Behold, the domesticated Stark in his natural habitat, Tony thought, as he stirred the last dollops of guacamole and sour cream into a decorative spiral on the top of the final bowl of Mrs. Ransome's always-excellent Spicy Summer Gazpacho.
The mercury had pushed up to ridiculous heights over the past few days, leaving Manhattan sweltering, the temperatures ludicrous for July in any city not actually located in a desert, hot enough to force even his daughter Hela into exchanging her usual fifteen layers of black velvet for fifteen layers of crisp white linen instead.
Hot enough to make Tony wonder about investing in vacation property in Jötunnheimr.
Despite that, he'd just watched Fen and Edwin dash by the kitchen windows for the seventh time in the past fifteen minutes. Little Ed even had some arm-waving action going on that made him looked like he seriously meant to achieve flight through speed and flapping alone.
"Fuck," he said, Hela being the only one of the kids near enough to hear him cuss--and elegantly as she tended to present herself, his Blessed Death could still have quite the potty mouth on her, with a vocabulary of swears to rival Tony's own. He gestured at the window. "Is this about Sam's wings being so much cooler than my suit? If so, that's it. No more visits to my tower for Wilson."
"They're counting owls," Hela answered, turning a page in her book with one gloved finger, and looking just like her Pabbi as she did so. Of course, it being summer, Hela consented to consume books and only books, her top-of-the-line StarkPad stashed in some out-of-the-way drawer until school started up again in the fall--at which point she'd make it look like she was doing Tony a personal favor by deigning to use the device. Honestly, the things he put up with!
Tony laughed at himself. He'd gladly put up with that and more. A million times more, actually, if it meant being surrounded by his strange and beautiful family.
"Whatcha reading, Empress?" he asked. Hela's book looked like the Bible from a medieval church. He'd owned smaller suitcases.
"The Theatrum Chemicum, Volume 2," his daughter answered.
"Okay. A little light summer reading for the beach, then?" Seriously, Hela's "light reading" would have well-exceeded the maximum dimensions for a piece of carry-on luggage on all major airlines. "Want to set the table?"
Hela green-flashied in a nonchalant kind of way and cutlery, followed by cups and plates, flew past Tony piece by piece. The napkins folded themselves into swans with crowns, which flew gracefully in a line to alight, one-by-one, onto each place setting.
"Wow, nice touch," Tony said, only partly snide--the remaining part honestly impressed. "Been working on that, Empress?"
"No es nada," Hela told him modestly.
"Will you call the boys? Soup's on, and besides, they'll get sunstroke running around like that in this crazy heat."
Halfway into carrying his tray of bowls in from the kitchen, Tony ground to a halt. "Wait... owls?"
"Owls," Hela answered, in firm tones, obviously making a conscious choice not to clarify.
Tony thought of asking her if the "owls were not what they seemed," as the Log Lady once famously declared in the Twin Peaks TV series of his youth, but decided the reference was either way, way before his daughter's time, or something he was better off not knowing she'd been watching, and went to locate Loki instead.
He found his husband all by himself, lying on the bed in their dark (and frostily air-conditioned) bedroom, snuffling, his eyes leaking. He didn't even seem to notice that Tony had entered.
"Babe, what's up?" He lay down behind his husband on their bed, making him into the world's tallest little spoon. "What is it?"
Hela flashed a question mark into his head.
Would you and Sleip get the boys washed up? Stall if at all possible? Inspiration struck. Tell Fen and Ed they have to shower after running around half the morning like Wild Things.
Sleip can take charge of Fenrir, Hela answered, in a mental tone Loki might have called "shirty"—proving that even a precocious genius enchantress like his daughter wasn't above shoving the harder of two jobs off onto an unsuspecting sibling. It wasn't that Fen was naughty, or uncooperative, he just tended to be... um... lively was probably the best description. Contrast that to Edwin, a little three-year-old bundle of cuddles and smiles.
Tony recalled, with a slight pang of guilt, how many times he let his husband deal with Fen, while he took care of the baby.
Loki blew his nose massively on a handful of tissues. "Beloved, I am sorry. I am sorry."
"No need to be sorry, babe." Tony brushed back curls to kiss behind Loki's ear. "You can be sad if you need to be."
The gods, or Norns, or somebody, knew Loki had gone through enough, over his many years, to give him flashbacks of emotion every now and then.
"You know that I just don't want you to be feeling sad if you don't need to be. If I can make you feel better, that is."
"Luncheon, and the children..." Loki began, slightly frog-voiced.
"Gazpacho, which will totally keep. The shrimp's still staying cold in the fridge. And the boys were playing outside like maniacs and are in dire need of scrubbing, which Sleip and our daughter can totally handle. Now, what's up with my Loki?"
"Tony..." Loki paused for another huge, honking nose-blow.
Tony totally knew better than to laugh. Because Loki. His husband so rarely did anything undignified, those rare moments tended to come across as slightly hilarious.
"This morning, after breakfast..." Loki ground to a halt.
"Hmm?" Tony encouraged mildly.
About two seconds later, the other shoe dropped. Loki (who so tended not to be a crier) weeping alone in a dark room, for no reason Tony could think of. Loki actually teleporting off, more than slightly green, right in the middle of clearing the breakfast table, never to reappear...
Whoa. Okay. Funny, though—for a man who'd never once pictured himself having a big family, of being that guy with the six kids following after him like ducklings, Tony found himself totally okay with being that guy with the six kids.
Actually, he had to admit he felt better than okay. He crazy loved their kids. Adored them. He just didn't envy poor Loki the next few months, considering that Loki's pregnancies tended to be beyond unfair. Punitive might be the proper word. Not to mention long, with the added joy of baby getting big first, then working on building godlike intelligence and magical abilities, in utero, while poor Loki waddled around the penthouse eating pretty much anything that wasn't nailed down.
He spread his hand over Loki's still-perfectly-flat stomach, burying his face in the abundant and fragrant curls at his husband's nape, and for a little while just held him, his big little spoon, letting his acceptance and joy and worship for his one and only god just sink in through Loki's skin.
"I thought, perhaps, of Maria, for a name?" Loki said, after a time. "Perhaps Maria Frigga?"
Be glad it's not Maria Laufey, Tony told himself.
"That's beautiful, baby," Tony said. "I love you so much, and I'm so happy—though equally sorry you're in for such a tough time."
"I am strong," Loki answered. "I will readily bear whatever discomfort follows."
"You are strong," Tony agreed. "I'll let Nat and Steve know that a leave of absence is in order—unless you want to?"
"No, you may do so," Loki agreed magnanimously. "Whilst I notify Thea to prepare numerous snack boxes."
"You do that." Tony laughed, the laughter cutting off when Loki wriggled in his arms and was suddenly face-to-face, kissing him deeply and sweetly, their minds touching as their lips touched.
This time, he wasn't even put off by the eye-patch.
Everybody glanced up from their soup-bowls when the fireplace startled to rattle. Hot as it was, the fireplace shouldn't have been doing anything, least of all holding a fire, but among the things it most shouldn't have been doing was making noises. Of any sort.
"Do you think we have bats?" asked Jöri hopefully, happily shaking ghost pepper sauce all over the already spicy soup. The secret, maybe, of how dragons really made fire finally revealed--who knew?
Loki and Hela frowned, glancing swiftly at one another, a prime example of one of their frequent "partners in crime" exchanges.
"Milady? Rochefort? Wanna explain what the look was about?" Tony asked them, but all he got was a grin from his Childlike Empress (who'd been on a recent kick of swashbuckler movies) and a glare from his always-gorgeous but temporarily eye-patch-wearing husband. Loki never missed a literary reference, and this time he totally failed to be amused.
That Tony's husband naturally associated eye-patches with former S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury went without saying. That he also associated them with his least favorite Norse god of all time (now deceased) would never be mentioned by Loki--or by anyone else, Tony least of all.
The one-eyed glare Loki had shot at his beyond-contrite brother, post-battle, as he'd stalked across the tower roof, infirmary bound, still armor-clad and fuming, would have reduced a weaker being than Thor to a tiny pile of smoking ash right there atop the tower, the message, Have you forgotten that I lack of the Asgardian healing you are so fortunate as to enjoy, brother? left unspoken. As it was, that look had bothered the god of thunder a lot more than the combined force of Nat and Steve's tag-team safety lecture.
Truth be told, Thor got a little hammer-happy up there now and then. He enjoyed himself too much sometimes when he fought, and he hadn't been paying the least bit of attention as he Mjolnirated scores of little Doombots out of the air. Loki had his own stuff to take care of in a firefight. He didn't need his own brother smacking football-sized chunks of metal into his face.
Loki would have been fine with the bruising, even with the detached whatever-the-thing-was-Loki-had-in-place-of-a-retina.
It was the eye-patch that was the deal-breaker. Vanity and unpleasant associations aside, the thing totally seemed to mess with Loki's sense of space. He kept running into large, stationary objects. Such as walls.
Tony knew better than to laugh, even internally. Loki would sure as hell know. He always knew.
The unseasonal (and unexpected) fireplace rattling even disturbed Mopsi, Loki's portly black pug, to the point that he actually hauled his plushy little ass off his silk cushion and high-curly-tailed it over to the hearth to investigate the noise. Tony sometimes pretended not to like the little beast, mocking his laziness and his squashed gargoyle face, but the truth was, the way Mopsi followed Loki everywhere secretly charmed him, as did the way Mops would gaze up at his master so deeply, with those big, sad, wise-looking eyes, tipping his head from one side to the other, as if every word Loki spoke required careful consideration.
Tony also secretly loved to watch Mopsi interact with his best bud, Phil's giant Harlequin Great Dane, Anastasia. The picture book Loki had done about the two of them had not only sold a million bazillion copies, there had been merchandising.
The mere concept of "merchandising" had, of course, totally appalled Loki, until Pepper explained merchandising as a way of basically having others pay you for your publicity, and weren't his profits for the book, etc., going to support no-kill shelters in the Greater New York area?
Loki, never anyone's fool, took her point--and the people of the world continued to enjoy their Mopsi and Anastasia coffee mugs and calendars.
Right now, Loki had the one raised eyebrow of ultimate questioning, which looked a little funny, floating up there on its own above the eye-patch.
"Letters!" Fen yelled, and jumped down from his seat. The fact that his husband didn't even bother to "Fenrir Lokison Stark, you must ask first to be excused" him told Tony something had to be up.
A big something. A major something. Something potentially life-changing.
Fen ran back from the fireplace with his hands full of envelopes, Mopsi bouncing and barking his weirdly deep bark at the boy's heels.
"One, two, three, four, five!" he called out. "Five!"
The envelopes were big, and kind of creamy-colored, hand-addressed in fancy, swirly green calligraphy, like they'd just received invitations for an ultra-fancy wedding in the weirdest way possible.
"Sleip didn't get one." Fen looked disappointed on his brother's behalf. He was always such a sweet kid, thinking of others, the sweetest, really, of all the children. "Neither did Ed."
"Edwin is young, dearest," Loki told Fen gently, "And Sleip begins his Oxford studies in the autumn."
The expression on his face struck Tony as a strange mix of stunned/sad/excited, and Tony wondered what that possibly meant—their other recent news aside.
It hit him, suddenly, like a bolt of his brother-in-law's lightning out of the blue, that right here, in this moment, everything truly was about to change.
And then it did.