If not for the unique powers Tony Stark possessed, which first brought him to the attention of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, he might have been a truly awe-inspiring businessman, inventor, and engineer. His taste for the spotlight soured early on, though, after he manifested the ability to reduce a large concrete office building to rubble when he lost control. Luckily that had been after-hours; the death toll had only been about thirty, but could’ve been hundreds.
Mostly the degree of destruction had been because of the large model arc-reactors in the lower levels of the building. Tony’s power had overloaded them. His memory went blank after the first explosion, so even he doesn’t know how he didn’t wind up crushed under a few stories of concrete and steel beams in the end. Within a few months of that little incident, Tony learned to dodge and misdirect the press with a mastery that had Stark Industries’ PR department mystified. It became a new sort of game, until he took as much pride in dodging attention, however narrowly, as much as he used to enjoy showing off in increasingly flashy ways.
Luckily, his power was not quite so explosive or immediately destructive as individuals like Liz Sherman, and it was rarely outside his control. Unlike others of his sort, whose powers might tend to be a source of constant pressure, requiring a relaxation of control unleash, Tony’s had to be pulled out. Only twice in his long record had he had opportunity to discover that if he opened that particular valve wide enough, it could get stuck open, and wouldn’t unstick until he was drained nearly to the point of unconsciousness.
After just a year in the care of doctors and scientists at various institutions around the globe connected to the BPRD, Tony Stark was reluctantly released with a marginally clean bill of mental health, and warnings that abuse of his abilities would earn him imprisonment or worse, in places even his father’s impressive team of lawyers would be unable to follow.
Tony Stark was fifteen by then, and one year later he was in MIT. Another two years after that, and he had managed to create a device based on some of the things he’d picked up from studying classified files in those various institutions as well as a few things he’d picked up in school. He wanted to see if he could put a hole in something, just to see if there might be anything on the other side worth knowing about. He set it low, knowing from botched experiments conducted by crazier men before him that drilling any deeper would only lead him to horrors, and tested his infernal device.
That was how he first met the bizarre creature known as Loki Lie-Smith. Tall, thin, looking a bit haggard but thrilled and elated and full of hysterical mirth nevertheless, Loki gave a startled cry when he fell suddenly through a little window into another realm, and tumbled to the floor, where he landed in a heap, if only briefly. Springing to his feet, he aimed a staff at the nearest apparent sentient creature and snarled, “Where is this?”
“Massachusetts. America. Earth,” Tony said quickly, raising his hands. He was grinning like an idiot, mad light in his eyes. “I can’t believe that fucking worked!”
An ominous, roiling groan came from the little hovering window in mid-air that Loki had fallen through, and the trickster paled a little. “Close it! Close it now if you value your life!”
Tony scrambled back around to the controls to do so, and caught a glimpse of something dark red with glowing gold eyes and far, far too many teeth, before the portal closed. He gave a low, half-hysterical laugh. “Holy shit!”
“Earth,” Loki was muttering now, giving Tony a shrewd look. “Earth... Midgard. Ah. You’re human.”
“I take it you aren’t?” Tony asked, still buzzing.
“Not at all.” He grinned disconcertingly. “You would do well to take care what places you poke holes in. Had you misjudged too much further, you might have gotten the home of that creature, rather than one of the paths in-between I do tend to frequently wander through.”
Tony nodded thoughtfully. “I though you looked a bit familiar. You’re what... non-native fey?” It was easy to see, now he was looking at the stranger more closely: something about the gemstone quality of his eye color, the impression of too many pointed teeth when he smiled. The smile was a dead giveaway: too wide, too wicked, making his features look predatory, and so fey. The children of the earth smiled similarly, but their faces looked less narrow, less feline.
“That is indeed good phrasing for it,” Loki mused, and bowed, with just a bit of theatrical flourish. “I am Prince Loki, called Lie-smith these days, of a kingdom in Alfheim I swear you have never heard of in your life.”
“I’ve only seen one of you before, an ambassador apparently. The fey from earth are headed into the shadows and all,” Tony mused. “Your kin weren’t too keen on helping out your poor country cousins from this little realm.”
“Of course not. Have you ever eaten with one of them? Appalling.” The fey prince found himself smiling a little more sincerely when the human laughed in response. “And who are you then, who know more about us than most men should?”
“I know a lot of things I shouldn’t,” Tony said, mad grin once again fixed firmly in place. He strode out from behind his machine and approached the prince. He extended a hand. “My name’s Anthony Stark.” He felt an odd tingle up his spine when the fey shook his hand. “Call me Tony.”
Then the space formerly occupied by the portal Tony had summoned twisted strangely, at though it were merely cloth and something on the other side was clawing at it. The trickster and the mad scientist stared at it for a long moment.
“That’s not good, is it?” Tony inquired.
“Not at all,” Loki agreed, looking mildly chagrinned. “You seem to have left the wall weakened there. What on earth were you powering that device with?”
“Me,” Tony said, pulling at his power reserves until he could feel the pleasantly cool, crackling sensation around his hands. His eyes glowed blue-white. “Any ideas on how to fix the wall?”
Loki was looking at him with new interest, his expression curious and even a little impressed. “None.”
“Can you help me clear the room of... most of what’s in here?”
At that, the fey prince smiled. “Where to?”
“There’s a mostly empty warehouse space just outside that-” Tony gestured.
So did Loki, something like emerald flame trailing after his fingers as he uttered something in a language the engineer didn’t recognize in the least. Then the room stood empty except for the two of them, and various things bolted to the walls, including a telephone.
Tony blinked. “Oh, you’re good.”
“You have no idea, Mr. Stark.”
“Tony. Call me Tony.”
The trickster smiled. “‘Tony’ it is, then.”
“How long ‘til it breaks through, you think?” Tony asked.
“Good, I gotta make a call.”
Tony sauntered over to the telephone, and dialed the emergency line the BPRD had given him for just such occasions as this. “Yeah, this is Tony Stark, and I think I broke something. Get a pen and paper, I know who you need to call in to fix it... I think. Yeah, Coulson’s first on the list. Thanks, Andrea.”
In the end, Tony Stark’s private lab looked like a tornado and a wildfire had made sweet love to its innards, and some of its exterior.
Sitting out on the curb across the nearest street, Tony was still suppressing the occasional half-hysterical giggle. At his right, the fey prince was looking equally amused. “Who the hell did you piss off in that place?”
“A lot of people,” Loki replied easily. “I’m very good at it.”
“What’d you get out of it?”
The fey prince smiled viciously. “A few favors, the opportunity to give a headache to an old arch-nemesis and something stolen from someone of interest.” He pulled a gold chain partway out of his cloak pocket for Stark to see. “It belongs to a goddess who was convinced I could not get it back for her.”
“Either that or she wanted to rile you up into proving you could,” Tony mused.
“I made her swear to a few things, in the event of my success. That’s all I really care for,” Loki countered.
“You’re a bit weird.”
“You wield raw power from your very veins and punched a hole in the fabric between realms out of boredom,” Loki said. “I think I can say, with certainty, that you’re a bit odd yourself.”
“True.” Tony turned to him with a mad grin. “But I’m rarely bored.”
“I wish I could say the same, admittedly,” Loki mused. “It’s been some time since I last visited this realm, let alone this world. I greatly appreciate that the ever-present scent of offal seems to have gone out of fashion, though the acrid fumes from those automated chariots aren’t exactly thrilling to the nose.” He smiled a bit warmly when Tony laughed. “Perhaps I’ll take some time off here for a decade or two.”
“How old are you, anyhow?” Tony asked, curious now.
“As old as my tongue,” Loki said, starting to rise to his feet with an effort, “and a little older than Christianity, which was just starting to annoy me during my last visit. I suppose they succeeded in converting the vikings?”
“Yeah––well, sorta. They’re still pretty... viking, in their way. There was a lot of counter-conversion and incorporation of some of the pagan stuff.” Tony said.
“I had thought so.” He shook his head a little. “Religion is so strange.”
Tony snorted a laugh at that, but waved it off when the fey shot him an odd look. “You’re off home then?”
“For the nonce. I have a debt to collect.” He smiled like shark. “It’s been lovely to meet you, Tony Stark.”
“If you do decide to take that vacation,” Tony said, “Hit me up sometime. Just pester some of these Bureau guys; they probably keep tabs on me, and they’ll be keeping an eye on you as well if they can.”
“I might be curious to see them try.” He bowed low. “Until then, goodnight to you, Tony.” Then he vanished, and Tony settled back with the shock blanket the paramedics had given him, and watched the last of the blaze across the street get put out.
He didn’t look up when he heard someone step up to him, close, and saw the BPRD agent’s slacks and shoes in his peripheral vision. “So... my dad will likely cut me off after this. He’ll know I was doing something with ‘supernatural nonsense’ again.” He shot the agent a sidelong glance. “I’d be willing to work out a contract with you all at, in the future: make a few weapons for you in your crusade against the forces of darkness or whatever. It’s fun to work with.” He smiled a bit at the destruction across the street. “Very fun, indeed.”
Agent Coulson, arms crossed over his chest, looked down at Tony with his usual expression of serene indifference, though looking just a little less amused than usual. “Who was your partner in crime, there, Stark?”
“Some prince from Alfheim I might’ve interrupted with that, ah, little experiment.”
“We’re taking all of your equipment and records from the warehouse.”
Tony winced. “Ouch. Fine. I had a feeling that was coming.”
“But I’ll mention your proposal to my director,” Coulson said, with some reluctance. He looked at the damaged Stark Industries buildings across the street. “I would prefer destruction like this be aimed at those dark forces you mentioned, rather than innocent laboratory and warehouse facilities.”
Tony grinned. “I’ll finish school in another year if I work at it. Pay my tuition, and you can have me: your own personal mad genius. I’ll still do Stark Industries work on the side, though.”
“You think Howard will let you?”
Tony snorted. “He won’t have a choice. I’m good at what I do. They need me, and they know it.”
Three years later, Howard Stark died, and the business did not go to his biological son, though clauses to keep him on the Stark Industries payroll under a job title with an irremovable all-access-pass to the labs for his engineering work, was in all the fine print everywhere. He left the business itself, and most of his stock therein, to his godson, whose parents had been old friends of his since the war: an interesting kid named Steve Rogers.
Steve and Tony had never really got on until a year before Howard’s death, when they’d run into each other in one of the BPRD’s installations: Tony for one of his yearly follow-ups with a BPRD psychologist, Steve for a case they wanted him to consult on. Apparently, the kid several years Tony’s senior had been caught by some folks doing super-soldier experiments or something.
At the time, they both agreed telling Howard about it all would be a terrible idea. Tony liked that Steve distracted Howard: it kept his father from prying open wounds concerning what he thought Tony was making of his life, and all the things wrong with him––especially the ‘supernatural nonsense.’ Yes, he was also deeply jealous, but by the time he and Steve reacquainted with each other, in the context of this new information about each other’s abilities, Tony was twenty, and resented his father too much for it to even register on the ‘bothersome’ scale anymore. That was what Tony and Howard Stark felt for each other: exasperated love, mutual disappointment, and the awareness that they were in equal parts victim and victimizer in any given argument.
“So you’re indestructible or something?” Tony asked.
“Yeah.” He looked at Tony. “This is... this is what he keeps arguing with you about, isn’t it? The ah, less than scientific studies and all those other euphemisms.”
“Yep.” Tony grinned at him humorlessly.
“I... I appreciate everything he’s done for me, but Tony, if that’s––he made it sound like you were on drugs or something. Not, you know... this.”
“Not lately,” Tony admitted. “I was for a bit, though. Mostly before he and I started drinking together after arguments. It was a lot rougher, back then.”
“You’re still underage,” Steve said uneasily.
“By a year. And keep in mind I graduated college recently. Also, the first time it happened was at a conference in Scotland, where it was perfectly legal.”
Steve frowned a little. “I guess. This is still... it’s so wrong. I feel awful knowing––would he hate me if he knew I was here, too?”
“Maybe. He’d feel betrayed,” Tony admitted. “He doesn’t like that what I can do seems very near impossible, so far as conventional physics is concerned. And never mention ghosts. He really hates that.”
“I manipulate forms of energy: not magic, not fire or anything, but electricity, lasers to some extent, some forms of plasmic discharge.” He shrugged. “Ghosts have energy signatures I can affect. Once I manifested, I got attuned to them. They glow a bit. I made the mistake of mentioning it over dinner.”
Steve winced. “Why?”
“He was talking about the scientists who helped me master my control, and helped me to understand my powers, like they were all pathetic and out of their minds,” Tony muttered. “It bothered me, so I deliberately pissed him off.”
“You two do that to each other a lot,” Steve murmured.
“Yeah. Yeah, we do. You’re the polite and respectful son.”
“I’m not...” He hesitated. “I know I’m just a guest, really.”
“He formally adopted you after you lost your parents,” Tony said. “If our situations had been reversed, I doubt he’d have done the same for me. Helped me out? Yeah. Invited me home? Nooope.”
“Yes he would’ve. He’d want a son who understood half of what he was saying when explaining a new design. It’s the one thing he’s always been a bit disappointed in me over. He can’t talk to me like that: just you.”
“Yeah. In technology we do bond. I can work with him––he’s great to work with,” Tony said. “Just hell to live with. And both of us aren’t easy to love.”
“I still say you’re wrong there.”
“I hope so, sometimes.” The mad inventor smiled again, all bitterness. “Not often, though.”
“You could find out, if you’d stop sleeping with a different girl almost every night of the week,” Steve pointed out.
“Oh, Steve.” Tony laughed. “They’re not all girls.”
Steve looked uncomfortable. “Uh...”
“I’m not hitting on you.”
“Right. Good. That wasn’t what I was thinking, but that’s good to know.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “What were you thinking, then?”
“That I’m disconcerted by my own lack of surprise.”
At that, the mad inventor laughed, bright and sincere this time.
When Howard died, and Steve took over the company, Tony was glad to be a peripheral figure. He loved putting on a show, loved pushing deals through when Obadiah decided that they were too tough and too tricky for Steve to handle, but he also liked being off the record the rest of the time, when he was off the clock there. He loved being the engineer, but not the CEO––not the figurehead. It gave him room to breathe that he hadn’t felt before, with everyone assuming he would be heir to that throne.
It made him realize that however much he’d enjoyed putting on a show for the press and all the others, it couldn’t compare to putting on a whole different sort of show for a much more limited audience. It was a show based in all that ‘supernatural nonsense’ which he now had a lot more time to look into, career-wise.
“You want us to put you in the field,” Coulson said, flat and unimpressed.
“You’ve got my file. My dad had his bodyguards teaching me self defense since I was nine, and I’ve sparred with a few of the other inmates around here,” Tony said. “If I refresh my Krav Maga a bit, I could at least be fairly competent by BPRD standards. And that’s without taking into account my powers and such. Weapons, too: I’m very good at them, really.”
“You want us to put you in the field,” Coulson repeated, disbelief a little more evident.
“Why wouldn’t you? You know I’m a better diplomat than most of your big guys and I know your weapons and when to use them better than anyone else you’ve got,” Tony said, starting to smile. “Mostly since I invented most of them.”
“I never look at you and think ‘tactful and diplomatic’, Mr. Stark,” Coulson assured. “Not ever.”
“You’ve never seen me making deals with Japanese investors,” Tony shot back.
Coulson narrowed his eyes a little. “Fine, then. We do have something within the week that we might use as something of a test run for you.”
“Oh?” Tony brightened.
“You, after all, seemed on good terms with the last prince of Alfheim to visit our world,” Coulson said. “It seems to have inspired one of them to make his way here. We only just traced him this morning, after his rather blustery arrival outside London last night. We need to ascertain his intentions.”
“Don’t suppose you’ve caught his name?” Tony inquired.
“He looks familiar, let us say.”
Tony found himself starting to grin. “Well then. Color me interested.”
Just less than one week later, two days before his twenty-third birthday, Tony Stark was captured by terrorists after a weapons demonstration in Afghanistan.
It was only when he woke up again, with an electromagnet in his chest strapped to a car battery, and an iron collar around his neck with suspicious runes carved in it, that he realized these terrorists knew far, far too much about him. “Fucking Bureau must have a mole,” he rasped.
The doctor who repaired him, and installed the electromagnet keeping him alive, only shook his head. “I do not know. I only know that they are superstitious, and placed wards throughout these caves meant to keep anyone from detecting you here.”
Tony swallowed thickly. “Well shit.” He squeezed his eyes shut. “Then I’ll be dead in a week. Jesus.” He rubbed his hands over his face.
“Then this is a very important week for you,” Yinsen said.
Then they showed Tony all of his weapons, which they had no right to have, piled up under tarps around their camp. Weapons like the one that had embedded all that charming shrapnel in his chest. And Tony began to agree with Yinsen’s assessment.
“What do you know about this thing?” He tapped the collar. “Other than that I supposedly have strange powers it’s supposed to sedate.”
“Not sedate. They could not do that, they said,” Yinsen mused. “I heard them arguing with the creature they procured it from. He said it would keep your power from leaving your body. He promised little more.”
Tony focused, and it took a lot more effort than usual to reach down and pull but when he looked up, Yinsen’s eyes were very wide and his face was lit with light in cooler, bluer tones than the dim lamplight of the room could have made. “Good, then. I’ve got some ideas.”
The perfected, miniaturized arc reactor had a fair bit of power of its own, but only enough for about fifteen minutes of frantic activity in the suit of armor Tony managed to design. With his own powers boosting it, though, it had a lot more than that.
Then Yinsen didn’t follow the plan, and Tony started to see nothing but red.
For the first time in his life since he had first manifested (that first time after his mother’s death), Tony Stark lost his impulse control, and his rage lifted the floodgates wide as they could go. All his power flooded out, crackling along stone and through metal, superheating crates of ammunition, and making the air taste like ozone and oil and smoke for a quarter-mile around.
The explosion that followed was more than impressive, and Tony didn’t actually remember initiating the flight function to escape it, but he must have. The next thing he knew, he was airborne, the power-surge was fading. He ran out, and it felt like a punch to the solar plexus. There was more power in him, he could feel it, but his strength to keep the metaphorical gates open was gone, and they snapped shut. Tony’s felt hungover as soon as the power-flow stopped. A few minutes later, his personal jet-pack cut out, and he hit a sand dune very, very hard.
Too exhausted to move at first, Tony stared skyward through the slits of his armored mask. He could taste sand, and traces of fuel, and a bit of his own blood: an unpleasant combination. Feebly, he shook the remains of the armor off of his arms, and pushed the helmet off his head. Breathing hard, he started to pull himself up out of the sand when he noticed a shadow fall over him. They can’t have found me. They couldn’t have survived––not enough of them to form a search party so quick.
“You proved rather harder to find than you initially suspected, I think,” said a cool, measured voice––terribly familiar. “Not even your bureau could find you. They were most concerned.”
Tony slowly tilted his head up to stare at the shade-giving apparition. Rather than the strange fey armor of gleaming gold with that inexplicable horned helmet from their first meeting, Loki Lie-smith appeared to be dressed in an impeccably tailored suit of a more modern fashion. “There’s a few reasons for that,” Tony croaked. When the fey prince offered a hand, he accepted it, and let Loki pull him to his feet. The mad inventor swayed a bit, but didn’t fall, didn’t even stumble.
Loki’s brow had faint creases on it. “That wound on your shoulder is bleeding rather badly and you seem to have a somewhat foreign machine embedded in your chest.”
“Yeah,” Tony rasped. “Do you happen to have some water?”
The fey procured a canteen from seemingly nowhere and handed it over.
Tony accepted it, and drained it slowly, savoring how sweet and clear it tasted. “Thank you.” He then got a better look at the other man. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m spending a few years in this world while a few delicate political situations at home cool down a little.” He smiled in a way that suggested he was responsible for those situations and shamelessly content with how they had turned out. “I did say I might come back for a while.”
“I got that,” Tony managed, letting the fey draw his arm across his shoulder’s so that Tony could lean on him like a crutch. “I mean... here. Desert. Looking for me.”
“I’ve been exploring your planet a bit, and found most of the people here to be quite dull. You, at least,” Loki said firmly, “assured me that you were usually never bored.” He offered a smile. “I decided to find out more.”
Tony’s head spun as the desert vanished, leaving everything around them dark for a few seconds. Then the weightlessness dropped off and the dimmer, more coldly glaring lights of one of the BPRD’s medical response wings met his eyes. “Shit. It’s dark in here.”
And then the nurses turned, saw them both, and the alarms all went up.
“This is about to get boring, I’m afraid,” Tony groaned. “Stitches, cleaning, bandages, warnings not to overwork...”
“I’ll be the judge of that, thanks,” Loki said, shooting a warning look at a male nurse who looked as though he planned to get Tony off the fey prince’s hands. He then led the exhausted engineer to the stretcher and helped him onto it. “I’ll see you when they’re done, Tony.” His fingers brushed Tony’s temple, and the engineer sighed at the cool tingling that brought with it. “Best of luck to you.”
The next few hours were, indeed, pretty boring. At least they got that damn collar off of him, though. Tony was more than happy with that.
Aside from Loki, Pepper was the first to track him down after his return to shout at him. Then he told her a little of what happened, and she shattered a little. It hurt to watch. Somehow, he wound up on the couch with her head on his shoulder, her arms curled around one of his, and she was fast asleep.
He’d been half in love with her, just a little, for years, and he’d been trying to ignore it. Given recent near-death experiences, he decided that maybe he should take Steve’s advice and look into the possibility of having someone for more than one night. Of course, then he started building the Mark II armor in his lab downstairs. And then he found out that the mole who had betrayed him to those terrorists, with information about his powers that no one should have been able to access, hadn’t been from the Bureau, but had instead been Obadiah: his friend, his father’s old business partner, the showman he’d spent years looking up to and trusting.
Thing got pretty messy after that. And Pepper didn’t like the suit.
It was looking complicated, really, but Tony’s bed was more empty than usual. Something in his perspective had changed; the usual girls were less interesting.
Keeping Loki from finding out about the Ironman suit, about all of it, was never really an option. Tony knew only a few things about the fey prince at that point, including that Loki was A) an ageless fey trickster, B) capable of something akin to teleportation, and C) clearly as curious as the average feline; thus, the mad engineer knew better than to try and hide his new hobby. It would’ve been futile. So when Loki appeared in his lab, he was startled, but not actually alarmed.
“You power this with your abilities?” Loki asked, walking around the Mark III and examining it with apparent fascination. He was able to touch it, which Tony found interesting. While it was hardly iron, despite the public moniker (Hah, take that Hellboy: new supernatural hero in town!) but most earth fey were pretty uncomfortable with metal alloys like steel and titanium, too. Not searingly so, but enough that they didn’t like touching the stuff.
“Mostly the arc reactor really, but consider my powers the back-up system. The metal doesn’t bother you?”
“No. Some of my kin are a bit sensitive to such things, but not I. My father and brother are also more resistant than most.”
Tony smirked a little. “What are they like?”
“My father is very wise, and tricky, and stern. My brother is a warrior, and loves everything about it, but little else. I do love him, but I find him exasperating much of the time,” Loki explained idly. “I am the second son, as you may have guessed.”
“Only because you seem to have so much free time,” Tony said.
Loki examined one of the gauntlets more closely, his reply sounding absent-minded as he tested the joints a little and admired the craftsmanship. “Thor also has a fair amount of free time. He hardly spends overmuch time on diplomacy, court intrigue or any other political matters. Not when there is fighting to be had instead.” There was that edge of exasperation: tired and a little resigned. Then, in a lighter tone, he inquired, “What is this device in the middle of the gauntlet’s palm?”
“Flight stabilizer, mostly, but it can also fire a blast of concentrated force without anything inconvenient like a projectile or reactive chemistry,” Tony answered.
“Do you have any kin, Tony?”
The engineer considered. “Not really. An adopted brother my father rather preferred over me. That’s all I have left.”
Loki appeared surprised. “I’m terribly sorry.”
Tony shook his head. “It’s fine. My mother died a long time ago, when I was about fourteen. Dad died just a few years ago. Both in car accidents, just at different times.” He sipped at his coffee. “Never had a sibling by blood, really.”
“But you have one?” Loki prompted.
Tony nodded. “Steve. Steve Rogers. His dad was my dad’s best friend since they were just kids, and he was named Steve’s godfather. When Steve’s parents and brother died, dad adopted him formally.” He shrugged. “Steve’s a nice guy. It’s hard not to like him. He’s just... good.” He shrugged.
Loki snorted. “He sounds a bit like Thor. Is he also generally optimistic about people, almost to the point of seeming outright naive?”
Tony chuckled. “Yeah, that’s about right. He’s the golden boy.” A sharp grin. “I’m a bit more of the black sheep. Or the satyr. Then again, a lot of my bad habits were dad’s too, so maybe I just grated on him, and reminded him of his own failings.”
Loki smiled oddly at that. “My father was once a trickster, too. Few people know of it anymore, or if they do, they’re old enough that they consider it old news. These days he behaves as a noble and good king. Thor believes firmly in the goodness of others because he expects them to be as honorable as he perceives his king to be. I know the history rather better.” Unspoken was: I am not golden, and I know my father is not. Perhaps that is why he is kinder to Thor. “Those who are golden require more delicate handling. They are terribly easy to injure.”
“Yeah,” Tony murmured, and chuckled. “I suppose so.” He shook his head. “And now I need a stiff drink. You?”
“Of course.” Just as he remembered, the trickster’s smile was very fey: just a little too sharp and pointed, making his eyes look that little bit off, that little bit inhuman. It suited him terribly well.
Tony stood. “I know a bar near here, good people-watching, charming ladies, and just enough regulars from the Bureau to keep things colorful.”
The bar suited them, and they suited the bar. Sitting at the counter, they exchanged some of their most outlandish tales, which eventually led them to a discussion of physics and Tony’s experimental ripping through to another world.
“What were you hoping to find, anyway?” Loki murmured.
“Something interesting. I didn’t want any hell-beasts or anything, but just... a window into somewhere else,” Tony admitted. He’d had just enough drink to think about it without wincing. “I wanted a bit of chaos, though. I needed an escape from...” He gestured. “Boring things. I can’t stand being bored.”
“I thought you never were bored,” Loki said.
“I’m not really, not even when it gets quiet. But when it’s too quiet, it’s like my bones itch. I think about genuinely awful things, and believe the worst of them.”
Loki nodded thoughtfully. “I know the feeling.” He then put on an excellent facsimile of a carefree smile as the bartender brought him another drink.
“From the lady in the corner,” he said.
Loki glanced at her, and saw a red dress and a sinful smile. He raised the drink with a nod of thanks. “Recognize that one?”
“No,” Tony said.
“Good. If you had, things might have been considerably awkward when I admitted she’s my ex-wife,” Loki said simply, and drained his drink without sparing her another glance.
Tony blinked a few times. “Interesting. She been on earth long?”
“Possibly. I haven’t actually seen her in several years. She did continue to visit this world long after the rest of us grew bored with it,” Loki murmured. “She likes a placed called ‘England’ as I recall.”
“She’s staring a bit.”
“I’m strongly debating the merits of deliberately making her uncomfortable,” Loki mused, “but given what you’ve told me about this Pepper woman so far tonight, I get the feeling you would be disinclined to aid me.”
Tony coughed. “What?”
Loki leaned in a bit closer, and his fingers just lightly brushed Tony’s lower back. “I was strongly considering putting on a show.”
At that, Tony felt his skin heat a bit. The gravel-and-velvet voice Loki used hardly helped. He was torn. Really torn. Loki had just mentioned Pepper, which was only making it worse. I’ve been good, he thought desperately. Minimal flirting at any galas while she’s there, not a single one-night stand since Afghanistan. And yet. He found himself smirking, leaning a big against Loki’s shoulder before the prince could move away. “What’s stopping you?” Tony Stark’s temptation-resistance had always been subpar: factor in someone challenging him, even just a little, as Loki had, and watch his self-restraint crumble a little.
“I don’t generally try to get between people possibly in love, most especially when I actually respect at least one of them.” He wore a slightly odd expression.
“There’s a story there,” Tony mused.
“Yes.” Loki’s expression was a perfect mask.
Tony slipped an arm around his waist, smiling devilish and reckless. “A show, you say,” was all he said.
Loki looked surprised, and a little bemused, his head tilted a little. Perfect.
That made it look, to Sigyn, like the mortal caught her ex-husband just a little off-guard. She was a bit perturbed, and then steadily more so as the kiss visibly deepened and Loki’s hand pulled that same mortal closer, and Loki himself put up no struggle at all. With an eye-roll, she snorted and stalked out of the bar into the night.
Tony, meanwhile, was a bit lost. Playing a role for the sake of a game had been the goal, but then––dear gods, that mouth. Loki wasn’t joking about people nicknaming him Silver-tongue, though Tony just then heartily doubted it was just his words that earned him that name. The fey prince tasted headily of spices and fresh snow, though his mouth was very warm. The kiss broke off just as Tony was starting to worry about his self-control in the general region of his pants. His eyes fell open, and Loki’s feral grin in the general direction of the bar’s exit doors was both disturbing and beautiful. It made the mad engineer shiver a little.
“Well, that was fun,” Tony said, in perfectly steady tones. “You’re very good at that.”
“Millennia of practice,” Loki said. “You’re quite talented yourself.”
They exchanged looks and burst out laughing, earning them strange looks from around the bar. Tony managed not to spend too much time staring at Loki’s lips the rest of the evening, and Loki in turn made no further use of that smoke-and-seduction voice. Tony determinedly did not think about how odd it was, even after a few more drinks––strong ones, even––that he could still taste snow and spices, and he didn’t mind in the least.
When they parted ways that night, Tony determined to have a few words with Pepper tomorrow. Or at least soon. Wasn’t her birthday soon? Sure it was. He didn’t think about the sudden need to do this so quickly. It would be admitting to himself that if he didn’t get a definitive answer from Pepper soon, he’d be tempted somewhere else entirely, and Tony’s brutal honesty with his own emotional concerns could only stretch so far before he ceased to be Tony Stark.
Pepper’s birthday, it turned out, had been a month ago.
She didn’t seem to mind too much, though, after that initial speed-bump. By the end of the night, she said that she really did deeply for him, after he had admitted the same. Even better, she also said that she wanted to be with him.
She tasted of tangerines and autumn mornings, and she made Tony’s heart feel far too big for his chest. She made him feel terribly human: more so than he had in years, ever since those horrified looks he’d gotten from his father, the night his powers manifested.
So profoundly wonderful was Pepper, that Tony silently vowed to tell her about all of it: his powers, the Bureau, and all.
Well... someday, he would. Really.
Tony survived his first few BPDR missions fine, and handled the ones with ghosts easier than most trained exorcists. They tended to really listen to him. Likely because they got a bit of a buzz off of the energy his power gave off. It proved convenient.
After that, his life alternated between nearly routine, and pure chaos. It made time pass terribly fast, after a certain point. One day he looked up and found himself looking for a one-year anniversary gift and feeling a bit elated and a bit terrified all at once. Loki had begun to get on fairly well with a woman, formerly black-ops, acting as liaison between the BPDR, and another secretive organization called SHIELD. Tony wasn’t at all surprised when he found out agent Romanov had enlisted another SHIELD agent called Hawkeye, and seduced Loki into some sort of odd, complex-looking polyamorous relationship.
“It won’t last, clearly. It’s not exactly my usual... Well, I don’t normally share, when someone catches my interest,” Loki admitted freely, over drinks at their bar, which all but had their names carved into one of the booths, and two of the stools over at the bar counter itself. Tonight, they were in their booth. “That said, I can’t say I’m not enjoying it at present.”
Tony snorted. “Do they know you, ah... aren’t human?”
“Yes, they worked it out. Apparently, it’s not an altogether uncommon occurrence in their organization either,” Loki mused. “I’ve hardly come out and said, ‘By the by, I’m prince of an obscure kingdom in Alfheim’ however.”
“Is the polyamory thing more common there?” Tony asked. “Because honestly...”
“Not really, no. I mean, obviously there are regular mass orgies around Beltane, but that goes without saying. Most people stick to a single interest for prolonged periods of time, or many for rather more brief interludes. There are always exceptions, but they are no more common at home than they are here, from what I can tell. That said, I think we apply a bit less stigma to the practice.”
“Sounds about right,” Tony admitted. “It’s good your two assassins are fine with you, though. It means they’re less likely to maybe send you to their boss for dissection or anything.” He looked uneasy for a long moment.
“You’ve still not told her?” Loki inquired gently.
“I... tried.” Tony ran a hand through his hair. “Anniversary dinner, the works. I wanted to, but I couldn’t find a way to work it in, and then she handcuffed me and conversation got steadily less coherent from there.”
“Handcuffs. I’ve heard these mentioned. What’s with them, exactly?”
Tony explained, at length, with illustrative hand gestures and lengthy contemplation of certain styles of military/police uniform.
Loki’s eyebrows raised. “Interesting.”
Some months later, Thor visited. Tony understood, within less than five minutes of meeting the elder prince, precisely why Loki spent time wandering other worlds whenever he could, rather than spending overmuch time in his brother’s company these days.
That said, it was still hilarious to watch.
“Thor, if you do not put me down this instant, I will set your hair on fire!”
Tony sniggered. Waiting until they were all at the bar before letting Thor out to meet them was Loki’s best idea in weeks. At Tony’s left, Natasha appeared to be hiding her smile behind a drink. At her left, Clint made no attempt at such reserve, and snorted amusement outright.
“Should we stop them?” Tony mused aloud innocently.
“Give it a minute,” Clint said, grinning darkly.
Tony wondered, not for the first time, on what sort of terms Loki’s affair with the two SHIELD assassins had ended. Natasha still seemed relatively fond of the BPDR’s pet fey (no one called him that if they suspected Loki might be in the building, or sometimes even if he might be in the same state, but since he had taken to acting as a consultant and occasionally aiding Tony in some of his experiments, his status as an unofficial agent had been solidified) but the archer seemed inordinately fond of seeing Loki uncomfortable.
After a few moments’ consideration, and the realization that he’d had enough tequila shots so far this evening to excuse the question, Tony asked, “Hey, Clint?”
“I notice you like watching Loki squirm. Is that because he was good at getting you to writhe a bit, or because he did so prettily himself?” He was proud when that actually made the unflappable Natasha Romanov choke on her drink and nearly spit-take.
Clint looked a bit disconcerted himself. “That’s... blunt.”
Tony shrugged bonelessly. Tequila good, he thought hazily.
It was only when Clint smirked at him in amusement that Tony realized he’d said it out loud. The archer then shot back, “Why are you interested? Thinking of seeing if he’d join you and Miss Potts?”
The ensuing mental image made Tony very uncomfortably aroused. He cleared his throat and shook his head to clear it. “No. She’s decidedly... she does not share. And I’m more than fine with that.” On occasion, her possessive streak really did get him hot and bothered. Being wanted, in the sense of ownership rather than purely physical desire, was a new and addictive thing to him. “You just enjoy seeing him uncomfortable, and I’m drunk, and therefore curious.”
Clint took on a thoughtful expression. “Well.” He licked his lips a bit, catching Loki’s eye across the room and causing the fey prince to make a rude hand gesture in his direction. Clint only grinned wide and shameless. “He’s flexible, let us say, and overall: just really fun to get worked up.”
“How is Pepper?” Natasha asked lightly, glancing at the empty shot glasses in the mad inventor’s general vicinity.
“Well.” Tony made a face, then turned back to the barman. “Another two shots––oh, thanks. How did you know I was-”
“It was an inspired guess,” the bartender said. He was a large possibly not-quite-human mountain of a man with pale blue eyes and clove-colored skin.
“Thank you, Benny,” Tony said, and took one of the shots. “Pepper is ‘thinking a few things over’ apparently,” he explained, savoring the burn.
Natasha’s expression cleared, realization evident. “You finally told her about your ability to become a human bug-zapper, then.”
“And about the bureau, and the being institutionalized, and when I manifested,” Tony said in low, grave tones, and took the second shot. “It was a long... long chat. Just last night.”
“Have you been sober since?” Clint asked.
The mad engineer thought about it for a second. Then a few more seconds. “I think I was, for about three hours, earlier today. Then Thor showed up, and I’ve needed to drink to be able to slow my brain down a bit around the guy, or he’d drive me up the wall.”
This time Clint almost choked on his drink.
By contrast, Natasha just snorted and punched Tony’s shoulder hard enough to bruised. “Not nice, Tony.”
“Fuckin’ ow, neither is that! I’m in the state normally referred to as ‘feeling no pain’ and that still hurt.”
“I’m very good at what I do, Mr. Stark,” Natasha reminded, shooting him a cool look that always made the mad engineer think of blood and permafrost and why he will never, ever accept another Bureau mission in Russia.
“You know I hate that look, and the voice and more of your goddamned accent, not even cool,” Tony slurred.
Loki chose that moment to appear at his right looking haggard and a little annoyed, like a cat that’s been affectionately licked by a labrador and could do nothing to stop it. “Well, Thor seems to be amongst his people.” He sat down with his back to the bar counter.
“Is that a hockey team?” Clint asked. “There’s a hockey team in here?”
“I may have cast a spell to lure them in,” Loki suggested. “Thor is easily accepted amongst such a tribe, and once distracted, will eventually drink every one of them under the table, which should keep him occupied for an hour or two. Luckily, this behavior can more easily be observed from a distance.” He looked Tony over from head to toe and raised his eyebrows. “She’s still on radio silence then, I take it?”
“It’s increasingly weird the bits of colloquialisms you pick up around here,” Tony muttered. His forehead was on his forearm which rested on the bar-top, which made his voice understandably a bit muffled.
Loki reached over and absently carded his fingers through Tony’s hair, though his eyes were on Thor. The younger of the two princes had also been drinking steadily throughout the day, to just such an extent that he failed to notice the odd look Natasha sent him at the gesture. “She’ll forgive you,” he said simply.
Tony muttered a curse, but leaned a bit into Loki’s touch.
“She will,” Loki said quietly. “In all likelihood she’s incandescently livid with you for waiting quite so long to mention all of this, but she’s an intelligent woman. Your heart chose very well when it landed in her hands.”
“Poetical fey nutcase,” Tony said, but it sounded resigned, and he slumped a little when Loki pulled his hand away.
Natasha shot Clint a look. The archer’s eyebrows raised, then lowered, a little furrow of confusion between them. Natasha widened her eyes a little and glanced pointedly at Loki. Clint made a face. “Nope. Can’t see it,” he mouthed at her silently.
She muttered something low and self-assured in Russian.
Tony lifted his head and leaned his shoulder against Loki’s. “You know I’m just drunk enough at the moment that I probably can’t quite discern whether you’re lying to me or not. I don’t think you are, but it’s a thought.”
“When have I ever lied for the sake of reassurance, Tony Stark?” Loki responded flatly, but did not move.
“True. That’s very true.” Tony laughed a little. “I don’t lie much for that. Not too much.” Just to Pepper, and that’s more like careful omission. He sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. “Sometimes I really wish she’d been able to call me out before now. Prevented half of this.”
Loki’s lips thinned. “She’s very intelligent, but no mind reader.”
You call me on my bullshit all the time, Tony didn’t say. It was a discordant thought. Comparing Pepper and Loki was not territory he was ever comfortable wandering, not even when plastered. “I guess, yeah.”
“What have you been drinking, in any case? Your breath is making my eyes water,” Loki deadpanned.
Tony grinned at the bartender, who rolled his eyes and poured another two tequila shots. “And one more for my friend here, still the El Ultimo, but the silver instead of the añejo. I think he’ll like it better.” He sat up a bit more in his stool, letting Loki turn in his seat to face the bar instead of leaning back against it.
“Where is this one from?” Loki inquired.
“Mexico,” Tony said, and passed him one shot. “First try this one.”
Loki knocked it back as though it were water, and licked his lips. “Interesting. A bit autumnal for this time of year.”
“And this.” Tony passed him the silver. “Same animal, different subspecies.” He distinctly did not let his eyes drift over the long, graceful column of Loki’s neck as the younger fey prince downed that, too.
“Oh, that’s quite fine,” Loki mused.
“I thought you’d like that one.”
Natasha shot Clint a thoughtful glance and smirked to see him starting to make a face. “Where do you want to start the betting?” she said, low and soft in Ukrainian, which she knew Loki didn’t know.
Clint thought about it. “Fifty,” he replied, in the same tongue.
Natasha smiled sweet and dark.
Pepper did forgive him, and the make-up sex for it seemed to last them a full week, with long breaks in between for the rest of their day-to-day lives. Tony felt at home in his own skin, and human, and loved. It was at once terrifying and gentle: something warm to keep the dark at bay for the first time in years.
It even lasted longer than any of the highly secretive betting pools guessed that it would: almost another full year. Then a proposal attempt that didn’t quite work out as planned, a near-massacre at a Stark Industries gala that nearly killed them both, and it was all downhill from there. The just-survived-near-death sex was good enough to keep them afloat a bit longer, but then doubts crept in. Love was all well and good, but at times, not enough. Not when heartbreak was inevitable for Pepper either way, every time he risked his life, which was pretty much a daily occurrence.
Tony took some time off from field work after that. A few months.
It was enough to draw a certain fey prince away from a marginally torrid, and surprisingly serious affair with an Enchantress who claimed to be Aesir. He appeared quietly in Tony’s lab, working on his own advanced and highly questionable experiments, or occasionally prodding at one of Tony’s until the engineer came over and told him to quit it, or told him that if he insisted on fiddling with it he could at least help finish the damn thing.
At one point, when so inebriated he was mostly certain that he was either imagining the whole conversation was happening as it happened, or that he wouldn’t remember it come morning, or both, Tony said to him, “Ever since we met you seem to find me right after I crash and burn. Why is that?”
Loki looked down at him with those impossibly green eyes and an expression that would’ve been unreadable even when they were both of them sober. “You’re interesting,” he said simply. “I see a lot of people crash and burn. I’ve arranged a great many downfalls in my time, throughout the nine realms and even into a few others. In most cases, it’s the blaze that holds my attention. You’re somewhat different.”
“How’s that?” Tony asked, and frowned when Loki’s hand fell limply across his eyes. “Hey.”
“I drank thrice as much of that accursed Tequila as you-”
“Mescal,” Tony corrected. “That was mescal. And in any case, you’re not human. You’ve a major advantage over even a seasoned partier and drinker like my own self.”
Loki snorted quietly, amused. “Fine. You burn whether or not your falling. You always burn. You’re a blaze in and of yourself. When you do crash, I’m more concerned that it might stop burning, than I am with watching the blaze from a distance.”
“Funny,” Tony muttered. “That’s how I think of you.”
With those long pale fingers still over his eyes, he didn’t see the crooked, self-deprecating smile that curved Loki’s lips. “Funny. Yes.”
Another season or two passed. Tony spent one of them entirely sans alcohol, though he continued to frequent their bar. Even after he realized it might be a sign that he’d been doomed for a long time now, that he’d thought of it as ‘their bar’ starting after their second night there. Their bar. Their barstools. Their booth near the far corner. Theirs: his and Loki’s.
He had caught himself watching Loki more often lately, and had tried to shake it off, especially given Loki wasn’t––wasn’t on the market, these days. That thought made him more uncomfortable than he would ever admit, and sheer stubbornness kept him from further introspection on that front. That way madness lies.
It was late summer when Tony first really noticed the root causes of that problem. He had finally gotten readjusted to being not-with-Pepper, during which time Loki’s affair with the Enchantress put on a bit of a show for a while, then sort of exploded and nearly took out half a city block in the process. No one was pleased with that in the least.
Luckily, amongst the buildings left intact, was their bar.
Loki was still smudged with ash, and had a bit of debris in his long black hair. He looked tired, and like he really might be older than christianity after all. He looked grim, and distant, even though his shoulder was a bare four inches from Tony’s. “That could have gone better,” he said, after several minutes of silence. “Benny? The Metaxa, seven star. Leave the bottle. I may need another in about half an hour.”
Tony whistled. “She got you good, then.”
“Better than I had anticipated in any case,” Loki muttered, running a hand over his face, his brow heavily furrowed. “I was convinced that I hadn’t let her in anywhere near that far.” He sounded resentful, bitter.
Tony was stuck on the words, though. “You were trying to hold her at a distance.”
Loki smiled in a way that went straight past self-deprecating and crashed headlong into self-loathing. “Yes. For some strange reason.” He laughed, barely a rattling breath of one, but a laugh nevertheless. “She knew the reason, though, which is far more than I credited her with, initially.”
“What reason?” Tony asked, gently as he could.
Loki’s mouth formed a narrow, grim line. “I’m more interested in another. I desire, but I cannot have,” he all but whispered, low and a little hoarse.
Tony blinked at that. “Wait. Really?”
Loki nodded, and thanked the bartender when Benny provided both the ice-cold bottle of Metaxa, and fresh shot glass. Loki promptly filled and drained two shots of the thick, flavorful liquor. His expression was as masked as he could manage, but still cracked around the edges with anger and resentment. “Aside from that, I should have seen far earlier that she wanted a war, of sorts. She has always been fond of starting wars, though she seldom fights in them herself.”
Absently, Tony reached up to touch Loki’s hair, as he’d done on a few occasions before. This time, though, the fey prince flinched, just slightly. And it hurt, far worse than it had any right to, and deeper, and Tony realized suddenly that he had missed something––mostly just how much he wanted more. His own mind suddenly echoed Loki’s earlier sentiment, but in Tony’s own voice: I desire, but I cannot have. Suddenly he wanted to know who it was that Loki, of all people, thought he couldn’t have, even though it made his throat constrict a bit to consider––if only because he was suddenly sure, based on that reaction, that it wasn't him. “Why can’t you have, exactly?” he asked, lowering his hand again, slowly.
Loki swore softly in old Norsk, and hid his eyes behind one hand. “I had poor timing. From the start. And now––” He took a deep, shuddering breath. “It is not only Amora. It is not only that she wanted war from me as a twisted form of love. It is that she distracted me from something far worse than she could ever have hoped to plan.” He lifted his head, took another shot, then another.
“Loki, you’re worrying me,” Tony said, low but sharp.
“As well I should.” Loki took another breath, a little steadier this time. “My father,” he said, enunciating each syllable slowly, with the air of someone trying their level best not to scream, “has decided it is time to abdicate this throne, and give it to his eldest son.”
At that, Tony felt the air chill, and it took him a moment to realize that it was just the pocket of air around Loki, and he wondered if that was common for some fey. “He can’t be serious,” the mad engineer said. “I’ve met your brother and he’s... he’s sort of a viking frat boy. We had a frat boy rule our country for a few years recently: terrible idea.”
“Yes, and his passionate fervor against any he has perceived to be enemies of our father, along with his arrogance, makes him a less than tactful sort of diplomat.” Loki curled a bit over the edge of the bar, arms folded and resting on it. It stopped his hands shaking, but Tony could still detect tremors in the muscles of his upper arm.
“That... jeez, that’s really fucking awful,” Tony muttered. “Why––from everything you’ve told me, your dad sounds pretty intelligent, I mean. He’s a sort of inventor, and king, and managed to raise someone as great as you are.”
Loki blinked a few times at that, seemingly torn between laughter and something that caught in his throat and made the corners of his eyes burn. “I... no one has ever said anything like that about me, actually.”
Tony sputtered a bit. “Seriously? You’re a prince, though, and the way you...” He gestured vaguely. “Look, there’s more than just a few reasons I enjoy your company, Loki. You’re brilliant enough that you’re a challenge for me to keep up with, your twisted sense of humor is great, you’re a force to be reckoned with when something pisses you off, and you see through me. I’m not half as experienced in the dishonesty department as you are, but I still consider myself a professional at it, so for you to see right through it, or play along with me sometimes, like you do––it’s like we speak the same language. Not many people manage that. I don’t even generally like people overall. You’re Loki. You’re no more ‘people’ than I am, and I think that makes us worth something.”
Loki was staring at him with a mixture of awe and mild confusion. Then he smiled helplessly, eyes downcast as though to hide the unfamiliar sincerity in that expression. “I––I thank you, Tony.”
“I should thank you. I still sort of owe you my life, and all, too,” Tony muttered.
“Even if my reasons for saving you were selfish and capricious?”
“Especially because they were,” the mad engineer countered. “I’ve known you a while, Loki. Your caprice is a lot more careful, selective and well thought-out than you may care to admit.” He looked at Loki a bit more shrewdly. “Oh. This is the golden-boy bullshit again, isn’t it?”
Loki winced a little. “That’s a charmingly blunt way to phrase it. Yes, it is. Thor is good-hearted, and upstanding, and apparently moral in the correct, optimistic sorts of ways. Therefore people seem to think him to be ready to lead, in spite of his condescending airs when speaking to those from outside our kingdom, his warrior’s bluster and the damning naiveté of that optimism. I can lie to his face without consequence: even in the past, I have tricked him, made him miserable for it, but he will still take my word without hesitation. It’s all very endearing, but simply not wise or practical.” He took another shot and shook his head. “I value my home. I value my family. I enjoy knowing that I need not worry about the safety of both every second of the day because I have confidence in our king most of the time. I got so comfortable and trusting of them both that I ceased being so vigilant, ceased my usual tricks against Thor, which always served as a means by which to gently remind our father that his eldest son is not at all ready to be crowned king.”
Tony considered. “And you are? In comparison?”
The dark-haired prince grimaced again. “Why in the nine realms would I want to be? Why would I wish to be beholden to so many subjects? Always focused near-exclusively on the needs of others, and on maintaining power, and on maintaining enough of the peace to keep their trust––it’s a terrible life, for one such as I, for I do well know myself and I am a selfish trickster to my very bones. It has always suited me more comfortably than the idea of rulership. I’ve never wanted the throne.” He frowned and poured another shot. “Although many times I do wish I had been acknowledged as at least Thor’s equal, rather than his shadow.”
At that, Tony nodded. “I can see that. There’s days I’m pretty glad Steve is the reluctant-celebrity CEO. It gives me all the shadows to play in, when the press isn’t looking.” He smiled a little when Loki relaxed just enough to lean their shoulders together. “I think that being king would make you miserable, but I think you’d still be a more competent ruler than Thor.”
Loki shuddered, his eyes falling shut. “The things you say to me, sometimes,” he muttered. “You hardly know what chords they strike.”
“Good ones, I hope. Nothing too terribly out of tune.”
“Not at all,” Loki murmured. “We seem to be quite in tune, most of the time.” His smile flickered, faded, and he swallowed thickly. “I think I’m going to have to start a war, Tony. I don’t know if I can fix this. I doubt I can fix it without breaking several other things.”
“What are you planning to do?”
Loki shook his head. “It’s best not to speak of it. If I keep merely the form of it, without making words out of it, it will be safer for all concerned.”
Tony held up a hand, and gestured to Benny for another shot glass. “You’ll come back, though, right?”
And Loki hesitated, just a little too long.
And with merely that, Tony felt something in him crack. “Please tell me you’ll come back,” he whispered, low and serious.
“I will try. I will certainly try.”
Tony searched for the words he wanted to say, to tell Loki why it was vitally important that he come back. Then the words came to him and he stumbled, stunned a bit by them. You have to; you’re mine, was the first, which alone gave him considerable pause. It was the second (I love you) which actually robbed him of the ability to speak for fear he might actually say that of all things, at this of all times, which set off all sorts of alarms in his head. He hardly noticed when he reached up again and ran his fingers through Loki’s hair, though he did notice the instinctive, almost boneless way the fey prince leaned into his touch, eyes closing. Whatever had caused him to flinch at first had clearly passed, and the relief that flooded Tony’s system at that was beautiful and terrifying all at once. I don’t care who else you want, he thought suddenly, and almost shivered. Oh shit, horrible timing: Tony Stark, you are an unforgivable asshole! he didn’t say aloud, though he wanted to. Instead, he said, “Don’t leave me alone with all these idiots. Please.”
Loki couldn’t help but laugh a little at that. Had his smile always been that beautiful?
Yes, Tony realized: it had. I’ve been trying not to notice, all this time. Trying to be good for other people. He recalled the frankly stunned look on Loki’s face, tonight and on other nights over the years, when certain sorts of compliments were given to him: often of a sort Tony found easiest to provide. He wanted to be good, as always; this time, though, he wanted to be good for this one: for Loki. This doesn’t bode well, he couldn’t help but think, even as he felt the permanent perspective shift. Pepper had made him feel human, and warm, but also strangely domesticated. Loki made him feel warm, and thrilled, and more than human. The realization caused the mental equivalent of a crashed ‘train of thought’ program, and it didn’t seem to finish rebooting until the lie-smith’s voice tugged again at his attention.
“It would take some very powerful forces indeed to keep me from you, Tony Stark,” Loki said, just a little playful, and a little serious, but mostly droll.
“I’ll come after you, too, you know,” Tony said firmly. “Not just because I owe it to you, my great desert-wandering savior.”
“Let us hope that we shan’t have to test that,” Loki said, with just a little too much bitterness as he filled both shot glasses and held his up as though for a toast. His eyes, though, looked warmer than they had in weeks. “Perhaps when I return, I might have some plans for you.”
Tony’s mouth went a bit dry. Was that flirting? That had to count as flirting. Had he given himself away? Did it matter so long as, hopefully, Loki would follow through on that? Either way, Tony resolved to test the waters, as soon as the coming war subsided. He raised his glass to meet Loki’s with a dull clink. “Maybe I’ll have some for you.”
They both drained their shots, and smiled at each other like devils.
It had taken a fair amount of Benny’s liquor cabinets to manage it, but Loki successfully achieved a state wherein he was too drunk to safely magic himself back to his own apartment, for the first time in Tony’s experience. So he called a cab, and took Loki home with him. That was all.
Looking at the slim, almost stylishly disheveled figure passed out on his couch, Tony called himself an idiot a hundred times over. How had he missed this? There had been the time he’d spent involved with Pepper, obviously, but even before that––No, Tony corrected himself. Before Pepper, he’d known Loki was trouble, and he bit his lip now, recalling the taste of fresh snow and otherworldly spices.
“You’d better come back to me,” the mad genius muttered: scarcely audible, his lips hardly moving, his breath scarcely the barest whisper across them. “If you don’t, I’ll have to hunt you down to tell you how much of an idiot I am. You may hardly believe it.” He bit his lip, trying not to think about doubts like that.
Tony shook his head at himself. “Even if I’m not the one you want, I’m willing to try and win you.” But there was that faint hope, absurd and almost laughable. Timing, Tony thought, and recalled the feel of Loki’s lips, and those words, I don’t generally try to get between people possibly in love...
It was ridiculous. It made his head and his heart hurt in equal measure.
“You’d better come back to me,” he repeated, once more, and walked away to his own bed with heavy thoughts.
The next morning, after breakfast and after Loki’s mild hangover wore off, the fey prince caught Tony just off-guard enough to embrace him. A bit stunned, and warmed to his bones in a moderately embarrassing fashion, the mad engineer returned the hug, and tried not to think how comfortable it felt to wrap his arms around Loki’s waist. He closed his eyes and breathed Loki in: frost, spices and apples.
“Wish me luck, Tony,” Loki said, low in his ear, then let him go, pulling back with a half-terrified, half-grim sort of smile, devoid of any and all actual humor. “I’m off to go and commit treason.” Then he vanished.
Tony folded his arms over his chest and stared at the spot he’d left for a full minute. “I have the worst possible romantic timing ever,” he sighed, and rubbed his hands over his face a few times.
He launched himself headlong back into Field Ops that afternoon. A case came in, he took it, snapping up a few at a time like candy, often without bothering to ask what any one of them was before he accepted it. He needed the distraction. He needed to fatally electrocute a few supernatural beasties to make himself feel better.
Above all, he needed time to pass faster.
After the first two weeks, he’d driven most of his little team of cohorts at the Bureau up the wall. By the time it had been a full month, Tony was driving himself up the wall, too.
When he got the call from the New York HQ, stating that they had a visitor from Alfheim requesting his presence, it was like the world snapped back into sudden, eerie clarity. Even as they said it, Tony felt his stomach turning to lead. “Do I get a name?” he asked.
The disappointment was bitter. The edge of something like fear was even more so. Tony swallowed thickly. “I’ll be there soon.”
Thor wasn’t alone, this time. A woman sat near him, tall and slender, with peculiar coloration: her left side pale and human-looking, with hair like spun white gold, while her right side was dark-haired, had skin of darkest blue, with intricate raised markings on her skin. One of her eyes, on her paler side, was a familiar, almost-unnatural shade of dark green; the other eye was black from lid to lid, save her silver-grey iris: like a graphite drawing floating in a pool of ink. She stood to greet Tony, taking his hands in hers and looking at him in a manner both appraising and mournful. “I am Hela.”
Tony’s eyebrows raised, but he was otherwise unperturbed. By this point in his career, it did not even occur to him to consider her appearance too much out of the ordinary. “Loki’s mentioned you. I’m Tony. Tony Stark.” He squeezed her hand, his lips thinning. “I take it this won’t be good news.”
She shook her head, as others entered the room and settled around the table. “I would speak with you more, when my uncle is done.” A faint smile tugged at her lips. “My father told me much of you.”
Blinking at that, Tony numbly took his seat at her left. Thor, to Hela’s right, cleared his throat.
“I am aware that my––my brother Loki has made something of a home for himself here in midgard, amongst all of you. I thus feel it is necessary to tell you of his fate.” He hesitated, his brow heavily furrowed, and his eyes downcast.
Tony marveled at the change, and wondered.
“Loki was more aware than any of our kin, and perhaps more so than any other in the kingdom, of my true nature, and how ill-prepared I was to be king. I now know that, and know that I am still far from ready to stand where my father now does.”
Despite the tension that threatened to make his shoulders ache, Tony couldn’t help but breathe just a little easier at that. You succeeded, then, he thought, but at what price? It took an effort not to try and strangle Thor into hurrying up with that answer.
“Thus, when my coronation appeared imminent, he took an unconventional, but effective approach to delay it.” Thor looked up, then. “He led old enemies of our world, whom we fought in ages past, allied as we have been with Aesir, into the most secure of our weapons vaults. They were killed almost immediately by the guardian my father built for it, but not before putting an abrupt halt to the ceremony above. Loki’s plans stopped my father mid-sentence, and in all likelihood saved us all a great deal of pain.” He rubbed his hands together. “I would have started a war immediately after that attack, but our father resisted. He values peace, and I now better understand precisely why.” He took a breath. “I travelled to our enemies’ world, to demand answers: how they had gotten in, and why, in particular. They gave us the chance to leave, and cause no more harm; Loki accepted for us, and we would have left if not for my pride.” He shook his head. “I started a new war, with terrible ease. My father arrived in time to save our lives from their army, but upon our return home, he condemned my actions harshly. He took my power, my status as prince, and a good deal of my near-immortality, and banished me here to earth. I learned much, after that. What I did not know, was what Loki had discovered, on our trip to Nifleheim, to confront the king of the tribe of jotunns there.”
“My brother, though neither of us were aware of it before, was adopted by my mother and father near the end of our war against those same jotunns, which are creatures of ice, and raw natural power,” Thor said. “Their touch, in battle when their aggression is roused, blackens the skin of less cold creatures. I believe you call it ‘frostbite’ aptly enough.” Thor’s eyes lowered again. “I did not see, none of us did, but one of them seized my brother by the arm in battle, that cold touch powerful enough to weaken and shatter his armor, but it did not burn him. He instead witnessed a change: his skin took on the same blue shade that an aggressive jotunn’s would: it makes them cold resistant, tougher to cut, and more frightening to look upon, though when they are calmer, and warmer, they look as near-human as any fey or Aesir might.”
“Loki is one of them?” Tony asked, low and careful.
Thor nodded. “My father found him at the ruins of the main temple in their capitol city, abandoned. He is half-fey, but also son of the queen of that icy tribe, Queen Laufey.” He then cleared his throat. “Though I say queen... Laufey is one of the many jotunns, icy or otherwise, capable of shape-shifting, and prone to be inconsistent, insofar as gender. When killed by Loki later, Laufey was their king.”
“Wait, what?” Clint managed.
Thor gestured for quiet. “Loki was... distraught. He at first considered that he might be cursed, but dismissed it. As a master of magic, he would have noticed that, I think. So he confronted my father, and they fought. The stress of a new war, my banishment, and Loki’s heartbreak were too much for our father, who had not been at rest for some time, and he collapsed.” He raised a hand before anyone could voice further concern. “He was merely in a form of sleep-state, a healing stasis, I believe. The oldest of our kind require periods of such rest, in order to function. However, his collapse, and my absence, left Loki alone to step in and hold the throne. It was––ill-timed, I believe, given his state of mind.”
No shit, Sherlock, Tony couldn’t help but think. He kept a hand over his mouth and bit his tongue, forcing himself to sit still and listen.
“He sent the Destroyer, which served many warlike purposes, including guardianship of our weapons vault, to kill me, after some of my companions arrived on earth with intent to bring me home and stop Loki’s treachery. He... he brought the jotunns into our home. He offered them my father’s life, as means to an end, and promised to return to them their greatest weapon, which he had taken from our vault.” Thor shook his head. “He killed them, at the most dramatically satisfactory moment, and used it as an excuse to put in motion his plans to destroy all of them, and most of Nifleheim itself in the process.”
“Sounds like him,” Natasha murmured, and frowned when Clint elbowed her under the table.
“In a way, it does,” Thor said slowly, “for when he is in pain, my brother has been known to do great and terrible things. This one, by far, outweighs others past. He killed hundreds, before I could stop him. There was a––a rift, a tear between worlds, between realms and dimensions all, created by the weapon he made out of our bridge system. He fell into it. He is lost to us.”
Tony’s eyes squeezed shut and he felt his insides twist up into knots of mixed anger, hurt, and grief. No. Not fair. You’re supposed to come back to me. He felt his breathing threaten to shake, felt his eyes burn, but forced himself to relax at the feel of a cool hand––Hela’s, it would have to be––settling on his arm and squeezing. He opened his eyes and schooled his expression into something vaguely resembling composure, but he knew the edges of that mask were riddled with cracks. He even managed to meet Thor’s eye when the elder fey prince looked at him sadly, as though asking forgiveness. Do not ask me for that. Not just now. I am not inclined to forgive anyone anything just now, he did not say, forcing himself instead to nod politely and look away.
The others asked further questions. Tony did not hear them. He sat still as stone until the semi-debriefing ended, and the others began to leave.
Thor paused and rested a hand on his shoulder, “Anthony Stark, if I-”
“Don’t,” Tony said sharply. “Not just now. Give me a few minutes before I can quite talk to you with civility.”
At that, the warrior hesitated, but at a look from Hela, he withdrew his hand, bowed slightly, and left without another word.
With an effort, the engineer tried to keep his breathing even, and blink back something that felt disconcertingly like tears. “How ‘lost’ is lost, in this case?” he asked after a few moments. “Can anything be done?”
Hela looked at him from behind an unreadable mask, the look in her eyes a reminder that despite her youthful looks, she was centuries old. “He is lost. I know where he landed, when he fell, but it is not a place I can journey into. None of his kin may. That is the nature of the place.”
“Why can’t they?” Tony managed.
“It is... it is a place that has become unanchored in time. It is almost more dream than reality. How well do you know your Greek myths?”
“Have you seen where I work?” Tony countered, gesturing around them to indicate the entire Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. “Not knowing my mythology would be a quick way to get killed.”
Hela smiled, and the slightly mischievous curve of it was all too familiar. “It is a place which requires a lonely soul at its heart. It once had an exemplary god of outcast isolation, which believed itself a monster, and did not know love. It has ever since then caught a number of lost souls, as it flickers in and out of existence, growing in complexity each time. Those unsuited to sit at its heart are torn apart by ghosts, mostly the ghost of its first prisoner, called Asterion.”
Tony rifled through a number of old memories. “Asterion... the minotaur?”
“Yes. It is a labyrinth. It is the labyrinth. Fourteen paths, to fourteen doors around the castle at its heart, and a well of disorienting forgetfulness for any that the heart of the labyrinth would lay claim to.” She turned to him. “It has some weaknesses, but first amongst its strengths is to dim and subdue many key memories in its victim’s head. He will no longer recall us: his kin. The labyrinth’s doors are closed to us, and we cannot go over the walls.”
“You know a lot about it,” Tony murmured.
“I do.” Hela hesitated. “I nearly fell victim to it once, when I was very young, but my father was there with me, to chase after me, and the labyrinth could not shut its door fast enough to keep him out. I was very, very lucky.” She looked at him with a small smile. “Especially given that my father has been astonishingly good, over the years, at convincing me that I am nothing remotely monstrous, even when I was inclined to think otherwise.”
Tony nodded. “You said that it has weaknesses?”
“It does. Other forms of attachment, which strike against loneliness, are harder for it to break. I do not know if you-” She hesitated. “My father spoke very well of you. I got the impression that, somewhat unusually, you and he were close.”
At that, Tony could only nod. “He has been one of the best friends to me that I have ever had,” he said, very sincerely. “I would help, if you can tell me how.”
She looked at him a little more shrewdly. “I wonder if you might. While my father may have been caught up in the games of one Enchantress, I got the feeling that he let himself be caught. He wanted distraction, and I could see he was denying himself something he desired rather more. Do you know why that was, Mr. Stark?”
“Tony,” the engineer corrected gently. “And I... he said there was someone that he did desire, but couldn’t have. I don’t know exactly-”
“Don’t be an idiot,” interrupted a calm, smooth voice from the doorway.
Hela and Tony both jumped a little.
Natasha Romanov shot them an arch look. “You can’t really tell me you don’t know, Tony. It’s been plain as day to me for over a year now, and it’s starting to drive a few of us up the wall, frankly.”
“Pardon?” Tony all but squeaked. His expression was the same as that of a deer frozen in place by the sudden glare of too-bright headlights. Vaguely he thought, Over a year? That long? What the hell gave me away when I didn’t even know wha-
“It’s you he’s head over heels for, Tony,” Natasha said flatly. “For a long time, though he’s better at hiding it than anyone else I’ve ever met.”
“Y-you can’t be... how... what.” Tony cleared his throat, forcing himself to get a grip. “Why do you think that, exactly?”
“He’s good at making sure you never catch the way he looks at you sometimes,” Natasha said, a bit more gently. “And how many of your other friends, who haven’t also been your lover at some point, run their fingers through your hair to comfort you when you’re tipsy and depressed?”
Tony’s lips twitched. “I, uh... thought maybe he was just... tactile?”
“Who else have you seen him touch, at all, in a non-aggressive fashion?” the redheaded assassin countered. “Even while Clint and I were with him, and being open or gentle, he was not half so tender with us as he is with you.”
Swallowing tightly, Tony felt buzzed with the emotional equivalent of pins-and-needles: sharp and acute discomfort, relief, tension, and the sensation of numbness alleviating. “Oh my god.”
“So you can stop ogling him when he’s not looking and go get him. I don’t want to have to deal with you pining again,” Natasha bit out. “Especially since I suspect this would be way worse than Pepper-related pining.”
“You don’t even work for this Bureau, really, you could always-” Tony started.
“I know where you sleep,” she threatened darkly.
“If, as you say, my father is truly in love with him, I can safely say, Agent Romanov, that any sincere threat to him will have to deal with me as well,” Hela said quietly, interrupting them. She then smiled a sweetly vicious smile. “I’m my father’s daughter, let us say.”
Natasha was disconcerted just enough to look genuinely surprised. “Sorry.”
“She’s the bullying elder sister I never had,” Tony explained to the fey woman.
Hela shook her head a little. “If I may ask, Tony: what would you be willing to do, to bring my father back to us?”
The engineer considered for a long, thoughtful moment, then offered a bitter, humorless grin. “It’d be shorter to list what very few things I might not do.”
At that, Hela’s smile widened still further. “Very good. You will need some of your weaponry, then.”
“Shall I tell them you’re going on leave for a bit?” Natasha inquired.
Tony nodded. “Yes, please.”
“Good.” She looked him over, head to foot. “Be careful. And don’t fuck up.”
“Thank you, sister dear,” Tony shot back.
Natasha flashed a rude hand-gesture in his direction, then turned on her heel and left.
“Tony Stark?” Hela inquired, very quietly, and very seriously, “Do you love him?”
“Yes,” he said, without hesitation. “Yes, I do.” He swallowed thickly. “I tried to make him promise he’d come back. I was going to wait for his plans to be done, then see if I could––see whether I could earn him, you know?”
“Where are your weapons, then?” Hela asked. “You will need some of them.”
Tony rested a hand over his arc reactor. “How much help will armor really be?”
She hesitated. “Not much. Not unless you have made it definitively ghost-proof.”
“That’s in the plans for the Mark VIII, but I haven’t gotten those modifications built out successfully yet, I’ll admit.” He cranked up his power a little, enough to have his eyes and fingertips glowing when he turned again to face her. “I’m never really unarmed, though.”
Hela nodded, smiling a little, and proffered her darker hand. “Are you ready, then?”
“As I’ll ever be,” Tony agreed, and took her hand.
They vanished from the conference room, and reappeared on a verdant hillside. The sky overhead, the stars and the bruised purples of it, looked all wrong; most likely because despite the stars and blackness overhead, everything around them appeared sunlit. Below it was another smaller hill, green grass, and a narrow path paved with white stones.
“Tell me more about this labyrinth,” Tony said, even as the slowly started down the hill toward the path. “What does it want with Loki?”
“It is a place which longs for a king,” Hela said. “It longs to catch the unwanted, the outcast, and the undesired. My father told me that he had seen the place before, and heard tales of the last king. Whenever someone wished a child gone, or one of their kin gone, even in jest, that king would take them. Like any devil, deals might be struck with him, but they came with heavy prices. He collected many souls, before his death.”
“How did he die?” Tony asked.
Hela shrugged. “No one knows. Perhaps he was merely mortal. Perhaps loneliness and stolen children could not comfort him forever, and he took his own life. Anything might have happened. All anyone knows is that the castle in the middle of the labyrinth has been empty now for many years.”
Tony nodded. “Now if I could just get Steve Rogers to wish king Loki would come and take me away.”
Hela snorted. “I’m not at all sure that might help you.”
“It would cut down on time, I think.” He hesitated before stepping onto the path. “Once I get in, how do I get us both out?”
“The Labyrinth’s hold on its victims, in the case of its desired rulers, is only as powerful as their isolation. They must feel alone, unloved, and unwanted.” She smiled faintly. “Tell him otherwise. It won’t be easy––his mind will not be all his own. He would have been weakened enough by the fall, let along the turmoil in his heart even before that. But once he’s persuaded, he needs to say, to the labyrinth... oh, what’s the best basic translation.” She sighed. “My ancient Greek is rusty, but this should work: ‘My will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom is as great; you have no power over me.’” She paused for thought. “Furthermore: don’t try to climb over any walls. Few things will get you killed faster.”
“Duly noted,” Tony said, and stepped onto the path. He was surprised when Hela stepped a bit closer and embraced him.
“Thank you. Please don’t get killed.”
Tony returned the only slightly awkward hug. “Hey. It’ll be fine. I’ll be fine.” He stared at the uniform, seemingly doorless stone walls ahead. “Anything else I should worry about, though?”
“You do have a time limit.” She released him gently and wiped at one of her eyes. “Fourteen hours. No more than that.”
Tony pulled out his phone, set a timer. “I’d better start, then.” He squeezed one of her hands. “I wish we’d managed to meet in less dire circumstances.”
“I feel similarly, but I’m also grateful that you––that you seem capable of this.” She swallowed tightly. “I worried that I would find no one to help.”
Tony smiled a bit more warmly, and sincerely. “I’ll bring him back. I’ll do whatever I have to.” He let go of her hand, and began to walk away down the path. It seemed to take far longer than it should have, but when Tony glanced at the stopwatch he’d started, only two minutes had passed. Once he was within just a few feet of the wall, he heard an ominous, crackling rumble of stone grating on stone. The wall opened for him, and he stepped through it, glancing back in time to see Hela raise her hand to him, before it snapped shut again.
Suddenly, the lighting was all a bit less sunny. Tony shivered, too, as the cold started to sink in through his suit, and his heavy coat. On this side of the wall, many of the stones had a thin tracery of frost over them. He could see his breath.
“Well then,” he muttered, and zipped up his long leather coat. It was his work coat, for missions that needed a bit less than a full suit of armor, and accordingly it had an absurd number of pockets containing an absurd assortment of odd little bits of machinery, tools, amulets, talismans, scrolls of banishment or binding: the whole lot. He was able to send a hum of energy through the coat and its contents, ever so gently, bringing him a little more warmth as he shoved his hands deep into his pockets. “I suppose that should be expected.” They are creatures of ice, and raw natural power, Thor had said. Along with the bit about them turning blue when they get royally pissed off. Loki was only half-jotunn, though. Tony recalled the anger and fear in Loki’s words, speaking of this war, and the way the air nearer to Loki had been so much colder than anywhere else in the room at the time.
He seemed to have only a couple of options, given the path stretched on seemingly forever to the right, and to the left. Tony gave it some consideration, and pulled a pendulum out of his pocket: heavily warded against interference. It wasn’t useful for much more than navigation, really.
Tony gave it a spin. “Alright, then. Which way should I go?”
It spun lazily for a few moments, then came at last to a halt just a little further forward than it had started.
Tony glanced up to re-verify: yes, that appeared to be a solid wall. He looked back at the pendulum. “Seriously?”
It didn’t answer.
Years in the field had taught him a few things, though, so Tony took a few steps closer until, by all appearances, he was sure his nose was about an inch from the bricks. Then he took another step and... met no resistance. He looked over his shoulder, and noticed an archway. He started to grin. “How ‘bout that.” He lifted the pendulum again: again it indicated straight ahead. Cautiously, Tony followed where it bade.
It lasted a good long while, though he could hear disturbing things from the other paths he walked crossed: screaming, the lowing of something not quite human and not quite bovine, and occasional frantic prayers of a ghostly nature. Between that, and the cold, Tony really couldn’t deny that all the hairs on the back of his neck were standing on end. Also, his hands were goddamn freezing.
He stopped briefly, lowering the pendulum back into a pocket and rubbing his hands together, breathing on them, trying to regain feeling in his fingers. He then tucked them under his coat and shirt collars, letting the warmth from the less exposed skin there seep into his extremities. He held that position for a few moments, breathing quietly so as to hear anything approach.
Thus he almost jumped clear out of his skin at the sound of a young, female voice right in his ear whispering, “You’ll want to run now.”
The he heard the sound of heavy hooves and a distinctly bull-like snort, from over to the left. He pulled out the pendulum again quick, but rather than being helpful as before, it just spun wildly, erratically. “Shit. Strong motherfucker’s got some serious interference.” Then he made the mistake of looking up, and felt the blood drain from his face.
The ghost was big, bigger than some of the things Tony recalled seeing Hellboy fight on the one or two missions he’d been on with the guy. (Each one had sort of wound up a pissing contest. The bureau tried to keep the two of them separated because of things like that.) Towering, silver-white, and glowing a little in the sourceless, cold and thin light that fell everywhere in the labyrinth, it certainly looked like a minotaur: bull head, hooves on the feet, and muscles that dwarfed even those of guys like Thor. It was only twenty feet away, but clearly preparing to charge.
“Should’ve brought the suit anyway,” Tony muttered, and bolted, the same way he’d been going before. He heard a roar of anger and the sound of cracking stone walls, the force of the impact making the pathways quiver underfoot. “Shit. Shit shit shit. Shit.”
He managed to keep his arms out in front of him enough such that when he did, inevitably, run out of illusion-walls and hit a real one, it wasn’t as bad as it might’ve been. “Solid ghosts. Solid ghosts are never good,” Tony repeated under his breath. Last time he’d run into anything like this, he’d wound up with a broken arm. He pulled out the pendulum again and cursed. “More interference. Come on, what’s stopping you... now?” He narrowed his eyes, activating his powers a little and yes, there it was: a hint of a familiar, deep emerald green. “Son of a bitch. Loki-magic. Not even cool, dude.”
Then the bestial roar sounded again, and Tony looked around desperately, then on a whim, ran left.
He ran that way for a long while, and the path zigged, then zagged, then went up a small flight of stone steps and up into a slightly more quaint sort of maze, with hanging baskets with flowers. Well, the flowers were coated in ice now, but at least it was decor.
At that point, he noticed the other ghosts, most of them wearing that gaunt sort of look that indicated they were shrunken a bit, and required something like sustenance. Tony had gotten very good at noticing little nuances like that. “Well,” he muttered. “This doesn’t bode well.”
This section of the maze was full of them, a vast crowd of them, distinguishable from each other only by the era of their clothing: prehistory, ancient Roman, Spartan, Spanish conquistador, Victorian explorer, and many things that reminded Tony vaguely of the armor Loki tended to wear in a fight, in a number of different styles. Some of the ghosts were only vaguely humanoid, which made them stand out a little more. “Oh, shit,” he muttered, as they all started toward him seemingly at once. He reached, pulled at his power, but with hesitation. It made them all look hungrier, which made it unlikely that these were the sort of spooks he could actually hurt. Others just sort of fed off of him, and usually he could use it to his advantage in a lot of cases, often to keep them talking. In this case, he had a feeling that wouldn’t be much help. He glanced around desperately for any sort of opening, found none, and shut off his power with a curse before bolting, aiming to breach their left flank.
Not all of them, luckily, were anywhere near as solid as the damn minotaur, but more of them than he was comfortable with managed to press close, hissing and snarling, tugging at his clothes and trying to trip him up as he ran. He fumbled in his pockets for something, anything, but these were strange even by the standards of his own vast amount of experience with spectral beasties. One of them actually bit him and he cried out, deliberately tumbling forward, rolling in what was almost a somersault, and then leaping back up to his feet again, as though that had hardly been a hitch in his stride.
Now, if only he knew where he was actually running. “Shit.”
Then he heard a grating, sickly and slightly wet sound, and he fell down a hole, the faint glowing and snarling of outraged specters soon just a faint pale light overhead in the middle of vast dark.
Tony swore a blue streak and clawed at the air around him for any kind of surface, any handholds, anything.
Then about two dozen large, strong, stone-cold hands caught him by the limbs, and he promptly freaked the fuck out. Trying to flail, trying to struggle, he continued to curse, at great length, in a number of languages, including Germanic Latin. After a few minutes, when it seemed the vice-like grips of those too-many hands were neither inclined to tear him apart, nor indeed move much at all, Tony stilled. “Okay, then. Now what?”
“Why are you here?” boomed a deep, not-quite human voice: guttural and harsh.
Tony winced. “You need a cough drop or something, there? Because damn.”
“Answer the question, Anthony Stark.”
At that, Tony frowned. “I’ve not given my name to anyone here.”
“One already has it,” the voice countered. “Our king. He knows of you, and even merely that does make him tricky to control.”
“Oh?” Tony asked, all innocence.
“He is the best candidate in centuries,” another voice howled, more shrill, more crackling.
“Alone. Lost. Fallen. Monstrous,” the deeper voice listed.
“Yeah, well,” Tony snarled. “Aren’t we all?”
The hands pulled at him a bit, painfully tugging at his limbs until his joints nearly creaked. “Would you offer yourself for his throne?”
Tony swallowed thickly. “If it came down to it, maybe so. I don’t think that’s going to be the case, here.” He rolled his left arm a little, loosening one of the little things he kept up his sleeve for times like this. The amulet slid down, and he caught it in his palm, wrapping the cord tight around two fingers.
“We ask for so little.”
“He need merely be ruled by us-”
“Fear us and do as we say!”
The finished in chorus, “And we will be his slaves.”
Tony clicked his tongue. “Well, that is impressive, but I’m not interested. And I get the feeling that in his right mind, Loki wouldn’t be either.”
“Why are you here?” both voices boomed.
At that, Tony started to grin, wide and malicious. “You golemic types are fun, especially the self-made ones, leftover from horrors and ghosts sunk into stone. You’re classier than most of the ones I’ve met before, I’ll give you that.” He let the pendant of the amulet hang down from his fingers, still gripping the tight-wrapped cord. “But you took this one from me. And I’ll be getting him back now.” He swung the amulet deftly so it struck one of the hands.
The chamber filled with the sounds of agonized shrieking, and the hands all let him go. Only once the sensation of free-fall hit again did Tony consider that being dropped like that might be a pretty bad thing. Then he found walls, and started to scrabble at them. He spread his arms and legs until they met opposing walls and he slowly skidded to a stop. Far below, he could see something glowing a little, and heard the sound of a bovine sort of snort, and hooves on stone. Catching his breath, arms shaking a little from adrenaline, Tony slowly pushed himself back up the way he’d come. He paused to unbutton his shirt enough for his arc reactor to provide a little light, though the resulting cold threatened to ruin everything by making him start shivering, which was just further interference that his sense of balance really didn’t need.
Eventually, he found a small cross-corridor, going off to his left. He took it, and hoped like hell there wouldn’t be any corpses in the narrow little tunnel. He had terrible luck with that––except that they were usually, to his immense relief in retrospect, dry and skeletal rather than still juicy. He had to button up shirt and coat again, though, against the cold.
He managed a good distance before the inevitable, gut-churning crunch of a thousand-year old dry skull, small enough to be a kid’s, under one of his hands. He grimaced. “Fuckin’ dungeons. Always fuckin’ dungeons.”
Then he found a wider, more open area wherein he could stand. By touch, he even found a ladder, at which point he began to climb.
He emerged, inexplicably, from an enormous decorative flower pot. “What the... why even... this place is crazier than I thought.” Then he heard a clatter that sounded suspiciously like armor. Real armor: not ghost armor. Slowly, he managed to look up.
Tony chose that moment to do a bit of quick math in his head, concerning Hela’s age, and the likelihood that certain advancements might’ve been made since her visit here, which now he thought about it, was probably over a thousand years ago.
And a thousand years ago, there probably hadn’t been Nazis. There also probably hadn’t been mechanized soldier/knight figures marked with Nazi insignia, wielding what appeared to be crossbows. And all of them were pointed at Tony.
“Uh... shit.” He sent two concentrated blasts of power, one at their left flank, the other at their right, and dove back behind the giant flower pot, just in time to avoid a flurry of crossbow quarrels. He peered up when he heard an odd sound, and made a face when he saw what it was.
They had four arms. Two to reload used crossbows, two to fire the next barrage.
“Fuck. Those. Bastards.” He reached around the flowerpot and this time aimed for their knees, taking out one or two and toppling them over the others. He then made a break for it, bolting into the nearby hedge maze.
He was distraught, he was panicking, he’d just climbed out of a dark hole which always brought back horrible memories, and he was in a hurry. Those were what he might eventually use as excuses as to why he didn’t think it necessary to stay as low to the ground as possible even after he rounded the corner of the hedge maze.
Hedges, of course, aren’t as good at blocking projectiles as stone.
A crossbow quarrel hit him, just to the left of his spine, between neck and shoulder, scraping only a little against surrounding bones: he yelled, but still counted himself lucky. He still wasn’t in time trying to duck back down, though, and the second one stuck between two ribs, and cracked the edge of his shoulder blade; it didn’t go as deep: not a through-and-through, but breathing suddenly got more difficult. Whether from a grazed or punctured lung, or just having an arrow between two ribs, he couldn’t tell, at first.
Then Tony tasted blood, and momentarily fell to his knees numbly thinking, got a bit of lung after all, then. Hopefully not much. He couldn’t curse any further. It would waste breath, and his breaths were understandably coming in a bit shorter now. With an effort, he got back to his feet and took off again, this time keeping low as he could, while maintaining half his previous pace and not worsening his injuries.
He got pretty far before something hit him like a battering ram and sent him flying through the topmost section of two of the hedge walls. The he heard the snort of that damn minotaur, and faintly saw the glitter of glowing red eyes through the foliage. Oh, he thought, I’m going to die.
A thin, hazy wisp of a specter appeared in front of him, between himself at the minotaur. She turned and held out her hand. She looked a lot less ghoulish that the others had. In fact, she looked... way too familiar.
She smiled. She looked younger, especially around the eyes.
“You’re not dead,” he rasped.
“No, but I left an impression. This place collects such things.” She didn’t even blink as the minotaur struggled a bit, tearing at the roots of the hedges as it tried to push through. “You know me. And you want to help my father.” She extended her hand further. “Help me, and I will help.”
Tony swallowed, tasting pennies and dust, then smiled, just a little, as he realized what she was asking. He took her hand, opening the floodgates.
The wisp of Hela’s younger self looked very near-solid then, glowing bright as the sun for a long moment. “Wow,” she whispered. “That’s amazing.” The minotaur’s head burst through the foliage near her face. She reached up with her free hand and just flicked it.
Tony’s eyebrows raised at the resulting cacophony of destroyed shrubbery and protesting bovine as the older ghost was flung hard, through all of the shrubbery to hit the nearest stone structure with a sickening crack. “I agree,” he managed.
She looked down at him with concern. “You’re hurt.”
“Just a bit.” He let her help him to his feet. “Just get me to Loki. Please.”
She nodded. “Can you walk?”
Tony nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, I can still walk for a bit.”
And so she led him, humming with the power that lurked under his skin, making her solid enough for him to lean on when they reached the castle stairs. Near the top, though, she began to flicker, and stepped back, wincing.
“What is that?” Tony asked, feeling a bit dizzied at the feedback as it forced his power out of her, and his own system re-absorbed it in a rush.
“I can’t go there,” she said sadly. “I’m memory. I’m his daughter. It’s memories of family that this place drains first.”
“Oh.” Tony leaned heavily against the nearest banister. “Thank you, for your help.”
“Thank you for yours.” She frowned, and it was funny how that sad-and-concerned look was still the same, even on Hela’s younger visage: she looked like a teenager, and oddly small. “I hope you survive it.”
“You and me both,” Tony rasped, and began pulling himself up the last flight of stairs. He braced himself against the odd warmth he felt at the prospect, recalling the elder Hela’s warning: It won’t be easy––his mind will not be all his own. He tried not to imagine what it would have been like falling through seemingly bottomless void, while also being full of self-loathing and horror, only to land in a place that automatically edits one’s memories. He swallowed the taste of dry blood again as it occurred to him that Loki, without his memories and having lost himself, would probably be one of the most dangerous sons of bitches out there.
He made it to the landing, only swaying a little, as he looked around the large, round main hall. There was a throne, in the middle of a lower, circular indentation in the center of the room. And someone was in it, with their back to the door. Inhaling delicately, and trying not to wince, Tony stepped closer.
“What are you doing here?” Loki’s voice rang out.
Tony snorted, pulling out all the stops on his sarcasm. It was that or fall over and bleed on the floor, and he’d come a bit too far now for that. He stepped closer still. “Why do you think, Loki dear?”
He heard movement: probably the sound of a metaphorical monocle dropping into an equally metaphorical cup of tea.
“Do I offend?” Tony mocked. “Because considering I’m the one stuck through and bleeding a bit, that’s pretty rich.” He stopped for a moment, then. “You could at least look at me, you know.”
A hesitation, an intake of breath. “Numbed as I am by this place, I would still prefer not to see you flinch from me, Tony Stark.”
“I met Hela,” Tony said quietly. “She’s beautiful.”
A hesitation. “Who?”
“Charming girl. Fey, like you. Well, at least half-fey, and one quarter jotunn.”
A crack. Tony had a feeling Loki had just snapped part of the armrest of that throne. The temperature in the room dropped still further, forming a fresh layer of frost spiraling out along the stone floor from where Loki sat.
“She’s related to you, actually, though this place won’t let you remember.” He stepped still closer, careful of where the ice looked thick enough to be potentially slippery. “She’s dark blue, all down one side, with markings that I’m pretty sure are natural. And she smiles like you do.”
Loki stirred. “Your words are harder to keep track of when you speak of her,” he said, low and thoughtful.
“You’ve lost a few things, here. You don’t even recall Thor, do you?”
A snort. “Of that, I cannot help but remember a shadow. He never truly was my brother, after all.” Bitterness and acid: lots of it in every syllable.
Tony felt dizzy for a moment and stood very still, willing the black-and-grey fog around the edges of his vision to keep back a bit longer. “You have to know why I’m here, Loki. You have to have a guess.” As the first dizzy spell passed, he carefully managed the last few steps, and came to stand at the edge of the round indentation where Loki’s throne sat. He could see Loki’s hand on the, yes slightly splintered, arm rest: skin a deep, even blue. “And I’ve never flinched from you,” he said softly. “Not when you were covered in other people’s blood, not when you were half-mad with rage on that mission in Budapest, and not now. You can’t scare me.”
“Perhaps,” Loki said softly, and rose to his feet. He turned and met Tony’s gaze, his own eyes widening. “You’re hurt.”
“I did mention,” Tony muttered, then went quiet as Loki abruptly appeared at his side. He took in the blue skin, the markings more sparse and simple than Hela’s, and those blood-red eyes. “Hello, gorgeous,” he said low, with a grin.
“Clearly the blood loss is affecting your vision, your perception, or both,” Loki countered.
“I think you’re one to talk about faulty perception right now.” He swatted Loki’s hand when the prince reached for his shoulder. “Why do you think I’m here?” he repeated. “Tell me.”
Loki’s brow creased. “You did not owe me a debt this great,” he said softly.
“Yeah. I know that. It’s not why I’m here.” His right hand reached up and gripped Loki’s collar, tugging him down. “I’m here because you’re the most important person in my life, and I could not leave you here. I promised I would hunt you down, and I meant it, Loki Odinson.”
Loki winced. “I’m not-”
“You are,” Tony insisted.
“What, are they mourning?” he sneered.
“Yeah. And I nearly was too you son of bitch,” Tony snapped back.
Loki hesitated then, confusion evident as he struggled to reach for memories that the labyrinth and sunk roots into. “I... I can’t...”
“You can.” Tony heard the tremor in his voice that was independent of lung-related injuries, though he was getting tunnel-vision again. “You were wrong about that: you can have.”
The prince’s eyes cleared a little, even as his confusion persisted. “What?”
“Stop me if I... stop me if I’m not the one you...” He trailed off, unable to finish the thought before tugging Loki down just a bit further and tilting his head up, catching Loki’s mouth with his and inhaling sharply at the painfully biting cold, not quite enough to give frostbite but close. He felt Loki gasp as well, soft lips parting in response, and that was invitation enough. Tony deepened the kiss, exploring Loki’s mouth thoroughly, tasting snowmelt and glaciers. Then, ever so slowly, that warmer flavor of spice crept back in, and the cold started to rapidly fade. Loki made a low, hungry sound into the kiss, half-pain and half desperation. With reluctance, Tony pulled back. “Why have we not been doing that all the damn time?” he muttered. “God, I love you.”
Loki’s hands, now at his waist, gripped a little tighter. His eyes, green again, were very wide and dark. The room was fast thawing. “Say that again,” he panted, sounding breathless.
“Why have we not-” He cut off when Loki kissed him again, just long enough to cut him off.
The fey pulled back just a little. “The other one.”
“Your turn. Nice try, though.” Tony realized the lightheadedness wasn’t all from the kissing, and leaned heavily against Loki.
“Tony?” He shook his head to clear it, recalling the inventor’s injuries suddenly. “Fuck. I hate this place! I can’t maintain a train of thought for longer than ten seconds half the time, I swear. Tony, sit.”
“I’m fine,” he lied.
“I can hear blood in your lungs when you speak, which makes anything you say instantly less reassuring,” Loki snapped, already helping Tony slowly lower himself to the floor. “Easy, easy. Don’t move your shoulder.”
“Trying. Reflexes and old habits, you know.”
In the end, Loki sat cross-legged, with Tony’s head in his lap. “I’m no healer,” he said, sounding perturbed. He took a steadying breath, his brow knit for a moment, then smiled, wicked but pleasantly surprised. “I have an idea.” He gestured, in a way Tony was increasingly familiar with, wherein he pulled things from little pocket dimensions he kept up his sleeves, whether or not he happened to be wearing them. He pulled out an apple, with gold skin that had to have been the work of a talented renaissance painter. Loki created a small knife out of ice and cut into it.
“You have fruit with healing powers?” Tony asked.
“Yes. Among other things.” He shot Tony a concerned look. “How do you feel about aging just a little slower than most Fey?”
Tony’s eyebrows raised. “You’re shitting me.”
“Among the Aesir is a goddess named Idunn,” Loki said. “I once did her a very great favor, and as such, she gave me two of these, which is technically a violation of several of their laws, and a truly invaluable gift. I always thought I’d wind up using it to pull myself back from the brink of death at some point––that’s what the first one got used on, anyway––but I’m more than fine giving it to you, so long as you are too.” He shot Tony a pointed look. “It’s the difference between a few slices, and the whole thing: recovery, versus something not entirely unlike immortality.”
“Why on earth would I say no to that?” Tony rasped.
“You’d be surprised,” Loki murmured.
“Do I get to spend that time with you?”
Loki’s hand shook a bit and he managed to cut the side of his own thumb. He scarcely seemed to notice, though, staring at Tony with a deer-in-the-headlights expression. “If... if you want to.”
“Well, I dunno. I seem to have made a certain confession that you-” He stopped when Loki popped the first slice of apple into his mouth. He grinned around it, then proceeded to chew.
“I love you,” Loki said simply, sincerely, lowering the apple and sucking on the wound on his thumb for a moment, though his eyes never left Tony’s. “I’ve been in love with you quite possibly from the beginning, though I hardly noticed it even starting to happen until some while after your glorious return from the desert wastes.”
Tony swallowed, and felt it tingle, warm and strange, all the way down. “Loki... that was years ago,” he said softly, disbelief in his voice.
“Yes.” Loki cleared his throat quietly. “I wanted, and could not have.”
“You can now, though,” Tony said, plucking the next slice from Loki’s hand.
Loki smiled, warm and devastating and incandescently happy. “You say that now,” he purred. “I still have to remove those.” He pointed at the two quarrels.
Tony glanced at them. They weren’t quite as painful as before. “Oh. Right.”
After a few more slices, Loki did so, and Tony managed not to scream, but he did curse a great deal, though he stopped even that when Loki pulled him back down to rest his head on the fey prince’s lap again. Then Loki handed him the rest of the apple. Tony glanced at it, and back up at Loki, smirked, and took a sizable bite. “How are we getting out of here, then?”
“One positive of being cooped up here and unable to think clearly is that there was time enough for my magic to recover. It will still be tricky, but I should be able to get us back home.”
“Yours or mine?” Tony asked.
Loki considered. “Well. Alfheim is a little easier to aim for. Care to see it?”
“I would, I think.” He grinned, wide and brilliant. “I really would. Isn’t there a line you need to say first, though? Hela mentioned it. It sounds like a line from an 80’s movie, but I suspect it sounds better in ancient Greek.”
For a moment, Loki’s eyes lost focus, then he shook his head as if to clear it. “Damn. I can’t recall.”
“I do.” Tony sat up, feeling only an intense, itchy and overheated tingling where the arrows had hit him. He shifted so straddled Loki’s lap, knees on either side of the fey prince’s hips. He smirked to see Loki’s pupils dilate. He took another few bites of apple, taking his time, eating even the core and leaving naught behind but a bit of the stem, which he flicked aside before settling his arms around Loki’s shoulders. “It started with... wait, here. Close your eyes. You’re not saying this to me.”
Loki snorted, but obeyed. “Of course.”
“Now, ‘My will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom is as great,’” Tony recited.
“My will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom is as great.”
“‘You have no power over me,’” Tony concluded.
His voice taking on more resolve, sounding more like a command, Loki echoed, “You have no power over me.”
The stones around them started shaking: overhead, underfoot, and in the distance, all at once. Some of them started to fall.
“Time to make that exit, then!” Tony declared.
“Agreed,” Loki said, and wrapped his arms around Tony’s waist.
They vanished in a puff of emerald smoke, just as the ceiling over them started to collapse.
Tony blinked rapidly when the dark let up––longer than the trip back from the desert; they even had time to get their feet back under them before reaching the end––and the first thing to hit his eyes was near-blinding sunlight. “Jeeesus. Bright enough?”
“Oh. It’s noon,” Loki murmured, squinting only a little. “How long was I gone?”
“Well, how long did it take for the whole coronation and treason fiasco to play out, after you left?”
Loki thought about it. “About five days, counting the preparations before said fiasco,” he concluded.
“Then you were gone about thirty-odd days before Hela and Thor showed up at HQ asking for a meeting.”
Suddenly, Loki looked horrified. “Did I really forget-”
“Hey. You couldn’t have stopped it.”
Exhaling sharply through his teeth, Loki shook his head. “I hate that place.”
“Agreed.” Tony looked around them. Rolling green fields, the sound of distant voices and violins off to the east, sounding oddly haunting. He could smell the sea, crisp and rich on the wind. “Where are we?”
“Well, even I can’t quite pronounce the name––the locals here speak a dialect which makes Welsh look dry and coherent––but I’ve wandered here often. It may have inspired the legend of a place called ‘Fiddler’s Green’ on earth.”
“Not quite your home, then?”
“I have always wandered a great deal. Most regions of this realm has at least some part of it I think of as an integral part of my home––especially a particular library very far south. The air outside the place always smells of spices, and the air is hot and dry, the music so different from here.” He smiled crookedly. “Welcome to my world, Tony. Would you like a tour?”
“Yeah. How’s the food near that library in the south?”
Loki smirked. “Fantastic, though it burns.”
“I don’t mind that.” He shut his eyes, resting his brow against Loki’s neck, nuzzling up slightly and enjoying the slight catch in Loki’s breath as he did so. “You’re not tired, though?”
“Exhausted, actually. That may be why I wound up aiming us here, to some degree. Come along.” He tugged at Tony and led him away over two more low hills, and down into a shady glade, incredibly green, but cool and quiet. Loki then proceeded to grab a low-hanging tree branch as big around as his waist, and pull himself up into a rather dense canopy with seemingly no effort.
Tony blinked. “Okay. Keep in mind I’v not climbed a tree in years.”
“You may find your strength to be more than you recalled.”
Tony frowned a bit, but reached up and pulled... and he was in the tree. He blinked a bit. “Oh. Well.”
Tony followed Loki’s voice, and found him on a wide net of interwoven braids of rope and cord, forming something like the largest hammock in history. “Okay, that’s kind of awesome.”
“Come on.” Loki waved him over.
Tony settled himself on the edge and let himself roll toward the middle where Loki was. He let the momentum carry him so he wound up draped over Loki’s body, pressed against him from thigh to sternum. He went to comment, but Loki caught his mouth and, yes, that mouth was just as dangerously talented as he recalled. Ohgodyes.
He lost track of himself, and the noises he may have been making, until Loki rolled them, pinning Tony under him firmly. “I would have you here,” he breathed, low and hungry, his fingers skimming down Tony’s stomach to unbutton his jeans. “I want you utterly undone.”
Tony shivered. “I’m not at all averse to that.” He managed to unbutton Loki’s trousers enough to slip his hands under the waistband in the back and get a good, leisurely exploration of Loki’s all too tempting behind. He smiled a little when he felt Loki shiver, but his expression changed a bit when Loki bit the tender skin of his throat, then sucked a little, tongue soothing, swirling, all while one of those devilishly lovely hands slipped down the front of his pants and took firm hold of him. “Fuck.”
“Mmm. I’m considering.” Loki’s voice was that low, gravel-and-velvet purr.
“Hnngh,” Tony managed to respond, rather eloquently, then, after a few breaths, managed to add, “Your hands are almost as talented as your mouth.”
“Hardly a fair comparison,” Loki countered, and moved down Tony’s body.
Tony sucked in a breath, then promptly lost the ability to use his lungs normally as soon as Loki set about proving his point. Okay. No comparison, he admitted, in a brief moment of lucidity before Loki’s fingers began working over the rest of him in conjunction with that warm wet heat, and his eyes nearly rolled back in his head. He swore in half the languages he knew when Loki somehow stopped.
“Anywhere in this ridiculous coat of yours, do you happen to have any lubricant?” Loki asked, far too casually.
“You, sir, are an evil creature,” Tony groaned.
“Yes, but that doesn’t answer my question.”
“Uhm. Maybe.” He shrugged out of the coat deftly, without even dislodging Loki, which seemed to impress the fey a bit. “Not had overmuch need for it, but old habits... aha!” He pulled out a bottle and held it up. Loki took it deftly, and waved his hand just so, causing their remaining clothing to vanish, and reappear neatly folded on a nearby tree branch. Tony snorted. “So that’s why you learned magic.”
“At age fourteen, admittedly, that was indeed a powerful motivator. Now, where was I?” Loki grinned fit to make the devil uncomfortable, and slid back down Tony’s body.
Gasping a little, Tony sat up just enough to watch, and as soon as Loki locked eyes with him before neatly swallowing the full length of him, Tony gave himself up for lost altogether.
They managed to clean up and mostly redress before actually falling asleep in the canopy of an oak tree older than some early civilizations on earth. After only a few hours’ rest though, they were interrupted by a loud, all too familiar voice.
Loki groaned and curled up a bit further, trying to hide his face between Tony’s shoulder blades. Stirring awake himself, Tony only snorted in amusement, leaning back a bit into the fey prince’s embrace. “Morning?”
“Late afternoon,” Loki muttered.
He sighed. “Apparently.”
Another loud shout from somewhere below had them both reluctantly opening their eyes and peering down through the gaps in the hammock.
“You’re certain, Hela?”
“Very much, uncle.”
“I don’t see any trace of them,” Thor was starting to sound a little put out.
Loki made a small, exasperated sound.
“Hey, on the upside, he’s not still pissed at you for trying to kill him.”
Loki froze. “Ah. I’d almost forgotten about that.”
Hela appeared on a lower branch while he uncle wandered around the opposite side of the tree. She beamed up at them.
“You had to bring him?” Loki called quietly.
There was a startled sound from Thor anyway. “Loki!”
“I did,” Hela said. “No! Thor, you know what happened last time you tried to climb this tree. You broke things!”
“Then my brother had best get down here,” Thor growled.
Loki and Tony exchanged glances. They were both dressed in little more than jeans and trousers respectively, and made no effort to reach the rest of their clothes before descending. Loki met Hela on the branch she occupied and nearly fell from the force with which she launched herself at him, clinging to him as he returned the hug with a relieved laugh that sounded suspiciously close to tearful.
Tony smirked a little, lowering himself to the same branch. He was a bit startled when Hela released her father and took hold of his face, kissing his forehead. “Thank you,” she said, her voice tight. “Thank you so much, Tony.”
“It was honestly for pretty selfish reasons,” the engineer admitted.
“I don’t care,” Hela said firmly, and gave him a quick hug. “Now, to Thor.”
“If I must,” Loki sighed, and dropped gracefully through the last layer of thick, obscuring foliage, landing quiet as a cat. Tony followed quickly, along with Hela.
Thor opened his mouth to speak, then suddenly seemed at a loss for words once his gaze settled on Tony. “...Stark?”
“Yeah.” Tony grinned wide and shameless, and just a little bit threatening. He knew he had a few marks on his neck in the shape of Loki’s teeth, and that Loki had a few just above the waistband of his pants from Tony’s. He let Thor put it all together for a few moments. “Problem?”
Thor still seemed stuck on that same stunned expression.
“Thor!” Loki barked sharply, snapping his brother out of it.
The elder prince jumped slightly and moved his stare to his brother. “With a mortal?” he muttered, sounding sincerely confused.
“Well, initially,” Loki said, light and airy.
“‘Mortal’ is relative, really,” Tony added, in similar tones.
“What?” Thor’s brow furrowed.
“I still had one of the Aesir’s apples,” Loki said flatly. “Now I don’t.”
Tony’s grin went from merely amused to outright smug.
“Uh...” Thor blinked.
“Also, he saved my life, incidentally, Thor. You can show some semblance of gratitude rather than merely gaping like a fish.”
Thor looked between the both of them, seeming to recall all that had brought them to this point, all at once. He seized one of them with each arm in a hug that could have severely damaged even a grizzly bear.
Tony struggled to breathe. “Okay. Gratitude accepted, Thor, but air needed. Air, Thor!” he rattled off quickly.
“In a moment,” Thor said, his voice heavy and thick with something like tears.
Loki and the mad engineer exchanged disconcerted glances.
Hela laughed at them.
“Incidentally,” Loki managed, his voice terse due to tightly-squeezed lungs, “Do I have a court hearing to look forward to for the whole genocide thing?”
That at last made Thor relax his grip and take a polite step back from them. “Hela told us all of where you landed. It was unanimously decided that your fate had been sufficient punishment.”
Loki nodded. “Most likely because they all assumed I would not escape alive.”
Thor coughed quietly into one hand. “Yes, most likely.”
With a great deal of effort, Loki managed to say, “And. I. Am... I’m mostly sorry that I rather overzealously tried to kill you. Mostly.”
Thor looked surprised and a bit thoughtful.
“And for telling you our father was dead,” he added.
At that, Thor nodded magnanimously. “Accepted.”
Loki exhaled a long, mostly-steady breath. “Thank you.”
Thor glanced up into the tree for a moment. “Given that you’re expected at home soon enough, you may wish to put on the rest of your clothing.”
“I’m... I’m expected?” Loki managed, his voice not quite as dignified as he had tried to aim for.
“Yes. And our father would speak with you.” He glanced at Tony. “And you as well, in all likelihood, Tony Stark.”
Tony realized abruptly that this was, in fact, about to become meeting Loki’s parents. He nodded numbly. “Okay then.” He looked to Loki, who still seemed a bit out of sorts, and elbowed him gently.
Loki met his gaze for a long moment, reading concern, amusement and a hint of hysterical terror in the mad engineer’s expression. After a moment, he smiled, half-laughed and shook his head.
Bumping his shoulder against the younger prince’s, Tony muttered, “Seriously, though, this’ll go fine. Probably.” He bit his lip a moment, then whispered, “and if it doesn’t we’ll cause a bit of chaos until it gets more amusing.”
With a gesture and a few words, Loki redressed them both, then leaned in to murmur in Tony’s ear, “Just one of the many reasons I love you.” He then turned to Thor and inquired, “where are we to meet them?”
Thor told him, looking fairly amused.
“Very good.” He nodded to Thor, bowed slightly to Hela, took hold of Tony’s arm, and made them both vanish. Upon their reappearance in the hall, Loki visibly hesitated, though, seeming to take in his surroundings with the air of someone who had never expected to see home ever again.
Tony admired the high columns, the tall wooden pillars and the intricate arabesque patterns arching between them as though they had grown that way. He started to smirk a little. “Think we’ll scare them?”
“Probably everyone other than your parents, really.”
Loki considered it, and slowly started to smile. “We could.”
“I think we should.”
“I think that I like the way you think.”
“Excellent,” Tony concluded, turning and kissing the curve of Loki’s jaw.
Smiling fey and feral, Loki caught his mouth for a slightly less chaste one, unhurried and warm, savoring him for a few long and lingering moments.
Someone cleared their throat loudly nearby.
Loki glanced up lazily, but didn’t pull back until he managed to recognize the person shooting them an unamused look. “Oh. Sigyn.”
“You’re incorrigible,” she sighed, though there was some faint amusement in it.
“You knew that already,” Loki countered.
She folded her arms and shot him a look that reminded Tony disturbingly of Pepper, causing his eyes to widen a little.
Loki held up admirably under the look for a few long moments, then cleared his throat. “So. I take it I’m expected...”
“Yes. You are. Given you arrived apart from Thor a moment ago, they trusted I might know where to find you.”
Looking only mildly disconcerted, Loki nodded. “Also, I’m being terribly remiss. Tony, this is Sigyn of Lough Leane. Sigyn, this is Anthony Stark of Midgard.”
“I’ve heard of you, yes,” Sigyn said, smiling faintly and proffering a hand.
Tony shook it. “And I of you.”
“Best of luck to you both. I would love to stay and watch the fireworks, but I get the feeling Frigga would roast me on a spit if I tried,” she said airily, and strolled past them.
Tony glanced after her and raised his eyebrows a little. “She here often?”
“She gets along with my kin, strangely enough,” Loki said shrugging. “Honestly, I think they see her as something of a daughter, even long after...” He gestured vaguely.
“And she won’t try to kill me in my sleep, just to verify?”
“Not unless you go thoroughly out of your way to injure her.”
“Good, good. She said something about a roasting spit?”
“Frigga is my mother. You may like her.” He took a deep breath. “Shall we?”
Tony nodded, and followed him toward the throne room.
The actual introduction to Odin and Frigga afterwards went relatively fine. The cold greeting from the rest of the Seelie court was another matter entirely. There was even a susurrus of whispers that sounded suspiciously like the words “execution” or “executed” and “should be” in various contexts.
Tony was already coming up with a dozen ways to offend the lot of them in a painfully polite and unquestionably well-mannered fashion, just to shut some of them up, when Loki, and thus the both of them, found their path cut off by an incensed-looking woman with dark hair and dark eyes, who seemed to be bristling with quiet aggression.
“Good afternoon,” Loki greeted lightly. “Tony, this is Sif, the finest shield maiden in this hemisphere. Sif, this is Anthony Stark of Midgard.”
She obligingly bowed her head slightly to Tony, looking curious, then returned her glare to Loki. “You’re bold to return home so soon,” she said quietly.
“As I understand it, by Thor’s word, my punishment is considered complete by means of causing my own spectacular downfall into a particularly miserable island of isolated despair floating in the void,” Loki said, his voice slightly lower than Sif’s, his tone all politeness and calm.
Sif narrowed her eyes at him. “Officially, yes.”
“Worry not,” Loki scathed. “I am sure that if I attempt any such thing again, one of the kingdom’s watchers working under Heimdall will inform everyone the moment I vanish from their sight. Now, if you will excuse me, I am here at the behest of my king.”
“Which king would that be, I wonder?” Sif said, her voice all mock-sweetness.
“The one that I didn’t kill or hurl into the void, I should think,” Loki countered.
Sif took a step closer and then stopped short, feeling an electric buzz through her armor: something not altogether unlike an electric shock. It left the edges of her chest plate glowing just slightly blue, matching the dim glow Tony’s eyes were giving off. She shot the human a baffled look.
“If he had not merited return from where he’d gone, I wouldn’t have brought him back, Lady Sif,” Tony said, his body still humming with power, and he held her gaze steadily all the while. “As I’m a respected protector of my own realm, I would ask that you not so openly insult my judgement.”
At that Sif visibly hesitated. “My apologies,” she said, sounding a bit uncertain. “I was not altogether aware-”
“Precisely,” Tony said, with a polite and charming smile. “So it might be best to hold off on any potentially slanderous remarks until the details are known, perhaps.”
The shield maiden’s face reddened just slightly and she glared slightly at Tony, but bowed her head a little nonetheless, and took a step back. “I will leave you to our king, then,” she said, a bit stiffly.
Tony’s smile went knife-sharp, just for a moment, before he relaxed, letting the glow fade and feeling the prickling under his skin ease, and rested a hand on Loki’s lower back, gently starting them both walking again.
The prince, for his part, looked fairly impressed. “You, Tony Stark, are amazing.”
“Thank you, darling.”
“Now I believe it’s my turn. Wait here, just a moment.” He took a deep breath, his expression smoothing into a perfect mask as he rolled his wrists and stretched his fingers a bit, just before he stepped up before the two thrones: Frigga and Odin, queen and king of western Ýdalir-Elphame. The rest of the court occupying the space before them abruptly cleared, forming a semi-circle in which Tony stood front-and-center.
Slowly, Loki knelt, arm braced across his chest, fist resting over his heart, and his head bowed. “Queen mother, and All-father king,” he said, low and respectful.
Frigga stood first, walking down the wide steps before the throne, to stand before her adopted son. “My Loki,” she said, low and serene, her fingertips brushing over his hair now grown a bit too long and wild. “How is it you are returned to us? We know where it is that you fell.”
Loki raised his head and met her gaze, his expression only momentarily falling open, looking terribly young and vulnerable and broken, just for a feeling moment before the mask smoothed over it again, but he let his mother see it still in his eyes. “I was aided, rescued even, by a hero of Midgard. His faith in me, and his heart, have restored me to you as I am now.”
Odin stepped up, then, standing to his wife’s left. “And how are you now, Loki? Do you regret your actions, and will you request forgiveness?”
Green eyes cool and a little sharper as he turned his gaze on Odin, Loki replied, “I am not what I was when I fell, though I am not what I was before I learned my true nature either. I do not know how I might be forgiven for the lives I have taken, or the intentions behind the actions that killed them, but I will not deny responsibility, and I will not claim to be at all proud of those acts.” A pause. “Except perhaps Thor’s banishment, which I do believe we can all agree in retrospect was the only way to prove to you both, his loving parents and thus slightly more blind to his flaws than others, that he truly was not, and is not, ready for the responsibility that comes with ruling our people. That, I thought, was at least rather artfully done.”
Mutterings of mixed amusement and disapproval, in equal measure, could be heard from the court, and Tony smirked a bit at them.
Odin’s eye narrowed, but he made no disavowal, especially after glancing at his wife, who shot him a look which might have been interpreted as a firm, but gentle I told you so. The All-father nodded once in reluctant assent. “Mayhap so. In that act alone, there was little to condemn, save perhaps mere mild treason.”
“It would have been very nearly harmless, if not for certain factors,” Loki said, glancing pointedly toward where his brother stood, to the left of the throne. Meeting his adoptive brother’s gaze he arched an eyebrow and tilted his head a little. That’s your cue, brother, need not be said.
“He is not wrong, father,” Thor said, sounding mildly grieved. “I desired war, then. I craved it, and my own punishment was just.”
Loki returned his gaze to his father, shooting him an arch look.
“And of your other crimes: you regret them?”
For a moment, Loki kept his eyes downcast, his expression caught between thoughtful and contrite. “I was not myself. I regret my haste, my lack of insight, and the conceited righteousness I felt, in my anger.” He smiled thinly. “Normally I, like everyone else here, like to think that I do know better than to mistake a lie-smith for someone full of justifiable and irreproachably righteous motivations.”
The mutterings of the court changed to mixed humor and reluctant approval. Odin too looked moderately approving, but still stern.
“The court decided, upon learning of your fall into that lamentable labyrinth, that such an abominable experience would suitably humble and punish you. They have thus suspended you from any further punishment under our laws for these acts,” Frigga said, and looked sidelong at her husband. “I believe this decision to be worth upholding.”
Odin bowed his head to his wife. “Of course,” he said. “Are there any objections from those here today? Speak now, for you will have no other opportunity.”
Despite all their muttering, the court looked at the sharp, slightly protective expressions on the faces of their royalty, and none spoke out.
Loki’s mask visibly cracked again, just for a moment, and he quickly wiped at one of his eyes before anyone could properly notice, except Tony, who had scarcely looked away from him. So maybe he really did wind up being called Silver-tongue for his ability to talk people around, he thought with some amusement.
“Loki, you did state that you were aided in your return,” Odin said.
“I did. And I was.”
“He is here?”
Tony didn’t miss the way Odin’s mask also showed a crack there for just a moment, and it sent an embarrassing, sympathetic tingle through his chest.
Odin glanced out over the court, his eyes settling on Tony, who did stand out a bit, wearing a tailored suit that hadn’t been half so immaculate-looking before Loki had magicked it back on, apparently repairing it a bit. He wore no tie, and the fabric of his shirt was just thin enough for the blue-white glow of his arc reactor to show through. He was definitely in contrast, stylistically, compared to all of the leather an metal worn by the rest of the court around him. Odin raised a hand, and gestured him forward. Tony felt the people nearest him take a step back very nearly in unison, and half-smiled as he stepped forward, coming to a halt at Loki’s side where the younger prince still knelt. He shot Thor a questioning look, glanced pointedly at Loki, and back to Thor.
The elder prince, on whom far less attention was currently focused, understood and gestured to indicate Tony was fine: no kneeling yet required.
Tony then met first Frigga’s gaze, encouraged a bit by the warmth of her smile though the shrewdness of her dark eyes made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. Then he looked at last back to Odin, meeting the All-father’s steely gaze with his own. He bowed low, from the waist.
Odin waved a hand. “What is your name, son of Midgard?”
Tony straightened. “Anthony Stark.”
“And your occupation?”
At that, the engineer considered. “I am a scientist, and an inventor foremost. I also defend earth from various threats, ranging from unruly Russian forest gods, to those who worship the Ogdru Jahad, to more relatively minor threats like the undead.”
Another susurrus of whispers rose from the rest of the court, sounding less condemning and more gossip-laden.
Odin merely smiled. “A scholar and a warrior both, then.” He stepped down further, until he stood directly in front of the Midgardian inventor. “You have achieved a feat many of my subjects might have considered impossible, Anthony Stark. As a king, I commend your skill and heroism.” His voice lowered, softened slightly. “And as a father, I offer my most profound thanks, for bringing my son out of that place, and for sparing him any number of terrible fates therein.” He braced his arm across his chest, as Loki had, and bowed enough to well indicate a king’s respects.
Momentarily speechless, Tony mirrored the gesture, bowing only slightly lower. As he straightened, however, he said rather quietly, “I assure you that my motives were extremely selfish in nature, All-father.”
Odin arched an eyebrow, then broke out into a fierce sort of smile that made the engineer truly believe that this noble figure of a good king had once been a liar and a trickster at least on par with his adopted son. “I had presumed so. From what I know of Loki’s time spent on earth, you have been a beneficial influence. See that that continues,” Odin returned, equally quiet. “Harm me or mine, however, and we will skin you alive with jagged tools leftover from your world’s prehistory.”
“I gathered that,” Tony murmured, glancing pointedly at Frigga. “And Sigyn mentioned something a about potentially being roasted on a spit.”
At that, Odin barked a laugh out loud and clapped him on the shoulder with enough force to knock out a large livestock animal. Tony managed to brace for it, grateful a bit for his newfound physical strength, post-apple. “I see why he likes you,” he said. At that signal, the murmurs of the court grew louder again, and the music was struck up again from the room’s far corner, normal activities all resumed.
Loki, accordingly, rose to his feet, looking between his father and Tony in a manner caught between shrewdness and concern.
Odin stepped over to him, and rested a hand where Loki’s neck and shoulder met, the gesture at once gruff and protective. “Are you truly well, my son?” he asked softly, concern evident.
The lie-smith hesitated only briefly, all his masks fled, his eyes dark and more than a few cracks visible deep below all of those layers of misdirection and carefully engineered smiles. “I will be, father,” he said, voice only a little rough. “And I thank you.” He stiffened a little in surprise when he found himself pulled into an embrace, but relaxed quickly, tension draining away as his eyes squeezed shut and he returned the gesture, hands shaking slightly.
Tony smile vaguely, looking away just in time for Frigga to materialize in front of him, just as unnerving and ninja-like as Natasha Romanov, except the queen impressively managed it in formal dress and a crown: not exactly the most inconspicuous garb. “Hello,” Tony managed, proud that his voice at least was unaffected.
She smiled at him, and took hold of his hands. “Thank you, Anthony Stark.” She kissed his cheek. “Do take care with my son,” she said simply. “I’m capable of giving the nightmares to the sorts of evil you face so regularly.” Pulling back again, she smiled in a manner that was somehow both benign and intimidating, as she squeezed his hands once more, before drifting over to Loki and embracing him before he could say a word.
Thor chose that moment to approach, pretty quiet except the metallic sounds of his armor. Without even looking, Tony said to him, “Your mother is terrifying; I like her.”
The elder prince chuckled at that. “I cannot say that I am surprised.”
“Are you going to threaten me a little, too? Make it a complete family affair.”
Thor smiled a challenging sort of smile: the sort that he usually gave right before head-butting something twice his own size, hard enough to crack its skull. “I hardly think that I need to, Anthony.”
“It’s Tony,” the engineer corrected absently.
Before Thor could respond, Loki sidled up close to Tony’s side, looking fairly tense despite his nonchalant expression. His eyes darted around the room a bit too quickly, and his fingers gripped the back of Tony’s blazer as though to ground himself. “I could use a bit of air.”
“Me too, really,” Tony agreed. He smiled briefly at Thor, and pressed a hand to Loki’s lower back, not-quite-steering the lie-smith toward the nearest exit.
“Balcony. Take the next hall on the right, and then the third left,” Loki muttered.
“Good.” The engineer followed his instructions, aware that Loki was only half paying attention, focused on something a bit more basic: possibly keeping his breathing smooth and even. As they stepped out onto the balcony, Tony turned and pinned his prince against the heavy, thankfully opaque doors. Loki appeared a bit startled, but relaxed and let his eyes fall shut as Tony ran his fingers through the lie-smith’s hair, from his temples back, until the engineer’s fingertips rested at Loki’s nape. “Good?”
“Yes you are,” Loki murmured, and his eyelids fluttered, but did not open. “That... went very well, I think.”
“It did. You’re not bad yourself, Silver-tongue,” Tony teased.
Loki smiled, warm yet sly, letting his eyes fall open. He ran his fingers down the side of Tony’s face: temple, cheekbone, jaw, and chin. “You continue to surprise me. Always,” he murmured. “I have to wonder if the realms are ready for such as us, in combination.”
“I don’t think they are,” Tony mused. “But that will be the best part, don’t you think?”
“One of the best parts,” Loki said, pulling him a little closer. “Currently, I’m still most enjoying the ability to call you mine, to touch you like this, and have you like this.”
Tony kissed him, then, easy and not-quite-chaste. It would’ve been a crime not to. “You have me. You’ve had me for longer than I quite realized, until you flinched from me and it hurt.”
Loki’s eyes shut. “If you’d touched me then, I would have had no choice but to kiss you. I didn’t think I could.”
“You’d got in the habit of not thinking it. Just like I’d done.”
Sighing heavily, Loki rested his forehead against Tony’s and smiled crookedly. “Timing. Terrible timing. All the same, I don’t regret a moment of it.”
“At this point, I’m seriously regretting not touching you anyway, that night,” Tony muttered, only half-joking.
Loki laughed, low and surprised. “Had you done that, I might not have survived the labyrinth. Those it cannot isolate, it destroys.”
Tony snorted. “You’re ruining my fantasy of pinning you against the bar embarrassing us both in public.”
“My apologies,” the prince returned, smiling bright and sharp. “I miss the bar.”
“Me too. Well, the bar with you in it. It’s not our place without that key detail: makes an evening there automatically just a bit more drab.” He raised an eyebrow as a thought occurred to him. “Planning to stay in New York?”
Loki considered. “I’m not done admiring the chaotic new world that’s risen up since the old days. And I’m certainly not done with you, or the bar, or the––the rest of it.” He chuckled, low and thoughtful. “I went there partially to see you again, and partly on a lark to see this newer, more advanced Midgard. It seems that at some point I wound up building a life there somehow.”
Tony chuckled. “New York can have that effect on some people.”
“I don’t mind it. Then again, that life is inextricably tangled up with yours, and that I cannot help but approve of.” He ran his hands up Tony’s back.
“I wouldn’t mind something around here, I don’t think––so long as it’s tangled up with you,” Tony mused. “And you did promise me a tour.”
“I did indeed.”
“I’ve been giving you a tour of earth and my life there for years,” Tony said. “My turn to have yours.”
“You have it,” Loki assured. “As you have me.”