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The Sands of Time

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Time travel is a tricky bitch.

No two ways about it. And no matter how hard Tony stared at the Quantum capsules and Scott’s van—which they’d had imported to the Compound—nothing was going to suddenly make time travel make sense.

It had been just short of five years since the prune-faced asshole destroyed half of all life. Which meant just under five years since they’d found the bastard again and Thor finally aimed for the head.

Just under five years was how long the whole universe had been struggling, trying to repair things after the massive shit-storm that had hit. And still, even now when people had started putting their lives back together, it was still painfully obvious that things were not right. People were suffering; economies were collapsing. In many ways, everything had changed and yet, perhaps in even more ways, nothing had changed at all.

“Five years,” Tony muttered to himself, dropping a tool he’d been absently fiddling with for several minutes. He stood and ran a hand over his face, looking up with his eyes closed and feeling the kind of exhaustion that simply comes with the passage of time. In a sudden burst of frustration, he kicked the chair he’d been sitting on, sending it skittering across the workshop.

“Whoa,” a calm voice said. Tony turned and let out an exasperated huff, forcing a smile, as Carol righted the chair and approached, dragging the stool along with her. “Maybe ease up on the ‘roids?”

Tony rolled his eyes. He opened his mouth but then sighed. Throwing his arms out to the side, he said, “I don’t even have anything for that.”

The woman looked genuinely taken aback. “Nothing?” Carol asked him incredulously.

“Nope,” he told her, dropping back onto the stool unceremoniously. “This is what all this Quantum shit has done to me. I can’t even come up with a comeback for banter.” As Carol leaned back against the desk, folding her arms over her chest, Tony pouted. “I’m all bantered out.”

“That,” Carol pointed at him, “is a true tragedy.”

Tony chuckled. “I thought you were in space?” he asked, suddenly realizing that he wasn’t expecting her.

“Um, yeah, I was,” the Captain replied. She turned around, inspecting pieces of a particle accelerator that Tony had taken apart because why-the-hell-not. “But, I did mention in our last meeting,” Carol continued as she held up the piece of metal, “that I would be back in a few days.”

Tony frowned. “Yeah, a few days,” he repeated. He looked at the back of the blonde’s head for a moment, waiting for her response. Then realization dawned on him. “It’s. . . it’s been a few days, hasn’t it?”

Carol set the metal down and spun around, biting her lip. “Yeah,” she hissed out cautiously. “Yep, it has.”

“Fuck.” Tony ruffled his hair. “Okay, and nobody came to get me, so I’m assuming that either. . .” he paused, running through options in his head. “Either nobody else has come up with any ideas, yet; or they did, but went on with their plan without me because they realized they obviously don’t need me.”

Carol tutted softly, patting Tony on the shoulder. “The world will always need you, Tony Stark.”

With a harrumph, Tony slouched, crossed his arms, and glanced down. “Not the whole world, it seems.”

“Pepper is one person,” Carol told him, moving her hand from his shoulder to his chin and forcing him to look at her. “And she’s a lovely person, but not your person. And that’s okay.”

Tony narrowed his eyes, wanting to be angry, because that had become his modus operandi for the last five years; that, along with bitter, resentful, and basically just being a huge disappointment – all things he was very skilled at; first, with Howard and then, apparently, with Pepper.

“She broke off the engagement, Tony,” Carol stated, interrupting the man’s thoughts. “You’ve gotta stop being mad at yourself eventually.” Finally, the woman leaned back, resting her palms behind her on the desk. “Besides, it’s been five years—"

Tony cut her off, “Yup, I know. Five fucking years.” And there was the anger he’d been looking for. The inventor let out a dark laugh. “Five years since Pepper and I ended, which I guess is fitting since that’s when the world ended.”

“Except the world didn’t end, Tony,” Carol interjected. She gave him a determined look, but it only fueled Tony’s frustration.

“It might as well have, Danvers!” Now, Tony was on his feet, pacing around the work-space and flailing his arms just for something to do. “Because you know what? We failed. We fucking failed. We couldn’t stop Thanos, and half the universe paid for it with their lives. And the rest? Well, they’re all just left behind to mourn and waste away and fight each other for scraps. Because we’ve all just been down here in the shit for the last five years. And now when we finally have an idea – finally, after not being able to do a damn thing – we can’t pull our heads out of our asses enough to figure out how to make it work!”

Carol stared at Tony, who was now standing still and panting in the middle of the room. Just as the pilot looked like she was about to say something, Tony let out a shaky breath. “And the worst part,” he said softly, “is that I actually let myself hope that maybe we could fix this. That maybe I could save them, could get them all back – could get the kid back.” With that, Tony dropped to his knees.

In an instant, Carol was kneeling beside him. She pulled him into a hug, which was what he really needed at the moment – someone to hold him tight enough that maybe all his broken pieces would come back together; Carol’s hug wasn’t quite that tight, but it would work for the moment, at least.

“Tony, you’ve done the hardest part.” Carol’s hand circled Tony’s back as she whispered in his ear. “You got the band back together.”

Tony let out a hiccupping laugh at that. He could feel Carol smile against his cheek.

“And you came up with the basics.” She pulled away and nodded her head towards the vehicle in the space. “Scott provided us with the wheels. So, what are we really missing here?”

Tony let out a sigh. “A plan. And the juice to make it happen.”

Carol nodded and stood, pulling Tony to his feet in one swift motion. He grunted and glared at her. “I told you to stop doing that.”

“Then stop kneeling every time you see me,” Carol quipped back with a wink.

Tony rolled his eyes exaggeratedly. “Trust me, when I get on my knees for someone, there’s only one reason I’m down there.” Leaning forward, Tony surreptitiously whispered, “And you’ve got the wrong equipment for that, Sweetheart.”

“You’re disgusting,” Carol told him with a playful shove. In response, Tony merely wiggled his eyebrows suggestively. “C’mon!” Carol grabbed him by the hand and started dragging him toward the door. “We’ve got a plan to come up with!”

Tony followed her, chuckling as he did. Moments later, when they arrived in the meeting room, everyone else was already there.

“Look who decided to join us,” Natasha greeted in a deadpan tone from her seat at the front of the room. She leaned back in her chair and gave a friendly smirk. “Thanks for dragging him out of his laboratory, Carol.”

Tony sat down next to Carol, grinning at Natasha. “Can you say ‘laboratory’ in, like, a Russian accent? Or maybe British, and do the Dr. Evil pinky thing? I don’t know why, but I feel like it would be cathartic for me or some shit.”

Natasha rolled her eyes and stood, putting her hands on her hips in that authoritative way that she had. “Okay, so, we’re all here to try and fix what happened. I think we’re all in agreement about the Time Stones being the key to that, yeah?”

“Not all of us,” a low voice grumbled from behind Tony. He spun around in his chair and looked into Thor’s dual-toned eyes.

Tony hesitated for a split second, feeling goosebumps across his skin at the odd thought that something about Thor wasn’t quite. . . right. But then he decided he’d probably just been locked up in his workshop for too long. “Wanna share with the rest of the class, Lebowski?”

Thor glared at him. Interestingly, it was Natasha who answered: “Thor has already told all of us how he thinks he has a better plan.”

“Which you would know if you’d been coming to any of the status updates over the last couple days,” Steve added.

“Whatever would we do without that tone of righteous indignation of yours, Spangles?” Tony snarked, glancing briefly to the soldier. Then, he looked back at Thor. “So, you think you have a better plan? You, the – and I say this with all due respect, Bud – the Space Viking who has been struggling to bring an alien culture into the 20th, let alone 21st, century on the cliffs of Norway for the last five years?”

Thor’s gaze lingered, challengingly, for a moment, before he finally looked down. A dejected expression flitted across the King’s face and it caused something in Tony to ache. Before he could say anything else, though, Thor pushed himself out of his chair and exited the room in a flourish, his stupid red cape billowing along behind him.

Tony spun around and looked at the other people – and animal, and android – in the room. “Was it something I said?” he asked, trying to sound teasing but even he could tell his voice missed the mark.

Bruce rubbed at the back of his neck. He took his glasses off and looked up at the ceiling. “Thor’s disagreement has been a bit of a sore spot. He, uh, he has some different ideas about time travel.”

“Well, no shit. We all have different ideas about it.” Tony let out a laugh, but it was quickly cut short. “Wait,” he scrambled forward, resting his hands on the table. “None of us can actually say that we understand time travel, right?”

Scott tentatively raised a hand. “For the record, I totally thought I understood time travel. Before I got here. But all that has been kind of tossed out the window.”

Suddenly, Tony’s mind drew him back to years earlier. To his Penthouse; an offer of a drink; a window that would soon be shattered by him being thrown bodily through it. And glistening seafoam eyes on a face so full of pain that it hurt to look at, especially since that pain seemed so wrong in contrast to the beauty of the face it was on. . .

Shaking his head, trying to clear a fog that seemed overpowering, Tony lurched to his feet. “What did you just say?” Tony asked, wheeling around to face Scott completely. The Ant-Man merely blinked at him, looking more confused than usual. Tony felt Carol’s hand on his arm and he sat back down. “Sorry,” he mumbled. He rubbed his eyes, trying to quell the tugging in his chest, which had been there since he’d seen that pained look on Thor’s face and had gotten stronger at Scott’s words. Surely, it had to have just been the words – poor phrasing on Scott’s part, bringing up memories of Tony’s past.

“Time travel, for all intents and purposes, is incorrectly named.” Bruce was speaking, but his voice sounded far away. “Time is linear,” Bruce insisted, just as he had days before. “If you travel to the past, it’s not the actual past, so-to-speak. It’s you in the present visiting the past which now also is part of your present, because the past has already happened. So you can’t go back and affect now; you can only be here and affect the future.”

Rocket waved a paw in the air. “Stop, Doc. You’re makin’ my head hurt. Again.”

Suddenly, Tony felt the need to move. He jumped up and left the room, ignoring the protests from his companions. He maneuvered through the hallways of the Compound, trying to shake the feeling that he was being held underwater. He’d been there before – didn’t like it, thank you very much.

Maybe he was having a migraine.

Maybe this was the start of a really bad panic attack.

Maybe—

Tony’s thoughts came to a slamming halt when he crashed into a broad, muscular, Asgardian chest.

“Are you all right?” Thor asked. Tony squinted at him – he was muffled, too, and blurry. Everything was too bright. “Come with me,” Thor said, in a tone softer than any Tony had ever heard from the brash god. And then, Tony most likely passed out.

*

*          *

*

Tony opened his eyes and found Thor hovering over him. “Well, that’s terrifying,” the engineer muttered as he sat up.

“You fainted,” Thor told him, offering a glass of water.

“Excuse me, I am a very manly man,” Tony told him. His throat felt tight and dry, so he took a large swallow of the water. “I may have blacked out, but I didn’t faint.”

Thor raised an eyebrow. “No, you definitely fainted. It’s a good thing I caught you, too, or you would have hit your head when you collapsed—”

Tony held up a hand. “Okay, okay, enough. Seriously, stop. My masculinity can’t take any more hits.” He looked around. “Uh, am I in your bedroom, Point Break?”

“It was closest.” Thor looked down, almost sheepishly. “And I thought perhaps we needed to talk?”

There was a moment of silence before Tony’s head started pounding and his chest started to ache again. He let out a pained groan, clutching for his Reactor. “What the hell is that?” he hissed.

“I knew it!” Thor exclaimed, standing up and looking way too proud of himself.

“What, did you poison me?” Tony asked, only somewhat jokingly as he eyed the water he’d been drinking.

Thor sat down as suddenly as he’d stood, making the room spin for Tony. “The Norns are trying to tell us something, Stark.”

“The what?” Tony asked, arching a brow.

“The Norns, the weavers of Fate,” Thor stated plainly, by way of explanation.

“Oh, of course.”

“Tony.” Thor grabbed Tony by the shoulders, staring at him with a wild desperation in his eyes. “I don’t—” he paused, looking conflicted.

“Spit it out,” Tony told him, even as concern grew in his belly.

Thor sighed. “I don’t have much time,” he finally admitted.

“Okay?”

Thor leaned back, running a hand over his face. “I’m not your Thor,” the god finally answered.

Tony stared at him before scoffing. He shook his head. “What the fuck, man?”

“Your Thor is still in New Asgard, with Valkyrie. I intercepted your message about assembling here.”

At that, Tony jumped to his feet. “What. The. Actual. Fuck?”

“Please, I need you to listen to me—"

“You better start explaining then, and fast. And it better be good!” Tony pointed a finger at his friend – or, not-friend? “Start with this ‘my Thor’ nonsense.”

“It’s not nonsense!” Thor-not-Thor bellowed. He took a deep breath. “Apologies.” He sighed, looking frustrated. “I’m here to offer you a plan.”

“I am perfectly capable of coming up with a plan—”

“You would’ve died,” Thor blurted. Tony stumbled backwards and braced himself against the wall. His chest was tightening. Thor carried on. “The plan that you would’ve come up with, it wouldn’t have worked. Either you would not have defeated Thanos, or you would have died in the process.”

“Well, that sucks,” Tony finally managed to say.

“It doesn’t have to happen that way, my friend,” Thor told him gently. When Tony looked at him again, there was a kindness in his eyes. “There are many different versions of this life, Tony Stark. After gazing through several windows of time and across the Multiverse, I don’t think I could save you in all of them. But the way things are here, now? I can help with that.”

Thor’s words left the engineer with many questions and he had no clue where to start. Tony shook his head. “What are you talking about?”

“I was sent here—”

“Sent?” Tony’s head snapped up and he glared at Thor. “Who sent you?”

Thor bit his lip. He lifted his hands in a placating gesture. “Tony, please—”

“Who the hell sent you, Thor?”

Finally, Thor dropped his hands and exhaled. “Loki.”

Tony felt like he’d been hit by a truck. He slid down the wall, and briefly considered throwing up. He closed his eyes but that only made things worse, because then he saw Loki’s face. But there was something. . . different. Suddenly, seeing Loki in his mind didn’t evoke the same hatred and sense of ‘you’re a hero, he’s a villain’ that it had always brought before. Tony couldn’t quite put his finger on it. With a groan, he forced his eyes open, blinking and telling himself that he could ignore the fact that he saw Loki, that his mind searched for Loki, of all people, every time his eyelids fluttered closed.

After he’d forced himself to not hyperventilate, he looked up. Thor was kneeling in front of him. “I don’t want anything to do with anything orchestrated by that asshat of a brother of yours.”

Surprisingly, Thor laughed. Quietly, almost to himself, he said, “Pretty close on the wording, actually.”

“What’s that? What are you mumbling about?” Tony waved his hands in a vague gesture toward the Asgardian.

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” Thor replied, still chuckling softly.

Tony narrowed his eyes. “What’s really going on here? And if Loki sent you, then why? And where the hell did you come from? You still haven’t explained about this other-Thor shit.”

“The best I can do is this: I’m from next year.”

Tony stared, wide-eyed and slack-jawed. “Run that by me again, Tangled?”

“My brother sent me through time, to visit you here, so that I could tell you the right way to do things. Because you won’t figure it out on your own.”

“Hey!”

Thor held his hands up again, in surrender. “Not that you can’t. You just. . . won’t.”

Tony cocked an eyebrow. “Why not? If there are other viable options, I’m sure I can come up with ‘em.”

“It’s a plan you won’t allow yourself to consider,” Thor told him. That gave Tony pause. He thought he had considered all options – what other choice might he be neglecting? His chest ached again and this time, he realized it wasn’t just his chest in general; it was his heart. Then, Thor added, “Besides, another plan isn’t an option now. The others are set on their plan with the Stones.”

“Right. Collecting the Stones before Thanos does,” Tony said, nodding.

“But that’s what gets you killed,” Thor stated firmly. “And, there’s a better choice.”

Tony stood, finally. He tilted his chin up and looked at Thor inquisitively. “Okay, what’s this better choice, then?”

“Thanos might be the leader in all of this, but he has never acted alone. He has players – all of whom were key in ensuring that his plan worked. If any one of those players was to be taken out of the equation, Thanos’s entire plot would fall apart.” Thor stared at Tony hopefully.

“So, we don’t need to stop Thanos directly,” Tony said, piecing things together. He tried to get his mouth to keep up with his rapid-fire brain. “We just need to take out one of his key players.”

Thor laughed and fist-pumped the air triumphantly. “Yes!”

“Wait.” Tony scratched at his temple. “How do we do that?”

“You, Tony,” Thor told him, his voice dipping into a low and almost ominous tone. “You must travel to a different point in time, and stop Thanos’s most important pawn of all.”

Tony blinked.

“Really?” Thor asked, frowning. “You, you really don’t know?”

With a shrug, Tony let out a puff of air. “I got nothin’, man.”

Under his breath, Thor grumbled, “Wow, you’re even worse than you said you’d be.”

Tony’s ears burned. “Wait, what?”

Thor’s eyes went wide. “Nothing!” he exclaimed, too quickly.

“Did. . . did I send you, from the future?”

“No, I told you, Loki did,” Thor replied obstinately.

“But I was there, wasn’t I?” Tony queried, leaning forward to poke Thor in the chest excitedly.

The Asgardian grabbed Tony’s finger and pushed his hand away. “Maybe!” He groaned. “I don’t know if I’m allowed to tell you that, so just forget it. The point is, I know exactly where to send you.”

“What do you mean?” Tony furrowed his brow in confusion. “How are you sending me somewhere?”

“Stark!” Thor cried, exasperated.

“Wait a sec,” Tony told him. He paused, trying to finally catch up to all the thoughts running rampant. “This is not how time travel works. Bruce said—”

“Bruce was wrong, Tony.”

That statement did not sit well with Tony. Bruce was a genius, like him, and they were Science Bros. “Listen, Thor, or not-Thor, or different-Thor, or whatever the hell.” Tony waved a hand dismissively. “Nobody insults my Bro. Bruce isn’t just wrong about shit.”

“He’s wrong about this, Stark.” Thor’s voice was firm. Kingly, if Tony had to really give it a quality. It was a very my-word-is-law kinda tone. “Time is constant, Tony,” Thor continued, his expression and voice both softening a bit. “It is not a straight line, but a circle. It is all around us and in us and everywhere, and everything. Always.”

Tony stared at the larger man, blinking and considering how very Whovian this all sounded. If he was being honest, Quantum theory and physics had never really been his forte. So when Bruce seemed so certain about how time worked, Tony didn’t even think to question it. But the way Thor talked about time – and knowing that Thor was literally from a different Realm where time probably moved a little differently, coupled with the fact that the Asgardians had been around for thousands of years – Tony was a little inclined to think that maybe, just maybe Thor actually knew what the hell he was talking about. Or, and Tony couldn’t believe he was thinking it but – Loki knew, and had explained it to Thor so that Thor could come and tell Tony. That actually seemed more likely. Finally, Tony sighed. “So, you’re saying, we can change the past?”

“Yes, which would in turn change the present as you know it. Meaning—”

“We can create a whole new future,” Tony finished for him. His mind was already racing with the idea. “We could stop Thanos before he even starts. We don’t have to bring people back if we never lose them!”

Thor smiled and nodded fervently, clapping a hand on Tony’s shoulder. But then, Tony’s bubble burst. He frowned. “No,” he said softly, causing Thor’s smile to fall away, too. “It can’t possibly be that easy.”

“No one said it would be easy, Friend,” Thor told him in a quiet voice.

“Thor, we can’t just go back far enough and stop it before it starts,” Tony insisted. “People have theorized that before. It’s the whole ‘kill baby Hitler’ concept. If you stop him before he ever gets started then someone else will just fill in the role.” He let out a breathy laugh. “I feel like I should finish that up with a ‘Hail, HYDRA,’ because it’s all very ‘cut off one head, another takes its place.’”

Despite Tony’s excitement being completely gone, Thor’s seemed to actually return. He offered a kind smile. “Tony, it’s not about going back far enough. It’s about making sure the time you return to is significant enough.”

Tony dared to meet the god’s eyes again. “That’s the pawn you mentioned? You really believe there’s someone so important to Thanos that if we stop him, we stop the whole game?”

Thor nodded, still looking enthusiastic, but with a glint of resignation flickering across his face.

“Thor,” Tony prodded. “Where—or when—do you think I need to go?”

“Before we met,” Thor told him with a longing gaze. “You must go to Asgard-That-Was.”

“Shit, balls—“ Tony breathed out, dropping back onto Thor’s bed. “You want me to go to Asgard?”

“I would have loved for you to have seen it, Tony,” Thor admitted. “But right now, I’m afraid it’s a matter of necessity.” He sat down on the chair next to the bed, leaning forward and looking at Tony intently. “You remember how we met, yes?”

“Pfft.” Tony rolled his eyes. “How could I forget?”

“Who brought us together, Tony?” Thor asked seriously.

“Loki,” the word escaped before Tony even had a chance to think about it.

“And we know now that he was there at Thanos’s behest,” Thor continued. He paused and stared, obviously wanting Tony to supply some kind of answer.

It, too, came without thinking. “He was a pawn,” Tony breathed out. “You want me to go back and stop Loki?”

A nod. “We want you to prevent Loki from falling into Thanos’s clutches.” Thor gave a sad little smile. “If that doesn’t happen?” He gestured around. “None of this happens.”

Tony knew what he meant. And he understood the stakes. But he still had questions. “I still find this a little hard to believe, man.”

“I know,” Thor answered with a soft chuckle. “But as I stated, I don’t have much time. So I’m afraid that to do this, you must go now.” With that, Thor stood, sounding conclusive about the whole thing. Tony hurried to gain his footing as well.

“What, by myself?” Tony asked, disbelievingly.

“I have already risked much by coming here,” Thor replied, his face turning grave. “I cannot go to Asgard and risk running into my former self.”

“So I just go to Asgard in the past and, and, and I what? I tell your psycho brother, ‘Hey, let’s talk stranger danger. Especially when it comes to some massive purple dude who wants you to take over my planet.’”

Thor laughed heartily. Which was a little disconcerting, considering the gravity of things. “I’m sure you’ll find the right words, my friend. Besides, I think you’ll find the Loki of that time to be a bit. . .” he paused, smiling before he finally said, “different from when you met him.”

Tony groaned and ran his hand over his face. “Great, thanks, that’s really fucking helpful.”

With urgency and more force than Tony thought was necessary, Thor grabbed Tony by the shoulders. “Your suit, it’s built in, yes?”

“Uh,” Tony paused, glancing down to the nanoparticle housing unit. “Yes?”

“Excellent!” Thor kept one hand on Tony’s shoulder and with the other, reached into a pouch at his belt. He produced a pendant – a small jewel-looking stone on a leather cord – and held it in front of Tony’s face. “I admit, I do not understand this.”

“That’s comforting,” Tony deadpanned.

“Loki spelled this for you.” They locked eyes and it was as if Thor was waiting for Tony to give permission. Which probably made sense, since he was asking him to trust him with something that his nut-bag brother created and even Thor wasn’t sure how it worked. Finally, Tony gave a small, hesitant nod. Thor dropped the cord over Tony’s head, so it hung comfortably around his neck. “It will take you to the time and place you need to be, and when you’re ready to come back, it will bring you home.”

Tony gulped and nodded again. Thor continued: “All you have to do is close your eyes, squeeze the stone in your hand, and will it to do its duty. It will transport you. It will also help you blend in, so it must stay around your neck; Midgardians are not usually allowed in Asgard, and there wouldn’t be a good explanation for you to be there, since you and I will not have met yet.”

At that, Tony’s eyes widened. “So I won’t even have past-you to help me?”

Thor wrinkled his face up. “I have a feeling that the version of me you’ll be meeting wouldn’t be much help.” Then he gave that sad smile again. “Besides, Loki is the one you need to focus on. You have to stop him from falling to Thanos.”

“And if I can’t?” Tony asked, hating himself for already thinking of failing but he had to consider all possibilities. And even if this was a completely insane situation and maybe not even real, he still had to ask.

“You won’t fail, Tony.” Thor sounded way too confident.

“How do you know?”

“Because,” Thor told him with a wink, “you’ve already succeeded.”

That made Tony pause. “So, you can just tell me how I did it? And I’ll do the exact same thing.”

The Thunderer shook his head. “Doesn’t work like that. Besides, I don’t know what you did.”

“I didn’t tell you?” Tony inquired, arching a brow.

Thor looked hesitant. “There is a hint I could give you, and a message from Loki.”

“Okay.” Tony held a hand out and wiggled his fingers in a ‘gimme’ kind of motion. “Lay it on me,” he said, looking expectantly at his friend.

“If it comes to it,” Thor began, “don’t let go.”

Tony frowned. Then, Thor’s face immediately flushed. “And for Loki’s message – well, I don’t think it’s going to translate well, coming from me.”

But Tony just stared at him in anticipation, folding his arms over his chest. Finally, with a deep blush, Thor sighed. He leaned forward and—

Tony froze.

Because Thor had his lips pressed to Tony’s.

It was a closed-lipped, completely chaste, Grandma kind of kiss. But Tony’s mind was racing. He had never thought of Thor as anything other than a friend, a teammate, a bro. So even the most innocent of lip-locks still made him feel like he needed to take a cold shower.

“What.” He blinked. “What, uh, was that?”

Thor refused to make eye contact. “Loki said to tell you it’s incentive.”

All that did was make Tony even more confused, especially since the headache and heartache both came rushing back with a vengeance. The implications of that statement with the accompanying action. . . well, it threw a lot out of alignment. Before Tony could say anything, Thor’s hands were on his shoulders again.

“You’re going to arrive in Asgard a few days before my first—failed—coronation. Find Loki. Try to get him to stop his plans. The earlier you can get him to give up on whatever plans he has, the better. But if all else fails, remember what I told you—”

“Yeah, yeah – ‘don’t let go.’ Super helpful, Kemosabe.” Tony rolled his eyes. “This isn’t real, right?” he finally asked. “I mean, I’m still unconscious in the hallway and I’m gonna wake up and none of this happened?”

Thor didn’t answer. He only smiled and then nodded toward the pendant now hanging around Tony’s neck. “Yeah, right,” Tony mumbled. He took the green stone in his hand – of course, it would be fucking green.

He held the stone and closed his eyes. How was he supposed to will a stone to do something? What did that even mean? He waited a few more seconds. Finally, he sighed. With his eyes still squeezed shut, he asked, “Am I supposed to click my heels three times or something?”

There was no answer. “Thor?” Tony asked quietly. When he dared to open one eye, he let out a heavy breath. “Holy shit.”

Chapter Text

Tony had never imagined so much gold could exist, let alone that it might all be in one place. The golden city in front of him was outshined only by the palace it surrounded. His sense of awe quickly moved to the air around the buildings, entranced by the spectrum of colors and the vastness of the sky. The city appeared to be floating, surrounded by water and clouds. It was almost impossible to tell where the sky ended and the ground began. There appeared to be plains and forests, with snow-capped mountains, and a clear sky that also, somehow, managed to look like it could threaten to burst into a storm at any moment. Tony could see the galaxy beyond far more clearly than one could when looking up at the sky back on Earth, and it was kind of amazing. Then Tony glanced down at his feet and his heart just about stopped.

He was standing on a crystallized bridge made of light, with millions of colors racing under him. And the bridge was, apparently, suspended in mid-air, with nothing beneath it except for more clouds, and water far below. As he turned slightly, he couldn’t hold back a gasp. The planet was flat – as in, there was a literal edge to it; yet, there was obviously a gravitational pull or else everything would be falling off the edge.

“Well, this just shits in the face of all scientific fact,” Tony mused quietly.

“You’ve come a long way, Midgardian.” A voice boomed behind him, making Tony jump. It was deep, with a rich and warm timbre. When Tony whirled around to face the being, his jaw dropped. The figure before him was encased in gold armor, with dark ebony skin. And when Tony looked up to his face, eyes of a fluorescent golden-orange stared down at him.

“Uh.” Tony tried to make his voice work, to say words that actually made sense. But nothing would come out.

The giant Oscar award continued to gaze at him with intensity, but there was also a hint of kindness there. They looked at each other in silence for a moment before Tony reached up and grasped the pendant around his neck. He remembered how Thor had said it would help him blend in, because humans weren’t supposed to be here. Obviously, the stone worked because it brought him to Asgard, but then how could this person know he wasn’t Asgardian? Tony cleared his throat, his eyes darting around.

“I am Heimdall, the Gatekeeper,” the man introduced himself, in a tone that oozed with regality. “And you appear to be out of your depth.”

Tony scoffed. “I take offense to that,” he replied.

Apparently, Heimdall didn’t care. “You’ll need more than a charmed pendant if you want to remain undiscovered.”

Tony’s eyes widened. “What?” He drawled the word out, his voice rising in pitch due to nerves. “I have no idea what you’re—”

“Come.” Heimdall commanded before turning and walking into the dome-shaped building (also, made of gold because, of course it would be).

Hesitantly, Tony followed. Once inside, he examined the building and couldn't prevent an idiotic smile from spreading over his face. Along the walls and arcing up the ceiling were carvings that looked like tree branches and roots, extending all over and interweaving together. In the center of the room was what Tony decided had to be some kind of control panel, or key-hole, which coincidentally enough seemed to match the giant golden sword that Heimdall was holding.

“You will need those,” Heimdall nodded his head toward a pile of clothes at the base of the room’s command center. Tony stepped forward and picked up the article on top of the pile, smiling at the soft feel of the silky red tunic. “Put them on,” Heimdall ordered.

“What, now?” Tony asked. The self-proclaimed Gatekeeper merely gave him a slow, purposeful nod. With a sigh, the inventor did as he was told, stripping down to his boxers. He had every intention of keeping those on before he picked up the leggings that he was apparently supposed to wear as pants. He looked down at his boxers. “Yeah, no way in hell that’s gonna work.”

Heimdall wore a slightly amused expression when Tony turned to him, still just in his shorts and with the leggings in hand. “Would you mind, uh,” Tony twirled a finger in the air and whistled, hoping the Asgardian would catch his drift.

Heimdall didn’t turn around, but he did lift his gaze so he was looking above Tony rather than directly at him. “I suggest,” the giant started in what sounded like an amused tone, “you make haste.”

Tony groaned inwardly. Attempting to preserve some modesty, he turned so at least he wouldn’t have to look in those animal-like eyes. He made sure to position himself away from the door just in case someone were to come in – they’d get a good mooning, but hopefully he’d avoid showing any full-frontal nudity. With a sigh, he pulled his shorts off and kicked them to the side. Not wanting to be in his birthday suit for longer than necessary, Tony quickly pulled the leggings on. He’d expected that to be a struggle, but they actually went on easily. “Well, these are surprisingly comfortable. Huh.” With a shrug, Tony finished dressing in the Asgardian garb. By the time he was done, he had on black leggings, the red tunic, a golden sash around his waist, and a black cloak with gold trim.

Finally, Tony turned back to Heimdall. He threw his arms out to the side and asked, “Better?”

Heimdall gave another, singular nod. “It’ll do.”

“Gee, you really know how to give a guy a compliment.” Tony rolled his eyes, but he quickly followed it up with a smile. “Thank you, though.” Then, the burning question: “How did you know I was coming?”

The corner of the Gatekeeper’s lip curled into a hint of a smile. “Nothing escapes my gaze. No matter the distance. Or the span of time.”

“Oh, gotcha,” Tony stated, feeling somewhat self-conscious. “So, can you help me?”

Heimdall headed back to the doorway of the dome, forcing Tony to follow him. Once they were out in the open air again, Heimdall looked down (making Tony feel even shorter than he normally did, thanks a lot). “There is much I can see, but I am not privy to all the details when it comes to the Multiverse. Whatever you are here to do, or to change, you must bear in mind that there is a balance to all things.”

Tony felt like he actually understood those words, more than ever, as he looked out at the rainbow bridge, suspended by nothing.

“Some paths must remain unchanged,” Heimdall told him.

“Oh, good. You speak in riddles, too.” Despite his barb, Tony’s mind was already racing to make sense of Heimdall’s words. Finally, he gave a nod as he looked back up to the other. “So, make small changes, but the main plot points remain the same. Right?” At Heimdall’s almost imperceptible nod, Tony frowned and added, “How do I know what can change?”

“Follow the path of least resistance,” was Heimdall’s response.

Tony narrowed his eyes. “You all do this cryptic shit on purpose, don’t you? Just to watch me squirm.” He sighed. “Fine. I’ll figure it out all by myself.” He took a few steps forward on the bridge, still marveling at it as he started walking.

Apparently, the Gatekeeper decided to be helpful after all because then he offered, “An Einherjar can bring you a horse.”

Tony scrunched up his nose. “I’m not really a horse person.”

Heimdall raised a brow at Tony before looking at the bridge. “It will be a very long walk.”

With that, Tony got an idea and he smiled. “Good thing it’s a beautiful day for a flight, then.” He tapped the housing unit on his chest and there was the tell-tale clinking sound of the nanomachines as they scurried across Tony’s body, forming his armor. Once he had everything except his helmet in place, he smiled at Heimdall. “How would you recommend I get inside the castle?”

The Gatekeeper chuckled – a low, rumbling sound that came from deep in his chest. “You have heart, Midgardian.” Then, he jerked his head toward the shining palace, where Tony could just barely make out an overhang. “Try the gardens.”

Tony gave a three-finger salute before letting his face-plate move into place. Then, with a burst of light, he shot up off the bridge and into the air.

*

*          *

*

If Tony thought Asgard was incredible from the ground, that was nothing compared to the aerial view.

Looking down at the colorful path, realization struck. “The Bifröst,” he muttered. He chuckled softly. “I was standing on a fucking Einstein-Rosen Bridge,” Tony mused excitedly.

The trip to the palace would have been long on foot. Even flying, it was probably longer than necessary since Tony decided to take his time. He spiraled around and over a forest, swooping low as he marveled at the foliage. The colors themselves – it felt like he was wearing some kind of tinted glasses, but he couldn’t quite place it. Things looked. . . pastel, maybe? Finally, Tony shook his head, realizing it didn’t even matter. It was beautiful and blew his mind, and that’s what counted.

After his languid flight, Tony finally maneuvered himself to the palace. He found the overhang that Heimdall had nodded toward. When he landed, the faceplate folded away but Tony left the rest of his suit intact for now, just in case. Slowly, Tony wandered across the veranda, eyes flitting around at the spectacular flower beds and bushes around him. As he passed one particularly large bush, he literally stopped to smell the roses.

“Lovely, aren’t they?” a woman called, making Tony jump.

He spun around to find the source of the voice, forcing a smile despite his unease. “Hi,” he said awkwardly. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to intrude. I was just. . .”

The woman waved a hand dismissively. “A garden is intended to be admired.” She smiled warmly and something about it made Tony’s heart ache. The Asgardian walked forward and once she was closer, Tony noted that she was really quite lovely. Her canary blue dress was fitted nicely and she was adorned with golden bangles and necklaces, topped off with a golden band around her head and clips throughout her sandy blonde hair.

She paused in front of Tony, tilting her head to the side. She appeared to be inspecting him just as much as he was evaluating her. “Your armor,” the woman began. She reached a hand out and ghosted a fingertip across the metal suit, looking at it with something like awe in her bright eyes. When she looked back at Tony’s face, she said, “It is quite unique.”

Tony smiled. “Thank you,” he told her, beaming with pride. “I made it.”

Her eyes widened, scanning up and down his armor again as if for the first time. “You crafted this yourself?” she asked, walking in a circle around Tony. She traced an elegant finger along his shoulder and smiled when she stopped in front of him again. “Are you a smith?”

There was a pause as Tony considered her words. “Yup, that’s it,” he agreed. His mind hurried to fill in blanks – he recalled what he knew about medieval times and tried to guesstimate what kinds of similarities might exist in a Viking-esque culture. He only hoped that the ‘alien planet’ part wouldn’t make too much of a difference.

“I’m a smith, here to do an apprenticeship working in the castle’s forge,” Tony improvised. Apparently, it was a good lie because the woman merely nodded. And she seemed friendly enough – Tony decided to take a leap, hoping she would be helpful, too. “Uh. Hey, actually, I’m kinda looking for someone.”

“Oh?” she asked, interested. She folded her hands together in front of her.

“Yeah,” Tony drawled. “You wouldn’t happen to know where I can find. . .” he paused. What was he supposed to do – just blurt out that he’s looking for Loki? Then again, Loki wasn’t a criminal yet, right? Besides, he’s Thor’s brother and a prince. Asking for him couldn’t be that out of the ordinary. “Do you know where Loki might be?”

If the look of surprise on the woman’s face was any indication, then maybe asking for Loki was out of the ordinary. . .

“You’re looking for Prince Loki?” she asked. When Tony gulped and nodded, the woman’s surprise faded, giving way to a series of other expressions that flickered by too quickly for Tony to hope to read any of them. Finally, her face softened as she asked, “What did you say your name was?”

“I didn’t,” Tony replied with a grin. Somewhere deep down, he could hear Howard’s voice chastising him for being such a little shit. The woman gave an amused chuckle, though. “It’s Ton—” his voice stuttered to a halt. Would he be okay telling people his real name? ‘Tony’ probably isn’t a very Asgardian name, anyway. Clearing his throat, Tony tried again: “I’m Anthony. Uh, Howardson.”

The woman smiled warmly. “Well, it is a pleasure to meet you, Anthony, son of Howard.” Her eyes twinkled as she held out her hand. “You may call me Frigga.”

Tony had been to enough ritzy balls and charity events to know what to do. He leaned forward as he took the woman, Frigga’s, fingertips and kissed the back of her hand. “The pleasure is mine,” Tony told her, straightening up and releasing her hand.

Frigga’s eyes held his for another moment and Tony could almost see her thinking, although he couldn’t quite read the expression to know what she was thinking. And he knew that he didn’t know her. Yet, there was something oddly. . . familiar, in a way, about her. He shook the thought away as she spoke again. “Come with me, if you please?”

“Lead the way,” Tony told her with a wave of his arm. Frigga strode off ahead of him and he followed closely behind.

They weaved through several hallways and down staircases. Obviously, the woman knew her way around. Tony was already lost in the labyrinth of the elaborate castle. Finally, after what had to be almost half an hour—really gettin’ those steps in—they stopped in front of a set of large double-doors. Without a word, Frigga pushed the doors open, revealing the most immaculate and immense library Tony had ever seen.

Frigga entered and Tony followed a bit farther behind, glancing around in awe at the sheer volume of materials contained within the library’s walls. “This puts Hogwarts to shame,” Tony mumbled to himself.

“What’s that?” Frigga called over her shoulder, slowing down slightly to let the dumb-struck Tony catch up.

“Oh, nothing,” Tony said, waving a dismissive hand. Once he was closer to the woman, she turned down an aisle, then another, and another, moving deeper amongst the stacks.

Finally, at the end of an aisle, they turned and found themselves in a large open area that looked like a study space. There were several tables where visitors could, presumably, sit to read through their books. The place was bare, save for one table in the middle of the room. Books and ancient tomes lay scattered across the table, the bench, and even the floor – several were piled precariously on top of each other, while many others were spread out, open to certain pages. There were two piles of papers, one was likely blank parchment while the other was paper that had already been used. Next to the blank pages were several ink-pots and a couple writing quills.

Tony jerked his head at the sound of approaching footsteps, just in time to see someone step out of another aisle with a book in hand.

“Loki, darling!” Frigga called, rushing forward. Realization hit Tony like a punch to the gut. Of course – no wonder Frigga seemed so familiar, she was Thor’s mom. Which meant Frigga was also Loki’s mom. Tony wanted to kick himself. He’d been meandering around with the Queen of Asgard and had no idea. And he’d just randomly asked her to take him to see her youngest son. Way to lay low, Stark, Tony thought to himself.

“Mother,” Loki said softly, offering the smallest of smiles to the woman.

Tony watched as Loki set the book down on the table before stepping into Frigga’s open arms for a hug. She kissed him once on each cheek before pulling back, holding his face in her hands. As they spoke, Tony tried to reconcile the Loki in front of him with the one in his mind’s eyes.

This Loki had short hair and gentler features. Well, other than those cheekbones, of course – they could still probably cut marble. His eyes looked brighter; overall, this Loki appeared healthier. And definitely looked younger.

Frigga’s voice pulled Tony from his thoughts. “—in the gardens, and this dashing man asked to see you,” she was saying, standing in front of Loki and holding his hands in hers. Almost comically, Loki bodily leaned around his mother to look at Tony, raising an eyebrow as he did.

Tony lifted a hand and waved at him lamely. Quickly, Loki ducked back so he was shielded by his mother. Tony could hear them speaking to each other in hurried, hushed tones. It seemed like they were having some kind of argument and all Tony could do was awkwardly wait until they were done. He did take a few steps forward, so he could peek around Frigga and get a better look at Loki.

There was a part of him that still felt his heart hammering, screaming Danger!, based on his history with the demi-god. But there was another, more logical part of him that whispered from the back of his mind that this wasn’t really the same Loki. Those things haven’t happened yet, here. As much as he hated it, Tony had to admit that the Loki from New York looked significantly more like someone who had fallen from grace and, honestly, had been through some kind of hell, compared to the boyish Prince Loki standing in front of him now.

Tony took a moment to let his eyes run down the long, lean form, and—

Stop it. Bad Tony! He squeezed his eyes shut and took a few slow, deep breaths. When he opened them again, he realized the room had fallen silent. Frigga had turned and was smiling at him. Next to her, Loki had his arms folded across his chest and was giving him some serious stink-eye.

“This,” Frigga said, waving a hand, apparently urging Tony to come over. He closed the distance between them, stopping just close enough that he was in front of Loki without having to crane his head up to look at the guy. “Is Anthony Howardson,” Frigga introduced him using his ‘Asgardian’ name. “He is to start working in the forge.”

Loki clicked his tongue, sounding utterly unimpressed. Tony clenched his fists and had to bite his tongue to hold back the jibe that threatened to roll out. Instead, he forced a smile.

Frigga bumped Loki in the side with her elbow. She shot him an admonishing look – the kind only a mother could get away with – and, to Tony’s surprise, Loki softened. With a curt nod, Frigga smiled and kissed her son’s forehead before turning to Tony.

“It was a pleasure meeting you. I hope our paths will cross again in your time here,” she told him with such earnest that this time when Tony smiled, it was genuine.

“Me, too, Your Highness,” he told her. With that, Frigga patted Tony’s shoulder and then swept past him.

Tony watched the Allmother leave. An exasperated sigh pulled his attention. He turned to Loki and that hammering in his heart returned. He tried to tell himself it was just nerves from the whole situation, not fear of the person.

Loki reached up and ran a hand through his hair. Tony watched the smooth lines of the god’s face as he glanced, somewhat longingly, back to his table of books.

Tony remembered when he’d first seen Loki in his Penthouse in New York. He wasn’t sure he’d ever seen anything so beautiful and, at the same time, so tragic. He’d tortured himself for months after Loki’s failed Invasion, jolting awake in the night with wet-dreams like some fucking pubescent teenager. Tony was certain he had some weird kind of Stockholm Syndrome for fantasizing about the Trickster and, eventually, he managed to talk himself out of the idea of being intensely attracted to the psychopath who was too sexy for his own good.

Now, though, the temptation would be easy to fall into. The pale skin and statue-esque structure of the cheeks and jaw, those lips, and, of course, the eyes. Loki was wearing something similar to his armor, but what probably counted as casual for Asgard. It looked form-fitting and part of Tony wished he could peel off that jacket, to really appreciate that figure. Loki’s collar accentuated his neck which – holy shit, was it possible for a neck to be sexy? It must be, because damn, that was one fine neck. And those collarbones!

“Wow,” Tony muttered before he could stop himself. Loki frowned.

“What?” Loki asked defensively. Tony opened his mouth to speak but came up short when he realized he didn’t exactly know what to say.

Loki cleared his throat and shifted, looking uncomfortable. Tony chuckled nervously, realizing that an awkward silence had settled between them and he’d definitely been staring. He only hoped he didn’t look too much like a creeper. He considered how absolutely young Loki looked, smaller somehow and almost innocent in a way (almost).

Tony chanted “jail-bait” over and over in his head, which made it easier for him to look away and regain his composure.

“Never mind,” Tony finally managed. He watched as the Trickster rolled his eyes, which sparkled even more than Tony remembered. Letting out a huff, Loki turned and selected a couple of the open books from the table. He closed them and then, with a minute wave of his hand, the books disappeared in a flash of gold. When he turned back around, Tony was gaping at him. “How did you—”

“Just a bit of seiðr. It’s nothing,” Loki mumbled sheepishly to the ground.

Wait. Was Loki fucking blushing?

“Bullshit,” Tony blurted. Loki’s head snapped up. “That,” the engineer pointed in a vague gesture toward Loki’s person, “was amazing. I may need to study it.”

Loki’s eyes widened. Then, he narrowed them, studying Tony with incredulity. After a moment, he scoffed and looked away, shaking his head. “Mother said I’m to show you the forge?” he said, blatantly changing the subject.

“Oh. Right. Yeah. The forge. Because I’m a blacksmith. And I’m gonna do some work. Some, uh, smithing.” Tony was rambling, he knew it. Who was he, Kronk from The Emperor’s New Groove? Mentally, he kicked himself for being an idiot and getting distracted and— yeah, apparently, time travel made him lose all his cool.

Loki took a few steps forward, approaching Tony and then side-stepped him. All the while, Tony could feel that blue-green gaze on him.

“Well, follow me, if you must,” Loki all but groaned.

Tony turned with a nod. With a second thought, he tapped the Reactor, recalling the nanomachines. Loki froze mid-step and stared at him. “What?” Tony asked, cocking his head to the side.

Loki shook his head. He bit his lip – which was so adorable that Tony had to avert his eyes – and appeared to be considering whether he should speak. Finally, Loki gave in. Quietly, he admitted, “I’ve never seen magic quite like that before.”

Tony scoffed. “That wasn’t magic.”

Loki’s brow shot up and he fixed Tony with a look that said, ‘seriously?’ but he didn’t press the issue. Instead, Loki just turned on his heel and started out of the library. Tony followed him dutifully, letting his cloak flow behind him.

The library was just as confusing going out as it had been going in. When they finally made it back to the large double-doors, Loki wasted no time stepping out into the hallway. Tony had to double-step to keep up with him. After the first flight of stairs and halfway down another hall, Tony used a burst of energy to run forward and get in front of Loki, holding his hands in a time-out gesture. When Loki stopped and looked at him questioningly, Tony inhaled deeply.

“Slow down. My legs… are shorter… than yours,” Tony panted. “I feel like a fucking Dachshund walking with a Great Dane.”

“A what with a what?” Loki asked indignantly.

Tony was about to explain when he caught his mistake. “Um, nothing. Don’t worry about it.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Okay, I’m ready to go again. But maybe a little slower?”

Loki smirked, seeming a bit more like the arrogant wannabe-overlord Tony had seen before. As Tony turned, he tugged on his tunic to straighten it out. Loki’s eyes flicked down at the clothing’s movement and he let out a soft gasp. Tony looked at him questioningly, only to find Loki staring at him with an intense expression – like he was trying to solve some kind of puzzle.

“Is everything okay?” Tony asked.

Without speaking, Loki grabbed Tony by the shoulder and dragged him into an alcove. Once they were tucked out of the way of anybody who might pass by, Loki waved his hand. Tony watched as the air around him rippled and shimmered. Then everything beyond him and Loki looked blurry, muted.

“What did you just do?” Tony asked, pointing behind the god.

“Shroud,” Loki replied, as if it was obvious or simple.

“Oh-kay. Um, what does that—” Tony leaned forward, prepared with more questions, but he stopped short when Loki grabbed the front of his shirt and shoved him backward. With a growl, he slammed Tony up against the wall. “Ow!” Tony groaned. “What the hell?” he glared at Loki.

Loki’s eyes had a feral look to them as he held Tony against the wall with his forearm to the man’s chest. With his free hand, Loki reached forward and grabbed onto the pendant from Thor.

“No!” Tony all but shouted. Loki sneered and Tony tried to look apologetic. “Please, don’t touch that. It’s. . . really important to me.”

Loki glanced down at the pendant, focusing on it intently for a moment. He scoffed and his eyes darted back up to Tony’s face. “Where did you get this?”

“From a friend,” Tony told him firmly. Then, somewhat defiantly, he added, “It’s mine.”

Loki snorted. “Actually,” he said, twirling the stone between his fingers. “It’s mine.”

“Whaaaaaat?” Tony’s voice rose a few pitches. He shook his head and tried to laugh off the accusation, realizing too late that he probably sounded a bit crazed.

Loki released his hold on Tony, making him almost drop to the ground but he somehow managed to catch himself. When Tony steadied and looked back at the Trickster, he saw that a dagger was pointed at him and he held his hands up in surrender. “Now, let’s just be calm, and talk about this, okay?”

“Where did you get that pendant?” Loki asked again through gritted teeth. “And don’t lie.”

“I’m not lying!” Tony insisted, still holding his hands up. But he made sure that one hand could quickly access a gauntlet to fire a repulsor blast, should he really need to. He just hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

Loki stared him down for a moment, carefully considering him. With a quiet intensity, Loki spoke again: “Tell me then, Anthony,” he practically purred Tony’s name. “How did you come to possess a pendant charmed with my seiðr?”

Tony blinked. “What makes you think it’s charmed? And why would you say it’s your cider?”

Loki balked, looking disgusted. “Seiðr,” he drawled, emphasizing the word. “Magic,” he began, his voice oozing with condescension, “leaves a trail. Footprints, if you will. This pendant of yours has been spelled.” Then, Loki sighed, looking perplexed. “And, somehow, it appears as though the spell was cast by me.”

Any reply Tony was going to make was cut off by Loki stepping closer and pressing the tip of the dagger to his neck, dangerously close to his jugular. “I have no memory of you nor this pendant. I also don’t recognize the spell. Yet, it is undeniably my own seiðr.” His lip curled up into something like a snarl. “Tell me how.”

Tony knew it was stupid, considering the fact that he was in a very life-or-death situation, but he couldn’t help the fact that he wanted to smile at the mage’s cleverness. He should’ve known there was no way Loki would fall for a trick, even if it was Loki’s own handiwork. Loki lowered the dagger and looked sideways at Tony.

“Loki!” a voice bellowed, drawing Tony’s attention. Loki swore under his breath, then looked Tony in the eyes.

“We’re not done,” he said very seriously. He held a finger to his lips and hissed, “Not a word.”

All Tony could do was nod. Then, with a few gestures, the dagger disappeared and the weird shield-thing Loki had put up around them disappeared, bringing everything else into focus again. Loki grabbed Tony’s hand and dragged him out into the open hallway.

“Lo—Oh, there you are!”

Tony saw Thor rounding the corner. His heart leapt at the sight of his friend, before instantly plummeting again as he remembered: This Thor didn’t know him, wasn’t his friend. And the other Thor (which also wasn’t his Thor, and shit that was getting confusing) had said this Thor wouldn’t be very helpful. Looking at him now, Tony could actually see why.

Thor was wearing an armored chest-plate, silver with elaborate scaling and other designs. He had massive shoulder-pads that made his cape flow out behind him like his own personal red carpet. His hair was still just as blond and reminiscent of a surfer-dude. But there was a hardness to him. The way he carried himself made it seem like he had a massive chip on his shoulder, walking with long strides that screamed arrogance and white (Asgardian?) privilege. Sure, he still looked fun and kind, but the lovable Labrador quality about him was gone. This Thor seemed more volatile, ready to lash out like he had something to prove.

Thor stopped a few feet away. He looked from Loki to Tony, down at where their hands were still joined. Loki ripped his hand away as though he’d been burned. On top of that, Loki side-stepped to put distance between Tony and himself. Tony frowned and glanced between the brothers as they seemed to be having some kind of silent conversation.

“Thor?” another voice called from the direction Thor had come.

“Here!” Thor hollered over his shoulder. “I found him.” Four others came around the corner, striding up to join them. Then Thor stepped forward a bit, a smile on his face. “We’ve been looking for you, Brother.”

Loki shrugged. “I was in the library. Then Mother asked me to escort this,” he paused, nodding toward Tony, “apprentice smith to the forge.”

Thor laughed and clapped a hand on Loki’s shoulder. Tony caught the way Loki cringed under the force, or maybe just under the touch itself, but he didn’t move to push Thor away. “I almost forgot that Father had you overseeing such things.”

Loki rolled his eyes. “Lucky that you are able to forget.”

A woman, the only one among the group, sauntered forward and stood next to Thor. She fixed Loki with a pitying look. “Such menial duties, for a Prince.” She clicked her tongue and shook her head pityingly, and Tony caught the smirk on the woman’s face. Based on Loki’s glare, he saw, too.

For a split second, Tony was worried. He knew what Loki was capable of and feared that this woman was about to be smashed into kingdom-come. But then Loki just. . . didn’t. A look of resignation flashed across the Trickster’s face and his glare faded to a neutral expression. And for some reason that just didn’t sit right with Tony. This was Loki, the one who demanded that humanity kneel before him. Yet, he just backed down from some random Asgardian chick throwing shade? Something about that made Tony bristle. He didn’t consciously think about it – and looking back, he would certainly say it was likely that he was thinking with his second brain, the one in his pants.

Before Tony even realized it, the words were spilling out: “Y’know, ruling a kingdom isn’t always glamorous. The little things are important, too.”

The woman snapped her head toward Tony with a look that could kill, cocking her hip and resting her hand on it. But there was a look of pure, unadulterated surprise on Loki’s face. Tony’s brain felt foggy, overcome with a sense of cognitive dissonance as a quiet voice in the back of his mind said that maybe he was seeing Loki for the first time, rather than just the villain he was supposed to hate or the monster who’d killed dozens of people and literally tried to take over his planet. With a gulp, Tony pushed all those thoughts aside. That was too much emotional baggage to sift through right now and he was not ready for that.

“And you are?”

Tony looked back at the woman, who was inspecting him closely.

“This is Anthony,” Loki piped up.

“Anthony, tis a pleasure!” Thor exclaimed, grabbing Tony by the shoulder and pulling him into a hug. The smaller man barely had time to hug back before he was released and wheeled around to face the other three men. “These are the Warriors Three! Volstagg—" the most Viking-looking man Tony had ever seen, complete with long red hair and a beard, waved. “Hogun,” Thor continued, earning a nod from the smallest of the Three, who looked like he would be better-suited to a Samurai film. “And Fandral,” Thor nodded to the last, an attractive blond man with a mustache.

The woman cleared her throat. Thor smiled broadly and gestured toward her. “And this is the mighty warrior, Lady Sif.”

Tony smiled at all of them, very obviously letting his smile falter a bit when his gaze landed on Sif. She narrowed her eyes and gave him a feral-looking grin. And Tony was pretty certain he’d just gotten himself on Sif’s shit-list. But something about the way Loki snickered made it feel worthwhile.

“You said you were looking for me?” Loki asked, looking over to Thor expectantly.

Thor’s eyes lit up. “Yes! We were going to go riding.”

“Thought we’d have a bit of fun before Thor is overwhelmed with kingly duties,” Volstagg added, patting Thor’s shoulder.

“The coronation,” Tony said softly, mostly to himself. “When is it?” he asked, glancing around at the group.

“Two days’ time,” Fandral answered with an easy smile.

Tony sighed, surprised at how relieved he felt. Finally, he felt like he had some kind of timeline. Two days to intervene with Loki’s plotting and keep him out of Thanos’ hands. Two days to change the fate of the entire world. The relief he’d felt fizzled out as he realized that two days was no time at all.

Thor beamed at Tony, then looked back to his brother. “You will drop your charge off, then meet us at the stables. Yes?”

Loki gave a curt nod. Thor smiled at Tony before turning on his heel and walking away. Sif, Hogun, and Volstagg followed immediately. Fandral smiled and said, “Nice meeting you, Anthony. See you soon, Loki!” before he, too, was on his way. Tony decided Fandral was definitely his favorite of Thor’s friends.

Once they were alone again, Tony noticed Loki staring at him. Before he could say anything, Loki let out a sigh. “Do you know how to ride?” he asked.

“Uh, ride? You mean, like, horses?”

“No, bilgesnipes,” Loki deadpanned. “Of course I mean horses.”

Tony snorted. “Um, no. I’m not so great when it comes to equestrians.”

Loki hummed thoughtfully before nodding. “You’ll learn.” And then he grabbed Tony’s sleeve and tugged him along the hallway, to follow after Thor and the others.

Chapter Text

Tony hung back a bit as Loki approached the stables where Thor and his friends were collecting gear for their horses.

Fandral spotted them first. “That was fast!”

Thor spun around with a smile, but his expression turned quizzical as he spotted Tony.

Before anyone could say anything, Loki said, “Anthony will be joining us.” He jerked his head, urging Tony to step up beside him. “Unless any of you object?” There was a challenge in the Trickster’s shimmering eyes, and nobody seemed willing to rise to it.

Although, Sif did groan and raise her eyebrows toward Volstagg and Hogun, causing them to snicker softly to each other. Tony filed that interaction away, to overthink and overanalyze later on (like he tended to do).

“The more the merrier,” Thor told Tony with joviality. He then waved over one of the guards –what Heimdall had called Einherjar, Tony remembered. The guard nodded and hurried into the stable, presumably to collect the horses they were expected to ride. As horses were moved out of the stable and the rest of the group started piling the tack onto them, Tony felt a sinking feeling in his stomach.

He hated horses.

And the feeling seemed to be mutual.

Tony had spent too many summers at country clubs and at the estates of rich people his dad knew. And there were always horses. The one time he’d actually mustered up the guts to get on one (after name-calling and on a dare, of course), he’d been thrown and almost stomped into the dirt. Then, to add insult to injury, Howard had ordered him not to back down from a challenge, to get back on and try again. When Tony resolutely refused, insisting that he wanted to keep his body parts intact, Howard abruptly announced that they would be leaving the estate. The whole way home, Tony heard what an embarrassment he was and that Howard now could never show his face in front of those people again. From then on, Tony avoided horses like the plague. He had no interest or need for them.

Pulling himself from his thoughts, Tony saw Loki take a step forward. He reached out and grabbed the Prince’s arm, sidling up next to him and looking in his eyes with intensity.

“Um, this is a bad idea.”

“Nonsense,” Loki told him, rolling his eyes.

“No, seriously,” Tony insisted. As Sif pulled herself up onto one of the horses, settling into the saddle, Tony squeezed Loki’s arm and gave him a pleading look. “I’m really not a horse kind of guy.”

Loki opened his mouth, looking like he was going to protest again. But then one of the Einherjar directed a horse near them – Tony could barely see its muzzle out of the corner of his eye, but he felt its hot breath as it nickered too close to his ear. And Tony bodily flinched, unconsciously tugging on Loki’s arm, positioning the mage between himself and the horse.

Tony felt his heart racing. He closed his eyes and tried to get ahold of himself. A panic attack was the last thing he needed right now. Over a fucking horse? He hadn’t even thought about his fear of horses in decades. But now it was all rushing back. On top of still hearing Howard’s stern lecture, he could feel the all-over ache from being thrown, remembering how Jarvis and Ana had stayed up with him to take turns putting ice and heat on his sore shoulders and back.

“Anthony. You need to breathe,” Loki’s voice cut through the static in Tony’s head. It was firm and commanding, and exactly the solid thing Tony needed to grasp onto amidst his panic. He opened his eyes, finding that Loki was gripping both of his wrists with enough pressure to bruise and staring down at him with fire in his eyes. In a harsh whisper, Loki said, “Don’t let them see you like this. It’ll raise questions.”

Tony watched Loki take a slow, deep breath, and copied him. Then, together, they exhaled. They did it again two more times before Tony gave a tight smile and Loki nodded before releasing him.

It was only then that Tony realized Loki had handled his panic attack more successfully than anyone else ever had. It wasn’t just managing it like Rhodey did when he agreed to cuddle with Tony for as long as necessary after a bad episode and not just dealing with it like Pepper did when she tried to talk and logic him through the overwhelming sense of just everything being too much. Instead, Loki had just taken charge and stopped it in its tracks, something Tony wasn’t able to do for himself even if he saw it coming, when he felt the anxiety creeping up on him.

But more than helping with the panic attack, Loki had covered for him. As suspicious as Loki was of Tony and as irritated as he had been in the hallway before Thor ever found them, he still made sure the others didn’t see Tony in a moment of what they would certainly consider to be weakness. Maybe it wasn’t done particularly kindly, exactly, but it was a kindness, just the same. And Tony’s head started to feel fuzzy again, because that voice that was telling him this was the same Loki who attacked New York suddenly seemed a lot quieter and harder to believe (because, that wasn’t true, was it? Not the exact same, really, anyway).

“Is something wrong?” Volstagg called from his steed, next to Sif and Hogun. Fandral and Thor were both on the ground still, holding their horses by the reins and watching with curiosity.

Tony wasn’t sure if Loki intended to make an excuse for him or not, but he figured it was probably best if he spoke for himself. So he held his hands up and smiled widely. “I’m gonna leave the horses to you guys. Not really my thing.”

Hogun frowned, looking somewhat sympathetic. Then, he furrowed his brows and looked to Loki. “Perhaps he could ride a Cat?”

Shifting his glare from Hogun, Tony found Loki looking at him with a raised brow. “Well?”

“Well what?” Tony asked.

Loki sighed, rolling his eyes heavily. “Would you prefer a Cat?”

It took every ounce of willpower Tony had to bite back a smart-ass remark. The only reason he hesitated in arguing was because he wasn’t totally convinced that they were poking fun at him. After all, Loki looked deadly serious and everyone else was waiting in silence as if they expected Tony to give a legitimate response.

But asking for proof of ride-able cats would probably out him as a non-Asgardian. And Loki was already suspicious as hell.

So, instead, Tony suggested: “How about I just don’t ride anything?”

Sif tutted. “You mean,” she said with a mock-gasp, “that perhaps Loki should have just taken you to the forge like he was supposed to?”

Loki growled deep in his throat, eyes like daggers at Sif. But Tony just fixed the group with a shit-eating grin. “Actually, I thought maybe I’d just fly.” Then, he tapped the Reactor and was encapsulated in his suit.

Everyone’s eyes widened. Except Sif. She narrowed her eyes at Loki and asked, “He’s a seiðrman?” Her voice dripped with discontent.

That is not seiðr,” Loki told her with an edge to his voice.

Tony understood the reference enough to know that his correct response was, “It’s not magic. It’s technology; I invented it.”

Thor leaned forward in a sort of inspection. “This is your armor?” he asked, straightening up again. When Tony merely nodded, Thor smiled widely.

“And it allows you to fly?” Volstagg asked, disbelief in his voice.

“Among other things.” Tony shrugged nonchalantly.

Volstagg let out a loud laugh. “Now that is something I’d like to see!”

“Aye,” Thor agreed. “We shall ride, Anthony. You fly.” He then pulled himself up onto the giant white horse beside him.

As Fandral climbed onto his own horse, he looked down and chuckled. “Yes, let us see how your flight compares to the best of Asgardian horses!” The challenge was easy and good-natured.

“Are you suggesting a race, Fandral?” Loki asked. When Tony turned to him, his eyes were alight with mischief.

“And what if I am?” Fandral quipped, wearing a playful grin as he stroked his mustache.

“Finally,” Loki breathed out. “Now we’re getting somewhere!”

Sif groaned. “Fine, but no cheating, Loki!”

Loki scoffed at her as he patted the horse beside him. “I never cheat.”

“No playing by your own rules, then,” Thor amended. Obviously, over the centuries, he had learned how to speak Loki.

The Trickster didn’t respond, though. He merely grabbed his horse by the mane and hoisted himself up, swinging his long legs over and sitting atop the beast – all in one fluid, too-graceful-to-be-fair motion. The others all urged their horses forward, heading away from the stable and toward the fields. Loki and Tony again hung back. As Loki clicked his tongue, the horse turned to start walking after the others.

“You ride horses bareback?” Tony asked, noticing the lack of any kind of gear on Loki’s steed.

Loki leaned forward and stage-whispered, “Not just horses.” He winked before tapping his heels into the horse’s side, speeding up to a trot to follow the rest of the group.

Tony forced himself to swallow the lump in his throat, realizing that his mouth was suddenly very dry. He forced the innuendo out of his head as he jogged to catch up with the others.

Admittedly, all the horses were fine animals. Thor’s was obviously one fit for royalty, large and pure white. Sif and Volstagg’s looked like some kind of paints, with unique patterns and swirls of brown and white. Hogun’s horse was silver, shimmering in the light and Fandral rode a quarter-horse with a lovely dappled coat.

Loki’s horse was the smallest of them all. It was pitch black with a charcoal mane and tail, and slender with strong legs. Where the others seemed like something one would ride into battle, Loki’s appeared to be built for speed like a racehorse. It was reminiscent of a mustang, with something wild and unpredictable about it. Anyone would be able to tell it belonged to Loki. And, as far as Tony was concerned, it was also the most beautiful.

*

*          *

*

“We’ll follow this path,” Thor announced, nodding his head toward a worn trail in the dirt. “To the banks of the River Iving.”

“Iving?” Loki asked with an odd tightness in his voice, which only Tony seemed to notice (or care about).

“Yes,” Thor drawled. “Along the banks, to where we find the trail again, following it to the orchard on the hill.” The would-be king glanced at the faces around him. “Is this agreeable?”

“Aye!” The Three and Sif all cheered.

Loki rolled his eyes but nodded just the same.

Tony shrugged. “Fine by me.” He just hoped the trails were well-marked. “So, do we go on three, or what?”

“That works,” Sif stated.

“Excellent.” Loki fixed the woman with a devious glint and she opened her mouth to say something but stopped short when the mage called, “Three!” Then, with a laugh, Loki and his horse tore away from them, blazing down the trail.

“Damn him!” Sif growled. She snapped the reins and her horse took off after Loki’s.

Laughing, the others followed suit. “Go, Anthony!” Fandral called over his shoulder as his horse galloped away.

Tony’s faceplate barely had time to close before he shot up into the air, angling his body to shoot forward after the others. He started out low, moving up next to Fandral’s steed and then passing him. He heard the blond cheer as he pressed onward. He shifted, coming up between Volstagg and Hogun. They both let out yelps of surprise and Tony shouted, “Excuse me!” just before he used a booster to propel himself forward.

Despite its size, and the size of its rider, Thor’s horse was surprisingly fast. Tony managed to pull alongside them for just a moment, before the trail entered into some trees. Thor gasped and his horse slowed a bit in response, causing Tony to cackle as he righted himself and rocketed straight up into the air, over the canopy of trees.

From up high, Tony could see Sif’s horse. The female rider was still far ahead of Thor and the Three, but nowhere near able to gain ground on Loki. The Trickster was bent forward, making himself more aerodynamic as his horse gracefully leapt over a log and landed without missing a beat, its hooves continuing to hammer the ground.

Without having the trees or other obstacles to clear, Tony managed to get ahead of the others fairly easily. He spotted a body of water, which must have been the river that Thor mentioned. He spiraled down, reaching his hand out to run his fingers through the water as he zoomed up alongside Loki’s racehorse.

Loki glanced sideways at him, but didn’t look all that surprised to see him. “You’re kickin’ their asses,” Tony called.

The Prince laughed openly, a look of pure exhilaration on his face. Hoofbeats could be heard distantly behind them, but Tony didn’t see how they could catch up. Inside the metal mask, he grinned. Then he looked ahead, seeing the trail pick up again.

With the help of his thrusters, Tony swirled up and over Loki so he could pull ahead of him. As he swerved to enter the clearing and continue along the trail, he heard Loki curse.

Tony dared a glance backward. “You look good behind me,” he teased, unable to resist a double entendre of his own. With a snicker, he faced forward again, easily maneuvering through the trees.

As he turned a corner, Tony came to a stuttering halt when he saw that Loki was no longer behind him. “What the—”

The inventor cried out in surprise, tucking and rolling, as the dark horse came bursting through the trees, launching itself over Tony’s body, and effortlessly continuing to gallop ahead of him. With a determined growl, Tony launched himself back into flight-mode, quickly pulling up near the horse’s haunches.

“Nobody said anything about shortcuts!” Tony shouted.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Loki cooed, his voice oozing with sarcasm.

They burst out of the trees and into another pasture. Ahead, Tony could see a hill with a row of trees – their finish line. “See ya!” he called, using a well-timed repulsor blast to spurn himself forward.

Tony shot straight up into the air and then nose-dived for the beginning of the orchard. He started to slow himself down, ready to stick a landing. But just as he neared the ground, there was a shimmer of gold to his left and Loki’s horse burst out of thin air, slamming into him. The horse came skidding to a halt and Tony tumbled, rolling like a rag-doll until he finally stopped at the base of a tree.

Everything hurt.

“Fuck.” Tony folded his face-plate back with a groan. “I am definitely getting too old for this.”

Sitting up, Tony took a moment to get his bearings. His aches worsened when he jumped slightly as the slender horse stamped its foot only a few feet away from him. Then, Tony realized that Loki wasn’t on the horse’s back.

“Loki?” Tony called. He pulled himself to his knees and looked around, trying not to appear irritated but also fully prepared for the Trickster to jump out and, like, scare him or something equally childish (and, okay, in some instances, fucking hilarious). But then he saw the mage’s form, laying on his side some distance away. He’d been thrown.

A frantic feeling started to settle in Tony’s gut because, well, this was just great. Tony was a man on a mission – Thor had made it very clear that he was, essentially, to keep Loki safe. He had barely been in Asgard for not even half a day, and that mission was already at risk. Tony could see the meme now: ‘You had one job, Stark. Way to fuck it up. As usual.’

“Hey, Tricks?” Tony called toward the target of his mission. He moved to stand up, intending to walk over and check on the SOB. But then Tony realized that Loki still hadn’t moved or gotten up and now he was shaking. Panic set in. “Loki!” Tony cried, forgetting all about getting up and instead just crawling on his hands and knees to where the other lay.

Once he was close enough, Tony grabbed the god’s shoulder, turning him to assess the damage. “Lo—” Tony’s words died on his tongue when he saw that Loki was. . . apparently just fucking fine.

Because the jackass simply rolled onto his back to reveal that he was shaking with laughter.

Tony rocked back on his heels, staring at Loki with a stunned look on his face. Finally, after a moment, Tony reached forward and slapped Loki hard on the chest. Which, of course, only made the Asgardian laugh harder.

“You asshole!” Tony shouted. “I thought you got yourself killed.”

Loki sat up, still laughing and with tears in his eyes. He took a second to pull himself together before leaning forward, resting his palms on the grass and clicking his tongue. “You loved it,” he accused.

Tony sighed and bent forward, kneeling and starting to come down from his adrenaline rush. He chuckled. “You’re still an asshole,” he insisted.

Loki smirked. “I’ve been called worse,” he replied. It was still teasing, but there was also a sharpness to the words, which might have made one wonder about how much truth there was to that statement. But there was no time, because Loki skimmed right over the self-deprecation and his voice softened as he said, “I haven’t had that much fun in ages.”

“Me, either,” Tony admitted. He shook his head and looked up, pausing when he saw that Loki’s face was inches from his own.

They were both breathing hard and Tony was keenly aware of Loki’s oceanic stare, which looked deep into his own whiskey eyes and seemed to be searching for something. The moment was nothing more than that, though – just a moment, because they both heard hoofbeats and leaned away.

As the others approached, calling to them, Loki stood up. Tony was vaguely aware of them all speaking, but he couldn’t keep track of it. Something tugged at Tony – an odd sensation, like when he’d been in the Avengers Compound with Thor before all of this started. It was almost like a feeling of déjà vu or nostalgia, but not really. His mind was racing, his heart hammered, and he felt like he’d swallowed a cotton ball.

A hand waving in front of his face brought Tony back from the fuzzy feeling. He looked up and was surprised to see that it was Loki’s hand in front of his face. The Trickster was looking down at him expectantly. Tony took the offered hand and allowed Loki to pull him to his feet, like Danvers so often did. But there was a tingling feeling in Tony’s stomach that he never got from Carol. He gulped, not quite sure what to do with that information. With a tap to his chest, Tony recalled the nanites and was once again in the Asgardian clothing.

“You cheated, didn’t you?” Sif sounded resigned, sighing heavily with the complaint.

“Oh, come on, Sif!” Fandral chided. “Everyone knows Loki’s got the fastest horse. We set ourselves up to fail.”

“Truly? I just wanted to see Anthony’s flying armor,” Thor confessed. He marched forward and slammed both hands down on Tony’s shoulders. “Now, that was something!”

“True enough!” Volstagg agreed, lumbering over and stretching his arms and legs out after the hard riding. The Warriors Three all joined Thor, patting Tony on the back and complimenting his armor, his flight capabilities, and his ability to navigate their trails.

Tony smiled politely at them, but kept glancing to where Loki stood, stock-still and silent, some distance away from them.

“Friends, we should continue our adventures with some fine Asgardian mead!” Thor declared, earning raucous agreement from the others. “Anthony, I would be pleased for you to join us.”

“Really?” Tony asked. When Thor nodded, Tony considered it only a moment before shaking his head. “I appreciate the offer, but I think that, uh, Prince Loki and I still have some unfinished business.”

Thor nodded in understanding. “Another time, then?”

“Sure, why not?” Tony shrugged.

Thor turned, leading his friends back to the horses. They all mounted and Thor waved to Tony. Looking to Loki, Thor said, “You know which pub we’ll be at, should you care to join us!”

Loki nodded and gave a small wave to Thor. The others all called their goodbyes, mostly to Tony—except for Sif, who stayed silent—and then they turned and rode away, leaving Loki alone with Tony on the hill.

*

*          *

*

Once they were alone, any confidence or ease Tony had felt completely left him. It was almost possible to forget who Loki was and even why Tony was there. But now, with no distractions and no third-parties, there was no denying the truth.

Tony rubbed the back of his neck nervously as he glanced at the empty space around them – basically, looking everywhere except at Loki. Finally, after the time that had passed without a word between them was enough to officially consider it awkward, the engineer broke the silence.

“So, I guess you’re, uh, taking me to the forge, right?”

Loki raised an eyebrow, letting out an amused-sounding huff. “I could do that, yes.” He wiped at his pants, to remove dirt from when he’d been on the ground. While Loki twirled around, making a show of lifting his coattails and patting dust off his own ass, Tony tugged at his shirt collar and averted his eyes, trying desperately not to check out the mage’s body.

Once he was done, Loki faced Tony and straightened out his coat. He hummed and started inspecting his fingernails. With a sigh, he said, “But if I took you to the forge, the Smithy there would certainly tell me whether or not he was actually expecting a new apprentice.”

Tony’s eyes widened involuntarily. “Oh?” He hoped his voice came across as nonchalant (but somehow, he doubted that).

Loki barely raised his eyes from his hands, looking at Tony under a curtain of dark lashes. “Indeed.” He took a few steps forward, smirking. “And if he does not know you, and does not welcome you, then where will you go?” With a shrug, he added, “Plus, that means that the King will have to be alerted of your treachery. And believe you me, the Allfather does not take kindly to treason or misconduct.”

Languidly rolling his shoulders to stretch and pop the joints, Loki walked a circle around Tony. “Everyone would think you’d come to steal secrets from the royal family. You would surely be branded a traitor, probably even imprisoned.”

With a gulp, Tony shook his head in discontent. “Well, you sure paint a dire picture,” he grumbled. Then, once Loki had settled in front of him again, he gave a mirthless smile. “I suppose that means my safest bet is to stick with you, then?”

Loki offered a toothy, almost predatory grin. Then, he threw his head back and barked out a laugh. “I doubt even the Norns thought this day would come.”

At Tony’s puzzled look, Loki rolled his eyes. “For me to be the safer choice,” he explained. The Prince’s voice sounded amused, but he wore that neutral expression that could only have come from years of practice and his eyes lacked that certain sparkle.

Tony felt like the more time he spent with Loki, the more clues he gathered, adding to an ever-growing picture of who he actually was – as a person, and not just some megalomaniac.

While Tony was never the kind to forgive and forget (quite the opposite, in fact), he was absurdly logical. And he was all about that empirical evidence life. For years, Loki had been a mystery – a tacked-up picture on Tony’s investigative board in which the strings never quite matched up and something always seemed just a tad bit off.

But seeing the way Loki interacted with others and how they treated him actually answered a lot of questions. Plus, watching Loki act like a real person, like someone who could actually hold a conversation without taking somebody out or commanding them to cow-tow to his dominion? It made Tony wonder just what happened between this point and when he arrived in New York. Obviously, it was major. Probably several major things, actually. And Tony knew, probably better than anyone, that the events in your life could change you, and not always for the better. Maybe if someone had ever taken the time to actually get to know Loki, to treat him like a person and not just the other prince or Thor’s kid brother – well, who knows what might have become of the Trickster.

Then again, wasn’t that the real reason Tony was here? To be that person who made the difference? Because, whatever had happened up to this point, it wasn’t the final straw; Loki wasn’t that Loki yet (and oh shit it’s the “other-Thor” thing all over again – Tony figured he probably wouldn’t be lucky enough for Asgard to have any Tylenol).

Tony sighed softly before looking up at the other man. He wondered, would it really be so terrible to spend some time getting to know this Loki?

With the fate of the world resting squarely on his shoulders, and getting heavier by the minute, Tony decided it was worth the risk. And, if nothing else, at least Loki was pretty to look at.

So, despite part of him thinking it was probably a terrible idea (albeit, that part was growing smaller with each new piece of evidence), Tony found himself smiling at the god.

“By all means, then, my Prince,” Tony said, with an exaggerated bow. As he straightened up, he internally praised himself on the way Loki’s eyebrows raised—and how his pupils dilated just the slightest bit—at the honorific. Before he opened his mouth, Tony briefly wondered if he would come to regret his next words. But then, being Tony I-do-what-I-want-Stark, he held out his hand and said them anyway: “Care to show me Asgard?”

Chapter Text

Loki sent his horse away, trusting it to return to the stables on its own. Anthony had already expressed his discomfort around the creature and there was no longer any need for it, anyway. Turning back toward the newcomer, Loki pulled his shoulders back to stand at his full height. He made sure his mask of neutrality was firmly in place. Clasping his hands behind his back, he jerked his head toward the orchard they were standing next to. “Well, come along, then.”

Without waiting for a response, Loki started walking between the line of tall trees. Anthony walked double-time to keep pace. They padded along in silence for a bit, until the other man finally stopped and let out a huff of irritation. Loki paused a few steps ahead of him and glanced back over his shoulder.

Anthony locked eyes with him, which was slightly impressive in itself since people rarely bothered to even look Loki’s direction, let alone make or maintain eye contact. This newcomer was proving more and more interesting by the moment.

When Loki didn’t immediately say anything, Anthony sighed. He threw his arms out to the side, gesturing to the space around them. “So, is there something special about these trees or something?”

Loki chuckled softly, almost to himself, before he took a few long strides to close the distance between them. “What are we—” Anthony’s words were cut off by Loki’s finger on his lips.

Although the act was primarily to shush the other man, Loki couldn’t help smirking when Anthony’s eyes widened and crossed as he tried to look down past his nose to where Loki’s finger rested against his plush lips. “I knew there was a way to silence you,” Loki teased. When he dropped his hand away, Anthony remained quiet save for a few shaky inhales.

With a lopsided grin, Loki took a step back, closing his eyes and waving his hand through the air. As he cast the spell he’d devised, he could feel the shroud settle around him and his companion, shutting out everything else and rendering them free unto themselves – without prying eyes or ears.

Once the magic was done, Loki opened his eyes again and gave a singular nod. “Much better,” he commented.

Anthony glanced around, blinking a few times as if he was trying to get his eyes to adjust, or to see something far away. He raised an eyebrow. “Uh. What?”

“That golden buffoon watches everything from his observatory,” Loki grumbled, jerking his head toward the Bifröst.

“Who, Heimdall?” Anthony asked, also turning his attention toward the rainbow bridge.

“Mm.” Loki said, utterly displeased. “Heimdall is grotesquely loyal to my father. Between the two of them, I was constantly under somebody’s thumb. It grew tiresome.”

“Wait. So, like, you can hide from them with your magic?”

Loki narrowed his eyes, hesitating before he responded. The tone in Anthony’s voice almost sounded impressed. But that didn’t make sense. Because they were talking about seiðr – Anthony had even referenced it directly, by calling it magic. Typically, when others did that, it was with disdain and peering down their noses, offended by the very idea that seiðr could be useful or that it took actual skill.

No one ever asked Loki about his seiðr. Everyone much preferred to ignore it, to pretend they didn’t know about it. Or to openly mock him for how they viewed it, as cowardice and femininity. Even Thor, while he may not have been as vocal as others, did not necessarily approve of Loki’s sorcery – except for when it was used as amusement, through his tricks or illusions. But Thor still made it painfully clear that he didn’t see Loki as a real warrior or as an equal, refusing to count the times that Loki had bested him in sparring. He even pretended that he had “let” himself get stabbed an absurd amount of times, as if he had seen it coming; as if he could have done a damn thing about it.

Loki wasn’t bulky and brawny like Thor or Volstagg, using brute strength to plow his way through enemies. He wasn’t muscular like Fandral or Hogun. He didn’t wield a sword like Fandral or Sif, nor a mace like Hogun or an axe like Volstagg. And everyone conveniently forgot that Mjølnir was imbued with seiðr and that it channeled Thor’s own personal seiðr (since he wasn’t patient enough to hone the skills to use it without help from the hammer). All anyone saw when Loki fought was that he used sorcery – not that his litheness allowed him to be wicked fast, or that he was an expert tactician who could see opponent’s weaknesses, or that he had trained to become better with daggers and knives than just about anyone on Asgard (even without the help of his seiðr, thank you very much).

Loki knew what others said about him. It was no secret. If they didn’t say it out loud to his face then they whispered it behind his back, knowing full well that he had impeccable hearing. Gossip travels quickly, and the Trickster is certainly aware of all gossip within Asgard. So, of course, Loki knew how little others thought of him, how they compared him to Thor, how they called him ergi – which was only made worse when news traveled about the times he’d taken male bedmates.

More than anything, though, Loki knew that Thor did nothing to stop it. Nor did Odin or Heimdall, both of whom were aware of everything.

So, did Loki come up with a way to keep others from nosing into what he was doing? Of course he did. And did he use his seiðr to do it? Damn right.

Finally, looking into Anthony’s brown eyes, Loki nodded. Trying to sound bored, like it meant nothing, he answered, “Yes, I devised a spell that would shroud me from Heimdall’s leering eyes.”

A deliciously devious smile spread across Anthony’s face as understanding seemed to settle in. “You mean, you invented a way to hide from the guy who can literally see everything?”

Again, Loki nodded. Anthony stared at him for a moment before barking out a laugh. Seeing the surprise on Loki’s face, Anthony quieted himself. “Sorry. It’s just – well, I mean. Dude. Do you know how epic that is?” He ran a hand over his face, chuckling to himself. “I mean, even when the One Ring turned Frodo invisible, the Eye of Sauron could still see him. But you managed to come up with your own fucking spell that keeps you hidden from a guy who has an all-access pass to basically anything, anywhere, anytime?” He whistled. “The Fellowship definitely needed someone like you to get the hobbits to Mordor.”

Loki felt his face heating up and cleared his throat. “Yes, well.” But then he stopped because he really had nothing to say to follow up the nonsense that Anthony had been babbling about. And the fact that the man sounded genuinely impressed and intrigued was a complete shock in its own right.

Loki must have had a perplexed look on his face, because Anthony looked up and sniffed awkwardly. “What?”

With wide eyes, and trying to regain some composure, Loki shook his head. “I’m pretty much one of the smartest Asgardians around – not that I have much competition, mind you.” He winked smugly. “Yet, I only understood about half of what you just said.”

Anthony’s mouth opened and closed in a very fish-like motion. Loki could almost see the gears turning as the man went back through the previous moments, as if trying to process what had come out of his mouth. Then, he started shuffling his feet nervously. “Oh. Um. Well, I just. I mean. Uh,” he spluttered, trying to form any kind of coherent sentence and failing miserably. But a pretty blush spread across his tanned cheeks. And, well, Loki couldn’t help himself.

He smiled.

It was one of his rare, genuine smiles, where he dropped his mask of controlled neutrality and allowed something real to show on his face. And the way Anthony’s blush deepened as he smiled back, locking eyes for the briefest of seconds before shyly looking to the ground? That made it all completely worthwhile.

Shaking his head fondly, Loki teased, “You’re odd. You know that, don’t you?”

“Hey!” Anthony exclaimed, looking up in mock offense. “I like to think I’m pretty spectacular.”

“Oh, I’m sure you do.” Loki laughed quietly. It was then that Loki knew. This mysterious, cocky yet awkward, lying man with the beautiful eyes and toned physique was going to get Loki into a great deal of trouble.

He needed to keep his wits about him. Clearing his throat, Loki’s smile faded, replaced once again by the emotionless expression that had become a trademark for him. He noticed Anthony frowning, and it made his heart ache. But no matter how fascinating this being was, Loki simply couldn’t risk being real with him. He’d learnt the hard way how dangerous it was to show true emotions. He wasn’t about to let his guard down again.

In an attempt to lighten the mood, Loki cocked his head to the side. “Do you always just stare at people?”

Anthony wrinkled his nose. “No, I don’t just stare at people.” He leaned forward conspiratorially. “Sometimes, I touch myself while I’m staring.”

Loki snorted, surprised by the answer. “In that case, please keep your hands out of your pockets in my presence.”

That made Anthony laugh. He lifted his hands in a surrender motion, then wiggled his eyebrows in what was probably supposed to be a seductive manner. Merely rolling his eyes in response, Loki turned and started walking back in the direction from which they’d come.

“Wait up!” Anthony called, running again in an attempt to match the god’s long strides. “What are we doing?”

“Well,” Loki drawled, “now that Heimdall thinks we’re just in the orchard, we’re free to do whatever we want.” He eyed Anthony from his peripheral vision. “You wanted me to show you Asgard, did you not?”

“I did say that,” the other agreed, albeit a bit reluctantly.

Once they were out of the orchard and back where they’d started, Loki stopped again. “Then, come.” He held out both hands, palms up. “Let me show you my Asgard.”

Anthony eyed Loki’s hands suspiciously. Finally, after a moment of hesitation, he placed his palms atop Loki’s.

Loki tried not to think about how warm Anthony’s hands were, or how maybe he wasn’t lying about being a weaponsmith because his hands were strong and calloused and yet there was still something very soft and inviting about them.

“Remember to breathe,” Loki instructed (reminding himself as much as Anthony).

“Wait, what?”

“And I suggest you close your eyes,” Loki added, not even bothering to hide the tone of mischief.

Anthony’s eyes widened. “What?” he asked, more insistently. But Loki only offered a sly grin. Then, with a swirl of light, Loki stepped onto the branches of Yggdrasil, pulling Anthony along with him.

As per usual, the form of travel lasted mere seconds. As soon as their feet were back on solid ground, Anthony’s knees buckled.

Loki rolled his eyes but didn’t miss a beat as he caught the stumbling man under the armpits, wrapping his arms around Anthony and holding him up. He was surprisingly light. Loki sighed, his breath ruffling the hair on the top of Anthony’s head. “You didn’t close your eyes, did you?”

Anthony’s head was leaned into the crook of Loki’s neck and he shook it slowly in response. For a brief moment, Loki considered letting go and backing up, because he definitely did not want any vomitus on him. But then Anthony merely went slack in his arms, panting but otherwise remaining completely still. So, Loki didn’t move either, waiting for the other to get his equilibrium back.

“At least I remembered to breathe,” Anthony finally managed to say, slowly hoisting himself up with Loki’s help.

“Well, there’s that.” Loki chuckled. As Anthony righted himself, Loki’s hands remained firm on his shoulders for a moment. He told himself it was because he was waiting for confirmation that Anthony didn’t need support anymore, and that it had nothing to do with him actually wanting to hold onto the shorter man. Norns, was he really so touch-starved?

Finally, as Loki’s hands dropped to his sides, Anthony looked up into his eyes. “Did we just teleport?”

Loki closed his eyes, trying to hide the eye-roll that could probably still be seen under his lids. “We skywalked.” He opened his eyes and shrugged. “But, for all intents and purposes, yes, we teleported.”

“That was incredible.” There was a sense of wonderment in Anthony’s voice.

Loki frowned. “You. . .” He bit his lip, his eyes darting back and forth across Anthony’s face rapidly, scanning him for mockery or some kind of trick. “You actually enjoyed that?”

“Yes?” Tony replied easily, although he seemed confused as to why Loki would even have to question it. “Who wouldn’t? We just fucking teleported!” He laughed, slightly hysterically. “That’s amazing and I’m impressed as hell. Plus, it was beautiful.”

The look on Loki’s face was one of pure shock. He didn’t even bother to hide it. “But it’s magic.” The tone in Loki’s voice was mocking, mimicking the derogatory way others had so often referred to his seiðr.

Anthony didn’t even seem to hear him. He started talking, moving his hands frantically as if he didn’t quite know what to do with them. “This might sound nuts,” he began. “But it was like I could, I don’t know, feel the universe, or something. Y’know? And for this brief, fleeting moment, I understood everything. Like, it was all there and made sense.” He sighed, almost dreamily. “It was the kind of feeling I’ve always searched for as a scientist.”

Starting to pace, Anthony ran a hand through his hair. “Okay, so magic’s real. But what if it’s not actually,” he lifted his hands up and made an odd gesture, like quotation marks, in the air, “magic?”

Loki watched him as he paced and talked. It was like Anthony forgot Loki was even there, just rambling to himself. “What if,” Anthony muttered, “magic is just science that we don’t understand yet?” He shrugged. “I mean, many have been labeled as heretics until there was proof and others understood them – like, Copernicus.”

Suddenly Anthony stopped his pacing—and ranting—and looked to Loki, his eyes wide and shining with awe. “And you,” he said softly. Loki braced himself, girding himself for. . . well, something.

“What about me?” he asked guardedly.

Anthony bit his lip sheepishly. And Loki gulped, forcing his eyes away from those lips and telling himself not to think of where that mouth might be put to better use.

Finally, in a quiet voice and looking at the ground, Anthony said, “I could feel you.”

Loki’s eyebrows shot up. “You could. . . feel me? What in Hel does that mean?”

Anthony tilted his head back and groaned softly to the sky. A bit flustered, he tried to explain: “I could feel your magic carrying me. While we were skywalking, or whatever,” he waved a hand dismissively. “It was like your magic was in every cell. Like, the—the very fiber of my being was filled to the brim with it.”

Well. That was interesting. “And, what did that feel like?” Loki asked, genuinely curious.

“Hmm.” Anthony stroked his chin thoughtfully. “It was cold,” he finally answered with a chuckle. Then he added, “And just, I don’t know, like, really powerful?” He shrugged, appearing strangely self-conscious and not at all like the enigmatic being he clearly tried to present himself as. “I can’t explain it, really. It just felt like you. Like, I knew it was you. And you were everywhere and all over, and it was kind of intoxi—" Anthony froze. Blinking with owlish eyes, he scuffed the ground with the toe of his boot. “It was just, a bit much. I don’t know,” he spat out with a huff.

They were silent for a moment before Anthony let out a nervous laugh. “Um, anyway.”

Loki raised an eyebrow expectantly.

“You were going to show me Asgard?” Anthony asked, rubbing the back of his neck.

“Indeed,” Loki replied. Then, he turned on his heel and jerked his head, encouraging Anthony to follow him. They walked along the path Loki had skywalked them to, with Loki pointing out his favorite spots.

As they walked, Anthony chattered. Loki’s previous observation that the man unable to stop talking proved true, as his mouth—and, apparently, his mind—raced a mile a minute, jumping from one topic to the next or asking one question after the other. At one point—after a barrage of questions about foliage (which led to follow-ups about soil and root systems, including an awe-filled interlude about the fact that roots even exist on “a planet that’s basically a disc”)—Anthony suddenly stopped mid-sentence and looked at Loki, frozen, before quickly glancing away as his cheeks tinted with a blush.

“Sorry,” he mumbled. Then he broke into a ramble: “I get carried away sometimes and I can’t stop it. I just yammer on, and I don’t really have a filter. I usually don’t realize I’m doing it sometimes, and even when I do, I try to stop but I can’t. And I know it’s annoying—”

“Anthony,” Loki said sternly, stopping the man’s self-deprecating rant. Anthony looked up at him again with those doe-eyes looking hopeful and, somehow, deeply pained. There was a history there, Loki could tell. He could have asked, could have offered some kind of platitude or encouragement – it wasn’t like he wasn’t used to doing that, always having to cheer Thor up or talk him off a ledge when he was about to do something stupid. But there was something different about Anthony, something far more sincere.

Loki must have waited too long to speak, because Anthony’s brows furrowed and he looked down, shaking his head gently, as if waking from a trance of some kind. When he looked back up, he had forced that glow of amusement and aura of self-confidence to return. “What else do you have to show me?” he asked, rubbing his hands together in front of him.

Silently, Loki simply started walking again. Anthony followed along at his side, listening as Loki began telling anecdotes. He found that as much as he had enjoyed listening to Anthony, he liked talking to him, too. And he was easy to talk to. Loki was typically the silent one, trailing along and just observing, only speaking when spoken to – unless he was whispering in Thor’s ear or, in the past, trying to say anything that might make his father proud or at least take notice..

But he liked the excited manner with which Anthony spoke. Even more, he liked how the conversation was a two-way street for a change. Moreover, Anthony seemed to hang on his every word. Loki liked how he could tell the man was paying attention, by the way he asked questions or commented or even just nodded or chuckled at the right times. It was nice to find someone who actually listened, rather than just waiting for their turn to speak; someone who listened because they were interested, not because they felt obligated because of who Loki was.

Eventually, they reached the intended destination and Loki stopped, with Anthony coming to a halt beside him. They were at the top of a cliff near the outermost parts of Asgard. Loki pointed down to the edge of the cliff, an overhang with a river running several feet below which fed into a waterfall that ran off the edge of Asgard.

“From here,” Loki said as he elegantly sat down in the grass, “you’re essentially sitting on the edge of the planet.”

Anthony’s eyes widened and he looked back and forth between Loki and the overhang and back, making Loki smirk.

“I spend a great deal of time here,” Loki confided.

With far less grace, Anthony plopped himself down on the ground, sitting cross-legged next to Loki. He looked down at the river, his gaze following it to the falls and watching the water crash off the edge of Asgard. Then, Anthony stretched his legs out and leaned backward, laying down and folding his hands behind his head as a pillow. He was staring up at the sky and he let out a contented sigh. “This place really was beautiful,” he said, almost in a whisper. As if he hadn’t meant to say it out loud.

Loki couldn’t help himself. “Was?” he asked, leaning back on his palms and tilting his chin to look down at the other man.

Anthony’s eyes darted across Loki’s face, expressions of confusion and fear and determination all racing through in an instant. “Erm. I meant, is,” Anthony corrected. “Present-tense,” he stated with a jerky nod of his head.

“Uh-huh.” Loki narrowed his eyes suspiciously. The other man gave him a small, nervous smile and closed his eyes, trying to appear relaxed. But Loki could tell it was an act. As much as he hated to break the comfortable feeling that had taken residence between them, he didn’t feel like he much of a choice. So, resignedly, he said, “You know you’re not fooling me, right?”

Anthony opened one eye, squeezing the other to keep it shut. “Huh?”

Loki didn’t even try to prevent his heavy eye-roll. “I’m a master of illusions. I think I can spot one when I see it,” he chided.

Anthony sat up, propping himself on his elbows. He studied Loki for a moment before finally shrugging. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

With a derisive snort, Loki looked away, pulling his knees to his chin and wrapping his arms around his legs. Loki was acutely aware of the man watching him. From his peripheral vision, he could see Anthony quirk an eyebrow in curiosity. Picking at a blade of grass, Loki let out a drawn-out sigh. “If that’s how you’d like to play this game, so be it.”

“What game?” Anthony queried. Then, he quickly added, “I’m not playing any games.”

Glancing over his shoulder, Loki gave a wry smile. “Have it your way. I’ll figure you out all on my own.” Then, Loki rolled a blade of grass between his fingers. A green glow emanated from his hands as seiðr danced from his fingertips to the grass. Anthony sat up to watch what Loki was doing, his eyes widening as the grass transformed, taking on the body of a butterfly with wisps of seiðr serving as the wings. The grass-butterfly flitted around them, dancing in front of Anthony’s awe-struck face for a moment, before whizzing up into the air and disappearing on a gust of wind.

Anthony stared up at the last place Loki’s creation had been flying for a few more seconds before looking back down and locking eyes with Loki. Under his warm gaze, Loki felt his face flush and he turned away from the man. With a soft chuckle, Anthony shook his head.

“What?” Loki asked, his voice balancing precariously between curiosity and defensiveness.

“You’re just not what I expected, I guess?” Anthony replied with a shrug.

Loki turned slightly, considering the other for a moment. He cocked his head to the side as he questioned, “Is that a good thing?”

Anthony appeared genuinely taken aback by the question. He puckered his mouth and furrowed his brows, apparently trying to determine how best to answer. Finally, he answered, slowly: “I think it is, yeah.”

“Your confidence is quite reassuring,” Loki told him dryly with a wink.

Anthony snickered. “Hey,” he piped up, clearly prepping for a subject change. “I couldn’t help but notice something.”

“What, pray tell?”

“All your favorite places?” Anthony supplied. “They’re far away from people. As in, not populated. Like, at all.” He raised an eyebrow.

“Can’t sneak anything past you, can I?” Loki deadpanned.

Anthony laughed as he playfully punched Loki’s shoulder. Loki smirked before sighing and admitting, “I tend to not do well with others. I don’t exactly have many fans.”

“Why?” Anthony asked.

Loki was about to scoff. But Anthony’s voice sounded so sincere, the look on his face so honest, that Loki knew he was not jesting. Loki pursed his lips and sucked in a sharp breath. Part of him wanted to push his earlier topic, about where exactly this being was from, because he had essentially just proved he was no Asgardian. Yet, Loki found that he didn’t want to ask – maybe he didn’t really want to know, or maybe it didn’t matter. Because somehow, amazingly, this stranger had managed to connect with Loki in a way that no other had, and it wasn’t just because he was the first in ages to even try. But whoever and whatever Anthony was, he was special, that much was clear.

So, yes. Loki could have called him out and asked—commanded, even—for him to confess the truth.

But he didn’t. He told himself that he really would rather find out on his own (he’d always liked a challenge, after all).

So, what Loki said instead was: “My penchant for chaos has proved to be a poor way to make friends.” Then, he added, “Being a seiðr master has not helped, either.”

Anthony frowned. And before he could convince himself otherwise, Loki continued, “My seiðr is part of me. To stop using it would be to deny a part of myself.” With a sigh, he closed his eyes, listening to the sound of the waterfall. “At worst, I have been mocked and called a liar, a cheat, argr, coward. . .” he let his voice trail off. Softly, he added, “At best, I am merely the brother of Asgard’s golden son. The other prince.” Loki opened his eyes, turning to Anthony, who was focusing intently on him.

Silence settled between them. Then, Anthony took in a slow, deep breath and closed his own eyes before he started speaking. “‘All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies,’” Anthony’s voice was low and almost ominous, but calculated as though he were reciting something. “‘And whenever they catch you, they will kill you.’” He turned and opened his eyes so he was looking out toward the edge of Asgard again. “‘But first, they must catch you.’”

Silvertongue or not, what could one possibly say to that? Loki inhaled shakily, letting the words sink in. He felt oddly comforted, and understood, by this strange man. Something lodged in Loki’s throat, at the same time as he felt something warm in his chest. He swallowed and tried to form words, but found that he couldn’t come up with a response. For the first time in centuries, it seemed as though Loki had stumbled across someone who might be equal to him. Someone he actually found himself liking and wanting to trust. Someone who could be a friend, or perhaps something more.

Then, Loki’s eyes dropped to the pendant hanging around Anthony’s neck, and he felt conflicted. The magic emanating from the pendant was plainly his, and he still couldn’t understand why or how.

Anthony was still staring straight ahead, purposely not looking at Loki. Following his gaze, Loki saw the suns beginning their descent in the sky.

And suddenly, Loki remembered that he had somewhere to be. He swore under his breath.

“Something wrong?” Anthony asked, swiveling to look his direction.

Swiftly, Loki stood. He wasted no time in reaching down and tugging his companion to his feet as well, earning an exasperated huff from the shorter man. “I have to go.”

“Okay?” Anthony arched an eyebrow.

“Close your eyes,” Loki commanded. Surprisingly, Anthony did as he was told and Loki skywalked them back to the castle, to a hallway where they have guest quarters. Opening the nearest door, Loki gestured inside. “You can stay here.”

Anthony peeked in the door, glancing around the room before straightening up again. “Thanks,” he drawled with a tone of uncertainty. Then, he asked, “Why, though? I mean. . .” he paused, worrying his lip between his teeth for a moment. Obviously, he didn’t want to completely give up the ghost, but the man’s insatiable curiosity got the better of him. Loki couldn’t help preening at the fact that he’d read the man correctly.

Still hoping he’d been reading things right, Loki leaned forward so their faces were mere inches apart. Anthony seemed to be holding his breath but didn’t pull back. Loki had to tilt his face down to look in the other’s eyes, putting on his classic Trickster smirk.

“I’m intrigued by you, Anthony,” Loki all but purred. “I think I’ll keep you around a bit longer.”

Anthony gulped audibly, staring up at the mage. Then, Loki leaned away and took a few steps back. “I have somewhere to be,” Loki repeated. “But, should you like, I can return when I’m done, to escort you to the main hall for supper,” he offered.

“Um.” Anthony blinked a few times before nodding. “Okay. Yeah, sure.”

With that, Loki turned on his heel and took his leave, taking a few steps away from Anthony’s doorway before returning to the branches of Yggdrasil and heading off for his meeting.