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Spoils of War

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In theory, there probably wasn’t all that much difference in being a prisoner who was aware that they were a prisoner, and being one who was completely ignorant of the fact. One was just as bound in one case as in the other, just as incapable of escape, as subject to the will of their jailer. It hardly mattered if one were aware that one was caged or not when the outcome was exactly the same either way.

In theory.

Loki stared down at his hands, the fingers of one tracing lightly over the markings in the other. He didn’t think he would ever be used to the sight, no matter how often he looked down and caught sight of his own hands – his own body. However long he lived, the blueness of his own skin would disturb him, the patterns etched into his flesh puzzle him. He had at least gotten over the initial shock of seeing himself as a monster. The blue skin didn’t disgust him as much as it had for the first few months.

But his hands would always distract him. His hands, which he had come to know and rely on so much – to weave his spells, to spin and flick his knives with precision, to weave through the air and create the stories he told… In a way the change of his hands had been more of a shock to him than when he had looked in a mirror and seen his new face for the first time. A face which had still been its own shape, but was also the demonic blue of a Jötun, cheeks and brow cut through with the marks Loki had always assumed were some sort of bestial branding, and his eyes… No longer green, a color which no one in his ‘family’ shared, but an all-over red of the frost giants; a color which no one on his entire world shared with him.

Loki made a fist, watching as the markings paled and stood out even more, his dark nails sinking into his flesh with a satisfying bite.

In some ways, knowing one was a prisoner was just the same as not knowing. He was just as trapped as he had ever been, just as unlikely to escape, and just as much an object to his jailers as he had ever been. The only thing which had really changed was his perception, his awareness of what he was.

It was the knowledge of his status which had made it necessary to put him here. In a cage.

Loki looked up from his hands. As cages went, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. There were worse pens a monster could have found himself thrown into. And there were much, much worse things which could have become of him once… once he’d found out what he really was.

Being thrown down into the Vault, into one of the cells usually reserved for the dungeons where the rest of the criminals and beasts were kept, was a much kinder fate than what could have happened to him.

It was only isolation and darkness he had to deal with, rather than torture or death. It was only his own company, and the rediscovery of who he was when he was in the skin of an abomination that he had to deal with, and not the gazes and mockery of those whom he’d thought he'd known - who thought they'd known him. His agency had been removed, his magic muted and contained, his whole self contained and hidden away where no one had to see or directly deal with him. But he hadn't been destroyed.

And destruction was always an option for things like him.

The loss of his magic was doing strange things to him. Or perhaps it was the transformation into his true form which was the culprit. He knew there was nothing down here in the Vault which was alive besides himself. Nothing really alive. There were magical items which could act as though they were alive, which could give the impression of life, but nothing which truly had a soul.

Arguably that was still true.

But he was hearing things down here. Small sounds, scurrying from place to place. Scratchings and tappings and high pitched squeals. Sounds which didn't belong in such a place as this, but which existed all the same.

Without his magic to do even so much as cast a light, there was no way for him to check. And he would not lower himself to ask the guard who would come to give him food about it.

If he had access to even the magic which hadn't been stifled by Odin, he might have had some peace. But that tiny trickle which still remained to him, it was being siphoned away.

It was the one bit of light he was allowed, and only because there was no way to douse it. An artifact, a magical prize taken at the end of the Jötunheimr war, close to the same time he was: the Casket of Ancient Winters.

Somehow, either through circumstance or design, Loki was bound to that thing. A fact which had only become apparent when his magic had been drained from him, and both he and the Casket had nearly shattered as a result. The Casket pulled from Loki, feeding on his magic. If there was no magic in him to draw, then it drew on his life – and his life, not being what the Casket needed, nearly broke it.

Loki was allowed a small measure of his magic. Just enough to feed the Casket.

Couldn't have two war prizes breaking, could they?

And that was closer to the truth, wasn't it? He wasn't a prisoner, and this wasn't a jail.

This was the Vault, he was a war prize, and he was simply in storage.

—•—

“Remind me to never agree to anything like this ever again.”

Agree? Tony, you insisted on coming. You threatened to rescind all of your support if we tried to keep you from coming with.”

“And it would have served you right. Take my tech with you into space and expect me not to come?”

Steve scoffed, turning his attention back to the fore, watching where it was he was flying them. Probably a good idea, seeing as how he had to dodge an incoming energy blast. “I'm not sure what it is you expect us to do, then, if the options are stop you from coming and have no supplies, or ‘allow’ you to come and… what?”

“Put up with my bitching,” he said, holding on tight as the ship went into a hard swerve. His heart was racing, hard and fast enough to make his entire chest hurt around the arc reactor, but he covered as well as he could.

Why had he come here? He knew the answer, of course, and it wasn't just because his creations were going into space and he wanted to keep an eye on them. It was a mission, a damned quest, near enough, to save not only their planet, but what sounded like the entire damned galaxy. Possibly the universe, but Tony was trying really hard not to consider that too much. The weight of a planet was too much to bear, a galaxy too much to even contextualize, a universe…?

He knew why he was here. But as they dodged and weaved through the defending ships and their fire, he couldn't help but keep asking the question over and over.

Why was he here? He was a man in a can. No super powers, no experience in the wild black yonder, nothing which particularly qualified him to be in a space battle, and soon - with luck - on an alien planet.

A man in a can, with a brain which continually got him into trouble with the ideas it came up with. And here he was, careening through space, hoping that the bigger can he'd been shoved into didn't get shot down. He had no desire to actually test to see if the newest Iron Man suit was space worthy or not.

“I think you’re down to coming with, then, Tony, if those are our options.” Steve said, his own attempts to remain cool being much more successful than Tony's.

“Wonderful.”

“Worry not, Stark,” a voice near to him rumbled. “We are very near to our destination, now. Soon we will be on the ground, and the true battle will begin!”

Tony glanced over, taking in the large framed man sitting close by and watching the battle outside with an intense, fixed stare. Thor was, despite appearances, one of the few people on this mission who had ever been to space before, and moreover, had been to this planet before. According to him, it had once been him home, before he'd been wrongly ejected, banished to Earth for crimes he hadn't committed.

Tony wondered about that. He wondered a lot of things, about this whole mission and all of the people who had gathered for it, honestly. He wasn't a paranoid git like Fury or Hill, but it occurred to him more than once that taking the word of a man who was an admitted exile – and moreover, a self-described rebel – seemed like a rather risky move to Tony. Thor had gained at least some brownie points in that whole shebang in New York, when a maddened cyborg alien had arrived and tried to take it over after ripping open a hole in the sky to bring her army through. Thor had been a major player in neutralizing that threat - and then in helping to actually befriend the would-be-conqueror, Nebula.

Still. It seemed like there ought to have been a little more good old fashioned mistrust surrounding him – and Nebula, for that matter. She was a part of the ship, too, manning one of the few weapons their craft boasted and holding off – Tony assumed – the worst of what they could have been feeling.

“That's very reassuring, Thor,” he said over the noise of the ship taking a hit. “Thank you.”

“You are welcome.”

Tony sighed. Sarcasm was one of the things that Thor either didn't pick up on, or chose to ignore. It was hard to tell when you were talking to a space-Viking.

A rebel space-Viking, who was leading them all back to his home world to take back something from the Vault of their King. To steal something.

After the attack on New York and what Nebula had to tell them about what else was coming, it made sense. There were things in that Vault which the Mad Titan would be hunting for himself… and the King of Asgard refused to hear from anyone on Earth when they tried to reach him.

The universe really was filling up with people who were too powerful, who humans were woefully unable to fight against if it really came down to the wire. And some of them seemed all too eager to try and take out their little blue marble. They needed every advantage they could get in the fight which was coming, every last inch they could gain was one worth gaining.

Even if it meant going into battle against another planet, to steal the artifacts which the Mad Titan would want for himself, before he could steal them first.

And if Tony got the chance to pick up a little alien tech and take it home, maybe pull it apart to see how it worked and if he couldn’t use it to improve his own stuff? That was just one more good reason to take the action they were.

They needed every advantage they could get.

—•—

The sounds didn’t really bother Loki too much anymore. He’d learned to ignore most of it. There were even days when he wouldn’t hear the guard when they came in to give him his food, such was his habit of tuning out everything going on around him.

If he listened to everything he thought he could hear, or watched every little thing his eyes were insisting were there, then he was sure to go mad.

So long as he ignored what it was he thought he could hear and see, and sometimes feel, then he couldn’t be mad, could he? Because he could tell the difference between real and imagined. Someone who was mad wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

But the sounds this time… they were very, very loud. Loud enough to shake the walls of the Vault, sending dust down from the ceiling, trickling down the walls, tickling Loki’s nose.

For a time, Loki did as he always did and ignored the sounds, ignored the crashing, the booms, the distant shouts and screams, the gentle hiss of dust…

Except it never went away. The sounds only got louder, the vibrations he could feel through his bed, through the walls more intense.

Slowly, it occurred to him that he might not actually be imagining things this time.

—•—

Asgard, Tony decided, was a terrible place, even if it was only to visit. The architecture was overblown and ostentatious, the insides of the buildings – or the Palace, at least – was entirely too complicated in its layout, and the people were shockingly unwelcoming.

He was glad to be out of the damned spaceship, at least, and his feet on the ground, but it would have been nice to not have what felt like every single inhabitant of the planet converging on them all at once.

If Asgard could actually be called a planet. Tony was tempted for the first time to call it a ‘Realm’ the same way Thor did. It was hard to square the idea of a… ‘planet’ which was flat. A literal discworld, whose oceans were boiling away into space all the way around its rim. Even without taking into account all of the things he kept seeing which he was pretty sure classified as magic, the very nature of the place was throwing his analytical mind into overdrive. How did this place work?

She was still safe at the last base they’d managed to put together, but Tony could imagine Jane going absolutely insane, tearing this place apart to figure out how it was put together and how it kept from collapsing. As it was, she was going to be quizzing Thor about it for hours once she saw all the footage they brought back, once she heard them all talk about the place.

She was going to be so mad she missed out on all the fun.

A clang rang against his head, jerking him sideways. Cursing, he kicking up the thrusters, getting some height before coming back down hard on the soldier who had snuck up on him.

He needed to keep his wits about him in a place like this. The Palace was full of halls and hidey-holes all over the place, and the soldiers were all very eager to try and stave his head in. Even with the Iron Man helmet on, they were just about strong enough to do it, too.

He went on, following the map on his HUD, the one Thor had helped put together which would lead him to the Vault.

There had been some argument on who it was who should make their way down there, while the rest of the team kept the bulk of the attention on themselves. Tony had been of the very strong opinion that the one who should make his way to the Vault was Thor, since he was the only one who really knew his way there. Thor, on the other hand, was firm on the point, saying that as soon as he was spotted, he would be absolutely converged on. He was an exile, and anyone who saw him would know that, and would call more to the fore to help take him down, even with other invaders present.

Tony rather thought that he was overstating things just a little bit. How likely was it that just anyone was going to recognize some guy who had been exiled a few years ago? Although he supposed that ‘exile’ wasn’t a terribly common punishment around here, otherwise there would have been a lot mort clueless space-Vikings running around on Earth. Thor might be remembered on sight – it was enough of a risk for the task to be passed along to others.

In the end it had come down to Steve or Tony. Tony pointed out that if it were a case of stealth, then he wasn’t very well suited for it. The Iron Man armor wasn’t exactly subtle, in any sense of the word. Steve had had some experience with at least semi-covert operations, so it made sense to him that Steve ought to go.

He’d been overridden, by the combined advantages of: since he would be in his suit, he would be even more durable than Steve was, and since he had the HUD, he could hardly get lost.

He just had to get down there, find what he needed – plus any extra bits that looked useful and that he could carry – and get back out again before the rest of the team got into too much trouble without him. Easy enough. Then they could figure out how to get off this godforsaken planet in one piece.

There were three more guards between him and the stairs leading down. He took them all out, getting progressively less gentle as he went – if Thor was anything to go by, they’d be fine, and he was on a schedule, dammit.

Seeing just how many stairs there were leading down, Tony kicked on the thrusters again, and flew down, trusting the HUD and JARVIS to guide him through the darkness.

—•—

There was something out there.

What it was, Loki couldn’t say, or hope to guess. But there was something out there which was making all manner of racket, even louder than the background noise of a battle taking place.

There was a battle happening in the Palace? With who, and why? How had they managed to make it to the Palace, let along inside? Who was winning, and who was close to falling?

Was Odin still alive? Frigga?

Would the invaders be coming for him?

Almost as soon as he thought it, he heard a new sound, something strange he could put nothing to – strange enough that he began to wonder if he were still hallucinating everything he was hearing. And then seeing, as a swath of light came into the Vault, riding on the back of that Sound.

His heart sped, and rather than back away from the screen which kept him in his own little cubicle, his own trinket box to keep him protected, he pushed forward, fingers spread across the screen even as it tingled and stung at his fingers.

Something came down into the Vault. Something made of metal and fire, something in the shape of a man.

Loki stared, transfixed as the figure pulled up in midair to a stop, and landed in the middle of the floor. The creature had brought light with it, lights which cut through the darkness from seats along its shoulders. Though the creature itself remained deep in shadow, Loki could see that it was a being of metal, from top to bottom, reflected light edging it in bright red and gold – and a cold blue light, separate from the others, glowing from a place in its chest.

Was this some sort of destroyer? It looked similar to that machine Odin had once had in the Vault. Was this its replacement at last, come to see that all was in order… or was it one of the invaders?

Whatever it might be, it paused in place, taking in its surroundings. Where Loki was, tucked away slightly and out of sight – even here, he was out of sight – the creature didn’t see him immediately.

It paced, taking in the measure of the room, head swiveling from side to side, looking over each of the objects, at some pausing for a moment before moving on. Loki… watched it. He wanted to call out to the creature, to take its attention and fix it on himself… but old caution stilled his tongue. Old caution and the continued sounds of battle going on overhead.

Eventually the creature passed near enough for Loki to hear something more than just its footsteps, heavy as they were.

“… closer to what we have at home. There’s no telling what might actually be useful or not down here.”

Loki’s breath caught. A voice. A voice was coming from within the helm of the creature. It wasn’t just a construct like the destroyer, full of nothing but flame and a desire to obliterate everything in its path. There was a person in there.

A moment later, Loki could hear—thought he could hear, another voice inside the helm. A different voice, though it was considerably more muffled. Loki could make out no individual words at all from the second voice, but the first could.

“I know, J, different kinds of science and technology, I get it. But you’d think there would at least be a little more of a clue about what’s more important than what – what we might use. At this point, I’m tempted to just take everything in here to be safe.”

“Impractical, Sir.”

The man in the armor had come close enough at last for Loki to hear the second voice responding to his monologue. It sounded calm and collected… though how it was in there if there was already one person in there… was it a communication device, or perhaps the armor itself were sentient in some way?

“Might I suggest that you retrieve the artifact which we have been sent to find, and then take only what is most obviously of possible future use.”

“I might have bemoaned the fact that you’re so practical, if you weren’t also recommending larceny in the same breath. Alright.” The figure turned, so close to turning just enough to see him that Loki nearly shrank back… but he didn’t want to hide from this invader.

“Gotta find the fire first, then.”

The figure began to move away, began to leave, and that couldn’t be allowed to happen, not yet! It had been too long since Loki had seen or heard anyone but himself and the featureless guards – silent and masked. He couldn’t be allowed to leave just now.

“Surtr’s Fire?” he called, his voice so rough and unfamiliar in his own ears, he almost didn’t understand the very words coming out from his lips.

The figure jumped, turned—

And was at last, staring right at Loki.

He was seen again.

—•—

For at least the second time that day, Tony’s heart lurched so hard in his chest that he was certain the damned thing was going to be bruised from its repeated bashings against the arc reactor.

He swung around, seeking out the source of the croaking voice which had come out of the dark, come from the dark in a place where there ought to be no one. According to Thor, no one was really allowed in the Vault. The treasures it housed were too precious, too dangerous to allow anyone near them.

Then who was this?

It… it looked like a glass box. Only if the glass were made out of static. The walls of the box let out the faintest of glows, easily outshone by the flashlights mounted on his shoulders, cutting through to reveal what it was that was inside.

At first, Tony thought it was an effect of the light on the person inside, changing what they looked like, turning them into little more than an outline of shadows and darkness. But as he stepped cautiously closer… he could see that what he thought he was seeing… was the real thing.

It was a man inside the box. Thin and unkempt, watching him closely as he approached. He had long hair which was black and somewhat wild, his clothes were relatively simple – compared to the soldiers – and he stood in the box barefooted. As Tony approached, the man inside began to tense, as though he wanted nothing more than to escape, either from him or from the light he brought with him. But he held his ground, and stared at Tony.

He stared at him with red eyes. Not the red of someone who lacked pigment, but red. As though each of the man’s eyeballs had been dipped in red ink, leaving nothing but shades of red. And yet somehow red eyes paled before the sight of the man’s skin. Blue to an inch, and covered in what looked like loosely tribal patterns.

None of the other Asgardians had been blue – or locked up in a box, for that matter. Who was this guy?

The blue man was the first to ask a questions. “What are you?”

Inside his helmet, Tony winced in sympathy. The man’s voice was rough as sandpaper. How long had it been since he’d spoken, or did he always sound like this?

He stared at the man in the box, and made a quick, possibly reckless decision. He flipped up the faceplate on the suit. “That depends on who you ask,” he said. “There are some who call me a disaster, others a hero… most people seem to settle on ‘nuisance.’ Though I think you were being a bit literal, and all things considered… I’m a human. From Earth.”

The red eyes widened on him, though it wasn’t quite as disturbing as Tony would have thought it would be. The expression of shock on the man’s face, his lips parting slightly, completely undermined any sort of alarm at the color of his eyes. “Midgardian…?”

Tony nodded. “Yeah, that’s what you guys call us, isn’t it? That’s me, I guess. Me and a couple of friends upstairs. We just happened to be passing, in the area, you know—“

“And you decided that you wanted to steal Surtr’s Fire. From the Allfather’s Vault.”

Whatever this guy had gone through being stuck down in this place, he seemed to be recovering well enough, and quickly. He nodded again, more guardedly this time. “That’s right. You, uh. You wouldn’t happen to know where that is, would you?”

A smile tugged at the man’s lips, and Tony cursed internally. If the blue man knew where the fire was, then he wasn’t likely to say anything about it now

“It’s that way,” he said, pointing.

Tony blinked. He stared, and then looked in the direction that was indicated. He couldn’t see any flames that way, but presumably it was kept at least a little bit covered to keep is safe. He turned back to the man in his box.

“Okay, it’s not that I don’t appreciate the cooperativeness,” he said cautiously, “but why are you being so helpful?”

The question seemed to take him off guard, or at least to confound him a little bit. He frowned, the expression doing odd things to the lines which decorated his face. “Why should I not…?”

Which was a question that only confounded Tony in turn. “I… I don’t know? A Hannibal and Clarice moment, I guess. I thought that you would have used the answer to that question as a bargaining chip? A trade – what I want for helping you out of that thing. Or maybe you just don’t want a human to take something which has been stored in Odin’s Vault?”

The man grinned. It wasn’t an entirely sane smile

“I assure you, I have no interest in protecting any of the artifacts in this Vault, either for themselves or especially because they are Odin’s treasures. And as for a bargaining chip,” he added, looking Tony up and down for a moment. “I have something which I think would be even more interesting to someone like you.”

“Sir,” JARVIS interrupted, sounding a little stressed. Not usually a good sign coming from an AI. “I would like to remind you that we are under certain time constraints.”

“Yeah, I know, JARVIS,” he murmured to the AI’s pickups in the helmet. “We’ve run into a bit of an issue here, though, yeah?”

“Sir—“

“J, this is a person. We weren't expecting a person to be locked up down here.”

The man was watching him with considerable interest as he spoke to JARVIS. From the look on his face he could hear both sides of the conversation, but he seemed to be a little confounded by what he was hearing.

Tony was used to having to make quick decisions. That didn’t necessarily translate to his being terribly good at making quick decisions, but it was something he was used to doing, and was rapidly honing into a fine art. With the addition of things like being a superhero, then having spies, cyborgs, aliens, gods, super soldiers, and radioactive men all to contend with in his life – amongst others – being able to make split second decisions was more or less a requirement to survive anymore.

Still didn’t mean that the decisions were terribly good.

“Okay, look,” he started, holding up his hands, and hoping that didn’t mean anything aggressive or insulting for whatever sort of species this guy was. “I’m in a bit of a hurry, as I’m sure you can tell. So I’m just going to lay my cards on the table, right? I’m here to grab the fire, and on my way out I wanted to pick up anything else which might be useful in a big fight coming up. If you happen to know of anything like that down here and want to point it out, that would be great. And in return, I’ll let you out of there.”

The man stared at him, his face a blank.

That tended to be the sort of reaction which Tony got a lot.

—•—

He was fairly certain that he wasn’t mad, but the man in front of him might have been. To offer a monster freedom from its cage in return for trinkets… He’d been impressed at the armor the man wore, that a human had been the one to construct it. But it seemed that his assumptions on their intelligence had been somewhat premature.

They were still quite moronic if this man were anything to go by.

Still. There were time constraints, and he had never been one to pass up an opportunity when presented with one. The human was beginning to fidget, the awareness of time passing obviously beginning to bother him.

“I’ll tell you what the most powerful tool is in this place,” he agreed, “in return for my freedom and one other thing.”

The human’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Oh, yeah? And what’s that, Azure?”

Loki allowed his grin to show. “That you take whatever it is that I point out to you as the strongest item here – strongest minus the flame, of course.”

He could see the man weighing up his options quickly, pitting them against the many options of what Loki might name as the strongest of items in the Vault – including Loki himself, if the man weren’t a fool.

The second voice in the man’s helmet came to life again, but faint enough that Loki couldn’t make out the words. Whatever it was, it made the human’s mouth go stiff, and he nodded to himself. “Alright, then, you’ve got a deal. I’ll let you out, you point to the thing, I promise to take said thing.”

“Deal,” Loki purred, pleased.

It was the work of a few moments to shut down the barrier which held Loki captive. The panel wasn’t hidden or protected – why would it be when it was in one of the most secure places in the Palace already?

Once free, Loki walked out of his cubicle. His legs threatened to shake, to buckle out from underneath him. How long had it been since he’d last been allowed to walk outside of that tiny space? He didn’t want to think about it, to remember just how much of his life had been spend alone and in the dark…

Instead, there was a human, watching him a little nervously as Loki came out.

He nodded to the human. “Thank you.”

“No problem,” he said, voice on the verge of shaking. “You mind pointing me in the direction of the McGuffin? I’ve got some appointments to keep.”

“Of course,” he agreed, and strode past the human, passing by possibly a little closer than was strictly necessary, heading for the very end of the Vault. Even if he hadn’t known, intellectually, where the Casket was, the drain on his magic would have told him where to look. It was a constant tug, impossible to ignore while the bulk of his magic was still constrained.

When he picked it up, he almost expected to feel… something. Something like the first time he’d done so, and it had revealed him for who and what he really was. Even though there was no chance of something like that happening again, he would have thought that there would be some residual feeling around the Casket…

But no. The Casket was merely an item, and he was going to be handing it over to the humans to do with as they wished.

“What’s that?”

“The Casket of Ancient Winters,” Loki said, turning it in his grip. “In the right hands, it can unleash a storm of storms, capable of wiping out entire continents. With the proper person to wield it, you would be unstoppable.”

“Sounds… good.” The human looked up from staring at the Casket. “And you want me to take this with me?”

“Oh, I insist,” Loki replied, still grinning. “Though I should point out that this particular artifact responds to only me.”

The human didn’t look shocked in the least. In fact—he was nodding. “Yeah, I kinda figured. Man, Steve is going to murder me for deciding that we needed another person on the team,” he muttered this last to himself, before turning to look Loki in the eye again. He shrugged, as though giving up everything.

“Alright! Welcome aboard, I guess. I hope that Casket thing is as good as you say it is, and that you can handle it, because there’s not a lot of time to test it right now.” He sighed, rubbing at his face. “I’m Tony, by the way. Since you’re a part of the crew, you’d best know my name.”

“Loki.” It was strange. This time when he smiled, it didn’t feel as though it were some other face doing it for him.

The human – Tony – nodded, mouthing the name to be certain he had it correctly. “So. Are you any good with that thing?”

The gentle smile became a wolfish grin. “Oh yes,” he said. “I am very good with this particular artifact.”

“Good. Because I’m pretty sure we’re going to have to fight our way back out of here.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”