Disclaimer: Nope, I haven't magically become the owner of Thor, Avengers, or the various Marvel comics since the time I posted Chapter 2.
The Avengers sat side-by-side at the long wooden table, poking glumly at the food on their plates. Everyone else had long since either left the hall or passed out.
The funeral had been as grand as one would expect for a prince of Asgard. Thor had been laid to rest on a great wooden ship, with Mjolnir by his side and the broken weapons of Chitauri and dark elves piled under his feet. Loki had been the first to set the ship alight with a jet of fire that sprang from his upraised hand. Sif, the Warriors Three, and Hawkeye had followed suit. Throughout the ceremony, Steve had stood with his fingertips to his temple in salute.
Odin had spoken of Thor's valor, the countless threats to Asgard and Midgard that he'd defeated. "But more importantly than being a great warrior, more importantly than being a prince, he was my son." Both he and Loki had disappeared after the funeral, electing not to join the others at the feast-hall, where Sif and the Warriors Three regaled the gathered mourners with tales of Thor's exploits.
Tony stood, excused himself with a mumble, and walked out onto the terrace. It was a clear night, and stars twinkled above the glittering towers of Asgard. It would have been a beautiful sight, if Tony had been capable of appreciating beauty at the moment.
"Hey." Tony turned around to see Bruce standing in the doorway.
"So, uh, I was doing some research while you guys were at the funeral." Although he'd come to the feast afterward, Bruce hadn't attended the ceremony itself. He'd been worried that the grief and anger he felt at Thor's death might spill over and, as he'd put it, "The last thing the Asgardians need in their time of sorrow is to have the Hulk go rampaging through their capital city."
"Research? You mean about the whole 'stopping Ragnarok' thing?"
"Yeah. And I found something that might actually be able to help."
That managed to penetrate the cloud of depression-induced apathy around Tony's mind. "What is it?"
"Well, it turns out that there are these six incredibly powerful artifacts called the Infinity Gems. Each one grants the holder absolute power over some aspect of the universe: time, space, whatever. There's one called the Reality Gem, which as far as I can tell, is basically Aladdin's lamp."
"...It grants wishes?"
"Pretty much. Any wish. Even something as powerful as reversing Ragnarok."
Tony stood looking at the stars for a few moments more, then he spun on his heel. "Well, what are we waiting for, then?"
Loki was sitting on a window-seat in an obscure corner of the palace. "Loki! Bruce thinks he knows of a way we can prevent Ragnarok from occurring!"
Loki was idly tracing patterns of ice on the window, and he didn't so much as glance at the Avengers. "So?"
"So? So we can prevent the apocalypse! We can save everyone in Midgard and Asgard and, well, everywhere."
Loki just shrugged, the cloth and leather of his outfit crinkling with the movement.
Clint folded his arms. "Did we mention that 'everyone' includes you? I mean, you could at least show a little enthusiasm."
Loki shrugged again. "What does it matter?"
"Um, because it means you don't die?"
Finally, Loki rolled his head toward them. "My dear Hawkeye, I am well aware of the personal consequences should Ragnarok come about. And believe me, if I actually cared about them in the slightest, I would be doing everything in my power to stop it. But, as you can see, I don't, so please, for once in your life, do something wise and leave me alone."
Hawkeye stepped forward, clearly about to make some angry retort, but Tony put up a hand to silence him. "Loki, the method we're thinking of won't just stop Ragnarok. It will allow us to bring Thor back."
"...What did you say?" Loki's voice was a whisper, like an icy wind whistling through cracks in a wall at night.
"I said, we can bring Thor back to life."
There was a long pause, then Loki sprang to his feet. "Right! Let's get started!" He strode off down the hall, leaving the Avengers in his wake.
In the great library of Asgard, Tony watched Loki and Bruce poring over ancient texts that spoke of the Infinity Gems, seeking the location of the famed Reality Gem. "Tony, could you bring me the third volume of Bragi's kennings?"
"Uh, Bragi, right." Tony hurried off into the stacks, and then realized he had no idea how they were organized. "Now where the hell do I find that?"
"Tony." Tony turned to see that Clint had followed him.
"Look, I know we've got bigger fish to fry, but...does it not bother you at all that Loki was perfectly willing to just let Ragnarok happen after Thor died? I mean, Ragnarok wouldn't just be his death, it would be yours too, and that didn't seem to mean anything to him."
Between the despair of losing Thor and the elation of finding out that they could get him back, Tony felt emotionally wrung out. Despite that, he was touched by Hawkeye's concern.
After Loki's apparent death on Svartalheim, Thor had been inconsolable. Most of the other Avengers and SHIELD agents Tony knew had been of the opinion that the world was a safer place without the trickster-god in it (though of course none of them were stupid enough to say so in front of Thor). But Tony had felt differently. Maybe it was because Loki was the most challenging villain he'd ever fought. Maybe it was because no one else could match him when it came to verbal barbs. Maybe he had gotten some inkling that under the haughty facade he put up, Loki was just as damaged as he was. Regardless, he had actually missed the guy.
And then Loki had come back.
He had spun a story about some powerful spell he had cast upon himself that would whisk him away to one of his many secret hideouts in the event that he should be gravely injured, leaving behind a duplicate that would fool his enemy into believing he was dead. The wounds he'd suffered had been grievous, and it had taken him a long time to recover-besides which, he had wanted to be sure that Malekith was well and truly gone before he returned.
The Avengers had treated this with the skepticism they showed for anything that came out of Loki's mouth...which in Thor's case meant no skepticism whatsoever. But to their surprise, Odin had agreed with his son. He had suspected that Loki wasn't truly dead, but had said nothing for fear of getting Thor's hopes up in case he was wrong. (Tony had taken a certain amount of amusement from the way Odin's jaw worked as he admitted that it was possible for him to be wrong about something. It was probably an event unprecedented in the millennia-long history of Asgard.)
Thor had, of course, spent the intervening months telling anyone and everyone he encountered about how Loki had sacrificed his life for him, and indeed for them all. The result was that, when Loki gradually seemed to become less dishonest, manipulative, and generally annoying, people were less dubious about it than they otherwise might have been. Hawkeye had been the exception, of course, for which Tony couldn't really blame him. If someone had mind-controlled him into attacking his own comrades, he wouldn't let go of the resultant grudge easily either. When Tony had developed first a friendship, and then more than a friendship, with Loki, Clint had been the most vocal objector. (The sound of Nick Fury's teeth grinding could probably be heard from several continents away, but Tony didn't think that teeth-grinding really counted as "vocal.") His righteous indignation now didn't exactly come as a surprise.
"Look, Clint, I know that you and Loki are never going to be bosom friends. And if you tell anyone I said what I'm about to say, I will categorically deny it and then replace all your arrows with Nerf projectiles, but...yes, sometimes I do wonder whether he cares about Thor more than about me. But, first of all, Thor is my friend and I'm not going to let my jealousy screw up that friendship. Second, the reason Loki's so attached to Thor is because of all the family issues he has. Now, trust me when I say that I know something about family issues. Hell, I have more baggage than most airports lose in a year. Loki's willing to put up with what Pepper affectionately refers to as my 'million and one neuroses,' so I am willing to put up with his admittedly somewhat creepy attachment to his brother. Now can we please table this discussion for a time when the fate of the entire universe isn't at stake?"
Hawkeye just watched him for a few seconds, then gave him a brisk nod. "Fair enough. Now, what book did they send you looking for? Somebody's third something-or-other?"
After the frigid climate of Antarctica, Tony thought he would have been glad to go somewhere warm. But on this vast, open plain, there was nowhere to hide from the sun, and even with the suit's built-in air-conditioning systems, he was sweltering.
"It's psychological," Bruce informed him. "You think you should feel hot, so you do."
"Yeah, but why is it just me? Steve's in spandex, and Natasha's in black spandex."
"I guess we're just cooler than you," Natasha suggested.
"Yeah, yeah, whatever. Are we sure the Reality Gem's not someplace more pleasant, like, I don't know, the seventh circle of Hell or something?"
"Well, according to that volume you found in the Asgardian library, the Reality Gem was last used by a human, back around 2000 BC. Midas, King of Phrygia."
"And we all know how that turned out," Steve put in.
"The Asgardians think the Gem is likely to be in Midas's palace, which as you might expect, is in Phrygia. Also known as modern-day Turkey. So here we are."
"The coordinates referenced in the third volume of Bragi's kennings are just ahead, sir," JARVIS informed him.
"There!" Steve exclaimed, pointing to what at first appeared to be just another rock formation. A closer look showed the remnants of walls hewn from sandstone and cracked, leaning pillars.
"You know, given the legend, I would have expected more gold," Natasha complained.
"Well, anything obvious would have been stolen by looters long ago," Tony pointed out.
"But then how do we know the Reality Gem is even still here?"
"Because according to Bragi, the god Pan, presumably some sort of ancient superpowered being, crafted powerful seals to protect it after the whole debacle with the golden touch. It still belonged to Midas, but he vowed never to use it again, and furthermore to keep it safe from any other mortals who would use it foolishly."
"Okay, so how is it guarded?" Hawkeye asked.
"The simplest method would be an illusion, to make would-be thieves believe there's nothing of value here at all," Loki suggested. "In which case, all that is needed is a spell of revealing." He raised a hand and trailed his fingers through the air, as if brushing aside a delicate veil. A cool breeze swept over the group, much to Tony's relief, and the decrepit ruins around them shimmered with silvery light that faded to reveal...
"Whoa," Bruce said.
A structure like a gazebo stood in the middle of the cracked floor, but unlike everything else around them, it wasn't made of stone. Gold shone like a torch, reflecting back the brilliant sunlight.
"How kind of you to find the entrance for us," a deep voice said. The Avengers and Loki whirled around to see an imposing man standing before them. He was clad in a green cloak and shining metal armor, and a mask concealed his face.
"It's Doom!" Natasha drew her pistol and took aim. Before she could fire, a scintillating beam of red light slammed into her, knocking her to the ground. On the opposite side of the plaza from Doctor Doom, another assailant appeared. Unlike Doom, he didn't materialize all at once, but instead seemed to slowly coalesce from the merciless sunlight.
"Dr. Arthur Parks, better known as The Living Laser, at your service," their new opponent said.
Loki began to trace the lines of a shielding spell, but a third adversary stepped from behind one of the pillars and struck Loki a glancing blow upside his head. There was no visible damage done to the Asgardian, but in the next few seconds, his eyes narrowed and he turned to the Avengers with a look of murderous animosity on his face.
"What have you done to him?" Tony demanded.
"By making physical contact, Electro was able to introduce a precise electrical current, stimulating certain pathways in your ally's brain," Doom crowed. "Did you think that Loki had truly left his sordid past behind and become a hero? No, the old Loki is still there, lurking beneath the surface, biding his time, and Electro has woken him up."
These words were puncuated by a bolt of lightning that coursed down from the sky and split, hitting all of the Avengers at once. The flash momentarily overwhelmed the suit's cameras, filling Tony's viewscreen with an unbroken white field. "Everyone okay?"
There was a chorus of "yes's" and one "HULK NOT HURT!" Natasha and Clint had been knocked to the ground but were now getting back to their feet, while Steve had been able to absorb most of the blast with his shield.
"A bit unnerving to have the thunderbolts working against you, isn't it?" Loki taunted. Power flared around his hands, and he unleashed a blue-white bolt that forced Clint to do a tuck-and-roll, coming up behind one of the partly-demolished walls.
Meanwhile, The Living Laser released a beam of red light at Captain America. His trusty shield deflected the laser, and it impacted the golden dome instead, which rung like a gong. Hulk barreled toward him from another direction, but as his huge hands reached out to grab his adversary, the other man disappeared. "WHERE LASER GO?"
"Sir," JARVIS put in, "The Living Laser dissipated into photons as the Hulk approached him. It is my hypothesis that he is able to materialize and dematerialize at will. He may also be able to manipulate light to create an invisibility effect, which would explain why we did not see our opponents until they attacked."
Doom was getting into the act now, firing darts from the gauntlets of his armor. Tony aimed his repulsors, but was suddenly convulsed by an electrical current flowing through his armor. He straightened up to see Electro readying another charge. "Oh no, you don't!" He fired his repulsors, knocking Electro across the plaza.
From the corner of his eye, he saw another figure materializing. Laser! "Tony, get down!" He dropped to the ground as Natasha fired, forcing The Living Laser to dematerialize once more to avoid being shot.
Nodding his thanks, Tony turned his attention back to Loki, who was advancing toward him with a spear of ice in his hands. "Loki, c'mon, snap out of it! It's me, Tony Stark! You remember me, right?"
Loki sneered. "Of course I remember you, striding into battle alongside Thor, the true son of Odin. And why not? He was everything you wished you could be: the golden boy, the heir apparent to his father's throne, the one everyone fell all over themselves to praise. You never got a chance to have any of that, did you?"
Tony stood his ground. "Remember our first date? Well, I guess it wasn't really a date, since we just stayed in Stark Tower, but you know what I mean. We ordered in pizza and watched comedy movies, and then Thor came in right in the middle of it. And you changed into your female form because you didn't want him to recognize you, but he'd learned about your alternate appearance from Heimdall, and he went all protective-big-brother mode and hollered, 'Son of Stark, what are your intentions toward my brother?' loud enough for everyone in the Tower to hear."
Loki seemed immune to the happy memories. "What was it like, finding out that your parents weren't really your parents? What was it like, always chasing your father's shadow, having his voice whispering in your ear that you weren't good enough, would never be good enough? That voice never went away, did it, even after he died? I wonder, is that why you put on that ridiculous playboy act? All the private jets and Lamborghinis, the women and the booze and the publicity stunts, they're all just a way of saying, 'Look at me, Daddy! Look how successful I am!'"
Loki emphasized his words with a vicious swipe of his spear. Tony dodged it, but he could feel the cold radiating from the weapon. "Do you know why I asked you out on that first date? It was after that battle with Magneto's Brotherhood of Mutants. In retrospect, trying to fight Magneto while encased in a metal suit may not have been the most brilliant idea I've ever had. When he crushed the thing like a tin can while I was still in it, do you know whose face came to mind? Not Steve's or Clint's or Natasha's or Thor's. Not even Rhodey's or Pepper's. Yours, Loki. The person I would have most regretted not having a chance to say goodbye to, the person I really wished could be there to look me in the eyes and say something comforting before I died...was you. And even though, as previously mentioned, I'm really bad with feelings, I knew what that meant. It meant-"
"Stop!" Loki slammed the base of the spear into Tony's chest, and he staggered back as part of the chestplate buckled.
"It meant that I-"
"I said stop!" Another swing, to the shoulder this time, drove Tony to his knees.
"It meant that I love you!"
Loki raised the spear above his head and drove it down. Steve and Natasha both sprinted toward them, while Clint cursed and drew another arrow from his quiver.
The spear stopped when its tip was a bare inch from the top of Tony's helmet. Tony looked up to see Loki gazing down at him as if waking from a terrible nightmare. "So," he said, "you wanna go beat up Doom, M.D. now?"
"You know, I really think I do."
A shimmer that wasn't sunlight reflecting off the dome alerted Tony to the reappearance of The Living Laser. He was about to shout a warning when Steve called, "I've got him!" and lunged into the path of the beam (blue this time) that The Living Laser had fired.
"What are you doing?" Tony yelled, but a column of numbers on his headset display told him that. Steve had angled his shield perfectly so that the beam of light hit one of the blue sections, which promptly reflected it. The laser returned along its course and slammed right into The Living Laser. It didn't do anything more than knock him back...right into one of Hawkeye's sedative-coated arrows.
"Okay guys, one down, two to go!"
Electro had recovered from Tony's repulsor blast and was rejoining the fray, trying to bring down the Hulk (who was making a beeline for Doom) with his lightning bolts. The Hulk had durability to spare, but Tony could see that the electric blasts were calibrated to make his muscles seize, preventing him from reaching his target or fighting back. "Hey!" he called. "Let's see how you like it!"
"An interesting strategy, sir," opined JARVIS, who clearly understood what Tony had in mind. A green bar on the left-hand side of the headset display spurted upward as the suit's EMP generator charged. The pulse, when it came, made all the hair on Tony's body stand on end, and even Loki looked a bit disconcerted. The display went black for a moment: the major disadvantage of the EMP was that it temporarily depowered the suit as well.
"What-" Electro stared at his own hands in confusion as the electricity crackling around them winked out.
Realizing that he wasn't being pummeled by lightning anymore, Hulk roared, "HULK SMASH!" and careened into Electro. When he had rendered Electro unconscious, he turned to the armored supervillain. "HULK SMASH DOOM NEXT!"
"I don't suppose there's any chance your electromagnetic pulse disabled Doom's armor as well?" Loki asked.
"Of course not," Doom scoffed. "I incorporated a defense against that into my armor long ago."
"Really? Maybe you could give me the specs for that," Tony groused as his own armor came back online.
Hulk had reached Doctor Doom, and the two were grappling. Tony could hear cables creaking and electronic servomotors whirring as Doom strained against the green Avenger's monstrous strength. One of the suit's cameras zoomed in on a panel that was folding away from Doom's upper left arm, revealing something that looked like a needle. Poison, was Tony's first thought, and he lifted his own arm to fire a repulsor blast. The hidden compartment in Doom's arm was blasted apart, and Doom lost his grip on Hulk. He was far from disabled, however, and a blue shimmer around his whole body suggested that something else was afoot.
What that was quickly became apparent when Hulk slammed Doom with what should have been a devastating haymaker. But as soon as his fist made contact, electricity shuddered over his body, and he howled. "MORE LIGHTNING? ONLY THOR ALLOWED TO DO THAT!"
"Oh lovely, a protective field," Loki said with his trademark sarcasm. Heedless of the electrical field, Loki reached out a hand and gripped the Latverian monarch's shoulder. Frost spread out from the point of contact, covering the armor in a seemingly delicate tracery of ice.
"Loki!" Tony saw the electricity rippling over Loki's skin and arcing between the metal plates on his armor, but the Asgardian only gritted his teeth.
Sparks flew from the joints of Doom's armor-not from the protective shield this time, but from electronics that were failing under Loki's onslaught. Doom shuddered, and his knees buckled. Finally, he fell insensate to the ground. As he hit the stone floor of the plaza, his armor shattered, revealing a mass of wires and circuit boards.
"A Doombot," Steve said.
"NOT REAL DOOM?"
"No, big guy, not real Doom."
The group now turned to the gleaming dome. Now that they weren't being bombarded with lasers and lightning, they could see that there was a square hole cut into the stone beneath it. Approaching more closely, they saw that the hole was the top of a stairway leading underground. Like the dome, the stairs seemed to be solid gold.
"JARVIS, please take a picture of this to show Pepper next time she comments on my 'excessive' collection of sports cars."
"Let's be careful," Steve cautioned. "We don't know what other protections Pan might have put in place."
The stairs descended into a blessedly cool cavern that was paved floor to ceiling in yet more gold. The place was vast, yet there only seemed to be one thing in it: a pedestal on which rested an object that, while not made of gold, was still yellow. It resembled a fist-sized topaz, with expertly cut facets that reflected the glowing ball of light Loki had conjured to throw rainbow reflections over the walls.
"That must be it," he breathed, "the Reality Gem."
Tony took a few steps forward as data cataloging the Gem scrolled across his display.
"Who goes there?" asked a voice. It came from all around them, calm and assured. Tony couldn't have said whether it was a man's voice or a woman's.
"We are the Avengers, protectors of Earth," Steve offered. "Captain America, Hawkeye, Black Widow, The Hulk, and Iron Man."
"...And Loki, Prince of Asgard."
"Which of you seeks the Stone of Possibilities?"
A flurry of glances and gestures passed between the Avengers. Finally, Tony stepped forward. "I do. Uh, Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, a.k.a. genius billionaire playboy philanthropist."
"You probably could have done without the 'playboy' part," Clint stage-whispered.
"Yeah, because trying to hide stuff from Pan sounds like a totally great idea," Tony stage-whispered back.
"I am not Pan, only an appointed guardian," the voice thundered. "The Stone of Possibilities could bring great destruction in the hands of an evil holder, and great tragedy in the hands of a well-meaning but foolish one. Why should you be allowed to take it from this place?"
The most obvious answer, of course, was that they needed it to save the universe from being destroyed. But if the Reality Gem was truly as powerful as Bruce's research claimed, it could bring about that very end in the wrong hands. From the point of view of the voice, letting the wrong person take the Gem was no better than withholding it from all, even with the fate of the Nine Realms at stake.
Nor would his host of good qualities (his brilliance, his strength, his charm) suffice to convince the guardian. On the contrary, the voice might consider someone with imagination and willpower more dangerous, because they could accomplish bigger things with the Gem's power. What it wanted to know about was his character. Which, if he was going to be honest with himself, had kind of sucked for most of his life.
Then the answer hit him, and Tony Stark smiled. "Because of them," he said.
"You talked about two kinds of people who could do great harm with this Gem: the evil and the well-meaning but foolish. Well, I've done a whole lot of well-meaning but foolish shit in my life-excuse my French-and I suppose no one can guarantee that they'll never be tempted to evil. But that's where my friends here come in. You see that guy over there, the one in the gaudy, unreasonably tight red-white-and-blue outfit? He's my conscience. So's Thor, who's not here because he died, which is part of the reason we need the Gem in the first place. And the big green guy, and the redhead, and the guy with the arrows who looks pissed because there's nothing in here to shoot with them? They're the ones who'll kick my ass from here to Tijuana if I ever go berserk or something. Pepper falls into both categories, I guess."
The other Avengers looked touched to hear what they meant to him, except for Steve, who Tony guessed was annoyed about the "unreasonably tight" comment. And Loki, whose eyes were starting to narrow.
"Ah, you thought I left you out, didn't you?" Tony asked. "Haven't you ever heard the Midgardian saying, 'Save the best for last'?" He turned back to the Gem, since that seemed as likely a place as any to direct his argument to the voice. "I've also got Loki, who makes me remember that there are people who would still want me even if I didn't have a private jet and twelve cars and a couple of mansions. He makes me remember that I don't need all that to be valued or, uh, you know, loved. Yeah, I'm broken. So's he. But maybe when two broken people come together, they can make each other whole. And someone who's whole doesn't need to try and put themselves back together by turning everything they touch into gold or whatever. So...yeah. That's it. That's all I got. Good enough for you?"
There was a long pause, so long that Tony started to strategize for the possibility that they'd have to take the Gem by force. But then the voice spoke again.
"Yes, Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, a.k.a. genius billionaire playboy philanthropist. It is good enough."
"Uh, well, okay then." Tony walked up to the pedestal and reached out for the Gem. Staring into its depths, he thought he could see scenes playing themselves out, as if its facets were a set of mirrors placed to endlessly reflect each other. Some of the scenes were nearly indistinguishable from reality, while others were like funhouse mirrors that showed their subjects hideously distorted. He followed chains of possibilities that split off from each other like branches on a great tree, searching for the ones where Thor laughed and swung his hammer, and the Nine Realms endured for a million million years.
"My friends? How did we get here?"
Tony whirled at the sound of a familiar voice. "Thor!"
"THOR BACK!" Thor's eyes widened as Hulk tackled him in a bear hug.
To Tony's surprise, Loki wasn't rushing to embrace Thor with the others. "Something wrong?"
Loki smiled, not the sharp smile that Tony was used to, but one that was almost...warm. "No. Nothing is wrong at all."
The "welcome home" feast for Thor was as joyous as his funeral feast had been sorrowful. Sif and the Warriors Three related the exact same tales of valor they had at the funeral, but in a significantly cheerier tone. An endless parade of Asgardians approached Thor to embrace him, clap him on the shoulder, or insist that he share a horn of mead with them. Odin had even, through gritted teeth, thanked the mortals for returning his son and saving the Nine Realms from certain destruction.
After a few hours, everyone there was at least three sheets to the wind, so Loki found it even easier than it otherwise would have been to slip out unnoticed. He walked out to the terrace where Bruce had told Tony that there might be a way to undo Ragnarok, down a set of stone steps, and to the shore where Frigga and Thor had been given their final (or in Thor's case, "final") sendoffs. Odin stood at the edge of the dark water, staring out at the spiral of the Milky Way.
Odin turned, and as he did, the glamour fell away from him, leaving Loki staring into the eyes of his double, a sloughed-off bit of power given form and mind. They looked back up to the palace, where Thor was joining Fandral in yet another drinking song. Where Tony Stark, Keeper of the Reality Gem, sat.
As one, they smiled.
A/N: I hope you've all enjoyed the story! The reference to Bragi is from Norse mythology; he was a god of poetry and Idunn's husband.