Steve was almost dead and Loki was out cold. It had been a bad day. They had won, but it had been a bad day.
Loki had taken what was apparently a hard knock to the head even for a god, which was saying a lot considering that after being thrown around by the Hulk, he had still been conscious and trying to drag himself away. His condition was stable, at least.
Things with Steve were more touch and go. Avengers sat in the medical wing of the tower, tensely waiting for news from Bruce, filling the time with paperwork and internet games and anything distantly distracting.
When Bruce did appear, it was with very strange news.
From near the edge of death, Steve had woken up long enough to tell Bruce that he'd been chatting with the goddess Hel. She had requested a piece of information that only Loki possessed, the location of some object he had taken from her. If Steve could bring it to her, he would get his life back in return.
Of course Loki was unconscious. Otherwise it would be too easy, and who wanted that?
Waking Loki up proved harder than they had imagined. First they tried splashing ice-cold water on his face. It was Thor who pointed out why that might not be the most effective temperature extreme, so boiling water came next. A few hard slaps to the face and a sizable electric shock didn't do the job either. At one point Tony even put his mouth to Loki's ear and shouted, "Loki! I need you! Wake up, you bastard!" to no avail.
And now Tony was worried about Loki too, because it wasn't at all like the god of mischief not to come when Tony Stark needed him.
It was Clint who finally said, "He's not waking up."
Thor rounded on him. "We will not give up so easily."
"Barton's right." Natasha said, ignoring Thor's shocked look. "We might have to get more creative with this. Who do we know that can break into an Asgardian mind on short notice?"
"Strange?" Clint suggested.
Natasha shook her head. "Busy. What about Xavier?"
"Excuse me," Tony interrupted. "So you're all aware, if anyone is going into Loki's head, it's me. But you can go right back to figuring who to call because I'm gonna need a little help with the commute."
They all gave him a look, and it was Natasha who followed it up with, "Stark, this is one job that's best left to the professionals."
"Look, I've been there before -"
"You've what?" several people interjected at once.
"- and anyone else, Loki's mind would chew them up and spit them out. At least in my case, he might not want it to."
No one could think of any arguments to that, so they gave up and set about calling around to see what mages were available and willing to help.
There followed a consultation with Brother Voodoo. The mage arrived with herbs and bowls and vials of what looked like animal blood, and ordered Tony to sit. There was chanting and smoke and a feeling of blurry relaxation. Tony tried to comment that the smoke was giving him the munchies and only White Castle burgers would do, but found that he couldn't move his mouth, being already mostly outside his own body. Brother Voodoo led him from there on some strange paths, informed him when they were on the outskirts of the trickster god's mind, and turned back, leaving Tony to go on alone.
Tony was standing in a mental landscape that most closely resembled a thick forest. The only interruption in the plant life was the path under Tony's feet, which invited him to walk deeper into woods with all the hospitality of a crocodile politely offering a drink to a gazelle.
Tony walked, surprised at the richness of the flora. Previous glimpses he'd had into Loki's mind had been darker and had more of a post-apocalyptic noir theme, something more barren and cracked and less alive, but he supposed this could be the more tourist-friendly neighborhood.
Still, the sky was overcast and there was a looming sense of atmospheric pressure, like the not-so-calm quiet before a storm. That was Loki's nature, as much as it was Tony's nature that his gut twisted more in anticipation of watching the tornado than in fear for what it might destroy.
He started along the obvious path, and soon encountered a sign. An old-fashioned, weathered wooden sign staked in the ground just to the side of the road. It read, "Tony, you idiot, what are you doing in my mind?"
Tony walked past it. Presently, he got to a crossroads, where the path he was on crossed another. On the corner was another old-fashioned wooden sign pointing to the three paths that led onward. The arrows read, respectively, "Danger," "More danger," and "Just go home already, you moron."
Tony reasoned that the third arrow didn't actually claim danger, and turned right.
The next sign said, "If you must go on, know that this section of road is full of traps. Walk to the right of the path, and for fuck's sake, don't touch the plants. Return to the road at the next sign."
The plants were kind of everywhere, and for a moment, Tony considered turning back. But he really needed to find Loki, and perhaps just as important, if he went back now Loki would know he had chickened out.
He walked as carefully as he could, and mostly managed to follow Loki's directions. At one point his hand brushed lightly against a leaf. He froze and waited for something bad to happen, but apparently that happened to be one of the harmless plants. Or there were some delayed effects, but he didn't need to think about that.
A few paces later he stepped on a vine. He was wearing shoes, so he wasn't sure if that counted. He took a deep breath and kept walking, managing to make it to the next sign without further incident.
The sign said, "Well, that was a complete bloody muck-up. If you die here, I will kill you. Continue forward to the next crossroads."
The crossroads had a directional sign like the previous one, but the arrows simply read, "Go this way," "Don't go this way," and "Don't go this way."
The sign directed him to follow the path that looked most ominous, and, yup, there was that post-apocalyptic noir theme. The plantlife persisted, but as he walked it became more scraggly and harsh, with pricks and thorns in place of more pleasant shapes.
Tony encountered another sign. "There are traps here, too, but apparently you can't see a leaf or vine to save your life, so you'll have to walk through. Start just to the right of the sign. Walk twelve steps forward, one step right, six steps forward, one step left, two steps forward, three steps right, one step backward, two steps right, and continue straight forward to the next sign. And no, it doesn't matter how long your steps are. This is a mind, not a book of graph paper. Good luck."
The, "Good luck," really did scare Tony, but he focused on what he was doing and committed the instructions carefully to memory. Choosing to believe Loki's claim that the length of the steps didn't matter, he took twelve very small steps forward and looked back. The sign was about twenty feet behind him. Well, either Loki was right, or that leaf he had touched was making him hallucinate. Either way, there was only one way to go, and that was sideways.
He followed Loki's instructions perfectly, and eventually arrived at the next sign. It simply said, "The dangers beyond this point are less predictable. Be on your guard, and don't touch the plants."
Tony walked for a long time after that, twitchy and on guard.
And nothing happened.
When he finally heard a sound, he jerked into a defensive jujitsu stance, but it was just Loki. The god of mischief was doing something that looked to Tony like engineering work. He was...soldering plants together?
Tony blinked and shook his head refocusing from the machine-plant thing to the man working on it. "Finally caught the white rabbit," Tony observed. "You've been making yourself pretty scarce."
"Yes. That brute gave me a much harder knock to the head than I'd thought was possible without wielding Mjolnir. There's been some damage to my mental faculties. Nothing I can't fix, given time. The boiling water was a nice touch, by the way; remind me to repay Thor in kind once I wake. Now, what is it going on out there that you've been shouting about?"
"Steve is dying."
"I suppose I can see why you would find that troubling," Loki allowed graciously. "But even if I woke now, I'd be in no state to heal him."
"Fortunately, I think your offspring has that covered. But she wants something in return, and for that we need you."
Loki stopped and frowned. "He's spoken to Hel?"
"Yes, and she said you knew where to find something of hers. Didn't say what. Just that you would know."
After a silence, Loki said, "I suppose you'll be terribly angry with me if I have the power to save him and refuse, yes?"
Loki nodded. "I have some repair work here that really cannot wait. After that, we'll go and see about my memories of Hel."
"There's not much time."
"Tony, you've been in my mind for less than three seconds."
"Oh. Yeah, I don't think we need to rush too much, then. If that was three seconds, and you've been out cold for four hours, how long did that feel like to you?"
Loki worked in silence, for as long as any silence could last with Tony Stark present and feeling sociable.
"That last sign said to be on my guard, but I didn't bump into anything between there and here. Should I be worried that you're not the real Loki?"
"You're asking me?" Loki shook his head and answered anyway. "No, this is very much me. If you arrived here without incident, I suppose we'll have to attribute it to ludicrous good luck."
"I do have that sometimes."
"Yes. I noticed that when you fell off the top of your tower and returned intact not a minute later."
"Well, that was partly just good timi - Wait. 'Fell'?"
"Fell with assistance."
"Right. Would you like some 'assistance' with that soldering work?"
Things continued along that vein until Loki finished his work, at which point he stood and the two started down the path. As they walked, Loki started pointing out traps to Tony. Telltale formations of rocks and twigs scattered across the path, perfectly camouflaged unless one knew what to look for.
"Is that one?" Tony started asking every time he thought he saw the formations. "Is that one?"
"Yes," Loki replied tiredly.
"No, but the one you're about to step on is fairly nasty."
Tony did a hurried sidestep and barely kept his balance. "I don't think I'm really going to get the hang of this until you explain how they work."
They walked in silence while Loki considered that. Eventually, he stopped walking and indicated that Tony should do the same. "There are many kinds of traps, but I will teach you a basic and variable one."
Loki picked up a stone and placed it in Tony's hand. Looking at it closely, Tony realized that it was the word, love. So that was nice.
"A great weaknesses of the sentient mind is that it is prone to think in words, and words are treacherous. They have shifting meanings, and humans who have not trained their minds carefully are not inclined to notice the shift." Loki took the stone back and tilted it to show its different aspects. It changed dramatically with how it caught the light. Something flat and dull and meaningless. Something smooth and warm and harmless. Something beautiful and desirable. Something terrifying and irresistible. Something binding and stifling.
"To make a trap, you begin with a Shifting Word, a word that has no clear meaning, but sounds as if it does. Like justice, or fault, or -"
Loki started, then glared. "Yes. Like monster.
"There are several kinds of trap you can make with Shifting Words. The simplest is a Broken Question. They occur naturally in the mind, some more than others, but you can build them and place them strategically. 'Was this my fault?' and, 'Am I a monster?' are two very simplistic ones, but even the greatest minds have sometimes spent decades lost circling in them. Let me show you."
Loki squatted low to the ground and crafted a simple trap from the plants and stones there. He formed the question, "Was this my fault?"
It looked to Tony like an ordinary question. Actually, it looked familiar, and he was pretty sure he had spent some time grappling with that one in his own mind. He'd never come to a satisfying answer, but he had gotten tired enough of the question that he rarely bothered to ask it anymore.
"Now, it's not fully a trap yet. Many minds will recognize the futility of the question, from experience or instinct, or occasionally from a knowledge of such things. That presents us with the next task. Hiding it.
"So now we get into Splitting The Question. You divide the question into two halves, its opposite answers." Loki worked the trap into two pieces, something more subtle and complex, and he continued to narrate his work. "'This was my fault,' and, 'This was not my fault.' You create a circle of thought that shifts back and forth between the two, leading the person smoothly from was to was not, and back, and forth, and back, and forth. The question is no longer overtly asked, but implied by the changing answer. Each half of the path is a maze of arguments leading from one answer to the other. The victim could wander between them in an infinite circle.
Loki paused. "Tony, have you ever seen the child's game where you count six fingers on a hand?"
Tony held up his right hand and counted with the index finger of his left. "One, two, three, four, five, six. You just point to one finger twice and hope the other kid doesn't notice."
"Very good. The trick here is like the child's game. You must simply hope the victim does not notice the moment at which the meaning of the word fault changes to suit one answer or the other. That is a trap at its simplest."
"Now for the means by which you break out of such a trap. You will far more likely need to escape one than build one, I think. First, you find the halves of the question and put them together onto the Broken Question on which the trap is founded. Then you find the Shifting Word. From there, instead of splitting the question, you break the question, by shattering the Shifting Word into its varied meanings.
"Thus, 'This was my fault,' and 'This wasn't my fault,' turn into, 'Was this my fault?' And then, 'Was this my fault?' turns into, 'Did I intentionally cause this?', 'Did I make this more likely through some error?' and 'Did I make this more likely through some fluke?'"
"There are more and subtler meanings to be parsed out, but for the thought patterns in this trap, those three should do. From there, you search the path for points at which the meaning shifts, and the trap will break open by those points." Loki stood back and gestured at the circle. "Care to try?"
Tony eyed the circle uneasily. It looked deceptively harmless. It also looked sickeningly familiar. The trap was based entirely on the burning question of past mistakes, and that sounded painful, and if he could really get stuck there... "I don't think I want to go in there," said, surprised that he could admit it.
Loki smiled with an unexpected spark of warmth. That of a proud tutor. "I believe you are my only student yet to pass that test on the first try. Better to sidestep a trap than to attempt to break it. They can be far more complex than they look. But do go on. I want you to learn this. If it helps, I dare you."
Tony stepped forward.
The trap caught him hard and gripped him painfully by every death he had ever played a part in, and for a few minutes he was shocked and gasping in a whirlwind of self blame.
But once he adjusted, he forced himself to slow down, testing the circle carefully for weaknesses instead of racing for an escape. Three meanings of fault. Right. Intentional, error, and fluke. There were a lot of deaths, and they were all his fault. But they weren't. They were Obie's fault, not his. He hadn't meant to. They had been asking for it. What?
Tony slowed down further. There was more than one body count to work with here, and those had to be parsed out as much as the meanings of the word 'fault' did.
People he had failed to save. Some error. Mostly fluke.
Innocent people killed with his weapons. Big fucking error.
Guilty people killed with his weapons. Intentional.
The people in the cave in Afghanistan who had tortured him. Intentional.
The people just outside the cave in Afghanistan, who hadn't tortured him, whose stories he didn't know. Also intentional, and I'd do it again, he admitted grimly, and the trap unraveled.
Freed, but still exhausted and in pain, Tony swayed on his feet. Loki caught him.
"That. Was. Not. Fun."
"I didn't realize quite how zealously that trap would take to you," Loki admitted. "I should have. Come along." Loki pulled Tony into a walk without really letting go of him. "I'll take you to a sheltered place."
The plantlife faded entirely as they walked, and the ground grew hard and cracked. He had seen Loki's mind in small flashes once or twice before, and this matched pretty well what he remembered from those moments.
"We're very near the center of my mind," Loki informed him. "Some of the caves here are safe. Some notably not."
Tony looked around with more interest. This place was well and truly broken, something shattered and cracked with seismic pressure. There were deep, narrow fissures that looked like you could fall through darkness for miles if you inattentively stepped into one, and walls of rock pushed up into jagged hills.
There was one cave to the left of the path that caught Tony's attention. The entrance was formed by two boulders driven up from the ground at odd angles so they met and formed a triangular opening. There were chisel marks on it where someone had carved away at part of the stone to make passage easier. The cave was long, but only slightly winding, so Tony could see the reflection of some sort of light at the other end. That light had a warm glow to it, like victory and a breath of fresh air.
Tony stepped toward it, and was stopped by Loki gripping his shoulder in vice-strong warning.
"That, as you so astutely suggested earlier, is a trap based on the question Am I a monster? But it's not so simple as the one I set for you. It has grown up from years and bitterness and from Odin's words, and has elements of many kinds of traps I have not yet explained to you. It is beyond me to break, and it's most certainly beyond you."
"You're not a monster."
Loki gave him an unimpressed look. "There you go splitting the question. I am Jotun. And I am capable of terrible things. Those are two of the definitions used in the trap. But there are more, and I never quite managed to parse them all out. I recommend you not try."
"What's that at the other end?"
"I've never seen it up close, and I've come to suspect it's an illusion created by the trap to lure me in. But it looks a great deal like fatherly pride, does it not?"
"Fuck," Tony swore with reverent disgust as he realised Loki was right.
"I once expended great resources trying to break through that trap. But now I've added a few intentional flourishes, and I leave it there for uninvited guests. This is why you should never go wandering here without a guide."
Loki led him on, into another cave, and set Tony down to rest. Tony sat, groaning as the exhaustion of the quest caught up with him. "Ow-ouch. I really need to stop taking dares from you. One way or another, I either end up injured or kissing Clint. Although I guess the latter only happened twice."
"With luck this has at least cured you of any desire to put your spirit places it doesn't belong."
"Sorry, nope. I still like the scenery. And it's still not as much fun to poke people unless it might result in being killed by something horrible and green. Speaking of which, does that plant I touched have any nasty side effects I should know about?"
Loki grimaced. "None you should know about, no."
"None you shouldn't either," Loki added, smiling at Tony's discomfort. "That was one of the harmless ones."
Once Tony felt up to it, they started off again. Walking on the same same path, they eventually took a left, then another, and arrived at the place where Loki kept thoughts of his daughter.
The building, if it was a building exactly, fit only clumsily into Tony's framework for interpreting it. It had the the organized, cultivated elegance of a state library or museum, overlaying something more organic, warm, and irritatingly familial. Here, it looked natural and right, but Tony was sure he was going to give himself an aneurysm later working to remember what this place looked like. They walked in, and Loki started sorting through archived memories, searching for a specific piece of information.
Trying and only half succeeding to wrap his brain around what he was seeing and remembering, Tony tapped Loki's arm to get his attention. "Hey, Loki."
"Don't distract me."
"I'm trying to think where this would be geographically compared to that path we were on earlier."
"You'll acquire a pointless headache doing that."
"No, but I'm just saying, wasn't the 'monster' trap on this side of the path when we were looking at it?"
"As I said, this is not a book of graph paper. The physics are no more Euclidian than-"
"Loki." Tony cut in more aggressively. "I'm trying to tell you that if that thing we saw before wasn't an illusion, this is where fatherly pride would be. It's because of your daughter."
Loki froze for several seconds. "...Oh," he said weakly. Without another word, he went back to searching through the archived memories.
When Loki broke the silence, it was in a more composed voice. "Here we go. You can tell Hel that what she seeks is on the mantelpiece underneath the elven skull."
"You have an elven skull on your mantelpiece?"
"No, but she does. When you threaten to hide something in the most distant reaches of the universe, people rarely bother to search their own house for it, you see."
"I'll keep that in mind."
Loki was returning the memory to its archived place with practiced care. "In your mind, I hope. Keep yourself there, while you're at it."
"Oh, come on. You know you like having me over."
"You take too much looking after."
"Still," Loki allowed with a small smile. "It is entertaining to watch how you gawk."
"Can I get a more thorough tour then? Somewhere in here, there has got to be a monument to my greatness; I can't leave without taking at least a few Polaroids."
"You have a Captain's life to save, I think. That seemed to matter immensely while you were screaming in my ear earlier."
"True. So. Dinner at my place?"
Loki sent him away without a reply.