The invitation was delivered by a hawk as large as a man, with literal golden feet and bronze wings. Tony would have liked to have studied it, but it just swooped in, dropped the letter on his head, and flapped away.
It was addressed to Prince Loki Odinson.
Tony wasn't usually shy about reading other peoples' mail, but when the other person is the god of mischief whom you're dating, you learn to be circumspect. He tucked it in his armor and went back to the SHIELD van where Coulson was managing cleanup of Doc Oc's latest attempt to take over the world.
"Ditching the debrief," he told Coulson.
"No, you're not," Coulson said, without looking up from his tablet.
"Okay so the thing is," Tony said, "A giant mechanical hawk just dropped out of nowhere and gave me this."
He held up the envelope. Coulson peered at it.
"You're excused," he said.
Loki, who wasn't yet in SHIELD's good books and thus was banned from being anywhere near Avenger battles, was waiting for Tony on the Iron Man landing pad at the Tower.
"Did you vanquish your enemies, pet?" he asked, arms crossed.
"Verily," Tony replied with a grin. "Got some mail for you, too," he added, holding out the letter. Loki took it, frowned, and slitted it open with a sharp movement.
"It's from father," he announced, skimming it. He sounded angry. "I am invited to an audience with him in Asgard."
Tony gave him a blank look. "He couldn't just call you?"
"I was banished from Asgard. Disowned. Who does he -- " Loki's green eyes glowed, which was never a good sign, but then he shook his head and they settled. "Heimdall," he muttered.
"Person, place, thing? Verb?" Tony tried.
"Heimdall the all-seeing. That ass tattled on me." Loki looked up at him. "Father knows I'm pregnant."
Tony considered this.
"All-seeing?" he asked.
"So he knows because -- "
"Your family is creep fucking tastic," Tony told him.
"I'm well aware." Loki snapped his fingers around the paper and it caught fire, ashes flying upwards. This was actually progress; last week he'd set an entire magazine on fire for running a nasty story about Tony.
Clint had been holding the magazine at the time.
Mainly they were all grateful he hadn't set the person who wrote the story on fire.
"I'm not going," Loki said, and stalked off.
The second invitation was delivered in the middle of the afternoon, while most of the household was basking in the late-summer sun on the pool terrace of the penthouse. Sif brought it in person.
"Are there more like her back home?" Tony asked, as Sif disappeared back up the bridge. She'd handed this one directly to Loki, who was staring at it in concern.
"Monogamy," Clint sang out.
"We're not saying that word," Tony sang back, as Loki ripped it open. "Another invite to Dad's house?"
"More of a demand," she replied.
"What is father threatening?" Thor asked, peering over her shoulder.
"He doesn't say specifically. I can't really imagine. You'd think casting me out to Midgard was punishment enough."
"Scuse me," Tony put in.
"Don't be fussy," Loki told him. "At any rate, it's not like Father's going to personally torture me."
"No, but he may send the Warriors Three to...escort you," Thor pointed out.
"Oh look, you're invited too, goody," Loki said.
"Some of us don't require an invitation," Thor replied loftily.
"Some of us are Father's favourite."
"Some of us didn't allow Jotuns into Asgard and then destroy a village in the New State of Mexico," Thor retorted.
"Ladies," Tony said. Both of them glared at him. "Don't argue about who's prettiest. There's plenty of teenage rebellion to go around. You don't want to go, you don't have to go."
"The Warriors Three -- " Thor began.
"Uh, Avengers," Tony said, gesturing at the superheroes that currently surrounded them. "She's probably the safest person on the planet right at this very minute."
"Loki, if your Dad sends your brother's gang to retrieve you, I'm not risking my life for you," Clint called.
"Yes you will," Steve intoned sternly. Natasha smacked Clint on the back of the head.
"Well, I won't enjoy it," Clint replied sullenly.
The third invitation was delivered in the courtyard of SHIELD's New York headquarters.
"Sleipnir!" Loki cried, with some of the first real non-ironic absolute joy Tony had ever witnessed in him. He hurried across the grass to where a coal-black, fire-eyed, eight-legged giant fucking horse was standing, throwing his arms around its neck. The horse nuzzled his hair, grunting.
"You know," Coulson said, even-toned, "I read a lot of mythology after New Mexico."
"You can't believe everything you read, Sir Agent Coulson," Loki answered, as Sleipnir nosed against his chest and dropped a letter into his hands.
"Someone wanna clue me in?" Tony asked.
"Sleipnir is the mythological steed of Odin," Natasha said. "Loki gave birth to it."
"Uh," Tony said.
"Nothing but untruths," Loki replied, ignoring the letter, stroking the giant eight legged horse's muzzle. "Mortals always mix up the legends. I was there at the birthing, nothing more; his dam was a dear mount to me in the hunt. Who is my favourite of all my father's steeds?" he asked Sleipnir. "You are my favourite! Indeed the most gallant and many-legged!"
Sleipnir whinnied, backing away a few steps. Loki frowned.
"You have discharged your duty well," he said. "Return now."
The eight-legged horse disappeared.
Things you never think you'll think, Tony thought to himself.
"Another invite from dad?" Tony asked, as Loki opened the letter.
"Certainly. This is more like it," he said, walking back to where half the Avengers and most of SHIELD's local staff were still gathered. "He has extended his invitation to include the Crimson Iron Knight, Anthony Stark, son of Howard, of the Isle of Manhattan of Midgard."
Tony couldn't deny that Asgard had style when it came to titles.
"Very well. We shall accept," Loki declared, folding the letter. "Sir Agent Coulson, inform my brother to make ready. We depart tomorrow at daybreak."
"Wait, hold up a second," Tony said. "Suddenly I'm on the guest list and you're a-okay with this?"
"Of course. I'm not going to be summoned to the court like a child without you present," Loki said calmly.
"So all the shouting before -- "
"Well, it's tradition. These things go in threes. Third invitation, you're invited, so we shall go," Loki said. "You do wish to see Asgard, don't you?"
"Yeah, that's every man's dream," Tony muttered, as Loki swept inside. "Meeting the in-laws in the palace of their home planet."
"Could be worse," Coulson said.
Coulson cocked his head. "Point. Good luck."
"Where does it go?" Tony asked that night, because he couldn't sleep and they'd already had pretty much all the possible sex.
"What go?" Loki murmured sleepily, twisting in Tony's arms.
"The baby. When you're, you know, Boy Loki. Where does it go?"
Loki frowned. "Nowhere. I can assume any form I like."
"Yeah, but you'll be...showing soon. I mean," Tony said. "Is this a magic thing? Because I actually really sort of distrust magic. We maybe should have discussed that."
"I was aware," Loki said, rolling his eyes.
"So where does it go?"
"He doesn't go anywhere. He remains within me. Your perception alters, that's all."
"Okay but I just had a pretty vivid perception of sucking your dick," Tony pointed out.
"Yes you did," Loki said smugly.
"But -- "
"Pet," Loki said patiently. "I've ceased a vast majority of my mischief-making and made peace with my brother for your sake. Could you not, please, for my sake, calm yourself and accept that there are things Midgardians cannot comprehend?"
Tony frowned. "No."
"Ass." Loki turned again, back to him.
"Look, it's the way I am, okay, I want to understand things. If you say I can't, fine, I'll stop bugging you, but I'm not going to stop wondering."
"Well then you shall have to wonder in silence."
Tony was silent for a good five minutes.
"Is there some kind of pocket-dimension, well, womb-dimension -- " he broke off when Loki hit him with a pillow.
"Go to sleep, bright boy. Tomorrow we journey to Asgard. You would do well to be rested so your Midgardian lack of manners does not wholly mortify me at court."
"Hey, this is Thor's family we're talking about here. I bet I'm the only one who uses a fork."
He could just barely see the edge of Loki's mouth tilt upwards.
The process of travel between Midgard and Asgard wasn't pleasant. Probably, being gods, Thor and Loki were cool with it, but Tony was in the armor and even so he had to stop on the steps of the gate-house and put his head between his knees for a minute. Heimdall the All Seeing gave him a look like he knew what Tony had been up to. Loki gave Heimdall the silent treatment.
There were horses waiting for them at the gatehouse. Even though all of them had only the requisite four legs, that was almost as bad as travel-by-rainbow-bridge.
When they finally reached their destination, a ring of guards ushered them into the palace, which was fucking huge and did jack-all to help Tony's nerves. They were shown into a wide arching hallway and led up to a large pair of doors. Thor was fixing his hair; Loki shuffled his robes a little.
"Should I have worn a suit?" Tony asked, helmet tucked under one arm.
"Absolutely not," Loki said.
"A warrior wears armor when being introduced to court," Thor added.
"Oh well, good thing I had some lying around," Tony replied.
"Do try not to infuriate father," Thor said.
"Oh no, do, I'd love to see that," Loki put in.
"I was talking to you," Thor told Loki.
"A pointless task. Shoulders front," Loki said, as the doors swung open. A voice boomed.
"Crown Prince Thor Odinsson of Asgard, heir to the throne," the voice announced. "Prince Loki Odinsson of Asgard and Jotunheim." The voice lowered slightly. "Sir Anthony Stark Howardson of Midgard."
"I can tell your dad likes me already," Tony said, as they started walking up the long carpet towards the big throne at the other end. It was occupied by an immense, grizzled man with one eye.
As they passed, people on either side of the carpet dropped to one knee.
"Crown prince," Thor said smugly.
"Ass-kiss," Tony muttered. He heard Loki choke off a laugh.
They stopped in front of the steps to the throne, Tony taking his cue from the others, and Thor took a final step forward.
"Father, at your summons," he said, bowing his head. Loki grabbed Tony's sleeve and dropped to one knee, pulling him down after. The whir of the suit's servos was loud in the silence.
"Rise," Odin commanded. "So, my son," he said, as Tony rose to his feet next to Loki. "You've been busy on Midgard, I hear."
"Indeed, father," Thor replied.
"I spoke to your brother, Thor."
Damn, and Tony had thought Howard was a cold bastard.
"We have both been busy, father," Thor said blandly. Tony fought down a hysterical laugh.
"Some more so than others. Loki, you have reconciled with your brother?"
"Yes, father," Loki murmured.
"This is pleasing to me. Perhaps I should send more of my court to Midgard; the rural air seems to do you good."
Both brothers were silent, but Tony was...well, Tony.
"Excuse me?" he asked, crossing his arms. "Rural? You people ride horses."
"Tony!" Loki hissed.
"He speaks," Odin said, with a kind of menacing interest. Tony'd had worse; Nick Fury only had one eye too and he did way more with it than this douche. "You are Anthony Stark of Midgard, the Crimson Iron Knight?"
"Sir Anthony Stark," Tony said sharply.
There was a ripple of laughter.
"Forgive me, Sir Anthony," Odin said, looking amused. "You are what passes on Midgard for a warrior?"
"Tony is one of the finest warriors of Midgard," Thor said. Odin quelled him with a glance.
"Well, we shall see. My son, Loki, I am informed by Heimdall that you are with child."
A noise ran through the crowd, hushed, shocked whispering. Loki straightened his shoulders.
"This is the father?" Odin indicated Tony with a gesture.
Odin grunted. "Unacceptable."
Tony started forward. "Listen to me, you pretentious prick, acceptable or not -- "
Loki grabbed Tony, pulling him back. Odin's face darkened.
"I will not be insulted by a Midgardian -- "
"Well you just were!" Tony retorted, twisting out of Loki's attempt to forcibly gag him. The rest of the court were gasping and murmuring to each other in stage whispers. "I'm sorry if my kid isn't acceptable but the way I see it you're the most fucking irrelevant -- "
"Enough!" Odin roared.
" -- asshole who ever decided a throne and an eyepatch gave him the god damned right to pass judgement -- "
Silence fell around him, but Tony wasn't about to back down from the fight now.
" -- on something that has fuck-anything to do with him," Tony finished. "If you called us here to insult my family and embarrass your own son, congratulations, you've done your part. Thor, can we get out of here without having to get back on a damn horse?"
Thor was staring at him, aghast.
"Are you finished?" Odin asked. Tony swore the temperature in the room dropped.
"Actually, no," he said, turning back to Odin. "You one-trick dick, the best you can think of to do when your kids are having issues is to shove them off on Midgard, and then you get surprised when they prefer it to this?" he asked, gesturing at the court. "You should be lucky I deigned to come here." Asgardian language must be contagious. "I'm an Avenger and a billionaire and to translate that in little words you'd understand, that makes me royalty where I come from -- "
"Is this true?" Odin interrupted sharply. "Loki?"
"In the Midgardian sense, yes," Loki answered. Tony didn't think it was possible for him to get paler than he was normally, but he was managing it.
"Thor?" Odin asked.
"He is my brother in arms," Thor said. "Heir to an illustrious family of wizard armorers on Midgard. His wealth is untold. He is a fierce warrior who has never been bested in battle. He has defeated Obadiah the Ironmonger, Justin of the Hammer, and Volkov of the Whip; together we have battled the great wizard Doctor Octavian and -- "
"There's no need for an epic," Odin said, cutting him off. He turned his eye back to Tony. "Sir Anthony, you have insulted me -- "
"Oh, I'm just getting warmed up -- "
" -- that will be sufficient from you. You have also violated my son. This will not stand. If you are a champion of Midgard you may prove it in single combat."
"Father -- " "No, father -- " Thor and Loki spoke at the same time.
"SILENCE!" Odin boomed. "You may have some little time to prepare for your fate. At the strike of the hour, I will see you on the field of blood."
He rose, which was a little like watching a landslide happen, and left the room.
"Two questions," Tony said, turning to Loki. "One, what the hell is the field of blood -- "
"That was magnificent," Loki interrupted. "I've never seen anyone -- "
"Truly, a feat," Thor put in. Asgardians were crowding around Tony, which was making him extremely nervous.
"Okay, but this field of blood -- "
"To be challenged to combat by the king!" a man said. "An honor for any man, let alone a Midgardian!"
"Volstagg," Loki said urgently. "Volstagg, you must go to father."
"This field, is it made of blood, or just steeped in it, or...?" Tony tried.
"He wouldn't kill him, would he?" Thor asked Sif.
"Well, he might," Sif replied.
"Seriously, though, so putting aside the field of blood, how long until that whole 'strike of the hour' thing -- "
"We must make him ready," another man said. "Do you have a sword, Sir Anthony?"
"A sword?" Tony asked.
"Are you really with child?" someone was asking Loki.
"Yes, a sword and shield -- or do you prefer the staff?"
"I don't really -- "
"Boy or girl?"
"But we must speak to father -- "
"A boy. They're naming him Thor."
"Such a shame, the child will grow up a bastard -- "
"Just a fucking minute now -- "
"Or an orphan, if the Allfather lets it grow up at all."
"OKAY, THAT IS IT," Tony yelled, firing a repulsor blast into the ceiling. Dust rained down, but at least it got people to shut up. "I'm going to ask TWO QUESTIONS and if I don't get DIRECT ANSWERS I'm going to start swinging, and you DON'T WANT TO SEE AN ANGRY MIDGARDIAN TAKE YOU FUCKERS DOWN."
Thor cleared his throat. "Yes, Tony?"
"One. Field of blood. Go."
"A combat field in the palace courtyard. No actual blood is involved," Loki said. "Traditionally battles held on the field are to the death, but that hasn't happened in ages. I'm sure Father won't go that far."
"I'm not," Thor muttered.
"Okay. Two, how long do I have until I have to enter into mortal combat with your father, the god-king of Asgard?" Tony asked.
Thor looked out through the arches of the throne room. "Twenty minutes, perhaps?" he ventured.
"Fine. Wait, I have a third question," Tony said. "Am I allowed to hit him with stuff other than swords and sticks?"
The Asgardians exchanged glances.
"Your lance of light should be permissible," one of them said warily.
"Fine, that evens the odds a little," Tony said grimly. "Now, somebody get me a sword. And the name of whoever it was who just suggested Odin got to say whether my kid grows up at all, so I can beat them down once I finish kicking the shit out of your dad."
"He boasts like a warrior," someone said approvingly.
"You're damn right I do," Tony replied.
Tony doubted that the ensuing fight would ever be written in song or go down in history as anything other than him getting the holy shit kicked out of him by Odin. The repulsors definitely helped, and he got in a few good hits, but he couldn't really deny the thorough beatdown that followed.
He was still pretty proud, though. Because there was this one moment, where Odin had him pinned in the mud and he could barely breathe, the sharp head of Odin's staff stuck right through his helmet and the point digging into his jaw, and Odin said, "Yield," and Tony said, "No."
"I could kill you," Odin whispered. Tony struggled as much as he could with a sharp blade pressed to his throat. "Save your own life. If you yield I will spare you."
"Why do you not yield?" Odin asked harshly, clearly frustrated.
Tony dragged enough air in his lungs to choke out a reply:
"If it were your sons, would you?"
There was a pause, and then the blade receded, the weight lifting off him. Tony heaved a deep breath and rolled over, pushing himself to his knees. His armor was flashing ninety-five different warnings and error messages at him.
"I declare the combat finished," he heard Odin say over the roar of his own pulse. "To the feasting hall."
Tony gasped and tried not to retch up breakfast, flipping his faceplate up. He was covered in muck, bruised all over, and probably had a concussion. Blood slicked down his chin.
He was barely conscious of hands helping him to his feet -- the world tilted and spun for a moment -- and then he was being guided slowly, Thor on one side and Loki on the other, off the field.
Someone wiped the blood off his face and a few other someones cleaned his armor with him still inside it, and he'd probably have enjoyed that a lot more if he wasn't still trying to catch his breath.
"Feasting Hall" turned out to be something of an understatement, when Tony was finally declared presentable and led to it. There were about a million Asgardian gods seated around a table covered in what looked like roasted everything, and someone was pouring mead for him even before he sat down.
"Is he going to kill me later?" he asked Loki in an undertone. Loki was sitting next to a woman (presumably...Queen Odin? Odinswife?) at Odin's left hand; Thor was on his right, looking like he was born to be at this kind of shindig. Loki was picking at what Tony dearly hoped was venison, because after the asskicking he'd just had he deserved venison.
Loki kissed his cheek, which elicited good-natured hoots from the table.
"Honor is satisfied," he said in Tony's ear.
"What does that mean, exactly?" Tony asked, as Odin stood up. Everyone else did too, so Tony groaned and staggered to his feet.
"Sir Anthony Stark Howardson, the crimson iron knight of Midgard," Odin said. "You have fought with valor and refused to yield in the face of death."
People were looking at him.
"Uh, thanks?" Tony tried.
"If the men of Midgard produce such warriors, then a lord of Midgard shall not be considered unfit for my son," Odin continued. "I acknowledge the son of my son, and welcome you into the royal house of Asgard."
"Did we just get married?" Tony asked Loki.
"Is now a good time to bring up monogamy?" Loki asked, an amused glint in his eye.
"Let us feast!" Odin declared, and everyone was about to sit down and presumably start gnawing bones and throwing away cups when one of the women a few seats down from Thor cleared her throat. Odin paused, cup halfway to his lips.
"Yes?" he asked.
"I do not wish to spoil any feast, nor impugn Sir Anthony's performance on the field," she said delicately, "but I wonder, my king, if you have fully considered the consequences of this...happy occasion."
Odin gestured for her to continue.
"This child will be half-Midgardian, and no blood of the house of Asgard," she said. Loki was glaring at her like he wanted to jump over the table and strangle her himself.
"To the point, my lady," Thor said, looking murderous himself.
"When it is born, the child will be third in line to the throne."
"And you object to the son of a warrior and a prince having a claim to Asgard," Odin concluded.
"A warrior of Midgard and a prince of Jotunheim? This particular son, yes, sire."
Odin looked at Loki. "Midgardian custom is different to ours. When the child is old enough, we will foster him here for a time, so he may learn our ways."
"My lord -- " she began, but Loki interrupted.
"No, I see where her aim lies," he said, setting his cup aside. "We will discuss fosterage some other time. The concern is easy to assuage; I renounce my claim to the throne, and the claim of my child."
Asgardians were pretty keen on dramatic silences.
"Loki," Thor began.
"No," Loki said. "It's all on you now, my dear brother."
He was grinning. Thor looked stressed, Tony thought.
"I am content to be crown prince of Jotunheim and I'm certain our son will have no trouble being a Lord of Midgard," Loki continued. "Clearly you will have to find a suitable wife, and produce heirs as quickly as possible," he added to Thor.
"You catty bitch," Tony muttered to Loki. "You just had to screw Thor, didn't you?"
"It's one of life's small pleasures," he answered.
Tony wasn't going to say he couldn't party with the best of them, at least on Earth, but he'd never met the best partiers in Asgard, and about six hours into the feast he was willing to admit defeat. Loki patted his arm and spirited him away, Thor following, while one of Thor's pals caused a distraction.
Heimdall and Loki cordially ignored each other again when they returned to the gatehouse. Talk about your fucked up family reunions.
They arrived back on Earth just as the sun was setting, and fortunately on the terrace of the penthouse; Tony staggered through the armor removal process, desperate for a bath and at least nineteen hours of sleep.
"Well?" Steve asked from the couch, when he saw them enter. "How did it go?"
"Mrrr," Tony replied, not stopping in his slow but steady quest for a horizontal position.
"He challenged my father to single combat," Thor said.
"You what?" Steve asked, getting up to follow them.
"He was very valiant and very, very stupid," Loki said over his shoulder. Tony began shedding his undersuit.
"JARVIS, hot bath," he called, sliding wearily into the tub as the water switched on. Thor, Loki, and Steve crowded into the bathroom with him. Tony glared through narrow, weary eyes.
"You're not modest and it's nothing I haven't seen before," Steve informed him. "So, uh, did you win?"
"No," Tony groaned, as hot water rose around him. "I did the exact opposite of winning."
"Why did you do that?" Steve asked.
"Because he's huge and violent!"
"No, why did you challenge him?"
"He called our son unacceptable," Loki said.
"He was a douche," Tony put in.
"What is a douche?" Thor asked Steve. "I have long wondered."
"I'm not entirely sure," Steve answered.
"Oh my god, go away," Tony moaned. "Go, go away, let me die. Not you," he added, as Loki turned to follow the other two out. "You can stay and tell me how awesome I am."
"You are not awesome. You lost," Loki informed him, but he settled crosslegged next to the bathtub anyway. "Although...I have never seen someone who wasn't mother speak to father that way. His face when you called him a 'one trick dick'!"
Tony slid deeper into the bathtub, eyes closing as he listened to the soft splashes Loki's hand made where he dangled it into the water.
"Half-Midgardian he may be," Loki said, after a while, "but our son will be magnificent, pet. He will. You can teach him about your machines and endow him with the wealth of Midgard, and I will teach him to be exceptionally clever and deceitful -- "
"Not evil," Tony murmured.
"Fine, not evil," Loki said, sounding only a little put out. "And he can be fostered at the court, where he'll learn the ways of warriors. He may not be considered in the succession, but he will still be a prince."
"I'll make him a crown," Tony drawled. "I want you to promise me one thing."
"Bright boy, you know I'm a liar."
"Yeah, well, hang it up for a second," Tony said, opening his eyes. "Promise me that when Thor finally knocks Jane up, I get to be the one to tell your dad."
Loki laughed. "That would be a pleasure. My pet," he added affectionately, and kissed Tony on the cheek.
Tony expected -- because he might not be up on his mythology but he sure as hell was Genre Savvy -- that his son would be born either:
a) In the middle of a firefight;
b) In a broken elevator while a battle raged outside;
c) While he, Tony, was being held hostage and unable to reach them;
d) In some wacky unlikely scenario involving several Avengers and a flying car.
Tony was prepared for the birth of his first (please God: his only) child to be a farce of epic, narrative proportions, so he was shocked when Steve called him and said "Loki's on her way to the hospital, you should meet her there" and Tony made it to the hospital no problem, traffic not being an issue when you can fly, and everything went according to the way these things were supposed to, as far as Tony could tell. It was distressingly normal.
Twelve hours after he got the call, he was holding his son in his arms.
Holy shit he was holding his son in his arms.
The kid had a full head of black hair and slightly pointy ears and enormous green eyes and a set of lungs that proved, yes, he was definitely half-Stark. Tony stared down at the tiny creature spastically making horrible faces at him and said, "Fuck, what have I done?"
"Language!" Steve said.
Because of course it wasn't just Tony at the hospital, now that the kid was out amongst them. The entire superhero population of New York had apparently disinfected themselves and shown up to get a peep at the next generation. Steve was actually in the hospital room poking at the child with unnervingly large hands. Thor had come in, boomed "A fine namesake!" and fucked off to tell all of Asgard that he was an uncle. Outside the room, peering into it like creeps, Bruce and Natasha and Pepper and at least three quarters of the Fantastic Four and Spider-man and Darcy and Jane and Phil Coulson were watching. Clint was looking at the kid like he was some kind of alien (well, okay, he was half-alien, but there was no need to stare).
"This is getting officially weird," Tony murmured, and kicked Steve in the shin, because his arms were full of his offspring. "Everyone out. Cap, make them leave. Go, go on, out, my kid, mine," he said, and Steve reluctantly left, closing the blind on the window as he went. In the semi-darkness of the hospital room, Tony settled on the edge of the bed.
"You look hotter than you have any right to look," he said, because Loki had given birth and then promptly decided screw weeks of recovery and made himself male. He held out grabby arms for the baby.
"Hello, princeling," Loki crooned, when Tony reluctantly gave up the kid. "Little prince of Midgard. Prince Thor Stark Lokason, my apologies for the name. And for your uncle. And a little for your father."
"Don't listen to your mother, he's crazy," Tony said to the baby. "Oh man, you are going to be one confused child."
When Thor returned from Asgard, he came with presents, which Tony was not expecting. Apparently granddad had taken one look at Thor's camera-phone photograph of T.S. Lokason in Loki's arms and lost his shit.
"You should be glad I was there to moderate his exuberance," Thor said, and the idea of Thor moderating anyone's exuberance was terrifying. "I convinced him I should leave the goats behind."
"Goats?" Tony asked weakly, staring at the enormous trunk Thor was unpacking. There were tiny little baby onesies made out of what looked like the hide of some strange alien animal. There were several swords of varying sizes. There was a downright terrifying toy jester head on a stick. And a rocking horse with eight legs.
"The young prince has been gifted with two mares of good stock plus a chariot and four goats," Thor said. "Big goats."
I can't believe we have to babyproof your dad," Tony said. "Did you get goats when you were born?"
"Of course," Thor said.
"We can't give this stuff to my kid."
Thor offered him a wooden sword.
"Do you want your only nephew to die?" Tony asked. He waggled the terrifying jester head. It tinkled with little bells.
There was a sudden squeal from the doorway, and Tony looked up from his contemplation of the birth-gifts of Asgard to find Loki in the doorway with Stark in his arms. Stark was staring at the jester head, fascinated.
"I see Odin has found reason," Loki said, coming forward. "Oh, this will serve," he added, picking up a red embroidered blanket. "Mother's doing. Practical."
Stark squealed again, eyes still fixed on the jester's head. Tony resigned himself to the madness and shook it at his son. Stark burbled. With a groan, Tony rested it on Stark's chest and the child promptly began chewing on its hat. Loki, hardly looking at either one of them, thrust Stark into his arms and began digging through the trunk with Thor.
"Dare I ask about the goats?" Loki asked. Thor held up four fingers. "Well, I suppose that's sufficient."
"You knew about the goats?" Tony inquired.
"I suspected. They're very traditional."
"Father was excessively pleased with the prince," Thor said.
Tony settled down in a nearby chair and watched Thor and Loki reminisce about their own terrifying childhoods in Asgard. Stark was warm and heavy in his arms.
"Don't worry," he said. "I'll protect you from granddad's good intentions."
The Avengers were, as a concept, still kind of terrifying, even with the advantage of familiarity.
Billy thought they were going to have to invent a new word, ultraterrifying maybe, to describe Tony Stark standing in the doorway of Little T's nursery, arms crossed. And then another word on top of that (megaultraterrifying? Terramegafying?) to describe Tony Stark and Steve Rogers arguing.
"No," Tony said.
"It'll teach them responsibility," Steve answered.
"I think you have it exactly backwards," Tony said.
"Tony -- "
"No! You teach them responsibility and then maybe they can look after him!"
"You're being unreasonable," Steve said. "It's four hours. They'll be fine. There's three of them."
"Only because I'm not leaving those two horndogs alone without a chaperone," Tony replied.
"I think I'm insulted," Tommy said.
"Not nearly as insulted as I am," Teddy replied.
"Oh, like I wasn't sixteen and dating an ethereally beautiful brunette once," Tony retorted.
"Point," Teddy said. Billy preened a little.
"There are three people in the world I trust to look after my son," Tony continued. "Phil Coulson, Pepper Potts, and CAPTAIN AMERICA. I'm not leaving Stark with three teenagers, one of whom almost blew up New York."
"Hey!" Billy frowned. "I didn't do it on purpose."
"That's not helping!" Tony replied.
Loki coughed delicately from inside the room.
"Oh, don't give me that, if it were up to you we'd be teething him on the bones of our enemies in Asgard," Tony called over his shoulder.
"Sinew. Bones splinter," Loki replied.
"The Young Avengers are not appropriate babysitters! Be on my side!" Tony ordered.
"Your side is stupid," Loki replied. "Get out of the doorway before I turn you into a rabbit."
Tony looked back and forth from Steve to Loki to the three Young Avengers, eyes narrowing.
"I'm only doing this to make him happy," he said, jerking a thumb at Loki. He stepped aside.
Tommy was through the door at lightspeed, slamming to a stop next to the crib.
"Hello, my little delinquent in training!" he cooed, lifting Little T out of his crib. The baby giggled at him.
"This is weird," Teddy said out of the corner of his mouth.
"So weird," Billy agreed. Apparently the only thing on earth that turned his hardened cynic juvie of a brother into a heap of goo was a baby.
"They're Young Avengers. They'll be fine," Steve insisted, all but hauling Tony out of the room towards where Pepper was waiting by the front door.
"Thank you, children," Loki told them, as Tony's protests died away down the hall. "We'll be back after the party. You have all the telephone numbers."
"Yes, sir," Teddy said dutifully.
"And Kate stands ready to give aid if you need help."
"There's money on the kitchen table. If you use it to buy drugs, make sure one of you stays sober enough to mind the baby."
The boys exchanged glances.
"Can we just get a pizza instead?" Billy asked.
"Well, if you must. Youth these days, no sense of fun," Loki said, and bent to kiss Little T on the forehead. "Keep things interesting, my love."
"Isn't he supposed to tell him to be good?" Billy said, as Loki swept out regally. Loki did everything regally.
"God of mischief," Teddy replied, looking only vaguely worried.
Tommy hefted Little T in his arms and walked out.
"Go make out if you want!" he called, heading for the living room. "Little T and I are going to watch movies and plot world domination."
"He's kidding. I think," Billy said. "We can't make out. We have to make sure Tommy doesn't teach Little T how to pick locks or blow things up."
"Well." Teddy said. "I mean, we could."
"No. No, we can't," Billy said reluctantly. "Tony'll kill us if he finds out."
"Just a little making out?" Teddy pouted.
There was a crash from the living room.
"It's all good! That wasn't the baby!" Tommy called. Teddy sighed.
"Look how responsible we're being already!" Billy said brightly, trailing Teddy down the hall to where Tommy and Little T were curled up on the couch, Little T gnawing on Tommy's fingers while Tommy channel-surfed.
For a while, when he was young, Stark assumed everyones' parents could change gender at will. After all, some of his friends had two moms or dads, and Billy and Teddy were dating and Teddy could shape-shift too, though he'd never seen Teddy turn into a girl. When he bothered to apply logic to it, Stark decided either his father liked being a boy, or his mother was just really indecisive and liked to change a lot.
He figured it out by the time he was about four, but it left him with a pretty permanent impression of gender as an irrelevant consideration in life. Which was probably what Mum intended.
It took him slightly longer to sort out the concept of 'parent' properly. Yes, Dad was the one he went to when he scraped a knee or needed something explained to him. Dad was the one who usually tucked him in at night -- he'd run down to the workshop and stand in the doorway in footie pyjamas watching Dad build things, and then Dad would look up and say "Past your bedtime, what are you doing down here?" and tuck him in, his goodnight kiss smelling like ozone and steel. Mum was the one who always let him off easy when he got into trouble and taught him how to be sneaky and fed him breakfast, because at seven in the morning Dad was frequently unfit for human company.
But there were all these other people too, and they cooked his meals or tutored him or watched him when Mum and Dad weren't around, and Uncle Thor sometimes took him to Asgard for a weekend, even though when he was little he'd really rather have gone to Disneyland.
Eventually he figured out that it wasn't normal, he wasn't normal, but normal wasn't always awesome. Once he'd worked that out, he settled easily into the idea of having a Mum and a Dad and four extra superheroes. Plus Tommy, his favorite babysitter, and Tommy's brother Billy and their friends Teddy and Eli, and Uncle Clint's friend Kate. And Agent Coulson, his second-favorite babysitter only because Agent Coulson was sneaky.
He didn't realize until he was grown that babysitters generally didn't carry guns.
When Stark was four, Dad caught him dragging a piston as big as he was out of his workshop and asked, "Where do you think you're going with that?"
Stark looked up at him. "S'for my Big Wheel," he said.
Dad raised an eyebrow. "What are you going to do to your Big Wheel?"
Stark shrugged. "Could go faster. Gonna make it go faster."
Dad looked the proudest Stark had ever seen in his life. "Faster, huh?"
Stark was his father's son through-and-through in at least one respect: faster. Steve didn't look happy about it but Mum said Steve could stuff it and that made Clint fall around laughing, so Dad bought him some tools and a machine kit, and they made that Big Wheel go fast.
Stark was seven when Mercy was born, and he got to stay overnight at Tommy's apartment because Mercy was born while Mum and Dad and half the Avengers were off battling evil and the other half were at the hospital.
Stark brought along his Iron Man pyjamas and his tool kit and three textbooks, and by the time Tommy was done making dinner he'd set it up so that Tommy's TV got every television channel everywhere and one that both of them suspected might come from some other solar system.
"So, whatcha reading?" Tommy asked, picking up one of Stark's books and making a face at it.
"Readin' about polynom'al equations," Stark answered, scrawling a formula carefully in the margin of the book he had open on his lap. "That one's about temporal uncertainty."
"You are scary smart, Little T. Don't you want to watch cartoons?"
"I like Roadrunner," Stark offered.
"Yeah, Dad says when I'm eight I can write a paper about dimensional physics in animation."
"Why not now?" Tommy asked.
"He says there's no need to show off."
Tommy laughed. "Fair enough. Need some help?"
Stark offered Tommy his textbook. Tommy's lips moved, eyes narrowing, and Stark watched carefully. Usually Dad or Mum helped him with math, though Mum's idea of 'helping' was making the numbers dance. Still, both of them looked at his textbooks like they understood them, even if Mum refused to admit it.
Tommy's face was blank, eyes confused rather than knowing. Stark waited for him to work it out, but eventually Tommy looked over at him and said, "I guess if you do need help, we're gonna have to call your dad. I got nothin', kid."
Stark had a sudden, shocking understanding: he was smarter than Tommy.
"S'okay," he said, trying to block up the awful, fearful sensation he had. Tommy noticed, though.
"What's wrong, Little T?" he asked.
"I'm weird, huh?" Stark asked. "Nobody else my age reads about polynom'al equations."
Tommy slid an arm around his shoulders in a sideways hug. "Well, no, but that doesn't make you weird."
"It makes you special. Anyway, there's something very important I think you should remember."
"What?" Stark asked hopefully.
"You will always be littler than me," Tommy replied, and squeezed him in the ribs right where he knew Stark was ticklish, and Stark squealed and shoved at him.
"Roadrunner?" Tommy asked.
"Yes!" Stark agreed, and then they ate ice cream and Stark showed him where Looney Tunes got the physics wrong.
The next morning, he woke up from the little trundle bed Tommy had made up for him in Tommy's bedroom, but he stopped when he got to the door, because he could hear Dad and Tommy talking in the kitchen. He put his ear to the crack and listened, like Mum had taught him.
" -- lost some blood, but she's okay," Dad was saying. "Pep's a fighter."
"What about the baby?"
"Healthy. Big," Dad replied.
"But...but I mean is she...?" Tommy asked, and Stark wouldn't understand the tone in his voice until years later.
"No, no birth defects. Well, nothing so far, but Bruce had a look at her DNA and he says nothing's likely. I don't know why everyone's even worried. There's no reason Steve's enhanced genetics should cause any kind of problem."
"Well, at least they're both safe and healthy."
"Yeah. Hell of a night," his dad said, sounding tired. "How was Stark?"
"Oh, great. Fixed my cable, did some polynomial equations, stayed up too late."
"He's a hell of a kid," Dad said, sounding pleased. Stark grinned from behind the door.
"Does that ever worry you a little?" Tommy asked.
"All the fucking time. You ever try keeping up with a toddler who knows how to build stable load-bearing structures out of alphabet blocks?"
"He just seemed kind of upset about it last night. I couldn't keep up with his homework and he thought he was weird."
"He is weird. That's his charm."
"Well, that's what I said," Tommy replied. "Man, Tony, I don't know about you but I had a pretty messed-up childhood -- "
"Welcome to the club."
" -- so like, we have to not fuck him up, right?"
"Working on it. Is he up yet?"
"Nah. Go on ahead, he'll be glad to see Dad."
Stark scurried back to bed, diving under the blankets and curling up so that when Dad came in he could yawn convincingly and say, "Dad?"
"Hey, Stark," Dad answered, scooping him up, blankets and all. "Guess what?"
"Steve and Pepper had a baby last night."
"Ugh, babies," Stark groaned, and Dad ruffled his hair.
"Come on, my little head case, we'll get you dressed and take Tommy out for pancakes, sound good?"
"Are they bringing the baby?"
Dad laughed. "No. Just us boys and your mother. Now, what time is it?"
"Time is an arbitrary construct created to define an essentially unstable and nonlinear irrational existence!" Stark cried. "It's always time for breakfast!"
Stark was the son of a futurist, and he'd been helping Dad run numbers on alternate universes since he was in high school (so...age ten) and while it was cool it could also be downright chilling. With a little concentration, he could sit down and untwine the threads of history, studying each individual element and how it related to the whole. Even Dad wasn't as good at it as he was; by his own admission, Dad had trouble being objective about the future now that he had a child who was supposed to live in it.
Take the Superhuman Registration Act, for instance. Stark knew that when he was three, the government tried to push through a law requiring all superheroes regardless of ability to register their real names and undergo training and qualification. He knew it hadn't passed, but that a year later, very quietly, a recruitment and outreach program had been funded with SHIELD resources.
He found out, eventually, that Dad had been instrumental in defeating the SHRA and founding the Superhuman Outreach Program -- and, from a slightly drunk Clint one time, that Dad had practically stormed into Congress and told them all he wasn't going to raise his son in some crazy fear-driven Fascist regime.
But Stark could see a different story, as well -- he could see his father as a different sort of man, supporting what he'd see as the inevitable, and where the break would come in. Too many of his parents' friends were too headstrong for SHRA to ever work effectively. That was the thing about people who fought world-threatening villains armed only with shields and arrows; they were crazy stubborn motherfuckers who would never give an inch against something they didn't believe in.
The difference for him was, his father was a crazy stubborn motherfucker who also had a zillion dollars to spend on making sure anyone who disagreed with him was made irrelevant, and his mother was even crazier but wicked good at politics. Without his mother driving Dad on, and without Stark himself to put his father's reality in perspective, Dad would have gone for SHRA wholeheartedly.
But Cap would have screamed bloody murder about it, and never knuckled under, and that would have caused a war, a bitter conflict that Stark only saw ending one way: with Steve killing Dad, or Dad killing Steve.
They were best friends. The idea of one of them killing the other made Stark sick to his stomach, made him screw up the holopaper where he was running the math and throw it across the room.
"Stark?" his father called, and Stark turned as Dad put his head into the room. "Time travel again?"
"Something like that," Stark sighed.
"Come on upstairs, give it a rest."
"Daaad. I'm nineteen, I don't need a birthday party."
"Tough nuts, Clint baked a cake, you have to come blow out the candles. There's money riding on whether we'll get food poisoning."
"Okay," Stark said, and Dad slung an arm around his shoulders as they left the workshop.
Upstairs, everyone was gathered -- Avengers past and present, various spouses and partners and kids, and there was Steve, grinning at him, Dad's best friend and as good as a second dad to Stark.
It hadn't happened. It might have, in some universe, but it hadn't here, and when Steve ruffled his hair, which he KNEW he hated, Stark just smiled back.
He had them all, all of his friends and family, and he'd do whatever it took to keep them. After all, in some ways he already had.
It had its drawbacks, though.
Stark could remember being sixteen and finding himself suddenly, painfully sober when he walked in the door at three in the morning after an illicit underage kegger to find Captain America standing in the hallway, arms crossed.
Dad had taken his side on that one, which surprised him, but a few days later Dad took him out for lunch and told him things about his grandfather and the way Dad had been before he'd been born that made him feel way more ashamed than Steve ever could. It also made him a lot more careful about drinking.
He had a vivid flashback to that moment, the "Oh shit busted by Steve" moment, when he arrived back in Dad's workshop not an hour after he'd left on his first multi-stop trip through time -- through TIME! -- to find Captain America standing there with his arms crossed.
It didn't help that Dad was standing next to him, arms also crossed.
Mom probably wasn't going to be able to get him out of this one.
"Oops?" he tried.
"Sit," Dad said, pointing to one of the benches in the workshop. Stark crossed his own arms.
"No," he said.
"You are not too old to be grounded," Dad said. "But we'll discuss that after your debriefing."
Stark blinked. "Excuse me?"
"You took proprietary Stark technology, jaunted through time with it, and affected your own past," Dad said. "Sit the hell down. You're being debriefed."
"But you know -- "
"And nineteen years ago I was willing to cut you a lot more slack than I am now," Dad replied. Captain America just glared.
Stark sat, giving his father a sullen look.
"He's all yours, Cap," Dad said, and left.
He emerged from the workshop about an hour and a half later, feeling like he'd just had the crap kicked out of him in spar practice, even though Cap hadn't touched him. Just grilled him relentlessly on where he'd been and what he'd done, and whether he fully understood what he'd done, and what this was going to mean if SHIELD got wind of it, and what a responsibility it all was. Cap had a way of talking at you, where he was earnest and cunning at the same time, that made you feel like a jackass for even thinking about doing what you'd just done.
He found his father on the terrace, with a mug of coffee and a tablet, basking in the sunrise, eyes closed. A second steaming mug sat on the table next to him.
"So, how badly am I busted?" he asked, sitting across from his father and picking up the mug. Dad opened his eyes and set his tablet aside.
"You are the reason I have grey hair," he said.
"I'm pretty sure old age is the reason you have grey hair."
"Do you really want to be a smartass with me right now?" Dad asked. He sighed. "You could have destroyed the continuity of reality as we know it, I hope Cap made that clear."
"But I didn't."
Dad cocked an eyebrow at him. "Which is interesting in itself," he said.
Mom definitely couldn't get him out of this.
"Listen, Dad, I can explain."
"Save it," Dad said. "Look, I fought with pretty much everyone in this house when we made the decision to send you to college. You were fourteen. I did the child prodigy thing, so I wanted you to have a normal life without all that crap, but you were bored out of your mind. Even I could see that. So I let you go. We let you run as fast as you could for as long as you could, and it's not that I'm not proud you're going to, I don't know, win the Nobel for physics before you're twenty five. But you are nineteen, and there is no amount of schooling or natural talent that is going to give you the two extra decades of experience you should have before trying this kind of thing. You think you're invincible? Yeah, I did too once." He tapped his chest through his shirt, and Stark heard the plasticky clatter of his arc reactor. "You're old enough to outpace your old man when it comes to temporal physics. I get that you understand the calculus of time."
"It's really more like algebra."
Dad groaned. "Stark -- "
"So I think you knew the odds and the outcomes when you took off tonight. And don't think I'm not glad you did what you did," and his father reached out, ruffling his hair. "I am. I'm glad you're here, every day. But you can be the smartest man in the world and you're still not going to be old enough to resist making impulsive, inexperienced decisions. And I don't care -- " he began, when Stark opened his mouth to protest, " -- seriously, I don't care when it's your life you're making those decisions about, you have that right. I can let you flail around like a moron when you're the only one who suffers for it. But it's not just you anymore, Stark. It's the stability of existence you're messing with here. You can't hope to understand the import of that at your age."
"When you were my age you built weapons of mass destruction."
"And I regret it," his father said. "What does that tell you?"
"That you didn't learn much," Stark said before he thought about it.
Dad's eyes darkened. "And you mean by that...?"
"If you didn't want someone messing with time, you wouldn't have built the temporal manipulator with me," Stark replied. "If you don't want a bomb to go off, Dad, don't build a fucking bomb."
"Watch your mouth."
"Well, is it untrue?" Stark asked, and didn't wait for a reply. "I helped you make that tech. I had a right to test it, especially since I'm the only one who completely understands its use. I field-tested it with no measurable instability, even interacting with my own timeline. So are you treating me like a colleague who has a share in the success of this project and overstepped his bounds, or are you treating me like a child because I'm your son?"
His father sat back, fingers tapping on the table, eyes on him.
"Half the bad guys we've dealt with in the last twenty years have come of scientific advances that were field-tested long before they should have been," Dad said. "A significant amount of the work we've had to do has been a result of too far, too fast, with too little control. And yes, I am the embodiment of too far, too fast, but I worry about you. So I am speaking to you as both."
Stark laughed. "You're worried, what, I'm going to turn into a supervillain? Really, Dad?"
"Kang the Conqueror," Dad said, and Stark stopped mid-laugh, like he'd been slapped. He sucked in a breath, suddenly tense. "I'm not saying that's a path I see you following. But I doubt very much he thought he'd go down it either."
Stark looked down, ashamed. Cap could make you feel like a jackass; Dad could make you feel like a disappointment, which was much worse. He didn't, not often, but when he did it was the most helpless feeling in the world.
"Thor Stark Lokason, look at me," his father said gently. Stark looked up. "You are brilliant. Before you were born, your mother told me you'd be a king, and I don't doubt her for a second. But you have to be careful. You could burn down the world, but that's only part of it. If you were hurt, I'd do it for you. We are dangerous people, Loki and me, and the lengths to which we'd go for you are perilous. This kind of power -- "
" -- comes with responsibility, I know, I got the ethics lecture from Peter like a billion times," Stark sighed. "I'm sorry, okay?"
"Don't be sorry, be smarter," Dad said. He tilted his head. "And now for the fun part of the parental lecture."
"Don't tell me you weren't having a little fun taking me down," Stark said. "Just a little."
"Maybe so," Dad admitted, "but this is the part where I offer you a job."
Stark stared at him.
"You want to field-test that tech? SHIELD is getting ready to rotate two new recruits into the Avengers for training. You could be one of them."
"I -- what?"
"You want to be an Avenger?" Dad asked.
"Only since I was like six months old!"
Dad smiled. "Told you. Fun part."
"Who's leaving the team?"
They'd rotated Avengers in and out before. Bruce had left when Stark was still young. Mom and uncle Thor were probably going to outlive everyone by a few centuries at least, so they were still on the team, and Cap was forty-five and still looked like he was in his twenties, so he probably wasn't leaving, and the new people who'd come in were all still --
"Me," Dad said.
"What? Dad, no -- "
"It's past time, kiddo, and everyone knows it. I've been training with SHIELD to run ops and tech from the command center."
"You -- you don't want me in the suit, Dad -- "
His father burst out laughing. "No. God, no, Stark. Mercy's taking it over. She'll be training with me for a few years."
"Oh," Stark said. He thought about it; sure, why not give the Iron Man suit to Captain America's daughter. "Well, she'll be good at it, I guess."
"Going to have to let out the chestplate a little."
"Don't be a dick, Dad."
His father laughed again. "So? Interested?"
"But if you're leaving and Mercy's taking the suit..."
"Peter's stepping out too; he wants more time with MJ. That leaves a spot open for an agile smartass. We get you hooked up to the manipulator, get you some new repulsor tech, tie the manipulator into a phase modifier -- well, you won't be able to climb walls, but it'll get the job done. Training will give you time to fuck up without destroying causality, at least that's the theory." Dad looked at him. "So? In?"
"In. Completely in. Where do I sign?"
Dad grinned, standing up. "Start working on a superhero name. I'll get the paperwork set up."
"Trickster," Stark called, just as his father reached the terrace door.
"Trickster. Apt, don't you think?" Stark said.
"Your mother's never going to let me live this down," Dad sighed.