There is a woman, a goddess, the gaping maw of death and corruption, and she smiles from where she sits upon a throne of rotting flesh and dying galaxies, half of her perfect and the other utter absence. She reaches out with a hand made of a night sky devoid of stars and plunges it into his chest, a halved grin curling her rouged lips, and the world seems to be sucked into the space in his ribs where her great and terrible shadow is making a home.
"My little prince," she croons, and the child he once was screams for his mother, "you've nothing to fear from me."
Blood and sand and ice and sky bubble in his throat and spill from the corners of his mouth as he tries to breathe around her grasp. "I've everything to fear, and all to lose."
She laughs, and stars die and stars die and stars die, "Oh, child."
The hand in his chest twists suddenly and the branches of Yggdrasil meld at a single point and pull, and the Lady of Ice and Darkness slowly removes her hand, his insides skewered on her arm and wrist like bangles, and it takes years for her hand to finally emerge, and when it does—
"You've already lost," Hel says, and crushes the arc reactor within her grasp.
Loki jerks awake, heart pounding, and he slides a hand up from where it had been curled against his belly to grasp the space between his ribs. The flesh is whole but the shadow of Hel's touch still lingers in between pericardial layers, in the fragile vacuole cavities within his cells, attempting to rearrange his very makeup. He releases a breath, shaking with relief, and rolls onto his side, reaching out to grasp air and empty sheets.
"Are you well, Mr. Laufeyson?" The voice that shakes off the darkness is painfully familiar, and Loki rubs a hand over his face.
"I am, JARVIS," he says into his fingers, dropping them back to the pillow. "No need for alarm."
Nothing more is said on the matter, as JARVIS is programmed to be a facsimile of kind, and Loki moves onto his back, staring into the darkness that shrouds the bedroom ceiling. For all that he is not a child, has not been one for a long time, he feels defenseless in this bed. He has seen shadows come alive in the night once before—things that have long forgotten their names reaching out with envy for his power, his livelihood, creatures born of a waking nightmare that stretch across walls made of ice and ash.
But not here.
He breathes out. There is warmth and refuge beneath the duvet, 700 counts of protection against the specters of his mind, and he entertains the merit of ducking under them.
I told you we would meet again.
"Absolutely not," he mutters aloud, forcing himself to relax, rolling back onto his side and again reaching out for warmth he knows is long gone. Instead, his fingers encounter a cold spot, wetness clinging to the sheet, and something unknots in his gut at the feel of it—his own seed, long since spent, where it pooled after leaking from Tony, who had laughed and come so hard around Loki's cock that he developed a cramp in his thigh, "it hurts so good, christ, I want to go again, give me a minute or forty, fuck fuck fuck, ow."
His muscles unclench one by one, and he turns to bury his nose in the sheet, inhaling sweat and sleep and the cloying smell of fading sex. Safe. He is safe here. The Lady of Shadow and Death is realms away and Tony is just fine, no doubt in his lab at this very moment, working, creating, alive.
Minutes slip by as he waits to fall into kinder dreams, but sleep eludes him as it often does during nights like these, and he pushes himself out of bed.
"What time is it, JARVIS?" He pads over to the closet he's claimed as his, the one nearest the windows, and motions for the door to slide open. Even in the dark he can make out the wavy line of dark greens and grays, made of the kind of soft material only money can buy, and he runs his fingers over the dips of each shoulder before selecting the threadbare Icarus shirt that once belonged to Tony.
"2:19 AM Eastern Standard, Mr. Laufeyson."
The shirt feels like nothing as he slips it over his head. "And Tony?"
"Mr. Stark is in laboratory 2 with Mr. Banner and Ms. Foster, attempting to implement Project R_B9913 into the Mark 71," JARVIS says, and Loki can't help but find the amused lilt to its voice a curious thing indeed.
"Is he using the derivatives I gave him?" The Iron Man suit's initial propulsion into the air takes too much time; a second's delay is too great a risk, especially when in the heat of a battle. The derivatives are the product of three days' worth of calculus and applying the physics to the new Mark 73 while still respecting the damn time of the final equations. It's the fruition of a dozen broken chairs, tables, and one glass jar containing a dead lion's mane polyp, all felled by his frustration and need to be absolutely accurate. He'd given them to Tony with such pride.
Of course not. "This project is going to blow up in that idiot's face."
"Shall I take pictures?" JARVIS inquires sweetly, and there is a hint of humor there, consciousness where there should be none. JARVIS is artificial intelligence, Loki knows this—but he also knows that Tony's hold over his technological marvels ought never be taken at face value. There is more life in that omniscient voice than in most living people.
Loki grins. "JARVIS, you spoil me."
There's nothing for it; he won't find sleep again this night, his few good dreams held captive by a hand made of an endless void. He slips on the pair of sweatpants he once liberated from Saks and pads out of the room, down the hallway, past the long stretch of windows that overlooks the city, and spares no time in capturing a shadow and riding it all the way to the roof. The rush of power lights his veins as no drug could ever hope to do, dissolving him into nothing more than a string of equations and half-formed theories, and he relishes every tick of Planck length, 5.39106(32) × 10−44 s, until he is spat out into the wind, left at the mercy of an infinitely slower module of time.
The promise of winter smacks at his jaw and he inhales it deeply, sniffs it back until he can taste it on the edges of his tongue, metal and ice and pollution, the ever-pervading urine smell of which he's become so fond. He walks to the edge and leans forward, resting on his elbows as he surveys his city.
Once, he would have corralled them like chattel, watched with glee as they white-washed the walls of their temples, their churches, and usurped their gods in favor of the new, painted his likeness where others once were. It would have been interesting to see if they would love him as blindly as they do the others—God and Allah and Jesus and Yahweh and Justin Bieber—if his name would be a new way to dress up the justification of war and hate.
Once, he would have craved such worship. Deserved it, even.
Loki clenches his hand into a fist and, if he closes his eyes and thinks hard enough, he can still feel the curve of golden flesh against the skin of his palm, his life forced to bend into the sweet curve of an apple. There is no place on temple walls for a mere mortal, not even with the gifts he was allowed to keep. He finds he doesn't mind the loss. At least, not too much. His reach may not be immortal, but it is overwhelming still in its scope; down below, among the thousands that walk the street, there is not a single person who knows that on the roof of Stark Tower is one who could change their fate should he wish. A wave of his hand and a car may suddenly change course, and a life would be ground into so much blood and ichor upon glass and metal. It would be easy.
His fingers unfurl and he exhales, breath leaving him in a cloud. This is the kind of reign best suited for him, anyway—anonymity. Not to mention the children within the building would put on their shiny costumes and have their green beast use him to knock down a few walls. Any excuse to remodel, Tony would say.
The door to the roof swings open and hits the wall with a crack like a penthrite explosion, and he startles, turning to see a swirl of hair and fabric, and Jane stalks forward, seething, only to stop, stamp her foot, throw her head back, and roar.
"I don't know 'the first thing about electrodynamics'? Me? Are you kidding me? Does that asshole even know what field I work in?" Loki is almost certain that this will be the moment she presents as a mutant and takes the entire city out with her rage. "I hope he's still harping on about Coulomb potential when I rip out his fucking vocal cords and strangle him to death with them!"
"How delightfully out of character," Loki says, utterly charmed by the way Jane whips around and bares her teeth as if she hungers for the soft meat of his throat. It's a pity she has no physical strength; she would make a terrifying shield maiden.
"He told me to come back when I understood spin-1/2 particles," Jane seethes. "Me. He told me that, when I was the one who wrote their second thesis on the uncertainty principle in regards to matter wave—oh my god, I'm going to kill your boyfriend."
Loki wrinkles his nose. "I dislike that term. It makes me sound as though I am hoarding his discarded tissues beneath my pillow."
Her nostrils flare. "He's not using your derivative sets."
"He's going to blow himself up."
Loki shrugs and leans back against the edge of the roof, chin lifting skyward. "Most likely."
"And you're okay with that outcome?"
He snorts. "As the kind individual who gave him the derivatives he isn't using, I'm thrilled with that outcome."
A grin flits over her mouth as she comes to stand next to him, and his eyes are ensnared by her hands, oddly regal in how they fold atop one another, her palm pressed to the concrete. Her gaze is steady, burnished gold in the reflection of a thousand earthbound stars, as she squints up at the sky. Almost at once, her thin shoulders slump as all her breath departs in a slow exhale; stars have collapsed with less grace. She looks tired.
"I can go elsewhere," he says. Clint has grown complacent lately; perhaps a late night visit to his favorite former slave is just what the doctor ordered.
"Hm?" Jane tears her gaze from the sky and blinks slowly, dreamily, at him. She jerks, suddenly very alert, and laughs. "Oh, no, sorry. Rage-stroke over. C'mere, hang out with me for a bit."
Of all the people he has met since sent here as punishment, he counts Jane Foster among the few competents, a great mind and possessed of a wit that he can't help but like, and soon she will be queen of the Æsir. This world has placed her in a box, a confined thing made from the crossed bars of her chromosomes and nothing else, and he would see the day that she returns to the place she once called home and forces those who saw her as lesser into boxes of their own.
"I miss Puente Antiguo," Jane says, apropos of nothing. "Like, a lot."
"Was there anything to miss?" Loki remembers what the little town looked like from his view on Odin's throne: hot, arid, and quaint. It hardly looked any worse after the Destroyer razed half of it to the ground.
It wins him a mock-outraged nudge, but she's smiling, and she says, "Shut up. It was just… simpler. But the one thing I miss about it—beside the fact that I could get the most amazing pancakes no matter where I went—is the sky. You could see everything out there. Made my job so much easier." Jane frowns but is still arrested by the night that hangs sparse above them. "There's too much light pollution here. You can't even see Orion."
He knows of Orion, the hunter, a lover in one story and a rapist in another, and he finds it almost laughable that such a popular figure would be known by a mere three stars. The first constellation all Æsir children learn is Audhumla, the cow. Made up of ten stars, it grazes upon the dark matter that roils between Vanaheimr and Asgard, a peaceful reminder and tribute to the beginnings of the cosmos. The brightest of the ten, or at least the most noticeable, is Yfir, vibrant and blue—more so than Midgard's many seas, more than Odin All-Father's singular gaze. As a boy, Loki loved Yfir with an awe that teetered on the edge of obsession.
As a man, he loves it even more, bound as it is to the heart of a mortal with questionable grooming habits.
"The city has sucked the stars from the sky and all but snuffed them out," Loki mutters, gesturing to the many streetlamps and headlights that turn the ordered arrangement of streets below into a dreamy sort of haze.
"That's one way to put it," Jane snorts. "I just don't think I'm cut out for urban living. In the desert, I'd look up and feel so small, so special, you know? Now it seems that no matter where I look up, I don't feel anything."
Loki gasps. "Even Asgard? Is it so unworthy of your attention that you would look elsewhere for wonder? Do the skies of my home lack the luster of Puente Antiguo—"
A thin finger pokes him in the ribs, putting an end to his false horror, and Jane laughs, her eyes veritably glowing like the stars she cannot see. She is radiant, every bit the queen she will someday be, but he has no reason to bow to her just yet so he pokes her back.
"Shut up," Jane says, all smiles, and there is something about her, something that he is not seeing. This is not the same woman who ranted his ear off about quantum field theory. "Asgard is amazing and you know it. In fact, I was just there and someone's mom is pissed that someone hasn't been by to visit."
It is going to halve you, and you must be sure… You will be a guest in your own home.
A sour taste, not unlike the candy Barton forced upon him this past October, oozes up his jaw; he swallows hard around a dry lump in his throat and pastes a smile upon his face with used electrical tape. "I will visit her soon."
There is a pregnant pause, and then, "Are things… good? Between you and your mom, I mean?"
He rolls his eyes. "It's so nice to know Thor thinks my true origins to be fuel for the gossip chain."
"No, I didn't mean—" Jane sighs. "Okay, yes, Thor told me. But only after I told him about me."
"What about you?" He is interested despite himself. He honestly cares not for what Thor uses Loki's… humble beginnings. Gossip, blackmail, guilt-tripping—he has long since snipped away his umbilical excess.
Jane smiles. "I was adopted, too. Actually, I think my 'true origins' beat yours. Not only was I adopted, but I wasn't even supposed to survive. Statistically speaking. My mom—my real mom—was a druggie."
It isn't often that he finds himself at a loss for words; he sleeps in Tony Stark's bed, after all, and the only way to make himself heard over the loud and fast melee of science and thinly-veiled insults is to speak louder and faster and not veil his insults at all. But this is not territory he has travailed often—unfamiliar is the land in which he can relate to others.
"Yeah," Jane says in agreement to whatever she must see on his face. "She had a predilection for the good stuff: fentanyl, in particular. She had me and left me in a dumpster—can you believe that? Like, she couldn't take the extra five minutes and leave me at a fire station? And forget that I was strung out on opioids; I was so underweight that not a single doctor thought I'd make it through the first night."
Loki's tongue feels too thick, too large to have a comfortable place in his mouth, and he can't help but look at the fragile jut of her collarbone, her wrists, bones like a bird, and imagine the infant she had once been, thrown out with the rest of the trash.
In the aftermath of the battle I went into the temple and I found a baby. Small for a Giant's offspring, abandoned, suffering, left to die. Laufey's son.
He swallows, a dry click in his throat, and gestures for her to continue.
"Then came the girl's home—pretty name for orphanage, right?—and no one wanted me. I was too hyper, too everywhere. I used to keep lady bugs in milk cartons so I could study them. I hoarded my juice boxes to test how different things floated, how much buoyancy there was depending on the brand." She grins and turns her attention back to the empty sky. A plane drifts in and out of the clouds. "By the time I was six, I pretty much figured that I wasn't going to be leaving that place. I was well on my way to becoming my mother. But then the Fosters came and… I don't know what they came there looking for, what kind of kid they were hoping to find, but they ended up with me."
She must have been a horrible, fascinating thing, wild and unfocused and feeling so very wrong among everyone else.
She laughs a little, head tilted down as if immersing herself in the memory. "I mean, they both encouraged my thing with science, but my mom..."
When nothing seems forthcoming, Loki prompts, "She…?"
"My mom," Jane continues slowly, choosing each word carefully, "was at the forefront of nuclear physics, specializing in stellar nucleosynthesis. No one, no one knew more about core-collapse supernovae than she did. If she'd stuck with it, I'm pretty sure she would've snagged the Nobel by the time she was forty. But, instead, she gave it all up. For me."
She lifts her head back to the sky, the corner of her mouth trembling before she tightens it, and her hands curl and grasp each other until the skin bleeds white beneath the bite of her nails. Whatever comes out of her mouth next will be enormous, more so than their combined umbilical residue.
"For years, I didn't understand that, how she could want something so badly and just… just give it up for a kid she didn't even know. My dad got to do his thing with Eric, but my mom for some reason had to give up all her dreams. Don't get me wrong, I'm completely indebted to her—she stayed home every day and taught me everything she knew. She set me on the path I'm on. But she gave up everything she wanted, all her dreams, all her plans… and for years I didn't understand how she could do that. How anyone could do that."
With one last fond look at the sky, Jane pushes away from the edge and turns to him, looking up at him, and for all that she seems so small she is a veritable force, his radiant queen. She reaches out and takes his hand from where it hangs at his side and then presses his palm against her belly.
"I get it now."
For a moment, he stares at his own hand, annoyance bubbling up unbidden for confusion is not a state in which he finds himself often, but all things being equal, the simplest answer is usually the right one, and something flares beneath his palm, the glare on a television screen, a sun going nova, and he—
He feels it. The second pulse.
"Oh, fuck me," Loki blurts out, and Jane laughs, covering his hand with her own, and they tremble together.
"Getting pretty comfortable with the vernacular there, huh, Uncle Loki?"
There's a spasm beneath his breast and his heart seizes painfully, because, "Surely you must be joking."
"I'm not joking. And don't call me Shirley." She smiles at the face he makes, because he found no amusement in that ridiculous movie, and she pats his hand where it rests against the flat plane of her stomach.
There are no words to describe what calls to his touch, what shivers beneath his palm, and he cannot quantify the power in the growing cells that divide and divide and divide, math unlike anything he's ever known. It is immense, the strength he feels, the potential there for a power so great that a thin thread of fear, of horror, begins weaving in and out of his gut, stitching a reminder into his very bones. What will come of the amalgam of Midgard and Asgard? What promise does this product of two worlds hold? He closes his eyes against the loud the end of all things resides within Jane Foster's womb that makes a home in his brain.
But louder is the overwhelming storm of—of, gods, love for this tiny thing, little more than a speck, but all stars begin small and all stars should be loved. All stars are beginnings, and how terribly he will love this one. It will never be abandoned, never ignored, never made to feel wrong or incomplete, and he will see to it that it is blessed by the world in which it lives. It will know the foundations of the axis on which the planet spins; how numbers are the only true language and it will speak them fluently. The child will be born into a world that fights against its inhabitants, and he will see it armed and ready for such a war.
I will spoil you. I will do terrible things in your name, he thinks, and there is a pulse against his palm in agreement, a contract signed.
"Does Thor—?" A foolish question. Of course Thor does not know. If he did, the pregnancy would have been announced immediately, followed by the sounds of breaking crockery and thunder.
Jane shakes her head. "You're the first person I've told. Hell, I practically just found out myself. Explains why I've been so out of sorts lately. I wanted to make sure it… I wanted to make sure it was something I could do."
Then she is sure. She will follow in the footsteps of her selfless mother—her real one, not the one who abandoned her like so much refuse—and rear a child that will change worlds.
"He will be…" Loki pauses thoughtfully. "'Overjoyed' is a terribly inadequate word."
"This is going to end with a wing of the mansion completely destroyed," Jane laughs, high-pitched and tight, on the knife's edge of hysteria, and that her tiny body can somehow manage the massive amounts of adrenaline being dumped into her bloodstream only gives credence to the unfair brilliance of the human design. For someone her size, she ought to be unconscious. "Oh god, someone's going to have to tell Odin that he's going to be a grandfather. I nominate Darcy. He likes her."
Loki snickers. "He will weep like a child with a skinned knee, and Darcy will feed him popcorn and force him to watch Disney films."
"That is a terrifying image," Jane manages through giggles. "You're a bad man, Uncle Loki."
Uncle Loki. A grin erupts across his face and his heart shudders against his ribs, and Jane grins back at him, her cold hand curving over his.
The door bursts open. Loki jumps in surprise and positions himself in front of Jane, one hand remaining firmly on her belly and the other drawing a blade, ready for a fight.
Tony stares at them. They stare back.
"Oh my god," Jane gasps. "What the hell happened?"
His skin is smeared with ash and oil, and there are charred bits of flesh marking his neck and jaw. Tony smells as though he bathed in ozone before coming outside, and the tips of his hair are smoldering. One of his eyebrows has been seared off his face.
Wild-eyed, Tony steps toward them and chokes out, hoarse, "So you know how you told me to use your derivatives and I did the exact opposite because I'm occasionally a dipshit? You were—"
The words halt on his tongue as his gaze falls to where Loki's hand covers Jane's belly, and a look of pure horror flashes across his face.
"Okay, before you freak out," Jane begins.
"You look revolting," Loki says.
"Oh Jesus fuck, I'm gonna need to baby-proof everything," Tony groans.
Loki leaves the second laboratory and heads for the main kitchen, doing his level best not to blast a hole in the corridor wall. "What exactly are you saying, doctor?"
"I'm saying that, while I have to admit I'm blown away by your aptitude for the sciences and how the level you're at right now should be impossible, I have to decline," Dr. Banner says, voice made tinny by the thin speaker within the glass, and Loki stops in the middle of the hall to frown down at it.
"I am offering you help."
The tiny image of Banner shrugs and effects an apologetic grimace. "Loki, I appreciate the, uh—"
"I am offering you help." Perhaps the good doctor is past the point of understanding simple sentences; Banner is notorious for not keeping a regular sleep schedule and it makes him absent-minded and, for lack of a kinder adjective, stupid.
"I know, and I appreciate—"
His cheeks grow hot under the strain of his frustration and it takes all his considerable power to not crush the device in the curl of his grasp. It is the knowledge that Tony will complain for hours that stops him. "You appreciate my help but not enough to make use of it. Is this a common thing, this pleasant lying? Because if so, I am throwing out that stupid photography book Rogers gave me for Christmas—"
"Loki," Banner sighs and scratches the back of his head for lack of anything better to do, because the man is completely useless. "It has nothing to do with you. It's—I won't even let Tony in on this, okay? Gamma is nothing to fool around with."
"I do not fool around with anything," Loki growls, offended. "Do you think me a child? I, perhaps more than anyone, know what destruction gamma rays wring. None of you have ever borne witness to a hypernova—"
"The answer's still thanks but no thanks. Gamma isn't anywhere near the fields you've been working in. Same goes for Tony—although I wouldn't let him within ten miles of me even if he were an expert in the field. The world isn't ready for that sort of mayhem." Banner's eyes go blank for a moment before he shakes himself out of that particular nightmare with a shudder. "It's just an experimental trial, okay? A lot of gamma theory and wormholes. I'll be fine. Jane really should be here, but with being so far along and, you know, Thor… We've got Eric Selvig—"
Loki rolls his eyes. "Of course. Selvig. What could possibly go wrong."
Bruce grins up at him, the pockets of skin at the corners of his eyes crinkling. "Loki, are you worried about me?"
"… No." He clears his throat. "Of course not. It is simply that I would not trust Selvig to remain impartial about the results, whatever they are. His mind is so easily… captured."
"Because it sounds like you're—"
"Oh dear," Loki sings, "Your signal is almost gone. I must speak to Tony about the shoddy make of this device. I'm about to lose you."
He stabs the END button on the glass viciously, cutting off Banner's laughter, and ends up hurling the ridiculous thing at the wall. It does not break. He tries not to be insulted.
There is a nearly whole burrito in the fridge with CLINT'S (IF YOU EVEN ENTERTAIN THE THOUGHT OF TOUCHING THIS LOKI I SWEAR TO GOD) written on it in permanent marker, and Loki eats half of it by the time he reaches the common room, one of many in the tower. As he nears, he hears the low rumble of what he thinks is the television, but as he enters the room he places the sound as his brother's voice, soft and far gentler than Thor ought to be capable of. It isn't until he sees them that he understands why.
Jane is lounging on one of the overstuffed couches, seated with two pillows shoved between her back and the arm of the couch and reading the latest issue of Smithsonian, while Thor lies betwixt her legs, his cheek resting upon her thigh while he murmurs to her belly, his large hand rubbing circles into the fabric there.
He opens his mouth to greet her, but Jane, without looking up, says, "Say it and I will murder you in your sleep."
Loki has taken to calling the swell of Jane's belly "Olympus Mons."
Immediately following his departure from Asgard the first time, he had visited the red planet on his way to Earth. As a boy, he'd heard talk of a grand mount bathed in rust and blood, and it had been the first thing he'd sought out. It hadn't disappointed. It was stunning, in height and size both, a testament to the majesty and power of volcanic formation, and he'd almost felt small standing in its shadow. It was a humbling experience, not unlike the one he has whenever he catches a glimpse of the rotund home in which his niece or nephew resides.
Jane has taken to throwing whatever is within reach at him whenever he says it. It's a small price to pay.
For all he'd been concerned about the creation of an Asgardian and Midgardian child, the pregnancy has been uneventful. Almost disappointingly so. He does not know what he had been expecting, but a relentless craving for KFC mashed potatoes hadn't been it.
Although more surprising than Jane's normal pregnancy was Thor's reaction to the announcement that he was to be a father. Tony had been prepared and removed all breakable items—including any and all robots and himself—from the living room, but Loki had watched from the doorway to one of the verandas as Jane quietly took Thor's hand and placed it upon her belly. Stars lived and died before Thor moved, and when he did it was to sink slowly to his knees, bury his face into her, his human queen, and weep silently while Jane carded her fingers through his hair.
His brother has proven himself to be a doting partner and proud father-to-be, not that he would have been anything else, but he has also shown a quiet reverence for Jane and the child she carries that Loki would have thought impossible.
"Come on, give the guy a little credit." Tony's voice comes from underneath one of his many cars. From the sound of it, he has a flashlight in between his teeth. "He'd do anything for her, up to and including breaking into a KFC for late-night potatoes, which was a phone call I never once expected to get from my lawyer. It's pretty adorable. Fess up, Prancer: would you commit petty larceny for moi?"
If only Tony knew.
"And then," Thor says, pressing his nose to the little strip of skin left exposed by Jane's shirt, "I lifted mighty Mjolnir and slew the beast with a single blow, and I celebrated the victory by drinking its blood from its skull and wearing its hide as a hat that very night. And someday, my little love, I will teach you to do the same."
Over the top of the magazine, Jane rolls her eyes at Loki, I'll be in charge of bedtime stories once the kid is out, don't you worry. Even though it goes unspoken, she threads her fingers through Thor's hair as if to soften the blow. Thor hums happily under her touch and closes his eyes against her belly, and in all the worlds there has never before been such a happy expression upon a face.
"Oh, but brother," Loki interjects with a smile that feels as light and pleasant as gossamer, and he takes a bite out of Clint's burrito, "Do not forget to mention what came before you slew the creature."
Thor's eyes snap open and he coughs delicately. "No, I told the story as it was meant to be told." He pauses. "That foodstuff does not belong to you."
"Finders keepers." Humans have such delightful turns-of-phrase.
She snickers. "Whoever came up with that didn't have to deal with a half-asleep Clint scrounging for a midnight snack. When people write their name on food, you can't touch it. It's an unwritten rule."
"Oh yes, because I'm notorious for my strict adherence to rules," Loki sighs, finishing off the rest of the burrito in two bites and licking the meat juice from his fingers. "And Thor, just because you told a story the way you think it is meant to be told does not mean it is true. Did you tell your progeny of the disguise you took on in order to get close to the monster's den? Does it know how you covered yourself in its dung to disguise your smell—"
"Your uncle is lying, as is his wont," Thor says to Jane's belly.
"I'm really not. Oh, do tell it about how its mate took a shine to you and was going to mount you right then had it not been for—"
"Loki, do not impugn my honor in front of my child," Thor demands, and Loki would take it as the threat it is undoubtedly meant to be if it did not come on the tail-end of a whine.
"It cannot hear you." He drops himself into one of the overstuffed chairs that litters the room, sinking into the cushioning with a pleased sigh. "Or can it? Has it been eavesdropping all these months? How extraordinary. Hello, little star. Allow your uncle to set the story straight on your father's… victory over the tatzl. It began, as many of your father's stories do, with him getting—as your mother says—completely shit-rocked on mead—"
"Language," Jane says, but she grins and gestures for him to continue. Thor moans something into her stomach, burying his head in her lap, and she squeaks with good humor, sliding her fingers into his hair. "Sorry, babe, time to own up."
"My child thinks me a right fool."
Loki smiles. "Your child is already smarter than most."
The susurrus of a door sliding open distracts Loki from the sight of his brother's irrefutable happiness, and Loki looks to the place where the hall becomes the room. Tony stands on the threshold, sunglasses balanced precariously on the bridge of his nose and absently rolling a thin slip of wood between his teeth. Toothpick, his mind supplies, but the rest of him is somewhat distracted by the tongue that coils about the wood as if it had been made for it. "Are you obligated to ruin everything Thor says and does, or is it just one of your life's little pleasures? Did you sign something?"
"Hey," Jane says, tilting her head back over the arm of the couch to smile, upside-down, at Tony. "How'd it go?"
"Never let it be said that I can't keep the status quo. My stock is up, my board still hates me and hopes I die in a horrible, fiery plane crash, and I'm InTouch's cover story." To Loki, he says, "Apparently I'm drinking myself into the beds of a bunch of no-name actresses and you're leaving me over it."
Loki cannot help but grin. The humans believe themselves so clever in their imaginings when they recycle the same tales over and over. At least the gossip on Asgard had been original. Although he cannot complain, as his public apology for the destruction of New York and relationship with Tony seem to have placed him in the people's favor.
"As if I would allow you to malign me in such a way. I'd rip off your cock and stab it through the bellies of your bedmates before anything."
"I'll take 'Terrified and Horny' for 800, Alex."
Reaching up, Tony removes his sunglasses and tucks them into the breast pocket of his suit jacket, then slides the jacket from his shoulders to the floor, stretching languorously. Loki is ensnared by the play of muscles beneath his shirt and he allows his attraction to be seen, has no reason to hide it; heat sparks in Tony's gaze as he comes into the room and perches on the arm of Loki's chair.
"Hey." The toothpick wags at him, obscene. "Miss me?"
The smile turned on him is almost painful for its authenticity, the way there is no trick behind those lips and teeth and indecent tongue, and perhaps a day will come when Loki will deserve it. He has done many things in his life, many for which he will certainly atone once he slips this mortal coil, and almost none does he regret… but there is an ever-present ache just below his breastbone, a chill not to be found in the snow and ice on Jötunheim, when he thinks of how easily flesh splits, of the kind of common force needed to destroy metal, even metal forged by Anthony Stark. Even when he was as ageless as the sky, he still was not fast enough.
It is going to halve you, and you must be sure.
He should have fought harder, been smarter. He should have gone to Iðunn first.
"Oh, were you gone?" Loki inquires sweetly and snatches the toothpick from between Tony's lips to place between his own, sliding his tongue over the wood as if he might divine the very cells from it. There are nights where he lies awake while Tony slumbers next to him, and he presses close, slotting his nose under Tony's jaw and breathing him in, and all the while he thinks, You will never be rid of me. You feasted upon that which I am, and I am in your very marrow.
"Catty bastard," Tony murmurs lovingly, tucking his hand around the back of Loki's neck and calling forward gooseflesh as his fingers slide up into his hair. "You smell like stolen burrito, by the way."
"I'm sure I don't know of what you speak."
"Uh-huh. And how about you, preggers? How're you holding up?"
Jane moves to sit up and Thor immediately is on his feet, helping her. She bats him away, all good-natured and sweet, and attempts to navigate her stomach.
"Call me that again and no AI in this place will be able to fix what I do to you," she says cheerfully, and then relaxes back into the couch with a sigh. "I know I have another month to go, but this thing is rearranging furniture in there like nobody's business. I'll be glad when it's out. Although considering its father, I'll probably be in labor for a month."
Tony shudders. "Ugh, don't mention labor. I can't—did you ever see that 'Miracle of Life' thing? Because we got a bird's eye view of the whole thing and let me tell you, it was like watching someone shove a Ferrari through a keyhole. I never recovered. Dibs on not being there when it happens."
"Like you were even invited," Jane snorts, and at Thor's scandalized look she pats his cheek and adds, "Just mommy, daddy, Darcy, and grammy in the birthing room. And Uncle Loki, if he wants."
"He doesn't," Loki says wryly. "I will wait for the birth of the future sovereign from the safety of the waiting room."
He has seen Jane angry before—he can only imagine what the pain of birthing a whole new person would yield. In the name of self-preservation, he will seek refuge with the others until it is over. He also has no desire to see fluid of any kind spilling out from between her legs.
A chime fills the air and Tony reaches into his pocket, withdrawing his own glass phone device, which bears the image of Pepper Potts. He slides off the arm of the chair, knee popping as he does, and he groans. "Fuck, I'm old."
"Yes, you are," Loki agrees.
Tony points a finger at him in what he possibly thinks passes for a threatening manner and then walks to the window at the edge of the room. "Pep! Light of my life, keeper of my company, and cunning sorcerer witch lady who really should eat Agent Agent to absorb his power and then take over SHIELD, and I hope all the bugs Fury thinks I don't know about got that in stereo…"
Forty percent is about all Loki can handle of Tony's blathering, so he tunes him out and turns his attention back to Jane, whose cheek has been ensnared in the deceptively gentle prison of Thor's palm.
Absently, Loki tongues at his thumb, licking away the traces of his stolen lunch, and is fully in this moment more than he has been in any other—sticky, indolent, and full of wants. Human.
To be such is to take; humans are a race of thieves, their stories full of betrayal and deceit. They were given a garden and took an apple; they were given the atom and took the lives of millions with an atomic blast; they have taken countries despite the boundaries meant to separate them. They have taken the very earth beneath their feet and forged weapons; took families, women, children, rainforests and diamond mines; took rivers, lakes, and the seas, and made them red.
Perhaps that is why he has found a place so easily here. His hands have done nothing but take, grasping and greedy fingers made in the halls of monsters. Not for the first time Loki imagines the child Odin Spear-Shaker found in Laufey's temple, the runt that both kings found lacking, and wonders how different his life would have been if the All-Father had gifted him to Midgard instead.
He glances at Tony, who leans against the wall and, upon catching Loki's stare, winks at him as if he were helpless against the urge.
Loki snorts and looks away. He cannot fault his father for taking him that day. Every step he has ever taken has led him here.
"Are you certain you are well?" Thor asks, and Loki has no idea how much of the conversation was lost to his musings. "You say you are, but I would not trust you to tell me if your arm had been severed from your body."
"That was once, and it was just the tip of my finger. And they put it back on." Jane smiles and waggles her finger at him. "I'm fine. Just tired. I think all the mashed potatoes have been giving me weird dreams, so it's probably time to start exercising some willpower in the home stretch."
Loki sits up. "Dreams?"
"Mm," Jane agrees, ambling to her feet with a groan. "Usually it's about Thor getting arrested for knocking over that KFC or a crow with three heads singing that song from the schoolyard scene in The Birds, or—on one memorable occasion—me, Pepper, Agent Hill, and Darcy stepping in for the Avengers. We took care of things in maybe ten minutes. Tony, I see that look and you can wipe it right off your smug, prick face!"
Tony wisely turns his back.
Loki stares at her, watches the pull of her neck as she stretches, and wants to make a comment about how interestingly disproportionate she is, all skinny arms and legs with a bulbous center, but he has ever been heralded for his intelligence for a reason. It does not stop him from glancing at Tony, who is pacing absently at the window as he talks to Pepper, and allowing himself to wonder what shapes his own body would adopt should he ever feel the need to do something with Tony's spend.
"You never mentioned having dreams," Thor says.
Jane's laugh morphs into a long, drawn-out groan as she presses her fists to the small of her back and bends. "Because they weren't worth mentioning."
"I beg to differ," Loki breaks in quietly, all thoughts of his hypothetical pregnancy fading away. "Dreams are never just dreams. At best, they are an alternate path not taken."
"My dreams of Thor being arrested for breaking and entering are what could have happened? That's the stupi—" Jane pauses and her bright eyes fall upon her lover, who stares up at her from the couch with a winsome smile, guileless and utterly besotted. "Okay, fine, never mind. But that doesn't mean—"
"At worst," Loki continues over her loudly, enough that Tony turns and raises his eyebrows at him before going back to his phone call. "At worst, they are portents. Dreams take many forms, not all of them obviously malicious. And yes, while I doubt your Thor-in-prison scenario—which I find absolutely delightful and you must tell me more about it later—speaks of an oncoming danger, I would like to hear more about the crow with three heads."
Thor nods sagely, as if the moron knows anything about dream magic, and ignores the way the skin of his face must smolder under the force of Loki's unimpressed glare.
Tony, worlds away in a boardroom only he can see, grows louder, and all his many pretenses at jocularity crumble, a kingdom made of so much sand and salt. "If he wants to try and oust me as a major stockholder and board member— the only stockholder besides you, Loki, and Steve who actually matters, tell him to do his worst. I kept this company going when good ol' Papa Stark kicked it. I brought it back from nothing. He wants to take me on? Fine. I literally don't have a fuck to give. Actually, that's not true. I might. Hold on." To them, he snaps his fingers. "Hey, you bunch of moochers, get off your lazy asses and see if you find a fuck laying around. Check between the couch cushions."
But you enjoy it most when my ass is lazy, as there is less work for you to do curls around his tongue, and he opens his mouth to cast the hook of innuendo, if only to relish the expression of horror that will make a home on his brother's face, but is stopped at the spectacular sound of glass breaking.
Tony startles. "The hell—"
A sound like sunbeams and the lonely wind atop mountains rents the air, and Loki gets to his feet, tension bleeding down his spine and molding into something unforgiving and straight. His shoulders roll back as Thor stands, and they greet the herald that soars into the room on wings made of gold and clockwork metal.
"That isn't even close to the weirdest thing I've seen in the last year," Jane mutters. "And I'm including the pig-lizard thing in April."
Thor winces and clears his throat loudly. "I had been told we were not speaking of that."
"Really?" Jane's eyebrows brush her hairline. "Because Loki gave everyone copies of the video feed."
"Gambantein," Loki says loudly, lowering his head. "We bid you welcome."
"Uh, no! No, we don't." Tony strides over to them, lips twisted into a moue of annoyance, hand covering the slim phone-glass in his grasp. "That was modified SR 5096—your parrot shouldn't have been able to break it, and I've got a thing against giant flying killing machines. Incident at the zoo when I was a kid. I'd rather not talk about it."
Loki rolls his eyes. "Good. No one wishes to hear of it."
"Gambantein is no human bullet or hammer." Thor reaches out to stroke a thick finger over the fine crest of the great eagle, once a favored staff of Odin Spear-Shaker until it was needed elsewhere and given breath; Gambantein coos at the touch. "He is a messenger of Asgard—no mortal shield can keep him out."
Tony stares for a long moment, then sighs, bringing the phone-glass back up. "Pep, I've got to call you back. No, no, I'm fine, but a giant robot bird named Backgammon just broke in, so… tomorrow? Yep, 'til then."
Loki takes a deep breath and faces the winged beast as it fusses with a group of bunched feathers at the joint of its wing, and wonders at its presence in the tower. Should he require their presence on Asgard, Odin would have sent a simpler summons. That Gambantein was sent at all speaks of a great need for help.
"Father," Thor whispers, and exchanges a look with Jane, who makes a frantic shooing motion.
"THOR ODINSON, HAMMER WIELDER AND SKY KEEPER, IS DEEMED NEEDED IN THE HALL OF THE ALL-FATHER. RETURN TO ASGARD," Gambantein tones, and Tony jumps.
"Jesus Christ, it talks," he shouts. "Why does it talk?! It's a bird."
Thor says nothing, only closes his eyes and tilts his head back. From somewhere in the tower comes a series of bangs, growing ever louder.
"No. No, no, no, we've talked about this," Tony whines. "I can't keep rebuilding the fucking walls—"
There is a mighty crash, a wall crumbling beneath a great force, enough that Loki can feel the air shift under Mjolnir's mallet, the principle of inertia meaningless to such an object. Its hilt slaps into Thor's palm as his brother's armor cleaves to him like a second skin. By the time Thor's cape brushes the floor, the dust has settled.
Tony stares at it. "I'm billing your dad for this bullshit here on out."
"I have been recalled to Asgard," Thor booms.
"We know. Everybody knows," Tony says. "My wall knows."
Gambantein turns its head and twitters, the light glinting off its neck so brightly that Loki sees triple before he blinks the spots from his eyes. As he watches the great bird, he cannot help the way his fists clench at his sides. Perhaps he does not have the love for Asgard he once did, and perhaps his new status means he is lesser in his father's eye, but that Thor was recalled home and not he… stings. Burns. A cold fire kindles in his belly and he entertains the irrational, but utterly satisfying thought of breaking the creature's neck between his palms.
Never let it be said that Thor cannot be perceptive when there is need of it, and his brother turns to him and holds out a hand. "Come with me, brother. If Gambantein was sent, then the threat upon Asgard is dire. We will need everyone."
The calluses that litter Thor's fingers have been made soft with his time on Midgard, with the touch of Jane Foster. Loki cannot help but stare at them. "I was not called."
"An oversight." There is a thread of urgency interwoven in Thor's words. "You are needed."
He can feel the palpable stare Tony levels upon the back of his neck, but he does not turn to acknowledge it. One look and he will be given away. "I am not—"
There is the press of a hand against the small of his back, and it burns straight through to his bones. "Care to share with the rest of the class?"
He pulls away from Tony, casting about until his eyes meet those of Jane, who regards him curiously, and he can only imagine the sequences that run through her head as she runs her gaze over him, as calculating as if he were one of her machines. She glances at his chest, at the place where his heart beats, where a glowing blue light would fit perfectly between his lungs, and when she looks up he sees the answer there.
Her lips part. She knows.
"Maybe you two should just go," Jane says, holding his gaze, and he swallows around the jagged edges of the scream that bubbles in his throat at the compassion, the understanding, he finds on her face.
"Hey, no, wait, I feel like I just missed the bus here." The toes of Tony's imported Italian shoes brush against Loki's socked feet, and for a moment, even when looking down at Tony, Loki is vulnerable. "Is everything okay? I mean, I'm gathering that it's not, considering the fact that Hometown Asgard is getting massacred and you're here having a staring contest. Is there—What the hell is going on?"
Loki says nothing, so Tony rocks up onto his toes and tilts his head back to look him in the eyes. "Hey. It's me. Whatever it is… it's fine."
As long as Anthony Edward Stark has been alive, he has fought valiantly and won against many foes, but guilt is the enemy that ever eludes him. He battles it in the labs in the early morning hours, hammering metal against metal and staring at nothing. It lashes out at him when innocent lives cannot be spared the insane who desire power and destruction, and it whispers from inside glass bottles and in the bottom of tumbler glasses. It has many faces, all of them friendly, and goes by many names—Yinsen, Coulson, Obie, Howard, Maria, Pepper. Loki refuses to let it take his own form.
It is many things, but Tony will not see what he has done as fine. It is a stress corrosion crack, growing ever bigger, and the opening chasm will swallow them both.
So he stoppers the words that so desperately want freedom and smiles with all of his teeth, reverting back to what he knows. "If there were something to tell, I… still would not tell you. But there is nothing."
Doubtfully, Tony takes a step back, and nods. "You're lying."
Loki scoffs. "Me? Lie? How very out of character."
"Loki." Thor shifts impatiently where he stands, more of a savior in this moment than he has ever been. "We must go."
From within the tower suddenly comes a shout. "WHO THE FUCK ATE MY BURRITO?!"
Loki straightens. "Let us depart immediately."
Nodding, Thor turns to Jane and cups her cheek in his hand, the light catching the steel of his vambrace. She nuzzles his fingers and playfully bites them, grinning as she pushes him away.
"Be safe," she says, the corners of her eyes crinkling, and pats her belly. "We'll see you at some point."
Thor only grins, bends to press his lips to her cheek, and Loki—holding Tony's shrewd gaze, and the man is thinking, thinking, thinking, calculating, and no equation has ever gone unsolved in Tony Stark's mind—pulls the shadows from the corners of the room and the angles of the furniture around them like a cloak, riding them to the roof where Thor immediately calls for Heimdall to open the Bifrost.
As the light overtakes them and Asgard calls them home, he feels a niggle of… he does not know. It's as if he's forgotten something small. Something he should have easily known.
It is nothing, he thinks, and armors himself in green and gold, just before he is winged through space and time, crawling the branches of the Tree at speeds that have no name, no math to quantify them, and spat out at the feet of the Gatekeeper like an afterthought. Not for the first time, he wonders if the Bifrost is a living thing annoyed with being harnessed as a street upon which the fickle gods tread.
"Welcome home, Odinson," Heimdall says, bowing his head as Thor appears. To Loki, he simply says, "Trickster."
A muscle jumps in his jaw as he grinds the insult between his teeth, but Loki knows he holds no titles here and lets it go.
"Where is it?" Thor demands, twirling Mjolnir with an impatience born of bloodlust. "We came as quickly as we were able."
Heimdall does not react. "Where is…?"
It stops Thor short, and Loki cannot deny that he, too, is confused. "I—Gambantein delivered a summons from my father. He—It was urgent."
"The All-Father is in the Great Hall," Heimdall says, gesturing toward the skyline where the spires of the palace pierce the ever-shifting sky. "I know not of such a summons."
Loki exhales and looks to Thor, who looks back, confused, angry, and it only takes a simple gesture with the hammer before Thor is careening through the air like a bullet toward the city proper.
"Whatever is happening, you must act fast," Heimdall says.
"Because my View of the Worlds has just been blocked."
Growling, Loki wrests the shadows from where they lie complacent in the Gatekeeper's dome, and wraps them around him as tight as he can before he launches himself into the air, ballistic, aerodynamic, and the very sky bends around him as he goes.
He trips up the stairs to the Great Hall and stumbles into the room in time to hear Thor shout, "NO! YOU CALLED ME HERE! THE GOLDEN EAGLE WAS SENT—"
"There was no need for—" Odin stands, mouth opening to deliver a rebuttal, but he stops upon seeing Loki. "What does Heimdall see?"
"Nothing," Loki gasps out. "Nothing. He is blocked. We are blind, and I think—we have been tricked."
Thor's head whips around and stares at him with a terror so profound that it nearly threatens to cut Loki's legs from under him.
A guard, one of Asgard's many faceless drones, steps into the room, sketches a quick bow, and says, "My king, the Gatekeeper Sees again."
"And?" Odin thunders, and the guard swallows hard.
"And Midgard is under attack."
A million and two thanks to my betas Etharei and Tigbit for turning water into wine.