Chapter 1: Below Asgard
Loki is where he wants to be. Nigh where he wants to be. There are small points which will need work, but the biggest step he has taken.
The biggest step has been taken for him: - meant as punishment, even! Thor brought him back to Asgard to be judged; but for now, this is where he is. Back in Asgard, where he wished to be all along, ever since he fell from the Bifröst and was lost in all the worlds.
All the worlds, all empty apart from tiny islands of being, none of them home.
This one is home.
Not his home; that is many levels up in the spires of the fastness of Asgard. Here are the bowels, safe places, spaces for tinkering upon magic that also is what Midgard calls technology, and for storing things. Among them, criminals and misfits like Loki.
Loki is slouching on his cot in his sunless cell, sipping something from the simple clay cup that Sigyn brought with her when she came to see him. Sigyn always brings something when she comes to see him and to talk with him. What is this in there? Oh, that stuff Thor grew to like in Midgard. Coffee. It’s becoming quite the fad here. Sigyn made it with honey and spices and milk, warm and nourishing and sober, as homey as anything might be that is this close to the edge of newness and eager invention.
Much like Sigyn herself. She’s one of Sif’s friends or hangers-on, too girlish to ever take part in adventure and exploration much, to fight and destroy and go to strange places. Sigyn works magic of all kinds, she handles powerful crystals and babbles about them in words that even Loki would barely understand unless he listens well. Loki’s magic is strong, and he can use the words with the best of them. But one like Sigyn would fiddle the small details, find names and words for every corner turned, will poke that which is broken until it works again, and draws her happiness from that. She is much like that girl who was with those that helped Thor during his first time in Midgard, not the one he grew close to, the other one: - only Asgardian, so what was science and technology in that one, is magic and runes in Sigyn.
And she speaks endlessly of it. Loki would guess she believes he listens so he will have what she brings, and the occasional tryst; but in truth, Loki drinks her coffee and calls her to his side to touch her as that will make her content and then she would speak more and Loki will hear what is happening.
They are rebuilding the Bifröst. That is what she is working on, with others that Loki also knows, and Heimdal as their leader. No, they are not rebuilding it; they are trying to make it re-grow, bringing its crumbled energy alive again, so once more it may extend to other worlds and Midgard shall be in reach again, without great struggle.
And then Thor shall be able to return to his lady-love, his ‘girlfriend’ as the Midgardians would have it in their loose, easy words. And when the damage is undone, Loki ponders, there will be time for him to ask for his pardon...
They have not forgotten him, the Jotun they raised as their own, the ‘stolen relic’ that was meant to prove that even the frost giants may be people, if raised like people. They had their proof -- but oh, it had back-fired terribly, like Mjölnir returning before all thunder was spent. Odin comes at times now and looks at him grimly, and speaks little, and leaves soon. His words are gruff, and his questions are ever the same: Why, why, why?
What does he wish to hear?
None of them would understand him, could follow his reasoning, so what do they think they would hear if they asked why, why, why? He had gone mad from the emptiness of all those worlds, they said, crazed, out of his mind -- ‘His brain is a bag full of cats’, Thor had quoted his wild green friend from Midgard, who was scruffy and soft-spoken and mumbled when not wild and green and slapping an Asgardian around like a wet towel slapped at small vermin on the floor.
Loki shudders at the memory.
“Yes, it is truly fearsome,” Sigyn is saying, “whatever we do, it just melts and merges and flows into each other, like colours running without a barrier between them, making exactly nothing. There is nothing for the magic to push itself against, no counter-energy around which it can build. Don’t you have an idea? I mean, I am sorry, I would guess you see us as your enemies now, why should you help us? It used to be your sceptre and your tesseract, and now we have them to work magic with. They work in similar ways so we can cross worlds, but the Bifröst is more stable, will be much easier to work with, once it takes direction from the tesseract and...”
She stops. “It’s good of you to listen to me. You were ever a great talker, and had your way with words since I have known you, and would make the grim ones smile if you wished to, but only now do I learn what a good listener you are. It’s hard to understand your reasoning and feelings, after all you have been through, but you understand mine so very well.”
Listening to draw all the secrets right out of her, just as that red-headed wench in Midgard had done to him. Even Loki could learn a thing or two in his travels. Why would they ever doubt it?
They will need a different energy source, something that flares hard and bright against the powers of the sceptre.
Tinkck! It had gone ‘tinck’ with a truly distinct sound, spelling futility -- the Midgardian magic they called technology, the thing that Stark they called the Iron Man wore within in his breast, the thing that had defeated Loki’s power and resisted his spells.
“I may be able to help you, my friend,” he says to Sigyn, lifting his shifty eyes from the cup of coffee and speaking for the first time since she came here today.
She is astonished; she did not expect it. Why do they never expect whatever he does, why can they never understand what he does? To say nothing of those endless why, why, whys? Are they so stupid, his ideas so far beyond them, or is he as crazed as they think and nothing that goes on in the ‘bag of cats’ within the reach of their sanity?
“I know of these things,” Loki says to her. “I built some, I made magic, I can feel how it flows. Do you not remember what we wrought together, in the times before?”
Before he learned that he was but another stolen relic. Before Thor was cast out to Midgard, and before Loki destroyed the Bifröst in trying to show his people -- the true people of his heart! -- whose side he was on, before he was lost in all the worlds.
When his work was still valued and his words were listened to.
Before he was lost and banished. But then, he had found those strangers in a world far away and then he had found Midgard again, reaching out with the sceptre for the tesseract, his magic taking him straight through. One last stepping stone -- he would conquer Midgard, send the strangers away with the tesseract, and then finally, he would trade Midgard upon Thor’s pleading for a pardon, the chance to return and come home.
Did they truly ever believe he wished to rule that miserable place? Whoever in their right mind would? Not even Loki, whose mind might not be fully right, did not wish for that. Ruling Midgard, with all its strangeness and insanity and endless worries, forever teetering on the brink that those mortals made it balance upon? Who would rule it -- who even could? Loki had never wished to keep it, just to have it, and then give it its freedom in return for what he wanted.
And here he is, home, but many levels of fastness part him from those that were his friends, and many levels of distrust, misunderstanding, and stupidity part him from them, also. Even in losing, he won back much of what he had lost before. He is almost where he wants to be again. And Sigyn, blabbing of her worries, is opening the door to him. The door behind which just a few easy steps will bring him all the way home at last.
“You need resistance,” he says. “Not all may be achieved if all just twines in harmony, you are right in that. I know of that, my friend. And I may know what it is that shall give you what you need, so Bifröst shall regrow, and the path to all those worlds shall be open once more.”
“You know?” Sigyn says. “You have an idea, as you used to have?”
“I am still who I was, my friend. And indeed, I do. Would you take me to the place where you work, so I may look myself?”
He asks it simply, just like that, no artifice. It is a simple question. ‘Show me’, not ‘Set me free’.
“You could tell me...” she says, hesitantly. How should any one escape from the lower reaches of Asgard? But still, he should not be let out. She is trusted with him, as only few others are, but he must remain in his place. It is plain in her face.
“I shall look first, and tell you then,” Loki says. “I must make sure, before I do, whether my thought is right so my idea can work. You need not share the shame if it does not work out; but the praise shall be all yours if it does.”
That should entice any scientist, as they call magicians in Midgard.
Of course, he could just tell her. Send Thor to fetch one of Stark’s arc reactors and put it underneath the sceptre where you need the resistance. One of them, for Thor would of course not rip out the device that keeps his friend’s heart beating. Even Loki understands that. But that tall house has at least one more that its power is running on. That one, or one like it, Stark would part with, for Thor’s sake.
But then, the praise will be all Thor’s, and who will think of pardoning Loki? Sigyn, on the other hand, would never forget that.
Not that he will need her to remember.
“You may lead me in bonds, if you would rather,” he says. “I merely need to see; then I can tell.”
Hesitantly, she gets up from where she was sitting by his feet.
“Frigga said she would come and see you tonight,” she says. “So we must either hurry, or go another day.”
Loki regards her with his head bowed and a sad, forlorn gaze. He would not take himself seriously that way, or fall for his own antics -- who would take pity upon a grown man merely because he looks at you like a saddened hound? -- but she does, as do so many others.
“It won’t take long,” he says. “The place you’re working in it is not all that far away anyway, is it?”
“No, we have taken it up to where the Bifröst is rooted,” Sigyn says, “but that is not all that far away as you put it, and there is no reason for people to about much in those areas, so we shall likely not meet any. But I would not incur the Lady Frigga’s wrath for taking you out of your cell. She says you are a danger to yourself.”
Lady Frigga, whom he used to think of as his mother. If Loki were speaking the truth of his heart -- which of course he is not -- he would say that her visits are the most painful of all. She acts as if she were still indeed his mother, and cared and worried about him as if she’d brought him forth from her own womb, which is clearly not the case. It hurts Loki every time to see her, to be reminded so sharply how he was taken in, and what he has lost. He would tell her to go away and leave him alone, but he does not wish to displease her; and he will need her good will (whatever there truly is of it!) when time comes to ask forgiveness of Odin, so he may at least be a shadow of what he was.
But indeed, Odin’s stony gruffness or Thor’s ranting and arguing are much easier to bear than her false mother’s love; and he does not want to run afoul of her and be subject to more of her worry and pleading.
Luckily, if all goes well, it won’t be long.
Sigyn slips from the cell, closing the door behind her, and Loki stands and stretches, straightening his robes, as he waits for her return. For return she will.
And she does, with bonds of metal and magic, Weyland’s work most likely. Loki smiles at her winsomely, and winks, and stretches out his hands, wrists together. He cannot fathom how any can fall for such a foolish face: - he himself would never trust that broad even-toothed smile, or the twinkle of a blue-green eye. He feels the lies upon his face, but no other can ever see them.
She fastens the bonds around his wrist, her touch a little caress as she closes them, and her face so sorry; but Loki keeps smiling. He does not want her feelings to be roused now; he wants to see her work, and do what he has thought of when she spoke.
There is a long thin chain on the bonds, so dainty and shimmering, that he knows to be nigh-unbreakable; she wraps that around her hand and opens the cell door again, peering out.
“We may go,” she whispers, which is so unnecessary; but Loki will not point that out. People will whisper when they sneak, and Sigyn means to sneak now, so she will not raise her voice. But as she means to sneak him right out of his cell, Loki has no argument with that.
She strides out, and the bonds pluck at his wrists, compelling him to follow. Odd that Midgardians, who have invented so many amazing things, still use simple iron handcuffs for such tasks. These bonds will make him follow, if he wishes to or not; but now, he truly wishes to. Oh yes.
He follows, his eyes darting to dark corners, and then back to the flag of her blond hair before him, the braids in it, and the way her body sways as she walks.
There are short-cuts and back alleys that she knows, leading him away from the busy thoroughfares of Asgard towards the outer areas, where the Bifröst is rooted and where its ruin rests even now. It is not that far, and they get there after a while of sneaking and following in silence.
All that blue light. Why will such magic ever manifest itself in blue, wafting light, tendrils of energy snaking from whatever object holds all that power?
Blue is the tesseract, blue is the crystal that powers the magic in Loki’s sceptre, and a dulled blue even the mighty ruin of Bifröst that extends to this place, a well-warded place that opens itself to them at a look from Sigyn’s blue eyes. Who needs guards if the magic is so much stronger than any fighting man can be?
Bathed in the blue light from the powerful magic, Loki tilts his head at her. “I need to touch, to test,” he says. “I need at least one hand free.” He holds out his shackled hands to her, and Sigyn frees one hand with a magical key she has dangling on her belt.
Loki steps toward the sceptre, and closes both his hands around the crystal. Blue energy flares between his fingers, and something moves and wriggles under his palms, the magic is alive, and obeying him still. A tiny fracture is felt by his thumb, and he presses at it. A small shard from the crystal comes loose and hides in the folds between his fingers.
Loki nods to Sigyn.
“I think it will work,” he says, stepping away from the sceptre. She still suspects nothing. But then, his intentions are pure, even as his methods may be not be what she expects, and she is in for a few surprises.
But good surprises, one hopes, in the end?
Loki crosses the few yards to the tesseract, touching its side with the hand where the shard is hiding, and the energies meld as Sigyn had said they would. The glowing cube flares, and Sigyn gives a tiny sound, a whimper that might mean excitement, or might mean fear of betrayal.
The tesseract remembers. It knows the way that they had come and still leads straight there if reminded, crossing several worlds in one fierce stab.
The shard is between Loki’s fingers now, and in the tiniest gesture, the blue sears through the chain on his hand that is still bonded. The broken magic raises an alarm that all must feel that know of such things, but it is of no importance any longer.
“No!” Sigyn declares in grim but finally helpless outrage. “Loki! What have you done!”
“Nothing yet, my dear,” Loki assures her, smiling sweetly. “I only shall do it now. But never worry, my friend. I know well what I am doing; and what I thought of, will work!”
He touches the shard to the tesseract, and the magic grabs hold of him, pushes him clear through several universes and, with a great flare, to the place whence he had come before.
As his feet hit the ground of Midgard, he smoothly shifts shape.
Chapter 2: Restorations at Stark Tower
Builders suck. And in a lobby full of fawning culture vultures and socialites, Tony naturally has to chat up the one woman who seems interested in the actual paintings, not the famous Tony Stark.
And again, the sound of that infernal drill reverberates through the entire building. There is something about machinery that gets through everything, even several floors full of the most amazing and advanced technology imaginable to the human brain. There is something about a workman’s tools that will abrade your nerves in thin slices until work or concentration is no longer possible, and finally you’re so pissed off that you’re...
Tony slides his eyes towards Bruce, worried. Perhaps a change in scenery, before anything green and nasty happens?
No, there’s just the usual scruffy mild-mannered scientist, entering the readings from each test tube into a spreadsheet, smiling as he works. “Yes?” he says, looking up at Tony.
“Hey, doesn’t that noise wear down your last nerve, too?” Tony asks him, never mincing words.
“What noise?” Bruce says, genuinely puzzled. “You don’t mean the drills and stuff?”
He shakes his head at Tony. “Remember, I used to work in the slums of Bombay and Calcutta. If I’d let a little thing like that get to me, what do you think would have happened there? Can you even imagine the noise, the stink, the constant shouting and the non-stop urgency and despair?”
Tony looks at him, feeling momentarily like such a privileged asshole for even worrying about it. “I’m still not going back up there,” he says, because such a feeling never lasts long in Tony Stark, and he’s even proud of that.
“Nobody is making you,” Bruce says. “You were going to turn on that autoclave again, were you?”
Tony does. “Ten minutes this time?”
Bruce nods. “Look,” he says, taking a deep breath as if this was something he’d been mulling for a while. Tony looks at him and nods back. They have time to talk while the autoclave does its thing.
“Look, knowing when to let go and give the other guy free rein,” Bruce says slowly, “gives me a better handle on how to hold him in, too. And I guess even the other guy has a sense of direction if he’s not bursting out all that desperately?”
Tony nods. He still finds it a bit odd that Bruce will only ever talk about shifting and his very real powers as if it was somebody else. As if he stopped existing while ‘the other guy’ was around.
“He knew perfectly well to go after Loki, did he, and didn’t, say, smash your place unnecessarily?”
“Only to the point of what was strictly necessary,” Tony agrees. “That’s why it’s in the terrible state its in now, and we have those workmen who...”
EEEEEEEEEEeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaoooooooooouuuuuuuuuuwwwwwwww goes the drill from three or four floors up, and drowns out all conversation.
“That was a water pipe, I guess,” Bruce says.
Tony groans. Yes, nothing else would conduct sound quite that clearly and loudly through the entire building and...
“I’ve got to say I don’t know how you can stand that infernal noise all day,” says a flippant female voice just as the door opens. “It would drive me up the wall. How come you didn't go up there and strangle those builders?"
She puts down the papers and packages she’s carrying in the middle of their workbench. “Oh, sorry, Dr. Banner.”
“Good afternoon, Miss Potts,” Bruce says, shyly. Tony is always secretly amused at how soft-spoken and self-effacing the huge green rage monster gets around people that aren’t his immediate friends. But then, Bruce is still in denial about being the same person as the huge green rage monster at all. Boatloads of issues to work through. It will be fun watching it all unfold.
“Don’t smirk like that, Tony,” Pepper Potts says to him, giving him a peck on the cheek while getting a wad of paper from among the ones she brought. They’re off-again at the moment (much of it due to the noise and the dust in his home, he suspects), but that’s never stopped her from bossing him around. And they can be on-again at any moment. That’s Pepper for you.
“You did at least read this?” she says, waving the paper at him. “You know what we’re showing today? You can say a few words if they ask you to? Icons? Not the computer kind?”
Tony takes the papers from her. “Stop printing out the internet for me, Pepper,” he sighs. “Yes, icons, the ones that Natasha recovered in Russia when she bust those -- whatever it was she was busting. We are just showing them and then giving them back to the churches they came from, all cleaned and restored and shiny? Yes?”
“Good boy,” she says. “You can do this.”
“When could I ever not do it?” Tony smirks at her. He’s got a reputation to maintain, after all. Pepper swats him with a swathe of internet print-outs (presumably), and Bruce rolls his eyes.
They know him too well.
Tony doesn’t actually have to leave the building for this one, as the exhibition takes place in the grand lobby of Stark Tower -- well, Avengers Tower now, presumably. Still, Tony is supposed to be the host, and comes primed to say a few words when he’s asked to by one of the little people in the background who’ve been working their little hands off to make this happen. Tony always crams enough names and figures into his head so that he doesn’t forget to thank anyone, blah blah blah.
There is this almost-hush of eyes sliding over and conversations stopping for a moment when he steps in, wearing a white suit with a deep red shirt and gold tie that say ‘This is wildly inappropriate but I’m stinking rich so I do what I want!’ which is the surest way to attract the right sort of easy women at any event and keep the bores at bay. Tony smiles charmingly at the assembled culture vultures and socialites, teeth only slightly on edge because of the strains of that string quartet that Pepper presumably hired, reminding him of the footage from Stuttgart he’d seen over and over and over in debriefings, trying to make sense of the how and the why of the entire wildly off-kilter attack.
The hum of the resuming conversations, thankfully, closes over the music.
Black is worn by all, as usual, Tony notes as he makes his rounds between the small groups of talking strangers and passing acquaintances, champagne in hand, chatting, taking a nibble from a passing tray or from a small table now and then. There are three kinds of people: boring, boring but useful, and good-looking women worth getting to know better. For something between eight and twelve hours, that is. Tony is aware of Pepper’s eyes on him, from where she’s standing in a strategically chosen corner, talking to Bruce (most of the time) who is so shy about all these people, he positively clings to Pepper as the least strange of these strangers. Natasha and Clint are about and talking to people as they’re supposed to -- the agent who recovered priceless cultural items is a great boon to S.H.I.E.L.D. now it’s no longer in any way secret, after all that has happened. They need PR.
He takes a step sideways to reach a bowl of wasabi nibbles, and bumps into a woman who was stepping backwards from the picture she was looking at, some -- well, presumably some badly flaking Russian saint, Tony thinks, turning his head to look at what she’s looking at. “Sorry,” she murmurs, and turns her attention back to the painting. She is wearing glasses.
Tony goes on to get a handful of the wasabi nibbles -- fuck, they’re hot! -- and then breathes slowly in and out through his mouth while turning around to look at the woman who had been ignoring him.
She’s wearing a little black dress like eighty percent of the women in this place, but hers looks home-made, actual cheap panne velvet stretching very nicely over her unfashionable hourglass curves that remind him of -- he has the name on the tip of his tongue, red hair should go with this (but not Natasha, she’s a lot taller and bustier than Natasha), but hers is black, long and curly and tamed into a loose ponytail that doesn’t interfere with the glasses, black like her stockings and her flat mary janes in which she’s still taller than Tony, which is usually a dealbreaker, but the wasabi is burning quite badly, and he can use the distraction. And she’s ignoring him, not even pointedly but casually, because that picture is infinitely more important than he is.
And that’s simply not allowed. Hell, she’s even taking notes, in a cheap Chinese red-and-black notebook that is so not the Moleskine she should have (at least -- she’s not the type to carry a Stark phone or Stark pad, and not just because somebody who goes to an event like this for the actual art on display, wearing that despicable if doubtlessly hot panne velvet can’t possibly afford one), and her fingernails are painted black as well, with golden sparkles, and she is wearing a ring that --
That says something completely different from the rest of her.
One of those ‘ice cube’ type engagement diamonds, and blue at that, with a glow that tells Tony immediately that’s not fake or Swarovski or anything like that; and she wears it so casually on the hand holding the cheap plastic ballpoint pen with which she is writing, she must wear it all the time.
Her glasses are small, rectangular and metal-rimmed, and she has a face of some sorts that’s not actively offensive but completely eclipsed by the cleavage that the panne velvet exposes rather than hides.
While the bite of the wasabi is slowly abating, Tony feels the urgent need to buy her a better dress, right now. Never mind the presumable fiancé. He can have her back tomorrow. What kind of man buys a woman that sort of a diamond and then lets her run around in panne velvet, anyway?
None of his friends is close by to remind him he’s salivating openly, but Tony gets a grip on himself nevertheless. Something has to be done about this.
He takes a glass of champagne from a passing waiter and offers it to the woman from the side.
She turns to look at him. Her eyes are pale, blue or green, moving almost independently within her glasses like goldfish (to quote Douglas Adams), and she looks at the drink almost quizzically. Then, she seems to decide to be polite, puts the pen into her notebook and drops both into her entirely unremarkable little black handbag, and takes the glass, with a long elegant be-ice-cubed hand. “Thank you.”
Her voice is light and soft, with an accent that Tony can’t yet place at all, with so little input. So he must make her talk.
“You’re really into these icons, are you?” he asks, smiling up at her as she sips her champagne.
Wrong question, from the way her eyes dart left and right in her glasses.
“Do you even know what these are?” she asks. “I’m not supposed to say anything disparaging, I know, my friend warned me before she took me here. But do you even know how many churches in Russia and even Siberia I’d have to go to to study this many works by Rublyov? And you’ve got them all under one roof and what do you do instead? Drink champagne and try to drown the music in small talk.”
Her eyes briefly swim in the direction of where the string quartet is still playing.
Her accent is that of a well-educated Middle or North European who’s learned English since kindergarten, so she speaks very much the Queen’s English in a way any actual Brit certainly does not.
But now Tony has something else to be curious about.
“Your friend is one of the musicians, I guess?” he says.
“The cellist,” she answers, and when she does so, he feels a little sting, remembering Phil Coulson, and the bloody trading cards. “I don’t know her that well, but I was willing to do anything so she’d take me here tonight.”
“Seven nights of baby-sitting,” she says, sounding rather unhappy and giving him a rueful little smile, in combination with puppydog eyes, which is quite a feat, considering that she’s taller than he is. Again, he feels she reminds him of somebody, some gorgeous creature swanning through -- someplace drab, looking fabulous and commanding...
And the name pops up in his mind, right on cue.
“You know,” he says, “when I first bumped into you just now, I thought for a moment you had to be Christina Hendricks in a black wig or something. You’ve got just her figure.”
The admiration is clear in his voice.
Her eyes swim left and right in those glasses, clueless.
“You know, Joan from ‘Mad Men’?”
Nothing. She’s looking down at him straight on now, as if he was the only madman here.
“That television series about people working in an office in the sixties and getting divorces?” he prompts. This is a hard compliment to deliver, especially when all she’s interested in is apparently -- Rublyov, or whatever that painter is called.
“Oh, never mind,” he says. “Anyway, the only reason that is worth watching is that character, Joan. She magnificent.”
“And you think I look like her,” the woman finally arrives at his point. By now, Tony feels silly. Normally, it’s much easier to talk to women. But normally, they’re interested in him and not in the art on his wall.
“I guess you’re studying art history?” he says.
Her eyebrows rise while she smiles at him, in an expression of mild, polite disdain. “Of course,” she says. “That’s why I’m here. I’m writing my thesis on the adaptation of Byzantine styles by the Kiev Rus, but I won’t pass up an entire exhibition of the later works that are based on that one axis point. For me, these paintings are linked by the invisible lines of a family tree, you might say. For example, if you look at the Kazanskaya over there and compare her to the very early Blakherniotissa, you can clearly see...”
She is finally talking, and Tony is willing to listen until his eyes glaze over. ‘Kiev Rus’ was in the internet printout Pepper had made him read, but half of the rest is flying right over his head. To her, these things seem as commonplace as nuts, bolts and engine grease to him.
Pepper has come to snatch him away.
“Time for your speech. You’ll excuse us for a moment while I steal him to do his hostly duties? I’m sure he’ll come back afterwards. I had never thought that anybody could get this oaf interested in art history. You are a miracle.”
She gives the still-nameless (damn!) woman a bright smile, and pulls him off, into the center of attention.
Where Tony acquits himself as admirably as can be expected of him, in his best genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropist manner. And then, he lets himself tamely be handed around from one group of polite people to the next, only very rarely looking to see whether the woman who looks like Joan from behind (minus the red hair) is still there. She is, moving from picture to picture slowly, taking notes.
He has to wait until people lose interest in him, or all eyes would follow him, and that wouldn’t do. He suspects the woman wouldn’t exactly want to be ‘seen with him’ by media and gossip. She’s an exclusive nobody, and she wouldn’t want the reputation in the narrow highbrow circles she probably moves in ruined by a remark along the lines of ‘She knows Tony Stark!’, so she’d probably brush him off publicly, if he approached her publicly.
But her demeanour has changed when he finally reaches her again. “I’m so sorry, Mr. Stark,” she says, putting away her notebook and pen without prompting. “I feel such a dunce for not recognising the host of this thing. Can you forgive me?”
It seems to actually pain her to have been so rude, which of course charms Tony into feeling more like the usual self-assured asshole he’s known as.
“You’ve churned out so many innovations in the last few years, I really should have known you. Having those big Stark scanners at the institute makes all the difference to my research. We can trust them with the actual originals, and the reproductions and the details on those big screens -- that’s easy to handle even for ignoramuses like me. If that is even a word. It’s painful to mangle Latin that way.”
She shrugs, and smiles at him apologetically. “Don’t mind me. All I mean to say is, you make some great electronics, and I’m personally grateful to you because your company has been donating that astounding equipment to the institute I’m doing my internship at. Those scanners actually learn by themselves how we want to look at the icons, we don’t have to get people to program them or make sure the settings are right every time. I love self-learning computers.”
“That’s hardly a new thing,” Tony says, grateful to her for steering them firmly onto common ground. “Even the Newton in the 1990s was able to learn your handwriting without you having to give it set examples through boring exercises.”
“Newton,” she says, reaching out for a glass of champagne from a passing waiter with an easy grace and pride that Tony finds more fascinating by the minute, “that was the gadget which turned out to be precursor to all the modern smart phones and PDAs, including your own, that that company went bust over, what was it called again, Apple?”
She remembers Apple!
“They made great computers in the early nineties,” Tony says, and then the words stick in his throat, because she reaches out and takes a generous handful of those wasabi nibbles that had him fighting for breath earlier, and just eats them.
He’s ready to save her, but no pleas for help come.
“You were saying?”
“Oh, never mind, I got used to wasabi when I lived in Japan. Friend of mine from university worked for the Ishibashi collection -- that’s Bridgestone for you -- and got me an internship with this collector of icons. Half of them turned out to be fake, or rather, 19th century copies, but he had that 6th century original painted in St. Catherine’s on Sinai most likely, that made up for all of them. Anyway, when I was living there, I lived on these packaged sashimi from the late night convenience store, and you had to slather it in wasabi-spiked soy sauce to make it remotely palatable.”
She eats another handful of the wasabi nibbles, and smiles at him.
“Anything I could answer to that would be wildly inappropriate,” he says, which is an inappropriate answer all by itself.
“You want to drag me upstairs to experiment on my tolerance in precise Scoville scale measurements?” she grins, and that makes Tony snort with laughter, and reach for the next passing glass of champagne.
“That’s capsaicin, though,” he says, “while wasabi contains a volatile...”
Pepper is inexorably touching his elbow. “Tony, I’m sorry to interrupt, but there’s somebody Natasha says you really need to meet,” she says.
“I’ll be along in a minute,” Tony answers. “Really, point them out to me and I’ll be right over. I just need to exchange numbers with this young lady so she can come over again when we’re closed and look at all the icons all by herself to her heart’s content. Really. Cross my Arc reactor and hope to die.”
“Dont’ you dare!” Pepper says, pointing out the group around Natasha, and then walking over, back to them, as if she didn’t know Tony any better.
Being able to blame him is apparently tantamount to actually getting him to do what she wants.
The young art historian is pulling a blank page from her notebook, and folding it sharply, prior to tearing it in two.
“You know what?” Tony says. “Scratch that. Let’s go for the Scoville scale tests now, and see about the icons tomorrow morning?”
She smirks, broadly. Her lipstick is very dark.
“I really really want to flee from this, and I’d rather flee with you?”
“Deal,” she says, putting her notebook away. “You had better have some jalapenos to offer to me for breakfast, though.”
She grabs a generous handful of the wasabi peas before quickly following him along the edges of the crowd to his private elevator, and when they are inside and start kissing, her lips are laced with the sharp cold of it to almost make Tony pull back. But only almost.
It is a bit odd, too, to be kissed by somebody taller, as Tony’s only rarely had those tall runway models, or perhaps the very, very rare actual dude, but she is a challenge and an unusual conquest, and he quite likes the change. And when they arrive at the penthouse, or rather, the building site, they quickly get down to business.
She is wild and uninhibited, and takes her pleasure straight. Later, she accepts the glass of expensive burgundy as naturally as she had accepted Tony’s touch, she sheds that awful panne velvet dress easily, and pushes him back onto the improvised couch in his half-ready living room, she is magnificently feminine, but will still finger-bang him with a hint of wasabi lingering on her skin.
She doesn’t ask about the Arc reactor, and he doesn’t ask about the ice cube of a blue engagement diamond on her finger. Even when these two meaningful things touch, much later, when they’re in his bed for the third encore of this, and produce a clear resounding ‘tinck!’, neither mentions it.
Once more, many thanks to paceisthetrick for the beta -- her lolololol'ing in the comments of the GDoc I'm working in really cheered me on. Part three is already written and awaits her commentary before I fix things and post it.
And thanks to all you readers, and the commenters -- it's really inspiring to see the numbers and read what you said, and know that there are people out there wanting to see more. So, here is more, and the next part will be up tomorrow or the day after that.
Chapter 3: Fiendish Noises at the Tower
Loki wakes up in Tony Stark's bed and is very alarmed...
Loki wakes to a loud screeching noise like nothing else he has ever heard, that shakes his very bones and teeth and makes the brains rattle in his skull.
“We are being attacked!” he shouts, sitting up in bed even before he remembers where he is, what shape he -- she! -- is currently wearing, and who she is with.
“Fuck,” the big lump in the bed beside her growls, in his rude Midgardian vernacular, “fuck those damn builders. I’m gonna kill them all.”
What builders would dare cause such a noise while the master himself is present? Midgardians of this time are so very forwards and lacking in respect, which is both useful and annoying in turns.
Useful, as making friends with the cellist meant to play at Stark’s function had been so easy; stealing all the knowledge and the words that go with it, which Loki needed, from the museum woman’s mind while touching the shard of the sceptre to her chest briefly in a gesture of seeming amusement had been just as easy. It had been so easy to adjust her use of the Alltongue until they believed they were hearing their own lowly style of speaking. These mortals had been laughably easy to play, like so many musical instruments.
Loki doubts she would learn fast how to make the music that they always play and ignore in the background of their customary standing-up feasts. It is not a thing she needs to do, though.
“Please do,” she says, aloud, and Tony Stark looks up at her from the sheets, tousled and bleary, and it is all she can do not to laugh at his expression.
“Pepper hired them, and she says I can’t do that,” he grouses. “But if I...”
The rest of his sentence is drowned in another unholy screech, and Loki decides if there is even one more of those, she will deal with it by magic, all caution to the winds.
But Tony Stark is quite blinkered, for a man as clever and gifted as Loki must admit that he is -- were he less gifted, he would hardly have what Loki is here for, that very clever thing of his own invention. Not much caution is needed around him.
Tony Stark is so blinkered, it does not even take an added glamour to keep him from recognising Loki in her female shape. Loki is much the same, just all that is usually male turned to woman-shape, and as womanly as is feasible, at that. Last night, Stark hardly looked beyond her breasts.
No glamour to keep up will mean no magic needed at all times, no need of remembering: - a shape shift is just that one rush of power drawn into the body, and then the shape will hold until Loki wills it otherwise. So there is nothing she could give away if she wakes unexpectedly, and reacts in a way no mortal of this time likely would, as happened just now. And Tony Stark, well-blinkered by his desires and that which he expects to see in his safe little mundane mortal world, merely pulls the sheets back over his head.
She lies down again and reaches to touch his chest, the sceptre-shard on her ring touching that thing in his chest they call an ‘Arc Reactor’, hearing the soft ‘tinck!’ as they connect in that perfect antagonism that is what Loki came for.
When the noise starts again, it is cut off suddenly, with a soft bang, as Loki directs the power downwards to the source of the annoyance, and makes the primitive machine break itself irrevocably.
Tony lowers the sheet somewhat, and looks up at her with his eyes grinning and the rest hidden. It is almost endearing, for a mere mortal. Loki will not reject any pleasure that may be had, merely for the sake of her goal; such is the way of the terminally dreary. And this human is good at what he does.
Pleasure, and invention: - the how, and the wherefore, of Loki’s presence here. But they need not exclude each other.
They have been quite inventive last night, and it has been pleasurable. This ‘wasabi’ is quite a pleasurable Midgardian invention also.
“Oh, thank god,” Tony says from under the sheet, at the sudden silence. “Or rather, well, thank whatever just broke that fucking drill. I’ve met gods, and I don’t think they do that sort of thing. Answer prayers and the like.”
“I heard one of them threw you out a window?” Loki says, screwing up her eyebrows as if trying to remember a really unimportant fact she may have read somewhere. “Or was that somebody else?”
She gives him a puzzled look, remembers another thing, and reaches for the glasses that she had been wearing, so he would not recognise her eyes. Unnecessary, as it turned out, for he hardly ever looked that far up at all.
“That was me,” Tony says. “But it didn’t work. And a friend of mine slapped that god on the floor until he had enough. That’s why we’re having all these renovations, actually. But not the sort of god I’d pray to, personally, if I wanted to silence a drill. You looking for these?”
He reaches across her, clever fingers scrabbling over the floor briefly, and hands her the glasses.
Clever fingers, clever brain, clever tongue. Loki knows to treasure all of those, for her own purposes. But there is a flaw in what connects them that makes him so easy...
She puts the glasses on, she looks into his unshaven visage as if she were only seeing him anew now, and then she cannot help but smile. Once more, he cannot seem to lift his eyes up far enough, and once more, she does not mind.
It is later, when she is lying back in bed all content, the raspy feeling of his beard and stubble still burning in faint echoing sensation, in the most unexpected places upon her flesh, when he begins to speak to her. Were she as eager about him and his inflated importance among these humans as he seems to be used to, she would surely find herself on the way out by now; but as all she seems to care about is the pleasure, and those holy pictures from last night, he needs to prove himself to her.
“I guess you’ll be wanting to get back downstairs to those icons,” he murmurs. “When you’ve caught your breath and had a shower and a coffee, of course. You do have that much time?”
She makes a little noise, to show she is listening, and not entirely drifted away on clouds of pleasant lassitude. But indeed, how can he speak that soon after what they did? She is of half a mind to do more of this, until he truly cannot speak any more, but then he might not wish to do that other thing she needs and wants him to.
“But really, you’d do me a favor if you’d come to my workshop and have a look at some of the things we’ve been working on and see how you’d use them if you had them in that institute where you’re working? That would be really valuable input? Straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak?”
He does not know, of course, what dangerous jest he made with this.
“After that, you’re of course invited to look at those icons as much as you want until we open to everybody in the afternoon. Hell, you know what? Let’s pick some of them off the walls and put them on the new scanners some of the guys in R&D are working on. I really want to see how you’d work them. It would help a lot.”
Were she fawning over him, this would be the time to politely kick her out. As it is, he wishes to make her admire him, and only then kick her out. He is digging himself in deeper and deeper, at just the exact spot Loki wants him to.
He is good with just the exact spots.
“Hm,” she says.
“That was a yes?” he chuckles, turning in bed and craning his neck to kiss her again. He tastes of used mortal; but as it was her who used him, she does not mind.
“You said something about coffee,” she deigns to concede: - now he will fawn over her until she pays him all the attention he wishes for.
And indeed, he sits up in bed, groaning, eager to do her bidding for the moment, until she will pander to his overblown self-worth, as most women seem wont to do.
And then, suddenly, a disembodied voice speaks up, from quite close by, like an unseen presence somewhere in the room. For the first moment, Loki understands not a word, as if the Alltongue had trouble picking up the source of the speech, or as if it was not a language that had been heard before.
She has to pay attention to hear words, not mere sounds.
“Mr Stark?” the voice is saying, when Loki has forced understanding at last. “This is important, sir!” Does that rag-tag band of mortals that Thor fell in with have an invisible man among them now, and Loki has been found out? Alarmed, she sits up.
“May I alert you to the fact that -- “ the voice says, and then, as Loki springs to her feet, ready to fight whoever it may be, the infernal screech starts again, and all other sounds are lost as that machine strikes upon a metal girder, and all that remains is the howl, shaking the entire house.
It seems those workmen have brought another drill.
Loki’s first impulse is to reach for Tony and his Arc reactor, to borrow more of the energy and break this new machine, also, for who would dare assault the ears of their betters so? That workman deserves all punishment, and all the broken drills in the world! But then, she stops herself, as two of them breaking in this manner, in short succession, would surely arouse suspicion.
Loki slumps back onto the bed and howls in frustration -- utterly futile against this noise! -- while Tony’s mouth goes on moving for some more moments until he realises that all his words are lost.
He shrugs, he picks up some robe of thick white cloth, and points at a door that, most likely, leads to another room, where one may wash oneself, and walks out the way they had come in last night, towards the still-broken great hall of his living quarters, the place of Loki’s defeat.
Little does he know that Loki has returned, to turn this into the place of his -- now, her -- victory.
She stands, and walks over to the door he had indicated, to wash the traces of pleasure off her skin the way mortals seem to prefer it, these days.
And then, the unholy sound dies down again, slowly lowering in pitch until voices can be heard over it, and finally falling into silence. Loki hopes that the man working that machine is dying a slow painful death, with the infernal drill slipping from his weakening fingers; but more likely, he is just taking a short break, and aiming for the next hole he plans to make into the walls of Tony Stark’s magnificent abode.
“... must pay attention, Tony!” a female voice snaps, downstairs, in the great hall. It is the voice of the woman who kept all things running and organised, last night. She plays some part in Tony Stark’s life, one may assume, but Loki is not truly interested. She means to take what she came for and then go, and then that woman can scold Stark for the rest of their brief lives, as far as she cares.
“Madam,” the disembodied voice says, quietly, “I would advise you to conceal yourself now.”
Loki ignores it. It hasn’t attacked yet, and it sounds quite servile now she understands it better.
“I couldn’t even hear you, over that infernal noise,” Tony says, reasonably, to the woman downstairs. “What is your problem, Pepper?”
What a name for a person, Loki thinks as she finds herself another of those robes. Stark seems to have enough of these in his wardrobe, as if he expected to host a squadron of Valkyries or a troupe of dancing wenches in his private quarters at times.
“What my problem is?” the woman downstairs says. “What my problem is? These people were waiting to talk to you, Natasha was waiting for you to come and talk to them, and you never turned up, leaving us looking extremely stupid, and lots of valuable opportunities completely wasted. Where on earth were you? You can’t possibly have wandered off with that big fat bottom in the cheap panne velvet, can you? So, what did you think? What are you going to do to make it up to them?”
“Pepper...” he says.
“So, let’s go upstairs where there are no builders due back from their break any minute now, and find a way to solve that problem, shall we?”
There is an edge to her voice, and she is closer now, as if she’d moved from the entrance to the stairs.
“Hell, Pepper, I was just going to make coffee, you can’t expect me to think sensibly about anything without enough caffeine on my brain!” Tony pleads.
But her sharp heels are already clacking up the stairs towards the bedroom.
“Madam, please!” the bodyless voice says, trying to put as much urgency into its emotion-free timbre as it can.
Shift or glamour? Loki wonders, losing a few valuable seconds while the woman’s steps ascend the stairs, Tony following dejectedly on soft naked feet, and then there is an almost inaudible crackling in the room, as if the unseen servant wished to say something, but did not dare, for fear of giving away his master.
Glamour, Loki decides -- she cannot know if the servant is not watching in some manner, and upon seeing the guest turn into something else entirely, he would surely alert his master to such unheard-of goings-on?
Closing the robe around her, she leans in the corner between the door to the bathing-room and the huge, rich, room-sized wardrobe, and simply melts into the background.
Invisibility. Two can play this game.
Then, that woman Pepper walks into the bedroom, followed by a dejected-looking Stark who likely expects his guest to be both visible, and guiltily flustered.
Chapter 4: Going to R&D Candyland
Something is odd about that nameless woman, and Tony will spare no resources to find out what it is.
Of course, following Pepper into the bedroom, Tony expects his guest to be moving around, or taking a shower, or trying to hide under the sheets.
But she’s not there.
The bathroom door is half-ajar, but there’s nobody there. The closet door is open as well, and there’s nobody in it either. Pepper still walks into the bathroom and fluffs some of the inevitable dust of the construction work from her hair. Tony watches her through the half-open door, and gives a brief smirk, and then a brightly innocent grin as she comes out of there again.
“I couldn’t live like this,” she sighs, looking around the bedroom. No, there is no feminine underwear in here.
But they were downstairs when they -- oh, fuck, Tony thinks, stepping out onto the gallery and looking down into the living room-slash-building site, and there it is, on the floor by his makeshift couch, a small dark lump of balled-up fabric that in the bright sunlight reveals itself to be not black but a dark, dark shimmering green.
Still, cheap panne velvet...
Her dress is there; the woman isn’t. This is odd. Unless she’s another stealthy S.H.I.E.L.D. agent or something and is hiding on the ceiling the way some of them do.
“Penny for your thoughts,” Pepper says, but then the drill starts again, and she claps her hands over her ears and elegantly stalks down the stairs and makes a hasty exit, giving Tony (who of course followed her to the elevator door) just a brief peck on the cheek before fleeing.
The odd absence of last night’s companion, however, makes Tony think. She’s probably the kind of woman who deserves a bit of thought, not just physical skills and a few smirks and practiced lines.
She remembered Apple.
Now, that’s remarkable, as she otherwise hasn’t come across as a tech enthusiast , apart from what’s useful in her work. Somebody name-dropping something that’s important to your own history (and it is, to his own history as an inventor, because learning from other people’s failure is infinitely preferable to learning from your own) but otherwise very arcane is suspicious in and of itself. The other thing about this strange amenable lady Tony distrusts is the way she perfectly mirrors his own attitude of focused interest and vague arrogance towards everything else. The way she is easy to talk to, easy to understand, and easily gets underneath his usual barriers of callous fun. He is used to some antagonism in opinion (or, so help him, clueless stupidity) from all the girls he meets. She, on the other hand, agrees too easily on some subjects, utterly ignores and dismisses the rest, and makes him want to keep going until she is properly impressed with him.
Now, she even seems to have the ability of hiding herself from Pepper, which is no mean feat. So she’s either an agent sent to watch him with great personal sacrifice, or some high-class industrial spy sent by the competition (ditto) to see what Tony Stark is working on, or she’s exactly as it says on the tin, and her dad or uncle or older brother bought a Newton in the nineties, which then broke down, so they were quite gleeful when the company that made them did the same. Better keep on watching her for a bit before he jumps to any conclusions, though.
Show her the icons. Let her take down her favourite Rublyov (fuck the insurance!) and put it on one of the new big scanners and see how she does. Add a bit of fast-talking and some complete and utter bullshit and common sleight-of-hand and misdirection in addition to randomly impressive generosity, and a dose of the shinies in the shape of Arc reactors and the newest screens, and see how she does. If there is anything fishy about her, she’ll misstep at some point of this complicated narcissism tango.
First, though, that dress. Tony picks it up and drops it down the recycling and tells Jarvis to get the measurements of the woman as he observes her, or from the dress, and have a selection of ‘little black dresses’ from all the best designers sent up, and something else she can wear. He has to do so by using the actual backup keyboard (a physical bit of actual hardware, ugh!) because the drill has got so loud, there is no chance of the voice recognition picking up anything.
She is not at present observable, Jarvis answers via a screen, as he wouldn’t be audible. She is not speaking to me, either.
Now she is here, he adds, cryptically, but before Tony can ask what that means, the woman appears on the gallery, in one of his bathrobes, puts her hands on the railing, the green-nailed fingers gripping the wood like a vulture landing on a mostly dead horse, shakes her wild open black hair, and shouts something in desperation, or so it seems, as her mouth opens and her eyes glare wildly from inside her glasses, but the drill drones out whatever sound she might be making.
The drill falls silent.
“That’s better,” she says, smiling at Tony again. “Where are my clothes?”
“The dress, erm, was beyond repair,” Tony pretends to admit. Blame it on the sex. That’s the easiest way, if you’re Tony Stark. Everybody expects it.
“I told Jarvis to get you something else.”
No enthusiasm at that announcement. “Jarvis?”
“He’s my AI,” Tony says.
“Oh, the invisible” -- brief pause -- “butler. Yes, he told me to hide. So I did. Useful thing to have.”
So she did. Huh.
“He’s more than that,” Tony says. “You might remember reading about him warming up the crowd for my keynote at...”
She seems uninterested, which is odd, as that had been big news. AI Opens This Year’s Developers’ Conference, the headlines of all the tech sites had said.
“Is my underwear anywhere?” she just asks. “I’ll just borrow something from your closet, otherwise.”
Tony looks around, and sees no underwear.
Odd. Jarvis should be able to pick up that context. Well, never mind.
“Where is my guest’s underwear?”
“The items in question are under the sofa, sir,” Jarvis finally supplies, and Tony goes to pick them up.
“Huh,” she says. “That is a bit uncanny. He can see everything, can he?”
“I flatter myself that he comes out right on the other side of the Uncanny Valley,” Tony says, rolling up the underwear in a ball (remarkably sensible underwear, actually, black and functional) and tossing it up to her.
He never expects her to catch it, as that would need very fast reactions, but she does.
“Thanks! Do you think Jarvis can make coffee, too?”
Curiouser and curiouser.
“No, but I can.”
That sounds almost American, so she’s probably picked up the way people say it here while she was here. Or she’s not at all what she seems.
She vanishes back into the bedroom and Tony can hear the shower starting before the drill whines up again, and he goes to heat up the big espresso machine.
It’s one of those large machines that rattle, hum, roar and hiss to themselves for a long time before deigning to spit up minute amounts of arcanely perfect coffee and have a clunky red LCD display to tell you their demands which are manifold and often cryptic. So far, Tony had failed to successfully integrate it with Jarvis and his home electronics; he’d taken one apart but it simply wouldn’t start up again afterwards.
It’s one of those problems to solve one day, reassuring you that life will never ever get boring. There will always be items left on his to do list. That’s oddly comforting.
Now he is busy guessing what kind of coffee his visitor might like. Not as fancy as a cappuccino, not as straight as his own triple espresso, not as wussy as a latte macchiato that comes in a glass in those fancy layers.
He should perhaps ask her, and about her name as well if he’s at it...
The drill falls silent with a bang.
“Smells good,” she says from the foot of the stairs somewhere, and Tony turns around to look at her. She wearing one of his baggier pairs of sweatpants which is tight around her bottom, showing it off to an uncanny perfection, and a very historical and actually quite rare Led Zeppelin t-shirt he triumphantly won on eBay the other week which is very tight around her boobs, ditto. Her hair is in a ponytail and her eyes are swimming around in her glasses, taking in the kitchen area and the coffee machine. Despite the general air of improvisation, she’s reapplied her dark lipstick, as if she didn’t feel dressed without it.
She grabs a large mug, pushes it under the machine’s nozzles, and presses a few buttons entirely at random.
Coffee comes out without a moment’s hesitation or any cryptic error messages.
She adds milk, and sips.
“Excellent,” she says. “You have a good machine. You mentioned breakfast. Does your AI butler make it?”
“No, I do usually,” Tony says. “No matter what the papers write about me, I can do things for myself like a normal person.”
She gives him a strange look.
“Sorry,” Tony finds himself saying. If there’s any woman lately indifferent to the legend and the gossip, it’s that one.
The nameless one with aquarium glasses and the panne velvet who remembers Apple.
“Do you have any of the wasabi things left over from last night?” she asks, sweetly.
“Jarvis, do we?” Tony asks.
“Excuse me, sir?” Jarvis says. “Do we what?”
“Have food left over from last night’s thing, namely some of those wasabi nibbles?”
What’s wrong with Jarvis today? Hopefully, those damn workmen aren’t interfering with the wiring, the sensors or the repeaters!
“We do,” Jarvis says. “And some other food from the caterers. Would you like some sent up?”
Finally that AI shows that the I is for intelligence!
It doesn’t take long until some quite ordinary human staff member appears with a food cart, and leaves again with never a glance at the woman. Housekeeping in Stark Tower is used to much worse. They’ve only reached their second respective coffees by then, and the woman has inhaled two pints of orange juice as if it was nothing. Well, they had a busy, sweaty night.
There’s some sushi on the cart as well, nicely cooled and still quite fresh, and she eats hungrily, adding more wasabi to the soy sauce than Tony would have thought humanly feasible. He’s less than keen on raw fish and rice with very spicy green stuff in the morning, and keeps to the cheese platter and the bread.
It’s probably because she listens so well, eyes on his while she eats and drinks almost oblivious. He talks a blue streak, mixing legit technobabble with a number of red herrings and one or two items of patent bullshit, watching her listen, watching her reactions, Yes, he does get a raised eyebrow or two at some of the more outrageous claims he is making, eyebrows drolly lifted in the middle, right over her nose, that he finds oddly endearing and perhaps a little bit familiar, if entirely unplaceable.
Perhaps she is somebody’s relative? The daughter or niece of somebody he knew or knows, friend or enemy, coming back in their name, for revenge? Favours?
He is determined to find out.
Tony runs out of steam around the time she runs out of hunger for sushi and other spicy things that are not breakfast at all from Tony’s point of view, and he falls silent and she looks at him, her blue-green eyes amused.
“What’s the plan now?” she asks, placing all the decisions squarely at his feet, which feels a tad unfair.
“We kill time,” he says, “until my people bring some clothes you can actually walk out of here in, plus a replacement for the ruined dress.” Of course, he’s not sparing any expenses -- that should finally impress her. Even if she has some other secret agenda.
“Let’s go down and see all the things you’ve been telling me about,” she says, finishing her fourth mug of coffee with a smile. “Your Candyland.”
There is an odd expression in her celadon eyes -- you even need unusual color names for this one! -- as she adds, “But first, I want -- you again?”
“What?” Tony says, a bit stupidly. This is giving his attention span some serious whiplash now. Hers is either worse than his own, beyond ‘butterfly on crack’, or she has some seriously awesome multitasking abilities.
“Sex?” she says, with a little giggle. “I think it’s called a ‘quickie’? You do these?”
Her voice is charming and British, with a hint of wherever she came from before that.
“Jarvis, admit nobody. Repeat, nobody. Not even S.H.I.E.L.D. agents with override code. Not even Pepper. Especially not Pepper.”
He suspects that it’s futile in regard to Pepper, but will be content with Jarvis’ brief “Yes, sir.”
When the next drill starts up again, they don’t even notice, propped against the back of Tony’s provisional couch, clothes haphazardly pulled off strategically important parts, Tony’s hands on her soft and generous curves, massaging a heavy breast from which the too-tight t-shirt has slipped up, caressing crevasses, as he loses himself in her from behind. He can’t hear her moans and hissed orders any more, but from the expression on her face, from the mimic of a drowned-out scream, she’s finding all the pleasure she’s looking for.
Her mouth tasted of coffee and wasabi, a thoroughly odd mixture, but Tony hasn’t kissed her again since they left the elevator and he started giving her the tour of the R&D department. There are some people working here, but they’re people after Tony’s own mind and concentrate on their work, not really interested in impressing the boss with smalltalk. If you made it this far, you’re long past the need to impress, anyway.
There’s an imaging specialist who can be distracted long enough to explain the new scanners to her while Tony looks on and wonders if this really is how you explain tech to ordinary people, but his guest seems to understand just fine. Three-dimensional gesture control seems to be old news to her, but she’s really interested in the gaseous substrates used for projecting the 3D work space that goes with them. “I guess you still need them, unable to reach directly into the mind or provide an eidolon to work with,” she murmurs, and if she only makes half sense, Tony blames it on her art history jargon from wherever that just slipped in, apparently.
And finally, the Arc reactors, in a high security lab where only very few people have access, and the only one present at the moment is Tony himself. He has five of them now running, in testing stages for different projects, from the large one meant for an Indian city to a tiny one, designed to run the exoskeleton of a quadriplegic genius Tony is mentoring.
“You take the ‘philanthropist’ part dead serious, do you?” she says, touching the blue glow of the second largest, the one meant for the Italian mountain village Tony is helping to reinvent itself as a cyber resort. Tinck!
“They’re not all that complicated or expensive to make,” Tony says (well, relative to his resources and skills, of course, or the world would already be running on them and have left fossil fuel and nuclear power and even regenerative energies long behind), “and the technical ones can still run with palladium. Only if you’ve got to integrate one with people, you need that new element I told you about. That I invented.”
He feels unpleasantly boastful as he says it. “I make it in a particle accelerator one floor down,” he adds. “It’s just a small one, so it takes time.”
“Well, the palladium ones are good enough for almost anything,” she answers, looking straight into the light of the second-largest one that she is still lingering close to. The blue glow is bathing her face, glinting off her glasses in which the eyes slide over at Tony with interest, and tinting her religiously reapplied lipstick a stark black.
That’s when the darkened sliding doors of Stark-made security glass open again and in storms Pepper Potts (again), her killer heels clicking angrily (again!) on the industrial flooring.
Tony walks towards her, quickly, leaving his still nameless visitor among the reactors.
“You didn’t even bother to erase the security footage from last night,” Pepper announces, as if continuing from several sentences already spoken, “and it’s really not my business as long as you use protection to keep the paternity suits at bay, which are my business, while your bad taste again is not, however awful I feel about you getting off on big bottoms in cheap panne velvet, but even though I didn’t see her up at yours just now, we have no record of her leaving the building, which is baaaaad, so please tell me, Anthony Stark, where is that fat cow...”
Tony opens his mouth to tell her that women come in all shapes, and hers is just gorgeous, thank you, just as much as Pepper’s whip-thin, well-groomed planes and angles, and he’s already doing something about the panne velvet, but all that comes out is an angry, “Which...?”, and then Pepper swivels on a murderous heel and points and says, “That one, right there between the arc reactors -- the ARC REACTORS, Tony, if anything’s even worse than paternity suits or your abysmal taste of late, it’s you falling for industrial espionage like all sorts of fool I never thought you were...”
“She’s an art historian, and she remembers Apple, and I promised her scanners for her icon project, and got carried away,” Tony manages to slide in edgeways, finding his reason again, faced with such big words. “Did you manage to run a background check on her yet -- of course you did -- because embarrassingly enough, I never managed to catch her last name” -- let alone her first one -- “and...”
And the doors open again, and another of the select half-dozen with access to the reactors wanders in, ambling and casual, waving a pad in a gesture of question, then stopping in his tracks as he hears the argument, sees the angry Pepper, and the visitor.
Bruce, mild and disheveled as always.
“Er, can I ask what he’s doing here, dressed up as a woman and everything?” Bruce asks, pointing at the woman among the arc reactors, who looks at Tony with innocent befuddlement and exasperation, eyebrows rising in the middle far over the thin rim of her glasses and both hands on the second-largest reactor as if to steady herself against the onslaught.
“This is not a fucking sitcom!” Tony groans, apologetically. “Damn, people, why do you have to keep popping in as if this was a fucking sitcom? And Brucey, really, I can testify that she’s a woman in every last aspect, I’ve done exhaustive research. Who did you think she was?”
That similarity that Tony had noticed...
Bruce laughs. “It’s Loki?” he says, his voice rising at the end in a way that’s not a question but indicates that Tony is clearly stupid. “Forget the boobs and glasses and lipstick, just look at his eyebrows -- that’s Loki!”
Tony turns, and looks at her, and it’s really Loki. Slightly shorter and way bustier and completely feminine, but also completely Loki, and her smile is even the purest, most distilled Loki there can be, bag-of-cats mind at its best, as she gives a heave and the second-largest arc reactor comes loose, impossibly held aloft by a single hand as she touches her ring, now glowing blue as the reactor’s energy, to the light -- TINCK!! -- not taking it away, and the perfect opposition between the energy and whatever magical crystal thing that is, which had protected Tony during their confrontation (from mind control, mind you, but not from defenestration), flares up, larger and brighter, bringing another added swirl that had not been here before, and it’s a bomb it’s an explosion it’s a teleporter, so Tony throws himself into the new light to stop Loki, somehow, keep her (him?) from absconding with his second largest arc reactor and his newest Led Zeppelin t-shirt, and then that swirl of light wraps around them both, and they are gone.
Thanks again to paceisthetrick for the relentless beta. She slays all the commas! Also, indirect thanks to the old friend of mine who already was Andra Laz in my old ST: DS9 fic 'Lieutenants', because his Siri jokes went straight into my characterisation of Jarvis -- he's not likely to see this, but still, this wouldn't have been as much fun to write without his input.
The last chapter is already written and will be posted at some stage this weekend. It's just more of a coda, anyway.
Chapter 5: Laboratory in Asgard
Loki arrives back in Asgard, with an uninvited Tony in tow; lots of people babble a lot, but Loki mostly ignores them. All is resolved.
Naturally, when Loki opens his eyes and makes to rise, he is faced by an array of grim faces, (again!) that regard him with various degrees of anger, hurt, or disappointment.
Heimdal is here, and Sigyn, and even Thor and Odin, and some other mages of Asgard that, long ago, used to regard Loki as one of their own.
The Loki on the floor by the broken Bifröst, with the arc reactor and the unplanned Tony Stark, is surely not one of their own, their grim gazes says; and indeed, as Loki looks at the machine and tries to get to his feet, he sees his hands are blue from more than the light of the reactor, and of the tesseract that is still sitting, in it’s makeshift harness, by the ruins of the rainbow bridge.
Loki stands, schooling his Jotun face to be calm under its battle lines (they help), and faces them all, arc reactor glowing in his hands.
Behind him, the Man of Iron is finding his feet by himself.
“I am a monster,” Loki announces, starkly, to those assembled, “and that is not a new thing. Anything else that you wish to say to me now?”
He knows that his eyes are red, and his battle-lines fearsome. With a deep sigh, he finds the magic around him to fill his depleted stores with its powers, and slowly bleeds out the blue, in favour of his usual Asgardian pale.
All of them start speaking at once, finding urgent accusation, hurt, disappointment, and conjecture to spew forth, that is utterly, utterly predictable.
Odin booms out dire dooms of half-understood prophecy, Heimdal glowers, Thor is hurt and pleads with rising anger, and Sigyn is close to tears, as Loki, for whom she did so much, has tricked her, yet once again, as if she was no different from all the others. Stark, behind him, demands his arc reactor back.
Loki half-deposits it in the man’s arms, taking back its weight before he can be overwhelmed by it, and drop the precious device, then looks around.
“Naturally,” he says, “once you found my magic flaring off this reactor, over on Midgard, Heimdal the all-seeing, the others heeded your call as you were all searching for me, and used the tesseract to bring me back, and that which I had on me, which are the arc reactor I meant to bring, and Anthony the Man of Iron, which I most certainly meant not to, but who came uninvited.”
“It is my arc reactor you were stealing!” Stark protests beside him. “I hate it when people take my stuff.”
“Would I have set off such a flare, had I not wished for you to bring me back here?”
Silence. It is Sigyn, the crafty one, that knows first.
“You did all these dire things and crossed worlds, turning against all and sundry, merely to help me with the way my duties are not going as planned?” she breathes, tentative hope infusing her voice.
“And to make amends for my past misdeeds,” Loki says. “Allow me?”
He does not wait for answer; he steps to the array made of his sceptre and the tesseract as they are now aligned upon the ruins of the Rainbow Bridge, to search for him through the Nine Realms; and he inserts the reactor so the sceptre bounces the raw power off itself, through the cube, and into the shards of rainbow-crystal. There is a glow and crackle as both antagonism and alignment find their perfect counterweight, and the magic begins humming through all of it, smoothly.
Shard for shard, as a child’s toy forever unfolding, unfolding as if by unending magic, the crystals of the Bifröst align, extend, reach out, settle, and unfold again, as if out of themselves. Slowly, the great bridge between the world begins repairing itself.
“You still know some tricks,” Heimdal pronounces. “Why would you not speak of it before?”
“Exactly,” Tony says, poking Loki in the arm in a truly disrespectful manner. “Why the entire song and dance when all you had to do was send your big bro to simply ask for the damn thing? Do you really think I couldn’t have spared our friends in Asgard an arc reactor? You can be so stupidly complicated, Lokes, it’s plain ridiculous.”
“He did it for me!” Sigyn sobs, and then all hell breaks loose, with Frigga arriving to pull Loki into her arms, and somebody (Hogun?) keeping away a multitude of others from the entrance to this work-chamber; and then, as if by a sudden surge of will-power like that employed in working magic, all are walking forth, proceeding in order through the throngs and multitudes of those curious or affected clustering close, towards the throne-room, for this must be an official judging now, of most important matters of the realm.
There are speeches there, Thor having his say, much as Sigyn, and Heimdall, all slowly deliberating and unwittingly presenting all the many parts and pieces of this plan, that all fall into their places perfectly, as Loki had planned, so long in advance. Some of this was decided even before he brought the Tesseract into his power; and now at last, it all comes to fruition.
Tony Stark was one that he had not reckoned with, but he will not stop that which is unfurling, slowly and surely, as is the healing of the Rainbow Bridge.
“I don’t mind leaving the arc reactor with you, I’ll make another one for that project,” he says. “Just get me home again. People will be missing me.”
“That will not be possible, Anthony Stark,” Heimdal declares. “Not a thing may be shifted while the bridge is yet healing. You must wait out some days or weeks, until the healing of the Bifröst is completed. I dare not break the spell.”
“People are missing me,” Tony protests. “I still have a company to run and am needed in my world.”
That is when Loki at last speaks up. “Do not concern yourself,” he says. “It shall be fast enough. Not long enough to justify clambering through the branches of Yggdrasil the World-Ash, to save you from whiling away your mortal life uselessly among the immortals -- who would chance months of journey to avoid weeks of waiting? And I can take you around the magical ‘R&D’ here, if you so wish.”
Tony laughs, and acquiesces; so Loki is released, into the care of Sigyn, and her responsibility, to take up his old life again, practice his magic, well-controlled and for the good of all, and ever watched tightly. For Odin places a spell upon the ring that Loki had made himself from the shard of his sceptre while travelling to Midgard, so it may never leave his hand, and shall ever give off a show of magic so Heimdal may find him again, in whatever world.
That is the judgement of Odin, and thus shall it happen.
And at last, Loki is once more where he wishes to be: - in his own rooms, among his own spell-books and tools, free to continue from where he had to leave all things of interest to him, as far back as the first plans for that fateful ceremony to declare Thor the heir, and crown-prince of Asgard.
And if there is Sigyn, slightly too cheerful and happy for his taste, alone with him now and helping him to dust off and pick up all that has fallen into disarray, or has been rifled through by those searching for answers, who would mind? If she is somewhat like Tony’s Pepper, knowing things better than the menfolk, ordering the world and pulling strings, who would mind? She is a lovely maiden, independent and clever, that would not bog herself down to the life of a weaving wife, ever only her man and children in her sights, any less than Pepper would. She will not hold him long, or with heavy hand.
And for a while, Tony Stark will still be around, and Loki fully means to avail himself of that man’s pleasure again a few times before he has to leave. Tony is curious, and Loki shall make good use of it.
But all that does not matter, truly. Loki is home, all that he ever wished for.-
Once more thanks to paceisthetrick for the beta. Apparently, there weren't that many commas to slay in this coda as in the other ones, or perhaps it's okay that Loki's voice has more commas...
So, this is it! I hope you liked this fic, everybody.-