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Like a Prayer

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The peasant said to his lad:
Bid Lokki step in for me!
I wish Lokki wert right here,
And knew where to hide the boy!”
Ere he said the word,
There stood Lokki before the table.”


-Lokka táttur (kvædi)

The Loki's Tale Ballad


“If I find you,” came the voice, rumbling gravelly and menacing through the rubble, “I'm gonna keep you.”

And that, Tony Stark decided, was the last straw. He could take a lot of shit, sure- it practically came with the job. With both of them, in fact. He could've had it printed on his business card years ago: Anthony Stark, genius inventor, superhero, putter up with of shit. But B-grade horror flick dialogue from the villain of the week was where he drew the line. If he was going to die, it wasn't going to be in a scene from a 60's film designed to get the girls clinging to their boyfriends' arms and shrieking in a darkened theatre.

Like it often did, though, the universe seemed intent on ignoring what he wanted in favor of some new, fantastically improbable set of challenges. The fact that this time they had come in the form of a movie buff's wet dream really shouldn't have surprised him, but he had to admit, the list was pretty impressive. The power had gone out, sure sign number one. Steve, earnest and oblivious, had uttered the words, “I'll be right back,” and true to form hadn't been heard from since. They'd gotten their exposition from a creepy old guy who'd warned them away en route to the location. And finally, more than any of these things, the psychotic killer was rampaging through an abandoned school raving and promising to end him.

Okay, so the power was out over most of the city, and Steve probably had problems of his own to deal with. And yeah, the old guy'd been one of the people whose houses got trashed when the robot with the batshit AI had smashed a hole in one of the government's labs and escaped. And maybe psychotic killers did threaten to kill him pretty much every day, anyway- even if most of them didn't happen to be rampaging constructs. Objections be damned, though, he recognized a B movie when he saw one. Maybe it was a little more Day After Tomorrow than Nightmare on Elm Street, but it still wasn't anything he'd pay to see in a theatre, and living it sure as hell wasn't going to be how he spent the last few hours of his life.

It was a good resolution. A great one, even. Some bargaining chips- or even a working suit of armor- would've gone a few hundred miles toward helping it along. For the time being, though, he was stuck: no blasters, no propulsion, no Jarvis, no teammates, and about an inch and a half from cardiac arrest. Just him and the criminal mastermind du jour, and Tony was feeling awfully human alone out here with pieces of his armor lying across the better part of a city block like the crumpled aluminum over those old stove-top popcorn bags that broke open at a touch.

Desperate times called for desperate measures.

“Look, I know I'm not exactly the church on Sunday type,” Tony breathed. His voice was a whisper, faintly audible. The sound of the approaching mechanized sideshow horror was becoming impossible to ignore, the squeal of metal, the crunch of rock. Sounded like that toaster he picked apart and put back together in second grade. “And maybe if I ever got in a confessional, it'd take the better part of a day to get through the whole list.” He bent at the waist, all too conscious of the fact that the remaining armor was weighing him down. One hand found a rock- a pretty half-assed weapon, sure, but better than nothing if it came to that. And of course it was going to come to that. That was how his life worked. “But if any god's out there listening right now, it would be one hell of a chance to make me a believer.”

A response came with startling immediacy, a whisper so near to his ear that he could feel the warm breath of the speaker. “Now, tell me. Is that an official prayer?” The voice was low and soft like dark silk, and if anything could have made this moment worse, it was recognizing who that voice belonged to- and then having his brain catch up and recognize who that voice belonged to. He and the universe, Tony Stark told himself, would have to have a little heart-to-heart about expectations.

He turned like a man in some horrific dream, just in time to see the perfect, confiding smile that Loki fixed on his face as he finished the question.

“Nope,” Tony told him, after the beat in which his tongue untied itself from its knot, talked itself out of freezing in terror, and decided to function again. “Not a chance. That, my friend, is what you might call a sarcastic prayer. That is the kind of prayer that atheists in foxholes do not, in fact, utter.”

“Truly? What a shame.” The god of mischief examined his nails, trim and well-cared-for, and Tony had an instant in which he considered the fact that Thor's little brother displayed a remarkable level of grooming for an absolute nutjob. Immediately following, he had an instant in which he decided that stress had caused him to take leave of his senses, because if he was in the middle of a battle, disarmed and chatting with a supervillain and wondering about his nails, the Earth was probably due to end sometime next week. “It is not often, man of iron, that a god arrives on cue to answer one's prayers.”

From the other side of the wall he'd hidden behind, there was something ear-shattering that sounded suspiciously like an explosion. Tony half-flinched, glanced back toward the place where the AI was still leveling everything in its path. “So rarely that you'll excuse me for not trusting it when it happens.”

Loki spread one elegant hand in an as-you-wish sort of gesture, looking unconcerned. “You could always wait for my brother to arrive. He will doubtless perform admirably at picking up whatever pieces are left of you.”

Tony fixed the god of mischief with a flat stare. In the background, there was an ominous rumble and the creaking of ceiling beams. “I don't know if you know,” he said, “but we've got a proverb here. Features a frying pan and a fire.”

“I count myself familiar with it.” The watchful green eyes sparkled with something suspiciously like amusement, and Tony was supremely unreassured. “But I believe in this particular case, Anthony Stark, your cook-pan itself has flared alight. I merely offer to extinguish it.”

“Not a chance in hell,” he told Loki, just as the wall behind him dissolved in a sudden flash of light and debris. The explosion lifted him bodily from the ground- slammed him with bone-shattering force into the floor. The parts of him not covered by the armor felt like he'd flash-fried them; the parts still obscured had the dubious honor of finding out what having bits of the Iron Man suit digging into them entailed.

“Got you,” the AI was saying, the words too childish for the mechanical bass of its voice. Each of its steps rocked the world and made stars flash behind his eyes. “Got you, got you. Gonna keep you.”

“What do you know?” Tony wheezed, aware that there was blood on his lips. “We're not in hell, after all. Guess that's a yes.”

And if his expectations were dashed merrily to bits when the god of lies actually followed through- when Loki, bringer of chaos, supervillain extraordinaire, Thor's sanity-challenged little brother- reached down to take his hand, the confusion was mercifully short-lived. The fact that his brain shut up because the world was too busy turning itself upside-down for him to think of very much else was, all things considered, a small price to pay.