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Though the year seemed to be finally staggering on toward spring, the days still weren’t particularly long, and even though Tony overslept horrendously, having totally spaced on setting his alarm in the two seconds before he crashed the night before, the light outside the windows still showed a depressing gray when he hauled his thoroughly-dragging ass out of bed and to the bathroom, already adding or ticking off items on his mental to-do list.

He performed the usual in a daze: had a piss, brushed his teeth, lurched into the shower, where he set the showerhead to spray down on him in steely-cold needles, in a kind of hopeless hope of being able to shock himself to life like Frankenstein’s monster.

Oh, yeah, and have a nice little cry, shut in there all by his lonesome, where nobody could see and the kids couldn’t hear him—don’t forget that part of the ritual.

He’d dreamed all night about Loki, beautiful, sweet, vivid dreams—gods, so vivid it was like his dying husband was right there, not dying after all, but filling Tony’s arms with satiny skin, his long, sleek form, the fantastic scent and feel of him, ice and evergreen and warm spices, his body fitted to Loki’s, his husband’s lush dark curls spilling everywhere, the way they always would.

Tony twisted off the taps and stepped out of the shower. So far, the morning routine had proved to be a total failure--he still felt like he was swimming through oatmeal, the extra-super-gluey kind they’d served in his dorm cafeteria at MIT.

He just hoped a gallon or so of coffee would finally do the trick, otherwise he’d be doomed for the whole damn day. He had a board meeting this morning, a thing with Hela’s teachers about her missed school days just after noon, Sleip’s occupational therapy at three…

And meanwhile, with his bloodshot eyes and ragged beard he looked like a goddamn derelict. Peachy.

Yet could he be bothered to trim his beard, put a little product in his hair, squirt some Visine in his eyes to hide a little of the redness? The answer was, most emphatically, nope, unh-unh, just not happening.

As Loki had been known to say (with his weird talent for making even rude words sound elegant and refined), he could not, in any possible way, be arsed.

And did he want a drink? A nice little warming, comforting, happy-making drink to start the day and settle his nerves? Damn straight he did!

He just wasn’t going to take one, not now, not ever.

Between meetings, while the kids were in school, he should really haul his sorry butt down to the infirmary, hold tight to his husband’s hand and remind himself exactly why that was.

Meanwhile... Tony sighed, yawned until his jaw popped, and scratched at his scraggly beard.

Oh, double peachy. From the sounds coming from the next room, every single one of the kids was up already, bouncing on his bed (he could hear the springs boinging loudly) and twice as noisy as usual.

Make no mistake, he loved those kids. Loved them like crazy. He just liked to give himself a little cushion of time to transform from cranky early-morning Tony into SuperDad, dispenser of love and patience, solver of problems. Apparently, today, when he needed it most of all, he was not to be allowed the luxury.

Gods, they were stirred up about something, though. Tony wondered what it could possibly be. The bunkbed game aside, they’d all been so subdued lately, like little ghosts in place of the happy, bubbly, full-of-life children he recognized. Yet there they were in the next room, actually sounding like themselves.

Tony tied his robe around his waist (with something of the attitude of a knight girding on his sword for battle) and shuffled out of the bathroom, still trying to find an expression for his face that looked at least slightly pleasant.

“Hey, guys! No more monkeys jumpin' on the bed!”

At which point, a beautiful, silky (if slightly hoarse) British voice called out to him cheerfully, “Husband, good morning! Our much-loved children are all waking, and the day is resplendent!”

In retrospect, Tony thought it was probably the “resplendent” that pushed him over the edge. Even in his dreams or hopes or wishful thinking, he wouldn’t have come up with that one.

His heart just seemed to stop still in his chest, and he went down like a cow in a stockyard, flat on his back on the carpet with cartoon bluebirds tweeting around his head and alarm bells ringing in his ears.

After about thirty seconds of this, he rolled to face away from the kids, not wanting them to see him coming completely unhinged, covering his face with his hands.

Loki, oh, Loki! he cried out inside his head. This was it. He’d totally lost it. He was hallucinating. He had to be.

“Tony, best-belovéd, I slept in your arms through most of the night,” that same voice said, sounding both meltingly tender and extremely perplexed. “I thought you had realized, dearest. Was I a dream to you, or an apparition?”

No, I did not realize, Tony thought, with something close to bitterness. Would I be flat-assed on the floor if I fucking realized?

“You were fucking dying yesterday, Lok. Bruce and Kurt both said. Okay, actually didn’t say. Implied strongly. There were puppy eyes of doom.”

“My dearest Tony.” In addition to the spoken words, Loki’s mind brushed against his, somehow cool and warm at the same time, and incredibly comforting.

"Allow me..."

he said, followed by a series of shifting and rustling sounds, then by Loki assuring the kids, "Tis only temporary, dear ones. I would not converse with your father from out of a cave, however charming that cave might have been."

Looking up, Tony saw that the triple-bunker had converted to one king-sized bed, where Loki sat up, surrounded by more pillows than he'd thought they actually owned.

Nice trick, Tony thought, still feeling a weird kind of stubbornness, one that made him not want to comforted, though he didn't even know why. Maybe he’d just felt too bad for too damn long a time.

“Please don’t be angry with me, Tony,” Loki said, in his familiar tone of hurt-but-hiding-it—and what did it say about him that the tone would be familiar? “I shall summon Bruce to help you, and I… Oh. I see the need for summoning no longer exists.”

The bedroom door burst open. Bruce staggered in, breathing so hard it appeared that he’d taken the stairs.

Bruce, it seemed, needed to put in a little more work on his daily cardio.

“Tony, we have a big prob… Oh, Jesus, he’s here. How in hell is he here? Loki, how are you here?”

“Good morning, Bruce,” Loki said, almost laughing, though in a kind way. “I am here for the reason that Erik and Clint brought me upward in the nighttime as a boon, because I dearly wished to sleep beside my husband once again. It becomes lonely, through the dark hours, in the infirmary, and I wished not to remain there when my much-loved family slept above. Will you be so kind as to raise Tony from off the floor? My Sleipnir will help you. Ætlarðu að hjálpa að taka upp pabba þínum, Sleip?”

Já, pabbi!” Sleipnir answered, with about the world’s biggest grin on his face. “I am good! I always help!”

Þú ert dásamleg, falleg drengur minn,” Loki said. “You do, most-wonderful son. I am so happy, so very happy, to find you here, my Sleipnir, for without you, this world of happiness could never be complete. And now it is complete, my loves. The sole thought within my mind, after knowledge of the painful task I must accomplish, throughout the time I lingered away, was of how I wished to return to you. Would that I owned a pair of silver slippers!”

And wasn’t that Loki to a “t?” He loved the movie of The Wizard of Oz, and had watched it countless times, but if the book said silver slippers, not ruby, silver slippers it would be for Loki Stark, literary purist.

Tony felt the last of his unreasonable flood of stubbornness drain away.

“I missed you, baby,” he said softly, the only words he could think of right then. “I really missed you. Really really.”

“You are my life entire,” Loki answered simply.

His voice sounded different, happier than Tony had ever heard him, even in his happiest moments.

At the same time, he’d also started to sound slightly breathy, and Bruce, who’d bent down to give Tony a hand up, straightened abruptly.

“Loki?” he said. “You okay? You hanging in there?”

“Very well,” Loki gasped. “Merely very slightly dizzy. Please, Bruce, do not force me back to the infirmary, I beg of you.”

For a consummate actor, Loki had a way of blatantly giving away his hand now and then, and the combination of “very well” and “I beg of you” were obvious clues that not all was well in Lokiland.

Tony made himself sit up. The bedroom did one quick spin, then held still. He was fine, perfectly okay—he’d just given himself something bordering on a panic attack, it seemed. A lightning-fast one. He might even have had a good laugh at his own expense if he wasn’t so worried about his suddenly-back-from-the-nearly-dead husband.

Loki, who, as mentioned, had been sitting up in his nest of pillows and covers, surrounded by all their children, slumped suddenly back against the headboard, clearly trying to make the action look graceful and intended.

Tony knew better. He’d watched his husband, who was invariably shamed by his own physical weakness, pull that one a few too many times.

“Oh, Pabbi,” Hela sighed. Just like that, their amazing daughter ripped open a hole in the air behind her and slipped through, returning about two seconds later with a full bunch of bananas.

“They’re Auntie Nat’s and Auntie Pepper’s,” she informed them, “But they didn’t mind. I explained.”

“My dearest…” Loki began weakly. “As you well know…”

“I’m fully aware you don’t like them, but you will eat them,” Hela replied sternly, in full-on Childlike Empress mode, then switched her tactic to include her own super-powered version of puppy eyes. “For all of us, please? For Edwin?”

It must have been the “for Edwin” that did it. Loki didn’t look exactly thrilled, but he took the half-peeled banana Hela passed to Bruce, then Bruce to him. Then another. Then another.

Around banana number eight, Tony started to feel slightly ill, because bananas--but the fact that, by then, Loki had color in his cheeks, and was looking drowsy and contented helped quite a bit.

“Forgive me,” he said, with a sleepy, slightly goofy grin. “It seems I was hungry, or Edwin was. Perhaps I will now turn into a monkey. By chance a howler monkey. Or a gibbon.”

“You really are back,” Tony breathed.

Loki forced open his drooping eyelids. “I am heartily sorry to have been gone from you so long, my husband,” he said. “For you, however, it was only days. For me it was a terrible long stretch of years, body after body failing.”

And then he was out, just like that, no further explanation.

Alarm spiked again in Tony’s chest. At the same time, it hit him, Just like that damn squirrel said.

But Loki was home, not lost. He was home!

“Sleepy Pabbi!” Fen said, helped himself to one of the few remaining bananas and snuggled up closer to Loki’s side, happily snacking.

“Why don’t you get dressed, Dad?” Hela suggested.

“You did that thing, Empress,” Tony said. “Loki’s tearing-open-the-air thing.”

“For some time now,” his daughter answered loftily. “It was useful, in Asgard, for purposes of sneaking around behind Odin’s back.”

Something both defiant and injured sparked in her big green eyes.

Loki’s own eyes, so much like hers, popped open again. “I am sorry, my much-loved Hela, for the sorrows you encountered in that Realm. I am sorry to have hurt you so, sorry that I sent you there—or allowed you to go there, whichever was the case. Yet if you are angry at me, still, that I disrupted your plans and usurped your place, for that I will not apologize, dearest.”

Loki levered himself upright, his face perfectly still, though Tony could detect traces of sadness around the edges.

“For this, Hela, is what you do not comprehend. Odin had laid a trap for you, a geas, and through you, for all of us. You called upon your friends, The Death of Kings and The Violent Death of Gods, but at the end he influenced you without your knowledge and you wished with the whole of your heart, in your brilliance and your pride, to deliver the coup de grace yourself, and thus would you have damned us.”

Loki reached up his hand into the air, and a crow—a fucking enormous crow—suddenly perched on his fist. Up went his other hand, with the same result.

Loki transferred the two big birds to his shoulders, where they combed their shiny black beaks through his long, loose hair and chattered softly in his ears, as Loki appeared to listen intently, looking, for that moment, magical and scary as fuck.

“It is well,” he said then, softly. “It is well.”

The two crows disappeared.

“Okay, that was different,” Bruce commented.

“Forgive me, my friend,” Loki said. “With the end of the enthrallment of the Æsir, and the death of their tyrant ruler, Asgard finds itself in something of an uproar. The AlÞingi, however, rises well to the occasion. I assure them the ravens are my emissaries only, not, as they once were, the cruel spies of the king.”

Tony parked himself on the edge of the bed, down by the foot. “And ‘the king’ is…?”

Loki gave him a look that clearly said, You have to ask? But at the same time, he answered, “For the purposes of transition only. I have made it clear neither Thor nor I will again journey forth from Midgard, and that the people of Asgard must choose their fate. Will they rule themselves in all ways, or shall the House of Bors continue in the capacity of advisers and representatives, or to bring the magical arts to bear against the foes of Asgard, should the need arise? It is all as one to me, and we will not consent to more.”

Loki shifted deeper into the pillows.

“And now husband, please, I am indeed weary, and such discussion wearies me more.”

He really did look completely beat, and unhappy, suddenly, having to talk about Asgard. Which stood to reason—how many days had he spent in coma-city, and what kind of crappy shape had he been in before?

“Kids,” Tony said, “Give your Pabbi a kiss, then go wash up and jump into your uniforms. It’s still a school day. Let’s see if Uncle Thor will come over and make you a yummy breakfast, then see you on your way. Sleip, you go get dressed too, buddy.”

“Buddy!” Sleipnir said, and grinned.

Gods, he was a sweet kid. Looking at that face, so exactly like Loki’s, thinking what Loki had suffered through in his life, made Tony fairly gleeful that old creep Odin had kicked the bucket. How could he have put them through that shit? How could he? To Tony, it was completely unthinkable.

“It is well,” Loki said tiredly. “My brother showers at this moment, but when his ablutions are complete, it will gladden him to oblige us. His heart, he says, is filled with great joy at my return. Let me rest, only a little, and I will with joy come to join you, my much-loved family.” He shifted, trying to force his body upright again, but Bruce held him down with one hand on his shoulder.

“Nope, not happening,” he said, and put his stethoscope against Loki’s chest, listening intently, saying afterwards, “Today—all day—you’re resting and eating as much as we can cram into you.

"Mrs. Ransome is on her way in. I'll bring up some monitors for both you and baby in a bit. Tomorrow, if we’ve determined you’re close to okay, you may resume a small--we're talking infinitesimal here--amount of activity. Slowly. Baby steps.”

Fjanndinn baby steps,” Loki muttered, between the kids’ hugs and kisses. “No wonder you and Tony are such excellent friends. One is equal to the other in bossiness.”

“Whatever,” Bruce answered cheerfully. “However, you’re going to do what I tell you, my friend, because I want only the best for you and Edwin. Right?”

“I do not mean to be difficult,” Loki answered, in a subdued tone.

He took hold of Bruce’s hand, studying Bruce’s face with those big eyes that looked all the bigger for how thin his face had become. “I appreciate your care. And I am truly your friend, yes, Bruce? I am now your friend, and your hatred for me has ended?”

“God, Loki.” Bruce squeezed his shoulder.

“When I am stronger, I will do that thing. That thing you wished of me. Just as I now restrain the cold killer within the heart and mind of James Barnes, I will subdue the other one within you, Bruce, if you still wish it.”

“Oh, Loki,” Bruce said again, the pain clear on his face. “You didn’t need to pay Steve to be your friend, and you don’t have to pay me. Despite everything I put you through, every crappy thing I said, I see that, finally. So, when you try to pay me, it kind of hurts my feelings. Like you haven’t forgiven me for the bad times—which I guess you don’t have to do, anyway.”

“Ah…” Loki began, several expressions rippling across his face, each one more painful than the last—while Bruce’s face was full of need and confusion. He turned and left abruptly, shooing the kids before him. Loki slid down until the covers nearly reached his chin, and covered his face with his elegant white hands.

“So soon I offend,” he said, after Tony, with some effort, peeled the concealing hands off again.

“I don’t think, at the moment, Bruce was so much offended as he was, really, feeling an uncomfortable combination of incredibly guilty and seriously, seriously tempted by your offer,” Tony said. “You know how much he wants The Other Guy gone. He also knows you’re most likely the only one who can help him with that. He’s also really scared now of hurting you, sweetie pie.”

“Bruce cares that he not hurt me?” Loki said, his voice full of wonder.

“Damn straight.” Tony slid himself under the covers, his hand up under Loki’s p.j. shirt, rubbing slow circles over Loki’s rounded belly, surprised by the way it seemed to have grown. His husband sighed, snuggling closer.

“Ah, you soothe me, hjarta hjarta minn,” he murmured in a drowsy voice. “I am soothed. Lie beside me now, but forget not your approaching board meeting, before which, you must trim your beard, and your hair if possible. Have you acquired presentable new suits?”

“Yeah, in my abundant spare time,” Tony grumbled, resting his head on Loki’s shoulder, so his husband would know Tony wasn’t mad at him.

“You looked as if a wall hit you,” Loki said in a sleepy voice that might, just might, contain a hint of laughter underneath the sleepiness. “As if you had run for the entrance to Platform 9 ¾, hoping to board the Hogwarts train of Harry Potter's world, yet the portal did not open. It might have been comical, had my sympathy for you not been so great. Might I keep a dog, Tony--not today, but soon?”

“And the award for non-sequitur of the month goes to Mr. Loki Friggason Stark.”

“How is it managed, Tony, when there is a person you love as much as life, yet that person… that person has not always treated you with the best kindness? You cannot love less, yet the awareness lives in you… There was neglect. There was undeniable cruelty…”

“Meaning me, I suppose?” Tony asked, as lightly as he could, for a guy who was guilty as the sin he didn’t actually believe in. Were there secular sins, which carried their own, real world, here-and-now punishments? He guessed he knew that there were, and that his treatment of Loki, now and then, ranked high among them, right up there with the building of weapons of mass destruction he’d been involved in.

He didn’t forget the things he’d said to Loki, all the drinking, and the shitty things he’d done. Why should he expect Loki to totally forget, and pretend all that crappy behavior never existed?

“Baby, I…” he began.

“You, Tony?” Loki looked at him in absolute horror. “Oh, no! No, no, no, a thousand times. Why should you think…? Oh, hjarta hjarta minn, no! I speak of my mother, of Frigga, the Allmother.

"I think that I will not call myself Friggason in these days," he went on. "But Laufeyson again, in honour of he who gave me life, and who in madness I wronged so cruelly.”

Loki’s voice broke over the last three words. He rolled away from Tony, toward the edge of the bed, and sobbed.

And sobbed.

And sobbed.

Hela popped back into the room suddenly.

“Just so you know, he’s not dead. You didn’t kill him in Asgard. He’s just as good with the faux bodies as you are, Pabbi. I met with him.” She gave each of them a swift kiss, then whisked herself out of the bedroom, calling back over her shoulder, “I’m late! Full story to follow after school!”

Loki cried a little more—out of relief, maybe, or confusion—then allowed Tony to dry him off, lying flat on his back staring up at the ceiling.

“I am overly emotional in these days,” he said, after several minutes had passed.

“Totally understandable in every way,” Tony answered. “Though you can always blame Edwin if it helps preserve your dignity.”

“I sit not upon a throne,” Loki said after further reflection. “Neither am I a man of business. I am a writer of books, and an artist, and perhaps may show freely what I feel. Perhaps it is even expected.”

“A favor?” Tony asked.

“Anything, belovéd,” Loki answered, turning toward him a little.

“Okay, then. When you’re sad, or when you’re freaking, don’t hide yourself away in some mysterious part of the tower. I’ll comfort you. You comfort me. Let’s try to become at least a little less screwed up than our parents tried to make us be.”

“You do comfort me,” Loki said. He cupped Tony’s cheek with his hand, thumb brushing gently over his cheekbone. “Oh, but Tony, my Tony, now I am free. I am free. He cannot hurt me more, or injure our sweet children, and while my sorrow is great that I grieved you…”

“You did what you had to do, babe,” Tony said. “Don’t think I don’t understand that. And now you’re home with me. You’re free of your shithole of a dad—for good. I’m free from the drinking—and totally mean to keep it that way. I guess we can move forward.”

“A toast to the future, then!” Loki bent over him, the ends of his long hair tickling Tony’s face and neck, his eyes creased a little with sweetness, kindness, joy.

Tony felt enveloped by his love. He felt warmer, safer, more secure than he had ever felt in his lifetime—and he recognized part of that emotion as his own, part of it as coming from his fantastic husband.

“I love,” Loki said, “And I am complete.”

“What’s that line the old man says in the movie, Lok? About the perfect kisses?”

Loki smiled and, still smiling, brushed his lips against Tony’s—gods, so sweet, and with that wonderful, strange, beautifully familiar sensation of warm/cool that was uniquely Loki’s.

Tony smiled too. “You taste like bananas.”

“Words you will never have the opportunity to utter unto me again, as the fruit is foul, and had not Hela startled me, I would not have eaten them.”

“You had eight, babe. Eight. Are you calling that an accident?”

“Edwin was hungry,” Loki protested, with dignity. “Am I to deny the needs of our most-dear unborn son?”

Tony traced the sharp angle of his husband’s cheekbone with his fingertips, then the too-sharp lines of his jaw and chin. “Babe, I can’t believe… I totally can’t believe. I thought today…”

“’Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here,’” Loki answered, and Tony knew he was quoting again, but quoting what, he wasn’t sure. “And so would I have fought on until the last glimmer of self and consciousness dispersed across the universe, only to reach you, hjarta hjarta minn.”

“And the kids,” Tony put in.

Loki laughed aloud. “Naturally, ‘and the kids.’ Tread not upon my moment, husband.”

Tony laughed too, totally enchanted to be watching his husband smile, to see Loki's emotion-filled eyes (malachite green again, and when did that happen?) gazing up at him.

“’Since the invention of the kiss,’” Loki quoted, “’There have only been five kisses that were rated the most passionate, the most pure.’ If the kiss of Westley and Buttercup ‘left them all behind’, this kiss, Tony. This kiss we shall share…”

“Alert the media," Tony said. "Our kiss will stamp them all into the dirt and tap dance on them.”

“So poetic, always,” Loki murmured, laughing softly. “Oh, my Tony, my belovéd, my husband, never by any choice of my own will I leave you again.”

The moment his mouth touched Tony’s, they both knew there hadn’t been any exaggeration. Two lonely princes from entirely different worlds had found one another across the vastness of the universe, not only one time, against all odds, but ‘through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered,’ (as Loki had quoted), a second time as well. It not only worked, it not only fit, it was not only meant to be, it was perfect—and as far as Tony was concerned, it could go on forever.

For his wedding gift, Loki had presented him with a single, golden-skinned, luscious-smelling apple. An apple that would never, as long as he kept it, spoil or fade away. It had been sitting, locked up, in his safe since the previous spring.

Time for that to change, Tony thought, with his amazing Loki in his arms.

Time for the apple to be eaten.