Author's note: Alright, people, I'm afraid this is the final chapter of this story… Thanks for sticking with it so far and for all your awesome comments, I've really enjoyed reading your thoughts! :D
The mundane and undramatic sight of Stark's lab is a welcome one, despite its lack of majestic views into the cosmos.
Stark proceeds with collapsing into the nearest chair. His limbs are visibly trembling and Loki can't blame him. It's not everyday that Chaos tries to absorb you, after all.
Still, despite the danger they have just faced, he can't help but feel strangely elated. And it's not just from having his seidr back and no longer feeling that pressing emptiness gaping inside of him. No, this whole little adventure has made him feel more like himself again, like the old Loki of Asgard who would valiantly brave whatever dangers stood before him without cowering or cringing in fear.
But still not quite like the old Loki, who was prone to jealousy and petty anger and selfishness. No, perhaps it was indeed a new Loki standing there facing down the fury of Chaos, after all.
"Just where the hell were we?" Stark's voice interrupts his musings. It's almost steady, but tinged with the adrenaline and fear of someone who's just been staring his own annihilation in the eye.
"The Astral Plane. Also known as the space between the realms," Loki answers. "That's where you pass through when you travel from one realm to another."
"And what the fuck was… that?" Stark makes a grimace.
"That was Chaos. It lurks just outside the Astral Plane and is drawn to the forces of the cosmos, feeding upon them like vultures on carrion. It felt the forces used to power your machine and came forth."
Stark contorts his face again, looking at the device responsible for their little surprise journey. "You mean that thing could get… here? If it senses my, uh, teleportator again?"
Loki shakes his head. "No. The fabric of Yggdrasil is strong enough to hold it back, so it can't break through to the physical world. The World Tree protects us from the forces that would otherwise devour us. But on the Astral Plane, the cosmic fabric is much weaker. If Chaos senses the presence of another force there, it can create a rift in the fabric and tear through."
He makes a short pause. "And that's why only the most powerful magicians travel between the realms. They have to cloak themselves in the strongest of wards, or Chaos might sense their presence and come for them."
Stark's face is still a greyish pallor, but he seems to have stopped trembling, now. "You've encountered that… thing before?"
"A few times." And the first time, his seidr had almost not proved stronger than Chaos. It's not an encounter he particularly cares to recall.
Stark suddenly turns a few shades further towards the white end of the colour spectrum. "Hey, what about that teleportation thing we used in Vanaheim? You mean to say we could have run into that monstrosity on the way? Oh shit! And here they told me it was perfectly safe!"
"No, there would have been no risk of that at all. Such a portal uses the same passage every time and powerful sorcerers have fortified it with the strongest of protective wards. Chaos cannot sense anything of the people travelling through that passage."
Of course, his own inter-realm travels have only rarely been through such portals. "But when travelling without such a portal between the realms, there is only one's own magic to rely on, so it has to be very powerful. Or things could go… badly."
Stark snorts. "Yeah, I can imagine."
A beat of silence follows that.
Then, "Why didn't you leave me?"
"You didn't leave me in Vanaheim."
Stark gives him a long look. "You saved my life, Loki. So, thanks. I owe you. I really do."
Loki shrugs. "You owe me nothing. And even if you did, you have already paid off that debt in advance."
There's a long moment of silence again before Stark goes on to state the obvious.
"So your powers are back, huh?"
Loki gives a small smile. "Yes. And they're wholly in your service, of course."
Stark glances towards the books and the accompanying translated print-outs still lying on the table. "You know what? I'm not fucking touching those books again. And I'll destroy that lame-ass teleportator."
He rubs his temples and then shakes his head.
"I was so totally certain my calculations were right. And yet…"
Loki shrugs. "I'm sure they were. But you can't calculate Chaos."
They settle into a daily routine of working in the lab, eating lunch together, working even more, and then having dinner. Stark is of course utterly delighted to have Loki in his lab with his full powers back, repeatedly mentioning something called a Nobel prize. And Loki is only too happy to take part in Stark's experiments and testing. Without Stark, he would have had nothing.
One day, as Stark sits tapping away at his keyboard, he suddenly stops and swivels his chair around to face Loki.
"You know, I read something in one of those books I brought back."
Loki raises an eyebrow in his direction. "Oh? I thought you said you wouldn't be touching any of them again?"
"Yeah, no, I'm not going to use them for… that kind of stuff again." He makes a little swirling motion with his hand that Loki supposes is meant to indicate teleportation. "But there was something else mentioned in there. About bondsmen."
"Is that so?"
"Uh-huh. And the book said that if a bondsman saves the life of his bondholder, the bondholder can release him from his bond of service by merely saying the words."
Stark takes a deep breath. "So, without further ado… I release you, Loki. You're free to go, free to do what you wish. Free to… yeah, whatever."
And with that, the bond holding his magic disintegrates. He can feel it disappear, feel his magic coursing inside of him, free and unfettered, no longer bound by Stark's will.
"Stark, I…" he begins, but the man just waves a hand at him.
"Well, I figure it makes us even." He makes a sad little shrug. "Though, I will certainly miss having a lab partner around."
Loki considers this. Considers his future, his possibilities. They are endless, now that his magic is back. And yet…
"I will continue to help you with your research," he says.
Stark stares at him, his eyebrows going up.
Loki grins at him. "Judging by your latest efforts, it would seem like you could need someone who knows what they're doing. And besides, I have a home here. Now, I won't be here all the time; I will be coming and going, but I will be around to help you in your lab." And who knows, perhaps to do other things as well.
And Stark has given him a home here. Here, he could actually have a purpose. Do something useful and not heedlessly chase after his own vain ambitions like the old Loki was so wont to do. Here, with his magic available to him, he could find a way to make amends for all the destruction and death he caused in what now feels like a lifetime ago.
And besides, he realizes that he would… miss Stark's company if he were to leave for good.
Later in the evening, after having finished a take-away meal of pasta and chicken, they sit on the couch, talking about this and that, Stark elaborating on all the inventions he thinks he might be able to build with Loki's magic to help him.
Then he stops himself mid-sentence.
"Hey, tell you what. I never gave you that drink I offered you once. We need to rectify that." With that, he heads over to the bar and rummages around among all the colourful bottles lining the inside of the drink cabinet. "Whiskey? Rum? Vodka?"
"Whatever you're having."
Stark pours two glasses of clear liquid and then returns to the couch, handing one of the glasses to Loki.
"Thank you, Stark." He empties it, enjoying the heat rushing down his throat.
He puts the glass down and grins. "Well, not bad for a Midgardian drink."
"Hey, I'll have you know that vodka cost me two hundred bucks!"
"Well, how about we have another glass then?"
Stark fills their glasses again and they drink.
"Oh, and one other thing, Loki."
"What's that, Stark?"
The man grins.
"Call me Tony, okay?"
End note: And all is well that ends well! :)