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Certain Hope Remains

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"He must not begin the Ragnarök. It will be unfair to the Midgardians. They have only just begun progression into the stars. They are advancing."

"Agreed, my Sisters. And yet, the Ragnarök is inevitable, is it not?"

"Have we not reweaved worse, Sisters? The children deserve to live and grow. It can be delayed for thousands of Midgardian years."

"We must speak to Frigga All-Mother, then. She will leave Valhalla for him."

"She will have conditions."

"I do not blame her. The children also deserve to be happy."

"Then we are agreed."

"Yes." "We are."

"So we shall see this done."

***

As personal policy these days, Loki tried to avoid having expectations. That said, he was utterly surprised by the apparition that greeted him within the realm of spirit.

Since Odin had exiled him to Midgard, the spirit realm was the only other realm within which Loki could travel.

Loki had no words for how much that grieved him, the Sky Traveler.

A tiny, brown Midgardian-looking elderly woman sat on the board stoop of a small wooden shack, just off the intersection of two graveled tracks. She was smoking a hand-rolled tobacco cigarette and glaring at Loki from wrinkled black eyes, the irises of which were encircled by gray-blue rings. Her long white hair was braided, tied off at the ends with what looked like small bird skulls and gemstone beads; she was barefoot, dressed in a baggy, faded blue print shift that hung to bony ankles.

And she reeked with sheer power. It throbbed through and around her. This was one of the Old Gods, indigenous to Midgard, taking over the mindscape and making their surroundings vivid and real.

"So. You're the little godling who thinks he's good enough for My boy," she said after the silence between them had stretched to beyond uncomfortable.

Nodding his yes, Loki seized his nerve. A mutual friend had informed him - during another spirit walk - that if he hoped to pursue a certain Midgardian, he would first need to speak with the Old God now seated before him. Said Old God would surely expect to meet him, to determine whether he might pass Her approval.

Loki found that notion just irritating enough to instigate the meeting.

"I am far from good enough, but I am, perhaps, just bad enough," he replied in a respectful tone, going to one knee before the ageless crone. "A pleasure to meet you, Aunt Nancy. Elder Brother Coyote speaks well of you."

"Hmmph. Well, Coyote's got taste, too, I'll give 'im that. Pretty, got manners, at least ... wily and honest enough when you have to be, I reckon. Looks like your time with the Norns done you some good, yeah?"

"Have you met them?"

"Once. They move too slow for Me. They did help you."

"Yes, they did," Loki admitted with a quiet sigh.

After Odin had awakened from the unexpected grief-driven sleep that had befallen him after Frigga’s death, he’d discovered Loki had been impersonating him and ruling Asgard in Odin’s stead. Since Loki-as-Odin had turned out to be a very good, capable king – except for the part where he allowed Thor to leave Asgard … and maybe the plays - Odin declared Loki’s punishment would be spending five hundred years in the service of the Norns, to be followed by exile to Midgard, to be bound there for a length of time yet to be determined.

The irony was, Odin had done Loki a far greater favor than he knew. The Norns, as it happened, were originally Jotun themselves. Loki had learned a great deal about living as Jotnar while serving the sentence Odin set. The Norns - goddesses of destiny - were delighted with the prospect of such a novel challenge and had tended the wounds in Loki's mind, reweaving his damaged psyche. Hooks were released and shields were rebuilt in their place as they forced him to confront every awful thing he'd suffered through during his entire life, settling each event into the warp and weft of his days, merely parts of a whole. He would have never been capable of doing it without their aid.

The result, loathe though Loki still was to admit this particular truth, showed in resurrected mental health. He was saner now than he had been in some centuries, although not without the occasional ... quirk … especially where his Jotun heritage was concerned. It remained a tender subject, despite all Loki's progress in dealing with who and what he was.

"Well, child, I haven't forgotten your past, but I won't hold it against you, either. I don't reckon a little bad is all bad, just be capable of some moderation!"

Anansi regarded Loki with a considering stare before She continued.

"You ain't 'too good' for my boy." As She spoke, She made claw fingers - what Midgardians called 'air quotes' - at Loki. "He sure as the devil don't need more people what thinks they're 'too good' for 'im. He gets plenty of that shit from them goodie-two-shoes he lives with. They could near about drive a body 'round the bend, guilting folks plumb to their damn death. You aren't going to let that happen to my boy, now, are you? You going to have his back? You got it in you to stick?"

"Until the Great Tree falls, Elder, if he will permit me," Loki promised, foreseeing no possible future in which he could tire of his object of interest. He was endlessly fascinated with his mortal and had been since their first meeting; Loki's fascination had only increased after the Avengers' Hulk had beaten Thanos' immediate influence out of Loki's brain. Neither had it faded during his time with the Norns.

Something about Anthony Edward Stark called to Loki's soul. He could not explain it, but as the God of Lies, he recognized truth.

"Why him? Why My boy?" The Elder God's tone warned against prevaricating, but this was not a question Loki knew how to answer. He did not completely understand why, himself.

"There is ... something in him that ... I require. He ... calls to me. I wish him for my own."

"Huh. Well, fact of the matter is, My Tony belongs to his own damn self, but it's true, he was made to be yours, little god, just like you're meant to be his. The Maker of All Things knows you both need a keeper, child. Keep each other. Keep each other. Keep each other."

Said three times and so incanted; Loki could feel the bonds Odin had impressed upon his magic melt away. He took a deep breath; it had the unusual side effect of feeling like it was the first full breath he'd drawn in centuries.

"Yes, Aunt Nancy. Thank you." There was no pretending, no arguing nor hiding that for which his lonely heart yearned. The Elder God's mental presence impressed itself upon him, resulting in a sensation much like being stepped on and scrubbed clean of all magic but his own.

"Don't hurt 'im unless you have no choice, but you choose to hurt 'im, and you're going to get hellhounds on your tail. You hear me, Loki Silvertongue?"

"I hear you, Elder Anansi. Thank you. I cannot promise to never hurt him-"

"Ain't none of us what can make that promise, child. That would be why I didn't say that. Tony Stark is one of Mine. Life's already hurt 'im enough. That is warning enough, damnit."

"Yes, Ma'am," Loki used the Midgardian title intentionally. "I take your warning, on my honor, such as it is. How long? How long will you give me with Anthony? How long may I have?" Loki asked anxiously; he wasn't in the habit of lying to himself, after all, and he found Anthony's mortality worrisome when he let himself think about it.

These were thoughts Loki tried to avoid. When he had returned from his centuries with the Norns, Loki had never been so relieved as he was upon discovering a mere few years had passed on Midgard; Loki had had nightmares of returning to Midgard to learn Anthony Stark was long dead.

Loki knew he would need every bit of time he could obtain.

"Don't fret none. Wouldn't be much of a fairy godmother if I took him from you too soon, would I? You and My boy are due some happy and you'll get a goodish amount of time with 'im, never fear. Why, he's too full of magic to stay completely mortal, and you're fixing to put some more magic in 'im, aren't you, Loki?" the Old God cackled as she leered at him.

Loki was more than a little horrified to realize he was blushing to the roots of his hair; for all his years, he felt very young and gauche before Her.

"Aw, you're a cutie, all right. Be sure. Making My Tony yours ... boy's got the makings of a fine sorcerer his own self. He's some My best work," the Old God bragged.

"He is, and he does," Loki agreed, smiling. He'd always sensed the magic in Anthony Stark.

"Reckon you'll do pretty well by each other, long as you mark my words, Nephew. Go on after him, long as you're of a mind to be serious about it."

Loki took a deep breath and let the Old God's acceptance wash through him. Acceptance was so rare; these days, Loki made a point of cherishing it when it happened.

He might like to give more thought to how serious he had become, so quickly, because what Anansi described was a lifetime commitment - his lifetime - but Loki wanted it so suddenly it was making his throat ache.

"Thank you, Aunt Nancy."

"Yeah, yeah. Go on, then. My blessing."

"You seem confident he will accept my ... attentions."

"He'll build you a fuckin' empire if you treat him right. Building is what My People do."

"Yes, Elder." Loki bowed again, gratefully, before he removed himself from the spirit plane.

He had plans to make and places to go.

***

What Loki didn't hear was what Grandmother Spider said behind his back, or the conversation that ensued thereafter.

"Those boys will need some help to fix this up right. Reckon me and that damn Coyote better talk."

"You called? As ever was, you old witch, you only want me when you wish to ... hmm ... expedite matters. As if I'm good for nothing else."

"Oh quit feeling sorry for yourself, you moody bastard, and tell me you know somebody who can seal a good solid soul bond for these boys."

"Of course I do. One of Wolf's will do it if I ask. You really think the two of them together is a good idea?"

"Yeah, it is, Old Dog. I have reasons. I was asked to fix a thing. A favor, and a necessary one."

"I see. Well. I knew you'd like him. I'll make sure it happens, Weaver."

"Which would be why I call on you, Coyote. You always make things happen, one way or t'other."

"Flatterer. You'll owe me."

"I believe I'll be happy to pay up, too."

***

"You look tired, Doctor Stark."

The baritone voice came from behind Tony and surprised him when he turned to look at the guy who spoke, who standing in line after him, waiting to order from the barista.

Finally, someone shorter than him; Tony found that immediately refreshing, considering the company he'd been keeping recently.

"You can tell that from my back, huh?" he charged with a smirk, already wondering if his life was in danger because people rarely called him Doctor Stark, even though he'd earned the title more than once and had the PhDs to prove it.

He'd hate it if this turned into yet another kidnapping attempt.

The guy who grinned - up - at him set Tony's fears at rest for some reason Tony couldn't immediately identify. Twinkling blue eyes smiled at him from a lean face, weathered by sunshine and laughter. That full grin conveyed nothing more than honest good humor. Tony got no sense of threat whatsoever, which was unusual enough to make him tip his head sideways and look a little closer.

Whoever the stranger was, he was genuinely at ease around Tony, but not in the defiant I'm not gonna be scared of you, asshole way like a lot of people Tony met. This guy regarded him with more of a 'I'm completely harmless because I can afford not to be scared of you' way that Tony recognized immediately from living among warriors. However, the guy also radiated a kind, cheerful calm that Tony could almost feel seeping into his skin. He'd never felt anything quite like it.

Fashion-wise, the guy came off like he was lost in the 70's; his mostly-gray hair was braided to midway down his back and tied off with a fringed piece of leather. Tony kinda adored him for that, alone. It wasn't a look many older guys could pull off, but this guy was rocking it. He was wearing Nikes and Levis and a Cascade Jaguars tee-shirt that molded itself to a lean but fit form. Turquoise and silver earrings and a thong, bead, and bone choker around his throat drew Tony's attention to some intriguing rough stubble; the dude had a good ten years on Tony, but still. Attractive as hell. Beautiful blue eyes.

"Do I know you?" Tony found himself asking impulsively, because something about this man seemed weirdly familiar despite everything that made him so different.

"We haven't met, but we share some mutual friends. Jack Kelso, Charles Xavier … I'm Doctor Blair Sandburg. Hey, man, look, it's your turn to order. Listen, can we sit over here and drink our stimulants and just talk for a few minutes? Asking politely, no ulterior motives, no threat of any kind. Believe me when I say I'm not about to give you any shit, I promise. I just want to talk, okay? You're a brilliant guy and I’m actually a fan of your work. I'd love to discuss your paper about ethical considerations in creating artificial intelligence sometime but to go back to your original question, yes, in fact, I can tell how tired you are from your back. You're exhausted. And you're in pain. I just wanna make sure you're okay, man, it's kinda what I do. I'm something of a healer, among other things."

Tony blinked, amused, impressed, and rather delighted by that artless, rambling monologue.

"Eh, it's mostly just chronic sleep deprivation," he conceded lightly, hoping his whiny tone hid how honest he was being. He'd plead guilty to fatigue but he wouldn’t cop to being in pain.

Besides, Tony found himself rather gleefully astounded by Doctor Blair Sandburg. Pausing to politely plead for his usual Sumatran grande from the barista, Tony deliberately ignored the faint buzz in his ears that wanted to agree with all of Sandburg's charges.

"Yeah, take your normal garden variety insomniac tendencies, mix with irregularly timed episodes of extremely high stress, life and death situations, post-traumatic stress disorders, occupational hazards, injuries, plus, too much caffeine, a suboptimal diet, on top of today's workaholic high-tech never-unplugged modern lifestyle, I get it," Sandburg noted after asking the barista for chai tea.

Somehow, Tony was not at all surprised by Sandburg’s choice of beverage. Sandburg was energetic, but serene in a way that rivaled Bruce Banner at Bruce's most Zen. In fact, by that measure, Sandburg reminded Tony more of Charles Xavier, who liked to elevate serenity to an art form.

Sandburg, however, was less generally sad than Charles; Sandburg seemed to be a happy guy, content with life.

Tony had seen that expression in the mirror, he knew what emotions lay behind it. That time in his life hadn't lasted very long before Pepper had called it quits on their romantic relationship. Missing her had subsequently become just one more chronic condition, like his not-drinking-today alcoholism, his aching chest and back, and living his life with the half-dozen other pains in the ass with whom he intermittently saved the world every now and then ... when he wasn't repairing damage to his tower or his armor, or repairing the team's gear, or busy with S.I.

Being Tony Stark had kept Tony from dwelling on the blow of losing Pepper. Mostly. Still, however, when he was at his most depressed, he wondered if missing Pepper was the cause of his other physical symptoms, like the constant empty feeling in his chest he'd had for years, even before Pepper actually left. He had gotten so close to making things work with her before she'd backed off over the You almost got me killed, Tony! You almost died! issues she had with him being a superhero. Not to mention her weird reaction whenever the Avengers or Loki came up.

That didn't matter. Tony didn't blame her for leaving him. She was right. He had almost gotten her killed, just by being who he was. Plus, he was a pain in the ass to live with. He'd been told often enough.

Sandburg paid for Tony's and his own order - with cash - before Tony could get his credit card out of his wallet, his brain running on autopilot.

He blinked, startled out of his morose train of thought.

"Yeah, I know, I bet this never happens to you," Sandburg remarked, shaking his head and snorting out a laugh. "Everybody always lets you pay, am I right?"

Tony laughed, too; he couldn't help himself. He liked this guy.

"Hey, I'm not exactly poor-little-rich-boy," he protested lightly, becoming aware he was grinning a little madly because he was that fucking amused.

"Oh, I don't know about that, man, I think there's an element of poor-little-rich-boy in all of us, especially when we grow up feeling like the object lessons of other people's failures," Sandburg said philosophically and shrugged. "Been there, brah."

Sandburg's choice of word tickled Tony's funny bone and he found himself snickering while they collected their orders. He let Sandburg lead him over to a corner table, where they could both sit with their backs to a wall and have clear lines of sight to the exits.

None of which were courtesies that escaped Tony's notice.

Tony became aware of a man watching them closely from a table on the other side of the room, back against another wall. This guy was tall and muscular and hard-faced enough to make Tony feel a little paranoid again, even though the man looked a little older than Sandburg, even.

He also had some scary don't fuck with me eyes. Tony recognized those, too.

"That's my husband Jim, he's here as like, my husband Jim. And my bodyguard. Heh. He is no threat to you or yours unless you fuck with us, seriously. He's here babysitting me, not plotting evil against you. Honest, Jim is not that guy. He's all solid upstanding citizen, believe me. This obvious glaring disapproval thing he's got going on is because he's pissed off at me for approaching you. I mean, he has reasons – Jim’s opposed to the whole coming-out-to-a-government-agency-as-different thing and since you're, you know, you, Doctor Stark, Iron Man, you're kind of close to a government agency so he's not wild about us meeting. He afraid of us coming to SHIELD's attention and I totally get his concern but the fact remains, I was asked to meet you and now that I have I see somebody who's in need of my help, so I have to help. I think I can help you. Jim is over there wishing I'd shut up because he thinks I sound crazy but, hey, won’t be the first time.

“So, in a nutshell. I got this phone call from Charles Xavier and he asked if I'd meet you. I said, sure, Charles, whatever you want, man, because, you know, Charles Xavier, right? And here we are. Jim and I have been arguing about me meeting you which is why he's sitting over there alone and I'm talking to you, alone, not that either one of us is ever really alone. Well, that, and I didn't want to scare you because Jim looks fucking scary when he's mad, yeah? But, see, he's mad at me, not you, because I wouldn't back down. See, my philosophy is, you never know when you're going to need help, so when you get asked to help, or when you just come across somebody who needs help, well, hey, it's incumbent upon you to, you know, pay into the system. It's a tough old world; our duty is to help each other. But you already know this, don't you, Doctor Stark, which means I'm preaching to the choir. By the way, go you, for getting your company out of weapons manufacturing. A lot of folks are really proud of you for that, man. You probably have no idea.

"Anyway, the short version of a much looonger story is, I am a guide, Jim is my sentinel, and he won't hurt you. Sentinels don't hurt guides, not with impunity, anyway, and you are a guide, Doctor Stark. I can feel it in you, now that I'm with you. When guides are in pain, it kinda wrinkles up the fabric of the universe, spiritually speaking. Empathically speaking. Other guides notice. I'm noticing."

Tony's ears were ringing. Had to be. He'd misheard, obviously, ears too overloaded by Sandburg’s extended monologue. Tony Stark was no one's guide and he didn’t know why Sandburg was back on the subject of him being in pain. Pain simply let you know you were alive, right?

Wait.

Ignoring the ache in his chest out of habit, Tony rubbed his chin and looked into Sandburg's eyes, mentally reviewing everything he'd ever heard about guides.

He probably did know more than the average bear. The term was not at all unfamiliar, but it wasn't something he'd ever given any thought to, not since he was a kid, anyway.

“That’s the short version?”

"You do know what a guide is. I thought you might. Call me Blair," Sandburg ordered, sipping his tea and humming an approving note that kinda curled around Tony's balls ... and yeah, getting horny in front of the guy's sentinel, probably not a good idea, but Blair Sandburg was magnetic with his monologues and smiles.

"The long version is a long version and involves spirit-walking and a vision," Sandburg said with a shrug and a grin.

Tony drank his coffee - doing his usual mental coffee dance while his tongue sang silent hosannas - and ignored Sandburg in favor of considering exactly what he did know. Aside from the stories his mother used to tell him when he was little, there was - deep in his father's files, hidden in a vault in the old mansion - information on the use of 'sentinel stem cells' and 'guide genes' in the supersoldier serum. Sentinels had enhanced physical senses: eyesight, hearing, touch, scent, taste. There had been little information about the guides except that they served as sensory and emotional anchors for sentinels and the position was generally till-death-do-you-part.

God knew that would be enough to exclude Tony Stark, right there.

Blair Sandburg was regarding him intently, looking like some kind of suburban witch doctor, with his long braid and serious blue-eyed stare.

"You okay, man?"

"Visions, huh. I do know what guides and sentinels are. It hasn't been classed as a mutation yet," Tony began and was instantly interrupted.

"Actually, it's my belief that the abilities of sentinels and guides - and a certain supersoldier's, maybe - represent the purest, least mutated genes in the human genetic code, but when you say shit like that people think you're being all Aryan Nation, which, no. That's not what I mean. But Jim and I agree that most governments, including ours, would probably classify sentinel senses as a mutation, especially since mutated humans are coming out of the woodwork these days. We don't advertise what we can do - there are good reasons to avoid "Official Government Scrutiny"," Blair made air quotes, "which you well know."

Tony shrugged. The guy had him there. He did know. As to this theory that he himself was a guide, Tony had yet to be convinced. It had been decades since he'd thought about being a guide. It was a little kid's pipe dream, fed by his mother's fairytales.

"I think, at long last, I've finally met the only other person I know who can actually outtalk me; this is kinda scary, but I can cope. I can tell you're a good guy, Doctor Blair Sandburg, so we'll leave out the MIBs and keep this just between us. Tell me, what makes you think I'm a guide?"

"Oh, but there's more, Doctor Anthony Stark. You're a guide with someone who needs you to guide them."

"See this? Here's the crazy. This is why you don't talk to strangers. Just what were you smoking during this vision, Cochise?" Twirling his finger at his temple to indicate how loopy he thought Sandburg was, Tony grabbed his coffee with his other hand and started to stand. Before he could, a pair of heavy hands closed - very gently - over his upper arms and pushed him back down into his chair; then Sandburg's Jim slid into the seat beside Tony.

"Wrong tribe."

And Sentinel Jim was a big buff guy who looked like he could give Steve Rogers a run for his money, even though Jim also looked like he might have a couple of decades on Tony.

"You and him? Mutt and Jeff. You're ex-military?"

"Former Army Ranger Captain Jim Ellison, Retired, former Captain of Detectives with the Cascade Washington, State-not-the-District, Police. Retired," replied Jim in an absolutely terse, deadpan tone, but his icy blue eyes were laughing at Tony so Tony had to smirk back ... despite the way his back had tightened defensively, making his chest ache worse than usual.

"Nice to meet you. Hard to picture a guy like you with Sitting Bull here," Tony ran his mouth automatically, still feeling a little threatened as he pointed at Sandburg.

"Wrong band of the tribe, thanks. I just happen to know a few things." Blair spoke quietly, but Tony could hear the amused good humor in his voice.

"Calm down and listen. You'll thank us, later," Sentinel Jim's gravelly voice informed Tony's ear, tickling him into a full body shiver.

This guy was solid muscle.

"Shit."

"Relax. We are not a threat. We're not that stupid, Avenger. We're just here to talk. So, listen, Doctor Stark, the fact that you're a guide, that's not a quantifiable thing but it is undeniable. Jim can - huh, this isn't going to sound polite, but - Jim can smell the guide in you, even if I couldn't tell for myself. Which I can. Because I'm a guide, too. So tell me why you are so sure you can’t be one."

"Because I can't. I don't do emotions and I don't have a sentinel!" Tony insisted. Please tell me it's not Steve Rogers is what he was thinking, and a bit wildly, at that.

It took Tony a moment to realize Blair Sandburg was reading his mind telepathically, not exactly a guide gift as he knew it.

"Oh, man, you know what, sentinels are not the only people who need guides. That's kind of a misconception. I promise I'm not referring to Steve Rogers," Sandburg whispered very quietly, his gaze turning unexpectedly thoughtful as he somehow 'backed out' of Tony's head. "I'm sorry. I thought you knew, but you're not quite there yet. Some knowledge you gotta come to on your own, kid."

Somehow the tone of Blair Sandburg's voice lanced a few bright blasts of pain through Tony's head, unlocking a few memories he'd refused to let himself ponder. At all.

Except maybe late at night, sometimes, when his chest wasn't the only body part that ached.

Loki. Thor's brother, Loki. God of Lies, Loki. Threatening Tony, touching him. Sniffing at him, those patrician nostrils flared, judging him, free with insults that Tony batted right back, because hell, daddy-issues were something Tony could sympathize with.

To an extent.

His sympathies increased even further if he threw in the fact that both he and Loki had killed a whole shitload of innocent people through their own actions. Loki, at least, had the defense of being mind-controlled by the Chitauri most of the time.

What was Tony's defense, the value of S.I. stocks?

Loki of the mocking green eyes, either smirking or sneering, but never treating Tony with indifference … always giving Tony his attention, his interest … holding Tony by the throat and snarling at him.

That memory had prompted more than one wet dream, and Tony didn’t want to consider what that said about him.

Loki. All those extremes given form. Hot and cold and fire and ice and that throaty liquid silver voice that slithered uncontrolled along Tony's spine every time Loki spoke ... leaving Tony trying to reason away the unreasonable.

And why, again, had he started thinking about this? Since when had he given the subject so much thought anyway?

He'd been with Pepper. He'd been faithful. Except for that whole 'adultery in your heart' thing, maybe.

Tony cleared his throat and slowly became aware that Jim Ellison was rubbing the back of his neck, skillfully kneading out knots of tension that Tony had been feeling as painful spasms all the way down his spine.

"Iron Man must be heavy as fuck sometimes," Sandburg noted in an idle tone, his eyes fond on his sentinel. "You're as bad as I am, you big ol' softie."

"Hey, I can't help it, Chief. You win, you were right. We have to help him. He's a guide. He's in pain. And something's not right with the - what's it called, the thing in your chest? Doctor Stark. It's giving off something like subsonic burps, I don't know. I'm not a physicist. It's soggy in your chest, it's not sitting right. There's something wrong with the bone density of your ribs and sternum."

"It's an arc reactor ... and I know," Tony found himself admitting something he hadn't even told the other Avengers, his previous train of thought completely derailed. "I know, but how can you tell?" He was wearing a starkanium mesh rib wrap. He'd been wearing it pretty much full time lately.

It kept him from slumping, if nothing else.

"I'm a sentinel. I could see you to the molecular level if I wanted to. Well, as long as I have my guide with me," Ellison said, eyes warm on Blair Sandburg, who grinned back at him.

"See? This is me, ignoring the thrill of victory. Anyway, Tony, like I said, Charles asked me to see if I could help you, and Jim and I can help. I'm willing to completely table all discussion of visions and guide stuff and who it is who needs you. Let’s focus on your health first, okay? I'm not here to do the deus ex machina hand-waving bullshit that goes along with the delivery of unwelcome truths to the hero and blah-blah-blah go off on some quest like the labors of Hercules. Too much melodrama. I'm just here for your health."

"Don't let him kid you. Blair lives for melodrama," Ellison said, lightly knocking his shoulder into Tony's even though his fingers were still busy, working between Tony's shoulder blades now, just above where his mesh rib guard was pressing into his skin and holding him together.

His back felt amazingly better.

"You'd make a great Gandalf," Tony offered Blair, rewarded with a bright grin.

It occurred to him to wonder what had happened to his usual personal space issues; they all seemed to have disappeared. He kept waiting for his skin to crawl, his muscles to jump, his subconscious to jerk him away - the way it did with almost everyone - out of his deep inner dread of actual contact, of skin touching skin and him sensing their ill intent.

Was that part of what made a guide a guide?

"Hey, there's a reason why you fight in a suit of armor. We get it, man," Blair Sandburg said very quietly, his tone soothing as he reached over the table and squeezed Tony's forearm lightly. "I get it, Iron Man. I understand what a betrayal Stane was."

"Damnit, stop with this psychic shit. I'm - I can't be compromised like this. The team - I'll get kicked off the team-" Tony stammered, taken aback at being seen through so clearly.

The last person who'd looked at him like that had tried to take over his mind.

"Anthony Edward Stark. I give you my solemn word of honor that I will do nothing to compromise you," Sandburg recited, tone serious and absolutely even. "Check our references with Charles Xavier. I'm, like, your therapist, here, and all about referrals and doctor-patient confidentiality. You got his number?"

"You forget who you're talking to?" Tony mocked - a little weakly, admittedly - and pulled out his Starkphone. "JARVIS, my man. Professor Charles Xavier?"

"One moment, Sir. Ah, yes. Here we are."

//"Anthony? Are you all right?"//

Charles sounded so anxious Tony caught his lower lip trying to tremble.

"Hey, Chief Ironside, do I really only call you when something is wrong? Are these the depths to which our beautiful relationship has been reduced? I'm sorry, I can't just call to hear your lovely voice? Your dulcet tones?"

//"Anthony. I can tell you're ... troubled."//

"What is this, worried telepath day? Listen, do you know Blair Sandburg and Jim Ellison?"

//"Oh, good, they've arrived. Do you trust me?"//

"Why yes, Charles, as a matter of fact I do. With my life. If I might bring it to your attention, this would be why I. Am calling. You. With the hope that nothing is wrong. Which would in fact make this an excellent data point against this theory of yours that I only call you IF something is wrong, allow me to just put that out there."

//"I beg your pardon, my theory?"// Charles said in his best snottily amused tone and Tony smiled, even as he sensed the faint press of Charles Xavier's careful psychic 'check-up'. //"I asked them to see you. You can trust Blair and Jim like you'd trust me, Anthony. I hope you'll allow them to help. I was hoping they could."//

"We wouldn't have approached you if we didn't think we could help," Jim Ellison clarified in his low, clear voice. Tony looked him in the eyes and couldn't help but grin. Apparently, Captain America had a rival for 'best earnest face', and Tony liked how the sentinel didn't even pretend he wasn't listening.

"Okay, thanks, Professor-in-Chief. Have a good afternoon. I'd say keep everybody in line but you'll do that anyway, so."

//"I'll take it in the spirit intended, then. Thank you, Anthony. A good afternoon to you, too, my friend. I'm here if you need me."//

Charles disconnected the call, and Tony took a deep breath, eyes on his phone.

"Okay, give me a few minutes to think, yeah?" he asked.

The text he'd sent JARVIS had born fruit and he had page after page of internet lore regarding sentinels and guides in general and Jim and Blair, specifically. JARVIS's judgment - which Tony trusted more than anyone’s - was that Jim and Blair were indeed ‘upstanding citizens’ (and damned if Tony couldn't see Steve Rogers in his mental dictionary, pictured standing next to the words, dressed in his uniform and holding his shield, with the American flag waving proudly behind him). The only scandals attached to either Ellison or Sandburg had happened decades ago and weren't anything Tony couldn't excuse, having been accused of worse.

Blair's press conference and his so-called fictional dissertation, however, deserved a few extra moments of Tony's attention - and, wow, Ellison and Sandburg weren't bad to look at now, but they were total babes back in the day - so Tony gave the dissertation its due as he quickly read through its cogently discussed facts and conclusions.

Also included in JARVIS's data dump was an electronic copy of Blair's second dissertation, the one that earned a doctorate, about tribal behaviors in closed societies. Despite it not being his subject, Tony admired it simply because it was so exquisitely well-written. Granted, he wasn't up on anthropology or sociology, but he could recognize intelligent thinking. After scanning through a few articles from a number of well-respected journals covering different aspects of life and culture, Tony looked at Blair curiously.

"SHIELD uses this article about mobilizing community cohesiveness following localized natural disasters as a teaching aid for their emergent reaction teams," Tony noted and tapped his Starkphone's screen into displaying the article in question. Blair's eyes went wide as Jim snorted, then Blair rubbed his forehead in visible dismay.

"Oh, wow. I did not want to know that. Jim, man, can you imagine what Naomi would have said," Blair said in a voice filled with heavy dread.

"I hear that, Chief," Jim replied, and something about the words made Blair snicker appreciatively, which made Tony smile. It took him a moment to notice both Jim and Blair were grinning back at him.

“What, exactly, would your help entail?” Tony had to wonder, texting a quick message to JARVIS to make sure Blair Sandburg's intellectual property was protected and its use being correctly reimbursed.

"Outdoor ritual and tonight would be good since there’s an appropriate phase of the moon going on. We'll need the assistance of some of your nearest and dearest. What say you, Doctor Stark? Up to a challenge?"

"The challenge will be finding 'nearest and dearest'," Tony caught himself muttering and slapped his hand over his face. "Wow, guess today's all about the self-pity." Jim's hand returned to the back of Tony's neck and gave him a gentle shake.

"Some days are just like that. We won't judge."

"Besides, I really think the challenge is going to be explaining the partial nudity part of the ritual to your team," Blair supplied with a grin and presto! Tony was immediately distracted.

It was a while before Tony realized distractions were precisely what he'd been given, just when he needed it.

***

As if Tony's day hadn't been surreal enough, things took a “left turn at Albuquerque" veer directly past strange and into weirdsville when he took Sandburg and Ellison - already Blair and Jim in Tony's head, and wasn't that anomalous? - back to the Tower for lunch.

Blair had walked off the elevator into Tony's penthouse and stopped two steps in, as if he'd been stuck. He threw up one hand, closed his eyes, and almost staggered before Jim took his elbow.

"Chief?"

"Whoa. This place is warded like you wouldn't believe. Jim. You won't be able to see it. Use your skin. It'll feel something like an E.M. field-"

"Got it. The windows, the walls, it's all woven with something that's meant to reinforce strength and structural integrity, plus whatever this shit is over here-"

"Eh, protection and surveillance spells, if I had to guess. It's not my specialty. They're not like 'somebody's waaaatchin' me'," Blair sang, slightly off-key when Tony frowned, then Blair added "it's more like a smoke alarm kind of thing. Somebody gets notified if trouble happens here. Magic. Murderous intentions. Bloodshed. Those types of things."

"Somebody? What? Spells?" Tony's brain must have stuttered, because there was only one person - being? Deity? on Earth (a few stupider neurons corrected that to Midgard in his head) - capable of having provided Tony's living quarters with the kind of spellwork Blair and Jim were describing. Why?"

Why would Loki do this? When did he do this?

"Well, that would be the Deus ex Machina, apparently. Heh. I can't speak to motivation, I can only say what I sense, and there's, like, a shitload of guilt, remorse, and desire to protect worked here, into the windows, especially. I don't think they'd crack if somebody fired a Sidewinder at them," Blair said, looking at Tony a little oddly, Tony thought, unable to identify the expression on Blair's face. "Does it help to know he's sorry?"

"We're tabling that discussion, remember?" Tony found himself saying, suddenly convinced he knew exactly who Blair believed was in need of a guide. "My health first, if you don't have your health you don't have anything, right? Hey, JARVIS, introductions, this is-"

"Sentinel Captain James Ellison, Guide Doctor Blair Sandburg, welcome. I am JARVIS, commonly referred to as 'Tony's A.I.' Professor Charles Xavier informed me he would be consulting with you on a remedy for Sir. Thank you for coming," JARVIS announced, his tone such that Tony had to wonder if he'd actually just heard what he thought he'd heard.

"Wait. You mean a remedy for me or a remedy for me? I see what you did there, JARVIS, very sneaky. I approve."

"Thank you, Sir. I do so long for your approval," JARVIS replied at his snarky best and Tony caught himself grinning at Jim and Blair.

"Nice to meet you, JARVIS, call me Blair, this is Jim - wow, how cool are you, huh? Doctor Stark ... he's fucking amazing, man," Blair said before he elegantly bowed at Tony, the gesture neatly conveying homage and respect and looking a lot less hokey than it might have if Tony couldn't feel the older man's sincerity. Tony had to give himself a moment to soak it up; he loved it when people appreciated how awesome JARVIS was; it never happened often enough to suit Tony.

"Between JARVIS, the arc reactor, and Iron Man, you've, like, single-handedly revolutionized artificial intelligence, robotics, propulsion technology, and clean energy, all this and some great electronics. I use 'em. I mean, people do notice. You've earned a little coasting time, man," Blair continued, undeterred when Tony didn't say anything - Tony was too busy flushing with embarrassed pleasure.

Leading them into the living area, Tony offered up a breathy "Uh, thanks? And call me Tony," before he plopped down on the closest sofa.

"You're welcome. And thank you, Tony. My point is," Blair plopped down beside him, Jim on Blair's other side, which turned out to put Jim at Blair's back, because Blair crossed his legs and swiveled around to look at Tony, blue gaze boring steadily into his. "You can afford to take a little time off to get better. If I can't do anything else, I can fix things to where it doesn't hurt, if you can trust me. But I think if I can get enough help, I can clean your bones of the palladium poisoning and talk them into reweaving."

"Uhm, 'talk them into-'" Tony began doubtfully, thinking later that he shouldn't have been so surprised when Loki Silvertongue Himself appeared, just like 'think of the devil and he appears'. Loki was wearing his usual goddamn hot leather armor, but - thank fuck - not the helmet. His longish black hair was tousled around his head and just begging to have Tony's fingers tangled in it; it was an urge Tony felt to such an insane degree that his fingers literally ached.

Literally ached.

And that wasn't even a new sensation.

Oh, holy fucking hell, no.

"Wonderful, this is your life, Tony Stark." Tony sat back and covered his face just to give his hands something else to do. "What do you want, Reindeer Games? Thor's not here."

"Mortal healer, if you can do these things of which you speak, I would assist you." Loki ignored Tony and addressed his announcement to Blair so dramatically Tony couldn't bring himself to actually look at the god's face. Tony found Loki ... unusually appealing ... when he started delivering oratory. Tony thought he was safer not watching.

"And why exactly do you care?" he wondered into his palms; he would have thought Loki would be pleased to see any or all of the Avengers dead. Whether that included Thor seemed to depend solely on Loki's whim du'jour. Not that Loki'd been particularly villainous lately, though; as far as Tony knew, the worst things Loki 'd done since returning to Earth were a few pranks on Thor.

"Beggared indeed would Midgard be without you, Stark. I would not see that fate imposed too soon upon this realm, not for an ill that can be easily remedied-"

"Well, 'easily' might be a slight exaggeration," Blair corrected and Tony had to look then, just to see Loki sulk at being interrupted. Instead, however, the God of Mischief and Chaos was watching Tony, vivid green eyes dark and weirdly anxious. Concerned.

Loki was staring at Tony's chest like he could see through Tony's clothes to around the arc reactor, see for himself the way Tony's bones were softening around it, permanently affected as they were by the palladium he'd initially used for the reactor's core.

"You do know, it's all my own damned fault," Tony found himself volunteering, hating the idea of Loki - or anybody else - being worried about him. Feeling sorry for him. Geez, a man had his pride. "I mean, I did this to myself. Everything. The whole thing is a direct result of my own actions-"

"-actions that broke your heart. Literally broke your heart. Tony, man, you've been suffering ever since. Listen to what I'm telling you. You've been paying back into the system for a while now. Ease up on the guilt, okay?" Blair's hand was on Tony's shoulder, squeezing lightly; Tony shivered, a hard chill shaking him as he shook his head.

"I'll never pay enough. You know I've killed more people than Prancer here? Thousands of innocent civilians, hundreds of soldiers, hell, entire armies ... what can I ever do that will be enough?"

"You’ve also saved millions."

"I have some ideas about what you might do," Loki put in; Blair rolled his eyes and muttered "Not the time."

"I beg your pardon," Loki sniffed, nose in the air, looking every inch a Prince of the Realm(s). Sighing, Tony covered his face again, wondered when, exactly, he'd started looking at Loki anyway, and then tugged at his own hair when he had to look at the god again. Loki was exchanging rolling eyeball glares with Blair and Jim, but Loki's typical sneer was nowhere in evidence. In fact, his attitude was generally respectful towards Jim and Blair, which was enough to make Tony curious, given how rarely Loki seemed to respect mortals.

"Why are you so different with them?" he decided to ask.

“We know mutual friends-" Jim started to say. Blair interrupted; Tony was pretty sure that was not unusual.

"Yeah, that kinda goes with this vision I had, I had a vision during a spirit walk, remember? The long version. Iktomi, also known as Anansi, also known as Grandmother Spider, asked Coyote, who happens to be a friend of Loki’s, for a favor, so Coyote asked Wolf, who's kind of a spiritual guide to Jim and me, if we would come help you. But like I said, Wolf wasn’t the only one who asked, because then Charles called,” Blair supplied like any of that made sense. Tony didn't have time to pick which point he wanted clarified first before Loki was solemnly confirming what Blair said.

"True. Were I to disrespect Elder Brother Coyote's family, he would not receive it well. I have few enough friends that I would endanger their regard."

"God, you have an amazing voice. I see why Coyote likes you so much. You're full of music."

An astounded - and enchanted - Tony Stark watched Loki Liesmith blush at Blair's admiring words, flawless pale skin flushing pink, then Loki caught Tony looking and hissed under his breath, gaining control of himself with unfortunate speed and forcing his blush away.

"I would offer my help for the Elder Brother's sake alone, but neither would I see Thor grieved by your loss, Anthony. I pray you will accept my assistance."

Blair and Loki exchanged another long stare that Tony just knew was full of a lot of shit he couldn't hear; Jim looked calm enough, though, so Tony refused to worry. Instead, Loki's words kept running through his mind.

Loki sounded sincere and that alone was good reason to doubt. Wasn't it?

"And these ideas you had earlier? For something I could do?"

Loki's jaw moved, a muscle jumping in his cheek the only sign of his sudden discomfort.

"I have been reliably informed you will not find my suggestions amusing, Anthony."

"Oh, this must be good. Let's hear it."

"It was inappropriate and poorly considered of me to-"

"Aw, baby, those are the best ideas!"

"You are impossible to decline!"

"You mean you can't say no to me? JARVIS, make a note."

"Yes, Sir. You also have witnesses," JARVIS said in his most long-suffering tone. Having been abruptly reminded of his other guests, Tony glanced at them to confirm they were both grinning at him - well, at him and Loki, like they were - cute. Or something.

Oh, God. Maybe they were. Could be. Something. Could they? No way. It wouldn't work. How would it even be possible?

"The healer has requested I wait until you are well to ... continue this conversation. I await your convenience, Healer," Loki said to Blair, and then vanished in a puff of green smoke that Tony was sure Loki only added for effect.

Tony shook his head and huffed out a little laugh, sinking back into the sofa before taking a deep breath, trying to make sense of what he-

Well.

"Jesus."

"Wrong god," Blair said, snickering under his breath. "Wow. He's - I don't even. Gorgeous. Stubborn. Sharp, sweet, brilliant ... well mended, but so beautifully broken-"

"Stop alliterating, Chief, you're turning me on," Jim deadpanned but Blair didn't let that stop him. Tony was starting to get that was a Blair thing.

"He's remorseful - so remorseful. He feels bad about a lot of shit. Some he did, some done to him, some done when the people who were supposed to love him let shit happen to him-"

"Damn it, Blair," Tony sighed, rubbing his face again as Blair's words led him directly where Tony didn't want to go, where his soul resonated with sympathy - no, empathy for Loki. All those feelings Tony didn't want to admit to having just kept hitting him in the face, trying to bob up to a conscious level of self-awareness while metaphorically shouting "HELLO!"

This was crazy talk. Him and Loki?

"Damn, damn, damn. I don't want to know this. I can't know this - I can't! Do you have any idea what will happen if I- if I let myself-"

"Then don't know it, yet. Table it. But I do have some idea, yes. A relationship with him might end up with you kicked out of the Avengers and drummed out of SHIELD, maybe even imprisoned or executed for treason, your estate seized by the government, including Iron Man and JARVIS-"

"Respectfully, Doctor Sandburg, that will never happen," JARVIS announced like the Voice of God. "There are contingency plans in place for such dire circumstances."

JARVIS sounded - anxious - and Tony hated that.

"Thank you, JARVIS, that's good to know, and I meant no disrespect, man. I should have realized, of course you have contingency plans," Blair said even as Tony opened his mouth to point that out.

"Hmm ... see, this is why - Tony, can Jarvis be there remotely? At your healing ritual? He should be there, but mechanical devices and electromagnetic fields don't always mix," Blair changed the subject a bit abruptly, leaving Tony to stew on things he didn't want to think about...

...like Tony's reasons for finding Loki so fascinating ... because Loki was beautiful, broken like him, just as not-perfect as Tony himself which made them ... kinda perfect for each other, actually.

They needed each other.

Tony blinked, wondering why on earth - Midgard - he thought that.

"He can be there in an Iron Man suit, they're shielded so that's not a problem, but should I worry about the arc reactor?" he wondered with a frown, inwardly grateful for the chance at a subject change.

A rolled scroll appeared on the coffee table, good high-cloth yellowed-ivory colored parchment wrapped in a gold and green ribbon. Tony barely touched it before the ribbon melted away, forming a glimmering border around the words they could all see as the scroll unfurled.

Anthony, Son of Stark, Man of Iron
Guardian of Midgard, Allied of Thor
If you permit my assistance, I will ward your electro-magnetic devices and insure their uninterrupted function.
By my word this day,
Loki Laufeyson
Prince of Jotunheim, former Prince of Asgard
Adopted Brother of Thor

"If you were just going to eavesdrop, you might as well have stayed," Tony said before he thought better of it. "Why do you even want to help?"

The words on the scroll vanished and new ones appeared. Despite his better judgment, Tony was impressed - and more than a little charmed - by Loki's spellwork and the way Loki had addressed him.

My motives are in no way altruistic, I assure you. I shall be - what is the phrase? - killing multiple birds with but one stone?

Thor will be overcome with gratitude, my fath- Odin will take it as positive evidence that I have 'learned my lesson'. Who knows, perhaps SHIELD itself will look upon me more favorably.

Stranger things have happened, Anthony.

"And they keep right on happening, too," Blair remarked, looking at Tony's face with an impassive expression Tony couldn't even begin to decipher. "You do realize he's offering you ulterior motives because that's what you expect from him. He's giving excuses you and your teammates can use to overlook why he really wants to help."

"You see too much," Tony warned, afraid to make the conclusions Blair's words were pointing him to, afraid to infer that Loki wanted to help because Loki, what, cared? About Tony Stark? 'Don't bet what you can't afford to lose' was merely common sense and Tony didn't think he could afford to gamble on Loki placing any particular value on his life.

Even though part of Tony jumped up and down inside him screaming "I want! Mine!" every time he looked at Loki.

Such an intense feeling had to be mutual, didn't it? Didn't it mean something when Loki made him feel so - made him feel?

"Are you seeing enough?" Blair asked, his gaze steady and grave. "What do you feel, guide?"

"You're a shitty tabler, Blair. I don't do all this squishy emotion, remember?"

"Bullshit. What do you feel, guide."

How exactly was Tony supposed to identify what he felt for Loki?

Oh, God, he did have feelings. So many feelings.

What?

Okay, so he wanted Loki. Hell, who wouldn't? Loki was gorgeous, he was intelligent and talented, and he interested Tony. Tony wanted to know everything about him, the good and the bad.

More precisely, Tony wanted everything Loki was, and the more Tony saw of him, the more Tony wanted.

He wanted everything the contrary bastard ever was and ever could be. Everything. Which made it more than just a sex thing. More than just want.

Aw, shit.

Taking a deep breath, Tony let it out slowly, envisioning himself running and screaming ... for just a moment ... but, fuck that; he was Iron Man. His balls were bigger than this.

"Yes, Loki, I would like your help. Beyond that, I'd like you to be with me during the ritual. I like having you around. I want you to be closer. I always have."

Amazing, how easy it was to tell the truth to the God of Lies.

"Behold, the great Tony Stark, hoist on his own petard," Tony added, with some bitterness, it had to be said. "How art the mighty fallen?" he asked Loki's parchment, still silently wondering ‘What the hell, Anthony?’ and ‘Where is even this coming from?’

"Apparently I've lost my goddamned mind."

The page went bone white; as a representation of shock Tony figured it must echo the expression on his own face. He vaguely felt Blair muscling him further back into the sofa, pulling him into the kind of hard embrace Tony imagined an older brother might bestow.

It was nice, but it wasn't helping. There were definite black spots at the edges of Tony's vision ... no, those were sparkles, he observed dispassionately. The low-level buzz in the back of his head intensified to a higher-pitched whine that was accompanied by an odd draining sensation from his ears down the rest of his body.

God help him. He was in love with Loki. He needed Loki. And of course he wanted Loki. He'd wanted all of Loki since the first time he'd seen him. How could he not?

How could he?

Tony's thoughts - which, to an increasingly disorienting degree, felt both sluggish and frenzied at the same time - flashed on Classic Star Trek and Captain Kirk talking some computer to death using his own unique brand of Kirkian logic ... and that was kind of the last conscious thought Tony had for several moments as reality went silvery-gray and foggy.

"-ooookay, I'll have Life-Changing Revelations for Two-Thousand, Alex. Let's all take a moment to breathe, guys, can we? Yeah, yeah, sorry, sometimes we mere mortals must take our time, Uncle Loki. Tony, that's it, man, keep breathing - hey, Jim, could you, like, sit on his other side and hang onto him with me? he's not done passing out yet- "

***

Tony had supposed himself beyond surprise, which, he conceded, was stupid of him, because he was very surprised indeed to awaken with his head in Loki's lap.

The astonishment filling his first waking moments turned out to be an absolutely excellent method of jump-starting Tony's brain into full consciousness; he didn't go from asleep to wide awake this quickly when the Avengers assembled.

What the hell?

That he didn't - couldn't - didn't want to - move was also a surprise, which happened when he opened his eyes to find Loki watching him intently. Loki's piercing, unusually green eyes were fixed on his. Loki's face was inscrutable, solemn, unsmiling, but Tony could see something in Loki's gaze that told him Loki wanted to be around him just as much as he wanted Loki around.

Loki wanted him. Too.

Well, okay. In a sense, Tony had always known that; it's why the Chitauri's Master made Loki throw him out of that window, after all. Tony was too important to Loki. He was Loki's. Loki wanted him.

"Oh." Not all those thoughts were his. Shit. Holy shit.

"Do not lose consciousness again, Anthony. Breathe. When did you last eat? If you will not see to your mortal requirements for life I suppose the task must fall to a god."

"Actually, Blair is cooking. JARVIS is helping," Jim supplied, thereby informing Tony he was being chaperoned. Tony was touched to the point of going "aaaaawww!" in his head. How sweet. They were taking care of him. There was no need to panic.

Hah, right. Like hell.

To distract himself, Tony tried to remember when he did eat last. Yesterday, sometime? Surely he'd eaten yesterday?

"JARVIS, did I eat yesterday?"

"You had nine cups of coffee, two smoothies, two apples, and one orange, Sir, which you ate when I reminded you of mealtimes. And you had half a stale cake doughnut as you departed the Tower this morning."

"Yeah, thank you, JARVIS," Tony frowned up at the nearest video sensor and fought the urge to stick out his tongue.

Not with Loki looking at him. Watching him.

God, Loki was so pretty, with the ends of his hair almost dangling in Tony's face. Tony wanted-

Yeah, not now. Chaperones, right. But, god, yeah, he wanted, heaven help him.

Tony took a few deep breaths then cleared his throat and lifted one eyebrow at his Prince.

And no, he did not just think of Loki that way. Just, no.

Some little corner of Tony's brain was laughing at him. Hysterically. Rolling around on his cerebellum with its hands clutched to its belly, kicking its legs and giggling.

What was he thinking? If he and Loki - Thor would kill him, yes? Painfully. For days. It wasn't the only argument in the 'con' column, but it was a significant one.

And there were so many more cons.

Then again, when did an argument against doing something ever stop Tony Stark?

"See? I did eat yesterday. And this morning. So there," he prevaricated, instead.

"This is your defense? I was under the assumption that a healthy diet for humans included rather more substance than your JARVIS listed. Tell me, Anthony, do you even know your species' nutritional requirements?"

"I think I read about it once. Some pyramid thingie, right?" Tony bantered back, very well aware that he was far too comfortable and way too invested on how happy he was to see Loki's green eyes alight with amusement. "I should get up-"

"No. You should not." Loki's hand was on his face; Tony gasped, because he felt Loki's touch all the way down to his toes. Loki's fingers were cool and dry and trembling, just a little.

Trembling.

What Loki wasn't saying was shouting at Tony. The lump that swelled in Tony's throat strangled the harsh sob he wished he could release. The way Loki looked at him, stern but frightened and anxious but determined...

...and no small amount of terrified confusion.

Damned if Loki didn't look like he was as fucked up about all this as Tony. Tony found that somehow reassuring.

"You need to rest right where you are until you eat, then you need to rest some more, Tony," Jim commented prosaically, his tone matter-of-fact as he distracted them both. "The ritual will be easier for everybody if we go into it fed, hydrated and well-rested. Especially for you and Blair."

Well, Tony was ... comfortable. Loki might be slim and wiry but he wasn't bony and Tony found his current position unexpectedly pleasant. The leather of Loki's pants was smooth and warm against Tony's skin, a contrast from the startling - arousing - chill of Loki's hand stroking his jaw. Tony's own hands were folded against his chest - covering the arc reactor - and he was lying on his side with his head cradled on Loki's firm upper thigh, smelling leather and Loki.

Loki smelled like cold winter air and snow and pines. So good. Something about him got to Tony, always had, way down too deep for Tony to deny.

"Guess I'll just let you spoil me, then," he announced grandly, wanting to see the smile come back into those anxious green eyes. Tony felt rewarded when Loki smirked at him, those restless - slender, beautiful - busy fingers stroking lightly over Tony's ear and through his hair.

"And spoil you I shall, Anthony."

It didn't help that Tony clearly heard the "and despoil you" Loki whispered almost under his breath. Tony's breath caught in his chest for another reason entirely, his awareness focusing on the warmth pooling in his groin.

That was just unfair.

Under his cheek, beneath the leather, Tony could feel the firming ridge of Loki's rising erection, trapped against Loki's upper thigh. Loki was hot, here, hot and cold at the same time, and Tony didn't even have to move, didn't have to do anything except lie here and feel Loki's cock throb and twitch, unseen against Tony's skin.

If Tony moved a muscle he'd lose all sense of restraint, witnesses be damned. He mostly just wanted to turn his head and plant his teeth - gently - in the leather covering that swelling cock, while his own arousal was swarming over his skin and literally curling his toes.

"Not the time," Loki said with audible regret and then did something, cast a spell, maybe? that instantly deflated his erection, taking Tony's down with it.

Tony blinked like he was coming out of a fog but he couldn't help but laugh.

"Heal first, Anthony. You will be in need of a strong heart."

"Tony. And yeah, well, so will you, my Prince," Tony said, snickering, amazed by how fucking pretty Loki was when he laughed at Tony.

It was Loki's turn to gasp, eyes going sea-dark and stormy.

"What? Say that again. Say it?"

Tony opened his mouth, and even he was astonished at the sheer amount of things he wanted to say ... that is, if he was going to do what his damaged heart was telling him to do.

What was it Aunt Peggy used to say? In for a penny, in for a pound?

Tony's ears started ringing.

"My Prince. I don't even know when I - the first time you put your hands on me, maybe? First time I laid eyes on you? Suddenly, there was this little hidden subroutine in my brain, booting up out of nowhere, saying 'hey, Tony, he's yours, yours, that guy is meant to be yours.' Don't know if your people have like, an Asgardian? Jotunheimian? is that even the word? instinct like that, like some mental rock rolls over and oops, there it is, all 'hey, reason for living!' I mean - even falling to my death, for only the first time that fucking day, thank you very much - you were - and I was - I knew something was possessing you. I could tell - do you even get what it felt like to know-"

Even Tony wasn't too sure what he was saying - or feeling - by that point, some tiny voice of reason wailing vain arguments against doing what he was in the middle of doing.

Namely, confessing the entirety of his feelings for Loki, to Loki himself. In front of witnesses, no less. And JARVIS.

Frankly, the amount of sheer terror he was feeling kind of pissed Tony off.

"-I hate that day. Glad you got all de-possessed and shit but I hate that fucking day. Hate that I killed all those damned Chitauri. Feel like a mass murderer. Again. Hate that you led them right to our door but I also know they were coming for the Tesseract anyway. They would have come sooner or later, and the invasion would have been all on SHIELD, then. I get that you actually did us a favor by making us get the damned thing off earth but you didn't have to go all Q and the Borg about it and kill so many people. Then again, like I said, you still haven't killed as many people as I have, right? I'm getting off track. The invasion is dealt with, yay Avengers, but I still fucking hated - I mean, I was glad to save New York; I like New York, I live here, but where I had to go to do it … the other end of the portal, the void, it was like … you look into the abyss and sometimes the abyss looks back, yeah? so I - I understand, a little, why you lost the plot for a while. I really do, but what I'm telling you is, the whole time I wasn't facing imminent doom I was thinking how much I - I wanted to give you somewhere else to put your attention, Loki. Like, on me. Every time I've ever seen you. Even falling to my death. I can make all these justifications - justafuckations, now, there's a word - but the truth is, I can't hate you, I can't blame you. I can't. And no matter how much I'm supposed to toe the company line and not get, you know, compromised, I can't - it doesn't - I want - I-"

Tony interrupted himself, unable to stop the grin overtaking his face. He honestly couldn't help rambling - some might say babbling; he thought rambling sounded less judgmental - but there was just no way he was going to say those words out loud. Not now, not yet, maybe never.

Hell, no. Just. No.

"-so, yeah. Yeah, Loki. Be my Prince," he demanded instead, although the comedy of those particular words wasn't lost on him.

Loki's eyes got as big as saucers and kind of glittery as he nodded slowly, then Jim chuckled. From the kitchen area Tony could hear Blair snickering, too, in the middle of plating what smelled like pancakes and bacon.

"Wow, that was beautiful, man, like Disney beautiful," Blair called out quietly, his voice laughing at Tony, but also approving, somehow; Blair understood what Tony wanted now, a chance to back off, to catch his breath, although how Tony knew that Blair knew that, he couldn’t say.

"Didja ever see 'Car Wash'? Mid-70’s movie, Richard Pryor, George Carlin," Blair asked next, helping Tony let a still-visibly-stunned Loki off the hook.

Jim helped Tony sit up as Blair walked over carrying a tray of food.

"Great musical score. Rose Royce, baby. 'I'm Going Down," Blair said, then laughed out loud, an earthy "heh heh heh" that made Tony's smile broaden involuntarily, especially when Jim smiled, too, so obviously pleased by his partner's good humor.

They were really nice to watch.

"'My whole world's up! - siiiide down'," Blair warbled, only a little off-key. "Thanks for helping me find everything, JARVIS," he called out, setting a tray on the coffee table in front of Tony. Pancakes, yes, scrambled eggs and bacon, the way a short-order cook would do it, served with butter and two kinds of syrup.

"You are welcome, Sir."

Loki was handed a plate next; he peered at Blair with a puzzled expression as he accepted it slowly.

"What, you don't eat?" Blair shot Loki an offended glare.

"Of course I eat," Loki replied sharply, glaring back. Blair held out his now-empty hands open and wide, with a silent ta-da!

"Then eat. You will break bread with us, please, Uncle."

Loki's gaze on Blair became speculative and yet, respectful.

Tony's head kind of went back on his neck; he didn't think anyone other than Jim noticed. The way Blair treated Loki was impressive. And startling.

"As you say, Nephew. Thank you." Loki must have seen Tony's question written on his face. "Anthony, as Coyote once declared me his brother - in a magical sense - a millennia ago, I am honorary uncle to his brother Wolf's chosen children, of whom Blair is one."

Tony looked at his food and wondered why his appetite had suddenly wandered off when he was reminded of Loki's age. Loki was so immeasurably older than him; Tony supposed he should question what the hell Loki even saw in him given his limited mortal lifetime.

"Hey. Tony. Some of us think you're pretty awesome, too, which makes Uncle Loki here one privileged and fortunate ... individual ... for having captured your interest. It's incumbent on him, now, to appreciate and nurture the gift of your attention with the care and respect you deserve."

"Yes, Nephew," Loki said smoothly enough, amazing Tony by sitting still for Blair's mild scold. Deciding to ignore the fact that Blair was plainly still reading his mind, Tony distracted himself by fixing his pancakes and willing his appetite to come back.

Loki allowed Tony to pour a little bit of boysenberry syrup on his pancakes ... and maybe they were being all about the avoidance behaviors but so what. Tony still wasn't sure how he was supposed to handle any - all - of this or even what he was supposed to think about it, yet, or what, exactly ‘it’ was. Given all that, he decided he'd eat, by god, and forget the fact that Loki had yet to say anything back to him.

Loki had, in fact, said very little, and was barely even looking his way.

"Hey, try it," Tony encouraged then bent to his food, practically inhaling the eggs - what was that, fresh chives and a hint of rosemary? Blair must have gotten them out of Natasha's herb garden. Tony hoped she wouldn't notice - and used the boysenberry syrup on his own pancakes. "These are great. I can't make pancakes. It's a problem, less than you might think, Steve, Clint, Bruce, and Natasha can all do pancakes, but mine never turn out right. Never circular, always either burned or half-raw ... I can do waffles, got a machine for that, thanks, but pancakes, like, perfect little round flatcakes from a pan, yeah, no. Can't . It's beyond me. Oddly enough, I even learned to make crepes for Pepper, I can cook the hell out of crepes. But I can't cook freaking pancakes."

"Thank you for the warning, Anthony. Perhaps you will be pleased to know that preparing pancakes is within my culinary reach," Loki remarked in an overly-solemn tone, eyes bright and amused. "These are very well done, thank you, Nephew."

"You're welcome, Uncle," Blair replied with a grin, coming back with his and Jim's plates, then milk for everyone.

"Seriously?" Tony asked doubtfully, still trying to work out the implications behind Loki's words.

"Seriously. You need the calcium and the calories. We all will, actually, but Tony, Uncle's right and you're in a negative energy situation nutritionally speaking, and, you know, I've been holding back on the lecture I'm dying to give you about electrolytes, catabolism, calorie intake and optimum cellular metabolism."

"In other words, don’t argue with Blair, Tony, just drink the damn milk. I've heard that lecture. You don't want to go there," Jim said quickly, winking at Tony who grinned back, relieved by Jim's solidly protective presence.

"Sir, yes, sir, Captain Ellison, sir," Tony conceded, amused. Truth be told, milk was perfect with this kind of meal. Tony couldn't honestly remember the last time he'd had it.

"Bones need calcium, Doctor Stark. I can account for some of what we'll need by leaching it up out of the ground - you see, there's reasons for everything - but it will help if you ingest some actual calcium."

"Understood, Doctor Sandburg." It made sense to Tony and his stomach suddenly agreed, which was weird when only moments ago his stomach had been twisting itself into knots with what the hell, Stark? Seriously? You seriously said all those things? To Loki?.

But, hey. Pancakes.

Eating politely - almost daintily, although Tony bet Loki would hate that descriptive - Loki cut neat slivers out of his pancakes, eating them with what looked like appreciation.

Tony wasn't sure he believed his life was even real, sometimes.

"So, where is everyone?" Blair asked, turning the subject even more firmly away from more sappy emotional declarations. "JARVIS? No, wait, you know what, never mind. I don't care. Just warn me if someone arrives, yeah? Tony? Is that okay?"

"Sure, Blair, whatever you want," Tony said a little absently before Blair smiled at him brightly and said "Thanks, Tony!"

And here Tony was, trusting Blair Sandburg. He didn't even know how that happened.

***

'Trusting Blair Sandburg' explained how, why, and where Tony now found himself: near sunset, at moonrise, on the grounds of his father's Park Avenue mansion, deep in the back yard. He was shirtless, sitting on the wide manicured lawn east of the - still functional - marble fountain that marked the center of the mansion's formal hedge maze.

His father had had the maze installed at his mother's insistence when Tony was a kid. He'd loved it then.

He couldn't remember the last time he'd been here.

They were waiting for the other Avengers to appear. Charles Xavier surprised Tony by showing up before anyone else.

"Anthony. You're looking ... rather well, all things considered." The telepath looked at Loki and lifted one elegant eyebrow.

"Charles, buddy, let's not. Consider. Okay? Let's just not. Policy of the day is me, me, me. Fixing me, well, as much as that's even possible-"

"Considering things is what I do, my friend. Believe me when I say, you are not in need of 'fixing' or any of the other condescending terms you are applying to yourself."

"You're joking, right?" Plenty of people thought Tony Stark needed fixing. Even Steve occasionally thought Tony was a dog, in more ways than one, a mongrel puppy only ever half as good as his father, no matter what Tony did. And Steve was always so polite about shit that you didn't even feel insulted until later, when you thought about it, when you remembered the look in Steve's eyes that said you weren't meeting his expectations.

"Damnit, Charles, would you get out of my head, please?"

"Forgive me, but you're broadcasting, guide, and I don’t give a damn what Steve Rogers thinks, for the record."

"Not you, too," Tony groaned, hanging his head in resignation, because when Charles Xavier said he saw something in you, you kind of had to take it as read. "We're tabling that. Aren't we tabling that? Blair? Jim?"

"We're tabling the guide discussion, yes. Hi Charles, glad you're here."

"Professor."

"Blair, Jim. Thank you for allowing me to participate and thank you for helping Anthony." Thank you for coming out of hiding to help Tony echoed silently inside Tony's head. Tony set aside his anxiety-ridden embarrassment before it could provoke him into saying something he didn't want to say and was about to add his own thanks, when fucking Magneto stepped up behind Charles' chair. He was dressed as casually as Charles, which is to say, in a suit and tie, and sans helmet.

Feeling an almost convulsive need for his armor, Tony went still, digging his hands into the grass and longing for his repulsors. Blair, who was sitting cross-legged on the ground beside Tony, gave Magneto an inquiring smile.

"Master Erik Lensherr, I presume? Doctor Blair Sandburg, this is my husband Jim Ellison. It's an honor to meet you, sir, can't say I expected to?" Blair asked fearlessly, managing much more Zen that Charles Xavier, who was looking at Magneto with a faint smile as Magneto bowed.

"Gentlemen. And Stark," Magneto added dryly, diverting Tony's attention.

"Hey, Magneto! Thanks for coming! 'S'up? I'm declaring today Supervillain Amnesty Day in support of the Tony Stark Not-Memorial Program-" Tony said while Magneto's eyes laughed at him.

"Anthony!" Charles scolded, rolling his eyes.

"Charles! Hey, have you met Loki Laufeyson, Prince of Jotunheim, Prince of Asgard? Loki, allow me to present Professor Charles Xavier. I believe you might know Master Lensherr already."

"Demonstrating your court manners, Anthony?" Loki murmured, green eyes amused. "Professor. Magnus. Thank you for coming."

Tony's eyes went wide and he stared at Loki, catching something he wasn't sure he was reading right.

"You asked Magneto to help-"

"I merely reminded an acquaintance of what he owes and to whom. How he might render his assistance seemed rather obvious to us both," Loki said with some finality.

"That’s - huh. Thanks. Both of you. That is..." It was boggling Tony's mind, actually; two of the Avengers' former foes were standing here, colluding, to help him stay alive instead of trying to kill him. "...astonishing, really. Thank you.

“Huh,” he concluded, tone probably expressing too much wonder. He was genuinely grateful. And, touched.

If you judged a person by the quality of his enemies, well.

“Tell me Doom’s not showing up.”

Magneto snorted at him then turned to nod at Blair.

"Doctor Sandburg. I owe you a boon on my children's behalf, I am told. I do not take such debts lightly. If I may be of assistance in this matter - and it has not escaped my notice that I can - then I might begin to pay my debts. With your consent, Stark."

Blair looked at Tony and shrugged, tilting his head at Jim, who was nodding at him.

"Truth," Jim explained, drawing a second glance from Magneto, who narrowed his eyes thoughtfully before looking back at Tony.

Well, if Magneto wanted to help, who was Tony Stark to turn him away? Working his jaw for a moment - because it was an effort to speak - Tony eventually opened his mouth and said "Yes, sir, thank you," again because Tony actually could be a gentleman and offer respect where it was deserved and he’d been taught how to behave, thanks to his mother and Jarvis the Original.

And the potential applicability of Magneto's mutant powers to the shrapnel buried in Tony's chest had never escaped Tony's notice, either.

"All-righty then. Thank you, Master Lensherr. I'm glad to have your help,” Blair said, bowing back at Magneto. "Actually, your help'll be invaluable. But, Tony, I need you to understand something. Even if - well, no, rewind - when Master Lensherr draws out the shrapnel, I can heal the physical damage that leaves behind, but you're still not gonna be able to remove your arc reactor. I'm not - I can't - there's reasons. You've - your entire electromagnetic field is, like ... recalibrated around the reactor. Removing it will result in some really negative effects, especially on the electrical pathways of your heart - it's - I can strengthen your bones and make it stop hurting, but I can't fix it where you can remove your reactor," Blair informed Tony, chewing on his bottom lip and looking more subdued than Tony had yet seen him, as if he thought he was letting Tony down with this limitation. “I can make it not hurt.”

"That’s good enough. I ... don't know ... if I ... I'm not sure I'd remove it if I could," Tony admitted with a quiet sigh, hoping to relieve Blair of the guilt he could see simmering behind Blair's eyes. "It's part of me. It's who I am. I am Iron Man."

"Yeah," Blair said, eyes clearing and taking on a more speculative expression. "You are," he added, nodding his head at Tony. "Then you're okay with that."

"It's all good," Tony repeated and shouldn't have been surprised when, on the heels of his words, Clint and Natasha virtually melted out of the hedges, both armed, targets locked, prepared to fire.

"You have to admit, Stark, it doesn't look good. What it looks like is-"

Tony could guess what it looked like, he was sitting on the lawn half-naked, fiddling with the settings to the audiovideo sensors he'd placed earlier, making sure they were all calibrated perfectly for JARVIS' use.

"Helloooo? Did you even notice Professor Charles Xavier? He's like, the most righteous dude on the planet, if not the galaxy, he'd never participate in something shady. We aren’t trying to break into the mansion or taking Doctor Stark hostage or mind-controlling him or any of the other scenarios you’re thinking."

Blair interrupted Clint like he'd didn't give a shit about the arrow pointed in his direction, waving the hand he wasn't holding out in Jim's direction before Tony noticed Charles was holding Magneto's hand.

Wow.

"We don't always fight, Anthony," was whispered into his mind; Tony shook his head and kept right on snickering, truly amused at the notion he and Charles Xavier had turned out to have so very much in common.

"Oh, Clint darling, I swear it's not what it looks like," Tony promised dramatically and snickered some more. Clint rolled his eyes but nodded at Tony before he conceded to lower his crossbow. A little.

And Tony wondered how he'd ever be able to thank his friend for having aimed at who Clint perceived was the most dangerous person present: the one who was next to Tony. Tony felt his smile turn real - he could feel the difference - and beamed it at Clint with delight. In turn, Clint squinted and shot Tony a fearsome grimace before he nodded.

"Stark, start explaining. Who are these people?" Natasha asked coolly, having lowered her weapon not at all. She was drawing a bead on Jim Ellison, which was about the time Tony realized Jim pretty much wanted to tear Clint's head off for having aimed at Blair.

Without really thinking about it, Tony reached out and patted Jim on one leg, briefly squeezing rigid-with-tension - and impressively sized - calf muscles.

"Friends of mine, and I'm kinda hoping to do explanations for everybody at the same time. Where are Bruce, Steve, and Thor?" Tony asked, pleased when Jim relaxed. A little.

Blair huffed out a little laugh; Tony gave him an inquiring look and Blair leaned over to whisper in Tony's ear.

"And you think you're not a guide."

"Shut-up. Tabling."

"Heh heh heh."

"I'm here," Bruce said quietly, emerging from behind Magneto and Charles - skirting them both at a wary distance - to come directly to Tony's side. Tony had to close his eyes for a moment just to appreciate that.

Bruce knelt next to Tony, all frowny-faced and concerned.

"Are you all right? Why are you out here without a shirt? They're not trying to take-" Bruce raised one hand towards Tony's chest before checking himself. Very deliberately, Tony caught Bruce's hand and laid it over his arc reactor, holding it to himself and hoping Bruce understood.

"I'm all right, mostly, except where I'm not, but I will be fine and no one is here to hurt me. I know, right? I was as surprised as you. Hey, Brucie Bear, glad you're here. Blair, Jim, this is my friend Bruce Banner. Bruce, meet Blair and Jim."

Tony looked around to see Blair smiling at them both like he was looking at something beautiful. Tony frowned at him.

"Quit making the Disney eyes, Blair!"

"Aw, but it's so sweet. Fine, no more Disney," Blair griped, exaggeratedly wiping his face clear of expression before holding out his hand to Bruce for a shake. "Doctor Banner, pleasure to meet you, sir. Divya Kaur speaks highly of your humanitarian work in India and Pakistan."

"Thank you," Bruce said slowly, eyeing Blair oddly before looking up at Jim, who'd finally stopped watching Clint and Natasha in favor of monitoring Bruce. "Uh, so you know Doctor Kaur?" Bruce asked, turning back to Blair with a fine attempt at continuing the faculty-mixer facade. Tony was impressed.

"Yeah, she was friends with my mom. Mom helped establish her clinic in Lahore." Whatever Blair said next was in some language Tony didn't recognize, but he watched Bruce's eyes go wide then got to hear Bruce laugh. Bruce said something back in what sounded like the same language, sing-song and liquid, then he and Blair grinned at each other.

"So, Steve and Thor?"

"They're here. Watching," Jim muttered, his voice distracted. "Damn, that guy feels weird. His electrical field..." Jim’s voice faded and he went quiet.

"You gotta be shitting me. 'Scuze me, kids." Blair climbed to his feet smoothly and lifted one hand to Jim's face, stroking his cheek gently as he murmured. "Hey, babe, seriously? You haven't done this in fifteen years, you gonna let something like the God of Thunder's electrical field make you zone? Heh heh heh, wow, guess 'the cause is sufficient', am I right? Come on, man, what grabbed your attention so hard, huh? His electromagnetic field all shiny or something?"

Jim, who was staring unseeingly into the horizon, shivered and focused on Blair.

"You can stop laughing at me now, Chief, and yeah, something like that."

"Gentlemen? If you'll join us, Tony can explain why we're here," Charles called out, and a visibly suspicious - and fully armed and armored - Thor and Steve walked in from opposing sides of the yard; Thor ended up coming in near Charles and Magneto, while Steve entered closer to Jim, Blair, Bruce, and Tony, shield at the ready.

"I'm pretty sure I told JARVIS to say regular clothes. Civilian clothes. Jesus," Tony said, shaking his head in disbelief. "Even Loki and Magneto showed up in regular clothes, for godssakes."

"It's okay, their armor is who they are, it's not a bad thing, Tony," Blair informed him, staring at Thor, before turning and tilting his head to look at Steve. "Holy shit." Blair covered his eyes briefly before he turned back to lift one eyebrow at Tony.

"Dude," he drawled, laughing inside so hard that Tony could actually feel it, rueful, respectful, astonished, "the sheer pulchritude, oh my god" and "it must take balls just to live with these guys, let alone keep up with them if the field. They must make you so tired."

For once, Tony wasn't going to argue. Steve and Thor did make him tired and Tony was so fucking burned out on feeling that way.

Tony glanced away from Blair and automatically sought out Loki, who'd somehow managed to end up standing between Clint and Natasha. Despite them, Loki met Tony's gaze, vivid green eyes full of understanding.

So much understanding.

"Loki. Come here?"

"Oh," Loki said, his face going beet red then paling so rapidly that Tony feared for his heart. "Anthony. Are you certain?"

"Tony?" Tony barely heard someone say; he couldn't look away from Loki's eyes, which were glittering now, tears glistening before Loki blinked them away, only breaking their gaze for a moment.

Nothing was going to change the way Tony felt. He wanted to look into Loki's eyes for the rest of his unnatural living-on-borrowed-time life.

"Loki. I want you beside me, please. You're mine."

"Holy shit. Balls of solid fucking titanium," he heard Blair mutter; Tony muttered back "-and gold alloy."

"I will be yours until the stars have turned to dust, Anthony Edward Stark," Loki informed him unsteadily, and the sound Tony made might have been described as "oh." It felt like somebody had punched him hard in the solar plexus, like there wasn't enough air in his lungs, like his face was too hot ... then he could feel the blood drain out of his face in shock. Despite all that, Tony held out the hand Bruce wasn't holding, ignoring the way his fingers shook with fear and anticipation.

Giving brief, sideways glances at Clint and Natasha, Loki vanished, reappearing near enough to take Tony's hand - but as far away from Bruce as Loki could get - before he went to his knees at Tony's side.

Loki's hand was cold, his fingers chilled and trembling.

"I’m yours, too, Rock of Ages. Hmm. So. I suppose you're all wondering why I called you here," Tony began, and couldn't help but cackle - maybe a little maniacally - because, come on, that shit was funny.

Charles was pinching the bridge of his nose while trying not to laugh - Tony loved it when he could make Charles Xavier do that - while Blair and Jim ... and Clint, Loki, and Magneto ... were all snickering right along with him.

"Why don't you tell us what the hell is going on?" Natasha ordered a bit harshly, visibly wondering if she needed to come over here and kick Tony in the head. He was trying to formulate a reasonable response to that when JARVIS spoke up from the Iron Man suit that stepped out of the hedgerow from where he'd been standing watch.

"Sir, if I may?"

"Please, JARVIS, be my guest."

"Thank you, Sir. Gentlemen and lady, Master Stark is dying. He is suffering residual effects from palladium poisoning. The skeletal structure of his ribs, sternum, spine and shoulders is affected with radiation induced osteomalacia, softening of the bone. It is a condition with no known treatment by traditional Western medicine. I decided-"

"You decided, JARVIS?" Tony asked, grinning a little madly, then grinning even harder when Blair beamed back at him, totally getting how awesome JARVIS was.

"I decided I would consult on Sir's behalf with individuals who might suggest alternative remedies. One such call was made to Westchester, to the home of Doctor Charles Xavier."

"Quite a surprise, that," Charles murmured lightly, his lovely voice tight with emotion. Unbidden, Tony pitied him more than a bit, sorry his telepathic friend was stuck here bearing all this emotion. Tony worried about what this was doing to him. Tugging at Loki's hand to draw him a bit closer, Tony was pleased when Loki didn't resist, Bruce or no Bruce, joining Tony in sturdily ignoring all the 'shocked and appalled' coming from Tony's team.

"Doctor Xavier consulted with Doctor Sandburg, who has since ... examined Sir and determined a viable course of treatment that will save Sir's life. Prince Laufeyson requested he be allowed to assist Doctor Sandburg with Sir's recovery and it was he who requested Master Lensherr's aid," JARVIS continued impassively.

"I will vouch for Erik Lensherr in this matter," Charles added quietly, giving Magneto a half-smile; Magneto gave Charles a rather sappy half-smile back. Tony got the message Charles was sending and quit worrying about his friend quite so much. Erik Lensherr was Charles' buffer from the intensity of the thoughts around him; it was obvious when Tony let himself see it, the same way Jim and Blair buffered things for each other.

The same way Tony wanted to be a buffer for Loki, if he could.

Good grief. He just might be a guide.

"Thank you, Charles," Blair said, his own gaze on Tony.

"How long have you been fooling around with Loki behind our backs?" Steve asked harshly. "What do you mean, he's yours and you’re his?"

"Yeah, let's just skip right over the 'I'm dying' part, huh, Steve? Before you convict me of treason, I'd like to point out it can't really be called fooling around, exactly; he hasn't even kissed me, yet. As for how long ... what, about five hours?" Tony asked, squeezing Loki's cold fingers and kneeling up before him. "Here we are, telling you guys first. Actually, we haven't said it to each other yet," Tony corrected himself absently, lost for a moment in those glittering green eyes, currently fixed on him rather adoringly.

"Your bravery humbles me, Anthony," Loki told him, voice so deadly serious Tony felt the hair on the back of his neck rise. "In nine realms and nine-thousand years, I have seen none other like unto you. 'There shall be one end for us both; one bond after our vows; nor shall our first love aimlessly perish-'"

"Loki!" Thor gasped, his face going pale. "Brother. Have a care!"

"I know what I say, Thor," Loki replied without ever looking away from Tony. There were entire universes swirling in Loki's eyes and all of them for him; Tony kept himself from swaying only by the strength in Loki's hand.

Tony had read the Eddas and knew what Loki was quoting.

"Well I don't know what he's saying-" Steve snapped even as Thor came over to kneel at Loki's right shoulder, planting Mjolnir on its head, haft up, in front of Blair, making an informal altar. Blair was kneeling, too, having changed position without Tony even noticing; Jim was now standing at Blair's back with one hand on Blair's shoulder.

"Wow," Blair whispered, just before Thor spoke.

"It would be my very great honor to Witness the wedding of my Brother to my Shield Brother!" Thor made this proclamation with his usual great and earnest sincerity, reaching past Loki to clasp Tony by the upper arm and give him a rough shake. "I approve!"

"Wedding!" Steve protested, but Tony ignored him in favor of watching Loki's face, where a thousand emotions flickered past before Loki finally settled on being pleased. Flushing again, Loki smiled at Tony before looking over his shoulder at Thor.

"Thank you ... Brother," Loki finally said. Tony wasn't sure what Thor saw in Loki's face but tears sprang to Thor's eyes, freely watering his broad smile. Loki snorted then held out his free hand - his other hand still clutching Tony's - and Tony would never apologize for the way his own eyes started stinging as Thor hugged Loki, while Loki wrapped his arm around Thor's neck.

Then Bruce moved to kneel beside Tony, hand on Tony's arm turning Tony to look at him, not bothering to disguise his extensive inspection of Tony's face. Since Tony made a life policy of letting Bruce do whatever Bruce wanted, Tony smiled at his worried friend.

"You really want this? You aren't being influenced or coerced in any way?"

"He is not," said JARVIS and Charles almost simultaneously.

Tony was a little weirded out by that, to be honest.

"No more than any man is by his heart," Magneto murmured in a tone far gentler than any Tony could've imagined coming from the arch-villain, which only compounded the weird, Tony supposed.

"I'm really not, but I understand why you might wonder," he said to Bruce, whose brown eyes lost the hints of green Tony had seen simmering.

"No, that's ... actually, I can see it, you and him," Bruce said slowly, looking from Tony to Loki, who had released Thor and was now watching Bruce and Tony carefully. "I can see it," Bruce repeated, nodding as he released Tony.

"Well I don't see it! I don't see it at all!" Steve burst out, finally drawing Tony's attention to the rest of his audience. Steve was still aggressively standing in front of Charles and Magneto, shield in hand. At some point, Clint and Natasha had moved to stand a few feet behind Bruce and Tony - and they'd lowered their weapons; Tony noticed with relief - but Steve still looked like he wanted to start swinging. "You're a good man, Tony - he's a killer-"

"I'm a killer, Steve. I've killed thousands, maybe millions, if you count Chitauri. I've profited off the blood of innocents and committed intentional genocide-"

"No, it's not the same thing! Damn it, Tony! You made weapons for the military that were stolen from your company by a - a - low-down, dirty crook! It wasn't your fault! And what the hell do you mean, genocide? You stopped an invasion!"

"Uh, oh, made Captain America swear, I'm in trouble," Tony said, hoping his shocked wonder wasn't too clear in his voice. That was more of a defense than he'd ever expected to get from Steve Rogers. "I thought you blamed me!"

"Blamed you! Where do you get these ideas?" Steve said bewilderedly, hands pushing his cowl off so he could grab at his hair. "Just tell me you know what you're doing right now, Tony."

"I do," Tony promised, having caught the way Loki's pained expression melted into back into a smile when he realized what Tony was really saying; Tony looked into Loki's eyes and said something he never thought he'd hear himself say. "I do. You poor sucker."

Tony had thought Loki's earlier smiles were bright; Loki proved Tony wrong by smiling even harder - and then vanishing his shirt, so he was as bare to the waist as Tony.

And wow. Yeah, bitches, Tony was totally putting a ring on this.

Loki laughed at him; in fact, several people were snickering. Tony realized he'd said that out loud and for once, he could laugh about his habit of auto-running his mouth.

He felt too good not to laugh, actually, taking Loki's free hand so he was holding them both. How that turned into Loki bringing one of Tony's hands to his mouth and lightly kissing Tony's palm, Tony wasn't sure, but he liked it. A lot.

"'Happy am I to have won the joy of such a consort; I shall not go down basely in loneliness to the gods of Tartarus. So let the encircling bonds grip my throat in the midst; the final anguish shall bring with it pleasure only, since the certain hope remains of renewed love, and death shall prove to have its own delights. Each world holds joy, and in the twin regions shall the repose of our united souls win fame, our equal faithfulness in love'," Loki quoted, eyes bright as he spoke what Tony knew were his wedding vows. "I love you, as you Midgardians say."

Not to be outdone, Tony gave some thought to what he chose to say back, and he had a very good memory.

"'Long have I sat on my loved hill, waiting for you day and night; now has come to pass what I hoped for: you have returned, lover, to my hall. No longer need I wait for the fulfillment of my desire for you, nor you for my love; now it is certain that we shall be together for the rest of our lives'. I love you, too. I think. I’m not … very good at it."

“We’ll learn together,” Loki whispered.

"God, Fury's going to kill us all," Steve moaned, but he knelt at Tony's other shoulder, next to Bruce.

Tony's face hurt from smiling, and he thought maybe he might be crying but he couldn't stop looking at Loki long enough to be sure. Loki was still beaming at Tony like crazy; Loki's eyes had started watering as soon as Tony answered with the words from the Svipdagsmal.

Blair laughed softly, taking Loki's and Tony's joined hands, moving them with his to rest on the end of Mjolnir's handle. Tony could feel its energy.

"Beautiful, that was beautiful. You guys are beautiful, and hey, Tony, you have some nerve calling me a shitty tabler," Blair said to him, still chuckling, which is when it occurred to Tony that Blair was feeling every bit of Tony's sudden wild joy. Tony had to laugh, too, just to let out some of his bubbling elation. Loki kept staring and smiling at him, grass-green eyes sparkling and stunned, and Tony couldn't get enough of how delighted Loki looked, like was getting the best gift ever.

No one ever looked at Tony like that. Ever.

"Ahem. Welcome, friends.

"We came here this moonrise to participate in a healing ceremony; I'd say this is an excellent beginning. Lots of good energy here. So let us share in joy.

“'Marriage is the joining of two people, the union of two hearts. We enter it joyfully and in the knowledge that love is both our highest achievement and life's most precious gift.

"'May you always be able to talk things over, to confide in each other, to laugh with each other, to enjoy life together, and to share moments of quiet and peace when the day is done. May love flow between you as endless as the waters of Hvergelmir, as powerful as Thor's Hammer, and as fierce as the fires of Muspelheim. May the joy of youth and the wisdom of age bless your hearts until that day when the glorious final battle is upon you.'

"'We declare ourselves Witnesses thereof, thou', Loki and Anthony, 'art bonded in lawful betrothal, and with taking hold of hands thou promises thy dowries, and engage to fulfill and observe the whole of the compact between thee, which has been notified in the hearing of witnesses without duplicity or cunning'," Blair paraphrased, proving he'd done some reading, too.

"We so declare," Thor said with unusual gravitas, echoed shortly afterwards by Jim, Bruce, Charles and Erik, then - surprising Tony - JARVIS, Clint, and Natasha. Even Steve followed suit, although his voice sounded a little weak.

"Then by the power vested in me by the State of Washington, the Oglála Lakhóta Oyáte, and the Chopec Tribe of Peru, I pronounce you wed, Anthony and Loki Laufeyson Stark. May the Gods and Goddesses bless all your days as richly as They have done this day."

"Thank you," Tony said to Blair first, and hoped his heartfelt gratitude was clear. Not that he'd ever given the subject any real consideration, but this was pretty much Tony's idea of a perfect wedding. "Loki. Since we don't actually have rings-"

"You will forge them. Anthony."

"Yeah, I will," Tony breathed, peering up at his husband - ! - from under his eyelashes. Loki was a lot closer somehow, their hands caught up in a single fist between their chests; the back of Tony's hand was resting against firm, cool skin and he was so diverted by this he barely noticed that the back of Loki's hand was touching both his skin and the arc reactor.

But he did notice and was not afraid. Tony wondered if he'd ever been less afraid in his life.

"So, to seal the deal Midgard-style, you have to kiss me now," he announced and watched that gorgeous blush creep over Loki's cheeks when he added "Husband."

"My pleasure, and my privilege, Husband," Loki smiled and lowered his head.

***

JARVIS showed them the playback, later, because Tony realized he'd heard people talking but could not remember an actual word anybody said; he could not, in fact, remember anything about those moments except for Loki's mouth, the way it felt and tasted, how arousal had tightened his guts with the subtle glide of lips and tongue.

"Bruce. Steve. Thor. The rest of you, come here. Hawkeye. Widow. Put your hand on Mjolnir. Just do it. It's not going to bite. Earth's mightiest heroes, wow, more like mightiest chickens."

"Chief. Give 'em a break."

"I know, I know. But they should see this. Come on, I want to show you something, metaphysically speaking. Charles, man, it's up to you. I know you already feel it. Master Lensherr, join us, please?"

Charles ended up holding Magneto's hand while everybody else - including Magneto; and holy crap, Blair - shuffled around and laid a hand somewhere on Thor's Hammer.

(Tony and Loki were both taken aback when they saw this because neither one of them had noticed, even though their other hands were still under Blair's, resting over the end of Mjolnir's hilt.

Mjolnir had been hovering, just off the ground. They hadn't noticed that, either).

"Feel that? No lies, no mind-control, no ulterior motives, no plots, no bad intentions, no wrong-doing, nothing but love and light, a gift of our Creator. Blessed be. Blessed be, blessed be, Midgard. Blessed be, Jotunheim. Blessed be, Asgard. Blessed be, we who are Your children. Blessed be.".

Tony remembered this in part, only because that was the moment he'd turned Loki's other hand so Loki's palm covered the arc reactor when he'd heard - felt, sensed, whatever - Loki's fear that Tony might not be able to trust him given past events. The actual kissing had stopped, leaving them with their foreheads pressed together, inhaling each other's air and feeling each other's skin; it looked perfectly chaste but in Tony's recollection had felt - still felt - very different, as if he and Loki were meshing their energy fields, synching and sinking together under their skin. Tony hadn't been aware of anything beyond Loki's whispered "I do love you," breathed over his smiling mouth.

"I do love you, too, my Prince," Tony had said back before kissing Loki, just a little less chastely this time, because he was Tony Fucking Stark, after all.

"They- that's - what they feel? How did this even happen?" That was Steve, voice still aggrieved.

"How does it ever happen? And does it matter? It's good for both of them. Loki can help us keep Tony alive, and Tony can keep Loki from going around butthurt all the time. It's win-win," Clint insisted pragmatically, drawing all eyes but Tony's and Loki's.

"Well, that's not what I'd call poetic, man, but that pretty well sums it up as far as the Spirit World is concerned, too.

"I find that rather insulting," Loki remarked during JARVIS' playback. Tony seduced him out of wanting revenge shortly after.

***

"I can hear you in my head."

"I hoped you might. Do you like it?" Do you like me?

"I love it. It's convenient, especially for talking dirty. I love you."

"Tony-"

"I can't help it. I want you. I love you."

"Oh, you fucker, do not think me unaware you are now ahead again on declarations."

Tony laughed out loud, then, just too damned happy to contain how happy he was, which sounded way sappier in his head than Tony liked to admit.

"My beloved, please do not arouse me in front of our family."

"Oh, my god. Our family. Thor's my brother-in-law. I can hear you laughing! Oh, wow, I can feel you laughing. That's - huh. Thor who?"

***

"How I adore you, Anthony Laufeyson Stark." Loki did that thing where he magicked away their erections, smirking at Tony as they drew apart, before reminding Tony they had an audience with a quick, cutting glance of his eyes. Tony looked around to find every eye on them. Reassuringly, almost everyone was smiling; those few who weren't - Lensherr and Steve - at least looked neutral. Even Natasha was smiling, her eyes briefly wistful.

Thor, on the other hand, was going to break his face if he beamed any more broadly. Before Tony had time to react, Thor leaned over Mjolnir and wrapped him and Loki up in a fierce hug.

"Brothers! Congratulations on your glorious union! We must feast!" Thor declared enthusiastically, squishing Tony and Loki together. Tony could not stop snickering, especially since Loki had quickly warded his ribcage so Thor couldn't inadvertently damage him.

"Sorry, Brother, we still have some work to do here. Thank you, though," Tony told Thor, patting his brother-in-law on the shoulder. "Blair? If we could get on that, Loki and I could, you know, start our honeymoon."

Steve made a sound generally written as argh! but surprised everyone by laughing at Tony, even while also shaking his head.

"You're so - happy. I've never seen you look so happy. You have no idea..." Steve grabbed Loki by the shoulder and glared into Loki's eyes; god or not, Loki visibly quailed for just a moment, before straightening to endure that stare of assessing, doubtful - yet hopeful - approval Steve Rogers did so well. "You better keep him that way, or I'll kick your ass."

"And I'll hold you down for it," Bruce put in helpfully, to which Thor added a grim "As will I" and probably the only thing that saved Loki's dignity was the way Tony lost his, giggling helplessly as he clutched at his arc reactor.

"The shovel talk for me? I'm so touched!" he managed, reaching out to squeeze Steve's shoulder, still snickering. "Thanks, really."

"You're touched, all right," Steve grumbled, but grinned at him anyway. "Congratulations. Loki, are you going to want on the team? You could certainly be an asset. What! Well, you can't be a villain anymore. Tony won't put up with that."

"Given that I am in the midst of vastly altering the course of my entire existence, forgive me for having not considered every potential ramification, Captain, but I assure you I have recognized the need to 'give up my evil ways', so to speak."

"Not that you've been all that evil lately," Bruce, of all people, pointed out lightly. Loki tipped his head and shrugged.

"Mere mischief here and there. And my place is at my husband's side; his well-being will be my priority. My presence on your team will be incidental to that. A place in the Avengers is not something to which I have aspired, and such a position must be earned, I think. Perhaps we might consult on this at some future occasion."

"Yeah, like after Loki and I have talked about it first, that would be nice. And he really hasn't been much of a villain since he's been back, Cap, so don't harsh my squee."

"How old are you again?"

Absenting himself from the conversation, Blair had stood, removed a few things from a wooden box, and began burning herbs in a small black cauldron. He then walked around the large lawn in a circle, waving smoke with his hand and singing under his breath in some language Tony didn't recognize, before finally coming back to him and Loki.

"Okay, Tony, you need to lie down on your back, you need to be touching the earth, see?"

Tony didn't, but he didn't question, either. He lay down - rather gingerly - on the grass and tried not to worry about his uncovered arc reactor or ants crawling on him. Ick.

Not to mention his sense of vulnerability.

Blair wasn't done giving orders.

"Uncle, right there at his left shoulder, I'm gonna be right here beside you, Tony, okay? Charles, your help with ... heh, anesthesia ... would be great, but I need you to be sitting on the ground with us, here to my right, you cool with that?"

"Whatever Anthony needs, Blair. Erik. If you'll help me?"

"With pleasure, Charles." Erik Lensherr made carrying Charles look graceful and settled him gently on the ground by Tony's head. "Where do you want me, Doctor Sandburg?"

"Call me Blair, and I'm not sure, yet. In the meantime, how about right across from me, please, Sir?"

"Erik, please, Blair."

"Thank you, Erik."

Considering this put Blair on one side of Tony and Magneto on the other, Tony felt surprisingly calm. Clint and Natasha ended up by his feet, Steve at his left hip and Bruce - beside Lensherr - on his right. Thor was directed to sit just behind his brother, with the quiet warning that Loki might need Thor to either catch him or hold him up so be prepared.

"Okay. Jim, Erik, we need to localize the shrapnel and determine which direction it can be pulled out from that will do the least amount of physical damage. Uncle Loki, you protect the arc reactor. Ward it against exterior magnetism, interference, and any alterations in power output and flow, please, bearing in mind, when I ask you, I'll want you to block the magnetism coming from the reactor, too, temporarily."

Tony liked how Blair just assumed Loki could and would do whatever Blair wanted; Tony suspected Blair Sandburg, like Tony, was a man accustomed to getting his own way. Blair kind of took it to a whole new level, though.

"As you wish, Nephew," Loki said obligingly, sharing his silent laughter with Tony. "I rather admire the way he expects me to be able to do as he demands. Such wards are not easily cast."

"But you can do it." Of that, Tony was certain. He had reason to know how strong Loki's magical abilities were.

"Of course I can, love."

Tony could feel the wards sweep over him; he could even feel the way they waited for full activation.

Jim knelt beside Blair and glanced into Tony's eyes, making sure Tony was really all right, Tony realized. He rolled his eyes at Jim, who gave him a faint grin.

"Doctor Stark. May I touch you?" Jim asked formally, hands open and empty.

"Yes, and thank you for asking," Tony replied because actually? it was very nice to be asked. Closing his eyes, Tony let himself be comforted by Jim's gentle examination. Jim's sensitive fingers pressed into his skin just firmly enough to keep from tickling, then Jim's warm, dry palms stroked over his torso.

Tony knew without looking - because Loki was showing him in his mind - how Blair had one hand wrapped around the back of Jim's neck; Blair was murmuring into Jim's ear, so very quietly that even Tony couldn't hear. Jim had Tony sit up, so he could run his palms over Tony's back, then Jim glanced over at Lensherr.

"I think we need to remove them from Tony's right flank. There are a lot of shards located beneath and behind Tony's diaphragm on that side; there's an additional large collection on the right just outside his pericardial sac. There will be less damage to Tony's heart and less collateral damage if Master Lensherr works from the right," Jim said after a moment. Then Erik Lensherr took a turn - although Tony couldn't have defined what he did, exactly, since Lensherr didn't touch him, maybe scanning Tony with his brain? eewww - before Lensherr nodded at Jim with his grave, old-world courtesy.

"Agreed. The largest collection of shards is in immediate proximity to the arc reactor itself."

"As it should be, given the arc reactor's primary function," JARVIS noted coolly, as if he were none too pleased at not having been consulted. "I concur with your opinions, based on Sir's most recent radiological studies."

"Tony, you have shrapnel right outside your heart? The next time the arc reactor failed it might have killed you!" Bruce sounded absolutely furious; Tony knew before looking that Bruce's irises would be turning green.

"Bruce, calm down!" Steve ordered but Blair put his hand on Bruce's arm and nodded at Tony, who nodded back before speaking.

"Let him out. Big Green deserves his say."

"Damn it, Tony!"

Bruce's transformation was almost instantaneous; people made room, but nobody moved too far away. Tony had time to inform Loki irrelevantly that a division of Stark Industries was making good money off the 'Hulk-proof ' stretch fiber material of Bruce's trousers, then Hulk was kneeling there in Bruce's place, glaring at Tony with a ferocious frown.

"Tony stupid. Make Hulk mad, make Bruce mad, make everybody mad." Hulk snorted gustily, no small thing given his proximity. "Tony not die. Hulk need Tony. You make Tony better?" he asked Blair next; to Blair's credit, Blair was grinning at Hulk fearlessly.

"That's the plan, Sir."

"Huh," Hulk said, looking at Blair, glare gone thoughtful. "Hulk like little witch doctor."

"Thanks, Hulk. I like you, too, so I'll let that fly."

Hulk chuffed out something that sounded like a laugh before looking at Tony again, one big green fingertip very gently touching the arc reactor.

"Tony not die, Hulk need Tony. Puny Bruce need Tony," Hulk ordered again, leaning over to stare directly into Tony's eyes; Tony could no more stop the tears that welled up than he could have stopped his next heartbeat, but he nodded at Hulk anyway, reaching up to wrap his arms around Hulk's great neck, hopelessly touched. Hulk's big hand went to Tony's upper back, holding him in a careful embrace.

"I need you and Bruce, too, Hulk. You're my friend," Tony managed, and was somehow not surprised at all when Steve Rogers handed him a handkerchief - an actual cotton handkerchief, naturally Steve Rogers would have one in his pocket; and where, exactly, in that uniform? Tony would like to know - so Tony gratefully wiped his face and nose before he started snotting.

If it hadn't been for Loki's constant, supportive presence, Tony's sense of having part of Loki there, inside him, Tony was positive he wouldn't be able to tolerate all this emotion. He didn't do emotion, he'd told them all, over and over again.

"Bruce still mad. Bruce real mad, Tony. Hulk mad too. You not tell you sick."

"I know, I'm sorry, I ... didn't want anyone to treat me differently," Tony admitted. Certainly he and JARVIS had argued the subject often enough. He would have been benched. Well, they would have tried, anyway.

"You get better. Hulk help. Bruce say little witch doctor thinks Hulk can ... ground power?"

"Wow, Doctor Bruce Banner, folks. I have no idea how you got there so fast. Fucking brilliant mind. Yeah, Hulk, if you can help, that'd be great. I'd like that," Blair told Hulk seriously. Hulk released Tony as carefully as he'd embraced him, which Tony appreciated right up until the moment Hulk turned his attention on Erik Lensherr.

"Next time Hulk see you do bad, Hulk smash," Hulk noted calmly enough and waited for Lensherr to nod his understanding. Tony was relieved to notice Lensherr's eyes were rather amused. Hulk either didn't care or didn't notice, because he next reached for Loki, grabbing him by one shoulder and pulling their faces together. "You hurt Tony, Hulk make you hurt.”

Tony couldn't help the snicker Hulk's terse words provoked, which drew Loki's immediate insulted ire just long enough for Loki to get a grip on it.

"Don't get pissed off. Hulk's giving you the shovel talk because he loves me, which makes him one of those people you should try to get along with for my sake, if for no other reason."

"Yes, Tony. This is the second time you have referred to this 'shovel talk'; would you someday explain its source? It is a 'pop culture reference', I presume...

"...I hope to never hurt Anthony," Loki promised Hulk steadily, crossing one long index finger over his own chest. "I will likely make mistakes," he added with an almost silent sigh.

Hulk, whose big head tipped over to one side, inspected Loki with a searing gaze.

"Hulk believe you. Hulk watch." Hulk gave Loki a good shake and set Loki away only a little roughly.

"Hulk's giving you a chance. That's big, considering. Big of the Big Guy. Big."

"I hear you. Thank you, Hulk," Loki said dutifully, permitting the handling in the interests of continued harmony; Tony appreciated the effort and told Loki so, within the privacy of their shared thoughts.

It was weird, weird but good, having someone in his head, both there and not-there, a part of him, fully present whenever Tony reached. He'd been so alone for so much of his life that the feeling was simultaneously all he'd ever wanted - needed, craved - and everything he'd been certain did not exist. Would never exist, not for him. Tony Stark would never have someone who was his, for him alone...

... but now he did.

Loki was looking at him now and Tony physically reached for him, unselfconsciously, without even thinking, needing Loki to touch him because he was actually very impressed. Loki loved him this much, that Loki was willing to behave submissively - and publicly, too - towards the Hulk.

This, too, was big. Considering who was involved.

Loki silently thanked Tony for noticing, then put his chilly hands on Tony's face, kissing Tony too briefly; Tony chased after Loki's mouth with a definite whine but let Loki separate them. Tony resumed lying on the ground, but this time with his right side up, pillowing his face on Loki's thigh like they'd discussed the position beforehand. They hadn't, but noticing their congruency diverted Tony almost enough not to pay attention to the fact that he now had Erik Lensherr - Magneto - at his back.

Almost.

Tony tried not to shudder but he didn't relax until Loki put one hand over the arc reactor, covering and protecting it.

"Thanks," Tony told Loki when Loki reminded him he also had a Hulk at his back. "Okay, how much is this going to hurt, because I don't want to be knocked out. Respectfully, Charles, don't knock me out. Please."

"I would not dream of rendering you unconscious against your will, Anthony. Be at ease. I believe Blair has another plan?"

"Charles, that's cheating, man. Telepaths hear you think, what can you do?"

"You have a very vivid mind, Blair. It's quite inviting."

Tony was in perfect position to see the pleased blush that stole over Blair's face as Blair nodded in Charles' direction, smiling.

"Hey, thanks, man. That's one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me. So, yeah, okay, Plan B, local numbing only." Blair gave Loki an assessing stare and Tony shouldn't have been surprised by the next words out of Blair's mouth. "Ideally, I'd like to lower Tony's body temperature locally and help deaden the nerve endings, at close to freezing, but not below it, to limit damage as the shrapnel comes out. Charles, you can handle any pain signals that get past that to Tony's brain without rendering him unconscious, yeah?"

"Yes, Blair."

Tony was suddenly sidetracked by a sudden storm of emotion from Loki, barreling into Tony at what Tony's brain insisted was warp speed. Most of it was negative; Loki's fury and fear were overwhelming, but there was shame there, too, and existential horror, guilt, and many old, deep sorrows, mixed with a helpless sense of duty and some sheer relentless dread.

Tony let the whole mess sink into the well of his own unhappiest memories and then wrapped mental arms around his husband.

"Hey," he called softly to Loki, reaching up to cup Loki's jaw in his hand. "Whatever it is, you don't have to do anything that's going to hurt you."

"It will not hurt me. Not physically, at least."

"It'll hurt. I can tell."

"It could save your life-"

"Hey, no, Uncle, there are options, okay? It's not dependent on you doing something that makes your heart sore. My word on it, guys. I'm always in favor of no-hurt solutions. 'First, do no harm.' Great words from a great healer. Wow, Tony, you sucked all that in and just smothered it, huh. You don't have to be taught a damned thing. Welcome, Guide. I knew you'd be great. I knew you would be good for each other."

"Nephew, 'I told you so' is so unattractive."

"Yes, Uncle. Dare ya."

"Have you forgotten to whom you speak?"

"Not at all. I promise you, Anthony will find you beautiful. So will I. Jim will probably zone on you-"

"Aw, you're just asking for it now, Chief."

"-and yeah, Thor will probably be shocked. Charles won't, Magneto won't, and Hulk's not likely to criticize, considering."

"In the interests of full disclosure, Erik has seen me ... in my Jotun form, which I must take to most effectively do what Blair has asked."

"Ooooh, I see. Erik, huh? Well, if you showed Erik you better show me," Tony found himself insisting, wondering a little too late how much of this mental conference call Charles was overhearing. "So, not Jotunheimian, huh, oh well, too bad, that sounded kinda cool. Besides, you can't tell me part of you isn't dying to shock Thor."

"How is it possible you already know me so well? Will you find me beautiful, husband?"

"How about, until the heat death of the universe?"

Loki started laughing, of all things, and Tony wasn't going anywhere near how beautiful he thought Loki was when Loki laughed. There was romantic and then there was Blair hissing "Disney!" at him. Tony was pretty sure he could hear Charles laughing, too; if it wouldn't have broken his neck, Tony would have looked.

"Anything for you, my husband," Loki promised, and the thigh beneath Tony's head went cold as Loki's appearance shifted. His skin turned blue, marked in spots by dark keloids that curved in subtle and mysterious patterns; Tony wanted to trace them with tongue and fingers. The alteration that startled Tony most was the way Loki's gorgeous green eyes turned blood red, but Tony could see - and feel - Loki's emotions behind them. Loki was afraid Tony would hate how he looked, especially since part of Loki – despite the Norns' best efforts - still hated how he looked like this, like a frost giant, like a monster...

"Stop, baby. You are beautiful. Can I touch you? Will it hurt you?"

"You sear me to the bone already, Anthony. Paradox of my existence, you cannot hurt me, and yet, you are the only person who really can. You should fear me hurting you."

"People get hurt." Tony shrugged fatalistically, reaching out for Loki's cold hand and pulling it back onto his chest. "We get past it. It's what humanity does. It's kind of our specialty here on Midgard, persisting, adapting, enduring despite everything, getting past shit, going on like cockroaches after catastrophic events. Living. We live, we hurt. We get hurt. Yeah, it gets hard not to measure your life by how much pain you've gone through, but living in fear of more pain just isn't living."

Tony felt people blinking at him and realized he'd said most of that out loud, to what appeared to be some rather widespread surprise, a few nods, and one laugh, if you counted Hulk's rumbling coughing-lion chuckle.

Blair placed Loki's hand where he wanted it on Tony's right flank while Hulk leaned over to peer into Loki's face.

"Pretty," Hulk declared admiringly. "Cold?"

Loki glanced over at Thor, his lips tightening just a bit.

"Sometimes. Thank you, Hulk."

The chill was amazing, sinking deep into Tony's side so gradually that it didn't even hurt. In fact, there was a delightful absence of the pain that had been haunting Tony on a constant basis since Afghanistan. Since the weakening in his bones had increased, he'd been having worsening chest and back aches, which were now, thankfully, absent; the constant heaviness and sense of weight – of loss – was gone, too.

"Oh, that's nice," Tony admitted, feeling himself melt against the ground. It was like losing his will to resist, senses mixed up with a sense of oh, thank god! and altogether rather mind-altering. "I forgot," he heard himself babble and heard more than one person wonder "what?"

"What it was like not to hurt? Not to feel that chronic agony, the raw burn of unhealed flesh, the empty rips in body and soul?" Loki whispered.

"Yeah," Tony whispered. "It’s always hurt," he admitted, beginning to shiver.

The thing was, it wasn't even the cold. It was lying here, on the ground, vulnerable and exposed, although he didn't expect Loki to believe that.

"But I do. Not much longer, love. Erik? Blair?"

"Yeah, let's do this. Hulk, dude, I get it, okay. I get that you and Bruce are mad that Tony didn't tell you he was in pain all the time along with the whole dying thing, I get that Bruce is really pissed off, but they can take that up with each other later, so stop your growling. Gonna need you in a few minutes, if you still want to help."

"Hulk said help, Hulk help."

Erik - Magneto - laid his palms on Tony's bare skin, and despite how numb his skin had gotten, Tony shuddered like he'd been electrocuted, despite trying his best not to react so explosively.

They didn't know, how much he hated being touched, how much he could feel, avoiding even the chance of brushing hands by avoiding being handed things altogether and

whoa, whatever else Erik Lensherr is, he's really in love with Charles

then Blair's hands came down beside Magneto's and somehow Blair muted everything, all the shivering revulsion Tony was fighting so hard to subdue, all frantic subliminal horror at the sensation of a stranger's hands on him, hands on his bare skin, his burned-to-the-bone memories of being hurt. Harmed. Tortured. Again.

"No, this isn't like that, Tony. It's okay, man, you're okay, no one here is going to hurt you. Erik won't hurt you, I swear. No one here will hurt you."

"My love, be at ease, I am with you, Erik means you no ill, you are here and now, not then."

Realizing he was bordering on a panic attack, Tony took a deep breath and tried to oxygenate his brain into rational thought.

"Oh, fuck. I didn't. I flashed on - I'm sorry. I. That was. I was ... I don't want to remember that. I'm sorry, can we not go there? This isn't the time."

"Yeah, you're good, my brother, but you're not that good," Blair drawled. "PTSD is almost guaranteed when we get kidnapped and tortured. I think many of us here can empathize. We'll talk more about it later, but what happened to you wasn't your fault. It wasn't mine when it happened to me. We are not property. We are not lesser. We are survivors of evil people who treated us like we were theirs to victimize. What they did to us was never our fault. We didn't ask for it and their actions are on them. Love yourself enough to keep from bearing their shame. Loki, the wards. Erik, now, please," the shaman ordered.

Some heavy, heavy weight that had been pressing into Tony's chest gradually vanished, leaving a faint, empty ache; Tony gasped, nuzzling helplessly at Loki's thigh, almost high just on the mere absence of pain. He felt as if he was hovering just on the border of seizing, his body shaking in hard tremors, unable to let go of its autonomic clenching resistance towards constant, chronic pain.

But there was no pain, and Tony's brain just wasn't processing being lanced of so many hurts at once.

"Not ashamed," he managed, meaning it; the words felt like throwing down a burden along with his sense of threat. Now that those emotions, the memories had been acknowledged, he was able to file them away.

That was the past, and it was over, and he would no longer be continually reminded of it by chronic pain.

"They didn't make me a victim. I did that."

"Now have done," Blair ordered, his voice light and calm and reassuring although Tony could sense the heat in Blair's hands, warming the flesh Loki had so skillfully, painlessly refrigerated while in his beautiful Jotun form-

-and Thor was shocked, but he was impressed, too, staring at Loki like he'd never seen him, yes, but not in the bad way that Loki had been so afraid of seeing; Thor stared at Loki the way Tony suspected he himself did, with a "wow!" expression that Loki deserved to see from all his loved ones as far as Tony was concerned. So that was good and this subject was-

"...done," Tony confirmed quietly. "Erik, thank you," he whispered, barely breathing past the way it felt to have the shrapnel out. The sensation was so hard to quantify. Tony could feel Blair doing what Tony would have classified as magic, instantly healing the torn flesh left behind; Tony also felt Loki's consistent, protective grasp on his arc reactor, keeping it safe from Erik Lensherr's particular talent. Taking a deep breath, Tony levered himself up on one elbow and kissed his husband on the cheek, enjoying a quick, chilly embrace.

"My God, thank you, Loki. Thank you, Blair. I really had forgotten how it feels."

"How what feels?" Steve, of all people, asked curiously. Tony responded with the truth before thinking better of it.

"Nothing hurts. It's like, the best part of being drunk, you know? Without the complete loss of inhibitions and ability to reason ... not to mention the subsequent liver damage-"

Hulk growled and Tony looked at him questioningly.

"What?"

"Bruce still mad. Bruce say he mad long time. You not tell you hurt. You not tell you dying. You not tell lots."

"Well, now, that's just not true. Everyone knows I talk all the time. I'm famous for-"

"Do not bother," an icy hand covered Tony's mouth. "We are not quite finished here. Nephew?"

"Yes, Uncle, you're right," Blair agreed instantly, hands gently urging Tony to get settled back down on the ground. "Listen, man, you're going to have to lie flat on your back again and I'm sorry. I know how much that sucks for you."

"So, what, now you're telling everyone? We can't just have some polite fibbing? Come on, a little social lying, at least?" Tony burst out, not exactly appreciating the fact that A. he was going to feel horribly, horribly vulnerable, again, like a turtle stranded on its back and B. now everybody knew, so he wasn't going to be able to power through it like he had earlier.

"Get over it. No one here is going to hurt you, remember? Anyway, we're not done. It's bone-mending time and this is going to be the hard part. Erik, man, thank you so much. You can go sit with Charles, and again, thanks. Huh. Wow."

Blair's startled laugh got Tony's attention off admiring Loki, who'd taken back his Aesir form while Tony was watching him. Tony looked around to find Erik Lensherr handing Blair a nickel-sized metal amulet. It dawned on Tony what it must be.

"Oh, you're shitting me. Is that-"

"Yeah. I don't know whether to think it's cool or be appalled. I kinda want to say eww," Blair laughed again and stuck it in his pocket. "I'll give it to you later, Tony. I'd like to get some protection spells charmed onto it first. You need all the help you can get with this guy, Uncle."

"Yes. Thank you, Blair; thank you, Magnus," Loki said, sighing as he settled by Tony's head, one hand still covering the arc reactor, fingers parted to allow its glow. And Tony wasn't sure how he'd been so professionally managed, but here he was, lying flat on his back on the ground, belly up and yes, horribly vulnerable ... and yet, not at all. He'd finally stopped shaking, his body limp and exhausted on the grass, his breathing slow and steady and relaxed like he did this all the time, bared himself so openly.

Tony missed his suit.

"Now, since healing your insides has used up some of my energy AND we happen to have the God of Thunder handy, I'm gonna ask for a lightning bolt in a moment. We don't need a big one. This is the power I'm going to use to wash out, electromagnetically speaking, the palladium poisoning from your bones before I chemically reweave them psychokinetically. Uncle, you're still on arc reactor duty, and Hulk, if you think you can take it, you can ground and be power sink. Put your hands here. Good. Jim-"

"I know, Chief. Try not to zone," Jim said tolerantly and Tony wondered if this was what zoning felt like, to fall under the spell of one sense and forget about everything else. Hands were being laid on him, Loki's still-chilly fingers lightly resting on the scar tissue around the arc reactor; Blair's callused dry palm on Tony's left ribcage, and Hulk's huge, hard hand, like a solid anchor over Tony's belly. It was weird, but it was also somehow calming, like Tony was being sheltered instead of restrained, like everything around him was being muffled and quieted by the people touching him.

"Hulk? It'll hurt," Blair offered, drawing Tony's attention again despite his rather relaxed fugue.

Hulk shrugged.

"Hulk strong."

"Yeah," Blair grinned approvingly then glanced around at the rest of them, all kneeling or sitting on their feet around him, except for Charles, who was on his butt between Loki and Erik Lensherr and apparently okay with that.

"All right. Guys, there might be a little bit of a light show. The rest of you, it should feel like static electricity, let me know if it gets to be too much. Ready? Thor, summon up a little lightning bolt, please. Don't hit JARVIS."

"I will take care. It is my honor, Healer," Thor said, raising Mjolnir high over head, one-handed. His other hand reached out for Blair, and Tony had time to wonder absently if he should be a little freaked out by all this because surely it wasn't normal to be so placid about electricity pouring out of the sky, into Thor's Hammer, through Thor, to Blair, then into him.

He was being electrocuted. Again.

"No. You're not. Stop." Tony's second flashback to Afghanistan - to being tortured - vanished like it never started; it was halted in mid-formation by the loud blast of Blair's thoughts. "See, this is what makes doing these things so difficult. You stir up all kinds of coprolite. Let that shit go, man, it's dust in the wind."

"You can see everything. You know everything-" Tony's mind cringed at feeling so exposed to such a relative stranger, then Blair's strong mental presence rolled over him like a warm summer breeze.

"Close your eyes, Tony. You're okay, I promise. Your shit'll go with me to the grave and I'll never use what I learn against you. That's not how this job works. Besides, your boo would never let me hurt you."

"My boo? Did you just call Loki my boo?"

That tickled Tony's funny bone and he relaxed again, laughing a little, fear leaving as a burning sensation started moving over him. It started on his chest and became intense, radiating outward from Blair's hand to run all over his body, like he was having a hot flash or being poisoned.

"Ow, Blair."

"I know, Tony. Tough it out just a little bit longer, okay?"

"Okay, but ... oh, fuck," Tony said as his husband flipped a switch in Tony's head that turned the burn into something so good Tony had to consciously remind himself not to writhe around on the ground with the arousal now squirming in his guts. "Fuuuuck."

"Yes, later, Anthony dear," Loki teased, prompting startled laughter from a few in the peanut gallery. "Better?"

"A little too much better, babe, if you know what I mean. Is there a medium endorphin setting? Something between ouch and fuck me raw?"

"Yes, love, and for the record, you said that out loud."

"Oh, shit. Sorry."

"Nah, it's okay, it's all good clean energy, but you're gonna traumatize some of these guys if you don't back that spell down just a little bit, Uncle ... breathe, Captain Rogers."

"As you say, Nephew."

The intense arousal Tony was feeling diminished enough for him to open his eyes; blue-white sheets of electricity danced over his skin, sinking into him at Blair's apparent direction. If it hadn't been for Loki's fiddling with his brain’s pleasure-center, the pain would have been comparable to having his skin flayed open and his bones scoured, then sanded. Tony was grateful Loki was sexing his brain. It looked like whatever Blair was doing to him should hurt.

"Okay, Hulk, here it comes, man. See yourself inside your head, pull the lightning up into this hand, then pour it into the ground with your other hand, okay? And tell Bruce to pour his anger out with it, yeah? Tony had lots of reasons for not telling anybody he was dying but mostly it was because he honestly thinks he won't die. If he was anybody else that would be stupidity, hubris or magical thinking but considering it's Tony and he has Loki now and Loki will make Tony's belief pretty real it's hard to say whether or not Tony was, like, clairvoyant, or had a self-fulfilling prophecy, sensed a glitch in the Matrix or saw a quirk in the space-time continuum or whatever, who knows, either way, doesn't matter, just let it go, big guy. Don't let your emotions keep you out of the game..."

(It wasn't until they watched the playback that Tony and Loki understood the reason for Blair's gentle, sing-song voice. Electricity was leaving Tony's body through Hulk's hand then traveling through Hulk, grounded back to earth through Hulk’s body. Tony watched Hulk flinch as the power struck through him, making Hulk's big frame shudder until the last of the energy passed into the lawn; Blair's words were almost visibly keeping Hulk calm).

"Hurts," Hulk pouted, frowning at Blair.

"Yeah, man, I know, I'm sorry. I did warn you … and you were a big help, Hulk, thanks." Blair's voice sounded kinda funny, like it was sliding sideways, then Jim was holding an apparently-unconscious Blair and looking at him with such a loving smile Tony felt his own cheeks flush.

Wow, but Tony felt good. Tired, but good. Nothing hurt. Nothing hurt. He felt amazing. He felt whole. Strong. Undamaged. Healthy. Loki's presence in his mind rejoiced with him, pleased for him in a way Tony had never experienced, grateful right along with him as he lay sprawled on the grass, celebrating.

Jim stood with Blair in his arms, which impressed Tony before Jim lightly prodded Tony's shoulder with the toe of one shoe, since Tony was delighting in his ability to breathe deeply and painlessly once again.

"Hey. Tony. Pay attention. He didn't mean to pass out before this part, he's got after-care instructions."

"You can still hear him? Is he okay?"

"I can always hear him. He's fine, just not strong enough right now to reach past my head. Eat something healthy then sleep. Gentle activity tonight through tomorrow, after that you should be fine. Same goes for Charles, Doctor Banner, and Loki," Jim informed them. "Everybody used up a lot of energy, you all need to recuperate. Thank you everyone and goodnight."

"Jim. Thank you both. JARVIS?"

"Permit me to direct you to a room in the mansion where you and the Doctor may both rest, Captain," JARVIS said smoothly and Tony was so glad one of them had some presence of mind. He was still a little derailed by imagining what might fall under the category of 'gentle activities' when it came to sexing up his husband.

"You're welcome, Tony. Thank you, JARVIS," Tony heard Jim say, then Jim walked away, disappearing with Blair into the maze with the Iron Man suit behind him.

"We'll take our leave as well, Anthony. Thank you for letting us help."

"Charles, buddy, thank you. Thank you. I'm lucky to have you for a friend. Erik, thank-"

"You already thanked me, Stark. Good night. Charles?" Erik settled Charles into his chair and walked beside him as Charles wheeled his way into the maze; Clint and Natasha disappeared at some point and Tony supposed they were shadowing Erik and Charles off the grounds.

Tony couldn't fault them for being thorough. Erik Lensherr was still Magneto, after all.

"May we assist you, brother?" Thor ventured quietly, for him, which drew Tony's attention to Loki's face. Loki looked pale, and Tony got the idea he felt some strain he wasn't letting Tony feel.

"You okay? Are you not telling me something you should be telling me?"

"I am merely fatigued. Is that a crime? After all, you had merely to lie there, Anthony; some of us had work." Loki's voice was snarky but Tony could feel Loki's pleasure that Tony had even asked, along with his deep relief at how good Tony felt physically.

"And you were brilliant. Thank you," Tony said to his husband and watched those pale cheeks flush; it was clearly the most enchanting thing he was ever going to see in this lifetime, Tony decided - again - as Loki's blush deepened.

"Anthony. Darling. Do please tone down your adoration. Your companions will suspect I have ensorcelled you in some way."

"Oh, I prefer to think I put a spell on you, actually," Tony replied thoughtfully, kinda in love with the way Loki glared at him, clearly torn between being amused and being insulted by the very idea.

"Hmm. I am willing to concede there may well be truth in that," Loki said smoothly.

Thor and Bruce - and Tony didn't even remember when Hulk left and Bruce appeared, how was that even possible - helped them both stand. Steve watched from off to one side, for-real wringing his hands, seriously? but Tony was the one who held Loki up when Loki's knees were a bit slow to lock.

"Hey. So. Guess I get to show you the ancestral mansion, Prince Laufeyson Stark. We should pick a room. I don't want to use the master suite, because yuck, or the room that used to be mine when I was a kid, because eww, but that leaves, oh, I don't know, ten other bedrooms not counting the servants' quarters which are empty of course or we could-"

"Or, we shall go home to your hall, my beloved, where you are most content. Keep holding me?"

"Always, but isn't the teleportation thing too much for you after - whoa!"

***

(The fun part of later watching the playback JARVIS provided was seeing the looks on everyone's faces after Tony and Loki abruptly vanished).

"Where do you think they went?" Steve asked after a moment that he filled with a deep sigh.

"The Tower, probably," Bruce said hoarsely, gaze distant. "Or maybe even Malibu," he continued after a moment.

"Nay, not there," Thor said at his earnest best. "Friend Tony once told me he bears little fondness for yon land of Malibu since he was almost murdered there."

"That's more than he's told the rest of us, Thor," Bruce replied with a gusty sigh of his own. "If I wasn't so exhausted I think I'd let the Other Guy out again. Close-mouthed son of a bitch."

"Is it his fault for not talking to us or is it our fault for never listening to him?" Natasha asked as she walked back into the courtyard, followed by Clint. "Lensherr and Xavier are gone. They left in the van that was in the driveway. JARVIS put the witch doctor and his husband in the master suite-"

"Guess he knew Tony wasn't going to want it," Steve noted, tone a bit hollow.

"-and JARVIS also told me there is enough room here for all of us to stay if we'd like to avoid disturbing the newlyweds on their wedding night," Natasha continued doggedly, linking arms with Bruce. "The mansion is clean, there's a service, so it's not a bad idea."

"Agreed," Clint, Bruce, and Steve said almost in unison-

(Loki and Tony giggled over that; well, Tony snickered while Loki cackled, but the underlying sentiment - their mutual amusement - was the same. The way they were learning to laugh together was quickly becoming one of Tony's favorite things.)

-before Steve turned to put his hand on Thor's shoulder. "Thor? Coming with?"

"Custom would have me guard my brother's bedchamber door, defending him and his chosen on this, his wedding night. It grieves me that I - that he-"

Thor's voice broke here. Loki, on seeing Thor's face, damned JARVIS for the magnificent quality of his surveillance, but let Tony hold him while he sorrowed over how much he'd inadvertently hurt his brother's feelings. He hadn't even meant to, which somehow made it worse.

Loki realized he'd internalized the fact that he wasn't a 'real' Asgardian to such an extent that following Asgardian cultural norms - expecting Thor to ritually protect them on their wedding night - hadn't even crossed Loki's mind.

Tony didn't think that was Loki's fault and didn't hesitate to let Loki know his opinion ... with a kiss that resulted in JARVIS pausing the playback for an extended period).

"I'm sorry, Thor. To give Loki credit, I'm pretty sure he was only thinking of Tony when they left. I'm sure he didn't mean anything by it…" Bruce trailed off and shrugged.

Natasha elbowed Bruce in the ribs and said "and you were doing so well. Thor, was this the first time you've seen Loki in his ... Jotun form?"

"Aye, to my sorrow ... Loki had every reason to believe I would never accept him as such. To many Aesir the Jotun are ... monsters. I have slain no few and boasted openly of my intent to slay them all."

"Ouch," Clint muttered under his breath; Bruce grimaced and even Natasha winced.

"I have failed Loki as a brother many times, not least in this," Thor allowed quietly, his voice sad.

"I think we've failed with both of them. Neither one thinks they can be honest with us, they both hide who they are and what's going on with them, even from us, the people they're closest to. I don't like that Tony lied about how sick he was-"

"He didn't lie, he just didn't tell. There's a difference, Cap," Clint interrupted and Steve interrupted right back, tone fierce.

"Bullshit!" he said and Bruce growled. Rumbled, actually. Steve gave a loud sniff, then stalked away without another word, the set of his shoulders eloquently expressing his disapproval.

"Hey, Thor, let's go find something to eat. How about we invite the newlyweds for a wedding brunch tomorrow? Come on, we'll plan something nice," Clint said to Thor.

"A fine idea, Friend Clint!"

Thor and Clint followed after Steve, leaving Natasha and Bruce staring at pretty much nothing.

"Still mad?" Natasha asked Bruce, voice very faintly amused.

"Oh, yeah. But Hulk won't let me hold it against anybody, so don't worry."

"I wasn't worried, Doctor. I find your anger ... understandable. You believe you should have noticed."

"Hmm, yeah. You're pissed off at Tony, too?"

"And at myself. I should have seen, should have realized. After all, I've seen Stark when he was dying. But he's a perfect chameleon who disguises himself with image and facade. I think..."

"...Loki might be the only one who could possibly keep up with him?" Bruce concluded, tone lightening, then Bruce smiled. He held one hand out for Natasha, who took his and gave it a squeeze, half-smiling back at Bruce before inclining her head.

"They may in fact be perfect for each other," she conceded, adding "they'll be fine," in a kindly attempt at assuaging Bruce's still-visible worry.

"If it doesn't work, the fallout will be ... extreme. It'll split the team."

"Don't be a pessimist, Doctor," Natasha scolded Bruce but let him escort her through the maze.

"Wasn't it you who said 'love is for children'?"

"But this is Tony and Loki we're talking about, yes?" she replied and startled a low laugh out of Bruce.

***

Jim lay Blair on the bed of the room – suite – to which they'd been escorted by an artificial intelligence in Iron Man armor and how was this his life? then started peeling Blair's clothes off.

"Jim, I need you."

"You're not conscious enough to know what you need … but you have me. You know that."

"Get naked. Lie on top of me."

"Bossy," Jim said, laughing when Blair giggled in his sleep.

"You like it."

"You're right. I do. Like this?"

"Rub yourself on me. All over me. I need to feel you."

Every nerve ending in Jim's body lit up as he did what he'd been told, closing his eyes and gasping into Blair's neck when he went erect.

"God you feel good."

"Rub off on me. I want to feel you come."

"I don't think you're conscious enough to give lawful consent, Chief."

Jim was only half-kidding; then again, he trusted Blair to know what he really wanted. Blair laughed anyway, full body chuckles that felt like magic to Jim's over-stimulated nerves.

"God, I love you. Hold me down. Ground me. Mark me. I need you, Sentinel. I am your Guide."

"Anything. Everything," and the last of Jim's misgivings passed when he pressed his weight onto Blair and felt Blair melt beneath him. He was coming before he knew it, clenching his teeth on the top of Blair's shoulder when their shared orgasms shoved them into sleep.

Jim had just enough time to realize he'd been professionally managed into sleeping, too, and gave in gracefully.

***

Loki called it a translocation spell, but Tony's brain insisted on calling it apparating, which resulted in Loki frowning at him especially when Tony pointed out that Harry Potter was also black haired and green-eyed and "some people have a type, baby."

Whatever Loki called his method of magical transportation, there was no denying its speed and accuracy. They ended up in Tony's bed.

"Turn blue again for me?"

"What? Why?"

"I want you to be comfortable in it. You burn energy maintaining an Aesir form, don't you? and you're exhausted. I don't know why you think I haven't noticed. We should sleep before anything else. And you can relax. JARVIS will wake us up in time to defend ourselves if we need to, and you've already warded the place, anyway, right?"

"I thought you wanted to-"

"Oh, I do want to. More than anything ... except for you to be okay. Please, baby?"

"If you think you are going to manage my moods, Anthony-"

"-then hey, I am absolutely right because I fully intend to manage your moods, my Prince. I love you, Loki."

"Oh. You. Do not play fair. You - very well, my beloved, manage away. Still, you need not handle me like porcelain."

"But you're my treasure ... and I'm your guide."

It was the first time Tony had really admitted it: the first time he'd said it out loud, the first time he taken the title and applied it to himself. Empathic, certainly, more than a little telepathic, and all of it familiar enough to make Tony aware he'd exhibited hints of these current abilities all his life. Even as a child, he'd been remarkably sensitive to atmosphere and tension, learning very early in life how to duck out of the line of fire, blank himself out of the equation, disengage. Observe.

Manage.

Loki did have a point, but Tony couldn't find it in himself to be sorry for any item in his skillset.

Or arsenal, depending on how you looked at it.

"I do not understand what you mean by ‘guide’, but I sense from you it is significant.”

"I’ll explain it all later, or Blair will, but part of it is how I don't even have to hear you in my head to feel your moods. It’s not important right now. I just want to enjoy having you here right next to me. I don't even care if we don't have sex. Wait, that doesn't sound like I meant it to sound-"

"It is well for you that I can feel you as clearly as you feel me, husband, lest I should surely take offense. However, I know you want me-"

"Like hell on fire ... god. Can I - can I touch you while you're blue? You never did really say, earlier. Does it hurt? Can we get rid of our clothes? I need to feel your skin, I need to touch you-"

"Tony. Yes. Please."

"How did you - never mind, god, that's - you feel so good, but you need to quit throwing magic around, Loki, you didn't need to ... you're oh, god. So naked. Beautiful."

"You worry too much, husband. Rest assured I have sufficient energy for this."

"I'm not worried."

"You lie. Actually, you should be worried. In my Jotun form, I could hurt you. I could freeze you; it would be a self-defense measure."

"Because I already feel too close," Tony divined, feeling the hints of frostbite in Loki's mind.

They were naked on Tony's bed; there was no denying it was just about the best thing ever, he and Loki holding each other in their arms, skin to skin.

Eye to eye.

Mind to mind. It was horribly, exquisitely intimate.

"It's okay, you know, to be a little freaked out. Lo-lo, darling, listen. I don't care what color you are. You're still you to me, get that? You're beautiful and you're not a monster. You're mine. Do me a favor..."

Tony, being a true believer in 'might as well get hung for a lion as a lamb', decided then that he would, by all the gods, manage. Prodding his weary husband to lie back on the pillows, Tony pulled a blanket over them, then re-wrapped himself around his husband's chilly form.

"...I don't think you'll lose control, but, whatever. Be whatever makes you happy, just rest a little while, okay, then I'll go get us something to eat, I can cook. At least, a few things."

"Not crepes," Loki offered unexpectedly, green eyes glittering as Loki held onto his Aesir form and peered into Tony's eyes. "I have no particular fondness for crepes."

"Understood," Tony said rather blankly, regarding Loki with a long, thoughtful stare. "I really love you, you know that?"

"I begin to believe this must be true. I find myself longing to express my wonder to all Nine Realms of the Great Tree; I am that thankful. I really love you, too."

"God damn, that's ... fuck. Fuck, look at this. My eyes are watering and no, I'm not crying. I don't cry. That's just wrong; Starks don't cry."

The thing was, Tony could feel how much Loki loved and wanted him. It was more than a little overwhelming.

"You were so brilliant as you landed before me in Germany. Your armor is a work of art and the idea of having you on your knees before me was instantly intriguing."

Given pause by that image, Tony blinked away his tears and stared at his husband, who watched his face like Tony was the best thing ever, which was still startling and new.

"Forgive me, dear heart, for driving you to tears already? Here, since you desire to watch me change-"

-and once again Loki's skin turned blue, hair taking that deep auburn cast that was echoed in Loki's blood red Jotun eyes. Loki's skin was no colder against Tony's than Aesir-Loki's had been; Loki's skin always felt a little chilled to Tony, anyway.

"I think I'd like to do more than just watch, thank you very much," he announced in an insulted tone, stretching himself against Loki's cold firm body, rubbing his way down Loki's torso, fascinated fingertips tracing scarred lines that looked almost like runes. "What do they mean? Do they mean something?"

"They tell of the line of the House of Laufey. They are proof of my bloodline, my claim to another Throne I can never possess."

"So where will we add a mark for the House of Stark?" Tony wondered, hand stroking Loki's back before coming to linger over Loki's high, tight ass. "Right here works for me. Loki, Prince of House Laufey, wed this day to Anthony, Lord of House Stark."

Loki wasn't sure how it happened, exactly, but Tony had maneuvered him onto his belly. He lay squirming while Tony licked over his buttocks then nipped gently at his flesh and felt too good to notice how exposed he felt.

Groaning at that busy mouth, Loki gasped when clever fingers reached beneath him to wrap around his shaft. Thrusting involuntarily into Tony's strong grip, Loki found himself abruptly on edge, pushed to it by the pure and delighted thrill Tony felt at touching him. He could feel it! Before he could control himself, Loki climaxed helplessly; bliss wracked him with battering waves of pleasure.

He was asleep before the last spasms finished shaking his body.

Tony was happy to learn that even unconscious, Loki in his Jotun form didn't damage Tony's skin. Loki remained significantly cooler than Tony, but to Tony, Loki felt good, like air conditioning. Tony liked the effect; it aroused him, reminding him of how good Loki made him feel earlier, during the healing ritual.

Out of curiosity, Tony tasted Jotun-Loki's seed - not bad, kinda like shaved ice, apples, and nutmeg - before he moved them both away from the wet spot, resuming a curled-into-and-wrapped-around position ... well aware he was consciously protecting his arc reactor by putting it between them.

He trusted Loki that much, already.

It occurred to Tony to wonder if he'd ever felt like this. He wasn't sure. Maybe when he was little, long before his parents' deaths; that was the last time he could remember feeling this genuinely good, this glad to be alive.

Tony ignored his erection until it went away. What did it say that his desire to sleep beside Loki - beside someone who loved him - was more enticing to him than the prospect of an orgasm?

It said Tony Stark had everything he'd ever wanted, right here ... and go, him, for having taken the chance, rolled the dice, raised the stakes.

To quote Charlie Sheen, 'Winning!' Then again, he was Tony Fucking Stark, and he specialized in victory.

***

Loki awakened suddenly, needing only an instant to recall his current circumstances.

By the Nine. He had acquired himself a Midgardian husband, one whom he actually liked and respected as much as he loved and adored ... and was that not telling in itself? Despite his years, Loki had never once married purely for love and want of his mate.

To feel these emotions awakened in himself - to finally feel like himself, after the Norns, after what Thanos and the Chitauri had done to him, after Odin had lied to him, after falling - was resulting in what felt like the psychic equivalent of scales dropping from his eyes.

Epiphany was not a state with which he was unfamiliar - no magic-user could find it so - and neither was equilibrium, yet seldom did those states occur in response to such a favorable result.

Naked Tony Stark was asleep in Loki's arms, and that was fully as spectacular a result as any Loki had ever experienced in all his life.

Bless the man, for remaining so near, as chilled as Loki's skin must feel. Vaguely amused by the warmth his husband radiated, Loki pulled his Aesir form back around him, letting his own skin warm by several degrees. Spelling the glamour was simple for him and less of an energy drain than Tony believed; this was the appearance Loki had grown up wearing, after all. Of the two, it had taken Loki more actual effort to learn how to maintain his Jotun form and autonomically regulate his external temperature to non-lethal levels.

Loki's magic - his control - rode easier inside him than it had in a long, long time. Everything felt easier with Anthony Stark at his side. "Keep each other," the Old God of Midgard had instructed; Loki was so very, very pleased to obey his elders in this, at least.

He nuzzled Anthony's soft hair - his Tony was sleeping with his forehead pressed against Loki's chest - and hoped Tony would not resent being awakened. Loki very much wanted his husband's attention.

He also wanted to pay some attentions of his own.

Tony's eyes blinked open, startled; Loki could feel Tony's eyelashes brush his skin, but Loki's smile wavered when Tony's first plaintive, wondering thought was full of astonished relief and you're still here!

As if Loki planned to be anywhere else but at his Midgardian's side from now on.

"Oh, my love, do not doubt me. I hope to always awaken beside you."

Loki felt Tony read his thoughts then felt Tony relax even further, moving back enough to meet Loki's eyes. Tony's gaze lightened with amusement, his wary smirk turning into a more genuine smile.

"Aw, that's nice. You know, you're beautiful in the morning," Tony said, not at all startled when JARVIS spoke from the walls and ceiling. Loki, however, jumped.

"Respectfully, Sir, it is twenty-one minutes until one A.M., more colloquially known as 'the middle of the night'."

"Hmm ... and yet, my husband is still beautiful. Hey, JARVIS, technically, if it's after midnight, it's morning, you know," Tony said reasonably, but Loki could feel Tony's teasing affection for his remarkable construct, delivered in an unusually gentle voice.

"Sir, I distinctly recall you informing me "it can't be morning if it's still dark," however, I will take your amendment under advisement. May I assume you and Prince Laufeyson-Stark intend to finally follow your doctor's instructions by sharing a meal?" JARVIS asked rather sarcastically; Loki could not prevent his own smile, especially when Tony winked at him.

"I like that, you know. Prince Laufeyson-Stark. Do I get a title, too?"

"Indeed, you are now Prince Consort Laufeyson-Stark, truly. Custom says when you marry royalty, you become royalty. Such titles suit you, my lord technomancer."

"Wait, what? What did you call me?"

"Behold, JARVIS the Remarkable. He is a souled electro-mechanical being created and given life by you. By magical definition, that makes you a technomancer. Had you believed yourself desired for your lovely form alone?"

This made Tony snicker; Loki was proud to see his bondmate saw through him well enough to hear the truths he was telling.

"'JARVIS the Remarkable'. I like that, too. So, you think I'm lovely?" Tony asked, still smiling; they were grinning at each other now. Loki should have been alarmed by how attuned his mood was to his husband's, but it felt so wonderfully comforting, to be so well known, to be wanted for everything he was ... and not in spite of it.

"I do find you lovely," Loki insisted, breathing the words out over Anthony's mouth without touching him; Loki could feel the banked embers of Tony's arousal blaze into sudden burning need. Of him. For him.

His husband needed - wanted - him. Loki was pretty sure that was one sensation that, in the vernacular, would never get old.

Feeling at once like he had never not been erect, Loki groaned softly as Tony squirmed against him, rubbing them together. Loki's answering hunger felt like lightning running through him, hollowing out his insides with mindless desire.

"Will you let me have you, husband?" he demanded.

"Oh my god, yes. Fuck me right now," Tony demanded right back.

"Oil?"

"Shit, can't you just - conjure something? Wait. See that drawer?" Loki did, spelling it open and levitating the small glass jar inside over to his hands. He opened the jar and put the contents to his nose, sniffing; it was with no little blinking and astonishment that Loki regarded his Midgardian.

"This is exceptionally well made, as lubricating potions go. Beeswax, coconut oil, comphrey, arnica, herbs for inflammation and to prevent infection..."

"I order it special-made because I'm a paranoid bastard when it comes to stuff I use inside my own body," Tony said, seeming startled by the sudden heat Loki could feel pervading his groin.

"You ... use this on yourself." Almost purring at those mental images, Loki put Tony on his back and hovered over him, caging Tony with arms and legs and pushing at his mind with want. "When you touch yourself?"

"Yeah ... I push my fingers into my ass and think about you fucking me ... I jerk myself with my other hand and call your name in my head when I co- oh, my god, yeah, just like - you - fuuuuuuuck, yeah, that's so much better than I - ah - imagiiiiiined," his Anthony rambled mindlessly as Loki fucked his way into his husband's body; Tony was tight and hot and slick and perfect around him and Loki had to listen to Tony's babble just to keep himself from climaxing too soon. It was quite possibly one of the worst tortures Loki had ever experienced, because every time he moved into Tony, Tony went more and more liquid in Loki's grasp, gasping with shivering hunger.

"You are irresistible," Loki informed his husband, very glad their relative heights made it possible for him to fuck Tony and kiss him at the same time. "I love you. You taste like-"

"-you. I taste like you, my Prince, I tasted your come after you went to sleep, want to swallow you down, want you to fill me up, oh fuck, Loki, please, please, please - oh, oh GOD!"

Tony shattered beneath Loki, mind turned into white light and shocking, shocked pleasure ... Loki roared as Tony's climax flamed over his nerves, as intense as if it were his own ... and then it was; Loki writhed in Tony's arms, on fire with his own exploding orgasm, crying out as it burned through him.

"MINE! Mine, mine, mine, you are MINE!"

"Yours, baby, all yours, and you're mine, my god, so mine. This was so good I want to do it again right now, the best fucking sex of my life, married sex, wow, who knew? That was - you are - oh, god, wonderful, Loki. Wonderfu- ah, wow. Seriously? Still hard and ready for more and oh fuck yeah, Tony Stark, you lucky lucky bastard. Yes. Do me just like that, love, put me where you want me and stir me inside. Oh, baby, my god your dick feels so good in me please-"

"Tony, your thoughts - oh, you - you-" had no idea, really, how arousing Loki found that constant mental ramble. Tony's mind spoke so clearly of his delirious pleasure, particularly since Tony's ability to speak out loud had been reduced to mere grunts and moans; Tony's busy brain more than made up for any verbal failures, filling Loki's head with his lustful monologue.

"Want you plowing me, baby, want you to fuck me harder, oh, yeah, that's the spot, that's it, that's so fucking fucking good, right there, oh, love, keep fucking me right - ah - ah - oh, Loki, god, love, so good, so good, you feel so goooood."

Rather better than merely good, Loki decided a little vaguely, losing all self-control and higher reasoning in the wake of his husband's second spasming climax. Tony's clenching muscles milked Loki's orgasm right out of him; Loki buried his face in Tony's neck and wailed as pleasure shredded him and melted his bones.

"Mm, that was ... amazing. Love you, Loki darling."

"Love you too, my Anthony. And to a ridiculous degree, I suspect."

"I know, isn't it great?" Tony's eyes sparkled when Loki looked at him.

Loki elected to reward that kind of appreciation with a kiss. Which lead to more kissing, then more than kissing, and then more sleep, before fruit smoothies and blow-jobs in the kitchen happened sometime around dawn ... which is when JARVIS informed them of Steve Rogers' and Thor's invitation to a wedding brunch, of all things.

"Hmm. What are the chances Fury will have learned of our marriage by then? Perhaps we should invite him?"

"Haha. And watch him show up with a strike force, ready to take you - us - out? I'll pass. I doubt he'll appreciate that we're married now. Will Odin expect you to submit to SHIELD?"

"If Odin does, he does not know me. You truly think Thor and Rogers would betray us so easily, then? If you do, I submit to you, husband, you do not know your family well."

"Steve's a company man, babe. So are Clint and Natasha, for that matter."

"They are your friends. Besides, we cannot be separated from each other by force. I have wards already in place should someone act against us in such a fashion, although I suspect these may even come secondary to whatever defenses yon JARVIS directs. Still, should the situation demand, you and I shall simply 'apparate' here. No one can remove us by force from your Hall, Prince Consort Laufeyson-Stark."

"Our Hall, Prince Laufeyson-Stark ... oh, I do like the title. Come on, let's go take a shower and try to look a little less fucked out."

"Why ever should we wish to do that?" Loki wondered whimsically, 'porting them into Tony's ridiculously large shower, which JARVIS had politely started. The water was warm, but not hot, and Loki wondered if Tony was still worried about hurting him.

"I wouldn't want to embarrass you?"

"That is sweet but sadly misguided," Loki drawled, turning to put his face to the tiles and pushing his ass into Tony's groin. "I think we should appear as fucked out as possible. We are on our honeymoon, are we not? Fuck me, husband."

"Hnnng, lube, we need-"

"We do not. I am not a Midgardian, Anthony," Loki reminded, murmuring over his shoulder, rewarded when Tony grabbed Loki's hip and used his other hand to feed his cock into Loki's hole, which was slick and greedily accepting Tony's length.

"This is my new most favorite thing ever," Tony confided, whispering to the skin between Loki's shoulders ... then Tony lunged into Loki roughly, just the way Loki wanted it. He growled his pleasure out loud.

"You ... ah, yes, love ... love my ... ass more ... oh, oh, love, there ... ah, more, more."

"I ... love you ... and your smartass ... and gotta say, your ass is ... a fucking miracle. Work of art. God, oh god, baby, yeah, never gonna apologize for loving you ... or your ass. You are mine. Mine. Fury won't touch you ... no one touches you. You're mine."

If he were honest with himself, Loki had to admit he was rather enamored of being the focus of Tony Stark's possessive, protective nature. As much as the sensation stirred him, filled him, and soothed him, it also hurt for being such a new and unusual thing.

"I am rarely deemed worthy of defense, Tony. I thank you, for yours."

"Your enemies are my enemies, Loki. I'll remind Fury of that if I have to. He can't afford to make an enemy of me."

"Of us. Your enemies are my enemies. I like this philosophy, my love. It seems simple enough for even the most self-centered villain to comprehend. I shall announce this far and wide."

"Oooh, I like that plan. That's one of the things I like best about you, you know that? You're a planner."

Loki did know that; he could feel it, firing along his lower spine and exploding in his groin. Loki was so ridiculously delighted to find out his husband liked him - it was one thing to inspire lust, and romantic love was largely a question of chemical compatibility, pheromones and sympathetic energy fields, simple liking was another thing altogether - that his climax took him largely by surprise. Torrents of pure pleasure poured through him as Tony worked him expertly, pinning him between one callused hand and Tony's rigid cock; Loki found his breath leaving him in a long, low groan as Tony's own climax hit.

Loki could feel his husband's cock swelling and jerking inside him, but more than that, he could feel Tony's orgasm inside his mind. The entire experience was beyond sublime; it was better than anything he - either of them - had ever experienced.

Discovering how they reacted to each other - recognizing it, nurturing it - was promising to be most amazing thing Loki had done in his long lifetime. He could not wait to see what would happen next, suddenly living in anticipation of life instead of merely enduring it.

Self-aware enough to realize his physical body had gone unconscious, Loki paused to consider the fact he had been given an extraordinary gift, indeed, in the soul bond he had forged with his technomancer. It was an unexpected, unanticipated, precious gift, to be sure, and - just as Tony had labeled it at the start - a reason for living.

Loki allowed himself to slide back into his body, blinking open his eyes with a mental 'what the hell?' when he realized his body was shaking because Tony was laughing.

Not just laughing, but laughing his ass off, as the Midgardian saying went.

Loki, being sprawled across Tony's lap, was getting bounced up and down with each one of Tony's rolling chuckles. With Tony sitting on the shower floor, still semi-erect inside him - and alive in his mind in a way Loki remained awed by - Loki came awake gasping with shuddering pleasure, only a little taken aback when Tony leaned down and started pressing kisses all over the side of his head, still giggling.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I promise, I don’t mean what I’m about to say in any kind of insensitive way so please forgive me if I come across like that, but I just fucked a GOD unconscious, come on, how awesome am I, please don't be mad but I have to warn you, I'll probably be fucking intolerable about this, it's not because I don't respect you-"

That is how far Loki let Tony get before Loki pulled himself off Tony and turned around; changing position was more difficult than it needed to be, thanks to the way they were now both essentially giggling together at Tony's words ... and as good as their lovemaking was, it was oddly secondary to how grand it felt to share mutual amusement.

"I am not angry, I promise. I will even permit you mention of your achievement in public."

"Hmm. That's very generous, my Prince. What's the catch?"

"What makes you think there's a catch, my Prince Consort?" Loki challenged, more than a little in love with the way Tony's eyes crinkled with laughter. Anthony Stark looked happy and Loki found he was delighted to be the person who made Tony look that way. "I do have conditions," Loki conceded, to be fair. For once.

"Name 'em."

Loki was amused - and pleased - to note that Tony sounded just a little suspicious.

Rocking his pelvis into Tony's, aware his husband was slowly firming, Loki took a moment to notice JARVIS had changed the shower flow to a soft mist, just warm enough to keep the air lightly steamy and easy to breath. Loki could hardly feel the mist on his skin; he was too caught up in measuring himself against his husband's body, ignoring the way the arc reactor dug lightly at his chest. He was greatly relieved to know he could no longer harm Tony with his weight.

Tony was still so inwardly pleased by the lack of pain, which rather broke Loki when he thought about it too much, so he tried not to dwell. How could he, when Tony was now fully hard again? Making the small shift in position that had his husband sliding inside him again, Loki laughed out loud when Tony wrapped Loki in his arms and started thrusting, even while still giggling and gasping into Loki's mouth.

"I do love you. I love you. You make me want my life. Anthony … oh, my love, yes, please fuck me!"

"Oh, now you're just trying to kill me," Tony thought a little crazily then shouted because Loki squirmed down with just the necessary amount of twist and squeeze to have Tony's eyes rolling back in his head as he climaxed...

...and brought Loki right along with him (which Loki would never, ever admit, later, since he regained consciousness first).

***

Condition One: No talking about it in front of Thor.

Condition Two: Loki would get to brag about it, too, in front of anyone of his choosing.

Tony was appropriately horrified once he awakened and had enough blood flow to his brain to consider the potential ramifications.

"Maybe we'll keep it between us, then ... no, wait, why should we? I may blush like a teenage girl any time the subject comes up but, hell, no one has ever fucked Anthony Stark unconscious. You're the first, Loki, and you'll be the only."

"I shall proudly boast, my beloved. We can share our blushes, too."

"Seriously? Wow. Did I say intolerable? How about insufferable? Yeah, insufferable is definitely on the horizon." Tony was giggling again; Loki considered it a fine achievement.

***

"Ladies?"

Nick Fury stood behind his desk and stared at the two women who were standing before him, their faces impassive as his. They had materialized in front of him, coalescing out of a cloud of gold sparkles.

Sometimes the goddamned Asgard pissed him smooth the fuck off.

"Queen Frigga of Asgard and companion," announced the elderly Black woman at Frigga's side, her gaze on Fury grim. Fury felt the muscles in his neck and shoulders tense up. Shit. The late Queen. He bowed - a little sketchily - at them both, manfully ignoring the fact that neither one was exactly … fully corporeal.

"Nicholas Fury, we have business," Queen Frigga announced.

"Your Highness," Fury said calmly.

Fury doubted anyone would blame him for his dread. There was a knock on his door and before he could even speak, Coulson was walking in with one hand on a weapon. Coulson hesitated when he caught sight of Frigga, however, then bowed deeply to the Asgard Queen.

"Your Highness, it's an honor. Your granddaughter Hela speaks well of you and asked that I pass along her regards, should the occasion arise."

And, yeah, that would be why SHIELD put up with the motherfucking Asgard. They'd helped save Phil Coulson's life, so Nick could cut them some slack. A whole shitload of slack, in fact.

"Thank you, Son of Coul. My Hel is a jewel in the crown of the Nine. You are well?"

"Completely recovered, thank you." Coulson bowed slightly less deeply to Frigga's 'companion'; the other woman inclined her head in turn. She looked like one of the old A.M.E. church ladies Nick Fury could recall seeing when he'd been very young; despite being partially translucent, she was immaculately dressed, perfectly concealed from her boxy leather shoes with neatly tied laces, ivory-colored support hose, a long-sleeved navy suitdress, to veiled hat and pristine white gloves. "Madam. Do I know you?"

"You do not, child. Today's your lucky day. You can call Me Aunt Nancy. I stand here on Anthony Stark's behalf, is what you need to know. Nicholas Fury, you're fixing to get some news that, as the young'uns say, will rock your world. You ain't gone like it for diddly. You're gonna think about putting your foot in it, interferin', making trouble. You're gonna want to stir shit and honestly, what with you being one of Coyote's, you can't rightly help yourself.

"All that being said, however." The old woman drew herself up on her heels and regarded Fury with that church-lady stare that seemed to divinate right through his skull and judge him at the molecular level. "Being who I Am, I got friends in lots o' places. Queen Frigga here is one, and she asked Me for a boon which I was happy to grant, and now we've come to warn you, Nicholas Fury, do not fuck with Anthony and Loki, or you're gonna piss off a bunch o' higher power type folks what went to an awful lot of trouble to try and promote a good outcome for them boys. This outcome. Do you understand Me, child? Hear what I'm tellin' you."

"Yes, Ma'am, I hear. Aunt Nancy. Anansi. I ... know who you are. Thought you were male, though."

"I am many things. I figured you might know Me, young Nick. You're a sharp one."

"Is there something you would you like to add, Your Highness?" Coulson asked of Queen Frigga, being all smooth and diplomatic. Fury fought back an urge to shout curses at her reply.

"Yes, thank you, Son of Coul. Fury One-Eye, to be precise, Asgard recommends complete neutrality from SHIELD when it comes to Loki and Anthony Stark. I will add, neutrality and civilized behavior are the absolute least of what Asgard expects from your organization, given our Thor's importance within it. Any perceived opposition or evidence of intent to do Loki and Anthony harm will be regarded by Asgard as an act of war … and I assure you, I need not wait for Odin All-Father to make that determination."

"Your Highness, I assure you, the last thing SHIELD or I want is war with Asgard. What the hell has Stark done now?" Fury mumbled, hand over his eyebrows, rubbing fruitlessly at his head. "This, this is why I don't have any moth- damned hair, Coulson."

Coulson pulled out his phone, pressed a speed dial number, and put the call on speaker.

"JARVIS? I'd like to speak to Stark, please."

//"Master Stark is currently unavailable, Agent Coulson. May I assist you in some manner?"//

"Perhaps you might let him know an apparition of Queen Frigga of Asgard is here with us in Director Fury's office. She's just informed us that Asgard will declare war on SHIELD if we interfere in any way with something Stark and Loki are doing. JARVIS, can you clarify their current situation, please?"

Coulson had already figured it all out. Fury didn't know how, but he was sure. Motherfucking Coulson always did that to him, goddamnit.

//"Greetings, Your Highness. I beg your pardon, Agent Coulson, but I have received instructions not to report Sir's movements to any SHIELD agent living and/or dead unless otherwise directed, "especially not Agent Schrödinger's Cat", by which Sir refers to you, as you may know. I trust you understand I will not disobey Master Stark. Your information will be relayed as soon as possible. Might I suggest you direct further inquiries towards the other Avengers, sir. Director Fury. Good day,"// JARVIS said in as bland a tone as the A.I. ever managed before he terminated the connection; Fury and Coulson caught the women grinning at each other.

"A technomancer. Those are rare," Frigga said approvingly to Anansi, whose bright white teeth glowed against her wrinkled, brown skin as she actually buffed her fingernails on her upper chest.

"Yep," Anansi said, popping the 'p' and giving Frigga a smug grin. "Smart, handsome, and rich, too. I did My best by your boy, Frigga. Truth is, they're both doin' well for themselves with this match. Your Loki is a beauty. Twisty. He'll keep My Tony interested."

"I don't understand?" Nick Fury asked in a tone of voice that suggested he really did, but he didn't want to. Anansi shook her head at him and snorted.

"Nick Fury, you mark My words. Leave them boys the fuck alone, or else. 'Let no man put asunder', Nephew, got it? Frigga, dear, how 'bout We go to brunch."

"My pleasure, Anansi."

"Nicholas, Philip. Act right, now," Aunt Nancy added then both women vanished, magicking their ghostly selves away the same way they'd arrived, leaving behind a fading cloud of fiery gold sparks.

Fury gave up and laid his head down on his desk. Just for a minute.

"Goddamnit. Coulson. Get me Captain Rogers."

Coulson calculated the odds of Steve Rogers remembering to have his cell phone on him - slim - then hit redial.

"JARVIS, may I speak with Captain Rogers."

//"One moment, please, and I will connect you. May I point out, you have become spoiled, Agent Coulson."//

"I won't deny that, JARVIS. In my defense, you are among those who spoil me."

//"As you say, sir. Captain Rogers, I have a call for you. Agent Coulson and Director Fury from Director Fury's office on the helicarrier." "Thanks, JARVIS. This is Steve Rogers."//

"Rogers, Fury. Is there something going on you'd like to tell me about?"

//"Ah, like what? What do you mean, Sir?"//

"Are you with Stark?"

//"What? No, ah, Tony ... isn't here yet. We, uh, we're meeting at the Stark Mansion. I'm thinking about asking Tony if we can move headquarters here. It's much homier than the Tower."//

"This would be a motherfucking brunch meeting, no doubt," Nick muttered to himself, underestimating super soldier hearing.

//"Sir?"//

"Son, it's cute how you don't want to roll on your teammate, but I already know about Stark and Loki," Fury said, fishing for details. Steve Rogers was not quite naïve enough to bite; however, the conversation got yanked out of Rogers' hands, anyway.

//"Son of Fury, Son of Coul! You must feast with us as we celebrate the wedding of my brother to my shield brother! Brunch will be served here at noon! Forgive me, but Mother has arrived and we have a great many tasks to complete if we are to provide a proper feast! Fare thee well!"

"Goodbye, sirs,"// JARVIS added and ended the call.

"Wedding. Goddamnit, Coulson," Fury repeated, rooting around in his desk for his flask, briefly wondering what liquor was in it this week; Barton and Romanov switched it out periodically, trying to surprise him. This week's offering was pepper vodka, spicy enough to make Fury's eye water and his sinuses burn.

It felt good.

"So, my motherfucking Iron Man, Tony Stark, has married Loki, the motherfucking Norse God of Mischief and Chaos, who also happens to be a known motherfucking supervillain on parole, and I'm not supposed to interfere. Goddamnit, Coulson. This is unacceptable."

"Sir, part of our deal with Asgard for Loki's restitution-"

"I don't need to be reminded about the deal. I know we can't touch Loki but I can damn well touch Stark. He's off the team. He's compromised."

"Perhaps you should withhold judgment until after you see Stark with Loki. We have been invited to brunch."

"How the hell are you so fucking calm, Coulson! That son of a bitch killed you!"

"He also sent me straight to Hel, literally. Loki made sure I didn't stay dead, Nick. He was being mind-controlled by Thanos and the Chitauri during most of the invasion, you know that. Look, he threw Stark out a window. If Stark can forgive his actions, so can I. If Steve Rogers thinks the situation is worth lying about, I can reserve judgment. If Thor thinks it's cause for a feast, well, he's usually right. Get your head out of your ass and make sure you're mad at Loki for the right reasons. Loki didn't fire that nuke."

Fury sighed, taking another long sip of vodka before offering the flask to Coulson, who took it and held it up to Nick in salute before he belted down a couple of healthy mouthfuls.

"I hate it when you do that, Cheese."

"Mmhmm, it's why you need me, Sir."

"You're right, but you're still a motherfucking pain in my ass."

"Yes, Sir. Look on the bright side, Nick. Maybe Thor will serve mead. That will help," Coulson reassured idly. "There's a certain amount of schadenfreude to be had when you think about it."

Fury finally started snickering, slowly shaking his head.

Coulson was right. If any two people deserved each other … well, as long as Stark didn't go supervillain on them, that is.

***

"Mother! What a glorious surprise!" Thor actually squeaked. Bruce and Steve shared 'what the hell?' glances then Thor started making introductions as soon as the gold sparkles formed into an almost-solid woman, elegant, regal and smiling.

"Mother, may I present Steven Rogers, Bruce Banner, Clint Barton, and the Lady Natasha Romanov. My friends, I present you to her Royal Highness, Queen Frigga of Asgard, the All-Mother, wife of Odin All-Father and my dear Lady Mother."

"Greetings, all. Thor, darling, I was pleased to see you stand with your brother at his wedding. If neither Odin nor I could be there, it is best you were."

"You saw," Thor concluded, voice a little strangled.

"Yes, of course, death shows us many things - you know this, my son," Frigga said in a tone that covered the room in ice. "Imagine my surprise when I watched my son bind himself to a mortal, of all things-"

"Frigga, dear, ix-nay on the ortal-may," a second woman said, walking into the kitchen behind the Aesir Queen. The newcomer was an elderly Black woman that no one but Bruce seemed to recognize; Bruce regarded her with that slightly puzzled frown that asked 'where have I seen you before?'

"My apologies, Anansi, dear," Frigga said and Bruce's eyebrows flew up. "I do not mean to imply there is something wrong with mortals, but honestly, Thor, I do wish you and your brother would give your father and I more time to adjust to these modern ways. We could use it to convince the populace of your continued sanity, for one. All this intermarrying between the Realms-"

"Mother, you're from Vanaheim."

"-however, by all accounts, Loki has done very well for himself by wedding Anthony Stark. House Stark must possess significant wealth. This manse is quite grand. These kitchens would not be out of place on Asgard. I confess to some envy. What sort of dowry will your little mortal bring, Thor?"

"Mother." Thor sounded a bit pained, obviously not sure how to respond or where to even begin addressing Frigga's words.

"Loki no longer claims the name Odinson. He's answering to Prince Laufeyson Stark," Natasha offered, taking the heat off Thor. Her gaze, however, was not on Frigga, for whom her words were intended, but on the harmless-looking old Black woman now standing beside the Queen of Asgard. "You are?"

"Dobroye utro, Natashenka," the old lady said and smiled at Natasha with twinkling eyes. "Just think of Me as a guardian spirit. I did well enough by you, didn't I, child? Home, family, place."

Natasha paused at that, gave the woman a long, considering stare, and bowed her head.

"Spasiba, Grandmother."

"Laufeyson Stark?" Frigga sighed as if her heart was breaking. It was all very dramatic and well played. "Odinson Stark, surely. Laufeyson Odinson Stark if he insists, I suppose. Your brother forgets he is still my child. As you are, my Thor. Loki has spent so much time bewailing his adoption he also forgets you are not the child of my body, either, which alters not how much I love you both. You are both my sons. Now. About your mortal-"

"Mother?" Loki called out softly from the door, a faint, crooked smile on his face. Tony was right behind him, crowding him, really, eyes narrowed and coolly speculative as he surveyed everyone in the room. "Aunt Nancy? Is something wrong? JARVIS said you threatened Fury."

"Is something wrong? Why, what could be wrong? My youngest son married yesterday. Without me. Or his father. In attendance." Frigga scowled.

"Wow," Tony said, somehow in front of Loki now and Natasha wasn't exactly sure how that happened. Tony crossed his arms over his chest and stood like he was wearing his armor. "I'm pretty sure nobody routinely invites dead people anywhere, so you can back up off the maternal guilt, Ma, or you and I are going to have a problem. And Odin can fuck right off."

"Anthony, my love, you are aware of who she is, correct?"

"I'm aware I don't give a fuck who she is. She can be polite to you in your own damned house. That goes for the rest of you clowns. Or, you know, you can haul your shit out of the nearest exit. Subject closed, the end. Now. Pleased to meet you, Mother Frigga," Tony said with extreme, perfect courtesy, bowing to the Queen of Asgard - his mother-in-law - and allowing his mood-swing to neatly punctuate his earlier ferocity.

"Jesus, Stark," Clint said quietly. From Bruce - and Anansi - there came a few low snickers, but Queen Frigga paid no mind, looking past the technomancer of House Stark to watch her Loki.

***

Frigga did not think she knew this Loki, who stood pink-faced and smiling, who reached out automatically - unselfconsciously - to link his fingers with his husband's as Anthony Stark straightened.

Frigga could not remember the last time her son had reached out to touch anyone in their family. The realization felt a lot like being kicked in the chest.

She turned to Anansi and inclined her head.

"Well chosen, indeed. I thank you. The House of Odin is eternally in your debt," Frigga said, swearing it on her magic.

"In my day, we built to last," the old woman replied, her eyes full of laughter as her gaze rested on Tony and Loki (who was staring at his mother with his head cocked sideways and open surprise on his face).

Frigga didn't give him time to ask whatever question he was about to ask; she threw her semi-corporeal arms around both Tony and Loki and squeezed.

"Welcome to the family, Anthony - have you more than one given name? Anthony what?"

"Tony, please. And yes. Edward. Anthony Edward."

"Excellent. Thank you, Tony. It is every mother's answered prayer to see her child loved and protected. Prince Consort Anthony Edward Odinson Stark," Frigga intoned with a bright smile, "welcome to our family, my son. Loki, darling, the wedding was utterly charming, but rather dreadfully informal, really. Tell me, is the Shaman of Midgard still in residence? I would thank him."

Loki was blinking, staring at Frigga with "help, I'm being steamrolled!" written all over his face.

"No ... he ... ah, left just after sunrise, with his husband. Said he wasn't up to any "mama drama"," Bruce supplied thoughtfully when Tony gave him a questioning look.

Bruce had been the only one awake when Blair Sandburg and Jim Ellison left the Mansion; they'd both shaken his hand - actually, Sandburg had also hugged Bruce and thanked Hulk again - then stepped out of the door and into the dawn.

"Frigga, honey. I'm gonna go find that old Coyote and do some celebratin' Myself. I'll pass along your thanks."

Before startled eyes, Anansi shifted to appear male, de-aging to somewhere around Steve's biological age and just as lithe, muscular, and gorgeous. Dressed in a short white sarong that contrasted brilliantly with silky brown skin, his wiry black hair cut close to his skull, and beaten gold hoops glittering at neck and throat, a very striking – and very physical - Anansi gave them just enough time to blink 'wow!' before he vanished with a "See ya 'round, kids!"

"Hmm. I believe Anansi has given me an idea how I might make your father suffer until I can persuade him to see things my way," Frigga announced and de-aged herself as well, until she looked less like her sons' mother and more like their contemporary. Their suddenly very blonde and very buxom, just as alive-to-the-touch contemporary.

"Mother, how-?"

"I am a fucking Goddess, my sons."

"Mother!" Thor and Loki echoed, both openly shocked.

"Wow, go get him, tigress," Tony murmured in his mother-in-law's ear; Frigga turned and kissed him on the cheek before turning to do the same to Loki.

"I am truly happy for you both."

"Thank you. For whatever you said to Aunt Nancy to get Her to give me a chance."

"She likes you. Be nice to your brother. Come home and visit once I change your father's mind about your exile and remember who we are, my sons. We shall therefore have a proper wedding. Never forget I love you, Loki, and do remember, should you persist in omitting 'Odinson' from your name, you and I shall discuss my position further and rather endlessly." Frigga then threw her arms around Thor before giving him a kiss on the cheek as well. "I love you, Thor. Your friends are welcome in your home. Do you hear me."

It was not a question.

"Yes, thank you, Mother."

"Yes, Mother."

"I am proud of you, my boys. JARVIS, be a dear grandchild and remind Nicholas Fury he will be watched," Frigga said and disappeared, leaving behind a twisty little plume of fiery sparks even as JARVIS replied "Yes, Your High-"

"Grandmother!" The last spark popped.

"Grandmother", JARVIS complied, sounding about as rocked as JARVIS ever did.

"Well. So, that happened," Steve said a little blankly, scratching his head with 'what the fuck?' written all over his face. "Your ma is one damned scary dame, no offense, Thor, Loki."

Thor clapped one hand on Steve's shoulder and gave him a light shake.

"Verily," Loki said just as Thor opened his mouth to say that very word; Thor's bright smile and enthusiastic laughter made several people grin.

"Indeed. Loki and I have long agreed on this truth; we can take no offense."

"She likes you," Loki informed Tony, whose smile at Loki managed to convey that those words were the best thing Tony had heard all day and also, Loki must be brain-damaged or something.

"I was pretty rude."

"You were magnificent," Loki assured him, stroking one long-fingered hand along Tony's jaw as if the two of them were completely alone.

"Oh, my gawd, is this how it's going to be all the time? Is this a thing now? Lovey-dovey, lovely-dovey, lovely-dovey all the time? For chrissakes! Where are your testicles! Act like men! Grunt at each other and pass beer!" Clint ranted; Tony and Loki barely gave him a glance.

"I think it's sweet," Natasha said, which won her every goggling eye, including Tony's and Loki's. "What?"

"Hulk likes it, too. It makes him happy," Bruce volunteered. "Think you're just going to have to deal, Clint."

"Well, shit." Clint sighed, then started laughing for reasons that were not immediately apparent; this was one of those things Clint did - and they all had those 'things' - that the rest of them had learned to live with.

"Hey, the American judge scores a nine point five for the attempts to deflect Frigga every time she started to zero in on someone. It's like you all cut your teeth for her on Fury and Coulson. So, who was the - um, can't really call her an 'old lady'-"

Loki chewed on his bottom lip for a moment, plainly trying to decide how to answer.

"That was Anansi, a Creation Power indigenous to Midgard, an Old God. She - or He - is a trickster spirit patron, promoter of creators, of builders and the makers of things," he finally replied, not sure his contribution would be welcome. "Anthony is special to Her, as are Miss Romanov and Doctor Banner."

"I wasn't sure-" Bruce started to say, then pursed his lips and nodded. "Iktomi comes in many forms."

"Yes, precisely." Loki smiled at Bruce - really smiled - and Bruce blinked a few times before he looked at Tony.

"Okay," Bruce said slowly but smiled back unguardedly.

"I'm hardly a builder," Natasha whispered, probably thinking no one could hear her near-silent protest. She underestimated her audience.

"You grow plants, in this manner you create," Loki offered, startled when Anthony ducked and cringed.

"How do you know I grow plants?" Natasha asked, one eyebrow lifted sharply; Tony waved his free hand and mouthed "no! no!" but Loki ignored him.

"I have seen your garden on the Tower roof. A thriving space. Well thought out and lush."

"Sir, Director Fury and Agent Coulson are arriving," JARVIS informed them.

"Great. Let 'em in, thanks, JARVIS."

"Should we seriously be worried about Asgard going to war with SHIELD?" Steve asked before Natasha could resume her interrogation.

"That depends on Fury, I'd say," Tony said with a smirk, holding Loki to him as he walked into the long dining room, with its many French doors standing open. Fury and Coulson were seated at the table, watching them both.

"About time one of you motherfuckers considered me!" Fury informed them, his one eye glaring at Loki, who glared back, which lost some effect given Loki was standing in Tony's arms. "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't throw your ass in prison, Laufeyson?"

"It's Laufeyson Odinson Stark. Prince Laufeyson Odinson Stark, and I'll burn SHIELD to fucking ash if you mess with him," Tony announced first, hissing like a snake. "Then I'll make sure the World Security Council publicly gets blamed and I'll burn them down, too. The same deal applies to my husband that goes for the rest of my team, Fury. You don't touch them. SHIELD doesn't touch them. You don't touch any of us, unless it's a pat on the back for a job well done. Or SHIELD is going to lose a significant source of financial backing when I start consolidating a few outstanding accounts and separate Stark from SHIELD completely."

"Goddamnit, Stark-"

"Tony. Did you really-" Steve's voice was uneven and hoarse. "You made a deal to ... protect us? Even me?"

"Yes, you, too, Steve. Fuck SHIELD. Nobody threatens you, nobody owns you. And, for the record? This isn't contingent on me being alive. That's contingency planning, babies. I will burn SHIELD down from beyond the grave, so consider yourself warned, Nicky. You better stay on my good side. What a Stark giveth, a motherfucking Stark can taketh away."

Nick Fury was abruptly reminded of how and why Iron Man came to exist. Nor was it lost on Nick that Loki was standing at Tony's shoulder, regarding Nick as if he'd gladly set Nick on fire right now, if that's what his husband wanted (if Nick discounted the brief sideway looks of admiration the mischief god gave his husband).

"You've always been paranoid, Stark," Nick noted casually, leaning back in his chair with an exaggerated groan. "'Bout time you grew up and settled down. Now, it's been a long-ass day and it's not even noon. Thor, tell me there's mead. I need a motherfucking drink if I'm going to toast the grooms."

"Just like that?" Tony asked doubtfully, still holding himself - and Loki - aloof from the rest of the room, as if he didn't trust anybody ... which was probably the truth. Fury doubted Tony trusted any of them not to turn on Loki, not even Thor.

"Hell, yeah, just like that," Fury snorted. "You're ten times the bastard your daddy was, Stark. You're also ten times the man he was. Smarter. Meaner. Tougher. The fact is, if you took it in your head to run SHIELD, you could. Why the fuck do you think I didn't want you in the Initiative? I can't run over you; I can't control you, I can't talk you into shit and god knows I can’t order you to do things my way. I've tried. I may not be a genius, but I'm no fool. What I am is a realist, and I don't want you seriously pissed off at me so I'm not gonna piss you off. Especially when that means I'd also have Loki, Thor, Frigga, all of Asgard, Aunt Nancy, most of the rest of the motherfucking Avengers, plus Coulson pissed off at me, too."

Tony shook his head slightly, like his ears were ringing, like he couldn't believe he'd actually heard what he'd just heard; he turned to check with Loki, who was covering his mouth with one hand in a vain attempt to hide the fact that he was snickering.

Actually, he was almost giggling, and he wasn't the only one laughing, either … although, interestingly enough, Rogers had gone pale and looked a little sick.

"That's - huh. Well, okay, then! Just like that. Thanks, Nick," Tony said, smirk turning into a genuine warm-to-the-eyes smile. Fury was pretty sure he hadn’t seen one aimed in his direction since Tony was a little kid.

He would go to his grave before he'd admit to finding it ... nice to see again.

But there was one thing Nick had to know. He picked his words carefully, but he had to ask.

"Just how long have you and Loki been ... seeing each other?"

***

"Everybody wants to know that," Tony mused, looking at his husband with a grin. "Do you know what a guide is, Nicholas?"

He watched the older man, who was actually looking his age for once, lean his head back and give a heartfelt sigh.

"I know you're a guide, if that's what you're getting at. Howard knew it, too. Maria's family was ... known ... for them at one time. You're actually related to Blair Sandburg, you know, distantly – yes, of course I know about him and Ellison. There's a lot of shit the Director of SHIELD has to take to his grave. I suppose those are your secrets to know, though."

"Howard thought it was a defect. I was defective."

"Howard was a dumbass about a lot of things and he had no idea how to handle having a son who was smarter than he was. And he was a drunk most of the time you knew him."

Tony laughed involuntarily, honestly amused, and shrugged off the old ache caused by the subject of his father.

"When Loki and I met again yesterday, I realized I am his guide. And Howard would be more pissed off about the whole gay thing and you know it."

"Yeah, he probably would until it dawned on him you married royalty. You got married. Well. Bonded. No arguing with that. Howard wanted a guide when he married Maria. That happened pretty quick, too."

"I'm not sure she was much of a guide to him."

"Don't kid yourself. Howard stopped doing a lot of questionable shit after he met her. You gonna stop doing questionable shit?" Nick Fury demanded of Loki, who gave him a wry smile and lowered his head, looking sideways at Tony.

"Well. I wouldn't go that far-"

Tony startled himself by grinning at Nick.

"He can make as much trouble as he wants. Have you stopped doing questionable shit, old man?"

"I guess I'm gonna have to eventually. I'm starting to think retirement is looking good. Might need your help with the plan of succession."

"Tony?" Steve sounded just a little too shocked and earned himself several pairs of rolling eyes, including Tony's.

"Stark's hands would be better than most. Who do you think is in charge of your unit now, Captain?" Fury wondered sharply and ignored Tony when Tony rubbed one hand over his face and shook his head.

"You may be in charge of active field deployment, but you are not senior to the man in charge of the base, Captain Rogers. There is a difference. Stark, Loki, congratulations. Sounds like you two deserve either other."

"Well thanks, again, Nick!" Tony said, hovering somewhere between pleased, amused, and sharply irritated. "I think. By the way, your job? Doubt you could hire me into it now. Besides, it's Coulson's problem."

“Coulson’s needed worse on another team."

"It's Coulson's problem," Tony repeated, holding up two fingers and smiling when Loki winked at him. "It's Coulson's problem. Said three times and true. I'm his problem now." Tony pointed at Loki with three fingers.

Loki laughed out loud and Tony basked in his husband's rather smug amusement.

"As I am yours," his Prince agreed, and it took Fury clearing his throat before Tony looked away from those gorgeous green eyes that promised he was never a problem.

"What? Are you still here? Oh, right, brunch. My apologies, that was rude. So, what's for brunch? And who cooked it? Please tell me it wasn't Clint, he probably poisoned it-"

"Nobody poisoned it, I promise," Jim Ellison announced, stepping in through one of the opened French doors, Blair Sandburg right behind him. Jim nodded politely at Tony and Loki while Blair practically beamed at them both.

"Well done, Guide," Blair whispered to Tony and Tony couldn't prevent his own broad smile because, damn it, he was happy and fuck everybody else. Not that he wasn't relieved to see people he knew would be on his side, if it came to that, which judging from the frowns on several faces might be happening sooner rather than later.

"Not that I didn't think about it," Clint announced from the kitchen, glaring daggers at Loki. "But it's your life, man. Plus, Hawkeye, here. I can see how you're … fucking fixing yourselves up together, somehow, so no, I won't poison you. Live and let live, yeah?"

"A fine philosophy," Thor announced behind him, swatting the back of Clint's head pretty lightly for Thor. "Besides, I helped cook. Any poisoning will be unintentional, I assure you."

Tony grinned at Clint, who shook his head and finally grinned back at him.

"Christ, you're practically glowing."

"You have no idea," Tony's Healer declared, blue eyes fond and amused. "What Gods have put together, let no one put asunder. Keep it in mind, fam," Blair told Fury, who rolled his eye.

"We were not expecting your return, but we are greatly pleased," Loki told Jim, choosing to ignore Clint Barton and Nick Fury for the time being.

"Well, we talked about it and decided that a free meal was too good to pass up, number one," Blair said, smile quirking into a lopsided grin. "Gonna have to do the license, right? Make it Midgard legal. And, you know, we didn’t want to pussy out and run off without making sure you were both all right. Also, Jim secretly wants to be an Avenger-"

"More like a subcontractor, primarily for search and rescue and all-hands-on-deck issues," Jim added, talking over Blair who resumed talking like he'd never been interrupted.

"-and maybe we should take this opportunity to come out of the closet, so to speak-"

"Blair, that's Director Nick Fury and Agent Phil Coulson of SHIELD," Tony supplied quickly, not sure how much Jim and Blair wanted the spies to hear.

"Oh, I know. I also know there will never be a better time to be open with our abilities, since I can count on you guys to protect us."

Tony nodded while Loki bowed his head, free hand going fisted over his heart … free hand, because Tony was holding hands with his husband and he kept getting distracted by how happy he was.

How happy they were, because Loki was no less so than he.

"Hey. Let's go to Malibu and be West Coast Avengers," Tony found himself offering Jim and Blair as quickly as the idea occurred to him and shot across to Loki. "Earthquakes, mudslides, fires – we could do a lot of good in areas that will welcome our help. We can save lives."

"Is this not a subject best discussed later?" Loki said, giving him a sideways grin that made Tony's knees feel a little weak so he distracted himself by whining.

"You want me to table it? That never works." Tony took a deep breath, still in love with the novelty of being able to. "I haven't even had a chance to really thank you, Blair. Thanks aren't nearly enough for what you've done for me. And hey, Fury says we're related! Did you know?"

"Really?" Blair grinned widely. "How?"

"You share a great-grandmother on both your mothers' sides," Fury offered, shrugging one shoulder and pointed at Blair. "Your grandmother came to the United States and later had Naomi, and Stark's grandmother stayed in Italy and birthed Maria."

"Cousins? That's cool," Blair nodded, and gave Tony a smile that Tony returned.

"Nice to have family," he said, and it really was. "Of course we'll protect you and Jim. We would have anyway. We owe you."

"I'm glad it worked, man. Truly, we were honored … and it would be nice to be back on the West Coast."

Liking the idea more the longer he thought about it, and liking even more that Loki was agreeing with him, Tony was slow to notice the face Steve was making.

"You're going to split up the team?"

"I'm just me, last I checked, although come to think on it, Bruce, you in? We could use Big Green's help digging people out of shit and your help when it comes to emergency medical care."

"We're in, Tony." With no hesitation, and that's why Tony adored Bruce.

"I do understand, my Anthony."

"Damnit, Tony!" Steve then Fury flared up with a "Listen here, Stark-"

"Watch your tone, mortals," Loki said in a lazy voice that did nothing to hide how sincere a threat he could be. Fury's mouth snapped shut and all he did was glare, which ordinarily would be more than enough to prod Tony into rolling over…

Not any more.

"No, Nick, it's the perfect time, really. The West Coast Avengers will be an independent organization and volunteer for FEMA and the SARC. SHIELD probably should go ahead and start looking into its financials with an eye to fully separate itself from Stark Industries. I'll review our current contracts and forward you the deets."

"What about us?" Steve burst out, still visibly unhappy.

"I'll maintain your equipment and you – the Avengers - can stay here, I'll give you this house or sell it to you for a dollar or whatever makes it legal, Steve. I know you like this old-fashioned shit and if I keep it, I'll want to renovate which I guess would be a shame but it's not to my taste and I'll even cover utilities, the rest will be on SHIELD."

"That seems fair," Loki said, watchful eyes going from Fury to Steve.

"Tony, you don't- You're splitting us up? Why?"

He could have withstood that tone had Steve only been angry, but Steve was also genuinely hurt and Tony hated that. Loki squeezed his hand then released him; Tony thought his thanks to his husband and went to his friend, taking him by the shoulder.

"I could tell you that Clint and Natasha would never really be okay about having Loki on the team and that would be the truth, but that's not all the truth." Tony could think of several reasons off the top of his head that Steve might be more liable to accept than Tony's ultimate truth; he was not going to let Loki be hurt or disrespected and he didn't trust Clint or Natasha not to try.

More than anything, Tony could tell that simply being in the same room with Clint was a constant reminder for Loki of being under Thanos' control, and Tony wasn't having that, either, though he tried not to dwell on it, hoping Loki wouldn't pick up that train of thought.

"Steve, I can't be involved in all the secret mission shit Fury and SHIELD keep sending you and Clint and Natasha on. If you want to work for SHIELD, then work for SHIELD, but I own and am CTO for the number 16 company on the Forbes top 25. That's in the world. I have hundreds of thousands of employees that I'm responsible for. I can't be tied to the kinds of covert activities you've been doing lately, especially since that's not what the Avengers is meant for, which is potential world-ending shit. So we're gonna go do something different. If you need us, we'll be here."

"Gonna hold you to that, Shellhead, and same goes. I still don't like it, I'm never gonna like it, but I understand," Steve said, laying his hand over Tony's for a quick squeeze.

Tony sighed in relief, glad Steve accepted his decision, at least, before he looked at Fury, who nodded.

"It's a good idea, Tony," Coulson said. "There will be faster response time to areas that routinely experience frequent natural disasters and keeping 'Avengers' in the name will improve the brand's standing. Thor, are you all right?"

They all turned to look at the Thunderer, who stood arms crossed and chin practically digging into his own chest. Thor lifted his head slowly, eyes oddly pleading on Loki's, whose chest Tony was backing into. Loki hugged him around the waist and Tony could feel his husband's exasperated eyeroll.

"Yes, of course. Stop looking at me like that, Thor, you ridiculous fool."

The slow grin that crossed Thor's face at his brother's fond scold had Tony biting his tongue to keep from laughing out loud, effectively diverted from Coulson's rather biting assessment.

"If none object, I believe I will commute between teams as needed."

"You pretty much fit the definition, Point Break."

"And I promise to let you know when we have need of you."

"As a matter of fact, I think you should do 'Ellen' with us, Thor," Tony found himself blinking at his own mind, which quickly reassured him he was on the right track. "All the West Coast Avengers should, it's a lot harder to disappear from plain sight when you're in the public eye, it'll help protect Jim and Blair, too. You and I-"

He turned in his husband's arms, wrapping his own across Loki's strong shoulders.

"We're used to living our lives in public."

"I would not disagree, but if I might question your good judgement, have you lost your damned mind? You intend to tell the people of Midgard that you have married me?"

"And why the fuck wouldn't I, exactly?" Tony really wanted to know, feeling Loki's shock like it was his own, laughing at last, because he couldn't not.

***

"We're doing things a little differently today, because I have a surprise for you! And what a surprise! Come on out, guys!"

"I am still not convinced this is wise," Loki said even as a young woman motioned them out onto the stage; his husband laughed at him, throwing his free hand in the air and making what Loki had been given to understand was known as a 'peace sign' to most Midgardians. Loki thought it a charming idea. A hand sign for peace that was known to the rest of the realms could have fended off his and Thor's involvement in a myriad of unnecessary battles.

"I don't hide, love. And Thor never met an unnecessary battle," Anthony told him, which, true enough, and made Loki smile, which was doubtless the intention as they were welcomed by their hostess. Tony had paid off one of the previously scheduled guests; the other two had happily settled for meeting half the Avengers in what Loki had been informed was called a 'green room' although he could not understand why.

The audience, which was primarily female mortals of various ages, sizes, and colors, had gasped and gone quiet on seeing him, but resumed clapping when Thor came out behind him, followed by Jim, Blair, and Bruce Banner. All took up seats on chairs and couches, his husband closest to the blonde female Midgardian. Anthony sat only after giving her a kiss on the cheek that she'd returned.

"Ellen, beautiful as always. Give your lovely wife my regards," Anthony said warmly; the Midgardian gave him a brilliant smile that made her stunning, indeed.

"I've known her for years. She's a friend," Tony informed him when Loki failed to suppress a flash of jealousy.

"I will, Tony! It's so good to have you here again! But I have to ask. What is this?" She motioned to where his husband was still holding Loki's hand, the romantic fool; Anthony could not stop smiling, but then, neither could Loki, basking in the constant flood of love and amused good humor from his Anthony's mind.

Tony held up his free hand, his left hand, and showed off the wedding ring that adorned it. He'd forged their rings just yesterday out of his signature gold-titanium alloy, each flanked by two thin bands of uru that Loki had supplied. The effect was unusual but striking and Loki adored their matching rings, which Anthony displayed by holding up Loki's hand next.

The audience gasped again but a few brave souls applauded, to Loki's surprise. Their hostess gaped at Tony who gave her a sunny smile and a nod.

"Got married last week. You can call me Prince Consort Anthony Edward Laufeyson Odinson Stark, and this is my Prince, Loki Laufeyson Odinson Stark."

"What SERIOUSLY? Holy shi- But I haven't heard- No way, you're announcing this here?"

She regarded Tony then Loki with a dumbfounded expression that had her audience tittering, then blinked her very genuine shock in Tony's direction.

"Wow. Thanks?"

"You're welcome. I know people are wondering how this happened," Tony began and Loki cleared his throat.

Explaining himself was something Loki usually avoided, but it suddenly didn't matter any longer, not next to what he felt for Anthony. All the misery in his past was next to nothing compared to his present and future. Loki decided he would have suffered far worse to get to where he was now.

"If I may, I have a rather long story to tell to give some necessary background." Loki looked into the audience then shook his head. "Before anything else, I owe the world, especially Puente Antigua, Stuttgart, and New York City, my sincere and profound apologies. I was … mentally unbalanced and quite deranged when I committed multiple crimes on your world, and you deserve to know what happened. The short version is, I found out I was adopted, stolen as an infant from a realm called Jotunheim, with which Asgard is on extremely poor terms. I was, in fact, taken near the end of centuries of a war finally won by Odin AllFather, when, ironically enough, he kept the Jotnar from invading Midgard – Earth – over a millennium ago. My race of origin is widely regarded in Asgardian society as a race of monsters, and my own brother – who was suddenly not my brother – is famed for his promises to kill every Jotun alive."

"I remain your brother, Loki. He speaks the truth of these matters, and I was of no support. I am not proud of myself. I was an arrogant fool and did not help," Thor said with regal, reegretful gravitas. "Loki suffered what I have heard called here on Midgard a 'nervous breakdown'."

"Perhaps 'psychotic break' would be more accurate." Loki shrugged. Tony winced, nudging Loki's shoulder with his own. Loki took the reassurance and offered the audience a sad smile, ignoring the cameras to make eye contact with a few of the mortals who seemed to be listening most intently.

"I had suddenly become a … monster … and was no longer part of my family. I don't believe I can adequately convey how much that … how irrational I became. Events on Asgard following this … revelation … worsened my … condition, the events of Puente Antigua came to pass and then … I … let go the Bifrost and fell into the Void between realms. I do not know how long I fell; time there moves variably, you see. It felt as if I fell for centuries.

"I … wanted to die. I thought I would die. I … intended to die."

"Loki," his husband whispered, leaning their heads together, the constant warmth of Tony's love for him giving Loki the strength to go on.

"And I have yet to speak of the worst," he sighed. "I was eventually recovered by a being who held me hostage and had me tortured for information on the Nine Realms and how to get here. He had an army, the Chitauri, that he intended to send ahead to gain a foothold on Midgard - Earth. And after long months … under duress … I was thought by him to be well-enough controlled to manage the thing.

"But I am not one to be controlled against my will, not completely. I sabotaged my own plans, altered the size and location of the wormhole, gave similar opportunities for sabotage to my unwilling minions and behold, my efforts failed, just as I wanted. Just as I hoped."

Loki rubbed his eyes briefly.

"None of that excuses or forgives the deaths I caused in New York City and Stuttgart. All I can do is apologize, and I am truly sorry. I was, as the good Doctor Banner can attest, crazy as a bag of cats at the time-"

"Yeah that was my diagnosis," Bruce interjected with a small grin that Loki returned faintly, he'd been genuinely amused by the doctor's turn of phrase when he'd finally heard it.

"-and I can only promise you all I would never have undertaken any of it had I been in my right mind. I was removed to Asgard and imprisoned, which was my ultimate goal-"

"And then a bunch of other shit happened that was connected to that mess in Greenwich, England. Asgard was invaded, Thor and Loki lost their mom Frigga, and Loki ended up almost dying while avenging his mother's murder and saving Thor's and Doctor Jane Foster's lives. After that, he was finally … sent for help," his Anthony said a bit shortly, clearly unwilling to have Loki put himself through telling it all.

"I was remanded to the care of the Norns for five hundred of your years, the equivalent of sending me to a 'nuthouse', I believe is the term-"

"Lo!"

"What? My love, is my usage inaccurate?"

"Not very polite."

"Since when do you care about being polite?"

"It's considered an insulting term. Psychiatric institution?"

"I like nuthouse. It amuses me. But if it is rude to say, I shall not say it."

"You can say whatever you want, you know that."

"So, wait, do they do this all the time?" Ellen asked plaintively; Loki realized he was gazing into his husband's eyes and had quite forgotten his surroundings, as had Anthony.

Their comrades and Thor all chimed in with "yes!" and to Loki's embarrassed displeasure, his cheeks flushed. His Prince Consort laid a warm, gentle kiss on his lips then turned back to their hostess with a bright smile.

"Have you seen him?" Tony said, inviting the audience to laugh with him; to Loki's wonder, the majority did. "Point is, Loki served his time-"

"How can it be five-hundred years when it's only been a few years on earth?" someone asked from the audience. Their tone was fascinated instead of accusatory, so Loki was willing to explain.

"Time may pass at one speed on Midgard and pass at other speeds entirely on other realms. The Norns typically reside in an area of the World Tree where time moves with great irregularity. They inhabit areas of temporal displacement when choosing to house visitors to their realm."

"So you weren't there as a prisoner?" Asked a rather bright spark and Loki shrugged.

"I was remanded there into custody and relieved of my autonomy," Loki answered. "I blame no one for wondering. I was with the Norns for a period equivalent to almost half my life and I am over a thousand of your years old. Well, fifteen hundred, now, I suppose. It is not for me to decide I have been punished enough-"

"You were mentally ill; historically, punishment is not what you needed." Tony's tone was uncompromising and there was a low murmur of agreement from their audience and many nodding heads.

"I did get what I needed, my word on it. I had a great deal of … excellent mental health care while I was in Nornheim. I am well now. It's why I am still appalled by my past actions."

"Well, babe, we've all got a past. Join the Midgardian club." Tony squeezed his hand and gave the audience a lopsided smile, charming many.

Loki was charmed, at least, as well as reassured when Tony turned that smile on him.

"When we met up again, we just … clicked, Ellen. Like called to like somehow. Agents of change. Hey, I didn't bring us here just to announce our marriage. We do have some other news," Tony said then, rescuing Loki from any further questions.

"You're expecting?" Ellen asked faintly; Tony snickered at her good-naturedly then tilted his head sideways.

"Well, you know, in a manner of speaking. The Avengers are going to become two teams, team one based in New York City, and team two – that is, us -" Tony waved at their comrades "-the West Coast Avengers!"

The audience soundly applauded this news but didn't drown out Ellen's question about the Avengers splitting up. Bruce Banner answered, speaking more smoothly than Loki had believed him capable in such surroundings.

"I think everyone who's ever lived on or near the West Coast knows it is home to a lot of natural disasters. After we talked it over, some of us decided we would rather focus our assistance on search and rescue and disaster recovery instead of counter-terrorism. Both teams will help the other out if necessary, but the West Coast Avengers will be an independent organization."

"Thanks, Brucie! Doctor Bruce Banner! Which brings me to my final announcement. May I introduce Doctor Blair Sandburg, and his husband Captain Jim Ellison, U.S. Army, Retired. You all know Prince Thor, God of Thunder, and my brother-in-law, right? He'll be with the West Coast Avengers part-time."

"It's nice to meet you all. Captain Ellison, Doctor Sandburg, what makes you eligible for the team?"

"I am a Sentinel," Jim Ellison said evenly into the camera. "I have enhanced senses. I can hear, see, and smell much better than the average human. Blair grounds and supports me, keeps my senses from overloading. We've been together over twenty years."

"Actually, we've been in hiding for almost twenty years, after the press conference I had in 1999 failed to keep the wrong kind of interest off of Jim's abilities." Blair Sandburg shrugged. "We've helped people over the years, but we think we can do more if we can do it openly. And we're getting too old to run around all over the world hiding from government agents. Jim's senses will be an advantage in search and rescue and we're honored to be included in the West Coast Avengers."

"As am I," Loki found himself saying to the audience. "Very honored. I cannot hope for repentance-"

"I can," Tony interrupted, those beautiful bright eyes steady on his. "Hope for repentance is one of my guiding principles, actually. You were mentally ill. Even Midgardians understand insanity can mitigate guilt."

"My guilt is deserved … and you're being something of a hypocrite, my love."

"Oh, I know. I'll never stop feeling guilty for what Obadiah Stane got away with while he was CEO of SI, but I have hope I can fix things, make things better. So can you."

"Hope for better, this I can do. Although I do not know how my life can get better than it is now, with you."

The crowd – and their hostess – gave a collective "awwww" that snapped Loki out of being lost in his husband's eyes; Tony smiled at him, eyes soft and brilliant and full of joy, constantly reminding Loki they were in this together and Tony felt the same as he.

Which still did nothing to suppress Loki's blush, especially when Thor elbowed him teasingly.

"We keep getting distracted, it's still very new," Tony offered their hostess with a sheepish grin; she grinned back at him happily, her eyes bright and clear.

"It's so romantic. Thank you for telling me – telling us all your news. I'm happy for you, Tony. And Prince Loki," the lovely Midgardian gave him a sad smile. "I'm sorry those terrible things happened to you."

Loki blinked, taken aback to find his eyes stinging.

"Thank you, Ellen. I have recently learned those events were worth surviving."

"Damn it, Loki," his husband muttered and rubbed at his own eyes. "Same, here. We're very lucky or very blessed, thank you all," Tony said to swelling applause from their audience.

***

"Aww, hell. You're in love." Rhodey had stepped off the elevator, taken one look at his face, and like any friend of over three decades would naturally do, started shaking his head and laughing at him. "You're making that Sunset Bain face. You're in looooooove."

"Fuck you, Rhodey," Tony said, equally irritated and amused. "You promised me we'd never mention her name."

"I know, I know, I'm sorry. I'll try harder, man, but. Fuck, Tony. What the hell?"

"I asked myself that, believe it or not. The Rhodey-voice inside my head said-"

"You have a Rhodey-voice inside your head, Tones?"

"-practically word for word, the same thing. Hey, remember that break when Mom told those stories from the Old World, about anchors and watchmen, and how her mother's family ran to producing anchors, guides, and protectors? and of course I have a Rhodey-voice in my head. Don't try to pretend you don't have a Tony-voice inside your head-"

"Got two, one for stupid brave shit and one for 'shit that shouldn't work but let's throw it at the wall and see if it sticks anyway'. Yeah, of course I remember Miss Maria's stories. So, you're a protector, an anchor. You're his anchor. Still not the craziest thing I've ever seen you do." Rhodey finally came over and took Tony's upper arms in his hands. "You look good."

"He's good to me," Tony promised his oldest friend, patient while Rhodey inspected his face and peered into his eyes. "For me. We're good. We good?"

"Hey, if I can overlook She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named-"

"Really?"

"-and fucking Ti Stone-"

"And now we're going there."

"-and Rumiko Fujikawa-"

"Platypus!" Tony squawked, aggrieved.

"-then fine, I guess I can overlook the Norse God of Mischief and Lies you married. Hey, does that make you a goddess?"

"No, asshole, but I'm a Prince Consort. Do me a favor. Just get to know him," Tony urged while Rhodey rolled his eyes.

"I'll give him a chance, since it means so much to you. Pepper's pissed off."

"Why? Just tell her she ruined me for other women-"

"Oh, I do hope that's not true," Loki said, entering from the terrace … only, not-Loki, because she was dressed in a short, silver-colored dress, strapless and clinging to a long, lithe female figure that was all curves and leg.

"Holy … Damn, baby. Did I say ruined? Now I'm ruined. Wow."

Lady Loki tossed her long, wavy black hair over her shoulder and batted those brilliant green eyes at him, her amusement loud and clear.

"I didn't know you could do this. This." Tony blinked and tried not to drool.

"I am a shapeshifter, my Prince Consort."

"And perfect for you. Holy shit." Rhodey started laughing out loud which startled Tony into a bright smile. His Princess beamed right back at him. "Huh. And you're in love, too. I see how it is. Congratulations, man, best wishes to you both, I'll just see myself out. JARVIS, my man, put on some Teddy Pendergrass, you know the one, and lock the doors behind me."

"As you say, Colonel Rhodes."

"Don't – you - Bye?" Tony said faintly, not quite able to tear his wondering eyes off the place where that hem met those thighs and made his mouth water. He was only vaguely aware of Rhodey leaving. "I, uh, you are gorgeous like this, not that you're not gorgeous all the time, male, blue, you're always gorgeous. But, wow. This. Are you … comfortable like this?"

"I am me," Loki responded, tilting her head, tongue peeking out to run over her full bottom lip while one hand smoothed over her hip, making her invitation very clear.

"Can I have you like this?" Tony had to ask, despite feeling the heavy lust deep in his … wife? wife's … gut. Those brilliant eyes went sloe and sleepy, Loki's hand wandering over to the top of her thighs, long fingers giving an unashamed rub over her mons.

"I am me," she said again like it was self-evident, free hand reaching out to him.

Tony dropped to his knees and crawled. His Princess was totally worth it.

"Oh"

The rich smell of Loki's arousal hit Tony as he neared his beautiful wife. It made his mouth water so he looked up and begged in his mind.

"I have to taste you."

"Yes, please, Anthony."

"Leave the dress on." Tony ordered, pushing her against the back of the nearest sofa and moving between her splayed legs, reaching up to lightly pinch an already stiff nipple through thin lame-like material. "Perfect."

And it was.

"What is this music?"

***

"Are you seriously thinking about meeting with Pepper in this form and … what, exactly?"

"Setting her straight, woman to woman. There are some lessons that women, especially beautiful women, can only learn from other beautiful women."

"That sounds dangerous. And kinda hot." Her Anthony's teeth closed very gently over her swollen clitoris, and Loki sobbed with pleasure, shrieking when Tony tenderly tongued her flesh.

So close to coming she was nearly senseless, Loki writhed where she was splayed out over the back of the sofa, while Tony held her hips in a hard, possessive grip, keeping her from sliding to the floor.

And she trusted him. Loki trusted Tony to keep her from falling.

Her mind whited out as she lost all sense of herself to a shattering climax, aware of nothing more than the waves of bliss that pounded through her body, Tony groaning their pleasure against her skin.

***

"You had a stroke of public relations genius with that appearance on Ellen," Pepper informed him, managing to sound not at all complimentary.

"Rhodey said you were pissed off."

"That would be because I had to find out about it by watching Ellen, just like the rest of the country. Instead of, you know, being there. When you got married."

"It was very … spontaneous," Loki supplied, and contrary to his earlier threat, looking like his usual Aesir self, in the black and green leathers that made Tony's mouth water.

"You're beautiful when you're not batshit crazy."

"Pepper!" Tony was shocked, but Loki started laughing, sincerely amused.

"To be fair, you were beautiful when you were crazy, too," Pepper added guilelessly, smirking at Tony as she tattled "Tony certainly thought so."

"Truly?" Now Loki sounded surprised and Tony couldn't have that.

"Truly. I believe my exact words were "That window broke when Thor's brother defenestrated me … sounds kind of dirty, doesn't it? He's gorgeous, by the way, much more my type than big, blond, and clueless. I gave him shit about having performance issues and he threw me right through the glass. JARVIS caught me in the suit"."

"Anthony. I am so sorry," Loki blurted out before he could help it, the hurt he felt at having almost killed Tony rushing through both of them.

"Baby, don't. I know you weren't in your right mind. I know you. Besides, Pepper told me I deserved it for making a dick joke."

"I might have been a little harsh, but up until that moment, I thought he was going to be mine, you see," Pepper informed Loki with frank-eyed, unrelenting honesty, undeterred when Tony reminded her "to be fair, you were eventually more sympathetic."

Tony was rather amused and willing to admit he might be abusing his guide abilities a little bit by encouraging everybody to be brutally honest. It turned out, once you'd gotten a taste of it, you were addicted to hearing the truth all the time.

"Even then?" Loki wondered, staring at Tony like he'd never seen him, which was how Pepper was looking at him, Tony noticed.

"I wanted you to be mine from the moment I saw you in Stuttgart. I wanted to be yours from the moment you wrapped your fingers around my neck. If you want the precise moments, JARVIS can give you the exact dates and times."

He could be honest, too.

***

America loved to tear down her heroes but even more, she adored a good redemption story, and Loki's apology and explanation ended up being well received by many. It helped when Steve Rogers told the New York Times he'd been at the wedding – all the Avengers had - and he'd never seen two people more in love than Tony and Loki. The interview also included Steve's approval of the team split resulting in the West Coast Avengers. Steve made no bones about how much he'd miss Tony and Bruce but supported the need for a team on the other side of the continent. Logistically and tactically, it made sense, and Tony was pleased when Steve said so.

Loki was surprised, he said, by how accepting so many people seemed to be. Tony, who could feel the ache of his husband's relief and grateful awe, let Loki pretend to be less touched than he really was. Naturally, there were still naysayers, but their numbers were relatively few and they were easy to ignore.

Following some discussion, the West Coast Avengers elected to have several small compounds along the Pacific Coast, plus Hawaii, Northern Japan, New Zealand and one in Telluride, Colorado, for avalanche season (and for skiing; it helped that Loki was capable of transporting – apparating - them around instantaneously). It was felt their system would work for them more than one central base of operations. They found that Jim and Blair between them could detect a number of upcoming natural disasters, often giving them time to get citizens to safety. Loki became adept at throwing up magical shielding, while Hulk demonstrated a startlingly delicate touch when it came to removing debris. The West Coast Avengers couldn't stop earthquakes, mudslides, volcanos, tsunamis, and tornadoes, but they were making positive changes in casualty rates and property damage (they were, however, becoming pretty damned great at managing wildfires, especially when Thor was with them, and avalanche mitigation as done by Jim, Blair, and Hulk was a thing of wonder to behold).

The first time Doom sent a bunch of his 'bots to fuck with them was also the last time; Loki teleported from San Diego to Latvia and then took Victor to Helheim, leaving him in Hela's clutches for a week. Tony wasn't sure exactly what his stepdaughter did to the man, but Doom came back subdued, apologized, then stuck mostly to his own country after that.

Tony and Loki, accompanied by Jim and Blair, finally had the 'what is a guide' conversation to Loki's complete satisfaction, during which Loki confessed his discovery that he had never felt so calm and comfortable in his skin as he had since he and Tony had established their bond. Blair rewarded this admission by leading them in a guided meditation that introduced them to their spirit guides; Loki's being a large brown bear (which a startled Loki had identified as a native-to-Jotunheim Urdi) and Tony's a rather gorgeous Italian Lynx. Blair explained everything he knew, adding that Tony's near-death experiences would nudge him towards the shamanic path and their spirit guides would teach them.

None of that sounded like anything Tony wanted to be involved with, but Blair pinned him with a look that killed his urge to argue, and then made a confession.

"I sent you the idea for the West Coast Avengers. I wanted us away from SHIELD."

"Why?" Tony wondered, neither betrayed nor altogether surprised by his cousin's admission; the idea had come out of left field, and it wasn’t what he'd originally intended to do at all … although he couldn't deny its appeal.

"I'm a tribe guide at heart. The West Coast Avengers is our tribe. I have to do what's best for the tribe. I knew you and Loki would be happier out of SHIELD, I was right. I knew Jim definitely wanted out of SHIELD's reach, and after talking to Bruce I could tell he doesn't want any part of SHIELD, either. I was right. And I have to tell you, my mother's ghost would possess the nearest animal and bite me in the ass if she found out I was working for the US Government. Unless it was the Peace Corps," Blair added thoughtfully and Tony – and Loki – couldn't help but laugh.

"Rather high-handed of you, Nephew," Loki still protested.

"Runs in the family, Uncle."

"You were and are correct."

"More accurately, runs in the tribe."

"Yes, exactly."

"Fine, you were right," Tony agreed, giving his cousin an affectionate shove with his shoulder before patting Blair's face. "Tell me sooner next time, or don't do it at all would be nice. Loki's the only one who gets to muck around in my mind willy-nilly these days."

"Nobody else could do it, if it makes you feel any better. Well, except for Charles, but that's because he's Charles Xavier. We're all Padawans next to Professor X."

"Explain?" Loki was snickering again, probably because Tony was tilting his head over and side-eyeing Blair.

"You have shields on your shields since you bonded," Blair informed them. "When your bond was created, Tony, you made you and Loki impenetrable in a psychic sense. No one else could pry into your mind. You're all 'you shall not pass' as a guide."

"You saw all those movies, didn't you Blair."

"Dang skippy, brah. And all the Star Wars movies."

"Ask him how many times," Jim put in then, startling Tony into laughing again.

"Don't ask how many times-"

"Because it's so many times you've lost count, that's how many times."

"So that's how you can sound like you're answering questions without really answering questions, then making more questions with your answers. It's very Jedi of you. I'm not sure how many times I've seen them for the same reason-"

"Sixty-five times in total, an additional ninety-eight times during which only a portion of the movie was observed, as well as twenty-seven occasions when one of the movies was onscreen while Sir slept nearby. I can break these numbers down further by film and of course, I may be unaware of viewings that occurred when Sir-"

"Thanks, JARVIS, you're making me sound like a Star Wars nerd."

"Anthony, you are a Star Wars nerd. Did you not show me a working model of a light saber just after we watched 'The Phantom Menace'?"

"You have a working light saber prototype? Seriously? Cuz." Blair bowed at Tony with his hands up. "For real?"

"I made a weapon that turned out to be extraordinarily dangerous and couldn't be allowed to fall into the wrong hands. Again." Tony pointed out what seemed so obvious to him. "The laser is based on miniaturized arc reactor tech, so it can't be marketed anyway. But I'll let you see it, as long as Loki wards you so you don't accidentally cut anything off. And you're trying to distract me, Blair. Stop."

"Fine. You came into potential shamanhood when you took your death walk – pick one – but you have another path to learn, too, I believe."

"Grandmother Spider – Anansi – said you can learn magic, Anthony. You'll be a great seidrmadr. Sorcerer. The word more directly translates as magic man," Loki added while Tony shook his head.

"Me?" He didn't say out loud the "Are you crazy?" that came next, but Loki and Blair heard him anyway, and what Blair knew Jim knew.

"Yes, you. No reason you can't learn both. The way of the Shaman may make learning magic easier, for that matter," Blair decided, then took them all into a lush blue jungle and taught Tony how to spirit walk.

***

"How bad is it?"

Nick Fury gave his "one good eye" a hard glare, but Coulson didn't flinch, tilting his head towards the folders on Nick's desk.

"Not as bad as it could have been. Stark insisted that Steve Rogers remain a consultant to SHIELD and not an employee-"

"Not surprising."

"-and paid all the early-out penalties on any outstanding contracts. He also left the funding intact that Howard set up in place, although he moved all the principal into the control of the Senate Subcommittee for Appropriations."

"He what?" Phil Coulson was as shocked as he ever got; Nick had to grin and give Stark credit.

"You heard me. He single-handedly put SHIELD under the control of the United States Government."

"Are you too angry to curse? or is this exactly what you wanted." Coulson's tone indicated he'd already realized the truth and Nick lifted one eyebrow.

"What I think is, we've finally got an opportunity here to get out from under the WSC's thumb, with a motherfucking iron-clad … heh … excuse. And I'm not opposed to the idea of oversight."

Coulson still had that blank expression that gave away his absolute surprise and Nick shook his head.

"'I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.' Not one of those bastards on that Council took that oath. We did."

Coulson nodded slowly, visibly considering Nick's words and agreeing.

"It's the helicarriers, isn't it."

"One, two at the most, if you're keeping one for backup. Four is a motherfucking army, Cheese, and my gut says 'something is rotten in Denmark'. Who exactly is the enemy?"

***

Anansi took to visiting once Tony had grown accustomed to being a high-power guide, in Blair's words. Speaking of Blair, the Old God included him in Tony's – and Loki's - 'magic lessons' even though Blair had much less magical energy than Tony and Loki. Blair had enough, Anansi had declared, to be capable of a number of smaller magics, like making fire, encouraging plant growth, and calling up wind and rain.

Neither Tony nor Loki thought those abilities were particularly 'small' until Anansi informed them of what was in Tony's wheelhouse, meeting Tony and Loki alone in Malibu while Jim, Blair, and Bruce were still in Colorado for another week. Hope and Scott – rather recent recruits - were in San Francisco.

"Well, anything you can do, Nephew, to begin with," Anansi said when Loki asked his opinion of where Tony's magical talents lay. "You get that, yeah? That's how a bond works and you have a true bond. You're welcome."

Anansi was in his male form; long, lean, scantily clothed and baring acres of flawless dark chocolate skin. Loki agreed with Tony when he thought this particular incarnation of the Terrestrial God was hot.

Anansi smirked at them. Tony deliberately dipped his chin and gave Anansi his best pout, whereupon Anansi laughed out loud and pounded the end of his spear on Tony's terrazzo floor a few times.

"Let all things come in good time, Young Brother," he'd been told then the Old God vanished, leaving Tony to grab onto his simmering aggravation, shoving it down in favor of rubbing the back of his neck, sore from tension.

"It's a class, right? How to sound mysterious without really trying."

"Something like that, yes. Let me," Loki ordered softly, long, cool fingers replacing Tony's own. "Let me ease you, beloved."

"Please," Tony said before he dropped to his knees at his Prince's feet, knowing just want he wanted since Loki had offered. "Use me. Use my mouth. I don't want to think about anything but you. Push all the rest of it out of me and push your cock down my throat".

Loki didn't even bother to magic their clothes away; he just shoved down those leather pants until his erection was bared for Tony's use.

And all that pale skin framed against black leather just did it for Tony.

He licked his lips, and Loki groaned, mind shouting yes, suck me, husband! and that was all the permission Tony needed, falling on Loki's cock like he'd been starving for it. He swallowed Loki down to the base, closing his eyes against that welcome press of cool, heavy flesh, near to coming already just from the joy Loki was taking in his mouth. Then Loki's hand fisted in Tony's hair, holding him still as Loki's hips jerked and Tony was done, completely caught up in his husband's shouted orgasm.

Tony proceeded to nearly kill them with – pleasure wasn't an adequate word - when his throat spasmed in time with their climax, drawing it out.

"A tie, I think," they decided later after regaining consciousness.

In the competition, Loki later took the lead when he demonstrated the talents of his own mouth.

***

"You've been watching me sleep," Loki thought at his husband, lips twitching into an involuntary smile before he opened his eyes. Tony watched him with an expression Loki wouldn't have been able to identify if he could not feel the bemused wonder behind Tony's smile.

"You're everything I ever wanted, do you know that?" Tony asked so seriously, so intently, that Loki had to squeeze his eyes shut because they were stinging.

"You're everything I ever needed, Anthony," he whispered, because he couldn't speak past the tightness in his throat. Gentle hands wiped his temples dry and when he dared, Loki smiled into his husband's face. "How is it possible we were meant to be here? Keeping each other? I'd given up hope – you gave it back to me."

"That's very romantic."

"It's the truth."

"That's what makes it romantic, my Prince," Tony assured him before licking over his mouth, humming pleasure into their minds. "So we're just going to ignore the way we were set up?"

"I'd rather just be grateful. You?"

"So very grateful," Tony agreed, turning his attention to Loki's neck. "When are you gonna teach me shapeshifting? Gonna be some fun times in the old Stark casa that night," Tony murmured over Loki's throat then lightly bit down.

Loki laughed even while their arousal surged.

"Plenty of fun times in casa Stark already," he managed, still laughing, but promised his husband he'd get right on teaching that … after.

***

"This weave is even more beautiful than I dared hope."

"And so Midgard steps into equality within the realms, we have seen to it, with Gods enough to guide and defend them."

"Our job here is done, Sisters. Tea?"

 

The End
9 Sept 18