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We All Enjoyed the Weekend for a Change

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Location: Universe MS, Designation: Beta
New York City
Avengers Mansion
sublevels
(six weeks post anomaly)

The Avengers are just back from their latest outing, their voices fading down the hall as they head to the elevator and continue on to the mansion above.

Tony lingers in his armory, divesting himself of his armor and pulling a towel over his head, rubbing it through his hair. "JARVIS, mark this one on the map, would you?"

"Already done, sir."

Tony sighs as he looks at the map. The last few weeks have been a rather… interesting time. "Just to confirm J, the signature was present at today’s, hmm, incident?"

"Yes, sir. I would like to mention that at this time I have enough data to extrapolate a future occurrence."

"That’s just great." Looks like this is finally reaching the point that he needs tell Steve.

"Yes, sir. I predict sixteen days until the signature reoccurs with enough strength to register." JARVIS’s data flashes on the map. "Probability of occurrence within twenty miles of this location is 82%."

Well, telling Steve can probably wait till they get back from visiting T'Challa.

 



Avengers Mansion
Kitchen
(two weeks later)

There's not really a good way to say it. They're finally back from Wakanda and Steve's shield is all shiny and new and unbroken, so Tony figures breakfast the next day is as good a time as any.

Tony takes a gulp from his mug of coffee. "So, I noticed something."

Steve looks at Tony over the rim of his glass. "Okay," he acknowledges.

Tony looks away, and it's not just because raw eggs are the most disgusting thing ever and he can't imagine he's thinking about kissing the mouth that's swallowing them. He fiddles with his mug between his fingers. "It's just something I noticed a few weeks ago. JARVIS has been tracking an energy signal and... Look, you're a bit less stressed out now, so I thought I'd mention it, because I know that, if there was something going on, throwing a shield at it makes you feel better, and..."

"Tony," Steve says patiently. "What is it?"

Tony takes a deep breath. "I think Loki is still here. The one from the other reality, Delta."

Steve reaches for Tony's hand. It's a claiming sort of gesture, but Steve relaxes as he does it and he takes Tony's hand in his in more of a comforting way and starts stroking his thumb along the inside of Tony's wrist. "What makes you think so?"

Tony takes another deep breath, but he is comforted by Steve's touch and he forges ahead. "Our Loki is supposedly locked away in some sort of prison, right? Well, wherever he's supposed to be he's still there. I asked Thor." Tony looks away. "I think I made him depressed, but he confirmed that wherever Loki's supposed to be, Odin's not worried about him not being there."

Steve nods to show he's following.

"You may have noticed the… unusual disasters we've successfully prevented of late?" Tony reaches for his Starkpad.

Steve snorts. "’Unusual’ is one word for it."

Tony grins with a touch of wistfulness. "There will never be anything as excellent as saving the world from a pile of self-replicating frogs the size of Manhattan. And that guy who set himself on fire when he was trying to escape? Though he and the guy who was really impressed with his own jumping skills both take a backseat to that guy last week with the glue gun. That was hilarious."

Steve shoots him a disapproving look, but he’s smiling, too. "There has certainly been a bizarrely… chaotic nature to what’s been keeping us busy lately," Steve observes thoughtfully. "And you think that proves that Loki’s involved?"

Tony passes him the Starkpad with JARVIS’ map displayed. "There’s an energy signature tied to almost every event we’ve been involved with in the last five weeks. Not always to the perpetrator directly, but close enough to where shit went down to not be a coincidence."

Steve nods. "What do you think he’s up to?" he muses as he studies the map.

The question might be rhetorical, but Tony rolls his eyes and says, "You're asking the wrong guy." He clears his throat and puts down his coffee mug. "JARVIS can predict where the signature is likely to turn up next, so I was about to head down and ask him."

Steve reaches for Tony’s hand again. "I'm going with you." It's a tone that brokers no argument. Tony takes a little too long to respond and Steve's fingers tighten around his wrist. "I'm going with you, Tony," he repeats. "You can't think I'd let you go without backup. If..." He trails off and Tony wonders what he's thinking. "If it is this other Loki that you think it is, there must be some reason he's still here." He doesn't say it aloud, but Tony knows that he's thinking it: if Delta-Loki is here, the most likely reason is that somehow the other Tony, the one that Loki loves, is dead, and now Loki is here to stalk this Tony and somehow pull a repeat performance. Tony plans to tell him to step off and look for a different universe, because that's not fucking likely in this one.

But Tony grins, because Steve is Steve and that is awesome. "Yeah." He rests his other hand over Steve's. "I'm just glad that the first words out of your mouth weren't 'you're absolutely not going' or 'let's call the team.'"

Steve grins back. "Tony, I would never tell you what do to." Tony snorts in disbelief. "And I think maybe the full team is a bit much for a first contact operation." Steve frowns thoughtfully. "This feels… off. When Loki- our real Loki, I suppose- was organizing the Masters of Evil, it definitely felt more… intentionally harmful."

"There has definitely been a run of weirdly good luck for us lately in the ‘make it out of this alive’ category," Tony agrees.

Steve’s expression clears and he smiles at Tony. "And we can always call for more backup if we need to."

 


 


New Hampshire
Hampton Beach

They're in some coastal resort town in New Hampshire which is where JARVIS predicts the location of the next appearance of the energy signal to be. It’s late summer and the beach is popular.

There’s civilians everywhere and no indication of anything supernatural brewing, so Tony and Steve are wandering along the boardwalk with all the tourists and Steve actually loosens up a little, like this is an actual date or something, and he's smiling shyly at Tony, and Tony thing what the fuck, this is a date. He reaches over for Steve's hand, and Steve flushes a bit but they're holding hands, walking down the sidewalk in some nowhere beach town in fucking New Hampshire. "I feel normal," Tony hears himself saying. "Is this what normal feels like? I've never felt like this before."

Steve kisses his cheek, but Tony's kind of ruined it too because Steve reclaims his hand. They turn and cross the boulevard and lean on a railing that runs along the sidewalk, looking down at the beach.

There are some nice looking people on that beach, no lie, and just because he's in a relationship doesn't mean he's blind. So Tony's looking down the beach when he's pretty sure Steve himself is watching the water and the waves, and Tony's also pretty sure that, with the cool breeze and the warm sun, both of them have forgotten why they're here.

Not far from where they're standing, this bombshell in a bikini is whipping long black hair up into a twist to keep it off her neck- which is a nice, sinuous curve that seems to call attention to itself, not that the rest of her isn't eye-grabbing as well. She turns to talk to someone beside her, and Tony sees her face in profile. There is something extremely familiar about her, and he looks closer wondering if this is a dish he's already sampled. It's been awhile, and he doesn't really remember her, so maybe not? She and her companion pull on wraps and gather up their belongings and turn to start walking down the beach toward where Steve and Tony are standing. Something her companion says amuses her and her green eyes narrow and flash with humor, and Tony feels like he's been kicked in the gut.

"Motherfucker," he murmurs.

"Tony!" Steve says in reproof.

Tony puts his hand on Steve's wrist. "I found him. But he's not exactly himself at the moment." Steve doesn't get it, but the woman looks up and she has seen them- has seen Tony seeing her. She frowns, but doesn't flee. She says something to her companion and they part ways. She walks resolutely toward where Tony is standing and Steve sees her finally.

It takes him a minute, which Tony doesn't begrudge, because while every feature is the same as Loki's, they are softened with unfamiliar curves which makes the overall picture just different enough to be someone else entirely. As she approaches, Steve frowns. "That... is that him?"

And then she is standing right in front of them, on the other side of the railing. She raises her chin and regards them coldly.

Tony is thinking. "You're not him," he murmurs, because Delta-Loki never had that haunted weariness in his eyes. "You must be one of the other ones. Epsilon, maybe." Tony isn't sure if that's better or worse. But maybe he's wrong, maybe this is Delta-Loki. "You aren't him, right?" he asks, louder.

She raises an eyebrow at him. "Do I look like him?" She smirks.

"You are Loki," Steve says, but it's mostly a question.

She looks at both of them, and at the railing that separates them from her, and at the beach full of civilians. "Yes," she says. Her eyes flicker skyward. "Though it would be better if you didn't say so. I'd rather not be noticed."

Steve looks up as well. "Someone is watching you?"

She sighs. "I can hide myself, but certain words will call attention that I would rather avoid." She folds her arms. "Was there something you wanted from me?"

"Actually, that's my question." Tony regards her suspiciously. "So you're not from Delta? But O... the you that's supposed to be here is where he's supposed to be."

Loki smirks and rolls her eyes. "That's what you're supposed to think, obviously. And no, I do not hail from the universe you call Delta." She mockingly tosses Tony a kiss and turns to Steve, ignoring Tony. "Was there anything else you needed?"

"Yes." Steve gives her the full on Captain-America-Stare. "What are you doing here?"

"Enjoying the beach," she says, like only an idiot would ask such a question.

Tony rolls his eyes. "I have not missed that condescending tone of voice," he mutters under his breath. Loki continues to ignore him.

Steve regards her sternly. "What are you up to?"

"Nothing," she rejoins, the innocent act laid on a little too thickly.

Tony scoffs.

Steve turns the stare into the patented Captain-America-is-disappointed-in-you glower.

"Ooh." Loki shivers. "That's just mean." She pouts. "Fine, I'll tell you." She folds her arms and looks up and down the beach again a little too pointedly, like she's reminding Steve that people could get hurt if he's not careful. And she proceeds to admit to exactly nothing, saying only, "If you found me, then you know already. I was just having a little fun."

"Fun?" Tony laughs.

Steve is not impressed. "You put people's lives in danger."

"But no one was in danger," Loki reminds him. "Because of you."

Steve glowers, but Tony has to admit, privately, that that’s been one of the things that impressed him about the recent incidents- there has been no loss of life, even the guy who accidentally set himself on fire survived to be arrested.

Loki spreads her hands in the face of Steve’s scowl. "Fine, fine," she says with resignation, "I'll stop."

"Why do I not believe you?" Tony muses.

Loki huffs indignantly. "I’ll stick with little things from now on, then," she cajoles. "Small bits of fun. And a few tiny schemes, just to get a little money, hmm? No more putting people’s lives in danger." She smiles winningly.

Steve sighs. "Come and sit down and we'll talk about this."

Loki's expression is suddenly wary as she regards them from the other side of the railing. "I do not wish for a confrontation, but be warned I will not submit to being imprisoned by you, and I will burn your world to ash before I allow myself to be returned to Asgard."

Steve had started to turn away, back toward the main boardwalk, but he turns back to her and gives her the full weight of his considerable gaze again. "I will promise you that as long as you don't intend to hurt anyone in the future, we won't try to imprison you." Tony grumbles, but Steve raises his hand. "I give you my word. But," he continues, "if you willfully bring lasting, bodily harm to any person on this planet, I will personally ensure that you are locked in our supervillain prison."

Loki regards him carefully, then nods. She steps forward and places one hand on the railing, lightly springing over it to land on their side. Steve is between her and Tony, and Tony's pretty sure that's entirely on purpose. Tony glowers at the back of Loki's head for good measure and runs his finger along the wrist cuff that contains the suit gauntlet. Steve wants to play nice; Tony's pretty sure that Loki, even if it's not the Loki he thought it was, is going to double-cross them.

Loki leads them back across the boulevard and up the street to a cafe. The waitress seems to know her, and she secures them a table at the edge of the patio. Loki takes the seat at the rear of the table, forcing Steve and Tony to sit with their backs to the street. Tony drags his chair to the side so that he can watch both angles and Loki scowls but refuses to look at Tony. Steve takes his seat without comment.

"Why are you still in this universe?" Steve asks after they've been served drinks. "I was under the impression that everything had to be put correct or else the issues we had with the universes entangling would continue."

Loki grins at him. "Look at you, Captain, learning all about cross-universal physics." She makes a vague, rude gesture at Tony. "Rubbing off a bit?"

Tony laughs. Steve turns slightly pinker than the bright sun can account for but does not look deterred.

"Steve's not stupid," Tony says bluntly. "And stop avoiding the question."

Loki sighs. "You're no fun at all, are you? Fine. My being here doesn't hurt anything. Let's just say I switched places with your regularly scheduled liesmith. I think he'll enjoy my universe so much better than this one. No annoying Avengers hanging around to mess up his plans." She leans back in her chair. "I, however, prefer a world that isn't a post-apocalyptic wasteland in need of remodeling." She shrugs. "We both win. I might be a famous liar, but I've done my term with the Titan and I'm well finished with megalomania. Satisfied?"

Steve shakes his head. "You didn't answer my earlier question. What are you doing here?"

Loki frowns, and Tony wants to kick himself because she's damn cute when she's playing dumb and he's starting to understand Delta-Tony more than he ever wanted to. "He means what are you doing hanging out on Earth messing with us. Hell, what the fuck are you doing in New Hampshire when you could be literally anywhere else in the universe?"

"Ah." Loki swirls her drink for a moment and doesn't answer. Tony kind of wants to wring her neck. Loki is watching Steve carefully, and Tony realizes she may be responding to his words but she's still pretending to ignore the hell out of him and is focusing her attention on Steve. "Would you believe me if I told you, I wonder?"  She doesn't wait for an answer. "I don't know what Lokis you've dealt with in the past, but as for me there is only one thing I want, only one thing I love. And it's dead." She touches the table, and stares at nothing for a brief moment before coming back to herself. "So, for the moment my only goal is to enjoy myself. I'm on Midgard for now because it's an easy place to hide."

"For the moment?" Steve prods.

"A moment for one who has five thousand years to spend can last for decades," Loki returns. "I will not remain here forever, but while I am in your realm I will play nice, as you say. I do owe you, Avengers, for making it possible that I could experience this world. I will abide by your ruling and not seek death for any human."

Tony can't help but think this is too easy, there must be some loophole, some lie in this somewhere. He looks at Steve; Steve looks like he's eating this up. Tony nudges his shin under the table. Steve turns to look at Tony. "I believe him," he says. He turns back to Loki. "Is that right, or should I say 'her'?"

Loki looks smug. "Thank you for asking, Captain. When I am as such you may refer to me as 'she.'" She looks at Tony, for the first time letting her attention rest on him fully. "I am not him," she says. "This other Loki that you think I am."

Tony stares back at her. He nods finally. "Okay. I'm not saying I want to be super best friends, but I'll try to stop hassling you about things that aren't your fault."

Loki smirks and Tony instantly regrets having said anything.

 


 

 

Avengers Mansion
Tony’s armory
(three weeks later)

"I am not running a supervillain probation program!" Tony glares up at Loki. "And how the hell did you get in here?"

"Did I not make myself clear when we met on the beach? I have even less interest in supervillains than you do," Loki says as she walks further into Tony's armory. "And it was Black Panther, for your information, who introduced me to JARVIS."

Tony growls. "I knew he had it in for me. JARVIS?"

"Sir, I am keeping an eye on Loki while she is in the mansion."

Tony growls again. "What are you doing here?"

Loki leans over Tony’s workstation, examining with interest the schematic Tony has open in the air before him. "That seems to be the question you people always have for me," she observes. "I was upstairs, but your Avengers are rather boring. When I attempted to, hmm, make things more interesting, Captain Rogers said you needed my assistance and I should come down here."

Tony is aghast. "I do not need your assistance." But he huffs a deep breath and adds, "But since you’re here, if you’re half as intelligent as the other you, I suppose any insight you have would be useful." Tony turns back to the schematic. "I based this design off of something I designed in the other reality. I think the other me had a different power source, so I'm having trouble getting it to align with the tachyon particles."

Loki nods. "Tachyon particles do give off a rather specific frequency. Are you using the Kree tech for the interface or sticking with Kang's base?"

Tony glares at her, but answer grudgingly, "I thought it would work better with the original housing."

"That is astute. The Kree do everything backwards, like the obnoxious warmongers they are."

"I feel like I should take offence to that, but I'm not really sure."

Loki laughs. "Feel free to, but the prerogative is your own." She pulls up one of JARVIS' screens and says, "I do hate to mention it, but if you don't stabilize the flow it will blow through whatever generator you use."

"For the love of!" Tony waggles a socket wrench at Loki. "You know, Thor used to be my least favorite Asgardian who hangs out in my mansion too much."

Loki grins. "Unlike you, I'm well aware of when I ought to be offended, I just don't care." Her expression falters for a moment. "Where is Thor?"

Tony frowns, already elbow deep in the housing. "Fuck if I know. JARVIS?"

"Thor Odinson is currently not within range of any of my scanners."

Tony grunts as he tightens a bolt. "Looks like he headed home again. He's been all over the place lately, but JARVIS can usually reach him unless he's gone to Asgard. It hit us all kind of hard when Foster died, and I'm sure he's dealing with it in whatever way that superior, godlike beings deal with shit like that." Finished, he turns to Loki. "And I think it made him sad, meeting so many different versions of his brother when his is the one who's straight up evil and crazy to boot."

Loki is looking at her hands where she is turning one of the socket heads over and over between her fingers. Tony would say she looks pensive, like she wants to ask Tony something but also kind of doesn't, when JARVIS interrupts.

"Sir, given recent past events I thought you should be made aware that Captain Rogers has vanished from the mansion."

Tony drops the socket wrench. "What?" He's pulling himself out of where he's tangled up with the housing. "Vanished, what the fuck? Where is he, JARVIS?"

"Captain Rogers is not within range of any of my scanners."

Tony runs upstairs. "Steve?" he calls, looking in the kitchen, where he and T'Challa left Steve earlier, and moving on to their bedroom when he finds nothing in the kitchen.

Steve's shield is sitting on the floor carelessly, and Tony picks it up. Steve himself is nowhere. Tony doesn't realize he's still holding the shield as he returns to the Assembly Hall. "JARVIS, show me what happened."

JARVIS plays him the footage: Steve, in uniform, walks into frame. He's affixing his cowl, and he reaches down to pick up the shield. As he's lifting it, there is a bright light and the shield slips from his fingers to clatter to the floor. Steve's outline fades as he disappears from view entirely.

Tony's fingers are closed so tightly around the edge of the shield they start to go numb. "JARVIS," he demands. "What the fuck happened?"

"Unable to determine at this time. Analysis running."

"Whoever did this used Yggdrasil," Loki says softly behind him and Tony whirls to face her.

"You know who did this?"

Loki shakes her head, her eyes on the footage. "I know how it was done. That is all." She looks shifty for a moment. "I know several persons who would be capable of this, but I don't know what their status is in your world or even if any of them would still be in a position to have access to Yggdrasil's power to transport across the realms."

Tony grabs her by the arm. "If you know anything you are going to help me figure this out and get him back."

Loki pulls away sharply. "I don't even like you. Why would I help you?"

Tony takes a deep breath. "Trade. You want something? I'll do it. Whatever. In exchange, you help me get Steve back."

Loki regards him sharply. "That is rather tempting," she admits.

"Clock's ticking." Tony is already pulling his armor on. "You coming?"

Loki sighs. "Hold a moment. I will see what I can discover." She sweeps past Tony and he follows her up to the bedroom.

Loki eyes the spot where Steve disappeared.  She crouches down, her hand held out, eyes narrowed as she frowns. Tony, trying not to be impatient, pulls up his helmet's different spectrum scans to see what they can tell him. Loki seats herself on the floor, humming softly. Tony growls.

It takes longer than Tony feels comfortable waiting, but finally Loki sighs again and opens her eyes. "You will owe me quite a favor," she says. She looks distinctly unhappy.

"Where is he?" Tony demands.

Loki sighs. She shakes her head, and it turns into a full body shiver, a ripple, and his body fades from feminine curves to more masculine planes. He glares up at Tony, then stands.

Tony steps back. He'd promised not to put what other Lokis had done on this Loki but that's harder to do when he suddenly looks like this. "Where is Steve," Tony demands again.

"Niflheim," Loki says. "The land of the dead."

Tony rocks back on his heels. "He's dead?"

Loki rolls his eyes. "Obviously he didn't pass away naturally."

"Steve's been there before." Tony swallows. "Our Loki broke down the walls between the Realms, and all the Avengers were transported to different ones. Steve ended up in Niflheim."

Loki looks at him sharply, something flashing in his eyes. "That could explain quite a bit. If he has previously escaped her land, I'm sure Hela would be most eager to have him return. She would have the ability to draw upon Yggdrasil."

Tony nods. They have a destination. "So let's go."

Loki regards him. "Your devices will not function in Niflheim." He makes a gesture of placation when Tony draws a breath to argue. "It is a land of death and decay. I can perhaps shield a small device or two for the period we will require to be there, but that is all. In addition to preserving our own lives."

It's not that he doesn't suspect Loki is lying, but it makes sense, as much as any of this stupid magic realm shit makes sense, and it's not worth arguing about. Tony shivers as he divests himself of the suit, his hand coming to his chest. "What about this?" He gestures to the arc reactor.

Loki leans in. "Utterly fascinating," he murmurs, and he does sound fascinated.

It weirdly reminds Tony of Delta-Loki, but also not, because, "I'm gonna go out on a limb and say you and me weren't big pals in your universe?"

Loki's eyes flick up to his face. "No." His eyes return to the arc reactor. "I can shield this device. Are you ready?"

Tony detaches the repulsor panel from the gauntlet and tucks it, along with the trailing wires, into his pocket, just in case. He scans his work table, pocketing a few more odds and ends, before his gaze falls on Steve's shield. Stepping over he lifts it, hefting the weight in his hands before he slides his arm inside the straps. "Okay." He turns to Loki. "I'm ready."

 


 


Niflheim

It wasn't that Steve had forgotten about Hela, really. It was more along the lines of he'd thought their deal concluded.

When he looks up and sees the ghost-filled, war-torn landscape of his last visit, he feels a moment's hopelessness. "You can't," he demands, though even he would admit it's a little desperate. "I didn't fall in the battle with Loki. We had a deal." He whirls around, but he doesn't see the mistress of this Realm.

Her laughter echoes through the air around him. "I can't? Steven Rogers, you will find that there is very little I can't do. Taking charge of the souls of mortals who have trespassed in my realm is most certainly something I can do."

"You broke our bargain," Steve insists. "Surely that must bind you."

"Bargain," she muses. "All come to me in the end. Does it matter if I take a few years from your stay on Midgard and add them to your years in my own Realm?"

"Yes," Steve insists. "You made a bargain that you wouldn't."

He still can't see her, but the shimmer of the air seems to split as he walks forward through it and then he can see her throne. She is perched on it, watching him with sharp eyes, the monstrous wolf lying at her feet looking at Steve with boredom. "You dare to still lecture me?" Her eyes narrow. "You have much to learn, I believe, before you will be a pleasant addition to this realm. And here I was so hoping you'd be the exception that proved the rule, Steven Rogers." She smiles a thin smile.

Steve stalks closer and wishes he had his shield, so recently repaired and once again gone from him. Not that weapons helped him free himself from this Realm last time, but just to hold it would be some comfort. Tony... He would wish to have Tony with him, but he can't wish for Tony to be here; he would wish for Tony to be as far away from this place as he can possibly get. He shivers, wondering if somehow the other Avengers have been drawn across the Realms again. He's supposed to be meeting Clint and Jan in the Training Room; he's not sure which is worse- that they will never know what has happened to him, or that they are somewhere tossed to the winds as well. The first places only him in danger, but in the second option he sees more hope for resolution, because he got out of this last time and working together he believes his team can do anything.

"You have to let me go back," he demands.

The woman on the throne laughs. "Steven Rogers, you have nothing to trade, not even the tempting offer of defeating Loki again." The wolf lying on the step below her sits up suddenly, tongue lolling out as he gazes up at his mistress. She smiles.  "But no matter. Your friends have been wondering where you went. Speak to them."

Steve turns to see the faces of Jack Fury and the Howling Commandoes surrounding him.

It's different from the last time he was here. Then he'd almost believes that he'd really died, except that Bucky was nowhere to be seen. He'd always known that Bucky would be the first face to greet him in death, but now having traveled the universes he knows that Bucky isn't dead and that almost makes it worse because maybe this is real. Maybe he's been here since the first time, maybe he never escaped, never fought side by side again with another world's Bucky as they took down the Skrulls, never reconnected with Tony and proved to him that Steve wasn't going to stop wanting to be close to him.

"It's alright, son," Jack Fury says, his hand intangible but heavy on Steve's shoulder. "You're done. You don't need to fight anymore."

But no. If he never left this place, then that means Tony is still being deceived by the Skrull. By now it may have even used his face to enact whatever its evil plan was, and the world will be falling to the Skrull invasion.

"No," Steve says. Earth will not fall to invasion.                                                                               

The mistress of the realm of the dead frowns at him.

 


 

 

Midgard
(remains of Niflheim's Norn Stone)

"So, you need this to make it work?" Tony glares at his guide before returning his wary gaze to the shadowed castle around them. He's glad they parked the quinjet some ways away; this place looks like it might crumble without much help.

Loki sighs impatiently. "If you have a better idea for traveling to Niflheim, I'm waiting to hear it." He doesn't actually wait, and holds out his hand, green energy gathering around his fingers and around the shards of stone on the ground.

Tony bites back the comment he wants to say and slams his fist against the inside rim of the shield. "Fine," he grits out, then takes a deep breath and hangs the shield across his back as he pulls the repulsor from his pocket and fiddles with it.

Loki looks over his shoulder at Tony, apparently able to multitask, as he asks, "The Loki of the other world had a device his realm's Stark had built for him. A device for more easily harnessing mystical energy." He looks down at the energy he's gathering. "Could you recreate it?"

Tony shudders and puts away the repulsor. "I do not want to talk about the other me and his fucking love tokens right now. But, probably. I didn't exactly get a look at the original, so I could maybe reproduce it and almost certainly create something else that will do the same thing."

Loki nods and starts sketching runes in the air.

Tony fidgets. "Is that what you want? For doing this?" He's pretty sure Loki would be glaring him to death if he wasn't concentrating on what he was doing. Actually, he's pretty sure that leaving him stranded somewhere could work more in Loki's favor that actually trying to help him get Steve back. "And why the hell are you helping me anyway?"

Loki ignores him. After a few moments of tense silence, he turns to look up into the empty sky. "Transportation will be arriving shortly."

And he's barely done talking when a magnificent horse comes galloping out of the sky and comes to a halt beside them. It's taller than any horse Tony's ever seen, not that he's ever been particularly close to one, and only when it stops moving does he realize that it has eight legs. "Holy fuck. What is wrong with that thing?"

The horse fills the space on the top of the castle in a way that nothing with less than six legs would be able to do, and it has its nose shoved into Loki's cupped hands. It seems to be quite pleased to see him, making soft, horse-like noises and flicking its tail. Loki turns to glare at Tony in a way that kind of reminds him of the time he accidentally insulted Pepper's cousin. "His many legs allow Sleipnir to traverse the Realms. You did want to get to Niflheim, correct? Or should I send you the usual way?"

"You can ride a horse to the realm of the dead? I thought you said there was no way to get there."

Loki looks like he is reconsidering not killing Tony while he has the chance. Tony takes a step back from where the massive horse is pawing at the stones. "There is no way to return from Niflheim, traditionally. That is where Sleipnir comes in." He pats the horse's arched neck and the horse snorts and glares at Tony.

There's something familiar about the condescension in those eyes. "What, did you inherit that glare?" Tony snarks. "Whatever. Let's get this over with."

The horse snorts again and stamps two of its feet. Loki rolls his eyes and bends to the horse's ear. "Yes, I know, my dear, but he may yet be worth something unbroken." He pats the creature on the nose.

"That's not creepy at all," Tony offers.

Loki ignores him and turns to the glowing remains of the Norn Stone. He makes a quick gesture and a rune hangs in the air for a moment before the air thins and Tony finds himself looking in at a world of emptiness and pale smoke. Loki steps forward, his hand on the horse's chin. He reaches out for Tony and snatches him forward with them, his grip on Tony's forearm unbreakable.

Tony twists at the hold in annoyance. "I'm coming, I'm coming, shit, relax."

"I'd rather you came with us as you were the one who insisted on this fool's errand in the first place," Loki replies blandly, but Tony sees suddenly why Loki's putting up with him- or at least part of it- because he can see on the god's face that Loki is excited about stealing Steve back from the dead.

And this is, legit, a land of death. Tony can feel it the moment they pass through into this place of washed out colors and half seen faces and muted sounds and a decay that pulls at his limbs and slows his mind. He shivers, and though Loki has released his grip on Tony's arm, Tony falls in behind him and reaches out to place his hand against the horse's side.

Sleipnir turns his head and snorts at Tony, his ears turning back and forth as if he can't decide if this qualifies as "bad touch" or not.

"Yeah, yeah," Tony mutters. "Relax, Twilight Sparkle." He reaches over his shoulder with his other hand and touches the rim of Steve's shield.

Loki turns to look back at him. "It shouldn't be long," he offers before turning back to face the way they're going. "Hela will have felt my arrival."

"Because we're not really dead," Tony guesses.

He can see the edge of Loki's grin. "No. Because she always knows when family comes to visit."

Tony stumbles and snatches his hand back from where it rests on the horse's hip. "What the fuck. Did you plan this together then? What do you get out of it? Oh I see, now you can be a gleeful murderer and you don't have to worry about the deal you made with Captain America." Tony's furious and he feels betrayed, because he knew better than to trust Loki and this is where it gets him. He thinks, Dammit Steve, because this is Steve's fault for trusting Loki in the first place.

Loki and Sleipnir have come to a halt as well. Loki looks back at Tony, his expression guarded, and Sleipnir stamps one of his front feet and dances in place- the last bit making Tony step further away from his overabundance of legs.

Loki punches the horse in the shoulder. "Calm yourself." He turns to Tony and his eyes are hard. "You may think what you will, but when Hela appears it would be best for your purposes to agree with everything I say. It is the only way you will get your Captain returned."

Tony hates that he's here, that he has no idea how to work this place, that Loki understands this better than he does, that fucking magic exists, because even as he is standing farther away from Loki he can already feel the effects of this realm wearing on him more fully. "I hate you," he says, just to have it out there. "A lot. And if this doesn't work I will find some way to make you pay for it." He has a crazy thought. "I don't suppose ghosts can visit Asgard, because I would so tell on you to Thor."

Loki freezes up for a moment, but smiles his cool-operator smile. "It is in my interest that you survive this, remember? You owe me a boon."

And, shit, Tony had forgotten that. Oddly, it doesn't make him feel better. "When we get Steve back," he says, to remind himself more than Loki. They are going to find Steve and get him out of here, but his mind is turning with a lethargy that's unfamiliar and he's forgotten for the moment where it is they're supposed to be going after this.

Loki frowns at him and steps forward, taking Tony's hand and placing it back on Sleipnir's flank. Sleipnir shifts his weight and sounds like he's grumbling something under his breath, and Tony glares sharply at the horse. "Can it, Mister Ed. It's not like I want to be petting your mystical, interdimensional horse's ass." But after Loki has turned away to begin their journey again, Tony presses his hand more firmly against Sleipnir's warm hide and strokes the short hair for a moment. Whatever Loki said he could do to prevent the decay of this realm from overtaking them the horse seems to be a part of it, too.

 

They're not walking for long before Tony sees a throne rising out of the misty darkness. He can see a figure in familiar red, white, and blue also, standing before the throne. He inhales sharply, and every part of him wants to say Steve's name on the exhale of that breath, but Loki turns to glare at him. Tony glares back, but keeps his mouth shut and his hand firmly on the horse's side. Okay, he thinks, we'll see how Loki thinks this is going to play out.

"Father," says a voice that echoes through the air around them. "I did not expect to see you free of Odin's grasp. And bringing me presents." Tony looks up to see a woman seated on the throne, petting a wolf. He feels a shiver run up his spine.

"After all I've been doing to get your attention, Hela, I'm rather disappointed," Loki says in return.

Tony shoots him another glare; is that what all the mess has been about lately? Tony's had a theory that it was his attention, or at least the Avengers, that Loki had been trying to catch, though the why of it still doesn't really check. Tony's also pretty sure there are easier ways to get the attention of a goddess of the dead.

Steve turns toward them. He has the cowl pushed back, and Tony can see his face, see the moment that Steve sees him. Steve goes completely ashen. "No," is all he says, and whereas before his posture was defiant it sags now in futility. Tony's hands clench into fists.

Hela laughs. "Is this one important to you, Steven Rogers? How lovely. You do bring me the nicest presents, Father."

"This one? For you?" Loki says, as if surprised. He's not looking at Hela, instead casting around what passes as the ground beneath their feet for something he seems to have dropped. "No, no," he says, waving a hand distractedly, "I brought that one for Sleipnir. You know he gets hungry." The horse stamps three of his feet and bares his teeth at Tony. They look like regular horse teeth, so Tony's about 78% sure that it's supposed to be a joke and the horse isn't actually carnivorous.

"Hmm." Hela frowns and Tony would say she's pouting.

Wow, not a good look on you, honey, he wants to say, but keeps his lips shut. This trip might actually kill him, though not for any of the reasons he would have predicted.

Loki finds whatever it was he dropped and picks up what looks like a button from the ground. He's far enough away that Tony can't see it terribly well. The tension is starting to really get to him, and Tony puts his free hand in his pocket to absently recount the toys he brought. He keeps his right hand touching Sleipnir's side.

Steve is moving toward them, slowly, fighting for every step, but still drawn almost helplessly. He pulls even with Loki's position and comes to a halt like he's run into a wall. "Tony," he says before he turns to Loki and asks bitterly, "What does this gain you?"

Loki grins. "Why Captain, I thought you'd never ask." He paces past Steve to confront Hela, as if he has no intention of answering Steve's question, but then he says, "What does this gain you, Hela?"

Tony returns his own attention to the mistress of this realm.

Hela smiles, over her pique for the moment. "Gain?" she asks innocently. "All the mortal souls belong to me, eventually."

"Not all," Loki reminds her, and Hela bristles.

"I released him so that he could kill you," she hisses. "He did not, and so here we are." She leans forward. "But what are you doing here, Father? My realm has never interested you before. And neither has Midgard. You have been spending much time there lately."

"I was trying to get your attention, my dear." Loki grins up at her. "I have a proposition for you." He gestures behind him to where Steve is standing. "I'll let you keep that one, if you hear me out."

She hisses. "He belongs to me."

Steve is looking between Tony and Loki, likes he's starting to think Loki might be up to something. Tony drums his fingers against Sleipnir until the horse snorts at him. Tony's certain Loki's up to something; whether or not it's something they're all going to survive is another story.

"Oh does he now?" Loki affects surprise. "This one? Really? With a seat in Valhalla reserved for him?"

Hela scoffs. "It doesn't matter now. He belongs to me."

Loki shrugs. "I'll let you keep him," he repeats. "And the other one as well. Now-"

"I don't want them," Hela interrupts, her eyes suddenly cold. "I want you." The wolf at her feet sits up, interest on its face.

Loki's expression hardens. "And what makes you think you can hold me? Whelp, you cannot imagine the power I could bring against you." And Tony doesn't think Loki actually still has access to phenomenal powers, but he definitely sounds like someone who's had prolonged contact with the Infinity Stones, and Tony tends to forget that about this Loki.

"You want to fight me? Here, in my realm?" Her voice is amused and the wolf's mouth opens in a smile, its tongue hanging out. Sleipnir's ears go back in response.

"It's not about what I want. It's about what you think belongs to you," Loki reminds her mildly.

She snarls at him. "Fine. We will say that the humans belong to you. And in return? You will stay here with me. What say you to that, Father?"

Loki laughs. "You forget that I'm not really here- I am a prisoner of Odin." He taps the button in his hand against the side of his leg, and Tony notices the gesture. It's not like Tony has anything else to do but keep one eye on Steve and one eye on the scary lady, but he understands the pay attention message.

"You are real," Hela says, frowning. "I do not know how you are doing it, but you are real."

Steve takes a step toward Tony, and the wolf sits up with a snarl.

"And what will you do with this information?" Loki questions.

Hela smiles. "Ruin you, Father. Odin will not be pleased. I will enjoy his punishment this time, I think. It will be even more exquisite than before." She stands from the throne. The wolf stands too, stepping down.

Steve takes another step toward Tony. It looks like it's taking everything inside him to make that step, like he's walking through shoulder deep sand- or molasses, or some polymer that’s even stickier, making him fight even harder for every forward moving increment- and he stops afterward as if exhausted. He looks across the space that still separates them to Tony. Tony's not sure what Steve's trying to ask him, but he shakes his head and turns his attention back to Loki.

"That would please you?" Loki sounds almost fond now. "Such a bloodthirsty creature." He seems to think about it. "Very well. I will stay in your realm for as long as you can hold me, and you will release the two Midgardians who belong to me." He tosses the button he's holding to the ground and Tony sees that it's actually a metacarpus. "Stated and upheld, by the bones of Niflhel."

Hela frowns, like she's looking for the loophole. Tony doesn't blame her, because Loki tends to have that effect on him as well. Finally, she smiles, convinced that she has won. "Done."

Steve stumbles forward, and Tony moves to catch him, Sleipnir moving up to stay pressed to Tony's shoulder.

"Tony," Steve says, his hands grasping at Tony's arms, demanding.

"I know, Steve," Tony mutters. "Get on the damn horse." And between the three of them they get Steve lifted up onto Sleipnir's back because apparently being mostly dead all day is exhausting, and Steve's looking even more worse for wear by the end of it.

With that task accomplished, now both Steve and the horse are giving Tony a dirty look; Tony just nods because he knows, he knows how this has to end. He takes a deep breath and he turns back to Hela and Loki.

Loki is looking pleased as punch, though he's facing Tony at the moment and not sharing that with Hela. "You have what you came for," Loki says when Tony doesn't move. "Go."

Tony shakes his head. "Did you think we would really leave you here? It's not going to happen."

Loki frowns at him, like maybe there's been a hiccup in his plan.

"The deal is made," Hela says, and Loki frowns at her.

"Of course, Of course," Loki murmurs. "A moment." And he walks over to Tony and touches a finger to his temple. Get out of here, says a voice in Tony's mind and his skin crawls. I will return as I may, to collect on what you owe me.

Okay, that is freaky as shit and you had better not ever do this again, he says, or thinks, in response. But we're not leaving without you.

You hate me, Loki reminds him. Take your captain and go.

It's kind of unnerving, because thought-talking happens in pictures and sensations more than words, and while it's obvious to Tony that Loki is talking about Steve, there's an overlay of Thor-ness to the thought, as if Loki equates Steve with Thor in some manner. It's weird, and not exactly relevant, so Tony moves past it. He's gotten what he really wanted, anyway- Loki out of his line of sight to Hela.

He grabs Loki by the arm and throws him toward the horse. Loki knows what he's doing almost immediately, and he whispers, "You fool."

The wolf snarls and starts moving toward them. Sleipnir raises his head, ears pricked forward. "I don't think our ride was leaving without you, anyway," Tony says.

Hela screams in anger, and she shoots a blast of energy toward them. Tony hears Steve shout in warning, but Tony pulls the shield from where it rests on his back and he takes the brunt of the attack against the cushioning of the vibranium. It turns the massive attack into an almost comfortable shiver through the sheet of metal, and Tony maybe sees why Steve's so attached to the thing.

Tony lowers the shield enough to raise the magic neutralizer he'd removed from his pocket and he aims it at Hela, firing without pause.

Hela screams again, though this time it sounds pained and almost weak. She's a bit more heavy-duty than Amora, so Tony's not planning on hanging around and seeing what happens next. He turns and throws himself at Sleipnir.

Steve's hands are pulling him up, and Tony can see that Loki's there too, and Sleipnir leaves the ground, massive, multiple legs kicking through the air. Steve is tearing the shield from his hands and he throws it at the wolf whose slavering jaws are coming closer- and bringing new depths to the term "slavering"- and the shield hits the monstrous thing in the head, knocking it back, Steve reaching up to catch the shield on the rebound. Sleipnir is climbing the sky like it's a solid road. The shadowy air, heavy and full of death, fades into a bright, golden afternoon, the air suddenly light and fucking breathable, and Tony sucks in a huge lungful. He can feel Steve behind him do the same, Steve's arm tightening around Tony's waist as he holds him closer.

Tony looks down and sees they're over Manhattan, descending with decent speed toward the familiar green lawn of his mansion. "Wow, interdimensional horse travel is pretty accurate. Props, Ruby Slippers."

They land, and as they're slipping down from its back the horse glares at Tony and makes a sound so foul Tony doubts it actually came out of a horse. "Hey now. You kiss your mother with that mouth?" He backs away from the creature quickly.

He doesn't have long to think about it in any case, because Steve seizes him in a rib-bruising hug, then puts him down and shakes him by the shoulders for emphasis. "What the hell were you thinking, Tony? You could have died."

"Hey." Tony wraps his hands around Steve's wrists. "You don't leave a teammate behind. Not when you know there's something you can do about it." Steve's calmed down a bit, and Tony leans in, kissing his cheek softly. "You've gotten left a few times lately, Cap. Figured that show's about done playing."

Steve takes a deep breath and leans into him. "Thank you. But I... If you'd gotten stuck there, Tony, I never would have forgiven myself."

Tony laughs. He's laughing at himself really, because he said almost the same thing to Steve after the Kang incident- and that was the first time, the first time Steve kissed him, and he loves that memory.

The horse whinnies, which distracts Steve, and Janet is coming out of the mansion, Hulk trailing behind her with feigned indifference trying to cover his curiosity. Jan is feeding the fucking interdimensional horse apples, and cooing in its ear. No one's really paying attention to Loki, and so Steve finds a new target for his indignation.

"Loki." Steve levels a hard look at the god, who refuses to pay attention to him. "Thank you. For helping Tony. For getting me out of there."

Loki draws himself up to his full height and finally turns his attention to them. "I did not do it from a sense of generosity, Captain." He looks at Tony.

Steve tenses. "Tony. What does he mean?"

"Relax, Steve," Tony reassures him. "I owe him a favor. That's all." Though he does remember saying words to the effect of anything you want. Fuck. Maybe he dug himself in deeper than he meant to. "So, uh, what do you want?"

Loki regards him thoughtfully. "You didn't follow the plan, Stark."

"We don't leave people behind," Steve butts in, voice serious.

"Is that it?" Tony muses. "Can I call off the debt since we busted you out of death-prison?"

Loki gives him a look usually reserved for idiots, and Tony will admit it wasn't a great question, though he did mean it mostly in jest.

"Can I qualify that you tell me what it is you want right now?"

"Granted." Loki motions toward the mansion. "And I will qualify that you and I will speak of it, and no one else."

Steve looks displeased. But there's not a lot you can do about owning someone a solid, and Tony squeezes Steve's hand before he turns and leads Loki inside to his armory.

 

In the armory, Tony fiddles with a bit of wire on the worktable as he leans on a stool. "So, what do you want? Money? That gadget you mentioned earlier?"

Loki impatiently waves him to silence as he moves to stand across the worktable from Tony. "I want you to tell me everything you know of Thor."

"What? That's it? I gotta tell ya, it's not a lot. You sure that's what you want? Never mind, if that's what you want I can oblige."

Loki waves him to silence again. "The boon I ask is this: you will tell me all you know of Thor, you will tell me what weaknesses he bears in this realm, and you will take my part the first time we come to blows."

"Whoa." Tony glares at him. "His weaknesses? Are you going to try to kill him? Didn't get enough of that in your own world?"

Loki's eyes flash dangerously and Tony actually takes a step back. "I do not mean him ill," Loki says mildly, his expression controlled. Tony kind of wants to call bullshit, until Loki adds, "as long as he means no ill to me."

"Right, there's the qualifier." Tony shakes his head. "Can I refuse?" he asks, mostly just to see how much wiggle room there is in the realm of boons.

"No," Loki says flatly, and Tony believes him.

Tony sighs. "Okay then, fine. It's gonna be a short list, because we aren't exactly close. Hell, I know more about you than I do about him." Which is kind of terrifying, because Tony does not want to be bosom pals with Thor's crazy evil brother. Even if this isn't really his brother, per se, and he isn't quite crazy, and he hasn't been evil so much as extremely annoying and mildly helpful. "Dammit. I'll have JARVIS write you a list. But I'll let you know off the bat that I don't know anything about his weaknesses. Thor is hardcore. We thought Ultron had killed him, but turns out he was fine. I think you came the closest to actually taking him down. I mean, the other you."

Tony's not sure what Loki thinks about this information, because his face is expressionless. "That is not the type of weakness I refer to. What does he care for?"

Tony sighs. "Jane. But she's dead, so... He cares about the Avengers, and Earth in general. I guess he cares about Asgard, but I honestly have no idea what he does when he goes there. He did say he doesn't really get on great with Odin."

Loki nods. "And his feelings toward myself?"

"You mean his crazy, evil brother." Tony is staring back at Loki, and Loki has asked this question with the same calmness that he's asked all the previous questions, but somehow Tony realizes, "That's what this is all about, isn't it? That's what you really wanted, the main thing you wanted from me. To know what he thinks of you."

Loki’s hands are pressed flat against the worktable. "You will answer the question." His voice is without inflection in his demanding, and Tony would almost believe that Thor's opinion of him isn't so important to him that he would try to get himself stuck in a hell dimension just to get Tony indebted to him in order to force truth from him.

"Honestly?" Tony leans back, but his eyes are sharp on Loki. "He loves you." And he sees Loki shiver slightly. "Sure, after every shitty thing he brother did he was getting a little tired of it. But he never hated him, he was just sad about it. Like he wished he could fix it."

Loki nods, and though he's trying to maintain the same level of calmness Tony can hear the ragged edge to his words. "You are bound by oath to speak of this to no one, Stark." Tony nods. Loki wets his lips. "How much does Thor love his brother?"

"Holy shit." Tony stands quickly, because he was right the whole time. "I was just wrong about who, because I thought you were from Delta, but you're here for Thor." And he's not sure if his tone of voice is closer to astonished or appalled.

Loki tenses and his expression is hard. "You will answer the question. And you will speak of this to no one."

Tony shakes his head. "I don't know. I don't know if... He has never indicated to me if he loved his brother in a fashion that was... more than brotherly."

Loki nods. "You remember the final piece?" Tony blinks, and Loki reminds him, "If he comes to remove me to Asgard, the first time you must take my part."

"Just the first time?" Tony wonders aloud.

Loki nods. "I can deal with him if I have enough time to ensure he hears me out."

"Which part is he going to hear?"

Loki glares at him. "And if not," he continues, "it won't matter and he can take my life."

Tony blinks. Honestly, he's never loved someone so much that he'd rather be dead by their hand than live in a world where they didn't love him. Maybe he's just never thought so little of himself that he viewed death as the only way out of a one-sided relationship. Sure, there's been times when death honestly seemed like the only way out of a situation, but Tony's pretty sure he's never planned on accepting it. "So, I should have a prototype in a week or so, if you want to stop by and try it out."

Loki blinks, stymied. "What on earth are you babbling about?"

And Tony finds he kind of likes that obnoxious, condescending tone of voice better than the fatalistic one. "The energy device you mentioned, genius. Wow, for a space wizard you really don't pay attention very well."

The look on Loki's face is a somewhat priceless combination of annoyance and something that's far too guarded to call gratitude. "If I listened to everything you said I would waste the rest of my incredibly long life upon the endeavor."

"Ooh, ouch. Did that one take you all night to come up with?"

"Of course not, Stark. I spent the evening wresting your sorry carcass through the realm of the dead."

"Okay, that one actually hurt a little."

Loki grins darkly, and Tony figures he could get used to this.