare the whole time?" Banner said somewhat nervously.
"Yeah, he'll stay put. He's very well behaved for a jarvey. Or are you looking for a reason to handicap me? We've already got our own brains and the experience of our armies. I doubt one more rabid furball between the two of us is going to tip the scales far in my favor." Tony scratched Jarvey's head as he said this.
So he almost didn't catch the expression that flitted across Bruce's face in response.
It was almost an expression of startled, wicked amusement. It softened to an abashed smile. "No, I suppose not," Bruce said. "Let's see how we're matched as is."
It was a particularly difficult battle. The Ravenclaw's game alternated between meticulous and impulsive. Tony really had to think. Jarvey kept his commentary unhelpful and insulting, and the chess pieces insisted on arguing about their orders. This was the most fun he'd had playing wizard's chess in a long time. This Banner kid was really quite good.
Tony won of course, but it was a close thing. And when Tony congratulated Bruce on a spectacular game, he just shrugged and said, "Well, thanks, but I know I'm out of practice."
That made Tony more interested than anything had yet.
Tony would have spent the whole Christmas holiday in his rooms in Hogsmeade if Obie hadn't come and found him and dragged him back to London.
Tony did not need to be reminded of his parents, of the home he had grown up in. He refused to stay in the mansion and instead took over the top floor of the Stark Spellworks building, on the corner of Diagon Alley and Knockturn Alley. He poked around in the shop that occupied the ground and first floors, and the second and third floors where the actual magic was done, before retreating to the fourth and continuing his own experiments.
"It's good to see you take an interest in the more commercial side of the business," Obadiah said, when he found Tony poking around in a display of talking watches. "But relax. It's the holidays. Let's go out and do something fun; whatever you want."
"I want to be back in Hogsmeade finishing off the new wand design. The current one's getting a bit beat up. I won't be able to relax until I know I have a backup ready."
"Do you ever relax, Tony?" Obie patted Tony's left forearm, where he knew the boy kept his wand in a secure holster under his sleeve. "It'll be fine. It's not normal for a boy your age to be working all the time. Come on, I'll take you to a Quidditch game, or out for pizza. Just say the word."
Tony wanted to respond that it wasn't normal for a fourteen year old boy to have billions of galleons, a successful line of magical multitools and a superintelligent jarvey. It wasn't normal for a boy to have killed a cursed Hungarian Horntail with a broken wand and survived thanks to a breakthrough in wand technology he made along the way. It wasn't normal to hate your father even though he was dead and your mother for dying.
But he knew there was no point with Obie. So instead he said, "Quidditch is only fun when I'm up there on a broom, and I get quite enough of that at school. As for pizza, order in and I'll be in my workshop."
And he fled.
"Control your players, Stark!" Steve yelled as he dropped to the ground after calling a time out.
"Control yours, Rogers!" Tony shot back, pointing at the now soaking wet Thor.
"Odinson...Thor was only fulfilling his duties as a Beater! It's Loki who started spellcasting!"
"No, what Thor was doing was harrassment! Loki was defending himself! That was a clear blatching foul!" Tony strode up to the (of course taller, they're always taller) Gryffindor keeper.
"Then why didn't it get called? No, that was perfectly clean Beater play!"
"A little overenthusiastic to crush his brother's head in, don't you think?"
"Only because Loki was cheating!"
Tony and Steve stood toe to toe, glaring at each other. Thor and Loki also looked hard at each other for a long moment.
"I'm sorry, Brother," Thor said then. "Perhaps Stark is right. I should not have been so set on hitting you. This is only a game."
Loki spent a moment looking suspicious, then sighed. "That may be true, but I can't fault you for focusing your attention on the Seeker. I am the most important piece on the board." He smiled slightly mockingly at Thor. "If you're having trouble with your broom, I can understand why you would assume it was me. I have done such things often enough in the past. But I would not jeopardize a real game that way."
Thor patted his brother on the back, dampening his green Quidditch robes. "Then we are agreed. I will forgive you the drenching, since it was in defense. Captain! Let us continue the game."
Steve continued to glare at Tony for a moment, then turned to look at Thor. "Is your broom behaving now?"
"It does seem to be working as well as it has been of late. It is somewhat battered. I shall ask my father to buy me a new one."
The Gryffindor captain looked thoughtful, then nodded. "I'm ready to continue the game if you are," he told Stark.
Tony scowled. "All right," he agreed finally. "Let's have this out properly. No fouls and no casting. Got it, Odinsons?"
The game began again.
It was fierce, even more so than usual between the Gryffindors and the Slytherins. There were many goals attempted. Sif and Rhodey were both excellent chasers, speed, dexterity, and solid throwing ability all around. The big seventh year who was Slytherin keeper had trouble keeping track of them, so they got several goals. But Natasha had a knack for getting the Quaffle back, especially when she coordinated with Vanko, an extremely skilled and somewhat brutal beater. They'd known each other before Hogwarts, played together as children, and it showed.
Once she'd gotten the Quaffle, she tended to pass to Tony, who'd take the heat and make the run down the pitch. He tinkered with his own broom most often, which meant it was often faster, but it also tended to do unexpected things. He'd had to fix it in midair more than once. Rogers could stop Stark's shots more often than not, but he had more trouble with Romanoff's - Rogers was good, but if he didn't see the Quaffle approach, he couldn't stop it. Nat liked to shoot from difficult angles.
They were even at four goals each when the Snitch was spotted.
The Gryffindor Seeker, Hogun, was good, but Loki was better. Loki spotted the Snitch first, high, off to the left of one of the goals, and sped after it. Hogun was on his heels immediately. Loki was fast, but the Snitch zigged downwards. Loki dropped, catching it, before Hogun slammed into him, unable to stop in time.
Loki kept hold of the Snitch, and straightened out his broom's flight well above the ground. There was cheering, and not just from the Slytherins. It had been a spectacular catch.
As they all touched down, Tony clapped Loki on the shoulder. "Not bad, Odinson," he said, grinning. "We might just keep you around."
Loki grimaced and rubbed his shoulder - Tony had hit the forming bruise where Hogun had run into him. But he couldn't help smiling as the Slytherin captain turned away, walking toward the locker rooms. It felt good to win, for once. It felt good to best his brother.
The Slytherin Quidditch team walked companionably into the locker rooms, heading for their usual corners. Loki was just removing his outer robes when he heard a strangely high shriek from the corner behind him, where Tony was. Loki turned with a smirk on his face, wondering what kind of prank would make Tony Stark shriek and who had dared to pull it.
There was a humongous snake uncurling itself from the impossibly small confines of Tony's locker.
Tony pulled his wand out of his left sleeve - it was an odd looking, complex and angular thing, unlike any wand that Loki had ever seen; Loki had never seen it from so close before - and yelled "Protego!"
The snake snorted and flicked its tongue against the resulting shield.
"That's not going to do much good, tasty little thing," it hissed, and slithered around Stark, its head now behind the inventor. He turned, moving the shield to face the snake's head, but the enormous reptile was now encircling him.
Two of the Slytherin team had gone to get help. Vanko and Romanov were looking on with wands drawn and grim expressions. Word must have somehow gotten to the Gryffindor locker room because Thor and Steve burst in.
Natasha cast some kind of hex at the thing, and it just bounced off the green-black scales. "Annoying girl," it muttered, and threw its tail at her. She jumped out of the way. The beast reared back its head, preparing to strike at Tony.
"Wait!" Loki called. "Why are you doing this?"
The snake stopped, blinked, and stared at him.
"What is it to you?" the beast asked finally.
"What it is to me, you ignorant creature, is that he is Tony Stark. Heir to Stark Spellworks and more genius than his father. As much as I may dislike him personally, I will gain much by saving him. Too much to pass up; Tony Stark owing me his life." Loki frowned at the snake. "And what do you get by killing him? What does a being like you want from life?"
"Only a shady spot and a steady supply of goats. Unfortunately it's not up to me," the snake said, blinking, then lining up again for another strike at Stark, who was casting frantically, but nothing offensive seemed to be getting through its hide.
"Why not?" Loki asked, and the snake shook its head and looked at Loki again.
"The Imperius Curse."
"What are your instructions?"
The snake fought to turn its glassy eyes back to Loki. "I am to kill or injure Tony Stark, but under no circumstances to damage his wand."
"If I free you, what would you do?"
"Run," it answered. "There are far too many wizards here."
Loki had little time in which to consider.
He pointed his wand. "Finite!" he cried, and the snake's eyes brightened and filled with fear. It slithered in the direction of the exit.
Thor stood in its way. The huge sixth year blasted it with some sort of energy spell, reminiscent of fiendfyre but bluish. The serpent reared back, coils falling with a deep thud, and it twitched, struggling to get back up. With a roar, Thor stabbed it in the eye with his broomstick. Loki looked away.
Behind him, Tony was standing, looking slightly shaken behind his cocky grin and the large motions he adopted. Come to think of it, excess energy due to fear could explain Tony's behavior most days.
"Thanks, Odinsons. I've taken down giant reptiles alone before but it's not something I've ever wanted to make a habit of. Dragon hunting is entirely too much work." The inventor moved forward to slap Loki on the back gratefully.
Loki put on an unaffected air. "It's nothing personal, we just don't have time to break in a new Quidditch captain or chaser before the next game."
Tony grinned. "Right, right. Nothing to do with how fabulously handsome I am. You know you'd miss me."
"Hardly," Loki replied. He turned to see how the others were faring.
Thor and Natasha were staring, gape-mouthed. Sif looked rather ill.
"Loki, was that...?" she stammered. "Was that...parseltongue?"
Thor frowned. "I didn't know you had such an ability. It is very rare, isn't it? Well, you were always exceptional, Brother." Thor attempted a weak half-smile but even he couldn't miss the aura of dread that permeated the air.
"Very rare," Loki said, barely loud enough to be audible.
"It's only ever been recorded in dark wizards," Natasha said, having regained control of her face and looking at Loki appraisingly.
"Specifically," Loki continued, narrowing his eyes, "only in Salazar Slytherin and his descendants." He looked up at Thor. "There is nothing like that in the lineage that our parents are so proud of. But then...there's never been a Slytherin in the family before, has there, Thor?" Loki's eyes burned bright with new suspicion. "I have always been...different, is that not true?"
Thor looked away, but then back up to Loki determinedly. "Perhaps so, but you are my brother. Nothing will change that. We will find out what is happening and we will face it together."
Loki couldn't take in Thor's words, not with the chaos that was going on in his head. Parselmouth. Dark wizard. Descendant of Salazar. No wonder he felt so at home in Slytherin house, while his oaf of a brother sat at Gryffindor table like a long-planted tree.
"So what did it say?"
Loki snapped out of his bitter introspection at Stark's words, but for a moment he couldn't form a reply.
"The snake. What did it say to you in its snaky little language?"
Loki nearly smiled at that. "It was sent to kill you, obviously. Well, if it could without damaging your wand."
"What spell was on it that you ended?"
"Imperius Curse. Whoever did it apparently didn't bother to provide a cover story. Didn't expect there to be a Parselmouth around to ask questions." Loki laughed bitterly.
"Whoever did it? It was just giving out information and you didn't think to ask who is out to steal my wand?" Tony shook his head.
"My pardon, my concern was for your immediate health." Loki shot him a bored look. "Perhaps my priorities were a bit out of order."
"And it's dead now, thanks to your overenthusiastic brother." Stark looked very put out.
"Indeed." Loki rolled his eyes. The carnage was quite impressive, and there was a crowd gathering around the huge snake corpse now sprawled across the locker room. The two Slytherins slipped out the back to continue their conversation.
"So my wand. That's what they're after." Tony contemplated the wand in his hand, and then slid the strange angular contraption back into its arm holster. "But how were they intending to get it?"
Loki thought. This was a puzzle. "Someone would have brought that beast down before you were killed," said the longer-haired boy. "They seem a competent enough wizard that death by giant reptile was probably not their intent. The whole wizarding world knows that you singlehandedly brought down a cursed Hungarian Horntail when you were thirteen. Still, you're very lucky not to have landed yourself in the hospital wing."
Enlightenment spread itself across Tony's face.
"The hospital wing. I'd be separated from the rest of Slytherin House, just waiting for someone to come along and steal my wand, maybe finish me off once they've done that. Well, they've failed. I'm not going there now."
There was a mischievous gleam in Loki's eye. "But you do want to find out who it is that is trying to kill you, yes?"
"That would be ideal, yes. Are you suggesting I spring their trap?"
"I'm suggesting we," Loki said, setting a hand on Tony's shoulder, "set a trap for them."
Tony looked at the older boy, his eyebrows lifting in appraisal, and his mouth gave in to an interested smile.
"Do you require an injury to assist with the verisimilitude of our story?" Loki asked Tony, wand out, half serious, half prodding the Quidditch captain he habitually butted heads with.
"Nah, I actually think I might have broken a toe kicking that monster. Nothing I wouldn't trust Pepper to fix, but it's convenient. How about you?"
Loki blinked at Stark, wondering if he'd really broken a bone and if so, why he hadn't shown any sign of it. Then Loki recalled his mind to the question.
Rubbing at his sore shoulder, he answered, "I shouldn't have a problem playing this up. Hogunn has a surprising amount of momentum for a Seeker."
Tony chuckled. "They do usually tend to the lighter side. But sometimes a captain has to take into account experience, and brooms."
"I've watched them practice with their alternates. If I were in Rogers's place, I would have picked the Storm boy as Seeker. He may get distracted occasionally but he's a better flier than Hogunn."
Tony smirked. "Good thing for you that Johnny wasn't on the pitch today then," he teased.
Loki scowled. "Good for our score, maybe. But good for me? My shoulder begs to differ." He rubbed at the spot again, his still-ready wand getting in his way a bit, then he looked curiously at Stark. "You've just been attacked by a gargantuan snake and you don't even have your wand out. Do you have any sense of self-preservation?"
"A. Reaction time is actually faster from the sheath if I'm in practice. B. If you just wave the thing around without paying attention you're liable to get disarmed before you even see it coming. C. The more I let people look at my wand, the more they'll know about its designs. I'm not exactly comfortable with that."
Loki blinked. "Forgive me, I was very wrong about you. You're actually more paranoid than any Auror."
"I've got reason to be," Stark muttered, the most serious thing Loki had ever heard him say.
"Yes, I suppose you have."
They walked in silence for a few scant moments, but Stark was never silent for long.
"So who else do you plan on bringing in on this? Strange, maybe?"
Loki just looked at him.
"Well they'll be accounting for my skills, and no offense, but I don't think ability on a broomstick is going to do much good here. And neither will twinkling lights."
Loki raised his eyebrows. "I am a descendant of Salazar Slytherin and you think I can't do more than make fairy fire?"
Tony returned the appraising look. "So you want to go this alone? No backup? You know this isn't a game, right? I almost died today and it seems like it's becoming a bad habit."
"Perhaps not, but I suspect Healer Strange may have a part in this. Even if unwillingly. We know whoever is behind this does not balk at the Unforgivable Curses."
Tony looked hard at Loki. "Who would you trust, then?"
"I am loath to say it, but perhaps we should be informing Headmaster Fury of our plans?"
"Oh I'm sure he'll find out soon enough. He may only have one eye but he sees everything. It's incredibly eerie."
"Believe me, I know what you mean."
"But somehow I don't think he'd approve of this; our priorities might be somewhat different. I'd like to find out who's out to get me and stop them permanently. Fury is probably more concerned that I don't die on school grounds and make him look bad. He'd rather I be kept safe here and ambushed again somewhere more discreet."
Loki shook his head. "Your paranoia continues to astound me."
It was around then that they arrived at the hospital wing. The Quidditch game had been a long one, and then there was the whole giant snake thing, so all in all, curfew was approaching. They didn't have much trouble stalling long enough that they would have had trouble getting back to the dungeon in time.
Loki rubbed at his much-abused shoulder and complained loudly. "I won't be able to sleep if this keeps up. Can't you do something?" he said, arrogantly expectant.
Strange tutted and frowned. "It's only a bruise; I'm sorry it's bothering you so much but there's not too much more I can do."
Then it was Stark's turn. Loki lay on his bed, moaning quietly and refusing to leave until Tony had been seen to.
The toe really had been broken, and so Strange took some time healing it, and working to lessen the ugly purple bruising around it. All around, it was well past curfew when that was done.
When they were finally left alone in the large shadowy room, Loki spotted an envelope sitting on the windowsill between their beds. He picked it up and looked at it curiously.
"What is that?" Stark asked, seeing the motion.
"'To the boy who will come to the Hospital Wing in the aftermath of today's Quidditch.' No name. Just that."
"So it's for one of us. Who do you think it's from?"
"It says it's from Heimdall."
"That creepy centaur who teaches Divination?"
"Yes." Loki shivered almost imperceptibly. "There is something about his eyes, isn't there?"
"Definitely. Would not trust that guy as far as I can throw him." Tony tapped his fingers on his arm, where his wand lay. "So what's this ominous little piece of parchment got to say?"
Loki laid it out below the window, glowing wand hovering, so they could both read it.
Tonight I gazed upon the stars, and what I saw I cannot fathom the meaning of, but that I am to write and send these terrible words: You are the wizard who will bring about Seidrok.
"This is ridiculous," Tony said. "No such thing as destiny. He's talking out of his huge horsey arse."
You, and the man who took the place of your father and who tells you nothing but lies and cares for nothing but power. Your destiny is to defy him and start the conflict that will tear apart our world. You may not wish this to be your place, but the time will come when you know it is necessary.
You may have learned something of your situation from the danger you faced today, and I'm afraid it is far from the last of the uncomfortable truths you will learn.
Loki stared at the parchment, frozen.
"This makes too much sense. I am descended from Salazar Slytherin. I am the wizard who is destined to bring about Seidrok."
Tony looked disgusted. "Divination is bull crap. Don't listen to anything that loopy centaur says. The only ones who believe that 'HE SEES ALL' nonsense are the second year girls who swoon over his muscles but have never had the pleasure of sitting through his class."
Loki's eyes were still glued to the page. "True prophecies are not to be taken lightly, and the prophecies of Seidrok are the most often studied. Very few would refute them and even fewer would joke about them. Heimdall believes this. He believes that Odin is the Falling Ruler, and I am the Firebrand. That I will bring the wizarding world to its end."
Tony scoffed. "Yeah, I'm sure he believes everything he says. Seriously, have you heard him lecture? 'The ursas are growling. Guard your sustaining force.'" Tony mocked the deep, expressionless voice very badly.
Loki finally looked up.
"You have never taken Divination," he said with a bemused frown.
"Yeah, well, as much as I prefer Arithmancy, there are only so many times I can sit through a lecture on calculations I could do in my sleep when I was five. I mostly work on stuff for the Spellworks, but I've skipped a few times just to sit in on other classes and mock them. Have you ever heard one of Coulson's Muggle Studies lectures? I mean come on, who doesn't know how a light bulb works? It's a simple energized substance, like a wand core. Well, until you get into diodes, that's a bit more complex. But. Well. The thing about Muggle technology is it's all connecting the dots. Anyone could do anything with it if they just had the right instructions."
Loki blinked at him, taken aback. Then he scowled.
"Not everyone has the luxury of pursuing whatever knowledge they wish. Some of us are expected to uphold the traditions of wizardkind."
"And why should you do what's expected of you?"
"I don't want to be the Firebrand; I don't want to be the one who ruins everything! I don't want to be the villain!"
"Then you won't be." Tony sighed. "Listen, being your own thing, going your own way, it's not easy but it's worth it."
"Says the boy who works in his father's shop over the holidays. Even after the man's dead he still defines your life."
"What is this obsession you have with me and my father? Why does everyone think I do what I do because of him?"
"You have the insufferable smugness of a firstborn and heir. I've dealt with the likes of you all my life. You think you can tell everyone what to do because you've been trained to it, trained as a leader. Trained to have confidence above all else, to deny and cover your missteps in favor of appearing infallible. You are what your father has made you, and nothing more!"
"Take that BACK!"
Instead of drawing his wand, Tony leapt at Loki, pinning his wand hand to the bed and shaking a fist in his face.
Loki's mind raced for something to say, before they heard a cough from the doorway.
Healer Strange came in, looking threateningly at them. "Do I need to separate you two so you can rest?"
"No!" they both yelped, and dove back under the covers.
He looked at them with suspicion, but then nodded and went away again.
Loki spoke then, quiet and flat.
"If that had been the trap, we would both be caught in it.
Tony nodded, sharp and matter-of-fact.
"Right. No more off-topic discussions. What's the plan?"
Loki lifted his wand and began muttering in the mishmash of Latin and archaic Germanic syllables that meant spellcasting. He stood up, and in his place on the bed, tendrils of light began to form into a shape, which then became more and more solid-looking until if Tony didn't know any better, he would think Loki was twins. Tony looked at the sleeping form and grinned, standing to make room for what he assumed was the next step. And indeed, more lights floated over the spot he had been occupying a moment ago.
"So where are we going to hide?" the younger Slytherin asked curiously. But the flow of chanting did not stop when the second double was completed. Soon Loki was a blur of thin air, pale face and black robes nowhere to be seen, only visible in the shifting edges of his silhouette. Tony was not surprised when he followed, and looking down at his own hands revealed only the movement of shadows before his eyes.
"I thought we'd move across the way," Loki's voice said, closer than Tony was expecting. The shifting shadows collected on one of the beds lining the other, windowless side of the long room.
Tony sat down next to the indentation formed by the other boy. "Yeah, this seems like a good spot."
Loki's voice came hesitantly, after that. "You do know I'm right here, don't you? There are plenty of beds."
"Well, it's not like we're actually going to be sleeping, is it? We might as well be as close together as possible. Don't want anyone to hear us, after all." Loki could hear the grin in the way Tony's voice changed shape. "I'd ask if you mind, but then again, I really don't care. This spot's mine now."
Loki was on the verge of reminding the Stark boy who he was, what he was, how dangerous he could potentially be, the Firebrand, the creature he was sitting so close to in the dark regardless of all Stark's paranoia. But it seemed that Tony genuinely didn't care about any of it.
Loki couldn't help but smile, to himself, invisibly, in the silence.
"So what are we going to do, since we aren't sleeping?" Tony's voice interrupted him.
The boy really couldn't stop talking for long. Loki rolled his eyes invisibly. "Pay attention and not get ourselves killed, that's what," Loki replied in the same quiet but casual undertone.
Eventually they decided to make use of one of Tony's accidental discoveries - overzealous use of cheering charms does wonders to keep one up at night. Then they argued cheerfully over Quidditch for a while, then discussed the Potions homework, which, it turned out, Tony hadn't started, but was trying to sound like he had, to draw the relevant information out of Loki.
The bare squeaking of the door quieted them both instantly, and drew their eyes to the shadow creeping out of it and along the floor. Or perhaps not a shadow, since no figure cast it. A puddle? It separated itself from the doorway and continued to slink towards their beds.
It crept over and up the side of Tony's bed, soft, dark folds visible in the moonlight.
Tony felt sick as he watched the Lethifold creep across and cover the illusionary version of himself. But he had to keep watching in silence. The whole point of this exercise was to find out who was after Tony's wand, and anything enveloped by a Lethifold - clothing, talismans, hairpins, anything at all - would never be seen again. If someone wanted his wand, they would have to come and extract it before it could be digested.
Tony tapped his fingers quietly on the wand in its holster. No one was getting ahold of it, he reminded himself. But the scene in front of him appeared far too real.
He didn't expect how much worse things could get.
A dark-skinned wizard crept in the door and towards the illusory figures on the beds.
They barely breathed. Even in the darkness, Tony recognized the trained and battle-hardened Auror very well, and was not about to reveal himself if this man was here to kill him.
The Auror waved his wand in a nonverbal spell, but there were no results. He tried again. When, again, nothing happened, the man prodded the Lethifold with the tip of his wand. Confused and hungry, the Lethifold turned and began creeping towards the Auror where he stood between the two beds, leaving an empty space where the illusion of Tony had been.
The man stood in confused indecision for a moment before turning around and leaving the room, the stymied Lethifold creeping after him hungrily.
As the door closed after the two eerie figures, Tony began to breathe again, but not in relief.
"Was that...Derek Rhodes?" Loki whispered, mouth dry.
"Oh no, oh no, oh no, this is so bad, Rhodey and Star...their dad's part of this, probably Imperiused. We have to do something."
Loki dropped the illusions so he could keep better track of Tony and what he seemed likely to do. "I don't know about you but I'm not interested in going anywhere near that Lethifold. We got what we came for. We know who came to finish you off, as much good as that will do us if he's swallowed whole by that creature."
Tony waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. "Oh, I'm not mounting a rescue mission right now either. He's probably the one who brought the Lethifold, so he must have some way of controlling it. So he's probably not being eaten right now. And if he is, well, better than being Imperiused. I think I know Uncle Derek well enough to say that. But I don't..." Tony's words finally stumbled to a halt. "Rhodey's house was always the one place where everything was normal," he said finally.
"Nothing gets to stay normal forever," Loki said in a low murmur. "Especially if this truly is to be the era of Seidrok."
"I don't believe in that," Tony said, turning on Loki with a determined glare. "There's enough awful stuff happening that we don't need to be worrying about idiotic prophecies too." His eyes turned back down to the bed. "This is bad. I need to tell Rhodey. Can't wait until tomorrow." He looked thoughtful, then nudged the schoolbag at his side. "Hey, Jarvey, you up?"
The small mammal crawled out of the bag and into Tony's hair, licking his ear. "For you, Sir? Always."
"Cards on the table, eh? I agree. it's time," Tony replied, stroking the furry body.
"That is not a normal jarvey," Loki said, blinking.
"No, he's not," Tony said. "Jarvey, feel up to scaling Gryffindor Tower and filling Rhodey in on the bad news?"
"Certainly, Sir," Jarvey said, running down Tony's leg and giving his ankle a final affectionate nip. "But do endeavor not to get yourself killed while I'm gone."
"I always do my best, Jarv," he said, and soon the oversized talking ferret was slipping out the window and onto the stonework.
It's been eighty-four years.... (well, four and a half, but same difference in fic update waits!) Holy shit! An update! Direct your appreciation to silver_drip, who's been poking me and helping me finagle the mess I had into some kind of plot!
Jarvey came back only a few minutes later, with a note clasped delicately in his mouth. Tony absently scratched behind his ears as he unfolded the parchment.
J says you sprung the trap on purpose. They tried to kill you, Tony! Twice! Why would you DO that. I'd have sent a howler if I didn't believe you might be in imminent danger.
About my dad - that sucks, I won't lie. I want to get him back. But PLEASE don't go off half-cocked on your own and try to make it right. We are going to wait. We are going to have a plan. I'm not gonna lose you too.
Tony sighed, then handed the parchment over to Loki to read.
Loki scanned it quickly, then frowned. "You didn't send a letter, but your jarvey brought one back."
Tony shrugged. "I try not to do the 'stealth owl' trick too often, too much risk of being caught out, but Rhodey doesn't trust Jarv to pass along his messages with the proper emphasis."
Loki eyed the jarvey. "How smart is this creature, really?"
"Smarter than most people."
"And how did he get that way?" Loki asked slowly.
Tony's eyes narrowed, and his gaze was deadly poison. "You don't hurt a furry hair on his head, is that clear? The ministry cannot know about him. They'd go ballistic. 'Improper use of charms' this and 'unpredictable nonhuman intelligence' that and before you know it they'd strip away whatever I did and make him just a normal jarvey again. That. Does not. Happen."
Loki nodded acknowledgement. "I swear, Tony," he said, looking steadily back. "My father and his lackeys will never know."
Tony thought it might have been the first plain, sincere thing that Loki had said in living memory.
The frenetic mind finally ground to a halt around 4 AM. Tony began to droop.
"Sleep," Loki told Tony.
Tony mumbled some vague and unintelligible protest.
"I will keep watch."
Tony hmphed in satisfaction and burrowed into the niche between the pillow and Loki's hip. Between one breath and the next, he was asleep.
He looked nothing like the demanding Quidditch captain, the worldly businessman. He simply looked like a worn-out teenage boy.
Loki judged the little fourth year disgustingly adorable, and focused on practicing his scrying.
He considered waking Tony to take his own turn at watch around five thirty, but then he thought about the prophecy, and the likelihood that he was to be the Firebrand, and he decided that he wasn't going to be taking advantage of the opportunity to sleep. Tony might as well.
Rhodey was waiting outside the door of the infirmary when they emerged, looking like he was almost succeeding in keeping it together. Tony didn't fight the hug as he might otherwise have done as the Gryffindor's arms enveloped him.
Star was there too, trailing after her brother, and Pepper joined them as they neared the Great Hall. They'd clearly all heard about the attack. Rumor traveled fast at Hogwarts, especially when Thor was involved. The other students they passed eyed him with a palpable air of awe and fear.
The whole entourage came into the Great Hall from what was usually the far side, so they passed the Gryffindor table on their way to... well, wherever they were sitting. Tony didn't tend to pay attention to where he sat, just followed whoever he was in conversation with before any given meal. Rhodey automatically split off to join his housemates before looking back at Tony and reconsidering.
Loki was making for the Slytherin table, where he sat without fail. Tony and Pepper looked at each other, at the Hufflepuff table, which was next, and Tony shrugged.
Loki drifted back in their direction, attempting (and failing) to appear that he was merely lost in thought.
Meanwhile, Thor was regaling the Gryffindor table (and most of Hufflepuff, considering his volume) with the story of the defeat of the serpent who had attacked Tony Stark.
"But if it was retreating..." Jane interrupted him, frowning.
"I could not allow it another chance to attack the Slytherin captain," Thor insisted.
"If you had stopped to listen," Loki put in.
"There was no time. I could not afford to hesitate when faced with such a monster. Monsters must be slain."
Tony saw Loki flinch.
He also saw Bruce, crossing quietly around the edge of the room, do the same.
"Don't be so quick to think you know a monster when you see one," Tony advised. "Whoever's running around using Unforgiveable Curses is the only monster in this mess that I know of."
He turned his back on the Gryffindor table in favor of sitting with Hufflepuff again. After a pause, Rhodey joined them, and in another moment, Loki did as well. Pepper gave Loki a nod and a small smile, and Darcy watched him, assessing.
"Table's gettin' a bit crowded," Clint commented in his Irish brogue.
"You like it," Janet said with a wave of her hand.
Clint 'hmph'ed, but didn't correct her.
Tony's friends kept a tight cluster around him in the morning, at least whoever wasn't scheduled to be elsewhere. Loki kept close too, when he could, which was pretty much constantly, with their class schedules. Which was odd. Normally the fifth year wanted nothing to do with him outside of Quidditch, and as little as possible on the pitch. He even condescended to sit near his brother, when the cluster ended up at the Gryffindor table over lunch.
After class Pepper led the way to Chess club, expecting everyone else to follow. Tony thought that probably no one in the whole school wanted to be the one to let Pepper down.
Rhodey, not a stranger to Chess club but less than a regular, settled across from Pepper. Tony looked around at the others who had shown up but weren't yet paired off. Bruce was at a table by himself, half watching two third-year Ravenclaw girls as they played. Now that Tony suspected what was up with Banner, poking the Ravenclaw was too tempting to pass up.
"Game?" Tony asked, plunking himself down into the opposite seat. He had an intrigued smile on his face that rankled, somehow.
What was Loki doing here? He generally preferred to spend his down time in the library or the Slytherin common room, playing chess with his housemates, or, on a few memorable occasions, the mermaids. The Slytherins' chess sets had been taught to answer to a system of hand gestures, as well as the usual verbal commands.
Tony didn't need him here. He was surrounded by intelligent, competent wizards. But the thought of leaving didn't appeal, either.
While Loki was dithering, Jane Foster grabbed him by the arm and pulled him to the next table over. "Let's play, shall we?" she said with determination in her voice.
Loki, seeing no reason to argue, simply inclined his head and got out his army.
"You were there?" she asked him quietly as she set out her own chess pieces. "When that giant snake attacked Stark?"
"I was," he admitted.
"Was it really as awful as Thor makes it sound? You said there was time, that he should have been more cautious. How true is that? Really?"
"Oh, Stark's life was in danger," Loki told her. "Thor would most likely have gotten there too late. But I got there first, and Stark and I had it under control. I told my brother as much, but he is bullheaded when a battle is in front of him. You've seen as much on the Quidditch pitch, I am sure."
"And you wanted to spare the snake?"
"Make no mistake, I didn't care whether it lived or died. But I would dearly have loved to learn who its master was. Who it is using the Imperius curse to assassinate students on Hogwarts' very grounds."
"So what would you have done with it afterwards?"
"Why, turned it over to Fury like a good little student, of course."
"Suckup Slytherin," she muttered under her breath.
"And your fellow Gryffindors were all for putting it to the sword. What would you have had us do? Help it escape?" he said with scorn. "Leave it as a tool for our enemy to use against us again, and twist its will in the process?"
Jane grimaced. "I guess not. But... well, maybe someone should have asked the snake what it wanted?"
"I did," Loki said dryly. "But peace is in short supply for us all, right now, it would seem." He lapsed into silence, commanding his pieces with well-worn gestures and listening in on Stark and Banner.
Bruce commanded his pieces with quiet but precise words, and seemed to be trying to ignore the verbal prodding that Tony subjected everyone to. He was doing all right at it, too, until Jarvey joined in.
"You're a mangy fleabag," Jarvey called across the board.
Tony swatted him. "I'm pretty sure that's you, ya menace. Brucie here looks impeccably groomed." He put just a touch too much emphasis on the word 'groomed'.
Banner started, frowned, then tapped his fingers against the edge of the table and looked at Tony from under lowered brows. "What do you want?"
"Just a nice engaging game of chess. What about you?"
"To be left alone."
"Doesn't sound like that much fun."
"Maybe not, but it's all I'm asking, okay?"
Tony put his chin in his hand as he gazed at the board. "Listen. I know you're smart and/or wily enough to sniff out things you'd be better off leaving be. Just want to make sure you're aware of the possible consequences."
Banner stuttered out a command to one of his knights.
"Foul!" Tony's queen cried, just as the knight protested, "I can't go there!"
"Oh, that's just sad." Tony sighed. "Don't worry," he told the Ravenclaw boy. "We all have skeletons we don't want dug up. So just don't go digging up my bones, and I won't bother yours." He winked.
Loki wasn't sure what Tony was getting at. Admittedly, he was distracted by that wink. Was he flirting? At a time like this? In the middle of everything that was happening?
After Loki had stayed up all night last night watching over him to be sure he wasn't murdered?
"Checkmate," Jane said.
Loki blinked at the board. He narrowed his eyes at her. "What does someone so smart see in my brother?" he asked her.
Jane was silent for a moment, then answered, "He dares to try things, even if they don't always work out. It's inspiring."
"That is not the word I'd use to describe Thor," Loki retorted, but then shook his head. "I am glad he has you."
Jane gave him a small smile before packing up her chessmen and going to watch the Ravenclaw girls play. Their game was still going on, and it had only gotten more tense.
Over dinner, Star Rhodes broke down crying, and was led back to Gryffindor tower by a gaggle of her female housemates. Tony and Rhodey shared a look, amd Loki could see both their faces twitching with tension.
"I'm working on a plan," Tony told Rhodey. "Just a couple more days. We gotta do this right, right?"
Rhodey sighed. "You ever think maybe we should go to Fury?"
"I've been thinking... I have a feeling this is big," Tony said. "Remember, this is someone who thinks they're in a position to take me down, and they don't mind if they put the Minister's son and the rest of the students in danger to do it. This is someone with balls of steel and the knowledge of Hogwarts and resources to make a pretty decent go of it. How sure are you that it isn't Fury?"
Rhodey glanced at the head table, the headmaster who'd been a Slytherin in his days here as a student. "No, you're right," he said. "Not sure enough."
"I'll tell you when I've got something worth considering," Tony promised him.
Rhodey nodded, finished eating and went to check on his sister.
After dinner, Tony found that his entourage was again down to Loki. This suited him, since Loki was the trickiest bastard he knew, and also was fairly sure wasn't in on the plot to kill him.
"We need a plan," Tony said. "Come on, let's go to the library, I have some ideas I want to go over."
"We can't afford to be out and about after hours every night. My invisibility spell is not infallible." Loki yawned. "Also, I need to sleep at some point."
Tony sighed. "Sleep. Ugh. I should invent a spell that makes sleep unnecessary."
"Not tonight," Loki begged. "We'll be safe in the dungeons. We can plot tomorrow. Come on."
"Fine," said Tony. He let Loki escort him to the door of his dormitory, then collapsed into bed like a house of cards in a breeze.
Loki was hesitant to leave him, even with the three other fourth-year Slytherin boys in the room snoring softly, even though Loki's fifth-year dorm was only one door over. But then he scolded himself, went to bed, and slept a deep and very much needed full night.
The next morning, over breakfast, a huge, dark, dusky barn owl dropped gracefully to the Slytherin table.
"Huginn," Loki murmured. "What does the Minister want with me today?" He peeled open the excessively thick parchment his father always used. He read it, and frowned thoughtfully.
"Bad news?" Tony asked.
"Good... I think. My father" - and here he gave Tony a pointed look as if to say 'presumably the Falling Ruler' - "wants me to know that some lovely new books just to my taste have been delivered to the school library."
"Huh," said Tony. "A distraction?"
"Or a sop," Loki said with distaste, dropping the letter far away from his plate.
Tony frowned thoughtfully, but didn't ask. He'd had his own fraught relationships with fathers, biological or not, and didn't see much reason to prod at that sore spot.
Classes... must have happened, at some point. Tony's mind was churning away on more important problems. Cataloguing resources, calculating probabilities.
The Rhodes siblings cornered him at lunch, pulled him to their table.
"So, any thoughts on our problem yet?" Rhodey asked.
"Yeah, a lot," said Tony. "A lot of bad ones. You know how dangerous your father is? Do you really? A trained Auror of his caliber? We're up against whoever could take him unawares and cast an Imperius curse so strong he couldn't break out of it for days. And unless we're very careful, they'll get all of us, too."
Rhodey blew out a breath, putting an arm around Star, who had scrunched into his side. "So do any of your thoughts resemble plans at all?"
"They know we know, Rhodey. I think going to your house would be a fantastically bad idea. No, whoever did this needs your dad to run errands for them because it would be suspicious for them to show up at Hogwarts themselves." He took a breath. "Either we'll have an unusual visitor on the grounds soon and we can work that angle first, or your dad will show up again - and we'll be ready."
Tony put as much determination and confidence into his voice as he could muster, and Rhodey and Star seemed to believe him.
Merlin help them all.
"What can we do to get ready?" Star asked.
"Stick close to your friends. The ones you know you can trust. And work hard at your casting. This is what we can count on: Each other. Our friends. Our magic."
Star nodded, looking up at him worshipfully. Usually he tried to discourage his friend's bratty little sister, but today she didn't seem so bad.
Plans more or less set for ambushing Uncle Derek, after lunch, Tony's thoughts turned to his own defense, and his own personal array of tools.
At dinner, Rhodey stuck close to Star, who was ensconced in her circle of friends at the Gryffindor table. Tony thought about joining them, but it was Loki he wanted to talk to now.
"What is that invisibility spell you use?" he hissed at the older Slytherin. "Can you teach it to me?"
Loki frowned. "The spell itself is a family secret," he said. Then he peered at Tony thoughtfully. "But I can teach you how to counter it."
Tony nodded agreeably. It felt like tit for tat, after the revelation of what Jarvey was.
They found a quiet nook in the library, and Loki taught Tony the counterspell. It took a few tries, but Tony finally managed to cast it properly.
Once he did, he could tell that it had worked because the walls were suddenly crawling with spiders.
"Eugh!" said Tony.
They were maybe three or four inches in length, black as night, blacker, in fact. Tony couldn't see that they were reflecting back any light at all. Looking at them was like looking into the void.
"And what are those?" he asked Loki, pointing at them.
Loki made a thoughtful noise and performed the counterspell himself.
"Oh," Loki said, equally startled, if not quite as expressive about it. "Void spiders. What are they doing here, I wonder?"
"Moving fast," Tony commented. "Spreading out everywhere. From a central location, do you think?"
Loki narrowed his eyes at them. "Shall we find out?"
"Do they bite?" Tony asked.
"Not generally," Loki said. "But they do feed on magic. In time, conceivably, they could eat away Hogwarts' defenses."
"Well," said Tony, "then let's definitely find out where they're coming from."
They followed the spiders backwards, Tony occasionally swatting one away from his arm holster, or Loki from his wand hand. But the background radiation of the castle, and the library, seemed to be enough that the spiders weren't insistent about those particular sources of magical energy.
The spiders led them back to a stack of books that stood on the checkout desk, waiting to be properly tagged and labeled.
Ice ran through Loki's veins as he read the titles.
"Potions of Deception," he read. "By Amora Incantare. Odin sent these."
"Your dad?" Tony asked, eyes widening.
"I suspected as much when our family spell was used to conceal these spiders. Thor wouldn't do such a thing. Nor would my mother. But the Minister...."
Tony sighed. "I'm sorry, Loki," he said.
"So am I," Loki said. "Clearly Odin is not at all to be trusted." His eyes fell on his wand, the tip shaking just slightly. "Must I take down my father? Is he truly my father? Are we destined to fight until one of us falls?"
Tony took his arm, pulling him away from the spiders. "Nope. We shape our own destinies and if you don't want to, it won't happen."
Loki looked around him like he could find the solution to his troubles among the spiders skittering across the floor. "I already know what you think of the whole affair," he told Tony. "But I need to know more. I must speak to Heimdall."
"He'll be up here for class in a couple days."
"Not in a couple of days. Now."
"He's in the forest, though. The Forbidden Forest. Normally I'd say rules are made to be broken, but I'm pretty sure going into the Forbidden Forest right now is a Very Bad Idea."
"I cannot rest until I know what he meant by that letter."
"This is a stupid idea. Beyond stupid. I'm coming with you."
"No, you are the one who someone wants to kill."
"Everything in the Forbidden Forest wants to kill us both. Better two of us to stand against it all than one."
"Better both of us get eaten by acromantulas?"
"You know what I mean."
Loki rather thought he did. There was comfort in having Tony by his side as they walked out into the cool blue light that blanketed the grounds.
Comfort, but also other things, less comfortable. Loki was suddenly incredibly aware of who Tony was, what he was capable of, not just his mind but the compactly athletic body that Loki usually only came this close to in the air. They'd been in proximity to each other for the last few days, and Loki felt an unidentifiable tension that was quickly becoming unbearable.
He fumbled for a topic of conversation.
"The moon is bright tonight," Loki commented, then immediately wanted to slap himself in the face.
Tony looked up. "Yeah, you think it's full?"
Loki thought back to the astronomy homework. "I think it is."
Tony stared up at it for a moment before saying, "I wonder what Bruce is up to right now."
Loki felt startled, and a strange little twist of disappointment, that Tony was not as caught up in this moment as Loki was.
"Probably sleeping," Loki replied bitterly, "not that anyone would care if he wasn't. It's a conspiracy. You see a Ravenclaw wandering the halls after hours, you think 'Probably got too wrapped up in a book and lost track of time.' Hufflepuff? 'oh, maybe they're going to go see to their sick owl.' But a Slytherin? A Slytherin has to be up to no good. It's no wonder we learn to be sneaks and liars. Everyone expects us to be anyway."
Tony looked at him thoughtfully.
"Dump enough expectations on one person," he said, "and you either learn to be all of them or start telling people to stuff it. And only one of those is sustainable."
Loki wondered what telling his father to stuff it would be like.
Loki called Heimdall's name into the dark woods. The centaur appeared as if he had been merely standing backstage, waiting for his cue.
"Young Loki Odinson," he greeted. "What business do you have with me?"
"You sent that note," Loki said. "You told me I am destined to become the Firebrand. I need to know more."
Heimdall's face was impassive. "I know only what the stars tell me."
Then Tony huffed. "So it doesn't have to be him. I mean you never said it was him, in the letter. In fact, all you said was that the stars told you to say stuff. So, the stars could have told you to lie."
"The stars hold only truth."
Loki's face fell.
Tony snorted. "Truth is flexible. Any good businessman knows that. And I'm pretty sure you know that."
"Perhaps so, young Anthony Stark."
Tony thought of what mixing truth and lies led to, and where the blame fell in cases of ambiguity. The nearest innocent bystander, often enough.
"What are you thinking, Tony?"
Tony laughed joylessly. "Lots of things. None of them pleasant."
Loki lay awake in the big bed in his dormitory, different moments from the night playing over and over in his head.
"The moon is bright tonight," he muttered to himself. "What kind of idiotic twaddle...."
"You think it's full? ...I wonder what Bruce is up to right now."
Loki couldn't believe he hadn't realized it before.
"So just don't go digging up my bones, and I won't bother yours."
There were so many possibilities to make use of this. Loki rolled out of bed and padded quietly one room over, to jab Tony in the shoulder and hiss at him.
"Jarvey has been telling you that Bruce is a werewolf. There's a werewolf at Hogwarts."
"You're too smart," Tony said, nose wrinkling, but not like it really bothered him.
"We could use this as leverage. We could gain the trust of the Ministry, get inside, with information like this."
Tony looked more awake now. "No. We can't do that to Bruce." Tony's eyes drilled into Loki. "You heard what I promised him, right? Do you go back on your promises? Do you out furry little geniuses to the Ministry to further your own goals?" He put a hand near his bag, where Jarvey, presumably, still slept.
"I never promised Banner anything. And how can we do anything else?"
"If you tell me it's just how Slytherins work, I'm gonna tell you to stuff it," Tony warned.
"Werewolves are unstoppable, Tony. And we need a foot in the door at the Ministry."
"We'll find one. And we'll do it without him. Maybe he's unstoppable, but that's just the kind of thing we need on our side. No, the best way to make use of a werewolf is to get him to trust you, and then aim him at people you don't like."
"How do you aim a werewolf?" Loki asked with a frown.
"Still working on it." Tony yawned. "Now let me sleep. My brain needs to reboot!"
"Needs to what?" Loki asked, but Tony had already fallen back asleep.
They all elected to visit Hogsmeade as planned the next day. Anything else would have been an enormous red flag that they were preparing for something big.
The Rhodeses weren't terrified, not at the moment, at least. Determined. Prepared. Anxious, certainly. But they didn't feel the need to all troop into the pet shop after Tony when he followed Loki in.
"Looking for anything in particular?" the woman behind the counter asked.
"An owl," Loki said immediately.
"Oh, we don't have many of those," she said, something reluctant in her tone. "We don't have the space. You'd do better to go to Diagon Alley for that."
"I'm not finicky," Loki said. "Are they healthy? Do they fly? Can they carry a piece of parchment to a specified recipient?"
"Yes, of course!" The woman looked a little affronted.
"Then I'm sure whatever owls you have will be fine."
The shopkeeper brought out a small cage, inside of which was a dark charcoal elf owl with angry-looking white eyebrows.
"He's a little foul-tempered," the shopkeeper said preemptively, as Tony's finger was straying towards the cage and barely missed getting a savage nip.
Loki smiled softly at the creature. "He's perfect."
Tony remembered that feeling very well from when he'd first set eyes on You, an abused phoenix going through a premature molt who seemed to answer only to swears, many of which were preceded by the pronoun "you".
Dad had absolutely refused to have such a thing in the house. Mum had worn him down.
Focus, he told himself sternly. This is here and now, and it comes with its own set of problems.
"What're you going to name him?" he asked Loki as they left the shop. "I'd offer to help, but I think Pepper would flay me."
Still smiling, Loki looked at the little bird. "Ikol."
Tony snickered. "He is pretty ickle," he allowed.
"You're one to talk," Loki countered.
"What can I say, I'm a Slytherin to the core."
They both thought about Loki speaking with the snake, the revelation of Loki's bloodline.
It wasn't as funny as he'd meant it to be, not anymore.
They headed into the Three Broomsticks for the comforting warmth. Many of the people of their years were already there. When Loki spotted Thor, he let out a deep sigh.
Tony gave him a curious look.
"Now that I have a better way of communicating without the Minister knowing," Loki said, hefting Ikol's cage, "I should warn Thor that he might be up to something."
Tony smirked. "Good luck wih that," he said.
"Thanks," Loki replied acidly. He went to pull Thor aside and hiss at him. "I need to talk to you," he said.
"If this is about that serpent," Thor began. Loki interrupted him.
"Forget the snake, Thor. What's done is done."
"Then why do you look so sour?"
"It's not about you. I just thought you should be informed."
"Heimdall gave me a message about the Prophecy. About Seidrok. And you know how everyone interprets it. As if the Firebrand is mad for doing what he will do, for overthrowing the Fallen Ruler and toppling Wizard society. But if I am the Firebrand..."
"Do you truly think you are?" Thor asked.
"I'm beginning to," Loki said. "Because the Minister may be the Falling Ruler. Thor, be careful. I fear he is up to something sinister."
"I don't know yet."
Thor frowned. "What is this, a new Slytherin plot to distract us from Quidditch? I did not think you would sink so low as to accuse our father - "
Thor sighed deeply. "Accuse the man who raised you, then, of a conspiracy you don't even know the purpose of!"
"You used to believe me when I told you things," Loki said disgustedly. "What happened?"
"You had to go and be a Slytherin!"
Loki glared."And what exactly is wrong with THAT all of a sudden? I thought we were finally past that!"
Thor huffed. "It's not that it's your House. It's that you ACT like one!"
"Has it escaped your notice that I am at home in my house?" Loki said in a tone that was dangerously soft. "That I was sorted into Slytherin for a reason? Because of who I am?"
"You could change!"
"You know something, Thor? I like who I am. I like how I act. I like seeing opportunities everywhere, and not hesitating to grab them! I like being a Slytherin! Because Slytherins get things done!"
"Do you ever ask yourself what kind of things?" Thor asked.
"Every day, Thor. Every bloody day! And do you know why?" His eyes drilled into Thor. "Because everyone else who sees my colors is asking themselves exactly the same question! Including you!"
"Maybe there's a reason!"
Tony appeared in front of Thor, faux-casually encroaching on the Gryffindor's personal space, pulling his attention before he spoke.
"Yeah, and maybe that's because it's a question everyone should be asking themselves," Tony told Thor. "We Slytherins, we ask ourselves the same thing, time and time again. But you, Odinson, Gryffindor, prime example of those who dare to be 'brave' without stopping to think, how often do you ask yourself?"
Tony may have been a year younger, but as a Quidditch captain, Thor was inclined to listen to him as a voice of authority. He seemed more than a little taken aback, but he was listening.
"What kinds of things do you do, Thor?" Tony continued. "When you killed that snake, what kind of impact did it have on the world? When you mock and belittle and bully your brother for being what he is, what kind of an act is that?"
Both Odinsons looked shocked at Tony's audacity. Thor gaped, then frowned, then opened his mouth again.
He was interrupted by Ikol giving a loud screech, and attempting to launch himself at Thor through the bars of his little cage.
"Don't bother," Loki told the bird. "He's not worth it."
Tony took Loki by the elbow. "Come on, Loki. We've got things to do."
Loki followed willingly enough, but he raised his eyebrows. "I thought you didn't like the classic Slytherin profile."
"I never said that," Tony objected, shaking his head. "I said I don't like expectations. So good for you."
Why was it that it took so little praise from Tony to make Loki glow right down to his snow-caked boots?