Title: Heart of Iron and Ice
Fandom/Genre: Marvel Cinematic Universe (Iron Man/Thor/Avengers)
Relationship(s): female Tony Stark/Loki
Content Rating: R
Warnings: Canon typical violence...so, torture, death, destruction of worlds, racism, internalized racism, genocide, comic-book science, betrayal, body horror and mutilation, unsafe medical procedures, unsafe science experiments (god, seriously, proper laboratory procedure would solve so many problems in comic books and science fiction, honestly), unsafe sexual behaviour (Tony Stark should be it's own warning regardless of gender). Any and all of these could be referenced, as well as specific violence in the first Iron Man movie (open heart surgery in a cave!) and mentions of underage sex, misogyny, and threat of rape. THERE IS NO RAPE, just the threat and/or mention of it.
Summary: Tony Stark was born a girl. . . and changed the world by not having a dick. Who knew? Also, she's a Guide.
Antonia Stark ( god, please, call me Tony — no, no 'i', what am I, 12 and dotting my name with a heart? Yes, with a 'y', thank you, glad we straightened that out) came online as a guide at seventeen, and spends years hiding it. Bad enough to be a wealthy heiress, honestly, having to deal with Sentinels touching her trying to see if they can land the biggest golden goose of bondmate ever is not on her agenda, thanks, and also, her father told her to keep that quiet before he died and left her at the mercy of the Board and Obadiah Stane; who, you should know, might act all avuncular when he thinks you're just a little girl he can control but, really, he's a two-faced asshole and a thief. Assholes she can deal with — she has so much practice — but stealing and double dealing? Fuck that noise.
Somehow, despite kicking Stane out and putting the Fear of Stark in the Board (yes, it's totally a thing and also? She's scarier than God who, yes, might smite you but she's a vindictive bitch with the smartest supercomputer network — one supercomputer is so 90s — ever built and Pepper Potts as her. . . sidekicks? Minions? Allies of Awesome? Yeah, that'll work), she still ends up in a cave in Afghanistan with iron in her heart and a box of scraps. So she does what she always does — makes the man who tried to fuck with her bend over and take it. With style. And explosions — lots of explosions.
Meeting a viking god from another realm — who's also a Sentinel — in the desert? Not part of her life plan. Good thing she's an engineer — and that he's very pretty. Tony likes pretty things.
Tony, Age 14
“I’m paying you a ridiculous amount of money to keep my kid out of trouble and this is the result?” Howard demanded.
He was sitting the principal’s office of an elite girl’s boarding school — calling it the Headmistress’ Office and panelling the place in oak didn’t change what it was. The woman behind the desk was close to his age and seemed deeply unimpressed by him and his temper. Under other circumstances he would like her for it.
“No, Mr Stark, you pay me to educate your daughter — which is exactly what I’ve done, with less emotional and monetary damage than any of the four previous schools you paid for. Frankly, Mr Stark, no reasonable person would consider the completion of all three years of high school in eight months and SAT scores of 1590 to be trouble .”
“I know my kid is smart —”
“Your daughter is a genius.” Helena Mitchum snapped. “Her mathematical understanding outstrips people with PhDs. Her engineering, mechanical, and physics aptitudes defy description — and all of that pales in comparison to her understanding of robotics and computers which is revolutionary. Do you know how I kept Tony from causing the kind of chaos that got her kicked out of four schools, despite your money?” He went to answer but the woman spoke over him. “I stopped thinking of her as the daughter of a rich man — of Howard Stark — and looked at Tony. I asked her what she wanted. I challenged her mind. And instead of blowing up a chemistry lab or hacking the computer system to shut down my school, Tony completed every requirement for graduating. She also maintenanced every staff vehicle, rebuilt our computer lab and redesigned the school’s database. Keeping her here is a waste of your money and her mind; that girl belongs in college classes.”
“What, you want me to send a fourteen-year-old girl to university?”
“You sent a ten year-old to boarding school.”
He scowled. “That’s different.”
“Perhaps, but only by degrees. Besides, there are private colleges and correspondence programs. I’m hardly telling you to drop your daughter off at the closest dorm and be done with it, Mr Stark. Tony is perfectly capable of completing an undergraduate degree from home, especially since you live in city with Columbia University; it should take her at least a year to get a BSc. Fifteen is a more reasonable age for going away to college, and Tony is intent on MIT. ”
Howard frowned at Mitchum. It was reasonable, and that pissed him off. “And then what, since you know so much. You think my Board will be happy with an eighteen year-old girl being groomed to lead Stark Industries? Or the military liaisons? They’ll never accept a woman, no matter how smart, as the head of a weapons company. My wife expects Tony to have her debut and go to Vassar.”
“Oh, I know all about the expectation that Tony marry young so her husband can run SI and her future son can inherit from you.” The headmistress gave him the kind of look he hadn’t gotten since he was a child. “Congratulations, Mr Stark, your daughter believes that every male she meets is either a gold digger or a misogynist. Also, she’s expressed the intention to become a lesbian just to spite all of you.”
He almost laughed. Yeah, that sounded like Tony.
“Here’s the problem I have, Mr Stark.” Oh, god. “At no point have you said what you think Tony is capable of doing — only what other people expect or will allow. Firstly, why should strangers dictate your daughter’s life?”
“The Board is full of people Tony’s know all her life.”
“Yes, people who have told her all her life that it’s too bad she wasn’t born a boy but that they look forward to seeing what her sons are capable of. Not children, sons.” The look she gave him was deadly. “You worked with Peggy Carter, Mr Stark. You helped found an international agency which was the first military organization in history to accept women as full field assets. You were instrumental in the creation of the world’s only super soldier —”
“— and helped him perform a rescue that no one believed possible his first time on the front lines. You invented a flying car everyone said was impossible and have spent decades trying to find a way to make it commercially viable —”
“Christ, Tony does talk to you,” he grumbled, since a lot of that wasn’t exactly public record.
“ — and your company employs more women in the sciences than your entire industry. So why, in a lifetime of defying expectations, refusing to admit defeat, and providing opportunities for others to reach their potential — why are allowing other people to block your own daughter from doing the same?”
Howard couldn’t answer. There was nothing to say because, Christ, the woman was right.
“Why are you trying to remake your daughter to fit the expectations of your company and your industry, instead of the other way around?”
Because he didn’t know what to do with a daughter — with any child, really — and let his wife and even Obie tell him what was right.
“I’d like to see my kid now,” he said quietly.
Tony, Age 17
“— no way in hell I’m going through with that antiquated, old fashioned bullshit! Why don’t you just stick a sign on me that says ‘wife for sale, business included as dowry ’?”
“It’s a matter of tradition, Antonia; a chance to be presented to society as a woman!”
“As a potential bride, you mean! What, you think a fancy dress makes it less of a livestock auction? Virginal dresses, male escorts, father’s presenting their daughters — seriously, do you actually believe your own bullshit?”
Howard sighed and rose to pour a glass of scotch. The vicious fight between his wife and daughter had been going on for an hour; ever since Maria has told their daughter that she had a fitting appointment for her debutante dress tomorrow.
“You have to marry, Tony, to pass on the Stark name and business!”
“The business and name that dad built from the ground up? None of those stuck-up Upper East Siders would give any of us the time of day if dad hadn’t made millions!”
“All the more reason —”
“Keep pushing, I swear to Tesla I will marry the first auto mechanic I can find! And if, by some miracle, you do manage to knock me unconscious and drag me to that ridiculous spectacle — because that’s the only way you’ll get me there! — I promise that I will walk down that staircase naked before I put on a fluffy white dress and present myself demurely for inspection !”
There were more shouts and the slamming of several doors upstairs. Howard looked up when the door opened to find Edwin Jarvis carrying a tray.
“When does Tony go back to Cambridge again, Jarvis?”
The long-time butler-slash-majordomo smiled faintly and set his tray of sandwiches on Howard’s desk. “As she has only been home for three hours, sir, not for a while yet.”
The inventor accepted a roast beef sandwich and eyed the platter. “Trying to fatten me up, old man?”
“Tony has an adolescent's bottomless stomach.”
Before he could question that, the girl in question stalked into his home office. “If you think for one second I’m going to that — that —”
“You must be pissed if you're at a loss for words,” Howard observed, noting the high colour in his daughter’s pretty face and the fire in her eyes.
“ — goddamned meat market — then you’ve gone senile, old man!”
Since the whole thing that Maria had been going on about for weeks just baffled and irritated Howard, he had no such thoughts. His wife, however, had the impression that she could out-stubborn Tony. He could have told Maria to give up now, but he hadn’t been consulted on the matter.
Hence, living in a war zone. At least there was no rationing.
“Hell, kid, my father was a mechanic and my grandfather was a coal miner. You mother, on the other hand, comes from old money back in Italy.”
“That didn’t save them from having to flee from Mussolini so, really, how much does it matter?”
“Yeah, well, try telling her that. You and I know it’s what you do that matters, not where you came from.”
She huffed and dropped into a chair, snatching a sandwich off his desk. Jarvis smiled and closed the door as he left.
“Even if I wanted to go — you know, after suffering a serious blow to the head — I’m defending my dissertation that week.” Moodily, she finished her first sandwich and started on a second. “She’s just pissed I’m away at MIT all the time and away from her civilizing influence.”
Since the kid was wearing jeans with holes, red Chucks, a band t-shirt and wearing her long hair in a messy knot — Howard figured Tony might be partly right.
“Maybe if you brush your hair a little,” he offered.
His daughter scowled. “I’m trying to revolutionize robotics as we know it and finishing the coding on a fully autonomous AI. People are lucky I shower semi-regularly.”
“Showering is definitely a requirement when you start working at SI. Not in the offices,” he cut her off, well aware of her opinion. “Even in R&D, people are required to practice basic hygiene.”
Tony huffed again but looked satisfied; she should, as it had taken a year-long campaign to get him to agree to place her in R&D instead of the head offices. Still, she would be responsible for some of the day-to-day running of the department, which was good training for the future.
After finishing her food — three large sandwiches to his one, he noted, amused — she reached over and stole his scotch. When he frowned at her, the little brat just smirked. “You have that party in a few hours, dad. Don’t drink and drive.” So much for lack of rations. Since Tony didn’t even make a face at the first sip, he was pretty sure it wasn’t her first. He frowned at her. “Please, old man, like you didn’t plant a couple of bodyguards in my building. You know exactly what I get up to.”
He had and he did, and it was less than he’d managed while in a war zone, but still. “Tiberius Stone.”
She shrugged. “He thought he could seduce me, steal my ideas, and marry me to get ahold of the company while I was stupidly and naively in love with him and his dick. So I let him think he did the first, and then anonymously reported him for the second. I was already sixteen, so it wasn’t illegal — but since he was twenty-three, it pushed the ethics code. Between that and the insultingly obvious plagiarism, not even his daddy’s money could stop MIT from booting him.” She huffed at his glare. “Don’t look at me like that, dad, I needed to ditch my so-called virginity anyways so it was convenient. He was totally doomed to fail, on all levels,” she added cheerfully. “He wasn’t exactly impressive intellectually, or in size and stamina.”
Howard was very tempted to pour another drink. “You are my punishment for. . . everything,” he sighed. “Christ, kid, seriously?”
“Starks have no shame; you taught me that.”
“I taught you that Starks have iron in their spines and fire in their bellies.”
“The shame thing is more implied based on your stories, and Aunt Peggy’s.” Tony smirked. “Aunt Peggy tells the best stories.”
“I just bet.” But thinking of Peggy made him think of SHIELD, which brought up other worries. Concerns about hints of infiltration; of oddities in the books. That made him think of SI, and some troubling patterns emerging. The slow shift of resources into telecommunications and satellite networking, body armour and defensive technology, the expansion of the robotics and medical technology divisions was ongoing and showing profits, which settled some of the grumbling of the Board. But weapons were still a big part of the business, and there had been some security concerns recently.
“Dad? You’re really worried about something.”
He looked at his daughter — young and beautiful and brilliant — surprised by her statement. He knew his poker face was impenetrable, so how. . . ?
“So there might be a thing,” Tony began.
“Is the thing why you came home two days early?”
“Maybe a little — that and I really wanted to test the tweaks I made to the Audi,” she added.
“What’d you get her up to?” he asked, curious.
“187 mph on the straightaway, and I shaved .3 seconds off the 0-60,” Tony grinned. “You’ll get the speeding tickets this week.”
“Brat,” he muttered, impressed. Howard wondered if he could get the keys off his kid for a spin. “And the thing?”
“The thing. Right.” Tony emptied her glass. “So the thing is that that I’m coming online.”
Howard froze. As far as he knew, neither his or Maria’s family carried the sentinel/guide genes. “Coming online?”
“By which I mean that I came online as a guide about a week ago.”
Of course, because Starks never did anything the easy way. “That’s a hell of a thing to keep quiet, Tony. You didn't go to Centre, I hope.”
“Yeah, right, so I can see my private status splashed across the headlines and have to dodge every sentinel who thinks they can bond their way into a cushy lifestyle? Hell, no, I didn’t go to the Centre. I came online; I didn’t drop fifty IQ points.”
He ignored the snark. “We’ll get a private assessment and go through the New York Centre — they understand privacy.”
“And the value of an appreciative donor.”
Howard snorted. “That too.” He eyed her. “You okay?”
A shrug. “Better now; being online is easier than not. There’s a proper interface instead of trying to visualize.” And wasn’t that a typical statement. “So what are you worried about?”
“Some oddities at SHIELD and SI — don’t worry, they’re being investigated.” Tony nodded. “I need to get ready for this shindig. You’ll tell me if the thing becomes a problem?”
His daughter nodded and lied, “of course, daddy dearest, I tell you everything.” Howard laughed and went to change.
Tony woke from a dead sleep and knew something was wrong. Her spirit animal — spirit animal, honestly — stood over her. The arctic fox made a low, mournful noise that made Tony’s chest ache.
She dragged on a smoking jacket stolen from her father — who was an asshole, but had style — and made her way from her private suite. At the bottom of the staircase Tony paused at the sight of Jarvis, who standing in the foyer, pale and in his robe — along with two uniformed police officers and a suit that screamed ‘brass’. Grief and worry brushed along her shielding.
“Tony — Ms Stark,” her oldest confidant managed. “Your parents. . .”
“I have this,” the suit cut in, ambition and covetousness lingering in the air. “Better from me than a servant.”
“Fuck you, get out.” He looked startled. “Jarvis isn’t a servant and you can take your asskissing and career ambitions out of my house, asshole.”
“Ms Stark, I’m —”
“A nameless administrator who wanted to be the one to break bad news to a soon-to-be-famous and wealthy orphan,” Tony snapped. “You don’t want to tell me your name or rank because that will make it easier for me to ruin you — it’ll take me an hour instead of two. Get out.”
One of the uniforms, an older woman — black, sergeant bars, wedding ring — calmly pushed passed the asshole. “Ms Stark, I’ve very sorry to inform you that both your parents were killed in an auto accident tonight.”
Jarvis caught her arm as she swayed. Tony had known, of course — but she’d hoped. Now, in the empty mansion her father had built, she straightened her spine. Starks were made of iron and fire, and they had no shame and no fear.
“Tell me what happened.”
Tony, Age 21
Tony sauntered into the ornate boardroom of Stark Industries, New York. She wore a three thousand dollar red dress that showed off excellent breasts, a fantastic ass, and amazing legs that ended with a pair of eighty dollar Chucks. She’d considered wearing some sturdy boots in honor of the asskicking that was coming, but nothing she owned went with her outfit.
Her secret weapon — after her brain and sheer awesomeness — trailed behind her in businesswear and four inch heels. Pepper, who was officially her personal assistant and was actually her minion-in-chief and sidekick, looked neat and demure and made people think she was little more than an errand girl. Those same idiots thought Tony was a rich kid who could be manipulated. For four years, she’d let them believe that while she made plans.
Today was Tony Stark’s 21st birthday, and she intended to celebrate her independence.
She wandered over to the head of the conference table, where Obadiah Stane stood chatting with a pair of board members. Casually, she dropped into the chair and spun back and forth a little, noting the surprised, irritated, and angry looks. Stane hid a glare well, but his temper was another person in the room. The seat she was in was the one he’d presided over for four years. “Time to get this party started, don’t you think, Obie?”
He smiled genially, clasping her shoulder, and Tony nearly choked on his ire and contempt. “Sure, kiddo. Remember, you’ve got a lot to learn. Best sit back and let us run things the way your father would have wanted.”
Pepper set a cup of coffee in her hand, distracting Tony from the urge to punch the double-dealing, traitorous sonofabitch in his smug face. “Sure Obie, just like dad wanted.”
She said nothing while fourteen men and two women — there should have been more, but Obie’s only use for women was in bed — discussed numbers and weapons. She was patted on the head every time she opened her mouth, and three ideas that she presented were shrugged off until Stane presented them as his own and they were immediately agreed on. Playing at being bored, Tony leaned back in her seat, pulled out her phone and tapped away. She was promptly ignored.
Finally, though, Stane brought up the final point on the agenda. “Well, then, let’s discuss the stock and opening up more of the company for shareholders.”
“Which percentage of the company, Obie?” she asked idly. “Since the twenty percent that dad agreed to allow for public trading is already on the market. ‘Cause you know, if you want to sell your stake, you just had to say.”
She could hear his teeth grind. “The Board agreed to publicly trading forty percent of the company stock.”
“See, that’s interesting, because I own sixty-seven percent of SI. I thought you were better at math than that.” She looked up. “Or did you think I hadn't read the will and that you could have your way with my stake?”
“Kid, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Huh. Pepper, do I not know what I’m talking about?”
“Only when you claim AC/DC as the pinnacle of American music, Ms Stark,” Pepper said sweetly.
“Ouch, Pep, that hurts, as does your taste in music.”
“Tony,” Obie growled, looming slightly. “This is not the place. If you have concerns about the company we can talk in private.”
“This is a meeting of the members of the Board. I’m legally the president of SI and its largest shareholder — right, Pepper?”
“On paper,” one of the vice presidents muttered.
“Right, I was actually going to drag this out a bit, but I’m bored now, so. . .” she tapped one last key on her phone. The electronic doors locked, the lights dimmed, and the four plasma screens lit up with hundreds of documents and images.
“So here’s what’s going to happen,” Tony stated calmly over the clashing sounds of sex tapes, recorded drug buys, phonecalls with mistresses, and the horrified sounds that fifteen people were making at the sight of their every illegal act visibly documented. “You are going to ratify me as the president and CEO of SI — where upon I will make Virginia Potts my proxy as CEO for the day-to-day business so that I can return to my workshop and continue inventing things that change the world and make us all rich. You will all agree to follow my five year plan for getting SI out of the weapons business — not finished,” she told the CFO, a crony of Stane’s, when he went to object. “Since my name is on the product and it’s my name the legacy of this company carries, I get to decide what the Stark name will be know for and it won’t be a new arms race. You will also vote Stane out as COO and agree that he violated his moral business practice clause and forfeits his company shares.”
“If you don’t,” she spun around again, “then all this info is going to end up in the hands of the media, your wives and lovers and children, and the FBI. Actually, that’s a lie,” she mused. “The FBI already has the proof of Anderson’s embezzlement and Wallace’s drug use — since you very stupidly used SI resources to smuggle drugs for your Mexican cartel friends.” She shook her finger at the men in question. “Naughty boys, don’t you know that as a defense contractor we’re subject to federal law even for internal security matters?”
She stood, aware of every eye on her. “As for the recordings Brooks likes to make of the sixteen year old girls he drugs and rapes. . . well, NYPD was very interested in those, along with money our dear Ms Simmons has been stealing from the charity she oversees.”
“You little bitch!” Stane boomed, furious. “You think you can walk in a take what’s mine?”
“Mine , Stane,” she told him. “My father built this place and my name is on this building.” She smiled at him, full of teeth. “I haven’t forgotten you, Obie.” She tapped her phone again. “The FBI was very interested in your conversations with warlords, terrorists and insurgents. The bank accounts in four countries were a nice touch, excellent job hiding the money you made illegally selling weapons to our enemies. There are a few gentlemen outside waiting to talk to you. Bad suits,” Tony stated, “excellent warrants.”
Then, like a gift, he did exactly what she’d hoped for, what she’d been pushing him to — he lunged for her throat.
Pepper hit the button to release the doors, four MIBs crashed the party, and Tony put everything she had behind one mental push .
The room staggered and every one of the Board members collapsed into a chair or the floor. Pepper leaned on the table, hard, and the FBI agents got points for their quick recovery. Stane, however, froze and then dropped like a fallen tree.
“. . . what the fuck. . .?” someone whispered.
SALIS — Spirit Animal Lifeform of Infinite Sass — appeared on the table, growling and snarling at the fallen Stane, who groaned and tried to roll to his feet. Tony stood over him, nudging him onto his back and pressing her foot his junk. “You hear me, Stane?” he groaned. “Good. Remember this, Stane. I didn’t even need to touch you to knock you on your ass. If you try to come at me again — the gloves come off.” She pressed down firmly. “Now be a good boy, Uncle Obie , and trot along to prison.” She grinned at the agents. “All yours, boys.”
Loki, Age 250
Tyr reached the training field just in time to prevent a brawl. Calmly, he scruffed both princes before they could leap on the four older boys who had been taunting them.
For his efforts he received twin snarls. Thor, older by two years and broader, thrashed for a moment before subsiding. Loki, leaner and lankier, stilled immediately but Tyr was not fooled into thinking the boy was submitting; Loki was only ever still before he struck.
The sentinel stared flatly at the four instigators, who muttered “Lord General” and shuffled under his gaze. As each of them was at least three decades older than the young princes, Tyr was not impressed by the conversation he’d overheard.
“Since you four have enough spare time to start a fight, I will assume you need assistance in finding occupation. You will report to Gunnar for two hours of additional staff practice every day this week, and you will be responsible for cleaning, repairing and storing the practice weapons each day. For all the training fields.”
“That’s hundreds of weapons!” one young noble complained bitterly. “That will take hours!”
“Indeed. What a pity you so distain mages and their craft — I imagine seidr would make such a job easier.” They all paled at this proof he had heard the entire exchange. “Go now — if you are late, I will make it two weeks.”
The boys bolted immediately, leaving Tyr with a pair of half-grown sentinels. Releasing them, he told his students, “When you respond to their taunts you merely show them where to strike first the next time.”
Loki glowered and nodded. Thor, who was more impetuous than his brother and very protective of him, growled. “They should not have said what they did about Loki.”
“Of course not, my prince, but now you have shown potential enemies where the chink is in both your armour’s.” He frowned at both boys, who looked sullen but also far more furious than warranted. Both were young, awkward with rapid growth and and too-long limbs, but they were already well skilled in weapons and had learned at least some control — Loki sooner than Thor. “Why are you both so angry at a few jealous slurs?”
They looked aghast, and Tyr knew there was far more here than he realized. The princes had only recently come into his care; as the highest ranking sentinel in Asgard, he was best suited to train a pair of sentinel princes. He had concerns — some of the boys’ reactions to simple things were troubling — but one thing he did not have to worry for was the bond between brothers. They had awakened on the same day and already showed the signs of a growing battle bond.
“You heard what they said, Alpha,” the crown prince insisted. “It cannot be born!”
“I heard a group of young men spout jealously and spite at a pair of boys who are of higher rank, greater skill, and sense-gifted. You will face such jealousy all your lives. Loki was accused of fighting unmanfully; using fast strikes and seidr to distract his enemy.” The nodded, Loki looking angry and ashamed. “That is the kind of foolish nonsense only unblooded children spout.”
“There is only one rule on the battlefield, my princes. Survive. If your enemy has warhammer, you do not catch his blow on your blade, you dodge. If your enemy is slow, you use speed. If he is fast, you strike at his legs.” Their faces were confused; Loki looked wary, like he was looking for a trap. “Do you think that no warrior of Asgard uses magic on the battlefield?” They nodded.
“The warriors have said so,” Thor managed.
“The ones who sit in your father’s hall and drink all day? Or the shining guards who line the walls and carry weapons too unwieldy to be of use? Let me tell you something my own Weapons Master and Sentinel Alpha told me: do not believe the stories of old soldiers, drunk soldiers, or soldiers who would tell you there is only one way to fight.”
“But the All-Father —”
“The All-Father is a mage, boy,” Tyr told Loki. “One made famous the realms over for his seidr , not his swordwork.”
Loki bit his lip and looked thoughtful. Thor opened his mouth several times, then looked to his sibling. “Loki?”
“I. . . I must think on this.”
Tyr nodded. “Do that, please.”
“But what about the fact that Loki is the only sentinel-mage,” Thor asked. “They weren’t wrong.”
“Oh, they are wrong, they just don’t know it. There is one in Asgard, and she is a Valkyrie.” They gaped at him and Tyr smiled. “Yes, you have a sentinel-sister, though she long grew tired of being told she must bond and marry and produce sons to take her place. No one speaks her name now, for fear of drawing her wrath.”
“They said I was more guide than sentinel, more woman than man,” Loki huffed.
“I heard. The realms are full of sentinel-mages and female sentinels and yes, in Asgard guides wield seidr more than sentinels but you are also of Vanir and Jotun blood —”
Now Asgard’s general and commander froze. They could not mean. . .? Surely they must know. “What monsters?”
“The frost giants!” Thor exclaimed. “They eat their dead and sacrifice children!”
“Asgard went to war to cleanse the realms of their presence.” Loki offered. “Tutor Jarl and Councilor Sindri told us that Jotun have no cities and no laws; that they kill each other for sport.”
They didn’t know. They had no idea. Did Loki even know he was adopted, much less where he was from? Tyr assessed rapidly. This could not be allowed to stand for any number of reasons, including the fact that the future rulers of Asgard had been taught lies about an entire race of the Nine Realms.
“I will ensure you have a new tutor by the end of the week — and possibly a new councillor as well. By the Norns, boys, Odin is half Jotun.”
“Many people of Asgard have Jotun blood, at least until the war. Those who were very obviously half-Jotun largely left Asgard for Vanaheimr and Alfheimr, especially those who wielded ice magic, because their neighbours began to turn on them.” They looked skeptical. “Jotunheimr also has sentinels and guides — powerful ones — and seidr runs more strongly in them than in Asgard.”
“Truly?” Thor questioned sharply. “Sentinels?”
“Far more than Asgard, in fact, since their world is so dangerous. Jotun Sentinels form powerful bonds with guide-mages and protect them while they work their craft — though it is not unheard of for a Jotun sentinel to be a mage as well. Bestla-Queen was a mage. In fact,” he mused, “my father told me she had sentinels and guides in her blood, as well as seidr and shapeshifters.”
Both boys straightened up. “Shapeshifting?” Ah, he had them now; few knew that Loki had been learning to shift into his soul companion’s shape, though Tyr had heard and seen his effort from a distance.
He watched as the princes made eye contact, holding a conversation with eyes and shrugs and little growls and gestures. In fact, he recognized hunter’s handsigns mixed in their communication. He made note of it, and was pleased to see this kind of private speech as it would be useful in hunting and scouting and even at Court.
“Then perhaps Loki’s blood runs more to our Jotun foremother, and mine to our Aesir blood?” Thor questioned.
He had no idea how right he was, Tyr mused. Since it was entirely possible the abandoned and adopted infant from Jotunheimr had no Asgardian blood at all. Though, considering his size and the strength of his seidr, Loki might well have Alfheimr blood as well.
“I believe you run more to your mother’s Vanir kin that Odin’s blood, Prince Thor, as you look much like her brothers and father.”
“Really?” the blond looked amazed.
Hadn’t he seen an image of the king of Vanaheimr — Asgard’s greatest ally and his mother’s brother? “Really.”
Later, when he had drilled both princes in weapons work and their senses, casually questioning their lessons with Tutor Jarl and correcting the errors — which meant everything — Tyr wandered over to the palace and the royal quarters.
“Sentinel Tyr Hymirsson, Lord General of Asgard, War Council and Alpha,” one of the ceremonial guards announced him.
“General Tyr,” Queen Frigga welcomed him. “You are well?”
“No, my queen. I am angry.”
Odin looked up from his desk and Frigga frowned. “What have the boys done?” She asked, exasperated.
“Nothing, All-Mother, except be poorly taught and misled by their tutors and teachers. Were you aware that the future king of Asgard has been taught superstition and rumor about the Realms as fact? That both princes,” he emphasized, “were told over and over that Jotuns are monsters who kill children and eat their own people?”
The queen’s eyes narrowed. “Is that so?”
“What did you tell them, General,” the All-father demanded.
“That many in Asgard have frost giant blood, including you, sire,” Tyr told him calmly. “Was there something else they do not know that I should have spoken of?”
The king rose. “I forbid you to speak of it!” he thundered. “You have sworn oaths to me—”
“My oaths are to Asgard, All-Father,” he reminded the king softly. “Sentinels, Guides, the War Council, the Head Healer, the Chief Mage and the Lady Idunn are sworn to the Realm Eternal, not her ruler.”
“You defy me?”
“It is my duty to defy you when you are wrong — but I will not speak of what you mean. Unless,” he added, when the king looked satisfied, “I believe that not speaking would do harm to the realm.”
Frigga rose. “Enough, husband. You know well my opinion, and the General’s, and you know we will not speak unless necessary. Concern yourself with your work, and I will see to the business of tutors. I will show the General out.”
They left the All-Father looking very dour. Quietly, Tyr told the queen, “I did not tell Loki the truth — but I did make sure that both princes know they are part Jotun and implied to Thor he is more Vanir that Aesir.”
“Thank you, Sentinel,” she said. “The realm is well served in you.” She eyed him. “How much should I make my sons’ tutor suffer?”
“I see. Perhaps a tutor from Vanaheimr, this time. One with seidr and lacking prejudice against both mages and Jotun.”
“Some common sense would not be amiss either.”
Loki, Age 412
He had been travelling for two days, moving through the secret paths and wild forests of Alfheimr. Thor would only be able to cover for him another day, and he must complete his errand by then. Once done, no one could undo it.
He heard a large creature moving to his left and used his seidr to move forward a league. A snarl, like a predator denied prey, came to his extended sense.
Loki felt the edge of a ward just before him and froze. Fortunately, he had not tripped it — Sentinel senses and seidr combined to make a sixth sense for magic — because the subtle ward was only one layer of an extensive boundary.
At his whisper, a huge black wolf appeared at his side. His soul companion stood as tall at the shoulder as Loki himself, as massive force of seidr and spirit and power. Swiftly, Loki climbed onto his back and wrapped them both in his magic. Together, they crossed the wards.
Beyond the boundary was forest clearing, complete with a house carved out of the side of a rocky cliff. Standing in the centre was a woman, frowning at Loki.
She was tall — very tall, though not a giant in truth — and her skin bore faint ridges of dark blue in patterns Loki could not discern. Her hair was stark black, and the rest of her skin was tinted ever so slightly an icy blue.
“Who would know?”
He slid from Fenrir’s back. “I am Loki Odinsson of Asgard.” Her frown deepened. “I wish to learn the way of seidr from you.”
The elder sorceress, born long before Odin and wise in the ways of the magic of all Nine Realms, looked surprised. “A son of Odin would seek a Jotnar mage for lessons?”
“Tyr Hymirsson gave me your name — though I doubt he believed I would seek you so soon.” Or for centuries yet, as Loki was far younger than most to seek apprenticeship.
Skadi stepped forward and caught his chin. She was a full head taller than Loki, and her eyes were an unnerving red.
The sorceress released him with a faint smile. “Well, then, young Sentinel. Bring your soul companion inside to meet my other students.
Tony, Age 31
Tony woke slowly, brain sluggish and dull. She hurt, and not in a had way too much fun to be sensible or even legal last night kind of way.
The light was wrong.
In her head, SALIS snarled and snapped. Nearby, a well of grief-pain-fear-vengeance contained by walls of calm brushed against her shields.
“I know you are awake.”
Carefully, Tony opened her eyes and looked to the thin, weary man who shared a cell carved from stone with her. “Where am I?”
He looked sad. “This is the Ten Rings.”
Loki, Age 1787
Loki woke sharply, Fenrir’s snarl in his mind and ears. He could hear his own heart race; could hear his companion pace and his brother running down the hallway to his room.
His magic swirled around him, seeking and restless. Thor flung open the door. “Brother? You shouted; a nightmare?”
“I. . .” Loki reached out with his senses — physical and seidr . There! Deep inside him, the empty place in his mind and soul that was meant to be filled by a Guide. . . that place throbbed.
“My guide. . .” Loki opened his eyes and looked to his brother and fellow sentinel, who looked worried and hopeful.
“Your guide? Can you feel them? Where?”
Loki snarled. “Someone hurt her.”
Fury sparked in Thor’s eyes and nearby, thunder rumbled. The brush of scales on marble joined Fenrir’s low growls.
“Then we must find her, brother.”
Loki released his spell, depositing his companions neatly. Volstagg made his usual face, disliking the sense of displacement that came with using the secret paths between Realms, but both sentinels ignored him.
While the Warriors Three and Sif sorted themselves out, the brothers looked out over their surroundings. As far as even sentinel eyes could see, harsh rocky mountains and rolling desert sands stretched out.
“Anything, Loki?” Thor asked under his breath.
The younger prince tilted his head and breathed, reaching with his senses and seidr for the source of the ache in his chest.
“Surely not,” Fandral muttered. “Why would Loki find a guide on Midgard, of all realms?”
“There are more sentinels and guides on this world than in all the other Nine Realms combined,” Sif replied.
“Yes, but a mortal guide? What use could he be?”
“Mortality can be overcome,” grim Hogun said flatly. “Let him seek.”
“I would have thought Alfheimr would be the place,” Volstagg boomed. “Since they are so inclined to seidr, a guide from that realm would suit Loki well.”
“Enough,” Thor growled. “He will find nothing if you distract him.”
As he had done on four other worlds — Asgard, Alfheimr, Vanaheimr, Nidavellir and now Midgard — Loki sought his guide. If he failed here, the only remaining inhabited Realms were the worlds of Asgard’s enemies: the giants of Frost and of Fire. After three months of seeking and failing repeatedly, only the throbbing echo of his Guide’s heartbeat gave him hope. So when his seidr threads vibrated and hummed almost immediately. . .
“Loki!” Thor seized the back of his neck before he could leap forward. “Loki, stop.”
“She’s here,” he growled lowly. “She’s here .”
He ignored the disbelieving mutters of their companions — female guides were nearly as rare as female sentinels in Asgard, and those women who were born with such gifts were often coddled and kept safe until they married into families with sentinel blood — or became the wives of Sentinels with male guides. Sif was a rare exception and Loki had long suspected that her family hoped that Sif would awaken as a guide and be a match to one of the two princes of Asgard. The woman’s sheer stubbornness was the only reason she had not left the scorn and scolding of Asgard’s warriors to join the Valkyrie.
Loki knew his guide was a woman. Though he had never heard her heartbeat or her voice, he knew the sound of both as well as he knew his brother’s.
“Loki, think. You cannot run blindly into what may be a battle; that is my duty.”
Thor’s cheerful statement made Loki slump in his brother’s hold, laughing helplessly. “Stop being sensible, brother, or I will need to look for signs of Ragnarok.”
“Well one of us must be, and you have taken my role as the impetuous one.” Thor grinned, then asked quietly. “Which way, Loki?”
The sentinel-mage pointed towards the nearby mountains. “There.”
They moved quickly, experienced warriors and hunters. General Tyr had seen both princes trained on every terrain and each world in the Nine Realms, both as warriors and sentinels, and had been somewhat ruthless in ensuring their chosen companions would not be a burden. Aided by Loki’s seidr, they were soon across the sand and had reached a lookout point among the rocks.
At a gesture, the warriors fell silent and took protective positions around Loki and his brother, giving them room and safety to fall into their senses.
“There is a system of caverns beneath us,” Thor said quietly. “There are many men living closely together; metal and fire and fuel.”
“They speak of war and violence.” Loki growled. “They sound eager.”
Thor stiffened. “There is a woman — some of the men are speaking of her.” A pause and a low hiss. “They hope she fails a task she has been forced to undertake so that their leader will let them punish her.”
Sif gripped both sentinel’s shoulders, preventing them from acting. “Where is the best place to —”
The sounds and scents of fire and sulfur and death erupted; small explosive noises filled the air and soon even their companions could hear the sound of battle. Blood and fire spilled from the entrance of the caves; men fell before a figure in roughly forged armour.
“What is this?” Volstagg asked.
The armoured one laid waste to all before it, swiftly and ruthlessly destroying objects and men alike. And then, just as the Asgardians thought they could be no more surprised, the metal warrior rose from the ground in flight.
It did not go far, landing hard upon a nearby clifftop. Loki winced at the thud that resulted.
“That was. . . efficient,” Sif decided. “But where is the woman you heard speak of?”
On the other side of the canyon, a metal helmet was dragged off a head of dark hair. There were tears and fury painting a face of pale gold. Thor muttered something about not being surprised, which Loki barely heard as all his senses focused on the woman stripping off her iron suit.
“That is the woman,” he told Sif. “And she is most certainly a guide.”
Tony shoved the last piece of armour into the shallow hole she’d dug between boulders. She had no intention of letting another cell of the Ten Rings get their hands on it if they came to scavenge the remains. They’d never get it to work, of course — as terrorist organizations went, they were extremely short on scientists, hence the need to kidnap them.
Tony leaned against a rock, blinking hard to stave off tears. She could neither afford the loss of fluids, not bear the loss of dignity. After three months of captivity, Raza and his threats weighing over her head like a psychopathic sword of Damocles, she was free. Now was not the time for tears, nor for regrets. She couldn’t save Yinsen. She couldn’t risk trying to pull his body from the burning remains of his prison.
She could get her ass out of this science-forsaken desert, get herself home, find a way to retrieve the armour she was burying, and do something about Gulmira. Also, find every single member of the Ten Rings and fuck their shit up.
“I won’t waste it,” Tony murmured, thinking of Yinsen’s last words. Breathing deeply, she lifted a stone to set over the armour.
“It will go faster if you let us assist you,” a low voice told her gently. Tony didn’t jump, nor did she look for a source.
“Fantastic, hallucinations. I haven’t had a drink in three months, haven’t done acid in ten years, and haven’t hit my head in at least three days.” She hauled another stone. “So either I’m going crazy —”
“You are not, I assure you.”
“ — or I’m suffering an aneurysm.” She moved more rocks. “That, or I’m still in that fucking cave, dreaming, and Raza’s going to wake me any minute to monologue at me and make stupid, pointless threats to ‘encourage’ me.”
The next stone she laid hands on was weightless. Tony dropped it abruptly.
“You are neither dreaming, injured, nor hallucinating,” the same British-but-not-quite voice informed her. “As for crazy, all the most interesting people are a little mad. If you use your gifts, you will find that we are real.”
The billionaire’s laugh was a little hysterical. “Yeah, sure, open up my empathy when I might be in a cave surrounded by fanatics, psychopaths and sadists. That sounds like a brilliant idea, especially since I spent a day unconscious the first time I tried it.”
Soft growls surprised her, since it was such a sentinel sound. Unless she was harbouring a deep-seated wish to be saved by a sentinel, it didn’t make a lot of sense for her to hallucinate about one.
“Should we not just remove her from this place?” a different male asked. Tony flinched slightly, hand closing around a fist-sized rock to use as a weapon.
She risked a glance just in time to see a seriously badass brunette thump a blond man on the head. “Idiot!”
“She’s been held captive against her will for months, surrounded by men who mean her harm, and you think that forcing her to go somewhere with strangers is a good idea?” Xena, Warrior Princess — and seriously, Tony was more than bi enough to appreciate that — huffed and glared. “Honestly, Fandral, for a man who likes women so much you are clueless. And an idiot, because there’s no one left for Loki to kill and you very nearly became a target for his unspent temper.”
The guy paled a little and glanced over to a pair of the prettiest men she’d laid eyes on. No, really; tall, dark and deadly, contrasted by big, blond and buff.
“Well, at least my hallucinations are pretty.”
TDD — tall, dark and deadly — looked her way, green eyes softening and a faint smile playing over a mobile face. “Not hallucinations.”
“Pretty sure that’s exactly what a figment of my imagination would say.”
BBB chuckled. “She is worse than you, brother, for sharp words and quick thoughts. I look forward to this.” He didn’t blink when TDD jabbed him with an elbow.
“What can I do to convince you?”
“You could tell me where the nearest American-friendly installation is,” she told him, standing upright. “Or lend me a cell phone.”
“I cannot do the second as I do not know what such a thing is,” and Tony got a bad feeling because really, why would her subconscious mind manifest someone who didn’t know what the world’s most ubiquitous device was — which, incidentally, Tony had reinvented and taken over a huge portion of the market, suck it Jobs. “However, I believe the first is possible.” Then he closed his eyes, muttering under his breath, and honest to Hypatia, wiggled his fingers.
Out of thin air, a thread of light formed, leading down the side of the mountain she was on, along the valley floor beneath them, and out into the dunes.
“Mysterious companions, a long journey home through trials and unknown lands, a freaking glowing quest trail. . .” Tony pinched the bridge of her nose. “I like a video game as much as any computer geek, but this is a little too fantasy RPG even for me. All I need now is a loyal animal companion to aid me.” As if summoned — ha ha — SALIS settled on a nearby boulder and barked smugly. “You are not funny, SAL. I’m going to trade you in for a better spirit animal; something a little more intimidating and less cheeky. Like a squirrel.” The little bitch made a sound a lot like laughing.
“Now will you let us aid you, Guide?”
“You want to help? Figure out a way down this fucking mountain.”
Loki walked alongside his guide as she followed his seeking spell along the dunes. Her determination was admirable, but frustrating. Loki could smell pain and grief, old fear and foreign aggression on her skin and hair. She was drawn and too thin, pale and wane under her natural complexion. All told, the sentinel was desperate to ease her hurts and remove her to somewhere safe.
She had refused their aid, however, stating calmly that if she was dreaming she’d like to not wake up yet and accepting help was guaranteed to do so.
Still, her persistence in believing him a hallucination gave him a small advantage in that she did not hesitate to speak her mind to what she perceived to be a delusion. Loki was not above taking benign advantage of her disbelief, as proven by the subtle spells he’d woven about her person; her water vessel remained full, her clothes were weightless and kept out sand, as did the cloth covering her head and face. Her skin was protected from the sun and, most importantly, a monitoring spell would tell him immediately if her health fell beneath certain acceptable levels. Should that happen Loki would take her straight to Lady Eir for healing, and spend the next decade seeking forgiveness for usurping his guide’s will.
“You look like you’re plotting something.”
Loki smirked. “I though I am merely a figment of your mind, Guide. How could I plot anything?”
She laughed breathlessly, struggling over the peak of a dune. Loki gritted his teeth against the urge to help her. “That’s exactly why I’m worried; my subconscious is just as sneaky and manipulative as my conscious mind.”
Interesting. Apparently Thor felt the same as he chuckled from the lady’s other side. “Then you are well matched in my brother, for his cunning is well known.”
Loki sent a mild glare at his elder. “As is my brother’s affability and simple-mindedness.”
“The jock and the geek,” she shook her her head. “Sounds like a lifetime movie.”
Since that meant little to him — and never had he so regretted visiting Midgard rarely — he answered her original statement. “I was merely thinking that I do not know your name. I can hardly call you ‘Guide’ even if I am a delusion.”
“Antonia Eleanor Stark — Tony, please, only people who want something from me call me Antonia. That and my mother, who, come to think, usually wanted something from me, if only for me to behave and act like a lady.”
“As opposed to what?”
Since he well understood that, Loki only said, “Would you like our names?”
“I don’t know; TDD and BBB are working for me.” She slid down a short incline.
“I am afraid to ask,” Thor murmured, making Sif laugh. The shieldmaiden seemed to like Tony’s fierceness.
“Tall, Dark and Deadly and Big, Blonde and Buff.” That won a laugh from them all. “Accompanied by Red, Slick, Silence, and Gorgeous Badass.”
Thor laughed richly while Sif mused, “‘Badass’ is a good thing?”
“Badass is great thing, especially when you’re a badass with style.” Sif laughed and Tony stopped to take a drink, frowning at the cold water for a moment before looking to Loki. “Fine then, tell me what names my subconscious has come up with.”
“Volstagg, Fandral, Hogun and Lady Sif,” he pointed to each, “warriors of Asgard.” Tony frowned. “My brother, Thor Odinsson, Sentinel and Crown Prince of Asgard.” Her jaw dropped. “And I am Loki Odinsson, Sentinel-Mage and Prince of Asgard.”
“Right, so I’m definitely crazy because I’ve managed to hallucinate Viking gods in the fucking desert.”
“Neither Vikings nor gods; though we are long-lived. Asgard is a world separate from your own, reachable by a path through space and time that is anchored at one point and directed by mechanical and magical means to an endpoint.”
“Alien viking gods who came to earth through a wormhole.” His guide began walking again. “Good thing I’m a rich genius and I’m allowed to be crazy, ‘cause this is some Hughes level shit.”
“I understand only one word in three that you speak,” Loki sighed, “Despite having All-Speech.”
“No idea what that is, but don’t worry; even people from this world can’t keep up with me.”
“That sounds like a challenge, Guide.”
“Bring it, Sentinel.”
But all laughter vanished an hour later when Tony fell sliding down a dune — and did not rise. “Tony. Antonia!” Loki snapped, furious and afraid, though he could still hear her heartbeat and it’s strange counterpoint hum. “Antonia, you will answer me now .”
“Bossy,” she whispered. “And don’t call me Antonia.” She shifted onto her back, staring into the sky. “Fuck.”
His patience was exhausted, but that was not her fault. Tony believed, at least mostly, that he was not real and could not help her; as she had done to escape captivity, she was working to save herself. Logic, however, battled instinct.
“Please, Guide, let me help you.” He knelt closely enough to feel the heat of her body, and knew she could do the same based on her flinch. Loki wished for someone to kill for that single reaction. “You need help; it is days of walking still to safety.”
“Starks are made of iron and fire,” she whispered. “My father taught me that.”
“I’m sure he misses you.”
She laughed softly. “He’s been dead fourteen years; he and my mother died when I was seventeen. Suspicious circumstances.”
“I do not understand.”
“It wasn’t an accident, but no one could prove they were murdered.” Tony sat up carefully, trying to reach her feet and ignoring the hands offered to her. “Iron in their spines, fire in their bellies, no shame and no fear.” She staggered upright and nearly fell. “I’m a goddamned Stark and I never lose.”
“You have more courage than your body can hold,” Thor told her gently. “But also more sheer bloody mindedness than any three people.”
That made her laugh as she stood bent over, hands on her knees, while Loki hovered and wished that his mother and Tyr had been less diligent in teaching him to respect the agency of others.
Before Loki’s instincts could override his better nature, Thor tilted his head. “Brother, listen.”
In the distance, the sound of a mechanical device and many moving parts was now audible. When they described this to Tony, she froze. “Is it on the ground or in the air?”
“The air, not more than a few hundred feet above the ground.”
“A helicopter,” she breathed.
“Can we be sure it is an ally?” Loki asked, already weaving seidr.
“Most of the helicopters currently in this country are American or British — it’s a favored transport vehicle for short distance troop movement and rapid deployment. Which direction?”
“There,” Thor pointed. “It is coming quickly.”
Loki released his spell. “The light will catch their attention, like reflections on armour or water.” Before long, the machine entered normal sight, sweeping sand across the dunes and slowing as it passed over Tony’s waving figure.
“We are hidden from sight,” he whispered to his brother. Gently, he touched Tony’s wrist, drawing her gaze from the settling device. She blinked at the spark of seidr he tethered to her. “There is no place on this world where I cannot find you, Antonia.”
“Promise, or threat?”
He brushed his fingertips over the arch of her cheek. “Perhaps a bit of both.” Thor drew him back as a man dressed in uniform scrambled across the sand.
“Rhodey,” she managed, collapsing against the man, who swept her close and squeezed fiercely.
“Next time somebody wants you to fly to a warzone to give a demonstration of revolutionary deep-well and solar energy technology,” he told her, laughing and teary-eyed, “you tell them to fuck off.”
“I’m down with that, Boo. Now can we get the fuck out of this desert?”
The third time a military doctor who was trying to talk her into a full medical exam suddenly seemed to lose interest and wandered off, Tony decided it was time to do something. Once was a fluke, twice was suspicious. Three times was fucking hinky.
“There’s no such thing as magic.” A low chuckled drifted from the corner of her room in the base infirmary. “And don’t even quote Clarke’s Law at me.”
“I do not know who Clarke is or why his laws are of interest, but I can assure that magic is real.”
Tony was just about to respond to that — boy, was she — when Rhodey entered the room, looking worried. “Tony, what’s up with the guard dog outside your door? The Swedish bodybuilder?”
That was. . . Tony was already calculating odds and damage control. “Tall? Blonde? Impressive hammer?”
“Tony,” the pilot sighed, exasperated.
“No, not the one in his pants, honey bear — though that’s probably impressive as well — I mean the one hanging from his belt.”
Rhondey gave her the Look. It never worked, but he always did. “Yeah, him.”
“You can see him?”
“Of course I can see him, Tony, he’s right outside the door!”
She turned to the corner she’d been avoiding. “Can you see him?”
Rhodey looked and then jumped. “Jesus! Where did you come from? And who the hell are you?”
So that actually changed things. A lot. “I think he’s an alien prince, and also potentially my Sentinel.”
Looking worried, Rhodey palmed her forehead. “Do you have a fever? A head injury? Tony, you need to let the medics have a look at you.”
She nudged him back. “No, no, and fuck no. I’m fine, Rhodey.” Okay, she probably deserved the skeptical look. “Right, the only things wrong with me can’t be fixed by a hack army doctor who’s under orders to find something wrong with me so that the military can keep me here to pick my brain about what happened and what intel I might have. Yeah, that sentence got away from me,” she mused. “Still, my point stands. I’ve had a round of immunizations and broad spectrum antibiotics, I’m not infectious or in danger of carrying a plague to California. I want to go home, spend a week in the shower, eat my bodyweight in red meat, and sleep for a month.”
Rhodey didn’t even try to tell her she was wrong about the motives of the brass; they’d already discussed the fact that the military would have stopped searching for her after the first week if not for the pressure Pepper had put on the armed forces, the media, and the White House. The fact that they wouldn’t have needed any encouragement if she’d been building weapons for them instead of body armour and satellite systems had also been mentioned. Loudly.
He did, however, go very quiet. “Tony, you need a proper exam.”
Yeah, she was tired of this discussion already. “Like I told three doctors, Rhodey, I wasn’t raped. Also, the proper response to a rape victim — of which I am not one, FYI — is not to hard sell them on an invasive medical procedure against their wishes.” She sighed at his slightly broken expression. “Scout’s honour, Boo; my reputation is definitely good for something.”
“Tony, you can’t tell me you didn’t face any kind of violence in three months.”
Her hand went to the light hidden under her shirt, and her laugh was broken even to her own ears. Memories of waterboarding; of Raza’s hand at her throat. Whispered words of her fate if she failed; the low taunts of the guards and the plans they had for the American whore.
“Sometimes a well-spoken threat, offered frequently, is as damaging as violence itself,” Loki, who was apparently real, said gently. Rhodey made a questioning sound.
“A lot of threats, Rhodey, lots of reminders of what was on the line if I didn’t produce. Remind me never to complain about Pepper’s deadlines again.”
“Absolutely, forget I said anything. I got my own back,” she said, firmly. “They wanted weapons, and there might have been an assurance that some things were so traumatizing that someone might be driven to, say, biting their own tongue and choking to death on the blood to remind them of their priorities.” That promise had copped her a beating with a rod, but she counted it as a win, anyway. “They wanted a weapon, Rhodey. They got one.” She grinned sharply. “Be careful what you wish for.”
He nodded slowly. “Okay. Any intel to pass on?”
“The military wants intel, they can get me home and send someone to interview me there. I’m not staying here, James,” she used his actual name, making him straighten. “Get me a flight, or get out of my way.”
“There’s a military transport to Italy leaving in three hours, but you’ll have to get the Commander to authorize it, Tony.”
She stood and smirked. “Italy? Fantastic, I need some new clothes.”
Forty-one hours later, Tony Stark stepped off her private plane and onto the California ground. Rhodey and a pair of gods followed her, and Pepper stood with Happy to greet her.
“A few tears for your long lost boss, Pepper?”
“Tears of joy; do you know how hard it is to keep R&D on a schedule? Your turn now.” Carefully, the redhead bent and brushed a kiss to Tony’s cheek, her shields momentarily enfolding the genius. “Thank god you’re alive.”
“Thanks to you,” she whispered back. “Way to be a badass, Pep.”
The CEO laughed softly, then eyed her companions. “Is this why you didn’t want me to send SI security with the plane?”
Since the pair of sentinels were dressed in Italy’s best suits, their builds and features on display, they could have been either boy toys or bodyguards. As a guide, Pepper knew they were sentinels. As a friend of Tony Stark's, she knew they could be either — or both.
“Pretty much, yeah. This is Thor and Loki — they sent their entourage home to cover for being AWOL.”
Pepper sighed. “Real names, please, Tony. We’ve talked about this.”
“Oh, Pepper, even I couldn’t make this shit up.” Pepper looked to Rhodey, who still looked a little shellshocked, and got a wide-eyed nod.
“I expect an explanation, Tony. A good one.” Her CEO straightened her shoulders. “The press conference you asked for is scheduled in one hour at the main office; we need to leave if we’re going to make it on time.”
“Only if we stop for a cheeseburger on the way.” Pepper sighed at her, smiling fondly.
“Cheeseburger, press conference, interview.”
“Interview with who?”
Tony received a sharp grin. “SHIELD sent a pair of agents to talk to you.”
“I’m not talking to that asshole, Fury.” She slid into the limo.
“Not Fury; he sent a Sentinel and Guide pair.” Pepper settled beside her, watching Thor as he began to poke at the various buttons. “They’re interesting, actually; I think you should at least meet them.”
An hour later, Tony stood in front of eighty members of the American and foreign press and was awesome at them. She stood still for photos, having chosen her dress for that very reason; the white dress covered her front from neck to knee, hiding the arc reactor with fabric and a little body tape, while her legs, back and arms were exposed. Sleek and hard-earned muscle, bruises of various ages, and several new scars were clearly visible and along with the flash of cameras she heard a great deal of chatter and whispers. No one was going to pretend she’d just been at a spa or in rehab.
“Ms Stark, what do you think about the fact that Ms Potts had to fight to keep you from being declared dead after only a week?”
“I think that people would have been very disappointed to find out that my patents and stock wouldn’t have become public property after my supposed death.”
“Ms Stark, there are rumours that the military did not rescue you — that you actually escaped yourself and walked to safety.”
“Well, I did appreciate the helicopter ride, but it was hardly door-to-door service.”
When she was finished, she sauntered away content in the knowledge that several people were going to have cameras shoved in their faces soon. Since her mood was excellent, Tony decided to deal with SHIELD.
Her planned righteous fury deflated at the sight of the agents sent, however. Dolce and Gabbana mingled with military biker chic. Also, where were his sleeves?
“Can’t SHIELD afford arms on their uniforms?” Tony asked the guide, who gave her a shiteating grin.
“Ms Stark, I’m Agent Coulson from the Strategic —”
“Seriously, are you going to use the whole title? How do you get anything done?”
“He’s very efficient,” the guide told her with a wink. Goddamn it, now she liked him.
“Stop that, I hate everyone who works for Fury on principle and you’re screwing with my system.”
“Your opinion of Director Fury has been noted,” Coulson told her dryly. “His credit rating is still in the toilet, along with the rating of every alias he’s ever had. What’s particularly impressive is that every new alias suffers the same fate.”
“Well, if SHIELD was a little more creative in making legends, it might take me more than five minutes. What do you want, Coulson and boy toy?”
“Like I said.”
MIB cleared his throat. “SHIELD is aware that you have issues with us —”
“I have an issue with Fury and his band of minions breaking into my house and raiding my father’s office and workshop fourteen hours after he died,” she snapped. Behind her, Loki growled softly. “I have an issue with the fact that most of what was taken had nothing to do with SHIELD. I have huge issues with the patent infringements that Fury’s Floating Fortress of Ego is a tribute to. Maybe he could claim that Howard gave him the rights to use some of his own patents, but the reflective panels and the engine designs are mine. You want me to stop fucking with Fury? I want my property, my father’s property, restitution for intellectual theft and a fucking apology.”
“Last one’s gonna be tough,” Barton told his sentinel. “Seeing as Fury’s conscious was surgically removed.” That won him a sigh.
“That being said,” Coulson continued, “we have some information that could benefit you, in exchange for any intel you would like to pass us from your time in Afghanistan.”
They’d likely get it off the military anyway, so she wouldn’t lose anything in trying. “They were called the Ten Rings.” He recognized the name. “The leader was Raza, but he wasn’t the head guy, just the leader of that cell; a couple of people mentioned ‘M’ and other bases. They have American contacts — Raza said something about ‘our friend in Washington’ and . . .” Here she paused.
“It’s translated from Farsi, so I don’t know how accurate it might be.”
“Sifting fact from rumor is part of intelligence work. Anything you say will be investigated.”
“Raza told his second once that he was tired of dealing with the serpent of many heads.” Her shields were locked down tightly, but she could still feel surprise, anger, and a trickle of concern coming from the agent. “But it can’t mean what I think it does.”
“They died with the end of the war and the Nazi party, right Phil,” Barton murmured. The sentinel shook his head.
“Maybe — but maybe not. Or someone could have dusted off the banner hoping to use their old reputation.” He looked pensive. “Thank you Ms Stark. You should know that two members of your current Board have been in contact with Obediah Stane in prison repeatedly since before your disappearance, and that Stane has had contact with two different information brokers who deal with several terrorist cells, including the Ten Rings.”
Pepper hissed. “I hate that man.”
“Word.” Tony tilted her head. “Anything else?”
“How’d you get out?” Sleeveless asked.
“Only two reasons to kidnap me — money and technology. Any ransom, Pep?” The woman shook her head. “The problem with making a genius build you something? You have to give them the tools to do it with.”
“So you blew them the fuck up.”
“I blew them the fuck up.”
Tyr continued to sharpen his blade as his princes left. His longtime friend and fellow warrior, Orvar, settled in a nearby chair. “Now what was that about?”
“A conversation about perception of one’s enemies.” He stroked the stone over his sword one last time and laid it aside, moving on to the first of several smaller knives.
“Has someone been trying to convince Prince Thor that his brother is an unworthy companion again?”
Tyr snorted. “Have you heard tell of someone sent to the Healer’s Hall with a shattered jaw? Or complaints of unusually violent storms?” As both had happened in the past, Orvar chuckled.
“Not recently, though Thor’s temper was up several months ago. Since then, there has been little heard of any exploits by the princes — and there are always those willing to speak ill of anything Loki does.”
“No, they have been well occupied lately, and rarely within Asgard.” And that wasn’t suspicious at all. “No, this was about the stories told of the Jotnar, and why they started in the first place.” Orvar tilted his head in question. “Also why they are allowed to continue, as it causes trouble for those of Jotun ancestry and means that no one is willing to seek to aid the remnants of Jotunheimr.”
“They have been suspicious of anything that speaks of ‘everyone says’ ever since you took them in hand.”
“Tell me, friend, have you ever heard the word ‘propaganda’?”
“I have not, I confess. It does not sound like a word of Asgard nor Alfheimr.” He tapped his fingers. “Are you concerned about them?”
Tyr was silent for a long moment. “They are men well grown, strong and fierce in battle and life. They are well balanced in each other — Thor is gentler, Loki cannier — and both are better men than the one who raised them.” He carefully checked each blade. “But I had the charge of them for many centuries, and they are both my princes and my sentinel-brothers.”
“You have always grown attached quickly, my friend; they were well your younger brothers within days of taking charge of training them. Loki is the greatest mage in Asgard these days; Odin himself can only match him by drawing on the magic of the Realm herself.” As Orvar was not prone to wandering conversation, Tyr only nodded. “Though I am not his equal, I am a mage.”
“I did know that, yes, as I introduced you to Loki for that very reason; it certainly wasn’t because I felt you would be a good influence.” He received a cheerful base hand gesture in return.
“Loki is the best of us, but he is not ungenerous with mages who treat him with respect, or those who gave him his early lessons. I am able to follow the same hidden paths as Loki travels by, and hide myself from Heimdall. I am also able to follow Loki’s trail for about an hour,” he added, “until he either finds the spell I planted on Thor’s cloak, or it fades on it’s own.”
The sentinel considered that carefully. He knew that something was going on with the brothers, and the long conversation they’d just had was unusual, not in content, but in the language used and some of the new ideas discussed. But it was Loki’s barely contained energy that worried him; the younger prince had been barely contained within his own skin once you looked beneath his usual facade. Tyr worried that something had happened to reveal Loki’s origins to him, and though he certainly deserved to know, he also deserved for that knowledge to come from a friendly source that would not use it to wound him.
“I will retrieve my cloak.”
When he stepped out of the embrace of Orvar’s seidr , he was baffled. Rather than any landscape he was familiar with — and he had been to all the Realms, most of them many times — he was in a large white room, barely decorated, and an expanse of sea beyond closed windows. Orvar had not known where he was sending Tyr, but only one of the Nine Realms had so much water in one place.
“What are you doing on Midgard, my princes?” he murmured.
“If you would please identify yourself?” A rich voice asked from the walls. Tyr sought a heartbeat and found nothing, though there were spells that masked such things or allowed one to speak from a great distance.
Well, he had invaded someone’s home. “I am Tyr Hymirsson, Sentinel and General of Asgard.”
“Welcome to Earth, Sentinel Hymirsson. I am JARVIS and I run the house of Antonia Stark, of which you are a guest.”
Curious, he asked, “You will accept a stranger so quickly, with only a name?”
“Your name is not unknown to me, as both Sentinels Odinsson have spoken of you to Madam. You have also entered the house by a similar means to one employed by Sentinel-Mage Odinsson.”
“And the Sentinels Odinsson have spent much time here?”
There was the faintest touch of humour now. “One might say, Sentinel Hymirsson, that they are inclined to be a permanent fixture.”
“May I ask how you are hiding yourself? A spell, or technology?”
“I am hiding nothing; I am not a biological being but one constructed.”
That was not what he expected, but before he could ask for clarification, a clatter of footfalls came to his ears. “JARVIS?” Honey slid over his senses and for the first time in a millennium, Tyr struggled to stop his hearing from sliding from his control.
When he’d regained control, he found a woman, tall and fair and flame-haired, frowning at him. “Another Aesir? Well, come along then, I need to speak to Tony anyway.”
As she lead him down a set of stairs, Tyr decided not to tell the beautiful Guide that he would cheerfully follow her to the Ragnarok.
Tyr found his princes in a large underground space filled with lights and machines of undetermined function; many panes of glass showed moving images and there were devices that moved independently. Propped up in one corner was a roughly forged suit of armour, damaged and scorched, and there were many pieces of a similar suit in various states of assemblage around the room. In this cavern of magecraft and smithing, both the royals sons of Asgard dwelled; Loki sitting crossed legged upon a table, book in hand, and Thor on the ground by a mechanized vehicle, placing tools in the hand of a dark-haired lady.
As soon as the doors of glass parted, Tyr could hear a pair of familiar heartbeats. Apparently this space was well-warded. Loki and Thor immediately looked towards him, looking surprised and not a little bashful.
“Ah,” Loki muttered. “How did you. . .?”
The dark-haired prince sighed. “I regret teaching him that. How did he know where we are?” Tyr’s gaze lingered on Thor’s cape, draped over a seat nearby. Loki reached over and snagged the fabric and huffed.
“A trace spell. Clever.”
Thor was frowning slightly. “We have done nothing to make you suspicious recently, surely? We have been positively well-behaved of late.”
“This sounds familiar, right Pepper?” the dark-haired Guide stated, wiping her hands on a rag. “See, it’s not just me.”
Tyr’s guide arched a brow. “It does sound like they’ve gone longer than usual without ending up in the Asgardian equivalent of the tabloids. Like you, it probably means that they’re both overdue, and planning something spectacularly ill-advised.”
He didn’t understand all of that, but some was quite clear, as was the good-natured humour and bond between the two guides. “There has been a suspicious lack of chaos for many months — historically, this means they are up to something.”
Loki shook his head when Thor went to respond. “He is correct, brother. Remember the state visit from Nidavellir?” The brothers smirked at each other and Tyr sighed at the memory.
“Also, our recent conversation made me very curious.” Loki frowned and Thor looked sheepish.
“Okay, so I have a couple questions.” A tool of some kind was pointed in Tyr’s direction, and the general saw Loki smile from the corner of his eye. “One — who are you?”
“Tyr Hymirsson, madam,” the being JARVIS spoke from the walls.
“We have spoken of him,” Thor added.
“Yeah, General, Weapons Master, Sentinel guru. So, Tall Dark and Godly, I take it you wandered our direction because when these two,” she gestured, “aren’t up to something it’s because they’re up to something — trust me, I can relate, and Pepper can sympathize with you,” his guide, apparently called Pepper, looked up from where she was casually straightening up, seemingly amused. “I also get that you used Loki’s Super-Secret Method of avoiding the all-seeing Heimdall and have I said thanks for warding my place from him, Sparky, because that is some dystopian-level creepy shit? Also, thank you for not using the Bifrost because the weather for surfing is perfect today and fuck knows what opening an inter-dimensional wormhole would do to the local forecast. So, if Loki and Thor seem to like and respect and trust you —”
“Yes,” Thor stated.
“As much as I trust anyone,” Loki drawled.
“ — which is Loki-speak for ‘yes, I love and trust his almost unconditionally’, I’m on to you, Magic Man,” she smirked at the mage’s scowl. “So based on all that — why did you have to follow these two with magic and a good dose of sneaky? Why didn’t you two just. . . tell him where you’ve been hanging out lately?”
“Force of habit?” Thor offered, earning several laughs.
“It has long been our habit to try to ‘get one over’ the General,” Loki explained. “When we were young, he saw through us immediately; in fact, he often knew of our pranks long before they were executed. It became a game for us, and as we grew older we became better at keeping things from him. The first time we caught him in a prank was satisfying.” The brothers grinned.
Tyr sighed at the questioning looks. “They managed to slip a potion into the ale of the entire Court. During a banquet honouring the All-Father’s ascendance to the throne.” He stopped, reluctant to continue.
“It increased the potency of the ale three-fold,” Loki smirked. “Even the most hard-headed warrior was shortly drunk enough to lose all inhibitions.”
“And then they began whispering suggestions and dares,” the general sighed, “like the one that resulted in three men reciting an ancient tale of heroics — while standing on the banquet table, naked and brandishing their swords in reenactment.”
“Tyr was one of them,” Thor whispered loudly, making the women laugh.
“That was probably worth the price of admission. Seriously, is everyone in Asgard freaking gorgeous? Is there something in the water up there?”
“Antonia,” Loki grumbled.
“Not blind, Lokes, and don’t call me that.”
Loki merely smiled. “Tyr, this is Antonia Eleanor Stark, daughter of Howard and Maria Stark. She is brave, brilliant, utterly mad, and also my Guide.”
“Everything but the last one,” Guide Stark stated calmly. “Loki there thinks it, but he believes in magic so we don’t listen to him. Also, don’t call me Antonia — it’s Tony.” She frowned. “Also, I’m way beyond brilliant, I’m a genius.”
“I see.” He did indeed, making eye contact with the younger prince. Loki smiled faintly, eyes bright and fierce. “She’s making you work for it, my prince?”
“She is a woman who knows her own mind, and deserves to be wooed.”
Yes, Tyr understood very well. Someone had hurt Loki’s guide, and the sentinel-mage was determined to be patient; both in the winning of his guide, and in seeking vengeance.
They turned back to the women, who were engaged in a discussion. Pepper was holding out a pen to Antonia, who frowned at it. “Seriously? What happened to a paperless society?”
“Lies. Sign the papers, Tony.”
She huffed and began to sign where the red-head pointed. “Am I signing away any organs, or my soul?”
“Please, you lost that on a drunken bet at MIT; it’s the budget for the Stark Foundation Gala, documentation for the human trials of the new generation prosthetics, this quarter’s preliminary R&D schedule, and the plans for the new fabrication plant.”
“She is a woman of some power?” Tyr spoke nearly subvocally.
“Tremendous power and wealth,” Loki responded in kind.
“Ugh, all of this? I’m going to get carpal tunnel, and you’ll be responsible for the inability of the world’s greatest mind to build future world saving devices.”
“You’d get JARVIS to fabricate everything, don’t whine. Besides, if you can tinker with the perfectly-functioning engine of yet another car, you’re fine. Also, why are you using the crown prince of an alien world as your helper, instead of the robot you built for that purpose?”
“One, Thor is about as useful as Dum-E now that I’ve taught him the names of the tools; two, he causes way few accidents when he has something to do,” she scowled at Thor, who rubbed the back of his head and wore the exact same expression as when he’d knocked over the Queen’s loom while rough housing, “and three, Dum-E is in time out until he learns not to poke the Aesir.”
“It’s your own fault, you know; you’re the one who spent a month training him to prod Jim when ever he came into the workshop. Now he thinks poking people is hilarious.”
“Totally worth it. Remember the look on Rhodey’s face?”
“I remember that he knocked over ten thousand dollars in equipment when he jumped.”
“Still worth it. What’s up, Pep? All of this could have waited until tomorrow at our regularly scheduled sign-this-and-why-are-you-behind-deadline? meeting.”
All three sentinels turned to watch as the tone of conversation changed. Pepper bit her lip; Tyr could not help but stare at the gesture, earning a jab and a smirk from his former charges.
“How are you coming on digging out Cruz and Russell’s dirty secrets?”
“The two asshats in contact with Stane? JARVIS and I dug out all their communications with him, as well as with that jackbooted thug, General Ross; they’re maneuvering to reopen the weapons division. Also, they tried to pass some old designs along to Ross so he could adapt them to the Hulk,” Tony frowned darkly, “but that failed because of the electronic watermark. Ross suffered a setback when his entire computer system crashed and burned.” The look of satisfaction on her face was sharp and deadly. “Poor guy.”
“Your grudge against Ross is duly noted, Tony; I don’t disagree with you. I’m still trying to get Banner protected status, but Ross has done a good job of poisoning that well,” she sighed. “I need at least a few months, though if Ross keeps making a fool of himself and burning through his budget like a trust fund baby with a cocaine habit it could happen sooner.” Pepper tapped the pen against her stack of papers. “So you’ve got enough to potentially ruin them?”
“Well, they definitely violated the ethics clause. Industrial espionage is hard to convict on, but easy to blacklist for. No one wants to hire someone who was caught stealing or selling intellectual property in case they take a shortcut and try again.”
“There’s a Board meeting this afternoon; it looks like they're going to try and shut you out with accusations of PTSD.” Tony’s face was cold and terrible and Loki immediately went to her.
“Antonia? What is this?”
“Somebody trying to take my stuff. I hate that,” she stated lightly, false cheer not hiding her anger.
“And you have information that can prevent this?”
“That and plenty of blackmail. Cruz and Russell are leading the charge?”
“Gardner and Armstrong are going along, but they’re easily led by the promise of money. That’s why we left them in place so long.”
“Forgive me,” Tyr interrupted. “This ‘Board’?”
“They are much like the Council of Asgard,” Loki told him. “Complete with those who seek only their own wealth and power to the detriment of others. Antonia —”
“Damn it, Loki.”
“ — runs a company, along with Ms Potts. It is a large enterprise employing many thousands of people, that creates and sells tools and luxuries used every day as well as building and maintaining infrastructure used to communicate and transfer information around this world. Tony creates many of the inventions herself, and Pepper runs the daily affairs. Under her father, the company created and sold weapons to the military of this country.”
“Why the hell can’t you explain magic that concisely?”
Loki gave his guide a fond look. “I am working on it; do so requires learning your science and its concepts so I may adequately translate.”
She huffed. “JARVIS, remind me to order more science textbooks.”
“If you are entering a battle, can we not assist you, guide-sisters?” Thor asked.
Tony eyed Loki. “I’m not getting out of here without you following me, am I?” Loki’s smile was sharp and full of teeth. “Actually, if you want to stand behind me and smile like that, this might go pretty quickly. Thor, how are you at looming menacingly in the background?”
The golden prince smiled, looking both sweet and a little bloodthirsty. “I excel at such endeavors. The General is even better.”
As Tyr had no wish to let the mortal woman who was his guide face down any kind of threat without him nearby, he nodded and looked as imposing as he could.
Tony and Pepper looked to each other and nodded, seeming satisfied. “JARVIS, that delivery from Armani came yesterday, right?”
“Indeed, madam. I believe that, with a little assistance from Sentinel Loki, one of the suits made for Sentinel Thor will serve the General.”
“Pepper, you wrangle the sentinels; I need a shower.”
“What is ‘Armani’?” Tyr asked as she left.
“A different kind of armour.”
He could smell his guide’s blood.
Loki reached out, pressing his fingers to Antonia’s pulse, all but trembling in relief at the throb of life beneath his fingers. Gently he turned her over, all but snarling at the sight of blood on her forehead.
Thor shifted, shaking broken glass off his back. His brother had been quick to place himself between the window and the guides; Thor had dragged Tony to the ground, while Tyr had done the same to Pepper. Loki had attempted to shield the room with seidr .
“She is hurt,” Loki managed. “Thor.”
Thor and Tyr both reached out to him, catching hold of his wrists to anchor him. It might have worked. . . had his injured Guide not shifted, moaning slightly in pain just as the sound of the helicopter outside of the window came closer.
The ones who had fired on his guide were coming back for a second attempt.
Loki felt his grasp on his seidr and sanity slid away. He rose to his feet no longer Loki, but Sentinel.
Later, he would remember his brother’s shocked gaze; Tyr’s surprise and Pepper’s gasp. He would recall the sound of his guide’s voice reaching through the haze of rage and revenge and protect that hammered in his blood.
“Loki, there are civilians on the ground — don’t drop it!”
The mechanical device in the grip of his seidr, spinning blades frozen solid and grinding brutally, immediately halted it’s stuttering descent. The machine began to ice over entirely as it settled gently on the ground. The Sentinel disappeared.
“Shit,” Tony breathed, hissing as her ribs told her that sitting up was a bad idea. It didn’t stop her, of course. “Please tell me that we don’t have a feral god running around California. Also, what’s with all the blue?”
Thor helped her gently to her feet, Pepper following suit with the aid of a hovering general. “He is in a Berserker state,” the blonde rumbled. “The attack and the scent of your blood sent him over the edge; he has been in a quiet rage over what was done to you and this was more than he could bear.” He hesitated. “The blue — he looks like the stories of Jotun warriors, who wield ice and whose skin will blacken flesh. But we are only one-quarter Jotun; it should not be possible.”
“Well, he’s definitely blue, so it must be.” Tony looked out over the devastated board room. They’d only been twenty minutes into the meeting when the sound of an approaching helicopter had caught the attention of the sentinels; since there was no reason for one to be flying so low over the SI complex, Tony had shouted for everyone to get down. “Is anyone dead?”
“No, though there are many injuries on this level and the ones above and below.”
“Good.” Someone in this room had likely made a call about her presence, unwittingly setting her up to die. Tony wanted them alive so they could suffer. “We need to get down there, now. Can you hear sirens?”
Tyr looked confused, but Thor nodded. “They are coming closer.”
“Great, there’s no keeping the alien cat in the bag, but we can limit the damage. A sentinel defending his guide makes for great media, and people trust sentinels even if they’re from other cultures. Hopefully that will hold true.”
With help from the Aesir, Tony and Pepper made it outside the building before the approaching sirens came into sight, though there were many SI employees gathered and watching in awe. Fortunately, none of them were close enough to Loki to see his eyes; the blue skin was alien but could be explained away as a side effect of the ice he was wielding. Red eyes, however, had poor connotations in many Earth cultures.
Still, before she started damage control, Tony took a moment to appreciated the sight of Loki, having frozen the attacking helicopter into a solid block, standing above the assholes who had fled by the only exit Loki had left for them. Six men in body armour, heavily armed, were frozen to the ground and each other while kneeling before an angry god. It was. . . satisfying.
“Loki, you need to get it together.” His head tilted, and Tony knew he was listening. “Even if you just use one of your illusions — you know, the things that actually defy the well established laws of optics — you need to cover up the red eyes. And maybe let the blue fade a bit; it’s a very pretty shade, I grant you, but it doesn’t match your suit or my dress, and you’ll get a higher approval rating in public opinion if you look a little less icy in the media.”
As she chattered, the air slowly warmed. Thor, who was helping her over a piece of broken pavement, sighed in relief when his brother’s skin went a little more flesh coloured. He still looked ten kinds of pissed off, though, and one of the attackers tried to tug free, drawing Loki’s attention.
“Loki, your guide needs the aid of a healer,” Thor said gently. “You must be calm so they can approach.”
“Nice job with those guys, Lokes,” Tony added, letting Thor set her on a bench. They were still outside the range of Loki’s ice — which she was so going to demand a replay of, because it was very cool, ha!, and also the kind of magic that JARVIS and her sensors might actually be able to get some data from. “They aren’t going anywhere, they’re definitely scared bloodless of you, everybody’s alive for questioning and, honestly, that lot will probably spill their guts to the Fibbies in exchange for getting away from you. Prison will seem like a gift compared to a pissed off sentinel.”
Slowly, the stiffness eased from Frosty’s spine and his attention turned from potential victims to Tony and his brother. Who, despite looking like a jock, had a damn brain because he waved off anyone who looked like they were trying to come to the boss’s aid. Thor might be safe from Loki’s feral rage — pack and brother bonds ran deeply between them — but anyone else might be seen as a threat to her right now.
From the corner of her eye, Tony saw Pep cut off the approaching emergency services, aided by the bulk and gravitas of Tyr. And, yeah, right on time; two news trucks rolled in right behind the EMTs. So predictable.
Thank science that Loki was once more a probable skin tone.
“Tyr, tell them they need to send a Guide EMT only. We’ll get Loki calmed down so they can start evacing the building.” Thor nodded, letting her know the message was being passed on.
Which was how she found herself permitting a dark-eyed guide to swipe alcohol along her forehead while two Sentinels hovered over her. “Fucking hell! What are you using, lady?”
“Don’t whine, Stark, you’ve drunk more potent alcohol than this swab has.”
“Okay, I like you. Loki, make a note that we like her.”
Her sentinel managed a faint smile, still stiff and twitchy and all but growling as he watched the feds extract six assholes from icicles. “So noted.”
The guide eyed Loki, not fearfully but professionally. “First feral episode?”
“Yes,” he managed. Thor settled his hand on Loki’s neck and squeezed gently, which seemed to settle him further.
“Well, normally you’d be encouraged to retreat to the local Sentinel-Guide Centre or to a private Pride space. But since you aren’t part of the local Prides,” Tony snorted, earning a wry smile, “and you have people you trust to support you, I think you’ll be alright. I do advise that you get somewhere a little less in the open fairly soon though, preferably with your brother and guide.”
“Definitely on the schedule, once the building is clear. How’s that going?”
Both brothers tilted their heads as the EMT went back to prodding her. “They have removed all but six people from the building; so far no one has been injured fatally.” Thor shifted. “They could use the aid of a sentinel.”
“I should not leave you.”
Loki scowled at Thor. “I am not a child. Do your duty, Sentinel.” Thor shook Loki gently by the neck, huffed, and headed into the office building.
“Brothers, huh?” The EMT started using butterfly bandages on Tony’s forehead. “I’ve got six of them.”
“You have my deepest sympathies, Guide Hernandez.”
That won him a chuckle. “Right, so you don’t need stitches; the forehead laceration is long and shallow, but not deep. Scalp wounds bleed like crazy, which explains all the mess. You should see your doctor within 24 hours — those ribs aren’t broken, but you should have an x-ray to confirm.” Tony laughed. “Yeah, yeah, Stark, you might ignore medical advice but I bet your sentinel won’t.”
She opened her mouth to respond, then got a good look at Loki’s face. “Shit, you’re going to be a tyrant about this, aren't you?” She scowled at Hernandez. “Dirty pool, woman.”
The guide smirked. “Like I said, lots of brothers. You learn to fight mean. Watch for any lightheadedness, dizzy spells or loss of consciousness; any problems and you go straight to a doctor or Emergency. Got it?”
“Yeah, yeah, I know the concussion drill.” She eyed Pepper and Tyr, who were surrounded by insistent reporters. “How’s that going?”
“They have many questions, but after the first time Tyr growled at one who spoke rudely to Pepper, they are behaving with decorum. Pepper is handling them with her usual deftness.” Loki cocked his head, listening. “Tyr is perhaps the best of us to answer their questions. He is older than Thor and I and his temperament is unflappable. He is well-versed in diplomacy.”
“Aliens, huh?” Hernandez looked up from the kit she was repacking. “Do they all look like you three?”
Tony poked her amused sentinel. “See? It’s a perfectly reasonable question!” To the guide, she said, “I’ve only met a few, but it seems like it. And the one Aesir woman I’ve met? Damn .”
That won her a grin and an exasperated sigh. Since the level of anger Loki was projecting was steadily decreasing, Tony was content to keep up the banter indefinitely. Of course, there was the deep well of apprehension laced with fear. . . but that required privacy and chat with Tyr to resolve. It had not escaped anyone’s notice that the general was the only one not surprised by Loki’s change in colour.
“So magic is a thing then?” Tony groaned. “And sentinels on other planets?”
“Magic is a thing, yes, despite my guide’s distaste for it. And, yes, each of the inhabited worlds of Yggdrasil have both sentinels and guides among their populations.”
“Aliens and magic and sentinels, oh my.”
Tony had permitted one reporter — with a reputation for a smidge of journalistic integrity and without a background in gossip-mongering, hard as that was to find in California — close enough to ask a few questions while Loki hovered. Since the woman had a brain, she’d kept ten feet between them and had asked permission before asking Loki anything directly. Since Tony had given the woman the exclusive of the year, a little manners weren’t out of place, but still surprising from the fifth estate.
Barton slid onto the bench near Tony as the reporter darted away to conquer the airwaves. “Fury is shitting a brick.”
“Good, I hope it lodges.”
The archer — yes, she’d hacked his file, that’s what she did — laughed. “Nice job on the discovering alien life and keeping it quiet.”
“Nice job in Budapest. Six hundred yards, right?”
Nearby, a loud sigh emerged from the agent standing at a discreet distance. “That’s classified, Stark.”
She made a rude noise. “Then you need to put more money in computer security, and less in that flying erection. Seriously; five minutes without using JARVIS’ processing speed.” Loki chuckled.
“Some people would say you should have kept this a secret entirely.”
“Some people are idiots; fortunately, since I’m not suffering a skin irritation, there are none nearby.”
Barton smirked. “Damnit, I like you, Stark. Usually only I can make Phil’s eyelid twitch like that. Let it go, man,” he told his sentinel. “It wasn’t a secret anyone could keep long term, and the coverup would have made things worse when it got out. Besides, in the grand scheme of things, people finding out there are powerful alien races within the reach of Earth by means of a sentinel going feral when a guide was injured by terrorists? You can’t buy that kind of good PR.”
“Terrorists?” Loki growled.
“That’s the story the media is running with; they assume it was revenge on Ms Stark for the damage done to their organization in her escape. It’s simpler to let them run with that.”
“Don’t start none, won’t be none.” Coulson sighed. “And the real story?”
“Mercenaries for hire. Normally such men would be difficult to interrogate, but under the circumstances. . .” Loki’s smirk was full of teeth. “They’re already producing information about their employer.”
“Yes.” Coulson eyed Loki. “Are you under control?” The flat stare he received was apparently an answer. “Stane had ties to the Ten Rings. He hired them to kill you — though he didn’t tell them who you were. That’s why they took you prisoner.”
“He didn’t pay them enough.”
“You were certainly worth more alive than dead.”
“Their mistake,” Barton snarked.
Loki wove his seidr gently along his guide’s injuries. “I dislike the scent of your blood.”
“Yeah, I definitely got that impression.”
He laid a hand over her damaged ribs. Only a thin layer of silken fabric separated their skin, which made it easy for the warmth of his healing spell to sink in. His guide sighed softly as the pain leeched away. He swallowed at the sound.
“I wish to take you to Asgard so that Lady Eir may see to you.”
That won him a frown. “You’re doing fine.”
“Minor injuries only; I have little talent for the healing arts.” Carefully he tapped the reactor in her chest. “Repairing this is beyond me.”
“I’m fine —”
“Your heart is damaged, you have foreign items in your body that threaten your life, the bone and muscle of your chest were badly damaged in an attempt to save your life and the device that is keeping you alive is slowly killing you.” Tony glared. “You told me that the reactor is powered by palladium. It was not hard to find information on heavy metals. Even if Eir cannot heal you enough that the reactor is not necessary, there may be an alternative power source available.”
He said nothing as she rose to pace. The sound of her silk nightclothes was a luxury and a temptation. Part of him wanted to be irritated that his guide’s signature colour was his brother’s red — but it suited her so well that he could not be upset.
“Tell me what was up with the blue skin and ice. Thor said that he’d gone berserk once, and that he never changed colour.”
Loki flinched minutely. “He did not.”
“But you did.”
“So. . .”
He breathed deeply. “I am not only one-quarter Jotun.” Loki knew that Tony would not react to that; she had not grown up hearing tales of the monstrous Jotnar. Still, her lack of fear was a balm.
“Apparently I was not the only orphaned Jotun brought home to Asgard, though most were adopted by others of Jotun descent and many left Asgard over the years.” That so many of his kin — Jotnar and mage — had been driven to other worlds by the lingering propaganda of the war infuriated him. “I was the last brought back, on the last day of battle. One more spoil of war for Odin’s vault.”
“Hey,” Tony settled next to him on the bed. They had retreated to Tony’s bed chamber for privacy. “Odin’s actions are not your responsibility. I learned that lesson about my own dad.”
He pressed his face against her throat; she had washed away the scent of blood and weapons fire earlier, leaving only her own scent. Lilac and smoke and warm metal. Fire and iron and sweet femininity.
“Tyr knew because he was there that day, as were some of the other high ranking warriors. When Frigga presented a new son only a day after their return to Asgard, he realized the truth. No doubt others know as well; it certainly explains some of the looks I have long received.”
She stroked her fingers through his hair. “So, on a scale of zero to bloody murder, how angry are you with Tyr?”
“Annoyed but not violent.”
“Huh, not bad.”
“He made sure that both Thor and I knew the truth of the Jotnar, their history and culture. Though he lied by omission, he gave me the tools to accept the truth.” He thought of the day that they had learned that their — that Thor’s grandmother was Jotun. “Not only me, but Thor as well.”
She hummed softly. “So, pranks but not seething resentment.”
“His armour will be blue for a month. And occasionally grow very cold. Especially his sword belt.”
“Cold balls; excellent punishment.”
He rubbed his nose along her throat, scenting. “I called you my guide in public several times today, and you did not demure.”
“I was traumatized.”
He laughed. “Liar.”
“Head injuries lead to erratic behaviour.” Loki pressed a soft kiss to her neck, making her gasp. “You heard the EMT.”
He nipped along her jaw. “She did not seem particularly concerned about your mental state.” Her scent was growing stronger and richer with arousal. Loki let his senses open to better imprint the changes in his guide. “Nor did Pepper, when she sent me to your bedroom to see to your health.”
“That traitor.” Tony dug her fingers into his shoulders as he eased her gently to the bed. “I’m definitely compromised.” Her leg slid over his hip and dragged him after her. “Fortunately, I’m a genius. Even in a weakened state, all my ideas are brilliant.”
He drew away her silken shirt, inhaling sharply. Soft golden skin marred only by the scars of a life lived fiercely and the blue glow of the arc reactor; it’s low thrum a counterpoint to Tony’s heartbeat. “Guide.”
“Well, since apparently I’m so awesome that it takes an alien mage to be a match for me, I guess I might keep you. Sentinel.” She frowned. “But only if I’m not the only one to get naked.”
“Your plans are reasonable.” He dragged off his own shirt.
“Screw you, my plans are awesome. Also, damn.” Calloused fingers traced down his chest, making him shudder as touch spiked. “Right, definitely keeping you.”
“You would have found it very difficult to get rid of me, had you tried.” He set about undressing them both.
“So, plans?” She hummed as he kissed her hip.
“I thought that I would help you wage war on your enemies; I look forward to seeing the result of your current endeavor.” He thought of the armour in the basement. She would be magnificent in battle.
“Also, I look forward to the entertainment of Tyr courting your partner,” he smiled against her skin at her muttered “I knew it.” “And I intend to introduce you to Asgard. It promises to be amusing.”
“Can I fuck with them?”
He paused. “That is the most romantic thing anyone has ever spoken to me.” He kissed the curve of her breast.
“Stick with me, babe.”
“I intend to. Did you know that Sentinels and Guides are judged worthy of the gifts of Asgard, without the trials others must undergo?”
She hummed and abruptly flipped them. He laughed as she settled above him. “Thor might have mentioned something about that. Golden apples, really?”
“Good thing apples are my favourite.” Tony examined him clinically. “So, how many senses have you imprinted?”
“Scent and hearing. Taste, touch and sight will require a. . . thorough examination.”
Her grin was debauched. “JARVIS, lockdown, bonding protocol. 48 hours.”
“Well, Sentinel? What are you waiting for?”
He reached for her even as her shields unfolded, allowing the weight of her mind and emotions to settle over him. Loki shuddered, instantly twice as aroused.
“You are perfect for me, Guide.” He swallowed her laugh with his mouth and set about claiming the centre of his world.
All the Credits
Seriously, it takes a lot of people to make one of these things
Lots of people
End Credits, thank fuck
Ok, we lied there are a few more
Obligatory Post-Credits Teaser Scene — this is the reason no one gets up in movie theatres anymore, thanks Marvel
Loki sauntered into the Great Hall of Asgard’s palace followed by his brother, Tyr and Pepper Potts. As he passed the ranks of feasting Aesir, many took note of both the stranger and the younger prince’s smirk. There were murmurs of curiosity, questioning glances, dire predictions — and chuckles of anticipation.
Odin and Frigga saw them coming; the queen smiled in welcome and the All-Father frowned warily. Good.
“All-Father; Mother,” both princes addressed their parents with inclined heads. The general was more deferential, bowing his head. Pepper merely smiled at the inquiring looks — Odin promptly dismissed her, but Frigga looked amused.
“So you have finally made your presence known,” Odin stated. “You have both been more from Asgard than within it these past months.”
Loki’s smile had a hint of teeth. “Have we neglected any of our duties, All-Father?”
Odin frowned. “You have not.”
“Well, then.” With the air of someone who had abruptly remembered something important, Loki said, “Ah! My deepest apologies — may I present Guide Virginia Potts of Midgard. Lady Pepper, King Odin and Queen Frigga of Asgard.”
Some of the nearby nobles began to look worried; the presence of a female Guide in the company of the Sentinel Princes of Asgard could well mean disaster for the plans of those with eligible daughters.
Frigga’s lips curved. She recognized her youngest child’s mischief at work. So did Odin, who frowned more fiercely.
“A guide of Midgard? A true guide, not one with potential?”
“Indeed — there are many guides and sentinels on Midgard, as we have discovered. Is that not true, brother?”
“Verily, Loki. I am pleased with our many new acquaintances there.” Thor’s smile was sweet; only those who knew him well would see the humour lurking is his eyes as he aided his brother in setting up a prank.
Sif, standing guard behind the queen’s seat, barely stifled a laugh.
“Indeed brother, so am I — as I have found my guide among them.”
That set loose the feline amid the avians.
“No, that is impossible!”
“Mother, you said I would marry the prince!”
“A mortal ?”
“ A female guide, damn him! If only the guide was a man.”
“Prince Thor must marry immediately, to ensure the succession.”
“All my plans — ruined.”
Loki and Thor shared a sharp, vicious grin. Pepper hid hers behind a hand.
Odin spoke sharply over the growing noise. “Loki, you claim this woman as your guide?”
“Hmmm? Oh, no! Lady Pepper is not my guide.”
Dozens of eyes turned to a grinning Thor. The looks of horror, shock, and disappointment grew. To lose a prince to an outsider was bad enough; far worse was that the outsider was a female guide, thereby defying the need for a wife to ensure the future royal line of Asgard? But to lose the Crown Prince in such a way?
The Queen smothered a laugh. The ambitious courtiers had forgotten the third sentinel standing before the High Table, and it was General Tyr that stood closest to the lovely mortal guide.
Frigga had always appreciated her sons senses of humour — particularly when it was directed at others. And when she had a good seat.
Odin sighed at the chaos, well aware that it was exactly what his children had intended. “Thor.”
“Is this woman your guide?”
Thor managed a credible expression of confusion. “Which woman, Father?”
Surely he had not committed so many sins as to deserve not one, but two tricksters for sons. “This one,” he gestured, “whom you call Lady Pepper.”
The crown prince turned to the redhaired guide. “Pepper?”
She didn’t even try to hid her grin. “Yes, Thor, he means me.”
“Ah!” He turned back to the resigned king. “Though an argument could be made that Pepper may only belong to herself —”
“And has been,” she muttered to the amusement of all three sentinels.
“— and any sentinel should be fortunate to find so fierce a partner and companion —”
“Indeed,” Tyr drawled.
“— I must be content to call Lady Pepper my guide-sister, friend, and Pride-kin.”
“I see,” Odin stated as sighs of relief passed through the gathered nobles. “Then why, I would ask, have you brought her before me?”
“I did not bring her, All-Father.”
Norns, he needed a nap. A long one. “Loki, why have you brought this guide before me?”
Loki smiled sweetly; Odin nearly winced at that particular expression. It boded ill. “I have not, sire.”
“Then —” His one eye fell upon Tyr. “I see. Lord General Tyr, you claim this woman as your guide?”
The dark general and Alpha Sentinel of Asgard stepped forward, the human woman at his side. “Though one might argue —”
“And have ,” the guide chimed in. “Repeatedly.” Frigga chuckled.
“ — that I may not claim possession of a woman, sound of mind and body, Lady Pepper has consented to keep me.”
“He begged,” she informed the queen. “It was tragic, so I took pity on him.”
“There were tears,” Thor said solemnly.
“I can still drag you to the practice fields and force you to run drills until you drop,” the general stated, exasperated.
“Only if you catch us,” Loki smirked.
Frigga rested her chin on her hand, examining the woman standing before her. “I like you.” That won her a grin. “You shall sit with me, dear, so I might whisper our General’s most embarrassing secrets to you.”
“This was a terrible idea,” Tyr informed Thor.
“Loki,” Odin interrupted the banter. “You claim to have found your guide, but have not presented them. Why?”
The whispers began again; the crowd had been distracted from the earlier announcement by subsequent events.
Loki felt a grin, sharp and amused and a little feral, grow. His — adopted — father’s wary expression made him all the more amused. “You wish to meet my guide, All-Father?”
Odin frowned, seeing the pitfall but unable to avoid it. “Yes.”
Loki chuckled. Pepper caught Tyr’s arm and drew him back several paces. Thor grinned at their mother. “Very well.”
A streak of red and gold shot passed the arched windows of the east wall, then banked and did the same along the west side. There were shouts of surprise and screams and the rattle of weapons being drawn, and a figure encased in armour flew through the open doors of the Hall. It buzzed the crowd — producing yet more chaos — soared and tumbled towards the high ceiling, then dropped before the High Table in a crouch and a rattling thump .
“My guide, All-Father.” Loki drawled.
Odin recovered his composure far more quickly than the courtiers — even the Warriors Three and Sif were surprised, not having seen this new armour as yet. Even as Tony rose from her three-point stance, the king stood, examining the gold and red suit with respect and caution.
“This man is your guide?”
There were gasps of surprise and murmurs and interest as the armour pieces began to move, parting and folding back so that the figure within could emerge.
“Man? Really? I know the suit is a little androgynous — breasts aren’t super aerodynamic, not to mention a target — but that’s quite an assumption.”
Loki’s guide stepped out of her armour, dark curls tumbled and eyes smudged with smoke and gold. She was a vision in black and gold — dress, hair, complexion — except for the vivid red of her smirk. Gold and diamonds gleamed at her ears, throat and wrists; a delicate chain circled one ankle above sharp heels — Loki wanted to nip his way from that ankle upwards. The slashing v of her neckline revealed the otherworldly glow of the reactor, glowing with life and light and appearing as seidr .
She was sin and silk, sex gilded in gold and violence wrapped in luxury; fragile skin and sultry flesh formed around a core of steel. Amid the demure modesty and sweeping skirts of Asgard, her bare arms and knee-length skirt were alien and exotic.
Loki was made aware that he was all but drooling when Thor clasped his shoulder. “Steady, brother.”
He ignored the oaf’s amusement as he stepped forward. Odin’s face was everything he could wish for — bemused, baffled and, yes, openly gaping. “Odin, King of Asgard; Frigga, Queen of Asgard and Vanaheimr. May I present Antonia Eleanor Stark of Midgard — genius, billionaire, inventor and guide. My guide,” he added.
“Christ, call me Tony — except you,” she pointed to Frigga. “You can call me anything you like. Damn , Thor, no wonder you’re so hot; you look like your mom.”
Thor sighed. “Please do not flirt with my mother.”
“I’m sure she’s used to it; I mean, look at her.” Tony spun in a circle, taking in the Hall while Frigga blinked in surprise, then looked pleased. “Okay, seriously, what’s with all the gold?” She looked to Odin, who was still stunned. “I totally get the whole ‘dazzle and impress’ act” she waved a hand at the armour, “and I love gilt as much as any modern billionaire with a taste for flash, but the unrelieved gold is a little much for even me. You could break up all the shiny a little, you know; a contrasting colour, a little artwork, maybe a mural or two. Ever consider that, Big Daddy?”
The king of Asgard looked. . . gobsmacked. The incredulous, baffled, jaw dropping confusion in the face of Tony Stark’s patented charm looked nothing so much as if Odin had been smacked in the face with a fish.
“I love you,” Loki managed to tell his guide, “as a thousand stars burning.” And then laughed until he was breathless.
The End (really)