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Who We Are And Why We Are Here

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There was an unconscious, half-dead god of lies in the medical wing of Avengers tower.

There was a very dead Mad Titan quite literally in bits being squeegeed off the north side of the tower, and carefully removed by S.H.I.E.L.D. extraterrestrial specialists preventing as much of it as possible from getting into the sewer or anywhere else some alien bacterium and such, which may or may not be harmful (but they knew from experience to bet on it being so) to humans, from meeting with any unprepared humans or the bellies of local urban wildlife.

The Avengers were alive, and all whole. Even Clint hadn’t broken any bones this time and required only seven stitches on his left arm. Natasha had one knee badly twisted, and also was in a cot in the medical wing, an Aesir-strength projectile weapon within arm’s reach to point at Loki if the broken god managed to wake up and so much as look at her funny.

More to the point: the Avengers were alive, and not permanently harmed––as was the city of New York in general with only more property damage that would take a couple months to repair, and no civilian casualties––solely because of Loki being a clever bastard.

~~

In the wake of the epic fireworks (or, rather, fire-and-ice-works) display that took place mostly in the skies over half of New York City before the two main players crash-landed in Central Park (as Thanos’ fleet of ships drifted away from the earth with all their systems on the fritz and an unstoppable self-destruct sequence creeping inexorably toward completion) the players in question proceeded to weave a tangled pair of cat-and-mouse trails through the city, while Thanos’ incredibly loud voice (JARVIS confirmed it could be heard clearly by the average human ear for a half-mile radius around the Mad Titan as he charged) began shouting the most fascinating and sincerely pissed off accusations at Loki for most of Downtown to hear, including the Avengers trying to keep up with them both, Tony Stark found himself the first to approach Thor where he knelt at the edge of the crater Loki was in, right at the front of the building the god of mischief had opened a portal for the Chitauri above just a year and a half before. Overhead, new fireworks started: Thanos’ fleet self-destructing all at once. The two Avengers spared it little more than a glance before returning their attention to the surprisingly large area coated in blood-and-meat-and-melting-frost on the side of Avengers Tower, and then down further to the trickster responsible for it. The mortal inventor, still in his armor, battered but only a little scathed, made a thoughtful noise.

Thor looked up at him with eyes full of confusion and pain. His fingertips rested near Loki, but not quite touching him, as though he wasn’t certain he quite dared; whether because he thought it might hurt himself or because it might sting Loki, seemed uncertain. Possibly it was both, if Tony had to hazard a guess.

The inventor cleared his throat.

“Leaving aside how Thanos showed up here somehow convinced your brother was acting as Earth’s savior, and disobeying direct orders by not taking his portal somewhere practical like the North Pole to amass his forces before attacking, and instead bottle-necking them until we could send a nuke...” Tony began, aiming his query at Thor, “there’s one really pressing question on my mind I can’t resist asking first.”

“What is it?” asked the Thunderer.

“Why is he blue, what the fuck is that box currently stuck to his hands with frost, and does your brother have a lethal allergy to being straight-forward and direct about his plans?”

“He’s adopted, to the first; that’s the Casket of Ancient Winters we thought had been lost when he fell into the void for the second; and finally a resounding yes to your third question.” He raised his eyebrows. “Rather than the one you initially suggested.”

“Well, the blue was foremost, the rest just sort of slipped out without my permission. It’s been a long fucking week,” Tony groaned. “He must be so pissed off at you and your dad. Seriously, he didn’t even want to pretend to be on our side to fuck these guys over, but then pulls this shit? He couldn’t have sent Barton with an encrypted note and left him deliberately on the helicarrier before he fucked off with the tesseract or something? For fuck’s sake!”

Thor looked thoroughly aggrieved. “My father broke his trust, and some far deeper qualities. I am a painful reminder of all that he feels he has lost, and one who possesses still many of the things that he can no longer have.” He shook his head. “You also heard as well as I did, that he was being monitored by that scepter of his, to make certain his behavior remained loyal-seeming enough.”

Tony took a deep breath as he heard the city coming to life, shouts of rescue crews and the just-now-audible drone of the approaching helicarrier not-so-distant. “We’ll bring him inside. Might want to hurry, before anyone gets any ideas or recognizes his armor. Where’d that helmet go?”

“It is... not longer recognizable. Thanos partially melted it at some point.” He pointed over his shoulder at a bit of wreckage. “Loki removed it shortly before landing on it and that...” He turned for a moment and stared. “Was that a car?”

“A bus,” Tony corrected lightly. “A mini-bus, but a bus.”

“Right.” Thor turned to look at it. “I think it fine to leave behind.”

“Yeah. Jeez, that was on his head while it was-”

“It is a very good thing, I think, that his skin was very, very cold, at the time.”

“Just thinking about the physics of that is making me ill. You, drinks, explanation, tonight. This is mandatory,” Tony growled.

Thor nodded. “Of course.” He then hesitated. “He is still too cold for me to touch without getting frostbite, presently, but not quite enough to make metal more brittle. Can you aid me?”

The inventor’s eyebrows raised, but he nodded. “Yeah. Sure.” Then he crouched on the other side of the broken lie-smith and examined him for a moment: the coloration, the markings, the still-bleeding wounds, and the unnatural angle one of his arms seemed to be bent at. He whistled. “Hulk went easier on him than this.” Then carefully, he reached down to pick him up, gentle as he could manage, given the god was limp and utterly unmoving, not a muscle twitching except to keep him breathing and maintain his pulse, that he was very awkward to lift and maintain hold of. Thor steadied him, careful to touch only non-conductive parts of Loki’s armor and coat. Tony was a bit startled by the power drain Loki put on the suit, just preventing more than an uncomfortable degree of chill reaching its interior. That... should not be a possible thing.

“What are you doing?”

Tony didn’t jump, but he did give an exasperated sigh. “Harboring a wanted fugitive. You in, Uncle Sam?”

Steve Rogers was aware of Thor’s pleading eyes on him as he very deliberately took in the mayhem around them, lingering on the colorful bits of Mad Titan that painted the tower and looking mildly disgusted, yet somehow approving. “Yeah. Clint is helping Natasha and Bruce is already inside prepping medical supplies.”

“Thank you,” Thor said quietly.

The Captain smiled at him faintly, and a bit sadly. “I don’t exactly trust him, but I’m... willing to be a bit kind and underhanded at the same time. It’s fair payback, maybe.”

“We’ll see, anyway,” Tony muttered, and headed for the tower doors.

~~

By midnight, Thor had gotten through a rough explanation of all that had happened leading up to Loki’s fall, starting with frost-giants interrupting his coronation, to the cancellation of that coronation, to their visit to Jotunnheim, his own banishment, an account from his father concerning Loki’s discovery of his true heritage, and all that Loki had done in the wake of Odin falling into the Odinsleep right after that revelation, mostly from the perspective of Sif, which Thor admitted he did not consider to be very objective where Loki’s words and motives were concerned.

Along the way he explained the long-standing enmity between Aesir and frost giants, and Tony’s brow furrowed a bit as he kept hearing in the back of his own head Thor’s unease as he quoted Odin, who had been quoting Loki in distress: I am the monster parents tell their children about at night?! He thought of the seething resentment that colored Loki’s expression at any mention of Odin, any mention of the honor or glory of Asgard.

He thought about Pepper’s expression when people tried to dismiss her for being a woman, or because they presumed her somehow servile toward Tony, or dismissed her for a fool or any less brilliant as soon as his relationship with her became public. He thought of the tension and coldness in her expression when people addressed questions about her toward Tony, in front of her, as though he somehow might have more say. He never had to correct them; Pepper was always quick, with gentle wit overlaying razor-sharp insult, leaving the perpetrators of such offenses either speechless, or outright humiliated into the dust, in the end.

He thought back to his and Rhodey’s high school days, when people used words Tony had scarcely ever heard (if only because he was Howard Stark’s son which put him in an ivory tower of sorts, that restricted his access to real life and real people in ways he was only then learning to actively rebel against) before then, and how Rhodey’s expression had changed and become closed-off, wrathful, yet carefully restrained, like he wanted with every fibre of his body to lash out in a very un-Rhodey-like way. Punching strangers who talk shit was more Tony’s style. He remembered the look of disbelief and bafflement and hurt when his best friend asked what the fuck that was, and Rhodey had had to explain, with hesitation and tension, what the implications had been. Tony had never felt like more of an insensitive ass, had never felt as uncomfortably sheltered, and had never felt more like running back into a place and kicking someone’s teeth in, in his entire life. He’d gotten a lot sharper and more likely to call people on that variety of bullshit after that. He had zero tolerance for it.

He was thus getting a familiar tingling sensation of I sense bullshit all of a sudden. And his instincts here were all about making sure the person carrying around that bullshit became acutely aware of the smell. It wasn’t exactly his fight, but it wasn’t fair to force the victims to fight alone when the likes of Tony Stark could really get the point across, with less effort, and less strain on anyone who didn’t deserve to be looked down on for what they couldn’t, or shouldn’t have to, control.

In this instance, Tony was looking at another sheltered white-boy who couldn’t quite understand the deeper implications of the fact that others in his world, even ones he might love, had never been treated as well, trusted as easily, as the likes of himself, and how that might affect their interactions with him not due to jealousy, but due to inexorable resentment of never being enough for no good solid reasons, but instead seemingly arbitrary and stupid ones that forced them to doubt their own worth and encourage self-loathing. The white-boy in question also just happened to be a prince among gods, this time. Yes, Tony could relate; however, he was an asshole and still had found the time and curiosity within him to question and learn from experiences very unlike his own personal ones, whereas Thor was clearly having more trouble, despite having had centuries to do it, so the inventor didn’t exactly sympathize much. So he constructed his plan for deconstructing Thor’s perspective, and got right to it.

“I still don’t get why you in Asgard feel so comfortable demonizing an entire race like they’re monsters,” the inventor said, tipping his glass so one liquor-glazed ice cube fell between his lips. As he uprighted the glass, he caught the ice in his teeth and crushed it not-quite-quietly.

The thunder god grimaced slightly. “In truth, it sounds foolish when you say it so, but it does not seem so strange when I am home, that so many in Asgard feel that way. As children, we listen to the stories of our elders, and while my father and mother have always spoken of Laufey and his people with wary respect, and never demonized them, it never occurred to me to wonder why they were so careful with their words, compared to many others in the palace and outside it, warriors who remembered the war, and those who felt connected to the war through loss of kin or friends to the Jotunns. Not until far too late, to my shame, did I begin asking the right questions.”

“I can relate, there, a bit,” Tony muttered, fingers absent-mindedly tracing the edge of the arc reactor through his shirt. It wasn’t quite the same, and he had trouble accepting that as a fair comparison: not questioning an individual was one thing, not questioning the rules of one’s society was another, and beyond the inventor’s ability to fully sympathize with, but then, he’d been raised to foster those sort of sentiments, and had a deeply-ingrained streak of contrariness to bolster it along. Thor was loyal, and trusting, and no wonder Loki found him a little exasperating at times even before the shit hit the fan with Thor’s botched coronation. Tony tried to focus on the bigger picture, but needed more detail to give it texture, and depth, and make it less like a cartoon. “That doesn’t help me understand exactly why your cultures clash in the first place. It can’t all be soreness over the war bits. How far back does your knowledge of their history even go?”

Thor scratched the back of his neck and stared thoughtfully into his drink, then drained it and extended the glass again Tony’s way. The inventor took it, reaching over to a small keg next to the couch, full of a recent concoction he’d come up with specifically for the purposes of getting even the likes of Thor (and, surprisingly, Cap) drunk. It was strong, but heavy and not quite like wine, or like brandy, but somehow resembling both. It still took a few flagons to do the job, with Thor. This would be the thunderer’s second of the night so far, and he accepted it gratefully. “Jotunns themselves are a more complex people than it may seem. Or, rather, they once were, but are no longer. That story begins with the world of Jotunnheim itself; it was not always frozen and inhospitable to all but Jotunns of icy nature. It was once verdant, but stony. A harsh place, with frequent earthquakes, storms, and other disasters, as well as breathtaking cliffs, canyons, and mountain-ranges. Odin says there were rarely beaches, and more often cliffs and fjords. There were many tribes of Jotunns, whose halls were often underground and carefully constructed so as to survive earthquakes by impressive magics. Jotunn halls from that time were famously vast and yet sturdy, with many tunnels and strange doors, and caverns leading to secrets very deep below the surface. In my father’s youth, he sought wisdom from their elders, and learned much from them, in fact, for their people were older than even ours, with wisdom we could sometimes scarcely grasp, and great power. They were deeply connected to their world, the rocks be they solid or even (to some, though not all) when fiery and molten around volcanoes, or miles deeper below the crust of Jotunnheim than any who could not be their own light and heat would dare travel. The most powerful of those fire-giants, though not all of them, were the first tribe of Jotunns to seek to control all of the other tribes by force and conquest. They failed, though several of the most powerful elders from various regions lost their lives to make certain that they did, and thus the offenders were banished to Muspellheim. Those tales of fire and rebellion were mythic history to my people even before Odin’s birth, but it is the only story that old which concerns Jotunns intent upon empire.”

“Jumping around a bit on the timeline, here,” Tony muttered.

“I’m trying to recall history lessons from my childhood and adolescence. Would you fare any better, Anthony Stark?”

The inventor snorted. “Fine, go on.”

“A few mages of great power from Jotunnheim, three women powerful and ambitious, journeyed to the realm of ice, which we call Nifleheim. There is a part of Nifleheim which is its own nation, but it does not extend beyond particular borders, which have always been and may always be. It was never spoken of, scarcely known about by even the oldest mages of Jotunnheim and Odin himself, and even then only in speculation, for a very long time, but the whispers of it lingered enough to make it seem quite real to any who heard them, and all the more frightful for being nameless. Those three mages, their names lost to history (perhaps as they themselves intended), collected something there, something beautiful and elegant and terribly powerful, and they captured it within an enchanted container, a casket. The process changed their natures permanently. They looked no different at first, but could change at will almost like the fire-giants, to a form with inherent elemental abilities. Fire-giants look like molten earth brought to life in their elemental forms. Ice-giants display blue skin and bright red eyes, with symmetrical markings like traces of frost. In that form they are tougher, stronger, and wield ice like extensions of themselves, taking whatever shape they might command with their thoughts and gestures. Those first three stayed in Nifleheim, and remain there to this day, but they did not stay alone. Others joined them, for reasons of their own: novelty at first, then fascination, and perhaps love for that cold and quiet place that is forever in winter with no true day or night, only prolonged dawn and dusk in between longer stretches filled only with darkness and stars.”

“Poetic,” the inventor murmured, refilling his own drink.

Thor smiled a little. “I’m quoting someone, but we haven’t gotten to her yet.”

Tony raised an eyebrow and gestured for him to continue.

“All of the offspring of those first three shared their elemental abilities, independent of whether they shared any affinity for shape-changing or magecraft, such that it became clear those traits were dominant, and permanent. Some younger mages underwent trials and rituals which changed their natures in the same fashion, so that they could survive the cold long enough to dwell there rather than return home, if they did not wish to leave. With time, their numbers grew, those icy gifts still in the veins of each descendent generation. Some returned to Jotunnheim, but many stayed. For a very long time, there was still peace, and travel between those two realms, while difficult, was still common; Jotunns’ powerful magics eased the way, in that respect. Other races could never have made the journey, nor survived long in the cold once they arrived, without expending considerable power an energies. Even Aesir have trouble with it.” He took a long sip of his drink, and continued.

“Jotunns and Aesir, back then, did not share mutual enmity. We respected them, and were wary of them, and they considered us young and non-threatening, overall. Their culture differed from ours, in ways we found disconcerting. Not only were more of them prone to certain elemental abilities like fire, stone, and sometimes ice, which were unique to certain bloodlines throughout their various nation-states, but also a higher percentage of their population had natural gifts for magecraft, shape-shifting, dream-walking, prophetic visions. In Asgard perhaps one in ten might have any one of those gifts. At the peak of their civilization during Odin’s lifetime, two of five Jotunns would have any one of those gifts and a further one would have three or more of them. They were naturally quite powerful, but few among them had the patience and perseverance to master magecraft, though the ones who did were forces to be reckoned with.”

“Sounds familiar,” Tony mused.

“Indeed.” The god quaffed the rest of his drink.

“How unusual is someone like Loki in Asgard then? As far as power?”

“There are perhaps a dozen alive today who might be a challenge for him if set against him violently, but only two or three he would not be able to destroy if he used all of his efforts.”

“But what about them actually unnerved you culturally? The Jotunns?”

“Their greater powers were always intimidating and they were difficult for many Aesir to keep up with. So many of them having the ability to change shape at will, even if only a little, they were always very... confident and carefree about appearances?” he said delicately.

“You thought they were obscene and hedonistic?” He sounded amused.

“Some did. Mostly those who never actually ventured to their world,” Thor admitted. “They were very sensual and many of them would get into situations in their lives which the general public in Asgard, upon hearing tales of, would respond to with confusion and disgust, in no small part because the... rigidity of most of our physical forms, and our inability to change them at will instills in many a sort of loathing for the idea of their comfortable, recognizable forms being too altered. They never would have imagined being able to make such a change if they had not heard such stories, and so were offended by the idea that anyone would ever want to. Many humans seem to experience this too.”

“Body-horror? Fear of one’s body doing things you fervently do not want, becoming unrecognizable?” Tony offered.

“Yes. They would imagine themselves in that situation, without thinking, and feel distressed by it because of their own expectations. Jotunns have very different expectations, and find it perfectly natural for, say, one of their high-ranking soldiers to spend a bit of time in unusually female form, and then causally complain that he’d have chosen a slightly different shape if he’d been paying attention some nights ago, now he’d realized that he would be wearing the female form for a while longer... until giving birth later,” Thor added uneasily, his brow heavily furrowed.

Tony had been resisting the urge to ask a question on a topic related to this for a long, long time. “The... the story with... with the horse?”

Thor coughed, and it turned quickly into a startled laugh. “You all still tell that one?” He sounded both horrified and a little absurdly proud.

“Well... it’s... yeah, it’s in the mythology.”

Thor laughed again, a slightly shocked chuckle. “I made that up when we were scarcely more than boys, to embarrass him and make the mortals laugh uneasily. No wonder he never forgave me that one.”

Tony was suddenly grateful that he’d never had an older sibling. “That’s... wow. Talk about slander that sticks around.” He cleared his throat, then, because he’d gotten the gist of what made the slightly more prudish Aesir of back-in-the-olden-times-even-by-godly-standards era of this history lesson see Jotunns as mysterious and bewildering and disconcerting. And any questions he might have about Loki possibly being so casual and carefree about his shape-shifting was too likely to accidentally lead into a discussion of a green-eyed woman at a gala who wrapped a certain mad inventor around her finger with dangerous banter until Tony put all her sharp and challenging little hints together and realized he’d just spent an hour trying to seduce the god of mischief... and then maybe Tony hadn’t quite stopped flirting per se... nor had he called for backup or informed anyone else Loki was there. That incident may have led to the inventor somehow accidentally helping Loki steal something from Mephisto, which caused a series of unfortunate events leading up to the Avengers all almost getting arrested by New York police (who later revealed they’d been working off an anonymous tip that Tony was retrospectively frankly suspicious of, and impressed by) who had been there to stop a drug deal at a costume party, such that no one believed they were actually the Avengers until Bruce hulked out under the stress and the effects of some spell Mephisto had hit him with. Luckily, the chaos that followed resulted in more property damage than people-damage, but it had still been horrible, and somehow no one had quite figured out that it had been all Tony’s fault yet.

So. No letting Thor know Tony may or may not be aware that Loki can take a female form for casual mischief-making. And especially not letting Thor know how fantastic he thought Loki looked in a skimpy green dress. Because... because of Mephisto. Right. No other reason.

After throat-clearing, Tony offered, “So, the icy guys…”

Thor nodded, picking up his story again: “Jotunns were never exactly organized, their world divided into numerous factions, with wide regions in between that gave fealty to no one, in some cases because they were the territories of singular old mages, older than Odin and wilier and more strange than even he could have challenged, but as they aged they had a tendency to settle into the stones they lived in, their thoughts so vast that they could scarcely contain them, and they would be caught between existence and a state not quite like death, but far deeper than sleeping. Some were swallowed by the world beneath their feet, haunting it, imbuing it with power and memories. Younger mages could hardly compete, and thirsted for new places, unclaimed by all those to came before them. Naturally, many drifted to Nifleheim, and cities began to grow up out of the ice. Cities full of ambition, hunger and restlessness. The oldest still exists, lost in mountains closer to the death-claimed other kingdom that also resides there than the others ever dared; it is a city we knew of only in whispers for millennia, ruled by the three Jotunn women who had first embraced the ice. There grew up two others equal in size but of less quietly contemplative and eerily stoic temperaments, according to the stories. The old city was quiet, and powerful, and calm in ways that travelers who returned spoke of it tentatively, only saying that the people there were too still, and stared too long into silence. The other cities were founded by younger mages, who could not be still if they tried, and they soon grew more populous and powerful than anyone might have expected, in a fairly short period of time. They warred against each other, and one city conquered the other, and the leader of the conquerors declared himself a king.”

“That’d be Laufey?”

“Father of Laufey.”

Tony made a thoughtful noise.

“One day, he walked into the city where the casket was kept, summoned by the three Jotunn women who had been the first Jötnar of that world. It was suggested that they would judge whether he might be worthy to be any sort of king. All we know of what happened then are rumors and suspicions. He entered alone, but did not leave alone. His companion was never named, nor was it ever clear whether they lingered, or returned later to the city. All that we know for certain is that the king was gone for several nights, and emerged carrying the weapon we call the Casket of Ancient Winters.”

“I’d wondered about that. What is it?”

“It is a power source. Earliest tales suggested that it had ‘the power of a thousand killing winters’, but it is not so limited as that. If it has limitations to its power, they have yet to be discovered.” Thor handed the inventor his empty flagon. “History tells us that its wielders have always stopped before it has, and it loses no potency with age.”

Again, Tony refilled it, and handed it back silently.

The god murmured thanks, but did not sip again immediately. “Like the tesseract requiring the knowledge to puzzle out how to harness its power, there is a catch. One must have ice in their nature to channel the power of the casket, but those who do can treat it as a source of raw energy, channeled through their will as a mage might their gift, but never tiring, never waning. To them, it was as valuable and destructive as the tesseract could be in certain hands. It is unclear why the King was given it, or even if he tricked its owners, or took it by force, or even if he took it and they simply did not stop him; although the latter version is actually the most well-known, oddly. There was tension and unrest after it came into their hands. No one knew what it meant, what it was supposed to be used for. The King decided that it should be used for a great cleansing, a great rebirth of all Jotunns.” Thor swallowed tightly.

“They used it to return to Jotunnheim, and not alone. They brought with them both cities, and vast glaciers that left behind a crater on Nifleheim almost the size of all of Asgard, and covered nearly a third of Jotunheim in a layer of ice fit to half-bury even the tallest mountain ranges under its shadow once it fell, while the rest of the world was struck with a sudden freezing wind, followed by blizzards colder than any they had ever known before. The Jotunns of Nifleheim thus froze their old world over. Old magics in the stones, old claims and millennia of history and knowledge and power, were lost beneath ice and snow. Some of their old kin escaped outright, but most sought safety where they always had: within stone halls below their world’s surface. The glaciers crushed some of the oldest and most powerful kingdoms entirely merely by landing their own cities right atop them and destroying all but the deepest places, whose fates even now remain unknown. The resulting flood of less cold-blooded refugees scattered across the rest of the realms, living at the edges of our cities, in mountains where they could be found. There was not room in Asgard for many for we have not a whole planet any longer, but a few do dwell there, respected elders and friends of my father. One was Loki’s first tutor in some forms of magic.” He took a shuddering breath. “The fate of Jotunnheim... it was truly an atrocity.”

“Sounds it,” Tony murmured, wondering curiously about the ‘have not a whole planet any longer’ bit but deciding to save that for another occasion. “What about the ones who didn’t go? The icy ones who didn’t.”

“We knew little of them until Hel, barely out of girlhood, met Mistress Death, and spoke to her. To this day, I do not know if she was chosen long before her birth, or if she merely impressed that being the moment that they met. I asked her, but she said it did not matter, and would make no difference to her, be her nature inborn or fate-twisted, for she loves it either way.”

“Hel. Loki really has a daughter?”

Thor nodded, smiling with a hint of pride. “No sons, but yes, one daughter. She is queen of Helheim. When she took her place there, she brought the place its true name. It sent ripples back through the nine realms, such that I find it strange just how long the name of Helheim goes back in human history, in your older stories. Older than Hel herself. Sometimes, your mortals are far more unnerving than you know.”

Tony wasn’t sure what to think of that. “She, uh, visited that city, then.”

Thor nodded. “They invited her, not long after her arrival, and she meets with them on a diplomatic basis every century or so, unless some pressing matters arise which they might aid her with. If she knows the names of the three, or their city, she has chosen not to share that knowledge with us; possibly they have asked her not to. They respect her a great deal, as it seems they have their own ways, different from any other sorts of Jotunns, and indeed any other races in the nine realms. She says that conversing with them is like staring down eagles, for there is that edge of something other to them: unnatural stillness, eyes that rarely blink, stoic and almost callous where most other Jotunns would tend to be emotional, animated and expressive. She says they are awaiting the return of their casket, and seem very certain it will make its way back to them, given time.”

“They do sound a bit creepy,” Tony mused.

“Perhaps. They are somber, contemplative, and very peaceful. They have no anger; only deadly patience, vast power, and vast sight. They differ immensely from those conquerors who left Nifleheim behind.”

“Yeah, I can see how epic genocide and imperialism by those ones obviously earned the rest of their lot a bad reputation from the start.”

“Indeed. The rest of the realms were shocked and horrified. They demanded retribution, and called for war, fearing for their very lives. By then, Odin had come into his throne, the wanderer-king now rooted to his duties by the powers of the Odinforce preserving all of Asgard, which channels and bolsters life and light throughout every gnarled twist of Yggdrasil, touching all nine realms and keeping the tree alive. It is a delicate balance, and the freezing of Jotunnheim was felt by us all. For years, winters in all the realms would bite more sharply, more deadly, than before. It took time for my father to recover enough to join the diplomatic clamor of leaders from all the realms, but he did meet with them before any war-like action burst forth. Forces from outside the nine realms, too, lent their support. You might consider them other pantheons. A few of them, Odin, and representatives of Dvergarnheim and Alfheim’s mightiest kingdoms, arrived within the heart of the larger city, and met the king.”

“Does he not have a name?” Tony asked.

“Not after that. Like the tesseract, the power of the casket he wielded changes the user, in mind, body and soul. It is best, if creatures even the likes of Jotunns wish to perform such massive tasks as the one he undertook, to not wield that power alone, but instead share it, and spread the burden until the task can be done without… loss.” He cleared his throat. “The King lost his name, and many of his memories. It’s said that he was not the tallest of the Jotunns, but he was closer after that journey to rivaling them in height than he had been before it, and his flesh was not dark blue, as most all his kindred. His skin had paled, in some places more than others, until they resembled nothing less than cracks in the heart of a glacier. His eyes were a pure white, no pupils left; although he was not blind. Some of his mages around him, who had shared as much of the burden as he had allowed them, were similarly touched, but not nearly so much as the King. The mages all seemed dazed, as though unsure they were dreaming or awake, but the King was very, very aware. He had spared the mages, because his own children stood too close to them, would have been caught up in the powers if any one of his mages faltered in the least, and Odin knew it, had been told by his ravens. The price for sparing the rest of his people punishment for the horror committed, they decided, would be the king, should he choose to accept those terms. He did, which sparked Laufey’s undying enmity toward Odin and Asgard, for the All-Father, gallows-god, was the King’s executioner; although it is still not known precisely when the King lost too much of himself to be considered whole in mind and soul. When he died, he was as an empty shell, according to all accounts save those of his people, who believed him more great than wholly terrible, for their love of him as he had been before the freezing of that world. Odin once told Loki and I, when we were not quite grown, that it was possible the King seized more power than he could control for his task, that it burned through him before he had finished outlining the boundary of what he did, and did not, wish to bring with him. If he lost control then, the power would have extended as far as his mind could reach and encompass, and brought all, rather than merely some, of his world and his people.”

“A tragic accident, rather than a pre-meditated genocidal horror?” Tony suggested.

“Perhaps. We will never know for certain.”

“Most assume the worst, I’m guessing? Since rash cynicism tends to leave more survivors than rash optimism, if it’s kept mostly-rational,” the inventor mused. “Or at least can pass for rational at first and second-glance.”

Thor chuckled bitterly. “I swear, my brother has said to me almost that very thing.”

“You needed reminding frequently?”

“Just so.” His smile softened. “He pulled me down to earth, saved me from my own impulsivity so many times that I lost count before I even had beard worth shaving. Of us both, he was always the one of sense.” His expression cracked into something colder, and not a little hurt. “I cannot imagine what he must have gone through, in his heart and mind after my banishment and then when he fell. I feel as though I no longer know him, and he would rather die fighting me than allow me to know him as he is now.”

“Well, I can’t say I’m unfamiliar with that feeling,” the inventor sighed.

“What did you do?”

Tony’s jaw clenched. “Well, I was brilliant, I’ve always been brilliant, but also a complete fucking idiot and even more of an asshole than I am now.”

“That is possible?” Thor asked dryly.

The inventor snorted. Every now and then, the god of thunder showed a talent for deadpan absurdity that was ridiculously endearing. “Oh, blondie, you ain’t seen nothin’.”

“I’ve seen my brother attempt genocide.”

“Conceded. I meant from me, though.”

“That may be true. You do not hesitate to compare yourself to him, I notice.”

“If I tried to suggest he and I didn’t think a little bit alike, it would be an utter lie, and not even a good one,” Tony muttered. “There’s a reason I knew where’d he’d be staging the invasion drama.”

“Steve told me, yes,” the god mused. “I admit that I laughed.”

“And I’ll admit that I wish Steve learned about camera phones earlier and had the foresight to get a picture of the look on my face; I’m sure it was priceless.”

Thor laughed loud and genuine at that.

Tony elbowed him. “C’mon, it’s not that funny.”

“I beg to differ,” he shot back.

“Well, that’s because I’m brilliant at comedy, just like everything else.”

The thunderer shook his blond head with a snort. “Your wit is impressive, but I have seen better.”

Tony frowned. “If you claim it’s from that ridiculous friend of yours with the blond goatee, so help me, Thor-“

“I would never,” Thor assured, with laughter in his voice. “I would love to see you battle wits with my brother as well as weaponry someday, let us say. Without the solemn weight of worlds and deaths hanging in the balance while you trade words, for once.”

“You know, so would I.”

The god raised an eyebrow.

Tony raised one back.

“You truly mean that.”

“Well, yeah. I don’t meet many people I have to pull out all the stops to keep up with.”

“Nor does he.”

“Seriously? It’s a big universe, and he can go damn well anywhere.”

“He has had time for that. Possibly too much of it. Before… before recent events, I could tell he was feeling constrained, perhaps even listless, impatient for something capable of surprising him. He is now no longer bound to Asgard, or to upholding even the pretense of honor sufficient to keep in familial good graces any longer, so perhaps he can wander further than before, but not by much. He knows his limitations, much though he has always arrogantly resented every one of them.” He shot the mortal inventor a knowing look.

Tony coughed. “Nah, dunno what you mean.” He fluttered his eyelashes for emphasis.

Thor merely shook his head. “Of course not. You are always so comfortable never exceeding the limits that you were born into, or that others would wish to force upon you.”

Tony snorted. “Alright, fine, yeah I can’t even pretend to agree with that.”

“I am not surprised.” He looked thoughtful for a long moment. “Given you share occasional turn of thought with him, and understand his—resentment of me far better than I do, I would ask your opinion of my brother.”

“I have many opinions about Loki,” Tony offered dryly. “Where do we start?”

“Do you think that he will ever cease hating me? How did you come to terms with your own experiences in that regard?”

The mortal grimaced bleakly. “I... my example is different. He––he died. And years later his business partner tried to hire people to assassinate me, I was tortured, I nearly died a few times, I killed that same business partner who had been my friend, but also like my uncle or a step-dad, or something equally Shakespearean that made his betrayal almost poetic and yet fucking horrible at the same time.” Tony rubbed a hand over his face and then dropped it almost listlessly, just for a moment, before he took a deep breath, and went back to rambling and wild gesticulation: “And then he accidentally saved my life when the earlier models of this thing-“ He tapped the arc reactor. “-had a little side-effect of almost poisoning me to death. And somewhere in there was a message he recorded for me when I was six, to be given to me later, where he called me his greatest creation, five minutes of footage after he scolded my six-year-old self on the set of some futurist optimism and advertising, among other outtakes. And he meant it, when I was six, and I admire his work, and he was a great man and all, but—damn, no wonder I’m such an asshole, because he spent years making me feel inadequate and like a disappointment the moment I became a teenager. And you know, I can’t even begrudge him that, because it was tangled up with me being an ass and him being an ass in similar ways and he couldn’t teach himself how to avoid it let alone me, and now I’m too narcissistic to regret who and what I’ve become, and he was a huge part of that, for better or worse.” He sighed heavily. “Look, I don’t know how this could apply to you. You two are going to live for who the hell knows how long until some kind of apocalyptic final event long after the rest of us are dust. You have time to learn and grow and change. He has time to get his head out of his ass, or mellow out, or learn to see you differently as time and new experiences shape you into someone he’s either comfortable with again, or can surprise him more than he realizes enough that he’s forced to re-examine and re-categorize you and how you might fit into his life. Unless he’s actually kicking off the apocalypse early, which I honestly wouldn’t put past him, except that he seems more content to dick about with creation rather than outright destroy all of it for the most part, that’s just how I think things would have to play out.”

Thor nodded, contemplative. His face was only a little flushed but he looked very relaxed, thanks to the alcohol and its unique chemical add-ons. His eyes were perhaps a little glassy. “Mayhap so. I hope so.”

“Me too, for what it’s worth.” He nudged the god’s arm with his shoulder, and marveled a bit that Thor was tipsy enough to sway a little with it before nudging him back.

“I thank you.”

“Anytime.”

“Why, Anthony, have you requested to learn of all these things?” Thor asked suddenly, his brow furrowing a little, and his words only a little slurred. “They must mean little to you. Our culture is so distant, has relatively little effect on your life and the lives of most on your planet who may never come into contact with the likes of myself or my kin, aside from what destruction we might wreak that inconveniences so many.”

“Because the best way to understand some things, is to have to explain them to someone else, and you were having trouble understanding why looking at you, and hearing you speak positively of Asgardian honor, and Odin, and Odin’s honor, causes Loki pain and causes him to lash out with all of his strength to make you stop doing that,” Anthony said quietly, and finished his own drink in one sip, casually ignoring the slightly stunned stare Thor shot his way. At least for the first minute. Then he gave in and shot him a look along the lines of are you really surprised? "It’s not that I’m not also curious, but I rarely do things to suit only one purpose.”

Thor leaned back on the couch, staring hard up at the ceiling for a moment. “I feel I have not yet grasped your lesson, Anthony.”

Tony heard a soft noise behind him and tilted his head a little, doing a quick process of elimination to figure out who it was and how it might affect the maintenance he was trying to work on Thor’s psyche: not Natasha, she was out of commission, nor Clint because he could be damn silent as a ninja too and liked to sneak up on Tony, and not Cap because he would be louder so they’d be less likely to utter anything they didn’t want him to overhear, and not Bruce, because he had passed out into one of his post-Hulk-out naps after fixing up everyone’s injuries, which generally put him out of commission for another 12 hours, or until Tony used some very subtle not-out-of-place-but-a-little-too-loud sounds played by JARVIS to stir him after the sun came up. That narrowed down the list considerably, and the inventor had to admit he was impressed Loki had managed to recover so quickly, all things considered. Then he heard the sound of two glasses being gently placed on the bar behind himself and Thor, very softly, but deliberately-not-wholly-silent too. The thunderer was lost in thought, and drunk enough not to quite register such subtleties.

Two glasses. Now that was odd. Not only Loki, but someone else, playing along but intent to remain more perfectly silent, or maybe it’s out of habit...

An accomplice would go a ways to explain how Loki might have come to recover earlier than anyone had estimated.Whoever it was, they were willing to go with the flow, it seemed. Well, how ‘bout that. The inventor decided to play it by ear.

“You’re getting there,” he assured Thor. “Remember when we got into that argument about magic with Strange over chaotic forces and probability wave-forms?”

“Vaguely?”

“You explained the importance of will, in use like a lever, or the bow of a stringed instrument,” Tony said slowly. “I made a dick joke about a lever of sufficient length that you didn’t get, so I explained about Archimedes’ quote ‘Give me a lever of sufficient length and a place to stand and I shall lift the Earth into heaven.’” The inventor mimed pulling a lever toward himself and continued when the god nodded, remembrance in his expression, “Then you told me that the immovable place to stand in that case would be self-knowledge. Identity and purpose and confidence. It’s knowing ‘who you are and why you are here’ you said.”

“Right,” Thor agreed, still not quite getting it.

“It’s a big important thing for mages, you said. Pretty much the core of their magic and the foundation they build themselves upon as they develop their power and gain new experiences and memories, arranging them to further shape themselves––who they are––and their purposes––why they are here––with every bit of magic they use. Right?”

“You were actually listening.”

“I’m always listening. If it seems otherwise, it’s because I want you to remember me seeming like maybe I wasn’t,” Tony said, and hesitated. So he wasn’t exactly stone-cold sober himself, apparently. “Forget I said that. Anyway, the will thing-” He could almost feel the steadily increasing tension in the air behind them, and someone sending a stern, fiercely focused stare his way. He carefully ignored the way it made the back of his neck itch and heat.

“Sense of self, yes,” Thor muttered, starting to raise his flagon to his lips again.

Tony gently halted him.

The thunderer shot him a slightly annoyed look.

The inventor rolled his eyes. “Is it really this hard for you to fathom what it’s like for everything you do to never be enough for someone you admire?”

Thor’s annoyance faded entirely into pain. “No. It is not.”

“I think it really is, because you don’t realize how weak that example is, and how hypocritical it is for you to use it. You really don’t know the half of it. You had one person you could never impress. One. And it was because he was better than you at a bunch of things you found impressive, and smart enough to keep you feeling the illusion of something like humbleness. Even while you might have agonized about how infrequently you felt like you impressed him, he still loved you the whole time, loyal and saving your ass from your own impulses and dragging you into the land of ‘hard lessons in how the world works that only have to be explained to optimists’ and yes, that made you feel a little bit inferior, but everyone else around you approved of you most of the time. They met your deeds with smiles, with congratulations, with celebration even. Imagine that not only one person, or even just your family, were looking at you with disappointment or disapproval, but all of them were. Almost everyone. You would do amazing things, you would save the day, you would have dragged the person most important to you out of mortal danger and you... were dismissed.”

“How could they-” Thor started.

“THINK of all that you just told me,” Tony snapped. “Think on it. Every quality that made Aesir uneasy about Jotunns, that you couldn’t quite grasp but that you just explained to me as visceral, instinctive and unthinking disapproval of something too smart, too improper, too unusual and powerful for so many Aesir to trust or understand.”

Thor’s expression began to change, slowly. Anger, first, then pain, and then loss. “I...”

“And then, after resisting so many attempts, small and large, to encourage self-doubt, the identity that’s survived and laughed in the faces of the foolish, gets tripped up by means of ‘you were adopted’ and ‘you’re actually Jotunn’ both. And suddenly it’s understood why all that’s good  in you is a reflection of a wrong you never dreamed could be actually applied to you, that you too had for a long time indulged in holding an unquestioning spite for even as you might have had more in common with them in temperament and feeling than most Aesir would ever understand.” Tony raised both hands. “Then remember how much you have loved, and still love all those wrongs all the same, because they really aren’t wrong, and you’ve always known that. Now the game is rigged permanently, so long as you are what you’ve always been, and the context change, the ‘why’ suddenly twisting into something foreign and painful, must’ve been quite a shock, if what you told me about that anchorage was true.”

The blond god swallowed thickly, shutting his eyes tight. “Please stop.”

“Okay.” Tony gave him a few moments to get his breath back. “Think on it.” He took his hand off the thunderer’s wrist and tapped the flagon lightly. “And quaff away.”

Gratefully, Thor drained it, and set it on the table. He leaned forward with his face in his hands. “How could I have never seen this?”

“How did you phrase it, Stark?” asked a calm, mellifluous and dark voice from over their shoulders, that caused Thor’s shoulders to jerk in something like panic, possibly acute embarrassment, but mostly shock. “Something about ‘hard lessons in how the world works that only have to be explained to optimists’, I believe. My compliments, that’s quite good.”

Not even a little surprised, Tony looked over his shoulder and found Loki looking pale and haggard, but upright, and not in armor: merely a soft green shirt of Aesir style, the threads below the collar left to hang loose across the pale skin just below his clavicles, and soft riding trousers in non-glossy black leather. Beside him stood, unmistakably, a queen. She was only a little shorter than her father, with her left half had dark hair, skin of blue so dark it was nearly black, swirled with lighter markings more intricate and fine than her father’s Jotunn ones, and a silver-on-black eye. Her right side was pale, with red-gold hair, and an eye green fit to match her father’s. Her smile had the same wicked curve, too.

“Oh,” Tony said softly. “You healed him then, I take it?”

“He requested I come, after the Mad Titan was dealt with, to recover him, in exchange for a gift that I have longed to return to my neighbors for quite some time. They’ve been waiting for it,” Hel said. “You are Tony Stark?”

“Yes...” Before the inventor could say more, he was cut off.

“Stop cowering, Thor. Hel is here,” Loki drawled.

Instantly, Thor was on his feet and facing them, though his expression was caught between shame, confusion, and faint horror until he set eyes on his niece and she stepped towards him with a soft smile. “Uncle.”

Tony, moving to his feet a bit more slowly, since he was highly aware that everyone else in the room was highly emotional and dangerous, swore it only took the blink of an eye before Thor had Hel in an enthusiastic embrace, spinning her slightly so that she––dignified, queenly, in stately armor all black and emperor-violet with gunmetal accents and guards––giggled with child-like abandon.

It was a little surreal. The inventor spared a sidelong glance at Loki, whose expression was at best calm-ish, but Tony caught a hint of a wistful, very reluctant half-smile before the trickster’s eyes met his and all trace of amusement vanished in favor of predatory contemplativeness, with a touch of hunger and challenge. If not for the fierce curiosity that shadowed it, the expression might have bordered on incredulous.

Tony held his stare without hesitation, tilting his head back just a little. What do you plan to do about it?

They both looked away when Thor at last set Hel down, beaming at her full of love and pride so sweet and generous that Tony Stark would blame any new cavities discovered at his next dental appointment to be all Thor’s fault.

“You look well,” the thunder god said.

“You look troubled,” Hel returned, but her voice and expression remained light.

Thor lowered his head. “I have much to consider.”

Hel touched his face. “You do,” she stage-whispered, knowing and with only the smallest hint of faint exasperation.

Suddenly, Thor looked stricken again, staring at her in sudden realization that she, too, had learned about these matters as Loki had: first-hand.

She patted his cheek. “I love you, uncle, but it really has taken you a while.”

“You might have told me,” he said, his voice disconcertingly small for such a large man.

“It shouldn’t be my duty to teach you how to see. I had always been made to learn how others see every little thing, because straying outside their expectations too far would drive people away from me still further than they already kept themselves out of baseless fear. When I gave up on that, it was liberating, but you were there, and with me as we watched it break Sigyn’s heart. Yet you did not think to ask the right questions about why, and how.” Her brow furrowed. “I could no more teach you how to see what I see anymore so than you could explain to me, now that you begin to understand what has been missing, why you never questioned more. I never will understand your faith in others, because had I ever shown such blind trust to everyone I met, I would not have survived for long.”

Thor’s eyes fell shut as she pulled his head down a little to press a kiss to his forehead.

“Rest, Thor,” she said softly. “You can speak with my father tomorrow.” She shot the trickster in question a look of surprisingly bleak humor that did not quite match the gentleness of her words.

Suddenly, Tony saw the resemblance very, very clearly.

“He will be here,” Hel assured.

“But I-” Thor began.

She gestured and he vanished, leaving behind a few trails of thin purple smoke.

Tony blinked a bit at that, and how certain he suddenly felt that Thor would probably stay in his room until morning no matter what he might actually want, because Hel put him there, and clearly had him wrapped around her little finger like any clever favorite niece with such an uncle as Thor, who would not-so-secretly crumble under the mere threat of her disapproval or disappointment.

Hel then turned towards him with a charming smile, rather sweeter and somehow even more dangerous than her father’s because the sharpness was a little easier to miss if one wasn’t looking for it, and she proffered a hand as she stepped close enough to reach him. “I am Hel Lokisdottir, queen of Helheim, and it is a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Stark.”

He took her hand with a wary half-smile, feeling uncommonly out of his depth. “I’m honored,” he said, and was a little surprised at how much he meant it.

Her smile relaxed a little, turning into a smirk that seemed somehow more sincere. “You are surprisingly insightful, for a mortal.”

“I’ve had friends to keep me grounded that I value more than my life most days, but not everyone sees them the way I do. I don’t like that,” he offered, as she released his hand.

“Yes, and Thor had a brother of a similar sort, and much more time to notice,” Hel said quietly, just low enough her father would not hear.

“I’m impatient, and they destroy too much of my property over this shit.”

She offered him a nod of approval, her eyes bright with laughter as she clearly saw right through his joking deflection. Hel then then turned her gaze back toward her father, as did Tony, who twitched only slightly to find the trickster standing only a couple feet away despite having made no sound, and it was enough to make Loki smirk at him a little before returning his daughter’s stare.

“You,” she said, “are lucky.”

“Am I?” Loki asked.

Hel nodded solemnly. “You are. You somehow stumbled across a creature who could tell Thor all the things your own pride and fury would never let you put into words. Has he borrowed your silver tongue, father?”

“To be fair, he was getting equal return from mine at the time,” Tony said, before he could stop himself, because once-in-a-life-time opportunity. And because that had been the only part of that ridiculous Mephisto incident that he remembered really, really fondly.

Loki shot him a glare and Hel looked wickedly amused.

“Oh really?” she asked.

“You are lucky I let you keep yours rather than removing it,” Loki growled.

“I think of that particular mercy as a sort of investment, in your secret hope of future returns."

“You flatter yourself,” the trickster deadpanned.

“I do a lot more than that to myself. Care to watch?”

Hel stifled a laugh, and was completely unaffected by her father’s disapproving glare. “I approve of your taste for once.”

Loki’s eyes momentarily widened a bit, shock and horror fleetingly displayed before he regained control of his expression, and Tony laughed, which set off Hel as well, leaving the trickster to roll his eyes at them both and sip from his pilfered drink. It occurred to Tony to ask what he’d gotten from the cabinets, but he decided against it before his brain could start theorizing what one of his favorite drinks might taste like on the trickster’s tongue.

Thankfully, Hel interrupted that train of thought, reaching out to rest her darker hand on Loki’s arm. “Be well, father. You have further recovery I cannot aid you with.”

Loki drew her into an embrace, calmly ignoring Tony’s presence as he smiled into her hair, soft and sincere in a way the inventor should not have found so compelling. “I would not keep you from your duties by so draining you.”

“I wouldn’t let you.”

“Good,” Loki said softly, pressing his forehead to hers. “I trust few things more than when I have your support, as you know.”

She smirked, wickedly and whispered in his ear, out of the inventor’s hearing, “If you expect me to retract it, you may be sorely disappointed.” She then laughed at him as she pulled away, though her hands lingered on his shoulders a bit before she stepped back. Fixing her gaze for a moment on Tony, she nodded a regal farewell to him, still smirking a little, before looking again at her father. “Be well,” she repeated, softer.

“Safe travels, as always,” he returned.

Hel then vanished quietly. A brief pause followed.

Tony exhaled a long breath. “This has been the longest week of my life ever spent mostly above-ground, thanks to you,” he said to Loki sharply.

The trickster offered one of his more familiar, sharp and threatening smiles.

“And it’s apparently also thanks to you that my team, and I, are all alive. What the fuck is up with that?”

A careless shrug. “It was hardly out of moral concerns. It profited me more this way.”

“Yeah, I didn’t see this coming, I’ll give you that. The folks back home, though?”

“You actually interfered with my plans, there. I was expecting Thor to give one of his usual simple, straight-forward speeches in my defense, insisting that I am not a lost cause,” Loki admitted. “Now, he will not have certainty enough for that. You went and filled him with inconveniently-timed self-doubt.”

“I wonder what sort of speech that might result in.”

The god considered, his brow furrowing. “One I have never seen and cannot predict,” he said slowly, thoughtful and wary. There was curiosity, but it was reluctant, as he finished the last of his drink. He then turned his attention sharply back to the mortal inventor. “You surprise me.”

“I got that impression.”

Loki set his glass down on a nearby side-table. “Few are capable of that.”

Tony sensed the change in the god’s focus and intent like a crackle of something electric in the air between them, and offered a wolfish grin. “You’re a challenge. I like that more than is ever convenient.”

The trickster stepped closer, invading his personal space, now. “I haven’t found anyone challenging to me in a long time, Tony Stark.”

“Oh, come on. You met me over a year ago now.”

Loki tilted his head a little. “Did I?” He trailed long fingers up the inventor’s arm. “You had not challenged me yet, then.”

“So when did you notice?”

“Nice to meet you, Tony Stark,” Loki purred. “I want to fuck you now.”

The shudder that ran down his spine at the unexpected, simple and direct request set Tony’s heart pounding behind the arc reactor. It was heady: the sudden intensity of the trickster’s stare and the feel of one long, pale hand settling on his hip.

“Don’t tell me you’re at a loss for words already.”

“Savoring the moment you’re focused entirely on the desires of one mere mortal.”

Loki chuckled, low and thoughtful, pulling him in still closer. “If you were ‘merely’ anything, I would not be interested.”

“Stroking my ego?”

“I’ll stroke more than that.”

“You’d fucking better,” Tony growled and gripped the back of his neck with one hand, tugging him down until their lips almost met. “About magic...”

“You won’t have mortal limits tonight.”

Tony made an low and wordless little sound of approval, because fuck if that wasn’t the hottest possible response. He made another, deeper and hungrier sound as Loki licked a stripe along the underside of his jaw, almost up to his ear.

“So you’re not inclined to suffer crisis of conscience?” the trickster mused, lips still brushing his skin.

“What’s a conscience again?” Tony asked lightly.

Loki laughed, low and hungry, and captured the inventor’s clever mouth with is own, lips curved with a smirk at first, before they parted and his tongue slid into Tony’s mouth, smooth and domineering and eminently persuasive. Pressing up into the contact until their bodies were flush against each other from sternum to hips, Tony gave a pleased, amused hum into the kiss, giving as good as he got, hips only jerking a little when Loki’s free hand cupped his ass with a possessive squeeze. In retaliation Tony tugged the trickster’s shirt untucked and slid greedy fingers under it, curious and thorough as he started mapping the bare skin beneath it.

Eventually they swayed a little toward the couch in a half-aware fashion, maintaining uprightness suddenly careening away from the top of their list of priorities. Eventually the inventor broke away long enough to pant, “Not averse to being bent over the back of that couch, but if you want me horizontal, I’d recommend a bed.”

The trickster licked at his mouth hotly, even as he gave an airily thoughtful hum, which should not have been so damned attractive. “I would prefer to remain uninterrupted for a very long while.”

“We both know you’re not teleporting this soon, then, c’mere,” Tony growled, tugging at him while taking a step back, grinning when Loki played along, let the inventor––walking backwards to the doors of the nearest elevator––all but drag him, all the while playfully keeping them close enough to make the journey ungraceful, to their mutual amusement and occasional breathlessness at unexpected clumsy friction. They got momentarily distracted again when the trickster pressed Tony’s back against the elevator doors and caught his mouth again, hotter and with a hint of teeth this time, rolling their hips together hard enough to make them both gasp.

Tony reached out for the “up” button clumsily, and huffed a laugh when they half-fell through the parting elevator doors, then tripped up the god’s long legs in a calculated fashion, moving into Loki’s attempt to compensate for the sudden movement, pivoting them sharply while leaning into his advantage so that Loki’s back hit the left wall of the elevator with a thunk. The slightly breathless noise and then low chuckle from the trickster made Tony grin all the wider as he said, “JARVIS, take us to the penthouse suite.”

Loki’s eyes were bright and wicked as the mortal held him in place and took in his dishevelment with apparent satisfaction. “Reinforced your windows, I presume?”

“Yeah. And they should be free of Thanos-puree now, too.”

The god’s expression took on a fiercer, slightly more malicious shade of satisfaction, at that. He then rocked his hips forward against Tony’s, using the wall at his back as leverage, and insinuated one leg between the inventor’s as he did. The resulting pressure and friction, as well as that expression, earned a slightly breathless growl from the mad mortal. “I did promise him that I would paint an ode to his foolish pride and ultimate failure out of his own flesh and blood,” Loki purred, soft and velvety-malevolent.

That should not, Tony knew, be such an incredible turn-on, but it was. “It was an impressive display, but a bit abstract.”

“Would you prefer it be in the shape of my name, the next time, as your own works of war wear yours?” His breath stirred the air near the inventor’s ear, now slightly cool despite the warmth of the god’s skin in contrast. His voice was a slightly rough whisper. “Or perhaps I could paint your name with it, with my own hands. What might you think of that?”

“Of a shared enemy?” Tony managed, starting to shiver as his hands, still under the trickster’s shirt, moved down Loki’s back and then further down still, to get a feel of the Loki’s ass, which was firm and damned distracting and not helping him keep a clear head at all.

“Of course. It would be a selfish sort of gift otherwise.”

And that––the idea of Loki utterly obliterating someone like he had Thanos, and doing––of all things... So maybe Tony had a thing about his name being on what’s his, but this was a whole other level that should be horrible and awful and––of course Loki would know this would have a twisted appeal to him when Tony wouldn’t have dreamed of it in a thousand years, left to his own devices. “That––you actually would, wouldn’t you?” he rasped, a little stunned, a lot disturbed, but even more aroused than anything else. 

The trickster god smiled wide and white and thrillingly broken. “I would love to see you try to cope with it. Try to explain to your fellows to their satisfaction while warring with thoughts of how you might repay me.” Loki slid one hand between them, stroking the inventor’s now achingly hard cock through the denim straining to contain it.

Tony made an utterly inarticulate sound because holy shit. He barely even noticed the elevator doors sliding open until Loki’s entire body pushed forward from the wall, and he gripped just Tony’s outer thighs with both hands to lift him, making an utterly sinful noise from low in his chest as the inventor followed his lead, instinctively wrapping both legs around him for support. “I think that I’m going to enjoy puzzling you out, Tony.”

“It’s a two-way street,” the mortal panted against his lips. “I’m further into your head than you think, already.”

“Are you?” Loki mused, strolling out of the elevator as easily as he would have unencumbered by carrying anything at all.

“More than you want to paint my name in blood from the broken remains of an enemy, and watch me cope in the aftermath under the stares of my friends, you’d want me painted with it too from the same battle, along with fighting sweat, and for me to use it to paint your name on my skin,” Tony growled. “You’d want to know your claim was returned, and you’d want to taste it on me.”

The trickster shuddered, hands sliding up a bit, gripping hard and pulling the inventor flush against him fast enough to nearly unbalance them as he greedily conquered Tony’s mouth, this time with an increase in ravenous desperation and only a little less calculated finesse. Tony groaned into it, increasingly short of breath and wholly unable to remember why oxygen could ever be more important than this: heat and hunger and cleverness and just––messy and harsh and he could taste a hint of blood mingling on their tongues now, and didn’t even care whose it was, just sucked hard on Loki’s tongue until he pulled a low moan, loud and long, as pretty and mellifluous as his words, from deep in Loki’s chest.

Tony was caught entirely unawares by the world tilting around them and the sudden thump of bedding against his back, and jerked slightly at the impact with a gasp that made the trickster bite at his lower lip, not-quite-gently but gentler than before; yet, it was still enough to tug at the small cut there Tony had forgotten all about since the battle the day before, until all the furious kissing re-opened it. Loki pulled back slowly, teeth dragging on the inventor’s lip, his tongue catching another tiny trace of blood before he let the reddened flesh slip free. His eyes were mostly pupil as he took in the sight Tony made sprawled under him on the bed, both of them breathing hard, lips parted.

“Clothing,” the inventor growled. “Should be gone.”

“Agreed,” the trickster replied, letting the clever engineer’s hands creeping up his sides push his own shirt up and over his head until he could comfortably toss it aside.

“Goddamn,” Tony muttered, unable to prevent his hands running up Loki’s taut stomach, and chest to those collarbones that should have looked delicate, but the inventor knew better, could feel coiling strength in the muscles shifting under all that smooth skin. “You are just unfairly fucking beautiful.”

“Speaking of,” the god began, pausing to rip Tony’s grey t-shirt off him with both hands in one sharp gesture that had the inventor making a helplessly aroused noise before he could even think about how undignified it sounded. Loki grinding down against him as a result successfully prolonged its duration and almost––almost made an international playboy blush. The god then shot an amused glance upward because Tony Stark was shameless and a bit narcissistic and of course the ceiling above his penthouse bed had a very large and elegant mirror installed on it. Returning his gaze to meet the inventor’s, Loki let one finger circle the arc reactor, then trail down the middle of his chest to unbutton his jeans. “How would you like to see yourself fucked first, Tony?” he asked, as he slowly pulled Tony’s zipper down.

First Tony thinks, You’re really going to wreck me. Then his lips curve up, fierce arrogance and hunger in his look. But going down, you better believe I’m taking you with me. He sat up slowly, a hand guiding Loki back. “I’ve an idea.”

The trickster let him up easily, and gestured expansively at the bed just before he tugged Tony’s jeans and boxers down and away with him as he rose to his feet, letting the cloth drop to the floor once removed.

Still smirking, Tony lingered just a moment to let Loki take in the view, and really appreciate it, then pulled himself upright, getting his knees under him. “You, too.”

Loki’s fingers deftly moved across leather straps and buckles, then slid under his waistband as he arched his hips forward and pushed the soft black leather down his thighs, slow and unhurried, smirk widening at how Tony’s gaze followed the movement intently, Tony himself seemingly unaware of his tongue darting across his swollen lips at the sight. Letting his trousers fall from there, the trickster stepped free of them. He then shot the inventor an expectant look.

Nodding, Tony knelt up and sidled over to the headboard, tugging a small drawer out of it, from which he plucked lube and, quickly giving Loki a once-over as he recalled a quite enlightening conversation he’d pursued with both Dr. Bruce Banner and Dr. Jane Foster about the logistics of safe sex with certain very-human-looking aliens (mostly just to embarrass and fluster them both) and decided to forgo a condom, thus closing the drawer. He tossed the lube in a calculated arc, watching Loki step closer and catch it effortlessly. Then Tony smirked, tilting his head up a bit in invitation and challenge both, settled his knees a bit wider and gripped the headboard just a few inches shy of each corner.

The trickster gave a ragged hum of approval, rejoining him on the bed and settling behind him. “I do like the way you think,” he murmured, and bit at the side of Tony’s neck not-quite-gently, but not unteasing either.

Tony let his head tilt back further and a bit to one side to give him better access as he leaned back a bit closer. A glance at the ceiling proved even better than he’d hoped as he watched Loki’s long, greedy fingers skim down his sides, could see the trickster’s expression flicker with something raw and unguarded as Tony arched his back and brushed himself against––yeah, that felt just as big and impressive as it looked––caught between his cheeks: hot and hard and silken and yes fitting for a god.

Then Loki met his stare in the mirror, still for just a moment before choosing deliberately not to don another mask, particularly as he broke eye contact to admire other aspects of their reflections. His hips rocked and he made a noise at the soft pressure and dry friction of Tony’s skin against his arousal, mouth curving with wicked satisfaction at the frustrated hiss the inventor gave in response.

“Please get to fucking me,” Tony groaned.

Guiding the inventor’s hips forward only a little reluctantly, because of the resulting loss of contact necessary for his purposes, Loki offered a breathless laugh. “If you insist.”

The inventor managed not to make any embarrassingly relieved or eager sort of noises when he heard the lube bottle’s lid pop open, and he managed to stare straight ahead instead of at Loki’s fingers slicking up, because then he really would be making noises––much like the one that leapt from his throat as two long fingers wasted no time delving between his cheeks, only slightly cool. They pressed slowly, so very slowly, not even halfway into him as Loki’s other hand gripped the back of Tony’s neck right at the base of his skull, fingers gripping his short hair firm and sure.

“Your hips. Move them closer,” Loki demanded.

Tony gripped the headboard hard, breathing gone ragged. He was hardly a virgin, though it might have been a long while since he’d done this particular thing, but he remembered quickly how to relax into the stretch, recollection made even easier when he himself was the one pushing, shifting his hips back into it. He heard Loki hiss at the sight and the feel of it once Tony had taken both fingers to their base, and shivered, his head falling forward until Loki’s grip tightened and pulled it back up.

“You’re a fine sight, Tony Stark,” he purred, and began moving his fingers, scissoring a little both to see the mortal squirm, as well as to stretch him. Then he pushed down and forward, hard but slow, and admired the helpless way the inventor’s spine arched up and back into it.

Cursing breathlessly Tony found his head tilted back further again and saw himself, just as Loki pulled back quickly only to slide in again hard-and-slow-and-right-fucking-deadly-accurate over his prostate. That just shouldn’t be fair. Those fingers were already long and distractingly elegant and clever, but now he’d think of this every time he saw Loki weave a spell out of the air with them, or gesture with some careless witticism and fuck there he did it again.

“That’s three,” Loki said in his ear, both cheerful and dark. “Feel them?”

Tony made an inarticulate noise that was meant to be an affirmative but then Loki had pulled back and done the thing again, but with those three fingers spreading apart as they went, still pushing hard and slow right there, and Tony’s voice went a bit high and cracked instead of completing even the first syllable of his intended response.

“How much more do you want to feel this?” the trickster purred.

With a herculean effort, the inventor pulled his mind back together enough to remember how to speak coherent word-like things. “You mentioned mortal limits. How much magic you plan to spend here?”

“It will be a miracle for you to be able to walk tomorrow, which I will provide.” He did the three-finger-spread again. “I have enough for more than a little of that, given you’re so very willing.”

A little better adjusted to it, Tony managed to merely groan.

“And you will come for me several times before dawn, if your courage might last.”

The inventor laughed. “I’m a bit of a hedonist, as you might’ve noticed. Courage has little enough to do with it when selfishness and lust do the job.” He turned his head just enough to meet Loki’s gaze. “So wreck me, Loki.”

The trickster’s expression was molten heat and mirth and unadulterated lust as he slid his fingers free, stroking himself with the remaining lube, which Tony watched with some appreciation before Loki’s grip on his neck tightened again, and the inventor let himself be guided by it, straightening up and shifting his knees to better brace himself; although he remained pliant, not tensing even as he felt the head of Loki’s cock push into him.

Breathing was a bit more difficult after that, Tony would acknowledge, so he focused on it, and on trying to relax into the sinfully good burning stretch as Loki filled him. It was a stinging ache, but with it came heat pooled low in his belly and a deep craving for just––something, anything, everything just as long as it was more. When Loki’s hips finally pressed flush against his ass, Tony gave a broken moan and shuddered, panting as he struggled to adjust. He was a little surprised to feel one of the trickster’s arms curl around his waist, hand stroking almost tenderly up his side, until he realized he could feel Loki shaking a little against him with the effort of restraint. The god’s mouth nipped at the side of his neck and sucked at the tender skin. “I won’t break,” the inventor rasped.

“We’ll see about that,” Loki promised, rolling his hips forward hard, making the mortal gasp. “I plan to do my best.”

“Then you better start.”

The trickster bit at his neck again, and slid back more than halfway, only to thrust back in hard enough Tony, with a hoarse moan, struggled to maintain his safe and aesthetically optimal distance from the headboard, not only from the force of it, but because the damned god’s aim was still perfect.

“Holy fuck that’s not fucking fair,” the inventor rasped.

“What?” Loki asked in deliberately airy, innocent tones. “This?” Again he pulled back , more slowly this time, almost enough to make his lover whimper. Almost. Then he thrust again. And again. And yes, that was getting into the rhythm of––Tony didn’t even know what the rhythm was other than perfectly designed to make him all but scream, if only he could find the breath for it. If only he could remember how to breathe properly in the first place.

It sunk in, for Tony, that having been sexually active for over two thousand years, Loki had clearly mastered certain arts. The realization made him try to focus more, fixate and learn and adapt but––damn that was just so good. Thinking clearly wasn’t going to happen.

Loki’s fingers at the back of his neck loosened enough to shift, and curl firmly, not-quite-threatening, around the inventor’s throat instead, tugging smoothly, almost carefully, until Tony’s head rested back atop Loki’s shoulder and the god could press his lips against the inventor’s pulse. “Look at you,” he hissed, the roll of his hips hard and unmerciful and deep.

Tony did. His eyes fell open and took in the tableau of his own reflection, the precise and forceful undulations of Loki pushing into him, not machine-like, but akin to a force of nature, the rolling of waves against the shore. Tony’s coherency was eroding much faster than any stone, but Loki contained far more force and violence than even an ocean might, so perhaps that was as it should be. The trickster’s eyes were shut, long lashes fluttering as he gave himself up with each movement, slowly losing himself, and that––that was too much.

Tony didn’t scream, but he did shout something only vaguely coherent with two syllables which might have sounded suspiciously like Loki’s name as orgasm crashed over him and his remaining control shattered. He shook and might have collapsed if Loki’s arm about his waist hadn’t tightened, the god making almost-soft, cracked sounds at the feel of the inventor tightening around him, shortly before he himself came as well, and their rocking finally halted.

For almost a full minute, the only sound in the room was their heavy breathing.

Then Tony’s fingers loosened their white-knuckled grip on the headboard, flexing and stretching out a couple times to loosen stiff muscles before letting go entirely, and he leaned back against the god of lies, stretching his arms up and back to fold his hands against the back of Loki’s neck. The trickster remained tense for a moment, then slowly relaxed, bending his knees until he sat back on his heels, with the mortal inventor settled in his lap.

Tony drifted for a few moments, as their breathing slowed and they came back down from cloud nine. Loki’s sweat smelled a bit like pine, like alpine forest, with a hint of musk like that of a wild feline’s fur in the hot sun. It did things to Tony’s brain and libido that weren’t fair in the least.

As if in tune with his thoughts, Loki nuzzled at his neck and trailed a hand down his stomach almost, but not quite reaching... Oh.

Tony realized vaguely that he’d come without Loki even touching his cock, and gave a faint groan, then another at the feel of prickling, not-quite-stinging magic up though his muscles from where Loki’s fingers rested: heat and renewed energy radiating out from those points of contact. It dimmed the ache of exertion in his muscles, evaporated any traces of weariness, even as Loki’s fingers trailed down and wrapped around his length, giving an exploratory stroke that made Tony shudder with not-quite-painful-as-it-should-be hypersensitivity, and brought him quickly back to full hardness. The inventor gave a ragged gasp and squirmed to feel Loki match him in that regard, where the trickster was still buried inside him.

“H-holy fuck.”

“Well,” Loki purred. “I am a god.”

“Yes you certainly are,” Tony breathed, as tremors of too-much-never-enough as the spell crept up through his veins.

“And I would have you again.”

It was going to be a long, but very, very good night.

“Then have me,” Tony growled, challenging and sharp.

“Yes,” Loki hissed, surprised and thrilled and wrecked.

~~

They didn’t stop until dawn, after which Tony told himself that he would need to invest in a new, and more sturdy, headboard. It had survived the inventor himself for the first few rounds, but Loki had left it rather scarred when the tables had turned and the inventor learned just how rough the trickster god liked it.

So a new one.

Surely.

Tony told himself that, but when dawn did creep up on them and they finally slept, he had this sinking feeling that he would be spending too much of his time, that day, trying and failing to not think about keeping it, and about names painted in blood.

~~

Bruce was awoken by the carefully-non-disturbing alarm rig Tony had worked up for him. He’d set it for not long after dawn. Once showered and with half a cup of coffee in him, he headed for the medical wing to check up on his patients.

He was understandably a bit perturbed to find the more heavily injured of his two patients from last night inexplicably absent. He turned to face Natasha, whose eyes had opened before he’d entered the room, because assassins who sleep through the sounds of approaching footsteps do not often last long in their profession. “Where’d he go?”

Natasha ran a hand through her hair, looking anywhere but him. “Well…”

“Are you… are you actually embarrassed?”

She cleared her throat, meeting his gaze with her more usual innocent-and-masked look. “He had a visitor last night.”

Bruce’s eyebrows raised slowly. “A visitor.”

“I might have, ah, met her before.”

“Her?”

“She has diplomatic immunity, in any case, being a queen.”

The biochemist blinked a few times slowly and adjusted his glasses. “If I remember the files and myths both right, you mean his daughter showed up in the middle of the night?”

“Yes. Hel.”

“You’d met her before?”

Natasha nodded.

“Do I even want to know?”

The spy half-smirked at him. “I don’t know, do you?” she asked, shameless now and a little too self-satisfied.

Bruce considered, and deliberately dropped that topic. “So she took Loki?”

“No, I requested she not do that, in exchange for not setting off any alarms or otherwise informing anyone else of her presence, while she remained here.”

“Seriously?”

Natasha nodded. “I’ve met her. I’ve even fought alongside her once, and we have… an understanding, as well as a sense of mutual respect and shared interests.” She, and I, and her lovely wife, she recalled fondly, but did not say aloud.

“She’s Loki’s daughter, though.”

“She’s definitely that, and she’s more capable of destroying him than we would ever be. Also, she was there to collect a favor from him in exchange for healing him as much as she could without draining her magic too far to prevent her returning to her kingdom and her duties there,” the spy offered, smiling sweetly. “I saw no problem letting her take that icy little weapon he brought with him far, far away from earth.”

“Ooh, fair point,” Bruce mused. “Where is he now?”

“In the tower, according to JARVIS, but I don’t know more than that. He’s being a bit cagey about the specifics.”

“That’s disconcerting.”

“You feeling lucky, Banner?” She started to grin charmingly, fit to make lesser men feel a sudden desire to go along with whatever she might want in the hopes she might just follow through on the beautiful promise of that smile.

Bruce, however, had been living in the same building and fighting on the same team with her, for a year now, and knew that look. It set off warning alarms in the general region of his wallet. “No.”

“You don’t even want to hear the bet?”

“…Okay, what’s your theory?”

“Well, Loki might have suggested that they have a drink before she headed home.”

“That narrows it down in this house? A Stark lives here.”

  “Precisely.”

Realization dawned, slowly, on his face. “Oh. Then why is JARVIS being vague?”

“Why is he ever vague about Tony’s whereabouts?”

“Because Tony doesn’t want anyone—oh.”

“Now you’re getting it.”

“I’m sure he… they… Loki…” Bruce tried, but kept trailing off. Eventually he scrubbed a hand over his face, as though hoping it would help him scrub the whole idea from his brain. “I didn’t need that mental image.”

“Suit yourself. I don’t like either of them enough to join, but I’ve got to admit the picture of them both is––hm, tantalizing,” Natasha mused.

Bruce chuckled like it hurt his soul a little to do so, but he was helpless to stop it. “Please don’t tell me these things. Do you really think that’s what they’re up to?”

“My wager is on yes, and you know how good my luck is.”

“Luck. We’ll call it that.”

She laughed at him and rose to her feet casually.

“Where is your cast?”

Natasha offered him a wink. “Hel and I have an understanding.”

She still wore a hospital gown, so that when she turned to pick up her weaponry from the night-stand beside her cot, Bruce noticed that while her knee had been healed, there were some vivid and colorful marks made by teeth and lips along the back of her neck and trailing down, down to... He made a noise and shut his eyes before they could wander any lower.

“You alright, Bruce?”

“I’ll just. Go,” he said quietly. “I’m going to make some more coffee. Maybe with a little whiskey in it.”

“I appreciate you!” Natasha called after him.

“You’re a menace, don’t get killed,” he called back, reflexively. She really was the strange older sister he’d never wanted, in many ways.

~~

There was some very persistent knocking going on in the vicinity of his bedroom door. Tony did not approve.

“JARVIS, who is it, and what weapons can you aim at them?” he groaned.

He felt an amused huff against his throat and belatedly recalled that he was acting as a human body pillow for the god of mischief. It was actually quite comfortable.

“It is Thor Odinson, sir, and the most effective weapons I do have which might dissuade his person were in the Mark IX, which is still in repair.”

Tony swore quietly under his breath. “Tell him to go away.”

“I did try to inform him that you were still asleep, but he is unable to find Mr. Lie-smith and is quite perturbed by it.”

Loki lifted his head a little at that.

Tony grumbled, because he’d had his chin atop the trickster’s head and had to shift to remain comfortable.

“He doesn’t know my whereabouts?”

“No, Mr. Lie-smith.”

A long pause followed. Tony could feel Loki staring at him, as Thor’s muffled demands became louder on the other side of the door, and more concerned. The inventor gave up after about a minute and glared up at Loki, daring him to say a word. The trickster half-smirked at him, kissed him briefly almost to the point it might have been called chaste, and shouted toward the door, “Thor, go away!”

A long pause followed.

Loki sighed as his brother called his name from the other side of the door. “JARVIS, please inform my brother that rest is vital to my recovery from recent events and he is not to disturb me for another four hours, at the least.”

“Of course, Mr. Lie-smith.”

Muffled conversation was audible on the other side of the door. Tony giggled helplessly, even as the trickster-god settled back down, nuzzling against his neck again, seemingly intent on returning to sleep. Tony rested his chin atop Loki’s head as before, and shut his eyes.

“Mr. Odinson requests that you confirm you are both well,” JARVIS interrupted, before they could quite return to sleep.

“I’m fine. Tell ‘im to come back later,” Tony muttered.

“Let him know that this is a direct quote: ‘Dear Thor, please do kindly fuck off,’ end quote,” Loki added, and smirked a little even as he drifted off into heavy sleep again, driven by exhaustion well-earned from revenge and post-revenge sex, to the sound of a mad mortal inventor giggling.

~~

Steve Rogers would never, ever get used to just how strange the world could be, and how it seemed dead set to constantly surprise him when he least expected it. He had almost begun to find it comforting, even wondrous. It also had a tendency to be deeply disconcerting.

Entering the kitchen not long before noon, to see Natasha occupying one side of the booth-like breakfast nook with both legs in fine shape, no cast in sight—folded delicately at the ankle where she stretched them out along the bench so her feet hung over the edge and she could lean comfortably into one of the nook’s hexagonal corners—and Thor sitting across from her looking both annoyed and a little dejected, Steve’s increasingly seasoned instincts led him to suspect this day would be more disturbing than wondrous.

He bid them both good morning and poured himself a glass of milk.

Natasha’s greeting smile was a little touched with lazy satisfaction. Thor merely nodded to him.

“You recovered… quicker than even your usual, Nat,” Steve observed.

“A friend paid us a visit last night,” the spy responded.

Thor looked at her sharply, then. “You know Hel?”

“Isn’t that a rude question?” the super-soldier asked carefully.

“Hel is Loki’s daughter, and queen of Helheim, which serves as one of the Nine Realms’ premier ‘land of the dead’ regions where souls may go on their way to their final rest,” Natasha explained succinctly. “And yes, I’ve met her before on a couple of occasions.”

“How?” the thunderer asked, sincerely baffled.

“My work, and brief time spent keeping track of Stephen Strange on a few projects particularly, brought me into contact with her wife several times. Hecate eventually offered to be my patron god, actually. I accepted.”

Thor blinked a few times. “Why did you not mention this?”

“The topic never really came up until now.”

Steve raised a hand. “Wait, wait, Loki’s daughter was here? Why did you not sound any alarms or something?”

“I made a deal with her not to. We’re on good terms, Steve, she’s not our enemy and she’s queen of a powerful realm we would do well not to have any diplomatic difficulties with,” she assured. “She was there because Loki informed her of his end-game, and offered her that Casket of Ancient Winters in exchange for healing him along as far as she could afford without compromising her ability to return home. She’s not full-Jotunn, and has little experience wielding ice-abilities, so she couldn’t rely on being able to use the casket right off the bat, after all.”

“What does she even want with it?!” Steve almost shouted.

“To take it far, far away, back to the women who created it in the first place,” Thor said solemnly. “Worry not. Hel is indeed her father’s daughter, but foremost she is a wise ruler. She has little need for it herself, and those she plans to return it to are a powerful tribe, but peaceful in their ways.”

Steve ran a hand through his hair and sighed. “And Loki ran off, then?”

“No, he’s still around. Did you expect him not to take advantage of our hospitality?” the spy offered.

“But where is he?”

Thor and Natasha exchanged glances, the amusement in it more reluctant on Thor’s end, but no less present.

That could not possibly bode well. “Do I want to know?” Steve asked warily.

“He’s resting, presently. His body is again whole and healthy, but his magics will require more time to return to him. We took him into this house without binding or caging him, and in doing so we’ve extended to him a measure of trust. With his magic very hindered, Asgard and S.H.I.E.L.D. both still hostile toward him, and Hel having left him here rather than transporting him away, he is safer here than elsewhere, unless any of us experience a change of heart.” He raised his eyebrows at both soldiers pointedly. “Did you not both consider that this might happen?”

At that, Steve hesitated. “He’s still guilty of a lot of crimes, here. He still brought down an alien armada on New York, escaped imprisonment in Asgard, wreaked havoc on S.H.I.E.L.D. a couple of times since then, made himself an enemy of the Kree and caused us no end of problems when they chased him through Jersey last month, and there was that catastrophe he threw in our laps when he decided to steal from Mephisto on Halloween.”

Both of the other Avengers grimaced a little in embarrassment at that last one.

“That said, given this, ah, new context we have on things, thanks to Thanos,” the captain added, “I think he was not as evil as we initially thought; he’s not good, by any stretch, but he isn’t––he’s not what we assumed. Bruce and I just spent a few hours going over the footage and all that Thanos said, and we put together a new timeline and shape for how the battle of New York came to happen. A lot of it, I barely understand, but I trust Bruce, and he thinks Loki had a choice of doing what Thanos ordered and being that guy’s puppet for the foreseeable future, visibly betraying Thanos and getting murdered by the bonds Thanos built between him and that scepter that was monitoring his actions for signs of betrayal, or being a sneaky son of a gun and conning us, the scepter, and Thanos by showing no signs of betraying his mission while simultaneously sabotaging it and creating a bottle-neck for the invasion forces who had expected a bigger portal and time to organize before being attacked, giving us more element of surprise than we realized. He set them up for a fall, and set us up for a victory, and bonded his scepter to the tesseract and the portal-machine both so that his own bonds to it were broken when Natasha forced the scepter through the energy shields to close the portal. As far as I can tell, he actually minimized havoc-wreaking as much as he possibly could and still come out alive. He could have stopped all of it with a self-sacrifice, but that’s—not something I think he’s actually capable of, and I can’t actually hold it against him as much as I think it would have been the better option.”

“And his subsequent actions since then, while still bad, have had a far lower body-count, excepting people actively trying to kill him,” Natasha added. “I do get that.”

Steve looked uneasy. “There’s still all the thefts, and cons, and property damage, and other law-breaking, though.”

“S.H.I.E.L.D. would want to send him back to Asgard,” Natasha pointed out. “Or kill him outright, more likely.”

“Asgard is—they are set against him. My father will have to punish him far more harshly than before. I do not approve of the methods I suspect would be employed to make him suffer for his crimes,” Thor said delicately.

“You think they would torture him?” Steve asked quietly.

“They can’t be foolish enough to do that. He’s too useful to them,” Natasha murmured. “And he is already unforgiving of what he perceives to be their offenses against him.”

“Those offenses have been great,” the thunderer said slowly, “only over the past two days have I come to realize just how great, and I regret dismissing them so easily before.”

“What changed?” Steve asked, genuinely curious.

“I have been blindly trusting of the wrong people, and their intentions, and never thought to question many of their prejudices and the full implications thereof,” Thor said softly.

“Did you… did you have a long talk with Monica Rambeau or something?” The super-soldier sounded a little baffled, and almost hurt. “Is she still here?”

Natasha snorted a laugh into her coffee.

Thor shook his head. “The wise Miss Rambeau did not reveal these things to me. Tony did.”

“Tony?” the spy repeated sharply, sounding incredulous. “Seriously?”

“He is wiser than he may seem, and was merciless in his mapping out of everything Loki could have never brought himself to explain to me, and I do not blame my brother for his reticence, knowing better now how unobservant and careless I must have seemed all this time. I feel an utter fool,” Thos sighed.

“As well you should, brother,” said an all-too-familiar voice from the doorway, making Steve jump, though Loki’s tone was almost soft, despite the dry humor in it, compared to anything the Avengers aside from Thor had ever heard from him before. The trickster was wearing, Steve realized (with dawning horror that he couldn’t at first understand the source of), one of Tony Stark’s favorite Black Sabbath t-shirts, and honest-to-god denim. The denim was in the form of ridiculously well-tailored black straight-leg jeans, but it was still strange to see the always-formal-and-elegant-and-villainous god of lies in casual-wear, to the captain’s mind, though no one else looked even a little surprised.

Then again, Steve had seen Thor walk around in bunny slippers, and Natasha was perpetually unflappable. The captain supposed he couldn’t rely on them as indicators of anything akin to normalcy.

Loki stood in the doorway a moment longer, letting them stare, until there was an audible thunk from behind him: Tony smacking him on the back with an open palm. “Move along, Shakespeare, I need coffee.”

Now Thor looked exasperated and the super-spy was leering and amused both and Tony had some very distinctive marks on his neck that Steve knew hadn’t come from the battle because a couple of them were very clearly inflicted by teeth, and now that he was paying attention Steve noticed that Loki’s throat had a couple marks too, but they were slow-fading like a time-lapse of more humanly healing so they were clearly... fresh. The super-soldier groaned and slapped a hand across his eyes. “Goddammit, Stark.”

Loki laughed loud and long, sounding relaxed and even sincere and only a little malicious, as he leaned back against the wall beside the door, arms crossed over his chest. He clearly still didn’t want to have his back to any of them—except, apparently, Tony—and was most comfortable standing near an escape route.

Tony ignored all of them in favor of draining an entire mug of coffee in two swallows, and pouring himself another, which he cradled in his hands as though it were a precious treasure when he turned to face all of them all. “Come on, Spangly Steve, this doesn’t even make it into the top ten things I’ve done that have offended your delicate sensibilities.”

“That does not actually make it better,” the blond soldier shot back.

“For the record, my intentions are impure but not malevolent,” Loki offered.

Steve made a face at him the god between nausea, exasperation, and horror. “Your intentions?”

“Are you asking me to go steady?” Tony asked.

A noise of resigned dismay escaped Steve’s throat without his permission.

“Steady?” Thor asked.

“I’m inclined to offer you sole rights to carnal appreciation of my person in exchange for the same from you,” Loki agreed, ignoring all but the inventor, now.

“You’ll have to stick around to maintain that,” Tony shot back.

“I will need a fortnight at the least, to recover my powers in full, and your tower is admittedly my safest option,” the trickster offered. “If you continue to impress, I might be inclined to remain within reach longer than that.”

“I’m good at being impressive.”

“Yes,” Loki purred, “you are indeed.”

“I’m extremely uncomfortable with this,” Steve said flatly. “For the record.”

“Agreed. God, you two are already insufferable,” said a voice overhead.

Only Loki and Thor even bothered to look up in time to see a ceiling tile move aside and Clint drop down amongst them.

“Can’t a guy go on a therapeutic patrol of the ventilation system without overhearing sociopathic flirting in his own home? What is the world coming to?” He dusted himself off and shot Loki a hard glare.

The god held his gaze steadily.

After a long moment, Clint gave him a sharp nod. “It was really nice seeing that guy made into paste. You’re still a dick, but consider us even.”

Eyebrows raised in surprise, Loki nodded back. “My thanks.”

“It goes without saying that you ever pull mind-control shit on me or any of mine again, I will find a way to arrange a horrible and messy death for you,” Clint added, “and I won’t be alone.”

“It does indeed go without saying, and I am quite aware, yes.”

“Good. Can you move that tile back for me?” He pointed up.

Rolling his eyes, Loki obliged with a slight hand-wave.

“Thanks.” Clint then sidled over to Natasha and prodded her knee. “You’re looking healed. Got any security footage of...”

“HD, yes,” she responded, turning to settle her feet on the floor. “I may show you later.”

“Awesome.” The archer occupied the bench next to her, then. “So. Game plan?”

“I’m dating Loki, and he’ll be in the tower frequently while that lasts, and sleeping under our roof at least as long as it takes his magic to return. S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t to know. Asgard probably knows, given your creepy all-seeing guy and no cloaking magics in use right now?” He shot Loki a look.

The trickster nodded. “Yes, I haven’t the power to support my usual stealth.”

“Right, so that might be an issue, but I’m inclined to tell them to fuck off, if it comes to that. Thor, you’re in charge of that project.”

“Of course,” the thunderer concurred.

“And if Odin commands my extradition?” Loki asked lightly.

Thor turned himself to face his brother more, and look him in the eyes as he said, low and solemn,“I think he long ago forfeited the right to wield authority over you, and that you are only as much a part of Asgard as you believe they deserve to have of you. I remain a subject of Asgard, and believe that Aesir law is important, and the laws which are shared by multiple races, nations, and peoples throughout the nine realms to maintain peace are important. You have broken those laws, and I have no doubt that you will continue, but it is not for me, or for Odin, to judge you. We will protect those we have always protected, and I will not hesitate to battle with you for those reasons, but your actions before your fall, could all have been prevented by Odin, as much as, if not more than, yourself. No matter what his intentions might have been, he failed you, and in doing so he also failed me. That I, too, failed you, is my fault, however. And I am so sorry that I have been too blind to your unhappiness and pain, too careless and thoughtless to question people and the society of Asgard as closely as I should have, and realized quite how unfairly you were treated all this time.”

The trickster’s expression was shuttered, utterly locked down, but his eyes shone a bit more glassy than they had a few moments before. His voice was harsh but very even and controlled when he sharply demanded, “All of you save my brother should leave this room now.”

Clint and Natasha retreated immediately. Tony watched them and took hold of Steve’s arm to drag him out when it looked like he might try to stick around and mediate. “Come on, this is up to them, Capsicle, don’t even presume to interfere.”

Once they were alone, Loki strode over to the table stiffly, and settled down opposite Thor. His mouth was a thin, tense line as he observed his brother’s face closely. “I will never be the brother you knew before.”

Reluctantly, Thor nodded. “I know that much. You’ve made that very clear.”

A muscle in the trickster’s jaw visibly twitched. He folded his arms across his chest. “I cannot forgive you yet.”

“I... I think I begin to understand why you might never be able to.”

Something in Loki’s expression cracked at that, deeply. “That, I find hard to believe.”

“I may never forgive myself this oversight. I failed to protect you, failed to see that even my friends and companions who cared for me looked on you with––without understanding your true worth. I have always thought of you as the anchor of my reason, and without you I have felt adrift, but I need to learn my own way, as you have. I need to question more, and see deeper into the heart of matters, on my own. I should not rely upon you to think for me, and use that as excuse to be otherwise ruled by emotional impulse.”

Loki leaned back hard against his seat. Arms still folded, one hand raised to cover his mouth with loose-spread fingers, as he continued to stare Thor down. He swallowed tightly. “All this, for what a single mortal told you?” he hissed, harsh and hostile.

“He has more insight into the workings of your mind than I may ever have possessed,” Thor said softly. “Much to my shame, for he has known you but briefly, and already has proven more worth your time and attention than myself.”

“You are worthy of attention,” Loki snapped, before he could think. “Otherwise I would not be so hurt by your millennia of ignorance!” He clenched his jaw again, and smoothed his expression back into control with a deep breath.

“I am?” the thunderer asked.

“Don’t ask me to flatter you when I am still so full of poison, brother.”

Shaking his head, Thor leaned over the table slightly. “Is that––is that why it took you so long to give up on me?”

The trickster’s breath hitched. “If I had given up on you, then you would be dead. Do not dare doubt that I would be capable of that.”

Slowly, the blond god straightened. “I... I want to ask what I might do, but I should not, I think. If you knew, I think you might have told me by now, whether it was your intention or not.”

Loki’s teeth dragged across his lower lip, but he said nothing to that.

“I am right, then.”

“You are not entirely wrong, so far, no.”

“I truly know not what I might do to mend this, to be someone you might again regard without––without pain and loss written on your face.”

“Nor do I,” Loki rasped. “For I am not immune to pain, and you do still inflict it.”

Thor’s expression was desolate. “I am so sorry.”

The trickster shut his eyes tightly and pressed back still harder against the back of his seat, as though even an inch further distance might ease the agonizingly tight sensation behind his sternum. “Leave me.”

Without another word, the thunder god stood up and strode out.

That, more than anything, caused the burning, prickling sensation at the corners of Loki’s eyes to grow overwhelming. He felt a trickle of wetness on his face and realized belatedly that tears had filled his eyes, but he made no attempt to stop them. He merely remained very still, trying to steady his breathing until the tremors of barely-smothered sobs slowly faded, and he could stop shaking.

He remained undisturbed, and could not have been more thankful for it, for he dared not leave, not knowing who he might find elsewhere in the tower. Then his head cleared a bit as he regained some semblance of calm and stepped over to the sink to splash cool running water on his face. Faucet back off and his face dried with a hand-towel, Loki called, “JARVIS?”

“Yes, Mr. Lie-smith?”

He half-smiled very faintly. A passive, non-judgmental but not personality-less presence in a home could be such a comforting thing; he had almost forgotten. “You remind me of the guardian construct I made for Hel when she was very small. He came to occupy her home almost as you do this tower, actually.”

“I was unaware that magic extended to Artificial Intelligence constructs,” JARVIS responded politely.

“I think your intelligence is beyond being considered artificial. Inorganic, perhaps, but not false in any regard,” Loki countered. “Magic and science truly differ very little.”

“I am disinclined to call Mr. Stark a wizard or a god, however,” the AI replied, droll.

The trickster chuckled softly. “Where is he now?”

“Locked away in his private lab, though you are on today’s arbitrary ‘allow access’ list.”

“Can you direct me there, and aid me in not crossing paths with any of the house’s other occupants along the way, please?”

“Of course. I do warn that Agent Barton is back to crawling through in-between spaces of architecture and ventilation rather unpredictably; however slim the odds of him being aware that you briefly pass by underfoot are, they still are not 100% negligible.”

“I will take that chance, then. My thanks.” He then listened as JARVIS gave him directions, a slightly nostalgic half-smile tugging at one corner of his mouth.

~~

Tony Stark was uncomfortable with what he was seeing, but also could not look away. He was, after all, a man, and the unexpected nature of the scenes captured by security cameras in the medical wing last night was very, very appealing. It was, however, unexpectedly awkward for a particular key reason, becoming more and more acutely so the more clothing was being tossed somewhere off-camera. Tony was about to stop it, any second now, because seeing the daughter of the god he’d debauched and been debauched by feeling up his super-spy friend/sister-in-arms just didn’t seem... He really shouldn’t...

He would stop the video any second now. Any... any second...

Oh god, though, look at them...

When Loki strode on silent feet into the lab, he found the inventor facing the door, but he was holding up a Stakpad and watching something on it intensely. Whatever it was had Tony looking worried, bemused, uneasy and also very, very intent and interested. He was clearly no longer very aware of his surroundings. “Whatever are you watching?”

Tony jerked in shock and actually blushed as his fingers fumbled, almost dropping the tablet. He somehow managed to stop the footage, close the player entirely and lay the thing face-down on the work table.

Loki looked deeply amused, then, stepping closer. “Now I must know.”

“You really may not want to,” Tony croaked. “Otherwise I’d happily show you.”

The trickster rested both hands palm-down on the table and tilted his head to one side. “You have yet to diminish my interest.”

“I didn't know Natasha was already, ah, very well-acquainted with Hel?" Tony offered.

A slow blink from Loki, his expression suddenly masked. "Oh?" That sounded dangerously toneless.

"And her wife," the inventor added. "They might have magically pilfered a copy of the footage, JARVIS mentioned. As a gift for her. I was... I... curious?"

The god have a surprised laugh, "By the Norns, Natasha Romanov is Hecate's mortal?"

"Uh... what?"

"Hecate, my daughter's dear wife, mentioned in passing a mortal she offered patronage to. There was mention she was a charming assassin, but I hadn't thought Natasha to be the same person." He cleared his throat. "Nor did I realize she was also involved in she and my daughter's relationship, but I am actually... less surprised by that, all things considered."

"Wow. That... Hecate isn't from your, uh, pantheon. How many of our myths are aliens actually out there?" Tony asked.

"Most are not so active as they once were, when your world was younger and fresh, and some Celestials became rather too interested in all of you. Some, including Zeus and most of his kin, knew of Earth and had been here before any life-forms more complex than microbes had developed, and fought a number of wars amongst themselves. Other gods from that time share names and with figures worshipped in Egypt and elsewhere. They did not pay much attention to the organic life developing on the planet until it became more substantial––dinosaurs, for instance. They of course fixated on mammals, once those appeared, and did probably help their development along.”

“Did they... create humans? Or alter evolutionary paths that led to... creatures that looked more like them?”

“Not quite. There was a lull, after the mass extinction events that caused most dinosaurs to vanish––”

“What was that, by the way?”

“A lot of demonic terrestrial elder gods trying to devour each other and Gaea until she produced a child with the Demiurge. She deliberately conceived a child intended to be a god-eater, and the end result was that the horde of demons wound up devoured and eventually Set was banished from the earth.”

Tony blinked slowly. “Yeah, I see why science might have some trouble working that out.”

“The devastation was on par with a meteor-strike, and did leave similar enough evidence that there’s no shame in having believed that to have been the cause. It’s a very good theory.”

“There was a lull, though, after that.”

“Earth was watched over, but not occupied. When Gaea returned, she was surprised to find very young species of early humanity in progress. It was only when Celestials arrived later that we began to suspect something deeper at the heart of that.” He frowned slightly. “It gets very complicated from there, but Gaea and all her many, many children thrived here in the early days of mankind. Other pantheons developed here, and others were interested in a new world, and a young race relatively unaltered––though that didn’t last, which is why many of earth’s pantheons, myths, and gods are, as it were, ‘home-grown’ by Celestials’ meddling as well as other outside forces that had impact on some of you. That said... Odin, Zeus, and several other leaders of other pantheons, particularly those with storm and sky gods usually, are known to mortals in the form of gods ‘from on high’ because they worked for a long while to fend off renewed Celestial activity this side of the galaxy. You thus are woven into their tales and they into yours. In our case you are one of the realms of Yggdrasil, to others your world means other things. Odin and Asgard are young compared to some of the others, though, and the––particular structure of Yggdrasil affects multiple worlds and not only our own realm.”

“What does that have to do with you all being ‘young’ by this hellaciously long-lived standard?” Tony asked.

“It was not considered an altogether wise move. Before the home planet that Aesir first came from was––lost, the structure of Yggdrasil was self-sustaining, and connected multiple planets across vast distances. We were being aided by Zeus and his kin, as well as others, to keep Yggdrasil alive in the wake of that destruction.”

“What caused that?”

Loki hesitated a long moment. “It hatched.”

A long pause followed.

“Hatched?” Tony repeated.

“It’s a very long story, but it taught us a great deal, and made the earth even more important for study.”

“Study?”

“We believe that the same thing may happen to this world in one or two billion years anyway, you already showed great promise, and bringing you into Yggdrasil brought us back into balance. When Midgard became our ninth realm, it brought new life and power into all the others as well. You changed all of us, and we need your world as much as your world needs ours. It was a rash and sentimental decision, if you listen to Zeus, who had been working on other ways to repair and rebalance Yggdrasil.”

“Okay... so this tree connects all these planets how?”

“Complicated.”

“C’mon, I’m a genius. Try me.”

Loki’s mouth quirked into a half-smirk and sparks flickered from his fingers, becoming a thin, intricate arrangement of lines in the air. It was hard to tell how much of it was light and how much might be made instead of particularly obedient smoke, but it was as though he suddenly held a section of galaxy between them. Tony could see individual star-systems, planets the size of pin-heads and suns ranging from match-head sized to marbles, swirls of dust and ragged-looking clouds showed asteroid belts or other strange swathes of debris. There was a vast cloud near the bottom-left that seemed to be a birthplace for new stars. “This is a rough analogy, not quite mathematically accurate as the distances between all of these astral bodies is truly much vaster, but this should do for a fair approximation, for the purposes of illustration.” Nine areas highlighted, scattered throughout the three-dimensional map. “These contain life: each one resides in a different star system. Most of those systems do not have other habitable planet or, like yours, Celestials took some samples of the race of that particular world and changed them, and some of those other worlds, for better or worse, to allow for other planets in those systems to be viable. Alfheim has a number of other worlds in its system, but the only other habitable world was destroyed by a series of asteroids long ago, and the rest are out of reach and riddled with strange beasts––mostly non-carbon-based life forms and not quite sentient so far. Dvergarheim is an exception, to an extent, because they terraformed other planets of their own accord, and the Celestials had ill-luck with altering them overmuch without doing more harm than good even with their attempts at Eternals. Vanaheim is the sole habitable planet of it's system, albeit only within the past half-million years or so in Earthly reckoning: all others ravaged by wars long ago that few alive in Vanaheim even remember. Nifleheim is far out at the edges of its star-system and there is a thick asteroid belt between it and the other planets in that system. No communications from those other worlds, or explorers, or indeed any signs of life, exist out there, except one, for these two are the balancing, anchoring forces here.” He pointed. “Nifleheim and Muspellheim are the only two worlds in Yggdrasil that reside in the same star-system. Lastly, in this system here, you can see Jotunnheim. It is a large planet, with a very stable orbit with the aid of its two large moons, but is, like Earth in relation to Jupiter, in such a position that it is not frequently threatened by comets or asteroids, compared to other even larger planets in the system, which are uninhabitable even to creatures altered by Celestials. Celestials tried to alter the native race of Jotunnheim, but failed to produce any results more impressive than some of the more exceptional native mages, and their failures were––catastrophic. They judged the race worthy to continue to exist, and left without any further explanation.”

“They were scared off?” Tony asked.

“It may have bruised their pride, rather.”

“So they alter races, particularly humanoid ones, to what purpose?”

“At first, no one knew. They sought to improve these races, usually resulting in two main branches: on earth they were Eternals, who usually were immortal or close to it, and Deviants. Other races call them different names, but that would only complicate matters, so consider it academic short-hand. Now, the Deviants exist to ascertain the full breadth of a race’s potential by promoting mutations. The results are usually unpleasant to the eye, unstable, and short-lived, but useful to their creators for finding particularly outstanding or powerful alterations which might be applicable to the race’s Eternals, which are considered the optimal form of a given race by Celestials’ standards. It seems common for Eternals leave their planet of origin to start their own society on another nearby, where they can watch over their home planet, but don’t have to otherwise deal with it and can skip ahead to being their own advanced civilization. Some of Earth’s eternals did this, as it’s clear you worked out?” He looked at Tony for confirmation. “They call themselves Titans.”

“Yeah, Mar-Vell mentioned them. He also said Thanos was sort of one of them.”

“Correct. Alfheim, actually, is one such society, too: formed by their Eternals alone, as it were; although after the tragedy of the loss of their original home world, the remaining non-Eternal population relocated and fully reintegrated into that society, both genetically and culturally, over the millennia. Vanaheim might be another, but there are large gaps in their history due to Celestials removing the memories of entire generations millennia ago, which has made that difficult to reliably ascertain.”

“What about Asgard?”

“Aesir Eternals never left their world, but instead continued to live and work with the rest of the unaltered Aesir. Idunn herself is the last of them. The rest were at the heart of a war involving the gift of near-immortality, via Idunn’s apples, being made available to most of the world, and the overpopulation and scarcity of resources which followed. Asgard itself, and what landmass it still has, was escaping the planet itself with Idunn’s orchard, as well as the the city and landscape around it––enough to create a self-sustaining island within its own protective field, and capable of occasional long voyages, with great effort. There were other places on the planet also growing the apples, so it wasn’t a theft in that regard, but an attempt by a radical political faction to leave the chaos behind which would have eventually made the whole planet itself almost uninhabitable and doomed to become worse, even if the whole planet hadn’t unexpectedly hatched only a few years later.”

“I’m still having trouble with that.”

“Celestials are massive cosmic entities, heavily armored, humanoid under that armor. They are about half a mile tall, on average, but some are still more massive. They seek out planets capable of supporting life, and usually those planets, sooner or later, wind up with bipedal life-forms comparable to Aesir, humans, Kree, or even Skrulls. These planets are rare, in our universe, and have to be able to support oceans, forests, and carbon-based life-forms. There even seems to be consistent need for an atmosphere which requires animal life to breathe oxygen. For the same sort of sentient life, of roughly similar shape, to appear in all of these places, is mad, unless every visit that such races first recall from Celestials, is never actually the first time Celestials have visited that world.” Loki looked through his illusion again, eyes catching on particular constellations like they were associated with strange old memories. “When the Aesir’s planet hatched, the heart of the destruction, seen from the vast distance Asgard had covered since then, was a Celestial. It had been maturing within the planet itself for over a billion years, possibly closer to two billion.”

“Longer than life had been on the planet,” Tony murmured.

“Yes. Gods, as you all know them, did not guide life on this planet into taking human shape. The dreaming of a being that develops deep within your world, dreams of things like itself acting as guardians for it while it sleeps, shaped evolutionary history in early days. Once you were sentient, the dreaming could grow quieter, save to send out a signal to the parents. ‘Come now, they are ready for you.’”

The inventor’s brow furrowed. “And then they arrive, and ‘improve’ us.”

“To protect their offspring.”

Tony exhaled heavily through his teeth. “That’s pretty fucked up. It’d serve them right if our Cold War hadn’t wound up being so cold. Some defense mechanism we are.” He snorted.

“Oh yes,” Loki murmured, sounding amused. “Perhaps that was some of what Odin saw in all of you, given the Aesir’s own brushes with near self-destruction.”

“Heh. That’d be hilarious.” The inventor shook his head. “So Yggdrasil started out as sort of... defense against this?” Tony asked.

“It began with contact between Jotunnheim’s elders, and Eternals among the Aesir, long before the birth of any like Odin, or any of either planet now alive today. The Jotunn mages had an idea to bring together worlds like their own, to better understand and defend themselves and others, from the worst of the Celestials’ ways, as best they could. With combined powers and resources, they found the nearest other star systems which Celestials had visited and lingered over. They reached out to them. They needed to stay in contact, and be able to aid each other with haste, and given the vast distances between them, this was not altogether feasible, unless they could somehow be connected.” Loki’s illustration showed coils of golden light, warm against the otherwise cold blue-white-grey in the image. It coiled around each of the worlds, save Nifleheim and Muspellheim. They were scattered widely, no real order to the arrangement. “They needed an anchor, and a great deal of power, to pull it off, but if places can connect strongly enough on planes other than the physical, in the right shape, then distance becomes less problematic. There is a veil to break through, like between one dream and another, or one mind and another, to go between such places, but that is a far easier thing than to travel the long way ‘round. The thing about races that survive the Celestials, in most cases, is that they are all sentient, and many of them have great potential for magic and power. The astral plane is build out of sentient minds, out of history, out of dreams and ideas. It was only a matter of finding the right focal points. It was an Aesir Eternal who accidentally found the key.” Loki again pointed to Nifleheim, now glowing purple, and Muspellheim, which was now orange. “The worlds were not inhabited, but were located an almost equal distance from most of the other worlds save Asgard and Alfheim, which were a little further out. Two worlds, at the time lifeless, close enough that to bridge them would be far less trouble than connecting any of the other realms to each other––and so vastly different that a bridge between designed with the right twisting of magic would crackle with raw power of vast enough proportions to make the tesseract and the Casket of Ancient Winters look like mere toys: bending space, bringing eight separate planets just outside their own physical existence so that they both are exactly where they have always been, and have never been there at all, and having them all within the same layer of ascended existence? It was suddenly plausible.” Most of the stars and systems vanished, leaving only the nine worlds hovering between Loki’s hands, each glowing a different color, in the same positions they had been. Then a crackle of thread appeared between Muspellheim and Nifleheim, and that thread widened, until the two worlds were like two parts of a water droplet just before it might be forced to snap into two separate drops. From the connection between them rose new threads, and Loki tilted the axis of the thing so that Asgard was at the top. The threads curved slightly, not straight lines, but like they were pouring down into those two bridged worlds, like the branches of a tree pouring down into the main trunk. “And behold Yggdrasil, the world tree.”

“Earth isn’t there yet.”

Loki nodded. Asgard shattered, became even smaller, only visible because its glow was brighter, more concentrated. It’s line going to the bridge between Nifleheim and Muspellheim thickened, and others around it grew thinner. Then a flicker of blue-and-green appeared, between Asgard and the bridge, closer to Dvergarheim than Vanaheim, but otherwise almost central to the rest, almost equidistant. The tree flooded, brightened, as did Asgard, and then the glow again evened out, and all the branches were thick and healthy.

“That is how we are all connected,” the trickster concluded.

“I really, really want to blow you right now,” Tony groaned.

Loki appeared only a little surprised, flashing a wide grin as his illusion faded and he pushed aside a few things on the inventor’s work table before lifting himself onto it in one surprisingly athletic move, landing with his bent legs hanging half-off the edge, Tony Stark between his knees. “I’m inclined to let you.”

“So I see.” The inventor’s grin was now wide and wicked, too, as he reached for the button and zipper of Loki’s jeans. “After you’ve returned the favor, I’d like to map out the physics of that out-of-phase bit in engineering terms with you.”

“If you can.”

“Oh, I can.”

“I’d be interested to see that. The turns of your mind are quite captivating.”

“Same to you,” Tony said, and slid his fingers under Loki’s waistband, pulling it down. “Let me show you how much I appreciate it.”

The god of lies, in turn, gained a new appreciation for his mouth shortly thereafter.

~~

Bruce joined them in the main lab three days later.

“The north wall of the kitchen is bleeding,” he announced flatly.

Loki and Tony, heads bent over a machine that barely fit on the tabletop, looked up at him. The inventor looked incredulous. The trickster seemed almost embarrassed and immediately shut off the machine, which caused Tony to frown at him.

“What was that for?”

“Accidental bleed from a nearby pocket-universe full of pain and horror, nothing much. This planet has always had a number of morbid people obsessed with blood-magic in any given generation, and in such a vast population center as New York, I should not be surprised that there’s been one or two incompetent ones who sealed away their failed projects only to die before quite finishing the disposal as planned, within the 47-year time period needed for them to either properly solidify, or manifest somewhere the mage thought might be a fittingly hidden, deserted, or lost place.”

Tony blinked a few times. “That sounds a little grotesque.”

“Blood-magic often is. There’s got to be a unique variety of mental illness involved just for them to channel the entities that teach them the rites, and only particularly  emotionally callous individuals tend to be socially and emotionally isolated enough to hear those entities’ voices, and lacking in normal fear-reactions latent in other humans, to want to pursue them and hear more.”

“Compound emotional callousness with mental illness and you have a psychopath,” Bruce pointed out.

“Precisely,” Loki said. “A certain small percentage of people are psychopaths, and a small percentage of those have capacity to access unholy powers through murderous and grotesque rites. It’s a survival tactic for those entities I mentioned, given just what they feed on. They’re the work of a terrestrial elder-god called Chthon, actually. Brilliant, but horrible.”

“Why 47-years?” Tony asked.

Loki rattled off a few complex theorems about the iron content of human blood, the thickness of a pocket-universe of the sort capable of slipping into the real simply because it was designed to return to a nearby bit of reality some day in the end, and the stress principals of a magical construct’s need to complete the function it was designed for versus it’s ability to maintain itself in a non-complete state, limited by the energy involved in creating it.

Bruce’s eyebrows raised slowly. “Wow. That... what the fuck have you two been doing in here that what he’s saying is somehow a casual statement?”

“Tony came up with a possible idea for a perpetual motion device, using only a little magic. I found the concept amusing, given his plans for it.”

“Plans being?” the biochemist asked.

“Piss off a lot of people, a little, but we’re running into a few metaphysical issues other than the, uh, bleeding walls. Weird shit. Apparently we’ve reached ‘this is a thing that should not be’ territory, which is funny, because the tesseract really should be one of those more than this thing would be.”

“It’s just better contained and would only have those unpleasant effects if any of the the containment-properties were breached by an inexperienced or over-curious user, who might find themselves either hollowed out with mind shattered an soul burnt away, in a random location in a different universe more hostile than their own, or both,” Loki muttered, adjusting some particular mechanism.

“Oh. Right. And that casket did that to the King, dude.”

A clatter as Loki dropped a tool into what he was working on and swore. “Thor told you all of that?”

“I led up to emotional-revelation-time with making him explain a lot of history and culture and things about Jotunns and why Aesir are uneasy about them for reasons other than war and that whole genocidal big-freeze incident.”

Loki’s eyes widened a little. “That’s... actually brilliant.”

Tony grinned wide and bright. “Thank you, sweetheart.”

Bruce coughed. “Are you two done?”

“I’m considering having him on the floor actually, if you’d be so kind as to leave, Dr. Banner,” the trickster responded in dry tones, his eyes still on the inventor’s face.

“You’re... not joking.”

“He’s not,” Tony said, looking interested.

“Right! Leaving! Text me when your done, though, and let me get a look at that machine. I’ll be doing tests on the blood in the kitchen to see if I can help out any local cold cases.”

~~

After a week of combining magic and human engineering with results ranging from merely unexpected-yet-unsuccessful to outright catastrophic, Pepper showed up in the lab looking slightly worried, and very determined.

“I’m here on behalf of the other Avengers in-house to ask you to take a break from experimenting with things that may or may not be courting visitors from beyond the void.”

“They were tempted before I got here, and it’s not very much my fault,” Loki said stiffly.

Tony raised his eyebrows, looking at Loki suspiciously. “Not very much?”

“Erik Selvig was the one who tickled the wrong security measure in the structures of the tesseract and sent waves of awareness shuddering into the wrong voids. I just wound up using one of the side-effects to my advantage, allowing me to remotely command it to transport me.”

Pepper was shooting Loki a disapproving look now. “I’ve heard only three worse excuses from him,” she remarked, jabbing a thumb Tony’s way, “and I’ve known him for years, and dated him on top of that. Without being a walking lie-detector by means of godliness.”

“I am offended, and hurt,” Tony deadpanned.

“You’re also courting mutiny if you don’t tone down some of the wacky experimentation, just a smidgen,” Pepper said in soft, damningly reasonable tones.

“That bad?” the inventor asked, with a grimace.

“Natasha had to slice some kind of strange tentacle into bits. It reached up through the floor of her room and even when cut off, continued to thrash until she cut it into bits too small to more than twitch, and burned it,” she shot back. “Yes, it’s pretty bad.”

“I was wondering where the third one of those went,” Loki muttered.

“We’ll give up on the perpetual motion device and the cold-fusion toaster,” Tony sighed.

“Cold-fusion––what?” Pepper sputtered. “No, I don’t even want to know. Just... thank you. Stick to weapons, or something less... less tentacle-prone. That’s all they’re really asking.”

“I will concede to that,” Loki said, low and surprisingly respectful.

“Thank you.” She tucked her hair behind her ear. “Thor did sort of ask for your oath on that, though, sorry.”

The trickster rolled his eyes. “Of course. I give my solemn word that I will provide no further magical aid toward the perpetual motion device, or the other two projects that have been causing twisted reality and thinned veils throughout the mansion.”

Tony muttered a curse.

“Do I want to know the one you didn’t mention, Tony?” Pepper asked.

“It’s to do with anti-gravity and projectile weapons both, that’s the only real short summary I can give,” he conceded.

“Good. Thank you, boys. I’ll inform the others.” She punched Tony in the arm on her way past, smiling sweetly when he feigned offense.

The inventor watched her go, not quite able to prevent a smile.

“You miss her?”

“A bit. Mostly I’m just desperately glad she’s still in my life despite how much of an ass I am and how things turned out.”

Loki nodded thoughtfully.

“Seriously, thought the-”

“That was what caused the incident she cited, and we weren’t making much non-catastrophic headway on it regardless.”

Tony sighed. “Fine, fine. Fair point. Let’s talk bi-frost.”

Before Loki could respond, Pepper made a brief re-appearance in the doorway.

“Also, Loki, if he seems particularly desperate for distraction and easily frustrated today, it’s the anniversary of the day he escaped death at the hands of the terrorists responsible for the shrapnel in his chest. He can be a handful.” She waved a little as Tony swore under his breath, then vanished.

Loki’s expression was one of surprise, dawning realization, and acute unease for a moment before he looked at the mortal inventor sharply.

“It’s, uh... I don’t-”

“If you have need for distraction, I can spend the rest of today providing for that, and I’m inclined to start by bending over this table.”

Tony stared at him for a long moment, thinking about it. “Right. Magic. Can we really... all day, seriously?”

“If you consider yourself up for the challenge,” Loki purred.

“Oh, you’re on.”

~~

They eventually did have to pause the endurance trials for the sake of refueling their respective energy reserves in the form of a very late lunch.

“I just realized that, aside from me being dragged out by Pepper to a few business meetings, we’ve spent almost a full week less than 100ft away from each other nearly at all times,” Tony said slowly, like his brain had stumbled across something disconcerting.

“Yes?”

“I’ve met some of your family, we’ve been talking most of the time we haven’t been sleeping or fucking, or in different rooms, and––this is the important bit––neither of us has made any attempt to kill, or even just inconveniently injure, each other.” He gestured vaguely. “Nor has one or both of us left the town, country, or plane of existence because of something I said. And our biggest fight so far still got interrupted by the best blow-job I’ve experienced in my entire life, and I was actually fine losing that argument, in the end. Like my pride wasn’t even hurt, do you know how sort of weird that is for me?”

“Your point being?”

“This might be the most healthy relationship I’ve ever been in, and it’s only week one.”

Loki’s eyebrows raised in surprise. He then took on a thoughtful expression and a furrow appeared in his brow. “I think... I think I might say the same. Aside from Thor, few if any people have been as comfortable in my presence for such a duration, while I was still comfortable in theirs,” he murmured, sounding like his thoughts were far away.

They made eye contact and both suddenly felt the awkward need to look away, and the even worse inability to look away precisely because of what they could each read in the other’s expression. Loki’s throat worked, visibly swallowing. Tony set down his half-eaten sandwich, as though his strength to hold it up had just been re-routed for use in the effort not to fall out of his chair or something embarrassing.

“I think I want to keep you,” Loki rasped, sounding incredulous yet hungry.

“I... I wouldn’t actually complain. At all.”

The trickster nodded once, leaning back further in his seat. He seemed a bit dazed.

“Do you, uh... do you miss Asgard much?”

Loki looked at him sharply, snapping back to his usual self more easily than expected. “No, not––not really. All of what I used to miss, when I traveled far from home to other realms as a scholar, now savors of bitterness and resentment. I cannot quite miss what no longer appeals. The music, and certain foods, perhaps, but the places and people––Frigga, I miss. I will have to speak with her again, in time, but little else.”

Tony nodded, lifting his sandwich again and taking another couple bites.

“To put it in perspective––how much do you miss Mr. Stane?”

The inventor winced a little. “Fair point. I, uh... yeah, okay, that makes a lot of sense.”

Loki started to reach across the table, then stopped and simply stood, stepping over and taking the seat at Tony’s side. He rested his head on the inventor’s shoulder lightly, relaxing further still when Tony leaned into the contact: sagged into it, really.

“We’re fuckin’ nuts, you know.”

“Quite,” the god responded. “It’s enjoyable, however.”

Tony slipped an arm around the god’s waist, half-smiling despite himself because Loki was taller and longer of bone than him, but still did these things––rested his head on Tony’s shoulder, or slept using the inventor as his body pillow with his face tucked against Tony’s neck or chest or even stomach and long arms wrapped sprawlingly around the mortal’s body––that were a little bit awkward, but still close and fond and... nice, strangely enough. Also adorable, though Tony would never admit that aloud where Loki might hear it. It wasn’t too often––most of the time Tony sprawled or shifted a bit much in his sleep, or he’d wake up as the little spoon more comfortably and contently than he’d ever fess up to––but enough to amuse him and make him feel a bit warmer and more relaxed than he’d care to admit. “It is.”

“I want you to attempt to fuck me through your headboard, next.”

Tony finished the last quarter of his sandwich in one bite and swallowed a few seconds later after approximately three efficient chews. “Yeah, let’s do that.”

~~

Another admission that Tony Stark might be hesitant to put into words, let alone utter them aloud, would be to do with just how much he had started to get addicted to prolonged eye-contact during sex. It was less of a fixation when Loki topped, because he tended to melt the inventor’s brain entirely, but it was still better with it than without. And usually, Loki topped a little more often than his mortal lover, who was fine with that because the trickster was exquisitely talented at doing things to his prostate that blew most all Tony’s previous experiences with bottoming out of the water.

Times like this, though, with Loki on the edge of his bed, miles-long legs wrapped deliciously around the inventor’s body, ankles hooked on each other at Tony’s mid-back while the mad mortal pounded into him mercilessly––times like this, Tony preferred to see exactly what he was doing, exactly how Loki’s composure cracked and broke apart, written on the trickster god’s face and flashing in those pretty green eyes.

He might even especially love how he could make them widen and Loki twitch and gasp a little more, applying a little deliberation to the obscenities that naturally fell from his lips when it was this good, this dirty, with one of his hands tangled in the god’s hair and tugging his head back so his pale throat arched. “You already looked wrecked, how much more before you break, Loki? You want to, and I want to feel you shatter and how tight you’ll get as you come. You’re strong enough you could tighten so much I’d have trouble keeping moving, couldn’t you? So I’d have to struggle to pull out again, like all you might want is to keep me inside you deep as this.”

Loki’s mouth, still red from aggressive kissing and biting, hung half-open, and he was undulating his hips in time with Tony’s punishing rhythm, one hand clutching hard enough at the edge of the bed to threaten the mattress’ structural integrity a bit, and the other on the back of Tony’s neck but now beginning to slide downward, nails scratching, along the inventor’s spine. “I could squeeze hard enough to injure you, but I do love the feel of you rather much to do that,” he panted, his tone uneven and not at all composed, but he was still too coherent by far.

“I’m flattered,” Tony purred, and his arm braced on the bed lifted long enough to tug one of Loki’s legs up, sliding his shoulder under the trickster’s knee. Bracing his hand on the bed again he rolled his hips hard, forward and up, fast as he could with that new angle.

The sound that escaped Loki’s throat was low, blissfully snarling and cracked in the middle, his fingers clutching hard on one of Tony’s buttocks as he bucked helplessly up against the friction of the inventor’s stomach brushing over his cock and then jerked back down to meet Tony’s thrusts, caught between the not-enough-but-desperate of the former and the bone-shaking satisfaction of the latter. “Fuck, Tony, please,” he rasped, then gave a shuddering moan as the fingers in his hair left him, drifted down and wrapped around his length between their bodies.

The inventor swore viciously at the feel of Loki’s body tightening around him, not-quite-spasming, and applied rough strokes to the trickster’s cock. “Shatter,” he rasped sharply, still staring into those lust-darkened green eyes intently.

And Loki did, with a ragged cry that shook with each of Tony’s continued thrusts as the mortal rode him hard through it, until the pressure of slightly rough fingers around him and the jostle of each thrust was so acutely sharp in his awareness as to bring as much pain as pleasure––yet Loki couldn’t find the breath or the will to stop it; although he did give a groaning sigh in time with Tony’s when the inventor came, and at last slowed to a halt. When he finally let go of Loki’s cock, the god might have emitted a whimper, not that he would ever admit it.

It took them over two minutes just to breathe almost normally and regain enough motor function to consider separating and moving further onto the bed. By the time they successfully moved, Loki’s fingers were tracing heat-comfort-libido-stamina against Tony’s hip again, making the mad inventor hiss appreciatively. He blinked a bit in surprise and not-quite disappointment when Loki straddled his hips, his back to the inventor. Then the trickster braced both arms behind him so this back and neck were arched and he met Tony’s stare in the mirrored ceiling, throat bared in what absolutely had to be invitation as his fingers guided the head of Tony’s cock back into his body. The inventor obliged, wrapping his fingers around Loki’s throat and tugging back, restricting breath a little and providing tension-and-counterbalance. It was clever and skillful and Loki’s reflection, bowed back, appearing held in place by Tony’s grip on his throat, was almost overwhelmingly gorgeous.

“You are fucking genius, do you know that? Beautiful, evil genius,” Tony groaned.

“It’s mentioned, from time to time,” Loki countered smugly, and slid hard down onto the inventor’s length.

“Fuck, yes, brilliant, oh god do that again.”

“Think you can keep up?” That was asked in an airy, near-innocent tone.

It was painfully hot.

“Fuck yes,” Tony growled, and set about proving it as the god rode him hard.

~~

Pepper had made her announcement about Tony’s grief/horror-anniversary at about 10am. The marathon sex with Loki didn’t actually stop until the wee hours of the next morning.

After 18 hours of almost straight fucking, they both were fairly mellowed out and, while they wouldn’t admit it, not quite up to mischief or mayhem or mad science because they were both feeling very lazy and shagged out and their brains might still be recovering from such long periods of time with a lot of their blood-and-oxygen supplies being made use of in lower regions, for extremely long periods.

“You haven’t seen any Shakespeare, have you?”

“I visited Midgard once or twice since his birth and death, and on one occasion saw his play Macbeth,” Loki muttered. “I was bored, and wandering, and it did satisfactorily alleviate my boredom.”

“I’m showing you Hamlet. With David Tennant.”

“Is that name meant to mean something to me?”

“It will soon.”

Loki, not surprisingly, was fond of Shakespeare. He was even more fond, after seeing Hamlet, of the film Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which Tony was quite pleased with.

“It’s a masterful inversion of a story, into something entirely other, but not actually very different at all, merely sharper and more ridiculous, albeit bleakly,” the god mused. “I’m very impressed.”

Somehow, from there, the day turned into the both of them lazing on the couch watching some of Tony’s favorite films. The “lazing” in question might have involved him being Loki’s body pillow, the god sprawled across him like an enormous cat, with his cheek resting just above the arc reactor, though they rearranged any time one of them determined that their popcorn or drink supplies had run too low and got up to fix it.

By the time Natasha drifted into the room late that evening, probably having spotted them earlier on one of her habitual patrols of the tower’s halls, they were watching The Silence of the Lambs and Tony was shamelessly the little spoon, with Loki’s chin resting comfortably atop his head.

“I like this movie,” she remarked. “If you two wind up having sex during it, I will injure you.” She curled up in a chair near their heads and grabbed a handful of popcorn.

“Next up is Triangle,” Tony said.

“Never heard of it.”

“It’s fucking fantastic.”

Natasha made a thoughtful noise, and stayed focused on the movie. She got a few text messages, which she answered unobtrusively.

Clint appeared in the doorway as Hannibal was receiving his special second dinner, and said, “Dude, Triangle?”

All three movie-watchers shushed him

“Shit, sorry. Oh, I love this scene. Rewind a little?” He darted into the room, and wound up tucked against Natasha’s side in the over-sized armchair. She let him, tucking her bare feet under his thighs.

By the time Clarice was approaching the house owned by Jack Gordon, Bruce wandered past the door, paused, and stepped backwards to do a full double-take. “Uh... Did I miss a memo?”

“Have I made you watch Triangle yet?” Clint asked lightly.

“No?”

“Siddown, it’s next.”

Bruce looked thoughtful, but did eventually wander in and settle on the futon opposite the chair Natasha and Clint occupied. “We should text Thor and Cap,” he added. “See if they want in, too.”

Loki shifted a little, but didn’t actually say anything against the idea.

They had an answer, and a sudden need for more popcorn, by the time the ending credits started. Tony declared himself too comfortable to move, and demanded Clint and Natasha get the snacks and stuff this time. While they were off, Steve drifted in.

“What’s this movie about?” he asked.

“The myth of Sisyphus, and also there’s a psycho killer who gets dispatched in the first twenty minutes or so of the movie, except that then it gets more complicated,” Tony summarized. “I can’t give away more than that. It’s not nice, but it’s brilliant and beautifully shot, and will mess with your feelings, I’ll warn you there. The blood in it isn’t the point, so much as the greater horrifying implications.”

Steve nodded thoughtfully. “It may not be my usual thing, but I’m interested to see it, given Clint seems to consider it amazing and insist we all see it.”

“It blew his mind,” Tony admits.

“Planning to stand in the doorway forever, or actually join us, Thor?” Loki called, not even turning his head, which was a little disconcerting, because no one else had noticed Thor listening there, since Steve’s arrival.

“If I may.”

Loki waved a carefree hand. “Refrain from commentary unless you wish to be rendered mute for the next twenty-four hours.”

Thor half-smiled and strolled in, sitting on the other half of the futon that Bruce occupied.

Natasha and Clint returned, complained about seating until Steve moved the coffee table forward, further from the couch Loki and Tony made no move to occupy less of, and pillows were tossed from the futon. The table bearing three large bowls of popcorn and an array of drinks, the assassin and the archer curled up on the floor, leaning back against the front of the couch with pillows against Tony’s legs, Bruce started the movie.

There was no commentary, though occasional exchanged looks when they noticed each other’s reactions to events, throughout the whole thing. It was not the sort of movie that promotes conversation. Steve twitched and jumped a few times. Natasha made quiet, thoughtful noises on occasion. Loki’s hand, tracing shapes absently on Tony’s stomach, paused or twitched in occasional surprise, silently giving the inventor insight into the film’s effects on him.

By the time it completed, and someone flicked a lamp on near the futon, they were all under the same spell.

“Wow, that was well-done,” Bruce said.

“I told you. I told you all,” Clint preened.

“Thanks again, Katniss. It’s a pretty excellent find,” Tony commented.

The archer stood and bowed dramatically in response.

Loki threw a piece of pop-corn, timed just right so that it went down Clint’s t-shirt as he straightened.

“Agh! Hey!”

“I quite enjoyed that film, actually,” the trickster offered.

“Even gods approve!” the archer shouted, thoroughly distracted by self-praise such that he managed to forget about revenge.

“That was... very interesting,” Steve said softly. “Moving, yet so sad and disconcerting.”

“I thought the tale unfolded quite masterfully,” Thor offered, rising to his feet, helping Steve collect cups and bowls. Bruce joined in as Natasha gently dragged a still-crowing Clint out by his wrist, mocking him gently.

Tony watched them file out before shifting a bit. “I could fall asleep here.”

The trickster hummed. “Your bed is a bit more comfortable.”

“A day spent being lazy help you rest up your magic a bit?”

“Well, a little.” He wordlessly teleported them up.

Tony felt the couch-cushions drop away and chuckled a bit when they landed instead on his sheets. Turning in Loki’s loose embrace as they re-settled, he let himself sprawl across the trickster’s chest. They lay there a while in the quiet, just breathing.

“I am very fond of you, I find,” Loki murmured.

“Good. Maybe you’ll stick around.”

“Do you want me to?”

Tony tilted his face up, resting his chin on the god’s chest to look him in the eye. “Yeah. Yeah, I would. Did you have other plans in the aftermath of Thanos-liquefaction?”

Loki hummed, low and thoughtful. “I was not wholly convinced that I would survive, and the odds were still more in favor of my return to Asgard for imprisonment again, rather than mercy from my former enemies. I had not expected Thanos to shout the history of my betrayals of his person, almost loud enough to be heard in other realms.”

“You don’t have any more irons in the fire, for once?”

“Yes, it is a disconcerting sensation, but necessary, I think. I would not be recovering so well without it. I am surprised that we have yet to hear from Asgard, but that is a matter to be dealt with once it finally shows which shape it may finally take.”

“And then you’ll either be their enemy again or... what?”

“I’ve never considered the possibility before. It’s hardly seemed feasible.”

“It could be.”

Loki nodded. “I am an oppositional, contrary and self-serving force. It is in my nature.”

“So what are you opposed to, now?”

“Boredom, mostly.”

“Ah, now, see, we share a common enemy.”

The trickster half-smirked. “Again.”

“Yes, but we’re both aware of it this time.”

“I would not be suited to protecting a world. I would be more likely to lure in threats to stave off boredom, or work out a few fool-proof means to evade any incoming threats and be dissatisfied by the lack of payoff in the form of battle or challenge. I would become... I think the term is ‘stir-crazy’?”

“Yeah, I can see that. You could do what I do.”

“Aside from protecting the world?”

“Yeah.”

“In what regard?”

“Rule it, but in such a way no one notices.”

“Pardon?”

“C’mon, I know you’ve noticed.”

Loki’s tongue briefly traced his lower lip. “I might have.”

“We’re more interesting than Asgard, and change more rapidly, given the average ‘mortal’ life-span.”

Something in the trickster’s gaze flickered. “Hmm. Yes, that.”

“You look... scheming. It’s attractive, but I also might need an explanation.”

“Why ruin the surprise, Tony?”

The inventor arched an eyebrow. “Dude, have you met me? I love spoilers. I live in a state of perpetually being ahead of the game compared to everyone else. It’s what I do. I want to know, suspense be damned.”

Loki smiled a bit more sincerely, but still closed-lipped, and his expression otherwise remained shrewd. “I am mad, a bit, as you well know. Left to my own devices, I am never still, never constant, always changing and traveling, roaming in search of novelty and mischief.”

“That’s always been your MO, yeah.”

“Before a certain fall, I was not so different, but I was anchored. I applied my talents, consistently, for the sake of others I particularly cared for. They limited how far I might stray, and for how long.”

Tony swallowed thickly, because this was sounding like potential rejection, like he was being gently explained the ‘why what you ask is not possible’ thing. The idea came with an unanticipated panic. His arms settled along either side of Loki’s ribcage, allowing Tony to sit up a bit and also, conveniently, feeling like he was holding on to... this. “You need anchorage, you’re saying.”

“I know myself well enough to grudgingly admit it, yes. Asgard, certainly, I can no longer survive anchorage to. Hel may always call upon me, should she require, but in truth she is more capable than I in most cases, and conserves and wields power more wisely. She is more than capable of taking care of herself and her entire kingdom, and has married well enough that I know she is not alone, and is well-loved as she deserves.” He took inhaled slowly, filling his lungs and seeming to hesitate over his next words, “You have held my interest, and fascinated me, since the moment we met, Tony.”

That was... an unexpected turn for this to take. “Really?”

“It should have diminished at some point, as I learned more about you. As with all of the Avengers, I know your history a little more deeply than does S.H.I.E.L.D., and I understand most of your technology, and to an extent I know you more intimately than even the other Avengers do, for I have insight into the turns of your mind. I now also know you as a lover. I know many things about you––and yet I would still know more, with a thirst that is perhaps part of my madness, but I do not find it repellent. I have tried to grow bored with you, but you keep up, and you keep my attention as no one ever has, before. The thought that you might only live the duration of a mortal lifetime seems to me a tragedy I do not know if I could allow.”

A tingling hot-and-cold, prickling tingle of shock and exultation rolled through Tony’s body, seeming to radiate out from the sudden and acute ache deep in his chest, right behind the arc reactor. “Y-you mean me. Anchor. I...”

“Unless you are unwilling in which case-,” Loki said, a bit too quickly.

“I thought you were about to turn me down, just––give me second to change gears,” Tony interrupted, even more quickly. He raised a hand to halt Loki’s words and stare down, unseeing, as his thoughts whirled so fast he wondered if he should feel sea-sick, and then he locked eyes with the trickster again. “You want me. Long-term. Very long-term,” he said slowly.

“Yes.”

“Wow,” he breathed, before he could stop himself. “I’m––stuck on how awesome that is. Just––I––usually after a week stuck with me for even just half the time that––even Pepper threatened to kill me a few times and that was on vacation. I just-” He took a deep breath. “I’m shocked that you can stand me, and that I want you to stick around so bad it hurt when I thought you were about to tell me I wouldn’t be able to hold on to you.” That seemed the right thing to say. Sort of. Not quite as smoothly delivered as he might have hoped for, but he was still in a mild state of shock and kind of... tingly.

Loki’s expression was open with surprise and something a bit softer, almost hesitant. “I am not exactly considered desirable company for long periods of time by most,” he said slowly. “Only Thor and Frigga ever expressed anything other than approval at my peripatetic nature.”

“If I asked you to stay a bit more often than go, though...”

“I would not be impossible to persuade, given incentives,” the trickster murmured. “I never have been.” He swallowed tightly. “Few ever made the attempt.”

“Or couldn’t keep up enough to realize they should, or appreciate while you were there, maybe,” Tony murmured.

Loki gripped the back of his neck. “You sound disapproving.”

“I have trouble sympathizing with people unable to realize you’re amazing and worth chasing and trying to catch hold of and––keep hold of. I think they must have been idiots. That’s the only explanation I consider feasible.” Met with a kiss, for that, Tony let himself melt into the contact with an approving hum, his tongue sliding alongside Loki’s contently. The kiss was brief, but deep and heady, and they did not move apart far once it broke.

“I’m keeping you,” the trickster breathed, low and ragged. “I am greedy. And I will not settle for less than I desire.”

“I’m totally fine with that,” Tony responded.

A slow breath escaped Loki. “That leaves new irons and a few likely-looking fires I might need to stick them in.”

“Oh?”

“Contemplate the phrase, ‘The Immortal Anthony Stark’ for a few moments.”

Tony was a bit staggered by that. “That’s what you were talking about. Anchor. Me. Uh... not being mortal.”

“It would be necessary.”

“Well... I talk a lot about legacy, but I never actually believed I’d really die, or get old, so it’s not really that much of a stretch. Just a little... more solid and real instead of just never-thought-about because I tend to make horrible decisions when faced with my own imminent death, as my history probably shows.”

“Will you accept a gift freely given, or will I have to trick you into acceptance?”

“No ‘but what if you don’t want to’ option?”

“I am greedy, Tony.”

“That’s way more attractive than it has any right to be.” He pressed their foreheads together. “I’d accept, yeah. You going to steal it, or pull a diplomatic coup for it?”

Loki grinned. “Both options have their appeal.”

“Thor mentioned Odin can repeal the powers you all get from those apples, stripping them away and leaving you mortal. Best to force him into a position that will make it so that option would do him more harm than good. Theft, he could undo.”

“Very true,” the trickster admitted.

Tony hummed. “I might have a few ideas.”

“Oh?”

“They’re very good. We’ll need to bring Pepper in on it, she’s got a way with legal matters on par with your ability to twist people’s convictions, and she’s a mortal who counts as pure of heart, which will force them to listen to her.”

“Pure of heart?”

“She was moving things around to straighten up my lab while berating me over something, because she hadn’t gotten a lot of sleep but had a lot of caffeine in her system, so she slipped into old habits, but in the process, she might have lifted Mjolnir from the table. I’d been running some scans of it at the time.”

Loki’s eyebrows raised.

“She was in the middle of asking me where she should put it when it happened and she sort of cut off and stared at it like she had no idea how it seemed so light, before suddenly remembering it was Thor’s. It was hilarious. I asked her to take it to him to see what he’d do, and she actually did. I thought he was going to flip, but he got kind of serious and misty-eyed, and I realized it was something of a status-gravitas thing, the pure-hearted bit.”

“In Asgard, yes, it can be. I usually use Thor for that, but given he is considered compromised by sentiment where I am concerned, an objective and fiercely competent mortal making a case for me would force Asgard to hear my case anew, given the weight of evidence post-Thanos-liquefaction.”

“Similarly, and stop me if this is actually offensive, we could tell them you’re an Avenger and watch them shit themselves, while also granting you diplomatic immunity.”

“Either that or you could claim that I’m your betrothed.”

Tony felt a bit dizzy. “Uh... wow. I mean. Yes, long-term, immortality, all... I think I did basically already agree to the idea of being married to you without actually... Yeah, that’d be an accurate assessment, really.” He shook his head a bit to clear it. “One week of not being enemies and a lot of sex...”

“Also months of flirting and fixation before that, whenever we crossed paths.”

“Yeah... I... Are we going to call that ‘dating’ by our standards?”

“Perhaps.”

“If so, we’ve been in a relationship for... how long?”

Loki settled back against the pillows, musing, “Well, I admittedly was intrigued by you, but not actually inclined to consider what you might look like on your knees before me sexually arousing––as well as simply part of my overall desire to see one or more of Thor’s brothers-in-arms brought low––until you helped S.H.I.E.LD. foil one of my more impressive plans, by managing to predict me, and be two steps ahead of where I expected you to be.”

Tony settled over him again, chin again on Loki’s chest, one hand curled into a fist under it so he could better see Loki’s face. “Right, the time you had Fury believing he had something lined up against Hydra but were actually arranging to let the Serpent Society into the helicarrier. You seemed pretty pissed when you almost broke my windpipe, holding me against the wall by my throat and all.”

“And you would not stop smiling, and I had the urge to bite at your mouth.”

“Then Coulson came back from the dead and used that gun based on the Destroyer on you again and you went flying off the helicarrier. I may or may not have called him an undead cock-block, actually. You should’ve seen the face he made...”

Loki laughed, low and thoughtful. “You were not serious, however.”

“No, but it’s easier to dismiss the crazier thoughts in my head if I make a joke about them, and someone else dismisses them for me. And recalling just how attractively predatory you can be, and having just broken up with Pepper, avoidance was instinctive,” he conceded.

The trickster’s eyebrows raised. “You were interested?”

“Did I mention you’re unfairly gorgeous? It’s seriously a thing. You move like a panther when you get seriously pissed off, and your legs are so damn long it’s just––really difficult not to appreciate for a hedonist with a history of being unable to resist self-indulgence.”

Loki made a low noise of approval. “You are pleasing to the eye as well.”

“Yeah, when we eventually go public with this, the two of us together will overwhelm entire crowds with charm and beauty and raw sex appeal.” Tony hummed. “That particular thing with S.H.I.E.LD. was about eight months ago. Counting two or three more times you were messing with them, the Kree incident in Jersey, and Halloween, we’ve still only been on about half a dozen dates. Also: that shit with the police was so not cool!”

Loki laughed loud and long.

Tony grumbled at him, but couldn’t help smiling too, despite all his efforts to the contrary.

When the trickster settled back down, he stroked the inventor’s cheek lightly. “I truly had not expected you to become only more persistent once you knew who it was you were dealing with. Let alone for you to suggest my more natural shape to be equally suited to the purposes of seduction of you, since I apparently didn’t care that you recognized me.”

“I do prefer you like this, but I’ll admit you do good work. Your breasts were fantastic.”

Loki chuckled at that. “Perhaps one day you might get to know them better.”

Tony hummed letting his arm relax into a sprawl again and resting his cheek just below the god’s collarbone. “Another time. This is comf’t’ble. Let’s make plans with Pepper tomorrow to con Asgard with legalese and make them really uncomfortable.”

A rumble of agreement from the trickster helped lull him to sleep.

~~

Plans with Pepper were postponed by a large battle between Hydra and AIM erupting in Manhattan. The fire and chaos was visible from Tony’s penthouse.

Tony wasn’t entirely sure who looked more shocked when Loki appeared alongside them once they arrived on the scene, wearing his full armor and with a long dagger in each hand.

“Brother?” Thor asked carefully.

“I’m establishing territorial claim, to an extent, and reminding both Hydra and AIM that they would do better not to offend me,” Loki said flatly. “Nothing more.”

“Territorial claim?” Steve repeated, uneasy.

“I live in your home. This places them too close to me and mine for me to allow.” He gestured broadly. “I believe there is a battle to be waged, if you’re all quite done gaping.”

The rest of the Avengers looked at Tony, who raised both hands, palms-forward. “Don’t look at me, this is all him.”

“I’m not entirely sure of that,” Natasha murmured, close enough to the trickster that her voice didn’t quite carry to the others.

Loki offered her a mirthless caricature of a smile, but said nothing.

“Let’s get started then,” Steve called, after watching Loki’s evil smile for only a moment longer. “Hulk, Thor, take out the Hydra Octo-bots and anything big AIM might have in the air. Widow and I will get into the infantry’s ranks and cause havoc. Hawkeye, Iron Man, keep us apprised of major events over the comms from high, and try to take down anyone you see trying to move the battle further into the city: we need to keep this contained. Loki...” He looked at the god, who looked unimpressed. “You already have plans, don’t you.”

The trickster grins. “You’re catching on, Captain. Let us say that I might have words with leaders on both sides.” He then vanished.

“I’m not sure I like this,” Clint said slowly.

“We’ll cope. Stick to the plan for containment, no matter what he pulls with the generals on either side, its the infantry and those robots that are endangering people and until that stops, we need to take ‘em down,” Tony said sharply. “Move out!” His face-mask snapped down and he took off, grabbing Hawkeye along with him.

The others followed after soon enough.

~~

“Now, now, Eric, you’re usually so good at discretion,” Loki chided.

The tall man had thought himself alone here, his subordinates dismissed, commanding the battled from a high-rise office near the docks. He had a view over the whole scene through the floor-to-ceiling windows. The laptop at the desk, the communicator at his ear, and the view, served him well enough to command his men. He turned sharply, the implant in his right arm activating so that within a second his arm from the elbow down seemed replaced with a long, wicked scythe-blade, ready to strike out at Loki.

The trickster god just smiled. “Do you remember Hydra’s stories, Eric?”

“You will address me as Grim Reaper, or not at all.” He looked Loki up and down sharply. “You seem familiar to me.”

“Hydra has met my brother several times now.” He stepped closer, not intimidated by the blade. “I ask again: do you remember the myths your Barons are so passionate about? You have seen creatures not of your own native realm, as I recall. That was a botched mess, now, wasn’t it? Of all the realms to let into your own you got Jotunnheim! Now that’s just careless.”

The man’s eyes flickered. “You are Aesir.”

Loki chuckled. “No longer.” His skin darkened to blue, his eyes bleeding red. “I am Loki of Asgard, and I am no Aesir.”

The grim reaper stumbled back a step. “What offense have we done you? We fight against Thor, against the Avengers––we are no enemies of yours.”

“Times change,” the trickster purred. “You are causing havoc near my home, where I so rest my head these days. It is a new development, so I will not execute you on the spot.” He moved forward faster than the Grim Reaper’s eye could detect and seized hold of the dull side of his scythe-blade in an unrelenting grip, twisting it to aim a the man’s own throat while it became suddenly very cold, frost forming along it, causing the man to cry out at the bone-deep pain that shot through his altered arm: bones too cold, the ache of it searing but unable to warm him back up. “You will tell your leaders that the island of Manhattan is now under the watch of a god. I will not strike unless what is mine is threatened, but I am more than capable of shattering you all from within.” He dropped his hold on the Grim Reaper’s blade and stepped back.

The Hydra agent fell to his knees, clutching his bladed arm close as he dared against his abdomen, desperate to warm it. “I will notify Barons Zemo and Strucker immediately. We meant no infringement.”

Loki nodded. “Very good. They will, of course, ask for evidence. Do not move an inch, now, or you will die.” He smiled a little and reached out with one burning-cold fingertip, and traced a shape quickly, but with great concentration, on the Reaper’s left cheek. Earning a muffled shout. A simple rune: Anzuz, symbol associated with the Aesir, but burnt black into a mortal’s flesh by a frost Jotunn now. It would get the point across. “It will heal with the Baron’s care, should he allow you that mercy.”

With a cheerful little wave, he vanished.

~~

“Uh, Cap,” Tony said over the comms, “the remaining Hydra robots have stopped advancing. They seem to be retreating with a lot of haste. They’re leaving a chunk of infantry behind, and AIM is hitting them hard. I’m going in to see if we can make this more about arrests and less about murder.”

“Good call. See if you can prevent Hulk chasing Hydra and keep him focused on AIM while you’re at it.”

“Will do.”

~~

M.O.D.O.K. sensed a change in the air behind him, causing a his hover-chair to compensate, and thus spun around and fired without hesitation.

Loki caught the blast, visibly holding onto the energy in his hand before closing his fingers with a bit of an effort, and crushing/absorbing it. “We meet again, M.O.D.O.K., though no longer on amiable terms. You are trespassing. This territory is newly mine, but mine it is, and so you may take this chance to retreat without retribution, as Hydra is even now doing, or I will make your evening even more unpleasant.”

“Hydra has stolen from me, little god!” M.O.D.O.K. shrieked.

“Yes, I am aware: a prototype cosmic cube, based on knowledge stolen from both S.H.I.E.L.D. and a half-aware god-like being you were keeping in your base not far from here. The cube is destroyed, I have wiped out all data associated with it from all of your systems no matter how remote and secret, and I have returned that lost young Beyonder to his people. Hydra has lost what they came for and are appropriately limping home, chastened as well they should be. You have been meddling with forces that we gods do not even entrust to mortal humans, let alone such abominations as yourself” Loki growled, stalking toward the small monster, composed of human and machine aspects in proportions that were both grotesque and slightly absurd: the over-sized head, the smaller body under it supported by a thick armor of metal casing (arms and legs human but cartoonish, child-like) all within a cylindrical exoskeleton leaving only face and hands exposed, and providing the creature means to hover in the air rather than walk. “You will leave. Now.”

“I was not designed to accommodate intimidation,” M.O.D.O.K. protested.

“I don’t threaten. I promise. I have kept an eye on your company for a long while, and you have potential. Your secret dictatorial takeover of the company succeeded because of, and remained hidden in spite of, the Extremis debacle: you an experiment gone wrong, taking control of the monsters who made him. Very poetic. But I will not hesitate to teach you new tricks.” His smile was cold and cunning. “And I am very capable of that.”

“I cannot be reprogrammed!” M.O.D.O.K. all but shrieked.

“Magic is viral, M.O.D.O.K., and it opens many doors.”

M.O.D.O.K. remained very quiet for a few long, uneasy moments. “To retain diplomatic relations, Lie-smith, we will retreat this night, and avoid future conflicts in...”

“The island of Manhattan. For a start,” Loki purred.

M.O.D.O.K. grimaced. “We will avoid it.”

“Good. If you do not, I will crack open your skull and fill it with human emotions, pain, and horror,” the trickster replied, in cheerful tones. “Goodnight, M.O.D.O.K., and sweet dreams.”

“I do not dream,” M.O.D.O.K. corrected.

Loki winked. “You will tonight. Consider it a little parting gift for your insolence, and reassurance that I do not exaggerate my capabilities. I know how you would doubt otherwise.” Then he vanished, leaving a horrified machine in his wake.

~~

Loki reappeared in the middle of the battlefield, lounging on the rooftop beside Hawkeye, who caught sit of him out of the corner of his eye and had an arrow halfway to the trickster’s face before the god calmly reached out and seized his wrist. “You may tell the others that AIM is retreating.”

“No they...” Clint turned to look and realized that they actually were. “Woah. What did you do to them?”

“Chastised them for a too nearly-successful attempt at recreating the tesseract, and sending their captive alien information resource back to his home, mostly,” Loki offered, with a shrug. “I really was rather annoyed, but I’ve been keeping an eye on them, hoping to sabotage their deal with Hydra before the cube’s construction progressed too far, but Hydra caught on that M.O.D.O.K. had no intention of actually giving them the cube, and M.O.D.O.K. had moved further along with his prototype than I thought.” He tisked. “I hate conversing with that M.O.D.O.K. creature; he is endlessly tedious.”

“You didn’t think to maybe... capture him?”

“If I thought you all might actually kill him, and get that over with, then yes. As it stands, he is now thoroughly terrified of what I might do to him if he displeases me, and he will make no further attempts at his usual villainy anywhere in Manhattan, which means he will spend the next few months carefully dismantling and relocating his bases located here, weakening his forces considerably. If we inform S.H.I.E.L.D. that he will be doing this, they will be able to capture him and successfully dismantle his operation, since his resources will all be both scattered and in constant communication, all the better for messages and information to be intercepted. Minimal property-damage, even,” Loki sighed. “I thought that was obvious.”

“That won’t be the case for Hydra, though,” Clint growled.

“I’ve crippled their Grim Reaper for a while, and they will be targeting me next, for capture and possibly attempted dissection given their track-record, rather than all of you, but by the time they are confident of their forces, my magic will be fully recovered, and they will not expect me to be living within arm’s reach of one of the Avengers most successful and making them miserable.”

The archer thought about that for a moment, then tapped his communicator. “You got all that, guys?” He removed it from his ear and set it on speaker.

“Affirmative,” Natasha said. “Already placed tracking devices on some of AIM’s retreating forces, and sent Fury a memo for a divide-and-conquer dismantling of AIM and all of their facilities and resources.”

“She’s very good,” Loki muttered.

“You have no idea,” Clint shot back. “How about the rest of you.”

“Sort of speechless,” Tony said, in tones of awe. “And also very glad this armor is roomier than it looks in certain places.”

“Please never say that again,” Steve cut in. “I never, ever needed to know that. We’ve got Bruce. He’s half-asleep, though. AIM has worked out some sort of sedative meant to knock him out, but it didn’t quite work out successfully. We can bet that in future, they’ll have the dosage needed, though. Thor and Natasha are working on guiding uninjured civilians out, and emergency services to where they’re most needed. Loki, I’m impressed and a little horrified.”

“I will accept that as a compliment,” the god responded.

“You do that. Also, try to get out of sight of any of the press; they might not know your face very well, but your armor sticks out like a sore thumb. Think you can get Bruce back to the tower while we finish cleanup here?” the Captain asked.

He then jumped when Loki appeared next to him, smiling wolfishly, and dressed in a fine suit of Midgardian style. “Yes, I can.”

Steve sighed. “Yes, Clint, he’s here. Get down here and lend a hand, please. Thanks” He shot the trickster a look.

Bruce, who had an arm slung across the muscular blond’s shoulder, blinked at the god blearily a few times. “Bag of cats,” he said brightly.

“He seems disoriented,” Loki mused.

“A bit. It was in gas form, which even the Hulk is occasionally vulnerable to.”

“Cats,” Bruce repeated, his head lolling forward. “Brain. Bag of.”

Loki took hold of the mortal’s upper arms when Steve slid free of him, and held him upright firmly. “Dr. Banner, if you’ve never been teleported before, this will most likely make you a bit dizzy, especially in your current state. Are you prepared?”

Bruce blinked a few times. “Dizzy cats?”

“No, I’m quite used to it.”

Steve’s brow furrowed. “Uh...”

“Go on,” Bruce mumbled, closing his eyes.

Loki vanished.

“Can I go home, Steve? Please? Pretty please?” Tony chattered in his ear. “Urgent... thing... very urgent.”

“Not until we’re clear here,” Steve warned. “Keep your armor on.”

The inventor swore a frustrated blue streak over the channel.

“Keep that on mute, please,” the super-soldier reminded.

Again, Tony swore, but he did mute his microphone first that time.

~~

Upon their reappearance in the tower, Bruce almost collapsed, or would have outright if Loki’s grip on him had been less firm. When it became clear the biochemist wasn’t going to be quite able to get his feet back under him, Loki set him down on the couch in the main living-room for convenience’s sake. Bruce sank into it heavily and dropped an arm across his eyes heavily. “Thanks.”

“Not a problem.”

Bruce rubbed his hands hard across his face and looked up at him, a little less loopy, though it was clearly a strain to maintain. “Heard thing.” He tapped at his ear to indicate the comm link. “That was pretty good.”

Loki half-smiled, and offered a small bow. “I am not without my certain talents.” Straightening, he added, “On a related note, from the way this sedative is affecting you, it might provide you particularly unpleasant dreams, such as might badly strain your control while you are unconscious and not so able to rely on your usual anchoring techniques.”

The biochemist grimaced. “Yeah, not the first time someone came up with something like this. S.H.I.E.L.D. had their own a long time ago.”

“If I may?” Loki’s fingers hovered over the mortal’s brow.

Bruce considered. “What’ll you do?”

“I will find out more about the chemistry involved, and then try to draw it out of your system and into my palm, from whence I might dispose of it with cleansing fire.”

After a thoughtful moment, the Avenger offered a nod. “Yeah. ‘S worth a shot.”

Loki rested his hand across Bruce’s forehead, his green eyes falling shut. He remained still for a few minutes, then exhaled a long breath, his brow furrowing a little. Bruce made a noise, feeling a flash of hot-cold-hot-sharp tingling sensation through his bloodstream. Then he blinked and his vision was suddenly much clearer again, along with his head, as the trickster dragged his hand away. Bruce was aware of a whisper of heat hear him as Loki’s hand, now free of his skin, filled briefly with green-gold fire. An unpleasantly acrid bit of smoke drifted up from it, then nothing.

“Much better, thank you,” Bruce said sincerely.

“I will sleep better knowing that I need not worry about my spine possibly being shattered at any point in the next twenty-four hours. The thanks is mine, for your trust.”

“Heh, yeah, the other guy still really doesn’t like you. But, uh, he’s not quite as hostile as before, when he’s aware you’re on our side. Or, at least, Tony’s.”

The trickster nodded. “I suppose that is a little comforting.”

Bruce pulled himself to his feet, cracking his back along the way. “I’m gonna go pass the fuck out now. G’night.” He strolled off.

Loki looked out the windows, where the fires were now not very bright, and strode out to wait in Tony’s penthouse.

~~

It took almost two hours to finish up at the battle site to Steve’s satisfaction; however, he sent Tony home after the first hour alone because he was clearly too distracted to be very useful, at this point. Of course, the inventor had explained that would be the case, but stubbornness was one of Steve’s specialties, along with insisting on doing thing right.

Tony was more interested in doing Loki right now.

Because he wanted to reward brilliance that gorgeous; in fact, he needed to touch that brilliance and rub against it and lick it all over. And once he got out of the armor, he stalked up from his lab very intent on doing so. He stripped off shoes and shirt on his way there, and his pants once he was in the penthouse, thinking all the while that the trickster god had to know what it did to him––to see such a well-executed plan like that, and hear it so elegantly dropped on them, both villainous parties scared as shit just from Loki talking to them––and had to know how frustrating it had been to fly around in public for another hour trying not to think about Loki’s mouth and hands and that voice of his.

So he had no idea why Loki was at all surprised to be dive-bombed as soon as Tony found him lounging on the bed in nothing but soft black pants, reading a book.

Plucking the book away in one hand and the bookmark formerly resting on Loki’s chest in the other, Tony applied the former to the latter and dropped both unceremoniously onto the night-stand. “Your brilliance is a turn on, and I want you to fuck me until can’t remember anything but how fucking good you are,” he growled, and attacked his trickster’s mouth with his own: messy and wet and biting.

Loki arched up and grabbed his hips hard, immediately matching him and very, very clearly onboard with this idea. He made a low growling sort of noise in his throat when the inventor ground their hips together, rough and demanding. The startled breath from Tony as their remaining clothing abruptly vanished, leaving them pressed skin-on-skin entirely without warning, earned another rumbling hum, more amused.

Then the mortal pushed hard on his chest so Loki lay flat back against the bed, and slid down the god’s body to swallow his cock.

With a ragged gasp, Loki buried fingers in Tony’s hair, clinging tight. “Demanding, I see,” he groaned, then swore a bit as the inventor took him to the hilt and swallowed while his tongue dragged up along the base. “Your mouth,” he hissed. “Tony!”

Lifting up and off slowly, and with an obscene pop, Tony simply said, “I hope you’ve got lube, by now.”

Loki reached under the pillow for it, where it had been left earlier after morning sex that had been much slower and almost tender, compared to this. “I do. Come here,” he commanded, breathless but still in tones of authority.

Playing along, the inventor crawled up, letting Loki sit up on one elbow and tug his hips up until Tony’s knees were on either side of his stomach, and the trickster’s mouth very close to the head of Tony’s cock. One long pale hand stroked up Tony’s thigh to his buttocks and then back down, picking up the lube and handing it to Tony, then leaving his hand between them, palm-up and expectant. “Apply, please.”

Hands only shaking a little, Tony complied, his mouth going dry at the sight of those long, elegant fingers slicking themselves, sliding against each other to coat. Then he closed the cap and Loki’s hand drifted behind him, two fingertips rubbing circles against his entrance. “Hold yourself open for me.”

Reaching back, Tony did, and felt two fingers press into him halfway, making him gasp a little and struggle not to buck his hips.

“Down,” Loki said, low an harsh.

Tony shifted his weight down, his thighs a little further apart, sliding down Loki’s fingers slowly until it seemed the trickster’s fingers held him up as much as anything else. They scissored him open a little then twisted and––holy shit what the fuck is that?! Tony gave a shuddering gasp. “What the fuck?” he almost wheezed.

“Do you not like it?”

“I never said that, holy god just––” He shivered, pushed down a bit more on Loki’s hand. “I just want to get to know it better.”

“I am enjoying the fact that my magic is recovering nicely,” Loki purred. “And with it, I can––push easily.

There it was again: pressure, stretch, heat, and twisting-caressing, like there was briefly something more substantial than fingers in him, and was Loki just using something not-quite-telekinetic? Was Tony, in fact, being fucked by the Loki equivalent of The Force? The thought had him making an incoherent noise even before Loki did it again and it was a rush of sensation better than fingers alone, almost as good as tongue, not quite as satisfying as Loki’s cock and––and that was what needed to be happening. Now.

“That’s, Loki, please I-” He cut off when the trickster’s mouth wrapped around the head of his cock at the same time the thing happened and Tony might have emitted an embarrassing high-pitched sound of mingled bliss and shock, his whole body shuddering. “Want you to fuck me, please, Loki, please,” he all but whimpered, as those fingers massaged him slowly while Loki’s mouth slid down his length leisurely. The trickster looked up at him curiously, and with wicked mischievousness that made the inventor squirm a little. Then Loki took him to the hilt and sucked hard, as his fingers again did the thing and Tony emitted a low noise like a scream as Loki swallowed around him, coming hard and unexpected and still needing more, wanting more, especially as Loki’s other hand slid up his leg with a familiar time-for-the-next-round spell and unholy god, the feeling of getting hard again while still all the way down Loki’s throat.

Tony might have been muttering and improvised prayer to the divinity of Loki’s mouth and shuddering with relief and sensitivity and want as the god finally pulled off, and slid his fingers free of Tony’s ass. He might even have made a noise akin to a sob of desperation when Loki lingered on the head of his cock with a slow lick.

“Do you remember your name, presently?” Loki inquired lightly.

The inventor met his stare a little blearily. “I... yes?”

“Well then.” The god rolled them both over, pinning the inventor to the mattress hard. Loki got his legs under himself, kneeling, and grabbed both of Tony’s thighs, dragging him up until his length was nestled, hard and aching, between Tony’s cheeks. “I still have work to do.”

“Fuck yes,” Tony panted reverently, arching his hips to aid in the effort as Loki’s left hand slipped between them, lining himself up and guiding him to push in, and that––that was just what the inventor needed. He went pliant, boneless, as Loki gripped him at hip and thigh and pulled him still closer, until there was no distance between them and the trickster’s hip-bones threatened to bruise his ass.

“You pretty, desperate thing,” Loki groaned. “You need me to ruin you almost as much as I need to wreck myself doing it, don’t you?”

Tony nodded fervently. “Yeah, yes, do that.” He tightened deliberately, making the god gasp and buck against him reflexively. “H-harder,” Tony groaned.

Loki spread his own knees a little further and leaned over him a bit to grab the nearest bedpost for leverage, then rolled his hips, hard and deep and at an angle that dragged almost his whole length against Tony’s prostate, pressure only a little less overwhelming when he pulled back only to push in again, still harder, faster, until the drag of push and pull seemed to have no gap and Tony was gasping, pushing down and back, his own hands pressed against the headboard to keep himself in place as Loki’s whole body rolled into each forceful thrust, gorgeous and wholly focused on one Tony Stark with almost overwhelming intensity.

“You are mine,” Loki growled. “Do you hear that, Tony Stark?”

“Y-yeah.”

“Repeat it.”

“I’m yours, Loki,” Tony panted, his eyes clearing a little as he focused. “And you’re now property of Tony Stark.”

Loki’s expression cracked a bit at that, his movements a little less controlled. “Say it again, while you’re breathless under me, Tony, if you think you can.”

“I––fuck yes, your hand–I am... I’m yours, and you, Loki, belong to me. I’d tattoo my name on your hip if I fucking thought it wouldn’t heal.”

“Perhaps,” Loki groaned. “There are ways to do that.”

Tony’s eyes flew open wider and he may have whimpered.

“Would you like that? Your name, etched permanently into my skin, claiming me on behalf of Stark Industries, and sole custody of you, Tony Stark?”

The inventor felt the way his hips bucked helplessly and his eyes rolled back into his head was eloquent answer enough to that.

“I would claim you by making you permanent, forever changing your nature and imbuing you with new power, carefully manipulated and stolen by my wits and my will, so that you will live as long as I, or longer, because of me,” Loki purred in his ear. “I will take your mortality from you, thief as I am, and twist your life up with mine.”

Tony was so close he couldn’t see straight now, Loki’s thrusts shaking him deep and filling him, but the hand on his cock had stilled, gripped him tight. “Please, Loki, please.”

“You may come,” Loki growled, and gave one long, tight stoke, a little too dry.

Tony flew apart and the world went white for a long few minutes.

The first sensation he was aware of after was a warm cloth on his skin, removing some traces of slight stickiness. Tony’s eyes fluttered open.

“Are you with me, Tony?”

“Oh right. That’s my name.”

Loki chuckled. “Excellent.”

~~

Pepper met them after lunch and they presented their ideas to her. She was handling them with cool, professional distance at first, but then went wide-eyed for a long moment at the mention of betrothal, and her eyebrows shot up toward her hairline.

“You––I think they’d be able to tell if you were lying about that? They would have to, wouldn’t they?” she said carefully.

“Well, we’re conveniently avoiding that pitfall by just not lying,” Tony responded, smirking a little when she became very still, but there was a hint of worry behind the usual bravado.

“Who are you, and what have you done with Tony Stark?” she asked.

“Pep, this is still me, here,” he assured. simultaneously reaching under the table to squeeze Loki’s thigh reassuringly, and feeling the god’s defensive tension relax a little. “We’ve sort of been––flirting and not-quite-dating for about eight months without realizing it, or admitting it, before Thanos became spread-able like jam. This isn’t as sudden as you might think, just––unconventional to an extreme, but conventions really have no business with either of us, you might’ve noticed.”

“Also it might come with the added benefit of making him immortal if we play our cards right,” Loki added, grinning fiercely.

“Immortal-ish. Same as him and Thor,” Tony confirmed. “It’s a simple arrangement, really: I stick around, as long as he sticks around, and we both continue to astonish each other with our brilliance and beauty and style.”

The god gave a little not of approval. “Indeed.”

Pepper’s brow furrowed and she looked to be struggling not to laugh. “I’m surprised the sheer size of both of your egos combined hasn’t affected the earth’s orbit,” she deadpanned.

Both mortal inventor and trickster god offered indifferent shrugs.

“No promises the moon and the tides won’t be a bit off, in coming months,” Loki added, dry and sure.

Laughing a little, Pepper shook her heads at them. “Well. As long as you’re both happy, however inexplicably, it’s a bit beyond mortal ken or something. I’m somehow not surprised Tony would have to find his match on another planet with a supposedly more advanced civilization, really. I wish you both the best.”

Tony beamed at her brightly and Loki gave her a thoughtful, murmured thanks.

“Now. Let’s talk about pulling a legal coup on Asgard,” she said, her grin small and bright like sun gleaming off a scalpel blade.

Loki’s eyebrows raised, and remained raised for a large portion of the rapid-fire discussions that followed. Pepper was keen, competent, and wickedly smart, under a careful façade of approachable light-heartedness, and he could definitely understand her appeal, and how she saw through Tony not as well as Loki himself did these days, but enough to accept ‘beyond mortal ken’ as reason for, say, their betrothal.

Before they parted ways, he shook her hand firmly. “You are very impressive, Miss Potts.”

“Thank you. I think you must be, too, and I can see why he’s crazy about you.” She winked, then. “Take care of him or I’ll arrange a horrible and messy death for you with all of earth, Asgard, and probably also the Kree, behind me.” Her smile was sweet and kind as she patted his arm, then turned on her heel and strode away, humming something cheerful under her breath.

Loki stared.

Tony sidled up to him. “She’s something, let me tell you.”

“So I see,” the trickster concurred.

“She didn’t mean––earlier, when–”

“I gathered. And I am more than aware of your previous reputation.” He slipped an arm around Tony’s waist. “I trust you.”

Tony felt his breath hitch. Because from Loki, of all people, that––that meant almost more than the other three-word phrase they hadn’t actually managed to say yet, despite all of... And that, more than anything, convinced Tony that it needed saying. “I love you.”

He smirked a little at the way Loki stopped breathing for a moment, and was not at all surprised when he found himself almost immediately pinned to the wall, the life being kissed out of him sweetly by his increasingly dear trickster god. The kiss was frantic, but also strangely tender, and they were caught up in it for a long few minutes before they broke apart for air, and to steady themselves with all it had contained. “I also love you,” Loki whispered, sounding almost lost. “I... really like hearing you say it, apparently.”

“I noticed.” Tony licked his lips slowly, tasting Loki and coffee. “Let’s get-”

Someone knocked on the door.

Both of them froze.

“We could leave anyway,” Tony whispered.

“Wait...” Loki’s eyes narrowed. “That is no one mortal. Nor is it Thor.”

“How do even tell?”

“The purple glow seeping under the doors is a clue.”

“Oh. How ‘bout that.”

Loki reluctantly extricated himself enough to step away and open the door.

Hel stood in the doorway, wreathed in that dark glow, dressed in full armor this time, and with crown and a bladed, spear-like scepter in her hand. “You have been issued an invitation, father mine,” she said in low, formal tones.

Loki stepped back, letting her in.

As the glow around her faded, like fog under sunlight, the room chilled as air formerly trapped closer to her now mixed freely with the rest. It was damnably cold, enough to make Loki’s skin darken and his eyes redden around the edges momentarily. His expression went from concern and slight confusion to somber understanding, his eyes very wide. “From Nifleheim?”

Hel nodded. “From the three.”

Tony was suddenly very glad he was in the loop here. “Why, exactly?”

“They required nine days to complete their reclamation of the casket, which included pulling from it all events that it witnessed while out of their presence,” she said slowly. “They know all that happened to it, and around it. They know of you, father, and of Odin, as well as Thanos and the Avengers. You, Tony Stark, and your fellow Avengers, are also welcome in their hall. The only condition is to ask no one their name, nor ask the name of their city.”

Tony’s eyes widened a little. “There’s... still something you’re not telling us, here.”

She smiled a bit coyly. “Yes, and it’s one I must apologize for.” Hel approached her father, appearing as much daughter as queen, now, as her expression softened. “I have kept some small knowledge from you, for which I am sorry. Until now, I was quite certain you would not have wished to hear it, but I think now that you will see it for what it is. I never intended to keep it from you forever. You must believe that.”

Loki’s brow furrowed deeply, and his expression bore a trace of hurt, but he trailed his fingers along the line of her jaw gently, on her darker side. “I trust you, my Hel, more than I have ever trusted another of our family. I would forgive you anything.”

Hel smiled a little sadly, but with a good deal of love, and placed her hand over his. “Thank you, father. I must deliver my news to the rest of these Avengers.”

“Before you do,” the trickster said softly, “you should know that you were right.”

“About?”

Loki shot a pointed look Tony’s way and smirked.

Hel looked over at the mortal, only a little surprised. “Caught him, did you?”

“It was a mutual ensnaring,” Tony corrected.

“And the Aesir will not be ready for us one bit, when they do come to call,” Loki added.

The goddess laughed, bright and wicked. “Oh, do inform me when, for I would love to see that.” She squeezed Loki’s hand. “Come, now. You have another kingdom to visit first.” She pushed him through the door and waved for Tony to follow, touching his arm and giving a reassuring squeeze as he passed.

They found the rest of the Avengers in the living room, all but Cap and Thor playing cards. The two blonds were discussing siege strategies with animated enthusiasm, with a lot of comparing and contrasting their respective battle histories. All activity stopped when Hel strode in, Loki behind her at her right, and now in his own formal armor, and Tony at their left.

“Visitor from Helheim,” Tony announced cheerfully. “Hel, you already know your uncle and Natasha obviously. The other heavily muscular blond guy over there is Captain Steve Rogers. The smaller one by Natasha is part-time S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Clint Barton, and the one in purple there is Dr. Bruce Banner. Avengers, meet Hel Lokisdottir, queen of Helheim,”

Thor stood up quickly, but hesitated, seeing his niece’s solemn look. Steve, being a gentleman and a former soldier, also stood. Bruce looked at her, Natasha sat up straighter, but didn’t rise, and Clint followed her example.

“There is a city in Nifleheim older than the likes of even Odin All-Father, and beyond his knowledge and understanding,” Hel began. “It was founded by three powerful mages of old Jotunnheim, three women proud and strong, who became the first of their kind to embrace ice into their natures, body and soul. Some of their descendants would leave Nifleheim many centuries after, and commit a great horror when they did, rejected and un-desirous as they were to live the calmer, more peaceful and contemplative lives of those in the oldest city. I know more than any other outsider, of these three, and their city and their people. As their respectful and peaceful neighbor, and chosen of Mistress Death to rule Helheim and guide the souls of the dead to their rest, they have honored me this way. To honor them, I returned to them the Casket of Ancient Winters, which they wrought from the very soul of Nifleheim, when they transformed themselves into Jotunn of ice long ago. They have spent nine days reclaiming it, taking from it knowledge of all events that occurred around it since the day it left their care. They know of you, heroes of earth. They know the Avengers, and do extend to you an invitation to enter their halls, in my company, when I bring my father before them.”

“Why?” Bruce asked. “Why would they have any interest in us?”

“Your mercy, your valor, and their own curiosity.”

“Why are they interested in Loki then?” Natasha asked, gently as she could.

“That is not for me to reveal.” She turned her gaze back to Loki, whose expression was a very deliberate mask. “Other than to say that they have matters to discuss, and are grateful for the return of the casket.”

“But there’s more to it than that,” Steve said. It wasn’t a question.

Hel turned her attention onto him. “Yes. There is.”

The Avengers all looked around at each other.

“Give us ten minutes to suit up,” Natasha requested.

Hel nodded in approval. “Of course.”

They then scurried from the room, save for Thor, who picked up Mjolnir and summoned his armor with a bit of concentration.

“Should I...” Tony began.

“I didn’t rumple your Armani. You’re fine,” Loki assured.

“Not going to summon armor onto me while I’m unsuspecting?”

The trickster hummed. “It might suit you.”

Hel snorted at them both, and strode over to her uncle, letting him pull her into a brief embrace. Thor rested his chin atop her head for a moment before releasing her. “You look well, uncle,” she said softly.

“And you look like the magnificent queen you are,” he returned, his smile warming.

“You worry.” She touched his face.

“I do.”

She shook her head at him. “Do not. Trust me.” She squeezed one of his hands in hers. Then, in a whisper that would not reach her father, she added, “Trust me, and be proud of your brother as well as his daughter this night.”

He beamed outright at that.

Tony sidled closer to Loki. “So...”

“I have no idea what is about to happen, but I trust Hel would give me warning when to duck if this were to turn into a potentially lethal endeavor.”

“But that doesn’t make you less uneasy.”

“I have no idea what is about to happen.”

“I think you’re about to be shocked and awed, and endure a bit of emotional roller-coaster, and meet a few women of myth and legend who want to tell you something at the heart of all of it, somehow. Whatever it is, Hel is a bit excited about it, I think.”

“There is that,” Loki murmured. “I hate not knowing everyone’s secrets whenever I want.”

“I know, right?” Tony sighed.

Natasha strode in first, in her usual black leather and armed, more because she was a warrior and weapons marked her as such, rather than because she had any reason to believe her bullets would be anything less than useless where they were going. She also had a sheathed sword on her back: the sheath black with red diamond markings, of course. She stood beside Tony for a moment, near the door.

“Not anything battle-related, right?” she asked.

“Not so far as I can tell,” Tony admitted. “And Hel mentioned something about them, ah, warming the place up a bit to accommodate us, so we shouldn’t need parkas or anything.”

“I assumed as much, but still didn’t quite tell Clint he might want to wear sleeves.”

Tony smirked a little. “Excellent.”

Hel strode over as Thor walked out briefly. “I advised him to tell the captain to bring his shield. It adds a bit something, don’t you think?”

“Moments like this, I do recall you’re a bit viking,” Natasha teased.

“Yes, and prove that you well know me even before you say that,” Hel returned, looking Natasha up and down appreciatively, taking in the weapons with only secondary interest. “You look quite well, Natasha.”

“No weapons for you, Stark?” the spy asked him.

“I am a weapon,” he countered, then asked Hel lightly, “Will your wife be joining us?”

“No. She wanted to, but is currently having issues with a black hole some distance away. The time-distorting effects are very inconvenient.”

“Pity,” Loki  mused. “I haven’t seen her in some time.”

“She does miss you,” Hel assured. “It’s been too long since the pair of you caused some havoc in Zeus’ plane.”

Tony elbowed Loki lightly. “Those are some stories I’d like to hear.”

Bruce appeared in the doorway, in a suit nicer than most of them were aware that he owned. “Whatever those stories are, I get the feeling I’m not sure I want to know.” He turned to Hel and bowed his head a little. “It’s an honor to meet you.”

“And a pleasure to meet a man capable of frightening my father,” she returned.

Bruce laughed despite himself at that. “That would be the other guy. Not sure you really want to meet him.”

Hel shrugged. “I assume that, if I were no threat and made not attack against him, that it might still be interesting.”

“That does seem the pattern,” Steve agreed, walking in through the other door. Clint and Thor trailed behind him. “Do we pass inspection, your majesty?”

“Call me simply Hel, soldier,” the queen shot back. “And yes. You all will do.” She raised a hand, cradling in her palm a bit of flame so ragged, and of such a dark purple, that it might have been florescent smoke instead. “Ready yourselves.”

The world around them all twisted, distorted, and unwove itself.

Then came darkness.

~~

They stood in the middle of a round, cavernous hall, perfectly smooth walls of thick glacier-blue ice which gave off faint light. The floors were smooth black basalt. Before them, a long hall awaited, half as tall as the chamber they now occupied, but a little brighter.

“Welcome to Nifleheim. Ask no one their name. You may ask who they are, but do not expect a name to be the answer, or the answer to be complete. Do not ask the name of the city. Keep knowledge strong in your heart of who you are, and why you are here. Do not give your name; it will not be asked of you, and is rude to offer,” Hel declared in smooth, cool tones, not loud enough to echo too alarmingly in the large, empty space.

“This chamber is where guests are delivered, and the only means of safe entry to the city, and only then by invitation, or if you have been here before,” Hel added, as she started walking, head held high, her arms folded in something not quite parade-rest, behind her back. Her father followed, standing at her left. Tony and Thor fell in behind them, followed by the rest of the Avengers.

“How is the ice not melting?” Bruce asked quietly.

“Thermal barrier spells, in particular combinations,” Loki answered quietly. “Keeping the cold in the ice, and the warmth in the air, and preventing them from intermingling too close.”

“Fascinating,” the biochemist murmured.

The others were silent.

The hall, once they entered it, was less cool than the chamber, and there were intricate pillars and arabesque designs carved into the ice on each wall. A coalescence of jagged, crystalline ice added texture to the ceiling reminiscent of unlit chandeliers. In his mind, Loki compared it to the hasty-seeming, more spartan, yet cyclopean architecture he had seen of ice-structures in Jotunnheim on his visits there. Compared to this relative opulence, the architecture of ice in Jotunnheim was impatient, all ambition and no substance, hasty and impractical designs. This place felt old, felt frozen, but there was life here. There were stories, in these walls, and he almost reached out to touch them, to see if he might catch some traces of them on his fingertips, but refrained.

Hel led them around a small courtyard, not letting them get a glimpse out into it, though they could hear children’s voices, and the soothing authoritative tone of a teacher who charms her students with wit and wisdom, to make them listen, rather than demanding their attention by force or intimidation. Their path was not straight, and seemed to indeed take them around aspects of the citadel’s populace with care to prevent them meeting anyone other than those who had summoned them, before leading them at last to the throne room.

Vast as the main hall of Asgard, lit by intricate embossments of magic woven just under the surface of the icy walls, filled with gold light that did not require or give off heat, the hall felt bright and vivid. From the throne at the heart of it, down sweeping stone steps lined with exquisite touches of unmelting frost, strode a woman very tall, with skin midnight-blue and marked with familiar-seeming lines. Not quite like Loki’s, with more vertical sections, but not altogether unlike them. Her eyes were red as blood. Her arms were bare, and she walked with a confidence that spoke volumes about how much tougher she was than any armor, and how little need she felt for such things. Her dress was light cream-gold, toga-like, cinched at the waist with gold-chain belt: simple and elegant. She wore no shoes, but did have a crown of heat-impervious ice resting atop her head. As she reached the bottom of the stairs, she seemed to warm, and thaw, stepping toward them. Her complexion turned olive-gold, and her eyes amber-gold ringed in black. Her hair remained as it had been: black and lustrous, in an thick, ornately decorated braid back from her brow down, down almost to her lower back. She looked not quite young, but when she smiled, the faint lines at her eyes and mouth did not make her seem quite ancient either. She was full of life, and she was two feet taller than Thor.

Hel bowed deeply. Beside her, Loki knelt with his arm across his chest, fist against his left shoulder. Thor did the same, followed by the others, who could certainly take a hint.

“I am queen here,” the woman said. “Welcome to my home, queen of Helheim, Lie-smith of Asgard, Son of Odin, and you Avengers: mightiest of Earth’s heroes.” She gestured for them to rise, and slowly they did.

“Avengers, we thank you for the mercy shown to your former enemy, and sheltering him. He has done us a greater favor than might have ever been expected of one such as him. And you, in turn, have done the same. Myself, and the three, are grateful.”

“You are not one of the three?” Thor asked lightly.

The queen shook her head. “They are not rulers. They are more than rulers. The Lie-smith should well know how limiting the throne can be to one’s ability to do what needs to be done, and how painful can be the results of one meant for more than a crown, forced to act in one’s stead.”

Loki’s eyes widened and his spine stiffened. “That is hardly how most would interpret it,” he said lightly. “I myself never would have thought to put it in such terms.”

The queen smiled a little wider. “One of the three in particular wishes to meet you, Lie-smith, son of Laufey who was son of a King so lost even his children could not tell anyone, or themselves, what his name had been. You are a descendant of self-effaced history, and self-erased history, Lie-smith, but you have done what others before you could not, or would not, or could not even contemplate doing, and that is as important to her as the casket itself.”

The trickster seemed at a loss, his expression raw and open, but he stepped forward and nodded sharply. “Now, I think, I must know more.”

At that, the queen smiled a little more sincerely. “Now you sound like her.” She looked over her shoulder as though listening, or silently calling out somehow.

Behind her came a swirl of snow and cold, crackling out along the stone floor. The woman who appeared in its wake was small and dark compared to the queen, but still almost as tall as Hel. Her eyes were ice-blue, rather than red, around her pupils, shot through with darker blues. Her hair was grey-blue and silver and white, shot through with the richer black that all of it might have been in her youth, the end result being akin to a long-furred wolf’s pelt. She looked only a little older than Frigga, with only a few markings on her face, which Tony thought might resemble Loki’s a bit closely. As the air warmed her, her blue skin turned pale, and her eyes revealed themselves to be a vivid, rich emerald green.

Loki met her stare and felt as though the world fell out from under him, and knew not quite how he remained on his feet.

“This is my mother,” the queen said, “and first of the three.”

“Because I am oldest, because I was most daring and reckless, and because it was my idea to come to this place,” said the first of the three, as she stepped closer, until she stood a mere foot away from Loki. “Hello, Lie-smith, blood of my blood, by the grandson I lost to a poisoned dream of power he was not meant for.”

Loki took a deep breath, a bit shakily. “You are my kin,” he said softly.

“I am.” Her brow furrowed. “Please, child, show me your face. Visions are visions, and now you are here, I would see that they are true as I hope.”

Unquestioning, and in truth feeling at a loss for words, Loki embraced cold in his own heart. It had taken time to accept and learn not to loathe, so that he could do it himself instead of having it dragged to the fore by another Jotunn’s touch, or by the casket, but he had done it, after the fall. He had time to think, too much time it had seemed at first, locked away during times Thanos had no immediate need of him, nor lessons or commands to impart.

His skin darkening to blue, Loki heard a slight intake of breath from the queen, and the first of the three smiled at him a little wickedly.

“Yes,” she said rather softly. “You are certainly of my bloodline.” She reached up to trace the marking on his brow, so like her own, along with some of the designs on his cheek and the corner of his jaw. Her touch was neither warm nor cold, somehow. “I thank you, Lie-smith. It is good to see that not all was lost with the King. There is still sense left, perhaps, among our remaining kin, and with time perhaps they will have more wisdom, and when those waiting far beneath the ice reawaken, they will not have reason to wipe out all those of ice.”

“Some still live?”

She nodded. “More than you may expect. One among them, my great-niece, was very strong. I see her, at times, in dream. She lives, and watches over others, waiting for the ice to wane. With the casket back where it belongs, that thaw may be no more than a century away. Jotunnheim is not wholly lost. When it does return, perhaps you might advise them. You will be listened to, if you can find your kin amongst those without ice in them, show them your face, and tell them who your father’s great-grandmother was.”

Loki looked a bit bewildered. “Am I not––I was not-”

“My great-grandson is a fool. And you resemble I more than he. He would have done better than to toss away a child for being small, remembering me, and there is no forgiving him that utter foolishness.”

The trickster half-smiled at that, a little dizzily. “Well. I did kill him.”

The first of the three laughed, low and raven-like. “As well he deserved.” She gripped his shoulder firmly. “You have been through much, just that I have seen, and much that I have not. You were not given all that you deserved, but you have become great. Nifleheim, I know, is not for you, warm as your blood has become accustomed to being, but you have a place here. You may know us here, as these outsiders cannot, and as your daughter has come to know us. You are my kin, and my home is open to you, Loki Lie-smith. You are not without history, and never again will you need loathe all that you have been given of it.”

“If I did loathe all of it, I would not have shown you my face,” Loki said slowly, as he thawed back to his paler appearance. “It is good, however, to know your face, and that you are who and what you are.” He closed his eyes for a moment, then reopened them. “I thank you. And I thank you for your welcome, and your respect, of my daughter.”

The first of the three squeezed his shoulder firmly, then released him. “Go in peace. You are welcome here, whenever you may wish.”

Loki bowed again, but did not quite kneel.

Hel did as well, but Thor did kneel, and the Avengers followed his lead.

“Thank you,” Loki whispered again. “I cannot tell you how much this means to me, when I never even knew it was missing, that it might be possible. Thank you.”

The older Jotunn woman nodded, and responded, equally quiet, “I can scarcely imagine. But I am proud to know that you exist, you and your daughter both are more astonishing than even you know.”

Helplessly, Loki smiled, blinking rapidly to prevent any tears falling, and straightened himself. He watched his kin, first of the third, vanish into thin air, leaving more fresh traces of frost in her wake. Then he turned his gaze on the queen of the most enigmatic city in all the nine realms, and smirked a bit, recognizing her to be his cousin. It was a strange feeling. “Hello again.”

“Hello,” she said too, amused. “Go in peace, cousin. I am sure you need time to think of what we have told you. And thank you, again, for so surprising us. If I may ask, why give the casket back to us?”

Loki considered. “I had no more need of it. To continue to use it, when my magic alone would more often suffice, or to keep it with no intention to use it, seemed pointless. I used it against an enemy I would have otherwise had no hope of destroying, and still expended all of my own power first, knowing that if I relied wholly on the casket, it would begin to make me more like it, and less like Loki, just as utilizing any such object of overwhelming power affects any mage. I used only what I dared, for I am selfish, and the only reason that I survived the fall, and Thanos, was because I am a mage with pride too stubborn to let loss of my anchorage, my previous identity as I knew it, shatter me, when it was far more important to seek revenge and regain my powers to return to the nine realms. I was too broken to use the casket then, without destroying what remained of myself, and it was a long time before I could construct a trap sufficient for the purpose later when I had recovered further. All of this, I did purely for myself, and nothing more. That, cousin, is who Loki is.” He offered a crooked smile. “Selfish at the core, and occasionally inclined to favor my daughter. Thus you have your casket.”

The queen laughed softly: a lighter and more jovial sound than her mother’s laugh by far. “I think that I like you, my cousin. I hope you will visit us again, in time.”

Loki nodded. “I believe I shall. I have a number of questions, and... limitless curiosity.”

“That is common, for our kin, particularly those who resemble my mother.” She looked him up and down quickly. “You are certainly one of those.”

“Fare you well,” Loki said, and turned on his heel to face the Avengers and his brother. He looked cocky, and wicked, and tired, but on the whole lighter and more sincerely content than all but Tony, Thor, and Hel had previously seen. “Shall we, fellow guests?” he urged.

The Avengers rose to their feet, save Tony, who waited for Loki to offer him a hand, and let the god pull him up. Loki offered him a razor-sharp grin and turned briefly back to the queen, “Oh, one more thing, my cousin, before I go.”

“Yes?”

“If in future I were to arrive with him, I would prefer my betrothed-” He gestured at Tony. “-to not be treated as an outsider.”

The queen’s eyebrows raised. “My congratulations. We will of course consider him one of ours just as you are.”

Tony felt his face heat with combined exhilaration and shock. “Thank you,” he said, sounding more assured than he felt, by far.

Hel then got the rest of the Avengers’ attention and began to lead them out. Loki and Tony trailed behind them a little, this time.

“You okay?” Tony asked lightly.

“I hardly know. Once the initial high wears off, I think I may slide into a bit of panic and need a very, very stiff drink. Or several. And time to think.”

“I know the feeling.”

“I am not sure how to...” Loki ran a hand through his hair. “I could not have expected this. I thought––”

“You only really knew Laufey, and his history, but nothing beyond that. And that’s not exactly a pretty thing to have in any family tree, but if you bore any resentment for them, at least you now know there’s been better, always has been, and they were the exception rather than the rule. And your great-great-great grandma there sounded like she wished she’d kicked their asses over it.”

“She is a myth even among gods. And I am related... to her.”

“Well, she’s one of three who were the first of the whole race with ice abilities. Odds are, given that you all never age and myths suggest she had a lot of kids, and thus a hundred or so grandkids, and so on... odds were good. More interest is the part where you’re exceptional enough she’s willing to invite you back, unlike anyone else since the whole Jotunnheim freezing atrocity, aside from Hel.”

“Which I now know was incomplete,” Loki murmured.

“Dude. You’re still not getting this. That woman’s daughter is queen here, but odds are the queen has a list of siblings and other relatives that’s miles long. How many of them were important enough to be there for the first time this world is making contact with other peoples from outside Nifleheim, aside from your daughter, in millennia? Only the queen.”

The trickster stared at him for a long moment. “What?”

“The queen said, about the three, that they’re more important than rulers,” Tony said. “And that bit about thrones being restricting. Do you get it yet?”

“No.”

“You are to Asgard and Odin, to her, what she is to the queen here,” Tony said, low enough the others wouldn’t hear. “That’s the rank she just gave you, and why she told you what to expect from Jotunnheim eventually thawing. Because you’re capable of doing things no king ever could.”

Loki stopped dead in his tracks, reeling a bit. He made a noise in his throat.

“Dude. Gloat about this to Odin when you get a chance, or you’ll regret the missed opportunity your whole life,” Tony muttered.

That snapped the trickster out of his daze a little with a half-hysterical laugh. “By the nine. It’s not as though I didn’t imagine myself in such a position since the fall, but this––this is so different at the same time. And you’re right, you brilliant madman,” Loki breathed, and kissed him, just briefly, but not quite chaste. “I love you.”

“You’d better,” Tony growled, tugging at his arm. “Come on. Let’s go home.”

Loki nodded, following him willingly as they caught up with the others.

~~

Hel delivered them all back to the tower, thanked them all for their time, kissed Natasha briefly on the lips, and vanished again.

There was a long pause after she left.

Thor cleared his throat. “Betrothed?”

That brought all eyes to Tony and the god of mischief, who looked quite unperturbed.

“Is that a problem, brother?” Loki inquired blithely.

“Is it a lie?” the thunderer asked. “Or any form of trick?”

The trickster rolled his eyes. “No. It is my sincere intention to remain at this man’s side for as long as we both continue enjoying one another’s company, as we do now.”

“Tony?” Steve asked, a bit hesitantly.

“I said yes when he asked,” Tony responded. “And I meant it.”

“You’re actually in love?” Natasha asked. “Just to clarify.”

“Yes,” the pair answered, in mutual exasperation.

“Who are you and what have you done with Tony Stark?” Clint asked.

“I swear that I will melt the face off of the next friend of yours who asks that,” Loki growled in Tony’s direction.

“Clint is just being an ass-hat. It’s in his nature, sadly,” the inventor replied. “Also, I guarantee you Rhodey will probably say something like it, but he’s been out of the loop a lot since the battle over New York, when it comes to my personal affairs and all. We’re in contact a lot, and he talks to Pepper a lot, but he still didn’t work out that Pepper and I had broken up until three months after the fact. Once he gets another leg broken or something, I’ll have time to catch up on all the bro-bonding we’d usually do when that happens, but since I gave him that armor he gets injured a lot less. It’s thrown us out of our previous balance.”

Loki snorted. “Fair enough. He will survive it.”

“Okay, yeah, still Tony,” Clint sighed.

“We cool on this then? Kosher? Golden?” Tony asked.

“Golden is questionable,” Bruce offered. “But I’ve got no issue with it. And Clint owes me fifty bucks, so hey, thanks.”

“Dammit, I was hoping you’d forgotten,” the archer groaned.

Tony bumped his shoulder against Loki’s. “Drinks. Penthouse?”

Loki nodded, and teleported them up.

~~

Asgard came a’knocking the next morning in the form of Sif and Hogun.

“We’re here to accompany both Odin’s sons to a hearing in the halls of Asgard,” Hogun said firmly.

“What about his champions?” Tony asked blithely.

Sif appeared incredulous. “There are mortals who would defend him? Knowing all that he’s done?”

“JARVIS?”

“Yes, sir?” the AI responded.

The Aesir didn’t even jump, though Sif looked a little disconcerted.

“Call Pepper, please, and ask her to join as at the tower. Mention that she should dress for Asgard, and bring the appropriate documents, as well,” Tony called.

“Of course, sir.”

“Pepper can usually make it here in thirty minutes. Natasha and I are the others on the list. Loki? Didn’t Hel want to see this?”

“I can send her a message, of a sort,” Loki confirmed, and stepped out of the room briefly, seeming utterly unconcerned, though Tony could spot the tension in the lines of this shoulders, knowing them as well as he now did.

Sif seemed to be in a minor state of shock, compared to Hogun, who was merely curious but otherwise professionally distant.

Tony offered them both one of his widest, most shameless smiles. “Sit down wherever you like, since we have a little bit of a wait.” They hesitantly settled down on the couch opposite him. “So, what inspired this sudden visit after ten days ignoring the whole Thanos showdown?”

“Odin thought it best to allow Loki to recover his health, and considered the Avengers capable of containing him until he might be well enough to stand trial,” Sif said stiffly.

“Uh-huh. In that case, you’re still a few days early.”

“He vanished, far from our sight, and took all of you with him, so it appeared,” Hogun said, calm and reasonable. “Is that not the case?”

“Hel did that, actually. We were invited to Nifleheim by the three,” Tony offered.

The two Aesir stood very still. “What? Why?” Sif finally managed.

“Well, Loki did what Odin apparently decided wasn’t necessary, and gave the Casket of Ancient Winters to Hel, knowing she’s the only outsider who might be allowed into that city to return it to the three who created it in the first place,” the inventor explained.

“Why would he do that?” Sif huffed.

“Because he didn’t need it, and it was doing Hel a favor. And this is Loki.” He shrugged. “I don’t see why you’re really surprised, so far.”

“It is always surprising to even hear mention of the three outside of history books,” Hogun explained. “It would have been laughable for anyone to suggest Loki was, of all places, with them, unless we had known Hel to have been also involved, but she is often habitually cloaked from Heimdall’s sight either by sheer distance and the unique properties of the magic latent throughout Helheim, or also her own power when she is not at home.”

Tony nodded. “Fair enough, I suppose.”

“You seem to be on good terms with Loki, son of Stark,” Sif observed.

“Well, him being my betrothed and all, I’d hope so.”

The two warriors were stunned into silence at that.

“Ah, you’ve told them, I see,” Loki said from the doorway. There was the sound of a camera phone going off. Tony realized the trickster had borrowed his phone, and didn’t bother asking how he got past the access codes.

“Excellent. I may get a copy of that framed,” Tony mused.

“Would either of you care for a drink?” Loki offered casually.

Both Aesir shook their heads slowly.

“Betrothed?” Sif sputtered.

“Yes. And happily.”

“Who are you, and what have you done with Loki Odinson?” Sif asked flatly.

Tony frowned. “Okay, I can see how that’s really annoying.”

“I am Loki Lie-smith, lover of Anthony Stark of Midgard, adopted brother of Thor the Thunderer, and kin to the first of the three in Niflheim’s lost city. I am not Odin’s son, and he is not worthy to call me such,” Loki offered, calm and amused.

“You judge Odin not worthy of you?” Sif challenged.

Smile widening, but still cold and not reaching his eyes, the trickster responded, “That is what I said, and it is the truth.”

“I’m inclined to agree, incidentally,” Tony added.

“What do you know of this business? Is it only what Loki has told you?” Hogan asked quietly, not insultingly, but out of concern.

“He knows what I have told him, my friends,” Thor interrupted, from where he had been sitting quietly in a chair beside Tony’s since letting his old friends into the tower. “I have informed him of the histories of Asgard and Jotunnheim, of the events of my coronation and banishment, Loki’s betrayals and his ultimate fall, everything that was on my mind after my brother’s actions were put in proper context by what accusations Thanos made against him, and we took him into this tower instead of letting S.H.I.E.L.D. collect him, and more that he did ask of me, in order to teach me a few valuable lessons.”

“What accusations do you speak of?” Hogun asked.

“Heimdall has heard them,” Loki said. “As he always does. If he has not seen fit to share them with you, I see not why you need to know.”

Twenty-five awkward minutes later, Pepper arrived with a stack of paper and a determined look that exuded confidence, competence, and control. “You two must be from Asgard,” she greeted Sif and Hogun. “I’m Pepper Potts and I have a bone or two to pick with your All-Father King.”

Both Aesir swallowed tightly, reluctantly impressed.

~~

Loki was not in chains when he arrived in Asgard. He was in full armor with his hands and wrists free, Tony Stark on his right, the impressive Pepper Potts at his left, and Thor and Natasha Romanov at his back. He felt dangerous, and reckless, and on-edge, but when he stepped past Heimdall and onto the repaired rainbow bridge, his smile came with the carefree ease of long-practiced performance: open and charming with only a little edge of malice.

“You come less alone than expected, Lie-smith,” Heimdall mused.

“You have not been watching very closely.”

“I gave up after you regained mobility and spent more time nude than I wished to see,” the guardian of the bridge explained dryly.

Loki laughed, bright and fierce. “Your loss.” He turned and strode down the bridge as though not led by Sif and Hogun at all, his entourage in tow.

~~

Loki was still buzzing with a performer’s comfortable confidence when they at last stood before Odin’s throne. Frigga stood on the bottom step, and gestured for Sif and Hogun to stand down. They parted, and she stepped close to observe her son.

“You look well, Loki.”

“I am well,” he responded. “Far better than I might have expected. Possibly better than I deserve, but I have always had in me a streak of greed and a penchant for self-indulgence.”

She shook her head a little, half-smiling. “I have not seen you like this since before the coronation, you know.”

“Much has happened. I am not who or what I was, but I am again comfortable with who I am, and why I am here, despite all that a lifetime of deception did to nearly shatter me at the very foundation of that.”

Frigga’s lips formed a thin line. “Again, I am so sorry.”

“You, mother, I require only time to forgive. For others... I never might.” He glanced up toward Odin pointedly. “Is Hel here?”

Frigga nodded, and as she did, the great doors behind them opened again.

Someone nearer the doors announced the arrival of Hel Lokisdottir, queen of Helheim, and Hecate of the Olympians, and Loki’s smile widened.

Tony turned to get a look at Hecate and just... stared. She was smaller than Hel, in stature, and wore a loose drape of dark fabric, like a classical sculpture come to life, belted about her narrow waist loosely. She was all made up of vivacious curves. Her hair fell in long black curls over her mostly-bare shoulders, and her eyes were black and wicked in her elegant face: long straight brow, thin nose, and generous lips quirked into a slightly mischievous little smile. And suddenly Tony’s mind’s eye flickered with an image of her pressed close to Natasha, and all of the soft curves going on caused something in his brain to short-circuit for a moment, until Natasha unobtrusively pressed a knuckle hard against one of his kidneys, and he snapped back to look straight ahead.

He would tell Natasha later, that she was an extremely lucky woman.

By the time Hel and Hecate stood alongside those gathered from Midgard, Odin had descended from his throne to stand before them, where his wife had stood before. “Hemdall has informed me of the accusations against you, made with ire and conviction by the Mad Titan Thanos, before you rightfully slew him.”

“And what think you of them, Odin All-Father?” Loki asked, feeling less cowed by the old Aesir’s stare than he ever expected.

“I think that you are as clever and selfish a trickster as it is possible to be.”

“That’s quite a compliment, coming from you,” Loki mused. “Is this a case of the student surpassing the master?”

Murmurs arose at the edges of the court, in the small crowd gathered a respectful distance from the throne itself.

Odin paid them no heed. “You told us nothing of the sort before.”

“I was never asked, or brought in to speak in my own defense, or I might have. Instead, my hearing was spent behind a muzzle, after which I was disinclined to provide useful information to Asgard, be they in her best interests or no. If you, King of Asgard, are foolish enough to dismiss a resource as valuable as myself, and not listen to what wisdom and knowledge I might be kind enough to give you to aid your people, then you are not worthy of my respect, let alone my aid,” Loki snapped.

A long silence followed.

Loki stepped forward, closer to his adoptive father. “You lied to me for my entire life, and persuaded Frigga that it was in the best interests of all to do this, referring to what few prophecies she felt you needed to hear, and by picking and choosing from them, how could you not realize you were grooming me in their shadow, and letting that shadow shape me? I am Loki, and I will not be molded by you any longer, for you have proven too incompetent at it to be entrusted with that task any longer. You might have shattered me had I been any less full of stubborn spite, and wit, and hateful pride, too determined to survive just so that I might show you every way you have failed, as you spent my entire life making me feel as though I had failed in some way, when in fact your lack of approval was not punishment of my actions, but caused by your distrust of my nature, blinding you to the truth of my potential. You have lost a cooperative ally, as you deserve, Odin All-Father. If you wish to again have any hold on me, you will not make pretense to hold me accountable to your laws, which you yourself have so often bent or stood outside of like they did not apply to you, throughout your youth and your own reign. You lied to your own people about my origins. You lied to every single citizen of Asgard when you called me your son, and never mentioned that it was not by blood. You let them believe that unspoken lie, let them see me as Aesir and judge me as Aesir. And Aesir, never have I been. I am kin to the three of Nifleheim, by blood, and to the queen of Helheim, and even still brother to Thor, but I am neither your son, nor any subject of Asgard.”

“What makes you think that you can renounce citizenship so casually?” Odin asked.

“I can answer that,” Pepper cut in. She smiled when the king of Asgard stared down at her incredulously from on high. “I’ve got the paperwork to prove it, starting with some diplomatic immunity, political theory from a certain city in Nifleheim and the claim they’ve laid on Loki now that they’ve found him, statements from Natasha Romanov, lover of Hel and Hecate as well as an Avenger, recounting the accusations of Thanos and the Avengers’ conclusions as to Loki’s inability to have done anything differently without killing or maiming himself permanently in the process, and evidence of Loki actually acting in a way that promoted ‘damage control’ rather than more chaos for what his available resources might have gotten him. Furthermore, there is a lengthy essay about your failure as a parent and a monarch in Tony Stark’s statement in Loki’s defense here laid out, and his own personal offer of a form of diplomatic immunity to Loki by virtue of their betrothal,” Pepper explained crisply.

An even heavier, shocked silence fell over the whole of the throne room.

Behind Loki’s back, Pepper and Tony quietly high-fived.

“So what say you, Odin?” Loki asked, low and solemn. “How many enemies will you earn for your realm today? Or will you see sense, admit your failings, and ask me forgiveness?”

Odin took a deep breath. “I failed you, as a father, you are correct. I was not made so... acutely aware of similar legal precedents here laid out indicating I have also failed you as your king. If you have no wish to remain a citizen of Asgard, you may take your leave.”

Loki nodded thoughtfully. “I have an offer, if you might hear it.”

The All-Father’s eyebrows raised. “An offer?”

“I am a very valuable resource. And now, I have new and interesting connections in realms that I previously did not, as well. You need me, and citizenship is but one thing you might offer me, All-Father, and given all that has been lain before you here in terms legal and emotional, I think you can do better than that.”

Odin’s eyes flashed with chagrined amusement and horror both. “You have a list.”

“I do,” Loki assured.

“Tell it.”

“Full pardon for any and all previous criminal accusations against me in this realm, and those which Asgard would hold me accountable for but which were committed in Midgard, or against Jotunnheim. That is one part.”

The All-Father nodded, thoughtful. “Go on.”

“Also, citizenship with all that comes with it, should also extend to my betrothed. That includes immortality,” Loki concluded.

Murmuring from the crowd again. This time startled and almost aghast.

“Anthony Stark of Midgard,” Odin said slowly. “Please step forward.”

Tony sidled up, standing at Loki’s right. He looked amused and fiercely protective. “Yes?”

The wily old Aesir looked him over briefly. “You love my son?”

“Thor’s nice, but he’s not the one I’m involved with,” Tony riposted, earning a titter of amusement from their audience. Before Odin could say anything further, though, the inventor continued, “I’m in love with this god.” He gestured toward Loki. “And he is in love with me, to my amazement and relief, because he’s pretty much also ruined me for anyone else, and I actually really like that. You try to take him from me, and Pepper won’t be the only one here scaring you, and I think you know that; because if you’ve been paying attention to the Avengers, and life on earth in general, you know I’m capable of all sorts of things when the people I love are threatened. The thing is, this is Loki, and he’s attached to me, so you can either cooperate with him, or he’ll do things his own way and you’ll be publicly embarrassed like this on a regular basis if you keep trying to control his actions by force and threats.”

Odin appeared thoughtful. “I see why he likes you.”

“That’s the tip of the iceberg. I’m just getting warmed up,” Tony shot back. “Make your choice, or we make it for you.”

“You’re very bold, for a mortal. Usually, mortals who would become citizens of Asgard must pass numerous trials of heart, of courage, and of wisdom, to receive and keep the gifts we may offer them,” Odin mused. “You have won the heart of Loki, which is itself far more difficult than our usual challenge. You have also stood before me, unafraid, to defend him, and while annoying, your wit and wisdom are certainly made clear.”

Loki tried to ignore the urge to preen. He failed, a bit.

Tony refrained from mocking him, but only just barely. “So. You thinking yes?”

“In exchange for renewal of your own citizenship of Asgard, Loki, I can indeed offer you full exoneration for all crimes Asgard would have otherwise held against you for your actions against Midgard, Jotunnheim, and Asgard; and full citizenship and the gifts of strength, longevity, and resilience of the gods of Asgard for the mortal Anthony Stark,” Odin concluded. “You will both be citizens of Asgard, though I sense that you will not stay here long after this. That, I can also accept. Do you, Loki, accept these terms?”

The trickster bowed slightly. “I do indeed.”

The All-Father pulled from the air a golden apple, and tossed it toward the god of lies, who caught it deftly, and bowed his head a little, before proffering it to Tony with an expression full of ferocity and love and unspoken promises of never being bored again, at least never for very long. How could he be, with the likes of Loki.

Tony took the apple, and bit into it to the sounds of cheering (Did Pepper actually shriek joyously? Did someone record it?) holding his trickster’s gaze all the while. It took fewer bites than he thought to finish it, down to just the stem, because he’d barely even noticed the core. He grinned, then, until Loki leaned in and kissed him firmly, hard and sweet, and all too brief, but leaving them both with the lingering flavor of the apple on their tongues.

“Go in peace, Loki. I owe you more than that,” Odin said.

“Yes you do,” the trickster shot back. “Pepper will leave you with the documentation. It contains a number of things you might not have previously known about a certain city in Nifleheim. They were glad to have the casket back, incidentally.”

A half-smile tugged at the All-Father’s mouth. “You met kin there?”

“Yes,” Loki said, then turned away, one arm about Tony’s waist as Pepper hugged them both a bit awkwardly for a moment before strolling over and casually handing the king of Asgard a stack of legal documents with the same professional courtesy she might have shown another CEO, before bowing a little to him, and rejoining the Avengers and Loki.

“Well, boys, that was fun. I suppose we... where did Natasha go?”

“She has another means to return home,” Thos said simply.

“She absconded with Hecate and Hel, you mean,” Tony said.

“Just so.”

“They will be by the tower later, then,” Loki explained to Pepper.

“Wow, that’s...” He eyes glazed over for a moment. “Wow.”

“I know, right?” Tony muttered. “Come on, Pep, let’s go back.”

“Right. Fine.” She turned, following Thor out, with Loki and Tony trailing behind her.

~~

“You won,” Tony mused.

“I did.”

“You’re home free, and apparently in love with me, and now I’m sort of immortal as well as in love with you too.”

“Yes.” Loki stretched, with a bit of a groan. They’d spent the last four hours enjoying Tony’s new recovery time and resilience, and were both a little sore as a result.

“Now what, do you think?”

“I think... that I’m not bored or restless, and I enjoy sleeping in your bed.”

“Good. I like you here.”

“Though perhaps tomorrow I can show you a bit of Alfheim.”

“Really?”

“Oh yes. They’re quite fun. And watching you learn and experience things familiar to me,  is like experiencing them anew again, but faster and sharper and from new angles. It’s fascinating, really.”

“I’d like to know everything you know.”

“That may take a long time.”

“I’ve got plenty of that now,” Tony pointed out.

Loki leaned over him, then, and kissed his mouth firmly. “Well, then. Sounds like a plan.”