It had been just over two years since the alien invasion that destroyed most of downtown Manhattan when the god of thunder appeared in Tony Stark's workshop, looking like he badly needed both a bath and a bed. His armor was tarnished and uncared for, as though he'd fought and then forgotten to clean it; his hair was wild and his beard untrimmed. The dark circles under his eyes made him look a little wild around the edges.
“Man of iron,” said Thor, without preamble, and the words were strained. “I have need of your knowledge.”
“Came to the right place, sparky,” Tony told him, straightening up and wiping his hands off on the greasecloth kept habitually on the workbench. “Studies show I'm a better source of my knowledge than 85% of the rest of the world.”
But that grim, haggard look didn't budge from Thor's face, and he shook his head, impatient. “I beg you, do not waste time in jest. I would ask a boon of you, and I would ask it done with all haste.”
“Rush job, huh?” Tony glanced over at the half-assembled robot on the metal countertop, gears exposed and legs unfinished. “Must be your lucky day. All I've got on my plate is Fury's homework.” He tapped on the tabletop to bring up a holographic menu, glanced down the list and made a selection. “Jarvis, store this one. Containment E.”
“As you wish, sir,” came the disembodied voice, genteel and efficient. The counter split open down the center, and the unfinished robot lowered itself out of sight.
“Okay, shoot,” said Tony. “What're we looking for, here? Mechanized helmet? Something more modern, less wings?”
The god of thunder neither smiled nor took offense; he only stared back with somber blue eyes and provided an answer. “I require a device capable of containing the foulest of venoms. By necessity, it must stand at least this height from the floor-” Thor lifted his hand to the appropriate height, and then lifted it again. “-but no farther than this.”
Tony eyed the estimates as he made them, called up a holographic grid to hover in the air. “More than five feet, less than eight,” he said as he input the numbers. “How big around are we talking, here? And do you just wanna hold this stuff?”
“Hold, aye, and divert it as well. The basin needs be as large around as a man is tall, on all sides.” Thor fell silent for a moment, jaw clenched, and the next words emerged scrubbed raw, thick with emotion. “None must be allowed to escape, nor any find a straight path to the floor.”
“So we're looking at a drainage system.” Tony looked the measurements over again- looked his teammate over again. “You know, this stuff's not really my area of expertise. Sure you don't want that helmet? I could stick some lasers in there for you.”
And it was alarming to be seized by the god of thunder, one hand on each shoulder, grip hard enough to bruise. The force in the man's voice, and in his eyes, and in his being as he shook Tony put an end to the rest of the teasing that had lain on the tip of his tongue. “Anthony Stark, this is not a matter to be made light of.” Thor took a breath in, and it was not entirely steady. “Please. You must grant me this favor.”
“Yeah,” Tony found himself saying, bewildered and a little freaked out. “Yeah, sure. Drainage off to the side.” He put one hand over Thor's and eased his teammate's grip free- turned back to the hologram and added a few sketchy ideas before stepping back to look it over. The draft was a bit like a very big, very solid basketball hoop with a pipe sticking out from one end. “Something like this?”
The god of thunder looked at the display, raised a finger to trace the hoop's stand. “Something lies beneath. The solid line here must be altered.”
Tony turned back to the model, and when it had begun to take on the proper shape with a few deft touches of his fingers, he saw Thor nod in approval from the corner of his eye. “Just so. And be cautious, when you select the material from which you will craft. The venom it must hold is damaging to the flesh.”
“Corrosive, huh? What are we dealing with, some kind of acid?” Tony frowned at the drain on the holographic display- frowned at the measurements, and the shape. “Just what the hell do you need this for, anyway?”
But Thor did not answer. He was already moving for the door. “I must not linger,” said the god of thunder. “Will your work be complete on the morrow?”
“Kinda pushing it. You came to the master, but I can't pull an H. G. Wells, here.” Tony flicked his fingers apart and the model tripled in size; he began tapping away at the dimensions larger than life in glowing green, narrowing in on the details. “It's gonna be a few days.”
He was so busy concentrating on the screen that he almost missed the way his teammate's brow drew together in worry, the way he lingered after saying he couldn't. “I have faith that you will succeed,” said the god of thunder. “Perhaps this H. G. Wells holds talent, but never have I known a craftsman of your like.”
Tony barked a laugh and shook his head. “Ah, screw it. It'll be like college. I'll make eighty pots of coffee and call out for pizza.”
For the first time since he had set foot in the workshop, Thor smiled- broad and grateful, but a complicated expression all the same. “I am in your debt,” he said, and inclined his head.
As he was turning to go, Tony wondered what it was supposed to mean when a god bowed to you.
“Jesus Christ,” gasped Tony Stark, when he had finished puking in the pitch black of wherever the hell his teammate had brought him, “What is that smell?”
Whatever it was, it was the worst thing he'd ever smelled, close and cloying. It reeked of sickness and infection and shit, of damp and mold, of coppery blood and the weird, reptilian stink he usually associated with the zoo. He held a hand over his mouth and nose to try and block it out, but the combination of the sudden stench and the sleep he'd lost finishing Thor's drainage system left him feeling dizzy and a little nauseated.
If Thor had heard his question, he didn't respond, and just as Tony was thinking things couldn't possibly be any creepier, just as he was beginning to wonder whether his teammate had brought them to the wrong place, a noise drifted out of the darkness in front of them. It was a long, low keening sort of sound, like an animal in pain. It raised gooseflesh on Tony's arms, and he tightened his grip on the piping for the drain, just to give himself something to hold onto.
“Hurry up with that light,” he muttered to Thor- and as the words left his mouth, the god of thunder finally succeeded with the flashlight and a stream of white flooded the cavern. Because it was a cavern- a great, damp, dripping cavern, the walls slick with moisture, the ceiling somewhere out beyond the flashlight's glow.
Tony's mind took in none of these things in the first several seconds, however. Instead, it found itself preoccupied with the sight of the snake that loomed, head larger than his full height, suspended from what must have been an outcropping far above them. Its flat reptilian eyes stared blankly, giving no sign that it even registered their presence; its gaping mouth was partially open, and a thin stream of drool, milky white, slid steadily downward, dripping from fangs easily the size of his forearm.
“Why didn't you tell me to bring the suit?” Tony was hissing in the very next instant- was drawing back instinctively as though to fire repulsors that weren't there.
But Thor was not listening. Instead, he was approaching the massive creature, walking toward it as though it did not concern him, broad shoulders a hard line, head held up as though going out to face a battle.
Tony's voice echoed in the cavern, hollow against the walls. “Are you out of your mind? That thing's going to take your head off!”
The snake, however, did not move- did not even seem to be watching his teammate approach. And almost as though in response to his own voice, the sound from before came again, long and trembling- midway between a moan and a sob. This time, when his eyes darted in search of the source, the darkness did not block his sight: the naked figure of a man lay stretched beneath the snake, bound to an outcropping of rock. He was all ribs and sharp ridges of bone, all too-thin pale limbs, all open sores on top from the places the venom had splattered and on the bottom where the rock had rubbed away the flesh. The man's face, directly below the snake's mouth, had gotten the worst of it; it was raw and red, glistening with blood and exposed muscle, with the slick of poison. The man shouldn't have been alive, much less moving, and yet he was- was thrashing weakly in his bonds, turning his head as far as it would go to avoid the white liquid as it dribbled down. It was not far enough.
Tony thought he was going to be sick again.
Distantly, as though through smoked glass, he registered that Thor had taken one of the prisoner's hands in his own. “The man of iron has completed his work,” the Asgardian said, voice somehow hoarse and gentle at once. “It is as I promised. All will be well, brother.” He spoke with a slight waver, paused as though to steel himself- repeated the words. “All will yet be well.”
Standing in a cavern that was meant to be a final resting place, surrounded by the reek of suffering, Tony Stark was sick again.